In the Shadow of the Oak Tree

Submitted into Contest #184 in response to: Start your story with someone saying “Houston, we have a problem.”... view prompt


LGBTQ+ Drama

This story contains sensitive content

TW: sexual assault, mental health, religious trauma, homophobia

“Houston, we have a problem!”

I roll my eyes at my brother Matthew, who sits across the table from me. Maybe he’s spent too many hours watching Apollo 13, the most scandalous movie in our family’s small collection of approved DVDs, which also includes an unexpectedly sizable collection of classic sci-fi movies.

“You know that phrase is so cliché,” I say.

Matthew huffs in response. Though the noise sounds different from his usual sibling-rivalry sigh—a strange amalgamation of anxiety and…What was that?...Rage? Pity? Exhaustion?

Matthew speaks, pulling me from my thoughts. “It’s not cliché if it matches the severity of the situation.” 

I look out the window at the clear blue skies, the clouds strolling through their normal courses for a Tuesday at noon. I notice the familiar sway of my favorite oak tree in the front yard.

I raise my eyebrow to express my annoyance at Matthew’s over-sensitive intrusion on the status quo. “And what could possibly be so severe about our situation?”

“I…I don’t even know if I should read this out loud.” He turns his ancient laptop to face me. 

I push aside the pile of Edifying Education Press textbooks so I can see his screen. Surely, this is just one of his computer games refusing to run on the decrepit supposedly-for-school-only device.

But the blog post I see sends bolts of fire down to my gut.

“Oh my word,” I say, though my mind had said something much stronger and much more forbidden—a blasphemous phrase that would certainly get me kicked out of the house and even our mildly liberal homeschool co-op…had I uttered it. Who even was I?

“This can’t be right,” I say. “The Parkers are a nice family.”

“I know.” A flash of something passes over my brother’s eyes. Fear? Anger?  

He’s silent for too long. 

“This can’t be true,” I say. 

Something bubbles up inside me, a searing sense of pain…that I disconnect from. The words that follow don’t feel like my own. “Verity must be lying. How can we believe anything she says ANYWAY? Especially since…” 

I lower my voice, reconnecting to my body. I’m not sure if I should even dare say what I know about Verity, but it begins to tumble out unbidden. “Especially since she…well, she’s a…well, she’s as much of a…” 

Matthew tilts his head. “A…?”

I speed-whisper through the next word, “Sexual…deviant. She’s as immoral as she claims her brother Valor was in this post.” 

Matthew’s eyes widen. “What do you mean? Verity’s your friend.”

My cheeks redden, horrified at what I’ve said and horrified at the subject I’ve introduced. “Maybe you’re too young,” I say. 

“I am not,” Matthew says. “I’m fifteen. I’m old enough to understand what she’s accusing Valor of.”

I pause. “Verity…well, she’s interested in…” I lower my voice again to the speed-whisper, “Women.”

I wait for Matthew to respond. I can’t read his face. Finally, he says, “Why is that as bad as Valor taking advantage of her?”

I grip the table. “Don’t ask questions like that. You should know both behaviors are against God’s will.”

Matthew remains quiet. “Look, sis, I thought you were going to say something different. Verity liking girls doesn’t seem that bad to me. What Valor did seems like the real evil here.”

I don’t recognize the screech-whisper that comes out of my mouth. “You’re going to send someone to hell if you’re not careful!”

He tries to speak. “I didn’t mean—” 

My disembodied self interrupts him. “Don’t you know what this means? Verity can’t be trusted!”

“I don’t think it does,” says Matthew quietly.

My fist clenches. “She’s a temptress! She had it coming!”

He has to understand. I have to protect him.

“Women of ill repute invite this! You have to know that!”

Fiery tears ooze out of my eyes.

“Don’t EVER make light of sexual immorality!” 

I try to flip the table, like Jesus.

But it doesn’t work. The textbooks keep it firmly in place.

I stagger away from my chair and then crumple into a ball beside it. 

The fire and brimstone sermon over, Matthew approaches me. He sits next to me, silent but far more serene than I am.

I turn to him, tears coming down like rivers of lava. Or was it magma? There wasn’t much information in our science textbook, besides how to refute evolutionists. But the godlessness of the world had found us regardless.

“Matthew, God hates those who devise evil plans…This is Verity’s punishment for…for liking girls…” The lava river of tears takes over my face again and I cannot speak.

Matthew lets me cry for a moment before he adds, “God also hates those who bear false witness against their neighbors. I think Verity was doing God’s will to speak out against Valor’s abuse.”

“But what about her…her evil plans?” I say, finally finding space between the eruptions of tears.

Matthew sighs, in a way that makes him seem like some kind of an adult, not a fifteen-year-old—almost like a wise old angel. 

“Like I said,” he continues, “I don’t think who Verity loves is some kind of evil plan she came up with.”

I try to stop what he’s going to say, “The Bible says…” But the lava takes over once again.

Against the backdrop of my sobs, Matthew speaks slowly. “Sis, I already knew that Verity likes girls.”

The world slows down and my stomach fills with the fires of hell.

He nods his head toward the window. “I saw you and Verity kiss under that oak tree…and in the baptismal at church. You’re always together and you take care of each other. Your love doesn’t seem like something from hell.”

I hiccup through my tears, words still not able to come through.

Matthew continues. “I watch a lot of sci-fi. It makes me think about a better world that might be possible some day. Bad guys want power, like those old villains…like Valor. Good guys love no matter what, even when their world won’t let them…like you and Verity.”

“Then we DO have a problem, Houston,” I manage to spit out.

Matthew takes my hand. “Then we’ll solve it together.”

February 10, 2023 02:10

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Christopher Gunn
02:06 Apr 03, 2023

I was just recently reading about religious home schooling and how it purposefully isolates for exactly this reason.


Kandi Zeller
18:07 Apr 03, 2023

Yes, as a person who experienced religious homeschooling, I'm encouraged to see the issue of isolation discussed more and more. Thank you for reading!


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Éan Bird
14:50 Mar 28, 2023

Oooh! The layers that can be read into these sentences: "I try to flip the table, like Jesus. But it doesn’t work. The textbooks keep it firmly in place." The narrative's conflict gripped me.


Kandi Zeller
19:38 Mar 28, 2023

Thank you!


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Anna Dumas
18:33 Feb 27, 2023

Plot twist was so sweet, it was a nice cute short story.


Kandi Zeller
22:30 Mar 05, 2023

Thank you!


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Wendy Kaminski
01:18 Feb 14, 2023

This was really sweet, Kandi: I loved the supportive brother in the story, and the reminder that they are given a charge to love, not to hate. Bravo! Thanks for the story, and welcome to Reedsy!


Kandi Zeller
04:15 Feb 14, 2023

Thank you so much, Wendy! Thanks for reading!


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