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Prologue

I didn’t know him.

I think that’s what stuck out to me the most, more than the mane of dark hair that fell around his shoulders, more than the tall boots, or the careworn jacket of black leather, or the chains that criss-crossed its lapel. These things certainly stood out to most people who passed him, surely, so prominent against the muted background of the church pew. But the fact that I had no name for this person, this stranger, stuck out so much to me; in the tiny town of Lewitt, New Jersey, everyone knew everyone.

No one, not among my family or among the congregation, gave him a second glance. He was a stain on the wall. He caused no trouble thusfar, and perhaps they thought if they went on ignoring him, he would just decide we weren’t entertaining him, we with our perfect, devout ways, and he would leave on his own. So far, this hadn’t happened. I had noticed him now for three weeks, in the very back pew, and he seemed to have no intention of breaking his new habit.

I got a good look at him every week as I passed, as he always seemed to be the first to arrive and the last to leave. And though I’m sure I expected him to sneer, to gawk at the pristine churchgoers and mock them with his eyes, I never saw such an expression cross his face. The first time I met his eyes, the deep, mossy hazel of his eyes, I felt a jolt within my belly that did not belong there.

Just as we believed that he did not belong in our world.

And I did not belong in his.

Chapter 1 – Eucharist

Though the contents of my life were in constant, slow metamorphosis, the shell they occupied remained relatively the same. My childhood home had undergone very few renovations beyond basic maintenance. The bedroom I awoke in had the same gray carpet and robin’s-egg blue walls that it had always had, though they bore more wear and scratches than when the room was my nursery. The routine and ritual that formed the structure of my family was forever unchanged. On Sunday mornings, I was woken for church by a voice and an unmistakable breakfast aroma.

“Ash! Come eat!”

Pancakes. I could smell the perfume of butter tinged with burn before I even opened my eyes, before my mom’s voice floated through the door. She didn’t need to knock or call twice. A heavy sleeper I might have been, but quick to wake, acclimated to early mornings by twenty-some odd years of church services, K-through-12 schooling, and college classes. I inhaled slowly, reinvigorating my lungs, and swung my legs out from under the blankets. My sheets snagged on my pajama pants and pulled the cuffs several inches above my ankles, exposing my skin to the slight chill in my room. I welcomed the gentle twinges of awareness, the crush of the carpet under my toes, the light stretch in the base of my spine as I sat upright and rolled the sleep from my bones.

Getting ready in the morning was a quick affair. I took care to lay out my clothes on my desk chair the night before so I didn’t spend too much time trying to match shirts and pants. I took a secondary glance at my outfit for the day – dark blue, short-sleeved shirt with pearl buttons and a single pocket, paired with light khaki slacks – and proceeded to dress myself. While straightening wrinkles in the mirror, my reflection pointed out the matting in my hair – I beat the worst out of it with a wide-tooth comb only because I knew my mom would comment on it otherwise. Truthfully, my light brown, thick, chin-length curls were picky. Too long and the tangles were unmanageable. Too short and it would become a mess of Shirley Temple ringlets. I liked my hair the way it was.

Satisfied that my hair would at least survive scrutiny, I added one last thing to my outfit. When I graduated from high school, my parents had bought me a beautiful silver cross pendant on a chain, and hardly a day went by that I didn’t wear it. It was simple and plain, similar to one my dad wore. I clasped it around my neck and folded my collar down over it so that it would sit neatly over my clothes.

My parents were both in the kitchen, my dad at the stove flipping pancakes and my mother at the sink trying to clean up after him, a checked blue apron protecting her neat skirt and blouse from soap suds. Sunday was the only day my dad regularly cooked, aside from summer barbecues and the odd spaghetti night. He had gone the opposite direction of my mom in his attempt to protect his Sunday clothes from pancake batter – he was only wearing his undershirt and khakis. He looked over at me, gave me a nod, and said, “Hey, kid. Go wake up your brother, will ya?”

Kid, my dad said, despite the fact that his oldest son was now twenty-three. “He’s still in bed?” I asked.

“I called him,” Mom said over her shoulder. “But you know how long he takes. And please comb your hair, Asher.”

“All right, all right. Got it.” Knew it, I thought. I ran my fingers through my hair roughly as I walked back to the hallway between my brother’s bedroom and mine, casino şirketleri and knocked on the door. “Dan, get up.”

No answer.

I pounded the door. “Daniel!”

A mumble that could have been an expletive.

Well, that was as much of an invitation as I needed. I turned the knob and went in, taking care not to trip on the heap of last night’s jeans Dan had left on the floor. My kid brother was sixteen, and it showed in his wall hangings, his cleanliness, and his attitude. But hey, I was sixteen once. I knew what it was like. Still, that empathy didn’t exactly factor in when I unceremoniously threw the sheets off the lump in Dan’s bed. “Get up.”

Daniel unfurled and thrust himself upright in bed, his hair hanging in his glaring eyes – hair that was straight like our dad’s, but the same color as we all had. His face was flushed slightly red – I’d forgotten he slept in his cartoon-pattern boxers. “Fuck off!” he griped, throwing a pillow at me.

“Woah, dude,” I said, weaving to avoid the pillow. “Cut the cussing. Better not let Mom hear that.”

“Like you don’t say it.”

“Yeah, yeah. Get up and get dressed or I’m gonna eat your pancakes.” I left him with that and shut the door behind me.

Back in the kitchen, I sat myself down at the table where a platter of pancakes was steadily growing as my dad tipped each one from the pan. I took a plate from the stack my mom had provided and helped myself to a couple. “Dan’s up,” I told them, scraping a pat of butter from the floral-patterned dish between plates.

Mom turned from the sink and wiped her hands off on her apron, then shot me a look. “Would you like to wait for the rest of us before you eat?”

“He’s fine, he’s fine,” Dad said, flipping the last of the pancakes onto the stack and sliding the frying pan into the sink. “Let him eat. With how much he puts down, he’ll be a minute anyway.”

I shrugged and poured syrup over my plate. Sure, I ate a little more than your average person, but I used every calorie I took in. So long as I didn’t gain weight, I didn’t think my parents would ever complain about me getting seconds and thirds. I was grabbing another pancake by the time Mom and Dad sat down to have their own breakfast, and they were halfway through themselves when Dan stalked into the kitchen in the same black polo shirt he’d worn the previous Sunday. He grabbed a pancake, rolled it, and ate it like a burrito.

“Daniel,” Mom said sternly. “Sit down and eat like a normal person.”

“I’m good,” he replied between bites.

Before Mom could start in on my brother, I spoke up to save him. “Are you gonna go to Youth Group tonight? I’ll drive you.”

Dan chewed, swallowed, and seemed to consider for a moment. “Maybe. I dunno.”

“I’ll go with you if you want,” I offered.

“Ugh. No thanks. You’re too old for Youth Group, anyway.”

Mom shot him a look, but I just laughed and wiped my plate with the last bite of pancake. Only a minute later and Mom found a new target, glancing at my father still in his undershirt. “Honey, go get your shirt on. We have to go soon.”

My dad grunted some form of affirmation, finished his plate, and stood with a scraping of his chair. “Boys, brush your teeth and get your shoes on,” he told us. “Dan – your nice shoes. I don’t want to see you in those ratty sneakers again.”

Dan made that ugh noise again and stuffed the last of his pancake roll in his mouth. Personally, I silently agreed with him – did our Heavenly Father really care what kind of clothes we wore to worship Him? But it was better to keep that to myself. You go to church, you dress nice. That’s how it goes.

Five minutes later, minty fresh and beshoed, my family reconvened at the side door and shrugged on jackets. After a final “Ready?” from my dad, we all traipsed out to the silver SUV parked on our sloped driveway. Each of us carried a personalized bible we’d gotten as gifts at various points in life, myself holding two as Dan had forgotten his in the living room – twin blue leather volumes only set apart by the names on their covers and the innumerable colored tabs on the pages of mine. I passed Dan’s to him in the backseat. He scowled at me sidelong, but said nothing. It was clear to everyone that Dan wasn’t keen on the whole church thing, and that he only went along at our family’s insistence. Dad had said he’d grow out of it.

But me? I couldn’t remember ever having a phase like that. My whole life was one of devotion, a life where I believed in God’s plan for me and thanked Him for it. I had only brief moments of doubt. I attended weekly bible studies. I went to a Christian university. My faith was part of who I was. And I had never questioned it.

The parking lot was already bustling a bit when we pulled up to the church. Lewitt First Baptist Church was not our small town’s only place of worship, but it was our oldest and probably most popular. Most attendees were lifelong members like my family. The sleek casino firmaları exterior, however, spoke of modernity. The old building had been fixed up quite some time ago when rot set into the roof and repairs were desperately needed, and now it was all white siding and clean brick, with the old iron spire at its peak remaining, cross-tipped and stretching to the sky, to remind us all of its rich history.

I trailed after my parents, bible under arm, down the concrete walkway around the parking lot. At the double doors to the lobby stood the adult’s bible study leader and assistant pastor, Jeff, a middle-aged man who smiled and shook hands with most everyone who passed inside, and probably had done so for as long as I’d known him. While my parents lingered there and my dad went through his usual chat with Jeff, I was clapped on the back with unexpected force from behind.

“Ash! What’s up, man?”

I turned around, unsurprised about my assailant. Dirty blond and tan-skinned, my friend Marc grinned at me with a flash of teeth – the front ones of which had always been slightly gapped in the middle since we were both kids. Somehow, this odd little quirk wasn’t obtrusive of his good features… If anything, I thought he was right in skipping braces.

Marc and I had shared experiences our entire lives. Same schools, same friends, same church, and now, the same college, sharing many of the same classes. But he was more than just some guy I’d known my whole life. I’d go so far as to say he was my best friend, and I was sure he’d say the same if you asked.

I grinned back at Marc and gave him a one-armed hug, pounding his back in return. “Hey. You gonna sit with your family today?”

“Yeah, probably. Usually. But I can chill for a sec. Come on,” he said, and we bypassed the greeting line at the door into the lobby, where people were still mingling and chatting, most likely catching each other up since the previous week they’d met. The high ceiling resounded with cheerful banter and the occasional little burst of laughter – a friendly, warm sound. We walked slowly, using the time meandering to the sanctuary to talk.

“Did you do the essay over the weekend?” I asked.

“Pretty much. Probably.”

“You’re scratching your neck. You didn’t do it, did you?”

“I did it. I did it. Like, mostly. It’s my fu – my bibliography, I hate it.” I caught the beginning of a cuss in his words. Both Marc and I might use foul language regularly, but he had to catch himself more often than me when we were in church or around our families. “‘Show your sources’. My source is I just know. So I always gotta scrape up a bunch of stuff that looks like I read it. Stick some quotes in here and there. You?”

“It wasn’t like, a breeze, but I got it done. At least I don’t have to work on it tonight. I still got that thing to -“

But Marc had put an arm up in front of me, shushing me hurriedly. “Hold that. Check it out.”

We were standing just inside the doors to the sanctuary, the massive room with the ribs of curved wooden beams raising themselves to the sky, the walls punctured with carefully preserved stained glass motifs, and the aisles lined with countless pews. The soft, echoing vibration of the organ behind the altar sang itself up to the ceiling, where it mixed with the idle chatter of people finding their seats and their family friends. Marc was looking at the back of one of the pews, on the right side.

“Check what out?” I asked him.

“That. The dude’s here again!” he insisted.

I looked back where Marc was looking, and felt an odd twinge somewhere under my lungs.

For the fourth week in a row, I found myself looking at broad shoulders shrouded in worn black leather, the back of a head bearing a mane of rippling brunette hair, darker than mine, and so long that it brushed the pew’s backrest. The man had one leg crossed over the other, the ankle of a clean black boot upon his knee, hands loose upon his thighs. He wasn’t staring at anyone, wasn’t giving much notice to anyone who passed him. Just looking straight ahead so that I couldn’t see his face. Just like always.

“The heck do you think he wants?” Marc frowned. “”You’d think he would have done something by now. Ruffled feathers or something.”

“He’s gonna hear you,” I replied quietly.

“I don’t think so. He’s not paying attention to anything.”

But no sooner had Marc said this that the man’s head turned, and I found myself flinching as he glanced over his shoulder. In profile, his face was hard, prominent. There was a crooked line in the bridge of his nose, a bluntness in his jaw, a heaviness in his eyes. A single eye rested on us – on me? – and then he looked forward again as if nothing had happened.

I gave Marc a light punch to the forearm. “Don’t talk about people behind their backs,” I told him. “Come on.”

We passed the man in the pew on our way down the aisle, but I didn’t give him another look. I didn’t realize how güvenilir casino long my strides were until I saw Marc jog up alongside me. “I dunno, man,” he was saying. “You don’t think he’s weird at all?”

“If he wants to come to church, then let him,” I said. “How do you know he’s not here to worship like everyone else?”

Marc made a noise of embattled doubt and rolled his head a little. “Well, have you looked at him during the service at all?”

“No, why?”

“He doesn’t do anything. Doesn’t stand. Doesn’t sing. Never grabbed a bible or a hymnal. All I’ve seen him do is sit there and stare ahead.” Marc grimaced. “It’s like he thinks we’re entertaining. Why, I don’t f – I don’t know.”

“He’s not hurting anyone,” I insisted. “I’m sure you’re worried he’s like the dumb kids in high school who’d make fun of the Christian kids, but he hasn’t done anything yet. We’re supposed to be welcoming, Marc. Maybe someone just needs to reach out.”

Marc shrugged. “I mean, I guess. But hey, if he tries mocking anyone…” He held up his hands in some lackluster “oh well” gesture, but finished it off with a fist gently slapped against his palm.

“I don’t think we need to worry,” I said. “Besides… Turn the other cheek, yeah?”

He shrugged again, chewing his lip. “Yeah. Hey, are you doing the communion thing again this week?”

“Just helping out with the old folks, yeah.”

“All right. Neat. See you after service.”

“See you.” We split up halfway down the walk. Marc’s parents sat on one side, and my family sat on the other – on the right, close to the front. Dan was already sitting here, head buried in his phone, and I scooted him down a little to sit on the outside. Mom and Dad always sat on the inside of the pew, but I liked being near the end. I shrugged my jacket off, tucked it behind me, and started checking my bible pages against the numbers that were marked up on the interchangeable wooden board beside the organ – to indicate the hymns and passages that we’d use for that day’s worship and sermon.

To be honest, I had shared Marc’s sentiments not long ago. The first time I saw the strange man in the back pew, I immediately put up a defense. Yes, I believed that God didn’t care what one wore to church, but surely that outfit was intended to make a statement to us. He was a somewhat scary person, all dark-eyed and leather-clad. He would look more at place in a rowdy biker bar, or the goth stores at the mall, maybe. In the pristine pews, he struck an imposing, unnatural presence.

But he had indeed not caused a stir yet. No one approached him, and he didn’t force them to. He didn’t speak to anyone, but neither did he talk back or scoff. Maybe he was genuinely trying to enjoy the service. Maybe he just didn’t know how to join in worship. Maybe this was the way he worshiped. Cast not the first stone and all that, I thought. Only God had cause to judge this man, if at all. It wasn’t my place.

A few minutes later, my parents had settled into their spots, and the organ burst into its full sound to bring us to our feet and call us to sing. Having already found my page in the community hymnals provided on the back of each pew, I flicked another open and pressed it into Dan’s hands. He frowned and rolled his eyes, but I held my book open and let the words come. The congregation rose into a disjointed recital of “O Perfect Love”.

O perfect Love, all human thought transcending,

Lowly we kneel in prayer before Thy throne,

That theirs may be the love which knows no ending,

Whom Thou forevermore dost join in one.

The songs we sang were not modern, nor were they joined by guitar and drum and shaking of tambourines as the more progressive services were at other churches. Dan had gotten past the point of mouthing them silently and just stood there slouching while the rest of us sang. But I loved the old hymns, the holy songs that spoke of perfect love and compassion unending, of a heavenly Father, righteous above all, who raised the sky and opened the path to eternal life through sacrifice in blood…

As the song ended and we were bid to sit, my mom tousled an unwilling Dan’s hair, then reached over him and gripped my shoulder gently, smiling at me as if to say she was proud of the man I’d become.

The man who led our worship, Pastor Len, was in his late forties, his sandy hair peppered with gray and his thick glasses making his blue eyes appear quite small on his round face. He was an enthusiastic teacher, bobbing on his feet as he spoke, often having to be reminded by the assistant pastor of how close he was cutting his schedule during lectures. I sat listening to his sermon for its duration, focusing with rapt attention. Beside me, Dan had had his phone confiscated by our mother, but he was now simply staring into his open, unmarked bible with a glazed look in his eyes.

At the tail end of an excited lesson on Jesus’ dinner with a tax collector – which makes much more sense in context – the usual reminder came for Pastor Len to wrap things up. Jeff came and patted Pastor Len on the shoulder and muttered something to him, and as if snapping out of a trance, our pastor shook himself and straightened his suit jacket.

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