“Are you there, God? It’s me again,” I whisper, hands clasped. “I’m begging you this time. I really don’t want to go to Christchurch today. Please, can you find a way for me to stay? Or, you know, maybe Adie could move there too? Please. If you’re real, this is your last chance to prove it.”
She nudges me in the ribs. “Sam, it’s a bit late for that.”
We’re lying on soft grass by the riverbank, listening to the water rushing past like the summer that left us behind. Above us, branches and trembling leaves make fractals in the sky.
I look over at her. The sleeve of her yellow sundress is wrinkled. Her hair spreads out beneath her head, dark and shiny. She stares up at the sky, chest rising and falling gently, and I hope she’s thinking about me. Under the musk of river and trees, I catch a hint of perfume.
She sees me staring and smiles. “What?”
“Nothing,” I say. “Just wish I had a photographic memory.”
“Well,” she replies, grabbing her phone, “maybe you don’t need one.”
A photo won’t smell like you, I think.
“What’s on your mind?” I say instead.
“It’s Diwali.” She starts scrolling through Instagram absent-mindedly.
“The one with the lights?”
“Uh-huh. It’s our New Year. It’s supposed to be about fresh starts, new beginnings, all that stuff.”
I frown, troubled by the implications of that. Adie Singh, the girl who knows me better than anyone else in my short life, is always one step ahead. She topped our Maths, English and Science classes in every year of school so far. She’s a debating champion. She knows how to escape her parents’ watchful eyes and find me in our special place. And she’s easily smart enough to leave me, and us, behind.
I put a hand on her arm and caress her skin, savouring the warmth. I think of Grandma’s reaction when I told her about Adie; how elated she’d been that I’d found someone. She’d hugged me and said she was proud, that she wanted to meet her. Then she asked what her full name was.
“Adrita,” I said.
“Ad- what now?” Grandma said. “That sounds like a… that doesn’t sound Kiwi. She Christian?”
“She’s Indian. Hindu.”
At first, her face fell in a way that I still haven’t forgotten. But my enduring memory was the way she suddenly smiled again, and what she said afterwards.
“Well, if she makes you happy, and you make her happy, there isn’t much wrong with that, is there?” She hugged me again. “I’ve watched you struggle with our faith, dear. I know it’s hard. I want you to know: God will watch over you, no matter which way you go.”
Then she pulled back and held my gaze, concerned.
“He will understand. But your parents may not.”
A floating leaf draws me back into the present. It doesn’t fall straight to the ground. It sways languidly back and forth as if pulled by invisible puppet strings; its path impossible to predict. But I know it’ll eventually reach the bottom. I wonder if she’ll let me down as gently, or if she’ll crumple me in her hand and sprinkle my pieces amongst the grass. How gentle can heartbreak be?
“So, Diwali,” I say. “How do you celebrate it?”
“The way we usually do,” she replies. “Lots of people. Shiny clothes. Good food. Gossip."
“Sometimes. You know me, I’m not into the religious side of things.”
Adie’s approach to religion was similar to my own: compliant, but indifferent. She folded her hands, closed her eyes and prayed with the best of them, but only to avoid her parents chastising her for a lack of respect. I knew the truth, though: it wasn’t that she didn’t respect religion – she just couldn’t give herself to it completely. I felt the same whenever I visited church, and we’d bonded over our struggles about what religion meant to us. Where we differed was the extent of our belief in God.
Just two months ago, we’d sat in my car watching the city lights below. Our parents thought we were watching a movie with a group of friends. We kissed, held each other, and talked. Boy, Adie could talk.
“You know, maybe God is real,” she’d said that night.
I looked at her, surprised. “You think so?”
“Think about it,” she said. “What were the chances of this happening? My family decided to move to this tiny country in the corner of the world, and of all the cities here, we picked Hamilton. Then, I ended up at the same school, the same classes, as you.”
I tilted my head thoughtfully. “Even with my family, we came to Hamilton from Christchurch. And, remember, I switched schools when I got the hockey scholarship. If we hadn’t moved, I never would have met you.”
Her eyes shined. “It’s one in a million. A billion.”
“One thing wasn’t a coincidence, you know,” I grinned. “When I sat next to you on the first day, I knew exactly what I was doing.”
“’Course you did, you creep,” she giggled, punching my shoulder. Then she rested her head there. “That’s why I think God might be real. This is too perfect. It couldn’t just be chance.”
Back then, I’d already known we were moving. But I’m glad I didn’t ruin that moment. I still treasure it today.
“Yeah, neither of us is religious,” I say, “but when you pray, do you like, talk to God? Or is it more like making a wish?”
She picks up a twig and twirls it between her fingers. “I dunno. Maybe Hindu praying is different. Remember we have lots of gods, so I never know which one I’m talking to.” Her eyes twinkle mischievously. “Who knows? Maybe I’ve been praying to your God this whole time, instead of my ones.”
I swallow. “And… what do you pray for?”
The wind – or maybe God – chooses that moment to form a sudden gust, showering us in leaves. She sits up to dust herself off, and it pulls her hair into a silky mess. She tucks her hair back behind her ear and faces me, her expression serious. My heart flutters like the hem of her dress in the breeze.
“I just wish you’d told me earlier,” she says.
“I know. I should’ve. But it was so hard, I didn’t know what to say. You’re-“ I stopped myself short.
I didn’t want to say what she really meant to me. Saying it would give it form and release it into the world, where judgement – and worse, rejection – lay in wait. It was much safer in the embrace of warm memories; a place of endless movie dates after school, whispers and kisses in the stairwell between classes, and stealing through bedroom windows just to drive aimlessly in the dead of night.
As ever, she reads my mind. Her breathing is shaky. “Two weeks wasn’t enough. I’m not ready.”
Two weeks ago - just before I told her - was the first time I’d prayed and truly meant it. I was alone in the attic. Even though my parents would have approved, I felt too self-conscious, like them seeing me praying would somehow mean they were right all along. And I didn’t want them to ask what I was praying for.
Warm morning rays had streamed through the window, forming a rhombus of yellow gold on the wooden floor. Dust floated around me and into my nose. Downstairs was a muffled clamour of furniture scraping and shouted instructions.
“Are you there, God? I need help. What do I do? How do I tell Adie? Do we stay together, or break up now to avoid more heartbreak later? Please, I don’t know what to do.”
I’d kneeled there until my knees ached and my fingers were stiff. I was blinded when I opened my eyes. But when my vision cleared, I didn’t see the sign I was hoping for. I knew it was silly, expecting some kind of acknowledgement, a sliver of attention from a higher being. I just wanted to know that I’d been heard; to know that everything would be okay and I wouldn’t have to leave Adie behind. I didn’t know how my parents prayed every day of their lives without so much as a single sign.
That thought filled my head until Mum called to me from below. I puffed my cheeks and let a sigh escape, then gathered myself and hefted the stack of boxes beside me. I creaked my way downstairs and found her waiting. She looked as if she was about to give me a dressing down, but then her eyes fell on the boxes I was carrying. She reached into the top one and pulled something out. I peered over her shoulder – it was a photo album.
I set the boxes down, and we stood in silence as she flicked through the pages, one-by-one. Eventually she paused.
“How do you feel about us moving, Sammie?” she said.
“You know how I feel,” I muttered back.
She rubbed my arm. “I’m sorry, honey. I know it won’t be easy leaving your friends behind. The school in Christchurch – they have a good hockey team, I’ve heard. That’s something to look forward to, isn’t it?”
I gazed at the floor sullenly.
Mum glanced at the album again. “You know, I don’t want to leave either,” she said softly.
I looked at her, eyebrows raised.
“But we have to. This is a huge opportunity for Dad,” she continued. “I want you to remember this for when you’re married one day. It’s not only a partnership with your spouse, but with God. We’ve worked so hard, stayed true to our faith as God-fearing Christians, and He’s rewarded us with this chance to live a better life and be closer to your grandparents. It will always be worth it to me, even if it brings the pain of leaving everything we've built here behind."
That was when I almost told her the truth, but it was precisely the fear of God that held me back. Was God also a part of my relationship with Adie? I was scared to learn the answer.
Back in the present, I realise Adie’s been watching me quietly.
“Sorry,” I murmur. “Was just thinking.”
“About what?” she says.
“Nothing. Just, what’s the point in praying if I can’t change anything? You said it was too late.”
She squeezes my hand. She doesn’t want to say what we’re both thinking. Today is the last day we’ll see each other for a long time – maybe ever.
Her voice trembles. “I used to pray that I’d meet someone like you, you know. Someone I could share everything with, be myself around. Maybe praying got us here in the first place.” She leans in close and cups my cheek. “And this doesn’t have to be goodbye. God brought us together – he could keep us together too. One in a million, remember?”
Something blooms deep inside me, expanding to fill every inch of my body with warmth.
“You – you don’t want to break up?”
She blinks, looking shocked. “Sam, no. I... ” She takes a deep breath. “I love you, Sam.”
“Adie, I love you too.” The words are out of my mouth before my overwhelmed brain can react.
Her eyes are shining. “Wow. We said it.”
“Yeah, we did,” I sniff.
She climbs into my arms, intertwines her fingers with mine. We breathe each other in for a moment, then we kiss. As we pull away, my next message to God is a silent one that I keep for myself.
“Thank you God. Thanks an awful lot.”