The Two Worlds of Sydnee Cameron Year 3 Episode 11: The Prodigals Part 2

 

Welcome to The Two Worlds of Sydnee Cameron, entering its third year. If you’re new to this series, just start reading. 

If you enjoy this episode and want to catch up on Year 1, you can start with Year 1, Episode 1: Winners and Losers or check out the List of Year 1 Episodes or read the Year 1 Synopsis.

Previously in The Two Worlds of Sydnee Cameron, Sydnee’s cousins, Derrick and Joseph, surprised everyone by showing up at the Claytons’ house. (Episode 10: The Prodigals Part 1)

Episode 11: The Prodigals Part 2

I woke up Sunday morning wondering if the night before had been a dream. Not because last night had been too good to be true, even if I’d had an unexpected date with my boyfriend, Chris Clayton. Neither had the night been so-scary-hope-it-wasn’t-true, even if yesterday had been Halloween.

No, yesterday might’ve been a dream because my cousins had shown up on the Claytons’ front porch. Which was definitely good because I’d missed Joseph and Derrick. But bad too, because to come here, they’d run away from home.

I kicked off my blankets and, still in my pajama pants and T-shirt, hurried to the kitchen.

“They’re still here.” David Clayton glanced over from the coffee maker. The fragrance of coffee grounds filled the air.

“I was scared they’d never been here at all.” Relief pooled out my bare feet, like waking up from a nightmare and realizing it wasn’t real. Except this was real, and I wanted it to remain real. “Do you think they’ll be able to stay?”

“Seeing as it’s six-thirty in the morning, I have to say the answer’s still the same now as it was last night at eleven.” David pushed the buttons on the coffee maker and stepped away.

The machine gurgled and hissed.

“When do you think you’ll have a different answer?”

“Not until this afternoon.” He took a loaf of bread from the cabinet, eggs and milk from the fridge. “But if you need a distraction, want to help make French toast?”

“Joseph and Derrick are the distraction.” I climbed onto a bar stool facing the island where David set the ingredients. “I’ll probably burn anything I tried to cook.”

“I’ll run the griddle then. You take care of the bread.” David pushed a bowl in front of me and the milk, eggs, vanilla extract, and bread.

Cracking and beating eggs didn’t help me forget, but at least it filled the time. I dipped the bread in the egg mixture and placed it on the electric griddle. David took care of flipping the slices and making sure they didn’t burn. By seven-thirty, we’d French-toasted an entire loaf of bread, and we were still the only two people in the kitchen.

“You’d think the smell would wake them up.” The smell had woken up my stomach, which gurgled like the coffee maker.

“Go ahead and eat.” David slid two slices onto a plate. The rest he added to the pile on the cookie sheet. The cookie sheet went back into the oven to keep everyone else’s breakfasts warm. “I’ll go get people up.”

I drizzled syrup on the French toast, poured a glass of orange juice, and dug in.

A few minutes later, Chris and Joseph entered the kitchen. Wearing jeans and long-sleeved shirts, they were ready for church.

I glanced down at my pajamas. Oh yeah.

“French toast’s in the oven.” I gestured with my fork.

“Thanks.” Chris pulled out the cookie sheet, and he and Joseph put a couple of slices on two plates. After drowning their breakfasts in syrup, they moved to either side of me, Chris sitting on a bar stool and Joseph standing at the end of the island.

Neither spoke, which wasn’t unusual for mornings, but a weird vibe hung in the air. Like the silence wasn’t just-woke-up quiet but don’t-want-to-say-this-and-have-to.

I glanced from Chris to Joseph and back to Chris. Chris watched Joseph, and Joseph stared at his plate like he was trying not to look at anyone as he swirled a bite of French toast through his sea of syrup.

“I cheated on Lilli.” Joseph’s head snapped up, and he looked straight at me.

The confession slammed a dozen memories into me.

“You—you what?” My stomach churned and I pushed my plate away. “You cheated on her?”

Joseph nodded slowly, like he didn’t really want to admit it. His face was pale, and his eyes red like he hadn’t slept in days.

“That explains why you haven’t been talking to her.” I looked at Chris. When Chris had cheated on me, he’d avoided me. Must be a guy thing.

I looked back at Joseph. “Why are you telling me?”

“Chris—” Joseph’s voice cracked and he cleared his throat. “Chris said I should.”

“Why?” My chest felt tight, and my throat . . . I took a painful breath, forcing air to fill my lungs. “Because I’m not telling Lilli for you. You’re going to have to tell her yourself.”

“I know.” Joseph spoke quietly, but my voice rose.

“Is this why you came here? To break up with Lilli? Because you could’ve done that on the phone. And why didn’t you break up with her before you cheated on her? Or right after?”

“I know. I’m sorry.” Joseph scraped his uneaten breakfast into the trash and walked out of the kitchen.

“Way to go, Syd.” Chris sounded disappointed and maybe a little annoyed with me.

“What’s that mean?” A fire burned inside me. “And why’d you tell him to tell me?”

“Because I thought you’d want to hear it from him and not Abby later. And because I thought you might be a little supportive or something.”

“Supportive? Why would you think I’d be supportive? He cheated on Lilli. This is going to hurt her so bad.” I sucked in a shaky breath. “I know how much this is going to hurt.”

“I’m sorry.”

The regret in Chris’s voice and lack of defensiveness shaved off the jagged edges of my anger. But the pain of the memories remained.

“But Joseph hates himself for what he did,” Chris said. “It’s not like he has to tell her—Kansas is pretty far away—but he knows he has to. And that’s going to hurt him.”

“So you feel sorry for him?” My anger returned sharper. “I guess that makes sense—I know how Lilli’s going to feel and you know how Joseph’s feeling. So you sympathize with him and I sympathize with Lilli.”

Anger, hurt, regret flashed across Chris’s face, but he didn’t say anything.

“This is what taking sides feels like, isn’t it?” That realization poured ice over my heat. “I don’t want to take sides. I don’t like what he did, and I might be mad at him for it, but I don’t want to take sides against him. But I’m going to have to, aren’t I?”

“No.”

I practically grabbed hold of that word.

“Everyone else will probably take sides.” Chris shrugged like it was inevitable. “And Abby’s going to say you have to, but I’ve been thinking about it since last night. About you. I knew you wouldn’t take sides. You have this weird ability to be angry about what someone did without hating them. Even when they deserve it.” Chris dropped his gaze to the counter and lowered his voice. “Even when I deserved it.”

Elizabeth, Chris’s sister, walked in, followed by Candy and Jamie, Chris’s mom and little brother. I didn’t want to continue the conversation in front of an audience, and I didn’t have anything left to say.

“I need to get dressed.” I slid off the bar stool. “Will you tell Joseph that you were right about me?”

“Yeah.” Chris smiled at me, and I knew we weren’t on opposite sides.

In the room I shared with Elizabeth, I quickly changed into a skirt and shirt, not really paying attention to what I was throwing on. My mind was racing in a dozen directions. Lilli. Joseph. Heartbreak. Cheating.

Chris had been right about me. I’d been hurt and angry with Chris two years ago when he’d kissed Kayla Mann, but I hadn’t hated him. He was my best friend, and we had too many years of history. But remaining friends with Chris had been weird according to people like Abby, and Joseph and Lilli hadn’t even known each other a year.

But that problem belonged to the future. Today, the problem was telling Lilli.

I returned to the kitchen and found Chris and Joseph standing around.

“I’ve been thinking.” I planted myself in front of Joseph. “You have to tell Lilli, of course, but if you tell her as soon as you see her, she’ll fall apart, and she’ll be stuck at church. So I think you should wait until after and avoid her before because you can’t pretend things are fine. She’ll know something is wrong, and she’ll imagine a million possibilities, but as long as she doesn’t know for sure, she’ll be able to hold it together. At least, that’s how I’d feel. But I often think differently than most people.”

“I think you’re right this time.” Chris leaned against the counter, listening. “Waiting won’t make it easier for you, but Sydnee’s probably right.”

Joseph nodded. He looked so awful with that pale face and those red eyes. My anger almost faded completely. But I still didn’t understand why he hadn’t broken up with Lilli sooner—like before he cheated on her or at least right after. Then again, maybe he’d gotten on a bus and come straight here.

But I wasn’t going there again.

“Lilli knows you’re going to be at church today, because I told her last night.” I also wasn’t going to think about how I’d said Joseph probably wasn’t breaking up with her. “So we’ll have to be late class to avoid sitting next to her or talking.”

“We?” Joseph’s voice swung upward with hope.

“I don’t want to answer any questions, so yeah, ‘we.'”

“Thanks.” A ghost of a smile crossed his face.

“I’m still mad about what you did.” I didn’t know why, but I couldn’t let him think my help equaled being okay with what he’d done. “But you can’t go back and not do it.”

“Time to go.” Candy spoke over her shoulder, herding Jamie toward the garage door.

We grabbed our coats and followed them into the minivan.

The drive to church was quiet. I pinched my lower lip and worked to untangle my feelings. Lord, why did they have to leave? If Joseph and Derrick had never left, this wouldn’t have happened. This was going to be awful, and somehow, people would end up mad at me. I was already having enough trouble in my friendships with Abby and Lilli.

I looked at Chris, next to me on the back row of seats.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“For what?”

“For what I did to make you look at me like that. Like you’re angry and hurt.”

“I’m not.” Except I was. I could feel those emotions warring inside. “You didn’t do anything.”

“Yes, I did.”

“But that was a long time ago.”

“And you’re not over it yet.”

“How do you know?” Those weren’t accusing words. I wanted to know how he knew what I was feeling better than I did.

“Because when we started going out again, Dad told me you wouldn’t forget for a long time, and I better be ready to accept that. If not, then I had no business dating you.”

Weird to think that David talked to Chris about me like that. But kind of sweet too. My own parents didn’t look out for me like that. I slipped my hand inside his. “Most of the time I do forget.”

We arrived at church five minutes early. Joseph, Derrick, Chris, and I huddled by the side of the van, hands tucked in pockets and squeezed under arms to keep warm.

“Aren’t you all going to class?” David looked at us then toward the building where Elizabeth and Jamie walked inside.

“We are,” I answered. “Just not yet.”

David’s eyebrows rose, his question silent but heard.

“We need to be late, so we don’t have to talk to anyone.” I glanced out the corner of my eyes at Joseph.

“Right.” The question disappeared off David’s face, replaced by sympathy. “Promise you’ll go to class? And only a couple of minutes late, not ten minutes before it’s over.”

“I promise.”

The boys nodded agreement, and David left.

“David knows?” I asked Joseph.

“Of course he knows.” Derrick answered for his brother. “He made us play true confessions last night. He knows everything.”

“Why are you still here?” Chris asked.

“You’re right. Why am I still here?” Derrick pushed off the side of the van and started walking away. But in the opposite direction of the building.

“Wait. Where are you going?” I called.

Derrick kept walking.

“Hey.” I jogged after him. “I promised we’d be in class.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t make promises for other people.” He kicked at a patch of gravel.

“Stop.”

“No.”

“Why are you so scared?”

“Scared?” Derrick stopped and stared at me. “I’m not scared.”

“Yes, you are. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be running away. You wouldn’t be pretending you hated us again. Because you don’t. You’re scared to want to stay here.”

“You’re wrong.” Derrick’s chin jutted up. “You’re the one who’s scared. You’re scared Chris is going to cheat on you again.”

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“You’re right, and I’m not pretending like I’m not scared.” Even if Chris and Derrick had to tell me what I was scared of. “No matter how much of a jerk you act like, we’ll still want you to stay. Because we know the real you. This is the fake you. This is you pretending to be the guy you used to be. But you aren’t that guy anymore. You stopped being that guy the day you accepted Christ.” I shook my head. “No, you stopped being that guy when you realized God loves you.”

Derrick steadied his gaze on me. No expression.

Where had all those words come from? I didn’t know if any of them were true, except for wanting Derrick to stay.

Derrick turned around and took off toward the building.

Had my words worked? I held my breath, watching him, until he walked through the doors.

Wow. I’d said something useful. Maybe I’d be as successful with helping Joseph break up with Lilli in the least dramatic way possible.

I returned to the van and Chris and Joseph. “When we go in, Lilli will probably be saving you a seat. Elizabeth’s already there, and probably told them you’re here. So if we can’t sit on the opposite side of the room, I’ll sit next to Lilli. Everyone expects me to do stupid stuff like that.”

“We’ll disappear soon as class ends.” Chris continued with the plan. “Then we’ll show up in the sanctuary right before church starts. Or right after.”

“And if Lilli or Abby ask me anything, I’ll pretend I know nothing.” I took a deep breath. Was that lying? I didn’t want to lie, but telling Lilli was Joseph’s job. “Or I’ll try to avoid them too.”

“Okay, let’s go.” Chris turned toward the building and stared.

Joseph and I did the same, staring at the large yellow-white building. Not moving. Like a delay might make it easier. Or change everything.

“We have to go inside,” I finally said. I grabbed hold of Chris’s hand on one side and Joseph’s on the other. And together, we walked into the building

Class had already started, just like we’d planned, and even though Lilli and Abby had saved seats, we found an open row on the other side of the room. When Abby sent me questioning looks, I shrugged, like I didn’t know why she was confused.

Who I didn’t see was Derrick. He’d come inside, but where had he gone? Guess our little talk hadn’t been as successful as I’d though. But that wasn’t an omen.

Chris and Joseph darted out of class almost before Mike dismissed us. I followed a few seconds behind, hurrying down to the bathrooms in the elementary classroom hallway. No one would look for me here.

This avoiding people was hard. And tiring. And annoying.

I waited until the sounds in the hallway had faded. Then I waited a little longer before walking to the foyer. Chris and Joseph came around a corner at the same time. Timed that right.

We entered the sanctuary during the first song and slipped into a row behind the rest of the youth group. Abby and Lilli sat two rows ahead. They kept glancing back at us.

I stared at the words projected on the screen at the front of the room like I’d never heard these songs before and needed to read the lyrics.

During the third song, Liam, sitting in front of us, passed me a note in Abby’s handwriting.

What’s going on? Why are all of you avoiding us?

Passing notes in church was wrong, and if David saw, would get us in trouble. I tucked it inside my Bible.

Despite my attention to everything on the screen—song lyrics, sermon notes—my mind was on Lilli and Joseph. My stomach felt inside out. My heart felt shredded. Lilli knew. I could see the suspicion in her eyes. The ache on her face.

Lord, I’m sorry I’m so distracted today, and have no right to ask for anything, but please, soften the coming pain.

The service ended too soon.

People stood, moving into the aisles, talking.

Abby and Lilli stayed in their row, watching us, looking uncertain about whether to come to us.

“You have to tell her.” I nudged Joseph with my elbow. “It’ll be okay.”

“Will it really?” He looked at me, begging me for reassurance.

“Yeah. Eventually.” But not today. I didn’t say that because he already knew.

Joseph pushed against the crowds, said something to Lilli, and then they left the sanctuary together.

“He’s breaking up with her, isn’t he?” Abby appeared in front of me. I hadn’t even seen her coming. Had she jumped over the seats?

I shrugged.

“I know you know.” She shook my arm, the accusation raising her voice. “What’s going on? Why didn’t you warn Lilli last night?”

“Because I didn’t know anything last night.”

“But you know something now. Why’s he breaking up with her?”

“You’re going to have to ask Lilli or Joseph.” I glanced around for an escape and squeezed past Abby. “Hey, Derrick, where’d you go this morning?”

“The prayer room.” Derrick met my gaze straight-on, like earlier this morning, but without the challenge glowing in his eyes.

“The what?”

“The prayer room? You know. You’ve been going here longer than I have.”

“Yeah, but . . . the prayer room? Why?”

“To pray. Why else?” Derrick frowned as if my questions were stupid. Then he walked off.

“Okay, that was a little weird, wasn’t it?” I asked Chris.

“Yeah, but it’s Derrick.” Chris put his arm around my shoulders and pulled me into his side. “And this whole day is weird.”

True, but hopefully the day would be survivable.

“I’ll be back.” I stepped away from Chris. Abby was leaving through the same door as Joseph and Lilli. I followed.

Abby found Lilli outside, alone, and I was a few seconds behind her.

“I’m sorry, Lilli.” I reached to touch her shoulder, but Abby grabbed Lilli in a hug, swinging her away from me.

“You should’ve told her.” Abby shot me a look she could’ve learned from Derrick. “If you were really Lilli’s friend, you would’ve told her.”

But I was Joseph’s friend too. I couldn’t tell Abby that. She wouldn’t understand. She never did.

“Hearing it from me wouldn’t have hurt any less,” I said. My shredded heart ached, but nothing I said or hadn’t said would make Lilli feel better.

They didn’t want me around, so I left, a tear rolling down my cheek.

***

After lunch, David suggested, in a way that wasn’t really a suggestion, that we all hang out in the living room.

Chris turned on a football game. Joseph stared into space, looking even more miserable than he had that morning. Derrick read a Bible, which was weird for so many reasons, one being that he remembered every word he ever read, kind of like I remembered numbers, and his reading list had already included the Bible.

I sat on one side of Chris, half-watching the game, and Jamie sat on the other side of his brother, asking questions about the teams and the plays.

Despite David suggesting family togetherness, he was missing.

The game was in the fourth quarter when David came from the hallway into the living room and stood near Derrick and Joseph. He looked almost as weary now as he had the night before. “I just finished talking to your dad.”

Chris hit the mute button on the remote. We gave David more attention than we’d been giving the game.

“When do we leave?” Derrick spoke carefully, like he tried to keep any emotion, any hope, from taking root.

But hope jumped from person to person like the wave in a stadium, and if everyone felt like me, we were all too scared to grab hold.

“Not any time soon.” A smile broke across David’s face. “You’re staying here.”

“Really?” Derrick and Joseph spoke together, leaning forward, expressions cautious like neither wanted to believe in case they’d misunderstood.

“Yes. Really and definitely. You’re not going anywhere.” David touched each of their shoulders. “It’s okay to look happy.”

For the first time since my cousins arrived, they relaxed.

“Finally.” Chris turned the volume on the TV back on. “Now things will finally be normal again.”

I glanced at Joseph. Things weren’t quite normal. But Joseph looked happy despite everything else that had happened that day. I understood that though. I’d rather be here than anywhere else.

“Welcome home,” I said.

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