Chapter 19:

Gregarious (Con)Gregation (Part 2)

Pigeon on a Power Line

They’re all dressed better than me. They all look better than me. Hell, they might even be better than me.

But I’m not much of a liar, so I meant it when I said that I’d try my best.

That being said, I’m already on the verge of forgetting their names.

“So…” I start. “Churches, right? Who needs ‘em?”


“I mean,” I continue. “It’s just a bit weird going to a Presbyterian church, I guess. Or is it just me?”

“Dude, I’m catholic,” E-girl Trissie chortles. “We, like, think that protestants eat our babies or something.”

“Yeah,” Rescue Ranger Wendy adds, “And my family doesn’t even celebrate anything other than Christmas.”

The three of us all look to Teddy, who looks remarkably unfazed for someone who hasn’t even cared to introduce herself. She’s probably so used to being stared at that she simply missed her cue to speak. Yet, we’re all waiting for her. And, like a greco-roman statue coming alive, she takes her eyes off the intricate bronze church organ she seemed consumed with and speaks, a goddess’s voice incarnate:

“I’m like, totally Jewish, LOL.”

I laugh so hard that I feel my nose drain down the back of my throat. And then, after a few seconds, so does Teddy. With her follow Tristana and Wendy. I feel like a goose honking to keep up with a bunch of songbirds. But it’s strangely cathartic. Like a single good laugh makes the next thing I say come out a lot easier:

“I think my grandfather was Jewish,” I say, “But then again, he also claimed to be the sixth Ringling brother, so who knows for certain?”

“That’s like, hilarious,” Wendy chitter, “Amy didn’t say you were gonna be this much of a hoot.”

My eyes recede into their sockets at the thought of dealing with yet another elite bombshell.

I croak, “Amy?”

“Anne-Marie,” Trissie clarifies. “It’s just a silly nickname, really.”

“Mhm.” Wendy nods. “We all have cute nicknames. But the rule is that they have to end in -y.”

“Have you got one?” Teddy asks.

I cannot even begin to describe what it’s like to be standing in her presence.

Her flawless skin is the kind of creaseless dark that you could get sucked into like a cosmic void, and yet she’s so radiant it’s like you’re staring down the sun. I feel like I’m four-foot-two and a hundred pounds soaking wet. Like a mosquito on the leg of the Colossus of Rhodes. As if this entire, baroque church was built entirely for her esoteric purpose and I’m just here to meekly drop off my psalms and hand in my donation. But I swallow my smallness, and I meet her model’s face dead-on.

“Nah,” I say, “I doubt you could make a nickname out of ‘Ogden’.”

“Not even ‘Oggy’?” Teddy asks.

A deja-vu warmth pulses up out of my chest and crawls across my smiling lips.

“No, especially not ‘Oggy.’”

Our stupid words sound so serious in the dramatic soundscape of a vacant church. And we all laugh. Not a second later, the loudspeaker-muffled voice of the pastor creeps into the chamber under the heavy wooden doors of the entrance.

“By the way,” Trissie says, aiming her phone at me like a pocket pistol. “What’s your insta?”

“Insta?” I ask reflexively, with the intonation of the willfully-ignorant old man I am deep down.

She doesn’t look impressed. “You’re kidding, right?”

“Yeah, of course,” I lie, “Well, sorta. I only have a Snap.”

“Whaaaat?!” Wendy cups her hands around her face in horror. “Who even uses Snap anymore?”

“Uhhh-” I start.

Teddy nods, “Yeah, like, literally everyone is on Insta now.”

Everyone, huh? But Anne-Marie still uses it to talk to me and Brian-


“Oh!” Wendy leaps in place, high enough to dunk a basketball. “I almost forgot! The sock-hop’s going on!”

My face twists. “Sock-hop?”

“Wait,” Trissie replies, “Do you not even know why you’re here?”

“No-” I reply.”

“It’s the bi-annual church fundraiser!” Wendy exclaims. “It’s, like, so much fun! There’s games and barbecue, and- ooh, even a bunny pen for the kiddies!”

“We’re here to help clean up,” Teddy says. “Did she really not tell you, like, anything about it?”

I rub the back of my neck and force a smile. “I guess not, haha.”

“Amy’s so forgetful,” Wendy says with a laugh.

“And klutzy,” Teddy jokes.

“Yeah, she’s our corny little queen,” Wendy nods, “But we stan her, like, unconditionally!”

Forgetful. Klutzy. Corny. Anne-Marie is none of those things. Okay, maybe she’s that last one. But she’s sharper than a box of tacks, more graceful than a flight of swans. Is that really how they see her- how she lets them see her?

“I was kinda surprised, honestly,” Trissie says, pursing her lips. “You seem a bit too much like the smooth and chill type to be her ‘really cool friend’.”

Smooth. Chill. Foreign words from a blasphemer’s mouth. Me, of all people, being too good for her. Too cool for her? Don’t make me laugh.

“Anne-Marie’s actually pretty fuckin’ awesome.”

I was trying to filter myself. My tone, my words. My apparently-attractive antisocial confidence. But especially now that I’ve been given even a shred of social credit, there’s no way I’m backing down from a fight.

“Yeah.” Trissie gives me a genuine, knowing look and then cackles. “You’re right, actually. She is pretty awesome. She’s got a killer sense of style-”

“Mhm,” nods Wendy, yapping with unrestrained enthusiasm, “And she’s really good at soccer!”

“And she’s better than me in mathletes,” Teddy admits, with great warmth.

But there is no fight, is there?

“Yeah, I say,” feeling like a dipshit and a saint at the same time.

Those things might not be her. The soccer, the mathletes, the 3.9 GPA. In fact, the real her might be bowling in the bad part of town to the tune of awful country music and throwing rocks into a magical fairy hole with a stomach full of nasty kringles. I realize, with a stark, startling pang of clarion-call consciousness, that they might not even know the “real” her. And yet, they seem to really appreciate her for who she is nonetheless.

If anyone deserves being appreciated, it's-

Anne-Marie picks the perfect time to come barging in through the doors.

“Sorry I took so long!” she pants, “Ma’ said Aidan crashed his new bike into a ditch, and I had to go make sure he was alright. But when I got there, he was just crouched over peeing into an anthill like a little goblin. Without a single scratch on him!”

A wave of chuckles.

“That kid’s like, indestructible,” Trissie comments.

“Yeah,” Teddy says, “I still remember the time he jumped off the roof to make a ‘super snow angel’.”


“I feel worse for the bike, honestly,” I say.

And I bite my tongue, hoping I didn’t just commit the social equivalent of leaping from the school roof.

But then everyone cackles, and the group heads outside. I follow them, no longer a rogue planet lost at the other end of the universe. I’m now a quaint little satellite moon, firmly within the orbit of the solar system. And it feels strangely normal, as if nothing’s changed despite the fact that everything has.

The fair outside is exactly what you’d expect from a well-meaning but ultimately half-assed community effort. The graphic design on the streamers advertising the event had been done with the same default wordart I’ve used for every English paper title for the last four years, and the furniture is an assortment of copy-pasted foldable steel chairs and cross-legged plastic tables. Almost every activity, from the sock-hopping to the dart-throwing to the bunny-pen, is the most low-budget iteration imaginable that an overburdened volunteer parent could have cooked up in about an hour with thirty bucks max and a Walmart gift card. At the very least, though, the barbecue smells fantastic.

Wendy skips off to tend to the kids and bunnies, Teddy glides away to impress the parents with her presence, and Trissie vanishes to go smoke hit her THC pen behind the inflatable castle. Which, naturally, leaves me and Anne-Marie to help man the grill.

I try my best to sneak in mouthfuls of sizzling-hot meat between the barked commands of the balding, fifty year old salary man in a hawaiian shirt that took control of everything food related. Between handing out platefulls of burgers and hot dogs, Anne-Marie and I make sure to exchange mocking expressions with regards to the boss that we didn't ask for. In the frosty, clear-skied afternoon, the grills are an island of heat. One that makes it fun to pretend like me and her are working the lunch rush at some classy downtown bistro.

She burns herself on her spatula, I cut myself as I'm chopping onions. Her hair is soon sticky with condiments, and my 300-dollar fit gets riddled with grease stains. Both of us absorb the religiously-sanitized verbal abuse of a man whose marriage is falling apart with a pair of idiotic grins. I can feel the zingers she's cooking up in her head just by glancing at her from time to time, and amid the rising clouds of flavorful heat, our eyes keep meeting. Something's in the air aside from the store-bought spices, as if we're still hanging out even though we're mindlessly slaving away.

"It was nice meat-ing you," she says, as she waves goodbye to the man in the Hawaiian shirt.

"Yeah," I add, "It was really nice to ketch-up."

The disgruntled looking college student that's coming in to replace us gives us the wildest scowl as our ex-boss starts on his first tirade about idle hands doing the devil’s work.

We wander away from the hustle and bustle, parking ourselves in a patch of evergreens with a view of the fair.

“What do you think?” She asks.

“It’s alright. I guess this social function is technically both social and functioning.”

She speaks glibly. “Alright? You can be honest with me, y’know.”

“Okay, it’s kind of shitty. In an endearing way,” I admit.

“Yeah.” Anne-Marie allows herself a laugh. “It really puts the ‘con’ in congregation. But it’s comfortable, y’know.”

“You a church-goer?”

“Pffft,” she almost doubles over. “Yeah, right.”

“I mean,” I say, waving my palms, “No judgements. But I’m kind of glad that you aren’t.”

“Heh, yeah. After what my parents put me through, I want to stay as far away from the nearest cross as possible.”

“That bad, huh?” I put my hands in my pockets. “Well, I’m glad I didn’t come off as some kind of Reddit atheist, then.”

“A whattit-whatist?” She looks at me as if I’d just spoken in Hungarian.

“Forget about it. Angels shouldn’t concern themselves with sinners.”

“There’s plenty of time for me to become a sinner.” And she winks, corny as the fields in the distance.

Yet I’m struck with the urge to drink her blood again. But I settle for salivating, and replying:

“Is that so? It’s never too late for me to repent, though, right?”

She steps forward, close enough for me to feel her breath, and whispers:

"What do you say we go somewhere more private, then?”

Kya Hon
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