“Give it back!”
Hannah poked her head out of the blankets in time to see an airborne doll thud against the wall by her bed. Her younger brother grabbed it victoriously before racing out of the bedroom, pursued by a shrieking, indignant sister. Hannah hid her head, but not before breathing in the acrid odor of burning toast and eggs.
“Get up, Hannah!” Hannah’s mother yanked on the coverlet, exposing Hannah’s head again. “You need to get milk. We’re out.”
Hannah sat up, pushing the blankets aside. She rummaged in the clothing on the floor and found a pair of jeans and a rumpled orange T-shirt. Scrounging under the bed, she came up with a couple of mismatched socks with holes in the heels.
She tugged a brush through her thick hair, but gave up trying to tame the snarled mess, so she rammed the lot into a rubber band. It hung lopsided, stray hairs clinging stringily to her neck.
Hannah’s mom was counting change on the sticky table, but then, grabbing a knife, she uttered an expletive as smoke roiled from the toaster. Charred bits of blackened bread bounced into the sink.
“Ask your dad for more money, Hannah. Take what’s on the table.”
A cigarette drooped from her dad’s slack jaw, and a belch rumbled as he foraged in his pocket for loose change.
“How much you need?”
Hannah looked in her hand. “I have twenty-seven cents.”
Coins were dropped into her palm, and her dad settled back into his chair without once shifting his eyes from the television to Hannah.
“Git, will ya.”
Hannah left the bickering and the blue haze and breathed deeply of the clear Sunday morning air. The neighbour’s lilacs were blooming, the lavender blossoms perfuming the air with sweetness. In the distance, a lawnmower droned, and Hannah thought what a happy, busy sound it was, a cheerful sound. The gladness stirred Hannah’s heart, and she took a skip or two, but it was beyond her shy nature. Although the street was deserted, she reddened in embarrassment.
Hannah came to the little confectionery and purchased the milk, carefully counting out the money. She gazed with longing at the licorice babies and jawbreakers, but knew better than to buy even one penny candy. She clutched the paper bag containing the milk.
At the cross, at the cross,
Where I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart rolled away,
It was there by faith I received my sight,
And now I am happy all the day...! *
The lovely melody of a hymn lilted through the trees, and Hannah decided she wouldn’t be missed if she walked a different route home and enjoyed the music for a moment or two.
It was a beautiful church, stone-built, with stained-glass windows. Majestically, the steeple rose high above her, and she tilted her head back to see the peak, the sun dazzling her eyes. A cross adorned the pinnacle.
Oaken doors stood open, allowing the music to flow out in rapturous harmony, and Hannah approached reverently, the sound resonating within her. She closed her eyes to listen.
“May I help you?”
Hannah’s eyes snapped open. An usher stood imperiously before her. He surveyed her tangled pony tail, stained canvas shoes, and torn jeans.
“Are you looking for someone?”
“Do you need anything?”
Hannah looked beyond the usher to the people in the church. Several girls had turned around and were staring at her. Hannah saw their shiny patent leather shoes, knitted sweater sets, and pleated skirts. They giggled behind white gloves; Hannah glanced at her own grime-rimmed fingernails and clasped them tighter around the milk.
The usher cleared his throat. He peered down his pinched nose; the sharp scent of burnt food still clung to Hannah. Hannah backed away from his frown.
“Perhaps, you should run along now.”
Fighting confused tears, Hannah stepped into the churchyard. Before her lay the church’s dense shade, and she walked through it, until she came to the long shadow of the steeple and the cross. She set the carton of milk in the grass.
Hannah raised her arms. Humbly, she surrendered every part of her shadow to the shadow of the cross, until nothing of Hannah extended beyond the edges of cross’s velvety umbra. It rested lightly upon her, and Hannah was overcome with wonder.
There was no burden within its gentle embrace.
* At the Cross. Refrain written by Ralph E. Hudson, 1885. Added to hymn by Isaac Watts, 1707.
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