All the sins in the world condensed into one night, and Jason didn't know what to say. There he stood, a slight and solitary figure in the middle of the trashed living room, an open can of Sprite warm in his pale hand. The faces of his peers, made red and grotesque by drink, leered in the hot haze. Jason closed his eyes, trying to reorient himself; the entire house smelled like sweat and booze, and the music whined like drills in his ears.
Target-rich environment, thought Jason.
All the old horror stories about college life had warned about such parties, wild bacchanals where even the most devout could lose his way amidst the beer and soft sighs. Like any red-blooded American male, he listened to the youth pastor for reasons other than what the man intended, dreams of firm breasts and taut bellies making welcome intrusions on Jason's pious fears.
Sometimes he imagined himself bravely withstanding temptation and bringing others back into the light. Other times he dreamed of letting himself go and casting his cares to the side, plunging headlong into sin. He always prayed for forgiveness for such thoughts afterwards, knowing full well he'd do it again.
He looked to the big couch to his right, its original color buried under an avalanche of stains. A pink-faced girl leaned into an athlete's pecs, mumbled words and drool spilling from her lips. A foolish smile split the guy's face, his thick fingers stumbling over themselves in a drunken fondling attempt.
Jason's sheltered upbringing led him to think of sin in grand, Manichean terms, a pulsing and jet-black force threatening to consume the light of the Lord. Even as the elders preached about the dangers of drunkenness and hate, fornication and greed, the idea of little devils hopping around in a Black Mass never strayed far from Jason's mind. The reality came as an almost crushing disappointment.
Why am I even here?
He knew better than to think he'd convert anybody, and fully expected to return to the student church empty-handed. Still, planting the seed of doubt in lives of sin might at least start something. But where to start? More or less at random, he walked across the room to a thin blonde guy in a Nickelback shirt, doing something on his cell phone.
"Hey!" said Jason.
His target looked up, blinking bloodshot eyes.
"Cool party, huh?"
"Yeah. I'm trying to text my friend, so if you don't mind..."
"Oh, right. Sorry."
Jason tried again, this time going to a group of revelers gathered in a circle, a Smirnoff Ice in every hand. He talked without thinking, his words never registering. They knew each other, and did not know him. Hoping for a charmed third time, he walked up to a bored-looking girl, thin dirty blonde hair framing her thick face, her blue eyes bored and foggy. She leaned against the wall, near the closed bathroom door.
"Hey!" said Jason, trying to sound cheerful. No better way to start a pitch than with a happy face.
"Um, what?" she slurred. Starting to lose her balance, she caught herself at the last moment, still wavering.
"I need to—"
She finished the sentence by bending forward and loosing a torrent of wine cooler and half-digested Lays all over the floor and on Jason's shoes. The raw stink of vomit soon competed with the odor of alcohol and sweat for dominance in the room.
"Oh, I'm sorry," she mumbled.
"It's okay. Here, let me get you some water."
"Thanks, that's sweet." She sat down on the carpet, a few feet away from the festering puddle. Shouts of joyous disgust rang out as people noticed the commotion. Jason navigated his way to the kitchen, managing to find one somewhat clean glass on the shelves and filled it with water from the dispenser. Taking it back, he found the girl all but asleep.
"Here, take this."
"Drink the water. You'll feel better."
She took the glass with weak hands and drank the entire thing, half the contents spilling out onto her face. His face warm with embarrassment, Jason helped her up and escorted her to an unoccupied chair.
"Are you going to be okay?"
"Good. Um, if you lie down, be sure to do it sideways."
"Aw, that's sweet. I know how to do this."
She sighed, snuggling into the seat and putting her head on the armrest. She reminded Jason of a newborn child, red-faced and weak, but the thought inspired no feeling of affection.
Jason shuddered in delight as he stepped out into the night, the cool air seeming to wipe away the grime and stink.
God's gifts are great.
Nothing to do but go home, he figured, to his tiny apartment a few blocks down from campus. He'd already spent a school year and a month without bringing anyone into the faith; one more night probably didn't make much of a difference.
Jason heard the door open and shut behind him as another person left the party. He turned to look, noticing her even and sober steps, the slenderness of her body, her bright eyes twinkling in a face colored like cinnamon, the light blue shawl wrapped around her head. Raising a cell phone to her ear (the shawl's fabric clinging to its curves) she waited for a few moments.
"Hey, Stacy? How's it going? Are you busy right now? Turns out I need to get picked up a little earlier than I thought— yeah, Jenna told me it was going to be all, like, quiet. Then I go in and everyone's drunk! Yeah, I guess she didn't know. Anyway, totally not my scene," she laughed. "Five minutes? Oh, thank you so much! Bye."
Jason watched, torn between going on his way and saying something. Had she really not had any alcohol? Overhearing her conversation felt like vindication, that at long last someone else thought the whole thing idiotic. Jason looked at her headscarf again. Probably a Muslim, he figured, which explained why she didn’t drink. She looked relaxed though, like she'd simply brushed off an annoyance and was headed on to better things.
"Yeah, I'm a little astonished at how much the people drink here. I don't drink either," he said, his voice coming out at an unnaturally high pitch.
"I know. I totally don't get it either. It's like, why would you want to drink something that supposedly tastes bad just to act stupid and crazy? And they all get really red and weird-looking too," she laughed, pantomiming a drunk.
"Agreed. Uh, my name is Jason." He offered his hand.
"Oh, I don't shake hands, but my name's Fatima." She made a little wave, accompanied by a bold smile.
"Glad to meet you. Are you a student here?"
"Uh huh, second year Poli Sci. How about you?"
"Second year, English. Well on my way to becoming unemployable," he joked, and instantly regretted making the joke.
"English? Oh, you can be like an editor or something. You'll be fine. What do you like to read?"
"Classics, mostly. Heart of Darkness, the Red Badge of Courage, stuff like that. The Bible," he added.
"I used to read a lot of adventure books, like Harry Potter. Now I mostly read nonfiction."
"Yeah, I read the Harry Potter series back in the day." Jason remembered biking to a library three miles away to read it in a dark corner, always keeping an eye out for anyone from his family or church as he turned the pages with sweaty palms, his anxiety bleeding into the book's plot and making it all the more intense. It was one of the only times he'd ever gone against his parents' wishes.
"What about you? Do you want to be a politician?" he asked.
"Probably not a politician exactly, but I'm just so fascinated with the way the world works. It can lead into a lot of other things, so we'll see," she said, smiling again. She's ready for anything, thought Jason.
"Yeah, I might change majors myself."
"Oh, not sure yet. Maybe business, maybe law of some sort. I'm ready for anything."
"That's spirit! So why are you here?"
"A friend invited me, but it's not really my sort of thing. I don't know, all these big crowds kind of get to me." That wasn't quite a lie; Tom, from Jason's US history class, had invited him as a reward for helping Tom out on the last test. Jason had just attended for reasons besides levity.
"I don't mind big groups, but places like this are kind of... I don't know, sad. Like they hate their lives so much so they have to drink it away."
"That's exactly how I feel!"
A dark blue sedan pulled up in front of the house, twice sounding out the horn. Jason caught a glimpse of a girl with long hair behind the wheel.
"Here's my ride. Nice meeting you, I'll see you around campus or something!"
"For sure. Take care!"
Jason walked home, feeling a lightness in his step that had never been there before.
During the week, he went from one gray lecture to another, a lone listener in a crowd of students lost in their iPods and cell phones, indifferent to the bored professors who repeated the words they'd said a hundred times before. Scrawled notes meandered across Jason’s paper as he wondered again why he hadn't gone to Biola or Vanguard. Not too late to change, he reflected. He knew he never would.
The old relief he once felt at attending meetings of the Evangelist Christian Student's Club faded gradually to dread. Every week he entered the bare room in the student center empty handed, nothing to show for his minimal efforts. It wasn't as if the other students brought newcomers very often, and when they did the newcomers almost never stayed for more than a meeting or two. They prayed and held hands, asking the Almighty for strength to stand up against a world that did not care. The sentiment moved him, if nothing else.
A few days after the disastrous party, the presiding speaker at the club talked about his own college days, wallowing in lurid stories of his many sins, warning the other students not to do what he did.
The students gobbled up his words, eyes wide as he described the latter-day Roman orgies, shuddering when he talked about waking up hung over and alone and sick, nodding and sobbing when he described his salvation. Jason mimicked the crowd, not really able to care. He never felt close to Jesus during such public confessionals, and some part of him suspected that the whole thing was designed to titillate, the narratives bathed in sin like the old Cecil B DeMille flicks and justified by wholesome endings.
Don't be a Pharisee, he told himself, as the meeting adjourned.
Jason recognized the contempt he felt and talked about it to church counselor, one Patrick Schumacher. Pat, as he liked to be called, was a good guy, a man driven to make sure that no one in his charge would fall victim to darkness.
"It's good that you recognize this. That's how Christians bring themselves closer to God; by self-examination and changing. You just need faith to change, and faith to bring this change to others."
"Yeah. It's hard for me to do that," admitted Jason.
"To tell your peers about the Word?"
"They never seem to listen."
"People are closing their ears. In this world, where we're all so rich and comfortable, it's easy to forget about God, and that means we need to try all the harder. Keep at it. There is no greater thing you can do for a person."
"I know! It's just that I always feel like a bother."
"Well, if you have to be a bit of a pest, so be it. You need to bring people in. We all do. Everyone struggles with it, but to not do it at all is to ignore God's gift to us, his own begotten Son in sacrifice."
Some nights Jason lay awake in bed, sick in his heart as he thought about the unsaved and their eventual fate. All he needed to do was say something, and God would help it along. But when he did say something the words plodded along, devoid of any confidence. By November, he'd started to avoid most other students, fearing the guilt he'd feel at not being able to save them. If he didn't know them at all, at least he wouldn't care that much.
Fatima proved the exception. Not to say the old dread didn't focus on her in the night's lonely hours, but that he could forget it when they talked. Happiness seemed as natural as breathing to her, her bright face always blessed by a welcoming smile. Jason hardly ever found her alone, Fatima's breezy ebullience having earned her the friendship of what seemed like half the student body, but that didn't matter. He never felt himself shunted to the side or ignored, being just as important as everyone else in her eyes.
Talking to her put him in the same ease he felt back in high school, surrounded by friends he'd known since elementary. Through their conversations, Jason learned more about Fatima as winter approached with its skies clear and cold. He learned of her love for old movies, and her worries about her brother, serving with the 173rd in Afghanistan. Drifting through to the end of the semester, enduring the long weekends of half-hearted studying, Fatima and her friends offered a lone bright spot. He got to know some of her friends a bit better, and even spent time with a few. They could never make him forget his obligation the way she did.
In time, neither could she. Faith preserved Jason through the pain of adolescence, but offered nothing more than consuming guilt after that. His one duty, to spread the Word, weighed on every thought. Why was he charged with the one thing he did not know how to do? Every time he went to the congregation he heard the same message, to bring more into the fold, until the other lessons faded into the background. What did faith and mercy matter if he let others burn in Hell? And in the face of this horror he shrank away, too afraid to save a soul, callous and selfish beyond belief.
"I try, Pat, but I just don't know what to say," he often said, refusing to let the tears come. Pat encouraged people to weep and yell if that's how they felt, but such emotionalism never sat well with Jason.
"It might be that shyness is your cross to bear. You have to remember that God's backing you up on this. There are Christians in some parts of the world who risk their lives to bring the Word to others. I don't want to make you feel bad, but are you really that afraid of suffering a little embarrassment? Since that's the worst that can happen."
"I know, it's pathetic—"
"Hey, don't be so down on yourself. Everyone faces these kinds of problems on their walk with God. It's just a matter of learning to have faith."
Maybe I don't really have faith, wondered Jason, though he said nothing.
Winter break offered little relief. Old friends came back, their time in college somehow making them seem less interesting. The religious ones talked happily about the progress they made with the Lord, while the secular ones bragged of their misdeeds and somehow made sin seem boring and pretentious.
Pious Cody, the hope of the congregation (who'd nonetheless gone to a secular college), took Jason aside one day towards the end of break and started talking about all the girls he'd slept with that year, laughing about it and going into too much detail. Moments earlier he'd been telling the church how he'd gotten closer to God.
"So what you were talking about to the church just now was all lies," sighed Jason. Why is he telling this to me? Is it a confession in disguise?
"That's my old stupid high school self talking, the high school self that I want my parents to believe I still am."
"Hell no! I don't want trouble, is all. They'll probably cut my tuition if I tell them. I'm just amazed how much of my life I wasted not having fun."
"That's what college is for, right? None of that learning nonsense."
"I barely go to class, and it's easy to cheat."
The exchange soured Jason, though none of his other co-religionists gave him any indication to think that they'd turned from the path. But hearing Cody nurtured an awful little doubt that wouldn't go away, even though Jason knew the doubt was unfair and unjustified. Jason talked to his other friends and told them his troubles. They repeated what Pat had said, though with more sympathy.
Classes resumed, as did his meetings with Fatima, a touch of social warmth on the cement campus. He'd never met someone so disinterested in sin, the temptation to do wrong just going by without touching her. Surely that counted for something in the divine scheme.
He read Romans 9:15: "For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion." How indeed could He not have mercy for Fatima? Maybe it didn't really matter what Jason said. For one second that thought flowed through him like a cleansing stream, breaking away all the fear and dread. The feeling didn't last. He could bring it up to Pat, see what he thought, but Jason already knew the answer.
Besides, he realized his belief in Fatima's perfection to be wishful thinking on his part. Sin touched all people, even her, and Fatima did not know forgiveness. He didn't even know her that well, not really. They never spent time together outside of school, rarely saw each other more than once a week, sometimes not even that. Without anything else in his life though, she seemed like much more.
Hellfire intruded on Jason's dreams all through January, his stomach churning into knots at the idea of Fatima in such a place, burned and flayed and alone, without hope or recourse. Something in his power to change if he but tried a little harder, and tears flowed from his eyes at the thought of angering her, his one real friend. More than a friend, he hoped, his body shivering at the thought of embracing her, of seeing the thick black hair beneath her hijab, of having the love of this living saint.
Better, he thought, to be damned with her than to embrace the joys of Heaven while she suffered. God couldn't allow a pitiful, cringing wretch like him into His Kingdom while she suffered torment. Just let me trade places, he prayed, knowing as he said it that he didn't really mean it, that the fear of the endless flame burned hotter than his love.
"Damn me now, before I lose my nerve!" he whispered.
He remained on Earth.
January turned to February, exhaustion dogging every step, Jason too afraid to say what he needed to say. March arrived, the air warming up and hardscrabble flowers blooming on the chaparral hills around the school. He passed by Fatima as he left his Humanities discussion group and fell in beside her. Fatima's smile seemed guarded that day, but they started talking all the same. They took a seat outside the Student Union Cafe, the bright sun reflecting on the polished metal tables.
She started talking about Ibrahim, her brother, wounded by an IED. Her family had just found out over the weekend and Jason's mouth dropped in shock and sadness at the news.
"Little metal pieces up and down his entire leg, they said! He'll recover. I talked to him on the phone, and he said the leg wasn't broken, he was really far from the blast. He sounded scared though, the blast killed one of his friends. I just... I want him to come back home and not have to go back there."
"I'm so sorry."
"It's like I can't even think about anything else right now! I'm so glad he'll live but... I don't even know how to describe it. Like none of the words I have are good enough. I'm so angry at this war, at the Taliban and what they did to him, what they do to the people over there."
A horrible opportunity dawned, and Jason suddenly wished he'd never gotten out of bed that morning. His stomach dropped to his feet and he thought he'd be sick. Now is your chance, he realized, and wished it wasn't.
"I'll be here for you," he mumbled.
"Thanks." She fell silent.
“Um, when I feel scared like this, I usually read parts of the, uh, Bible. They’re really good at that, at helping.” Each word came out a squeak and he wanted so badly to stop, but didn’t know how, all the fears of the past months screaming for release inside of him.
“I could share them with you, if you’d like,” he continued, his heart twisting, “sometimes a new way of looking at things is best. You said how you hated the Taliban, and maybe the Bible—“
He stopped, seeing her eyes widen in disbelief. Fatima opened her mouth as if to say something. Instead she stood up, shaking her head at him. In one swift movement she grabbed her backpack and left the table, not taking a single look back. Jason sat there, hating himself and the world, knowing he’d tried to bring her to the Truth and failed in the worst way possible. He had just wanted to stop worrying about her soul, unable to endure the fear any longer.
Jason didn't see Fatima for the rest of the month. He spent as little time in campus as possible, going straight back to his apartment after class, too ashamed to talk to her. Sometimes he saw her in the distance and always turned away. He wanted so badly to apologize, but he didn't expect her to accept. Better to dream that she might, than confirm that she wouldn't.
He couldn't avoid her forever. They met again on a hot day in late April, their paths crossing in the campus park. He saw her from a distance, and knew that she'd seen him as well. Instead of turning, she kept walking forward. Resigned, he did the same.
They stopped once they were close, and he tried to read her expression, finding nothing. He looked to the ground, his cheeks hot with shame.
"I'm sorry, Fatima. I'm really, really sorry. I know I shouldn't have said that, I just—"
"I know you were trying to help back there, but what you said was just... how could you be so clueless?" she demanded. "I'm scared to death about my brother, and you try to convert me? That's crazy! I don't want to be a Christian, Jason. I'm proud of what I believe in, just like you are."
"I know. I mean, I should have known. God, I'm so sorry. You don't hate me, do you?"
"No, I don't hate you. I think you need to talk to somebody, a priest or something."
"Yeah. Or maybe a therapist. I just don't know how anyone could think that was appropriate."
"Right. I'll try to get help, I promise."
"Okay. I'm glad we talked, but I've got to go to class."
"Me too. See you around?"
"Sure." She said it fast and off-handedly, and Jason wondered if she really meant it. He supposed that was her business.
Alone, he made his way out of the park and onto the sun-cooked cement walkways of the university.