After Relief Society and Priesthood had ended, they were given instructions for solo time. Lissa took her bag, which contained a lunch of oranges, trail mix, and granola bars, a folder of themed material, her scriptures and journal, and a letter from her mother. Everyone dispersed into the woods, trying to find a quiet place to read and study. Lissa chose a tall pine tree with a mound of needles cushioning its base and plopped onto the soil, her back against the tree. She spread out her skirt, feeling picturesque, and opened the folder. It held a few pamphlets and notecards, and instructions to read several scriptures and then the letter from her mother, and finally to write in her journal about the Trek experience. This could all take as long as she wanted—she was to wander back to camp when she felt ready to.
The letter made her cry, harder than she could remember crying in a long while though it seemed that these days she cried all the time. Part of it was a good cry, reading in plain black print how much her mother loved her, but a larger part of it was a horrible, weak, hopeless bawl, dredged up from her shame and guilt and the knowledge that she wasn’t actually the daughter her mother wrote about in the letter. Yes, she got good grades and yes, she attended church faithfully and yes, she fulfilled her calling as Laurel class secretary, but that didn’t make her good. She tried to keep quiet as the tears fell, knowing that someone from Eau Gallie ward was only a few yards away, perched on a log.
The warm familiar world felt like it was crumpling around her, into strange shapes she couldn’t recognize. The hum of cicadas grated on her ears.
Eventually Lissa stood, legs stiff. She gathered up her spread of materials and stuffed them into her bag. She was supposed to head back to camp when she was ready, but she turned toward the empty space of pastureland to the east, carefully skirting around bright spots in the grass which were people studying and praying and, she thought, probably napping. She ducked beneath the rim of barbed wire, lifting her skirt well clear of it, and walked along the treeline. The sun beat down and she swerved into the trees for some shade. Among the pines and oaks and loblolly she slowed, touching branches and vines of kudzu. The forest calmed her nerves, bird chatter lulled her. She walked.
And finally as her path curved back around toward the camp, she walked into Justin. Not literally into him; she saw him some feet ahead and stopped on the path. He was standing under a tree, peering up into its branches. At the sound of her feet on twigs he jumped and turned around.
“Oh, ah—hey, Lissa.” He waved, kind of lamely. Lissa pressed her lips together and lifted a hand.
“Hey.” She made herself walk toward him instead of running like a terrified deer. “Watcha looking at?”
“Oh, there’s some scrub jays up there,” he said, pointing at the tree. “I think. They’re pretty rare now, even back here where there aren’t any people.”
Lissa stopped a safe distance away and looked up into the tree. “Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any.”
“Too populated, where we live. They're practically extinct.” He shuffled his feet in the leaves. “Hey, are your arms ok?”
Lissa folded her arms, tugging at her sleeves. She wished she’d left them long, but the heat had forced her to roll them up. “Oh yeah, just…some, you know, poison ivy.”
“Oh. Yeah, I got some on me too.” They stood awkwardly for a moment on the path.
“We should probably go back to the camp,” she said at last. He nodded. They began walking, perhaps more slowly than either would have walked by themselves.
“I like you a lot,” Justin said abruptly. Lissa tripped on a tree root and nearly fell; he grabbed her shoulder. Mad tears pricked behind her eyes at his touch, his words.
He continued, avoiding her eyes, “I don’t…I don’t think we did anything wrong.”
She didn’t know what to say. Somewhere inside her brain the right response lurked, but it wouldn’t come to her, she couldn’t remember how things were supposed to go. Sly, poisonous happiness was breaking over her like a wave. She thought that maybe just now she knew what Florence was singing about.
They stood like idiots in the woods. Visible ahead was the clearing where people milled about, preparing for the last bit of hiking toward their end goal, Zion. Justin reached out, grasping Lissa’s hand lightly. She looked at him full in the face for the first time since they’d met by the scrub jay tree. His jaw was tight, dark eyes worried.
She hated that he looked like that. She hated that she knew she had the same expression on her face. What were they afraid of, after all?
The fine hairline cracks in her faith widened. She felt, as she had begun to feel more and more lately, that her belief was a veneer painted over her true self, a varnish of righteousness covering up a soul that did and thought the wrong things no matter how hard it tried. No wonder God wasn’t answering her prayers. She looked at their hands together. She had remembered the proper response.
“I don’t think we did either.”
Their hands firmed around one another and they walked on toward the camp, taking their time.