Not Quite 40 days – excerpt 4

Book 1, chapter 4

…Della arrived before Esther, ordered her coffee and donut, and found a seat where she could see the door. The place was busy but not crowded. The girl at the coffee counter was relaxed and cheerful, not like she’d be on a weekday when there would be a long line-up of grumpy commuters to contend with. Della came to this donut shop often and the server knew her by sight. Since Della’s parents were too snobby to set foot in a Tim Hortons donut shop except when they were on car trips, she knew this was one place where she could safely escape without running into them. She’d see their friends sometimes but they’d just wave or something. That was fine. Della wasn’t in hiding. She was allowed to go to a donut shop if she wanted. It was just a bonus to know that she’d never find the Tyrants there.

Waiting for Esther, Della pondered the reasons for this appointment. In a certain sense, there was no reason. Della was following her gut instincts. Some part of her had decided that she needed to probe her feelings towards her sister and talking to her sister’s friends had seemed an appropriate entree into this. And Esther had agreed without questions. Which was nice. Della didn’t know her well; Della didn’t know any of Tina’s friends well, but she knew enough of her to like her. There were others of Tina’s friends who would also have answered Della’s call and Della thought she might talk to them later. She had started with Esther not because Esther was Tina’s closest friend. Tina didn’t have a best friend like that. She had a group of friends who all seemed to Della to be equally close. Many of them were as annoying as Tina. Esther, however, was the one who always seemed to have one eyebrow raised. She might be a part of the same classes and help out in the same events, but she didn’t seem to take any of it as seriously.

Della didn’t have long to wait before she saw Esther enter. There was no mistaking her. She was exceptionally tall — one of the tallest girls that Della knew of, probably six feet – and beautiful. She had short bobbed blond hair, large blue eyes and a singularly flat and narrow nose. Esther carried her height well, standing erect despite being taller than most of her friends and family. Such poise gave her a presence in the room quite apart from her height. Standing at the edge of the coffee line, Esther looked both forlorn and commanding, like a tall Bo Peep without her sheep but intent on herding them anyway. Della caught her breath and, noticing her heart beat unaccountably fast, she realized that she was nervous about this meeting. She waved and cast an awkward smile to Esther, who casually smiled back and turned towards Della’s table.

It was no surprise that she looked forlorn. Everyone who had been on the choir trip had an air of tragedy about them now. Those who came to school huddled together and spoke little to anyone else for fear of being asked questions or of being expected to act normal. Some of them had stayed home, giving up their year to the trauma and grief. Della had also stayed home for a few days after Tina’s disappearance but her parents had insisted she return after that, just as they returned to work. She’d seen Esther around school so knew that Esther had decided, like Della’s parents, to cope by maintaining a semblance of normality.

Esther was wearing dress pants and a simple blouse. They were clothes you could wear to a job in an office, neither formal nor casual. It wasn’t what she would have worn to school. There, she showed a little more of her character with a wardrobe comprised mostly of jeans and T-shirts sporting various witticisms or clever drawings. The pants she was wearing now were decidedly more conservative than her weekday low waisted denims, and the blouse was loose and ruffly. Della suspected that Esther had come directly from Church.

“Soooo” Esther started the conversation without even a hello. “Skipped Church?”

Della smiled, “Yeah. My parents let me off this once.”

“I didn’t. Wouldn’t have missed it for the world. The sermon was a doozy.” Della didn’t know Esther well enough to decide whether that was sarcasm. This opening took her off guard. She had expected Esther to start by asking her why she wanted to meet – something direct and open. She had no particular desire to discuss the morning’s sermon.

“Oh.”

“Yup. All sorts of veiled references to Clay Nafziger and Abby Martin. Even my parents were squirming in their seats and they’re not liberal like your parents. I keep threatening to change Churches and I think they could tell that this morning might have just tipped the scales right over.”

“He worked that into Palm Sunday?” Della asked.

Esther grinned. “It took some work. I do give him credit for creativity.” She hopped up to get herself a coffee. Della searched her memory for the details about Clay and Abby.

As she recalled it, Abby had returned from the choir trip and learned that her boyfriend was gay. It wasn’t just that. It wasn’t that Abby came home and Clayton had taken her out and broken up with her gently while explaining that he preferred guys. That would have been a quiet, private event that Abby might have had the sense to keep to herself. Instead, Abby had walked in on Clay and some guy in the midst of whatever it was they were doing before he had even heard about the crash. And Abby didn’t keep it quiet. She didn’t know that he didn’t know about the crash but even if she did, she might have done the same thing. Out of jealousy, vengeance or honest, principled intentions, no one could tell.

A lot of people speculated. Della hadn’t given it a lot of thought but she had always assumed it was spite that drove Abby to “out” her boyfriend to his family, friends and Church community. Abby claimed otherwise, as she would. She said that she acted out of compassion and was motivated by a desire to help Clay. It’s quite likely that she believed this. But motivations can be complicated. Abby had acted rashly without a lot of thought of the consequences but that does not mean that she wasn’t sincere in her belief. She was, herself, a member of one of the more conservative Churches and had never been challenged in her belief of a bible to be taken thoroughly literally. No one had ever shown her the passages that caused problems with too literal an understanding, nor had they offered context for understanding Old and New Testament understandings of sex and marriage. Til now, she had been content with a theology centred on “Jesus loves Me” and an ethos of love and conformity. Sin was something to worry about another day.

To Della, the whole thing had seemed petty. If Tina had been around, she would have ministered to both Abby and Clayton and been of help to both of them, maybe even to the family and friends who were busy choosing sides. Della had just rolled her eyes at the whole affair, thinking of it as another piece of evidence to demonstrate just how provincial the Mennonite world could be — that one gay boy could be the scandal of the century. On reflection, Della realized that there was much that she’d forgotten, or had never bothered to learn. She was prepared to ask Esther all about it but was derailed, again, when Esther returned with her coffee and launched straight into the discussion that Della had been seeking.

“You wanted to talk about Tina?” Esther asked, as she sat herself across from Tina. It was only slightly a question. Della hadn’t explained the purpose for the visit but Esther had guessed. Really, what else would she be asking about – help on math homework? Still, Della felt the need to justify the request. She felt the blood rush to her face as she stammered out the half-baked reasoning for an out-of-the-blue message and request to meet.

“It must seem weird.” Della began, stopping when she saw Esther shaking her head.

“It’s ok. Everything’s weird these days.”

“Yeah, but. I mean, she’s my sister but I wanted you to tell me about her.”

Della turned her gaze into Esther’s eyes as she finished the sentence. It might have been pity she saw in Esther’s eyes or sympathy. It might have been grief. Esther pulled her eyes away from Della’s before she answered and looked into the distance.

“Tina was the best. You know that. She had an instinct for goodness. It was part of her faith, totally beyond reason. Some people are good because they believe that it is their duty to God, either as their ticket or out of thanks for salvation. Others are good because they are living out the golden rule and hope that if they do, other people will be good to them later. And then there are those who are kind when the ends are worthy of charity; you know, when their vision of a Godly future matches whatever it is they are asked to do. But Tina’s not like any of those. For her, it’s like her charitable nature runs through the blood in her veins.”

“I always figured Tina was like that because it made her feel better about herself.” Della responded.

“Maybe that’s part of it. Still, I think there’s a courage and independence in Tina’s goodness that shows it’s not all about appearances. It always seemed that she could bring out the best in people.”

Della smiled ruefully at that. “She brought out the worst in me.”

That piqued Esther’s interest. She trained her eyes intently on Della’s face as if to fathom a mystery there. Della felt herself redden in response.

“Did you fight? You know, like most brothers and sisters?”

Della shrugged, “She drove me nuts, but not on purpose. It was — like you say — just who she was. And I was always making fun of her. Mostly, she just took it. Turning the other cheek and all that. Every once in a while, I’d push too far and she’d flip out.”

“I can’t even imagine Tina flipping out.”…

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