We lived in a house just across the parking lot from our church, and my husband was, in fact, the maintenance and groundskeeper for the property. But he was out when the call came in, from someone just leaving choir practice, that there was a leak in the ceiling above the stage behind the pulpit in the sanctuary. No problem, I said. I worked at the church, too, as a part time cleaner. I had access to keys, and I knew where the light panels were located, and where a bucket was kept for a temporary fix. My youngest daughter, Brooke, volunteered to go over with me.
I wonder today, still, if she regrets that decision.
We bee-lined from our house to the closest entrance and entered through a door that locked behind us as it closed and we made our way towards the sanctuary down a long hallway by combination of familiarity and light shadows cast by streetlamps outside the building. We walked past half a dozen darkened offices and Sunday school rooms on either side of us before the hallway opened up into a large foyer. The night, lit by the moon and a mist of rain and streetlights, illuminated through large plate glass windows and a set of locked double doors that opened to a crisscross of sidewalks and tree dotted fields connecting to the road beyond. There was just enough light to guide us through the shadows across the foyer to more doors. One was a swinging door that led to a small, windowless room behind the main sanctuary where the light panels were located. This was also the "cry room" where mothers could sit with babies and small children behind a glass partition and still participate in the church service. A row of chairs and rocking chairs lined the room, positioned toward the pulpit. A door from this room opened into a long center aisle leading to the pulpit and leaky-ceilinged stage behind it.
The stage was set for creepy, but we were still unsuspecting.
Not one for idle chatter, Brooke stood patiently nearby as I felt for the light panel against a far wall. I located the switches for the "cry room" that we stood in, the center aisle sanctuary light, and the stage light. There was a runway effect as I flipped each switch, our eyes adjusting to the light, and we walked down the long aisle hand in hand. We quickly located the leak, and found yet another door to a room behind the stage where a bucket was kept. With the drip-drip pinging a rhythm into the bucket behind us, we reversed our direction, heading back to the cry room, and turned the lights back off. The stage darkened. The sanctuary darkened. And finally, we stood in total darkness again, and I led the way back out through the swinging door.
And that's when we heard it.
We had taken just a few steps into the foyer. In fact, the door was still swinging shut when the pleasant and melodious voice of a woman seemed to float just over our heads from directly behind us in the inky blackness where we had just stood. Hello. It was drawn out in two distinct syllables. Hel-looo.
I had heard a woman say Hello. I was sure I heard it. I think I heard it. Was I losing my mind? In the brief half second that I was second guessing myself, I also thought to reach for my daughter's hand again and hurry her along just a bit . . . not enough to frighten her - maybe she hadn't heard it, and I certainly wasn't going to put ideas into her head. But her hand gripped mine like a vise and she whispered, "Mom . . . did you hear that?"
I had heard it. She had heard it. All bets were off. I took off like a rocket, dragging her behind me, and instead of heading back down the long hallway, we detoured out the double doors of the foyer, and ran like we were on fire across the field, dodging trees and sliding through the wet grass. We were half-way across the field when it occurred to me that I was an adult . . . and a mother. Still holding Brooke's hand, I brought us to a screeching halt. We were both breathing hard and probably bug-eyed, but I stilled my beating heart, leaned over and said, "Honey, what did you hear?"
"I heard a lady say hello."
We glanced back toward the church considering together, glanced back at each other in certainty for an infinitesimal second . . . and were off again. She may have outrun me in the race for our front door.