5. Influence

“Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, 
but the companion of fools will suffer harm.”

Proverbs 13:20

“Make no friendship with a man given to anger, 
nor go with a wrathful man,
lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare.”
Proverbs 22:24

Walking up to the junior high, she looked around nervously. Yet again, she found herself in another new school on another “first day” for her, but no one else. She had only lived with her aunt and uncle for five years now, and already they had moved several times. Sighing deeply, she watched as her warm breath became fog on this very cold day. She took several more slow breaths, trying to settle the butterflies in her stomach. She hated the first day at new schools.

The Sister pulled out the folded sheet of paper from her front pocket. Glancing over her class schedule, she studied the numbers above each classroom door and tried to navigate her way around the building. She did not want to stand out as being an obviously new student, but that was a difficult task to accomplish since this was her first time stepping foot into this building.

Aunt Charlotte had offered to bring her on Friday to walk around and find her classes, but she’d refused. “I can figure it out on my own,” she’d snapped rudely. She always regretted when she was rude to Aunt Charlotte, yet she often distanced herself from the love and warmth that Aunt Charlotte tried to give her. Truthfully, Aunt Charlotte made her think too much of her mom, and to let Aunt Charlotte in just hurt too deeply. 

Aunt Charlotte had brown, curly hair and a trim figure, just like her mom. She remembered once, when she was about five, she had walked up behind Aunt Charlotte at church and grabbed her hand, thinking it was her mom. When she looked up and realized what she’d done, she’d pulled away quickly, embarrassed. Everyone had laughed deeply about it, because Aunt Charlotte and her mom often were mistaken for one another. Though they were six years apart, their resemblance was uncanny. 

Just thinking about it all made The Sister ache in a way that she hadn’t allowed herself to in a long time. Usually when these memories made their way to the forefront of her mind, she pushed them down as quickly as possible, strengthening the fortress she’d built around her most vulnerable and painful feelings. She didn’t like to dwell in the heartache of her many losses; she didn’t like to feel broken. But today, facing another new day in another new school, and with the five-year anniversary of her entire family’s deaths approaching, she allowed herself to dwell in the memories. 

She finally found her homeroom and slipped into a back seat, hoping the teacher wouldn’t notice her and make a scene. She hated being called out and asked to introduce herself in front of everyone. She absolutely hated it. She placed her backpack on the floor beside her desk and glanced around the room to familiarize herself with her surroundings. Everyone was returning from Christmas break today, and many exuberant and excited conversations were going on around her. Seeing all of the friends visiting made The Sister long for friendship. Life had been so lonely ever since she’d lost her family.

As she was settling in, a few students turned to look at her, also. Any time they’d make eye contact, she quickly looked away. She noticed some girls near the front of the classroom whispering and laughing as they cast their glances toward her, obviously talking about her and not trying to hide it in the least. The Sister felt her face warm from the unwanted attention as she pulled out a notebook and focused all of her attention on a blank page. Giant tears welled at the corners of her eyes, and she worked desperately to keep them at bay. Nothing would be worse for her than to cry on her first day. 

The bell finally rang, and the sounds of shuffling feet and scraping chairs filled the air as everyone took their seats. The morning announcements began over the intercom. The Sister’s mind drifted back to a much happier time just five years prior. 

It was just after Christmas, and she had been bursting with delight as she and her mom planned her eighth birthday party. Having an early January birthday was a bummer for most kids, but not for her. Mom always worked extra hard to have separate and distinct celebrations for The Sister. Christmas presents were for Christmas, and birthday presents were for birthdays. She never allowed the two to be combined because she didn’t want to rob her middle child of the celebration of her special day. 

Mom was always thoughtful that way. She was the warmth that bonded her family together in love. The Sister and her mom had the most contagious belly laughs. They had the same sense of humor, and they could practically read one another’s minds when a funny situation arose. It was one of those things The Sister missed most — laughing uncontrollably with her mom. In fact, without her mom now, she couldn’t recall the last time she’d truly laughed. 

For some reason, turning eight had been a special birthday for The Sister. In her young mind it always seemed that when people turned eight, they became much more grown-up than before. Planning this party was a very big deal to her, and she had wanted it to be a birthday to remember.

One thing her mom said that day stood out to her after all these years. The Sister had not wanted to invite one girl to her party, a newer girl to the school. Everyone made fun of this girl for how she dressed and how she smelled, and while The Sister felt badly for the girl, she didn’t want people to think she was this girl’s friend! When she had told her mom this, a mixture of compassion and disappointment clouded her mom’s face. 

Seeing the real issue in this conversation, her mom had responded, “Did you know that who we spend our time with is who we become? Doing the right thing isn’t always easy, honey, but it is always worthy. I hope that as you grow, you surround yourself with people who are godly,…the kind of friends who will cheer you on when you stand for those who are less fortunate than you.” 

Those words had always stuck with her. She’d always wanted to please her mom. But it was easier when her mom was in her life, cheering her on and helping her make the right decisions. Now, she felt so alone! Living the way her mom had expected her to live meant more isolation, and The Sister just wasn’t sure she could take the loneliness much longer.

The Sister’s thoughts were interrupted when she heard her name called at the front of the class. Groaning inwardly, she realized the teacher was introducing her to the class. Did teachers not ever realize how unfair it was to do this to the new kids?

“Why don’t you go ahead and stand up and tell us a little about yourself?” she said with a smile and a nod of her head, coaxing The Sister to comply with her request.

“There really isn’t much to tell,” she began as she slowly stood, timidly brushing her curly hair behind her ear. She had the same curly hair and trim figure as her mom and Aunt Charlotte. “I’m an army brat, and we’re here for now. I’m never sure how long we’ll be in one place.” She started to sit down, but the teacher couldn’t leave it at that.

“Tell us about your family,” she asked, and The Sister stopped mid-sit and stood back up.

“I’m an only child, so like I said, there really isn’t much to tell,” she lied. She sat down quickly, and thankfully, the teacher didn’t push any further. 

The Sister had learned two moves ago that lying was much easier than explaining her painful story to others. If she gave even a few details of the truth, they’d pester her for more and more. She had long grown tired of everyone talking about the accident

As the teacher began giving out instructions for an upcoming school trip, The Sister’s mind drifted back to the day of the funeral, just a couple of months after her eighth birthday. One scene in her memory always flashed in her mind when she thought of the funeral. She had stood at the site of four fresh graves, the places where her family lay, trying to wrap her mind around her new reality.

Their bodies had been too damaged from the accident, so the services had been closed casket. The Sister had been so angry that she couldn’t even look at her parents one last time. She would have done anything to just look into their faces. She was too young to understand that it would have been more painful for her to see the trauma their bodies had endured. 

The memorial service and the graveside service had been terrible for her. Everyone around her had cried and hugged her throughout the day, pretending they wanted to comfort her but only seeking comfort for themselves. She didn’t want their hugs! She didn’t want all of this attention. She only wanted her family back!

As she had stood alone at the graves, weeping inside but holding in the ocean of tears that desperately cried to be released, she heard whispered conversations behind her. Everyone had been talking about her. 

“Just look at her, all alone. What will happen to her? Did they have a will?”

“Poor thing…losing her entire family. I just can’t imagine.”

“I heard that they were driving back on the bus when the accident happened. No one knew anything until later that day when her parents didn’t pick her up.”

The Sister had burned with anger as she heard their comments. She had hated that people talked about her and felt so inclined to push their nosy questions into her life. 

There would be many things said to her and about her during those months after the accident that did nothing to comfort her, but only to upset her. But there was one thing said to her, in many different ways, that she never accepted and never appreciated. They had started saying it after The Man’s story came out, the one who had survived the accident.

“Your parents, your brother and sister…they are heroes of the faith! They are saints! Look what they did in their final moments of their lives, telling the gospel to people who would have otherwise died hopeless!”

“How brave they were! How proud you must be! What a comfort! What a joy!” 

They would ramble on with tears in their eyes, hugging her, smiling! How could they possibly smile about this? How could their words possibly bring her any comfort? She was an orphan because of that tragic event.

She would always nod her head, saying “yes ma’am” and “yes sir,” and agree with them only to make them leave her alone. But inside, she felt nothing but rage. Who knew an eight-year old could feel such rage? They said God was proud of her family…but He had done nothing for her family on that day. God had done nothing for her! He let her entire family die, and she was now utterly alone. 

The bell rang, snapping her back to reality once more. The Sister quickly gathered her stuff, glimpsed down at her class schedule, and made a quick exit for the hallway. She felt miserable from allowing these painful memories to resurface, and she determined to not think on it again. Each class moved on slowly, and finally, lunchtime arrived. 

Making her way to the cafeteria, The Sister pulled out the $5 bill her uncle had given her on the way out the door. He would sometimes try to be kind and friendly to her, but she knew the truth. He didn’t like her. She’d heard it from his own lips one night several years ago. She knew that he felt she was an intrusion into his and Aunt Charlotte’s lives, and she never forgot that about him. Mostly, she and The Uncle just avoided one another, and Aunt Charlotte ran between them like a determined Border Collie hopelessly trying to keep everyone happy and bring everyone together.

She made her way through the lunch line and felt anxiety over where she would find a place to sit. She discreetly looked around the lunch room. She could tell who was who by the way different groups of students dressed and acted. The “loners” sat alone, dispersed throughout the outer edges of the cafeteria. The “nerds” sat close to the teachers’ tables. The “jocks” were over on the back side of the cafeteria. She spotted the girls, obviously part of the popular crowd. who had been talking about her in homeroom. They were now focusing their attention on an overweight girl who was seated alone at a table behind them. 

Spotting an empty table just beyond them, The Sister made her way in their direction. She watched the group of girls with longing, inwardly aching to be a part of a group again, to belong. She hadn’t felt like she belonged to anyone at all since her family died and she had been moved away from the only home she’d ever known. 

As she walked past their group, the lead girl called out to her. “Hey, new girl. Sally Henson saved you a seat,” she said, nodding in the direction of the poor girl behind them. Her gang of friends cackled with her at the apparently clever statement. The Sister looked over at Sally, who ignored their comments and ate her lunch quickly. 

The Sister considered her response. She remembered what her mom had said years ago. She knew these girls weren’t the sort of crowd her mom and dad would have wanted her to associate with, but she honestly didn’t care anymore. Her parents' religion had done nothing for The Sister in the end. It had only taken them from her. She hated disappointing her mom, but her mom wasn’t here anymore. The pain of that reminder pushed The Sister away from the wisdom her mom had desperately tried to instill in her. She hardened her heart and decided it was now up to her to find a way in this life.

“No thanks. I’m good,” The Sister shrugged arrogantly, turning to walk away from the girls and from Sally Henson. She feigned confidence, and her trick worked.

“Hey, come back,” the lead girl called, intrigued by her confidence. “You can sit with us,” she said, motioning for her friend to scoot down and make room for The Sister. 

The Sister smiled to herself triumphantly as she made her way to a new group of friends. Maybe now, after all of these years, she’d finally belong to a group once more!