Beth stood near the steps at the back of the church, wishing that she were still inside. Gran was in the basement, preparing buffet tables with most of the other ladies. In cooler weather, the men would have been there too, unfolding racks of tables and chairs to create a dining area. Today, however, they were playing a game of horseshoes at the side of the church. Soon everyone would be filling their plates and carrying them outside to enjoy the fine weather. Beth had sat in a corner watching the preparations until Gran had shooed her outside to play.
. . .
There were plenty of children outside, but none to play with. Some clustered in small groups talking. Others played tag or Red Rover. A couple of teenagers kept younger children entertained at the play gym and sandbox. No one seemed to notice her. She usually wasn’t shy and made friends easily at school. Children from diverse backgrounds attended Adamston’s one elementary school. Race and financial status had never entered into her choice of friends. Gran, both poor and black, was the most secure and beloved person in her universe. But church was a new setting for her. Looking out at the gathering, she was suddenly aware of being the only white child in a sea of dark faces. Feeling unsure and different, she suddenly longed for the security of her tree-house. That wasn’t possible, of course, but perhaps she could find a quiet place to hide away. She walked along the back of the church, away from the children and the horseshoe game. Quickly rounding the corner, she nearly fell over a skinny girl sitting on a bench against the wall. It was hard to tell much else, she was hunched over and it seemed that her head was going to touch the book that was balanced on her knees.
The words were whispered. Impossible as it seemed, her head hung even lower. The girl’s obvious discomfort made Beth overlook her own. She mustered her courage and introduced herself. She was rewarded by a slight lift of the head and saw a girl about her own age with a mop of coarse black hair and dark eyes magnified by thick glasses.
“That’s a pretty name. I really like it.”
“Well, it’s better than Skylark. That’s what my mom wanted to call me. My dad wouldn’t hear of it. Said that black folks were always naming their kids after cars.” So they finally agreed on Skyla. Dad got to choose my middle name.”
Skyla forgot her shyness as indignation filled her face.
“Do you know what he chose?”
“He named me Bean. Yeah, like green beans. You can’t name your child after a car, but you can name them after a vegetable?”
Beth could not repress her laughter and a wry grin appeared on Skyla’s face.
“Don’t feel bad. I was named after my two grandmothers.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad.”
“Their names were Bethany and Elizabeth.
Skyla thought for a second and started to laugh.
“That makes you Beth Beth.”
“That’s right, Bean.”
Amidst renewed laughter, a bond was formed.
“Do you like hiding spots?”
Beth thought of her tree-house again. “Oh, yes.”
“Come on. I’ll show you my favorite one.”
Skyla headed toward the front of the church. On the way, she confided that she didn’t make friends easily. Beth had guessed that, but didn’t say so. One rainy day, Skyla had gone looking inside the church for a quiet spot. Her search had taken her up two flights of narrow stairs to the choir loft.
“They don’t use it anymore. There’s a lot of old ladies in the choir and it was hard for them to walk the stairs. Pastor decided to move the choir to the front of the church. That made the old ladies happy. Made me happy too.”
She opened a creaking wood door, revealing a small loft with six rows of rising benches. Sun streamed through the large stained glass window at the top and highlighted tiny dust particles floating everywhere. Only the bottom bench appeared relatively free from dust. Skyla pointed to it.
“I always sit here. If anyone comes into the church, they can look up and see the top benches. But no one can see you down here.”
She had Beth check a small closet that had once been used to store choir robes and hymnals. The closet rod was empty now, but the hymnal shelf held a sketch pad, some colored pencils, a deck of cards and several mystery novels.
“That’s my stuff. Been here for two years and no one has ever noticed.“
“Hey, move back from the edge. Someone will see you.”
Beth had been unable to resist a peek at the room below. She tried to imagine it on a Sunday, when the congregation filled the pews. Skyla couldn’t believe that Beth had never been in a church.
“My parents don’t go. My father has never said why, but he doesn’t say much anyway. My mother just gets a funny look on her face when anyone mentions church. Like she ate something bad. Once I heard her call church-goers a bunch of hypocrites.”
“Well, she’s got something there. All that talk about loving your neighbor. The kids here have teased me for as long as I can remember. Just because I’m tall, skinny and wear these stupid glasses. The services aren’t too bad though. I just think about something else while the pastor talks. The music is my favorite part. And refreshments after the services. The food at these suppers is pretty good too. We’d better get back before we miss out.”
They filled their plates and found a spot under a big tree. Chatting between bites, they learned a little more about each other. Skyla was in fourth grade, just a year ahead of Beth. She was a good student too and dreamed of being a writer some day. Time passed quickly and soon Gran called. They parted reluctantly with a promise to find each other the next day in the school cafeteria.
Joined by several other members, they strolled down the quiet street enjoying the warm night and the light from the moon. Soon they were saying goodbyes and turning onto the path to Gran’s cottage. Thick pine branches hung over the path, blocking the bright moonlight. Gran pulled a flashlight from her bag. Beth felt very adventurous going through the woods at night guided only by the small light. When the path emerged into the clearing, she became more aware of the night sky . Gran settled on a porch bench and pointed out some of the constellations. When Beth’s eyes began to droop, she announced that it was time for bed. As reluctant as she was to leave the nighttime splendor, Beth was looking forward to sleeping in the loft. Soon she was snuggled in the cot, gazing at the stars through the skylight. As she surrendered to sleep, she had one last thought. “I wish I could stay here forever.”
The bus slowed and turned into the station. Anxious to be on their way, passengers quickly stood and competed for aisle space. Bethany remained seated, content to wait until the congestion cleared. She looked in her handbag and retrieved a letter with some directions on it. Exiting the bus, she began walking towards Redemption House. The halfway house was a short walk from the station. Beth had pictured a cozy old city home with a sloping lawn and large shade trees. But the warehouses and ancient office buildings never led to a residential area. Nothing had prepared her for the tall gray building whose barred door opened onto the sidewalk. No. But a weathered sign next to the door proclaimed the occupants: Kelley’s Dry Storage, Barnard Water Systems, Redemption House. Despite the building’s height, each of the sparse narrow windows was streaked with the same bars as the door. Beth shuddered at the thought of being entombed in this cold, forbidding place. Even the prison had green grass and trees inside it’s fences.
This was her only route to freedom. There was no other way. She paused for a moment, then opened the door.
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