The Unbeliever • Andrew Kennard

Chapter 1: (The) Christian Says Hi

Ah, isn’t school just the best?

I walk down the sidewalk, striding confidently for the front doors. Especially high school, I add to myself. A den of gossip, smack-talk, and showboating if I ever saw one. It has a wide variety of kids: the youngest, smallest freshmen who haven’t even hit puberty yet get teased and pushed around by the other end of the growth scale—the six-foot Neanderthal-like seniors with facial hair to spare who look more like twenty-three than seventeen or eighteen. And there are plenty of other differences within the mass of humanity: the jocks and the geeks, the kids who Ace every test and the ones who barely make it by, the chubby kids and the workout freaks, the goody-two shoes and the delinquents, and on and on.

I am in the middle of them all, a five-foot-six, blue-eyed, blond-haired sophomore who gets average grades, works out some, and generally blends into the throng. I don’t have any really good friends, which is just fine with me. People generally ignore me, but again, I don’t care.

“Hey, Stephen! Stephen!

Here comes one of the exceptions. Christian Collins seems determined to be my friend, though I’m not quite sure why. It might have something to do with the fact that his mother and my mother go to the same church, and my mother was always trying to get me to “reach out more” to others. She might’ve asked Christian’s mother to ask him to try and make friends with me.

Chris, as everyone calls him, catches up to me, his face as red as his scarlet-colored hair from running. I am walking quickly, anxious to get inside the school and get this day over with so I can go home, play video games, snack, and procrastinate away my homework. “What’s up?” Chris pants. He’s a little chubby and not in the best shape.

“Not much.”

“You busy Wednesday night?” Chris asks. Today is Tuesday, so that’s tomorrow night. What could this be about? I wonder. “Maybe,” I reply carefully.

“I have youth group for church,” Chris explains. “You should come and check it out. Don’t worry–we don’t do boring Bible readings and stuff like that. The pastors are funny, and we also play lots of games.”

I laugh, a sarcastic bark that makes Chris’s face fall. “Me? Go to church? Heck no. Religion is just superstition. Evolution is what really made human–without the help of any magical god.”

“You might be surprised,” Chris insists stubbornly.

I roll my eyes. “Whatever, dude. You can think whatever fairy tales you want are real, but I don’t believe in any of that stuff.” Maybe I could bring Chris around to the truth of the matter.

Chris shrugs and doesn’t press the issue. “Okay, then. If you change your mind, remember that it’s tomorrow night at seven. I’m not worried.”

“About what?” I ask.

He smiles. “I’m sure God will show Himself in your life sometime soon.” Before I can reply, we pass through the open doors of the high school and become separated in the rush of chattering kids.

I shake my head, unsettled by his certainty. I decide to just put the encounter out of my mind and continue on with my day. The doors that we go through to enter the school in the mornings lead into the cafeteria, and I walk through the lunchroom toward the hallway where my locker is.

I shove my way through the tide of kids and reach my locker. I quickly unzip my backpack and get the books and folders I need for my first two periods, then start walking over to my first hour class, which is Geometry. Having Geometry as my first hour has taught me the meaning of a rude awakening.

Chapter 2: Just Eat Your Food!

I hurry on my way to the lunchroom, a large room with clusters of circular tables that is close to the front of the school. It’s not a big deal to me if I’m late for Geometry or Biology, but there’s no way I’ll let myself miss part of lunch. It’s my favorite part of the school day, a time when I can tune everything out and just eat. No matter how different high schoolers are, they all have at least one thing in common–they all need to eat. Some people bring their own lunch, but I honestly don’t mind the hot lunch food. If food’s hot and there’s enough of it, I’ll probably eat it.

I sit down by myself, on my own little island in the sea of chattering students. The sounds in the lunchroom are all blending together into a swelling roar of gabbing, but I don’t mind the noise. I set my stuff down and play a game on my phone while I wait for the hot lunch lines to clear out a bit. If there’s one thing I definitely hate, it’s waiting in lines. After a few minutes, I join the somewhat shorter lines of kids and eventually get my lunch. It’s a hamburger, fries, corn, and broccoli, and I pile ketchup and pickles onto the burger from a row of toppings on a nearby table.

I find my spot again and lean back as much as I can in the plastic chair. I pick up my burger and take a bite, then another. After a minute or two, I finished it. I reached out to pick up my spoon to take a bite of corn when I hear a sound that for a moment stands out from the rest of the lunchroom clamor–a tray clattering to the ground.

I turn to look and see that the fallen tray belongs to Christian. He had been carrying his food back to a table when two kids had come along and casually knocked it from his grasp. I see them laughing, calling insults at him, and kicking at his hands when he tries to pick up the tray. I roll my eyes. Bullies–another great part of the high school experience. And none of the teachers had even noticed what was going on yet.

I just lean back farther in my chair. It isn’t my problem. Chris needs to learn to take care of himself. I watch as Chris picks up his tray and starts off on his way again, looking unconcerned, and another one of the group trips him so he falls down again. A chorus of laughs rises up from the crowd. I wince slightly.

One of the bullies grabs something on Christian’s neck and pulls it over his head. He holds it up to show it to his friends. It’s a silver cross on the end of a chain.

The kid holding the necklace said something in a mocking tone. He dangled the necklace over Chris’s head as Chris scrambled to his feet. Chris tried to grab it from his hand, but the guy lifted it out of his reach.

I glance around at the crowd. About three-quarters of the high schoolers haven’t noticed what’s going on, and most of the rest are watching the scene play out and don’t seem to care or are laughing along with the bullies.

While I scan the crowd, I notice a girl stand up from one of the tables and stride purposefully toward Christian and his aggressors. I know her–her name is Casey Farrell. She’s a sophomore and is in my English class. She is also tall, pretty, semi-popular, and one of the fastest track runners at our school. Her dark brown hair is pulled back in a ponytail that bobs behind her as she walks in a businesslike way straight for the kid holding Chris’s necklace.

I casually finish my food, pick up my tray, and take an indirect route to the lunch counter where we leave our empty trays that takes me closer to Casey, Christian, and the others.

“Hey, why don’t you cut it out?” Casey asks the guy with Chris’s necklace. Coming up from behind him, she snatches the necklace from his hand, and drops it over Chris’s neck. She picks up Chris’s tray, which actually hasn’t spilled that much food, and hands it to him. She waves the bullies off, and they back away warily. Eventually, they sit back down at their table. “See you later, Chris,” Casey says, walking back to her table and winking at the astonished other girls at her table.

“Bye, Casey!” Christian says cheerfully as he walks back to his table. “Thanks!”

She grins at him, gives him a thumbs-up, and sits back down. She picks up her burger and takes a bite before continuing her chat with her friends. As she sits back down, I notice the copper-colored bracelet with a cross charm on her wrist.

I’ve stopped in the middle of the lunchroom, not far from where Christian was being harassed. Chris’s already gone back to his table, and this part of the lunchroom has returned to normal. Huh. That was weird. Casey had handled the situation so easily, making the bullies back off with pure confidence and charm.

With Casey and Christian still on my mind, I return my tray and go back to my empty table. The ball rings, and I head off to my next class.

Chapter 3: My Drunk Father Baptizes Me in the Bathtub

After lifting weights and logging some treadmill time in the school workout room, I walk home alone. It’s around four p.m. when I leave school. Since we live not far from each other, Christian has been walking with me for the last few days, and I actually miss his cheerful commentary, and even his stupid jokes. We live in a duplex, so when I arrive at home, I open the door on our side of the place and walk inside. I take off my shoes and toss my backpack down by the door. Our house is pretty simple, just a main room with a TV, a kitchen, my parents’ bedroom, a bathroom, and my room. I find the remote and turn on the TV, then walk into the small kitchen and rummage in the pantry. I grab a bag of tortilla chips, pour some into a bowl, and open up the fridge. I’m hunting for my favorite brand of salsa, but I can’t find it anywhere in the small but densely packed refrigerator.

“Mo-om?” I call. My mother has a job as a science teacher at the middle school, but she’s usually home before I am. However, I don’t hear her reply. I walk through the kitchen and past the door to the bathroom, then turn left to face the door to her bedroom. I open it quietly and find her kneeling at the edge of her bed, hands clasped in prayer. Dang, I think. What’s all these Christians today?

I’m about to ask if she knows where the salsa is when she starts talking a little louder. “Please, God, please guide Henry and Stephen to you. Please.” Henry is my dad’s name. I immediately back out the door and shut it softly before I hear any more. I don’t want to listen to my mother’s requests to an imaginary deity for me to believe in her religion. I guess if I really want some salsa, I’ll just have to look harder for it.

I go back to the fridge and find it after a few seconds. I grab a root beer as well and sit down at the couch with my snack to watch some television. After around ten or fifteen minutes of flipping through channels, I find a decent show and sit back to watch. Then Mom comes out from her bedroom and smiles at me. “How was your day, honey?” she asks.

I shrug. “Normal.”

She pats my shoulder and then goes and sits down at our small dinner table. “I’m going to do some grading for my classes’ essays. I’ll get dinner together in a little while. Make sure you get your homework done.”

“Okay,” I say. I check my watch. It’s almost four thirty. I watch TV for another half hour until Mom calls me over for dinner. She’s made spaghetti, which I like. I like most food. I dig in and finish it within a few minutes. I’m about to go and play some games on our old Wii to pass the time, but Mom tells me to do my homework first. I reluctantly comply, though I do switch from my Geometry worksheet to a game in my phone when she isn’t looking.

After I finish, I play a few games on the Wii and wonder when Dad will come home. He’s usually home from his construction job by four thirty or so, and when I look at my watch, I notice that it’s already past five thirty. My mom makes me take a break from gaming to help her with the dinner dishes.

Around six, my father stumbles through the door, wiping his muddy boots on the mat. “Hey, son,” he says. “How was school?” he asks, his voice slightly slurred. He’s a bit of a drinker, and I guess that he went out to a bar for a few drinks before coming home. I get my blond hair and blue eyes from him, and people often comment on how similar we look. Dad’s also pretty strong–in additional to his construction job, he does plenty of work in the gym.

I shrug. “Normal.”

He smiles. “Where’s your mother?”

I jerk a thumb toward his and her bedroom. He nods and takes off his boots, walking over to the door and opening it.

“What’re you doing?” I hear him laugh. I pause my game, stand up, and walk over to the entrance to my parents’ bedroom. My father is standing over my mother, who is closing a book and getting to her feet. I squint at the cover and realize that it’s her Bible. “You know that that’s all crap, don’t you?” Dad teases.

Mom stands up, tall and defiant. “It’s really not, Henry.”

“Deborah, it’s totally ridiculous,” Dad tells her. Deborah is my mom’s first name.

“I agree with Dad,” I say, and Dad finally notices me standing in the doorway. He takes a step toward me, stumbles, then steadies himself by grabbing onto the bed. “Good boy, Stephen,” he says, throwing an arm around my shoulders and steering me to the bathroom. “Let’s try something.”

“What?” I ask suspiciously. Dad has done some weird things when he’s had too many drinks, and this situation seems to fit the bill for another drunken mistake.

“We’re going to test something,” he replies. Dad opens the door to the bathroom and walks inside. Our one bathroom is actually fairly large. It has a separate bathtub and shower, two sinks, and of course a toilet. The sinks are clustered with toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes, mouthwash bottles, and other teeth stuff. Dad leads me toward the bathtub and turns the water on.

My mother walks in behind us and puts her hands on her hips. “Henry, what are you doing?” she demands.

Dad waves her off and waits for the water to rise a few inches, then grabs me by the shoulders, pulls me to the edge of the bathtub, and dunks my head under the water. Surprised, I splutter and thrash under the surface. Then Dad pulls me out of the water and sets me down on my feet, laughing a drunken, sarcastic laugh. “Oh look! What’d ya know! He’s saved! His sins are gone!” he chortles, leaning on my shoulder as he stumbles again. He smells like beer.

“Henry!” my mother protested. “Stop!”

I splutter and laugh. I’m a little annoyed by the sudden dunking, but I decide to go along with it. “Oh my! I’m, uh, cleansed and stuff! Hallelujah!”

Mom puts her hands on her hips and stares disapprovingly at us. We just start laughing, and she turns around and leaves, shutting the door behind her a little harder than necessary and I hear her retreating to her bedroom.

Dad stumbles again, and I lead him out of the bathroom and sit him down his favorite armchair in the living room. “Thanks, son,” he mutters drunkenly. Then his head lolls back and he falls asleep, snoring heavily.

I walk to my messy room and change out of my sodden shirt and pants into fresh clothes. After changing, I exit to see my mom stuffing her wallet and phone into her purse at the table.

“Are you going somewhere?” I ask.

She nods. “A food pantry. They’re having a dinner. Want to come?”

“Why?” I wonder.

“To help out,” she replies simply.

“Nah,” I say, and plop down on the couch.

She shrugs sadly in acknowledgment and zips up her purse, slings it over her shoulder, and walks toward the door.

“Okay, fine,” I relent, feeling a little guilty after seeing her expression. She smiles and opens the door for me. We walk out, and I hope that whatever she’s doing at the food pantry won’t be boring.

 

Chapter 4: You Should Respect Lemon Juice

No dice.

I stand in front of a long counter, one of many aproned helpers dishing out beef stew, fruit, and juice packs to a line of people who apparently are so poor that they need to get their dinner at places like this. I don’t know why I agreed to this. I guess I felt a little guilty after the whole making-fun-of-baptism thing, but do I really have to waste my night spooning beef stew?

I pass the ladle beneath the surface of the stew for what seems like the hundredth time, and pour some broth, meat, and vegetables into the bowl of a young woman in her twenties wearing a fleece jacket and jeans. She smiles at me and walks over to one of the folding tables that are set up in the large main room of the food pantry, which has been mostly cleared for the dinner.

My mother stands a few people down from me, giving out ladlefuls of corn to the shabby diners. She smiles as they walk up to her, receive the corn, and thank her, making light conversation and little jokes with them, and leaving the homeless people with even bigger smiles on their faces. They were actually homeless–Mom had told me on the way over that most of the people who came here live at a shelter a few blocks away. Mom had emphasized how happy she was that I was coming and that I would “really appreciate the difference we were making.” Whatever, I thought. When we had arrived, Mom had sentenced me to the crockpot and my extremely simple and quite boring task, and here I was.

I am giving some stew to an obnoxiously cheerful elderly man who kept making odd jokes when Mom walks up to me with a cutting board with a group of three lemons balanced on its surface in her hands. “What is it?” I ask, though I think I know how she’ll respond.

“I want you to chop these lemons,” Mom tells me. “I’ll cover your spot here, and Dolores can handle the corn back there.” An old, white-haired woman back by Mom’s corn station waves cheerfully. I guess that she must be Dolores. “The stew station’s being swarmed right now, so we can’t leave it unattended, so I’ll take your place.” That was true. I’ve been busy nonstop since I’d arrived as the homeless people come to my station, person after person after person. “I would do it, but you know I’m allergic. If I get that juice on me, I’ll have a reaction. Dolores’s hands are way too shaky to do it, and everyone is busy. I figured that you could use a break anyway.”

“Whatever,” I grump. “I’m not exactly good with lemons, either.”

Mom rolls her eyes. “Just take them.” I put the ladle back in the crockpot, and she shoves the cutting board into my arms. “Chop chop,” she says, and smiles, pleased with the pun. I groan, take it, and walk into the food pantry’s little kitchen to find some free counter space to chop the lemons. We have been serving at a counter outside the kitchen, which is enclosed within the room. I open the door to the kitchen and walk inside, finding it unoccupied. Everyone else is outside helping serve the food. I place the lemons on the cutting board on the counter next to the stove and find a suitable knife from the kitchen’s knife rack.

Here we go, I think, and raise the knife to start chopping. I bring it down on the first lemon, and it easily pierces the lemon’s skin. I push harder, and it slices deeper into the fruit. Then my fears come true and a shoot of acid-like juice squirts up from where the knife cut the lemon. I try to jerk back and avoid it, but my reflexes aren’t fast enough. The juice sprays me directly in the face, with droplets of it entering my eyes. I swear and jump back from the table, frantically swiping at my burning eyes with only my left hand as my right is still holding the knife. Stabbing my eye out wouldn’t help matters. I swear again, drop the knife, and hear it thunk into the wooden flooring. I rub my eyes with both hands and howl as touching it only makes it worse.

“Oh, come on, Stephen,” I hear a familiar voice say. I turn and open one eye a fraction, enough to get a blurry view of what’s around me. It really is Casey. She’s leaning against the kitchen counter a few feet away from me.

“You know my name?” I ask, flustered by her sudden appearance and that she’s been watching me yell and swear over having lemon juice in my eyes. We’ve never talked much before, and I’m taken aback that she even knows who I am. I don’t raise my hand much in class, and even my teachers routinely forget my name.

“Well, duh,” she replies, tossing back her ponytail. “I know the names of most of the people in our grade, and a decent amount of the entire school. Plus, you’re in my English class, after all.”

That seems like a lot to me. At best, I know the names of probably only half of the current sophomore class, and barely any juniors, seniors, or freshmen. “Cool,” I say. “I guess I don’t pay much attention.”

“Here, have a towel,” Casey says, tossing me a small hand towel. I wipe away the juice from my eyes. They still hurt, but not as much. I try to smile at Casey, and she laughs.
“Your eyes are all red and irritated,” she tells me. “You look like a zombie.”

“Thanks,” I reply sarcastically, to which she laughs again. I can’t help but grin back.

We lapse into awkward silence for a minute, and I search for something to say. “Um, good job at lunch,” I tell her.

She cocks her head questioningly. “What?”

“Helping Christian out,” I explain. “That was, uh, pretty cool.”

She smiles and waves this off. “Marcus and his buddies are really wimps on the inside. They’re just afraid of looking stupid, and they make fun of people because they think it’ll make others like them. I just acted confident.”

“Were you?” I ask.

“What?”

“Confident.”

“Mostly. It was still a little nerve-racking, but the important thing was not letting it show. That’s true for a lot of stuff.”

This is interesting. I hadn’t known that Casey was nervous at all. “Well, cool. I guess I’d better get back to work. I’ll see you later, unless you’d like to help me chop these lemons?”

She grins and nods. “Sure.” She steps closer to me, bends down, and yanks the dropped knife from the wood. I realize that it had fallen only a few inches from my foot. She hands it to me and takes a second, near-identical knife from the rack. “I’ll chop one of the other lemons,” she says. I smile, step off to the left, and start chopping the first lemon. She slices down on one of the untouched lemons. Immediately, a squirt of juice nails her in the face. “Agh!” she cries. “Dang it!” She drops her knife on the cutting board, picks up the discarded hand towel, and wipes frantically at her eyes. “Ugh!”

I smirk. “Guess we’ll both have zombie eyes now,” I tease.

Casey drops the rag and frowns at me, but I can tell that she doesn’t really mean it. Then her eyes light up. “You’d better watch out!” she cries, and picks up the lemon that sprayed her. She squeezes it, and a squirt of juice flies toward my face.

I duck just in time and it soaks part of the counter behind me. “Hey!” I complain. “I’m unarmed!” I plead as I dodge a second spray. I put my knife on the counter behind me.

Casey tosses me the first lemon, the one that squirted me before. “There you go.” Then she squeezes her lemon again, and, laughing, I jump to the side and squeeze my own lemon at her. We continue this until the fruits run dry, and then race to the counter to grab the third lemon. I get there first, pick up Casey’s dropped knife, and thrust it into the third lemon. I try to shield my face as the acidic juice squirts into my face, but it’s too late. I yell as the juice burns my eyes. However, I’m not the only one yelling. Casey had been right behind me when I stabbed the lemon, and the juice sprayed her as well. I finally manage to hand her the towel and she wipes her eyes. Then she gives it to me and I do the same. Her blue eyes are rimmed with red from the double soaking of lemon juice, and I bet that mine look the same way.

“That was fun,” I say when we’ve recovered from laughing.

“Definitely,” she says, looking at me in a pleased way that seems a little different from before.

Then my mom bursts into the room. “What’s going on in here?” she demands. “What’s all the the yelling about?”

I look at Casey for help. She looks back at me. We both laugh again.

“Lemons,” I explain, stifling another laugh.

*          *          *

After we clean up the kitchen and chop up a new batch of lemons, Casey and I go back to our stations. I’m actually glad that I came. It’s not every day you get to have lemon fight with someone like Casey.

I smile a bit at the people who come for seconds of beef stew. The whole lemon thing went on long enough that the people from the shelter had enough time to eat the first portions and starting coming back again. I look at them a little closely and realize that most of their clothes are old and sometimes torn or dirty. Later, I notice that the women with the fleece jacket that I served earlier has ripped jeans and her fleece jacket looks old and slightly faded. Most of the diners dig into their food with enthusiasm, like they haven’t eaten in days. Maybe helping these people really is worthwhile, I realize.

 

Chapter 5: When Your Alarm Clock is Wrong and You Somehow Hate It Even More Than Before

As always on the weekdays, I wake up to my oh-so-favorite sound–the blare of my alarm clock. Keeping my eyes shut tight, I scrabble around on my nightstand to hit the snooze button, but I only succeed in knocking the clock to the floor. With a weary sigh, I roll out of bed and let myself fall to the floor, taking some of the bedsheets with me. I find the clock and press the snooze button, and peaceful quiet again reigns over my room.

I doze for five more blissful minutes before it goes off again. I snooze it again and sleep for another five minutes. Finally, the third time it starts beeping, I slowly rise from the pile of blankets on the floor and turn it off. I glance at my watch on my nightstand and suddenly realize that it’s only five forty-seven a.m, even though my alarm clock tells me that it’s six. I groan. My alarm clock is always fast, and no matter how many times I reset it to the proper time, it’s back to being ahead of what time it really is within a few days and, as a result, waking me up early. But now I’m up and I might as well get going. I step up to my dresser and start picking out some clothes.

My room isn’t very big–about the same size as our little kitchen. And that makes it seem all the messier. Most of my clothes are in my dresser, but a few random shirts and pants are strewn along the floor. My just-too-small twin-size bed takes up about half of the space. My nightstand, a small card table, resides next to it. I step away from the dresser, pick up the alarm clock from the floor and place it on its wooden surface. My dresser is along the wall on the right of the bed, next to my hamper. I walk over to the window across from my bed that overlooks the driveway of our duplex and open it, letting some light come in. The light washes over my small bookcase. I don’t read a lot, but I do like a few books. The Ranger’s Apprentice books are one of the few series that I’m absolutely addicted to. I even sent the author, Tom Flanagan, a thankful letter. My mom buys me pretty much whatever books I want, and some that I don’t. She thinks that reading is good for the mind. I say whatever. I only read what I like. She got me a Bible once, but I’ve never opened it. It resides on the bottom shelf of my bookcase, dusty and nearly forgotten.

I go back over to my dresser, grab my clothes for the day, and head for the shower. After I’m showered, I eat some cereal for breakfast. I’m ready for school by six thirty, so I just kind of hang around and watch a little TV before heading off to school at close to seven. My mom wakes up at six forty-five and talks with me about the shelter and the dinner last night before I leave. After it had finished, we had gone home and pretty much gone straight to bed.

I walk to school alone for the first few minutes before Christian joins me. “What’s up?” he asks cheerfully.

I shrug. “Not much.”

“Did you reconsider not coming to youth group?” Chris asks. Today is Wednesday, so Chris’s youth group is tonight.

I shake my head. “I probably won’t come.”

“Okay,” he replies, undaunted.

We walk the rest of the way to school in silence.

*          *          *

            As usual, I sit by myself at lunch, eating the hot lunch for today: a hot dog and green beans, with a bottle of water to drink. Christian comes over and sits down next to me. “What’s up?” he asks cheerfully, his mouth full of a bite from his own hot dog.

I decide to give him a different reply this time. “The sky.”

Christian chuckles and rolls his eyes. “Well, duh. But how’re you?”

I shrug. “Hungry.” I take another bite of hot dog and then wolf down a forkful of green beans.

“You wanna hear a joke?” Christian asks.

I groan loudly.

“Great! I’ve got a great one. So, there’s this guitarist. He has an acoustic guitar, but he tries out a newer electric one at a store. He decides to buy it. Why?”

I don’t respond, but Christian tells me the punch line anyway. “He played better chords with it! Get it?”

“No,” I reply, even though I do understand the quite horrible pun.

“Electric guitars have chords, like a group of notes, and cords, like wires. The normal guitar doesn’t have cords. So when he plays better chords with it, it’s because it has cords. Because it’s electric. Do you get it now?”

I shrug and hide a smile. “Eh. That wasn’t very punny.” Christian laughs as I finish the rest of my food and stand up to put my tray away.

“Here, I got it. I’m done anyway.” Christian takes my tray and his and goes to put them away. I yawn and pull out my phone. As he’s on his way back to the table, the bell rings and I gather my stuff and head off to my next class, English.

When I get there, Mr. Burns, the teacher, begins class by assigning us a project that we’re going to be working on for the next several days. It’s a paper on this weird book we’re reading called Lord of the Flies. It’s okay, I guess.

My group includes Casey, a guy named Devin, and a girl named Marissa. I only learn Devin and Marissa’s names when Mr. Burns calls them off along with my name for our group. I should really pay more attention to people.

We have to write a four-paragraph essay. I figure that we’ll each take a paragraph and I won’t have to do much. Once we get school laptops from a computer cart, I look at the outline for the paper and start typing the introduction.

“What’re you doing, Stephen?” Devin asks. He’s got that nerdy-kid look going on, with glasses, zits, and braces. He’s also really short, but he’s also pretty smart.

I shrug. “Starting the paper. He basically told us what we gotta do, right? I’ll do the intro. You all divide up the other parts.” I turn back to the computer.

“No, he said we’re supposed to pick and choose examples from the text and decide what we’re putting in what paragraph as a group,” Devin insists.

“There are four paragraphs,” I say. “Why can’t one person do each?”

“We’ve got to make the paragraphs flow together,” Marissa adds. “We should structure the essay and figure out the whole thing as a team. You can’t write the thesis for the intro without knowing what we’re going to write for the other paragraphs.”

I sigh as Casey nods in agreement. “Okay, whatever,” I concede.

We start planning the essay, manage to structure the whole thing, figure out our text examples and explanations, and all that crap before the bell rings. I again notice the cross bracelet around Casey’s wrist and wonder about it. Casey works a little past the bell and is behind everyone else. Everyone leaves, but I hang back with her, pretending to be sorting through my pencil case. Even Mr. Burns leaves, probably to go to the bathroom or something.

“Um, so,” I begin, then trail off.

Casey glances up. “Yeah?”

“Do you go to my mom’s church?”

She nods. “Christian goes there too. Do you? I don’t see you there.”

I shake my head. “I don’t go to church.”

“You could give it a try,” Casey suggests. “There’s youth group tonight. It’s really pretty fun.”

I shrug. “Maybe.”

“Your choice.” She starts to walk past me, toward the door, then pauses. “Even if there isn’t a God, Stephen… in my opinion, following Him is still the best way to live. I think you’d be surprised at the difference in your life.” She leaves.

“Hey, Casey!” Christian calls as he passes by her as she leaves.

“Hey, Christian,” she responds, smiling at him. Then they both walk off on their separate ways, melding into the crowd.

The youth group has a meeting tonight. Should I go? It feels like I should because so many people are telling me to, but I really don’t know what to do.

I pick up my stuff and leave the classroom.

 

Chapter 6: Chicken, Rice, and Theological Talk

When I get home around three- I don’t work out every day–I find my mother in the kitchen, preparing a chicken and rice dish that I like. “Hi, how’re you?” I ask, leaving my backpack by the couch and joining her in the kitchen.

She smiles. “Pretty good. Chicken and rice tonight.”

“It’s one of my favorites. Thanks.”

She smiles with surprised delight. “Thank you, honey. How’re you?”

I shrug. “Fine. Hey, Mom, so…why do you believe in God?”

Mom is taken aback for a moment, then smiles again. “Well, Stephen, a lot of it is my experiences. I do feel a lot better when I pray, and my prayers are always answered in some way, even if I don’t notice it or if it’s not in the way I want it to be. And whatever evolution scientists may say, there is some scientific evidence that supports a God. I won’t go too into detail, but look at the world around you. The sun, the moon, the atmosphere, gravity–it’s all set right to support life. I’d have to do some deeper research into it to tell you more specifics, but it’s not that likely that it just all sprung into being by itself.”

I’m interested in this, but I decide not to press the point. Maybe I’ll do some research on it later. My parents have a computer in their bedroom that they let me use, or I could use my phone. I still have another question for her. “How do you just submit to someone like that?” I ask. “Assuming that a God exists, how do you know that he’s got your best interests in mind?”

“That’s partially why I read the Bible,” she replies. “I’m looking at the past. There were many prophets of God that spread the message, and when they fell into trouble, God often delivered them. Also, truly following Him and his way makes you into a better person. I’ve learned to be kinder, more patient, and more accepting. I’m not saying I’m perfect–or even close- but I’m better than I used to be.”

I think about this for a minute. “Okay.”

“I’m glad you’re interested, Stephen. Would you want to try going to the church’s youth group, just to check it out?”

I hesitate, then nod. Three people in my life now want me to go, so I’d better at least check it out. “I’ll try it,” I say. “I’m not promising anything, but I’ll see what it’s about.”

She grins and pulls me into a hug. “Thanks, honey. That’s all I ask.”

I step back and nod and smile. “Cool.”

“It starts at seven and ends at eight thirty. We should probably leave around six thirty–the church is across town, and we’ll have to take the bridge across the river to get there.”

“Okay.”

*       *       *

My father comes home late again tonight, at around six. He is just in time for dinner. He’s drunk again time, too, which isn’t good. Mom has tried to get him to drink less in the past, but he doesn’t really listen. I’m starting to get a little worried about him. Sometimes when he’s drunk, he doesn’t always seem like himself and does things that he otherwise wouldn’t do, like last night.

I cringe a little bit when I remember myself going along with the whole weird make-fun-of-baptism thing. I still probably won’t become a Christian, but I can at least respect my mother’s faith.

I do my homework, watch some TV, and then set the table for dinner. After we finish dinner at six thirty–the chicken and rice is great–I do the few dishes at Mom’s request while she goes into her room to get her purse with her car keys so she’s ready to drive me to youth group.

Dad goes into their room to get something and I hear him laughing. I put down the soapy rag I’m using to wash the dishes and walk over to stand in the doorway. Dad’s discovered Mom praying, and he’s making fun of her again. “How’s your imaginary friend doing?” he teases. Dad is usually pretty nice to Mom, except sometimes when he’s drunk or when it’s something about faith. Then he’s relentless in his teasing, which can sometimes turn rude.

I have a sudden realization. Is that what I sounded like when I made fun of Christian about his faith yesterday morning? When I backed Dad up in my parents’ argument last night? Why have I been acting like that?

I compare my behavior to Casey, Christian, and my mother’s, and I feel worse. They don’t act that way. They’ve respected my atheism, even when I don’t respect their beliefs. Why?

They help each other out. Casey standing up for Christian in the lunchroom. All three of them at the shelter. Is Casey right–the best way to live is God’s way, even if he probably isn’t real? It certainly seems to make them and the people around them happier. I’m not sure what to think. But I can at least help Mom out, here and now.

“Dad, please stop,” I plead, trying hard to sound confident.

He turns toward me, surprised. “What? You don’t believe in it too, do you?”

“That doesn’t matter,” I inform him. I remember what Casey said about confidence at the shelter: sometimes, it doesn’t matter if you’re really feeling confident–you just have to act like it. “You need to respect her belief, even if you don’t agree with it.”

Dad takes a step toward me. I realize that he’s more drunk than I thought. During dinner, he was definitely acting like it, but no more than usual. He’d gone outside for a few minutes while I’d been doing the dishes, and he must’ve drank more then.

Dad’s eyes narrow as he frowns. He takes a small bottle half filled with dark liquid from inside his jacket and takes a sip. Probably beer, but maybe liquor. I hope it’s not liquor–that makes him more drunk than anything. “Son, I don’t appreciate you contradicting me like that.” His face contorts in drunken rage, and I start to feel scared, though I try not to show it. He’s gotten mad at both of us before when he’s been drunk, but he’s never done anything more than yell and stomp and swear.

“Henry…” Mom says warningly. “You’re drunk. You need to calm down.”

He turns on her and calls her something that I don’t care to repeat. He pushes her back against the bed and slaps her across the face. “Stop!” I yell. He needs help. He’s never done anything like this before.

Mom stands up straight and breaks free from his grip, grabbing her purse and walking away from Dad and out the bedroom door. I follow, uncertain of what to do. “Stephen, we’re leaving,” she orders. “Now.”

“Where are you going?” Dad asks, lumbering after her with heavy, drunken steps.

“Youth group at church,” I blurt without thinking. As soon as the words come out, I wish I can stuff them back down my throat.

He’s taken aback. “Not you too, Stephen. Not church. You’re not leaving.”

“I’m not committing to anything!” I protest. “I’m just trying it out!”

“That’s what your mother said when she first went to church!” he roars. He shoves me, hard, and I fall backward against the couch.

My mother moves to stand protectively in front of me, narrowing her eyes. “Don’t touch him,” she hisses. “You have no right to hurt him. We are leaving now.”

“Well, Deborah, if you’re all leaving, then maybe I will too!” he yells. He throws open the front door and stomps out to his red pickup. After a few seconds, I hear it start up and then he’s gone.

“What do we do?” I ask Mom, shaken by the sudden, violent encounter.

Her lips set in a tight line. “You’re going to youth group. I’m not letting him ruin that. I was going to just drop you off, but I’ll stay at the church in case he comes home.”

“What about Dad?” I ask. “He’s driving drunk.”

“Yes,” she agrees sadly. “But I won’t go after him. I can’t deal with him if he gets violent. We’ll figure it out after church.”

“Okay,” I say, and we go out to Mom’s car, a small green vehicle with a low ceiling.

Once we get in, Mom in the driver’s seat, of course, and me in the passenger seat. I’m a sophomore, but I haven’t gotten even my learner’s permit yet– I’m still too young. Mom waits for a minute to start the car, and I realize that she’s praying. She’s whispering her prayer, and I make out some of the words–something about keeping Dad safe. Then Mom looks over at me. “I’ll talk to you about–that– later, Stephen. But we’ll figure it out.” She gives me a reassuring smile, which I return with a reluctant, nervous smile of my own.

She starts up the car and drives across town to the bridge that crosses the river that runs through our city. There’s a traffic jam around the bridge, but we get through and eventually get to the other side. We get to the church at around six fifty-five–five minutes early.

I’m about to get out of the car when I feel a sudden rush of doubt. What am I doing here? This is church. Why am I even going to this?

Then I remember Mom, and Casey, and Christian. How they all act. I’m here to find out the truth of the matter. I remember what Casey said, just earlier that day in English class. Even if there isn’t a God, following Him is still the best thing you can do. I wonder whether it’s true.

“Come on, Stephen,” Mom says, opening up the passenger door. She had gotten out of the car and walked around to my side while I was deliberating. “Let’s go.”

We walk up to the building. Mom holds the door open for me, and I go through. She enters behind me, and the door swings shut.

Chapter 7: Why Didn’t You Just Say That There Was Ping Pong?

We walk through a second set of doors and into the church. I’ve never been here before, so it’s all new. The doors open directly into a large, rectangular main room with a coffee bar and several doors leading off into various rooms. It’s brightly lit by a large chandelier.

Groups of middle school and high school-age kids are playing games around the room. I spot everything from board games like Trouble to Ping Pong. Ping Pong! I love Ping Pong. It’s my favorite sport, and I’m decent at it. I tried to start a Ping Pong club in middle school, but it never got off the ground. There’re at least fifty kids in the room.

Christian is at one of the two Ping Pong tables with Casey. They’re playing one on one, and Casey is clearly winning, though Christian doesn’t seem to care.

“Hey, you came!” Christian cheers. “I knew you would!”

“Join in,” Casey invites me with a smile. “You two can team up against me.”

I grin and grab a racket. My mom pats me on the shoulder, says goodbye, and walks off to go talk to a man in his twenties who I guess is one of the adults running this operation. “So, how do things work around here?” I ask as Christian serves the ball to Casey.

“We play games for a little bit, then the youth pastors give us whatever message or activity they have planned,” Casey explains as she whacks the ball back over to our side. “Then we go to our small groups to talk about it. They’re based on grade.” She gives a scrutinizing look, and I wonder what she’s thinking about.

I nod as I backhand the ball to the corner of the table. “Okay.”

Casey lashes out with her racket and connects just in time, and the ball flies back to our side. “Nice save,” Christian says cheerfully as he smacks it with his paddle.

We continue for a few more minutes until a guy who I assume is one of these youth pastors calls the kids together. He corrals us into another big room filled with chairs lined up in rows facing a stage. This is probably where the church has their Sunday services. I sit down between Casey and Christian. The pastor leans against the stage, but doesn’t go on it, and starts talking. He’s a young guy in his twenties, and he makes several jokes throughout his general announcements that everyone laughs at. He talks about a few incoming events for the church and the youth group, then gets down to the message.

The theme of the message touches a little close to home with me. It’s about sharing your faith at school, and how some people who don’t believe may not accept it and may even be mean to you because of it. It’s about standing strong, and not backing down, but not pressing your beliefs on others either. The pastor raises a few questions that he has us discuss with the people around us. Like, what would you do if you were being made fun of for your beliefs? He explained how sharing your beliefs is sharing God, and that anyone can be saved and forgiven and stuff if they just pray to God. I feel pretty skeptical about this. What have I ever done that was so horribly awful?

Then he starts talking about how the real job for converting people is God’s, and that sharing the news is just planting seeds for God to help grow. He talks about relationships with God, and how the world would be if everyone lived his way. How sin corrupted the world. As it goes on, more and more of it is foreign to me, and less and less of it registers.

Then the pastor talks about submitting to God, and I become more and more adamant that I’m not going to do this. Submitting to God… why do I have to submit to someone? Because he supposedly created the world, I have to do what he says? Christian ways may be good and all, but if I become one, how much would I have to change? Why should I change just because someone thinks I should?

Eventually, I can’t take it anymore. I mumble something to Casey and Christian about going to the bathroom and leave. I go and sit the the small area between the two sets of doors.

After a few more minutes, everyone else starts to come back into the main room. I quickly walk outside before anyone notices me. I decide to wait there until it’s over. It’s starting to rain.

A few seconds later, Christian walks out of the church. “What happened?” he asks.

“Go away, Christian.”

“I saw you go out.” He starts to sit down. “Why’d you come out here? Breakout groups are in there.”

“Leave,” I say. I don’t want to talk to him right now. Right now, I don’t want to talk to any of these stupid Christians in my life that think they can control me.

“Okay, I guess,” Christian says, looking sad. He goes back inside.

Fifteen minutes later, everyone starts pouring out of the church. Kids get picked up by their parents and leave. My mother comes out and starts looking for me. I walk over to her. “Let’s go,” I say evenly.

“Stephen, what happened?’’ she asks. “Christian said–”

“It doesn’t matter. Let’s go home.” I turn away from her and storm over to the car. I see Casey watching me as she climbs into the passenger seat of a blue truck out of the corner of my eye, but I don’t care. I try the handle of the car door on the passenger side, but it’s locked. I turn to see Christian and my mother, waiting a few yards away.

“I promised I’d give Christian a ride,” Mom explains. “His mom could drop him off, but she couldn’t pick him up. She’s a nurse, and she’s the night shift at the hospital where she works.” I nod in acknowledgement. Mom unlocks the car, we all get in–Christian sitting on the right side of the backseat– and leave. We’re just reaching the bridge when I see the lights. Police lights, blue and red and white, flashing on the other side of the bridge. “I wonder what’s going on,” Mom muses. She keeps driving. As we get on the bridge, I notice that the blue truck that Casey got into when she was leaving church is a few cars behind us. We’re halfway across the bridge when I see my father’s red truck, weaving crazily through traffic. Oh no. I mutter a curse.

Mom tries to pull over to the side of the bridge, next to the metal guardrail. The other drivers attempting to do the same, trying to clear a path so they don’t get hit. But everyone is too slow. My dad’s going to hit someone. It’s a miracle that he hasn’t crashed already.

As he gets on the bridge, my mom moves closer to the left side of the road as Dad roars down the center. I see his face behind the wheel, wild and drunken, and then he loses all control and the truck swerves left, smashing into our car near the rear right tire and sending the back end of Mom’s car spinning into the guardrail, which snaps. Mom bangs her face on the steering wheel. My head slams back against the headrest. The night fills with the sound of crashes and screaming metal as Dad’s car keeps going.

I unbuckle my seatbelt and take stock of myself. I’m fine– just a few bruises. Nothing really, considering the crazy, insane thing that just happened. I shake Mom’s shoulder and she doesn’t respond. “Mom! We gotta go. Come on!” She’s unconscious. I unbuckle her seatbelt, open the car door on my side, and drag her out of the seat, stepping out onto the concrete bridge. Then I realize the full extent of what’s just happened. After sideswiping us, my dad’s truck must’ve slammed into another car. Other cars must’ve smashed into them afterward, because there’s a whole pileup. Six cars are wedged against each other, totally blocking off the bridge. One car is on its side, but the others are upright. I focus on the issue at hand and drag my unconscious mother away from the accident, toward the other side of the bridge where the cars have stopped. Over there, people are getting out of their cars. Two men rush toward me and take Mom. “Thanks!” I say. Several people are already calling nine-one-one on their cell phones.

I’m standing in the middle of the bridge, looking around in a daze when a man and a woman pause next to me. “Are you all right?” the woman asks. I nod, and they both rush off to help the others in the crash.

I’m about to sit down in the middle of the road when I hear a groan of pain from the car. Oh, dang. Christian!

I jump back up and race for the car. I throw open the passenger door but pause as I realize that the back part of the car is hanging off of the bridge. The car is balanced on a knife’s edge, and it might fall at any moment. What if it falls while I’m inside?

I push the thought aside and step carefully into the car.

 

Chapter 8: I’m a Bad Bridge Diver

“Christian!” I yell. “Where are you? Are you okay?” There’s blood on the backseat where he was sitting, dripping onto the floor, but I don’t see him. I step up onto the passenger seat and crane my head around to see the whole backseat. Christian is pressed against the left backseat door. His left leg is covered in blood and is bent at a funny angle. He is face is badly bruised, and he’s hyperventilating with fear. I hear the sound of sirens in the distance, but as the car shifts again, I realize that they won’t be fast enough to get here in time. I reach for Christian’s hand. “Come on, dude. Take my hand. We gotta go.”

He isn’t responding. He’s awake, but he’s staring blankly out the window next to him at the dark river below the car. The car has tilted enough that the window gives a slanted view of the river, not just the skyline of the city. Slowly, I step over the center console and slide into the backseat, careful so I don’t disturb the car’s tenuous balance any more than I have to. I grab Christian around the chest and lift him up. He’s heavy, and I stumble for a moment, staggering against the back of the driver’s seat. The car tips further, and my back presses against the car door. I start to freeze with fear as I realize that if this car goes over, we’re both going down with it. No getting out. Just probably death. The bridge is at least fifty or so feet high. I might be able to swim out, but there’s no way that Christian can. “HELP!” I scream. “HELP US!” I glance back at Christian and see the cross necklace around his neck. I clasp my hands in prayer for the first time. Please God, oh please. If you exist, please save us.

“Stephen!” someone yells. “Stephen!” Through the opposite car window, I see Casey and a tall dark-haired man that I assume is her father climbing over the pileup of cars toward us. I unfreeze and take a step toward the window. Casey and her dad reach the car and skid to a stop as they realize the car’s state. We try to open up the right backseat door, but it’s busted shut from the crash–Dad’s car hit Mom’s right around there. They step over to the passenger door and Casey’s father reaches in. I hand Christian over to him, and he and Casey pull the injured boy out of the car. They set him down on the pavement and come back for me.

I step forward and the car tips farther, so much so that it’s slanting diagonally down from the bridge, holding only by its right tires. Taken off guard by the sudden jerk, I stumble back again and bang against the car door. Now the car’s slipping more and more off the bridge all the time. “Come on, Stephen!” Casey yells. Discarding caution for speed, I scramble over the center console and grab Casey’s hand.

But the car can’t hang on any longer. It loses its grip on the bridge and falls sideways, with the left side facing down. I slip from Casey’s grip and fall back into it, banging my head hard on the driver’s side door, taking a big, deep breath, knowing it might be my last, and passing out.

*          *          *

I come to with a jerk. I’m still inside the car, and it’s sinking further and further underwater. I can’t breathe, and I swim desperately for the surface. My lungs are burning, and I don’t have any air left. Somehow, I keep swimming and make it to the surface of the river. I take a big gulp of air that tastes better than air has before. I feel weak, and my head and body hurt all over. But I manage to stay afloat.

“HELP!” I yell. “I’m alive! HELP ME!” My voice is little more than a croak, and there’s no way that anyone can hear me. I splash frantically with my arms, but I’m too tired. I start to sink. The water is cold, and it drags at my clothes, like it’s trying to grab me and pull me down.

But somehow, someone spots me. I hear voices shouting back up on the bridge and someone jumps from the bridge, landing near me with a loud splash. The person is a large man wearing a police uniform. He swims over to me, puts one arm around my back, and starts dragging me to shore. I pass out again after a few seconds, but I know that I’m safe.

 

Epilogue

I climb up the stairs to the stage, step up to the mic. “Hi, I’m Stephen.”

The kids at the youth group sitting in the chairs around the stage cheer and clap.

“The youth pastor guy asked me to tell you guys what happened. So here I am. Some of you guys might’ve seen me here last week, or at school. Nine days ago, I didn’t believe in God at all. I thought it was all a bunch of superstitions. Then I learned a little more about it, saw the ways that a few Christians in my life acted, and I started asking more questions.” I look around the church worship room and meet eyes with Christian, Casey, and my mother. They’re all in the front row. Christian has a giant cast on his leg and his face is full of bandages, but he’s as cheerful and happy as ever. Casey’s sitting next to him, and she gives me a proud smile. She’s the reason that the police spotted me. After the car fell, she kept staring at the water where I fell, believing that I would come back up. When I did, she pointed me out to the just-arriving police and a police officer named Cameron Jackson, who, by some crazy piece of luck, was a qualified cliff diver, dove off the bridge and saved me. He’s getting a medal for it, and I’m glad. He deserves it. I owe him and Casey my life. His heroic story made state news.

After spending the night in the hospital, I was released and went home. No one was seriously injured in the pileup except for Christian, who’s expected to make a full recovery. Everyone involved, however, was treated for shock and had to stay overnight in the hospital. The men who took my mother delivered her to the hospital, and she’s also fine–just a mild concussion, thank goodness.

The only person I really have to be sad about is my father. He broke his arm in the crash, but that wasn’t the real damage done to him from the wreck. The police took him to jail for drunk driving–it wasn’t his first offense, and he’d injured several people. But when Mom and I visited him, he was a wreck worse than the car crash. He’s filled with guilt over what he did, and it’s tearing him apart. He can’t get over the fact that he nearly killed me, that he hurt Mom, and that he caused the pileup. But he’s vowed to never drink again, and I hope he sticks to that. He also went to church with us on Sunday, and he’s said that he’ll at least give God a chance after how I prayed and survived the river.

“I should’ve died in that car,” I said. “After I got Christian out and the car fell, I hit my head on the way down and passed out. I told the doctors that, and they say that I never should’ve woken up. And I still was able to make it to the surface, even though I didn’t have any air left. It’s an absolute miracle–especially that one of the police happened to be a cliff diver and saved me. The chances of me surviving that have to be crazy low. But I prayed to God in that car, and I think that’s the reason I made it. I thank God for saving me.” A few days after the accident, I finally committed myself to God after church on Sunday.

Everyone cheers, and I put the microphone back on its stand. “That’s all I have to say,” I tell them. The youth pastor comes up next to me and claps a hand on my shoulder. “Good job, Stephen,” he says softly.

I exit the stage and join Casey, Christian, and my mother in the front row. They stand up and crowd around me. Christian whoops and claps me on the back, and I smile and give him a high five. Casey squeezes my hand and gives me a knowing smile, and I grin. My mom pulls me into a hug.

The kids begin to leave the big room. It’s eight thirty. Our plan was for me to give the youth group my little speech right at the end.

We leave the church. My mom is giving both Casey and Christian rides home, so they’re in the car with us. The car is a rental that Mom is using until she can buy a new one with the insurance money we got from the car that fell into the river. Mom backs out of her parking space and drives off. “Maybe you should get baptized, Stephen,” she suggests.

“It’ll be the third time,” I say with a smile.

“I assume you’re talking about the joke with Dad for one, but what’s the second?” Mom asks.

“Well, I fell into a river and God brought me out,” I explain. “I’d call that baptism.”

We’re still laughing as we cross the bridge.

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