When she was young, Joan used to make up fairy tales, about how the princess and her best friend would ride around on ponies and save the day, rescuing kingdoms from the evil wizards. She left out the traditional prince and kiss of true love, because boys were icky.
Twelve years later, boys and kisses were a lot less gross, but sometimes Joan though she was still living out those old let’s pretend stories. She could still sort of cast herself as the princess in the whole thing, and the crazy jobs that God keeps sending her out on, they definitely counted as adventures, even if she didn’t often get to see how it all worked to rescue the kingdom. And Ryan, who wanted to punish God by destroying Grace’s family synagogue and trashing the local Catholic church? Joan was pretty sure he counted as an evil wizard, no matter how you sliced it.
Grace didn’t fit any of Joan’s ideas about a fairy tale best friend, though. She couldn’t, even for five seconds in the back of her mind, slot Grace in as a sidekick, humorous or otherwise. Grace was too much herself for that, too much her own strong person, not ready to play second fiddle or accept diminishment from anyone. Even if, eww, she did somehow think that Luke was worth kissing, which, Joan was just not going to go there at all, please no.
“Dude, Girardi, do you think you can stop daydreaming long enough to hand over the hammer? I’ve only asked you twice already.”
Joan blinked out of her daydream, as Grace put it, and passed over the hammer and a couple of nails. She wasn’t exactly sure of why Grace’s dad had been so insistent on the congregation, if that was the correct word, of the synagogue being involved in the rebuilding effort, but when Grace had mentioned it to Luke, he’d told both Joan and their mom, and consequently all three of them had found themselves volunteering to help rebuild.
After a few times when Joan had managed to hammer herself rather than the nails, Rabbi Polonski had diplomatically reassigned her to fetching and carrying for Grace, who had proved to be disturbingly good at this whole construction business. Joan settled for showing up every day to act as gofer, at least in part because she didn’t want Ryan to win. And the other part was because God hadn’t come up with any other assignment since he’d dropped that particular bombshell about grabbing her to counterbalance Ryan in the first place.
She looked around for another minute, since Grace had dropped back into her angry-zen fixation on hammering two-by-fours together and had gone back to ignoring her. There was a guy with daisies painted on his hard hat a little further over who looked like he was running short of supplies, if the way he was looking at the box in her hands was any indication. “I’m going to go pass some more nails out, okay Grace?”
“Whatever, Girardi, just leave me that box.” Grace muttered, not even looking up.
Joan wandered over to the daisy-hatted guy, scratching at an itchy spot under her own hard hat on the way. They might need to wear them for safety reasons, but that didn’t stop hard hats from being really annoying to wear, and really hot now that summer had hit full-fledged.
“Nice to see you helping out, Joan,” Daisy-hat said, not looking up from his work.
“Oh God,” Joan groaned.
“Miss me, Joan?” Daisy-hat God asked, still not looking up at her. He wasn’t even trying to hide his enjoyment at her discomfort. God could be positively annoying.
“Not particularly,” she replied, flopping down to sit next to him, and passing over the second box of nails she’d been holding onto. God took one out of the new box and hammered it in to the stud with one quick pound. “So, God’s working as a carpenter now?”
“I have done it before, Joan. Ask your mother about it.” God finally looked up, smiling at her. “You’ve been doing good work this summer, helping out at the synagogue. Rabbi Polonski was very smart, having the community work to rebuild. Construction is an act of faith, bringing something new into the world. I approve.”
Joan blinked at him. “You never show up just to tell me I’m doing a good job. What are you going to tell me to do next?”
God sighed, then turned his eyes back to the framing job he was doing. “You asked me about an army, the last time we talked. I told you that you already had one.”
“Right, and you showed me my fellow sub-defectives. Forgive me if I don’t think Friedman or my brother are exactly suited to fighting evil incarnate.” Joan rolled her eyes.
“Oh, I think you’ll find that they can surprise you. People always do, if you give them the chance. That’s why I gave them all free will. It creates so many possibilities for the world.” God lowered the hammer, and turned to face Joan. “You can’t do this by yourself Joan. No one can do everything by themselves. You all need other people. I built that into the blueprints right alongside free will for a reason. I want you to tell someone.”
All of a sudden, Joan was glad she didn’t have anything else in her hands. She would have dropped it had she been holding anything. “You want me to what? Have you forgotten that the last time I talked about you, I ended up in crazy camp and talking to Dr. Dan all last summer? I really don’t want to go back there again, and you can bet that if I tell Mom or Dad they’ll pack me straight off again.”
God shrugged, and went back to hammering. “Then don’t tell your parents, Joan. Tell someone else.” He finished the last nail on that stud, and stood up. “I think your friend needs you back.” He nodded in Grace’s direction, and then started to walk away.
Joan looked up at him, horrified, then jumped up and started following him. “Grace? You want me to tell Grace? Come on,” she stopped and grabbed his arm, hissing under her breath as they walked past another volunteer, “Grace is like, the last one of my friends that would believe this. Even Luke is more likely to buy it, given his obsession with Unified Field whatever.”
God rolled his arm, shaking her off easily, and walked ahead. “Tell Grace, Joan. You won’t regret it.” He walked out of the immediate construction zone, slinging his hammer over one shoulder in a modified wave.
“Yo, Girardi, you coming back with my nails anytime soon?” she heard Grace yell.
“Great,” Joan muttered, ignoring the strange looks some of the other volunteers were giving her. “Just great, I’m going to end up back at crazy camp for the rest of the summer, I know it.”
“Girardi!” Grace yelled again.
“I’m coming!” she yelled back, stomping over to where God had been working to retrieve the box of nails. This whole bit? Where the heroine confessed to her best friend about the whole quest thing and got promptly declared insane again? Definitely not in the fairy tales.
It was later that afternoon, when they’d left the construction and headed out to the coffee shop, when Joan decided to give it a try. Or at least, to start feeling Grace out. Because there was no way that she was just going to blurt out, “God talks to me and he wants you to help me fight the evil guy who burned down your dad’s synagogue.” Not if, well, if she wanted Grace to still be talking to her at the end of the sentence instead of yelling at her or calling the funny farm on her again.
Of course, what did come out was only slightly less insane. “Do you believe in evil? Not just, like, the conspiracy theories you talk about, but actual capital E evil.” As soon as the words came out of Joan’s mouth, she wished she’d come up with something else, anything else to work into the subject.
Grace stared at her like she’d just crawled out of some swamp and was still dripping with green ooze. Or, more likely given Grace’s perspective, like she’d just asked her to join the junior Republicans and campaign for Bush.
“Have you ever even bothered to listen to me, Girardi?” Grace asked, but then continued on without waiting for Joan to respond. “Of course I believe in evil, it’s everywhere around us. It’s good I sometimes have trouble believing exists.” She broke off there and stared down at her plate, stabbing angrily at a piece of lettuce.
“Of course I listen to you, Grace,” Joan responded, dropping her eyes and twiddling with the end of her scarf. “I just, I mean, I’m talking about more than just Price-level evil, you know? The big kind of evil. And, I guess, the big level good too. I mean, if real evil exists, real good has to exist as well, right? Like a counterbalance to it.”
Grace looked up at her. “Girardi, this is about the fifth weirdest conversation I’ve ever had with you, and that’s saying something, given how nuts you can get.” She shook her head, and took a sip from her soda. “Yeah, I guess there has to be real good in the world. It’s just most people suck and don’t bother to do it. Look at the guy who torched the synagogue. Whoever it is, he chose to be that sick.”
Joan bit her lip, but this was probably the best lead in she’d get. She leaned in closer and whispered, “What about God, do you think he exists?”
Grace sighed. “Okay, this has now moved into fourth place. God is so not my area. I don’t know what to think about him. Ask Luke or your mom, both of them actually think about that stuff on a regular basis, don’t they?”
Joan rolled her eyes, “Yeah, and if I wanted to hear something incomprehensible about Unified Field Theory whatever or Mom’s latest ramble about confirmation class, I’d ask them. You think differently from pretty much everyone else, so I wanted your take on it.” It was a bit of a surprise to Joan to realize that she actually meant it. She knew, pretty much, what everyone else around her believed about God, and it very rarely meshed in any meaningful way with the enigmatic, exasperating deity who spent so much time driving her up a wall.
Grace ignored her for a minute, shoveling the last bite of her sandwich into her mouth and following it almost immediately afterwards with a final swig of her soda. She stood up, grabbing her tray and setting it into the waiting receptacle over the trash can, then rolled her eyes at Joan, who was still sitting at the table. “I’m done here, you coming?” Without waiting for an answer, Grace headed for the open door of the shop.
Joan caught up a few feet out of the store. Grace was in steamroller mode, walking forward without any attention left to whether Joan would keep up or whether the other people walking along would stay out of the way. Joan knew better than to even try talking to her in this mood. They walked on in silence until they reached the park and were more than halfway through, into a section with a few trees but where no one else was currently walking through. Grace found a tree that she seemed to approve of, and sat down, glaring up at Joan until Joan sat down as well.
“My father hears nothing about this, you get that Girardi?” Grace demanded. “Neither does your brother, or your mom, or Adam. I hear you talking about this with any of them, and I will end you.”
Joan nodded in response. Grace had at least two levels of threats that she’d been able to find. The first was her more lighthearted ones, the ones that she didn’t really mean that much. The second were the ones she was deathly serious about, normally the ones she let loose if someone was coming too close to learning anything about how Grace felt about anything important. This? This threat was definitely one of the latter style threats.
At Joan’s nod, some of the tension seemed to leave Grace’s frame, and she leaned back against the tree. She sighed, seeming to give in. “Yes, I believe in God. For whatever level of God you want to call it. I’m just not a huge fan of the idea that God has to be this old guy in the sky, or that we shouldn’t ask what the hell he was thinking on a bunch of things.”
She tensed back up and glared at Joan again. “And that does not get back to my father, or he’ll start talking about me going off to rabbinical school again, like he did when I was ten and started asking him questions about God. I finally had to tell Dad that I didn’t even believe in God anymore to get him to stop the first time, I’m not going through that again.”
“I thought you would have been a great rabbi, Grace.” Both Joan and Grace jerked at the new voice joining the conversation. Joan took one look up before she slouched back again. Finally, it was someone else’s turn to be utterly confused and exasperated by Little Girl God. “It’s not often you find a ten year old girl so eager to ask questions about the universe. A five year old, yes, they’ll ask anything. So many of you lose that inquiring spirit when you get older.”
Grace was staring in what looked a lot like shock to Joan. Joan had finally gotten used to being accosted by God in the form of random strange people, she’d almost forgotten what it was like the first few times, when you couldn’t believe that these people were actually random facets of the Deity being annoying and omnipresent at you.
Joan sighed. “Grace, meet God, in one of his forms. God, you know Grace.”
“Of course I do, Joan.” Little Girl God said, the deelie-boppers on her head glittering in the sunlight as she turned to smile at Joan before turning back to Grace. “I’ve known her all her life, just as I’ve known you.”
Grace had by this point scrambled to her feet, and was glaring at Joan. “Is this your idea of a sick joke, Girardi? What the he—“ she seemed to catch herself, correcting, “heck do you think you’re doing bringing a six-year-old kid into this?”
“I’m not six, Grace Abigail Polk. And Joan isn’t lying to you. I’ve been talking to her for two years now, but it’s time for her to stop acting on her own. And you are a friend strong enough to take on the same kind of task I’ve asked Joan to do.”
Grace stopped and stared at Little Girl God for a moment, not seeming to know what to say. Joan stayed quiet, just watching as the two of them stared each other down. To someone else’s eyes, it might have looked ridiculous, Grace in her tough persona, leather jacket and tensed body language, looking down at a little girl in glittery deelie-boppers and the kind of creatively mismatched clothes that only a young child could pick out or want to be caught dead in.
Grace huffed out an exasperated breath, then sat back down, crouching warily, her eyes still tightly focused on Little Girl God. “So, is this the reason Joan is always acting so nuts?”
“Hey!” Joan had to step in there. “I’m not always nuts. Just, you know, when God’s telling me to join the cheerleading squad or the school play or ask Ramsey to the dance.” She stopped, and thought about it for a moment. “No wait, since you’ve known me you’ve pretty much been seeing me on various missions from God. Jeez, I am nuts.”
Grace stared at her for a moment. Then she turned back toward Little Girl God. “You told her to try out for cheerleading? I knew there was a reason I doubted your goodness.”
Little Girl God took a moment to plop down onto the ground, her legs sprawled out before her. “Joan is a catalyst. You remember your chemistry, right Grace? Catalysts change the environment they’re introduced to. You, Adam, Luke, Judith, the cheerleaders, and countless others have been changed in response to Joan’s actions. It’s what I’ve asked her to do. And now I’m asking you to be the one causing changes as well.”
“You want me to start flailing around the school and getting into everything like Joan does? ‘Cause I can promise you that’s not going to happen.” Grace replied.
Joan should probably have been insulted by that, but she’d spent too much time with Grace to let anything that minor hurt. Still, she felt obligated to respond, “Hey!”
Grace looked over and rolled her eyes. “Shut it, Girardi, it’s the truth.”
Joan pulled her knees up and wrapped her arms around them. “Yeah, well, blame God for that. I used to be a lot more normal and boring. You’d probably never have even bothered with me then.”
Grace eyed her for another minute, then shrugged, “True.”
“Ahem.” They both looked over to Little Girl God. It was probably the closest to exasperated-looking that Joan had ever seen this particular form get. “Joan is a catalyst, Grace. That’s what she’s supposed to be, and that’s what I’ve asked her to be. That’s not your calling, Grace. You’ve always been a warrior, someone to stand up to the powers in the world and speak truth to them. And that’s what I want you to be. Speak your truth and ask your questions, and see what happens then.”
At that, Little Girl God bounced up and skipped off, the deelie-boppers bouncing with her every movement.
Grace and Joan sat there, watching as she wandered off. About twenty feet away, the girl gave the same backwards wave that Joan had become so used to getting from God, and turned to follow the pathway out of sight.
Grace turned to Joan, and looked like she was about to say something, but her mouth just worked noiselessly for a minute or so, before she seemed to give up.
Joan sighed and laid back on the grass. “Yeah, God’s like that. You should see it when he gets snippy.”
She drifted back off into her earlier musings, absently listening to the start of Grace’s rant about the entire impossibility of what had just happened, and how insane God and Joan had to be to think she was going to be helping to save the day or go off on any more of Joan’s crazy causes. Grace would never be a fairy-tale sidekick, she knew, but it was nice to finally have someone else who understood that they were on a quest. Someone else along to help fight the evil wizards and save the day. And with Grace along? Suddenly it seemed a lot more likely that Ryan was going to get his butt kicked in epic fairytale fashion.
Maybe heroines traveled in equal pairs, not as a hero and sidekick.