CHANCES ARE you hate me. Believer or nonbeliever, if you've heard the story, you despise me. And believer or nonbeliever, that makes you a hypocrite. All of you. Believers, because you refuse to embrace the very forgiveness He pleaded for others, even those who tortured Him to death. And nonbelievers, because you pretend to hate the traitor of someone you hate.
"But I don't hate Him," you say.
Really? Pretending you don't hate someone who says all your attempts at being good are worthless? Pretending you don't hate someone who claims to be the only way to God? Pretending you don't hate someone who wants to rule your life? Who are you kidding? You're not fooling anyone, least of all Him.
But hate Him or worship Him, one thing you can say, He's no hypocrite. He stuck to the truth all the way through His execution. And He still holds to it today. (Old habits die hard.) Truth is His currency… and His Achilles' heel. That's why I knew He'd allow me into His presence. If my question was asked in truth, He'd respond in truth.
Now I'm sure there are some who will debate how I had access to Him—those of you who love to argue about gnats while swallowing camels. And why not? After all, debating about dancing angels and pinheads is far easier than breaking a sweat by actually obeying. Or, as the Accuser recently confided in me, "Spending time arguing theology is the perfect way to ensure a burning world continues to burn."
In any case, my eternal state is not up for discussion. Though I will say I have displayed more remorse and repentance over my sin than most of you ever have over your own. And as to whether I'm actually in hell, I guess that depends upon your definition of the place.
But I digress.
When I came before Him, I was forced to my knees. Not by any cosmic bullying, but by the sheer weight of His glory. Yet when He spoke, His voice was kind and full of compassion.
"Hello, my friend. It's been a long time."
My eyes immediately dropped to the ground and my chest swelled with emotion. So much time had passed and He still had that power over me. Angry at His hold, I took a ragged breath and then another before blurting out like a petulant child, "You… never gave me a chance!"
I was answered by silence. He waited until I found the courage, or foolishness, to raise my head. When I did, the love in His eyes burned through me and I had to look back down. Still, He continued to wait.
I took another breath. Finally, angrily swiping at my eyes, I tried again. "If we… if we would have handled Your mission my way"—I swallowed and continued—"the world would not be in the mess it's in today."
I nodded, refusing to look up. "You could have ruled the world."
"I am ruling the world."
I shook my head. "Not souls. But nations, governments. Every earthly power imaginable could have been Yours."
"Kingdoms come and go. Souls are eternal."
"Tell that to the tortured and murdered who scream Your name as an oath every day." I waited for His wrath to flare up, to consume me. But I felt nothing. I heard no rebuke. Only more silence. He knew I wasn't finished. I took another breath and continued, "If You would have used Your powers my way, everyone would have followed You."
I heard Him chuckle softly. "And you would have made Me a star."
"The likes of which the world had never seen."
"I did all right."
"You could have done better."
He waited again, making sure I had nothing more to say. This time I had the good sense to remain silent.
Finally He spoke. "What do you propose, My friend?"
"Please. Go ahead."
Still staring at the ground, I answered: "Rumor has it You're preparing another prophet—though her background is questionable."
"Moses was a murderer. David an adulterer." I felt His eyes searching me. "I've always had a soft spot for the broken."
I nodded and took another swipe at my tears.
"What would you like?"
Another breath and I answered: "Let me return to Earth. Let me show You what could have been if You had followed my leading." I hesitated, then looked up, trying to smile. "Hasn't that always been Your favorite method of teaching? Letting us have our way until we wind up proving Yours?"
His eyes sparkled at my little joke. I tried to hold His gaze but could not.
After another pause He finally spoke: "When would you like to begin?"
And that's how it started—how He gave me the opportunity to prove to Him, to you, and to all of creation, what could have been accomplished if He'd proclaimed His truth my way.
I'll say no more. Neither here nor at the end. Instead, I'll practice what He, himself, employs. I'll let the story unfold, allowing truth to speak for itself.
THE FIRST thing Rachel smells is smoke. That's how it always begins. Not the smoke of wood, but the acrid, chemical smell of burning drapes, melting carpet, smoldering sofa. The air is suffocating. Hot waves press against her face and mouth, making it difficult to breathe. Her mother stands before her in a white flowing gown. Flames engulf the woman's legs, leaping up and rising toward her waist where she holds little Rebecca. The two of them stare at Rachel, their eyes pleading for help, their faces filled with fear, confusion, and accusation as Rachel stands holding a lit candle in a small glass holder.
Mother and sister waver and dissolve, disappearing into the smoke. Suddenly Rachel is standing in the doorway of an upscale bathroom. The same bathroom she stood inside last night. And the night before. The marble tile is cool to her bare feet. There is no smoke now, only fog. So thick she sees nothing. But she can hear. There is the sound of splashing water. Someone in a tub. The room is filled with the sweet scent of rose bath oil.
A nearby dog yaps, its bark shrill and relentless.
A woman shouts from the tub, "Who's there?" Her voice is strong and authoritative, masking the fear she must feel.
Rachel tries to answer, but no sound comes from her throat.
"Who are you? How did you get in?" She hears the woman rising, water dripping from her body.
The dog continues to bark.
"Get out of here!" the woman yells. Water splashes. She swears. The sound of a struggle begins. Someone falls, knees thudding into the tub. There is the squeak of flesh against porcelain. Coughing, gagging. A scream that is quickly submerged underwater, muffled and bubbling.
Rachel hears herself gasping and grunting. She feels her own hands around the woman's throat.
The dog barks crazily.
The last of the burbling screams fades. The struggle ends. There is only the gentle sound of water sloshing back and forth, back and forth.
And the yelping dog.
Rachel rises and turns, fearful of what she knows she will see through the fog. As in the previous dreams, a bathroom mirror floats before her. But this evening there is something different. This evening there are letters scrawled across it in black cherry lipstick. Her scrawling:
In the mirror she sees a tiny red glow dancing across her hand, the hand that holds the burning candle. It's there every night, like a firefly. But instead of her own frightened face staring back at her, she sees the face of someone else: bald, white, and pale. A swastika tattooed on the side of the neck. Man, woman, she can't tell. But it is leering. And it is climbing out of the mirror toward her.
She screams and throws the candle at the reflection. The mirror shatters, breaking into a dozen pieces, a dozen images of the face sneering up at her. Until they change. Until they morph into different faces. Froglike. Reptilian. Each climbing out of its broken shard—snarling, reaching for her feet, clutching at her ankles until, mustering all of her strength, she wakes with a stifled scream.
Nineteen-year-old Rachel Delacroix lay in bed, heart pounding, T-shirt soaked and clinging. At first she thought it was from the water of the tub… until she realized it was her own cold sweat.
"Rachel?" Her father appeared in the doorway, his bald black head glistening in the streetlight from the hall window. The same window that held the broken air conditioner they could not afford to replace. "Are you all right?"
"Mmm?" she mumbled, pretending to be asleep.
"Was it—did you have another dream?"
She gave no answer.
"You're not taking your medicine, are you."
She remained silent, hoping he'd think she'd gone back to sleep.
More silence. She could hear him standing there nearly half a minute before he turned and wearily shuffled back down the hall to his room. Tomorrow was church and he needed to get his rest. Still, she knew full well he'd not be able to go back to sleep.
Hopefully, neither would she.
She opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling, then turned to the art posters on the surrounding walls—the Monets, the Van Goghs, the Renoirs. How often they gave her comfort. Even joy. But not tonight. Tonight, as in the past two nights she'd had the dream, they would give her nothing at all.________
IT WAS BARELY past nine in the morning and the attic was like an oven. The Santa Anas had been blowing for several days, and Sean Putnam doubted the house had dropped below eighty degrees all night. That's why he was up here now—to save whatever was left of his paintings. To bring the canvases downstairs where it was cooler and the paint wouldn't dry out and crack. Over the past months he'd already thrown away dozens, mostly self-portraits; clear signs of what he now considered to have been his self-absorbed youth.
He turned toward the stairs and shouted. As was the case with many Down syndrome children, the multiple ear infections had left his son hard of hearing. "I'll be there in a second."
"Well, hurry! We don't want to be late."
"I'll be right there."
He quietly mused. Tomorrow would be Elliot's first day in middle school. A scary time for both of them. Yet it was all part of the plan he and Beverly had agreed upon. A plan conceived as the cancer began eating away and taking her. They wanted to make sure Elliot was prepared as much as possible to face the real world. Integrating him into the public school system seemed the best choice. They'd talked about it often during her final days. And it was the last conversation they had before she slipped into unconsciousness.
Now, barely a year later, he was making good on those plans.
"I'll be right there."
Elliot was nervous. He had been all week. That's why Sean had agreed to this trial run. That's why, though it was nine-fifteen on a Sunday morning, the two of them would pile into the old Ford Taurus and drive over to Lincoln Middle School. A rehearsal for tomorrow's big day. An attempt to help Elliot relax by eliminating any surprises.
Too bad Sean couldn't do the same for himself. Because he wasn't just anxious about his son. Tomorrow was a big day for him as well. He'd finally graduated from the Los Angeles Police Academy, and tomorrow would be his first day on patrol in a black-and-white. That was the other reason he was up here in the attic. "To put away childish things." He wasn't sure where he'd first heard that phrase, probably from his old man. But it made it no less true. The days of being a long-haired art student had come and gone. Now it was time to be a man. To make the necessary sacrifices and take care of what was left of his family.
He quickly flipped through the remaining canvases until one slowed him to a stop. Not because of any artistic skill, but because of the subjects—six-week-old Elliot lying naked on his mother's tummy, his little fist clenched, nursing at her breast. It still moved him in ways he could not explain. Somehow, some way, he'd been able to capture the truth of that moment… mother and child lost in the act of life, their faces filled with contentment, glowing with an indefinable peace.
He reached down and scooped up the canvas. "I'm on my way." He tucked the painting under his arm and headed back downstairs, where he would find someplace safe to keep it.© 2011 Bill Myers