PennyBassett Fanfiction

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Fudge Marble
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I can't read very well, so I can't promise anything, but I'll try. I don't know much about the Mario universe, so if I can read it, I don't know how much of it I'll understand. :lol:
"Let me get this straight. I bet all those non-friends of yours try to embarrass you about your love for that stuff, right? So, you almost feel like you have to hide your treasures away and can only take them out in secret on rainy days when your mom goes to the store to get more liver and nobody is around to berate your sensitive spirit. Is that what you’re saying?" -Jay Smouse
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Fudge Marble
Posts: 903
Joined: May 2016


Don't get too excited, but I've got a quick scene I thought I'd publish now cuz I really didn't know where to put it in my upcoming chapter. So it's real short, but hopefully, I'll have a full chapter up soon!
I guess this is
Preface to Chapter 22
We sat in the parking lot of Odyssey General Hospital. A haze hung over my brain. Everything hurt to think about.
“Can we revisit the adoption thing?” She asked before I could start the car.
“I guess. I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about it.”
I set my keys in the cupholder between us.
“I’m trying to go over everything logically.”
I nodded.
“We have our college savings. We’ve got the money we think will fall into our hands from Smallpox. The idea is to buy an apartment and raise a child, while still going to school?”
“I guess we could drop out of high school.”
“No. No, we’ve got a year left that’s not happening.”
“You really wouldn’t? Even for your child? Your son?”
“Don’t call him that.”
“Why? He is.”
“Yeah but. Maybe I don’t want him to be.”
“I don’t see how it can work.”
I didn’t say anything for a minute. It was hard to collect my thoughts. I felt an urgency to convince her of my point of view, but I knew how weak it was. What was I thinking? I was acting on emotion. Making a decision based on some stupid dream of normality we’d never grasp if we were being honest.
“I don’t know what to do!” I spat, probably louder than I should have. “I love you, and I love our kid, and I want to be with both of you and protect you, but I feel like I can’t and frankly I don’t know how to emotionally deal with that, and I feel like there’s not a point to anything anymore, I mean where is this even heading?”
“Where’s what head-”
“Our- lives! Christianity. It’s not gonna simmer down. You know it won’t. We will never be seen as members of society again-”
“Don’t say that.”
“Why? You know it’s true! We can’t do this! I want to just leave! I want to die!”
My next sentence was caught in my stomach. I closed my lips, realizing what’d come out of them.
“I’m sorry. That’s not true.”
“Okay. You’re sure?”
I hated how scared she sounded. I nodded and sniffed, pushing away a tear.
“I don’t usually cry.”
“I know.”
She took my hand.
“I think we should let him go.”
I took in a short breath.
“Jules he’s our child.”
“But he can’t be. We’re not that selfish, right? We wouldn’t- put him through what we have to go through.”
She said this between sobs. I got out of the car and walked around to the passenger side, opened the door, and pulled her into my lap. We sat there for ten minutes at least, silently sobbing. We were so young.
"Let me get this straight. I bet all those non-friends of yours try to embarrass you about your love for that stuff, right? So, you almost feel like you have to hide your treasures away and can only take them out in secret on rainy days when your mom goes to the store to get more liver and nobody is around to berate your sensitive spirit. Is that what you’re saying?" -Jay Smouse
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Fudge Marble
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Joined: May 2016


Okay, I'll be interested to see what you all think of this one. It's um. It's super long. Like- this shouldn't be this long at all what am I doing with my life? But it's the last chapter in Part 2 or Season 2 or whatever you want to call it, so things will be more put together when I start releasing chapters for the 3rd part. Hang in there with me. We finally have a chapter without an age limit... eh okay, we'll say 13+. To make up for the sort of stagnant flow of this chapter, I've made a playlist, which is actually Smallpox's album. ( ... nqgXZWXumc)
There's a thing where they talk about all the songs and stuff, so it might be fun to listen to it while you read if you wanna get kinda fancy. And, hopefully, this link will work, but you should be able to look at the album cover here: file:///C:/Users/gfcyt/Downloads/Covers.pdf
So enjoy this last one, and I'll be back asap with the first chapter of "Exspes"!

Chapter 22
The inside of my hand hurt. I tried to loosen the grip on my fork, only to run into more emptiness that for some reason had to be compensated with tensity at the end of my arm: nails digging into my palm. Matthew swallowed a piece of bacon next to me. My mom sat across from him, my dad across from me. Eye-contact was minimum. Every second hurt to sit through. That table hurt to look at. My legs ached to run away from the denial-inhumed seating arrangement. I tried not to look to my left. That’s where the empty chair was. I was honestly surprised my mom hadn’t moved it yet.
“This is nice,” Mrs. Parker breathed, the bags under her eyes looking a bit darker today, her black hair beneath its usual standard of put togetherness, her black sweatshirt big enough to be her husband’s. Her words had made my brain hurt. “Nice”? What about this was nice? I wanted to cry. I wanted to cry at her. I wanted to scream that she hadn’t talked to her kids in three months. That she hadn’t been sleeping right. That she was unhealthy and overworked and a mess. But she wouldn’t listen. I know she wouldn’t have. I know my dad would have given me a dark look and told me to sit down. I know she would have left the table. Because it’s not her fault if she lets her grief disable her. No that’s on “That Man.” I was so sick of hearing about “That Man.” The nickname would be heard echoing through the house at ten at night. When my mother would yell at my father through the phone like he was the one who killed my sister, breaking her sentence up with unrecognizable Spanish curses.
But I couldn’t get mad at her for any of that, because her daughter had died. She could grieve however the mierda she wanted to. Never mind the other daughter. She’d lost the eldest.
Mr. Parker nodded. I think that’s what he’d learned to do in the past ten months. He wasn’t much better though. The man hardly noticed Matthew and me. We barely saw him anyway. He usually left for work before we got up and came home after midnight. I was usually up, but from his footsteps that moved straight from the garage door to his bedroom told me he was not to be disturbed.
“The eggs are really good, mom.”
Young Mr. Parker – the bravest of us all managed to slide six words across the table to his mother, who returned them with six of her own.
“I’m glad you like them, Matthew.”
My grip loosened a bit. At least the silence was gone. That bit of small communication almost felt like vulnerability. An airway had opened. My opportunity was at hand. I could say three words. Three small words I knew would change everything. Three words of honesty, of sadness. I opened my mouth, staring at the centerpiece between my dad and me, and then I closed it. No. I couldn’t be so bold. Welcome to the Parker household, the half Mexican, half Mideastern dung pile of small talk and emotional suppression. The mother who denied sadness by smothering it in anger. The father who denied anger by burring it under piles of blueprints. The oldest son who’d never met grief and never wanted to. I often wondered how he managed to never look at a monster in the same room as him. He probably learned from his father and kept his eyes on the pulled apart gadgets spread around his room, covering his bed. Did he ever sleep? And then there was me. The youngest. The innocent. The aware. The seeing. The crying. The avoiding of anything that had to do with the family I had never been proud to call my own. Through my homosexual “temptations,” my nightmares, my loneliness, I remained the healthiest person at the table. Because I let myself feel.

“Alright, class. We’ve had a good discussion today. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I forced a toothless smile and exited the video call, replacing a smiling brunette with an Amazon cart full of items I knew I couldn’t afford. I shut my laptop to hear Katrina’s wheelchair move down the hall and stop in front of my door. I opened it for her without getting up from my seat. She wheeled herself in, laughing a little.
“I hate doors.”
I chuckled and shut it for her.
“How was class?” She asked.
“That’s good. Did you get everything turned in?”
“Of course.”
“That’s good.”
“You said that.”
“Right,” she took a breath, “What are you and Jules gonna do?”
I shook my head.
“I honestly don’t know right now.”
“You know you have about a month.”
“I know, and I don’t need this pressure from you right now.”
“I’m sorry.”
“It’s- fine. It just feels a little hopeless.”
She nodded. We didn’t say anything for a minute. I tried to gather my thoughts.
“I love her.”
“I know.”
“I love my son.”
“I- I don’t want him to feel like his parents abandoned him.”
“That’s it,” she whispered.
“I can’t do that to someone else.”
“Have you told Jules that?”
“No. I kind of just realized it myself.”
“So, what’re you going to do?”
“I still don’t really know. She seems unconvinced.”
“I’ve got one idea.”
“To pray?”
She nodded, and I took in a long breath. Putting her hand on mine, she closed her eyes.
“Jesus, we want to start by thanking you. Thank You for a new life. Thank You for Buck and Jules. Thank You for the love they have for one another. Thank You for bringing Buck into our family and the restoration you’ve brought him. You see where they are. You know their pain. Lord, please give them some answers in the next month. Help them to think clearly and have open communication. We’re going to trust You through this. Your will be done.”
It was interesting how our prayers changed after the shooting. We started listing thanks instead of listing requests. We prayed for his will. It was beautiful. That day brought peace. It didn’t last forever, but it was what we needed. Our daily bread.

My hand brushed my apron and picked up the cold wetness of ice cream. I bit back a groan and reached for a napkin. It was a Tuesday morning, so no one was really in the shop. A homeschool group had come in earlier, but they were all upstairs in the Imagination Station. Connie had instructed me to “watch the counter” while she went out to get more milk or something. I sat down slowly and wiped up the half-dried dessert. It was only nine, but I could already tell it was going to be a hormone trip of a day. I’d nearly cried on the way to work because Connie had hit a squirrel. I don’t even like squirrels. They’re kind of creepy.
I’m not sure why Connie was having me watch the counter. Like- since when did the counter need to be watched? It wasn’t going anywhere. It makes sense now, but to my stressed out, dehydrated, emotionally drained, hungry, pregnant self, it really didn’t. I guess I was thinking and wandered into the kitchen. I found Whit sitting in the corner on his phone. He looked up.
“Sorry. Did I interrupt something?”
He shook his head, avoiding my eyes.
“No, no I’m just waiting for Connie.”
“Hm. Same.”
Those were the first words we’d spoken to each other in oh let’s see… yep, about eight months.
“So I get you don’t like that I’m pregnant, but this silent treatment is getting kinda old.”
This phrase held little emotion. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, I just expected the world-renowned Christian John Whittaker to be a little more compassionate, sociable, maybe basically nicer than he’d been treating me.
“I’m sorry.”
“That doesn’t make up for it.”
“Alright. Fair enough.”
“Are you really that disappointed in me?”
“I don’t know.”
Something I’d never heard that mustache say.
“I understand people make rash decisions when their grieving.”
I nodded, remember how this all started. I’d nearly forgotten.
“But this time it’s you. It’s someone close to me. I wanted better for you. For both of you.”
“You’re not making it easier on us.”
“I know. I am sorry, Jules.”
“Okay. I forgive you.”
“It’s a boy?”
I nodded.
“Have you picked out a name yet?”
“No. Um. No, we’re actually not sure if we’re going to put him up for adoption or not yet.”
“Oh. I hadn’t realized that was something you were considering.”
“Yeah. Well, it is.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Um. Yeah, actually that would be really good.”
We walked up to his office. I sat across from him in a cushioned armchair that made the room feel like the LA counseling offices I once visited weekly.
“Why would you put him up for adoption?”
“We don’t have the money. I mean, hospital bills for the birth alone are going to be insane.”
“Hm,” he shook his head, “Not if I paid for it.”
“Send me the bill, I’ll take care of it.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course. I’ll be happy to.”
“Wow. Um. Thank you.”
“What else?”
“We’re still in school. Buck wants us to move in together, and maybe drop out.”
“There’s also everyday costs. I’ve got this job, but no offense you don’t pay enough to provide for a small family.”
“Oh, I know. I would probably up your pay if you decided to keep him.”
I sat there for a minute trying to find another reason.
“Jules, those sound like excuses. They’re very real concerns, they’re important things to think about. But what’s going on?”
I looked at my hands and watched them hold each other. A lump stung the back of my throat.
“I can’t be a mom.”
A small sob accompanied that last word. That terrifying word. I wiped a tear from my chin.
“Why not?”
“I- I don’t know how. You know, like my mom-” I couldn’t finish the sentence, so I just sat there trying to catch my breath through tears, feeling so hopeless.
“You wouldn’t be alone.”
“I’m not ready.”
He nodded, “When will you be?”
I couldn’t give him an answer. There wasn’t a logical argument for why I felt inadequate. I just did. I couldn’t put it into words, but I think he understood. That turned into a good day. It wasn’t perfect, but I let myself feel for once. I confronted my fears in a way I hadn’t before. That felt good.

As the Beauty and the Beast credits started playing, I looked down to see Winnie asleep in my lap. Wooton clicked off the TV. I sighed and began stroking Winnie’s shoulder-length strawberry blonde hair. We didn’t say anything for a few minutes. I glanced at the clock. It was ten fifty-two.
“Can we talk about it again?” Wooton asked tensely.
“I suppose.”
“We don’t have to.”
“I want to.”
I took a breath.
“I’m sorry I yelled earlier. I don’t like the idea of you giving up your art,” I tried to explain.
“I know. I don’t think I would be.”
“You wouldn’t be animating it.”
“I’d be helping. I’d be writing. They said I’d get to make a lot of the ads too. And ya know maybe this would give me the chance to start new creative projects. I could spend more time with you, with Winnie. You can’t keep carrying her everywhere,” his last sentence was said lower than the rest.
“I- don’t see what that has to do with this.”
“Hun, I can help you. I will have so much time on my hands if I take this offer.”
“But it scares me.”
“It feels so big. I know you’re talented and I don’t want you in such a- a large spotlight. And with the Christian thing on top of it…”
He took my hand from our daughter’s head.
“I’m gonna be okay.”
“You don’t know that.”
“They can protect us.”
“But no one even knows about Winnie, she can’t be in the spotlight like that, you know she can’t.”
“She won’t have to be. It’ll all be behind the scenes.”
“And what if you start getting interviewed and they ask about your family, what will you do then?”
“I don’t know. Do I need to figure that out now?”
“Maybe not.”
“I’m tired.”
He nodded.
“We can talk about it later. They gave me a couple of weeks.”
We carried Winnie to her new toddler bed, kissed her goodnight, then went to sleep, filled with anxiety. But it was almost normal for us. We would take care of our daughter, who needed constant attention, and we argued about what to do with our lives. We weren’t suffering financially, but there was always this fear. Wooton’s success was built on a dedicated fandom. If that fandom decided they were uninterested, or wanted to protest, or got uncomfortable because we were Christians, we could lose a lot of money or the whole business. And we couldn’t afford that. Winnie was nearly two. We’d been told a while ago that she would be walking by now. She could barely crawl. Wooton was right. I carried her everywhere. Looking back on it, I think I was just scared. I wanted to protect her. We spent a lot of time sitting. I would teach her new words. We would paint or draw. It was nice. It gave me time to think through things. Think over this TV show idea. Cosmic Comics had suggested creating an animated television series about PowerBoy. Wooton was excited, but I couldn’t bring myself to feel positively about the idea. I’m not sure why. Maybe I just didn’t want things to change.
“Slow down,” I said apathetically, glancing at the white speed limit sign up ahead.
“I’m going sixty.”
“The phone says sixty-five.”
“Okay. Sorry.”
Jeff took a long breath, then clicked on the turn signal.
“Um,” he started, “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine. Why?”
“You’ve been quiet. I thought we were supposed to spend time together today.”
“Yeah I’m just not feeling great,” I inhaled slowly, “I’m probably nervous.”
“Did you talk to Jules today?”
“Not really.”
“She wasn’t feeling well this morning.”
“So, you’re worried about the baby?”
“I don’t want to invalidate your fears, but you have been reading a lot of articles lately.”
“Yeah. I know.”
“Hey,” he put his hand on my arm. “You can always call her if you’re worried, but I think she’ll be fine.”
“Yeah. You’re right.”
“I want you to enjoy tonight.”
“Me too.”
I sighed and looked out the window, bringing on a bit of silence. Jeff broke it.
“So, my old boss. I think I’ve told you about him.”
“That- Mr. Daniels?”
“Yeah. He’ll be here tonight. I’m excited to introduce you to him. He’s a really cool guy. Used to be a pilot and now he’s working full time in the Himalayas.”
“Wow. That sounds- cold.”
“Right? I don’t think I could do what he does.”
“Remind me. These will be all pilots?”
“Most of them. It’s anyone who’s connected with the transportation side of the mission field in the northeast. We’ll have people from Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia.”
“And you know all these people?”
“Not everyone, but we’re all connected in some way. This’ll be an interesting night because we haven’t had one of these banquets since most of us lost our jobs.”
“How do you know it’s happened to most of you?”
“Like I said, we’re all connected. There are forums, group chats, it’s happening to everyone. I wouldn’t be surprised if we discussed it openly. I mean, you’ve seen how antsy I’ve been.”
“Ya got that right.”
“But I’m glad you’re coming with me. I think it’ll be an awesome night.”
I nodded.

I woke up drenched in sweat, my heart pounding, my head aching, my stomach-
“Connie!” I screamed, a sharp, squeezing pain running into my lower stomach. I bit back tears as I sat up- onto a soaked couch. I frantically looked over the pillows, cushions, wha- my water had broken. Shaking, now out of fear, I picked up my phone and found Buck’s contact.
“Hey, what’s up?”
Another contraction cut off my answer. I managed some sort of squeaking noise.
“I need you to take me to the hospital,” I breathed.

Hearing that at seventeen threw me into this responsibility, this protector role that I wasn’t prepared for. Eugene was at work, otherwise, I would have asked him to drive. We hadn’t sold the other car yet, so I took the one left and ignored every speed limit getting to Connie’s house.
I banged on the front door, looking through the window next to it. She opened the door and I hugged her immediately. She started crying.
“I’m really scared.”
I nodded.
“I know. Hey, you’re gonna be alright.”
“It hurts so much.”
I wasn’t sure if she meant emotionally or physically.

JULES: Both.
BUCK: But I got her into the car before another contraction started. It was fifteen minutes to the hospital.
JULES: I cried the whole time. He was holding my hand.
BUCK: I could feel it. Every three minutes a contraction would start, and her hand would tighten around mine. I’m not gonna lie, it terrified me. I didn’t know where to go so I pulled up to the maternity ward and jumped out of the car without bothering to remove my keys. I just grabbed the nearest doctor I could.
Fifteen minutes later I was sitting in the waiting room, staring at the floor, my heart thundering in my ears. Wooton showed up after about five minutes of this.
He put his hand on my shoulder.
“How’s she doing?”
“She was crying so much. I think something’s wrong.”
He shook his head.
“Buck, labor is painful. It’s very normal.”
“I feel like I’ve failed her though. I was so scared. I’m still scared.”
“Being scared isn’t a weakness.”
“It feels like it is.”
“She’ll be okay.”
“I-I’ve been doing a lot of research. Like- literally a teenager dies giving birth every twenty minutes.”
“Okay take a deep breath.”
I did, and my stomach hurt a little less, for about half a second.
“We’re gonna pray now.”
“Okay,” I nodded. We did, and I felt a little better, but I couldn’t help thinking God might punish us by letting Jules die.
“I need to call Eugene,” I swallowed, trying to see into the room down the hall from my seat.
I did, and he got there ten minutes later. I called Jeff and Connie too. They said they’d be there soon. But I still didn’t know anything. When we’d gotten there, they’d put her in a room and no one had come out since. They’d asked me if I wanted to come in, but we’d decided before I wasn’t going to. It felt like I was invading her privacy in some way. But sitting there, I kept thinking how alone she was.

“She must be so lonely,” I groaned, tapping my finger on my seat’s armrest. “Can you please go faster?”
“Connie, she’s alright.”
“She might not be. You don’t know if she is.”
“If something was wrong, they would’ve called us.”
“Okay. Yeah, you’re right. Okay. Talk about something else. I need to be distracted.” I turned my phone over in my lap, avoiding the power button.
“Well,” he began with a breath, “What do you think about me finding a new job?”
“You were there for that conversation, right? About the non-profit James wanted to start? I mean it sounded amazing.”
“Yeah but completely unreliable. James seemed like the kinda guy with money. Something we don’t have much of if I remember correctly. He can afford to try and start a risky business. You don’t.”
“I’d just be investing. Not starting anything.”
“I know. But still.”
“Alright. We can come back to it. But if it succeeded, I would be helping people. Helping people by flying. He said we’d have a private plane.”
“Believe me, I want that for you. You’ve been distracted lately. Like you’ve lost your purpose.”
“I have. Honestly, it’s been hard. Especially because I don’t know where my faith fits into it. Like- why would God call me into the ministry just to take it away from me?”
“Are we really going into that conversation? Because there was so much theologically wrong about that sentence. God didn’t cause this, and you influenced tons of people without a plane and before things fell apart. You know all of this.”
“I do. I just- being around it today! The people who think like me, who know what it’s like. We just want to get back in the air. To-to know we’re helping people.”
“I’m sorry.”
“It’s only been eight months…”
“I know.”
He strung his fingers through mine and gave me a tight smile. I tried to take a sturdy breath.

“Mrs. Parker!” I stood up and went to her as soon as she left the room. “How is she?”
“Unconscious…” she mumbled, glancing through her papers, walking down the hall. I followed her, speeding up my pace to keep up.
“What? W-why?”
“I don’t think it’s anything to worry about. She’s very young. It happens with teen births sometimes. Women really should not be giving birth at her age, so it can be a very exhausting process.”
“Did she deliver the baby okay, though?”
She shook her head, stopping at the front desk.
“Not yet. Which is why… I need to call Connie.”
“We want to do a C-Section.”
“But that’s like- serious, right?”
“It’s safe, Buck. We do them all the time. The baby is in the right position, vaginal birth at this point would be much more dangerous. All we need is her guardian’s consent to perform the surgery and give her the medication to numb the area…” She handed the man behind the desk a clipboard and pulled out her phone. I steadied myself and went back to the waiting room. Wooton’s brow furrowed when he saw me. I explained the situation to him and Eugene, and then took a seat.
We rushed into the waiting room to find Buck, Eugene, and Wooton finishing a prayer.
“Can I see her?” Connie asked Nurse Parker. She nodded, and they disappeared by a large metal door.
“How’re you doing, Buck?”
He shrugged.
“I’m okay. I think she’ll be alright.”
“I’m sure she will be. She’s strong.”
He nodded and sighed.
“Have um. Have you decided what you want to do with him?”
“Not really,” he sniffed, “Sorry. I’m not used to hearing, ‘him.’”
“No. It’s okay. What do you think we should do?”
“Oh. Um. I don’t have an answer for you. I don’t know what would be best for the baby at this point. If you and Jules aren’t committed to raising him though, I can guarantee you they’ll be another couple that is.”
He got quiet after that, and the rest of us sat just as silently. Whit and Penny arrived not long after I did. We prayed more. No one would tell us anything. About an hour after Connie left, Eva came back out with another nurse. We all sat up a little straighter.
“They’re both doing great.”
There was a unanimous sigh of relief. I thought Buck was going to cry.
“Can I see them?”
She smiled slightly and nodded.

As she opened the door for me, it crossed my mind- her daughter died. I’d sort of forgotten about Olivia. I didn’t mean to- it was just- there were a lot of people not around anymore. I couldn’t remember anyone mentioning her though. Zoe was a mess for a while, but I didn’t know how she was either. I made a note to find out. She never liked Jay romantically, but she took his loss hard too. It’s just strange- the people I’d forget.
The nurse led me into Jules’ room. She looked exhausted. I could tell she’d been crying. In her arms was a tiny bundle. She barely noticed when I walked in. I sat on the bed. Her eyes slowly met mine. They blinked a couple of times, her lips opening, then closing again. I didn’t know what to say either. I was almost in shock. It was suddenly real. It wasn’t a pregnancy, it was a baby. I real, breathing, human being was biologically me and my girlfriend's. He was a person with a gender, and a future, and birth parents that had him unexpectedly. That was part of his story.
“Come here,” she whispered, her eyes still on the new life she was holding. I lied against the bed and she placed him into my arms, then nestled into me with her head on my shoulder. In my arms was a sleeping child with one hand out of his blankets. He opened his dark eyes and looked at me: his dad. He was so at peace. Like everything was how it was supposed to be. Like he was just content to be with his parents. It was like he knew something we didn’t.
“He’s ours,” Jules sniffed. I nodded.

We made the decision then. We’d keep him. We’d be parents. How could we not? Such a stunning life was given to us. It was a gift. Not a burden. Not a consequence. Hope. Joy. We were poor as ever. I would have asked my dad to help out, but he hadn’t talked to me since I’d became a Christian. Whit increased my pay. He helped buy more supplies too. The biggest thing was we didn’t have to pay for any medical bills. He followed through and paid for all of it. A week after our son was born, Buck moved in with us.

“Woah. Have you got everything, Buck?”
“Yeah. I think so.”
I opened the door for him and took one of the three suitcases he was trying to carry in with him at once.
We took everything down the hall to the second guest bedroom. Jules was sitting on the bed holding her baby, telling Connie where to hang her last shirt.
“Wow. Color-coordinated,” Buck nodded to the closet.
“We are staying organized! Or at least starting out that way,” she explained.
“How is he today?”
“Perfect as usual. He’s been awake most of the day, which means I’ll get to sleep tonight. And he ate when he was supposed to.”
“Great. Do you need a break? I can hold him for a while.”
“Sure. I need to take a shower.”
On her way out the door, I stopped her with a question.
“Have you guys picked out a name yet?”
“Oh, we didn’t tell you! We chose one yesterday before we left.”
“We kinda had to, for the birth certificate,” Buck chuckled.
“Well, what did you decide?” Connie asked, “I still haven’t heard.”
“Connie, Jeff,” Jules started, “Meet Mr. Levi Oliver.”
“Aw. That’s perfect.”
“More than you know. Levi means to attach or join.”
“I thought it was kind of fitting. Like- I was immediately attached to him, and he joined our family together.”
“Hm. That’s cool.”
“And it’s just a really cute name,” Jules giggled before heading to the bathroom.
“We’ll let you get settled in. He’s sleeping now, so you should be able to put him in his crib to put your stuff away,” I nodded to a small crib next to the bed.
“Cool. Thanks.”
I nodded, then followed Connie out and into the kitchen.
“You’re still thinking about James,” she sighed.
“Well, maybe that means God is calling you to this.”
“Maybe,” I sighed, finding a banana. “That’s a more positive attitude than you had a week ago.”
“Well, I want to see you motivated again. And maybe find some motivation of my own.”
“I was gonna say. There’s probably a space for you somewhere.”
“Well, you should just do it then, right? Let’s find some purpose.”
“Alright. Just for the sake of an argument. What if our purpose is here? Helping Buck and Jules? Serving people drinks and packets of peanuts?”
“And maybe it is. But there’ll always be things in life we’re unsure of, right?”
“I guess. I think I want to pray about it some more.”
“That’s fine. Just know you have the go-ahead from me.”
“Okay. Thanks. That’s helpful.”
She smiled, then started preparing dinner. We all felt something new that week. Something like light. Something like hope.

I squinted, the May golden hour sending streams of light through a warm McAlister park. It was beautiful, all the new life. Dion ran up the sidewalk from the nearby pond.
He gave me a hug. He could always tell when I needed one, which was usually.
“How are you today?”
I shrugged under a sweatshirt-style tank top
“I’m okay.”
“Falling into those stereotypes I see,” he joked, referring to my snapback. I laughed a little.
“Unintentionally, I promise. Bad hair day.”
“Gotcha. What path are we taking today?” He asked, glancing between the two roads we found ourselves at the beginning of.
“I want to go by the fountains.”
We started walking, keeping our conversation minimal as we made our way down the hill and into a thicker patch of woods. It was a sort of habit. We weren’t the only ones in the park, and people would try to overhear if they saw our mennats. So, our natural action was to wait until we were out of sight.
“So how are you really doing?”
“Not great. I haven’t been sleeping well.”
“Me neither. Do you have nightmares when you do?”
“Not nightmares. They’re more like- just wrong dreams. Like she’ll be in a dream, and then I get angry because it feels like now, she’s not supposed to be there. Or I’ll have dreams where everything is going normally, but she’ll come back somehow. Or she’ll just be there. Then I have to wake up and realize she’s not there. I don’t like it.”
“Yeah. I get similar dreams. It’s like he’s always with me. Like a shadow.”
“Do you still carry around his phone?”
“Yeah,” he chuckled to himself. “It would feel disrespectful not to for some reason.”
“That’s how I feel about her room.”
“Her room?”
“I can’t go into it. She never wanted me going through her stuff or sometimes she would lock me out of there in general, so I just got used to it. I don’t think she’d want me looking at everything, even though I want to.”
“Death is stupid.”
“Yeah,” I sighed.
“So. Do you have a girlfriend, yet?”
“Ha. No. I wish. I’m young though.”
“That’s true.”
“How are you and Grady?”
“We’re fine. It’s weird. He’s a lot different than Jay. Honestly, I didn’t expect to date anyone after him. I just always saw my life going on with Jay Smouse right next to me. It’s so strange to watch that future and see someone different.”
“I’m sure. Is SmallPox doing well?”
“Our album is selling. We’re going to have a concert on June first. You should come.”
“Okay. I will.”
“How’s your family?”
“Still distant. Especially Matthew. He hasn’t talked to me. He didn’t cry at the funeral. I’m kind of afraid he’s in denial or something.”
“It’s been quite a while.”
“Well, I know. Sometimes it’s hard to believe it’s been nine months though, you know?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I know. Don’t pressure him.”
“You’re going to a counselor, right?”
“Yeah. We both are.”
“Maybe bring it up there.”
“Okay. I will.”
We walked for a little longer, stopping at the fountains for a few minutes before heading up to Whit’s End.
“What can I get you two?” Mr. Whittaker asked, a shaky smile, similar to Jason’s smoothed out beneath a thick white mustache.
“Two root beer floats would be perfect.”
“We’ll do,” he chuckled, giving us a thumbs up.

I didn’t know why I couldn’t feel anything about Olivia. I just couldn’t. It didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel real. I think I was probably in denial looking back on it. Just, complete, moving on without a second thought, sort of fearful denial. It was fearful because somewhere I thought there was no point in mourning. What good would crying do? She’d still be gone. I’d still have those haunting memories of finding out she was, of my parents’ faces when they found out. Of my sister’s voice at night screaming into her pillow. They were grieving enough without me adding to the sadness that had infected every inch of that household. So, I planned to hold on. Just wait until I could graduate, go to college, make a life for myself, do anything to escape from the daunting reality that was my past. I hated it. I hated everything about it, and it was everywhere. I buried myself in my inventions, in my gadgets, in my obsessive-compulsive habits that began to spread to every area of my daily living until even getting out of bed needed its own set of ridiculous traditions. I dug myself into an impossible hole of puzzles and alphabetical actions. I became like machines I spent so long trying to fix. It’s ironic, that I was the one who needed fixing.

It felt like part of my innocence had been stolen. I clasped my hands behind my back. I could hear Penny’s breath get harsher in the chair next to me. Winnie sat in her lap, looking at a wooden book, making noises that made sense every once and a while but were mostly comprised of meaningless garble.
“You’re sure?” I clarified, searching Doctor Graham’s eyes for a promise of procrastination.
“We can’t put it off anymore. I know it seems like a big change.”
“It is one,” Penny interrupted.
The doctor nodded, “But it will be for the better. It’ll make your lives so much easier. If money is an issue, I’m sure-”
“It’s not yet,” I shook my head, glancing at my wife.
“Alright. Well, we should be able to do all of the measurements and get this thing ordered today if you’re free for a few more hours.”
“That’s fine.”
I suddenly wanted to get this over with.
She tried to explain that this could be a fun thing. Kids usually like picking out their chair colors and features. I had no doubt she would enjoy that, but I didn’t. It meant my daughter was growing up. I didn’t want her to in some ways, and maybe some of it was I hadn’t let myself realize that day had been coming. But it was suddenly here, and it hurt so much. We’d be okay. I knew we were fortunate. I mean, we had such a beautiful, smart, already artistically inclined child. I didn’t want to restrict her. I said this.
“Wooton, look at me. You’re not restricting her. You’re giving her as much of the world as you can. Once she knows how to get around on her own, your life and hers will be so much easier, it will be amazing. I want you to be able to focus on building a relationship with your daughter, not her Spina Bifida. From your parenting, I think that’s what you want as well.”
We nodded, eyes on the ground.
A week later Winnie had a chair she could learn to navigate on her own and that would adjust as she grew, and we had installed an elevator into our house. I had also signed with Cosmic Comics. For the foreseeable future, Powerboy would be animated. In the end, Penny was the one who made the decision. She still wasn’t used to our wealth. Spending money in her mind needed to be a stressful thing, something stepped into with caution. She wanted to be as prepared as possible. I think it still felt like a loss to her though.
A couple of weeks after I moved in with Jules, we had my eighteenth birthday party at Whit’s End. I didn’t necessarily want the attention or to spend the money, but Eugene and Katrina insisted. Everyone showed up. It was fun. Everyone wanted to hold Levi, which was a refreshing change of pace from the many guests who used to get uncomfortable around Jules when she was pregnant. I guess it was easier to realize something was alive when you could see it. I know it was for me. He was just so real. So at peace. That’s what surprised both of us. He was a calm infant. We still weren’t getting a ton of sleep, but Connie and Jeff helped out when they could. Any free time was spent working or sleeping. That was another reason the party was a good thing. It was the first time in about three weeks that we were able to relax and enjoy ourselves. Winona, Wooton and Penny’s daughter was in a wheelchair when they showed up. I’d thought of her as a baby until Levi was born, but she was almost two.
Wooton announced that he was starting a PowerBoy television show at the party, and then Jeff stood up.
“I guess this is a good time to tell all of you that Connie and I have decided to invest in a ministry a missionary friend of mine is starting. It would specialize in taking food and medical supplies to overseas towns who are in need. Any donations toward this cause would be greatly appreciated.”
This announcement was met with more excited applause. During those times, when it felt like we were all just waiting for things to get worse, new projects brought a lot of hope.

I didn’t have a lot of time to think about the state of the country or the social situation we were in. Being out of school and only having to do classes online kept me isolated enough to forget how bad things were. Buck and I made a promise to avoid the news and excessive device usage. It was hard to admit, but given how bad our mental health had become in the past, we knew if things started to look hopeless, or we tried numbing our feelings with TV, we would neglect to take care of our son, and he was the priority.
Now we get asked a lot if it felt like we had to be adults too soon. In a way, yes. We had responsibilities and life similar to that of adults, but we also had a lot of support. And frankly, our brains were caught up with what was happening around us. There were times when we would yell at each other and make ridiculous threats. We would talk about other people like all teenagers do. We made poor financial decisions and have to suffer the consequences. I’m a mentally stagnant person sometimes, so it wasn’t uncommon that I would forget things like packing diapers in the car, cleaning our room, or missing meals. Buck helped out though. I knew he was tired. Maybe even more so than I was. He started working for Dale Jacobs at The Odyssey Times after he turned eighteen, and sometimes wouldn’t get home until midnight. But he’d always be there at six in the morning, ready to make breakfast, or take a class, or just take care of the baby so I could get an extra hour of sleep. He never complained. Even during our worst arguments, he never mentioned how much work he was putting in, and I never thanked him enough.

From the time I tapped my knuckles against the wooden blue front door in front of me to when my father opened it was about five and a half minutes.
“Well hello, son!” he chuckled, bringing me into a hug.
“Hi, Dad.” I tried to smile.
“Where’s Dion? You usually bring him.”
“Yeah, he’s with Grady, I think they went out for dinner or something.”
I followed him into the kitchen, where a pile of dirty plates sat in the sink and black filth lined the faded white dust boards. A framed black and white picture of him and Jenny on their wedding day was hung next to the small table. A pang hit my heart. This wasn’t how a millionaire should be living.
“Why um- why don’t you hire someone to clean up around here?”
I took down the glass he’d been reaching for from the top cabinet.
“Thanks,” he whispered, “Um. I’m not sure. It’s just- my house, you know. I should be taking care of it.”
“Well sure, but part of that is asking for help. When was the last time you did the dishes?”
“Well it’s just been difficult to bend over, and I’m out of soap.”
His expression became dazed for a moment like he’d forgotten where he was. Then he shook his head and filled his glass with tap water.
It didn’t make sense to me. He was able to function pretty well outside of the house. He still went to work. Not as much as he used to, but he was at the shop once or twice a week at least. He could still serve ice cream, and tinker in the basement, and have long discussions about fatherhood and quantum mechanics with Eugene. Maybe that old house just held too many memories. That confirmed it for me. I was making the right decision.
“Can we sit down for a minute?” I asked, palms collecting perspiration.
His brow furrowed.
We found our usual places in the living room. Him in his thirty-year-old recliner, me on the couch across from it. I leaned forward, my elbows resting on my knees. I watched my hands slide together and apart for a minute before building up the courage to start speaking.
“So, Connie and I have been talking.”
I sort of expected him to say something. He didn’t so I continued.
“We think it might be time for you to sell the house.”
He made a noise that sounded sort of like a laugh but turned into a cough. I grabbed his water from the kitchen and helped him take a drink. My anxiety settling some, I set the cup on the coffee table and found my seat again trying to regain a steady heart rate.
“I need to know that you’re safe,” I breathed.
“I’ve been talking to Wendy Philips at The Orchid Retirement Home-”
“It’s a fantastic facility. I mean you can find friends there and there a ton of clubs, it’s completely in our price range. There’s a courtyard with a waterfall and the nurses seem so, so nice.”
“Nurses. Because I need help.”
“Maybe you don’t need it, but I want it for you. You need to rest for once. Have some fun. Write! Dad, when was the last time you wrote anything? I want you to enjoy your retirement without worrying us.”
“I can’t give up my independence, Jason.”
“You know you wouldn’t be.”
This brought on a few minutes of silence.
“Dad,” I put my hands in a praying clasp, “Please. Just take a tour of the place. For me. I need you to know you have options.”
He studied the dark brown carpet beneath our feet, his bottom lip quivering. He sniffed and pushed back a tear.
I walked over to him, then knelt on the floor next to him, and brought his hand into mine.
“You know I love you, right?”
“I know, son,” he nodded, shaking, then mumbled, “I’ll visit the place.”

I got home an hour later to find Grady and Dion on the couch watching a movie.
“Pause that for a second and come help unload the groceries!” I called from the garage.
They followed me out and picked up a couple of bags each.
“Did you get ice cream this time?”
“Ah- yeah. Mint. Is that alright?”
Dion set a bag on the counter and began putting its contents into the fridge. I sighed, louder than I wanted to.
“Something wrong?” Grady asked, throwing away a Walmart sack.
“Sorry. Long day.” I briefly rubbed my forehead. “I um. I got a call today, Dion.”
“From who?”
“Your ah- your parents, actually.”
He stared at me, completely dazed for a minute, before lowering his brow.
“Oh?” His voice shook. “What did- why were they calling you?”
“They want to see you again.”
Grady took his hand.
“They said they wanted to come to your concert on Friday and then see you afterward.”
“What if I don’t want to see them?” He blinked.
“You don’t have to. Just think about it.”

I hadn’t been in a limo in about a month. The last time we played for an audience was a little after we recorded and announced our album. Mandy and I were picked up first. We were testing the background sounds and instruments before loading them into the back of the truck that followed us to the stadium. That’s right, stadium. We were playing at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. The venue was sold out and based on the response from social media, we’d have a lot of people coming in from out-of-state. It was an hour-long drive over there, which didn’t do wonders for my nerves. It helped that the rest of the group was there with me. It gave me a distraction. Another distraction was our manager, Lucy Davis, who answered questions, set up interviews, spoke to fans on our behave. Basically, she handled anything adult. Once we’d picked up Buck and Jules and gotten past the crowds of people who’d surrounded their house after the limo had pulled up, she started going over the day. It was nine in the morning.

“Alright, kids. This is it. How’s everyone feeling?”
My question wasn’t immediately answered. Dion perked up first.
The rest nodded in agreement.
“Excited,” Mandy shrugged.
“Alright, so mixed feelings.”
“It’s like an excited nervousness,” Vance was said, reclining in his seat.
“What would make you feel more comfortable?”
“Um… could you go over the schedule again?”
“Of course.”
I did, beginning with the setting up of the venue, and ending with where they would go to sign autographs.
“What’s the interview gonna be like?”
“Honestly, I would be prepared for anything. They’re probably going to want to know about your faith, your family lives, your upcoming music. You don’t have to answer any questions you don’t want to of course, but I wouldn’t recommend exiting the building altogether.” I eyed Jules, “It was fine, even good, once, but you don’t want that as your reputation.”
She gave me a “yeah duh” look.
“Just- be good. Be yourselves. People like genuine people.”
They nodded, and then began the pre-show day ritual we’d started at their first performance. We did a session of “popcorn prayer,” then sang Veggietale’s Silly Songs, harmonies included of course. There was a period of silence where they gathered their thoughts, and then someone presented a bible verse to discuss. The ended with a worship song. By the time we’d finished these traditions, we were at the arena.

The space was huge, it took my breath away. It was hard to believe all of it was real. I wouldn’t have guessed in a million years that’d I’d be where I was then. I was a dreamer to the core, and this was the fulfillment of one of my greatest. As we walked around the stage, taking it all in, Trent looked between Tamika and I. We burst out laughing, and a few tears slipped. This was what being humbled felt like. We knew we didn’t deserve it. That was the feeling the entire day. We don’t deserve any of this, so we’ll be sure to enjoy every second of it. After setting up our instruments, we were driven to a breakfast restaurant, where they had reserved the back patio for us and had all the food waiting over a silk tablecloth. People gathered and snapped pictures through the windows the whole time, but none of us cared. I think Tamika welcomed it. The food was delicious, and we thanked our waiters profusely before getting back in that shiny black limousine.
"Let me get this straight. I bet all those non-friends of yours try to embarrass you about your love for that stuff, right? So, you almost feel like you have to hide your treasures away and can only take them out in secret on rainy days when your mom goes to the store to get more liver and nobody is around to berate your sensitive spirit. Is that what you’re saying?" -Jay Smouse
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And I have to post it in two separate posts, because oh boy this chapter is huge.
We were driven to this really cool looking recording studio, where we were thoroughly inspected for weapons before entering the building. Someone… oh, I think it was a reporter who was going to sit in on the interview, who was not wearing a mennat got past the front desk without being touched. I’d be lying to say that didn’t sting a little. We were taken into the studio where we met the two DJs, Matt and Cori. They seemed pretty nice; I think Cori was a bit star-struck. The nine of us were given chairs, mics, water, and headphones, and then the recording light came on.

“Hello everyone and welcome back to 81.5’s special Friday segment of OnKey. We have in the studio with us right now, the band which some are calling an “overnight sensation.” We’ll get to you guys in a second, but first, we need to introduce ourselves! I’m Matt and as usual we have Cori here in the studio,” the heavyset man turned to the Asian woman next to him, “How are you today, Cori?”
“Fantastic, and you know, I won’t lie, it’s mostly because of our guests.”
“Can’t argue with you there. After everything these kids have been through, and the fact that they still decide to make music, to continue living out their passions is so inspiring.”
“It is. Should we get started?”
“Sounds good to me.”
“Alright! Ladies and gentlemen, the entire band and editing crew of Smallpox is here with us in the studio, and you know I don’t think we’ve ever had this many people in the studio with us at once.”
Everyone laughed a little at this.
“So, from left to right we’ve got Buck Meltsner, Trent DeWhite, Mandy Straussberg? Am I pronouncing that correctly?”
“Yep! It’s weird, I know.”
“Oh, I love it. It’s original. Next, we have Marvin Washington, Vance King, Tamika Washington, Jules Kendall, and at the end of our table here we have Grady and Dion. Now we know Grady’s last name is McKay but is this true of you changing your last name, Dion?”
“Well, yeah. Last week I was officially made a Whitaker. My foster parent, Jason Whitaker, wanted it to be official, so he’s now my permanent guardian.”
“That’s fantastic, and I think I speak for a lot of the fans when I say, you and Grady make an adorable couple.”
“Thank you.”
“And you’re not the only one with a new family situation,” she said cheerfully, making eye-contact with me, and then Jules, “Jules. You look amazing for having given birth just over a month ago. I mean you really look stunning.”
“Oh, well, thanks.”
“Of course.”
“Let’s talk about this new album!” Matt suggested a bit more enthusiastically than what was needed.
“So, all of you are singing on this one?”
“Trent and I aren’t much,” Marvin explained, “Everyone else is though!”
“Now I got to listen to your fourteen-song album yesterday, and the opposing styles caught me off guard, but in a good way. Where did the idea to bring so many genes together come from?”
“I think it was just how things turned out,” Tamika started, we nodded in agreement, “We all wrote different songs, and those songs reflect who we are, and we’re all different. Honestly, I love it that way.”
We agreed again.
“When examining the sudden mood change, and even morality changes your songs go through, many fans have sensed a storyline. Is there truth to this?”
“You want to take this one?” Jules asked me.
“I’ll try to explain,” I sighed, “These songs were built over several years, and experiences, but basically what we managed to do, is exactly what fans think, which is, yeah it’s a story. We wanted this album to reflect what our emotional state was like over the last year.”
“Would you be willing to go over these songs, and maybe explain the meaning behind them?”
“Absolutely. Um, the first song was Buck’s.”
“Yeah. After Jay passed away, I went through a very long process of trying to get a song out, and Even When it Hurts is kind of the result of that. It was one of those projects that turned out better than I expected it to because I only worked on when I needed to vent or remind myself of God’s faithfulness.”
“To add to that, I think we put it at the beginning because it really held this heart-wrenching theme of always falling before God,” Mandy said, emotion clinging to her voice, “I thought it was important to sort of say from the get-go, this is a story, and it’s a tragic, difficult to listen to story, but we have and had this anchor through it. Want to add anything to that, Tamika?”
“Hm. That’s well said. Getting to record and get to know this song was a true honor. It was easily my favorite to record.”
“Yeah if you guys haven’t heard it, seriously, go listen right now because Tamika, and I’ve always thought this, she, first of all, is a stunning singer, but then the deep understanding and experience she brings to it is just gorgeous.”
Tamika put her hand on her heart and mouthed a thank you to the friend next to her.
“Our second song is defender,” Mandy sighed. “Honestly this has become an anthem for me personally. I wrote this one reflecting on my time in the hospital after the shooting. While my life was on the line, this phrase kept coming to mind. I would pray every night, just begging God for answers. It was so beyond what I could understand. I mean, why had He let me get shot, why were my friends killed, why didn’t I die instantly if I was going to die anyway. Once I was ‘out of the woods’ so to speak, I was able to write again, and as I did, I began to understand. I didn’t have answers, but I knew God’s character, and I knew I was supposed to praise him. So, I think my hope for anyone listening is that they would find rest in this idea of God’s way is better, all we have to do sometimes is worship.”
“Well said. What’s the one after that?” Dion looked over the table.
“Oh, it’s mine,” Vance laughed, “I wrote No Fear in Love while grieving our loss of Jay. It was a way to confess and realign my desires for true love. There’s a verse, First John four: eighteen, that says ‘There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.’ While Jay and I were dating, I often told him I loved him. It wasn’t until I surrendered to Jesus that I realized how afraid he’d become of me, and rightfully so, and this verse convicted me. So, I wrote about it. I think it also helped me understand my loss.”
“So, it sounds like for most of you, songwriting is a therapy,” Matt said, his chin on his knuckles.
“Absolutely,” I nodded. “Demons is next, right?” I laughed a little, “Jules, you wanna explain?”
“Gladly. So, this is the first time our album takes a drastic turn, which is fitting because, for me, that’s how my life felt. I wanted Demons to have this deviant, rebellious, haunted, upbeat feeling. I was in a pit of depression, which led to bad decisions, as Buck will attest to. The lyrics ‘Please forgive me, I’ve got demons in my head,’ are honestly a plea for understanding. From God, from my sister, from Buck, whoever didn’t understand at the time. I needed a rhythm to almost justify my actions while keeping this awareness that I was in the wrong, if that makes sense.”
“Yeah it actually does, and I think a lot of your listeners can relate.”
I didn’t notice the fish on her forehead before she said that.
“Scared is the next song, again, a change in mood,” Vance began, “I wrote this as sort of a sequel to No Fear in Love, and it’s a love song to Tamika. I wrote this one when we got to come together as a band again. That’s actually when a lot of these were written. So, this song is a steady sort of promise. It’s saying, I know there’s fear around you, but I will never be the cause of it. And then I got to sing it, so that was cool.”
“I cried so much the first time I heard it,” Tamika giggled. “Is High on Humans next?”
“Yes!” Dion answered.
“Ugh, this is my favorite song in the entire album. It was so much fun to record and produce,” Mandy reflected.
Dion nodded, “This song came out of me in probably half an hour. For the first few weeks after the shooting, I was actually emotionally stable, and this song wrote itself. My pain killer infused mind found a lot of enjoyment in conversating with people, and High on Humans was the result of that. Buck, tell us about Youngblood.”
“Oof,” I cringed. “So, I like this song, because deep down I know it sounds good, but at the same time, it’s so overdramatic that I can never listen to it. I wrote it after Jules briefly broke up with me.”
“Well, that’s probably why it feels dramatic because at the time you thought you’d lost me forever, when we were back together in like three weeks.”
“Right. So, Vance does a fantastic job on the vocals, and I hate every second of the song.”
They laughed with me at this, and Jules picked up the conversation.
“Better Now!”
“I like this one,” Dion gushed.
“I wrote it while Dion was in the hospital. I didn’t know what to do for him. I don’t think any of us did, so I wrote out my feelings. This one is fun because originally I had it as a much slower ballad sort of song, and Mandy suggested picking up the tempo, giving it a hopeful twist, and as always, she was right. So thank you, dear!” My girlfriend blew our friend a kiss from across the table.
“Cry Today, Smile Tomorrow is next, right Dion?” I asked.
“Yeah. I really can’t take any credit for this one. Jay wrote the whole thing. After he died, his parents let me really go through any of his stuff. On his phone, and then what I found later in a notebook was this song that somehow perfectly defined not only the type of person my boyfriend was, but exactly how I was feeling at the time, and continue to often. It’s just such a good reminder, and a treasure to remember him by. My favorite line is ‘Don’t fill my mind with petty lies. Let that go.’ That was just such a raw, true statement. I needed it to be repeated. So just like everyone’s been saying, it was my therapy.”
“Maniac is next!” Vance laughed out loud, “I love this one so much. Another one written by Jay that Grady and I had the privilege of recording. Any comments, Grady?”
“It was a lot of fun. We kind of unanimously decided he wrote it about Vance, so I think for you, it was kind of a way to move on and face your damage. I don’t want to assume though-”
“No, you’re absolutely right. It made me need to recount my actions. Now it’s one of my favorites to sing.”
“So Come out of Hiding is Next. Performed and written by the incredible Tamika Washington,” Trent complimented.
“Thank you,” she laughed, “I love this one. Writing was such a God thing. I mean, the words just ran onto the page. I wrote it just recounting my journey of faith, how much I ran away from Jesus. It’s a reminder that we can always return to him. I needed to hear that, so I assumed other people did too.”
“From personal experience, you’re correct,” Jules nodded. “Jay wrote Alabaster Heart. I think this was the only worship song he composed?”
“Yeah,” Dion clarified, “He wrote quite a few pieces of worship songs and mentioned his faith in other songs, but this one is one of the few we can call complete and worship. I think he wrote this when he came back from the camp, he became a Christian at.”
“Yeah, the dates line up with that,” Grady confirmed. “I just really enjoy singing this one, knowing who it came from, knowing how true it is. I liked the word treasure. This is another one. Every complete song we have from him has become a dedication to him. It’s unifying and I think a good reminder.”
“I agree,” Dion said.
“Oh, can we talk about My Friends now?” Mandy begged.
“Yes! Such a good one. Jay was a genius.”
“I think that was my favorite song from your album,” Matt said, “Who sings it?”
“Jules and I,” Vance answered.
“Hm. Well, your voices sound beautiful together.”
“Thank you,” they said at once.
“Can we play a sample of that song for the air?”
“Of course.”
We sat and listened as the soft, simple tune filled the recording area. I was so proud to be apart of the project we called Smallpox. That family. Those beautiful people.
Cori pushed away a few tears as the song ended.
“Um. Sorry. That’s really beautiful,” she sniffed, “Why did you choose to put Hallelujah at the end of the album instead of ending it with My Friends?”
“I think I can answer that,” Mandy said, having finished a drink of water, “We wanted to leave our listener with hope, and promise of more to come. And Marvin wrote this one actually.”
“I did! It was a lot of fun, but very difficult at the same time, because I only know drums. I also never write songs, so this was a whole new ballpark for me.”
“Yet you fooled all of us. Well done. You’re teenagers, but I mean you’ve done things with your lives! Let’s talk about your album cover. You’ve got this amazing collage of the eight of you, with Jay in the middle. The cover has a green outline, and underneath reads, the album title, Israel. Where did this name come from?”
“Dion, Vance, and Mandy came up with it all,” Tamika said.
“Yeah, Dion chose the name,” Mandy nodded.
“Right, so this came from a couple of things. There’s a Bible story where Jacob wrestles with an angel. Yes, this is a real story, go look it up. It’s a strange one, but short story shorter, Jacob and this angel wrestle, and then Jacob asks the angel to bless him, so the angel does and I think the quote is, ‘Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with God and humans and have overcome.’ So there are three meanings hear, the first is that Jay’s name was Jacob. Secondly, the verse I just quoted really depicts how we’ve felt for the last year. We did struggle with God and the people around us, but we overcame. We got through that darkness. The third reason, um, the Hebrew nation is sometimes referred to as Israel, and honestly, as Christians, we often feel like we’re foreigners on earth, like we have another home, because we do.”
“Fascinating. What about the album art, who’s responsible for that?”
“That was Mandy and Vance.”
“Um, yeah. I honestly don’t remember where the picture idea came from,” she giggled, “I like the way it turned out though. If anyone can’t tell, it’s from left to right, Marvin, Buck, Jules, Me, Jay, Trent, Vance, Tamika, and Dion.”
“Wow, that’s exactly right from memory. Who thought of the color?”
“I think that was me,” Vance laughed, “I don’t have a heavy reason for making it that greenish color other than it looked good.”
“Well that’s good enough for me, this does look fantastic, guys. I had no idea members of the band designed it. Who was your photographer?”
“Again, I’m shocked because they look amazing.”
“So go check out Smallpox album ‘Israel.’ It’s on… Spotify, Apple Music, all that good stuff?”
“Yep. Pretty much anywhere you listen to music.”
“Awesome. Cori, you wanna take this next piece?”
“Happy to. So, we get a good glimpse of what your lives became after the shooting through your album, what have they settled into?”
We didn’t answer right away. It wasn’t a question any of us had considered. What was our life like now? I figured I had a substantial answer but didn’t really want to talk about it on air. I tried anyway:
“I mean, Jules and I… we get up every morning, I usually go to work around nine, she stays home with Levi, and it’s honestly, it’s been hard. I’m exhausted.”
“Do you wish now that you would have given Levi up for adoption, or gotten an abortion?”
The fact that she could mention that possibility was sickening.
“No. Absolutely ot. I know what it’s like to be abandoned. No way in hell could I do that to my son. He makes it all worth it.”
“How’s it been for you, Jules?”
“Pretty much what he said. I adore my baby, more than I could have imagined, and the work we have to put in ends up irrelevant.”
We were both lying a little, but we couldn’t let on how worn out we were, how honestly, mentally unstable we were.
“Most of us are still in school,” Grady said, “Vance graduated early, but we’re in online school and I think that’s been going well for everyone.”
We nodded.
“That’s pretty much it,” Dion said, his voice low.
Cori picked up his cue.
“Alright, well thank you all for coming in to do this. Go listen to Israel, and I hope you got tickets to their concert tonight because it is completely sold out. Stunning work you guys. Thanks again.”
We thanked her and then the recording light clicked off.
We went back to the arena and took a nap in the green room. Sleeping was good. It was a good distraction. I needed to forget that my baby wasn’t within walking distance. We woke up it and it was time to get set up. We ate a quick meal. It was around four in the afternoon, so I guess we ate Linner? We changed and then did mic checks and went through our songs. Suddenly, it was time.

KATRINA: It was surreal. Completely dream-like. That was my son, performing for masses of people. I missed having him around during those days, but I understood why he couldn’t. He was making his own life. That was fine in theory, but it still hurt. And it’s not like he abandoned us or anything. I saw him all the time. It just wasn’t what I had envisioned.

EUGENE: I stood there weeping. These brave, stunning children that I had helped raise were making art and loving it. There could be nothing more powerful.

ELIZA: I remember a little of that night. Like, I know the arena was huge. I would listen to the songs they played later on and get nostalgia, so while I don’t remember the performance, I can envision it. I’ve found myself doing that a lot lately. Picturing beautiful things. I’m always hungry, so I try to imagine food. I usually want to hear music, so I’ll hum the songs my brother and his friends wrote all those years ago. It doesn’t fix all my problems, but I think it lightens them.

JASON: Dion. He’d risen so far. I miss him so much.

WOOTON: It was awesome. Hilarious, when I thought of the band Tamika, Trent, and Marvin once tried to start. We had a great time.

PENNY: We did. We had fun. We brought Winnie. I think that was one of the first times she and Katrina were able to connect. Obviously, it wasn’t preferred that they were in chairs, but I was really glad she had someone who understood.

JEFF: Connie stayed home with Levi and to watch the shop, but I facetimed her a lot of the event. We were both so proud.

UNKNOWN: I’m actually finding it hard to breathe right now. Seriously, I have been waiting for this day for months, and it’s amazing. They’re all such beautiful people. I just love Smallpox. I was kind of scared coming today because they were Christians. I kept thinking about the people on television. They did a lot of security stuff though when we came in, so that made me feel better. I know all their songs. I’ve been listening to them on repeat for the last few days. My parents don’t really like that I do, since their Christians. But I’m thirteen, I think I’m old enough to decide what music I listen to.

CAMILLA: I couldn’t smile. Everything hurt. Dion had gotten Matthew, his couple friends, and I great tickets, but it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. Matthew swaggered into that ridiculous stadium with excitement as if nothing was wrong, but things were wrong. Why couldn’t he see that things were wrong?

MATTHEW: There was one song. Cry Today, Smile Tomorrow. Dion got up there, and by the first chorus, I was sobbing. I finally let myself release. It hurt, but I wasn’t the only one. Many people in the audience were deep in tears. It hit something we could understand. Jay understood. That’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.

I held my ground. I wouldn’t touch them. We were back in Odyssey, I was exhausted, and there they were, standing in Jason and I’s living room. I had questions. I had a lot of questions.
“We went to see Nahla today,” My dad said, his thick Korean accent speaking as if that was a rare occurrence. I hadn’t seen him in a year and a half. He looked older.
“Why are you here?”
“We wanted to see how you were doing.”
Missionary parents. That’s how they met. My mom was born in Egypt to missionary parents, who then traveled to South Korea where she met my dad. They moved to the states right after Nahla was born.
“I’m alright now. I’m dating Grady McKay. He’s awesome.”
My father’s eyes moved to the floor. My mom tried to smile.
“That’s- nice.”
“Yeah. Can you please leave now?” I sniffed back tears. These were people who forced me out of the house and out of my family overnight. The people who didn’t care that my boyfriend was dead. Who hated the very idea of me loving another male. They hated me. I couldn’t look at them for very long. My vision became blurry and several hot, heavy tears poured down my face. I tried to move to push them away but I couldn’t.
“Please just get out.”
“Dion, we want to help.”
“No, you don’t,” I snapped through sobs. “You want to change me into the person you want me to be. Never mind that that’s impossible and unnecessary and insulting, please get out of my home.”
“This isn’t your home, son! Your home is with us!”
“Since when? You made me leave overnight! You wouldn’t answer my calls for six months! You didn’t bring me home after I was shot and put in the hospital three separate times. I’m not your son. That was a choice that you made. Don’t expect me to run back into your arms, I’m not only a different person, I’m literally apart of a different family. Get. Out.”
I stared them down until they sighed and went out the front door.
I limped toward the hallway.
“Dion,” Jason spoke. I turned to him, and he put his hand on my shoulder. “You’re not alone.”
He got me there. I broke down and entered his embrace. Thank God for Jason Whittaker: the man who taught me I was worthy of protecting.

After the concert, the band and their relatives went to Whit’s End for a little celebration party. We were able to keep out photographers, and while a few of the kids went into the Imagination Station, I served drinks and sundaes. Jason had to help me.
“Hey,” he began, when there was a lull at the counter. “So, I took Dad to Orchid Retirement. He liked it.”
I nodded, relieved but saddened.
“We’ll move him next month.”
We both took a long, deep breath.
“It’ll be good for him,” Jason comforted.
“I know.”
“It’s okay to grief though.”

After we pushed away a few tears, I was approached by Katrina.
“Can we talk?”
“Sure,” I answered, still feeling unnatural looking down at her. We went into the library, and I locked the door. We went over by the chairs and I sat down.
“What’s up?”
“Eugene and I went back to our councilor a couple of months ago. Um, things aren’t going well.”
“Okay,” I swallowed.
“I can’t make him take care of me, Connie. I’m um. I’m going to leave him after Eliza graduates high school.”
“Please don’t try to change my mind. He doesn’t love me. Things aren’t like they used to be, and that’s okay. I just- I can’t be a burden on anyone, especially him. I couldn’t live with myself.”
“Who will you live with?”
“I don’t know yet. Maybe I’ll hire someone.”
“You know you can’t afford that.”
“Well maybe I’ll function on my own, I am very capable, you know.”
“If you’re very capable why are you breaking apart your marriage?”
“It just hurts to watch. Please don’t try to convince me I’m wrong. I might be and I know that. It just seems like the best solution. I thought I would tell someone… I don’t know, I just needed someone to know.”
“Okay. Okay, I appreciate that. I think you’re wrong.”
“I know.”
“Eugene does love you.”
“I believe he used to.”

We got home around one. Jules cried when she got to hold Levi again. We changed and curled up in bed, Jules’ head on my chest, our son nestled into hers.

And for a time, we were at peace.
"Let me get this straight. I bet all those non-friends of yours try to embarrass you about your love for that stuff, right? So, you almost feel like you have to hide your treasures away and can only take them out in secret on rainy days when your mom goes to the store to get more liver and nobody is around to berate your sensitive spirit. Is that what you’re saying?" -Jay Smouse
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You did such a beautiful job wrapping up this saga! Bravo!! I really enjoyed the playlist, too!

I can't wait to see what you do next!
Shiyanne Rylie Steele

Buck and Jules Shipper
Wooton is the best character on Odyssey ever. Fight me.

"It's not that we don't make sense, it's that we have a different way of looking at things that do make sense." ~Wooton Bassett
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And for a time, we were at peace.
But how many convictions did you sacrifice in worship of that peace?
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Fudge Marble
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Joined: May 2016


WELCOME TO THE FIRST CHAPTER OF THE FINAL INSTALMENT OF THIS FANFICTION SERIES THAT HAS BEEN GOING ON WAY TOO LONG. (This was supposed to be said in a menacing voice. Please reread if you didn't read it that way at first.)

Well, this will only take me about three years to write and publish. Buckle in kids.


Chapter 1
A hand ran up my back, sparking a tidal wave of consciousness, forcing my eyes open. I was awake again.
“You okay?" my wife mumbled, almost mechanically. I nodded, glancing at the time. The red glow next to our bed said 7:04. I clicked the off button before it could start ringing and make my head hurt more. I didn’t realize how hard I was breathing until I collapsed back to the bed and Jules’s hand was on my chest. I could feel it rising and falling with every crumbling inhalation. The brain-numbing memories spread through my temples on time, like they always did. Never letting me feel calm, always eating at my vision and focus. I closed my eyes, and Jules came closer. Her warm body next to mine brought a bit of comfort. She held my hand until air came easier to my lungs.
“What was it about?”
“Just Skint again. I’ll be fine.”
This was a common situation we found ourselves in. Welcome to a morning at the Meltsner-Kendall household. We’d had six years of living together to perfect our coping mechanisms, and it had become simple. I dreamt about Mr. Skint hurting me, the shooting, Katrina, the attack on Whit’s End, and bad things happening to the people close to me. Jules had dreams about her dad, the shooting, Levi being hurt, her being humiliated, and the attack on Whit’s End. I reacted to dreams with anxiety. It wasn’t always a full-on attack, but I usually woke up panting. She usually woke up crying. Our love language is touch, so the solution was consistent. We held each other until the demons went away. Until the sun rose again. Until Levi came into our room asking about breakfast. That morning, Levi came in.
Levi was a quiet kid. He was an introvert like his parents. He was a boy who’d been through a lot, and far too much for a six-year-old. He’d seen people break windows inches from where he sat. He’d been put in his room countless times on account of his father, who didn’t know how to settle his anxiety. He’d seen his mother break down sobbing as she struggled to place Band-Aids on her son’s broken skin. These scars were a gift from his first-grade classmates. He saw his father storm into the principal’s office, demanding justice, only to be escorted out on the grounds of “mental illness.” Levi was registered as a Christian at five, right after he came home from Sunday school, proudly announcing that he had welcomed Jesus in his heart. He complained about his mennat like any child would and asked why he had to wear it. We couldn’t give him a good answer. His confusion hurt to watch. He felt people’s stares. He saw them glance at his parents like we’d mutilated him in some way. We saw symptoms of depression in him and tried to deny them, even as they became more obvious. Sometimes, he couldn’t get out of bed. He was all right that morning. He knocked on our door, then opened it and waddled in as a large smile spread across his light brown face.
“What’s up, baby?”
She helped him up onto the bed and he snuggled in between us.
“Is daddy okay?”
“I’m all right, bud.”
I closed my eyes again, but I could feel his little hand wrap around mine.
“Can you make pancakes?”
“It’s Sunday,” I mumbled, “We’re going to church soon.”
“Yeah, but you can make them from the batter?”
“Do we have any more?”
“I think I saw some in the fridge.”
Jules was out of bed now, pulling her hair into a high bun.
“All right. Let’s go get some pancakes, then.”
I put on a shirt and followed my son out to the kitchen. He already had the batter and pan out on the counter.
The next hour was spent pouring syrup, getting dressed, finding keys, and putting my guitar in the backseat of our car where Levi could “keep it safe.”

We were welcomed into the once-visited church by an enthusiastic pastor.
“You must be Buck and Jules,” she smiled and asked us to follow her to the auditorium.
“Oh! I’m Audrey Harris, by the way, and I’m our children’s pastor. You spoke with my husband Evan last week, I think. He didn’t say you had kids,” she grimaced, eyeing Levi.
“Yeah, and he was so helpful showing us around and everything.”
I’d found that it was best to ignore passive comments. If people had questions, we didn’t mind answering them, but — Don’t look at my child as if he’s deformed and then try to smile at me.
“Fantastic. Well, we have a piano on stage, and you should be able to plug in your guitar. Nick — he’s our tech guy — can help you out with sound.”
“Awesome, thank you. And Pastor Evan said we might have a drummer today?”
“Not today. Daniel’s been sick for the last couple of days. Sorry about that. You think you can manage without one?”
“Absolutely. It shouldn’t be a problem. Thank you.” Buck nodded to her, and she left us alone in the large auditorium. It was surprising that the church didn’t have a worship pastor. It held at least three hundred people, and based on our visit the week before, they had no trouble filling seats. I brought Levi to a quiet corner, where he sat reading until we were done with our rehearsal. When we’d gone over our songs, we found seats in the second-to-front row and waited for the congregation to arrive. When they did, we engaged in a few conversations. They all went about the same.
“Oh, you two are new.”
“Yeah. Hi, I’m Buck, and this is my wife Jules. We’re leading worship today.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful. You know that we haven’t had a worship pastor in over a year?”
“Well, that’s why we’re here.”
“You know… you look so familiar.”
“Oh, well, we’re a part of a band called Smallpox.”
“Smallpox! My granddaughters love your band. Of course, they don’t come to church anymore. All these new laws. You won’t see me skipping out, though. No sir! Well, anyway, it’s nice to see you young folks getting involved in the faith. I’d almost began to lose hope. Say, could I take a picture of you two? For the grandkids, you know.”
“Oh, and is this–”
“He’s our son.”
“Oh. And he’s… what, five?”
“Well you look great for–“
“I’m twenty-three.”
The woman who’d never actually introduced herself flashed us a tight smile and nod, then wandered off to her usual seat.
“For once, I’d like to have a normal conversation with someone,” Buck mumbled.
“I think we would, but… I just noticed: There aren’t many kids.”
“Yeah. Fewer young adults.”
We led four songs, then played one after the pastor spoke. The older crowd sang along as best they could, their eyes set on the screen above us, their lips trying to keep up with the contemporary words. They thanked us profusely after the service, and while we discussed a full-time job with the staff, Levi found a few kids his age to play with.
We sat down in the coffee shop area of the church with five board members.
“So, what do you think?”
Evan wasn’t as passive as his wife. I appreciated that.
“Well,” Buck started, “we like the church.”
I nodded.
“Your sermon today was excellent, by the way.”
“Thank you.”
“Your congregation seems really… genuine,” Buck added.
“It’s full of characters, that’s for sure. They didn’t give you too hard a time, did they? I overheard some conversations…”
“We’re used to it, honestly. I’ve kind of come to realize that if people aren’t willing to give us the benefit of the doubt, I don’t owe them an explanation.”
“Would you be willing to explain anyway?”
“Um,” I turned to Buck and he nodded, “Sure. Well, context… We went to Odyssey High School.”
He nodded. “You were there for the shooting?”
“Yeah. We lost several friends. We were dating at the time, and things just got… we made a bad choice. Several bad choices. We tried coping in the wrong way. We were grieving, and—”
“I understand.”
“We started living together after Levi was born and got married four years ago.”
“Well, I’m sorry you had to go through all of that. Trauma… it’s… I understand your reaction.”
The elders around him nodded in agreement. Their understanding and forgiveness were refreshing.
“You can have the job if you want it. I have no uncertainty about your motives. Your set today sounded great, and I think people enjoyed it. Do you have any questions?”
Buck read my mind.
“Actually, um… you don’t need a youth pastor, do you?”
We left Connellsville Community Church as their worship pastor and youth pastor. The only issue was, we had no youth to pastor.

I answer from my room, the room that used to be my big brother’s room. It was painted pink last year. A light pink color that compliments my grey and yellow bedspread my Mom bought at Goodwill for a great price around the same time. Pictures of my friends and I hang on the walls, connected on a line of string that my dad helped me nail to different places around the room. I know what he’s going to ask me, so I don’t wait for an answer and go out to the kitchen. My dad is standing there, filling a pot of water.
“Would you retrieve the spaghetti?” he asks, pushing up his glasses.
I search through the cabinet and find the yellow and blue rectangular box and set it on the counter. As I’m giving myself an insulin shot, my phone buzzes with a text.
“Who’s that?” Dad asks, turning on the burner.
I put away the black case of needles and look at my phone.
“Alex. He’s asking about a movie tonight.”
“He’s a friend from school.”
“Ah. Would um, would it be… just the two of you going, or…”
“No, it’s in a group chat.”
“Very well,” he sighed, relief a little too explicit, “What will you see?”
“Drafted, I think. It looked pretty good. Are we having that cranberry stuff?”
“Is that even still good?”
My mom wheels into the kitchen, a stack of books in her lap. I put them on the table for her.
“I ate some yesterday,” Dad shrugged.
“Alright,” I tried to suppress my smile.
“What’s that face for?” Mom asked, laughing, “Oh, you just want to eat whipped cream with lunch. I see.”
“It’s calling to me,” I said whimsically, taking it out of the fridge.
In half an hour we’re sat around our four-person table. Two of the chairs are empty and pushed to the side. One has a pile of books on it.
“Have you heard from Buck today?” Mom asks, taking a bite of peas.
“Not yet,” Dad answers, his eyes on his plate.
“Mum, do you really want them to get the job?”
“Um. Yes,” she swallows, “I think I do. I don’t like the idea of not seeing them on Sundays.”
“Yeah. Me neither.”
“But you know, it’ll be a good thing for them to strike out on their own.”
I nod.
“So, how’s school been going?”
Mum takes a deep breath before asking this. I know what she’s asking.
“I have friends, Mum.”
Her eyes don’t believe me.
“I do. Alex for one.”
“Alex. Who’s Alex?”
“We have a few classes together.”
“Oh. Is he an RC?”
“No, but he’s really sweet. He doesn’t care that I am. Even defended my honor once.”
“You needed to be defended?”
“There were just- a couple boys were being rude. But it was more because of my-” Dad and I brush eye contact, “Because of me than me being a Christian.”
Mum nods.
“It’s um, it’s supposed to snow tonight,” Dad finishes a bite, “Perhaps we could go look at Christmas lights tomorrow.”
“That would be fun,” Mum smiles, then nudges me, “Wouldn’t that be fun?”
“Sure. We should see if Buck wants to come with us.”
“That’s a good idea.”
We finish our meal, Dad and I wash the dishes, Mum finishes grading papers, I go to my room and wait for it to get dark outside.

Something tugged on the sleeve of my jacket.
“Are we almost there?” Winona looked up at me.
“One more stop.”
Penny squeezed her hand. I held on tighter to the pole to my left as the bus pulled to a stop. I stood my ground. I’d learned to not move when people were getting on and off. No one was going to ask us to move. We were two gingers and a blond wearing bold, expensive colors as well as mennats, and one of us was in a wheelchair. This is how we liked things. Our originality defined us in a way, and after we were given a pass to wear whatever we wanted, our aesthetic turned full rich artistic. We screamed privileged, talented, and victimized. If they didn’t recognize us, a person didn’t know what to do with that, so we had to get accustomed to the stares. I don’t think Winnie ever did. The eight-year-old grabbed my hand as the seats around us filled with strangers. I glanced at Penny and she gave me a small smile.
We arrived at our stop five minutes later. I carried Winnie off the bus and Penny grabbed our things. Once we were on the sidewalk, we looked up and saw a line of people going into the Strand Bookstore.
“This is it!” I announced, finally feeling excited.
“Wooton!” Penny whisper shouted.
She started laughing. “I think they’ve noticed you.”
She was right. The queue of teens and kids got louder as they shouted at us, waved in our direction, and turned to their friends excitedly. We waved back and then to their disappointment, went to the back of the building. That’s where we met Jill.
“Hey, guys. Come on in.”
We followed her into a backroom that was some sort of employee’s lounge with couches and a microwave.
“I’ve got everything you asked for. Markers, LaCroix, Twizzlers. Is there something else I can get you? Your salads are set to arrive at noon.”
“That’s perfect, thanks.”
“Okay. Well, you can head on out, everything’s waiting for you. We have a security guard out there as well. His name is David. We don’t expect anything to go wrong, but he’s there if something does.”
We walked into the main area of the bookstore where a table was set up in front of the line of people who lit up when we walked in. We took our seats and welcomed the first person. She was a Christian teen with long black hair braided into cornrows. She was wearing a Power Boy t-shirt and I pegged her as a native New Yorker immediately.
“Oh my god. Hi,” she giggled.
“Hello! What’s your name?”
“Arianna. You guys are so cool.”
“I like your shirt,” Penny smiled as she signed the poster I’d just finished marking on.
“Thanks. You both have like- such a cool style. And you’re so talented. Sorry, I’m nervous.”
“It’s okay,” I comforted. “Do you want to take a picture?”
She took out her phone and we posed for a second as she snapped a photo. We were so rehearsed. Winnie would always put up peace signs, Penny usually rested her elbow on my shoulder, and I just smiled. It was a good system. Arianna left smiling, and we welcomed the next fan.
By then, events like those had become common for us. We were putting out content almost daily through comic books, our tv shows, Penny’s art account on Instagram, and our YouTube channel. We’d built up a strong fandom. It was a good way to live. We had more money than we knew what to do with, we were loved by millions of youth and adults, and we got to travel between New York, Los Angeles, and Odyssey regularly. This lifestyle didn’t come without difficulties. It was especially hard on Winnie. She felt people’s stares. She took them to heart. I think she felt invaded. She was a quiet child who didn’t want to be without her parents. She didn’t inherit my confidence. Going places was usually emotionally overwhelming, and she’d often cry on the way to our destination and fall asleep on the way home. It was hard to know how to fix it for her. We suggested wearing less eye-catching clothing, but she was always opposed to the idea. Maybe it would be too severe of a change or something. We took her to a counselor once a week, and that seemed to help a little. The thing was, Winnie wasn’t a dull child. When she was comfortable, she could be funny, loud, and artistic. She helped me cook dinner and helped Penny choose what to paint. At the end of the day, I couldn’t ask for a better family. Life was good. It’s sort of crazy to think about now.

And now I can breathe. Finally. Mom and Dad are sitting across from me, talking about Dad’s drawing that’s in front of them. It’s a cool one. It’s a new character with a double-sided sword wearing a black and purple cloak. I can’t tell from here if it’s a boy or a girl.
“Mom? Can you get my coloring pages?” I ask, after trying to reach behind my chair for them. She nods and sets them on the small table for me.
“I think maybe it’s the shoes.”
“Too modern?”
“Too comic-booky.”
“Babe, it’s a comic book.”
“I know. But the rest of her is so original. Give her some fancy footwear to match!”
Dad chuckles.
An hour later someone brings us our food, and we start talking about our plans for when we get back to Odyssey.
“Are you excited about going back to school?”
I know she knows the answer.
“You must miss your friends though. And you’ve got your Christmas concert coming up!”
I nod slowly. By friends, I’m assuming he means friend. I have one friend. Out of all of the four hundred kids at Odyssey Elementary I have one friend. Sure, other kids like me. I’m not bullied. Not often anyway. Mom says they’re just jealous. Jealous of what? My spina bifida? My Christianity? I guess it’s because we’re rich. People ask me for stuff a lot. I gave out a lot of autographs before starting to tell them no. One time I yelled and got sent home early. People sort of stayed away after that. But that’s how I like things. I like being alone. I like being alone with Benjamin, eating milk and cookies and reading books in silly voices and playing Uno. Yes, I miss my friend.
I don’t eat all of my salad, but Mom says it’s okay because she doesn’t like olives either. It’s really late by the time we have our luggage with us. Benjamin and his mom are waiting for us on the sidewalk. He runs over and gives me a big hug and hands me a Coca-Cola.
“It gives you so much energy,” he says sharply and excitedly. I can tell he’s serious, and I glance up at Dad before I open my soda. He gives me a little nod. The fizzy drink hurts my mouth but tastes delicious. That alone is enough to keep me up the rest of the night. On the way to our house, we sing songs from church as fast as we can. It’s a fun game because we have to try and touch our mennats at the right places in the song and if we mess up we start all over again. Mom falls asleep before we get home, and I’m getting a little tired again. Our songs turn into whispered secrets as we drive through Odyssey, and we decide to pretend to be asleep. Dad pushes me inside and I pretend to wake up after he takes off my shoes.
“I’ll send mom up to help ya.”
He kisses my forehead and I nod with heavy eyes.

I have to wake Winona up to help her out of her sweater and leggings and into a Disney nightgown. I don’t bother brushing her teeth. Partly because she would get irritated with me if I tried, and partly because I’m too tired myself. I carry her to bed, tuck her in, and kiss her goodnight.
“Mom. Stay.”
So, I crawl into bed with her and hold her in my lap until she falls asleep.

It’s the first day of Christmas break, which for Connie and me means more work. But it’s good work. It’s always good work. There’s nothing like the knowledge that you’re helping people. That’s what we try to teach our kids. Our two, beautiful kids. Sam is five and Ami is two. We would usually get right to the paperwork for Operation Christmas Child, whose boxes are going to be carried on my plane next week and delivered to Kenya, but Samuel’s out of school, and according to my wife that means omelets. I’m not complaining. She dumps a puzzle on the table and gives Amelia a sippy cup of orange juice before beginning her cheese and bacon stuffed omelets. I kiss her as the aroma fills our kitchen.
“Thanks, honey.”
“You’re welcome. Can you make the coffee?”
“You got it. And I’ll even set up our laptops for a productive work environment.”
“My hero,” she sighs, kissing me again.
We soon are sat down around the table. Sam is on a standing up and eating faze, so he’s dancing around his chair, chewing a bite of egg much too big for his mouth. Ami’s food is cut up into pieces and Connie is watching her carefully eat each bite and sing an unrecognizable tune.
“What’s that song, Ami?” Connie asks, wiping her daughter’s mouth with a wet paper towel.
“It’s from Calico Critters!” Sam shouts. He starts singing the song, but the lyrics don’t match the tempo of the tune Ami is producing.
And it’s perfect. My stomach full, my wife smiling over a cup of hot coffee, my kids shout-singing and jumping around and falling down and trying to figure out “that darndest puzzle.” Everything is so perfect.

“Hey, we just got there, I’ll have to call you later.”
“Okay, sweetheart. Say hi to everyone for me.”
“I will.”
I hung up as we pulled into the parking lot of Buck and Jules’ apartment building. Vance chuckled and I joined in, feeling pathetic.
“If she asks me to do one more thing for this wedding, I’m gonna have to quit my job.”
“Hey, you’re going to do amazing. We can make a schedule when we get home, but let’s focus on enjoying ourselves right now. Okay?”
I nodded.
Jules welcomed us in. We were the last ones to arrive, so the rest of the band applauded as we walked in.
“Oh, look who decided to show up!”
Marvin punched my husband playfully in the arm.
“Sorry guys. Our appointment went longer than usual.”
“You’re fine! What kind of tea?” Mandy asked from the kitchen.
Vance and I said in unison.
“Got it,” she laughed.
A while later we were gathered around on couches and chairs, singing a Bethel Music worship song. We had those meetings once a month. After we released an album and finally had the time to talk through a new one though, we would have a day-long brainstorming session. We always began with worship. Someone would bring a devo, and we usually had half an hour of popcorn prayer. It was always a nice time to slow down. I could forget about Kelly’s wedding, about our fertility, about my anxiety over being a Christian. We could focus completely on God and music.

The meeting went well. Something about us all being together again. Just writing music. Playing each other’s instruments, laughing like we were seventeen. I loved every second of it. I miss every second of it. That day I think we got about four songs written. It was one of our most productive sessions, and as Grady and I headed home we felt energized and inspired. I wrote another quick song before bed.

My husband’s so cute when he’s in the music flow. It’s like the rest of the world melts away and all he can think about is the next tune. Some nights we’ll spend in the living room. Me playing my video games, and him at his keyboard stopping now and then to say,
“Babe, what do you think of this?”
Then he’ll play a chord progression, sometimes paired with a few lyrics. Such beautiful lyrics. I always keep those melodies in the back of my mind to mess with later on my computer. That night I fell asleep on the couch to his on and off piano keys.

I came home from the Smallpox meeting with hope. I was sure we’d have an album out on time given how dedicated everyone was that night. I walked through the door and was immediately greeted by Benjamin.
“Mommy! Mommy! We’re decorating the tree, see? And daddy got new lights!”
“I see that. Do you think that was a prudent idea, Jack?”
“I think it’s fine. Ben likes them. It’s sort of… just think of it as an early Christmas present.”
“Alright. They do look pretty.”
“How was the meeting?”
“Really good. I love those kids. They got the skeleton worked out for a few new songs.”
“That’s fantastic.”
“Yeah. One of them is I think going to be called ‘Sails.’ It made me cry just listening to them write it. It’ll be a good album.”
“I’m so glad.”
“Oh, and speaking of good albums, I got paid today, so we should be able to get everything paid off this month.”
“Good. Good.”
“Any luck today?” I ask casually, taking off my shoes.
“Not today,” Jack tries to smile. So do I.
“Tomorrow. Something will come up.”
“I’m sure.”
“Mom! Look!”
Benjamin held up a purple stocking that’d been decorated with glitter and Santa Clause stickers.
“Oh, is that from Winnie last year?”
“Yeah! I gave her one just like it cuz we made them in Sunday school and she said it was the prettiest ornament she’s ever gotten…”
My son rambled on about decorations and I made hot chocolate. It was a nice evening. I miss nice evenings.

I’m staring at my computer screen, but it’s hurting my eyes. I glance down at the clock. It’s been three and a half hours. The Wikipedia page in front of me doesn’t even make sense anymore.
“Okay,” I whisper and shut the laptop. My phone starts ringing. It’s Dion.
“Thank you! I needed a distraction.”
“Biology again?”
“Of course. I need to move. Any chance you’re free tomorrow for a run?”
“In this weather? Absolutely not. We could hit the gym tonight if you wanted.”
“Nah. Zoe’s coming over.”
“Oh really?” His voice jumps an octave.
“Yes…” I laugh.
“So what? She’s like… your girlfriend now?”
“We haven’t really talked about it. But… I guess? She held my hand the other day.”
“Wow. Big stuff.”
“Hey! It is for me.”
“I know. That’s great. I’m really happy for you.”
“So what’re you doing tonight?”
“Just watching a movie.”
“Just watching a movie?”
“Yes. Shut up.”
“Alright, alright.”
There’s a knock at my dorm room door.
“Gotta go. That’s her.”
I hang up and answer the door. Woah. I think I’m actually blushing.
Zoe Grant standing there in a narwhal onesie. I laugh.
“You’re adorable.”
We hug.
“Just got it and I think I’m just going to wear it forever now.”
“I would not blame you,” I smile.
We make a pot of Kraft mac and cheese and curl up on the couch to the live-action Mulan. It’s the perfect distraction. Her head on my shoulder. Her hand in mine. And it feels like I’ve won. And it feels like I’ve lost.
"Let me get this straight. I bet all those non-friends of yours try to embarrass you about your love for that stuff, right? So, you almost feel like you have to hide your treasures away and can only take them out in secret on rainy days when your mom goes to the store to get more liver and nobody is around to berate your sensitive spirit. Is that what you’re saying?" -Jay Smouse
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Posts: 81
Joined: July 2019
Location: How I Do Is Nothing Great


Why do I have a feeling that something terrible is about to happen to my precious children? o.O

I always love reading your work!
Shiyanne Rylie Steele

Buck and Jules Shipper
Wooton is the best character on Odyssey ever. Fight me.

"It's not that we don't make sense, it's that we have a different way of looking at things that do make sense." ~Wooton Bassett
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Posts: 903
Joined: May 2016


Chapter 2 (Part 1)
I glanced at the time as the front door rang. Eva and David walked in.
“Hey guys,” I smiled, reaching for my keys, “What can I get you?”
“A couple of sadness milkshakes,” David requested in a wistful tone.
“Sadness milkshakes?” I asked.
“We looked at baby pictures this morning.”
“Oh, I see. Well Camilla’s visiting for Christmas soon, isn’t she?”
“In a week. If we can convince her to. She’s been distant,” Eva looked past me at the menu board and sighed, “Could you talk to her when she’s here?”
“I can try. Maybe she’ll come to our advent study or something. Do you think it’s a faith issue?”
“That’s the thing. She’s always been very strong in her faith. I don’t think that’s changed, but lately, it’s like she’s offended by us.”
“Hm. Well, I’ll try and figure out what’s going on. Meanwhile…” I poured a couple of strawberry chocolate drinks, “Enjoy your sadness milkshakes. On the house.”
“Oh, thanks.”
The doorbell rang again.
Jason held it open for a smiling Wyatt.
“So the Azteks were completely in the dark for the longest time.”
“Wow,” Jason chuckled, “And you learned all that from one class?”
“Yeah. It was really good. The instructor’s amazing too.”
“That’s awesome.”
“College stuff?”
“Yeah,” Wyatt beamed, “Jason signed me up for an online class where you can go at your own pace with a private instructor. It’s been really interesting so far.”
“Well, cool. Eugene’s in the back and he could probably use help unpacking shipments,” I nodded to the kitchen.
“Got it.”
The eighteen-year-old put on his apron got to work.
“Ready to go?”
Jason asked, drumming his palms on the counter.
“I’m guessing Eugene’s not coming.”
“Hey, I tried to convince him.”
“Okay…” the man scratched his goatee that was getting grayer every day and got this dazed look for a second, “Eh I haven’t seen Eugene in awhile anyway.”
“Okay, but visiting hours-”
“I know, Connie!” He disappeared into the kitchen and I followed him after realizing David and Eva were the only customers and they’d moved to a distant corner booth.
“Come on. When was the last time you went with us?”
Eugene nearly rolled his eyes, and they landed on the clipboard on the counter in front of him.
“It was… Thanksgiving… I suppose.”
He started writing something.
“Which was weeks ago.”
“Two weeks ago.”
“That’s six times you could have come with us,” my tone was admittedly harsh, but I honestly didn’t care.
“Christmas Eve. There’s a… there’s a dinner, right?”
“Right,” Jason shook his head.
“I’ll go to that.”
“I’ll go to that.”
Jason stared at him for a minute. I stared at Jason. Eugene stared at his clipboard.
“Fine. We’ll be back in a couple hours.”
Eugene nodded, but I don’t think Jason saw. I followed him out to the parking lot and unlocked my car. We got in. I turned on the car, then the heating and pulled out onto the street. We drove for a while. Jason stroked his facial hair. I breathed into my hands at stoplights.
“It’s freezing,” he shivered and adjusted the temperature.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Since when do you and Wyatt hang out?”
He was obviously put off.
“Um. I don’t know, he moved in… two weeks ago?”
“He’s living with you?”
He nodded.
He shrugged, “He doesn’t feel comfortable at home. I mean, it’s just his mom and she isn’t… doing well… so he’s at my house until he can graduate. It’s really not a big deal. It’s like the thing with Dion.”
“I know, and that’s what worries me. Because he moved out after he got married… which was a month ago…”
“What are you getting at?”
“You don’t want to live alone.”
“Except I did. I did for-”
“Two weeks. And it wasn’t good, was it?”
“I was okay.”
“What does that mean?”
“I went to work.”
“Did you sleep?”
“A little.”
“You can’t tell me you didn’t drink.”
“I did. And I’m not anymore. Do you have a problem with me helping someone?”
“Yeah. When you’re doing it for personal gain.”
“It’s my ministry.”
“With direct advantages for you.”
“Maybe. But that doesn’t mean I’m not helping people.”
“I’m just worried about you.”
“I know. And I wish you weren’t.”
“I can’t just not be- like why- what’s going to happen when you can’t find a needy kid to take in? You should get married. Again.”
He didn’t answer.
We drove for a bit longer, into the mountains, losing service. The music from my Bluetooth stopped working. I parked in front of a snow-covered, resort looking area, all log cabin reminiscent and glowing yellow in the sunset. I’d always forget how beautiful it was. It was comforting. We walked into the frigid air that made the Odyssey weather seem appealing. The building made my cheeks burn as we walked in. A red-headed middle-aged woman smiled when she saw us.
“Hey guys. Go ahead and sign in. You might have to look, but last I heard they were in the game room.”
“Thanks, Jamie.”
As we walked down the hall, I poked my friend’s arm.
“Hey, Jamie’s cute. You think she’s seeing anyone?”
“I really wouldn’t know, Connie.”
“Okay. Well, maybe you should ask. I’ll ask if you don’t want to.”
“I’ll think about it,” he chuckled.
His laugh was reassuring. It was hard to tell sometimes if he was mad at me or just thinking or something. I’d forget how old we were.
The game area was more crowded than usual. At the back of the room was an indoor waterfall and rock structure, littered with bushes and trees, creating a peaceful, leafy environment. Wooden tables covered in board games and playing cards lined the massive space and were filled with residents laughing and studying their strategies. A group played bingo to the far right, and to the far left was a miniature golf course, sporting a mustached man, bellowing giggles at his less round opponent, who glanced to his wheelchair-bound female friend and received a coy smile from her.
Jason and I approached them.
“Who’s winning?” I asked after we’d exchanged hugs.
“Well, Jack said I couldn’t do it, but it would appear I have the upper hand now,” he winked at me, chuckling like his son.
“We’ll see about that,” his best friend cackled.
We watched them finish a game (Jack won of course) and found an unoccupied table to play kings in the corner.

“So, how’s Whit’s End these days?” My father inquired, putting down an eight of hearts. Connie and I made eye contact. He’d asked the same thing last time we visited.
“It’s great,” Connie put her hand on his back, “Lots of kids and visitors. They use the Imagination Station all the time. Jason makes raspberry ripple ice cream.”
“He hasn’t given away the secret yet, has he?”
“Not yet, Dad.”
Mr. Whittaker nodded approvingly, with a small smile.
“That’s good. That’s good, Jason.”
We played several games. We answered several questions more than once. Connie braided Joanne’s hair. Then Alice came over and said it was time for dinner, and we hugged them goodbye again, my chest burning with preemptive grief. Those visits, no matter how short, always hurt. They always left me confused and surreal. Our walk to Connie’s car was silent and meditative. No one spoke until we’d passed the old ‘Welcome to Odyssey’ sign.
“Do you want to pick up dinner?” Connie asked, her tone low.
“What do you want?”
“That’s fine.”
We picked up a big paper sack order and took it back to Whit’s End. Jeff, Eugene, Wyatt, and the kids were waiting for us when we got there. We set up some chairs in the kitchen and ate between customers and cleanups and schedule making. And I realized something. I realized that he wasn’t there. And I realized that that was okay. Because his spirit was there. My mom was there. I was there. So Jerry was there. Connie’s mom was there. Whit’s End isn’t for John Avery Whittaker. It’s for people. It’s for family. And that circle of laughing, arguing humans was my family. Because we’d all been affected by my dad. Raised by him. It was a beautiful thing to think about. It didn’t take away the sting of his absence, but it proved change. It proved change was good.

I look myself over once more in the mirror. I’m wearing a black leather jacket, jeans, a faded purple shirt, and white converse. My hair is in two French braids. I try to turn to my reflection to make sure they’re even. I think they are. With a long breath, I pick up my backpack and leave my room.
“Elizabeth?” My mom’s voice catches me a foot from the door.
“Can you look at me?”
I turn, pushing my jacket over my shirt, that’s a little low cut if I’m being honest.
“So that movie’s finally happening.”
“Yup,” I nod.
“Is it just you and Alex?”
“No. The Shaltanises and Michael are going too.”
“Oh. Okay. What time will you be back?”
“I don’t know. Midnight.”
“How about eleven?”
“Okay. See ya.”
I leave before she can ask any more questions. And even though the air is super cold, I super don’t care because at least I’m not in that apartment anymore with my parents staring at me all the time, expecting who knows what from me. I practically run down the stairs to the parking lot where Kodi’s car is parked. I get into the back seat and find myself next to Alexander. I have a hard time believing he didn’t set this up, but I’m not complaining. Next to him is Michael. Quinn, Kodi’s brother is in the passenger seat. Kodi starts down the main road before I’ve buckled in. Michael hands Quinn an old iPhone and he plugs it into the car. An old Smallpox song pumps out of the speakers like water. Our teenage hearts are parched and in need of party. That’s been happening lately. I need to do stuff like this. I need to go out and dance and run and kiss. Alexander’s knee is touching mine. We’re like magnets.
“Is it weird to hear your brother in songs and stuff?” Alex’s voice is interrogative and deep and hesitant.
I will myself not to giggle.
“I grew up with it, so not really,” I giggle.
My face burns, and I’m actually a little relieved when we park in the large lot of the movie theater. We walk in, buzzing with excitement. We laugh at Michael as he dances to the music that’s playing outside the theater. Alexander stays behind when I have to tie my shoe. And then he takes my hand. His is strong and soft and makes for a warm replacement of the biting December air.
We buy our tickets and go into the theater. He sits next to me. We talk about anything because we haven’t let go of each other. And I don’t want to.
I don’t watch the movie. I created my own. My movie where Alex is my boyfriend because that’s probably where this is going. He’s my boyfriend and he goes to dances with me and kisses me in the hallway at my locker every morning. And meets my parents when I take him home for dinner. I know that last one is fake. Because there isn’t a mennat around his neck. I touch mine subconsciously. Running over the smooth cross with my fingers, I thought about taking it off. It was a foreign idea. But I’m already wearing purple. I decide it would make me feel too exposed. Sure, I’ll wear a bikini to a pool party when my mom’s not around, but I showing that section of my neck in public? I know I couldn’t do it.
“You look good in purple,” Alex whispers to me as we leave the theater. He puts his hand on my back. The five of us sit out in the lobby talking for a while. I put my head on Alexander’s shoulder, and then Quinn sighs.
“Ready for the next one?”
“The next one?” I ask, looking from person to person.
He nods and we follow her into another theater. No one questions it, so I don’t either. We find seats again. I didn’t even see what movie we went into. Alex’s hand is on my thigh. My stomach feels tight. I push down a feeling I don’t understand and some horror film explodes onto the screen in front of us.
I’ve never liked horror movies. Not because they’re scary, but because they’re not. Because I sit there and watch people die and get carried off by monsters and spooked by deformed humans, and it bores me. I’ve never known why. But then I’m sitting and someone on the giant screen in front of me is hit with a bunch of glass and they’re bleeding and probably dying, and my heart can’t stop pounding. Sweat pools in my palms and I can feel my throat tighten.
I escape the room and bury myself against the wall of a dark theater hallway.
I hear, because Alex has followed me out.
“Woah,” I hear him gasp.
I gasp for air.
“Hey what’s going on?”
He’s sitting next to me, putting his hand in my hair. Why has it touched so much of me in so little time?
“I don’t know,” I sob. “I’m sorry.”
“No, no don’t be. I’ll get you some water.”
I’m alone. I know what’s happening. It just hits me too late. But I know what it is now. I’ve seen it. I felt it long ago. This is PTSD. Pure, oozing, stabbing post-traumatic stress disorder. And I don’t even know what from. Alex gets back to me around the time the others are standing around me, saying quiet things like I’m a dying animal. I’m surprised I’m able to swallow water. It hurts my gut, but I’m grateful anyway.
I’m told to take long breaths. I try and eventually do. My head is on Alex’s shoulder. His hand is in mine again. Where it’s soft and comfortable.
“Would you please come with us?”
I open my eyes to find three uniformed people. We stand.
“We were shone some security camera footage. We need to ask you some questions.”
This doesn’t help my anxiety. I walk behind the group into a metallic room. I feel faint. I take a seat like the tallest officer tells us to. He explains that he saw us sneak into another theater. He says it’s not a big deal. He says kids do it a lot. He says we’ll just have to pay for the tickets. He lets Alex go. He lets Quinn go. So, it’s Michael, Kodi, and I. The man in uniform changes his expression as soon as we’re alone.
“I need to report you. It’s ah- it’s not a big deal, you’ll just be put in a system of some kind. It’s just, ya know.”
“We’re RCs. I get it,” Kodi’s voice is almost humiliating.
“Right. What are your names and ages?”
“Kodi Shaltanis. I’m seventeen.”
“I’m sixteen. My name is Michael Welch.”
“Elizabeth Meltsner. Fourteen,” I whisper.
He types this into his laptop, then prints out our tickets. I don’t look at the amount on mine. He hands me an extra, noting my shirt with his eyes.
“Can you call someone to pick you up?”
“I can drive,” Kodi says.
“Yeah, then you can go. You’re over seventeen anyway.”
Kodi leaves, and Michael calls his dad. He hands me the phone, and I stare at it for a minute before deciding who to call.

Jules and I sat in front of a movie, Levi sleeping to my left in his polar bear PJs, holding a bowl of popcorn in his lap.
“Who’s that?” Jules asked when I looked at the caller ID.
“Eliza…” I mumbled before answering.
“Hey what’s up?”
My sister’s voice was low and hoarse.
“I need you to pick me up.”
“What? Where are you?”
“The movie theater. I got a ticket.”
“I’m sorry,” she sniffed.
“It’s,” I sigh mid-sentence, “fine. I’ll be there soon.”
I hung up, stood up, and started putting on my shoes.
“Where are you going?”
“Elizabeth got a ticket. I need to pick her up from the movie theater.”
“She got fined at a movie theater?”
“Well make sure to give her a firm talkin’ to.”
Jules took the popcorn bowl into the kitchen, punching my bicep as she passed.
“We’ll do,” I sighed, kissing her before going out the front door.
I pulled up to the theater and found my sister waiting on the curb, shivering. She didn’t get in so I pushed down the passenger seat window.
“Getting in?”
She shook more, this time with tears. It was freezing and I didn’t think to bring a coat, but my immediate reaction was to put the car in park and get out. I went to her,
She buried her face in my shoulder and sobbed. She didn’t need a scolding tonight. Once she’d calmed down a little, we got into the car and I started driving.
“What happened?” I asked.
“We snuck into another movie, and I’m wearing purple.”
I glanced at her.
“Looks good on you.”
She laughed at the comment through tears.
“They’re gonna kill me.”
“Maybe. I’ll come in with you though.”
There was a pause.
“What else is going on?”
“You’re just… something else happened.”
She took a long breath.
“I had an anxiety attack.”
“Liz,” I breathed.
“It was terrible,” her sentence was caught in a sob. “How can you deal with those all the time?”
I smiled sadly.
“I have to, I guess. Do you know what brought it on?”
“The movie, I think. Someone was hit with glass.”
“Ah. Yeah, that happened when you were five.”
She nodded.
“I remember now.”
I parked and we walked up to the door together. Eugene answered it when I knocked. He looked between us without saying anything, noticed Eliza’s shirt, noticed my discomfort, then welcomed us inside.
“Go to your room, Elizabeth. Your mother and I will be there shortly.”
She obeyed quietly.
“Go easy on her,” I requested. He nodded as Katrina came into the small living room area. I hugged her, then Eugene and we all exchanged proper greetings.
“Thank you for bringing her home,” my mom smiled softly.
“No problem.”
“Do you want to stay for a little while? We need to talk to her, but we should catch up,” she smiled tiredly.
She wheeled down the hallway and I walked into the kitchen. I made some coffee and sat in the living room in front of the tv. Nothing was on, so I texted Jules that I’d be awhile.
“You should bring Levi over more often,” Katrina said, coming back in.
“I know, it’s just been crazy with job stuff.”
“Have you had your first day of work yet?”
“We officially start on Sunday.”
“That’s great.”
“Yeah, we’re excited.”
I take a sip from my mug.
“Are you gonna make her pay for the tickets?”
“She needs to help out.”
I nodded.
“She tell you she had an anxiety attack?”
“Yeah,” Katrina sighed, “She’s going to bed.”
“That’s good.”
We sat in about a minute of silence.
“So I know you don’t want to spend the money…” I started slowly. Eugene was already shaking his head.
“She needs counseling-”
I didn’t try to protest. I stared him down. I made his eyes fall to the rug between us. I made Katrina look at him. But I didn’t try to change their minds. I’d fought that battle before; I didn’t need to again. I stood up and left. Because I was mad at them and mad at myself for being mad at them. Since when did Eugene and Katrina Meltsner not want to get their kids emotional help? They dragged me to counseling every week at her age.
I gripped the steering wheel and tried to numb my brain on the way home. I tried to believe I was hurting them for their own good. That by showing them my disapproval they’d change their actions. I got home in a daze and decided to sleep it off. Jules was already in bed.
“You’re back early.”
“Yeah. I wasn’t ready for another argument.”
“Hm. How’s Elizabeth?”
“Not great, but I think she’ll be okay. Just teenager stuff. Ya know.”
She nodded hesitantly.
“So her ticket…”
“She just snuck into a movie and wore purple.”
“Gotcha. Well, I guess she learned her lesson.”
“Hopefully. Levi go to bed okay?”
She gave me a sad smile.
“He woke up. It uh- it was a little rough. He didn’t like that you weren’t here to say goodnight.”
“Is he still awake?”
I walked across the hall and into my son’s room. Christmas lights hung around the ceiling of the square-shaped room that was fairly clean if you looked passed the clothes hanging on his miniature drum set and the toys on the floor beside his closet.
He turned over so that I could see his tear-stained face and quivering lip.
“Dad,” he cried, sitting up.
“Hey bud, hey,” I pulled him into my lap, “What’s goin’ on?”
“You were gone. You weren’t gonna come back,” he whispered between choking sobs.
“No, no, but I’m here now. I came back.”
“You didn’t sing.”
“I can sing now. Okay?”
He sniffed, “Okay.”
He lied down and I sang him a few lines of a worship song, kissed his head, and turned on his nightlight before shutting the door behind me.

“Merry Christmas, Whittaker.”
“You too, sir.”
“Are you doing anything special this year?”
“Connie and I will probably spend a lot of time at the nursing home. Eugene too if we can convince him to come along. You just- you need to spend that time when you have it.”
“Of course. Shall we um, take a look at this outline?”
“If we have to.”
“You know we do. It shouldn’t take too long, though….So this is our basic plan right now. Take your time reading it over. It’s... well I know it’s a lot to take in.”
“...are you serious? This is… look I get you want to make money but-”
“Come on. You think it’s about money at this point?”
“Well, you’re wrong. I know you like to think of me as the Boogieman. I probably would do the same if I was in your position. But at least give me the benefit of the doubt. This won’t make me a cent. But it will promote social change. Social justice. You can at least agree with that. Our country needs balance. And it’s not like you didn’t know this was coming.”
“All I need is your cooperation.”
“ long until...”
“If we need to, most likely, mid-25.”
“You’d be saving people’s lives….Jason?”
“You’ll sign?”
"Let me get this straight. I bet all those non-friends of yours try to embarrass you about your love for that stuff, right? So, you almost feel like you have to hide your treasures away and can only take them out in secret on rainy days when your mom goes to the store to get more liver and nobody is around to berate your sensitive spirit. Is that what you’re saying?" -Jay Smouse
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Great work, as always! I really like how you're building Elizabeth's character. I'm also really intrigued to see what's going on with Jason.

More soon, please!
Shiyanne Rylie Steele

Buck and Jules Shipper
Wooton is the best character on Odyssey ever. Fight me.

"It's not that we don't make sense, it's that we have a different way of looking at things that do make sense." ~Wooton Bassett
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Okay, I promise I'm still working on Exspes, but at the request of the folks over in our returning kids topic, I'm posting this one shot where Donna and Rodney go to the Barclay house for dinner. I guess in this world, the Barclay's have moved back to Odyssey, and Donna and Rodney are visiting? It doesn't matter a ton, but yeah here's this thing. I spent longer than I thought I would editing it, and I'm actually pretty happy with how it ended up, so yeah. And let me know if you'd like to see more one-shots or romance or the Barclay's or whatever. Again, still working on the main series, but I have a lot of one-shots sitting on my computer.

“Stewart! Would you come set the table please?”
“Why do I always have to set the table?” Stewart appears, dragging his usually light feet out of his bedroom and into the kitchen.
“Because it’s your job,” Mary sighs.
“I never wanted this to be my job.”
“Funny, but I don’t remember asking you if you did, dear. Now please set it.”
This tall youngest son lets out a puff of air and does as he’s told.
“Yeah Mary?”
“Would you- wait, where are you?”
“Upstairs! I’m trying to figure out this shirt!”
“Oh- I’ll come up and help!” She cries, already on the stairs to assist her husband. She finds him in front of the mirror, his shirt falsely buttoned. She laughs as his shaking fingers let go of the collar.
“I guess I’m nervous, huh?”
Mary giggles more.
“Well you should be nervous,” she smiles, “I mean, meeting your daughter’s first serious boyfriend. You want to make a good impression.”
“And that’s good. And if it helps your nerves, know that they are probably more nervous than you are.”
“Yeah. Yeah that helps.”
At this time George’s shirt is buttoned and he is ready for his guests. At least that’s what he tells his wife.
“Jimmy and Abby are here!” Stewart’s voice reaches the top of the stairs.
“Well let them in then!” Mary runs down the stairs, struggling to put in the pair of pearl earrings she bought last summer for a pastor’s banquet. Steward opens the front door and is greeted warmly by the familiar couple.
“Hey Jimmy,” Stewart gives his brother a quick hug, then moves to the window.
“Abigail!” Mary greets her future daughter-in-law as family.
“Hey Jimmy, welcome back son. I hope the drive wasn’t too difficult for you.”
“Nah, we made it,” Jimmy says, letting go of his father.
The room faces Stewart.
“They’re here.”
“Oh,” George croaks, “A-alright everyone, just act natural- this isn’t a big deal- Uh um Jimmy how about you open the door when-”
The door is immediately opened by Jimmy, revealing Donna standing at the doorway.
“Hi everyone.”
“Hey come on in! It’s so good to see you again, Donna!” Abby gives her a warm welcome.
“Oh, you too!”
“So, where’s your man?”
Donna turns red and laughs.
“He’s coming. Just- oh. Hey here he is.”
A fit ginger with glasses and the fashion sense of a Kohl’s model walks up to the door. Not the preppy side of Kohl’s though, more like the chic side. He pushes up those glasses and speaks,
“Hey- sorry the car wouldn’t lock.”
Which brings on a vast stretch of time where no one speaks. It would seem no one quite knows what to say.
“Mom. Dad. You know Rodney,” Donna reintroduces, her face twitching like it did before she stepped on a plane for the first time. That time he sat next to her.
“It’s an honour to see you again, Mr. and Mrs. Barclay. It’s a- it’s been awhile.”
The three shake hands in disbelief. Well, Mary and George are in disbelief. Rodney looks very aware as he does his best to suppress the shade of pink that is beginning to spread over his speckled forehead.
“I’m sorry. To be honest, Rodney, it’s a surprise.”
“I- I know Mr. Barclay. I know and I’m so sorry if it felt like we were deceiving you in any way.”
“I didn’t know how to tell you,” Donna explains.
“I don’t feel deceived. It makes sense now… you never gave us a name,” George says towards his gorgeous, young, innocent daughter.
She doesn’t answer him.
“It’s nice to see you again Jimmy,” Rodney extends a hand.
“What? Oh, um you too,” the hands meet with a grace matched only by young mothers dropping their children off at Sunday School.
“And you’re Stewart?”
“Yeah. Who are you?”
“I’m Rodney Rathbone, and I’m dating your sister.”

I try to eat. What I do get past my throat is delicious, but my appetite is essentially non-existent. I know how to eat a meal respectfully- I do, but something about the Barclays. I know they’re expecting me to slip up. They think I’ll talk with my mouth full or spill my wine glass or forget to put my napkin on my lap. My fingers are wet and stiff around my fork. This dinner isn’t silent. Jimmy and Abigail do plenty of talking. Donna and I speak to each other a little, not daring to address the intense rejection we’re both feeling. At one point, Mr. Barclay asks me what I do for a living. It sort of catches me off guard. I force down a small bite of chicken and lock eyes with him- such terrifying and masculine eyes- then the table. A heavy unworthiness fills my chest.
“I’m a motivational speaker for troubled kids. I’m working with Cary the Cure. We’re based in Alaska.”
“Hm. I think Jeff Lewis might help with that organization,” Mrs. Barclay says.
I recognize the name immediately.
“One of our best pilots.”
Her eyes are slightly softer.
“He also has a YouTube channel.”
“Oh really?”
“Well- yeah. It’s not a super popular channel. I’ve got about a hundred thousand subscribers right now. But I record myself talking about different Bible passages and sort of leading a study online. People seem to enjoy it.”
“So, you’re like- famous?” Stewart asks.
“Not really.”
“You’ve been on TV.”
I know Donna’s trying to say as many good things as possible. I wish she could tell them more.
“Once. And it was a local channel.”
“But he’s spoken at several big teen conferences. You were at that evangelical conference last year, right?”
“Five thousand kids were there.”
There’s a bit of silence. They all want to ask questions. They want to ask the harder questions. ‘Weren’t you an idiot before?’, ‘Where are your parents?’, ‘Since when were you a Christian?’ I want to tell them. I would tell them about juvie, about seminary. Stewart starts asking Abby about her wedding dress. I hear a hint of femininity in his tone and note his blue collared shirt. I snort, feel my face turn red, apologizing quickly, doing my best to explain. I’m somewhat ignored. I am child to them. I supress my anger and take a drink.
The rest of the evening goes by quickly. Dessert is served. Donna and I aren’t addressed again until the end of the night.
“It was good to reconnect with you, Rodney.”
I mentally roll my eyes.
“You too, Mr. Barclay.”
Donna and I go to the car. I quickly pull out of the driveway. It’s silent for a minute, but I know she’ll be the first to speak.
“That was absurd.”
I don’t have anything to add, so I nod.
“I wanted to reintroduce everyone. I wanted you guys to get along.”
“I know.”
“I’m so sorry, babe. This was completely my fault. I should have told them first.”
“It’s okay.”
“Maybe it’ll just take them some time.”
We stop talking at a red light.
It turns green.
“Why did you laugh?” She asks.
“Oh, I just… put some pieces together.”
“Stewart is gay, right?”
“Okay thank you! He totally is!” She laughs, “My parents are in complete denial. It’s hilarious. How did you know?”
“Okay the reason is actually terrible, but the Bones and I kind of perfected our gaydars.”
“You’re lying.”
“I’m not! How do you think we knew who to pick on?”
She stares me down with suspicion.
“Wh- Okay he was wearing makeup today,” I admit.
She laughs.
“I didn’t notice that. I’m glad he’s expressing himself though.”
I laugh too,
More silence.
“Are you okay?” Her hand takes my free hand.
I shrug.
“I feel like an idiot.”
“For what?”
“For thinking they’d except me.”
“They’ve rejected us both. And there’s no reason to think my parents wouldn’t,” she sighs, “They have with everyone else.”
“They still don’t know about the jail time.”
“That was years ago.”
“Why do I have the feeling that won’t matter to them?”
I park outside her hotel. She kisses my hand and holds it to her cheek.
“I want to fix everything,” she sniffs.
“I know,” my mouth twitches, “that’s not your job.”
“…just a really hard night,” she pushes away a few tears.
“I know. I’ll walk you up,” I whisper, squeezing her hand.
We get out of the car and walk to the door. She turns to me when we get there, threading her fingers into mine. She’s so beautiful.
“I don’t even feel like myself,” I say.
She hugs me and kisses my shoulder.
“They don’t know you.”
She pulls away and finds my eyes.
“It’ll get better.”
“You’re saying I should give them time.”
“Yes. We should give them time. Because I’m not going anywhere. Are you?”
“No,” I smile.
We kiss, and she tells me she loves me. I say it back, as storm-cloud-like as my brain is.
She goes inside.
And I am alone, pushing down self-hatred.
"Let me get this straight. I bet all those non-friends of yours try to embarrass you about your love for that stuff, right? So, you almost feel like you have to hide your treasures away and can only take them out in secret on rainy days when your mom goes to the store to get more liver and nobody is around to berate your sensitive spirit. Is that what you’re saying?" -Jay Smouse
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Great fanfic! Can't wait to see what happens.
Buckles shipper. Visit my Odyssey website at

Trista: Isn't it great to be an indevidual now, not just someone who wears what society tells them to wear?
Jules: But your telling my what to wear.
Trista: Of course, I'm your publicist, it's my job.

~#902 California Dreams, Part 1~
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So! Let's talk about messaging in storytelling, shall we?
Let's say that I argue that the main message you're supposed to come away with from this story is that you're supposed to be judgmental of others. You're supposed to be unforgiving and hold the mentality that people don't change.
No? Did I read that wrong?
How about that you're supposed to be accepting and forgiving of others, and understanding that people do change, trying to see them as individuals rather than blots in your memory?
That sounds better.
Oh, also, you should condone homosexuality.
This is my issue with a lot of Hannah's fanfiction, and it's very obvious here. (Hannah and I are good friends, so it's nothing personal.) What she's doing is a bait-and-switch, playing up certain characters to be sympathetic (Rodney, Donna, Stewart) and characterizing others as unsympathetic (George, Mary, Jimmy). I personally don't agree with George's attitude in this fanfiction, but it's okay from a writing standpoint. It establishes what the story is saying is good: acceptance and forgiveness. You can't argue that the story has no message, because we as people can sense emotions, even through writing, and can tell when our characters are being wronged, and where the conflict is. That conflict is how we distill "the moral of the story."
In this case, Rodney feels rejected by George. Since Rodney is sympathetic ("A heavy unworthiness fills my chest.") and George is not ("such terrifying and masculine eyes"), transgressions done to Rodney are seen as immoral. This is reasonable, and we as the audience can see what George should have done instead of what actually happened.
All this I agree with. None of this so far is bad storytelling. Think, recently, of the number of people who believe that "Thanos was right" that the only way to solve poverty is to slay half the population. Do they really believe that? Maybe, maybe not, but Thanos's sympathy was such that it's reasonable to believe it. It's a precedent all the way back to ancient Greece to focus on sympathy to skew the morality of a play. There's a Greek tragedy called the Medea, an adaptation of a mythological woman who killed her children and her ex-husband's fiance. Somehow, the story makes Medea sympathetic, and the moral of the story is, "It's okay to kill people if you've been wronged." Is that what the ancient playwright believed? Certainly not! But it was a brilliant angle for his play.
So when Rodney and Donna speak approvingly of Stewart's homosexuality and femeninity ("My parents are in complete denial. It’s hilarious." and "I’m glad he’s expressing himself though."), we already see them as the sympathetic protagonists, so we condone their beliefs. Nowhere in this fanfiction is this belief called a shortcoming. It could be, with more development, but it's not here. It's seen as a positive, as good morals, and these characters as the representation of good morals. So when our sympathy has been skewed for one side, we're susceptible to any benign argument the story presents. In this case, that homosexuality should be condoned. I disagree with that message, and I'm saddened that this story was deceptive in placing the message there.
Now, does this necessarily mean that Hannah agrees with that message? No, it doesn't! She doesn't have to. The story is the one that agrees; the overarching narrative and character development points toward that message. It's the way storytelling works, and if you didn't intend to condone that message, you're missing something important.
The only problem here is that Hannah did intend to condone homosexuality.

Signatures are WAIT IS THAT A NEW THEME???
Last edited by Scientific Guy on Wed Jul 15, 2020 2:40 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Scientific Guy wrote:
Sun Jun 07, 2020 12:57 pm
I disagree with that message, and I'm saddened that this story was deceptive in placing the message there.
I agree. Also would Donna ,a Christian, really be laughing and accepting that topic if it concerns her brother? Otherwise this was a pretty good fanfic Hannah!
Buckles shipper. Visit my Odyssey website at

Trista: Isn't it great to be an indevidual now, not just someone who wears what society tells them to wear?
Jules: But your telling my what to wear.
Trista: Of course, I'm your publicist, it's my job.

~#902 California Dreams, Part 1~
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So ScientificGuy and I already had a super long conversation about this, but I guess I should type out my reasoning for putting it in there. So the short version is some Christians believe homosexuality isn't a sin, Donna might not even be one of them anyway, the comment wasn't about whether or not it's a sin and your assumption that there was a direct connection shows that you aren't involved enough in LGBT issues or the cultural implications of our existence. Which is okay, because if you've been sheltered and told certain things your whole life, your opinions and assumptions aren't totally voluntary. So I'm not mad at anyone for questioning my placement of queer characters in my writing on a Christian platform. However, the fact that it's so jarring to you, proves you need it more. There are queer people everywhere, and if you as a Christian always jump to whether or not homosexuality is a sin, it's going to come off as dehumanizing. There are simply bigger issues that we as queer people, especially queer Christians face, and you will not tell us anything new by saying "I don't think you're going to hell for just being gay, I just don't condone the actions. I love you anyway!" We've heard it before, and it doesn't make up for your other homophobic behaviors. Yes, you're homophobic, and that's okay. Again, I'm not mad. I am, however, constantly hurt by church people and exhausted from explaining myself. I also put in queer characters because it's my normal, and it's what I know. If you want to talk more about this or have any questions or want to argue that you're not homophobic because you "love gay people" then please private message me or make further public comments on my coming out topic ("Wait... a doorknob???") I think that's what it's called lol. Anyway, I just don't want debates or super long conversations to take up space on my fanfiction topic. I already have to deal with this kind of stuff in real life so often, and it's really emotionally draining to also see it online. That's why it usually takes me so long to reply to these kinds of messages if I do at all. It takes a lot of time and honestly makes me feel outcast in a way. I realize I'm sort of bringing it upon myself by writing in gay characters, but again, I just want to try to normalize it and spread awareness. So it's not that I'm unwilling to have these conversations, but if you decide to respond to this or make a comment about my inclusion of queer themes in my writing in the future, please take into consideration that my situation isn't dissimilar to Dion's, and your comments hold much more weight to me reading them, than they have to you writing them. While you can step back when you want to and only send messages when you feel like having a debate, my queerness isn't something I got to choose, and my experience as a queer Christian does not end when I turn off my computer or phone. I have these conversations very often with people close to me as well as strangers online. Mainly because they want to have the conversation, and I feel like I can't ignore people because I think it's rude and my stupid empathetic brain thinks it can soften people to understand that my experiences go so far beyond a theological debate. I envy you, that it can stay that way in your mind. I'm sorry this ended up being longer and more personal than I thought it would be. Again, I'm really not mad or even offended. Just tired.
Last edited by PennyBassett on Tue Sep 22, 2020 12:49 pm, edited 1 time in total.
"Let me get this straight. I bet all those non-friends of yours try to embarrass you about your love for that stuff, right? So, you almost feel like you have to hide your treasures away and can only take them out in secret on rainy days when your mom goes to the store to get more liver and nobody is around to berate your sensitive spirit. Is that what you’re saying?" -Jay Smouse
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So I know I said last time that this was going to be part two of chapter two, but I think it's just chapter three. Anyway, it has been a while, hasn't it? Let me know what you think! I know it's not my best, but the plots gotta move along somehow haha. Hopefully, I'll be able to post again soon!

Chapter 3

“Greetings, Buck. Elizabeth is nearly ready.”
Eugene steps out of the way as I walk into his apartment.
“How are you feeling about tonight?”
“Fine. Nervous.”
“Well, that’s understandable.”
“Where’s Mom? I was gonna ask her about that ministry book.”
“Oh, she is at her physical therapy appointment.”
“In fact, I’m supposed to be there to pick her up in fifteen minutes,” he says, glancing at his watch. He turns to the hallway,
“Elizabeth! I’m departing for-”
He pats my shoulder before heading out the door.
“I’m praying it goes well tonight.”
He shuts the door.
“Okay let's get this over with.”
Elizabeth comes in wearing a jean jacket and a faded blue shirt.
“So you’ve given up on purple?”
“You’re not funny.”
“Jules is parked outside.”
“Great,” she sigh-speaks, pressing her lips together.
We walk out to the car, where Jules is sitting in the passenger seat, scrolling through her phone. We get in.
“Hey, Liz.”


July Meltsner is the only person I know who calls me Liz. I don’t hate it, it’s just weird. On the way to church, I send a couple of snap chats to my friends. Buck and Jules talk about how they’re going to make sure Levi gets to bed on time if they’re going to be gone every Wednesday night. The thought of going to church every Wednesday makes my head hurt.
“So you’re really doing this?”
“Doing what?”
Buck’s blue eyes meet mine through his rearview mirror.
“You know. Being pastors.”
“Oh. Yeah,” he’s confident.
“Did you not think we were serious about this?” Jules half-turns to me.
“No I just wasn’t sure if you were just trying it out or not.”
“Oh okay. You just sounded unhappy about it.”
“I’m not unhappy.”
“Okay. Sorry.”
We don’t say anything until Buck pulls into one of what looks like thousands of parking spots in front of this almost old, large church building. The vision of my brother, me, and my sister-in-law sitting in a green-carpeted room alone in separate metal chairs with dusty Bibles in our laps comes to mind. I think of running into that set of trees where no one will ever find me.
“Ready?” Buck taps on my window like he did when I was six. But I’m not six. Why am I here? I nod, trying to keep my eyes on his shoulder so they don’t roll. It’s dark and cold when I get out of the car, that was also dark and cold, so of course, we enter a stupid building that is dark and cold. I know my pockets are cold and putting cold hands in cold pockets won’t fix cold hands. I put my hands into my pockets.
“Why is it freezing?” I ask.
“We have to turn on the heat when we get here to save money.”
I almost ask why they don’t pay for it since they’re so rich. I don’t. Jules and I follow Buck to a white box on the wall, and he taps in the temperature. The vents above us start their airy scream.
“Okay,” Jules breathes, “Let’s check out this room.”
We go upstairs and turn on a light that illuminates a rectangular area with a kitchen in the corner and some couches at the other. The carpet isn’t green.

We turn on more lights, and in about fifteen minutes, about fifteen kids show up. I have to admit, it’s more than I was expecting. When my watch beeps at 6:30 we decide to sit in a circle and introduce ourselves. I try to gauge the mood of the group. There’s definitely some hesitancy, some distance between people, but they seem relatively familiar with each other.
“Alright, well. Hi guys. My name is Jules, this is Buck.”
“Yeah we know who you are,” a kid with blue hair laughs from the other end of the circle.
“Your music is awesome,” someone else says.
“Oh right. Well thanks.”
“What’s your favorite song?” Buck asks.
“That new single is actually so fire.”
“Oh, Sails?”
“Yeah! Did you seriously write that in a day?”
“Um,” I turn to him, “I think it was two or three.”
“Right. Well it depends on what you mean by write. We wrote the song in two days, but the third day we recorded it. So we called it our resurrection song since it took us three days,” he laughs, “Should we go to the next person? Maybe say your name, age, and I don’t know, favorite food.”
This question is well received, and everyone participates with a good amount of enthusiasm. Well, everyone but Elizabeth. I keep trying to figure her out. I know she’s a nice person. I think, fundamentally, she’s great. I mean, I know she is. I’ve known her for a long time. She’s always had some sass, but she’s got a good heart. Buck and I talk about it sometimes. He’s working really hard to get through to her.


I walk Elizabeth to the door.
“I’m not going to get raped if you let me walk up some stairs by myself.”
“Okay but I still want to say hi to mom.”
She pushes the front door open and leaves me to catch it. Katrina is sitting in the living room with Eugene’s torn vest in her lap. She sets down her needle.
“Wh- go after her!” she whispers.
“She misses her big brother.”
“No she doesn’t.”
“Okay then go ask her if she wants to see Christmas lights with you and see what she says.”
“But I wanna talk to you. I haven’t seen you in a week or something.”
“We can talk tomorrow at lunch. Go spend time with your sister.”
“I’ll try.”
“All I’m asking.”
I walk down the hall and tap on her door.
“Do you want to go see Christmas lights with me?”
“What like right now?”
“Yeah. Well, I’ll drop Jules off and then come back and get you.”
“Okay,” I can hear her smile through the door.
“Okay, it’ll be like fifteen minutes.”


I stare out the passenger seat window of Buck’s car. This street of expensive houses places us inside a tunnel of tiny glowing lights. They remind me of the stars I saw on a school overnight trip to Mount Ontree. A few houses have nativity scenes or large inflatable snowmen. Buck clears his throat.
“So, how have you been? And don’t say fine.”
“I’m good.”
“Hm. Why?”
“Why are you good?”
“I don’t know. I just am.”
“What’s bad?”
This one makes me stop. I hate that he makes me question my automated answers.
“Most things,” I answer casually.
“That can’t be true.”
“Well it is. In case you forgot to look down from your ivory tower, our lives are falling apart.”
“Everyone feels that way at your age.”
“Oh sorry I didn’t know you were spat on in the hallways at school for being part of a terrorist religion.”
“Christianity is not a terrorist religion. And no I wasn’t. I was in JD when I was fifteen. So I was beat up for no reason instead.”
“I know Christianity isn’t about terrorism. I am one. I know you don’t think I am one, but I am.”
“I’ve never said that.”
“But you’ve thought it. It doesn’t matter, honestly I don’t care.”
“About what?”
“About anything! I literally don’t care!”
“Okay…” he slides out this word and turns a corner.
“You’re not going to say anything?” I uncross my arms.
“Wh- what do you want me to say?”
“I don’t know. You’re just being rude.”
“I’m not trying to be,” he sighs, “You don’t have to be angry all the time, Elizabeth. You know? It’s okay to be sad.”
“No it’s not! I can’t be sad, because if I let myself be sad, I’ll just keep being sad, and I just want to be normal!” My eyes are dry.
“I know. Me too.”
“Your life is normal.”
“Look, Liz. I don’t know what you think my life is like, but things suck for me too.”
“Yeah having all that money must really suck.”
“How much money do you think we make? My family is burdened by mental illness, and-”
“I know. Mum prays for you every night at dinner.”
“She does?”
“Yeah. I’m getting kind of sick of it.”
“Tell her thank you. And my point is, you don’t know where my money goes, and it’s not your responsibility to tell me what to do with it. You understand?”
“You sound like Dad.”
“I take that as a complement.”
“I understand. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. How has your anxiety been?”
I shrug.
“I haven’t had another attack.”
He sighs.
“That’s good. That’s good, I was worried about you.”
“Yeah. Thanks for picking me up.”
“But I’m scared all the time. I don’t want to go back to school.”
“I know. You have friends there though, right?”
“Yeah. But having friends doesn’t prevent you from getting shot in the head.”
“You know shooters can’t get into schools anymore.”
“That’s not true, there was one in Oklahoma.”
“Oklahoma. When?”
“Last year!”
“Okay that school did not have the same security system as Odyssey High.”
“You’re making that up.”
“I don’t have to. Trust me, you are safer inside that school than you are in your own apartment. Dad helped design that system, remember?”
“So you should feel safe there.”
I shrug.
We don’t say anything for a while. It’s like we both realized at the same time we hadn’t been looking at any lights.
“I love Christmas,” he finally says.
“Me too.”
“Things are gonna get better, Elizabeth. They are.”
“I’m trying to believe that.”
“Are you gonna keep coming to youth group?”
“I don’t know. I’m not sure that I really fit in with those people.”
“Well maybe you could bring some of your friends. Most of the others are bringing theirs.”
“I know.”
“And, I was talking to Jules… if you keep coming to youth group, we’ll pay off your tickets.”
“How long do I have to go?”
“Until the end of February at least.”
I have to weigh my options here. There aren’t many.
“Fine,” I sigh, “I’m not doing anything with my Wednesday nights anyway.”
“Great,” he says, “We’ll try not to make it too boring for ya.”


Jason puts his car into park.
“Why do I feel like a thrift store shirt?”
“Wyatt, this is for your good. You’re not a thrift store shirt. You’re a… okay I really can’t think of a good analogy, but we all want you to be safe, so we all want the same thing, right?”
“I just think this is the best choice.”
“Yeah. I know you’re right.”
“Great. Ready?”
We get out and walk up the flight of stairs that leads up to a navy blue door. Jason knocks on it. A pair of round glasses and a blue waistcoat answers.
“Greetings, Jason, Mr. Perkins.”
“Please, come in.”
We thank him and follow him into the comfortable apartment. It’s not as small as I thought it would be.
“You can both have a seat.”
We thank him again and find seats on a soft brown couch. Katrina rolls in.
“Hi Wyatt, how are you?”
“I’m fine, Mrs. Meltsner. Kind of, I don’t know. Nervous.”
She nods.
“Well, we don’t want you to feel any pressure. We’re not that scary.”
This makes me genuinely laugh.
“Do either of you want something to drink? We have water or tea.”
I’m a little thirsty, but I don’t want to make her go get anything, and I don’t know where Eugene went. He returns to the living room with Elizabeth. They sit on opposite sides of the room.
“So, where do we want to start this conversation?”
“Well, obviously, you’re qualified, experience-wise,” Jason notes, “I think my main concern is space, and the family dynamic.”
“You think homosexuality is a sin, don’t you?”
“Wyatt, we don’t need this conversation right now-”
“No, it’s an important factor,” Katrina interrupts, “Yes we think homosexuality is a sin.”
I look at Jason.
“What’s that face?” He asks.
“It’s the face of I knew this wouldn’t work, why can’t I just stay with you, I don’t understand why we’re here,” I nearly growl, low enough that I don’t want anyone else to hear, but obviously they do anyway.
“Do we need to talk about this more? We can step outside.”
“Is there more to talk about? They won’t be supportive.”
“Wyatt, we didn’t say we wouldn’t be supportive,” Eugene clarifies, “Our personal convictions aren’t meant to control yours. It may be hard to believe, but there are Christians who don’t think homosexuality is immoral, and who are also not homophobic.”
“Yeah that is hard to believe since I’ve never met any.”
“I know you’ve been hurt-”
“We’re not going to make those kinds of decisions for you, okay?” Katrina asks, “If you live under our roof, it’s because we want what is best for you. I’m not going to pretend like I know what those are one hundred percent of the time. You know yourself better than we do.”
“Okay. So if I wanted to date a guy, you would let me?”
“Okay. I don’t know. It’s uncomfortable. I feel like a burden.”
Katrina shakes her head.
“You would be an addition. Never a burden.”
I don’t really say anything. I fold my hands.
“Elizabeth, how do you feel about this idea?” Jason asks.
“Oh, I get a say in this? Um. I don’t know. It feels sudden, so I don’t really have an opinion yet. I like you though, Wyatt. Like you wouldn’t be a bad person to have around.”
I nod.
“Can I think it over?”
I can sense Jason’s disappointment in me.
“Of course,” Katrina smiles.
I force my smile, and then we leave.

The road home was pretty quiet. I can’t say I was thrilled by how our conversation with the Meltsners went. It wasn’t that I wanted Wyatt off my back or anything. On the contrary, I knew what letting him go would do to me. I think I wanted to get it over with. I wanted a happy ending for him at least, if it wasn’t going to be one for me.
“You didn’t have to bring up the homosexuality thing.”
“I didn’t?”
“I didn’t think you did. I didn’t think you would.”
“I had to know where they stood on it.”
“And you think they’re on the wrong side of the fence.”
“Well yeah, kinda. Don’t you?”
“I see where they’re coming from. All things considered, they are being generous.”
“I know. But they don’t have a lot of experience with gay people… I feel like they wouldn’t know how to communicate with me just because I’m bisexual.”
“Okay let’s back up a second. Because with all due respect, I think you’re over sensationalizing this. Not all Christians are the same. I thought you would know that since you are one.”
“I do! But they don’t have the experience. They haven’t empathized with me or even people like me yet. So they don’t have my respect in that area.”
“That’s fair.”
“I just need a little bit of time.”
“How long?”
“Three days?”
“Okay. I’ll let them know. Hey, I’m proud of you.”
“Thanks. I need to hear that.”


I take a sip of root beer out of a clear yellow plastic cup. At least there are snacks at this thing. The youth room that was basically empty when we walked into it a week ago, is now covered in colorful old couches and posters are hanging around the room. There’s a big rug in the center of the room. Quite a few kids showed up to what feels like a grand opening. Definitely more than there were the first week. I brought my friends like I promised I would. If I’m going to do something I don’t like, I might as well do it with people I do. And I think they like it here. Quinn is in the corner with a group of girls who are complimenting her makeup, Kodi is showing another group a card trick, I forget she does that. Michael has been scrolling through his phone for the last several minutes, but I know he’s interested in Sarah, a girl who was here last week. She has blue hair and a septum piercing. They would be cute together. And Alex is-
“Hey,” he puts his hand on my back. I glance around.
“Can I talk to you outside?”
I follow him out into the hallway.
“Look. This is awkward.”
“What is?”
His eyes are so cute when he’s hesitant.
“I think I overestimated my uh… my tolerance, or comfort level or something.”
“What do you mean?”
“There are a lot of RCs here.”
“Well yeah. It’s a youth group. For church.”
“Yeah I get that, but like… I’ve just never been around so many RCs at once, ya know? It’s- I think it’s just giving me some anxiety.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Yeah. I uh- I think I’m gonna call my mom to pick me up.”
“Are you still coming to the Christmas party?”
“Um. Sure. I guess,” he glances behind him, “I probably just need time to get used to all of this, to being around so many Christians- sorry is that offensive?”
“See, I don’t even know the right vocabulary to use. It’s just a lot of pressure. And look, I know what they say at school about the attacks and stuff, but I watch the news. Some RCs are dangerous. I don’t think you’re one of them, but some do kill people.”
“Some people who aren’t registered Christians kill people,” I say softly.
“Not with bombs and rifles. I have family in DC. It makes me nervous.”
“Okay,” I nod.
“I’m not saying no for sure. I just need time, okay?”
He hugs me before walking outside to wait for his mom. I go back into the youth room. Jules catches my eye.
“Hey where’s Alex?”
“He had to leave.”
“Oh yeah? Anything wrong?”
“No. He was just tired.”
“Alright. Well he should come to the Christmas party.”
“Yeah I told him.”
She nods.
“Yeah. Buck told me about Wyatt possibly moving in. How are you feeling about that?”
“It sounds like he’s going to. I’m fine with it,” I shrug, “He’s nice. And I mean, it’ll be like having an older brother again.”
“Yeah, that’ll be nice. Hey, are you doing okay?”
“Yeah. I’m just tired.”
“Well, we’ll probably wrap things up in about an hour.”
Buck calls her over to help him figure out some board game, and I take a sip of root beer.

My new room is smaller than my old one. It has baby blue walls and white carpet. Elizabeth walks in, holding a stack of sheets and a comforter for the twin sized bed in the corner.
“Everything look okay?” she asks.
“It’s great. Thank you. I can do that.”
“Oh, Mum told me to help you, since you have to unpack so much before tonight.”
“I have most of my stuff unpacked.”
“Oh okay,” she sets the sheets onto my mattress.
“What are you wearing tonight?” She asks, standing at my doorway, one ankle over the other. I’m trying to figure out if she’s just making conversation, or has an important reason for asking.
“I have this green suit and black bowtie I’ll probably wear,” I start pulling my books out of my suitcase and putting them on the small bookshelf at the end of my bed.
“That’ll be nice. I’m wearing a black dress.”
“So we’ll be matching.”
“Yeah,” she giggles, “You know, I wasn’t sure about this party idea, but I’m actually getting kind of excited about it.
“Same. Buck said the youth group is a good group of kids.”
“They are. That was another surprise,” she smirks, “I’m glad this is a formal event though. I haven’t dressed up for something like this in awhile. Speaking of, I should probably go get ready.”
“Do you need anything else?”
“Nope. I’m good.”
“Okay. Well I’ll see you in a little bit.”
She disappears into the hallway, then comes back.
“Sorry, can I ask kind of a personal question?”
“What made you decide we weren’t homophobic?”
“Oh I never really thought you were.”
“You didn’t?”
“No. I just didn’t want to make you uncomfortable.”
“Oh. I’m not uncomfortable.”
“Yeah. I think I know that now. I think I was just surprised you even respected me. I’m sorry I was kind of rude before.”
“It’s okay. I get it. I’ll see you in a little bit.”
She leaves again.


Buck and Jules pick Wyatt and I up and we get to the church at around five. Everything is already set up for the most part when we get there, and all we have to do is get the snacks out of the church’s kitchen. At about six, people start to show up. Everyone’s dressed up and people are putting money in the offering plate that looks like it’s sat untouched for a couple decades. It’s sort of turning into a fundraiser. The only thing missing is Alex. I keep thinking about how good he would look in a suit. But he kept saying maybe when I texted him, so I don’t hold my breath. We play some get to know you games, which are fun, and I’m again reminded that these people aren’t as bad as I thought they might be. They’re like me. We’re all scared, we feel like outcasts, and we’re just looking for support.
At seven-thirty Alex texts me:
‘I’m just outside. Come say hi.:)
I smile and excuse myself.
It’s a completely clear, freezing night. My face is the only thing really exposed to the weather, but the wind is already biting it.
“Hey!” Alexander is standing by one of the church pillars. I say hi back, not nearly as cool as he does, and we hug.
“Are you gonna come inside?” I ask.
“Not exactly,” he glances toward the door I just used, “We’re getting out of here.”


I was trying to figure out why my house was so big when I cracked the first can. I hate being alone with my thoughts, because I've found that after long enough they’re never good ones. People judge others so fast for getting drunk when they’re emotional. Those people obviously don’t have PTSD. When I’m alone and sober I have dreams. I have dreams about Jerry dying. His death combines with the deaths I’ve seen from my job, and it tortures me. I’ve prayed. Of course I’ve prayed. But even reading about and worshiping God doesn’t numb me quite like the taste of alcohol does. I’m of course ashamed of myself, but at the time, I didn’t know what else to do. So I drank. That was a hellish night. At some point I started watching a romantic comedy on TV, my stupid body flung across my couch, and called Connie.
“Hello? Jason?”
“Hey, Connie.”
“Jason are you drunk?”
“Yeah. And yes I’m at home. I’m just calling to tell you something!”


“What’s that?” I’m sitting in the living room, Pride and Prejudice in hand. My thumb is marking my place. Jason’s on the other line. There’s a roaring fire across the room from me. Life is good.
“You’re so hot.”
“You’re like… come on, Connie. We should get married.”
“Okay you’re definitely drunk.”
My throat feels like it’s full of acid. I stand up.
“I’m in love with you, Connie,” he slides into the sentence.
“Why would you say that?”
“Because it’s true,” he hacks.
“I’m getting Jeff.”
I put the phone on silent, and call for my husband. He’s at my side in seconds. I extend the phone, a sob accidentally slipping.
“He just said he was in love with me,” I bite my lip. Jeff’s face drains of color. He takes the phone.
“Jason where are you?”
“Oh. I didn’t know you were there. Can you put Connie back on the phone?”
“Jason are you at home right now?”
“Where’s Connie?”
“She’s right here, but I need to know you’re safe.”
“I’m safe. I’m safe. I’m watching a show.”
“Okay. I’m coming over.”
He hangs up.
“Are you okay?”
I’m pinching my wrist.
“I don’t know.”
He hugs me.
“He’s not well. He hasn’t been in awhile,” he says.
“Yeah. I need to go to bed.”
He kisses my cheek and hands me my phone.
I turn it on.
My stomach becomes a rock. I open the link, sit down, and gag against my hand in one motion.
I reach for his hand, feeling slightly more stable, and hand him the phone.


He opens the door to the passenger seat of his car, and we drive to McAllister park. It isn’t far, but I never realized how beautiful the park was around Christmas time. Maybe it’s about who I’m with when I see it. Alex parks in front of the pond, which is frozen. No one else is around really. There’s a park ranger car on the other side of this fairly large parking lot, but I don’t think anyone is in it. Alex turns on the overhead light. He turns to me and smiles.
“You can take off your coat if you want.”
“Oh sorry.”
“Don’t apologize, you’re probably just uncomfortable in it.”
He’s kind of right.
He helps me take it off, and put it in the backseat. I’m suddenly very aware of what I’m wearing. It’s a tulle and silk, long-sleeved dress. The collar is basically a turtleneck, but I feel exposed anyway.
I actually make him nervous. He laughs.
“You’re so beautiful. Wow.”
I smile and my face starts burning.
Alexander is wearing a collared shirt. We probably look like a strange couple, since I look so formal. He always looks nice though. With his curly hair and dark eyes and his lips are never chapped. I could stare at him for hours.
“Can I kiss you?”
He breaks me out of my daze with the question.
“Yeah,” I whisper and smile. But I start giggling. “I’ve never been kissed before.”
He takes my hand.
“You don’t have to be nervous.”
So then his lips are on mine all of the sudden. I sort of expect them to leave, but they don’t. They stay and keep moving and I’m trying to keep up, but it’s hard to catch my breath.
“Wait,” I get out.
He breaks our touch.
“What’s wrong?”
“I-” I think I’m in shock, “That was just… fast.”
“No I’m sorry. I’m terrible.”
“I’m- I ruined your kiss.”
“Elizabeth, you didn’t. Some people aren’t ready to make out. That’s okay.”
These sentences are really comforting. I’m realizing now how fast my heart is beating. I let it beat.
“I didn’t tell anyone I was leaving.”
My hands are damp.
“That’s okay. They won’t notice, right?”
“They probably will.”
And right on cue, my phone starts buzzing. I answer it.
“Elizabeth where are you?” It sounds like Jules is crying.
“I’m sorry. Alex got here and we went on a drive.”
“What? Did you tell anyone you were leaving? Where are you? Come back, now.”
I clench my fist. She doesn’t have the right to tell me what to do.
“We’re just at McAllister park. I don’t wanna come back yet.”
“No we need to know you’re here and safe,” she sniffs, “I know there’s a lot to take in right now, but you need to be with your family. Alex should go home too.”
“In fact everyone has gone home.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Oh my god,” she breathes, “Sorry, I’m just watching- just please have him bring you to the church.”
She hangs up.
“She’s so overdramatic,” I chuckle. I look at Alex. He’s staring back at me, his eyes full of tears.
“What’s wrong?” I ask, half-smiling. He’s grasping his phone. He looks at it for a second, then back up at me.
“There’s a riot.”
“What do you mean? There are riots everywhere.”
“No. Look.”
He hands me his phone. The headline reads,
I scroll through it.
“Registered Christians.... mass slaughter...”
“Set off...home made bombs….”
“...helicopter crash...”
“Suicide bombs...”
“...White House.”
“...Washington Monument now collapsing.”
“Estimated 5,000 dead.”

“You can take me back to the church, right?” I sob.
He takes my hand.
“I can,” he takes a long breath, “Do you see though? You see it now, right?” He’s angry.
“See what?” More tears are pouring than I can wipe away.
“Eliza, they’re killing thousands of people. Christians are doing that.”
“I just want to go home,” I sniff.
“I know I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
He shoves the car into reverse and we leave the parking lot.


“I should really be home with my family,” I say.
Jason is sitting on the couch, watching the news and crying silently. He’s holding a can.
“You should give me that.”
“No it’s good,” he slurps.
“This is not good, Jason. You’re unwell. Maybe you should go to sleep. Just, yeah, just sleep it off, you know?”
“Hm. We’re screwed, Jeff. This is it. This is the straw.”
“What are you talking about?”
He points to the television.
“The camel’s back just broke.”
"Let me get this straight. I bet all those non-friends of yours try to embarrass you about your love for that stuff, right? So, you almost feel like you have to hide your treasures away and can only take them out in secret on rainy days when your mom goes to the store to get more liver and nobody is around to berate your sensitive spirit. Is that what you’re saying?" -Jay Smouse
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Caramel Crunch
Posts: 153
Joined: May 2020
Location: No comment


Ohh, great story, can't wait to read the next chapter!!
Buckles shipper. Visit my Odyssey website at

Trista: Isn't it great to be an indevidual now, not just someone who wears what society tells them to wear?
Jules: But your telling my what to wear.
Trista: Of course, I'm your publicist, it's my job.

~#902 California Dreams, Part 1~
User avatar
Fudge Marble
Posts: 903
Joined: May 2016


Alright, here's

Chapter 4
(let me know what you think these things take me way too long to finish)

There’s something apocalyptic in the air from the moment I open my eyes and taste my unbrushed teeth. Despite a seething headache and my glasses’ presence at the feet of my couch, I recognize the man on the other side of the room as Jeff Lewis.
“What time is it?” I ask, sitting up.
He takes a sip from one of my coffee mugs and brushes eye contact with me, before focusing on his tea bag.
“About eleven.”
He looks at the television between us. It shines a drone-view version of Washington D.C. that looks like a stomped-out campfire. The screen goes black. I turn back to Jeff. He chucks the remote onto the floor and tries again to make eye contact with me. For the first time I can categorize his rigidness as anger. I know he’s angry for a reason, but I can’t even remember why he was here last night, or why he stayed.
My gut feels like it’s on fire. I take a moment to cough into the sleeve of my sweater, then push on my glasses.
“What happened?” I try to keep my voice steady.
“Jason…” he whispers, in that Jeff Lewis way, so gentle and tone-deaf, “You really don’t know?”
The fire spreads to my chest and into my throat and down my legs. Its smoke gets stuck in my mouth and makes my eyes water. My voice grovels as I try talking over my booming heart-rate.
“I called Connie, didn’t I?”
My teeth clamp my tongue. My eyes land on my bare knees. I sort of remember the phone call. I thought it might have been a dream. I can’t remember everything I said. My natural, shameful silence feels like the safest response.
Jeff rises, mug in hand.
“I-” he takes a moment to breathe in and out through his nose, his eyes skimming over my living room, “I need to be honest. I have no idea what I’m supposed to do in this situation. I don’t-” another breath “-I don’t get angry. I’m not an angry person. I’m a justice-centered person. I’m not- I’m certainly not like you,” he turns to me, looks me over, and seems to come to a conclusion.
“I will not yell at you, Jason. But, you should know that I am furious. I do feel threatened.”
He pauses, which makes me look up at him. He stares back. And the weight of this intimacy makes something snap. With his brown eyes, deep and righteous, he growls,
“I will protect my wife.”
I can feel my masculinity shedding under the angelic glow of Mr. Lewis and his wedding ring and his un-tormented, halo-like mind and his navy sweatshirt. I swallow vomit, because I remember now. I told her everything.
“I’m sorry, Jeff.”
“I don’t really need your apology,” he catches a breath that sounds like a sob, “I don’t think I want it. Honestly, I don’t care. I just- you- don’t-”
“I won’t talk to her any more.”
He sips from my mug, sets it down, turns on the TV, and puts on his tennis shoes. I stare at the television until he stands up again.
“I need to be at home with my family,” he exhales, “You need help, Jason. Just… find someone who can help you.”
He walks out my front door.
I clean my glasses.
I stare at the carpet.
I make coffee.
I check my email.
I iron my suit.

“Mr. Whittaker, you look like hell.”
The silver-haired man, who’s cologne drips with irony, chuckles at the bags under my eyes.
“What did you expect? My last drink in freedom, right? I think I know what this meeting is about.”
I take my seat across from him and his bearded companion.
“In freedom,” the beard snaps, “I wish you would stop using words like that.”
I shrug,
“You know how I feel about it, sir. Systems like the one you have in mind haven’t worked in the past, and don’t work in other modern countries. There’s no reason they should work here.”
“But you won’t walk away from the project, right? You can’t.”
“No, that’s true. I can’t,” I exhale and move my desk chair closer to the conversation. “What are our next actions?”
“We have another document.”
“Of course you do.”
The papers slide to my end of the table. They match the rest of the room. I always feel like I’m in a bomb-shelter when I’m in here. I take my time scanning the stapled-together stack of about a hundred papers.
“Well you were thorough.”
“We had people up all night working on it.”
“So is this a warning, or do you want my feedback?”
“Well if we wanted your feedback, you wouldn’t have been drinking yourself to sleep last night. This is an invitation. You know these people well. So, if the plan gets approved, we want you to manage one of the towns.”
“Oh. Um. Wow. Okay. I’m honored,” I nod, “I really am,” My finger taps as I run over the offer, “Why me?”
“Like I said, you know them. That’s why we give you this information. You know what makes these people act the way they do.”
“You say ‘these people’ like I’m not one of them. I’m an RC.”
“Yes, we’re well aware. But most of these people don't have a body count,” the first man chuckles.
I stare him down,
“What happens if I don’t accept?”
“You will be placed in another position.”
“Against my will?”
“You signed the agreement like all the others.”
“I know,” I whisper.
There’s a moment of sympathy between us as our eye contact becomes almost familial. Perhaps as it should be. He sighs,
“I know this isn’t easy for you, Jason. God knows it’s not a walk in the park for me either. This isn’t a fun job. You know that,” he leans in, “But you have to think of the greater good. We’re fighting for peace. Unfortunately, peace sometimes means sacrificing equality. This is survival. And it’s temporary.”
I nod.
“How long do I have to make a decision?” I ask, glancing between the two men.
“I’d say we have a month,” the second man says.
As I leave, my white-haired superior gives me a brief hug and tells me how brave I am. I go back home to my bottles.


I wake up and turn off the TV before I can take in what it’s saying to me. I squeeze my eyes shut and try to slow my breathing. I do an exercise Pastor Juan taught me years ago. It always works to some degree. I open my eyes. Our small living room is flooded with yellow light. The double doors that lead to a small balcony let in a glow that almost feels like hope.
I think I’m the only one awake. The clock behind the TV says it’s 11:59 am. I can’t remember the last time I slept until noon. Jules and I are lying on the couch. Her head is on my chest. I take time to just look at her. Her dark eyebrows that she gets trimmed every second Tuesday of the month. Her eyelashes that flutter as she breathes. Her button nose. Her cupid’s bow lips. Her curly black hair. I kiss her forehead. I felt so threatened going to sleep. But she’s still here. Unharmed.
She silently wakes up and immediately looks to me.
“Hi,” she lets out a shaky breath and adjusts herself so that her head is closer to my neck. She kisses it.
“Buck, I’m really scared,” she sniffs.
I run my hand up and down her back.
“I know.”
I don’t know what else to say. I’m just as scared. I just want to protect her. I want to protect her so bad. And I feel like I can’t.
“We should check on Levi,” she says. She stands up, and I follow her into our son's bedroom.
Levi is sitting on his bed, watching a Bible story video on his iPad. His eyes get big when he sees us.
“I didn’t ask. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay, baby,” Jules says. She sits down and pulls him into her lap, turning off the device in front of him. He buries his face in her chest as she rocks him back and forth. She looks back at me. Those green eyes are saying so much. A few tears fall from them. It’s these quiet moments that scare me. Survival for us just feels thin. I can’t escape that feeling. Dread builds at the bottom of my throat. I can feel normality slipping between my fingers. I feel like my son is slipping. Levi’s small body is hiccuping with silent tears. I don’t catch my own sob. Jules takes my hand. I sit next to her and hold my family.


Dad made pancakes this morning. He and Mum are fighting in their bedroom. I have a plate of syrup on the coffee table. I put in my earbuds and scroll through music. I don’t really feel anything. It’s weird trying to figure out what music to listen to when you don’t feel anything. Especially when you don’t want to feel anything. But I need to escape. I decide to go on a walk.
It’s a really clear day. Snow is piled on the sides of Odyssey streets and stacked on trees and bushes. I take the sidewalk that ends in McAllister Park. No one else is really around. Our town is like a silent funeral. I don’t completely understand that. Are people just scared to go outside?
Someone hits the back of my head. I turn as the spot goes cold. A kid is standing next to a tree holding a second snowball. He’s probably about my age and not an RC. He has dirty blond hair, but it’s kind of hard to see under his green beanie and large scarf. He’s shaking his head, smiling. I wonder if my reaction, which was basically non-existent, was the one he had expected. The snowball didn’t hurt, it was just irritating. I have to admit I’m put on edge though. I know he won’t hesitate to throw that one directly in my face. I could dodge it I guess, but running on a half-ice covered sidewalk in twenty-nine degree weather doesn’t sound like the best way to start my morning.
We’re sort of at a crossroads. He’s still just standing there, chuckling. I’m just staring at him. I learned a long time ago that engaging with an abuser is never productive. But we both know that if I turn away he’ll throw another, and probably follow with more. So we just stand there. He stops laughing after a while, probably realizing how silly he looks. His expression changes. With narrowing eyes, and a glance to the left, he makes eye contact again and says,
“You’re hot!”
I laugh.
“I know! Was that your attempt at hitting on me?”
“No! That,” he laughs again, “Oh that was clever. No I hit you with a snowball because ya know,” he holds up a middle finger, “F--- Christians, right? But I didn’t see you from the front.”
He half walks, half slides down the ridge and lands on the sidewalk next to me. I step back. He stares at me for a while.
“I like your hair.”
“Okay please leave me alone.”
I turn away this time, not caring if he hits me. He does of course.
“Okay, what do you want!” I reel back around, surprising him and myself.
“I just think you’re funny,” his congested voice snorts, “And pretty. What’s your name? I’m Aiden.”
“I’m not telling you my name! I just want to go on a walk!” Something in my neck is twisting.
He laughs, but this time he’s angry.
“You’re so screwed. You know what they’re gonna do to you. My dad works for the police department. They’ve been talking about it for years. I’ll bet you anything you’ll be in a camp before next Christmas.”
My gloved hands make fists. My stomach turns. I shrug.
“So why are you trying to make my life more miserable?”
I turn. I’m done. I’m so done with everything.
Aiden laughs more,
“Because you deserve it.”
My rubber boots stop. We talk about people like this. We talk about them in church. We talk about them at the dinner table and in the car.
“Of course I don’t deserve it,” I hiss.
I think I need to fight today.
He scoffs,
“Are you British?”
My accent always slips through more when I’m angry.
“I’m adopted. My mother was abusive until I was five. I was sent to America because they thought I had family here. I didn’t. So I was put in a group home. My parents adopted me when I was six, and then one of them was shot in the head and now she’s paralized. We live in a tiny apartment and have for most of my life. If it wasn’t for these stupid laws and your stupid paranoia, I could be living in the big, beautiful house I had my seventh birthday in, and my mom would be able to walk!”
“No. See, that was in the high school shooting, right? I’ve seen you before. You’re Buck Meltsner’s sister. I remember that now. You’re Elizabeth. I also remember watching the news reports. Your mom was shot by a Christian.”
“Maybe he wouldn’t have been so angry if he wasn’t forced to wear a collar. Please leave me alone,” I choke on a sob and start walking away.
“I’m just trying to protect you! You can unregister! It’s not that hard!”
I turn back for a last time.
“I could never be so selfish.”
Even though I feel like I’ve sealed my doom, I don’t want to cry anymore.
I keep walking for probably a couple miles. I walk out of the park to downtown Odyssey. Whit’s End is closed, so I sit on the porch. My face feels like ice and so does my hand when I take off my glove and find the right contact in my phone. I take a long breath, as silently as possible.
“Hi Elizabeth. Look, about last night-”
“I don’t want to see you anymore,” I say, “You can’t be on the fence about this stuff.”
He’s silent. I don’t think he’s used to hearing such conviction in my voice. I’m certainly not used to it.
“Um. Okay. I like you a lot.”
“That’s not enough. I’m a Christian, Alex. That’s not changing. You’re not going to change that. You don’t like that part of me, and that’s fine. But I deserve better.”
I don’t even wait for him to respond. I put my phone back in my pocket and my glove back on my hand. I was registered when I was ten. That’s when I accepted Jesus. There’s something in this moment though. I understand the risks now. But I know who I am. A verse comes to mind. I know that I am a joint heir with Christ. I’m not gonna be afraid of that anymore.
A white car pulls up to the front of the shop and parks on the curb. My dad gets out and locks it, obviously not expecting to see me here. I forgot to tell him I was leaving.
“I thought you were at home,” he says, stepping up to the porch.
I shake my head.
“I wanted to leave.”
He nods, knowing he’s at fault.
“I’m here to clean up before we open tomorrow. Would you care to follow me in?”
He unlocks the front door, which rings into an otherwise silent shop when we walk in. He sets his keys and backpack onto the front counter and we find a seat in a corner booth. He gets up again to turn on a few lights. I take off my coat, thankful for indoor heating.
Whit’s End always smells sweet. It smells like vanilla and cold and peppermint during December. I like peppermint. Dad sits back down. I keep my eyes on the wooden table in front of us, but I know he’s still searching them. He’s always trying to read me. Buck says he was like that with him around this age too. I know I open up to him more than Buck did though.
“How are you?” He asks.
I shrug.
“I’m okay. What were you and Mum fighting about?”
He takes a long breath, that ends a little high pitched.
“We just have differing interests.”
“Hm. Do I make you fight?”
This hurts him.
“No. Elizabeth, we love you. Your mother and I have been having these communication and opinion difficulties for years. It is not your responsibility to worry about us.”
Then maybe they shouldn’t fight when I’m in the apartment.
I cross my arms.
“I don’t want you to get a divorce.”
“Neither do we.”
“Will you anyway?”
“I hope not.”
“Okay. I sort of broke up with Alexander a minute ago.”
“You two were together?”
“Sort of. Things didn’t go very far. But he was uncomfortable around Christians. I wasn’t sure last night, but I feel better today. I’m not on the fence anymore.”
“The fence?”
“I kinda thought about unregistering. But I don’t think it would be right.”
He nods, and smiles a bit.
“I’m proud of you.”
“You know, I’m proud of myself. It feels good to be sure of something.”
“Yes. You can always be sure of Christ.”
I nod and take a breath.
“Dad, is the government going to put us in- like... concentration camps?”
“We’ve talked about this.”
“I know.”
“I must admit that it is a possibility.”
“Is that all you can say about it?”
“Well,” he takes a breath, “If you’ve been picturing Nazi Germany, you should do your best to erase that picture. There would certainly be no mass executions. No gas chambers.”
“I wish I had more answers, Elizabeth. Things are uncertain right now.”
I nod.
“But we can always be sure of Christ?”
He stands up.
“Now, would you like to help me wash some dishes?”
I laugh.
“If it means free ice cream after.”
“I believe that can be arranged.”
I welcome his hug.
“I love you. That’s something else you can be sure of.”


The kids are still asleep, so I’m sitting at home alone. At least it’s sunny today, right? I’m trying to drink a cup of coffee, but I’m shaking and it’s hard to swallow. I stare at the mug on the coffee table. I wrap my arms around my stomach. It’s already three in the afternoon, but it feels like about ten in the morning. I slept for a long time. I’m wearing an oversized t-shirt and sweatpants. My hair needs to be washed. My nose hurts. I cried for a really long time, and now it’s burning from wiping it so many times. I sniff again, closing my eyes, letting more tears fall. I brush them away and try to stop. Jeff had to go to a meeting, so he’s not here to help me stop crying. I look at my phone for what’s probably the thousandth time since waking up. I want to call him. There are actually several people I want to call. I take a deep, shaking breath and pick up the device. I have to squeeze my hands to be able to find the contact. My phone picks up a dot or two of sweat when I press ‘call’.
It rings twice.
“I told Jeff I wouldn’t talk to you anymore.”
“Okay. Is it true? You were drunk.”
“Connie. We shouldn’t be having this conversation.”
I nod.
“I’m sorry,” he says, “I’m just so sorry.”
“How long did you feel...?”
He makes a noise that sounds like a laugh.
“I can’t even remember.”
“I told you. We shouldn’t talk about it. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Yeah I don’t know that I do either. I’m just confused. I’m in shock.”
“I know. I don’t know how to fix it, Connie.”
“Me neither,” I exhale.
“I should go.”
He hangs up, I find another number.
“Dad are you okay?”
“Are you okay? I thought you were in New York.”
“Oh. No I’m not right now. Look, sweetheart, I know it’s been a long time since we’ve talked, I know you want me to see the kids again.”
“Dad it’s been two years.”
“I know, and I promise I’ll visit soon, but right now is not the time.”
“I love you.”
“Love you too.”
He hangs up. I feel like vomiting. I wrap presents. I wait for my husband to get home. We sit for hours when he does. The kids watch Disney movies. It’s just hard to breathe today.


“Baby did you see the group chat text?”
It’s Christmas eve morning, and it’s never felt further from it.
“About the Smallpox thing this afternoon?”
“Yeah. we can go right?”
“I mean, yeah. We can…”
Vance’s blue eyes glance over my face, like he’s searching for something.
“What’s that look for?” I half-smile.
“I’m just concerned about you. We have our appointment today that starts in… oh half an hour,” he glances at his watch and then goes to the closet to find his shoes, “You weren’t feeling fantastic after the last appointment like this. I wasn’t doing too hot either to be honest.”
I nod.
“I’ll think of it as an informational interview. Very professional. No emotions attached.”
He cocks his head to the side, pausing his boot-tying.
“Sure. I feel a little better now anyway.”
“Oh yeah? Why’s that?”
“Well it’s kind of depressing, but I mean, do we really want to have kids while the world...” I stop myself. He smiles.
“I don’t believe a word of that,” I say.
“I know.”
He stands up and hugs me.
Vance is the right height to put his chin on my head. He kisses it. Then he releases me and takes both of my hands in his to kiss them. Pity hangs in his eyes.
“I want us to have a good Christmas,” he breathes.
“Me too.”
“I think we should play everything by ear. I see your anxiety. You don’t have to carry that.”
We kiss, and I thank him. I feel some weight leave my chest.


We follow Eugene and Katrina into Whit’s old office, that I guess is Eugene’s now. He sits at his desk, and Katrina positions her chair next to his. I always forget how big this office is. There’s plenty of space between the desk and the couch that’s across from it. It looks more like a counsellor’s office than that of an Ice Cream Shop owner’s. This does feel like a counselling appointment though. We exchange some basic “how have you beens.” And then Tamika and I try to answer their questions honestly. I didn’t expect it to be so hard though. It wasn’t until Eugene asked what the holidays had been like that I recognized my own resistance to vulnerability. Tamika and I talk through our feelings, but we never discuss them with a third party. It’s awkward, and my speech takes a while to ease into a comfortable rhythm. I think Tamika feels it too.
“These aren’t easy things to talk about,” Katrina says at some point.
We both nod.
“Um. Yeah it feels real now,” Tamika’s voice shakes as she pushes away her tears. I take her hand.
Katrina gives her an empathetic smile.
I exhale,
“I think I find that I’m mostly scared. I want kids, ya know? I don’t like thinking that it might be impossible. But it’s kind of an intrusive thought. It takes up a lot of emotional energy.”
“No doubt,” Eugene nods, “The brief period we went through, where there was still hope, that anxiety was very prevalent.”
“So we’ve determined how you’re both coping. It seems like you have open communication with each other and are emotionally and physically available. You already have a fantastic start to this process, and even though it’s not going to be easy, we’re here to talk about the possibility that you won’t be able to get pregnant, and the steps you two want to take if that becomes a reality.”
“Right,” I whisper.
“So, what questions do you have for us?” Katrina asks.
“Um,” Tamika started, “Did you consider other options before adoption? Like a sperm donor or something?”
“Yeah we definitely talked about it eventually, but the grieving process took the better half of a year.”
“I believe we mentioned it in the first month, but it didn’t seem… good for us at the time.”
“Well I think we were in shock in a way. Talking about a non-traditional pregnancy, well, was sort of like what this is for you, it meant we had to give up on this dream we’d had for years. I think by the time it came up again, Pastor Juan started talking to us about becoming Buck’s foster parents.”
“If I remember correctly, you were looking on a surrogate website the day Pastor Juan called us.”
“That’s right. I forgot about that.”
“So you’re saying we should plan for time to process,” I clarify.
“I don’t like that,” Tamika laughed a bit, “I guess it’s hard to imagine having to deal with worse pain.”
“That’s understandable, but you should keep two things in mind,” Katrina begins.
“What’s that?”
“Well first, that right now, you are having to try to figure out what emotions you’re supposed to feel. Do you let yourself remain hopeful, only to be disappointed later? Do you grieve when there’s nothing wrong? You both admitted feeling anxious, but I think it’s probably hard to even know what to do with that. At the very least, Tamika, if your doctor tells you pregnancy isn’t an option, you won’t have to fear false hope, and you can let go of your anxiety. You will know you’re supposed to grieve. That won’t be easy, of course, but if you let yourself feel the grief, it will be easier to overcome than you expect.”
My wife pushes away more tears,
“What’s the other thing?”
Katrina leans forward,
“You are stronger than you think.”
That hits both of us pretty hard, and I can’t hold back at least a couple tears.
“I think we needed to hear that,” I laugh-cry with a tissue against my nose.
We talk more about foster care and adoption. We talk about the pain we should expect
to feel during our grief. And they just get it. It feels so good to finally talk to people who have been there. Everyone -our closest friends and family even- are uncomfortable with us talking about this part of our lives. We don’t talk about it often, but I know people don’t know how to react. Comfort around the topic is so refreshing. Getting into our car, I feel like I can breathe for the first time in months. We decide to go to the Smallpox meeting.


We try to get together with the band outside of our writing or rehearsal sessions whenever we can. A few weeks ago, we had planned on having a Christmas party, but it was hard to find a time that everyone was free. But this year, especially with the travel ban, everyone is available for a Christmas Eve party. It doesn’t exactly feel like a part, I have to admit. We made cookies and hot chocolate, and people are talking and eating, but it’s not celebratory. It feels more like we’re meeting to find solidarity, which we are finding


At some point, Trent starts tuning his cello, which makes Buck get out his guitar. This isn’t a surprise, obviously. I mean, we’re a band. We play music when we don’t know how to communicate our emotions. Come to think of it, that’s how we’ve always dealt with our emotions. Ever since high school, we’ve taught ourselves to go to the band for support. If we didn’t know how to talk, we would sing or write music or write lyrics. It’s beautiful. It’s just a beautiful thing to be a part of.


I suggest we do a live stream. It seems important to reach out to people. We know we’re not the only ones feeling like this, and our audience is mostly made up of Christians anyway. So we set up a camera and Lucy answers people who are commenting through her computer.


I can always tell when Tamika’s upset. I don’t know why, but today is the first day I haven’t seen that weight in my sister’s eyes. It feels like Christmas again.

We played songs tonight for four and a half hours. Buck and Jules had to leave at one point to go to a Christmas dinner at the nursing home, but they let us stay in their house for about an hour or so more. Grady and Dion stayed behind to watch Levi after we left. We drive home, and it’s dark and snowing again. Under street lamps and Christmas lights, Odyssey feels normal again. It feels like it doesn’t matter what’s going to happen next. We’re in the present. I feel strong.


There’s an unspoken rule about visiting the nursing home. If you’re part of the Whittaker clan, whether by blood or deep friendship, it’s implied that you leave your personal drama at the door. In front of Dad, Connie and I are the friends we’ve always been. I know there’s tension between Eugene and Katrina, but if they’re talking to Jack and Joanne, they’re the same, perfect couple the elders threw a wedding party for all those years ago. Elizabeth is always a saint, even though I’ve seen how rebellious she can be. She reminds me of myself in so many ways. That hunger for adventure is somehow so natural to her. I think mine might have been learned, but either way, I know she hates living in Odyssey. I’m sure she hates visiting this nursing home. But again, there’s no hint of defiance in her eyes. Buck and Jules erase their depression. Jeff is pretty good at covering his emotions anyway, but he’s drowning in work, and I’m certainly not helping anything. He’s as pleasant as ever.
It’s relaxing in a way. I don’t have to think about any of it. They don’t even let televisions into the Orchid Retirement home, so most of the residents don’t know what happened. I think it might be better that way. It’s escapism, but hey, it’s Christmas.


It doesn’t feel like Christmas. The only good things about tonight are the people, except for Jason of course. Eye contact with him right now is like lava. Jeff and I were hesitant to even go tonight because we knew he would be there. It’s weird. I just feel weird. I know he’s not any kind of threat. I think Jeff knows it now too. I feel guilty for some reason. I don’t know why. I know it’s not my fault, but maybe if Jason and I hadn’t done our fake marriage thing, or if we hadn’t kept such frequent communication during Jeff and I’s engagement. If I hadn’t had a crush on him in high school, as small as it was, maybe the idea wouldn’t have been planted. As strange, as uncomfortable, as scared as I feel tonight, by the grace of God, I’m not angry. Jeff is, and he has every right to be, but I’m not. I think I’m sad. Seeing Whit always makes me sad too. He looks so old, and he’s so distant when he talks to me.
We’re sitting at this long, oak dinner table, when I excuse myself.


Connie looks like she’s about to crumble, so I follow her to the hallway where the bathrooms are. When I get there, she’s sitting on a cushioned bench, in her red sweater and black pants. She has her legs casually crossed. She’s staring at the floor, caressing her gold Christmas tree necklace.
I think she hears my wheelchair, and it breaks her out of her daze.
Her greeting becomes a sob mid-sentence. I sigh, and gesture for her to come closer. She kneels at my feet and puts her head in my lap. Hugging has been difficult since I was paralized. I can hug people, but long hugs are difficult. Intimacy in general is difficult. This is what me and Connie’s solution has been. We’ve sat on the couch or the floor like this for hours.
“It’s so hard,” she sobs.
“Yeah,” I take my hand off her back to brush away my own tears.
It’s a day of half-grieving. I know we should be out there. We should be loving these people -our parents- while we can. But she’s right. It’s just really hard sometimes.


Mum and Connie have been gone for about half an hour. We all know they’re crying. Buck and I are sitting across from each other, and we talk for most of the meal. Jules is helping Joanne eat, and the other end of the table is actually pretty lively. Buck and I try to keep conversation positive. We talk about what I’m expecting to get for Christmas, what clubs I’m going to be part of when we go back to school. He tells me about new Smallpox songs. As stifling as visiting Orchid is, I’m okay with it today. Besides, it is a beautiful place to be, and the food actually tastes great.


I’m the last one to leave, with a promise to visit in the morning. Most residents have gone to bed by the time I walk down the gold and red hallway filled with Christmas decorations and old pictures. Jamie is leaving her shift when I pass by reception. I open the door for her.
“Thanks,” she smiles.
“Wow. It is really cold.”
“Well, that’s the mountains,” I chuckle, “Can I walk you to your car?”
“That’d be great,” she says, putting on her gloves, “It’s just over here.”
“Do you live in the mountains?” I ask as we step around an icey spot of pavement.
“No, I’m just outside Odyssey.”
“Well at least it’ll be a little warmer when you get home.”
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
We get to her car, and she takes out her keys, but pauses, sort of playing with them between her fingers.
“Jason, are you alright?”
“Oh, um. Not especially if I’m being honest. But you know how it is.”
“Yeah. They do appreciate your visits.”
“I know.”
I shuffle my feet for a second.
“Jamie, are you with someone right now? I mean, a boyfriend?”
She gives me this really big, toothy smile and pushes up her glasses, almost like she’s trying to see me better. Then she laughs.
“I said something stupid, didn’t I? I should go,” I laugh.
“No. I don’t want you to,” she giggles and actually pulls on my coat to make me stay. She keeps her hand on my arm when our snow boots are across from each other again.
“You’re cute,” she smiles again, “No, I’m not seeing anyone.”
I let out a relieved sigh, which of course makes us laugh more. So I’m giddy. I haven’t been giddy in probably years at this point. It’s like I wasn’t letting myself feel infatuation because of my fear.
“Can I take you out for dinner then?” I ask, my hand now at her waist. I don’t really remember putting it there. But she doesn’t resist my touch.
“That would be wonderful, Jason.”
We’re inches from each other now, and I put my hand in her red, curly hair to kiss her cheek, which does happen, but she pulls me back and kisses my lips.
We stand there for a minute in this silent, devoted bliss. When we finally break our touch, we’re smiling, somehow with tears in our eyes. Hers slip, and I push them away.
“I’m shaking,” she covers her mouth, laughing.
“You’re sure it’s not just the cold?”
“Very funny,” she teases. “I’m free on Friday night.”
“Okay,” I nod, smiling uncontrollably, “I’ll text you. Do you work tomorrow?”
She nods.
“I’ll see you tomorrow then.”
We kiss again before I open her car door for her and watch her drive off. We’re both still smiling. I don’t deserve whatever grace has fallen on me. I look up. It’s stopped snowing. Stars fill the pitch black mountain sky. So I realize that’s the point. None of us deserved His grace. And He gave us it anyway. Not a bad Christmas Eve.

On Christmas morning we wake up to the same headline blasted across social media and television and our phones. It’s like it’s laughing at us. Grady sits behind me, with his chin on my shoulder when we read the new email. ‘Updates for RC Restrictions.’ We read it a couple times, and then I set down my phone and turn to face him. My stomach hurts a lot all of the sudden. It’s like there’s a rock in the back of my throat. He looks just as broken.
“What do we do?” I mutter.
“Well,” he takes a breath, “We have three months.”
“That doesn’t mean anything.”
He takes my hand.
“I don’t think that’s true. It means we have time to prepare.”
I nod, “Okay. With our plans…”
“Maybe we can rush the process along.”
I lie down and stare at the ceiling. He threads his hand through mine and puts his other hand on my leg.
“I’m scared,” I say.
“I know. I am too. But lockdown isn’t imprisonment. There’s no guarantee of that happening. This will probably calm everything down.”
I tried to believe him. I tried to believe him all day. As we opened presents and went to Samantha’s house for lunch, as we watched movies in the afternoon and played games in the evening and went to Whit’s End for the Christmas concert that night I tried to believe him. It wasn’t until a prayer meeting on the stage of the little theater at about ten at night that I felt any kind of peace. And now we’re back at home, sitting next to a fire, sharing a bottle of wine.
Grady takes a sip from his glass and puts his arm around me. He makes me realize something. It sinks in as I stare at the red liquid in my hand and set it next to me. I move into my husband’s lap. I know this catches him off guard, but he sets his glass down and holds me anyway. His eyes are so intent and listening as I sniff back my tears and try to find words.
“I don’t want to lose you too,” my chest jumps with a sob that makes tears start to stream. He brings me to his chest and we cry together, as we begin to grieve our freedom.
"Let me get this straight. I bet all those non-friends of yours try to embarrass you about your love for that stuff, right? So, you almost feel like you have to hide your treasures away and can only take them out in secret on rainy days when your mom goes to the store to get more liver and nobody is around to berate your sensitive spirit. Is that what you’re saying?" -Jay Smouse
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Joined: July 2019
Location: How I Do Is Nothing Great


Aw, this was a really good one!! I especially like what you're doing with Elizabeth's character development. It's great to see someone struggle with their faith but ultimately end up holding onto it more strongly than ever. :)
Shiyanne Rylie Steele

Buck and Jules Shipper
Wooton is the best character on Odyssey ever. Fight me.

"It's not that we don't make sense, it's that we have a different way of looking at things that do make sense." ~Wooton Bassett
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Joined: May 2016


Chapter 5! (thanks btw, Brownie <3)
The room I wake up in is pitch black. The only noise I can hear is my heartbeat and the traffic on the street below our Chicago hotel. My stomach hurts, so I sit up and wrap my arms around myself. At my right, Wooton shifts in his sleep. I take a long breath and decide to step outside onto the balcony. I bring my blanket with me, but the air still bites at me and makes me shiver. At least I can breathe a little easier out here. My mind is heavy. I keep seeing the words from that email. In about three months we’ll be forced to stay inside our homes at all times. There are exceptions, of course. That was a pretty short list. I just want to be back in Odyssey. Back in our house where we’re safe. The screen door rolls open and Wooton steps out with his eyes half open and his hair half flattened. He’s not wearing a shirt, but he’s trying to wrap himself in a blanket.
“Sorry, I tried not to wake you up.”
“Hm. I don’t mind,” he wraps his arms around my waist, “I’m worried about you,” he kisses my cheek.
“I know.”
“We’re gonna be okay.”
“I know. We have… a lot of money,” I sniff.
“Yes. That’s true. And we can use that to help people.”
I turn around to face him.
“Help people?”
“I was thinking about the Meltsners. I know they’re struggling. We should help them out more. Eugene probably won’t get much income from Whit’s End anymore.”
“So… we can decide how much later, yeah?”
“And decide if we’re going to start giving them more.”
“Oh. Sure.”
“Alright, I’m gonna head back to bed. We’ve got a long day tomorrow.”
I nod as he kisses my cheek again and goes back inside.


I don’t really like silence. It makes me anxious.
I adjust my grip on the steering wheel. In front of my car is the road, which is underneath a whitish-gray sky. On either side of the highway are bare trees with slender branches. They look like sleeping monsters. Maybe they’re avoiding the cold. Maybe they’re avoiding the silence.
I glance at the inside rearview mirror. Some of it is full of my orange hair. I impulsively slip it behind my ear. When I do, I can see Winnie. Her very similar curls are like a pillow under her drooping head. She’s been asleep since we left the city about an hour ago. I can’t help but shake my head a little. I should have stayed outside longer last night. I think that’s why Penny isn’t talking to me. And I know she knows how much I hate it. She’s scrolling through her phone. She’s waiting for an apology.
“Are you mad at me?”
“Okay… well, I think I hurt your feelings, right?”
“You did.”
“Will you let me apologize?”
“I suppose.”
She turns off her phone.
“I’m sorry, hun. I didn’t mean to make it sound like you didn’t have a say in our money. And I think I made you feel like our family isn’t important.”
She nods slightly.
“Penny, I should have started with this,” I put my hand on her thigh, “Our family comes first. You and Winnie will always come first. Always.”
“You believe me?”
We both take a heavy breath that ends with my wife taking my hand and quickly kissing the back of it.
“I’m sorry too. I should have told you how I felt,” she says, “I’m just scared. Wooton, I’m really scared.”
I tighten my grasp on her hand and her chest jumps at a sob. She controls it.
“I hate feeling like I don’t belong anywhere. I hate being rich, but I’m afraid of being poor. And- and you just keep talking about how much money we should give away to people, and I know we have enough, but I keep feeling like we don’t. And I don’t want to feel helpless. But I can’t turn to you for help. Like, this isn’t my student loan debt, Wooton, this is our child’s freedom!”
“I know. I know that.”
“Then why don’t you care!” She sobs again. She knows it’s a low blow as soon as she says it. Vulnerability has never been my strong suit. She knows that.
Winnie rubs her eyes.
“We’ll talk about it when we get home,” I whisper. She nods. I put my hand back on the steering wheel, and she pats away her tears.


We get home at 3:17 in the afternoon, but it feels more like midnight. I didn't go back to sleep last night. My stomach has hurt all day. I roll my suitcase into the living room and slump onto the couch. Wooton went back to the car to get Winnie’s suitcase. She’s by the TV.
“What are you gonna watch?” I ask.
“Princess Wars,” she sighs and clicks the remote to turn on the television. I close my eyes and hear Wooton roll in the rest of the suitcases.
“We can take care of these later.”
I nod and open my eyes. I’m staring at our yellow and blue ceiling. It’s the ceiling that I have a feeling I’ll be staring at for a quite a long time come February.
“You feelin’ okay?”
“I don’t know.”
I haven’t taken my eyes off the inside of our roof.
“Do you want to finish our conversation?”
“I guess,” I shrug.
I follow Wooton upstairs where he shuts the door. I sit on the bed and start staring at the floor. My husband stays at the doorway for a while. I know he’s trying to read me.
“What are you afraid of, Penny?”
We make eye contact.
“I don’t know. I mean, I told you. I don’t like… feeling out of control.”
“And… I’m afraid of something happening to you or Winnie.”
He nods slowly.
“I see what people say online, Wooton. They don’t think we should be parents. They… I’ve seen the posts… there are people who want you to die. Wooton-” I sniff as my breath is caught, “What if someone hurts you? What if someone hurts our daughter? I-” a sob interrupts, “I can’t take care of her without you. I’m a bad mom,” I squeak, and can’t make any more sentences. The tears flow and my hand against my mouth isn’t enough to make myself silent.
Wooton sits next to me. I put my head on his shoulder, and he kisses it.
“You are a fantastic mom,” he whispers, “And I will keep myself safe. And I’m gonna keep you safe.”
“I know you’ll try. But I also know it’s bad for you to be away from people. I’m concerned you’ll end up in a bad place. Mentally.”
“I know. But that’s why I have medication. And I’ll see a counsellor for the next couple months, okay?”
“Hey, we’re gonna be alright. Yeah?”
We sit there for a little while. It is good to be together.
“We should definitely help out Eugene,” I murmur.
“You’re sure?”
“I’m sure.”


“We’re in here!”
I set my guitar in the entryway and walk into our little kitchen.
“Daddy!” Levi jumps off his bar stool into my arms.
“Hey bud! How was your day?”
“Mommy and I made cookies.”
“Oh. Yeah lots of them it looks like,” I chuckle, eyeing the five containers that are sitting by the refrigerator.
“Yeah… so we might have gotten carried away,” Jules smiles, “It was something to do instead of watch TV.”
“Got it.”
Levi pats my chest, which I know means he wants down. He saunters over to the counter.
“It’s cookie time!”
Jules and I both have the instinct to stop him, and then we both don’t. I watch him reach up and open the plastic bin to get out two sugar cookies as Jules puts her hand at my waist.
“I needed a day to process everything.”
“I get that. And I’m glad you took it,” I kiss her.
“Ew get a room!” Levi growls through a mouthful of cookie. We giggle at him.
“How was the meeting?” Jules asks.
“Honestly, not the most productive. Everyone’s pretty distracted. You probably had the right idea.”
“Maybe, but I do want to get a new album out before we go into lockdown. We’ll figure things out.”
That sentence held more weight than I think she expected it to. The only sound in our kitchen is Levi, who’s now jumping between the carpet in the living room and the wood floor in the kitchen, and my wife and I’s very loud eye contact. We have a lot of things to figure out. We both know we don’t have time.
“I think tonight will be good,” she says.
“Yeah. Probably.”
“I’ll um. I’ll go get ready, then.”
“Okay. Oh, and Dion and Grady can watch Levi tonight.”
“Oh good. Alright, I’ll just need fifteen minutes.”
“Sounds good.”
She goes to our bedroom, and I get Levi’s shoes out of the closet.
“Hey, Levi, can you come get your shoes on?”
He groans.
“I’m not done with my cookie yet!”
“That looks like about one more bite. Finish up and then you can put them on.”
He puts the last bite in his mouth and his eyes light up.
“Am I going to Mr. Dion’s house?”
“Hey, don’t talk with your mouth full.”
“Thanks. Yeah, you’re going to Mr. Dion’s.”
“Woo hoo!” He throws both arms up in the air. I laugh.
“Okay let’s get your shoes on then.”
He plops onto the floor and scoots over to me. I sit down with him and hand him the velcro tennis shoes.
“Do you like my socks, Dad?”
He’s wearing dinosaur socks.
“Those are awesome.”
“Mom got ‘em for me today.”
“That’s- great.”
He finishes putting on his shoes and then stands up and starts stomping to make them light up.
“Not I’m REALLY like a dinosaur!” He roars, storming around the kitchen.
“Hey, Mr. Dinosaur, what do you want to bring with you?”
“My Captain Absolutely action figures, duh!”
“Okay, pick out three to bring with you.”
“Can I bring some cookies too?” He asks, running to his bedroom.
“N- One. You can bring one cookie, okay? But don’t let them give you any other desserts!”
He pokes his head out of the doorway.
“Not even M&Ms on my popcorn?”
“That… that can be up to them, okay?”
“Fine,” he trudges back into his room.
“Alright. I’m ready to go when you are,” Jules says, coming back into the kitchen. She’s wearing a sweater and jeans, and her hair is in two braids.
“Yeah we just gotta wait for Levi. He’s getting his action figures. You look beautiful.”
The compliment catches her off-guard as she’s putting on her boots. She gives me a full smile,
“Thanks. Oh, quick,” she stands up with one boot on and kisses me. And I don’t know how, but it sort of stops time. The moment slowly sheds my anxiety. Because this is consistency, with her arms around my neck and my hands at her hips. It’s the first thing that’s made sense in the last week. I think she feels it too, because even after Levi comes in and calls us love birds she puts her forehead to my shoulder a moment then gives my neck a discreet peck.
“Alright, kiddo,” she claps, “Let me put on one more shoe.”
“Mom, you’re so slow.”
She laughs and sits back on the couch.
“Watch your tone, son. How about you hop in the car?”
He takes the keys from my hand and heads out the door. I let him close it and Jules put on her other shoe before saying anything. But then no words come to mind.
“We really haven’t…” her sentence trails off.
“I kinda thought it might make me more anxious. I’m really sorry, Jules. I’ve been in my head this week-”
“No so have I. That can’t be healthy, right?”
I nod, slowly.
She’s silent for a moment, and then stands up and walks to Levi’s room.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m getting him a change of clothes and a toothbrush!”
I smile.
“I’ll text Dion.”

Eugene and Katrina are already sitting at a table when we get to Hal’s Diner. They both look tired. Jules and I sit in the chairs across from them.
“Have you ordered yet?”
“Yeah, I just asked for everyone’s usual, is that okay?”
“That’s great, Mom. Thanks.”
“Oh and we’re buying dessert,” Jules adds, “I need boston creme pie if we’re going to be talking about money.”
“Jules, I could not agree more. However, we may have come up with a solution,” Eugene raises an eyebrow.
“Well, at this point, Whit’s End is probably our least expensive option,” Katrina says.
“Wait, but we’d still have to pay for rent, right? I mean… are you saying we should completely move out of our apartments?”
It’s sort of a slap in the face. We started talking about moving into Whit’s End as soon as we got the email, but to be honest, I didn’t really expect it to be our best bet. We sit in silence, just trying to process it all.
“No, that can’t be right,” Jules mumbles, “Isn’t… we’d have to pay for utilities.”
Eugene explains,
“Well, no. We don’t. I spoke with Mr. Whittaker yesterday, and he gave Connie and I access to his bank account. We can keep the shop open for years.”
My jaw drops.
He nods.
Jules and I take a breath. We know he’s right then. We should stop renting.
“There’s sort of more,” Katrina begins, ‘Whit’s End is huge.”
“Oh yeah, all of Smallpox at least could fit,” Jules shakes her head, staring at the table.
“Then, that’s it? We find online jobs or… I guess... make more music, and everyone lives together?”
Katrina nods. She’s been quiet. We make eye contact and I can see how red her eyes are.
“You okay?”
She shrugs.
“It’s just been hard to process,” she sniffs back a sob and dabs her eyes with her napkin. Eugene puts his hand on her back.
“Sorry,” she whispers.
Zelda comes over and quickly sets down our food.
“Everything look alright?”
We nod and thank her.
“I’m sorry-” she pauses, “I sorta overheard. I- Well I think we’re all feelin’ a little anxious right now. Don’t bottle it up for too long.”
Katrina smiles a bit,
“Just long enough to eat those squash tacos.”
Katrina sniffs and laughs a little,
“I’ll try.”
“I’ll be praying for y’all.”
“Thanks, Zelda.”
“Alright,” Katrina takes a breath and a drink of water, “Um. Let’s figure out sleeping arrangements.”
We spend the rest of dinner going over the Whit’s End blueprints that Eugene brought, deciding what changes we’ll have to make to the building itself and what living with a bunch of people would actually look like. Making plans made everyone feel a little better. It also helps that we have three months to finish everything. And as we drive home, I almost feel hopeful.


“Remind me again why we’re going to a park,” Wyatt asks.
He’s in the driver's seat of my dad’s back up car that he bought last week. It smells like cigarettes. I adjust the collar on my jean jacket and roll my eyes.
“That’s where we usually hang out.”
“Yeah, but why?” He laughs, “You and your friends couldn’t go somewhere more fun?”
“McAllister Park is fun. It’s… pretty.”
“It’s also… COLD.”
“You’re ridiculous. You know most guys like to prove how tough they are by being in the cold.”
“You’re making that up.”
“I’m not! Michael usually wears a t-shirt and just brings a blanket for when it gets really cold.”
“There’s snow on the ground. I consider this really cold.”
“Well you’ll be happy to know that we usually sit around the campfire.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that? That’s like- yeah that’s like normal teenager stuff.”
“Well I’m glad we meet your standards. We’ll probably end up going to the Shaltanis’ for snacks and a movie too.”
“Sweet. You’re sure it won’t be weird with me there?”
“Stop saying that! I told you, Stephany is your age, and we’re all really extraverted people. You’ll fit in perfectly.”
It’s been about a month since we heard about the new lock-down stuff. I don’t think about it most days. At least I don’t try to. Hanging out with friends kinda makes it hard not to though. We don’t know how long the government will want to keep us indoors, so aside from a few video call chats a week, I might not be able to see my friends for “up to two years.” I don’t think my dad thinks it’ll be that long. He won’t say it out loud, but I’m pretty sure he expects us to be put into camps at some point before then.
Sitting in the car, goosebumps run up my back. I turn up the heating and take in a long breath. I really want to be with my friends.
I don’t have to wait long. Wyatt pulls into the parking lot by the bon-fire pit, and Kodi and Quinn start climbing up the small hill of snow to meet us. Wyatt stops the car and we both step out into the still winter afternoon.


I’m not very experienced with friendships, and my stomach turns to remind me of this fact. I push up my glasses and pull my coat tighter around myself, still baffled by how these kids can function outside in the dead of winter. I lock Eugene’s car and put the keys in my pocket.
I make a mental note of where they are. I’ve felt a little like a bull in a china shop since moving in with the Meltsners. I’m the second tallest person in the house and eat more than everyone else. My room is always messier than Eliza’s, even though I try really hard to keep it clean. And even though Eugene got this car a week ago, I’m using it almost every day to get to work and back. Frankly, I’m not entirely sure why I’m even going to work if we’re moving into Whit’s End. Maybe there’s a part of my brain that thinks I’ll be able to save up enough for an apartment or maybe I’ll get a job online or maybe this whole thing will go away. I can see it now, the president getting up in front of everyone saying,
“Haha! It was all a joke to scare you! You actually DO deserve freedom and equality.”
That’s the other thing I’ve been working on. I keep reading the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, trying to figure out a way around all of this. I know it’s frivolous, but I would feel weird to not try. I’m a research kind of person. I want to know as much as I can. Jason’s told me a little more than he’s told most people I think. I don’t want to think about all of that though. Especially since most of it invalidates my research. Government people are at a different level of understanding when it comes to those things.
Elizabeth introduces me to her friends after hugging both of them and making a couple inside jokes that I smile politely at.
“So, Wyatt, this is Kodi, she’s seventeen.”
“Nice to meet you, Wyatt,” she smiles, extending her hand.
I smile and shake it,
“You too.”
This is an easy to read person. Kodi is first of all attractive. She has thick dark hair, blue eyes, and soft, prominent facial features. I can tell she gains a lot of confidence from her appearance. I can’t blame her. And based on her small giggle and eye-roll, I don’t think she blames me for blushing at her touch. She’s a Christian.
“Okay, and this is Quinn,” Eliza gestures, “They’re the baby of the group.”
“Woah. Calm down, Liz. I’m fourteen. And you’re fifteen.”
“Right, so you’re the youngest. We protect them at all cost. You hurt this child, I will hurt you more. They’re also my best friend,” Eliza beams, putting her arm around them and holding her head high. Quinn brushes it off and shakes my hand.
“I am small but feisty and I can take care of myself.”
I laugh,
“It’s good to meet you.”
` Quinn has the same hair as their sister, but it’s short and sort of spiked up in the front. They have glasses and seem a little less sure of themselves, but their spunk and clean, clearly expensive clothing style make up for it. Quinn is not a Christian.
They both have several layers of jackets on.
“Oh my gosh is this Wyatt?”
Who I assume is Stephany waddle-runs over to meet us, carrying a bag of marshmallows and chocolate bars. Her brother Michael is close behind. Stephany has curly reddish-blonde hair and Michael has curly black hair. I can already tell their polar opposites and not just in skin tone. Michael’s scrolling through his phone.
Elizabeth makes more introductions.
“Eliza has literally told us so much about you, it’s almost unreal that you’re here right now. And let me just say, this soft boy look: adorable.”
I chuckle.
“Thank you. Everything’s thrifted.”
She gasps, glancing at my ankles. She slowly lifts a couple finger guns. I hold up some silent peace signs and laugh out loud.
“Okay what on earth was that?” Michael is taking a break from staring at his phone to stare at us.
“Just some bisexual gang signs. You wouldn’t understand. Have you been to Ben’s Racks?” She turns back to me.
“Yes! I’ve honestly stopped going shopping anywhere else.”
We end up sitting at the fire that Quinn and Kodi had started before we got there, and I’m surprised to find that I don’t regret coming. We play a few games and eat s’mores and just talk about teenager stuff. They embody escapism at its finest- this group of quirky, energetic youth. It’s a foreign culture. No one looks at the news. No one talks about terrorism or death or concentration camps or the constitution or computers. It’s innocence and wisdom. And I fall in love with these people immediately. What made me think before that I shouldn’t have friends?

“I was right, wasn’t I?”
I fistbump Wyatt in the arm. We’re in the kitchen refilling our soda cups. Everyone else is in the living room watching Inside Out.
“About what?” He takes a sip of rootbeer.
“Coming to this. You’ve had fun, haven’t you?”
“Yeah. Yes it’s actually been great. Still not a fan of the cold though.”
“Eh you’ll get used to it,” I shrug, pouring Dr. Pepper into my plastic cup.
“Oh does that mean I’m officially a part of your little friend group?”
“Yep. You’re stuck with us now. Congratulations.”
He taps my cup with his.
We go back into the living room and finish the movie with everyone. By the time we get our food and drinks cleaned up it’s six.
“Alright Elizabeth, we better head out,” Wyatt nods to the door.
“Oh yep you’re right. We have that meeting thing.”
Stephany’s phone starts ringing and we all kind of stand there while she answers.
“Hey what’s up?... Yeah we’re just at the Shaltanis’. Oh- okay. Sure but… seriously? Okay. Sure we’ll head over.”
She hangs up.
“We’re… following you there I guess. Apparently Eugene and Katrina have been talking to our parents about moving into Whit’s End.”
“Wait really?” I know it’s a loss for them, but I can’t help but get excited.
“Yeah,” she half smiles, glancing at her phone, “Kodi, they said you could come too.”
She’s caught off guard and almost says something and then looks at Quinn. Quinn sort of shrugs as if to tell her it’s okay. She nods hesitantly.
“Okay. Alright I think that’s a good idea. Let me just… tell my moms.”
She holds off her steps a moment, then walks upstairs.
“We’ll uh… we’ll see you there then,” Wyatt nods a goodbye to everyone, and I follow him out. We’re both silent for the first five minutes of the drive. Wyatt releases a long breath,
“I just feel awful for her.”
I nod.
“Yeah it’s… that’s been hard for her- I mean it’s been hard for the family.”
“I’m sure.”
And that’s all we say about it. Probably because we both know what it feels like to some extent. And we both know there’s no easy solution to these kinds of problems.

We’re the last ones to arrive at Whit’s End. The seating area is full of all the Smallpox members, the Lewis family, and mine and Stephany’s parents, who are having a quiet conversation in the corner booth. Everyone else is engaged in their own conversations. It’s sort of intimidating for some reason. Maybe it’s the idea of living with everyone. Maybe it’s the realization that I’ve seen most of these people on my phone more than I have in real life. Everyone is either excited or really tense. It’s hard to tell conversation to conversation. Dad sees us come in and offers us drinks. He says he opened the soda fountain for the meeting. I shrug, saying I can never have too much coke. Wyatt says my diabetes would disagree, and gets another rootbeer. By the time we get our drinks and sit down, Stephany, Kodi, and Michael walk in. We invite them to join us, and they do. They’re all pretty quiet. I wonder if they had a difficult conversation on the drive over. Stephany and Michael have been trying to get Kodi to share the gospel with her family for the last several months, and she’s sort of refused. I know it’s not because she doesn’t want them to come to Jesus, and I think Steph and Michael know that too. The last time she explained it to me was something along the lines of,
“I don’t want to cause tension.”
Stephany and Michael have always been “speak the truth in love” kind of people. Stephany’s zeal has backed off a little lately, but Michael seems pretty firm in his political and social views. If they did have a conversation, the tension was probably between him and Kodi.
The three slide into our booth with Stephany on the end.
“So this will be really weird,” I say.
They nod.
“Do you think we’ll live in the same room as our parents?” Michael asks, “I was kinda thinking maybe we could have a separate teenager room.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” Wyatt nods, “You should tell Eugene.”
Dad taps a glass until everyone is looking at him.
“Ah. Well, thank you for your attention. Greetings and salutations. In these unprecedented times, I humbly make the argument that communication is an important -if not a vital- piece of the coping process. Hence, your presence. As of now, we have created a sleep arrangement chart. This separates families into around one room each, with the exception of the Train room, which will be shared by Buck, Jules, Levi, and all of our teenagers.”
Our booth perks up at this news.
“There is also a list of revisions that need to be made to the building itself before we move in. Beside each task is some blank space. If you wish to volunteer, or have some ideas that might help with a specific project, please write your name, or those ideas in said space. Are there any questions before Buck goes over the specific sleeping arrangements?”
No one raises their hands, so my brother stands up with a white sheet of paper in hand that looks like he’s scribbled and erased everything from it about twenty times. He goes over where everyone else will be staying. I kind of zone out for this and end up staring at my coke. Maybe I’m avoiding thinking about all of these changes. They feel really sudden. The rest of my booth probably feels the same way. Michael has his head down, scrolling through instagram. Stephany is tearing up a straw rapper, and Wyatt is staring at the wall on the other side of the room, slightly moving his lips like he’s trying to finish a math problem. Someone’s arguing with Buck about where they want to sleep, and someone else says something to contract them. Someone insults another person. None of us are phased. And I look back at my coke, but I’m not thirsty anymore.


I walk into Whit’s End feeling like a criminal. I heard from Wyatt that a lot of people are moving in when restrictions begin. I know I shouldn’t move in with them, and I already feel this isolation process begin. Soon I won’t be seen as one of them at all, and not because of my bad decisions, but because of my status. Connie is smiling with a pen in her hand, writing something in a notebook in front of a booth of teenagers. Wyatt’s the first one to see me. Connie’s eyes follow suit and they quickly jump to the clock on her wrist and toward the Kidz Radio studio. She gives the kids a small smile,
“Just write down whatever comes to mind. Eugene won’t admit how big our budget is.”
She walks past me,
“Let’s get this over with.”
I follow her into the studio where she sits down at her usual desk in front of her microphone and silently starts setting things up. I sit across from her at the other desk and put on the pair of headphones. I can sense her fury and decide to evade it by going over the notes in my phone. They all look good. I know she’s done setting up. I cough into my fist.
“We have five minutes.”
I glance up to see her go red. She stands up and taps the table,
“Enough time to get some water.”
“Okay I’ll-”
“I’ll bring you one!”
She leaves me alone in this strange brown room. I feel like it’s even judging me. I accept this judgement fully. I know I deserve it, and if my brain is going to haunt me by giving walls amphomorphic qualities, so be it. The four minutes I’m alone feel more like fifteen. Connie finally returns and sets a sweating water bottle in front of me. I whisper a thank you.
She clicks on the glowing red recording sign.
“Hi everybody and welcome to Candid Conversations with Connie! I hope you are all doing well and finding peace in these difficult times! Today I have a special guest who I think can shed some light on some of those more difficult questions that the internet can’t answer. Whit’s End’s very own Jason Whittaker. How are you today, Jason?”
“I’m doing well, Connie. Thank you for having me on the show. As someone who worked for the CIA for over twenty years, I think I should be able to interpret some of these complicated phrases in the new restrictions.”
I’m gonna need that water sooner than I thought.
“That’s great,” there is murder in this women’s eyes I swear, “Let’s start off this conversation with some questions from our listeners. Calls are already showing up. She clicks one of them.
“Hello caller, you are on the air.”
“Hi! My name is Jessica. I’m a busy mom of three from Connellsville. Since we’ll have to go into quarantine in the middle of the school year, I’m still a bit confused as to how much of a role I’m supposed to have in my children’s education as they learn online at home.”
I grossly underestimated these questions. I have an answer. It’s not a hard question. But I can’t give her the answer I want to. I should be telling her that she should unenroll her children in the public school system and teach them completely herself because I’ve previewed the new curriculum that’s going to be taught and it’s terrifying and she’s going to have to teach her children herself pretty soon anyway if she wants them to become educated adults so I should be telling her how to ration food for her family and start eating less now so that they can get used to the tiny portions that they’ll be given and that her children should stop eating sugar and stop wearing coats and stop spending time with their friends who aren’t Christians and take a martial arts class before quarantine starts and her entire family should learn basic first aid and CPR right now and she should probably enroll in some online classes when lockdown does start since she’ll have more time than she’s even expecting to have right now-
“The school system has been set up so that teachers are required to videotape their lectures and send them to RC students who would be in their class. The system is designed to be fully student-opporable, and of course they will always be able to email their teachers or receive free tutoring. As a parent, you should be as involved or uninvolved as you want to be.”
“Oh thank you for that clarification. That’s really a weight off my mind.”
“I’m glad,” Connie says, “Let’s hear our next caller.”
“Hi Jason,” Red Hollard’s southern accent greets me, “First of all, I just wanna say how cool it is that you were a secret agent and that you’re dedicating that knowledge to the benefit of your fellow citizens. That’s just really great.”
“What’s your question, Red?”
“Oh right,” he snickers, “Well you know, my business is goin’ online now, as much as it can, and I’m just wonderin’ what that one part about going outside meant?”
It means you should start exercising daily.
“Yeah, so that’s just an acknowledgement of the importance of getting outside and staying active. Obviously, it’s illegal to leave town, and most of the time it will be to leave your house, except for, what you saw, which is every other day from three pm to six pm. I would suggest taking advantage of this time. Meeting with friends might be a good idea. I would meet with them outside though so that you still get that dose of sunlight and just fresh air.”
“Oh well thanks. So I couldn’t go to work?”
“Probably not… The biggest thing to remember about this situation is that you want to do exactly what the rules say. This isn’t the time to get rebellious or angry. We want peace just as much as the government does for the country. Sometimes peace means sacrifices. As Christians, sometimes we have to let go of some things, if we want to keep this peace.”
My eyes bounce to Connie’s. She shakes her head, giving me an almost threatening gaze.
“Thank you for your question, Red. Who is our next caller?”
I incorrectly answer more questions, letting go of my desire to speak with Connie- to apologize. Have I apologized? As she exits her show we both release a breath. Connie stands up.
“You know I’m sorry, right?” I say.
There’s no emotion on her face
“So you’ve said.”
“I thought you wanted to talk.”
“I thought you didn’t.”
“I want to make things… I want things to be normal again, Connie.”
“So do I!”
“But they can’t be.”
“Jason, you’ve been lying to me for, what? Years apparently? How on earth am I supposed to pretend everything is normal? You have hurt me, Jason. I know I look angry, and… yeah. I guess I am. I’m really, really angry. But it’s mostly a cover. I’m mostly in pain. I can’t trust you anymore. Can’t you see that? Jason, why can’t you see that?”
And what am I supposed to say to that? She’s right. Of course she’s right. So I nod slightly and let her leave the room. I check my watch as I walk through the shop I once managed and into the bitter Odyssey night. My stomach is aching. I haven’t eaten all day. I text Jamie on the way to my car.

She’s wearing a purple turtleneck and sitting at a small table in the back of the restaurant when I walk in. She stands and kisses my cheek before I sit down across from her and try to smile. Her smile is real.
“I missed you,” she straightens herself a little and studies my eyes. She bites her lip for a second. Something I haven’t seen her do yet.
“Something’s wrong,” she says.
“Eh I’m okay.”
“You’re sure?”
“Yeah. Yeah I mean, quarantine is coming up. We’re all a little stressed, right?”
The deep breath she takes almost makes me think she’d forgotten about it until I brought it up.
“That’s true. You’re staying in your apartment, right?”
“Yeah,” I nod, ripping open my straw, “I’ve got money. There’s no reason not to.”
She nods.
“We haven’t really talked about this,” I realized, “Are you gonna be okay? Will they let you go to work?”
“I doubt it. And it’s not really a job I can do remotely. I’ll probably be let go,” she shrugs.
“Are you okay with that?”
“Of course not. But what am I supposed to do?”
I don’t have a good answer for her. If she wants to make money she needs to get an online job. But Jamie’s an extravert. I’m pretty sure she’ll hate that.
“Yeah I don’t know,” I say. And then I whisper, “You could move in with me.”
But I don’t think I meant to say it out loud. Jamie laughs. It’s a light, toothy laugh that makes me smile and even blush a little.
“Jason, we’ve been dating less than a month!”
“Yeah, okay so I’m really just thinking out loud here, but I have a guest bedroom. This isn’t- I want to make sure you’re taken care of. That was the thought behind it. I don’t mean to push you into a commitment that I don’t think either of us are willing to make yet.”
“Okay gotcha,” she nods slowly, scanning the floor in thought, “I’ll keep your offer in mind. I can always move back out if things get complicated or I don’t know we start hating each other, right?”
“Right,” I laugh. She laughs too, because the idea of ever hating each other is so detached from the reality we’re living now.
It’s a good reality too. Our dates have been an escape and they’ve held simultaneously youth and maturity. She’s teaching me how to feel again. With her green eyes that dance with wisdom, and her coiled, brilliant red hair that she always tries unsuccessfully to keep out of her face. Her nails that drum the table or my arm when she’s thinking. Everything she does is vulnerability and excitement. Even when we’re talking about what seems to be the end of the world, she exudes this kind of peace. Maybe she can finally make me feel at peace.


We get back from Whit’s End, and it’s like there’s a new, almost demonic force inside our little apartment. Our car ride over was nearly silent, aside from a few off beat yeses and nos. My husband drops his backpack onto the loveseat in our tiny living room and then starts roaming the kitchen like he has nothing better to do.
“So you don’t want to talk about it?” I ask, standing at the entryway.
“About what?”
I lower my brow, then realize it’s hard to say it out loud. And it’s hard to say it when he’s like this. When he’s stubborn and dismissive and so far from his normal self.
“About being parents.”
And that’s the thing. He knew exactly what I meant, yet he deliberately pretended not to. He just nods and gets a box of crackers from the cabinet.
“Okay. Let’s talk about it then.”
He shoves a cracker into his mouth.
“So she’s supposed to have the baby within a month. That gives us enough time to get everything ready. We’ve been saving up, we have the funds. We can do this, so I don’t understand your hesitancy, or whatever this indifference act is supposed to be.”
“I’m not indifferent. I’m just tired. I’m… depressed. I haven’t taken my meds in like a week.”
He blinks a few times like there’s something in his eye and gets the container of pills out of a drawer across the room. I watch him swallow one and put the bottle back.
“Why are your hands shaking?”
I go to him and take them in mine.
He sort of sniffs and then gulps.
“I don’t feel well.”
I stare at his hands inside mine, then up into his eyes that are roaming the counter and my chest. He was taking a shower when I woke up this morning.
“When was the last time you slept?”
That sentence makes him flinch.
“Like a day,” he mumbles.
He shrugs.
“I don’t know.”
“Okay let’s get you to bed now.”
I help him walk to our bedroom, and he becomes a little more alert once he starts changing.
“I know you’re tired, but can we agree to… agree to this?”
“With Sarah?”
“I don’t know,” he pulls on a t-shirt, “It feels really fast.”
I nod.
“Yeah. It kind of is. Do you think we’re not ready?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know yet. I feel like… I’ve been thinking about my dad and Wooton… and I’m not them. And I don’t think I can be.”
“Alright back up. I get that you’re afraid, but aren’t you comparing yourself to the wrong thing? Come on, those are two people who have worked with kids longer than you have. You’ve also never had a direct impact on a child’s life like that. Maybe you’ll surprise yourself. And don’t get me wrong, I’m scared too. I’m terrified. But isn’t this important? Isn’t it what we’re supposed to do? We’ve prayed about this.”
“We haven’t prayed about Sarah.”
That catches me off guard.
“Nope you’re right. We haven’t.”
“Alright then.”
He sits next to me on our bed and threads our hands together. We take a moment to pray silently. I close my eyes and try to empty my mind. I didn’t realize how loud my thoughts were until now, but anxiety is screaming at me. So almost instinctively, I picture myself on a mountain. Jesus is sitting on a rock nearby. He shifts to me and smiles. I talk to him silently.
“We’re having trouble here,” I begin, “I don’t-” and I decide to speak out loud, “I don’t understand why you brought us here. Why any of this is happening. Jesus, it really seems like you want us to adopt a kid, but it feels so selfish and we are so afraid.”
“God, we know you have a plan here. Can you please show us where it is? Please point out… Dion.”
I open my eyes.
“I figured something out.”
“What’s that?”
“I’m just afraid He’s wrong.”
That sentiment is like a sudden fever. I know he’s right. So we spend the rest of the time we would usually spent time praying, just meditating. Just trying to understand our God. Just trying to listen.
We wake up at noon the next day, and we both know what we’re supposed to do.

I wake up and it’s like there’s a thunderstorm in our home. I’m in bed, completely dressed, staring at the ceiling. I close my eyes. I hear Buck in the living room, talking to a few male strangers. I sit up, feeling achy and tense. Our mattress is on the floor with two blankets and two pillows. I know I should get up and fold them. I know I should walk out and help Buck pack the last box, and help Levi get breakfast before the long day.
I lie back down. These are the days that I still feel like a teenager. The days I wish I was still a teenager, whatever that meant. Sometimes it feels like I skipped that part of my life entirely. Or like someone stole it from me. I realize that now. Buck and I felt so guilty about having sex before marriage, and I think I finally understand why we did that. We had sex because we knew we weren’t teenagers anymore. We knew there wasn’t a point in trying to preserve our innocence anymore because the shooting, the restrictions, even Smallpox took it from us. I think we both moved to Odyssey, hoping to decorrupt our brains. Maybe in a tiny town in the middle of Ohio, where there were no con-artists or tycoons to spoil childhood. We were so naive. I miss that.
I finally do get up. I fold the blankets and put everything in a couple white trash bags. Buck comes back into the apartment after helping move a chair.
“Oh hey Jules. You’re up.”
“Yeah,” I nod, “Thanks for letting me sleep in.”
He gives me a small smile and turns to the living room. I think he’s going to say something, but then he clamps his lips together again and asks me where Levi is.
“I guess he’s still asleep. I’ll go get ‘em.”
He drums the counter with his palms and then picks up another box as I walk to our son’s door, which I knock on and then slowly open.
He has a sleeping bag in his otherwise empty room. He throws a blanket over his head when I walk in. I laugh. It feels good to laugh.
“What are you doing, kiddo?”
“Ssh! Mom, I’m invisible!”
“Oh, sorry,” I whisper, “Boy, I wonder where Levi is… I hope he hasn’t turned into a superhero with invisibility powers.”
He giggles.
“Cuz you know if he’s invisible, he can’t sit in the big trunk outside.”
“The truck is here?!” He rips off the blanket.
I laugh,
“Yeah! You wanna go check it out?”
He thinks for a second, then shrugs.
“What’s the matter?”
He shrugs again and his bottom lip turns out. He puts the blanket over his head again before I can see his first tear. But I hear them.
“Aw, baby.”
I pull him into my lap, where he buries his face in my chest.
“I don’t wanna go,” he coughs.
I kiss his head as Buck walks in. We exchange empathetic looks, and he joins us on the floor. I lift up Levi’s blanket. He’s wiping his eyes.
“Can you tell the truck to come back tomorrow, daddy?”
He gives a little southern laugh.
“I’m sorry, son. We gotta go today. We’re having a party at Whit’s End, remember?”
He nods.
“But we’re not gonna be at home anymore.”
A few more tears fall. I push them away with my thumb.
“Whit’s End is just gonna be our home for a little while instead. And ya know, Sam is living there too. And Ben, and your grandparents and your aunt Connie and Aunt Eliza. That sounds fun doesn’t it?”
“Do we get lots of ice cream?”
“Yep. And I think we can have ice cream for lunch today if we want to.”
This makes him smile.
“But first we gotta eat breakfast, right?”
He nods.
We roll up his sleeping bag and set it outside with Buck and I’s bedding. I make eggs and Buck makes bacon and smoothies. After we eat, we go around the apartment and say goodbye to each room, and then pray together.
` Levi gets to sit in the truck while we finish loading the car, and then we leave. And I don’t let myself cry.


I didn’t sleep last night. I am now experiencing the consequences of that slow yet rash decision. Connie is standing behind the counter and I am in front of it, leaning on it, trying to follow what she is saying.
“So we just need to close off the windows to the doors and get new blinds, right?”
I nod.
She makes some notes on the blueprint between us, then pauses.
“Do you want coffee? I was going to make some anyway, and you seem really out of it.”
I shrug.
“Hm. Yes, that would be- excellent. Thank you, Miss Kendall.”
She nods and flips on the coffee maker. I check my watch. It’s eight twenty-eight.
“People will be arriving in approximately half an hour.”
“Okay,” she takes a long breath, and then we make eye contact. And I’m reminded that Constance Kendall understands. Her green eyes are spilling out so many sentences. She knows I couldn’t sleep last night, and she knows that I’ll try to look as energetic as possible all day. She knows I’m looking forward to seeing everyone, and she knows I’m drowning in my own dread. She’s always been able to read me like a book, and it’s usually obnoxious. Today it’s giving me oxygen. She bites her upper lip and folds the blueprint,
“We can do this later.”
Then she walks to the front of the counter and hugs me. And just like when Mr. Whittaker left for the middle east, and when Katrina started dating someone else, and when her mother died, it’s awkward and exactly what we need. Because no one else is in the shop, and that means something. We are simply Connie and Eugene at Whit’s End, for what feels like the last time.

Swallowing right now makes it feel like there’s a brick in the back of my throat. I force it down anyway. It makes my eyes burn, but then the feeling all stops. I’m blankly staring at the white, dirty, tile floor of the doctor’s office, squeezing my hands together. Penny takes one of them away from the other and puts her other hand on my back. I feel like I’ve snapped in two. Winnie is on the other side of the room, playing with trains like she hasn’t just made my insides twist up like a pretzel. The idea of rushing home to binge-eat snack foods in front of a cartoon from the nineties is suddenly far too appealing. Doctor Peterson is saying a lot. A lot of stuff I’ve heard before. I swallow another brick.
“Do you have any questions at this time?”
“Um,” my voice is louder than I expected it to be, “This medication is supposed to stabilize everything then? That’s- that’s what you’re saying?”
“Yes. It’s just one capsule a day. We want her to feel better. That’s my main goal, and I think that’s you two’s as well.”
“Of course,” Penny says.
I nod.
We pick up a bottle of large pink pills on the way home. Winnie is in the back seat, staring out the window, and I’m staring at the reality I’ve been trying to step around for months. My daughter has anxiety and depression.
We get home and I walk to the bedroom. I’m in a harsh daze, standing next to the bed when Penny walks in. It feels like our roles have been reversed from our last conversation like this. She sits on the bed and puts a pillow on her lap and pats it. I lie down and she puts one hand on my chest and one hand in my hair, then steals my line,
“What are you afraid of?”
“I know what it’s like,” I begin.
“I didn’t know she felt as bad as I did.”
I barely notice when a few tears slide down the side of my face. I sniff,
“Oh, Penny I wanted it to be different for her.”
“Wooton, it is. She has medication. You didn’t have anything when you were her age. Wooton, she has parents who love her. She has a dad who loves her. That makes a difference. She’s not broken.”
“I know that, but I never want her to feel like she is. But she already does, I can see it.”
“I think… then maybe it’s our job to love her through that. Yeah?”
“It’ll work out.”
She’s braiding a few strands of my hair together. I take a long, shaky breath.
“It will. We should take the night to just relax. Rent a movie.”
“That sounds like a great idea.”
We give Winnie her first ice cream serving of antidepressants. Then we sit down and watch a movie together. That night we tuck her in and tell her how special and how beautiful she is like we always do. Penny and I take time to pray and call Buck and Jules to ask how Levi was responding to the same treatment. This routine steadies me a little -enough that I can get to sleep at least. I just wish I could shake this feeling of hopelessness. This stabbing of dread.

Tamika and I step into the Whit’s End library. We take a long, simultaneous breath. So this is our home. I have to admit, it’s at least bigger than I expected. With most of the book shelves out of the way, it’s almost the size of a small apartment without the walls. We have a bathroom and we brought our own mini fridge. I set it next to the bed frame the movers had set up a couple hours ago. Tamika laughs a little.
“It’s… almost like college.”
I nod,
“Yeah cuz you would know what college is like.”
I give her a playful smile on the way out the door. She sets down a box and calls after me,
“You didn’t go to college either!”
We move in more boxes and a couple more furniture pieces. I’m again surprised by how much it actually looks somewhat like a home. We make our bed, and vacuum the carpet. There are no windows, but somehow it’s more comforting that way. We brought a couple lamps with us, and when we shut the door and clicked them on with the lights off, it was somewhat beautiful. With Tamika’s keyboard in one corner, and an arm chair in another, and our desks next to each other. It’s welcoming. It’s about two in the afternoon when we realize we haven’t talked to many of our new house-mates. We got pretty quickly caught up in decorating.
So we go out to the eating area of the front of the shop, and it’s chaotic, but there’s an overall positive energy. People seem to actually enjoy the idea of living together, and I feel the same way. I turn to Tamika and smile. She smiles back.
"Let me get this straight. I bet all those non-friends of yours try to embarrass you about your love for that stuff, right? So, you almost feel like you have to hide your treasures away and can only take them out in secret on rainy days when your mom goes to the store to get more liver and nobody is around to berate your sensitive spirit. Is that what you’re saying?" -Jay Smouse
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