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HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer


                 The morning was chilly and wet and Worshipsound Christian Church’s parking lot was filling up steadily. Andrew and Brady had never seen so many expensive cars in one place. Not in real life. They shivered inside their jackets as they stood around a sleek black BMW, their breath fogging its windows as they leaned close to inspect its luxurious interior.

                “I never saw a car like this in Gravelton,” said Brady.

                “People who can afford this car don’t stay in Gravelton,” said Andrew, his nose less than an inch away from the glass.

                “Oh, no way,” said Brady. “Is that a Ferrari over there? No way.” Andrew looked where Brady was pointing. There, four rows away, between a mini-van and huge extended cab pickup truck, was a sea green sports car that was quite possibly a Ferrari. The boys nodded hello to a solemn family of four headed into church with umbrellas tucked under each of their arms, and then half-jogged over to what they had already decided they would tell their friends at home was a Ferrari.

                The youth group Sunday School class didn’t start for another fifteen minutes, so Andrew figured they had time to check out two or three more cars before they needed to go back inside. Being from Gravelton, which was just under an hour away, Andrew and Brady weren’t members of the Worshipsound youth group, but Andrew’s older sister Kim had married the youth pastor, Greg, and she was excited for Andrew to visit and see how fun and inspiring a youth group at a big church with lots of other kids and resources and a snack bar could be. The boys had driven Brady’s car to Greg and Kim’s place the evening before and spent the night on their living room floor, drinking root beer floats and playing video games with Greg until almost 2 in the morning. Since Greg had to be at the church early to open the youth room, the boys had decided to kill some time by taking in the sights in the parking lot

                “This thing looks like a spaceship,” said Brady. “Doesn’t it look like it should be able to fly?”

                Andrew stood in front of the car and looked at the emblem on the hood. “It’s a Ferrari all right. But if you’re getting a Ferrari, why would you get such an ugly color?” He wrinkled his nose and spat on the wet pavement.

                “I just wanna drive it for one day,” said Brady, bouncing on his toes. “One hour, even. Or just one nice, long straightaway.”

                “You can’t even drive stick,” said Andrew. “I’d have to drive you.”

                “Nah,” said Brady. “This’d be a good car to learn on.”

                “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?”

                The boys looked toward the sound of the angry voice and saw a big man in sunglasses striding toward them, weaving his way between the cars, his face flushed. As he got closer, they saw that he was wearing a small earpiece connected to a tiny microphone positioned in front of his lips and they could hear him saying, “No, they’re not running, not yet, but circle around just in case.”

                Brady turned to Andrew with an expectant look that irritated him. He didn’t want to be the spokesman.

                “We were just looking,” said Andrew as the man walked up to them and stopped behind the Ferrari as if his presence there was the only thing preventing the boys from hopping in and driving away in a cloud of smoke, flipping him the bird as they made their escape.

                “Yeah?” said the man. “Were you just looking two weeks ago when you were smashing out windows and scratching up paint jobs and stealing stereos?”

                “We weren’t here last week,” said Andrew. “We’re from Gravelton.”

                The man glowered at them and then spoke again into his microphone. “Yeah, I see you, just hold your position there.”

                Andrew looked over his shoulder and saw two more men with headsets and sunglasses standing on either side of the jeep directly across from the Ferrari, blocking the way in case the boys decided to run for it.

                “We’re just visiting today,” said Andrew. “We’re not hurting anything. We just wanted to walk around and check out the cars before Sunday school.”

                “Sure,” said the first man. “I’ll bet that’s exactly what you were doing. But maybe we should just save all this for when the cops show up.”

                “Do you know Greg?” asked Andrew. “The youth pastor?”

                “Yeah,” said the man. “Why, is he going to vouch for your character?” The other men snickered.

                 “He’s my brother-in-law,” said Andrew. “He married my sister. We’re only here because they personally invited us.”

                The man’s expression changed from hostility to something more uncertain. “You’re Kim’s little brother?”

                “I am,” said Andrew. “I just told you that.”

                The man exchanged looks with his partners and gave his head an almost imperceptible shake before saying, “Well, Sunday school’s about to start.” He was trying to maintain his authoritative tone. “We probably got all we need from you boys, so you better get inside so you don’t disrupt anything by showing up late.”

                As the boys walked toward the front entrance of the church, Andrew looked back over his shoulder and saw the three men huddled together, talking and watching them go with an attitude that Andrew couldn’t read. He was starting to wonder if mentioning Greg had been a good idea. It had definitely changed the way the man had been dealing with them, but there had been something strange about the man’s reaction and Andrew was worried that the incident might fall back on Greg somehow. He hadn’t been youth pastor very long and Andrew’s sister had given him the impression that the adjustment period had been a little rough so far with the usual sorts of parents and board members questioning Greg’s qualifications, methods, theology, understanding of youth culture, haircut, and organizational skills at every turn.

                Andrew and Brady slipped into the youth room and took seats in the back just as Greg was finishing his opening prayer. Kim was behind the snack bar microwaving soft jumbo pretzels and she frowned at the boys when she saw them come in. Andrew wondered if news of the incident had already reached her or if she was just disgusted with them for being late.

                As the teenage praise band took the stage, the lights in the room dimmed and the boys stood dutifully with the rest of the kids and mouthed the words projected on a screen hung on the wall just over the drummer’s head. Andrew wondered how much trouble they could really get into. They hadn’t done anything wrong, but if people were looking for reasons to complain about Greg anyway, then the situation might get more uncomfortable than it had any cause to be. The whole reason people even got nice cars was so that other people would admire them. But if you admired them too much, they assumed you were going to steal them or damage them out of spite and envy and they jumped all over you. It was stupid.

                Andrew decided that if and when the men with the headsets came to him for further interrogation, his main goal would be to clear Greg’s name as best he could. When the praise band finally left the stage, Andrew wasn’t certain how many songs had been played. It seemed like it could have been anything from 2 to 6.

There was a brief break time to eat pretzels, drink pop, and socialize before Greg’s message. Andrew and Brady stood by the snack bar, sipping at their Styrofoam cups of Sprite and talking in hushed voices.

                “Who do you think those guys were?” asked Brady. “Those headsets looked brand new. They looked like those ones pop singers wear on stage. I kept waiting for their back-up dancers to show up.”

                Andrew laughed, but as he turned to pour himself a refill from a 2-liter sitting on the snack bar, he saw the man with the headset standing outside the door and motioning to him from the hallway. Andrew looked at Kim, but she was busy telling a pair of girls that boys aren’t actually interested in girls who dress too slutty. Andrew looked back to the man in the hallway and pointed at himself, mouthing the words “Just me?” The man nodded sternly. “Wait here,” said Andrew to Brady. “I’ll be right back.”

                “Tell him I didn’t do anything,” said Brady.

                “I know,” said Andrew. “Neither of us did anything.”

                “I definitely didn’t,” said Brady.

                “I know,” said Andrew. “Just calm down. We didn’t do anything. They can’t do anything to us.” But as he walked over to the door, he wondered if that was true. Could they do something to them? Could they be banned from the church premises? It wouldn’t be that big of a deal since they didn’t go to church here, but it would be embarrassing for Greg and Kim and their critics in the church would probably use it against them. Surely the police wouldn’t get involved. That would be ridiculous. But then again, the man had been pretty ridiculous in the parking lot, and this secretive meeting wasn’t doing much to make Andrew think he was going to start acting reasonable any time soon.

                There was no one else around in the hallway. Andrew followed the man a few steps down the hall so they wouldn’t be visible from inside the youth room. They stood next to a well-tended potted plant and a painting of a professional football player kneeling in the end zone with his head bowed. The man spoke quietly. “Listen, son, I think we got off to a bad start.”

                It took Andrew a moment to adjust his response to the tone the man was taking. He had expected another heated confrontation with pointed questions and sarcastic accusations. Instead he heard anxiety in the man’s voice. The man seemed to take Andrew’s silence for petulance and said, “We can work this out, right? It was a mistake.”

                “I don’t understand what you’re trying to tell me,” said Andrew.

                “Fine,” said the man. “I’m sorry. I apologize. I was wrong.” He gave Andrew a grim smile. “Was that good enough for you?”

                “Am I in trouble or not?” asked Andrew.

                “Jeez, kid, no, you’re not in trouble. We’re just gonna forget this happened, right? It’s embarrassing for both of us. No need to spread it around, right?”

                Andrew was beginning to understand. “You don’t want me to tell my brother-in-law.”

                “Why involve him?” asked the man. “Why involve your sister? They’ve got enough to worry about.”

                “What are you scared of?”

                The man scowled. “I’m not scared. I just think we’ve got a good thing going here, I think we’ve got a lot of potential to help people, and I don’t want one mistake to screw that up.”

                “You mean the security thing,” said Andrew. “The sunglasses and the headsets and stuff.”

                The man inspected Andrew’s face with wary eyes for a moment.  Then his demeanor changed, his face going soft and his stiff, official posture drooping. “The pastor doesn’t like the security force. He thinks the headsets are a waste of money and he thinks we create an unwelcoming environment for visitors.” He paused as if giving Andrew an opportunity to state the obvious, but Andrew just shrugged.

                “The break-ins in the parking lot a few weeks ago finally convinced him that we could be useful,” said the man. “And I don’t want this stupid thing with you and your friend to ruin our chance to really make a positive difference around here.”

                “So you think if I tell Greg he’s gonna tell the pastor and he’s gonna shut you guys down and the criminals are just gonna go nuts and steal or smash everyone’s car?”

                The man shook his head. “Yeah, you think it’s funny. You’re a kid, you think everything’s stupid, you think nothing bad can happen to you, you think guys like me are just out to ruin your fun and push you around.” He looked a lot more nervous than Andrew had felt at any point during the whole ordeal.

                “Calm down,” said Andrew. “I won’t tell anyone. I don’t care.”

                “Good,” said the man. “Ok then.” He turned to go, then turned back and offered his hand to Andrew. “Sorry,” he said. “Seriously, sorry. Please, uh, visit us again.”

                “Sure,” said Andrew. “I probably will. My brother-in-law works here.”

                The man gave Andrew a strange, appraising look. “All right,” he said with a sigh. “Here’s 20 bucks.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a money clip, peeling off a bill and holding it out for Andrew.

                “No, no, I wasn’t threatening you. I was just saying I’ll probably be back.”

                “Take it,” said the man. “Quick, before someone comes around the corner.”

                Andrew accepted the bill and slipped it in his pocket. The man nodded and turned. As he walked away, Andrew saw him touch a finger to the earpiece of his headset and say, “It’s taken care of. Any issues in sector 3?” Then he rounded the corner and was gone.

                Andrew stood alone in the quiet hallway. The sounds of children singing in a distant Sunday school class drifted to him through the church corridors. The twenty dollar bill in his pocket was a light pressure against his thigh. The feelings of victory and relief were already fading, withering inside of him.

                Back in the youth room, Greg had started his message. It was about following the crowd and how that’s not what you should do because the crowd is, for the most part, intensely self-destructive. Andrew took his seat in the back next to Brady, who whispered, “What happened?”

                “We’re fine,” whispered Andrew, but he meant it in a very limited sense. Because in a bigger sense, taking the long view, he didn’t feel fine. He felt insecure.

Discussion Questions

  • Do you remember the exact moment when you realized that the adult world does not function like you thought it did? What was that moment? How did it make you feel? Pretty insecure is my bet.

  • Knowing almost nothing about Greg’s message, how closely do you think the kids in the youth group were paying attention to it? How well do you think they will apply its principles?

  • Why does Andrew’s second interaction with the security guard make him feel so insecure? Why does it shake him so badly? Do you think it’s because he’s Learned Something About Life? Like what?

  • What parts of this story do you think are purely fictional? What makes something “purely fictional?” Maybe you’d rather think of this story as “creative non-fiction” and then spend the rest of your life telling us what you mean by that. Please, be my guest.

  • Do you think some church security guards probably have a well developed view of their role? Probably only the reluctant ones, right?

  • Does my lack of car knowledge stick out like a sore thumb?