"I need some strong boys to help me," Miss Robinson said, scanning the small group. "I need to put the chairs back after we're all done today. So if you'd like to stay for a moment, I'm sure your parents won't mind the extra wait in the parking lot." We were at youth group. It was the first and last time I would kiss Thomas, but I didn't know it yet. We tried a single smooch in the back of his mother's van on the way home. His mouth made a loud SMACK, and his older brothers in the middle row turned back toward us; they laughed and jeered. It was too dark to tell we were holding hands; it was too dark for them to see our faces, but they had heard something and knew. When Miss Robinson was done with her sermon, we played hide and seek, running about the church. The building was beige, dumpy, ugly. It was squat, and the parking lot seemed ten times the size of the structure, but I didn't care about architecture; I only cared about who was in attendance, so it was the most beautiful church I'd ever seen. Thomas was my new boyfriend. We'd been together for about two weeks by that point. His mom had picked me up at 5:32 PM. I had been waiting outside, ready to run for the car. My mom met me at the door when I got home that night. She asked who picked me up, I told her it was Jenny. I thought I was good at lying. It's her mom's old car, I added, even though I hadn't been asked. My mom looked out the door, but the car was gone. I had been picked up in a strange car, but it was at the right time for youth group; I had been dropped off in the same strange car, but at the right time to come home, so she couldn't fuss. It was safe for her to assume I had been at youth group, and all of her conditions had been met so she couldn't complain. I would eventually use Wednesday night youth group hours to venture out into the city. I was free to do what I wanted and be with whom I wanted, as long as I was home at the right time. Good thing there weren't that many hymns; it was easy to name a few when asked what we'd sung that night. Good thing there weren't really that many lessons taught by Jesus; it was easy to cycle through them when asked what we'd discussed in the sermon. Eventually, I would stop trying, but at the time of the kiss, I was still partially wound between the thorned branches of Jesus' crown, not yet trying to cut myself free with my teeth. The church was a lot bigger on the inside, but I only got to explore it once, we broke up shortly after. There were only ten of us for the youth group that night. No live band, no group of nearly one hundred kids as I was used to, no massive, high-budget party games, always related back to the word of God by some chain of English teacher logic. How did youth pastors always do that? You're searching through the whipped cream, looking for the Swedish Fish, just like you should be searching for the word of God. If you see his words like candy, you'll glide through the lessons like whipped cream. You'll lick the paper plate and go back for more. I guessed the paper plate was supposed to represent the bible, or was the paper-to-paper comparison too literal? Thomas, his two brothers, and I comprised four of the ten children. Thomas and his siblings looked related the way kids do when they have all the same parents, I wasn't used to seeing that in my part of town. Miss Robinson had told us about Jesus. I already knew all about Jesus. I'd been nervous going in, nervous Thomas's Jesus would be some other guy, someone I didn't recognise, but they were pretty close to being the same person. Miss Robinson said his name was Jeeesus. He loves you, Jeeesus has an important message. The lesson only lasted twenty-something minutes. After, it was time to play hide and seek. There was no religious tie-in; just go, go, go. Run, count from thirty; if you're not It, hide. A zero-budget party game. The church had too many floors and too many rooms on each one. All the doors were unlocked, and the rooms were mostly empty. My usual church was an expensive private school on weekdays. They learned about God in school and spoke about him in more words than just the pledge of allegiance. Or was it the other church? Charlie’s? I rotated through so many. It was never about God for me, never about Jeeesus. I alternated between each church based on who I was dating, whoever's mom was willing to pick me up. I'd go to a different youth group every week and learn about Jeeeeeesus in all his various flavours. Eventually, I'd get picked up but wouldn't go to church at all. Johnny's mom would drive out to get me. She was on something, some kind of sedative, though we didn't realise it at the time. It impaired her motherly judgement and allowed her to drive the exact speed limit for 25 minutes to pick me up at 5:30. She'd take me back to her Southside mansion so I could smoke weed with her son by their in-ground pool. We held our own church services, watching the sunsets fade to stars before it was time for his mom to drop me off again. I walked through the upper levels of the church. I wasn't sure if I'd been followed or not, but that was part of the fun. How many seconds were left? The kid doing the counting didn't have many teeth. He probably couldn't even count very high. Did they play this every week? The regulars had a home-field advantage; I was a stranger in their land, a stranger with the same (almost) Jeeeesus. Every Sunday night, I'd listen to the radio tell stories of God and the angels. It was a talk show radio and people would call in and tell the host about their godly visions and experiences. I'd lie in the dark and listen and wait for my turn. I picked a room at random and crawled behind a pile of chairs. That night was the last I'd go to that church, but I'd continue my rotation. I waited for the kid with too few teeth to find me, knees pulled to my chest, stuffed into a corner in the dark. Were they allowed to turn on the lights? The previous week, Danny spoke to me at school. He wasn't into the youth group scene, he didn't like Jeeesus. It doesn't seem fair, he said. What about all the people who never hear about God? Do they go to hell just because they never heard about him? I told him I didn't know. It's stupid, he'd said. If you have to be saved by Jesus to go to heaven, and someone doesn't tell you about Jesus your whole life, you go to hell. That's not fair. I couldn't answer his question. Years and years and years of bible study and youth group and church sermons, and I didn't know. I sat in the dark in a room on the top floor of the church, knees pulled to my chest, waiting for the kid to find me, waiting for someone to find me, waiting for God to find me. Later that evening, I'd kiss Thomas in the back seat of his mom's blue Dodge Caravan, but I wouldn't feel Jesus then either. substack: https://ecmilieu.substack.com/p/god-hides-in-the-empty-rooms