n.b. This story is the sequel to Hellfire. You might want to go read that one first.
Three Cold Cokes
by Tony Noland
We sat and sipped our Cokes without speaking, the silence of the wheezing air conditioner stretching out among the four of us as I tried to keep it together, tried not to cry, tried not to scream that it was Tick, Tick, Tick, just Tick and Tick alone and that I'd had nothing to do with it.
The minutes passed. Reverend Carrin said nothing, just watched me and Tick and Caleb Fielding.
Tick, you stupid jerk! What have you done, I thought, what have you done? It was Friday morning when the Reverend had called our parents, saying that he was concerned about how the youth of the church were reacting to all the media coverage of the "miracle"; it was Friday afternoon when I walked into the church office and saw Tick and Caleb standing by Mrs. Singleton's desk, waiting to go in. Like me, they were freshly showered, sweating in Sunday pants and long sleeves. Caleb looked confused, Tick looked completely blank. If I didn't look terrified, then I was a better actor than I knew.
When Reverend Carrin invited us in and made a little small talk about what a strange week it had been since "the events of last Sunday", I thought maybe we had a chance. He sat us down in the chairs facing his desk and left us to get some Cokes from the little refrigerator in the outer office. Caleb whispered to Tick, asking what was going on, but when Tick said nothing, Caleb leaned across him to ask the same of me. I don't know what I might have said, but the Reverend came back at that point. He unscrewed each of the three bottles and handed them to us. Then he sat down, laced his fingers together on the desk in front of him, and said nothing more.
The sweat ran down my neck, but I didn't dare wipe at it, didn't dare look over at the other boys to see if they were as nervous as I was. I sipped my Coke and tried to be cool. Whatever happened, I told myself, I would NOT be the first one to crack. Tick was a world champion liar who could keep a straight face until doomsday. Caleb didn't even know what Tick had done, though, so it came down to me. If I could keep it together, just keep it together, I thought, I could get out of there alive.
I sipped at the Coke until it was all gone, and still, Reverend Carrin said nothing. He just sat behind his desk, a patient, expectant expression on his face, like he was interested in what we had to say, once we got around to saying something.
Don't crack, I thought, don't crack, don't crack.
I jerked at the sound of the Reverend's voice breaking the silence like a gunshot, bumping into Tick and sloshing some Coke from his nearly-full bottle. Ordinarily Tick would've raised a hell of a fuss about somebody getting a mess on his church clothes, but he kept his poker face on and didn't respond.
"S-sir? Reverend Carrin, sir?" Caleb sounded scared. Even though I felt bad for him, a massive surge of relief rose within me. I hadn't been the first one to crack. Whatever else happened, it hadn't been me.
The Reverend got up from behind his desk and said, "Caleb, I think I've kept you long enough on a beautiful day like this." With a gesture, he had Caleb get up and walk to the door. "You go ahead and run on home, now. Thank you so much for coming in, Caleb, it was good to see you. I don't get as much time to be in this kind of small group ministry as I'd like, especially with the youth of our congregation, so I appreciate your taking the time for me. Could you please tell your folks that I'll look for them on Sunday? Thank you, Caleb, you have a blessed day, now, you hear?" The Reverend stood at his open office doorway and, smiling a genial, paternal smile, watched Caleb go through the outer office, out the door and down the steps toward the street.
When he closed the door and turned back to us, the smile faded down into a somber, pained expression. He crossed the room and sat on the front of his desk, facing us with arms crossed.
"Boys." His face slowly turned from one of us to the other as he spoke in a low, slow voice that sounded like the opening of the book of Revelation. "I've been a father for a long time, boys. Both of my sons are grown and gone now, off with jobs and families of their own. They're two fine men, and I'm very proud of both of them. But, like I said, I've been a father for a long time, and I know a prank when I see one."
My leg twitched. Tick didn't move.
"But," the Reverend continued, "I've been a pastor even longer than I've been a father, and I know the hand of God when I see it." He sighed. "Boys, this thing you've done... I don't think you truly understand what's happened here. I'm setting aside my anger at the two of you for how dangerous and foolish that was, how close you two came to burning down this church." He paused. "Well, I'm trying to set aside my anger, anyway."
He stood and held his hands behind his back.
"Because you can't be angry at God for the messages he sends you, nor at the messengers he chooses." The Reverend lowered his gaze to look me right in the eye. "I don't need to know the details of how you did what you did, or which of you did what as part of this. Not yet, anyway. What's most important to me right now is that you two see that God was working through you, was taking your... foolishness... and turning it to his own purposes. Boys, even besides the effect it's had on our congregation, I've been on the phone with newspapers, radio stations, all of the major networks, the big websites, all kinds of people who want to talk about what happened here. This has been a blessing, a sign.
"Now, you know as well as I do that the world is not keen to hear the word of God, nor to see evidence of his presence in our lives. I'm realistic enough to recognize that they are calling in part because it's a slow week for news. Will the people who see and read the stories believe it as a miracle, in the traditional sense of the word? I doubt it, but they will see evidence of our community of faith, and that may inspire more of them to come to the light. Was your little stunt a miracle? No, it wasn't, but the way that God worked through you, took your prank and used it to further his church on Earth, to spread the word of peace and forgiveness to that many more people... that's the miracle."
I heard Tick snuffle. When I turned, I saw tears rolling down his cheeks, though he never moved a muscle.
"Boys," said Reverend Carrin, "I'm thinking that it would be a good idea for us to continue this discussion after you've had a little while to think about what I've said. I'm thinking that you both would like to have the chance to contemplate how God has been present within you and how God has not only saved you from your own stupidity, but has made you his chosen servants. I'm thinking three hours of service on the church cleaning crew, every Saturday from now until Christmas, would give you a good opportunity for that contemplation. So long as I see evidence that you are earnestly trying to understand God's mysterious ways, there will be no need to involve your fathers in this. How does that sound, boys?"
Tick snuffled again, choked back a sob. I looked up at the Reverend and nodded.
"That's fine, then. Whittle, I'll see you tomorrow morning at 9:00, then, alright? You run on home, now. I want to talk to David alone for a while, man to man."
When I got home, I realized that I was still clutching the empty Coke bottle in my right hand.
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