The steady rain had long since soaked through Callie’s layered clothing. The stone steps in front of the cathedral were dark with water, and the surfaces of the puddles were dull in the gray light. Cold water trickled down her neck from the ragged ends of her short-cropped hair.
She pressed the dented aluminum of her violin against her cheek, and her numb fingers fumbled on the strings. She urged her battered instrument and drained body through the opening “Amazing Grace.” It wouldn’t do to finish early.
After all, God was watching.
Finally, she heard bells tolling, and Callie lowered her violin. She felt God’s gaze leave her, and she slumped with relief. She gathered the change that people had scattered at her feet and dragged herself to a nearby diner. The waitress, pert and blonde with crooked teeth and an illegible nametag, brought her a cup of coffee, a hot dog, and a blanket.
“It’s awful out there today,” she said, sliding the plate and steaming mug onto the table. “And He kept you late. Again.”
“It doesn’t matter, Darla,” Callie said. She reached for the blanket and her eyes misted with gratitude. She pulled it tight around her shoulders and wrapped her fingers around her mug. The heat stung. She forced a smile. “It’s an honor to play for Him.”
Darla sniffed. “Better you than me. I don’t see why He can’t just have you play somewhere inside. You’re like to catch your death.”
Fear clutched at Callie’s belly. “Don’t talk like that!” she hissed. Just because she could no longer feel His eye didn’t mean He wasn’t listening.
Darla just sighed. “He’s not going to smite me for worrying about you.”
“Your worry sometimes sounds a little too close to criticism for my taste.” Callie sipped her coffee. The heat spread across her tongue like a prayer.
Darla just shook her head again. “I’d better quit jawing and get back to work. You call if you need a refill. Or another dog. Or anything.”
Callie blinked back more grateful tears. “I will,” she managed. She was starting to shiver, now. And her clammy, wet clothes clung to her.
She wished she could go home. But He didn’t want her to.
She drank her coffee and waited for Him to call again.
He called at midnight. Callie had drifted to sleep with her forehead pressed against the diner’s window. Her clothes had stiffened as they’d dried, and her neck ached. Darla had left hours ago, after paying Callie’s tab, and the overnight waitresses ignored her.
She pulled herself to her feet and walked out into the night.
It was still raining.
For a moment, it was almost too much. Callie’s knees trembled, and she nearly collapsed onto the wet pavement.
His gaze sharpened. Callie wasn’t sure if He wanted her to succeed or fail–to endure or give up. She wasn’t sure if He even cared.
All she knew was that He was watching. And that He wanted her to play for Him on the cathedral steps.
Her family had been so proud when she’d been singled out. They hadn’t hesitated to cut off contact when He’d demanded her solitude. She wondered if they missed her.
A gust of wind swept cold pellets of rain into her face. She was already freezing. She straightened her shoulders and made herself walk, one step at a time. She was soaked before she was halfway there.
It was dark on the steps. The streetlamps had burned out, and the night sky was black as sin. Callie tripped and landed badly. The step bit into her shin, hard enough to draw blood.
She felt His impatience.
She beat back her own rage. Her resentment. Her pain. She stood up and brought the violin to her chin. She closed her eyes and played.
She played the same songs she always played. There had been a time when each tune had filled her with joy. Her faith had overflowed into her music. Every note had been a celebration.
Now, they were hardly more than sounds.
And still He watched. And listened. And demanded more.
Callie’s tears felt just like the rain on her cheeks.
“Hey, you!” A rough voice, from below her somewhere. The speaker was invisible in the darkness. “It’d the middle of the night! Stop that damn noise!”
Callie slipped into her rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Pain exploded in her head as a rock the size of her fist slammed into her left temple. “I told you to stop!”
The bells tolled. God’s eyes withdrew.
Callie lost consciousness.
She knew something was wrong the instant she woke up.
She was in a bed. Why was she in a bed? He didn’t want her to sleep in a bed.
Her head hurt, and the world around her spun when she tried to move.
She felt His eyes. His call pulled at her. She tried to pull herself up.
“Hey, what are you doing?”
A familiar voice. “Darla?” Callie asked. Moving her jaw sent waves of pain up through her temple.
“That’s right. I found you a few days ago, outside that damned cathedral of yours.”
Callie winced at her blasphemy. “He’s watching, Darla.”
“Good. I’d like to give Him a piece of my mind.” Darla pulled the blankets back up and tucked them around Callie’s neck.
“I have to go. I have to play.”
“No. You don’t. He left you on those steps, Callie. He made you go out there in the middle of the night, in the rain, and for all I know he made someone throw rocks at you. You’ve been unconscious for days. If I hadn’t seen you, you probably would have died.”
“Maybe that’s what he wants,” Callie whispered. “Maybe he wants me with him in heaven.”
“I don’t give a damn about what he wants, and I don’t think you should, either.”
Callie squeezed her eyes shut, sure that something terrible would happen. He did take direct action, sometimes.
He just watched.
“You’ve done enough for Him. You gave up your home, your job, your family. You’ve been living on the street or sleeping in the diner ever since His eye fell on you, all because you just want to make Him happy.” Darla laid a gentle hand against Callie’s injured temple. “I don’t think anything can make Him happy.”
“He never asks for more than we can do. He never gives us more than we can bear,” Callie whispered. “If he still wants me to go and play, that means that I must still be able to. Please, Darla.”
Darla stepped back. “If you can stand on your own, then I’ll help you.”
“Okay.” Callie gathered her strength. She felt His gaze upon her. His call thrummed through her like music too deep to hear. She sat up.
She passed out.
When she woke again, He was gone. But Darla was still there.
Callie cried until she ran out of tears. “Was it all for nothing?” she asked Darla. “I gave up so much, all for Him. Why did I fail?”
Darla shrugged. “I’m sure you’ll ask a preacher that, sooner or later, and he’ll have some smooth answer about lessons or intentions or some such nonsense. But I think He just wanted to see how far He could push before you snapped. He wanted to test your faith. And it wasn’t the sort of test a person passes–it’s the sort that just keeps getting harder till you fail.”
“God doesn’t work like that.”
Darla arched an eyebrow. “Doesn’t he?”
Callie sighed. “Have you ever felt his gaze?”
Darla looked away, out the window. “Yes.”
Callie wasn’t surprised. She’d always figured that was why Darla was so nice to her–she understood what his gaze was like. “Did you follow his commands?”
“Almost. He wanted me to marry my senior geometry teacher. I was walking up the aisle when I realized that I just didn’t want to. I left him at the altar.”
“What did your family say?” Callie asked. She couldn’t imagine running away from God’s plan. But then, she couldn’t imagine marrying her geometry teacher, either. “How old were you?”
“I was seventeen. And I haven’t talked to my family since. I didn’t tell them where I was going.”
“Do you think your life would be better? If you’d followed his plan?”
Darla shook her head. “I used to worry about it. I’d picture myself as a happy housewife, packing lunches and watching soaps. But then I saw you, saw how unhappy He was making you, and I realized that I made the right choice.”
After a few days, Callie was strong enough to sit up. She hadn’t felt His gaze upon her since she’d failed to answer his call. She hadn’t touched her violin, either. She stared out the window all morning while Darla worked.
She was pretty sure that Darla had put her in the only bed.
Darla, who had always been so amazingly kind. Who had disobeyed Him and saw Callie as justification for her choice.
Callie missed the feel of His gaze.
Darla brought her a piece of pumpkin pie. Callie ate it slowly, savoring every bite. There were some things that her misery couldn’t dull.
The thought carried just a touch of hope. Maybe things were getting better, after all.
They sat in silence for a while. Callie ate every crumb of pie, then licked the plate clean. Darla worked on her cross stitch.
“I wish I could be more like you,” Callie said. “I wish I could give up on God.”
“Why don’t you?” Darla asked. “He almost got you killed.”
Callie shrugged at stared at her plate. “I love Him.”
It took a long time for Callie to heal. She hadn’t realized just how exhausted she was, how far His demands had pushed her. She’d been killing herself, even before the rock.
She thought about going back to her old life, now that she’d failed God, but she couldn’t face it. Her family would never understand.
She hadn’t been happy before, anyway.
Darla helped her get a job at the diner. She served coffee and pie and flirted with the old men who came in at 5am every morning. The clink of sliver against ceramic, the burble of the percolator, and the chatter of strangers became the new music of her life.
She and Darla walked home together after the lunch rush. They both smelled like stale coffee and bacon grease. Callie felt peaceful. Not content–the gaping emptiness was still inside her, but the sting of it had faded. Birds sang overhead, hidden in the riot of fall-painted leaves. Darla stopped in a pool of sunshine. “Do you know any songs that aren’t about God?” she asked.
Callie waited for the pain to stab through her from that empty place, reminding her of her failure, of the death of her dreams. It didn’t.
“I know a lot of songs that aren’t about Him,” she said. And suddenly her fingers itched to play some of them.
“Would you play for me?” Callie had never heard Darla sound so hesitant.
“Of course,” Callie said. The hollow in her chest suddenly felt full–even overflowing. “I’d love to play something for you.”
Nerves jittered in her belly as she tuned her violin. She was as aware of Darla’s eyes as she’d ever been of God’s. She took a deep breath, and started to play a sad, sweet Beethoven concerto.
Darla’s eyes shone like stars.
A deep joy spread through Callie as she watched Darla listen to her. It wasn’t the same as God’s gaze–nothing was–but it was good.
What if Darla was her temptation? What if the exhaustion and the injury were just a set up for this moment? What if her choice wasn’t to play or not, but to play for God or Darla?
Her fingers faltered on the strings.
“Are you okay? Don’t push yourself too hard. Do you need to lie down?” Darla jumped up and took Callie’s hand.
She squeezed Darla’s fingers. “No. I’m okay.”
The sun was just up, and the crisp air held the promise of another beautiful, sunny day. Callie was clean and dry, clad in Darla’s old Easter dress. It smelled like mothballs and laundry soap. They stood together on the cathedral steps for a moment, looking up at the stained glass window. “It looks so dim from this side,” Darla said.
Callie raised her violin and started to play.
But this time, instead of playing for Him, or for Darla, she played for herself.
She stood in the sunlight, and joy bubbled up in her heart. For a moment, she felt His gaze upon her again.
Then it passed.
She played till her fingers grew tired, then she and Darla went for coffee and pie.
Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and cat. Her fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the Stoker Award-winning After Death… She’s a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Her short story collection, One Revolution, is available on Amazon.com, and her debut novel, Left Hand Gods, is forthcoming from Hadley Rille Books. Find her online at www.jamielackey.com.
Image by Erich Ferdinand