Proof of God at the Bedford Christian Academy for Girls

I'm just saying that if I had known what was going to happen on Graduation Day, maybe I wouldn't have outed Evie. She'd left by then, because of me. I heard that she had her baby and it was completely normal. I actually envy her for that. As for me? Well, let's just say that the Big Guy Upstairs is really screwing with my post-grad plans.

But Evie started it. On the very first day we came back from summer break to the Bedford Christian Academy for Girls. 

Some girls call it the Academy, but most of them pronounce it bee-kag like I do. It's the metaphorical small pond—thirty-six students per class, 144 total—so everyone knows everyone. But there's a difference between being known and standing out. Being the metaphorical big fish.

I'm Peyton Claymore and I stand out. That's why, even on the first day back for my senior year, I'd already been planning ahead for the very last day. 

Because Graduation Day's not just for parents and students. Townies come. The state media come, and sometimes the national media too. I'm not kidding. The gates swing open and people swarm the campus like foreigners in Disney World. That's why being elected Queen of Ceremonies is such a big deal. 

You're everyone's point of reference. You're in every shot, you're in every interview, you're on everyone's mind, all day long.

You're the shit.

Of course I knew that Evie—all big-eyed drawl of her, all sweet-and-shucks is this happening to little ole me Evie—was equally certain it was going to be her

What I didn't know? How she'd already planned to screw me over.

There's this sweet spot after your parents drop you off that first day back on campus. The huge wrought-iron gates at the bottom of the hill groan shut. The head of school and the teachers disappear to prep for the arrival ceremonies in the evening, when school's officially called into session. It's when you get to meet up with all your friends and watch the freshmen wander around red-eyed and stunned by the finality of the day. 

Except for me, of course. I was scouting the new constituency for those who would look up to me, who liked what I liked, who would seek me out when they were lonely or upset. Who, most crucially, would vote Peyton for Grad Queen.

On that first day back, I met all the new students, flogging my positions as Lacrosse and Equestrian Captains and Bedford Press Opinion Editor. The latter's the daily newsfeed that goes out to the school's intranet, the closest thing to social media we're allowed. Opinion Editor's an influential position, and one pivotal for swinging votes my way. I would decide whose commentary got posted for the student body to read. I had barely beat Evie out for the position at the end of junior year.

What it came down to—I represented the secular interests at the school. Athletics. Current events. The world that we actually live in, rather than what may—or may not—come after this one. I wasn't concerned about anyone's soul, that's for sure.

But don't forget that the C in BCAG stands for Christian. These days two types of girls go here. There's my type—the Protestant New England family whose people came over on the Mayflower. Your parents liked you well enough when you could be trotted out by the nanny at parties, but the teenage years weren't as glamorous, so they stuck you in a boarding school to help themselves through it. The religion thing? Mostly an afterthought.

Then there were the honest-to-God true believers, like Evie. She ran the committee to select preachers for church service. She even preached herself on occasion. She'd been president of the school's Bible study program, "Walking the Holy Path Together," since she was a freshman. Sound out the acronym: WHPT.

That's right. Whipped.

After I'd met the newbies, and identified the most secular of the bunch, I added them into my spreadsheet along with rest of the sophomore, junior, and senior classes. If the election for Grad Queen had happened that day? I would've squeaked out a victory, a four-point winning spread. 

The only person I confided in was a sophomore named Claire. She's a brain and no ordinary sycophant. Her flattery is subtle but precise. Also, her mother's a high-level spook in the FBI, and mine's a high-level politico in DC, so we often commiserate.

Mostly what I remember about that first afternoon back at school was how smug I felt. So sure my secular interests would draw more girls to me than Evie's religious ones. 

Look, I knew Grad Queen was just going to be one day in the vast scheme of my life. I'd always known that, or at least that's what I told myself. But here's the thing—I was wrong. It became bigger than me or Evie could have imagined. Now, nine months after Graduation Day, nobody's sure—not the religious or the secular—what it all means or who's going to win or if we're even in competition anymore.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

As the afternoon crept on, I got twitchy that Evie hadn't come over to welcome me back yet. I decided to go to her. I strolled out of my dorm and into the quad, the U-shaped grass field bracketed by the majestic red-brick church with its white steeple and clanging bell, and the two modest low-slung dormitories. Girls congregated near the cool stone steps and the flagpole flying the Stars and Stripes and the Commonwealth of Virginia. Evie's dorm was opposite mine.

The air whined with insects. To keep mosquitoes away I'd slathered on peppermint oil, but the idiot gnats drowned in the stuff, freckling my chest and arms. Mosquitoes could be slapped, but gnats just hung around your face. Irritating, sure, but not a real threat. Like Evie, I thought, and snickered with a closed mouth so I wouldn't swallow one.  

I continued on, casually picking off the dead bugs, with packs of girls parting before me like the Red Sea. The bolder ones chirped a greeting. They clung to their phones in a frenzy of texting, picture-taking, and videoing, recording everything from pithy observations to yelps of excitement. It streamed to their facepages, which pinged out notifications so that the content could be liked or emojied, inspiring new commentary and more rounds of notifications. And so on and so forth—the amplification effect of the first day back, BCAG's version of Moore's law.

I spotted Evie leaning against the slate gray wall like she was expecting me, wearing a blue plaid ankle-length T-shirt dress belted at her waist—standard BCAG weekend wear. I hadn't bothered to change from my tennis skirt and tank top yet and was practically naked in comparison. She looked the same as last year—cat-eye glasses, fresh pixie cut, shellacked pink nails, wide green eyes. Around her neck hung a necklace with a filigree cross. She clasped it between her thumb and forefinger as I walked up to her.

Next to her, balanced delicately on kitten heels, was her best friend, Roach. I'd almost forgotten how pretty Roach was, with huge doe eyes, red heart lips, and the thickest black hair you'd ever seen. Like an anime character. Not only the prettiest girl at school but the sweetest one, as well. She'd been new last year as a junior. She'd been—she still was—mysterious, completely lacking the enormous quantity of online detritus the rest of us had. An exotic bird popping up where it's supposed to be extinct. The girl didn't even have a facepage. 

I'd hoped to snag Roach for my side of the quad. For Christ's sake, I was the one who started calling her Roach, because her last name's Rochester and she's the exact opposite of a disgusting bug. But even though she'd always seemed happy to see me, even though she'd laughed delightedly at the nickname, she'd ended up with Evie. 

I mumbled, "Hey, Roach." 

"Peyton, great to see you." She flashed me a big smile, leaned in close and swept a dead bug off my cheek. I very stupidly blushed. Evie watched us with her patented look of amusement, one shade lighter than condescending.

Roach was about to say more, but Evie cleared her throat like she was giving a signal. Roach gave a little frown. "Well, I'll let you and Evelyn catch up. See you at Arrival Ceremony, 'kay, Peyton?"

As soon as Evie and I were alone, I drawled in a fake Southern accent, "Ev-ah-lyn, so gah-rate to see you." She pretended not to be annoyed and gave me a hug. Then she took my arm conspiratorially and we walked underneath a big shady oak. 

"Did you know," she said, "that the school agreed to let my church hire a documentarian to record our senior year at the Academy?"

Evie often talked about her church like it was a tiny beacon of divine goodness facing the gale-force winds of sin. Actually? It was a megachurch, with tens of thousands of members. Her grandfather started it, and now her parents co-preached. They were filthy stinking rich and one of the biggest donors to BCAG.

She continued blithely, "Nothing like those filthy reality shows of course. It's so the school can show off what a great education we're getting. And how it supports our faith in our Lord Jesus Christ."

My brow creased. "But the school won't let a film crew in unless it's a public day, and that's only Christmas celebration and Graduation Day."

A ray of light pierced through the shade, making her eyeglasses glitter. "Speaking of Graduation Day, that'll be the pinnacle moment. Whoever's Queen of Ceremonies will be in practically every shot." 

I swallowed hard. "So how are they going to record the rest of the time?"

"The security cameras in the classrooms and common areas. As for the audio, they decided to let some students wear tiny recording devices, which will stream to the filmmaker's secure account."

"Which students?"

She waved a hand. "Volunteers. Some of yours, some of mine. Some undecided freshmen. After all, Peyton, we're going to be the stars of this little drama, aren't we?"

I shrugged. "It's more accurate to say there's going to be one star, and it's going to be me."

She gave me a pitying smile. "Your plan may not be the same as God's plan."

I rolled my eyes. "If there is a God, Evie, do you think he cares who's elected Grad Queen of BCAG?"

She sighed. "I really do wish you'd call the Academy, the Academy."


"BCAG." She sniffed. "Rhymes with fag."

I burst out laughing. "Evie, really? That's what good Christians should be concerned about?"

She narrowed her eyes, as if she were considering something for the first time. "I wonder, actually…are you?"

"Am I what?" I mocked. "Am I good?"

"Are you Christian? Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior?"

I paused. The easiest thing in the world would have been to answer, why yes of course. I go to BCAG because the education is first-class, but more importantly, because everyone here supports and nurtures my relationship with my Savior Jesus Christ.

It was right at the tip of my tongue. 

I'm pretty sure it was right out of the marketing brochure. 

Instead what poured out, unstoppably, like the last participant of a vomit chain, was, "Oh, Evie, you know what I believe? Really and truly? I'll tell you. Christian until election. Then who cares what I am? I'll be Grad Queen, and you can pray for my immortal soul if you're that concerned. So, game on, my dear sweet little Evelyn. Game the fuck on."

Evie didn't gasp or look shocked. She just stared at me steadily, then touched the cross nestled at the base of her throat. After a moment my smirk faded. Another beat later and a cold ball formed in the pit of my stomach. "Just kidding—Just trying to—'Course I believe—" I choked on some bile. 

I swallowed and began again. "Evie…how will the students record the audio for the documentary?"

She didn't speak, though her lips twitched up.

"Please don't tell me you just recorded our conversation. Please don't tell me it's streaming to your facepage. Ev—" My lips went numb. 

She pointed at the cross. "It's ingenious, isn't it? Our church gives them out, you know, so we can hear our worshipers commune with God…so, my dear Peyton, as you say, game on." She paused, taking in my horror. "Or maybe it's…game over."

The genius was in her timing. By the arrival ceremonies that evening, everyone had heard. Including the teachers and the head of school. One stupid f-bomb and my quote attitude unquote (let's face it—my naked ambition) got me suspended from the Lacrosse and Equestrian teams. If it could get any worse—oh yeah, it did—I was downgraded from Opinion Editor to newsfeed curator. Which only left me with the job of parsing the daily news from the range of media sources and streaming the selected stories to the school's intranet. 

Evie lobbied hard to replace me as Opinion Editor, but the whiff of improbability around her accidentally streaming our supposedly private conversation proved too much for the head of school. Roach got it instead. Same result, in my opinion.

The freshmen—especially the critical constituency who hadn't made up their minds yet—backed away from me, playing right into Evie's manicured pink claws. The only two girls who looked remotely sorry for me were Claire and Roach (of all people).

For all intents and purposes, Evie had knocked me out in the first round. 

But remember—that was before the God Proof. 

Before the Holy Shit hit the fan.

For two months I avoided everyone as much as I could. Since everyone avoided me, too, it wasn't that hard. I went from my dorm room to classes and back to my room like a transfixed ghost, a shadow of my former self. 

My only extracurricular activity was in the morning before class, when I slunk into the school's media room to do the newsfeed curator job. 

At least in this room of modern tech juxtaposed with creaky wooden floors and stained glass windows, I had a purpose beyond staying out of people's way. I scrolled through all of the school-approved internet sites, selecting the most significant or popular or just plain interesting news stories that cropped up. I fed the stories into our newsfeed stream, which everyone at the school had access to via their iPads. I can't say I loved the task, but at least there was no one else around.

Then came the morning when the door creaked open and Roach stepped into the room. I ignored her, concentrating on the screen in front of me.

She cleared her throat. I didn't respond, so she stepped closer and did the obvious ahem, cough cough.

I threw a quick glance in her direction. "Hello, Roach, need a cough drop?"

"Peyton." She sounded tearful. Roach never lost her cool—at least not in front of me—so it startled me enough to turn around. "What?"

"Will you listen to me for a moment? Please?"

I shrugged.

"I didn't know that Evie was recording your conversation that day."

I couldn't stop a wince. "Never thought you did. Now, can I get back to doing the only thing that gives me a shred of dignity at this school?"

She shook her head. "Evie won't admit anything, even to me, but I'm sorry. Okay? She shouldn't have goaded you into saying those things."

I almost sank down to the floor. I felt so incredibly tired. "That's sweet of you, really, but I did say those things. Now I'm paying the price."

"Peyton, don't be like that. No one likes to see you so…" She made a frustrated sound. 
"Crushed? Ground to dust?"

"I was going to say depressed."

"I doubt Evie's shed a tear."

Roach reached out and took me by the shoulders. "No, you're wrong. Evie regrets what she did. She hasn't been herself either. It's because she feels bad, Peyton."

I carefully removed her hands from my shoulders. Roach was too sweet. She felt bad, not Evie. If Evie felt anything, it was disappointment I hadn't put up a fight.

Still I managed to nod for Roach's sake. I could tell she wanted to say more, but—thank God—she let it go. 

When Claire found me at the stable later that day, it seemed like coincidence, with Roach's plaintive voice still ringing in my head. 'Course that was back when people still believed in coincidence.

I was grooming Prophet, my favorite horse in the barn. Claire's head popped over the stall door, like that of a sleek otter, appraising me. I stood grimy and bleary-eyed, with chestnut horse hair covering my white button-down.

No doubt the girl had picked up a thing or two from her mom the spook over the years. Or maybe she just hoped that I was getting sick of wallowing. Whatever the reason, she took a deep breath and dove right in.

"Peyton, I know you think you're done at this school. And it's true that Evie really did a number on you. But I've been keeping my eyes and ears peeled. Even if you don't care about Grad Queen anymore, or Lacrosse or Equestrian or any of it, I'm here to tell you that some of us are getting sick of her. She's too full of herself. Too smug about her victories."

I kept a straight face. "What do you expect me to do about it?"

"Get back on your feet! Come on, you're the only one even now who stands a chance against her. If you just try—"

"Try what? How can I possibly compete with little miss aw shucks, I can't help it if God's on my side, can I Evelyn?"

Claire twisted her mouth. "I don't know how, exactly, but you'll figure it out. Everyone loves a redemption story. You could, you know, get right with the Lord?"

I laughed—I think it was the first time since Evie screwed me over. "No one would believe that. I could never out-Jesus Evie."

"There's gotta be something we can do to get the girls back on your side."

I raised an eyebrow. "We?"

"I want to help. You and Evie—you're a weird sort of pair. Yin and Yang…you know what I mean. We want you both. It's just not fun without you, too. Come on, let's give Evie a run for Grad Queen."

I glared at her, even though inside me something sparked. Interest. Hope. Something.

I doused it. "I don't think so, Claire. No." I turned my back. She tried to argue, but I ignored her until she left.

But let's talk coincidence again, and the fact there isn't such a thing. Later that afternoon, during physics class, I caught Evie staring at me from across the room. Not in a calculating way or a pretending to be nice way. Staring at me, but without really seeing me. Like I ranked about the same as a wall fixture in her interest. 

That spark I felt in the stable? It flared up and spread hotly through my whole body. Like everything went from gray scale to high-def color. Instead of refusing to meet her gaze, like I had since the first day back, I focused in on her. Catching her gaze, I grinned. She blinked at me, startled. 

One…two…three…beats later, she got a gleam in her eye and I got a half-smile back. In that instant she realized that she'd missed me as much as I'd missed her.

We'd just said to each other in our unspoken way…game on.

'Course it didn't mean I had a clue how to beat Evie for Grad Queen. Seriously—three months to election day, and no clue. Sly Claire, thrilled with my change of heart, joined me each morning in the media room. As I pored over the screens, checking the daily news, we brainstormed my comeback. But we were treading water—Evie seemed untouchable. She was as ambitious as me, but gave all the credit to God.

Claire started in again. "We have to play up the difference in your beliefs. But you don't present an alternative. What do you want to believe in, Peyton?"

"You're not suggesting I start up with Buddhism or Islam or some other religion, are you?"

"Nooo, not another religion…"

"I can't play up my distasteful agnosticism either. Just seems like I'm waffling."

"What are Evie's weaknesses then?"

I groaned. "We've been through this a thousand times."

"And we have to keep at it until we find the chink in her armor."

So I ticked them off again. "People sense she's disingenuous. She pretends to be everyone's best friend, but everyone knows it's just Roach she cares about. And maybe not even Roach. She collects people like trophies." I rubbed my eyes. 

Claire went on, "We need to find a reason for the girls to seek you out instead. They admire you. You have guts and ambition, but unlike Evie, you don't pretend to be any other way."

"Evie sticks with the literal interpretation of the Biblical God. Which is most everyone's comfort zone here. But if you have any doubts about that interpretation…if you wonder about other possibilities…"

"Like exploring the mysteries of the universe through science?"

I threw up my hands. "Oh, the horror—that could lead to atheism. We're taught how to do science. We learn scientific theories, but we're expected to keep Faith—capital F—out of it." We always talked ourselves around this same circle.

"But science can inspire awe and wonder, too. Right?"

I considered that for a moment. "Especially theoretical science—string theory, quantum mechanics…Theories about dark matter or the multiverse. How every decision you make creates a new universe, that kind of thing. Oh, check this out…" I toggled the screen awake. "There was this article…some physicists are trying to prove that we exist in a computer simulation. That all life has been created by some future master programmer." I tingled. It felt like a chill sweeping the room. 

Claire's mouth dropped open. "You're saying…it's theoretically possible that one day they'll prove we've been created by, like, some computer nerd?"

"By a post-human programmer running ancestor simulations, yeah." I thought for a second. "I can guess what they'll call it too—the God Proof."

"The God Proof," she repeated, her face lighting up. "Snappy."

"You know what this is, Claire. This is the alternative to Evie's Lord God the Savior."

"Peyton's Future Computer Programmer. Damn straight."

What did I do next? Loaded up all the computer simulation articles I could find into the newsfeed. 

When the articles tapped out, I submitted an opinion piece to Roach called "What if reality is a cosmic fiction?" Roach said she was happy that I seemed more like my old self and published it the next day. 

Per my suggestion, our physics teacher led a discussion about it in class. I stayed low-key, but afterwards several girls wanted to talk more. I said I wasn't sure about anything but it was fascinating to think about. Then Evie swooped in and said that unlike me, she could be sure that Jesus Christ was our Savior and put a quick end to the conversation. But as she hustled the girls away, I could tell I'd chipped a toehold into their wall of certainty. Maybe it starts with simple curiosity, but you know where that can lead. Like Pandora, upending everything.

Over the next month, I led more discussion groups. Thinking about life as a computer simulation branched out to other theories and readings about the genesis of the universe, the possibilities of existing in an infinite time loop or in a multiverse, and what it might mean for our faith if one day this theory or the other was proven correct. 

There I was, tiny axe in hand, chipping away.

Claire waved her hands, frustrated. "It's not enough, just the idea of the God Proof." She slumped on a haystack in the stall where I brushed Prophet, pressing into his soft hide and flicking away the dirt. His skin twitched in pleasure.

"Probably not. Evie came to my room yesterday, pretending to be concerned with my flirtation with blasphemy. Actually she was gloating. People's attention span is short and she knows it." I shrugged. "It's true—the God Proof and other theories of existence are fine intellectual fun, but that's not what Evie promises." I exaggerated a drawl. "Gawd an-suhs your prayers, you just got-tuh ask."

Claire rolled her eyes. 

"So I was thinking…"

She straightened up. "What? Tell me!"

"That we need to enhance the God Proof. What if our master programmer could answer back? Something like prayer but a little more direct."

Claire furrowed her brow. "That could be genius, Peyton, but how?"

"Here. I made an app." I tossed her my iPad. "Be my beta tester."

"Which app is it—oh wait." She blinked at me. "You've called it Hello God?"

I explained. I'd started with the Magic 8 Ball program code, but I'd stripped most answers away. Since people usually ask questions hoping for a positive response, I programmed Yes, my [child, sparrow, lamb] to appear 40% of the time, and I'm sorry, but no, my [child, sparrow, lamb] to appear 20% of the time. And then, Try again. You are asking the wrong question at 30%. Of course, there was no "right" question. It was totally random. You entered a question; it fake-churned for a few seconds to create suspense, then the answer burst out of a pixelated halo.

Claire chortled. "What answer comes up the last 10% of the time?"

"Peyton will help. Seek her out, my child."

She grabbed her stomach, laughing. "Holy shit, you are genius."

I kept a straight face. "I am, rather. Can you do a little hack to get it on the intranet for me? Anonymously. It should appear, as if…"

Claire giggled. "From God himself."

The girls thought the Hello God app was a silly lark. No one took it seriously, but it kept up interest in my alternative theory that God wasn't the white-haired guy on the golden throne, but some future computer nerd.

Sometimes when a girl got the "Peyton will help," she did come to me. Sometimes we just laughed about it. Sometimes it was more serious. In those cases, I did my best. I talked as long as needed. I said that I understood what it felt like to make mistakes. To suffer. To struggle with keeping Faith amid so much Temptation. The implication, of course, was that Evie coasted through life full to the brim of Faith, and quite perfectly un-Tempted.

I could feel in my bones when Evie started getting worried. I knew she'd try something to keep her edge. But I never would've guessed in a million years just how far she'd take it.

One Sunday morning, with the election only a month away, I headed to church service flanked by a horde of freshman. I stepped inside the chapel and frowned, because I saw Evie up on the stage. Behind her the giant white screen had dropped for the pertinent Bible verses to be broadcast during the sermon.

Claire came up next to me. "Guess Evie's preaching today, huh, Peyton?" She lowered her voice. "The tide's turned against her. She's starting to look fanatical."

I wondered. "We'll see." 

With all the students taking seats on the creaky pews, Evie stepped up to the podium, frowning and muttering to herself. Her eyes flicked back and forth to the stained glass windows, which depicted images of Jesus Christ and His disciples. She did look sort of…maniacal. Maybe Claire was right. Maybe she was losing it.

Finally Evie clutched the sides of the podium, growing still, bowing her head in the familiar posture of prayer. Everyone quieted down, but she stayed motionless until it started to get a little uncomfortable. At that moment she opened her eyes and peered down at us.

"My beloved friends and fellow students, most of you have played around with a new app that mysteriously appeared a few weeks ago. The one called Hello God." 

Around me, the girls shuffled and murmured in surprise. Evie scanned the room slowly, letting her gaze rest on this girl or that. She found me, too, but skimmed on by like I wasn't important.

"As you may know, I had serious doubts about the motivation of whoever was behind the app. Not to mention the idea that it's based on—that life is a computer simulation. It seemed so ridiculous and unbelievable that I dismissed it without praying about it." She shook her head, sadly. "I made a mistake that we all make from time to time. I closed myself off from God, because I was sure I was right. 

"But God reminded me of my arrogance. He reminded me that He cherishes humility. So finally I began to pray. I started asking what we all should have been asking." She cast her eyes up again. "'Is it true, my Lord? Is your creation more accurately called a simulation?'"

Absolute silence reigned as we hung onto her every word.

Evie went on, her voice ringing out. "He did answer my prayer. In fact, His answer shocked me. And scared me. But…" She drew a deep breath. "I've reached my peace with Him. It's time to show you. I'm going to show you." 

Behind her the screen darkened, then lit up with Hello God, please answer my question. I leaned forward and grabbed the pew in front of me, holding my breath.

Evie gazed at us, solemnly, then bent over the podium to type. 


My jaw dropped, next to me Claire gasped. The program ran for the requisite three seconds, and then—


The room exploded, everyone bursting out. Evie stared at me triumphantly before the head of school rushed out and trundled her off the stage.

Claire squeezed my hand hard. It should have hurt, but I'd gone numb.

"She's crazy! She'll have to leave. Which means you're sure-fire set to win the election—right, Peyton? I'm right, aren't I? Aren't I?"

I could only grind my teeth in response. Evie claiming to be pregnant? She wasn't crazy. She had a plan. And she thought it was sure-fire enough to beat me.

Here's the thing you should know about the Bedford Christian Academy for Girls:

BCAG's a 200-acre hilltop fortress, ringed on all sides by thick forest—the type where humans don't go, full of brambles and undergrowth. Ticks hang off branches waiting for their victims; mosquitos exsanguinate the leftovers. But let's say Prince Charming was determined enough to cut through. He'd come upon an electrified perimeter fence with security cameras. No one, I mean no one, gets into BCAG except through the gates at the bottom of the hill.

Everyone who lives on campus during the school year is female, including security, dorm monitors, and teachers. Our head of school. No guys allowed. Ever. 

As for Evie's announcement? We all knew she wasn't lying about her pregnancy. That would have been stupid. Evie was many things, but stupid wasn't one of them.

Oh, she was pregnant all right.

Many of the girls believed the immaculate conception part. Some of the teachers did. And once the story broke, and went viral across the country, lots of people in the general population did.

Maybe it wasn't quite as romantic as the original immaculate conception. It meant Evie's baby had been programmed. But still. If you believed it, then she was the chosen one.

Evie's parents, acting (probably genuinely) bewildered, fought to keep Evie in school through graduation. They threatened to yank their substantial donation to the school. After all, no one had been able to prove that Evie wasn't pregnant by the Great Designer, as she had taken to calling Him. So they let her stay. I kept cool on the outside. But on the inside, I seethed.

Evie's star became ascendant again; in opposition to her, I began to fade. With her belly swelling, she floated around campus, smiling benevolently on all who looked upon her. Girls begged to rub her stomach, to take notes for her in class, to carry her food in the cafeteria. What could I do? I wasn't about to denigrate the potential Mother of God. I catered to her like everyone else. 

But I damn well knew Evie hadn't gotten pregnant by God. The question became how

No, that wasn't right either. How was the usual way. The question was who?

It came down to this. We were going to have to stalk Evie and everyone she was remotely close to. In a totally unobtrusive way. 

Claire and I were brainstorming when the lightbulb came on, white-hot. And oh it was sweet, wasn't it, remembering what Evie had done to me to start it off.

I asked Claire—budding little spook that she was—to hack the documentarian's account. Our best shot was in the audio recordings he'd been collecting. 

Claire's mom had access to all kinds of classified hacking tools, and Claire stole the one that the government used to keep its eyes on the one that Evie's church used to keep its eyes on its congregation and…well, you get the picture.

Every night Claire and I sifted through the raw footage, watching and listening to every recording of Evie and her considerable entourage. For weeks we stayed up late at night and walked around like red-eyed zombies during the day. Our best bet was the audio recordings, because sometimes the girls forgot to turn off the tiny crosses in private areas like dorm rooms and bathrooms. But Evie herself hadn't worn one since ambushing me on the first day back. And when she was surrounded by those who did, she kept to her script. Her baby had been immaculately programmed into being, like Mary's had been two-thousand-plus years ago. She didn't know why she'd been chosen, only that, like Mary, her baby would usher in—let me stop there. Really—gag. The point was that she never forgot she was being recorded, not once.

But then, three days before the election, her best friend Roach did.

Around midnight Claire and I were listening to a recording from earlier in the day. The usual suspects following the usual script—Evie and Roach and a few others, a junior, some freshmen. At some point when Claire started nodding off, and I had to pinch my arms to keep awake, Evie told everyone to continue without her, and left. The rest of the conversation went something like this:

Freshman: God's still perfect, right? Even if He's a programmer? He's got a perfect plan for each of us. 

Murmurs of agreement.

Junior: What about the glitches then? 

Roach: What do you mean by glitches?

Freshman: When you see things that can't be explained. Ghosts or UFOs, stuff like that.

Junior: Yeah! Mistakes in the program. Or when some people don't feel right in the body they were born into. A girl feels like she's a boy and vice versa.

Roach: What are you saying? That those people are mistakes?

She said it more coldly than I'd ever heard Roach talk. Everyone shut up, shocked by her tone. The hairs on the back of my neck rose. 

Roach: Nobody's born a mistake, but people make mistakes all the time. I certainly do. And even Evelyn does. All of us. Let's not get the two confused.

I shook Claire awake.

"What?" She could tell by the look on my face. "You found something, for real this time?"

"I think, maybe. Just listen."

We listened over and over and over. Finally we stopped the recording and stared at each other, wide-eyed.

Her reaction meant—

Roach had to be—

Holy shit.

I told you in the beginning, Evie left because of me. Roach wasn't exactly who she led us to believe. Oh, she was beautiful and sweet and she loved Evie. 

But she wasn't genetically female. 

I paged Roach to the media room, so we'd be alone. 

Then I told her as gently as possible what I suspected—that the baby was hers, too. 

"It's okay. I know you love Evie." 

Like I'd cracked a dam, her face crumpled, and tears overflowed. 

It took a moment, but she got control again, and wiped her face. "I do love her. She let me think she couldn't get pregnant, but I should have made sure. What an idiot I am. Do you know I could barely stand Evelyn when we met last year? She was so…righteous. But somehow…"

I understood perfectly. "When she focuses in on you, it's like the world goes from grayed out to every color that exists and some that don't."

Roach's beauty, intensified by the relief on her face, illuminated the room. 

"Come on," she said, taking my hand, "let's go talk to Evelyn."

The walk down the corridor to Evie's room felt endless. There was nothing more to say, but I bet we were thinking the same thing—how we'd both let Evie get under our skins.

Roach opened the door and stuck her head in. From inside Evie piped, "Oh, honey, the baby's kicking, come feel!"

Then Roach pulled me into view.

Evie sat cross-legged on her bed, her hands resting lightly on her belly. The light came through the window and I swear right then she did look like the Mother of God—lit up with a halo and everything. She looked happy and peaceful and not at all the scheming little…you know, the person I knew and—Well, loved went a bit far, but you get the picture.

Evie examined Roach, her eyes narrowing behind the glittery eyeglasses. 

Roach drew in her breath to speak, but Evie held up a hand. "Don't say anything yet, sweetheart."

Then she looked at me. Same way. Without malice. Without any expression at all. 

After a long moment, she spoke. "And so, Peyton, my dear, I suppose this is game over. Congratulations. I pray that Graduation Day will be everything you want it to be."

Without another word, she got up and grabbed Roach's hand out of mine. Together they walked away, out of the room and down the hall, until I couldn't see them anymore.

I guess they confessed right away, because the next day, the head of school posted on the intranet that Evie and Roach had left school and weren't coming back. The breath knocked out of me, I blew off class, went back to bed, and slept straight through the entire day.

I recovered my equilibrium just in time to be elected Queen of Ceremonies for Graduation Day. I didn't gloat. In fact, and this is the truth, I sent up a little prayer (or at least a thought that sort of resembled a prayer), wishing Evie and Roach well. I knew Roach loved Evie, and I hoped Evie would be good to Roach, too. 

Later I heard they were living together in a nice three-bedroom in Atlanta. It's hard to get any outside news onto the campus where the government folks are keeping their eyes on us. But Claire's mom gets the juicy stuff through. They had a baby boy.

But enough about Evie. Yes, please. Let's get back to where I started at the beginning. Graduation Day. There I was, and as the Queen of Ceremonies, I stood out from the other seniors, my cap and gown a bright red while everyone else wore black.

At noon, we were milling around the quad taking a break before my speech. The documentarian, a friendly gray-haired man, was interviewing us one by one with an old-fashioned handheld camera. He'd already spent most of the morning with me.

Which was why I hadn't eaten much breakfast. At least that's what I told myself. Fact was, I'd become increasingly queasy. I put it down to excitement, because I definitely wasn't stressed. I loved every single minute of that day. I thought constantly about the documentary and how I would come across. Remember what Evie said at the beginning of the year? That the Queen would be in every shot?

I was anticipating my big moment—my speech, and how it would mark the triumphant end to the film. I'd stand at the podium in front of the church, looking out onto the vast green quad at my fellow grads, and all the other girls behind them, and the audience of parents and visitors, and the flags flying overhead. Everyone cheering and laughing and flinging their caps into the air. 

Freeze-frame on the red one, standing out from all the rest.

Then it was time, and there I stood behind the podium, staring out at everyone. Everyone looking back at me. But right before I opened my mouth, my stomach lurched, as if I were on one of those amusement park ships that send you up and down and up and down…I bent over and clutched the podium until my knuckles turned white. Later, the seniors in the front row said I turned green. No kidding. When they saw me, they grabbed their own stomachs in sympathy. 

But I was determined to give my speech, a kick-ass fare-thee-well get out of Dodge and make a difference speech. I opened my mouth to let the words ring out. 

And projectile-puked instead. It didn't even hit the podium, just arced over it, a vomit hose. As if on cue, the black-gowned seniors in the front row chain-barfed one after the other. Then, from somewhere in the middle of the pack, sitting with her fellow sophomores, so did Claire.

I asked the girls later when they knew. They all said, as soon as the nausea struck, right before they puked. Same as me. I don't know how we knew, but we knew. Like you know the color red, or that Evie definitely without a doubt planned to screw you over for Grad Queen. 

We were all pregnant by God, or the Great Designer, or the Master Programmer, or whatever He's calling Himself these days.

So here we are, nine months after Graduation Day. The senior class (plus Claire), still at BCAG but with bellies like beach balls. The pregnancies seem to be perfectly normal so far. At least, that's what the government people tell us. But they won't know for sure until we give birth. Maybe we'll get identical simulations of God Himself? Maybe we'll get angels? Some of us are hoping for angels.

The government people don't tell us much, but sometimes you overhear. The outside media calls us the Mothers Immaculate. Well, that's the nicest thing they call us. A lot of people are scared of us. That's why we're still here on campus, with our government guards. What exactly are we giving birth to? What does the Great Designer have in mind? 

I hear that in the outside world, it was the atheists who had to adjust the most. They're the crazy ones out in the streets, holding signs and screaming that the end is near. But as far as I know, the religious apocalypse hasn't come yet.

Anyway, although I've tried to communicate with Him, He's not answering me. I only got that one moment, right before I started the vomit chain. 

Some people call us a coding error. Or maybe they mean our babies? Whatever they mean, I don't buy it. I think the Big Guy Upstairs—or Girl, Whoever—knows exactly what's up. How else do you explain Claire's baby? My best friend, conspirator, minion, call her what you want. The only one who's not a senior. And frankly, when I think of all the shit—holy or not—that He's putting us through, Claire getting pregnant is what irks me the most.

Well, that and I don't stand out anymore, being one of thirty-five. And—get this—I hear there are other pockets of unexplained pregnancies, in other communities of the devout, in other parts of the world; an ashram in India, a temple in Jerusalem, a mosque in Syria. I can only imagine how much that's freaking people out, trying to guess His intent. Me? I think He's just an equal opportunist.

Remember I was telling you about that friendly old guy, the documentarian? He asked permission to remain on campus to film us and the births. You know those reality shows where they start by giving everyone equal play time, but eventually they focus on a few and finally there's just the one that everyone remembers? 

Of course the government didn't let him do it. And to be honest, there's not much drama here. In our first trimester we'd go to the quad, and lie there like those giant sea lions. We'd lie torpid in the summer sun, soaking up whatever heat we could, the new baby hormone mix making us nap all day. 

Now so close to the end, we walk a lot, give each other back massages, and amuse ourselves by eavesdropping on the government folk arguing about how they're going to handle thirty-five babies of unknown origin with unknown…potential, is how they put it, delicately. All coming at once.

As for me—I get the strangest feelings. Like missing Evie. Maybe not Evie herself, but that feeling I got when we were head-to-head competing. Just…colorful, you know? Like I was shining. Beacon-bright. I miss having a worthy opponent. I miss how we made each other stand out. 

Then there's the feeling I get when I look up at the sky above our campus. And then down at my swollen belly, with my baby's head and knees and elbows outlined and rotating around. I feel tiny and insignificant—and mad at Whoever's cackling up there in the Great Cubicle, turning the screws on us, His little blips of code. In those moments I steel myself, grit my teeth, rub my baby through my skin, and shout so He has to hear: 

Game on!