“Tomorrow will be a little different,” Rachel announced. “If you want to hang out with Michelle, you’ll have to ride with her to church.” There were murmurs amongst the guys.
Church? Ashton’s mouth went dry and he gulped. He recognized this as a turning point. Was he willing to go to church? Just like the time he’d agreed to compete in a tournament on a Sunday, this was a choice. He would be choosing to return to the teachings of his youth.
“Michelle’s car will be arriving at 9:30 tomorrow morning.” Rachel said. “Anyone who wants to join her should be waiting out front.”
All ten of the remaining guys wore suits and ties as they waited in the foyer of the mansion, most ready by nine o’clock. They all seemed excited, anticipating this new adventure. Ashton felt his chest tightening. Returning to church was a huge step.
Right on time, the limousine pulled up and the driver came around to open the door. Ashton waited as all the other guys climbed in first. He was shaking as he ducked his head and entered the dimly-lit interior of the crowded vehicle. Of course all the seats close to Michelle were taken and the guys all seemed to be in conversation with her and with each other. Ashton slipped into the last available seat and pulled the door shut. He never even looked up to connect with Michelle.
The drive took less than ten minutes and they pulled up to the back of the building. Because he was in the door last, he was out the door first. It felt rude, but Ashton didn’t wait for anyone else. He knew how to find his way to the chapel. Most of the church buildings had similar designs.
They arrived early, which meant they had their pick of the empty pews. Ashton chose the far back row in the seat closest to the wall. Brock slid in next to him.
“You okay, buddy?” Brock was perceptive.
“It’s just been a long time since I’ve been to church,” Ashton said. “I’m not sure I’m ready for this.”
“What aren’t you ready for?” Brock creased his brows together.
“I’ve made a lot of poor choices the past few years,” Ashton admitted.
“That’s what church is for, right?” Brock bumped Ashton’s shoulder in solidarity. “So, us sinners can confess our sins and be forgiven?”
“I guess.” Ashton leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. He clasped his hands together and closed his eyes. That’s what I need right now. Some serious forgiveness. What d’ya say, Lord? Wanna offer me some forgiveness?
Ashton’s snarky prayer was interrupted by commotion to his left side. He heard whispering “excuse me,” and “coming through,” then, “Brock, can I trade you places?”
“Michelle?” Ashton raised his head. “What are you doing?”
“Sitting by you,” she said. “Is that okay?” She blinked her eyelashes in pretended innocence. She had barely spoken a word to him all week and now, when he felt most vulnerable, she wanted to sit beside him?
“You looked like you could use a friend.” Her soft voice was a caress to his taut nerves. She settled in next to him, reached for one of the hymnbooks and flipped through the pages as she glanced up at the numbers on the wall. She found the correct hymn and tucked her program between the pages, then turned away from Ashton. “So, Brock, is this your first time at church?”
“Nah, I’ve been to churches many times.” Brock’s answer didn’t sound entirely honest. “Weddings, funerals, my little nephew’s Bar Mitzvah.”
“That’s not at a church.” Michelle laughed and pushed Brock’s shoulder lightly. “That’s a synagogue. Are you Jewish, also?”
“Kinda, I mean, that’s how I was raised, but I’m not a practicing Jew, or anything.” Brock sounded apologetic or embarrassed to admit he was Jewish while sitting in a Christian church. Ashton wanted to comfort him with knowledge he and Michelle both knew, that Jews were important in God’s eyes.
“Once a Jew, always a Jew, man.” Ashton reached across Michelle’s lap and tapped Brock’s knee. “Baby, you were born that way.”
“Jews are God’s chosen people.” Michelle offered a soft smile. “You and your people are to be highly revered. The scriptures are quite clear on that.”
“Me and my people have done a lot of crappy things over the years,” Brock said.
“Haven’t we all?” Ashton grinned at Brock. “I think we recently established that we’re in the right place if we’re sinners, right?” They chuckled at one another.
“Yeah, I guess we are.” Brock sat back and draped his arm around the back of the pew, not quite resting on Michelle’s shoulders, but close. Surprisingly, Ashton felt no jealousy about Brock having his arm around Michelle. If Victor was next to her, Ashton would have a problem with it.
People gradually filled in the remaining seats, many glancing to the back row where eleven new faces waited, but few people questioned them. A couple of people came to shake their hands and introduce themselves, but accepted the “We’re just visiting,” excuse and moved on.
The prelude music eventually began, and when the clock reached ten, the Bishop stood to introduce himself. It all felt very familiar. The opening hymn, the opening prayer, the order of business, the sacrament hymn… Ashton’s breathing sped up.
“Are you okay?” Michelle leaned closer.
“I’m not sure I’m ready for this,” Ashton mumbled.
“How long has it been since you’ve taken the sacrament?”
“How long has it been since you’ve had a drink?”
“Not since the night I met you,” Ashton said.
“Really?” Michelle turned her head and raised her eyebrows.
“Seeing the hurt in your eyes… I guess you could say it was a wake-up call.”
“There’s something to be said for that.”
“I really do want to quit…” Ashton bit his lower lip.
“Has this week been difficult?”
“Not really.” He shrugged. “I mean, once I made the decision, it was pretty easy. I don’t think I’m addicted to alcohol. I think it was more of a social thing. Everybody else had a beer, I had a beer. It was no big deal.”
“Well, our conversation may have been the catalyst, but don’t quit for me. If you’re going to quit, do it for you.”
The sacrament hymn ended, and Michelle tucked the hymnbook into the shelf. They both bowed their heads and the room quieted. The prayer to bless the bread before passing it to the congregation was ingrained in Ashton’s soul. He’d heard the words, and spoken the words, so many times he thought the prayer a half a second ahead of the boy who was reading from the scriptures.
More important, he thought about what the words meant, what they represented. What they represented to him, at this time in his life. The forgiveness and peace the gospel offered were exactly what he wanted.
Even if Ashton were sent home from this silly show today, and he never saw Michelle again, she had just given him the greatest gift he’d ever received. She brought him back to church.
When the little tray of bread was finally in front of him, Ashton hesitated. He shook his head softly and handed the tray back.
When the young deacon had stepped away, Ashton leaned closer to Michelle and whispered, “I should probably have a nice long talk with my Bishop before I take that next step.”
“Good idea,” she whispered back.
Ashton took a deep breath and closed his eyes, so he wasn’t prepared to have Michelle’s hand resting on his. He smiled softly but kept his eyes closed as he turned his hand over and clasped hers, intertwining their fingers and squeezing gently. His whole body tingled, not just from having her hand in his. The peace of the gospel overtook him, and he knew he was sitting right where God wanted him.