Jeff Daniels pushed open the car door. The clean, cool night air poured in and drenched him with freshness. He paused for a moment and then stepped out onto the curb in front of his home and breathed deeply. Even outside the car, the faint odor of alcohol lingered.
Nathan Brinser, who was driving, leaned over and looked out the open door at him. “Hey, Daniels, why don’t you loosen up a bit?” he invited good-naturedly.
A troubling emptiness rested in the pit of Jeff’s stomach, but he managed to shrug indifferently and grin.
Jeff found himself grinning more and more these days. Not out of any sense of amusement. It was quite simply his best answer to so many things now. If his beliefs or good behavior were challenged or ridiculed, he could always answer with an uncommitted shrug and grin.
“One lousy beer isn’t going to kill you,” Nathan laughed.
Jeff stared down at his friend. Two years earlier neither one of them would have suspected this kind of conversation would be going on between them. He and Nathan had been friends since kindergarten, and over the years they had been inseparable. But now Jeff felt like a stranger around Nathan.
“You going to KC’s party tomorrow night?” Nathan asked. “His folks are going to be out of town all weekend. I think half the senior class will be there.”
Jeff contemplated an excuse.
“And don’t tell me you’ve got to study,” Nathan cut into his thoughts.
Jeff grinned again. He didn’t like to go to the parties. He had been to a few but he’d never been comfortable, always having to explain why he didn’t join in. He was tired of making up excuses or dumping the blame on his parents. He took a deep breath. “Yeah, I guess I’ll go,” he said, unable to think of anything else.
“Don’t sound so excited,” Nathan grumbled. “If you don’t want to go, you don’t have to.” Nathan was quiet for a moment and then spoke without facing Jeff. “You know, some of the guys were talking. I can’t blame them. Whenever you go with us, you’re all depressed. Everyone else is having a good time and you’re just sitting there looking down.”
“Hey, I said I want to go,” said Jeff, falling back on his grin.
A few minutes later Nathan’s taillights faded into the blackness, and Jeff started up the walk to the door. After having spent most of the evening in the car, sitting through a drive-in movie, it felt good to be out in the open where everything he breathed was clean and fresh.
He thought about the two six-packs KC had managed to get. Jeff had declined as the cans were passed out, and the others didn’t seem to mind. It meant more for them. But before the night was over Jeff could sense the annoyance his abstinence caused.
KC had been especially irritated. “Come on, you can still go to church on Sunday,” he had said sarcastically.
What would it hurt just once? Jeff thought as he walked up to the house. Some of those other guys are members of the Church and they’re all “active.” Why do I have to be the one that stands out?
“Oh, you’re home,” his dad called to him, as he stepped through the front door. “I thought I heard a car pull up. I just got home myself. Thought I’d fix a sandwich. You hungry?”
“Want some juice?”
“Juice sounds good.” Jeff sighed heavily as he walked into the kitchen, pulled out a chair and dropped into it. His father poured him a glass of orange juice and pushed it across the table. Jeff took a couple of sips. “Where’ve you been?” he asked his dad. “It’s past 12.”
Brother Daniels finished chewing a bite of his bologna sandwich and shook his head. “Bishop Taylor asked if I’d go with him to visit a family in the ward.”
“At this time of night?”
“They’ve been having some family problems.” Brother Daniels shook his head and stared at the table. “I kept thinking while we were there, If they just followed the counsel of the Church, they could avoid so much of this.”
“The Church doesn’t fix everything.”
“Oh, members of the Church have problems too. Everybody does. But if you’re doing what the Lord has asked you to do you can work through those problems. There’s never a problem that’s insurmountable,” Brother Daniels said resolutely.
Jeff looked over at his father and wished that he could really believe that, but right then following the teachings of the Church didn’t seem to be the solution to his problem. That seemed to be the cause.
“How was the movie?” his dad asked.
“Oh, it was all right, I guess.”
Brother Daniels stared at his son for a moment. “What’s the matter?”
Jeff shook his head. “Nothing.”
“Are you sure?”
Jeff nodded again, stood, finished his juice in a few gulps and turned to go. “What’s wrong, Jeff?” his father asked again.
“What makes you think anything’s wrong?”
Brother Daniels set down his half-eaten sandwich and brushed some bread crumbs off the table. “I was just wondering,” he said. “You’ve seemed a little troubled lately.” He looked at Jeff, and reached over to push the chair out again so Jeff could sit down. “Sometimes talking helps clear your mind.”
Jeff wasn’t sure he wanted to talk, or of what he would say even if he decided to speak. While he debated, however, he dropped back into his chair. It was hard to begin. He wasn’t sure his father could understand. He wasn’t sure he understood.
“What would you do if I’d been drinking tonight?” he burst out suddenly. “I wasn’t,” he added quickly, “but what would you do if I had been?”
Brother Daniels looked across the table at him, studying his face. “I’d try to help you,” he said slowly. “Can I help you?”
Jeff shook his head. “Probably not. You know, you’re always hearing these stories about some Mormon guy going to a party or something and everybody and his dog is drinking. Everybody except this one Mormon guy. Somebody offers him a drink and he turns them down and later everybody rushes up to him and tells him how much they admire him for standing by his beliefs.”
Jeff looked across the table at his dad. “Do you know how many parties I’ve been to where everybody’s been drinking? Enough of them,” he said bitterly. “And do you know how many times somebody’s come up to me and said, ‘Gee, Daniels, it’s sure great that you don’t let down your standards?’ Not once. They look at me like I’m some kind of freak. Those stories about Mormon guys being so good and having everyone look up to them—they just don’t happen.
“I’m just tired of feeling like a freak,” Jeff grumbled. “I thought if you did everything you were supposed to, you were happy. I don’t feel happy—just weird!”
“Maybe you need some different friends.”
Jeff shook his head. “Nathan Brinser goes to church every Sunday. His dad’s in the elders quorum presidency. KC Wells is active. His dad’s on the high council. Every Sunday they get up and bless the sacrament like nothing ever happened.”
“They’re not fooling everyone, Jeff.”
“But they’ll get away with it. When they turn 19, they’ll march into the bishop’s office, confess everything, and end up going on missions. They’ll repent and everything will be fine. That’s part of the whole plan. It makes me wonder, Well, what’s wrong with that? Why can’t I go out and have fun? I can repent as well as they can.”
Brother Daniels thought for a long time. “There are two things that come to mind. First, once you get involved in anything like that, it’s always hard to turn away from it. Maybe you’d get caught in the snare and never get out of it.”
“They’ll get out of it,” Jeff insisted.
“The second thing. Because of Christ’s love and mercy, he suffered for each of us and made it possible for us to be clean, but his plan was never intended to be used as a plaything.
“Repentance wasn’t provided so that we could go out and sin carelessly, willfully, always with the idea in mind that sometime we’d resort to repentance to clean up our lives. Christ didn’t go through the terrible agony of Gethsemane just so we could all go out and eat, drink and be merry, and then scrub ourselves with repentance like it was a common bar of soap.
“Those who think they can use repentance in that way are making a mockery of the whole atonement.”
“But, Dad, I’m tired of being the different one. Where are the good kids my own age?”
Brother Daniels pondered a moment. “You remember the prophet Elijah, the one who had the contest with the priests of Baal?” Jeff nodded. “Well, Elijah lived in Israel, but at that time wickedness was rampant. The chosen people had turned to idolatry, adultery, and every other degrading act.
“Elijah felt a lot like you. He went to the Lord and said, ‘I’m the only one in Israel that’s remained true.’” Brother Daniels smiled and shook his head. “He was wrong. The Lord told him that there were 7,000 who had not bowed down to Baal, who had kept themselves clean. You’re not alone, Jeff. There are those who feel just as you do. I don’t know if there are 7,000 or 70,000 or whatever, but they’re there.”
All during the next day Jeff debated whether he should go to the party at KC Wells’s place that night. In the midst of his internal debate, he felt prompted to pray. At first he ignored the feeling, but it persisted until he went to his room and dropped to his knees. He began to whip through a prayer, but it was empty. The words were going nowhere. He paused and remained on his knees just thinking.
Suddenly he was bombarded with feelings, fears, and frustrations. He struggled to sort through them, and as he struggled, the prayer came as a humble plea for help. For one of the first times in his life he was talking to the Lord, not just mouthing words or repeating worn-out phrases, but telling the Lord how he felt.
Tears burned under his lashes, and he pleaded for something to help him through. In the middle of his prayer an all-encompassing warmth filled him. For one of the first times in his life he felt the purest kind of love he had ever experienced and knew that someone really cared about what Jeff Daniels was doing, what he was going through.
“Will you be out late?” Brother Daniels asked Jeff as he was leaving for KC’s party.
“I doubt it. I’d decided not to go, but I got to thinking that maybe I should. I don’t know why. I’ll be all right, though,” said Jeff as he headed out the door.
KC’s house was full when Jeff pulled up. Cars lined the street, music was playing, and kids were spilling out into the backyard. It did look like half the senior class was there.
He wandered around to the backyard and found a lawn chair from which he could watch the others come and go, laugh and talk. Everyone was munching chips and sipping drinks. No one seemed to notice him, and he had the impression that his presence made no difference to those who were there. There was a time when that would have bothered him, but right then he didn’t care.
“Hey, I was wondering if you’d show,” Nathan said dropping into the lawn chair next to him. “I should have known that you’d come and hide yourself. You been here long?”
“Ten minutes or so.”
“It’s a little tame,” Nathan said, nodding toward the activity about them. “KC had to be careful. His folks know he’s having a party, and a couple of the neighbors are supposed to wander through to make sure everything’s okay. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t arrange a few surprises.”
The two continued talking until Nathan nudged Jeff with his elbow, “Hey, is that Kristi Case?” He nodded across the yard at a girl in a yellow sweater. Jeff recognized the girl from his English class. She had always been quiet, a little on the shy side. She was not grabbingly beautiful, but she was pretty.
Jeff watched her for a moment. She laughed and talked with the others but seemed nervous. She wasn’t the kind of girl he thought would show up at something like this. He felt sorry for her.
A few minutes later Jeff watched as KC approached Kristi. They talked and as they did Kristi happened to catch Jeff staring at her. For a moment their gazes locked; then she looked away. Jeff turned back to Nathan, feeling guilty for staring.
“Hey, Jeff,” a voice called. KC came toward him, holding Kristi’s arm. “You know Kristi Case, don’t you?”
Jeff nodded, “We have English together.”
“Great!” I thought maybe you could help her have a good time, show her around. Why don’t you get her a drink. Start on the punch in the dining room, and get one for yourself too. Brent Tate can mix one that will wake you up.”
“No thanks,” Jeff said, “I really don’t want a drink.”
“Why not?” KC demanded.
Jeff could feel Nathan’s and Kristi’s eyes on him. Any other time he would have been groping frantically for an excuse, some place to dump the blame. But right then he didn’t want an excuse. And the last thing he wanted to do was grin.
He remembered his conversation with his father the night before. Why had he always insisted on being different? He had never really answered that question for himself before, but right then he wanted the answer. And he wanted the others to hear it too. “I don’t drink,” he said. “You know that, KC.”
His words shocked him as much as anyone, but as soon as they were out, he felt a sense of control he had never known before. The same assuring warmth he had felt while praying seemed to come over him.
“You mean you’re not old enough to have a sip now and then?” KC asked sarcastically.
“I’m just not interested. I guess I never have been,” said Jeff.
KC’s eyes narrowed as though he had been insulted. “If you’re too good for this party why’d you bother to show up?”
Jeff smiled, but there was no apology in the expression. “I don’t know,” he said, and leaving the others standing there he stood up and started around the house.
As he walked through the shadows to his car, he knew he was alone, but there was a feeling of triumph in what he had just done. He wondered why he hadn’t taken that simple stand months earlier.
“Jeff,” a girl called to him. He stopped and looked behind him. It was Kristi. “Are you leaving now?” she asked.
“Yeah, I’m leaving.”
“Could I—maybe—catch a ride with you?”
“Sure. Come on.”
For several minutes after Kristi explained where she lived, they rode in silence. Then unexpectedly she asked, “Are you a Mormon?”
No one had ever asked Jeff that before. He had always just assumed his religion was obvious. “Yeah, I’m Mormon,” he said.
“I always thought you were, but …”
“I guess I was just shocked to see you there tonight. I’d never gone to a party like that, and I didn’t know what to expect. But I wasn’t expecting you. You really don’t drink?”
“No, I don’t drink.”
“Have you ever?”
Jeff laughed. “What is this, the Inquisition?”
Kristi smiled, “I’m sorry. I was just curious.”
“No, I haven’t,” said Jeff. He was glad he could say that.
“I’ve seen you around school, and I thought you were—different. But when I saw you at the party—well, I thought you were just like all the others.”
“Oh, lately I’ve wondered if maybe I was the odd one, if there was anybody around that really …” she hesitated. “Well, that really believed in the gospel. Do you ever feel like that?”
Jeff smiled; then laughed. It felt so good not to grin. “I get discouraged sometimes, but I get over it.” He looked over at Kristi, “You’ll be all right,” he said with conviction.
And he knew that he would be too. His dad had been right. It didn’t matter if there were 7,000 or 70,000 who were trying to do what was right because no one, not Elijah, not Kristi, and not Jeff Daniels was ever really alone.