Ashes of the sun, p.1
Table of Contents
Other Books by A. Meredith Walters
Tears of the Storm
About the Author
The Contradiction of Solitude
Zero Day Romance Series
Aftermath (Coming soon)
Man of the Match Series
The Beautiful Game
Reclaiming the Sand Series
Reclaiming the Sand
Chasing the Tide
Twisted Love Series
Lead Me Not
Follow Me Back
Find You in the Dark Series
Find You in the Dark
Light in the Shadows
Cloud Walking (A Find You in the Dark novella)
Warmth in Ice (A Find You in the Dark novella)
Bad Rep Series
For all the ones that matter.
And for all the ones that don’t…
This book is a romance, but it also touches on serious issues such as mental illness, suicide, and child abuse.
Some scenes may cause triggers for sensitive readers. Please read with caution.
“When it is dark enough,
you can see the stars.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
The sun was so bright it was blinding.
Dark spots swam in front of my eyes. My chest felt tight and the air was heavy with an impending storm. In spite of the brilliance, clouds gathered behind me—threatening to swallow the light.
But I kept my back to the dark. I faced the burning rays and refused to look away.
It scorched my skin. It tasted like fire.
I imagined dying like this.
In the ashes of the sun.
I felt his hand in mine, and for a moment I could believe this was where I belonged. With him.
I could ignore the voice inside that screamed at my betrayal.
How could I turn my back on everything I know?
On everything I believe in?
What will happen to me now that I doubt? Now that I have lost my faith?
The wind began to pick up, blowing my hair across my face, shielding my eyes from the sadistic sun.
His fingers squeezed mine. His heart wrapped around me in its unmerciful grasp.
“I love you.”
His words were soft. Sweet. But not simple.
They carried so much weight. So much pain. So much hope.
“I love you,” he said again, wanting me to say it back.
But I couldn’t.
How could I when my soul was split in two?
Thunder rumbled as the clouds encroached. Taking away the light.
His love was the storm. It eclipsed the sun. And I didn’t know whether to be thankful or bitter.
I felt the first drops of rain on my skin. Cold. Penetrating to the bone. Replacing the warmth that had been there only moments before.
The brightness was gone. Snuffed out as if it had never been.
What would become of me now?
With my world in ruin and his hand still in mine?
My tears mixed with the rain.
And I began to cry. For the first time in years.
I cried. And I cried. And I cried.
Pastor Carter often said that in order to be reborn, one had to first lose everything.
This was his mantra. His poetry spoken in the lovely lilt of a well-rehearsed southern accent. Pastor Carter was a firm believer in the idea that out of despair, beauty could blossom.
My mother subscribed to this fundamental pillar of her hard won
faith with the devotion of a fanatic. And being her daughter—nurtured into placid obedience—I believed as well.
Because we both had learned many years ago that you could lose everything in a moment. Whether by choice or by circumstance, it didn’t matter. The loss was the same. One didn’t necessarily tiptoe towards rock bottom. You could crash, head first, into the mouth of hell itself in three seconds flat.
Those were the lyrics of my mother’s song.
Daphne Bishop splashed in puddles of tragedy. She clutched it to her chest with bloodied fingers. An orphan in and out of the foster system, she teetered on the edges of madness until she suffered a breakdown at the age of eighteen.
But it hadn’t ruined her.
It would take the heavy handed grip of God to devastate her completely.
Institutionalized and alone, she pulled herself together with the help of a care assistant named Dan, fifteen years her senior. They fell in love—though they shouldn’t have—and when Daphne was released at the age of twenty-three, they built a shaky sort of life together.
Pastor Carter said that worlds built on crumbling foundations will eventually crush you. It was one of the many things he was right about.
The tipping point—the moment of absolute and terrifying truth—came and went in the span of thirty minutes. That’s all it took for my life to change. For my mother’s entire universe to flip inside out.
For the hard, unyielding floor at rock bottom to greet us with open arms.
It played like a movie in my mind during the dead of night. Strong, masculine shoulders, weighed down by my mother’s fluctuating moods. His bowed yet resolute back as he walked out the door and out of our lives. For good.
But that was then. A past meant to be forgotten. Embracing the present, preparing for the future—that was the only way to live.
I opened my eyes, alert and awake without the dizzy fog of interrupted dreams. I could hear my mother moving around in our tiny, one room home. Her footsteps muffled. Her movements careful and controlled.
I didn’t linger under the sheets.
Blessed is the morning God has made, I thought silently as I put my feet on the floor and got out of bed, making sure to be as quiet as possible. No sound escaped my lips. It was still dark. The early morning air cold on my bare legs, the thin material of my nightdress tickling my skin.
Mom was just as quiet. Both of us having been conditioned to maintain total muteness during the Sun’s Morning Blessing. She had already dressed. She was usually awake an hour before I was. Her internal clock set to the rooster crow. She smiled at me, little more than a brief movement of her lips before they pressed into a neutral expression once again.
Daphne Bishop was a beautiful woman, even after everything life had thrown at her. I had inherited very little of what made her so attractive, instead taking after the man I had barely known. With thick, unruly blonde hair that could only be managed by pulling it back away from my face, I couldn’t be described as conventionally pretty—if those things mattered. Interesting perhaps, if the person was feeling generous. My eyes were, in my opinion, too wide for my face. They were a fierce, rather aggressive green that would have been nice if not for
Mom picked up my thick, woolen sweater and handed it to me, indicating I was to wear it. It was early June, but still cold in the mountains. We were experiencing a late chill in these early summer months.
I quickly threaded my arms through the red and white sleeves. I was particularly fond of this sweater, having knitted it two winters ago. Once fully dressed, I followed my mother out of the house and into the still morning.
We joined a group of equally silent men, women, and children, all walking with slow and steady purpose towards the break in the tree line that I could barely see in the dim light, but knew with practiced familiarity.
A hand brushed mine before sliding away. I glanced at Anne Landes, my best friend. We fell into step beside each other as we had done every morning since she arrived with her father four years ago.
I loved this time of day. The silence. The weary nighttime just before it gave way to the constant steadiness of light.
My feet crunched on fallen leaves. My toes curled in the chill. The thin slippers doing little to protect them. They throbbed with a constant ache I was used to.
Too cold. I shivered in my sweater, in my thin, linen skirt. My freezing, throbbing feet.
The sun was waiting.
It was always waiting.
Our movements were slow. Expected.
No one spoke. Not a sound. Not even the soft whooshing of breath as it was released and reclaimed.
I felt the brief bite of anger. It didn’t last long. It never did.
An irritation at being forced out of bed in this ritualized manner every single morning. No matter the weather, I stood, arms outstretched, greeting the day.
Even those times the sun refused to rise, and remained resting behind heavy clouds, we were there. Praying and singing and murmuring exaltations of gratitude.
But for those few moments I hated every minute of it. It was a quick and noiseless rebellion. One I had little control over. And one I would never admit to anyone. Not even Anne.
Most certainly not my mother.
We pushed through the trees. An abrupt conclusion to the meandering forest and we stood, wind in our faces, at the precipice of the white, crumbling slate cliff that felt like home.
The sky started to turn a dusky rose. I could smell the morning. It filled my lungs with the one thing we all shared. Hope.
Feet shuffled along, pressing in close together. But not too close to the edge of the rock. It was a hundred foot drop to the trees below. No one dared foolish curiosity by peering over the side. We knew the consequences of not respecting the fear that kept our feet on the ground, backs to the rock.
Anne looped her arm with mine. Elbow to elbow. Her skin was cold. Always cold. I noticed how my friend continuously glanced at her father, Vince, who stood huddled close to Miriam Holler. His arm around the smaller woman, her frizzy, grey hair wild around her pinched face. I was surprised by the familiar intimacy between them. Romantic relationships were discouraged, even if not outright forbidden. We were one big family, but our true love was meant for the Lord alone. Even though I knew Vince and Miriam spent time together, I never thought they were anything more than fellow disciples, walking the path together. Clearly there was something else going on. I could tell by the set of Anne’s mouth that she wasn’t happy about it. She didn’t like Miriam. Truthfully, I didn’t either. She was the type to preach loudly for all to hear. She thought her kind of faith was the only kind of faith. And that it made her better—godlier—than everyone else. She was clearly having a hard time learning modesty. Perhaps she needed more time to reflect on her sins.
Though I would never say this to anyone but Anne. It wasn’t my place to question the behavior of my elders. I knew better.
Watching Vince and Miriam I wondered what Pastor would say about their behavior. I couldn’t imagine him condoning it. I looked away, not wanting to give any more thought to what they were or weren’t doing.
I searched the group of fifty odd individuals looking for my mother. Knowing I’d find her waiting at the tree line. Alone. For now.
The wind on the cliff blew hard. My ears and nose were numb. Anne shivered beside me, but tried to be discreet about it. I often thought she was made of tougher stuff than I was.
The silence was comforting. It was imbued with a constancy that was desperately craved by everyone here. We breathed in tandem. Puffs of air in the crystal clear morning. The sky began to lighten. The distant horizon began to turn a rich color.
I felt my heart soar at the first sight of the coming sun.
A crunch of rock signaled the footsteps we all knew were coming.
Pastor Carter, his long, thinning blondish grey hair was held back from his face with a string. He took my mother’s hand and made his way towards the rock outcrop. We parted for them in unison. Making way for the man who had brought us here.
Mom fell back, letting our leader take his place before us. Eyes closed. Tips of his thin leather shoes precariously close to the edge. He began to hum. A deep, throaty song.
The sun crawled steadily upwards. My voice joined Pastor Carter’s. I opened my mouth and the melody melted into the air. Reaching the heavens.
I was joined first by Anne. Then Caitlyn Walker and Stafford Givens, fellow disciples I had known since we were each ten. One by one each of us leant our tune to the congregational song. Our music greeted the dawn. It was our prayer. Our communion.
“Blessed is the day the Lord has made,” Pastor Carter exclaimed as we sang around him.
“Blessed is the sun, a true manifestation of God’s love. Of God’s power.” I felt a chill in my bones at the words. I could recite them by heart but their message felt different each and every time.
“Feel the heat. Feel the fire. Without it, we will die. Without it we will cease to be. Glory in the sun. Glory in the day. It is our gift.” Pastor Carter lifted his arms upward as if embracing the sun as it continued its torturous ascent into the waiting morning.
And we sang and sang. Until the sky was bright and the sun was full and warm.
Only then did we break our unified voice and make our way back home. Content that another day had begun. Another day on our planned course.
Another day towards our joined fate.
“You heading to the kitchen?” Anne asked as we walked steadily through the woods. Arms still linked, we moved as one. Our closeness obvious by anyone and everyone.
“Not yet. Pastor Carter asked me to come by the solarium first.” I felt a fullness in my chest at the admission. A sense of duty and purpose that no one but the other fifty-five people in my chosen family would understand.
Anne glanced at me, her eyes clear and bright in the early light. Eyes so blue they were like reflections of the sky.
“Why?” she asked simply. No accusation. No jealousy either. That’s not how Anne and I worked.
I looked around, ensuring that others weren’t paying attention. Of course they weren’t. Each and every one was immersed in their own thoughts. Their own conversations.
“We’ve had many talks,” I began to say softly. I felt her tug on my thumb.
“What do you talk about?”
“Plans. My path. The journey,” I answered. To some this would sound vague. As if I weren’t really answering her at all. But those words would be understood by every single brother and sister of The Gathering.
Our path was what defined us. Defined our lives at The Retreat—the 100-acre home of The Gathering of the Sun.
“Why your path specifically?” Anne prodded. I knew she was simply interested. She wanted to know. She wanted to hear the words that had been gifted to me.
There was curiosity in her tone. An eagerness to live vicariously.
Pastor Carter was our
His attention was craved. His words a blessing. He spent time with all of us at different points, but I knew that his time with me was different.
I shivered. Suppressed darkness always there. Reminders of things I didn’t want to think about…
I smiled, forcing my thoughts to a different place. A comfortable one.
My life had been crafted into perfect devotion.
And I was the absolute disciple.
Pastor Carter was everything to the disciples of The Gathering. He was leader. He was father. He was our conscience. He was our moral center.
In reality, he had absolute power over us. Over our lives. Some men would become rotten with that sort of control over others. He could have wielded it mercilessly, ruining us without anyone being the wiser. But he handled his responsibility with seeming care. Everything he did was for the betterment of his flock. I truly believed that. Because that’s what he told us to believe. And if there was anything festering, I looked the other way. I could justify it a million different ways.
I refused to believe anything was there in the first place.
“When you think about life—about the future—what do you see?” Pastor Carter had asked the first time he had requested that I join him in his private solarium. I was a teenager. Gangly and awkward but desperate to feel special. To feel unique.
The solarium was a place unlike any I had ever seen. I had often wondered about the walls of glass at the back of Pastor Carter’s house, but never dared ask about it. Now I was seeing it for myself. And it was beautiful.
The silence inside was profound. We lived a mostly quiet life. Noise had very little purpose unless in prayer or song. Yet in spite of this, I still found the calm of Pastor’s solarium almost overwhelming.
I had just left the soft voices and hushed laughter of the other women making lunch. We had spent the morning in prayer as we always did. Every minute cataloged. Every moment accounted for. It was meant to smother the chaos of the outside world. Only through consistency could we find peace.
Our routines were rigid. But the times allowed for talking together were sacred. Laughter was hallowed. True joy was a gift none of us took for granted. Mostly because we experienced so little of it. We spent most of our time fearing the inevitable.