Steven was barely able to stifle a yawn as he sat down at the end of a wooden, rickety pew. Tucked beside his leg, his cell phone stared up at him with a small, glowing screen. Glancing down at the screen, then at his father who sat beside him on the pew, he saw the coast was clear and sent a text to one of his friends.
Sunlight filtered through a tall, imperial window at his side, with several more adjacent to it. Those windows were the only providers of light in the snug, crowded church sanctuary. The bright rays of light, which not only showed that the air was thick with dust, also revealed a crowd of fifty or sixty people seated in row after row of creaking, wooden pews.
At the head of the mass of pews was a solitary statue of wood called the altar. Behind the altar, an equally solitary man spoke words of encouragement, correction and revelation to those who were seated in the pews.
An average Protestant church service.
Of course, running through it all, were vices, thoughts, concerns, relationships and dramas that could hardly be described. Any community, or 'family' as those in the church called their fellowship of like-minded believers, was bound to have its intricacies.
Faith Baptist Church was certainly no exception.
Steven continued to text through most of the service, his eyelids drooping and yawns increasing. Two pews behind him, another teen named Leanne, replied to Steven's frequent text messages.
"Where's Jasper?" Steven sent in a text.
Two minutes later, his phone vibrated and he received his answer from Leanne. "I don't know? Maybe he's sick."
"Sick? Wasn't he sick last week?"
"But only on a Sunday."
Steven could hear Leanne's half-stifled chuckle from a few pews behind him. Smiling, he sent another text. "Shh.. (; I think Pastor Dane heard that one!" Using the first half of a parenthesis and a semi-colon, he made a 'winky' emoticon.
"Shut up!" In his mind, he read her text in her laughing, good-natured voice. Then, for the second half of her text, he read it in a much softer, somber tone. "How is he doing?"
"He's okay today. Now that the treatment's over… I don't know really, he doesn't tell me much." Steven glanced over to his father, his smile fading into a frown.
Staring ahead, donning a rumpled dress shirt and faded jeans, Mr. Walker returned his son's stare with a look of his own. Raising an eyebrow, his haggard, wrinkled face produced a wry smile. "I can see you texting." He said before coughed loudly, causing Steven to flinch.
"Sorry, it's urgent."
"Always is." He winked, then, without needing to say anymore, Steven shut off his phone and slid it into his pocket. Both of them stared straight ahead, one of them listening to the pastor's words with a smile and nods, the other with a deadpan expression.
Forty minutes later, when the pastor had finished his sermon, Steven retrieved his cell phone, which had vibrated several times. Out of respect and love for his father, Steven had done his best to leave it be.
Of the five missed messages, three of them were from Leanne; he skipped over them when he saw who the other two were from.
Touching the screen on his cell, he read the first two messages, his eyes widening. "No… how could this be?" He muttered, a curse slipping under his breath. His hands began to shake, nearly causing his cell phone to slip out of his grasp.
"Hey." Leanne came up behind him, trying to peer over his shoulder. "Too busy to reply to my texts? Ouch."
With the congregation milling around the sanctuary, filling the room with numerous voices, Steven spoke freely. "My dad saw me texting." Resisting the temptation to re-read Julia's two messages, he slid the phone into his pocket. Later, when he wasn't around so many people, he would figure out what to do about what she'd said.
She chuckled, pushing a strand of blonde hair out of her eyes. "Way to go."
"I try. Well, at least I don't burst out laughing in the middle of the service."
Rolling her eyes, she took a seat on one of the pews, while Steven followed suite. Since they were the only two teens in the church, they had only one another to talk with. The adults, some with young children in tow, conversed with themselves in small, exclusive clusters. Seniors also talked with those in the same age bracket, creating their own little mob of people near the fellowship room, where coffee and cookies were being served.
"So how was camp?"
"Really good." Steven thought back to last night, during that crazy, realistic dream-back to Julia. They'd met at camp, when he and his father had gone together to Alberta last week. His father, who'd once been heavily involved in youth ministry, had gone to the camp in Alberta annually. Despite being nearly overwhelmed by the cancer ravaging his body, Mr. Walker had chosen to spend a week at the camp there, just so he could say goodbye to those he'd known for at least a decade.
Normally he went there as a motivational, fiery speaker; but this year, could hardly muster the strength to join in with the wide games. So, with much reluctance, he stayed on to help the speaker there with counseling the kids, instead of leading them.
Steven, who was entering his final year of high school, had built up many friendships at the camp over the years of going there. Though he was too old to be a camper, and no councilors were needed, Steven helped out where he was needed. During his free time, which was often, he would hang out with the campers or staff, doing whatever he wanted.
Then, on the second day, he met a camper just a year younger then he was.
Her name was Julia.
"That's good." Leanne was about to say something more, when her father came up behind her. Greeting Steven with a smile, he told his daughter it was time to go and that her mother and siblings were already waiting in the van.
"See you later, Steven." She gave him a short hug, which he returned with a smile.
Leanne walked down the aisle, slinging her purse over her shoulder.
Without anyone else to talk with, Steven sat down in the pew and opened his phone. Hesitantly he read over the two texts that Julia had sent him.
The first, "Good morning Steven <3" was met by Steven with a broad smile.
The second, made his heart nearly stop. In eight, simple words, his entire life was turned upside down: "I can't wait to dream with you again."
His fingers shaking, he closed the phone, unable to reconcile reality with what she'd confirmed with him.
The dream had been real.
Cerise, her purse slung over her shoulder, walked down the hallway in the crowded mall. People, all of them strangers, regarded her in the same way that everyone always did. Either, too busy or preoccupied with their own doings and conversations, they ignored her, or some boys would stare at her a little too long, while she could see the jealous, or awed looks of some of the girls.
It was the same, everywhere she went.
A small vibration came from somewhere in her purse; moving to the side of the hall, beside the entrance to West 49, she retrieved the phone. Her hopeful smile, elevated by thoughts of Desmond, was instantly lost as she saw it was a text from her mother.
Desmond, who'd been in Alberta for two days now, had still not replied to her earlier messages. Instead he'd chosen to ignore all calls, emails and texts, which had been sent wishing him a fun and safe visit in Alberta.
Oh, she also said she loved him.
Ignoring her mom's text, a frown firmly planted on her face, she set out towards the food court in the center of the mall.
Striding past a cluster of young, chattering teenagers, Cerise came to a gathering of tables, chairs and food trays. A smattering of customers, devouring whatever fast food they'd chosen to satisfy their palette, occupied the small area devoted to eating.
One of those customers, seated at an empty table, looked up at her. With his narrow green eyes-quite far apart, with a thin, hairy unibrow crossing the pale gap-widening, he raised a hand, waving it.
She weaved around the tables and chairs, approaching his table with a forced, yet amiable smile, which he returned. "Hey," she took off her purse, looping it around the back of her chair, "how's it going?"
"Pretty good. Are you ready to go back to school next week?" Chuckling, he eased back in his chair. Clumps of acne, red and fierce, littered his face like apples on an apple tree.
"No." She let out a laugh, knowing full well that he'd finished school a good two years ago. Just rubbing it in, that she still had a full year left to endure. "And university starts for you this fall?"
"Yes, and unlike you, I'm excited about my education." His mouth broke out into another large, toothy grin. "I appreciate that we, in this amazing country, have the opportunity to learn all there is."
"That's because, Drake, you're not stuck in high school." She pointed a finger at him, leaning back in her chair. "You don't have to be stuck in a class full of immature, stupid boys and hormonal, shallow girls."
"Don't be so sure. It's not like a switch gets flicked off when people leave high school. There's bound to be the same trouble in university. People just hide it better."
"At least they're adults."
"True. And I don't mind it actually, I'm used to the way people are." He leaned forward, resting his head on his bended arms. "Besides, there are a lot of great people out there. I know one of them. And I'm lucky enough to be with her right now."
"Shush." She couldn't help the smile that came to life at his compliment. Certain people had ways about encouraging you that came out stale, forced and fake. Drake was not one of those people.
Looking back up at Drake, she started to get out of her chair. "Do you want to get smoothies? Booster Juice is just right over there." She tilted her head to the side, indicating the booth that was dug into the wall, with a neon sign hanging overhead.
"Sounds good. I'll pay, if you don't mind."
She nodded her head, giving him a thankful smile. "Thank you." Together they walked over to the smoothie stand, getting in line behind several others. Standing in line, she noticed how some of the other customers glanced behind them, now completely ignoring her and shifting their attention to Drake. Instead of the jealousy or approval, she could see pity, sometimes shock, often disgust.
"So how's your summer been? I haven't seen you in forever."
"Oh, it's been alright."
"Haven't seen you at work that much anymore." It was two years ago that she'd applied to Superstore, where she now worked. She'd been a cashier; Drake had been working in grocery, where he now worked as an assistant manager.
"I've been really busy lately." Without elaborating, Drake came up to the counter and ordered their smoothies. A few minutes later they were both walking back from Booster Juice, smoothies in hand.
Taking a seat at their original table, Cerise thanked him again for the smoothies, brushed aside her hair, took a sip and commented on how amazing it was. Smiling, Drake conceded that his was equally as delicious.
"How are you and Desmond doing these days?" His question came out differently then most times he inquired about her boyfriend. Usually, whenever the subject arose, Drake would raise an eyebrow, smirk or make an off-handed comment about him. Today, his eyes displayed genuine interest, even care.
"He went to Alberta to visit his cousins for most of the week before school starts, so I haven't really seen him that much lately. But we're good," she smiled, knowing that by his furrowed brow he could see its insincerity.
"But does he love you?"
"Of course, he's my boyfriend." She chuckled, sipping awkwardly on her drink, unsure of why Drake would ask such a question. Or was it her own insecurity in answering that made her nervous.
Did Desmond really love her?
"Right. It's just after what happened-"
"It's alright, Drake. Trust me, I couldn't be happier then I am now with Desmond."
"Good," faltering, he sipped noisily from his drink. "I'm glad you're happy." Without adding anymore he changed the subject to discussing some of the people at work, which led to reminiscing about old times. As they conversed, laughing and smiling the entire time, Cerise slowly forgot about Desmond.
All the emotions that had been clouding her heart previously slipped away, rinsed off by Drake's good natured, easy-going company. She'd almost forgotten her troubles completely until her phone vibrated in her jean pockets.
As Drake continued talking, she opened her phone, sighing as she saw it was her mother again.
A frown crept back onto her face, as she realized just how long Desmond had been ignoring her for.
"Is everything alright?"
"Yeah," she read her text this time, seeing that she was needed at home. "But I have to go." She got up, reluctant to leave her good friend after such a short get-together.
"Awe, well we should do this more often. I miss hanging out with you." With a smile he stood up, putting on his jacket.
"Same, maybe next weekend, if I don't have homework."
"Cool, well I'll text you if I'm free. Take care, Cerise." Staring directly at her, his eyes lit up, he gave her a brief hug.
She returned it, trying not to be repulsed by his thick, heavy body odor. "Bye, Drake."
Then they went their separate ways, one of them wishing the hug had been longer.
The other wishing it'd never happened at all.
"Please pick up," Steven breathed encouragingly into his cell phone, waiting for Julia to pick up on the other end. Sitting on his living room couch, the television showing a CFL Sunday afternoon football game, he waited for Julia to answer him.
For the seventh time, Julia did not pick up his call.
Sighing, he placed the phone in his pocket, trying to relax on his couch and enjoy the game. One of the teams, Winnipeg, was losing by a sizeable margin and being his hometown team, did not offer a lick of encouragement to his worried mood. Biting his nails, he decided to eat a chip from a bowl resting in the middle of the living space, instead of his own keratin.
"No!" His father bellowed, coughing his way through another groan-filled tirade about his team's numerous short-comings. "Injured? Again? Steven, can you believe he's a football player?" Shaking his head, he mumbled something incoherent, before a commercial break relieved him of watching his team goof around on the field.
"Maybe if he stopped rushing the ball and passed for once, we'd be able to keep him from being wrecked." Steven commented, biting his lip to stop a smile from coming to his face. Football was a serious matter in this household. "What did the doctor say about the treatment?"
"Not a whole lot, you know how the doctors are-worse then politicians, but you actually have to care about what they hide. In this case, I can't get Dr. Kolowsky to tell me anything." He gave a shrug, his haggard expression clouding over. "Next week, I'll get a call… maybe then I can figure out what's going to happen."
Steven nodded his head, a frown firmly planted on his face. His eyes drifted over to an upside down brochure, one white-printed word sticking out from the rest: Chemotherapy. Taking the brochure, giving his son a sad, almost depressed look, his father turned off the television.
"I'm going to do some reading," he glanced back at the remote, and reconsidering his previous actions, shook his head and turned on the television. Without another word he walked out of the living room, feebly ambling down the hall to his room.
Steven watched him go, his eyes threatening to tear up as he saw him stumble, then regain his weak stride. Clasping the doorknob, he turned it, and then entered his room, shutting the door behind him.
Could the treatment not be working? Steven had given that so much thought during the past year, watching his father's condition decline swiftly. No matter the promising words from the doctors, nurses and friends-his father was simply not getting better.
He was getting much worse.
Turning his attention back to the game, Steven stretched out on the couch. With the taste of ketchup chips in his mouth, Steven fingered his cell phone, waiting for Julia to answer him. Why didn't he pick up the phone when she texted him earlier? Now he had no idea when he'd be able to talk with her, which he hoped he could do before he fell asleep.
He needed to know when he could dream again.
"Come on Julia, just text me girl, please." He spoke to his phone, fingering the screen as another sigh escaped his lips. Instead of replying, his phone remained cold and lifeless in his grip. He let it rest on his stomach as he reclined on the couch, his attention wandering off of the television and to his time at camp.
Slowly his eyes began to close, pressured by a yawn that slipped through his mouth, and he fell fully into sleep. This time however, in his unconscious mind, his dreams were the kind he usually had-random, not very vivid and they weren't in his control. Instead, like the viewer at a movie theatre, he watched his dreams take place.
A few hours later, when he awoke from his slumber, he could hear his father's voice coming from the kitchen. Rubbing his eyes, he was about to get up, when he heard his father voice the words he'd dreaded hearing.
In a gruff, weary manor, his father asked, "A month? I thought the treatment was killing the cancer?" There was a long pause, in which Steven sat up, listening with eyes wide to his father's heavy breathing and final response. "Yes. I see, I guess that's how it is, isn't it?" Another pause, "I'll have to tell him eventually, no, its fine, I'll do it. Have a good day, Kolowsky." He heard the phone click into its base and his father's footfalls into the living room.
Steven, still seated on the couch, his mouth agape, stared at his father. "A month? But…" he trailed off, giving his head a fierce shake. "They said you had so much longer."
"They did, didn't they?" His father came up beside Steven, put an arm on his shoulder and held him tightly. "I'm sorry Steven."
Steven hung his head, his blonde hair falling over his shoulders. "Me too."
And, try as he might to stop them, the tears fell.
For both of them.