A/N This story was written in conjunction with my friend Stratiotes. As in our previous challenge, we both had exactly the same outline. With this one, however, we had a considerable amount more flexibility with the details of the storyline. See what you think of our efforts… and please review, whether you liked or disliked them :-)
Disclaimer: Characters and events depicted herein are fictitious and similarity to actual persons living or dead is coincidental.
"Remind me why we're going to this march thing again?"
Chloe Templeton glanced across at her boyfriend with troubled eyes. They were in Neil's car, driving to the Solidarity March that was being held in town today. "You know why, Neil," she replied quietly. "We're going because it interests me, and because we agreed to it last week." Right after you dragged me to the football game with your beer-swilling 'friends'. She had hated every moment of it; the crude jokes, the noise, the beer that a particularly clumsy football fan – "lout" would be a better name, she thought darkly – had dropped into her lap as he made his way to his seat. She had almost left the stadium after trying only half-successfully to rid her jeans of the stain in the women's toilets, but instead had returned to her seat – for Neil's sake – politely taking the jesting of his friends with a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes. Chloe hid a sigh. "You don't have to go, you know. You can just drop me off, go wander round the shopping centre or something." But it'd be great if, for once, you could be interested just because I'm interested, even if it doesn't particularly inspire you right now.
Neil Simmonds turned his head, taking in the slight frown that creased Chloe's forehead, and grinned, his white teeth flashing in the bright sunlight that streamed through the car window. "Hey, I never said I didn't want to go! I just want to know what it's all about. After all, if I'm going to be listening to speeches all afternoon, I might as well get some background first so I at least have some clue what they're going on about."
"You sure?" asked Chloe. Was he serious? It had been so long since they had talked about... well, anything really important to her, that she found it hard to believe he would now. Whenever she brought up a weighty subject he'd always change the topic of conversation, instinctively shying away from issues of faith and personal belief like a fly avoiding being swatted. Neil heard the note of caution in her voice and reached out to briefly grasp her hand and give it a gentle squeeze. "Of course I am!" he reassured her.
Chloe took a deep breath. Well, you did want him to show interest, she told herself. Now that he seems to be doing so, you can at least give him a chance! "Okay, well you asked for it!" she said with a half-smile.
"'Atta girl," said Neil, with another grin and a wink, and settled further in his seat. They still had at least fifteen minutes until they reached the march.
"Well," Chloe began, "the group that's organising the march, the Coalition Against Religious Bigotry in Support of Peace – yes, I know it's a mouthful – is an inter-faith group that seeks to bring people of all religious persuasions together in the interests of peace and tolerance. Their official slogan is "Promoting faith as a power for good", and they mediate talks between different faith groups, trying to get them to focus on their similarities rather than their differences in order to work together in the community and stuff."
Neil snorted. "Ha! Like that's going to happen." He noticed the sudden, cold silence that swept the car in the wake of his comment and shot an apologetic look at Chloe. "Sorry. Do go on."
"Actually," she continued pointedly, ignoring the flash of resentment that flickered through her at his interruption, "they have had some genuine success here."
"Yeah, the last meeting they called included members of the Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist faiths. Apparently, the leaders of their respective communities agreed to jointly fund the nursery that's opening up over by that new council house development that's just been finished."
"Hmm. That won't las-" Neil clamped his mouth shut as he sensed Chloe stiffen. "Okay," he continued, after mentally kicking himself, "so what about the march, what's that for?"
Chloe closed her eyes in resignation. Neil, you can be so aggravating sometimes! But at least he was trying to listen to her this time, she admitted to herself, even if he did make such inane comments. "The march itself," she answered, her eyes opening again, "is a rallying point for all the Coalition's supporters, a show of force if you will, and a public demonstration to their opponents that a) their numbers aren't insignificant and b) they're making real progress in uniting the different faith communities here. There will be members of all the major faiths participating in the march, and there's supposed to be some kind of speech when we get to St. Mary's. No-one seems to know who the speaker will be though."
"Interesting, but..." Neil paused, and Chloe turned to watch his face intently, a glimmer of hope lighting in the back of her mind. He's thinking, not just saying the first thing which occurs to him, which means... we might actually end up having a substantial discussion! "But..." she prompted.
"This "Coalition", they get the religious types to focus on their similarities, such as... I dunno, their belief in a supreme god, right?" mused Neil.
"And the suggestion's made that "all faiths lead to the one god", or something like that?"
"Yeah, I think that's how they put it," she agreed, a little confused as to where Neil's train of thought was heading.
"That's kinda illogical, don't you think?"
"Well," said Neil, "for centuries the faiths have been killing each other left, right and centre because they each believe their god is the true god, or that their way is the best way. So it seems pretty unreasonable even to me, a mere heathen with next to no knowledge about the ins and outs of these things, that they would just sweep centuries of bitter disagreement under the carpet like it never happened and suddenly proclaim that each faith's supreme god is one and the same." He glanced across at his girlfriend, a smile playing on his lips. "Don't you think?"
Chloe gazed at him suspiciously, her jade-green eyes narrowing as she took in Neil's tone of voice and seeming half-smirk, analysing them for any hint of façade. Is he really engaging me in debate, or just mocking me? she wondered, even as her mind raced for a counter to his argument. She couldn't find one that satisfied her, and shrugged. "I've never thought about it like that, to be honest," she replied.
"But you see my point, right? I dunno who these religious "leaders" are, but they're certainly not representative of the bulk of their fellows. Take Sara, for example. Can you really see her agreeing that her God's the same as, say, Buddha?"
"Buddha's not a supreme being," Chloe pointed out.
Neil waved a hand in a gesture of dismissal. "Whatever. You know what I mean."
Chloe frowned. "I guess." He had a point. Sara Nichols was Chloe's housemate, and a committed "Bible-believing Christian," as she put it. There was no way Chloe could see her friend accepting any compromise with the exclusivity of the God she worshiped. She'd be very polite in her refusal, of course, but she'd refuse nonetheless.
Chloe shrugged again. "All I know is, the Coalition's got these people to work with each other for once rather than argue. That can only be a good thing in my mind. Besides, I like listening to their discussions on the different religions. There really are a lot of similarities between them all, you know. I find it pretty interesting."
Neil's eyebrows shot up. "You do?"
"Yeah." Chloe hesitated. Should she ask or not? They were finally talking about something more important than what film to watch, or what to eat for lunch, and she didn't want to spoil the mood. Take a chance, Chloe, she told herself. Either he'll open up a bit or you'll get the usual reaction. "You know, we've never really talked about it much," she said cautiously. "What do you believe about, well, religion, life after death, that kind of stuff?"
"I think the world would be a whole lot better place without religion of any kind," Neil replied, after a moment's thought.
Now it was Chloe's turn to raise her eyebrows. "Seriously?" Inwardly she exulted. After what, nearly a year, he's letting me see past the surface frivolity at last. Her shoulders straightened and she shifted in her seat in anticipation.
"Yeah, I mean, look at all the wars that are caused by religion!" said Neil, gesturing with one hand for emphasis as he drove. "All over the world. There's Muslim vs. Jew, Hindu vs. Christian, Hindu vs. Muslim. Christian vs. Muslim. Heck, some of them are even fighting themselves in places! And you tell me religion's a good thing? The world would be a whole lot more peaceful without it, in my book!"
Chloe's eyes were bright with amusement at his heartfelt conviction as she pondered her reply. "Religion's not all bad, you know," she murmured.
"No? What good has it done?"
"Well, take the Welsh language. It would have been lost forever if it hadn't been for the Welsh Bible."
Neil laughed. "That as good as you got, Chlo?"
Chloe smiled. "Well, I can't remember anything else specific off the top of my head," she admitted. She thought for a moment. "Okay, I'll use your example – Sara. She's a lovely girl, and she's religious."
"Chloe, I know loads of 'lovely girls' who aren't religious," retorted Neil, then had the grace to blush as Chloe thumped him lightly on the shoulder. "Hey, you know what I mean!" he protested, and gave her a sly look. "In fact," he added, his eyes twinkling with mirth, "I believe you're one of them." Then he frowned. "At least I thought you were."
She chuckled and leaned back, savouring the gentle humour flowing between them. Why can't we be like this all the time? she asked herself wistfully, a pang of sadness casting a faint shadow on her heart. This is how it should be; communicating properly with one another, making the other person smile, completely relaxed in each other's company...
Neil's voice broke into her reverie. "You never said what you think."
"Hmm?" Chloe blinked in surprise, her thoughts momentarily jumbled. "Sorry, what was that?"
"You never said what you think," Neil repeated. "About religion. You asked me, now I'm asking you."
"Oh. Well," said Chloe, absently playing with an errant strand of her dirty-blonde hair, "I guess I've never really been comfortable with the idea that this is all there is. You know, 'we're born, we live, we die, that's it.' Our lives just an insignificant blip in the vast aeons of time."
"Why not? Makes sense to me."
"That sounds like a pretty hopeless existence, don't you think? I mean, what's the point of it all?"
"To propagate the species."
"Maybe, but honestly, so what? Who cares whether the human race goes on for a few million years, if all we are is a great cosmic accident?" Chloe threw her hands up in despair, her face alive with feeling as she warmed to her subject. "What's the meaning of life, Neil? Tell me, if you know, because I certainly don't!"
"42," Neil quipped, fighting to keep a straight face.
Chloe rolled her eyes at the infamous answer from Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. "Come on, Neil, be serious!" she appealed, reaching out to touch his arm.
"Sorry, Chloe, I couldn't resist," said Neil, with a nod of apology, and covered her hand with his own for a moment. "Okay," he went on more soberly, "well, personally, I try to live by the maxim 'the meaning of life is derived from what you put into it'. That, and 'live life to the full, 'cos it's the only one you get'."
Chloe grimaced and shook her head. "That's not enough for me. It's too... empty." She paused, her jade-green eyes thoughtful. "I guess that's why I envy people like Sara. She has a purpose that's outside herself. It defines who she is, gives her a drive and energy, a sense of daily fulfillment. That's something I totally lack."
Neil glanced at her sharply. "You can have purpose without religion. There's purpose in your relationships, fulfillment in raising a family and giving your kids the best possible start in life. You don't have to get all religious."
Chloe shrugged. "Maybe. And I'm not 'all religious', as you put it – not yet, anyway. But I am interested; that's why I'm thinking about these things, and why I want to do things like go to the march. At least the religions have some answers to my questions."
"But they all contradict each other!" protested Neil.
"I've gotta start somewhere, haven't I?" replied Chloe matter-of-factly. She watched the traffic contentedly as they approached the intersection for the major ring-road circling the town centre. This is joyous. We're finally talking. "Neil–" she began, as another thought occurred to her.
"Hang on, Chloe, this junction's pretty busy."
"Oh, sorry." She waited patiently until Neil completed his entry into the line of traffic. "Are you afraid of death?" she asked, once he had relaxed in his seat again.
Neil gave her a curious look. "Why should I be?"
"Well, you know, it's kinda scary wondering what'll happen, don't you think?"
Neil scratched his cheek with one finger as he pondered his reply. "I guess I don't really think about it," he said slowly. "I'm certainly concerned about the way in which I'll die. I'd rather it be quick and painless, if I have the choice. But being afraid of death itself... nah." He clicked his fingers. "Poof. I'm gone. The end."
"But what if it isn't the end, though?" asked Chloe.
"You mean, what if there's some kind of afterlife?"
"There isn't one," Neil declared, "so don't worry about it."
"That's the thing, though," said Chloe, rubbing the nape of her neck, "I do worry about it."
"I was talking to Sara a couple of weeks ago about what she believes," Chloe explained, "and she said something that has stuck with me ever since. It was in the Bible, she showed me the passage." She frowned in thought. "What was it now? Oh yes, that was it. 'It is appointed once for man to die, and then the judgement.' That's pretty ominous, don't you think?"
"Pah!" scoffed Neil. "What hogwash. It sounds too much like whoever wrote that was on a power trip if you ask me. They were just trying to scare the ignorant masses so the people would follow them."
"Well, you might be able to dismiss it just like that, but I can't. I've done too many things I'm ashamed of. It... it rings too true with me."
"Then you're altogether more gullible than I thought you were," snapped Neil. He was getting tired of this conversation.
Chloe shrank back, stung by his tone. Why was he so edgy all of a sudden? She swallowed, staring down at her hands in her lap. When she spoke again, her voice was carefully controlled. "I said much the same to Sara at the time. About it being scare tactics, a ploy to wield power. You know how she replied?" She looked across at Neil, and her voice softened. "She looked into my eyes and asked me a very simple question; 'What if you're wrong?'" Chloe's eyes returned to her lap, and she picked at a piece of loose fluff on her jeans. "It got me thinking. In fact it took me ages to sleep that night, I was thinking about it so much. What if I was wrong about religion? What if there really is an afterlife, one that is determined by what we do now? It would be foolish not to find out the consequences if I could."
"I think you're wasting your time, to be honest," stated Neil. "There is no god, there is no judgement, there is no afterlife."
"You seem awfully sure of that, Neil."
Neil gritted his teeth. "I am," he affirmed flatly. "There's no proof! Nothing. Not a jot."
"What if there is, and you simply haven't seen it yet?" Chloe argued. "Don't you think it's worth looking into, just in case?"
"No, I don't."
"But what if you're wrong?" she pressed. "What happens when you die and then you meet God and–"
Neil scowled. "I really don't know why we're having this conversation," he said forcefully, interrupting her. "It's not like either of us need to worry about dying any time soon! The way I figure it, I live a good life; any god that's up there will be more than pleased enough with me. I'm not going to spend so much time and effort concerning myself with thoughts of the afterlife that I don't enjoy my time here." He gave her a sidelong glance, his eyes flashing. "And neither should you."
"But–" began Chloe, only to have him interrupt her again.
"No, I don't want to talk about it anymore. We've been discussing this far too long anyway."
Chloe tried again. "But Neil, Sara said that the Bib–"
Neil slammed his hands on the steering wheel, making Chloe jump. "Enough, Chloe! I don't care what Sara and her precious Scriptures say, okay? Good grief." She recoiled at the dark edge of anger in his voice as if physically struck, and clamped her mouth shut, turning her head away to hide the hot tears that sprang to her eyes. Rubbing them hard, she stared out the passenger car window, her stomach churning.
Long minutes passed as tension continued to crackle between them, and Chloe clenched her jaw, trying to blot out the ominous thoughts that tumbled through her mind. Neil had never expressed anger toward her before, and it frightened her. It wasn't that she was scared he would physically hurt her. Rather, his outburst was one more sign that things between them weren't as they used to be. She was grateful for the conversation they had just had – until it all went pear-shaped, she thought sadly – but she was all too conscious of the distance that had begun to come between her and Neil over the last few months. Maybe we're not as suited to each other as I thought. She risked a quick look at her boyfriend, seeing little to assuage her fear. He stared forward, his body stiff and his mouth set in a hard line. Every movement he made was fierce, and she winced more than once as he yanked the gearstick into place.
Chloe hid a sigh of relief when Neil pulled up. Maybe he would relax a bit once they were out in the fresh air, away from the confined environment of the car. Then she noticed their surroundings and her heart lurched. They had planned to find a place to park and walk to the march together, but this was...
"Neil?" she queried, her voice trembling. Despite what she had said earlier, she desperately wanted him to go with her.
"You get out here, I'm going to park. I..." He paused. "I need some space to clear my head, okay?"
"Okay," agreed Chloe reluctantly, and undid her seatbelt. I need some space... The words echoed in her ears, making her heart ache afresh. Another way of saying 'I want to be somewhere you're not'. She opened the car door and swung one leg out, then turned to Neil in a sudden surge of anxiety, her eyes searching his face. "Neil, I'm–"
"Just go," he snapped, refusing to look at her. Chloe hesitated, unwilling to leave, and his voice softened ever so slightly. "I'll call you if I can't find you," he told her. "Now go, before anyone behind me gets too annoyed. We're holding up the traffic."
"Okay," she sighed, and stepped out the car, the door thudding home with a finality that scared her in spite of Neil's assurance that he would join her once he had parked. She watched him pull out into the traffic before straightening her shoulders and taking a deep, cleansing breath. I guess my relationship issues with Neil will have to wait, she thought sadly, as she glanced at her watch. Right now she had a march to attend, and she was late.