For two hours each morning and two hours each night, Jeremy Woodley and I swam together in the moldy, six-lane pool appended to the back of the high school. We carpooled to and from workout—or, rather, since we were freshmen and not old enough to drive, our mothers carpooled, and Jeremy and I climbed into whichever car waited outside the pool to take us home. During the school day, we had four classes together, plus lunch. I won’t say we were best friends, for the phrase suggests a romanticized loyalty we didn’t enjoy. We were on the same team, but we spent most of our time competing against each other. I stood behind the blocks during the relays, watching the clock and subtracting out the splits, unconcerned about beating the opposing team so long as I beat him, even if only by one one-hundredth of a second. The other team would board the bus and go home after the meet, but Jeremy I had to see every day. He was a lean, handsome boy; a favorite among his teachers; and not above ribbing me for my slower split in the relay, my double chin, my flat-footed run. He poked his finger in my stomach and giggled like the Pillsbury Doughboy. It made the girls on the team laugh, and I hated him for that.
All the same, we were friends. At 14, proximity was the sole requirement for friendship; we were stuck together, so we stuck together. We’d earned spots on the varsity squad, but our lockers were on the far side of the locker room with those of the other freshmen, who swam at a different time. Dressing after workouts, we heard the older boys howl and swear and punch one another in the arm, their voices distorted and tinny from the rows of crosshatched metal grating between us. When they remembered we were there, two freshmen alone in the corner, they drifted over to steal our deodorant or twist our tits or goad us into boxing. If we stuck up our dukes, we got punched. If we didn’t, we got punched anyway. We learned to dress quickly, keep our voices low and misbehave in secret.
Jeremy lived in a red brick house, as impenetrable as an army fort, on a quiet cul-de-sac tucked deep within a labyrinth of cul-de-sacs filled with red brick homes. Twenty miles northwest of Houston, his neighborhood was far larger than mine; nearly 75,000 people lived in it, and his street was so far out of the way that I sometimes got lost looking for it whenever I rode my bike to his house. Jeremy had an older sister with two children of her own, an older brother fresh from the University of Texas and living at home to save money before his wedding, and a younger sister, who swam with my sister Devin in the evenings on the club team. His parents both worked for big downtown petrochemical companies and exuded a calm that suggested perpetual financial and familial security. They slept in twin waterbeds in their expansive master bedroom. I thought it was weird at first, too Ward and June, until Jeremy explained that waterbeds were more comfortable when you flew solo. “Unless you’re doing it,” he said. “Then the wave is cushion for the pushin’.” He had a waterbed, too, and showed me how the wave was made by kicking his heels against the foot of mattress, moaning, “Oh, baby, oh yes.”
The sturdiness of Jeremy’s house—the long afternoons we were allowed to linger on the living room floor in front of the television, his mother dancing with a beer in the kitchen on Friday nights—made it my preferred refuge from my own house. My father had decamped for California three years earlier with a former evangelical missionary, who, in my mother’s estimation, had stolen my father from our family and turned him into a religious nutcase. My mother’s own hasty re-entry into marriage had been less than smooth. My stepfather technically lived with us in Houston, but most of his business was in Dallas and Austin. He was gone for most of the week, and on the weekends, his son and daughter flew in from Dallas. My stepfather’s temper rivaled my mother’s; in their ire, they were equally yoked. When they wore out screaming at each other, they got on the phone and screamed at the Texas Child Support Division, at my father, at my stepfather’s ex-wife.
They were most tender when they were hurt. The night my mother broke her wrist by lunging at my stepfather—he stuck up his arm to deflect her, and she fell backward on the bathroom tile—was one of their best. He carried her to the car and drove her to the hospital. She returned home with her arm in a sling and his arm around her waist. A period of quiet affection followed. My mother made tacos for dinner, and my stepfather decided to work from home for a few weeks so he could help more around the house. I prayed it would last even though I knew it would not. I prayed the next injury wouldn’t be so severe even while I braced for the possibility of greater violence.
When the violence came, however, it came not to my house but to Jeremy’s. One night at the end of September, the beginning of our sophomore year, two men arrived at his house. They tied Jeremy to his brother, Greg, with a nylon cord and forced them to kneel on the living room carpet, side by side, near the entryway. Jeremy’s father sat on the fireplace with a gun to his head. There’s reason to believe, given the forensics report about the order of the shootings and knowing Mr. Woodley, that he begged for his sons’ lives, but, of course, there’s no way to know for sure. Greg was shot first, three times, execution-style, in the back of the head. Jeremy watched his brother’s murder before his own, with four bullets instead of three. His father was beaten with the handle of the gun, made to kneel beside his sons and shot six times. All three were shot with .22-caliber revolvers, which are quieter than other weapons and don’t discard shell casings. None of the neighbors heard anything. The men—police speculate that, given the number of shots fired, there were two of them—let themselves out, closed the door behind them and disappeared.
According to the forensics report, the killers arrived between 8:30 and 8:40 p.m. and were inside the house for less than 10 minutes. Jeremy and I talked on the phone until 8:20 that night. His mother left the house a little before 8 to pick up the girls—his sister and mine—from swimming practice. It was her night in the carpool. Mrs. Woodley dropped off Devin right at 8:40. I was watching television in the living room when the lights of her Oldsmobile flashed through the slats of the blinds. Devin slammed the front door behind her when she came inside. I heard the car shift into gear, Jeremy’s mother and sister drive away. It was five minutes from our house to theirs.
My mother was awake when the phone rang. I’d gone to bed a half hour earlier, but I wasn’t asleep yet. I was drifting, hovering, thinking about the weekend. My father was in town from California, and I was imagining the downtown hotel where we would stay, the room with a view of the Houston skyline, oysters on the half shell at Pappas, a Coke with a cherry bobbing in the ice. I heard my mother’s ankles crack as she moved down the hallway to answer the phone in the kitchen. The phone rang again, then once more, before she picked it up. I heard her say hello. “What?” she said. “Is this a joke?” Then I heard her call my name.
I ignored her at first. She and my stepfather often argued after I’d gone to bed; I’d grown accustomed to the sound of her screaming in the kitchen and had learned to block it out. She shouted again before I understood she was calling for me.
I threw back the covers, opened my bedroom door. I stood in the hallway in my underwear. “What?” I shouted back.
“The Woodleys are dead! Oh, my God, the Woodleys are dead!”
“What?” I said. “What did you say?”
“That was Trey Smith’s mother.” She paused, then disappeared around the corner. “Come quick. It’s on the news.”
I did not go quickly. I walked slowly, not yet comprehending what she was saying and, therefore, certain that when I reached the end of the hallway, I’d learn she had said something different than what I had heard her say. Whatever had incited this panic would prove benign, an overreaction. Or maybe my unconscious understood what my waking mind did not—the magnitude of what waited for me in the kitchen, the way it would reroute the course of my life— and so it moved me slowly to keep me from burning my energy too quickly. It was 10:20 on a Thursday night. I wouldn’t sleep again until Saturday.
A reporter stood in a blue windbreaker in front of Jeremy’s house. Yellow police line: do not cross tape stretched across his front yard. Siren lights flashed in the windows. The wooden sign announcing Jeremy’s membership on the swimming team was nailed to the pine tree: a white circle depicting the maroon silhouette of a swimmer rising out of the water, Jeremy’s name clearly visible beneath. “The victims are Barry Woodley and his sons, Greg and Jeremy,” the reporter said. “They were shot execution-style. It appears to be a professional hit.”
Execution-style? A professional hit? Such phrases belonged in a spy novel, part of some elaborate, far-fetched plot set behind the Iron Curtain. Not in real life, not in my life. They didn’t make sense.
“Why would anyone want to kill them?” my mother asked.
I was stuck on the “what” and hadn’t yet moved on to “why” or “who.”
The camera showed the front of the house again, this time without the news reporter standing in front of it, just the curved cement walkway leading to the front step, the open door a creamy glow in the center of the screen. The camera panned closer and zeroed in on the sheriff standing in the doorway with his hands on his belt, his beige Stetson pointed toward the ground. He stepped to the side, and I could see through the doorway to the foyer and, just beyond, in the living room, to the bodies lying facedown on the carpet. They were barely visible, but I could see them. Jeremy was at the end, his left arm by his side, his face turned toward his brother. I recognized his T-shirt.
Then coroners were wheeling the bodies down the driveway, each one covered in blue tarps and strapped to a gurney. An ambulance waited with its rear doors hanging open, its siren lights dark and still. The phone started ringing. The news went to commercial. I stood up, turned off the set.
School was in session the next day, but no work was getting done. Between bells, the students processed through the hallways, desanguinated and silent, as if circling a field where a plane had crashed, the wreckage too hot to approach, impotent to do anything but watch the fuselage smolder, the rubber and glass melt into the earth. Some cried when they saw me, and others simply stared. Jeremy and I had been seen together so often that once people figured out who he was, they figured me out, too.
The swimming team roamed the hallways in a pack, gathering in the cafeteria and, later, in a classroom. We sat on the floor, and our friends came to sit with us and cry. The girls on the team leaned their heads against my shoulders and cried until their tears soaked through my shirt and the moisture slid down into my armpit. I’d have given anything to cry—I would have loved nothing more than an hour of clean, uncomplicated grief—but I was unable to manage it. I dropped my head between my knees and stared at the carpet, hoping that gravity would help. But no tears came.
In the afternoon, we slipped back to the pool and piled into an old Buick station wagon. The upholstery was a washed-out midnight blue and reeked of old cigarettes. The felt batting drooped from the ceiling. We left the radio off and the windows rolled up, the dull sunlight magnifying through the glass. We sat with our shoulders together, sweating and staring out the windows. The lawns were brown, and haloes of parched needles surrounded every pine tree. Only a few people were outside, mostly mothers with small children, but also the UPS carrier in his brown shorts and a man in a white polo, standing on the sidewalk and scribbling on a clipboard. I searched for clues, as though there was a chance I’d see the killers return to survey the scene of last night’s crimes. Trey Smith, riding shotgun, stared down at his fist, opening and tightening it as if adjusting his grip on a handful of sand.
We turned onto Jeremy’s street. News vans lined the curb, their heavy-duty yellow power cords snaking along the ground to the cameras. At 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the sky was stagnant and white; nothing was happening, but the cameras were rolling. The police were parked across the street. The driver of our car rolled down the window and told the reporters to get the fuck out of there. An officer walked over and asked for our names. Some of the boys gave fake names, but I didn’t. The cop walked away, and a minute later, a detective in a beige suit came out of the neighbor’s house and asked me to come inside. He knew about the carpool, and he knew my name.
“Did you know they were selling their piano?” he asked me. “Did he mention someone coming over to see it?” He used only pronouns—“they,” “he.”
“No,” I said. I didn’t know, and Jeremy didn’t say anything.
The piano sat against the wall, like a desk, with picture frames arranged on top. I never once heard it played. It made sense they’d sell it.
I told the detective that Jeremy and I had talked on the phone until 8:20 the night before.
The detective wrote this down on his notepad. “He didn’t mention anything?” he asked. “Could you hear anything in the background?”
“He was in his room, I think. We talked about the football game.”
The detective nodded into his pad, crossed and uncrossed his knee.
“Didn’t anyone see anything?” I asked.
“We’re talking to everyone,” he said. “You’re probably the last person to talk to him, you know that?”
The detective gave me his card and told me to call him if I remembered more. I went outside and got back in the car. We drove to the end of the street and stopped. I got out and yanked the power cord from one of the news vans. It sprang loose, and the cord rocketed into the sky, like an eel swimming for the ocean’s surface. The cord coiled over the hood of the Buick, and the plug bounced against the windshield. We jumped back inside the car and sped away. I was 15 and the last person to talk to Jeremy alive. I needed to do something.
The impunity given to the swim team in the days immediately after the murders was given to me for longer. I skipped class whenever I pleased, and no one said a word. My quota of tragedy and horror had been met, and I felt certain my luck would hold, at least for a while. The day a fire drill emptied the school into the parking lot, I proposed to Vince, a teammate, and Carla, his girlfriend, that we take off. They hesitated, but I urged them on. It was a Wednesday in November, not yet 10 in the morning; sitting in school seemed pointless. In the car, however, none of us could think of any place in particular we wanted to go. We drove to the mall. It was nearly empty at that time of day. An elderly couple strode around in bulky white tennis shoes, and a gray-suited businessman talked on a pay phone while leafing through the pages of his day planner. The security guard glared at us from across the food court. I regretted leaving school, but I couldn’t admit that. “Let’s go to my house and watch a movie,” Vince said.
We turned on “Ghost” and settled down on his brother’s unmade bed, the sheets beneath us musky and unwashed. Before Patrick Swayze got shot, Vince and Carla got up and went into the next room. I heard them having sex, and I sat and watched the rest of the movie with my arms looped around my knees. The sun through the plastic blinds was the color of mustard, the walls were squeaking, and I felt, as I’d felt every day since my mother called me from bed, that time was a problem. I wasn’t in the wrong place; I was just there at the wrong time. I shouldn’t have been watching “Ghost” at 1 in the afternoon, just as I shouldn’t have been watching the news at 11 that night back in September. I shouldn’t have spoken with a detective inside a stranger’s house at 2 in the afternoon. I shouldn’t have been inside a church in the middle of the week. I shouldn’t have been mowing Jeremy’s lawn, looking through the rear windows into the living room, where the bodies had been found.
When the movie ended, we went back to school. Vince and Carla were hauled into the principal’s office and given three days of detention. A week later, I was called to see the assistant principal. Rising from my desk and walking to the front office, I was ready for whatever punishment they were going to hand out. I even looked forward to it. Jeremy had been dead for two months, and I understood no more about why he’d been murdered than I did the night it happened. I wanted some confirmation that actions had consequences.
When I arrived at the principal’s office, a detective was waiting to talk to me. He was denim-clad—jacket and jeans—and heavyset, a different man than I had talked to in the neighbor’s living room. He shifted in the metal chair and tried to look casual by leaning on an elbow. He wanted to know whether Jeremy was ever mixed up in any gangs.
“Gangs?” I asked. I laughed, though I didn’t think the question was funny.
The assistant principal laced his fingers together and stared down at his desk. The detective flipped through his notebook, turning the spiral-bound pages as if searching for another question. No one knew anything about the murders and probably never would.
December came, and with it the dark season. I arrived at the pool before sunrise and left after the last of the light had drained from the sky. The swimming team began to fall apart. Curt Wood locked himself in his car outside the pool and stayed there for hours. I knocked on the window, but he wouldn’t let me in. Allen Swift wrecked his Honda CR-X twice before the collision that sent his girlfriend through the windshield. Trey Smith, who’d clutched his fist so intently the day after the murders, became a skinhead. He was the team captain, with scholarship offers from the best swimming programs in the country, but he said he felt as though someone was stomping on his chest. He wore ox-blood-red Doc Martens boots that rose above the curve of his calves and carried a 6-inch steel lag bolt in his pocket. Thick enough to join bridge girders, encased from top to bottom in chromed hexagonal nuts, it made his fist twice as large and 10 times as heavy.
With Trey and two other boys, I ventured into Houston’s decaying inner-city wards, neighborhoods without streetlamps or lighted store fronts, neighborhoods with police cameras mounted to telephone poles. We went to poorly lit, spartanly furnished clubs (if “clubs” is the right word): boxy spaces without tables or chairs or windows, with linoleum on the floor and walls, and peopled by an inexplicable mix of scalped young men and tattooed women; black men in groups of seven or eight; and grizzled gray-haired men, who, I learned from my friends, were the ones you approached if you wanted a beer or a joint or a hit of acid. No one checked IDs at the door; I was allowed in without question. The bands were all thrash-punk. The drummers pounded away with their eyes closed. The guitarists leaned forward to crank the strings as though drop-starting a chainsaw. The vocalists dripped sweat as they ran the length of the stage and screamed.
There was a song that started out with a low, tempered riff on the bass and the singer whispering “Hi” into the microphone. He said “Hi” three times in a row—the first like a greeting, the second time louder and like a question, and the third a full-lunged, desperate wail. At that instant, the rest of the band launched into its electric protest, and the crowd began to brawl. I learned to recognize the band and the song, and I felt my pulse leap up whenever the singer mumbled out the first “Hi.” I imagined Jeremy saying “Hi” when he opened the front door to the men who would end his life: his first “Hi” trusting and unassuming, his final “Hi” his plea to live as the revolver pressed against his skull. Other times, I heard the words as my own, directed toward the killers, the singer’s screams my screams when I let loose all my fear and rage. I stood beside the woofer, the bass thumping in my face until my ears began to ring. I ground my teeth. I banged my head.
The stage lights burned the rank air as they flashed from white to red to blue. Three security guards in yellow windbreakers sat on the edge of the stage, pushing back audience members who scrambled up to dive into the crowd. Some in the audience stood in place and punched at the air; others stomped in a circle, throwing shoulders. Trey Smith fought the hardest and emerged from the pit with his knuckles and elbows streaked with blood, his eyes swollen. I liked it, too: the shoving and slugging, the slamming bodies, the armpits and sweat-drenched hair and bare backs, bodies hurtling from the stage, the atavistic urge to climb up from the swarming hive and swim along the tops of heads and shoulders, the lightness of being held aloft by a hundred unknown hands. There had been days, roaming through the empty halls of my school, when the entire world felt empty, as though Jeremy’s death was the spark of an apocalypse and soon everyone on Earth, all the good people of the world, would disappear. My father lived 1,500 miles away, and my closest friend was dead. I took comfort in the claustrophobic heat, the beery sweat and body odor, the thump and strobe. Twice, I took a fist in the eye, and after the second time, I grew cautious. In time, my interest in the music waned, as well.
One afternoon, I walked into the locker room at the back of the natatorium and discovered Curt Wood holding his ex-girlfriend pinned against the wall. The veins in his bicep were pulsing, and he was screaming. “Get out of here!” he yelled. He held her by the neck with one hand and pointed at me with the other. “Get the hell out of here! This doesn’t concern you.” The girl—a tiny, blonde freshman; 14 years old—yelped a weak little “help.” It was the most terrified sound I’d ever heard.
I grabbed Curt’s shoulder and pulled him back. I put myself between him and his ex-girlfriend, who quickly fled the locker room, with her hands covering her face. Curt stumbled back a step, then spun and pushed me. I pushed him back, as hard as I could. His back slapped against the lockers. His eyes widened, surprised. He was built more like a football player than a swimmer, with thick, round arms and a solid chest. If he chose to fight me, I would lose. All the same, I was willing. I wanted Curt to swing at me so I’d have a reason to ram my fist between his eyes. I’d never punched anyone in the face before, but now, I squared up with Curt’s face, aimed for the top of his nose.
He came toward me with both fists raised. I bit down to brace my jaw. Curt’s arm sailed past my ear. He hooked his elbow around my neck and pulled my head until our ears were pressed together. I tried to duck out of his grip, but he held on tight. He began to sob. He let go of me and sat down in a puddle outside the showers. “She wouldn’t listen,” he said. “I only wanted to talk.”
Curt wasn’t a bad boy. None of my friends were. They were once loyal, generous, large-hearted boys. But one of us was missing, for unexplained and unfathomable reasons, and in his place, the seeds of darkness took hold. Like a root in search of water, the darkness snaked into the hearts of every person I knew, souring every good intention.
“I just wanted to talk,” Curt said again. He looked up at me. I could tell he wanted me to stay with him, that he was asking for my help, but my own good intentions had gone, too, and I left him sitting in the puddle, alone.
The August before the murders, I’d called my mother from California to tell her I wouldn’t be coming back to Texas. She’d threatened to send the police if I didn’t come home. In May, we struck a compromise: She’d allow me to spend the summer with my father, a full 10 weeks rather than the three decreed by the divorce settlement, so long as I promised to return in time for school to start.
My father and stepmother lived in Laguna Beach, in a little yellow bungalow hidden behind an overgrown hedge of oleander. My stepmother grew dill and mint in terracotta pots, brewed iced tea in glass jars along the railing and prepared her Bible study notes in her bathing suit. Since leaving Texas, she’d resumed her evangelical vocation and worked as a children’s pastor at a church on the inland side of Laguna Canyon. Her daughter, my stepsister Stacie, worked in a ladies’ clothing shop in downtown Laguna Beach, where surfers slept in the backs of Volkswagen buses or lay in the sand with their wetsuits peeled to their waists. Honeysuckle popped along the fences, and from the dining room, we could see the ocean between the eucalyptus trees. I swam in the ocean every day.
I had a hard time finding a job in California, so I filled in as best I could. I rolled posters and shrink-wrapped lithograph prints for a local artist. I dug out a long strip of hardened cheat grass from the backside of a carpenter’s workshop. I went door to door with a bucket and sponge, offering to wash cars. I didn’t have any friends, and I didn’t mind. On days off, I rode with my father to his sales calls. His territory ranged from Sherman Oaks, north of Los Angeles, to Oceanside, north of San Diego, and I was happy to ride along wherever he went. I was happy just to be with him again.
My father kept the car radio tuned to AM talk radio. For as long as I could remember, he’d liked talk shows, liked banter and argument, liked talk, though back when he lived in Texas, the talk was mostly about strategies for selling and motivating corporate teams. During the divorce, he’d accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior, and now, he listened to Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura and then punched over to the Christian station and listened to Chuck Smith and James Dobson. They all said more or less the same things: America had grown too liberal, and its traditional foundations were eroding. Soon, the well of grace would run dry. Nations that turned away from God would be turned away by him.
My father’s Honda Prelude sat so low to the ground that I imagined him changing lanes by sliding the car between the tires of a semi-trailer and emerging on the other side. The cars ahead of us appeared to dissolve into the rippling gas vapors. He kept the radio loud to drown out the traffic noise. Now and then, my father would say, “True,” or else point to the radio dial and look at me as if to say, “You hear that?” but most of the time, he simply listened and nodded.
Dr. Laura and Dr. Dobson railed against promiscuity, and promoted chastity and marital fidelity, no matter the circumstances. I couldn’t help noticing the irony: Infidelity, a failing of chastity, had catapulted my father from Texas to California and landed him in this car, on this freeway, listening to this show, nodding and pointing. My awareness of this irony had, up till then, worked as an antidote to my father’s faith, but I was beginning to think of my life as attached to forces other than ordinariness, to God’s will rather than chance. Each afternoon, when my father and I snorkeled through the reef and I watched the sunlight beam through the kelp and the garibaldi drift among the anemone, I wondered if everything—not only my parents splitting up, but the murders, too—were part of a grand design I couldn’t see.
The more I thought about the things I heard in my father’s car, the more sense they made. “Rebellion,” by definition, is a movement against established authorities or normative values, whatever they may be. It’s always defined by its context. I couldn’t think of anything that bucked the cultural tide more than if I vowed to preserve my virginity. It smacked of naiveté and brainwashing, of blindness to the realities of the modern world, but in the last year, I’d known too many realities. I’d seen more than I bargained for. Too much had been lost. I needed something to refuse. I needed something to save.
Even though Stacie would be attending a Christian college in the fall, my stepmother worried that higher education would threaten her faith. So, in July, Stacie spent two weeks at a summer camp in Colorado Springs, analyzing “major worldviews” through the lens of Christianity. The afternoon of her return, she sat on the floor of her bedroom, cutting her cassettes with a pair of orange-handled kitchen scissors. She pulled the tape from the spools in long strokes, extending her arm toward the ceiling, as if she was curling ribbon. The wastebasket overflowed with her discarded music. Her open suitcase sat on the bed, full of books about how Oliver North was a scapegoat in the Iran-Contra affair, how feminism derived from communism, and how bands like The Beatles and Prince and Quiet Riot were lascivious and satanic.
“I’ll take those if you don’t want them anymore,” I said.
“That’s not the point,” she said. “They shouldn’t be in the world. The music shouldn’t even be heard.”
“The devil’s music,” I said. I meant it as a joke.
“Exactly,” Stacie said.
That night, we went to dinner at the Old Spaghetti Factory in Newport Beach. My father liked the restaurant because we could eat for $5 apiece, including salad and dessert. He ordered waters all around before anyone had a chance to ask for a Coke. When the waiter walked away, Stacie announced she’d awakened as a Christian. She promised she would no longer remain passive in her faith. It wasn’t enough to believe, she said; she’d use her college degree to work for the kingdom. Most importantly, she had come to understand the importance of chastity, and she vowed to defend her purity until her wedding night. My stepmother began to cry, stood up from her chair, wrapped her arms around Stacie and kissed the top of her head. My father smiled. He’d come through a difficult time and was in a good place again.
I smiled, too. It was a Saturday night, and beyond the restaurant’s windows, the sun was setting over the Newport pier and boardwalk and the entire blue horizon of the Pacific. The wind through the open doors smelled of salt and sunscreen, and I could hear the valet attendants shouting as they shuffled the cars. We all ordered the same pasta dish, and when our plates were taken away, the waiter brought out silver cups of spumoni. We were happy, and our happiness had been wrought by Jesus, the source of all things good and dependable. That could only mean that a life without Jesus meant a life of fear—a high-wire walk across a treacherous ravine during which a single misstep meant not just a fall into the hell that follows death, but the hell of an unprotected life. The hell of murder. The hell of impermanent family. The hell of loneliness. All those hells were at bay, and scraping the spoon against the side of my dish to catch the last of the ice cream, I felt safer than I had in months. I didn’t hesitate to promise God my entire life. I’d take up his cross and deny my every want and desire to follow him. I’d remain celibate until my wedding night. I’d vote Republican in every election. It seemed to me a fair trade.