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Riverbend Reunion
Author: Carolyn Brown


Chapter One

Uncle Elijah, why did you build a church out here in this Godforsaken place, and why didn’t you get rid of the empty eyesore before you died?” Jessica asked as she stood in the middle of the sanctuary and looked around at the mess she’d inherited.

Dust was as gray and thick as fog on the floor, the pews, and the blades of the ceiling fans.

A huge bunch of hair hung on the back of two pews. A closer look revealed millions of daddy longlegs huddled together.

Jessica sneezed and sent dust and spiders going seven ways to Sunday.

The only light in the huge room came from the setting sun shining through dirty windows and gave the whole place an eerie look. Jessica could imagine spooky music playing in the background as she turned around to be sure ghosts weren’t floating toward her.

Paint had peeled from the walls, and the place smelled like an old attic full of sweaty clothing with a little mold thrown in.

This was her life in a nutshell—her future looked as grim as the dust that coated the pews and the pulpit. Just like the dim light coming through the windows, nothing seemed clear to her. Ideas had filtered through her mind like all those baby spiders wiggling together, and yet nothing—not one blessed thing—seemed to take hold.

She looked up and noticed a wallpaper border around the room depicting angels with white wings and halos, but even that hung in long strips.

“Where’s my guardian angel when I need one?” she groaned. “What in the hell”—she glanced up at the ceiling fan with cobwebs hanging from every blade—“am I supposed to do with a decrepit old church building?”

Dust boiled up all the way to the knees of her camouflage pants as she headed down the aisle, leaving footprints behind her.

“Do those impressions in the dust mean something? If so, I’d sure like someone to explain it to me,” she muttered when she reached the foyer and glanced over her shoulder.

She locked the door, brushed the dust from her pants, and made sure she didn’t have any spiders hanging on her anywhere. Gravel crunched under her feet as she walked from the porch to the motor home that had been her home for the past two weeks. She slung the door open, grabbed a washcloth, wet it with cold water from the sink, and cleaned her face. Then she took a beer from the tiny refrigerator, twisted the top off, and took a long drink.

Sweat still ran down her neck and into her bra, but the cold beer helped some. “My church,” she mumbled, and then a smile covered her angular face.

Thank goodness no one was near enough to hear Jessica Callaway belt out Maren Morris’s song “My Church.” Jessica had shot the eyes out of a horned viper during her tours in the Middle East, but she couldn’t carry a tune in a galvanized milk bucket.

She carried her beer outside, where a soft breeze ruffled the leaves of the pecan trees surrounding the old church’s parking lot. The song seemed appropriate as she stared at the white church in front of her and wondered again what she was going to do with it. That decision had to be made before she could move on to the next step—whatever that was—in her life.

“Why didn’t you just donate it, and the land it’s sitting on, to the city of Riverbend, Uncle Elijah?” Jessica wondered out loud. She had been talking to herself a lot since she finished her last enlistment in the army a couple of weeks ago, but then she hadn’t had anyone to visit with on her travels from Maine to Texas.

If this had been two decades before, when Jessica graduated from high school, the parking lot would have been filled with cars and trucks. Loud music would have filled the air, and some of the teenagers would have been dancing. A handful would have been popping the tabs off cans of beer that they were too young to be drinking, and still others would have been making out in the back seats of vehicles. But that was usually on Friday and Saturday nights, and this was just the middle of the week.

Now the place looked as abandoned as the church itself. Most of the letters on the sign that once read “Community Church” had faded and chipped away. Only the one m and the y were still legible on the first line, though the word Church was still intact below that. It seemed like an omen that she’d been singing a song with that title and now the sign declared it to be true.

“Yep, it’s definitely my church,” Jessica muttered with a sigh, “but what the hell do I do with it?”

According to her friend Mary Nell, there were already half a dozen struggling churches in Riverbend, so who would want to buy another one? Especially one three miles out of the small town. Jessica took a deep breath and inhaled the musky scent of the Lampasas River, which was only a quarter of a mile down a path grown up with weeds.

Yes, she was home—at least until she figured out what to do with that ugly building full of dust and spiders. She went back inside the RV, reached into the refrigerator, and brought out a six-pack of longnecks with one hand and a lawn chair from beside the door with the other and carried them outside. She set the beer on the ground, popped open the lawn chair, and then stretched to work the kinks out of her tall frame. Every bone in her nearly six-foot body whined from sitting in the driver’s seat for eighteen hours that day. She twisted the top off her second bottle of Coors, took a long drink, and then eased down in the lawn chair.

“Nothing like a couple of cold beers and a Texas sunset.” She raised her bottle in a toast to the orange, yellow, and purple streaks that filled the sky to the west.

Then she took another long look at the old community church her Uncle Elijah had built back in the day, when he got sober for the seventh time—or was it the eighth or ninth?—and got religion.

The windows in the white building were dirty, but it was a miracle they were all intact. Scaling paint testified that no one had kept up the building since the day Elijah gave up trying to build a congregation and headed to the nearest liquor store down in Burnet, Texas. Seven posts held up the roof to a wide front porch. Jessica wondered whether that number was significant.

She heard a noise to her left and glanced that way to see a squirrel fussing at her. The critter’s tail twitched as he barked out a warning.

“This is my church, and it looks like you’re sitting on my steeple, even if it is laying on the ground,” she argued with the animal.

She and her cheerleader friends—Risa, Haley, and Mary Nell—had thought they were being so rebellious when they were in high school. Now she wondered whether drinking beer, dancing, and making out with guys in a church parking lot had brought all of them bad luck. Risa was headed for a divorce. Mary Nell had given almost twenty years of her life to a boyfriend who’d kicked her out a while back. Haley had lost her mother recently. And Jessica had inherited a church from her last living relative. There was also a lot of money involved in Uncle Elijah’s estate, but she had to deal with this church sitting here like a white elephant with a bad case of peeling skin before she could think about what to do with the rest of her life.

Risa had said that her mother, Stella, had had some roof damage to her house when a tornado or straight-line winds had hit Riverbend the year before. Evidently, that same storm had whipped the steeple from the roof and tossed it out onto the ground beside the building. Jessica glanced over at the squirrel, and the sassy critter started barking at her again.

“You want to buy this?” she asked. “I’ll sell it to you for a reasonable price, and finance it for you, but I want payment in dollars, not pecans.”

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