03456_000_008First-Place FictionJill was alone and filled with pain. But she hoped that when the door opened, the healing process would begin.
Jill twisted her high school ring, round and round her finger, the blue stone glimmering as it caught the fluorescent light. Round again—here’s my graduation date, she thought. Round once more—here’s the good old Morrisview High School crest, the snarling tiger mascot posed to leap sinuously out of the silver. Jill turned the ring again, imagining a shimmering tiger splashing down the carpeted corridor like so much quicksilver. Round and round, the ring toured her finger as Jill wished she could be anywhere but in this silent, carpeted hallway. It’s so quiet, she thought. Cryptlike.
Jill started to feel mildly claustrophobic. Her fingers relentlessly worked at her ring, twisting, pulling, twisting again. She didn’t feel well at all. Wishing for the umpteenth time that she didn’t have to be here, she started to reflect on the events of the last few months.
Lockers clanged dully all around her. Jill hardly noticed the noise or the sound of her friends’ voices as they traded witticisms across the hall. She stared into her locker as she fought back bitter tears. Bright teenage voices echoed and rebounded down the corridors as the students poured out into the crisp fall air. Jill grimaced against the salty taste of her tears as she softly shut her locker door. She quickly turned around and walked down the hall, her booted heels clicking rhythmically on the tiles as she walked out into the cold afternoon air. Leaves crackled as she stepped down the stairs that led from the high school. She paused at the bottom of the steps and pressed her hot, flushed cheek against one of the stone tigers. The surface of the stone was rough and pitted, yet strangely relaxing. A small smile creased her face as she thought of the sentinel tigers, their stony snarls forever guarding the steps to the double-doored entrance. As a child she had been a little bit afraid of their fierce countenances. At 17, she loved the frozen animals. With a sigh she pushed away and started towards her home.
Derek. Derek, Derek, Derek. She always ran up against something that reminded her of him. Little things: the restaurant where they first met, the Plaza Theater, the park where they played on the swings like children one sunny Saturday. Happy memories, sad memories. They swirled around Jill’s fevered mind like bits of broken glass—glittering, interesting, but painful.
Derek was the one who had decided that the relationship wasn’t working. He had broken up with Jill.
Broken up, dumped, jilted—words that all amounted to the same thing—heartache, confusion, and terrible anger. These emotions churned inside her, making her feel sick. She was devastated over the breakup.
There had been so much pressure during the time they dated. Pressure from her mother to date one of the “nice Mormon boys” instead of the rough, unreligious athlete who had completely captured her heart. Pressure from her Church teachers to invite Derek to church. (She had asked Derek to church—once. She had brought it up timidly as he drove her home one night. He had laughed. She never mentioned it again.) Pressure from him to ignore the things she had been taught at church. Pressures that had stampeded rampant through her soul, leaving her feeling confused and distraught.
Jill passed quietly through the park. A duck pond lay like a slate gray jewel set in gently rolling hills. The ground was carpeted with leaves. Scenes from her life passed like angry accusations. Jill knew that she was not on the right course. Sure, she went to her church meetings most of the time at first, but she didn’t feel anything there and it became easier to miss. All her member friends had moved, and she hadn’t made new ones because she had tried to make Derek’s world her own. A catching sob struggled to rise from her throat, but she choked it down. With a whirl of emotion Jill turned and ran.
Whirr, click. Whirr, click.
The mechanical clock on the wall made precision noises as it duly recorded the minutes of time. It stared down like a sentinel at Jill. The rust-colored carpet stretched along for what seemed like miles across the corridors. Jill’s heart thumped painfully louder with each tick of the clock.
Except for the pounding of her own muffled heartbeat and the sound of the clock, the halls of the church were silent. The silence began to seem accusing. Miserably, Jill wished that she could be anywhere else. She began to hum a gentle hymn that had always been a childhood favorite. It sounded emptily in the hall but started a tiny ember of warmth within her.
She stared down the hall at the light coming from the crack under the door.
Jill remembered a period of self-loathing. Her insides seemed twisted with hatred. Unfortunately, the poison grew inside of her until it was almost a palpable thing. She grew shrewish. Her friends started to avoid her, and even her mother commented on Jill’s waspish behavior. Jill remembered snapping angrily, “No, nothing is wrong. How could anything be wrong? Derek dumped me, and my friends now treat me like an outcast. And my mother is constantly on my back. How could anything be wrong?”
Jill could see the hurt on her mother’s face. She felt terrible. Terrible and guilty. She quickly turned and ran out of the room.
It was a wretched time. Alone and filled with anger, Jill began lashing out at everyone. Her grades suffered dramatically. She no longer felt capable of putting effort into anything and often stayed home from school, pretending to be sick.
If only …
No! Jill’s mind skirted the sentence as if it were a deadly snake. With a sigh of exasperation, she started to form the sentence in her mind once again. She felt as though the acceptance of this sentence was the key to the riddance of her problems, the plug at the bottom of this whirlpool of hate she had been carrying along with her for so many weeks. She tried to say it aloud.
“If only Derek and I hadn’t …”
The sentence trailed off softly, like falling November leaves. She forcibly finished.
“If only Derek and I hadn’t gone up to the ridge that first time. If I had been a stronger willed person. If I …”
For the first time, Jill allowed herself to cry.
Outside, a cleansing December snow had softly started to blanket the ground.
Jill’s reverie was cut short as the door at the end of the hall opened. Light spilled out onto the carpet. The bishop’s voice boomed cheerfully as he shook the young man’s hand. Martin smiled back. Suddenly, the bishop looked over at Jill, who had been trying to pretend she was part of the furniture.
“Oh, Jill. It’s good of you to wait. I’ll be ready for you in a few minutes if you wouldn’t mind staying a bit longer.”
“Sure, I don’t mind waiting.”
Martin looked happily over to where Jill was hunched. As the bishop walked back into his office, Martin sat down on one of the chairs next to Jill. “So, what are you doing here so late?” he asked affably.
With a small sigh, Jill looked up into Martin’s face. It was a pleasant, open face. For the first time in a long while, Jill found a smile hovering right beneath her skin. With a surprised inward shrug she released it.
“The bishop called me in for my six-month interview. It’s a bit overdue, but I suppose it’s better late than never.” Inwardly, Jill knew that she would never have found the courage to ask to speak to the bishop. She was grateful for the convenience of this interview. She had been praying for courage to confess to the bishop, and then suddenly there was this interview.
Martin looked down at the upholstery on the chair arm as he spoke, “You know, we’ve known each other since we were four and you clouted me on the back of the head with a shovel in the sandbox. Do you remember?”
“Yes, you sat on my sand castle just as Prince Charming was about to ride up and save Sleeping Beauty.” With a pang of nostalgia, Jill remembered how she and Martin were almost inseparable before their freshman year in high school. During that year, they both made new friends, and they, well, drifted apart. She couldn’t remember the last time they had spoken.
Martin started the conversation. “I noticed that you’ve been away from church for a while …” The sentence trailed off uncertainly.
“Well,” Martin hesitated, feeling somewhat foolish. “Well, I just wanted to say that I’m glad you’re back.” With this proclamation finished, he blushed to the roots of his sandy blond hair.
Jill felt stunned at this. Through all her inactivity she had never realized that she was being missed. “Thank you,” she whispered, feeling dangerously close to tears.
“Ummm, hey, I think the bishop’s ready for you now.” Indeed, his office door was open and he was beckoning Jill with his hand.
“If you want me to wait I can give you a ride home,” Martin said.
Jill stood up, gathering her things together. One memory flashed swiftly across her mind. It was the hot summer of her tenth year. She had been bike racing with Martin up the hill to her house. Everything was going fine until her front tire hit a patch of gravel that caused her to skid out of control. Martin brought his bike to a screeching halt and helped Jill untangle herself from her bicycle. Jill remembered she had bumped her nose and skinned both her knees. Martin helped her limp home and then left. As her mother carefully applied Band-Aids to the torn knees, Jill told her that Martin was glad she fell because she had been winning. Her mother tried to explain that she was sure that that wasn’t true, but Jill insisted, pointing out that he had even left her alone. About a half an hour later, Martin showed up at their doorstep. He had brought Jill’s bicycle back and put it in the garage. He asked if Jill could come outside for a minute. Jill remembered walking out with a cool expression of complete disdain. She was completely surprised when Martin presented her with a “victory scoop” of strawberry ice cream. She had been winning, he had explained, so he bought her an ice cream cone with his allowance.
With a jerk, she focused on Martin’s face. “Sure, you can wait for me.”
The interview went along much as one would expect—the same questions that Jill had answered many times before, the similar replies. As the clock ticked away the minutes, Jill could feel herself growing panicky. A chorus of voices cried inside of her head, “No—don’t say anything. Don’t tell him! If you start to say something, there’s no going back. Just smile, utter trivialities, and leave.”
A quiet, clear voice eased through the babble like a hot knife through warm butter. “Tell him. He’ll understand.”
Jill remained in turmoil, all the while smiling and agreeing with what the bishop said. An anxious look at the clock confirmed that the interview was drawing to a close. She’d have to say something now. Now.
Her voice was frozen. Her mouth felt dry. She couldn’t form the words. The bishop’s understanding brown eyes looked deep into her soul. Finally he spoke.
“Is there something else you want to talk about? Something that perhaps I can help you with?” The questions were a gentle prod trying to hook the answer from her paralyzed lips.
The chorus screamed in her head.
No, yes, No, yes, No!
Yes … yes …
Words seemed to jump back to color. Underground springs welled up in the desert, bringing life.
A voice that she hardly recognized as her own answered.
An hour later, Martin guided Jill across the smooth blanket of snow to his car. Snow, dusted from the windshield, sprinkled on the planes of her teary cheeks as the full moon shone gentle assurance.
She felt light, as if something heavy had been lifted off her. It was the first step, a step she had dreaded, but one that she had to take. She would be willing to face the remaining challenges and difficulties until the price was paid.
Through her tears, Jill saw a world that promised spring and new life.