Judge Not 03byJayDavid©
Tuesday Morning, Harmony Church
There was a part of Nathan that felt free and another part that felt like he was heading to meet his executioner. He was prepared to do whatever was necessary to just move on, to be left alone and to finish school, but he had no idea what Pastor Stephens had in mind, or what his parents would do. But he knew that nothing would stop him from seeing Shelby, or from continuing to make love to her. His love for Shelby filled the emptiness that he felt when he realized that his faith had been misplaced.
They trudged into the church office, and Mrs. Proctor wordlessly motioned for them to go to Pastor Stephens' office. His parents had barely said a word all morning, and he detected tension, and a little fear, in the way that they were acting. They walked down the hall past the small office that Pastor Cullum used, to the big office that the church's leader used. James knocked on the door, and the familiar voice rumbled, "Come in."
The distinguished looking minister looked extra imposing behind his huge, carved wooden desk, and he had set the office up so that he was towering over any visitor. Nathan looked around the impressive office, with its pictures of the congregation going back decades, photos of Pastor Stephens with politicians, including five governors, President Reagan and both Bushes, certificates of appreciation and proclamations on the wall, and more books and bibles than many small libraries.
They sat in the small, uncomfortable visitor chairs and waited for Pastor Stephens to give them his attention. In the past, he had always been pleasant and solicitous of Nathan's parents, who were long-time congregants and leaders of their generation, and of Nathan, who had long appeared to be one of the true believers and young leaders. Today, however, Pastor Stephens was treating them like they all had been called to the principal's office for misbehavior.
Finally, the grey haired minister looked up and said, in a low voice, "Nathan, I'm very, very disappointed in you."
Nathan felt the blood rush to his face and the competing emotions of anger and embarrassment fight for supremacy in his mind. He decided to stay quiet and wait.
"We have always counted on you to do the Godly thing, but now, you seem to be under some evil influences."
At that veiled reference to Shelby, Nathan's eyes narrowed to slits, as Pastor Stephens continued, "I have heard a number of reports about your misbehavior and violation of the rules of the church and of the Lord, and I want you to apologize to me, to Pastor Cullum, to your parents and to the congregation."
Hearing that, anger began to win the fight for Nathan's emotion, and he clenched his fists, but held his tongue.
The minister turned his gaze to James, "And I'm disappointed in you, James, and Marcia, because you failed to stop this behavior before it crossed the line." James and Marcia lowered their heads.
"It is clear to me that you need my help again, so here is what is going to happen. We will be expelling Shelby from school and her parents from the church—we took a chance on them, and clearly they are not Godly people."
Nathan felt that his head was about to explode, but Pastor Stephens kept talking, so he clenched his fists tighter. "You, Nathan, will not see her anymore. You will apologize, in writing to Pastor Cullum and to me, on behalf of the congregation. You will do 30 hours of volunteer work for the church before graduation, at my direction. James and Marcia, you will meet with Pastor Cullum to discuss your parenting skills, so that we do not have this problem with young Thomas, and I will expect a generous donation from your family this year because of the trouble that you have caused. Is that understood?"
Nathan watched his parents meekly nod and accept the conditions, but he could not. He stood up, so that Pastor Stephens no longer loomed over him and yelled, "I do not accept. It is unfair for you to discipline Shelby more than me. And anyway, I know that you are a hypocrite, my parents are hypocrites and liars, and so is Pastor Cullum. Everything you have told me since I was a baby is, is, is, bullshit."
The outburst, and especially the profanity, shocked Nathan's parents and the minister, who responded, angrily, "Young man, that language is uncalled for. And what do you mean by your insults to me and your parents?"
James interrupted, in a low defeated voice, "Thomas, he knows."
"Knows what?" Pastor Stephens asked warily.
Nathan jumped in, "I know that my mother was pregnant with me when they were married and that you helped them cover it up. I also am pretty sure that Pastor Cullum is not pure, and is also a nasty, vicious man. I will not apologize. Instead, I will tell everyone about this, and the marriage certificate is proof of all of your lies. And I bet that if I looked harder, I could find some more similar situations."
Pastor Stephens turned to James and growled, "Look what you have done."
James looked like he had been slapped. "We did this together, and I never thought that it would come to this."
Pastor Stephens looked at his congregants and saw their pain. And he realized that if Nathan was serious about exposing his willingness to marry couples who had engaged in sinful behavior, it would not only erode his authority, it might lead to prying that would expose his other secrets. He decided to see what he could do to defuse the situation.
"Son, sit down," he said to Nathan in a consoling voice. "What can we do to prevent you from embarrassing yourself, your family and the church?"
Nathan thought. He didn't care about embarrassing "the church" which he realized really meant its leader, but his parents didn't deserve being the butt of gossip. They had fallen prey to the same emotions that he and Shelby had, and he could not condemn them for that. Or even for trying to cover it up to protect their reputations and him. But he could not forgive their hypocrisy. He looked at Pastor Stephens and said, "Here is what I would like. First, nothing happens to Shelby or her parents. We finish school and graduate like nothing happened. No written apologies to anyone." He looked at his parents, "Shelby and I continue to see each other. We promise to be discreet, and to be safe, so that history doesn't repeat itself. Also, I think that I will not go to Tabernacle Bible College next year. I'm going to go to community college for a year, and work."
"Is that it?" The minister responded.
Nathan felt like he might still have one more card to play. "No. I want you to fire Pastor Cullum."
Pastor Stephens looked at James and Marcia, who nodded. He turned to Nathan and said, "We will agree to all of those conditions, except that I will not fire Pastor Cullum—" he raised his hand to stop Nathan from interrupting, then continued, "I will speak with him, and if he has not been truthful, I will consider letting him move on to another post. And you, young man, you have to promise that nothing that was said in this room is repeated to anyone inside or outside of the congregation. And that you will not encourage any of your friends to behave in the way that you and Shelby have."
Nathan realized that it was not all he would want, but it was a good deal for him and Shelby. He was surprised at how easily Pastor Stephens gave up, but he decided not to worry about that. He stood and offered his hand to the tall, thin minister. "We have a deal, Pastor Stephens."
They shook, and Nathan noticed the older man give his parents a withering look before saying, "You may go. Nathan, I expect you to go directly to school. You may get a late pass from Edith—I mean Mrs. Proctor."
Nathan nodded, and he and his parents left the office and started walking down the hall. After a few steps, James put his hand on Nathan's shoulder and said, "Stop." Nathan turned to face his father. "Were you really willing to destroy our reputation for that girl?"
"Shelby," Nathan responded. "Her name is Shelby. And yes. You were prepared to stop me from seeing the woman that I love to protect your reputation. But it all works out, right? Everything gets swept under the rug, and nobody gets hurt."
"You think you are so clever, don't you?" James replied.
Marcia interrupted. "James, leave the boy alone. Somehow, he is making this all work."
"Only because Pastor Stephens agreed to protect us, again," James replied.
"Dad, don't you get it? He only wants to protect himself. He doesn't care about you or me or mom."
"That's ridiculous. Let's say you released our marriage certificate, everybody would know we were sinners, but Pastor Stephens would just say he was trying to help out two kids in trouble. He would look good, not bad."
Nathan thought about that, and couldn't think of a good answer. "Dad, it doesn't matter, does it? He agreed, we agreed, and it is done."
"I guess so," James said, unconvinced. "We have to get to work, and you need to get to school. Get your pass from Mrs. Proctor, and we will see you tonight."
Marcia hugged her son as they left the building, and Nathan turned to get his pass from the church secretary.
Nathan took the paper from the middle-aged secretary, but she didn't let go immediately.
"Are you O.K., Nathan?" she asked.
"Yes, very good, Mrs. Proctor."
"Everything went O.K.?"
Mrs. Proctor looked a little surprised, and let go of her end of the pass. "Nathan, let me know if you ever need anything."
It was Nathan's turn to be surprised, but he responded, "um, sure, thanks Mrs. Proctor, I have to get to class." He ran out of the building toward the school, and Shelby.
Nathan walked the quiet halls of the school and slipped into his second period class, handing Mr. Burgess the pass. Shelby sat in the front, and their eyes met. Her eyes opened silently questioning Nathan, and he allowed her to see a brief smile as he walked to his desk in the back of the classroom.
After class, Shelby was waiting for him at the door to the classroom and as they walked out into the hall she whispered, "How did the meeting go?"
"Better than expected," Nathan whispered back. "We need privacy—let's talk at lunch." Her smell made Nathan's nerves tingle, and he desperately wanted to kiss her, but he knew that it was not the time or place. They separated to go to their third period classes, and Nathan "accidentally" brushed his arm against hers. She smiled back at him, appreciating the ruse.
When lunch finally came around, Nathan met Shelby and they again sat alone at a table away from their friends.
Nathan had decided not to try to hide any of the details, and he gave her a blow-by-blow of the meeting, including his decision to go to community college for a year. He didn't tell her that he hoped to be able to transfer to her college, or one nearby, after the first year.
"That's incredible," she replied, wanting very badly to kiss Nathan for his loyalty to her.
"But there is one thing that bothers me," he said quietly.
"That Pastor Stephens gave in so easily. My dad pointed out that even if I disclosed my parents' lie, it would probably make them look bad, but not Stephens or the church. I wonder if he is going to double cross us."
Shelby thought about the situation, and it did not make sense. "Unless," she said slowly, "unless he has more to hide."
That possibility had not occurred to Nathan and he pondered the possibility. Nothing that anyone connected to the church did would surprise him at that point. "Maybe you're right," he said, "but what?"
Shelby shrugged, and they turned their attention to lunch, occasionally accidentally on purpose brushing their arms or legs against each other. As they cleaned up their trays and garbage before their afternoon classes, Shelby said, "back to the group tomorrow?"
"Yeah, I'm tired of acting like an outcast." He was surprised to see Shelby frown. "But you are more than worth it," Nathan said, and he was rewarded with a radiant smile, whose heat he felt all the way to his crotch. They went off to their separate classes, hoping that things would be calm until graduation.
Later that night, Nathan's house
Dinner had been awkward, and it was clear that Nathan and his parents had a long way to go to repair their damaged relationships. Luckily, Tommy was oblivious and filled the dinner table with his childish babble so that the silences between Nathan and his parents were less painful. After dinner, Nathan legitimately had work to do for his AP classes, and went to his room. It was not until after 10 that he was able to take time to call Shelby.
"I was hoping you would call," she said
"How could I not? I missed you," Nathan responded.
"I'm really proud of what you did today," Shelby said.
"Thanks. I can't believe that I was able to pull it off. You've given me the strength to stand up to them."
"You always had it in you. Maybe I've helped you see things differently."
Nathan thought about how much he wanted to see Shelby, and he paused, thinking about her body. "You have made me think. About a lot of things."
"I'm glad," she said huskily. "You make me think about things, too."
There was a pause. Nathan broke the silence. "I love you."
"I love you, too."
"See you tomorrow."
Nathan ended the call and laid on his bed, thinking for a while before getting ready for bed.
Wednesday Morning. Harmony Christian Life Academy
Nathan waited outside the school, waiting for the habitually late Shelby, who found the last spot in the student parking lot and ran toward the door, checking her watch. She smiled as she approached Nathan, oblivious to the stares of their schoolmates. Everyone knew that they had been called to Pastor Stephens' office, and they watched Nathan and Shelby for some clue about why, or what had happened. There was little time left before homeroom, and, painfully without touching, they turned and hurried to their lockers.
Shelby stopped in front of hers, gave Nathan a meaningful glance, and he smiled, nodded and headed down the hallway to his locker to put away books and grab his morning books. When he opened his locker, he was surprised to see a sealed white envelope with the return address of the church embossed on it. The envelope was heavy, and he heard a metallic click when he picked it off the floor, sliding it into his notebook before rushing off to class.
Curious as to what was in the envelope, but unable to get any privacy during class, he struggled to pay attention to the lesson, and floundered embarrassingly when the teacher called on him. He took the criticism stoically, and tried desperately to take notes afterward, but the envelope kept intruding into his thoughts.
After class, Nathan ran to the bathroom, locked himself into a stall and tore open the envelope. There were two keys inside—one large, like a door key, and a smaller one. Nathan looked inside the envelope for a note, or something that would explain, but there was nothing. He heard the bell, and ran out of the bathroom to make sure he made it to class on time.
He made it to lunch before Shelby and sat at what had become their private table, rather than attempt to rejoin their friends. Shelby saw him and looked at him quizzically, and Nathan pointed to the chair next to him. Shelby got her lunch and sat down.
"I thought we were going to rejoin polite society today," she noted.
"Yeah, but something has come up."
"What?" Shelby asked.
"When I opened my locker this morning, there was an envelope with two keys."
"What do they open?"
"I have no idea," Nathan answered. He reached into his notebook, keeping it under the table, and pulled out the envelope, handing it to Shelby under the table. She opened the envelope and peered at the keys.
"The big one looks like a key to a door or something and the smaller one looks like a key to a filing cabinet," she whispered. She handed the envelope back to Nathan and he slid it back into his notebook.
"That's sort of what I thought. But where? And why?"
They were silent for a while, and ate their lunches. Shelby turned to Nathan and said, "You don't think...?
"What?" Nathan asked.
"The church office?"
"But why? And who would do this?"
"I don't know, but not many people have access to them, right?"
"I guess," Nathan replied. "What should we do?"
Thursday, 2:00 a.m. Harmony Church
Nathan and Shelby stood in front of the church office door holding flashlights. Nathan could not believe that he had actually snuck out of his house. It was surprisingly easier than he had thought, but the walk to the church took a bit longer than he expected.
"Try the key," Shelby urged.
Nathan took the larger key and, with trembling hands, inserted it into the lock. He turned it and felt a satisfying click. He pushed the door open and paused. No alarm—at least none that he could hear. They slid into the dark building and looked around using their flashlights.
"We better move fast, in case there is a burglar alarm," Shelby whispered.
Nathan hadn't really considered what would happen if the police came, and, he started to move quickly toward Pastor Stephens' office, which they had decided was the most likely place to find a lock that fit the second key.
The Pastor's office door was unlocked, and the two explorers entered and ran their flashlights over the office. Shelby walked behind the large wooden desk and saw a large, two drawer file cabinet. She motioned Nathan toward her, and he inserted the second key into the lock, which turned and popped out. Nathan opened the top drawer and saw a small ledger book and a portable hard drive. He looked at Shelby with a questioning look.
"Take it," she hissed, with excitement in her voice.
Nathan took the book and drive out of the drawer and closed it. He opened the second drawer, and it was filled with old VHS tape and silver discs. Nathan pulled out a tape and it said, "Edith" and a date about 15 years earlier. He removed the tape and grabbed a handful of discs—each with the name of a woman and a date. The most recent disk, with a date about three months earlier, had the name "Amanda," which they both knew was the name of one of their classmates, who had left school unexpectedly a few weeks before to take care of her sick grandparents. Nathan took that disk and few others and tossed them with the ledger and hard drive.
"Let's get out of here," Shelby whispered.
Nathan closed and locked the cabinet, grabbed the pile of stuff and followed Shelby out of the office. They quickly made it down the hall and out of the church office. Walking away from the church, they whispered their speculations, both worried about what they would find, and what would happen to them if they were caught.
When they got to the point where they needed to separate, Nathan put down his burden and took Shelby into his arms. He craved her touch, and when she pressed her body against his, he immediately got aroused. Shelby wiggled her hips against him while they kissed. Although he didn't want it to end, Nathan pulled away, panting. "I need to get home and see if I can figure out what we have here."
They slowly parted and Nathan hurried home and quietly snuck back into his room. Turning on his laptop, he attached the hard drive and saw that it was filled with spreadsheets. He opened one, but saw only incomprehensible columns of numbers. Nathan couldn't make heads or tails of them. He reached for the pile of discs and put the one titled Amanda into the DVD drive.
After a few seconds it began to run and a few seconds later, Nathan, horrified by what he was seeing, turned it off. He felt sick to his stomach. But he knew that he had to do something. But what?
He knew that he was in above his head, and he had only one choice. He picked up the laptop, the hard drive and the disc and walked down the hall to his parents' room and knocked on the door.