Below is an excerpt from Livia Harper’s debut novel, SLAIN.

SLAIN

by Livia Harper


Chapter 1

“Let me hear it if you’re fired up for Christ tonight!” Pastor Pete, the youth pastor, says into the mic like it’s a megaphone at a pep rally.

There are hoots and hollers from the pajama-clad, Red Bull-buzzed crowd in front of us. I try to concentrate on what I’m supposed to do, instead of my little secret, buzzing inside me like a lightning bug. Okay, maybe it’s a big secret. Huge. Am I grinning too wide? Knock it off, Emma.

“All right. Let’s do this thing.” Pastor Pete strums his guitar to start an amped-up version of “Our God is an Awesome God.” He looks like Hipster Jesus: thick beard, plaid shirt, worn denim, long hair. I sing harmony just behind him, a fly girl for the Lord.

The other teenagers sing along and clap—more than three hundred of them tonight in this too-bright basement. We’re at a youth group lock-in at Summit Christian Fellowship, where my dad, Frank Grant, is head pastor. I am head pastor’s daughter—it’s not an official position, but it should be. Tonight I’m up on stage in the Youth Center, singing with the worship team, where I am every Sunday morning, every Wednesday night, and other nights too, so many they all blur together like a photograph taken too slow. Tonight is Friday, nearly midnight. We’re locked in until ten tomorrow morning for one big, holy sleepover.

This room is like a concert hall: stage, lights, bright colors, polished concrete floors. The whole design is supposed to be trendy and youthful: Loving Jesus is what all the cool kids do! But the modern hardness just makes the room reverberate with echoes, like everything we’re singing is being sung back to us, louder and slower and ten times over.

The song changes to something softer as I stare out at the sea of teenagers. They stare back, waiting.

I paste on a smile and do what’s expected of me: a little game of follow the leader, though they’d never admit it, not here. I force my hands up toward the cold basement ceiling; force my body to sway to the music that is the same, same, same as always. My forehead screws into the perfect picture of reverence. I’ve had lots of practice.

After my hands go up, theirs do too. Not all at once. They stagger it, pretend it’s their idea, pretend they’ve just-right-this-very-second been moved by the Holy Spirit. Some of them get their tongues going for God, a cartoon speech bubble from their mouths, habadah-shebada-bah.

I used to think my going first gave them the courage to do what they were straining to do already. Now I doubt it. I’m just their Taylor Swift in this tiny, stupid little universe.

Six more weeks until graduation and a plane to New York. Six more weeks.

Someone shouts, pulling me out of my daydream. At first I think it’s a prophecy, another so-called gift of the Spirit, but this is fast and shrill. I don’t understand. It takes the band a minute to stop playing. Then Beth and Amy are at the door. Amy’s crying, hysterical.

“Somebody come! Please!” Beth cries.

My blood runs cold, but everyone else laughs awkwardly. Beth is the head of the drama team so they must think this is a skit. Pastor Pete always puts on these wild skits, full of demons and desperate people making poor life choices. But I’ve memorized the schedule for tonight, and this isn’t on it. Did they see Jackson?

Once she’s got our attention, Beth turns and runs.

I’m out the door then. Others follow me down the hall, chasing Beth’s back as she screams. Someone behind us, an adult voice, yells at us to stop, but I don’t. I have to know if they saw him when he left.

We race down the hall and up the stairs, my dark hair flying behind me like a flag. We run through a long corridor full of Sunday school rooms, then past the Connections Café, past the Rock Auditorium, and past the Devotions Bookstore. We run through the massive lobby and right into the main sanctuary, empty and dark and big enough to hold five thousand. The sound of our breathing disappears into the air above the rafters.

June is lying near the pulpit, her body sprawled, her sundress fanned out like she fell backward and never got up. And her eyes are blank. Not fake, come-to-Jesus-lesson blank. Empty. And there’s blood all over her front. Only it smells like copper instead of corn syrup and her chest isn’t moving and there’s no way she can hold her breath that long.

Something that was sweet inside me shatters to dust, a butterscotch candy on train tracks.

No, no, no, no, no, no, no.

It can’t be real, it just can’t.

“June?” I ask, my voice cracking. There’s no answer.

Someone screams and turns away. Others hold their hands over their mouths in shock. Then there’s a panicked clatter of questions, Pastor Pete telling us all to go back downstairs.

Then a noise. A door opening. The lobby? Slam. Click.

“What was that?”

“I saw someone!”

I’m barely breathing. I can’t breathe at all. The whole world splits into before and after this moment, and I’m stuck on the wrong side: an hour ago, yesterday, last summer. The first time I saw June, soggy from the rain. How she looked both fresh and dirty at the same time, like a daisy still upright after a mudslide. And then tonight, before everything else happened, June worried and wanting more from me like always. But then everything else did happen.

And I forgot all about June.


Chapter 2

A FEW HOURS AGO

The wooden cross on my shoulder is hollow. It thuds  against our bones as I and four other girls carry it through a crowd of candle-lit banquet tables toward the dance floor in the center, our matching white tulle skirts swishing against our calves as we walk in perfect step. There is a line of twenty more girls behind us, but only the five of us are carrying the cross. Girls as young as six, as old as twenty-three. Our fathers and brothers, dressed up for tonight in tuxedos, stand at attention at the tables, watching our little procession: a rite of passage.

We’re in the auditorium of the church, which, unlike the larger sanctuary, only holds a thousand when the chairs are in rows. It’s used for special events so that the main sanctuary is always available for regular church services. Tonight the chairs have been cleared to make way for banquet tables and a dance floor. The event sells out its 250 tickets every year.

The cross on my shoulder bears wear marks from where girls have carried it into this room, this same way, for fifteen years. Seven years’ worth of the marks are mine. I’ve attended every ball since I turned eleven.

The girl next to me is crying. Fat tears tumble down her pretty cheeks as her blonde hair sways against her back in wispy waves. Her name is June, and this is her first Purity Ball. I try as hard as I can not to roll my eyes at her. I guess I cried at my first one too, but things were so much different back then. I still haven’t decided if they were better.

“You okay?” I whisper as we approach the center of the dance floor and lower the cross onto its stand. Paige, my best friend, eyes us to stop talking as she reverently drapes white chiffon across the short arms of the cross and hangs a crown of thorns over the hilt.  She really believes it all, and is maybe the one person here who makes it hard to think they’re all faking it.

“It’s all just so beautiful, Emma,” June says. “I wish. I just wish—“

But then the music starts, and it’s time to dance. We whirl away from the cross, spinning and raising our arms daintily. Our Worship Dance Team leader, Miss Hope, calls it ballet, but no one who actually does ballet would call it that. It looks more like what toddlers do in princess dresses in their backyards.

As the music finishes up, we all bow dramatically toward the cross like broken swans. I look over and see that June is still crying, harder now. Part of me wishes I could be as moved by this as she is.

But I can’t anymore. I just can’t.

♦♦♦♦♦

“If I could ask my daughter, Emma, to join me up front please?” I make my way to the podium where my dad is standing, his dark hair combed back in a slick wave, his tuxedo perfectly tailored, a soft smile on his face. He’s not the kind of preacher who booms. He’s the kind of preacher who whispers and makes you feel like it’s a boom.

Since our little opening dance number, a formal dinner has been served, and I’ve had a chance to change. All the dancers have. Now we wear white ball gowns like debutantes even though the whole thing is pretty much the opposite of being a debutante. Instead of coming out, we’re being shoved further back in.

But the dress part? That I’m on board with. Mine is a vintage silk fit-n-flare with a v-neck I had to argue with my mother to keep. I love this dress. It makes me feel dangerous and sexy, like a chestnut-haired Marilyn Monroe. I feel like a movie star, especially with the diamond earrings my Grandma Wellington sent me for Christmas.

When I arrive at the front, my dad takes my hand. “Fathers, before we begin the pledge, I’d like to take a moment to bestow a blessing upon my own precious daughter.” His voice is soft and open, like a waterfall far away, its collection of crashes combined and muted by distance. He takes my face in his hands and stares into my eyes. I try not to fidget. I try not to think about everyone else’s eyes on me: the other girls, their fathers, and many of the boys too. Even my sorta-boyfriend, Mike, is here tonight.

“Emma,” my dad says, “you are so beautiful, both inside and out. God has blessed you with grace and wisdom and a servant’s heart. He has made you a shining light to your peers, an ambassador of his love and his generosity.” He closes his eyes and moves his right hand to palm my forehead. I close mine too, and bow my head as expected. “I ask tonight that God bless you with the strength and courage to set aside your own desires and let Him work through you to His glory. Proverbs 16:9 says, ‘A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.’”

Real subtle, Dad. This morning I bring up the idea of going to New York University instead of Bethany Bible College, and all of a sudden my “blessing” is to be strong enough to want what I don’t want. How convenient. I wonder what he’d say if he knew I’ve already been accepted, that the conversation was just me testing the waters about how to break the news to them. I wonder what he’d say if I told him the other, bigger news—that I’m not a Christian anymore.

He’d probably send me off to some wilderness camp or something, like Lily Vincent’s parents did to her after she had sex with that guy at Youth Convention two Thanksgivings ago. Which is why I’m waiting to tell them. But I’m going no matter what they say.

My dad keeps talking. “I ask Him to help you set aside your pride, to quiet the demands of the world as you learn to listen to His, and only His voice, and thereby grow to be the strong, Godly woman He has called you to be.”

And now, of course, everyone’s going to be wondering what I did, sneaking little looks at me and whispering in each other’s ears. Fantastic.

He turns back to the crowd. “Amen.”

“Thank you, Daddy,” I say, pasting the sweetest of all the sweet smiles on my face. I lean in close enough for the mic to pic up my words. “I’m so lucky to have a father like you.”

He hugs me and kisses me on the forehead, then turns to address the crowd again. “Daughters need to hear that, don’t they? They need to hear that they’re beautiful. And if it’s not you telling them, dads, then someone else will. I promise you that.”

There are solemn nods from the men in the crowd.

“At this time, I’d encourage you to take a moment to bless your own daughters. Tell them they’re beautiful, tell them they’re loved, tell them God’s special purpose for their lives.”

There are soft murmurs across the room as other fathers do the same, speaking to their daughters in hushed, private tones, holding their faces close as they hover over dirty plates scattered with remnants of prime rib and mashed potatoes.

All of this used to make me feel so special, so important. But now? It just makes me feel manipulated. If the church itself is a lie, then my parents are biggest liars of all.

When the murmurs quiet, my dad speaks again. “And now for the part of the night where we, as fathers, make a promise to God to protect the purity of our daughters. Please take your pledges out and stand with me.”

He shuffles a piece of paper, the purity pledge, to the front of his notes. “Fathers, please repeat after me with the names of your daughters. I, Emma’s father…”

Everyone looks toward us as the crowd echoes him with a cacophony of names.

“Pledge to Jesus Christ our Savior to be the shield and caretaker of my daughter’s purity until her wedding night.”

Their eyes soak into me as they speak, and it makes me want to squirm. How many people are thinking about my purity? I have to force myself not to crawl underneath the podium.

“I pledge to lead and guide my daughter by being an example of purity in my own life.”

The faces of the men are so serious they could be going into battle.

“As the high priest in my home, I will pray a covering over my daughter…”

I imagine them at war with a swarm of penises, and have to sneeze to keep from snorting. My dad shoots me a look, and I put on my Very Serious face again.

“That she may, with my blessing and authority, have the strength to be righteous before marriage.”

I mean, what are they gonna do? Build a moat around our crotches? It’s all such a joke.

But do I really believe that? That all this is a joke?

I know the answer as soon as I let myself ask it. I do believe it. This, along with everything else, means absolutely nothing.

So if it means nothing, Emma, if it really means nothing? Then maybe it’s time to prove it to yourself.

“God bless you as you seek to provide protection to your daughters. Amen,” my dad says. Then his voice turns official, “Brothers In Christ, please assemble your swords for the Purity Processional.”

Brothers In Christ is sort of a Christian version of the Boy Scouts for teen guys who want to spend their Saturday mornings learning survival skills, studying the Bible, and marching around with guns. Which, around here, means almost all of them. Mike, of course, is their current captain.

I hadn’t noticed until now, but the guys are already assembled at the side door. They march in, military style, Mike in the lead with two rows of five boys behind him.

When Mike reaches the cross, he commands, “Detail. Halt.”

The guys stop.

“Center. Face.”

They turn on their heels toward the center.

“Officers. Present.”

They pull their swords from scabbards held by red sashes looped across their tuxedos, each embroidered with a gold cross.

“Arch.”

They lift their swords to form a tunnel.

“Blades to the wind,” Mike says, and all their blades flip toward the back door.

My father turns to me. “At this time I’d like the young women to follow Emma to the back of the room, while the fathers join me at the cross.”

I walk to the back door, toward my mother, Gloria, who’s standing beside a vase of tall white roses on a small table. More than one person at church has uttered the comment, “a modern-day Jackie-O!” when they encounter her. So many people, in fact, it gets old.   She’s always well put-together, yes. And poised. But my dad isn’t exactly the freaking president.

She hands a rose to each girl as she arrives, squeezing my hand and smiling as she hands me mine.

“Good job, sweetie. You did great up there.”

“Thanks,” I say.

Then she tugs up the straps on my dress so the neckline doesn’t go as low.

“There, that’s better,” she says.

The other girls crowd together in the back, waiting. As each girl’s name is called by her father, she walks through the tunnel in her white dress and lays a rose at the foot of the cross to symbolize her decision to remain pure until marriage.

Finally, it’s my turn.

My father stands next to the cross. “Emma Grant, my lovely daughter, how do you answer God’s call to remain pure?”

It’s a good question, isn’t it? What do you believe, Emma? What do you truly believe?

“If you pledge to be a temple of the Lord, a pure soul until marriage, please step forward.”

I walk through the tunnel like a bride, slow and solemn. What other choice do I have?

As I pass Mike, bearing a shining blade above my head, he nods to me in approval, and pride too—that I’m his, that his girlfriend is among the chaste, the pure. A prize among women. His prize. Like he’s responsible in any way for who I am or what I do.

I wonder what he’d do if I didn’t want to stay pure? The way he kisses, sloppy and urgent and needy, the way his hands roam, waiting for me to stop him, keep him in check, I doubt his resolve would last more than thirty seconds. Everyone thinks we’re going to get married someday. Everyone is wrong.

I arrive at the front, my toes brushing the pile of white roses resting there. As I place mine at the foot of the cross I decide it will mean something different this time, something completely different.

As soon as I can get away, I find a dark corner and text Jackson:

North Doors. 10 p.m.