A Work in Progress, Ch. 13 & 14

Copyright Staci Stallings, 2005

Chapter 13

Thankfully Holly had made herself scarce for two days. She apparently knew Rebecca’s schedule as well as Rebecca knew it. Sunday night it was after Rebecca had gone to bed before Holly came back. Monday night was the same. They were falling into a pattern that Rebecca couldn’t be wholly sorry for. Eric hadn’t ever actually said what happened, but she knew enough, could read enough in his eyes, to know Holly wasn’t playing the game fairly with him.  And Rebecca had stumbled upon just enough confidence over the course of Sunday to make the possibility of her confronting her roommate a very real possibility.

Tuesday morning she was standing in the cafeteria line in the hallway waiting for breakfast when she saw Holly and another girl turn the corner.  She knew Holly hadn’t seen her, and quickly, she turned to the multi-colored bulletin board on the wall hoping Holly wouldn’t realize it was her. She did her level best to disappear into the bulletin board, and she didn’t move until Holly and the girl had passed.  It was only then that the bright lime green paper tacked there grabbed her attention.  She glanced over her shoulder, but the line hadn’t moved.

She looked back at the paper.

Bible Study Room 343. Wednesdays 7 p.m.

She yanked a piece of paper out of her binder and wrote the information on it. Probably she wouldn’t go anyway, but if she didn’t write it down, she surely wouldn’t remember it.  The guy behind her cleared his throat, and she stuffed the paper into her binder and turned for breakfast.

***

“I called you on Sunday. Where were you?” Jeremy asked Eric as they neared the Psychology room door.

“Oh. I was out.”

“All day?”

Eric reached for the door handle, hoping she would be on the other side. It had been two long days punctuated only by loneliness since he’d seen her. “I was helping Rebecca, remember?”

Disdain drained down Jeremy’s face. “Church?  Seriously?”

They stepped into the room, and Eric saw her instantly. His heart smiled for him. “Yeah.”

“All day?”

“Almost.”

“I can’t believe you volunteered for that. What were you thinking?”

But Eric wasn’t listening anymore. He was too focused on the fact that in six more steps, he would get to be with the only person he’d thought about for two days. A step before he got to where she sat, he leaned down to her. “Is that smoke?”

The fact that she actually jumped was a bonus. He laughed as he slid past her legs and into the desk on the other side.

“I’ll have you know I’ve gotten all of my note cards written out, and I’ve got my outline finished.”

“Huh. Must be nice for you,” Jeremy said with a tone so flat a truck could’ve driven over it.

“What happened to procrastination being good for the soul?” Eric teased.

“Only when it’s something I don’t want to do.” She laughed. “How about you? Have you chosen your topic yet?”

Panic grabbed him, and he glanced over at Jeremy who seemed not to be listening. “I’m still working on it.”

“A work in progress, huh?”

He tried to smile. “Something like that.”

“Well, if you need any help, I think I owe you about six hours.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

At that moment Mr. Templeton walked in, and before his briefcase hit the desk, they were started.

***

Wishing only that Jeremy wasn’t tagging along, Eric walked with them out of the building. The cold of February had given way to the mild-chill of March, so it wouldn’t have been wholly out of the question to suggest walking her home—had it not been for Jeremy.

“Will you be there for lunch tomorrow?” Eric asked, wanting to prolong this moment as long as possible.

“I’ll be there.” She pulled her books up to her chest tighter, and he smiled at how much he had come to love that simple action.

“Cool.” He could think of no more.

“Well, I’ll see ya,” she finally said, and with a tilt of her head, she descended the steps.

Neither of the guys moved until she was well down the sidewalk.

“You know for someone who doesn’t like her, you sure are spending a lot of time making dates with her,” Jeremy said, and there was an undercurrent of contempt.

Eric’s mood soured instantly. He started off to the other side of the building around the veranda. “They’re not dates. We’re friends. We meet places. What’s so wrong with that?”

“You spent your whole Sunday at church because of her. You don’t think that’s going over and above the call of friendship duty?”

“She needed help. I helped her. End of story.” But his heart hurt just saying it. “I’d better get home. I haven’t eaten since this morning.” Eric descended two steps in the direction of his car.

“Okay.” Jeremy continued a few feet under the veranda. “Oh! I almost forgot. Gwen said to tell you to come on Friday. Everybody’s invited. Friday-before-Spring-Break Bash or something like that.”

Under his breath Eric growled. It was never-ending.

“And don’t say no,” Jeremy continued. “Gwen would kill me.”

“I’ll think about it.”

“You can bring somebody if you want.”

“I said, ‘I’ll think about it.’” Eric took five more steps before he had the presence of mind to not leave on a bad note. “See you for lunch tomorrow?”

“For all the good it will do me. Yeah. I’ll be there.”

***

Rebecca had the best of intentions for her hair the next morning. She got up early, put on the nicest pastel green knit shirt she owned, and broke out the curling iron. However, in five minutes she had more burn lines on her hand than curls on her head, and she gave up. She unplugged the thing and was wrapping the cord when Holly walked in from her morning shower.

Without a word, Holly disappeared into her closet.  Rebecca heard the banging and the shuffling even as she grabbed her own belongings to head out. The escape was almost perfect, except that when she got to the door, Holly stepped out of the closet right in front of her.

“Oh,” Holly said, stepping back in. “Sorry.”

“No problem,” Rebecca said. She clutched her books a bit tighter and exited from the room. As she closed the door and walked down the hall, Rebecca couldn’t help but be a little sad. Things had started off so good for Holly and her. It was too bad their relationship had come to this.

On her way down, she stopped on the third floor and did a few minutes of reconnaissance to find Room 343. It wasn’t too difficult to find, and with a short breath to steady herself, she vowed to be there at 7 p.m.  She ran her fingers up through her hair, but it snagged in the scraggly curls. Now there was the stupid idea of the century. Her only hope at this point was if the clip in her backpack would be able to corral the curls so she didn’t look like an electrified poodle.

***

“Hey, hey, you made it,” Eric said over Rebecca’s shoulder as she sat reading and waiting for them over her lunch of a ham sandwich and a pickle.

“Hey there!” The happiness rushed through her, and she reached her hands over his neck as she leaned back into him. That always felt better than it had any right too. “Where’s your sidekick?”

“He had to run over and check his mailbox. Scholarship check.”

“Must be nice.”

“Tell me about it.” Without asking, Eric stacked his books on the table beside her. “Be right back like a hackysack.”

“Thanks for the warning,” she said as he started off. With an eyebrow arched to signal his disapproval of the comment, he turned back to her, and she laughed. The smile that overtook his menacing look danced through her soul.

In only a few minutes he was back, ham sandwich and water in hand.

“What’re you on a diet?” Rebecca asked, surveying his meal.

“Uh. Hello. It’s called healthy.” He swung his leg onto one of the stools.

“Oh.” She drew the syllable out in one long sound. “What a concept.” She picked up her pickle and took a small bite. “So, you narrow that paper topic down yet?”

“Actually you would be proud of me. I went to the library yesterday and then I stopped and visited with Dr. Pullman. She’s my sign teacher. She gave me a couple of brochures with places on the ‘net to look about mainstreaming the deaf.  I’m thinking it’s not going to be all that hard.”  He picked up his sandwich and took a bite. “How about you? You looked into that CPS degree yet?”

She shrugged. “I haven’t had the chance.”

“Hey, now. No chickening out on me here.” He picked up the water bottle and took a drink.

“I’m not chickening out. I’ve been working on my paper and some stuff for other classes, but I was going to try to get over there on Friday.”

At that he dropped the water bottle to the table, picked up the sandwich, and took a small bite. “Oh, hey, saying Friday. I know you’re going to be busy, and you’re probably leaving and all, but…” He seemed to choke on the bite in his mouth, and his words stopped. He reached for the water and took a drink.

Trepidation and concern washed through her as she watched him. In a way he seemed at ease, in another, he seemed like a scared animal backed into a corner.

“But…?” she asked because even when he got the choking under control, he still didn’t finish the thought.

He chewed for a minute more before he put words to the thoughts obviously running through his head. “Well, I know it probably won’t work at all, but some of my friends are getting together for a pre-Spring-Break bash or something.”

Rebecca sat there, trying to figure out where this was going and why it was taking so long to get there.

“It’s no big deal really.” Eric shrugged, started to take another bite, and then lowered the sandwich and took a drink instead. “I just thought maybe…”

A moment. Two, and still she wondered what he was talking about. “Maybe what?”

He looked up, and his soft green eyes held her so that every other thought in her head disappeared. “Maybe…”

“Ugh! I cannot believe those people.” Jeremy stomped up and slammed his books to the table in front of the third chair, and Rebecca jumped a foot. “What do they think, I’m made of money?”

Eric’s gaze snapped away from hers to Jeremy, and then he bent his head and took another bite. “You are.” It was clear by his tone the statement should be quite obvious.

“Well, not if that scholarship money doesn’t come in soon. My dad is going to have a fit if I bounce any more checks.”

“Must be rough,” Eric said before he took a drink, but the tilt of his eyes said he wished he had problems like that.

“Yeah, well, they’re going to think rough if that check isn’t here tomorrow.” Jeremy slid up onto a stool.  “I’m seriously thinking about placing a phone call right about now to find out what the heck’s going on.”

“Phone’s over there.” Eric tipped the water bottle in that direction.

Jeremy’s gaze withered into Eric. “You’re a lot of help.”

“What? What did I say?”

“Nothing. Man, I’m starving.” He looked down at what was left of Eric’s lunch. “Jeez. That looks positively awful. What happened to the hamburger and Coke?”

The look on Eric’s face said Jeremy was about two words from getting leveled. “You got a problem with my ham sandwich?”

“No. I’m just…” His gaze chanced over to Rebecca who wished she were as invisible as she felt. “Nothing. I’ll be back.” And without another word, Jeremy stood and walked away from the table.

Eric glanced at her. “Sometimes I wonder why I hang out with that guy.”

She shrugged although she had caught that most of Jeremy’s annoyance was about her sitting with them. “He’s your friend. Cut him some slack.”

“Slack. I’ll have to remember that.” Sullenly he ate the rest of his sandwich, and without wanting to pry into his thoughts, Rebecca went back to reading.

It was several minutes before Jeremy returned. “Man. They are slow as Christmas in this place.” He sat down and unwrapped his hamburger. “So, Eric, have you thought any more about Friday night?”

Rebecca glanced up from her book but didn’t quite understand the look Eric shot Jeremy. Happily munching on his French fries, Jeremy smiled. “You going to call Holly today, or did you already talk to her about it last night?”

The question and its implication went through Rebecca like a hot poker.

“Oh, I don’t know. I hadn’t really decided yet,” Eric said, stumbling through the words.

“Well, Gwen could always find someone for you—a blind date if Holly can’t go.”

“Another one?” Eric laughed. “I don’t think so. I’m still trying to recover from the last one.”

Sitting there listening to them make plans when it was clear they wanted nothing to do with her was the most humiliating moment she’d ever lived through. Rebecca put her head down, stood up, and grabbed her books and tray. “I’d better be going.”

“So soon?” Jeremy asked with a smile that said he had accomplished his mission.

“I’d hate to be late for Rumba class,” she said, directing the term at Eric even as the memory of his impromptu and horrible rendition of the Rumba flashed through her mind. It made her want to cry.

Jeremy smiled that same I-won-again smile. “Have a nice day.”

“Yeah, you too.” Humiliation drained through her. As she stepped away from the table, she vowed that she would find somewhere else to be on Wednesday when Spring Break was over.  She dumped her trash and started for the door.

“Becca!” Eric called from behind her. “Rebecca, wait!”

It wasn’t her intention to wait, but he had longer legs than she did, so he made it to the door a half step ahead of her. She never looked at him, just buried her gaze in the floor. “I really have to get to class.”

“Don’t, okay? He’s being a jerk. He is. He’s ticked off about the scholarship people or whatever, and he’s taking it out on you. Don’t let him.”

It would’ve been nice to be able to believe that, but she didn’t. It was more than obvious that Jeremy didn’t want her anywhere around, and she had gotten that feeling well before today.  “Look, I know I’m not high on the list of people everybody wants to hang out with. I get that.” She managed to get herself to look right at him, but it was a struggle not to let the hurt flood her voice. “But it was nice to be able to eat lunch once in awhile with people who didn’t kick me to the curb like I was dirt.”

She shook her head, sending the curls into motion, which just emphasized her stupidity at the whole idea that she ever had a chance with him. She put her head down and forced a sad smile onto her face.  “I’ll tell Holly you’ll give her a call.” With that, she turned and pushed out the door.

***

For a long moment Eric stood there watching her leave. Then hot anger bled through him, and he stalked back to the table. “I don’t know what makes you think you have the right to stomp all over people’s feelings like that, but that crossed the line—even for you.”

Jeremy picked up the hamburger to eat it. “What? I was just…”

“Yeah, you’re always ‘Just…’  Well, you know what? I’m sick of it. Count me out for Friday.” Eric yanked his books off the table. “In fact, count me out period.”

The hamburger lowered a full six inches. “What does that mean?”

“It means you’ve got two less friends than when you walked in that door.” Not bothering to wait for the response, Eric turned and stomped out.

***

The cloud that had attached itself to Rebecca’s spirit the moment she stepped out that door seemed to get heavier and darker with every step she took. By the time seven o’clock rolled around, she had all but convinced herself that nothing but nothing was even important anymore. However, she did have a few more questions that needed to be answered for her Psychology paper, so she gathered up the last of her surveys and headed to Room 343.

That door looked just like the other 20 lining that hallway, but it felt so very different. As she stood there, she wondered what kind of Christians might be on the other side.  Were they the ones like the couple she had met, or where they like the ones she had grown up around?  Her spirit withered further as she thought back to the members of the church her parents still went to. Those people could cut lead with one look, and she’d gotten enough looks in her time to make a pile of shavings ten feet high.

At the last moment she realized she didn’t have the courage to find out, and she turned feeling like blistering fire was nipping at her heels.

“Hey,” a Hispanic girl just about her age but with long dark hair that hung well past her shoulders said as she walked up. She sounded like a little kid. “Were you looking for the Bible study?”

“Oh, I… Well, yeah. Kind of. I mean…”

“Well, you came to the right place. Come on in. We were just about to get started.”

Nerves attacked Rebecca. “Oh, I don’t know. I’m not really…”

The girl’s soft smile was full of empathy. “Hey, you made it this far. You might as well go the other four feet.”  She opened the door and then turned slightly. “I’m Emily by the way. Emily Vasquez.”

“Hi, Emily. I’m Rebecca.” Entering a step behind Emily, Rebecca realized in the next breath that there were five other people in the room—two guys and three girls. “Found us a new friend. Everybody, this is Rebecca.  Rebecca, this is Taylor, Kira, Bethany, Sam, and my roommate Dena.”

A tall black girl, the last indicated, stood up and shook Rebecca’s hand. “It’s nice to have you, Rebecca.  As you can see, we’re a pretty small group. We’re not exactly official or anything. Em and I just got to talking, and it kind of became a thing. How’d you find out about us?”

“Oh, umm, I saw a flyer thing down by the cafeteria. I decided to check it out.”

Dena frowned for a moment. “Must’ve been from the first semester when we were trying to get more members. I figured all those things were long gone by now.”

“Well, there was one still in existence.” Rebecca folded her arms over themselves and shifted feet.

“Great. Well, why don’t you have a seat and tell us a little about yourself and why you’re here,” Dena said. She resumed her seat on the floor followed by Emily followed ever-so-delicately by Rebecca.

It was a long moment before she found the words to begin. “Umm, I’m Rebecca Avery, and I’m a sophomore.  I grew up Methodist, but I don’t know that I consider myself that. In fact, until last Sunday I hadn’t been in a church since I got here. I started doing this paper for Psychology about religion, and I was kind of doing research. In fact, that’s kind of why I came tonight.”

“More research,” Emily filled in and asked at the same time.

“Yeah. Something like that.” Rebecca’s gaze fell to the circle of knees. “Except… I don’t know. It’s been a really rough day. It seems like the harder I try to get things going in the right direction, the more determined they are to head off a cliff. Not that I expect you all to fix that or anything.” She shook her head. “I just… I’m so tired of being alone and feeling like I don’t fit in anywhere. I thought my roommate was my friend, but then she stomped all over the guy… Well, a guy I could like if he’d ever notice me.” She stopped and looked around the circle in embarrassment. “I know, pretty pathetic, huh?”

“Pretty normal I’d say,” Emily offered. With her hands wrapped around her ankles and her shoulders bowing slightly, Emily had a way of looking so shy, it was hard to feel threatened.

“You’re just more honest about it than most of us,” one of the guys, a dark-headed, rounded shoulders figure Rebecca was vaguely sure was Taylor, said.

“I know I was drifting before I found this group,” Kira said. “I still go to my Sunday church, but they don’t really have a group my age, so I really felt out of place. I even stopped going to church for a while until Dena and I got to talking one day and she invited me over.”

“Then Kira invited me,” Sam said.

“And Sam invited me,” Taylor said.

“And Taylor told me,” Bethany said.

“And here we are,” Dena said with a laugh. “Well, now that we have a little history on how we all got here, why don’t we start with a prayer?” She bowed her head and held out her hands to the two people on either side of her who took her hands. The links continued around until the circle was complete. “Dear Lord, we come here this evening praising and thanking You for bringing us together once again. We thank you for our visitor, may she see You in this group and become more than a visitor, a sister in Christ.  Dear Lord, we ask Your protection on the students at this university especially as they head off for Spring Break this weekend. Guide them, watch over them, and keep them safe. This we ask in Your Name.”

“Amen,” the group said.

Dena looked up. “I thought you all might be interested in hearing about a Holy Spirit moment I had this week.”

The others all seemed to sit forward in anticipation.

“I was studying for my oceanography test, and I kept having trouble with this one list. So I wrote it into an acrostic using the word parasite. When I got to the test, I was freaking out because all that information was crammed in my brain, and I couldn’t remember if I even remembered any of it.  I got to that question, and I froze. I was like, ‘Oh, great. I’m sunk. God if You could help…’ About that time this guy in the back raised his hand and said there was a word on like Question 15 that was smudged and could the professor tell him what it was. The professor looked it up and said, ‘parasite.’”

Members of the group started laughing.

“That’s the Holy Spirit for you,” Emily said. “You think you’ve seen it all, and then WHAM He pops up out of nowhere.”

Interest spilled into Rebecca. This was something new. She too leaned forward as Taylor began to recount his latest encounter with the Holy Spirit.

“Monday a friend of mine asked me to return a videotape we’d watched over the weekend. I was going over that way anyway, so it wasn’t that big of a deal,” Taylor said, and in a room full of Northerners, his Southern accent was hard to miss. “But then just before I got there, I thought, ‘I’d better check the address on that thing.’ Ugh. I was right. He’d gotten it from a different store and the only thing I knew about that street was that it was all the way back across town. So, I figured I’d have to make a special trip over there after I got finished with work. And I’m driving, and I’m trying not to get frustrated and annoyed, and all of a sudden the stoplight turns yellow and then red.”

“I bet I’ve driven that road a hundred thousand times and I’ve never had to stop at that stop light. It’s like out in the middle of nowhere. So here I am sitting at that light, and I look over and there’s another one of those video stores right there on the corner. I thought, ‘Huh, I never knew there was one of those out here. I don’t remember ever seeing it there.’ I sat there a few more seconds, and I happened to look up and the street sign was exactly the name of the street that video was supposed to go to.  I grabbed the video, and sure enough, that’s the address that was on it.”

Taylor laughed, and his soft Southern accent lilted around the edges of even that. “I said, ‘Thanks, Holy Spirit,’ and returned the video, and I was even early for work.”

The cloud around Rebecca began to dissipate, and then a ray of pure, bright sunshine broke through it. If what they were saying was true, that the Holy Spirit opened paths that would otherwise have stayed hidden, then it was almost a given He was the reason she was sitting in this room instead of the one a floor up lonely and depressed.

“Well, I’ve had a Bible verse following me around this week,” Bethany said. Her creamy skin was dotted with freckles that reflected perfectly off her fire-red hair. “Every time I turn around, it’s there, and it’s driving me crazy.”

“Which one?” Emily asked in fascination.

“It’s from Jeremiah. ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord. ‘Plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.’”

“That’s totally cool,” Sam said. He picked up the Bible in his lap. “Where is that?”

And thus began a 45-minute discussion of God and His plans for each one of them.

***

Calling was the only thing Eric could think to do. He knew Rebecca was hurt, and he didn’t blame her at all. So at 7:32 on Wednesday night, he picked up the phone and dialed the number.  Every possible scenario for how this phone call might play out ran through his head like a really bad B-movie. When the click sounded, he inhaled a breath that he didn’t let out.

“Hello?”

He’d been hoping for the other voice. “Oh, hi, Holly.”

“Hi.” It took her a moment to register the voice. “Eric?”

“Yeah. How’s everything going?” He didn’t want to be rude although being nice was about to kill him.

“Fine. Umm, I really didn’t expect to hear from you again after the other night.”

He closed his eyes, willing this conversation away from him and wanting only to hang up. “Oh, well, I wasn’t really calling for you. I was wondering if Becca is around.”

“Becca?” The confusion in that question rang through. “No. She’s not here. She wasn’t here when I got here just after seven.”

That stymied his forward progress. “And you don’t know where she is?”

“I haven’t talked to her, no.”

Something about her tone told him there was more to that story. “Then I guess you don’t know when she will be back either?”

“No, and I’m headed out myself pretty soon.”

Roadblocks at every turn. “Well, would you be able to leave her a message saying I called?”

“Sure. Hold on.”

The phone seemed to gain static and noise as Holly prepared to take the message.

“Okay. I’m ready.”

He relayed the information including his telephone number, which he thought was ironic considering the person taking the information supposedly already knew it. When he got to the end of the pertinent information, he stopped.

“Can I ask what this is about?” Holly asked because he hadn’t supplied that part.

“Oh, umm, just tell her it’s about the Psychology paper.”

“Psychology…” she said, obviously writing it as she said it. “That all?”

“That’s it.”

“Okay. I’ll put it on her desk.”

“Thanks.” Eric thought about all the issues they could expound on—like why she had dropped him for no reason that he could see, like why she turned up on a date with someone else when they were supposed to be out—but he knew going there was pointless. “I guess I’ll see you around?”

“Yeah. See you.”  And she hung up.

Eric slipped into the recliner and laid his head back. Why life had to be so unbelievably complicated he would never be able to figure out.

***

At some point during the Bible study, the cloud had shifted from black to fluffy white.  The group wasn’t big, but that was all right. In fact, Rebecca would never have had the courage to add the little pieces of input she had with a large group. As she stood at the door saying goodnight at 9 o’clock, she even got a hug from Emily.

It wasn’t even one of those fake-hollow hugs she’d gotten so often back home. This one had the ring of sincerity and caring. When Emily pulled away, she looked right into Rebecca’s eyes.

“I’m glad you came. You’re welcome to come after Spring Break, too. Research or no research.”  She let Rebecca go and pushed a strand of long, dark hair behind her ear. “Okay?”

“Thanks,” Rebecca said, seeing the humility and temerity in Emily’s sweet, olive-colored face. “I’ll try.” Then she waved to the others. “Night everyone.”

There were several goodnight calls from the Holy Spirit 101 Team. It wasn’t an official name. It was the name Rebecca had come up with about thirty minutes into the conversation when she realized that every single topic always wound back around to a discussion of the Holy Spirit’s activities in their lives. The strange thing was, she thought as she climbed the stairs back to her floor, the whole night seemed less Bible Study than an intensive study in how God really does work in the world.

As she unlocked her room, Rebecca thought about her paper, and now she was sure she had plenty of information to write it over Spring Break. Prior to that moment she wasn’t looking forward to working on her paper during the break, but now she was grateful she would have something to work on when she got back to Rhode Island. At that depressing thought, her spirit fell. Six days of enduring them acting like they loved her was asking a lot of her coping mechanism at this point. She put her books on the shelf, and confusion hit her when she saw the note.

Leaning over without picking it up, she read it. Dread crept into her crowding out the sunshine in her spirit. Eric? What was that about? Worse, it was in Holly’s handwriting. Jealousy, hatred, and a whole range of other horrible feelings knocked into her. Spite crumpled the note for her and pitched it into the trashcan although it only managed to land on the floor next to it. She didn’t care enough to even pick it up and throw it away. It could lay there and rot for all she cared. They all could. They deserved each other.

***

All Wednesday and Thursday evenings Eric stayed close to the phone. In fact, he’d resorted to showering for five minutes with the door opened in case she called. She never did. By Friday he had to accept the fact that she wasn’t going to. If he’d happened within ten yards of Jeremy, he would’ve strangled him for chasing her away. He knew why she left, and in truth, he didn’t blame her. That didn’t make the fact that she wanted nothing to do with him hurt any less.

So as Friday turned into Saturday night, he hunkered down with his Psychology paper determined to spend every waking hour of Spring Break with it until it was perfect. If she wanted nothing to do with him and he had blown his friends off, there wasn’t much left other than school. Never would he have thought he would turn to school to keep him company, then again, never would he have thought he would tell Jeremy off and disown the people he had spent the better part of seven years with.

With a shake of his head, he picked up one of the books he’d gotten from the library and got down to work.

***

“Oh, Rebecca-darling,” her mother, Marjorie, said as Rebecca tumbled through the front door of the place she had called home for the three years before she moved to college. “I was hoping you’d get here before I had to leave.”

“Leave?” Rebecca pushed her glasses up to keep them from falling into her luggage even as she dropped it all in the entryway.

“Mr. Dawson invited us over to meet with a client who’s coming in from out of town late. Your dad can’t miss it if he’s serious about getting that vice president position in the fall.” Her mother continued to work with her left earring even as she walked through the hallway to the kitchen. “There’s some chicken salad left in the refrigerator from Wednesday. Oh, and don’t play with the plasma in the living room. Your dad hasn’t figured out how to hook it up yet.”

Rebecca stopped dead in her tracks when she turned the corner and found herself facing what seemed like an entire wall of smoky-black TV. “When did you get that thing?”

“It’s your dad,” her mother said, coming back into the room, and it was only then that Rebecca saw the tailored ivory and rum evening suit her mother was wearing.

She stuffed all the things she wanted to say down. “Wow. You look nice.”

“Oh, thanks. Don’t tell your dad, I got it when we went to New York in February.”

“It’s nice.” Rebecca put her hands over her arms and followed her mother’s hair-sprayed, brunette-dyed hair which moved in perfect unison with her middle-aged thickening waist down the hall. “So, will Dad be here tomorrow?”

“After his golf game in the morning, if Mr. Dawson will let him go. He’s been working crazy hours these days.” Her mother went into her bedroom, and true to her training, Rebecca stopped at the threshold.  In the room her mother continued to get ready, even disappearing into the master bathroom as they talked.

Rebecca crossed her arms. “Did Liz Ann decide if she’s coming or not?”

“She called last night. She’s really swamped with her job at the law office. But then again, you know Liz Ann, she’d be bored stiff if she took a moment to breathe.”

“Sounds familiar,” Rebecca breathed only loud enough for herself to hear.  “I guess we’re going to church Sunday morning?”

“Well, of course. Oh, you should see the new sanctuary. They put in gray and white marble and burgundy all up around the altar. It’s really nice.”

“That’s good.” Rebecca put her shoulder on the doorframe, and her head followed it until she was standing at a diagonal to the floor.

Her mother strode in from the bathroom, took one look at her, and disapproval slid down her fully make-up laden face. “Rebecca Nicole, how many times do I have to tell you? Stand up straight. I swear you have the worst posture of anybody I’ve ever met. No wonder you always look like you just rolled out of bed.”

Pushing her feet under her, Rebecca straightened even as her spirit caved in. Without bothering with formalities, her mother stepped past her into the hallway.

“Now, we’ll be home late, so don’t wait up. And don’t be too surprised if I’m not here when you get up. We’ve got a planning meeting for the choir at some point in the morning. Just make yourself at home, and we’ll see you later.” True to form, her mother turned at the front door, put her hands on Rebecca’s arms, and side-kissed her cheek. “You be good, and lock the door when I leave.”

“Yes, Mom.”

“Oh, and do something with all this stuff.” She indicated the luggage on the floor. “It looks like a hurricane hit in here.”

“I’ll get it.” And with that, Rebecca stepped to the door and watched her mother stride out to the shiny taupe Lexus that Rebecca couldn’t remember ever seeing. She wondered for a second about it, then decided it was probably a lease car from her dad’s business. With a sigh, she stepped back and closed the door. Her gaze traveled up to the lights above her in the entryway and then down to the luggage at her feet. “Welcome home.”

***

The keys clicked under Eric’s fingers as if they knew what they were supposed to type. He checked his source again and typed that thought in just as the phone rang. He had been so intent on the thing ringing for so long, he grabbed it up without thinking. “Hello?”

“Eric! Man, where are you?”

The typing stopped. “Ryan.” He shifted the receiver to the other shoulder.

“Umm, yeah. Hey. Did you forget about us? We’re all here—waiting on you.”

A hollow breath slid from Eric. “For what?”

“For what? For Jeremy and Gwen’s it’s-finally-Spring-Break bash, that’s what. Where are you?”

Anger crawled into Eric’s spirit, and he went back to typing. “I thought I told Jeremy I wasn’t coming.”

“Yeah. That’s what he said, but come on. What can be more important than us?”

Eric typed a full sentence before he replied. “I’m working on my psych paper, okay? It due Tuesday after Spring Break.”

“So? You’ll work on it next weekend. What’s the deal here? You’re going to choose your paper over hanging out with us?”

“Yeah, Eric,” Desiree said in the background. “Come, have some libations. Forget about school.”

“See, even Desi misses you,” Ryan said.

“Well, tell her I’ll have to catch her some other time. Listen, I’ve got to go.”

“You’re really not coming?” It was the first thing Ryan had said that sounded concerned.

“No. I’m really not coming. You guys have fun though.”

“Oh. Okay. We’ll try.” But Ryan didn’t sound too sure of that.

With the briefest of good-byes they signed off, and Eric hung up the phone. When it was safely on the cradle, he sat back in the chair and looked at it. They were all talking about him now, wondering what was up, why he was acting like he had a life that had nothing to do with them. Posits would be tossed about until sooner or later, they would forget he wasn’t there and go back to the party. They tried to care, but even he could see how much effort it took.

As he looked at the phone, his thoughts went to Rebecca. Had she gone home for the break, or did she take some kind of trip? He wished he had thought to ask. It would be nice to at least know where she was. He considered calling her dorm, but the likelihood of anyone answering was nearly zero, so he gave up on that idea. Pulling himself forward, he went back to his paper. The rest of his life was now reduced to one giant void.

***

The pool balls cracked together, and Rebecca stood back examining the success of her shot. Nothing had gone in, so it, like everything else in her life, seemed scrawled with the word failure. She walked around the table, repositioned herself, and sent the white ball skittering into the five. She really wasn’t playing anything with a name, more just walking around the table, taking out some of her frustration with life.

Her paper and other reading crossed her mind, but she was too mad to work on anything that required thought. What she really wanted to do was scream at the top of her lungs and see if anybody would even hear her. The more she played, the more one question kept running through her mind. If an invisible person falls in an empty basement, does she make any sound anyone else would ever notice?

Chapter 14

The only good news to come out of Spring Break was that Liz Ann never made it. By the next Sunday Rebecca couldn’t get away fast enough. However, her mother and father would hear nothing of her missing church just to get back to campus early.

The church was beautiful, the people fake—just as she remembered them. By the time Rebecca made it back to campus, she was beginning to wonder what the point of the whole of life was.  For a week she had been looking for it, and for the whole week she was disappointed. Her mother hadn’t spent ten minutes for seven days at home, and eight of those minutes were spent on the phone talking to Liz Ann. Her father was worse. In fact, it was Thursday evening before she’d even seen him. He asked about her grades, told her she should focus more on her studies than on her social life like Liz Ann, and then he took a phone call, which apparently lasted most of the rest of the visit because she lost track of him after that.

With a sigh of relief she threw her luggage onto the dorm bed and sat down next to it. Home was worse than she remembered. She looked at the sad beige walls around her. Here wasn’t much better. As a slumping resignation took over her spirit, she stood from the bed and yanked one suitcase off the bed to start putting her clothes away. When she was all the way in the closet, she heard the outside door open and close. Expecting one voice, she heard two.

“Looks like your roommate made it back,” a deep male voice said.

“Yeah,” Holly said, “looks like it.”

“Too bad,” he said, and Rebecca heard the tenor of his voice drop a notch. “It was fun having the room to ourselves.”

Quiet ceased to be an option. There was no way Rebecca was going to sit in the closet all night listening to them. She cleared her throat and pushed the door open. The glimpse of them in a knot kissing did nothing to improve her day. “Uh-hmm,” she said louder, and instantly they broke apart.

“Oh, Rebecca,” Holly said, wiping at her lip. “I didn’t see you there.”

“No kidding.” Without bothering with formalities or etiquette, Rebecca stomped into the room and pitched her other suitcase onto the bed.

A huge, awkward silence descended on the room.

“So, did you have fun at home?” Holly asked, digging her hands into the backs of her hot pink jeans.

“It was a riot. You?” Rebecca picked up three pairs of shoes and headed for the closet.

“Oh, well.” Holly looked up at her date. “I didn’t really go home.”

That stopped Rebecca, and she turned. “But I thought you headed out right after I did.”

“Yeah, I did.” Holly’s gaze went back to the guy who Rebecca only really noticed at that point. He was taller than either of them by a good foot, and he was older too. Rebecca looked back and forth between them trying to discern what Holly wasn’t telling her.

After only another moment, she understood. “Oh.” With that, she started back for the closet.

“I’d better go,” the guy said.

“Yeah, maybe so,” Holly said and followed him to the door.

The two doors banged into each other as he left, and anger crashed back into Rebecca. She was mad. Why? She didn’t really know. At whom? She didn’t know that either. But she was mad, and she was determined to stay that way. When she stomped back out of the closet, Holly was the only one in the room.

“That was Gus,” Holly said by way of starting the conversation.

“Whatever.”

“He’s really a nice guy when you get to know him.”

Rebecca unloaded the last of her suitcase and threw it into the closet on top of the other one. “Good for him.”

Holly sat down on her bed with a bounce that died the instant her head dropped forward dragged down by her gaze. “I don’t know what you’re so mad about? What did I do anyway?”

Rebecca considered venting every last bit of frustration on Holly, but at the last second she decided against it. “It’s none of my business.” She went over to her desk and pulled her backpack up to start unloading it.

“Well, for something that’s not your business, you sure are staying huffy about it. Come on, Becca. Spill it. Is this about Eric?” A toss of Holly’s picture-perfect blonde hair did nothing to cool the anger.

“Eric? Why would you say that?”

“Because ever since you called me at the club, you’ve been ticked off and that’s the only thing I can think of why you would be mad at me.”

With everything in her, Rebecca wanted to level Holly for the way she had treated Eric. However, she knew he wasn’t her problem. “Like I said, ‘It’s none of my business.’”

Holly sighed, stood, and walked over to Rebecca’s desk where she twisted a strand of perfect blonde hair over her ear. “Look, I’m sorry about Eric. He’s a nice guy and everything…”

“Yes, he is. I’m surprised you took the time to notice.” Rebecca put a book away and reached for another.

Dark clouds of emotions dropped to Holly’s face. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means if you want to go out, go out. If you don’t, don’t. But don’t say you will when you have no intention of going because some people in this world have feelings—even if you don’t.”

Holly’s gaze fell to the floor. “He was really hurt, huh?”

Anger and hate threaded through her. “Hello. Of course he was hurt. Wouldn’t you be?” Then she stopped. “Oh, no. Wait. I’m sure you wouldn’t know what it’s like to have your heart ripped out and stepped on. Well, let me tell you, it ain’t fun.”

“I didn’t mean to hurt him.”

“Mean to or not, you did.” Rebecca clamped her tongue on the side of her teeth and shook her head. “You’re just like the rest of them.”

“The rest of who?”

“Them. The beautiful people.” Caution and anything like it had hit the pavement of anger and shattered into a million shards, and realizing she should stop never occurred to Rebecca. “You’re all just alike—driving around in your fancy cars, going out with your fancy friends, trampling on anybody that doesn’t look like you or talk like you or measure up to your level.” She put her fingers in the air and put quotation marks and a sarcastic face with the word “level.” “I am so sick of watching people get kicked around for no reason other than it’s a sport by fakes like you who wouldn’t have a clue how to be nice if it walked up and kicked them in the teeth. You’re all alike, and you know what? I hate every last one of you.”

Fury burst through her and knowing she would do something really stupid if she didn’t remove herself from the situation, she stomped past Holly and out the door. Even the slam of the door felt good. Stinging tears stuck in her eyes, but she beat them back as she tossed her chin in the air. She would not let them make her cry. She wouldn’t. They weren’t worth it.

Every step was a stomp right into the stairwell where she nearly leveled the person coming up in the other direction.

“Oh, sorry,” the girl said, pulling up short just before the crash that would’ve sent her tumbling backward down the stairs.

“Yeah. Excuse me,” Rebecca said, fully intending on pursuing her flight away from her room.

But the girl stopped just as Rebecca strode by. “Rebecca?”

Her feet stopped before she realized they were going to. It was only when she turned that she recognized Emily. With her hair up in a high ponytail, her face didn’t seem as round as it had at the Bible study.

Concern crashed onto Emily’s features. She reached out. “Rebecca, what’s wrong?”

Shaking her head, Rebecca tried to get everything to be all right, but it wasn’t, and trying to pretend that it was hurt more than she could put into words even in her head.

“Oh, Becca.  Come here.”

Rebecca let herself be pulled into a hug. After a long minute the hug fell, but Emily’s arm remained around Rebecca’s shoulders. “Come on. You look like you could use a Holy Spirit friend.”

How could she argue with that? Words crashed and smashed into an alphabet soup with no discernable meaning in her brain, and like a lamb, she let herself be led wherever Emily happened to be taking her.

They tramped back down the stairs and into Emily’s room where Rebecca noticed that Dena was nowhere to be seen. “Where’s Dena?” she asked, trying to get a hold on her emotions long enough to grab onto normal.

“Library I think.” Emily sat Rebecca on the bed. “Okay, what’s going on?”

Rebecca seriously contemplated hedging, but when Emily pulled a chair up so they were facing each other, Rebecca couldn’t find a lie anywhere. She sniffed and ran a finger under her glasses. “I had a fight with my roommate.”

“About…?”

The question pulled Rebecca’s gaze to her hands. “About her hurting Eric and not caring what anybody else feels like.”

Emily never wavered. “Is that true?”

“Yeah, well no… Well, kind of.”

“How kind of?” The softness in Emily was like a safety net under the high wire.

To explain the compassion gazing back from Emily’s face would’ve taken volumes of brain cells Rebecca didn’t have at the moment, but she felt it all the same. “She keeps standing him up. She tells him she’ll go out with him, and then when he shows up, I’m left to track her down or pick up the pieces.”

“Is this a new thing?”

Rebecca shook her head and fought to clamp the tears behind her eyelids.

“And this Eric is a friend of yours?”

Stuffing the emotions back into her throat, Rebecca looked over but couldn’t hold Emily’s gaze. “I don’t know what he is.”

“Oh,” Emily said in a slow syllable. “He’s that kind of friend.”

There was no reason to deny it. Rebecca shrugged. “He doesn’t know I’m alive.”

“But you know he is.”

Her gaze slid to the side to avoid Emily’s. “I don’t understand why he wants to be with her when she won’t give him the time of day…”

“And not with you.”

It hurt to nod, but she did so anyway.  The tears came again, and she braced against them. “It’s not fair.”

Emily leaned in, and Rebecca let the hug come around her. After a moment, Emily stood so she could shift and sit on the bed next to Rebecca.  “You know, some times life takes paths we don’t understand. Maybe there’s another guy out there headed your direction right now.”

“But Eric… It just feels so right when we’re together.”

Intense concentration was in Emily’s dark gaze. “But you said…”

“We’re friends. I mean we sit together in Psychology, and sometimes we have lunch together.” She took a breath, which steadied her as she surrendered to reality. “That doesn’t mean he’s ever realized I’m around.”

Emily took a long breath. “Well, maybe he is the one. Maybe the timing’s off. Maybe he’s not ready yet.  Or maybe you’re not ready yet.”

Rebecca’s gaze jumped up to Emily. “Oh, I’m ready. I’m so ready. I’m tired of being alone. I can’t stand it sometimes.”

Softly Emily smiled. “I used to think that too when I was in high school. I thought if I just had a boyfriend, everything would be so much better. Then I got one, and I did every conceivable thing to hang onto him. I thought having him made me something, that it somehow proved to the world I was lovable or something. The truth was, I didn’t think I was lovable. In fact, I couldn’t really see why he would want to be with me to begin with. Knowing that but never really being able to put it into words, I twisted myself into a pretzel trying to be the person he wanted me to be.” Emily’s gaze fell from Rebecca’s face. “I guess in a way I lost myself in him, but the truth is, I never really had myself in the first place.  I didn’t know who I was. I was trying to find someone to make me feel like something, which means I felt like I was nothing. If you’re nothing, what do you have to give someone else? That’s not a relationship. It’s a disaster.”

Rebecca lifted the edge of her glasses with her palm and wiped her eyes. “But he liked you…”

“Yeah, he said he did, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t like me. I was trying to get from him what I didn’t have for myself.  I wanted him to give me what I wouldn’t give me. Oh, and man, when he broke up with me, I thought I was going to die. I cried and moped and carried on until my mom threatened to throw me out.”  Emily stood, walked over to her desk, turned, and leaned on it. “It wasn’t until Dena and I got stuck together here that I started to get to know myself. More importantly Dena showed me how to start to know Him.” Emily pointed upward with one finger. “He’s filled holes no relationship with a guy ever could. And now, I’m looking forward to meeting the one He has planned for me.”

“You’re not dating anybody?”

“No, not right now. I go out with my friends and stuff, but I go out to have fun not to hunt.” Emily shrugged. “I’m not desperately trying to find Mr. Right like some of the girls I know. I hear them talking about who they want to sleep with and who they don’t. And that’s just not me. That’s not what I want for my life. So, I’m working on me and on getting to know God.  If Mr. Right shows up in the next five minutes, great. If he doesn’t, that’s okay too.”

To Rebecca, it sounded like heaven—except the getting there part. That looked like death itself.  “I’d like to be like that… like you. Strong. Confident. Sure of myself.”

Emily laughed out loud, her arms securely tucked over each other. “Strong and confident? Me? Yeah. That would be nice. I’m living every minute just like you are. The only difference is I know I don’t have to have it all figured out because I know Who does, and I trust Him to get me where I’m supposed to be going.”

“But you seem so together, so…” She searched her tired brain but couldn’t come up with the word.

“At peace?”

“Yeah.”

“When you stop trying to do it yourself, when you stop trying to make everyone fit into your mold of what they should be like, when you stop being hard on yourself about not living up to what everyone else says is acceptable, that’s when peace steps in.”

Frustration poured in on Rebecca like a torrent. “But how do you do that? I don’t have a magic wand I can just wave and poof Rebecca is happy.”

“Happy is relative. Happy is based on circumstances. Happy isn’t real. Peace is real.”

“Happiness, peace, whatever. You still haven’t told me how to do that. How do you get to peace?”

The only word for what went through Emily’s eyes was peace. “You find Him.  Once you do that, circumstances don’t matter. Look at the early disciples. They were beaten, jailed, jeered, smeared, and finally many of them were put to death, but they knew Who loved them, they knew He had forgiven them even for trying to do it on their own power instead of relying on His, they knew He was in control no matter what and they trusted that. So even in jail, Paul and Silas sang praises to Him. Even in danger of losing his life, Paul wrote letters about love and faith and joy. That doesn’t come from relying on yourself. That comes from relying on Him no matter what.”

To a remarkable degree Rebecca’s spirit had settled down. For the moment frustration had relinquished control to fatigue. “That sounds so good, so peaceful.” Tears of frustration and hurt flooded over her. “But I just don’t know how to do it. I don’t know how to get there.”

Emily smiled with a serenity Rebecca had never before seen. “Do you want to find out how?”

Rebecca could only nod. It was all she had the strength for anymore. One step over, Emily reached up onto her shelf and pulled off a book. She walked back to the bed and slid down to the floor. “Come on, let me introduce you to my Friend.”

***

“It’s Sunday night,” Ryan said across the phone lines as Eric sat at his pine-knobby counter crunching on Cheerios. He hadn’t been to the store in a month so he was eating them dry. He didn’t care. He couldn’t taste anything anyway. “Come on. We’re getting together. We want you to come.”

Three times over the course of the week they had gone through this same conversation. To be honest, Eric was beginning to doubt his own no.  What was he trying to prove holing up in this tiny apartment like a hermit?  That he didn’t need anybody? That he didn’t care? He wasn’t sure anymore.  All he knew was the last week was the loneliest of his entire life. “Fine. I’ll be there in an hour.”

“That’s what I wanted to hear.”

True to his word, Eric stood on Ryan’s doorstep 56 minutes later wishing he hadn’t come.  He was a mess, and he knew it.  He tried to remember when his last shower had been, but the days all seemed to meld into one another in no discernable pattern. Thinking for a split second about going back home, he turned just as Ransom and Zoë stepped off the elevator.

“Well, if it isn’t the walking dead!” Ransom practically yelled.

Eric cringed at the reference and put his head down.

“Eric,” Zoë said as her arm came around his shoulders. “We’ve missed you.”

Zoë had an unnerving way of looking right through him with her deep penetrating eyes.

He shrugged and stuck his hands into his baggy cargo pants. “Yeah, well, I’ve been busy.”

“You should never be too busy for friends,” Ransom said, and with only the smallest of knocks, he opened the door to Ryan and Desiree’s apartment.  It was small, cozy if you had someone to share it with. The assessment ran through Eric’s brain without him bothering to hear it. He’d heard it too many times. He had it memorized by now. “Look who we found in the hallway!”

Ransom’s penchant for announcing everything demolished Eric’s chances for escape.

“Eric!” Desiree left her post at the old, beat up stove to come over and give him a hug. “So did you get that paper written?”

“Yep, all done.” He put a smile on his face, but it hurt.

“Good. Ry was beginning to wonder if we’d ever see you again.”

“Speaking of whom,” Ryan said, walking in from the bedroom, “I see you finally decided to grace us with your presence.” He sauntered over and held out his hand. “Nice you could join us for a change.”

The digs hurt, but Eric smiled all the brighter. “That studying thing. It kind of snuck up on me. Hey, where’re Jeremy and Gwen?” Not that he cared, but getting the spotlight off himself for a moment seemed a good idea.

Looks shot across the room among the other four, and it wasn’t hard to figure out they knew something he didn’t. “What? What’d I miss?”

From the bare glances up from the floor of the others, Eric knew whatever it was, was serious.  “Come on. It can’t be that bad.”

Finally, Ryan, the bravest of the bunch or maybe just the closest actual relative pursed his lips together. “They went to Gwen’s parents’ for the weekend.”

“Oh,” Eric said, not truly understanding the undercurrent flowing through the room.

“Jeremy’s going to ask her dad for permission to marry her.”

The statement hit Eric like a fist. “Marry?” His lack of breath made the question hard to get out. “Oh. Well, that’s great, right?” He tried to smile, but all he wanted to do was cry. “I’m really happy for them.” And he was. At least he wanted to be.

“What do you say we get something to eat?” Desiree said a little too loud and a little too perky to be believable. “I’ve got enough food to feed half the campus.”

“Sounds great,” Eric said for the rest of them because it didn’t look like anyone else could string two syllables together.

***

“The key to putting your life in God’s hands is understanding Genesis 2: 9—the story of the two trees,” Emily said as she dug into her Bible to find the reference. However, her story was going faster than her searching. “See, there were two trees in the garden.”

“The one tree and the apple tree,” Rebecca said, totally into the lesson and trying to surmise where this line of instruction was heading.

Emily laughed. “They don’t know it was an apple tree. It’s just that’s how a lot of people choose to picture it.  The point is there were two trees—two ways of trying to gain sustenance and live. One tree was the tree of life. The other was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that was the tree God forbade Adam and Eve from eating.”

“The apple.”

“They could eat anything else in the whole garden except that fruit, but the devil showed up and convinced Eve to eat some. After she ate, she gave it to Adam to eat. And then their eyes were opened.” Emily shifted in her position on the floor. “Now, stay with me here. Choosing to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil meant that Adam and Eve choose not to rely on God but to rely on their own abilities and understanding.  They chose the law over God.”

“But God gave us laws. Why is that bad?”

“He gave us those laws so we can see how hopeless it is to try to measure up to them on our own.” Excitement burst through Emily’s voice. “Don’t you see? We were never meant to have to do it on our own!  God never intended that. He wanted us to live forever relying only on Him.  But Adam and Eve of their own free will chose not to rely on Him but on themselves.”

“Well, that was brilliant.”

Emily laughed. “You don’t get it, do you?”

Rebecca was beginning to get annoyed with Emily’s seeming lack of direct instruction. “Get what?”

“That we all do the same thing.” In her hands the Bible closed, and Emily’s gaze burrowed through Rebecca. “We choose to rely on our strength and our understanding and our own limited perceptions of how things are rather than putting our trust in God and letting Him make the decisions.”

Rebecca’s spirit recoiled at the thought. “But we’re supposed to follow His commandments. That’s why He gave them to us, to test us, to make sure we’re good enough to get into His Kingdom.”

The peace that Rebecca still didn’t understand crept through Emily’s eyes. “We’re not good enough. We never were. We can’t be. On our own we’re nothing—a sandcastle waiting to be swallowed up by the sea and washed back out into the waves. We aren’t perfect. God knew that from the start, but He loved us anyway. In fact, that’s why He sent Christ—to save us, yes—but then to send His Spirit to live inside of us, to guide us every step.”

Rebecca wanted to understand, she really did, but too many years of being taught God’s love had conditions to it were making that difficult.

“We’re not perfect,” Emily continued, “but Christ is. He literally took our place on the cross of condemnation and shame. He took our place and endured God’s wrath for our sins. He loves us that much.” As if taken up by the images in her mind, Emily closed her eyes. “Oh, if you only knew how much He loves you, Rebecca, how much He wants you to know He loves you. If you only knew what He gave so you could have the choice to choose Him.  I mean He died, and they put Him in a tomb. They rolled the stone over the mouth of the tomb. And that’s just like us. We’re buried in this pile of junk. Junk of our creation. Junk from the world. Junk from ourselves. We’re buried just like He was.

“The exciting thing about the resurrection is He wants us to share in it. Not at some time in the future. He wants us to be fully alive right now, not buried under a pile of junk. He conquered the death of junk. It’s gone. Dissolved by the light of Him rising again. He’s calling you out of your tomb just like He did Lazarus. He’s saying, ‘Rebecca, come out.’”

Rebecca’s eyes fell closed, and her spirit heaved forward.

“You don’t have to stay buried. Come out and live.”

Hot tears began streaming down her face. “I’m so tired of doing everything by myself and feeling like such a failure at everything.”

“You are not a failure. You are a precious child. You are His precious child.”

“I’m tired of hurting and feeling like a nobody.”

“He loves you. That makes you somebody.”

“But everybody acts like I’m not even there, like I’m invisible or something.”

“The world will crush you if you let it. That’s the world’s ambition. The people trying to cast you into a corner are hurting too. They are frantically digging trying to get out of their own dark tombs. When they treat you badly, that’s about them—not you. Your identity is set, not in the world but in Jesus… if you want it to be.”

There was no hesitation left in her. “I choose. I choose. I want peace. I don’t want to be in this junk anymore.” For many long seconds there was no sound in the room. Another few seconds and Rebecca became aware again of her own breathing. Her spirit was quiet. When she opened her eyes, she didn’t look over at Emily only straight in front of her. “How did you know I’d never really done that before?”

Emily smiled. “I didn’t. He did. He loves you, Rebecca, more than words can ever hope to say.”

At that Rebecca smiled too. “He must love me a lot to have led me to you.” With that, she reached over and gave Emily a hug. Before she had even sat back, the door snapped open and in walked Dena.

“Well, looks like we have company,” Dena said.

“I ran into her on the fourth floor,” Emily said.

“Dryers out again?”

“Again and again, but that’s okay.” Emily glanced at Rebecca with a smile. “I think this one was the Holy Spirit’s doings.”

“Oh, don’t you just love those?” Dena asked, and there was genuine excitement there instantly.  She threw her belongings on the bed, folded herself onto the floor, and without hesitation joined the conversation. “So, what’s our Holy Spirit Friend up to this time?”

“Making sure I didn’t go off the deep end,” Rebecca said.

Dena laughed. “He’s good at that.”

“Tell me about it.”

***

No matter what he tried, Eric couldn’t shake the melancholy. It attached itself to his spirit and refused to let go.

“You know I could be wrong about this,” Ransom said from across the coffee table littered with cups and plates, “but didn’t Jeremy say you went to church a couple weeks ago?”

Eric shifted on the couch. He slung one arm over it, but that didn’t help the feeling he’d just stepped into a line up.

“I didn’t know you went to church,” Zoë said.

“I don’t… I mean, I didn’t.” Eric shrugged. “I was just helping out a friend with a research project… psychology. The paper. You know?” He was babbling, and he knew it. Just before the conversation went completely over the cliff, he turned to Ryan. “So have you talked to Mom and Dad lately?”

“Last night actually. Dad’s going to have a garage sale Saturday. Oh, that reminds me. Desi said their anniversary is coming up… When is it, honey?”

From the kitchen, Desiree stepped over to the conversation. “In three weeks.”

“In three weeks, and she got to counting it up and it’s some big one. The 20th…”

“Twenty-fifth,” she corrected.

“See, that’s why I married her. She can count. Anyway, she was thinking we should do something nice, get them a big present or something.”

Eric shifted again on the sofa. “Oh?”

“We’re going shopping next Thursday,” Desiree said. “We were hoping you could come with us.”

“Oh.” It was all he could think to say.

***

“Thank You, so much Lord for leading Rebecca’s path to cross mine,” Emily prayed as the three of them sat, heads bowed, hands intertwined with one another’s.

The meeting in the hallway seemed like a lifetime ago. “Amen to that.”

“Please help her, and guide her in her new walk with You,” Dena said.

“And be with her roommate…”

“Holly,” Rebecca whispered, “she’s in trouble, Lord. I don’t know how I know that, but I know. Please help her to find her way out of the junk she’s in.” Then her mind and heart slid over to another face. “And please be with Eric, too. I know You love him, but God, he doesn’t know that. He’s trying to do it on his own. Please help him to see he doesn’t have to do that anymore.”

Dena took up the prayer without missing a beat. “Be with all our friends just as You are with us, let them see You through us. We put the circumstances of being with them in Your hands.”

“Speak through us,” Emily said. “Say the words for us. Love them through us.”

“Help us to seek You first, knowing all things follow from that simple quest. This we ask in Your Holy Name,” Dena said, and they all responded, “Amen.”

When Emily looked up at Rebecca, there was surprise in her eyes. “You look different.”

Rebecca couldn’t stop the smile. “I am.”

***

How he had extracted himself from the utter disaster of the evening, Eric couldn’t have recounted. He was just glad to be back home in his little apartment, by himself. Sure he hated being alone, but he also hated not being alone. In fact, at the moment, he hated everything including life itself. He kicked his shoes under the coffee table with the one broken leg. When the second shoe hit it, the entire table collapsed sending the stack of books setting there sliding to the floor with four loud ca-thunks.

There wasn’t even enough strength to care. He walked right past the mini-catastrophe into the kitchen. The bright light of the refrigerator hardly registered, but there was nothing in it anyway. With a jerk he opened the cabinet and yanked down the Oreos. For a moment he wondered if it was possible to OD on Oreos; however, there were only five left in the bag, so it looked like even that escape plan would work out about as well as everything else in his life seemed to be.

He took out the cookies, pitched the empty bag onto the bar, and stalked over to the couch. He lay down and arched one arm over his forehead. The phone picked that moment to ring. In derision he looked over at it. He didn’t want to talk to anyone. His gaze traveled back up to the ceiling somewhere in the darkness above him. The phone rang again. He chomped into a cookie.  On the fourth ring the answering machine picked up and went through his boring speech. Then it beeped.

“Hi… um, Eric.”

His body sat him up without his help.

“Um, this is Rebecca… from psychology. I just was wondering how your Spring Break was going, but I guess you’re not there.”

Indecision and confusion held him back from going to the phone like a vise grip. If he waited a few more seconds she would be gone, but in the next instant he broke free of the doubts, and he lunged for the phone. However, he tripped on the cascade of books, which sent him plunging to the floor. “Hi…. Hello.” He was on his knees, scrambling for the phone. “Don’t hang up.” Just as he got the receiver to his ear, the answering machine squealed across the wires. With one swipe, he knocked it off the tiny end table, and the squealing stopped in one gigantic crash. “I’m here.”

“Oh.” She sounded surprised. “I thought you must be gone.”

He pulled himself up and over to sit next to the edge of the slanted coffee table. “Just got back.” His brain questioned why his spirit suddenly felt so light, but he brushed the thought away. “What’s up?”

“Well, I hadn’t talked to you in a while. I was just wondering how your paper turned out.”

“Good. I finished it Wednesday.”

“What? You’re not procrastinating?”

He laughed. “I worked on it most of the week, wanted to get it just right. How about yours?”

“Finished it last Monday night although I should’ve waited, Sunday’s service at home would’ve added some good stuff to it.”

“Oh, yeah? Like what?” He bit into the Oreo without really seeing it.

“Like how many people there are just going through the motions.”

“Church because they say you have to?”

“Something like that.” She sighed, and even that sounded good. His spirit lifted further. “So how was your Spring Break?”

He felt the coffee table’s slant behind him, and he closed his eyes. “Jeremy and Gwen are getting married.”

“Married? Really?  Wow. I didn’t know it was that serious.”

“Yeah, neither did I.” He took another bite of the Oreo to keep the frustration in him down.

“You don’t sound too happy about it.”

He exhaled sharply. “I know. I’m a horrible friend. Sue me.”

“Hey, now. I didn’t say that. So why’s it so bad anyway?”

The question hung in his head for moments on end. How could he tell her? How could he tell anyone what a disaster his life was? “It’s stupid.”

“It’s not stupid. What’s going on?”

He exhaled again only this time in resignation. He would tell her. He knew he would. It was only a matter of time. He took another bite of Oreo. “It’s just not fair, you know? I feel like the only person on the ark without a partner.” The cookies were gone, so he scooted over to the couch and leaned his head back on the armrest that had no padding. “Ryan and Desi have been together forever. Ransom and Zoë seem like they have, and now Jeremy and Gwen. I get tired of being included all the time.”

Strange. It sounded like she laughed. “Boy, do I know that feeling.”

He sat up a little straighter. “You?”

“Yes me. If you haven’t noticed, I’m not exactly the prom queen.”

A picture of her—funky glasses, hair up porcupine-style, and her bright yellow T-shirt drifted through his mind. He smiled at the thought. He really had missed her. “You could have fooled me.”

“Oh, gosh. Have you been drinking? You must be, or this is not the Eric I thought it was talking.”

He shifted on the floor. “No, I haven’t been drinking. Well, Coke, but that doesn’t count.”

“Well, something’s affected your memory. Unless you’ve got me confused with Holly.”

Holly. His mind slammed into the thought of her. No, there was no way to confuse Rebecca with Holly. “Now that would be a leap,” he said, not really understanding the meaning of his statement himself when he said it.

However, in one breath it was like the brightness was sucked from her voice. “Yeah, I guess so. Huh?”

He heard the hurt over the phone lines although it took him another five seconds to understand it. “No, Becca. That’s not what I meant.”

“Hey, don’t worry about it. I know what you meant. It’s okay. I understand.”

“No, Becca, you don’t.”

“I’m sorry I bothered you. I guess I’ll see you Tuesday.”

“Becca…”

“’Bye, Eric.” And with that she was gone.

His heart felt like it had just been run through a meat grinder. He dropped the phone down between his knees and pressed one hand to his forehead. He hadn’t meant that the way it sounded, but she had certainly taken it that way. Anyway, what was he doing? It was Rebecca for goodness sake.  Rebecca.  She wasn’t model-perfect like Holly.  She was just… well, Rebecca.  So why did his heart jump at the sound of her voice?  Why did it feel like grabbing onto a life preserver the second she said hello?  And why had she called in the first place?  He tried to remember, to think of something she’d said that couldn’t have waited until Tuesday, but there was nothing. In frustration with himself and everything else, he banged the receiver on his thigh. Why did life have to be so utterly and completely confusing?  It just wasn’t fair.

***

She shouldn’t have called. Rebecca had known that even when she dialed the number. She should’ve left the message next to the trash where she’d found it. Still somehow she thought it would be different now. Somehow she’d thought it was the Holy Spirit’s prompting to make that call when she’d found the crumpled note from ten days before, and in a way, she now realized, it was.

Sadness and reality overtook her anger. The truth was that wishing and hoping there was something there with him was a one-way ticket to a bunch of heartache. Whatever she had made up in her head about Eric and her wasn’t real. He wanted Holly or a Holly clone. It was time to face that and move on with life. With a shake of her head, she stood from the desk and trudged over to her bed where she fell without bothering to pull the blankets back.

“God, you and I both know I would just be his friend if he wanted me around, but I can’t take him slamming me to the curb every time we talk. I am so tired of being walked on and stepped on and pushed into the corner by anyone who gets close. I’m tired of feeling like I don’t measure up with him and with everybody else. I don’t know what else to do anymore. I don’t know how to make myself be someone they will like. I give up. You hear me?  If You want it done, You’re going to have to do it because I don’t know what to do it anymore. I’m done trying. It’s in Your hands now.”

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About Staci Stallings

Staci Stallings shares her heart for God with her novels, articles, and conversations. She loves making new friends, writing, and playing piano and guitar.
This entry was posted in A Work In Progress, Novels and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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