[Excerpted from my novel, East Into Atheism, forthcoming.]
Shawn returned to Torrey Bible Institute that fall. Running to class, late as usual, his shoes scratched the rough tile floors as he sucked in the steam from the hall radiators. Swinging by the P.O.’s on the slim chance of a letter, he twirled the combination on his box, leaned down, peered into the empty box then turned to walk away disappointed. He remembered the bright vision of Sally on the beach at the luau two summers ago but he hadn’t seen her when he’d been home this past summer.
When he glanced up across the large room, contradicting everything he knew and believed, he saw a vision. As he blinked trying to clear his head he wondered, was it wish-fulfillment or was it really here.
“Sally! Is it you?” He ran to her. Why was she here?
She flinched, then raised her eyes. “Hi, Shawn….”
Her visage seemed darker, transformed from the high school girl Shawn had talked to over a year ago. Was she ill?
“Sally! Why did you leave Biola? Why did you come without telling me? Are you okay?”
She shriveled under the barrage of questions. “I don’t know…. I don’t want to talk about it. Spoken hesitantly, her eyes cast to the floor. “Shawn, I’m so sorry I didn’t let you know…. I dropped out of Biola last November, moved back to my apartment in Costa Mesa, went back to work at the Jolly Roger down in Balboa.”
“But what are you doing here? Why didn’t you write me?
“I made a quick decision. I just felt I had to get away, far away, from California and my old friends.”
“Well, it’s sure great to see you.” And then Shawn thought about Reggie—-sophisticated, fast-track, confident, outgoing. Sally had worn Reggie’s varsity sweater. Shawn knew Reggie was dating someone else but didn’t know if Sally was still interested in him. “How’s Reggie?”
“Oh, I don’t know; okay, I guess,” Sally said. Her eyes focused on something distant in time and space. “You heard we broke up last August. We’re not dating or anything now.”
She seemed polite, but her heart appeared shut up like an insect in amber. Shawn’s mind churned. Is she running away from something? he wondered. He dared not think she had come to TBI because of him.
“I don’t understand it but I’m glad you’ve come, Sally. It’s so great seeing you. You’re one of the few people I know at TBI from Southern California! I hope we have some classes together; I hope we can see each other.”
“Yes… I hope I did the right thing in coming. But after Reggie and I broke up, I just lost interest in dating. I hope you understand. I hope we can talk sometimes, though.”
He watched her disappear up the stairs ghostlike, toward the Cromwell Hall classrooms. He wondered about her troubled, averted eyes, full of nostalgia for something she’d lost.
The days passed and Shawn hardly saw Sally, but one Wednesday evening he happened to walk by the Muslim Prayer Band room. There she was—-all tan-sweatered, full-skirted, wearing brown flats. She didn’t notice him staring.
Why had she chosen Muslim? Shawn wondered. The most admired mission field was Africa, and northern Africa &&was Muslim—-hard-core, resistant. Maybe she’d joined Muslim Prayer Band for the challenge.
For his part, Shawn didn’t attend a prayer band. He found them boring, and anyway, he didn’t understand how prayer worked.
Despite his unbelief, that same night he walked into Norbert Hall prayer room, knelt and tried to pray out loud. He prayed for his family, for Sally, for his roommate, for poor and suffering people. Kind of vague here—-he wasn’t much in touch with the suffering world. He never prayed for Muslims, though, because he couldn’t imagine Christianity would interest them.
How does prayer work, anyway? God already knows what you need, he thought. Why do I need to remind him? And God will do what he wants to do anyway. I wonder if my prayers will escape this small room, or if they’re only my own thoughts bouncing off the walls to mock me.
One cold, rainy October morning Shawn jerked awake; then yelled over to Fulton, who was still sleeping, “We’re late for devotions!” He jumped up, threw on shirt and pants as he spit on his hand to smooth his cowlick. They ran out of their dorm room and joined several guys running down the Norbert Hall stairs.
As they jogged along, Shawn’s thoughts drifted to the previous summer with Betty. He realized he hardly knew Betty, except physically. He’d told her he loved her, tried to talk himself into loving her, but only because he wanted to justify their intimacy.
Sally seemed so different from Betty—-more complex, more substantive. Why had Sally come? Is she running away from Reggie? I’m glad they broke up. Dare I think she came back to TBI because of me? She talks about California and her friends but never about me. I don’t know how I could ever deserve her.