The Two Worlds of Sydnee Cameron Year 2 Episode 19: The Invitation Experiment

Previously in The Two Worlds of Sydnee Cameron, Valentine’s Day put everyone’s feelings out in the open: Abby’s crush on Dean, Joseph and Lilli’s interest in each other, Chris’s wanting to get back together with Sydnee, and Sydnee’s need for a friend, not a boyfriend.

Episode 19: The Invitation Experiment

“Everyone’s one-half of a couple but me.” Abby Stewart’s overdramatic whine was said at a volume meant only for my ears.

I glanced around the youth group room at church. My older cousin, Joseph Andrews, held hands with Lilli James. They’d been a couple since Valentine’s Day. But that didn’t prove Abby’s statement.

No one sat alone, but the four seventh-grade girls squished onto two beanbags in the corner didn’t look like half a couple. Or a complete couple. Just four girls. The three sophomore soccer boys sitting backwards in folding chairs also lacked that second-half-of-a-couple status. And I wasn’t one-half a couple either, no matter what everybody else thought. Chris Clayton, my best friend and my ex-boyfriend two times over, sat next to me. We were just friends. Even if he’d told me he wanted to be more than friends. Even if I’d told him that I might want to be more  than friends. Right now, that’s all we were—friends.

Some people, like Abby, had trouble accepting that.

“Not everyone’s a couple.” I was wasting my time arguing, but I couldn’t help trying.

“Even your cousin has a girlfriend.”

“Joseph and Lilli? That’s not news, Abby.” Abby had set up the Valentine’s Day dinner that got Joseph and Lilli together. They’d already liked each other, but apparently that kind of information fell under the Privacy Act

“Not Joseph. Your weird cousin. Derrick.” Abby glared at the back corner as if Derrick having a girlfriend somehow prevented her from having a boyfriend.

But Derrick having a girlfriend sounded crazy. Had to be more of Abby’s overdramatizing. I looked in the same direction. In the back corner of the room, sitting not quite in opposite corners of a couch, Derrick sat with a person. I stared a few seconds past polite to be sure it was a girl-person. The chin-length black hair, the black jeans and shoes, and even the black-lined eyes could’ve belonged to a girl or boy. But the pink shirt and what it covered was all girl.

“Just because Derrick’s sitting next to a girl doesn’t make her his girlfriend. They’re probably just friends.” Which was weird enough. Derrick didn’t have a friendly personality. He was more the antisocial type.

“Maybe I should just give up on Dean.” Abby slumped in her chair and let out a mournful sigh.

“That might be a good idea.” I was being the supportive friend, or thought I was, but the glare Abby gave me rivaled Derrick’s hate-gazes.

Mike, our youth minister, started talking, so I couldn’t take back my words, offer new ones, or ask what I’d said wrong.

When talking to Abby, I should always, always say the opposite of what I think.

***

In the Claytons’ van after church, I grabbed the seat next to Derrick. Usually, I sat next to Chris in the back row, but our seating arrangements weren’t assigned. After my conversation with Abby, I was curious about Derrick’s friend.

“Who was that girl with you tonight?” I kept my voice light, casual, conversational.

“A friend.” Derrick shifted closer to the window, angling his shoulder toward me.

“But who is she?”

“Just a friend. Why do you care?”

“Because I’ve never seen you with a friend before.” The only place I’d ever seen him with other people that didn’t include his brother Joseph, me, or any of the Claytons was in the school cafeteria. And that could’ve been because there weren’t enough tables and chairs for a loner to be alone.

“Now you have. You can die happy.” Derrick spoke three languages: English, German, and Sarcasm. He often spoke two at once.

“Did you invite her to church?” That didn’t sound right. Derrick went to church because he wasn’t given a choice. He’d stopped speaking to Joseph after Joseph became a Christian. A few weeks ago, I had caught Derrick reading a Bible, but he’d said he was finding everything wrong in it. So inviting friends to church didn’t add up.

“No.”

“She just showed up and just happened to know you?”

“Yes. That’s exactly what happened.”

After nine months of living with Derrick, I’d become fluent in translating his dialect of sarcasm—I was still trying to learn German—so I knew he was lying. “You talk about going to church?”

“Why are you still talking about this?”

“Because it’s a long drive home and I’m bored. So how did she know where you go to church?”

“I told her once, okay? But I didn’t invite her. She decided to come all on her own.”

“To see you?”

He groaned and laid his head against the back of the seat, staring up at the ceiling. Maybe at heaven. Maybe praying? Ten minutes ago, I would never have thought Derrick might pray. But if he told people he went to church, who knew what was going on inside his head. “Fine. You want to know why she knew where I went to church? During lunch, I’ve been asking people about all the crappy stuff in their life to prove that God can’t exist, and somehow it came up. Satisfied?”

“You’re having a Bible study during lunch?”

“Are you listening? I said I’m proving God can’t exist.”

“I saw a movie about that. Didn’t work out for them. How’s it working for you?”

He stared at me, his jaw and lips tight. Then his muscles relaxed as if he was erasing any sign of emotion.

The Claytons’ house came into view, and the motion sensor lights on the garage lit up.

I didn’t press Derrick for an answer. He hadn’t said no in any language.

***

That conversation stuck in my head. At youth group, when Mike said to invite your friend, most of my friends were already in the room. But I had a few other friends, or friend-like people. Reilly Anderson for one. Chris, Dean, Joseph, and I played basketball against Reilly and three of his friends every day after lunch. None of us had ever invited him to a lock-in or a Bible study or a bonfire.

Also Jaxon Braddock. We rarely saw each other away from parties Mother forced me to attend, but I’d known Jax my entire life, and I considered him a friend. But I’d never invited him to anything church or youth group related.

And somehow Derrick, who wanted to find everything wrong with the Bible and disprove God, had conversations that brought his friends to youth group.

Something was way wrong with that.

The next Friday night, the youth group was going to Drake’s Pizza and Game Parlor. Afterward, we’d have a devotional back at the church building. So I told Reilly and the rest of our lunchtime rivals, and I texted Jax the details. Maybe they’d all ignore me, but I felt less outdone by Derrick.

Friday night, Reilly and two of his friends showed up at Drake’s. Three out of five wasn’t bad.

“Hey.” Reilly walked up, hands shoved in his pockets, looking like he’d left all his confidence on the basketball court.

“Hey, Reilly.” I stepped aside so they could cut in line and join the rest of the youth group.

“Why are you here?” Chris shifted a little closer to me, arms crossed bodyguard style. As if I needed protecting. I could take Reilly down if I wanted.

“Cameron invited me.” Reilly’s chin tipped up in his usual, cocky way.

“Why?” Chris turned to me, his stance a little less bodyguard, a little more bouncer.

“Thought they might have fun.” Admitting I felt competitive with Derrick was too embarrassing.

“Why?” Chris repeated.

“Maybe she wants to hang out with good basketball players,” Reilly said.

Chris dropped his arms to his sides, hands in fists, and stepped toward Reilly.

“Stop it.” I shoved myself between the two boys. Moments like these made listening to Abby’s does-Dean-love-me-does-he-not monologues sound fun. “I invited some friends. Or sort of friends.” I glared at Reilly. He fell into the ‘sort of’ category right now. “And not all of them play basketball.”

“Who else did you invite?” Chris asked.

“Doesn’t matter.” I glanced around. Didn’t see Jax, and it was five after six. “He’s not here.”

“He? Aren’t any of your friends girls?” Chris sounded angry or annoyed or frustrated. Maybe all three. But why?

“Yes. Angel Lincoln said she was busy, and Abby and Lilli were already coming, so I didn’t need to invite them.”

Chris shook his head. He looked so tense, I was a little surprised he didn’t snap a vertebra.

Was inviting people supposed to be this fun? I glanced toward the back of the line. Derrick and his friend, whose name I still didn’t know, stood together. Not talking. Not smiling. Maybe I was doing this inviting thing right.

More likely, neither Derrick nor I had the right social skills.

The line inched forward, and a few minutes later, we’d all paid, piled pizza on plates, and had taken over one of the dining areas.

“We’re not eating off the same plate.” I elbowed Chris who, if he sat any closer, would be sharing my chair. “Give me some space.”

“Yeah, Clayton.” Reilly spoke from across the table. “Let her breathe.”

“Shut up, Reilly.” Chris’s voice was tougher than the slightly overcooked pepperoni pizza crust.

Never invite anyone to youth group again. Good note to remember, but it wouldn’t help me tonight. Maybe if I ignored Reilly and Chris, they’d ignore each other.

“So Marcus.” I looked at one of Reilly’s friends.

He froze, teeth clamped down on pizza.

“Who’s going to make the Final Four?” Basketball, a safe topic.

“Kansas, Kentucky, Arizona.”

“No way.” Reilly jumped in, arguing with Marcus, not Chris. An improvement. “Virginia or Duke before Kansas.”

Our table spent the next twenty minutes eating and arguing. Arguing about March Madness, the Sweet Sixteen, and the Final Four was safer than whatever Reilly and Chris were arguing about earlier, which I think might’ve been me. That argument had been stupid.

“Cameron.” Reilly pushed his empty plate to the center of the table. “Challenge you to hoops. Winner keeps the tickets.”

Chris stiffened next to me. The growl had to be my imagination.

“Okay.” I stood. “I want enough tickets to get something good.”

“You won’t be winning any off me.” Reilly headed for the game room.

“Come on.” I used my it’ll-be-fun voice on Chris. Not usually needed for anything involving a basketball. “After I beat Reilly, I want to beat you.”

“Fine.”

We were halfway to the game room when Chris stopped. “You invited him too?”

I glanced around and spotted Jax. My stomach practically thudded to the floor.

“Um, yeah. He’s one of my friends.” I seriously regretted this experiment. Why did I ever think I needed to invite people to youth group?

“Hey, Sydnee.” Jax walked up, looking at Chris. A look I’d seen Mother give many times. A look that asked, are you worthy of my attention?

Jax focused his gaze on me. Judgment made: Chris, not worthy.

“Hey, Jax. You’ve met Chris, right?” I held out my hand, palm up, toward Chris, game show hostess style.

“You going to play already?” Jax didn’t acknowledge Chris at all.

How had I not realized all my sort-of friends were jerks? That’s why they were just sort-of friends. I should’ve put that together sooner.

“Yeah. We already ate.”

“Me too.” Jax fell into step next to me. “Think they’ve got anything in there as fun as—what was it? Monopoly-Candyland-Risk?”

“Probably not.”

“Monopoly-Candyland-Risk?” Chris’s voice contained more heat than a brick pizza oven. “What stupid game is that?”

My stomach twisted, knotted, and threatened to show everyone exactly what my buffet choices had been. “Just a game Jax and I invented that night after Alexander’s funeral. When my mother claimed she wanted to see me.” She hadn’t even spoken to me that night. She’d just wanted the worst day of my life to include her.

“When are we going to try Chutes-and-Ladders-Clue?” Jax shifted closer to my right side.

Chris moved a little closer to my left.

I sympathized with the stuffed pizza fillings. Being squished then cooked was painful.

“I don’t know.” The game didn’t sound like fun anymore.

“We had a good time that night, didn’t we? Hanging out at your house. Alone.”

“Yeah, I guess.” I spoke slowly, not exactly sure what I was agreeing with.

“You said I helped you forget.”

I could feel heat radiating from Chris, then he was gone. Storming past arcade games and dance-off pads. He slammed the side of his fist into a fishing arcade game then kept walking.

“Why did you do that?” I spun to face Jax.

“Do what?” Jax shrugged, eyes too wide for real innocence.

“Make it sound like you and I did something more than play board games?”

“Hey, if your boyfriend doesn’t trust you, that’s not my fault.”

“He’s not . . .” I changed my mind. I was tired of updating everyone with Chris and my status. And letting Jax think we were together felt safer.

“Why’d you invite me tonight if you didn’t have a good time with me?”

“Because you’re my friend. Or I thought you were. Obviously you’re not.” I started to walk away.

“Wait.” Jax grabbed my wrist. “We’re friends.”

“No, we’re not.” I jerked out of his grasp. “Friends don’t act like you. Friends don’t purposely cause problems. Friends don’t tell lies about each other. You and I, Jax, are not friends. I’m not sure we ever were.”

I continued walking, but this time toward the exit. I trembled too much to shoot a basketball, and I wasn’t giving Reilly the satisfaction of winning. Or even almost winning.

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In the dining room I found Derrick, sitting alone in a booth, hunched over.

“Hey.” I slid onto the bench across from him.

Derrick jumped and said something that might’ve been a swear word or might’ve been German.

I decided I’d heard—and not understood—German.

“What are you doing?” I stretched, trying to see what he was hiding under the table.

“Nothing.” He straightened, his hands still in his lap.

“You’re doing something.”

“Reading, okay?” He sounded annoyed, like I’d uncovered a secret vice. Maybe for Derrick, reading was a secret. The nine piercings in his head and his purplish hair didn’t scream scholar. But I knew about his perfect GPA, his contract with my dad’s company, Liven Games, to produce a computer game, and his ability to start and finish a three-inch-thick book between the tip-off and the final shot of a basketball game.

“Reading what?” I leaned across the table, trying to peek over his side.

“This.” He flashed a book. The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture with a picture of a scribe from medieval artwork.

“Looks . . . interesting.” For a theology student. “Did you give up trying to disprove God and decide to disprove the Bible instead?”

“Why aren’t you with your boyfriends?”

“I don’t have any boyfriends.” I rested my chin against my fists. “Maybe not even friends who are boys.”

“And you sat down because you thought I’d care?”

“No, I sat down because I thought maybe you’d know why I couldn’t invite friends and you can.”

“You still on that?” He banged the book on the table like he expected this conversation to take a while. “Do you see Maci?”

“That’s her name?” I glanced around the dining room. In the opposite corner I spotted Mike and Maci sitting across from each other. “Yeah, she’s with Mike.”

“Talking to you is exhausting. I know where she is. I meant, you don’t see her with me. We’re not together.”

“I know she’s not your girlfriend.”

“She’s not a friend either. We’re just people who sit at the same lunch table.”

“But you still got her to come to youth group. I’ve never invited anyone, and I have friends. Or I thought I had friends.”

“Is that your problem? Yes, you have friends. And I’m not one of them. So go away.”

“I’m not sure I like any of my friends.”

Derrick banged his forehead on the table. “Go away.”

I pretended he hadn’t spoken. “They’re all jerks. Even Chris.”

“Why are you telling me this?” He raised his head high enough to attempt his hate-gaze. But his thermostat must’ve been broken because it lacked heat.

“Because I can’t ask Chris, and I can’t ask Abby. But even if you’ve been reading the whole time, I know you still noticed everything.”

“My observation skills have cursed me with this conversation?”

“No. Your history of using what you’ve observed to blackmail or torture people has cursed you.”

He lifted his head off the table. “You really can’t figure out the problem between Chris and Reilly and that other guy?”

“That other guy is Jax. And no.”

“Chris wants to get back together with you. You keep rejecting him. Then you invite a whole bunch of guys to hang out with you.”

“I invited my friends. What does it matter if they’re guys or girls?”

“Please, please, tell me you’re not that stupid.”

“Fine. I’m not that stupid.” And I wasn’t. At least not after how Jax had acted or how Derrick described it. “But that doesn’t explain Reilly.”

“Yes, it does.”

“Not Reilly. He’s always making fun of my game.”

“Listen to me. Reilly wants to take the game and you off the court. Understand?”

“I guess.” Not exactly, but I didn’t think I wanted Derrick to go into detail. “How do I make them stop acting like that then?”

“No. We’re not going there.”

“You’re a guy. You’ve got to have some idea.”

“I have none, okay?” His voice sounded pinched. Not so much angry or annoyed as uncomfortable.

“Okay. Sorry.” I didn’t say that sarcastically. An apology felt right, though I wasn’t sure what I’d said wrong. Nothing new about that. “So that book. How’s your quest to destroy Christianity, God, and the Bible going?”

“Nowhere.”

“Nowhere?” Not the answer I expected. I thought he’d throw out a dozen inaccuracies or scientific proof where the Bible failed. “Does that mean you think it’s true?”

I expected a yes-or-no answer, but he was quiet for a while, as if thinking it through. “I read the entire Bible. I read books proving the Bible. I read books disproving the Bible.”

“Yeah, I noticed.” I tapped his book.

“One of the biggest problems is how God can be all powerful and how he can be love and still let all this . . .” He clenched his jaw for a second as if to keep the wrong words from escaping. “Let all this horrible, crappy stuff happen.”

“Like Alexander dying?” The pain in my chest, like a strand of barbed wire wrapped around my lungs, surprised me. Some days—some moments—I could think of Alexander with normal sadness. Other moments, the ache almost overwhelmed me.

“And worse things.” Derrick looked away. “At least he died because he was sick. Death isn’t the worst.”

Maybe Derrick was right. Alexander’s death hurt, but not as bad as Mother’s insults. Death was permanent, unchangeable. But Mother . . . I couldn’t help hoping she’d change. But she never did. “What did you decide?”

“I haven’t. But I think Alexander . . . he might’ve loved me.”

“He did. I know he did.” I wasn’t saying that to erase the hesitation in Derrick’s voice. Alexander had spent as much time, maybe more time, with Derrick than with me.

“Maybe David does too.” Derrick stared at the table, his head lowered so I couldn’t see his face. “I’ve worked hard to make sure no one could like me. Not even my own parents. And I’ve never had friends. That’s what I wanted. I wanted people to hate me.”

“To hate you?” I tried to grasp that idea. I didn’t want everyone to like me—no friends at my parents’ parties was fine—but I’d never wanted people to not like me, much less hate me.

“Hate is safe. It can be controlled. People keep their distance. You can’t make people like you, but making them hate you is easy.”

“I never hated you.”

“You didn’t like me.”

“I tried to. But I guess you were making that impossible.” I tried to hold back the anger at knowing he’d manipulated my feelings, but it came through in my voice.

“Except with Alexander and David and Candy. They refused to hate me. They twisted everything I said or did into something good. Forced me to work twice as hard to get them to hate me, but I still failed.”

“That’s weird, you know, being disappointed that people don’t hate you.”

“To someone like you, yeah. But to me . . . it’s the biggest reason I can’t not believe in God. They couldn’t have not hated me without something—someone—helping. And God is love.”

“You believe in God?” My insides trembled like a legion of angels had started dancing in my heart and caused an earthquake.

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready to do anything about it, okay? So don’t go telling people.” The sharp note of defense cut through his voice. For a guy who wanted people to hate him, he sure sounded like he cared what people thought.

“I won’t. That’s your business.”

“Thanks.” He sank against the back of the booth looking drained. “Now go find Chris, and tell him he’s being stupid.”

“But won’t that just make him angry?”

“He’s cooled off now. He’s walked by the door three times in the last five minutes.”

“He has?” I glanced behind me, but only saw an empty hall.

“Too bad we’re related or I could’ve gotten on his list tonight. Chris is so easy.”

“Easy for what?”

“For making angry. Say anything about you and he’s ready to punch someone.”

“That’s mean. And not true.”

“Have you heard a word I’ve said?”

“All the important ones.” I ticked them off my fingers. “You believe in God. David and Alexander love you. And we’re friends.”

“I said I wasn’t your friend.”

“If that were true, you wouldn’t have told me all that other stuff.”

“You’re making me regret it.”

“Don’t worry, I’m leaving now.” I stood then leaned across the table. “But you forgot something. I love you too.”

“Stop. You’re going to make me cry.” He spoke like iPhone’s male Siri.

I left him with his book and went to find Chris. Not hard, since I almost bumped into him right outside the door.

“Hey.” My heart rocketed into my throat. “What have you been doing?”

“I was getting more pizza,” he said a little too quickly.

“But the buffet is that way?” I pointed over his shoulder, the opposite direction than he’d been walking.

“Right.” His ears turned pink.

I couldn’t help thinking about what Derrick had said. Not the part about Chris having cooled off or telling Chris that he was being stupid. But the part about Derrick finding it hard to disprove God because God is love. “Everyone should know that God loves them.”

“What?” Confusion replaced any embarrassment or anger on Chris’s face.

“That’s why I invited Jax and Reilly and his friends. They need to know God loves them, because sometimes, God’s the only one who can love you.”

“Okay.” Chris nodded like he followed, but his eyebrows pinched together.

“Don’t you agree?”

“I guess. But everybody always loves me.” He grinned the teasing grin that was all mine. The grin that meant whatever had happened tonight had been forgotten.

“Not everybody. Not always.” But I smiled back, not serious.

Derrick was right. God’s love was magical. It forgave. It forgot. It made everyone it touched a little better.

I didn’t know if Reilly or Jax had felt that love tonight. Probably not Jax. I hadn’t been very nice to him. But I’d make up for that later, because Derrick was right about something else. God’s love never quit.

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