“The Last Day”
“My Lord’s gonna raise you up on the last day.”
Jennifer was serious. The senior class fell silent, even the hum of the air conditioning seemed to hang in the air. It was a silence teachers envied, but never expected. Rarely had Jennifer ever sound so convinced about something. She wasn’t picking a fight, she simply stated what, to her, was a fact. A fact as common as the color of the sky. Just as the sun would rise tomorrow, so would the Lord raise him, Mr. Smith, on the last day. Mr. Smith wasn’t the class’s normal teacher; he was substituting for Mrs. Thomson who had a funeral to attend to.
Jennifer inhaled deeply and her chest rose with purpose. She was a rather large girl, who wasn’t fat as she was voluminous. When she breathed, she breathed in the entire room and breathed out wind. Her unkempt hair was loosely tied up on one side, which she would alternate every day. Today, her hair hung down her right side. Her feet were too big for shoes, so she wore sandals no matter the season, but she didn’t seem to mind the weather, harsh or benign. The fact was that Jennifer did not know how else to be except her good, honest self and this was what prompted her to respond to Mr. Smith the way she did one late afternoon.
“What about God?” Mr. Smith asked. He wore such a stern gaze on his face that it frightened the girls in the class, which was quite surprising. Mr. Smith was the perfect target of what they called puppy love. He was a handsome teacher who had just started his third year of teaching. His good features were accompanied by a charm not lost on his students. He was quite adored by nearly everyone who had the privilege to be in his class. What they loved most about him was his ability to connect with them, as if he truly cared whether they understood the quadratic formula. He made mathematics sensible to them and in there lied his greatest trait.
He made sense of everything and was what every man should’ve been: certain.
“God makes the world go ‘round. Not numbers,” Jennifer stated plain as day. This incited a few snickers from her classmates, but most remained silent. No one had quite seen Mr. Smith angry before. Only once did Mr. Smith betray a tinge of frustration. A student had thrown a ball of paper at him when he was collecting homework. The only mark of rage was the one given on the assignment. Mr. Smith uncrumpled the paper, smoothed it out and wrote a “0” on it, then crumpled it back up and threw it back at the student much to everyone’s delight.
The only ones who didn’t like Mr. Smith were students who were jealous of his imperturbable quality of staying positive regardless of situation. Not that they envied the quality itself, but rather the attention he received from their peers. Except in this moment. No one in class was particularly envious of the attention he was receiving from Jennifer whose round eyes were staring through him.
“Aren’t we not supposed to talk about… religion?” A classmate chimed in.
“It’s too late,” Mr. Smith responded, his eyes locked on Jennifer. Indeed, it was too late as Jennifer’s beady gaze fell on Mr. Smith’s unwavering face with conviction. She pulled up the collar of her oversized white shirt over her mouth and exhaled. Her eyes were fish bowls, always wide open during class as if she was taking in all the graphs and formulas through the light of her eyes. However, it didn’t appear to help as she consistently received the lowest grades in her class. “Jennifer got F’s,” she flatly admitted when asked. Her honesty was admirable, if not mortifying.
“There is no God,” Mr. Smith stated when a student asked in mock dread why God had invented math. This sparked something in Jennifer. A fear. The same kind of fear she felt when someone stated an untrue statement and another, out of naiveté, actually believed it. The thought of a lie spreading and being believed as truth terrified her. It frightened Jennifer that a man like Mr. Smith could state a lie so assuredly without a note of humor or thoughtful consideration. He stood there like a tree stump waiting for an inevitable challenge.
“There is a God,” Jennifer stated. The classroom fell silent, no one raised their voice in support for one or the other. Mr. Smith scoffed and smiled. He nearly burst into laughter, but held his composure and turned his attention to the rest of the class.
“I’m sorry to break it to you, Jennifer. But we’re just cosmic dust.”
“We’re created in His image.”
“Really? And yet we will die. ‘For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.’ Is that not what the Bible says?” Mr. Smith asked. This did not shake Jennifer’s confidence however.
“God made man out of dust. So he can raise us again the same way,” Jennifer stated like it was common sense. Mr. Smith chuckled.
“How do you know there’s a god?”
“I know Him.”
“You know Him? You have His phone number?” The class laughed along with Mr. Smith who was enjoying his own joke. Jennifer’s expression did not waver.
“I know Him because He wants me to know Him.” A few classmates scoffed at this.
“What makes you think He does? What about your sins? Doesn’t He hate sin?” Mr. Smith asked again. Jennifer was caught off guard, not because she did not know this fact, but because Mr. Smith did.
“No, you right. And that’s why I want to know Him. He hates my sin… but He don’t hate me.” Mr. Smith rolled his eyes, the most visible sign of frustration the class had seen from him at this point.
“If there is a god, I don’t want to know him. You know why?” Mr. Smith asked the class. “I’ve done drugs, I’ve had premarital sex. If there is a God who sends people to hell, then I’m going straight down to the fire!” Mr. Smith pointed his index finger in the air and motioned it downward to hell. Half the class erupted into laughter while the other half remained quiet.
“There is a God. I seen Him.” Jennifer stated again, plain as day.
“Jesus Christ,” muttered a classmate. This incited more raucous laughter from the entire class. That is except for Mr. Smith who, with furrowed brow, crossed his arms to keep them from doing anything else.
“You’re just scared,” Jennifer stated. Mr. Smith’s face paled when she said this, his brow raised in astonishment. The class grew dim and for a moment, it was as if there was no one else in that room except the two opposing sides. But Jennifer was not trying to oppose anything or anyone except what she believed to be falseness.
“Of what? God?” Mr. Smith asked.
“You don’t want to die.” Now, it was Mr. Smith who was caught off guard. He remained silent only for a moment before clearing the doubt from his throat.
“Do you? Does anyone else want to die?” Some of the kids snickered again, but it was clear Mr. Smith was not asking a rhetorical question.
“I got everything I need or want in God.” Jennifer said.
“And what is that?”
“Everything I need to be ready on that last day.”
“Are you ready now?” Mr. Smith asked, his knuckles white from gripping the dry erase marker in his hand. For a moment, a flicker of doubt flashed across Jennifer’s eyes. She tried to regain her conviction by looking away from Mr. Smith. She stared down at the floor as if she had dropped something. Mr. Smith pitied her. He pitied everyone who believed in what they couldn’t see with their own eyes. Jennifer drew her eyes up towards the ceiling and slowly lowered them back onto Mr. Smith, who stood waiting along with the class for her answer.
“I am.” Jennifer answered quietly, but boldly. She stared at Mr. Smith with softened eyes as if he was the one to be pitied, not her. Mr. Smith clenched his teeth, his jawline was taut, leaving no more room for any other expression than anger.
“There is no god! There’s nothing to this world, but the end! Do you understand that? Everything is going to be eaten up by the sun. But lucky for us, we’ll be dead. On the last day we’ll become carbon particles and roam around the universe and maybe, just maybe we’ll be lucky enough to become the basis of other lifeforms that will live and die just like you and me.”
Mr. Smith was breathing heavy now, his right hand still gripping the marker, but his left arm was raised up, his index finger pointed at himself as if he was the answer. Jennifer stared at the chalkboard behind Mr. Smith, she stared at the blackness behind him, assured that he believed what he believed because he wanted to. And so did she.
“My Lord’s gonna raise you on the last day, Mr. Smith. My Lord’s gonna raise you on the last day.” Mr. Smith threw his hands up in the air because there was no reason to continue. He was wasting his breath. The final bell rang and everyone got up from their desks. The chairs screeched as the students got up and quickly headed out. Everyone, but Jennifer. She remained sitting in her chair staring at Mr. Smith, whose anger had faded along with the bell. He approached her and sat on the desk in front of her, but before he could utter a word Jennifer stood up. Tears welled up in her eyes and rolled down her round cheeks.
“I’m gonna pray for you, Mr. Smith.” Jennifer said and she walked out wiping her tears with her collar. Mr. Smith remained sitting on the desk and stared at the empty space Jennifer had just left. The space seemed to grow before his eyes, vast and void, unable to stop expanding before it swallowed Mr. Smith. He swallowed a lump in his throat and embraced the space, unwilling to bend from the inevitable.
That was the last time Mr. Smith saw Jennifer alive. A student had made an illegal u-turn at a stoplight while Jennifer was crossing the street on her way home after school. The student swerved and swiped her instead of hitting her dead on, but her injuries were significant and she was rushed off to surgery. Much to everyone’s shock, the surgeons could not revive her as if she had made up her mind to leave. The funeral was held on a Sunday and Mr. Smith attended not out of respect, but out of relief because he knew this was the last time he would ever see her again.
It was a grey day, the clouds were dark and heavy, and the cemetery was humid. Jennifer’s casket was closed and ready to be lowered. Jennifer’s family surrounded the casket as well as students and teachers from the school. Some of the teachers shed a few tears as well as some of the students, but Jennifer’s family remained somber. Not a single tear ran down their faces. Mr. Smith found this rather callous, but what did it matter, he thought. They were all cut of the same cloth and his indifference blocked any sense of pity he may have felt for them.
A tall preacher dressed in a black suit stood at the front of the casket. He looked up to heaven and mouthed something no one else could hear and then focused his attention on the people before him. Mr. Smith braced himself for the meaningless words that were to come out of the man’s mouth.
“Today… today we bury Jennifer. A beautiful girl. A beautiful person. Beautiful not because of her outer appearance… But because of her faith.”
Amens from the family members resounded through the air and continued to pepper the preacher’s sermon whenever he paused.
“… A faith that was not in vain.” This prompted more amens from the family. It took everything in Mr. Smith not to scoff.
“… A faith that wasn’t blind.” Mr. Smith did not roll his eyes, he stared at the preacher and wondered how anyone could be so irresponsible to lie to multitudes of people and not be ashamed. Mr. Smith crossed his arms and waited for the preacher to look in his direction. He wanted them to make eye contact, he wanted the preacher to see the truth through his eyes.
“… A faith that was real.” The preacher now shifted his eyes to the casket where Jennifer lied. Mr. Smith waited for the preacher to look up, but the preacher remained on the casket, staring without a word. Tears began to fall down his face and he finally looked up at the crowd.
“… Jennifer had faith the size of a mustard seed. Have you ever seen a mustard seed?” The preacher lifted his hand and squeezed the empty space in between his thumb and index finger until the space was barely visible. Mr. Smith lowered his eyes and became entranced by the space between the preacher’s fingers.
“And it grew.” The space in between the preacher’s thumb and finger began to expand. Mr. Smith felt the space expand towards him, and he felt his limbs grow rigid; he stood paralyzed. He was petrified to move even an inch, and so the expanding space began to envelope him in understanding.
“It grew into the greatest of her convictions and confidence.” The preacher finally put his hand down, but Mr. Smith dared not move.
“She did not live long, but she lived long enough… Because her faith at the end of her life had grown into a tree… A tree so deeply rooted that no one could steal it from her.” The preacher focused on Mr. Smith now, he looked into his eyes and saw the very thing Mr. Smith had been afraid of disappear, now being replaced by a greater and deeper fear. The preacher switched his focus to the family again.
“Scott, why don’t you come here right beside Jennifer and play for her?”
A small boy no older than 10 stepped out from amongst Jennifer’s family. He wore a baggy black t-shirt and in his hands carried a golden trumpet. He stood still for a second, fidgeting with the trumpet in his hand, and then walked towards Jennifer and the preacher. The little trumpeter planted his feet right at the head of Jennifer’s casket. The preacher put his hands on the boy’s shoulders and lightly squeezed them as to relieve the weight on them, even if only for a moment. Then the old preacher stepped away from the trumpeter. Mr. Smith was glued to where he stood and stared at the trumpeter, daring him to blow the first note.
The little trumpeter took a deep breath and held it in his lungs for a few moments before he breathed out slowly. A slow gust blew by Mr. Smith, forcing him to close his eyes. He lifted up his chin and his closed eyes towards the heavens. He heard the boy take another deep breath and waited for another slow exhale, but instead heard the trumpet’s blare. The trumpet blew out a clamor that went right through Mr. Smith, who kept his eyes shut. A crescendo began to rise and it was apparent that the boy was not playing a song. It was rather crass, but there was a certain air to the notes that could not be denied. Indeed, the notes began to add up to the announcement of Something once invisible to Mr. Smith. He did his best to resist, but it was all in vain, the arrival was imminent.
As soon as the trumpeter hit the last note, a light had sliced through Mr. Smith’s heart and to his horror, he saw himself in that light. What was veiled before in darkness overwhelmed him, so much so that he fell to his knees and gasped for air. He saw stains on his skin. Everyone stared at Mr. Smith now, his eyes welled up and his countenance was shattered. Tears rolled down his cheeks against his will and fell to the ground. He saw the truth Jennifer was so convinced of and the great space she had left that had swallowed him up in now seemed finite compared to the glory before him.
As the casket began to be lowered into the ground, Mr. Smith nearly leapt over the rail of the lowering device trying to stop Jennifer from being buried before being grabbed by his students. It was not his last, feeble attempt to stop the inevitable, but an attempt at an apology. Mr. Smith was certain now.
He would see her again on the last day.