Chapter 15

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Walking into the church is hard, even though I've made a verbal agreement to enter with Belle. As I said, the last time I sat in those pews was either to listen to another plan for a shipment swap or a snooze-worthy sermon from a preacher who could make even Ned Flanders doze off. What if this is exactly the same? Even if Belle is my age, she could be the same as the rest of them. Is she a sad and desperate Christian eager to force me into a relationship with an invisible God?

I couldn't have been more wrong. My brief glance at what was inside the church revealed soft strobe lights and a bunch of laughing, crowded people holding red plastic cups surrounded by tables filled with punch bowels and party food. The church pews have been pushed back so the floor is clear. As I follow Belle down the center to the group gathered, I feel nervous butterflies take flight in my stomach. What will they think of me? That I'm some homeless girl in need of a safe place to take refuge? Or am I another lonely soul they need to save?

"Everyone!" Belle announces as we approach the group. The cheesy music freezes halfway through a chorus and all the faces in the room – about twenty-five to thirty – turn to me. "This is Jess. Be nice to her."

A few people wave cheerfully, that same luminous glow about them. Others nod in my direction and smile sweetly. A boy just as young as Belle steps away from his group of friends and beams at me, holding a cup of orange punch in his fingers. He's tall for his age, lanky in some places and not all that attractive, with deep auburn hair and freckly skin. He welcomes me with the same cheerful, shining smile as Belle.

"Can I get you a drink, Jess?"

I shift nervously on the rich, red carpet. "Sure, thanks."

I follow him to the drinks table and look around for Belle. She must think I'm in good hands with this guy if she runs away so soon. Sure he's sweet, but he doesn't seem like the kind of guy who lures you in with charm and a muscular physique into his bed. I never much liked the naive kids. They have a lot to learn.

He looks up at me as he pours me punch. "So are you from around here?"

"Uh, yeah I'm sort of residing with a friend at the moment. I moved away from home when I was fifteen." His eyes switch from the punch to mine, filled with pity, but also something else. Admiration maybe? "I didn't get your name?"

"Oh sorry, it's Ted." We shake hands and he has a puzzled frown on his face as he hands me a cup. "I swear I know you from somewhere."

I am too surprised to think about drinking. I have never seen this kid in my life, how does he recognize me?

"Really?"

"Yeah ... I guess if I can't remember, it must've only been a glance."

"I'm pretty memorable," I say and sip the punch. It's sweet with a bitter fruit taste. I love it.

Grinning, he turns around and crosses his arms as his eyes roam the mingling crowd. His brow is furrowed, his eyes deep in thought trying to remember where he'd seen me. I want to distract him, make sure he isn't one of those random people who saw me deal at a club or maybe he's seen my face on the criminal board at the downtown prison. Not that you'd ever see this guy in the clinker.

"So what exactly have I walked into?" I ask him.

Ted's eyes dart to mine. "Do you ever feel like there's no one in the world who understands you?"

I only have one answer to that question, and that is fuck yes. My family, Alice, even Nick can't understand why I go around committing crimes only to get caught, sent to prison and be released all over again. No one gets it. Sometimes I don't even know why I do it. But I know it's me, it's what I do.

I nod casually. "Occasionally."

He shoots me a small smile. "Well, I've found a place where everyone accepts me for who I am and for what I love to do."

"Where's that?" I ask. I have to find this place.

His grin widens, reaching his eyes. "Here. These people don't judge, they don't discriminate and they get excited for your dreams and help you to reach them. I love it here because I can be myself."

I look up at Ted's face, watching the lights from the strobe flash across his skin. His eyes glaze over for a moment and I wonder what he could possibly be thinking about.

"So what's your dream then?" I find myself asking.

He sighs. "You'll think it's stupid."

"Hey," I place my empty cup down on the table and cross my arms. "I thought we don't discriminate here?"

Ted laughs. "Touché. Alright ... ever since I was a little boy I wanted to sail around the world. My father passed away when I was nine. He always used to take me sailing. I was too afraid to go beyond the bay we lived near but one day I told him we'd go further, out to the very edge of the ocean, until we found land again. He laughed and promised me that one day we would. I told myself after he died that I was going to keep that promise."

His story captivates me and causes me pain. Even a boy as young as this has a dream. He has a goal, one that he will strive to complete. What do I have? No purpose, no reason to live. No dream at all.

"I don't think that's stupid," I tell him.

"You're only saying that coz you're here."

"No, seriously, you should be proud of your dream. At least it's achievable."

His eyes feed upon mine, sharp and serious but also filled with warmth. They burn into me like a flame to a candle.

"Anything is possible, Jess. You just have to believe in the higher power that'll help you achieve it."

I've heard this before but never from someone who truly trusts it. Ted has a dream and he knows that one day he will fulfil it. But how can he be so sure? It isn't set in stone, what if something goes wrong?

"Ted!" comes a voice from behind the punch table and we both spin to see Belle approaching, a new bowl in her hands. "Could you take the old dish back to the kitchen for me please?"

Ted jumps up at the opportunity to help and I watch him go feeling somehow elated, as if our conversation was part of a dream I've been having. The realization that I am in a church talking to a boy I've never met before about believing in the impossible hits me and I wonder, where is the down-to-earth Jess who's always getting into trouble for crimes no normal teenager should even think about committing? Why am I here again?

The Southbend Bikers.

I snap back to reality and focus on the time. According to the old clock that looks like a piece of china with hands on it has just passed ten o'clock. I haven't even heard the bell chime. So that gives me less than two hours until they arrive.

Another problem has just sprung to mind. When will these people leave? The bikers have to know about this little gathering, or else they wouldn't have scheduled the meeting here so early in the night. Although, I expect that midnight would be getting a bit late to stay and chat for some of these churchy folks. Many of them look like they might have kids at home, or possibly husbands. Both maybe. How long will they be here?

I decide to ask Belle.

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