When Peter asked, “Do you mind?” Heather only looked down at the empty seat beside her. The men and women of the Freedom College debate team with their faculty adviser, Mr. Abel-Smith, and a dozen supporting students were scattering themselves through the chartered bus in the apparently random way required of young people who do not hold hands or tempt each other with tricks of dress or bare skin (Romans 12:1,6:13; Ecclesiastes 3:l). Each stricture or directive at their small, new college in the Virginia Piedmont was traced to scripture.
Peter tossed his head, and continued down the aisle.
“Oh, sit,” Heather said.
He turned back to join her. A virtuous gesture, he thought, though a little risky, befriending this provocative young soul who hadn’t many friends. He only meant to chat with the woman who’d been so candid describing her high school career to his roommate, Jason. There were complaints that the tight-fitting clothes she wrapped on her appealing figure were unfair to the men on campus struggling to remain pure till marriage. To Peter she was a puzzle of talent and irritability. He knew she had little patience for the college’s custom of mutual correction.
It was already dark, and the chartered bus with plentiful extra seats and soft, sound-absorbing upholstery offered a sense of privacy that made Peter more comfortable in her company for the hundred-plus miles up the Shenandoah Valley. There were students who would correct him for sitting next to this gifted debater, the one Jason had taken to calling “Ahab’s wife,” his barely disguised way of calling her a Jezebel. She was only a sophomore, too new for campus-wide notoriety.
Peter had overheard a girl talking about the way Heather altered her outfits, gathering her blouses at the waist for extra shaping. He gave her a pass on the clothes but was curious about her purpose here where students were being trained with a Christian imperative for careers in government and media. When she came she must have known that all faculty signed a pledge to teach every subject as an extension of the Testaments, Old and New. She must have signed the statement of faith required of all students, one that said Satan was here in the flesh on campus and walking among them.
That afternoon Heather had helped the debate team to victory, defending the proposition “Arctic Penguin, Proof of Intelligent Design.” In a break with custom, the topic was announced only when the teams took the podium. Heather volunteered and without preparation destroyed her opponent’s evolutionist argument by giving a train of statistical impossibilities and presuming his familiarity with Beysian probability theory. The whispered encouragement of the opponent’s cocksure teammates gave way to groaning as their sure thing turned to doubt on his tongue. Later, when she was required to take the opposite position, she prevailed again. Afterward, Mr. Abel-Smith said they could all learn something from Heather—the way she carried the opposition’s metaphors to absurd limits while mining her own conceits with caveats against similar attack.
“The valley’s beautiful along here,” Peter said. “Too bad we can’t see it.”
They were passing the turkey farms of Harrisonburg, but it was beginning to rain. Sliding rivulets of water on their window were the only visible scenery. She said he’d have to do better than that, if he actually wanted to talk. As a senior, Peter was a little insulted. Other women at the college had told him they liked the way he’d changed over several years from a lean and taciturn Christian soldier into a fleshier, more likable New Testament sort of guy, and this new idea of himself had loosened his tongue. He had to be careful. Jason had corrected him more than once for his erratic approach to the other sex, losing his sense of proportion in the excitement of a moment when a lighthearted jest could be taken for hitting on a fellow student.
The blast of an air horn beside the bus startled them. Their driver cursed, changed lanes, and accelerated.
“They’re good,” Peter said, “the bus drivers.”
“It’s the trucks’ day,” he explained. His father was an information officer for the state police, so he knew what he was talking about. On a short-staffed Sunday night like this one, their cruisers disappeared from Interstate 81, leaving the Virginia stretch of the highway to the mercy of the tractor-trailers. Their long, drafting caravans were like trains that refused to uncouple, hogging the passing lane, uphill and down. Their speed, which could pass 90, was governed only by the boost or drag of gravity.
“God’s speed? Godspeed to them?”
Her subversive cynicism was another trait that ought to be corrected (Galatians 6:1–2). But not by him. Not if there was a chance to draw her out, to get to the bottom of her testy dissatisfaction, or maybe to coax another confession of the way she used to behave in high school.
Mentor, or just perversely curious, he hadn’t time to ask a first question before they were thrown forward against the seat in front of them. A second force pressed him against her, and for a while they were moving north, sideways. Light flashed through the windows left and right, strobing over mouths tight-lipped and then suddenly agape. The rotation continued, and Heather was pushed against him. When the bus came to rest at last, it was still foursquare on its tires but facing south in the breakdown lane, a line of trucks blowing by on their right, unaware of the feat that had taken place in front of them.
A shaken Mr. Abel-Smith offered a piety for their deliverance, and within a half-hour they were moving north again, with Peter and Heather rearranged in their seats. Thrown against her in the long skid, he was making amends, establishing with his eyes a modest do-not-cross zone between them. Thinking Heather might have softened in their sudden fortune of mutual salvation, he suggested an exchange of spiritual histories.
She said, no, she’d rather not.
He persisted. In his case, he said, it was not so much a conversion as a confirmation of things that were already testifying silently in the world around him. “You know, ‘only more sure of all I thought was true.’ Like that.”
If his eyes had not been closed in a moment of inner peace, he’d have seen her pushing a forefinger down her throat, suggesting a productive gagging before she sank deeper into her seat, and said, “Hello?”
Faddish sarcasm, too, deserved correction. Why couldn’t they all just speak the truth in love as the college asked of them? This was referenced in the student manual: Matthew l8: 15–17. Instead she began to question his worldview. “Why do you think they chose that topic for debate? They thought they’d make us look like a bunch of cloacas, that’s why.”
Did he really think she believed what she’d first argued that afternoon? Did he think laying an egg and balancing it between webbed feet and a warm underbelly to keep it off the Arctic ice till it hatched could be proof of a thoughtful designer? And, by the way, did he think, as one of their professors taught, that more developed animals ran faster to escape the Flood and thus reached higher ground and a more exalted place in the fossil record before they were caught and layered over.
Better, he thought, she should keep her voice down. A girl had moved into a seat across the aisle one row behind them with an ear wired to one of the little music compacts. In a community alert to error, he knew this could be a cover for eavesdropping. But Heather wouldn’t stop.
“What’s your major?”
“Government.” He was writing his senior thesis on mistaken assumptions about the separation of powers.
“Really? Have they taught you yet where the idea comes from?”
“Deuteronomy 17” he said, “14 through 20.”
“Do you even know what that says?”
Peter reached for the vade mecum King James in his cargo pocket, turned on the light over their seat, and began paging forward.
“Don’t bother.” She closed the little Bible on his moving finger and offered her own translation of the passage. “It says when you get to your promised land, choose a king. Not a stranger but one of your own tribe. And not someone who’ll take all the horses and wives and gold for himself. When the king’s on his throne, he’ll write down the statutes and read them every day. And stick to them.”
“And? And isn’t it a light-year stretch from there to a prescription for the three branches of government? Like looking at a few stars incredibly far apart and tying them together as Orion’s belt. Convenient if they actually lined up with each other. Leave it to our chancellor to connect the dots.”
“Against Doubt, Vigilance,” the college motto, was all that came to Peter’s rescue. Like others, he was troubled by the doctrinal war spreading over the campus. Two of the most respected professors had published an essay in the college’s periodical, Faith Today, asserting that most of the truth and knowledge on which civilization rests was the gift of irreligious men. General revelation they called it. Their contracts were not being renewed for the next academic year. Other professors were leaving in protest, and a number of students too.
“Why are you here?” he asked.
She explained how her parents’ congregation in Presque Isle had raised tuition for one of their young people to go to Freedom. For her, it was this or stay home in that bleak corner of the country. She could have taken courses at the local campus of the University of Maine, where the motto was “North of Ordinary.” Being the brightest thing their little church had to offer, she had come by default, she said, leaving behind the sons and daughters of potato farmers so that she could join the scrubbed-up faithful like Peter from all over the country.
“The brightest and most in need of . . . correction?”
“People have been talking about me?”
At that moment, with half the trip still ahead of them, Heather seemed to shed her debater’s armor and become a wistful seeker, the woman Peter had hoped to befriend and debrief on the homeward journey. Her head was bent forward, offering a silhouette in contemplation. She was already violating the no man’s land he’d arranged for them. With a forefinger at her temple, she twisted a dark curl as she began to describe a boy from the potato fields of Aroostook County, the one who had almost derailed her college plan.
She turned in the seat to face him and, as she spoke, reached over now and then to touch his shoulder, giving tactile sincerity to a developing confession. There was nothing very impressive about her, she said, except that she had gigabytes of extra memory, hardly taxed by her education so far. She was challenging Freedom to overwrite her hard drive with their chapter and verse.
A few miles later her dangling foot brushing against his calf was given a mechanical innocence by the occasional extra vibration of the bus. She said that the people she met in the village coffee shop (where else could they gather off-campus without some sort of apology?) didn’t ask why she’d come to Freedom from a high school in northern Maine. No, they wanted to know why the campus was so eerily barren.
It was true. You could drive the bypass highway next to the college several times a day and not see anyone. Not even someone walking between the several brick buildings. Not a puddle, not a tree, not a soul on the leveled and reseeded plane. Not just intimacy discouraged, or hidden, but anything that might excite a corrective glance kept safely out of sight. Besides, the majority, the ones who weren’t taking their secret lives off campus, were in their rooms, deep in study.
Yes, she said, it was surprising how much time and intellectual energy was spent parsing inherited truth, while ignoring the manifest evidence in the world around them.
“Do you talk this way to everyone?” he wanted to know.
She hooked a finger over his belt and gave a little tug, as if to ask for a measure of understanding. Peter thought of changing seats, but there was a story going forward. The Aroostook farm boy’s name was Franklin. She’d known him as a childhood playmate; she was the one who went for help when he cut his forehead on a barn nail. She moved a finger carefully across Peter’s eyebrow, showing exactly where the accident had left a scar and how close the child had come to losing his eye.
The farm boy, she said, had grown into a big, friendly man-child, a tease-absorbing pal to all, with deep, dark eyes that you might mistake for the tools of a penetrating intelligence if you hadn’t been sitting in the same classroom and seen him blinking in the panic of an academic challenge. She was justifying her advances to the hapless schoolmate with the excuse that he actually understood more than he could ever explain.
Franklin looked like a great big country-music star, she said. Huge hands, all calloused. Tall and narrow waisted, with lots of hair for a country boy. He hadn’t a clue about how to respond to her. Much too cautious to touch her. Embarrassed by his clumsiness, he’d have to be invited. Even so, there was some competition for his attention. Most all the girls liked him for refusing to be drawn into the intrigues of the class bully.
Heather must have known how condescending all of this sounded and how little her apologies could do to excuse the way she’d pushed the helpless Franklin into intimacy. She admitted it seemed banal to her now, not just that she had shed her superiority for him along with her clothes, but how predictably unsatisfactory the episode had been. How unpleasant in fact. And how tedious all the apologies when she tried to convince him of her remorse. Franklin and his family were members of the same congregation that sent her here. She’d pleaded with him not to confess the seduction to his parents and, for God’s sake, not to their pastor.
So, she said, they’d had her family’s Jeep while her mother and father were away for the weekend, visiting in Greenville. She’d taken him to their property on Echo Lake for the submarine races. And once there it was as if he was actually watching for periscopes, staring straight ahead at the water, which offered not a ripple. She was forced to make a game of it—dare, double dare. I’ll remove this, you remove that. He wouldn’t start; she had to. And not with a barrette or a shoelace. Blouse first thing, then her jeans. Franklin was paralyzed until she began to whimper and reprove. How could he leave her at such a disadvantage?
“In a Jeep?”
“You know, in his lap.”
Peter didn’t know, but he noticed the girl behind them, across the aisle, had removed her earpiece. She was moving to a seat farther back. The rain stopped as the bus reached Winchester and turned east toward their Piedmont campus, and he began to correct himself for letting her go on, for a curiosity that sullied him by proxy. There was no excuse for the way he pried further when she was so clearly finished with her story. By then she was maybe oblivious of his company, busy with herself, cleaning her nails, one by one, scraping under each with a nail of the opposite hand.
Something she’d said begged an explanation, but would anyone else believe he was only probing for the moral of her story when he asked: “What do you suppose made it unpleasant?”
She snapped up from her grooming and stared at him. She was looking out the window when she finally answered.
“For God’s sake! He was clumsy! It was painful!”
She kept her back turned, gazing through the window at the rain-freshened night. Finished with him, she was turning her scorn to the abuse of the landscape, the backlit windows of a thousand houses, “a measles of development” on the fields surrounding Freedom. “Is this Christian habitation? Is this Christian stewardship of the land?”
When the bus reached the college, there was a little crowd waiting for them on the sidewalk. Dr. Edwards, the chancellor, was there and Mr. Rhoden, vice president for student life. Word of the near tragedy had arrived ahead of them. The students had come out of their dorms in pajamas and sweaters. A few held up signs of congratulation. Stepping off the bus, aroused against conscience by all the casual touching, Peter reached for something to surprise her. A joke, that’s what he intended, something to reverse their positions, turn their conversation upside down, and make her laugh.
“So you want to hook up later?” he asked.
Whether she only smirked or actually chuckled at the thought, he couldn’t tell.
Jason wanted to hear all about it. “You sat next to her on the way home? Off the map, isn’t she?”
“Not that far.”
Peter’s Monday classes oppressed him. He listened to Dr. Koh, the departing political science professor, defend his distinction between general and special revelation. It was a logical man’s duty to find truth on or off the Christian reservation, he said. A woman left the classroom close to tears. Did others wish to leave? Two more walked out. “Good,” the professor said, “I’ll assume the rest of you agree with me.”
Later in the day Peter’s scripture section met for discussion in the village coffee shop. He was embarrassed by their reading aloud, their confident parsing, their testimonials reaching and overreaching, their affirmations imposed on all the tables in the room. His silence was remarked on by the other students and corrected by one, who suggested his reticence was tantamount to disagreement with their consensus that “through a glass darkly” was more suggestive of refraction than opacity, that they were not meant to feel blinded but able to see truth long before Judgment Day through a transposition of the light allowed them.
He could imagine Heather’s scathing review of their sophistry and even saw himself cheering her on. He was nursing yesterday’s adventure—pleasure and bruises. He wanted to see her again, to find a way through her armor, down to the honest if mistaken core that drove her candid tongue, to be her full confessor, to share the weight of her past, even if it stained him. Today his sense of worth seemed tied to her, resting on her approval, her friendship, her admiration of his intellect as a peer. He thought of asking his parents’ permission to court Heather.
He was called to the Administration Building by a student messenger in the middle of his afternoon government lecture. Mr. Rhoden was waiting with Peter’s dossier open on his desk. Surprised by the half-dozen pages in his file, he saw his photo clipped to the top sheet, a thinner self, three years and at least a thousand caramel lattes ago. His old grin was almost as wide as his jaw; a Windsor knot dwarfed his Adam’s apple, sport jacket square at the shoulders, hair slicked down; a believer reporting for duty. But ready today, if pushed, to defend to the college Heather’s gift of wide knowledge, even if it had to be classified as general revelation. He didn’t intend to lie for her; neither would he impeach her.
“You know what this is about?”
“The woman from Maine?”
“You don’t know her name?”
“Heather.” He tried to explain his confused admiration. Not in trouble was she? He had nothing to say against her.
Rhoden gathered up Peter’s file, as if giving it another chance, but his eyebrows did a doubtful dance, and one by one the pages fell again. “All about me?”
“You have a history of this sort of thing. If you want to stay, you’ll have to apologize. Not just to Heather. To the whole college. Your parents will have to be told.”
Peter went first thing to Heather’s dormitory. Would the girl by the house phone please call her down to the lobby? He waited a half-hour. Women passing on their way to the student lounge would not look him in the eye. Eventually, one told him he ought to leave. Heather was paged again. Maybe he should come back another time. No, he’d wait. Another reluctant intermediary went upstairs to try. Heather, she said, would not come down. She was afraid to be seen in conversation with him.
Doors along the first-floor hall opened in curiosity and closed in embarrassment. If he sat on the visitors’ sofa, it might look like he was waiting for one of these women to join him for academic discussion. There was no use pretending that. His pout of injured rectitude was being taken for the expression of a penitent. He supposed his nervous innocence, if read by a lie detector, would send the recording pen into guilty oscillation. Still reluctant to leave, he begged a wary freshman to deliver a note. “What did you tell the dean?”
This time the response came quickly, printed in block capitals, as if it would be dangerous to allow him a sample of her handwriting: “THE DEAN CALLED ME IN. HE SAID I SHOULD WATCH OUT, AND YOU HAVE A HABIT OF THIS.”
Peter phoned home to head off the dean’s call, but it was too late. No, he told his parents, he hadn’t harassed the woman. “ ‘Hooking up’ doesn’t have to mean that. It was a joke. She knew it was a joke.”
His father wasn’t easily put off. “You meant actually hooking up, but it was a joke? Or did you mean why don’t we talk later, and it was innocent and didn’t have to be a joke?”
“You’re confusing me,” Peter said. “They won’t even tell me who reported this stuff.”
In the week that followed, he had only occasional glimpses of Heather in the cafeteria. With a remade reputation as a victim, she was gathering new friends, who positioned themselves on either side and across from her at the table, protecting her while she sat vulnerable in a public space; their baleful glances warned Peter to keep his distance. He’d been removed from the debate team and barred from extracurricular activity while the case against him was prepared for the student judiciary.
Peter didn’t care what Rhoden thought. Rhoden was an ass. Whatever was in Peter’s files, no accusers had identified themselves, and there could be no action against him based on hearsay. If Heather had allowed this storm to gather, he doubted she would ever testify against him. He’d been told she was all innocence in front of the dean. She’d said she’d thought Peter must be joking. Peter could take comfort in the fact that she would not testify against him herself, but he wanted more than that. He was still angling for her kind regard. He asked another girl on the debate team to question Heather, to see how things stood now that a week had passed, and to bring him a report. Which was strangely unfriendly: “The eunuch’s lost his voice and sends a carrier pigeon?”
With more time to reflect, his parents took Peter’s side, counterattacking with a letter to the dean, citing slander—“he has a history of this sort of thing”—passed from Rhoden to Heather and circulated among the students, defaming their son among his peers. Besides, they argued, the original report of harassment hadn’t come from the girl herself but had been made by a third party and passed to a fourth, then a fifth before it reached the dean. Peter had a copy of the letter with his father’s comments for him in the margins:
No wonder they can’t get accreditation.
Why don’t you come home?
There was only a semester left before his graduation, and Peter was holding out for his government degree. With the legal leverage identified by his father, he supposed he could force the college to let him walk with his class. In the meantime they couldn’t make him apologize. While the chancellor and his professors argued over the moral authority of St. Augustine, Peter shared the details of his predicament with Jason, who could do no more than point to St. Matthew’s forecast of rain that would fall on the just and the unjust.
On his way to dinner one evening Peter found a note hanging from the slot in his mailbox: Waiting for you at Rock Faith in the Rapture Room. Call yourself The Tongue.
Signed, Candy Cane.
He folded and tore, folded and tore, until his fingers lacked the strength to go on, and tossed the dirty confetti to the ground.
He when when to enter the cafeteria, the quarter hour after six, when Heather would already be seated in the farthest corner of the room at a table informally reserved for Eden’s Fruit, the college maskers and their techies. This group, too, had been attracted to Heather, maybe hoping their sympathy would lure the talented girl into the drama club in time for the spring Passion. A step up for her, Peter thought—from Jezebel to Magdalene—if that’s what they had in mind. She seemed to be doing most of the talking, provoking laughter, making theirs the loudest corner of the room, taking scant notice of his lonely meal.
He usually finished studying around midnight and unwound on a solitary walk around the perimeter of the campus. It was a rectangular stroll bounded by the bypass highways, two country roads, and a Christmas tree farm, which in the brief history of the college had already become mythic cover for broken rules and promises, reputed trysting ground of a famous romance between two high-ranked students—an Executive Office intern and a Justice Department paralegal. They are now married, presumed penitent for the unsanctioned courtship, and moving up in Christian-influenced governance.
Peter, who passed beside the artificial forest almost every night, understood the exaggerated reputation of the place, even if he once heard light laughter and moaning from several rows deep in the spruce. He carried a small flashlight in his pocket but was reluctant to use it, despite his college-entrance oath to shine a light wherever Satan might be found in the flesh in his college.
The end of his walk took him back across the center of the campus past the two women’s dormitories and under Heather’s room, where he was now in the habit of looking up for the silent news from a window. Open or closed? Heather’s air fresh tonight or conditioned? Lights on, off? Was she awake behind the curtains, tucked away in bed?
Peter’s final semester dragged on, with Heather always a step out of reach or turning away before he could beg a word with her. She did appear in the spring Passion, not as Magdalene as he’d imagined her, but cross-dressed as Thomas, darkened with charcoal, and made up to have the doubting apostle appear more sinister than Judas. He watched her, too, behind the college podium in another debate, her eyes dancing past her opponent, capturing the hall, while first she annihilated an odious phantom called the unitary power of the executive as a creation of megalomaniacs mad with Potomac Fever, and then resurrected it as the implied intention of three founding fathers, with several references to the Federalist Papers.
In the week before graduation, Jason went home to Maryland to study. Peter, with no one in the room to correct him, used his freedom aggressively. On the way back from his midnight walk, he called up to the open, fully lit window:
She appeared in a loose shift, hugging herself. But seeing him below, she threw her arms theatrically wide, draped a half-covered bosom over the sill, and called down: “Is it Peace, Peter?”
Confused, he had no answer.
She laughed, closed the sash, and pulled her shade. Her lights went off, and so did others, until the whole dormitory loomed dark and accusing over him.
“Is it peace?” He’d heard this before but couldn’t place it.
Back in his room, he opened his concordance and found the words in II Kings with an answer: “What peace, so long as the whoredoms of thy mother Jezebel and her witchcrafts are so many?” And further on, almost the same question was asked by Jezebel herself, before she was thrown from her window and eaten by dogs.
He couldn’t sleep on that. Nor had mutilation destroyed the invitation in his mailbox. Without Jason over his shoulder, he was free to roam the ether and risk his hard drive to the nasty kind of attack that could linger in its memory, even if he was lured only once to the wrong place.
Peter easily reached the Rock Faith site where he knew other Freedom students had found the solace of righteous company. He could argue that it was his duty to expose whoever would defile that refuge. Clicking on the Rapture Room, he was further reassured by a screen promising privacy in a ‘personal corner,’ where they offered him a last chance to turn back. Cancel or Continue. He made his choice and watched the forefinger of his right hand type the name she’d given herself and then, more slowly, the name she’d given him.
His father had been right; the college had abused him. He could say he only persevered against their damning accusation to earn his degree, so that his years there should not have been completely wasted by an overzealous dean or a rash ultimatum of his own. By comparison with the last month, his whole career at Freedom seemed of little significance. Nothing of moment, as long as Heather, whom he admired beyond reason and in defiance of his alleged faith, refused him the courtesy of a simple conversation, her confession of his innocence, even a sign of regret.
His signal must have alerted the receiving computer. His respondent was awake and typing:
“I thought you’d forgotten me. Are you ready to play?”
“You’re no fun.”
“Who are you?”
“Do you know what Professor Koh calls government majors? He calls them the chancellor’s eunuchs. What are you wearing?”
“Who are you?” he asked again.
“As if you didn’t know. Wait a minute. There, that’s better. I was too hot.”
“It’s the middle of the night. I must have woken you.”
“So imagine me now.”
“I won’t imagine anything.”
“No, I don’t suppose you will. Why did you wake me up?”
“I want to talk about Jezebel. I never called anyone that.”
“Look, do you want to be stupid all your life? Don’t you see what’s happening here? The best people are leaving. Anyone with intellect is made to check logic at the door.”
“What if I print this and take it to the dean?”
“The correspondence of Candy Cane and The Tongue? I don’t think so.”
Heather was gathering more attention as a martyr to Peter’s effrontery. In the last week of the term he was called to answer the testimony of two more unnamed women who accused him of stalking the sophomore from Maine, harassing her at night from the sidewalk under her window. Near the top of her class, she’d never lost a debate. To her following of sympathizers, she had come to Freedom for protection from a predatory world, from a high school where she’d been date raped by a big tricky farm boy named Franklin, and was looking now for sanctuary in a community of truthfulness and humility.
The graduation tent beside the highway looked like the pointed drum of shiny plastic you’d see over a modern minicircus. Underneath, Peter was walking with his class. He wondered if the scroll they’d present him would be blank. Even with the diploma in hand he was wary, searching it for the tricky placement of a Latin negative, non est, or something like that.
The night after graduation he stayed on in his dorm to confront Heather one more time, even if just in the ether. Not to renounce duplicity so much as to marvel at the Trojan horse on which she’d jumped the college gate, the ease with which she grazed among the faithful. She gave no quarter, but congratulated him as one of the chancellor’s freshly papered eunuchs before the Rapture Room went dark.
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