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Chapter Two ………………

Dean was right— August 12 is circled on my calendar in red. On this Wednesday, the full two-dozen members of Youth Leaders, our high school group at church, are seated in the sanctuary, voices buzzing about Hell House. Some people will volunteer today for behind-the-scenes jobs, like set design and lighting, but I’m planning to hold out for what I really want—a lead role in the show. I’m only going to be a junior and I should wait until next year to get a meaty role, but I want one now. I’m ready . . . I think. Last year I watched Julia Millhouse play a pregnant teenager. When the lights went up in the nursery, where they staged her scene, she said her lines with so much emotion that people in the audience started to cry. I’d see them come through the lobby after the show and hear them talking about her perfor mance. I want that spotlight. I want to be able to affect people that way too.

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I’ve grown up with Hell House all my life, but Dean’s cousins in the next county over think it’s something weird that religious nuts do. It’s not. It’s a way to show people the right path. After all the scenes of sin, Satan threatens the audience. My dad always plays the devil—he thinks it’s funny to be the children’s pastor and the Antichrist. And Pastor Frist’s Jesus bathes Hell in white light at the very end, leading the audience into Heaven (also known as the church library, all done up in white sheets and cotton clouds), where they get decision cards. Most people fill out the cards and agree to at least explore a Christian life. It’s a magical weekend and an incredible outreach, especially for young people who don’t have a path to Christ like I’ve grown up with. Mom always reminds me how lucky I am to have that. I’m sitting with Starla Joy and her sister, Tessa, who’s fingercombing her wavy brown hair as we wait to hear about this year’s production. Tessa played an EMT last year in the drunk driving scene, and she got to say, “I’m sorry, Mrs. Kerner, your daughter is dead.” Everyone thinks she’ll get a big part this year since she’s pretty much the senior girl with the most rank here. Even in church— especially in church—there’s a social hierarchy. Dean’s late, as usual, and when he finally comes in I have to remind him to pull off his hoodie while he’s in the sanctuary. His hair is all over the place and I help him pat it down and tuck it behind his ears so he looks semirespectable. He has a Fiber One bar in the front pocket of his sweatshirt and he’s sneaking bites. “What?” he asks when I look at him sideways. “Like you’ve never snuck in a snack, Miss Pop-Tarts.” ……

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He’s right, I did used to eat strawberry frosted Pop-Tarts during church . . . when I was five years old. My father and Pastor Frist get up to start the meeting, and I look around the pews anxiously. I should be focusing right now, but I can’t seem to clear my mind. I’m annoyed by how much I’ve been thinking about the guy from the DMV, and now he’s in my head during the most important church meeting of the year. “This year, we’re using a new script that a bunch of pastors have worked together to create,” says Pastor Frist. “And Pastor Joe Tannen wants a report on our outreach so he can learn more about Hell House’s influence.” Everyone gasps excitedly, and I’m immediately paying attention. I can’t believe Dad kept this information from me, but he does love a surprise. Pastor Tannen has a congregation in Oklahoma, and even though he’s like eighty years old, he’s always been a huge figure in the evangelical world. It’s amazing that he wants to know more about Hell Houses. They’re kind of like haunted houses, which is why we do ours over Halloween weekend. Tour guides dressed as demons take the audience through the church, room by room, to view scenes of sin: a drunk driving crash, a suicide, domestic abuse, and an abortion. My dream role—the one Julia played last year—is Abortion Girl. “All right, all right,” says Dad, waving his hands to quell the energetic whispers. “We’re primed for this too. And it means there’s going to be some intense material this year— even more than in years past.” I look over at Dean, who’s resting his chin in his hand. I elbow him and he sits up straight. I don’t know why he’s not more excited—this script is going to be amazing. “The first scene— or should I say sin—is Gay Marriage,” ……

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says Dad. “I’m sure we all know about people who’ve chosen this path. Some are even famous celebrities.” A low “boo” rises up from the crowd, mostly led by Geoff Parsons—the kid who hasn’t stopped calling Starla Joy “butterfingers” since she dropped a key fly ball during a church softball game in eighth grade—but Pastor Frist quiets it quickly. “Now, now. Hate the sin, not the sinner,” he says, and his broad smile makes the skin around his eyes crinkle fiercely. “This scene will be a very powerful opening for our best Hell House yet.” That gets a cheer. “The sacred institution of marriage between a man and a woman is further disgraced by the unholy union of a man and a man,” continues Pastor Frist, “and Satan wouldn’t have it any other way, would he, guys?” Sometimes Pastor Frist smiles to punctuate a rhetorical question, and his big white teeth look like they’re living entities. Like they could jump right out of his mouth and beam at you up close, in 4-D. It’s always freaked me out a little. Another low “boo” rumbles, and my dad takes the mic. “This scene will be done carefully,” he says. “We’ll have a married couple playing the role of husband and husband, because there will have to be physical contact here.” There’s a ripple through the crowd as we imagine two men kissing. I’m relieved it’ll be a husband-and-wife couple performing. It’s only right. “I think Mrs. Wilkins could play a guy,” whispers Dean, and Starla Joy cracks up. I hit Dean on the leg— Mrs. Wilkins can’t help her whiskers. Tessa rolls her eyes at us like she’s so mature and goes back to inspecting her split ends. ……

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The Hell House prep meeting always goes like this— I’ve sat in on a few just to be with my dad. He and Pastor Frist go back and forth, introducing each scene and its underlying message, why Jesus calls on us to cover certain topics this year. But today, in this meeting, I’m on the edge of my seat. I actually get to audition this year— I get to be considered for a lead role, and whoever plays Abortion Girl becomes a part of town history. “Now, we haven’t worked out all the scenes yet,” says Pastor Frist. “We’ll have another meeting soon. But we did want to tell you about Pastor Tannen’s involvement, what the opening scene would be like, and we also wanted to show you an incredible new addition to the prop closet.” Pastor Frist gestures to Dad, who reaches under the pulpit and pulls out a gun. And I mean a gun. It looks like something a drug dealer would have—black and solid, scary looking. “That isn’t real, right?” whispers Starla Joy. I blink. I’m not sure. Dad holds it flat in his hand, moving his palm up and down to demonstrate that it’s heavy, not like the plastic guns we normally use as props. “This baby is from Utah,” he says. “It has the weight of a real gun and it sounds completely authentic when fired.” Then he turns to the back of the church, points right at the dove shape in the giant window, and pulls the trigger. A huge bang! echoes through the sanctuary. Every single person jumps, Tessa screams, and Maryanne Duane, who carried around a note last year that got her out of gym class every day at school, starts crying. “You can’t say it’s not dramatic,” whispers Dean. I see him smiling. Well, if it takes a real-looking gun to get him into Hell House this year, then I’m glad we have one. I’ve never shot a real ……

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gun, but I know most of the guys in town have been to the rifle range. Even Starla Joy’s mother has a handgun that she carries around with her since their dad left. People say she sleeps with it under her pillow, but I’ve never asked Starla Joy about that. Dad turns around, grinning. “I’m sorry, Maryanne,” he says. “These are just blanks— I promise. But I think your tears prove that this little lady is effective.” He eyes the gun admiringly and places it back under the pulpit. Suddenly, I hear a voice above the mutters. It’s coming from the back of the sanctuary. “Pastor Byer,” says the low voice, and though it’s soft, it echoes with a quiet confidence. I turn to see the golden boy from the DMV slowly walking down the center aisle. He’s wearing khaki shorts and a sunny yellow polo shirt, and he hasn’t taken off his sunglasses, even though he’s inside. I wonder if he always wears them. He’s closer to the front now, almost to my row, and he lowers his voice to continue. “Excuse me, but isn’t that a little . . . ,” he pauses, glancing over at our row. His eyes move in my direction, but I can’t tell if he’s looking at me—the lenses are too dark. “Extreme?” A hush has fallen over absolutely everyone. You could hear the Holy Ghost breathe it’s so quiet. Then my dad’s familiar voice answers, and it’s tinged with the fervor he gets when he feels really passionate about something. “Son,” says my dad, staring back at the preppy newcomer with determined eyes. “You gotta shake ’em to wake ’em.” The new guy’s lips turn up in a half smile, and he nods his head, finally lifting up his sunglasses. He joins our row, sitting down next to Dean. “Yes, sir,” he says.

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Chapter Three ………………

When I get home that night, all I want to do is talk to Starla Joy and Dean about what happened today at church. My parents whisked me away after the Hell House meeting, so aside from a few “OMW!” texts (for “Oh my word!”), the discussion about the new guy hasn’t started yet. I didn’t even get to say hello to him after the meeting, which wasn’t very neighborly. I’m sure Dean and Starla Joy are messaging up a storm, but our only computer is in the living room, and Dad’s using it while Mom makes dinner. I sit down on a stool in the kitchen and take a pretzel stick from the jar on the counter. Mom looks up. “I won’t ruin my dinner,” I say. “I’m just really hungry.” “Good,” says Mom, smiling at me, “because I made a lot.” She pauses for a moment like she’s thinking about something. “Honey, do you think Dean will get involved with the craft auction again this year?” she asks. “Probably,” I say, shrugging and crunching on my pretzel.

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“It’s going to be great,” she says. “Leslie Davis and I just started planning it. Laura Bergen can bead some more of her gorgeous earrings and I’ll see if Dean can build some of his miniature houses. People just love those for Christmas decorations.” I nod. Mom can get very excited about charity auctions. “I’ll ask him about it at dinner tomorrow,” she says, smiling at the thought. Dean’s coming over to help my dad with a project he’s working on in the garage. Dad likes tiny little scale models of towns, and I just don’t see what’s cool about them. Dean does, though. He and my dad have been building this one together for months. Mom turns back to the stove, and I watch her stir the sauce for spaghetti. She starts humming—the sign of a good mood— and I see my opening. “Mom,” I say, “if you’re not going out tonight, maybe I can take the car and pick up Starla Joy and Dean so we can get ice cream or something after dinner.” It’s not a lie—we will get ice cream. And we’ll talk about the new guy! I’m almost giddy with anticipation, but I’m trying to act normal. It doesn’t help. “I don’t think so, honey,” says Mom, her hands covered in blue flowered mitts as she pours the water from the pot of spaghetti over the strainer in the sink. “Maybe tomorrow night, kiddo,” says Dad, when I turn to the living room with plaintive eyes to get his take on this obviously unfair negging of my completely reasonable request. “We need to go over some rules for the car now that you’ll be taking it out on your own.” I frown but I don’t say anything. I’ve never been able to push the issue when it comes to my parents. I’m their only ……

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child, and I guess they just want to watch out for me. But I feel a tightness in my chest, like there’s something constricting it, and I have to take a deep breath to get the air flowing again. “Dinner’s ready!” says my mother brightly, ignoring my sigh and taking off her purple polka-dotted apron. She starts shredding some fresh Parmesan as a final touch. When Mom sits down, we all bow our heads automatically. Every night Dad says the same prayer, but he tweaks it a little so that I’m grateful for something specific in my day. He’s been doing that since as far back as I can remember. Tonight Dad says, “Lord, thank you for bringing this food to our table so we may enjoy time as a family and the sustenance of you, our God. Thank you for this year of Lacey’s official Hell House debut, which she will use to turn hearts your way. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.” “Amen,” we echo.

I decide to go for a walk after dinner. My parents may still control the car, but it feels good to just say, “Going for a walk,” and then head out the door without waiting for permission. Baby steps. I take my iPod and put it on shuffle so it can set my mood for me. It cycles to an old Abandon song. I turn left and walk down the street, taking in all the different mailboxes—the Carters have a painting of cardinals on theirs, the Gregorys went for solid black with a simple red flag, and the Shipmans’ is shaped like a boat. Ha-ha. Suddenly I hear a loud car coming down the road behind me. Our street is a known cut-through in town, so people drive ……

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too fast sometimes. One of Mom’s pet projects is trying to get speed bumps put in, but she hasn’t been successful. Maybe because the mayor uses this route to get home from city hall. I step onto the Shipmans’ lawn and look over my shoulder at the approaching car. It’s loud. Really loud. Like someone took off the muffler. It’s also red. I half expect it to be some vintage hot rod like Starla Joy’s father used to work on in their driveway when he was still around, but when it speeds past me I see that it’s an ancient eighties BMW with rust on the trunk. And I see a flash of the person in the driver’s seat. It’s him. My heart speeds up. Please see me and stop, please see me and stop. But the rusty red BMW just speeds past, and I’m left to continue my normal, everyday neighborhood walk. See, this is the difference between real life and the movies—in a movie, he would have stopped. Or at least waved or something. He probably didn’t even see me. I’m transparent. I’ve never had a boyfriend. Last year my dad gave me a True Love Waits ring as a symbol of how I’ve promised to remain a virgin until I get married. It’s silver and shiny, with a cross in the middle and two hearts on the sides, but I feel like it’s unnecessary. I don’t need a ring to remind me to stay pure— I haven’t even kissed a guy, let alone gotten close to anything beyond that. Maybe because I’ve known everyone who lives here my whole life, and they’ve known me—and I’ve always been a good girl. I don’t think the boys in this town see me that way at all. Starla Joy has kissed people. Two, in fact, but both of us know we won’t go any further until we’re married. I don’t want some throwaway boyfriend; I’m waiting for something that lasts, like in that movie The Notebook, which Starla Joy and I have watched together about thirty times. Even though Dean makes ……

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fun of me for believing in fairy tales, I want a love like that one day, one that spans decades and withstands hardships and even disease. It’s just hard to see the guys you’ve been with since kindergarten as anything more than paste eaters sometimes. The thought of something different is . . . exciting. He doesn’t know who I am or what I’m like or how I’m supposed to be. I could be brand new. If he’d just talk to me. I’m heading back to my house after half an hour of meandering around the road I’ve walked all my life when the loud sound of a missing muffler rises over the strains of Taylor Swift’s best love song. And I turn to face the car. He aims right for me as he slows down, leaning the hood a little to the left so I’ll be dead center in his headlights. I’m too astonished to be scared. Something is happening. The car stops a foot in front of the curb and his blond-withsunglasses-on-top head pops out of the driver’s side window. “I’m Ty,” he says, smiling a smile that lights up the street. “Wanna go for a drive?”

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Small Town Sinners by Melissa Walker  

A fascinating story of first love and finding your own voice set against a backdrop of extreme religion.

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