The Faith Series, Book 2
by: Staci Stallings
“Aren’t they the cutest couple ever?” Emily Vasquez swooned as she and Holly Jacobs climbed the stately staircase on the way up to their dorm rooms. The lilt in her voice made her sound even younger than she was, but at the moment she was so happy for her friend, she didn’t care.
“Yeah, Rebecca seems really happy,” Holly agreed although her voice didn’t rise to the level of excitement Emily’s held. “I’m glad for her. She deserves it.”
With her hand on the banister, Emily climbed alongside Holly. “Tell me about it. I hope this semester evens out for her a little. She really had a rough one last semester.” Climbing and not thinking because of the late hour and the fatigue that was pulling her eyelids down, Emily stepped up three steps before she realized Holly hadn’t said anything in reply. When she glanced over at the young woman with the now-shortened but still platinum blonde hair, one look told her why. Head down and not looking up, Holly climbed, her shoulders sagging as if she was carrying something extremely heavy. Emily’s heart fell as why slammed into her. She of all people knew a major cause of Rebecca’s less-than-easy previous semester was in large part due to her roommate.
She retrained her gaze up the stairs as she tried to think of something to say that would take back the thoughtless comment, but short of turning back time, she could think of nothing. Finally, seeing no other option, she changed the subject. “I had fun tonight. I’m glad we went.”
Holly’s sad, tired gaze traveled over to her. “Yeah. Me, too.”
Just that look was enough to make Emily remember how desperate Rebecca’s roommate really was. “We’ll have to do it again sometime.” The brightness in her voice was forced, and she hated that. What she wanted to do was to stop and ask, to dig down into Holly to find out why she seemed so utterly devoid of enthusiasm, but she didn’t know Holly well enough to even ask the question.
Holly pulled herself up the last two steps. “Yeah. We’ll have to.”
At the third floor Holly turned for the next set of stairs, but Emily stopped. “I guess this is where I get off.”
“K.” Holly started up the next set of stairs.
Emily leaned over the above banister to be able to see Holly as she climbed to the next level. “Tell Rebecca I’ll see her for breakfast tomorrow.”
“K,” was all Holly said in reply. She didn’t even say good night just turned the corner of the stairs and climbed out of sight.
“That was good, Emily,” Emily berated herself as the suffering in Holly’s eyes transferred to her spirit. She wrapped her arms over themselves. “She really needed that kick in the teeth.”
On lead feet she walked to her room and unlocked it. The other side revealed an expanse of space dotted only with a bed and a nightstand angled from the corner one way and a desk angled in the opposite corner the other way. She kicked her bamboo flip flops off by the sink, glad she had thought to paint her toenails red before getting on the plane to come back to Boston. She would surely have missed that detail tonight with all the non-existent notice Rebecca had given them. Emily smiled at the thought of playing pool with Rebecca’s other friends. One face in particular drifted through her, and warmth spread over her thoughts. However, knowing those thoughts would take her nowhere she should go, she turned her attention to getting ready for bed.
It was nice to have a room to herself this year, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that without Dena, her roommate from the previous three semesters, this room was going to get very lonely very fast.
After removing her make-up and changing into her #7 black and gold sweatpants and T-shirt, she turned the light off, plunging the room into near-blackness. However, after a moment, there was enough silver-blue light from the opposite window to guide her to the bed where she clicked on the little blue reading light. In two days she would have to be using this time to study, but for tonight it was nice to have some time alone with her Bible.
She pulled the brown leather Bible her parents had given her for Confirmation out of its case on the nightstand and flipped it open. Taking a deep breath to push the rest of life away, she leaned back onto the wall and arched her gaze onto the words.
“But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’”
Emily laid her head back on the pale peach wall behind her. God always had a way of skewering her heart in case she hadn’t caught the message the first time. Guilt crashed through her. “I know, God. It was a stupid thing to say. I know Holly’s had a tough time. I just wish there was something Rebecca and I could do to help her. She seems so sad and so lonely. Even tonight with all of us there, it was like she didn’t want to have fun, like she didn’t want to get too close.” Her eyes closed on the hurt she found in her heart when she thought about Holly. “Please, Lord. Please. Help us to find a way to reach her. She needs You. I ask this in Your Name. Amen.”
After a moment her eyes came open, and she glanced down at the words again.
“…for man looks at outward appearances…”
Her heart tripped over the image of Rebecca’s friends. They were a tight-knit group, even Jeremy, the one with no clear partner, seemed woven in with them irreversibly. Protective was a good way to describe the others with him. They made sure to include him in every joke and in every conversation. Emily’s thoughts traveled through the evening, and she squinted unconsciously trying to see what was unseeable. There was something about him, something that didn’t quite add up.
He seemed so together. More than together. Perfect would’ve been a better word. The golden-brown tan, the moused, spiked, blonde-tipped hair fixed just right, even his dark brown sweater hanging to reveal just a hint of his white T-shirt underneath seemed to speak eloquently of his privileged status in life. Then there was the soft cinnamon color of the leather-suede jacket he took with him at the end of the night. It alone probably cost more than her tuition for the year.
Yet for all his perfection, there was a profound melancholy in his deep brown eyes. With a breath that barely reached her lungs, she put her head back again and closed her eyes. “Dear Lord, Jeremy needs You too. He’s hurting. I don’t know why or from what, but I can see it in his eyes, Lord. He’s suffering. Please ease his pain and give him some peace. Amen.”
When she opened her eyes, she glanced over at the clock. No wonder she was tired. It was almost one in the morning. Closing her Bible, she slid under the covers. She rolled to the side and laid it on its place on her nightstand. She clicked the light off, huddled under the covers, and put the rest of the night into God’s hands.
“Hey,” Eric Barnett said when he walked through the apartment door only to find his roommate, Jeremy Stratton, sitting in the dark at the kitchen island in his boxer shorts munching on Cheerios.
“Hey.” Jeremy scooped several round mounds into his mouth. He’d been sitting there so long, he’d almost forgotten Eric would be coming home tonight. “How was Rebecca?”
“Great.” Eric reached over and flipped on the living room light. Jeremy squinted although his gaze never left the cereal bowl. On his trek to the kitchen, Eric threw his light jacket to the couch. Jeremy’s couch to be exact. Courtesy of a round robin of apartment pairings, they now had two of everything. Two chairs, two coffee tables, and two couches.
Even as he tracked his roommate’s progress around the kitchen, Jeremy’s mind whispered softly how nice it was that his stuff was what would eventually stay. The black leather of his couch and chair stood out in stark contrast to the wobbly, wooden coffee table that belonged to Eric. Once the old stuff was gone, it would make room for Jeremy’s matching coffee table which now sat by the door because there was simply no room for it anywhere else. Besides, in the overcrowded room, it was too likely that someone would kill their leg on one of the wrought iron corners of it.
With his head down over the bowl of cereal, Jeremy crunched a few more Cheerios as Eric went to the cabinet behind him and came back with the bag of Oreos.
“You get the girls home okay?” Jeremy asked, feeling the knot of jealousy in the middle of his spirit at the image of Eric standing on the steps of the Student Union taking not just one but three beautiful coeds back to the dorms while he, Jeremy, was left to go home in a dark, empty car.
“Safe and sound.” Eric sat down with his Oreos. “They invited us for Bible Study tomorrow night at Emily’s if you want to go.”
Jeremy recoiled physically and mentally. “Oh, I don’t think so. I’ve got stuff to get ready for Thursday.”
Eric shrugged. “Suit yourself, but it looked to me like you hit it off pretty well with Emily.”
Jeremy smiled at the memory of the young-looking, shy Hispanic girl who had accompanied Eric and Rebecca to playing pool at the Student U. “We had fun. She’s not much of a pool player though.”
“There are worse things to not be good at.”
He didn’t answer. For a moment the only sound in the room was someone running water somewhere else in the building.
“So have you heard from Gwen lately?” Eric asked although he never really looked at Jeremy.
A long sigh slid from his chest. “No. I probably won’t either. She took that job in New York, remember?”
With a half-shrug Eric tilted his head. “New York’s not that far from Boston.”
It might as well have been Jupiter for all the possibilities he had of hearing from Gwen. “Yeah, well…” He let the sentence trail into oblivion. The center of his heart wrapped around itself at the thought of Gwen and the way that relationship had ended. The last thing he wanted or needed tonight was to talk about her. Seeing no other option and knowing it would give Eric another topic to think about, Jeremy seized on the subject of Emily. “So is Emily going with anybody?”
He felt Eric’s surprise more than he saw it. “I don’t think so. Rebecca’s never said anything about it if she is. Why?”
Jeremy’s shoulders bounced up for the ceiling. “Something to do. I hate being odd-man out.” He stood and took his bowl to the sink where he washed it out and put it in the dishwasher.
“You’d really ask her out?” Eric asked, and Jeremy hated the skepticism in his friend’s voice.
“What? Is that so hard to believe?”
There was no immediate answer. Finally Eric shifted on his stool. “I’m just surprised, that’s all. She doesn’t seem like your type.”
Defensiveness and humiliation crashed together in Jeremy’s skull. “Never mind. Forget I asked.”
“Hey, I’m not saying you shouldn’t…”
Jeremy didn’t wait for the end of the comment. He stalked to the room he now called home, which was actually a closet the landlord had the guts to call a study. With his bed in a storage unit across town, he carefully knelt on the twin air mattress and pulled the single blanket over him. Thankfully they had obtained a two-bedroom apartment which unfortunately didn’t become available until the first of September. So for now, he was stuck in a closet wondering where the great life he had in May went.
He rolled to his back and laid his arm over his forehead. Gwen. She was never far from his thoughts. She probably had a great apartment by now. After all, she had been hired by one of the biggest international banks in the world. New York. It seemed a million miles away. Had things worked out between them, would he be there right now? Would he have transferred as they had talked about? So many plans—made and unmade that were now trampled in the dust of a road he would never travel.
In fact, she had even uninvited him from her graduation after the meltdown of their relationship. His mind skipped expertly over most of that week like a stone lilting across a pond. Touching down hurt too much, so he had learned to sail right over most of it. Every so often when he wasn’t paying close enough attention, his thoughts would settle on some memory, some moment of his time with her. More often than not, those memories sent scathing hot knives through him, so he did his best to keep going, not to think, not to feel. It was the only way to keep the life he was now living from spiraling into complete disaster.
Even in the darkness, he gripped control with both hands, willing the memories away from him. Her kiss. Her creamy skin. The way she looked the night he asked her to be his wife. Anguish laced with tongues of fire ripped through him.
Dragging in a sharp breath, he rolled to his side so his face was only inches from the blank wall. A breath at a time he slammed the door on the hurt until once again the hard clamp of control came over him. He closed his eyes and willed sleep to come. It didn’t. He squeezed his eyes tighter as his chest began to heave with the pent up emotion lodged there. “Stop it,” he hissed to the darkness around him. “Being a baby about it is not going to help. She’s gone. You’re here. Get over it already.”
But the hurt wasn’t going anywhere. Vehemently he flipped over the other way, jamming his shoulder into the hardwood floor beneath the air mattress when he came down. It yanked tears from the middle of him, but he crushed them back before they could fall. Two more semesters, he thought, anchoring his focus on what had to be done. Two more and he could move on, move away. To where or to what he couldn’t really tell.
It didn’t matter. Whatever it was, it would be glorious. High-style parties in his great loft in some far away city. He could picture them now. The men in their casual, yet elegant evening attire. The women in their beaded gowns hung just so to reveal and yet conceal. All drinking martinis on the rocks—not beer from the tap. He let his top shoulder drop backward onto the mattress, and his gaze slid into the darkness above him. Yes, it was going to be glorious. It had to be. It was the life he had been destined to live from the very moment of his birth.
It was to be her first attempt at hosting Bible Study on her own, and Emily was more nervous than she ever thought she would be. “Oh, good grief,” she said to the empty room at quarter to seven on Wednesday, “you’d think I was hosting the Olympics.”
She went over to the swath of gray carpet that seemed smaller in this room than it had in her old one. There, it had stretched bed to bed. Here, it barely covered half of the peach tiles at her feet. She put her hands on her hips as she looked at it, trying to figure out how to make it just a little bigger. With a sigh because she could do nothing to make it any better than it already was, she rearranged the pillows on her bed once more as a knock sounded on her door.
Going to the door, she did a quick tug on her gray T-shirt, and raked her fingers through the low, black ponytail slung over her right shoulder. At the door she said one more prayer for guidance. With that, she opened the door with a smile. “Becca!”
“Hey, girl. I brought reinforcements.” Rebecca glanced over her shoulder to where Eric stood as she accepted the hug from Emily.
“Cool. Cool. Come on in.” Emily stepped back and let her friends pass by. Rebecca, small and thin, with her blonde hair in a twist that fanned out across the top of her head, looked every bit the part of the manic bookworm. Eric, Rebecca’s boyfriend of just more than four months, looked big comparatively. Although he was taller than Rebecca by several inches, that didn’t mean he was all that tall compared to most guys.
The door hadn’t even closed when two more figures appeared at the threshold. Emily’s gaze snapped to the mousy brown-headed guy with the Celtics’ sweatshirt. “Sam!”
“I found Bethany wandering around lost,” Sam said, indicating the young blonde woman standing next to him.
“I did not get lost. I was just browsing.”
“Uh-huh, and that’s why you looked like this.” Sam scrunched his face into a scowl and let his gaze trip back and forth upward. “363 has got to be around here somewhere.”
Bethany smacked his arm. “Ha. Ha.”
“Come on in.” Emily laughed happily as she stepped back. “Make yourselves at home.”
They weren’t even in the door when two more showed up. Emily had the distinct feeling of being Noah loading the ark. “Taylor and Kira.” She hugged Kira as Taylor stood and watched. “How are you?”
“Great. Taylor called me and said we were meeting tonight. I hope you don’t mind us just showing up.”
“Have I ever minded before?”
As the members of the Bible study group entered, the noise level increased until it sounded like she was hosting her own party. Quietly, gently, she closed the door.
“Is Dena coming?” Rebecca asked as nerves flitted through Emily’s stomach. She wound her arms over her abdomen to get them to settle down.
“Not tonight. She started work today, and I think she’s beat.” Emily stepped through the pairs already seated on the floor. Except for Eric and Rebecca they had mixed and matched because in truth the others weren’t really couples. Sitting down next to her bed, Emily leaned up against the hard, steel frame. “Is this everybody?”
“I tried to get Holly to come,” Rebecca said, “but I think that’s going to take a miracle.”
Sitting beside her Eric shrugged. “So, we start praying for miracles.” He smiled. “Hey, you guys prayed me in here, and that certainly took a miracle.”
The others laughed. Emily pulled herself forward and reached her hands out to Taylor on one side and Rebecca on the other. “Then shall we pray for some miracles?”
Two hours later the little group busted up to go their separate ways. Rebecca and Eric hung back to clean as the others left. When Emily finally closed the door with only the three of them there, she turned to her room and let out a long sigh.
Rebecca looked up at her in concern. “What?”
She took another breath. “I don’t think I’ve breathed for two hours.”
Eric swiped two pieces of paper off the carpet. “Come on, Em. You did great.”
She shivered. “Ugh. I was so nervous. I thought I was going to throw up.”
The gaze Rebecca leveled on her was one of skepticism. “Well, you sure didn’t show it.”
Emily pointed upward. “The Holy Spirit, I assure you. I would never have made it without Him.”
“Well, then you and the Holy Spirit make an awesome team,” Eric said with a smile that drifted through Emily’s nerves, settling them one by one.
Soft gratitude wound around her. “Thanks, Eric. I needed that.”
Rebecca stepped to her friend and put her arms over her shoulders. “You can’t, but He can. Remember?”
Emily smiled as her own words traipsed through her. “Why is that always so easy to remember when it’s somebody else and so hard to remember when it’s you?”
A grin stretched across Rebecca’s face. “Hey, why do you think He gave us each other—as decorations?”
Gratitude gripped Emily. “Well, I’m sure glad He gave me you.”
“Hey, right back at you, babe.”
Jeremy tamped together the last application for second semester scholarships. Finished. Finally. And unless he decided to advance his education beyond the M.B.A. he was currently pursuing, these would be the last scholarship applications he would ever have to worry about completing.
The door snapped open, and Eric stepped in. With a swing of his arm, his backpack landed on the couch in a heap with his jacket.
“Impressive,” Jeremy said with no small amount of sarcasm. “Home before ten. I figured you and Rebecca would be all hot and heavy until at least midnight.”
Eric went to the refrigerator and pulled out the milk Jeremy had bought that afternoon. “Bible study. It’s called Bible study.”
“Bible study. Yeah, right. Is that what they’re calling it now?”
“Ha. Ha.” Eric pulled up a seat at the bar. “You should try it some time, you know? You might be surprised.”
“Does the term, ‘when hell freezes over’ tell you anything?” Jeremy stood and swiped the box he’d been using as a file cabinet from the floor and set it on the bar stool.
“I’m telling you, you’re missing out.”
“Missing out?” Jeremy snorted. “Let me tell you something about religion. It’s for weak-minded people who need somebody else to feed them lies about how wonderful life can be if you follow their rules. Well, you know what? I’m not weak, and I don’t need anybody to tell me how to live my life. Thank you very much.”
Taking a drink, Eric shook his head. “Emily was there.”
Although that stopped Jeremy for one second, he didn’t let it show. “So? What difference does that make?”
Eric shrugged. “No difference. Just thought you’d like to know.”
Jeremy swung the box off the barstool. “I couldn’t care less which of Rebecca’s kooky, superstitious friends happened to show up.” He turned on his heel. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get some sleep. I’ve got a nine-thirty class tomorrow that I don’t want to be late for.”
Love the first chapter?
Buy “A Little Piece of Heaven”