It started with less to do with the cigarette smoke that his father could smell on his breath, and more to do with the way he spoke of heaven: it started with “ifs”. And then he spoke of God with even less certainty. To him, the idea of heaven was a nice notion, and he wished that he could believe in it with the same firmness that his family did, but in the end, all he could believe was that it was a story.
Even though he’d gone through health class twice because he’d transferred from one school to another and the second school lost his records of him ever taking a health class, and even though he was basically an expert on peer pressure and illnesses from smoking, he still smoked. Sometimes, he would smoke outside of school when waiting outside for his mom to pick him up, when the wind would carry off the smoke and he’d be able to see his mom’s car before she was close enough to see him. He’d drop the cig on the ground, stomp it out, and pop in a mint before clambering into her car. Sometimes, he blew the smoke out the window of his bedroom when he was craving the burn and ragged feel of the smoky taste on his tongue. Sometimes, it was in the bathroom, where he’d vent out the smell of smoke and then shower to get the pungent scent off of him. It was a habit, but not an addiction. He wasn’t prepared for the questions that would inevitably come if he did get caught by his parents. Why would you do this to yourself? Where did you get them? How long have you been smoking?
The real truth was that he knew the answer to all of those questions; he just didn’t know how to direct them and answer them in such a way without upsetting his parents more. To tell the truth, if they found out that he was smoking, they might just send him off to military school or a rehabilitation center just to recover from the smoking that brought only destruction to their family. Really, it was the flare of melodrama with which his parents sometimes spoke that amused him most.
Instead, when they did find him inhaling smoke into his lungs, they sent him to church.
He supposed church wasn’t supposed to be a punishment, but it felt like a weekly slaughterhouse where both his self-esteem and sense of independent thought went to be gutted or chopped up or… Well, he’d never actually been into a slaughterhouse. He just knew it was where things were sent to be slaughtered.
He drummed his fingers against the arm of his seat in the car, trying to ignore the way that his little sister smashed her plastic hammer onto the window, just to hear it exclaim a ‘boing!’. The only thing more annoying than that was the way she squealed after every hit, and he knew that a child’s laughter was supposed to be a sound of gracious innocence or whatever poetic license you want to attach to it, but he couldn’t help but fantasize about taking her by the ankles and smashing her head against the window until it was anteceded by an obnoxious ‘boing!’.
Christian music played. Not the gospel kind that one would hear inside of a church, but the alternative rock, try-hard kind. Dad sat in the driver’s seat, while Mom tried to convince Sophie to take a break with the hammer. Whenever the toddler obeyed, she went back to mouthing all the words coming from the radio. His father stared at him through the rearview mirror long enough for the son to fear that they may just crash into a mailbox or a car twice as large as their own, and he began, out of some sort of fear and parental pressure, to nod his head along to the music. Only then did his father’s eyes flick towards the road, and he kept nodding, even if it was a little off-beat. The chorus kept repeating over and over, something about how He loved you and how Jesus Christ sacrificed himself for you, but by the time he was inside of the church, he’d forgotten all of the words.
He was sentenced to his slaughter at the church for smoking, but he knew that there was more to it than a few cigarettes. Possibly he was there for reassurance to his family that their son could possibly believe in the place that they praised and strived for every day and every Sunday that they went to church. Maybe it was just because his parents thought that the purity of church would cleanse out the smoke in his lungs with replace it with breath to recite Bible verses. He didn’t know.
He did know that, soon after entering the church, he was separated by his family. He was pretty sure that his sister went to the daycare to trade cards that pictured a biblical figure that the church had given out with her friends, because she’d been bragging the night before that she had trading cards of Abraham, Benedict, and Jesus, but he didn’t quite know where the rest of his family was. He found himself in the basement of the church, which had a fluffy, red rug on it to cover the stains that were on the concrete floor, and there were chairs aligned in rows with a stage at the front, teenaged butts sitting on them with obnoxious mouths chattering away. He blinked, staring from the doorway, until another boy from class that he recognized but didn’t often speak to waved him over. He knew that he had the boy from school’s number in his phone, but he had never spoken to him.
“Hey,” the boy spoke.
“Hi,” he replied, and he almost kept speaking in order to say the boy’s name, but then he realized he couldn’t remember. So his greeting dropped out in a trailing of awkward realization, and the boy chuckled just as awkwardly in response before tapping the ‘Hi, my name is’ card over his chest.
“William,” William expressed. “We have calculus together.”
“Right, yeah,” he replied, forcing a grin onto his face, trying to make it reach his eyes. “I’m, uh…” Christ. “I’m John.”
“I know,” William said, and John blinked his eyes before glancing towards the church leader of pubescent children, who just looked like a slightly older pubescent child. William continued. “That’s Joshua. He’s the preacher’s son. As cliché as you can get.”
John huffed out a breath that was meant to be small laughter, and he nodded his head, even though he couldn’t really put a name to the preacher either. “Yeah, looks like it,” John agreed. “He looks like Mr. Clean with hair.”
William laughed a little too loudly, but John didn’t mind because he seemed like the type of guy who would always laugh a little too loud. John smiled back. “That’s true, yeah,” William said, his voice still drip-drying from remaining laughter. Then, with a grin and then a little, tiny glare from Joshua, William pressed a finger to his own lips, and John nodded with a smirk as Joshua drew the attention of the rest of the group to him.
Joshua had the type of voice that would resonate, and even as he spoke words that John didn’t really believe, he could appreciate that his parents had brought him up to be strong and firm and confident in his beliefs in a way that John’s own parents never had. Not for a lack of trying, but because John was a very skeptical person. Joshua, the preacher’s son, went through with his greeting, commenting on the number of new faces that were in the crowd today—at that, William nudged him, even though John knew he had just in a different youth group than William for most of their childhood, but John grinned at him anyway for the sake of it and nodded. John glanced around. He could recognize the faces sitting around them, but he felt like all they were to him were strangers that he just so happened to grow up with. He could see the nostalgia glowing in their faces, more acne-filled than they used to be, and although he knew he had memories with all of these people, he had trouble recollecting them.
“I need a volunteer,” Joshua demanded, but there was a smile on his face that softened the tone of his voice.
Hands flew up into the air like confetti, but unlike confetti, they weren’t broken into pieces or falling to the ground. They stayed hovered above the heads of everyone around him, and John felt as though he was the only one with his hands in his lap. He could feel William’s eyes bleeding into him, and he glanced the other way, if only to soften the lasers of William’s eyes.
“William,” barked Joshua, and his smile grew, this time reaching his eyes. “Come up here with me.”
There were gruff chants of “Will-y, Will-y, Will-y” followed by snickers of people that John assumed were William’s friends, and William, as he walked up to the center of the circle, glared back at them with a wrinkle in his nose. John grinned a bit, and he crossed his arms over his stomach lazily as William stood beside Joshua, who was pulling up a blue chair for William to sit down in. William did.
After that, Joshua picked up a giant box wrapped in golden paper with a red bow atop, showing everyone in the group by raising it forward, coveting eyes staring at it with desire, with unending need to know what it contained. William sat in the chair, unconvinced and apathetic of the present that Joshua so clearly valued. Joshua placed the box on the boy’s lap, kneeling down beside him. Joshua asked if he wanted the present. After moments of thought and a few thoughtful hums, William refused. Joshua looked surprised, and he waited a moment before shrugging and submitting. Of course, Joshua then asked once more if William wanted the present. There were longer moments of thought, and then William shook his head. When asked if he was certain, William nodded. It was then, for the third time, that Joshua asked if William wanted the present, and William finally admitted that, yes, he wanted the present. Upon tearing the golden paper until it crumbled to the floor, William opened the box, revealing a bag of candies.
William looked delighted, not even asking Joshua’s permission before ripping the bag open. He took a few candies for himself before tossing out chocolates towards everyone else in the group, earning exclaims of excitement from the crowd.
“Does anyone know what this lesson could mean?” Joshua asked the group, as John tore the wrapper off of his Reese’s cup.
The eagerness to raise their hands faded this time. After moments of hesitance, a hand or two floated to the air, but both of their answers were incorrect.
“Who here believes that Jesus’ love is the best present a person could ever get?” asked Joshua, a flare of his father appearing in him, and a circle of hands raised. John raised his hand too.
“The thing about Jesus’ love,” Joshua said, thanking William and sending him back to his seat, “is that God isn’t going to force you into accepting it or accepting Him. You have to be in charge of accepting Jesus and his sacrifices into your own heart. God will ask you many times to take the gift of Jesus’ love, but it is up to you to accept it. Let us pray.”
John licked his lips, and he bowed his head. His eyes stayed open, and he watched the way William’s fingers twirled over one another as he closed his eyes and clasped his hands together, the way that a girl that he used to be good friends with in elementary school tilted her head up so that her closed eyes gazed at the ceiling, and the amount of expression that flowed through Joshua’s face as he spoke for the entire group’s prayer to God.
“Dear God, we thank You for all that You have done for us, and we wish for anyone who hasn’t accepted You or Jesus into their hearts to—to come on out to You and accept You into their hearts in order to find Your love. We are just so appreciative and thankful for all that You do for us each day, and in Jesus name we pray, amen.”
A chorus of ‘amen’ rang out, and then the lesson continued.
With the sixth periodic check of the clock on his phone, John sighed of relief when he saw that they were going to be released soon, slipping his phone back into his pocket and clasping his hands together. He pursed his lips shut as Joshua wrapped up the lesson by bringing out a blue baby’s blanket with a tiny fawn on the corner. Quickly, John realized that they weren’t quite as near the end as he thought.
“I know that some of you,” Joshua started, his voice grave, “have heard of the tragedy that has happened to a member of our church, Becca Sherrfield, who has recently lost the life of her six-day-old son, Ronny.” There were mumbles of condolences and looks of shock on some people’s faces. John watched a girl he had a crush on in sixth grade tear up, and he felt a strike of pain in his chest, imagining having been told that his newborn died. He closed his burning eyes as Joshua explained that he felt it was necessary that they each individually pray for both Becca, a grieving mother, Ronny’s family who lost a precious life, and Ronny himself. His grievances for the family suddenly turned to panic as John opened his eyes to see Joshua handing the blanket to a girl opposite of the circle to John and realized that Joshua had meant for them to pray aloud.
Despite the gnawing fear that used his stomach as a chew toy, John bit onto his tongue and listened to the girl express her condolences in prayer: how unimaginable the pain must be to lose a son who was so young and how it was God’s will for the baby to go up to heaven so quickly, and the ring of prayer continued. Somehow, John felt out of place. Not because he didn’t feel the same pain for the woman and her son but because he had no idea how he could sit with these people and pray to God in front of them when he didn’t even think God existed. He was surrounded by people who were certain of the entity, and John quickly decided that he needed a smoke.
Discreetly as he could, John pushed himself out of the chair and rushed towards the door that escaped into the back of the church. His cheeks were hot, and he could feel the eyes on him and imagine the whispers that began once the door shut.
The morning chilled his skin even through his jacket, and with trembling hands, he retracted a pack of cigarettes from his inner coat pocket, flicking out a single white cylinder. His thumb scratched against the lighter, hissing as it sparked but never set aflame. It took six tries before the fire lit, and he placed the cig in between his lips to light it as he let out a shaky sigh. A hot tear stroked his cheek and fell from his jaw, and then another. A single, dark dot spotted his jacket, and he pressed the cigarette between his fingers as he sucked in the smoke. When his hand fell, he tilted his head back and blew out the silvery smoke towards the muggy sky, flicking the cigarette so that the ash fell onto the concrete.
John heard the door click from behind him, and he jerked back, crushing his cigarette between his fingers. More ash fell. He relaxed as the door swung shut again, William standing in front of it. John stared for a moment before clearing his throat and facing forward again, bringing his cigarette back to his mouth for another puff.
“What was that about?” said William’s voice.
John felt like William stood right next to him, but he heard no footsteps. When he looked back again, he still stood in front of the door. “What?”
“You know what.”
John did. “I had to get out.”
Footsteps. William’s sneakers clapped against the pavement as he walked closer, standing beside John and staring towards the children’s playground that was beside the church. The plastic slide shone from the iridescence of last night’s rain. “Why?”
At that, John shrugged and then coughed.
William stayed silent for a long while, and then he cracked a grin. His face had looked so grim before that the sudden smile made it appear as though he was tearing his face in half. “You’re allowed to cry in front of us. We won’t make fun of you.”
John shook his head, scuffing his shoes over the pavement and kicking a small rock that skid over the ground. “It’s not that.”
William stared, his eyes flickering over him in a way that reminded John of a flame, and he licked his lips slowly. “What is it then?”
William blinked. “Do you not believe in God?”
Even though he knew that William wouldn’t hate him for it, John still felt like someone would. Maybe God. He didn’t know. “I don’t know,” John stated finally. “I don’t think so.”
William stared. He looked sad. Crescents of wrinkles formed in his forehead as he cocked his head to the side. “What do you believe in then?”
John chuckled humorlessly and then brought his cigarette once again to his lips, a fat tear hanging on his lashes. “Myself,” he mumbled with a shrug, and one look at William told John that he was confused. John shrugged. “I believe in doctors. I believe in science. I believe in evolution. I don’t think that it was God’s will for babies to die because he wants another angel. I think it was a bad thing that happened because bad things happen. I don’t think we can blame the bad things on God, and I don’t think we can comfort people in saying that God wanted it to happen.”
William didn’t have a reply, and he didn’t have anything to say for a while.
John blinked at him and sighed as the tear fell onto his cheek, his face stoic and streaked with wet trails. He shook his head. “I think it’s okay for you to think He’s real, and I think my life would be a whole lot easier and happier if I believed it too. But I don’t.”
William stared at the sky for a while, watching the clouds move and making out shapes of animals and what heaven would look like. He suddenly laughed, and John breathed smoke. “I’ve never met someone who doesn’t believe in God before.”
John gave him a sideways glance and smirked. “Me neither.”
William smiled, even though it faded after a while, and he stared at the cigarette like it was a literal personification of cancer dressed in a costume of the devil. Coughs scraped against his throat, and John chuckled even though it wasn’t funny. “I believe in Him,” William whispered, though it didn’t really need saying. “I like the thought of having heaven, of reuniting, of someone watching over us. I like the idea of having a reason that the universe exists. I like the idea of having a reason.”
John nodded. “I do too,” John replied. “I just think there’s a different reason.” He tossed his cigarette to the ground and stomped it out, raising his brows as William walked forward and sat on the concrete with his legs stretched out to the grass. John mimicked his stance, his arms extended behind him so that he could lay back. His dark jeans absorbed heat, and he felt warm.
William sat crouched forward with his knees brought up to his chest and his elbows resting atop of them. His eyes squinted, and he looked like a gargoyle guarding the edge of the church. John watched him, amused, and he brought out another cigarette from his pocket. William seemed to hold his breath just at the sight of an unlit cigarette, so John smiled and placed them back into his pocket.
“All right, fine,” he submitted in a mumble, and William murmured a thank you.
“If there was a heaven,” William started, still staring up at the sky for so long that John feared he would go blind, “what would it look like, you think?”
John blinked. He had no idea how to answer the question, due to the fact that he had never pondered it before, nor did he think he would be able to recognize the apparent greatness of heaven if he’d only ever experienced the goodness of earth.
“I don’t know,” John whispered, and he grunted as he lay back against the concrete, his shirt lifted to expose his lower back, the bumps in the concrete tickling his skin. “My mom thinks it’s a family reunion. That doesn’t sound that great to me.” John smirked. And then he shrugged. “Sophie thinks it’s a buffet of candy, and my dad thinks it’s all the Sunday newspapers in the world and bad funk music.”
William snorted, and John laughed hard enough that he tilted his head back and covered his closed eyes, almost embarrassed. Laughter fizzed in the air until it burned out, leaving only silence and the occasional sound of a car passing by. “What do you think? If heaven’s real, what does it look like?” William asked.
John stared up at the sun, which was hidden behind the clouds. Sometimes the wind would blow long enough to push the clouds out of the way, but it was almost instantly replaced by another cloud. “I can’t answer that,” John mumbled, and he tilted his head to see William stare at him, his eyes squinted like he was still looking at the sun. “I don’t know what heaven looks like. I can’t contort my beliefs in order to meet the hypothetical.”
Blinking a few times, William sighed, lying down onto concrete beside John, closing his eyes. “My heaven is a run every morning that doesn’t hurt my lungs,” William whispered, and John furrowed his brow. “I have asthma,” he explained with a shrug, and John smiled before chuckling. Their fingers grazed, and John could feel the fine hair on William’s knuckles.
“Are you scared?” William whispered.
And even though William never clarified what he meant, John understood, and he nodded curtly. “Yeah,” he rasped, his voice like the crunch of gravel, and he closed his eyes as he jabbed out his elbows, his hands behind his head, cradling it from the concrete ground. The thought of death, in its most simple form of inevitability, is regarded with fear, which doesn’t make sense since there are more dead people than there are living people, and that number will only grow exponentially with every generation of elders that die, every catastrophe and genocide that are massacred. Death, in John’s mind, was more similar to a sleep that he would never wake from, every memory that is stored in the archive inside of his skull erased immediately upon death, lost within the expansion of the universe that would continue on without him. The stars would not miss him, nor would the planet notice his disappearance. That scared him. “Are you?”
And even though John thought that William had no reason to be scared, William nodded, staring at the back of his eyelids.
“Why?” John whispered, because it felt like he needed to whisper. He felt as though this moment was a secret that would only ever be shared between them until William went to heaven and John rotted into the earth.
The boy’s lips pursed, as though to retain his words. They were caged inside his mouth, bouncing on his tongue like it was a trampoline and playing hide-and-seek in his teeth, and John waited patiently until the cell that his lips created rose and released his words.
“I don’t know,” he mumbled, matching John’s hushed tone. “I guess… I mean, I believe in heaven but…” William, John knew, had been coming to church ever since he was a little kid—he was a good Christian, kind and tolerant, and though they shared the same values, they held different beliefs. John still hoped they could be friends. “It’s still hard for me to wrap my head around,” William confessed, fluttering his eyes open. He sat up, crossing his legs underneath him. “I think that, with any religion, whether you believe in a god or not, that there’s going to be doubt in what you believe, because no one can really know.”
And that was true. Despite all of John’s knowledge of science, physics, astronomy, and everything he absolutely knew to be true, it was hard to not be superstitious. But at the end of the day, he wasn’t lost. He wasn’t a lost soul in need of accepting Jesus or anyone else for that matter; he wasn’t lost because he knew exactly where he was.
“Yeah,” John whispered, the word coming out as a breath that floated towards the sky, his chest inflated as though a helium-filled balloon had replaced his lungs in his ribcage. If he were to close his eyes, he felt almost certain that he would raise himself into the sky, carried only by acceptance that swelled inside of him, replacing the anxiety. He was almost as certain that William felt the same way.
John closed his eyes and imagined he was following the wisps of smoke: he traveled the world behind smoke and clouds before floating into the ground, where he now planted himself, doing his best impression of a seed, and was reborn. And William imagined the same thing, except in his mind, he floated towards the sky and kept going until he felt an embrace—and he ran. And every breath was sweet.