#FridayFlash: Three Cold Cokes

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.

"Caleb."

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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27 comments:

  1. Janet Aldrich (tec4)Nov 12, 2010, 12:23:00 PM

    I love it, Tony. You could do a serious, literary Mitford kind of novel based on the father and his relationships with his parishioners. I like him.

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  2. Nice, slice of life types stuff. I love how the preacher got their guilt out of them without them having to say a word, and how he knew which boy was innocent of the whole matter. Nicely done.

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  3. Nice, slice of life types stuff. I love how the preacher got their guilt out of them without them having to say a word, and how he knew which boy was innocent of the whole matter. Nicely done.

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  4. Well done, edge-of-seat reading; you held me from the beginning to the end.

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  5. Great follow-on piece from last week's, Tony. I like how the priest made them suffer in silence when he knew they were the two responsible but decided to make their prank work for him, his Church and the greater Good.

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  6. Thanks, guys. This is a little different than the kind of thing I usually write, so I'm glad it worked for you.

    @Janet: Heh, I have enough novel writing on my hands ATM, thanks.

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  7. Good one, Tony. You presented a very well-drawn portrait of the preacher and the boys. It was very well-rounded and realistic, 3-dimensional. There's a lot going on in this story, and I commend you for it.

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  8. The hand of God works in mysterious ways. And I like to think that he has a good sense of humour too.
    Great voice of the pastor; fatherly in a way that is compassionate and just.
    Adam B @revhappiness

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  9. Nice follow-up to last week, Tony. Really love the voice of the narrator, pitch-perfect. Glad to see you squeezed in a few extra words this week ;^) Peace...

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  10. Excellent story! The pastor was perfect in how he handled this. Loved the voice of this.

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  11. This has the same childhood mischievousness that Tom Sawyer had and the way the pastor approached the boys reminded me a lot of the teacher when Tom took Becky's punishment. I think Twain would have liked this one a lot. I sure did. :)

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  12. I love the voice... and pretty much the perfect bookend from last week's flash, Tony... I went to a Catholic school so there were a few things here that I could kinda identify with

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  13. Great characters, or should I say people. So vivid, felt like I knew tham for a moment of thier lives. Great job!

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  14. I'm all for trying different things, Tony, as you know since I've stood up for your experiments before. This is the closest to a monologue story as you've come, and it's interesting to see the experiment. If you want feedback, I'd look at the Rev's actions, particular the mid-dialogue actions like him sighing, and see if they add much or just chop up voice.

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  15. Thanks for your great comments, everyone. NaNoWriMo has made this a strange month in a lot of ways.

    @ Alderspring: The suspense of this one was a somewhat different flavor than "Hellfire". This was really up close and personal; I'm glad it worked for you.

    @ Maria, Kath, Adam, Anthony: I'll admit that I was on the receiving end of those "sweat the truth out of them" sessions once or twice (or thrice...) as a boy. I never cracked, but always got caught anyway.

    @ John M., Linda, Eric, Jason: The voice last week was all about Whittle. This week, it was the pastor, as heard by Whittle. That was part of the experimentation here, and I'm glad the character came off convincingly for you.

    @ Ganymeder: That's really interesting - it never occurred to me to see this as a Tom Sawyer moment. I think Tom's big concern, though, was perennially about being caught as opposed to the rectitude of the action itself. They say that true forgiveness can only arise from true remorse. Tom and Huck are in big trouble; Whittle and Tick might have some hope. 8-)

    @ John W.: Thanks for your support of these experiments, and thanks for the feedback. This interruption of speech is something I've been trying to work through for a long time. I like writing dialogue and could go on for pages with nothing but. However, all the writing books and experts recommend against people sitting and talking for paragraph after paragraph with no physical action. Showing someone pick up a pencil, swivel in their chair, sip their coffee, etc. helps to break up the verbal monoliths without significantly reinforcing emotions expressed in the text, whereas indications of active body language (scowling, sighing, throwing a pencil down with a slap, shoving the chair back, etc.) do reinforce the speech.

    Obviously, it's something I'm still working on. My characters all sigh way, way too much. It comes from reading Jane Austen, I fear.

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  16. I liked the way you brought out the inner tension of the characters.

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  17. So, so good. Not just tension, but young, scared boy tension. I felt I was sitting there with the boys, trying not to cower, that bottle of Coke's condensation dripping along with my sweat. Terrific stuff.

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  18. You and me both, Tony, on eternal dialogue. There was a time when I didn’t write much of it at all, and then a phase when it was almost all I wrote. Next week’s #fridayflash is largely a chat, and I sort of did a monologue story yesterday, too. Spewing dialogue is fun exercise, even if it’s not always (or even usually) publishable.

    I’ve certainly read plenty of advice against unfiltered dialogue, but I think most of them are at best generalizing blindly, and at worst, are flat out wrong. Hopefully they’ve researched it with lots of reader feedback, much more than I have. But I pump my readers and am very attentive to how I perceive fiction, and think there are two main reasons why readers dislike dialogue for two main reasons. The first is that they want action, to watch character do vital things that push the story forward, and almost no dialogue do this – there are plenty of complaints about books where the characters sit around talking. The Aaron Sorkins of the world will seldom win over this crowd, as much as I love Aaron Sorkin.

    The other reason is that dialogue is often functionally boring. Every sentence in a story needs to serve purposes, but every sentence dialogue gets this doubly so. It has to be clever or witty, establish or carry appealing tone, express essential information about the plot or character – which is to say, every sentence of dialogue has to be worth reading. Readers will happily scarf down blocks of dialogue if Terry Pratchett is being funny or Stephen King has them curious about the phone crazies or Shirley Jackson simply has them charmed - in which case you don’t need tags nearly as much. People don’t complain about all the chatter in Discworld because it’s entertaining. If it’s dull to the point where you need tags to excuse it (which I don’t think happens in your story above), it should be fixed, folded into the good stuff, or cut altogether.

    I can’t speak for all readers. Maybe I’m the freak, but when I read explicit dialogue tags, even if a sigh or a glare is supposed to emphasize emotion, it breaks it. The emotion should come through the words, and interspersed actions should be interesting in themselves; just as you don’t want generic dialogue, you don’t want generic action. You’re far from the only #fridayflasher who might use “sighing” too often (and I haven’t noticed it in many of your stories). It’s different when the tag is more than a tag – if the action is important, essential to what’s happening in the scene or an on-going goal (“The sheriff snapped his shotgun shut” before he says something about those bandits or somesuch).

    I could also be delusional from lack of sleep. Going to try to hit the sack. Cheers, Tony!

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  19. Really enjoyed the story, Tony. I'm also fascinated by the discussion between you and John!

    I'm weighing in on the sigh: I liked it. For me it's more about pacing. The sigh disappears like the best generic tags (said, answered), but it conveys information about the character inconspicuously. Reverend Carrin pauses--and the slow build-up of the story would be lessened if he suddenly started talking nonstop w/ no breaks. Likewise, inserting jarring action would draw the focus away from his words.

    I'm a much better reader than I am a writer, so I can't always say that the sigh works in my own writing, but in this piece? I really do think it works.

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  20. An excellent follow-up to last week's FridayFlash, Tony. I like how the priest knows exactly who to dismiss first. Such a discerning soul. I also love your ending, how the lead didn't even know that he was still holding the bottle. Some events place us in a walking stupor, don't they? Good stuff.

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  21. Tony, I'm so glad you decided to show us the consequences of those poor boys' actions. What a fantastic job you did with this! Perfect, realistic "speech" from the Reverend, and I doubt the kids will ever forget this lesson.

    Bravo!

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  22. I don't have time to give your wonderful comments the response they deserve, but thank you all, especially John Wiswell. I learn something every time I talk to him.

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  23. That is one awesome pastor. He's media-savvy but I get the impression he still cares about his community. And it's a nice telling off, in a way, particularly when he tells them that their prank has helped to spread a peaceful message. Aw it's just lovely.

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  24. That's a very good follow up. I like the way the pastor handled it.

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  25. Great stuff, Tony. I love how seamlessly this week's piece dovetails in with last week's. Will we be hearing more of the boys, I just have a sneaking feeling there is more to come from them.

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  26. Oh, this is a brilliant sequel Tony, I could almost taste the tension, and the Pastor's dialogue was absolutely perfect.

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  27. Not only did I find your story interesting, I also got wrapped up in the comments. Both thought-provoking and well said. (Oh god, I sigh a lot.)

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