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- Finding Elizabeth Christmas Excerpt
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Finding Elizabeth Christmas Excerpt
An eruption of laughter came from the kitchen of The Hope Center, rippled down the hall and then moved in a wave past the empty dorm rooms and through the Saturday night air. It moved alongside the smell of baking Christmas cookies and the sound of Christmas music playing on the crackling stereo speakers in Jolene’s room. In it was warmth and hope and a sense of togetherness that many of the girls had never felt before.
But one dorm room wasn’t empty. Lizzie sat on her bed, thinking, planning, and wondering. A bedside lamp was on, the glare from it shining against the window that looked out on a dark night. Frost had already begun to form around the edges of the windows, and it was a clear night, a moonless night. Lizzie stared through the dark window as if the space beyond contained the answers to all of her questions.
Where was Nae at that exact moment, two days before Christmas? How would she get to Detroit before New Year’s Day? What would be waiting for her when she arrived?
Lizzie pulled her journal out from under the mattress and leafed through the pages she had written. She went past the endless doodles and mazes she had drawn, then stopped at the first blank page she could find.
“God Owns Me?” Saturday, 7:20pm
Yesterday Miss Jane challenged me on my refusal to follow some of the minor rules of the house, things like leaving my door open or making sure to sweep off the front porch when it’s on my chore list. She claimed I have “lingering rebellion” issues, whatever that means. She gave me this verse to write here in my journal and also told me to write what came to mind.
“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
It’s strange to think that I am not my own. I mean, it’s strange and yet it’s not, because of Nae. I don’t know. That gets complicated.
But to think that God owns me. I think this gets back to what Miss Jane has been saying about not letting sin be my master. Do I want to live “free”, do what I want, and then live in pain? Or would I rather have a master who keeps me safe, gives me what I need, and treats me with kindness?
The answer seems obvious – I always wanted Nae to be my master, to treat me with kindness. But he didn’t do that. Could I trust someone enough to give them control of my life? I don’t know.
“Lizzie?” a soft voice said at the door, followed by a few soft knocks on the hard wooden door. “You in there, girl?”
“Yep, I’m here.”
A girl walked in, her cheeks flushed from the warmth of the kitchen. She carried a cookie in each hand and reached out to offer one to Lizzie.
“Thanks, Penny,” Lizzie said. The small act of kindness brought tears to her eyes.
“What are you doing in here, girl?” she asked. “There’s all kinds of goodness going on in that kitchen. This ain’t a night for sittin’ all alone.”
“I’m just thinking, you know? Just thinking.”
“Well, it’s not a night for that, either,” Penny said, and the girls both laughed.
“Penny, can I ask you something?”
Penny didn’t say anything, but she walked around and sat at the foot of her bed. She stared at Lizzie. Lizzie drew her legs up to her chest and hugged them tight. She dropped her chin to one of her knees and when she spoke her words came out firm and unwavering.
“Why’d you stay?”
“Stay where?” Penny asked.
“Stay here,” Lizzie said, looking up at Penny with such seriousness. It was as if the answer to that one question would determine everything. “Why’d you stay here?”
Penny looked off to the side for a moment, combing her recent history for the answer. Her thin face suddenly seemed older and tired, and Lizzie wished she could take back the question.
“Girl, I didn’t have nothin’ to go back to. Nothin’. Oh, there was men here and men there, and I guess I had a few girls I coulda called friends, some kind of friends anyway. So at first that’s why I stayed - because I didn’t have nothin’ else.”
Lizzie nodded, and Penny paused for a moment before continuing.
“But then, after a few months, things started movin’ around in my head, things I didn’t understand. New questions, questions I didn’t ever ask before. So now I don’t stay because I got nothin’ else - now I stay because I have hope.”
“Hope,” Lizzie said, as if tasting some new kind of delicious fruit for the first time, but the kind of fruit she thought she might never taste again.
“Hope,” Penny said, shrugging. “My friends, I don’t know if they were friends, but they’d be saying right about now that ‘Penny found Jesus,’ and they’d laugh and laugh and make fun of me, I’m sure. But I guess they’d be right. What they don’t understand is that I didn’t just find Jesus. I mean, it was just him, but he gives me so much, you know?”
Lizzie shook her head.
“No, Penny, I honestly don’t know.”
“Oh, girl,” Penny said, moving closer to Lizzie. “He gives me that hope. And a fresh start. And freedom. Most important, was that. Freedom.”
Penny reached out and took one of Lizzie’s hands, and the two girls sat there without saying anything. Time passed, and another wave of laughter rolled out of the kitchen. Lizzie lifted the cookie to her mouth and took a bite.
“So what’s going on in the kitchen?” she asked.
Penny stood up.
“Why don’t you come with me and find out for yourself?”
“Okay,” she said. “These cookies are pretty good.”
“Pretty good?” Penny asked in a shocked voice. “Pretty good? You call that cookie ‘Pretty Good’ anywhere within Miss Jolene’s hearing and she’ll swat you with the spatula.”
Both girls laughed, and Penny leaned in close.
“Which wouldn’t be totally bad,” she whispered. “Because that cookie dough? Better than the cookies.”
Both girls laughed again and walked into the warmth of the kitchen.
The next night, Sunday night, was Christmas Eve. Lights hung on the trees and it was a clear night so the entire town glowed. Cars made their way to the church and people, bundled in their warmest winter clothes, rushed inside, shaking off the cold and smiling at one another. A young woman read the Christmas story in a clear voice in front of the black stage curtain, lit up by a white spotlight. The choir, dressed in deep green robes, led the church in Christmas songs.
Jolene and the eight women from the shelter stood in the back row. They listened to the solemn reading as the woman’s voice moved out over the congregation. They let the songs fill them up, and a few of them even remembered the words. For some of them, those choruses came to their memory through the years, each song bringing its own images.
Lizzie sat at the end of the row, but she didn’t hear the reading or pay attention to the music. She held her thick, winter coat on her lap, and every so often she felt in its pockets to be sure the Christmas cookies she had taken from the kitchen were still there in a small plastic baggie. She rubbed her hand over her jeans pocket, making sure she could still feel the rectangular shape of the two twenty dollar bills folded up, waiting.
Her heart raced as she stood with everyone. When they had entered the church, a kind woman with a crooked smile had handed everyone a small white candle, and now they held their candles, and they waited. The stage lights dimmed as a few people walked down the middle of the church with small lighters and lit the candles of those standing along the center aisle. Those people then passed the flame along.
Lizzie watched as the glow grew and the dark auditorium lit up. A woman across the aisle from her walked over and lit her candle, smiling. Lizzie turned to Penny and lit her candle, and the little flame continued on its way.
Lizzie took a deep breath and released it slowly. She stared at the flame as it flickered, dancing as invisible currents of air moved it this way and that. She stared into the flame, much as she had stared out the dark window the night before, looking for answers.
Lizzie blew out her candle and a small stream of smoke twisted up off the wick. The small pool of wax trembled. She turned to Penny who was already looking at her with questions in her eyes. She handed Penny her candle.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”
Penny nodded, but a sadness drifted into her eyes.
Lizzie turned quickly, holding her coat, and walked along the back of the church, through the double doors and into the foyer. At the last moment she turned and walked into the women’s restroom.
Lizzie stopped in front of the mirror and stared at herself. She stood up straight, wondering what Nae would think when he saw her. She thought she looked much better than when she had last seen him. She leaned closer to the mirror and looked into her own eyes, deep pools filled with so many questions!
Then she heard the door swing open and thud shut. Penny’s reflection joined hers in the mirror.
“Hey,” Lizzie said nervously.
“Hey,” Penny said.
They stood there, not saying anything.
“What are you doing?” Penny asked, and Lizzie knew it wasn’t a surface-level question. It was big picture question, the kind of ‘What are you doing?’ that has to do with the meaning and the purpose of life.
“I don’t know,” she said, and she was telling the truth. “I don’t know.”
“Well,” she said, “you do what you have to do. You gotta do what you do for you.”
She turned to Lizzie, grabbed her by the shoulders and made Lizzie face her. Then she jabbed her index finger in Lizzie’s sternum.
“For you,” she said.
Penny walked back out and the door swung closed. The bathroom was silent. Lizzie lifted her jacket and put it on, and she felt the money in her pocket, the cookies in her coat. Then she turned and left the restroom, walked quickly through the foyer, and left the church.
Cold air rushed in where she had been minutes before, and she quickly disappeared into the winter night.
Outside, the night couldn’t have been any different from the warm, glowing inside of the church. The slush had frozen along the edge of the road, making it difficult to walk. The wind kept picking up, and she lifted the collar of her coat and tucked her head down in as far as she could. It was difficult to see, except when every so often a car drove by, lighting up the shoulder.
Lizzie walked briskly, almost at an awkward jog, to the nearest gas station and went inside. She walked around for a long time, trying to warm up. She bought a cup of coffee before going out and standing on the sidewalk, her breath bursting out in steaming clouds, the coffee smoking. A few people came and went, but it was Christmas Eve, so there weren’t many people out and about.
Lizzie edged towards a tall, thin woman getting out of her car.
“Excuse me, ma’am, I’m looking for a ride to the turnpike?”
“Sorry,” she said, walking past Lizzie, staring at the ground.
Lizzie nodded and stepped back, leaning against the store windows. Then she went back inside and wandered through the short aisles again, trying to warm up. Her hands and feet felt numb. A man came around the corner carrying a bottle of soda and a bag of potato chips.
“Excuse me,” she said quietly. “I’m looking for a ride to the turnpike.”
He shook his head and brushed past her.
She walked quietly to the front of the store, then felt a tap on her shoulder.
“You can’t be in here,” said a firm voice.
She turned around to find what looked like the store manager. His black name tag said Ben in small white letters. His hair was gelled perfectly and his beard was a small, precise line down each side of his face.
Lizzie lifted her coffee cup.
“I bought something.”
“Congratulations,” he said. “You bought something.”
He turned to the rest of the store and said in a loud voice.
“She bought something!” Then he started a long, slow clap. Then he stopped.
She nodded and walked out the front doors, into the cold, into the dark. Then she heard another voice.
“Where you going?”
This time it was a young girl who looked to be close to Lizzie’s age. She wasn’t much older than Lizzie. Her face was clean and smooth and her hair was up in a ponytail. She wore black earmuffs and a purple scarf.
“Oh, that’s okay,” Lizzie said, but the girl interrupted her.
“Seriously! It’s Christmas Eve. I don’t mind giving you a ride. Where are you going?”
The girl laughed and said, “That’s kind of far.”
The two girls stared at each other for a moment. Lizzie wondered if she ever could have been that girl, standing there, drawing close to the end of her high school years, her entire future ahead of her.
“How about to the truck stop just off the turnpike?” Lizzie asked.
The girl’s face lit up again.
“Sure. I’d love to.”
She walked past Lizzie to a beat-up old VW and got in the driver’s side, then leaned over and popped open the passenger-side door.
“Let’s go,” she said.