When everything you know is questioned, you find out where you stand and what you really believe…
Something had gone terribly wrong. Things like this did not happen to people like her. It had to be some mistake. She’d been trying to tell anyone who would listen since yesterday when the whole nightmare started but that was part of the problem: no one would listen.
“Move it, Cherry!” Came the loud voice behind her, accompanied by a hard shove.
Stumbling forward with a frown, she half turned to the girl behind her and mumbled. “My name isn’t Cherry.”
A sarcastic sneer and a derisive noise were her response.
Facing forward again, she regained her balance; not easy to do with the handcuffs chafing at her wrists. She followed the procession onto a small bus and started up the aisle.
Again, a push from behind. This time the tone seemed menacing. “In the back, Cherry. We can have some real fun back there.”
Her skin crawled and her stomach knotted. Quickly, she found a seat toward the middle, disturbed when the girl took the one right behind her. She tried not to look or make eye contact with anyone as the other girls boarded and took their seats. Last night she’d learned that it wasn’t a good idea to talk to anyone or even look at them.
What had happened? She wondered as the bus lurched forward. It seemed clear she was headed for a place of incarceration, but why? And with no trial or charges even filed? It didn’t make sense.
Of course, it had to do with Liam, she knew, but why couldn’t she make them understand she had no idea what he might be involved in, much less any involvement herself? Perhaps, she thought chiding herself, it was because they’d found her in a hotel where she’d spent the night with him? Did it matter that nothing had happened and that she barely knew him? How could she have been so stupid?
For over a year, the schools and churches in town had been shut down. Getting together socially was frowned upon, and in some places broken up by law.
Teenagers are generally not going to abide by such rules for long so she and her friends, who lived far enough out of town not to be on anyone’s radar much and because of the faith of their parents, not too much discouraged. had begun getting together in each other’s back yards; out of sight and with enough space to figure they were safe.
Liam had been there for how long she didn’t know. She hadn’t even noticed him, so she had no idea who he’d come with or when.
“Who is that?” Her friend Tamra asked, leaning over so no one else could hear. “He’s hot.”
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen him before.” She replied.
With his coarse, dark hair, cut short so that it stuck out over his ears and stalk straight over his forehead, deep, dark eyes, and full lips, he had that air of mystery with a hint of bad boy that most girls found irresistible. Favoring boot cut, loose jeans over skinnies and with the trendy jacket over a tee shirt, he certainly looked different than most guys they knew.
Her taste usually ran to what most called nerds and brainiacs — safe guys; but there was no denying he was extremely attractive.
He also wasn’t talking to anyone which made him even more attractive in that aloof way.
Once Tamra pointed him out, she couldn’t seem to keep her eyes from going back to him repeatedly. She was grateful he didn’t seem to notice or even to be aware of her. Not unusual really, she wasn’t the most popular girl in their crowd and one of the quietest.
When they heard the sirens, most conversation stopped. It wasn’t something that happened out here. As it grew louder and they saw flashing lights approaching on the other side of the house, the boy whose house it was rushed around the side and peered out.
“Whoa!” he exclaimed, rushing back. “There must be a dozen cop cars. They’re pulling up out front!”
Pandemonium erupted as the group began to scatter.
She had no idea what to do until someone grabbed her hand, pulled her to her feet and raced toward the back of the yard, closed in by a mesh fence. Too stunned to pay much attention, she didn’t focus until pulled behind a tool shed and pressed against it.
His hands moved to her biceps and his body shielded her in front. Standing close, he looked into her face and put a finger to his lips for silence.
Struggling against him, she scowled. “But my friends…”
Pinning her now, he put his hand loosely over her mouth and shook his head.
“Stop it!” She hissed, trying to break free.
Holding firm, he took her face in one hand and covered her mouth with his own.
It wasn’t something she did.
He was good at it and kept on until she began to relax.
The heat that rushed her felt as if it would melt her very bones.
When he lifted his mouth, he stayed close, resting his forehead against hers.
By far the sexiest, most romantic thing that had ever happened to her, it felt like a scene from a movie, and she couldn’t move. Immediately, she wanted to kick herself. What was wrong with her? She didn’t even know his name.
“I’m Liam.” He said, as if reading her thoughts.
“Chloe.” She replied, still warm with him so close.
Lifting his head now, he seemed to peer directly into her eyes. Then cocking his head as if listening, he said. “We should go.”
Chloe knew that was right so when he stepped back, she moved to go back to the yard.
“No.” He said, catching her arm and with a shake of his head. “Come on.”
Without saying anything more, he scooped her up and carried her to the fence. “I’m going to lift you up. Can you climb over?”
“Yeah, but why?”
“Just go.” He replied, hoisting her toward the top of the fence.
Confused, she climbed over not sure why she was listening to him.
Scaling it and easily vaulting over, he grabbed her hand again and drew her along the dirt path toward the street. He stopped when he came to a parked motorcycle. Handing her the only helmet, he commanded. “Put this on.”
Chloe had never been on a bike before, so she grabbed the seat behind her as she’d seen other people do until, to her surprise and alarm, he didn’t drive toward the neighborhood or town but toward the outside of the city. As the speed increased, she felt forced to cling to him for balance, her arms around his waist.
He drove out of the inhabited areas and pulled into a motel not far from the interstate but didn’t stop at the office. Instead, he parked in front of one of the rooms.
Wary now, Chloe tried to conceal how scared she was. What had she done? Was she about to be assaulted or worse yet, trafficked? How could she have been such an idiot?
Liam got off the bike and turned toward her. His tone quiet, he assured. “Don’t be afraid. I’m not going to hurt you.”
She pulled the helmet off and stood. Why she wanted to melt when she looked in his eyes she couldn’t say. It wasn’t like her.
“Come on.” He urged, as he pulled a key from his pocket and opened the door of the room before them.
Even knowing she should insist he take her home, she followed him.
He turned on the light and closed the door behind her.
A quick glance around the room revealed a standard motel room, but no personal items. She turned toward him determined to insist he take her home now.
He stepped toward her and put a hand on either side her waist.
Catching her breath, she was about to speak when she looked up into his face and forgot what she was going to say.
“I know this is weird.” He began. “But you’re safe with me.”
She frowned. “I want to go home.”
“That’s just it, Chloe. There’s nothing back there.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look, I’ll explain everything. You just have to trust me.”
When she looked into his eyes, so soft and deep, she wanted nothing more than to trust him.
“Can I kiss you?” He asked softly.
“You’re going to ask now?” She retorted, bolder than she normally was.
Oh, man, she thought. She might be in real trouble. That smile and those eyes… might be why he was successful at whatever this was he was doing.
“It was the only way to make sure we weren’t found.” He explained. The smile remained but his tone was gentle. “Now, I just want to.”
Her stomach turned gooey, and the back of her knees prickled.
Liam lifted a hand to the side of her face and kissed her softly. Then he kissed her again… and again. His hand left her cheek, and his arms drew her close.
World spinning, feelings out of control and mind nearly checked out, when she felt his fingertips on the bare skin at the small of her back beneath her shirt, she trembled and pulled back.
Not allowing her to move away, he rested his forehead against hers and moved his hands. His voice came as a breath. “I know.’
Strangely, she felt the distance when he moved away.
“You can sleep in the bed.” He offered.
Chloe glanced toward it and got the creeps. It wasn’t as if it was really dirty, but she couldn’t see herself getting in it. Involuntarily, she shook her head.
He seemed to understand. Crossing the room to the closet, he took a blanket down that appeared less worn.
“Why won’t you take me home?”
“I can’t. I know it’s a lot to take in right now, but you can’t go back.”
“We should sleep, and I’ll explain in the morning, okay? I’m tired.”
She couldn’t say why she felt inclined to trust him, but she did. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she removed her shoes.
“Here,” he said, offering the blanket.
“Where will you sleep?”
“On the floor.”
It made her feel bad, though she didn’t know why. That was probably the appropriate thing but, in the confusion, she wanted him close by. “No. We can share the bed. I mean, we’re both dressed…”
That disarming smile again as he nodded. He covered them with the blanket as he stretched out beside her.
Trembling, she felt confused and unsure but unable to think what to do.
Liam seemed to feel it. Opening his arms, he offered softly. “Come here.”
Chloe went into them, surprised by how secure it made her feel. Cuddling close, she lay her head against his chest.
Liam kissed the top of her head and held her close.
Lifting her face to his, she let him kiss her again surprised by how easy it might be to let it go further. For a minute, she wondered if this was what love felt like – the kind you saw in movies. Wow, she thought, seriously? She didn’t even know him, but she couldn’t shake the idea.
Lifting a hand to the side of her face, he said. “You’re so beautiful. And so strong.”
It almost made her laugh. She didn’t feel strong; especially lying next to him and practically wishing he’d push her. Nerves on edge, when he settled back, she allowed herself to be calmed by the soft, steady rhythm of his heart until she began to grow drowsy. Just as she drifted off, she thought she heard him speak so quiet it could have been her imagination.
“Everything’s going to be all right.”
Chloe woke to the sound of pounding. Disoriented, she sat up. It took a moment to remember where she was and how she’d come to be here. She looked around just as the door burst open.
“Where is he?” The man in the uniform demanded.
She scanned the room. The bathroom door was open, his jacket and shoes gone. Trying to gather her thoughts she asked. “Who?”
“Don’t play coy, miss. The man who brought you here.”
Man? She thought. She’d hardly call Liam a man. Suddenly, and odd to think about at this moment, she was grateful that she was fully dressed. “What’s going on? Who are you?”
“FBI. We need to talk to your boyfriend.”
“I don’t have a boyfriend.” She admitted. “I want to go home. Can you call my parents to come and get me?”
“Your parents? Who are your parents?”
“James and Jeanine Lester.”
He took something from his pocket and looked it over. The other men who’d followed him in just milled around. There wasn’t much to see in the room. “James and Jeanine Lester? Address 1046 Allenby Lane?”
“That’s right. Just call them. Somebody will come and pick me up.”
“Are you Chloe Lester?”
Something in her stomach sank. Warily, she replied. “Yes. That’s me.”
“What?” She demanded. “For what? I haven’t done anything illegal. And I’m underage.”
He stared as an officer pulled her to her feet.
“Can I at least put my shoes on?”
The officer looked at the one who seemed to be in charge, who nodded.
Sitting again, she made a show of pulling on her shoes.
Almost before she’d finished, the officer had her on her feet, hands cuffed behind her and marched her out the door and toward an official looking vehicle.
Staring out the window, she couldn’t make sense of it. What had happened here? Who was Liam and why was he wanted for questioning? And why had he involved her?
“You’d be better off to cooperate.” The man in charge said from the front seat. “Tell us where your boyfriend is.”
“I don’t have a boyfriend. I just met him, and I don’t know where he is.”
Turning to look at her, he raised an eyebrow. “Just met him and yet you spent the night in a motel with him?”
“That’s right.” She snapped. “But in case you hadn’t noticed, I’m fully dressed and slept on top of the covers.”
“Which means nothing, honey, trust me.” He replied. “But if you refuse to talk, it’s going to go harder on you.”
“What? What’s going to go harder? I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Right.” He jeered. “Maybe you’ll change your mind after you spend some time in the lockup.”
Lockup? What the heck was going on? What would go easier? She hadn’t done anything and didn’t know anything about anyone who had. How could she be in trouble? Who was Liam and what had he done? And why had he left her there alone to face it?
Staring out the bus window, she fought tears. In her mind’s eye, she could see the soft emotion in Liam’s, the winning smile and feel the rush she had when he kissed her. Still inclined to believe him, she couldn’t make sense of it all.
What was this? He hadn’t involved her in anything but had promised to explain everything. He had comforted her and gained nothing from her except a few very amazing kisses. He’d assured her she was safe with him. Yet trouble came when she wasn’t. So why had he taken her from her friends and then left her alone?
Why had the FBI guy reacted the way he did when she mentioned her parents? How had he already known who she was? How was she supposed to get out of this when she didn’t even know what it was and without her parents to help her?
Chloe paid little attention as they drove into the detention center, surrounded as it was by a mesh and barbed wire fence. She was numb through the check in and moved robotically along in the line as they were being assigned their cells. That was, until there was the now familiar shove.
“Just wait, Cherry.” Came the taunt. “Just wait until we’re alone together, locked in a cell.”
At that point, she became aware that the others were being put in cells, two at a time and there were four in front of her, the bully behind. In a moment, she got an idea. Pretending to stumble, she clamped her foot hard on the girl’s behind her.
The bully cried out as she stumbled forward.
She took the opportunity to slip into line several places back.
Irate, the girl righted herself and glared. She made the ‘eyes-on-you’ sign and huffed as she was assigned a cell with someone else.
Chloe didn’t even glance her way as the door slammed and she walked past. Next to last now, she didn’t bother to see who her cell mate would be until they were locked in.
“Clever.” Her new companion said.
“That little stunt you pulled on Marlene. Nice.”
“The chick that’s been bugging you since lock up?”
“Oh that. Well.”
“She’s gonna make you pay you know.”
With a frown, Chloe faced her now. “Pay? How? Why?”
“She’s mean and it’s obvious you’re a cherry.”
“A cherry? Why do people keep calling me that?”
“Because it’s obvious you’re new. Haven’t been in before.”
“What did you do? To get in, I mean.” The girl, petite but wiry, one arm covered with tattoos and her purple hair cut short, leaned against the bunks.
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?” She frowned.
“I mean, I don’t know. I was at a party with some friends. The police raided and this guy…” It hurt to even think about Liam. She still didn’t know how to process her feelings against what had happened.
“Oh, well.” Her cell mate snorted derisively. “A guy. That was your first mistake.”
“Men. They’re worthless, useless, and unreliable. It’s why I like women.”
Chloe tried to hide her surprise.
“Don’t worry.” She grinned. “You’re not my type.”
She chuckled, relieved.
“My name’s Finn.”
“So, Chloe. You really don’t know why you’re here?”
“No. There weren’t any charges, no trial, nothing. And they wouldn’t call my parents.”
Finn nodded. “Political prisoner.”
“Political prisoner? I thought that only happened under fascist regimes.”
She snorted again. “You must be what, some kind of domestic terrorist?”
Now Chloe frowned. “Terrorist? You can’t be serious.”
“As a heart attack. Ever protest anything? Meet at the flagpole? You know pray in public?”
“I’m a Christian, if that’s what you mean.”
Finn scowled. “That would be it.”
“But being a Christian isn’t a crime, or a terrorist activity.”
“Oh, isn’t it? Christians are bigots who want to tell everybody else what to do. Don’t you hate people like me?”
“People like you? Really?” Chloe replied sincerely. “No. Real Christians don’t hate anybody — except the devil.”
“Right.” Finn declared dismissively.
“Listen, Finn.” She began, trying to order her thoughts. “Christians just know they have the answer to the sin of the world and want to share it. It’s not about hatred or bigotry.”
“Sin?” Her brows arched. “You think just because people love somebody that doesn’t line up with your pre-conceived ideas, it’s sin? What is sin anyway? Just anything you don’t like or disagree with.”
“No.” Her determination and confidence began to grow. “Sin is any choice that separates us from God. Any behavior He’s already forbidden in His Word.”
“Then why did he make me this way?”
“He didn’t. But when mankind fell from the glory of God, all kinds of destruction entered the world. It’s called temptation and yielding to it will separate you from God; not because He’s mean but because sin can’t exist in the His presence.”
Finn frowned. “Choice? Temptation? Gay people aren’t gay by choice.”
“You may have the attraction.” Chloe asserted. “But you can choose what impulses you act on. I mean, serial killers have a proclivity toward taking people’s lives. You think God made them that way? Pedophiles want sex with children. Did God make them that way? People who don’t think they can help stealing, kleptos I think they call them. Was that God? No. Should those things be celebrated, accepted and promoted?”
“So, you’re saying someone who’s gay should never love anybody or have a meaningful relationship?”
“Of course not.” Chloe was surprised at herself. She’d never had a discussion about anything like this; she hadn’t even been entirely sure about what she believed — until now. “I’m saying that God loved you so much, He came Himself as a man — Jesus Christ — who paid the price for Adam’s treason. His shed blood freed people to make their choices, free from sin. They can accept Him as their Lord and Savior and their lives can be changed.”
Finn just stared, though she appeared to be thinking. “I’ve never heard that before.”
“God wants a relationship with you, Finn. You can be free to live a life with Him now, and throughout eternity. That’s all real Christians are trying to share.” She paused and then added. “I mean, if you knew you had the answers to people’s challenges, wouldn’t you want to share it?”
“Hmmh.” She bobbed her head. “Well okay, Christian, maybe I won’t have to kill you in your sleep.”
Now it was Chloe’s turn to stare. She couldn’t tell if her cell mate was joking or not and she didn’t dare ask.
Finn hadn’t tried to kill her though she’d stayed up the first few nights wondering if an attack was coming. She’d relaxed enough to sleep but it wasn’t as though her cell mate had an epiphany and they suddenly became good friends.
Chloe spent most of her time alone. This, she thought, must be what hell is like only on a microscopic level. Alone with a bunch of people who hated God and seemed to hate her. Time just droned on but at least she’d escape this when she died, unlike people who went to hell. For an instant she’d wondered if she’d have been better off if Finn had killed her, but she realized that was just self-pity talking and it had no place in the life of a believer. She had to believe that God had a plan, and she would survive this.
She was grateful that at least the bully, Marlene, was leaving her alone. She hoped that maybe she’d just gotten over whatever her problem was. Chloe just tried to stay out of everyone’s way.
Coming in for the lunch meal, she carried her tray in front, looking for a table where she could sit far enough away not to have to interact with anyone. Preoccupied with her search, she didn’t notice the foot that darted into her path until she tripped over it. It sent her and all her food sprawling. Getting up to her knees, she heard the laughter as she looked around.
Marlene sat at the table beside her, surrounded by her sycophants. Grinning triumphantly, she remained silent.
“Why, thank you, Marlene.” Chloe declared politely. “I was supposed to be on a fast today anyway. Appreciate the reminder.”
Finn sauntered over and crouched down to help her clean up.
“Well, now.” Marlene observed loudly. “How sweet. The roomie coming to help. You gettin’ some from the cherry in that cell at night? She your new bitch, Finn? I didn’t think skinny blonds were your type.”
“What’s it to you, Marlene?” Finn quipped.
Chloe felt her face heat up.
“Don’t forget, I could still make you mine, Finn.”
“You wish, Marlene.” Finn put the last of the runaway food items on Chloe’s tray. “I wouldn’t do you even if you were a woman.”
Trying not to look, Chloe felt something like fear. That could be dangerous for her with the way Marlene seemed to have it in for her. Quietly, her eyes met Finn’s as she asked. “Whoa. Is she…?”
“Trans?” Finn asked. “Why? That a problem for you?”
“Only if she picks a fist fight.”
“I could see that. You’re kind of a wimp.”
Chloe just scowled.
“No, she’s not trans but it really pisses her off when anybody questions her sexuality. On that, at least, she’s all talk.”
It calmed her some. She got up and made her way to the trash receptacle as Finn walked away.
Weeks had slipped by. Chloe was grateful that she’d graduated from kitchen duty to work in the library. At least there she felt reasonably safe from attack. It was well lit, always guarded and mostly quiet; the only drawback being that it gave her a lot of time to think.
Making her way back to her cell, keeping vigilant watch for any unusual movement. She’d been thinking about how unreal and unreasonable this was. No one had ever officially told her why she was here, and speculation brought Liam to mind.
It bothered her to think about him and feel the same attraction she had when she looked in his eyes. Could he really have done this to her on purpose? It didn’t make sense. He’d told her he kissed her the first time to keep her quiet so they could get away. Then he’d assured her she was safe with him, that there was nothing back at home and that he’d explain everything.
Something didn’t fit. The fact that the FBI agent had been looking for him and the way he’d reacted when she mentioned her parents. She couldn’t wrap her head around it. Was she determined to believe the best of him because he made her feel things she’d never felt before? That didn’t explain her parents, or why they hadn’t come for her.
Shuffling into her cell, she saw Finn on the lower bunk. Without a word, she started the climb to her own.
“What’s up with you?” Finn asked.
“Usually, you come in all perky. It’s annoying. So, what’s up?”
“I’m tired, Finn.”
“That’s it? You’re tired?”
“Yeah, Finn. I’m tired. Tired of living in this hell that I don’t deserve. Tired of having to watch my back because there are lunatics loose in here. Tired of working in a library where no one even reads when I should be home with my friends. I’m tired, Finn!”
“Whoa, chill. We’re all tired.”
“At least you know what you did to get here. I just met a guy, a sweet, sexy guy who left me alone and I ended up here — no accusations, no explanations — just thrown into prison and left to rot.”
“You really don’t get it, do you?” Finn replied sarcastically. “Don’t you understand? This is war.”
“War? What war? Are you kidding me?”
“It’s a culture war. For a better world.” She paused. “And people like you are the enemy.”
“People like me? Seriously?”
“Yeah, the haters.”
“Wow. Do you hear yourself? Isn’t “people like you” the tagline for bigotry?”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that anybody who’s ever been part of a group generalized based on some external characteristic, and persecuted, is a hypocrite if they do the same thing to somebody else. Not exactly diverse and inclusive, is it?”
“Well, we aren’t trying to force our lifestyle on anyone else.”
“Aren’t you? Aren’t demands for service and removal of anything that disagrees with you forcing your will and agenda on them?”
Finn didn’t respond for a minute. She got up from her bunk. “Yeah, whatever, Christian.” And walked out of the cell and down the hall.
Chloe wanted to cry. Would this nightmare never end? In that moment, Liam’s words came back. Words she’d forgotten.
You’re so beautiful. And so strong.
She realized something. All this time, she’d been feeling sorry for herself but as a believer, that wasn’t who she was. Victory was hers; God had a plan, and it was time for her to cooperate with that plan.
Unable to sleep before the cell door was locked, and knowing things were never easy with more than the usual tension between her and Finn, she decided she should find her and apologize. She went in search of her but didn’t find her in any of the usual places where the girls gathered during free time in the evening.
About to give up, she decided to check the bathroom. Not the best idea alone maybe, but sometimes people met in there to talk privately. It was the best place outside of the cells to do so.
As she wandered in, she heard noise. It sounded like… She nearly beelined out when she realized the sound wasn’t intimate but more like an injured whimper. Carefully, she ventured toward the changing area outside the shower, uncertain what she might find.
Huddled in a nearly fetal position, Finn was alone in a corner. A stream of blood flowed around one eye and her arms looked battered.
“Oh my gosh, Finn! What happened?” Chloe exclaimed as he rushed to her side.
“Get out of here, Christian. Leave me alone.”
“No.” She replied forcefully. “You need help.”
“I said go away.”
“Finn, that cut over your eye is gonna need stitches or you’re gonna have a tough time and an ugly scar. Who did this to you? Was it Marlene? I’m gonna get a guard.”
“No!” Finn’s eyes grew wild, her tone desperate. “God, how can anybody be so naïve?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Don’t you get it? If I tell, the payback will be ten times worse than this. If I show weakness, I become a target. God, Chloe, grow up!”
She refused to be offended but also to back down. “Fine. But you need to go to the infirmary.”
Finn sighed hard.
Before she could speak, Chloe continued. “I’ll tell the nurse you fell. That I found you on the floor.”
She looked up at her curiously. “You’d lie for me?”
“It’s not a lie if it’s the facts as you know them. And I found you like this on the floor. That’s all I know so…”
“And you’d help me? Even after the things I said? Why? Because I helped you clean up some food that time? You think you owe me?”
“No.” Chloe declared resolutely. “Because you’re somebody Jesus died for and if He was here, it’s what He would do.”
Finn just stared.
“Now, come on.” She demanded, grabbing her arm, and starting to pull her up.
“Ah!” Finn winced. ‘Your bedside manner needs a little work.”
With a chuckle, she replied. “Well then, I guess you better help me help you.”
It had taken several hours in the infirmary for the attendant to clean Finn up, wrap her sprained arm and stitch the gash on her forehead. A guard had accompanied them back to their cell and locked them in for the night. The whole block was silent.
Chloe watched as Finn struggled to get on her bunk and comfortable. When it appeared that she was, she approached and sat on the edge.
“What are you doing?” Finn demanded.
Boldly looking her in the eye, she answered. “I’m going to pray for you.”
“What? Don’t be stupid.”
“I’m not. I…”
“Do you know where I was going tonight, Chloe? I was going to meet a girl.”
With no change of expression, she shrugged. “And?”
“And? I was going to hook up. You know…”
“I may be naïve, Finn, but I’m not stupid. I know what hook up means.”
“And you still want to pray for me. You think your god will help me?”
“Yes.” She said with a firm nod. “God’s not your enemy. And neither am I.”
Finn frowned. “Why?”
“God loves you. Your sin doesn’t change that. It just keeps you away from Him and limits what He can do for you.”
“What happened to you tonight? You’ve been kind of mouthy and it’s not like you. It’s kind of obnoxious.”
Chloe gave a little laugh. “Someone told me tonight that we’re in a war. I decided to enlist.”
Peering at her curiously, Finn didn’t stop her when she laid a hand on her and prayed.
Finn had ended up telling her that while she’d thought she was meeting someone, when she arrived, she’d been grabbed from behind and beaten. She insisted she was sure it wasn’t Marlene or her buddies.
As they made their way into breakfast, Chloe furtively scanned the room to see if anyone looked guilty or satisfied. She noticed the surprise on Marlene’s face and decided Finn must be right.
Marlene recovered quickly. “Hot cat fight in the bunk last night, girls?”
“Shut up, Marlene.” Finn retorted.
“Watch it, Finn.” She snarled.
With a snort, she replied. “What? You gonna try to mess me up? Too late.”
“And that’s the only way you’d ever get near me.”
Chloe had been serious in her decision to engage in this war Finn had spoken of. It wasn’t easy to stay strong and motivated here. There were no indications that any other Christians were on the block though that wasn’t exactly surprising, considering the anti-God attitude so obvious by the conversations she overheard. It wouldn’t be wise to let anyone know. She’d found no Christian literature available in the library, not even a bible.
It embarrassed her when she thought about how clueless she had been, floating along in her little Christian bubble. Her world had been idyllic, and she’d expected it to go on forever. People like Finn weren’t even on her radar; not because she was afraid or offended but more that they just didn’t have reason to be. It never occurred to her that they were the very people Jesus had told his disciples to reach; that He loved them as much as He did her and wanted them to know it.
She had taken to spending time in her bunk, desperately going over in her mind what she’d heard the whole time she’d been growing up and ashamed that she’d paid so little attention to it, much less lived it out. Quietly, she prayed often and looked for what God had for her to do.
Finn leaned against the wall, picking at her fingernails, and barely glanced up as she entered.
“What’s up?” She asked both wearily and warily, having just come from her shift. It never indicated any good for anyone to loiter around their cell alone. It usually meant trouble coming but she couldn’t imagine why she might be the target of it. But who knew?
A small dark object caught her eye against the dull colorless blanket on her cot. Half hidden beneath her pillow, she crept toward it. When she pulled it from its place, she gasped. It was a pocket New Testament. She held it up. “Finn?”
“I’d be careful who I let see that if I were you.” Doing her best to keep a neutral expression, there seemed to be a knowing in her expression.
Pushing herself off the wall, she shrugged. “I couldn’t owe you.”
“Owe me? You don’t owe me anything.”
“You never told anybody… how you found me that night or why I was there.” She said solemnly and before Chloe could respond. “And when you prayed, I felt better.”
She nodded. “I told you God loves you, Finn.”
“Whatever.” Starting out of the cell, she half turned back. “You’re all right, Christian.”
Chloe smiled to herself as she disappeared down the corridor. Eager to have real encouragement, she flopped down on her cot and opened the book. Maybe the battles were less overt than she thought.
She’d read until her eyes blurred but hadn’t heard Finn come in. It made her wonder when she got up, just a little late for breakfast, if her cell mate had come in but it didn’t seem possible she’d been able to be out when the cells were locked.
As she made her way into the room with her tray, she scanned for a place to sit but could see no open tables. It was why she usually tried to come early. She still ate alone unless someone happened to sit near her, but they rarely spoke.
Finn was seated with several other girls at a table toward the back. She caught Chloe’s eye and motioned slightly with her head for her to join them.
Grateful, Chloe started in that direction, keenly aware of Marlene’s eyes boring into her back. She couldn’t figure out why that girl seemed so concerned with what she did, even after all this time. It wasn’t as if she tried to antagonize her, and Marlene hardly ever really bothered her.
Finn just greeted, “Hey,” before going back to her conversation.
Chloe had no idea what they were talking about and none of the other girls spoke to her. She finished her food quickly and left.
For showers, they were divided into two rotating groups. On days when Chloe was supposed to be in Marlene’s group, she normally ducked out and came in later for a sponge bath. Today was one of those days.
Alone in the sink area, she had washed her face and was drying it with a towel. She hadn’t noticed that anyone had come in.
“Well, well,” came Marlene’s voice. “What have we here?”
“What do you want?” Chloe demanded. In her peripheral vision, she could see she was surrounded.
“So, I guess you’re playing for the other team now?”
“Hunh?” Confused, she just frowned.
Marlene motioned with her head.
“Hey!” Chloe shouted as two girls grabbed her and pinned her arms behind her.
Another girl, who seemed to be Marlene’s closest associate approached her.
Despite herself, Chloe’s eyes widened when she saw scissors in her hand.
“I figure if you’re gonna be a dike, you should look like one.”
She’d heard the term but none of her friends used it and she wasn’t exactly sure what it meant; especially now, when applied to her. “What…?”
“You know, a lezbo. If you’re gonna be one, you should look the part. So other lezbos can identify you.”
And they call Christians bigots, Chloe thought.
“Do it.” Marlene ordered.
While the other two held her, the girl with the scissors grabbed a handful of her hair and raised the scissors.
Chloe squirmed. Her hair was fine and blond but fell halfway down her back. She fought, as the first handful hit the floor.
“Put her on the ground.” Marlene said. “Let’s see how pretty you think you are without all that hair.”
There was no stopping it now, Chloe thought, as she lay pinned to the ground and the girl hacked away at her hair. She thought about what Finn had said about showing fear and weakness. Then something she’d heard as a kid came to mind; she hadn’t been given a spirit of fear but power, love, and a sound mind. If she would keep her wits about her, she would overcome this. They’d blindsided her sure, but she could still be victorious. She prayed silently.
When she’d finished, the girl with the scissors stood up and the other two let go.
Chloe was grateful that cutting her hair was all they’d done. It could have been much worse, so she gave thanks without speaking.
Marlene motioned the others out. She stood glowering triumphantly.
Sitting up, Chloe smiled and loosely wrapped her arms around her knees as she declared. “I’m not afraid of you.”
She frowned as she peered at her without speaking.
“Woowhee, you cut my hair. Maybe you decide to mess me up or even kill me, right?” Chloe shrugged. “So what?”
Her face took on a strange expression as she stared. She mumbled, “Whatever,” turned and strode out of the room.
Chloe stood, gathered what she could of the hair and dumped it into the trash. With an apprehensive breath, she steeled herself and moved to the mirror. Her hair was short, uneven, and patchy but thankfully, the scissors had been too dull and there were no bald spots.
She ignored the looks she got as she made her way back to the cell.
“Whoa, what happened to you?” Finn scowled as she entered.
“Oh, you know,” Chloe shrugged, trying to sound casual. “My hair was getting so long. I decided it would be easier to manage if I cut it.”
“Funny.” Finn replied, sarcastically. “Seriously, who did it?”
“As I recall,” she said wryly. “What happens in the bathroom stays in the bathroom. Remember?”
“Right.” Finn nodded. “Come on.”
“I can’t have you walking around like that.” She said, starting toward the door. “It’s embarrassing.”
“I have a friend who can clean that up for you. She’s trained and everything.”
Chloe followed her. “Thanks, Finn. I really wasn’t looking forward to walking around like this.”
“Don’t get stupid about it.” She turned to her with a playful smile. “Or I’ll tell her to shave it.”
She laughed. “Okay.” Maybe, she thought, a little of what she kept sharing was getting in.
“It’s not a bad look for you.” Finn grinned as she watched her unconsciously start to gather the hair that was no longer there.
Chloe shrugged. “It’ll grow back eventually.”
“Marlene is certifiable.” She stated, shaking her head. “Somebody needs to take her down a few notches.”
“Marlene? Why?” Her eyes widened slightly as she worked to keep her expression neutral.
Finn gave her a “seriously?” look. “Come on, Chloe. I know it was her and her little pack of groupies that did that to you.”
“And you know this how?”
“I have sources. I know things.”
She pondered a moment. Clearly, Finn was wired in; she’d gotten her a bible. Knowing that anything might be available in here for a price, she shuddered at the thought of what such a contraband item must have cost her. She hoped that it was an indication that Finn would open up to the gospel.
“What I don’t know is why she’s such a bitch.” Finn shook her head. “Nobody bothers her. She doesn’t seem to want anything from anybody. She’s just mean.”
Without thinking, from somewhere inside, Chloe heard herself say. “She’s not mean. She’s hurting and scared. It’s fear.”
Finn gave her an odd look. “What’s happened to you? That you can see anything but ugly in Marlene after how she’s treated you.”
“You happened, Finn. You challenged me and it woke me up. I’d taken for granted everything I ever learned and what I believe. No more.”
“Great. I created a monster.” She rolled her eyes, but her expression told a different story.
“No, Finn. A witness.”
Chloe had been trying to find a chance to talk to Marlene since she’d realized it was God who had revealed to her what she’d shared with Finn. So far, she’d been unable to catch the other girl alone – not unusual.
It was nearly time for the library to close. The books were all put away and there was nothing left to do. Toward the front, by the door, the guard yawned. No one had come in for over an hour.
Seated behind the desk, Chloe sat quietly, praying silently. It startled her when someone came in. No one ever came in this close to the end of her shift. She was even more surprised to see that it was Marlene. Her first thought was to ask what she was doing in the library; she’d never seen her come in before. Then she realized, it was an answer to prayer; the opportunity she’d asked for.
Marlene strolled up to the desk. She chuckled. “I heard someone had given you a real haircut. I wanted to see for myself.”
“Yeah.” Chloe wondered if the other girl knew why she was here. It wasn’t the first time they’d crossed paths since the bathroom but never one on one. She ran a hand through her hair. “Thanks for trying. I forgive you for not doing a particularly good job.”
“You forgive me?” Her surprised expression held a trace of disdain. “Who are you to forgive me? Be grateful I didn’t have you messed up… or worse.”
“Sure.” Chloe nodded. “But you didn’t want to hurt me.”
“Don’t be so sure.” She sniped.
“There are only two reasons someone hurts another person.” Chloe went on confidently.
“Oh? What’s that?”
“Either they’re a psychopath.” She paused. “Or they’re hurting themselves.”
She shrugged. “I don’t believe you’re a psychopath. You don’t do it yourself and you don’t do any real damage.”
Fumbling for words, she seemed unable to find any.
Chloe lowered her voice. “You can be free of whatever it is that’s eating you.”
She huffed. “What do you know about it?”
“I don’t know the specifics, but I know the answer.”
Suddenly, her eyes went wide, her face pale. Low and gravelly, she hissed. “You are one of them.”
At that moment, Chloe realized something. This was what it was all about. She could read, pray share a few things with Finn but in the face of adversity, when standing could cost her everything, would she run and hide like a coward or stand boldly for Jesus? “I am a Christian, yes. I’m not ashamed of the gospel of Christ. It’s the power of God unto salvation for anyone who’ll believe.”
Marlene didn’t speak. She just backed away and practically fled. h
Chloe let out a breath. She’d taken a stand before possibly the one person who could cost her everything in here. And she’d never felt such peace.
“What’s going on with you?” Finn asked.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re walking around like, looking over your shoulder, like you’re expecting something.”
Several days had passed since she’d revealed her faith to Marlene. While the girl eyed her evilly every time she saw her, the attack she’d been looking for hadn’t come – yet. She sighed, leaning against their bunk. “I told Marlene I’m a Christian.”
“What? You’re kidding, right?”
“No.” She shook her head for emphasis.
“Jesus, Chloe, have you got a death wish?”
Chloe eyed her but didn’t remark. “Marlene doesn’t want to hurt me, Finn.”
“Right.” She replied sarcastically.
“If she really wanted to mess me up, she could have. Her minions had me pinned to the floor and scissors in their hand.” She explained. “She’s just a scared girl who’s hurting.”
Finn shrugged. “So?”
“Finn, Jesus is the answer to every problem and He’s coming back soon. No one knows exactly when, so we have to be ready.”
“I know more people who aren’t ready than that are.” She shook her head. “I spent my whole life just comfortable in my safe, church-centered world. I never shared Jesus with the people who need Him the most. But no more. I’m not afraid. What happens to me now is immaterial.”
“You’re either the bravest or the stupidest person I’ve ever met.”
“Maybe.” She chuckled. “Guess we’ll see.”
The guards never changed during her shifts at the library so when one she’d never seen before came in just before closing and dismissed the other, it made Chloe nervous.
Face a mask of indifference, she started toward the desk.
She knew, from rumors at least, that altercations with the guards could turn ugly in a hurry, maybe even deadly, if not handled carefully. Keeping her face clear of any emotion or expression, she met the officer’s gaze directly but didn’t speak.
In a low tone, she said. “I know who you are.”
“Ma’am?” Chloe puzzled.
“You’re the Christian. It’s time for you to go.”
Slightly unnerved, she fought for a response. Was this the backlash she’d thought was coming? Instead of another inmate, a guard? Face sober and pale, she couldn’t think of words.
“Tomorrow night.” The guard continued quietly. “Your cell will be open after lockdown. You’ll leave through the exit where they pick up trash. You know it?”
Chloe nodded. How could this be happening? Was it a trap of some kind? Barely able to find her voice, as the guard turned to go, she rasped. “How… how is it…?”
“Let’s just say you have some very persistent friends.” She went out quickly, replaced again by the guard she’d dismissed.
Shaking all the way back to her cell, she kept an eye on her periphery, half expecting someone to appear and cause her to disappear, but she made it safely, though hardly able to sleep.
Her nerves were on edge all day. It seemed like everywhere she went, Marlene was there, watching. It gave her the creeps and she wondered again whether this would be a trap, some revenge or something. Maybe just being a Christian would be enough to seal her doom here.
Finn had been distant all day and didn’t say anything before she turned in.
Chloe waited until she figured her cell mate had drifted off before creeping to the end of her bunk and stealthily climbing down. As quietly as she could, she opened the cell door just wide enough to slip through.
“Seriously?” Came Finn’s voice in the dark. “You’re really gonna leave with even saying goodbye?”
It startled her. “Plausible deniability. How did you know?”
She sat up. “I told you. I know things.”
Chloe nodded. “I’m sorry, Finn. I didn’t want to wake you or to have you involved.”
“Of course I’m involved.”
“I wish I could take you with me.”
“I’m not ready for all that.” She admitted.
Chloe crossed to her bunk and sat on the edge of it. “Finn, I know you don’t want to hear this, but you’ve been a real friend to me in here.”
“Please think about what I’ve shared with you. Jesus loves you and He wants to have a relationship with you. And don’t take too long. He’ll be here sooner than any of us think.”
“Okay” she said.
Impulsively, Chloe reached out and pulled her into a hug. “I will miss you.”
“Take care of yourself out there, Christian. It’s an ugly world.”
“I’m better prepared thanks to you, but I will.” It gave her a pain and her eyes filled so she went quickly out the door and closed it behind her. “Goodbye, Finn.”
It was eerie, creeping along the dark corridor with only the emergency lights casting their pale glow and not a guard in sight. Several corridors stood between the block and the trash area.
Chloe moved as quickly as she could without making a sound or drawing attention. Laughable, she realized since there didn’t appear to be anyone’s attention to draw. Still, she kept from running, as eager as she was to finally be leaving.
Surprising and inexplicably the trash area was better lit. It was a long, narrow room with large, heavy plastic bins open on top and wheeled on the bottom. They were used to collect the trash from the rest of the facility. At the far end was a heavy metal, overhead door with a dumpster beyond. To the left as you faced it, a metal door with a blurry glass square in the middle was the only other exit to the outside. Across from it, an alcove held slickers, gloves and other necessities used by workers in the area.
It would create too much noise, Chloe figured, to try to raise that overhead so she decided the small door must be her avenue of escape. She started toward it and was nearly there when someone stepped into her path.
Marlene stood before her, blocking the way out.
Chloe’s stomach knotted. It had been a trap after all, but she couldn’t see the outcome. Would Marlene just try to hurt her? There didn’t appear to be anyone else in the room and she couldn’t see a weapon.
“So, you’re getting out.” She declared but seemingly without menace.
Interesting choice of words, Chloe thought. She went for bold authority. “That’s right. Move.”
“One thing first.” She answered.
“What?” There didn’t seem to be a threat in her tone, and she hadn’t moved.
“I know you’re a real Christian.” Marlene stated. “I knew it the minute I saw you.”
Puzzled, Chloe’s face showed her query. Knowing what she did now about her own witness, it was a surprise anyone else recognized it.
“See, I was a Christian once too. Saved, youth group, the whole deal.”
Curious, Chloe just stared.
“Then some things happened.” Marlene swallowed hard. “I got mad at God and just walked away. But watching you did something to me.”
“Okay.” She had no idea what to say or where this was going.
“When you get out, will you pray for me? My heart has always bothered me. I want to get back, but I don’t know how.” She took a deep breath. “After everything I’ve said about Him, everything I’ve done…”
“He loves you, Marlene. Forgiveness is already yours. All you have to do is ask. He’s been waiting for you.”
“You really think it’s that simple?”
“I know it is. But don’t wait too long. He’s coming and it won’t be that long.”
Marlene nodded. “Thank you.” She stepped aside and pointed to the door. “Keep to the right-hand side of the compound. Follow the fence until you find the break in it. The guards won’t bother you. Your friends are waiting.”
Chloe opened her mouth to speak but couldn’t find the words. Marlene and Finn were part of this? God, she prayed silently, bless them with your presence and show them the way.
“You’d better get moving.” Marlene commanded. “The guard shift will change soon.”
She nodded and crossed quickly to the door. It opened silently and she started out, then half-turned. “Thank you, Marlene.”
“Thank you, Chloe.”
It took a moment to get her bearings. She hadn’t been in this part of the compound before but once she did, she moved quickly to the fence and followed it until she could see where the fence had been cut. She wasn’t sure who or what she might find as she lifted it and slipped out. Stunned, she stopped short.
Legs crossed at the ankles, arms wrapped around himself, Liam stood leaning against his bike. His head snapped up and he quickly closed the distance. Hands lightly gripping her upper arm, he leaned his forehead against hers. “Oh, thank God, Chloe.”
Arms still at her side, she had no idea what to think or say, much less how to feel. He was the persistent friend who’d arranged to get her out? How was that even possible?
“I was supposed to protect you. To keep you safe.” He offered softly. “I had no idea they could find us, or I’d never have left you alone. I’m so sorry, Chloe.”
She asked the question that had plagued her for the months she’d been held here. “Where were you?”
“I went for gas and food. I thought we had time. Can you forgive me?”
Lifting her arms so that his moved off, she attempted to meet his eyes, shadowed though they were. “Yes. I forgive you. What satan meant for evil, God turned for good.”
“What do you mean?”
“He thought sending me to a place like this would destroy me. At first, I thought so too. I’d never paid attention to the culture war we’re in. I was selfish; a weak, complacent, barely lukewarm Christian at best. I found my faith — my own faith and my voice — in there.”
“I knew the moment I saw you how strong you were. And so beautiful.”
Instinctively, her hands went to her hair and smoothed it.
He took her face in his hands now. “So beautiful.” Hesitantly, he leaned in to kiss her and when she didn’t pull away, he did.
That feeling was back; the one that had her knees tingling and her world spinning. When she could think, she asked. “Are you here to take me home?”
“No. That whole area has been destroyed.”
“Are safe. I’m here to take you to them.”
“Now, we’d better get out of here.”
This time she followed him without hesitation.
They drove awhile before he pulled off again into the parking lot of a small motel.
“Seriously?” Chloe quipped playfully as they dismounted.
With that smile that could melt her bones, he replied. “I’ll never leave you again.”
The confidence she’d gained from her stay in prison let her close the gap, pull his head down and kiss him full on. She found it difficult to stand as the kisses kept on.
“Come on.” He murmured against her ear.
She watched as he opened the door and followed him inside.
Immediately, he went for the closet and took down a blanket.
Standing firm, she said. “Talk to me, Liam.”
“I want to know what happened. How you knew to get me out of the neighborhood. What happened to my parents…”
He nodded as he set the blanket on the bed and sat down, indicating she should join him.
Chloe sat next to him. She didn’t resist when he took her hand.
“Your parents are part of an underground cell. Serious believers who’ve been meeting during the lockdowns to have church and engaged in the battle for the culture. Not everyone from your church was involved.” He took a breath. “But the authorities kind of lumped everyone together.”
“You’re part of it?”
He nodded. “I know them. When they found out the Feds were coming, they sent me to get you. They didn’t want to be obvious, and I could blend in with your friends.”
“My parents knew they were coming?” It made sense now why the FBI agent had reacted when she asked him to call them.
“Yeah, they were one of the two couples that got away before the neighborhood was destroyed.” Liam sighed. “They made it look like an angry mob did it.”
“Safe and waiting for us.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry it took us so long to find you.”
Her voice went soft as she squeezed his hand. “I’m glad you did.”
That smile again. “Me too. Now we should get some sleep. We’ve got a long way to go.”
They slept again on top of the bed, under a blanket.
He wrapped her in his arms and held her close as they drifted off.
It felt like a new world when she woke. It took her a few minutes to get her bearings, remember where she was and with whom. Faced away from where he’d been. Turning with a start, she let out a sigh.
Sleeping peacefully, his chest rose and fell with soft breaths, hair tousled and arm over his face.
He was still here. God had delivered her. Now together, they would take Him to the world.