The sun was still traveling its way towards the west side of the sky, with a bit of time left before it disappeared to bring forth night. Only one car sat parked at the rear entrance of Hillside Christ Church. The single door led into the fellowship hall side of the building. The grand festivities of the annual end of school-beginning of summer lock-in were still a few hours away, not to begin until right before the sun called it a day.

At the end of the darkened hallway, next to the doorway leading into the open fellowship hall stood a small open kitchen. A stove, refrigerator, and microwave were the main attractions of the sparse space, but it did not lack a sink and a few cabinets. A small window opened into the fellowship hall with a counter to lay out food.

Another counter, this one much bigger, faced the hallway of the church. Mattie stood behind the counter, gathering snacks for the much-anticipated event. Well, much anticipated for a handful of teenagers, so that had to count for something. Mattie had a box of vanilla wafers open in front of her, placing handfuls into plastic bowls that would be placed on the tables. If a wafer or two every other handful somehow snuck their way into her mouth, who would blame her? They were delicious in the way that processed sweets could be.

An audible creak of a door sounded from around a corner down the hallway, causing Mattie to pause mid-bite. She looked up, pushing down the anxious feeling that men sometimes found silly but made perfect sense to women who were alone and defenseless in a dark place. Sure, she could have turned all the hallway lights on, but anxiousness aside, she was also a woman who couldn't ignore the needless waste of electricity and the expense that could be built up over the excess use of it. It would be a false sense of safety-ness anyways, if something was going to happen, it would happen, regardless of how well lit her surroundings were.

Not that any of it mattered, because it was Bruce she found rounding the corner in her direction wielding nothing more than a plastic Walmart bag. Just as she knew it would be, the rational part of her brain pointed out. But it never hurts to be a little bit alert, the small paranoid section of that same brain argued. Mattie didn't see why she couldn't agree with both of them.

"Just a few more hours until the big show," she beamed a huge smile his way, knowing that it would elicit just a little bit of annoyance from her husband. She had her own fun.

"Can't hardly wait," he responded with the appropriate lack of enthusiasm.

"Stop acting so gloomy. You know you're looking forward to this."

"Lock-ins used to be fun. You know, back when I was part of the youth. As the person in charge, well...:"

"It can be a chore," she finished for him.

"Yeah, he said guiltily," he admitted.

"Acknowledging your guilt doesn't put any shine on the acknowledgment," she retorted, "but the kids love you for it."

Bruce sat the bag on the countertop, filching a nilla wafer as he did so. Mattie swatted his hand away and off of his faux hurt expression, helped herself to a couple more. Shaking his head in mock disappointment, Bruce reached into the bag and started pulling out items for the games of the night. Bags of rubber bands, popsicle sticks, all sorts of random odds and ends.

Looking at the unrelated assortment of cheap items, Bruce nodded in satisfaction.

"I must admit, I am good at it."

"So humble, too," Mattie said.

"Dear, humble has an 'h' in it, please say it as such."

"I'm a teacher, remember," she said. "It's against my nature to pronounce things the wrong way."

"I know. With you, it's tomato, tomato," he said, pronouncing both "tomatoes" the same, with the long "a".

She placed an arm around his shoulder and rewarded him with a peck on the cheek.

"That's why you love me," she said.

"No, it's one of the things I put up with because I love you," he corrected.

Her arm slinked away from his shoulder, her hand balling into a fist before frogging her husband in the upper arm.

She flashed him a smile as she picked up a few items to help him take them into the fellowship hall. They walked around the kitchen counter and went through the door into the fellowship hall. It was called the fellowship hall, even though it wasn't much of a hall. It was simply one giant room with tables set up in rows surrounded by folding chairs.

Board games sat atop the tables. A couple of small TVs were set up in the back, one with a bluray player hooked up and the other attached to a Nintendo Wii. Mattie knew that Bruce had hoped that at this point in his life, he could swing a Switch to replace it, but had to keep settling for old faithful, the Wii. Youth ministry was not the path to prosperity. Neither was teaching. Bruce was willing to sacrifice all of that to make even the slightest difference in the spiritual lives of his kids, something she would never want him to change.

They found a clear spot on one of the long tables and set the hodgepodge of items on the table. Sure, Mattie knew that it all looked like a bunch of junk, but Bruce had the gift of McGyvering surprisingly fun games out of a few rubber bands and bubblegum sticks. One of the things she really did love about him, his creativeness combined with his genuine love of the kids under his wing.

"When do you need to pick up Randy and Alex?" he asked.

"In about an hour or so."

"We might actually have six kids show up tonight," Bruce marveled. "That has to be a record for our tenure of youth ministry at this church. Might be a handful."

He joked, Mattie knew, but he really was excited at the probable turnout. Bruce had put in a lot of blood, sweat, and tears in the ministry, and sometimes it felt to him like he was trying to climb out of a smooth-walled pit with one hand while the other hung limply at his side. He would take any small victory he could, any sense that he was getting a sense of forward momentum with genuine joy.

None of this would ever stop her love of needling him.

"Don't know how you'll ever handle six whole kids," she cracked.

"Dost I detect sarcasm coming from that pretty mouth."

"Never from this mouth," she said. "Certainly not from a woman who deals with fifteen to twenty kids per class for six classes a day."

"Didn't think so," he said. "I'll just sic you on 'em. Have you assign 'em a math quiz, or whatever it is you do to hold that tight rein on your kids."

"Uh-huh," she said. "When is Kurt supposed to show up?"

Bruce shrugged as they made their way back to the kitchen area.

"Any minute, I guess."

"That one's a tough nut to crack," she admitted.

"Seems to me you're already doing a bang-up job."

"He's a good guy," she said. "He just seems to be thinking on another level sometimes."

"He does have his burdens," Bruce pointed out, taking his place at her side at the counter. "Some understandably big ones."

"Yeah," Mattie said airily.

Bruce stopped a nilla wafer just as it was about to pass his lips, looking at his wife accusingly.

"I notice it," he said.


"The glint. That glint you get when you think you're being clever."

Mattie popped open a can of coke and took a swig, shrugging innocently.

"You invited Ariel, didn't you?"

"Maybe," she said. "A little extra help never hurt. Like you said, six whole kids. Besides, it wouldn't be the first time she's helped us out with the youth."

"The first time with Kurt here," he said flatly.

"So, what does that have to do with anything?" Mattie asked.

"I know when I see Mattie the Matchmaker at work, that's all."

"I won't do a thing," she promised. "Maybe a nudge here or there…"

"You're relentless."

"Sometimes you have to be savage when no one else will," she said.

"You're spending way too much time with Junior Highers," he said.

"Pays the bills," she reminded him.

"The guy is fresh off of something really bad, as if I need to remind you," Bruce said.

Mattie sighed and rolled her eyes at him. Why did guys, even good religious ones, always think from below their beltlines when women were involved?

"Sometimes people simply need friends," she said. "Good people to help them through traumatic experiences and find light on the other side."

"Single female friends?" Bruce asked.

"And once on the other side of their traumatic experience," Mattie continued, "one might find that they are lonely in ways we would never understand and need to be rescued from the stagnation of singleness."

"Mattie to the rescue?" he smiled.

"Who else and who better?" she asked. "Look, I know what he's been through. And I know the last thing he would want to do right now is dishonor the memory of his true love. But he is young with hopefully a long life ahead of him. No one deserves to be made to wallow in that kind of loneliness."

"You speak a good game, but I still don't think he'll be ready for any kind of intimate relationship anytime soon."

"It's not intimate. Just planting the seeds of a small friendship. Who knows where it can grow from there in the near or not so near future?"

"Also, you've been trying to set Ariel up for years," he pointed out.

"Can you believe she's still single?" Mattie asked. "She's gorgeous and funny, maybe even more so than me. A darn shame, I say."

Bruce went back to filling bowls with snacks and emptying coke cans out of their boxes and into the refrigerator, unable to help shaking his head.

"I've got a bad feeling about this," he muttered.

"Trust me," she said. She was feeling optimistic, herself. Of course, she didn't expect these two to automatically hook up. One was her best friend and the other someone who was deeply hurt that she had come to care for throughout the last few weeks. A connection was what she was praying for. Something that might speed up the healing process. Romance was not her goal, at least not the primary one. She would be lying to herself if she didn't have a deep wish that two people she cared for would end up together. That would be icing on the cake.

She had a deep appreciation of cake.


Later in the evening, a couple of more cars were parked in the small lot outside the entrance to the fellowship hall. Full and large, the moon had begun its stretch to the night sky to replace the glaring Texas sun. Not that it offered much of a relief, the air was still dry and humid, even with no sun.

Kurt stood off to the side of the fellowship hall as Bruce gathered the six kids staying the night. The usual suspects, as Kurt knew it would be. Jenny, Jamie, Cody, chatty Laurie as well as Randy and his friend Alex. Mattie had muttered something to him earlier about keeping an eye on the kid, as he was a known troublemaker at school.

He was surprised at her demeanor towards the kid, in the short time he had known Mattie, he had never seen her anything but bubbly and optimistic with anyone she came across.

Mattie had also introduced him to her friend Ariel Winders, a cute young woman around her age with short brown hair and surprisingly piercing green eyes. Those eyes were intelligent and they made him uneasy. Perhaps because of the striking resemblance to Carrie's eyes, and he wasn't ready for that kind of comparison. He quickly looked away as her gaze fell in his direction but he didn't miss the charming smile she quickly flashed him.

Hopefully, she was just being friendly and attempting to ease whatever awkwardness he felt for allowing his gaze to linger, but he couldn't help but feel he had already creeped her out. The last thing he wanted was for anyone to think of him as a weird creeper.

Most worrisome was the beginning of a feeling deep in his gut. Joey had said that this was his way of anticipating something about to go wrong, but Kurt was praying it was the onset of indigestion. That medium pizza from the Hut he had for lunch wasn't gonna eat itself.

Still, it would be best to keep eyes open and alert.

"Okay guys," Bruce began, "first of all, we're gonna head over the sanctuary for praise and worship, followed by some sharing time. After that, it's back over here for games and all that fun stuff."

"You really know how to start a party rocking," said Jamie.

"Because you would be the expert when it comes to your vast experience being invited to rocking parties," Jenny shot back.

"I've been known to rock a party or three," Jamie said.

"We'll just hope trying to grow closer to his God and Savior isn't too boring for Mr. Nutter," Bruce said. "Let's go."

The group began to move down the hallway in the slow and ungainly way that youth tended to go about all activities they weren't overly thrilled about.

Mattie cleared her throat, throwing a look in Bruce's direction. He met her eyes and she gave a slight nod toward the back of the group. He rolled his eyes and she narrowed hers.

"Oh... um, Kurt and Ariel?" he mentioned.

Ariel stopped as the group of kids continued, Kurt bringing up the rear. Kurt stopped next to Ariel and nodded to Bruce, letting him know he was listening.

"Could you two stay over here and kind of set up the rest of the games we didn't get to? There's not many, you'll find them in the sack," Bruce said.

"No problem," Kurt said.

"Sure thing," Ariel agreed.

"Thanks," said Bruce.

Bruce followed Mattie and the receding group of kids. Kurt quickly cut him off before he could reach them.

"Bruce, can I have a word real quick?" Kurt asked.


Kurt looked around, making sure that there was plenty of room between Bruce and the rest of the group. Not sure exactly how to express what he wanted to say or even if he should say something at all.

"Listen," he began, "I know you don't have any reason to believe me, but I have a feeling. What it is, I'm not totally sure, but maybe it has something to do with that kid that's with Randy."

"Alex?" Bruce asked.

"Yeah, the one that Mattie said something about," Kurt said. "Maybe she's right being nervous about him, I can't be sure, but I do know this sick feeling is something I felt the day in the supermarket."

"Okay...," Bruce began.

"Or I could have just had too much pizza. Look, I'm not trying to weird you out or anything, but maybe just keep an extra eye open."

Bruce nodded and jogged back to the group of kids, taking the lead. He passed Mattie, who looked back at Kurt as he rejoined Ariel and he swore he saw a sly smile cross her lips before turning back around to join her husband.

Kurt shrugged after the group and turned his attention back to Ariel.

"I guess we should start in the fellowship hall," he suggested.

"Lead the way, Mon Capitan," she smiled.

Kurt stood next to Ariel at the counter that the fellowship all shared with the kitchen, handing her a bowl and watching with disgust as she upended a squeezable bottle of chocolate syrup over it and filled it with the gooey substance. Not that he had anything against chocolate syrup, quite the opposite, but he would never cease to be fascinated and disgusted by the types of games that young teenagers were willing to play for a simple laugh.

To chalk it up to the Instagram generation would be false, as there was no doubt that he used to indulge in this type of nonsense at that age as well as getting a kick out of it and that was before the onslaught of the social media age with the willingness of kids to look like fools for the world to see.

Ariel put the bowl down and motioned for another one. Kurt handed it to her while struggling to find a subject to help break the ice. Being paired with another person that he didn't know and expected to fill in the awkward gaps of conversation was a situation that he never excelled in.

"Ariel, huh?" he began. "That's a pretty cool name. How'd you come across it?"

"My parents liked to think they were unique," Ariel said, squeezing another bottle of chocolate syrup into the bowl. "So of course they didn't want kids with uber common names, so they went out of their way to find some neat-sounding names that were kind of normal, yet a bit..."

"Unique?" Kurt supplied.

"Yeah," she said. "But let's not pretend this wasn't their excuse to name me after one of their favorite Disney characters."

"Well, that's either nice or unfortunate, depending on your point of view."

"I've gone up and down with it, back and forth. Cool when I was a little girl, not so much as a teenager, back to being cool with it as a mature young woman," she said.

She reached out and Kurt handed her the final bowl.

"How well do you know the Chances?" she asked.

"I think I know 'em pretty well, for someone that's only been around a month or so," he said.

"I've known Mattie a pretty long time, a few years anyway," she said. "Long enough to know what's going on here."

"What's... going on?" Kurt asked.

"Did you notice that slinky little smile on her face as she walked off?" she asked.

Kurt had noticed it or at least thought he did. He gave his shoulders a shrug as if to say "Yeah, so?"

"She left us alone to see if we hit it off," Ariel said.

Kurt managed to find something on the counter that required his urgent attention to wipe off with the palm of his hand.

"I don't want to make you feel uncomfortable," Ariel said. "But she's always doing stuff like this, ever since I've known her. Especially to me. I just didn't want you to be the only person in this church right now in the dark."

"It's okay," Kurt said. "This is only a little awkward. Nothing I can't handle."

"I love Mattie," Ariel said, "But it's kind of low that she roped you into this. You seem like a nice enough guy."

"I'm alright," Kurt agreed.

"And I like the way you can be humorous when uncomfortable," she said. "Some may say that's just a defense mechanism, but I like humor so I don't mind."

"I guess I wrote the book on defense, then," Kurt said. "The Stephen King of defense, in fact."

Kurt had to admit to himself, his level of discomfort had lowered considerably since Ariel addressed the elephant in the room. Thank God she was able to see the humor in it and gave him the chance to pull himself out of the quicksand he had been tossed into.

"Well, now that the ice has been adequately broken, maybe we can just chill and do our work. Even if it's not quite what poor Mattie would want, I'm always up for making new friends," she said.


The group of young teens had gathered around the pulpit and began to sing praise songs when Alex convinced Randy to show him to the bathroom. Bruce allowed them to go, after all, he wasn't going to force anyone to do anything they were uncomfortable with, and who knows, the boy maybe really had to evacuate his bladder.

Randy noticed the distinct uncomfortableness clouding his friend's face. Was Alex his friend? Even if he really wasn't, maybe they were working their way to that particular destination. Either way, Randy was the closest thing Alex had to a friend in the building that night.

He waited outside the bathroom door as Alex did his business inside. He might be willing to be his friend, but they would never be that close. He would escort Alex to the destination to do his deed, but he would not join him while he was in the act.

The door opened and Alex still looked uncomfortable as he exited, the sound of a toilet flushing as he closed the door behind him.

"Something wrong?" Randy asked.

"Uh, maybe. I don't know how comfortable I am talking about it."

Randy didn't know how comfortable he would be listening to it. He was close to declining the invite for a heart-to-heart, but what kind of a Christian would he be if he did that. Was he even a Christian? He still wasn't sure how all of that worked. Didn't seem to be the deeds that did it, but the deeds were certainly a part of it.

Sensing the hesitation, Alex motioned to a door to an empty classroom along the hallway.

"Can we go in one of these rooms and talk for a minute?"

The moment of hesitation passed and Randy knew what his answer must be. His comfortableness had been stretched quite a bit in the past months and he seemed less the worse for wear for it.

"Yeah," he said, reaching for the door handle and pulling it open.

They walked into the room and flipped the light on.

A long table sat in the center of the room surrounded by ten folding chairs. Posters adorned the walls with various verses of the Bible pasted on them. Randy somewhat recognized the room as the one used for the younger middle school kids, which would explain the attendance charts with star stickers on them, along with the fact that the verses were all ones that even he had at least tangentially heard of.

They each took a seat on opposite sides of the table. Randy had no real idea on how to broach the subject, whatever the subject may be, and indeed was beginning to feel very much unqualified to be in the position. He was on the verge of suggesting that Alex may want to talk to someone like Bruce or even Kurt but realized that he was probably the only one in the group Alex felt comfortable with.

"What's up?"

"You ever think about your death, Randy? What your funeral would be like?"

Whatever response Randy might have given caught in his throat well before it could escape through his lips. This was not the subject he had expected. Was not a subject he was at all comfortable with. How many times had the thought that his family might be better off were he not around jumped unbidden into his mind over the past couple of years? How much of a lack of purpose he felt his life held in general?

Of course, he had thought about these things, even when he didn't try to. Did he want to discuss these things, though?

"Sometimes, I guess I do," he responded.

Those were not the words he had expected to come up. "Not really," was what his brain had thought he was going to reply, but the truth had popped out instead in its unwelcome and unexpected way.

"What comes to mind?" Alex asked, a little more earnestly than Randy thought was proper.

Why not?

"One thing, really. I remember seeing Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan. At the end, Spock dies and they have a ceremony where they send him off into space. That's where they play Amazing Grace with the bagpipes. It's simply one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard. When I die, I want them to play that for me at my funeral. That's my only request. I told Dad that one day, but I don't know if he really heard me."

Yes, Randy had given it some thought. He probably didn't need to wax it so poetically, though. Death was pretty final.

Or was it?

"That would be nice. A bit of a nerdy cliche, but nice."


"Ever think how the world really wouldn't be any different if you weren't in it?"

Randy's insides suddenly felt like soup. His guts were knotted up and squeezing his stomach. This wasn't just a what-if scenario, he realized. His fledgling friend was talking like someone who was seriously considering going through with something that had only whisped past the border of his own brain.

Yes, he knew, he was decidedly unqualified for this. Unfortunately, he was the only one there at the moment and his guts (which seemed pretty undecided on whether to be knotted or liquified) lurched. His next words could be a literal matter of life or death.

He found himself continuing to be truthful.

"I used to all the time," he said. "Not as much anymore. But still… sometimes, yeah."

"I think about it a lot," Alex replied. "I mean, what do we really have to look forward to?"

"Lots of stuff," Randy said, mentally chiding himself even as the vague response flowed past his teeth, which were bravely refraining from clenching.

"Do we really?" Alex scoffed. "These so-called friends. Are they really your friends? Do you hang out with them, go to movies? Have you had even played one match of Halo with any of these guys? Or do they disappear from your life after church?"

Randy couldn't deny the truth to the statement. He enjoyed their company, but did he feel connected to any of them? The realization stung, even though he knew that half of the problem was himself. Why should he wait to be invited when he could do the inviting? The realization did little to soften the hurt that the question brought forth.

Despite all that, there was that glimmer of hope that welled inside of him. A light that he had never noticed before the last couple of months.

"God," he said. "He's worth living for."

Alex barked out a humorless laugh.

"No He's not," he said. "What proof do we have that anything good will ever come out of believing in something no one has ever seen before?"

Randy was sickened at how out of his league he was. He felt that he had stumbled through the brush of the jungle and had suddenly found himself in quicksand. And it was pulling him deeper down.

"It can be hard to see…," he began.

"Because it's not there," Alex said. "There's no reason. Not one that I can think of. Can you? Honestly and truly?"

Alex had a way of ripping the insecurity straight from Randy's soul. Things buried deep that he would rather not ponder. Things that had started to take on certainty suddenly felt fragile. It was as if Alex knew the exact string of sentences to string together to bring out his doubt. Was there a God? Was he simply just allowing himself to believe because it felt better than what his status quo had been?

The thoughts opened him up to that familiar darkness. The one that made him feel… insignificant. What in the world was he good for? What had he ever accomplished in his short life held any meaning to anyone whatsoever? Would his imprint on the world even last past, or was he just another footnote in the vast history of the world destined to be covered in the sands of time in a matter of weeks?

"I really don't know," he admitted.

How is it possible to feel what he thought was the presence of God in one minute to be reduced to a meaningless speck the next?

If he were feeling this way, how much worse did Alex feel? He knew he had to fight the hopelessness threatening to encompass his body.

"And your friends?" Alex continued. "Where were these people before you came to this church?"

"They didn't know me. Hundreds of kids don't know me."

"They didn't want to take the time to get to know you," Alex said. "Or me. Do they even talk to you at school now that they know you?"

Another sting. Randy couldn't keep the wince from his face.

"They say hi to me in the halls," he said, not entirely convinced himself.

Alex looked over at him, half-smiling in genuine humor.

"Whoopty doo dah day," he responded.

Randy found himself looking down at the table, starting to get a little defensive. Maybe he didn't have the relationship with these new people as he might have wished. Deep down he realized that Screech and Zach were close because they had years of friendship that led to where they were. And deeper down, he realized that was fictional anyway and you can't have real-life expectations based on entertainment. You will always be disappointed. Ask any middle-aged woman raised on Julia Roberts movies.

Either way, was it the fault of the teens who happened to attend the church that he managed to find his way into? Once again, he reminded himself that it was a two-way street besides.

"It's more than they did before," he said. Which was true. They acknowledged him as they passed him in between classes. Their smiles were genuine to his admittedly unprofessional

"So as not to appear the hypocrite," Alex said.

"So what if this is true," Randy said. "It's better than nothing."

As he felt himself getting heated, he could see Alex begin to deflate. The other young teen sunk deeper into his uncomfortable metal folding chair.

"Is it?" Alex asked. "I'm tired of trying to fight… everything. Tired of the pain. My family… I can't even think of them. Can't you understand?"

The heat dissipated, threatening to be replaced by the familiar coldness of loneliness. Randy also began to melt into his chair.

"Yeah, I can, actually," he said, wishing that he did not. He locked Alex's sorrowful eyes with his own. It was hard to fight the darkness. What was the point?

"More than you know, actually…"


The Blade of Agony smiled. He knew the words to speak. He knew what vessel the words should come from. Apathy was a fine strategy, but sometimes despair was the way to go. The little dust-up across the sea he had arranged with some help from like-minded friends had been adequate to distract the Windbringer.

The powerful, yet unskilled young man was on his own and a blow such as what the Blade had prepared for him would send him slinking back to whatever sewer he had squirmed free of with the full realization of just how undeserving he was. A thorn pruned before it could draw any real blood and things could go back to normal in pathetic Markland.

It would be bloody, not usually his modus operandi despite his name, but in a few days, it would blow over and everyone would become even more apathetic than before. Perhaps this little hiccup would work out for him in the long run, after all. He was pretty clever at turning inconveniences to his advantage, and why should this time be any different?

He had set the pieces in motion. He need only sit back and watch the chaos ensue.