A Work in Progress, Ch. 15 & 16

Copyright Staci Stallings, 2005

Chapter 15

“So did you ask Gwen yet?” Eric asked without really wanting to know the answer. He had met up with Jeremy at their normal spot, but this conversation felt anything but normal. In fact, they hadn’t spoken since Eric had walked out of the Student Union just before Spring Break. So much had changed since then, and clearly telling the extent of all those changes was impossible.  Jeremy had just finished the dramatic retelling of talking to Gwen’s father, who apparently was thrilled with the prospect of tying his daughter’s life to Jeremy’s. Eric couldn’t help but wonder if he would’ve been so thrilled had Eric been the one asking.

“Friday night. It’s our one year anniversary from when we started going together,” Jeremy said, and the sparkle in his voice was hard to miss. It made the inside of Eric’s heart pang. “I got the ring and everything.”

“The ring and everything.” Eric yanked the door open and held it for Jeremy. “Wow.”

“I just hope she says, ‘Yes’ you know?”

“Of course she’s going to say yes. Why wouldn’t she?”

“I wish I was so sure about that.”

“She’s going to say, ‘Yes.’ She’d be crazy not to.” Eric pulled the door to the classroom open and held it for Jeremy before following Jeremy up the steps to the third row. His heart fell when he realized porcupine hair was sitting in her original seat one row ahead. His mind flashed again to the scene at the Student Union. Somehow he had convinced himself her phone call on Sunday erased the possibility she was still upset. Then again he’d probably made things worse by his idiotic performance in that phone call.

Jeremy turned questioningly to him, indicating Rebecca with a nod.

“You go on. I’ll talk to her,” Eric said with a lift of his chin. He recalibrated his steps into her row. She never looked up on his long approach even when he stopped only a foot from her. “Is this seat taken?”

When she looked up, there was only submission in her gaze. “No.”

“Good.” He slid into the seat next to her with a glance back at Jeremy. It was clear Jeremy realized she hadn’t forgotten either. “So, you finished the paper?”

Her shoulders shifted slightly so part of her back was now to him. She was reading, but he couldn’t tell if that was for real or just a signal to leave her alone.

“I got mine done, believe it or not.” He held it out for her to see, but she didn’t so much as glance at it.  “Okay.” His eyebrows lifted with understanding.  He considered every other option, but none seemed real enough. Finally his head dipped to his chest. “Look, I’m sorry about the other night, about what I said. I really was glad you called.”

His attention snagged on the fact that Jeremy was right behind him listening to every word. Pursing his lips together, Eric fought to work through in his head how to get her to stop being furious, knowing Jeremy was right there recording every word for posterity. “I don’t know what you think about me and Holly, but we’re not going out anymore.  We haven’t gone out in weeks.”

The fact that she was completely ignoring him wound around his chest and clamped there. “Come on, Becca. What do you want from me? I said I was sorry.”

He wasn’t at all prepared for the crushed but accepting look in her eyes when she turned to him. It sent him hurtling backward into his chair.

“I know you’re sorry.” Her soft voice barely clung to its footing. “But you can’t help being honest.”

Confusion jumped on him. “Honest? About what?”

“About who you are. About who I am.” She closed her eyes and shook her head. “I wanted to be your friend, but let’s face it, we’re not in the same league, and we both know it. I can’t change who I am, Eric. I can’t be Holly. I’m me. That’s the best I can do.” Her gaze dug into his, and he saw the hurt drain over her face with no shields up to defend it. “I’m Rebecca, and you know what? To me, that’s okay. You don’t have to pretend to be my friend anymore. I get it. You’re off the hook.”

Before Eric could figure out what she was talking about, she stood from the desk and swiped her books off of it. His gaze followed her up. “Where’re you going?”

“Don’t worry about it. It’s not your problem.”

Mr. Templeton picked that moment to walk in down front. Rebecca swung her purse over her shoulder and met the professor at the bottom step. Their conversation wasn’t loud or long. She handed him her paper, and before Eric could think of what to do, she walked out.

***

Leaving class without a life or death reason had never been Rebecca’s style, but she simply couldn’t stay and risk an all-out breakdown. She knew too many of the gazes followed her out including two that made her knees weak. However, despite the stone-cold delivery she had managed to make, her heart was cracking in two. She made it only to the semi-darkness outside before the tears overtook her. Never in her life had humiliation felt this bad. He should’ve left well enough alone. What was he trying to prove by coming to sit by her anyway?  That she mattered to him? What a joke that was.

Sure, he said he and Holly had broken up, but that didn’t change the fact that she was a long leap from ever being able to replace Holly in his eyes.  Replace Holly. That was a laugh. She had a better chance of winning Miss America. Her feet were walking with no real direction from her brain, and before she knew it, she was once again in the dorms. Thinking as little as possible, she climbed the stairs, opened her door, and turned the light on. She was three steps into the room before she realized it was occupied.

“Becca,” Holly gasped, grabbing for her blouse which was open all the way. The guy looming over Holly on the bed twisted awkwardly to the side.  Blonde hair, blue eyes—she had never seen him before.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Rebecca said in stunned panic as she swiped the tears from her face. “I’m sorry.” She ducked her head and turned on her heel. “I’m really sorry.” With that, she fled.

There was no other choice really. Trying not to remember anything about the last ten minutes, she stumbled headlong down the stairs to the third floor. At Emily’s door, she knocked three times, fighting to stop the tears from streaming down her cheeks long enough to save a shred of her dignity.

The door swung open.

“Rebecca,” Emily said and for one moment she was happy to see her friend, “Uh-oh. What’s wrong?”

Despair cracked over her. “Would you believe everything?”

***

“I’m sure it was nothing,” Jeremy said although his assurances hadn’t made a dent of difference in Eric’s concern during the past two and a half hours as they sat in class.

Eric shook his head as they crossed out into the hallway. “That’s not like her—to walk out like that? Not the week before a test.”

“She’s moody.” Jeremy shrugged. “They all are. Besides, what’s the big deal?  It’s not like you were dating her or anything.”

The statement slammed like a fist into Eric’s chest. “What difference does that make? She’s still my friend.”

“You have friends, Eric. Real friends who’ve known you all your life.”

“Known me? Do you know me—really? Like did you know I declared my major in sign language yesterday? And that all I wanted to do was tell her about it tonight?” He pointed backward to the classroom door. Then he turned back and bobbed his head. “Oh, no. You didn’t know that. Why? Because we were talking about you all the way over here as usual. Or how about the fact I went to church last Sunday? Did you know that? That was something else I wanted to tell her, but thanks to my friends, she didn’t give me the chance.”

“Us? What did we do?”

It was too hard to even put into words.

“What does it matter anyway?” Jeremy continued as though Rebecca was no more than an annoying fly. “You said it yourself, she’s weird. She dresses weird. She looks weird. She acts like…” He wound his hands around his head.  “Come on, Eric. You could do so much better than her.”

Anger overtook the concern. “Better for who? Better for you? Better for the group?  Or better for me—or do I even get a vote?”

“Eric, man, come on. Calm down. This isn’t war. It’s a girl, a stupid, idiotic girl who’s got you so mixed up you’re not thinking straight.”

“I don’t know why I bother.” Eric turned down the steps and took them two at a time.

“What are you doing?”

“Walking away, Jer.  This is called walking away.”

***

It took Dena and Emily a full hour to calm Rebecca down enough to get the full story out of her. By the second hour she was down to sniffling and heaving only every other minute.  As the third hour approached, fatigue like death dropped over her. She lay down on her stomach on Emily’s bed and dropped her left arm over the side. The soggy Kleenex dangled from her fingers over the pile of its comrades on the floor. “I thought I could do it, you know? After the other night I thought I could face him, and it wouldn’t hurt so much. But then I saw him, and I just… lost it.”

“Don’t beat yourself up,” Emily said. “It happens to all of us.”

Rebecca pulled herself to sitting, which made her entire body sway dangerously. She felt like she’d been on the Tilt-a-Whirl far too long “Yeah, but I put it in God’s hands. I thought He would take care of it for me.”

“You thought He would make it work out the way you wanted it to,” Dena clarified.

Emily sighed and shook her head ever-so-slightly. “When you put it in His hands, you have to put it all in His hands—the moment and the results.”

“But I thought I did that! And now look. Everything is worse.”

“You don’t know that,” Dena said.

“How can you even say that with a straight face?” Rebecca slid off the bed. “Eric hates me. Whatever shot I never even had with him is gone. Holly’s turned into the roommate I thought I finally got rid of last semester. I can’t even go into my room anymore for fear of finding her with another guy. My parents don’t know I’m alive. I’m probably going to fail psychology now because I can’t study notes I don’t have. I don’t really see how anything got any better.”

“It’s hard to see from our limited point of view sometimes,” Dena said. “We don’t see all of the pieces. We see part of the puzzle, and from that we say, ‘This is how it is.’ But God sees the whole puzzle, all of the pieces. He sees things we can’t.”

“Well, somebody should’ve been kind and burned my puzzle before they ever let me get a hold of it.” She collapsed back on the edge of the bed and blew her nose.

“Have you ever considered that all of these seemingly bad pieces might be working to bring about something good?” Dena asked.

“Good? You’re kidding, right? Haven’t you not been listening? There is no good.”

“You don’t know that, and neither do I. We don’t see all of the pieces. We don’t see the whole picture the way He does. So what it looks like to us at this particular moment may look totally different to Him because He sees how it will ultimately be.”

“Well, I’ll tell you what it looks like to me… A big mess.”

“Then give Him the pieces and let Him something beautiful from them.”

Rebecca sighed. There seemed not an argument available to her tired brain that Dena didn’t have an answer for.

“Remember how we talked about doing it on your own?” Emily asked, and Rebecca nodded, too spent to reply. “Well, part of not doing it on your own is trusting that whatever is past is gone and whatever is coming is taken care of. Right now is what matters.”

“But right now is so messed up, I don’t even know which way to go from here.”

“That’s just it. There’s always only one way to go—to Him. Stop one-way praying. Get quiet for a change, and listen to what He’s telling you, and what He’s telling you is despite all this junk is that He loves you.”

Rebecca’s head fell back against the bolster.

“You know,” Dena said, surveying Rebecca carefully, “for someone who wants to be loved so badly, you sure don’t accept it very easily.”

For a moment Rebecca’s gaze stayed on her shoes as the accusation burned through her.

“I think you don’t believe you deserve to be loved,” Dena continued. “In fact, if Eric showed up at the door right now to sweep you off your feet, you’d think there had to be some catch.”

“You’d do just what I did,” Emily said, gazing at her. “I know. I’ve been there.”

“Until you learn to accept the love Jesus is freely handing you, love from anyone here on earth will never be enough. If you won’t let His love in, what makes you think you will let theirs in?”

The weight atop Rebecca’s spirit felt like lead on her chest. “But I do want to be loved. I want that more than anything.”

“Are you sure?”

The question brought Rebecca’s gaze up to Dena’s. “Of course I’m sure. What kind of question is that?”

“Okay. Then let me ask you this. Right now, you have a choice to accept the love God is giving you, or to stay in fear that nobody will ever love you.  Which one is more real to you at this moment?”

She couldn’t answer because she saw the trap.

“You say you want to be loved more than anything, but the truth is you are already loved more than anything. But you refuse to recognize that love because you know it’s scary to be loved.  It’s scary to let love in, because what if it doesn’t work out? What if he loves you and then leaves you?  That would hurt worse than to not have the love in the first place. Right?”  Dena paused. “Right?”

“Yeah.” It hurt to admit it, but she felt like she was on trial. “I just don’t want to be let down again.”

“Again?”

Her eyelids fell closed, and she squeezed them to keep them there. “I was never good enough.”

“At what?”

“Everything. I tried, but whatever I did, I knew they were disappointed.”

“Who’s they?”

She swallowed the tears in her heart. “Everybody. Mom. Dad. The teachers. My grandparents. Everybody. They all thought I was such a loser.”

“Did you ever disappoint God?”

A hard breath of air raked through her throat, and for a moment she couldn’t answer. “How could I not? I was never as good as Liz Ann. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t do math. When I tried to help, whatever I did was never good enough. I’m such failure, and I know He knows that because He’s been watching. He has to know what a failure He made. I’m sure He’s sitting up there thinking, ‘Man, what a waste of breath she is. I should’ve spent my time on somebody else.’”

She felt Emily’s arm before she realized her friend was there. Leaning over, she let the hug come around her.

“No, you’re perfect just the way you are,” Emily whispered. “You’re the perfect Rebecca. The one He lovingly made.”

Rebecca shook her head although she couldn’t get any more words out.

“You think He looks at you and sees the flaws,” Dena said. “But when He looks at you, what He sees is someone He wants to love. He didn’t create you to be a success. He created you so He’d have someone to love. Period. Think about it, God can do everything. He made the whole universe by saying, ‘Let there be’ and there was. Do you really think He’s worried because He can’t use you now because you aren’t perfect?  You aren’t. You weren’t meant to be. You were meant to be you—flaws and all. Besides, He can do everything without you anyway. He doesn’t need you to be perfect. He doesn’t need you to be anything. All He wants is for you to be you so He can love you. That’s it. Have you ever thought of how your flaws might turn out to be blessings in disguise?”

Rebecca exhaled hard. “Blessings? Curses would be more like it.”

Dena’s gaze softened. “Oh, yeah? Have they taught you how bad it feels to hurt?”

Rebecca’s gaze fell as she nodded.

“Have they taught you what it’s like to not be perfect?”

Again she nodded.

“Then if you let them, they can teach you compassion for people who are hurting and scared and feeling less than perfect. That’s a blessing unless you choose to hold onto the hurt and fear.”

Tired returned again. “I don’t know.” For the first time there was no reply for a full minute. “I just can’t help but feel like He’s disappointed in me.”

“And your perception creates your reality. Right now, your perception is fear, so fear is creating and shaping your reality, but never forget, you can always choose to let love create your reality just as easily as you can let fear. It’s your choice. He wants you to choose love, but He won’t make the choice for you. He won’t force you, but He can help you if you ask.”

With a sigh Rebecca nodded. Love. She’d wanted it, pursued it, grabbed for it and missed it all her life. But she couldn’t shake the understanding that Dena was right. The question was: could it really be as easy as making a new choice?

***

“She’s still not there?” Eric asked as panic and concern traced over him.

“I haven’t seen her since she left a couple hours ago for class,” Holly said over the phone lines. Funny how her voice didn’t make his heart jump like he’d thought it would. “I’m really sorry. I figured she’d be back by now.”

“Yeah, me too.” He sighed. “Well, tell her to call if she shows up. I won’t be sleeping anyway.”

“Okay. I’ll do that.”

They signed off, and Eric put the receiver down. If he could think of a single place she would be, he would already be out looking for her. However, as hard as he tried to think, her dorm room and the Student Union were the only two places he could come up with. He had tried the Student Union before he left campus. She wasn’t there. Not that he’d expected her to be, but it was still worth the effort to know she wasn’t.  But if she wasn’t there, and she wasn’t at the dorms, he was at a loss for where she might have gone.

“Dang it!” He hit the edge of the couch with his palm. “What am I doing?” He raked his fingers across the top of his head. “This is Rebecca we’re talking about here. Why do I care where she is?” Frustration slid over him. “Oh, great. Now I sound like Jeremy.” Leaning forward, he put his head in his hands. Concern and confusion ripped through him. “This is nuts. I don’t know where she is, and I don’t know why I care so much about where she is.

“God, this really isn’t making a lot of sense to me right now.” He shook his head and clamped his feelings down inside him. “She’s just a friend. I hardly know her.” They were excuses every one, and he knew it. He wondered if God believed him because he didn’t even believe himself. “What am I supposed to do? Every time I try to fix it, I make it worse. Now I don’t know where she is or what I could do or say to her even if I did.”

He yanked himself off the couch. “You’re driving me crazy, You know that? You tell me all this stuff about love and smoke and all that, but how does that help me now? Huh?” Stopping in the middle of the walkway between the living area and the kitchen area, he looked up. “Are You even listening here? This is serious. She’s hurting. I hurt her. I did. I know it. Okay? I did. And I don’t know what to do about it.” After only a moment, he shook his head again and let his gaze fall. “Why do I even try?”

***

The light was off when Rebecca made it back to her room as the clock started its upward climb to midnight. She went to her closet, dressed quietly, and tiptoed through the room. Ache and uncertainty followed her every step. Her chest felt like a huge foot was pressing down right in the middle of it. She was in bed with the covers over her head when she first heard the soft voice in the darkness.

“You okay?”

For a long moment Rebecca didn’t move. Maybe if she pretended to be asleep, the voice would take the hint.

“Eric called for you earlier.”

That jerked her eyelids full open, but she said nothing.

“He was worried about you.  He said to call him when you got in.”

Rebecca shifted in the bed.

“He said he’d be awake no matter what time you got in.”

Ache traced through her again, and she closed her eyes with the fatigue it brought with it.

“The number’s on your desk,” Holly continued when Rebecca said nothing.

Breathing suddenly hurt. Still she didn’t move. One moment stretched into several.

“I’m really sorry,” Holly said, “about before. I thought you were at class.”

The foot pressed down harder.

“Jake’s just a friend. We met the other night at Avalon.” Why Holly was telling her any of this, Rebecca couldn’t clearly surmise, but the story didn’t stop. “He asked me out for coffee today, and one thing led to another. I really thought you were gone.”

Trying to get away from the confession, Rebecca rolled over and pulled her blankets over her shoulder. Darkness and quiet descended again.

“So are you going to call him?” Holly waited for an answer. “He really was worried.”

Hurt and sarcasm drained through her. “I’m sure.”

“Jeez. Sorry I said anything.” For a small eternity no one said anything. “You know, I can’t figure you out. You ream me out for standing him up, and now you won’t even call the guy so he knows you’re all right. What’s up with that?”

Frustrated reality descended on her. “It’s called being realistic.”

“How so?”

Rebecca exhaled hard. “What does it matter to you anyway?”

“What do you mean, what does it matter? You’re my friend. It matters.”

“I’m your roommate. You got stuck with me. Big difference.”

“What has gotten into you? Good grief. You sound like you’re mad at the world.”

“Maybe I am.”

“Well, excuse me for relaying a message. I’ll try not to get in your way in the future.”

Anger and frustration clamped across Rebecca’s chest. How was it that every time she opened her mouth, she made things worse? If she could find a way to camp out in Emily’s room forever, life might actually have a shot at working out. However, every time Rebecca left and went back to her own world, everything seemed to fall apart. Without making a sound, she vented her thoughts to God although she was perfectly sure He had long since gotten tired of hearing from her.

***

Just after two in the morning, Eric got tired of pacing and slid onto the couch. It wasn’t comfortable, but that was okay. At least this way he would wake up every so often so he could check the phone and make sure it was still working. He wondered if Holly had heard from Rebecca by now. If she had, he wished she would call even if Rebecca hadn’t actually come home. The not knowing was killing him.

Chapter 16

Having not set an alarm clock, Eric’s morning got off to a horrible start. He knew the second he opened his eyes he was late. Without so much as changing his shirt, he jumped up, raked his fingers through his hair, yanked his backpack from the floor and was out the door. “This is just great. Terrific. Fabulous,” he muttered, the sarcasm dripping from every word. “Now she’s got me late for classes, too. I can’t take notes. I can’t sleep. I can’t eat, and now I’m going to flunk out because of her. This is just terrific.”

Still muttering, he climbed into his car and pulled out into the mid-morning traffic. He wondered even as he fumed if she had made it home last night. He wished he’d had time to call Holly. With one hand he reached into his backpack and dug for his cell phone. However, upon hitting the on button, he knew he wouldn’t be making that call any time soon. “Figures,” he said, dropping the dead phone back into its original place.

He turned left on one street, made a right, and then a left without really thinking about any of the turns. It was as if the car was on autopilot. In fact, his entire system seemed to be on autopilot. He parked, grabbed his backpack, and took off in the direction of the Sign Language building. Even as his feet picked up the pace into a slow jog, he managed to scan the students milling about the sidewalks for her.  True he had never seen her on this trek before, but he was hoping against hope that he would today. Otherwise, he was sure to add yet another F to what felt like a growing collection.

His heart pounded in his chest as he rounded the last corner, stopped to catch his breath, and then ever-so-quietly pulled the classroom door open.  The seat next to Diana, his seat, was unoccupied so he slipped down the side of the room to it.  The clock on the back wall said he was at least 20 minutes late; however, this professor liked to start “right on time,” which for her meant at least three minutes early. He slid into his seat and caught the surprise of Diana’s face. As the professor continued the lecture, Diana leaned over to him. “Nice of you to join us.”

He shook his head in frustration. “What’d I miss?”

“Half a semester.” She smiled at him, and for the first time in forever, he smiled too. In fact, they were reviewing the last four chapters for the test, which was scheduled for Friday.  Thinking about that test reminded him of the psychology test, which he had to find time to take between now and Monday.  This part of the semester always stressed him out.  Too many tests. Too many papers. Too much work. Added to all the other stuff going on in his life, April was a month he was dreading more than words could explain.

***

When class finished forty minutes later, all Eric wanted to do was go home and go back to bed. The headache he hadn’t realized he’d woken up with was now pounding through his skull with a ferocity that defied logic.

“You look like you could use a strong cup of coffee,” Diana said when they stood.

“Or a hammer.”

“What do you say you let me buy you some at the U?”

“If I can stay awake long enough to get there, sure.”

She smiled, and he followed her out. It was a good thing someone was leading or he might well have gotten lost on the short trek to the Student Union. Once they were seated at a table, sleep tugged at his eyelids even as he fought it off. He yawned and tilted his head from one side to the other. It was going to be a very long day.

It was only after they had sat there without a word for more than a couple minutes that the question of why she had asked him drifted through his mind.  “So, what’s up?”

“I have something to tell you.” Diana’s long dark hair formed the only area of her to look at.

He pulled himself forward on his elbows with concern. “Sounds serious.”

She glanced up at him, and her dark eyes held volumes of uncertainty. “I’m moving.”

That shook the sleep from him. “Moving? Where?”

“Ohio.” Her head sent her hair sweeping down her shoulder. “Today was my last class.”

He was tired, but not that tired. “You’re not even going to finish the semester?”

She shook her head. It was the first time he’d ever really looked at her, more memorizing her than anything. Long, angled features, the wavy deep auburn hair setting off the cream skin perfectly.

He gazed at her, seeing the beauty and yet keenly aware of the turmoil behind the dark eyes. “Why not?”

“Chris finally got that job he’s been trying to land with the parks system, so we can get married now.” Her gaze dropped and didn’t quite make it back up to his.

“You can’t wait four weeks to finish up classes?”

“He said he’s tired of waiting, and it’s now or never. Besides, my folks still live close to there, and I would’ve gone back sooner or later.”

Eric absorbed the brunt of the statement. He put his finger to his forehead. “So that’s it then. What you want doesn’t matter?”

It took her several seconds to answer. “He is what I want. I love him.”

The conversation about Chris being a jealous idiot swarmed through Eric’s mind, and he had to restrain his tongue to not let it say those words. “So, are you going to finish going to school when you go back?”

Diana shrugged but barely. “There’s only a junior college around there, and it’s almost an hour drive away. I’ll probably just get a job and start working somewhere.”

He was having a hard time getting all right wrapped around anything she was saying. “Quit school? But you’ve got like a 5 point.”

She smiled softly. “3.85.”

“Same difference. You’re brilliant, and you’re going to throw that away for someone who doesn’t trust you if you aren’t within arm’s reach? Are you sure this is what you want?”

“I have to.”

“Why?”

She swung her gaze up to him. “Because what if I never find anybody who loves me as much as he does?”

Screaming at her ran through Eric’s system, but somehow he didn’t. “Oh, come on, Diana. Do you hear yourself? Do you? You’re beautiful, and you’re brilliant. You’d have guys falling all over you if you’d let them.”

She shook her head slowly. “Like you, I guess.”

His gaze never wavered as he put his hand across the table onto hers. “Yes, like me. Are you kidding?”

Her smile was sad and filled with regret. “I’m really going to miss you.”

He sighed, hearing the end of the conversation in her voice. “Well, I’m really going to miss you, too.”

***

Rebecca’s mid-morning class let out early, and the possibility of Holly being in their dorm if she went back was too great to risk it.  Besides, she needed some coffee desperately. Sleep the night before was nowhere to be found. Digging in her purse, praying there was a dollar somewhere, she strode into the Student Union. A young man coming the other direction almost crashed into her. She pulled her feet and her search up short. “Oh, sorry.”

He didn’t so much as acknowledge her presence, just pushed out the door and kept walking.

She turned in his direction. “Well, excuse me to you too,” she said, biting the words in two. As she turned back, her attention started down to her purse, but it snagged on a figure across the room first. In a breath everything stopped around her. Eric. And he wasn’t alone.

Rebecca slipped backward into the potted, plastic plant standing next to the door. He hadn’t seen her. For that she was grateful. However, in the next breath, she caught sight of the raven-haired beauty he was sitting with. It wasn’t hard to see they were together. His hand was across the table on hers, and every piece of his attention was focused on her.

Then as if in a bad dream, they stood from the table and stepped toward one another.  Eric took the raven-haired woman who seemed mostly legs in tight form-fitting jeans into his embrace. Rebecca’s heart fell as she watched him soak in the hug, his eyes falling closed as he did so. Breathing ceased to have meaning. After a long moment they broke apart, and Rebecca knew if she was going to get away before they headed for the doors, now was her chance.

In one motion she turned out of the plant, pushed out the door, and stepped into the sunshine. It burned her eyes, making them water. How could she have been so stupid to think she ever had any kind of shot with him?  Of course he had moved on after Holly. And why wouldn’t he?  He probably had a line of girls a mile long to his doorstep.

The center of her heart throbbed with the thought, but it was too clear to deny. As much as it hurt he had a life, and it didn’t include people like her. That girl was Holly only with dark hair. Rebecca would never be able to compete with the likes of them even if she wanted to. They were part of the gorgeous people, and so was Eric.

Without really seeing where she was going, she walked quickly, brushing the tears back every few steps.  In minutes she was in the building for her next class, which didn’t start for over an hour. She wondered for a moment what she would do for lunch after that. Going to the Student Union was now permanently out.  She could always stop at one of the dorms somewhere and grab something there. In truth, it probably didn’t matter anyway. The way she felt, eating was last on her priority list.

***

When he made it back to the Student Union after English, Eric really didn’t care about eating. In fact, what he really wanted to do was go home and go to bed, but he needed to eat, and there was nothing in his apartment.  He bought a ham sandwich and water and took it to their table. In his mind this would always be their table even if Rebecca never showed up again, which at the moment seemed a distinct possibility.  He wondered for the million and first time that day where she was, if she had made it home, if she was all right.

His conversation with Diana had done nothing to ease his conscience about Rebecca. As crazy as it sounded, they were a lot alike—Diana and Rebecca. Rebecca didn’t think herself popular or particularly likable, and strangely enough, neither did Diana. He tried to dig into that understanding, but his head was still pounding too much to focus on it long enough to come up with the answer.

“Where’s your friend?” Jeremy asked as he set his books down on the table.

“Good question. I haven’t heard from her.”

With a sigh Jeremy swung his leg up onto the stool. “You know, this is probably none of my business, but it’s probably better this way.”

Eric took a drink of the water. “Oh? How do you figure?”

“Well, for one, she isn’t your type.”

“Oh, yeah? What’s my type?”

“Someone on their way up, not someone treading water or drowning.”

“Like Gwen I supposed.” Eric took another drink.

“Yeah, like Gwen. Gwen’s going into international finance. We’re going to have the life everyone dreams of. Jet-setting to Maui for the weekend, Paris in the summer, New York in the fall.”

It wasn’t until that very moment that Eric clearly saw the nightmare which had sideswiped his life. Nothing Jeremy said sounded at all what Eric had envisioned his life to be. He didn’t want to be jet-setting anywhere. All he wanted was someone who loved him more than all the stuff in the world, so that rich or poor, they could make a life together. “Well, I’m happy for you.”

“What do you mean?” Jeremy asked, thrown off track by the words and Eric’s tone.

“I mean, you got everything you dreamed of. That’s great.”

“She hasn’t said, ‘Yes’ yet.”

“Yeah, but she will.” Even as he said it, Eric wondered where Rebecca was. He said a little prayer for her safety and for her to find peace—whether that meant he was in the picture or not.

***

On her way from the dorm where she’d eaten lunch in the corner to the gym where Dance class met, Rebecca couldn’t help but stop at the Student Union. She didn’t go in. She didn’t have to. Instead she looked through the double Dutch door window, and it took nothing at all to see Eric and Jeremy sitting at their table eating.  Their table. How funny the phrase seemed now.  There was no sign of raven-haired girl, and yet to Rebecca she didn’t have to actually be there to be there.

With a sad, tired shake of her head, she turned and trudged back down the concrete steps. “’Bye, Eric. It was nice knowing you.”

The entire day seemed to wither away from that moment forward. It was like she was watching herself live instead of really living. She went to dance class, finished up some research in the library, went back to the dorms and hid out in the downstairs television room until it was time for Bible Study. She considered not going, but she needed it too much. She knew that even if she knew nothing else.

Emily greeted her with a hug as did Dena. The others were there as well although in her present state of mind, Rebecca couldn’t put a name to any one of them except Taylor. She sat down on the floor and leaned up against the hardwood of the bed frame.

“Dear Lord, we come to You tonight,” Dena said as they all bowed their heads for prayer. “We ask You to be with us as we study Your word. Increase our faith. Amen.”

The others echoed, “Amen.”

“I have a Holy Spirit moment to share,” Emily said, and everyone seemed to sit forward a few inches. Her soft gaze chanced across Rebecca’s face. “Actually it’s about somebody in this group.” She smiled, and Rebecca’s heart filled with tears of gratefulness for this Holy Spirit friend. “Sunday night I was doing laundry, and our dryers were broken again. I tried the ones on the second floor, but they were full. So I had to go up to the fourth floor. When I went up there to check on the laundry an hour later, I ran into Rebecca.”

Putting her head down, Rebecca’s eyes filled, knowing where this was going. “Yeah. I really needed a Holy Spirit friend right then, and I’m glad He sent Em.”

“So am I.”

Three weeks before Rebecca would’ve credited the encounter to a mere coincidence. Now she understood, no she felt in the depths of her spirit that it was indeed something more—the hand of Someone more powerful and all-knowing than herself. A question drifted through her mind, and she put it into words before she had the chance to dismiss it. “Is life easy for you guys?”

Every gaze went to her.

“I mean, I’ve been trying this Holy Spirit stuff, but it doesn’t seem to work as good for me as it does for you.”

“How do you mean?” Taylor asked.

“Well, things seem to work out for you, and you see the Holy Spirit in them. Like you with the video store. Me? I try to put things in His hands, and then they don’t work out at all, and I’m either left mad at Him for letting me down, or mad at myself for thinking it would work out in the first place.”

Although there was a piece of her which had expected them to throw her out on that admission, instead she was met with six gazes of pure peace.

“No life doesn’t always work out for us,” Taylor said, and the Southern drawl wrapped around Rebecca. “In fact, I’ve been having some trouble with my girlfriend recently. We seem to be moving in different directions. She wants to get married, and I’m just not ready yet.” He smiled at the group. “Not that I’m commitment phobic or anything, I just know there are some things that need to be set before I take a step like that. Like I want to have my degree. I think that’s important. More than that, I feel that it’s important for me.  I want to have my feet a little more on the ground, but she has this thing about what if something happens.”

His gaze dropped to the floor, and he shifted his feet under him. “I trust the Holy Spirit has all that worked out, but she just… doesn’t.”

Rebecca’s gaze was fixed on him. “But what if she’s not willing to wait?”

Taylor’s eyes, though sad, held only acceptance. “I have to trust what the Holy Spirit’s telling me—no matter what someone out there says. Maybe it’s His ways of saying we weren’t meant to be, or maybe He’s saying we have to work out our differences. Right now I’m not sure.”

“It’s hard to listen sometimes,” the other guy said. “Especially when everyone else is telling you you’re wrong. I almost didn’t come to this school because everyone in my family was trying to talk me out of it.” He shook his blonde head. “They thought I should be a doctor because my dad was a doctor. That was great for him, but it wasn’t what I wanted. It wasn’t what I loved to do. They all thought I was crazy to go into elementary teaching. They still do. But when I get quiet and let His Spirit show me the truth, I know I’m doing what I was meant to do. I’m where I’m meant to be, and I would be miserable anywhere else.”

“Boy, do I know what you mean, Sam,” Emily said. “My whole family thought I was going to stay home, find a nice guy to marry, and raise a bunch of kids. That’s what my two older cousins did, so that’s what I was expected to do, too. Not that I don’t want a family at some point, but there is this huge pull to get my degree. Until I knew the Holy Spirit, I couldn’t really explain that. Now at least I know where that desire is coming from.”

“Man,” Rebecca breathed. “I thought I was the only one who wanted to do something her family thought was nuts.”

“Join the club,” Taylor said, and she laughed.

“You know what? I think I will.”

***

Even Eric’s bones were tired. He should be studying for the psychology test he planned to take the next evening. He should be buying groceries or doing laundry. There was only one more clean T-shirt in his closet. However, he couldn’t think about those things. He couldn’t think period. He flopped onto the bed and was asleep before his eyelids closed.

***

“Think about Mary Magdalene,” Kira said. “Jesus showed up, and she dropped everything to follow Him. In fact, she stuck around even when the disciples took off. That’s kind of what this group has been for me—a recognition that Jesus is what matters. Before I started coming, I was all hung up on should I make this decision or that one, should I date this person or that one or nobody at all. I was tying myself in knots trying to make all these decisions. What I realize now is I was worried about the wrong things. I was worried about things rather than about Him.”

“They always said to pray without ceasing,” Bethany said, “but how do you do that? I mean, if I’m studying, I’m not praying. If I’m out with my friends, I’m not sitting there, ‘Dear Heavenly Father….’ I don’t get that.”

“I didn’t get it to begin with either,” Sam said. “I got up in the morning, ate breakfast, studied, went to work, ate lunch, went to class, came home, ate supper, studied some more, maybe watched a little television or went out with friends, came home and went to bed. There was never time to fit God in anywhere. But you’re making the same mistake I was. I thought praying meant saying one continuous line of words all day and all night. What I didn’t understand now is that prayer isn’t about me just saying words all the time. It’s about tuning in your channel to His frequency.

“Now I get up in the morning, eat breakfast, and do all the things I used to do, but now I know God is right there with me through it all. When answers pop up or I get help that seems to come out of nowhere, I know it was Him.  Or when I need something and I’m really at a loss, I know I can just say, ‘God, help.’ And He’s right there, and He knows what I need.”

“So you don’t pray like ‘Dear Heavenly Father…’,” Rebecca asked.

“Oh, I pray like that too,” Sam said, “except most of the time it’s more like, ‘Hey, God, what’s up with this? I don’t understand what you’re telling me here.’”

“Or okay, okay, I get it already!” Taylor said.

Sam laughed. “That too. A lot.”

“It’s like Sam said, tuning in your channel to His frequency,” Dena said. “I like that analogy by the way.”

“Thank you very much,” Sam said with a pleased grin. “Came up with it all on my own.”

“You learn to listen, not just talk,” Dena said.

“And you start to trust it when you feel something’s out of whack,” Emily said.

“The quieter you get, the clearer the answer is,” Sam said.

“But what if what you’re praying for just isn’t happening?” Rebecca asked, needing that answer more than the next breath.

“Then either it’s not the right time or He has a better plan in mind,” Sam said.

Dena shifted her feet under her. “When you start really trusting Him every minute of every day, tuning in to His frequency, you let go of what you think you need and you start trusting that what He knows you need will show up. His timing starts working, His plans start working. You have to give up control, but you get to give up stressing out over every single thing too.”

“Like the whole thing with my girlfriend,” Taylor said. “As much as I want it to work out, I trust Him to guide our relationship where it’s supposed to go.  If we’re meant to work it out, we will. If we’re not, He’s got a better plan in mind.”

“But what if you think it’s right, but you can’t make it work out no matter how hard you try?” Rebecca asked.

“There’s the key. I try. I do. I think,” Taylor said. “When it’s all based on me having to do something or not do something, I end up running in circles. When I start saying, ‘I… I… I…’ I know I’m on the wrong track. But when He’s doing it, it either works or it doesn’t, and either way, I know that’s what He has in mind.”

“But we’re not jellyfish!” The discussion was grating over Rebecca’s every last nerve. “We have to make some decisions. I have to get up and go to class. He doesn’t do that for me.”

“Because you’re not letting Him,” Sam said.

Rebecca knotted her lips together in frustration. She had grown up with two parents who drilled the belief that you either made it happen or it happens to you—and either way it’s bound to be a mess.  This line of thinking smashed that line into a hundred million tiny little pieces.

“It’s like we talked about the other night,” Emily said. “About the two trees. You can choose to do it yourself, choosing the tree of the knowledge of good and evil like Adam and Eve did, or you can choose to let Him do it—the Tree of Life.”

Sam nodded. “You have to put your life in His hands and say, ‘Your will be done.’”

“But I did that! I put it in His hands, and things got worse!” Rebecca said with vehemence behind the statement.

“It always does,” Taylor said, and the entire group’s attention snapped to him. “I’m telling you, it does. At first I think the devil tries to see if you really mean it. It’s like he’s right there offering you that apple. It’s like he’s saying, ‘No, no. You don’t want to give it to God. You need to be in control. You really want to do it on your own. You can’t trust God anyway. See, when you put things in His hands, they get worse.’  But then the more you do it, the more you see how even the things you thought were worse really weren’t.”

“Because you were only seeing pieces of the puzzle instead of the whole thing,” Dena said.

“Yeah,” Taylor said. “Then eventually the devil figures out you’re serious and he goes off to find an easier mark.”

“That’s about the time things get really interesting,” Sam said, “because the Holy Spirit starts believing you’re serious and will start sending you assignments, not because He wants you to do it, but because He knows you’ll let Him do it through you.”

“That’s me!” Bethany said. “He led me to Taylor, and Taylor led me here.”

“It’s me too,” Rebecca said although her voice barely got the words out onto the air. “I’m Emily’s assignment.”

Emily smiled. “And I’m yours.”

That piqued Rebecca’s interest. “What?”

“Before you, I would’ve tried to help you on my own. I would’ve thought God wanted me to fix you because of my experiences. But He’s teaching me to let go of the control I thought was mine and trust Him to say the things you need to hear rather than the things I want to say. I’m learning as much from Him helping you through me as you’re learning from being here with us.”

“Maybe,” Sam said softly, “we are all each other’s assignments.”

A silent understanding crossed the room as they all looked at each other.

“Do you think this is how the disciples felt?” Bethany asked. “After the Holy Spirit came to them. Do you think it was only then that they recognized Jesus in each other rather than thinking He was gone from them?”

Rebecca’s gaze traversed the room as the thought slid through her. “His Spirit was there, and where His Spirit is, so is He.”

Recognition and understanding seemed to grow in each set of eyes gazing back at her. Dena pulled herself to her knees, and the others followed.

“Dear Lord, Thank You so much for each and every assignment here present and the others—our friends and families—in our lives. We know You are with us, guiding us, teaching us—even when we’re not sure where our paths are leading. Please help us, be with us, work in us and through us. Help us to trust that the pieces are being placed where they are meant to be whether we understand them or not. Help us to trust Your promptings on our hearts. We thank You and we praise You. Amen.”

“Amen.” The prayer was whispered on Rebecca’s heart. It was seconds and more before she again opened her eyes. God must really love her to have brought her here, of that she had never been more sure.  As the group got to their feet, she followed. One by one she went to each one in the group for a hug and to assure them she would be praying for them.

As if in a dream she extracted herself from the group and went back to her own room. Holly wasn’t home, but Rebecca hardly noticed. Instead, she got ready for bed and climbed in. “God, I know You’re with me, and I know You have a plan. I can’t see it, but I know You can.” She took a long breath. “I’m willing to trust that plan—with my family, with Holly… and with Eric.  I put my words and my actions in Your hands the next time I see him. Please show me what I’m supposed to do.”

Be honest a voice in her head said so clearly she opened her eyes.

“I am honest.”

No. You’re afraid. Stop being afraid, and be honest.

It was more than she ever thought she’d be asked to do.

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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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