Lana Jardine always told me she’d be taken in the rapture, when God would gather up true Christians just before the apocalypse. She accepted Jesus as her Lord and Saviour, so she’d never burn in hell. “I confessed my sins,” she said. “And he saved me.”
She was ten and I eight, and what she said about death grew within me like a shadow. She sang from the bed across the room from mine, at my parents’ house where she slept over on summer nights. Her voice sounded like a calling, an angel summoning. She didn’t sing a recognizable song; she moved through hums and trills and whispers, a sound that remained hers and hers alone. It went up, it went down, it tuned into pleading for Jesus.
“He helps me sleep, Jackson,” she said.
I listened as her cry rose over the speckled white ceiling and thought “will she still be there in the morning?” and I prayed to be saved as well, then slept, lulled by my meditation and Lana’s song reaching for heaven. We awakened the next day, in the same room with no Jesus at the window, and the poplar leaves rustling outside, though my thought shadow never faded. “Who is this god who never answers?” I asked Lana and she said, “I have faith I’ll never die.” She smiled. “All you need is faith.”
I didn’t understand faith. I heard the poplar leaves rustle, and saw the wind bend the branches towards me, then away. That’s where I wanted to follow, where the river wound out of the valley, to see the world past the edges of the mountains.
I watched the moon outside between the gaps in the curtains and dreamed of clambering through the window into a night filled with her song.
Lana’s parents drove us to the Pentecostal church on summer Sundays. We listened to serious sermons, shouted hymns about holy lambs and spiritual revelations. Later, in the back chapel congregants prayed, ululated, rolled round on the floor. Mr. and Mrs. Jardine howled and wailed, expressing their devotion and possession. Lana followed their direction, she cried for Jesus and shrieked gibberish under the warm light from the big church windows that looked out over the river. At nine her rolling was one thing, at fifteen another. In the later years, I rocked back and forth and read the hymn book and tried not to look.
“You can feel the voice of Jesus too,” said Mrs. Jardine. “If you let yourself.”
“I’m fine,” I said. “I’d sooner dance to real music.”
Mrs. Jardine shook her head. “The real music is all around us now.”
“I wish I could hear what’s real,” I told Lana, as we sat in the back of her parents’ car, driving home from church.
“You have to listen,” she said.
“I follow every sound,” was my whispered reply. “Why can’t I hear yours?”
“That’s because you don’t believe,” she said.
I picked up basic guitar skills, learned to play the radio songs. That was how I learned some of the tuning and harmony in the world, strumming Johnny Cash, Paul Simon, The Beatles.
“Those are false idols,” said Lana. “The real Gods are above us.”
Indeed, maybe they were, but for me heaven was not an inspiration.
Lana possessed a haloed head of curly chestnut hair and a huge smile. Behind the grin sometimes it seemed like a hole opened. I peered round the edges like studying a glass bowl. Looking straight inside seemed too intimate, to dark, from those summer nights when her childhood singing poured out of that inner space.
“Lana’s always cheerful,” my dad told me. “Why can’t you be more like Lana?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe I’ll ask her how she does it.”
And Lana answered, “You don’t smile because you think too much.”
We practiced softball outside under the plum trees and I’d say, “Pitch me again.”
She giggled and threw so I could bat and run.
“I’ll pitch to you,” I said, and she told me “Just toss it slow, it scares me when you do it fast,” but though she acted worried she hit the thing right up over the roof.
“How did you do that?” I said. “Most of the time you can barely hold the bat right.”
“It’s funny,” she said. “I hit better when I’m with you.”
I was twelve then, she fourteen. It was the last year we played ball games together.
I perceived her as a baby sister though she was two years older. She seemed to lack a clear persona, she told of no long-term plans or dreams. She enjoyed games, scrabble, monopoly, cards, she fit right in with the old folks. She smelled like tulips. I remember at her twelfth birthday party she held a bursting sparkler high above her head, standing up on her toes like a sprite, a fairy trying to reach heaven.
“You’ll strain yourself,” her mother said.
“She’s not tall enough,” my dad joked, and Lana reached higher.
“I certainly am, Mr. Johnson,” she said.
“Don’t be silly,” her mother responded, and Lana stopped, and carefully placed the gushing sparkler down upon the floor.
When I turned ten, my parents put Lana in a different room whenever she visited.
“It’s because she’s a girl and you’re a boy,” they told me. I no longer heard Lana’s bedtime singing.
We met at breakfast, making faces behind the cereal boxes. We moved apart, to play our own games. She took figure skating, but she was never very skilled. I read books, looked out windows, and my teachers told me “You’re stuck in a fantasy world.”
Once I stole a couple of chocolate bars and offered her one. “It is a sin to steal,” she said, and her fingers trembled, her voice shook with conviction.
“They won’t miss just a few,” I said, but she told everyone. “Jackson is a thief.”
Then I knew I couldn’t trust her with secrets. I saw testing limits as a challenge, though I never stole anything again. We became teens and Jesus did not take us. Lana barely passed Grade 12. She worked her parents’ store and never ate her peas at dinner. She lowered her head like a child as her mother frowned at me and said “Jackson isn’t fussy, why are you so fussy Lana?”
I built a cabin up on the mountain, and imagined I’d take a girl there, and imagination is where that thought stayed. Lana would never have gone up into that wild land.
She met Aldon at a Young Pentecostals singalong. It surprised me when she dated such a tightly wound dough faced boy. “He’s tone deaf,” she told me. “But he makes such an effort with the choir.”
I knew he was a liar from the start. He smiled like her though, that smile that said, “I do the right things, I am going to be saved.”
When he spoke, I looked down into his toothy hollow. Within that, a blur, something speeding across, and I did not catch it, a miss I’ll always regret. Perhaps I could have saved her from what happened in the end, but then she always told me that was up to Jesus.
Before their marriage, Lana and Aldon rolled round on the floor together at the Church, preparing for the rest of their lives and the second coming of Christ. After they wed, Lana’s parents gave them the down payment on a small condominium. “I will pay you back every penny,” Aldon assured them.
Lana leaned into Aldon. He said he knew the truth; he would shine in the eyes of his family and the light of the Lord. His Dad, a successful real estate agent, taught him how to show homes with certainty. “Give them the bright side, avoid the bad, sin by omission is not really a sin.”
If someone questioned Aldon’s statements or his actions he tightened his look, his grin or his frown, and mumbled, and clutched his knees. He was not a good con man, but he believed in his dreams. In this way, he bungled some sales, and succeeded at others.
“Aldon does his best,” Lana told me. “He knows what he wants and he’s not afraid.” She advised me “You should find a better goal in life. You seem too scared to try.”
At the time, I worked as a labourer in a sawmill, on the graveyard shift. I didn’t look further into the future than the next weekend. Days, I slept. Nights, I drove forklift and piled lumber, and weekends I drank.
“There’s something funny about Aldon,” I told Lana, and her eyes flicked up.
“Well,” I said. “He never laughs.”
She shook her head, and I knew what she’d say.
“You’re always so serious, Jackson.”
Yet why did her eyes flick like that, as if she knew I spoke true.
What Lana and I had in common was the music. Our songs sounded different and never merged, but her voice imprinted on my memory and shadowed the years. I never forgot Lana’s song calling on Jesus from the summer house, a prayer spell echoing from her lips to the world and the skies beyond.
The apocalypse happened on a Sunday. Aldon and Lana were in a hurry; time for church, with so much to remember on a church morning. Aldon stared into the mirror and saw Lana’s smiling face behind him. “Get going,” he said. He was in debt, couldn’t pay the mortgage “a man fulfills his obligations,” Mr. Jardine reminded him every day.
I imagined that last Sunday, Aldon’s irritation with Lana obvious as she stared out the window at the lilac trees, distracted by the scent of their full purple flowers.
“Get going,” he told her again, “Quit stalling around.”
“It takes time to get ready,” she said.
“Well, I’m ready,” said Aldon. “Move yourself.”
In the car, the engine dominated. Aldon stepped on the gas. The neighbours heard the car tires screech out of the parking garage.
Did she sit beside him frozen in panic? Or did she continue to focus out the window at the lilac trees?
“I forgot my diary I have to go back and get my diary,” she said.
“We’re late,” he told her. “What is wrong with you?”
“Don’t you care about me?” she asked.
He stared at the oncoming traffic. “I care about getting to church on time.”
Did Lana ever sing to him? I don’t think so. He never listened. There was no turning back from the wheel. She had glimpses of who he was, but it wasn’t til this final morning she knew. He worked through her; she was his excuse. Her goal was to make him happy, and she accomplished that as he sped with the joy of rage. He lived his own apocalypse, he turned the wheel left to beat the red light, to make that church parking lot on time. The passenger side faced an oncoming truck. He drove Lana into the gap.
“It was stupid, a stupid accident,” said Mrs. Jardine.
I moved out of dreams then, because I wanted to live. You want to come alive when you comprehend the fate of this girl who lived in a fantasy. Lana only caught glimpses of herself, sometimes she found identity but most of the time she let it go. She dressed well and she believed in the Lord, but nothing went perfectly while she was alive.
The accident investigation found driver error as the cause. I knew the crash was a purposeful apocalypse, the flight of bodies through the window smashing through glass and time, landing all in pieces and slabs and streak splatters of gore and liquid on the road. That’s what Aldon wanted.
There was no time to call, to listen for an answer from Jesus. No turning back from the wheel.
Maybe Lana glimpsed this ending way back in her childhood. This was her fate and she knew it. That’s why she did not become, she did not develop. She stayed a child, so she could die in innocence, and then, heaven bound she’d go.
I never perceived my own ending. I still don’t see it, but I know it’s coming. I dream my way through every merciful day. Every morning I part the darkness that is the true reality and awaken again in light.
My life has been good, I must give gratitude. I’ve been a husband, a father, now a grandfather. It seems a timeless gap to recall Lana Jardine calling across the summer night singing “my spirit’s where my voice comes from.”
Each spring, it is time to travel to her grave, to listen once again to her voice. If I wait long enough, I hear the sound from below, rising to my ears. I can lie on the grave a long time, as my mind casts back. I lie face up, under the lilac tree, my arms folded across my chest. As I remember the music, I roll on the graveyard ground and call her name. It’s not her body I think of, as I sing out and move, and it’s not a game I play. It’s her voice I set free with my own. I let the sound fill the sky as I toss and turn. As I call, my mind brings forth the shadows and longings of the years, “save me, Jesus, save me.”