In honor of my birthday next week, my latest novella WHERE THERE’S SMOKE is on sale for 99 cents until November 8th, then $1.99 until the 12th, when it will return to its usual price of $2.99. Like stories with intrigue, suspense, and a bit of controversy (homosexuality, forbidden relationships, spiritual abuse)? Now’s your chance to give it a try for less than a cup of coffee. Full synopsis and chapter excerpt below.
Pastor Henry Collins is hailed as a hero after rescuing a teenage girl from a burning church. But the real reason he was at the right place at the right time is known only to him and Hannah Mercer, the teenage girl he rescued: a girl whose faith has more to do with keeping up appearances than anything to do with God.
Lia Anders is a classmate of Hannah’s: a girl whose coming out as a lesbian resulted in immediate expulsion from the church. As an unlikely friendship develops between the two, Hannah begins to realize the error of her hypocritical ways, and encourages Henry to make a decision that will forever alter the course of their lives. But for Henry, the price of living a lie is easier than owning up to the truth.
Where There’s Smoke is a story that asks: who are we really? Are we the sum of all our actions? And is the note we finish our lives on the most defining of them all?
Without having to discuss it, Hannah and Lia kept within their self-imposed margins at school. Their “friendship,” if it could be called that, had an unspoken clause of staying within the bounds of Lia’s home. It was unfortunate, as Hannah was beginning to realize Lia wasn’t the deviant soul-snatcher her church would have her believe. But what could she do? If Lia were a true friend, she wouldn’t force Hannah to choose between her and Kaylee. Right?
Lunch hour remained the same. Their respective tables were not far apart; Kaylee didn’t have to make much effort to raise her voice for Lia to overhear her pre-lunch prayer: “Lord, we thank you for this bounty of food you blessed us with, and we pray you will use our witness to set an example for other students who are trapped in a life of sin.” The other girls echoed “Amen,” Hannah included, but a stolen glance at Lia made her lose her appetite. She didn’t appear angry or offended; she merely rolled her eyes at Hannah and returned to her book.
But within minutes, she disappeared.
It would have served Hannah right to be stood up, but after the final bell Lia was waiting at their usual spot outside the school, not a minute too late. “Ready to go?” Hannah squawked, shoulders hunched, preparing to be shot down.
Lia shrugged. “Sure. Whatever. Let’s go.”
She took off at a rapid pace. Without further question, Hannah adjusted the straps of her bag and took off after her.
“I think I did better on the last quiz,” she huffed. “But I still have a few questions about variables–”
“Mmhmm,” hummed Lia, without turning around or slowing down.
“And maybe we could look at some of these homework questions? I think Maddix said they might be on the next quiz–”
Lia stopped short, causing Hannah to trip over her own feet to avoid crashing into her. “Do you and your little church minions think I’m deaf or something?”
A knot formed in Hannah’s throat. “What?”
“I have ears, you know. And they work fine. Your friends make damn sure of that.”
The knot wound itself tighter, threatening to strangle her. “Well, um, maybe you could switch tables and then you wouldn’t hear them.”
“Now there’s a colossal example of missing the point,” Lia snorted.
“What do you want me to do?” Hannah asked the ground.
Lia drew a sharp breath, poised to issue an ultimatum: give up Kaylee and the rest of the church crowd, or fail Algebra. Even before she asked, Hannah knew she was thinking it, and promised herself not to put up a fight if that was what she decided to do. They each had their principles, and made respective sacrifices in order to keep them. But just because Lia weighed the costs and decided she could live without friends didn’t mean that Hannah could.
“Nothing,” Lia sighed. “Just forget it.” They walked the rest of the way to her house in thick, smoky silence.
Tucked in the safety of her cozy kitchen, Lia still showed hospitality in setting out crackers and boiling water for tea. With their textbooks splayed open on the table, they could have carried on with business as usual, but Henry’s Just be kind advice chorused in Hannah’s head, prompting her to ask, “When did you know you were gay?”
Lia looked up, startled but not angry, as she poured steaming water into the mugs. “My whole life, pretty much.”
Hannah waited for a “Why do you ask?” to follow, but none came. “Your whole life? Really?”
Setting the mugs on the table, Lia responded, “When I was four, I told my mom I wanted to marry a girl. She laughed it off, but my dad rightly took it as an omen and urged my mom to take me to some kind of therapist. She insisted it was a phase and I’d grow out of it. Then, in first grade, the class had a mock wedding for the letters ‘q’ and ‘u’ because, you know; they’re always together in the English language. I asked the teacher why both letters couldn’t be decorated with lace. And that’s just the beginning.”
“So…” Hannah sipped her tea, realizing she was treading on thin ice. “So you mean…you didn’t choose to be gay?”
“When did you choose to be straight?”
“Then there you go.”
The workbooks were still open, but Hannah decided that wasn’t the lesson she wanted to focus on. “The youth group had a guest speaker who said she was cured of homosexuality not too long ago.”
“Hate to be the one to break it to you, but that lady is either lying or in deep denial.”
“Kaylee says with enough prayer, we can overcome anything.”
“Well, Kaylee says a lot of idiotic things.”
In her church, in their school, insulting the deacon’s daughter was tantamount to blasphemy. “You really hate her, don’t you?”
The words slapped. Lia calmly stirred her tea, but Hannah could detect a slight hummingbird shaking of her hand that held the spoon. “I don’t hate anyone, Hannah. The world has way too much of that already.”
Hannah wouldn’t have blamed Lia one bit if she did hate her. Even Hannah herself wondered what might happen if she dared to doubt Kaylee’s lunchtime prayers or evangelical campaigns as being less authoritative than the Gospel itself. But not because Hannah had opposing convictions–she’d believe whatever it took to have a place at their coveted table.
Hannah hadn’t realized the attractiveness of humility until her meeting with Henry. Henry, who blushed when she thanked him for taking time out of his busy schedule to meet with her. Henry, who probably learned all the answers about life and faith from his pastor father by the time he was old enough to toddle, but still demonstrated a kind of patience that made her feel safe instead of stupid.
Henry. She would see him again in less than two hours. She ought to bring up the math lesson so neither her time nor Lia’s was wasted–and so she’d stop grinning like an idiot–but now she was far too curious. “Is that why your dad left? He couldn’t handle you being gay?”
The question had been knocking the walls of her brain ever since Lia had mentioned she had an absent father. Today it was barely contained behind the cage of her teeth; she opened her mouth to snack on a cracker, and it slipped out like a slithery eel.
“Wow, aren’t you brazen today.” Lia resumed stirring, even though the sugar had to be long dissolved by then. “He and my mom had a lot of issues, but yeah, I guess the different ways they viewed their dyke daughter was one of them.”
The last time Hannah heard the word dyke was over a year ago, when Lia first came out–obviously not used in any positive sense. It baffled her how casually Lia used the word to refer to her own self. She was itching to ask her about it, but gorged herself on crackers instead. She probably maxed out her Personal Question Quota for the day.
But Lia hadn’t. “So why did your dad leave?”
It was now Hannah’s turn to shake. “I’m not sure.”
“Come on, I told you my ugly truth. Now it’s your turn.”
Hannah shook her head. “I honestly don’t know. Things weren’t perfect before, but I didn’t think…I never expected him to…” God, it was so embarrassing how quickly the tears welled and threatened to spill over. No one had ever asked her about it before, not genuinely. There were girls who wanted salacious details only, and there were the Kaylee types who patted her pain with “God can fix anything!” platitudes that were more annoying and hurtful than any gossip.
With her “Faith Face” strapped firmly in place, Hannah could fake her way through almost anything. She never expected to crumble so easily from kindness–especially from the least likely person to show her what that looked like.
“Hey, look, I’m sorry. You don’t have to share if you don’t want to.” But the tears already started flowing in snotty rivulets down her face, prompting Lia to move her chair to the other side of the table, next to her.
After what they’d just shared about their lives, it was ridiculous for Hannah to tense up when Lia hugged her–of course it was a friendship hug–but old habits were tough to break. The blazing thought Ohmygod a lesbian has her arm around me pulsed in Hannah’s head for a moment before she had the sense to shut it down.
And then she allowed herself to hug Lia back.