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Authors: Mark Wheaton

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BOOK: Sunday Billy Sunday
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“What’s the worst job?” Maia asked. “Cleaning the bathrooms?”

“Latrine-clean is punishment, so hopefully you won’t get that,” Faith explained. “I like working in the mess hall. They let you play music and you just follow the recipes. You can zone out and the time goes really fast. The best thing is, everybody thinks it’s the hardest job, so no one signs up for it.”

“Oh, smart plan,” said Maia, carefully stacking her father’s biographies on the shelf behind her bed, then when silent as if waiting for Faith to speak.

Faith hesitated, unsure how much she wanted to commit to this sudden and friendship. But then she had her thoughts interrupted by a loud, brassy and big-boobed girl entering Cabin 6, talking to her friend.

“Oh, God – remember last year?” the girl was saying. “You got chiggers in the
worst
places. It was awful. Everybody thought you had herpes or something.”

Faith watched these girls pick bunks, a pair of flighty, popular types; the kind that ended up being assigned certain jobs like yard work and then just stood or sat around talking and waited for their two duty-hours to be up, letting everybody else do the work. Faith had gotten trapped with these kinds of girls in the kitchen a couple of times and, over and over again, the meals would almost be late, which always made her panic.

“You want to work in the kitchen together?” Faith asked, knowing the answer before asking the question. “We could sign up for the same meal-prep shifts.”

Maia smiled and nodded. “Do they ever let you make things on your own?”

“Sometimes, but the meals are pretty well planned out to avoid wasting food as there’s only one delivery truck that comes out a week,” Faith said. “They let us make extra cookies and muffins on Sunday evenings, though. Also, cakes, like if someone has a birthday.”

“Fun!” exclaimed Maia.

Faith smiled, knowing she’d made the right decision.

In his cabin, Father Billy was lying face down on the floor of the living room, his arms outstretched like a parody of a man who had fallen to Earth without a parachute and was now splattered against the ground. His nose was directly against the floor, eyes staring directly into the grain of the wood below. His back ached as did his groin, but he continued to hold this pose.

Father Billy had spent every day of the past eighty days in this exact position for at least two or three hours, deep in prayer. He couldn’t imagine a more beseeching pose for these prayers, prostrating himself like a bug willfully waiting to be squashed underfoot by an angry God. It was in this position that he’d continued to ask God for a sign, for a response, for
anything
. What he had witnessed three months ago on Good Friday was, to him, clearly a miracle and one directed solely
at
him, but he still didn’t know what it meant. Why him? And why nothing since?

The priest had wanted answers to these questions from the moment he’d risen from the pew the two gardeners had carried him to, but it quickly devolved into an all-encompassing drive and obsession. It wasn’t long before the desire for a Divine response governed his every breath, every thought and every action, driving him to nothing short of madness. Everything that had made up his old life was gone, replaced by the single-minded goal to know God’s will in revealing Himself to Father Billy.

At first, he had believed that this was the Lord’s way of imbuing him with a more perfect faith. But then, after He failed to answer Father Billy’s subsequent prayers, he thought God might then be immediately turning around to test that faith, which only opened the door to further speculation.

“What if this was the
Devil?
” Father Billy would ask, but somehow he just couldn’t make himself believe that. Deep down, he felt that God had reached out to touch him, but then, like a taunting child, had immediately back away. And as that was never how any of his predecessors had characterized the Almighty, Father Billy wanted to know why.

Father Billy had spent those eighty days in prayer begging God to explain Himself, but had always been met with silence. Naturally, he’d considered the idea that “the miracle” was evidence of some kind of brain injury or tumor, but after a battery of tests came back negative (followed by a second battery done under a false name in Fort Worth), Father Billy was more convinced than ever that it had been God Himself behind the pulse in the crucifix and not his own mind playing tricks.

So, he continued his daily prostrations. He begged, he flattered, he bargained. He created hypotheticals and asked the Lord for his opinion. He asked questions asked of him by his parishioners, hoping that would seem more selfless, but still nothing.

Father Billy wondered if God was punishing him by suddenly forcing him to confront his lack of faith. He knew that he was hardly the only priest who had such crises, so why punish him in this way as it
was
a punishment. He had been fine, a great priest in the estimation of everyone around him, but then this “miracle” was visited upon him and was now threatening to tear him apart at the seams. That’s when the begging, the flattering, the cajoling and the questioning gave way to threats.

“If you don’t respond to me, I’ll counsel a parishioner to get an abortion,” Father Billy prayed. And, when there was nothing, he did just that.

“If you don’t respond, my sermons will move against scripture,” he tried. Again, when there was nothing, he subtly began preaching things that wholeheartedly went against the Bible, but it did nothing.

“If you don’t answer me, I’ll dishonor my vows. I’ll sleep with women. I’ll piss on the cross. I’ll denounce you. I’ll invert the Communion so the congregation sups from the body of Lucifer. I will steal from the church.”

He did all of these things. He researched the Seven Cardinal Sins and found ways for not only himself to commit them, but also to convince others to do similarly so that it wasn’t just his sin, but the sins of many. He did this for the entire month of May, fighting to bring about some kind of Divine Intervention, but it never came.

It was midway through the first week of June that he got an inkling of what he intended to do next, one great sin left uncommitted. That’s when he began planning for the camp.

“We’re here now, Lord,” Father Billy whispered on the floor of his administrator’s cabin, angling his eyes up to look up at the large black leather satchel he could just glimpse under the kitchen sink, mostly hidden behind a thin red-and-white cloth curtain. “My plan is in motion and just as it is solely mine to implement, it is solely yours to end. I will
not
stop until you reveal yourself to me. Whatever happens now is in Your Hands.”

Father Billy looked up again, seeing the bright white glow of the summer sun cascading in through the front window, and held his breath. He didn’t know what he expected, perhaps his heart to stop beating, maybe an aneurysm that would cause his vision to explode into a thousand small pinpoints of lights before everything went black.
Something
. But it was just more of the same.

He continued to wait, but then:
knock... knock... knock...

He looked up as Cindy, probably the best of his counselors, knocked on his door and scanned through the window to see if she could spy him. Father Billy had always liked Cindy and was glad she was back for her fourth and probably last year as a counselor. Though he knew she’d probably like to continue on, he also knew she would be moving to San Diego at the end of the summer to attend medical school now that she’d finished her undergraduate degree in Austin that spring and it would become impractical for her to be back next year. Right now, however, he just didn’t want her to discover him in this position.

Moving quickly to assume a more appropriate pose, as if he was looking for something under the sofa, he wheeled about just in time for Cindy to catch his gaze. He grinned up at her with a half-shrug.

“Come in!”

She opened the door and Father Billy saw that she was leaner and more toned this year, as if already taking the idea of a physician’s regimen of a healthy diet and exercise seriously. In another universe, she’d have been a runway model or maybe a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader, but she was very serious about her medical studies. A dead aunt with a rare blood-disorder driving her ambition, Father Billy seemed to remember.

“Drop something?” she asked, helpfully.

“A pen. It’s nothing. Just making notes on my welcome speech and it got away from me.”

“Oh, good.” Cindy nodded. “The kids have started wandering out of their cabins, so I think they’re about ready to hear it.”

The kids, Father Billy thought. It wasn’t so long ago that that included
you
, my dear.

“All right,” said Father Billy, clambering to his feet and pulling himself up to his full height, five or six inches above Cindy. “Now is as good a time as any.”

Father Billy followed Cindy out of the cabin and onto the porch where she reached for a large brass bell that hung off one of the wooden columns. Reportedly having once hung in a firehouse that stood on the Van Ness property, the ringing of it was a sort of unofficial tradition that signaled both the beginning of the campers’ four weeks at Camp Easley, but also the close of camp, the closing bell ringing an honor reserved for the camper who most distinguished themselves over the month.

Clang... clang... clang... clang... clang... clang... clang... clang...

Father Billy tried not to flinch with every strike of the clapper, feigning a smile as the kids made their way over to the administrator’s cabin and arranged themselves in a large semi-circle around the front porch. The other counselors – Pamela, Judy, Humberto, a muscle-bound 22 year-old named George Brockington, a gangly, college senior and regular Charlie Church named Whit Taylor who’d been around as long as Cindy, and, finally, the youngest female counselor, a short-haired, shy whisper-thin girl named Constance Townsend – parked themselves next to the steps around Cindy, who stood next to Father Billy.

Father Billy waited until everyone had assembled and then smiled out at the group.

“Are we all here?” he grinned. “Good.”

His hands fumbled with his address, a piece of paper that appeared to have been folded and re-folded many, many times complete with dark creases across it as if he’d been carrying it in his wallet for weeks, analyzing and re-analyzing his words.

Eyeing this, Cindy thought this odd. There hadn’t been much difference between the welcoming addresses one year to the next to the degree she figured Father Billy must have a template saved on a computer somewhere that he just updated each year like the lesson plans for the Bible study classes.

Father Billy unfolded the paper one last time, stared down at it, then folded it back up and replaced it in his pocket. He looked out over the many faces of the kids, but then turned grim.

“I need to convey to you a message from Our Lord,” Father Billy began, his voice suddenly quivering.

Cindy’s head snapped around to look at the priest with alarm, a couple of the other counselors doing the same. This was
not
Father Billy’s typical welcoming address.

“The Lord tests us,” Father Billy continued. “And this summer, at this camp, He is going to test each and every one of you. I do not know why He is doing this. All I know is that He is.”

The campers, many as accustomed to the same old welcoming platitudes as the counselors, looked around at each other, surprised to have the camp open on such a serious note.

“There is always temptation and that only gets amplified when out here away from your parents’ supervision,” Father Billy announced, his voice rising a little in timbre. “But you must remember that it’s not the judgment of your parents you ultimately need to be worried about, but your judgment in the eyes of God. I hope that in our time here together, you will feel this deep inside and act accordingly so that you may stand before Our Lord with a clear conscience, keeping your soul clean as you pave your way into Heaven.”

Father Billy paused for a long moment, his face unreadable.

“Do you understand?” he asked, finally and flatly.

Confused at being faced with a question that beggared an answer, the campers, who had mostly fallen silent, answered with little head nods, though a couple of “yes’s” could be heard.

“I asked you if you
understood
,” Father Billy said, now more forcefully, though still sounding just within the realm of a coach giving a particularly spirited pre-game pep talk.

This time, the affirmations were much louder, though someone back in the circle of football players made a jokey remark and there were a couple of titters of laughter to go with it. As soon as they looked up and caught Father Billy’s inscrutable gaze, however, they fell silent and the priest nodded.

“That’s all I can ask of you,” said Father Billy, summing up. “And that’s all you can ask of
yourselves
. Keep yourself pure because you never know when God will put that test in front of you and you suddenly have to answer for your life’s deeds. Now, let us pray...”

III

Later in the afternoon, Cindy was still trying to wrap her head around Father Billy’s words, but her focus was being pulled towards signing campers up for their first week’s work assignments.

“Um... everyone is required to do ten hours of work for the camp each seven days,” she announced, trying to sound nonplussed as she held up clipboards with sign-up sheets attached. “These can be broken into one, two or three-hour shifts, so try to spread them over the week. If you want to try and do all ten hours in one day, you’re welcome to it, but I have to warn you that it can make for a pretty miserable day. Each counselor will have a different sign-up sheet, so find the one you want and get to it!”

She passed the clipboards out to the other six counselors and the campers descended immediately, signing up alone, in groups or just on the dotted line for whatever chore sounded the least work-intensive. It wasn’t long before Cindy’s clipboard was a third filled with names.

“Hey, do you have the one for cleaning up in the woods?”

Cindy turned, finding Mark and Phil standing next to her. She looked at the clipboards in her hand and shook her head.

“Try Humberto,” she suggested.

“Aw, man, he really screwed us earlier,” Mark replied with disgust. “What
do
you have?”

“Um, ‘trash/recycling’ and... ‘meal-prep,’” Cindy said, though Mark was already scrunching his nose. “Not your speed?”

“Thanks anyway,” Mark replied, rolling his eyes.

Mark led Phil away from Cindy, who just shook her head.

Little boys.

She watched them slouch towards the other counselors for a moment, but then saw Whit coming her way, a querulous look on his face.

“Any idea what
that
was all about?” he asked, clearly referring to the words of Father Billy.

“No clue,” she admitted, shaking her head. “I was going to ask Humberto and Judy as they’ve been with him all week.”

She took a breath, but then added, “What’s worse is, when I came to get him, I saw him through the window lying face down in his cabin. I thought he’d fallen down or gotten sick. But as soon as he saw me, he got to his knees and pretended like he’d dropped a pen.”

“Did you ask him about it?”

“No, I just pretended like I hadn’t seen anything,” Cindy said. “It’s weird, right?”

Whit didn’t reply, but just turned his gaze over to the porch of the administrator’s cabin where Father Billy was chatting amiably with return-campers from previous years. The priest looked a little pale, but had seemingly recovered from the nervousness he’d exhibited during the welcome. Cindy looked from Father Billy, back up to Whit, who was squinting now, as if hoping that might hone his powers of observation.

“I think what we’re bumping on is that he’s never really talked like that before,” Whit said, nodding as if agreeing with his own observation. “He’s always been more about service, helping your neighbor, leaving God to God, emphasizing your personal relationship through the Holy Spirit. I mean, do you really think God spoke to him?”

Cindy rolled her eyes. “Are you kidding?”

“Not at all,” Whit said. “I mean, he’s a priest, right? He’s probably heard from God before, no? Maybe this is just the first time He’s wanted Father Billy to pass along a message.”

Cindy hesitated. She’d always believed in God, since she was a little girl, but in a distant, far-removed sort of way. She figured those who literally heard words or a message, in English, that they claimed was from God, were out of their minds or trying to sell something. For her, God was a reassuring feeling, not a shrink or a parent or a friend as if He was just another person.

But she also didn’t think this was the time to explain all that to Whit.

“Well, maybe Father Billy did get a message from God,” Cindy suggested. “If that’s the case, God couldn’t have chosen a better person. He’s great man.”

“I agree,” Whit said, his anxiety still riding right under the surface. “But for something straight from God, it’s pretty cryptic and obtuse. It makes you wonder what He thinks is going to happen.”


Knows
is going to happen,” Cindy joked. “I mean, He’d ‘know,’ right?”

Whit gave Cindy a harsh look.

“It’s not funny, Cindy. What if it’s actually serious?”

With that, Whit headed away. Cindy stared at the back of his head for a moment, thinking he looked like an egret bobbing along as he walked. She had long ago decided that she’d known Whit for too long, a sort of stepbrother at this point that she’d be relieved to be rid of by the end of the summer. It wasn’t always like that, though. She’d actually had a crush on him at one point that led to her blowing him on the last day of camp one year when they were both fifteen and she’d instantly regretted it. In fact, it had been done mostly on a dare from two of her friends, but he saw it as much more. At first, he’d treated her like a goddess for deigning to anoint him in that fashion. But when he realized that she had no idea what she’d been doing and was somewhat scarred by the incident, his ardor turned to what Cindy would thus recognize as feelings of superiority and harsh judgment any time they’d been together since.

Every time she caught him scoping her out, he’d kind of shrug with an
I know what you did
kind of look that made her sick to her stomach. Yes, she was glad that, soon, she’d see the last of Whit forever.

“Meal-prep?”

Cindy was yanked from her bad memories to turn in yet another direction as Faith and a new girl she didn’t recognize walk up. Year after year, Faith had proven to be one of the most reliable workers at the camp, so Cindy was more than happy to sign her up for whatever job she wanted, confident that it would be done well.

“Absolutely – take your pick of days,” Cindy said, handing her the clipboard before nodding to Maia. “You, too?”

“Yep,” replied Maia. “We’re going to tag-team.”

“Then we’ll have at least three meals a week to look forward to,” Cindy grinned. “Faith’s the best cook we’ve ever had.”

Faith reddened. “I just follow the recipes.”

“Allegedly, so does everyone, but yours always seem to turn out better. Wonder why that is?”

Faith blushed, but couldn’t help smiling.

“Okay. We’ll see the two of you in the kitchen.”

The first half-Sunday was always the easiest and this year’s was no different. This was the one day where, the counselors made the mid-day and evening meals for the campers to allow them the afternoon to get adjusted to life at camp, though most of this time was spent getting accustomed to life
without
: without the internet, without cell phones, without video games, without caffeine, without television. The church had started this rule the very first year campers tried to bring in cell phones, confiscating and boxing up the ones that were smuggled in for the duration, citing them as the same kind of distraction as television. The counselors were allowed their cell phones, but couldn’t get much reception out at Camp Easley, regardless, but it was the principle of the thing.

Not that there weren’t hard phone lines. The counselor’s cabin had one as did the administrator’s cabin and parents with emergencies were given the numbers to both, which additionally had voicemail if everyone happened to be out.

Beyond that, communication with the outside world was purposefully nil. These were meant to be four weeks focused solely on the presence of God in the life of the campers, who soon found that the secular world was surprisingly easy to keep out.

“Want to go swimming?” Mark asked Phil as the two lazed around on their bunks after unpacking, the only two campers who were still inside Cabin 2.

“Not really,” said Phil, insecure about how he looked without his shirt on, particularly when surrounded by a number of the church’s premiere athletes who were all currently engaged in a football game down on the beach, shirtless, and in shorts.

“You don’t think Leilani and the other cheerleaders are going to be in bikinis?” Mark suggested. “That’s worth price of admission alone.”

Phil glanced to the window. “If it was Faith down there in a bikini, that’d be a different story.”

“You’re crazy,” Mark replied. “You think she’s hotter than Leilani and all those cum-guzzling cheerleaders?”

“I do,” Phil said. “She’s smart. I can talk to her. That’s light-years hotter in my book.”

“I just don’t see it,” Mark said. “She’s like somebody’s cousin.”

Phil thought about this, feeling it well-observed on Mark’s part, but said nothing.

“Rachel, now
she
was gorgeous,” Mark continued. “Brown hair, tall. Those green eyes. Christ, she was out of my league.”

Phil had to bite his tongue. Rachel was, in fact, one of the ugliest girls he’d ever seen in his entire life. After he’d gotten to know her, he softened on this because her personality more than made up for it and he genuinely understood what Mark saw in her.

But gorgeous? Not by anyone’s yardstick, which is why he sometimes forgave Mark’s outright misogyny when he spoke about other women as it was obviously shtick.

“How about a hike around the lake?” asked Mark, exasperated enough to suggest anything to get them out of the cabin. “Promise to stop and flirt if we find Faith?”

Phil thought about this, then nodded and got off his bunk. “Sounds like a plan.”

As they headed out of the cabin, the division between the two types of campers at Easley were distinct and on display. Down by the water, you had the football game going on – seven-on-seven – David Boss quarterbacking. As Mark had guessed, a number of the more popular Church of the Lamb girls were gathered around watching, many of them dressed down in the skimpiest of bikinis, some borderline indecent. The counselors and the campers knew this kind of swimwear would be frowned on by just about any parent or church council member who might see, but as snapshots of such things didn’t exactly make it into the online wrap-up or the church bulletin board at the end of summer, Father Billy took a live-and-let-live approach.

“I don’t think policing wardrobe is our job, frankly,” he had now-famously (and oft-quotedly) remarked one summer when confronted by an offended counselor – a somewhat holier-than-thou fellow – who claimed to be particularly aggrieved on behalf of the congregation. “I say we just let it go and let them decide what they’re comfortable with. Trust the group.”

The counselor left in a huff and hadn’t come back the following year. No one seemed to mind.

Not that the counselor didn’t have a point. There were plenty of guys and girls who let their minds wander to matters of sex, including a number who treated the church camp as their own private summer getaway. There were whispers every spring-into-summer about which girls were planning to lose their virginities at that year’s camp, but a lot of that turned out to be apocryphal. There were make-out sessions, sure, some heavy petting, definitely a few attempts at oral sex (some less than successful, as in the case of Cindy and Whit), but incidents of actual intercourse were few and far between, even among the counselors.

For the counselors, they mostly kept up an unspoken agreement that even though they knew they could get away with it, they abstained from sex – for the most part, at least. There were some isolated incidents, usually amongst the ones that
hadn’t
come to the camp as couples and ended up in clumsy, late-night embraces out of loneliness or boredom, but after a barrage of single- and double-entendres from the other counselors the next morning, one night stands usually stayed just that.

But then, there were plenty of campers on the opposite end of the spectrum where the likelihood of sexual coupling was almost non-existent. This group generally kept their clothes on that first Sunday and could be found wandering around the camp aimlessly, reading, chatting or just hanging out, some because they didn’t know anybody else or didn’t fit in with any clique, but others because they fit into a subgroup of campers there solely for Bible study and were at a loss on days without classes.

The undisputed leader of this non-group was a 15 year-old pinch-faced boy named Douglas Perry who was also president of the Young Men’s Fellowship Group at Church of the Lamb. He didn’t try to hide his ambition to graduate into becoming a counselor the following year, even though that privilege was generally reserved for high school graduates. He was devout, had considered becoming a priest himself, but was now leaning more towards going into to the military at some point which better suited his martinet of a personality, likely after first going ROTC at SMU, his college of choice (partly, it was assumed, because it would allow him to continue living at home with his mother and father).

Of course, even Douglas and his group had their detractors.

“I can’t stand that guy,” Mark said every time he and Phil saw him, a running joke.

“Which guy, that guy?” Phil would always retort.

“Yeah, that guy-that guy,” Mark would reply. “I can’t stand that guy.”

And so on.

Of course, there were leftovers from the jocks and the Bible-thumpers; first-time campers who had never been away from home before, teens who figured this was the best way around a summer job or just wanted to get away from their parents, or general weirdoes, nerds and outcasts. After one summer at the camp, when they realized there really wasn’t much of a place for them there, most didn’t return. Mark and Phil were among the exceptions to that rule.

“You see her anywhere?” Phil asked, scanning the campsite for Faith as they walked a slow circuit around the cabins.

“Nope,” replied Mark, whose gaze was focused squarely on Leilani’s bikini-clad ass whenever it came into view. “Where would she be?”

“Dunno,” said Phil, but then got an idea. “The Rocks?”

“Ah, yeah. You’re probably right.”

Though the grounds around Lake Carlisle were fairly woodsy and flat, there were some areas of gradation including a short Cliffside dubbed The Rocks, which rose high over a particularly deep part of the lake. The water directly below The Rocks was deep enough to allow diving, for the most part, but the counselors frowned on it as there was no telling what kind of underwater obstacles might have made their way into the lake and secreted themselves in the murky water below the cliff during the storms and bad weather of the just-previous winter. Of course, this kept no one from trying their hand at cliff-diving, just most let a few of the bravest souls go first to test it out each new year.

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