What would you do for a crush? Would it mean accidentally signing up for a Purity Pledge at your local church?
Not So Pure and Simple by Lamar Giles is the contemporary read you need in your life this year. Our main character Del has had a crush on Kiera Westing since kindergarten and she’s finally single. (Alexa, play “Single Ladies” by Beyoncé) So naturally, Del is right behind Kiera when she volunteers for an opportunity at their church, but that not only means competing with all the other boys pining for Kiera’s attention…it also means polishing off a new purity ring and talking “Birds and the Bees” to the other Pledgers. Big yikes.
In his first contemporary teen novel, Lamar Giles explores crushes, toxic masculinity, and perhaps the most important question of all that no one thinks to ask: what exactly does Kiera want? Find out here in this excerpt of Not So Pure and Simple!
Pastor Newsome’s rules for First Missionary House of the Lord were simple. Every head bowed (mine wasn’t) and every eye closed (nope) while he went on and on with his crazy freestyle prayers.
“Lord!” He gripped his lectern as if fighting a holy tractor beam trying to drag him to heaven right before our eyes. “We know they need to feel that touch from your never-changin’ hand, and we know someone is out there hurtin’ this morning . . .”
Hurtin’? For sure. Between my near-empty wallet forcing me to sit lopsided on that pew-of-steel and yet another infinity sermon, my pain was not in short supply. Newsome was on a roll. He ranted, threw in weird stuff no one seemed to notice, the way he totally did all the time.
“. . . and we see the evil on our TV and in our news reports, Lord. Bless those endangered spider monkeys of the Amazon rain forests!”
“Yes, Lord, yes,” Mom mumbled. She squeezed my hand, nearly crushing my fingers with pulsing robot strength on each word. It sounded like she was cosigning on the old man’s insanity, but over the last few weeks I’d noticed her lips moving even when he wasn’t saying stuff. Not repeating Newsome’s lines. Having her own conversation with God, I guessed. The protocols of Mom’s Sunday worship were still fairly new to me.
We Raineys weren’t hard-core Church People. At least we didn’t used to be. Christmas, sure. Easter. Mother’s Day (which always felt weird because if Mom didn’t normally go, why was it so important to be in service on Mother’s Day? We could’ve been getting those early seats at the Golden Corral buffet). We mumbled grace before we ate meals. When terrible things happened in the world, my parents posted stuff about thoughts and prayers on their Facebook pages. We were that kind of religious.
Dad still was that kind of religious. He’s remained dedicated to not dressing beyond b-ball shorts and slippers on Sunday mornings. As he said, that was his “Adult Privilege.” I probably could’ve exercised my “Teen Privilege” and done the same thing . . . if I was stupid. But, Mom was one-half of the votes on my “Driving Privilege,” and my Spider-Sense warned me that refusing church would have had consequences.
So, each of the last four weeks inevitably gave way to a moment of temptation where I wanted to gnaw my arm off, dive through a stained-glass window, then Usain Bolt my way home, yet I endured. Partially to not endanger possession of my car keys. Though, if I was being honest, there was another incentive for my continued attendance.
While Pastor Newsome ranted, I watched her. She sat across the center aisle, on the same row as me and Mom, so Prayer Peeking was the only time I could really look at her. Otherwise she’d see me, too.
Head bowed. Eyes closed. Kiera leaned far forward, her bare fingers interlaced as she whispered her own prayer. No promise ring in sight.
She’d switched up her hair—a move I recognized thanks to my sister Cressie cycling through hairdos with pop-star frequency, “testing looks” before she left for college. Girl stuff.
At school on Friday, Kiera had been happy, smiling, and rocking springy twist outs that bounced when she passed me in the hall. Since then, she’d flat-ironed her hair into black waterfalls that crested her dark shoulders and the thin straps of her wine-colored dress.
She hadn’t smiled once since service started, though she still looked hot hot. Volcano hot. Dragon hot. Summer barbecue in southern hell hot. Happy or sad, there was no changing that.
With effort, I tore myself away. There’s Prayer Peeking and there’s Prayer Staring. I wasn’t a creepy dude.
Plus, if all went well after service, I wouldn’t have to sneak glimpses anymore. In the meantime, there were other entertaining sights in the church.
Along the side of the sanctuary, six prismatic windows stretched high. On sunny days, the eastern glass turned outside light rainbow and doused chunks of the congregation in paintball colors. All our varying shades of brown got psychedelic.
Missus Baines, the old lady in the pew ahead of me, who shambled in with a cane every week, and smelled like the inventor of cigarettes and peppermints, turned Oompa-Loompa orange. Almost had to squint to look at her. I liked her because she was unpredictable. For the moment, she was quiet, but at any given time she might catch the Holy Ghost, pop up from her pew, and sprint the aisle, swinging her stick. Get too close, she’d knock you out.
Three rows back was another of my Prayer Peeking All-Stars. Coach Scott, tinted leprechaun green, with his eyes squeezed shut hard. He was one of the few First Missionary House of the Lord members I ever saw outside of church. Usually barking at my school’s JV basketball team from the sidelines.
My boy, Qwan, perpetual benchwarmer, claimed Coach Scott wielded curse words like the Force. When the guys were goofing off in practice, he’d hit them with f-bombs that slammed them into stuff. Here, in the house of the Lord, he was still loud, but high-pitched, a weird cartoon-mouse voice. Hands raised and spread wide to catch all those blessings from heaven. He shouted, “Thank you, Jay-SUS!”
A lot of little shows played out among the eighty or ninety people in the congregation every week. There were nose pickers, and throat scratchers, and nail biters, and ear diggers—and all of them wanted you to shake their nasty hands after service. Mom thought I was OCD the way I hit up that little bottle of Purell in her purse some Sundays. Mostly, it was funny to me. Seeing what I wasn’t supposed to see, and knowing what I wasn’t supposed to know.
“We praise you, Lord! We love you, Lord! We need you, Lord!” Newsome, barely taking breaths, kept at it. No sign of slowing down.
I couldn’t resist another peek, and was right back to eyeballing Kiera and her family. The way I was with her, you’d have thought she was a new girl. A transplant from some big city, here to shake up the status quo. Someone from another world. Like the movies. Naw, though. We were born in the same hospital, right here in Green Creek, Virginia.
I’d known her since kindergarten. Had a thing for her since kindergarten, when I was her leading man in the class production of The Wizard of Oz.
(I mean, she was Dorothy, and I was the Cowardly Lion, so there were three leading men if you weren’t counting the kid who played Toto—and I wasn’t; dude didn’t have any lines. Regardless, me and Kiera had obvious chemistry.)
So, what happened? A smooth brother like myself must’ve made a move sometime in the last decade, right. Right?
No. Because Kiera Westing had never been single. Nev. Er.
Actually, there was a brief window from kindergarten to almost the end of elementary school, but—I can admit this—I was more cowardly than lion during those years, and didn’t know we were working a deadline.
On Valentine’s Day during fourth grade, Devin Thompson hit her with some sick game. A homemade, purple “Do you like me? Yes/No/Maybe So” card. She circled yes, and they were like engaged all the way to sixth grade, where they realized they were different people with different dreams. By the time I heard about the breakup, later that afternoon, she was with Corey Thurgood, who wooed her with some lackluster trumpet play.
If she’d watched him drain his spit valves—think waterslide—something I witnessed during my brief stint as a band xylophonist, she probably wouldn’t have found it all that sexy. Neither here nor there. Corey was her boyfriend all the way to the summer before freshman year, when Corey’s mom got a job with some company in Chicago and his family moved, leaving Kiera heartbroken.
My family was doing the vacation thing down at Disney World in Florida, so the heartbroken part I got from a Qwan text. Girls, gossip, and b-ball, in that order, were life for him.
Qwan: Dude! K. Westing is a free agent. Get your game right.
Me: I’ll be back in 3 days.
Qwan: I suggest you start running now.
Three days later, in the airport waiting to board our flight to Virginia, an alternating soundtrack of J. Cole and Kendrick thumping in my headphones, I got the last text on the matter.
Qwan: Maybe next time. Colossus, yo.
I snatched my headphones off, cussed loudly. It drew the attention of my sister, my parents, a TSA agent coming off her lunch break, and some lady’s toddler, who immediately started machine-gunning the four-letter word I’d released into the ether. If Mom wore pearls, she would’ve clutched them.
That kid’s mother did not accept my apology. Worse, they sat right behind us on the plane, and Dad wouldn’t allow me the use of my headphones, so I had to listen to the mini Samuel L. Jackson I created all the way home.
As unpleasant as that was, it had nothing on what awaited me back in Virginia. Kiera’s new boyfriend. Colossus Turner.
Who named their kid Colossus? Maybe psychics who knew their son would grow into a thick-necked state champ wrestler incapable of un-shrugging his shoulders.
Colossus and Kiera’s relationship . . . two years strong. He gave her a promise ring that she wears on her left middle finger. Wore.
I’d given up hope. Even though I saw her every day at school, and now here on Sundays, I came to terms with never having a shot.
Until last night.
Me and Qwan were on a double date. Sort of.
Really, he was on the date with some girl named Erin or Erica, engaging in backseat debauchery while I drove and my uninterested date, whose name I don’t even remember, rode shotgun. Over sloppy sounds of making out and my not-quite-loud-enough music, Erin or Erica’s friend said, “Oh my God!”
Then, she had the nerve to mute my music.
“Never touch my radio,” I said, ready to crank my barely alive tweeters back to max.
She ignored me, contorted into the space between our seats with her phone held out like the Olympic torch, passing it to Erin or Erica. “Look! That hot wrestler boy from Green Creek broke up with his girlfriend.”
All the wet smacking stopped. The girls went Gossip Level Orange talking about Colossus cheating, and how it was only a matter of time, and “some heifer named Angie.” I caught Qwan’s gaze in my rearview, but we didn’t say a word. We didn’t have to.
It was my time.
Kiera’s deacon and deaconess parents were bodyguards on either side of her. Her mom was closest to me but sat stiff and straight and didn’t obstruct my view despite a cream-colored hat that was as wide as a UFO. Her dad’s consistently conservative blue suit looked presidential on her far side.
My plan: after service, I’d catch the Westings in the foyer, where they hovered every Sunday, shaking hands and exchanging niceties—“have a blessed week, brother” and “have a blessed week, sister.” I’d approach Kiera’s dad first, like, “Deacon Westing, I hear you’re in charge of the Ushers’ Board.”
Just curious enough so all the Westings thought What a fine young man this is but not so gung ho that I committed myself to any real work.
We’d chat like that a minute, then Pastor Newsome would come, right on schedule, talking church business with the Westings. Instead of Kiera huddling up in the parking lot with the other church girls, it’d be me and her. At the very least, I’m walking her to her dad’s Cadillac. Talking her to her dad’s Cadillac. I contemplated hitting her with some Langston Hughes poems, or some Drake, but this was short notice. No time to rehearse.
Anyway, I’d be letting her know, in no uncertain terms, that I’m into her, and I want that next-boyfriend slot. Just needed Newsome to let church end. Then I could execute the pl—
Kiera stood. Excused her way past her mom, continued to the front of the church while her dad slow-clapped. He wasn’t the only one.
The applause went viral throughout the congregation, creating a pattering echo under the high ceiling, while Newsome uttered, “Hallelujah, hallelujah.”
Six more kids, some I recognized from school, rose and approached the altar, forming a line when they faced the rest of the congregation. Shanice Monroe and Helena Rickard were sophomores at Green Creek High. Ralph and Bobby Burton, who were eighth graders at the middle school, I believed. Mya Hanson, a fellow junior and my super-serious coworker. Then Jameer Sesay, class Golden Boy. With the exception of Mya, I only knew this group well enough to speak to, nothing more.
“Hallelujah, hallelujah,” said Newsome.
Over the last couple of months, I’d gotten my black belt in daydreaming during sermons. Usually a good thing, but this time I’d missed something important.
A lady approached the pulpit. She was a grown-up, old, like twenty-five. I’d seen her around, but never met her. Flowery sundress. Plump cheeks, light brown skin, a forever smile.
When she stepped to the pulpit, she reached for the mic, an act that seemed to make Newsome uncomfortable enough to abruptly cease his hallelujahs. He gave her the “wait a minute” finger.
One final, emphatic “Hallelujah.” Then he handed over the mic.
She said, “Are there any other young people who’d like to join us on this wonderful journey?”
Oh! An opportunity!
In the early moments of service, before I zoned out, they’d talk about volunteering. Go read to old folks at the nursing home. Help scrub graffiti off the community center. Whatever it was, Kiera would be there. If I got in now, I could still execute the plan, with the added bonus of an obvious shared interest. We’d be volunteering together.
“Excuse me,” I said.
Mom’s head tilted, all confused when I brushed by her.
I hit the aisle; the varnished wooden planks creaked loudly under my weight. Every eye in the place seared me, making my belly feel twisty and moist, giving me second thoughts. I only kept going because it would be more embarrassing to turn back, and I could not be embarrassed in front of Kiera.
While the other kids lined up to Kiera’s right, I took a spot to her left so we were side by side. It sort of wedged me between her and this potted fern Pastor Newsome kept near the pulpit, but I wasn’t going to risk anyone getting between us.
Because I took that spot, when the lady stepped to us with the wireless mic, she came to me first.
“Tell us,” she said, beaming, the happy-face emoji come to life, “why do you want to remain sexually pure until you’re joined in holy matrimony?”
I said, “Huh?”
“What’s your reason for wanting to remain sexually pure?” the friendly lady repeated, shoving the mic in my face. My stomach churned so loud I was afraid it’d come through the surround sound. Everybody in the place was waiting. Kiera included.
I leaned in and said, “Because I love God.”
Casual Churchgoer pro tip: know the appropriate answers. When you did something good, and someone asked why you did it: “Because I love God.” If you did something bad, and someone asked why you shouldn’t do it again: “Because God loves me.” If you threw a Bible verse on top of it, even better. I wasn’t so great at that, so I kept it simple.
My heart rammed my sternum in the silence that followed.
A lone moth fluttered across the sanctuary.
Then, the church went stadium crazy. Claps, shouts, cheers.
I wondered if I was going to get a Super Bowl ring.
“That’s awesome,” said the woman. “Bless you, young man.” She moved on to Kiera. “And you?”
Kiera said, “I also love God. And I want to be sure I’m with someone who loves me the way He does before I give away any part of myself, because I value my body. My temple. First Corinthians 6:18 says: ‘Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits—’”
Her answer was comprehensive. Debate team worthy. She got those good chastity belt cheers, same as me, and the mic went down the line. Everyone’s answer was some version of what me and Kiera already said. Jameer Sesay was last to go.
He was a dude I only knew by reputation, his name and face mounted in the cafeteria under our class banner every grading period for Honor Roll and Perfect Attendance. Type of guy who said hi to teachers he wasn’t even taking classes with. I expected a State of the Virginity Address from him, but when asked the magic question, he gave the shortest answer. “God.”
By then, you could feel the end-of-service fatigue in the room; he still got the victory cheers, though.
The lady wrapped it up with, “Purity Pledge will be a ground-breaking, heart-changing, soul-enriching journey. At the end of this eight-week period—”
“—these young people will be ambassadors of God serving as positive influences for their peers and the community at large. The course culminates with our Purity Ball, where the parents, and any of you in the congregation who wish to attend, can bear witness as they pledge, before the Lord, abstinence until the day they’re married. I’m so excited, by—”
“Amen, Sister Vanessa,” Pastor Newsome said, reaching for his microphone.
She—Vanessa—lost her smile; she passed the mic. Newsome swept a hand from us to the congregation, giving us permission to return to our seats. Kiera broke formation first. Of course, I was right behind her, enjoying the view, because that dress, oh my Gawd. Kiera was what you’d call slim thick. There are whole Instagram accounts dedicated to booties like hers. How could I not follow her? And the rest followed me.
The benediction was as long as ever, padded with additional prayers for I don’t know what. I couldn’t even pretend I was paying attention at that point. I was Prayer Peeking again, zeroed in on Kiera, still thinking my plan could work. Further down her pew, two arms raised. Wide at first, before crossing into an X, then wide again. Jameer Sesay, Prayer Peeking like me. At me. Trying to get my attention.
He shook his head. Mouthed something. It looked like Don’t do it.
“Amen!” Pastor Newsome said, the band giving us a free-to-leave musical cue. Everyone stood, and white-gloved ushers got to work extinguishing candles with brass snuffers. Mom shook hands with folks around us. Some patted me on the back for joining Purity Pledge. A thin sea of people parted as Jameer wedged his way toward me.
I told Mom, “Be right back.”
Skirting around folks, I met him halfway, all while flicking glances at the Westings. Didn’t want this interruption messing up my operation.
Jameer was a little shorter than me. Way skinnier, with a Gloworm’s complexion. He wore black-framed glasses, and pristine suits with his neckties done in intricate knots.
We’d only exchanged “what up” nods in passing. So, when he slapped my palm, and pulled me into a bro-hug, I thought this was more Purity Pledge nonsense. But, he whispered in my ear, “I know what you’re thinking. Don’t. Bad timing.”
I backed out of the hug, stomach churning again. “Yeah,” he said, “I’m talking about her.”
The Westings were in the foyer shaking hands. The group gathered around Kiera was thicker than usual, giving her arm extra pumps of encouragement. I was missing my in.
Jameer laughed. Laughed. “You look so thirsty. Let me guess. You’re thinking she broke up with Colossus. You need to rush in, right now, profess your undying love.”
“How did you—?”
“Please. You and half the school. Three guys already asked her to prom.”
Three? Prom was nine months away. And I was going to take her. Bet that!
“Relax,” Jameer said, “they all got noes. You’re going to get a no if you don’t listen to me.”
My head was all over the place. The other times I’d waited and lost. Three prom invitations? In less than twenty-four hours? “How you know any of this? Why tell me?”
“Walk with me.” He took the aisle to the pulpit, where a couple of deaconesses tipped collection plates into buckets, the loose change clattering. The crowd in the foyer thinned. Pastor
Newsome worked through a few straggler parishioners, his dark robe swishing, patting backs en route for the Westings. If I was going to execute my plan, it had to be now.
Jameer’s warning, though.
He swung a sharp right and took a side door outside. I rushed after him, emerged in a grassy, fenced-in side yard. A swing set, slide, and monkey bars occupied a rectangular patch with a plank-board border, filled end to end with crunchy broken seashells that definitely have skinned and definitely will skin knees. Giggling young kids with sleepy-looking young parents played. They all waved at Jameer and he waved back as I caught up, in time to see a couple of parents turn their children away from my new friend.
Forgetting that oddity almost as soon as I saw it, I said, “Does Kiera know what’s up? I mean, that I wanna get with her?”
“Not really. It’s shocking how oblivious she is about how many of you are unhealthily obsessed with her.” He leaned on the fence and stroked all three of his chin hairs, enjoying this. “I know because you’re just not very original.”
“What?” Were we about to fight? It felt like we should fight. “You’re doing what everyone else is. The day after someone she thought she loved betrayed her. You want to get in on the ground floor when the building’s not open.”
“You a poet or something?”
Awesome analogies aside, I still had suspicions. “Why are you even talking to me right now?”
“Because I’ve seen you looking all enamored every Sunday. I know we don’t know each other like that, but you seem like a good enough dude. Someone should tell you you’re doing the most right now, and it’s not cute.”
“Maybe you’re saying all this so you can snake me. Knock out a contender.”
He laughed. Again. “Hardly. Living within one hundred feet of her for as long as I can remember inoculated me. Thank God. I’d hate being like the rest of you puppies nipping at her ankles. Plus, I don’t know how much of a contender you are, rocking a clip-on.”
My hand floated to my tie involuntarily. I forced it back down.
“Not to be all demanding,” Jameer said, “but I like my favors returned.”
“Favor? I didn’t ask for your help.”
“Be glad you didn’t have to. As I said, I’ll be collecting. Not sure what, yet. When I know, you’ll know.”
This guy. “I’m not promising you anything.”
“Reevaluate.” He approached a latched gate that opened on the church parking lot. “You’re in this Purity Pledge with us now. Maybe you can get to know her better, with some assistance. Though, considering the class, what you probably have in mind might be a bit counterproductive.” He shook his head and was gone.
I took the side entrance back into the church. The foyer was clear. The Westings had left. I felt deflated, my clothes suddenly baggy on me. Mom sat in our pew, patiently flipping through a packet of paper she didn’t have before.
“Here.” She thrust a folder the color of communion wine into my hands. “From Sister Vanessa. You’d run off, so she gave it to me.”
A white mail label affixed to it read: Purity Pledge Materials and Activities. Spreading the folder wide, I noticed the first page was a schedule. Assignments and due dates. “There’s homework?”
“Apparently. Y’all meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays after school. I’m really proud of you. I had no clue this was a commitment you wanted to make.”
Yeah, Mom. Sometimes I even surprise myself.
“YOU SORRY PIECE OF SH—” Dad clipped his profanity as we emerged from the garage into the kitchen, Mom leading me, shaking her head. A thick simmering beef-and-spice aroma clouded the air. Dad hunched over the slow cooker with the lid off, steam billowing up around his shaved face and head, making him look like a genie escaping a Crock-Pot. An angry genie, with a view of the football game playing on our living room TV.
“The Dolphins losing?” I asked.
Dad gave me the “of course they are” shrug, then asked Mom, “How was church?”
“You’d know if you’d go,” she said in her standard tone.
Dad adhered to the script, as neutral and noncommittal as ever. “Maybe next time.”
They kissed, a quick peck, no hard feelings since Dad’s hand slipped below the counter to do-a-thing-I-didn’t-want-to-think-about, causing Mom to jump and slap his fingers from her backside playfully. Sultry looks were exchanged, and I’d for sure need to charge my headphones later tonight if I was to avoid traumatic bed squeaking.
“Cressie called,” said Dad, sounding cranky. Crankier than he was about the Dolphins losing.
Mom whirled, and snatched the cordless handset from the wall mount, dialing my sister’s number. “Is everything okay?”
“You tell me, Tina. Because right now I’m worried the massive tuition payment we made is not okay.”
Mom ceased dialing. “Really.”
“It’s been a month since we moved her on campus. She’s popped up back home twice already, and she’s on the phone with you nearly every day. Is she going to class? Have you seen any grades yet? I know you miss her, but damn.”
Mom’s new look—definitely not sultry. She turned the corner, the squawking tones of dialed numbers drowned by her stomping footsteps ascending the stairs.
Dad shook his head and went back to stirring his meat. Mysteries of the nightly meal intrigued me way more than Cressie’s drama, so I said, “Smells good. What is it?”
“Slow-braised beef. Going to hook up some street tacos.” “Nice.” This was the unforeseen benefit of our relatively new weekly church tradition. Since Dad refused to go, he’d cook us a banging meal every Sunday as a peace offering. I don’t know what Mom prayed about up in First Missionary, but I’d been asking God to keep these meals coming. Guess that spiritual stuff really works. Still, I could use a break. “Dad, how about we switch it up next week? You hit church with Mom, and I stay behind to cook.”
“Wow. It’s not just the Dolphins making bad plays today.” He dumped a small mound of chopped onions into his cauldron, then held up a torn envelope from Nationwide Car Insurance as a reminder that I had more pressing concerns than weekly worship. “Don’t you have somewhere to be? Freedom ain’t free, young man.”
On the TV a pass grazed a receiver’s fingers before sailing out of bounds, and Dad resumed his cursing (quietly), our conversation over. Unclipping my tie, I made my way upstairs to get ready for work.
Mom’s voice echoed in the hall, cheery and skeptical in a way only moms could pull off. “. . . I don’t know what a YouTuber is, but it doesn’t sound like a real career to me, Cressie.”
She saw me pass, and shouted, “Del, come talk to your sister.” I leaned into the room. “Mom, I got work.”
“Talk. To. Your sister.” Mom shoved the phone into my hand. I said, “Hey, C.”
“So, have you flunked out yet?”
“No,” she huffed. “Asshole.”
“Mom, Cressie said a bad word. On Sunday.”
But Mom was in the walk-in closet, changing. I sat on the edge of my parents’ bed, then flopped backward, stared at the slow-whirling ceiling fan. “For real, school going okay for you?”
“School is school.”
“That’s real disappointing. I always thought college supposed to be fun. Are you doing college correctly?”
“How’s school for you, big-time junior?”
“You already know. Ain’t nothing changed at Green Creek.” Not exactly true. But I wasn’t about to get into the latest GCHS drama with Mom a dozen feet away. Plus, I’d give my sister some credit; what interest would a college student really have in the petty nonsense happening in my high school’s hallways?
I almost said “soon,” but, again, Mom was right there. “On that note, I gotta get to the gig.”
“You know you can always ask me for advice when you need it, little brother.”
“Cold day in hell, big sister.”
“Del!” Mom barked from the closet. “Now you care about bad words?” Cressie said, “Love you, punk!”
“I know.” I passed Mom the phone and made my way to my room.
Inside, door closed and locked, I peeled off my church clothes and excavated my closet floor for faded jeans, my wrinkled official company shirt, and my catfish-stenciled hat. After suiting up, I grabbed my phone, earbuds, and car keys to pull a paper chase at the least appetizing restaurant in all of Green Creek.
“Welcome to Monte FISHto’s! What are you casting your hook for?” I was on autopilot, immune to the clotted smell of Old Bay batter.
My register’s touchscreen glowed, and I tapped in an order of two Cra-Burgers with extra Sea Sauce, Filet Fries (they’re regular fries, but the FISHto brand insisted on everything sounding extra), and drinks. “That’s twelve ninety-eight.”
I’d been there an hour; my first customer of the day, reeking of musty weed smoke and problems, handed me a crumpled, expired 50-percent-off coupon.
“Sir, I can’t take this.”
“What you mean you can’t take it?” He expected his red-eyed gaze to be the tiebreaker in our little dispute.
I said, “It expired last year.”
“No it ain’t.”
“Sir, this coupon is no longer valid and I, literally, can’t do anything about it. It’s got a bar code, and the system won’t even let me scan it.” I showed him the error message on my register—like it’d matter.
“Hell, naw.” Now he was loud. “I ain’t come here to be cheated out of my dough, lil’ man. Where the manager?”
My manager, Tyrell, waddled around the corner, his belly stress-testing his button-up boss shirt that had a fancy version of the Monte FISHto mascot “The Count”—a red cartoon catfish dressed all British with a sword—stenciled over the heart, fronting like the Ralph Lauren polo horse. Tyrell had fat fingers, fat knuckles, and the kind of hair like the seats on public toilets. U-shaped, rimming the side of his head, while the rest of his scalp was completely bare. His eyebrows were raised so they were the closest things to a hairline he’d had in a while. “What’s going on, Del?”
“This customer wants to use this coupon.” I handed the flimsy, faded paper over.
“I’m sorry about the inconvenience, sir.” Tyrell punched his manager’s code into my register, taking half off the meal. “Go grab his order, Del.”
“Yeah, go grab my order, lil’ man.” He paid his $6.50 with a fifty he peeled from a thick wad of bills. I turned away to meet Stu the Cook at the counter between the kitchen and the front line.
When the food was claimed, and Weed-Douche bopped out with World Champ swagger, I waited for Tyrell to give his usual spiel. “Customer’s always right, Del.”
“Except when they’re wrong. Dude cheated us.”
“True. He seemed like a troublemaker though. What do we not want in our restaurant?”
He wanted me to say trouble. I said, “Roaches. Might be too late, though.”
Stu cackled, but my other coworker gave a slow headshake from her post in the drive-thru hutch, then went about polishing up the Coke machine with a damp cloth.
Mya Hanson had made the transition from First Missionary Holy Youth to Fish Flinger same as me. A FISHto’s uniform was not flattering, and Mya didn’t put any effort into enhancing the look. Her shirt was a size too large, her pants too baggy and dusty with batter. I mean it was the same deal with my uniform, but she’s a girl. Don’t get me started on that sloppy ponytail sticking through the back of her signature Monte cap. In church you could tell she tried a little. Here? I don’t know. To each his, or her, own. I guessed.
Our shifts often aligned because we had the same school (and now church) schedule. We never talked much, despite all that overlap. She was a nose-to-the-grindstone, on-to-the-next-task kind of person. Killing herself like she didn’t recognize FISHto’s for the joke that it was.
Tyrell disappeared to the back, doing whatever the manager of an unappetizing Long John Silver’s knockoff did, leaving Stu, Mya, and me to our respective stations.
Except Mya crossed the imaginary border between drive-thru and front line, wiping crumbs off a counter that was technically my responsibility. I never felt possessive of FISHto squalor until that moment. Well, maybe possessive was the wrong word. Judged?
Quickly, I snatched a clean cloth from a bin on the wall, soaked it in the nearby sink, then began scrubbing the opposite end of the counter while eyeing her. “I was going to get that, you know.”
“It’s slow right now. So we help each other.”
It’s always slow at FISHto’s, and I’d never helped on her station. Something was off here.
Mya Hanson was—how to say this? Like the out-of-focus ghost in the background of a quiet horror movie. There, but not. I mostly only ever saw her out the corner of my eye.
With a second dry rag she produced from her apron pocket, she went back over the streaks she’d left on the counter, buffing the tiles to a glossy shine, really exercising attention to detail while working closer to me. I was focused on her, barely paying attention where and how I dragged my sloppy wet cloth. “There’s something you want to say, Mya. I can tell.”
The gap between us closed to whisper-distance. She did this exaggerated glance toward the back like we were coconspirators. Stu was the only possible witness, and he had his chin propped in his hand, dozing. A dangerous thing to do over the hot grill, but he’d beaten the odds so far.
Mya, hushed, but excited, said, “Purity Pledge!” “What about it?”
“We’re doing it!” Her brown cheeks turned rosy. “I don’t mean doing IT. Obviously. We’re on the same journey.”
That’s what she wanted to talk about?
With the Mya mystery solved, I abandoned counter cleaning completely, shooting my rag toward the sink like a Steph Curry three-pointer. The wet cloth smacked the floor about a foot short of the basin. Mya flinched at my horrible miss.
“I didn’t warm up.” I rotated my shoulder, wincing like I might be injured. “Go on. Purity Pledge.”
“I don’t know if you know this, but me and my mother are part of the First Missionary Welcome Committee.”
I did. Mrs. Hanson had been cozying up to Mom about us transitioning from frequent visitors to official church members. My mother was one of those use-the-entire-trial-period kind of people, so she was taking her time on the decision. “That keep you busy?” I said.
“Not exactly. There aren’t a ton of new people coming to our church.”
I nodded, well aware.
“As someone with a mandate of making all who step through the church doors feel a part of something bigger than themselves, I was very happy to see you so eager to be a part of PP . . .” Her voice trailed off, a weird hesitation. “. . . though, I do have a question.”
“I was . . . under the impression . . . that you weren’t exactly,” she did another glance toward the back, embarrassed to look me in the eye, “pure?”
Her voice sped up. “Not that I’m criticizing. But, I mean, don’t you have a sort of reputation?”
I had no response. I was still processing the Purity Pledge thing myself, and Mya Hanson was vetting my virginity?
The door chimed before I could formulate a solid answer.
When I saw who it was, I felt saved.
“I’m going on break,” I said to no one in particular.
But saying “break” was like saying “Voldemort”—Tyrell appeared from the back in a cloud of Trout Breading. “Company policy says employees have to work a minimum of three hours before taking a maximum of fifteen minutes’ rest, and by my count—”
“Or,” said Qwan, my best friend, and former Monte FISHto’s coworker, “you could pass him the mop and let him improve these dirty-ass floors.”
Tyrell waggled a finger Qwan’s way. “You’re not even supposed to be in here. Thief!”
Before those two could really get going, I gripped the nearest mop with two hands and steered a bucket of stagnant gray water onto the main floor. “Call me if you need me.”
Given the nonexistent flow of customers lately, that was unlikely.
Mya looked put out, like she’d wholly expected our conversation to continue . . . or at least officially end. Nope.
At the back of the restaurant, out of Tyrell’s sights, Qwan splayed in a booth like it was his living room couch. Ball cap cocked, blue hoodie jacket, matching LeBrons with laces loose in a way that would make me lose a shoe.
He dripped swag, as usual. Made lounging in a fast-food joint look like a mixtape cover. Made me want to be free of my trash uniform so I could do the same. But, money. I squeezed extra water from my mop and did the thing.
Qwan lifted a foot away from my swishing mop head. “Tyrell really still tripping about those nasty Cra-Burgers?”
“You stole food. You were wrong, dude.”
He flopped back, hands behind his head to support the wide grin on his face. “It was so worth it, though. I bet you wish you’d done it.”
The “it” he was referring to . . . he’d given that food away to a couple of bad Carolina girls who’d crossed the southern Virginia border into our part of the world for . . . reasons. I’d been working the drive-thru the night it happened. Tyrell caught him immediately. Fired him immediately. From my window perch, I watched Qwan stroll into the parking lot, FISHto shirt untucked and flapping in the wind like an action movie hero walking away from an explosion. He enthusiastically accepted a ride from the grateful ladies. What he said happened after that, I want to believe it’s a lie, because if it’s not a lie, it makes him a legend.
“What are you doing here?” I asked. “I know it’s not to eat.” “Hell naw. I should whistle-blow on this place. Tell the Environmental Protection Agency or something. I walked all the way up here to find out what happened with Kiera. You make a move?”
A particularly sticky milkshake stain snatched my attention. “D,” Qwan said. “No.”
My mopping trajectory shifted and I left him in the booth. “I didn’t punk out. Timing wasn’t right.”
On his feet, he paced me. “Timing? If you didn’t do it now, it might already be too late. Kiera Westing is Green Creek’s Most Wanted.”
“You don’t think I know that? It’s different this time.” “Damn right. Because if you’re not going to step to her, I might. That girl is fire.”
I whacked him across the chest with my mop handle. He raised his hands in surrender. “Joke, joke. I know Bro Code’s in effect here. Alls I’m saying is—”
“I’m working on it. See, we’re both in the Purity Pledge at church now. That’s going to give me some time with her.” Working backward, tracing big wet arcs along the perpetually filthy tile, I left a cock-eyed Qwan stone-still on the other side of a widening soap-and-water moat. He shook off the momentary freeze and stamped alternating sets of Nike swooshes across my floor to rejoin me.
“Yeah, it’s when you agree not to—”
He sliced a hand through the air, cutting me off. “I know what it is. I saw a Netflix documentary on that creepy shit. Dads were taking their daughters to the prom.”
“I don’t know about all that.”
“It’s No-Bone Zone, though. Right? Voluntary celibacy.” “If you’re going to be crass about it, I guess.”
He knocked the mop from my grasp, and the handle clattered loudly. “Worst. Plan. Ever. We already don’t agree about this one-true-love stuff you been on with Kiera since birth. But, fine. You haven’t necessarily let it hold you back. When’s the last time you got some, though?”
I glanced over my shoulder, concerned Mya, my new purity monitor, might hear. My voice low, I said, “What’s it to you?”
“Tanisha Thompson’s basement party. It almost doesn’t count because everybody smashed. And it was two years ago. It’s like you took a Purity Pledge right after.”
A name I hadn’t thought about lately bobbed to the surface of my thoughts, like those Magic 8 Ball answers floating up from black water. Shianne Griffiths. Me and her in Tanisha’s dark, private guest bathroom, a single candle burning on the marble sink.
“Get out the way!” I hit him with an NFL-caliber stiff arm and snatched my mop up. “One of us cares about not being fired.”
“And one of us cares about you using your little wee-wee before you die.”
“Stop thinking about my wee—my dick, Qwan.” “Somebody got to.”
“Bro. I gets mine. All right? Just because I’m not telling you all my business . . .”
“That’s just sad, D. You told me when your mom found those limited-edition sparkle Pop-Tarts you like. You hit me at midnight about them shits. You’d definitely tell me if you were getting some booty.”
“Dude, I’m good.” I wasn’t.
We were back in front, and Mya was too busy with a drive-thru order to pick up on the context clues about that “reputation” she’d heard about not being all that.
Tyrell leaned over a clipboard, jotting down managerial stuff.
I said, “Hey, Tyrell, Qwan’s trying to convince me to steal a case of Flounder Patties. You should kick him out.”
Tyrell didn’t look up. “Get out, Qwan.”
“Fine. I got ladies to check on anyway. Hopefully the stench of this place hasn’t stuck to me, messing up my game so that it’s like yours, Del.”
My mop became a bat, the mold-smelling drenched end cocked over my shoulder and ready to fling gross water. “You should go.”
He flipped both middle fingers and backed into bright afternoon sunshine. “Later, Mister Clean.”
Though he was gone, Qwan’s evaluation remained. Purity Pledge. Worst. Plan. Ever.
That stung. But it also held weight because, statistically speaking, Qwan was mad successful with girls. Since he lost his virginity three years prior, he’d been obsessed with getting more, more, more. He treated Instagram like it was Amazon, always shopping, always sliding into some new girl’s DMs looking for nothing longer than two-day delivery. He swore he smashed as much as he did because he didn’t do emotion. Told me I shouldn’t do emotion, that girls liked it when you weren’t all soft and fuzzy.
His thinking wasn’t much different than most of the dudes at school.
Qwan thought I was too picky. According to him, if Kiera Westing didn’t exist, I’d be saving myself for some hot actress on TV because that’s the next level of unattainable after Kiera. I let him think it. It was easier than the truth.
Doing it the way he did, the way most dudes talked about . . . I envied it, really. I wished I was built like that. It seemed fun. Somehow easier. Until it went wrong, anyway. Something everyone at Green Creek High had witnessed.
I’m not built that way though, not the smash-on-the-couch-after-school-before-some-adult-got-home type. I liked the way Dad sat on one corner of the sofa with Mom wedged in his armpit, her feet tucked under her, while we all watched Jeopardy! or Black-ish. I liked watching them hold hands in the Costco before I was old enough to skip the trip. That’s the kind of thing I wanted. With Kiera. And it wasn’t unattainable. I wouldn’t let it be.
I mopped until my arm ached. After, I stowed my bucket. There were three hours left in my shift. Then Tyrell let me know to adjust my math.
“Business is slow. Gotta send you home early, Del.”
Not the news I wanted. Two hours’ work for the whole week wasn’t even a full tank of gas, let alone car insurance money. Mya remained in the drive-thru nook, filling a couple of Whale-Sized cups with ice and Sprite, no signs of slowing down.
“Just me?” I asked.
Tyrell gave me a half grin. “We’ve got the rest of the evening covered.”
My driving privileges were on the line here. “Can I get on the schedule some evenings this week?”
Tyrell held his clipboard to his chest like a shield. “I’ll call if I got something.”
Not down for answering any “why you home so soon?” questions, I caught a movie at the two-dollar theater in Old Town Green Creek, then made my way home around the time my shift should’ve ended.
Mom’s car was MIA when I pulled into the driveway. She was back at church, for the special Sunday-evening worship First Missionary did every other week. Like, seriously, how much praying did you need to do in one day? Dad was zonked out on the couch, snoring, an NFL game watching him. I slipped to the kitchen quietly, huffed down three—maybe four—tacos, then made my way upstairs to the Sanctum Sanctorum, aka my room.
Mom had left my Purity Pledge folder on my keyboard. But, it wasn’t the only item.
There was also a signed permission slip I’d brought home weeks ago and forgotten about, with the Green Creek High crest printed at the top. It said:
Healthy Living Elective Opt-In Form/Grade 11
If you wish to opt your student into some or all of the grade eleven Healthy Living Elective (HLE) lessons, please complete this form and return it to your student’s Health/PE teacher by the Week 1 date on your welcome letter.
PLEASE NOTE: You MUST return this form if you wish for your student to participate in the Grade 11 HLE activities.
CHILD’S NAME: Delbert Rainey, Jr.
Directions: Please check ONLY those lessons in which you want your child to take part.
“Healthy Living” . . . was sex ed. Last year it was “Family Living” . . . but still really sex ed. Why they didn’t call it that had always puzzled me. And the lessons . . .
Below the instructions was a list of lessons, divided up over eight weeks. I skimmed phrases like “strengths of my interpersonal goals,” and “maturity and decision making,” and “A thorough review of STD prevention and contraception.” For some reason, that one was in bold type.
Rocking back in my chair, eyes rolled back, I groaned. Eight weeks of Purity Pledge and this?
Sitting up, I said, “Eight weeks.”
I set the permission slip aside and opened my Purity Pledge folder. The first page had a weekly breakdown of our purity lessons. Immediate phrases that jumped out: “strengths of biblical principles,” and “God’s will vs. my will” and “A thorough review of why Jesus wants me to abstain.”
In bold type.
Snatching up my Healthy Living permission slip, I held the breakdowns of the two classes side by side. Each week, each lesson, was like Bizarro World opposites. Whatever was on the books for Healthy Living, Purity Pledge went the other way. And vice versa.
What the hell?
Or what the heaven? I mean, this definitely wasn’t a coincidence. The parallels were too exact, right down to the fonts. The image that popped in my head . . . tug-of-war.
This felt important. I would’ve pondered it more, but I got a text from Qwan.
Qwan: Got a new IG follow for you. MzIndependentNCS. She’s Nigerian, Colombian, and Swedish bro. Bikini shots are bananas!
And then I moved on to Instagram. To explore the nations of the world.