“Well, look who it is,” Eric said, his face brightening as his gaze snagged behind Jeremy. Their lunches were already on the table, and it was all Jeremy could do for the past ten minutes to eat and act natural. The waiting was killing him.
At that moment he felt her there—right behind him, and his heart filled his chest. However, he fought to stay cool as he turned in his seat. But the truth was there was no hiding his joy at seeing her, and he knew without a doubt that everyone at that table could see it. “Hey, there.”
Shy was back, and Emily’s gaze fell to the floor. “Hey.” In her arms was a stack of books five high, and on her back she had a pack with more. However, she hesitated in putting them on the table.
“Oh, here, let me get those for you.” Jeremy reached over and took several of the books from her hands. His heart flip-flopped in his chest when she glanced up at him. How she could look so amazing and yet so unassuming he had no idea.
She let the backpack slide from her shoulder as he stacked the books in the center of the table.
“What’d you do, buy out the library?” he asked with a laugh.
Her smile only pulled up one side of her lips. “Science will do that to you.”
“Then I’m glad I’m in business.”
“You ready?” Rebecca asked, and Emily nodded.
When she walked away, Jeremy let his eyes go wide as he let out the breath he had been holding.
The smirk on Eric’s face told Jeremy his friend knew everything.
“Don’t say it,” Jeremy said, picking up a French fry.
“Say what?” Eric asked as if they both didn’t know exactly what was going on. “I didn’t say anything.”
Lunch was nice. It took awhile, but eventually some of Emily’s shyness slipped away from her, and Jeremy liked that side of her as well. By the time lunch was over, his brain was on-loop with the question of how to ask her out without looking like a complete idiot.
“So are you ladies interested in a little pool?” Eric asked, and the other three looked at him skeptically. He wadded up the napkin and pitched it to the table.
“I have class,” Rebecca said with a shake of her head.
However, Eric looked at her with a smirk. “You’re so cute. I didn’t mean now. I meant Saturday night. Ryan and Ransom are itching to play again, and I told them I’d say something to you guys. See if you were interested.”
“Oh,” Rebecca said with a nod. “It sounds like fun.”
“Yeah,” Jeremy said. “Sounds great by me.” His gaze slid to Emily, and he willed her not to break his heart by finding an excuse not to come.
Finally she looked at him, and with that half smile she nodded. “Yeah. It sounds like fun.”
Emily couldn’t help but notice the smile Jeremy beamed at her when she and Rebecca made it to the pool tables Saturday night.
“Hey, gorgeous,” Jeremy whispered, twining his arm around her waist.
Embarrassed, she ducked into his shoulder. “Hey.”
He hugged her and then relaxed so she came to his side. “You want to play or just watch?”
“I think I’ll just watch.”
It should have fried his brain being on a date with her with everyone else around, but truly, tonight Jeremy didn’t care. He sat with her when he wasn’t playing. They talked and laughed and joked with everyone. The truly weird thing was, he didn’t feel like he had to do or not do anything to keep up appearances. All he had to do was be himself. It was something he had never truly done.
As the night wound to a close, his mind worked on the question of why that was. He had never in his life been with a girl like her. She had an easy way of being in the world that he felt but didn’t understand. On their way back to the dorms in his car, he pulled courage to him to voice what he was feeling.
“You’re amazing you know that?” he asked when he had pulled up to her dorm and turned off the car.
“Me?” She looked at him skeptically.
“Yeah. I don’t know how you do that.”
Her eyebrows narrowed. “Do what?”
“Just be.” He shook his head knowing how impossible it would be to put it all into words. “You’re not trying to impress people. You’re not all ‘will they like this outfit or those shoes.’ You’re just… you.”
Her gaze dropped to her lap. “And that’s bad?”
“No!” The word whooshed from him. “That’s good. Really good. I just don’t know how you do that.”
She sat for several seconds and then shook her head. “I’ve tried it—doing it the world’s way. Being who they wanted me to be, or trying to.” Her eyes narrowed on the thoughts. “But then when God started showing me He loved me just like I am, all that stuff didn’t seem important anymore.”
Jeremy tried to get his mind wrapped around what she was saying, but it was a struggle.
She glanced over at him. “Sorry.”
Concern sliced through his thoughts. “For what?”
Her smile was sad and accepting. “I know you don’t like to talk about stuff like that. You know, God and all.”
Soft peace drained through him. “It’s growing on me.”
It seemed to Emily that life had finally hit smooth. She went to classes which were interesting and not nearly as overwhelming as she had initially thought. Every night either she or Jeremy would find an excuse to make a phone call, and those hours spent tethered to him by phone lines were some of the best of her life.
Wednesday Bible Study, Thursday lunch. It was as if the problems in her life had vanished completely. Friday night they spent watching movies at the guys’ place, and Saturday night they played cards or pool. The only thing that puzzled her was why life had taken 21 years to feel this right.
It wasn’t until Wednesday the first day of February that reality caught back up to her. She had just made it back to her room to get ready for Bible Study when she noticed the blinking light on her answering machine. Excitement traced through her at the thought of connecting with him, and she punched the button without hesitation.
“Oh, uh. Hi. Emily?”
Worry and wonder catapulted onto her.
“This is Zack Harris, from the dance in Remlin.”
She closed her eyes to drown out his voice as her hand came up to her forehead.
“Listen, I was coming to Boston next weekend for a student conference, and I was wondering if maybe we could get together. If you could give me a call.” He left the number even as she tried to make nonsense out of it so her brain would remember none of it. “I’ll talk to you later. ‘Bye.”
The beep jangled her nerves. Rooted to the spot, she didn’t move until a knock sounded on the door. She shook her head to get it clear of the voice and the suggestion as she strode to the door.
“Hey,” Rebecca said, entering with a box of cookies in her hands. “I was hoping you’d be early.” She walked in and set the box on the desk before she turned and took a real look at Emily. “What’s wrong?”
Emily fought to get a real smile to her face as she wound her arms across her middle. “Nothing.” Forcing herself to, she stepped over and picked the pillow from the floor and put it in the chair. “I’m just running a little behind.”
“Oh.” Rebecca watched her, and Emily knew her acting had better get a whole lot better quick.
Unfortunately, as hard as she tried the rest of the evening at weird intervals her gaze would chance to the recorder, and her mind would drift back to Colorado. In fact, concentration was in short supply, and by the time Rebecca asked for the fifth time if everything was all right just before she left, Emily knew as well as Rebecca that her lies weren’t working.
“Okay,” Rebecca said, standing at Emily’s threshold with Eric. “If you’re sure.”
“Yeah. I’m sure. I’m just a little tired. That’s all.” Emily looked back into her room. “I’ve really got some studying to get to.”
“Yeah.” Rebecca gave her a hug, and so did Eric. Then they back up and let her close the door.
Once it was closed, she leaned against it in relief that finally she could be alone. Defensively she went to her desk and grabbed one of her books. The next best thing to forgetting was just to bury herself under a mountain of work.
“I’m telling you, something’s not right,” Eric said, leaning over the table the next afternoon. The girls would be showing up at any moment, and Eric’s intensity rose with each breath. “Becca and I talked last night about it, but we can’t figure out what’s going on.” He pursed his lips. “Did you call her last night?”
Jeremy felt guilty for the answer. “No. I knew she had Bible Study. You really think it’s that bad?”
“I don’t know. She was just so… different last night.” Eric’s gaze snapped up behind Jeremy. “Hey. Hey.”
The movement around Jeremy proceeded as usual. Rebecca crossed past the table to kiss Eric, and Emily stood behind him, unburdening herself.
“Hi, Em.” He smiled at her.
“Hi.” Her gaze met his, and he struggled to read it all. However, nothing was there that hadn’t been there before. “Let’s go, Becca.”
They stepped away from the table, and Jeremy watched her go. “She seems normal to me.”
“Yeah. That’s what worries me.”
“It’s a great idea,” Emily said the next Thursday as they sat around the table strewn with sandwiches. “I even found a puzzle that would be perfect, but there’s no way we’ll have enough time to put it all together during class. It’s like 500 pieces.”
“Well, what if you put some of it together before class?” Jeremy asked completely into the conversation. “That way they could see parts of it, and still have parts to put together.”
Emily sighed. “Yeah, but two problems with that. One I don’t have time to put enough of it together to make it work, and two, how in the world would I get what I got put together to the church?”
He wanted to offer, but the fact that his friends were right across the table made him hesitate. Still, they knew that he and Emily talked on the phone every night. They knew that Saturday she was at his place enjoying dinner and a movie. So finally he threw caution to the wind. “Well, maybe I could come over tonight, and we could work on it. I’m sick of homework anyway. It would be fun.”
For a moment hope filled her eyes, but then she shook her head. “I still don’t know how I would get it to the church.”
Jeremy shrugged. He was in this now. He might as well go for broke. “We could get some cardboard and glue it down, you know, what we put together. Then we could take it to your class.”
“I don’t know. It’s going to be big and bulky, and I’d have to get it there early so the kids didn’t see it, and taking it on the bus…”
“I could help. I could come over and take you,” he said, and he felt the stares from across the table. He shrugged. “One Sunday night away from the television won’t kill me.”
She smiled. Kind of. “Are you sure you wouldn’t mind?”
He smiled for real. “It sounds like fun.”
Emily’s nerves were at the surface of everything as she pulled on her shirt at five ‘til seven. How had he talked her into this? The puzzle thing sounded so cool when it was just an idea, but now it wasn’t just an idea. He was coming to help make her idea reality, and that was popping through her like an out-of-control cap gun.
The phone rang, and she jumped a foot. Racing over, she caught it on the second ring. “Hello.”
“I made it.”
She couldn’t stop the smile. “I’ll be right down.”
If anyone had told him six months before that he would be doing this and looking forward to it, Jeremy would never have believed them. Even as he waited for her to come down the steps, he still didn’t believe it. In fact, it wasn’t until he caught sight of her that the question of why he would even consider it disappeared.
How she could look that good without any real help from make-up or designer clothes, he would never know. Without waiting for her to get all the way to the bottom, he climbed the steps to where she was halfway from the top.
“You sure you want to do this?” she asked.
Happiness burst through him. “Lead the way.”
They climbed the two and a half more flights to her room, and at her door, he put his hand on his hip and waited for her to work the key. His gaze traced down the empty hallway. Inexplicably, he felt like they might be caught at any second. The lock clicked, and she stepped inside. For as much as they had been together over the last few weeks, they had only been alone a few minutes at the ends of evenings. However, when Jeremy stepped in, turned, and closed the door, he felt the world cede its hold on them. He took a breath to settle his nerves and then clapped his hands together. “So where’s this infamous puzzle?”
At her desk Emily slid the puzzle out of the plastic bag and held it up. Jeremy stepped over to it, took it from her, and examined it. Golden clouds illuminated the backdrop of the throne upon which sat Christ, a crown on his head, a scepter in his hand. This wasn’t a puzzle. It was unbelievable. It looked more like a painting. “Wow.”
Emily put her hands in her back pockets as she watched him. “I got it when I first came here, but my old room was too small, and since I’ve been here…” She looked around the room. “Well, I haven’t had a lot of time.”
Nodding, Jeremy took the puzzle and sat down on the floor with it. He ripped off his jacket and pitched it onto the brown chair. Then he pulled the plastic covering away and carefully opened the box. With one look, the task before them suddenly seemed overwhelming. “And we’re going to have this done by when?”
By nine o’clock they had most of the pieces sorted. Edges. Clouds. Golden pillars. Throne. Jeremy had just started piecing the edge together when the phone rang. He barely noticed as Emily stood to answer it.
A second and then another, and his attention jerked up to her as she slowly spun toward the window away from him.
Concern pounced through him. He didn’t like the sound of that at all.
“No. Sorry. I’ve just been busy.”
Even from behind her, he saw her arm come up to her stomach, and worry clapped over him like ominous thunder.
“No. Yeah. I got it. I was going to, but I just…”
He felt her glance back at him more than he saw it.
“No. I don’t think so. I’m kind of busy tonight.”
The pause left Jeremy breathless.
“No. Saturday’s not really good for me either. Yeah.”
If she was trying to kill him, she was doing a very good job of it. Fighting not to listen, he reached over and picked up a handful of edge pieces. Blue. White. Blue. White. He sorted them, trying desperately to block out the conversation.
“Yeah. Well, have a safe trip.” Another pause. “Okay, Zack. Yeah. I’ll see ya.”
Zack? Who was Zack?
The fact that he wasn’t breathing made Jeremy’s head swim. She hung up, stopped for one second and then turned and sat down. He wanted to look at her, to ask, but suddenly it was like the ability to speak had escaped his skill set.
“Hmm.” He cleared his throat. “I didn’t know you had plans.”
“Oh. I didn’t. That was just…” She glanced back at the phone. “Someone I met over Christmas.”
This was getting worse. “And you don’t want to see him?”
She shrugged and reached for more pieces. “He was a nice guy and everything. Well, kind of nice… I don’t know. I don’t really know him all that well.”
“Hmm.” Jeremy cleared his throat again as he fought to keep his concentration on the pieces. “But he calls you. To ask you out.”
“He’s in town for some student something. I don’t know. He goes to Princeton.”
“Oh.” Suddenly the feeling of being less-than crowded in on Jeremy. He withdrew into his own little world of a thousand pieces that suddenly didn’t quite fit.
In truth they hadn’t gotten very far. There were stacks, but the stacks themselves were a challenge, not to mention how many stacks there were that hadn’t even been touched. It had taken more than thirty minutes for them to start talking again, and when they finally did, Jeremy felt only a little better. He couldn’t get that phone call to leave him alone.
When they said goodnight minutes before midnight, he kissed her, but it was hesitant and uncertain. He knew she felt it too, but he had no idea what to do about that. They were supposed to get together to do more of the puzzle on Friday. Maybe then he would find a way to ask that didn’t make him sound like a jealous control-freak.
“God,” he prayed in the car on the way home. “I know that You and I don’t know each other all that well, but well… You know Emily, better than I do, and… Could you please put in a good word about me to her?” He gripped the wheel and lowered his eyebrows in concentration. “She’s different than all the other ones, and I feel like if I lose her, that might be it for me. Please help me. I’d really appreciate it.”
Emily sat in her chair, the Bible open on her lap, the puzzle pieces scattered at her feet. It was all going so well until Zack had called. She knew Jeremy was worried, but she didn’t know how to tell him about Zack without it leading to Brock and then to things she really didn’t want to talk about. Something in her said if she ever started talking, she might not be able to stop.
“God, You know how much I like Jeremy. I want him in my life, Lord, but there are so many things that he doesn’t understand about me.” She sighed. “You for one. He doesn’t even know You, and I’m not sure him helping me even has anything to do with You.” She shook her head and closed her eyes. “I don’t know. I don’t know how this could ever work.”
When she opened her eyes, her gaze fell to the book.
And He said again, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three pecks of meal, until it was all leavened.”
With a breath she looked to the preceding page.
A certain man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it, and did not find any. And he said to the vineyard-keeper, “Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?” And he answered and said to him, “Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer, and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.”
Emily put her head back on the chair and closed her eyes. “Dear Lord, I ask that You open Jeremy’s heart to the possibility of Your love. Yes, I want him in my life, but more than that, I want him to have Your love. Please don’t just cut him down. Search him out like You did the lost sheep.” She let out her breath. “That’s all I ask. Just show him Your love.”
“You know, this would be fun if we had more than two days to do it,” Jeremy said the next evening as he leaned across the floor in search of another piece to the section he was working on. “So, tell me again what you’re planning to do with this.”
“Well.” Emily brushed the hair out of her face. She picked up five pieces and went about testing them against each other. “It’s like our lives. Each day is a piece.” She held up one, and Jeremy nodded as if he was truly listening. “By itself, each piece doesn’t make much sense. In fact, even when several pieces together, we can’t always see what they are all making.”
Frustrated with those pieces, she grabbed two more. “The thing is too often we try to put the pieces together the way we think they should fit. Like me with the kids. I wanted them to listen to me because that’s how I thought they would learn. So I tried to make that situation fit, but the more I tried, the worse it got. It was only when I gave up and said, ‘God, I don’t know how this goes together. You do it’ that things started getting better.”
By this time there was a whole little ten piece section together by her feet. It was blue with the start of a billowing of clouds. “The funny thing is, He made the puzzle. He knows how every piece is supposed to fit, but He doesn’t just come in and yank it away from us and go, ‘Here! Let me do that. You are messing it up!’ No. He loves us so much that He’s willing to step back and let us decide for ourselves whether to let Him help or not.”
“But why?” Jeremy asked, looking at the pieces in front of him.
“Because love isn’t love if you have to.”
Quizzically he looked at her.
“If God said, ‘Look, your puzzle goes together like this, it works better like this, and He never gave us a chance to try it on our own, we’d never get how much He loves us. We’d just take it for granted that there was no other option. But… if He lets us try it on our own, giving us hints about how much He loves us, about how we don’t have to do it because we have the option of relying on Him, then when we do finally learn to put it in His hands, He knows that we did it because we wanted to—not because He forced us to.”
“But isn’t He testing us? Seeing if we can put the puzzle together ourselves?”
She fit two sections together. “No. There are no tests. Only lessons.”
The puzzle piece in his hand stopped at his knee, and his full attention wrapped around her. “Lessons?”
The question slid through her. “When we’re little we learn about what works and what doesn’t in the world. We test things out. We try them. This works. That doesn’t. Say a kid learns that throwing a temper tantrum will get him what he wants. Okay, then when he’s not getting what he wants, he throws a tantrum, and everyone jumps in to make him happy again. He’s learned his lesson. But then he becomes an adult, and maybe he’s at work and he throws a tantrum. The boss gets mad and fires him. New lesson.
“That guy will probably spend a lot of time and energy trying to get things to work the way he always has. But eventually… eventually, if he’s lucky, he figures out that maybe there’s another way. It’s hard work to get those lessons in the world. It’s much easier with God.”
“But they are both from God?”
Peace wrapped around her as she pushed a piece of hair over her ear. “Yes, but most people don’t realize that. They can’t figure out why life is so hard, why it’s so unfair. What they don’t get is that it’s hard because they are the ones trying to do it, which brings us back to the puzzle.” She held up a piece. “God knows where this piece of my life fits because He created it, and He saw where it fit long before I ever got to it. I can get mad at Him for making this piece the way He made it, or I can trust Him to do with it whatever He had in mind.”
“But how do you do that? What if it’s not something good?”
Emily smiled softly. “It’s always good when God’s the one doing it. Even the tough things can make you grow and stretch in ways you never would have otherwise. Trials come and make you more patient if you believe that God loves you and He’s showing you the lesson of patience. Suffering comes, and it can teach you endurance. Sorrow comes, and it can teach you to be a more compassionate person.”
Jeremy’s face scrunched disbelievingly. “Yeah, but what about the really bad stuff? Like rape or murder or something like that. Surely God doesn’t want those to happen.”
At first she didn’t think she could get the words out, but she closed her eyes and breathed in God’s words of love and peace. “God never wants bad things to happen, but in a world where free will is, some people will choose bad things. Sometimes they’ll even do bad things to others. God isn’t going to violate our free wills to keep us from hurting each other, but he can take that hurt and turn it into something good if we will let Him.”
“Good like how?”
“Like teaching us forgiveness and how to stand up to evil and what real courage and love is about.”
“What happened to an eye for an eye?”
“Old Testament, when the Israelites through Adam and Eve made the choice to do it on their own. Eve ate from the tree of ‘I can do it myself,’ and Adam followed. Over and over again, the Israelites told God, ‘Just give us Your laws, just tell us how to do it right, and we’ll prove to You that we deserve to be in Your Kingdom.’” At her feet the clouds gave way to the pillars of light. “But they couldn’t do it. Just like we can’t. We need Him. Not just on Sundays or at night for fifteen minutes, but every minute. We need Him with us, in us, putting the puzzle together that we would never be able to shape by ourselves.”
“He’s already there. His power, His presence, His purpose. It’s already there. He sees it in the big picture like we never can. He knows for example that this person…” She held up a piece. “plays a vital role in our lives, so vital that without their contribution, there would be a big, gaping hole in our lives. But if we’re putting the puzzle together—picking and choosing for ourselves where we go to school, who we’re around, what job we have… I think we can miss some of the wonderful pieces God knew we needed.”
Slowly he slid back to the steel frame of her bed. “Okay. So how do you let Him do it? How do you not miss the pieces?”
She shifted on the floor. “It’s like me going here to school. There were plenty of good schools back home. My mom and dad really wanted me to go back there, but I knew this was right—for me. It might not be right for anyone else, but it was for me.”
“And how’d you know that? God told you?”
“Kind of. I would get real still and say the names of the schools I was considering. This one always felt like peace.”
He looked at her skeptically.
“I know it sounds all woo-hoo-hoo weird, but I know when something works, it was meant to be, and when it doesn’t, it means He has something different in mind.”
By the time Jeremy was in bed later, his mind was spinning. How many hours had he spent fidgeting in a church pew while his mom glared at him for not being still. All those minutes had never felt like that one with her. It was as if he could see the glow around her, and that scared him more than what she was saying. He wasn’t one of those whackos who got quiet and listened. No. He set his goals, and he went for them.
Trials were meant to be overcome—not to teach you anything. Suffering? He tried to stay as far away from that as possible. Ditto for sorrow. Happiness. That’s what he wanted. Happiness and pleasure.
At least he had until he met her. Now he wasn’t so sure. Worse, he wasn’t sure he could get back to how he had been before if this didn’t work out. It was four in the morning when his brain finally surrendered and let him go to sleep, and even then her words streamed through him—inviting him to something different, challenging him to see the world in a whole new way. It was at once exciting and terrifying, and even in his dreams he wasn’t sure which side of the question he would ultimately land on.
From the edge of the room next to the barren wall, Jeremy watched her. The kids seemed to home in on her as she set a bag of pieces in front of each one of them. She had, of course, given him the option of bowing out before the kids got there, but since he had insisted on driving, he couldn’t very well leave her here.
“Okay, you have 20 minutes to get your part of the puzzle together.” She looked at her watch. “Ready. Go.”
Instantly the kids dove into the bags. After only a few minutes several moved into small groups to work on their parts. They were a model of industrial engineering—assessing the problem and coming up with a plan to solve it. Only the red-headed kid to the side, sitting apart from everyone else failed to jump in. Jeremy caught Emily looking at the kid, and then she glanced over to him and half smiled.
He shouldn’t, his brain said. He had nothing to offer this kid. He didn’t even know him. However, that hole she had talked about in the puzzle haunted him. Maybe this was a piece he needed but because of his need to control everything, he was going to let it slip past him. With a heave of air, he made the decision and pushed himself forward.
Emily’s attention swung to him with the movement. Fear reached up into her chest and lodged there when she realized where he was headed. What was he doing? In horror she watched as he crawled across the navy and gray flat carpet to where Matt sat. Panic told her to do something. He didn’t know what he was doing. Matt didn’t even know him.
God, help, her spirit cried.
Give him a chance, God seemed to reply. I am.
Every part of her wanted to go over there, to jump in, to make sure he wouldn’t ruin everything she had worked so hard to build, but something held her back.
Okay, God, she breathed. Show me what you want me to see.
“This is stupid,” Matt said in disgust. “I’ve got better things to do than to waste my time on some stupid puzzle. I’m not five.”
Jeremy laughed as he grabbed a couple of pieces. He’d had enough practice with this puzzle that he could see some of the fits even before he put them together. “Yeah. I thought it was kind of lame too.”
“Kind of?” Matt looked at him derisively. “How about really lame. What’re you doing here anyway? You’re not part of this class.”
“Yeah, I know. But I helped Emily… uh, Miss Vasquez bring… well, bring the other part of the lesson.”
“You mean there’s more?” The look on Matt’s face made Jeremy laugh.
“Let me tell you, bud. Hang around her for awhile. There’s a whole lot more!”
“Ooooh.” Matt nodded in understanding. “You have the hots for her.”
The comment side-swiped Jeremy, but he kept working as if he hadn’t caught the intended meaning. “Yeah, she’s pretty cool.”
“She’s not bad.” Matt shrugged. “Looking I mean. I’d give her a night or two.”
With a jerk Jeremy stopped cold. Had he heard what he thought he had? It took everything he had not to level the kid, and for one minute this whole thing seemed like a very bad idea. Then a conversation from months before drifted through him. ‘I, I, I. What happened to giving it to the Holy Spirit and letting Him take care of it?’ He hadn’t understood it at that moment, but right now, it was his only shot at salvaging this wreck.
Okay, Holy Spirit, I need some help here. I don’t know what to say.
“That’s what I used to think too,” Jeremy said, and he wondered where the words were coming from. He questioned his sanity but plowed ahead just the same. “I figured it was better to use people before they got a chance to hurt you. Use them for what you need and then throw them back on the heap. That was my philosophy.”
Matt nodded, clearly surprised to find a kindred soul at youth group. Jeremy was glad for the hum of conversations and noise around them. At least this way they couldn’t all hear his confession.
“But I’m starting to see that’s not really the best way to live. Take this puzzle piece.” He held it up. “I used to go like this.” He took another piece that clearly didn’t fit and forced the two together.
“Dude,” Matt said, backing up skeptically, “them two don’t fit.”
“Yeah, they do. See I made them fit.” Then he took another piece and jammed it into the end of the other two. This one was floppy and wouldn’t stay in the other hole so he laid it on the floor and kept building. Suddenly his old way of life flooded through him, and he saw in himself what he’d never seen before. He grabbed another piece and jammed it into the others.
“Hey, man, that one ain’t even the same color,” Matt said as if he was appalled by Jeremy’s lack of discernment.
“Doesn’t matter. They’re my pieces, and I’m going to do whatever I want with them.” Jeremy kept putting pieces together, forcing them when they didn’t fit. He didn’t take time to so much as look at them. He just kept jamming them together so that they were now in an illogical but flat jumble on the floor in front of him.
“Dude, you’re screwing up the whole puzzle.” Matt was looking at him like he’d lost his mind. “You can’t just put it together however you want and expect it to come out right!”
“What do you mean?” Jeremy asked him, stopping for a second. “What do I care if the whole thing looks good or not as long as I get to do whatever I want to, right?” He went back to putting the pieces together.
“No, man. Look around you.” Matt’s gaze traced across the room. “If you don’t do your part right, you’re going to screw it up for everyone else too.”
“Oh.” Jeremy slowed and then stopped. He looked around at the others. “So my pieces and how I put them together make a difference to other people?”
“Yeah!” Matt said as if he couldn’t figure out how Jeremy couldn’t see that. “Of course it does.”
“Oh, so if I take the pieces of my life and just start slapping them together any old way, whatever works, whatever makes me happy, then I might be messing up the puzzle for someone else?”
Only then did the lesson begin to dawn on Matt.
“So if I take a girl out a night or two because she’s good looking and might give me what I want, then maybe I might be messing her puzzle up?” Jeremy looked down at the utter mess his puzzle had become. His gaze slid across the room to the others, and he realized how diligently the other kids had been putting their puzzles together. They were beautiful. But the truth was staring him in the face. His disaster would ruin the experience for all of them. His willful need to put it together however it worked for him messed up the whole thing—not just for him but for them too.
Then his gaze alighted on the puzzle piece on one edge of his mess, and ache filled his heart. It was the face of Jesus, patiently looking at up at him. It took a breath to steady his emotions. One piece at a time Jeremy began pulling the pieces apart.
“The truth is I don’t know how my life is supposed to go together, and to be honest I’m pretty bad about putting it together myself.” Memories slid through him. Gwen. The engagement. Eric. Rebecca. His arrogance. His mother. His father. The divorce. He was handling it all—his way, and boy, had he made a mess of things.
As the last two pieces came apart, his gaze traveled across the room to where Emily stood, bending down with her arms over her middle as she guided two students in their attempts to put the pieces of their puzzles together. Gratefulness such that he had never known flooded through him. She was a piece he had never seen coming, a piece that on his own he would’ve dismissed and discarded. Yet he now saw that without her, the other pieces of his life made no sense at all.
Understanding cascaded through him as his gaze fell back to the pieces before him. “God gave you the puzzle of your life, Matt, and you can put it together yourself, or you can give it to Him to put together for you. If you do that, He will bring pieces into your life that you never saw coming, and He will fit them together so that it makes not just your part of the puzzle make sense, but so that the whole puzzle—all of it, your part and all the other parts make sense together.”
He sniffed and wiped his nose. “I can’t explain that, but I can tell you that it’s true.”
A second as he put two pieces together correctly and then another as he added one more, and then he saw Matt’s hand from the corner of his eye. Slowly Matt reached out, grabbed a few pieces and carefully fit them together. One didn’t fit, so he tossed it back to the pile. In silence they built their own little parts, and when they were finished, Jeremy took a deep breath. “Okay. Let’s see what we’ve got.”
Gently, carefully, he took Matt’s half and his half. When they slid together, a gasp jumped through him. There on the throne of heaven sat Jesus Christ smiling back at them. It was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. “Oh, my gosh.” He sat back in astonishment. “Wow. It’s a little piece of heaven.”
“I saw you with Matt,” Emily said later as they drove back to the dorms.
“Yeah,” Jeremy breathed. He glanced at her. “I’m really glad I came tonight.” It took a second for him to be able to continue. Finally he reached over and took her hand. “I think it was a piece I needed.”
She smiled at him. “I’m glad.”
It was Thursday afternoon as they walked out into what would have to pass for mid-February warmth. He’d been trying to find a way to ask since Monday. They’d talked every night—two hours on Valentine’s Day, and still he hadn’t found the words. He’d had every intention of asking her today during lunch, but the right moment had never come up. In fact, neither of them had said more than five words what with Eric and Rebecca making plans for their weekend trip to Rebecca’s parents’ house. Even now Jeremy wondered if this was the right one.
“Man, I hate to ask you this,” Jeremy finally said as if someone had run over his dog.
Apprehensive concern rained down her face. “Oh, this can’t be good.”
He barely glanced at her. “Look, if you say no, I’ll understand.”
Her look of anxiety increased, and Jeremy fought to tell himself just not to ask her. It was a disaster waiting to happen. Brett from accounting getting married? That was bad enough, but now they were having a couple’s shower at Fire & Ice. Everyone was going. He couldn’t go alone, but not going was tantamount to snubbing the whole accounting class—not a good career move.
Doing that could kill his chances of preserving contacts with these people that he might well need by the end of the semester. They were MBA’s. Some of them had jobs. Good jobs and could be good references when the time was right. That time was fast approaching.
Still… he didn’t want to go, and he really didn’t want to drag her along. “It’s just this deal. Some friends of mine are getting together for a couple’s shower.”
“Oh? Who’s getting married?” She sounded interested, and relieved.
“Brett and Rhiannon.”
When he offered no more, she asked, “And they are?”
“Just some people I know from some business classes. They invited a bunch of us to come, and well… You don’t have to go if you don’t want.”
The quizzical look that she gave him made him really regret asking. She didn’t want to go. He shouldn’t have asked.
Finally she shrugged. “Okay. It sounds fun.”
Surprise bowled over him. “Really?”
Her soft smile was reassuring. “Sure. Just tell me when to be ready, and I will be.”
He couldn’t believe his luck. “Cool.”
Emily wished Rebecca would’ve been around for moral support. She needed some. It should’ve been exciting—going out on a Saturday night, dancing with the guy you were dating; however, the thought of the crowd and a table full of strangers pushed her anxiety into five-alarm state. She pulled out the only red shirt she owned and a pair of jeans.
She shook her head knowing she was going to fail the good-enough test miserably. These girls were business majors, and they probably went out to the bar three times a week. They were sophisticated and worldly, and here she was in her dumpy off-the-rack jeans and her little red shirt. The only cool thing about the entire outfit was the rip in the shirt just at the waistline. It wasn’t really cool. She’d really ripped it on a trip up the stairs with her laundry basket; however, maybe she would get lucky, and they would think it was a manufactured rip.
In the middle of brushing on her blush, which she was hopelessly bad at, the phone rang. She closed her eyes to the reflection in the mirror. Oh, Holy Spirit, help.
By the time they got to Fire & Ice, Jeremy was alternating between wondering what he had been so nervous about and trying to pretend she was going to fit in. He hadn’t had the heart to tell her Fire & Ice was a little black dress kind of place—not a jeans and ripped shirt kind of place. But he didn’t want to embarrass her. Worse, he knew from the times they had been out, her wardrobe was less-than-enormous, so it wasn’t really clear that she even owned a little black dress.
Nonetheless, they had gone to eat, and although it wasn’t a fabulous restaurant, they’d had a great time. Standing outside the club, her hand in his, it was easy to believe that this was exactly the way things were supposed to be. The line moved forward, and they moved with it.
“So, have you ever been here before?” he asked, getting more excited about the evening with each passing second. The thought of getting to dance with her was enough to brush all bad thoughts away.
She tilted her head and let it fall. “No. I’m not much of a party animal.”
“Oh.” They moved forward again. “Well, they don’t smash glasses and swing on chandeliers or anything.”
Her look held gratefulness—maybe for the fact he was concerned, maybe for the fact that this wasn’t going to be an all out beer bash. He couldn’t really tell which. At the door he paid, grabbed her hand, and led her into the dim lights made visible by the smoke. He glanced back at her, and the fear and awe in her touch were mirrored in her face.
He leaned back to her. “It’s nice, huh?”
She nodded as their arms met from the shoulder down. It was clear she had no intention of letting his hand go, which was plenty fine with Jeremy. Halfway around the dance floor, he saw the group.
He lifted his chin in an acknowledging grin. Then he ducked back to her. “They’re right over here.”
Her grip tightened, but she said nothing. At the two tables someone had pulled together, Jeremy greeted his acquaintances. As expected the girls were all dressed to the nines and the guys all wore button-down shirts with ties. Casual it was not.
“Jeremy!” Brett, the groom-to-be said, standing from the end of the table. He came around and shook Jeremy’s hand. “Glad you could make it.” Then he eyed Emily head to toe and back up again. “And who is this?”
“This…” Jeremy cleared his throat. “This is Emily. My… date.”
Brett stopped for a moment and then offered a hand to Emily. “We’re glad you could come.”
At that moment several women dressed in slinky silk tops and leather miniskirts descended on the table. One of them attached herself to Brett. He put an arm around her and turned back to them. “Jeremy, you remember Rhiannon.”
“Yeah. Hi. Congratulations.” Jeremy took her hand, feeling Emily slide almost completely behind his back.
“Thanks,” Rhiannon said.
“And this is Elizabeth,” Brett said, indicating Emily.
“Uh, hi.” Emily twined around Jeremy to shake Rhiannon’s hand. “It’s Emily.”
Rhiannon shook her hand with a dismissive glance then turned to Brett. “Come on. I don’t want to sit here all night. I thought we came to dance.”
He smiled sheepishly at them and shrugged. “Duty calls.”
Jeremy stepped back to make room for them to pass and then guided Emily to the table. “Let’s have a seat.”
She sat, but it looked difficult. Her gaze chanced up and then fell back to the table before gliding out to the dancers. He wanted to do something or say something to make her look less panicked, less uncomfortable, but he couldn’t think of anything.
“Hey, Jeremy!” Tad Hughes stepped up, and Jeremy stood, smoothing his tie as he did so. “Wow. I haven’t seen you in ages, man. Where’ve you been hiding yourself?”
Torn. It was a good word for what Jeremy felt. Tad was one of those with the good job and the great prospects. Emily was the one looking wholly out of place and scared to death. He was somewhere in between.
“Studying like crazy,” Jeremy said. “I graduate in May, so it’s crunch time now.”
“Ugh. I don’t envy you. You started the job hunt yet?”
Jeremy wound his hands under his armpits and widened his stance. “Keeping my options open. My dad wants me to come to work at his firm, but I’m not sure finance law is my forte.”
Tad tipped his drink. “Never rule anything out. I didn’t think I wanted international, but it worked out that way.” Then Tad seemed to notice Jeremy’s lack of a drink. “Hey, it’s open tab for Brett’s party tonight. What do you want?”
“Oh, I’m…” Jeremy tried to wave him off, but Tad stopped a buxom blonde waitress who was carrying shots. “No, really, I’m…”
Tad reached in his pocket for a tip. “Give us a Jell-o shot.”
In seconds the drink was in Jeremy’s hand, and the two of them were watching him expectantly–Tad to get his gratitude, the blonde to get the shot glass back. With a sigh, Jeremy tipped up the vial, downed the stinging liquid, and handed the glass back although he really couldn’t see the waitress.
“See, much better!” Tad nodded. “That’s what I’m talking about!”
Fear coiled around Emily so tight she couldn’t breathe. She’d only seen one other person drink like that, and it was a memory she’d done her best to forget. When Jeremy sat back down many minutes later, she let her gaze anchor to her fingers intertwined between her knees. Maybe if she became invisible, he would forget she was even there. After all, she wanted to.
“See. I told you this would be fun,” he said with a bright grin as he put his arm across the back of her chair.
She tried to smile if for no other reason than to not cry. “Yeah, fun.”
Every-so-often someone would come up, talk for a bit, notice he didn’t have a drink, and insist on fixing that problem. It occurred to Jeremy at one point that he had relaxed so much the room had softened. The music, though blaring, wasn’t harsh but mellow. He stood and offered her his hand to dance. Had he had a few less to drink, he would’ve noticed her hesitation, but he didn’t. All he knew was that he wanted to dance with her, and this was his chance.
On the dance floor he moved to the beat. He wasn’t a great dancer, but he liked watching her enough that he could forget about himself. It was too bad it wasn’t a slow song. A slow song would have been nice. Then as if the universe was listening, the beat slowed, and around them couples drifted together.
He didn’t ask, simply stepped toward her. In the next breath she was in his arms, and calm descended on him. It might have been the alcohol, but the truth was he didn’t want his sight to ruin this feeling, so he closed his eyes and soaked her in. She felt so good, so soft, so right in his arms. It was like moving on a cloud. His hand drifted up her back, sliding over her and pressing her closer to him. He liked her so much. He liked being with her, talking with her, and now, dancing with her. She felt so right in his arms, so perfect. All he wanted to do was to feel every inch of her. If that moment had gone on forever, he wouldn’t have complained.
However, it didn’t. When the song ended, she didn’t even look at him. She just stepped out of his arms and turned, heading for the tables. He saw her arms anchor across her middle. That slammed something close to rational back into him. Why did she look so hunched over herself? Why did she look so uncomfortable and scared? At the table he tried to beat through the alcohol haze to figure it out.
His gaze slid across to her, and hazy worry drifted through him. She didn’t even look at him. In fact, she seemed to be looking at nothing at all as her gaze stayed anchored to the distant wall. He slid closer to her and put his arm over her chair. “You having fun?”
She sat, rod-straight, her arms wound around her. She nodded barely acknowledging him, but her face was blank. It held no real emotion at all.
“Time for a toast!” Ray, the best man, said from the head of the table.
Confusion twined through Jeremy; however, his mind wasn’t cooperating enough to untwist it. After a moment of trying, his attention drifted from her to the table, and he grabbed the last drink he’d been working on. At least he could look like he knew what he was doing. He lifted the glass as Ray said some words. They all lifted their glasses and then drank. Jeremy followed with no real question. It was only when he put his glass on the table that he realized Emily didn’t have one.
He leaned closer to her. He hated how uneasy she looked. “Do you want something? I could get you something.”
Her shoulders pulled together as if on a drawstring. She shook her head as her gaze fell. He felt bad, knowing she wasn’t having fun, but what could he do? Movement across the table drew his attention.
“Yeah,” Ray said as he stood with his date talking to Brett and Rhiannon. “We’re headed out, but we had a good time.” Handshakes and hugs ensued.
Jeremy’s gaze fell to Emily, and the look on her face wrenched across his heart. He leaned closer to her. “If you want, we could go on home. Everybody else is bailing anyway.”
Emily’s insides were twisted into clenched knots. In all her imaginations this wasn’t anything like what she had expected. Her out-of-place outfit was just the most obvious sign that she didn’t fit in with these people. It only got worse from there. Part of her knew when she’d accepted that she couldn’t compare to these people, and part of her had no interest in trying.
But it hadn’t taken three of the ten people who had come to talk to Jeremy to convince her that even if she wanted to, she could never be like them. They were dressed in clothes that cost half her tuition, and they had a smooth, knowing way about them as if this was all somewhat boring. None of them, including Jeremy, had even acknowledged her presence as they talked. She might as well have been part of the wall.
Worse, the more he drank, the more Jeremy became like them. She hated that. It was like he was a completely different person than he was only hours before.
“Jeremy.” The guy who was leaving and his date stepped up, and Jeremy stood.
Ache clutched Emily as she turned her gaze into the darkness, trying to stop the tears. Not once the whole night had he even remembered she was here with him. When the others came, he left her sitting in the dark to talk to them. It was humiliating. She let her gaze slide to the dance floor as she fought not to let the hurt split her in two. All she wanted to do was leave, but she knew he didn’t. If they left now, it would solidify that she was boring and childish, that she could never, ever be like these people.
However, when he sat back down, the thought of staying even one more minute in this nightmare threatened to make her sick on her shoes. The stench of alcohol on him wafted around her in a sickening haze. He smelled just like…
With a snap, she shook her head, set her jaw, and stood. Slowly his gaze went up with her. “Fine. Let’s go.”
Although Jeremy was less than smooth as he stood, he took her hand, and together they went over to tell the happy couple good night. As they talked, once again Emily felt invisible. When the pleasantries were complete, she turned in front of Jeremy and strode through the crowd. She walked so fast, twice she all but lost him. That was fine. If she could just keep walking and lose him altogether, that would’ve been better. However, once outside he grabbed for her hand and managed to catch it in his.
Revulsion slid through her. It was then, however, that she noticed him fumbling with his keys from his other pocket. She closed her eyes, examined her options, and sighed. Holding out her hand, she made a point not to look at him. “I’ll drive.”
“No, that’s okay. I can get it.”
Decking him felt like an appropriate response. Instead she simply reached over and yanked the keys from him. “I said, ‘I’ll drive.’”
Anger bled through his features as he glowered at her. “What, you don’t think I can drive?”
“No. I don’t.” The firmness of her tone stopped him. At his car she hit the button and went to the driver’s side without bothering to wait for him. In two motions she was in the car. In two more she had it started.
It took several minutes for him to make it to the other side. Once in, he looked at her miserably. “Are you mad?”
She glanced over at him. “Put your seatbelt on. I don’t want a ticket.”
“Oh, okay.” He did as instructed.
The ride home was cold and quiet. Emily knew he was fighting sleep, and it would’ve been fine with her had he just relinquished the fight. She didn’t want to talk to him. She didn’t even want to be here with him. Rage boiled in her mostly at herself for ever believing he could be anything other than what he had shown her in the beginning. He was a jerk. A grade-A, number one, government-inspected jerk. No wonder Gwen left. It was becoming apparent that she was the smart one.
The silver Audi flashed under the streetlights, and in no time they were at his apartment. Emily parked and killed the engine. Silence engulfed everything. Dully Jeremy looked over at her. “How’re you getting home?”
She shrugged. “The bus I guess.” She grabbed her purse and sorted through the few dollars she had brought. With a sigh of frustration, she yanked the door handle and whacked her shoulder into the door to get it open. The cold weather slapped into her, and she pulled her small jacket around her.
He followed her but not fast. “You don’t have to do that. Why don’t you come up? You can crash on the couch.” Jeremy was out of the car but not exactly stable. He looked like he might either fall over or fall asleep—or both—at any moment.
“I’ll be fine.” Emily started toward the nearest through street. She didn’t want to be here. She wanted to be at home, in bed with this night far behind her. However, midway across the driveway, Jeremy got to her and stopped her with a hand on her arm.
“Em, I’m sorry. Whatever I did. I’m sorry.”
Incredulousness dropped over her. How could he not know? She shook her head. “Yeah. Whatever.” Her feet carried her three more steps before he caught up with her again.
“No, Em. Really. Come on.” His brown eyes pleaded with her. “I don’t want you mad at me, and I don’t want you out on some bus at all hours of the night. That’s not safe. Please. You can crash on the couch. I’ve got blankets and pillows. Please.” His head tilted on the weight of the entreaty. “Don’t leave.”
In truth she didn’t want to be on a bus in the middle of the night either. It truly wasn’t safe. Fear of the scenarios that might follow a rash decision like that made her head spin, but how could she be sure this scenario wouldn’t be worse? The one and only thing that made her think it might not was how he was gazing at her. Just the vulnerability was enough to convince her that this was the better option.
Yes, it was alcohol laden, but it was also concerned and miserable. “Please?”
Closing her eyes on the anger, she shook her head. “Fine.”
In the apartment Jeremy fought with the alcohol hazing his brain. He had to make this right. She was furious, and if he did one more stupid thing, she would be gone never to return. He got that much. He considered trying to talk about it, but talking it out now wouldn’t get them very far. He couldn’t have made sense if he had tried. Worse, he might say something too honest about his feelings for her, and at this moment he had no idea how she would take that.
“I’ll get the blankets.” He went into his room and pulled three blankets from under the bed. He added a throw pillow and his own for good measure. In the living room, he angled his descent down the steps so he wouldn’t fall. It was beginning to dawn on him how much he must have had to drink.
It had been a long time since he’d drank this much. As that thought traced through his mind, he realized when that was—the night Gwen had walked out. Panic such that he’d never felt cascaded through him. He willed himself to get it together. Emily was watching.
“I’ve got these blankets. They’re nice, but if you think they’re not enough, I could give you the comforter off my bed.”
“No. That’s okay.” She was standing across the room, her arms anchored at her middle.
He unfurled the blankets one-by-one and put them on the couch. Then he laid out the pillows. When the bed was made, there was nothing left to keep him busy. He wanted to go to her, kiss her, hold her, and make everything right, but he knew better. “I’ll just be…” He pointed up the stairs. “If you need anything…”
“I’m fine.” Still, she didn’t move.
Jeremy nodded, sensing that this would be the last time he would see her in his apartment. His gaze dropped as sadness washed over him. Finally he nodded. “Goodnight, Emily.”
For the longest minute of his life she said nothing.
“’Night.” It was barely a whisper, and with his heart shredding at the thoughts drifting through him, Jeremy left her there in the darkness.
Copyright Staci Stallings, 2006