The Roar of Love Novella


a novelizationof a prviously published serial

Crying is all right in its own way while it lasts. But you have to stop sooner or later,
and then you still have to decide what to do. ” C.S. Lewis
for all my darling daughters

Paul Atreides and Frodo and Sam and a host of others had traipsed through their bedroom on a nightly basis for the past few years. And Carlo and Danny would have signed up to fight for freedom or hunt for Orcs or even dare to enter Mordor. But not Mark. If King Peter the Magnificent had been real he would have welcomed the younger boys as Kings of Narnia…Sons of Adam. But he would be completely surprised to find out the oldest boy would have shied away from battle since he wanted with all his heart to be as kind and caring and sweet as Queen Susan the Gentle…

Scotch Plains, New Jersey, 2009, the Albanese home...

It started out as a feeling
Which then grew into a hope
Which then turned into a quiet thought
Which then turned into a quiet word
And then that word grew louder and louder
'Til it was a battle cry
I'll come back
When you call me
No need to say goodbye

“But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

Mark stared at his father as the man finished reading the story. Even at the fourth time through, the boys loved it just as much as the first time; all except for Mark, who turned on the futon and faced the wall. His father had been paying heed to his brothers. Carlo beamed as his father closed the book and placed it on the nightstand between their two beds. And Danny put his head back on his pillow and smiled

“And who wants to be a King in Narnia?”the man asked with a soft laugh. Danny raised his hand and waved excitedly; he was the most animated of the three. Mark rubbed his eyes in fatigue; he looked tired, but it wasn’t from the hour, but more out feeling completely out of place in his own home. If Carlo wanted to be a King, so be it. If Danny wanted to go to war for Narnia, that was all well and good.

It wasn’t as if Mark didn’t appreciate the story; even at fourteen, he still enjoyed his father’s reading. Since their mother’s death, it was not only a nice way of connecting, but of remembering since Louise and Jerry had shared that wonderful task. Tolkien. L’Engle. Even an intro to Heinlein and Herbert. It wasn't so much what the story said as much as what it meant and how painful it was.

Paul Atreides and Frodo and Sam and a host of others had traipsed through their bedroom on a nightly basis for the past few years. And Carlo and Danny would have signed up to fight for freedom or hunt for Orcs or even dare to enter Mordor. But not Mark. If King Peter the Magnificent had been real he would have welcomed the younger boys as Kings of Narnia…Sons of Adam. But he would be completely surprised to find out the oldest boy would have shied away from battle since he wanted with all his heart to be as kind and caring and sweet as Queen Susan the Gentle…

One year later...Faith Chapel, Scotch Plains, New Jersey...

“Your boys are very keen on the church camping trip, Jer.” Pastor McKenna said, but his expression seemed to belie his words.

“What’s wrong, Pat?” Jerry shook the man’s hand, feeling awkward. Pat McKenna pulled him close and grasped his arm; almost knight-like in the strong grip.

“Mark told Sean that he’s skipping the Men’s retreat next month. I’m wondering why he’d do that in light of your position here.” The words weren’t intended to be coercive but they gripped Jerry just as much as the strong hand of the shepherd of their fellowship.

“I talked to him about it. He feels that he needs to take a break; we’ve been going non-stop since the beginning of the year and it’s just more about him needing to have some time to himself. It's only been two years since...well, since Louise passed. You understand?”

Pat understood but didn’t accept Mark’s decision at all.

“We think it’s best that he attend; after all, Jerry, you are the care pastor here.”

“We? You…and who else?” Jerry shook his head; not so much in disagreement as in surprise.

“Just me and Dave and Cal, Jer. It’s really important that Mark set an example for the rest of the boys as a young man in Christ, no matter what he might be going through himself. You understand, right, Jer?”

“Oh…let me talk to him, okay?” Pat’s expression didn’t seem to leave any room for failure; Mark would be expected to attend the retreat and that would be the end of that.

That evening...

Just because everything's changing
Doesn't mean it's never been this way before
All you can do is try to know who your friends are
As you head off to the war

The room had grown quiet other than the pop and hiss of the burning logs in the fireplace. A compound bow lay on the hearth along with a quiver of arrows. Mark sat on the sofa across from Jerry; Carlo and Danny were at a friend’s house for dinner.

“But Dad…you said it was okay?”

Without comment, Jerry stood up suddenly and walked into the kitchen and grabbed a couple of mugs and the coffee pot off the counter. It’s been said that when you want to talk about how you feel, you share a pot of tea. And when you want to solve a problem, you put on a pot of coffee. Mark felt that more than just his decision was a problem; not just in the eyes of the church leadership, but with his father as well.

“I know, but Pat says that we really need to show an example; as a way of getting other young men involved and interested. Mark shook his head; a barely noticeable gesture that his father noticed nonetheless.

“I’m sorry, Mark, but you know that as a pastor's kid, you really should expect to have more responsibility.” Not just the things that would be expected, but a mindset to follow whatever path was placed before him, no matter how he felt.

“But Dad….”

“No, Mark. I understand you’re disappointed, but we all have to pull our weight. You understand, don’t you?” The boy nodded without remark other than a breathless sigh.

The office of Marie Chang, therapist...a few days later...

Pick a star on the dark horizon
And follow the light
You'll come back
When it's over
No need to say goodbye
You'll come back
When it's over
No need to say goodbye

“Mark? You’ve been awfully quiet. I know the anniversary of your mother's passing is growing close.” Marie looked at the boy and half-frowned; an expression of empathy for the boy’s recent struggles. Mark unfolded his arms and quickly refolded them in an embrace.

“It’s …. You know it bothers me that we don’t read anymore.” He put his head down.

“Well, you’re past fifteen, and your brothers are getting older.”

Marie felt that no one could really outgrow books like The Silver Chair or The Hobbit. Most boys and some girls were more likely forced by convention or expectations to abandon the friends they had grown to know and love in their favorite books. Some, thankfully she felt, never did, and kept that life-long bond between reader and author.

Mark wasn’t about outgrowing his childhood so much as re-defining and even reconstructing his past. Identifying things long-buried and coming to grips with needs long ignored made it better for a teenager, but not at all for the son of a pastor; albeit one lower in the pecking order of church, to be sure, but still one with the demands and expectations of others.

“Carlo still reads the books on his own. Danny asked Dad to read, but he said it was time to put away childish things. I mean, come on! Childish? It feels like getting beat up with Scripture.” The boy’s words faltered and he choked back a sob.

“It’s important for all of you to remember, isn’t it?”

“When he read…when he reads to us, it’s like life comes back for us as a family. But now? It’s like he forgot all about Mom.” The boy shook his head as tears began to flow.

“Reading the stories honors her memory.” Marie said softly, knowing it was so much more for the boy before her.

“It reminds me of the end of the Last Battle, where Susan doesn’t even come into…. Like she’s no longer interested. I'm like when Susan's actually sweet and caring and Dad is like when Susan is no longer a friend of Narnia..." His voice trailed off and Marie was tempted to interject 'and no longer yours, either,' but thought better of it.

"Mom knew, and I thought Dad was beginning to understand….you know? And then...”

The boy had spoken more than several times about more recent bouts of self-discovery; even telling his father about the long talks he'd have with his Mom when Jerry was off helping tend to the flock. But his father said it was all well and good to feel that way, but that he had to change for everyone’s sake; it felt almost as bad. No, it felt worse than when Louise died because the pain Mark felt seemed to go on and on, and that it would indeed go on forever. Somehow it made sense that the pain of his grief would subside because he knew he'd see his Mom again, but he feared he'd never see his future....his future fulfilled.

“The closer I get to who I am the further away he feels….like he’s moving away. But I can’t let go of who I am. Why can’t he see that? It feels like I don’t have… like I’ll never….”

“You’re afraid that you’ll lose part of yourself, aren’t you?” She knew, of course, that it was only a beginning of Mark’s fears.

“He wants me to go to the Men’s Retreat. I don’t even have a say. I can’t, Marie. I just can’t.”

“What part of going hurts the most, Mark? What would be the most harmful part of that?” She knew his next answer as well, but asked the question anyway to give him a place to be heard.

“I thought after our last time with you and me and him and Danny and Carlo that I could…. My brothers think it’s weird, but they still …. It’s like it’s okay with them.”

“Because they love you, anyway?” The boy nodded as he wiped his face with his hand.

“But it feels like your father doesn’t?” A very pronounced nudge meant to be freeing seemed to miss its mark as the boy turned his head toward the wing of the sofa. After a few moments of silence, the boy turned back to her and spoke.

“No….it’s because he does. But he loves what I’m supposed to be. Who everyone thinks I am. How do I deal with that? How can I argue with that when ….”

“He means well, but that doesn’t help you at all, does it?” She shook her head to mirror Mark’s expression.

“I mean….he loves me. Shouldn’t I be grateful for that?” Too much insight for a fifteen year old; his words seemed to back him into a corner that no one understood would lead to a life-long sentence of frustration and sadness.

“You are grateful. But it’s not enough to give love if it’s conditional; even if those conditions are unspoken or even unconsciously held. You’ve told your father how you feel, and what has his response been?” Marie paused for a moment. The boy seemed to be gathering his thoughts, but she quickly corrected herself.

“You’ve told your father what you know; it’s more than what you feel, but what you believe about yourself, right?” Mark nodded and half-smiled but he continued to cry wordlessly.

“I know it’s hard to think of this right now, since he’s pushing for you to go to this event. But that’s not the thing that worries you…or rather, just going isn’t what is troubling you, is it?” The boy shook his head and wiped his face once again with his hand.

“It’s what attending the retreat would mean…to him…to your brothers…to the rest of the church…. What it would say to everyone when you want to tell everyone something else entirely, right?” He nodded once but shook his head.

“We talked about when to change…. I think very soon is the time. Have you given any more thought to that?” She smiled warmly and stood up. As he thought she disappeared for a few moments before returning with something shiny in her hand.

“Dark chocolate always helps me think.” She handed him the foil wrapped candy. He broke off a few small pieces in almost a timid fashion.

“You can have more if you like,” she said as she placed the packet on the table in front of the couch.

“Names are important for so many reasons. And hardly anyone gets to choose their own. But I believe you need to speak your name to your family; at least at first to your Dad. We can do it here, if you like.”

“I…think I can tell him tonight when I get home.” Marie nodded; almost but not quite reluctant. The act of confession, as it is defined by the root words, means to say the same thing. The boy would be speaking for the first time to his father and perhaps his family the same thing as he knew himself to be. Rather, he would be speaking, not as a boy pleading his case before a well meaning if ignorant father, but as a young woman who would be telling her family exactly who and what she was.

"Maybe next week in my office?" The boy's frown ended that discussion. She nodded.

“Okay. I think you’ll do just fine,” she said with a cautious smile. It wasn't the best choice; she had wanted Jerry to come to the session that afternoon for everyone's sake, but he canceled to do a visitation at the hospital. The boy nodded but the relief of making the decision was too much for the moment and he burst into tears; sobbing with a peaceful if unfamiliar freedom. And Marie knew that no matter how successful the pastor's kid would be in expressing the truth, Jerry Albanese would see the truth through the prism of his own beliefs. And that meant that 'just fine' still would be very, very painful.

That evening...


“Hey.” Jerry sidled to the edge of the wide couch, leaving room.

“What’s up?”

“I need to talk to you. I…”

“You know you can tell me anything.” Jerry smiled, but the boy half-frowned.


“Really, you can tell me anything,” he insisted, making it more about him at that point.

“We’ve talked about this before, Dad.”

“Come on, Mark…not that again.”

“It’s who I am, Dad. I’m sorry.” The boy put his head down and began to sob. A few seconds passed before he felt a hand raise his chin.

“No, Mark. I’m sorry. I’ve been pushing you too hard. This is an awfully confusing time for you, and I should have been sensitive. I know you miss your Mom and all, and Pastor Pat is convinced it’s just a phase you’re going through. It’s alright. Even Christians boys get conflicted and confused. You don’t have to go to the retreat.” Jerry half-smiled.

“You told him? We agreed that you wouldn’t tell anyone.”
“You tell your therapist. What’s wrong with me telling Pat?” Jerry shook his head impatiently.

“I….it’s my life. And my decision. You had no right to say anything.”

“He’s our pastor, Mark.”

“No, Dad….he’s the pastor. You’re my pastor. And Carlo’s and Danny’s, Dad. I trusted you.

“Your secret is safe with him, Mark. He won’t say a word to anyone.” Jerry practically pled; not to be sorry but to not be in trouble.

“It’s not safe because he knows…He knows all about me and we both know already what he believes.”

“How is that so wrong? He’s looking out for you…for us.” Right in a manner of speaking, but not quite correct, since looking out meant expectations and demands and even words that were spoken in public which condemned who the boy really was in private.

“I can’t even …. What…. you promised…. You promised!” Mark began to sob; not hysterically even in the midst of angry tears, but an almost low moan of helplessness. Jerry tried to hug him, but he pulled away.

“You promised….” The boy got up off the couch and ran down the hall to his room. A few moments later Jerry stood at the closed door and knocked; a firm and insistent rap that demands to be heard rather than the urgent need to hear.

“Go away….”

“Mark? Come on….Mark?”

“Dad…this is who I am…what I am. I’m sorry if that doesn’t fit, but I don’t know what else to do other than be myself.

“No son of mine!” Jerry snapped but stopped just short of the expression of anger and judgment he felt toward his oldest child.”

“I’m not your son, Dad….please?” The words were halting and low, but distinct enough to be heard and still ignored.

“Mark, you’re my son. Stop it!” Demands, misconceptions, fear; even a bit of hatred mixed with the true, deep-down love the man had for his oldest; diluting that love to the point of tepid tolerance.

“Daddy! Please?” Sobs mixed with shouts. A child feeling small and helpless and abandoned.

“Mark….come on, open the door!” The man with the closed mind and heart dismissed the sad pleas.

“Daddy…. Go away! I hate you!” Words that were more a fruit of hopelessness and futility than conviction. Jerry went to knock harder on the door but thought better of it. And inside the room, a lonely figure lay in the dark on the bed, crying softly while repeating over and over,

“My name is Susan.”

You'll come back
When they call you
No need to say goodbye

There's a place out there for us
More than just a prayer or anything you've ever dreamed of.
So when you feel like giving up
Cause you don't fit in down here
Fear is crashing in close your eyes and take my hand.

One year later…at the office of Marie Chang…

Marie sat in the armchair across from the sofa; a mug of herbal tea grew cold on the table in front of her, ignored as she sat in rapt attention at the young lady before her. The girl wore jeans and a wide-necked plum tee-shirt over a white camisole. She played nervously with the curls that covered her right ear.

“What did they say then?” She smiled at the girl and picked up her tea and took a sip.

“Well. The kids for the most part were fine; especially the younger teens. A couple of the girls patted me on the back; at least until Rob glared at them. One boy shook his head at me…came right up and shook his head. He was one of the kids I used to….well, we were friends.” She stared out the window.

“Rob? The Youth Pastor?” Susan nodded.

“That must have hurt,” Marie said softly.

“Joey and I practically grew up together. And he ignores me in school even though we were lab partners last year. It’s like the first sixteen years of my life count for nothing.” She bit her lip.

“And Tim didn’t even look at me. The rest of the few minutes I was there, he just stood off to the side while Rob told me how much God loved me while shoving me out the door.”

“So you’re not welcome there?” Marie knew, of course, that the girl was more than merely not welcome; it was a systematic if unconscious move on the part of her church to distance themselves from her.

“He said that as long as I dressed like a girl….Like a girl? I am a girl. Why doesn’t anyone understand that?” She pounded her fist once on the armrest and began to cry.

“What did the kids say to you after he told you to leave?” Marie leaned closer and half-smiled. She handed the girl a box of tissues. The girl wiped her face and spoke softly.

“Teresa walked up to me and hugged me. Rob told her to stop and she turned and shook her head. Her brother grabbed her by the arm but she shook him off. And Lisa and Rick came up and patted me on the back. Rob told them to let me go, and they backed away. I know it’s hard for both of them, seeing how Pastor Pat is their uncle. Theresa hugged me again and she called me later.”

“It hurts that the church is turning its back on you. “

“I didn’t do anything wrong. It hurts that they see this,” she pointed to her body, “is wrong in their eyes.”

“What hurts the most, Susan?” Marie knew the answer, but she wanted to hear the girl say the words, as painful as they might be.

“I can’t…. They….”

“I know you can’t return, but that’s not what hurts the most.”

“Dad…..When I told him, he just sighed and shook his head. ‘I told you this would happen, Mark.’ Even now he refuses to use my name. He won’t even let Carlo or Danny say my name. Carlo says it anyway and Danny calls me Sis; it pisses him off so much that…. He’s angry with me all the time. My grades are good in school. I do everything he asks...I just don't understand.” She frowned as tears streamed down her face.

“But it’s not enough. Nothing you do pleases him.”

“I didn’t ask for this. He thinks….like Pastor Pat told him; I’m going through a phase because of Mom’s death. I mean what the…” She stopped in mid-sentence; her face, already hot and red from the crying, grew darker.

“No judgment, Susan, right?”

“What the fuck! I felt like this…. I knew when I was seven. Why does he ignore that? If Mom hadn’t died…”

“She would have helped him understand?”

“I think….maybe?”

“Did your father get hard to speak to when your Mom died?”

“Yes….” She paused and took a deep breath.

“No….he was like this when we first started talking about me…this me…when Mom wasn’t even sick. I guess.” Susan closed her eyes and sighed.

“I think he really started getting like this when Mom got sick. Like nothing was going to work, so he decided to let God fix things.”

“He didn’t fix your Mom, did he?”

“No…. I still don’t understand why.” The small tinge of anger was overshadowed by the girl’s faith, and she continued.

“But Daddy….it feels like everything is wrong and he’s got to fix it…to make it right…to make it better.”

“Like you, Susan?”

“Ye…yes… I’m wrong….I’m just wrong.” She didn’t mean to snap at Marie, but her words came out brusque and almost dismissive, as if Marie should have known.

“It’s not just that he thinks you’re making bad decisions, is it?”

“No….” She put her head down for a moment, and when she lifted it, her face was a mask of confusion and doubt and guilt.”

“He thinks…. I am bad. I…I am wrong.”

“Are you bad, Susan? Have you done or said anything wrong?” Marie shook her head and the girl put her head down and began to sob.

“No, Marie….why does he hate me? Why can’t my Dad love me for who I am?”

“I wish I knew, Susan.” Marie felt almost defeated until the girl half-frowned and shuddered.

“It hurts so much. More than when Mom died. Maybe he never got over that?” So much wisdom in the midst of so much pain.

“I think you’re right, Susan. I hope he comes to understand that. I really do. But for you? Are you unlovable? Are you wrong?” She shook her head once again; not meaning to prompt the girl, but her gesture helped anyway.

“I….I’m okay.” It wasn’t a shout of triumph, but it was a victory nonetheless.

When the water meets the sky
Where your heart is free and hope comes back to life
When these broken hands are hold again
We'll find what we've been waiting for
We were made for so much more

At the church offices a few days later…

“I’m sorry, Jerry, but we feel it’s best for everyone.” Pat McKenna half-frowned in sympathy. He actually meant well, even if the decision wasn’t really the right one for anyone.

“But I can’t disown my child.” Jerry put his arms out a bit in plea.

“You’re not disowning your son; you’re disciplining him. A loving father disciplines his son, right? You’re just putting him in a place where he can make better choices…if he stays under your roof, you’ll be endorsing his behavior.”

“Where will he go? He’s only seventeen? What will my other boys say? What will I tell them?”

“That’s a job only you can handle, Jer. You’ve got to be firm. The boy will come around and do what’s right.”

“I’m not even sure what’s right anymore. I’ve been reading about the whole gender thing.”

“Yes, I know. I’m sure that there are actually some people who are anomalytic….”

“But his therapist says…”

“Really, Jerry? What do you expect her to say? That’s her world view. But it’s a matter of what’s true…Male and Female he created them, Jer. Your son is a young man, and the sooner he comes to that conclusion the better. You’d only make it harder to see that by allowing him to stay in the comfort of the home.”

“But Pat….he’s my son.”

“Exactly, Jer. But he won’t accept that unless you’re a father to him instead of a friend. It’s for the best. And of course your responsibility as a care pastor lies in the midst of this. For everyone’s sake, you have to ask him to leave.”

We can be the kings and queens of anything if we believe.
It's written in the stars that shine above
A world where you and I belong
Where faith and love will keep us strong
Exactly who we are is just enough
There's a place for us
There's a place for us
So hold on, hold on
There's a place for us

Later that day, at the Albanese home…

“So that’s that? I thought you love her, Dad.” Carlo sat at the kitchen table across from Danny. Both boys looked more than frustrated.

“Not her, Carlo….him. Why can’t you boys see that your brother is in sin?”

“What? She’s your daughter, Dad! Look at the way she acts. Listen to her voice. Does Susan sound like a boy?”

“Pastor Pat says that she’s probably …”

“Probably what, Dad? Possessed?” Danny interjected. He shook his head and stood up and walked over to Jerry, standing face to face.

“Susan is my sister, Dad. You can’t just send her away. It’s fucking wrong.”

“Don’t you use that language in this house, Danny!”

“Or what? Will you kick me out, too? What’s worse, Dad? The word ‘fuck’ or disowning your own fucking child?” Danny stared at his father for a moment before walking into the living room. He sat down on the sofa and picked up the cable remote. A second later he had jumped back off the sofa and was back in the kitchen.

“Where the hell will she go? She’s only seventeen!”

“She can go live with your Aunt Lina for all I care.”

“What?” Carlo asked.

“Your Aunt Lina…what I just said!” Jerry shook his head, completely missing Carlo’s tone.

“No, Dad. Not where or with whom. I don’t understand. For all you care? Isn’t that what this is supposed to be about? That you care about her enough to send her away? It sounds like you don’t fucking care at all.”

“Now don’t you start!”

“Or what, Dad? Are you going to send us both away? Jesus H. Christ, Dad. For a care pastor, you don’t make me feel cared for at all.” Carlo got up and walked up to Jerry.

“I love you, but this is wrong, Dad, and you know it. I’m going for a walk.” He hugged Jerry quickly before walking out the back door and off.

“I….I don’t know what to do. You understand, don’t you, Danny?” He held his arms open in question.

“Oh, I understand, Dad. And you know exactly what to do. Do you care enough to do it? I don’t think so. Sorry, Dad, but I’m too fucking pissed off to hug you, and I’m not so sure I want to be around you right now.” Danny shook his head and Jerry walked closer, trying to hug him.

“No, Dad. Tough love, right?” Danny pushed him back and stormed out the back door. Jerry shook his head and began to cry.

At the church offices the following week…

“Don’t worry, Jer. It’s all for the best.” Pat McKenna said, looking up from his desk.

“I know this hurts now, but in the long run it will prove that it’s the right decision. The boy is over at your sister-in-law’s house, and soon will come to realize just what he’s missing by his rebellion and foolish pride. And we won’t say anything publicly; the board and the pastoral staff already know and stand behind you one hundred per cent, okay?”

“And everything is okay with us?” Jerry sounded like a child in the principal’s office.

“Of course. Just fine, Jerry, just fine.”

As Marie had surmised, everything was going to turn out just fine, but sadly it would be with a great deal of pain.

That's what I call You
I'm curious about You
I'm scared and not sure that You are safe
But Your eyes seem to say that You are good

Two years later…

This is not a dream that I'm living
This is just a world of Your own
You took me from all that I knew
Shown me how it feels to hope
With You with me, facing tomorrow together
I can learn to fly
Feels like I'm living in a lion's mouth, but the lion is (an angel)

The fading sunlight barely made it through the window to cast a soft glow on Susan’s back pack, which lay on the sofa in the living room. She placed her bow on the love seat and walked into the kitchen where her Aunt Lina stood waiting with two mugs of coffee. She sat down and breathed out a frustrated sigh. Her school didn’t offer women’s archery so she spent her afternoons at an archery club in Linden; one of the few things she still enjoyed. She smiled warmly and took the proffered mug from her Aunt’s hand.

“Still a struggle, honey? I’m so sorry,” the woman said softly.

“College isn’t quite as bad as high school, but that still doesn’t make it at all easier does it?” Lina DePasquale asked as she sat down at the kitchen table across from the young lady she had come to love more as a daughter than as a niece. And since the State of New Jersey endorsed her kindred care adoption, Susan was able to gain some help that her father otherwise denied her.

“There are a few guys on campus that act like fools with everybody, so I don’t feel so singled out.” Susan sipped her coffee almost reluctantly, as if by finishing the cup she’d be consigned to yet another ‘life’ task that required emotional gymnastics and her barely developed sense of self-esteem.

“But you do have that one boy, right?”

“It’s not even the teasing. If it was just that, I think I could deal better with it. But having someone who knew me …. We grew up together and he’s become almost hateful. Like somehow my being who I am is hurting him.”

“It doesn’t help that he’s the son of the pastor.” Lina regretted the words as soon as she spoke them; the church had literally turned its back on the girl, which would have been hard enough. But to have her father disown her?

“I’m so sorry you have to go through this, Susan.” She shook her head. The girl smiled weakly.

“It’s okay. I’m fine.” You know what they say when someone says they’re fine? Lina didn’t fall for that at all.

“It can’t be fine, honey. Not when you have to live here instead of at home.”

“This is my home, Aunt Lina.” The girl sighed; the love she received was healing in so many ways, but Lina’s love could only compensate so much for the betrayal by her father.

“I know, but I’m really a poor substitute for your real family. I’m at least glad that Carlo and Danny haven’t turned their backs on you.”

“They’ve given up so much themselves. Danny would probably be in ministry right now if the church hadn’t shoved him out the door….It’s all my fault.” Susan put her head down on her arms on the table and began to cry.

“Now, none of that. That’s your father talking! Danny is his own man even if he just turned eighteen. And who’s to say what’s right for him? He’s very happy where he landed, and since he’s an adult now, he’ll be able to plot his own course. The church he attends understands what all of you kids have gone through. I wish you could find a place where you feel like you belong.”

“Theresa invited me to come to church with her….” Her voice tailed off.

“Still doesn’t make it right, sweetie.”

“Oh, Aunt Lina… It hurts so much to think that someone could actually hate me so much.” She lifted her head and wiped her face with her sleeve.

“It’s not just someone, honey. No child should ever be treated the way your father has treated you.”

“Maybe he’s right. Maybe I am wrong. Maybe I don’t deserve ….” Her voice trailed off.

“What? Don’t deserve to be loved? None of us ‘deserves’ it…. That’s what makes it love. Because it’s freely given. But you don’t deserve hatred and bigotry, Susan. No one does. But you especially…. Your father hurt you, and it’s not your fault. It’s his choice to be foolish. I can’t imagine how much that hurts you, but you can’t blame yourself. And you’re not wrong. You are who and what you are by the grace of God, no matter what someone else says.” Lina found herself getting very angry and frustrated. She reached across the table and grabbed the girl’s hand and squeezed tightly.

“I know this can’t make up for what you lost, honey, but I love you more than life itself. If Louise were still alive…” She gasped at the grief she still bore over the loss of her sister.

“Mommy knew…. Why can’t Dad understand? It’s like she never mattered. He’s become so hard… I feel like an orphan.”

“Not as long as I’m alive, baby.” She stood up and walked around the table. Leaning over, she hugged Susan from behind and kissed the top of her head. And the emotion of the moment proved too painful if hopeful for both as Lina began to cry. As she wept, she sang haltingly; a blessing of encouragement and strength for the girl in her arms and perhaps herself as well. She gazed out the window, wondering where her strength came from; not so much a wonder as recalling. She leaned closer and spoke a soft, nearly silent prayer in the girl’s ear and smiled with a confidence that came from outside herself.

Wise eyes, You see the core of me
Your gentleness melts me
And now I know that words cannot describe
The power that I feel when I'm with You

Union County College, a few days later…

The girl moved through the cafeteria looking for a free table. A table against a wall in the back seemed to beckon. She walked as quickly as she could and placed her tray on the table only to feel the presence of someone behind her.

“Hey…” The voice felt almost cold and reluctant. Susan turned to find herself face to face with Tim McKenna.

“Oh…hi…” it was all she could manage to keep from running out of the cafeteria. At one time Tim had been her best friend; rather he had been Mark’s best friend. When she came out to the youth group at church, many of the kids showed they accepted her even if they didn’t understand. Some even supported her though they felt conflicted between what they had come to believe versus the girl who stood before her. Tim never seemed conflicted, and it felt like she had been abandoned when he literally turned his back on her.

“I…Do you mind?” He used his tray to point to the table. Mostly, the girl wanted to say, ‘Yes, of course I mind. You hurt me more than anything in my whole life!’ But something from deep inside her rose up and spoke to her; she blew out a tired breath as she nodded her head and sat down. Ted placed his tray on the table and looked around before taking his seat. She sighed and spoke.

“Looking to see if anyone you know is here? Making sure that you’re not seen with an abomination? “ Susan looked away.

“No, I was expecting someone…Here he is.” The boy turned around and nodded. Danny walked up to them and paused. He leaned over and kissed Susan on the cheek before sitting down between the two, surprising her.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said as his gaze went back and forth between the two. Tim smiled weakly before looking past Danny to Susan.

“Danny ….” Tim went to speak but put his head down instead

“I sorta had a talk with him….Okay…I had a talk with him.” Danny half-grinned before reaching over to put his hand on Susan’s arm.

“Listen…try to listen to what he has to say, sis. Okay?“ Susan nodded at Danny and turned to face Tim. She hadn’t meant to be cold, but the self-embracing hug seemed to be reluctant until she spoke softly.

“Before you say anything….” She choked back a sob but continued as her words came haltingly.

“I…I forgive you.” She put her hand to her face and began to cry; even if the cafeteria had been empty she would have had no resolve to hold back and she wept freely.

“Mark….Susan? I am so sorry.” Tim practically choked on the ‘new’ name; not out of shame, but out of wanting to be sure he corrected himself.

“I know I don’t deserve your forgiveness. I was so wrong.” Coming from the son of the senior pastor of her father’s church, it might have meant something, but coming from the boy with whom she shared so many adventures and even secrets growing up? It meant the world to find he had changed.

“T…Tim? I said I forgive you.” Not an abrupt impatient reminder but a sincere need for him to know how much he still meant to her. Even if that one thing in her heart might be unsaid forever, he had to at least know he was still a part of her life. She reached past Danny and patted Tim’s hand; as if he was the one who had needed consoling all along. And in a way he had.

“You….forgive me?” He shook his head; not in disbelief of the truth of her words but rather in the very part of his soul that felt unworthy of forgiveness. He had not only betrayed his best friend but at one point had gathered others around him to join in his betrayal. That many quickly fell away and came to their senses made little difference; he had joined with his father’s ignorance and fear and cast his friendship…his friend aside. Susan nodded her head slowly, forcing a smile as tears fell freely from all of their faces.

“I…forgive you.” It had to be enough, but even at that point it was too much as so many unspoken thoughts and dreams and hopes remained unsaid. She stood up and put her hand on Danny’s shoulder as a wave of dizziness nearly overcame her.

“I… I have to go…I’m sorry.” She turned to Tim and looked at his face, beholding something she knew was there and wishing that something else would reveal itself. She sighed and spoke.

“I am so, so sorry….” She didn’t finish but turned and walked away quickly; her soft sobs almost lost in the din of the crowded cafeteria as she walked out the door.

“I….She’s still angry, isn’t she?” Not that she would have been wrong; one doesn’t quickly rebuild a bridge over a river that has washed away years of friendship. But she wasn’t angry at all.

“You know, for a college student…. Dean’s list? Transfer to Cornell? You’re an idiot….a real fool, dear friend.” The words might have seemed harsh but for Danny’s soft laugh and widening grin.

“I don’t….she’s angry, right?” Tim shook his head and Danny mirrored his expression as his laugh grew a bit louder.

“You still don’t get it, do you?”

“Get what? I don’t get it…that’s why I asked. Is she still angry with me?”

“No. She’s not angry with you, Tim.” Danny clapped his hand on Tim’s back before saying at last.

“She’s in love with you!”

The Albanese home a few days later…

“I’m really disappointed, Carlo. You and your brother should be setting an example and yet Rob tells me you haven’t gotten involved in any of the youth activities.” Jerry grabbed the mug of warm coffee and downed it quickly. Carlo shook his head.

“It’s awfully hard to volunteer for an activity in a church that treats my sister like dirt!” He snapped. As he finished, Danny walked into the kitchen.

“Volunteer for what?”

“You and your brother have been blowing off Youth Group, and it has to stop.”

“Or what, Dad? How can you punish us more than what you already have? Who gives a fuck when you kicked Susan to the curb?”

“Now don’t you use that tone with me!”

“Oh dear god in heaven, just shut up!” Carlo stood up and glared at Jerry.

“I’m not going to listen to this crap. You obviously care about a bunch of people who share your views, so what difference does it make when Danny and me ask you to change your mind? When the Youth Pastor puts Susan’s stuff all over the church? After two years, Dad? Apart from Theresa and a couple others, none of her friends even stuck up for her. She and her family are going to Grace Episcopal and others have left. Not enough!”

“This is foolish. I’m your father.” Jerry protested.

“Sorry, Dad. I know you’re my father.” Danny said. Carlo nodded as Danny continued.

“But so long as you hate your daughter…” Danny rarely cried out of frustration; his tears had always seemed to be reserved for joyous occasions much like his mother’s tears. But he wasn’t even able to finish. Carlo stepped closer and put his hand on his father’s back.

“I love you, Dad…we love you. But we can’t go to a church that treats our sister…your daughter….with such hatred. Sorry, Dad. I am truly sorry.” Carlo grabbed Danny by the hand and led him to the back door and out.

“But I’m your father…” Jerry looked around at the empty kitchen and the irony of the moment struck him almost like lightening as he put his head down on the table and sobbed.

Peace and power, love forever
Who am I to stand before You?
I am speechless
But in my weakness
You are here and all is well

I'm afraid it's been too long to try to find the reasons why
I let my world close in around a smaller patch of fading sky
But now I've grown beyond the walls to where I've never been

The McKenna home….a few weeks later…

“What do you mean; you’re not going to Dallas? Your mother tells me you’re transferring to Cornell?” Tim stood in front of his father’s desk; almost like an employee being chastised by an angry supervisor. In truth, Tim’s life had almost become that scenario, but for a brief but potent dose of reality.

“Actually, Dad, I’m not going to Cornell after all.”

“Well, I’m glad you came to your senses; your mother and I have been concerned about you lately…” His voice trailed off, leaving Tim with an in.

“Let me finish, okay?” He didn’t snap at his father, but his plea was just as urgent.

“I’m finishing out at UCC and then I’m transferring to Drew University.”

“What…why would you go there; you know what kind of school it is.” Pat shook his head.

“I know exactly what ‘kind’ of school it is, Dad. That’s why I’m going there. It was good enough for Grandpa so I figure…”

“You figure? You choose them over Dallas? Their seminary is as liberal as they come, Tim. Come on. You can’t be serious.”

“I am, Dad. Maybe for the first time in my life. As far as liberal goes? I’m not thinking about labels at this point.”

“You should. You’ve been hanging around with the wrong crowd over at Union, and I can see it’s affected you.”

“For the better, Dad. What was it Grandpa used to say? ‘Don’t worry about asking God questions? He already knows what you’re gonna ask and he’s not insulted at all. He’s quite big enough to handle whatever is on your heart.’”

“You can’t! I won’t allow it.”

“I will, Dad. I’m sorry, but I just don’t see things the way you do. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not, but I have to do this.” Tim paused once again.

“It’s Jerry’s son, isn’t it. Displaying the love of Christ and endorsing sinful behavior are two different things, Tim. You know what the Bible says about people like him.”

“No, Dad. Actually I don’t. I see nothing in anything you quote or write about or preach that says anything about Susan Albanese. She’s a child of God; that much I know.” Whatever Pat took away from his son’s words were driven by what he thought he saw in the young man’s face; an assumption which pushed his anger to the surface.

“Do not presume to lecture me about Scripture. I was preaching way before you were born, Son. And please tell me that your compassion for this boy doesn’t go beyond the love of Christ!” Tim hadn’t meant at all to push his father, so to speak. And there wasn’t anything beyond just friendship between the two, but his father’s bullying shoved him back and he decided to strike back, saying what he felt would hurt his father the most.

“There’s compassion for her, of course, Dad. But so what if it goes further than that!” Tim had no interest in Susan, but he backed himself into a corner; a corner that would trap not only him but come to hurt Susan Albanese.

“You mean to say….” Pat’s face grew pale.

“Yeah, Dad. I think I love her.” Whatever true love was hidden inside would be pushed down and hidden by selfish motives as Tim began something that he would ultimately need another to finish; albeit with a lot of heartache.

I close my eyes and try to see the world unbroken underneath
The farther off and already it might just make the life I lead
A little more than make-believe when all my skies are painted blue
And all the clouds don't ever change the shape of who I am to you
I'm waiting for the world to fall
I'm waiting for the scene to change
I'm waiting when the colors come
I'm waiting to let my world come undone

The church offices, the following week…

Jerry was sitting at his desk, going over his visitation calendar when he heard a rap on his doorjamb. He looked up to see Lina standing at the doorway.

“I suppose you want to lecture me? Really, Lina? Anger really doesn’t become you. What do you want?” For a man who practically adored the woman’s sister, Jerry couldn’t be more dismissive if he tried. It may have been partly because he was disappointed in a way that Lina had taken Mark in. His son would find it easier to walk away from the truth, he felt, with her enabling him to continue the farce of living like a woman. The ‘tough love’ approach seemed to be a spectacular failure in that regard.

But more so, even if Jerry was unwilling to admit it, Lina reminded him of Louise. And that reminded him of his loss. In a way, he almost blamed Lina for her sister’s death, since no one, including Lina, had been a bone-marrow match for Louise. And Lina and Louise may have borne only a bit of resemblance, but both were cut from the same cloth of understanding and compassion. Sisters who loved deeply and with great care for everyone they knew. And that was almost too much for Jerry to bear.

“I’m here to talk with you, Jerry. No lectures. I promise.” If she had been angry, she certainly wasn’t showing it. What Jerry failed to understand is that while he had become increasingly bitter over his loss, Lina had allowed her grief to shape and push and prod whatever was needed to make her even more loving and understanding. And she kept short accounts, as some might reckon; she had learned to set aside disappointment even while seeking to change things for Susan. Whatever anger there remained was righteous, measured, and well-intended.

“I don’t need a lecture, Lina,” Jerry said, completely missing her words.

“Jerry. I’m not here to upset you. Please hear me out.” She sat down in the chair across from his desk.

“What do you want?” He looked down at his desk as if the paperwork was calling; still overwhelmed with the urgency of schedules and visits and conferences was more important that the people those things addressed.

“Your daughter misses you, Jerry. She’s doing well in so many other ways, but her heart is broken.”

“Good… a broken and contrite heart is a good thing.”

“Apart from what we all deal with…all of us…” She paused and turned away, not wanting to be angry.

“She has nothing to be contrite for. Her heart is broken over the rejection she’s still dealing with. Do you know what it’s like to be rejected, Jerry?”

“Our Lord was rejected….a man of sorrows.”

“Listen to yourself, Jerry. Do you even remember what that means? He understood because he knew what it was like… your daughter is nearly twenty and is as talented an archer as anyone in the state. She could go further, but the constant pain of rejection has sapped her of any joy. She’s still a great student; she nearly made the Dean’s list. But it’s hard to stay focused when you feel separated. What did she do to deserve all this hatred, Jerry?”

“I don’t hate her…him…” Jerry’s face grew red at his own words.

“You’re withholding love, Jerry. That’s almost worse.”

“You can’t tell me….”

“I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. I’m glad to be a part of her life, but it doesn’t make up for your ….neglect. You care more about this,” Lina paused again and pointed to the pile of paperwork on the desk.

“Than your own child? How can you minister the love of God to anyone else when your own household is starving for it? Carlo and Danny spend more time at my place now than at home, and they’re not even going to your church any longer.” As angry as she could have been, Lina was more frustrated and sad than anything. And at times like this, she looked more like her late sister. Jerry found himself staring at her eyes; those same eyes that flashed in protection when the boys were little and had been bullied by some kids at school; it was as if he was looking at Louise. But even more than that, something was about to awaken in him; conviction or guilt or whatever else, and it just needed a few more words to come out.

“You pushed her away because of Louise, didn’t you?” Lina put her hand to her face and wiped away the tears that had begun to stream down her cheeks.

“No…no, Lina. You’re wrong!”

“Susan reminds you of Louise, doesn’t she? Even when she was Mark, there was something about her; that love and understanding and even forgiveness when things didn’t go her way; that determination to see things through. Do you realize that in only a few years, you’ve managed to break that spirit, Jerry? You are so caught up in your own anger and bitterness that you pushed away the one person who could show you just what you need? How could you do that, Jerry? What….”

“Don’t…please don’t, Lina.” Jerry’s eyes widened in fearful recognition.

“What would Louise say to you if she was still alive, Jerry? I don’t know what she can see from her vantage point, but have you broken her heart as well?” It was all Lina could say before she began to sob. She put her head down on the desk and cried. A few moments later she felt a hand on her shoulder. She looked up into Jerry’s tear-filled eyes and knew something…perhaps someone….had touched her brother-in-law’s heart. She sat up and touched his cheek with her left hand. He swallowed hard and shook his head.

“How….how can she ever forgive me?” The first time is always the hardest, one might say, but in that simple pronoun Jerry had acknowledged his wrong and his need and his shame.

“I think you already know the answer to that question, Jerry,” Lina said finally. Jerry shook his head once more; an ever-retreating doubt replaced by an understanding that grace isn’t earned; it’s bestowed. The beginning of which he felt as Lina stood up and hugged him and kissed his cheek.

“I forgive you, and I know she will, too.” It was all too much for the man to bear as he practically fell into Lina’s arms, sobbing over every bit of anger and bitterness that he foolishly held for so long.

Union County College, in front of the Psych building….

“Hi.” Tim sat down on the bench next to Susan. She moved sideways to the end but turned and spoke nervously.

“Oh…hi, Tim. How are you?”

“I’m okay. Say, I wondered. A bunch of us are going to see the next Hobbit movie. You want to come?” He smiled and leaned just a bit closer.

“I…I guess so.” She sighed and looked away, hoping only a little bit. He touched her arm.

“We’re going over to Fabio’s afterwards.”

“Are you sure no one will mind?” Her ever-present distinction intruded into the conversation and she turned away.

“Everyone is fine with you. Not everyone is like my Dad.” He shrugged his shoulders before adding.

“I’m not like my Dad any more. I’m sorry it took so long to figure it out.” There really had been nothing to ‘figure out,’ other than how to reckon the difference between being Christian and being Christ-like.

“Okay.” Her tone was cautious; the past few years had seen her lose much of her innocence and too much of her faith. She smiled weakly at Tim and he returned her favor with a hug; unexpected but still welcome.

“I’ll pick you up at five and we can meet everybody at the theater.”

The Hadley Regal Cinema, South Plainfield, later that afternoon….

The lights had dimmed and the murmurs quieted down as the coming attractions began to play; leaving the theater with a dull glow of colors. Susan sat upright in her seat; her hands gripping the armrests like she was on a roller coaster. She turned to her right and was greeted with a warm smile from Noorah, a girl in her psych class. Turning to her left, she noticed Tim had folded his arms and was sunk down in his seat. She took a deep breath and settled in as well, waiting for the movie to start.

The movie was barely started when she felt Tim’s arm drape softly over her shoulder. She glanced to the right and noticed his expression seemed softer; almost relaxed. She sighed and let her head rest on his arm. After what seemed like only minutes Susan felt Tim’s arm move. She looked up at the screen only to see the closing credits obscured by people moving out of their seats. She stood up slowly and noticed Tim smiling at her.

“You missed a lot,” he said and laughed softly as he stood.

“I…guess I’ll just have to wait until it comes out on DVD.” She smiled weakly as her face grew warm.

“Well, apart from a fire-breathing dragon, orcs and trolls, and a lot of peril, you really didn’t miss much,” he teased as he offered his hand. She took another breath and grabbed his hand as he escorted her to the aisle. She still felt a little dream-like and even a bit woozy. A couple of boys cut in front of Tim on the aisle and stopped abruptly as Susan bumped into him. He caught her before she fell, leaving them face to face as their lips brushed slightly. She pushed away and ended up falling into the seat behind her. He offered his hand and she waved him off, but after a brief struggle accepted his help. The lights had yet to come up in the still-crowded theater, and the dim glow of the screen thankfully did nothing to illuminate the bright red glow on her cheeks.

“Can you just take me home? I don’t know … I’m not hungry. Sorry.” She spoke in a loud whisper as they emerged into the brightly lit-parking lot. Tim looked at her and shook his head.

“Come on…it’ll be fun.” He hadn’t even acknowledged what took place in the theater, and the expression on his face seemed almost disappointed with her. A moment later they were joined by several of their friends.

“You two coming?” her friend Noorah said. She smiled and turned to another girl just exiting the theater; another of Susan’s classmates from Psychology. The other girl looked at Susan and nodded to Noorah, leaving Susan wondering what the exchange was about.

“Yeah, we’re coming,” Tim said as he grabbed Susan by the elbow. She shrugged her shoulders and walked to the car.

In front of Fabio’s Restaurant, Fanwood, New Jersey, shortly thereafter….

“Well,” said Noorah, “It looks like you two had a good time.” Susan shrugged her shoulders once again as she felt her cheeks grow warm. Tim tilted his head and squinted his eyes before saying slowly,

“Two? Oh…. No…. you thought? Susan’s just a friend.” He turned to her and smiled weakly. It would have been hard enough listening to his denial, but the emphasis on the word, ‘just’ was too painful to hear.

“Tim?” She practically pled for new, much brighter and hopeful words. He shook his head.

“I… It wasn’t a date. I’m sorry you got that impression.” No explanation would have been much better than an embarrassing moment in front of her friends and classmates. She turned away as her face grew hotter. Tears welled up in her eyes and she breathed out before turning back again to face him and everyone else.

“I’m not feeling well. I think I’m going to just go home.” She stepped closer to Noorah and spoke.

“Thanks for thinking of me. I guess I’ll see you in class on Thursday.” She pulled out her cell and hit a preset.

“Aunt Lina? Can you pick me up in front of Fabio’s? No… I’m not feeling well…no….” She paused and looked over at Tim. He returned her gaze with an almost foolish grin before turning away.

“Yes…yes…okay….” She closed the phone and put it in her purse. The tears had begun to flow again; likely the product of too much hurt and a comforting voice on the other end of the call. She turned to Noorah and smiled again before walking over to the bus shelter in front of the restaurant. Noorah turned to her girl friend and spoke.

“You guys go inside. I’ll be in a few, okay?” She walked over and sat down next to Susan. A half-hour later, Lina pulled up by the shelter and Susan got in, but not before getting a warm hug from Noorah. A moment after that they were gone. Noorah walked into the restaurant and stood at the table and faced Tim.

“You used her.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” he said even as the truth of what she said began to dawn on him.

“You wanted to show everybody how much you changed so you brought her along with you. She was just a prop to you in your stupid drama with your father, wasn’t she?” He went to speak and she held her palm up.

“No… I’m so glad you’re such a tolerant, enlightened person, Tim. Too bad you’re such a dick!” She shook her head.

“I’m not hungry either. I’m gonna go home.” She turned to Sandy, the other girl from their Psych class.

“I guess I’ll see you on Thursday, too. Nite everybody.” She said it while pointedly ignoring Tim. In a few minutes everybody had left the restaurant; their checks paid and their food half eaten. Tim sat by himself at the large table wondering what had just happened. His dawn was over and his day of enlightenment had just begun as he shook his head in not so blissful ignorance.

I'm waiting for the world to fall
I'm waiting for the scene to change
I'm waiting when the colors come
I'm waiting to let my world come undone
When I catch the light of falling stars my view is changing me
My view is changing me
My view is changing

The office of Marie Chang, the following Monday…

It had begun to rain, almost a downpour in fact, but the rain did nothing to drown out the sound of the girl’s sobs as she leaned her face against side bolster of the couch.

“I hate myself.” The words were halting and interrupted by gasps and cries. Almost a stereotype of everything she’d ever read about girls like her, guilt and shame rose in her throat to throttle her. Arguing with Susan would be almost futile, so Marie took another approach.

“What do you hate about yourself?” She was ready to add ‘honey’ to the question, but thought better of it and waited for the girl’s answer.

“I….hate myself.” Marie resisted the temptation to remind her that she had repeated herself, instead asking another question.

“What have you done to hate yourself, Susan?” The name was important; an identification of sorts.

“I’m wrong. I’m all wrong!” She sat up and began to bang her head softly against the back of the couch; a habit she had when she was little. One might have called the moment petulant if they hadn’t known what she had endured for the past few years.

“What’s wrong about you?” No need to ask about actions or words; Marie knew very well it wasn’t about what Susan did but about whom Susan was that troubled the girl.

“I’m not real. I thought …. I should have never….”

“Never what, Susan? “

“I thought he liked me. I really….” She shook her head as her tears flowed freely. Condemnation from without and within pushed and prodded and poked in accusation.

“He….” Marie began to ask another question, but as much as the heartache du jour was about the rejection she felt, it still seemed to pale in comparison with Susan’s routine self-condemnation. It certainly didn’t help that the boy had been so cruel, but nothing could be crueler than all the messages she had sent herself.

“Susan? You know…. I can’t think of anyone who has been hurt more than you.” She paused, almost for effect, before continuing.

“But someone once said that it’s okay to cry, but eventually you’ve got to figure out why you’re crying. Why are you crying, Susan?”

“He….I thought he understood. How could he do that? I feel so….” She put her head down.

“Used? That must hurt so bad, honey.” The endearment fit for the moment. The girl looked up at her and Marie noticed her expression had changed. The heartache still remained, but something had returned. A spark of anger? An ember of strength?

“I….He acted all nice and…. In the theater, when nobody was looking.” She shook her head; the tears still flowed but her cheeks seemed to have lightened to a dark pink.

“So long as he wasn’t seen?”

“Yeah….but when everybody…. It was like I was just there to make him feel good. I was so…. In front of everybody… Why would he do that, Marie?”

“I don’t know. But it feels…. You tell me.” She pulled back slightly and smiled. Susan put her head down and seemed almost lost in thought for a few minutes.

“I feel …. It’s like when Lucy told everybody about Narnia and Edmund acted as if she was making it all up.” The stories from years past had been a comfort for her when she was beginning to realize how different she was. The characters had become almost life-long friends, even present as she neared her twentieth birthday.

“You aren’t making it all up, are you?”

“No. I’m real. Why can’t everyone see that?”

“Is it everyone?” The question was almost obvious but still necessary. Susan looked away before sighing a disappointed sigh. It would have almost been easier if everyone thought her unreal.

“No….” A sheepish reply coupled with more tears.

“Just the one?”

“Y…yes….” She put her hand to her face to cover her shame; unearned and unwarranted, but shame none the less.

“You thought he understood, right? And that hurts how?”

“I…. I thought….” She shook her head.

“I’m so stupid.” A girl on the cusp of making the Dean’s List isn’t stupid, of course, but even intelligent girls can be made to feel foolish and even worthless with the wrong signals from the right people.

“That sounds familiar, Susan. Who said you were stupid?”

“I….I’m so foolish…. “ A feeling not easily undone, but she was on the verge of change.

“Tim made you feel foolish. Who else has done that, Susan?”

“He….” She lowered her head, as if to identify the betrayal in her life was one more act to be condemned.

“Go ahead. You have every right to be hurt, Susan. He….?”

“Dad…” She didn’t cry, so to speak, but her tears still fell from her face.

“And when Tim used you, it was like that all over again?” Susan lifted her head at the question and her eyes widened in angry recognition. One might wonder why it took so long for her to gain that understanding, but betrayal, especially by a parent or friend, often shoves understanding rudely to the side as it has its way.

“Yes.” Not much more assertive, but plain enough and a huge moment for the girl as she realized one important thing.

“Are you foolish, Susan?”

“No…I…No!” Even as she spoke, the realization was overwhelming in a good way, so to speak and she began to sob heavily. Tears of relief might be painful for the moment but healing in the long run. She became groundbreaker in her own reclamation project; a feeling that left her in a wonder of sorts as she shook her head in denial.

“No….No….” She pounded the armrest firmly as she kept repeating the word. And Marie spoke once in agreement to affirm Susan’s beginnings of understanding.

“No, Susan, you’re not. Not foolish at all.”

I am a magnet for all kinds of deeper wonderment
I am a wunderkind oh oh oh oooooh
I am a pioneer naive enough to believe this
I am a princess on the way to my throne

At the church later the same day…

Jerry sat at his desk, staring at the screen of his laptop. He sighed deeply and hit 'enter.' A moment later a single page rolled out of the printer onto the paper tray. He got up from his desk and stared at the page before laying it down on the desk. He grabbed a pen and scribbled his signature hurriedly before folding the paper and inserting it in an envelope. He sealed it and walked out of his office, but not before staring back at the pile of papers on his desk. Whatever would come next, he at least was convinced finally in his heart about what was most important.

On the UCC campus grounds, a few days later…

I am a magnet for all kinds of deeper wonderment
I am a wunderkind oh oh oh oooooh
I am a Joan of Arc and smart enough to believe this
I am a princess on the way to my throne

“Hi,” a voice came from behind Susan as she sat on the bench; her psych book lay to her side after a morning of study mixed with introspection. She turned to see Tim with a near-grin on his face.

“Tim,” she said flatly. He walked around and went to sit down but she put her hand on the bench.

“What do you want?”

“I wanted to say how sorry I am that you were embarrassed.”

“Okay…you’re sorry. Fine.” Her hand remained on the bench. She placed her right hand on her Psych book, leaving him nowhere to sit.

“Come on. It wasn’t that big of a deal.” He stepped closer; his shadow loomed over her almost like a threat of bad weather.

“No. It wasn’t.” She said it calmly, leaving him surprised. He motioned for her to move her hand but she remained almost motionless.

“You used me, Tim. You wanted to prove a point, and you did. You accept me for who I am. Fine.” He stared at her as she lifted her hand off the Psych book to her right. She lifted the book and placed it in her tote. He took that as an opening and sat down.

“You don’t quite get it, but I don’t blame you.” She sighed deeply before continuing.

“Love the sin and hate the sinner? I’m just fine for you so long as we’re just us, but you pulled back when everyone could see?” Tim went to speak but she put her hand up in caution.

“No, I understand perfectly. It’s a choice, Tim. You want to be seen as okay in everyone else’ eyes. You want to show everyone how nice you can be. I bet you even told your Dad how much you care.”

“That’s not what happened.”

“Happened? It wasn’t an event. People make choices. We all make choices, Tim. You spoke out of your heart; a heart that’s big enough to accept me but too small to show even the slightest evidence of love.” She paused.

“But…” His face had grown red from anger mixed with confusion. She cut him off with a headshake.

“No. I don’t even mean that kind of love.” She breathed out heavily. It hurt, of course, that he didn’t love her that way. But he really didn’t love her at all.

“Noorah isn’t even….she doesn’t share the same faith as us but she showed me more of Christ in the few minutes I sat waiting for Aunt Lina that night than you or your Dad have shown me in my entire life.” She gasped when she realized just how much of that love was withheld by her own father as well. She stood up as Tim held his arms open in plea.

“No, Tim. I forgive you. I guess I’ll have to keep on forgiving you. But I don’t feel like I can…. You were my best friend and you turned your back on me. Goodbye!” She picked her tote off the bench and walked away; her nose had started to run and she felt embarrassed from crying but relieved that in walking away she had finally stood her ground.

At the church, the following day…

“What’s the meaning of this?” Pat McKenna loomed over Jerry’s desk like a dark cloud. Jerry looked up and smiled as he stared at the paper in Pat’s hand.

“Simple enough. It’s my letter of resignation. I can’t expect any agreement at all in my decision so I didn’t include any notice.” He smiled again and turned his head to face the pile of boxes on the chair in the corner of the office.

“Over this?” Pat pointed to the letter in his hand?

“You’re giving up the ministry over some folly? Foolishness? Your son is living in sin and you’re going to endorse that?” Pat shook his head. He was convinced in his beliefs just as much as Jerry was in doubt of his. They may have shared a faith, and even the means to express that faith at one time. But their paths diverged sharply; perhaps belatedly as well for Jerry and not at all for Pat.

“I don’t pretend to know everything or even half of what I should know about what my child has to deal with. But I do know this. To be a minister to the church I first need to be a minister to my family. And my family includes a daughter who I grew to hate. I’m sorry, Pat.”

“You don’t have to apologize for your child, Jer. Can’t you see this is wrong?”

“No…Pat? You don’t get it. I’m sorry for my behavior. I'm sorry for you and for me. I’ve hurt my daughter. Yes, Pat. My daughter. And my sons. I can’t do that anymore. And I can’t be here anymore. It took me so long to understand that I don’t expect you to….for now. I hope you come to a place where you do, but I can’t be here while you make up your mind.”

“I’ve made up my mind, Jerry. It’s you who’s being foolish here.”

“I know you’ve decided what you believe. I just hope you start to act like the one we both believe in.”

“You can’t say that to me!”

“I just did, Pat. You and I go back a long way and I’m very grateful for you. But the days of just agreeing with you for the sake of keeping my position are over. I don’t agree with you at all about a lot of things; especially where my family is concerned. And I can’t honestly remain as a pastor here when I don’t share the same vision as you do. I've been blind, Pat, but my eyes are finally open, and I’m seeing myself clearly for the first time since Louise died. I don’t like who I see, and I aim to change that.”

Destined to reign, destined to roam
Destined to reign, destined to roam
Destined to reign, destined to roam
Destined to reign, destined to roam

At the DePasquale home the same evening…

It would have been very easy and quite understandable for Susan to stay angry, but as someone once said, she would be ‘wasting no more time looking back over her shoulder!’ She lay in bed and surveyed her room; what seemed for so long as a place of exile in the midst of the oasis of her Aunt’s tender care, it had finally become a haven for her. She noted the nearly-new compound bow that lay on her divan. Too long neglected for her sake as an athlete but even more so as a human being. Her eyes darted to the poster on the far wall.

“I guess we really don’t fit in anymore, but maybe that will change.” She stared at the girl; tween-ish and pretty. And an archer as well. Her namesake of sorts, Susan Pevensie as a character was destined to leave the series in order to follow how she was portrayed in the books. And destined in fantasy to have turned her back on Narnia. Funny thing how the real girl held an affinity for both the girl in the poster and the rejection she must have felt. In the final book of the series, the elder Pevensie girl is declared to be no longer a friend of Narnia. Susan picked up the copy and turned to the back of the book; a dog-eared page revealing the sad reality. She read the passage out loud.

"She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now and she'll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one's life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”

No mercy for either girl; her namesake almost a hopeless outcast in her own family; too similar and painful if somewhat dissimilar in circumstances. Susan looked up at the poster again.

“Maybe we both need to return?” She sighed and laid back on her bed; her head propped up by several pillows as she gazed out the window into the dark night.

“You and me!” She said finally. She turned over and cradled her head with her hand. Every night since she had lost her mother, she prayed and prayed and cried and prayed some more. And every night was met with a soft silence that seemed to promise answers someday soon. Soon can be a very long time for a child who feels alone and abandoned; even if she does have the love and support of a precious few. She closed her eyes and began to mouth words perhaps only she would hear and understand as she began to cry softly into the pillow.

“You and me,” she repeated before drifting off into a tear-filled, fitful sleep.”

Oh ominous place spellbound and unchild-proofed
My least favorite chill to bare alone
Compatriots in place they'd cringe if I told you
Our best back-pocket secret our bond full-blown

Oh empty my heart
I've got to make room for this feeling
so much bigger than me
It couldn't be any more beautiful - I can't take it in

The girl sat high up on a large rock formation in the middle of a field of rolling bluffs; her view almost panoramic. And yet she felt closed in; a guilt almost smothering as she scanned the countryside. No one to talk with her about her shame. No friend to hold her hand. No parent to hold her in a welcoming embrace. And no one to love her.

She looked down at her clothes. Apart from the dust of the day, her garb remained unchanged. A long grayish green suede-like gown split to mid-thigh on both sides, revealing dark leggings and brown boots folded over at the above the calf. Her brown belt remained worn and spotty where the dye had rubbed off. She looked to her side and noticed her bow lying almost upright against a rock; a sentinel against any foe. But there were no foes. No one to speak rude words to her because there was no one around. None from Archenland or the Lonely Islands. None from her home and certainly none from the Land over the Sea. She was the solitary citizen of her world, apart from the wildlife that inhabited that lonely place.

She sighed deeply and rubbed her face. Her eyes had crusted over ever so slightly from her nightly tears, and the new dawn did nothing to abate the emptiness she felt. No one to care about her. Everyone…. Everyone had walked away or had taken flight. Not a single one to tell her she mattered. And tears were not only reserved for nighttime. Crying wasn’t held back by the rise of the sun. She looked around again. The vista was as welcoming as a scene can be. But trees do not talk; at least in the world she now knew. No friendly animals to tell her she was important. No mythical beings with whom to dance in great joy. She thought she heard a hawk’s call; faint and faraway. But no other sound but the whoosh of the wind as it shoved and pushed her as she sat all by herself.

She closed her eyes and dreamed a dream; the soft embrace and loving kiss of a lover that felt all at once familiar and foreign. In her dream, she opened her eyes, hoping to see the one with whom she held trust and faith for so long. But he wasn’t there. He had turned his back on her.

Instead, the face was friendly and welcoming; an acceptance not borne out of tolerance or reluctance, but of true care for her. The features were soft; not weak, but a warm softness that spoke of a strength underneath. She lifted herself on her elbows and gave into the kisses of the one who actually loved her….

The De Pasquale home….

“Susan?” The voice seemed to come from off world; she opened her eyes and instead of being greeted by the panorama of that lonely world, she found herself in a bed in a nice room with posters and trophies and pictures and a friendly familiar face that greeted her with a smile.

“Good….good morning.” Susan rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and sat up. Lina walked over and sat down on the desk chair next to the bed. She leaned over and gave the girl a kiss on the forehead.

“You were talking in your sleep.” A soft laugh accompanied a half-smile. Susan saw that her Aunt was back-lit by the hallway light. She looked around the room and noticed that it was still dark.

“Almost dawn, honey.” Lina patted her on the arm.

“I…” Susan paused and sighed deeply. Resolve in the daytime can often be tugged and prodded by doubt in the night. But resolved she was.

“I told Tim goodbye.” Of course it wasn’t goodbye in the truest sense. They shared the same friends and interests, and they attended the same school, at least for the time-being. Lina nodded.

“I know.” The girl squinted and tilted her head.

“How…how could you know?”

“The look on your face when you got home last night after studying. You looked….relieved. And sad.”

“I….It hurts, Aunt Lina. I can’t believe how much it hurts.”

“But it was what you had to do.” Lina didn’t want to dismiss the girl’s pain, but she had to affirm the girl’s decision. In a lifetime filled with self-doubt, Susan needed to know her life was hers to live, and that included making hard choices. All of the things she was learning just then should have been given as gifts to her so long ago, but for the neglect of one and the sad departure of another.

“I still feel like a fool.”

“Oh, honey. No. Not foolish.” The girl’s lack of understanding was almost naive, but almost unavoidable given the lack of affirmation. Lina paused and looked away.

“You trusted. Your trust was betrayed. You had every reason to believe Tim would be the same friend he had been when you were kids. Not foolish at all.” She patted the girl’s arm once again.

“Before your Uncle Tony and I got back together, it was the same way with us.” She sighed. Tony’s death still hurt even after thirteen years; perhaps made even sadder because they did reconcile before his passing.

“You forgave him.” Not a question. Lina smiled at her.

“I had to let it go. For my sake as well as his. And we never stopped loving each other.” Her eyes teared up and it was Susan’s turn to console as she reached over and rubbed Lina’s arm.

“I…” The girl looked down and shook her head, remembering the dream that seemed to have played out only moments before.

“What, honey?”

“I had a dream.” The girl seemed almost ashamed to admit something as casual and human as dreaming. But it went far beyond merely a vision in her sleep. What she saw brought tears of doubt and fear and needless shame to her face as she recalled what she had seen.

“Oh, honey,” Lina said in response; believing Susan’s dream to be a frightening nightmare. Dreams can often be daunting when they confront us; not with monsters or demons, but with what we may truly believe or feel. Lina got off the chair and knelt next to the bed; face-to-face and heart-to-heart, so to speak. She leaned closer to give the girl the attention due to her.

“I’m….I was sitting all alone…. Not even you.” She closed her eyes to block out any earthly vision in order to recall the unearthly. She sighed and began to cry. Morning may have come too soon, but she was still living all too frequently in the dark night of her soul, as some might say. And the needless shame that accompanied her thoughts.

“It was me but it wasn’t me…. I… it was like I was…” Even the thought of identifying with a character in a book…. A picture on a poster or movie screen….it made her feel small because grown women don’t do that, do they?”

“Susan…Pevensie, right?” The girl nodded.

“I’ve always felt close to Jill Pole.” Lina smiled and wiped a tear from the girl’s cheek.

“But it was me, too. And I …it was like a dream within a dream.”

“What did you see that upset you so much?” Lina tilted her head as if to listen more carefully.

“I… I had closed my eyes, Lina.” She stopped nearly in mid-sentence. It felt almost like she was sharing her heart with a girlfriend rather than an aunt, but the familiarity embarrassed her until Lina smiled and nodded as if to say it was okay.

“I thought it was Tim….” She sighed and Lina half-smiled, reflecting the disappointment the girl still felt.

“But it was someone else?”


“It’s okay, honey. It’s okay.” We often lose our shame in small increments; and nearly often as not from the permission we gain from a smile or a nod. Lina touched Susan’s face, brushing a stray hair from her eyes.

“A kiss….Oh Lina, I’m…. It shouldn’t be this way! It’s not right!”

“You kissed back?” A slow, cautious nod.

“And it wasn’t Tim? Who was he?” Another smile set the girl at ease enough to cry harder, if that makes sense.

“What, honey? Who was he?”

“Not he…. She.” It was all she could manage before she turned her head away and began sobbing into her pillow. Lina leaned closer and stroke Susan’s hair and just said, over and over,

“Oh, honey...It’s okay. You’re alright.”

Weightless in love...unraveling
For all that's to come
and all that's ever been
We're back to the board
with every shade under the sun
Let's make it a good one

Across town; later that same morning…

The girl stood before the bathroom mirror. With everything she had been given, she felt grateful even if for a meager blessing as her sister would say. She stared at her breasts. What might have brought other girls to sad tears still gave her a chill; that incongruous feeling you might get when you realize things are good? Better? She finished toweling herself off and wrapped her hair before grabbing the soft lilac-colored robe from the hook on the closet door. Something sent her into an introspective muse as she sat on her bed. She held out her right hand and spread her fingers. Her nails were short but polished. A satisfied sigh escaped her lips.

“I’m getting in the shower,” her sister said as she glided past and into the bathroom. At one time she would have felt embarrassed enough to cry. Even now in some ways, her own sense of modesty reminded her to give her sister privacy. But things had changed. What was foreign and unfamiliar had become a thing of joyful commonality after a very brief if shaky period of adjustment for them both. At nearly twenty-four, she still remained at home. Prospects for marriage had diminished almost to the point of hopelessness but for the encouragement of understanding friends and two parents who came to grips with the life their daughter lived.

“I’ll be out in a few. We can stop at the store for coffee if you like?” College life for two sisters almost seems like a scenario for a program on Netflix or some reality show. Outcasts in Jersey? Ignored at the Shore. But the two enjoyed each other’s company. Only eighteen months separated them and they both took classes at Rutgers while finishing belatedly at UCC. Stopping for coffee meant either a quick stop at the Seven-Eleven or a leisurely visit to the school commons.

“Okay. I don’t have a class until nine anyway.” The girl stood up and walked to her closet. In a few minutes she was dressed for the day. A pair of black slacks with matching low-heeled shoes. A light grey coat-length cable-knit sweater opened just enough to reveal a black jersey turtleneck top. She smiled at the girl staring back at her from the closet door mirror.

One more detail; something that she treasured more than some of her friends and family, but an all-important detail that showed who she was and in whom she placed her trust. She reached over and pulled the fabric over her head, finally draping it around her neck. Her favorite colors; turquoise, lilac, and pewter. And she finished dressing for the day by putting on the most important accessory she owned to display who she was. Her smile….

When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability... To be alive is to be vulnerable.
Madeleine L'Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art

We were meant to open doors
And we were meant to face the danger
Never knowing what's in store
And never having met a stranger

The DePasquale home, a few days later…

Carlo sat at the kitchen table across from Susan. Lina had a few errands to run and dinner to pick up, so the two had some rare ‘exclusive’ time. Lina’s bow and quiver sat on the chair next to her; evidence of a renewed feeling of purpose, even if it was almost glacial in its progress. Carlo stood up and walked to the counter by the stove.

“You want some tea?” He opened the upper cabinet door and peered inside.

“Earl Grey…”

“Hot...I know,” he laughed at the comment; the two had a running joke about the tea preference of a certain Starfleet captain; three including Danny, though he seemed so much more serious lately.

“What’s goin’ on, Sue? You seem awfully worked up…for you.”

“I…” She hesitated, looking away. Carlo filled the electric kettle with water and hit the switch before sitting back down.

“I know about Tim. I ran into him at the A&P the other night and he told me that you kicked him to the curb.” He half-smiled and finished quickly as she turned back; her eyes flashing anger.

“Before you kill me, those were his words. I told him I didn’t appreciate the way he treated you, and that he had no business getting all hurt. And I told him that maybe he could go pray with his Dad for someone more acceptable.” Susan didn’t miss the bitter sarcasm in Carlo’s voice, but she still shuddered from the hurt of Tim’s remarks. Carlo reached over and patted her hand.

“I don’t …. I’m never going to find someone. I just…” she bit her lip and looked away once more. Turning her head didn’t hide her tears, and Carlo squeezed her hand.

“You’re a great girl, Sue. You’ll…” She pulled her hand away.

“Don’t, Carlo. I’m not a great girl. Most people don’t even think I’m a girl at all. Don’t tell me I’ll find someone. I don’t believe I’ll ever find someone. Please….” Her voice softened.

“I’m sorry, sis. I didn’t mean to be so…trite.” He sighed.

“It’s just that you are special to me…you’re about as kind a person as I know other than Aunt Lina. It’s just that things….I want things to work out for you. I hope and pray for them…so I can’t just sit here and agree, you understand? It’s like you can never know what God is actually gonna do.” It was his turn to look away as his eyes misted up. Someone had to keep up petitions and pleas; otherwise the whole family might slide into the pit of discouragement their hurt had dug. And Carlo especially felt that if he believed for Susan, then anything could happen.

“I’m so sad all the time, Carlo. Even with Lina and Marie and everybody at school holding me up, it’s just so hard to…” She was much better than sad most of the time, but the pain always looked larger than it actually was, and often dwarfed the good things she realized; something that she and Marie were working on.

“Believe? We have to believe, Sis…it’s all we have…and everything we have.” For someone who’s faith had been battered by sad neglect from shepherds and sheepdogs, so to speak, Carlo was strong.

“Tim doesn’t …” He paused, measuring his words. The last thing he wanted was to look like he was making excuses for someone who had committed such a grave sin; the betrayal of a friend.

“He doesn’t realize what he’s doing, I bet. I think that even though he’s sort of made a break with his Dad, it’s a lot of his Dad still talking when he opens up his mouth.” Carlo took a deep breath; speaking the truth in love still can hurt like hell, to mix metaphors.

“You deserve someone who actually loves you. I think he’s still only interested in being someone who is loved. He loves that you love him.” The last sentence was almost unnecessary as Carlo’s words stung like alcohol on an open wound; cleaning and adding to the healing but still painful. She gasped and shook her head; not to disagree with the truth but to regret it. Susan put her head on the table and began to cry. Carlo stroked and even combed her hair with his fingers; brushing the loose locks from her face. He heard the kitchen door open behind him.

“Oh…” Lina mouthed ‘no’ silently as she put some bags on the counter.

“We were just talking about what a great girl I am,” Susan said with only a bit of sarcasm in her voice. Lina stepped closer and patted Carlo on the back before sitting down on his other side next to Susan.

“You are a great girl, honey.” It had become almost a daily frustration that Lina felt incapable of encouraging the girl. But she had been encouraging the girl, and her words, coupled with her brother’s, helped her reach up from the plateau where she had been stuck.

“I am not a great girl, Lina,” she said pulled off a paper towel from the roll on the table.

“But I’m okay. And I’m not going to waste any more time…” She might as well have included Tim’s name, since they knew immediately what she meant. She took it further, which was disappointing to both Lina and Carlo as she finished.

“I don’t think I’ll ever ….I’m not going to look for anyone.” She sighed as she lowered her head to the table once again, and the two nearly echoed her with sighs of their own, like an ironic fade-out to a movie scene

One of us is big and brave
And one of us is tenderhearted
One of us is tempting fate
And the last but not least of us
Has faith enough for each of us

And I know
That I could never go it alone
'Cause I believe
I'd be lost without You here beside me

Union County College Student Lounge, that Friday…

Five students sat at a round table near the entrance to the lounge. Two young women dressed in the predictable casual college fare along with a rather tired looking tallish boy and his equally tall if alert looking friend. And in between the boys and the girls sat an attractive Muslimah. Her hijab looked to be silk; very soft and a pastel blue. She wore a maroon tee over a white long-sleeved top with loose cream-colored pants.

“My sister and I finished our prerequisites…at least the classes. I’ve got a final on Wednesday.” Noorah said to no one in particular at the table. Both sisters were taking classes simultaneously at Rutgers and Union County College.

“What is it you’re going to Major in at Rutgers?” The girl sitting across from her asked; a nice young lady from Plainfield named Darien.

“Well, Dorri was accepted at Newark for Med school!”

“That’s wonderful,” Susan said. She had been instrumental in encouraging Noorah’s sister regarding her aspirations to be a pediatrician.

“She’s still waiting to hear from Columbia, right?”

“Yes,” Noorah said with a smile. “I think it looks very good for her, but she’s a lock for UMDNJ!”

“And what about you?” Darien asked. “You’ve been looking into a dual major?”

“Well, I’m not quite sure about doing two graduate degrees. My father did when he and Mom were in London, but I’d be happy to just finish one. Between my undergraduate courses here and at Rutgers, I’ve gotten enough behind me that NYU sent me a letter…” She barely got the words out of her mouth when Susan and Darien began to clap. Jake and Raheem just nodded and smiled; trying without any success to give the impression that they knew all along. But her heart had been plain all along. While the prospects for her were still somewhat dim even as a woman in the twenty-first century, she hoped somehow to make a difference in her father’s homeland.

“International Relations!” Noorah finished. Raheem nodded once again, while Jake just shrugged. Susan smiled and grabbed Noorah’s hand. In that moment she suddenly realized that even with a campus only thirty or so miles away, Noorah’s time would be taken up by studies and like so many of her peers, she’d likely relocate to Manhattan. And that led to the sudden realization that she’d miss someone who had in only a few short months become her best friend.

“Ladies and gentleman and Jake….” Darien giggled during a pronounced pause for effect before exclaiming,

“I give you the next Ambassador from Iran to the United Nations.”

“Hell, she’ll be the next President!” Raheem interjected. Noorah’s cheeks began to redden, as everyone began to laugh in agreement. She smiled and lowered her eye modestly. And she felt an odd sense of warmth which went away quickly as she realized Susan was still holding her hand. She turned her head and faced Susan and smiled nervously as she pulled her hand away slowly; probably much more pronounced than she wanted. And Susan pulled her hand away quickly; even more pronounced. And her face began to grow hot. She stood up; again more quickly than she had wanted.

“I’ve got to get over to the Psych building,” she fibbed. She looked around the table and smiled to everyone, being extra careful not to smile at Noorah, even if she didn’t realize it at the moment. She turned quickly, catching her foot on a chair from the table next to theirs; nearly tripping before fleeing through the nearby exit. As she walked outside, she felt a soft breeze against her face along with the smell of roses. She walked about fifty yards or so; putting distance between her and the Student lounge before turning back to stare at the building. She breathed out a deep sigh and shook her head; denying the odd sensation that was slowly surfacing, which added to her embarrassment.

Breathing in deeply, she noticed once again the smell of roses; not an odd fragrance, but not really common either for the area. It didn’t seem very strong; almost subdued or diluted. She closed her eyes and her face seemed to glow in recognition as she realized it smelled almost like the subtle hint of roses. Someone’s perfume. ...Her perfume. And she opened her eyes; shocked would have been an understatement at that point as she realized as well that the scent was present, so to speak, in the haunting dream she had only a few days before. And that the face she had seen…the face of the person who had loved her and made her feel alive, even if only in a dream….the same face of the person that kissed her was Noorah.

It's like daylight
At midnight
It's my favorite dream when nothing’s really as it seems
Don't wake me
Just take me
Take me by the hand and I will believe

Back home, early that evening….

Susan walked quickly past the living room and down the hall toward her bedroom, practically ignoring the aroma of basil and garlic that wafted through the house. She closed her door slowly and leaned against it, feeling almost exhausted after what began as a fairly undemanding day. A knock came at the door, followed by Danny’s voice.

“Susan? Sis? You okay?” He leaned his head against the door frame like he was still a little brother.

“I’m…I don’t feel good. I’ve got a headache.” It was true that she had a headache, but it was much truer, in a way, that she wasn’t feeling very good for another reason.

“It’s Monday,” he said, as if she needed a reminder, but it was the day he and Carlo had a standing invitation to dinner.

“Aunt Lina made Ziti and meatballs.” A family favorite from their mother’s kitchen, it had become even more special in recent years because of Louise’s passing. Lina tried to provide as much security as she could with familiar things even to the point of duplicating the recipe down to the mint in the meatballs.

“I’m not hungry,” she protested; her voice almost a whisper.

“Come on, Susan? We’ve got a surprise for you?” Susan could almost see his smile through the closed door as he laughed softly. Danny’s laughter seemed to mimic Mandarin in that each laugh had a meaning of its own, depending upon the tone. She couldn’t read this one; almost a brand new laugh, it nevertheless sounded safe and promising. She opened the door a crack.

“It’s not my birthday for another two weeks, Danny.” She peeked through the opening and he reached in, grabbing her hand gently.

“Come on, Sis. Okay?” He really didn’t wait for a reply, leading her down the hallway slowly. It almost begged a ‘now, close your eyes.’ She followed him with reluctance, however; each step becoming more difficult than the last until she was almost standing still at the archway into the living room. Carlo got up off the couch and walked slowly to her and hugged her.

“Happy birthday, early, Sue,” he said. She looked into his eyes and saw tears; nothing completely out of the ordinary for him, but still a bit emotional for a meal with family. Lina was standing at the foot of the stairs leading up to her bedroom. She stepped aside as a familiar figure walked down the stairs into the living room.

“Happy birthday.” The voice was halting; as if there was more to say than just a birthday greeting. And what was left unsaid had been left unsaid for years. Tonight, the word was finally spoken.

“Susan?” The voice might have been tentative and almost doubtful in a way, but the softness of the intent made the moment more precious as Jerry Albanese held his arms out. The gesture was desperately needful but entirely daunting for a girl who already lacked confidence in her own impressions and faith. It was entirely too much to take in for a girl who was used to believing she deserved nothing but shame on a day filled with acceptance. She started to shake before falling into Carlo's arms, weeping.

We have always been protected
Little ones should run and hide
But we expect the unexpected
When love arrives and calls us all inside
And I know
That even when the wind blows
I'll be fine
'Cause You and I will get by 'til Springtime

“There is no other day. All days are present now. This moment contains all moments.””
C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

On this half lit day
with your crown beneath your wings
ev'ry word just echoes
and the empty world sings

Susan stood in a field; hilly and half-covered with flowers. The smell of salt filled the air as the breeze from the sea cooled her despite the hot sun overhead. She looked around and saw she was standing near what looked like a large stone patio surrounded by gnarled old trees and a large stone wall almost tucked into a corner.

She felt alone, very weary and even a bit scared despite the warmth of the breeze; a comfort that only took the edge off her dread. She walked carefully to the wall and touched a clump of the ivy that had nearly covered what looked like a door. She placed her hand on the rusting handle and pulled. It gave way quickly and much easier than she expected. As the door creaked open she heard her name….

“Susan?” She found herself looking up into Lina’s face as she lay on the couch.

“What…” Consciousness brought recollection and recollection dragged sadness back into her heart as she began to cry; this time softly and almost without sound. Lina helped her sit up and sat down beside her; almost cradling her like a child. She blinked back tears and gasped as she looked at the figure standing in front of her.


“No…it’s me, sis.” Danny said with a sigh. Carlo stepped closer next to his brother and shook his head slightly.

“He was here, but when ….” Carlo started to speak, but choked up with angry tears.

“He left. He was here. I’m sorry. I told him not to surprise you like that,” Danny said, his voice a bit more subdued, but still with traces of his own angry disappointment, and not for himself.

“We were going to tell you, but it didn’t quite work out, and I’m sorry. I should have said something,” Lina said as she squeezed Susan’s shoulder. Susan went to pull away; Lina’s words stung for only a moment and she sidled back next to her aunt with a look that seemed almost apologetic, prompting Danny to speak.

“We let you down. I guess we wanted things to be like they were when we were little. I should have warned you…at the very least I should have….” His voice trailed off. And it was like they were little in a way as old fears and sadness filled the room like damp air on a hot day.

“I’m so sorry.” Lina looked her in the eyes. Hope deferred makes the heart sad, as it says somewhere. There was hope in everyone’s heart, if only for the moment Jerry spoke the girl’s name for the first time. But fulfillment doesn’t always come quick or easy, as their father’s absence showed all too well.

“It’s okay,” Susan said with a sigh. It wasn’t okay at all, but the girl had gotten used to disappointment and at that point, any movement away from pain was good; at least as good as it could get. She smiled weakly and stood.

“I’m…I’ve got to go lie down.” Tired comes in so many forms. Being energized by acceptance from other people at other places at other recent times did nothing to abate the fatigue of still-present rejection from the one person from whom she sought acceptance. The person whom she hadn’t stopped loving; whom she adored even now, since every child wants desperately to love their father even if he acts and says and does things that aren’t loving himself. She went to walk away but stopped as the sobs overtook her. Lina got up and grabbed her hand.

“Guys? I’m going to put Susan to bed, okay? Go ahead and grab something to eat,” she said, pointing to the food laid out on the dining room table.

“I’ll talk to you tomorrow, okay?” Danny nodded. Carlo walked over to Lina and Susan, quickly followed by his brother. They hugged the pair and stepped away as Lina walked Susan down the hall to her bedroom.

A moment later Susan had shed her skirt and blouse and shoes and was lying under the covers; her head practically buried in her pillow. Lina lay on top of the blanket, still hugging the girl as she sobbed. It would have been better if Jerry hadn’t reached out tentatively; it almost felt as if he had intended all along to make a show while planning to withdraw. Like being rejected twice, the rejection was made stronger by his choice to speak her name only to dismiss her. Lina spoke silently in prayer as she held her niece. Soon both were asleep; safe and warm in the knowledge of love that still remained hopeful in the shattered family.

Where have you gone my feather light heart?
I never imagined you would leave
Where have you gone my sparkling wind?
right here is the hardest place to be

“Oh Queen of Narnia, what do you bid of me?” The woman sat on a divan; belying the words that almost harkened to an era of servitude. This woman wasn’t a servant in the basest sense, but her demeanor seemed to speak of a desire to please and a willingness to sacrifice. It wasn’t servitude. It was love. Love in the almost purest sense that gives instead of takes; that listens instead of speaks; that seeks to know instead of being known.

“I do not know for I do not know you.” Susan spoke. She was a visitor while the woman sat before her in her own kingdom as if she was the guest and not the ruler; not demanding or pushing or expecting, but treating Susan like the royal personage she was; merely a Queen of Narnia in the truest sense; royalty bestowed by the true ruler of every realm; the same ruler who bestowed royalty upon the woman before her.

“I know you. Because you are who you are. You are who you are because that’s how things have always been…and how they were meant to be.” The woman smiled demurely, as if she knew something secret that might be even fun to know. She stood up and walked to the throne that held the one she sought to serve. Susan found herself blessed by the woman’s presence. She stared at her as she stood with her head bowed.

“A Tarkeena?” She wondered without words at the woman’s garb. Nothing like her own save for the fabrics; rich brocades and silks, but arranged in a completely different way than her own garments. Dark blues and soft yellows and royal purple all surrounding the woman like a robe of office, but also like a dress made simply to adorn a beautiful woman, which she was.

“Not a Tarkeena….someone from someplace else? To the east?” She thought but her words were also spoken aloud, if entirely unintentional.

“I come from another land, but from the same place as you, Queen of Narnia.” A riddle to be sure. The same but different? No. Different but entirely alike. Susan placed her hand gently on her own breast, feeling the flesh under the soft silken cover. Not to be sensual, but almost as a check against what her thoughts and words might betray.

“We are the same because we are real as we ever have been.” The woman smiled and looked down upon her own body as if to indicate the similarity of which she spoke. She shook her head; not in denial of the truth, but against the force of the lie both of them were compelled to live for so long. She smiled again.

“We are on the same journey, oh my precious Queen.” The woman stepped to the dais and leaned closer; supported by the arms of the throne, she stood before kneeling down. Susan felt threatened and safe all at the same time. The woman sat down on the marble dais before the throne and put her head against Susan’s knees as if she was a child seeking her mother’s comfort. But it was she who sought to comfort rather than be consoled. She looked up into Susan’s eyes to behold shame and doubt and fear; reflecting as it were, the complete opposite in her own eyes. She smiled. Her adoring gaze seemed to strip away all the defenses the lies had built; leaving instead love and peace and joy and hope….


A moment later she saw that instead of in a throne room she stood at the foot of a bridge over a very wide chasm that looked down on a white-capped raging river. On the other side stood a very large lion who was accompanied by the woman she had seen only moments before…if it had been only moments…

“Come, Susan.” The lion’s voice felt like a cross between a growl and a purr.” She looked at the bridge. It was filled with holes and seemed almost rickety.

“May I come later?”

“It is time.”

“Are there no other bridges?” She looked around as if the chasm offered another way across.

“There is no other.”

“It doesn’t appear safe, O Lion,” she said as if she still was a little child. The lion emitted a low rumbling growl; more to indicate urgency than disappointment. She was weary even before the journey had hardly begun.

“Yet you must cross, dear one. Just like this precious daughter who stands beside me.” Susan looked to see the woman smiling. A confidence that gave her courage; that commonality of travelers on the same journey. She put a foot on the bridge; her body seemed to shake nervously but her heart was encouraged even as she stepped forward.

“Come to me.” She heard the voice, but instead of the lion, it was the woman who spoke; her arms open in welcome and her eyes shining brightly in love…..

In the glistening
of the lost and open sky
tiny piece of you sits
Simple wish waits for reply

Where have you gone my feather light heart?
I never imagined you could leave
Where have you gone my sparkling wind?
right here is the hardest place to be

Union County College, that Friday afternoon…

Susan sat on the bench at the bus stop. She was deep in concentration as she turned the pages of a worn, dog-eared copy of her favorite author. A second later she felt a presence and turned to find Noorah sitting beside her.

“Lewis is a favorite of mine as well.” Her accent was a mixture mostly of Union County but with a refinement that likely came from her British mother.

“A universalist from what I can gather. There’s hope for you Christians yet,” she teased. Susan’s face began to redden and she turned away, leading Noorah to come to the obvious if incorrect conclusion.

“Oh, I am so sorry. I didn’t mean to make light of your faith.” She bowed her head while continuing to speak.

“And I didn’t mean to presume that my faith was …. It was entirely wrong of me. I am so sorry.” Noorah would have felt just as embarrassed with anyone else, but something deep inside urged her strongly….had been tugging at her for days, in fact, which made the shame of the moment even more painful. She put her hand on Susan’s arm and Susan pulled it away; slowly and deliberately, but without a word.

“Please forgive me, Susan? You’ve been through so much hurt and the last thing I wished to do was to add to your pain." Her words were met with silence. She bowed her head, hoping that she could find the right thing to say. Susan made it easier without communicating a single sentence as she turned toward Noorah. Her eyes were a bit red and puffy. She nodded with a half-smile before turning away once more; prompting Noorah again to touch her arm. This time she stayed still other than a slight nod before looking upward as if in prayer. She sighed and turned again to Noorah and spoke.

“I don’t know what to say….” She paused and bit her lip.

“Of course I forgive you, Noorah. Really…there’s nothing to forgive. I just…”

“You don’t want me to sit here with you?” Her inflection indicated a question, but it really was a statement; a means to verify what Noorah feared…desperately hoped against, in fact, since she had been troubled by dreams and shadows the past several nights. She sighed and went to stand up but this time it was Susan’s turn to reach out.

“No…stay…..Please?” It would be the only words exchanged for the rest of the day between the two. Noorah pulled out a tablet and began reading, but not before squeezing Susan’s hand. The girl smiled and returned her attention to Lewis. To say that she was confused would be a gross understatement. But even in her confusion, somehow doubt seemed to be stepping slowly away; a enemy beating a reluctant departure in defeat.

The two traded one or two glances before the shuttle pulled up next to the bus shelter. Susan stood up and went to leave. As she placed her foot on the step into the bus, she paused. She turned to see Noorah staring at her. Without knowing what to do, she did something that she hadn’t done since before her mother died. She blew a kiss to the young woman sitting on the bench before getting on the bus. In a few moments the bus was off down the driveway and off campus; leaving Noorah alone with her thoughts…thoughts that were just as confused but just as settled and peaceful as the girl she was beginning to love.

Forgiven beneath the shadows
Delivered into a dream
the beating wings of the weary
let me in take me in

“You have listened to your fears, child. Come, let me breathe on you. Forget them….”
C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian

In the sweet light
Of the valley,
When the sun falls
Upon the pine,
I shall lay down
All of my troubles,
And I lift up,
This heart of mine.

Nomahegan Park, Cranford, New Jersey, a few days later…

A solitary figure sat on the bench in front of the large pond. Several ducks and one very fat goose sidled over to the man and looked up with expectation. A moment later tufts of soft bread lay scattered amidst them for a fleeting moment before they devoured the food with satisfied quacks and a fairly loud honk. The man smiled and spoke.

“Eat, drink, and be merry, kids.” He withheld the last phrase; the happy fowl needed no reminder of their own mortality even as he contemplated his own. He bowed his head in prayer, only to be interrupted by a familiar if somewhat peeved voice.

“This better be good, Jer. You can’t even know how angry I am right now.” Lina sat down next to her brother-in-law; a reluctant if accommodating pose as she leaned closer in rapt attention.

“It’s not good at all, Lina. I’m sorry to disappoint you.” He bowed his head once again as tears dripped off his chin onto the grass below. She stared at him and her eyes widened in realization as he raised his head enough to reveal a very tired countenance. The words came to her even as he put his hand on her wrist…’oh no.’

Calabria Pizza, Cranford, New Jersey…

“I don’t know what do,” Susan said to herself as much to Noorah. They sat across from each other in a booth; divided by Formica and particle board and years of fear and confusion and so many other things. But like the table between them, the differences were man-made and temporary. And the commonalities were much more than for what they could have hoped; and the one that could have divided them served to unite them.

”We don’t know yet what to do, but what we do know? I think….I feel fine.” Noorah pointed to herself with her palm facing inward, patting her heart.”

“I…I feel fine, too,” Susan said with a half-smile; a life-time filled with wonder and awe seemed almost shoved rudely aside by the past few years of neglect and hurt. Still, she remained hopeful. Her brothers loved her and her aunt loved her. And what about the woman before her? She felt almost in awe over the attention the woman’s eyes seemed to pay to every motion and expression she displayed.


“You’re such a wonderful girl, Susan. I wish you appreciated that.” Noorah reached across the table and patted Susan’s hand, prompting the girl to pull back awkwardly. She stared at her hand as if she had been touched by something other than the bright-faced woman who sat before her.

“I know it’s hard to see. You’ve been told …maybe not in so many words…but you’ve been told you’re not real…that you’re no good…bad, in fact.” It might have been easy for Noorah to say that since her parents never once stopped loving her during her journey…a journey of faith in fact that was made clear and serene by that love. But she had traveled down the same road…perhaps on parallel paths…as Susan, but earlier and with much more clarity of purpose, since she never once was given reason to doubt her own faith and her gender.

“I know I’m real, and I’m just like you.” But for their difference in beliefs, they were alike in so many ways, even to the point of knowing as young children that they were much different inside than out. Both wanting so much to be exactly like the mothers who bore them and nurtured them. Their paths diverged as one father welcomed his new daughter even as the other father rejected the daughter while trying so desperately to love a boy who never existed. But one need not undergo hardship and hurt to embrace and value the hardship and hurt of others.

“I don’t know what to do, either…. But I feel good about what to do, if that makes sense?” Noorah patted the girl’s hand again. More than just a fellow traveler further down the road, the woman’s eyes indicate something so much more. While Susan may have been innocently…even absent-mindedly flirting with the woman, Noorah was serious and resolute; that knowing inside without really understanding….accepting on face-value, so to speak.

“I’m beginning to understand what they say about love at first sight.” Noorah smiled and Susan shrugged uncomfortably. It made no sense, since they had known each other for some time, even if it had been mostly casual and crowded with other friends and classmates. Noorah noticed the almost imperceptible half-smile on Susan’s face.

“What I mean is that I never really saw you before. I saw a person whom I understood only a bit and with no real desire to get to know better. You being from a different world, you know?” She pointed to her hijab and smiled.

“But we’re from the same exact world in which we all live. I know your faith means so much to you; you’ve said so in such a kind manner. There’s a calm assurance that you show that hardly ever comes out at any other time.” She spoke with a lilt in her voice as her gaze lifted upward to her hijab once again; a reminder that they both were comfortable in their own skin when it came to faith, so to speak.
“You are a very special woman,” Noorah continued. Susan shook her head and turned away; her gesture did nothing to hide the fact that Noorah’s words had brought her to unfamiliar if thankful tears.

“I don’t know why Allah does what he does; I do not pretend to know his will other than what he has revealed. But I know he has brought us together for a reason that is good, since it is his will. And it matters not that I do not understand for that reason and for one very other important reason; I am falling in love with you.” She smiled and it was too much to bear as Susan turned her face to the wall and began to cry softly. Another tap on the hand followed by,

“You should drink, Susan.” The girl turned to find their waitress holding two glasses of soda. She tried with only a bit of success in keeping her embarrassment in check. The waitress placed the glasses on the table and nodded with a smile to Noorah.

“I’ll be back with your order in a few, kay?” The girl said, quickly followed by the sound of bubble gum snapping sharply as she turned and walked back into the kitchen. Susan grabbed the soda and downed several nervous gulps.

“I’m not going to run away, Susan,” the woman assured her. And it really felt like that; a wiser, more mature woman welcoming the younger woman into herself in a way. Assurance gently brushing aside doubt and fear as she opened her heart to Susan; giving Susan every reason in the world to open her own heart.

“I….I didn’t mean to be so silly.” It was all she knew to say. Recalling the playful if tentative gestures of only days before; the moment of realization that she didn’t merely want to be serious, but that realization of what that seriousness meant to both of them. The girl who flirted by blowing innocent kisses in departing was becoming a young woman who longed for kisses…those same feelings that seemed to permeate every dream in sleep and even every day-dream while awake. While the young woman might still be desperate for the love of a father, it was that calm, perfectly ordinary want….no…that need for romance that nudged her closer, even if only in her heart.

Noorah made up the physical distance by pulling on Susan’s hand. The girl’s body leaned forward in eager obedience as Noorah offered her lips to Susan’s cheek. It would be the only show of affection in public for some time; a rare if needful expression of love that brought clarity of mind together with those assured feelings to blend into a nice mixture of confident love. Susan blushed deeply and began to cry once again. Noorah squeezed her hand; the gesture giving her the strength to regain composure at least for the moment. Time enough to cry together in calm acceptance when they would be alone; and there would be time to be alone as well.

“Errr….emmmm…” A voice seemed to come from above, but it was only their waitress, holding their food. She placed it on the table and smiled.

“Let me know if you need anything else, kay?” She used her head to gesture toward the kitchen door. Susan looked up and then back at Noorah before answering.


Meanwhile at Nomahegan Park…

“Now I understand why you left….why you couldn’t face her.” Lina rubbed Jerry’s arm. He pulled away from her abruptly and frowned, but his disappointment wasn’t directed toward her.

“No, no! I couldn’t face her because I’m a coward. After all this time and I just couldn’t look her in the eye without feeling bad about myself. How selfish is that?” He shook his head and blew out a long breath. She went to grab his hand and he pulled away once again.

“You don’t understand, Lina. I didn’t even know until yesterday. When I left it was because I still don’t understand and still don’t care enough to try.”

“That’s nonsense, Jer, and you know it. You left the church because they wouldn’t even bother to see Susan’s side.”

“Because they were not being fair to me as a parent. It was all about me, Lina. Me…the selfish bastard who didn’t care enough to at least listen to her…Funny…I’m just getting used to using the right pronouns; sorta sad, don’t you think?”

“I don’t care, Jerry. You have a chance to make this right for her and you and the boys. You can still be a family,” Lina sighed and choked up at the last word.

“All the time in the world, Lina. That’s what Louise used to say to me…even after she got sick.” Lina’s eyes teared up at the mention of her sister.

“I never realized what she meant until now. That time didn’t hurt us since she’s still here, you know?” He patted his heart and Lina nodded.

“I’ve been such a fool…a selfish bastard.” He looked at her, almost waiting for her to give him absolution. She nodded her head instead and half-smiled.

“Well, you know what they say? God loves you just the way you are. But he loves you too much to let you stay that way?” Jerry nodded at the humor, but the conviction of the words was too much or perhaps just enough as he dissolved into shame-filled tears. She resisted the urge to comfort him; the last thing he needed was an endorsement of his poor choices and selfishness. She patted him on the back instead and looked upward. It really was true, she thought. We have all the time in the world.

Through the shadow
Of the darkness,
Through the storms that
Lead me astray
I shall travel
Forever knowing
In your light,
I will always stay.

Later that night…

“You have listened to your fears, child. Come, let me breathe on you. Forget them….”

The lion stared at the young woman who stood at the edge of the chasm, looking back across the bridge she had just traversed. A huge cat grin crossed his face and he nudged her playfully with his nose; like a large tomcat looking for a scratch behind the ears instead of the King of the Realm.

She turned to find two women standing beside the Lion. One was clad in a flowing, ankle length gown of bright greens and yellows. Her head was covered with a purple cloth of fine silk, interwoven with gold threads. The woman beside her was clad in a gown of turquoise and she wore a thin circlet of fine silver on her head, which seemed to fade into her black and silver hair from the light of the setting sun.

“The time for fear is over, my sweet daughter.” The voice was at once painfully and joyfully familiar. Susan stepped closer and received her mother into her arms as the two wept in happy reunion. The woman next to them nodded to the lion and smiled at the pair.

“You have met Queen Louise; a Daughter of Narnia and your own mother. Heed her words, Susan.” The lion spoke softly; not in command, but in confident suggestion. Susan nodded and turned to her mother.

“You have the world ahead of you, my sweet girl.” The words pierced Susan’s heart; both by the truth and inevitability of them but also by the comfort they provided. It was the first time anyone had called her a girl, so to speak; a title rather than just a casual reference made by a friend. She gasped and sighed deeply before embracing her mother as she wept again.

“Every tear is important, Susan, but none more than these. They cleanse and free you, dear heart. Drink in the joy and gladness of your freedom.” Even as he spoke he seemed to be fading; a very large facsimile of a Cheshire Cat, but with the wisdom of healing instead of irony. She looked in her mother’s face to see it fading as well; a well-worn but cheerful visage that conveyed hope even as Louise spoke to her daughter for the last time.”

“You must let go to receive, my precious child. To grab the future you must release the past. I love you…always.” With that her mother and the lion disappeared, leaving her alone with the brightly clad woman; a woman whose face was almost obscured by the fold of her head covering that revealed only two beautiful eyes that seemed to smile.

It began to rain; softly at first, but then in large droplets that fell almost soundlessly next to the thunder that roared from above, if it really was thunder. She shuddered at the sound and was almost taken aback by the flashing light until she gazed once again into the woman’s eyes. Peace and joy replaced fear in that moment as she knew everything would finally be righted and everything would be alright….

Through the shadow
Of the darkness,
Through the storms that
Lead me astray
I shall travel
Forever knowing
In your light,
I will always stay.

Susan stood in the middle of a large, brightly lit hall. The sound of a soft breeze echoed; the quiet flapping of large tapestries against the marble walls. It was almost like a palace. And wherein a palace she stood, there must be some royalty. She looked down at her clothes; nothing more than the usual jeans and sweater she had been wearing….hardly the garb in which to welcome a king or queen. She heard a voice; booming and gentle at the same time, it shook her being while all at once soothing her soul.

“You know what you must do.” She nodded even as the words echoed.

“But….” As soon as her own word was spoken she felt convicted. But in some large way it was good, even though it felt bad, as some of you might know. And there was no condemnation; merely instruction as the voice spoke again.

“If you wish to receive what lies before you, you must empty your hand.” She looked in her right hand and beheld a very beautiful brooch; a gleaming jewel such as she had never seen seemed to dazzle.

“But it is so beautiful…” And it was hers; she had earned it, she thought to herself.

“It is very beautiful, but if you wish to keep it, you cannot receive what is before you.” The voice sounded so calm; so warm….so fatherly. She looked ahead and saw a stone table. Stepping closer she saw another brooch. It was crude, and the gold seemed tarnish. Every facet of the jewel in the center seemed to display their flaws proudly. She looked around, as if she would find the voice had a face, but no one else was there.

“It is ugly,” she said in protest even as her hand closed tightly against the brooch in her hand.

“It is not pretty, but nor is it ugly, child. It merely is what it is.” She closed her eyes and heard a smile, as odd as that seems and she opened her hand. The brooch in her palm was just as beautiful as ever, but the lure of the beauty was waning, like the fading taste of a fine dinner; it was diminishing in the eyes of her heart.

“Let it go, child and take what is yours,” the voice spoke one last time before the room returned to the sounds only of a gently breeze. She looked at the brooch in her hand; it was as beautiful as ever and almost filled her palm, but it was small. She dropped it and stepped closer to the table. The brooch on the table was no different in appearance but it seemed much larger than she had remembered only moments before. She picked it up; a weight on her palm for something so small; it seemed so much more important… more valuable than she had ever imagined.

No voice was heard but for the words in her heart that spoke to her of value and worth and peace. Even as she felt that, she turned to see the brooch to which she had clung so tightly only moments before. It had grown smaller and the shine of the jewel was gone, replaced by a dirty glow that got darker with each breath she took until it looked like nothing more than a smudge on the marble floor.

She stepped away from the table and found herself; not in a marble hall, but in a clear, clean meadow. A cool stream of fresh flowery air filled her lungs and she smiled….

All these things I say
The way you make me feel
I can't believe you're real
You are good to me
You are good to me
You are good to me

Nomahagen Park, late October...

Jerry sat in a bench facing the pond, looking nervously at his watch.

“10:26….damn.” He grabbed the bag of bread from his backpack and reached in for a handful, which he strewed across the ground in front of the bench. Several ducks and even an enterprising seagull walked over and began pecking at the food and each other.

“Dad…” He heard a voice from over his shoulder. He nodded and half-smiled before pointing to the bench without word. Susan sat down on the opposite end. He opened the bag of bread pieces once again, offering it to her silently. She took the bag almost cautiously, as if by handling it she might somehow make that dreaded contact with him. He spoke…

“Susan…” She looked up and away for a moment before turning to him wordlessly, blinking back tears.

“Susan…” He paused. It was only the third time in her lifetime that the most important person in her life spoke her name. He continued haltingly.

“I am so sorry.” Just that with no other modifiers or excuses. Still she held back. How in God’s name could anyone be expected to forgive such a betrayal? But still something in her heart persisted. She closed her eyes; tears streaming down her face. She had determined before hand to forgive him but it was so hard. What was it that she had heard once? As unfair as his treatment was, there was no fairness at all in life; not that it was bad, but that there was no scale weighing hurt against any blessing.

“Susan?” She looked up to see his face a mask of grief; not in that self-pitying sense that he had always conveyed. But real grief over a loss for which neither could bear. But how many times had she seen this? Contrition followed by disappointment. She took a deep breath and spoke.

“Do you know why we loved you reading to us at bedtime, Dad?” He squinted slightly; doesn’t every child enjoy bedtime reading? She shook her head no, almost hearing the words in his heart.

“Because it was the only time we saw you. When you read to us…when you and Mommy read to us it was the only time we saw you together other than in some line at church shaking hands and praying…” He went to speak and she cut him off with a dismissive wave.

“You had time for everyone but us, Dad. It didn’t matter that Danny scored a winning goal if you were off at the hospital visiting someone. It wasn’t ever good; when Carlo got that debate trophy in Middle School, you didn’t even say a word that night. Someone else was hurt or sad or scared and you helped them. Mommy…” Her voice began to break and he went to speak. Once again, she halted him, but instead of a dismissive wave, she gasped and held her hand out. He took it, patting it gently. She sniffled a bit and spoke again.

“You walked away from me when I needed you most, Dad. Mommy was gone,” she struggled to continue. Taking a deep breath, she plunged back into the cold water of the painful moments of her mother’s death.

“She …. You weren’t there, Dad. Something…I don’t even remember what, but she needed you every day, and you weren’t there for her. And you haven’t been there for me. When you came down the stairs at Lina’s …our home, it was like a dream… a Disney movie where everything turns out okay in the end. And then you left without a word. Why should I ….” She stopped at the squeeze of her hand.

“Third time’s the charm?” She thought to herself. Where did that even come from? Something about success after two failures. She realized that she had every reason to doubt; every reason to shy away in self-preservation. But in her heart she also realized something much greater…

“I’ve been looking…” She collected herself and continued to speak.

“I’ve been looking for things to forgive, Dad. Not just forgive, but looking for offenses to forgive. Keeping track…”

“Susan?” Jerry squeezed her hand once again; his speaking her name almost a way to ease her choice; an open door through which to walk. She smiled at him; a relieved smile that had more to do with her own forgiveness than anything of his.

“Dad…I’m so sorry. I’ve been so angry for so long, and I … Please forgive me?” She began to sob. He sidled closer to her and held her as she wept. No other words would have been needed between them; the first embrace between father and daughter a reason for celebration, if only for such a short time as Jerry spoke.

“We both…. I’m so glad that you’re…my daughter.” Proud would have been the word many would have expected; her prowess at archery would give any father reason to be proud. And her persistence and endurance in becoming herself in a manner of speaking after facing such a long challenge to be whom she was meant to be. But the words were so important. He was glad and she was finally his daughter.

“I’m so glad you’re my Dad.” She pulled back and their smiles mingled happily….

All these things I say
The way you make me feel
I can't believe you're real

Dunkin Donuts, Cranford, a few weeks later…

Noorah sat with her back to the large window facing the parking lot. Susan walked over and put two large Styrofoam cups of hot chocolate down on the table along with two crullers. As she sat down, she felt someone walk up behind her.

“Susan?” The voice was familiar but the timber and even the ‘mood’ of the voice was different; changed? Subdued? She turned around.

“Tim?” Hardly a question, but a question none the less; Susan sat down almost unconsciously as she stared at her former friend. At least that’s what he appeared to be since he looked nothing like what any their classmates might have remembered.

“I’ve moved out of my house… Dad didn’t quite find it in his heart….” Tim shook his head; a gesture mirrored by both Susan and Noorah as they continued to stare at him. His clothes hadn’t changed at all; still a bit skate-boardish, so to speak. But his face seemed different; a change in his demeanor that signaled something deep inside was going on. He didn’t show any tears; not as a defense, but almost because what he was telling them had already been seen to emotionally.

“Mom was upset….more than upset. I think she’s …they’re getting counseling.” He put his head down; the counseling they would be getting would likely point fingers at his mother and him in an effort to ‘fix’ everyone; everyone being anyone besides his father.

“I’m so sorry, Tim.” Susan stood up and hugged the boy awkwardly. He patted her back as she held him tight. It became immediately apparent that he was human after all, and he began to cry in her arms. Noorah reached over and grabbed his hand.

“N…no…Susan? I…I’m sorry. For everything. For nothing….” The choice of words seemed odd until he continued.

“Everything I’ve….b…believed about myself is nothing….it’s never been real. Just what my father told me. I…” He looked around Susan and saw Noorah’s half-frown of empathy. It hurt to find her so kind and considerate; making what he had to say all the more painful.

“I realized….. I….I’m different….”


“I… the same.” It made no sense until he put the two together.

“You and me…. The same….” He pulled back and looked at her up and down; almost an inventory, but entirely benign, as if he was listing her assets rather than being his normal judgmental self. He blinked back tears even as they flowed. The look on his face seemed to be one of defeat, but it wasn’t over what was bad in him, but what was good. Like he finally gave in to what he had wondered about all his life.

“I’m not what my father wants me to be… not who…not anything. He hates me. Just like you.”

“I don’t hate you, Tim….” Susan went to pull him back into an embrace but the boy shook his head.

“No…not you….He hates me because I’m just like you….” His voice trailed off as his eyes repeated the same quick inventory. Susan shook her head; wondering what he was looking at. Noorah noticed her expression and her gaze darted back and forth between the two until her eyes widened in understanding recognition.

“Like us, Tim?” Noorah said it softly; no condemnation or proud enlightenment, but instead an calm empathetic near-sigh that spoke to the boy’s heart. He nodded; almost wearily.

“He hates you just the way he hates us?”

“Us?” Susan said and it dawned on her exactly what Tim had been trying to share. It wasn’t at all like the stories she had read or even any of the dreams she imagined for herself nor for Noorah or anyone else for that matter. It was exactly the same pain and sadness and sorrow and almost helpless resign she had felt every single day of her estrangement with her father. It wasn’t about him or her or Noorah only, but about every person she knew who had struggled with the same rejection.

“I’m so sorry, Tim.” Noorah said as she rubbed his hand softly. Susan pulled him close. It crossed her mind to ask him a thousand questions, but he didn’t need to explain himself; he…. the person inside needed a friend to hold that inner being since no one else on the face of the earth would…at least for the present. She asked one question only; an understandable curiosity that she had witnessed in others when she first told her friends who she was.

“What’s your name?”

“I don’t have one….” It was all too freeing and painful at the same time. What should have been a joyous occasion became instead a moment of sad reflection; that feeling of being unworthy and unloved that had never crossed Tim’s mind since he was or had at least tried to be what his father expected. But there had almost been no time for the newness and wonder of self-awareness as his heart had been crushed by his father’s angry demands.

“I think it’s okay for now if we just call you dear or honey, okay?” Noorah said. Tim looked at her and half-smiled before dissolving further into a tearful renewal mixed equally with sadness and joy.

“It’s okay, honey. It’s okay…”

Some weeks later....

“It’s not fair.” Susan wept on Jerry’s shoulder; her face buried in his jacket.

“I’m so sorry,” Jerry wept along with her. He stroked her hair. How could a loving God allow them to reconcile only to take him away so soon? What was her faith even worth alongside this betrayal? She wanted to pound his chest for all the times she needed him. She wanted to scream for all the times she fell asleep feeling hurt and rejected. And now the ultimate rejection? But something deep inside her seemed to rise up; a warm feeling that pushed aside the anger like a cool shower on a warm day.

“Dad? I don’t want to lose you….Now that you’ve…” she sobbed.

“Now that I’ve found you? You will never lose me….” He wanted to add her name, but even then it was still so awkward to think of her in a completely different way. Acceptance and understanding don’t always tag along with comprehension. He spoke.

“You have room in your heart next to Mom for me, don’t you?” It was almost a silly question, but after years of neglect, it was hard for Jerry to apprehend the forgiveness she had already extended. She nodded, blinking back tears while her face displayed almost hurt.

“I…don’t want to have you….just in my heart, Dad…. I want to hold you and have you hold me and tell me that everything will be okay.”

“I know, honey, I know.” It was the first time since she was five that he had called her honey. Almost better than her own name; it was an endearment that would mean the world to her…a treasure to be held close to her heart. And as sad as the moment was, she still felt in some wondrous way that as painful as it might be, even now it was going to be alright….


The morning dew lay almost icy against the cold but was warming in the early sunshine. Noorah stood next to Susan; a cold rain had fallen, and their umbrella seemed completely useless. She stared at the grave plaque.

“Louise Adrian Albanese; 1968 - 2006, Beloved Wife and Mother 'too soon'"

And beside her plaque, a new one had been placed;

"Gerald Mark Albanese 1961 — 2014, Beloved Husband of Louise; Father to Susan, Daniel, and Carlo 'never too late'”


“Promise me you won’t be upset?” Susan frowned and Noorah grabbed her arm and squeezed gently.

“I know…it really isn’t fair, no matter what anyone says. And it hurts so much.” She half-smiled at Susan, causing her to surrender to the safety that Noorah offered. She began to cry. Noorah pulled her close for a hug. After a few minutes Susan pulled away slightly and smiled, as if to say ‘I’m alright.” Noorah squeezed her hand.

“Danny and Carlo are going to meet us at home. Will your sister be able to make it for dinner?”

“She called to say she might be a little late, but she’ll be there. My Mom and Dad are going to get there late as well, but my father said to give you this, okay?” Noorah stepped close and kissed Susan on both cheeks; a warm gesture from a loving parent.

“And of course both he and Mom will tell you this, but Dad wanted you to hear it first thing, okay? Khosh Amadid!” Susan blushed and tears came to her eyes; the one thing she needed more than anything else in her life finally bestowed twice. She had been learning Farsi, and was touched; welcomed by a new family; a long-sought sense of worth that began when her father changed and now made even better. She smiled and spoke.

“Mamnoon,” a near whisper followed by a kiss on both cheeks for Noorah. She had so much to be thankful for, but especially for the love she shared with the love of her life. She pulled Noorah in for a strong hug.

“Wish me luck?” It was going to be an interesting afternoon. She awaited the final decision by the committee; the Olympics were only months away, and it was a pretty good bet that she’d make the team. The entire Korean contingent and the Chinese as well would likely sweep the medals in some fashion, but she’d give it all she had. And of course the day was ever more special.

“Happy Birthday,” Noorah said. She handed Susan a box wrapped in pink tissue with a red ribbon.

“It’s turquoise. I know you love the color, but are you sure?” Susan smiled at her question and nodded before opening up the box. Another smile brightened an otherwise dreary day as she pulled the bright soft garment from the box and put it on.

“How do I look?” She asked. Noorah smiled.

“You look beautiful.” She touched the cloth by Susan’s throat, brushing against the silver cross that hung on a chain around Susan’s neck as she adjusted the hijab. The drape of the soft fabric covered the cross, causing Noorah to speak,

“I’m sorry… I know this is important to you, “ she said as she pointed to where the cross would normally be displayed.

“It’s fine. I have it in my heart.” She paused and a grin widened as she said finally,

“Just like you!” She looked around; they were alone in the morning cold on a hillside almost hidden by trees. A rare moment where she could show what she meant in a modest way; she kissed Noorah and squeezed her hand.

“In my heart."

I never thought I'd find
A heart that fit with mine
Sometimes the world is kind
You are good to me
You are good to me
You are good to me
When I wander in the open world makes me smile
to know that you're my home
In the darkness when I toss and turn
gives me piece of mind when you hold me
All these things I say
The way you make me feel
I can't believe you're real
You are good to me
You are good to me
You are good to me

The Call
Words and music by the performer
Regina Spektor

There’s A Place for Us
Words and Music by
David Hodges, Hillary Lindsey
and Carrie Underwood
As performed by
Bianca Gille

Words and Music by
Rebecca St. James, Kerry Barlowe,
Jamie Moore, and Shaun Shenkel
As performed by
Rebecca St. James

Waiting for the World to Fall
Words and music by
Charlie Lowell, Dan Haseltine,
Matt Odmark, and Stephen Mason
performed by Jars of Clay

Words and music by the performer
Alanais Morrisette

Can’t Take It In
Words and music by
Imogen Heap and
Harry Gregson-Williams
As performed by
Imogen Heap

I Will Believe
Words and music by
Jay Joyce, Jill Tomalty and the
performer Nichole Nordeman

Words and music by
the performer, Lisbeth Scott

Take Me Home
Words and music by
Lisbeth Scott and Nathan Barr
As performed by
Lisbeth Scott


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