A sneak preview of my YA rom-com novel.
Chapter One: For I Know The Plans
Eli chose to ignore the party celebrating him and instead stared at the kitchen counter, wishing the floor would swallow him up.
The counter was white granite laced with black and grey veining to match the backsplash. He knew that because he’d been dragged into his parents’ argument over the design choice, during yet another of the kitchen renovations they couldn’t afford. It’d been one of those riveting conversations where, for Almighty-knew-what-reason, they’d asked their teenage son’s advice.
“I like the white granite,” Eli said after his mom’s pestering for over a week.
“Do you, or are you just saying that so I’ll stop asking?”
He’d sighed. His dad had sighed.
Make it stop, he’d mouthed to his dad; one of the few times the two got along was in these moments of shared exasperation.
“I’m telling the guy tomorrow,” his dad finally said with surrendering hands, “we’re going with the white granite.”
This party—if you could call it that—wasn’t the sort of thing an eighteen-year-old found riveting. (Unless you counted the stacked gifts and cards in the corner. Those, at least, promised a small fortune.)
Normal eighteen-year-olds would be out partying with their friends to celebrate their high school graduation. But not Eli. Eli was a prisoner in a house full of his parent’s friends, members of their church and his extended family.
If he strained his ears over the droning of adult conversation—(“I do think that beige grout works well with the bathroom tile…”; “Geoffry and I are planting carrots beside the peas this year…”; “I can’t remember the last time I had such delicious spinach dip, Grace! You must give me the recipe…”; “We absolutely have to get together this summer. How does a potluck sound…?”)—Eli could hear his three youngest cousins screaming bloody murder from the basement. They better not be touching my Xbox, he thought in annoyance, sinking deeper into the bar stool.
“Don’t slouch,” a voice scolded over his shoulder, and he reluctantly straightened to look around. His mom shook her head. “Have you said hello to all your guests yet?”
“Yes.” The last time he’d made that mistake, he’d lost his phone privileges for the day—meaning he had to sign into his computer and use his messaging from there. But still. It was a hassle he wasn’t in the mood for.
“And did you thank them all for your gifts?” his mom persisted in the sweet voice reserved for hosting guests (which, unfortunately, seemed to be every other day with all the ongoing church activities).
“How can I thank them for gifts I haven’t opened yet?”
She pursed her lips and gave him a motherly stare-down.
“All right, all right,” he relented, sliding out of his chair and trudging into the crowd of mixed floral prints and wrinkled faces.
“Eli, my boy!” It was his Uncle Steve calling from across the living room.
Eli plastered a smile and offered a half-hearted wave to the corner. “Hi, Uncle Steve.”
“Come here, son,” his dad said, leaning forward from his LaZboy. “We were just discussing your college plans.”
Great, Eli thought, steeling himself. He’d prepared for this night. He’d experienced enough of these graduation parties for his older cousins and siblings to know what they’d entail.
He glanced back at the untouched pile of gifts by the door.
His older brother Peter had called him before the party, unable to hide the smirk from his voice. “Have fun tonight, kiddo! Sorry I couldn’t make it.”
“I’m sure you are.” Eli had laughed despite himself.
“Wanna bet how many gifts you get tonight with the bible verse ‘For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord!’?”
Eli had snorted. “No.”
“Trust me,” his brother’s voice dropped to the seriousness of a funeral, “there will be at least five. Keep me posted!” With that he’d hung up, leaving Eli to endure his graduation party without reinforcements.
“Which colleges have you applied to?” Uncle Steve persisted with the conversation.
“Tons,” his dad answered for him and began listing every Christian college in the region. Eli had, of course, sent the applications after some generous persuading from his parents, some not-so-subtle pamphlets piled on the corner of his desk every weekend, and the extra fifty bucks they’d slipped to him to ‘pay for postage’. Still, Eli had baulked at the price of each manicured, princely private college. Not to mention the porcelain-perfect models posing as students (in an unlikely mix of diversity) with backpacks slung over one shoulder and overly-white smiles stretching from ear to ear. The brochure claimed in not-so-many words that if you went to this college, your eyes too would sparkle with the light of Christ.
Uncle Steve whistled. “Good going, Elijah. Which one are you gonna choose?”
Eli shrugged. He had no divested interest in any of them. In truth, he’d only applied to the colleges because of his parents’ insistence. And their offer to pay for his tuition to ‘further faith and education’. Anything else and he’d have to dip into his summer job savings until they dried up, then apply for student loans.
He stared up at the blue, purple, and black balloons taped to the ceiling, framing a gigantic banner reading ‘GRADUATE’ in bold silver filigree. When he’d watched his mom hang the decorations, he couldn’t help but think how much the colours reminded him of an ugly bruise.
“Eli,” his dad’s voice cut into his reverie and he realized the two men were staring at him.
“Huh?” He shook himself. “What was that? Sorry,” he added at his dad’s disapproving stare. His parents always corrected him when he said ‘what’ rather than the politer ‘pardon me’.
“Your Uncle Steve asked if you’ve got a girlfriend.”
Eli reddened immediately. “Girlfriend? Er… No. Nah. Um. No. I’m not really interested… I don’t have time for it.”
His uncle chuckled and clapped him on the arm. “No worries, champ. Save it for college.”
“Eli doesn’t date much,” his dad said. “Too busy helping at the youth group.”
“Plenty of girls there.” Uncle Steve winked in a very Uncle Steve way.
“He’s being good!” Eli’s mom sing-songed from behind, offering a plate of arranged cheese slices in varying shades of unlikely orange. “He’s avoiding temptation.”
Eli’s cheeks couldn’t get any redder if he tried. What was with adults’ obsession with that stuff, anyway? Half his time at youth group and bible summer camp was having leaders and youth pastors separate the boys from the girls, then going into far too much depth about masturbation and girl’s bra straps. Eli didn’t see the fascination—with the bra straps, at least.
He took advantage of the cheese distraction, muttering his excuses and almost running out of the conversation—only to be immediately trapped by Mrs Tannen.
Mrs Tannen was his mom’s best friend and bible study co-host. “Oh, Eli! Good to see you again. I swear you’ve grown three inches taller since I saw you—when was it?” Mrs Tannen plastered him into a perfume-rich hug before he could slip away.
“Last Sunday, at church.” He automatically hunched to appear less tall. People always thought it was a revelation to comment on his height: ‘You’re so tall!’ They would say without fail. Eli’s response was usually some variation of: ‘Oh, am I? Weird. I never noticed.’ How else could a person respond to such a statement?
“Your mother was just telling me about your plans for the future. You know,” Mrs Tannen rang out, “in uncertain times, you must turn to the Lord in prayer and meditation. He will direct your paths.”
“Thanks,” he said again with forced enthusiasm. His gaze shifted over the crowd to avoid her bulbous stare before returning to meet her eyes.
Mrs Tannen’s face went serious. “You know, your mother’s worried that you’re taking too long to choose a college. She says the deadline’s only a week away.”
“Yeah, I—sorry, Mrs Tannen. I see Jean over there. It looks like she needs help in the kitchen. Sorry…” He ducked back and pushed toward freedom.
“Such a thoughtful young man!” Mrs Tannen exclaimed as he made his escape.
“His older brother is in the master’s program for biology,” he overheard his Aunt Margaret explaining in her usual, judgemental tone.
Biology, the Christians all echoed with audible dismay. That’s the trouble with secular universities. I hope he remembers the Truth… He doesn’t believe all that nonsense they teach about people coming from monkeys, does he? Always followed by a derisive chuckle. If his brother were here, Peter would try to delve into the theory, explaining, ‘It’s really not as simple as evolving from apes…’
Eli had always had a hard time following it, anyway. While he admired his brother’s brazen attempts at changing minds and hearts through higher education, he wasn’t sure that path was one he wanted to emulate. His brother’s choices did make their parents focus all the more on Eli selecting the ‘right path’, signing him up for all the volunteer church activities and youth camps.
Eli glanced around, then slipped into the bathroom and closed the door. He released a breath he felt he’d been holding for an hour and turned the lock. A moment’s peace, at last. The walls muffled the conversations. His tiny, pathetic refuge, next to a porcelain throne and an assortment of colourful seashell soaps, smelling faintly of bleach. He kicked down the toilet seat and sat, crumpling his face into his hands. Kill me, he thought.
He took out his phone and checked his messages. There were none.
He found his top message thread between him and Josh and typed. Hey.
Hey back, came the reply a few seconds later. Then, What’s up?
Josh: That good, huh?
Josh: Oh you know… Beer, babes…
Eli: Battlestar Galactica?
He grinned to himself. Please come to my rescue.
Josh: Dude, I thought you said you couldn’t leave early?
Eli: … I can’t. (Strained-face emoji). Can you come after, at least? Drag me out of this hell?
Josh: Yeah, buddy. Just tell me when the crazies are gone. I’ll pick you up for the real party. Then: Don’t forget to smuggle some beer.
Eli: You know I’m old enough to buy it, right?
Josh: Do you have any money?
Eli: … Fair point.
Josh: Let me know.
Eli: Will do.
Eli stuffed his phone back in his pocket and checked his reflection in the mirror. He thought he looked a bit too weary for eighteen, like one of the young soldiers from the black and white WWII films: drawn around the face, with dark circles under his eyes. He rinsed his hands in the tap and fixed the wilder strands of his black hair before pushing out of the bathroom and into the fray with renewed willpower.
Another church lady was on him quicker than Sherlock Holmes at a crime scene. “Eli, my dear! Your mother tells me…”
Elementary, dear Watson.
“How was it?” Josh smirked as he kicked off his boots.
Eli gave him a look to encompass the entire experience.
Josh snorted and craned his neck down the hall, where Eli’s mom was cleaning up while chattering away with Mrs Tannen about Saturday’s bake sale. He could hear the drone of his dad and Mr Tannen discussing hockey in the living room. “The Oilers need to get their act together next season…”
“Any good gifts?” Josh asked.
“Some cash.” Eli shrugged. “Mostly scripture in various mediums: books, mugs, plaques, a laptop sleeve…” He already had a stack of unread devotionals for the young, teenage man. Now he had new ones for the young, teenage college boy.
“Dang.” Josh’s family were also religious, but far less strict than Eli’s parents. Though they both went to the same private Christian school growing up, Eli’s parents restricted his video game time and (tried to) monitor the movies he watched. ‘Media corrupts the soul,’ they’d say. ‘Satan is always fighting for our attention. Garbage in is garbage out!’ Needless to say, his parents had no idea what Josh was really like. If they did, they would never let him hang out at their house.
Josh tramped into the kitchen to greet Eli’s mom. “Oh, hi Joshy! Here, take some cookies! What about this jar of homemade jam? How’s your mom? It’s too bad you couldn’t make it to the party. I understand, I understand. Here, have a cinnamon roll!” A disapproving tut tut. “You look underfed, young man.”
Eli joined them in the kitchen to usher Josh outside. “Can I stay at Josh’s tonight?” he asked his mom.
She eyed him, then glanced at the half-full dishwasher, then back to him. “I suppose… It’s your night, after all.”
“… I could help with the dishes,” he offered lamely. His mom was always doing the brunt of the housework. Sometimes, Eli tried to help out, but only with grudging looks toward his dad, who rarely lifted a finger when it came to domestic chores. His mom never complained, but he knew the halo of ‘god-fearing wife’ she wore probably sucked. Sometimes, he’d look at her and wonder if she was happy, or if she resented God as much as he did some days.
She waved him off with a smile. “That’s okay, kiddo. Have fun.”
Eli kissed her cheek. “Thanks, mom. Love you!”
He was grateful when he finally slid into the passenger seat of Josh’s ruby-red beater car and threw his backpack in the seat behind them.
Josh was still chewing on a mouthful of gingersnap cookies as he drove the car down the street, leaving Eli’s neighbourhood in the rearview. “So,” he mumbled through a mouthful of crumbs, “did you get the beer?”
“Couple of cans.” He’d taken them from the fridge in the garage. While his parents rarely drank, his dad would crack open the occasional Molson Canadian and sip it on the deck after a long day. Eli found the taste of beer revolting. But it was either that, or his mom’s intensely dry white wine. He assumed the beer would be more appropriate for an outdoor party atmosphere.
“We can always mooch off someone,” Josh said as he cranked the radio. “Oh, man, I fucking love this song!”
The twenty-minute drive out of town was punctuated by Josh’s jovial and slightly out-of-tune singing, Eli chuckling and drumming a beat on the dashboard. Classic Josh, always making light of the situations that Eli found anxiety-inducing—like sneaking out to a massive party full of drunk teenagers. With Josh, Eli felt a layer shed. Around his parents, he had to be an upstanding young citizen—a denizen of Christ. But with Josh, he didn’t have to pretend quite so much. He’d always been a bit jealous of how much freedom Josh had growing up.
Ever since they were kids, Josh coordinated the next fun thing. He was that kid on the playground, gathering all his classmates for a schoolyard round of capture the flag, and Eli inevitably found himself as Josh’s co-captain.
Being co-captain was all right. But sometimes, just sometimes, Eli wished he could be the captain.