Saturday, February 2, 2013

Short Story: Wednesday School

This short story is one of the first ones I ever wrote. Last year I expanded it into a screenplay for a suspense movie:

“I saved you a seat,” said Carmen Luiso from the church nursery doorway. 

Marie Scanlon jumped, but recovered quickly and smiled. “Thanks. I just have a few more diapers left.” 

“I admire your courage, Marie. I could never do the things you do.” 

“If you mean bringing diapers to church, it doesn’t take any special courage, really. Nobody’s going to look in my purse.” 

“I don’t know about you sometimes, Marie.” 

For about thirty seconds neither friend spoke. Marie pulled the last six diapers out of the hobo bag. Carmen placed them on top of the stack and closed the cabinet doors. They both stood and Carmen sighed. “I hope they decide to switch to Wednesdays,” she said in a near-whisper. “I won’t have to 
worry so much about you.” 

They walked together into the sanctuary and started up the crowded center aisle, working patiently toward the pew about halfway back, where Carmen had laid her sweater and Bible. 

“Sister Scanlon!” exclaimed an eager, nervous voice, a little too loudly, from just above Marie’s head. 

She looked up. “Jamison. How are you and Kate and the girls?”

Jamison wrapped her in a bear hug before answering, “Abiding, abiding. Rejoicing in the Lord. Listen, they’re about to start, but I want to get you on the list for ‘Peace in My Days’. I’m surprised you’re not on here yet. Can I put you on?”

“I guess that depends,” Marie answered, trying to sound gracious. “Is it a petition for something?”

“No, no! Oh no! You haven’t heard? It’s a pamphlet. Very inspired. I mean, not inspired, but you know what I mean. Must reading for every believer, in my opinion. So I’ll put your name down. Shame you’re so far down the list. Oh, I’ve got to get to my seat. Kate, you know. She hates it when I’m the last man standing, to coin a phrase. We’ll talk after!”

Carmen was already seated and Marie scurried to join her. “Oh, great!” she mumbled, then confided to Carmen, “I forgot to get a bulletin.” 

“It’s okay. I got an extra one for you.” 

“Carmen, you think of everything. Thank you!”

Marie looked up. Luke DelCampo in the next pew was reading the front cover of what appeared to be a gospel tract. Pastor Leonard started to pray, but Luke’s tract didn’t move. Marie couldn’t help seeing the title: “Peace in My Days.” 

When the service was over, Marie was relieved to find Lora Mellin, the nursery coordinator, without much trouble. Getting her attention was another matter. Lora had nursery duty herself today, and half the babies were crying and the other half seemed ready to join them. Lora had just finished changing one baby’s diaper and was picking up another. Marie went over to the room’s single chair with the loudest little crier, and sat down so she could pick up one more. There was still too much noise to bother trying to talk. Lora finished the second diaper change and disinfected her hands. Meanwhile, she started into an overly-cheerful rendition of “Jesus Loves the Little Children” and one of the babies on Marie’s lap began to giggle. Lora giggled, too, gathered the three remaining babies, and sat on the floor and cuddled them. The crying stopped. 

“My helper ran off,” said Lora. “Thanks for coming.” 

Marie winced. 

“What’s wrong?” 

“I have to run off, too.” 

“That’s okay. Bring Milo and Lily here with us, maybe give us a few puzzles and a blanket, and we’ll be fine. Their parents will be here soon.” 

Marie snuggled Lily and Milo closer. “Not now. In two weeks I’m scheduled for nursery, but I can’t be here. Clay’s giving a speech, and I’m expected to attend.” 

“Oh, no problem. I’ll make Nora do it. She’ll be home. I’ll threaten to beat her.” 

They both laughed. Lora’s daughter Nora would take nursery duty every week, if she could. Most weeks she couldn’t, since she worked weekends at a hospital to free up her weekdays for college. 

“Anyway,” Lora continued sadly, “It might become a moot point.” 

“I take it you’re not in favor of the change?”

“No!” Lora answered forcibly. Then seemed to remember her manners and said in a restrained tone, 
“Are you?”

“I can see the points of both sides, I guess. It would be hypocritical of me to take a side, really. I can’t bring Robert to church anyway.” 

“Well, no, you can’t, not with Clay not believing. I hope you know Leo and the kids and I all pray daily for Clay. But I think you do have the right to weigh in on this, Marie. Aren’t you in the Sunday School rotation?”

“Well, that’s true. I do teach. And I certainly appreciate your prayers. If you don’t mind, I’d love to hear your reasons why you’re opposed to changing the schedule.” 

“Oh, you make it sound so innocent, Marie,” Lora remarked irritably. She paused for a few seconds, hummed a few notes for the babies, then looked intently at Marie and said, “The time may finally be coming when American believers will be called upon to face persecution for the Lord’s sake. But like Peter, it doesn’t even start yet and we deny Him.” 

“I--“ Marie began, and hesitated. “I don’t want to sound like I disagree, Lora, but I really feel a need to understand this. How would moving Sunday School to Wednesday afternoons be denying Christ?”

“Oh, I know,” admitted Lora, “it’s not exactly the same as denying Him, but it’s a slippery slope. It’s still giving in to the Enemy.” 

“I think,” said Marie slowly, choosing her words, “that some of our brothers and sisters would say it’s not giving in. The law says no religious instruction of children, no children at religious functions. We’re still instructing our children. Our children still worship.” 

“Yes, but we’ll be hiding it, if we try to sneak the kids in on Wednesdays so no one will notice. Whatever happened to counting it all joy? Like I said, it’s a slippery slope.” 


“Mom, what does ‘treat sewage’ mean?”

Marie put down the garlic press and turned around. Robert’s homework lay spread out on the breakfast bar, his sand-colored head bent over it.

“Treating sewage is taking care of the water--what’s this?” Marie had been looking for the phrase “treat sewage” in Robert’s homework, and now she had found it. In bold letters at the top of the page were the words “My Parent’s Job”. Robert had filled in some blanks already with Clay’s name and a few other details. The last filled blank appeared after the words, “My parent’s job is to”, and Robert had written, “treat suij.” 

“That’s my homework.” Robert answered her question literally. “We have to do this paper about what our parent does for work. We can pick whatever parent we want. Maybe I should do you.” 

“No, it’s okay. You can do Dad. But he doesn’t treat sewage.” 

“Mom, maybe you should ask him. I did. I asked him, ‘What do you do at work?’ and he said, ‘Treat sewage. ’”

Marie stared at the coffeemaker. “That was. . . that was. . . something like a joke. Your dad runs SHEAR Six, in Louveg.” 

“Yeah, we drive by it sometimes. He runs it? But what is it?”

“Yes, your father runs the whole place. It’s almost like a jail, I guess. When someone gets arrested for a Federal crime, they go to a SHEAR Center to be checked by a doctor and make sure they don’t have any diseases that other people can catch. And I guess they have a lot of paperwork, or really computerwork, that they have to do, too. I don’t know much about that, but it’s the government, so they have to file lots of reports for everything they do.” 

“Oh,” said Robert, looking bored but respectful. “Why is it called SHEAR?”

“SHEAR is what’s called an acronym. Do you know what an acronym is?”

Robert nodded. “But what does it stand for?”

“It stands for Suspect Health Examination and Registration.” 

Marie’s church was organized around the cell-group concept, and the Louveg cell met for Bible study on Tuesday nights. Tonight’s meeting was at Daniel and Barbie Joie’s house. 

“Truth,” said a tiny brunette named Amy. “God’s people need to stand for truth. I believe that if we give in to this temptation to avoid persecution by deceiving the authorities, by making them believe we are obeying them instead of God, then we’ll be stepping out of God’s blessing.” 

“God didn’t say we couldn’t teach the kids on Wednesdays,” said a woman called Lou. 

“No, that was D. L. Moody,” Nick wisecracked. He was barely eighteen. 

“But we’re supposed to be wise as serpents,” Barbie suggested, a little tentatively. She inhaled and would have continued, but Jimmy Laring had already taken the floor. 

“The world tells us our safety depends on our circumstances,” Jimmy preached from behind his large salt-and-pepper beard. “But as believers, our safety depends on and only on whether we’re in a right relationship with the Father. Stand firm--”

“Amen,” said Daniel in a voice that was half abrupt, half polite. “I suggest we agree to try and not make this the topic for the evening, try and focus on Jeremiah. I just feel a sense in my spirit that the enemy could be trying to sow a seed of discord here tonight.” 

There were murmurs of surprise, of agreement, of concern. 

“Shall we open in prayer?” Daniel suggested. “Brother Ed?”

Ed Laring was Jimmy’s brother, but you’d never know it from looking at them. He closed his eyes in a hard squint. “Father God,” he prayed, “Abba Father. We come before you tonight in need of wisdom, and we come in faith knowing that You giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not. Lord, You know what we have need of before we ask it, but You have taught us to pray. And we have this very important decision before us, whether to continue teaching Your Word to our children on Sunday mornings, or whether to hold Sunday School on Wednesday afternoons, in light of the raids that have been in the news in abundance lately, Lord. Four raids now just in the last week, I believe it is, of churches choosing to bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, of You, Lord, in defiance of this human law, this Federal law, which as you know forbids the religious instruction of children under the age of eighteen. And we pray for unity, Father, that whatever decision is made, whether it be right or wrong, that we would all proceed in a spirit of unity and love, of agape, Lord, that perfect love which only comes from You. And bless us now as we study Your Word. Open our hearts and minds that we may perceive what You would have us perceive, from Your inspired Word. And knowing that You will do exceedingly above all that we ask or think, we ask all these things in the name of Your Son Jesus, giving You the honor and glory and thanking You for what You are going to do.” 

“Amen!” said Daniel again, and a few other voices echoed the word. “Jeremiah 39. I believe last week we finished with verse three. Did we finish verse three? We’re ready for verse four, then?”
Heads nodded. 

Jeremiah 39:4, then, and following. Let’s go as far as…well, let’s go to the end of the chapter. It’s a short chapter. Nick, you want to start?”

Nick read clearly and smoothly, like a practiced narrator. “When Zedekiah king of Judah and all the soldiers saw them, they fled; they left the city at night by way of the king's garden, through the gate between the two walls, and headed toward the Arabah.” 

That was the end of verse four. Verse five was read by Barbie, who sat to Nick’s left, and so on around the room, for one and a half rotations. 

Not surprisingly, Jimmy started the discussion. “They saw them and they fled,” he said. “King Zedekiah and the soldiers saw that the city was broken up, and saw the princes of Babylon, and they fled. I don’t know, actually, if this applies or not, but it just brings to mind where Jesus says, if your flight be not in winter. Gospel of John, would be my guess. Anyone know where that is?”

“Is that in the same passage with him who is in the field not going back to get his cloak?” asked Amy. 
Matthew 24:20,” said Barbie, who had a concordance. 

Jimmy turned to it. “Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath.” 

“Oh, Lord,” prayed Carly Laring, who had not yet spoken except when it was her turn to read, “if it be Your will that we flee, may we flee in a spirit of gratitude and worship. And, Lord, You know how weak our human bodies are. In Your mercy, may it not be in winter.” 


The Sunday morning church crowd was noticeably smaller than usual. Marie estimated there were about 30 people attending, instead of the usual 50 or 60. Maybe this year’s flu strain was particularly bad. But then, she hadn’t actually heard of anybody who’d gotten the flu yet this year. 

She felt a soft touch on her shoulder and looked up. Barbie Joie had apparently been trying to get her attention, but she hadn’t heard her soft voice over the voice of the soloist warming up for the service. The two women gave each other a sisterly hug. 

“Marie,” said Barbie, when they had walked away from the music, “I need your help. Will you help me?” And she led the way to the ladies’ room. 

Marie was surprised to see Barbie enter a stall and motion for Marie to join her. She followed, awkwardly, hoping Barbie wasn’t terribly sick, knowing she didn’t have the training to help her if she was, wondering why Barbie thought she could help. 

Barbie locked the stall door, lifted the front of her own full, corduroy skirt, and unpinned a tiny cotton bag from her slip. Then she let her skirt fall, opened the bag, pulled something halfway out, and held it up for Marie to see. It was the pamphlet “Peace in My Days” that Luke DelCampo had been reading last week, in full view of everyone, that Jamison Grey had raved over in loud tones in the middle of the sanctuary. Now, just seven days later, it was being passed secretly, like hacksaw blades in a prison. Barbie wasn’t normally one to panic or go to extremes, either. The authorities must be watching us closely, then, Marie thought. She took the little cotton bag from Barbie, slipped it into her hobo bag, beside the diapers, and unlocked the stall door. 

“Thank you,” said Barbie as they passed the sinks, “It was just a small thing, but it was irritating me, and it’s so hard to reach your own back. Oh, I almost forgot. Would you pass that recipe on to Lora for me when you’re done with it?”

“Lora,” said Marie, “sure.” 

Forcing herself to focus, she made her way to the nursery to top off the stack of diapers. She found it stripped to the walls. The toys, the cribs, the changing table, even the cabinets and carpet were gone. Only the chair was still there, looking out of place near the center of the barren room. And sitting in the chair was Luke DelCampo. 

“Kind of a shock to see the library gone, I know,” Luke said to Marie. 

“Library?” Marie repeated, her usual poise completely gone. 

“Yeah, I know how it is,” Luke continued. “You come in here looking for a book, and instead you find everything’s gone.” 

Marie stared at Luke, stared at the bare walls, stared at the glue-streaked subflooring, stared at Luke again. She was vaguely aware that she was being rude. 

If Luke noticed her rudeness, he didn’t let on. “Don’t worry,” he continued, “we didn’t lose any of the books. They had to be gotten out of here, of course. They weren’t safe here. But they’re safe and sound where they are.” 

Marie nodded. Her mind was starting to focus again. She had questions, but it wouldn’t be wise to ask them now. 

“Bugs,” Luke explained. “Turns out this place had bugs. Praise the Lord nothing happened to the books. Guess we got them out of here just in time.” 


Wednesday afternoon, Marie was running late for Sunday School. She had promised Clay she would return the VHS tape they had watched last night, and nearly forgotten. By the time she’d remembered, there wasn’t enough time to go to Petrovsky’s house and still get to the church on time. It was already past time for classes to start, and she still had several blocks to go. She felt embarrassed--she was always on time. 

Blue lights flashed in the direction she was going. She offered a quick prayer for those who may be hurt, if this was an accident and not a traffic stop. If it was an accident, it could delay her even more. She wondered if the children she was supposed to be teaching had been grouped with the other class. If so, that would leave Carly with quite an age range among her students. 

It wasn’t just a traffic stop. She could see now that the blue light that strobed somewhere ahead was far too much to be coming from just one patrol car. She had thought at first it could have been an optical illusion caused by the weather. Sometimes in weather like this--the clouds thick and low, the rain in the air, the road surface wet and shiny--she had seen the lights of one emergency vehicle scatter and bounce and look like many. But she was sure now. 

Traffic was slow, but Marie wasn’t sure if it was any slower than usual for a weekday afternoon after school let out. Maybe the accident was on a side street, and she would be able to drive right past. 

She drove for one more block and whispered a prayer of thanks. The accident must be beyond the church, on the other side, and apparently wouldn’t delay her at all. She couldn’t actually see it yet--nor, for that matter, could she see the church--but she was so close now that if the accident had been on this side of the church, she would have come to it by now. 

She rounded the last bend and at first couldn’t comprehend what her eyes saw. The church was cordoned off with yellow tape. Six or eight cruisers and two police vans surrounded the building, their lights flashing. Figures in fluorescent rain parkas stood watch, talked into radios or scurried about on errands. 

A traffic light turned yellow, then red, and Marie stopped. 

One side of the main double doors of the church swung open. Two fluorescent parkas emerged and escorted a small group to one of the vans. The group walked awkwardly, as people do when their hands are tied behind their backs. Mercifully, Marie wasn’t close enough to see faces. 

The light turned green. Marie prayed vaguely, desperately, for help, and fought hard against the urge to stand on the gas pedal and weave through traffic. She must drive as though nothing were unusual. She must not attract attention. She should breathe slowly and deeply, meditate on the Lord. She should recite Scripture. She could remember Psalm 1:1, at least. Her heart pounded, her pulse thudded in her ears, her hands shook, and her mouth was dry. She began rummaging for a bag or container in case she needed to vomit. 

“Um, um. . . blessed is the man. . .” Her voice sounded high and scratchy. “Blessed is the man who does not sit. . . um. . . who does not walk. . .” 

There didn’t seem to be a suitable bag in the car. She’d have to use the vinyl trash bag, if it came to it. Anyway, the feeling was beginning to subside. 

“Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,” she began again, carefully easing the car into the left lane. Ahead, the lane she was in would become right-turn only. 

“Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.” 

It was beginning to work. She was beginning to calm, beginning to feel nothing, and to think. They would be looking for her. She must not go home. Robert was safe at his grandparents’. She must not go there, either. They would be waiting for her there. She must flee. 

“Take the Interstate,” she told herself. “Take it south. It’s almost winter.” 

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