Craig checked the invoice as he loaded the sprinkler parts into the cardboard box and wondered if there was possibly a more boring job on the planet. He put the box on the conveyor belt and decided the girls down the line had it worse. At least he got to pull the orders. The girls got each order off the belt and had to sort through the boxes and verify that the order pullers had pulled the right stuff, then place their tag, “Checked by number whatever,” in the box and check the next one. And the next. Yawn.
He couldn’t complain too much, though. He’d found the job after high school graduation, when he’d been thrown into the uncomfortable phase of life known as “Now What?” He’d planned on a mission for a long time, and this job would help pay for one if he decided to go, but he wished his parents would help. He didn’t know if he could do it without their support.
He rubbed the back of his head. Another headache was coming on.
He noticed that Mike, another order puller, had stacked his boxes too high. Suddenly, most of them came crashing off the line, spilling sprinkler parts at the feet of the startled order pullers. There were groans from everywhere.
Craig was the closest to the disaster.
“Oh, no!” he said. The belt stopped.
“Congratulations,” said a voice at his elbow. Amber, an order checker, had come to see what had happened, while some of the others smirked. The break bell sounded, and all the order pullers except Craig made a beeline for the break room. The other order checkers left, too, leaving Amber standing there.
“I know,” said Craig. “Pretty swift.”
“No, I meant congratulations that you’re the only one who doesn’t swear his head off when that happens.”
Craig looked at her, surprised. He’d never really noticed her. He’d have thought her pretty if she didn’t have the worn, burnt-around-the-edges look. Her dark roots advertised obviously over-dyed blond hair, frizzy at the ends, and her perfume was eau de tobacco. But she had stunning green eyes, though they looked tired. That she would notice he never swore, unlike most of his co-workers, astonished him.
Amber was busily checking one of the boxes that had fallen to make sure it held the right parts.
“Hey, you don’t have to do that,” Craig told her.
Amber shrugged. “I’ll have to do it anyway. I might as well do it now.”
They worked in silence for a while, hearing barks of laughter from the break room. Whenever anyone opened the door, a cloud of cigarette smoke billowed in.
Craig sneezed and his head pounded. He rubbed at his eyes.
Amber asked, “You go to high school around here?”
Craig shook his head. “Graduated,” he said, “from Sand Valley High.”
She nodded. “I never did. Graduate. Used to go to Clairmont, though.” She looked at him as though she had more questions but said nothing.
When the bell rang to signal the end of break, she seemed relieved, though her co-workers gave her a hard time for not coming.
Craig didn’t see Amber again the rest of the day and didn’t really think about her. His mind was occupied with the mission decision. He knew what his parents’ reaction would be if he decided to serve. His dad would think he was wasting his time. His mom would go to pieces and would worry excessively for two years straight. Neither one would be happy for him, and he wondered whether they would even write. Mom, maybe, letters full of anguish. Dad, no. They had been active when he was little, but by the time he could drive himself to church, they had stopped going.
That Sunday he drove to church alone but found his friend Dan and sat with his family. Dan’s missionary farewell was only three weeks away. Dan would get plenty of letters from home. His parents were proud of him.
They were sitting near the back, and Craig found himself squinting to read the hymn numbers. Dan looked at him and laughed.
“You must be near-sighted. Better get some glasses.”
Craig was startled at the joking suggestion, but it stayed on his mind.
Lindsay Carter gave a talk on scripture study, using a quadruple combination as a visual aid. She blew along its pages, sending an obvious cloud of what appeared to be dust flying.
“Don’t let this happen to your scriptures,” she said, and the congregation laughed. Craig decided she had probably put flour or baby powder on the scriptures to emphasize her point. His own parents’ scriptures had sat on top of the bookcase for literally years. He could see them in his mind’s eye: one black set, one brown, his parents’ names imprinted in gold on their covers. Lindsay could easily have used their scriptures for her visual aid—no powder necessary.
He knew his parents’ inactivity had been gradual. Over several years’ time, the gospel, which had become so important to him, had conversely dwindled in importance to them. They had unintentionally drifted. Their distance from the gospel was now reflected in the way they acted and talked—more negative, more cynical, less hopeful. He wished his parents would come back. He prayed for it every night. But would a mission bring them closer to the Church or drive a larger wedge between them?
He spent a lot of time at work thinking about it, since his work didn’t require much thought. He’d been at it long enough to pull orders on autopilot. So he was unaware of Amber at his elbow again one day when she spoke.
“Can I ask you something?” Her eyes had dark circles around them, like she’d spent the weekend partying. “Are you happy?”
He wasn’t sure what he thought she would ask, but that wasn’t it. It caught him off guard.
“Yeah, I guess so,” he said. “I mean, when I’m doing what I know is right, I am.” He could tell the answer was important to her.
“See, I don’t expect to be happy constantly, but I’m mostly happy.” He hesitated. “I know God loves me. He’s given us the way to be happy if we’ll make the right choices.” He looked at Amber, surprised to hear himself saying things he’d never said before, but he was being nudged. She still needed to hear one thing more.
“God loves you, Amber. He knows you and wants you to be happy.”
She looked like she was about to cry. She turned away and went back to work. Craig wasn’t sure whether she believed him or not. But he knew what he had said was true.
After work he had an eye appointment. He realized he had been squinting at anything farther away than about 50 feet.
The ophthalmologist called him in and did so many things Craig wasn’t sure what he was doing. He sat Craig in front of a strange apparatus and kept turning wheels that changed the lenses in front of his eyes: right, left, both; asking him if each was better or worse until Craig was so confused he wasn’t sure of anything. After a while the doctor studied the data and told Craig the results.
“Looks like you’re quite near-sighted and will need some glasses or contacts.”
Craig took the prescription and staggered outside, shielding his dilated eyes from the sun. He sat down and waited until his vision cleared.
On Friday Amber came up to him.
“Hey, you got glasses. They make you look smart,” she said. “Not that you didn’t look smart before,” she added hastily. She hesitated for a moment, then asked him a question.
“What would you do if you were trying to get off drugs and your friends were all doing them at lunch and expected you to join them?”
He considered this, wondering if she could just go with them and not do any drugs. He decided against the suggestion, not sure how tough it would be to resist. The right answer hit him, as awkward or unlikely as it would be.
“Come have lunch with me.” It wasn’t important what anyone thought. Amber was the important one, and she needed to know it.
“Serious?” she said.
“Sure. I usually bring my lunch and go out to the patch of lawn next to Carpet World.”
They spent more time talking than eating lunch over the next several weeks. At first Craig didn’t think they would have much to say. Then he began looking forward to lunchtime.
They talked about their families. He told her he was disappointed in his parents, that there was a cold feeling in his home.
“Cold? Your house doesn’t sound so bad,” Amber said. “If your house is cold, my house is Antarctica. I’m working this job so I can get enough money together to move out. My mom sneaks around with boyfriends, and my dad thinks I’m some kind of a punching bag.”
Craig stared at her and suddenly noticed a series of bruises on her arms and one on her cheek he’d mistaken for too much dark blush. Why hadn’t he ever noticed those before? It was like he was seeing her for the first time, like he was seeing his father and mother for the first time. Since he’d gotten his new glasses, he could see a lot better far away. Yet he was looking at his immediate surroundings in a new way. It was like the old saying about not being able to see the forest for the trees.
When he went home that night, he hugged his mother and told her he loved her and asked his father if there was some yardwork that needed doing. He was getting a reality check and realizing he didn’t have it so bad after all. He mowed the lawn and started digging postholes for a fence, and his dad came out to help. His dad talked for quite a while, reminiscing about helping his own father on the farm and talking about the dream he’d had to become a pilot. Craig went inside that night, long after the sun had set, sweaty and exhausted, but feeling happy. His dad came in whistling and threw together a plate of nachos for all of them, something he hadn’t done in a long time.
Craig and Amber continued to have lunch together, though her friends made crude comments about it. She turned bright red and later apologized to Craig.
“It’s so hard,” she said. “People won’t let you change. They want to keep you down in the gutter with them.”
Craig was at a loss. “It’s okay,” he said. “Don’t worry about them. They don’t realize where they are or how bad it is.”
Amber’s friends made fun of him in his new glasses. They had caught wind of his talking about the gospel with Amber and called him the minister. It didn’t hurt Craig at all. He didn’t care what they thought.
Craig asked Dan what the missionaries taught, and Dan showed him the materials he’d collected. Dan was the type to be right on top of everything he did, diving in completely. He’d do well in the mission field, Craig was certain.
“See, here are the things someone new to the gospel needs to know.” As they discussed it, Craig hit upon the perfect subject for Amber.
“That’s it!” Craig pulled the lesson on the plan of salvation closer. “This is what she needs to hear.” Then he looked doubtful. “But maybe I should have the full-time missionaries teach her.”
Dan looked at his friend. “Somehow, I think you must be doing a great job teaching Amber. You’ll be able to reach her because you’re her friend.”
The next time they ate lunch together, Craig taught Amber about the plan of salvation.
“Oh!” Amber said, after he had explained about the premortal existence and our coming to earth to be tested, and our spirits going on beyond the grave. “Oh!”
She said nothing more that day, and he wondered what she thought. Was it too much to accept? His own testimony had grown as he studied and taught Amber. He again realized how much Heavenly Father loved all of them.
At lunch the next day, Amber said, “You know what you said about us being spirits? Well, I always thought that once you died, you were gone. Kaput. But what you told me rings true. It really does. And it explains a lot of things to me.” She took a bite of her apple. “Lots of nights, I lie awake. I hear my parents fighting. Sometimes I hear my dad slap my mom. Then I want to retreat, to be asleep, dreaming I have another family. Sometimes I fall asleep, and then I feel my Grandma Norene, my dad’s mother, right beside me. And she holds my hand. And I feel wonderful until I wake up. Do you think she worries about me?”
Craig whispered, “I’m sure she does.”
Craig invited Amber to Dan’s farewell. She arrived late to the church, breathless and wearing a dress that was a little too short, still smelling of cigarette smoke. She was nervous but excited. She spent the meeting listening closely.
After the meeting she wanted to know all about missions, and the questions came rapid-fire.
“How long do you go on a mission? How do you know what to teach? What if you go to a foreign country? Do you get paid by your church?”
Craig answered all her questions and told her he might be going on a mission soon. He was a little afraid of her reaction, but she actually clapped.
“That’s perfect! Of course! You’d be terrific at teaching people, just like you’ve taught me. You’ll be good at this!” She then said, “I’ll miss you, but I could write you letters, couldn’t I? And you could still answer my questions about the gospel.”
Craig nodded, a slow smile overtaking his face. Amber had just answered some of his questions for a change, like whether or not to go on a mission. And whether or not he’d have any support if he did. He realized he’d already started his missionary work. And he’d been really happy lately. He’d have to trust that the Lord would help him reach his parents somehow. Maybe it was in the way he saw things. He knew for sure it had a lot to do with faith.
The next time Amber came to church, he did a double take. She had dyed her hair a shiny chestnut, closer to her real color, and was wearing a long skirt, nice blouse, and sandals. Her makeup was light instead of her usual overkill, and she smelled like flowers instead of cigarette smoke. Her eyes looked vibrant, with a fire in them that had replaced the dull, half-lidded sleepy look she used to have.
Craig met her in the foyer. “These new glasses are great. I didn’t know how cute you were.”
Amber smiled and he noticed dimples in her cheeks he hadn’t seen before. For a split second, he could imagine her being baptized. He was reminded of the scripture about the Lord not looking on the outward appearance but upon what was in the heart.
At first he had worried that she might be changing because of an interest in him. Then he had seen that she was truly happy he would be going on a mission. Craig realized she thought of him like a brother, like someone who had given her an incredible gift.
His parents had seemed happier. He finally summoned up all his nerve and told them he was going on a mission. They were a little upset that he would be leaving, but they could see it was what he wanted to do.
Craig knew everything might not work out the way he wanted it to. He knew his parents might never make their way back to activity, but for the first time in a long time, he started to believe in what could happen if the people he loved wanted it as much as he did.
In the same way that he had started to see Amber going down into water in a white dress, he was starting to see his parents’ scriptures off the bookcase, dusted off, and open.