A robotic proposal: Quebec’s Charter of Values solved

It seems that Quebec has recently realized that their government employs people with opinions, values, and who follow religions. Understandably, this has upset the Parti Quebecois in the extreme. As an Albertan, were I to find out that my doctor has a life extraneous to my physical care, particularly one I found disagreeable, I, too, would suffer from a sense of mild discomfort.

Like any other rational government, Quebec has taken steps toward removing all conspicuous signs of religion, as denoted in the infographic below. For the Anglophones: the top row is acceptable, the bottom two are not.

Valeurs_depliant_version_longue-7.jpg

I fear that this, however, does not go far enough. Therefore, it is with great pride that I reveal my creation: the Automaton 2013!

The Automaton 2013 comes equipped with three unitards in beige, grey, or festive dark grey. This all-purpose robot will be able to fulfill any and every position previously held by humans. As a bonus, A2013 comes with the first language option as French, making the English speakers follow a convoluted list of instructions to hear it in their own language. It also can be customized to six major religions (Judaism, Sikhism, Protestantism, Catholicism, Jedi, and Islam), in the unlikely event of a bloody revolution replacing the current government with a totalitarian theocracy.

Some may be concerned that Automaton 2013 will not be suitable to replace education, health care and daycare workers, due to its lack of “empathy,” “social awareness,” and “soft flesh.” However, these facets of humanity are the very ones that prevent optimal care from being provided by current human workers, due to their extra-state origins.

The Automaton 2013 features an IV-starting protocol that is 83% accurate on 100% of medical dummies, without the pesky side effects of having its own beliefs and values. A2013 can also change diapers at a rate of 7.1 per minute, with zero percent chance of indoctrinating your child*. And any child that asks broad questions about the meaning of the universe will be treated to a twenty minute video (produced in 1987) about why government workers are not permitted to acknowledge anything resembling a personal philosophy.

As this program is phased in, the need for human workers will decline in the public sector, and as civil servants are replaced by A2013 and its successors, (Undoctromaton 2014 – coming in 2014!) the Automatons will accrue more government experience than their humans counterparts, making them ideal candidates for public office.

All this, and not a single Quebecer will experience a sense of vague unease, knowing that someone working for the government may have values and beliefs that differ from their own! We anticipate demand for these humanoid machines to increase exponentially in the next year, so place your order today!

*In clinical tests, non-human daycare workers resulted in a 23% increase of aversion to technology in children aged 0-16.

Tagged , , ,

Why Blurred Lines empowers exactly three women

By now, you’ve likely seen Robin Thicke’s video Blurred Lines and have an opinion about it. If not, crawl out from under that rock and watch some naked women walk around.

A video about clothed men telling topless women “I know what you really want” is not groundbreaking. This song and video is, in fact, more humanizing of women than a majority of top 40 fare.

But in the midst of all the controversy over this song, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it just bothered me. It gave me that same itchy feeling I get from strip clubs (Phrasing! Boom.) and bus ads featuring bikini models. The ongoing theme of minimal clothing for women and a full set for ogling men unsettles me in the extreme, and Blurred Lines has finally made me realize why that is.

There is an idea that permeates from the common raunch to haute erotica to the horror that is strippercize; the idea that shedding your clothes in front of an audience is “empowering” for women. This buzzword has been co-opted so often, it has lost meaning. What kind of power do you get when you are naked in front of an audience? The power to get over your Puritan need to be wearing clothing at all times? To learn to dance in front of strangers? To rebel against your parents?

The real answer is that you attract attention, in general from males, and this attention is likely going to be pure lust. And if your ultimate goal is to be the object of the male gaze, then I suppose, by your definition, you are becoming empowered.

But I am pleading with you to stop saying you’re giving power to women.

Of all the women I know, I could count on one hand those who would even be considered to take part in “empowerment” on the same scale as Blurred Lines. Most others, myself included, would be fat-shamed off the Internet, regardless of whether or not they are actually overweight. In ten or twenty years, even those who fit the description of the ideal female form would no longer be welcome to participate.

How can anything available to so few be counted as empowering to all females? Granted, these women gain money, attention, fame, and opportunity. Which is powerful. But you and I? We get nothing. In fact, our forms may even decrease in value, if value is in fact measured by the amount of time others spend observing our bodies.

If a woman is super psyched about being naked in front of people, fine. But stop trying to tell me that MY power increases when YOU take off your clothes.

For comparison, check out this amazing gender-reversal parody by Mod Carousel. Men, get ready to feel empowered:

Tagged , ,

Secrets

When Karen makes him attend Cornerstone’s Christmas banquet, Tad spikes the punch and enjoys the results. Knowing Sarah is pregnant, he avoids allowing her to drink any alcohol. 

__________

Cerise giggled, and leaned her head against the wall. She and Michelle were sprawled, unladylike, on the thin carpet in the hallway. She waved her punch glass in Michelle’s face.

“Mmmkay, I have to tell you something.” The sloshing liquid released a drop on to Michelle’s white cardigan, and they both dissolved into giggles again.

“Okay, no, really,” Cerise composed herself, trying to keep her focus on Michelle’s face. “I have a boyfriend,” she whispered.

“What?” Michelle shrieked, grabbing her arm, heedless of the glob of punch that splashed to the floor. Suppressing giggles, Cerise shushed her. “Who? Who?” Michelle demanded.

“I can’t tell you. It’s a secret.”

“Ohh,” Michelle groaned. “You can’t do that, it’s not fair.”

“Okay okay okay.”

Michelle squealed with excitement.

“It’s Justin,” Cerise whispered, feeling dizzy from the excitement of finally sharing her secret.

Michelle frowned. “Who? Oh, the—” her eyes widened. “The worship leader? But you said you weren’t. You said he was just your friend.”

Cerise felt annoyed. “Yeah, before, but it’s a secret. That’s why I said that.”

“Did you lie?”

“No no no no no!”

“I’m confused.”

Cerise rolled her eyes and leaned forward to explain when Sarah rounded the corner. “Sarah!” she waved her over.

Sarah scanned the hallway, frowning. “Um, Cerise, you’re flashing me a little bit right now.”

Cerise looked down in surprise. Her skirt had hiked itself from her knees to her thighs. She yanked it down, lowering her knees, embarrassed. Michelle fell to the floor laughing, and Cerise let out an embarrassed chuckle. Sarah raised her eyebrows.

“I have to pee. I’ll be right back.” She pointed to the end of the hallway. “Maybe the bench is better for that dress?”

“Yeah, good idea.” Cerise stood unsteadily, gaining her bearings as Sarah headed into the bathroom. “I’m dizzy,” she mumbled.

“Can you help me up?” Michelle blinked at her from the ground. Cerise put out a hand, and they both stumbled as Michelle pulled herself up, eliciting another round of giggles. They made it to the bench just as Sarah was exiting the bathroom.

“Sarah!” Cerise called down the hall. “Sarah, I have to tell you my secret!”

“Ooh,” Sarah said as she approached. “Secret? Do tell.”

“I’m dating Justin,” Cerise whispered, grinning.

“Really?” Her mouth opened in a wide smile, and her eyes sparkled with excitement. “I thought you guys decided against it, oh wow! That’s so exciting! Okay, what’s his last name?”

“Carville.”

“Cerise Carville…” she said slyly.

Cerise’s heart leapt with excitement, and Michelle clapped, her face giddy. Cerise gave Sarah a limp-wristed smack on the arm. “Stop it!” she said. “We’re not telling anyone.”

Sarah’s snapped her head toward Cerise. “Not telling anyone what?” She gasped. “Are you engaged?”

Michelle squealed.

“Noooooo,” Cerise moaned. “No, we’re not telling anyone we’re dating.”

“Um, because why?” Sarah asked, surprised.

“Yeah,” Michelle agreed. “Why?”

“He just wants to court me, he doesn’t want to jump into things.”

Sarah hesitated. Her face kept going in and out of focus, and Cerise blinked rapidly, trying to clear her vision. “Well, okay,” Sarah said slowly. “I’m really happy for you.”

“Wheee!” Michelle clapped, laughing.

Sarah shot her a questioning look, then shook her head. “You two are a little hyper tonight.”

Ignoring her, Michelle leaned toward Cerise. “Okay, but don’t have sex till you get married.”

“I know!” Cerise protested, insulted.

“Yeah, but really, don’t. I did, it was so bad.”

Cerise titled her head. She’d always wondered, but had never had the courage to ask about Michelle’s mysterious past partner. For some reason, she felt bold tonight. “How come? What happened?”

Michelle pursed her lips, then shook her head vigorously. “No. No, I don’t wanna talk about it.”

Sarah remained standing, wide-eyed and silent, eyes darting between the two of them. Cerise poked Michelle in the shoulder. “Come on,” she drew out her words into a long whine.

“I promised him…” Michelle responded petulantly.

“Oh, we won’t tell,” Cerise said, pulsing with forbidden excitement. “Will you, Sarah?”

“No,” Sarah shook her head tightly.

“It was a long time ago.”

“How long?” Cerise leaned forward.

“I was sixteen. I went to a concert and I had backstage passes, and I got to meet the band. I met him, and he was really nice, and we talked for, like, ever, and he showed me their trailer…” Embarrassed, she trailed off and shrugged.

“A band? Who?” Cerise was titillated, excited.

“It was…” Michelle mumbled something, and Cerise didn’t catch it.

“Who?” Sarah asked.

Michelle sighed. “Topher Prince. It was Topher Prince.”

Cerise’s eyes popped out of her head, and her jaw sprung open. “No!” she squealed.

Sarah looked between them, confused. “Who?”

“What?” Cerise squeaked, disbelieving. “You don’t know Peace?”

“The band? Yeah…”

“He’s the lead singer!” Cerise lightly smacked her arm. “You are way too young.”

Sarah gaped. “The lead singer of Peace?”

Michelle rubbed her face with her hands. “Yes,” she groaned. “It was just once, I never saw him again.”

“Was it when they were here?” Cerise asked.

“Yes.”

She screamed. “I was at that concert! My youth group took a road trip to come see it!”

“Wow,” Sarah said, shaking her head.

“You can’t tell anyone,” Michelle groaned.

“But that means…wasn’t he married then?” Cerise asked. Michelle nodded mournfully. “Yeah, I remember because my friends and I were all really sad about it, we looooved Topher.” Cerise gasped. “He’s a cheater!”

Michelle pushed her face into her hands and gulped a sob. Sarah sat down, putting her arm around Michelle, and gave Cerise a dirty look.

“Can’t you see you’re upsetting her?” Sarah snapped.

Cerise blinked, confused. Michelle was upset? She truly hadn’t noticed. She had the vague sense that she should feel guilty about that, but just pursed her lips and mumbled “Sorry.”

“I just,” Michelle gulped, “I just don’t like reliving the past. I know my sins are forgiven, I just feel so bad every time I think about it. I’ve never even told Ben who it was, he just thinks it was my ex-boyfriend.”

Stunned, Cerise blinked again, gathering her scattered thoughts. Ben doesn’t know? An unbidden pang of jealousy reared in her chest, and she narrowed her eyes at Michelle. Why would a good guy like Ben choose someone like her? She’d given away her best gift, the one thing she could never reclaim, and to a stranger. Yet she was the one with a husband, a baby, while Cerise had been waiting years for even a hint of interest from any man. It’s not fair.

“Well, at least you have him,” she said, patting Michelle’s knee patronizingly. Annoyed, she stood, swaying a little on her feet, and stalked out of the hallway.

Tagged , , , ,

Retreat (with a letter from Maura)

To all the wonderful people who have been reading the Cornerstone series:

Thank you so much for your support and your positive feedback. I have fallen in love with all of these characters; their stories wake me up at three in the morning, keep me occupied while driving, and follow me wherever I go.

My recent, unannounced hiatus was necessary due to events of the real world, but I plan to dive right back in. In fact, I have begun the process of writing a Cornerstone novel, which may have the paradoxical effect of slowing down the short stories, since I’ll be pumping out bad prose like a lovelorn highschooler, which leaves little time for editing.

Also, Game of Thrones is starting again soon.

But rest assured, your glimpses into the realities of evangelical/fundamentalist life will continue, and the novel will be available for download sometime during Barack Obama’s second term.

I have to say it again: thank you.

-Maura

Retreat

“I’d just like to invite the band to come back,” Pastor Paul indicated Justin, who took the stage with Cerise on keys, the sixteen-year-old Peter on bass, and Steve on drums. Their instruments were sitting at the front of the long rectangular hall, a fixture of the retreat centre that Cornerstone took over one weekend a year. They began a slow, emotional chord progression as Paul continued speaking.

“Now, this weekend, I’m going to end each of my sermons with a question. There will be no formal altar call, but the board and their wives will be cycling through prayer duty over the weekend. I know that some of you will need prayer this weekend, for many things.” He paused, eyes downcast, a hooked finger perched thoughtfully over his drawn lips. “Yes, there are many who need prayer. You know who you are. If the Spirit of God moves you, seek out one of your brothers or sisters to pray over you. If not, I encourage you to remain in the presence of God and answer this question for yourself: does my life align with God’s plan?”

Deborah raised her hands, closed her eyes, and prayed as the band started a song. Lord, let your Spirit wash over me, she prayed, and she felt a warm tingle spread through her chest, lifting the corners of her mouth and filling her with a sensation of numb ecstasy. It was a familiar feeling, and one she had missed sorely. It had been a very long time. She swayed gently, and minutes dripped past as she lost herself in a cloud of joy, feeling the touch of God on her soul.

When the song ended, Cerise played soft, long chords. Deborah opened her eyes when Justin began to speak. Normally it was her husband, John, leading the group in song, but she supposed Paul had found someone from Northtown to replace him.

“I just feel as though God wants you to know how much he loves you here tonight,” Justin spoke slowly, meaningfully. Deb’s stomach jumped, and she told herself she was still sensing the Spirit. “This isn’t a new revelation, friends, but something that we all need to be reminded of once in a while.” He shut his eyes and strummed a chord, and began singing a new song as the words came to him, reaching out over the congregation with God’s voice. Deb leaned back into her chair, enraptured as the band began to follow his lead, shutting her eyes and allowing waves of joy to flow over her. She could hear her Father speaking through Justin, telling her that he loved her, that she was worth more than jewels to him, that he heard her every time she silently, motionlessly cried herself to sleep.

“Oh, God, you are so good to me,” she breathed, and with that, the dam broke. Face crumpling, she knelt to the ground, then prostrated herself and wept into the grainy carpet. She knew the answer to Paul’s question; her life did not line up with God’s plan. She was a terrible wife, and an even worse mother. How can I even call myself a Christian? she wailed, and her tears were refreshed.

Warm fingers pressed gently on back of her head, and Lauren’s low, soothing voice began to pray over her. She felt a sudden, sweeping relief that John had not been able to make it to the retreat, chased by condemning guilt that pushed more sobs through her body. She knew he would have been embarrassed by her behaviour; she could almost hear him chastising her, contempt dripping from his voice.

But it wasn’t rebellion if he hadn’t actually told her not to cry, was it?

The guilt, the relief, and the unrelenting anxiety overwhelmed her, and she wept, louder and harder, as Lauren’s hands stroked her hair and Justin’s singsong voice soothed her soul. She cried for God to forgive her, to teach her to be a better helpmeet to her husband, to make her a wise and loving mother.

But mostly, she cried for her doubts.

Darkness curled its way to the corners of her soul, lies that Satan whispered into her ear. He told her she was wasting time with God, that a loving God would never bind her to John and expect her to obey. God was cruel and unjust, the darkness said, and it was too much for her to handle.

I know I can’t handle it myself! she thought, imaging herself facing down the Prince of Darkness. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!

The darkness replied that she couldn’t. Satan’s voice was quiet and menacing, revealing her inevitable future as a godless wanderer. She could see herself separated from Jesus’ loving embrace, his face crestfallen as he reached for her, tears streaming down his bearded cheeks. Away from Jesus, but also away from John…

“NO!” she shouted, and dissolved into fresh tears. Lauren’s hand paused its stroking, then resumed, backed by intensified prayer. Even though Deborah couldn’t understand her, the anxiety ebbed slowly away. She laboriously raised herself to a sitting position, leaning against Lauren’s arm and shoulder. Eyes still squeezed shut, she tilted her sodden face toward Lauren’s ear.

“Can we go out in the hallway?” she whispered. “I really don’t want to make a scene.”

“Deb,” Lauren’s soft, high voice was comforting. “Look around you.”

Deborah opened her eyes, blinking the blurriness away. Several people were, like her, crying into their chairs or the floor; many were lost in worship, eyes closed, faces upturned, beatific smiles gracing their faces; others gathered together in groups, praying quietly, praying loudly. Justin’s voice filled the room, leading the band in a spontaneous song. Cerise’s face was creased with concentration, and Peter was pacing back and forth as he plucked his guitar.

“Oh,” Deb breathed rapturously, and felt again the uplifting presence of God as joy spread through her chest.

“What can I pray for?” Lauren asked, stroking Deborah’s shoulder.

“Oh, Lauren,” she said, sorting through her mind to find the place where she should start. She could feel Danielle slipping away, much like Alex had, and couldn’t see how to bring her daughters back to her, how to teach them the God’s ways when she carried so much doubt. Every time she sided with John, as she knew she should, the distance between herself and her girls grew. And John—oh, John. I love him, she insisted to herself. I love him. And that is that. Her gut swelled up her throat at the thought, and she gulped out a new sob.

“I just—I just need to—to learn to be a better wife. I don’t love my husband enough.”

“What does that mean?” Lauren’s voice was tinged with concern.

“He doesn’t—well, he isn’t always pleased with me.”

“We all make mistakes, Deb. Is there anything specific?”

Deborah recalled the last time they had made love. She had been feeling a little nauseous, which never made it easy, but she knew from experience that refusing his advances would start a fight, and that he would eventually get his way. So when he leaned over, she turned to him and put on a giggly persona, just as he liked, forgetting how long it had been since she’d shaved. Why didn’t I just go do it? He had flown into a rage, telling her that she didn’t respect him, that he expected so little, and that nothing he did was ever good enough to get her to behave like a good Christian wife. She’d held back her tears and calmly offered to go and take care of it, but he’d refused, pinned her to the bed, and taken her roughly. She’d bitten her lip to contain the cries of pain, and when he was done, had silently wept herself to sleep over his snores.

“No,” she replied, sniffing. “Just in general.”

Lauren prayed, and Deborah closed her eyes, willing the joy she’d felt so briefly to return. Thoughts of John had cast a dark cloud over her mind, and she allowed herself one single moment to imagine her life after his death. Would she find someone new, someone who wasn’t so angry all the time?

But who would want me? she thought, and returned her attention to Lauren’s prayer, asking God to teach her how to love her husband.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Captivating

Cerise loved the copy room. When there was a long list of jobs to be done, she’d volunteer to tuck herself away in the corner of the office building, where she’d pass the repetitive hours listening to praise and worship music, praying, or just letting her mind wander over the events of her week. She was often the only one in there, sorting and folding and cutting while the printer hummed out her commands. Today, she felt happy and light. She moved her hands deftly, her mind occupied with thoughts of Justin.

He’d finally kissed her last night. It had been three weeks since they’d started seeing each other regularly, and he had kept a respectful distance, much to her chagrin. She had continually created opportunities, leaning toward him to pick something up, lingering in the car when he dropped her off. He’d gone for the cheek a couple times, which was enough to make her whole face tingle, but he had finally made his move last night as they sat outside her apartment building, talking about the play they’d seen.

Things had gotten a little heavier than Cerise had intended; they’d ended up making out for an hour, eventually moving to the backseat. Well, he didn’t do anything over the line, she told herself, But we probably got somewhere a little more dangerous than we meant to. We just need to talk about our boundaries, and it won’t happen again.

She made a firm mental note to talk to him, then let her mind wander to the feeling of his chest beneath thin cotton, his thick arms pulling her into him, his warm lips on hers, then traveling down her neck…

“Are these done?” A voice broke into her thoughts. She snapped back to the copy room, and looked up. Michael leaned his athletic frame against the doorway, half a smile playing on his lips, one eyebrow raised, waiting for a response.

“What?” she asked, emerging from the fog of her reverie.

He smiled. “Are mine ready?” He indicated the printer, which had ceased its humming and sat silently, patiently awaiting Cerise’s next command.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I haven’t started yours yet!” She shrunk a little inside, and looked at him sheepishly. “I’m sorry.” She turned to the screen, and noticed with a twinge of annoyance that he could have easily printed his fifty pages himself.

He smiled again. “No problem. I need to get away from my desk anyway.” He watched as she punched in commands. “Didn’t see you on Saturday. I saved you a seat at my table.”

“On Saturday?” she asked, confused. “Oh! The Christmas party! Was that this Saturday?”

Michael laughed then, his brown eyes crinkling at the corners beneath dark brown eyebrows. Cerise felt stupid. Why did you say anything? Geez, you could have at least pretended you remembered. Well, at least it’s not a lie.

“Yeah, I thought you mentioned that you’d be able to make it.” Michael leaned against the copier. She could see the plastic of the cover bending slightly under his elbow, and resisted the urge to shoo him off. Instead, she gave him her best apologetic, plaintive look.

“I’m sorry. I made plans with my—my friend, and to be honest, I totally forgot.” She’d caught herself right before she said boyfriend. Justin had asked her to take everything very slowly; he had recently been in a serious relationship, he’d said, and didn’t like the idea of jumping back into dating. When he’d said he wanted to court her instead, she nearly turned into a puddle at his feet. I can’t believe I snagged him, she thought for what felt like the hundredth time. He hadn’t phoned her father yet, but she was sure that he would soon, given the events of the previous night. “Did you guys have fun?” she asked.

“Yeah, it was all right, as company parties go,” Micheal said with a shrug. “Our table was pretty much the drunkest by the end of the night, so all around a good time.”

Cerise giggled uncomfortably, and her stomach jumped. She had a vague sense that this might be a good opportunity to witness to him, by making some sort of comment about alcohol consumption, but she allowed the moment to sit a little too long, and it quickly passed. Guilt swooped through her chest, and she turned to her next task without saying anything.

“Anyway,” Michael continued, “ I think that this means you owe me a dinner date.”

Cerise could not hide the shock that slammed through her. She turned and gaped at him, jaw slack, eyes round. Dinner? Date? Michael was certainly one she had made many an attempt not to notice; he was sweet, with laughing eyes and a boyishly handsome face. She knew he was a triathlete, and always forced herself to avert her eyes when he would turn and walk away. Many of the women in the office would giggle to each other when they talked about him, making lewd jokes that Cerise ignored or did not understand. She’d just give an unsettled laugh in response, and her face would flame red, earning her the nickname “Cherry” among the receptionists.

Her breathing was short and quick, her heart pounding its way out of her chest, and she realized she’d been staring at him for too long without responding. “Uh,” she stammered stupidly, turning her eyes to the white ceiling tiles. What could she say? She didn’t have a boyfriend, technically, and Justin had asked her not to mention it for the time being. Besides, she could never date Michael; he was obviously not a Christian, and that was non-negotiable. So she reached for a phrase she had only ever heard on TV, one that she’d never imagined would pass her lips.

“I’m—sort of seeing someone right now.”

Michael’s smile drooped a little, and he averted his eyes. “Oh,” he said, nodding. “I didn’t realize.” He grabbed his finished copying from the tray. “See you at lunch?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Cerise said uncomfortably. “See you then.”

He turned, ducked his head, and strode out the door. Cerise stared at the doorway for a long moment, then leaned against the copier and slid to the floor, pressing her forehead to her knees. Despite the horribly awkward exchange, she couldn’t resist an ear-to-ear smile and a little giggle of excitement. For a tiny moment, she felt secure, desirable, almost beautiful. Two men pursuing me? It was almost too much to bear. She leaned her head back and, gazing at the ceiling, asked God to forgive her for all the years she had not believed that she was his princess, and accepted Satan’s lies about her worthlessness.

Forgive me, Lord, she prayed, imagining Jesus’ smiling face. I love you.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Mesmerized

Anna shuffled through Northtown’s glass entryway and scanned the crowd. Well-dressed twentysomethings littered the foyer in groups, laughing, talking, flirting. She smirked to herself.

Oh, Cerise, of course you would love this.

The room felt like a frat party at eight o’clock, minus the beer; people talking casually, couples pairing, a sense of youthful anticipation in the air. She spotted Michelle and Ben in the crowd, talking to a tall, handsome man, gave them a friendly wave, and approached stiffly.

Her leg was bad today, and she’d popped her usual painkillers before coming, but they had been less effective lately. She ignored the aches, and smiled as she approached Michelle.

“Well, aren’t you all done up and pretty!” Anna exclaimed, indicating Michelle’s curled hair and expertly finished makeup. Michelle blushed.

“Thanks, you too, as always.”

Never mind that I’m the fattest person here, Anna thought wryly to herself. She had gained a significant amount of weight since the accident, but considered herself blessed simply to be alive, so usually the extra pounds were little more than an nuisance. She knew she stood out among this svelte crowd, but chose not to give it any further thought.

Extending her hand, she opened her mouth to introduce herself to the stranger, but he continued his conversation with Ben as though no one had arrived. Nonplussed, Anna withdrew her hand and gave Michelle a sideways glance. She had turned back and appeared enthralled in the men’s conversation. Anna was glad when Cerise approached a moment later.

“Anna! You made it!” she said, giving her a warm hug. “And I see you’ve met Justin.”

The tall man, whom Anna now presumed to be Justin, turned and gave Cerise a brilliantly white smile. “Hey, bandmate, I was just talking about you with your pastor here!”

“Oh, all good, I hope,” Cerise said happily, blocking Anna’s view of Justin with her body. Anna pushed back a surge of annoyance.

Ben laughed. “I only mentioned one or two missed chords.”

Anna could just make out Justin’s grin over Cerise’s head. “She’s did so well in practice, it’s great that she could join us on such short notice.”

“What happened with your regular keyboard player?” Michelle inquired, concern colouring her voice.

Justin’s face gave the tiniest twitch, and with a barely noticeable hesitation, he said, “Family stuff.”

Anna narrowed her eyes, and trying to quell her growing irritation, stepped past Cerise and extended her hand with a winning smile. “We haven’t been introduced,” she spoke confidently, looking into his eyes. “I’m Anna, Cerise’s friend.” She nodded toward Ben and Michelle. “I’m usually friendly to them, too.”

Ben and Michelle chuckled, and Justin took Anna’s hand in a warm, strong grip. “Well, we’re all brothers and sisters under Jesus, aren’t we?” he said, smiling broadly.

Anna fought back the urge to wrinkle her nose in disgust, pull Cerise aside and tell her never to approach this man again. Instead, she released his hand, donned a pleasant mask, and opened her mouth to reply. He cut her off before she could begin.

“Shall we head in, Cerise?” he said warmly over Anna’s head. Cerise gave Anna an excited grin and a wave, then followed him through the crowd.

Concerned, Anna turned to Michelle and Ben. Instead of the bewildered, cautious looks she expected, they both smiled, and Michelle sighed.

“Oh, I just hope it works out for them,” she said happily. “He seems like such a man of God.”

Anna bit her lip. “They met last week,” she said flatly.

“If it’s meant to be, then it’s meant to be,” Michelle replied dreamily.

Maybe I’m wrong, Anna thought to herself. I hope I’m wrong. Pushing back her sense of unease, she joined the crowd as they made their way into the chapel.

——-

 

“Oh, Anna,” Cerise gushed, her cheeks flushed. “He’s amazing. He showed up with a rose for me! First date, and he already bought me flowers.” She gave a little squeal of excitement.

Anna smiled at her glowing friend, and fiddled with her coffee mug, thinking about her first date with Seth. She’d worn a red dress, her date dress, and he’d been charming and funny and just a little nervous. The memory was bittersweet; their pattern was strained of late, mostly due to the church incident two weeks earlier.

“So, where did he take you?” she asked, forcibly pulling herself out of her thoughts.

“The hardware grill,” Cerise beamed.

“Oooh, Justin! Impressive!”

“Yeah, it was so swanky, and he paid for everything. Anna,” Cerise leaned forward conspiratorially  her face shining with excitement, “we talked about what God is doing at Northtown for most of our date. Did you know their young adult ministry went from 120 to 350 in the last year? Pastor Nick is an incredible speaker, people come just to hear him talk.”

“That’s a big jump,” Anna nodded. She was never quite certain why many at Cornerstone seemed to fixate on the number of people in attendance; it made her feel like she was in an accounting meeting.

“You really should come back with me this week, isn’t everyone so friendly?”

It had been a few days since their time at Streams, and Anna was not keen to repeat the experience. Besides her distaste for Justin, everything had felt just a little too polished. She had excused herself as soon as the service concluded, and hadn’t joined them for coffee afterward.

“You know,” she started slowly, “Justin is—”

“What?” Cerise smiled expectantly. “What did you think? He’s great, right?”

“I’ll be honest, Cerise. I don’t get a good vibe from him.”

Cerise’s face fell, stunned. “Okay,” she said slowly. “What didn’t you like about him?”

His teeth are too white, his smile is too big, his skin is too tanned. None of these sounded like adequate reasons, and for a long moment, Anna sat and composed her words very carefully.

“I can’t really explain it,” she said, “but he seems to be very interested in projecting the correct image.”

“Okay,” Cerise said again.

“You just need to be sure that’s really who he is.”

“Oh, but he’s so genuine and honest,” Cerise gushed. “I’m glad you’re so concerned, but I think you might just be seeing that he has such an open heart.”

Anna looked away, searching for the right words. “I just couldn’t shake the feeling that he was trying to sell us something.” 

“You know,” Cerise pondered, her voice high and hesitant, fixing her gaze on her fidgeting fingers, “I think that men in the world are very different from men in the church. Maybe you’re just used to men closing themselves off.”

Anger bubbled up from Anna’s stomach. “I’m sorry, but I really don’t think that makes a difference.”

“You tell me that all the time, that your husband won’t discuss everything with you,” Cerise protested defensively.

“And when did you accrue so much experience with men?” Anna snapped. “This has nothing to do with Seth.”

“Anna,” Cerise protested, her eyes wide with hurt.

“I just get a bad feeling from him, that’s all.” Anna tossed her head, and crossed her arms over her chest. How can she be so blind?

“Well that doesn’t mean you’re right,” Cerise said angrily. “Geez, I thought you’d be happier for me. For the first time I’m interested in someone who returns the favour, and you’re stomping all over it!”

“Cerise, I feel what I feel. I would be a bad friend if I didn’t mention it.”

“Well did you think you might be wrong?”

It suddenly occurred to Anna that this must be what her mother felt when she, at sixteen, had brought home her first boyfriend. Although her mom had been correct in her assessment of him as a “total asshole,” as she had so eloquently phrased it, he had been the subject of many a loud argument. Biting her lip, Anna took a deep breath and carefully phrased her next sentence.

“I hope so. But Cerise, if you ever encounter any trouble with him, you know you can call.”

Cerise’s face softened slightly. “I know. I’m covering this with a lot of prayer, Anna.”

Anna nodded. They did not discuss Justin again, but by the time the left the shop, she had the uncomfortable image of a widening crack between her and Cerise.

Tagged , , , , ,

Don’t Chew on the Sharp End of the Pencil

I am fortunate enough to be part of a supportive, diverse group of writers who have played a pivotal role in my identification as a writer throughout the last six months. Since I came out of the writing closet, I’ve completed NaNoWriMo, written a children’s book, begun the Cornerstone series, and now am excited to announce the upcoming release of Edmonton Writer’s Group’s anthology for writers and other interesting humans, Don’t Chew on the Sharp End of the Pencil.

20130224-223944.jpg

 

If you’re looking for inspiration, tips, stories, and humour, browse some of the 18 entries to find your muse. You’ll be able to download it from Smashwords for the low, low price of $0, starting on March 5th! If you don’t have a Smashwords account, you should definitely get one so that you can take advantage of our collective wisdom.

Edited by the talented Hal Friesen and Brad Oh, Inc., you can find full contributor descriptions here.

Tagged , ,

Restoration

“Ugh!” Sarah pressed enter repeatedly, rapid-fire, groaning in annoyance. “This stupid piece of garbage!” The whole screen was frozen on pictures of naked women. Annoyed, she launched the laptop to the other side of the couch and stomped around her tiny apartment, hunting for her phone. She dug it out from the dusty armchair cushions and dialed her husband Josh, tapping her toe impatiently. When it went to his voicemail, she let out a growling, impatient noise. Who else could she call? Dad, Mom? Not a chance. Anna? She wouldn’t be able to make it with this short notice. Cerise? She didn’t know a thing about computers. Josiah? Well, maybe.

“Tad!” she shouted suddenly. I can call him now, she thought with a happy little jump in her stomach. He’d just gotten his own place, plus a phone, so she could call and not have to talk to a stranger on the phone, which she’d always hated. She dialed.

“Hello?” Tad answered. She smiled at the sound of his voice.

“Didn’t you get call display, silly?” she asked.

“And shorten our scintillating conversations?” he asked wryly. Sarah wasn’t sure what scintillating meant, though she was certain that he was making fun of her, and so ignored him.

“What are you doing?” she asked sweetly.

“What do you want?”

“My computer’s broken,” she complained.

“Where’s hubby?”

“Work.”

“And Holy Joe?”

She sighed in annoyance. “Don’t call him that.”

“The budding pastor can’t help his sister out?”

“I called you first.”

A pause. “What’s it doing?”

“Nothing. It’s frozen. Are you busy?”

“No, I’ll be there in ten.”

“Yay! Aren’t you glad you moved so close?”

“Ecstatic.” Tad ended the call. Smiling, Sarah hummed as she collected a few dishes from the living room, and set water for tea. Does Tad like tea? She thought to herself. Probably. Who doesn’t? She set out mint for herself, feeling a little queasy.

She’d been thrilled when, three weeks ago, Tad had told her he was contacting Mom and Dad, that they were going for lunch. “Does that mean you’ll be back for Christmas?” she’d asked excitedly.

He’d shrugged, and let out a sharp laugh. “Depends how it goes.”

It must have gone well enough, because her mother had called demanding to know how long they’d been in touch. “A couple weeks,” she’d lied. “I think he just wanted to contact us one at a time.” She knew he still hadn’t spoken with Josiah, their older brother, and didn’t dare bring it up. The two could hardly be in a room together without fighting.

Karen had peppered her with questions about where he’d been for the year, because she was only concerned, she said. But Sarah had kept her mouth shut, playing dumb as she so often did. “I don’t know, Mom,” she’d finally said, exasperated. “He’ll tell us when he tells us. Isn’t it good enough that he’s back?”

Her mother was silent on the other end. Then she said, softly, accusingly: “You know he’s completely turned his back on God, don’t you?”

“God won’t give up on him, Mom. It’s not our job to worry about his salvation.”

“Yes, it is!” Karen cried, alarmed.

“No, it’s not! You didn’t die on a cross for him, did you?”

“That’s hardly the point, Sarah.”

“What Tad chooses is between Tad and God.”

“And so I’m just supposed to sit by and watch while my son goes to hell?” Karen asked, her voice trembling with anger.

“No, of course not,” Sarah had groaned. “Mom, that’s not what I’m saying. Can we talk about this later?”

“Fine,” Karen had snapped. They’d exchanged goodbyes, and hung up. Sarah had no intention of ever talking about it again, as far as she could help it.

A loud buzz from the hallway startled Sarah out of her reverie, and she skipped to the intercom to buzz her brother in. When Tad arrived at the door, she was halfway through cleaning the kitchen, and the water was bubbling merrily.

“Hello Dr. Tad!” she grinned as she opened the door. “Your patient is in the living room. Want some tea?”

“Sure,” he said tonelessly, kicking his shoes into a corner. He eyed her stomach pointedly, then gave her a questioning look.

“What?” she asked, putting her hands to her belly.

“When were you going to tell me you’re pregnant?” he asked, a little defensively.

“Oh, they told you? I was going to tell you today, actually, darn it.” Butterflies fluttered up her stomach. In truth, she’d been afraid that he would mock her for getting pregnant so quickly; when they were in high school, he’d always made fun of her fervent desire to be a mother.

“Well, congrats. I know it’s what you want.”

Sarah blinked, surprised. “Yeah, it is.” She and Josh had decided not to use any birth control, and to leave it in God’s hands. She’d been thrilled to conceive so quickly, and was already halfway through preparing the baby’s room.

She busied herself with cups and tea bags as Tad made his way into the living room. “Whoa!” he exclaimed. “Getting your jollies while the hubby’s at work?”

She stuck her head around the corner and threw a tea towel at him, which fell short of his mischievous grin and landed on the outdated oak coffee table. “No! I just clicked on something and all those naked women popped up. Now it won’t do anything.”

“What did you click on?”

“I don’t know.”

Tad gave her a long-suffering look, and turned the computer to face him. She finished preparing the tea as he clicked away on the keyboard. She brought him his drink, then, bored of watching him work, headed back to the kitchen to make cookies. Pulling ingredients out of the cupboard, she fought back a sudden wave of anxiety. Ever since Tad had been back, she was always afraid that this might be the last time she saw him.

He’d contacted her about five months ago. She and Josh had both been counsellors at a summer camp, and an unfamiliar number had rung on her cell phone as she was just about to go to bed.

“Hello?” she’d answered, confused.

“Sarah?” Tad’s voice was tremulous, low. He sounded older, different.

“T—Wh—Tad?” she’d nearly shrieked into the phone. A couple of her campers looked over at her in surprise, and she’d ducked out the door, mouth gaping into the phone.

“Yeah, uh, hi.”

“Oh my gosh! What—Tad! Where are you? Where have you been?”

“I’m at—I’m in trouble.”

“What is it? What kind of trouble?” Waves of anxiety, excitement, and terror ebbed insider her, leaving her cold and trembling.

“I’m at the, um, the remand centre.”

“The what?”

There was a long pause, and Tad slowly, painfully told her: “I’m in jail.”

Shock doused Sarah from head to toe. “Oh, Tad,” she whispered, horrified.

“I’d really like to see you.”

She’d gone to Josh’s cabin immediately after hanging up, despite it being explicitly against camp rules for her to see him at night. He’d snuck out of bed, and, hearing her story, offered to drive her to see Tad in the morning.

The next day, their co-counsellors had covered for their absence. They knew that the camp director would not allow them to leave together for any reason, and if Sarah told him the truth, he would immediately be on the phone to Paul and Karen. They snuck out before breakfast and made the 90 minute drive to the remand centre.

The centre was a dark, squat building surrounded by fifteen-foot chain link fences, lined with barbed wire. Josh had parked the truck, and she’d sat silently in the passenger seat for a full minute, fixating of the flag that snapped and waved at her from the other side of the parking lot, red and white flashing in the morning sun. Her extremities were numb, her breathing was shallow, her heart was racing.

“Ready?” Josh had asked gently. The air turned to molasses on their walk up to the front door.

Josh had not been allowed in the visitor’s area, and so he’d grudgingly agreed for her to enter alone. She’d been nervous, but somewhat relieved; she knew she’d get more out of Tad without her fiance listening in. She and Josh had only been dating a month or so when Tad had left, so the two barely knew each other.

After going through security, she’d been taken into a grey-walled room filled with about fifteen small, white tables. She sat on an orange chair that was bolted to the floor, too far from the table for her to lean on it. There was one other visit happening in the corner, a woman and her child sitting with a man in a dull blue inmate uniform. She could not look in their direction without her eyes filling with tears, and so she steeled herself against the childish chattering and low voices. Oh, God, please show your love to them. Her prayer felt tiny, like it was lost in this dingy, windowless place.

Twenty minutes later, a guard led Tad into the room, though Sarah barely recognized him. Dark roots had pushed out his platinum blonde hair, which he had worn so proudly and defiantly. It was scraggled around his face, strands falling into his eyes. His eyes were dull, wary, and kept darting about the room. He’d always been thin, but now his cheekbones jutted above gaunt, sallow cheeks, covered with a patchy, unkempt beard. Sarah felt numb, and let out a short, gasping sob.

“Tad,” she whispered, shocked. The guard sat him down across from her, then took a couple steps away toward the wall, his hands on his belt, his eyes never still.

Tad gave her a tiny smile. “Hi,” he said, looking at the table between them.

“Tad, what is going on? Where have you been?”

“Around,” he’d mumbled, bouncing his feet off the hard concrete, rubbing his thighs. His hands periodically wandered over his flesh, never still, clutching, rubbing, his eyes never quite reaching hers.

A moment passed as Sarah watched him, lost for words. Finally, she told him: “Tad, they told me the price of your bail. I—I can’t afford it, I’m sorry.”

“I didn’t think so,” he said, his eyes briefly flicking toward her face.

“Maybe Mom and Dad—”

“No,” he’d said forcefully, snapping his chin upward. “No, they can’t be right.”

“What do you mean?” Sarah asked, confused.

“They told me I’d end up—like this. I have to wait till I’m out.”

“How—how long?”

“Not sure.”

“They miss you. They don’t really talk about it, but I can tell,” Sarah strained the words past her constricting throat.

He finally made eye contact, and tears glimmered at the corners of his pale blue eyes. His shoulders slumped. “Oh, Sarah, I shouldn’t have thrown you into this. I’m sorry, I won’t bother you if you don’t want to talk to me again.”

She’d sat upright and leaned toward him abruptly, feeling as though her chest would burst. “Tad, don’t say things like that! I love you, I’m so glad to see you.”

He’d snorted, and raised his palms to the ceiling. “Like this?”

“Alive,” she said, her voice breaking.

For a short moment, he’d stopped moving, and held steady eye contact. She thought her heart would break in that moment, but she knew she couldn’t break down. Tad would always get frustrated and withdraw when she cried.

“I missed you a lot,” he said, barely audible. “I missed you the most.”

“I missed you, too,” she’d replied, and despite her best efforts, tears began to spill over, tiny rivulets streaming down her cheeks. She could hardly believe this was her little brother, always so precocious, her ally in their schemes against Josiah, her partner in crime.

She visited every week after that, into the fall, and gradually noticed improvement. He cut his hair, gained some weight, and even started joking a little. She slowly gleaned half a story out of him; he’d been high on meth, and had been caught stealing to pay for his next fix. He was very vague about his first two weeks in prison, prior to their first meeting, and the glaring omission gave her a sense of unease.

“You still haven’t told Mom and Dad?” he’d ask each time she went to see him.

“No, of course not,” she’d smile. Paul and Karen had nearly kicked him out when he first dyed his hair, so she could not imagine their reaction to his situation. Besides, for as long as she could remember, it had always been her and Tad on the same team, with him conscientiously objecting and her giggling along for the ride.

“Good,” he’d reply.

The leaves were beginning to turn when he told her: “Looks like I’ll be out next week.”

“Really?” Sarah asked, excited. “You can come to my wedding!”

“Oh, Sarah,” Tad’s expression was crushed, shameful. “I didn’t realize.”

Sarah felt a rush of excitement, and fantasized a happy Klassen reunion. “It’s okay! You have three weeks, you can talk to Mom and Dad beforehand. Are you going to stay with them?”

“No, there’s a place I can go,” he said, vaguely gesturing behind himself.

Sarah’s heart sank. “You’re not going to come, are you?”

Tad looked down, and hesitated. “I don’t want to ruin your wedding,” he mumbled.

“You wouldn’t ruin it! You would make it—amazing!” She gripped the table between them, eyes wide. “I would be so happy if you were there.”

“Don’t think I’m ready, Bearah,” he’d said softly. The use of his childhood name for her made her crumble on the inside, and her eyes filled with tears. She’d insisted, but he’d refused. “Don’t set a place for me,” he told her firmly.

The weekend she and Josh got married, she had to forcibly block out thoughts of Tad to keep from breaking down. As Paul walked her down the aisle, she’d scanned the pews of Cornerstone, hoping to catch a glimpse of her younger brother. Ignoring the lingering sadness, she’d looked up at the man waiting at the end of the aisle, and nearly exploded with love and joy.

She was able to contain herself for most of the ceremony, but at one point Pastor Ben made a joke, filling the sanctuary with laughter. She’d turned toward the crowd, giggling, and then stopped short. Sitting in the shadows of the very last pew, all in black, never quite sitting still, was Tad, his signature smirk fixed in place. When their eyes met, his face softened, and he acknowledged her with a nod. She’d snapped her face back to Josh, burning to stare in Tad’s direction, and began to cry as Josh said his vows.

Remembering that moment, she sniffed and wiped at an errant tear with her oven mitt. Oh man, I’m going to cry at everything now, aren’t I? she thought, a happy thrill pushing through her melancholy memories.

She was carrying a loaded plate into the living room when Tad triumphantly rested the laptop on the coffee table. “There. I think I got it. Just has to run a few updates now. When was the last time you updated?”

“What?”

“Never mind.” Tad grabbed a warm cookie, and sipped at his now-cool tea.

“What was it like?” Sarah suddenly blurted. She regretted the words almost before they were out of her mouth.

Tad eyed her warily. “I’d think you’d know now, seeing as you’re pregnant.”

She found the tea towel and threw it at him again. He caught it, and grinned at her flustered face.

“You know what I meant!” she exclaimed.

“No, I don’t.”

“The—” she stopped herself this time. “Well, we don’t have to talk about it.” She turned away from him and grabbed a cookie off the plate, biting it viciously. She felt silly asking, but she’d been wondering about it for the past four months. While she had seen Tad periodically throughout his incarceration and while at ICHP, she’d never really had a conversation about the mysterious eight months before his first contact. What could have driven him to such desperation that he would steal for more? Why hadn’t he gotten some kind of job?

“The high?” Tad asked matter-of-factly.

“Well, yeah,” Sarah said in a small voice, still turned away from him.

“Like I could do anything, and like I needed nothing. For a while.” His voice became flat, emotionless. “Then it was like everything in the world was crushing on top of me, and nothing else could make it better. And I felt like I wanted to die.”

Sarah could feel the heat coursing to her face, the tears rising to her eyes. I’m not going to cry. I’m not going to cry, or he’ll stop talking.

“How long were you on it?” she asked gently.

“Tried it two weeks before I left. When you saw me in the summer, that was the longest I’d been off since then.”

Eight months. Oh, God. She’d done research on meth in the two months he’d been in prison, and could barely get through two websites without breaking down. No wonder he’d been so emaciated.

“I never told Mom and Dad,” she said fiercely. “I won’t, you know.”

“I know,” Tad’s voice softened, and he briefly caught her eye before turning away.

“Will you?” she asked.

“Probably not.”

“Mom grilled me, after you went for lunch with them.”

Tad laughed harshly. “Of course she did.”

Though their mother had the subtlety of a sledgehammer, Sarah had often mentally echoed her concern over Tad’s emotional and spiritual well-being, even before he’d left. He was often moody, and hadn’t really been committed to Christ over the past two years. “Are you seeing anyone?” she blurted.

Tad narrowed his eyes. “Dating someone?”

“No,” she said laughingly, then pulled herself back, realizing she may have offended. “Well, yes, I mean, that too, but I meant like someone to talk to. A pastor, a counsellor.”

“Not the same thing,” he said sardonically, “and no.”

“Don’t you think you should? Maybe they can help.”

“I’m fine, Sarah.”

She felt frustrated, not understanding why he wouldn’t want help. “Wouldn’t talking about it make it—”

He sat upright. “I’m fine,” he said forcefully. “I don’t want to talk about it. It’s in the past and doesn’t need to be revisited.”

The angry look in his eyes made her fearful, worried that he’d storm out and she wouldn’t see him for another eight months. She could hardly bear the thought, and sat upright, grasping his arm. “Okay!” she said. “Don’t leave.”

He blinked in surprise. “I wasn’t.”

Tears welled up in her eyes. “Oh, Tad,” she said, her voice breaking, “I was so worried about you. I thought you might have—” Her sobs overwhelmed her voice, and she couldn’t finish her sentence. Chest heaving, she gripped her brother’s arm, blinded by tears. After a moment, he pulled her into his chest, and she wrapped her arms around him. “Don’t ever leave again,” she pleaded, her tears wetting his shirt. “I missed you so much.”

“I won’t,” he said, a slight tremor in his voice. “I won’t.”

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Solo

“Cerise!” Michelle waved Cerise over to where she was talking to two pretty, trendy women. She judged them to be in their early twenties, and immediately scanned their left hands while approaching. Yep, both engaged, she noted with a pinprick of jealousy.

She smiled and waved as she approached them. “Hi,” she said cheerily.

“This is Cerise,” Michelle said to the women gathered around. “The single one,” she clarified, and both women gave a small nod of recognition. Cerise used up most of her willpower stopping herself from rolling her eyes. “Cerise, this is Jennifer and Stephanie.”

“Great to meet you,” Cerise lied, shaking their hands. She had a feeling she knew what was coming.

“So, you’re still single?” Jennifer asked, eyebrow raised.

“It’s the truth,” Cerise forced her voice into a singsong cadence, darting her eyes around the foyer for a way out of the conversation.

“Oh, you have to come to Northtown, so many single guys there. Have you been to Streams?”

Cerise felt confused. “Streams?”

“Yeah, Sunday nights at 7:00. It’s awesome, the band is so great and Pastor Nick is such an amazing speaker.” Jennifer had a habit of lengthening her a’s that already annoyed Cerise. Would you stop it, she told herself. Don’t judge her because of how she talks.

“I went to Bible college with him,” Michelle chimed in. “He’s a friend of Ben’s.”

Cerise had been to Northtown before, but only to their Sunday morning service. People had seemed a little cold and unfriendly, maybe because there were just so many of them. She much preferred the smaller congregation at Cornerstone.

“I’ve never been,” she supplied. Perhaps this was another chance to try it out; as annoying as it was to be pegged as the single girl, she was intrigued by the idea of ‘so many single guys’.

Stephanie nudged her friend. “She would be perfect for Justin.”

Jennifer gasped in delight, her eyes round. “Yes! Oh, of course!”

“Well,” Cerise laughed lightly, “you did only just meet me…”

“Yeah, I guess, but you would look so cute together.”

Despite herself, Cerise felt a small thrill of excitement. Maybe this was the moment, maybe God had wanted to lead her to this man her entire life. Don’t get ahead of yourself, Cerise, she warned herself. You never know. All in his timing.

——

Cerise gripped the steering wheel of her car and took in a deep breath to calm her nerves, wishing again that Anna had been able to accompany her. She didn’t so much mind meeting new people; in fact, she loved being where the action was, jumping into conversations and hearing others’ stories. But she was nervous about this Justin, or really any single guy who would be there. Most of the men her age within the church were already married, or partway there. She’d been waiting her entire life, it seemed, to meet the man that God had planned for her, but he always seemed to be just around the next corner. She’d had angry moments, bitter disappointments and heartbreaks when crushes turned their interest to other girls, but all that had faded into a general sense of disgust whenever she looked in a mirror. Did she give off some kind of aura that repelled men?

She’d never had a boyfriend. Almost twenty-six, and she’d never been kissed, never even held someone’s hand. When she was younger, she’d felt frustrated and impatient, which had gradually been overlaid with a deep, aching loneliness and a familiar sense of worthlessness every time she woke up alone in her bed, every time she drove home alone after a party.

What is wrong with me?

She pushed the negative thought aside. No. Tonight she was going to go inside with no expectations of any men. She was here to worship God, after all. That’s why she’d come, that was what had drawn her here. Besides, don’t these things happen when you least expect them?

She checked her makeup one last time in her rear view mirror before making her way to the entrance.

——

She found Stephanie and Jennifer after searching through a sea of long, wavy locks and swirled spikes. They waved her over excitedly. Jennifer pointed Stephanie in another direction, giggling, and then Stephanie glanced at Cerise and left.

“Love your hair!” Jennifer said.

“Thanks,” Cerise smiled, touching her own wavy style. As usual, it had taken a while to get the curl in, and she could feel it sagging already. They had been making small talk for a couple minutes when Michelle joined them. Cerise felt relieved to see a familiar face.

“Hi Michelle!” Jennifer grinned as she approached.

“Oh wow, I feel so out of place here,” Michelle said quietly. Her hair was pulled back, her makeup simple and her clothing plain. Cerise thought she looked relaxed and fresh, but a glance around made her feel self-conscious, too. Maybe straight hair would have stood out a little more. She wished again that Anna could have attended; she was always so comfortable with herself, no matter the circumstances.

“I haven’t been to a young adult event like this in forever,” Michelle continued. “There are hardly any married people here.”

Cerise hoped that were true, but she had definitely noticed her fair share of sparkling left hands since entering. I wish guys wore engagement rings. Less false hope.

“What are you talking about?” Jen said, waving her hand dismissively. “There are lots. Oh, Stephanie!”

Stephanie was returning through the crowd, a great big smile on her face, followed by a tall, muscular man who looked to be in his early thirties. Cerise immediately tried to find a spot on his face that was close to his eyes, so he wouldn’t be able to tell that she was too nervous to look into them. Then she looked away, pretending she hadn’t noticed him.

He totally saw. Is that Justin? He’s so much older than I thought!

“Justin, this is Cerise,” Stephanie said brightly. “Cerise, Justin.”

Now she had to look at him, and she did, just above his smiling blue eyes, focusing on his eyebrows. He gave her a toothy grin, and put out his hand.

“Hi, good to meet you,” he said, his voice deep and musical. She gripped his hand with a confidence that belied the butterflies in her stomach, and her whole arm tingled.

“You, too,” she said, smiling.

“Have you been here before?” he asked.

“No—well, yes, but not for a long time. I haven’t been to this type of service before.”

“Oh, Streams is so awesome. The Spirit really moves here, and Pastor Nick is such a great speaker.”

Cerise’s stomach jumped. Barely a minute into their conversation, and he’d already mentioned the movement of the Spirit. Attractive, single, and a man of God? Where had he been hiding?

“How long have you been here?” she asked.

“You know, only about six months. The lead team has really adopted me as their own.”

Looking at him, Cerise could hardly question why. He blended in easily with the crowd around him, smoothly capturing their look of effortless casual. His hair was expertly tousled, and she couldn’t quite tell if he’d had it highlighted. His jeans were ripped in all the right places, and he wore leather bracelets on his tanned wrists. A little bit of the euphoria from their meeting drained away as she realized he was certainly a class above her, and he would never be interested in someone with thighs her size.

No expectations, Cerise! She scolded herself. I’m here for Jesus.

“I have to go,” Justin said, nodding at someone over her head. “But I’ll see you after the service, right? A bunch of us usually go for coffee.”

“Yeah, of course. See you later.”

He melted into the crowd, and she turned back to the trio of women, trying to brand every detail of their meeting into her brain. I might tell that story to our kids someday. The thought was fleeting, and she immediately, forcefully dismissed it. Shut up, Cerise. Don’t be a stupid idiot.

She floated above the women’s conversation, wondering why Justin had not offered to sit with them, and chiding herself for thinking about him at all.

Chords began to play over the gathered groups, and the crowd thinned as some three hundred young adults drained into Northtown’s large side chapel. Cerise claimed a seat next to her new friends, and was still chatting when the worship leader called their attention.

“Welcome, everyone,” came a deep, musical voice, and Cerise snapped her head toward the stage to see Justin’s tousled hair. Her heart jumped, and she calmed it.

“He’s the worship leader?” she whispered to Stephanie.

“Yeah,” she grinned knowingly. “He’s really talented.”

Cerise’s heart sank. She’d been foolish to think she had a shade of a chance, anyway.

She spent the rest of the evening trying to focus on Jesus, but couldn’t stop trying to minimize her thighs.

Tagged , , , ,

Skeletons

Anna checked her phone. One missed call. It was from Seth.

Her face felt warm, and she kept her gaze steady toward the front of the auditorium. Pastor Paul’s voice faded from her consciousness, and she blinked rapidly.

She had been so upset when she left this morning. For weeks, she had been hinting, asking, bargaining to get him to come to church with her. They’d finally come to an agreement; today, he would come. He cleared his schedule and promised her he’d be there.

But he was at home, in bed, pretending to be sick.

Sure, he had some version of the sniffles, she could see. She wasn’t heartless, but she knew the difference between when he was flat out sick and when he was feeling sorry for himself. She took a deep, steadying breath, calming the anger that was threatening to rise.

“And so, I’d like to ask Anna to come join me,” Pastor Paul had a warm smile on his usually serious face, beckoning her to come to the front. There was light applause, and Anna pasted a smile on her face. She rose, stiffly, and limped the long walk to the front.

“This year,” Paul began, “I met Anna for the first time. It’s strange to think it’s only been a year, because God has brought her to the centre of our community here. Anna,” he looked her in the eyes as she sat on the tall stool next to his, “your enthusiasm, creativity, and heart for God are such a blessing to us all. But not everyone here has heard your story, and that’s what I’d like you to share today.”

“Well, thanks Pastor Paul,” Anna said into the microphone, and turned to the expectant congregation. A swell of love pushed through her anger as she scanned the crowd. These people had opened their hearts and arms to her, and she had never felt more at home.

“Two years ago, I was in a serious car accident. I was T-boned by a car after running a red light. Not the most flattering picture of my driving skills, I know.” There was light laughter. “My door was able to take most of the impact, but I broke multiple bones, including both femurs. I had to be cut out of my car. My injuries were life-threatening, but God did not want me home yet.

“It was an excruciatingly difficult recovery. I was in a bed for two months, in traction, and when they took me out I was too weak to walk. I had to gain the strength to walk, to sit, even to feed myself. And that is where I met Lauren.” She indicated the smiling Lauren in the front row, who sat with her youngest, Tanner, beside her.

“Lauren was my nurse for two weeks while I was in recovery, but most of you know that’s enough for her to tell you her life story.” There was a roar of laughter at that, and Lauren shrugged, smiling. “I ended up asking her about her church, and she invited me to come.”

On Anna’s first Sunday at Cornerstone, Seth had driven her and helped her out of the car, happy to see her out and about, but somewhat apprehensive about her newfound interest. It had been summer time, and Anna remembered the painfully slow walk up to the front door. It was the longest continuous distance she’d attempted since beginning her therapy, and she was sweating and exhausted by the time Seth opened the door for her.

“Are you too tired?” he’d asked repeatedly. “We can go home if it’s too much.”

“No,” she said, determined. Seeing them in the doorway, Lauren rushed to greet her.

“Anna! You made it! Oh, sit down, sweetie,” she indicated a nearby bench, brow creased with concern. “You’re pushing yourself too hard.”

“I’m okay, I just need to catch my breath,” Anna had said with a weak smile. Seth sat down beside her, green eyes darting around the foyer with a tense look, his arm laying stiffly on the backrest behind her shoulders.

In the decade prior to her accident, she had gradually pulled away from the more traditional church where she’d been raised. When she had met Seth, she never thought their different backgrounds would be cause for any kind of conflict, but that first week had provided a source of unspoken tension between them. She could tell he was uncomfortable, upset, even angry, but any attempt to discuss it had been met with indifferent shrugs and the unsatisfying explanation: “I just don’t like it.”

He had driven her a couple more times, but soon it was Lauren picking her up on Sunday mornings. Seth had not returned since.

“What struggles has God helped you to overcome in this healing process?” Pastor Paul asked.

Anna gulped. “Well, my husband is not a believer,” her voice broke, “and that has been very difficult. He’s helped with my physical healing, but pulls away from the things of God.” She took a deep, steadying breath, but could not stop the tears from squeezing on to her cheeks. There was a long, tense silence filled with sympathetic murmurs from her audience. Paul handed her a tissue, and she dabbed her eyes.

“I was lost for many years,” she continued brokenly, “And now that I’ve found Jesus again, I desperately pray for the same thing for my husband.”

Her phone began vibrating in her pocket.

“You and your family are in our prayers,” Paul said quietly, intently. She nodded, ignoring the buzzing and hoping that Paul’s amplified voice would drown it out. He asked her a few more questions, nodding and smiling encouragingly at her responses. Finally, he called some women from the congregation to gather around and lay hands on her to pray for her husband. His face to the ceiling, he called for God to show Seth the way and the light. Anna broke into all-out sobs as the women prayed along with Paul, quietly at first, then gaining strength and volume.

When they were finished she returned to her seat next to Cerise, who squeezed her arm and gave her a supportive smile. Anna felt no happier, but a renewed sense of hope had drained her anger for the time being.

Her phone vibrated again.

She remained still, and waited until Paul was five minutes into his sermon.

“Man, do I have to pee,” she muttered to Cerise, who giggled. Cerise always giggled when Anna made a comment with any shade of impropriety.

Outside of the auditorium, Anna turned the corner to the hallway with the women’s washroom and checked her phone. Three missed calls from Seth.

Face flushing again, she dialed.

“Anna, I’m sorry,” he answered without introduction.

“You’re not that sick,” she accused. A moment of silence.

“I just can’t, Anna.”

“Can’t come to church the one time I really wanted you here? And you were calling me in the middle of the service! While I was on the stage!”

“I don’t like it, all right?” His voice heated with anger. “I don’t like church, I don’t want to go.”

“You haven’t even given it a fair attempt,” Anna was whisper-shouting. “You came three times, and each time you ignored everyone here and couldn’t wait to get out.”

She heard footsteps around the corner, and ducked into the bathroom, checking the stalls. All empty. She locked herself in a stall and sat on the toilet.

“I’ve been to church plenty of times.”

“No, you haven’t. When have you been to church?” she asked sharply.

“As a kid.”

“Your parents are atheists.”

“My grandma wasn’t.”

Anna froze. Seth had spoken of his paternal grandmother twice in their thirteen year relationship. When she didn’t say anything, he continued.

“She took me to church a lot. And I hated it. I still hate it.”

A pause. “Why?” Anna asked gently.

“That’s all I want to say,” he replied wearily. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“What kind of church?” she blurted. “What happened?”

“Anna,” he said sharply, “I said I don’t want to talk about it.”

“But how can you get over it if you don’t want to talk?” she asked insistently, almost impatiently.

“I don’t need to get over it. I don’t go to church.”

“But you—”

“Drop it, Anna!” he nearly shouted. Tears stung her eyes, and she angrily blinked them away, sniffing.

“Ann,” he said, more gently, “If you want to go, that’s fine. But I’m not going to be a part of it.”

“Ever?” she whispered past the lump in her throat.

“Ever,” he said with finality. She felt a weight press into her chest, restricting her breathing. She heard the door to the bathroom creak on its hinges.

“I love you,” she said, steadying her voice.

“Ann, I really mean that.”

“I love you,” she insisted plaintively.

“I love you, too,” Seth replied.

They sat in silence for a moment, then both hung up. Anna leaned against the back of the toilet, numb. She waited for the other woman to finish washing her hands, then walked slowly, stiffly, back to her seat.

Tagged , , , , ,
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 304 other followers

%d bloggers like this: