Picture of the Pittsburgh skyline (courtesy of the author and his hometown)

Sanctuary

I woke up that Sunday morning with a start. I was scared, even petrified, but forgot the reason why almost as fast as I had sat up in bed. Outside, the daybreak loomed, and everything in the world was slowing emerging from the shadows and back into being. I loved and hated that time in the morning — in the dark, things slowed, loosened, came to rest. And it was my firm belief that all things like to be at rest sometimes. Any other place, at any other time, I would have rolled back over, buried my head in pillows in vain attempts to stave off the day. But here and now I didn’t mind. Here, in this place, on that day, the sun only brought peace and possibilities — a welcome reprieve from the chaos of my week. So I sat up, wrapped myself in one of the duvets and listened to the world awaken.

Small birds whistled greetings to each other in the distance. Trees stirred in the crisp morning breeze and waved to the rising sun on the horizon. A few blocks away, church bells signaled the end of early morning Mass, and as I sat in the waning dark I imagined the old men and ladies wrapped in pinstripe suits and topped with floral hats, trudging through large oak doors and out into the calming dawn, solemn and blessed. That’s just a different kind of Sanctuary, I thought as I flipped over, stomach-first back onto the bed. I could respect anybody who were awoke and alert that early for anything. They go in there and find peace through God. But this is my church.

The comforters and pillows were nice and cold when I fell back, and I squeezed my eyes shut as I burrowed my head further into them. To my right the sheets began to stir — Ali was wrapping herself back up in the covers. She rubbed her pale white feet together as she curled up into a ball, as if to help her body make itself small. I pulled the other duvet off the floor and over her shoulders. She squinted at me for a moment, wiggled her nose and grinned at me in gratitude, and closed them again. Her hand found mine under the covers and they intertwined on instinct.

A thought came to me then, profound and shocking to me in its simplicity. Maybe there’s something spiritual here, too. I rolled onto my back again and inhaled deeply, forcing the cool, refreshing air through my nose and into my lungs,m holding it there until it hurt. And as I let it out slowly, everything around me seemed a little bit sharper, slightly clearer.

Then I remembered something a nameless face said in a movie long forgotten. It was about death and the afterlife, about saints and sinners being sent to their own personal Heaven or Hell when their time came. I remembered thinking the sentiment being novel at best; my relationship with religion and its omniscient beings had been strained long ago. But in that moment — breathing that air, watching the sun rise over the church roof in the distance, hearing creatures big and small wake up and greet the day, feeling the warmth of those entwined little fingers— I made a decision. If a higher power was pulling the strings, I asked it to make this my Afterlife. If the stories were true then I was as good as condemned. But if by some miracle I proved worthy of salvation, I asked them to bring me back exactly then and exactly there. I prayed and swore and pleaded and promised on everything I was and am.

I closed my eyes for one last time, stepped into my Sanctuary, and for the first time in a while, I felt free.

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