“So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” ~1 Corinthians 3:7
I turned around in the completely dark room, terrified. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been that scared. My hands shook furiously, as did the rest of me. I swallowed hard, trying to find my voice. I could sense something lurking in the dark, coming for me. The air was a deadly cold; each breath stabbed my lungs.
“This isn’t real,” I whispered to myself. “This isn’t real...”
The thoughts in my head consumed me. It felt so tangible. A rush of air swooped past me and I nearly screamed. I knew subconsciously the thing wanting to hurt me was dangerous. My legs shook and I waited.
“Do you know who you are?” the thing asked. Except it wasn’t verbally, it was in my mind.
Chills ran through my body and I nearly collapsed. It felt so unnerving. I wanted to cry but no tears came. I was too afraid to do that.
“Who are you?!” I yelled, walking a step in every direction. I didn’t want to run into that thing. “What do you want from me?”
The thing laughed heartlessly. What shocked me was that it sounded familiar.
“I’m surprised you haven’t figured that out yet.”
“Stop it!” I screamed, covering my ears.
“I’m you, you idiot. Who you’re going to be and who you are.”
“No..,” I mumbled. For some reason that panicked me.
“Look at me!”
A cold hand slapped me across the face and I felt blood run down my cheek. I fell to the floor in a heap, pain coursing through my body. I struggled for the horrible air as I sat up. Only I found myself staring into the eyes of myself. I about shrieked.
Whatever it was, it was an exact replica of me. Except, it looked emotionlessly calm. Like it had found what it was looking for and was going to do whatever it takes to get it. Or in this case me.
I scooted away backwards as it loomed over me, an evil smirk on it’s face. Slowly, it turned out not to be myself, but something worse. Darker. So black that it faded into the backdrop around me. The thing split into many things, all of their voices shifting inside my head. I panicked. If I couldn’t see it how could I run?
Suddenly, one of them pushed me. Kicked me, shoved me. My face was in the ground countless times. I was being thrown around like a child’s toy and it hurt. Finally, my head slammed to the ground so hard, I thought I was going to die. I forgot about it not being real.
I looked up to see Sawyer waving me over, a frantic look on his face. He had a lantern, the only light.
“Tin, get over here!”
“You don’t belong there, you never will,” one voice stated plainly in my mind. It started chanting the words and became louder. For some reason, they all sounded like people I knew. I shut my eyes and screamed as I felt something grab my wrists.
When I opened my eyes, Sawyer was running and yelling at me. I began to crawl toward him. Somehow I knew that if I listened to him, I’d be okay. It took all my strength to keep going.
Then Alivia was in front of me ahead of Sawyer. She fell on her knees and put a hand on my face.
“Come with me,” she said. I nodded-- it was all I could do. Tears were running down my face. I sat up on my knees, feeling restrained and leaned into her. She held me and whispered, “It’s okay. God will protect us. It’s okay. They’re lying.”
For I moment, I was calm and she rocked me back and forth, telling me that God would protect me. I was yanked away again and she shouted for me.
Gasping, I shot up in bed, shaking horribly. Sweat covered my temples as I ran one through my hair. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t real.
Moonlight came in from the crack in the curtains. I tried to regain control of my breathing. I ripped the covers off of me and went to the bathroom, then shut the door. I flipped on the light and looked at my face, my arms, my legs-- making sure I wasn’t actually injured. When I was satisfied I wasn’t hurt, I used the bathroom, then climbed back in bed.
It took me a while, but eventually I fell back into a restless sleep with one question swimming in my mind.
Who was I?
  
That day, when I went to school, my whole body was on edge.
Everything to me sounded scarily similar to the voices in my dream, and then I’d go through the whole process of remembering it wasn’t real. It felt like it was though, like at one time I was trapped in a dark room and someone did hit me. I kept my mouth shut and listened. People pushed past me in the hallways, as if I was just another person and no one special.
It was quite possible that was all I was. A person. Flesh, skin, bone, hair, eyes just like them. Except my existence didn’t affect them in any way, I was just another obstacle for them to go around. Everything felt empty and significant at the same time.
Eventually, I made it to art and sat with Jimmy, Marcus, and Hayden. More people who didn’t really care about me. Fantastic. Then Alivia walked in, sat by herself, and peacefully went on her way. I wondered if she ever felt like that. If she had ever had one of those dreams. I looked around as I contemplated a decision that seemed daring to me. I could sit with her. It’s not like the people I was trying to fit in with liked me anyway.
Standing, I took my backpack and walked away. For once in my life, I was truly happy with myself. If they wanted me around, they didn’t say so. I pulled back the chair across from Alivia and had my back to them. She looked up with a smile on her face.
“Hello Tin,” she said.
“Hi Alivia,” I replied, taking a pencil from my bag.
“Finally leave them?” she asked.
“They probably don’t care,” I said, shrugging.
“I was wondering when you would come.”
“Sorry it took so long.”
“It’s okay,” she laughed. “I get it.”
Her hair fell over both of her shoulders as she leaned over her project, carefully adding detail. Whenever she concentrated, it was like I was put in a trance myself. Her expressions varied between satisfied, content, and fixing it. All of them suited her, all of them were beautiful. Eventually, she caught me.
She locked stares with me and grinned. Her cheeks were thin, but made crinkles by her eyes when she smiled. Her face lit up like she had just won a million dollars. I blinked, a little taken aback that she was also looking at me. For some reason, I cleared my throat to try and think of something to say. I only succeeded in breaking our gaze.
She tilted her head a little to the side. It was hardly noticeable, but that was what was beautiful about her. The small quirks she had were captivating. I was going to fail art because all I did was watch her.
“How are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m okay,” I answered quietly. The thoughts about my dream haunted me and I shivered. “But what about you? And your dad?”
Her eyes fell to the paper and she sighed before looking up at me again.
“Did Sawyer tell you?”
“Yeah. We’re reading through Mark together.”
She beamed at me, clearly pleased with her brother.
“That’s great!” she exclaimed. “Do you like it?”
“I don’t know yet. It’s all unfamiliar since I didn’t grow up with church or anything. Sawyer’s a good teacher,” I informed.
She nodded, smiling to herself as she proceeded to continue her drawing.
“You never answered my question,” I pointed out. “How are you?”
“Oh. Well, I’m okay, I guess,” she replied quietly, playing with a strand of her hair. “Dad’s not doing so good. He’s scheduled for surgery next Saturday. He can hardly walk without a cane. If it gets any worse they might have to do the amputation sooner.”
“Is he nervous?”
“He doesn’t act like it. But I am. I know it isn’t life threatening, but he’s my dad and he’s always been there. It scares me that he’s going to have a hard couple months. I don’t want that for him,” she said, her voice breaking off.
That really confused me. If it were my dad, I would be bitter about it. He always acts like his business is his and no one else’s. If he were to ask me for help with what he doesn’t want to share with me in the first place, my immediate answer would be no. Alivia, though, feels sympathy and worry for her father, completely forgetting about herself. Same with Sawyer, too. I didn’t understand how I could feel bad for a man who never lifted a finger for me in his life.
“I’m really sorry Alivia. I’m here if you wanna talk about it,” I offered.
“Okay. Thank you,” she said softly, giving me a sad smile.
The bell rang and all of us leapt up to rush to our next class. As we reached the top of the staircase, I was about to ask Alivia about if she got caught up from missing a day when she hugged me. Baffled, I hugged her back and she quickly stepped away.
“I just needed one,” she said quietly.
“My pleasure,” I blurted, causing her to laugh.
We walked down to the cafeteria together, talking casually.
When we made it there, Alivia went to her table as usual and I stood in the lunch line. I couldn’t help myself from gazing at her as she sat down with a smile plastered on her face. I wondered how many people knew about her dad. Probably just as many as the people who knew about my home life. Sighing, I looking forward and diverted my gaze to the ground.
My thoughts wandered back to Sunday when Dad and I fought. It wasn’t even what we fought about that worried me, that never did. I didn’t know that Asher listened to our conversations, let alone our fights. If he did, and he clearly understood tone of voice, then his life is going to be the same as mine. Deep down, I knew it’s wrong to argue, but I lost self-control so easily.
I didn’t want him to grow up like that. He was so young, so innocent. I wanted the best for him. That would mean I would have to change for his good. Change scared me, I never knew how to handle it. My friends turned on me and I used what was handed to me. Was I using Sawyer just for company?
Pushing the thought out of my head, I proceeded to retrieve my food and make my way to Sawyer’s table. Suddenly, Ace was shoved into me and I was forced to step sideways. He fell at my feet, sprawled out on the floor. Shelly was stomping over to him in an angry feud.
My first instinct was to run, but another part of me had something different in mind.
Hurriedly, I set my tray on the edge of a table nearby. I held out my hand to Ace to help him up. He looked up at me strangely, like he didn’t know who I was. But I held it there, insisting silently that he take it. Finally, he did.
“Ace, how could you?!” Shelly hissed, getting in his face. I backed away just in time.
“It’s not my fault, Shelly! Tin’s the one who took the pictures,” Ace said, pointing a finger at me. I felt my eyes go wide and gave Ace a confused look. Yeah, I took the pictures and I gave them to her.
“Why are there pictures of Alivia on my film strip, which I paid you for!” she whispered harshly, turning to me.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
I had hardly got the question out before I realized. I remembered taking pictures of Alivia on the roof, but I didn’t think I put them on the flash-drive to give Shelly. Horror settled in me. I gave her the pictures I had taken of Alivia. Those were for me only and I gave them to her. I was tired that night, probably didn’t even think about it.
“I think you know,” she growled. I gulped. “You think I just asked you to the party because youtake pictures? Can’t you get a hint from a girl? And now you’re shoving it in my face that you and Alivia are together.”
“We’re not together--”
“You left my party for her, clearly. And it was Ace’s fault you did. He probably prompted you to go.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but she cut me off.
“You’re both in for it,” she spat. She walked away, fuming.
For a second, I stood there, numb. I couldn’t believe how stupid I was. Slowly coming back to my senses, I brushed past Ace, took my lunch, and then started walking to the table. He quickly followed me.
“Thanks for throwing me under the bus,” I muttered.
“What else was I suppose to do?” he asked.
“Oh, I don’t know. Take it like a man? Not play tattle-tale?” I scoffed.
“Calm down, Tin. It’s over now.”
The two of us sat down and I looked at his expression.
We both knew that was a lie.
  
That afternoon, I went over to Sawyer’s house for our Bible study. Pearl’s last home game was that night as well, so I asked Sawyer and Alivia if they would like to go. I wanted to help them get their minds off of what was going on with their dad and maybe give their parents some time alone.
Sawyer and I read as if this is what we had done everyday for a thousand years. He answered my questions the best he could, and I was baffled by the things we read. Like how Jesus could calm the storm with just His words. Or why He only had twelve devoted followers when he had crowds following him.
Every time I can remember reading, I know I felt slightly uncomfortable. Part of me didn’t care, but a good bit of me did. I was wrestling with myself about how to take things and knew I should be paying attention to what was in front of me. I did for the most part, and I really wanted to know what was happening.
Mixed emotions were always a concern. I didn’t know what anyone would think if anyone found out about this, not that it really mattered. Who knew what my dad would say if he ever found out that I actually wanted to go to church. I also didn’t want to go, because I knew Ace was there, and I couldn’t decide how he saw me. Who knows if me studying with Sawyer was out of rebellion against Dad or out of desperation or just wanting to.
Soon, I was driving the three of us to the soccer fields back at school. I hoped we would win. Pearl settled into a mood if she didn’t play well.
“Is your sister good?” Alivia asked as we sat in the stands. I paid for Alivia’s ticket, but that was after Sawyer went in. Plus I wanted to impress her and do something for her. Sawyer was wiggling his eyebrows at me as we fell in step together and I rolled my eyes.
“She’s pretty good. She plays varsity and is usually in for most of the game.”
It was chilly that night. Sawyer was in his jacket and Alivia in a thin purple hoodie. She had her hands in her pocket and her loose hair from her braid was blowing back from her face. I loved it when she wore her hair back, I could see her face better. Her eyes were examining the field before she caught me staring. I looking away, embarrassed, but still saw her out of the corner of my eye.
“Why do you do that?” she asked in a whisper.
“Do what?” I whispered back, smiling.
“Look at me all the time,” she laughed quietly. I met her eyes and saw her familiar grin.
“Because,” was my answer. I criticized myself inside for my lack of game. She raised her eyebrows and shook her head, confused and amused. “You’re beautiful,” I added softly.
Her cheeks reddened under her freckles. I slowly took her hand, lacing my fingers through her’s. She glanced at me, her eyes dancing with a playful suspicion and she squeezed my hand.
I didn’t care what Shelly thought of us. I wanted to be with Alivia. Being with her made me feel like the whole world was going to be okay and that I was going to be okay. Like time stopped and all that’s left is her gaze and mine. I couldn’t help it when my heart speeds up in my chest like it automatically did when I catch sight of her. It just did and I was thrilled with it.
The referee blew the whistle, snapping both of us back to reality.
  
The tensions were high, the score was tied, and the crowd was restless.
Alivia and I held hands on and off. I let go once mine start to sweat, but a few minutes later, when we were going to the concession stand, she grabbing mine again. I felt a little optimistic, so I bought her a candy bar. We shared it and my nachos while I grinned the whole time like an idiot.
She smiled quite frequently as the game went on. She also kept looking at me, and then she’d look away like she wasn’t. I watched Pearl in a daze. Then the unforgettable happened.
The crowd was shouting after the referee made a bad call. I added to the noise, only because it was on Pearl. A squeeze from Alivia brought me back to my senses and I stopped. When I looked at her, she had her eyebrows raised. Smiling sheepishly, I shut my mouth and watched.
Pearl was walking up the field, clearly upset about it. Her hands were in fists and I could see her muttering to herself. My smile faded off my lips as I became nervous about what she would do. I was sure that she would channel her energy into her game. I was sure that she was going to score our winning goal and the school would be ecstatic about it.
Instead, she turned around and yelled at the ref. No, not yelled-- that’s an understatement. Everyone on the field heard her as she screamed her guts out at him. Her side of the story was in there somewhere, but it was covered in frustrations with everything and everybody possible, particularly that referee.
The blood drained from my face and eventually the coach had to retrieve her from the field in a furious state. He practically dragged her off while she was still yelling. Then the coach talked to her to get her to be quiet. The whole crowd was silent as the referees talked about it. With each other. With the coach. With the athletic director who went over.
“Amble is suspended from the team for the rest of the season, including tournaments, for verbally showing her disrespect to the call,” the referee said, making all sorts of motions I didn’t understand.
The student section exploded. I froze.
Pearlene, my little sister, just got herself suspended from the team. Did she just think she was right to do that or what? I knew I had trouble with self-control when dealing with my father, but Pearl never fought back with my parents, as defensive as she gets sometimes.
“She is asked to leave the facility immediately,” the ref added. He turned his back to the crowd and started the game again.
I looked around and saw a few sneers coming my way. Grandma wasn’t here, she was home with Asher while my parents were off doing who knows what. That meant I was responsible for her. And I had Alivia and Sawyer with me.
Glancing up at the field, I saw her gathering her stuff in jerking movements. She was beyond-furious angry. Closing my eyes I realized there weren’t any other options. I had to get her and take my two friends home. I opened my eyes and exchanged a glance with Sawyer. They both seemed to read my expression and we wordlessly left the stands.
For a moment, we stood there. Alivia shivered with the night cold and I took off my hoodie. She still had my Ohio State one and my flannel, but I didn’t mind. I should’ve given it to her earlier. Plus, Pearl’s number and name was on my shirt. While I wasn’t proud of her and was going to give her a lecture, she needed to know I wasn’t hiding anything under my sweatshirt. Which was dumb, but it made me feel better about the whole thing.
“Here,” I said softly, handing it to Alivia. She smiled worriedly, even more so now that she saw how concerned I was about Pearl. “Don’t get cold.”
“Do you want me to come with you?” Sawyer asked.
I shook my head.
“No, but thanks. Could you guys just wait back at the car, please?”
They nodded and began walking. I started to the other side of the field, a weight on my shoulders. I didn’t know what I was going to say to her or if she would be angry at me even, but I didn’t walk away from her. We may get on each other’s nerves and act like we don’t know each other, but I had to be there for her and Asher when no one else was. It’s my job.
She met me with her duffel bag as she walked away from the team tent. Her face was red from running and she was still catching her breath, but her eyes were on fire with irritation. I pressed my lips into a line and shoved my hands into my pockets.
We walked to the parking lot in silence, receiving glares and snickers from our school and the opponents alike. Pearl set a blank expression on her face and didn’t make eye contact. I did my best not to look their way.
Even as our shoes were softly hitting the pavement, she didn’t say a word and neither did I. Sawyer and Alivia were leaning against the car when we walked up. She was wearing my hoodie and I smiled a little on the inside. Mostly, I kept my eyes downcast, avoiding her gaze.
Pearl put her stuff in the trunk and we all climbed in. The girls sat in the backseat, while Sawyer sat upfront with me. He gave me an apologetic look and I just nodded. I dropped them off in silence. Alivia squeezed my shoulder and murmured a, “Goodnight Tin.”
As I drove with Pearl, I searched for the words to say. I looked in the rearview mirror to see her staring right at me.
“Well?” I asked, sounding exhausted.
“Where’s Mom?” she replied immediately.
“Dad’s out late. Grandma’s with Asher.”
There was a moment of silence and I could practically feel her annoyance radiating from her.
“Why are you here?!” she exclaimed suddenly. “I didn’t ask for you to come with your stupid camera! I didn’t want your two friends to see me like that! Do you know how embarrassing that was? I lost it, and I don’t want you here!”
The last words stung and I narrowed my eyes to the road.
“I’m all you got,” I said under my breath.
“What was that?” she sassed.
“I’m all you got, Pearl! Is that what you want to hear? It was either me or nobody.”
”I’d rather have no one!”
“Well I wouldn’t! Do you think I like that Mom and Dad are always busy? That I practically live at the Olsons and Grandma has to do all this work for us? I’m here because I don’t want you to feel alone,” I vented.
“Maybe I wanted to be alone! I don’t need you,” she shouted.
“I don’t care. I’m here, driving you home,” I snapped.
“I wish I had a sister.”
“Sorry,” I stated.
A silence passed between us with tension so thick I could feel it crawling across my skin. My hands tightened on the wheel.
“Pearl, I’m sorry I’m not who you want, but I’m your brother whether you like it or not. And that was disrespectful of you. What in the world made you do that?”
“This girl kept tripping me during the game. And she’s always insult me whenever we did and I decided I was fed up. So when the ref called it that I hurt her, I knew he was wrong. I defended myself,” she explained in a low, angry voice.
“Could you have had a least a little bit of self control?”
“No! They were accusing me of something I didn’t do. I’m sick of people blaming me! When you aren’t home, Mom fights with me! I never know where you are. I don’t want you because I just don’t like you. I don’t want you here because I don’t know you. I don’t even know what your favorite color is. Or your favorite food. I can’t tell people you’re amazing because I don’t know you at all!”
Her voice broke off and I felt my face fall.
“Do you get straight A’s? Are you nice? Do you have a girlfriend? What does your laugh sound like?” she added. “What’s your favorite TV show? Who’s your crush? Who in the world were the two people in the car with us? Friends of your’s? Can you sing? Are you funny?”
She stopped for a moment and I hoped she wouldn’t go on.
“Do you love me?”
The question erupted in my brain. By then, we were home. Both of us sat there after I had parked. I turned to say something to her, but then just got out. She followed with her bag and we walked into the house. Grandma was watching TV. Pearl walked right on in while I went right to my room, showered, and fell in bed.
I suppose I didn’t give Pearl as much attention as Asher. I didn’t see her as much either, and I guess I didn’t really know her. Her words slapped me across the face and stabbed me in the chest with each syllable. I wanted her to know that I loved her and would always be there for her. I wanted to be a great big brother. I wanted to change.
Pearl’s attitude shocked me. She was so out of sync with what she thought was right compared to Alivia or Sawyer. Alivia has had her heart broken, but she doesn’t seek revenge. Pearl gets insulted and yells. What was the difference? Personality? Age difference? Could be.
The answer struck me as I stared at the ceiling: Christ.
Already from what we’ve read together, Sawyer had pointed out how Christ is compassionate, loving, and a light to us, even if we turn our backs to Him. That’s when I realized I was finally starting to get it. Christ changed people, but I suppose society could too. Pearl wasn’t influenced by the church or Christian friends.
A deep sorrow filled my gut. I wasn’t even a Christian and I’m now concerned about my sister? My thirst for knowledge of God grew more and the pit of empty in my went deeper. There was no question in it now. I was going to study with Sawyer. I needed to change -- and wanted to. That night, I said one of my awkward prayers for change and peace.
I still couldn’t sleep though. Pearl was on my mind. I wanted her to know who I was.
I pulled out a sheet of paper from my backpack and began to write. When I was finished, I laid it on my table beside my bed and dreamed about the last person I wrote about with a grin on my face.
I don’t get straight A’s.
My favorite color is red.
I like action shows.
My favorite food is chicken.
I love photography.
I hate reading.
I took Spanish because it’s easier than French.
Sawyer was the guy in the car, and he’s probably my best friend.
Oh and I suppose you have to know...
I do have a crush, her name is Alivia.