“You say I’ll have fun at the lock-in,” said Parker. “I say I won’t. It’s a stalemate.”
“But it’s not really a stalemate,” said his dad. “Because whether you’ll have fun or not, you’re going. We specifically chose this church because they have a big, active youth group for you.”
“I don’t know anyone.”
“That’s why you’re going to the lock-in. You’ll get to know everyone in one night. It’s the quickest way to get assimilated. You spent all last weekend telling me how bored you were. Well, here’s something to do.”
“Everyone’s gonna be older than me,” said Parker. He should have known all that talk of boredom would come back to bite him.
“You’re not going to be the only freshman. You’re just fabricating excuses now, Parker. Get your sleeping bag. I’ll go inside with you, and if it looks bad, you don’t have to stay.”
Parker considered this arrangement. On one hand, it would be embarrassing to show up accompanied by his dad, but on the other hand it seemed like the only possible way to escape. “Deal,” he said.
New Pinnacle’s front door was not locked. Apparently the lock-in hadn’t started yet. The front foyer of the church was dark and empty, but Parker and his dad followed the sound of music and loud voices down a hall on the right to the youth group room, a large open space filled with forty excited teenagers playing ping pong and fooseball, lounging on couches, and filling paper plates with chips from folding tables covered with snacks that lined one side of the room. A group of four boys was clustered around a stereo, playing music in brief bursts, too impatient to let any song run longer than thirty seconds. Two laughing girls were playing ping pong against one stocky, serious-faced girl who appeared to be beating them easily. Everyone was talking at a volume level just below shouting except for those who were shouting. No one seemed to notice the arrival of Parker and his dad.
“Look,” said Parker’s dad. “Video games.” He pointed across the room where two boys playing a split-screen first-person shooter on a big screen TV were accusing each other of cheating.
“Good try,” said Parker. “This looks miserable. Let’s go.”
“I think it looks fun,” said his dad.
“You’re lying to me,” said Parker.
“You can’t prove that I don’t think this looks fun,” said his dad. “It’s totally subjective. You’re staying.”
Parker glared up at his dad who, at 6’4”, was almost a full foot taller than him. Not far away, a boy in baggy sweatpants and a backwards cap laughed so hard that he sprayed cola out of his mouth onto his friends, who then retaliated by intentionally spitting cola on him.
“OK,” said Parker’s dad. “It doesn’t look fun. But your mom and I already have plans and if I bring you home, they’ll be ruined.”
“I’ll just stay home alone,” said Parker.
“Our plans are scheduled to take place at home,” said his dad. “Without you there.”
“Unbelievable,” said Parker. “Everyone here looks older than me.”
“That’s just because you look young for your age,” said his dad. “Remember how that’s an ongoing emotional crisis for you?”
“They’re older,” said Parker. “I can tell.”
A lean man with his head shaven to the skin and a bushy gotee emerged from amidst the chattering, flailing activity of the teenagers. He was wearing cargo shorts and a t-shirt with a picture of a cartoon ape on the front. “What up, guys?” he said, extending his hand to Parker’s dad. “You here for the lock-in?”
“He is,” said Parker’s dad, shaking the man’s hand and nodding at Parker.
“I’m Maurice,” said the man. “But the kids call me ‘Mo.’ I’m the youth pastor.”
“Is this lock-in for all high school students?” asked Parker as he shook Mo’s hand.
“Just juniors and seniors,” said Mo. “We usually split the older and younger kids up for events like this.”
Parker beamed up at his dad in triumph. “I’m only a freshman,” he said.
“Nah, it’s cool,” said Mo. “It’s not a strict rule. You’re here, you should stay.”
“Perfect,” said Parker’s dad. “He’s mature for his age anyway. I’m sure he’ll have no trouble relating.”
“You could stay too,” said Mo. “I could use a chaperone. My wife hates lock-ins so it’s just me tonight.” It was the first sign of weakness Parker had seen from him.
Parker’s dad surveyed the room from wall to wall, taking in the confused, misguided energy in a way that only a man who knew he was on the brink of escape would dare. “Not a chance,” he said. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning at 10, Parker.”
Parker looked at his watch. It was only 7:30.
After taking Parker around to introduce him to a few of the other kids, who greeted him with skeptical looks and inside jokes that made their friends laugh, Mo left Parker alone near the snack tables and started shouting for quiet and making loud shushing noises. “All right, guys,” he shouted. “We’re gonna go ahead and get started here. So let’s just say a word of prayer to start off on the right foot.”
Those closest to Mo took up the shushing and eventually the quiet spread far enough that he felt comfortable beginning his prayer. “God, help us to be safe tonight. Help us to be respectful of our authority figures. Help us to remember to stay out of the sanctuary and the church offices. Help us to remember to keep all food and drink in the youth room. Help us to remember to wear pajamas that adequately cover our bodies. Help us to remember to not use our cell phones unless there’s an emergency.” The prayer went on in this vein for some time.
When it concluded, Mo opened his eyes and said, “Kinsey, Steven, no. I’m glad that you’re such a happy couple, but no.”
“What?” said a lanky, smirking boy on one of the couches with a pretty black-haired girl sitting on his lap. The girl also said, “What?” The rest of the kids either laughed or rolled their eyes. Parker found himself sympathizing more with the eye-rolling camp.
“You know what,” said Mo. “Get off his lap, Kinsey.”
“I’m trying,” said Kinsey, grinning as she squirmed and struggled to get up, earning more laughs.
“Let her up, Steven.”
Steven held his hands out to show his innocence and Kinsey finally got off of his lap.
“Thank you,” said Mo. “PDA was specifically addressed in the prayer. You should have been listening.”
With that bit of entertainment over, someone proposed a game of hide-and-seek and the movement spread quickly. Parker checked his watch. It wasn’t even 8:00 yet.
The rules of hide-and-seek were explained in a jumbled hurry from a few shouting, contradictory sources, but Parker got the impression that he was the only one present who hadn’t played the New Pinnacle youth group style of the game before, so when a kid named Justin, who was wearing a flannel shirt and had already changed into his pajama pants, started counting in a loud voice and all the other kids stampeded out of the youth room and into the dark halls of the church, Parker didn’t ask any questions. He just followed the stampede.
It didn’t take long for the rest of the kids to disperse, scampering off to spots where they’d had success before or spots they’d been waiting to try out since last time, and soon Parker was left alone, walking the dark halls by himself, passing Sunday school rooms and coat rooms and nurseries and closets. Sometimes a black shape would dart in front of him and his heart would leap into his throat, but then the shape would say, “Go! You’re gonna give me away!” and he’d move on.
The front foyer wasn’t nearly as dark as the rest of the church. The lights in the parking lot shone in through the glass doors and cast long shadows across the floor. Parker stood by the doors and looked outside. He touched the tip of his nose to the glass and looked at the oily smudge it left. He knew he wouldn’t be having fun even if he wasn’t locked in, but being locked in made it that much worse. The parking lot was huge and empty and desolate. There was nothing out there for him and he knew it. But it felt like knowing he could go out to the parking lot would have made his plight more bearable.
Parker heard soft footsteps behind him. He turned around and saw Justin looking right at him.
“Oops,” said Parker. “You found me. What do I do now? Am I ‘it?’”
“No,” said Justin, frowning. “I didn’t find you,” and he padded away on bare feet in search of more desirable prey. Someone who would laugh and shriek and run when he spotted them. Someone he already knew. Someone who was in on the fun. Parker checked his watch. It wasn’t even 9:00 yet.
Parker hadn’t known the church had a basement, but his wandering eventually led him to a back hallway and a flight of stairs leading downward. The glowing green exit signs at each end of the hall were surprisingly bright and from what Parker could tell, the basement seemed to be a work in progress. The walls had yet to be painted and there were rolls of carpet lying along the baseboard. Parker had just stepped into one of the rooms to see if there was anything to see by the light on his watch when he heard the sound of footsteps and breathless, half-suppressed laughter in the hall behind him.
He stepped behind the open door and pressed his back against the wall just as whoever he’d heard came into the room and turned on the light. It hadn’t occurred to Parker to try any of the light switches.
“Turn the light off,” said a girl’s voice.
“Why?” asked a boy’s voice.
“I don’t like making out unless it’s dark,” said the girl.
“Well, I don’t like making out unless I can see who I’m making out with,” said the boy. “What’s the point of making out with someone hot if the light’s off and you can’t see how hot they are?”
The girl laughed, “Well, close the door, at least.”
“Hold on,” said Parker and he stepped out from behind the door. The boy, who was Steven, and the girl, who was not Kinsey, both screamed. Parker knew better than to check his watch.
Parker had promised Steven and the girl, whose name turned out to be Tia, that he wouldn’t tell anyone anything about what he’d seen and heard in the basement, but somehow the story had leaked out anyway, and when the pizza arrived and all the kids were gathered back into the youth room to eat, Parker could feel curious eyes on him during Mo’s prayer for the meal, which was another reiteration of the lock-in rules.
After standing in line and selecting two slices of sausage pizza, Parker stood by himself with his plastic cup of cola resting on the ping pong table. Every time he looked up from his food, he saw groups of kids looking at him as they talked, pointing him out, sizing him up. He’d gone from being unnoticed and ignored to being the topic of conversation. He took a drink. When he lowered his cup, he saw a girl walking towards him. She was the only girl at the lock-in wearing a skirt and she was much taller than Parker.
The girl did not introduce herself. “Is Steven cheating with Tia?”
“I don’t know,” said Parker. “I don’t know anyone.” He knew he was being watched. He felt himself flushing.
“But I heard you saw him cheating,” said the girl.
“I don’t want to get involved with this stuff,” said Parker. There was only one bite of pizza left on his plate to which he could divert his concentration.
“Just tell me what you saw,” said the girl. “I won’t tell anyone.” The lie was so obvious that it almost wasn’t a lie.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” said Parker.
The girl shook her head in disappointment. “You shouldn’t protect cheaters. That makes you a cheater too.”
Parker disagreed with the girl’s logic, but he didn’t contradict her as she turned and walked back to her friends who were waiting for her report.
Parker finished his last bite of pizza and carried his empty plate over to the garbage can by the door. Someone grabbed his arm and he jerked with surprise.
“Whoa,” said a heavyset girl wearing what were probably the most expensive eyeglasses Parker had ever seen. “Why are you so jumpy?”
“You just surprised me,” said Parker. The girl was still holding onto his arm.
“Tell me the truth,” said the girl. “Are you spreading this rumor about Steven and Tia so Kinsey will break up with Steven and you can get with Kinsey?”
“I’m not spreading any rumors,” said Parker.
“Then who is?”
“I don’t know,” said Parker.
“So you’re not trying to get with Kinsey?”
“No, that’s stupid.”
The girl bristled. “So you don’t think Kinsey is cute?”
“She’s obviously cute!” said Parker. “But I’m not trying to get with her. I don’t even know her. I’m a freshman!”
“She’s dated freshman before,” said the girl. “Take that for what it’s worth.”
“Thank you,” said Parker. “I’m not interested.”
The girl put her hands on her hips and set her jaw, looking at Parker as if she’d never seen such a lost cause.
Parker put his hands and his pockets and, keeping his head down, made his way to an empty chair in the corner of the room. By the time he got to the chair, ignoring several calls of “hey kid” from groups he passed along the way, Steven was there waiting for him. Parker stepped past him and flopped down in the chair.
“What did those girls ask you?” asked Steven, crouching next to the chair, his eyes moving around the room as if looking for enemy snipers.
“One wanted to know if you were cheating on Kinsey and the other wanted to know if I was telling people you were cheating on Kinsey so she’d break up with you and I could get with her.”
“What’d you tell them?”
Parker propped one elbow on the arm of the chair and rested his head on his hand. “I didn’t say anything. I don’t know how anyone knows about it.”
“I think Tia told some people,” said Steven.
Parker didn’t care enough to ask Steven why Tia would do such a thing.
Steven gave Parker a long, appraising look. “So are you trying to get with Kinsey?”
Parker sighed. “No. And even if I was, I don’t think I’m much of a threat. I’m just a freshman. And you were cheating.”
Steven chuckled. “Yeah, I was.”
“Here comes Kinsey,” said Parker.
Steven stood up and said, “Just quit spreading lies. You’re new here so you don’t know how things are, so that’s why I’m giving you one more chance.”
Kinsey walked up and looked back and forth between Steven and Parker. “Just telling the new kid off, huh Steven? Is that what you were doing?”
“Yeah,” said Steven. “But I think we’re cool now. Right, kid?”
Parker shrugged. He could tell Kinsey wasn’t convinced. She looked him in the eye. “Did you see Steven cheating on me with Tia?”
“I’m going to the bathroom,” said Parker, and every person in the room watched him stand and walk out the door.
Once he was out in the hallway, Parker walked right past the bathroom door and continued on until he was in the church foyer again, his footsteps echoing off of the ceiling high overhead. He walked over to the glass doors again and stopped, his hands clasped behind his back. The oil smudge from his nose was still on the door. A car pulled into the parking lot, turned around, and drove away in the opposite direction.
Parker, mentally exhausted, leaned against the door and stumbled forward as it swung open. He stopped with one foot inside on the tile and one foot outside on the pavement, his hand resting on the handle of the half-open door. He was stunned. There must have been some mistake. He wasn’t locked in at all. Had he ever been locked in at any point? Had this door been unlocked since he arrived?
The night air was cold and it smelled like there might be something dead nearby. The parking lot looked barren and lifeless. Parker was miles from home and there was no way his dad would come get him. But he was not locked in. Parker stepped back into the church and the door swung closed. He pushed on the handle to open the door a crack and then it clicked shut again. However unpleasant this night turned out to be, it was not a lock-in. It was an all-night youth group event at the church, but it was not a lock-in.
Parker turned and walked back toward the youth room. He felt the power of his knew knowledge bubbling inside of him. Maybe he would try to get with Kinsey. She’d dated freshmen before. That was the rumor, anyway. Parker didn’t even think to check his watch.