“Emily!” Pa shouted from the kitchen. “Emily, you need to get up!”
The girl moaned into her pillow and rolled over. Her alarm had gone off a while ago, but she turned it off instead of hitting the snooze button. She still hadn’t gotten used to the idea of waking up early. Even though she had been doing it for a while, she still dreaded the sound of her alarm in the mornings. She could hear Pa shouting from the kitchen, but she yanked her pillow away from the bed and threw it over her head. She was in no mood to get up.
Pa leaned against the kitchen counter and rubbed his face. Brian, Johnny, and Jackson were already at the kitchen table in their Sunday best. Breakfast was already prepared and sitting on the table, getting cold. Pa didn’t want to eat without Em, but if she wasn’t down soon, they would be eating cold toast. He nodded to the men at the table, giving them permission to start eating. The old man hobbled over to the table and fell into his chair, grabbing his coffee cup.
“What should I do? She usually gets up on time,” Pa grumbled.
“If she doesn’t get up, we leave without her. Simple as that,” Brian stated, munching on a crispy piece of bacon.
Em was unaware the men were eating breakfast in the kitchen. She was slowly drifting back to sleep when her bed began to shake. Joe promptly jumped onto the girl’s bed and started walking all over her. His weight made Emily think her back was going to break. She struggled to wiggle out from underneath him, and ended up rolling out of bed. She sat on the floor and stared at the dog, who was now lying on her bed. Joe simply looked at the girl with his tongue hanging out of his mouth. Em wanted to be angry with him, but the anger disappeared the more she stared at him. Soon, she was laughing at the puppy and scratching his head.
“I guess it was time for me to get out of bed, huh,” the girl noted with a laugh. Emily glanced over at the clock and noticed the time. “Oh, shit!”
Emily abruptly got to her feet and raced over to her closet. She pulled out a nice shirt and grabbed a pair of jeans from the bottom of her closet. She smelled the jeans, making sure they didn’t have an odor, and decided they would be fine to wear to church. She would just put on extra perfume. The girl yanked off her pajamas and wiggled into her jeans. She nearly fell over trying to pull on her pants. Once her pants were buttoned, Em tugged on the nice shirt she had picked out. She put her hair up in a messy bun because she didn’t have time to wash it. She was about to leave her room when she realized she was barefoot. The girl spun around and grabbed a pair of clean socks from her closet and pulled them on. She then took her perfume bottle and sprayed her entire body with perfume. Once Emily was satisfied that she had too much perfume on and was fully clothed, she exited her bedroom. Joe leapt from the bed and ran around Em, beating her downstairs. The girl was so embarrassed as she entered the kitchen, all the while staring at her feet. The men watched as she grabbed a mug from the cabinet and filled it with coffee. She poured sugar and peppermint in to it, and then fell in to an empty seat at the table. The girl quietly sipped on her coffee, not making eye contact with anyone.
“I’m glad you could join us,” Pa remarked dryly.
Emily set her mug aside and snatched a piece of bacon from its tray. Jackson watched as she nibbled on the bacon in silence. All that could be heard was the silverware against the plates and the chewing noises the men made. Pa barely ate anything. Instead, he sipped his coffee while staring at his granddaughter. She should have known better than to wake up late. It was Sunday and they needed to leave at a specific time. As Em continued munching on her bacon, Johnny and Jackson got up and began clearing the table. They washed and dried all of the dishes except for Emily’s. Unlike Pa, they wanted to give her plenty of time to eat. Johnny understood the difficulties of teenagers waking up on time. It took forever to make Jackson wake up on time, and now the boy is so used to waking up in the mornings that his body won’t let him sleep in.
Pa adjusted his watch and then noticed the time. “We better get movin’.”
Em watched her grandpa push himself out of his chair with shaky arms. He limped over to the kitchen sink and rinsed out his coffee cup, placing it in the dish pan; Emily did the same with her dishes. Brain snatched the truck keys before Pa could. The two of them were still debating about whether or not the old man should be driving. Brian knew that Pa’s doctors declared him unsafe to drive, but Pa still insisted that he was fine. He hated that he was being restrained from certain activities. He hated that he couldn’t do all of the things that he used to do. He hated that he was getting sicker and weaker. Once Pa noticed that Brian had the keys in his hand, he shuffled over to the door and put his shoes on, grumbling the whole time. Emily followed him, glancing at him as she tugged on her boots. His mood was getting more and more inconsistent, which scared her. She felt as though she had to walk on eggshells some of the time whenever she was around him. All of the men felt the same, but they didn’t want to say anything. Nobody wanted to say anything…
“Well, let’s go,” the old man nearly growled.
Pa pushed the screen door open and stepped out onto the porch. As he stepped out, he lost his footing and nearly fell. Brian pushed Emily out of the way and caught the old man before he could hit the ground. Everyone froze as Brian helped Pa down the porch steps. Once the two men reached the ground, Pa pushed his helper away. The old man limped the rest of the way to the truck by himself. Em passed Brain and mouthed “thank you.” They all climbed into the rusty, rickety truck. Em sat between Brian and Pa in the front, and Johnny and Jackson squeezed into the back. Good thing the church wasn’t very far away because it was going to be a very quiet and awkward ride.
As they drove down the dirt road, some of the horses ran up to the truck. They raced the vehicle all the way to the end of the fence line, and then watched as the truck disappeared. Soon, the buildings of the town started to appear. Emily gazed out the window as they passed several buildings, trying not to lean against Brian or Pa. The dirt parking lot of the church was already full when they arrived. The variety of vehicles in town always surprised Em. There were trucks that were as rusty as Pa’s. There were old-style vehicles that sparkled underneath the sun. And then, as always, there was a bright red car parked in front that was the nicest car out of all of them. Brian parked next to the red car, and the truck groaned as he shut the vehicle off. Emily waited until Pa and Brian got out before she even unbuckled. The truck tipped as Brian climbed out of the driver’s seat, and then Em followed after him. The girl pulled on her outfit the whole way to the building, worried that her outfit wasn’t the best it could be since she woke up late. Jackson quickly jogged past her and opened the door for Pa, and then held it open for the rest of them. As usual, once inside, the noise of people talking flooded Em’s ears. The conversations were just deafening because there were so many people talking at once. As soon as Emily walked through the door, though, Pastor Charles approached her.
“Emily! Good morning!” he declared in a cheerful manner.
“Good morning, Pastor,” Em replied tentatively.
“Now, how many times do I have to tell you, you can call me Charles.”
The pastor was about to say something else when he was pulled away by a woman in all red. Em barely remembered that the woman’s name was Carol and that she took care of the girl when Dana got in the car accident. Carol was closely followed by a small boy, who smiled and waved at Emily; Emily waved back. She stood at the doorway for a little while longer, not sure where else to go. She looked around the room, hoping to find Jackson. He was in a corner with his dad, Johnny. Johnny was slumped, which was unusual, but he seemed to be talking to someone. Emily squeezed around several people, and tried to push past others. She eventually arrived safely next to Jackson, who looked bored out of his mind. He rolled his eyes at Em and then signaled to his dad.
“When the two of them start talking, they never seem to stop,” the boy whispered in Em’s ear.
“Who is he?” she inquired.
“Dad’s best friend from high school.”
Johnny seemed to be talking more in that moment than he had on the ranch. Emily had never seen him carry on a conversation for more than a minute before moving on to something else. But the two men seemed to talk non-stop, only pausing if they needed to breathe. Em had always figured Johnny to be shy and timid due to her experience with him on the ranch, but he was actually quite the opposite. If he was passionate and comfortable, then he could carry on a conversation for ages. Even though Em was fascinated with this side of the man, she and Jackson got very bored very fast. They cautiously backed away from Johnny and made their way into the sanctuary. Pa and Brian were already seated in their spot towards the front. Em and Jackson approached them and quickly sat down when there was enough room. Johnny and his best friend were the last to enter the sanctuary before Pastor Charles began greeting the congregation.
His sermon was a lot duller than usual. Charles seemed to drone on and on about the importance of helping others, and accepting other’s help. Emily knew that this was an important subject, but towards the middle of the sermon, the pastor just started to repeat himself. He repeated the same things over and over, just in different ways, until he finally said “Amen” an hour later. At that moment, everyone in the sanctuary seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. It seemed that Emily was not the only one who thought the pastor’s sermon was getting long and dry. Everyone – stiff and tired – pushed themselves to their feet. Pastor Charles rushed to the door so he could greet people on their way out. Pa, who usually sprang to his feet whenever church was over, struggled to stand. Brian and Em both helped him keep his balance as he pulled himself to his feet. Once he was standing confidently, he ushered everyone out of the row and towards the door. He limped towards Pastor Charles while Brian carefully watched from behind.
“Pa, it’s so good to see you!” Charles smiled, sticking out his hand. Pa shook the man’s hand and simply grunted in response. “I heard you’re coming down with something,” the pastor continued. “Just know that I am sending healing prayers in your direction.”
The old man twisted around and glared at Brian over his shoulder. The man simply shrugged and then greeted the pastor. Emily followed her grandfather outside and towards the truck. They nearly reached the vehicle when she stopped and stared. Her grandfather opened the truck door for his granddaughter, but then realized she was no longer behind him. He turned around and looked at her with concern.
“Is everything alright?” he inquired.
Em looked up and stared at him. “Yeah… It’s just I…I need to do something.”
The girl quickly spun around and marched back to the building. Brian, Johnny, and Jackson were just exiting the church when she reentered. The people were starting to disperse, which meant that it wasn’t as noisy as usual. Pastor Charles finished shaking hands with everyone, and then shuffled to his office, rubbing his face in exhaustion. Em felt bad disturbing him, since he did look exhausted. She thought about turning back around and going back to the truck, but something in her gut told her to go talk to the man. She slowly walked over to his office and gently knocked on the door. He was in the middle of blowing his nose when he turned around to see who it was.
“Ah,” Pastor Charles commented, and then blew his nose. “Come in, come in.”
Em stepped in to the office. It was just as messy as the last time she was there. She did notice, though, that there was an empty spot on the couch. It was the only empty space available, so the girl quickly approached it and sat down. She wrung her hands in her lap, unsure how to begin, and hoping that the pastor would say something.
“How’s your sister?” the pastor started, disturbing the awkward silence.
Emily was not expecting this question to be the first question he asked. She honestly didn’t know what she expected, but it wasn’t that. She came in because she wanted to thank him for the Bible and journal he had given her weeks ago. They were slowly starting to help her understand God’s plan, and the love and acceptance he as for everyone. She wanted to talk about the versus she was struggling with. She did not want to talk about her sister.
“She’s…um…not any better,” Em mumbled, looking down at her hands.
“I’m sorry to hear that. I’ve been praying for her, and you, ever since you came to talk to me the first time.
Emily fell silent again. She could suddenly picture her sister in the hospital. She could clearly see how pale Dana’s cheeks were. She could feel the greasiness of her hair. She could hear the machines that were keeping Dana alive. It was all so vivid in Em’s mind. She could sense tears starting to grow in her eyes, so the girl quickly sniffed them away. She snatched a tissue from the pastor’s desk and blew her nose. The girl look around for a trashcan, but couldn’t find one. She was planning to hold the tissue, but then Charles held out a waste basket that had been hiding under his desk. Em gave him a weak smile, threw her tissue away, and then went back to being silent.
“Is there a particular reason you wanted to talk to me?” Pastor Charles asked, looking intently at the girl.
“I…um…wanted to thank you…”
“For the Bible and the journal you gave to me,” Em clarified.
“Ah,” the man commented. “Have they helped?”
“Um…I think so…”
“You think so?”
“It’s just that I find it hard to…to…” Emily was struggling to find the right words.
“To understand why bad things happen?” Charles suggested.
“I guess. If God is all loving, then why do terrible things happen to good people?”
“Sometimes he has a choice about what happens, and sometimes he doesn’t.”
“How doesn’t he have a choice? He’s God.”
“But God gave us freedom of choice. He gave us the ability to decide our own fate.” The pastor paused, and then tried explain something else. “Remember the story of Adam and Eve,” he began, leaning forward. “God created them to make their own choices. That’s why they ate from the tree. He doesn’t want to be a God who forces people to follow him and always do good. He wants people to choose to do good because they love him.”
Emily opened her mouth to say something, but then closed it. She wanted to argue against when the pastor had just said. She wanted to argue that her parents didn’t choose to die in a car crash. Why would they? They had a good life and two amazing daughters. They had everything they ever wanted or needed. Her parents would have never chosen the fate they ended up with. They would have never left Dana and Emily all alone.
“But my parents… And my sister,” Em noted. “They would have never chosen to die in a car crash.”
“Of course,” Pastor Charles agreed.
“So why did they?”
“Emily,” the man rubbed his face with his hand, “I can’t explain everything.”
“All I can do is tell you what I believe. I believe that your family did not choose their fate. I believe that – if someone hit them – that they chose your family’s fate.” He paused, letting the girl think over what he had just said. “I also believe that – more often than not – good things come out of terrible things.”
“What good could possibly come out this?” Emily requested.
“Well, you’ve gotten to spend time with a grandpa you had never even talked to before. You’ve come to church. You’ve started to read the Bible. I know none of these things seem like a big deal right now, but they will someday.”
“How?” the girl argued. “Right now, I just feel like I’m stuck in a never-ending nightmare,” Emily shared. After she had said it, she realized that it was something she had never shared before.
Pastor Charles sighed and leaned back in his chair. Emily could practically see the bolts turning in his head. He was trying to find a sufficient answer. He remained quiet for longer than Em would have liked. She desperately wanted an answer, but he seemed to be taking his time. After what felt like a long-lasting silence, Charles leaned forward and rested his arms against his desk. He looked at Emily, who was anxiously staring back at him.
“God is not always going to show us how to escape a nightmare,” he began slowly. “He will always be there comforting us and guiding us, but we are the ones who have to decide what to do. We are the ones who have to make the final choices. We are the ones who have to figure out how to escape the nightmare. If you have faith and trust in God and ask him for guidance, then you’ll eventually find your way. But don’t expect God to do all of the work. Remember, he gave us freedom of choice for a reason, which means the end result is ultimately up to you.”
Emily absorbed Pastor Charles’ words. All of this time, she was expecting God to show her the way. She was expecting to see a giant arrow that pointed her in the right direction. She thought that if she had faith in God, then he would take care of everything. But that wasn’t the case. She needed to make the choices for herself, but with God’s guidance. Her fate was ultimately up to her. She had to choose. But with God’s guidance.
Em stood up with a brand-new feeling of peace. She now knew exactly what she needed to do and believe. She thanked Pastor Charles and then began to walk out of his office. She took a step out of his office, and then she realized that she didn’t have a way back to the ranch; Pa had probably already left.
“Could you,” she began hesitantly, “possibly give me a ride back to the ranch? I’m assuming Pa and them already left.”
Charles slightly chuckled. “Of course.”