Overwhelming anguish flooded Emily as she sat down on the couch long after he’d gone. How could this have happened? It was supposed to be fun to go out with friends. She looked around the apartment, and tears came to her eyes. Eric and Rebecca would be so disappointed, and she couldn’t blame them. She was disappointed too. If he just didn’t play this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thing all the time… if he was just the Jeremy she ate lunch with, the one who helped her put the puzzle together, the one she laughed with and talked with…
But somewhere in him, this other Jeremy was alive and well. This Jeremy who thought social-climbing was the point of life, who lived in a world she would never understand, who believed all the things she loathed were just how it was. How could she have been so stupid as to let herself fall for him? He hadn’t changed anymore than Gibraltar ever would, and for her heart, she had to face that fact, tell him good-bye, and find a way to go on living.
It took force to get her nerves to settle down enough so she could put her head down and her feet up onto the couch. Then, on the soft green pillow case, she finally stopped fighting and let the tears take her. Maybe they were all like this. Maybe there wasn’t a single descent guy out there. A guy who knew how to treat a lady. A guy who didn’t think getting drunk and having sex were the only reason to go out. That thought hurt to think, but it was hard to deny. Then again, even if there was one descent guy left, he certainly wouldn’t be interested in her. The feeling of sitting alone at the table while Jeremy talked and the others had fun descended on her. They all understood how to play this game. She didn’t. She never had, and she never would.
Another face drifted through her, and this one brought real, stinging pain with it. Grief poured from her as she put her knuckles to her mouth to try to beat it back. The reality was although it had been five years, she was still the one trying to figure out what all the others seemed to get effortlessly—how to be popular, how to be likeable, how to fit in. But then the thoughts of what she had given up to be popular gouged into her, and she gasped at the fiery ache they brought with them.
“Stop it, Emily!” she hissed to the darkness. “Just stop it already!” But the thoughts and the tears were too heavy to hold. They dragged her down with them into the darkness of memories she had done everything she could to get rid of for five years.
The darkness became palpable as if it was a real presence in the room. Emily lay curled, deflecting it from her even as it surrounded her. Sleep and memories began to tug for control of her mind. As she lay there, the seconds sliding by, she dropped through the veil of consciousness into sleep, but instantly she shook herself awake. Fear snaked through her. Her breathing fought against unconsciousness.
Awake, her brain would remind her where she was. It would carefully check through the apartment for sounds—a shuffle of feet down the steps, a door opening, something moving, anything that wasn’t perfectly still.
Then she would fall again into the abyss of slumber once again. It was like being awake and asleep at the same time until she didn’t know which one was real. For whole moments upon waking she would frantically look around, gasping for breath, and trying to figure out where the light under her door was. Then, upon finding the shaft from the window over the steps, she would remember where she was and be partially reassured until she remembered he was here too, and irrational fear would coil over her once again. Even sleeping, her guard was up. Yes, he hadn’t tried anything when they got here, but that didn’t make now any less dangerous.
She had to listen for him in case he woke up, stumbled out here, and decided to take advantage of the situation. The night deepened until the darkness of the apartment ceded to the graying sheets of rain outside the window of the pickup truck with the still new smell permeating the leather seats. As she sat there on her side, nerves wound through her. It wasn’t like she was a baby. She knew why people brought dates out into the country.
The pink and white prom dress gracing her body felt silky smooth with each movement that she made, and she smiled at how she knew she looked. Sure, the dress was a hand-me-down from her cousin, but that was all right. No one here in Colorado had ever seen it before, so for them, it was new. From the cover of her eyelashes, she glanced over at Brock sitting in the driver’s seat. How handsome he was. His longish blonde hair brushed his eyelashes in a rebel appealing kind of way. And now, completely beyond rationality, he wanted to be alone with her. The thought spiraled through her. No one had ever wanted to be with her before. It made her feel special in a way nothing else ever had.
No doubt the other girls back at the prom were whispering about where they had gone. They were jealous, and having someone jealous of anything about her was such a new experience, it was exciting and exhilarating in an indescribable way.
“So, why’re you sitting way over there?” Brock asked. His tuxedo, six layers of sliced black on white material, sported an armband and slips of black material for the vest. She was anything but an expert about that sort of thing, but it looked very expensive and cool. Just like something Brock would wear to the biggest night of their lives.
“I don’t know.” Nervousness such that she had never felt clutched her. She knew what he was asking. She just couldn’t believe he was asking her.
Across the back of the seat, his arm arched until his fingertips brushed the top of her bare shoulder. “Well, why don’t you come over here? I have something for you.”
Something, somewhere outside her shrieked in panic even as she slid carefully across the seat toward him. “Okay.” On the roof of the pickup the rain beat down a steady rhythm. Its gray streaks shielded the outside world from view. She felt how alone they were. His arm came around her, and he leaned to her. Her first kiss. She had thought of it so many times, dreamed of it so many nights, but when his lips touched hers, it wasn’t with a sweet request. Instead they were demanding and crushing. The smell of alcohol invaded her being with their arrival.
Fear slapped into her, but she fought it back. Maybe she had just fantasized so much that when the reality was different than her dreams, it was disconcerting. She tried to melt into the kiss like the heroines did in the books she had read, but everything about her was screaming for him to stop. She struggled to break from his strength that locked her to him. The alcohol haze all over him overwhelmed her senses. It seemed to drip from his skin.
“Brock,” she gasped when she managed to break his hold on her. He pulled back, and she scrambled for her side of the pickup seat. However, she met up with her door without putting any real space between them. “Umm, I don’t know about this. Maybe… Maybe we should go back.”
With a yank he had his vest off. He was down to only the white shirt with the black buttons. In the next second he leaned over to her, and his hand cupped around her neck, yanking her to him. “Who wants to go back to some boring ol’ prom? I’d rather be here with you.”
It should’ve been a compliment, and maybe it would’ve felt like one had he not sealed the statement with a lip-bruising kiss. She wedged her arms between them, trying to push him off. “Brock, stop. You’re hurting me.”
He pulled back from her, and there was hurt in his eyes. “I thought you wanted to be with me.”
“I… do. I did. I just…”
“That’s what I thought.” He sneered. The look in his eyes twisted through her sending fear in all directions. “Do you know how many girls would sell their grandmother to be out here right now? Now, come on. Don’t ruin this for me… I want you, Emily. Don’t make this so hard.” He leaned back to her again, this time with less intensity but demanding nonetheless.
It was then that she felt his hand reach around her back and begin to unzip her dress. Her gasp shot through her whole body. “Brock, no… Please.” However, when she yanked herself back from him, it was not Brock. It was Jeremy who held her fast.
“Come on, Emily. You know you want it…” His eyes and snide grin bled through her.
Hysteria overwhelmed her as she battled to free herself, screaming for help, screaming for him to stop. “No, Jeremy! No! Please… Let me go! No!” Terror ripped a scream from her, and with it she came bolt upright. Sheer horror overtook everything else as she realized she had no idea where she was. Everything was sheathed in inky blackness. She grabbed for the blankets, clutching them in desperation as tears of fear and helplessness slid down her cheeks.
“Emily? Emily? What’s going on? What’s wrong? Who’s here?” From the darkness of the room behind her, Jeremy stumbled down the steps as all-out panic took hold of her. He stepped up to the couch beside her. “What’s wrong?”
Gut-twisting terror grabbed hold of her, and she jerked back from it tumbling off the couch, her heart slamming against her chest as if it could run without her. With a crash she met up with unmoving edge of the wrought-iron coffee table, and pain ripped through her shoulder. “Ow! Oh…” She couldn’t breathe. Her shoulder screamed in pain, but all she knew was she had to get away from him.
“Emily, please. It’s Jeremy. What’s wrong?” He stepped toward her. “What’s going on?”
Clutching the only blanket she still held, she angled it between him and her. “No! Stay away from me! I swear I’ll scream. I swear I will.”
“Emily, calm down. It’s Jeremy, okay? I’m not going to hurt you.”
She was gasping, fighting for breath, crawling backward. “I said, ‘Stay away from me!’ Don’t come any closer!”
Instantly he picked both hands in the air and stopped his approach cold. “Look, I’m not. I’m not coming any closer. It’s all right. Calm down.”
Sweat pushed to the surface as heat flooded her body. “I’m not kidding. I’ll scream. I swear I will.” Her feet pushed her backward across the floor, and she backed all the way to the door. There, she huddled, shaking and terrified.
“Emily,” Jeremy’s voice was calm, but it did nothing to calm her, “it’s all right. It was a dream. You’re safe. I’m here.”
However, that assurance didn’t help at all. She could still feel his insistent hands, unzipping, unzipping, unzipping, and the fact that he was now standing in front of her confirmed her worst fears. She wasn’t safe here. She wasn’t safe anywhere.
“I… I want to go home,” she said. The words quivered in the air between them. The blanket was anchored tightly around her, but she knew no amount of cloth had stopped Brock, so how could it stop Jeremy? They were alone now. No one was around to hear her screams. If he wanted to…
Jeremy pushed his fingers through his hair. “Now? Emily, it’s like five o’clock in the morning.”
One part of her said it was stupid, but it was all she could do to keep from breaking down crying right there. “I just want to go home. Please.”
Jeremy had no idea what was going on, but he knew it was bad. She looked like a trapped animal that was about to be killed. Her eyes were wide with fear and panic. Her hands held the blanket up to the top of her shoulders at unnatural angles. Her beautiful hair, completely disheveled, fell in wild strands all around her face that was etched with terror. She looked like a homeless street urchin who had been tossed into the world to fend for herself.
“Okay. Okay.” Seeing no other option, he finally held up his hands. In truth he didn’t want to be out driving now. He wanted to be sleeping because his head was pounding, his eyes felt like someone had glued them to his skull, and his stomach was about to revolt. When drinking had become this miserable, he wasn’t sure; however, at the moment he and his problems were the least of his worries. “I’ll get my keys.”
The car was cold. Ice cold, but Emily didn’t care. Even though consciousness had retaken some control, she still couldn’t look at him. That face, those eyes. They weren’t only in the present. They were there every time she closed her eyes. She needed to get away from him. She had gotten too close, had given him too much of a chance. She sat next to the door, pressing herself into it. If she could’ve ridden outside, she would have. At irregular intervals she felt him glance at her, and it raked over her nerves such that she had to force herself to breathe.
Instead of wrapped around her middle, her hands were across her and all the way up to her shoulders. Even they didn’t feel like enough to shield her. The ride was one of the longest of her life, and when they got to the dorm, she didn’t even say good-bye. She simply got out and raced for the double doors. Every inch she put between them was one more he’d have to breach to ever get close enough to hurt her.
In the car Jeremy sat, wondering what had happened and knowing it was over. She was gone, and she wasn’t coming back. He couldn’t even get all the way to hurt. It was more a numbness that swept through him. He didn’t fight it. He couldn’t. It was his destiny to watch women walk away, knowing it was his fault, but not knowing how he could ever learn to make things work out like the rest of the world did.
Without a backward glance, he put the car in reverse, backed out, and drove away.
Even when she got to youth group on Sunday night, Emily still felt shaky. She knew now in the light of day that she’d been totally irrational the night before. The gash on her shoulder still ached enough to tell her just how unreasonable she’d been. She knew Jeremy was confused and probably hurt too. In one way she felt bad for that, but she couldn’t get feeling bad for him to overtake the panic that still clung to the edges of her spirit.
Yes, Jeremy hadn’t taken advantage of her like Brock had, but the thought that he could have made her insides turn. How could she have put herself in that situation again? How could she have given him even the slightest chance?
“What’re we doing tonight, miss?” Matt turned from his game the second she stepped through the doors, and he followed her across the gym.
It had something to do with unpredictable males she was sure because just his presence threw her into a heightened state of alert. She wrapped her arms across herself leaving the heavy black bag on her shoulder to dangle at her hip. “We’re going to talk about Paul and his travels.”
“Oh, cool.” Matt opened their door for her, and for a second Emily wondered what had come over him. He followed her into the room, and her gaze caught the completed puzzle across the way. It wrenched tears from her heart. “So Jeremy didn’t come with you?”
Her breath snagged in her lungs. “Uh. No. It’s just me.” She swung the heavy bag to the floor.
“Oh.” Matt considered that for a moment. “Well, that’s cool too.”
Sunday was horrible. There was nothing to do. Jeremy sat on the couch most of the day flipping through channels. He wasn’t watching anything really. He couldn’t get the illusion of television snapped tightly enough over reality to make it stick. He thought about calling her, but how could he do that?
What would he say? Worse, she would probably slam the phone down in his ear before he could say anything. He knew he’d messed up. That much was obvious. Slowly as the day wore on, he began to see why and how. She was his date, and yet he’d treated her as if she was just someone who happened to come with him.
Why was that? Was it because of what the others would think of her? Was it because he was afraid of what she might say if she talked to them? Why did it matter to him what they thought? Moreover, why wasn’t he proud to have her at his side? Yes, she wasn’t runway fashionable or banking impressive, but why did that even matter?
And then there was the drinking thing. She hadn’t had a drink the entire night. He traced back through their time together over and over, but he couldn’t remember her ever having more than a sip of anything. So she didn’t drink. Did that mean he couldn’t either?
By seven o’clock, the thoughts had twisted through each other like overgrown vine through a broken trellis so that he couldn’t have untangled them had he tried. Frustration, guilt, and confusion were all there, but he couldn’t make real sense of any of them. When the lock snapped and the door swung open, he looked up at it as if he hadn’t even known there was a door there.
“Oh, hey,” Eric said.
“Hey.” Jeremy re-anchored his gaze to the television and punched the remote twice. He knew Eric was bringing his stuff in. He knew he should ask about his friend’s weekend, but right now the intrusion of a piece of reality into his thoughts just aggravated him.
Eric wrestled his stuff through the living room and up the steps to his room. Jeremy hoped he would stay there. However, that kind of luck was too much to ask, and in minutes Eric was back.
“Anything for supper?” Eric asked, heading for the kitchen.
Jeremy punched the remote again. “I ate the last of the Oreos.”
Eric had one foot in the kitchen when he stopped and turned. “Uh-oh. What happened?”
“Happened?” Jeremy felt the absurdity of his life seep through him. “Why would you think anything happened? You’ve only been gone two days.”
It was clear Eric knew it was bad because he walked right over to the chair and sat down. His gaze took in his roommate’s disheveled look, and Jeremy squirmed under the scrutiny. He was still in the sweats he’d put on to take her home so long ago it felt like forever, and he felt Eric’s judgment of that fact.
“Your parents?” Eric asked, watching Jeremy carefully. There was no movement. Eric exhaled. “Emily?”
Jeremy set his jaw and turned his head.
Disappointed disbelief crowded across Eric’s face. “Ah, man. I thought you guys were going out.”
“We did.” Jeremy aimed the remote at the television and punched it to change the channel.
Worry crashed through the disbelief on Eric’s face. “What did you do?”
He tried to say ‘nothing.’ He wanted to say ‘nothing.’ But that wasn’t the truth. What the truth was, he was less than sure, but whatever it was, it was bad. That was as far as he’d been able to figure.
“Is Emily okay?” Eric asked with more concern.
“Yeah, she’s good.” Jeremy sniffed, stood, hit the off button, and threw the remote to the table. “She’s a whole lot better off without me. That’s for sure.”
Concerned sympathy drained onto Eric’s face. “For Pete sake’s Jeremy, what happened?”
The knock on the door at ten o’clock brought Emily up off the bed. She was trying to study, but she wasn’t getting very far. It was frustrating. Everything was frustrating. She’d finally gotten her kids to pay attention, and now she was such a basket case, she couldn’t string three coherent thoughts together to save her life.
Sure that it was someone looking for someone else, she went to the door and opened it. Somehow she hadn’t so much as thought about having to face anyone she knew with the awful details of the weekend, but suddenly there was Rebecca looking totally upset.
“Em, are you okay?” Rebecca stepped into the room and closed the door quietly behind her.
“Yeah, why wouldn’t I be?” Emily turned for the bed and once there slid onto it.
Rebecca sat carefully in the brown chair and watched her friend. “Eric just called. He was really worried about you.”
“Oh.” Emily tried to brush it off as she wound her hair over her ear and went back to her books. “I’m here. I’m alive. No need to panic. So how was your weekend?”
Emily stopped and looked up. “Oh, I was going to tell you. I talked to Craig from lab and some of them are getting together on Thursday during lab time to study, so I won’t be able to meet you for lunch. We’ve got a killer test coming up the next Tuesday.” Her gaze drifted across the books open on her bed. Anything so she wouldn’t have to look at Rebecca.
“Jeremy’s really torn up about what happened.”
Emily forced herself not to consider Rebecca’s words. The tears were there, but she wouldn’t let them fall. “I should’ve known. It was a disaster waiting to happen.” She shrugged. “It’s not his fault. It was mine. I should’ve left well enough alone when I had the chance.” She looked at the books again. “You know, I’m glad you came by, but I’ve really got a lot to get done before tomorrow.”
She knew for certain that Rebecca wanted to argue, but Emily didn’t give her the chance. She stood, and Rebecca stood too.
“Are we still on for Bible Study Wednesday?” Rebecca asked uncertainly.
Emily mustered every nonchalant scrap of sanity she could find. “Sure. Why wouldn’t we be?”
“Hi, Jeremy.” Rebecca gave Jeremy a pity hug when he opened their apartment door for her. It had been two days of non-stop pain, and in truth, he needed that hug.
He tried not to latch on too tightly nor to hold too long. “Eric’s at the store. He should be back any time now.”
Rebecca seemed not to even hear him. “How are you?”
“Oh, I’m fine.” He tried to put a nice smile on his face, but it hurt. He turned for the couch, dropped onto it, and put his foot on the other side. Grabbing the remote, he turned on the television.
Rebecca hesitated and then sat in the chair. “I talked to Emily.”
“Oh? How’s she?” he asked as if he hadn’t been thinking about her and only her for 72 hours.
“Not saying much.” Rebecca waited, but Jeremy said nothing. “She came up with some lame excuse to miss lunch Thursday, something about some test.”
“Sounds like Em, always studying.” He had no idea how the tears weren’t falling because they were overflowing from his heart.
“So you haven’t talked to her then? You haven’t called her?”
He shrugged. “I’m busy. She’s busy. That’s the way it is sometimes.”
Eric picked that moment to come in the door. Rebecca stood and greeted him, but there was far more nonverbal concern between them than the spoken kind. After that, they went into the kitchen to make dinner. Jeremy simply tried to fade into his own little world. He didn’t need them to be worried about him. He was just fine. He could go on with life as if he had never heard the name Emily Vasquez, and in fact, he would be better off without her. Now, if he could just convince himself of that, things would be great.
“Lead us where You would have us go,” Taylor prayed as around him the heads bowed. Emily was praying her own prayer—one about getting these people out of her dorm room before she completely lost it in front of everyone. This was more torture than anyone should be subjected to.
“Amen,” the others intoned.
“Amen,” she breathed, her eyes still closed.
The meeting broke up, and members put their coats on and gathered their things.
“Thanks, Em,” Kara said, giving her a quick hug. Every touch was like a grater on her nerves.
“Oh, you’re welcome,” she said brightly. “I’ll see you next week.” She hated the way this was setting up. Everyone was leaving, save for the two she most wanted to get out of her room. They hung there like unwanted shadows.
When everyone else was gone, she turned and started picking up. Both of them bent to help her.
“You guys don’t have to stay, I can get this,” Emily said, hoping they would take the hint.
“We wouldn’t want to leave you with a mess,” Eric said.
“Yeah, we can stay a few more minutes.” Rebecca dumped the liquid from two glasses in the sink and threw the paper cups away. “So are you really not coming for lunch tomorrow?”
“Gotta study. Big test.”
“Yeah, I heard about all the studying you’ve been doing,” Eric said. “So what was your hurry to get everyone out of here anyway?”
His tone, his question—Emily wasn’t sure what it was, but hate drained through her. She just wanted them to leave. Why was that so hard? “Look, I appreciate you guys staying to help, but I’m really shot. I’ve got a test to study for tonight, and a paper that’s due next week I haven’t even started on.” The truth was the paper had been written the last three nights when she had nothing else to do, but it was as good of an excuse as any.
Suddenly Eric’s presence filled the room as he stood in front of her. There was softness but concern in his eyes. “You know, Em. We’re your friends. If something’s wrong, we want to help.”
It wasn’t even hard to bring indifference into her voice. It just showed up there as if it belonged. “Why would there be anything wrong? Well…” She laughed. “Except for the studying thing, and that can’t be helped.” She ducked past Eric to the door. “But thanks for coming. I’ll see you guys next week.”
They were concerned. Both faces told her that. However, finally, they walked to the door reluctantly.
“It doesn’t have to be like this,” Eric said when he was standing toe-to-toe with her.
With the last of her courage she looked at him with sad eyes. “Yeah, it does.” It broke her heart to watch them go, but trying to stay friends with them would only lead to an inevitable run-in with Jeremy. There were so many feelings attached to that thought, it was difficult to even guess which one would take over. So instead of trying to figure it out, she shoved them all back down even as she closed the door.
A single sigh escaped her as she shook her head and buried herself once again in the cocoon she had occupied for four years before she met Rebecca. It was safer there—in her cocoon, where guys didn’t pay attention to her and the girls thought that was just as well so she wasn’t competition for them. Yes, alone was much better.
She had learned that the hard way now twice. This time she was determined to hang onto that lesson and not let fantasies about what could be tempt her into believing that out there was anything but what she knew it was—terrifyingly bent on taking her down.
“What? Is Emily studying again?” Eric asked sarcastically.
It had been almost two weeks since Jeremy had dropped her off and watched her walk out of his life. Nothing about him since that moment had made much sense. He still walked. He still talked. He studied and took tests, but the truth was she had taken so much of him with her, he didn’t know how to be him without her anymore.
At weird times he wondered if it had been the same with Gwen, but the truth was that no, this was much different. With Gwen, her leaving had been the end of the fantasy of elegant parties and a fancy, social-upwardly mobile life. A dream, yes, but a dream he wasn’t even sure was his. It had been laid out before him from before he was born, and he had never really questioned it.
This, however, was something different. This time, upon Emily’s disappearance, his heart had disappeared as well, and he had no idea how to get it back.
“I could ask her,” Rebecca said, straining to sound hopeful, “if I can get her to sit still long enough to ask her. It’s like she’s set on perpetual motion these days.”
Eric shook his head. “I think the others are starting to notice. Did you catch how Kara said that about a special intention last night? She was looking at Emily when she said it.”
The sound of her name gripped Jeremy. Why did they have to talk about this here? They should leave well enough alone. Emily didn’t want to see him. She didn’t want to talk to him. She didn’t want to even be in the same room with him. Why couldn’t they let that go? He had.
“I don’t know. Maybe she’ll come. She likes Desi.”
“I could call them all tonight. We haven’t done pool in awhile anyway.”
That’s when Jeremy’s head cleared enough to understand what they were talking about. He threw the French fry in his fingers to the basket. “She won’t come.”
They both stared at him.
Reluctant acceptance drifted through him. “Not if she thinks I’ll be there.” He shook his head. “Which I won’t.”
Rebecca slumped. “Jeremy.”
“Man.” Eric scowled. “If you two would quit being so darn stubborn and talk to each other.”
Jeremy’s gaze fell to the table. “She doesn’t want to talk to me, and I don’t blame her. I wouldn’t want to talk to me either.” With a sad sigh, he stood. “I’ve got to go. I’ll catch you later.”
“Yeah, later,” Eric said, sounding completely brow-beaten.
Jeremy was pretty sure that wasn’t the end of the conversation, but it was the end of it for him. He pushed out into the early March sunshine which was neither warm nor particularly bright. Then ten steps up the sidewalk, he saw her. She was across the way, walking in the other direction quickly. Her arms were around her, her head was down. She never so much as looked up. The glance she made to cross the street was that and only that.
The sight of her pulled his own steps into slow motion. Even from this far away, she was beautiful, yes. But she looked unbelievably sad, and when she glanced behind her, he caught the feeling of the unease in her as well. She looked huddled into her own little shell of misery and sadness. With everything in him, Jeremy wanted to cross the street, cross the campus, go to her, and tell her what a jerk he had been. Apologizing had never felt like such a good option. But then he remembered that it wasn’t one night he’d be apologizing for—it was his whole stinking life, his very self. The truth was she didn’t need him, and he didn’t deserve her.
One shake of his head and he angled his gaze back to his path. Emily Vasquez had been a nice distraction, but it was time to get back to real life—the life he had come here to live. The only problem was, he no longer wanted the life he had been working so hard to get. Worse, he had no idea what the life he really wanted looked like now.
If he backed out now, his father would think him lazy or crazy or both. Even as he looked, he could see no viable alternatives to the plan set out before him. If he wasn’t in banking, what would he do? The thought of her swept over him, and the pang in his heart said it really didn’t matter. Without her, whatever life he managed to scrape together would be empty and meaningless anyway. Yep, that pretty much described everything about him—empty and meaningless.
Force of habit and not much more than that had Emily sitting in the little church, three rows back on Sunday morning. Her life had become a bleak plateau of making it to the next minute just to make it to the next. She shifted in the seat. It was hard and uncomfortable like everything else in her life. By next week she would be home in Colorado again. Spring Break. Her last one.
Her thoughts slid to the next year and where she would be then. By then she would have her degree and presumably her job. However, thoughts of Remlin and all it entailed threatened to yank her into their melancholy, so she pushed them aside and focused on the priest in front.
He was about middle-age with a small spate of hair around the rim of his head. In his robes he looked holier even than he did in the black outfit he wore when he’d showed up for Sunday school the week before. Emily anchored her attention to him and let out a breath. She was here. She might as well listen.
“Many people ask, ‘What is the meaning of life? Why are we here?’ The Gospel today points to two answers to that age-old question. The first answer is very clear. In fact, it is encapsulated in Christ’s admonition to the disciples. ‘The first commandment is love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, and the second is likened to it, love your neighbor as yourself.
“Look carefully. There are three commandments there, not just two.” He held up one finger. “Love the Lord your God.” He put up a second finger. “Love your neighbor.” And then a third finger. “And love yourself.
“Jesus knew that you cannot know how to fully love your neighbor until you fully love yourself.” He gripped both sides of the lectern. “That means learning to forgive yourself, to be gentle with yourself, and to take God’s opinion of you over the opinions of all others. What is God’s opinion of you?
“You were made in His likeness. Therefore, in effect, you are like God. You are a part of God, and God does not hate Himself. God is love, and so it follows that you are love. You have been sent here as an emissary of God to bring His light to this world. That is your purpose—to bring His love to your world.
“But understand that you cannot do that unless you believe you are love. You cannot do that if you are wallowing in fear, if you are marinating in grief, if you are held hostage by guilt. Those things hold you back from love. They cover the love with darkness until we believe the darkness is real.
“That understanding leads us to the other purpose we were sent here. To heal. There are wounds in each one of us that go deep, deep into who we are. We have been told thousands of times in thousands of ways—you are not worthy of God’s love. You are not worth anyone’s love. We have become convinced that we are not enough just as we are, and so we hide our light. We hide ourselves. We hide who God made us to be.
“We hide behind how much money we make, the kind of car we drive, the kind of job we have, our education, even our niceness. Sometimes we hide in the service we do for God thinking, ‘If I do all of this, maybe I’ll make them believe that’s who I really am.’ But like everything else Satan serves up, this is a lie too. It is a lie meant to keep us from stepping into God’s plan for our lives. It is a lie meant to keep us so focused on hiding that we never so much as consider healing.”
He paused as his gaze swept the crowd. “God’s plan for us, the purpose of our lives is to love and to heal. To love God, to love others, and to love ourselves enough to dig into those things that are keeping us from being the light to others, bringing them out into the light, and letting them go so we can heal. That’s what God wants from us—more than our service, more than our pious pronunciations of prayers, more than any self-seeking holiness meant to cover what we really believe about ourselves.
“He wants to heal us, and as we take Him into us, He will. As we surrender our deepest selves, our deepest hurts to Him, He will. As we courageously go to Him and tell Him what hurts, He will. And when we are healed, then we can take the glorious good news of our healing to others. We can be gentle with them, remembering the pain of our own hurt and how God was gentle with us.
“The real truth is that God can be trusted with our pain, with our anger—even if we are angry with Him, tell Him that. Tell Him all of it, get it out, relinquish your hold on it so that He can take over. When He does, when His resurrection becomes your resurrection, the three great commandments will be handled, for you will love the Lord your God will all your heart and soul, and you will be able to love your neighbor as you love yourself.” He took a small breath. “Amen.”
Emily was still reeling from the sermon when she got to Sunday school. She was early simply because she couldn’t take being in the quiet of her room one more minute. On the floor she swung the black bag and pulled out the book she had been trying to read for a month. Every time she started, either she just read words or something jumped in to distract her.
Now here, sitting by herself, away from school, away from all the thoughts of how she had permanently messed up her entire life with one stupid decision, now maybe she could concentrate. Her gaze scanned the page and then picked up on a word.
Healing comes only from God Himself. It is a product of His grace. God does not withhold healing from anyone. It is us who withhold it from ourselves. We withhold it from ourselves because we have come to agree with the lie that we are somehow less than what we are. We believe we are merely human because we have forgotten that we come from the Divine.
Through life’s circumstances, our deepest understanding of ourselves comes to be that we are empty. We can put a smiley face on that. We can go to church, lead the choir, order the hymnbooks, tithe, clean the church, evangelize, and break open the Word, and still never truly get plugged in to our True Source.
You see, God doesn’t need you. He made the Heavens and the earth without you. He said, ‘Let there be’ and there was without your help. God doesn’t need you to do anything for Him. All God wants is for you to let Him love you. That’s why you were born. That’s why He breathed life into you, so He would have somebody to love.
And now here you are, believing you are not worthy of His love, trying to do it all yourself, keeping yourself from being healed by Him because your stuff is too big even for God to handle. How arrogant is that? The truth is, you do not have to be empty. Even if you are empty now, you do not have to stay empty. All you have to do is say, “Lord, I’m willing to be filled up by You.”
Tears blurred across Emily’s eyes as she reread that sentence. Then slowly she said it out loud. “Lord, I am willing to be filled up by You.” She exhaled and closed her eyes. “Lord, I am willing to be filled up by You.” The breaths became less urgent and more peaceful. “Lord, I am willing to be filled up by You. Come and fill me. Come and fill me.”
When she opened her eyes, her gaze snagged on the puzzle across the room. The colors seemed to glow from the inside. She smiled and then dropped her gaze back to the words.
When you do that, when you surrender your emptiness to His in-filling, you have just opened yourself to a miracle—the miracle of God’s mercy and grace. Trust God enough to be honest with Him about how empty you feel. Then ask for His miraculous mercy and grace to fill your life. Let it engulf your life, breathe it into your life, surrender to it, trust it, and life will never be the same again.
“Hey, miss,” the voice behind her startled her from her reading, and Emily swung around. Matt’s face fell with concern when he saw the tears on her cheeks. “Ah, miss. Are you sad?”
She smiled as gratefulness cracked through her. “No, Matt. I’m really, really happy.” She wiped her eyes with her sleeve. “God is so awesome, do you know that?”
A soft smile traced across Matt’s face as he looked over at the puzzle. “Yeah, I think I’m beginning to see that.”
For the life of her, Emily couldn’t figure it out. For the last two weeks she couldn’t have made herself go to lunch with them if wild horses had dragged her there by the ankles, but here she was this week, hurrying to catch up to Rebecca who hadn’t even waited for her.
Emily didn’t blame her friend. She hadn’t been much of a friend recently, but that was going to change. “Hey, Becca! Wait up!”
Rebecca turned on the sidewalk, and surprise split through her face. She watched Emily’s every step until they were side-by-side. Then confusion and hurt slid over Rebecca’s face. “I’m sorry I would’ve waited for you. I just…”
Gracefully Emily held up a hand. “No need to apologize. I haven’t exactly been around recently.” She took a breath to settle her decision. “But that’s going to change. Look, I’m sorry for the way I’ve been acting. It wasn’t fair to any of you.”
Crestfallen, Rebecca’s gaze plummeted. “We just wanted to help.”
“I know, and I appreciate that. I just was in a really weird place with myself and with everything that was happening.”
Rebecca glanced at her as they continued to walk. “Jeremy?”
Emily ducked her head although she couldn’t deny it. “Yeah.”
At the door, Rebecca swung it open, and Emily stepped into the Student Union Building. However, her courage failed her when her gaze pulled itself to him, and she had to hug her books to her chest to get enough courage to keep walking. He was talking to Eric at their normal table, and all she could see was his profile. However, it skidded across her heart as if she had gotten the full effect of his gorgeousness head-on.
Her knees wobbled, and as she approached the table, she swallowed once and forced the air into her lungs. Her head swam, tilting her equilibrium dangerously. Rebecca walked around the table to kiss Eric, but the second Eric looked up, his gaze was only on Emily.
“Hey, look who I found on the way over,” Rebecca said brightly. It was a slight revision in history, but Emily hardly heard it for at that moment Jeremy looked up and right at her.
Heart, body, and soul Emily froze to the spot. His eyes sad and questioning snagged on hers, and although she tried to smile, it hardly made it past the guilt. “Hi, Jeremy.”
“H—hi.” The chip in his fingers dropped back to the plate, and mesmerized, he stared at her. “I’m… hi.”
She couldn’t move. Even thinking had stopped. She wanted to say something, to explain, to send out enough love to squelch the hurt in his deep brown eyes. The hurt and pain she had caused was there, all the way to the depths of his being, and he didn’t even try to hide it.
“The line,” Rebecca finally said, indicating the food service area.
“Oh… yeah.” With valiant effort, Emily nodded. She dropped her gaze from his trying to get her wits back; however, any sane thought had long since abandoned her. Out of habit she started to put her books down, but then she stopped. They hadn’t exactly asked her to join them. Maybe she wasn’t even welcome. “Umm, may I?”
The question jolted Jeremy back into reality. “Oh, uh. Yeah. Sure.” He quickly moved his own books so she would have a seat. Then without looking at her, he took her books and stacked them with his. Something about that simple gesture ripped through her heart.
“We’ll be right back,” Rebecca said. She grabbed Emily by the arm and pulled her toward the counter. “Don’t miss us too much.”
Jeremy was sure that he looked like an absolute idiot. He knew his mouth was hanging open and his eyes were bulging, but in truth, there was nothing he could do about either. The shock of seeing her again, of being close enough to touch her had blown all of his socially acceptable behavior circuits. Reeling would’ve been a good word for it.
Even after they left the table, his gaze followed her. Somehow he had convinced himself he didn’t really miss her, that life was no different without her in it. But with one, single appearance, she had exploded that theory into a bajillion pieces.
“You okay?” Eric asked in concern.
In self-defense Jeremy shook himself out of the stupor. He picked up a chip and bit into it. “Sure. Why wouldn’t I be?”
The concern on his friend’s face deepened. “I don’t want you to go off the deep end again. You just got to the point of ungluing yourself from that television.”
Jeremy laughed although he was sure it convinced neither of them. “I’m fine.” He shrugged. “She’s just a girl. It’s not like we were getting married or anything.” The words yanked him to a halt, and he had to breathe through them.
The girls picked that moment to step back up. Next to him, Emily sat. She was in a sea green straight skirt topped with an aqua knit top. She didn’t look wholly comfortable, but she was obviously trying.
“So,” Rebecca said when the silence stretched on too long, “what’re you guys doing for Spring Break?”
Spring Break. Jeremy had been dreading it for months. He was due to fly out the next morning at ten so he could be in Denver for a meeting with his dad’s company at four-thirty. Nothing in him wanted to make that trip.
“Not much,” Emily said, and the gentleness of her voice drew his full attention to her. It was so calming to just be in her presence, he wondered how he had ever convinced himself otherwise. “I’m headed out tomorrow night to Remlin. I’ve got a stopover in Chicago of like two hours that I’m not looking forward to, but besides that, it shouldn’t be too bad.”
“Oh, are you doing the cow thing again?” Eric asked.
Her smile lit through Jeremy’s heart. He couldn’t have stopped looking at her had he tried.
“You know me,” she said with a shrug. “Animals are my life.”
Eric shook his head. “That’s so weird. I just can’t imagine you on a real, live horse.”
Emily smiled. “What? I don’t look like a cowgirl to you?”
“You look like a lot of things, but a cowgirl ain’t one of them.”
She laughed, and the sound floated through Jeremy. He loved that laugh. He loved everything about her. What had he done? What had he been thinking to mess things up with her?
“Well, sometime you guys are going to have to come with me and see for yourselves.”
“There’s something I’d like to see,” Eric said. “Rebecca on a horse.”
“Me?” The question from the blonde with the wild porcupine hair was more a shriek. “Who said anything about me on a horse?”
Eric lifted his eyebrows. “What are you chicken?”
“If we’re talking about horses, yes, I’m a chicken. I’ll even cluck if you want me to.”
They all laughed. It felt good.
Emily knew there was no way she would get to just walk away. Truthfully she didn’t want to, but her heart wasn’t at all sure she could take actually talking to him either.
“I’m glad you came today,” Jeremy said as they walked out side by side. Eric and Rebecca held back, clearly so that they would have the space to talk.
“So am I.” It was hard to think with him so close, but Emily forced herself to remember the messages that had brought her this far. Let God heal you, and love others to the best of your ability. She was determined to do both. Still she held her books in a death grip just in case things got too close.
Jeremy tried to smile, but it looked more like a grimace. “Eric and Rebecca have been really worried about… everything. I think they thought you’d never come back.”
Emily nodded as ache traced through her. “Yeah, they kind of told me that at Bible Study.”
“Oh. So that’s why you came back then.”
“No.” The word was barely a whisper. She managed to get her gaze over to his only with the Holy Spirit’s help. “I came back because you are all my friends, and shutting you out was not healing me or loving you guys.”
At the sidewalk they stopped. Emily wasn’t sure she would be able to say the words, but she needed to just so he would know. “Look, I’m really sorry. About everything.” She exhaled. “I guess I wasn’t what you thought I was.” She shook her head sadly. “I’m not like those other girls. I’m not society page material, and well, there are a lot of things about me… Things that I wish were different, but they just aren’t.”
He started to protest, but she stopped him.
“That doesn’t mean we can’t be friends. I mean, I’m smart enough to know that this…” She waved her hand between the two of them. “… whatever it was between us could never really work. And I’m okay with that.” She smiled at him. “We’re just too different, and that’s not bad. It’s just reality.”
Crushed. His eyes gazed at her with a sadness she hadn’t really expected, but finally he nodded his acceptance.
“I’m sorry if I hurt you,” she said softly. “I never meant to.”
“I’m sorry if I hurt you,” he said, choking on the words. His eyes pleaded with her to not hurt him any more.
The smile that came from her heart held only sadness. “But we can still be friends, right? Because I don’t want to lose you as a friend.”
A slow nod at a time his head bobbed up and down.
It was all she could do not to cry. “Good. That’s all I ask.”
“So what’d she say?” Eric asked Jeremy as the two of them strode across campus.
“We’re friends.” The smile hurt.
“And you’re okay with that?”
Jeremy looked at his friend sadly. “Do I have a choice?”
Copyright Staci Stallings, 2006