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I was in my boyfriend Greg's office when the e-mail came that would change everything. Greg is the youth pastor at the church I've been attending for seven years. My apartment building is just two doors away, so it's easy for me to pop over. Of course, that's something I do a lot. Any excuse is a good excuse for a visit.
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary that day. I traipsed into the church carrying my backpack, my classical guitar and a cardboard tray containing four coffees, plus a small bag of doughnut holes, which I had to hold in my teeth. There wasn't a whole lot of time for a visit and a chat. I had a guitar student at the music store where I work part-time, plus a music class of my own at the college in the afternoon.
Even though I was visiting Greg, I knew better than to bring coffee for just the two of us. There would probably be at least two more bodies in the church this morning. Brenda, the church secretary, would be there, along with Dave, the senior pastor. Paige, the music director, works part-time so I wasn't sure she'd be there but I was hoping she would. I had written a few of the worship songs that we sang in church and was having difficulty resolving the last verse of a new songI was eager for her input. For the past seven years, Paige has been my music mentor. She's also been my good friend. She and her husband Henry are those rare people who you could call at three in the morning when bad news comes. Their daughter Sara is taking classical guitar lessons from me. I like her a lot.
I managed to push open the church door with my shoulder without spilling the coffee and found a gaping hole in the floor. The entire place was strung with cautiontape. I'd have to walk through the basement, get lost and try to find my way up through narrow hallways back to the office area. The old building was undergoing a massive facelift. It was either that or tear it down. Since it's a heritage building, the church really had no option but to renovate.
This past summer the exterior was fully refurbished, complete with new copper turrets. And now that it was getting cooler, the inside was being torn out and rebuilt.
"I smell coffee," Brenda said, poking her head out of her office and talking to me over the yellow tape and the hole in the floor.
I dropped the doughnuts on top of the coffees and answered her.
"Yeah, but can I get there from here? Can I jump over?"
She shook her head. "I wouldn't even try it. They're taking up the floorboards and we've been warned that it's dangerous. I don't want you falling down two floors. Do you know the way through the basement?"
"Barely," I said. "I always get lost down there." It's full of bugs, too, I wanted to add, but didn't. "You guys need to put up a detour sign," I joked.
"Don't laugh. Dave wants me to do just that. Wait there. I'll come around and get you. Greg's on the phone or he would."
"Thanks." I leaned against the wall, laid my guitar case on the floor, and rested the tray of coffees and the doughnuts on top of it. Paint-splattered workmen chatted among themselves as they hammered and sawed. I heard the far-off sound of drills, saws and other equipment. Dust was everywhere. With both hands I pulled my hair out of my eyes and shoved it behind my ears. It was frizzing more than usual in the wet weather we'd been having. As I waited, I hummed a new praise song we'd sung here a week ago.
It seemed like five minutes before Brenda reappeared and picked up the bag of doughnut holes and the tray of coffees, saying, "How nice." I followed her down the main staircase to the basement, along an uneven cement corridor flanked on either side by tiny, dusty rooms which looked as though they were used for storage. I am seldom down in the bowels of the churchit's not a particularly appetizing place. I brushed cobwebs out of my hair as we made our way through the narrow hallways.
She said, "Soon this'll be torn up, too. They're planning to open up this whole area, tear out every single wall you see and put in bigger classrooms."
"That'll be nice."
"It's great. I didn't think I'd like it, but I'm settling in. It's been more than ten years since I've been in school, but I'm right back in the routine."
"You'll do fine," Brenda said.
We went up a set of skinny, creaky stepsthe wood was shiny, worn down by a century of footstepsand into yet another passage that led into the brightness of the wide church hallway, which housed the offices. I gave Brenda two coffees and some of the doughnut holes, and took the rest to Greg's office.
He was still on the phone, leaning against his bookshelf. I set my offerings on his desk. He smiled when he saw me. His grin widened when he saw the doughnut holes.
I realized that he was standing because the two chairs in his office were entirely covered with books, papers, CDs, DVDs, leaflets and odd bits of things. His entire office was in disarray. I moved one pile from a chair onto the floor as Greg said, "That would be fine. Yes, that's doable "
I looked at his face, at the crinkles around the edges of his light blue eyes, the way he absently brushed his hands through his messy dark-blond hair. He was wearing faded jeans and a dark blue golf shirt with a little sailboat embossed on the pocket. To most people, Greg seemed like one of those big, affable teddy-bear kind of guys. Very few people know that a lot of pain is hidden behind that happy-go-lucky exterior. Sometimes it frightens me, the depth of pain both of us have come through to get to a point where we are almost ready to commit to each other. But we did, and we are, and sometimes I have to pinch myself for my good fortune and God's blessings. Life is good.
"Hey, gorgeous," was the first thing he said when he hung up the phone.
"Gorgeous? I like that!"
"You think I was talking about you?" He reached for me, gave me a quick kiss. "I was talking about the coffee."
With both hands he managed to lift a three-foot pile of books from the other chair, balancing them under his chin before he placed them on the floor. A small, rectangular carpet covered with roads and villages lay on the floor beyond his desk. He's had this since he was a boy and can't part with ithe says that when the stresses of the ministry get to be too much for him, he can push his favorite Matchbox cars around the avenues and lanes on his carpet. I've never actually seen him do this, though.
He flipped up the plastic tab on a coffee and inhaled the aroma. "Nectar of the gods," he said. "They're going to have this in Heaven."
I extracted my laptop from my backpack, took a sip of my coffee and looked around. "So, when did the hurricane hit?"
"Organizing," was his reply. Munching on a doughnut hole, he said, "They've told me they're going to tear down this wall next week, so I really have no choice but to go through my books. Get rid of some stuff. Organize."
"Tear out that wall? What's on the other side?"
"A lounge that nobody uses. And then, supposedly, they're going to enlarge this little cubby hole of an office for memore space, new floors, the works."
On top of one haphazard mound, his laptop perched precariously; his wastebasket overflowed with papers and other bits of trash. I looked down and saw a whole file folder full of Christmas cards he'd received. Christmas cards? It was September!
On the floor were more stacks of books and a variety of newspapers and magazines. I picked up one. It was from three years ago. "Hey," I said. "I know a doctor's office you could take these to."
"Funny," was his comment. "My bookshelves are overloaded."
"Ya think?" My laptop had booted up. I was about to check my e-mail on the church's Wi-Fi when he said, "Cinni called."
I looked up. "Yeah?"
"She and Sara are doing up some sort of spreadsheet."
"Wow. They're really working hard."
"They want to show it to us," he said.
We were in the middle of the fall youth fund-raising clean up. As the youth pastor's girlfriend, my arm had been twisted into heading the committee, which consisted of Paige and Henry's daughter Sara, and Sara's friend Cinni. The money we were raising was going to purchase books for an African school.
My e-mail began to download. So much spam. I looked up at Greg and smiled. He was looking at me intently, so intently. We didn't say anything for a minute. Sometimes when I'm around Greg, I'm nervous that this whole wonderful new life of mine is going to come crashing down.
"What?" I asked, still smiling.
"I'm just thinking about tonight."
Tonight. I hugged my knees. "I could never forget that."
It was our six-month anniversary. We would be going to the same restaurant we went to on our first date, Primo's Pizza. I know, I know, some would say it's just a pizza joint, but the placein all its laid-back splendorholds special memories for us. Plus, they make the best pizza in all of Boston.
And then Greg started telling me about a youth conference he was going to go to in a couple of weeks and how he wanted to get his office cleaned up and ready before he left. My e-mails downloaded as I listened. Wading through spam these days is a full-time job. Delete. Delete. Delete. It seemed to be the only key I was pressing.
When it camethat e-mail that would changes every-thingI almost deleted it, too. In retrospect, maybe I should have.
It was from a Hotmail account and the subject line read, "TO YOU, LCJ."
My initials: L.C.J. Lilly Carolynne Johnson. Lilly spelled with two Ls instead of one. My mother's doingmy mother who wanted me to be different than the flower, my mother whom I hadn't seen in two years and hardly ever heard from. I shoved that thought away. I was too happy with Greg to let it interfere.
I clicked to open the e-mail and a picture began to download on my screen.
" And so then I'm thinking, why can't we clean the houses of anyone who asks? I mean, we've got people coming out of the woodwork these days. It doesn't have to just be church people. That's what I told Dave. And Cinni."
Greg is a great talker. I think it's because he's a pastor and counsels youth, and also delivers sermons he has to be a talker. He was pulling books from his bookshelf while he chatted on and on, as much to himself as to me.
I was watching the picture download onto my screen. I felt cemented to my chair. Occasionally, I managed a nod just to show that I was listening. " And so I've got that to deal with on top of this whole church-building thing." He picked up a thick book. "I should just get rid of this commentary. I'll check with Dave. Maybe he could use it the whole set. These belonged to my dad, actually. That's how old they are." Greg's dad had been a minister before him.
I could barely make out the meaning of the words he was saying to me. The picture was now open on my screen. I swallowed, put a hand to my chest, trying to quell the rapid beats of my heart. All that I said before about pinching myself for God's blessing? I take it all back. This picture could shatter that dream like a window besieged by baseballs.
I closed my eyesplease, Godbut when I opened them, the picture was still there. The image was grainy and obviously had been uploaded from another source. The young woman on my screen was bone thin and her hair hung to her shoulders, straight and black. She looked tough, this girl, with her blue lipstick and dark-rimmed eyes. She wore a leather bustier, a skirt which ended midthigh, and boots. And chains. Lots of chains. She was the kind of girl you'd expect to have tattoos and multiple piercings, the kind you would not want your son to date.
Greg must've seen something in my eyes because he stopped what he was doing and said, "Lilly? You okay?"
"Fine." My voice was whispery and it cracked. I coughed and took a few deep breaths. This is a dream. If I close my laptop, the picture will go away. I tried it. But when I opened it again, the picture was still there.
I quickly shut down my computer and stuffed it into my backpack, telling Greg I had to leave. Right now. I looked at my watch for effect. I'd forgotten how late it was getting, I told him. I stood and made for the door.
Greg looked surprised, "Lilly?"
"Something's the matter, I can tell." He came toward me, and in that instant, I wanted to melt into his arms and never leave that safe and warm place. I wanted him to make everything okay. I wanted to forget that the girl on my computer screen had ever existed.
A tear winked at the corner of my eye. I blinked rapidly. Greg touched my face. "What is it? A bad e-mail? Something from school?"
I shook my head. "No." That wasn't a lie. It wasn't from school. It was definitely not something from school.
He took my hand, led me back to his desk. "Come here, babe. Let me show you something that'll cheer you up. I almost forgot. You have to look at this before you go."
I followed him to the desk like a puppy dog. What else could I do? He opened his laptop, clicked through a few links and then said, "Ta da!" He turned the screen to face me.
For one horrid moment I thought he was going to show me the photo of the girl. He didn't. It was our church's brand-new Web site and there was a picture of me, front and center.
"The world's most beautiful singer. In all her splendor," he said.