Who Could Want This Rose?
12:52 PM EDT on June 27, 2021
The following is an excerpt from Kelsey's debut novel, God Spare The Girls, which you can buy right now. Go and buy it!
Taylor McGregor and Caroline Nolan were not, and never had been, dating—and they never discussed what they were because they weren’t anything at all. They’d known each other since childhood, attended the same Sunday school, though they didn’t share any friends.
It’s true that every teenager has their secrets, but for the children of prominent Hope Church families, a secret could be catastrophic. Caroline had seen deacons booted from leadership positions over sons who smoked pot, elders reprimanded for daughters who wouldn’t take the abstinence oath. A few years before, a pastor had been required to step down after his college-aged son refused to repent and attend a Christian counseling group for ex-homosexuals. So rebellion was risky, not because she might be lectured, but because it could create a ripple effect that endangered her parents’ leadership role within the church.
Had Caroline and Taylor wanted to date—to go to early dinners and keep their hands to themselves in a movie theater, or pray next to each other every Sunday—their parents would have been thrilled. But there was no scenario in which either set of parents would have approved of Taylor driving his Jeep onto the ranch property alone.
Caroline was sitting on the porch steps. She stood when she saw him climb out to lock the gate behind him. Smart, she thought. She pulled her dress from where it had stuck to the backs of her thighs, raised her right hand to shade her eyes, and watched him park his Jeep beside her car. His back muscles rippled under his thin T-shirt as he stepped out, closed the door, and beeped it locked over his shoulder. He was the same height as Caroline—she was tall for a girl—and had they fought, it probably would have been fair. But right now, he was walking toward her like he had somewhere to be. “Hey,” he said, holding her gaze as he came closer. She matched his look and smiled. Well-raised Christian boys always stared so deeply into your eyes that you knew all they could possibly be thinking about was your body. This right here, she thought, is power.
“Hey yourself,” she said back.
It had been almost six months since they’d run into each other sneaking out of youth group during the final prayer, an accidental encounter that told them both more about each other than a thousand Sunday hellos. Abigail had gotten engaged the weekend before, and when Caroline had tried to explain why it bothered her to the girls in Bible study, they hadn’t understood. She was lonely and there he was: this boy who’d seemed to grow five inches overnight, and learned to lean with one hand against his locker in a way that felt like a personal attack. They agreed to keep the sneaking out of church a secret from their parents, and then they’d wordlessly agreed to keep more.
At first, they were careful. They kissed with their mouths closed at prearranged locations where they knew no one could see them. Caroline would park her old Toyota and walk a few blocks into the darkened area where he’d parked his Jeep. She’d scan for eyes before opening the door. She knew that his back seat could be laid down, that you didn’t have to have sex to end up with rug burn, and that his lips tasted like Carmex. It would have been illicit if it hadn’t been so ordinary. They knew they were doing what every unsaved high schooler does, but for them it was dangerous. Still, Taylor McGregor—despite his rebellions—was a church boy. He was, after all, Hope Church royalty himself. He was Mrs. Debbie’s youngest son.
“Are you sure?” he’d asked the first time she’d climbed into his back seat in early February. “Are you sure?” he’d asked as she’d pulled a bra strap off her shoulder. “Are you sure?” he’d whispered in her ear as he’d climbed on top of her fully clothed, and reached his hand down the front of her jeans, as he sucked not gently enough on the pale skin beneath her collarbone. Now it was late June and Abigail was getting married. The ground was littered with a thousand pulsing grasshoppers, and Caroline was determined to make her life more interesting.
Caroline liked to believe that she’d been corrupted by her one true love: television. As embarrassing as it was to admit, a show about a comic book character with infinite abs had done her in. She had never read a romance novel, or harbored a real crush, or allowed herself to type a few choice words into the search bar late at night. But she had watched that show on her laptop while lying in bed and, afterward, seemed to be mesmerized by the dip in boys’ shoulder muscles when they raised their arms to grab a book from a locker, by the stark defined U shape on top of their knees when they climbed the stairs, by the way their eyes closed when they ran a hand through their hair.
Of course, she’d felt guilty about it. For most of her junior year, she’d prayed that the Lord would take these feelings away. Surely a woman was not supposed to be this horny. But the Lord never responded and Caroline continued watching until she found Taylor, and then she forgot about the show entirely. It had been easier to be meek and self-controlled before she’d known the soft pain of a boy’s bony hips inside her thighs.
After their first kiss, she’d started questioning whether she even wanted to be the kind of woman she saw all around her. When she helped Abigail address her save-the-dates in careful calligraphy, Caroline realized that she’d never tried to envision her own wedding, couldn’t see herself in the white dress. The Bible promised a version of womanhood that was all sweetness and goodness. But Caroline wanted wet, sloppy kisses. She wanted to make quick retorts and harness the power of her body like the women she saw on TV. She didn’t want a prime-time sitcom life. She wanted cable. She wanted a parental advisory warning. Or at least, she thought she did. There was only one version of womanhood she knew, and when she tried to imagine a future without children, or a husband, or a modest home with a well-groomed lawn and a golden retriever and three trips to church every week, she came up with nothing.
But she knew for sure that she wanted sex more than she’d ever thought she would, and that she didn’t want to leave for college a virgin. She knew it was a big deal, your first time, but if she couldn’t see herself with a husband, why wait? She could easily justify her slippery slope with Taylor if she wanted to. Jesus loved her despite her sins, she could have said. Hers was a faith of grace and forgiveness, she could have reasoned. But she didn’t. She tried not to think about it at all.
Taylor followed her up the porch steps and through the front door. Caroline’s desire led them down the hallway, guided them into the second bedroom, lifted her dress above her head, and stood there between them just long enough for him to ask. “Are you sure?” He seemed unable to look up from the curve of her waist in the sunlit room, the bed behind him vast and far less shameful than a back seat. He tripped as he tried to take off his jeans, still looking at her. Caroline swallowed his helplessness whole. She slipped one bra strap down. “I didn’t,” he stammered. “Bring, um, anything.”
Caroline bent, sucking in her stomach, and retrieved the condom from her dress pocket on the floor. She handed it to him. It had been a sign. All year they had been building toward this inevitable act. What did it really matter, this sin? Caroline stood in front of him in her underwear, the one bra strap limp around her biceps, waiting for him to make a move. He was nervous, so after an infinite ten seconds she made the moves for him. She unfastened her bra behind her back. He released all the breath in his lungs through rounded lips and sat down on the bed. She climbed on top of him and kissed him firmly on the mouth.
“Caro, hold on, wait,” he said, holding her at arm’s length. Her heart sank. She placed her hands behind her on his knees and forced her back straight, her body long. She tried to keep her face from falling.
“I just . . .” he fumbled, shook his head. “I know this has been kind of a chill thing”—he motioned between them— “and I know that’s, like, every guy’s dream.”
Caroline wrapped a hand around his neck and pulled herself closer.
“I think I’m . . .” He looked away from her. “I think I might want it to be more than that.”
She laughed, and instantly her body knew her mistake. Her hand flew to her mouth. He looked up and she saw the small boy with big eyes that he’d once been.
“Oh no, Taylor. I’m sorry. It’s just, you are maybe the only boy in the world who would stop . . .”—she couldn’t say sex— “this to confess you have a crush.”
“Is it okay?” he asked.
She kissed him then, covering his lips with her own, unsure if she didn’t want to respond because her answer was a lie or because it was the truth.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked again.
“I’m sure,” she said, and in that moment, it was the only thing she knew to be true.
It lasted barely long enough for Caroline to realize she was no longer a virgin. When it was over, the only evidence that anything had happened was the knot in her hair at the base of her neck. All her life, Caroline had been promised that her first time would be painful, that her husband would have to lay down a towel on their marital bed and be very, very careful with her. But they hadn’t been gentle, or soft, or careful. It wasn’t the lack of orgasm that disappointed her. It was the lack of blood. She had been promised blood. He twirled a strand of her hair between his fingers. “I’m sorry,” he said.
She sat up. “For what?”
“For um . . . for going so fast,” he said, not looking at her.
“It was great,” she lied. “Don’t worry about that.” She handed him the box of tissues from the bedside table like she’d seen the girls on TV do.
She rose from the bed and waddled down the hall to the bathroom. At the very least, she thought, she should feel guilty. A good Christian would feel guilty. Caroline felt nothing at all. She looked in the mirror, and saw that the girl looking back at her was the same one from earlier that morning.
By the time she returned to the bedroom, Taylor had pulled on his jeans and was straightening the comforter. He had been raised right. He fluffed the pillows while she took the trash bag out of the bedroom and deposited it in the empty kitchen garbage can. Plenty of young couples used condoms even if they were married, Caroline reassured herself. No one would find it. But just in case, she took a couple of paper towels from the roll, crumpled them between her hands, and tossed them on top. The landline phone rang on the counter. Caroline hovered a hand above it for a moment before deciding to let it ring.
“You all right?” he asked as she returned to the room and stepped into her dress.
“Yeah,” she said. “Can you zip me?”
He pulled the zipper up her back, patted it twice when it reached the top. When she turned to face him, his eyes were wide, his lips parted.
“Can I ask you something?” she said.
“Of course,” he said. “What’s up?”
“Do you feel guilty?” The question came out sounding more vulnerable than she’d meant it. She wished she could take it back.
The light from the window was harsh and bright, his shadow long behind him on the wood floor. He looked away from her, and for a moment, she worried. If he felt guilty, shouldn’t she? The sun overexposed his face. She searched it for any signal of how he’d respond; he gave her nothing. She focused on the bump on his nose, the only part of his face that wasn’t sharp or angular. She knew it was from a childhood break. He ran a hand through his thick hair and shook his head. “I don’t,” he said. “But we don’t have to do this again. I don’t want to do anything that makes you feel guilty.” He placed a kiss on her forehead.
She pulled away. “No,” she said. “I don’t feel guilty either.” She looked at this long, lean boy before her, and missed the control she’d felt only moments before. “I think I’d like to do this again.”
He laughed as he pulled his T-shirt over his head. “Guess our parents were right after all.” He bent over and laced his shoes. “Without Christ, we really are living in sin.” He looked up at her then, and she noticed how much lighter the top of his hair was from the sun, a soft brown.
“What?” she asked, and was proud of herself for keeping her voice so steady. No one had ever implied she was without Christ before. Because she wasn’t. She’d been saved ever since childhood. But then again, she thought, so had he.
“Like now that we don’t believe what they believe we’ve gone off the deep end or whatever,” he said. And then, when she didn’t laugh, he straightened up. “Caro. It’s a joke.”
“You’re an atheist?” she asked, and turned to walk out of the room so he wouldn’t see her reaction. He couldn’t be an atheist. He was so good.
“Nah. More like agnostic,” he said, following closely behind her. His voice echoed as they walked down the hallway toward the front door. “I know I don’t really believe in the Bible or whatever. I think the whole thing is kind of naive, closed-minded.”
They stepped out into the heat, the light golden and unchanged. Caroline felt a familiar question rise in her mind and shoved it down, deep down into her stomach, where it sat heavy and unwieldy like a cast-iron skillet. “Just a second,” she said as she struggled to lock the door, grateful this time to have a moment to compose herself.
When she turned, she saw his face drop from a crooked smile into a look of concern. Somehow her expression had betrayed her fear.
“Oh man, you’re still a Christian, aren’t you? I’m sorry, Caro. I didn’t realize.” His lips were set in the same pout she’d seen a hundred times before from the more popular girls, the ones who pitied her without understanding her at all. But his eyes were soft, his hand reaching out to touch her arm instead of pushing her away.
She nodded. She and Taylor had said so little to each other over the past six months. Caroline rested a hand on the porch railing to steady herself. She had to be a Christian. It wasn’t just her faith, it was who she was. Right? She was nothing without the blood of Jesus. She was in the world, not of the world. Wasn’t she? She tried to reconstruct every conversation she’d ever had with him to see how he could have thought this about her. She found nothing, which meant it must be something she couldn’t even see. If he thought this, what did everyone else think? No, she thought. No one would ever find out.
“I’m so sorry. I just—” Taylor took a couple of steps toward her. “I totally respect whatever you believe. I just thought . . .”
“No, it’s okay,” she said, waving both hands in front of her. “It makes sense you would think that.”
She let him pull her into a hug and laid her head on his shoulder. She looked out across the long empty stretch of land to the west of the house. It was brown and hard from the summer sun, bordered by the darkening silhouettes of trees. Above them, the clear blue sky was stained with a spill of orange around the sun, and wisps of clouds drifted north. The high grass swayed in the warm breeze and matched the rhythm of his thumb as it moved up and down her back.
“You okay?” he asked after a few minutes, holding her away from him by the shoulders.
“Yeah, totally,” she said.
He turned and climbed into his car, leaned out the window. “Caro,” he said, waving her over. When she was close enough, he pulled her toward him by the forearm, grabbed her neck to kiss her with soft lips. “Think about what I said, okay?” His arm rested on the windowsill, bronze in the soft sunlight; beads of sweat along his hairline glimmered. Caroline wanted to reach out and stroke his cheekbone.
“About being a Christian?” she asked.
His eyes fell. “No,” he said. “About having feelings. We don’t have to talk about it now, but maybe soon?”
“Of course,” she said, and hurried to her car before he could say anything further.
As she drove home, Caroline tried to sing along with Johnny Cash on the radio to avoid thinking about what she’d done. Outside, the endless fields were barely visible, a small flat line of yellowed earth beneath a giant domed sky. She rolled the window down despite the heat and ignored her driving school rules, resting one hand at the twelve o’clock position. The sun caught the ring on her left hand. She rarely noticed it anymore. She’d slid it on sophomore year like every other teenager in the Hope Church Youth Ministry. Now it felt tight, pinched the skin of her ring finger. It also felt like a shining reminder of her sin. Her father had popularized this abstinence ring, encouraged more than a million teenagers to slide them on and say their vows, to join the movement. It was his legacy.
Caroline had been nine years old the day her father had become a household name. She was squeezed into a pink dress so itchy she remembered it irritating her collarbone as she sat in the front row of the large, circular arena at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Annual Meeting in Dallas. There were almost ten thousand people in attendance, crowded into curved lines of chairs, two levels of stadium seating. Above her head, rows of stage lights hung suspended from the high ceiling, and three giant screens showed the pulpit. When Luke Nolan emerged from the door at the back of the stage to give the opening night’s keynote address, the applause he received was tentative; a few conversations continued. Caroline had looked at Abigail, noticed her biting her lip, her knee bouncing under her dress.
Back then, Caroline never had any real alone time with her sister. Their six-year age difference meant that Abigail was too old to play with Barbies by the time Caroline was old enough to want to, and then seemingly overnight Abigail was a teenager. If she wasn’t praying at church with her youth group, hair falling like a veil over her face, then she was at track practice. And if she was at home, so was her boyfriend, Connor, the two of them clinging on to each other as if afraid the other might float away.
The night before the conference in Dallas was supposed to be the girls’ night. Abigail was fifteen and they’d been allowed to stay home alone for the first time. They had a stack of DVDs and ordered a pizza. But before the food arrived, before they could even hit play, the phone rang. Caroline answered with her chipper “Nolan residence, this is Caroline!” It was their father. He sounded disappointed that she was the one who’d picked up. He wanted to speak to Abigail. Caroline handed the phone to her sister and Abigail’s face brightened. Their father kept her on for hours, discussing his sermon. Caroline watched her sister pace back and forth in the kitchen, cold pizza beside her, until she finally fell asleep on the couch. Abigail was like a rib taken from his side.
That was the greatest secret about Luke Nolan’s name-making sermon: he’d needed his daughter’s help to write it. “I just answered his questions,” Abigail later told the reporters. She was a girl of strong faith with a killer stage presence, a sermon cadence baked into her bones. She knew there was no point in asking for credit. There would never be a leadership role for her within the church.
The next afternoon, Luke had sent Ruthie to fetch the girls. They were led into the freezing arena by their mother and seated in the front row, where they waited, hands folded in their laps and mouths closed until their father prayed to open the service. Caroline remembered watching his every movement—one man walking toward the edge of the stage, face stern, his right foot tapping below the pulpit. His voice started out low like a growl as he told a story of himself as a young man and a sermon he’d once hated.
It had been a simple sermon, he explained. The pastor had thrust out a single, flawless rose. “Imagine,” the pastor had said, “that this rose is the sanctity of your virginity.”
On the stage, Luke had paced as he explained how the rose was then passed around the congregation. He held his hands cupped before him as he described how he’d delivered the rose, its broken stem hanging between his pinkies, back to the pastor. “I felt so ashamed,” he said. “And I’m ashamed that I didn’t say anything then.” As soon as the pastor had the rose in his hand, he’d asked the congregation: Who would want this rose? Who would choose this broken thing over something pure and whole?
Luke paused then for effect. He looked out at the audience. It wasn’t included on the video of his sermon that would later go viral—viewed millions of times online by evangelicals all over the country—but Caroline’s most vivid memory was of the moment before he erupted, when she looked over at her sister. Abigail was beaming up at him, green eyes sparkling in the aggressive stage lighting, her body pitched forward. The roughness of his whisper against the mic grated itself over the audience with each question he posed:
“Who could want something so broken? So ruined? So tarnished? Who could want that rose?” their father repeated, his voice rising. “It made me so furious. Because I knew. I know who wants that rose.”
His glare flitted down to the front row, where his wife sat between his daughters, holding their hands. He waited. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. His gaze lifted to the back wall, and he bellowed out at his audience: “JESUS DOES.”
“Jesus,” he yelled, “wants the rose!” The hair on Caroline’s arms stood up. “Our Savior. Our Messiah. Our God wants us. All of us. You and me.” His voice dropped, and he finished softly, “Who wants that rose? Jesus. Does.”
The room erupted into applause. Caroline clapped too; the roar of their approval filled her heart with pride. She looked around to see if they would give him a standing ovation. From the stage Luke Nolan raised both his hands. He wasn’t done.
“I have two daughters,” he said. Caroline waved when the camera panned to her. “I believe that they are saved, and that they love the Lord. But I don’t want that sermon to be how they’re taught about sexual purity.”
“Amen!” someone in the audience shouted. Luke Nolan took a breath and continued. He was sweating by then, his light blue shirt darkening beneath his armpits. “I want to teach my daughters, and all the children of God, that they should remain sexually pure not because He won’t love them if they don’t, but because He already loves them so much.”
He motioned to the front row. Abigail rose from her seat, smoothed the skirt of her light pink dress with her hand, tossed her hair behind her shoulders. Caroline too moved to stand. Her mother’s strong hand held her in place. Caroline watched as Abigail climbed the stairs at the side of the stage and stepped into the spotlight.
“My daughter Abigail and I wrote this next part together,” Luke said into his mic. “We’ve had many discussions about purity in our house.”
On cue, Abigail rolled her eyes in a giant arc. The crowd laughed. Caroline had never been invited to join these conversations. She saw the pride and love in her father’s face in that moment and hated her sister for it.
He smiled at his daughter conspiratorially. “We want to vow, both of us”—he smiled at the audience—“to seek more than happiness, more than sex, more than what this world has to offer us. We want to Hope for More.”
It was the ideal tag line to start a revolution. People in the crowd whooped. A microphone was handed to Abigail, who flipped it over and switched it on before holding it close to her belly button. They faced each other—father and daughter— and she began to repeat the vows he spoke.
“I believe,” she said, “that God has a plan for my life that is holy.” The room was so silent a sneeze could be heard on the online video. “I commit today to remain sexually pure until I am married. I promise to turn from anything that could sway me from this commitment until I am bound to another, knowing that my Savior loves me, even if I fail.”
Again the room erupted. The two of them ignored it. The clapping ceased when Luke handed Abigail the card in his hand so she could read him his lines to repeat. She held the card steady with both hands, four fingers wrapped deftly around the microphone.
“I commit . . .” she said.
“I commit,” he repeated.
“To show you the Gospel by the way I live my life,” her soft voice said, his booming one following right after. Caroline could see the wideness of her sister’s eyes. “I promise to Hope for More from you than the world does,” she said, and by the time his echo finished, the applause had already begun.
It was the kind of sermon a pastor spends his entire life dreaming about, divine inspiration that spreads like wildfire, a movement that millions of people can relate to and that they’re happy—thrilled, even—to pay for. Almost immediately Luke Nolan became an evangelical celebrity. Young preachers began to style their hair with a heavy side part like his, matching his casual uniform of Wranglers and button-ups, no tie. The Nolan family moved into a bigger home in a nicer neighborhood, where they had their own pool.
Famous preachers looked at him and saw their younger selves. They invited him to preach in their churches—first around North Texas, later in Houston, New Orleans, Atlanta. Luke Nolan’s First Hope Baptist Church was rebranded “the Hope,” and it exploded in size. They built a second campus. People drove for hours to hear Luke preach. His first book, Hope for More, sold faster than any other released by a Christian publisher since the Left Behind series; its sales boomed as the movement infiltrated hundreds of youth groups nation-wide. It even had a growing group of young celebrity endorsers. Abigail was the face of his movement; she was stopped on the street by people who recognized her.
Then, in the fall of her sophomore year, Caroline bought her own light pink dress and stood on the stage of the new auditorium and spoke her vows. She received more applause than any of the other teenagers in her group. She stood across from her father, smiling, basking in his approval, believing with all of her heart that she meant every word. She could not imagine a world in which she’d want to do otherwise.
At the next stoplight, Caroline pulled the ring off her finger. She was still holding it when her phone began to vibrate in the cup holder. Alerts appeared one after another, pushing their predecessors down before she could even read them. She glanced at the light, still red, and picked up her phone. There were half a dozen missed calls from Abby. What was so urgent that she’d tried so many times? Abigail never wanted her around when Matthew was in town. Caroline was about to call her back when her sister’s name flashed on the screen: incoming call.
“Hello?” she said as the light turned green. She dropped the ring into the cup holder and switched the phone to her left hand so she could drive with her right.
“Where have you been?” Abigail said. She sounded like their mother, Caroline thought. Her sister didn’t have any right to interrogate her about where she’d been.
Caroline sighed and signaled to turn. She let herself sound annoyed and said, “Uh. At the ranch, like I said I would be.”
“You need to come home,” Abigail said. “Right. Now.”
Caroline resisted the urge to whip the steering wheel to the left, skid her tires into the other lane, and speed back to the ranch, where her sister couldn’t bother her. Instead she rolled her eyes and said, “Okay, Mom.”
She waited for Abigail to huff, to call her a brat or concoct a lecture so good even their father would be impressed. Her sister only said, “Please, Caro.”
There was an unnerving desperation in Abigail’s voice. “I’m driving right now,” Caroline said. “I’ll be there in twenty.”
“Okay. Hurry,” Abigail said, and then, “I mean, don’t like, speed, but you know, come straight home.”
“Okay,” Caroline said. The pleading tone was scaring her now. She pressed the gas pedal harder. “I’m coming.”
“Love you,” Abby said.
“Love you back,” Caroline said, and placed her phone in the cup holder with the ring.
Caroline worried as she drove past fast food stand-alones and strip malls, school zone signs, two-story houses with sprinklers pivoting on already green lawns. She bit at the cuticles on her left hand. Could Abigail know already? Gossip traveled fast in Hope, but it’s not like she’d had sex with Taylor in the parking lot of a Goody Goody Liquor. They’d been careful.
The Nolan house was situated at the end of a cul-de-sac, on a big triangular plot of land, its front door flanked by four columns: Corinthian, Caroline had learned in school. The house was brick, except for the large flat stones embedded on the second floor and its bright white trim. The roof was so steep that every Christmas they hired someone to hang their decorations. The sun hid behind a cloud and cast the whole structure in a deepening blue light, in contrast to the warm golden windows, every one of them ablaze through their sheer white curtains. She pulled into the long driveway and parked behind her sister’s car, next to the side entrance. Only strangers used the front door.
She could see through the kitchen window into the house. Her mother and sister were sitting at the table, their shoulders hunched, eyes empty and swollen. A box of tissues sat between them. Caroline snatched her phone out of the cup holder and slammed the car door behind her. She forgot the ring, and by the time she noticed the nakedness of her left hand, she was already inside. Abigail stood to meet her before she even reached the door.
Someone must be dead, Caroline thought. And in a way, she was right.
You simply must purchase God Spare The Girls, by Kelsey McKinney. Purchase it!
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