She feels like they talk about her at parties, whispering behind their hands after a furtive glance to make sure she's not nearby, that Jones girl. She walks like a willow, long hair blowing in the wind and all graceful curves and easy bends, calm and sorrowful veneer never showing that just beneath she's this far from snapping and tumbling down into the water below. It's got to be lonely they say of others, as they clutch their crucifixes close, with nothing but darkness and dirt and worms waiting for you, or else rock and fire and pain, but she pretends she doesn't hear and pretends she doesn't disagree and just walks on, because after all, she thinks, they can believe what they want. But she doesn't see the point in living for an eternity she doesn't think will ever come, even after all the tearful nights and whispered prayers to her popcorn bedroom ceiling. Act as if ye have faith, and faith will be given to ye, she thinks to herself a thousand, thousand times, and she wants to be the kind of person who believes, but still she knows there's nothing waiting for her. She only ever wanted to believe.

But instead she reads her books and writes her thoughts down in a little black journal with her name chalked neatly on the cover. A picture's worth a thousand words, but she was never good at pictures, only writing, and there's nothing ever in the night but darkness and the sound of sobbing anyway. She wears the cross, but when she says the pledge in homeroom she leaves out under God, and tries not to say her prayers anymore, because it feels like lying. And they all know, she thinks, they all know she's the girl who can't believe, the girl with the cross she wishes she could bear to throw away. But she isn't good at faith, and she isn't good at pretending, and she doesn't want to have to hide it anymore, because what is God but the reflection of everything man wishes he could be, anyway, and why is your Heaven any truer than anyone else's? She wants to throw it all away and abandon herself to this life and go dance in the darkness and the rain. She wants to hear the crunch of autumn leaves and drink hot, honeyed tea, and let that be the only perfection, the only heaven that she needs.

But she presses her blouse in the dark of the chill fall morning, and pulls on her tights and long gray skirt. She looks at herself in the mirror, staring at the golden cross dangling on its chain just below her collarbone, wishing she could melt it with her gaze like some wax false idol, but she puts the thought aside and buckles her Sunday shoes. Cinnamon toast and the smell of coming rain soothe her into submission, and she says nothing in the car as she savors the last taste of breakfast, bites back all of the horrible little jibes she wants to make and clenches her hands in the scratchy fabric of her skirt. The path has been raked, but she can still hear the rustle of leaves, far off, and the soft sound of chimes in the wind. She has to take a deep breath as she steps inside, and when the Priest begins to speak she fixes her eyes a point just above his head and stares. And when it's over she breathes in the cool air and skips through the dancing raindrops on the way back to their battered car, spinning with arms out wide. The clouds are rolling in, and the rain is pouring down, and this, she thinks, is really all she ever needs. She feels the thunder rumbling deep inside her chest, and breathes in one last taste of perfection before she gets inside and slams the door.