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The first volume in a collection of contemporary fiction that combines the artistry of critically accaimed writers with a clear Christian worldview.
From Homer Hickam, the best-selling author of Rocket Boys--which later became the movie October Sky to editor and contributing best-selling author Bret Lott, this collection spans a talented community writing an eclectic blend of fiction. Each piece stands alone as stellar fiction. And each piece confronts us with who we are and ...
The first volume in a collection of contemporary fiction that combines the artistry of critically accaimed writers with a clear Christian worldview.
From Homer Hickam, the best-selling author of Rocket Boys--which later became the movie October Sky to editor and contributing best-selling author Bret Lott, this collection spans a talented community writing an eclectic blend of fiction. Each piece stands alone as stellar fiction. And each piece confronts us with who we are and forces us to look deeply at the human condition. From the dirt lanes of North Africa to the suburbs of California, exuding lightheartedness and profundity, hilarity and tragedy, these stories will take you on a fresh and entertaining journey.
It was against camp rules to be out on the water before breakfast, but Pete guessed that his father would be secretly proud of him, and probably relieved too. In the east the sky was turning white, and the last stars were disappearing over the opposite shore. The sun would rise in half an hour, and a breeze had begun to wrinkle the surface of the lake. It blew Pete's hair back from his face and made him draw his hands into the frayed sleeves of his sweater as he walked out onto the dock. He wore shorts and soggy tennis shoes, and he carried a dingy sailbag. He was small for his age, twelve, but big enough to lift the removable mast of a Laser. He laid the mast on the dock, unpacked the sail, and shook it out. It was patched with tape and stained with lakewater, like the boats. In two minutes he had the Laser rigged and running before the wind toward the fading stars. He let the boom out and leaned to counterbalance its weight. Each wave reflected the white, predawn sky.
Pete squinted back toward the camp. He had gray eyes like his mother's, and his skin was tanned from summers on the water. His knees were scabbed and scarred, and also blotched with curious white patches, a harmless sort of cancer, the doctor had told his parents. He was supposed to watch the patches to make sure they didn't get bigger. Around his neck he wore a wooden cross on a leather thong, given to him by his father.
His father, Don Bonds, was the director of the summer camp, a barrel-chested man in his late forties who still wore nylon sandals and printed T-shirts, and had an unhittable jump serve. He'd walk out past the back line of the volleyball court, pretending to hobble like an old man, then turn, make the high toss, take a slow two-step approach, fling himself into the air, and release all the force of his body into the ball. Then he'd laugh in the bewildered faces of the other team. "God breaks the rules all the time, just to get people's attention," he was fond of saying. "That's what miracles are." Loud Lake was a nondenominational Christian camp, and Pete's dad was a sort of stationary missionary. Kids came to him, or were sent. He was an impressive person, deep and gregarious at the same time. He was a great and competitive talker. "You can't force people to accept Christ," he said. "You can only show them that they don't have any other logical choice." He would sit for a long time after dinner and "argue philosophy" with the older kids, who loved him most of all, the boys especially. He was generous with his time and affection. If he had a fault, it was that his love of surprising people was mixed with a love for attention of any kind. He got up every morning at five to sit on the end of the dock and pray for an hour before calling the camp to breakfast over the public address system, using different comic voices. In the dining hall, everyone would beg to hear the voices again. Pete loved and respected his father, and assumed that he himself would eventually get on track and grow up to be just like him.
Pete didn't befriend kids at camp the way his father did, not even the ones who came back summer after summer. He tended to hang back and observe during capture the flag, bucket ball, and the counselor hunt. He spent a lot of time sailing the old Lasers, cruising the edges of the afternoon sailing lessons. He'd show off a little now and then. "Watch Salt!" the instructors would shout at their students. "There's a real rolling tack." Praise shamed Pete, because he knew he wasn't a great sailor, and he also figured the campers thought he was arrogant. In fact, he was shy. His father's charisma made his shyness more painful.
His father took the older boys on grueling, perilous hikes and did special Bible studies with them, for which he owned large dictionaries in unfamiliar alphabets and a six-volume concordance. Every summer the older boys were a little gang, and he was their godfather. This year's group wanted matching tattoos. At meals, girls and younger boys would gather around their table, and they'd tell how one of them had almost died rock climbing, and how another had saved his life. The one called Mike told Pete in a serious voice after dinner that his dad was the greatest human he'd ever met. They had just come back from a three-night survival trip. Pete said okay, thanks, and couldn't think of anything else to say. He wasn't sure he liked Mike.
* * *
That summer, Mike was legend. When he was six, his father had been killed on a fishing boat in Alaska. His mom had forbidden him to see the grave, and Mike would sneak out and go anyway, all the time, even though it made her scream. His friends spread the story around. "His dad left them right before he was killed," explained Brian, the friend who had brought Mike to camp, "and his mom still hates his dad, but Mike's not bitter like her." Brian's family had paid Mike's way to camp.
On the back of Mike's wrist was a bird-shaped scar. He told his table about it one night at dinner, and the story was all over camp before fireside. Pete heard it firsthand, since he sat at Mike's table whenever he could. "I was playing with a knife my dad left me," Mike said, "and just before Mom went to bed she said, 'Mike, don't do anything stupid with that,' so I did it, over the kitchen sink." The other kids leaned close, one forgetting the fork that hung in his mouth, and Mike told about carving the wings. It was a good bird, realistic-looking, a hawk or an eagle in flight. The healed skin was white and shiny as teeth.
"How come a stupid bird?" said Meg Holloway, the new girl. Everyone ignored her, as usual, and Mike described the blood going down the drain. Meg had come late to camp, and she made her cabinmates uneasy from day one. At her first breakfast she refused the greasy camp food and instead drank coffee from the counselors' table. Her cabinmates, seventh graders, were worldly enough to be put off by their waffles. They hesitated, making chicken scratches in their syrupy plates with the tines of their forks, until their beautifully sunburned, athletic counselor, Gravity, helped herself to bacon and assured them that girls had to eat too. They finished their meal, glancing at Meg, some with worry, some with disdain. At the far end of the table, Pete didn't eat a thing. He was sure that if he had, Meg would have thought less of him. He felt solidarity with her in fasting, and he wondered whether she had noticed.
Nobody but Pete seemed to like Meg, while everyone admired Mike. His father's death made him magical and tragic. Pete liked the story about the grave, though to him, defying parents only for the sake of defying them seemed mean. He felt sorry for Mike's mom, coming downstairs in the morning to find a ring of her son's blood around the garbage disposal. Mike was the first person Pete could ever remember disliking, and since Pete had no one to talk to, he disliked Mike in a secret and festering way.
One evening after dinner, he overheard his dad telling his mom what a blessing Mike was. Pete was upstairs trying to get a radio station to come in, a hobby of his. His radio was large as a piece of furniture, made of fake wood, with an upholstered front and two aluminum dials that looked like bottle caps. It had been left in the attic by previous tenants. The camp was distant from any town, and the radio received only garbled spurts of noise, but the idea of a world of continuous, unheard voices and music always existing in the air around him tantalized Pete, and he spent hours trying to get the antennae in the right places, inching the needle across the dial, trolling for a signal.
When he heard Mike's name, he turned the sound down. "The one with the cheeks," his mom said. It was true that Mike had big cheeks, and Pete liked his mom saying it. Popular opinion held that Mike was very good-looking, if tough. Meg's cabinmates all said so.
"That kid is something," his dad said.
"He'd have to be, Vicar," his mom said. Her voice was warm and whispery, and the room went quiet. Pete turned the radio back up and wondered why Mike had to be something. Because he came from a tough home, maybe. Or maybe he was sick.
* * *
When Pete's mom married Don Bonds, her family was confused. They were cultivated people, faintly Anglican, and Don didn't seem like Joan's type at all. They were made restless by the long, heartfelt prayer he gave when he first came to dinner. After that, Grandpa Gayle started calling him vicar, as a joke. "Well, Vicar, did you win your softball game last weekend?" he'd ask. Behind his back he was the vicar. Pete's mom would call him that too, affectionately, when she disagreed with him. "Have it your way, Vicar," she'd say, closing her eyes.
Pete had once heard her tell him he should be careful how much he made the campers like him. "They're like Konrad Lorenz's baby ducks, some of them. They imprint on the first thing that catches their attention, and then they're yours for life," she said. "It can't do them any good. You'll be gone." Last fall, she had fielded the angry, embarrassed, and confused telephone calls from parents whose children had come home from camp and given all their possessions to the Goodwill, and in some cases some of their parents' possessions as well. Her husband had stood behind her chair, listening in and laughing. It took her the entire school year to convince him to be less exacting the following summer. "God gave me my wife to understand the world for me," he told people, and she sometimes joked that without her to weigh him down he'd rise straight up to heaven without even waiting to die. Then he'd correct her theology, and she'd pinch his ear. Pete respected his mom instinctively, but he didn't work at pleasing her like he did with his dad. She was always in the background. During the summer, she rarely left the house. She ate few meals in the dining hall and did not go to the bonfires.
On the fourth night of every week, Pete's dad gave an important talk in front of a bonfire in the amphitheater, and afterward lots of campers always accepted Christ. He would come home blustering and radiating, and talk with his wife for a long time. Though she never attended, she had never gone to sleep after a bonfire without hearing about it. They would sit in chairs side by side on the back porch, and he'd tell her how many, who, and what they were like. Pete would fall asleep with their murmuring voices drifting through his window.
* * *
Fourth nights spooked Pete a little. His father would stand in front of the fire, his long, flickering shadow falling across the benches and onto the pines. Behind him, a column of swirling ash rose from the blaze, the flakes floating upward into the dark. He would call kids forward by name, ask them questions, stare into their eyes, and pray with them. Kids cried, and other kids came forward to lay hands on them. Kids were filled with the Spirit, which made them stare and quiver and confront their friends with divine messages. Giving or receiving a message like that made a person act funny all week. That summer, Mike was first. Pete's dad put his hands on Mike's shoulders, and they looked into each other's faces for a while and spoke in low voices until they were both nodding and smiling together. Pete guessed it was a good thing. He had watched from the woodpile, picking at the ashy scars on his knees. The first time he saw a fourth-night bonfire, he wondered whether he was really saved, because no such thing had ever happened to him, and later he asked Jesus into his heart again just to make sure. After a while he decided that things were different for him because of his dad. Maybe his revelation was spread out over his whole life, a little at a time, so that it never seemed like a big deal.
He did feel, when he was alone, that God was there with him, interested in him, and this was an idea that gave him some peace and also some fear. On one particular day the summer before, he had been sitting by himself above the rock-climbing face, near the place where the lines were anchored to three wizened, stunted old trees that grew out of cracks in the rock slope. Below, he could hear climbers calling out to their belayers, and the belayers shouting encouragement up to the climbers, but he couldn't see anyone; the slope plunged into a face ten feet away, and all he saw were the tops of the trees, and farther away the roof of the cookhouse, and beyond that the other side of the lake. He'd been minding his own business, thinking about going back to school in a week or two, when it occurred to him as it did from time to time that God, who heard all his thoughts, was hearing his thoughts at that very moment, but instead of seeming fearsome and mysterious as it usually did, the idea seemed perfectly ordinary and natural. Pete felt as if he'd finally given up on trying to pull off a fantastic and increasingly complicated fib, and some deep, rustling movement began far away inside himself, but soon he felt afraid, and the movement subsided. His father had probably been praying for him again.
Lately he had tried to make the feeling come back. He would sit still in remote spots and wait, but nothing happened. Once, as he stood in the cedar grove at the far end of the farthest trail, Meg Holloway walked by. She came out of a part of the forest where there wasn't a path, and she said, "Hey," as if they were on a sidewalk and not at the loneliest spot in the wilderness. Pete couldn't think how to answer, and Meg shrugged and kept walking.
* * *
Meg Holloway made that summer different to Pete from any summer before. He tried to sit at her table whenever he could, and since she wouldn't eat, he didn't like to eat in front of her. He became thinner. Even his hands and feet got thinner, and he could see his own tendons and bones. Because she'd come one week late to camp, Meg was the new girl all summer. Word was that her parents were atheist psychology professors who had sent her to Loud Lake to observe Christianity in the field. She had a lot of curly hair and wore silver rings on all her fingers and some of her toes. She looked permanently bored, and her dense, baggy clothing concealed her shape. The other campers regarded her as a spy. Her counselor, Gravity, was forever hunting her down during activity periods, finding her in the empty kitchen with a paperback, or lying on a boulder by the lake. Pete's father had tried several times to talk to her.
One day she had turned up missing from leather bracelet-making, and Gravity was just going off to search, when Pete saw his father motion to her to stay put, and he went instead. On the back porch after dinner that night, Pete's father asked his mother if she knew who Meg was. Pete was upstairs in his room, almost getting a station on the ancient radio. He'd made extensions of aluminum foil for the antennae. The reception was best when he held one antenna, touched the wall with his other hand, and stood absolutely still. There were voices, a man's and a woman's, impossibly muffled by static. He let go and adjusted the dial. He heard abrupt fractions of words, a blare of music, then a white hiss.
When he heard his dad say Meg's name below on the deck, he turned off the radio and the light. The back deck was built on stilts over the water, directly below his window. "The one with the army boots," his mom said.
"The faculty kid," said his dad.
"They do mean well."
They were both quiet for a moment. "She seems special," his dad said. "Important to reach. There's something about the way she looks at you that's ... Does she seem special to you?"
Pete went to the window. His parents stood close together in the half-dark below. "I don't know, honey. She seems like a normal kid, an outsider, but there's nothing odd about that. She's one of those people who need space." His mom's voice was whispery again. "You know people like that."
"I've been trying to get her to talk to me, but she's not having it," he said.
"Really?" She set her coffee cup on the rail and put her arm around him. Above, Pete drew back from the window.
"I've practically been stalking her."
"If you're starting to make her uncomfortable, you'd better leave her alone. I know you, but she doesn't know you. There's no telling what she thinks you want."
"Geez, I wasn't-" Something small and wooden clattered on the deck and rolled away. His father had dropped a napkin ring. "I hate it when you say stuff like that." Pete laid his folded arms on the sill. His arms had turned harder since he'd quit eating. Skipping meals made his whole body feel sharper and more adult. Meg still wasn't eating either.
"I'm just pointing out how it might look," his mom said.
"I don't like that you can even think that way."
"It's how most people think, Vicar," she said softly. Waves gently lapped the wooden pilings below the deck. "You should be glad you don't," she said. They were both upset. When his dad said Meg was important to reach, Pete knew he meant saving her.
Excerpted from THE BEST CHRISTIAN SHORT STORIES Copyright © 2007 by Bret Lott. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted May 28, 2011
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