Posted in Fiction, Maranatha (novel excerpts)

Maranatha: Chapter 15.

– Chapter 15 –

“Tell me about your wife,” she said in the morning, with her head at the foot of the bed and her toes tapping out a rhythm on the wall above the headboard. Gideon flounced onto his left side and propped himself up on an elbow. Maranatha felt deliriously happy and childlike, and though in the back of her mind she worried that too much silliness would remind him of their age difference and make him recoil or rush her back home, she couldn’t wipe the grin off her face, even when her cheeks began to ache with the effort.

They were up until 4 am. She glanced at the clock on the nightstand. It was after 11. They’d squandered all but an hour before check-out and she knew they should hustling to avoid the late checkout fee, but the thought of leaving this bed was just too maudlin. Tears burbled deep in her stomach. She bit them back, already missing him. She’d have to go home eventually and Anne would need to know where she’d been all night, even if she didn’t ask outright or right away. Maranatha was already concocting her cover, something vague and uninteresting that didn’t reference Gideon at all and wouldn’t require any follow-up.

She covered her eyes with one hand, sobered. It was all too much.

Gideon’s lips landed on hers and she peeked out at him through her fingers.

“What do you want to know about her?”

“I want to know whatever you want to tell me.”

His brow furrowed as she’d watched it do all night and goose bumps rose on her arms. He kissed her forehead. “This isn’t a bed conversation,” he said. “Get up. I’ll take you to breakfast; we’ll talk it out.”

Continue reading “Maranatha: Chapter 15.”

Posted in Fiction, Maranatha (novel excerpts)

Maranatha: Chapter 13.

Part II

– Chapter 13 –

Law offices set Gideon’s teeth on edge—and with good reason. He envied the millions of people who got to live their whole lives with little to no contact with the justice system. They were lucky, traipsing joyously about, nursing benign delusions about the effectiveness of Law, and luckier still were those for whom Law was simply an abstraction to bandy about at dinner parties.

They would never know the sting of arrest or accusation. Central booking ink would never blacken their fingers. Their mugshots wouldn’t be Googleable. Their paychecks would never be garnished. They wouldn’t have to explain their complicated history with law enforcement on an additional sheet of a job application.

And above all, they’d never have to suffer a fidgety paralegal repeatedly offering room temperature water from a dusty pitcher in a windowless room like this one.

He’d worked with Cooper, Willis, and Dunn once before. They specialized in discrimination and child advocacy and they’d settled his case with Maranatha’s father. They were a much smaller firm then and what he remembered most about them was that they weren’t hard-nosed about agreeing to settle, even though pushing that case to trial would’ve brought them very high-profile publicity.

They seemed fair and he was appreciative, but that didn’t mean he wanted to be here a minute longer than he needed to be. The stuffiness of the room and his inability to look outside it made him feel like an interrogation was imminent. The overhead light was abrasive. The print on the wall, of a boy at the edge of a pond filled with water lilies, was cloying and, for whatever reason, that made him uncomfortable, too.

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Posted in Fiction, Maranatha (novel excerpts)

Maranatha: Chapter 12.

catch up with a visit to the archives.

– Chapter 12 –

It was glass, delicately blown from the breath they held, on each other’s approach. A paper-thin pane, their friendship: fragile and crystalline and spotless. But there it was: hanging in those spare, unnoticed moments when they glanced and looked away to grin to themselves before or after class. It was widening, this glass, during those first few months as she wrote elegant op-eds for the school paper, as he gingerly critiqued the poems and photographs she’d submitted to The Manna Quarterly. Every conversation, a vibrant stain. Every smile, a beam of color through the glass.

By late winter, when the worst of the snow had fallen and she knew that more of senior year was behind her than before her, Maranatha began to let slip tiny bursts of excitement every weekday morning. And though she absorbed more than enough customarily sour stares and nose-upturns each day to dampen her high spirits, Gideon was there in the afternoon, waxing practically romantic about Steinbeck and Fitzgerald and her lips couldn’t help but perk up at the corners.

She’d been collecting a sack of happy incidents: that time he’d caught her crying on a side entrance step and dropped his briefcase to sit beside her, silent, till she stopped; the poem he wrote and read during class, about Jesus as a swashbuckler; how close he’d stood so close in the cafeteria line once that their trays almost touched.

He was the kind of teacher she’d never thought she’d encounter till college, the kind she feared might only exist as myth. He was free-thinking. He wasn’t afraid to reference other religions and knew how to cast his lot with one, without disrespecting the others. Though he rarely referenced the bible in lessons, his voice took on equal parts ecstasy and reverence whenever he cited it. She recognized the tone as near identical to her own and knew that the great joy of Gideon’s Christian life had been approaching the bible as poem and story and surprising himself with how easily he accepted all its accounts, however horrifying or fantastical.

Sometimes, in class, Maranatha found herself wanting to run with him, to grab his hand and spirit him away to some reckless space where her crush made sense and she didn’t feel self-doubt singeing its edges.

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Posted in Fiction, Maranatha (novel excerpts)

Maranatha: Chapter 11.

get caught up with a visit to the archives.

– Chapter 11 –

The Law Offices of Cooper, Willis, and Dunn were in an office park near a shallow manmade lake. Shady elms encircled the lake and ducks flitted back and forth between the brackish water and the long grass. When Maranatha pulled into the labyrinthine parking lot, she angled her car into a spot under one of the trees, even though the building she wanted was much farther back in the complex. She stared out at the water for a while and at a pair of agitated ducks, boxing one another with wildly flapping wings. Then she leaned forward, resting her chin on her steering wheel, and gazed up at the sky.

She couldn’t see the sun, obscured as it was by tufts of cloud, but its beams barreled down in angled rays; and she imagined God holding a scepter refracting the light. Maranatha had always thought of God as air, intangible and shapeless unless He compressed Himself into something small enough for her attempt to fathom—like a white giant in a robe with stone tablets, holding a scepter of sun.

Jesus, on the other hand, was always very human to her. She had no doubt that, if she shuttled back in time two millennia, he’d be there. He’d have rebel eyes and a wry grin and she’d be madly in love with him, so in love that when he died, she’d cut her own wrists and hope to die along with him. But then, as she awaited her end, the gashes she’d opened would seal and her life, so amazingly spared, would be listed among the last of the pre-resurrection miracles.

The Holy Spirit seemed something else entirely. It was what she felt when she made bad decisions, constantly, impartially observing. It was what the “something” whenever she heard the words, “Something told me to…” It was the complicated scriptures that still floated up to her, all these years after she’d memorized them. The Holy Spirit hovered and always felt really close by, too close sometimes, like a person whose slightly stale breath you felt clinging to your barely conscious face, as he checked your vitals.

Maranatha liked the way she imagined the Trinity. It helped her to conceive of each branch in a very personal way. She’d never told anyone of the grand tales she’d spun, dating back to early girlhood, of God as avenger and Jesus as rescuer and Holy Spirit as conscience and key. She feared accusations of blasphemy from people who were part of her old life—Anne and all the old church folks she might meet during the course of the trial. And she feared skepticism and ridicule from the people who were part of her life now—the academics at the colleges where she taught, the few acquaintances she still knew from college, her Tuesday Night Writers Circle.

It was a part of herself she’d learned to fiercely guard. Holy Pentecost Academy had been cruel. Sometimes, it was even vicious. But she’d stopped believing that anyone there represented the God she knew by the time she was ten years old. After that, their behavior stood on its own, apart from what she thought Christianity was or what she hoped it could be.

Holy Pentecost was just a nightmarish Evangelical factory where she’d been trapped until she turned eighteen. She’d been reminding herself of that her whole adult life. The Academy was just something to get over; it didn’t hold the truths of her faith and she shouldn’t allow it to shape her future.

Of course, that was nearly impossible to accept, no matter how many mantras and positive confessions and “forgetting those things which are behind” sermons she heard. This was why she needed to sue the school. She needed sit among people who knew, and talk about how deeply this place scarred its students’ souls.

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Maranatha: Chapter 9.

to catch yourself up, get into the archives.

– Chapter 9 –

She was distracting. Did she realize how gracefully she walked, how squaring her shoulders once and for all would be all it took to make her formidable? Did she know how closely she resembled an editorial fashion spread with her angular movements, the abstract slope of her arm on her desk as she propped her chin in her hand, and the sharp juts of her jittery legs as she sat? Was he obvious when she strode by his desk in the morning and he quickly inhaled, like someone had just lit incense?

Of all the things Gideon had fantasized about, coming back here—storming the administrative offices and staging a coup or throwing copies of I Kissed Dating Goodbye out of his classroom windows or burning a bottle of Pompeian Extra Virgin in effigy or planning a field trip to a Unitarian church with a lesbian pastor—attraction to a student had never crossed his mind.

For one, church girls weren’t his type. He didn’t like their clothes, the ill-fitting skirt suits with boxy shoulders and overlong hemlines or the unfortunate floral patterns on all their dresses. Even when they wore something normal—a pair of jeans and heels, for instance, or a form-fitting frock—he hated the way they fancied themselves quietly revolutionary for it.

Their conversation also wearied him. They were so much more preoccupied with what other people were into, since they considered so many things sin themselves—so many things, besides gossip, of course. And worst of all was their preoccupation with marriage. When would they realize that, “I’m believing God for a husband” was second-date Kryptonite?

The dating venues were so limited. Restaurants. Bowling alleys. Museums. Movies were an option, but with anything rated R, a church girl might make a show of cringing at all profanity and looking away during any sex scenes or, worse yet, covering her eyes. Then later, when Gideon asked if she liked the film, he’d likely be forced into a lengthy conversation about the uselessness of onscreen nudity, or else she’d clam up and treat the whole outing like some kind of spiritual betrayal. She’d side-eye him, accusingly, like he was trying to coax her away from her salvation or, worse yet, her virginity.

Gideon couldn’t take the constant edge, the endless, dogging worry about shocking a date or knocking her off her evangelistic square.

He preferred women who’d grown up only attending church in passing or irreligious women who conceded belief in God but didn’t need to discuss Him on their dates. His favorite type of all was a woman who’d been devoutly raised with any religion—Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam—but had, for whatever reason simply stopped practicing.

They seemed best able to understand him.

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Posted in Fiction, Maranatha (novel excerpts)

Maranatha: Chapter 8.

catch yourself up with a visit to the archives.

– Chapter 8 –

This was Maranatha’s summer: sharing a bedroom with Anne at her nana’s apartment in Ridgewood; rabidly scanning the face of the driver in every car she passed, looking for signs of Gideon, on those rare occasions when she left the house; scrambling to write as much as she could before she was due back in Grand Rapids for the start of the fall semester, and preparing for the possibility of testifying in a class action suit against her alma mater.

It started slowly, as Ridgewood summers do, with steamy air clinging to her bare arms like cellophane and, in the wake of her recent breakup with Elias, a torturously silent Blackberry. But there were some perks to her lazy Maryland hometown, like the dollar-sales on plump, tart blueberries at the local produce stand all summer and the endless supply of dark, sweet cherries swollen with juice. There were the cheap matinees at Ridgewood 8 where the air conditioning kicked up to Icelandic and made you forget how sweaty and clammy and gross you’d felt before deciding to catch a movie.

“Look up in that cabinet and get me the vanilla extract.”

She spent most of her time with her mom, their minds elsewhere. It was curious to Maranatha, how painstakingly they avoided talking about the lawsuit or the complicated past that had precipitated it. She shouldn’t have been surprised; there were far more things Maranatha didn’t discuss with Anne these days than things she did. But it was still odd to dance around the details that loomed and the choices that would have to be made concerning them.

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Maranatha: Chapter 7.

catch yourself up with a visit to the archives.

– Chapter 7 –

Maranatha decided extracurriculars were pointless in middle school, when she tried out for gymnastics. Another team hopeful told everyone there she was gay and none of the girls would volunteer to spot her. But now that she was a senior with a tepid GPA, she needed all the help she could get. College application deadlines were looming and for the opportunity to skip town, possibly for good, she was willing to make sacrifices.

Three weeks into the school year, she began noticing new flyers plastering bulletin boards, hallway corridors, and empty lockers. The blue ones announced the revival of the school paper; there hadn’t been one in years, ever since the alleged “budget cuts” of five years ago, the ones that just happened to coincide with the “renovation” of the nurse’s suite and the installation of surveillance cameras in the classrooms and halls.

The other flyers, gold ones, announced the launch of Holy Pentecost’s first literary magazine, The Manna Quarterly. Maranatha made a mental note of the date for the combined informational meeting.

But as she approached the cafeteria after school that Friday and heard far more voices than she’d anticipated, she considered bailing. Sweat pulsed into her palms. Her teeth began to chatter like she was cold, even though the hall was stuffy and unseasonably warm.

It’d be easy to just head home. Maybe should manage a few undisturbed hours while her mother prayed and studied for upcoming speaking engagements before her stepfather got home. She thought of her CD collection, of the journal tucked under her bed, of the Oreos she’d bought at the grocery store two days ago. But home’s creature comforts paled as she imagined a faraway dorm room and a major that didn’t require her to memorize psalms.

She steeled herself, creeping up to the massive, closed double doors. Through the window in one of them, she saw that of the twenty-eight round tables in the cafeteria, ten were filled. The size of the crowd confused and intimidated her. Jake Rich was there with his wide-eyed freshman girlfriend. Cammi Shaw was sitting a table surrounded by her usual coven. Cosi whispered something to Demetria that made them both turn and grin idiotically at Ben Waldron, the best artist in school. And there were clusters of underclassmen she didn’t know, milling around their own social whirls.

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Posted in Fiction, Maranatha (novel excerpts)

Maranatha: Chapter 3.

if you’re just joining us: go here, then here.

– Chapter 3 –

The random “chastity checks”—a concept that, even now, sounded alien and nefarious to Maranatha whenever she tried to explain it—began during her junior year. It was February and things were already at an all-time weird by then.

Back in October, Jacob Rich, who’d sat behind her two years ago in French, had been held after school in a private detention for a full week, just before Thanksgiving break. No one had ever been pre-assigned a week’s detention. Usually, when you were written up for disobedience in class, the penance for most infractions a simple hour or two of eraser-clapping and bible verse memorization.

Jake had found a letter from Principal Harris in his locker. No one knew exactly what it said—Joe never told—but everybody around him in the hall noticed the way his olive skin flushed as he read. And after he finished, he shoved the leaf of school letterhead between his jacket and backpack, slammed the locker door, and fled to the nearest bathroom.

Maranatha had always liked Jake, with his soft voice and fluttery fingers. She liked how easily he blushed and how he seemed to always be near to help her scoop up her books when someone deliberately bumped her hard enough to knock them out of her hands. His long eyelashes reminded her of perching butterflies. A tiny mole inked his right cheek, like a drawn-in beauty mark.

She couldn’t imagine him doing anything that would warrant a week’s detention.

After Jake got the letter, Maranatha noticed a few immediate changes. He stopped wearing the sweater vests he’d favored, in lavender and sea foam and peach, and took to sporting blacks and greys and Rockport boots. His full loose curls had been cropped much closer. Stubble sprouted on his usually clean-shaven face. And within a month of his detention, he’d asked some freshmen to be his girlfriend.

Maranatha was perplexed, almost enough to risk public humiliation by asking Demetria if she’d heard anything. But  answers came soon enough. During the basketball unit of gym, she overheard the girls who’d faked periods gossiping about Jake on the bleachers.

“… but I thought he was gay.”

“He was, but Principal Harris and some other teachers and church elders prayed it off him.”

“Why would that take five days, though?”

“I heard it was seven—the number of completion.”

“He must’ve had a whole lotta spirits on him.”

“’Legion, for we are many….’”

The basketball walloped Maranatha’s bicep. She stumbled and the group of girls swiveled at the thud. Hurriedly scooping up the ball, she kept her head down and shuffled back to the fold of players.

That night, Maranatha didn’t sleep. Her mind was too busy conjuring images of Jake, surrounded by crusty old faculty insistent on loosing him of the gaggle of green gargoyles clinging to his argyle sweater vest. She asked herself where in the building would their teachers have most likely staged a seven-day exorcism, and after careful deliberation, she decided it’d all gone down in the band room where, when the demons trembled at the name of Jesus, all the cymbals on the drum sets would clatter.

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Posted in Fiction, Maranatha (novel excerpts)

Maranatha: Chapter 2.

for those just joining us: start here.

– Chapter 2 –

Holy Pentecost Academy hardly seemed the same place, with its potholes in the sidewalk, flimsy plastic flapping across broken windows, and ripped flag sagging at half-mast. Maranatha parked her car and sat for a minute, half-debating heading back home. Just being here, outside but on the grounds, made her feel defensive and nauseous and ashamed.

The postcard on her dashboard noted that she only had five minutes before this thing got started in earnest. Her decision needed to be quick. She grabbed the card and her patented leather clutch and stepped out of the car.

She’d known all along she’d go in.

The side door truants used to use to dash was locked, so she navigated a slalom of orange cones, nestled in ditches of crumbled concrete, to the front entrance.

Her skin prickled. Holy Pentecost still chilled her to the bone upon entry. The sickening scent of cheap cleaning solution, reconstituted meats, and powdered eggs still wafted right up to her from the cafeteria. But there was another smell here, too, something like vinegar and mold.

She looked at the banners hanging from the ceiling above the main office. State Girls Volleyball Champions, 2006, Division C. Pastor’s Award for Excellence in Stewardship, 2008. 2001 Winners of District Youth Evangelism Challenge. Oratory Competition 1998 Runner-Up.

There were others, but she moved on, almost stumbling into a sign taped to a music stand. It read, Town Hall Meeting, Auditorium, 7:30 pm. And underneath, a big red arrow, like anyone who’d be here wouldn’t pivot left by rote.

She heard the screech of a microphone, then keened her ear to see if she recognized the voice mumbling, “Testing, testing.” She didn’t.

A group of women swanned out of a door 200 feet ahead and she froze as they filled the hallway. From here, they looked to be about her age. They were well-dressed, in silk blouses with skirt suits or swishing wide-legged slacks. Their clacking heels rang in her ears. Sweat beaded in her palms. What if she knew them? What if they were former tormenters, like Patra Davis—or worse yet, what if one was Demetria Simmons who had, by graduation, become a kind of frenemy?

She hadn’t seen any of these people in twelve years. Occasionally, in her desperate attempts at holiday small talk, Maranatha’s mother had leaked a few updates about alumni here and there. She knew, for instance, that Cammi Shaw, who barely waited till eighth grade to have sex, then swapped Maranatha’s name for hers when recounting her grand tales of exploit, had recently bought a three-bedroom townhome in Owings Mills. Demetria married a surgeon. Bryce Hall, the cutest boy in their graduating class, was a recovering alcoholic who lived with his mom. Some other boy whose name she hadn’t retained had beaten some type of rare cancer.

Maranatha wasn’t ready for any of this. She tried to square her shoulders, as the cluster of ladies approached. Then she saw them squinting and whispering, trying to place her. Panicked, she turned on her heel and headed for the bathroom at the other end of the hall.

Continue reading “Maranatha: Chapter 2.”

Posted in Fiction, Maranatha (novel excerpts)

Maranatha: Chapter 1.

in the past, when i’ve posted excerpts of longer works of fiction, i haven’t prefaced them with any type of summary. a friend of mine told me this was a problem for him and deterred him from reading. so, in an effort not to deter you, here is yet another excerpt and the summary is as follows:

this is the story of maranatha miller, a lifelong loner at a private, pentecostal school who, at the age of seven, has a chance encounter with a troubled graduating high school senior named gideon. years later, gideon returns to the school as a teacher, when maranatha is a senior herself. forbidden, mostly repressed romance ensues as the two forge undeniable bonds, in spite of themselves.

their story is set against the backdrop of a larger scandal, as parents and former students form a class action suit against the school for unethical policies and abusive practices, and maranatha and gideon–both victimized by these practices over the years, in different ways–are called upon to testify.

the story spans three decades and each chapter represents a different period in time. this first chapter is the chance encounter i was telling you about. enjoy!

– Chapter 1 –

Whenever the primary-schoolers made their way to the Main Building, they were dwarves in a city of giants. The second grade class at Holy Pentecost Academy clasped hands so tightly they dampened and it became trickier to keep their slippery grip on one another. The wanton giants tromped about, jostling them without ever looking down. The tots trembled, inching through the halls of the Big Kid School, where assemblies were held in a massive, musty auditorium.

They should’ve been beside themselves with glee and anticipation. It was Friday, October 30: Hallelujah Day. Every year, the whole school gathered for candy, costumes, and a fantastical filmstrip about druids, witches, and all the satanic trappings of Halloween.

It was one of the most exciting days on their academic calendar.

But first they had to get past their initial ten minutes in Main, all of which they spent in wriggling in taut-eyed, primal fear. Usually, a third of the kindergarten class wet itself in anticipation. Then, slowly, as they made their way toward their candy-paved utopia, everyone settled down and suddenly, sharing space with students three times their size wasn’t such a Herculean feat, after all.

Maranatha smiled at the littler kids. She remembered kindergarten fondly. When she was five, she blended in. The other children shared their pipe cleaners and tissue paper in Arts & Crafts; and no one spread the word that her PB&J was covered in cooties when she tried to lunch-swap.

But now that she was seven, everything sucked. By second grade, all the kids knew what it meant to have a mom and dad who’d never married. Just yesterday, Demetria Simmons leaned over and hissed, “You were conceived in sin,” during story hour. Maranatha’s cheeks had raged, her eyelids hot and wet, as she looked around at the nodding heads and giggling lips. Everyone had heard.

Lately, she’d been learning to keep her head down. She knew the number of stitches in her sneakers. She knew how many Formica tiles stood between her and the cafeteria. It was comforting to focus on her own her footsteps, so comforting that when she really thought about it, the big kids bumping her on their way to the auditorium had never really frightened her at all. Maranatha felt dwarfed, no matter where she was and the size of things couldn’t bother you if you never looked up and noticed them.

*  *  *

The boy was like other boys his age. There was nothing special about him. He was tall and thin and the color of brown M&Ms. His close-shaved hair had been trained by a barber to swirl counter-clockwise at the crown. As a senior, he was immune to the lures of candy and conscience-pricking. He’d stopped caring about Halloween when he was 11. Getting out of class for the assembly didn’t especially excite him, either. He cut class at least once a week, anyway.

That afternoon, he smelled like Gain and Newports. He and his boy, Gerald, were fresh off a smoke break out behind the softball diamond. Now, in the crowded hall, they were tossing a ball of foil back and forth, pretending to be Jordan and Bird. Since they were charming and popular, the other kids and even a couple teachers simply laughed it off when they stumbled into them.

No one ever told them to stop.

Continue reading “Maranatha: Chapter 1.”