“There’s been another school shooting,” announced Mrs. Anderson. She was sipping coffee from a chipped mug and reading the news on her phone. “It happened at Goode High just yesterday.”
She looked expectantly at Tom, waiting for him to react to what she just said. Tom was Mrs. Anderson’s son, and had she not insisted that he should be at the breakfast table during breakfast, he would not have been there. Not that Tom was currently eating breakfast. He had his laptop open on the table and was too engrossed in it to respond.
“Did you hear what I said?” Mrs. Anderson asked impatiently.
“What?” responded Tom, looking up as though he had just awoken from a trance. Mrs. Anderson started to repeat herself but was unable to finish the first word because Tom cut her off.
“School shooting, right,” he said and returned to his laptop.
“Thomas,” said Mrs. Anderson, “it happened at Goode High!” She paused to let the effect of those words sink in, but they rolled off Tom like drops off an umbrella. He merely grunted in response. Mrs. Anderson looked at Tom in disbelief. “Goode High is not very far from here!”
Tom sat up straight and looked at his mother with the look of one who has been frivolously interrupted while doing something important. “Did they catch the shooter?” He asked.
After a long pause, Mrs. Anderson said, “Yes.”
“Then why are you all worked up?” Tom asked, as though this was the end of the conversation.
“You’re not at all concerned that something like this could happen in our own community?” Mrs. Anderson asked.
“Mom,” Tom said, exasperated, “that’s just the way things are. The world’s all kinds of screwed up, and you can’t do a blessed thing to fix it.” He hunched back over his computer.
Mrs. Anderson pursed her lips. She thought of many things she would like to say, but none of them seemed likely to get through to Tom. She returned to her breakfast. She watched her son as she ate. It seemed to Mrs. Anderson that Tom spent every waking moment typing away at that computer. He had always said he wanted to write, even though writing was not a stable career. She had told him as much, but she tried to be supportive.
“What are you writing?” Mrs. Anderson asked in a desperate attempt to engage her son.
“A story about a couple who go camping for a honeymoon,” Tom said shortly.
“Is that all that happens?” Mrs. Anderson asked.
“They’re both gonna get mauled by a bear,” Tom responded.
“That’s awful,” said Mrs. Anderson.
“It’s real,” said Tom.
“Who wants to read about that?” Mrs. Anderson asked.
“People who appreciate literature will understand its meaning. Besides, you can’t judge it because you haven’t read it yet,” said Tom. “And at this rate you never will because I won’t be able to finish it.”
Tom had this argument with his mother over everything he wrote. He still remembered the look on her face when she had read his first story. The story was about a boy who fell off the Grand Canyon skywalk. She had once told him that the problem with his stories was that there was no God in them. He had responded that he would put God in his stories when he saw him in real life.
“Fine,” said Mrs. Anderson. “Finish your story. I won’t bother you.”
She went into the living room and sat down. Maybe people who appreciated literature really would understand it. Of course, this would require Tom to actually publish the story. He had claimed ever since he received his writing degree that he wanted to publish a short story collection with about five stories. Now that he was working on the seventh story, Tom said that the collection should have eight or nine. He said that a couple of publishers were interested, but Mrs. Anderson had seen no evidence of this.
She had asked for prayers for him. Mostly just that he would move out on his own. Maybe not move out. Mrs. Anderson’s husband had left when Tom was four, and she hadn’t had anyone else to depend on. Tom had a part-time job at a convenience store just down the road. Monetarily, he more or less pulled his own weight. “Still,” Mrs. Anderson would say, “what’s he gonna do when I’m gone? I don’t have much money saved.” One time when this happened, Ms. Dawson from the Bible study had said,
“He needs to get a girlfriend. Once he sees that there’s more in his future than that computer, he’ll start taking life seriously.” Mrs. Anderson had agreed. Though it would need to be a good Christian girl. Tom would fall in love, and the girl would lead him back to the church. “He used to be a good Christian boy,” Mrs. Anderson would say, “before he went to college.”
Eventually, Tom realized he was no longer obligated to stay at the kitchen table, so he went to his bedroom. He lay down on his bed and propped his laptop up against his knees. He wrote for about ten minutes, but he found himself stuck. He realized that the wife in his story was a little too similar to his mother. If this story was going to get through to her, it had probably better not have her likeness killed gruesomely. Tom tried to change the character, but he couldn’t get the story to work. Finally, he hit on the perfect idea, but his laptop died, so he plugged it up and then sat there until his mother called out,
“I’m writing, what is it?!” Tom fired back.
“I need you to take me to Bible study! It’s Saturday, remember!?”
Tom groaned. The Andersons only had one car, and Tom’s job consistently overlapped with his mother’s Bible study. So, he would have to drive her there, and then probably stay there for an hour to save gas before going to work. (Bible study ran long.) Tom shouted confirmation to his mother and got dressed in his work uniform. He threw a coat over it because the uniform was not appropriate for winter.
In the car, Mrs. Anderson asked, “Did you finish your story?”
“No, my stupid laptop died,” Tom replied. “I need a new one.”
“You could just keep it plugged up, rather than spending a couple thousand dollars to some newfangled touchscreen or whatever.”
“I’ll do what I want with my money. I pay you rent.”
“I just want what’s best for you.”
“Well, I’m too old for you to decide that now, aren’t I?”
There was silence for a while after that. Eventually Tom asked, “Did you bring your Bible this time?”
“I have a Bible on my phone,” said Mrs. Anderson.
“You ladies never seem to actually read from it—”
“You always leave before we’re comfortably settled in. We don’t just get straight to business.”
“You can just admit you never ‘get to business.’”
“It’s probably better that way. Religion is a sham. The world is cruel and random and that’s just the way things are.”
“Thomas! You don’t have to agree with me, but you could at least respect my beliefs.”
They didn’t say another word to each other until they reached Mrs. Jones’ house.
Mrs. Anderson greeted the other five ladies who frequented the women’s Bible study. Tom went and set up his laptop in an adjacent room, where he wouldn’t be distracted by the women talking. About five minutes later, a woman whom Tom had never seen, came in the room. She wore a puffy winter coat, even though the house was warm.
She was younger than the other women, who were all from Mrs. Anderson’s generation. She looked closer to Tom’s age.
“Who are you?” asked Tom. He didn’t like to be disturbed, which usually worked out because his mother’s friends didn’t like disturbing him.
“My name is Delilah, but I go by ‘Lily,” the woman responded. “Who are you?”
“What are you doing in here Tom?”
“Trying to write.”
“Do you live here?”
“Then what are you doing here?”
“I had to drive my mom here.”
“Not interested in Bible study?”
“Well, I was. I have read the Bible several times. It’s full of errors. I thought I might be able to prove that to them last week, but they didn’t actually read it last week.”
“Aha! I knew it!” exclaimed Tom, now interested in the conversation. He was looking forward to rubbing this in his mother’s face. “So, you agree that the Bible is full of errors?” He asked. He began to warm up to this strange woman.
“Absolutely. It’s all just made-up stuff to make people feel better about themselves. Keeps them from seeing the way things are.”
Tom grinned as she said this. Finally, someone who understood. “Would you like to read one of my stories?” he asked.
“Sure,” said Lily.
He looked over his writings and then selected his personal favorite (a narrative where a man was killed in a wreck while driving home from work). The old laptop struggled to load the story.
“Sorry,” said Tom, as a circle spun in the middle of the screen. “I really need a new computer.”
“No worries,” said Lily. She took the computer and began reading. Tom watched her face as she read. She wore a pensive expression, as though the story was the most fascinating thing she had ever seen. The expression did not change at any point, not even at the sudden violent end. She put it down slowly and stared at it, her expression still unchanging.
“Did you like it?” asked Tom apprehensively.
“Yes,” said Lily. “I think that what it was trying to say was really powerful.”
Yet another thing for Tom to rub in his mother’s face. Here was an equal, someone who understood the way things are. Someone who appreciated literature. He thought. It occurred to him that she may have found the wrong meaning somehow.
“What do you think it was trying to say?” Tom probed.
“Well, the man’s life was meaningless, and his death was meaningless, and the whole story was meaningless. Just like the whole world is meaningless and we can’t build any meaning of our own if we try to find it elsewhere.”
Tom was beginning to notice that Lily was very pretty. She had definitely found the right meaning.
“So did I get it right?” Lily asked.
“Well, every story is open to interpretation, but I think your interpretation is better than others I’ve heard,” Tom said slyly. He neglected to mention that his mother was the only other person who had read his story.
Lily smiled. “Can I read your others?”
Tom tried to open another story, but the computer crashed.
“Stupid thing!” exclaimed Tom. He hit the table forcefully. “I really need to just buy a new one.”
“Do it today,” said Lily.
“You might die tomorrow or get mugged and be unable to afford it. Or you might keep putting it off indefinitely. Just buy one now.”
Tom thought about it. He had a couple thousand dollars in savings that he could spend on the nice computer he wanted.
“I could order one . . .,” he mused.
“Or you could go down to the computer store and buy one now.”
“I have to go to work soon.”
“Then do it after. I’ll go with you.”
“Like a date?”
Lily grinned mischievously.
It was evening when Tom got off work. The ATM didn’t let him withdraw $2200 at once, so he had to do it multiple times in smaller quantities. He went out to his car and Lily was already there wearing the same big coat from earlier. Her mother had dropped her off. The two exchanged greetings and then got in the Anderson’s car together.
On the way, Lily observed, “The way things are, the bank could shut down and you could lose all that money.”
“I already have it in cash. I like cash better.”
“Ooooh, how come?”
“I guess I’m old fashioned that way.”
Lily looked excited, as though Tom had wanted to spend all the money on her.
As they were driving, they passed by a trail into the woods. Lily remembered a little gazebo at the end of that trail.
“The moonlight looks real pretty down there,” she said.
“I’m not sure how much longer the store will be open.”
“Oh, throw some whimsey in your life. Does it matter whether you buy a computer or see a gazebo when we’re all going to die anyway?”
They had passed the trail just as Lily convinced Tom, so he had to turn around. They parked near the trail and began walking into the woods.
“It’s a lovely night tonight, don’t you think?” asked Lily.
Tom didn’t like it outdoors, and he felt tonight was especially cold.
“Yes,” said Tom. “Listen, we should turn around. The store will probably close soon—”
Lily turned around and made a pouty face at Tom. He fell silent. They continued for a while. The dark night obscured the atmosphere, so they pulled out their phones to use as flashlights. Tom was feeling uncomfortable. The gazebo was nowhere in sight, and he could barely see without the light. He started to shiver.
“Lily,” Tom began, turning to Lily. “I really think—” He stopped short because Lily was pointing a gun at him.
“Lily, what the hell!?”
“Tom, I want the money.”
Tom stared at Lily as though he had no idea what those words meant.
“Lily! What the hell!?” he said again.
“Don’t act all surprised Tom. You know the way things are,” said Lily. “I want the money. And your car keys. And the phone. I don’t want you calling anyone.”
“WHY!?” Tom’s face was a mixture of fear and anger.
“I can’t afford anything right now because the store where I work closed, and my idiot brother is probably going to prison; so that’s all my mom’s concerned with, and you know that nothing matters, so this can’t make a difference to you anyways. Now give me the money!”
“I thought we understood each other. I thought you liked my stories.” Tom was now shaking very badly from both the cold and fear.
“And I thought my brother was a decent kid, and then he went and shot up his school. He understood that nothing matters, I guess he took it a little far.” Lily had a cold look in her eye. “I thought you understood the way things are, but I guess those were just stories to you. I bet you believe the Bible after all. Give me your money.”
“This isn’t right!”
“Who decides what’s right anyway? There’s no God to do it, so I decide. Give. Me. The. Money.” Lily’s teeth were bared.
“This isn’t supposed to happen,” said Tom, seemingly to himself. “This isn’t supposed to happen to me.”
“Stuff! Now!” screamed Lily, and Tom began to reach into his pockets to hand his possessions over. He dropped the phone because he was shaking so badly.
“Please, God,” Tom mumbled very quietly.
“What was that?” demanded Lily, but Tom didn’t speak again.
“Goodbye, Tom,” said Lily. She backed up down the path keeping the gun trained on Tom before she turned and ran, leaving him alone in the dark woods.
Jeffrey Wiggs is a 19-year-old Christian who lives with his parents and two brothers. He is currently attending Pellissippi State Community College and works part time at a Chick-fil-a. He enjoys rollerblading and video games and thinks of himself as a writer, despite rarely ever writing anything. The story “The Way Things Are” takes inspiration from Flannery O’Connor’s short stories.
**Featured image by Margarita Gromova, Pexels