"Hey, guys." I sighed as I plopped down on the couch. Joel and Connor were sitting around the coffee table, surrounded by craft materials. Nina headed into Margot's room to play with her friends. I assumed that Konnor's sisters were here, too – seven-year-old Eleanor and three-year-old Hopei.

"Hi, Malachi." Connor grinned, shoving a mug toward me as I unzipped my coat. I poured the hot cocoa out of the kettle, and added some whipped cream and chocolate sauce.

"Hey, Konnor, Joel." I replied, taking a sip of my cocoa. "So, what's the Santa Claus Day card plan?"

"Um, we have a whole bunch of craft stuff here," Joel explained, gesturing toward the coffee table and blanket that were covered in various items. "So, while we were waiting we made a couple of random designs, just as ideas."

"These are really good." I commented as I flipped through the cards they'd already made. There was a good-sized pile already. "Ooh, I like this one." The card was of white cardstock, stamped with a blue snowman and decorated with glitter. Several others showed red-and-green reindeer, a purple mug of steaming brown cocoa, (complete with pompom marshmallows,) and a jolly Santa Claus. I grimaced at this one.

"What, Santa too fat or something?" Connor demanded, noticing my grimace.

"No, it's just that..." I trailed off, nervous to put my thoughts out in the open.

"Just that, what?" Joel pressed.

"It's just that...I don't believe in Santa Claus, okay?" I yelled, burying my face in the couch pillow. "All my life I've been told to be a good little boy so Santa won't leave coal in my stocking. But, even when I've done bad things, he still gives me presents. And then when I was seven..."

I trailed off, thinking of yesterday, when I witnessed Niagara screaming at her mom in the middle of the mall. If I let on that I was just like her, a lone Christian in a typical family of atheists, anything could happen. They might not care, my friends and family, or they could alert the Atheist Control, and I'd be punished with a public whipping.

I decided to risk it. I mean, Connor and Joel were my best friends. They wouldn't give me away...would they?

"What happened when you were seven, Malachi?" Joel whispered.

I took a deep breath. "When I was seven, I was playing hide and go seek with Nina. I was tired of the game, so I hid in the attic, knowing she wouldn't be able to climb up the ladder and find me. After a while, I got bored, so I started rummaging through all the old boxes we had up there. I found a box marked 'heirlooms'."

"What was in it?" Connor questioned.

"A bunch of books, music, and that laptop I've got." I answered. "But the books and music were illegal, though I didn't know it at the time. I brought the box downstairs to show my parents, ask if I could keep the stuff. They turned white. I didn't know why. They argued about it for days, but finally they said I could keep it if I kept it in my room, and never told anyone about it."

"What was the stuff? How was it illegal?" Joel asked, curiously.

I sighed, grabbing my backpack from the floor. I pulled my holophone from the side pocket. Turning it on, I went straight to the music. I silently thanked God that Joel's parents weren't home.

"Ready, guys?" I asked. They nodded in unison. "You're not going to tell anyone, are you?" They shook their heads. Slowly and carefully, I pressed Play.

Oh what I would do to have
The kind of faith it takes
To climb out of this boat I'm in
Onto the crashing waves

The song was Voice of Truth by an old band, Casting Crowns. Apparently, they'd been pretty popular back in their day. I set my holophone on the couch.

To step out of my comfort zone
Into the realm of the unknown where Jesus is
And He's holding out His hand

Their eyes widened at the mention of Jesus. I looked down, biting my lip.

But the waves are calling out my name
And they laugh at me
Reminding me of all the times
I've tried before and failed
The waves they keep on telling me
Time and time again. 'Boy, you'll never win!'
'You'll never win!'

I glanced toward the room where Nina, Margot, Eleanor, and Hopei were playing. Their door wasn't closed all the way, but I doubted they could hear the music.

But the Voice of Truth tells me a different story
The Voice of Truth says, 'Do not be afraid!'
The Voice of Truth says, 'This is for My glory'
Out of all the voices calling out to me
I will choose to listen and believe–

Just then, the door burst open, and Joel's parents and older sister, Jessica, walked through the door, their arms loaded down with bags. I quickly hit Pause, shoving my holophone in my pocket.

"Hey, boys! How are those Santa Claus Day cards coming?" Joel's dad, William asked. His mom, Goldie, and Jessica headed down the hall.

"Great, Dad!" Joel called as William followed Goldie and Jessica down the hall. I quickly stood up.

"Maybe I should go." I stammered, picking up my backpack. "See you guys tomorrow."

"But, Malachi, we still have a bunch more cards to make." Connor protested. I headed down the hall, knocking on the door to Margot's room. "Nina, we have to go home."

"I forgot, my mom needs me to do...stuff." I replied. "I'll see you guys tomorrow."

"But, Malachi, I don't want to go home!" Nina protested. I handed her her coat.

"Too bad. We're going."

"See you later, Malachi!" Connor and Joel called as Nina and I headed out the door.

"Bye, guys!"

A/N: Geez, sorry I've been so MIA with this story! I'm still not promising regular updates, but they'll probably be a tad bit more frequent. Maybe. I don't know. Well, in the next chapter, you can look forward to some action! Malachi and Niagara will actually have a conversation, thanks to Nina and Darin! Yeah!