The Other Side: Rebellion Night
by Patricia Griffin

Chapter One

"...they are swift to shed innocent blood.
Their thoughts are evil thoughts; ruin and destruction mark their ways.
The way of peace they do not know; there is no justice in their paths."

Isaiah 59:7-8

 

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She'd die before she entered a church. Then again, she might die if she didn't.

Tracy knew about hypothermia from last week's science class. She'd shiver from the cold, her limbs going numb as her body temperature dropped. Then her breathing would slow until she wasn't breathing at all, and her mind would be so sluggish she'd never see it coming. All in all, freezing to death didn't sound like much fun.

Tracy hunched deeper into her collar and wiggled her toes to life. Her breath fogged the air as she glared at the steeple's cross, which was haloed in the beam of hidden spotlights. Evening mist shrouded the church, softening the texture of soil not yet landscaped. The petroleum smell of newly paved asphalt assailed her sinuses. She peered into the gloom. A dozen vehicles sat in the parking lot like ancient tombstones awaiting the Resurrection. Tracy presumed the owners were seated behind the stained-glass windows of the church, comfortable in the warmth of a pew.

A blast of wind nipped at her neck as if to taunt her, the frigid air whistling through her lightweight jacket. She hadn't bothered to check the weather forecast. The complexities of running away from home at the age of eleven were simple in her mind: don't get caught, take lots of money, and find Rocky. She managed the first two just fine. Finding her brother was proving more difficult.

Tracy's gaze shifted toward two teenage boys leaning against a backhoe, the glow of their cigarettes a fiery dot in the velvet night. She'd been waiting for them to leave so she could enter the church unseen. Instead, they lingered. The wind snatched most of their conversation, but the boys' laughter, punctuated by cuss words, made her wonder if this church was more lenient than the one she attended. She corrected that thought immediately. Her parents might still be parishioners, but she certainly wasn't.

Hot tears turned icy as they trailed down her cheeks. Tracy swiped them away. She wished it were as easy to remove the memory of her mother's accusations. The harsh words still rang in her ears, scalding her heart. Mark, her stepfather, had simply waited in silence as if he expected Tracy to deny the charges and explain herself.

Stubbornness and a fierce loyalty to Rocky had clenched her mouth shut. She may have made a mistake, but she hadn't committed the horrendous act her mother claimed. Let her parents think what they wanted. She wasn't going back, couldn't go back, after the public humiliation she'd brought on the family.

"Stupid Christian rules, anyway," she muttered.

The boys straightened suddenly, and Tracy stiffened against the tree she'd been using for a windbreak. They'd apparently heard her and took exception to her opinion.

The boys walked toward her, profanities spewing from their mouths easier than a well-rehearsed hymn. Startled, Tracy backed into a crouch. The language didn't shock her half as much as the ugly tone that prickled her spine. She eased a hand beneath the cuff of her jeans and tried to swallow her heart into place.

A blast of music cut through the night, halting the boys. The one wearing a letter jacket rummaged through his pockets until he produced the screeching cell phone. He clamped it to his ear and spoke in clipped tones. Seconds later, he pivoted in a half-circle, then turned back. He slapped his friend on the shoulder and pointed to a spot over Tracy's head.

She followed their gaze. It hadn't been her words that ignited their epithets. Flickering dots of orange light were scattered across the city. Tracy wondered if the strange glow had anything to do with the cars that passed her earlier. The occupants had been hanging out of the windows and shouting wildly. At the time, she'd thought maybe a wedding chase was in progress or that rival college football fans were whooping it up.

The skittering of gravel redirected her attention. The boys raced toward a car. One of them slipped in his haste and slid partially under the vehicle. He scrambled upright, countering his friend's amusement with a sharply barked order. They jumped in the car and peeled down the road, leaving a wake of dust.

A shiver racked Tracy's body. She glared again at the steeple's cross that had drawn her like a beacon, promising shelter in an unfamiliar neighborhood. She would use the shelter it offered. The promises she could do without.

Tracy removed her shaking hand from the leather holder strapped to her ankle and straightened from her crouch. After a quick look around, she sprinted across the open lot, then halted at the church entrance. She smoothed her hair and straightened her clothing, flattening the jacket's collar so it lay properly on her shoulders. She wanted to look like she'd been dropped off by parents and wasn't running around unattended on such an unseasonably cold night. Taking a deep breath, she walked through the church door as if she'd been there before.

Twenty or so teenagers sprawled on the front pews, staring at a portable easel littered with pages from a fashion magazine. Most of the youths were casually dressed in T-shirts and jeans. A couple of backpacks resting in the aisle looked like they'd been dragged on a hiking expedition.

The wrinkled old man teaching the youth group smiled at Tracy and nodded a welcome. A few of the teenagers acknowledged her as well. She stood a little taller. Her mother said good posture made a person look dignified. Dignified meant older. Dignified meant she could pass as one of the teenagers, and that suited her plans fine. A cute, older boy waved at her to join them. Tracy forced a smile and gestured to where she assumed the restrooms might be. The boy nodded and turned back to the old man.

Master Chi resumed his lecture and watched the youngster as she passed behind the pews. He didn't recognize her, but then several new families had begun attending the church. He could tell by the clothes she wore that her family was wealthy. The Grison jeans matched a jacket by the same designer, and the speckled, grey fur lining the collar contrasted sharply against her black hair and pale skin. A deliberate choice, he suspected. As she entered the hallway leading to the restrooms, Chi noticed the girl's shoes. The price of the leather could feed a family of five for a month.

Chi sighed inwardly over such expensive trappings. He didn't begrudge those who did well in life, for God certainly blessed His people. But the longer he lived, the more the world prized appearance and wealth over compassion and the soul. This troubled Chi greatly. Superficial perfection never altered the heart. He'd chosen that truth for the youth group's discussion. A smile creased his weathered face. Coincidences often displayed the touch of God. Chi suspected the girl's arrival somehow fit with his message.

Tracy walked through the open doors at the rear of the sanctuary as the old man continued the lesson. She turned into a hall and glanced both ways. Hot air rose to the highest point. She hurried up the stairs to the choir loft, pausing near the top step. As she expected, the loft was warmer than the sanctuary below. Infinitely warmer than outside, though her fingers hadn't quite figured that out. Tracy slid her twitching hand inside her jacket to absorb what little warmth her body offered. A few moments later, the youth leader turned toward the easel, giving her his back. She darted for the rear pews.

Comfortably curled on a padded bench, Tracy snuggled in for the night. Her stomach growled, protesting the absence of her evening meal. Oh well, she could wait until morning when she found her brother. Rocky knew all the best places to eat, and she could stuff herself silly, then. To distract herself from the hunger, Tracy listened to the melodic hum of the old man's voice. She didn't listen long. Sleep tugged at her eyelids and dragged her into oblivion.

She was jerked awake by a school bell screeching through her brain. Man, was she in for it! Falling asleep in class meant automatic detention. Tracy groaned and covered her head.

"Hey, kid! You gotta get outta here!"

Dream shattered into fact as the fire alarm registered.

"Kid? If you can hear me, crawl toward my voice."

Tracy sat up and promptly inhaled a lung full of smoke. She choked on the foul air, her lungs protesting with a sudden racking cough.

"You're close. I can hear you. Hurry up," the man shouted.

She dropped to the floor and scrambled along the pew. The air was a little better at that level, but she couldn't see a thing. Tracy swiped a hand across her watering eyes. The loft remained pitch black. Terror coiled in her stomach and strangled her voice. "I . . . I can't see."

"You're okay. Power's out. Over here, kid."

The voice came from below her. She tried to change direction, whacked her head into a pew. Tracy grunted and flattened to a belly crawl, hands reaching forward, fingers seeking the stairs she knew were there. "Where are--?"

A hand grabbed her arm. "Good job. Hang on. We'll be outta here soon."

Strong arms lifted her against the man's chest. Tracy clung to his neck and tucked her face into his shirt. Her legs bounced against his as he hurried down the stairs. Cold air brushed her face. She peeked from under his chin, gulped fresh air when she realized they were outside.

Felt her heart skip when she looked over his shoulder.

Flames licked the walls of the newly constructed church. Draperies billowed out the windows of the fellowship hall, whipping like demonic truce flags until the material disintegrated into smoke and ash. Beyond the broken windows, the circular dining tables had ignited, giving the impression of campfires run amok.

"Where's your parents?" her rescuer shouted.

She pried her gaze from the scene to look at the man who held her. He wasn't a fireman, and he was younger than his voice sounded. It was the older boy who'd waved at her when she entered the church.

"Are they here?" he asked, jerking his chin toward the area behind her.

"No, but I--"

He took off at a run before she could finish. The urgency of his stride puzzled her. She twisted in his arms to look the other way. The parking lot was chaos. Horns blared and headlights flashed as security alarms disengaged. A silver-haired gentleman shouted commands at fleeing parishioners. Car doors were yanked open and kids shoved in. Some of the vehicles held too many people, but everyone seemed too frantic to care. Their terror didn't make sense. They were already safe from the fire, weren't they?

A demented scream preceded an arch of flame that shot over Tracy's head. Her rescuer hunched over, protecting her with his body as a woman threw a second, flaming bottle onto the roof of the sanctuary. Fire burst across the eaves, its crimson-gilded destruction racing toward the choir loft.

Tracy gasped. "Oh, my God! What is she doing?"

The boy ignored her question and bolted for an SUV. "Master Chi, have you got room?"

The old man whipped open the back door. "Quickly, son."

She was tossed onto the seat next to a teenage girl.

"What's going on?" Tracy yelled.

"Get in!" the girl screamed. She dragged Tracy to the middle of the seat and frantically searched for seatbelts. The boy dove in beside them and slammed the door shut.

The rumble of an angry crowd rushing their way penetrated the vehicle's interior. Tracy recognized the letter jacket of the young man she'd seen earlier. He heaved a burning projectile at a car three spaces away. The glass shattered, flaring liquid flame across the trunk.

The SUV's front passenger door flew open and the silver-haired man jumped in. "Everyone's out. Go, go, go!"

The vehicle's acceleration forced the door shut as Master Chi sped for the exit. Two trucks blocked his path and he jammed on the brakes. Rioters stood in the truck beds, screaming obscenities and pelting the SUV with rocks.

"Cut across the yard," the passenger ordered.

Tracy braced against the roof as the vehicle lurched left. She glanced out the rear window. Other parishioners were following. Headlights slashed the darkness as vehicles bounced wildly on the uneven terrain. Tires gouged the soft dirt, fighting for better traction. The crowd advanced and pressed in on the caravan. Those who were closest kicked the side panels or beat the hoods with their fists.

The teenage girl began to sob hysterically. "Sweet Jesus, why are they doing this? Are they crazy?"

The young man reached across Tracy to grasp the girl's hand.

"They're scared, Jolyn. They think it's our fault. We'll be okay. Don't cry."

"I can't help it, Zeke. What if they kill somebody?"

He didn't reply to that question, but Tracy caught him sharing a look with Master Chi through the rearview mirror. She wondered what had happened to incite the angry riot. Had the church taken land the neighborhood thought was theirs, an eminent domain thing? She'd heard of such cases, though never with a church. Tracy shrugged the concern aside. It wasn't her problem. As soon as the old man got them out of harm's reach, she needed to backtrack and locate Rocky.

The man in the passenger seat turned to look at Zeke.

"Have you got your cell phone on you, son?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. Call the other kids. Have them contact their parents and tell them it's time to rendezvous. Call your own, as well."

"I will, General," he said, tugging the phone from his belt.

The man swayed as they turned a corner. He righted himself, then looked at Tracy. "Are you all right, child? Can you breathe okay?"

She nodded.

"You're sure? We can take you to the hospital before--"

"No!" she blurted. "I mean, I'm fine, sir."

"Didn't get too much smoke before Zeke got you out?"

She shook her head, her mind racing for the man's name. "No, General. I'm fine. Really."

He grunted in approval. "Good, girl. We'll get you back to your parents before you can spit." He looked at the teenagers sitting on either side of her. "I mean that, kids. It'll be okay."

The General turned and proceeded to speak to the driver in low tones.

Tracy bowed her head and clasped her hands. Hopefully, if they thought her distraught and praying, they'd leave her alone. She closed her eyes to concentrate, reformulate her plan.

Her brother was going to get an earful when she found him. Rocky should've been more specific about where he lived, then she'd be with him now, instead of figuring a way out of this mess. She was trapped in a car with Christians, for cripes sake! With their parental and do-gooder instincts revved up, Tracy doubted they'd let her out of their sight long enough to catch a bus or call a taxi. She'd simply have to go along with these people until an opportunity arose.

At least one thought brightened her mood. She hadn't brought any identification along. She'd stashed it on purpose so the authorities wouldn't know who she was if she were caught. That way it'd take much longer to drag her back home.

Tracy peeked between her lashes to sneak a glance out the window. Pastures and farmhouses flew past the windows, and she felt the first stirrings of panic. Sure, she'd been frightened by the fire and riot, but if the old man didn't stop driving soon, the two hundred in cash and three hundred in plastic tucked in her pockets wouldn't be enough to get her back to the city.

Tracy's rescuer nudged her arm, and she belatedly realized he'd asked her a question. "Pardon?"

"What's your name, so I don't keep calling you 'kid'?"

"I'm Tracy."

"Cool. I'm Zeke." He thrust his phone at her. "Here, use my cell to call your folks. Let 'em know you're okay."

"Oh. Yeah." She pulled her phone out of her jacket. "Thanks, I'll use mine in case you get a call."

Calling home wasn't in her plan, either, but the Christians were all looking at her. She decided to dial her stepfather's home office number. He never answered after five, since that was family time, and the announcement was long enough she could ramble something off, then hang up before his voicemail engaged.

She punched speed dial. "Hi, Dad. Yeah . . . I can't talk long--" She braced against Jolyn as the old man swerved to avoid a burning vehicle.

"Tell them to meet us at the rendezvous point," the General prompted over his shoulder.

Tracy flicked him a quick glance, then complied. "The General said to meet us at the rendezvous point . . . Yeah . . . Okay . . ."

The announcement was nearly to the speak-after-the-beep part when the SUV slowed. A church came into view--or rather what was left of a church. Tracy stared as the charred framework collapsed, glowing embers lighting the area like a million scorching fireflies. The screech of rending steel sliced through her body as the huge cross toppled, completely piercing the hull of a torched vehicle. It was then she noticed lumpy forms littering the ground.

Reality curdled her stomach and forced bile into her throat. Those orange flickers of light she'd seen earlier were other churches being torched. Her stepfather had predicted as much, but she called him paranoid, refusing to believe her own countrymen would turn on each other as terrorists. Evidence out the window showed the error of her disbelief. And if Mark was right, the violence wouldn't stop there. Christian families would be hunted--and hers topped the list.

Master Chi stomped on the brake, a desperate prayer flowing from his lips.

The General's hand shot out to clasp the older man's shoulder. "It's too late. Keep going."

As the SUV accelerated, the voicemail's shrill tone penetrated Tracy's horror. She choked out words with a throat gone dry. "I . . . uh . . . don't worry . . . I'm safe--"

The voicemail went dead. She flipped the phone closed and stared at the floorboard.

The General rotated toward her. "They haven't been burned out yet?"

Tracy raised her gaze to the fire-flecked night. "Guess not. The phone worked."

"Good," he said briskly. "Then we should see them by morning."

He faced forward again, but through the windshield's reflection, she saw the two men exchange a look.

And Tracy knew the truth.

The land of the free and the home of the brave had become a prison patrolled by cowards.

 

Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 Biblica. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. The "NIV" and "New International Version" trademarks are registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica. Use of either trademark requires the permission of Biblica.

 

© 2010 Patricia G. Griffin
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