The next day, she texted Kayla when she didn’t show up to work, making sure everything was okay. Kayla answered, saying that they were staying at a hotel for now, assessing the damage, cleaning the house, and seeing what they could salvage. She wouldn’t be back for the rest of the week, at least. Leila worked, often thinking about her friend but not wanting to get in the way. The list of her questions grew. Why would this happen to Kayla? Wasn’t she such a good Christian? Why would God punish her family? Hadn’t she been through enough? How was Ellen handling everything? Was her dad really the one who’d started the fire? And if he had, what would happen to Ellen? There was no way anyone would want to take care of her, knowing that this could happen. Maybe it would’ve been better to not stop her— at least then she wouldn’t be suffering, and others would have been safe. Leila hated herself when she thought things like that, but, at the same time, she couldn’t explain why.
One night, back in her apartment, she sat down with her laptop and googled “why is human life valuable?” The ethical answers she found highlighted human intuition; how people feel sadness even when someone they don’t know, especially a child, dies; how people are happy when they hear somebody is pregnant; how people hesitate to end a life, even if it would just be to “put someone out of his misery.” What she read sounded true, but none of the ethical explanations satisfied the Why. Why did everyone have those intuitions? Why was it so ingrained in people that every human being had value, no matter how horrible someone’s life was?
The more Leila thought about life and death, the more aggravated she got. Finally, she decided she couldn’t keep thinking anymore and needed answers. She could only think of one person to go to. One day, as she finished up at the café, she called Kayla.
Kayla answered right away. “Hello?”
Leila paused, trying to think of the right words to say. She was mad at herself for not preparing ahead of time. “Hey. Umm, what are you up to? I don’t want to bother you.”
“We just got back into our house. They finished cleaning it up. Most of the damage was in the kitchen and my room, so we have to repaint and stuff. I’m sleeping in the living room with Ellen until it’s done.”
“Oh, that’s cool. Hey, it sounds like you’re busy, so—”
“No, you’re fine. I’m glad you called. What’s up?”
Leila took a quick breath. “I’ve been thinking a lot. And, like, I have a lot of questions. Things I can’t figure out. I thought maybe you’d have some answers.”
“What kind of questions?” Kayla sounded interested.
“Well, like, death and stuff. It’s hard to talk about over the phone.” Leila felt her face starting to get warm. She caught John’s eye, and he turned away to wipe off the counter.
“Why don’t you come over? We’re painting, but I could use a break.”
“Yeah, no problem. I’ll see you soon then, right?”
“Uh, sure. Like 15 minutes.”
Leila found herself in front of Kayla’s house again, staring at the burn marks on the side of the building. It really didn’t look as bad now as it had when it was burning, but it definitely still needed some work. She knocked hesitantly, and Ellen opened the door. Her hair was in a messy ponytail, and she had paint on her T shirt. She smiled at Leila awkwardly, letting her in.
Leila walked into the living room that looked untouched by the fire. She thought she could smell a hint of
smoke, but maybe it was just her imagination. Kayla stepped out of a room, shirt also flecked with paint. “Hey, make yourself at home. Let me change really quick.”
Leila was left with Ellen, who stood in the corner of the room, not really knowing what to do.
“Hey, I’m Leila. We haven’t officially met, but—“
“Yeah, they told me,” Ellen said with a husky voice. “You were there that night. And at the fire.”
“Yeah, I’m always showing up at the worst times.” Leila laughed. “I know you don’t know me, but I think about you a lot. Are you doing okay?”
Ellen picked at some yellow paint on her T shirt. “Yeah. Thanks for, you know, stopping me.”
“So you’re not mad at me?” Leila asked.
Ellen looked surprised. “No. I mean, I’d be dead right now.”
There was so much Leila wanted to ask the girl, but she didn’t know how to do it without sounding too forthright.
Kayla walked in just then in a clean shirt and jeans. “Sorry about the mess. Most of our stuff was salvaged, but we had to move a lot of it around.”
“I’m sorry to intrude,” Leila said as Ellen walked out of the room. “I didn’t want to get in the way.”
“No, I’m glad you called. I wanted to talk to you anyway,” Kayla said. “You’ve kind of been part of everything that happened. What’s on your mind?”
“I don’t understand,” Leila burst out, then lowered her voice. “Why do you still like Ellen? Your house would be fine if you hadn’t let her live with you.”
“Because we love her, Leila,” Kayla said, surprised at the question. “She’s more important than some stuff that would be destroyed sooner or later anyway.”
“But,” Leila tried to phrase her question. “I can’t help thinking about, like… What if we hadn’t stopped Ellen? Wouldn’t it be— This is going to sound really bad, but hear me out. So wouldn’t it be better for everyone if she’d have, you know? She wouldn’t still be living like this, all miserable, hiding from her dad. And you’d be fine too.”
Kayla looked seriously into Leila’s eyes. “You think it would’ve been better for her to commit suicide?”
“Don’t get me wrong, I don’t condone it,” Leila rushed. “But I don’t understand why. Like, I’ve always believed that everyone has the right to do whatever they want with their own lives. But killing yourself… That just feels so wrong. And I don’t know why it would be. Because Ellen has the right to do whatever she wants, right? I don’t understand it.”
Kayla nodded slowly. “That’s a really good question. Bear with me.” She pulled out her phone, and typed something on it. “Sorry, I don’t know the reference by heart.” After a minute, she reached out and handed Leila her phone. It was some Bible verses. Psalm 139, NASB. “Read 13-16.”
Leila read the verses quietly. “For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb. I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, and my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth; Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; And in Your book were all written The days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.”
“That’s talking about God,” Kayla explained. “The Bible says that He created us in His image. He formed all of us individually; we’re all different. That means we are priceless. In the last part, He’s talking about how long God decided each of us would live. He knows everything about us. And nothing He does is an accident.”
“But—“ Leila had so many questions. “Everyone is in charge of their own lives.”
“Not according to the Bible,” Kayla said. “The one who made us is in charge. We are made to do what He planned for us.”
“I don’t understand. So I have to follow a book that someone wrote thousands of years ago, because it says that I’m not in control of my own life?”
Kayla leaned back on the couch and pulled her legs to her chest. “This subject is a lot more complex than you think. And I don’t think I’m the best person to answer all of your questions; it’s really complicated. This is what I can tell you: we aren’t an accident; none of us are. We were created by someone so much bigger than all of us. And the Creator always knows what’s best for His creations. A bad example of this would be a parent and a three-year-old. When the three-year-old wants to run into the street, the parent tells the kid not to, because he knows what’s best for the child. So when God says to stay away from something, I trust that there is a reason for why He’d tell me that. And He clearly says in the Bible that life is a treasure, and He is the only one who can decide when someone’s life should be over. We are not our own gods. We have no right to decide things like that.”
Some things were making sense to Leila, but she still had no idea if what Kayla was saying was true or total religious craziness. “So if God is in control…” she paused, not sure if she wanted to share something so personal with Kayla. “why does He let so much bad happen? Why would He let your house burn if you love Him so much? Why would He let Ellen’s dad hurt her? Why would He let a father leave his family when the daughter needs him? Why would he let the daughter hope for years and years that he’d come back, but he never does?”
Kayla looked at Leila with pain in her eyes. “I honestly can’t answer that. I have no way to know what exactly God’s plan is. I know He doesn’t create robots, and He lets us do what we want to. He lets people do horrible things, and they have to live with the consequences. He doesn’t find joy in it, but He wants people to choose Him because they want to, not because they have to. Love isn’t love when it’s forced. He wants us to come to Him. He wants to be there for us. Leila, the reason I don’t hate Ellen or her father is because I can see how broken they both are and how much God loves them. I want them to know that love. God gives me so much peace that I know I can live with anything. Losing possessions here doesn’t matter to me. He helped me through losing my mom. It hurts so bad, but I can live with it. And I have this joy that doesn’t depend on circumstances. I can’t explain it.” Kayla laughed through the tears that had been building up while she spoke. “He’s just so good like that.”
Leila felt herself blinking back tears. She didn’t know what was wrong with Kayla, but she knew the girl was for real. There was no way she could fake this kind of joy after all she’d been through. She was jealous, jealous that someone like Kayla could be so much happier than she. “How do you get that joy?”
Kayla smiled. “Only God can give it to you. He wants to give it to you so badly.”
“But I don’t know if I believe in God. I don’t know if I could forgive him for what he’s done.”
Kayla sighed, and wiped her eyes. “Okay, how about this. You come to my church on Sunday with me. You see what it’s like. I can even get some people who can answer your questions better than I could.”
“They have an evening service too. It won’t hurt you at all, and you may get the answers you’ve been looking for.”
“Well… I guess,” Leila said slowly. “I haven’t been to church in years.”
“Just once,” Kayla said. “One time is all I ask for.”
“One time,” Leila agreed.
That one time came all too soon for Leila. She regretted having said yes to Kayla, but she also just wanted to get it over with. Church had no appeal to her.
She walked into the small, old-fashioned church building beside Ellen, Kayla, and her aunt, with a churning stomach. Leila had been surprised when they had pulled into the parking lot of this church. She’d always gone to a big, overwhelming church where you could blend in and not be noticed at all. This was clearly not the case at this place. Everyone in the door greeted them by name, and Leila was introduced to twenty people within the first 10 minutes, overwhelmed by the handshakes and hugs she had received. Why were the people so friendly?
In the auditorium, she sat in one of the long pews and looked at the worn-out pulpit on the stage with maroon carpet. A guy stood up there with a guitar, and a middle-aged woman accompanied him on the piano. Leila was intrigued. This was so different from the 100+ sized choir and full band with the lights and smoke machines. Why would people come here when there was a church like that across town? When they started singing, it wasn’t anything special, but Leila could sense the earnestness of the people singing around her. She felt as if these people actually believed. They knew their faith was real. It wasn’t a joke for them or something they did to pass the time. It was so different. She didn’t remember much of the sermon except for the fact that the pastor seemed so genuine. He spoke from experience, telling of what he encountered when reading the Bible. The sermon wasn’t flashy, but still, Leila felt drawn into it.
She left the church (among many handshakes and people telling her they hoped she came back), thinking that she may just want to come back. These people had what Kayla had. They were happy. And they weren’t fake about it. They were just normal people who had some kind of supernatural joy in them. She wanted that. Whatever it was.
“Ellen, what is it with that place?” she asked the girl beside her quietly.
Ellen shook her head. “I don’t know. They’re always so loving. Like, I suck as a human being, but they don’t care. They prayed for me in the hospital. I don’t want to die when I’m here.”
Leila couldn’t help thinking that when she’d gone to church with her parents, they’d missed the whole point. Maybe this was the way it was supposed to be. She’d just have to go back and find out.