1,456 People

by Krista Lynne White

Everything was fine until Maggie found religion. Christianity, more specifically. A particularly hard, unyielding, smug vein of it.

I first met Magdalen MacRae on the line at the plant. She’d been hired the month before me. We naturally got to talking, being new and around the same age. Old enough to know the plant was the best we could do. Young enough to be embarrassed about it.

The failures of her previous life didn’t get her down, and I admired her resilience. It was a state I’d sought but couldn’t find. I didn’t know how to do anything but play the guitar. At twenty-five, I put aside my male pride and admitted I couldn’t even do that.

Maggie’s dream was modeling. She even followed it to New York for a few years. I wondered why it didn’t work out. I could see her face on a billboard. She was that beautiful. Blonde curly hair, bright blue inquisitive eyes, a cute dimple in her left cheek and a smattering of freckles across her nose.

She had a boyfriend; she always had a boyfriend, she’d joked. A muscle-bound lug who’d played minor hockey, but that didn’t stop me. Roughly 4,700 people work at the assembly plant. The day they hired me, 1,456 of them were women. Maggie was the one I chose. We flirted every day, and after the company barbecue, I took her home with me. She stayed.

Maggie had spirit. She became the only female welder in the plant, and I was proud of her. I expected to be on the line until retirement, but she told me I was good with my hands and had the patience for engineering, so I believed her. I never thought I had management potential, but she assured me I did. “You’re a good kind of cynical,” she said. “And you don’t put up with crap.”

We soon bought a house, and days and nights blended. We lived, and she became my life. I wrote hack poetry for her and loved to watch her read it. Her dimple would appear and tears would rise in her eyes. Without fail, at some point, she’d say, “Nothing makes me feel the way you do.”

I hadn’t come across Sarah Shallick at the plant. I wish I did. Maybe I could’ve saved us. Sarah became a voice without form around our breakfast table. Maggie didn’t have many female friends at work and I was happy she’d found one.

“Sarah’s invited me to come to her church.” Maggie’s arms tightened around me, her face in the crook of my neck, pecking me softly like she always did after sex.

I didn’t know how to respond. We’d never spoken of religion. I presumed Maggie was an atheist.

“Do you believe in that kind of thing?” I ran my calloused palm down Maggie’s silken back.

“I did when I was a kid.”

Religion was a subject I knew nothing about, so I said nothing. I held Maggie tighter, inhaling the sweetness of her hair and the musk of our sweat.

“Did you believe when you were a kid?” she asked.

“No.”

“Do you, now?”

“No.”

“I think I’m going to go.”

I wanted to ask why, but couldn’t find the words. I didn’t see the sense in religion, never had, but I told myself it helped some people. Even though Maggie seemed like someone who didn’t need help with anything.

“Will you come with me?” she asked.

I stared through the darkness of our room to the ceiling, our dome light fixture barely visible, murky in the shadows. I attempted to see the details I knew were there clearly, to will them into focus. I couldn’t, so I rolled out of Maggie’s arms and got dressed.

When Sarah showed up at the front door, she repulsed me. I know that’s not the kind of thing you’re supposed to think about someone, but she did. Sarah was pretty—but she wasn’t attractive. Maggie had always chosen attractive friends. Sarah’s personality was ominously vacant from her face as she lied with her perpetual smile, and I didn’t know how to equate the Sarah at our door with the Sarah Maggie had talked about. I remembered swarms of kids with the look Sarah wore from high school. They were supposed to be the good kids, but they were obnoxious and unruly. They seemed driven to it. When Maggie was halfway out the door, I grabbed my coat.

I sat beside her on the uncomfortable wooden pew, then stood, silently observing while the congregation sang hymns. My gaze fell upon Brian Franks. He worked in my group at the plant. The thing was, I liked Brian. We were friends.

The service ended, and the preacher asked us to pray. Everyone closed their eyes and bowed their heads. I wouldn’t, and the preacher eyed me skeptically. I glared at him.

He prayed. I heard his words, but let nothing digest. Some people raised their hands; still kneeling, eyes closed, bowing their heads. The scene was a nauseating mix of eerie and disturbing, unlike anything I’d experienced. I felt lost in a fantasy—until I saw Maggie’s hand go up.

The preacher called them to the front. Maggie rose from the pew, and too late, I reached for her arm. She joined the others who’d not-so-secretly raised their hands at the preacher’s lectern. Bile stung my throat. Adrenaline surged through my limbs, followed by a pricking sweat.

The preacher prayed over them and, using every capacity of attention I had, I forced myself to absorb his words. He asked Christ to come into their hearts. I didn’t understand what that meant.

I drove Maggie home, not noticing her tear-stained cheeks until we pulled in the driveway, where the light from the porch illuminated her face.

My heart pounded. “What’s wrong?”

She smiled up at me, her blue eyes shining clearly. “Nothing’s wrong, Chad. I’ve never felt better.”

I couldn’t believe her. She assured me with a kiss.

***

In the following weeks, our tides changed. At times, Maggie was joyous, effervescent, and at others, she spoke from uncharted depths of her heart. I became more connected to her than I thought possible. She told me things about her childhood I hadn’t known—how her father would berate her mother after a hard day at work, how she wasn’t sure if her first boyfriend raped her or not. My heart broke for her, because in my view, he had. When I told her as gently as I knew how, she broke down in my arms. I whispered all her perfects, in their deepest forms, to help her see she was still that beautiful to me. She told me it helped. Still, she cried herself to sleep on my chest.

But everything was not as it seemed. Affection so pure would pour toward me, then Maggie would shift and I’d become her enemy. I became accustomed to sidestepping conversational snares for my conversion. A list of false grievances mounted against me. If I even inferred the church was pulling us apart, she’d dogmatically defend it. One day, I was her best friend and the next, I wasn’t good enough. I tried not to let her sanctimoniousness get to me.

The more I looked for Maggie, the less I saw. She stopped cuddling with me before bed. We barely spoke at meals. A light had lost its glow; the church had changed her, and not for the better. She moved into the spare room. She wouldn’t let me touch her.

Lying alone one chilly autumn night, staring at slivers of sodium light piercing through the blinds, casting shafts, bars, along the wall, I’d had enough. I strode down the hall, the Berber carpeting stiff and rough underfoot, and pounded the guest room door with the heel of my hand.

When she opened it, I seethed, “What is this?”  

She ran her calm, intelligent eyes over my face. Although she stood before me, I couldn’t find her. Maggie had never hidden things from me, let alone herself. She sat on the corner of the rumpled double bed and I hovered in the doorway.

“I’ve told you what this is. I should be who you want, not who you need.”

I couldn’t keep my head from swaying back and forth. Maggie would never deign to tell me what I did and didn’t need before the church. “I don’t need you. Not like that. I don’t understand.”

“I don’t know if you can understand this.”

A flame of anger scourged my chest. “Because I won’t go to church with you? Do you think that makes you better than me?”

Her head shot up, her eyes flashing a warning. “Chad. Stop it.”

I crossed my arms. “What’s it going to take, Maggie?”

“What’s it going to take for what?”

“For you to love me again!”

She bit her lip, and her eyes appeared pained. “I still love you.”

“If you love me, why aren’t you in bed with me? Why can’t I touch you?”

“I’ve tried to explain—”

“Do you think we’re living in sin? Do you want to get married? Is that what this is about? Christ, I’ll marry you in a heartbeat. Let’s go get a ring. We can drive to Niagara Falls tomorrow.”

Maggie glowered at me. “Don’t be an ass. It’s not about that and you know it.”

“No Maggie, I don’t. You’re being taken from me and I don’t know why. I love you. You’re my everything.”

“That’s just it,” she said, sharp and cold. Definitive. “I can’t be your everything. I’m not big enough.”

“You’ve been my everything for the last eight years. You’re big enough. Nothing makes me feel the way you do.”

“Stop. Don’t put so much pressure on me.”

“Pressure? Baby, it’s you! It was always you and will always be you. I’d die for you.”

“Don’t! Don’t say that.” She sprung up from the bed. “I don’t want you to die for me. I’m not worth dying for.”

“Who put that crap in your head?”

She stormed over and shouldered me out of the room. “It’s not crap! I’m not worth dying for. You don’t understand.” She slammed the door in my face.

I roiled, clutching my stomach, and staggered back to our cold bed.

***

We didn’t have a conversation of significance after that. I wrote poems for her, bared my soul to her, to connect with her. No tears arose as she read, no adoring smiles or affectionate kisses. I couldn’t make her feel the way I used to. She slipped further from me each day, our familiarity starving through her indifference.

We went to work in the grinding, pulsating plant, and it became a refuge for me. The paint fumes, the consistent advancement of the line, they comforted me, bringing back an illusion of steadiness built on over a decade. But in the cafeteria, I’d hear her laughing, sitting with her new Christian friends. A joyous laugh that resonated above the cafeteria din. A laugh I hadn’t heard echoing off the walls of our home for over a month. My chest ached with longing—with jealousy. Maggie was happiest in my absence.

The day she left, I was not surprised.

I reverted to my previous habits. No reason not to. My old friends inducted me back into the fraternity of singledom with a trip to see the rippers. We spent the weekends at bars eagling for women in a drunken haze. There were many who attempted to distract me. Stars dimmed by Maggie’s shine. I became a voice no one heard. No person, no substance, no pleasure; nothing made me feel the way Maggie did.

She took a man to the Christmas party. Not a man. A wimpy nice guy with no balls. Brian confirmed he was from their church. Not a man. A boyfriend. She always had a boyfriend, she’d joked. He was touching her.

She seemed happy. Not because of him—that type of man would never satisfy her, but she seemed light and free. Free of me. More free than when we met eight years ago. Unfettered and light while I died a slow death of a thousand cuts.

One random, frigid winter’s night, Maggie’s car pulled into our driveway. It was three months since she’d graced our threshold. Something troubled her, she wore a face I couldn’t explain.

“Can I come in?” she asked.

I moved aside silently, my mind racing, hope soaring. She closed the door behind her.

We took one another in. She wrung her mittened hands, then took the mittens off. Her shoulders stooped, but her presence was heavenly. I could almost believe she’d never left.

“I’ve been hard on you, Chad. I’m sorry.”

I stared at her, unable to speak. Hope became so palpable, it was heady. “Would you like to sit down?” I stammered.

She looked past my shoulder toward our front room, making an admirable effort to hide her shock at the disorder it had taken on since she’d left. I made no excuse.

“I shouldn’t stay. It wouldn’t be right.”

“Nothing about this is right, Maggie.” 

I searched her eyes and found a spark I’d thought extinguished. A warmth and openness. The Maggie of old.

My throat caught. I tried again. “I’ve missed you.”

Her eyes welled with tears. “I’ve missed you, too.”

Our gaze locked. I thought I saw uncertainty in hers. I’m sure there was plenty of it in mine.

She took in a deep breath, then exhaled a weighty sigh. “I saw you in a different light tonight. And when I looked at you differently, it forced me to reexamine my behaviour toward you.”

Maggie had never been one to stall, so I waited.

“I want you to know, to leave you was one of the most difficult things I’ve done.”

Heat flushed to my head, my jaw tensed. “Maybe you shouldn’t have done it.”

“I had to.”

“You didn’t.”

Her eyes shot a warning. I heeded it. I took a deep breath.

“Why was it hard?” I asked.

“I never wanted to hurt you. I knew I had to leave, and I knew it would break your heart, and I never wanted to hurt you.”

“You did.”

“I know.” She took my hand and stroked it with her thumb. Her tenderness flooded the deepest crevices of my soul.

My brow lowered. “Did I hurt you?”

“No.”

I laced our fingers together. “What happened to you, Maggie?”

“Something good.”

“Why would something good hurt me? Isn’t God love?” I knew I was being obnoxious then, but couldn’t help myself.

Her eyes fell from mine, bearing with me. Something she’d always been good at. “Chad. I’m sorry. I tried to do what was best for both of us. But I let myself get influenced. And if it wasn’t for something I read in the Bible tonight, I wouldn’t be here.”

I could see she genuinely meant it. I just couldn’t make sense of it.

“I shouldn’t have said for you to want to die for me was wrong. You were right. There’s nothing greater than to lay down your life for another. I love that about you.”

With that one statement, I was known. After three months adrift, it was almost too much.

“I still would, Maggie.” I took a step closer to her.

“I know,” she whispered.

“Do you know you’re worth dying for?” Closer still. The musky sweetness of her perfume transported me back to our most intimate moments.

“I know.”

“That guy you brought to the Christmas party wouldn’t die for you.” A step closer. Her head tilted upward to keep our eyes locked.

“I know.”

“He doesn’t make you feel the way I do.” As my hand met the soft heat of her neck, her breathing became ragged.

“I know.” She came to me. I pulled down the zipper of her coat.

“Do you know I still love you, Maggie?” I ran my fingertips along the ridge of her collarbones.

“I do.” She arched her back, and I slowly slipped her coat over her shoulders. It fell to the floor.

“Do you still love me?”

“I do.” My pulse surged. I pulled our bodies together. She gasped.

“Do you want me?” I searched her brilliant blue eyes.

“I do.” Her palms ran up my back, then pulled me to her. “You know I do.”

Our season changed. My pain erased. Hurts could fade; we were again. Her life, her grace, unveiled, made plain. Her beautiful way; she was still the same. She gave herself to me and I took her. All of my heart, I gave to her.

Afterward, on the front room couch, she lay beside me, clutching me, our warmth fending off the night’s chill, her face buried in my neck. But she wasn’t pecking me, kissing me; she was hiding from me.

“Don’t go, baby. Stay with me,” I pleaded.

I felt the damp warmth of her tears. Mine began.

“I’m sorry, Chad. I shouldn’t have done this. I shouldn’t have come here.”

“I’m not sorry. I’ll never regret a second I’ve spent with you.”

She wept. I wiped away my tears, then tightened my grip on her.

“What do you want me to do?” I asked. “Whatever it is, I’ll do it. I’ll do it for you.”

She pulled away and looked into my eyes. “What I want you to do, you can’t do for me.”

I searched her face. “I don’t understand.”

“If you ever do…” she glanced downward, then looked at me, and her eyes held more love than they ever had. “Tell me.”

I lived a nightmare as I watched her gather her clothes, trying to cover herself, ashamed of her nakedness. She left as ghostly as she’d come, as cold as the winter’s night she’d came from. I felt drained of any goodness. She’d stolen me.

The months I’d spent without her returned. The months to come mounted before me, a summit I felt unable to conquer. I slid from the couch, the tacky leather cold against my skin, to the carpet where I kneeled, placing my elbows on the hard oak of our coffee table. I had never kneeled.

I tried in vain to remember the preacher’s prayer. What little I could remember, I said.

“Christ. Come into my heart.”

As soon as the words left my lips, I hated myself. I valued honesty. And the little I’d heard about Christ, if there really was a Christ, was that He valued honesty too. But what was happening to me wasn’t honest. My heart pounded, my breath came in short bursts.

“You want honest? Here’s honest—I hate you. I hate you and everything you do to people. How you demand their devotion. They can’t live for themselves, they can’t think for themselves, it becomes all about you.” Tremors ran through my arms. I gripped the edge of the coffee table.

“You stole her from me!” I heaved, gasping for breath. “Maggie took you into her heart and you shoved everything else out. You shoved me out. You stole from me! Everything that was right in my life you stole and took for yourself. You’re not love. No way you’re love because if you were—Maggie would still love me!”

I pounded my fist against the coffee table, then searched the heavens. “Do you hear me, God? If you hear me, answer me!” I pounded the rigid oak table again.

“Come on! If you’re so almighty, give Maggie back to me.” I slammed my fist on the coffee table. I looked to God and screamed. Screamed until I ran out of air. I sucked in as much as I could and I screamed my throat raw.

“God! You listening? Give Maggie back to me!” I slammed my fist again. “Give her back!” I slammed my fist again. And again. And again. I grabbed a vase from the coffee table and smashed it against the oak.

I watched in disbelief as shards clattered across the table and skittered across the floor. Moonlight glinted off the jagged glass scattered around my pale thighs.

Maggie loved that vase. It was her grandmother’s.

I drew in a deep, shuddering breath. All was silent, still; but the atmosphere electric. I half expected God to strike me down. I sought some way to take it all back, but I couldn’t. I valued honesty. Yet, I had no idea what had gotten into me, to allow this to come out of me.

Then I felt, more than heard, a voice, a sensation, from deep within my chest.

You know what this is.

I sat, considering the voice, in a neutral emptiness, like a vacuum or an ether, surrounded by looming disorder.

Maggie was right.

This need wasn’t healthy. It put an immense amount of pressure on her.

I rose to get dressed.

To tell her.


Krista Lynne White is a former executive recruiter who fell so hard for writing, stories now consume her every idle thought. Relationships fascinate her; marital, romantic, familial, professional—as long as they’re brimming with conflict and complexity—she’ll be writing them. She lives in an idyllic Southern Ontario hamlet with her steadfast hubby, three enigmatic sons and her vegetable garden.

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