The man who would become my enemy lifted his gaze to meet mine.
“Ted, I didn’t expect you home this weekend,” my father said, closing the black leather-bound tome on his lap. He registered neither surprise nor joy, but the stern, humorless demeanor which had come to define him.
“I…we…need to talk.” Thoughts had been festering in me for a year now and I needed to be honest. I’d decided to reveal my doubts to a man who had none. Summoning all of my courage, I said the words out loud for the first time.
“I’m not sure what to believe about God anymore.”
My father stiffened, but didn’t interrupt. In my college courses and from fellow students, I explained to him, I’d learned so much that conflicted with what I’d been taught; about evolution and physiology, the age of the universe and the nature of reality. Even other Christians professed beliefs alien to me. I had dedicated myself to debunking them all and failed miserably, and now found myself unable to resolve my faith against the flood.
When I was done, I looked to him for some measure of understanding. He stared back at me like a malevolent stone god.
“Are you an atheist now?”
“No, Dad. No!” I took a step backward. “I’m just trying to figure things out.”
“I knew letting you attend that godless school was a mistake,” he growled.
“Dad, that doesn’t matter. What they’re saying isn’t wrong.”
He was too far gone to pay attention to anything I said. He glared up at the ceiling as if it were no barrier between him and the heavens. “It’s filled with heathens and heretics. Satan’s thralls sent to make you stray from the right path.”
“Lord, cleanse my son of his corruption,” he intoned, his outstretched hands hovering to either side of my head like waves poised to crash against a sailing ship. “Put him on the right path and lead him away from the gates of Hell.”
“Dad,” I yelled, finally getting his attention. His fiery gaze made my throat catch. “They’re telling the truth. It’s the church that’s been lying to us.”
He shook his head in disbelief and looked somewhere far away behind me. “This is all because of that whore mother of yours. I should have cut you off from her years ago. She left us for a life of iniquity, and now you don’t know how to tell truth from falseness.”
For my entire life, I’d passively accepted everything this man had said. I’d been silent when he ranted about my mother’s infidelity. Something inside me broke. I straightened out of my habitual slump, matching his height, and glared. For the first time, I fought back.
“She left because of you!” I screamed. “You drove her away. You don’t listen and you don’t notice what anybody else is going through. You’re selfish and mean, and you want to control us. Well, she got away from you. Maybe I should too.”
Dad reeled, his jaw slack. “You want to leave me?” he roared.
I crossed my arms. “I’m an adult, and I’m not going to let you bully me anymore.”
The evening sun had dropped in the window behind me, shadowing his face, but his eyes glowed like embers. He studied me for an eternity, each rise and fall of his chest marking an aeon where hope grew and then died anew. When he broke the silence, his voice was quieter but no less hard. “Fine. You can go, too. I don’t want to watch my only child condemn himself to hellfire.”
I fell backwards two steps, then recovered enough to give him one last glare before I stomped out of the house. As I passed through the doorway, he spat out the last words I’d hear him say.
“Don’t bother coming back. You’re no longer my son.”
I slammed the door behind me and he was gone.
I drove away from my home, seething. Minutes and miles passed before I was finally overcome. I broke down and, gasping, pulled over and dialed Mom.
“Hello, Teddy.” Her voice, sweet and happy, quelled the turbulence inside me.
She listened quietly as I told her what happened. When I was finished, she sighed. “Your father can be so hard-headed.”
“I think he meant it, Mom.” My head fell onto the steering wheel, tears marring its leather surface. “He doesn’t want me anymore.”
Uncomfortable silence followed. “Do you have a place to stay?” she eventually asked.
“Um,” I stammered. “Yeah, the scholarship covers my expenses.”
“That’s good.” She sounded relieved. “I’d invite you here, but our place is just so small, we really don’t have the space.”
“We have that extra room, of course, but Steve uses it for his office. He’s putting in a lot of hours these days. It’s difficult to get a new dealership running.”
“And I’m so busy getting it decorated. Just today, I went to find coverings for our living room window. Do you know how hard it is to find drapes that match Steve’s old couch? I went to three shops before I found one in the right color, but I don’t think it’s going to work.”
I sat in shocked silence while she ignored my pain. Finally, I broke in and told her I had to go.
“I know you’ll be fine, honey. You’ve always been so smart.”
Then she was gone.
Over the next month, my life began to fall apart. Neither Mom nor Dad tried to contact me, and I refused to apologize when I wasn’t wrong. I lived in a fog until I swore I’d never speak to either of them again. Then, a few weeks later, I knew that Dad had been right about one thing: I was an atheist. My parents and my faith were now relics of a past I swore to forget.
And everything got better.