Copyright Staci Stallings, 2005
The incessant ringing of the alarm clock brought Eric out of a dead sleep. His eyelids scraped across his eyes like sandpaper, and he rubbed them trying to get them to stop aching. He squinted at the clock and moaned. With the way his stomach and head felt, he wanted to call her and beg off the task, but he couldn’t do that. He’d promised.
Pulling his eyelids up off his eyes with the help of his eyebrows, he dragged one foot out of the bed. It landed on the floor with a thud. “Ugh.” He ripped the covers back and plopped the second foot on the ground. “Oh. This is so not good.” Finally he got himself to a standing position. It took far more effort and energy than he had anticipated. With one hand holding his head up and his feet sliding rather than really walking, he made his way from the small bedroom and into the even smaller bathroom.
At the mirror he took his first look at himself, and if he hadn’t thought it would explode his head, he would’ve laughed. They were going to throw him out of every church they made it to looking like this. His thoughts meandered to Rebecca, and he closed his eyes. She was going to know everything the second she saw him. That was a prospect along with other things that made him want to hurl. Instead he pushed it aside and vowed to get himself as presentable as possible.
Gazing out at the parking lot that had three cars sitting there as if they didn’t have a friend in the world, Rebecca knew he was going to bail. Holly hadn’t made it back until well after two, and it didn’t take a genius to see she’d had more than her fair share of alcohol. The banging alone would’ve awakened the dead.
Rebecca shook her head and turned away from the window. She looked down at the questionnaires stacked in her hands. She would have to make the best of it by herself. There was simply no other option. At that moment an elderly couple hobbled in. Pulling in a breath for courage, Rebecca stepped over to them. “Hi, I’m doing a survey for a college class. Would you two mind answering a few questions?”
“Where is it?” Eric mumbled to the air in the car as he drove down the street, craning his neck to be able to see the cross-street signs. “Come on, Becca. These are horrible directions even if you aren’t hung over.” Without stopping, he grabbed the directions again and scanned them. It had to be right here. Somewhere.
At first Rebecca got mad at him for every church member she missed because she wasn’t two people. Then the deluge hit, and she was simply asking questions and writing as fast as she could. Processing the answers more than hearing them to write them down was impossible, so she just wrote and prayed it would make some sense when she got home.
Then, like a tap faucet that’s been turned off, the deluge slowed. She was in the middle of interviewing her last couple when she first caught sight of him coming in the doors. He looked about as bad as she had figured he would. But the truth was, she was surprised he was here at all. The couple finished the last question and walked off.
“Hey, boss,” Eric said, sliding up to her as if he hoped she wouldn’t notice he hadn’t been there the whole time. “I’m ready for my assignment.”
She was still writing. What she didn’t know but it must’ve been important because her pen kept scrawling across the paper. “You’re late.”
“I know.” He dug a hand into the pocket of his brown dress slacks. “I had some trouble with the directions.”
The music inside the church started, and it piped from the speaker right above them. They both looked up at it as if they hadn’t realized it was there.
“So, what do we do while we wait?” he asked.
That was a question she hadn’t really thought about. “I don’t know. I guess we could go in.”
His eyes widened. “In there?”
She shrugged. The last thing she wanted to do was to spend an hour out in the hallway with him. That could lead to talking which was definitely dangerous. “Sure. Why not?”
“Okay.” Nothing about that word sounded convinced. “I’ll follow you.”
Eric did exactly that, following her so closely he could’ve been tied to her with a ten-inch rope. Inside the church she chose a back pew, and he slid in beside her. He had never felt more out of place. He didn’t even know what to do with his hands. Should he fold them like he was praying, or was that only for some other time in the service?
Up front the action bounced from one area to another. One person read something he assumed was from the Bible. Then the choir stood and sang a rousing hymn he really couldn’t follow even as he wished they’d turn their volume down a few notches. The noise jammed into his already pounding head like a jackhammer. Then they stood, listened to a few prayers, and after a few minutes followed everyone else to a sitting position again. If nothing else, he didn’t have time to go to sleep. All this moving around didn’t give him enough of a chance to so much as nod off.
The preacher, at least that’s whom Eric assumed him to be, stepped to the lectern.
“Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” His diminutive, old, and graying body did not portend to hold such a booming voice.
Eric shifted in his seat, wondering how long this was going to take and why it seemed that everyone was shouting today.
“The scripture Alice read so beautifully this morning speaks to us right where we live. The teacher of Ecclesiastes writes exactly what we’ve all felt at some point, ‘What is the point of all of this? I mean, we live, we work, we die. Yea.’”
There were a few soft chuckles, and Eric’s gaze went to the congregation and then drifted over to Rebecca who sat with her hands lying in her lap on her soft beige skirt. He noticed then her light-pink blouse. It had a scoop-type neck and big flowing sleeves. She looked like she could walk into a classroom and have every student there hate her with one look.
“Smoke,” the preacher continued, and Eric’s attention snapped back to him. “Life is smoke. That’s what he’s saying. Life’s here one minute and gone the next. You get up and you go to work every day. Why? So you can get little pieces of paper with dead people’s pictures on them? What good are those little pieces of paper when you’re dead? They are smoke, pouring through your fingers. Everything you spent your precious time here on earth to gain is just gone.”
This was the most depressing speech Eric had ever heard. He wanted to yawn, but after being late, he didn’t dare. Instead he scratched the side of his head and pulled himself up straighter.
“We work, and we work, and we work, and then we die. And at the end, what do we have to show for our efforts? Smoke. Nothing but smoke until even it is gone. All the things that we loved so dearly in this life will be gone. We hug them to our chest, trying to hold on, but they too are smoke. They too will be gone. Tell me you haven’t thought that. Tell me there hasn’t been a moment in your life when you said to yourself, ‘What am I doing this for?’”
That was the first thing he’d said that Eric came close to nodding his head about.
“The question is a good one. What are you doing this for? What are you living this life for? What are you trading those precious 24-hours of every day for? If you’re trading them just to increase your bank account or to look good to the rest of the world or so others will think highly of you because of what you have and how successful you are, when you get to the end, you too will be left holding smoke. So, what are you doing this thing called life for?”
Eric was honestly waiting for the answer. However, the old man stepped away from the stand and raised his hands. Everyone stood. Eric did too, but he wasn’t really following anymore. His mind had struck out looking for the answer to that question.
When the service broke, Rebecca handed him a stack of questionnaires and a handful of pencils. “Beg, plead, whatever you have to do. I need at least ten of these back before they all leave.”
“Aye. Aye, Captain.”
Annoyed with him for everything and nothing at all, she turned, grabbed her notebook and stalked off after the first slow moving person she could get to.
In no time the church was empty, and her first foray into the art of surveying a group of people was over. However, she didn’t have time to feel much about that one way or another. As she strode over to where he was waiting for a young lady just older than them with platinum blonde hair and curves in all the right places under her well-tailored suit to finish her questionnaire, Rebecca looked at her watch. They would have to hurry.
“Thank you,” Eric said a little too politely as he accepted the paper.
The lady said something Rebecca didn’t quite catch.
He smiled with a smile she did understand. “You, too.”
“We’ve got to get or we’re going to miss the incoming crowd,” Rebecca said with no pretense. She swung her purse back to her shoulder. “You driving or you want me to?”
“Oh.” He shook his head. “Whatever.”
“I’ll drive. At least maybe we’ll get there on time that way.” She turned on her heel, and with him, a heartbeat behind, they walked out to her car. Once inside the car she wondered at her sanity, but she pushed that under the more urgent question of where the next church was located and what the quickest route to it was.
Eric glanced over at her. “That was nice.”
“Yeah, right. You looked bored stiff.”
“No. I mean there were parts that were okay. That sermon-speech thingy was pretty cool. That’s what I feel like with school, you know? Like it’s all smoke, and what am I putting myself through this for?”
Her gaze traveled over to him and held for several seconds. “Really?”
He caught her with his gaze. “Yeah, all the time. Why?”
Anger and stress dropped from her. “Because that’s how I feel. Like I’m banging my head against a brick wall and getting nowhere.”
“So, why do you keep going?”
She shook her head slowly. “It’s what you’re supposed to do. It’s life. What else is there?”
He shrugged and then laid his head back on the headrest. “I sure wish he would’ve told us the answer.”
“Yeah.” She laughed a hollow breath. “You and me both.”
Depression had set into Eric’s spirit by the time they got to the next church just before the service started. Dutifully, he took the surveys and handed out a few of them, but there really wasn’t much time. So, as soon as his last questionee had gone inside, he went over to where Rebecca was finishing up.
“We going to this one too?” he asked, not sure just sitting outside wouldn’t be a better option.
“Sure. Why not?”
Instantly his head produced an itemized list of why nots, but he followed her in anyway. The mechanics of this service were different than the first, but in no time they were seated for the sermon. Three more like the first one might actually kill him he thought as he stared up at the giant picture of the cross behind the preacher’s head. This guy was not old. In fact, he looked like he might be Eric’s own age or younger. Blonde hair that was too curly to be called tame, he looked like he’d just walked over from the high school. Worse, he looked about as confident as if he had too. He stepped to the podium and cleared his throat.
“The Bible says, ‘If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a noise gong, a clashing cymbal.’ I’m sure you’ve heard that verse before, but what does it mean? When I was in school, I was really into the church. I did everything. I sang in the choir. I ushered. I was the president of the youth organization. It felt good to be serving God. It gave me a sense that I was worth His time and effort.”
The words stopped, and Eric’s gaze was drawn to the young man whose face seemed to contort with the words he spoke. It was as if he was confessing some radical sin before the congregation.
“But since then, I’ve learned that doing things for God is not what He asks of us. What He asks is that we let Him love the world through us. We don’t do it and then give it to Him. We are to let Him do it through us. So although I could stand up here and with all the sincere eloquence of a preacher who’s been doing this for years say something to impress you, that isn’t the message I bring today.
“The message He gave me to give to you is simply this. Whatever He gives you to do, do it with His love flowing through you. Let love be your goal and your guide in everything you do. If you do that, whatever you do will be blessed beyond measure. If you don’t, you’re missing the point.”
The young preacher seemed to hesitate for a moment as if he thought maybe he should say more. Then, he looked up into the faces arrayed before him. “That’s it. Just love.” And he stepped from the podium.
Even as the others stood, Rebecca didn’t move. It wasn’t until she felt Eric’s gaze on her that her senses kicked back in. She scrambled to her feet but didn’t so much as hear another word that was said. At the end of the service, she cornered a few people, asked her questions, and wrote down the answers. However, it was as if she was standing back watching someone else go through those motions.
When they were back in the car, she had to look at her list to remember where they were going next. Life had become a fog of unreality.
“Do you think it’s that simple?” Eric asked as he stared out the side window.
“What?” she asked, knowing what he was referring to even as he asked.
“Love. He made it sound so easy. I mean, here I am chasing an education that I’m not even sure I want, and he’s telling me all I have to do is love.”
A thought drifted out of the fog of her brain. “Huh. Do you think that’s the answer to the first one?”
Eric turned in his seat so that his gaze was on her silhouette. It made her brain do funny things so that she wasn’t sure she was even on the right street anymore.
“Whatever isn’t love is smoke?” he asked, his voice no more than a breath.
She nodded and glanced his way but thought better of it. Her gaze returned to the road. “Isn’t that what he was saying? If I speak with angelic tongues but have not love, I am a noisy gong? He’s saying if you’re not speaking with love as the goal, that’s smoke. It’s not real. It’s not what lasts. Even if you’re really good at it.”
Eric’s gaze dropped to his hands. “But what if what you love is something you can’t do?”
Rebecca’s gaze fell to the backpack that was lying on the floorboard by his feet. She’d been storing her things in it and lugging it around since she’d been at college, and for the last two weeks, it had contained his dream, just waiting for her to get the courage to give it to him. She sighed, but as hard as she tried, finding enough words to talk herself out of it was impossible. She nodded to the blue and black bag. “Open the front zipper.”
“What?” he asked clearly puzzled.
“The front flap of my backpack. Open it.”
Still puzzled, he reached down beside his leg and did as she instructed. Her spirit jumped as did her fear when he sat back up with the papers from the ASL department in his hands. He unfolded them, looked at them, and lines furrowed across his forehead. “I don’t understand.”
She had gone too far to back out now. “Well, you said you thought it took a master’s to do anything with sign language, but that’s not what those say. There are a lot of things you can do with sign language with just an Associate’s Degree much less a Bachelor’s.”
Confusion twined through his gaze. “When did you get these?”
Her shoulders reached for the car roof. “A few weeks ago.”
Fear screamed through her to just shut up, but she beat that back. “Because I knew you wouldn’t go get them for yourself.” She shrugged. “And I could tell how much you loved it, so…”
After another moment, the papers fell to his knee and his hand went to his mouth, covered it, and slid down the length of his chin. Her hands turned the car into the parking lot, which was already filling with church-goers.
“I’m sorry,” she said softly. “I probably shouldn’t have…”
When he turned toward her, there was open astonishment laced with disbelief scrawled across his face. “So, you think I can do this?”
Her heart smiled, and her face followed. “I know you can.”
The interlude between arrival time and sermon time had been compressed to nearly nothing, Eric thought as they sat down in the Methodist church side by side. Even school wasn’t this daunting with new insights slamming into him so fast that he couldn’t get a good hold on one before it was time to contemplate the next. In fact, he was still processing the fact that Rebecca had gone out of her way to get papers for him, for his dream when to him he didn’t even really know her all that well.
He sat back in the pew and then forward, trying to get comfortable. However, the ache in his head coupled with the fact that he could no longer look at her without getting embarrassed weren’t making that easy. It would’ve been nice to have something of some background to go on about how the services were similar or different. His little bit of church service knowledge from the few Christmas Eve services his parents had dragged him to over the years weren’t helping a whole lot. So he sat forward and then backward, and finally draped his arm over the bench back in the direction of Rebecca who sat a full three feet away.
He couldn’t be sure, but he suspected she hadn’t really looked at him in the last fifteen minutes either. The question of why she had gotten those papers in the first place drifted through him again and stayed in his consciousness from the first song until the preacher stepped to the pulpit. With one thunderous intonation, however, paying attention to anything other than the preacher became utterly impossible.
“Did God make evil? One day a young man went to his college class, and the professor asked if the young man believed that God made everything. The young man said, ‘Yes, He did.’ The old professor puffed up and said, ‘Then if God made everything, that means He made evil. Who has need for a God that would make evil?’ The young man was silent for he had no answer to this question. As the professor started on with the lesson, a second young man spoke up and said, ‘May I ask you a question, Sir?’ The professor assented, and the young man began, ‘Sir, is there such a thing as cold?’ ‘Of course,’ the professor replied, ‘Haven’t you ever been cold?’ ‘Actually,’ the young man replied, ‘cold does not exist. It is simply a term that we have constructed to mean a state of being without heat.’ The old professor didn’t say anything, so the young man continued. ‘Is there such a thing as dark?’
“‘Well, certainly,’ replied the professor. ‘We’ve all seen the dark.’ ‘On the contrary,’ the young man said. ‘Darkness does not exist. It is only the way we have come to explain an absence of light. The absence of something does not exist except to define when what does exist is not present. So, I ask you then, does evil exist?’ ‘Of course it does. Look around there are murders and rapes and robberies.’ ‘Actually, Sir, evil does not exist. Evil is only the absence of God.’ When he sat down, the professor had no more argument.”
The preacher smiled as if he had just told a secret to the whole room full of people. “I love that story because it says what we so often miss in our Christian walk. We walk around worrying about things that don’t even exist. Like dying for instance. Some people are so afraid of dying that they never live. But what is dying? Is it not simply a term we have concocted to describe the state that we see when life here on earth is absent? And following the logic of the story, does death really exist at all?
“Heat. Light. Goodness. Life. Those are what is real.” The preacher balled his fist and shook it as if holding those ideas clinched there. “You see, the other side of everything is nothing. The other side of God is the absence of God, and the absence of God, the absence of heat, light, goodness, life—is nothing.” He turned his hand over to reveal a palm-full of air. “And nothing is nothing. It doesn’t exist. Without God, you have nothing.”
He put his hands on either side of the pulpit and leaned forward. “So I guess that means you’ve got a choice. God or nothing. Chose carefully.” He stepped back and raised his hands for the congregation to stand, which it did.
Eric stood but hardly realized it. He had been alive 22 years, but in all that time he had never taken such a good, long look at the life he said he was living. The more he looked, the more he wondered if he was living at all. Sure, he was following the path the world had set him on. Going to college, dating, studying, partying, trying to decide what to do with his life—that’s what he was supposed to be doing right now. At least that’s what everybody else was doing. But he couldn’t get past the feeling that he was just marking time. He wasn’t really moving toward anything. He was just existing to get to the next day, the next minute, and somehow he had always thought it was in that next minute where he would find whatever it was that was going to make life suddenly worth living.
At his elbow, Rebecca twisted slightly and reached up to scratch her neck. His attention fell to her, and he wondered again about the papers she had gotten for him. There wasn’t a single other person whom he had ever confided in about the sign language idea who hadn’t laughed at him. In fact, it was almost like they were all saying, “You can’t do it anyway. You’re not smart enough to do that. Why even try?”
And so, he had convinced himself that what he was doing was all there was to do. He looked down at his hand, turned it over and ran his fingers through his empty palm. Nothing. It was what it felt like he was holding, and one day even this would end. In that day what would he be left with? A life of regret for having listened to everyone else that he wasn’t good enough to go for what he really wanted? Was that really what he wanted? Sure, the others in his group all had somebody, but he wondered at that moment if they even had themselves as much as they seemed to, or where they holding on to nothing too?
Smoke. The word drifted up from his slow-moving brain. It was what he had been reaching for in the years he’d been living. In that moment, he decided he was tired of grabbing for smoke. Smoke like wondering what to take for classes. Smoke like trying to hold on to Holly who seemed to have every intention of running the other direction. Smoke like trying to be like everyone else—looking like he had it all together when he really felt like he was falling apart.
“Hey, Eric. You coming?” Rebecca asked. It was only then that he realized she was standing in the aisle, looking at him with concern.
“Oh.” His glance shot across the church that seemed to suddenly be in motion. “Yeah.” He started out behind her.
“Aren’t you going to get the papers?”
“Oh, yeah.” Stopping, he turned and it took another moment for his brain to remember what he was after. Papers in hand, he followed her out. He couldn’t help but wonder if he had enough brainpower left to do the task at hand.
Even as Rebecca interviewed the young couple with the baby, her attention drifted over to Eric on the other side of the foyer. He was so distant today. The hangover couldn’t be helping, she was sure, but it was more than that. He seemed sad and even lonely and lost somehow. There was no spark in his eyes, no light laugh waiting to escape, no carefree spirit. Only sadness and the hollow motions of going through life.
She ran out of interviews before he did, so she walked over to where he was waiting for three older people to finish. “How’d you do?”
“Great,” he said, but his tone didn’t rise to the excited level of the word. “I got about 12.”
“Cool.” She scratched her eyebrows as one of the men handed Eric the paper and the pencil back.
“Thanks so much,” Eric said, and his smile was soft. Her heart turned over at it.
“You know,” Rebecca said, turning her back on the other two filling out the papers, “we’ve probably got enough.”
The lady handed her paper to Eric over Rebecca’s shoulder.
“Thank you so much,” Eric said. He stacked the papers together.
She draped her arms together across her chest before reaching up and scratching the back of her neck. “I’m sure you’re tired, and you’ve got other things to do.”
“What? Me? No. What else would I have to do?”
“I don’t know.” Rebecca wanted to tell him she felt bad for making him depressed trying to help her, but she didn’t know how to put that into words. She let her arms fall together over her soft yellow sweater. “You’ve got your own paper to write.”
The third questionnaire made the transfer over her shoulder, and she turned an eighth of a turn to acknowledge the movement.
“Oh, the pencil,” Eric said, reaching for it.
“Sorry,” the man said and handed the pencil back.
Once he was gone, Eric tamped the papers on the little table.
“We really could go,” Rebecca said. “I could take you back to your car.”
The word and his gaze stopped her. Thoughts rammed on top of each other as in that moment she realized how close he was, how good his cologne smelled, how somehow he was staring into her eyes with a soft look that melted her insides. She had seen that look, but it had never been directed at her before. It was all she could do not to let her knees wobble out from under her.
“Look, I said I would help, and I’m going to help. Now we better go, or we’re going to miss the last one.” He checked the spot for anything he had forgotten, put a hand under her elbow, and steered her to the door. “So did you get any?”
“A couple. Two or three.”
At her car, she managed to get the keys out of her purse, but her heart was slamming into her ribcage making breathing harder than she remembered it being. She opened her door and leaned over to open his. When she righted herself, she started the car. However, she didn’t back out even after he was in with his seatbelt securely fastened.
“You really don’t have to go to the next one. I could drop you off. I’m sure I could do it myself.”
A half-laugh met the statement. “What’re you trying to get rid of me?”
“Well, it sure sounds like it.”
Still she didn’t back out.
“Are we going or not?” he finally asked.
“Yeah. We’re going.” Somehow she got them out of that parking lot and into the next one. How, she would never be able to explain to anyone.
“I’m going to try to shag some before they go in,” Eric said the second they hit the doors.
“Okay. Me too.” She turned not because she knew where she was going but more so she wasn’t following him like a lost puppy dog. She approached the first lady she saw. “Hi, Ma’am. Do you have a minute? I’m from Boston Central, and I’m doing a survey of people who go to church. Could I interview you?”
“Sure!” the lady who was no more than forty said. She had one child propped on her hip and one dangling from her other hand. “What do you need to know?”
“Oh, umm.” Rebecca resettled her glasses on her face and pulled out her pen and paper. “What denomination are you?”
“Catholic.” The lady’s short dark hair bobbed forward as she smiled. “We’ve been parishioners here for about seven years.”
Rebecca wrote that down. “How important is your faith to you on a scale of one to ten?”
“Ten. Jeez. Sometimes it’s the only thing that keeps me going.”
“What religious activities do you participate in?”
“Here at the church?”
“And at home.” Rebecca looked down and smiled at the little girl holding the lady’s hand.
“Well, I’m a member of the women’s group, and my husband helps with the teens. We do Vacation Bible School every year, and our kids are in Sunday school. We take classes here on Sunday too.”
“And at home?”
“We read and pray together, talk about God and Jesus as much as possible.”
“So God is part of your home too then, not just here at church?”
“God’s everywhere. We don’t relegate Him to a day and a building.”
“He’s a part of your family then, not just for you?”
A youngish blonde man walked up and put his arm around the lady’s waist. “What? Did you get sidetracked?”
“She’s interviewing me for a college paper,” the lady said, smiling at him.
He looked at Rebecca with marked interest. “Oh, yeah? About church?”
“It’s for Psychology,” Rebecca said, intrigued at the miss-matched picture they made. Every one of them looked different, none looked like they belonged together like most couples and families did, but there was an undeniable bond there that was mesmerizing all the same.
“Well, tell that Psychology professor of yours that if more kids were taught about God and family, we’d have a lot less need for his services,” the man said. “This is what so many people are missing these days. They think they’re working for some great thing out there that’s going to make them rich and happy, and all it does is tear their family apart and leave them with nothing.”
“Yep,” the lady said, “you’ve gotta decide where you’re building.”
“What is it?” the man said. “I’ll take a shack on a rock over a castle made of sand?”
Down the hall music started, and Rebecca looked toward it sorry their interview couldn’t last longer. “Oh, I’d better let you go. Thanks so much.”
“No problem,” the man said. “Come on, goofy.” He swung the little girl to his hip, and hand in hand with their child between them, they walked down the hallway in front of Rebecca.
Solid. They looked so solid. Yes, there was love, but it wasn’t the kissy-faced, romantic, googly-eyed, all-over-each-other kind of love she saw so many of her compatriots exhibit. This love looked more like respect wound tightly with friendship. She wanted to ask them what problems life had thrown their way, if everything was as rosy as it seemed, but she knew she would never get the chance. In the large area just outside of the service area, she met up with Eric. He looked at her and tilted his head curiously, obviously sensing something had changed.
“You ready?” she asked.
He smiled. “After you.”
Through the ups and downs of the beginning of the Mass, Rebecca thought about the couple. She even searched the faces around her to see if they were somewhere close. When she finally gave up on that idea, she wound her arms over themselves and took a furtive glance at Eric. It was really too bad that they would never be more than friends. It seemed like such a nice place to land as a couple. He glanced over and caught her staring. She should’ve been embarrassed, but before she got there, he smiled at her. She couldn’t help but smile back. His attention returned to the front, but hers didn’t through the readings until it was time for the sermon.
Had she had only a bit more moxy, she would’ve reached over and put her hand on his. However, as soon as that thought went through her head, she beat it back. He was out with her roommate only the night before. She needed to get her head out of the clouds and back into reality.
Anchoring her gaze to the pulpit, she readjusted her glasses and cleared her throat. Thoughts of being with Eric hadn’t gotten her anywhere thus far, and she was sure they weren’t headed anywhere but heartache.
“The foolish man builds his house on the sand,” the man in the flowing green robes said from the pulpit. “This Scripture has been parsed so many times, we have almost ceased to hear it. Yet it calls out from Jesus’ time to ours because unlike many of the parables, this one speaks right into our time with no need of translation. In fact, we’ve heard it so many times, we may have stopped hearing what it is really saying. Jesus is issuing a warning. Where are you building?”
Rebecca shifted in her seat and cleared her throat. How could the lady have known, or did she?
“Is your life built on anything that will last when the rains come up and the wind comes up and they lash at your house, your shelter in the storm? Think about the storms you’ve gone through in your life. Maybe it was a death in the family. Maybe it was a financial crisis or a health crisis. Maybe it was one of those more common storms that we all go through when it just looks so much easier to build with sand. We let ourselves get talked into doing things we know won’t lead anywhere we want to go. Why? Because we’re lonely or bored or tired. We start giving in to the easy way. We start taking shortcuts, skipping church because we were out too late the night before. We start making excuses about why we’re too busy for God.”
Next to her, Eric ducked his head and slid one leg up onto the kneeler support. It would’ve been so easy for her to look at him, to accuse him with her gaze because she knew those words had hit a sore spot in him. However, the real truth was they were finding their mark in her heart as well.
“A lot of people will tell you that doing these things hurts God. But God is God. He is good in every fiber of His being. He is joy and peace and love. You cannot hurt God. You can, however, hurt yourself, and in choosing to build on sand, you are hurting yourself. Make no mistake about that. God is the rock. God is there—even in the storms of life, even when everyone else turns their backs on you, even when lonely would be a step up, God is there.
“And here’s the most awesome thing: He loves you right now. Imperfections, attempts, mistakes and all, He loves you, and all He wants is for you to come back to Him. Come back to Him, and let Him help you build your life on the rock. Stop wasting your time in the sand—because make no mistake, it is a waste. Every moment spent in the sand is a waste. It will all be swept away. But your time spent on the rock will last into eternities. God is all that there is. If you have Him, you have everything. If you don’t have Him, everything else in the world will never be enough.”
When he raised his hands, Rebecca stood. His words rang in her head. She had been working so hard for so long trying to be what her parents wanted, trying to be as good as Liz Ann so that they would be proud of her. Funny how, as she thought about it now, it did feel like sand because even when she managed to build something wonderful—an A in English, a paper someone liked, a B in Chemistry—Liz would find a way to top her in the next breath. The wind and the rain toppled every single castle she had ever managed to build. As she half-listened to the remainder of the service, she began to see things in a way that she never had before.
Coming to Boston Central she had let herself get talked out of any faith she had ever professed to have. However, the truer statement would have been that she didn’t have much of a faith in the first place. She had gone to the church her parents had gone to because they made her go, and she had never so much as questioned it. She went to make them happy. Even that, she realized as she stood there, was a castle. It had nothing to do with putting her own life on the rock. It had only to do with keeping the peace. As she stood there, scanning through her life, she searched for one single solitary thing that wasn’t smoke or sand.
Her heart slid through her chest as she fought back the tears that stung the backs of her eyes. She had been lonely all her life. Her thoughts drifted back to the pool table in her parents’ basement. Those nights spent figuring out angles and how to tap in the perfect side shot—they weren’t about learning a game she loved, they were meant only to keep herself from thinking about that Liz Ann was out having fun with the rest of the popular crowd. Then she thought about Eric, and her gaze drifted over to him. Even if they ever got together, what did she have to offer him? Her life was sand.
A horrible thought hit her just then. If God was everything, then what was she holding? She knew the answer before the question had even gotten all the way through her mind. She thought about the couple she had met earlier and then about the others she had interviewed throughout the day. They all had a peace and a graciousness about them that she hadn’t taken the time to notice until that moment. It was as if they knew that the next minute would be taken care of. As she thought about it, the why behind that became clear. They were holding onto something. They were holding onto the One Something that made everything else manageable.
“Hey,” Eric said, leaning into her. “You coming?”
It took a second to shake the thoughts away enough to realize the service was over. “Yeah.”
“That was some service,” Eric said when they were back in her car headed to the first church to get his vehicle. She didn’t respond, and if he could’ve been honest, he would’ve admitted that her silence was starting to worry him. From the best of his recollection she had gone into turtle mode about the time he had fished the papers out of her backpack. “You know, I really wanted to thank you for getting those papers.”
She glanced over at him, but it didn’t make it that far. “No biggie.”
“Maybe not to you, but to me, it was a very big thing.” There were too many thoughts running through his head to sort them all out, and before he thought better of it, his brain opened the flood gate for them to come pouring out. “You know, I always kind of thought it was all hopeless to even look into. I mean I’m not the brightest bulb in the pack. I talked myself out of even going to look because looking would confirm it was hopeless, and then where would I be?”
He laughed softly. “But today made me realize this is what I love doing. Sign language is such a challenge, and not in a bad, I’ll-never-be-able-to-do-this kind of way. It’s fun to make your hands talk.” It was then he looked down and realized his hands were going full speed, emphasizing his points. “But I was afraid if I tried it and I failed, then where would I be? You know?”
His gaze drifted up to the ceiling and then out the window as they pulled into the first parking lot. “Now, I just feel like jumping. I want to try it, you know? Even if everybody else thinks I’m completely out of my mind. I just want to go for it and prove them all wrong.”
Her car stopped next to his. She put it into park and nodded slowly. “I’m glad today was good for something.”
He knew that was his cue to get out, but her tone yanked that thought from his mind. “So. You mind telling me why you’re so quiet? You sound like you’re the one who was out partying all night.” Whatever he had meant it as, he saw the shadow of a reaction cross her face, and he was sorry he’d said it. “You really should’ve come last night. It would’ve been nice to have a friend to dance with.”
The hollowness of her laugh ripped through his heart. “Yeah, I’m sure Holly would’ve loved that.”
His spirit plummeted through the reality of the night before. “Like she would’ve noticed.”
Rebecca’s gaze swept over him. “What does that mean?”
“It means she was with someone else.”
“She… what? Why?”
He shrugged. “What difference does why make?”
“It doesn’t. That is just… ugh!” She smacked the steering wheel with the palm of her hand. “Why do they think they can get away with that junk?”
“Them.” She swept her hand in front of her. “The popular people. The beautiful ones. It’s like they own the whole planet, and they don’t really care if they step on anyone else. It hacks me off sometimes.”
He shrugged again. “I should’ve seen it coming. She hasn’t exactly been jumping at the chance to go out with me.”
“Well, that’s her loss. If she’s too stupid to see what she’s got…”
“Oh, yeah, like I’m a real catch.” Anger and hurt poured through the statement.
“What’re you talking about? You’re great. You’re funny, and you’re kind, and your generous.”
“I’m an undecided major with no real prospects and no real plan for anything in my life.”
“That’s all temporary, and you know it. You just won’t let yourself see how great you really are.”
“I liked that part about the sand,” he said, shifting to a different subject and hoping she would follow.
“I thought it was all pretty good although I wish it was easier to build on that rock. I wish I knew how to do that. I wouldn’t even know where to start.”
“Well, I think you start with Him, with God.”
For a long moment she sat without saying anything. Then, without turning, she said, “Do you really think there is a God?”
The question hit him like a punch. “Hello. You’re doing your paper on Him, I should hope He exists.”
“Yeah, but how do you know? How can a person ever really tell?”
He thought about the question for a long moment before he answered. “Well, I don’t think there’s a way to like put your finger on it, and say, ‘Yes, He exists, see I’ve got Him right here in this jar.’ But didn’t you feel Him today? When we were talking to those people and in the services. It was like He really was right there. I don’t know that I had ever felt that before today. And the weird thing was it was like He was talking right to me, like they had written those sermons just for me.”
“I sure wish I could feel that, like my life was on a rock instead of on the sand.”
“Me, too. A lot of times I feel like everything is just, ‘What’s the point?’ you know? My friends want me to go out with them. Then I go, and I’m miserable. What’s the point?”
“But you’ve got friends. You’ve got a whole group to hang out with all the time. That’s something.”
“Have you ever been in a room full of people and been so lonely you wanted to cry?”
Her gaze snapped over to him and slid down the side of his face.
He didn’t look at her, just stared at his hands. “I know. Guys aren’t supposed to talk like that, but it’s true. I mean, I sit there sometimes with them, and it’s so hard because they’ve all got somebody, and they’ve all got their little things they are good at. And then there’s me.”
She considered and then gripped the steering wheel. “I know what you mean. My family’s like that. There’s all of them with something spectacular, and then there’s me. Sometimes I think they wish I had never been born.”
In concern he looked over at her.
“They’ve never said it, but I know that’s what they think.” She sighed and shook her head. “It sure would’ve been nice to be good at something. Liz Ann got everything. The athletics. The brains. She’s even more musical than me although that’s not saying much. She went to Princeton. Ivy League. Big deal. And now she’s trying to get into Harvard law school, and what’s Rebecca doing? Oh, she’s going to Boston Central. You know Rebecca, never could quite make the cut.”
“What are you talking about? You’re fun to be around…”
“They don’t give awards for fun to be around.” She swiped at the bottom of her eye. “It gets really old sometimes, playing second fiddle all the time and never once measuring up. If I got an A, she got an A+. If I got a 100, she got extra credit. If I made the play, she got the lead. No matter what I ever did, it was never as good as what she did.”
For no other reason than he wanted her to know he was there, Eric let his hand fall onto her shoulder. Every thread of his attention was locked on the sorrow in her tone.
“Everybody’s all Liz Ann this and Liz Ann that, and isn’t Liz Ann just so wonderful? Just once I’d like to hear someone say, ‘Did you hear what Rebecca did? Isn’t that great?’ Just one stinking time.” She sniffed. “I know. Get over it already. It just gets really old.”
“Well, for what it’s worth, I for one think you’re pretty terrific.”
The half-smile that slipped onto her face was worth more than the effort it took to put it there. He only wished it could’ve been a real smile with real happiness behind it. “You know, maybe all that stuff is just smoke anyway.”
Rebecca’s gaze jumped to his. It was laced with confusion.
“Seriously. Maybe Liz Ann is grabbing all these things that are really smoke, and by competing with her, maybe you’re grabbing at smoke too.”
That thought ran across her face. “I just want them to see me for a change.”
“Then what do you do that nobody else does?”
Her eyebrows met in the center of her forehead. “Huh?”
“Well, okay. My head’s still spinning from all the stuff they crammed into it today, but remember the guy that said if it isn’t love, it’s smoke?”
“Well, here’s how I figure it. Misery is grabbing for smoke because you think those things are important. So it follows that happiness is grabbing onto something real. And what’d that one guy say? Something about what’s love is real—everything else is nothing?” The sermons were sliding together so that he couldn’t clearly remember which one said what, but he was making a valiant effort for her sake. “So the question is, what do you love to do? Maybe that’s what’s real.”
The only sound was the hum of the air conditioner and the motor because she hadn’t bothered to turn the car off. She didn’t answer.
“Come on. There’s got to be something.”
Her thumb ran itself over the other one for several breaths. “Well, I’ve always kind of wanted to help little kids.”
She shook her head. “No. Help little kids, like when they need someone to stand up for them because they’re being hurt or something, like when they’ve been abused.” Her gaze was anchored on her fingernails. “But that’s a high-stress job, lots of hours, bad pay, and what difference can I make anyway?” The question was punctuated with a hollow laugh and a shrug.
“You want to work for the CPS?”
When she shook her head, it was with three tiny shakes that almost didn’t move her head at all. “It’s dumb. I know.”
“Man.” Anger ripped through him. “I think we’ve been listening to the same people our whole life.” He looked down and pulled the papers she had given him out of his pocket. As he held them, a thought came. “What do you say we show them all?”
Panic and concern filled the gaze she leveled at him.
“I mean it.” Determination slid through him. “I’m tired of listening to everybody tell me it can’t be done. This is what I love to do.” He held the papers up between them. “And this is what I’m going to do—however I have to make it work, whatever I have to do.”
There was still panic in her gaze, but one thread had been replaced with interest.
“So, what do you say, Miss Rebecca?” A glint of mischief drifted through him. “You want to join me on a great adventure that nobody else thinks is possible?”
It took a minute but finally she smiled at him, and he knew she was seriously considering the offer. “This is insane, you know.”
When he shook his head, peace flowed through him. “No. I think it’s the first sane thing I’ve ever done.” The smile came up from his heart. “So are you in, or do I have to go get your papers for you?”
The laugh jumped from her. “You would, wouldn’t you?”
“Hey, I’ve got to find some way to pay you back.”
A moment and she shook her head as her gaze fell to her lap. Another moment and her gaze came up and met his. “Okay. I’m in if you are.”