I clicked Print and watched the printer run, then I stapled the three pages of my story together. I glanced over it, proud of my little creation, feeling especially clever since I had hidden a secret message in the story.
by Gregory J. Dennison, February 1997
Here we go again, I thought, as I opened the door and saw her sitting there, her hair gently blowing in the light breeze. She was talking with someone I did not recognize. I wondered how I should react. It seemed like a little devil and a little angel had appeared on my shoulder, as if in a cartoon. The former told me to walk on by and say nothing, and the latter told me I should try to be friendly and at least say hello. I wasn’t sure how to act, since I still had trouble dealing with the time she rejected me. I have tried my hardest not to be bitter. I watched her as I walked by. She did not see me, so I kept right on walking.
Also, over the past few weeks, it seems like she and I have been drifting apart. We were once such good friends, and I had hoped so much that our friendship would turn into something more. When I finally got brave enough to ask her out, she rejected me. It was a friendly and sympathetic rejection, but a rejection nonetheless. A movie was playing on campus that night, and we had mentioned that we both wanted to see it. I asked her if she wanted to see it with me, and she said she would, but she had to get up early the next morning. She did not want to stay out late. That was kind of the last straw for me. A couple weeks later, I told her how I felt about her, and she told me she did not feel the same way back. I decided, though, that our friendship seemed too important to throw away, so I would try to stay friends with her rather than avoid her.
Love never works like that, though. Another month had passed, and my feelings for her were coming back. In light of this, I became hesitant to pursue our friendship, because I feared that my feelings would get in the way like they did before. Also, in the past month or so it has seemed like she and I have naturally drifted apart. When she and her friends are all together, it seems like they stick together and don’t really include me as much. I would still consider them my friends on a one-to-one basis, but as a group they seem kind of exclusive.
Every table seemed full as I scanned the room for a place to sit and eat lunch. I spotted two of my friends next to an open seat, but it looked like they were busy talking about something serious, so I didn’t want to bother them. I continued looking and saw someone else I recognized, but I heard someone calling my name first. I looked up and saw a girl who I had met about a month ago, sitting with a bunch of her friends who I barely knew. She asked me if I wanted to sit down, so I did.
“You look tired,” she said. I agreed. I proceeded to get out the lunch I had packed, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a bag of tortilla chips. After saying a short prayer, I began eating. I thought about the situation. I looked at the people around me at the table. I didn’t really know them well, but they seemed really friendly. This was also the second time this week that I had sat with them at lunch time. Maybe this group was destined to become my new friends.
Curious to see what was happening around me, I looked up. I saw the girl I saw earlier that day, the one who had rejected me. She was talking to the two friends I had almost sat with. I looked down, unsure of what to do. Friendship is a valuable treasure, and I really hate to lose a friend. But ever since that day she turned down my offer for a date, I have found it so difficult to connect with her. We had talked a few times in the weeks since that happened, but it never seemed the same as it was before. We rarely hung out together anymore, and when we talked, it was rarely anything more than hi and how are you.
Her pretty blue eyes looked in another direction, away from my table, as she began walking toward me. I quickly moved my head down and looked intently at my food for about thirty seconds, so that when I looked up again I could be sure that she was gone. I began to regret my decision after it happened. I felt like a really unfriendly jerk. I wondered what had come over me. I’m not exactly the most friendly person in the world, but I have never noticed myself consciously avoiding a friend either.
Although I convinced myself after the rejection that nothing would ever happen between us, and I was comfortable with this decision at first, I seemed to feel worse about it every day. Something had gone wrong. I had wanted to remove my desire for a romantic relationship with her in exchange for a continued friendship.
Nothing I tried was working, though. I had discussed my feelings with a close friend of ours. He had felt the same way toward the same girl at one time. He finally told her the truth, and although she did not feel the same way toward him, they had grown closer as friends.
None of this happened in my case. I never told her how I felt about her, but more importantly we have not stayed friends. I have a really hard time carrying on a conversation with her. Maybe I should just have a long talk with her, apologize for avoiding her, and let her know that I wish we could talk more like we used to.
I finished eating and decided to go to class some time later. I made up my mind that I would deal with this situation again as soon as I had an opportunity to talk to her. A friend is a terrible thing to lose. God would want me to face my problems and not run from them like this.
Now, though, might not be the time to stay friends. It would make it harder for the feelings to go away, for me to get over her rejection. I did not know what I should do. As I walked along, thinking about what I really felt toward her, I saw her, sitting at a table eating lunch. She did not see me. I started to go talk to her.
Going that way suddenly felt like a bad idea; I took one step toward her and chickened out. I looked at her, to see if her eyes would drift up in my direction. They did not. I had run away from her again, the third time that day. And somewhere, off in the distance, a rooster crowed.
It was late afternoon on Thursday, and I had been working on this story off and on for a week. Most of the events in the story actually happened to me. One day last week, I saw Haley Channing three times during my lunch break at the Memorial Union, and I just could not bring myself to talk to her. I thought that telling her how I felt two months ago was the best course of action to get over her. There was an outside chance that she liked me too, but if she did not, at least I would know. It hurt to hear that, but some things have to hurt before they feel better, like ripping off a bandage quickly. Things had not gotten better; now I just felt awkward around her, and my rejection felt like another painful reminder of the cliques at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and my position on the outside.
After the third time I ignored her, I thought about Jesus’ prediction that Peter would deny him three times before the rooster crowed. The title of the story was taken from Jesus’ words preceding this incident: “You will all fall away.” Peter insisted that he would never do such a thing, but he did, and he heard a rooster crow afterward. I had just denied Haley three times, and I added the part about the rooster at the end of the story to allude to Peter’s denials. I did not actually hear a rooster in real life.
The new friend who called me over to sit with her on that day was Alaina from University Life, the college ministry of a different church from the one I went to. A while back, on another crowded day in the Memorial Union, I was looking for a place to sit. I saw Ben, an acquaintance who was involved with U-Life but also attended JCF sometimes, and he was sitting with Alaina. Since then, I had often seen one or both of them at lunch, and I had met some of their other friends.
Two days ago, I took a significant step closer to this other group. I headed to campus in the evening and paid two dollars for a parking spot in the public lot on Davis Drive near the Barn. I hated paying for parking. A daily parking permit cost one dollar my freshman year. The following year it increased to two dollars for the day, but still one dollar for evenings for people arriving after five o’clock. This year the price increased to three dollars for the day and two for the evening, and I heard next year it would be three dollars any time. The cost was increasing much faster than inflation, tripling in three years. If this exponential increase continued, the cost of a daily parking permit in the year 2021 would be $19,683. (The actual cost of a daily parking permit in 2021 was twelve dollars, increasing twelvefold in twenty-seven years; I still found that outrageous.)
I crossed the street and walked into Harding Hall, looking for the big lecture hall inside. I followed the faint murmur of voices down the hall. As I approached the room, I saw a large sign that said WELCOME TO UNIVERSITY LIFE with a large Christian cross on the left. The setup looked very much like that of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, with people filling out name tags near the entrance and a live band in the front, probably to play worship music.
“Hi,” the guy with the name tags said. “What’s your name?”
The guy wrote my name on a name tag, unpeeled it, and handed it to me. I stuck it on my shirt in the center of my chest. I walked into the large lecture hall, looking around for a seat, but before I sat down, I heard someone calling out, “Greg!”
I looked around and saw Alaina waving at me. “Hey,” I said, walking toward her.
“You made it! Come sit with us!” Alaina led me to a seat near the center of the lecture hall, next to her roommate Whitney, our friend Ben, and a few others whom I had met but needed to look at their name tags to remember their names.
The rest of the night at U-Life was structured much like JCF; I would not have been able to tell the difference, other than the presence of different people there. The group was led by an adult, the college pastor from the church that ran U-Life. The band played a few worship songs, someone made announcements, the pastor gave a talk about something from the Bible, and they finished with more songs. I saw a few other familiar faces around the room. Carolyn Parry, whom I knew from being in chorus last quarter, was in the worship band. I also recognized another math major named Melissa Becker, several people from my Introduction to New Testament class last quarter and New Testament Writings of John class this quarter, and Rebekah Tyler from my freshman dorm.
I enjoyed U-Life, with the intent to come back some other time. But I did not want to give up on JCF, even though it was cliquish and I would run into Haley there. Yesterday, the day after I went to U-Life, I finished writing my story, “Fall Away,” which I had been working on over the last week. I printed it just now, when I got home from class. I was still holding the printed copy of Fall Away when my roommate Shawn walked into the room.
“Hey, Greg,” he said. “What’s that you’re reading?”
“I wrote a story,” I replied.
“Really? What’s it about?”
“Something that happened to me last week that I thought would make a good story.”
“Can I read it?”
I debated whether or not to let Shawn read the story. My desire to share and discuss my work won out over wanting to keep the details of my romantic pursuits private. I handed Shawn the story as I got out my textbook for Euclidean Geometry and began working on homework.
“‘By Gregory J. Dennison,’” Shawn read aloud. “What’s the J for?”
“James. It was my dad’s brother’s name. He died in an accident before I was born.”
“I’m sorry. But you have a story to go with your name.”
“Yeah. And Gregory was after one of my dad’s good friends.”
“That’s cool,” Shawn said. “My parents named me Shawn because they liked the name. And they spelled it right too. None of this ‘Seen’ stuff.” Shawn had intentionally mispronounced the traditional spelling of Sean as if it rhymed with “mean,” and I chuckled. “I mean, I know it’s Irish, but hey, do I look Irish to you?” Shawn definitely did not look Irish; he was born here in the United States, but he was of Chinese descent. This made me laugh even harder.
Shawn continued reading my story as I turned back to my math homework. A few minutes later, he said, “That was pretty good. So there’s a girl you liked, and she didn’t like you back, and you can’t get her out of your head? And you didn’t want to say hi to her?”
“Is it someone I know?”
“Who is it?”
“I don’t want to say.”
“Come on, you can tell me.”
I had a feeling Shawn might want to know whom the story was about. I could have told him I did not want to reveal this information, but I had a feeling he would keep bugging me about it. Besides, my story had a secret, which could make this fun. “Promise you won’t tell anyone. Or make fun of me.”
“I hid a secret message in the story.”
“What?” Shawn said. I put my math homework aside, watching Shawn’s reaction as he searched for the secret message, looking carefully at the words on the page. “I can’t find it,” he said finally.
“Read it out loud,” I said with a mischievous grin.
“‘Here we go–’”
“Stop,” I interrupted. “Now go to the next paragraph.”
“Stop. Next paragraph.”
“Stop. Next paragraph.”
Shawn looked over the entire story, then began reciting the first words of each paragraph. “‘Here, also, love, every, you, curious, her, although, nothing, none, I, now, going.’ I don’t get it.”
“Try again. Start from the beginning.
“Next paragraph,” I interrupted, as soon as I heard Shawn make a sound.
“L– Oh, wait a minute.” Shawn flipped the three printed pages back and forth quickly, with a look of understanding on his face. He had figured out that I was trying to tell him to look at only the first letter of each paragraph, not the first word. “Haley Channing,” he said. “It’s too bad she didn’t like you back. She’s a cutie.”
“Yeah, she is.”
“You know what they say. Women… can’t live with ‘em…”
“Can’t live without ‘em?” I added
“Can’t shoot ’em,” Shawn replied, finishing a famous comedic quote.
I chuckled. “I’ve never heard that.”
“Women are always trouble. If it weren’t for women, O.J. Simpson wouldn’t be in the news all the time. You heard he lost the civil case, right?”
“Yeah. And now he owes the families millions of dollars.”
“He totally did it. He should be in jail.”
“Seriously, though, don’t give up. If something was meant to be, God’ll make it happen somehow. And don’t let it get you down. Just live your life.”
Despite Shawn’s advice not to let my romantic failures get to me, I still decided to wear black for Valentine’s Day the next morning. I did not wear solid black, though; I wore faded blue jeans with the black t-shirt from Urbana that said “What have you seen God do lately?”
The bus was crowded today; the air was damp, the sky was gray, and the weather forecast called for rain by mid-morning at the latest. No one I knew got on at this stop, although I recognized some people from previous bus rides: a pale-faced guy with a big blond beard, an Asian guy with unkempt hair, and a pretty girl with wavy brown hair and big brown eyes. When the bus arrived, I was one of the last from our stop to board. Even though this was only the second stop on the route, the 8:35am bus on a cold, rainy day filled up fast, with over half of the seats already taken.
I looked up and breathed in sharply when I saw the pretty brown-haired girl right in front of me, next to an empty seat. “May I sit here?” I asked her.
“Yeah!” she replied. She smiled.
“Thanks.” The bus stopped once more on Maple Drive, then turned left on Alvarez Avenue and stopped twice more. I looked up and saw that the girl next to me was looking in my direction, so I turned and made eye contact. “How’s it going?” I asked.
“Pretty good. How are you?”
“I’m okay. Glad it’s Friday.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
Trying to think of something else to say, as we headed south on Andrews Road, I asked, “What class are you headed to?”
“Bio 101. It’s really hard.”
“What about you? What classes do you have today?”
“Advanced calculus, Euclidean geometry, and New Testament Writings of John.”
“How is that John class? I’ve heard good things about it.”
“It’s good. I have a lot of friends from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship in that class too.”
“My roommate and I were talking about looking for a church.”
“I go to Jeromeville Covenant,” I said. “The one right back there, on the right. And Jeromeville Christian Fellowship too, but that isn’t affiliated with a church.”
“Maybe I’ll check those out sometime.”
“Yeah. That would be cool,” I said. “Hey, what’s your name? I know I’ve seen you on the bus before.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” Tara said, motioning to shake my hand.
“Nice to meet you too,” I replied as I shook Tara’s hand. She smiled, and I smiled back. Maybe this Valentine’s Day would not be so bad after all.
Author’s note: Did you find the secret message? Have you ever written something with a secret message hidden inside?
“Fall Away” is an actual story I wrote when I was younger. I hope I have grown as a writer since then, because reading it again now, it really wasn’t that good. I only made minimal changes to it for inclusion in this episode, in order to resolve continuity errors between the original story and the way I have told the backstory now.