I had agreed to go to church with Zella and Celeste that Sunday, a week after Robbie got home.  I’d managed to keep my distance from them for those few days so I was feeling stronger, well, more stubborn, which was more like myself.  My mom had kept me busy with social club crap, and I could take only so much of her façade so I practically jumped at their invite, as much as I hated to admit it. The more time I spent with my mom and those around her, even if it meant she was more civil with me, made me realize the light and the warmth that I was missing.

            That was the day that I met Liam. Liam Jenson. His name captured my attention, immediately.  Like some kind of movie star.  It was unique and singular…much like mine.  Stephen was introducing him as the new summer youth intern, but I was staring at his face.  He was beautiful.  I wasn’t the only one that thought it.  I watched as other girls in the class whispered and batted their eyes.  Was it legal to have such an amazing specimen in the church?  I knew where my thoughts were going.

“Wow.  All I can say is wow.”  That was Celeste, she was whispering in between Zella and I, and I had to agree.  Wow pretty much said it all. He was tall and blonde and appeared to be athletic  His denim shirt fit his shoulders and chest tightly enough for us to see that this was a man we were engaging and not a teenager. It was almost like the guys in the room felt it too as voices appeared to get lower and heads began to crane higher. Liam was an alpha male and the pack of us could feel it.

“Look at his eyes,” I managed to whisper after a little bit. They were hazel, leaning toward green more than the gold that even from a slight distance I could see at the center.

“Oh please.  Those eyes?  I’ve seen better.”  Zella wasn’t biting.

“Yes, yes, we know.  Toby.  Blah, blah, blah.”  He was coming in a little less than 2 weeks, and it was all she had been talking about it and not talking about, depending on the topic.

“Ten days!” she practically squealed which was not normal for her.

Celeste and I sighed, “Yes.”

“Ten days!” she said again louder this time, catching the attention of half the class, including Liam.

He had only been about 2 feet away but at Zella’s excitement, he turned to her, closing up the space between us and penetrating our conversation with that smile, “I’m sorry?  Did you say something? I don’t think we’ve met?” I just listened as his voice caressed my ears.  It was a deep voice, a man’s voice, and it was smooth.

Zella was embarrassed, “Uh. No.  Just talking to my friends here.”

“That’s a great idea, Zella!” Stephen interrupted, clapping his hands and seating himself on the back of his chair with his feet in the seat.  He was an energetic man, always up for fun and games.  That was slightly bizarre to me.  My dad was pretty much the only man who had been a part of my life up until a few months ago, and he was anything but fun and games.  His business suit spoke serious money.  Period.  He wasn’t into games unless he was winning.

“What did I say?” she sounded confused. 

I just watched Liam’s white sparkling teeth as he smiled, brushed his summer blonde hair away from his eyes with a cool swoop, and took a seat next to Stephen, equally perched at the top of his chair.

Stephen explained, “We will go around and introduce ourselves, and you can start, Zella.”

The look on her face said grrrr, but she must have worked past it because she lit up a genuine smile and introduced herself.  “I’m Zella Storm,” she paused as Liam’s look appeared to question her authenticity.  She was used to it. “Yes, that’s my name.” She sighed as he cocked his head still not sure.  “My mom’s idea.”

Celeste picked up, “And I’m Celeste, Celeste Cooper, and this -” she pulled my arm forward, “is our friend, Oona.”  I wondered at her gesture until she turned to me, and I saw that matchmaker twinkle in her eye.  Great.

“Yes,” I took over my name before she offered me up for a date, “Oona Stuckey.”

He laughed, “Great to meet you, Oona.  Seems like we might have something in common?”

I was at a loss in that moment to guess what it could be, when he added, “We are both of Scandinavian decent, perhaps?”

“Swedish,” I informed.

“Danish,” he replied.

I liked him.  Or, at least, I instantly found him attractive.  What was there not to like?  His blond hair? Or perhaps that dimple in his left cheek?  The build of his shoulders that hinted at a gym membership, perhaps? Or, maybe it was the glint of his eyes that looked like they held a million secrets?  Secrets.  In hindsight, I wish I’d paid better attention to those eyes.

After church, Celeste told me that I would be joining her family for lunch.  It wasn’t a question. I reluctantly agreed and wanted to know if Zella was going, but she wasn’t.  She had already made plans with her parents to eat at her grandmother’s house.  Celeste had insisted of her own initiative. Weird.  But then again, it was the new Celeste – she was friendlier.  I liked it, and I questioned it at the same time.  No one made one-eighties like that…well, none that lasted.  I was just waiting for the day when she would break and give me that old look of disgust, and we would get back to our verbal attacks I had been so accustomed to.

            Celeste and I rode together and talked easily enough about the upcoming main event.  We actually were excited about Toby’s return.  It had only  been a few months since we’d seen him, but we were ready to welcome him back with open arms.  Some more open than others… the whole “but I can’t date him” drama from Zella was getting on my nerves.  If he just chanced to look at me one second like he looked at her, I wouldn’t give a second thought about him being a couple years younger, but those were thoughts I kept to myself.  There was history there – sensitivities and awkwardness better left behind us. 

We were thinking through something we could do to mark his homecoming when I suggested we have a party that night and welcome him back in style!

“I don’t know.  You know how Zella feels about parties and stuff.”  Celeste seemed to be  weighing that with what she knew would be fun.

“Oh come on! He’s our friend, too!  It would give her a chance to get past the awkwardness.”

“What? By starting them off on a date?”

“A date?  What are you talking about?” I was confused, “I didn’t say anything about a date. I was merely suggesting a party, for all of us.”

“I mean, he gets off the plane and she says, ‘Wanna go to a party?‘  That would institute a date in Zella’s book.”

“That’s lame.”

“Maybe so, but that is exactly what she would think, and you know it.”

“Then we don’t tell her.” That would solve that issue. I tried not to growl, though inwardly I could feel the rumble.  I finally said what I was feeling, “How long will she be able to keep up the charade that she’s dating God?” Celeste looked at me, but I kept my eyes on the road and continued,  “The whole concept is ridiculous.  I’ve told her that, several times.  She’s gotten upset, several times.  End of story.  Christian drama – it’s so puritanical. I rolled my eyes and crossed my arms.

“It doesn’t have to make sense to us, it’s her conviction.”

I wasn’t ready to let it go, “So, you don’t feel the same?”

Celeste was quiet, “I don’t think I’m the right person to have this conversation with.”

“Are you kidding?” I asked, “You of all people ought to be able to see how ridiculous it sounds. I feigned my southern belle voice again, “Oh no! I’m thinking about a boy!  I’m gonna hurt Jesus’ feelings!”  I looked over at her, but she was neither amused or moved, “Seriously?”

            Thankfully, the conversation ended when we arrived at the restaurant.  Robbie and Liam were waiting outside.  They seemed to be having a deep conversation.  Robbie wasn’t smiling, but Liam kept nodding his head.  Celeste was responding to a text so it was a minute before we actually got out of the car.  This gave me a few minutes to observe before walking straight in.

“Well, hello, beautiful!” I thought it was so sweet the way that Robbie doted on his sister.  I smiled.

Celeste leaned in and whispered, “He’s talking to you.”

I was surprised.  Surely she was wrong?  He was most definitely talking to his sister.  Wasn’t he?  There was that wink again.  “Uh…hi.”  I wish my response had been more sure, but in the moment I was shell shocked and trying not to look into it.  After all, it was Robbie.  He was a bit of a ladies man, even if he had never dated.

Liam smiled and reached for the handles of the wheelchair.  Robbie pushed the wheels and swiveled away.  “No thanks.  I can do this.”

Liam tried to insist, “Are you sure, man?  I’d love to help a wounded veteran.”

Robbie’s tone changed, “Really? Cuz there’s a whole unit of them at the hospital.  I’m sure they’d love a helping hand.”

Celeste looked at me.  I was just as surprised.  There was a hardness to his voice, and I didn’t know where it had come from.  I assumed it was because he was self-conscious about his condition, but I’d seen Celeste push him places all the time.  He’d never made a big deal about it to us.  It didn’t sit well with me, that whole interaction.

For the most part, lunch went smoothly.  Liam told us about when he decided that he wanted to go into youth ministry and that his heart was with “this new and important generation.”  I almost laughed, but caught myself. He couldn’t be more than twenty-one or twenty-two himself.  Robbie did laugh, but he didn’t say anything.  I would’ve liked to have heard more about the reason behind that laugh.  There was tension in it, which started to permeate the air, so Stephen directed the conversation towards plans for the summer and getting Liam a more permanent place to stay.  I found it fascinating.  I listened as he talked about his call to ministry and how he had prayed and how God had sent him to our town, that is was a divine appointment.   Everyone at the table nodded like this was totally normal and acceptable speech.  Reminding me once again of this language they all seemed to speak.  Sometimes I felt like an alien and our frequencies weren’t syncing. A realist in a world of mystics, it seemed.

After lunch, Stephen grabbed the bill while Celeste went with Ms. Olivia, Jackson, and Robbie and brought the van around.  That left me and Liam at the front door for a brief second while I looked for my key.  He didn’t turn to look at me, but said, “I’d really like to hear more about you, Oona.”

I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right at first, “Hmmm?”

“I said, I’d really like to get to know you better.  Would you like to do dinner sometime?”

I was confused, “Are you sure that’s okay?”

He laughed, “What do you mean?”

“I mean, I’m in the youth group occasionally, and you’re the new youth intern.  Something tells me that might be inappropriate.”

He looked at me, “Inappropriate?  Aren’t you an adult?”

“Well, I…I’m eighteen so technically yes,” I was still confused.

“And I’m twenty-one almost twenty-two. So,  we’re both adults. What’s the big deal?”

            Huh.  That was a different thing altogether then.  He was right.  I was an adult, by age standards, and probably shouldn’t be in the youth group anyway.  I only went because Zella and Celeste were there.  What he said made sense, but I was reluctant to admit it out loud.  I didn’t know him, and I wasn’t one to easily trust.  He’d have to earn it, and I doubted he’d spend the time trying.

Then, he turned his whole body and put his hand up to my face, “I like you, Oona. And I don’t have a problem admitting it.”

I flinched at the intimacy of his touch.  Who was he?  He barely knew me. We had just met that day! How could he make such a bold statement.  I wanted to believe him, but at the same time, I doubted that he even knew what he was talking about.  Luckily, at that moment, simultaneously it seemed, I heard the honk of a horn and Stephen walked outside of the restaurant.  Immediately, Liam turned away.  He and Stephen got in the van while I walked to the car, letting Celeste follow me.  My heart was still beating rapidly from the moment before.

“What was that all about?” Celeste probed as she got in.

“What?” I played dumb, looking in my rear mirrors and camera as I focused on backing out..

“You know exactly what,” she wasn’t fooled.

“Are you jealous?” I smiled, shifting the focus to her and away from me.

“Me?  Are you kidding?” she laughed.

“Well, he is gorgeous,” I reminded her.

“Yeah, but…I don’t know.”  She got quiet.

I pressed her, “But…?”

“Nah. It’s nothing.”

“Doesn’t sound like nothing.  It sounds like something you don’t want to tell me.”  I could read past her words.

“I just…” she hesitated.  “Robbie isn’t crazy about him.”

“So?” Why did Robbie matter?

“That’s not normal.”  She bit her lip and looked at me.

That was so stupid! Was she implying if Robbie didn’t approve of someone then they weren’t worthy of anyone else’s approval?  What kind of sense did that make?  One person couldn’t have that much say! I was furious but didn’t speak.

She explained, or attempted to explain, “He’s pretty discerning about people.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I mean, he can pretty much sense whether someone’s intentions are good or bad.”

I gasped, “Are you kidding me?”

She looked at me briefly, “No. I mean it.  He has a strong sense about people.”

“Is he some kind of psychic?” I smirked.

She laughed, “No.  Just a good radar.”

That was no response and hadn’t his own sister walked through hell due to misguided relationship? Besides, he talked to me! He obviously wasn’t that great a judge of character. So little of what they said made sense to me, and my frustration spoke up, “Well, I’d say that his radar isn’t a hundred percent receptive!”

Celeste glanced at me hard and I could see her hurt out of the corner of her eye, “And what’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing.”  I didn’t want to say what I was thinking.  I didn’t want to argue, even if I had started it.

“No, please. You must go on.”  She was asking for it.

“Fine then!  He approved of Brad, didn’t he?” I turned and looked at  her, immediately regretting my words.

I could see her get tense, but she just kept silent.

Quietly I added, “And we all saw how that ended.”

“Oh yes,” she added sarcastically.  “Because we all saw that coming!  And for your information! He was concerned about Brad.  He didn’t trust either one of us.  And, now we see that he was exactly right! But it’s fine.  All is forgiven.  I’m a new creation. It’s not my shame to carry.” She said it like she meant it, even if it did come out a little hurried.  

And, there was that language again, which made me want to roll my eyes, but I honestly regretted my outburst. I hadn’t wanted to throw her pain in her face.  But she surprised me, she didn’t continue, so I just kept driving. It ticked me off the way she appeared so calm and peaceful about it all.  She now carried that same smug look that Zella seemed to have been born with, the look that said, they knew something others didn’t or had something others didn’t.  And, something told you they really did; there was definitely something going on with them.

“Whatever.”  I couldn’t respond to what I didn’t understand.  “I’m gonna go out on a date with him.”  I watched for a change of expression and just decided to throw it out there.  It wasn’t set in stone.  I could back out and probably would, but at the moment I just wanted to set her off.  I watched as she pondered that. 

Then, eyes still on the road ahead of us, she answered, “Okay, then.  Like I said, I’m sure it’s nothing.”

Ugh. I hated that.

            We pulled up to her house, and she turned around and smiled when she got out. “I’m glad you came to lunch with us.” I watched her unsure. “Really. You are welcome to come with us anytime and anywhere.”

I laughed, “Celeste, you know that you are talking to Oona right?” She smiled and shut her car door and waved at me as I turned around in her drive and headed home.

Mom was waiting for me when I got home, sitting in the living room, in pressed linen pants and her hair curled, made up perfectly, looking nothing like the woman I’d left this morning or the woman I knew was hiding underneath. She sat watching me with her whole “Mommy dearest” persona and even had the courtesy to turn off the TV when I walked in.

“Hello, darling.”

Sigh. I hated these moments, but I played along, “Hello, mom.”

“Where have you been?” The smile on her face was plastic, three sheets to the wind June Cleaver plastic, but I could see the snake underneath –poised, waiting to strike.

“Church,” I answered walking past her to the stairs.

“Why don’t you tell me what you learned?”

My mouth fell open, “Excuse me?”

She laughed, a fake and obnoxious laugh, “Darling…I love you. I just want to know what you learned in church?”

“Do you really want to know what I learned in church, or are you afraid that I am being brainwashed by the Jesus folks that scare you with their knowing glances?” I couldn’t hold back the snark. She was no more interested in me than the half-empty bottle I’d eyed on the counter.

“Well, I can see that they are making their impact,” she smirked and slurred, breaking the mask she had so carefully applied.

I was tempted to let it go –just go to my room and pretend like I didn’t care, but there was something about the way she said it, like she was right, like she somehow had a right to judge, that made me speak up, “They are more patient with me than anyone has ever been. They think about me, what is good for me, even to my extreme frustration, and when they tell me they love me, it’s not after a few shots of liquid courage and they don’t have to convince themselves it’s true!”

She didn’t acknowledge my statement, which I figured would be the case, so I headed up the stairs to my room. I’d said my piece. I was just about to close my bedroom door when she called after me, “By the way, Mitzi and Betsy came by. I guess you have no use for them anymore.”

I slammed my door. She knew exactly how that would make me feel, and she hit me hard with it. Betsy and Mitzi Goss were the two best friends I had grown up with, who shared the country club life and the absent parents syndrome that understood exactly what it was to be a parent to your parents, and yet, I felt I had nothing in common with them anymore. I didn’t really have anything in common with Zella and the gang either, but there was something about them, something that kept pulling me in, away from what I knew, into what I wanted.  What that was I wasn’t entirely sure, but they were enchanting, with their weird language and mystic approach to life, as much as I hated to admit it, it felt more and more true and real, and I was starting to see I needed them.

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