It was Friday night. I lounged on my bed against a stack of pillows watching “My Sweet Sixteen” on MTV. My Sweet Sixteen was only a month away and still I had almost nothing planned. Suddenly, above the commercial, I heard the squeaky front door of our trailer opening. Daddy was home. I looked at my clock. 2:32 AM blared in red at me from the digital readout. He was later than usual. I could hear him stumbling around and muttering profanity. He was more drunk than usual, too. He started to clomp down the hallway. Quickly I switched off my TV and lain down. Daddy would be mad if he knew I was up. Too late. Next thing I knew, he swung open my door and leaned far in, reeking of cheap cigarettes and alcohol. With slurred speech and more than a few expletives, he asked what I thought I was doing still up and told me I should go to bed because I had school tomorrow. I reminded him that it was Friday. He didn’t say anything else, just slammed my door and started singing bits of a Willy Nelson song.
Later, I could hear him rummaging in the kitchen and cussing because someone had eaten all the ice cream. In the dark, I shut my eyes tight until they hurt and turned on my radio to drown him out.
“Go-o-o-od morning, everyone! It’s 10:05 and I’m David Alexander on 106.5 The Mix!” What? I opened my eyes. Sunlight spilled through my curtains. 10:05? That meant Mom was home from her shift at the Waffle House. Quickly, I got up and pulled on a pair of shorts under my long t-shirt and walked out of my room. Dad was asleep on the couch, snoring loudly, with his head leaned to one side and his arm dangling off the edge. His mouth lolled open slightly and the TV was still on. I padded past him softly. I did not want to wake him up. I already knew the kind of mood he would be in and the kind of headache he would have. Quietly, I opened the front door and slipped onto the porch. The morning was fresh and cool and a gentle breeze fingered my hair. Birds sang, insects buzzed. For a moment, it seemed all was right with the world. Mamma was there too, swinging slowly, thoughtfully, on the front porch swing. Back and forth, back and forth. She had changed out of her Waffle House uniform into some cutoffs and one of daddy’s t-shirts. Her blonde curly hair was pulled into a high pony tail. She looked tired. I went and sat down beside her on the swing.
“Good morning,” she said, almost as if to herself.
“Mornin’,” I yawned.
She started swinging again. Back and forth, back and forth. Each time we swung back, she pushed gently on the floor with her feet and her neon pink toenails sparkled in the morning sun.
Without warning, she stood up and kissed me on the forehead. “I’m goin’ to bed,” she informed me.
“Sleep good,” I replied, and she went back in the house.
I had been sitting there alone, just swinging, for an indefinable amount of time when I noticed a car coming down the road. It was nicer than most cars that came down this road. To my surprise, the car pulled up in the next door neighbors’ drive way and parked. Who was visiting the MacSweeneys’? From the car emerged a middle-aged man and woman. The man had on long pants and a collared shirt all tucked in neat and his shoes were shiny. Very shiny. His hair was combed to the side, and the edges were beginning to gray a little, I noticed. The lady had short brown hair, parted in the middle and pulled back loosely on each side. She wore a skirt and flat shoes. Both of them were awfully tall and awfully skinny. The man carried a stack of brightly colored papers. They knocked on the MacSweeneys’ rickety front door. I thought about yelling over there to tell them that the MacSweeneys weren’t home today, but curiosity kept me watching silently from my porch swing. After waiting a few moments, the man slipped one of the colored papers in the screen door and they walked off the porch and got back into their car. Maybe they were advertising something, like the time a fat lady had come to our door passing out flyers for her new in-home daycare. Daddy had laughed at her and thrown her flyer on the ground. I had laughed too. Suddenly, I remembered the hurt look in her eyes and felt sorry for my rude behavior.
The nice car pulled slowly out of the driveway next door and made its way towards our house. My stomach went flip-flop. They better not come here, I thought. I’ll get Dad’s shot gun, I’ll yell at them, I’ll… What would I do?
They turned into our drive way and parked in the middle. Both of them got out quickly, the man still carrying his stack of flyers, the lady now carrying some kind of book. “Hi,” called the man cheerfully.
I had never seen them before. They looked like nice people.
“Hey,” I answered.
They stepped up onto the porch. I stopped swinging and looked at them inquisitively. The tall man with graying hair and a collared shirt and shiny shoes took another small step towards me. “I’m Robby Easterwood,” he informed. “And this is my wife Angie. We’re from Calvary Baptist Church.” My stomach did another summer sault. He paused. I nodded politely.
“I’m Amy,” I added. Why did I just lie to these nice people? My name was not Amy. My name was Lacey Amanda Nicole Edwards. Everyone just called me Lane for short. All the women on my mother’s side of the family had four names- she had insisted on keeping the tradition.
Robby smiled. “Well it’s very nice to meet you Amy.” Suddenly, his wife spoke up.
“We’re going to start a new bus route that runs right down your road tomorrow morning. We pick people up and take them to church. The reason we came to visit you is to invite you to come.” Again, I nodded politely.
“Well, actually,” I began. Where was I going with this? “We go to church.” Ya, that’s it. We go to church. “Most Sundays my parents and my sister and I… we go to church.” I looked him in the eyes, half expecting him to not believe my second lie.
“Oh. I see. Well that’s great. We wouldn’t want to take you away from your church, then. But if you’d ever like to visit Calvary, our bus will come right down your road every Sunday morning, at about 9:30.”
Ready to be rid of them, I spoke up to prevent further explanation of his church. “O.K. Thanks. I’ll keep it in mind.”
They both smiled and said goodbye, told me to have a good day, got back in their nice car and left. I watched the gray Lincoln leave, kicking up dust on the red dirt road. Those people had made me uncomfortable. What were their names? Robby and… Angie? I hadn’t really been listening. Somehow, all I could remember about them was how nice they had been. Their niceness was what made me uneasy. They seemed to mean what they were saying, to really want me to come to their church. Oh, well, I’m not going. We don’t go to church. That’s not who we are. It’s too much trouble. They’ll probably try to convert me or something. They’ll think I’m a heathen. I got up and went back inside to call my friend Lanna about my birthday party. She would have some ideas.
I heard dishes rattling in the kitchen. A bird chirped loudly just outside my window. Morning already? I rolled over and saw the empty Mayfield carton lying sticky in the floor. Had I eaten that much ice cream last night? What day was it anyways? Faintly I heard a bus in the distance. The school bus! Wait… It was Sunday. Now fully awake, I remembered Robby and Angie Easterwood and their church bus. Suddenly, something came over me. A thought pushed its way uninvited into my mind and stuck there. I was going to church. Today. Right then. The bus was coming; I could hear its diesel engine louder and louder now. I hadn’t been to church since I was five and my Methodist great aunt drug me to her church’s VBS one summer. All I remember about that was the mean tow-headed boy who had poured his red juice on my white shorts. What was I going to wear? Nothing seemed right. Something nice… In the back of my closet hung my blue satin dress from last year’s spring dance. No, too dressy. Draped across the end of my bed were my favorite cut-offs. Those won’t work either. Quickly, I settled on the outfit I had worn the first day of school- dark denim jeans and a cute plum tank top. On the way out of my room, I grabbed my purse and glanced in the mirror. My hair! It was so oily. I could hear the bus in front of our house now. I somehow yanked it into a greasy pony tail as I ran onto the porch. All of a sudden, I felt stupid. What did I think I was doing? I didn’t know what to do at church. I didn’t even know these people. As if they didn’t hear my brain, my legs carried me off the front porch and across our yard where I ran after the bus, waving. Black letters spelling out “Calvary Baptist Church” marched across the side. Rather abruptly, the bus stopped, and they opened the doors. Beginning to feel extremely self-conscious, I stepped up into the bus. Miss Angie sat in the front seat, smiling at me. Mr. Robby was driving, I noticed. Though they seemed happy to see me, they also looked confused. “Uh, my… dad had a headache so they weren’t going to church today. I decided to go with ya’ll.” I explained.
“Well we’re so glad you did!” Miss Angie exclaimed, a bit too loudly, I thought. I sat down in a nearby seat by myself. I couldn’t decide if I belonged or not. Most of the kids were younger than me and some of them looked very poor.
The bus ride was long and noisy. I was glad when we pulled into the church parking lot. I picked up my purse and climbed off the bus out into the bright morning sun. Miss Angie followed me and put her hand on my arm. “We have a special service just for the teenagers. I’ll show you where it’s at. OK?” I started to wonder what I was doing here.
The teen service was in a building they called the fellowship hall. It didn’t look anything like a hall to me, but I wasn’t exactly an expert on this church thing. A man in a suit and tie came and shook my hand and asked my name. Again, I lied and told him it was Amy. I couldn’t remember the last time I had actually shaken hands with someone. It had always seemed a strange gesture to me. I choose a seat near the back in the rows of padded folding chairs and looked around. There was probably about twenty of us. My thoughts were interrupted by the service starting. The same guy that had shaken my hand seemed to be the man in charge. He stood behind a small wooden pulpit and thanked us all for coming, then asked us all to stand and sing hymn number 383, “When We All Get to Heaven”. I noticed the hymn book that had been sitting in the vacant seat next to me and picked it up. It took me most of the first verse just to locate the song in the hymnal. I tried to follow along and act like I knew the song. Most of the other kids seemed to know it, even though they weren’t singing very loudly. A tall thin girl with long brown hair played the piano to accompany the song. I had never heard anything like the words to this song. They were strange and I felt like I was in one of those children’s choirs I had seen on TV. “Soon the pearly gates will open, we shall tread the streets of gold.” Who talked like that? “We’ll sing and shout the victory.” I assumed (pretty much from the title) that the song was talking about going to Heaven. I had never really thought that much about Heaven. My stomach did the same little flip-flop thing it had done yesterday when I met Mr. Robbie and Miss Angie. Was Heaven really a real place? I had heard lots of theories about Heaven and where you go when you die, but none of them seemed to make much sense. It was all kind of far-fetched. Mostly what I had heard was that good people got into Heaven when they died. I’m not so sure I would be categorized as a “good” person per say. Already, I had lied to these people who didn’t seem to deserve it. Last week, I had stolen a pack of Winterfresh from Quick Trip because I didn’t have any money with me. I probably wasn’t going to Heaven. They finished up the hymn and we all sat back down. Another man, also in a suit and tie, rose from his seat and came to stand at the pulpit.
“It’s good to see ya’ll today. Boy, we’ve got a good number this morning. Before we get started, does anyone have any prayer requests?” A short black boy on the second row raised his hand. “Marcus?”
“Uh, ya, my granmama sick.”
“Well, we will definitely be praying for your grandmother, Marcus.” A girl on the other side of the room had her hand raised. “Yes ma’am?”
“Well, I have a praise. My friend, she got saved last week.”
“That is great, Lexi! We always love to hear about folks being saved, don’t we?”
Two more teenagers gave prayer requests, then the man at the pulpit asked us all to bow our heads to pray. Nearly everyone else lowered their head and closed their eyes. I looked straight ahead, then off to the side and remembered the double glass doors. Suddenly, I began to consider leaving. I could walk up the road and call Lanna. She already had her license; she would come pick me up. The prayer was almost over, I had to decide. I had made a mistake in coming here, church was not for me. Quickly, I slipped out of my seat and opened the door. Hot sunshine hit me in the face. To avoid being seen, I jogged down the sidewalk and out into the parking lot. I weaved in and out of the many parked cars until I reached the road and pulled out my cell phone. I held down number ‘2’ on my key pad. After a few rings, I was so grateful to hear Lanna’s voice.
“Hello?” There was a grogginess in her voice that seemed to say, “This better be good because I was sound asleep and you woke me up.”
“Um, hey.” The realization came to me that where I was and what I had done really made no sense and she was probably going to think I was stupid, even though she was my best friend. “Can you come pick me up?”
“Where are you?” She sounded truly confused.
“I’m… actually on the side of Lancaster Road. I thought I would go to church this morning, but it turned out to be totally weird, and I felt really stupid being there and decided to leave. I don’t know why I went in the first place…” My words tumbled over one another.
“Wow. Um, OK. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
Something broke inside of me and I suddenly felt weak and tears filled my eyes. I just felt like a total idiot. “Thanks,” I squeaked, and hung up. Those hot, angry tears crawled down my cheeks. My face pinched up like it always did when I started to cry. I imagined it was already red and splotchy by now too. Oh, well. I didn’t care. All I wanted to do was get back home. Slowly, I walked in the grass beside the road, towards my house. I wouldn’t make it far before Lanna showed up. As I ambled along, more words from the song they had sung popped in my head. “Sing the wondrous love of Jesus… When we all get to Heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be…” The people at that church seemed to have gone to a lot of trouble for something that may or may not even exist. I was doubtful. “In the mansions, bright and blessed, He’ll prepare for us a place…” How did they know that? I tried to push the whole thing out of my head. The sun was getting hot- I was starting to sweat. Lanna should be here by now. Where was she? I kept walking, a little faster now. Without warning, Ms. Angie’s overly kind face took over my thoughts. She believed my name was Amy, she thought I belonged to a church somewhere, and she was probably starting to wonder where I was by now. Maybe I would write an “I’m-sorry-I-ditched-your-church-service” note. Maybe not. Where was Lanna? I took out my phone and called her. No answer this time. Great. She must have fallen back asleep. She wasn’t coming at all. I couldn’t call my family. I didn’t want to try to explain this to them. Guess I’m walking home. I sighed. Lanna’s such a brat. If she were any kind of friend, she would be up here, helping me out. She was probably hung over. Every now and then, she went to parties I wasn’t invited to with people I had only seen in the hallway at school. Lanna had a wild side about her, alright. I had only had alcohol twice. I didn’t want to be like my dad. I wanted so much to love him, and I did love him, but not like I could if his drinking didn’t get in the way. I decided to call Lanna again. Still no answer. I left her a voicemail, “Thanks for comin’ to pick me up.” I shut my phone a little too hard. Now I was getting hungry. There were no stores between here and my house. I looked over my shoulder to see a faded blue pick up truck making its way down the road. Next thing I know, it had pulled up beside me. The driver was a shriveled old lady in cotton shirt that hung too far off her shoulders. She leaned towards the open window nearest me.
“Honey, do ya wont a ride?”
For a moment, I actually considered getting in the car with this strange little old woman. I was so hot. In the distance, I could hear the scream of a siren. “Um, no thank you. I’m almost home.”
“Alright then. You be careful now.” She said. I nodded and she drove off.
Over an hour later, I walked slowly up our gravel driveway. Mama was sitting on the front porch. As I got closer, I could see that she was crying. She looked scared. Abruptly, she walked down the porch steps towards me. “Where were you? You had me so scared.”
“Mama, why didn’t you just call me?”
“I did. Five times. You never answered.” I pulled out my phone. The battery was dead.
“Oh. My phone died. I’m really sorry.”
“Well, we’re gonna talk about this later. For right now, we have to go to the hospital.” She paused and I looked at her quizzically. “Lanna’s mom just called; she’s had a wreck.”
There was something about the hospital. Always was, for me. So unsympathetic, so cold. The white cinder block walls and sterile gray floors seemed unaware of the pain, suffering, death, and birth that they contained. Even the staff seemed unmoved by the lives they watched change, end, and begin. That day in particular, I didn’t understand why my world was crumbling and nothing, no one around me seemed to care. My stomach was churning, quivering, pulsing. Nothing was real, everything was a dream. I followed my mother blindly down hall after hall, her old tennis shoes squeaking on the tile. Finally, we stopped at a door. 301. “Martin” was written on a little card in a slot under the room number. Martin. Lanna Martin, my best friend was behind that door. I wondered how much longer I was going to be able to stand up. Suddenly, there was a commotion in the room. Several people began to talk at once, louder and louder. Something was beeping frantically. A young woman with a ponytail, wearing white scrubs dashed down the hallway, and into Lanna’s room. A moment later, the door burst open and the little room seemed to vomit a small crew of nurses and a stretcher with Lanna, her long dark hair spread out on the pillow beneath her, eyes shut tight, and a large mask connected to her face. Mrs. Martin followed the group, wearing an indescribable expression. Almost as if they hadn’t been, the tragic army vanished around the corner, I.V. bags and all. I slid down the wall I had involuntarily backed against and sat on the floor. The machine stopped beeping. Everything got quiet again. A nurse marched quickly down the hall and paused when she saw us. We must have been a sight- Momma and I, sprawled in the floor, my dirty hair, her Waffle House uniform. I realized that Mom’s arm was around me and the contents of my purse had spilled on the ground. We both stared up at the nurse who looked down at us kindly. “Are you family?” she questioned. Mom shook her head and stoop up.
“No. Just friends. What’s goin’ on?”
The nurse gazed down at us with honest eyes. “The accident knocked Lanna unconscious. There was no loss of blood, but we are concerned about internal injuries. Her breathing has been very unstable. Just now, it appears that she’s having a heart attack.” I stared straight ahead at the wall on the other side of the hallway. I couldn’t think anything. My mother only nodded silently. “They’ve taken her to ICU for now. There’s a waiting room just around the corner if you’d like to sit.”
“Thank you,” Mom said quietly.
We found the waiting room and sat down in square, burgundy chairs. We were all alone. Unexpectedly, I thought of something and almost said it out loud- I don’t have a black dress to wear to the funeral.
Thursday, I had to go back to school. Things were different without Lanna. It seemed like everybody would get quiet whenever someone mentioned her name. It was hard to care about life in the following weeks. Lanna was supposed to be there with me, planning my sweet sixteen and making me laugh. But now she couldn’t and everything was ruined. For so many reasons, I knew that from now on, nothing would be the same.
“Lane? Lane!” Groggily, I forced my eyes open. Ow! Everything was too bright. I had not slept well the night before- hospital beds were so uncomfortable. I turned my head to look at Lanna, lying in the bed across the room. I noticed that the dark circles under her eyes were much better. She should have been home three weeks ago, but after her emergency surgery, she had gotten a nasty infection, keeping her in the hospital. No one had put up a fight when I asked to spend the night with her there a couple times a week.
“What?” I yawned.
“You know what,” she smiled. Her lips were pale and cracked. Her whole face had become thinner, older, more serious.
“Mmm, no, I really don’t.”
“It’s your birthday. Happy Sweet Sixteen, Stupid!” Quickly, I sat up. I realized that Lanna was right. It was Saturday, September 18, my sixteenth birthday.
The accident had changed everything. When I finally allowed myself to grasp the idea that I wasn’t going to lose my best friend after all, I had poured all my energy in seeing to it that Lanna was comfortable, happy, entertained, and well-stocked with flowers and junk food. For the most part, I had forgotten about my birthday.
“So it is,” I said, tossing a thin pillow onto her legs. “Happy birthday to me!” She tossed it back and laughed. Then her face grew somber. She looked right into my eyes with her big brown ones.
“Lane, somebody came to visit me yesterday. A preacher, actually. He was from Calvary Baptist Church. I think that’s were you when I… well, when I was goin’ to pick you up.” I climbed out of my bed and walked across the room to sit on hers. “Anyways, him and his wife were talkin’ to me and they asked me what would have happened to me if I had… died in that accident. And Lane, I had been thinkin’ about that a lot, you know, I could have died that day. Guess I almost did, and so it just got me wonderin’ if there’s more to life, and if there’s anything more after you die, or if that’s just it. ‘Cause I didn’t like the thought of me dyin’ and the whole thing just bein’ over. Seems like kind of a waste, ya know? So that preacher asked me if I had died, if I would have gone to Heaven. And since I had had so much time to think about it, I had decided that there was a Heaven but I probably wouldn’t have gone to it. So I told him that, and he asked me I believed that I was a sinner, and I told him I’m pretty sure I am, since I had had time to think about that too. But they talked to me about how Jesus was sinless and loved me so much that he died on the cross for my sins so that I could go to Heaven when I die. They said all I had to do was trust Him, and He would save me. So I prayed right then, and gave my life over to God. I know it kinda sounds crazy, but somethin’s already changed inside me, Lane. I really do think that there’s more to life and that God has a purpose for me, because He loves me. And that’s why I didn’t die in my accident. God wanted me to get Saved. And I know He wants you to get Saved… and so do I.”
At some point, I had begun to cry. I had cried so many tears over the past few weeks, but these were different. They were tears of relief. Now I felt sure of what I had been wondering ever since the day that set all of this in motion. What I had heard about in the few moments I spent at that church was real- “the wondrous love of Jesus”, “His mercy and His grace”- somehow, I could feel it, and I wanted it to change my life. I looked back up at Lanna. “So I just need to pray?”
She nodded. “You just need to pray.”