The church retreat is the last bit of bullshit before we get confirmed. We are at a bunch of crappy cabins on the dumpy shores of Lake Erie. They call it a holy camp, gave it a fancy name too: Camp Gold Field. They got the field part right, but I don’t know where they got the gold. Everything here is barren and gray. Last night there was a thunderstorm, but today the sky is defeated and a blanket of grey snow clouds have replaced the horizon. The seasons are theatrical in these parts—especially during April.
We are in our cabin and Pastor Rich tells us to sit. We squat on the floor in a semi-circle, boys and girls together. He hands out sheets of paper with questions of faith, predestination, and Calvinism. “Write down your answers then we will discuss them as a group,” he says.
Pastor Rich stands in the corner spinning a basketball on his finger. He’s pretending he’s not listening. Some of us on the retreat play hoops for the Freshman Team at school, so he brings out the basketball every so often to try to connect with us. He once told us he played college ball, and we sort of believe him because he is 6’11. But he also looks like a dork and kind of talks with a girly soft voice so we sort of don’t. Just because you are tall doesn’t make you good at basketball. Sometimes I wonder what Pastor Rich would have become if he had not become a pastor.
Maybe it’s because we’re cooped up in this cabin. Maybe it’s the turbulent change of the seasons. Or maybe it’s just because Pastor Rich tells us that everything around us is supposed to be transforming and we are fighting it. But a mean streak has gripped us, taken hold, and it’s been creeping into our blood since the thunderstorms rolled through last night, leaving the icy landscape behind today.
To my right, Terri whispers in Carson’s ear. His eyes light up, as does his smile. She turns to my best friend Keith, whispers to him, and then moves in toward me. Her breath tickles my ear and gives me goosebumps.
“We’re gonna mess with SteveBo,” she says.
“How?” I ask.
“I’m gonna give him a boner.” For Terri, this isn’t out of the realm of possibility. She’s been giving guys boners since the day we hit puberty. She gave me one once while we made out on the school bus on the way to a field trip at the zoo, and she gave Keith one during the same trip on the ride home.
Terri’s the type of girl who gets bored quickly, the type of pretty girl who can have anything she wants, so she’s moved from me to Keith and on to a series of older guys. Last year she went to the Senior Prom as an eighth grader, and I’d heard that all the upper classmen asked her for a dance. She probably gave them boners too.
Now she is dating Carson, and rumor has it that not only has she given him a boner, but a blowjob, too. I heard it happened on the team bus back from a basketball game last season. Cheerleaders are supposed to sit at the front of the bus, but I guess she snuck to the back once the cabin lights turned off. Carson is only a freshman like us, but he plays on the varsity team. Everyone says he is going to be a star, and ever since Terri grew breasts she’s been a star too. She wouldn’t waste time with a freshman unless he had potential.
“SteveBo, can you help me with this worksheet?” Terri slides next to him, brushing her leg against his.
We watch him squirm.
“I think we’re supposed to work on this alone. We’ll discuss it together when we finish.”
“But I need your help now.” She shows him a cute little pout. Her tiny hand moves toward his leg, her slim fingers sidling nearer and nearer, then comes to rest on his thigh. She leans close to his pimply face and whispers something in his ear. It sends a shiver though all of us.
Like a well-tended garden, a bulge slowly begins to grow from his pants. Nervous giggles sprout from around the circle, then Carson turns to SteveBo and says, “These are really hard questions, don’t ya think, Pinocchio?” He flashes a smirk like a little kid who just found a pack of matches.
“I’m sure you got some long answers,” Carson continues. We snicker.
SteveBo’s face is red now. I’m worried it might pop if it gets any redder. There’s no stuffing our demons back in. We’re like snowballs rushing downhill and gaining such incredible momentum that we can’t be stopped. We watch SteveBo twist in his seat like a dying fish—the cords in his neck standing out like ropes and the dark vein in his temple pulsing like a fuse. We revel in his agony so completely that Pastor Rich steps in and tells us to cut it out.
Later, Pastor Rich tells us that we’re going for a walk. He says he has something important to show us. All year during conformation classes, Pastor Rich had been yapping about how believing in God is the ultimate transformation. He makes a big deal of it, but, fact is, I don’t feel too much different. For years I thought I had faith. I believed God was watching down on me and controlling my destiny. I believed I mattered. But lately that has changed.
Pastor Rich leads us up a hill. To our right cliffs slope steeply downward toward the brownish waters of Lake Erie. SteveBo is ahead of the rest of us, walking stride in stride with Pastor Rich. They talk enthusiastically, probably about the nature of God, or Original Sin, or the Second Coming of Christ. I can’t understand how people can talk about that stuff all day without getting bored. I get this feeling Pastor Rich was a lot like SteveBo back in the day. Maybe that’s the reason why SteveBo wants to be a pastor, too.
As we walk the path narrows and snakes closer to the cliffs. Beside a large boulder is the wet remains of a fire pit. From the state of the decomposing logs, it had probably burned months ago, maybe even a year. Beside the pit are crumpled beer cans and a used condom. Its neon green color stands out in the mud.
“Someone has been fucking up here,” Keith laughs. I laugh too, but there is something about the crusting condom that makes me feel uncomfortable. I look ahead at Terri walking next to Carson—a strange thought crosses my mind: I wonder if you are supposed to wear a condom when you get a blowjob?
The path crests into a clearing. Old mossy stones protrude from the wet ground and it takes a moment to realize we are in an old cemetery. Weeds sprout high between the headstones. Stillness hangs over the clearing; even the birds have stopped chirping.
“Look around this cemetery,” Pastor Rich says. “All these souls are resting with God. I want you to find a headstone that marks the soul of a child.”
We wander around slowly. Most of us don’t really feel like looking at these stupid graves. Thinking about all these dead people sort of makes me feel sick to my stomach. From across the cemetery SteveBo waves frantically. He is standing next to a small headstone near the path. “Over here, Pastor Rich! I found a grave!”
Pastor Rich walks over and kneels next to the headstone. He runs his fingers across the name and dates. He bows his head and says a little prayer. Then he calls us over to join him.
“Fortuitous,” he says. “This boy was only fifteen. The same age as Brian Caulder when he died.”
Brian Caulder was in the confirmation class last year. He croaked last summer in a car wreck. From what I heard, he was in the car with his sister when it happened. She didn’t look as she pulled out of their driveway and bam! Next thing you know he’s dead. I read in the paper that he died instantly. Now that’s a crazy thought; one second you’re alive and the next second you’re dead. Milliseconds really.
“I want you all to listen as I read you something,” Pastor Rich says. He pulls a folded paper from his faded black overcoat. “This is the Affirmation of Faith written by the late Brian Caulder, just a month before he died.”
He reads about Brian’s love for God, his love of life. It said how thankful he was that God had granted him wonderful parents and a great sister. It talked about the grace of God, and how He had a plan for all of us. It ended with this bit about forgiving those who’ve committed sins against you. There was such joy in Brian’s affirmation, and I can’t help but be upset that God had taken that away. I can’t get myself to believe that the plan of God involved killing him in a car wreck.
I look around our group. The girls are wiping tears, and us boys sniffling and staring at the ground, pretending we aren’t crying too.
“How does this make you feel?” Pastor Rich asks. “It is important to talk about death and faith and the places where the two meet.”
For a long time nobody says anything. Finally, SteveBo speaks: “Brian’s words were transforming.”
The group nods. I nod too, but part of me wonders if this is really transformation or maybe it’s just sadness. Perhaps sadness and transformation is the same thing.
“The good thing is that we don’t have to be sad,” Pastor Rich says. His voice takes on a tone like when he is behind the pulpit. He tells us that Brian is celebrating eternal glory with God in Heaven. Heaven, he says, is like the best day you’ve ever had on earth then increasing it by infinity. That sounds great and all, but I can’t help but wonder that even if your best day was increased by infinity it would probably get boring after a while.
Then Pastor Rich tells us that at church next week we will walk through the pews with little baskets and ask for an offering to pay for a new youth center in the church’s basement. He wants to name it after Brian—a place for the kids to hang out and have fun. It sort of strikes me as unfair that we’ll be served big screen TVs, video games, and pool tables as his family is stuck here in Hell on earth.
Everyone’s still sniffling with wet eyes—everyone except for Terri. Her face is dry and eyes clear. For a moment a little smirk crosses her face. It is like she knows something we don’t.
On the walk back down from the cemetery, the wind picks up from off the lake and whips through our bodies with its bone chilling fingers. It’s almost as if death is reaching out and grabbing for our souls. I can’t stop thinking about Brian. I keep thinking about what he did the day he died. Did he wake up like it was just another day? Did he kiss his mom before he left? Did God leave him a message telling him this was his last day and to make the most of it? I hope it was like that. I hope it meant something.
I imagine his body buried under the earth, decomposing and meaningless. I didn’t really even know him other than passing him in the halls at school and sometimes he’d show up at the playground and we’d play pick-up basketball on the same team. I’d seen him at church too, but the funny thing is, after the accident his family stopped coming. I guess it’s hard to believe in something after part of you dies.
SteveBo is walking alone well in front of the pack. My conscious is gnawing at me like a fat rat so I let it be my guide and I speed up my pace. As I approach, I realize that I don’t know what I am planning to say. SteveBo is looking forward, but I can sense him tightening up in my presence. He probably thinks I’m coming to make fun of him. In the silence that lingers between us I think I can hear the lake lashing against the cliffs.
“We were just joking around earlier,” I say. “You know, like how we joke around with everyone.” Saying that makes me feel better, like I sucked the venom out of everything, and making up for what we’d done by doing a good deed—God’s deed.
“This place sucks,” SteveBo says. He picks at a pimple on his forehead.
“I’m with you, SteveBo,” I say. “It really sucks.” I pause for a moment then begin to speak, this time my voice is lower, almost a whisper. “If they start making fun of you again, I’ll tell them to cut it out.”
Back at the cabin, Pastor Rich has us sit in a circle again. This time he hands out blank pieces of notebook paper. We groan knowing that we will be asked to write.
“We’ve thought about death today,” Pastor Rich says. “We’ve also thought about eternal life. Now I want you to think about your own soul. On those blank pieces of paper I want you to write your own obituaries. If you died tomorrow, what would people write about you? Would your soul be allowed to spend eternal bliss in Heaven?”
I try to write, but nothing of substance comes from it. I’m still thinking about Brian, so I start writing about him instead. I’m hoping he is in Heaven so I ask God to be good to him up there. I ask God to tell him that I enjoyed the times we played basketball together and end it by asking Him to comfort Brian’s family. I lift my head and see that the only other person still writing is SteveBo. Everyone else is goofing off, and Carson has that predatory look in his eyes like he’s about ready to mess with someone. I immediately drop my pencil so the person he chooses won’t be me.
“Let me see what you wrote,” Terri whispers. She tugs at my paper.
“No,” I say and pull it away.
“I’ll show you what I wrote,” she says. The same smirk I saw up at the cemetery returns to her face.
“Okay,” I say. She slides her obituary toward me. I pick it up and see a single sentence: Terri died and went to Hell. I look at her and she winks. “Now let me see yours,” she says.
“No.” I crumple my paper into a little ball and stuff it in my back pocket. Everyone around me starts laughing, and at first, I think they’re laughing at me. Then I realize it’s directed at SteveBo—Carson is up to something. He’s crawled behind SteveBo and is trying to get a look at what he wrote. “What do you got there, SteveBo? Writing a story about Pinocchio? Don’t forget the part where his nose gets stiff and grows.”
Explosions of laughter ensue. Keith cackles so hard that he rolls on the ground, tears streaming from his eyes.
In a way, I think the reason we make fun of SteveBo is to make sure he’s like us: a real boy. Real boys don’t pray all the time. We spear him with our words to make sure there are real guts inside, and maybe, if we twist and probe deep enough, we’ll be able to find some sin and coax it out.
I watch Keith and the other kids, and I see the way they watch Carson with awe. There is a huge smile on Carson’s face, and I can feel him molding us as if we were clay in his hands. I look at SteveBo and blurt out: “My favorite movie is Toy Story. The best character is Woody!”
Our laughter becomes unmatched—a hideous sitcom laugh track. We laugh so hard it shakes our chests and we can’t breathe. SteveBo puts his head down and closes his eyes. Maybe he’s praying that we suffocate. Part of me wishes we all will. SteveBo opens his eyes and stares at his paper, face redder than a stop sign.
“I’m disappointed in all of you.” Pastor Rich steps in, but it’s too late to take control. There is no passion in his eyes, no rapture. Our power trumps his.
“I’m saddened, and God is saddened,” he continues. “That you would berate one of your brothers on his walk with Jesus.”
“We were just talking about our favorite movies.” Carson grins. Beside him Keith is still laughing in fits of hysteria.
“Yeah,” I say. “Since when can’t we talk about movies?”
“I wasn’t born yesterday,” Pastor Rich tries to sound stern, but his flat Midwestern way of talking is beginning to break. “My heart is mourning because we’ve traveled so far on our walk with Jesus and we are still so sinful. I’m going to ask you all to go to your bunks. Pray. Ask God if you are ready to be part of the church. I’m going outside to start the fire for dinner, and when I return you better all be praying.” He stands with his arms crossed and watches us march off toward our bunks, girls in one room, boys adjacent. “Pray,” he repeats.
I suppose I should feel guilty about being sent to our bunks, but strangely I don’t. Something happened on that walk through the cemetery and writing those phony obituaries. All the talk about death that makes me feel alive. I’ve thought about dead Brian all day and have made the decision that I will refuse to go to my grave without knowing anything more than church, faith, and invisible shit.
SteveBo is the only person in the room praying and we let him. He has already sacrificed this life for the one in the next realm. I refuse to sacrifice myself too; I’ll take in what sin has to offer and I will meet the world on its terms.
Carson pulls out a bottle of stolen liquor from his backpack. He takes a gulp then asks if any of us want a sip. I am the first to say yes. Then Keith and some of the others say they will have some too. Carson stands on a chair and pours the liquor right into our mouths. For a moment he reminds me of Pastor Rich; the way he stands above the church congregation at the altar. There is a harsh burning sensation, like the liquid is scrubbing my guts and cleaning me out.
SteveBo sits in the corner, eyes closed, hands linked piously in front of him, head bowed slightly forward, talking to God and telling Him of our sins. But even God can’t do anything to stop us. For the moment, His wrath is postponed.
T.C. Jones is the managing editor at Gulf Stream Magazine and a contributing editor at Burrow Press. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Green Mountains Review, Pacifica Literary Review, The Atticus Review, The Monarch Review, Straylight Magazine, Dos Passos Review, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and others. He is based in Philadelphia.