I hadn’t gone to church that Wednesday as I had intended. I had moments of weakness where I actually believed that something good was waiting for me, but it was always awkward and more often than not I felt like I was under a microscope. It’s like they all thought that I was one of two things: a patient that had to be tended to and helped as if I was an invalid with a look of pity in their eyes, or I was a sham, pretending to like them, pretending to want Jesus but all the while planning a terrorist attack.

Most the time, that’s how I felt. Like I was an outsider and they were the group. It wasn’t much different outside of the church so why would I care to feel it twice? If I have to be honest, the one thing that pulled me in each and every time was the heart of Stephen. We once had a misunderstanding, mine mostly, mistaking his heart for accusation and skepticism, but I will never forget the night he spoke to me about the love of Jesus.

“He’s not just a man with a beard with deep eyes in a picture on the wall.” He was referring to this amazing portrait that hung in the youth room where Jesus’ eyes literally just pull you in. “He has a heartbeat. He has passion and longing. He doesn’t just look down but reaches out. It takes some time for us to see that He is reaching out for us.”

“Why?” I wanted to know.

“Because He loves you.”

It wasn’t the first time that I’d heard that. In fact, the day that Zella came to visit me in the hospital, the night I’d slit my wrists, she had begged me to hear as much. Since then she was sure to tell me every day in some way or another, through the phone or by text, “Jesus loves you. Daddy God cares. He wants to love on you.” Sometimes it felt like too much. To be honest, I don’t know what it is to be wanted, loved, and cared for. I’d never had it, or if I did, it was so well guarded or hidden it didn’t feel like love at all, and this by people that knew me, gave birth to me, and provided for me. It just didn’t make sense that anyone else would.

I knew what love looked like. I saw it in the faces of my friends. I couldn’t mistake that there was something different and powerful and loving in them, but it wasn’t for me. Of that I was sure. As much as that picture of love comforted and sounded beautiful, it wasn’t mine to share. No doubt Jesus had better things to do with His time then reach out to a pathetic soul like mine. So I skipped church and I skipped my date and I plotted my revenge on my dad.

He’d tried to talk to me the night after the incident. He came home and started moving his stuff out. He tried to assure me that he was making the best decision for all of us, and that he had smoothed things over with the judge so I wouldn’t be held in contempt for my insolence and didn’t have to appear in court. I told him I didn’t want to hear it and that he didn’t have to do me any favors. He played the victim and brought up his pain over how my mom treated us and how he was just trying to help me out, but I saw past it and told him as much. When I didn’t bend, he blew up. Called me an ungrateful little witch and said that I’d never amount to anything. He’d never talked to me like that before. I pretended like I didn’t care. He tried to apologize when I looked at him in disbelief. I didn’t believe him. He had said what he meant, whether he meant for it to come out aloud or not. I left him, walked up the stairs to my room, turned on my light, cuddled my pillow, and sat on my bed wishing for a different life.

Liam seemed disappointed but not angry that I’d skipped our date. He left a voicemail after sending several texts saying he hoped I was fine and we could reschedule. Robbie had tried to call a couple of times, but he hadn’t left a message. That didn’t surprise me. He didn’t seem to be one to waste his words. Zella had called. She was always worried. I had talked to her a couple of times, and she tried to convince me that everything was fine and told me that she loved me and was praying for me. I really wasn’t worth it. Not worth the time or the energy she spent on me. Of course, I couldn’t tell her as much because she would only talk me out of it or try to convince me I was wrong, but I wasn’t willing to listen.

Saturday night I was back on my bathroom floor, looking for relief in a calculated slice. I was sitting with my left foot situated in front of me, and I saw my bruised, purple toenail, evidence of my encounter with the pavement, and the moment of understanding with Robbie. Before I could stop it the thought came, “Wonder what his poor knuckles look like today?” I situated the blade over my thigh, and another thought surfaced, “Wonder if he still cuts himself?” I looked over my thighs and my wrists marveling at all the little cuts, little moments of ecstasy, followed by intense moments of regret…and I would feel it again tonight.

My phone went off, it was Mitzi, I picked up.

“Hey girl! Where have you been?” she sounded like she might have been drinking, a little bit of a slur in her voice.  It had been a while since I’d joined her for a weekend party.

“Mitzi, where are you?” I asked concerned. 

“Oh, me?” she practically yelled into the phone. “I’m at Chad’s, oh my gosh, is he so hot or what? Rawr!” Yep. She was drunk.

“I’ve seen better,” I admitted. “Do you have a ride home?”

“Oh my gosh! That’s right…oh man. I totally forgot how is that military guy? Have you had sex?”

I blushed first and then got upset, “No! Mitzi, is Betsy there?”

“Hmmm….let me see?” There was a pause as I suspected she was looking around, “Yooooo HOOOOOO, Betsy? You here, sissy?” There was another pause as I heard the party continue in the background. “Nope,” she popped out, “Not here.” Then she giggled that annoying drunk giggle.

“I’m coming to get you,” I didn’t want to get up from where I was, but Mitzi was gonna get herself in trouble. She was sweet and nurturing, a lot more vulnerable than her twin sister, and she was known to be loose when she was drunk.  Chad was a player. He would use that to his advantage.

“Oh nooooo,” she said in a sing-song voice, “I don’t need that. Just send Charles…he’s cute.”

I rolled my eyes. Charles was my sixty year old driver, nice old man, but not cute. I was definitely going to have to get her, right then.  “Mitzi, I want you do me a favor?”

“Oh yeah…well, I don’t really swing that way…buut for you..”

I rolled my eyes again, “Mitzi, just go in the bathroom and stay there. Don’t leave. I will be there in a couple of minutes. Just go to the bathroom and don’t come out until I say.”

The phone got quiet, “Mitzi?”

“Hmmmmm?”

“Did you hear what I just told you?” I wanted to be sure.

“Yes. You said go to the bathroom…” She paused, “But I don’t have to go.” She had a drunk whine to her voice.

Ugh. Was I this ridiculous when I drank? Probably so.  “Just go to the bathroom, Mitzi. You don’t have to pee, just go and sit on the floor in the bathroom,” I instructed again.

“Ohhhhh…is it a game?” she squealed.

I sighed. “Yes, it is a game, Mitzi. A little game of hide and seek, but in this game I tell you where to hide and then I seek you! See, isn’t that fun?” It was like negotiating with a child, which I hate, which is why I never babysat.

She clapped and I heard the phone clatter to the ground, Great. She cursed and whispered into the phone, “Are you okay, Oona?”

“I’m fine.” I wanted to get frustrated but instead I got into character, “You better hide, Mitzi, the game is starting!”

She squealed again and probably ran to the bathroom where I found her, collapsed and sleeping fifteen minutes later. Her phone still connected to mine, laying on the floor beside her.

“Oh you poor sweet, stupid girl,” I said pushing her long blonde hair away from her face and seeing her streaked makeup where she had obviously been crying. I wanted to cry. This was a girl that had no idea of her beauty or her worth, that much I could see. She was worth Jesus loving. She had a heart of pure gold, only her sister’s rattled heart of stone often overshadowed it.  “Come on, sweetie,” I pulled her gently up and situated her on my back, the only way I could carry her.

No one talked to me when I entered the house or when I left. They were all too busy partying and making jerks out of themselves. Even when I had been a part of them, I felt how stupid it all was, but the peer pressure invited me and the peer pressure kept me there, and pretty soon I was too drunk to care.

I got Mitzi safely home and tucked her in my bed. I called Betsy, but she didn’t answer so I chewed out her voicemail for leaving her sister and let her know how selfish she was! I hung up the phone and sat on my bed.  Mitzi turned over and groaned and settled back to sleep. She looked so sad and pathetic I wanted to kiss her sweet cheek. Then before I knew exactly what I was doing, I began to pray, “Jesus, if you are listening, help my friend. Don’t you just love her? She has such a good heart, not mean and calloused like mine. She deserves you.” I cried. She was one of the few, the beautiful, the innocent. But, her parents were much like mine, too involved with business and money to care. I shuddered to think what might have happened to her if she had not called me. She was precious to me. I had missed her. It was time I invited her to church, for no other reason than she was one of the bloody few that belonged. I was determined that we would go, hangover or not, the next morning. Resolved, I wiped my tears and curled up beside her and hummed to her some song I had once heard about how Jesus loves us and fell asleep.

We woke up late the next morning, which ticked me off because since the time I can remember being on a schedule it was drilled into my brain not to be late. Not by example, mind you. It was in the pure determination that I would never be guilty of the same awkward appearances that mom was not so nicely known for. I watched her stumble into meetings, and try to whisper she was sorry as she loudly found a seat long after any event had started. It was called, “showing up fashionably late.” I called it embarrassing.

Mitzi didn’t want to get up, “Mitz! We are gonna be late. Here’s a dress. Put it on. We have to go!”

“Huh?” she rubbed her eyes, confused. 

“Church. It starts in like thirty minutes!” I said pulling her up and trying to get her to stand.

“Oh Oooooonaaaaa,” she moaned. “My head. I’m spinning.”

“Well, young lady,” I reprimanded, “that’s called a hangover. That’s what happens when you drink too much. Now get up!”

She smirked, “When did you get to be such a mom?”

I tried to ignore the comment, but I felt it, deeply.  I didn’t say anything. I just kept wrestling her to her feet until she finally stood up, one hand on my shoulder and the other over her eyes.

“Are you serious?” she asked.

“Dead serious. Now come on!” I insisted.

Then this look of sheer fear crossed her face, “I will not go to church!”

“You have to!” I said, adamant that she did.

“No! You’re talking about Zella’s church!” She stumbled backward and fell back with a soft bounce on the bed.

“Yes!” I attempted to pull her up again.

She crossed her arms and repeated, “No.”

Sighing I sat down at her feet, “You have to.”

“Why, Oona?” She looked like she might cry. “Do you know who goes there? I mean, have you paid attention to anyone besides the Jesus gang?”

And as soon as she said it, I knew. She was talking about the ones that we called “The Great Pretenders.” The ones that it had taken me months to dismiss. The ones that still gave me looks and talked under their breath. The ones that lived like we did, partied like we did, yet, pretended to be something completely different in church. It was like they thought we didn’t know.  Like, somehow because they went to church every Sunday with their pristine Bibles, it cancelled out all the evil they did during the week. But, we saw through them. They were two-faced liars and a huge reason that so many of us stayed away from church.

We were eighteen, adults practically, but still we were afraid to walk into a building because we didn’t want to be looked at or gossiped about or judged, and I realized, no matter how old we might be in years, in those moments, any girl feels like a scared kid. I moved up and sat on the bed beside her. Forcing myself to stop thinking about time, I looked into my friend’s eyes, “You’ll have to ignore them.” Taking a deep breath I did something that was hard, I opened up my feelings, “I admit it’s hard. But, I believe that there is something good there. I don’t know what it is, and I’m still navigating the questions of Jesus and God, but in the ones that get it, the ones that call Jesus ‘Love’ and cherish his name…” I paused because even as I spoke, their faces went through my mind, and Robbie’s face just lingered. “They are real. They struggle and they hurt, but…” I recalled his scars, “But, they believe.”

Wiping her eyes, she asked, “What? What do they believe?”

Taking a deep breath, I answered, “They believe Jesus loves them.”

She looked at me, into me it seemed, and asked, “And does He?”

I wasn’t sure I could definitively answer that question. I wanted to believe He loved them, loved her even, but did I believe that He loves me? I got up from the bed and pulled her back to her feet. 

“Just get up!” I picked up the dress, handed it to her, and pushed her toward the bathroom, “Scoot.”

As she walked off giggling, I watched and thought, “He loves you, Mitz, and you need to know that.”  The thought hit me hard. Why could I so easily believe that love for others, but struggled with myself? Well, because I knew, they deserved it.

 

Mitzi and I walked in the room just as Liam was finishing up the opening prayer. He winked at me and looked admiringly at my visitor as we took our seats next to Zella and Celeste. They smiled at Mitzi and let her know that they were glad she was there. It was the other faces that I had no control over, the glares, the whispers, and neither could she hide the look of fear that crossed her face. I reached over and touched her hand to let her know that I was there, and Zella looked at me smiling but obviously surprised at the gesture. She was right. It wasn’t like me. I smiled and shrugged. I could be soft.

Celeste picked up the cue, after all the same people still looked at her and judged her for her indiscretions, but she appeared not to let it bother her. She leaned in and whispered, “Just ignore them.”

Mitzi looked up shyly and smiled.

We heard a snicker from the back of the room, and I saw the look that crossed Celeste’s face right before she stood up and said, “What? Like you’re never late? Shut up, Jeanette.” When she sat back down she looked up at Stephen who had just started to teach. He paused, waiting so she offered, “Carry on,” and looking at the mockers stated, “Forgive them for their rudeness.”

He smiled and replied, “Forgiven,” before he looked back down at his tablet and began to share what he had prepared. “You are His.” He said it with passion and conviction and seemed to be looking straight at me. I looked away at Mitzi thinking he might divert his gaze. Luckily he did. “All the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” Then he looked up again in my direction, paused, and said, “That includes you.”

He didn’t know what he was talking about. That didn’t include me. I wasn’t even sure that I fully believed in God so it could not and did not mean me. I belonged to no one, even my parents didn’t lay claim to me. I was on my own.

“Even those of you that doubt his existence and question your worth, you belong to God.” Stephen’s words seemed to hold such power. I was caught up in what he was saying. “You don’t have to believe in Him for Him to believe in you. He created you, knit you together in your mom’s womb, pulling all the parts together to create a beautiful you, not so that you would be left alone and abandoned, but so that one day you would not just be His creation but His child!”

I looked at Mitzi. Was she getting this? But she was too busy trying to hide herself in her long blonde hair. I wanted to hit her. I wanted to yell, “He is talking to you! You are the one! The chosen one! The one that Jesus loves and God wants to adopt, you!” But she just sat there, head down, stroking her hair practically over her face.

As Stephen continued, I kept hearing with exclamation points the words of love and acceptance, and he seemed to be speaking directly to me. I wasn’t prepared for the response of my heart. I wanted to believe him. I wanted to cry and run to him and say, “I want that love! I want that acceptance! I want to feel that worth!” The intensity of those thoughts scared me.

“We have to go,” I whispered to Mitzi.

“Huh?” she pulled her face out from behind her hair.

“Now. Let’s go.” I pulled her hand toward me and started getting up when Celeste put her hand on my shoulder pulling me back down.

“Not yet.” She was firm and insisting, but she didn’t know what she was asking. I looked at Zella for support, but she had that same look of determination on her face.

Suddenly, I was scared of them, too. They couldn’t tell me what I could and couldn’t do! I had to leave and they had to let us! The words of my mom filled my head, “It’s a cult. They just want to brainwash you and pull you in, but they don’t care. Not really. It’s a game for them.” Could she be right? I looked at Mitzi. She was waiting for our next move. I couldn’t let her down. I wouldn’t be made to beg. I wrestled out of Celeste’s grip and pulled Mitzi to her feet.

“Excuse us.” Head held high, without a single look back, I walked out of the room.

Mitzi followed but once out the door she voiced her confusion, “Where are we going? I thought you said we needed to go to church, that Jesus loves us. Didn’t you?”

I sighed. What would I answer, that I was wrong? That I was scared? That the words I heard were doing things in my heart that I couldn’t explain and I wanted so desperately to believe that God really wanted me that I just wanted to run? So I lied. “I need to go the bathroom.”

She smiled, “Oh okay.”

It didn’t take much to convince her to leave after that. I was cramping and I needed to go home. What girl doesn’t sympathize with that excuse? Only, just as we were leaving the building, Robbie walked up.

“Hello, ladies,” that beautiful smile.

I introduced the two of them, avoiding eye contact as best I could.

“You’re leaving?” he asked with that look that spoke of concern.

“Hi,” Mitzi responded shyly.

Mitzi spoke up, “Yeah… you know, she’s dealing with woman stuff.”

I turned red and looked at her. She couldn’t say anything else?

Being a big brother to a girly sister, Robbie didn’t seem to embarrass easily, so he just placed his hand on my shoulder and looked in my eyes and said, “I will pray for you.”

I knew from his look that he wasn’t referring to my “womanly issue” but Mitzi was oblivious and stated, “Nah. It’s ok. She just cramps the first day and then she’s good.”

At that point I just raised my head and looked at Robbie. I couldn’t believe that she had just said that. I expressed as much on my face, followed with an expression that I hoped said, “She’s clueless.”

Robbie was trying not to laugh. “Okay then. Umm…” He hesitated as if looking for a way to end the conversation to minimize further embarrassment, “Good luck with that.”

“Yes, thanks,” I answered turning around and grabbing Mitzi’s arm, trying not to squeeze the blood out of it.

It wasn’t until we got in the car that she turned to me with a pout and said, “I probably should have kept my mouth shut.”

I turned to her and smiled sarcastically, “Ya think?” She looked genuinely sorry and pathetic. Then, we both laughed, and I was able to forget once more the rumblings in my soul that begged for something more.

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