Three Minutes

by Bethany Bruno

It was like any other typical Sunday at St. Carmichael’s Church. The pews were packed with followers trying to cleanse themselves of sin before the start of the new week ahead. Children, who were forced to wake up at the crack of dawn and put on itchy outfits, sat bored beside their mommas. If they even put one foot out of line, they would surely get a whack on the head. Reverend Samuel was up at the podium, sweating buckets as his black robe swayed side to side from his frantic hand gestures. Two teenage girls, Lily and Ramona, sat in the church’s office, ready to hand out the prayer selections to any late attendees. Ramona, being Lily’s best friend since fourth grade, supplied stimulating conversation until the service was over.

“If your soulmate dies before you meet them, do you think there’s a backup soulmate?” Ramona said.

“Girl, I don’t know,” Lily said, as she flipped through an old gossip magazine. The girls had always offered up their secretarial services to Reverend Samuel, if only to obtain their required community service hours needed to graduate high school. Plus, it gave Lily an excuse to not have to sit next to her stepmother, Doreen, who loved nothing more than to smirk at Lily whenever the word “sinner” was said aloud. Everything was business as usual, with plans to meet up at Jerry’s Diner within the town square, for pancakes after Church. Then the phone rang. The tan landline, with its mile long chord, rang twice before Lily picked up the receiver. Before she had a chance to give the answering spiel of Thank you for calling St. Carmichael’s, how may I help you? There was a demanding voice on the other end.

“You have three minutes,” he said.

The line disconnected as Lily looked over at Ramona, who was picking dry skin off of one of her nailbeds. “That was weird,” Lily said while hanging up the receiver. Ramona shrugged her shoulders as Lily sat in silence for a moment, trying to shake off the uneasiness of that short phone call. Something about that man’s tone of voice made Lily feel uneasy, like holding a newborn baby as it gasps for air while screaming. The church had received bogus calls before, but this one oozed fear with the utterance of only four words.

The large wall clock above their heads seemed to tick louder and louder with every second. Lily stood and walked toward the entryway of the main aisle while Ramona stayed put. Anxiety began to swill inside of her, like a tea bag just placed into a steaming hot mug of water as it slowly steeps. There must have been a few hundred people sitting down in the pews, all with their backs turned toward Lily while actively watching the sermon. She felt like she needed to do something, or tell someone in charge, but what would she say? Terrible thoughts began to swell within her mind. There had been many whispers of violence happening at other churches around the country as of late. Other kids at school talked about the possibility of an entire war being waged upon good Christian people. But, whenever the subject was brought up during midweek dinners, Lily’s father simply told his daughter to “ignore the rumors and have faith in God’s plan.”

As Lily turned to walk back to her chair in the office, she glanced up at the marbled statue of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus. Mary’s cheek is nuzzled gently against her baby’s head, as Jesus slept peacefully, safe in His mother’s arms. Underneath the statue was the bold and capitalized word MERCY. Lily glanced up at the clock once more, noting that thirty seconds had passed. Ramona looked up at Lily and saw a look of pure terror within her features. “What’s wrong?” she said, standing to meet Lily’s eyesight. Ramona grabbed her friend’s hand, but Lily was not aware of anything in that moment except her pulse beating faster with the countdown inching closer towards the finish line. She couldn’t standby and await the final countdown until the big reveal.

Lily released Ramona’s grip of her hand and raced back towards the main aisle of the church. “Thirty-eight, thirty-nine…” Lily counted aloud as she ran by each pew. One by one, a thousand eyes suddenly turned their attention directly to the whooshing sound of Lily’s dress flapping. With every stride towards Reverend Samuel, who now kept a direct gaze on Lily as she beelined toward him, the ticks of the clock rang loudly within Lily’s mind. Reverend Samuel, in a desperate attempt to distract his followers, signaled the choir to begin singing. The choir rose and began singing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” as Lily slammed into the altar podium, sending the microphone to fly across the floor. Reverend Samuel grabbed Lily by her collar as she screamed “we have to get everyone out in two minutes!” Suddenly, a few men jumped up as one of them grabbed Lily by the shoulders, forcing her to move from the stage and back down the aisle slowly. Ramona then caught up to Lily and put her arm around Lily’s waist.

As the choir continued singing, the entire congregation’s eyes were on Lily, as she begged to be released. “Please! Listen to…” she said as the lights flickered, leaving only small glimmers of the prayer vigil’s candlelight visible. The men stopped abruptly, as did Lily and the choir. The entire church became eerily silent and still. As the countdown reached one hundred seconds, a massive explosion wiped out all light and overpowered silence. When she awoke, Lily heard a dull ringing and muffled screams all around her. But all Lily could think was that the voice lied to her, and only made her think she had time. When she finally picked herself off the ground, covered in dust, she saw that the blast had only taken out the entrance to the church. Slowly but surely, everyone was safe and accounted for. As the dust slowly settled, the entirety of the church was covered in ash, which looked like a thin layer of frost. A large silhouette became visible near what remained of the doorway. It was of Mary, who was still cradling her baby. He was unharmed and sleeping peacefully.

Bethany Bruno is a born and raised Florida author of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. She holds a BA in English from Flagler College and an MA from The University of North Florida. Her work has been previously published in numerous publications, such as The MacGuffin, Ruminate, Lunch Ticket Magazine, Litro Magazine, and DASH. She’s working on her first novel and recently earned a 2021 Best of the Net nomination.

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