“A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity. One who lacks sense gives a pledge and puts up security in the presence of his neighbor.” ~Proverbs 17:17-18
I jumped awake with a start on Sawyer’s floor.
Taking in a deep breath, I yawned and rubbed my eyes. Everything that happened last night came rushing back to me. I wondered immediately if my parents ever stopped fighting, what they were doing right now. I pushed myself up on the sleeping bag and sighed. If this was a perfect world, I would’ve been able to go home last night.
I thought about whether or not I should give the pictures to Shelly. I didn’t want to satisfy her, especially now that I knew she really wanted to be with me as a couple. Ace wasn’t as bad as I assumed he was. He didn’t even want to be at the stupid party, but he let himself get sucked into it anyway. It baffled me that he didn’t just leave. Who knows, maybe he couldn’t go home either.
The words Alivia and I exchanged on the roof swam in my head, causing me to grin. I grabbed my camera and started going through the pictures I took at the party. There were some of my old friends surrounded by girls, swimming in the pool, posing in ridiculous stances. Some of them were of Shelly, but I didn’t feel anything at all when I looked at her. She was just too risky to be around. I had to say the right thing or I’d pay.
Hitting the little button again, I saw the silhouette of trees against the Olson’s night sky. I grinned a bit then clicked to the next one.
I gawked at how at ease she looked, even on the little screen. Her hair seemed to be perfectly placed with her eyes soundly closed. A small smile rested on her lips as she fell asleep beside me. For a moment, I felt like I had rewinded to that moment. I could feel the wind encircling us and her hand resting in mine. The butterflies in my stomach jumped when I realized that I was allowing myself to hopelessly like her that way.
As if I thought Sawyer could read my mind, I looked up to see him gone from his bed. The digital clock on his desk read 7:56 in red letters.
I put the camera down and reached for my backpack to dig out my phone, only to find it dead. As I was pulling out the charger to plug it in, Sawyer walked in dressed in kakis and a button-down shirt.
“Good morning sunshine!” he said enthusiastically, going to the closet.
“Morning,” I muttered, running a hand through my hair.
“How’d you sleep?”
I paused as he crouched down to look for some shoes. He was being overly optimistic, even for him. Especially at eight in the morning. Wasn’t he in a weird mood all week too? I blinked rapidly to try and wake myself up from my daydreams.
“Well?” he asked, sitting on the floor and pulling on some old dress shoes.
“Fine.,” I answered, letting my thoughts wander to what Alivia was doing right now.
“Good, good. We’re going to church this morning, you are welcome to join us or you could stay here or drive home or whatever,” he offered.
That caught my attention. Church was one place I had never been to and I didn’t know if I wanted to go there. I was unsure if I’d be judged. I’m sure visitors come all the time, but it was... Well, it was church and I didn’t know what to expect.
“Yeah.” He frowned a little as he forced his foot into his left shoe. Clearly it was too small, but he made no comment about it.
“I don’t know,” I said, becoming suddenly interested in the tan carpet on the floor. If Ace wasn’t sure of it, should I be? I’m not Ace though.
“It’s okay if you don’t want to,” he replied, standing up. He looked a little uncomfortable with his too-small shoes on, but still didn’t complain. He shoved his wallet in his pocket and waited for an answer.
“I don’t have anything else to do,” I yawned.
“It starts at nine and probably lasts until... eleven maybe? It’s up to you.”
“Sawyer, give me one good reason why I should go,” I blurted before I could think about it. I cringed at how hostile I sounded and scolded myself for it. The way I repay my friends is by demanding a reason for church. How kind of me.
Nevertheless, I said it, and I couldn’t take it back. His expression was surprised, but it quickly faded.
“Well, I don’t know why you would like to go or what you need to hear,” he started, sitting on the bed. “But I know I go because the people there are encouraging to my faith.”
I thought about that for a second, then nodded.
“You can come if you want to, I won’t force you. But you can borrow some of my clothes if you want. We’re leaving at eight-thirty,” he told me.
He began to get up to leave when another question popped out of my mouth.
“Do you believe God is in control of relationships?”
For a second, he froze with his back turned to me. Then he turned around, suddenly falling back into his weird mood. His face went from excited to distant in a matter of minutes. He nodded, lips pursed.
“Yes,” was all he said.
He left the room with his eyebrows together, muttering something to himself. For a moment, the thoughts in my head stayed silent.
If God was in control of relationships, then that means Tanner and Alivia broke up for a reason. But what about Ace and Shelly? He was enjoying having her as a girlfriend and God decided to take her away. Why?
I don’t know why exactly, but I stood up and started searching through Sawyer’s clothes for something to wear. I already left the party, might as well go to church.
  
“Alivia!” Sawyer called up the stairs as Mr. and Mrs. Olson, Sawyer, and myself waited downstairs. “Hurry up or we’re gonna leave you!”
I wish I could’ve told you that he was just teasing her, but it was like the day had already caught up to him. He seemed extremely impatient and stressed, though I didn’t know why. I really wanted to ask him, but I didn’t know how to bring it up.
“I’m coming!” Alivia shouted back. Only moments later, she came running down the stairs, almost tripped on the last step, then laughed at herself. She was ready for anything, as usual.
Their parents didn’t mind when I came upstairs for breakfast. Actually, they seemed to be expecting it. They treated me as if I was their child and I had a right to come to their house late at night. They didn’t press me for a reason, didn’t treat me like the idiot I was for going to the party in the first place, or hold anything against me. I received a greeting, three pancakes, and a conversation.
However, none of us had seen Alivia all morning. Sawyer said she usually took that long to get ready because she’s a girl. I totally understood, it took Pearl forever to get ready to go anywhere.
Seeing Alivia fly down the stairs and nearly run into Sawyer brought a smile to my face.
“Sorry Sawyer,” she giggled as he helped her stand upright again.
He smiled timidly and rubbed her shoulders.
“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s all okay...”
She looked at him strangely as he walked past us and out the front door. Their parents followed him. Alivia bounded over to me in a cream colored dress with small blue flowers on it and brown lace up boots. For a moment, she stood in front of me, grinning like there was no tomorrow. I shifted the backpack on my shoulders and smiled back at her.
After church, I would take the trip back to my house. Since I had my car, it only made sense that I drove.
“Wow,” I said under my breath as I stole another glance at her. She blinked at me, her cheeks turning a light shade of pink. “I mean.... Good morning Alivia!“ I said as brightly as possible.
“Good morning Tin!” she exclaimed, moving toward the door. I hurried in front of her and opened it for her, taking her by surprise a little.
“Ladies first,” I said, waving a hand for her to go on out.
“Thank you kind sir,” she joked.
The weather outside was about as gloomy as Sawyer’s mood. Dark clouds had moved across the sky, not to mention the constant wind. There weren’t any raindrops yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the clouds broke at any moment.
I headed to my car and watched Alivia stop in her tracks as she looked between me and her parents. I could see hesitation on her face.
“You can ride with me,” I offered, standing beside the driver’s side, “if you want.”
She grinned and my heart did a double take.
“Go ahead,” I heard her father chuckle. I diverted my gaze to him as he smiled softly at me. “Tin Tin, you can just follow me out. Or Alivia can give you directions.”
“Okay, thank you.”
The pair of us jumped in the car and I began to back out of the driveway. I looked over to see goosebumps lining her arms and legs. For a moment, both of us were silent as I started weaving my way out of the backroads. When she spoke up, I felt myself smile a little in delight at the sound of her voice.
“I can’t believe you’re coming to church with me,” she said, sounding extremely pleased and impressed.
“Me either,” I breathed, but I know she caught my words.
I knew exactly what she was asking, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to answer. Honestly, I wanted her to think of me as the good guy and I actually wanted to come. However, I couldn’t shake the part of me that was really dreading it. I was told that Christians were a bunch of hypocrites. They preached one thing and did another.
Not all of them are like that though. Grandma went to church and tried to teach us about love, plus she represented what she spoke of. Alivia was a genuinely caring person and she believed. On the flip side, Ace went to church, and I ended up finding him at a party he didn’t want to leave. I had to remind myself that we were at the same party. We were no different.
“Well,” I started. A beat of silence passed before I came up with an answer. I decided it was probably the most honest way I could’ve answered the question. “I don’t really know. I guess if my friends already ditched me and nobody really cares about who I am anymore, might as well give it a shot. I don’t have anything left to lose.”
Except the pride I had, which had been receding throughout the past month, I really didn’t have anything left of myself. My reputation had been stripped away by the very people who gave it to me. I was in denial that they hated me and I was still remotely friends with them, but a part of me screamed the truth that it was no use to fret about it.
“Makes sense,” she replied. “What about your family?”
I immediately tensed at the word. I felt my grip go tight on the steering wheel and I fought to gain control of myself. Anger boiled in my bones at my parents for causing the havoc they did last night. Worry settled in when I thought about little Asher growing up like I had. And immense gratitude for Grandma never leaving us was always there. I didn’t know what to feel when I heard the word ‘family’.
“My family?” I asked, my voice shaky. I focused on the road.
“Yeah. Do they go to church?”
“My grandma does. My parents don’t and won’t let Pearl or Asher or I go. I don’t know why,” I answered quietly.
“Are they okay with you coming with me now?”
The question lingered in the air for a moment. Her gaze was on me, waiting patiently for an answer.
The subject dropped after that, but she didn’t suggest that I turned around or didn’t go. She let me make my decision and I was grateful for that. I guess she didn’t know what to say. Maybe I was going to church out of being a rebellious being against my parents or maybe I was going because I didn’t have anywhere else to go.
Either way, I went.
  
The building was huge.
I was expecting the traditional, one room chapel with hard wooden floors and no heat or air conditioning. It looked welcoming. We walked across the parking lot in the humid air and I was astonished by how big it was inside. The lobby had high ceilings and a coffee shop, which I soon learned was free. Mostly older people milled around at the time being, and they all seemed to know Alivia.
I kept an eye out for my Grandma, remembering that she went to the same church as Alivia. If I found her, I could ask her about what happened between Mom and Dad. She would probably be proud of me for coming.
The atmosphere was very welcoming and filled with joy. Everyone seemed to be smiling and Alivia was glowing. The coffee smell just added to the homey feel of it. My nerves subsided a little as I followed her down the hall to the right. It curved a little, like it was wrapping around a huge room. We ascended up a flight of steps to another hall.
I could hear noises coming from the end of the hallway. Loud laughter seemed to bounce of the walls, welcoming us warmly. Alivia picked up her pace and I followed quickly behind. Before we entered the room, she stopped and turned to me.
“You can stick with me if you want. We have a smaller group, but that’s okay. I’m sure they’ll like you, but people like Ace and Tanner are in there. Diego is also there.”
“He’s cool,” I said, smiling a little at the thought of his friendly personality at the bonfire.
“Yeah,” she said. She peeked into the room, suddenly seeming nervous. “This is the first time I’ve seen Tanner since we’ve broken up.”
“It’s okay! I’ll be right here with you,” I said, trying to put her at ease.
“Thank you,” she said softly.
Without another look at me, she walked in and I trailed behind.
There was a young guy, probably in his twenties, that looked to be leading the group. He smiled welcomingly at us as we entered. A majority of the kids I recognized from the bonfire, though I didn’t get their names. All of them sat in a circle of metal chairs in the middle of a huge room. Alivia took a seat beside Diego, and I noticed Sawyer hadn’t showed up yet. I sat beside Alivia quietly, taking in the calm atmosphere of the room.
“Shall we get started?” the man asked.
They nodded in agreement. None of them seemed to outspoken, at least not at nine in the morning. We began to talk about something that I didn’t know much about, but I didn’t know much about anything church related.
“What does it mean to die to yourself?”
That was the first question asked and I was utterly baffled by it. First, Sawyer tells me about this Jesus guy dying for me apparently, and now the discussion is dying to myself. The wheels in my head were turning as the group took a moment to think about it.
If a man died for me, why would I have to die to myself?
I wanted to ask the question so badly, but I didn’t. I didn’t feel like I had a place to say anything. I was just a stranger who was at some dumb party no less than twenty-four hours ago.
“I would say that dying for yourself means giving up some of your own passions for God’s will,” Diego said. Sawyer walked in and took a seat next to one of his friends across the circle. He smiled tiredly at me, and I wasn’t convinced he had gotten over his weird mood.
I turned my attention back to the discussion and tried to follow it.
“Okay, good. Anything else?” the man asked.
“Like, Jesus laid His life down for other people and He called us to do the same thing. So dying to yourself would have to be giving up some sort of pride,” a girl to Sawyer’s left added.
“Those are both really good answers, and now I’m out of a lesson,” the man chuckled. Some of the kids laughed a little, but waited for his explanation to go further. “Dying to yourself is being selfless. While that is hard to do in today’s world, it is what Jesus calls us to do. Let’s look at some Scripture here...”
He read off a verse that was completely unfamiliar to me. I tried to follow along as they read the words, but without them in front of me, it was easy to let my mind wander. Unfortunately, that’s what happened. My eyes scanned the room and I saw some posters probably Bible related. I glanced around the circle, trying to figure out if I recognized any of them.
I realized Ace was there, looking like he was about to fall over in exhaustion. I wondered what went on after I left the party. He met my gaze and blinked in surprise, then nodded at me. I shrugged then continued to scan the faces while he tried not to fall asleep.
Tanner caught my eye and glared at me. I raised my eyebrows with a blank stare, not wanting to cause a disruption. Slowly, he shook his head and then nodded to Alivia. I just looked over at her, then back at him. I just shrugged, and he rolled his eyes. If he broke up with her, why is he going after me?
Before I could try to make myself pay attention, the class was over. Everyone was standing up to exit the room and I was still sitting. Quickly, I got up and soon found Sawyer who was talking to Diego.
“What did you think of the lesson, Tin Tin?” Diego asked.
“It was good,” I replied, a little embarrassed that I only really paid attention to and understood the first couple minutes. “A little confusing to me though.“
“I’m glad you came today, amigo. I enjoy your company,” Diego said, smiling. I grinned back and noticed how quiet Sawyer was being. Alivia came over and I gave Sawyer a questioning look.
“Hey, can I talk to you?” I blurted to him. Sawyer’s eyebrows shot up and he nodded slowly. We walked to the corner of the room.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“Sawyer, are you okay?” I replied in a low voice. “You haven’t been acting like yourself lately.”
He nodded and took in a deep, slow breath. Swallowing, he blinked rapidly. He wouldn’t meet my gaze.
“I... No, not really,” he said.
“What happened?” I was truly concerned about him. I didn’t want him to be upset someplace where he should feel most content.
“We haven’t told Alivia yet, but Dad’s been having some pain in his left leg and, uh, well...” His voice grew quieter as he spoke. “We got the test results back this past week from the doctors, you know? And they found a tumor. But it’s like, stretched out on the bone so the only way to cure it is through amputation.” His voice broke and I wondered if he was going to cry. He didn’t.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked. I felt my heart grow heavy. Their family was so loving and caring to each other, their father was the core of it. If they couldn’t cure it, what would happen? Would they be okay?
“I didn’t know if you would tell Alivia. They want to tell her, so she has no idea.” He took in a shaky breath and ran a hand through his hair in distress. “Tin Tin, I know you aren’t religious, but could you please pray for him? I don’t want to lose Paul, he’s the one who’s been a father to me.”
I wanted to ask him, “Isn’t he your dad because he’s naturally a father to you?” But I didn’t. Instead I just nodded.
“I’ll try to do that,” I promised. He grinned sadly.
My phone buzzed in my pocket and I pulled it out, muttering about how this was bad timing. When I say the caller ID, I didn’t know how to react. My own dad was calling me.
“It’s my dad,“ I said, swallowing.
“Are you gonna answer it?” Sawyer pointed out.
“I guess I have to.”
I hit ‘accept’ and held the phone to my ear. Sawyer stayed with me throughout the whole conversation, which I was grateful for.
“Fletcher, where are you?” he demanded. I could only imagine how red his face was.
“I’m at church,” I said without thinking. I wanted to kick myself afterward. If he wanted to punish me before I answered, he certainly would now.
“I told you I don’t allow you to go there! I’m just trying to prevent you from becoming one of those self-centered Christians. Why are you there?” he practically yelled in my ear. I winced and took a deep breath.
“My friends who I stayed with last night asked if I wanted to come, so I did.”
“Fine,” he huffed. “We’ll talk about that later. But I need you to come home right now. And you better not argue with me! Understand?”
“Okay,” I said meekly, too tired to argue. “I’ll be there in a few.”
“Good. You’re leaving right now?”
“Yes,” I answered. I almost tagged “Dad” onto the end of it, but held myself back. He didn’t feel like a father to me. It made me feel extremely guilty to think that, but he didn’t. I never felt love from him. Only anger and discipline.
He hung up without saying goodbye and I sighed. I hated how I couldn’t just go to church without being interrogated. Did I really want to be here anyway? I had to admit, Sawyer’s whole Jesus guy speech sparked an interest in me. Maybe I’ll have to study with him.
“Sawyer, I have to go,” I mumbled.
“What? Why?” he asked, sounding like his old, concerned self again.
“My dad... He needs something I guess, I don’t know. But I’ll see you at school tomorrow?”
“I’ll be there,” he said.
We walked out the door and down the steps to the lobby. During our short journey, the question that kept prodding my mind was, ”Is Dad right? Are Christians self-centered? We just talked about dying to ourselves..." I suppose the only way to find out was to study it.
The idea excited me and scared me at the same time. My dad would be upset if he found out I wanted to understand the Bible but I didn’t have anything to lose anymore. If it meant escaping my home for a couple hours, I was willing to put up with a few verses or whatever.
“Yeah?” he asked.
“Can I study the Bible with you?” I asked timidly. Sawyer stopped dead in his tracks, almost running into an elderly lady.
“Well of course! When?” he exclaimed, being optimistic like I was used to. Maybe him telling me about his own father lifted a little pressure off his shoulders.
“After school maybe? Anytime works for me,” I said, started to become a enthusiastic myself.
“Great. I’ll see you later. Good luck with your parents.” He gave me a sympathetic look while I gave him a thumbs up and walked out the door.
I drove home in silence, wondering what just happened and worried about what my father would say if he found out.
  
I walked up the front steps, well aware that I was in Sawyer’s clothes instead of mine, and listened for voices inside. Thankfully, I couldn’t hear anything. At least they weren’t arguing.
While I wasn’t in any hurry to get in there and receive a lecture from my dad, I quickly stepped in the house anyway. I didn’t know what the neighbors would think if the saw the Amble’s kid standing outside on his own porch out of fear.
All the lights were on in the kitchen, dining area, and family room, even if it was the middle of the morning. I dropped my backpack at the bottom of the steps and heard someone get up from the living room. Dad appeared with Mom at his side, neither of them acknowledging the other. I wondered where Asher and Pearl were, but didn’t ask. If anything, I hoped they weren’t in the house.
“Fletcher,” my dad said in a low, warning voice. I just nodded to show that I heard him, but my heart was racing. I didn’t know what he was going to say.
Slowly, he moved to the kitchen counter and pulled my report card off a stack of papers. A sense of relief washed over me. This was just about grades, not church, and not the party.
“Why do you have a C on your report card?” he growled. While I wasn’t that interested in my subjects, a C was bad even for me. Usually I was an A or B kind of guy. I tried to get good grades to meet my parents standards.
I shrugged, trying not to show him how nervous I was.
“I’ve been busy.”
“You quit cross country, your grades should be higher if anything!” he exclaimed.
“School isn’t my life, Dad. And I didn’t quit. I have other things besides sports outside of school, alright?”
“Like what?!” he demanded, slamming the paper down on the table with his giant hand. He came toward me with his hands on his hips and I backed up.
“Well, I’m a third parent to Asher, thank you very much!” I exploded. All of my anger against Shelly, my friends, my parents -- all came out right then and there. Dad’s icy stare didn’t stop me. “Grandma is taking care of him all the time, number one. Then Mom, then myself. I don’t know where, but you put your spot on the list! If you didn’t realize, I was trying my best to keep my grades up! But your expectations for me are impossible!”
“All A’s is not impossible, I did it in school!” he countered.
“I’m not you!” I shouted, standing up straighter. “I take care of my brother, run, have a social life, and try my best to keep my grades where you would be pleased. Yes, I did go to church this morning. And who knows, I may go back. But you telling me not to isn’t going to stop me. This is my life!”
“You’re also under my roof! You will do as I say or you might as well be living on the streets!”
“Fine, then throw me out!“
“I refuse to do that! And I forbid you from going to church. My father was one of those Christians and traded his life away for it! I am looking out for you, don’t end up like that!”
My frustrations were rising up in my throat. I wanted to run and scream my questions to the world. Everything is my fault. My grades, my decisions, my life. I didn’t care, I liked living this way. No one was going to stop me.
I stepped right up in his personal space and looked him dead in the eye.
“Make me,” I said.
The anger in his eyes flash and I saw no room for me in there. All he saw in me was someone he couldn’t control, and that satisfied me. I turned away and grabbed my backpack.
“We will talk about how you treat your parents later!” he called after me.
I gave him a thumbs up and turned the corner at the top of the staircase. He represented everything I didn’t want to be. I wanted to love my wife, be good to my kids, and let them do their best. I was trying to get good grades, but they weren’t my first priority. I put effort into my classes, but I also put effort into my running and relationships with people. Why couldn’t he see that?
“Tin?” a small voice said.
I whipped my attention to the doorway where my little brother stood. He held his security blanket to his chest, looking way too worried for a two-year-old.
My irritation melted away and I crouched in front of him.
“Hey Squirt,” I said softly, my throat a little hoarse from yelling.
“Mommy okay?” he asked.
“Yes buddy, we’re all fine,” I assured him.
He hugged me tightly. When I tried to let him go, he clung to me. I carried him to my room with me and shut the door quietly. I could hear my father’s stomping from downstairs. I knew I set him off. Guilt flooded my conscious. I also knew that yelling at him would just cause more problems, but I raised my sword and fought anyway.
I set Asher down on my bed and then began to unpack my bag. He was silent as I threw my dirty clothes in the hamper and changed into some shorts and a regular t-shirt. Finally, I laid down beside him and he snuggled up beside me.
“I scared,” he whispered.
“Why’s that Squirt?” I asked him gently, trying to soothe his concerns.
“You and Daddy yell,” he answered. “And yell and yell and yell.”
“We just had a disagreement. It’s okay now.”
I cringed inwardly as I lied to his innocent face.
“Daddy yell at me?”
“No, Daddy loves you.”
“Does Daddy love you?”
I swallowed and stared at the ceiling. Deep down, I knew my dad loved me, even if he rarely showed it. While we did fight almost every time we were in contact with each other, there were moments when he let me in. Sometimes he’d let me stay in the family room and watch TV with him. Every once and a while I’d come home to a can of pop in the fridge. Mom hated pop and Grandma didn’t usually buy our groceries, so I knew it was him. Plus he’d ask me about it later.
I knew he wasn’t a terrible person, but ever when my sophomore year began he started putting an immense amount of pressure on all of us. The cans of pop ceased to exist and our favorite show played with no one to watch.
“Yes,” I answered finally. “Daddy loves me and you and Pearl and Mommy.”
“I love Daddy too,” Asher mumbled. I smiled and fought back the sudden tears in my eyes. “And I love Pearly and Mommy and Tin.”
Swallowing hard, I tried not to cry. I wish I didn’t have to come home to an enraged parent and that I could depend on my father. Sawyer and Alivia could depend on their parents. Why couldn’t I? Why didn’t I feel the same? My little brother still has the faith in my parents to say he loves them, despite their mistakes. What I wouldn’t give to be like his simple minded self.
I blinked away my blurred vision.
“I love you too, Squirt,” I whispered.
I heard him yawn and, slowly, he fell asleep beside me. I yawned myself and wondered what time I went to bed.
I was about to let myself fall asleep when I remembered telling Sawyer that I would pray for him. Was I also allowed to pray to myself?
“God?” I said out loud, closing my eyes. My voice cracked a little. “I don’t know what I’m doing. But I told Sawyer I’d pray for him. I’m sorry if this isn’t good, but uh...” I searched for the words to say in my blank mind and my voice grew quieter. “Please heal Mr. Olson and help their family. They really love you. And if it isn’t too much, could You... You know, help me figure out what to do? Help my parents and me. Protect Asher and Pearl. I guess that’s all.”
I was just about to fall asleep when I held Asher closer and whispered, “Amen.”