Copyright 2014. Torch Legacy Publications. All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner, except for brief quotations included in a review of the book. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
About this Serial Novel:
My name is Janae Lansyn Loilo. I am a seventeen-year-old French Canadian living in Toronto, Canada. Salut is French for “hi”. I can speak French and English but mostly use English. My dream is to become a professional fashion model and just in case you haven’t heard, Toronto is an awesome place to live. We have amazing art museums, including one totally dedicated to hockey; and an amazing shopping mall which is home to more than 200 stores. The Wonderland amusement park is one of the best in the world, especially the insanely fast Leviathan roller coaster. It’s my favorite ride! And I haven’t even mentioned our world-class sports teams – go Bluejays! But my favorite place to hang out is at church – my church called Elevate Grace.
Due to an incident that happened, it wasn’t always like that. I used to hate church – I hated going there, hated the people, hated everything about it. But all that hate changed when I realized the church is actually like one community, filled with imperfect Jesus-followers in the process of being perfected, who are there to help me in my Christian walk and to worship God fully. Church was once irrelevant in my life, but now it is more relevant than ever. By the end of my story, I hope you will see how it can be the same for you.
START READING: EPISODE #1
“We’re lost.” Trista Kennedy slammed the passenger door of the white Ford minivan and sighed. “We’re lost,” she repeated. “And we’re out of gas.”
Her husband, Cade Kennedy, ran a hand through his thin, dark brown hair and squinted into the dazzling afternoon sun. “Not good,” he muttered. His eyes returned to the map spread out across the minivan’s hood. Cade and Trista Kennedy, along with their two sons, six-year-old Noa and three-year-old Taylor, had just spent two weeks on vacation in Mexico and were returning to their home in Colorado through Death Valley, California. But now they were stranded and not a soul was in sight to help them.
Taylor, who had been asleep in his booster seat, awoke with a start when the car door slammed. Unbuckling his safety belt, he pressed his face against the hot glass window. Drops of perspiration formed on his forehead. His green and yellow striped shirt was damp from sweating. “Why are we stopped?” he asked. “Are we home yet?”
“Nada, we’re stuck in a desert,” Noa answered, folding a sheet of coloring paper to make a fan.
Taylor yanked hard at the minivan door handle and then pushed with all his might to open the door. Trista Kennedy saw him stepping out and shook her head. “Stay in the car,” she ordered.
“But, Mommy, I’m hot. Mommy, I’m thirsty,” Taylor complained.
“Noa, give your brother some water,” Trista Kennedy said.
Noa pulled Taylor back into his seat and handed him a bottle of water. It was warm from the heat. Taylor drank half of it before dumping the rest over his head. He thought it would cool him down, but it only made him hotter and now his skin felt sticky. He frowned and threw the bottle down. “I don’t want to be here anymore.”
“Unless you can magically make some gas appear for our car to start driving again, we’re going to be stuck here all day and all night,” Noa replied. “So, just stop your whining.”
Taylor balled up his right hand and hit Noa with a tiny fist. “I don’t whine. I’m not a baby anymore,” he protested.
The sound of an approaching vehicle made both boys look up. They knelt in the seat and watched through the back window as a black RV with a sea-green water strip around it pulled off the main road and stopped behind their minivan. An image of horses and the words Wind-Spirit were printed on the side. The RV’s driver stepped out. Cade and Trista Kennedy walked over to him. Noa and Taylor waited while they talked.
In a few minutes they returned to the minivan. “C’mon boys,” Cade said, opening the door and helping Taylor out. “This nice man is going to let us ride with him out of the desert.”
Noa picked up his backpack. “What is going to happen to our car?”
“We’ll come back later and get it,” Trista Kennedy answered.
The RV driver was tall, slightly muscular with stringy, close-cropped black hair combed neatly over the top of his forehead. He wore brown cargo shorts, a plaid blue shirt that read NAVY PROUD, and smiled grimly at the boys when they approached. He had a broad nose and hawkish duel-colored eyes. One iris was blue. The other green. Taylor immediately made up his mind that he did not like the RV driver.
Once inside, he sat very close beside his father and stared out the window. The RV started up and eased back on to the main road. The white Ford minivan grew smaller and smaller until it disappeared completely. Taylor’s mother sat on the other side of him and Noa sat opposite them in a large leather chair. He has happy to be out of the heat.
A sharp, shiny object that was leaning against the chair caught his eye and caused his smile to fade. It was an icepick. Ever since he had cut his finger with scissors as a five-year-old, Noa had had a phobia of sharp things. He quickly turned away and tried to focus on the moving desert scene outside the window.
“We really appreciate the ride,” Cade Kennedy was saying now. “Thank you so much Mr -”
The RV driver glanced at the family through the rear view mirror. His green eye narrowed. His blue eye glittered. “Theodore,” he answered. “Theodore Norcom.”
14 YEARS LATER
“Only three more weeks until prom night!” Beverly Malette sang, her shoulder length blonde hair bouncing behind her as she headed out the classroom door. She grabbed the elbow of her best friend, seventeen-year-old Janae Lansyn Loilo, and linked their arms. “You know what that means,” Beverly continued excitedly. “We have to go shopping for the best dresses. I’m going next week and you’re coming along with me – period. No excuses!”
Janae rolled her eyes. “I hope you haven’t forgotten that I do not even have a date yet,” she replied.
“Don’t worry, I’ll get you a guy,” Beverly said confidently.
It was Friday and the last period at Spiron Prep School had just ended. The spotless hallways were teeming with chattering students in sharp black, white, and burgundy uniforms eager to begin their weekend. A loud cheer from a crowd of students who had gathered in a large circle around the announcements board caused Janae and Beverly to come over.
“TAY-LOR! TAY-LOR! TAY-LOR!” the crowd of students yelled, pumping their fists and stomping their feet. In the front and center of the crowd were three boys. Seventeen-year-old Taylor Kennedy Michaude was grinning and cheering with the others. He had thick eyebrows and a chin dimple. His ears were jagged sharp at the top from where they had been slashed by some sharp object when he was younger and he wore his brown hair long to cover them up. The other two boys, Caibe Maxwell and Stephen-Ethan Lawrence, didn’t look too happy.
“What’s going on?” Janae asked a red haired boy with glasses, unlinking her arm from Beverly’s.
“Taylor has been chosen over Caibe to face Macmillan High’s chess champ in our last championship game next week,” the red haired boy told her. He started clapping again and let out an earsplitting whistle. Janae cheered along. Besides being Spiron Prep’s top chess player, Taylor had been Janae’s next door neighbor in their upscale Yonge-Eglinton neighborhood since they were seven years old. He had recently started a rock band called M. Fenix where he played bass with three of his skateboarding friends.
“Your lost bet means you owe me five hundred dollars,” Taylor was saying to Stephen-Ethan as the crowd of students broke up.
“Yeah, sure. You’ll have it tomorrow,” Stephen-Ethan grumbled.
“Best wishes,” Caibe said, shaking Taylor’s hand. “I really wanted it but I’m sure you’ll do fine. Make us proud.”
“Or else I get my money back and your head is gonna be bashed against these lockers if you lose one point to Macmillan,” Stephen-Ethan threatened. Taylor dodged his swinging fist and shrugged.
“Cut that out,” Beverly said, slapping Stephen-Ethan’s arm. “Did you forget we’re going to the movies? We’re going to be late.” She waved to Taylor and Janae as they went out the double doors. “See you two sweethearts later.”
“Congrats chess-master!” Janae said, turning to Taylor. She pulled out a ten dollar bill. “It’s yours if you win the race home.”
Taylor banged open his locker and took out a black guitar case. “Deal,” he grinned.
Janae went to the gym to pick up her soccer uniform and say goodbye to coach Pom Solange before heading to her blue Taurus Sedan. Taylor had a black and orange Mustang sports car. She didn’t bother rushing home. Even if she had a ten minute head start on him, Taylor would still beat her because he was known for ignoring stop lights, disobeying street signs, and had already racked up an impressive number of speeding tickets. When she pulled into her driveway twenty minutes later, Taylor was waiting by his car. “You’re late,” he called across the yard. “I win – again, but you can keep the money though.”
Sammie Loilo, Janae’s eleven-year-old brother came running out their front door. “Auntie’s here!” he yelled. Sammie had bright eyes framed behind thick, black-rimmed glasses, a wild mop of curly hair that refused to be tamed, and a heavy interest in the sciences. He was always finding some insect or rodent to dissect and carried out dangerous, bound-to-fail experiments around the house on a daily basis.
“Hey rocker boy!” Sammie yelled at Taylor. “Have you changed your band’s name yet? When’s the album coming out?”
“We’re still called M. Fenix and you don’t have to yell. The whole block can hear you,” Taylor answered.
Sammie squinted behind his glasses. “M. Fenix? Seriously, what kind of rock band name is that?”
“I told you already. It’s from my favorite video game character. Marcus Fenix. Gears of War. Simply the toughest, most muscled, hardcore marine ever.”
“I’m not getting the connection and what about the album? Please don’t tell me you’re still working on it. It’s been a year almost.”
“Well, we are still working on it so you’ll just have to wait. Good things take time. Great things take more time.”
“Whatever you say,” Sammie said, following Janae into their house. “Don’t forget I was your biggest fan when you’re all famous and rich.”
Janae’s aunt Stephanie was in the kitchen serving out bowls of bean chili. Carrot cake muffins were baking in the oven. “Hi, Janae, how’s my favorite niece?” she greeted. Janae dumped her soccer uniform and books on the counter to give her aunt a hug. “Your favorite and only niece is doing pretty good,” she answered. “What are you doing here? I thought you were in France.” Stephanie worked as a fashion editor for an international style magazine which required her to travel a lot. She had a small apartment in New York City but visited her sister, Janae, and Sammie as often as she could.
“I was going to France but my plane was delayed until tomorrow morning,” Stephanie said. “So I decided to stop by here and fix something. I hope you’re hungry?”
Janae joined Sammie at the table and started on her chili. “Where is Celine?” Stephanie asked them.
“At the church as usual,” Janae answered. “She works there as the secretary now and she sings in the choir and she leads a small group every Tuesday. Almost everything she does is church related.”
“Is there something wrong with that?”
“No, church is great.”
Sammie glared at Janae. “How would you know?” he said, his mouth full of food. “You don’t even go to church anymore.”
Stephanie sat down at the table. “You don’t? How come?”
Janae stared into her chili bowl. She had to think about an answer to that question. She remembered when she used to attend church but ever since she had quit going at fourteen, her faith had taken a back seat in her life and God had become a distant stranger. When Janae first became a Christian at eleven years old, church had seemed exciting enough, but as she got older its meaning had faded. “It’s because of Dad,” Sammie told Stephanie. “When he left us, she stopped going and never went back.”
“This has nothing to do with Justin,” Janae replied. She had stopped calling her dad ‘Dad’ years ago.
“Yes, it does. You stopped a lot of things after he left like going to church and having prayer time every morning with me. You stopped having fun. You and mom started fighting all the time, over everything, including your stupid modeling career – which is all you care about now.”
“Shut up,” Janae snapped. Stephanie looked at her in disapproval. Janae shook her head. “It really has nothing to do with Justin,” she sighed. “Its just that I have a bunch of things going on right now. And it is not just modeling. I have soccer games. I’m graduating from prep school in a few weeks. And I’m trying to decide which college to attend. I just don’t have time for it. Plus, I don’t see why I can’t be a Christian without going to church.”
“Because you won’t make it into Heaven,” Sammie said, his mouth full again. “You’ll be left wandering somewhere between Paradise and Hades for all of eternity.”
Stephanie smiled. “That’s not true, Sammie. However as a Christian, and especially a young one, there are plenty of reasons why you should faithfully attend church. But we can talk about that another time. How has school and modeling been going?”
“School is fine, I guess. But modeling is great. I’m walking three runways on Sunday and -”
“See what I mean,” Sammie interrupted. “Modeling on the good Lord’s day.” He slurped up his last spoonful of chili as their mom, Celine, unlocked the front door and came through the living room into the kitchen. She greeted her sister with a hug. They had always been close.
“Hey, Mom, how was your day? I found the perfect experiment for the science fair next week that doesn’t require your lipstick or nail polish to be used,” Sammie told her. “And Auntie made us some awesome chili.”
“We saved you some,” Janae offered, pointing to the full bowl covered in foil on the counter.
“Thanks guys,” Celine answered. “But I’ll have to eat it later. I just had dinner with Wendell Wolka.”
“Who?” Janae asked.
“Wendell Wolka,” Celine repeated. “He’s the church’s new music director and a very talented one, I should add.”
“That’s great!” Janae said sarcastically. “So now you’re dating at the church too?”
“I think I’ll go to my room now,” Sammie said, getting up from the table. “I feel World War Three coming on.” He disappeared up the stairs.
“Janae, please, we’re just friends,” Celine said. “And even if we were to date, I don’t need you questioning my decisions all the time.”
Janae opened her mouth to respond, but another disapproving look from Stephanie made her think twice. “I think I’ll go up to my room too,” she said. Picking up her unfinished bowl of chili, she took the stairs two at a time. She didn’t want to hear anything else about church just then. She definitely did not want to hear anything else about her mom and Wendell Wolka.
On Sunday, Janae slept in late. She groaned drowsily when her cell phone rang less than a hour after her mother and Sammie had left for church. Stephanie had left for France on Saturday morning after fixing breakfast for them and talking with Janae about her church attendance and getting along better with her mom.
“Good morning!” Beverly said cheerfully on the other end of the phone. “What are you doing today?”
“I’m trying to go back to sleep after being rudely awakened,” Janae replied.
“Sleep? Seriously?” Beverly asked. “Today is a great day to go shopping. The prom is coming up, remember, and we have to be ready.”
“Beverly, we have three long weeks,” Janae groaned, suddenly sitting up and looking at her sports wristwatch on the table beside her bed. “You’re stressing out as usual and I can’t go shopping today, I have a runway show in less than an hour.”
“No problem, sweetheart. We’ll go tomorrow after classes,” Beverly responded quickly.
“I have soccer practice tomorrow, and on Tuesday I volunteer at the senior’s home as part of my modeling contract.”
“Janae, when it comes to you and the mall, an excuse is never far away.”
Janae climbed out of bed. “Well, I have enough clothes,” she told Beverly. “My entire closet is like a small store and I don’t even wear half the stuff in there.”
“One can never have too many clothes,” Beverly said. “We’ll go shopping together on Wednesday. Promise?”
“Promise,” Janae agreed reluctantly. “I’ll be free then – I think.”
“You better be,” Beverly replied. “Good luck on the runway. See you tomorrow. Tootles!”
Janae ended their call and rushed to take a shower. She hurriedly ate an English muffin sprinkled with Kashi cereal and nine orange slices before driving to Haas-Clint Plaza to meet with her agent, Mika Gist. Mika had a gray undercut with pink highlights, rocked swanky cocktail dresses, and as a rule never wore heels under five and a half inches. She had been Janae’s agent ever since Janae had won her first beauty pageant at nine years old.
“You’re late,” Mika greeted Janae when she entered her breezy, spacious office.
“Only by a minute,” Janae answered. “Wow! I like your new highlights.”
Mika ignored her compliment. She gave her a quick look-over and frowned. “Are you off your diet again?” Mika asked.
“Only since Friday,” Janae answered. “My aunt came over and my aunt cooks. She would be offended if I don’t eat her food.”
“That doesn’t justify anything since you agreed with me to stay on it. Step on the scale,” Mika ordered.
Janae sighed. She dropped her purse on the floor and stepped out of her moonless night PUMA sport fashion sneakers before stepping on the small white scale by the file cabinet.
Mika came over and looked at the screen. “Three pounds gained since our last meeting which was only two weeks ago,” she said matter-of-factly. “You’re hopeless.”
“I’ll get back on it. I’ll do better,” Janae assured her, starting to put back on her shoes. “It’s just that I’m still playing soccer so I need as much energy -”
“Janae, it doesn’t justify it. Do you want to be a soccer pro?” Mika shook her head before Janae could answer. “I didn’t think so. This is your modeling career we’re talking about here and nobody wants a fat model. New York Fashion Week accepted your portfolio but if you don’t lose the required nine pounds, I’m not sending you. Understand?” Janae nodded. Mika relaxed her face and gave a tight smile. ‘We’ve been a good team for a long time now,” she told Janae. “I just want the best for you.”
The drive to the fashion show venue was short. Much of the audience had arrived and were waiting under dimmed lights for everything to begin. Backstage was a hive of activity. Mika helped Janae find her name tag before disappearing to chat with some of the designers. Janae was scheduled to walk three runways for South Korean designer Minjae Bae, who was debuting three new collections in between British designer, Logan Wilson-Kai, and Canadian designer, Bria Sophia. Janae had walked runway shows for Bria Sophia before, but when Janae approached her she didn’t seem to remember. Janae was relieved to find Minjae Bae was a lot more friendly. Even though he was younger than most of his fashion peers, at twenty-three years old, he was passionate about his work, made time to get to know the models who wore his designs, and didn’t run backstage like a military boot camp.
An assistant named Ivy hurried Janae to a leather seat in front of the mirrors. She immediately started spraying her loose hair with Wella Ocean Spritz and whipping through the curls with a wide toothed comb. A second assistant, Jessica Kenzo, started on her makeup. “I want pale, clean skin,” Minjae Bae ordered Ivy, Jessica, and a dozen of his other assistants who were working on the other twenty-one models. His first collection called Burj al High was inspired by the city Dubai and featured glittering, slinky dresses with glass neck borders, transparent cut-out sleeves, and long, sweeping trains in assorted soft, milky colors of white, blue, silver, and tie-dye aqua.
“No blush?” Jessica asked above the loud techno-rap music that was playing on stage to accompany the designs of Logan Wilson-Kai. His showcase had already started.
“No blush,” Minjae Bae repeated, twisting the measuring tape that hung around his neck. “I don’t want any lipstick either. Just lots of mascara and thick, square eyebrows.” He looked over the first four who had just been completed and pointed to one with dark hair. “Almost perfect, just straighten her eyebrows. Give her hair more loose strands.” The models’ hair was being turned into turbans for the Burj al High collection. Ivy and Jessica finished with Janae and she was rushed off to be dressed in a flowing, silver dress with a neckline bordered in tiny, glistening glass squares. The dress practically sparkled in the bright overhead lights. Her towering stilettos were a matching silver with crystallized straps that reached her knees.
The models for Logan Wilson-Kai had just finished their last walk and were coming backstage. “We’re on in fifteen!” Minjae Bae yelled as the assistants rushed to apply last minute touch-ups. “Sorti!” he called to a guy with a purple mohawk and jabbed a finger at a blonde model with two cheek freckles. “I said no lipstick.”
“Oh vey!” Sorti exclaimed, looking distraught. “Sorry.” The blonde model was taken away, nearly tripping in her heels, to have her lipstick removed. The end of the techno-rap music meant Logan Wilson-Kai’s showcase was finished and the Burj al High was about to begin. Janae and the other twenty-one models lined up like jets about to take off on the runway. An Arabic melody began to play. Red and gold lights flooded the long catwalk.
Janae was third back. Glad she had mastered the art of fashion walking a long time ago, she confidently strutted down the runway in her heels and dress which lightly billowed out behind her. Janae could vaguely make out faces in the audience but it was too dim to see anyone clearly. The models kept their faces straight ahead, jaws set firmly and eyes slightly narrowed to give off a fierce Middle Eastern look.
“Nice walk,” Minjae Bae complimented Janae when she returned backstage. Jessica and Ivy immediately whisked her away to get styled for the next collection which had an exotic Carnival of Venice theme. When the other models finished, the Burj al High collection received a loud ovation. Minjae Bae’s anxious face gave way to a lopsided smile as he glanced at the small television screen showing the audience. “This was a success,” he said. “I love this collection.”
Carnival of Venice featured an array of satin crop tops, puffy skirts, and silk pants in a rainbow of bright, bold colors. Some of the models wore huge hats embroidered with sequins and feathers; others were styled with face masks and hair paint. Ivy wet Janae’s hair at the sink and combed it back behind her ears before applying a slab of orange paint to the right side. Jessica gave her lips a matching neon orange gloss, applied blush, then covered her eyes with a leather Zanni mask.
This time Janae was first in the line-up. Breakbeat dance music accompanied the model’s walk under psychedelic background lights which lasted about twenty-five minutes. When Janae was finished, Ivy and Jessica pulled her away again to get ready for the last 60s-inspired fashion collection which featured big wigs puffed to perfection and black and white Marilyn Monroe printed dresses.
The orange paint was stuck in Janae’s damp hair. Ivy was working feverishly to clean it out. Janae was sure her neck would have a cramp in it from all the tugging she was doing with the comb. “We may have to leave it,” Jessica said. “She’ll have a wig on anyway.”
The blonde model who had to have her lipstick removed approached Janae’s chair. “Is this yours?” she asked, holding up an iPhone in a polka dot mesh case. “It’s been beeping since we finished the first walk.”
“Yeah, thanks,” Janae answered, taking her phone. In the past ten minutes, she had received five unanswered calls and eleven unread text messages from Taylor. She slid the lock to answer as the phone vibrated for a second time. “Janae! Where in the world are you?” Taylor’s urgent voice sounded before she could say ‘hello.’ “You need to get over here now!”
“Over where?” Janae asked.
“The church. There’s been a fire.”
Janae felt her heart beat faster. “Is everyone okay?” she asked.
“Not sure. Several people were taken away in ambulances. A lot are still inside though – hold on.” Taylor’s voice faded out. Janae heard muffled voices yelling in the background. In a minute, he was back. “Your mom’s been taken to the hospital, probably just for smoke inhalation, I think. But she was inside for a long time.”
Janae’s heart sank. “Where’s Sammie?”
“Sammie’s fine. He’s right here with me.”
“I’ll be right there.” Janae pulled her hair out of Ivy’s fingers as she ended the call. “Stop it. I have to go,” she told them. Jessica stared at her in doubt. Mika looked over from where she was standing in between two clothes racks. “Where do you think you’re going?” she asked.
“My mom’s been in a fire,” Janae answered, heading to the side exit door. “I’m sorry, but I have to go now.”
Mika tossed aside the hanger she was holding and her hands went to her hips. “Janae Loilo,” she snapped sharply. “What kind of model are you trying to be? I don’t care what happens; you do not, cannot, run out on your job. That catwalk is calling your name and you better answer it.”
Minjae Bae jogged over. “What is the problem?”
“I’m really sorry,” Janae started. “I love your designs and I really want to finish but my mom was just in a fire at her church -”
“That’s fine,” Minjae Bae interrupted. “You can leave.”
“What do you mean this is fine?” Mika snapped.
“Family should come first. It’s fine,” Minjae Bae repeated, waving Janae out. Janae dashed out the door, still in her Carnival of Venice dress and heels and the orange paint in her messy hair. Mika snatched her purse and stomped out after her. “I so cannot believe this,” she muttered.
Minjae Bae nodded to the blonde model. “Take her place,” he said. “We’re on in five.”
When Janae arrived at Elevate Grace Church, the ambulances were all gone and only the fire trucks and a few police cars remained. The flames had been put out but the smell of smoke still hung heavy in the air. A large section in the back of the main building which held the sanctuary and church offices had been burned down, along with several cars that had been parked nearby. Twisted, blackened equipment pieces lay smoldering in the wreckage. Most of the people were standing in the open parking lot, still in shock, and waiting for more news on those who had been injured. Others huddled in prayer groups.
Janae spotted Taylor and Sammie standing by Taylor’s car and hurried over to them. “What happened?” she asked.
“I was in Sunday School,” Sammie began excitedly. “And then we heard people yelling in the halls and a loud boom and when the fire alarms went off, our teacher fainted right out. So we poured fruit punch on her until she got up (that was my idea). Then I led everyone in my class outside by the emergency stairs, like Moses did in the Exodus. The sky was all bright and orange. I really thought Jesus was coming back.”
“The police think it was arson,” Taylor said dryly. He gave Janae a weird look, “I barely recognize you with all that paint on. What happened to you?”
“Fashion show,” Janae sighed. “Come on, we have to get to the hospital.” The three of them climbed into Taylor’s car and he pulled slowly out of the church parking lot. Janae stared at the burnt remains until they were out of view. “If it was arson, I really hope they find whoever started it,” she said. “I know I haven’t been by here in a while but I really can’t imagine anyone doing something like this.”
Taylor agreed. “Yeah, it was a pretty new building anyway. They had just finished remodeling it last year. I hope no one died but a pretty good number of bodies were taken away injured. I just don’t understand -” His voice trailed off and they rode in silence for a while.
“You never told me why you quit coming,” Taylor finally said.
“I know,” Janae shrugged. “I guess -” She paused. “I guess I’ve just been very busy the past few years. I think I’ve grown up a lot and all the new things I started doing kind of got in the way and going to church wasn’t really helping me deal with it.”
“Dad got in the way too,” Sammie said from the back seat. Janae ignored him. She remembered the many past times she and Taylor had learned about Bible stories together in Sunday School. They had sung in the children’s choir and had twice been Mary and Joseph in Elevate Grace’s annual Christmas Nativity play. They had even gone down to the front when they were both eleven years old and prayed with Pastor Aaron Hill, asking Jesus into their hearts. The following week they had both been baptized in a wide pool filled with clear, sparkling water. At thirteen, Janae had transferred from her old school to join Taylor at Spiron Prep where she became fast friends with the popular and dramatic Beverly Malette who soon had her skipping church many Sundays to go shopping or get spa treatments or hang out at the yogurt shop to watch the inked, hipster boys perform skateboarding tricks and spray paint mean graffiti in the back alley. Then at fourteen, after her dad walked out on her, her mom, and Sammie, Janae had stopped attending church altogether.
“Well, whatever your reason, it’s not like we wouldn’t want you to come back,” Taylor told her. “Everyone still asks your mom what happened to you.”
“And?” Janae asked.
“And she just tells them that you’re old enough to make your own decisions,” Taylor finished. He pulled in front of the automatic hospital doors that led to the emergency lobby. “You two can get out here. I think my parents are in there. If you see them, let them know I’ll be in in a second. I have to park.”
A crowd of people from the church were waiting in the lobby. Several of them were crying. Taylor’s parents, Shaun and Elaine Michaude, were sitting beside a forty-nine-year-old woman in a floral print dress and black kitten heels. Her eyes were red from crying and the tears had washed away some of her makeup. Janae recognized her immediately as the wife of Pastor Aaron Hill. She walked over and gave Taylor’s parents his message. If they were surprised at her painted hair and colorful dress, none of them showed it. Shaun stood up and hugged Sammie and Janae. “Are you guys alright?” he asked.
“Yes, we’re fine. Do you know if our mom is okay? Can we see her?” Janae asked.
Shaun Michaude nodded. “I think the doctor will let you. She’s still unconscious right now because of the amount of smoke she inhaled and has a nasty back burn but she’ll make a full recovery.”
Sammie waved to a man across the room. He had a fire dragon tattooed around the left side of his neck. “You okay?” he asked Sammie, after coming over.
“Yes, we’re about to go up and see our mom,” Sammie answered. “Did anyone die?”
The man’s face went grim. “Unfortunately, yeah,” he nodded. “I believe Pastor Hill went back to help others. He didn’t make it out. Your mom and the eight others who were injured are going to be okay though.” Sammie’s eyes fell. The man hugged him. “Don’t cry Sammie. Pastor Hill is in a better place with Jesus right now.”
Janae looked back at Taylor’s parents who were still sitting with the pastor’s wife. She felt badly for her. She really hoped that whoever had started the fire was found quickly. The man with the fire dragon tattoo was talking to her now. “You must be Sammie’s sister. I don’t think we’ve met before. Name’s Wendell Wolka.”
Janae forced a smile. Why couldn’t he have been burned instead of Mom?
A poker faced doctor entered the lobby, looking like he wanted to exit immediately. “You and your brother can see your mother,” he said to Janae, after giving a long look of disbelief at her appearance. “She is not awake yet. She remains in an unconscious state but I suppose it won’t hurt to view her.” The doctor cast a sympathetic glance at the pastor’s wife. He gave a tired sigh then turned to leave. Janae and Sammie followed him down the hall and onto the elevator to the second floor of the hospital. Wendell Wolka went with them.
In Room 319, Janae’s mom lay under a clean, white sheet. Her creamy caramel colored brown hair was spread out on the white pillow. Her elbows and neck were heavily wrapped in gauze. Several cords attached her to a hospital heart monitor which emitted a constant beep. Janae held her hand and squeezed it. She wanted to tell her mom she was sorry for the way they constantly fought over almost everything since her dad left. She instantly made up her mind that once her mom had recovered completely and was out of the hospital she would work on having a better relationship with her.
Sammie stood silently beside Janae. He finally turned to the doctor who was standing in the door, frowning at his clipboard. “Is she going to have scars?” he asked.
“Well, her burns were not that severe so we did not have to do any skin grafting,” the doctor answered. “There may be a few marks that will take longer to disappear, but I have no doubt they will go away eventually. I don’t foresee any scarring at this point. We’re mainly keeping her here to make sure her lungs are fine. She took in a lot of smoke and that can cause problems in the future for her if not treated thoroughly.” He looked back at his clipboard and frowned again. “You know, standing here won’t exactly wake your mom up any faster,” the doctor continued. “So if you want to stay the night, you can. If you want to leave, you can.” He gave Janae’s painted hair another skeptical look. “If you need to clean up, there’s a bathroom five doors down the hall.”
“Can we stay here?” Sammie asked Janae.
“No, we have school in the morning,” Janae answered. “But we’ll come back tomorrow and see how she’s doing.”
“Are you kids going to be alright at home by yourselves?” Wendell Wolka asked. He pulled a scrap of paper and a pen out of his pocket and started scribbling his cell number on it.
“Yeah, we’re fine,” Janae told him. “We’ve been home alone before many times. We’ll be fine.”
Wendell Wolka handed her the scrap of paper. “I think I’ll stay here tonight,” he said. “But if you need anything at all, please just give me a call. You two stay safe and get some sleep. Try not to worry. You mom’s going to be fine.”
Janae and Sammie rode with Taylor back to Elevate Grace to pick up Janae’s car. Shaun and Elaine Michaude drove behind in their own car. With his parents following him, Taylor was very careful to obey the lights and drove so slowly he kept his speed five miles under the limit. “Seriously, Taylor?” Shaun Michaude exclaimed when they finally pulled into the church parking lot. “It’s good to know I have a responsible son but I hope you don’t always drive so slow.”
Taylor grinned. “Just didn’t want my old man to get left behind.”
Monday morning came fast and Janae’s alarm failed to go off. “Hey sleepyhead, get up!” Sammie yelled, banging on her bedroom door. “We’re going to be late for school and you have to drive me since mom’s in the hospital.”
“Alright, alright,” Janae muttered. She pulled the sheet off her head and rubbed her eyes. “I was up all night scrubbing paint out of my hair. Go and get ready. I’ll be down soon.”
“I am ready,” Sammie answered. “What’s for breakfast?”
Janae groaned. She snatched up her slippers and headed to the bathroom, tripping over her gym bag as she did so. “Just get yourself some cereal. I’ll be down soon,” she repeated.
Ten minutes later, Janae ran down the stairs in a black pleated skirt and white polo. Sammie was standing on the counter, spreading a jar of nutella over brown sugar and cinnamon pop-tarts. “We are out of cereal,” he said. “We’re out of milk too and I just finished the last nutella jar. We should go shopping after school. Want a pop-tart?”
“I’m dieting,” Janae answered, remembering her conversation with Mika Gist just the day before.
“Suit yourself,” Sammie replied. He stuffed his last pop-tart piece in his mouth and jumped off the counter. “Let’s not make ourselves any later than we already are.”
Janae rushed Sammie to Houghton Road Elementary School before driving the short distance from his school to Spiron Prep. Beverly was waiting by their magnet covered lockers for her. “Oh sweetheart!” she exclaimed as soon as she saw Janae and gave her a tight squeeze. “I heard about the fire and was worried sick all night when you didn’t answer your phone. I called like a billion times. Is everyone alright?”
“Not really,” Janae told her.
“You’re not burned anywhere, are you?” Beverly asked, looking genuinely concerned.
“No, I’m fine. I wasn’t even there, actually. Taylor called and told me about it. My mom was taken to the hospital with a few others and the pastor, well…he didn’t make it.”
“That’s awful,” Beverly said. “But shouldn’t you have been there? I thought you were one of those church girls.”
“You mean a Christian girl,” Janae replied. “Most do go to church, but its not a requirement, at least I don’t see it as one.” She opened her locker and pulled out the books she needed for second period. “I think I’ll go home early today,” Janae yawned. “I hardly got any sleep last night and I have to visit my mom later. Plus, I have to go shopping.”
“Shopping!” Beverly exclaimed.
“It’s for food,” Janae answered. They started down the hall through the maze of I’m-still-sleepy faced students. “But I have no idea what to get because I can’t even cook.”
“Take out is the best friend of every non-chef,” Taylor said, coming up beside them.
“Did you get hurt in the fire?” Beverly asked.
Taylor shook his head. “Heard from your infamous dad lately?” he asked Janae.
“No. Why?” she frowned.
“The police found him early this a.m. Half-drunk. On the run,” Taylor answered. He slid a copy of The Toronto Star on top of her books. ARSONIST ADMITS TO CHURCH BURNING FOR BEING ‘MAD AT GOD’, the bold headline read. A mugshot of Justin Christopher Loilo stared up at Janae. Under different circumstances, she would have thought that face handsome because she got a lot of her features from her father, but today she didn’t think that at all.
Janae folded the newspaper over and groaned. “I’m certainly going home early today.”
During lunch break, Janae left Spiron Prep and drove to pick up Sammie early from his school so they could visit their mom in the hospital. Clouds had replaced the morning sun and soon a dull rain began to fall. When she pulled in front of Houghton Road Elementary, Sammie ran out the front doors, his monster green and black sneakers spraying the spreading water puddles every which way.
“Did you hear?” he yelled, swinging open the door on the passenger side.
“About Justin?” Janae questioned.
Sammie dumped his book bag in the back, slid into the seat, and slammed the door. “Yes!” he yelled again. He took off his raindrop spattered glasses and dried them in his sweater. “My entire stupid class knew before I did and they wouldn’t stop calling me the stupid son of some stupid jailbird. Even Emilie joined in, and I thought Emilie liked me. This is easily the most embarrassing day of my eleven years and seven months in existence. I’m not going back to school tomorrow. In fact, I’m never going back. Never! Ever!”
They drove in silence the rest of the way to the hospital.
Wendell Wolka was still there, sitting in a chair by the bed and chatting with their mom, when Janae and Sammie walked into Room 319. Their wet shoes made loud squish sounds on the clean hard floor. Celine Loilo saw them first and smiled. Janae took her hand. “Hey mom,” she said. “How are you feeling?”
“Better and very blessed to be alive,” her mom answered. “Wendell told me about Pastor Hill. His death has been really difficult to take, but I’m thankful God spared as many lives as He did because it could have been a lot worse.” She looked at Sammie. “You okay, honey? You look really upset about something?”
“They found out who started the fire,” Sammie told her. Janae jabbed Sammie’s arm with her elbow and gave him a don’t-mention-it look. She didn’t think their mom needed to be bothered with their dad while lying in a hospital bed, but Sammie ignored her. “It was Dad,” he continued.
Janae’s mom looked from Janae to Wendell and back to Sammie. “What?” she asked incredulously, struggling to sit up; but the pain from her back burns kept her from fully doing so.
“Shh,” Wendell whispered, pushing her gently back into the pillows.
“Do you know why he burnt our church down? He said he did it because he was mad at God,” Sammie said. “I thought he was over his religious issues.” Celine shook her head and closed her eyes. She began to cry.
“Sammie, stop it,” Janae ordered. She had never seen her brother so upset.
“No,” he answered firmly. “Dad could have killed you, Mom. He could have killed me. If Janae still went to church, he could have killed his own daughter. He did kill Pastor Hill.” Sammie put an emphasis on the word ‘did’. “He hurt a lot of other people and I bet he doesn’t even care.”
“Sammie, calm down,” Wendell urged, going over to him. “Celine needs to rest and she needs to focus on getting better. This isn’t the best time to talk about what your dad did.”
The poker faced doctor suddenly appeared silently in the doorway and frowned. “What is this?” he asked upon seeing Celine’s teary eyes. “What is this commotion and noise?” He glared at Janae and gave a tired sigh. “I did not give you permission to visit my patient. She cannot be bothered right now. She needs peace. She needs quiet. Both of you leave now.”
“It’s alright,” Janae’s mom tried to tell the doctor but he wouldn’t hear it.
“You cannot have unnecessary interruptions in your recovery,” the doctor told her. He looked at Janae and Sammie. “Leave now,” he ordered again.
“Bye, Mom,” Sammie said. He turned and walked past the doctor out into the hall. Janae squeezed her mom’s hand. “We’ll come back,” she assured her. “And don’t worry about us. We’ll be fine. Sammie will be his old self by tomorrow. He’s just still in shock about the fire, I think. Get better for us, okay?”
There was a line of cars in their driveway when Janae and Sammie arrived home. Janae was forced to park on the street. Sammie squinted through the rain as he pulled his book bag out and stepped onto the grassy yard. “Those are people from the church,” he told Janae, waving to the three women and two men who were standing on the porch. “They probably want to see how Mom is doing.”
Mr. and Mrs. Wilbur, Mr. and Mrs. Emerson, and Sammie’s Sunday School teacher, Lisa, all greeted him and Janae warmly. Janae faintly remembered Mrs. Emerson smelling of violet scented perfume and Mr. Wilbur always trying to flip the hymnal pages faster than her when she had attended church as a young girl. She didn’t remember ever seeing Lisa there. “I made a vegetable lasagna and a chocolate pecan pie for you,” Mrs. Wilbur told them. Janae unlocked the front door and let them all inside. “Thanks,” Janae said, taking the foil covered dishes and setting them in the kitchen. “We really need some cooked food because Sammie is always hungry and I’m not exactly Susur Lee.”
Lisa laughed. “Me neither,” she said. “How have you guys been doing?”
“Pretty good. We had school this morning but left early to visit our mom,” Janae answered. She suspected that they would soon ask about her dad and hoped they would leave quickly because she didn’t want to talk about him. She really wanted to be left alone.
“And how is your mother doing?” Mr. Emerson asked.
“Pretty good,” Janae answered again. “She inhaled a lot of smoke and has a few burns but the doctor said he expects her to make a full recovery.”
“That’s good to hear,” Mrs. Emerson said. She handed Sammie a bunch of yellow roses she had been holding. “This is for her. Next time you visit, let her know we’re praying for her.”
“I will,” Sammie said, disappearing into the kitchen to set the flowers in a cup of water. When he came back to the living room, he had a plate of lasagna. “I only had pop-tarts for breakfast,” he said. “Mrs. Wilbur, this is really good. Want some, Janae?”
“I’m dieting,” Janae reminded him.
“Dieting?” Mr. Wilbur chuckled and patted his well-rounded stomach. “That sounds like something I should be doing.”
Janae got up to open the front door as the bell rang twice. Two teenagers introduced themselves as Dwayne and Dwayne’s sister, Darlene. They were from Elevate Grace. Janae let them in.
“Yo man!” Dwayne greeted Sammie, giving him a high five. “You okay? Whatever you’re eating sure looks good.”
“Tastes even better,” Sammie told him. “I’ll get you some.” He disappeared into the kitchen again.
“Is your mom going to be fine?” Darlene asked Janae. Janae nodded. “That’s good,” Darlene continued. “She’s been a huge help to Elevate Grace. Everyone really appreciates her there.”
“Are you going to rebuild the part that burned?” Janae asked.
“Yes, they’ve already started raising money to build a new sanctuary,” Darlene answered. “A lot of people are giving.”
“And we have to find another pastor now,” Dwayne sighed, starting on his lasagna. “I’m going to miss Pastor Hill though. He really helped make God personal for me.”
“Pastor Hill was a great man, an even better friend,” Lisa agreed thoughtfully.
The door bell rang again as the Wilburs and Emersons prepared to leave. Janae got up to answer it and see them out. Caibe Maxwell had arrived with his mother who instantly gave Janae a hug. “I’m sorry about your mom, baby. Is she going to be alright? Are you and your brother alright?”
“Yes, Mom is going to be fine and we’re obviously fine too,” Janae answered. She took the plate of sugar cookies Mrs. Maxwell was holding and handed them to Sammie. Caibe and his mom entered the living room. “Would you like some lasagna?” Sammie asked Caibe.
“Sure,” he answered, sitting on the sofa beside Janae. “Long time since I’ve seen you,” he told her.
“What are you talking about? We were just in class together today.”
“I mean at Elevate,” Caibe replied. “It’s like you fell off the church radar a couple years ago. If it wasn’t for seeing you at Spiron, I wouldn’t know if you were still alive.”
“Well, I’ve been busy. I always seem to have other stuff to do on Sundays.”
“You do know that’s like the oldest excuse in the book,” Dwayne said. “You have to make time for God.”
“I do make time for God,” Janae replied. “I pray. I read the Bible. I pretty much do good stuff. Not going to church doesn’t make me a heathen.”
“Hey, I’m not judging you, girl,” Dwayne said. “I’m just saying church is important and God would like to see your face in His place every now and then.”
“But attending church is not something that should become legalistic,” Caibe’s mom said. “God wants your heart to be in the right place when you worship Him. No one should be forced to go to church. As a Christian, you should want to go. I actually quit going to church when I was about your age.”
Caibe raised his eyebrows. “Makes perfect sense why I get grounded for walking in ten minutes late,” he said and stuffed more lasagna in his mouth.
“Anyway, I went to church as a child,” Caibe’s mom continued. “I stopped going when I was eighteen after I left for college and returned once I got married. Church became much more meaningful to me after I realized it wasn’t just a place to go on Sunday mornings. God looks forward to meeting me there, plus there really is something special about group worship. Attending regularly will strengthen your faith and help you grow into a stronger Christian. When you give up on church, you put your own spiritual growth and blessings at risk. But church is something you have to come to love and something you have to want to do and whenever you decide to come back, baby, Elevate Grace will always welcome you.”
“I’ll think about it,” Janae told her. She said goodbye to Lisa who was leaving. Dwayne, Caibe, and Sammie had finished the entire pan of lasagna after going back for seconds, and were now cutting the chocolate pecan pie. “I almost forgot about soccer practice,” Janae told them. “So I have to leave. You guys can stay if you want.”
“I’ll stay here with Sammie,” Dwayne said. “We have a pie to finish off.”
“That we do,” Caibe agreed. “I’ll teach both of you some chess tricks. Good luck on the field, Janae.”
Janae’s stomach growled as she shut the front door. Mrs. Wilbur’s pie looked so good, but Janae was determined to stay on her diet for Mika Gist’s sake who was probably still mad at her for running out on the fashion show. She made a mental note to call her later. Another car pulled into the driveway just as Janae reached the street. She recognized the driver as Pastor Aaron Hill’s wife. Janae had been relieved the church visitors did not diss her for not attending and that they had not talked about her dad like she thought they would, but she had no idea what Mrs. Hill might say.
Janae rolled her car window down. “Is now a good time?” Mrs. Hill asked.
“I’m going to soccer practice but I guess I have a few minutes,” Janae answered before adding, “I’m really sorry about your husband.”
Mrs. Hill nodded and gave a faint smile. “Well, at least we know he is in a better place,” she said. Tears welled up in her eyes. She sighed and paused before continuing. “Listen, Janae. I know things didn’t go down well between your dad and Aaron, my husband. Your mom told me that was the primary reason you decided to stop coming. I can tell you that if there ever was one incident that Aaron regretted it was that one. He tried several times to get in touch with your dad to apologize and make things right. It really hurt him that he had been the cause of driving someone further away from God.”
“Justin started the fire,” Janae told her.
Mrs. Hill nodded again. “I found out in the paper this morning,” she replied. “And I have forgiven him. If Aaron were here, I know he would forgive him too. And your dad was forgiven by God for his actions a long time ago and if you still get to see him, I want you to let your dad know that.”
“Sure,” Janae answered. She hadn’t seen her father in years and certainly had no interest in seeing him now. “When is the funeral?”
“Next week,” Mrs. Hill answered, stepping away from the car. “We’re originally from Vancouver and that is where he will be buried. I’ll be staying there for some time too. Let your mom know she will always be in my prayers. Bye, Janae.”
Before Janae could make the call, Mika Gist called her. “Janae, there just aren’t any words to express my disappointment with what happened on Sunday,” she began as soon as Janae answered her cell phone. “I heard about the fire at your church. I know about your mom and I am glad she is okay. But there is such a thing called professionalism where the job is finished, no matter how you feel or what is going on in your family or personal life. You could have finished that walk. You should have finished that walk. Not taking your fashion runways seriously, putting on weight, and being uncommitted will not take you any higher in this industry. It’s not a cake walk around here. It’s a rat race. And you can’t keep letting other girls get ahead of you. If I don’t see more passion, and soon, I won’t be sending your portfolio anywhere anymore.”
“I’ll do better,” Janae said.
“You’ve said that before, Janae. I want to see better from you and I want to see better immediately.” Mika let out a deep breath. “Now, are you still on your diet, Janae?”
“Yes,” Janae answered.
“And the paint…were you able to get that out of your hair?”
“Yes,” Janae answered again.
“Good,” Mika continued. “Now, I do have some good news for you. Either he just really likes you or your walks really did impress him, but Minjae Bae wants you to start his next three runway shows. The first one is two months from now in Munich, the other two come later in Vegas and Miami. I’ve already added all three to your schedule. Next week is completely clear for you, but the week after that is pretty full. You have fashion shoots on Monday and Tuesday. Viva la Style wants you to do some poses for their Summer cover on Wednesday. Teen Canada is publishing a story highlighting Toronto’s “Twelve Rising Models Under Twenty-Five”, and I set up your interview with them for Friday. On Saturday, you have a charity runway show. I think it benefits pets, let me check -” Mika paused briefly, clicking through some computer files before continuing. “Yes, it does. You’re walking to raise money for abandoned and abused animals. Anyway, I just sent an updated schedule to your e-mail so make sure you check it…often. I don’t want you to forget anything.”
Janae was excited about walking for Minjae Bae again. She loved his fashions and had hoped to make up for not finishing the first show. But she hated how Mika Gist still booked events and managed her schedule without consulting her first. “Thanks for setting all this up,” she said into the phone. “I’m really glad Minjae wants to work with me again, but I would appreciate it if you would tell me before scheduling things. I might have other plans for the week after next. I have a life outside of fashion, remember?”
“Janae,” Mika replied sharply. “I know what is best for you. I would never give you more than you can handle. Right now, I want you to take everything that is offered. Work your life around your modeling, not the other way around. Now, make sure you stay on your diet and get all your sleep.”
“I will,” Janae sighed.
“And check your schedule…often,” Mika reminded. She hung up the phone.
Wednesday was the day of the chess championship between Spiron Prep and Macmillan High. Taylor was representing for Spiron and eighteen-year-old Leo Tereshchenko was representing for Macmillan. They had gone to elementary school together and had first played chess against each other at the Under Eighteen World Championship. Leo won that championship, and so far had a thirteen to nine win record over Taylor who was really hoping to win the Spiron v. Macmillan game. Despite their competitive rivalry they remained on good terms.
Two large screens were added to the gymnasium where the championship was being held so the crowd could have a clear view of the board. A table was in the center of the floor with two folding chairs on either side. Leo had the black chess pieces. Taylor had the white ones. When fourth period ended, Spiron Prep students and the visiting students from Macmillan who had arrived earlier in spotless white buses, streamed into the gymnasium. They talked and laughed loudly while making guesses as to what the final score would be. The parents in attendance found seats and waited for the game to begin.
Shaun and Elaine Michaude were sitting in third row seats. Janae was sitting in the tenth row between Beverly and Stephen-Ethan. They had been in a nasty argument over another girl earlier and now weren’t speaking and trying to ignore one another. As part of Spiron’s chess team, Caibe was sitting in the front row with the other eighteen members.
Dr. Harlin Brasher, the longtime principal of Spiron who still had a shock of black in his graying hair, walked to the table. He picked up his microphone, smiling broadly at the crowd before speaking. “Moms and Dads, young ladies and gentlemen, visiting students, and special guests,” he said in a lively voice. “Welcome to Toronto’s annual end of school year chess championship.” The crowd cheered.
“As some of you already know, I regret having to call chess a game because it is so much more than just a game. Chess is a struggle, an art, a beautiful war. Grandmaster Bobby Fischer said it best, ‘chess is life.’ And it is not for the faint-hearted. Throughout the past year, our school districts have participated in many tournaments and so many students have displayed great concentration, discipline, and skill to win trophies and titles for their schools and fellow classmates. However, there were only two who made it through every round of every game of every tournament, and tonight, they will play each other for Toronto’s Young Chess-master title.”
The crowd erupted in cheers again and enthusiastic clapping. Dr. Brasher nodded and smiled, waiting for the noise to end. When the noise ended, Dr. Brasher continued, “So without much further ado, please welcome Mr. Leo Tereshchenko from Macmillan High.”
The crowd clapped politely as Leo walked up, shook Dr. Brasher’s hand, and took his seat. “And now please welcome Mr. Taylor Michaude from our very own Spiron Prep,” Dr. Brasher said.
The crowd clapped again. Taylor walked up, shook Dr. Brasher’s hand, and took his seat across from Leo. “And now I’ll move myself out of the way so this challenge can begin. May the best player win,” Dr. Brasher finished. He set down his microphone. The crowd fell silent as Taylor and Leo concentrated on the board and pieces in front of them. Since he had the white pieces, Taylor would make the first move. He hunched his shoulders and began biting the nail on his left thumb – a habit he always did at the start of every game. He knew from experience that Leo’s favorite opening move was the Berlin Defense of the Ruy Lopez. Twenty minutes passed before Taylor slowly took his white pawn and moved it forward one square. Leo didn’t take as long to respond. In a few more minutes, the first round ended in a tie.
The members of Spiron’s chess team and Macmillan’s chess team were all leaning forward in their front row seats. They kept their eyes glued to the board thoughtfully, sometimes whispering among themselves and trying to predict what the next moves would be before they were made. When Leo won the second round, the whispers spread to the students in the crowd. Stephen-Ethan pulled out his leather-encased phone and began calculating algebraic chess notations to keep up with the board positions. Even though she wasn’t exceptionally good at chess, Janae had played against Taylor on several occasions and now mentally moved his pieces on an imaginary board. If Leo moves his knight to that square, Taylor would probably move his queen there, Janae thought before sighing. No, that wouldn’t work. Leo would only capture his queen. Even Beverly, who did not care for chess at all, knew that playing without a queen was difficult.
The third, fourth, fifth, and sixth rounds all ended in a tie. Leo won the seventh round, prompting the quiet whispers in the crowd to increase. A few of the students from Macmillan let out muffled cheers. “Quiet, please!” Dr. Brasher ordered. The crowd fell silent again.
Neither Leo nor Taylor appeared moved by the noise. Their eyes remained focused on the board, rarely blinking, and shoulder muscles tense. When Leo cracked his knuckles, Taylor raised an eyebrow and glared at him. Leo, who had bad sitting posture, half-smiled apologetically and slouched forward in his chair, a hand on either side of his forehead. He contemplated his next move; first smirking, then frowning. Taylor’s fingernail returned unconsciously to his mouth. He won the eighth round.
This was followed by six more ties. Leo had taken out two of Taylor’s pawns and one of his rooks while only losing one of his knights. But Taylor’s defenses had become more solid and now Leo was having trouble breaking through to checkmate his king. Two hours and ten minutes had passed since the start of the game. Twenty-five minutes remained on the clock and they were in the last round.
Taylor picked up his last rook. He wanted to move the rook three squares to the right which would allow him to capture Leo’s second knight. But doing so would leave his queen unprotected and Taylor suspected that Leo would immediately move his bishop, that stood two vacant squares away from his queen, over to capture her. Of course, he could not have the most powerful piece on his board captured but Taylor decided to take the risk this time.
Instantly, the whispering in the crowd began again. “What is he doing?” Shaun Michaude whispered to Elaine.
Caibe closed his eyes briefly. “Bad move,” he muttered. “Leo’s certainly getting his queen.” Stephen-Ethan was thinking the same. “He’s basically throwing the game away,” he whispered to Janae.
“I think he wants his queen to be captured,” Janae whispered back. “Because if Leo moves his bishop that will leave his forces in a weakened position which will give Taylor a better chance to checkmate.”
“That might be worth the risk,” Stephen-Ethan replied.
As expected, it did not take Leo long to respond. He moved his bishop piece diagonally two squares and captured Taylor’s queen. Taylor stopped biting his fingernail and straightened in his chair. The next twelve moves he made fast as lightning. Leo slouched backwards and bit hard on his bottom lip. Wrinkling his forehead, he forced his mind to focus. Nine minutes remained on the clock.
Taylor picked up his rook again and placed it back on the board. “Mate,” he said quickly. Leo shrugged. He smiled and stood up. They shook hands. “Well played,” Leo congratulated Taylor.
The gymnasium erupted into cheers. The students from Macmillan clapped politely. But the Spiron Prep students jumped and yelled, “TAY-LOR! TAY-LOR! TAY-LOR!” Looking very relieved, Shaun and Elaine Michaude hugged each other. Dr. Brasher gave Leo a large silver plate engraved with a knight piece before presenting Taylor with his gold trophy. “Congratulations,” he told him. “Would you like to say some words?”
Taylor set the trophy on the floor and took the microphone, “Sure, I have some words.” Everyone laughed. Taylor grinned. “First, I have to say thanks to my Savior, Jesus Christ. Without Him, I am nothing. Also, thanks to my parents who are here tonight.” He scanned the audience until he found them and gave a quick wave with the microphone. “Dad, you say a lot of things that I do annoy you (my obnoxiously slow driving being one of them). But I’ll never forget the day you bought me my first chess set at age six and helped me learn the basics. You were my first teacher and first opponent.” Shaun Michaude smiled proudly. Taylor continued, “Mom had to keep dinner waiting many nights for us to finish our games. Your patience is amazing, lady. And you both never failed to attend all of my tournaments, so I want both of you to know that your love and support will always mean more to me than any trophy I win. And, finally, to Dr. Brasher and all my classmates here at Spiron: like a lot of you, I’ll be graduating soon but the things I’ve learned here, the memories created, and the friends made won’t easily be forgotten. I can’t think of a better way to end my time here than by winning this championship for us.”
He paused suddenly as he caught sight of Janae in the audience. The crowd was clapping again. “Well, there is one more thing,” Taylor said quickly into the microphone. “Prom night is coming up and I would like to ask my best friend something. Janae, will you be my date?”
There was an awkward silence throughout the gymnasium. Leo’s serious face morphed into a funny look of surprise. He held his silver plate in front of his face to hide his smile. Janae’s eyes widened. She had never been more caught off guard in her entire life. Stephen-Ethan leaned over and whispered in her right ear, “Please do something!” Janae shook her head. Spiron’s students were all staring expectantly at her.
“Yes!” Beverly whispered excitedly in her left ear. “Just say yes!”
“Yes?” Janae repeated uncertainly.
“Yes!” Beverly yelled for her. “She said yes!” Leo laughed out loud behind his plate and the entire crowd cheered some more.
“Thanks,” Taylor said, breathing easily again. He flashed Janae a wide smile, handed Dr. Brasher the microphone, and picked up his trophy.
Janae didn’t wait around to congratulate Taylor. As soon as she could, Janae left the gymnasium and headed for her car. She checked her phone, which she had turned off during the chess match. Sammie had called her three times. “Snap,” Janae muttered. “I forgot to pick him up from school.”
Beverly ran out to the parking lot after Janae. She gave an exaggerated scream and grabbed her arm, “Can you believe Taylor asked you to be his date like that?” she exclaimed. “I mean, in front of EVERYONE!”
“I know that, Beverly,” Janae replied. “He has never done anything so embarrassing to me ever.” Then as to assure herself that he hadn’t, she repeated it, “Never. Ever.”
Beverly rolled her eyes. “You’re so unromantic it’s not funny,” she told Janae. “I thought it was super sweet of him. I always knew you two would make a great item one day. And while we’re on the subject of prom dates, where are you running off to so fast? We -” She stopped here and jabbed her index finger at Janae and then at herself, “have a shopping date.”
“I have to pick up Sammie,” Janae said shortly. “I’m late enough already.”
“Nope, no excuses. I don’t want to hear them because you promised we would both go shopping on Wednesday, which just happens to be today.”
They had reached Janae’s car. “Well, that was before I knew my mom would be in a fire and be hospitalized and before I knew I would be totally responsible for my little brother,” Janae told Beverly. “So I can’t go shopping with you right now. Maybe later.”
“Later?” Beverly questioned. “What kind of friend puts their best friend on their ‘later’ list all the time?”
“This is only one time,” Janae retorted. “We’ll go tomorrow if nothing comes up, and the big word there is ‘if’.”
A look of disbelief was written all over Beverly’s face. “You know what,” she began slowly. “I want to go to the mall right now and I’m going – with or without you.”
Janae shrugged and opened her car door. “Fine, do whatever you like. I don’t care, but you can’t always have things your own selfish way.”
Beverly gave a mocking laugh. “Selfish?” she asked incredulously. “Then just forget I even said anything about going shopping with you. Because I don’t want to go anywhere with a stuck up brat who doesn’t know how to treat her friends.” Beverly was very upset, and turned around in her kitten heel pumps and started back to the gymnasium.
“Hey, Bev -” Janae tried calling after her, immediately feeling bad about her words and putting her off again. Beverly kept walking. “Forget it,” she yelled over her shoulder. “I bet if I wasn’t here tomorrow, you could care less.”
Janae got in her car and slammed the door. She called Sammie’s cellphone but he didn’t pick up. She drove to Houghton Road Elementary but he was no where in sight. Janae knew Sammie had enough sense not to accept rides from strangers. She hoped her forgetfulness had not forced him to walk home alone.
When she pulled in front of their house sometime later, a black and blue Harley-Davidson Electra Glide was sitting in the driveway.
As soon as Janae entered the kitchen, a steaming hot, sauce covered meatball came flying towards her. Her duck came too late and it smacked her in the forehead causing her to yelp in pain. “Hey, Janae!” Sammie called. He was at the counter dumping shredded cheese on pizza dough. “Sorry about that. I was aiming for the trash.”
“How did you get home?” Janae asked, rubbing her head.
“Wendell brought me,” Sammie answered. “What happened to you? I tried calling and never got an answer and I had to sit outside of school waiting for hours.”
“I forgot,” Janae replied. “But you know better than to ride with strangers.”
“Wendell is not a stranger. He’s mom’s boyfriend.”
“Woah,” Wendell Wolka, who had been behind the counter cleaning spaghetti sauce from the floor, stood up and tossed his mess of paper towels into the trash. “I am not your mother’s boyfriend, just a friend.”
“Same thing,” Sammie told him. He turned back to his sister. “And Janae,” he continued excitedly. “You won’t believe what happened. I rode on the back of Wendell’s motorcycle all the way home. We were going so, so fast. It was so, so, so super-rad-cool-awesome. He even promised to teach me to ride on my own.”
“When you’re a lot older,” Wendell Wolka interjected.
“Right,” Sammie agreed. “And the best part, Janae, was that I didn’t even have to wear a helmet!”
“What?” Janae asked. She looked at Wendell Wolka. Wendell Wolka looked at her. “I forgot to bring one,” he admitted. “I know…not exactly responsible.”
“That’s an understatement, if ever I heard one,” Janae said. “Sammie could have been hurt -”
“But I wasn’t,” Sammie interrupted, stating the obvious.
“But you could have been and I would have been held responsible then,” Janae replied. She glared at Wendell Wolka. “Do not pick up my brother anymore. Our mom letting you into her life does not give you permission to enter ours. Just leave us alone entirely, starting now.”
“Alright, I was just trying to help Sammie out. But now that you’re here, I’ll leave,” Wendell Wolka replied. He picked up his leather jacket from the back of a kitchen chair.
“We have to finish the pizzas,” Sammie insisted.
“I’m sure your sister will help you,” Wendell Wolka told him. “I’ll see you on Saturday, okay? Bye, Sammie.” In a few minutes, they heard the front door open, then close, and a loud roar as the motorcycle was steered out of the driveway. “What is your problem?” Sammie shouted.
“I don’t have one. I just don’t want him around,” Janae snapped. She had not meant to make Wendell Wolka leave, but the long chess game, Taylor’s surprise question, and her fight with Beverly had left her feeling irritated. She wanted the day to end right away.
“Oh, you have a problem, alright,” Sammie shouted again. “It’s not like he was the one who forgot to pick up his little brother. You give that nasty look to everyone you don’t like, and I hate that I’m stuck with the worst sister ever in history.” The bowl of shredded cheese clattered loudly from Sammie’s hand onto the counter-top as he turned and left the kitchen to go upstairs to his room.
It was almost midnight when Sammie came back downstairs. He had his backpack and carried a large sheet of white construction paper under his arm. Janae had cleaned up the kitchen and now was sitting on the sofa in the dark living room. She dialed Beverly’s number for the eleventh time, but only got her bouncy “gimme a call back” answering machine message.
“Where are you going?” Janae asked when Sammie slowly approached the sofa.
“I made a card for mom and I want you to take me to give it to her,” Sammie answered.
“Sure,” Janae said, tossing her phone aside. “I’m really sorry for everything earlier, Sammie. You’re not still mad at me?”
“Would it matter if I was?” Sammie shrugged.
“Well, it would make my life less of a mess if the number of people mad at me was reduced by one.”
Sammie dropped his backpack to the floor and sat down beside Janae. He folded his arms and sighed. “Who else is mad at you?”
“You and Beverly and Mika and mom and now, Wendell,” Janae counted them off.
“What about Taylor?”
“He’s in love with me.”
“Oh, that’s even worse,” Sammie frowned. “It is so much better to have someone mad at you than to have someone in love with you.”
“Love is a fraud,” Sammie said. He turned to Janae with a very serious look on his face. “It’s all a fraud. Just like family is a fraud. Just like school is a fraud.”
Janae squinted at her brother. “Are you well? Because you aren’t making any sense.”
“No, I’m not well. Why should I be? Just look at mom and dad. Just look at us. We are supposed to be together right now, but we’re not. One of us is in jail. One is in the hospital. The other two are home alone. Nothing is fine for us anymore. If mom and dad loved each other, Janae, why didn’t they stay together?”
“Sammie, I thought you were over this.”
“I thought I was over it too, but it’s really hard to get over something that everyone at school keeps rubbing in your face. And your English teacher calls you to the front of the class to read a descriptive paragraph for divorce. And you can’t go on your church’s fishing trip with all the other boys and their dads, because your dad is gone.” Sammie paused in surprise at the tears that had formed in his eyes and were starting to make their way down his face. He snatched off his glasses and wiped them away angrily. Janae squeezed his shoulder softly. Besides having a quick temper which often led him to start yelling, Sammie had always been more accepting of his parents’ divorce than Janae.
After Justin Loilo had left their family when Janae was fourteen and Sammie was eight, Janae had tried to ignore the sadness she felt by burying herself in her modeling career. She was resentful towards her dad. She was angry at her mom, often getting into arguments with her over the smallest things. Her and Sammie had stopped doing a lot of activities together. As an unspoken rule, they never talked about the divorce. But now Janae felt bad that they hadn’t. She felt bad that Sammie had been hurting alone.
Sammie hadn’t cried over his parents since the night he realized his dad – the only one who liked to collect and dissect insects with him, dig mud tunnels in the backyard after a rainstorm, and actually understood his silly science experiments – was never coming back. He would feel the strain of his parent’s relationship and wish desperately to ease the tension. He would listen to his parents yell at each other over dinner and hear them talk long and hard into the night: sometimes softly, most times loudly, and a few times tearfully; and he had hoped with all his heart that they would work things out. But when his hopes were dashed, he had locked himself in his bedroom and cried for hours. He cried as if tears were going out of style. Then he had wiped his tears and vowed to never cry over his dad or mom or anyone or anything again.
“It’s the eight-year-old in me,” he said suddenly as if remembering that vow. “Sometimes I forget that being eleven means I’m also one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, and eleven. None of those ages ever go away, you know; they just pile up. So when I get scared of the dark, that’s the three-year-old in me. Or when I want to run away from school, that’s the six-year-old in me. And when I cry…when I cry,” Sammie repeated. “That’s the eight-year-old coming up again.”
“I guess that makes sense,” Janae agreed. For some reason, she guessed that the girl who had shrugged off Beverly earlier was the twelve-year-old in her.
Sammie peered down at the card he had drawn for their mom. Along with the words, “I love you. Come home soon, Mom!”, there was a four member stick family with a stick dog. “This was our family before,” Sammie told Janae. “We never had a dog, but I’ve always wanted one.”
“You forgot to give yourself glasses,” Janae said. She rubbed a thumb over the stick dog’s face where Sammie’s tear had left a wet spot. The ink smudged quickly.
“I don’t need them. In the picture I’m blind so I won’t have to see when we break up.” Sammie folded the card over and sighed again. “But I’m not mad at them anyone. I have forgiven dad for leaving us. It was probably just the teenager in him, any way.”
“I haven’t forgiven him,” Janae said. After finding out he was the one to have caused the church fire, she couldn’t see herself ever forgiving Justin Loilo.
“Well, forgiving is always the right thing to do. The Sunday before the fire happened, we had a lesson about forgiveness and I know it’s what Jesus would want me to do. I keep thinking that maybe if we all forgave him, and he knew that we forgave him, he wouldn’t be mad at God any more. Plus, it’s not like everything is his fault. Dad probably didn’t know any better, which is why I don’t always get school. Sometimes school just seems like one big bully resort where all the ‘different’ kids get picked on. It’s like they say, if we call Sammie this, we know he’ll go home feeling bad about himself. Or if we pull Emilie’s hair, she’ll start crying. Or if we dump Lon in the trash, we’ll make him late for hockey practice. And the teachers aren’t much better. They just give out facts that don’t seem to be of much help in real life.
“I bet Dad was never taught to be a dad or Mom to be a mom. They just found each other and liked each other and called that love, without ever being taught what love is. Why isn’t there a school for that? Seriously. Why isn’t there a school for how to handle your parent’s divorce? Why don’t they ever teach what to do when your dad is jailed? What to do when your mom is in the hospital? How are you supposed to take the death of your pastor? Which, by the way, was caused by your dad. Why don’t they have a school on dealing with death? Why don’t they have a school that teaches things I actually need to know about?”
Janae hugged her brother. “I think there is a school for all of that,” she said thoughtfully. “You never really graduate either. It’s called life and trial and error are the teachers. Life is sometimes difficult.”
“Like English,” Sammie said.
“Yeah,” Janae agreed. “And life is completely complicated.”
The hands of the clock on the wall ticked slowly towards eleven o’clock. Sammie picked up his backpack. “Are we still going to visit Mom?” he asked.
“Sure,” Janae answered. “Hopefully, Doctor Poker Face won’t be there.”
Sammie’s face broke into a smile. He chuckled. “Thanks for listening Janae,” he told her. “And what I said earlier, the worst sister thing, I really didn’t mean it.”
“Don’t sweat it. Wendell was only doing what I should have done so I shouldn’t have been that way. I guess I’ll have to let him know.”
“I’ll make sure you do,” Sammie assured her.
“I’m glad to have you as my brother,” Janae told Sammie sincerely. “Always will be.” Sammie smiled again. Together they went outside to her car.
Celine was surprised at their late visit, but she loved the card and the three of them talked for over an hour about church, school, and Justin Loilo. “I’m really proud of Sammie for being willing to forgive Justin,” Celine said. She looked at her son who had fallen asleep in the hospital bed beside her. “I’m disappointed that it had to come to this, but I have decided to forgive him too.”
Janae remained silent so her mother continued. “Being out of commission has given me some time to think about a lot of things,” Celine said quietly. “I’m considering giving up my job as church secretary when I get out.”
“Why?” Janae asked in surprise.
“I think I need to spend more time at home with Sammie and you,” she replied. “I’ve been doing a bunch of different things since Justin left and have missed out on enjoying a few moments with you two. I think that me being home is more important at this time in your lives.”
Janae raised her eyebrows. “But I thought church was more important to you than ‘spending time’ with me or Sammie.”
Celine looked at her. “Janae, that is not true,” she said firmly. “My faith and serving at Elevate has always been and will continue to be important to me, but my children have always been my first priority.”
“Well, that certainly hasn’t been the case for the past few years. Your church work has always pushed us second. And that, if you didn’t know already, is why I stopped going because you acted like church was more significant than me – even after what Pastor Hill pulled on Justin. You should have stood up for him, but you didn’t. You even told me not to mention what happened because…I don’t know. Maybe Pastor Hill would have gotten in trouble. And keeping the church out of trouble was more important to you than your husband or your family.” Despite all the times they had argued together, Janae felt weird finally talking to her about this but she kept going. “It’s why Justin left us, Mom; because the church was taking away his wife. Are you just now realizing that? Are you just now realizing that your children need a mom? I think it’s a bit late for that.
“I’m seventeen now. I’m going to be leaving for college after I graduate from Spiron. I won’t be home much. I needed you to attend my soccer games and catwalks, even if they were on Sunday, instead of telling me that ‘church comes first’. I needed your support when I was PMS-ing and being put on all these crazy diets. When you and Justin divorced, I needed for you to talk with me about it and hear how I felt; instead, I had to cry to Beverly and it was Aunt Stephanie who found the time to listen to my problems. When I had to learn how to drive, you were busy on a church mission trip to Honduras; so Mika had to do it instead. I needed you then.”
Celine’s eyes grew misty with unshed tears at Janae’s words. They were both quiet for a long time. “Janae, I’m sorry,” Celine finally said. “I didn’t know you felt that way and I’m not going to disagree with you. I have spent a lot of time at the church. It’s just that when your father and I started having difficult times in our marriage, Elevate was the only place I found peace and felt loved and whole. And then when we divorced, it was Pastor Hill and his wife and my Elevate small group that helped me get past the pain of that. I did not mean for my relationship with God and finding a church home to drive a wedge between me and Justin or me and you. I’m sorry my actions made you feel neglected. I loved Justin. I still love Justin. And I love you, Janae – very, very much.”
The ringing of her phone kept Janae from responding. She swiped the glowing screen to answer it. Caibe Maxwell was on the other end.
“Is Beverly with you?” he asked urgently.
“No, she’s not,” Janae answered, immediately sensing that something was wrong.
“Well, her parents said she didn’t come home last night. The police just found her car abandoned behind Reitmans at Eaton Centre. I think Beverly’s missing!”
Wide-eyed and nervous, Stephen-Ethan Laurence sat in the hard plastic chair at the police department. After Spiron Prep’s chess game, he had stayed out all night and into the early morning, finally arriving back home and getting into bed at three thirty a.m., only to be awakened shortly after by his stepmother telling him the police were at the door and wanted him for questioning.
Officer Hale Hannamaker swung open the glass door and entered the small room. He was a massive man with a powerful voice to match, but he appeared to be struggling to grow a beard. The pistol in his belt looked like a toy gun compared to his muscular arms and thick fingers. “Mr. Laurence,” he greeted and looked him over with a suspicious eye.
Stephen-Ethan jumped slightly at the officer’s voice. “What’s going on?” he finally managed to say. “Whatever it is, I did nothing wrong.”
“Relax,” Officer Hannamaker ordered. “Just tell me the truth, Mr. Laurence, and we shouldn’t be long.” His assistant handed him some papers and he sank uncomfortably into the narrow chair across the table from Stephen-Ethan. “What relationship do you have with Beverly Lamanda Mallette?”
“Uhh, I’m her boyfriend. Why?”
“Beverly is missing. Her car was found this morning,” Officer Hannamaker informed him.
Stephen-Ethan swallowed hard and bit down on his bottom lip.
“Know anything about that?” Officer Hannamaker asked.
Stephen-Ethan shook his head. “No, sir.”
“When was the last time you saw Beverly Mallette?”
“Uhh, last night.”
“And what happened last night, Mr. Laurence?” Officer Hannamaker made some notes on his papers.
“We were at a chess game together at our school,” Stephen-Ethan said. He twisted his fingers together nervously. “And then after the chess game, we…uhh…had ice cream at Dutch Dreams with the team as like a celebration thing.”
“Where did Beverly go after Dutch Dreams?”
“We went to the mall.”
“We? Both of you?”
“Yes, sir,” Stephen-Ethan nodded.
“And what happened at the mall?”
“We hit a few stores together and then I left around ten, I think.”
“And Beverly Mallette stayed at the mall?”
“As far as I know, yes, sir.”
“Why did you leave her at the mall?”
“Because we were, uhh…like not getting along. She told me to leave. We were fighting…earlier.”
“About what, Mr. Laurence?”
Stephen-Ethan shrugged. “A girl,” he said. “Another girl that I went out with last week. She didn’t know about it until later and was kind of, like, mad.”
Officer Hannamaker made some more notes on his papers. “Did anyone else go with you to the mall?”
“Did Beverly tell you she was going to meet someone at the mall or any place else?”
“Did you notice any abnormal behavior from Beverly on last night?”
“Uhh…no, sir, but she seemed upset about something.”
“You?” Officer Hannamaker questioned.
“No, sir. She was mad at me, not upset. If there’s a difference.”
“I don’t think there is. One more question, Mr. Laurence,” Officer Hannamaker continued. “Where did you go after you left the mall?”
“I…uhh…went to the skateboarding rink, had some drinks, went home.”
Officer Hannamaker finished writing his notes and stood up. “Thanks for your cooperation, Mr. Laurence. You can leave now.”
When Stephen-Ethan returned to the waiting room, Janae, Taylor, and Caibe were standing with his stepmother. Beverly’s parents were being questioned in another room. “Are you okay?” Caibe asked him.
Stephen-Ethan scratched his uncombed hair. “I don’t know. I don’t know what could have happened to Bev either.”
“We’ll find her,” his stepmother said, hugging him. “Don’t worry. We’ll find her.”
After the police gave them permission to leave, the Mallettes drove home in silence. With Beverly being their only child, they were both extremely distraught and had no idea how she could have disappeared. Mrs. Mallette did her best not to cry, but the tears kept falling and she finally stopped trying to wipe them away.
The next door neighbor waved at the Mallettes when they arrived at their bay-and-gable house. Putting down the green hose he had been using to water his front yard, he walked over and handed them a custard pie from his freezer. “Thank you so much,” Mrs. Mallette told him tearfully. They had often had him over for backyard grillings and family movie nights.
“I heard about Beverly,” the neighbor told Mr. and Mrs. Mallette. “I’m really sorry, but I’ll certainly keep an eye out for her. If there is anything I can do to help, just let me know.”
Caibe left the police department for classes at Spiron Prep.
“I’m skipping today,” Taylor told Janae. “I have some songs to write. Want to come to the beach with me?”
Janae accepted the invitation and they left in his car for Sugar Beach. In a short time they found a spot under one of the beach’s signature pink umbrellas, and sat watching a ship unload for Redpath. Janae texted Sammie, who was still at the hospital with their mother, to call her when he was ready to go home. She kept thinking about the last words Beverly had yelled at her in the gymnasium parking lot: I bet if I wasn’t here tomorrow, you could care less.
“I should have been with Beverly,” Janae said suddenly. “We planned on going to the mall together, but I pulled out at the last minute.” She wished she could go back and keep her promise to go shopping with her friend.
“I was wondering why you left so quickly last night,” Taylor said. “We all had ice cream after the game.”
“I had to pick up Sammie from school,” Janae replied. “I thought I had to anyway.”
Taylor opened his yellow legal pad. He started drawing guitar doodles. “I thought you left because you didn’t want to talk with me. I really didn’t plan on asking you out like that. I just saw you in the crowd and, you know, why not?”
“Yeah, it’s fine. I needed a prom date, actually, and I would much rather go out with you than anyone else,” Janae replied.
“Of course, if Beverly doesn’t show up it won’t be half as much fun,” she added as an afterthought. “She’s been planning for it the entire school year and now that she’s gone, I just can’t imagine doing anything like that without her.”
Taylor agreed. “If she isn’t found by Friday, Elevate Grace is holding a prayer vigil for her. Everyone from Spiron is invited.”
“I’ll be there,” Janae said. “But why would they do that? Beverly never went to church.”
“A lot of people from church know her though,” Taylor answered. “And her parents attend sometimes; plus, that is what the church is for. It’s there to support people during difficult times, whether they attend or not.”
Janae was silent for a moment then she asked, “Do you think they would really want me to come back even after what Justin did?”
“Sure, I already told you they did. Elevate would even want your dad to come back,” Taylor said. “I know you didn’t only stop coming because you were busy. You used to love church and I probably should have let you know this before, but your not coming really worries me. You never talk about your faith anymore and sometimes act like you want nothing to do with God or Christianity. That attitude reminds me of your dad and it’s scary.”
“Don’t compare me to Justin, ever,” Janae said, but she knew Taylor was right. Of course, she still considered herself a Christian, but for a long time that had been in name only. She hardly ever read her Bible anymore. She couldn’t remember the last time she had prayed about anything. She never mentioned Jesus to anyone—not even to Beverly. She certainly had never invited another person to church. She hated even the thought of having to go to church. She found herself constantly mad at herself, at her mom, at her dad, and yes, like him, Janae was also mad at God for all the parts of her life that seemed screwed up.
“I’m not comparing you to your dad,” Taylor replied. “I just want you to know the longer you stay away from church, the farther you’ll slide away from God. My mom told me that when people say they’ve kind of gotten out of the church, what they really mean is that they’ve gotten away from God. The relationship we have with God’s house, often mirrors the kind of relationship we have with Him. I don’t want to lose a friend, Janae. I don’t want you to end up doing something stupid like your dad did.”
“Well, maybe you would burn down a church too if the pastor had pushed a gun in your face,” Janae returned, her voice rising slightly. “And maybe you would be mad at God if His church is what ruined your family.”
Taylor’s eyes left his pad, but he didn’t say anything.
Janae continued. “My mom wasn’t always a Christian. She was a complete junkie. I was six when my mom first stepped inside a church and she found Jesus and He changed her. She never smoked again. She stopped doing drugs. And Justin saw the change in her, so he started going to church, too, but he didn’t believe everything right away like my mom did. He had questions; lots of them. Why was Jesus the only way to Heaven? What makes Christianity better than Sikhism or Hinduism? How could he know for certain that God exists? Would becoming a Christian require him to cut off all his non-Christian friends? Pastor Aaron Hill agreed to help him sort through all his thoughts, but the more questions Justin had, the more upset Pastor Hill became because he didn’t have all the answers. One Sunday, he pulled a gun on Justin in the church basement and threatened that if he didn’t stop questioning the Christian faith he would be thrown out. I remember it because I was there. And my mom was there. And I will never forget how she acted like what Pastor Hill did wasn’t wrong.
“Justin never went to church again and he wanted my mom to stop going, but she didn’t. And the more she went and came home talking about Jesus, the more distant they became until they were constantly arguing about it. My mom began to spend even more time at church than she did with him. Church became more important than her family. She was hired as a secretary and joined the choir and volunteered as a Sunday School teacher and led small groups and made hospital visits and went on all these mission trips. She didn’t seem to realize that she was losing her husband and when she did realize it, it was too late. I would ask her on Sundays to attend my soccer games, but she only said: ‘No, Janae. I have to go to church.’
“’Mom, can you come to my runway show?’
“’No, Janae. I have choir practice at church.’
“She never had time for me anymore. She didn’t have time for Sammie. But she always had time for the church and I hated that.”
Taylor had stopped doodling. “I’m sorry,” he told Janae. “I didn’t know it was like that.”
Janae was crying now. “I know you might find this hard to believe, but sometimes I actually have missed going to church. I miss being part of a community, but I don’t want to go back to some place that made Justin feel rejected. It doesn’t seem to be right.”
“The church is overrated. I know that, Janae, but you can’t let crappy people and crappy situations keep you from God. You certainly can’t blame Him for how His people act. We expect people in the church to be more compassionate and patient than people outside the church, but often that isn’t the case. I expected going to church would be a little bit like going to Heaven, but it isn’t. Elevate, like a bunch of other churches, has problems. Even though he was a pastor, Aaron Hill is still a sinner – a saved one, but, a sinner nonetheless.” Taylor continued gently, “It’s not easy living a life of faith. You go through hard times. You’re sure to have doubts. And many times, nothing at all adds up—like Beverly missing or your dad doing what he did. Going to church can help bring you through the worst of times. Of course, you’ll never know that if you keep ditching it. Church is so much more than just a building, which is why the fire wasn’t the end of Elevate Grace; it’s about people. Ultimately, that’s why we need the church because it’s just hard trying to be a Christian alone.”
“I hate the fact that you always sound right,” Janae sighed. She wiped her eyes.
“I hate the fact that you never told me this is why you stopped coming,” Taylor said.
“You never asked. Plus, could you have done anything to make things different?”
Taylor shrugged. “Probably not, but still…we could have had this talk a lot earlier. And listen, Janae, I really think you should find a place. Even if it’s not Elevate. But you can’t stay mad at people who’ve disappointed or hurt you forever. Pastor Hill isn’t here anymore. You have to move on sometime.”
Janae had never thought about going to another church. After seeing what had happened between Pastor Aaron Hill and her dad, she had become disillusioned with church altogether. She told herself often that she still loved Jesus, but just hated the church; yet, she also knew her relationship with Him had become stagnant over the past few years. Spending a lot of time with Beverly, who wasn’t a Christian, hadn’t helped her. Taylor had never been showy with his faith, but compared to a bunch of the we-live-to-party crowd at Spiron, he was different and everyone knew it. Janae had always been able to trust him. Since they were kids, they had always been able to talk with each other about anything and everything. Why she had never talked with him about church, she didn’t know; but she knew Taylor was correct. Her faith had waned since leaving church at fourteen and she needed help to make it strong again. She just wasn’t sure if she was ready for church again.
“What about this?” she finally asked. “I’ll go back to church if God brings Beverly back—and soon—like before prom night.”
Taylor leaned over and hugged Janae. “Fine,” he told her. “I guess I’ll have to pray extra hard for Him to do just that.”
All of Spiron Prep turned out for the candlelight prayer vigil on Friday night at Elevate Grace, including Dr. Brasher and most of the teachers. Janae’s soccer coach, Pom Solange, arrived with a big box of tissues. She sat in the front row and never stopped crying throughout the entire service. Three large pictures of Beverly’s smiling face, adorned with pink, yellow, and orange flowers hung on easels. Friends, both close and distant, crowded around the message board to leave ‘Stay Strong, Bev’ and ‘We Miss You’ notes with black markers.
Because the sanctuary was badly burned and because the crowd that had arrived was larger than expected, the prayer vigil was held outside. Even when storm clouds covered the setting sun and a light rain began to fall, no one left. They stayed, standing or sitting sadly, with hands cupped around flickering candles to keep the flames from going out. Beverly’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Mallette, thanked everyone from the bottom of their hearts for the love, support, and concern that had been shown for their daughter. “We are so grateful to Elevate Grace for holding this vigil for our daughter, Beverly,” Mr. Mallette told the crowd. “Even while recovering from a fire, doing this really means the world to us and we are so grateful to everyone for coming out tonight. I see a lot of familiar and unfamiliar faces out there and it blesses us to know that Beverly meant so much to so many others. Your support is beyond incredible. Please don’t stop praying, please don’t stop hoping, please don’t stop searching until we have Beverly home again, safe and sound.”
Through her tears, Mrs. Mallette agreed. “Beverly, darling,” she said, looking up to the sky as if to find her among the stars, “I know you’re out there and we won’t stop looking until you’re in our arms. You are in our hearts. You are in our thoughts. And, darling, we miss you so much. Stay strong, Bev. And to whoever may have you: please don’t hurt her. Please let our daughter come home.”
A television crew was out filming the prayer vigil and some of the students were interviewed. Janae didn’t want to be interviewed. She joined the long line of people who were waiting to speak their thoughts about Beverly into the microphone. Caibe Maxwell read a poem he had written that morning titled, “Eternal Sunshine of Beverly’s Smile.” All the words didn’t rhyme, but it was pretty funny and, by the end, it had almost everyone smiling.
Sammie’s Sunday School teacher, Lisa, took the microphone next. “I remember Beverly coming into my hair salon nearly every Saturday,” she smiled. “She never really walked anywhere. She was always skipping. Bev was always upbeat and always had an encouraging word. She brightened the lives of everyone she met.”
After a few more students and teachers, Janae took the microphone. “I don’t deserve to have a best friend like Beverly,” she told the crowd. “She is a beautiful person inside and out, forever positive and enthusiastic about everything (especially shopping and the color pink and just the craziest stuff). Beverly, I love you so much. We all do and we all miss you. Please come home.”
Janae handed the microphone to the girl behind her and left the stage. She stood beside Sammie who was waiting in the rain, holding both their candles. She really wished her last words to Beverly had been nicer. The uncertainty of not knowing whether or not she would ever see her again made Janae uneasy. She would do almost anything to go back to Wednesday night and go with Beverly to the mall. Why do we always hurt the ones we love? Janae thought. She immediately wondered if her dad ever thought the same.
Stephen-Ethan had the microphone. His face was wet with rain and his eyes were filled with tears. “There really isn’t just one word to describe Beverly,” he began faintly, his voice cracked, and he left the stage without finishing. Caibe and Janae immediately embraced him in a group hug.
Taylor and a member from Spiron’s chess team, Gia Diesel, took the microphone last. Taylor played his guitar. Gia Diesel sang Beverly’s favorite song, “Who I Am” by Jessica Andrews.
I am Rosemary’s granddaughter
The splitting image of my father
And when the day is done my momma’s still my biggest fan
Sometimes I’m clueless and I’m clumsy
But I’ve got friends that love me
And they know just where I stand
It’s all a part of me
And that’s who I am
Janae remembered when Beverly had tried singing it at Spiron Prep’s talent competition the year before. She had totally butchered the lyrics. They had laughed about it for days afterwards. But Gia sang it right and by the fifth chorus the crowd was singing along.
I’m a saint and I’m a sinner
I’m a loser; I’m a winner
I am steady and unstable
I’m young, but I am able
Gia Diesel handed Taylor the microphone when she had finished the song. “I would like to say a prayer for Beverly,” he told everyone and closed his eyes. “Heavenly Father, one of our close friends is missing tonight. We have no idea where Beverly is, but I know that You know exactly where she is. I ask that You be near her, strengthen her, and protect her until we are reunited safely. Comfort us all here, especially her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Mallette. Help us not to lose hope and help us not to lose sight of You. Amen.”
Dwayne and his sister, Darlene, walked over to Janae, Caibe, and Stephen-Ethan just as Taylor finished praying. Darlene hugged Janae. “I’m so glad you came,” she told her. “We didn’t really know your friend, Beverly; but we like to say we’re one big family here and when you hurt, we hurt.”
“You gonna be okay?” Dwayne asked Stephen-Ethan who had stopped crying but was still blinking back tears. “You gonna be able to drive yourself home?”
Stephen-Ethan nodded. “Yeah, I’ll be fine. Thanks.”
“Well, if you need anything, like prayers or hugs or anything at all, man, I’m here for you.”
“Thanks,” Stephen-Ethan said. Dwayne hugged him and he started crying again.
“Let’s go look at the church,” Sammie suggested to Janae as they headed back to her car.
“No, it’s too dark to dig around in burnt rubble,” Janae answered.
“Wait in the car then, but I’m going,” Sammie replied. He turned and headed across the parking lot to where the sanctuary of Elevate Grace had once stood whole. Janae reluctantly followed him. “We’ll both be smelling of ash all night long,” she said. “And think about Coolio.”
“Who?” Sammie asked.
“It’s the name Beverly gave to my car,” Janae answered. “She gave names to everything. Mine was Coolio. Hers was Ginger because it was red. Taylor’s was Mustang Speed Racer—naturally.”
“Like a first name, middle name, last name thing,” Sammie smiled. They were standing on the edge of the burnt property that formed a long, wide, dirty mound. Much of the rubble had been removed. Yellow tape that read, “POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS,” was stretched around the restricted area. “What exactly are we looking for?” Janae asked.
“Nothing,” Sammie answered. “O, me of little faith. I thought Jesus said if you have faith like a mustard seed, you can move mountains.”
“I don’t see a mountain here,” Janae replied.
“That’s not the point. I had faith last night that the church building would be rebuilt, but it isn’t.” Sammie sighed. He started walking back across the parking lot, but a sudden sound in the blackened grass caused him to stop. He approached the yellow tape again and strained to see through the rain and darkness.
“Don’t go in there,” Janae warned him.
Sammie ducked under the tape. A tiny object darted across his feet and made him jump. The candle he had been holding slipped out of his hand and tumbled to the ground, the flame immediately went out. Janae knew he could not have gone far although she couldn’t see him anymore. She heard a scampering sound again and then Sammie’s muffled voice talking softly.
“Get out of there now!” she ordered.
In a few seconds, Sammie ducked out from under the yellow tape and grinned at her. Janae grabbed his left arm and started quickly towards her car. “I thought it was a rabbit,” he told her. Janae glanced at the thin-haired, shivering, white animal in his arms. Only its backside was visible. The face of the creature was buried in Sammie’s aqua-colored blazer.
“What is it then?” Janae asked, unlocking her door.
Sammie climbed into the passenger side. “It’s a puppy,” he answered happily. “A horribly little one, but a puppy nonetheless and I’m going to keep it. Maybe it’s a good thing the church building wasn’t rebuilt.”
An idea immediately started forming in Janae’s head. “A good thing,” she repeated slowly.
“Yes,” Sammie nodded. “Now I have a puppy of my own. I have to think of a name for it.”
“I can help rebuild the church,” Janae said. Sammie gave her a quizzical look. “By giving all of my modeling money. I think it’s about $12,000.”
“But you’re saving that for college.”
“Well, I think this is pretty important. Plus, it’s not like anyone else’s dad is the cause for all this,” Janae said.
“Yeah,” Sammie agreed. He smiled and patted the puppy’s head again. “I’m really proud of you, Janae. Really proud.”
Early Saturday morning, most of the people who attended Beverly’s vigil at Elevate Grace flooded the stores at Eaton Centre to post signs and hand out pictures of her. Taylor, Janae, and Sammie took a break at Starbucks during lunch. “What do you think I should name my little puppy?” Sammie asked Taylor, his mouth crummy with the bread from his egg salad sandwich.
“How about Lil’ Pup?” Taylor suggested.
“Sounds more like lack of creativity,” Janae replied. “I think you should name him Cheesecake.”
“It’s a her,” Sammie said, “but Cheesecake will work.”
“I hate cheesecake,” Taylor frowned. “I should probably remind my mom since she’s making my cake next week.” With all that had taken place the past few days, Janae had completely forgotten that Taylor’s eighteenth birthday was coming up. He was older than her by exactly five months, nine days, six hours, and a minute. She was glad he had unknowingly reminded her.
“Happy early birthday!” Janae and Sammie said simultaneously.
“Aww, thanks,” Taylor smiled. “I hope Beverly is found by the time it actually comes around or I won’t feel right trying to celebrate it.” He tossed his sandwich wrapper and empty cup into the nearby trash can, narrowly missing a pouting toddler’s head. They sat for sometime in silence. Taylor spoke again, “Hey, you two want to guess my other exciting news?”
Sammie thought for a second. “You’re getting married?” he finally asked.
“No!” Taylor exclaimed in disgust.
“You’ve decided on what college to attend?” Janae tried next.
“Well, I have decided. It’s McGill, but that’s not the news.”
“I know,” Sammie said. “Your band has finally signed a major record deal. Tell me who signed you so I can inform the world they’re about to be rocked beyond belief.”
“I really wish that was it,” Taylor replied. He paused before continuing excitedly, “I am moving out to my own place after graduation.”
“Way to go,” Janae congratulated him. Sammie did not look happy.
“Thanks,” Taylor replied. “I’m going to check out the new place again as soon as I finish handing out the rest of these.” He stood up and picked up his stack of ‘Missing Beverly’ photo posters. “See you later, Janae. Keep your chin up, Sammie. I’m not moving that far away. You can visit anytime.”
“Can’t believe he’s leaving us,” Sammie said dejectedly as Taylor disappeared into the crowd outside of Starbucks. “I suspect as soon as you settle on a college, you’ll be leaving next and I’ll be left all alone. At least I have Cheesecake now.” He looked at Janae’s untouched salad. “Why aren’t you eating?”
Before Janae could answer that she was still dieting and didn’t have much of an appetite anyway since Beverly was gone, Sammie waved to someone in a new group of people who streamed into Starbucks. “Look, Wendell’s here,” he pointed out to her. “I saw him passing out posters with Dwayne and Mr. Mallette earlier.”
Janae remembered the not-so-nice meeting that had taken place at their house on Wednesday. “I guess now would be a good time for that apology,” she said.
“No lie,” Sammie agreed quickly. He stood up from his chair. “I suddenly have to answer the call of nature.”
Wendell Wolka finished placing his order at the counter, came over to their table, and took Taylor’s vacant seat. “Hi, Janae,” he greeted. “How have you and your brother been doing?”
“Fine,” Janae answered. She quickly added, “Our mom is fine too. The doctor said she can come home on Monday.”
“Yes, I heard. Your mom is one tough cookie. I’m really proud of her.” An awkward silence followed after which they both attempted to speak at once. Wendell motioned for Janae to continue first.
“I just wanted to say I’m sorry for how I acted the other day when you picked up Sammie. I normally don’t do that. I had a really bad day and was sort of mad at everyone.”
“Forget about it, Janae. Everybody has those days. I used to have a lot of days when I was always mad at people.”
“Really?” Janae asked. She didn’t think that Wendell Wolka would have problems with anyone.
Wendell Wolka nodded. “Yes. It was mainly towards my dad. I hated him for a long time, didn’t want to have anything to do with him, blamed him for nearly everything that went wrong.”
“Sounds a lot like me,” Janae said. She and Wendell Wolka suddenly seemed to have a lot more in common than she thought.
“I realize what Justin did was unacceptable. He hurt you, Sammie, Celine, and a lot of other people. And I don’t mean to sound preachy, but you have to find a way to forgive him. I know from experience that holding hatred in your heart is not worth it. You’re too young to have to live the rest of your life screwed up like that. My hating literally killed people before I permanently decided that I couldn’t go on the way I was.”
Janae wondered what was taking Sammie so long. She didn’t want to hear another lecture. When she didn’t respond, Wendell Wolka continued talking. “My dad wasn’t really a bad man. He was a workaholic, which in my opinion, made him a man who didn’t have his priorities straight. From the time the sun came up until the time it went down, he was away from the house and working. On weekends, he worked. He worked through most of my birthdays, my elementary graduation, my middle school graduation, all of my hockey games. The times he was home were few and far between. Because of his working all of the time, my family was pretty well off. We always had enough. My dad gave me everything I could ever ask for as a child, except for himself. I can’t remember a time he ever showed genuine interest in me as his son. I began to develop an intense hatred toward him for it. By the time I hit high school, I wanted absolutely nothing to do with him.
“My high school hockey coach became my first mentor and closest friend. He was patient. I could tell him anything. He listened. He knew I existed. My mom started a relationship with him, and after she and my dad divorced, they began dating. Three months later, they had a wedding. I was coach’s best man but it turned out to be only a rainbow before the rain. Six months and a week later, coach was dead. The doctors found his cancer too late—way too late. My mom fell into a depression. She went on scary prescription drug rampages. I found her on the kitchen floor one night, dead from an overdose. After that, I was all shot to pieces.
“And then my dad decided to show back up. He came to her funeral. He said he had found Jesus. He wanted us to forgive him for not being a good father and husband. He was genuinely sorry for losing us the way he had. My sisters—I have four of them—all forgave him; but I couldn’t find it within me to do so. I didn’t think he deserved my forgiveness. There was no way that a few tears and apologetic words were going to erase the sixteen years he practically ignored me. I blamed him for everything that had gone wrong in my life – my anger, my grief, my mom’s death, and coach’s cancer.
“I dropped out of high school. I started doing what my mom did except I didn’t do prescriptions, but I did everything else my money could get me. All the drugs that could take me high and temporarily make me forget my misery became my best friend and worst enemy. I was on and off with my friends, in and out of jail, and the police knew me on a first-name basis.”
The green-aproned barista behind the counter called loudly for the third time over the noise of people talking and laughing in the dining area. “I have a chicken and hummus box lunch and an iced coffee ready…a chicken and hummus box lunch and an iced coffee?” When no one claimed it, the barista shook his head, moved it aside, and went back to work.
Wendell Wolka ignored the interruption and went on. “I was that way for years until I met Anna. I was twenty-six. She was two years older than me and every bit an angel. Being Pastor Hill’s daughter, she couldn’t date guys who didn’t go to church so we made a deal. If I attended church with her, I could take her out. So I went to Elevate Grace. It was my first time ever going to a church and I actually enjoyed it. The fact that I was a druggie didn’t turn them off. It was the first time in a long time I had been accepted without having to change. At Elevate, I felt loved unconditionally.
“I ended up going back the next Sunday and the Sunday after that and the Sunday after that. I was no longer attending just to see Anna, but to find God. Being in a caring community was much better than working the streets. I found the same Jesus my dad said he had found and He changed me. Pastor Hill became my third dad. He helped me kick my drug habit. I went to rehab and got cleaned up. A few months later, my life was looking up. I started taking Music at Canada Christian College to become a worship leader and me and Anna got engaged.”
“I’m sure you forgave your dad after meeting Jesus,” Janae said.
“No, I didn’t,” Wendell Wolka replied. “I still regret not doing so. Pastor Hill told me more than once that I needed to just let the past go. When I expressed to Anna that I didn’t want my dad invited to our wedding, she told me I had to stop hating him. I knew in my heart they were right and that forgiving him was the right thing to do, but I couldn’t seem to bring myself to act on it. No matter how hard I tried to shake it, the pain wouldn’t go away and the resentment from my childhood remained.
“My dad must have spent most of the later part of his life trying to reconnect with me. He would call no matter how many times I changed numbers. He wrote letters, none of which I opened. And then the winter before our spring wedding, he visited me. I opened the door. He asked me to hear him out, to give him a chance, but I told him I didn’t want to ever hear or see him again. It was extremely cold that night. There was sleet, and the roads froze over. The snow piled up fast. My dad pleaded for us to talk our misunderstandings out. I only yelled at him to stay away and shut the door in his face. That same night, Anna was driving up to spend the holidays with me.
“The emergency crews found both of them the next morning.” Wendell Wolka was speaking softly now, his downcast eyes looking at Janae but failing to see her. “Right at the end of my drive, Anna and my dad had collided. It was brutal. Their red blood frozen all over the white snow. Both of them died instantly.”
Wendell Wolka stopped talking now. Janae didn’t say anything either. She felt extremely sorry for Pastor Hill’s wife. Not only had she lost her husband in a tragic way, she had also lost her only child. Yet, Pastor Hill’s wife never seemed to show any hate. She had forgiven Janae’s father for starting the fire that killed her husband. “But that crash wasn’t exactly your fault,” Janae told Wendell.
“No, it wasn’t exactly my fault,” Wendell Wolka agreed. “But there is hardly a day that goes by when the thought does not cross my mind that if I had let my dad come in, if I had heard him out and he had listened to me, he wouldn’t have been at the end of my drive that night. If I had forgiven him earlier, the many times he had asked me to, he wouldn’t have been at the end of my drive that night. Anna wouldn’t be dead. We would be married now.”
Janae stared at the skin he was twisting on his left wrist. The name Anna Hill was tattooed there in red ink.
“It takes only one to forgive, Janae. Forgiveness is a nice concept, a very easy thing to talk about, but so hard to do. But I can tell you that doing the hard thing is much better than living with the pain of hate. Unforgiveness is the culprit for many, many broken hearts and cracked lives.”
“Sammie has forgiven Justin,” Janae said. “Our mom, too.”
“Then I guess we’re only waiting on you,” Wendell said. He smiled. “Janae, if you ever think like I used to think — that your dad doesn’t deserve your forgiveness — remember that we didn’t deserve to be forgiven by Jesus.”
The green-aproned barista called loudly for the fourth time, “I have a chicken and hummus box lunch and an iced coffee ready…anyone?”
“I’ll remember that,” Janae told Wendell Wolka as he stood up. “Thanks for talking with me and you can come over…anytime…if you want.”
“Thanks,” Wendell Wolka waved. “I’ll keep praying for your friend’s safe return.”
Sammie slid into his seat just as Wendell Wolka left. “What took you so long?” Janae asked him.
He gave a wry grin. “Nature and I had an extended call.”
Beverly Mallette awoke with a jerk because of the pain in her wrists. Her tongue felt thick in her mouth. Every part of her body seemed to ache. She faintly remembered the Cola she had drunk before blacking out. Blurred vision kept her from seeing clearly where she was. A hazy face seemed to float above her. Soon a second hazy face joined it.
“So the spider has snagged another fly,” the first hazy face sang in a childlike, innocent way.
“Don’t say that, Shellie,” the second hazy face said, strained and sharp.
The first hazy face laughed melodiously and floated away.
Beverly coughed. She blinked rapidly and the second hazy face came into focus. It was a woman’s — narrow, with high cheekbones, pale lips, and deep eyes that seemed on the verge of crying. Her sandy brown hair was cut in uneven bangs across her forehead and cropped short in the back.
Beverly was lying on her back on a hard leather sofa, her legs hanging over the torn arm rests. She sat up immediately, her eyes filling with confusion and worry. “Where am I?” she demanded.
The first hazy face came back into view. It belonged to a girl the same age as Beverly, but her curious round eyes, flushed cheeks, and blonde hair pulled back in two pigtails made her look like a ten-year-old. “You are in Room,” the girl called Shellie said. She pointed a skinny pinkie at Beverly then waved it around the space surrounding them. Beverly stared at the entire room. It was medium size with high walls, half of which were painted with various nature scenes. The rust colored carpet was faded and thin. Mismatched pieces of old furniture were crammed together: three chairs with cracked backs, two mattresses messy with sheets and pillows, a bookshelf stacked with canned food items instead of books, two redwood tables, a full trash bin, three lamps with dusty shades, and a large antique mirror covered by hanging clothes and towels. There were no windows. There was no door.
“I am Shellie,” the girl said. “She is Trista.” Shellie pointed her skinny pinkie at herself and then at the woman with the deep, crying eyes. “You are who?”
“No,” Beverly protested. She struggled to get up. Her body felt stiff. She noticed for the first time that she was barefoot.
“No-o?” Shellie repeated slowly.
“Listen, I don’t know you,” Beverly said desperately. “Or you,” she turned towards Trista. “I don’t know how I got here, but I have to get home.” She grabbed for her purse but it wasn’t there.
Shellie stared at her in doubt. “Ho-o-me,” she repeated slowly.
Trista took a step towards Beverly. “We’ve all been abducted,” she told her. “We’re being kept here.” Beverly stopped moving for a moment. Her mind flashed back to the events from the night of the chess game. Arguing with Janae in the gymnasium parking lot. Upset. Angry. Disappointed. Eaton Centre. The lights. The crowds. The racks and racks of shoes. The racks and racks of gowns. Stephen-Ethan being bothersome. Stephen-Ethan leaving her. The stranger following her. He had trailed her out to her car. Stopped her there. Revealed himself to be a friend she thought she knew well. “I have something to show you,” he said.
“No,” she had said.
But he had insisted. And he had lied. And now she was his prisoner.
Trista caught Beverly as she sank back to the sofa and began sobbing. “Kidnapped?” she wailed through her tears.
“Kid-napped,” Shellie repeated, bitterly slicing the word in two. She went to the mattresses and sat on them. Picking up a baby doll that had been hiding in the sheets, she rocked it violently back and forth in her arms. “Kid-napped,” she said again. “Sto-len and for-gotten and a-lone.”
“Don’t say that,” Trista told her. She sat on the sofa with an arm around Beverly.
“It is the truth,” Shellie responded. Her round eyes squeezed shut and her bottom lip quivered. She buried her face in the doll and rocked back and forth with her whole body.
“How long have I been here?” Beverly asked Trista when most of her sobs had subsided.
“I’m not sure. Probably two days.”
“Then it must be Saturday…and nobody (sob) knows (sob) where (sob) I (sob) am.”
“Nobody cares where you are,” Shellie muttered, her voice muffled by the doll.
Sometime later, Shellie fell asleep, curled up on the mattress and looking very small. Beverly had stopped crying. Trista gave her some cream crackers and bottled water. “She was only ten when he took her,” Trista told Beverly as she ate. She stood with hands on hips looking down at Shellie. “She’s sixteen now.”
“I’m sixteen,” Beverly said absentmindedly. Then she asked, “What is wrong with her?”
“Slightly schizophrenic, that’s all,” Trista answered. “She’s mentally unstable. She really needs help. Plus, he’s brainwashed her. No matter how hard I try to get her to talk about what happened before, she says she can’t remember her family or friends. The only thing she came with was Molly.”
“Molly?” Beverly questioned.
“The doll. I think she’s stuck in childhood.”
“And how long have you been here?”
“Eleven years. But he’s had me for fourteen.” Her eyes looked ready to pour water again, but they didn’t. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the sun. I haven’t forgotten how it looks though.” She pointed across the room at the wall facing them. There was a yellow sun painted there with squiggly rays and a white cloud beside it. Farther down was painted an orange and brown desert scene with sand dunes, rock buttes, and green cacti plants. In the middle of the mess of sand, a thick gray line was painted to form a road and on the road drove one solitary white van.
“Did you do it?” Beverly asked. Trista nodded. “You have some serious talent. It’s beautiful.”
“I’m a professional artist; used to be, anyway,” Trista smiled faintly. She looked like she wanted to say more, but sighed instead, and turning away from the wall, sat down on the sofa.
Beverly finished her cream crackers. She stood up and began walking around the furniture. “My parents,” she said. “They’re looking for me right now. I know they are. So is Stephen-Ethan and Janae and Taylor and Caibe and all my friends. They’re going to find me. I just know it. There has to be a way out of this place. And Trista, when they find me, they’ll find you and Shellie and we’ll all be free.” She pushed a chair with her bare foot. It fell back and hit the table with a dull bang.
“Shhh,” Trista whispered.
“If we make enough noise someone might hear us, but he’s not keeping me. I have to get out of here.”
“What do you think we’ve been trying to do all along?” Trista asked. “When we were in the other room with windows we escaped once, but he caught us in the hall. Now we’re in this room. There are no windows. There is no door to this room. There is no way out.”
“There has to be a door!” Beverly gasped.
“There isn’t,” Trista replied.
“Don’t look for one,” Shellie said. Beverly and Trista jumped at her unexpected voice. She had awakened and was lying on her back, still clutching Molly.
“Spider’s watching,” Shellie continued. “He’s always watching us.”
“Spider?” Beverly questioned.
“Yes-s,” Shellie answered. “You’ve seen his eyes, haven’t you? They are the stuff nightmares are made of.”
Beverly didn’t want to, but she forced herself to look up at the ceiling where Shellie was staring. There, painted crudely in black, were rows upon rows of lidless eyes—wide open and peering creepily back at her.
Beverly screamed in horror.
Celine Loilo came home from the hospital on Monday. Janae had fashion shoots at nine in the morning on Tuesday, and much to Mika Gist’s pleasure she wasn’t late. She didn’t arrive for classes at Spiron until second period had ended and found Taylor in the school library.
“Happy birthday!” Janae greeted him. “Eighteen years of life. Can’t believe you made it.”
Taylor rolled over from where he lay on the floor surrounded by stacks of books. “Some birthday,” he said tiredly.
“What? Did your mom make you cheesecake?”
“No, I had a terrifying dream last night,” Taylor told her. “This guy with the weirdest eyes wouldn’t stop chasing me. He had a pick and was going for my ears.” Taylor put up a hand and fingered the top of his right ear cautiously. “They are jagged.”
“Your ears have always been that way,” Janae replied.
“No, not always,” Taylor said slowly. “Listen, Janae, can I tell you something?”
“Why are you acting strange? You never ask me can you tell me something before you tell me. You just tell me.”
“I’m not Canadian.”
“Of course you are.”
“No, I’m not, Janae.” Taylor sat up on the floor. “You want to know what my parents gave me for my birthday?” He paused. “The truth.” He paused again. “I’m adopted.”
Janae was silent. She joined Taylor on the floor. “So your parents are not really your parents?”
He shook his head. “Not my biological ones at least. They said I came to live with them when I was five. They couldn’t have kids of their own so they chose me from a children’s home while on vacation in the States. I was born in Colorado. Kennedy is my real last name, not my middle one.”
Janae didn’t respond. She waited for him to continue. “I don’t know what happened to my other parents. Neither do they. But I have a brother. He’s three years older than me. He’s been searching for me all his life. Yesterday he called. He’s flying in from Oklahoma this week to start his new job and he wants to meet me.”
“Are you?” Janae asked.
“I don’t know,” Taylor shrugged. “I mean, I don’t even remember anything about him. I’ve always thought it would be kind of cool to have an older brother, but now that he’s here, I just really don’t know. He’s probably nothing like me. We’ve been apart all our lives.”
They sat quietly for a few minutes. Janae asked him, “Are you mad at them?”
“No,” he answered quickly. “Yes…but not at them. I just wish they hadn’t waited to tell me.” He sighed. “I don’t want to be wondering the rest of my life who my other parents were. I’m okay with being adopted, I guess; but up until this morning, I felt whole. Now, I feel like some part of me has been missing all this time. And I have all these questions: like, why did they even have me just to give me away? Why couldn’t they stay around and work things out and take care of me and this brother I have? Or did something tragic cause them to disappear? Just when I thought my life was finally coming together, it all falls apart, and I can’t see anything clearly at all.” An anxious look crossed over his face. “It doesn’t matter to you that I’m not Canadian, does it?” Taylor asked Janae anxiously.
His phone rang before she could answer and Taylor answered it quickly. A few minutes later he hung up and stood up from the floor. “The police,” he informed Janae. “They have a suspect and want us to come down and see if we recognize him.”
Thanks to Taylor’s speed driving, they arrived at the police department in less than twenty minutes. Janae spotted Stephen-Ethan’s black Scion FR-S in the parking lot. They joined him in Officer Hannamaker’s office. His assistant intern and two detectives were standing by.
“Thanks for coming on such short notice,” Officer Hannamaker greeted them in his massive voice. He pulled up a black and white video on his desktop and turned the screen towards Janae, Taylor, and Stephen-Ethan. “We looked at several surveillance tapes from the night your friend, Beverly Mallette, went missing. It appears that she might have been followed.” He sat on the edge of his desk, clicked play on the screen, and pointed with a thick finger at the scratchy figure of Beverly and then at the figure in a ski cap who always seemed to be a few steps behind her. Officer Hannamaker showed them five similar videos. The ski cap stranger trailed Beverly in each one.
The first detective, TJ Neary, spoke up. “An anonymous tip from California came in last night. Even though the suspect’s face is very blurry in these videos, the caller thought he recognized him as Dread Icepick. Ex-US Navy officer wanted for kidnapping in Oklahoma; murder, attempted murder, and suspected kidnapping in California; and a string of crimes in Oklahoma. He’s been on the run for years.”
“Icepick?” Janae muttered and Taylor shifted uneasily in his seat. Stephen-Ethan looked blank.
“Not the guy’s real name,” the second detective, Urbano Orson, said.
“No, it’s not,” Officer Hannamaker agreed. “But that’s the name he left at every crime scene. Plus, all his victims were either killed or left wounded by an icepick.” He left the edge of the desk and took the photos his assistant intern was holding. He held them out to Janae, Taylor, and Stephen-Ethan. They all leaned forward in their seats to get a better look. “Police departments in California believe he lied about that Navy stuff. They can’t find any records on him.”
“Recognize him?” TJ Neary asked. The suspect in the sketched portrait had black hair, a broad nose, and hawkish dual-colored eyes. One was blue. The other was green.
Janae found the eyes striking, but she shook her head at TJ Neary’s question. She didn’t recognize him. Neither did Stephen-Ethan. But Taylor grabbed the sketch and stared at it closely. Officer Hannamaker watched him closely as his eyes narrowed and his hands began to shake.
The details of Taylor’s terrifying dream from the previous night came flooding back into his mind. The menacing eyes that stared up from the paper at him now had haunted him his entire life. Those eyes had been the shadowy Frankenstein to stalk the corridors of his unconscious mind. Those eyes had cost him many sleepless nights and sweet dreams. Those eyes had made him think his mind weary, trying to remember the face they belonged to and the name that owned them. Those eyes had been the same eyes that terrified three-year-old Taylor Kennedy, bumping along beside his father, on a road through Death Valley in a RV that wasn’t theirs.
His mother, Trista Kennedy, sat on the other side of him. She smiled at her oldest son, six-year-old Noa, who was sitting opposite them in a leather chair. “Can you ask him to move it?” Noa asked in a worried tone. He pointed to a sharp, shiny object that was leaning against the chair. It was an icepick.
Just at that moment the RV driver placed the vehicle on autopilot and came back to where the family was. “I don’t know how long you were out in the heat, but I have some iced tea and custard pie. Would you like to have some?” he said.
“Yes, thank you,” Trista answered.
“Anything,” the RV driver replied. He smiled at her. He snapped up the icepick while walking past and pushed open a sliding door to the kitchen. “Could I use your bathroom?” Noa asked him.
“Please,” Cade Kennedy reminded him.
“Please?” Noa added.
“Sure, it’s right back here,” the RV driver said.
A few minutes later, Cade and Trista Kennedy both jumped up in horror as Noa’s body tumbled out the kitchen area’s sliding door. He fell face down on the carpet in front of them, his back covered in blood specks and his shirt ripped. The RV driver, who had served the iced tea before returning to the kitchen to get the pie, appeared behind him with the icepick in hand. His eyes were cold.
“NOA!” Taylor screamed and rushed for him, dropping his cup to the floor. The RV driver swung the icepick again, but because of Taylor’s short height, it only reached the top of his head, cutting harshly through the helix of his left ear. Taylor shrieked in pain as the blade punctured his right ear next. He fell to the ground, streams of blood and tears mingling on his face.
Cade Kennedy quickly recovered from his shock and lunged at the RV driver. The point of the icepick found his chest and with mammoth force the RV driver drove it in. They both fell backwards into the kitchen. Trista Kennedy followed them as they struggled, landing several good kicks that made the RV driver drop his icepick. She grabbed the knife, covered in cream, that lay on the counter-top and jabbed it into the RV driver’s shoulder. It didn’t cut deep enough. Tears of unbelief kept her from seeing the RV driver reach for her. He half-shoved, half-threw her across the floor like a rag doll. Cade Kennedy was on his feet again, clutching his hole riddled chest. He heard a dull click in the background and staggered around. The RV driver stood facing him with a small revolver.
On the floor, Taylor still lay with his little hands covering his ears. His eyes were shut tightly. He didn’t want to see what was taking place. Back at home, the monsters he and Noa fought together were hideous creatures with twisted horns and gnashing teeth and iron plated tails. With their Star Wars light-sabers, the brothers had always been able to defeat them. But here was a monster who offered them pie and tea, and Taylor was too terror-stricken to face him. Noa dragged himself across the floor until his face was near Taylor’s. “Don’t move,” he whispered. His voice was filled with pain. “Play dead.”
Taylor kept his eyes closed. “I love you, Noa,” he whispered.
A second later, the entire RV shook. A bright flash from the revolver and the heat from the shock wave sent Cade Kennedy crumbling back to the floor. The loud, firework-like sound quaked through the fearful brothers and rattled their bones. It caused the autopilot to malfunction and the RV careened across the road like a drunken sailor, running over an unfortunate desert tortoise, unaware of the deadly incident taking place inside.
Uncomfortable darkness enveloped Taylor. A darkness that made his young mind forget.
It was midnight when the RV driver came to the end of Death Valley. He pulled to the side of the road. Cade Kennedy’s dead body was thrown out the door into the cool, dry sand. The full moon that was on duty witnessed the unconscious body of Noa come out next. Then the unconscious body of Taylor came out third.
The RV with Trista Kennedy tied to a chair in the bedroom, started up again and drove off. The moon did not stay out long enough to find out where it went.
Taylor awoke two days and three hours later. He was hungry and hot and his head hurt horribly. But he was alive. Despite his own wounds, Noa was holding him and refused to let Taylor look at their father who lay beside them—a hole in his head and curious ants crawling in his blood. A police trooper cruised by, saw the sight, and got out to investigate.
Taylor jumped and let out a short scream as a cool hand squeezed his arm. It was only Janae. He had slipped out of his chair in Officer Hale Hannamaker’s office and ended up on the floor still clutching the sketched photo. “Are you alright?” Stephen-Ethan asked him.
TJ Neary and Urbano Orson leaned over them. “You had us scared there for a while,” Urbano Orson said.
“Can you recall who the guy in the sketch is?” TJ Neary asked.
Taylor grabbed Officer Hannamaker’s outstretched hand and pulled himself up from the floor. “Yes,” he answered confidently. “It’s Theodore…Theodore Norcom.”
After the police gave them permission to leave, Taylor dropped Janae off at Spiron and then drove home. He had left breakfast that morning slightly upset after hearing that he was adopted. He wasn’t upset anymore, just very confused. Somewhere out there he had a brother who wanted to see him. And if she was still alive, he had a mother out there, too. Taylor wondered if Trista Kennedy ever thought about him. He tried to bring up a mental picture of Cade Kennedy, the one he shared genes with and no doubt looked like. Maybe he got his speed driving from him and his hatred of cheesecake, too. Taylor sighed. He was tired of thinking and tired of remembering.
As far as he was concerned, Shaun and Elaine Michaude were his dad and mom. He couldn’t imagine having any other people being his parents. They had loved him as their very own son, despite knowing that he wasn’t. They had told him about God, taught him everything he knew, and always made sure he had the very best. Even though they weren’t his biological parents, Taylor realized that he loved them too, as if they were.
When he pulled into the driveway, Elaine came out the front door and waited on the porch for him. He ran up the steps, into her arms, and cried like a little kid.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Mallette lay rigid in the bedroom she shared with her husband. Her face resting on a tear soaked pillow. She had shed tears without sleeping for days and Mr. Mallette had just now been able to get her in the bed. He sat downstairs in his darkened study. A book lay open on the table in front of him, but the framed pictures of Beverly hanging on the opposite wall had his attention.
He and Beverly on the Leviathan roller coaster at Wonderland. He and Beverly walking in the park. He and Beverly with latte froth mustaches. He and Beverly dancing. He and Beverly hugging. He and Beverly making funny faces. He and Beverly in the snow. He and Beverly just being together.
The ringing of the phone brought him back to the present. Officer Hannamaker was calling.
“We believe we might have a suspect who kidnapped your daughter,” he informed Mr. Mallette. “One of her friends recognized him and he’s wanted in the States for the same thing and several other serious crimes. He goes by the alias Dread Icepick. His real name is Theodore Norcom.”
Mr. Mallette’s face turned pale and he clutched the table. “No,” he gasped. “Wh-what did you say?”
“Theodore Norcom,” Officer Hannamaker repeated. “Do you know him?”
“Yes, but…Theodore,” Mr. Mallette could barely get the words out. “Theo…is…our…Theo’s our neighbor.”
It was still dark outside when the Toronto police swarmed the street outside the Mallette’s house. They blocked the entrance and exit with their vehicles with lights blazing. Several officers took positions outside of the shadowy house with boarded up windows that belonged to Theodore Norcom. The residents, rudely awakened from their Wednesday morning slumber, were ordered to stay in their houses. They came out anyway and stood in their yards with crossed arms and perplexed faces. Janae, Taylor, and Stephen-Ethan had driven over with TJ Neary and waited inside of his car. Finally, Officer Hannamaker went up the porch steps and banged on the front door.
“Open up! This is the police,” Officer Hannamaker ordered in his massive voice. His words echoed down the tense, silent street. When no one came to the door, Officer Hannamaker went around to the back with five others. The gate leading to the backyard was triple locked from the inside. They found a side door behind a rotting tree branch and kicked it in. After receiving the message over their hand radio, a second team of five moved cautiously to the front window. With a loud crash, they shattered the glass outside before dismantling the grungy wooden board that had blocked out the sunlight for so long. The team entered the house through the open window. Soon the entire lower floor was illuminated briefly by the white glow from their powerful flashlights. Those watching outside could make out the shadows of the police moving around in the dim light and then as they went into different rooms, the house was dark again.
Officer Hannamaker and the men with him were inside the house for a long time. Every minute that went by seemed to stretch into an hour. Some of the residents returned to their houses and came back out with blankets and cameras to film what was taking place. They sat on the grass and began to talk back and forth. The officers who had been left outside shifted their positions, but remained watchful. Early morning sunlight started to streak on the horizon, erasing the night’s stars. Stephen-Ethan yawned. He rolled down his window and asked TJ Neary who was leaning against the car door, “Are you sure they have the right house?”
“Yeah, it’s the right one,” TJ assured him. “They wouldn’t be in there this long if it wasn’t. If the guy has more than one hostage in there, we might be in for a siege. Could take hours. Might end in a shootout.”
“I just don’t understand. This is Beverly’s neighbor,” Janae said. “I met him once at her dad’s birthday party. Why would he do that? Why would anyone do that?”
TJ shrugged, “Stupid people do stupid things.”
BANG! The sound of a gun shot drowned out TJ’s next words and made them all turn back to the house. “Shootout,” Taylor groaned. Urbano Orson swung out of his car and motioned for them to stay down. “Get back inside!” he yelled at the shocked residents. The familiar wail of an ambulance was heard in the distance.
Two officers burst out the front door of Norcom’s house, carrying another officer between them. He had been shot in the leg.
BANG! The gun went off again and then again and again. Another officer was helped out the front door, his face contorted in pain and his right arm bloody. The remaining members of the two teams who had been inside followed the second wounded officer out. They raced across the grass to the crowded street. “Move the vehicles,” a man with sweat-streaked hair ordered. “Get all the surrounding residents out and away now. The place is going to explode.”
The smell of kerosene drifted through the air. Smoke began to pour out of the second floor windows.
Urbano rushed with three others to do as he was told. They pounded on the Mallette’s front door and told them to get out. When Mrs. Mallette saw no sign of Beverly she collapsed on the porch in tears and had to be carried out by Mr. Mallette and Urbano. The residents streamed out of their houses and moved further down the street. “Follow them!” TJ directed Janae, Taylor, and Stephen-Ethan out of his car and onto the grass.
Crackle. Hiss. Pop!
Red, orange, and yellow flames shot from the back of Norcom’s house and leaped high into the sky. Thick, choking smoke filled the air. Hysterical screaming from Mrs. Mallette made some of the residents panic and they started to run. “Everyone out?” the man with the sweat-streaked hair asked.
“Yeah,” Urbano nodded. The entire street was a scene of disorder.
“No!” TJ yelled. “Where in the world is Hannamaker?” All three looked around in dismay, straining their eyes through the smoke. “Hey!” TJ grabbed an officer running by. “Where is Hannamaker?”
“I thought he was right behind us,” the officer shouted back.
“HANNAMAKER!” TJ roared through the confusion. He darted into the yard but was pulled back.
Ba-BOOM! The entire ground shook. The impact of the explosion knocked some off their feet. Janae lay low on the grass. She could feel Taylor breathing heavily beside her. His hands were covering his ears. Through smoke, Janae saw the house shiver then crumble in a blast of flames, hot sparks, and intense heat. Tears found their way past her eyelids and down her face. Stephen-Ethan lay flattened beside her, smoke stinging his eyes. “Beverly,” he whispered.
With some difficulty, the police cars moved out of the street to allow the fire trucks to come in. Their thick hoses were plugged into the sidewalk water hydrants and the dancing flames doused before they reached the neighboring houses. The wailing ambulance carried the wounded officers away.
A grim faced TJ Neary stood beside Taylor who was hugging Janae. Stephen-Ethan remained on the grass with his arms covering his face. The man with sweat-streaked hair now had a sweat-streaked face and neck. He had been inside the house before the shots were fired and was trying to explain as best he could what had taken place. “We chased him all over the first floor until he managed to get away from us. He barricaded himself in a room on the second floor. Officer Hannamaker told him what we were there for, kept trying to talk him out, but he wouldn’t listen. He yelled all sorts of devilry at us. Said he had a dozen loaded rounds and would put an end to us before we ever found the girls.” The sweat-streaked man paused and thought for a second. “He said girls so he must have had more than one held in there.” Turning to look at the leveled, burnt heap of a house, the sweat-streaked man sighed. “There’s no way they could have survived that. No way anyone could have survived.”
Stephen-Ethan was crying now.
“Anyway, that was when we smelled kerosene. I guess he was pouring bottles of the stuff and Officer Hannamaker warned him that we were going to take down the door. That was when he fired the first shot through the wall. Maxwell was hit in the leg and they took him out. Then we fired back. Then he fired again and Griffin was hit. I felt the heat. The flames came at us so fast and the floor began to fall through. Officer Hannamaker ordered everyone out–”
“Why didn’t he make it?” TJ asked.
The sweat-streaked man hesitated. “He fell through the floor.” TJ Neary shook his head and turned away.
Janae recalled the deal she had made about going to church. It didn’t look like Elevate Grace would ever see her face again. Beverly was gone in the most horrible way. Janae joined Stephen-Ethan in crying. “I’m not ever going back,” she managed to say. “Never. Ever. Again.” Taylor didn’t say anything. He hugged her tighter.
The morning sun had risen fully now but the full strength of it’s rays failed to cut through the suspended smoke and reach the ground. Mrs. Mallette sat in the middle of the street and refused to be moved. Mr. Mallette was beside her, an arm around her waist. The residents began drifting slowly back to their homes, some stopping to comfort the Mallettes. Others stood and stared at the destroyed house of Theodore Norcom and they wondered how a monster could have lived among them for so long. They wondered how they could have invited pure evil to their summer backyard grillings, birthday parties, and weekend movie nights. He had mingled with them often. He had entertained their children. He had laughed the longest and the loudest at their friendly jokes. They thought they knew everything about the ‘nice’ man who had striking eyes, religiously watered his front yard, and made the most delicious custard pies. But, no, they had not known anything at all – not a single, little, thing.
Shaun and Elaine Michaude had been trying to call Taylor for the past hour. They had seen the explosion on television and wanted to know if he was alright. Taylor finally picked up as he and Janae helped Stephen-Ethan off the ground and walked over to TJ Neary’s car. He was going to take them all home.
“What the -” TJ started as the construction pothole cover he was standing on struggled to move. He dropped the keys he was using to unlock the car doors and scrambled out of the way. Urbano Orson yanked the cover the rest of the way off. The ashen, dirt-specked face of Shellie stared up at them. The sunlight blinded her for a second and being afraid of those looking back at her, she cowered down and hid her face behind Molly.
“Well, don’t just stand there,” the familiar, massive voice of Hannamaker called from somewhere in the darkness below Shellie. “Pull us up!”
“Officer Hannamaker!” TJ exclaimed. Kneeling down, he took hold of Shellie and pulled her out of the hole with the help of Urbano. The sweat-streaked man and twelve other officers ran over. Amid much talk, they grabbed hold of Trista next and lifted her out. Beverly was pulled out third and then with great effort, Officer Hannamaker was half-lifted, half-yanked out of the pothole. His uniform was gray instead of black and their faces were all filthy with ash and dirt. A very relieved Beverly was smiling.
Janae, Taylor, and Stephen-Ethan all yelled out at once when they caught sight of her. The noise brought Mr. and Mrs. Mallette running. Beverly was enveloped in hugs, kisses, and sad tears turned happy all at once. The residents suddenly came back out of their houses. Cheering and clapping, they greeted the three rescued captives.
“I fell through the floor through some sort of trap door,” Officer Hannamaker told TJ and the other officers. “I crashed right down on a mattress in a room where these three ladies were. He was holding them underground in the cellar. We attempted to get out the way I came in, but the smoke began pouring through the opening, and the little one,”—he pointed at Shellie—“she nearly fainted. So we moved the mattress to block the trap door entrance and discovered a tunnel right there in the ground. I went down a short way to make sure it was alright, told them to follow me, and we started out. We heard and felt the house exploding above us. I thought for sure the entire tunnel would cave in and feared we might be buried alive, but thank God we weren’t and here we are.” He looked over at the group reuniting around Beverly and smiled.
When Taylor was finally able to pull away, he noticed Trista Kennedy examining him from a few steps away with a strange expression on her face. He knew he was meeting his birth mother for the first time in a long time and didn’t know exactly what to say. There was an unnatural, long silence when he went over to her. Even though years had passed since that nightmarish trip through Death Valley and her baby son was now taller than her and almost a man, Trista recognized him immediately.
“Taylor,” she said.
“Mom,” he nodded and hugged her. Slowly, at first. Then tightly. And her deep eyes that always seemed on the verge of crying, finally did.
Shellie stood apart from the others, clutching Molly. Having been so long inside, the sunlight and morning breeze felt strange on her skin and made her shiver. Everything that she had known for the recent part of her life was gone and she had mixed feelings of hope and fear about the present and her future. Mr. Mallette, overjoyed to have Beverly with him again, teared up again at the lonely sight of Shellie. He waved for her to come over. After a few encouraging words from him, she dropped Molly to the grass and embraced him.
On Sunday, Janae sat in the front row between her mom and Sammie at the temporary meeting place of Elevate Grace Church. Taylor sat beside them with Shaun and Elaine Michaude. Because of their fragile conditions, Trista Kennedy and Shellie had been taken to the hospital and would remain there for two weeks. For the first time, Beverly attended church with her parents. Stephen-Ethan sat in the row behind them. Mika Gist, Officer Hannamaker, TJ Neary, Urbano Orson, and some of the other officers all had seats in the audience, at the invitation of Janae. Of course, Caibe with his mom, Dwayne, Darlene, and Wendell Wolka, were all there too.
Lisa was on the stage and had the microphone. “I want to welcome all of you to worship at Elevate Grace,” she greeted the congregation warmly. “Welcome especially to our new visitors and returning guests. The past few weeks have been tough on all of us as a church and as a community, but God has brought us through and we are still expecting Him to do awesome things. This morning, I have some great news to share with you all. First, thanks to a generous donation, Elevate Grace has reached it’s goal and has enough funds to build a new building.”
The congregation cheered enthusiastically. Sammie pinched Janae’s arm and gave her a secret thumbs up. “Second,” Lisa continued. “Elevate Grace has also found a new pastor to continue the ministry of our late pastor, Aaron Hill. I’ll give some background. Due to a tragic situation in his childhood, our new pastor lived much of his young life without his parents. He moved around from foster home to foster home, often feeling unwanted and lonely.
“At fifteen, he went to a youth meeting in Boulder, Colorado, where Pastor Aaron Hill (a much younger one, I should say) was speaking as the visiting minister. It was there that he heard the most beautiful words the world has ever known: ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.’
“He gave his heart to Jesus that night and has been studying and training ever since then to be a pastor. We are truly honored to have such a passionate servant of God with us here today, and I hope he will be with us for a long time to come. Please help me welcome our new pastor, Noa Kennedy, and his beautiful wife, Emma-Lynn.”
The congregation cheered again as twenty-one-year-old Noa and Emma-Lynn Kennedy took the stage. Taylor whistled. Janae clapped loudly. She glanced at the happy faces around her. She was glad to be back at church among people who loved God and loved her. This time, she was there to stay.
Janae again. I’m getting ready for the prom at Spiron. Beverly and I decided to skip the mall altogether and instead have chosen throwback gowns from my enormous closet. That kidnapping scare hasn’t changed her a bit and I’m glad. She’s just as funny and bright and fashion-crazy as ever.
Detectives TJ Neary and Urbano Orson located Shellie’s parents in Oklahoma, USA. After several long years of hoping and praying for her safe return, they can hardly believe she is alive and safe. They are flying to Canada to reunite with her. Her full name is Shellie Sadie Everly.
In just a few weeks, Taylor and I will be off to college. Trista Kennedy is going to live with Noa and Emma-Lynn. She is already making plans to build an art center for kids on the now vacant property where Theodore Norcom’s house once stood. Things between my mom and Wendell Wolka are still pretty steady. He comes over all the time now and has agreed to take Sammie on the church’s next fishing trip. And yes, I have forgiven my dad, Justin Christopher Loilo.
I visited him in jail and told him I used to be mad at him. I’m not anymore. I told him I had forgiven him for leaving our family, for burning Elevate Grace, and killing Pastor Aaron Hill. I told him that the church had forgiven him and that when he was released if he decided to come back, we would all welcome him with open arms and open hearts. Most importantly, I told him that God had forgiven him and that God loved him. Then he told me that he was sorry for the pain he had caused. He told me he loved me very much – always had and always would. He told me to tell Sammie that he loved him. He told me to tell our mom that he loved her. He told me to visit him often. He said he would think more about God. We wanted to hug each other, but the glass divider kept us from doing so. We air kissed instead. I can’t wait to see him again.
Ever since I started going back to church, my faith has been strengthened. My relationship with Jesus Christ has grown. He is my number one priority, even above my modeling career. Having a church home to attend is important in the life of every young believer. We need to be reminded often that we are not alone in our Christian walk. As you grow older, go off to college, and experience new things in life, don’t forget God. Don’t turn your back on the church. It needs you just as much as you need it.
Proud church girl,
Read more stories in the Girls of Virtue Series:
Book One – Georgie
Book Two – Mila
Visit The Virtuous Girls online:
Copyright 2014. Torch Legacy Publications. All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner, except for brief quotations included in a review of the book. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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