THE WEIRDEST THING about what happened after everyone vanished? The church bells wouldn’t stop tolling. 1) Nobody died. It was an eternal life situation. 2) It was annoying for all the people who were left, always having to listen to bells every second that reminded them that 1) they should go to church more often and 2) someone they love, or a lot of someones, are gone now.
We sat outside after school and played the bell game. Someone said the name of a vanished person, and then the next person had to say another name, and then around the circle like that until someone couldn’t think of a new name or someone said a name off beat. This person owed everyone a soda with their own money. Sometimes the stoners played this game. Sometimes the regular people. Never the people who prayed around the flagpole. They thought it was sacrilegious.
“You’re being sacrilegious,” they told us.
“You’re being sacrilegious,” we told them, because it was true, they were. They only prayed for the vanished who went to their church, not all the vanished in general.
Lissa played the game with me because she was my best friend and I was in love with her, but she’d rather hang out with the flagpole people. Her sister, who vanished, was a flagpole person. Lissa used to be a flagpole person, but lately she wasn’t sure. I’m glad; I’ve never been sure, and this puts us on the same page. There are other things we’re not on the same page about, like purity rings (she wears hers) and what is normal behavior for two girls who are just friends. But I’m glad we’re on the same page about the Higher Power issue: it makes me feel less alone. And, my mom vanished, so any time I can feel less alone is great.
One particular day when we were playing the game, Lissa fidgeted more than normal. She tapped the rubber soles of her boots against the cement and shredded a dead leaf with her fingernail. Mark, the guy who made up the game, the guy who’s kind of a legend because his whole family vanished, frowned at her. We played a round:
“Hannah,” Mark said. Mark normally won the game, because he never ran out of names to say.
The bell tolled. “John.”
The bell tolled again. “Miguel.”
“Jeanette,” Lissa said.
Nobody looked at each other while they said the names. They looked at the ground, or at their shoes, or at other people’s shoes. Sometimes they looked at the trees.
Lissa didn’t play the game right. Each time, she said her sister’s name, even though if you repeat a name you’re out. Also, every time she said her sister’s name she said it quieter than last time. It’s like the opposite of the penis game, where one person says penis and then the next person says it louder and then the next person says it louder until someone’s too embarrassed to yell penis in public. That’s the game we used to play until the people vanished.
The bell tolled.
“Coke patrol,” said Mark. Lissa looked up from the toes of her boots. Her fingernail punched through the dead leaf. She got up and went to the Coke machine without doing a head count. I followed her.
“Dude. You okay?”
“Fine,” she said.
She put change in the machine, pressed the button for grape soda, which nobody likes, and it tumbled into the pick-up slot. She grabbed it, shoved it at me, and bought another.
I touched her elbow. (That’s one of the things she told me is weird for two girls who are just friends to do, one of the things I think she’s wrong about.)
“Lissa, everyone hates grape soda.” By which, of course, I meant: I love you, what’s wrong, talk to me. She stepped back and my hand fell into the air between us. She shrugged, took the can from me, and walked back to the group.
On the way home from school, in Lissa’s car, I knew something was up with her. She kept flipping through her radio presets: country, Christian, rock, Christian rock. Rain battered the windshield.
A car braked in front of us. “Watch the road,” I said.
She braked quickly. “Asshole!” she yelled. The cross hanging from her rearview mirror swayed.
She rapped her ring against the steering wheel. She honked the horn.
I brushed her hair back from her face.
She continued to watch the road.
“I need to date God for a while,” she said.
I sat on the hand that had touched her face. I looked out the window. Cars driving past sprayed water onto the passenger door.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. She used to pray around the flagpole every morning before class. She still listened to Michael W. Smith. I shouldn’t have allowed myself to think she would reject all of that for me. She used phrases like, “God put it on my heart to call you tonight.” God has never put anything on my heart. I think he may have put Lissa in my heart, but that would be blasphemy, and anti-Bible, and anti-Jesus.
“You can’t make out with a cosmic force,” I said.
“It’s not about that, Corrine.” She sighed over-dramatically.
We sat without talking for a minute.
The car in front of us had its hazards on. The lights pulsed, red in the wet gray, and I closed my eyes. Tears fell from my eyelashes. I wanted to reach over and hold her, but she was the one who upset me. I tightened my seatbelt.
“What, then?” I asked.
“I don’t want Jeanette to be disappointed in me.”
I wanted to say: Well, tough shit, missy. You made your choice when you laid your head on my lap and put my hand on your hair. I wanted to say: People have to be around to be disappointed.
I stayed silent.
“If she was here, I mean, if she comes back, I mean.” Lissa’s hands fluttered at the steering wheel. We were stopped in traffic.
I shifted the car into park.
“Let me drive,” I said.
She nodded, and I got out of the car. Water dripped down the part in my hair, and I thought of the part in her hair as she put her head in my lap, how it showed white like the pale skin under a bikini. Cars honked. I glared.
I opened the driver’s-side door and she leaned into me. I tilted my face up so my lips wouldn’t touch the part in her hair. I kept my hands in my pockets. Rain drenched her T-shirt.
“All right,” I said.
I moved aside to let her get out. We both got back in the car and sat, watching the yellow headlights of the cars across the median.
My purity ring was rattling around in the bottom of a drawer someplace. I thought about it as I looked out at the rain on the hoods of the other cars gridlocked with us. The night we got our purity rings, before we promised that true love waits, the youth pastor tried to scare us into salvation. The youth pastor yelled into the mike taped to his face, sweat running down his graying temples and into the collar of his too-tight plaid button-down. I was kind of shutting him out until he said:
“What if you died tonight?” Lissa went super still beside me. She told me the other day that she was afraid that she’d never do anything important. I wanted to tell her she’d already done tons of important things, like be there for me, and be there for me, but she doesn’t think those are real things. She just thought those were friend things, that all friends did those things. I told her, no, all friends don’t stay up with you until four in the morning listening to you cry about your mom. Not all friends love you when you don’t love you.
“Where would you go?” The youth pastor sat on the edge of the stage now, Converse-clad feet dangling. Dude had my shoes. Dude was trying to be hip, probably. I hated youth pastors. They were always talking about salvation and pizza and foosball, for some reason. Like I like to twirl plastic men.
A guy on stage who wasn’t the youth pastor started to play acoustic guitar, really soft. The youth pastor leaned forward now, like the three of us were in conversation in a small room.
“God loves you so much,” the youth pastor said. “More than your parents love you, more than your friends love you. More than you love you.”
I clenched my teeth.
“Let Jesus into your heart,” he said, “And you will have a partner for the rest of your life.”
I wanted to be cynical. I really wanted to be cynical. I even tried to think about how pastors hate gay people, and no snarkiness emerged. I thought for a second that maybe it wasn’t about the pastors, then, but maybe about something else. Something bigger.
I wanted a partner for the rest of my life.
“Open your hands,” the youth pastor said. “Let Jesus fill them.”
Out in the parking lot after the altar call, Jesus was an extra person walking between Lissa and me, kind of shiny and transparent like a ghost, even though that’s probably not correct according to doctrine or whatever. But what I felt back in that auditorium, the not-alone feeling, had very little to do with doctrine.
I hugged Lissa around the waist because I wanted to share my peace.
She twisted around and waggled her purity ring at me. After the altar call, the youth pastor had given a presentation about how we should wait to have sex until we were married. That was fine with me, because I did not look hot naked. We both bought rings.
“Leave room for Jesus,” she said.
I paused; I watched her walk ahead of me. She looked back. The streetlights made her earrings sparkle.
I took my purity ring off and slipped it into my pocket. She didn’t get that I was leaving room for Jesus. Actually, I was making room for him.
The rain wasn’t letting up. A jerk was tailing me, headlights blinding me in the side-view mirror. I pulled off the road into the lot of a strip mall with a church in it. If I believed in the type of God that controlled each aspect of a believer’s life, I may have seen meaning in this. Instead, I turned off the car.
“Hey, look,” I said. “It’s your boyfriend’s house.”
Lissa made some noise that could have been a laugh.
I got out of the car and tiptoe-ran to the church, the way people do in the rain. Lissa followed me.
Inside, past the front desk where an old man sat playing solitaire on the computer, just outside the sanctuary door, was a small wooden box. It was bolted to the wall and had a golden plaque above it: Prayer Box. Beside the box on a little shelf were golf pencils and slips of yellow paper.
The old guy at the front desk was absorbed and ignoring me, so I picked up a piece of paper and a pencil, used the wall as a hard surface so my writing came out looking like a stucco rubbing.
I watched Lissa’s hands as she wrote Jeanette on a prayer slip and I felt selfish; I’d just written Mom on my slip, like I was the center of the universe, or a child.
Lissa’s hair covered her face as she bent over the slip, and I was glad she couldn’t see how embarrassed I was. Lissa made me want to grow up.
Lissa held her slip in her hand when she saw the prayer box was full. I tried to cram mine into the box, and I rapped my knuckles loudly against the wood. The old man looked up from his solitaire.
“Lots of people have been praying lately,” he said. Why was this guy still here? Why was this church still open? Did it mean something?
“Would you pray with us?” Lissa asked.
The old man came out from behind the front desk, and we stood in a small circle.
Lissa and I have prayed together thousands of times. This time felt different.
Normally she closed her eyes when she addressed God by all his patriarchal names. I knew because I always kept my eyes open. Part of me wanted to study the faces of the devout to see what I was missing. Does faith live in wrinkles around the mouth?
This time, Lissa prayed with her eyes open.
The old man nodded and said amen.
I let go of their hands. The prayer circle seemed too tight, or maybe my chest was too tight. I accidently tried to pull the door open when the push bar said push. The bells above my head chimed on my exit.
The parking lot was cool and damp. I could breathe. The rain had stopped. I heard the bells above the door chime again. Lissa sat beside me.
The parking lot was mostly empty except for a dark red eighties car with rims. Under dim streetlights I saw a woman in spandex leave Gold’s Gym and cross the parking lot quickly, looking over her shoulder and playing with her keys in her hand. The bright neon soles of her sneakers reflected in the puddles on the dark pavement. The prayer card buzzed in my pocket.
Night had fallen while we were in the church. The stars were bright tonight.
I sat on the curb and pulled a cigarette and a lighter out of my pocket. I lit it and took a drag. The end glowed. I closed my eyes and breathed in. Lissa closed her eyes and smiled.
What would it be like for us, in the morning?
The old man came out of the church and I dropped my cigarette in the closest puddle. The water was deep enough to ripple a bit when the cigarette hit the surface and floated, damp and hissing.
“Need a ride?”
I shook my head, looking out into the empty parking lot at the blue and purple streaks left by the oil on the asphalt.
He locked up and drove off, loudly.
I took the prayer card out of my pocket and unfolded it. I brought it up to my face. It smelled exactly like pencil lead and nothing like my mom.
People used to tell Mom and me we had the same handwriting, and I squinted at the loopy script on the card, trying to memorize the curves and dips. She used to leave me notes in my lunchboxes when I was a kid, small, bright pink Post-Its that she’d cut into hearts.
If I ever have a daughter, I would fill her lunchbox with notes, so many that they would spill out when she unzipped the box. But I guess I might not ever get there, the having-kids stage. All of us might be gone by then.
I took the lighter out and played with it. I shook it. The lighter fluid was low. I pressed the button again, and a weak flame emerged. I felt like I had a star in my hand, actually, and then I thought, that feeling’s stupid, Stupid. You sound like an English teacher.
I brought the flame to the edge of the prayer card. It caught. I held it by two fingers on the opposite corner and felt the heat rising. Lissa held her card, and I lit it. We watched the cards smolder, smoke obscuring the stars the way clouds would.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.