For This Life Only
ACCORDING TO MY DAD, Christmastime is family time. But after eleven straight days at home, I can tell you, it starts to feel a little more like prison time. I love my family, but there’s only so much togetherness any sane person can stand.
And now, postdinner on a Saturday night, staring down the barrel of day twelve, I was ready to crawl out of my skin to see someone I wasn’t related to.
“You have to let me take the Jeep tonight,” I said, pushing open Eli’s door without bothering to knock.
“What?” Perched on the edge of the bed, Eli slammed his nightstand drawer shut, a fleeting look of guilt on his face. Our face, technically, since we were identical. Blond hair, blue eyes, and ears that stuck out a little too far—that was us.
“What are you doing?” I asked, frowning at him.
“Nothing.” Eli stood and pushed past me, heading toward the bathroom. “And forget it. I have stuff to do tonight.”
“Right.” I snorted, following him. “Like Leah?”
He paused to look over his shoulder at me, his mouth a tight line.
“Oh, come on, I was kidding!” I protested.
Okay, so maybe antagonizing Eli about his perfectly perfect girlfriend wasn’t the best way to go about getting a favor, tempting as it was. The two of them were made for each other: the pastor’s good son and the church council president’s daughter who wanted to be a missionary. But they were also both rule-followers to the extreme and annoyingly exacting on themselves and everyone else.
Hey, whatever worked for them. I wasn’t the one not-sleeping with her.
“Why don’t you—” Eli began, as he flipped on the bathroom light.
“I can’t ask Zach. Everybody’s already over there.” I leaned in the doorway, while Eli rummaged in the medicine cabinet. “I can drop you off at Leah’s on the way,” I offered.
The dusty pine smell of the drying-out Christmas tree downstairs mixed with the cinnamon candles my mom insisted on burning for “holiday ambience” was starting
to get to me. Made me feel like the walls were closing in. I needed to be somewhere where I could breathe and be myself, even if it was only for a few hours.
“I said no.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Seriously?”
He pulled drawers open and slammed them shut, looking for something.
“Fine,” I said. “Then ask Leah to come get you. She has a car, right?”
He shook his head. “It’s not fair to ask her to do that—”
“At the last minute, I know. But it’s also not fair that we have to share a car when she could be using hers to get you,” I pressed. “Division of resources or whatever.”
“Not everything is about you, Jace,” Eli said. Then he scowled. “Sarah!” he bellowed. “You left the toothpaste cap off.” He pulled the capless and nearly flat toothpaste tube from Sarah’s drawer. “Again!”
I stared at him. “What’s wrong with you?” This was not my normally-even-tempered-to-the-extreme brother.
“It makes a mess, and it’s gross. I hate that,” he muttered.
“Jesus says not to hate.” Sarah arrived in the doorway in time to make the pronouncement in her best Sunday-school-student voice. Her reddish-blond hair was sticking up in all directions, with a Disney Princess hair-thingy clinging for dear life on the side. She’d probably been
pretending to be a pony again, which usually involved placing a blanket over her head as a mane.
“Yeah, well, I’m pretty sure Jesus would have been a proponent of putting the cap back on.” Eli loaded toothpaste on his brush with a grimace.
“Actually, I’m pretty sure clumpy toothpaste wouldn’t have been an issue. Son of God, water into wine and all,” I pointed out quickly, in the name of keeping the peace and getting back to the main point. Me, taking the Jeep.
“See?” Sarah stuck her tongue out at Eli, and he rolled his eyes at her.
“E, please,” I said. “I’m begging you. Mom is talking about another round of family Scrabble, and Sarah cheats more than I do. I can’t take it.”
“I do not cheat!” Sarah folded her arms across her chest, her lower lip jutting out. “I’m six. I don’t know as many words as you do.”
“You know better than to spell ‘cat’ with a ‘q,’ ” I said. She’d gotten away with it because my parents thought it was adorable.
She gave me a sly grin. “Maybe.”
“See? Cheater.” I ruffled her hair further, and she squealed in mock protest.
Eli paused in brushing his teeth. “Won’t Kylie be there?” he asked me quietly, around a mouthful of foam.
In spite of myself, I stiffened. “Probably.”
He spat in the sink and rinsed his brush. “If you just talked to her—”
I grabbed the hand towel off the ring on the wall and chucked it at the side of his head.
“You missed a spot,” I said, gesturing to the glob of toothpaste at the corner of his mouth. He’d go out like that if I didn’t stop him. And it was bad enough that he was wearing his church camp T-shirt out in public. I could see the big block letters of last year’s theme and Bible verse on the back through his button-down.
SEE YOU ON THE OTHER SIDE
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
“Kylie doesn’t come over anymore,” Sarah said. “Why not? I liked her.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be getting your pajamas on?” Eli asked Sarah as he wiped his mouth. He took his role as the oldest—three minutes ahead of me—a little too seriously sometimes. Though in this case, I appreciated the diversion.
“You’re not Mom or Dad,” Sarah said. “You can’t tell me what to do.” Then she turned her attention back to
me. “Did Kylie die?” she asked with a curiosity that bordered on weird and/or inappropriate. “Did God kill her?”
I groaned. A couple of weeks ago, my mom had taken Sarah to the funeral and graveside service of a longtime church member, Mrs. Gallagher. Normally we didn’t get dragged to funerals, even the ones my dad presided over, but because my mom had to be there and Eli and I were in school, Sarah had to go. It was her first one.
Apparently, my dad had used the standard language about God calling a church member home, and that somehow got twisted in Sarah’s brain. Since then, she kept popping up with these really bizarre questions about death and dying.
“Sarah, death is nothing to fear,” Eli said. “If you listen to the scriptures, you’ll see that Jesus talks about going ahead of us—”
I made an impatient noise. “When you die, you go toward the bright light, and Jesus and the rest of us will be there, waiting for you. Then everyone is in heaven and it’s all good. End of story.”
Eli sighed. “That’s not really doctrinally—”
I rolled my eyes. “Kylie is fine,” I said to Sarah. “She decided she liked the guys better at St. Luke’s is all.”
Sarah frowned. “Why?”
“I don’t know, Sares.” And right now, I didn’t care. At least, not as much. I’d rather take the risk of running into
my ex-girlfriend at a party than stay in one more night.
“That’s not nice,” Sarah said after a moment of contemplation.
“Gotta agree with you there,” I said, and she tackled my leg in a sideways hug.
With another heavy sigh, Eli regarded both of us, his expression relenting. “Okay,” he said, hanging the hand towel in the ring on the wall.
I straightened up. “I can have the—”
“I’ll drop you off,” he said. “But you have to tell Mom and Dad and find your own way home.”
“Got it, not a problem,” I said, relieved. Though I might have been overestimating the ease with which I’d accomplish both of those things. But one obstacle at a time.
“Jace, you should stay home,” Sarah whined, clinging to my leg. “It’s Christmas.”
“Nope,” I said. “Not anymore.” Thank God.
• • •
My parents had a ritual for the Saturday evenings that weren’t filled with wedding receptions, fund-raiser potlucks, or emergency calls. One glass of wine apiece, a big bowl of popcorn to share, and an old movie that would end by ten so my dad could be up and at the church by six a.m.
“Everything’s ready for tomorrow?” my dad asked from
the couch, lowering the remote to focus his attention on Eli as soon as we rounded the corner into the family room.
Technically, we were both working at the church as interns this year, but everyone knew Eli was more into it than I was. Scratch that; he was into it and I wanted out of it. He would be the one to join my dad at the church as soon as he was done with college and seminary. Good for him, not for me.
“Yes. Did a mic check and replaced the batteries in your pack. Delores said Carey Daniels called in sick for acolyting, so I called down the sub list until I got someone. And the staple cartridge was replaced this afternoon, so the bulletins for all three services are done.”
Dad nodded. “Good.”
“Jacob?” my mom asked from her corner of the couch, taking in my jacket with a frown.
“Eli’s going to drop me off at Zach’s,” I said.
“I thought we were going to do a final round of Scrabble.” She gestured to the game set up on the coffee table. “We’ve already got the first Indiana Jones queued up. Sarah will be in bed before the face-melting part.” The last was said in a pseudo-whisper.
“I heard that,” Sarah shouted from upstairs. “I want to see!” Yep, that was my sister.
“Maybe tomorrow after church?” I offered to my mom, resisting the urge to shift my weight from foot to foot.
My dad sighed and sat up, moving to the edge of the couch.
I braced myself for the coming lecture.
“Jacob, if you’re going out, don’t give me a reason to hear bad reports. No drinking, no carousing, no breaking town curfew. Appearances are important. Because no matter how well you think you know everyone there . . .”
“Someone is always watching,” Eli and I recited obediently, though my teeth were clenched.
“Exactly. And we have an obligation to be good examples.” Theoretically, my dad was speaking to both of us, but his gaze was focused on me.
Because I was the one trying to have a life outside the church, to be someone other than just the pastor’s less-good son.
It was something outsiders never understood. We didn’t get to be individuals. We were Pastor Micah’s family, a portfolio of my dad’s work, shining examples of his leadership, his discipline, his faith at work in his own home. Our successes were his. Our mistakes—from a wrinkled shirt to a failing grade—were potential watch signs of trouble within the ministry.
God, as my dad’s vague omnipresent “boss,” might be forgiving, but the members of Riverwoods Bible Church weren’t always so open-minded.
I was the “troubled one,” by virtue of breaking curfew
a few times, getting busted at one party my freshman year, achieving lower grades than my twin, and generally being less involved in Riverwoods than Eli. (If there was a Bible study, he was a part of it.)
In other words, normal crap, stuff that would probably earn a week or two of grounding or maybe only a raised eyebrow and a scolding in a regular family.
But we weren’t regular, unfortunately.
For the grades, my parents got me a tutor, and for the lack of involvement, they stuck me in the joint internship with Eli. But for the curfew violations and the party, my dad had enlisted me in community service at the Riverwoods food pantry for months. Part of that whole “being a good example” thing. I’d just finished paying for my last infraction. And with baseball practice starting up again in a couple of months, I did not want another session.
In a year and a half, I’d be done, out of here. On a baseball scholarship, I hoped, to somewhere else, where I wouldn’t have to worry about anybody but me.
“Jace will be fine,” Eli said with a confident nod at my dad, and I felt a rush of gratitude toward my brother, for extending his good credit over me. Whatever had been bugging him earlier seemed to be gone now. “Don’t worry.”
As always, Eli’s casual word was more convincing than
my most earnest promises. Not that I bothered to make them very often anymore.
“Home by ten thirty,” my dad said, pointing the remote at me. “Not a second later. You need to be at early service at least fifteen minutes before the prelude.”
“Of course,” I said quickly. Although at that point, I would have agreed to anything to get out.