Tania Peters had it all—a loving, supportive family, and a future that seemed all but set. But when her mother is killed in a plane crash in the jungles of Ecuador, her world comes crashing down around her. As a result, she adopts a live for today philosophy. Throwing herself into the arms of her boyfriend, Tania seeks all that society says will bring satisfaction and meaning into her life. But she soon realizes this is a lie, and begins to fall under the spell of the Unity Party, a political movement that has swept Robert Allen into the White House. But such allegiances come at a price: complete and unquestioned loyalty to the Party. Despite all the “good” the Party does for society, Tania’s devotion to the movement is pushed to the limit when her own father, the Pastor of the Calvary Community Church, is arrested and jailed when he refuses to compromise his religious beliefs. Forced to decide between her past and her future, Tania rediscovers the faith she has long since abandoned, even though such a decision could cost everything she holds dear, including her life.
Rain thrummed against the Cessna’s windshield like thousands of little steel pellets as the engines did their best to maintain an altitude of four thousand feet. Helen Peters stared at the thick canopy of trees extending to the horizon. In the midst of tangled foliage, a clearing several hundred feet across drifted into view. A dozen huts were huddled together in the middle of a grassy field. It had to be a Huaorani village.
She turned to Steve Myerson, in the pilot’s seat. “If the vaccine we’re carrying doesn’t stop the epidemic in time, those people down there won’t stand a chance.”
“I’ll see if I can coax a little more out of the engines, but they're already straining against a sixty-knot headwind. This storm is getting worse by the minute.” The plane suddenly jerked to the right. “Whoa!” Steve exclaimed as he held firmly onto the controls. “That was a deep one.”
Helen grabbed her seatbelt tight. “A deep what?” she asked above the whine of the engines.
“Air pocket,” he replied after checking the artificial horizon. “I expect it’s going to be a bumpy ride all the way to Xoacatil.”
Helen's countenance dropped. “Do you think we’re in…any danger?”
Steve didn’t respond. He sat rigid in the pilot seat, staring out the window.
Without any warning, high-pitched alarms exploded in the cabin.
“Blast,” Steve exhaled. He leaned forward and stared at the flashing red light in the middle of the panel.
“Oil pressure in number one is dropping.”
Helen turned towards the left engine. Black liquid spurted out from under the cowling. “One of the lines must have broken. Oil is leaking onto the wing.”
He snatched the microphone out of the holder and pulled it close. “This is Cessna HBQ117. We are presently traveling one-two-five miles-per-hour...heading 175 degrees, north by northwest from Simon Bolivar Airport. We are experiencing engine trouble. Do you read? Over.” Static. “Can anyone read me? This is Cessna HBQ117. Over.”
The same static hiss filled the cabin.
A sudden gust slammed into the plane and it violently pitched downward. Steve pulled hard on the controls, but they fought him. “Come on, come on,” he said over the roar of the engines. He brought the nose up, but the tree line below was still coming up on them fast.
“We need more altitude.”
“I'm trying!—but these downdrafts are really vicious.”
Black smoke belched out of engine number one, and a terrible grinding noise shook the cabin. All at once the prop froze. The plane shuddered, then banked hard towards the ground.
“Steve!” Helen cried out.
“We’re losing power.” He pressed the microphone button. “Mayday, mayday! This is Cessna HBQ117 going down approximately twenty-five miles from Simon Bolivar Airport. We are on a heading of...” His words trailed off.
“Oh God in heaven—help us,” she prayed.
The right wing of their plane sliced through the top of a tree, and then another, and another—
v v v
“Mother!” Tania shrieked. She bolted up from her bed, breathing hard. A cocoon of blackness surrounded her.
Tania dug her fingers through her hair. She’d had that dream again. That dream...her mother. Not a dream—a nightmare.
Slivers of light streamed, ghost-like, through her bedroom’s slatted windows. When her breathing eased, she stared at the dimly lit walls. It was so vivid, that dream. Like a memory; it even held her mother’s scent, a smell she hadn’t encountered in three years.
Tania missed her mother all over again.
Raw emotions stirred inside. Her anger; a sense of betrayal. God, where are you? You’ve left me.
Suddenly, the thought of being alone overwhelmed her. She reached for her cell phone and pounded out a number. “Nick, it’s me. I really need you right now.”
“So you’ve changed your mind about the party.”
“The party? I don’t think now would be—”
“Look, you said you wanted to go. So do you or don’t you?”
“Okay, okay. Just get here,” she said and closed her phone.
Tania threw off her covers and tiptoed over to the door. She turned the knob slowly, opening it just a crack. The lights in the hallway were dark. She breathed a sigh of relief. Everyone was asleep.
After slipping back in her room, she took down a black dress hiding in the darkened recesses of her closet. She had promised her father weeks ago she would get rid of it: “Too revealing,” he had declared. Tania thought he was overreacting. So what if it emphasized her natural assets? She quietly laughed. Nick had used that same phrase about her figure once. She’d blushed redder than an apple then…but that was in the first few weeks they were together. She was a different girl now. After a couple of brushes of her hair and a dab of lipstick and mascara, she was ready.
She went to the window and checked outside. Nothing. Where was he, she wondered, and began to ache with disappointment. Maybe he's not coming.
Two pinpoints of light appeared at the end of the street. “Nick, finally,” she said aloud.
She placed her palms on the underside of the window and pushed up, forming an opening just big enough for her to slip through.
Straddling the windowsill, she extended her foot into the darkness, stopping when it brushed up against the lattice holding up her father’s trumpet vine. She negotiated one crossbeam at a time, until the firmness of the ground met her toes.
The passenger door of Nick’s red Camaro swung open as she reached the sidewalk. Even in the darkness, Nick’s eyes glimmered. His arm reached for her and she fell into his embrace, kissing him long and hard.
“What took you so long?” she complained after pulling back. “I was beginning to think you weren't coming.”
A long, idle grin blossomed on his face. “Hey, I got here as fast as I could.”
He started up the car and screeched down the street.
Nick flew through a number of red lights as he made his way to the other side of town. The entire drive he was quiet. Something else was on his mind. She didn’t care, though. She was away from her house…at least for a while.
They barreled down the road until Nick hung a sharp left at an intersection. A lone house appeared out of the mist. Shadowed silhouettes of cars lined both sides of the long, narrow court, and synthesized bass pumped out a steady boom, boom, boom into the night air.
He pulled into a spot just big enough for his Camaro. “Looks like Lane’s got a killer party going tonight.” A broad smile glided across his face, and he grabbed a case of beer from behind the seat.
Tania found her head moving to the beat. She basked in the sensation, until an unsettling question crept upon her. Why was she there, at the party? The girl she was four months ago would never have sneaked out in the middle of the night. Back then she was still going through the motions of her Christian life. Tania hesitated. But why should she live like that when she no longer had faith in any of it? Besides, what would she be doing right now without Nick? Sitting on her bed feeling miserable and alone?
She let the question slip away. “Come on. Let’s go inside.”
Tania counted a dozen people hanging out in the front yard. Some of them were talking, while others were holding each other close. It was hard to see who they were in the shadows, but she was determined not to be outdone by them, and pulled on Nick’s arm, bringing it around her so his hand rested on her hip.
Inside, the living room was crammed with people, all bumping and pushing against each other as they danced to the music.
“Dude!” an unknown voice called from the crowd. “You made it.” Someone Tania had never seen before wedged his way through the throngs.
Nick's eyes lit with recognition. “Lane. You know I'd never miss one of your parties.” Nick grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him back with ease. Tania was impressed. A big guy like this didn't pull back easily. “So where do you want the beer?”
“Just leave the case with me.”
“You got it, but I think I'll take a couple here to get things started.”
Nick popped a beer open for himself, then handed one to Tania. She flipped open the tab, took a quick swig then grimaced. “Something wrong?” he asked.
“No,” she shouted over the noise. “I still haven’t gotten used to the taste.” She paused a moment, and then added, “But like you say, after the first one it’s all good.”
He winked and pulled her into the middle of the room. She pressed close to him and moved to the fast-paced beat of the music. It all felt new to her still. The parties. The beer. Dancing in a way that made him desire her.
It felt good to be wanted like that.
After her third beer, the people around her moved and dipped together like waves on the ocean. She felt warm inside. And free.
A slow song brought the frenetic energy in the room to a halt. Seeing Nick standing there in the opaque light, she threw her hands around his neck and pulled his lips into her own. His eyes focused on hers and his hands touched softly around her waist.
Nick whispered in her ear. “I think tonight should be the night.” His voice sounded soothing, almost hypnotic.
Tania brushed back her bangs. “I don’t know.” She looked around the room. Her words slurred, “All these people here.” But that was only half the truth. Half-foggy notions from her old way of life passed through her head. Phrases like, save yourself for marriage, and wait for your husband.
But why? She loved Nick. Why should she hold anything back from him?
Nick did not relent, his hold on her remaining resolute.
She fell into his gaze, and felt her fears slipping away.
He bent towards her again. “You said so after class today,” he whispered in her ear. “It’s your time now. You’re not a little girl who does everything her father tells her anymore. If you didn’t want to do it, you wouldn’t be here now.” He paused. “I promise, it will be a night you’ll never forget.”
Tania’s eyes met his. The desire pulsing through him fed hers like fuel for a fire. She moved her lips under his chin and brushed them along his husky neck. Everything he said, everything he did felt right. All those little objections faded further into the recesses of her mind. “You’re right,” she replied. “It’s my time now.”
A huge smile parted Nick’s lips and his blue eyes grew focused. “Lane said he would keep his parents’ room locked, so no one from the party would trash it. I’ll go get the keys.” He spun around and made his way into the kitchen.
Though a hundred or so people slow-danced around her, it was like she was the only one there, her mind a torrent of anticipation mixed with fear.
And just like that, Nick returned, keys in hand.
Taking hold of Tania’s slender fingers, he led her upstairs. Her heart began to thump more loudly after each step. She didn’t say a word, her thoughts a cacophony of conflicting emotions. But one thing she did know. She was about to give her all to him—her mind, her body, her soul—everything. And once given, nothing would ever be the same.
A gust of wind blew through the congregation when a man wearing a Stetson hat and dusty blue jeans stepped into the foyer. His cowboy boots clomped heavily against the century-old floorboards of Calvary Community Church, set in the heart of Midian, Iowa’s historic downtown area.
Tania Peters paid the distraction little attention. She had a bad hangover from partying with Nick the night before, but more than that, she was still coming to terms with what had happened last night.
Joanna Kreisman leaned over and whispered into Tania’s ear, “Hey, another cowboy at six o’clock.”
Tania smirked at Joanna, grateful for the diversion. Her friend’s jet-black hair glistened in the light beaming down from the stained glass windows. “And look,” added Tania quietly, “He’s even wearing flannel.”
Joanna did her best hillbilly impression, drawing back her lips and crossing her eyes.
Tania let out a high-pitched laugh—louder than she anticipated—and it made her wince in pain. She barely noticed her father’s look of disapproval when he shot a glance at her from behind the pulpit.
“Shhhhh,” giggled Joanna softly. “You’ll get us into trouble.”
“I’m still feeling ripped from last night, so stop making me laugh.”
Joanna leaned close to her. “It’s your own fault for drinking, stupid.”
Her friend's verbal jab hit a sensitive place. She didn’t want a lecture. Not now.
“That makes three parties in three weeks. How many beers did you have last night?”
Tania shook her head. “I don’t remember. Too many, apparently.” She shut her eyes tight, her head a firestorm of emotions. Nick promised her their first time together would be something they’d remember for the rest of their lives. But in the span of a few short hours, what they’d shared had already become hazy, like a dream fading away. The whole thing felt like a cheat.
Tania forced out a quick, frustrated breath. She was tempted to close her eyes and sneak in a few winks of sleep, but Joanna would never let her hear the end of it. Joanna the vigilante; that was her friend, trying to keep her on the straight and narrow.
She sat back slowly and gave her forehead a gentle rub. Her discomfort eased, at least enough for her father’s sermon to attract her attention again. It was almost over anyway.
Her dad’s eyebrows flared and a sincere smile spread across his face. His voice was warm but powerful. “Jesus answered his disciple, saying, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life,’ ” Daniel Peters bellowed. “ ‘No one comes to the Father except through Me.’ You see it here plainly—Jesus, the Son of God, is the only path to the Father. The Apostle Paul tells us in the second chapter of Philippians that He voluntarily shed his glory and came down to his rebellious creation, lived a sinless life, and died an agonizing death on a Roman cross so that our sins would be forgiven. Ponder this, friends. Why did Christ cry out on the cross, ‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?’ I will tell you why. For the first time in all eternity, the fellowship between the Father and Son was broken—because our sins were literally on His shoulders. He did this for us, friends. There is no greater act of love. He did what no other man could do...Jesus is the way to life. He is the only way.”
A sudden chill went down Tania’s spine. She hadn’t heard her father preach like that in years. Something had happened. Then a distressing thought pierced through the haze. Did he know?
Envy sparkled in Joanna’s eyes.
“Girl,” she whispered, “your dad really gets into his sermons.”
Tania rubbed away the goose bumps on her arms. “Yeah, he does. But they're not true, none of them. I used to believe stuff like that once, when I was younger...before—” She clammed up. Old emotions stirred inside her. Tania had promised herself more than once she was going to stop talking about the loss of her mother. But here she was, doing it again.
Joanna leaned over. “What do you mean it’s not true?”
“I mean all that stuff about God being good and caring. Just look at my perfect family.”
Joanna seemed to study her a moment. “Just because things have gotten tough doesn’t mean God isn’t there for you.” A playful lilt entered her voice. “Look on the bright side, you still have me for a best friend. Life can’t be that bad.”
Tania offered a half-hearted smile. Life certainly didn't feel that good, either.
v v v
Daniel Peters breathed a sigh of relief when he pulled his station wagon into the driveway. Tania’s car was in the garage. That meant she was home, safe. It had been a long time since the two of them had sat down and talked, too long. He sighed, closed his eyes and turned the car engine off. In the silence, Daniel listened to his own breathing. He remembered the sickly smell of alcohol that had hit him the moment he stepped into Tania’s room to wake her for church.
Please God, not her.
Daniel tucked his head into his hands. How could he approach her about it? He felt so weak. The confident man he’d once been was gone; dead and buried with his wife.
He followed the stone walkway up to the front step. There was no putting this off any longer. His hand gripped the front door. It took every ounce of strength he had just to open it. When it slipped shut again, silence filled the entryway. He lingered by the stairs and stared at Tania’s bedroom door. Both shoulders dropped, like a great weight had been lowered onto them. He willed his legs to move, but they wouldn’t.
No, his fears whispered, you’ll only make things worse.
He shuffled down the hallway. Now was not the best time. He needed to think more about what he would say to her; maybe offer a prayer or two. Yes, it was a good lie; one he could embrace.
Daniel found the remote on the coffee table in the family room. The roar of cheering crowds filled his impromptu sanctuary the second he turned on the TV. Football was just what he needed. Daniel fell into his recliner.
The bang of the front door startled Daniel, but he didn’t get up. It was probably his son, Jeremy. A familiar voice called out. “Dad? You here?”
Daniel immediately straightened. “Greg, I’m in the back.”
Greg sauntered into the room. He wore his customary checkered Converse All-Stars, a large encircled “A” printed in the middle of his frayed black sweatshirt, and faded black jeans. His chiseled jaw hinted at a five o’clock shadow. “There you are.”
Daniel offered a quick smile when their eyes met, but he couldn’t completely mask the disappointment. One of the biggest struggles in Daniel’s life had been his son’s faith in God, or lack of it. Greg was a man ruled by doubt, and no amount of evidence seemed to satisfy. His quasi-acceptance of Christianity stayed with him into his early twenties. But the day of his mother’s death all that changed.
Greg rested his hip against the wall and smirked. “A little sports and the worries of the world fade away.” Greg didn’t hide the sarcasm. Ever. “What’d you preach on this week?”
Daniel did his best to keep his voice warm and friendly. “John fourteen, you know—the section where Jesus—”
“I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he interrupted. “Better translated, I am a way, a little bit of truth, and one of many choices for a dreary religious life.”
Greg’s poisoned words cut deep. Daniel turned away from his son and stared through the TV.
“Sorry, Dad.” Though his words were apologetic, his tone wasn't.
Daniel muted the TV. “What do you want, Greg?”
“Just some of my old junk in the basement. I’m ditching the apartment and my teaching job at the junior college.”
The news got his attention. “Where are you going?”
“A house just outside Kansas City, in the suburbs. ‘Bout as big as this one.”
Daniel took it in with a slow nod.
“Kansas State hired me on as an adjunct philosophy professor. I’ll be doing all the intro level courses at first. Not too shabby for just turning twenty-five.”
Daniel tried to look happy. “I'm proud of you, Greg. You've earned it.”
“Thanks, I guess.”
Greg put his hands behind his head and leaned his head back against the wall. “There’s something else. About your sermons...you need to be careful.”
Just once, Daniel wished, he and Greg could have a conversation without it breaking down into a combative exchange. “What do you mean, careful?”
“Have you been keeping up on the news, or just watching sports?”
Daniel met Greg’s sarcasm with a smirk. “I’m not sure what you’re getting at.”
His son hesitated, as though weighing out his next words carefully. Then a strange expression suddenly crossed his face and he pointed at the TV. “That’s what I’m talking about.”
Daniel lifted the remote and turned up the volume.
“For the past three years, President Allen has kept every one of his campaign promises,” intoned a fiery voice as images of the President meeting with people flashed across the screen. “Lower taxes, cleaner air, violent crime cut in half, and a stronger national defense. But the work he started is just beginning.” Daniel’s attention drifted up towards his son. Greg didn’t move; his attention fixated on the images flickering on the screen. Then a different voice came onto the TV, one that parlayed a strong sense of self. “The Unity Party I began eight years ago has brought America back from the brink of ruin. We have come far during my first term as President, but we still have a long way to go, and I need your help to do it. On Election Day, remember to vote Allen...vote Unity.”
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Greg said. “The Unity Party is making changes for us all. Good changes. You know how involved I’ve been with the party the last few years. I’m on the inside now, and I can tell you, big things are coming.”
“What does that have to do with my sermons?”
A dark cloud settled over Greg. “Your sermons are polarizing—and you know it.”
“I preach what the Word of God says. Truth is truth.”
“Others might believe that, but I don't. People like you are divisive, Dad. The President wants every citizen to set aside their differences with other citizens and focus on what they have in common. That is what Allen stands for. Half the Democrats and Republicans have already jumped over to their side and if you don’t get on board, Dad, you might find yourself on the outside.”
For the sake of his son Daniel fought to keep his cool. “The Unity Party comes out of nowhere only a few years ago, and now...it’s as though we can’t live without Allen and his followers. Mark my words, Greg. When any one side has too much power, things can take a turn pretty quick.”
The muscles on Greg’s face drew taut. “I hope things turn, and keep turning. If Allen wins a second term, just imagine how far he can push his agenda across the country.”
The last part of his son’s rant almost had a threatening air to it. “Sounds like you’ve given this matter a great deal of thought.”
“Changes are coming, Dad. For the sake of our future, we need to embrace new ideas, new ways of thinking. Not what you pre—”
“Preach,” his father interrupted.
Greg took a threatening step forward. “What has God ever done for us?” He pointed at his father’s Bible on the coffee table. “Brought us nothing but false hope and pain.”
Daniel threw his hands up in frustration. “I can’t turn my back on His Word. He is the one who is Lord, not some politician who claims to have all the answers.”
“How do we know any of it is true? The Qur’an, the Torah, the Vedas, plus a dozen other holy books—they all claim to be inspired by God, sent down from on high.” He let out a snort. “Yeah...God is real clear.”
Daniel ground his teeth together. His son's hatred of Christianity he had accepted, albeit forcefully, but his flippant, unprovoked attacks were shots at him, and Greg was aiming at old wounds. “Get your stuff and get out! You've hurt this family for the last time.”
Greg's smile turned bitter. “That's my pop. I knew you had it in you.” He spun around and stormed out of the room. “Go, get yourself arrested. Lose your church—see what I care.”
v v v
Tania sat on her papasan chair, legs folded, a computer in her lap. One of her mother’s Celtic mood CD’s played through the speakers. It was funny, she thought, but she didn’t feel like her normal rock music self.
What had she done? She and Nick had been dating for only a few months…and she had slept with him.
The phrase made her cringe. But so did the saying, lost her virginity. It made her feel…guilty. But why should she have to wait for marriage? That was for “Christian girls”—a title she no longer cared about. So what was it about her virginity? Why was there something inside her that wished she had it back?
<<do u want to get together after school tomorrow?>>
She knew what that meant. Whenever he asked her this, it meant they’d find some out-of-the-way place to make out. The park, his parent’s house or one of his friends' homes, wherever they could be alone. In the beginning it was just kissing and talking, but after a while he pushed further.
Tania stared at Nick’s last message on her YourSpace page for the fifth time. Even though her feelings for him were as strong as ever, she didn’t want to see him, at least not right now. Everything about last Saturday night felt wrong. He had promised so much, but in the end, the big moment had been nothing more than a few minutes of passion, followed by unrelenting guilt. Fortunately, Monday was family night, and her dad and Jeremy expected her to make dinner.
Her fingers tapped quickly on the keypad. <<i’m not sure that’s a good idea. i have to b in b4 5. u know, mondays>>
A knock on her door startled her and she closed her laptop. “Come in,” she called.
When her father stepped into her room, she zeroed in on the reticent expression on his face. Her fears from earlier that day grabbed hold of her. Did he know something? “Hey Dad, what’s up?” She squirmed, then became self-conscious of her actions.
“Oh, nothing much. Mostly just want to tell you how much I love you.” A hint of sadness resonated in his voice.
“I love you too, Dad,” she replied, but it came out awkward. “You all right?”
“I’m okay. Been talking to Greg and—”
“I know. I heard.” Tania’s eyes narrowed. “He treats you like crap. You should know better than to take him seriously.”
Her father sighed. “I know, but I love him.”
Tania set her laptop on the bed, walked over to her father and hugged him.
“Honey, I want you to know I pray for you all the time. God has big plans for you.” He gazed at her with warm eyes. “Tania, He holds your life so precious.”
It had been a long time since her father had spoken to her like this. Not since Ecuador, before her mother’s accident.
“I’m just glad you and I still have our faith.” He looked up, as if he needed a small measure of reassurance. “We’re both doing okay, aren’t we?”
Tania thought of several ways she could answer the question. On the one hand, she was still his little girl. On the other hand, she wasn’t. Deep down, she knew she still wanted her father’s protection, his approval. But would he approve of Nick? Would her father understand? Tania looked deeply into his eyes, but all she could see were deep wells of pain. Probably not...at least not yet.
“Of course we are.”
He caressed her cheek with his hand then turned to leave. Apparently, those four words were all he had needed to hear, that everything was okay between them, and rightly or wrongly she had convinced him that it was.
Her father offered her a soft smile before closing the door behind him.
She stared at it for a long time before flipping open her laptop and logging back onto YourSpace. Her previous entry lay in the talk box, ready to go out. No, she couldn't, not after what her father had just said. Tania typed out a new entry and hit send before she had a change of heart <<i think u and i need to talk. pick me up tomorrow night at 11, after my family’s asleep. we can go to memorial park and talk there.>>
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