A Work in Progress, Ch. 19 & 20

Copyright Staci Stallings, 2005

Chapter 19

Holly and Emily were still asleep when Rebecca woke up the next morning. She got up and tiptoed out. Back in her own room, she glanced at the phone as she got ready but decided against calling him. He was out late the night before. He deserved some sleep. She buttoned the last button on her light blue sweater that made her look like a schoolgirl and took a look in the mirror. Not great, but it was better than the spattered T-shirt. She grabbed two ponytail holders and twisted loose braids onto either side of her head. It wasn’t great, but she wasn’t going for great anyway.

Rolling her shoulder around in its socket to get it to work again, she grabbed her purse and left.

***

Eric couldn’t clearly tell what possessed him to get up on Sunday morning. Maybe it was being grateful they hadn’t gotten pounded or shot the night before. Maybe it was how Rebecca talked about her Bible Study group. Maybe it was that he’d enjoyed going to services the week before. Whatever it was, he wanted to be front and center when those church bells rang. He decided against the tie but for the Dockers.

His friends would think he had gone all the way around the bend of sanity if they knew he was going to church by himself again for no reason other than he felt like it. In fact, he wasn’t totally sure he wasn’t going crazy. Yet something about this felt right. He was too tired to analyze that, so rather than thinking about it, he set the autopilot on his body. It kicked in exactly as he had expected.  It propelled him down to the car, took the turns, stopped at the lights, and in minutes he was pulling into the church parking lot.

Apparently he wasn’t the only one called to attend this morning. The parking lot was rather full. He got out and walked to the steps. Just as his foot fell on the first one, two little girls in pastel purple and pink rushed by him. Each had a white hat and neat white shoes. He smiled even as their mother called to them to slow down from behind him. Running to church rather than running away from it. What a concept.

At the door he held it for the mother who thanked him. He nodded and smiled. Following them down the hallway, he noticed several other small girls with much the same outfits on. Some were yellow. Some pale green. It was like being in a watercolor painting of a pastel sunrise.  It wasn’t until he made it to the inside doors that his mind asked him what in the world he thought he was doing. He didn’t know, and he didn’t care. He was here, and he was going in.

He found a seat a quarter of the way from the back and off to the right where he stepped into the bench. Next to him was a family. He nodded to them, hoping they wouldn’t guess he wasn’t really supposed to be there and throw him out. Not knowing what to do next, he sat down and let his spirit take in the church. It was the one with the young preacher from their research trip. He didn’t know if it was his favorite. He didn’t have enough information to choose a favorite, but he was here. Good, bad, or indifferent. He was here.

***

Rebecca climbed out of her car and hurried up the steps. Her arms were clamped decisively at her chest, shielding her from the curious looks she was sure were coming her way. She put her head down and concentrated on walking. At the inside doors, she heaved a sigh of decision and stepped through them. Not wanting to go too far forward, she chose a seat to the left four rows back. She sat down and spread her hands across her skirt nervously.

As she fought to slow her breathing and keep the thoughts of the night before from overtaking her, she looked up and noticed the huge replica of the tomb near the front pulpit. Although deep brown with streaks of black, it was mesmerizing because inside someone had placed a light that shone out from the center of it. The replica held her attention. It drilled into her heart, calling to her spirit with a pull she didn’t quite understand.

The service started, and she stood. Her arms went back around her chest. She wished she knew more about what was going on. Everyone else seemed to be saying prayers as if prompted by Heaven. She, however, didn’t have the direct line they seemed to, so she just put her head down and prayed in her heart.

There were readings, but her spirit didn’t hear them. It was too focused on that empty tomb. Then they stood, and there were more readings. When everyone sat again, Rebecca followed without any real direct brain signals. She shifted once and then anchored her attention on the young preacher who stepped to the pulpit. Her heart smiled at the memory of him. The last time she’d heard him talk, Eric was beside her. Instinctively she whispered a prayer of thanks for him.

“Good morning,” the preacher said. “Happy Easter.”

A muted “Happy Easter” crossed the crowd, and Rebecca’s spirit tumbled. She’d forgotten it was Easter. Her thoughts went to her parents. They were probably somewhere in a church very much like this one. They were dressed in their finest, with their fine friends around them. A hollow, emptiness crept over her, and she shifted again. The tomb called her focus, and she resettled it there.

“It’s almost a given in our understanding today that Christ came to spread the Good News. The Good News, the paradigm–cracking, earth-shattering, Good News of how much God loves us. Never before in the history of the world was God equated with love. Prior to Christ’s arrival, God was powerful and full of wrath if His justice was not done. The people of Jesus’ time did not know a loving God. They knew a God they were to fear. They knew to learn the laws so as not to break them and come under God’s almighty wrath.  And then this Jesus shows up and starts preaching about the love of God.  Make no mistake. This was a new idea. It was radical.

“Then Jesus Christ took the lesson one gigantic step further. He allowed God to use Him to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt how much God loves us. On Good Friday, Jesus gave Himself in payment for our sins.  He let God pour out His virtuous wrath over the injustices of a hate-filled, sin-filled world on His holy and sinless body. He bled His holy blood drop-by-drop in repayment for our sins. Yes, in repayment but also so that 2,000 years later, we can grab onto the fact that He’s been there.

“That’s right. He’s been there. You feel abandoned and alone? Jesus Christ hung on a cross—alone and in pain, and He asked where God had gone!  Not only had His friends betrayed and abandoned Him, but He felt like God, the Father He had poured His very life out for had abandoned Him too.  Have you ever been there?  Have you ever believed in your core that God had abandoned you just when you needed Him the most? Jesus knows. He understands. He’s been there.

“That’s what makes Easter Sunday morning so amazing! How many of us have felt abandoned, tread upon, pushed to the side, trashed, and ignored, and then spent the next umpteen years whining about that? ‘I wasn’t loved as a child.’ ‘I didn’t have the right encouragement, the right opportunities, the right support, and so I have a right to be messed up. I have a right to be angry and hateful and mean-spirited.” The preacher stopped and surveyed the crowd. “Right? Don’t we feel that way? Vindicated in our hurts? Validated in our pain? We’re victims! We’ve been hurt, and therefore, we have the right to hurt and rip and tear everything and everyone in our paths.

“But just as paradigm shattering as Jesus’ exclamation of the Good News was to those who heard Him before the crucifixion, is the message He delivers to us in no uncertain terms after His resurrection. This is a man who was beaten bloody, abandoned, spat upon, slashed, and murdered, but when He arose, He did not come back with vengeance in His heart. No. His first task was to find those who had betrayed Him not to punish them but so He could show how much He still loved them despite everything. For example, He found Peter. Now don’t you know Peter felt about as low as a person could? I’m sure in His guilt, he would never have conceived of the love and forgiveness Jesus extended to him without so much as requiring an apology.”

Rebecca’s gaze fell from the preacher. She crossed her arms in front of her. He was asking the impossible, to forgive without the other person repenting, to forgive and to love without asking a single thing in return. Her heart wound around the hurt there, fighting to keep it with her.

“Jesus Christ, the savior of the world, was buried for two days. He was buried in a tomb. He understands about being buried under a mountain, a mountain of hate and hurt and pain. He understands because He’s been there. But the remarkable thing is what He chose to do with that understanding.  He chose to use it not as a reason to hate but as a rationalization to love. Over and over again, He says, ‘I understand. I understand. I know what you’re going through. I’ve been there, but you don’t have to stay there. See, I have rolled back the stone on your tomb too.

“‘Don’t stay in the hate and the pain. Come out. Come to Me. Come with Me. I love you.’” The words twisted into the dark crevices of Rebecca’s heart even as the preacher leaned forward, drawing her in with the intensity of his voice. “And once you know that to the depths of your soul, forgiving others becomes something you want to do, not something you have to do—grudgingly, with malice around the edges. You want to forgive them because you, like Christ, understand what it’s like to be buried under a mountain of junk.  You want, like He did, to move their stone a fraction of an inch and to hold out a hand to them. Really understanding what hurt feels like brings love, not bitterness, hate, or unforgiveness. God’s love is like that. God’s love brings you out of the junk. God’s love rolls the stone back and gives you the peace to do the same for others.

“Are you His love to those around you? Are you someone who believes He will open the tombs, or are you someone who is intent on shoveling dirt onto the tombs of those around you? Do you leave people a little better for you being around or a little worse? What is your intention in any given situation—to build yourself up at the expense of others, or to help them find the peace of knowing they aren’t alone in their pain? Do you strive to make yourself feel better by tearing other people down, or do you give love and pray that their tomb will be opened like yours was?

“You have to be willing to let go of the hurt of Friday to get to the joy of Sunday. And if love is your goal, your life should be about helping those around you do the same. That’s the message of Easter morning.”  He paused for one moment and then raised his hands. “Let us pray.”

***

Eric stood with the rest of the congregation, but his thoughts were no longer in the church. They had fled to the shell of a life he called his own. As his soul examined that life, he saw the bitterness, the grasping and the holding onto the pain. Jeremy, Ryan, Ransom—he blamed them for the emptiness of his life. He folded his arms over his chest. Loneliness, emptiness, pain, and fear gripped him with a ferocity that ripped the breath from his chest. He reached down, put his hands on the pew in front of him and leaned over. His hair fell in sheets around his face.

For more months than he could really count, he had held this pain like a badge. They didn’t know. They didn’t understand. They couldn’t. They all had someone. He didn’t. No one could understand how much that hurt, how much it hurt to see them all so happy and in love. No one could possibly understand what it was like to look into the future and see nothing but blackness. No one to share it with. No one to understand. And yet…

His gaze came up and locked onto the tomb, illuminated from the depths by a light so bright it seemed to radiate forth. That light banished the blackness, dispersed the emptiness inside the tomb. It shone forth, calling him out of the pain. He sniffed so softly only he heard it. Maybe, maybe Someone did know. Maybe Someone had been there—alone, empty, afraid, seeing only a future filled with blackness. And maybe, just maybe that Someone understood even now.

Hope surged through Eric’s breathing. He hadn’t been looking. He hadn’t been out on a quest to find this man they called Jesus, this God, and yet, somehow God had found him. Noise around him brought his attention back from his thoughts, and he knelt with the rest of them. However, the service words still did not penetrate the words his soul seemed to be screaming.

He let his head fall forward as he squeezed his eyes closed. “God, I think I’ve gotten so many things wrong. I’ve made everyone around me wrong. I’ve been mad at them for what I thought they were doing to me.  But I don’t want that in my life anymore. I want to come out. I want to believe, to feel that You love me no matter what. I want that more than anything in the world. Please help me.”

The others stood once again, and he stumbled to his feet. There was a song he didn’t really hear, and then the preacher walked out, and the service was over. With a long slow stream of air, Eric exhaled. Then he swiped his hands through his hair to get his composure back. He turned and took one step. In the next instant, however, body and soul, he stopped cold. “Rebecca? What’re you doing here?”

The second she saw him she looked like she’d been caught stealing the Mona Lisa. “I… hi.” She wrapped her arms over her chest. Her gaze dropped to her feet, and his followed. They stood for a moment without saying anything, and then she turned out of her bench to walk in front of him. He followed, one step behind, trying to figure out how not to pass out from holding his breath that seemed to be lodged in the top of his chest.

Swaying more than walking, they made it to the back and turned for the door.

“I didn’t think I’d see you here this morning,” Eric started again, but his concern snagged on the sad, vulnerable eyes she chanced on him. “I guess we had the same idea.”

“I guess,” she said so softly he barely heard it.

They walked out into the throng of people, but neither stopped to talk to anyone. He waited to take another shot at conversation again until they were out the main doors and in the parking lot. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and glanced over at her as they descended the stairs. “How’s Holly?’

Rebecca’s face held only passivity. “Okay, I guess. I left her at Em’s.”

“Em?” he asked, not sure of the reference.

“Emily, my… friend.”

He heard the hesitation and wondered what it meant.

“We slept over there last night,” Rebecca continued. She rolled her shoulder under the purse and her hand went to the back of her neck. “I was afraid Gus might try something stupid.”

That thought had never occurred to Eric, and concern ripped through him. “You think he’d show up at your dorm?”

“I don’t know, but I didn’t want to take the chance.” They made it to her car, and Rebecca laid her back against the door and her gaze on her feet. “Thanks for coming last night.” Her gaze chanced up to his but didn’t hold. “I didn’t know who else to call.”

Sympathy and compassion slid through him as he looked at her. “I’m glad you did. You didn’t need to be going over there by yourself.”

“Yeah.” She rubbed the back of her neck again. “Well, it was nice to have somebody to call.”

“Any time.” The feeling of wanting to take her in his arms and hold her until the sadness in her left gripped him. Fighting it off, he glanced across the parking lot as vehicles drove off in various directions. Then his gaze came back to her, and he couldn’t talk himself out of his next request. “What do you say we go somewhere and get some breakfast. I’m starving.”

For a long moment she didn’t move. Then she shook her head slowly. “I’d better get back. I don’t want to impose on Em anymore than I already have.”

“Impose?”

“She’s watching Holly.”

Concern traced through him again. “You don’t think Gus…”

She shook her head. “Not any more, but I don’t think Holly should be alone either.”

He considered that. “You’re probably right.” He exhaled, wanting to say so much and yet not having the words or the courage to so much as start.

Finally she shook her head again. “I’d better go.” She turned and opened her car door.

He held the door for her. “Tell Holly I said hi.”

“I will.” With that, she slammed the door and drove off, leaving him standing in the parking lot. For several long minutes he didn’t move. Then he let his gaze fall to the asphalt, and he shook his head. “God, why is this so hard?” He put his hand over his head and scratched the back of it as he turned for his own car.

***

The tears streaming down Rebecca’s face created no discernable patterns as she pulled into traffic. Ache in the center of her spirit pulled them out and sent them tumbling down like a waterfall in the springtime. She swiped them away. It was a good thing she had gotten away when she did. He would think she was a complete idiot. Fear and pain jammed into the top of her chest. Fear she hadn’t allowed herself to feel the night before, and pain from so long before she couldn’t tell when it had started. How had her life gotten so confusing? Why couldn’t it just be normal like everyone else’s? “God, why is this so hard?”

She shook her head in a vain attempt to stop the tears. They weren’t going to help anyway. She took a long hard breath and forced all the bad stuff down. Somehow she had to get it together and keep it together for Holly’s sake if not for her own. The questions swirling around Eric would have to be dealt with at some other time. Survival and safety needed to be her paramount concern right now. She’d considered telling him how scared she still was, but it wasn’t clear to her if that was the truth or just an excuse to get him to hang around with her longer. The mere fact that it could be a tactic to get him not to leave made her cringe at the lengths it seemed she had to go to get someone to want to be around her.

He would have stayed, of course, if she’d have given him half a notion of all the horrid scenarios that had been playing through her head since the night before. That was the kind of guy he was. However, somewhere between not wanting him to think she was a complete wimp and not wanting to see him fawn over Holly, she twisted her fear into a tight knot and swallowed it. He had his own life. He didn’t need to be following her around playing James Bond.

At the dorms, she pulled into the first available space, killed the engine, took a breath, and went to face life as it now stood. It took one more breath at Emily’s door to steady her nerves. She knocked softly, and in seconds Emily was there.

“Morning,” Rebecca said, training her gaze into the room.

“She took your stuff,” Emily said. “She went back to your room.”

“Oh.” Rebecca pulled that information in and dragged it through the fear. “Thanks for last night.”

“You going to be okay?” The concern scrawled across Emily’s face.

“Do I have a choice?”

Emily sighed. “I’ll be praying. Call me if you need anything.”

Feeling like it might be her last act on this earth, Rebecca hugged her friend. “I might just do that.” When she let go, she said, “Thanks” once more, then turned for her own room.

Trepidation stomped through her as she climbed the stairs. “Oh, Holy Spirit, please be with me today. I need You now more than ever.” At her door she stopped to make sure she was still breathing before she pushed the door open. Inside, Holly sat on her bed, two notebooks and a textbook spread out around her.

Rebecca didn’t know what to say, so she didn’t say anything. She simply walked over to her side of the room and sat down at her desk. Her gaze went to the door.  It was unlocked, and she wondered if she should go lock it.  Then she had the feeling she would never look at that unlocked door the same way again. Focusing on her fear and wallowing in it didn’t seem like the best of options so she went through her others. Her gaze dropped to her books on the ground, and although she wasn’t sure she would be able to get anything to stick in her brain, it was her least worst option. She stood, went around, and sat on the bed, pulling her skirt around her legs.

“How was church?” Holly asked without looking up.

“Good.”

A pause engulfed the room. She turned to a page and then flipped to another.

“Jake called.”

Rebecca’s gaze stayed on her book. “Oh, yeah?”

“They arrested Gus for possession of an illegal firearm and contributing to minors. A whole bunch of stuff apparently.” The information wound to a stop, and no one said anything for a minute. “Jake said his frat brothers didn’t know who called the cops. I told him I didn’t either.”

There was no answer.

“I think I’m lucky to be alive.”

That made two of them, but Rebecca said nothing.

“You called Eric, huh?” Holly finally asked as though she really didn’t know the answer to that question.

The pen in Rebecca’s hand traced over her notebook, but she really wasn’t paying attention. “Yeah.”

“Why Eric?”

Rebecca looked up. “He was the only one I could think of.”

Holly nodded. Her eyes were downcast, and her face held only acceptance. “I’m sure you guys think I’m a tramp now.”

Anger and jealousy reached up and clawed through Rebecca as she shook her head. Her gaze fell back to her book although she didn’t really see it. Here was Holly. She could have any guy she wanted. She could’ve had Eric for crying out loud, and yet she chose to hang out with losers who used her and abused her and left her in the muck of violent, broken relationships. It made no sense. More than anything she wanted to put Holly in the place people like her deserved to be once and for all. The only people they thought about were themselves, and for once, Rebecca wanted to tell one outright how disgustingly awful that was.

However, when Rebecca looked up, the vacant, sad, down-trodden face across the room swept those thoughts from her. Understanding, real understanding brings love. She understood that look, that feeling of knowing not only that no one cares but that they actually wish you weren’t even around. Compassion slipped through her with the understanding, and as illogical as it seemed, she realized they had more in common than she had ever realized.  “I don’t think you’re a tramp, Holly. I do think for some reason you’ve decided those kinds of guys are what you deserve.”

Holly’s body seemed to go limp with the statement.

“It’s a lie, you know. But as long as you believe the lie, it’s the only real that can get in.” Rebecca’s gaze dropped back to her lap because her heart hurt to see her roommate look so beaten down by life. As Rebecca’s mind traced back over their time together, her thoughts swirled. “I just can’t figure it out. You’ve got everything. The body. The hair. The clothes. Popularity follows you around like a puppy dog. All the guys want to be around you. They notice you the second you walk into a room, and yet, it’s like you take that and twist it until the nice guys have no shot and the scummy ones are lined up at the door.”  Her gaze drifted back to the door, and she hoped her words wouldn’t be taken literally. “You even stomped all over Eric, and he’s pulled your butt out of more than one scummy guy’s clutches. What sense does that make?”

The question hung in the air for a moment.

“It doesn’t. It doesn’t make any sense at all. He didn’t deserve me, and I sure didn’t deserve him.” The words sounded more like a whisper than a statement.

Confusion slashed through Rebecca. “What does that mean?”

Holly slid off the bed and walked over to the mirror. “Oh, you know.”

Rebecca’s gaze followed her every step. “No. I don’t know. What does that mean?”

At the mirror, Holly’s hands picked up a hairbrush, twirled it, and then slammed it down with a soul-jarring whack. “It means I’m not good enough for Eric. Okay? It means he deserves someone… someone who’s not a tramp.”

“You’re not a tramp.”

Holly’s gaze traced up to the mirror, and acceptance of awful slid through her face. “Yes, I am. Look at me. Guys don’t want me for me. They want me because I’m an easy lay. They want me to show off to their friends like I’m some kind of a trophy. I’m not a person. I’m property.”

“You’re not property any more than I am. What’re you talking about?”

Holly shook her head slowly. She turned back for the bed but then stopped and leaned on the sink. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Doesn’t matter? Yes, it does! Are you kidding? This is your life we’re talking about here.”

Holly folded her arms, her gaze stuck to the cold tiles on the floor. “I never told you why I came to Boston Central, did I?”

That stopped Rebecca. “No.”

The sigh slid from Holly slowly. “Well, it was supposed to be to start over, to put the past behind me. But I guess no matter how far you run, you’re still there, huh?” She laughed with a bitterness that tore Rebecca’s heart in two. “I guess no matter how hard I try I’m still just like her.”

Confusion drifted through the search for understanding in Rebecca’s mind. “Who?”

A small, hollow, spirit-depleting laugh jumped from Holly. “My mom.” Holly shook her head, and it was clear how hard she was fighting not to cry. “She was just like me—the town tramp. Everybody knew it, including me.” The more the words came, the harder she had to work to get them out. “She had boyfriends, all kinds of them. They’d come, spend the night, maybe even spend a few nights. Then they’d be gone and the next one would take their place.”

“I thought you said you had a stepfather.”

“I do… for as long as this one lasts.” The clinch of Holly’s arms around her chest tightened. “But none of them last very long, couple months tops. Then she gets tired of them or something happens, and they move out, and we move on to the next one.”

“But, you’ve got to know, you’re not your mother.” Rebecca slid her book from her lap as concern overtook her. “You’re you, Holly. You can make different choices.”

Absently Holly turned back to the mirror. She reached up and, with glazed eyes, whisked two strands of her bangs off her forehead. “I tried.”

“With Eric?”

Holly’s entire spirit seemed to fall with her gaze. “With Chase Morgan, back in high school.” The name made Holly squeeze her eyes closed and take in a sharp breath. Her face crumpled with the memories. “He was everything. Everything I’d ever wanted in a guy. Everything everybody wants in a guy. He was strong and safe. He had values and dreams. And he loved me. As unbelievable as that was, he really loved me.”

Rebecca’s heart ached for the pain in those words. Somehow she had taken for granted that Holly had all the love in the world anyone could ever want, and yet it was clear how wrong in that assessment she had been.

“I said I loved him, too, and I really wanted to,” Holly continued, her voice seeming to drift away into the memories. “I really did. But I didn’t know how to love anybody. So I did what I knew.  Within two weeks we were making out all the time. To me that was cool. It was the way things were supposed to be even though at first he tried to slow things down. Eventually he went along with it because he loved me. But the truth was, he was in trouble all the time with his parents for staying out with me too late or for not coming home at all. He said he didn’t care, that I was worth it. Man, I wanted to believe that. Then he asked me to go steady.”

The story slammed to a stop, and Rebecca wondered if she would ever hear the end of it. The real end she already knew. It featured Holly breaking Eric’s heart in living color. In truth she knew the next turn Holly hadn’t even said yet. It was all too plain. She wished she could do something take the pain away from that face. That pain was all too familiar, but before she could think of what that something could be, Holly continued.

“I don’t know what made me do it,” she said, and the words had no life to them at all. “To this day, I really don’t. Eddie was real trouble. I knew it. The whole school knew it. He was into drugs, and fast cars, and no telling what else. I don’t even remember who came on to whom anymore. All I remember is the look on Chase’s face when he caught us together in the parking lot at the end of a school dance. He never forgave me for that. Not that I blame him. I wouldn’t have forgiven me either.”

“So you’re giving up then. You’re just going to let your mom’s life be yours even though you hated it.”

Holly shrugged. “What choice do I have? Look at me. I’m just like her. Everybody sees it—even you.”

Slowly Rebecca slid off the bed and stepped over to where Holly was leaning on the sink. Holy Spirit, give me the words. “Look, you may not believe this, but do you know what I see when I look at you?”

It took several seconds and even more wrenching breaths for the question to come. “What?”

“I see someone who is beautiful—not because of her hair or her body but because of who she is.”

Tears shimmered on Holly’s lashes when she glanced up. “Yeah right.”

“I’m serious. You just don’t let yourself see how beautiful and special you are. You let all this junk cover what’s real, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.” Rebecca took a breath to settle the words. “It’s like the preacher was saying this morning. We’re all like Jesus. We’re all buried under a mountain of junk. We let the world whip us to a bloody pulp, hang us on a cross of what we’ve done wrong, and then bury us in a tomb covered with junk. Everybody else tell us we can’t do it, that we’re not worth it, that what we want to be isn’t something we can ever reach, so we stop trying. We talk ourselves out of what might be because we think we know what is. But none of that’s real.  What’s real is He loves us. God loves us.

“He loves us so much He sent Jesus to die for all the stupid stuff we’ve done and the stupid stuff that’s been done to us. He sent Jesus to pay everything we owe for every time we take a wrong turn, for every time we have taken His love and twisted it into hate for ourselves and everybody around us. But the truth is no matter what happens, no matter what you’ve done, He still loves you, Holly. He loves you. No matter what you’ve done, no matter who you’ve hurt.  He loves you, and He wants you to be free of all this junk that’s stacked on top of you making you believe death is preferable to life. He doesn’t believe that. He didn’t believe it for Himself, and He doesn’t believe it for you. That’s why He rolled the stone back on His grave. And when He rolled His back, He rolled yours back too. You just haven’t realized it yet.”

Tears began streaming down from Rebecca’s eyes as forgiveness flooded her heart. “God doesn’t want you to be in pain, Hol. He wants you to live. He wants you to come out and stop letting the junk define who you think you are. It doesn’t. He does. And in His eyes, you are the beautiful child He made, the child He loves beyond everything else in this world.”

“But what I did… What I’ve done…”

“Was what you knew. But that doesn’t mean it’s all that can ever be.” Suddenly in a blinding flash of light, Rebecca’s own future sparked before her. She closed her eyes, sniffed, and shook her head in amazement. “He’s got a plan for you, Holly. A plan so incredible you wouldn’t believe it even if you could see it.”

“He hates me.”

Rebecca laughed outright at that. “Yeah. That’s why He’s been sending me to all these church services and all these Bible studies… because He hates you so much He’s spent the last month showing me the words He wanted me to say to you tonight.” She laughed again. “It’s a lie, Holly. It is. It’s the devil trying to talk you out of hearing what God wants you to know. Believe me, I of all people should know what that’s like.” She shook her head. “I was so jealous of you, I couldn’t see straight.”

“Me?” Holly asked as if she was genuinely surprised by the comment.

“Yes, you. You had the friends and the guys and the looks. What did I have? My books? Whole afternoons spent in the Student Union wishing someone would notice I was alive? I wanted to be you because I thought that would make everything in my life perfect.”

“But I’m not perfect.”

“But I thought you were. That’s what the devil was whispering in my ear, ‘She’s so perfect. If you were like her, then life would be wonderful.’ Don’t you see? He was lying to all of us. He was telling Eric that Eric wasn’t good enough for you to date.”

Holly scrunched her eyes at that as if it hurt to hear.

“He was telling me I wasn’t good enough for Eric to date. He was telling you, you weren’t good enough for Eric to date. He was telling us all we weren’t good enough, and we all believed him!” With each word, light seemed to burst forth from her soul. “It was a trap, and we all fell for it.”

“Well, woohoo for us,” Holly said with annoyance tingeing the statement.

Excitement at finally getting it burst through her. “No, don’t you see? Now that we see those lies for what they are, we’re free to choose to believe them or not rather than just taking them on face value as if they were true.”

Holly stepped past her to the bed where she sat down hard. “That’s great. I’m so happy for us.”

Although happiness imbued with the warmth and light of the sun was dancing through her, Rebecca calmed her spirit enough to realize that Holly hadn’t so much as stepped on the road Rebecca now knew she herself was on.  It was time to slow down and invite Holly onto the road. Carefully, Rebecca twisted herself onto the floor in front of Holly. Gazing up at her friend, love she had never realized was inside her radiated from every pore.

“You think that God looks at you and hates what He sees. I know. Believe me. That’s where I was a few weeks ago. I thought everybody hated me—my parents, my sister, God, everybody. I thought I was the biggest disappointment in the whole world. I’m not saying I don’t still think that some times, but now I see it for the lie that it is. God made me for a reason. God put love in my heart to give to those around me. He put His love in my heart.” She had to take a breath to steady the joy running through her at that understanding. “He loves me more than I can ever put into words. He saved me from all the lies that have been running through my head for forever, and He wants to do that for you too… if you’ll let Him.”

Holly’s gaze couldn’t hold Rebecca’s although it tried when she looked up. Finally it dropped back to her hands. “I don’t know how.”

“That’s okay. You don’t have to. He does. Give it to Him. Just tell Him you’re willing to see things differently.”

Seconds trailed into one another as Holly considered that thought. “I don’t know. What if it’s too late for me?”

Rebecca smiled with a peace she had never known. “It’s never too late. He’s ready and waiting any time you decide you are.” She took a breath as she gazed at her friend. She knew what it was like to stand there on the edge of thinking things could ever get better, hoping it was true but believing it could never be. “You don’t have to do this alone. He’s here, ready to help, and if you need me, so am I.”

Hollow questioning drained through Holly’s gaze. “Why? After all I’ve done. You should hate me.”

The comment never so much as scratched the surface of Rebecca’s soft smile. “Because I know the Truth now. I’ve met Him. I know what a difference He can make in your life, and I know how much He wants you to know that He loves you. He loves you, Holly. In fact, everything other than His love is smoke.”

Confusion flowed across Holly’s features. “Huh?”

“It’s a long story.” Rebecca’s spirit sparkled with the peace it now held. “Want to hear it?”

A second and then two. Holly looked at her uncertainly. “Sure.”

Chapter 20

As morning slid into afternoon and then afternoon into evening, Eric fought to find reasons not to call. They were busy. They were talking. They didn’t want to hear from him anyway. He was concerned about Holly, yes, but he was more concerned about the sadness in Rebecca’s eyes that haunted his every step. It was there when they stood at her car, but in truth it had been there ever since he had known her.

For weeks he’d been telling himself it didn’t matter to him one way or the other. It was Rebecca. She had her life. He had his. They were friends—if that. What should it matter to him if her life wasn’t all roses?  And yet it did. In ways he couldn’t count nor articulate, it mattered.

At 7:30 he could take it no more. He picked up the phone and dialed the number. It rang once, twice, and then a soft feminine voice said, “Hello?”

His heart jumped at the thought of being connected to her. “Rebecca?”

“Umm, no. Rebecca went out. This is Holly. Can I take a message?”

Never would he have expected the plunge his heart took at that news. “Oh, hi, Holly. It’s Eric.”

It seemed to take her a moment to digest the information. “Hi, Eric.”

His brain searched for something logical to say. “How’s everything?”

“Good,” she said, sounding very tired. “Better.”

“I’m glad.” And he really was. He twisted the phone back and forth under his chin. “So Rebecca went out then?”

“Bible study,” Holly clarified. “She said she’d be back later. I can have her call you when she gets here.”

Seeing no other option, he sighed. “Yeah. Okay. Have her call me.”

“Okay.” The word seemed destined to be followed by more, but it took a good twenty seconds for more to follow. “Listen, I wanted to say thanks. For everything.”

Softly his spirit smiled. “Anytime.” When he hung up, Eric tried to catch onto the feelings swirling in him, but the harder he tried, the faster they went. The faster they went, the fewer whole thoughts he managed to hear, but the one name twisting through them all was the one he had done everything to deny. Rebecca. The more he looked, the clearer he saw what he had been too blind to fully grasp before. As little sense as it made Rebecca was the one he wanted. Rebecca was his match, his equal. She challenged him in ways no one else ever had, but along with the challenge came an unquestioned certainty that she believed he could do anything he set out to do. She believed in him even when he didn’t believe in himself. And the truth was, he believed in her too.

He smiled at the thought of her porcupine hair. It wasn’t fancy. It wasn’t perfect. It was her, and that was all that mattered.

The phone rang, and he reached for it. “Hello?”

“Hey, man,” Jeremy said, and Eric’s heart fell at the realization it wasn’t her. “Where’ve you been?”

He reached over and grabbed an Oreo from the bag lying on the wobbly coffee table. “Here. Where else would I be?”

“Oh, really? Ry said he tried to call you this morning, but you didn’t answer.”

“Oh, this morning I was out.” He bit into the cookie.

“Out?” There seemed many more words to that question than just one.

Eric sighed. “I went to church again, okay? After last night, I needed to do some connecting with Someone who could help me make sense of everything.”

“Last night? At the party?”

He had all-but forgotten about the first party. He sighed again. “It was a long night.”

“But you left early.”

“Yeah? Well, things got kind of complicated after that.”

“You went home. You went to bed. How complicated could it be?”

He hated the condescension in Jeremy’s voice. “Rebecca called. Holly got herself in the middle of a fight at a frat house. I had to go bail her out.”

“Holly? I thought you weren’t seeing her anymore.”

“Yeah, well, apparently I’m still good for something.” He didn’t want it to sound sarcastic, but that’s the way it came out.

“Is she okay?”

“Yeah, I just talked to her. She’s fine.” A soft smile drifted through him at the thought of Rebecca. “Listen, I’ve got some studying to get done.”

“Oh, okay. So then I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“Can’t tomorrow. I’m working a double shift.”

“Tuesday then?”

“I’ll be at psych class, but I’ve got a study session with my English group right before that so you’d better go without me. I might be late.”

Disappointment which sounded more like disapproval rang through Jeremy’s voice. “Well, okay then. But I will see you in Psych class, right?”

“Yeah, I’ll be there.”

***

It hadn’t been an official Bible Study more a much-needed couple of hours with friends who helped set her life back on the Rock. Rebecca was grateful for Emily and for Dena even if she had eschewed two hours of studying in favor of being with them. Letting out the fear from the night before amid tears and truth was exactly what she needed to get her feet back under her again. When she got back to the room, Holly was sitting on her bed. It was nice to know she was still in one piece even if she hadn’t moved from that spot the whole day. Knowing she’d better get some more studying done, Rebecca went quietly to her desk and pulled her Economics book down.

“Eric called,” Holly said without looking up.

Rebecca’s breathing stopped. “Oh, yeah? What’d he say?”

“He wants you to call him back.”

Pure, unmitigated joy filled her lungs so that it didn’t matter if she was breathing or not. It wasn’t getting in anyway. “Oh, okay. Thanks.” She wished there was some other option than calling him back with Holly ten feet away listening to every word, but not even that was going to stop her. She slipped onto her bed, put her back to the wall, and pulled the phone over to her. The number had been inscribed on her heart since he’d first given it to her for Holly. Hope crashed over hope as she listened to the phone ring.

“Hello?” His voice was as gorgeous as he was.

“Hey, there.” She ducked her head, trying to hide her smile and her voice. “Holly said you called.”

“Hey, I was afraid she forgot to tell you. How was Bible Study?”

“Great. I really needed it. It’s so cool to be around people who know what’s important and who don’t mind helping you get there.”

“I bet.” Distance sounded in his voice. “Wish I had that.”

Her eyebrows narrowed. “What about your friends? What about Jeremy?”

His sigh slid through her, pulling concern along with it. “To Jeremy it’s all about the money, and the others… Well, let’s just say we don’t talk about God-stuff much.”

“Then maybe you need to broaden your friendship horizons.”

“How do you mean?”

“I mean come with me on Wednesday night. They’re really great, and there’s plenty of room.” The words surprised even her, and for a moment she couldn’t believe she’d actually spoken them.

The fact that he was backing up was abundantly obvious. “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t really know that much about religion and all that stuff. They’ll think I’m lame.”

“Not as lame as I thought I was the first time. Besides, it’s not about that. Like Dena says, ‘It’s not about religion. It’s about your relationship with God.’” Rebecca let him have a chance to say something. Being pushy would shove him the other direction. But when he said nothing, she took a breath. “You don’t have to say yes or no. Just think about it. Okay? The offer’s open if you ever want to come.”

“’K,” he finally said. “So what’re you doing Thursday night?”

“Thursday?” She really hadn’t thought that far ahead. “I don’t know. Why?”

He exhaled hard and then plunged forward. “Well… Okay, feel free to say no. I mean I know it’s a lot to ask and everything. I don’t know that I would say yes…”

“Eric.”

“What?”

“This is Rebecca remember? Just ask.”

He exhaled hard again. “Okay.” The next words came at her so fast she barely had time to process them all. “Saturday is my parents’ 25th anniversary, and they’re having this party. Ryan and Desi think we should get them something special, only I don’t have a clue what that means. So they asked me to go shopping with them on Thursday, but I really don’t want to go alone. I hate that third wheel on the tricycle thing. And so I told Desi I’d ask you, and she said that was cool if I brought you along, but if you don’t want to go, I’ll completely understand because I don’t know if I would go if somebody asked me…”

“I’ll go.”

The monologue stopped. “You will?”

Recklessness jumped on her. “Yeah. It sounds like fun.”

***

Although she was in her desk on Tuesday evening for Psych class, the truth was Rebecca’s thoughts were not in the classroom. They were where they had been for nearly 48 hours—on him, with him. What was he doing? When would he show up? What would he be wearing? Would things be as easy this time as they were on the phone? She wished he would hurry up already. The waiting was about to strangle her.

The snap of the door down front brought her attention there, and excitement burst through her. Jeremy, but only him. He looked up the rows of seats and right at her. No one followed him in, and concern followed by a healthy dose of wanting to be anywhere else but there drained through her. His reluctance as he climbed the three rows of steps to hers was obvious to anyone who bothered to look. When he turned into her row, she wondered if he might actually stop before he got to the seat next to hers. It was clear he didn’t want to sit by her. However, his steps took him right to her side where he sat down. Suffocating seconds passed as he pulled out his notebook and pen and got them ready.

She wanted to look at him, to smile, to somehow melt the ice in his eyes. Yet she didn’t dare. After a full minute, he cleared his throat nearly sending her body right off the edge her nerves were on.

“So, I hear you had an exciting Saturday night,” he said, shifting slightly in his seat. He put his pen next to his ear and scratched his head with it although he never really looked at her.

Rebecca glanced at him but only that. “Well, I guess that’s one word for it.” Nothing in her liked this set up. There was too much animosity in his body language to bode anything but bad.

“But Holly’s okay though?” he asked.

“Yeah. Pretty shaken up, but that’s to be expected.” It was like being on the witness stand and not having any idea what question was coming next.

“You know,” he finally said just like a lawyer would, “I’ve thought about it and thought about it, and I just can’t figure it out.”

“What’s that?”

“Why you called Eric for Holly. I mean they’re not going out anymore. What she did or didn’t do wasn’t any of his business anymore. Why’d you bother him?”

Anger and indignation rose into her until it was all she could do to keep her voice level. “I didn’t call Eric for Holly.” The truth drifted through her softly dragging tears with it. “I called him for me.”

Incomprehension slid over Jeremy’s face, but just before he put words to that look, his gaze jumped over her shoulder and then plummeted to his desk. In one motion she spun around and found Eric stomping toward her, his face a hard knot of anger.

He slammed his books to the desk and fell into the seat next to her. “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore and seven years are you, Romeo. Defy thy brother and recuse thy cane.”

Whatever had gone before she forgot in her laughter as she lifted her eyebrows in mirth. “That was the worst rendition of that line I have ever heard.”

He didn’t look at all happy. “Oh, yeah? Well, you try it.”

“Romeo,” she said, gazing at him. “Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo. Deny thy father and refuse thy name, or if thou wilt not be, be but sworn my love, and I’ll no longer be a Capulet.”

Eric slid back in his chair and gazed at her with open surprise. “Dang, girl. That was good.”

“Thank you very much. I’ll be signing autographs after class tonight.” Her smile tugged a smile to his face. She turned back to her notebook, trying to forget that Jeremy was burning holes in the right side of her head.

“No,” Eric said in less surprise but more impressed. “That was really good.”

She shrugged. “Three electives in Shakespeare stalling because you don’t know what else to do with your life will do that for you.”

At that, Eric sat up straight. “Wait. Wait. Wait. Let me get this straight. I just spent two hours with people who don’t get this stuff anymore than I do when all I had to do was call you?”

She turned her gaze on him and batted her eyelashes playfully. “I’m a woman of many talents, Mr. Barnett.”

His eyes widened. “Apparently.”

Mr. Templeton walked in and called order before he even got to his desk. Rebecca sat up to pay attention. As long as she kept her thoughts on her left or ahead, the fact that Jeremy wanted her to disappear hardly registered.

***

The plan had formed in Eric’s head ten minutes into the class. It was a long shot, and there was no guarantee she would even agree to it. But at this point, he was willing to take the chance.  When class broke, he slid out of his chair, carefully weighing his words. “So, you headed back to the dorms now?”

“No, I’m hopping on a plane to Hollywood. I’m just not telling too many people.” Her eyes sparkled when she looked at him, and it made his breathing snag. She swung her backpack to her shoulder. “You?”

“Well, I was hoping to get some more studying done.” Even to him the words sounded halting and scared. “I’ve got a test on Romeo and Juliet tomorrow.”

They followed Jeremy down the aisle and then down the steps.

“Oh, well, good luck with that.”

“Yeah,” he said, losing his courage at the wrong moment. Willing himself to get it together, he pushed his feet forward and held the door for her on Jeremy’s push. “You know, you really did that line like you knew what you were talking about.”

“I managed an A in two of those classes, but I wouldn’t go ringing the bells over it. There’s not much future in Shakespearean acting anymore.”

He scratched his head as he walked beside her down the hall. He noticed but didn’t really contemplate the fact that Jeremy was walking several paces ahead of them. “Well, considering I’m staring a D down really hard right now, and my study group has all gone home, and I have no idea what I’m even reading when I try…”

Her steps slowed, and she looked at him with concern. Then slowly a soft smile spread onto her face. “Hey, it’s me, Rebecca. Remember? All you have to do is ask.”

Gratefulness mixed with so many other emotions he couldn’t adequately sort them all out rushed through him. “Do you mind?”

“Have I ever? Besides, I think I owe you one for helping with my paper.”

Eric said a vague good-bye to Jeremy at the steps, but nothing other than her and the fact she had agreed to help him was really registering. At the Student Union, they grabbed a booth, and in no time she was walking him step-by-step through the play. Acts, scenes, themes, underlying themes—there seemed no end to what she knew. As he watched her, as he listened, the question of how he had missed seeing her like this for so long played and replayed in his mind.

After a full hour of sitting with her, laughing with her, being with her, he felt like this would be the easiest test he had ever taken. He wasn’t sure if that was from her insights or her presence. Whatever it was, he never wanted to lose it again.

“And then the Montagues and the Capulets decide whatever they were mad about before really didn’t matter that much after all,” Rebecca said, and then she sighed. “If only…”

His attention snagged on that. “If only what?”

She shook her head. “Nothing.”

But he wasn’t going to let it get away that easily. “No-ho. You don’t get to hide behind nothing. If only what?”

Her gaze dropped to the table, and the sparkle was gone. “Jeremy hates me.”

Worry pounced on him. “Jeremy doesn’t hate you.”

“Then why did he get all bent out of shape about me calling you the other night? I just needed a friend. It wasn’t like I was proposing a shotgun wedding or anything.”

Serious concern bled through him. “Why? What did he say?”

She shrugged. “Does it matter?”

“Yes it matters. He said something that upset you. That matters to me. Now what did he say?”

“I don’t know. Something about why did I call you to come help Holly? You guys aren’t together anymore anyway.” She shook her head a half shake. “I shouldn’t have called you.”

“Hey. Hold up there. Yes. You should have called me, and I’m glad you did.”

“But Jeremy’s right. You guys broke up. What made me think you wanted to help her anyway?”

Understanding of how deeply Jeremy’s thoughtlessness had cut crashed through Eric. Across the table sat the most amazing woman he had ever been around, and because of his stupid friend’s inconsiderate comment, she was under the vastly mistaken impressions that one, he’d gone to rescue only Holly that night, and two, that she was wrong to even call him in the first place. Gently he reached across the table and slipped his hand under her fingers. They were soft and warm, and the touch tore feelings he’d never felt before loose inside him. His thumb slid across her knuckles.

“Listen to me.  I was glad you called.” His words drifted across the desolation in her face. “Not because of her but because of you.” Her gaze grabbed his. “Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t want to see her hurt, but I didn’t come because she needed me. I came because you needed me.”

“But, Jeremy…”

“Come on, Becca. When are you going to get it that Jeremy doesn’t speak for me? Yes, he’s my friend. My thinks-he-knows-how-to-run-my-life-better-than-I-do friend. Well, I’ve got news. This is my life. Not his. He can think he knows better all he wants, but the reality is, this is my life, and I’ll run it the way I want to.”

“But you shouldn’t have to choose between friends.”

“You’re not the one saying I have to. He is. And you know what? That’s his problem, not ours. If he can’t be happy for us and support us, then I’m not sure how great a friend he could’ve been in the first place.” He didn’t give her a chance to respond. “So, who’s picking who up tomorrow night anyway? I’m really psyched about this whole Bible Study thing.”

Her gaze dropped, and had he been within arm’s length, he would’ve flattened Jeremy for making the sadness creep back into her eyes. “You really don’t have to come.”

“Oh, yeah? Well, what if I really want to come?”

Something very akin to hope gazed back at him. “Really?”

“Really.”

***

They finalized plans during lunch the next afternoon, and it was all she had been able to think about the rest of the day. By the time the phone rang, Rebecca nearly knocked it off the desk getting it into her hand. “Hello?”

“You coming to get me, or am I just going to stand down here all night?” The laughter in his voice dispelled every other thought.

“Well, if you don’t sprout roots too quick, I might just be there to get you.”

“You’d better hurry. They’re predicting rain.”

She laughed. “Be right down.” She hung up and checked herself in the mirror.

“Was that Eric?” Holly asked from her spot on the bed. It was by now common knowledge that she was either at class or sitting there on the bed.

“Yeah. We’re going to Bible Study.”

Holly’s gaze was full of sad acceptance. “Good for you.”

In that instant Rebecca grasped how much things had changed. “Why don’t you come with us? It’ll be fun.”

“No,” Holly said quietly. “I’ve got studying to catch up on.”

“It’s not just us. There’ll be a bunch of people there.”

“Maybe some other time, but have fun for me.”

Worse than anything in the world, Rebecca wanted to do something to help Holly. However, the longer she stood, the less she knew what that something might be. It was then she heard the crack of thunder and the thought of him sprouting roots in the lobby attacked her. Stifling a laugh, she sighed. “Okay. I’m going then, but don’t think I’m giving up on you ever going because I’m not.”

Holly shook her head, but there was a smile on her face. “Just go. Have fun. Tell Eric I said, ‘Hi.’”

Rebecca’s heart leaped at the mention of his name. “I’ll be back around nine.”

“Don’t cut it short on my account.”

With that, Rebecca left. The farther down the stairs she went, the faster her sneakers went on the steps. They made a rat-a-tat-tat sound until at the bottom she jumped with both feet into the lobby. “Are you sure they won’t cart you off to the asylum for agreeing to this?”

He was standing at the bulletin board reading, and when he turned to her, one side of his mouth drifted up into a smile. “You know, I was just reading about this all-girls’ aerobic thing in the basement on Wednesdays. Maybe we could go to that instead.”

“Oh, you would like that, wouldn’t you?” Her teasing smile came without her bidding it to as she stepped over to him. However, the feel of his hand wrapping around hers when she got there shocked the teasing right out of her head.

“Yes, I would actually.” His smile graced both sides of his mouth.

“Well, too bad. It’s Bible Study for you tonight. No girls. I hear they’re bad for your health.” She turned and led him to the steps, but his hand never left hers. The heat from it seemed to travel up her arm and into her cheeks.

“Oh, see there you go. That was my problem.”

When she glanced back, she laughed. “One of them anyway.”

Surprised offense jumped to his face. “I don’t believe you just said that.”

“Yes, you do.” They started up the second flight. “So how was your test?”

“Not too bad actually. It was all essay, and I think I knew enough to pull a C.”

“There’s a switch.”

The surprise was back on his face. “What’s gotten into you tonight?”

Springing on the balls of her feet, she bounced up the last stair. “I’m happy. Haven’t you ever seen happy before?”

The tops of his cheeks rounded as he arched an eyebrow. “Not on you. It looks good.”

She could have floated the rest of the way to Emily’s door, and she might have had she wanted to let go of his hand, which of course she didn’t. At the door, however, she had to recheck her courage. Things were always so easy when it was just the two of them but so unbelievably hard when they were around anybody else. She reached up and knocked, trying not to let him see how nervous she was.

Emily opened the door, and in the next instant, Rebecca wondered why she had ever so much as given her nerves a thought. “Hi!” Emily gave Rebecca a hug. Then she beamed at Eric. “And you must be Eric. We’re so glad you could come.”

***

The moment the Hispanic girl at the door hugged him, Eric knew this would be different than anything he’d ever experienced. Once in the room, Rebecca introduced him to four girls and two guys, but it all went so fast, they were getting started before he had time to get anyone straight. They settled onto the floor, which was covered only with a thin layer of gray carpet, and he wound his legs under him.

“Okay,” the tall African-American girl with the large fuzzy afro said. “Who wants to start with a Holy Spirit moment?”

For a long moment no one said anything. Then Eric felt the glance from Rebecca more than he saw it, but before he could get his gaze to her, hers was on the floor.

“I had a Holy Spirit moment,” she said, and her voice was no louder than a whisper. “A couple of them actually, but the biggest one was that when I really needed a friend, the Holy Spirit sent me an angel.”

Worry slid through him as he looked at her. For the first few words he thought he knew what she was talking about, but by the time she got to the angel part, he was sure he had no idea. Her gaze grazed his.

“I don’t know what I would’ve done if he hadn’t shown up to watch over me and help me out.” Her gaze fell to the floor, and she sniffed. “I’m just very thankful that God saw fit for him to be there to help me.”

Next to her, Emily reached over and put her hand on Rebecca’s back. At the touch Rebecca leaned over into Emily’s embrace, and they stayed like that without seeming to realize everyone was watching.

“Thank You, Holy Spirit,” Emily said, looking at Eric as she held Rebecca, “for sending Eric to keep Rebecca safe for us. You will never know how grateful we are for that.”

The comment pushed him backward, and he tried to take it all in. After another few moments, Rebecca sat back up and ran her hand under her eyes. Seeing her like this, completely open, beckoned his spirit out onto the high wire. He looked around the group wanting to say what was in his heart, but wondering if he could ever get it out. Finally he dove headlong into the pool. “I have one.”

All the gazes jumped to him, and he shifted his feet underneath him.

“Okay,” the leader said. “Go ahead.”

He thought he could do it looking at all of them, but before the words found the air, he knew he couldn’t. His gaze dropped to his hands. “Well, I’ve been looking for someone for about a year now. I thought I’d found her, but I guess the Big Guy had other plans because the one I thought she was turned out… well, she wasn’t. But then these past couple of weeks, He’s given me a friend, a really good friend who pushes my buttons, and teases me, and challenges me, and always finds a way to make me feel like I matter.” His composure was crumbling with each word. “I’m just really grateful He brought Rebecca into my life.”

The surprise in her eyes was laced with tears.

“And now she brought me here,” he said with a bounce meant to break the seriousness. “Me in a Bible Study. Who would’ve thunk it.”

Several of the members smiled at him.

“I think being grateful is a great place to start,” one of the other girls said. “The more grateful I am, the more things I find to be grateful for.”

“Like there being Cheerios in the cafeteria in the morning that aren’t all soggy because somebody sat them in the milk,” one of the guys said. The others laughed.

“Or getting stopped by a train that takes just enough time for you to make the two calls you’ve been putting off all day because you haven’t had time,” one of the girls said.

“Or your friend showing up in the middle of the night and leaning on you even when you know how hard that was for them to make that call,” Emily said. A silent conversation passed between her and Rebecca, and Eric understood every single word of it.

“For friends you didn’t even know you had who were watching out for you,” Eric said.

Rebecca looked at him, and he smiled. It was clear she was amazed by him, but it couldn’t come close to how amazed he was by her. For reasons he couldn’t clearly articulate, this place felt safe. It felt real like very few things had in the past year.

“And for being grateful just to be grateful,” Rebecca said. “It’s so awesome to know He’s right here listening. It’s so cool to know all the way through to your soul that He cares, and He’ll help if you just ask.”

“Being grateful for being grateful,” the leader said. “I like that.”

So did Eric.

***

When the group broke up at nine, nerves attacked Rebecca again. However, this time she took a breath and put it in the Holy Spirit’s hands. Together they walked down the stairs to the lobby. He didn’t reach for her hand again, but that didn’t feel like a bad thing—just different.

“So,” Eric said as they descended the last five steps, “you still coming tomorrow night?”

Her gaze slid to his silhouette. “You still want me?”

“You’re seriously going to ask me that question?”

She ducked her head. “No.”

“I didn’t think so.” They made it to the doors and stepped off to the side as other students made an unsteady rhythm of entering and exiting. His hand found hers between them, and her heart filled her chest. “So tomorrow night then?”

She tilted her head to look up at him, still having to fight not to let the happiness go screaming from the middle of her. “I guess so.”

“Cool. Then I’ll be here about 6:30 to get you.”

“I’ll be ready.”

His hand drifted out of hers as he leaned toward her. “So will I.” His lips touched the edge of her cheek, just above her mouth.

Breath went through her and slid out of her whole body at the electricity of his touch.

“See ya,” he said, and when she opened her eyes, it was to see him back away from her and then walk out.

One small part of her wanted to scream at him because it was more than clear a real kiss shouldn’t have been so much to ask. However, the vast majority of her was so enthralled with the whole evening it couldn’t muster up enough angry parts to care. He said he was grateful for her. He said he was glad she had called. He seemed to really like the Bible Study group. Her mind ticked off every single detail she had to be grateful for all the way up the stairs.

In her room she walked over to the window, not really noticing Holly still sitting there. Her hand traced down the cool, clear glass. He was gone already, but in her heart he would never be gone. She would be able to see him walking through those trees forever.

“He’s great, huh?” Holly asked.

Rebecca sighed. “Yeah.” Then she woke up to the reality of the question. She turned, sorry for her friend’s loss. “That’s bad, huh?”

“No,” Holly said softly. “I think it’s great.”

***

How many times Eric berated himself from her dorm to his apartment, he didn’t even want to know.  He was right there, and he just couldn’t bring himself to kiss her. He wanted to, that was a given. Every other guy he knew would have. That, too, was a given. So why didn’t he?

One by one his mind made excuses. There were too many people. The lights were too bright. He’d said so much during the Bible Study, kissing her might tell her more than he was sure he wanted her to know. In the apartment he ripped the Oreos out of the cabinet and ate the last three. If he was just smooth like Jeremy, but he had no moves. If he was just wholesome like Ryan, but he couldn’t pull that off either. If girls fell at his feet the way they did for Ransom, then maybe he would’ve known what to do.

Maybe he should’ve taken her outside. He hit his forehead with his hand. “That’s it. I should’ve taken her outside. It was dark. We could’ve been more alone. Then again, it wasn’t exactly warm, and how would I have gotten her out there? What do you say, ‘Why don’t we go outside so I can kiss you?’” Frustration with himself poured over him. “You’re such a loser, Eric. Face it. You’re even a loser with a girl who has a shot at liking you.”

Just as his tirade threatened to really cause some damage, the phone rang. He reached over and picked it up. “Hello?”

“A silver platter,” she said without bothering to say hello.

“Huh?”

“That’s what we should find. A real silver platter. You could have their wedding date engraved on it and everything. My friend’s mom and dad had one back home. It was really pretty.”

“You’ve been thinking about this?” Mostly he was surprised because he hadn’t been.

“Yeah. What do you think, we’re going to go to the mall and walk around with no plan in mind?”

“Sounded good to me.”

“Well, how about this…”

He still couldn’t get over the fact that she had called and that she sounded so normal when he was such a wreck.

“We put the silver platter idea out there right away. Then if we find something better, great. If we don’t, we go for the platter idea.”

He bounced the idea around in his head. “I like it. That way if nothing else works, we don’t have to give them matching golfing shoes or something.”

“Matching golfing shoes?”

“Or baseball cleats or hockey sticks. Take your pick.”

“You are so…”

“I know, and you wouldn’t have me any other way.”

A second, then another before she laughed. “I give up.”

He threw his hands in the air although no one was there to see him. “Yea, I win.”

“Yeah? Well, there’s a first time for everything.”

“Hey. I beat you at pool.”

“I let you win.”

“Let me? Let me! I won fair and square.”

“Because I sank the eight ball because there was so much of your trash on the table.”

“Oh, yeah? Well, we’ll just see about that. I’m calling for a rematch.”

“Be careful what you wish for.” She laughed. “Anyway. I just thought about the platter, and I figured you were home already. I hope you don’t mind me calling.”

“Me? Mind? Never.”

“I’ll hold you to that.”

“I knew you would.”

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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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