This is the Church…
Chapter One: The Bible Belt
For my entire life, I'd lived in Texas.
Not rowdy, rodeo Texas with boozed up blondes and horny cowboys. Though, if I had the choice, most days I would have preferred that to my own town. Where I had the misfortune of living there was no liquor, excluding the bottle of liquor I knew old Mr. Henderson hid in his desk for special occasions. Our clothing was loose fitting, our stores were censored, and the only place we were allowed other than school was the local Christian church that everyone in town attended.
That's right; I lived smack dab in the center of the Bible Belt.
Mildly annoying to most, the Bible Belt was a death sentence to a teenager. We couldn't do anything. Or, anything fun, rather. Once our homework was done, it was straight to Bible study. You're done with Bible study? You can have a religious discussion with your previously approved, just as well-behaved, uninteresting, tattletale, so called friends.
By friends, I meant members of the congregation. Anyone that wasn't a member of the church was by default determined to be a sinner. Unfit to spend time with the 'pure, innocent children of such a righteous organization.'
Now, don't get me wrong here. I don't have any personal prejudice against religion. As a matter of fact, I'd always believed in God. I always felt like someone larger than me was watching over us, guiding us in the right direction, helping us make good decisions. But our folks took it to an extreme, and to be entirely honest I was getting tired of the limits. Irritated, fed up with the restrictions and constant shoving of 'sinner, sinner, sinner!' down our throats. Our church didn't even make sense, I couldn't imagine any other church operated on the same illogical, crazy plane as The Church of Goldsburg.
Which is precisely why I was standing before a bottle of hard liquor—one that I'd stolen from my Grandfather's laminated, wood liquor cabinet, actively contemplating whether or not to take a drink. It was a battle of everything I'd ever been taught, up against the overwhelming curiosity that threatened to allow me to down the entire bottle in a single gulp.
Three weeks a year my parents sent me down to stay with my Grandparents. These three weeks were the only reason I was still alive today. My grandparents were, thankfully, the free spirit types. The ones who drank too much, who were a little bit loose in their morals, and the only ones that allowed me to do any living at all.
Granted, to me, living was my first opportunity to dance, or to listen to popular music. It didn't take much to excite me after being kept so tightly controlled for such a long time. The farthest I'd ever strayed from the beaten path would be this—if I could manage it. At least my grandparents weren't home-that could complicate things. Though even if they were I doubted they would have cared very much.
I snatched the bottle, plopping down on the couch and squirming beneath the itchy fabric of my white undershirt. I only had today to do this. Tomorrow I would be shipped back off to my Bible-loving, slightly crazed hometown. Then it was four more months of torture. Four months of boring, uneventful Hell on Earth. Four months of being stuck in stuffy, morally perfect Goldsburg, Texas.
With that thought in mind, I opened the bottle, and took a long swig.
"Aren't you at least a bit excited, Noah?"
I tugged the bottom of my ivory turtleneck, pulling a few strands of my brown hair out of its collar. "No, mother, I am not excited. And I won't be no matter how many times you ask me." I could tell my tone was icy, and I pursed my lips as I checked my reflection in the mirror. Dark circles marred an otherwise flawless complexion, but my face was still unattractive. My nose had a large bump on its bridge, my eyes were too large, and a splash of freckles sealed the ugly deal.
She smiled. It was that all-knowing smile the lit a burst of contempt in my chest. Why couldn't I be that content with being controlled? It would make things so much easier. "The Lord has given you so much intelligence, Noah. I guarantee that you will enjoy this year at school just as much as the last." I clenched my fists, careful to keep my expression neutral.
"Of course, if the Lord has made it so." I managed, turning on my heels and sending her one last look before I stalked towards the door. I hoped it was a nice, withering glare. "I will see you tonight, mother."
"Be safe, honey!" She called, still completely unaware of my feelings. I sighed and flung my backpack over one shoulder, not sure whether to be jealous of her utter obliviousness, or to simply be irritated. I loved my parents, but all of this God-this, God-that business was starting to become too much to bear. My mother in particular, she couldn't take a hint no matter what I tried.
It wouldn't be any better at our town's tiny high school either. The teacher's were the Hitler's of religion, not beyond persecuting anyone that was stupid enough to bother trying to express even a bit of originality in this god-forsaken place. Past sitting and paying attention, you were better off not doing anything. If you were caught goofing off by one of the teacher's, or their equally frightening pet hall monitors, you were toast.
Kids still broke the rules, of course, but doing so was such a torrid affair that it was never spoken of. Not to anyone outside the rule-breakers tight circle, at least. It was far too risky to even consider breaking the news to anyone you didn't trust entirely. Even if you did trust someone, it was like walking in a mine field. There was a line drawn in the sand, and you had to determine whether your particular crime crossed it or not.
Of course, there were a few notable exceptions. But those were the sorts of things that you didn't speak of unless you wanted to be accused of being a Satanist. Even with the kids of this town, much of religion's prejudices were carried on. But only the big ones, only the prejudices that made peoples skin crawl with the utter audacity of such a sinful act.
One of such was being gay.
Two years ago a girl had come out to her best friend. I should know, I was a sophomore at the time, and a witness to the torture that followed. In any normal place, she'd likely have received a hug and a 'that's okay'. Only, in the Bible-centric town of Goldsburg, that earned her being disowned, shunned, and verbally abused by nearly everyone she came in contact with-including her own family.
There's a reason that people don't come out of the closet here.
I pushed the thoughts out of my head and managed to make it to my homeroom early. I actually liked certain parts of school. Without anything else to do in this stupid life of mine, I focused all my attention on studying, so I excelled. Granted, we were offered censored versions of history and the like, but I managed to get some nuance of the truth out of it all. I like to think that even if it's not much, at least I'm cheating the system a little.
I slipped my books out of my bag, allowing myself to be sucked into their depths. That is, until the hum of approaching students cut my reading time suddenly short.
It didn't take much to figure out who it was. At Goldburg High, there were only two people who generated that much excitement in the generally dead population: the reigning King and Queen of the school: Finn and Dianna.
Dianna was the perfect, celibate cheerleader. With long, flowing black hair and flawless exotic skin and wide, hazel eyes. She was kryptonite to the church types, though somehow she'd kept her reputation intact anyway. Probably thanks to her spotless grades, athletics, and club activities. Which, unfortunately, pretty much insured she'd be on the fast track to an Ivy League college.
Finn, he was the Golden Boy—in every sense of the word. He had straw colored ringlets perched atop his tanned, clean shaven head. He was the football star, the polite, well-mannered church boy that the father of every teenage girl in the town wished to see waiting on their doorstep. He was the boy that sang in the church choir, played the organ, and had pretty much everyone in a ten mile radius wrapped around his little finger.
Everyone except me, that is.
I saw through his and Dianna's fake little relationship. Sure, they went through the stupid facades that everyone wanted to see. They held hands, they shared chaste kisses between classes and Finn carried her books; everything that meant something in high school but that really meant absolutely nothing at all. There was no love there—no spark in their eyes, no care in their touch. Call me poetic, but those were the sorts of things I noticed.
"Good morning, Mrs. Point," Finn said politely, setting Dianna's books on her desk and offering a smile. I mentally gagged, making a note to never end up as such a disturbingly kind person. Though, I probably already acted like one without my conscious consent. It was a defense mechanism in places like this. Still, I hate sugar coating things. Call me cynical, but it takes a least a little bit of mean to make the world go round. And it was not the kind of mean that our quaint little school had.
Mrs. Point, the wife of our Minister and school-teacher extraordinaire, gave an equally sickeningly sweet smile back to our resident Golden Boy. "Good morning, Finn. How was your evening? You weren't at service last night." There was slight disapproval in her tone, and I couldn't help but smirk in satisfaction. Finally, someone was going to do something wrong, and something interesting was going to happen in this depressingly boring town.
Finn seemed apologetic, but what someone 'seemed' to be in this town never meant anything. It was all fake. Every last bit of it. "I apologize, Mrs. Point. My little sister fell quite ill, and I had to stay home and tend to her. Last night's service was of particular interest to my parents, so I offered to miss it for them."
Any awkward encounter that could have been exchanged, and therefore livened up my day, promptly faded. I inwardly groaned. Great, I'd been hoping for something at least mildly entertaining today, and now that the conflict was avoided—those hopes were dashed. It was true, not a single thing worth mentioning ever occurred in Goldsburg-not a darn thing.
"Oh, Rose was ill? What happened to her? The poor dear." Fake. Liar. You don't care about her at all, Mrs. Point. Lying is a sin, you know.
Now that I looked more closely at him, there were signs of strain marking his face. Even Dianna, whom was normally more jeering with her boyfriend, had simply taken her seat and left him alone. The bags beneath his eyes, the pallor of his skin…Rose must have been quite sick. Suddenly I was feeling guilty for wishing him misfortune, no matter how much his perfect life irked me.
Despite the fact that I didn't particularly like her brother, Rose was the town's sweetheart. A tiny blonde thing of nine, unarguably sweet, undeniably sinless, and the least judgmental girl that still lived in this town. I sincerely hoped that whatever plagued her wasn't serious. She was one of a severely limited number of flames that still burned bright here.
Finn's demeanor was off kilter as well, now that I thought about it. That smile earlier had been entirely forced. Granted, most of the expressions here were, but this one even more so than the others. What on Earth was going on with Rose? "She—she…we don't know." He paused, as though here were considering whether or not to mention something. "She's been vomiting constantly, and she can't seem to stay awake for any longer than a few minutes. We brought her to the hospital…"
Mrs. Point gave him a sharp look. "Finn, if she has been vomiting, you know what this could be. Hospitals aren't going to solve that problem."
I paled, biting my lip. His sister was very ill, she couldn't possibly be suggesting…
Finn seemed to crumple underneath the realization of her intentions, and I swear I saw a flash of disbelief and anger flash over his features. Just as quickly as it arrived, it was gone, and replaced by a look of pure exhaustion. Finn really was defeated. I never thought I'd see the day when someone looked so hopeless. "Mrs. Point, you couldn't mean…"
She raised one perfectly groomed eyebrow, straightening the crumpled fabric of her skirt as she rose, and taking the corded phone from its base on her desk. She pursed her lips, tapping her manicured fingers against the heavy wood. "I should give Dennis a call. This is a matter that should be investigated immediately. Satan knows no boundaries, not even children."
Dianna 'tsked' as though she thoroughly agreed, and Finn leaned forward, pressing his point. "Mrs, Point, please, she just has some sort of stomach bug or food poisoning, there's no need to get so extreme…"
His girlfriend interrupted, "Finn, honey, Mrs. Point is right. If there is even the slightest chance that this could be entangled with Satan, it is our duty to investigate and be sure that it is not. If it is, you know what we must do. This isn't a matter that can be taken lightly."
Finn's lips parted slightly, and then he pressed them back together. I knew that look. He was holding back. It was a look that I often practiced myself. "But she's so weak; it will only serve to harm her if we are performing a bunch of rituals on her. She will just become frightened if we do that so soon..."
The bell rang and Mrs, Point sent Finn that motherly sort of look; the one you gave a disobedient child. "Satan is far more harmful than any procedure we may perform. Please inform your parents to bring her to service tonight, we will examine her there. If it is determined that she is possessed, be prepared to help us exorcise her." She pursued the mother no further, suddenly closing the topic as though it were nothing more than discussing the weather rather than the fate of a little girl.
Finn seemed ready to speak, but stopped himself, and gave a solemn bow of his head before taking his seat.
Part of me was entirely riveted by the Golden Boy's agitation, and the other part of me wanted to kidnap Rose and keep her safe from the psychos of our congregation. Each day I was growing more and more restless within my cage. One of these days the bars were going to snap, and when that happened I was going to get the Heck out of this forsaken place.
The rest of the day passed relatively uneventfully. But that happy sort of boring, eventless state would cease to exist once service began at four. I could only 'pray' that they wouldn't do anything too outrageous to Rose.
Rose was, to me, the only good thing about this town. Every Saturday since she was six she would meet me downtown, where, every day since I was fourteen, I would spend my day sipping coffee, reading the paper and ignoring the various religious chitchat the encompassed our only conversation in Goldsburg. You couldn't go out to lunch without the conversation turning into Jesus, God, or the Bible.
"Mother how is your spaghetti?"
"It is fine, so, what did you think of service yesterday?"
Or something of the sort.
But that little girl was something fresh. Something as wonderful and new as flowers in spring, when the dew sticks to the colorful petals and the smell is just starting to waft into the crisp air.
"What are you doing here?" She had asked me, when she was no more than six and a half, sporting a pair tan slacks and a navy sweater. What parents in their right mind dressed a six year old girl in the type of clothing? Only here were people conservative enough to do that, I can assure you of that.
I'd peered over the top edge of my paper, offering a nervous smile. "Reading the paper, what about you?"
She had ground her toe into the pavement, staring up at me with wide blue eyes. Eyes she shared with her brother, but which were so much more innocent than his. But I couldn't place who she was, not then. "Can I sit with you? I don't want to talk about Jesus anymore. That's all Mommy and Daddy ever do, and my brother won't talk to me with them around."
I suddenly recognized who she was. The eyes clicked for me. "You're Rose Patterson, right?"
She nodded, giving a toothy grin. "Yup! And you're Noah. You were the teacher's helper in Sunday School! You're in my brother's class, too. I met you on family day."
"Well, Rose." I had given her a soft smile, and motioned to the empty seat beside me. I was happy to have someone, anyone, to talk to. Anyone who wouldn't preach to me, anyway. "I'll talk to you, if you'd like."
So she'd plopped down beside me, and spent the next hour letting whatever came to her mind spill out of her tiny little mouth.
Not one word had to do with the Church.
I rifled through my locker, reminiscing—worrying. Just as I was finishing I noticed Finn passing by me from the corner of my eye, striding towards the front doors with surprising determination. Without really thinking, I caught his shoulder, slamming the door of my locker closed. It sounded metallic and hollow, and I winced away from the sound instinctively.
He seemed startled, but didn't face me. I immediately regretted even trying. But part of me still needed to know, part of me was afraid. I was going to do this for her. I was going to do this for Rose. "Finn, wait—is Rose okay?"
Finn turned, placing his steely, tired gaze on me. The school's Golden Boy was falling apart, and here I was, watching the pieces slowly crumble away. "What does it matter to you?" Then he caught himself, saw the carefully placed façade slipping, saw the shocked expression touch my face, and corrected his previously impolite demeanor. "She'll be okay. Why do you ask?"
I raised a brow, "I'm concerned about her. They really shouldn't perform an exorcism when she's still ill, the stress will only serve to harm her body further. If you'd like I can talk to my folks. They have some sway with the Minister." But I knew it was pointless. If the Patterson's didn't have enough control to stop the exorcism, there probably wasn't anything I could do. Either way, offering was the kind thing to do, and despite the fact that inside I was a complete rebel to all of the ideas of the Church, I'd still been raised to be outwardly angelic.
A fact that was moderately inconvenient most of the time, since I wasn't that person inside at all.
Finn stared at me for a moment, then blinked. "That's okay. I'll see you tonight, Noah." And with those parting words, he was gone, through the door so fast that I wondered if we'd even had a conversation at all.
I sighed, slipping my arms through the sleeves of my jacket and sliding the pocket Bible that I'd used in last period Bible Study back into the front pocket of my bag. It was hard to keep the tears from my eyes, knowing how helpless I was here.
Because half of me wanted to ignore everyone until the day I graduated and could leave this awful place. The logical half of me had plans for college, plans to get a job, a life. Fifty percent of me knew that the only way I'd get to any happiness would be escaping the constant persecution, the shoving of every little word written in our so called 'Holy Text' down my throat as though my very life depended on it.
But the other half, that was the part I was afraid of.
The other portion of me, that was the one that would get me into trouble.
Because while I was standing there like an idiot, feeling hopeless and weak while I watched Finn walk away, I was painfully reminded of a part of myself that I could never change, no matter how hard I had, did, and always would try.
I closed my eyes, taking a deep breath and striding out the door. My palms began to sweat as I contemplated Church that evening. From the patrons with their accusing stares and Bible clutching hands, to the beady eyes of the Minister and his wife and children—I couldn't help but let the guilt sweep over me each and every time I entered the building.
The other half of me wanted something I could never have.
Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.
Maybe I should be the one receiving an exorcism.