For Cindy


Thank you for sharing so much with me and for inspiring this story. You are living proof that human beings can take a lot, bounce back for more, and go on to do wonderful and courageous things. I appreciate your inspiration, your encouragement, and especially your friendship.




ACKNOWLEDGMENTS


A project as crazy as this—writing a novel and “publishing” its first draft for all the world to see—couldn’t be done without the help and support of friends, family, and even comparative strangers. Those who know me know that story telling has been a love of mine since I could formulate thought. But a story teller is nothing if no one hears his stories. I would like to thank the following people for making this blognovel possible, for keeping me on the right track, and for reading.


I would, of course, like to thank my wife. Melanie, you are my light and my encouragement. You trust in my abilities and never let me forget that I have a talent to share. I love that you are a serious reader and, therefore, my greatest critic. Thank you for being in my life, and thank you for making my life the ‘life in heaven’ it has been.


I would also like to thank the most amazing beta reader a blognovelist could ever hope for. ‘becca Hittle has been a co-worker and a friend, and now she is my persistent encourager. Not letting a day go by without commenting on a chapter or asking me where the next one is, ‘becca has been the driving force behind this entire book. If you liked it, you can thank ‘becca. I may not have finished it—especially in three months—if not for her continuing support. ‘becca, thank you so much for everything. I hope to have you with me for the next adventure.


I want to thank Patti Tobin Davis for creating such wonderful and inspirational art, and for giving me that nudge to pursue my own form of creativity. I also want to thank Jeff Olejnik, the unexpected reader whom I never pegged as someone who would enjoy my storytelling. Thank you to my sister and brother-in-law, Patricia and Al Schau, for checking in on my blog and showing your amazement in my productive capabilities—I never knew I had it in me either.


It’s impossible to remember everyone who has e-mailed me, passed me at work or on the street, and said, “Hey, man, I caught part of your book online. That was awesome,” or even, “I read a chapter. You used the wrong ‘there’, and the guy’s shirt changed color three times.” Whichever the case, thank you for giving me the feel of greatness brushed. I appreciate your passing praise or criticism. Even the smallest acknowledgment is a spark of encouragement. The smallest criticism a lesson learned.


There were so many other friends and readers who kept me going, most I don’t even know by name. I’d like to thank the anonymous e-mailers who kept the constructive criticism coming, and inspired me with their words. I would also like to thank fellow authors—some of whom rose from humble ‘podiobook’ authors to New York Times bestsellers—for their encouragement. Even the smallest “hello” spoke volumes to me. That said; thank you Scott, J.C., Mur and Matthew. I hope to see you soon.

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The chalice trembled in her hands, the liquid in its bottom sloshing like blood. When she placed the chalice on the tray and covered it with the altar linens, the metal rattled and echoed off the empty church’s rafters.

Sara chewed her lower lip as she glided slowly toward the sacristy, the small room in the corner of the sanctuary that contained a sink, the pastor’s vestments, candle lighters, footstools, and the Communion wine (bottles of Run Valley red wine from Michigan alongside Welch’s red grape juice). She was always nervous about her duties cleaning up on Communion Sunday, but today more so than usual.

Her life had been threatened again.

Pastor Green left her the key as he does every other Sunday, and departed with his wife, Kelly and the elder, Mr. Jessup. A late autumn breeze creaked at the stain glass windows, high up in the eaves of St. Matthew’s. Sara shivered, but not just from the thoughts of cold.

Alone with the wine again. And her nerves shattered with this pending threat.

In the sacristy, she went through the motions of her duty. She emptied the unclaimed individual cups—which reminded her of shot glasses more than Nyquil dosage cups—into a special plastic bucket. Then she uncovered the chalice . . . .

And lifted it to her lips.

She closed her eyes and breathed deep the fruity wooden aroma of the communal wine. She tilted the chalice slowly, the expectation of the liquid, cool but warming on her lips, warm on her tongue, buzzing through her veins as it reached her belly.

When taking part in St. Matthew’s Eucharist, Sara always drew from the non-alcoholic tray of grape juice. She never took wine, though she wanted to so badly. Now, as with every Sunday, she had a chance. She could down the remainder of the wine left out after service. She inhaled deeply and tilted the chalice a little more.

But then she stopped. Sara thought a prayer as loud as she could, Please, God, take this away from me. Keep me away from the wine for one more week. Just one more week and I’ll be stronger, God. Please.

In the dark recesses of her mind came another voice. It sounded like her own, but it said things she would never say considering the life she has lead. The voice said, You’re not going to get smashed on one swallow of Communion wine, for cryin’ out loud. Just drink the damn thing! Nobody is here to see you.

Don’t. Don’t. Please, God, make me drop it. Make pastor come back. Anything.

Sara’s hands clasped around the golden vessel quivered. The chalice ticked against her teeth, but she held it firm to her lips.

Drink it! It’s just one drink, maybe two swallows. Maybe three. It won’t kill you and it won’t make you fall off the wagon.

Leave me alone! Oh, God, please give me the strength. Make me put it down. Make me drop it.

Drink it, Sara! You’re pathetic. How stupid can you be? Getting all worked up over a simple swallow of wine!

God, please. Please. Make something happen. Make hail tap the stain glass. Make the cross stand next to the pulpit fall over. Give me a sign. Make me stop. Make me put this down. I can’t do it myself!

Sara, listen to me. It’s just WINE. You won’t get drunk off four little swallows. You won’t suddenly become a drunkard again. You won’t DIE! You won’t even get tipsy! Even if you DID get tipsy, it’s nothing like you used to do. You won’t go to jail again. I promise.

Oh, God.

Nobody is listening to you. God doesn’t exist, you know that!

Please, God.

God who? Drink it!

God, help me. Please. PLEASE!

DRINK IT!

GOD!

DRINK!

Sara convulsed. Her body shook with tiny explosions of a losing conflict. Her arms shot up, her mouth opened wider, before she could change her mind. Before God could answer her prayer, the remaining swallows of the Communion wine washed into her mouth, her throat, her airway. She swallowed through the choking reflex from her lungs.

She coughed. Dropping the chalice into the sacristy’s sink with a loud metallic clatter, she pitched forward and spat between watery gasps. Her hand went to the faucet and started a hissing stream of cold water as if the sound would hide her fits and chokes from God should he show up late to answer her prayer.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” she cried into the sink. Taking a handful of cold water, she splashed her face, wiped her eyes. “Oh, my God, I’m so sorry. Please, oh, God please . . . .”

Her shoulders shook with her sobs. Tears burned her eyes. “Why didn’t you help me?”

Sara wanted to lash out, break something. How could he ignore her? How could she betray Him? How could she betray the pastor’s trust in her? How could she perform such a sacrilege?

The voice: There’s more in the cabinet. The open bottle from today. There isn’t enough that it would be missed two weeks from now. DRINK IT!

“NO!”

“Sara!”

Sara screamed and stumbled back from the sink. She bumped the sink counter and made the tray with the individual Communion cups clatter to the floor like plastic ice cubes. Her hand went to her mouth and her knees buckled.

“Are you all right?”

She caught herself before stumbling back into the pastor’s vestry and tried to compose herself and her thoughts. I was caught. I thought I was alone. I deserve what’s coming. She patted her chest and nodded absently. Would she be expelled from the church?

Elder Martinez stood in the doorway to the sacristy. He was holding a broom. The bushy black mustache twitched suspiciously as his eyes wandered from Sara to the sink and back again. “Child, are you all right? I heard shouts, I thought—”

“I-I’m okay, Mr. Martinez.”

“George, okay?”

“George. Sorry. Yes, I think I’m fine.”

George Martinez continued to stand and watch as though waiting at the guillotine for the confession before lowering the boom.

Sara said, “I thought I was alone. I thought everyone had gone home.”

“I stayed to clean up. There were crumbs from the bake sale,” he offered as if answering an accusation.

It was HE who should be accusing, Sara thought. She stood, trembling, looking from the sink to the floor and back again. Her lie came as easy as the drink. “It slipped. I dr-dropped the chalice and spilled the wine.”

That seemed to satisfy the elder. The air rushed out of his lungs and his shoulders drooped with relief.

“Oh, my dear, that must have frightened the life out of you.” Propping his broom against the door jamb, George came into the sacristy and knelt down to pick up the Communion cups.

Sara knelt next to him. “I’ll get this. It’s my fault.”

“Nonsense. I was here to clean up anyway, no?”

She tried to smile, but couldn’t. She was afraid he’d smell the wine on her breath.

As if reading her mind, he said, “You can smell it.”

Sara leaned back, pressed her fist to her mouth.

Before she could speak, George Martinez, eyes on the floor he was cleaning, said, “I don’t think it’s too bad though. It could stay in the carpet. I’ll clean this with cleanser when you’re finished.”

Now it was Sara’s turn to let her shoulders drop.

She’d gotten away with it. One swallow of leftover Communion wine. It was no big deal after all.

Yeah, the voice prodded. You could probably do this every week?

I probably could—NO!

Weakling.

Help me, God, I am weak.

After George helped her with the cups and chalice, Sara took the bucket and left through a hall door to the church’s interior cellar door. It was chilly in the basement, but not as bad as it will be when winter hits. The smell from the bucket made Sara sick. It was a mixture of wine and grape juice, but no thoughts tempted her to drink from the bucket.

The voice went on vacation until next Sunday.

Putting the bucket on the floor near the outer cellar doors, the kind that angled sharply against the side of the church and opened ‘up’ from the inside, Sara crossed to a folding chair where her corduroy jacket lay. She pulled on the jacket and her knit cap, then returned to the bucket.

It was common Christian practice to dispose of the leftover Communion wine by spilling it into hallowed ground rather than dump it down the sink. The sink in the sacristy was only used for rinsing and emergencies. Sometimes nervous bridegrooms washed their faces in it. The pastor and the acolytes washed before Communion there as well. The chalice itself was washed in the kitchen in the corner of the basement. The communal shot glasses were disposed of. There were cases of them in the supply room. The hallowed ground used by the Communion staff was a small thorny rose bush at the edge of the woods, probably 60 yards from the cellar doors.

Sara reached up and put her hand on the cellar door, and froze.

What if he’s out there?

“I’m tired of seeing you in this town,” the man had said. “I should just make sure I never see you again.”

It sure sounded like a death threat, but there wasn’t much Sara could do. No one would miss her, and she doubted Charles Wheat would be charged with her murder.

Sara imagined herself climbing the stairs of the cellar, stepping out into the crisp fall morning, and taking a cold knife across her throat.

She let go of the door handle and went down for the bucket. She placed it on the step next to her then turned her attention back to the handle.

Sara whispered with her eyes closed, “If this is your will, God, please let it be fast.”

She pushed the door up and open. It crashed to the side with a loud wooden clatter.

Before lifting the bucket and carrying it out to the bush, Sara looked around. On this side of St. Matthew’s was a wide field. The church’s picnic and outdoor service pavilion areas were on the other side. A tool shed with lawn and snow-removal equipment huddled to the rear of the church, beyond which a cemetery stretched up a short hill. In the autumn the tombstones looked ominous and reminded Sara of scary Halloween stories.

There were no swings, pavilions, trash barrels, or merry-go-rounds on this side of the church where she could hide, but that also meant there were no places for someone to jump out and attack her.

Still. It was a long walk.

“Just get it over with, Sara,” she prodded herself. She lifted the bucket and climbed out of the cellar.

Her speed-walk to the bloomless rose bush was accented with the shush-skitter-crunch of leaves under her feet. It was not yet cold enough for her to see her own breath, but she felt it, burning her throat with sour wine taste and hot with fear.

She reached the bush and stopped. She looked back over her shoulder. St. Matthew’s was a picture postcard image against the changing trees beyond it. Tucked back within the small cluster of maples known as Stillson’s Woods, the church was tiny but majestic. It’s belfry was a square atop the simple roof line, capped with a tall pyramid and cross. The rest of the building was a simple white rectangle with 8-foot stain glass windows on either side. The front steps ascended to plain double doors with crosses on each. It was, in essence and especially on Sundays, the epitome of a simple little country church replete with ‘little red schoolhouse’ charm.

Sara crouched and poured the bucket’s contents at the base of the bush, then turned and quickly walked back to the open cellar door.

With each step she could swear she heard steps behind her, coming quickly from the treeline, matching her movements, but each time she glanced over her shoulder she saw that she was still alone.

When she reached the cellar door, Sara practically threw herself down the steps. Slamming the door closed behind her she slid the bolt shut and collapsed on the steps.

Face buried in her hands she took a deep shuddering breath.

And cried.

***

The teenager flipped open the cell phone and hit the speed dial he’d just programmed in a couple hours ago.

A man answered after one ring. “What?”

The kid leaned against a tree where he stood watching the woman come out, dump the wine, and return to the church. He said, “This chick. Is she kinda short, nice body, long brown hair, kinda big nose, doesn’t wear makeup?”

“I told you that.”

“Just checkin’.”

“Okay, Mr. Just Chicken, do you know who she is now?”

The guy’s tone irritated the kid. Sure he was being paid a lot of money for what he was going to do, but the boss didn’t have to give him such a hard time. “I know, I know. Jeez.”

“Just get it done.”

The teenager answered, “No problem, Mr. Wheat,” but the boss had already hung up.

The angel drifts closer to the soul and envelopes it with its glowing wings. The soul croons in the light of the angel as it is swept up, closer still to the presence of God, pulled closer The Choir of angels who join in the song with perfect melody.

The soul doesn’t know who it was on earth, has no memories of its life at all. It doesn’t know if it was a man or a woman, old or young, single, married, rich or famous. The soul has no feelings for past loved ones. It doesn’t know what its favorite food was, what kind of music it liked, or if it had a favorite TV show. The soul doesn’t know how long it has been in the company of God. It isn’t even aware of the universe outside the existence of God.

The nameless soul only knows that God loves it, the angels care for it, and that Paradise is a place of unequaled love and affection. That’s all that matters. And, since time has nomeaning in Heaven, that’s all that has ever mattered.

For a time the soul lays back and gazes heavenward into the fleets of glowing winged beings who guard it looping and swirling like a living dance of light that twirls and folds in upon itself with the music they create. The angels are soft, but they can also be hard. Their music is the lyrical smile of God, but their wings beat with the pulse of warriors sworn to protect Creation.

The soul knows some of the angels by name because they have sung to it in meditation. Each has a different voice, a different tone of God. But together they harmonize in utter perfection and total beauty.

Glenine is the name of the angel who cradles the soul. She sings sweetly and warmly, a song about His Love and how he watched over the soul its whole life. Glenine is magically beautiful with golden hair billowing out from a halo of light so brilliant that the soul can’t make out her face. The angel’s embrace is warm, sisterly, motherly; as they all are. She is so soft and warm. Her body vibrates as she sings. It sooths the soul like a mother’s voice sooths a baby in the womb.

Glenine sings, “This is wonderful, child, is it not?”

The soul responds, “It is a wondrous!”

“Are you enjoying His light, child?”

“I am, Glenine, thank you. Praise Him!”

“Fly with me to the VALLEY, come with me to watch the WAVES.”

“I will.”

“I have something new to sing to you.”

“Thank you, Glenine. I enjoy learning from you.”

“The Father believes you are ready to hear this particular song,” Glenine hums.

The soul, delighted beyond any measure within Heaven’s boundaries, flutters and glints. “The Father? For me?”

“Yes,” Glenine glows, “It is your time.”

The soul says, “I am beyond honor. Thank you.”

“I love you,” the angel sings.

“And I love you.”

“He knows,” the angel smiles. “He knows.”

***

A greater light comes from the angels through the knowledge they posses, for they are the limbs and organs, the eyes and ears, the mouth and messengers of God, whose infinite nature cannot be grasped by something as tiny as a human soul.

The soul in Glenine’s arms and wings absorbs her power. While it has been held by others: Neliah, Orphalious, Johnara, Michael, Gondriel, and Gabriel; it has never quite felt as much a part of The Choir as it does when it is with Glenine.

God’s Paradise is the original from which the earth was made. While it is a place of feeling, of light emotion and eternal love and song, it becomes more real with each touch of an angel.

Below the light flap of Glenine’s feathered wings is a vast eternity of pure fields and trees and flowers, seascapes, calm blue lakes, and the most incredible gardens ever experienced. The wonders of earth do not compare to the places built in the house of God.

Glenine says, “God wishes to give you a name, child,” as she lites upon a grassy mound overlooking an ocean sunrise as perfect as it could only be in Heaven.

The soul doesn’t question the Creator who has given it so much. It only wonders aloud, “But only the angels have names, Glenine. Is that not true?”

Glenine nods. It is true that only The Choir has names. Souls lose their names and identities when they shed their earthly bonds and join the Glory of Heaven. Their individuality absorbs into the whole just as an individual skin cell on a human body becomes part of the overall being.

When a body “dies” on earth, it immediately sends the brain into panic mode, shutting down some cells and charging up others. In an instant, before chemical decomposition takes place, the brain performs its final act. Like a built-in safety switch, receptors close down sensory neurotransmitters, effectively blinding the body to what is happening to it. All feeling ebbs away along with hearing and sight; and receptors controlling less-used neurotransmitters, like those that come alive during REM sleep and those controlling imagination, fire up in overdrive. When people report near death experiences like seeing long lost relatives, walking down a tunnel of light, or touching the garment of Jesus, they’re actually riding nature’s greatest hallucinatory drug trip. Glutamate floods the brain and puts the human being into an altered state of consciousness.

In truth, no souls wait on the other side to welcome Home the Heavenly reborn. Only God stands in the light. The visions of welcoming friends and family are really there to say good-bye. God’s final mysterious sacrament, unknown to living humans, is a doorway from what you’ve only known on earth to what was always known within your soul. The light intensifies, the feeling of love pulls and surrounds you, and the life you once knew—including your name, your family, your very life on earth—is easily traded for the greatest gift ever received: the love of God Himself.

And nothing more.

Glenine imparts this knowledge onto the soul through the whispered song, and the soul replies, “But why must we forget who we once were?”

“A child’s question.”

The soul smiles.

Glenine says, “Who you are—who you always were—is what you are now. What God loves about you … is you. No job, no amount of money, no number of offspring or list of good material deeds satisfies His holy wishes. He only wants your love and obedience, child. That, and nothing more.”

“But at one time I DID have an earthly mother and father? At one time I had earthly friends?”

“Yes.”

“When I receive my name, will I know about them?”

Glenine smiles down at the soul, strokes its innocent life. “Dear child, such knowledge could only bring you pain. And pain does not exist here.”

“Why would there be pain?”

Glenine sighs. Even her sigh is a song, a melody of breath. She says, “Not everyone comes to His love, child.”

The soul ponders that for a millisecond before realizing the truth. It is possible—likely or not—that those it once loved in its earthly existence had not loved God as it had. It is possible their souls were–

“Lost,” Glenine frowns briefly, “Yes, child.”

“I see.”

“It would do you no good to learn that those your soul touched on earth were not worthy of God’s light.”

The soul ponders again, then asks, “Then what does it mean that I will be given a name?”

The angel laughed. “It means that you have been chosen to answer a prayer.”

“A prayer, Glenine?”

“The Father needs you to answer a prayer for Him. A prayer that can only be answered from the place where it all began.”

“Does that mean–?”

“Yes. You will be returning to earth.”

Glenine hummed a sweet tune, kissed the soul’s forehead, then named him.

“John.”

***

There was much for John to learn before his embodiment. He had already learned of the final sacrament, of what was left behind and what may have been lost. Now it was time for him to learn of Lucifer, of The Fallen, and of Satan’s presence on earth.

“Angels on earth, Glenine?” He asked.

“Fallen angels,” she corrected. “And Fallen angels whose influence can be FELT on earth. They are forbidden to touch His soil.”

“I see.”

“But what you must learn is that the Fallen can still touch the hearts of man. Their influence is as brilliant as the light Lucifer once wielded. And that influence can be made strong enough to bring an even stronger presence of evil to the firmament.”

An agreement, of sorts, exists between the hosts of Heaven and the denizens of hell. As John listens to his lesson with rapt attention, Glenine explains the common misconception held on earth regarding the Fallen and their leader.

Lucifer is not “the” devil. Nor is he Satan.

Lucifer, sadly enough, cast himself out of Heaven along with the Fallen. He wanders somewhere. No one really knows where, only that he is no longer God’s bringer of light. Satan, it is said, hunts Lucifer for sport. Others believe the former “brightest angel” to be a lieutenant of Satan. Only God knows.

Glenine explains to John that God’s Word, the Bible’s original testament, never mentions fallen—or evil—angels. The book of Isaiah mentions “thou fallen from heaven,” and “O Lucifer,” but there is no direct connection other than that taken through centuries of translation.

“Mastema is the one whose jealousy, whose knowledge of good and evil, brought upon the rebellion,” Glenine says.

“Mastema?” John says, “I have not heard that angel’s name.”

“Mastema was the leader of the cherubim, those charged with keeping His knowledge.” Glenine explains that the cherubim are God’s guardians of Paradise, the angels God sent to guard the gates of Eden when Adam and Eve were cast out. They’re the ones who planted the Tree of Knowledge.

Mastema was the boldest singer among them, but he winced with jealousy at God’s every breath of love HE perceived as cast to everyone but he. He turned on God and challenged the throne of Heaven.

“Then Mastema is Satan?” John guesses.

“Mastema was called satan, a word meaning ‘adversary’ in Hebrew,” Glenine explains, “That name stuck with Mastema upon his fall and now all who know him—even on earth—call him Satan.” He fell, she says, and took some of his cherubim with him.

John looks out over the heavenly sea, feels the roar of the surf and breathes the scented air. After a moment, he looks up at Glenine who is also looking out over the sea. Her long lovely hair floats on the breeze and her blue eyes glimmer with tears.

Surprised, John says, “You mourn him?”

Glenine looks down at the soul and hugs him. “We all do, child, but not in a way you might understand. Like all of God’s creation, this too was part of His plan.”

“Then what part shall I play now that I’ve been named?”

The angel brightens. “When this prayer is answered, you will elevate to be among the cherubim.”

“Me?” John gasps, “An angel?”

“One of his chosen. Yes.”

“And the one whose prayer I am to answer; how will I know them.”

“The spirit will guide you, John.”

“Will you be with me, Glenine?”

“Most assuredly. Most assuredly.”

Sara stood in the kitchen area of the church basement staring toward the locked cellar doors like a frightened teenager in a horror movie just waiting for the creature to burst through.

Her heart pounded so hard her ears were ringing. She hadn’t even put down her jacket.

You need a drink, the voice said.

No.

Forcing herself to take a deep shuddering breath, Sara left the kitchen and walked down a small maintenance hall past the church’s boiler room to the small storage alcove that had been her home for the past twelve years. Pastor Green was really the only person who knew she lived here, unless he had told his wife, and the pity was not lost on Sara. She had lost her home, her car, her job, her fiancé. All she had left in life was the community service she performed and the work she did for the church so she could live in the basement rent free.

It was the pastor’s idea to keep their arrangement a secret. The reason was as simple as the law. The church grounds were not zoned as a living space. Though the church existed tax-free, there were still regulations and rules to be considered. Insurance, for example.

The deal was a simple one. “Sara, you may make this your home so long as you don’t have company, don’t do anything to upset the order of the storage area or kitchen, don’t cook between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 p.m., don’t play music or television, and don’t tell anyone else about our arrangement.”

The pastor finished with, “And of course I’ll expect you to honor the guidelines of your parole and that you check in regularly with your AA buddy—or whatever they’re called.”

“Sponsor, sir.”

“That’s it. Sponsor. . . . Are we clear?”

“Thank you so much Pastor Green. You’re a lifesaver.”

“Jesus is your life saver, Sara Dawn. Don’t ever forget that. Besides,” he added over his shoulder as he turned to leave her to her new ‘apartment,’ “In addition to your regular Communion duties I’ll also want you to clean the kitchen and the bathrooms, keep the paperwork on supplies for Mrs. Maypen, shovel the snow in the winter and trim the hedges in the spring and summer.”

“Yes, sir.”

Before the door closed behind him, Pastor Green called, “You don’t have to cut the grass. That’s George’s job—though you can pick it up if he doesn’t show.”

It’s hard to believe that was over a decade ago. The same people were still in the congregation. A few passed on, others stopped coming, a few new ones started, but for the most part it all stayed the same. Pastor Green’s hairline receded and thinned, George Martinez grew that mustache, and Mrs. Maypen in the church office had to start using a walker to get around after moving in with her daughter when Stanley Maypen died.

Sara sat on the cot that served as her bed and couch after dropping her jacket and hat on a pile of boxes. She leaned back against the wall and flicked on the light on her milk carton nightstand and lifted her Bible. She opened it to where she had left off. Matthew, Chapter 3.

“Sara? Are you down here?”

She gasped. She was so keyed up about the death threat she had forgotten George Martinez stayed late to clean up. “Coming!”

Sara quickly snapped off her light and stepped out of the storeroom pulling the door closed behind her. She met George in the kitchen as he plodded down the stairs.

“Bucket taken care of?”

She pointed to the kitchen sink. “I just need to wash it.”

Martinez nodded, then looked at her with a little more concentration than was necessary, like he was suspicious of something. “Are you okay? You look like you seen a ghost or something.”

Sara shrugged. “No. I’m fine.”

“You sure? Maybe I spooked you too much in the sacristy, huh?”

Her smile was thin. “Maybe that’s it.”

“You going home soon?” George nodded his head over his shoulder to the stairs. “You know it’s going to be too cold for you to ride your bike no more. I could give you a ride in my truck.”

“That’s okay, George. Besides, I still have dishes to do and stuff.”

“You’re sure now?”

“Yeah. Thanks.”

“Okay.” George turned to leave but stopped and half turned as he had forgotten something. He snapped his fingers for emphasis. “Oh, I almost forgot to tell you. Those vandals struck again.”

Sara’s brow wrinkled.

“You know. The sign.”

For the past couple of Sundays a letter or two had gone missing off the welcome sign. As you reach the grounds of St. Matthew’s, from the long winding drive off Route 9, there’s a lighted marquis with large slot-letters. Six years ago Sara’s job description grew to put up the new greeting message every time Elder Jessup thought of one. For the past four weeks it had been as follows:

PRAISE HIM

BEHOLD FOR I AM

THE LORD YOUR GOD

PANCAKE BREAKFAST THXSGIVNG

Pastor didn’t like the improvised spelling of Thanksgiving, but there were only so many letters in the box Sara pulled from. She told pastor they’d probably have to buy more, but he just waved it off. “Not in the budget. We’ll make do.”

Maybe that’s why his disappointment didn’t manifest in anything more than a frown and a head shake.

Then, at the end of October, letters started disappearing. At first, Mr. Jessup, Pastor Green, and George all thought a cross-draft of wind was to blame. Sara, however, stood firm. “Do you know how hard it is to pull those out once they’re in?”

George had nodded to the pastor. “She’s right.”

“Maybe an animal?”

“We might have to get some new ones after all, won’t we, Miss Dawn?”

“Yes sir.”

And that was that. But for three weeks more and more letters had gone missing, until George Martinez decided it had to be vandals.

“Funny,” Mr. Jessup had said just last week, “I would’a thought vandals would’a spellt somethin’ vulgar, ya know? Like ‘penis’.”

“Earl!”

“Well, sorry, pastor, but it’sa plain truth.”

“He may be right,” George chimed in.

Pastor’s response was the same week after week. “We’ll have to get more letters. Miss Dawn is right.”

And that was it.

Now Sara followed George back upstairs. “Show me?”

“It still doesn’t spell anything wrong. Just some is missing is all.”

From the angle of the sign, you could see the message from the front church doors as well as from the curving drive coming up to the parking lot.

The sign now read:

_R____ HIM

B_HO_D FOR I AM

_HE _ORD YOUR GOD

PANCAK_ BR__KFA__ T_XSGIVNG

George harrumphed. “They left your X.”

“That they did.”

“And God.”

Sara found herself craning her neck to study the tree line and the high fence around the pastor’s house on the far side of the wide parking lot. She expected a gunman to pop up at any moment and satisfy the threat that haunted her.

“What do you think?” George asked, pulling the door shut.

Sara stood hugging herself, apparently from the brisk autumn air. George didn’t know it was for fear of her life. “I-I don’t know.”

“You don’t? I thought you liked puzzles. Remember that puzzle book me and Mrs. M gave you last Christmas?”

Sara remembered. She never used it. She hoped George wasn’t about to ask to see it. “Yup. I remember.” Then she added quickly, “Maybe they’re not trying to say anything with what’s left. Maybe they’re trying to spell something somewhere else with what they have.”

“Could be,” George nodded. “Well, hey, I better let you go so you can get out of here before it gets dark.”

“Thanks, Mr. Martinez.”

“George.”

“Thanks, George. And thanks for helping me in the sacristy.”

“No problem.” He pushed open the door but paused again. He narrowed his eyes at Sara. “You know, Sara, you are invited over to mine and Mrs. Martinez’s house any time you like—for dinner. You can meet our son, Carlos. He’s just home from the Army.”

Sara was staring past him, outside into the wilderness of the parking lot. Soon his car, the last car, would be gone.

“Any time,” he repeated.

Sara nodded, forced a nervous smile. “I’d like that.”

The church door closed with a boom. Sara slid the bolt shut and quickly made her way back downstairs to her own personal sanctuary below the sanctuary.

***

Five minutes after George Martinez’s white Volvo rattled down the curved road to Route 9, a motorcycle rumbled to life behind the church’s tool shed. The rider, a teenager with a new cell phone, drove past the pavilion, the church, and the vandalized sign without looking back.

He had all he needed to know.

Ten minutes after THAT a lone figure emerged from the woods, walked up to the sign, and pried out the letter P from what was left of PANCAKE.

The shadow tucked the letter into a deep, ratty trench coat pocket, and walked away.

On Monday Sara Dawn answered the church office extension in the basement kitchen. Mrs. Maypen wasn’t due for another hour, but pastor told Sara to answer the phone any time Mrs. Maypen wasn’t there to do it. That particular element was added to her job description 8 years ago.

“St. Matthew’s church, this is Sara, how may I help you?”

A static-laced silence followed and Sara—who hadn’t slept all night—was suddenly reminded of the death threat as a cold hand gripped her spine.

“Hello?” That’s it, she thought. I’m hanging up.

“Hello? Sara?” It was Mrs. Maypen’s voice. A little more scratchy than normal, but a voice Sara recognized as she breathed a sigh of relief.

“Oh, Mrs. Maypen. Is everything all right?”

“Not so much, dear. It’s my Stanley.”

“Oh, gosh, is he ok”—

“He’s fine, my dear,” Mrs. Maypen gargled out. Then she coughed and her voice cleared slightly. “It seems he’s come down with a flu bug or something. I’m afraid I’ll have to stay home and take”—

“That’s okay, Mrs. May”—

“He’s such a fragile, old coot, ya know. Not at all like me.”

“That’s okay. I’ll be sure”—

“Now you, on the other hand. Such a lovely young lady.”

“Why thank you. Don’t worry, Mrs. Mayp”—

“I don’t know why you never found a man.”

“Thank you. Look, I’ll be fine”—

“Anyway, Stanley’s very sick.” Mrs. Maypen stopped long enough to get out a series of racking coughs. Sara heard the muffled squish of phlegm gagged into a handkerchief.

To cover the sound, and to get out her side of the conversation, Sara said quickly, “Everything will be fine here, Mrs. Maypen. I’ll take care of the office for you today. You just stay home and take care of Stanley.”

To which Mrs. Maypen finally answered, “I can’t come in today, deary. It’s my Stanley. Got the flu. I’d appreciate if you could cover the office for me today, sweetie.”

Sara paused. When no further comments began, she managed, “I’ll take care of the papers, Mrs. Maypen. No problem.”

“Thank you, deary.” The old woman coughed again. Then maybe sneezed, Sara couldn’t be sure. “It’s my Stanley.”

“Yes Ma’am.”

“You take care, deary.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Maypen. I hope you—I hope Stanley feels better.”

“Yup.” CLICK.

Sara hung up the phone and sighed. Mrs. Maypen was such a sweat old lady. She dedicated her life to this church, had been coming here since she was eight years old when the church was first built back in 1926. Homer, Indiana wasn’t even a town back then, just a little mill village in west central Indiana with a dozen houses, two general stores, a church, a junkyard, and a saw mill squatting on the Lyle River. The boom hit just before World War II when the railroad was put in and the metal works—now the American Can Company—was built. Hundreds poured into Homer and the neighboring Gates. Schools were built in place of the old 1-room schoolhouse. Farms grew from single family affairs to corporate industries, insuring the town would always be, at least for Mrs. Maypen’s life, an oasis surrounded by corn and bean fields.

Sara returned to her store room and opened the trunk that held her clothes. She picked out a white sweater and jeans, then turned to the cardboard box that held her delicates and pulled out a rumpled bra and panties. Snatching the towel off the hook on the back of the door, she padded barefoot to the kitchen, double-checked the locks on the cellar and basement hall doors, then stripped to her skin.

Washing in the sink, as she’d done for the past twelve years, Sara hummed her favorite hymn from yesterday’s services. This week it was “Seek Where Ye May to Find a Way.”

When she finished, she toweled off, got dressed, cleaned up the water on the floor and the soap around the sink, then returned her shampoo and soap to the Tupperware box under the sink behind the cleaning supplies.

Normally, when Mrs. Maypen came in, Sara would take a bike ride into town and enjoy some time alone in the book store, or at the movies. Despite the trade of living space for service, pastor was gracious enough to pay Sara $100 per week for “sundries.” She had just a little over $622 in a shoebox under her cot. There would be more, but a lot of it was lost . . . .

Drinking.

Not all of it. A great deal more, especially over the past few years, was handed out to homeless people who hung out under the Lyle Bridge. Many had formed their own religion around a “day of darkness,” whatever that was—crazy talk, Sara figured. But they were nice enough. She often gave them a few dollars and said, “For dollar menus, not for dollar wine. Don’t end up like me, ‘kay?” They would laugh, bless her, then she’d ride off on her bicycle back through town past the old abandoned psychic parlor on Route 9, around Trinity Church, down Main Street, Homer Field Sports Complex, around Veteran’s Square, then back to Route 9 on the far end and the winding road to St. Matthew’s.

But today felt too cold for a bike ride. Plus, there was The Threat.

“I’m not leaving until that goes away,” Sara muttered at the door to the main floor, and returned to her cot where she planned to read her Bible until she fell asleep. Maybe later she’d go up and dust the pews or something constructive. She didn’t want to worry about the paperwork she would have to do for Mrs. Maypen until later this afternoon.

Stretching out on her cot she reached for her Bible, then noticed the bright red and yellow spine of the puzzle book Mr. and Mrs. Martinez had given her last Christmas. Prying the book out from under a box of stationery, then plucking a nubby pencil from the small shelf at the foot of her cot, she settled in for a morning of puzzle-solving.

She fell asleep half way through the first Sudoku.

***

The teenager’s name was Coyote Wilcox.

A lot of people thought that was a nickname. Only a few people—his parents included—knew it to be his birth name. His friends all thought it was cool. A few of the girls had taken to calling him “Coy” for short. He hated that—except when Terri Berkett said it. She was cute.

Kinda like that Sara Dawn chick from the church. But, from what Coyote had seen, that Sara chick was kind of whacko. And she was old. Like in her thirties or something.

Well, she would be a whacko, wouldn’t she . . . ? Bein’ a Satanist and all.

Coyote Wilcox was known throughout Homer as the most gullible, idiotic, dumbest . . . , strongest, most usable, easiest to bribe, and cheapest 18-year old this side of Indianapolis.

He dropped out of high school his senior year, one week shy of graduation, with a B+ average because somebody told him he would be drafted into the Marines as soon as he left commencement. He hid out in Palley’s Woods for a week before returning home and getting verbally battered by his parents.

His argument: “I ain’t going to college because that’s how you get stuck with jury duty and they put implants in your brain.”

“Where in God’s name did you get THAT crazy-ass idea!?” His father had bellowed.

“Billy Laird said so. He saw it on Discovery.”

“You gonna believe everything that crazy-ass Laird kid tells you?” Crazy-ass was Alias Wilcox’s favorite phrase when he was angry with his son.

That and:

“You’re a dumbass.”

“Go to your room!” his mother had shouted. So, Coyote went to his room . . . and out the window.

Coyote was gone from home most of the time after the “School Wars.” He got steady work at the Meyer’s Graveyard as a digger, at the Onco as a bagger, and at the Gazette as a runner. He had enough cash for anything and everything, though he didn’t spend a dime of it on the easiest homeless dropout trappings: booze, smokes, or dope.

“That’s how the government monitors people. That, and twenty-dollar bills.”

He saved up enough for a used motorcycle, a pay-as-you-go cell phone, and a .45 automatic with a full clip from some kid behind the Onco last summer. The kid was a sophomore he recognized from high school (he was a freshman when Coyote dropped). He was as pale as a frog’s belly with a narrow nose and red freckles to match his hair.

But he talked like one of those black kids on a cop show and wore his pants half-way down his butt.

“You gonna need that fo’ self d’fence,” the glazed-eyed kid said as he jabbed it at Coyote.

“I don’t need a gun. I could kick your ass with one arm tied behind my back.” Which might have been true if not for—

The punk cocked the hammer and pointed the weapon at Coyote’s throat. “You buy it, sumbitch, o’ I gonna blow yo’ face off wit’it.”

Coyote reached into his letterman jacket for his wallet, expecting the younger kid to grab it and run. But the kid just watched, and sniffed, as Coyote retrieved the only cash he had at the time. A five.

Grinning wickedly, the kid snatched the bill, dropped the gun, and sprinted down the alley in a flash. “You could’ve just robbed me, crazy-ass!” Coyote shouted as he lifted the gun and hid it behind the Onco garbage bins.

It was still there a week later, so Coyote took it before another kid found it and used it to shoot someone.

That’s how Coyote Wilcox got the .45 he now had tucked in the back of his pants under his letterman jacket. He stepped into the bookstore and wandered over toward the magazines. He hovered in the Bass Fishing section and waited for the cue.

Mr. Wheat appeared moments later and lifted a Bow Hunter magazine. “Cold outside?”

“Yeah,” Coyote answered on cue. “Colder by the lake.”

“Ever fish in Lake Michigan?”

Forgetting his next line, Coyote just said, “I’ll be ‘round back, Mr. Wheat. We can talk there.”

Then the teenage hitman left the bookstore.

Followed by his latest boss—and half of the $2,000 he would get for killin’ the Satanic chick.

“The book store” was the Homer equivalent of a Borders or Barnes & Noble. It contained a huge selection of books, plus DVDs and CDs, an extensive magazine selection, and a coffee bar. Of course Homer being such a small town, and more of the beer and pizza kind of place than the coffee and Kafka kind, it took three business owners to form it. Six years ago the Catholic Books storeowner took a meeting with the Final Vinyl owner next door. A year later they were meeting with the lady who owned Hole In One Donuts on the outskirts of town near the old golf course which flooded so much every spring they finally closed it off and allowed the locals to playfully rename it, Eighteen Hole Swamp.

Catholic Books became Any Books, Vinyl faded into CDs and VCRs—then DVDs, and Hole In One’s donuts became biscotti, mini-crullers, crumb cakes, lemon squares, pretzels and peanuts. When the owners, Barce, Pellick, and Nobulowski, re-named the new establishment, “Barce & Nobuls” they had no idea how popular they’d become. The little town’s one source for entertainment outside the pool hall, a half dozen bars, and the Kiddie Land across Route 9 by the park, became THE place for aging baby boomers and retired truckers, and the latest generation of pretentious college kids from Gates Community College ten miles away.

In keeping with the façade of its larger B&N counterpart, the building housing the three businesses was a wide converted section of strip mall tucked between a mattress store and the Homer Theatre. Narrow passages on either side of the building allowed access to the alley. The alley, filled with dumpsters, empty cardboard boxes, and the odd stray cat, was just wide enough for garbage pick-up. Behind Barce & Nobuls, instead of the rear view of another business, stood a twelve-foot cinderblock security wall spray-painted with various epitaphs, gang symbols (well, what passed as gang symbols considering the only “gang” was a group of punks from Gates who bought and smoked more dope than they sold), and the odd paint-drooling claims of “RYAN LOVES PATTY” or “RYAN’S GAY.”

This was the setting for Coyote’s meeting with Mr. Wheat. This is where they would discuss the finer points of ending another human’s life.

“Don’t ever do that, you dipshit,” Mr. Wheat berated. The man had sand colored hair that was silver on the ends. Several layers of bags and lines under his puffy pink eyes made him look older than he probably was. His eyebrows, nose, and ears were all in dire need of trimming, and his thin lips parted to form a snarl of coffee-stained teeth.

He wasn’t really dressed for this meeting. In a navy blue windbreaker, beige sweater vest and tie, tan Dockers and brown loafers, Mr. Wheat looked more like a college professor ticked off about a student’s poor performance than a man bent on murder.

“Do what!?” Coyote shouted back. The 18 year-old was almost a full head taller than Mr. Wheat and built like a linebacker. The kid wore his omnipresent letterman jacket, ripped jeans and Converse All-Stars (one red, one purple). He took his hands out of his pockets and thrust them toward the steamrolling Mr. Wheat with the intention of pushing the charging man back, but Wheat stopped out of reach.

“Don’t ever blow my cover like that again.”

“Look, Mr. Wheat”—

“Don’t use my name in public!” Mr. Wheat shouted, glancing around at the painted wall and equally painted rear of Barce & Nobuls.

Coyote took a deep breath and yelled, “MISTER WHEAT!” at the sky. “MISTER WHEAT, MISTER WHEAT, MISTER WHEAT!”

“SHUT UP!” the older man screamed and shoved at the kid with all his might.

Coyote barely teetered, but when he pushed back Mr. Wheat windmilled his arms and stumbled back against a chain link fence that guarded the B&N’s garbage.

Wheat regained his composure, brushed himself off, and attempted to swallow his pride. “I don’t need you, you little snot.” Then he turned for the passage back to the front parking lot.

“No, wait,” Coyote called. “I’m sorry, Mr. Wheat. Come on.”

Wheat took three more steps.

“Besides, I really REALLY need the money—and don’t you want to rid the world of Satan?”

The old man stopped. With his back to Coyote, the teenager didn’t see the laugh he worked at stifling. He turned back to the kid with a mock expression of dread on his face. “You really believe that, don’t you, Mr. Wilcox?”

The kid smirked crookedly. “Coyote. Might as well be on a first name basis, huh?”

Mr. Wheat slowly nodded. “Let’s just stick with ‘Mr. Wheat’ for me, okay?”

“Yessir.”

“Ever do this before, Coyote?”

“No sir. I mean,” Coyote shrugged, “I don’t know.”

“What don’t you know, son?”

“Don’t call me that.”

“Okay . . . . What don’t you know, Coyote?”

“Well, she’s still a person, ain’t she? I mean won’t I go to prison? Nobody will believe I heard voices from the dog like Son of Sam or that I was just a whack job like one of Manson’s followers, will they? I mean Jeffrey Dalmer didn’t get away with it and he ATE all those guys. I don’t want to be beat to death with a broomstick in the joint. And what about Ted Bundy? That guy was a smart lawyer and he couldn’t get off.”

It kind surprised Wheat that Coyote had a grasp of history as particular as the modus and corpus of serial killers. This kid was an odd mixture of completely stupid and savagely smart. What a waste of brain. It intrigued him and confused him at the same time.

“Let me ask you something, Coyote.”

“Shoot.”

“What’s the tallest building in the world?”

Coyote’s face scrunched up. He didn’t understand the question, but maybe he thought this was some kind of test to see if he’d actually get the job. “Well, the Sears Tower in Chicago is the tallest building, but there are twin towers in Malaysia—in Kuala Lumpur, I think—that are bigger. They’re just not technically buildings. They’re like towers or something.”

“What do you know about the Civil War?”

“Why? . . . Um, just what I learned in school.”

“What two countries fought in the Civil War?”

“America fought against itself in the Civil War, Mr. Wheat. That’s the definition of a CIVIL War. Everyone who fought and died in the war were Americans—over 600,000 of them.”

“When was that?”

“The American Civil War began in 1861 and ended in 1865,” Coyote answered obediently as if responding to an oral examination in class.

“How many senators are there in government?”

“What’s that got to do with the Civil War?”

“I just want to make sure you can think fast, kid. How many?”

“Two from each state.”

“So that’s 200, right?”

“Fifty states. One hundred senators.”

“What’s the chemical symbol for gold?”

“Au.”

“Helium?”

“He.”

“Table salt?”

“NaCl. Sodium chloride.”

“What two colors combine to make green?”

“Yellow and blue.”

“Start counting using only prime numbers.”

“2, 3, 5, 7, um 11, 13, and um”—

“What language did you study in high school?”

“French.”

“How do you say, ‘May I please have the butter?’”

“S’il vous plaît, peux j’avoir du beurre?”

“What’s 300 plus 563 minus 862?”

“Um . . . , one.”

“Who killed Lee Harvey Oswald?”

“Jack Ruby.”

“Who killed John F. Kennedy?”

“Lee Harvey Oswald.”

Mr. Wheat stopped and looked at Coyote with a puzzled expression.

The kid shifted his feet before rolling his eyes, “Well, ALLEGEDLY. I think it was the CIA and the mafia.”

“Do you believe in Santa Claus?”

“Not since I was 8.”

Wheat folded his arms across his chest. “Do you believe in aliens and bigfoot?”

Coyote considered this. “Sure, dude. There was this guy who got abducted once. They put a probe up his”—

“Where do UFOs come from?”

“Earth.”

Mr. Wheat wrinkled his brow with a question.

“The North Pole. There’s a government-controlled hatch up there that the aliens use when they pilot their ships from their planet to the center of our planet. That’s where they live.”

“Is Elvis dead?”

Coyote shook his head and laughed as if the answer weren’t so obvious and the easiest test Mr. Wheat had given him thus far. “Yeah, dude.”

“Well, Coyote, I think”—

“He died in 1999 when Adolf Hitler killed him. They were running a Denny’s in Brazil where they’d both been hiding out.”

Wheat cringed like he just swallowed something sour.

“Everybody knows that,” Coyote shrugged. “It was on Discovery.”

Wheat asked, “Where is hell?”

Coyote looked around, suddenly nervous. “Why’d you ask that?”

Now it was Wheat’s turn to shrug. “Hey, I’m on your side. Just curious what you think—considering what we’re dealing with.”

The kid grinned. “Yeah. I getcha. Well”—He paused and looked around again before stepping closer to his employer. “I think THIS is hell.”

“You do?”

“Yeah. Don’t you?”

“Why do you think THIS is hell?”

“C’mon, man. You live here. Pain, suffering, war, famine, SERIAL KILLERS.”

“Then what does that make Sara Dawn?”

“You said she was evil.”

“She is. Do you remember what I told you about her when we met at the park?”

Coyote folded his arms and puffed out his chest. “You said she was a drunk and she uses her body to get guys to do things.”

“And?”

“Well, a lot of guys I know—like Billy Laird—they’d think that was cool. Not me.” Coyote proudly jutted his chin. “That makes her a succubus. I’m immune to those temptations—but I ain’t gay.”

“She’s a demon?”

“Yeah. Like that.”

“You believe that?”

Coyote leaned close and whispered in Wheat’s face. Wheat caught the scent of beef jerky and Coca-Cola. The kid said, “As sure as we’re standing in hell right now.”

Wheat stopped and stepped back, looked around to make sure no one was eavesdropping behind a trash bin or around a corner. Then he said in a hushed voice, “You look nervous, Coyote.”

“Yeah. Kinda.”

“Don’t you think you can do this? If you can’t, I’ll find someone who can.”

Coyote lurched over to a stack of cinderblocks covered with a moldy tarp. He sat down and looked at Wheat eye-to-eye. “It’s not that I don’t want to kill her. I’d do that, but I don’t know”—

“Oh, my God.” Wheat’s eyes were wide. “Did you say KILL her?”

“Isn’t that what you”—

“No!”—

“Jeez, I thought you”—

“NO! Hell, no. I just need you to”—Wheat lowered his voice to a whisper again—“I just need you to make her life a little more . . . difficult.”

“Difficult?” The kid stood again and thrust his hands in his pocket. “I don’t get it.”

“I don’t want YOU to kill her. I want HER to kill HERSELF.”

“That sounds kinda tough, Mr. Wheat. How do I do that?”

Mr. Wheat smiled broadly and almost laughed. He was loving this. “We’ll talk about that. I have a few ideas.”

“Cool.”

Mr. Wheat extended his hand. “You’re officially hired.”

Coyote shook his hand. “Just pay me and tell me what has to be done. And Praise God.”

“Praise God,” Wheat snickered.

Sara Dawn woke to the sound of her own snores some time around 1:30 in the afternoon. Gasping, rubbing her eyes, pulling her sweater straight, she stumbled to her feet and made her way through the basement kitchen to the stairs to the church’s main floor.

Upstairs, fixing her hair and rubbing her arms against the chill (pastor kept the heat to a minimum when services were not being held), Sara made her way to the church office, circled the desk outside the pastor’s office, bumped her hip on the copier—“Ow!”—and sat in Mrs. Maypen’s wide wooden chair.

Sara tapped the answering machine button. As long as the machines worked, or Mrs. Maypen could take a message, Pastor Green wasn’t about to invest in voice mail.

“You. Have. Three. Messages.”

“BEEP: Ellen, this is Pastor Green. Please check my calendar for next week and let me know if that’s the Sunday for the Ekhart boy’s baptism, or if it’s the week after.”

Sara grabbed the pastor’s calendar book and thumbed through it as the machine played on.

“BEEP: Ellen, this is pastor again. Are you in the office today? Call me at home.” Then, his voice trailing off as he hung up, “Isn’t Sara supposed to answer the phone if”—

Sara sighed, glanced at the clock.

“BEEP: This message is for Pastor Steven Green. Pastor, my name is John. I’m new in town and saw your little church from the road. It so happens that I’m a Christian and would be interested in joining your little congregation. I’m afraid I don’t have a number where you can return my call. I’ll try back another day.”

“End. Of. Messages.”

Sara picked up the phone and hurriedly dialed pastor’s home number while crossing her fingers that she could excuse both Ellen Maypen and herself. She craned her neck to stare at pastor’s house through the window to his office and the window behind his desk. She could barely make out what she imagined was his kitchen window. She pictured him rushing to the phone, his face red all the way up his receding hairline, the vein standing out on his head. Pastor Green never yelled, but he sure had a way to make her feel . . . punished.

The phone picked up after two rings. “Hello? Green residence.”

Sara breathed a sigh of relief. It was the pastor’s wife. She had a reprieve.

“Mrs. Green? This is Sara Dawn. At the church?”

“Oh, hi, Sara. Would you like to talk to pastor? He was just”—

In the background, the voice Sara dreaded, “—ive me the phone.” Then, louder, “Sara? Have you been gone? Where is Mrs. Maypen?”

“I’m sorry, pastor. I didn’t get to the phone in time, and Mrs. Maypen called and said she can’t come in because her husband is ill.”

Soft static hushed across the church grounds from the little house across the way.

“Pastor Green?”

“Do you need me to come over, child?”

Sara swallowed hard. “No, sir. Everything’s fine.”

“You didn’t answer the phone when I called. Twice.”

“I’m sorry, pastor. I must not have heard the phone. I-I was cleaning the bathroom downstairs. The water was running and”—

“That’s okay, Sara. I can come over. It’s no problem.”

“No, that’s okay. I’m fine. I’m at Mrs. Maypen’s desk right now.”

Pastor Green seemed to relax a bit. The tension and suspicion in his voice faded and he took a deep breath before asking Sara to recite what was in his calendar for the next couple of weeks. She told him about the Ekhart boy’s baptism and about the potential new member, John, though she lied and said she talked to him in person. She didn’t want to get the pastor fired up again by telling him she had missed THREE calls.

“He didn’t leave a number?”

“No. Sorry. He hung up before I could get it. He said he only wanted to talk to you.”

Pastor Green finished with, “They’re playing ‘The Nativity’ in Gates. I’m taking Kelly to see it tonight. Julie Petular is coming over to watch Tracy.”

Sara didn’t know if the pastor was waiting for approval, acknowledgement, or a challenge. She simply answered, “Yes sir?”

“Are you SURE you don’t need anything? We’ll be gone for awhile.”

“I’m sure, sir.”

“All right then. I’ll see you Wednesday.”

“Enjoy the show.”

“Thank you.” Click.

Sara hung up. She pushed the ERASE button on the answering machine destroying all evidence of her lie. Within the hour she would forget about John’s message as well as pastor’s frustration.

***

Sara Dawn struggled with a lot in her life. Both of her parents were lost at an early age in a horrific sight she has never shaken. The images overlay themselves with her own horrors. Every time she conflicts over a lie, over the desire to drink, every time she angers Pastor Green, she sees her parents die like it was yesterday. Somehow it both bolsters her resolve to quit drinking and lying, and it makes her want to drink even more.

The mental film of her parents’ death was a fuzzy childhood memory sharpened in parts by horror, but words that were spoken, sounds that were made, and particular visions remain tattooed in her brain. And what has hurt Sara every day for the past 26 years—besides the blame she felt for their deaths—is the unanswered question that will remain unanswered until the day she too left this earth.

Why?

***

“I’m sick of it! Sick of THIS!” Was how it started. And how it ended.

Daddy stomped out of the kitchen and past Sara as she played on the floor with her dolls and tea set. “Simon & Simon” was playing on the Zenith in the living room. Mommy was just putting away the last of the dinner dishes and enjoying a small glass of brandy. “Mommy’s tummy warmer,” she called it.

“Always GOB-DANG FLAMING drunk!” daddy yelled. But he didn’t say GOB-DANG or FLAMING. To this day, Sara’s recollection of the ice-vivid scene automatically omits the obscenities that preceded and ended the tragedy.

Sara was trying to concentrate on how handsome A.J. Simon was while keeping the peace between Mr. T the teddy bear and Miss Grumbley the Raggedy Ann doll. As her daddy stormed past, the place setting in front of Mr. T shook and the empty teacup rolled over.

“Oh, my!” Sara playfully exclaimed. “Daddy, you spilled tea on Mr. T’s foot.”

Sara took a dish rag her mommy gave her to play with as a napkin and dabbed at the dry teddy bear foot as daddy made noise in the back bedroom. “There, there, Mr. T. That will come out with Tide.”

“Sara Jane,” mommy called softly. “You should take your tea party in the back room. Daddy and mommy are going to have a discussion.”

The clatter in the back room grew louder. Thumping and crashing rumbled in the walls.

“But it takes so long to set up.”

Thud. Thud. Crash.

“Sara Jane.” Mommy’s stern look wouldn’t move Sara. Normally such a good child, so obedient, but she wouldn’t have it any more. She was tired of burying her head under her pillow while mommy and daddy had “discussions” in the kitchen.

“No.”

Thump. Boom.

“Sara.”

“No. I won’t go.” She stood and planted her tiny fists on her little hips. Maybe, she thought, if she stayed where her parents could see her, their “discussions” wouldn’t be so noisy, so long, or so mean-sounding. Maybe they’d go away. “No.”

Then the back bedroom door slammed open and daddy came stomping out with something silvery in his hand like the bumper on grandpa’s car. As daddy stomped past, he kicked over Mr. T.

“No!” Sara cried and bent over to pick up the wounded tea party guest.

That’s when the world split apart.

“WITCH!” But it wasn’t witch, was it, Sara? No.

CRACK! The boom in the kitchen was so loud it instantly made Sara cry out. The dishes rattled, a flash like yellow lightning stung the corners of her vision, and her ears screamed with a loud ringing.

Sara looked up to see her mother, framed between her father’s wide planted legs, slump back against the garbage pail, then roll to her side. Her face was all dark and wet-looking and red. And she left a messy red streak in the shape of a crescent moon against the door as she rolled over.

“Mommy!” Sara dropped Mr. T and took a couple steps toward the kitchen doorway.

Sara couldn’t quite make out daddy’s words. They were lost in the whine echoing in her ears. It seemed like he was really mad and crying really hard at the same time.

“. . . just sick of it! I FLAMING quit!” A second CRACK!—but somehow more muffled like a CRUMF!, maybe because her ears were ringing so bad—popped in the kitchen again.

Something hot and wet stung Sara’s eyes, tickled her face. She barely caught a glimpse of the fine speckling of red that spattered across her tea party set and smeared A.J. Simon’s face on the TV screen. She didn’t see it, but she heard her daddy collapse and smack-thud against the kitchen tile floor.

***

Sara stood by an open window in the nave, gazing out at the church’s long drive, the scrambled sign, and the trees all but dead and hanging on to the last few brown and orange leaves. Though a chilly breeze blew in and froze her through her sweater, she welcomed the cool against her hot face and burning tears. She sipped from a cup of Earl Grey tea as she hugged herself against the harsh air.

“Mommy. Daddy.” She said the words separately as if testing them, tasting them. She glanced toward the sacristy in the far corner of the church but easily shook off the urge to empty the almost-empty bottle of Communion wine. She knew next time it might not be so easy, but this was something she lived with since leaving foster care. Some moments were easy. Some were not. She had no idea why.

She didn’t often think about what happened to her parents so strongly. Nothing in particular ever encouraged the memory, unless she heard someone utter the words “I’m sick of it.”

That happened a few times in her life, people wondering why Sara Dawn gets so upset over a child’s tantrum or someone commenting about the heat or the rain, the snow, or the Cubs’ losing streak.

Mostly, she daydreamed the fateful day in vivid red-speckled color when her mind wasn’t preoccupied with something else.

ALWAYS GOB-DANG FLAMING DRUNK!

“No!” Sara tried to hush her mind. She winced away the vision and her eyes opened on the sign.

_R____ HIM

B_HO_D FOR I AM

_HE _ORD YOUR GOD

_ANCAK_ BR__KFA__ T_XSGIVNG

Something to preoccupy my mind, she thought, and returned to the church office for a legal pad and a pencil.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Mrs. Petular. Um, is Julie there?”

“Coyote, how have you been? How’s your mother?”

God! Coyote hated it when Julie’s mom answered the phone. He’d almost rather put up with her dad who was always mocking his name and calling him a dropout loser, but at least HER dad CARED. Coyote’s own dad didn’t want to have anything to do with him.

“Mom’s fine,” he lied. The truth is he had no idea and hadn’t been home in over a week. He hoped short answers would get Julie on the phone quicker.

***

Coyote Wilcox started dating the cheerleader, Julie Petular, their junior year. Julie wasn’t sought after by other guys on the football team because she was kind of odd for a ra-ra. She was a pothead her freshman year, a drinker her sophomore year, and a sex addict her junior year.

Well, until her parents pulled her out of Homer High and put her in some kind of institution in Indianapolis. She came back all quiet and introspective, skinny, shaky, and really REALLY religious. The change scared all her old friends. Her drug buddies didn’t want to have anything to do with her because they feared Jesus turned her into a narc. The narcs didn’t want to have anything to do with her because they were all hypocrites and didn’t believe anyone could change. The jocks didn’t want to have anything to do with her because she wouldn’t ‘put out’ anymore, and geeks and dorks didn’t want to have anything to do with her because she was still too pretty and, therefore, out of their league.

Coyote saw the change and appreciated it for what it was. Sure, he believed more in government conspiracies, monsters and aliens than he did God, Jesus and angels, but he appreciated the fact that she saw the errors of her self destructive ways and turned herself around. That made her interesting. Interesting enough to draw his attention away from the cutest girl in school.

They hadn’t started chatting until Julie’s last day of class.

Coyote had eyes for Terri Berkett, the sweet little junior who sounded sweeter when she called him ‘Coy,’ but there was something about Julie that pulled at him like a walleye on a taught line.

“Hiya, Terr.”

“Coy.”

“Hi,” he craned his head down to get a look at Julie’s face. She was hiding behind a wall of long blonde hair, nursing a sandwich with both hands. “Julie, right?”

He caught a blue-gray eye glance his way between loose blonde strands.

“I’m Coyote.”

“I know who you are,” she said quietly. “You’re in my chem class.”

“Oh, yeah,” he nodded and grinned stupidly. “That’s right.”

“Didn’t you bring any lunch?” That from Terri. But he found himself drawn into the single storm-cloud eye opposite the voice of the Cute One.

“You’ve been gone a long time,” he said to Julie. “You used to date—what was his name?”

“The football team,” Terri said. She barked a laugh and her friends laughed louder.

Julie got up and left the table, her half-eaten sandwich and Red Delicious sitting on her smashed brown bag placemat.

Turning to Terri who, while always the cutest girl in school, turned suddenly sour in his eyes, Coyote said, “Harsh, Terr.” He snatched Julie’s apple and went after her.

He had caught up to her behind the gym and begged her to stop and talk to him. Her cheeks were damp with tears and, when she looked up at him, he saw the darkness below the skin under those once beautifully clear eyes. They were now melting ice cubes, lifeless but deep.

“I’m sorry about her.”

“Don’t be,” Julie sniffed, “Today’s my last day anyway.”

“It is?”

“My mom is pulling me out of school. I’m going to be home schooled for my last year.”

“How come?” Coyote truly had no grasp on the gossip line or the rumor mill. He didn’t know about the institution.

“You don’t know?” Julie tilted her head, not sure if she should trust this guy or not. He was one of the few on the football team she hadn’t held, touch, tasted, or teased in one way or another. Maybe she thought he was gay or something.

Coyote had to break that wall of thought. “Look, Julie, I know you’ve got a rep, but I don’t care about that. That was a long time ago.”

“Oh, you don’t?” She had asked suspiciously. “It was only last year, ya know.”

“Why would I care? Anyway, you seem . . . DIFFERENT somehow.”

“I’ve found God,” she said with an air of finality that said, ‘now you know so go away and laugh about me with your friends.’ She turned and continued walking until Coyote put a strong hand on her shoulder and turned her to face him.

“Good,” he said. He held out the Red Delicious. “Apple?”

Neither one of them finished out the school day. They walked all the way to Puma Pond and skipped stones. Julie talked about Jesus and Coyote listened. He talked about aliens and she giggled.

They spent the whole summer together like that. Talking. They even went on what Coyote would call ‘dates,’ but he never made a pass on her and she never advanced the relationship past hand-holding or snuggling shoulder-to-shoulder on the couch at her house watching the Discovery Channel.

They never referred to each other as ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend,’ but Coyote liked the idea. He even played around with the thought of marrying her some day. All he needed was a larger income.

The deal with Mr. Wheat would be a nice kicker for that.

***

“She’s working tonight, Coyote,” Mrs. Petular said after a moment. “She’s babysitting for the Greens.”

“Oh.”

“You could call her cell. I think she has it with her.”

“Thanks, Mrs. Petular.”

“Tell your mom I said hi, okay?”

“Sure.” Coyote pushed END on his cell and hit he speed dial for Julie. The Greens? The Greens? Where had he heard that name before?

***

Sara Dawn reached out and touched the letters on the sign that spelled out REVEREND STEVEN GREEN, PASTOR under the larger, vandalized, portion of the sign.

She hugged herself and studied the remaining letters above.

_R____ HIM

B_HO_D FOR I AM

_HE _ORD YOUR GOD

_ANCAK_ BR__KFA__ T_XSGIVNG

The sky was already dark and cold, but the light from the illuminated sign cast a soft white glow around her. She looked at the notes scrawled on her legal pad as she shivered under her jacket.

PLATE

PLEA

IS THESE

IS IT

STEAP

HEAT

SEAT

TILE

HELP

THIS

LEASE

PLEA

PLEASE

TIS THEE

She reached out again and touched some of the letters that were still there. She remembered putting them in the marquis, remembered enough to know they were all snug. There’s no way the wind pulled them out. In fact, the K in ANCAKE was pretty loose. If wind was to blame, that would have been gone long ago.

“What are you trying to say?” she whispered to the night and stood up. “Oh.”

Sara had put on her hat and jacket and came out with her legal pad and pencil to search for clues, but it was still somewhat light when she left the front door of the church. Now it was dark. The timed light at the mouth of the church drive had come on, as had the security light next to the church, the one in the middle of the parking lot, and the one behind the pastor’s house.

She looked over at the house and saw the silhouette of the babysitter move into the kitchen through the curtained window. From the look of her shadow with one hand up to her ear, Sara figured the teenager was on the phone.

“Don’t eat that last piece of pie, kid,” Sara mused. “If there is one I’ll bet he’s saving it for when he gets home.”

Brushing off her knees as she stood, Sara tucked the legal pad under her arm, thrust her hands into her pockets, and moved stiffly, but quickly, back to the church.

Once inside, she bolted the door, closed and locked the office, and went back down to her room.

She was curled up on her cot, reading the Book of Matthew, when the distant rumble of a motorcycle engine sounded outside.

Coyote was careful to coast his Yamaha around the back of the Green house, off the driveway to the other side of the garage, where no one would see it—especially from the angle of the church.

He hadn’t expected such a windfall of coincidence to play into his hands when he called Julie. He was just looking to call his would-be girlfriend and keep her company over the phone while she babysitted, to get his mind off the pending battle against The Evil One. He hadn’t seen Julie since Saturday when they drove out to the Lyle Bridge Parkway to watch the leaves change on the trees.

He was just looking for a little distraction to take his mind off the $1,000 burning a hole in his pocket. He was half-tempted to splurge for something really nice for Julie, but decided to bide his time. After all, he hadn’t done the deed he was being paid for yet.

The surprise came at the end of their conversation.

Coyote said, “Well, anyway, I just wanted to call and say ‘hi’. . . . How do I know the name Green? Did we go to school with a Green?”

“It’s the pastor’s family. You know, the little white church at the west end of town, off Route 9?”

Coyote almost blurted, Oh, yeah, I was just there this afternoon, but stopped himself.

Instead, he just said, “Got it.” Then, “Ain’t it kinda dark and lonely out there, isn’t it? How long do you have to stay? I mean . . . I’m only asking ‘cause I could come out and pick you up.”

Julie said, “I drove my mom’s car. Besides, I’m not really alone. Tracy and I are going to have Jell-O pops and watch TV later. And besides, Sara’s just next door at the church if I need anything.”

Coyote thought the church doors closed a long time ago. What would Sara Dawn still be doing at the church? He chewed his lower lip. “Did you say someone was at the church?”

“Yeah,” Julie’s voice dropped almost to a whisper, “But it’s supposed to be a secret. Pastor took in this stray who lives in the church basement.”

“Lives there?”

“She’s a sad case, I guess. I think she was in jail for a time. She’s an alcoholic like me.”

Coyote was surprised. “You’re not an alcoholic. You don’t drink anything stronger than Pepsi.”

“Not anymore, but once you’re a drunk you’re always a drunk . . . . I guess.”

“Harsh.”

“I know.”

“So she’s there NOW? LIVING in the church basement?”

Julie’s tone raised a notch, “Yes, but don’t tell anybody. It’s pastor’s secret. It’s between her and him.”

“Does Mrs. Green know her husband’s hiding a chick in the church basement?”

Julie chuckled. “Yes, she’s in on the secret too. But Sara’s not being hidden. She just lives there and takes care of the place, kind of like a public service I guess. Pastor just didn’t want people to talk is all—just like you.”

“I get the idea,” Coyote said, hoping Julie couldn’t hear the huge grin on his face.

Less than ten minutes later he was walking up the front steps to the Green house, glancing over at the dark church windows.

Julie Petular stood silhouetted in the front door with a bright smile on her face. Her eyes had changed a lot from last summer too. Since she started spending time with him, Julie’s smile has returned, her eyes were warmer—though still a penetrating blue, and her hair had a healthy glow.

“You look good,” Coyote said as he touched her arm and stepped into the pastor’s house.

Julie said, “Thanks. You look pretty good yourself. Why’d you park around there? Mrs. Green said it was okay for me to have a friend over.”

Coyote stood like a nervous suitor, hands in his pockets, scanning the interior of the house. It wasn’t like what he imagined a reverend’s house would look like. He expected pictures of the Pope or Jesus all over the place, lots of books, maybe a painting of the virgin Mary or something.

The living room looked no different from his own when he was a kid. The walls contained pictures of what he assumed were family members. A larger portrait of the pastor in a suit sans Roman collar, with his arm around his wife as she cradled a newborn, hung over the couch. The couch had a rumpled slipcover over it that showed heavy signs of sitting, laying, stretching out, and curling up to watch TV. Instead of religious memorabilia Coyote noticed an autographed NFL football on a stand next to an picture of Peyton Manning and other Indianapolis Colts trinkets, pennants, and a replica 2007 Super Bowl XLI trophy in miniature placed lovingly on a bookshelf next to an overstuffed leather recliner. The recliner had a crocheted blue and white blanket draped over its back with the words GOD BLESS OUR COLTS stitched into a repeating pattern of blue footballs. Toys, mostly various dolls, were scattered on the floor around a little girl who had rolled over from her position in front of the TV to stare at Coyote with accusing eyes.

“Hi,” he said to the little girl with a nod.

She just stared.

Julie stepped in and rested a hand on Coyote’s arm. “Tracy, this is Coyote Wilcox. He’s a friend of mine. Coyote, this is Tracy.”

“Nice to meet you,” he said and offered a hand.

Tracy Green continued to stare.

“Tracy, say hi to our guest,” Julie said.

“Mommy said no strangers,” Tracy muttered.

“But he’s no stranger, honey. He’s a friend of mine. He just came for a visit. Your momma said it was okay.”

“Is he your BOYfriend?”

As much as he wanted to turn to Julie and ask the same question with his eyes, Coyote instead studied a miniature Colts helmet on the table by the door filled with candy corn, next to a brass key on a ring. A tag on the ring had CHURCH written in black marker.

To his amazement, she answered quickly and with sureness that startled him. “Why yes. Yes, he is.”

Coyote met Julie’s eyes. Her smile made his heart catch fire. “Yeah. And she’s my girlfriend.”

“I guess that’s okay,” Tracy said and rolled back onto her stomach and continued coloring.

Julie tugged Coyote’s arm. “Take off your jacket and sit down with me.”

Coyote snatched a couple candy corns—and something shiny—before obliging. But before he took the jacket off, he made sure the .45 automatic was hidden beneath his shirt. The cold from the grip as he adjusted the weapon made him wince. Nobody noticed.

Julie lead him to the couch and narrated the scene. “Tracy’s working on her Disney Princess coloring books while we watch ‘Amazing Race’.”

“Cool.” Though he’d never seen the show he figured it had something to do with racing. Coyote asked the little girl, “So, Tracy, who do you want to win?”

Ignoring the question, Tracy glared over her shoulder at Julie. “Can I have a Jell-O pop yet?”

Julie glanced at the clock. “Fifteen minutes, honey.”

Coyote sat next to Julie on the huge pillowy couch and whispered, “Guess I’m not so good with kids, huh?”

“You’re great. She’s just having a fit because I told her no desert until her tummy had time to settle.”

“You’d make a great mom.”

“Some day. Maybe.” She shrugged. “So, what made you come out here to see me?”

Coyote’s eyes momentarily grew wide. He hadn’t thought of a cover story. “I dunno. Just wanted to visit you at work, I guess.”

“That’s sweet.”

“Boyfriend, huh?”

Julie shrugged. “I was going to bring it up at some point, but didn’t know if you’d be interested. You never even tried to kiss me.”

Coyote nodded and smirked. “Don’t think I didn’t want to. I just respect you, I guess. Didn’t want to be pushy or anything.”

“Nuts.”

“No, it’s true.”

“What about Terri Berkett?” Julie leaned away from Coyote on the couch, folded her arms across her chest, and cocked an eyebrow at him as she playfully grilled him.

“What about her?”

“I thought you and her were an item.”

“Never.”

“You sure?”

“I thought she was hot, sure, but I never wanted to go out with her. She’s shallow, and I heard she smokes.”

“I used to smoke.”

“Used to,” he pointed out and patted her knee.

Julie snuggled in close to him and rested her head on his shoulder.

Tracy looked over her shoulder and smiled, “Hey, Mr. Coyote, wouldn’t YOU like a Jell-O pop?”

Coyote smiled back at the little girl. “It hasn’t been fifteen minutes yet, but now that you mention it, I think I would. How about you, Julie? I think the three of us would really love some Jell-O pops.”

Julie laughed at the mischief in his eyes. “Okay, you two. I’ll go get ‘em.”

“Yea!”

Coyote and Tracy exchanged thumbs-up. As the girl turned back to her coloring, he glanced at the clock before turning his attention to “Amazing Race.” Coyote planned to watch the show with his girlfriend at his side while plotting his escape.

After all. He had a job to do.

Coyote Wilcox came back from the bathroom and stretched. “Well, I better get going.”

Julie looked up at the clock and shrugged. “Yeah, I guess so. The Greens will be home in about a half hour and I have to get little Tracer to bed.”

“I’m not a tracer! I’m a colorer!” The girl called from her little pile of crayon scribbles. “And I want to stay up to watch ‘Ghost Hunters’!”

Julie stood and handed Coyote his letterman jacket. She rolled her eyes. “Guess you better. I’m going to have my hands full.”

“And I thought working Meyer’s Graveyard was tough.”

She walked him to the door, then followed him out onto the porch after pulling the door gently until only a sliver of warm living room light showed. Julie hugged herself against the brisk November evening air.

Coyote took his jacket and draped it around her shoulders.

“No. Take it,” she said and moved to peel it off, but Coyote held it firm to her shoulders.

“Nah. You’re my girlfriend now. You keep it.”

She blinked a few times and tilted her head. “Aw, I think that’s the sweetest thing ANYONE has ever done for me.”

Coyote shrugged. “I like the cold.” Besides, he thought, it has my name on it.

“I’ll treasure it all winter.”

Coyote leaned back so he could see around the side of the house to the church. “So, that woman you said lives in the church?”

“Yeah? Sara?”

“Where does she sleep? I mean, does the rev let her stretch out on the pews or what?”

Julie laughed. “No, silly. She sleeps in a store room downstairs.”

“Store room? That sucks.”

“I guess she prefers I that way. I went through a self-effacing stage myself.”

“I’ll bet SHE’s cold.”

Julie shrugged. “Probably.”

“Hey, I just thought of something,” Coyote said. He hoped it came off as spontaneous and convincing. He had actually been thinking it since he heard the story about Sara’s drinking problem. “Isn’t there a problem with leaving her alone in the church?”

“What do you mean, problem?”

“Well, you know . . . the wine and stuff used for Communion—or do those people even do Communion?”

Julie smirked and shook her head. “You should come to church with me, Coyote.”

Not after tonight, he thought. Well, not here anyway.

“I mean, ain’t Pastor Green worried she’s going to drink up the stock?”

Julie stepped up to him, wrapped her arms around his cooling body. “I don’t think he’s worried about it. She helps with the Communion—it’s kind of like a test to make sure she stays clean, ya know?”

Coyote hugged her back. “But what about other days of the week? What if she dips into the stash?”

“I’m so lucky to have such a caring boyfriend,” Julie crooned, hugging tighter.

Coyote thought, Answer the damn question! I’m freezing!

Julie shrugged against him. “Maybe the distance is enough, or maybe he locks it up. I think all the wine is kept upstairs in that little room on the side. Sara sleeps downstairs in the back.”

“Ohhh,” Coyote hummed. “Well, I better beat it.”

“Yeah,” Julie said against his chest. She didn’t want to let go.

When Coyote was able to pull away, he leaned down to her face.

To his pleasant surprise, Julie tip-toed up to meet him. Their lips touched and held for a few brief seconds. Hers were warm and soft. His were cold and starting to chap.

“Okay, go,” she said. “Thanks for the jacket, boyfriend.”

“Thanks for the Jell-O pop, girlfriend.” Coyote stepped back off the front porch and slowly turned toward the garage and his motorcycle parked behind it.

The theme from “Ghost Hunters” wafted out through the crack in the front door.

Coyote laughed and pointed to the door. “You better get back to work.”

Julie blew him a kiss and smiled. “Yeah, I know, right?”

Then she was back inside.

Coyote jogged over to his bike and started it. He clicked it into gear and drove it down the long church drive to Route 9, then turned right and cruised up 50 feet or so before going off-road and riding the bike into the woods between the road and the church. He stopped when he thought the Yamaha would be concealed from both the road and the church lot, then dismounted.

He glanced at his watch. It was only 8:45, but he figured Sara Dawn to be an early sleeper. Besides, what is there to do in a church? He moved forward until he was almost at the position he watched her from before. The basement window next to the cellar doors was dark confirming his guess about her retiring time.

Skirting the woods until he could see the back door of the church and the tool shed, Coyote stayed low to the ground. His adrenaline pumped and warmed him under the skin though he still felt the chill without his jacket, and in the faint fluorescent glow from the distant church lot security light, he could see light plumes of his own breath.

“Here goes nothin’,” he whispered. He drew the .45 from the waistband of his jeans and slinked toward the tool shed behind the church.

***

Sara woke and marked her Bible with the attached ribbon before stretching and rolling over. She had fallen asleep while reading and completely glazed over dinner. Now she was hungry. She checked her watch. It was 8:46.

Putting her Bible, the puzzle book, and the legal pad on the small milk crate table, she stood and stretched again. Then she went to the trunk of clothes and picked out clean pajama bottoms and a GATES ACADEMY sweatshirt that had belonged to her long-estranged fiancé.

Sara changed into her bedclothes in the dark and padded her way barefoot to the bathroom across from the kitchen. There, she relieved herself, washed up, and brushed her teeth.

***

Coyote was surprised to find the tool shed unlocked, then figured who would bother? These are church tools. Only a monster or a demon would want to break in here—or a “Christian Soldier on a Mission,” like he was. He wondered if the alcoholic possessed woman in the church basement ever came out here. He could easily imagine her sneaking out here on a summer night, using the hacksaw to take the head off a wild rabbit or squirrel, then drinking its blood as she prayed to her dark god, Lucifer.

His plan was simple, and genius. There was only one thing he needed for it to work.

***

How about a nightcap?

Go to hell.

Fine. Why don’t you start thinking about your parents again?

Leave me alone.

What’s the matter? SICK OF IT?

Sara lay in her bunk staring at the exposed ductwork and rafters of the church above her. Tears tickled the corners of her eyes as her mind raged in battle with itself. She pulled her blanket up to her chin and fought the urge to scream out or cry.

Sick of it?

I heard you. Leave me the hell alone!

Drink.

GO AWAY! GIVE ME SOME PEACE!

You know what will give you peace? A belt of the Communal wine.

“Please,” she whispered, “Please, God, help me to fight it.”

He didn’t help you before. What makes you think He’ll do it now?

GO AWAY!!!!!!

***

Coyote Wilcox crouched at the back door to the church with the key he had taken in one hand and this pistol in the other. In his back pockets were crammed a screwdriver, a pair of pliers, and wire cutters, tools he thought he might need before reaching his target downstairs.

Coyote pressed the key halfway into the lock and closed his eyes. He muttered a silent prayer. “Dear God, I’m doing this for you. Help me evict this demon from your holy house.”

He wasn’t sure if that’s how the prayer should go. He had seen “The Exorcist” 14 times, but that was as appropriate a breaking-and-entering prior to the actual exorcism should be.

He hoped the key fit the lock on the back door as well as the front. His prayers were answered. The key slipped in and turned easily. Entering the small chapel in the back of the church, Coyote crossed himself with the .45 and hunkered down behind the baptism basin. He listened intently for any sign of movement.

Hearing nothing, he left the chapel and turned his attention to the office to his left. Finding it unlocked, he entered. A glass paned door to his left had a brass engraved plaque stating PASTOR. A large desk with a humming computer sat across from the door. Coyote circled around the massive desk and sat in the chair. It creaked in protest. He froze. Reflected blue, red, green and yellow light throbbed lightly on the desktop as the screensaver played out a laser show of dancing lines, but no one responded to the chair.

Still quiet.

Coyote moved the mouse and the screen exploded to life. Then a smile exploded across his face. He wasn’t expecting THIS, wasn’t exactly sure WHAT he’d expect, but this . . . this was a gift from God.

An e-mail program was open on the screen. At the top right he saw, LOGGED IN: SDAWN32 in small letters. Sara Dawn. Coyote clicked the mouse a few times, FILE – NEW, chewing his lip and hoping the click wasn’t louder than it seemed. Then he put the pistol next to the keyboard and started typing in a slow, deliberate hunt-and-peck with soft measured strokes.

***

Sara pulled her covers up over her head and rolled onto her side. The tears were coming, as they often did, swiftly and in streams. The cot creaked with each heaving sob.

Just get up and go get the damn booze.

No, no, no, no. Please, God.

There is no God.

LEAVE ME BE!

Drink.

No.

Drink.

Sara released a long, groaning sigh before convulsing with fresh tears. “Mommy!” she cried. “MOMMY!”

***

Soft-click, soft-click, soft-click.

Done.

Coyote froze, his ears straining. He thought he heard a sound, a two-syllable yell or cry. It almost sounded like a cat in heat, but he knew that couldn’t be it. It was her, Sara. She’d heard him.

He tapped the mouse two more times before leaving the computer the way he found it hoping the screen saver would come back on and plunge the office into comparative darkness. Then he picked up the .45 and moved back out into the hall.

“WAAAWWWMEEEE.”

There it was again. He still couldn’t make out what it was, but it didn’t seem like a shout of, “Hey, you! Stop!” or even a scream of terror. It sounded more like . . . crying?

Moving low and swiftly, and as silently as the darkness, Coyote moved up the center aisle of the church looking for the little room to the side that Julie talked about. He spotted the double doors and the slanting ceiling down beyond their rectangular panes. A small plaque above the doors said FELLOWSHIP HALL & KITCHEN.

“MAAAAAMMMEEEEEEEEEE.”

There it was again. It was definitely coming from downstairs. Coyote smiled. Everything he suspected about Sara Dawn, everything that Mr. Wheat told him, it was all coming to pass and proof. The bizarre cries had to be some kind of Satanic prayer. Though they sounded like crying, who cries like that? Julie’s a girl and she cries quietly. Nobody screams like THAT.

A chill ran down Coyote’s spine. What if HE appears? Lucifer? Legions of demons?

“If that’s the case,” Coyote whispered looking up at the giant cross suspended behind the altar, “I’ll fight my way through.”

Then he spotted it; the little alcove to the side of the front row of pews.

“And I’ll kill her if I have to.”

***

“Why did you take her, daddy? Why did you LEAVE ME!?”

A decade of emotions, for no other reason than there was nothing to do but give in, spilled out of Sara Dawn’s soul. She cried out with senseless curses, she beat at her own chest, she cried “Mommy!” and “Daddy!” and “God!” She screamed for answers, the answers to questions she would never hear. “Why!?”

Letting the emotions spill rather than spill the wine, she cried, “Daddy, why did you do it!?”

“WHY!?”

Sara cried, she moaned, she scratched at her throat and wrists as if her fingernails could tear through the flesh and muscle and rip through the arteries beneath. She drew a little blood from shallow divots down her neck but nothing dangerous. She pulled at her sweatshirt collar, pounded her fist into the cot, and shoved the Bible, legal pad, dark lamp and puzzle book to the floor. The lamp clattered and the bulb popped, but the lamp was already off.

In her cries and thrashings, Sara didn’t hear the stairway doors open, didn’t hear the kitchen and hall doors open, and didn’t hear her own room—the storeroom—door open.

But she heard the clinking of bottles.

And the click-clicking of a pistol’s hammer being pulled back.

And a voice: “I want you to do me a favor, Sara.”

With the sudden shock of the intrusion, Sara screamed and sat bolt-upright. Her knees came up to her chest and her arms shot out to defend herself.

The intruder, a dark haired teenager she’d never seen before, set down the case she instantly recognized as the Communal supply and pointed the gun at her.

Despite her earlier pleas for death, Sara was now shocked into the present and the real life fight-or-flight response of any human. Only she had no fight left in her, and the intruder was blocking the only way out. “Please, don’t hurt me!”

She screamed again as he shushed her with one finger pressed to his lips. “Please! Don’t! Don’t hurt me! MOMMY!”

“A little old to be calling for your mommy, aren’t you?” the kid asked. He reached around the door jamb and flicked on the overhead fluorescent light. It popped, buzzed, and threw the world into a cold white focus. “Ahh. There you are.”

Sara scooted back on the cot and pressed herself into the wall corner. Hugging her legs to her chest, she cried out. Then she screamed as hard as she could, “HELP ME!”

“Ssssssh!” The intruder said, “Shut up!”

“HELP ME!”

“No one is going to hear you—and I’m not here to kill you!”

Sara continued to cry, but as the barrel of the pistol came closer to her face—and she remembered the sound it makes, the explosive pop followed by the ear-killing whine—she remembered vividly what was left of her mother. “Don’t. Don’t, please. Please don’t hurt me.”

“Calm down. I just said I wasn’t.” The kid looked around until he spotted the milk crate. He pulled it over in front of the door and sat on it like a squat stool. “If I put this down,” he said, waving the gun, “Do you promise to be good?”

Sara nodded convulsively, pulled her hair out of her eyes with shaking hands.

“Good. Because I’d hate to kill you. I’m not here for that.”

“O-Okay,” Sara said, nodding again. Anything not to die.

The kid tucked the gun into the back of his pants then, apparently thinking better of it, he set it down at his feet so he could easily snatch it up if he had to.

“Y-You said you j-just needed a fa-favor?”

The kid slowly nodded. His smile was greasy and cruel.

Sara pulled her body into a tighter ball, fearing the only thing a teenage boy would want if he wasn’t going to kill her was—she started to shake her head. No.

The teenager caught the idea swirling behind her tearstained face and cringed. “I’m not going to RAPE you, lady. I got a girlfriend.”

“Then,” Sara swallowed hard. “What do you want?”

The kid eased back, appeared to relax a little. Then he reached for the case of wine and pulled out a bottle. “It’s easy, and I’m sure you’re gonna love it.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I just want to talk for a while. Have some drinks and a few laughs.”

Sara’s eyes shot to the case, the bottle in his hand, his eyes. She shook her head again. “I don’t drink.”

“That’s not what I heard.”

“I-I can’t. I’ll get sick.”

“Is that what you people call it? Getting sick?”

“Please. Don’t.”

“Come on. You know you want to.” The teenager unscrewed the cap, tearing the foil that protected the vintage. “I suppose,” he said as he worked, “this church stuff is probably pretty weak. Cheap too. Glad I didn’t need a corkscrew.” He tossed the cap aside. “Good thing there’s a whole case of it here.”

“Why are you doing th–?” Then she knew. The Threat. This was it.

The kid peeled the foil down from the mouth of the bottle and sniffed it. He made a face like he’d just smelled something foul. “Ew. How can you people do this?”

“He sent you.”

“What?”

“He sent you, didn’t he? Wheat.”

“What do you know about Mr. Wheat?”

She shook her head. “Look. I’m sorry about everything he told you about me. It’s not true what he said. I didn’t do it on purpose.” Fresh tears spilled from her eyes.

The kid held out the bottle. “Drink.”

“IT WAS AN ACCIDENT!”

“Drink.”

“I can’t! Don’t you understand? I can’t—I didn’t mean for it to happen!”

The kid picked up the pistol and stood. He pointed it at Sara’s chest as he thrust the bottle toward her. “I said DRINK!”

Sara whimpered. “Why is he doing this to me? Why is he torturing me like this?” Her eyes fell to slits and glistened as tears streamed down her face. She hugged herself tighter. She sniffed and whined, she wailed like an infant. “You should just shoot me! Go ahead! Kill me!”

As Sara’s shoulders shook with each convulsive sob, the kid lowered the gun. Slightly.

In the movies, this would be the opportune moment for the hero to burst in and save her. Some long closed-away fanciful part of her brain imagined a handsome prince coming to her rescue. She knew from experience God wouldn’t do it.

But no rescue came. She saw a tear sparkle in the corner of the kid’s eye, like he hated doing what Charles Wheat was ordering him to do. She could tell he was a good kid at heart. He’d never hurt her.

Sara lowered her face to her knees as she hugged her legs against her chest. “No . . . . Please, don’t make me do it. Please.” More tears came.

“I know what you’re trying to do,” the kid said in a soft voice. “I know this is some kind of test, right?”

She risked a look up at him with blurry red eyes.

“But you don’t understand, lady—or whatever you are. . . . I need the money.”

Sara shook her head. “You don’t have to do this. You don’t. If it’s money you want, I have some—down here.” She tilted her head to the cot. “In a shoebox under my bed. There’s a few hundred bucks in there.”

The kid glanced, tilted his head more and brightened as he saw the box she was talking about, but then maybe realized it would bring him within striking distance and he shook his head. “How much?”

“Just a little over 600 I think.”

He smirked, “What. Like 666?”

Sara didn’t get the reference. “Maybe. I think it’s more like 620 or so—but you could have it—and the wine. Take it.”

“Did you make that turning tricks? I don’t want your evil money—and I don’t drink.”

Sara’s eyes widened a little, the tears traded for pink rims around her eyes, “But if you take the wine, Pastor Green will think I drank it all anyway.”

“Really?”

She nodded spasmodically. “Yeah. I think he suspects I’ve been drinking it anyway. Tell Mr. Wheat pastor will probably kick me out of the church.”

“So?”

“So . . . . That’s what he wants, isn’t it? To hurt me? Torture me?”

The kid leaned forward, propped the bottle against Sara’s legs, then sat back on the milk crate. He put the pistol back down and reached for another bottle. As he opened it, he shrugged. “That’s not what he wants.”

Sara picked up the bottle, but only so she could lower her legs and lean forward, be heard. “But don’t you understand how horrible that would be for me?” She started to cry again, but more softly this time. Her head hurt and she knew no more tears would come. She was cried out.

“Wouldn’t work,” the teenager said as he discarded the second bottle cap.

“Why not?”

“Because he wants you dead, and I don’t think your eviction notice will be enough.”

“What do you mean? You said you weren’t going to kill me!”

“I’m not, you—Look, lady, I don’t make the rules. Drink already. I don’t have all night.”

Sara lifted the bottle and turned it around in her hands, studied the label. The fluorescent light above played along the silver edged design of a colorful winery. If it were moments ago. If she were sitting here with this bottle in her lap. If there was no hired hitman. She would have started guzzling.

Now she couldn’t. She sniffed at the opening, but the fermented grape smell made her wrinkle her nose.

“That a girl. Drink up.”

She sniffed. “I can’t. I told you, I—”

“DRINK, GODDAMN IT!”

Sara jumped, almost let the bottle slip from her fingers. She curled slowly back into her protective ball, her eyes wide and fearful.

That seemed to touch the kid, but it was obvious whatever Charles Wheat had told him went beyond her personal suffering. He said, “Look, lady. Just drink the wine. That’s all you gotta do. Just drink. You did it before. You can do it again.”

“But—”

“Drink.”

“He sent you here to kill me? Why don’t you just shoot me?” Sara’s lower lip trembled. She hugged the bottle to her chest.

“That’s not how he wants it done.”

Sara glanced down at the dark blue bottle in her hands. “He wants me to DRINK myself to death?”

The kid’s smile was crooked.

Sara slowly shook her head as more tears found a way to come out. “Not this way. Please. Not this way.”

“You asked for it.” The boy stood, putting the new bottle down and snatching up the gun. He stepped forward, the barrel leveled at her forehead.

THIS IS IT. Sara briefly wondered if it was like this for her mom.

She hugged the bottle tighter to her chest, but closed her eyes tight and tilted her head back to welcome the bullet. PLEASE BE QUICK.

But no pop. No boom. No yellow lightning flash and ear-splitting crack.

Instead, she saw the eyes of the kid level with her own. He was crouching down in front of her, the gun lowered. There weren’t any tears in his eyes, but the look on his face seemed genuine, though set with a low-level fierceness that made her tremble when she saw it this close.

“P-Please . . . . Don’t do this.”

The kid licked his lips, leaned closer. “Okay.”

Sara blinked her watery eyes and stared as the teenager stood up.

“I got another idea,” he said. “Actually, you gave me the idea.” He looked up at the ceiling, frowned to one side of his face and scratched his chin with the metal sight of the gun. “Yeah. It’ll work.”

“W-What is it?”

He went back to the crate and resumed his vigil. “Yeah. Yeah, that’ll work, I think.”

“What do you w-want me to do?”

“I’m not going to shoot you. And you don’t have to drink yourself to death.”

“I don’t? So . . . .” Sara shook her head and shrugged. “The money?”

“Don’t want it. Got enough.”

“Then–?”

“You don’t have to drink this wine until you DIE. I just need you to drink it until you get sick of it.”

Sick of it.

Sick of it.

Sick of it.

Sick of it.

The teenager seemed genuinely surprised when Sara lifted the bottle to her lips and tilted it back without further protests or hesitation.

Coyote was amazed.

He had never seen someone drunk like this. His father had come home from the bar a couple of times after working an afternoon shift, staggering in the door and laughing. He’d kiss mom, belch into the fridge, and pass out on the couch.

This was different.

With each deep slug of the wine—and the girl was really drinking like she wanted to die—Sara Dawn degraded more and more into a sniveling, pouting, crying, screaming little child.

Already, near the end of the first bottle, she was having invisible conversations with her “Mommy” and “Daddy,” bursting into tears and stopping to chuckle only when a hiccup broke her jagging rhythm. She even volunteered information in slurred disjointed patterns of one-sided donversation.

“I seen people killed by guns, ya know,” she slurred at the ceiling.

“That right?” Coyote mumbled as he handed her the second bottle.

She clutched the first one, hugged it to her cheek, but didn’t reach for the other one. “I don’t even know your name.”

“Call me Bill.”

“I’m a virgin, ya know,” she smirked. The expression seemed new on her face as if she’d never smirked before.

“You are? That’s rich.”

“No, s’true. My finance never did it to me.”

“Your finance?”

“Fancy pants,” she laughed.

“Your fiancé?” he nodded. “Why not?”

She looked up at him with watery eyes. Her chin quivered. “I told him I was safing mysself for our wedding night. And he–. He–. He–,” Sara’s face turned into a mocking grimace of the theatrical tragedy mask as she started bawling.

Coyote crossed his arms and ankles, relaxed on the milk crate. “He didn’t want you if he couldn’t have you before you got married, huh?”

She shook her head. No. And cried harder.

“Shame. You’re a pretty girl.” Coyote uncrossed his legs and arms and leaned forward on the milk crate. Narrowing his eyes at the crying woman he said, “But I don’t believe for a second you’re a virgin.”

Sara stopped crying and took another long pull of the bottle. “I can proof it.”

He didn’t ask how. Didn’t want to know how.

“Do me.”

“What?”

“Screw me. Right here. Right now. Take me. Do whateffer you wan. You know I won fight. Nobody’ll know.” She leaned back tossed her hair over her shoulder. “C’mon, big boy.”

“No thanks,” Coyote chuckled.

“Proof.”

“How is that proof?”

“If a horny teenager with a gun, bold enough to breaken to a shurch and kill somebody, won’t take me . . . who would?” She pulled at the bottle again.

Coyote’s gaze dropped. While she had a point—though his mission objective would not be compromised for reasons she wouldn’t know—there was something really sad about her line of thinking, even while drinking deeper and deeper into the dark corners of her mind.

But at least he didn’t need any more proof that Sara Dawn was possessed by a succubus. Sex was their weapon. Yup.

Sara shook her head and seemed to set herself for a new subject. “Well, Phil, I gotta say . . . . I never seen (hic) you around here a’fore.”

Coyote kept the new bottle as Sara drank more from the first. He said, “I’m not from around here.”

Sara strained, slitted her eyes. “You an alien or somethin’?”

Coyote laughed. “That’s funny.”

“Whasfunny?”

“You calling me an alien when you’re the one who’s possessed.”

She drank again. Her tooth clinked on the bottle. She said, “Oops,” then continued.

Coyote grew concerned that his new plan would be foiled by the original plan as he watched her tip the bottle all the way back and swallow four-five-six huge gulps. He had changed his mind about making Sara Dawn drink herself to death. Her tears were so REAL. He was almost starting to doubt a succubus was at work in the basement of St. Matthews.

“Look, why don’t you slow down?” He said. “We got time.”

“Wassamatter, Phil? Afraid I’m gonna pass out on you?” She weaved slightly, caught a hiccup in her throat and dropped the empty bottle. It clinked loudly on the floor, rattled as it rolled, but didn’t break. Then she reached out with both her arms straight, flicking her fingers like a little kid saying, “Gimmie, gimmie!”

She hiccupped, barked, “Next!”

“I said slow down.”

Sara sat back, pouted her lower lip, and folded her arms across her chest. “Fine. I’m not sp’osed to drink anyways.”

“I know.”

Sara rocked side to side and nodded to a tune only she could hear. Coyote watched her, let his eyes play along the creases her pajama pants made when she crossed and uncrossed her legs. Drunk, old, or not, she was an attractive woman.

“You KNOW?”

“Yeah,” he met her bleary eyes. “I know.”

Sara let herself slide back against the wall and, when she nodded sharply, cracked her head on the cinderblock wall. “Ow!”

Coyote snickered. Amazing.

Sara rubbed her head and frowned sloggishly, “What is it you know, Mr. Phil?”

“I know you’re not supposed to be drinking.” He stood and stretched, went over to the cot and sat on the opposite end. He passed her the new bottle. “What I want to know is why you started.”

“Hmpf.” Sara up-ended the second bottle and chugged. Some red liquid dribbled down her chin and the corners of her mouth when she pulled the bottle away reminding Coyote of a vampire. “I s’pose I started when some nasty kid came in here and pointed a gun at me—”

“Not tonight. I mean . . . ever.”

“Wow.”

“What?”

“I’m really drunk. I should eat something.”

Coyote looked at his watch. It hasn’t been that long. “How could you be that drunk already?”

She smacked her lips, made a raspberry sound with her tongue, and said, “Because, funnyboy, I didn’t eat anything all day.”

Coyote considered this, craned his neck to study her body under the oversized sweatshirt. “How much do you weigh?”

The raspberries again. “You NEVER ask a woman about her weight, silly. Next you’re gonna ashk me about my age.”

“I would never ask a woman about her age.”

“So sweet!” Sara suddenly jump-shuffled on the cot until she was right next to him. He felt the heat of her thigh against his own, felt her left breast push into his arm as she leaned close to his face, caught the reek of sour wine in her breath. “You are such a sweetie!”

Coyote looked at her. He had to lean his head back to keep her in focus, she was so close, and he noticed her eyes for the first time. They were so beautiful. They were a dark emerald green with flecks of gold around the edges. They glistened with her intoxication and had trouble focusing, but he could easily see how beautiful they would be if she were clean and clear. Then he—

“Na-ah!” Coyote jumped off the cot, pushed her away. “Don’t.”

“Don wha?” She blinked. Had trouble focusing on him.

Coyote knew she was near the end of the line. Though it was just a bottle, she drank it so fast and on an empty stomach, that it wouldn’t be long before she passed out.

“Give me that!” He snatched the bottle out of her hands and sat on the milk crate. “Too fast.”

She didn’t ask for it back. She looked like she barely acknowledged its absence. “It’s so hot in here,” she moaned.

As Coyote watched, Sara Dawn lifted off her GATES ACADEMY sweatshirt. She had a skimpy white v-neck t-shirt under the sweatshirt, but it got caught when she pulled off the heavier outer layer.

And, like that, she was topless.

Sara chewed her tongue and rubbed her eyes. “Hot in here.”

“Yeah,” Coyote whispered, his jaw hung slack and his eyes locked on Sara’s exposed breasts. “Hot.”

“Drink!” she said, mocking his earlier order, and reached for him to pass the bottle.

Coyote shook his head to snap himself out of it and averted his eyes. “Um, I think you lost something.”

“Oh, gosssh,” came her voice. “I sure didden.”

He listened as clothes shuffled and the cot creaked. He didn’t look again until she said, “There. Fixed.”

This time when Coyote looked up, Sara Dawn was naked and was trying feebly to open another bottle she’d reached over and pulled from the crate when he wasn’t looking.

“Hey,” he admonished as though talking to a child, “No. No.” He stood, reached out to take the bottle from her, but she pulled it to her bare breasts and wrapped her legs around it. Coyote froze.

“Comon geddit.” She winked sloppily.

“Naw. That’s okay.”

Sara picked and peeled at the foil on the new bottle for awhile, stopped to scratch a phantom itch on her knee, blew air up her nose to get loose strands of hair out of her eyes, gave up for a moment to shudder and start crying (renewed choruses of “Mommy!” and “Daddy!” and “Why, God? Why?”). She let the full bottle drop and it fell off the edge of the cot and burst on the concrete floor.

“Crap!” Coyote scrambled forward to lift the bottle and the broken pieces. The wine ran cool and sticky over his fingers as he placed the fragments in the case. A dark pool like thinned blood fanned out under the cot and seeped into the base of the shoebox that held her slut money. “Why can’t you be a normal boozer?” he muttered as he plucked out the shoebox and slid it to a dry patch of floor.

Sara, meanwhile, rolled into a fetal position facing the wall and cried. Her bare rump wiggled inches from Coyote’s face as he cleaned up the mess, but he turned down his eyes.

God, just get me out of this. Get me away from this demon temptress.

Thoughts of Julie—his new girlfriend—spurred on his cause. Coyote took up the bottle that was already open and touched Sara on the shoulder. “Hey.”

She cried, mumbled a slur, cried more.

“Hey, Sara. Get up.”

“Mummydaddymummmm.”

“GET UP!”

Sara flinched, cried some more, but didn’t move.

Coyote took that opportunity to check out the shoebox.

Pulling off the lid and setting it aside, he saw she had been truthful. The box was full of cash. Some of it in wads, some of it wrinkled, some of it crisp and new. There were 10s, 20s, 50s, some torn singles. He pulled it out and started counting. Yeah, she was right. With the change at the bottom there was something like $625.03.

But that wasn’t all.

Under the cash was a white leather bound book, thin and beat-up. It was old and a yellowed ribbon bound it shut. Lifting it out of the box, he read the cover.

MY CONFIRMATION

Coyote gently untied the book and opened it. The inside cover included lines that were filled out with neat feminine script with blue ink. The ink was smudged in places. Only the last line was written in clumsy block letters as if a child had written it. The lines were:

MY CONFIRMATION

MAY 23, 1982

PRESENTED TO: SARA ELIZABETH RACHEL DAWN

FROM: RACHEL MARIE SARA (GLYNN) DAWN

AND

ALIAS JAMES DAWN

And then the child scrawl further down: SARA DAWN

Coyote harrumphed. On the cot the nude alcoholic softly snored, so he sat back on his crate and thumbed through the book.

It was filled with prayers and pictures of angels, Jesus, and the Virgin Mary praying. There were brief notes in the margins that were so badly smeared he couldn’t make them out, but that’s not what caught Coyote’s eye.

In the middle of the book were pictures, old photographs. One was of a young girl in a white frilly dress. Coyote could tell by the dark hair, bright eyes, and prominent—but cute—nose, this was a younger version of Sara Dawn. Another picture had the same little girl in the arms of a man with a suit. Her father? The guy was tall and tough-looking from the picture. His tie was loose around the neck and a cigarette hung from his lips. His eyes were dark and piercing.

“Hurry up and take the damn picture,” Coyote imagined him saying around the smoke. The look on young Sara’s face said, “Daddy smells.” He chuckled.

The next picture showed Sara hugging a woman around the neck. The woman, who was kneeling to accept her daughter’s affection, appeared genuinely happy. As did Sara.

Other pictures showed the dad and what Coyote assumed were his “buddies” fishing off a pier, little Sara holding up a doll as Christmas lights twinkled behind her, mom in the kitchen stirring a pot while sipping from a flask, a “you caught me” look of mock surprise on her face, the three of them at Kings Island, and Sara standing with a different couple. Grand parents? No. Too young. Coyote looked at the back of the wrinkled picture. No markings. No dates. No words.

“Hmm.”

Sara drew his attention as a soft snore became a snort. Then she went back to sleep.

Coyote was about to tuck the pictures back in and return the book when a yellowed scrap of newspaper caught his attention. He pulled it from the back of the book and gently unfolded it.

There was no article, only the headline torn from a page: PARENTS DIE IN APPARENT MURDER-SUICIDE.

“Aw, man.” Coyote flipped back, looked at the trio in front of the King’s Island gates. “Oh, poor kid.”

He looked up at Sara Dawn’s exposed posterior and chewed his lower lip. “It’s no wonder you’re so messed up.”

Coyote had a fleeting thought of rescue, of reversing what he had done so far, but then realized it would probably be better to just put Sara out of her misery.

This was no succubus. Mr. Wheat lied to him.

But it was sad nonetheless. The kid’s parents iced themselves and orphaned her. He flipped back to the picture of the strange couple. They looked stern and fierce. He couldn’t imagine them as kind and loving parents, not like the smiling woman hugging Sara Dawn on her confirmation day.

“God. This is pure bull.”

And now she was forced to live in a church basement, under the rule of a holy man who wouldn’t let her be free. She was a poor caged animal and this guy Wheat was hunting her like a limp fawn.

“This sucks bad.”

Sara groaned in her sleep. Twitched as if she could feel the black bark peeling off Coyote Wilcox’s heart. He was starting to realize he’d been stupid—well, more stupid than usual.

“This is crazy.” He sniffed the air, heavy with the sour smell of Sara’s sweat, dirty laundry, and the overpowering odor of spilled wine. He checked his watch. Though the woman seemed to guzzle the wine, there must have been more breaks between slugs than he thought. It was 10:32 by his watch.

How could her parents do that to her, leave her alone like that? It wouldn’t have bothered Coyote if HIS parents took the short road out—but he was on his own and doing well. Sara Dawn was just a little kid when they checked out.

“God. Damn.”

Coyote re-tied the book, gently placed it back in the shoebox, returned all the money, and slid the box back under the cot toward a dry spot where the wine hadn’t run.

Then he picked up the .45 and cocked the slide.

“I can’t leave you like this, Sara,” Coyote whispered. “I have to finish the job.”

He sniffed.

Maybe things will be better for you . . . after this.

Then Coyote Wilcox stepped up to the cot and looked down at the nude woman in the fetal position, so much like an unborn child, waiting to be reborn.

He placed the barrel of the .45 against her temple.

And pulled the trigger.

It was freezing. Worse than freezing.

The cold November air stung Coyote’s hands still sticky from the spilled wine as he mounted his motorcycle hidden in Stillson’s Woods. Why did I have to give Julie my jacket? Damn! He tucked his fingers into his armpits after starting up the Yamaha to let it warm up.

It was 11:15 p.m. Coyote had taken some extra steps with the scene in the church basement, and went back to the computer in the office one more time, before stepping out the back door and crossing into the woods. He bent over and pressed the church key into the unyielding earth with a grunt. No one will find it here, he’d smiled, and they’ll probably just figure the pastor lost it.

Besides, he chuckled, they’ll have enough to worry about with what they find in the basement.

Coyote revved his motorcycle and rode out of the woods, back on to Route 9, and steered toward town.

***

Charles Wheat lay stretched out in his recliner watching a DVR recording of “Saturday Night Live” in his small mobile home. The only light came from the flickering TV image, the only sound from the TV’s small speaker. The Rose Well Trailer Park was quiet after 9 p.m. The 15 mobile homes were occupied by retired oldsters mostly, a single guy Wheat pegged as a pervert, a suspiciously quiet newlywed couple and a single mom with two brats.

Wheat lifted a clinking glass to his lips and sipped the ice tea as if it were hard scotch. On TV a skinny actor was impersonating Justin Timberlake as the real pop star looked on. The comedy was lost on Wheat who only stared blankly, his eyes shifting only periodically to the cell phone on the table next to his chair.

As he reached for the remote to fast-forward through a Hallmark commercial his cell chirped Beethoven’s 9th. He snatched it up. Flipped it open. Pressed the green button.

“What.”

Wheat heard air blowing across the caller’s mouthpiece and a clicking sound. Chattering teeth?

“Hello?”

“M-Mr. Wheat?”

“Coyote. Where are you?” Wheat jumped out of the recliner and corssed to the wide window next to his narrow door. He pulled the blinds back and looked outside.

“On-n-n-n- my b-bike. N-n-need to ssssee you.”

“Absolutely not. We discussed this. We’ll—”

“C-C’mon, man. Frr-frrr-reezing!”

“Sorry. Get lost.”

“P-P-Pleeeeeaaaase.”

Afraid the kid might turn on him, blackmail him like they did in the movies (God, I hope I’m not indebted to this punk for life!): “He’s the one who made me do it!” Wheat relented—slightly. “Look. I’ll meet you tomorrow in the alley behind the book store, but not—”

“N-No. Now. I’m fr-freezing. C-Can’t go home.”

Wheat knew about his hired hand’s home issues, that the kid was bounding house to house, probably girlfriend’s house to girlfriend’s house, rather than going home to his parents. But he made that bed. He’d have to lie in it.

“P-Pllleeeeeeaaaaaassssse.”

“Tomorrow.”

Wheat was about to push END on his cell when Coyote called out two words. Anything else would have made him hang up anyway. This made him press the phone tight to his ear and yell, “What’d you say!?”

“I-I said she’s dead.”

***

Though he was driving slow (he had to, the air was so cold on his throttle hand he was afraid he’d lose control of the motorcycle while he was talking on the cell with the other) Coyote could barely make out Charles Wheat’s voice. All he knew was that he had to get SOMEWHERE to get warm. Eat something. Take a hot shower, or at least wash the sticky wine off his hands.

And clean off his gun.

***

Wheat paced his living room with quick stomps, the walls and floor creaking in the small space as the trailer slightly shimmied under the stress. Tears streamed down his face. The glass of tea lie broken on the floor where it bounced off the TV. The TV screen was smashed, Justin Timberlake’s musical number silenced forever.

“How could I do this?” He sniffed back tears. “Oh, dear God, why did I do this?”

The self-admonishment continued through each stomping pace.

I can’t believe I trusted that moronic dumbass to follow directions. I can’t believe he actually murdered her. I mean, I know I wanted to see her dead more than anything, but MURDER? I can’t believe I was part of this. What have I done? They’re going to trace it back to me. That punk can’t hide anything. What an idiot! He was only supposed to make her suffer like she made me suffer! I can’t believe this. He screwed it all up. He ruined my life.

It was a long time ago, but Charles Wheat remembered a movie he had seen with his wife in Gates. It featured a man—a wealthy doctor as he recalled—who was cheating on his wife. The doctor was played by the late great Martin Landau to an expert degree because he started out so strong, so sure of his plotting, and ended weak and timid. The problem was that he had decided to make amends with his wife, Claire Bloom, rebuild his future, and break it off with the girlfriend played by the spicey Anjelica Houston. When Houston’s character threatens to go to the wife and destroy Landau’s future, he goes to his mobster brother and pays to have the “girlfriend problem” taken care of.

The mobster is quick to aid his brother, accepts payment, and in a later unexpected scene, Landau answers the phone and hears the words, “It’s done.”

Wheat remembered the emotions conveyed in that scene, the realization that you did something so unspeakably evil that you could never take back, how it made his spine grow cold and his hands shake just thinking about it.

God, I’m glad that’s not me.

The “problem” wasn’t taken care of. In the movie Landau’s conscience made sure of that.

Wheat never thought he’d feel what that must really be like, even with all the scheming and plotting surrounding his hatred of the Dawn woman.

But now he knew.

“Oh, my God! What did I do? What the hell did I do!”

But you did the right thing.

I did? Murder?

YOU didn’t kill anyone. That stupid kid did it.

But I told him to.

You told him to PUNISH her.

HE’S the murderer. YOU’RE just the one who sought justice.

Wheat’s inner argument was interrupted by a quick rattling knock at the door.

***

Coyote had done as he was instructed. He rode the motorcycle up to the opening of Rose Well Trailer Park on the south end of town and killed the engine, then he walked the bike through the freezing darkness and stashed it behind the tarp-covered patio furniture behind the trailer number 216.

He couldn’t believe Charles Wheat lived in a run-down trailer park. Wasn’t the guy a doctor or something?

Then he went around to the front and knocked.

Mr. Wheat opened the door and grabbed Coyote by the arm, pulling him into the living room and slamming the thin door behind him. “What the hell did you do!?” He screamed.

“Keep your voice down, will you?” Coyote said as he rubbed his hands up and down his arms. He crossed to an electric heat vent and crouched down in front of it. “I thought you wanted this to be on the down low.”

“You just killed a woman! How could you be so—”

“She ain’t dead. Relax.”

“—cavalier about ending a human . . . . What did you say?”

“I said,” Coyote said standing and turning to face the man, “she ain’t dead. Relax. I just told you that so you’d let me come here to get warm.”

Wheat blew out a puff of air, let a nervous shudder escape. “What? You’re sure?”

“I should know. I’m the one who didn’t kill her.” Coyote moved to the kitchen and flicked on the overhead light. “Got anything to eat? I’m starving.”

Wheat followed him, made no effort to keep his fridge from being raided. “She’s not dead?”

Coyote shrugged, his head in the fridge. “You know you don’t have anything in here but some expired cottage cheese and fast food bags?”

Wheat started to lose his temper again. His fists clenched and unclenched. “Forget the damn food and tell me exactly what you did!”

Coyote stood, a spotty apple in his hand. He turned it over and bit into a spot that wasn’t completely black. It squished like an old potato. He moved to the sink and quickly spit it out. Coyote didn’t sense Wheat come up behind him and sucker punch him in the kidney. A sharp rocking pain jolted through his gut, into his testicles, and up into his lungs knocking the wind out of him. He collapsed to his knees and rolled aside with his back against the cabinets.

Wheat stood over him and snatched a steak knife from the rack next to the microwave. He wagged the gleaming point in Coyote’s face. Wheat’s coffee-stained teeth glimmered with spittle as he snarled, “Look, you worthless punk. You better tell me what happened with that girl or I’ll cut your fucking heart out!”

Coyote coughed, spit into his hand half-expecting to see blood. There was none. “Okay, okay. You’re the boss.”

***

By 2 a.m. Coyote had brought Wheat up to speed.

The older man at first seemed timid hearing the story, even cringing a couple of times, but his eyes flared and he licked his snarling lis more and more as the tale became juicier. By the time Coyote got to the part about pressing the empty gun to her temple and pulling the trigger, Mr. Wheat was practically laughing. All emotional regret had flushed from his system.

This was a second chance.

His inner voice had been right all along. This was the JUST thing to do.

The kid took another bite of the nuked Arby’s roast beef sandwich and chewed, his cheeks full.

“Why did you do that?”

“Hmm?”

“Shoot her in the head with an empty gun?” Wheat leaned back and crossed his arms, watched as Coyote finished chewing and swallowed.

“I wanted to make sure she was really passed out before I finished up.”

Wheat nodded approvingly, curled out his lower lip through a mischievous smile. “Nice. You played it up to see if she’d jump up screaming once you cocked the gun—and what was it you said?”

“ ‘I can’t leave you like this. I have to finish the job,’ somethin’ like that.”

Wheat chuckled. “Too nice. Too, too perfect.”

Coyote crammed the last of the sandwich into his maw and chewed.

“And she didn’t make a move, huh? Out cold?”

The kid slowly nodded, then said something Wheat couldn’t understand with his mouth full.

“Eat. I’ll get you something to wash that down. Tea?”

A nod.

Charles Wheat grabbed the pitcher of tea from the cabinet next to the refrigerator, added some ice to a glass, and poured as the kid swallowed his last bite.

“I said,” Coyoted smiled as he accepted the glass, “When do I get the rest of my money?”

Wheat resumed his seat across from him. “As soon as I get my assurance that you did what you said.”

“How will you know all that?”

“Something like this won’t escape the Homer, Indiana gossip mill, my boy. It’ll be all over the papers before the holiday.”

“You know she could have died . . . .” Coyote’s eyes followed Wheat as the older man stood p and started cleaning off the table. “I mean I don’t know that much about alcohol poisoning, but she was really putting it away.”

“You were worth every penny, kid,” Wheat said ignoring him. “But I’m going to have to deduct a couple hundred for my TV. That was pretty much your fault.”

“Mr. Wheat?” Coyote started, forgetting the deduction for the moment, “I said she could have died. I can’t say for sure she isn’t—”

“I don’t give a damn.”

Coyote remembered the tears in the man’s eyes when he was pulled into the mobile home. They could only have come from regret when Coyote lied and said he’d killed her. “How could you say that now? You were all eff’d up when you thought I cacked her.”

“There’s a difference between murder and suicide, young grasshopper.”

“Coyote.”

“Forget it.”

“You didn’t kill her, Coyote. She drank herself to death—if indeed she’s dead.”

Coyote stood, now all warm and fed, and asked, “Mr. Wheat, would it be okay if I crashed here tonight?”

Wheat started to shake his head.

“I ain’t gay or nothing. It’s just cold out and I gave my jacket away to my girlfriend.”

Wheat laughed and clapped the tall kid on the shoulder. “Of course you can stay. You earned it. The couch is all yours. Just keep it quiet. I need to get some sleep.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Wheat started to leave the kitchen when Coyote tapped him on the shoulder.

“Um, can I ask why we–?”

“Justice.”

“Justice?” Coyote remembered the sweet little girl in the photos, the happy mom, the tragic headline. What could she have done to hurt Charles Wheat? “What did she do to deserve death by wine?”

Wheat turned and faced the kid. He tucked his hands in his pockets and lifted his chin like a father about to teach an important lesson to his teenage son.

“Look, kid. As far as I’m concerned, if she dies from alcohol poisoning it’s what she deserves. It would have happened anyway. She’s a drunk.”

“I noticed.”

“And if she doesn’t die, she’ll be ostracized by the entire community. I’m sure she’ll be destitute, homeless. Her life will be ruined. She may even blow her own brains out.” Wheat shrugged. “You should have left her your gun, sped things along.”

“I never had bullets.”

Wheat laughed, turned to leave.

“But how is that justice?”

Coyote watched Charles Wheat’s expression slacken, his head bow.

He said, “Because the bitch murdered my wife and son.”

Pastor Steven Green woke early on Tuesday morning. He’d had a pleasant evening away from home, tucked away in a quiet movie theater in the next town, watching “The Nativity” with his adoring wife. It was like the old days when they were courting.

He was thankful for Julie Petular. The teen got along so well with their little girl. And Tracy could be a handful at times.

Kelly was already up, but her side of the bed was still warm. He heard water running in the bathroom and smelled coffee coming from the kitchen. Life was good.

Rolling out of bed and slipping on a robe and slippers, he made his way down the hallway and rapped lightly on the bathroom door.

“Tracy?”

“Mornin’, daddy. I’m almost finished.”

“Good girl.”

“I’m washing my hands.”

“Good girl.”

The pastor pressed his palm to the door and lowered his head. He closed his eyes and muttered a silent prayer to God for giving him such a wonderful family.

In the kitchen, Kelly stood at the stove laying strips of bacon in a frying pan. They hissed and crackled as the pastor hugged his wife from behind and kissed her gently on the side of the neck.

“Morning, love.”

“Mornin’, hon.” She turned her head and kissed him back. “You’re up early.”

Steven Green stretched and turned from side to side working the kinks out of his lower back. “Well, tomorrow’s a big day. We’ve got that Thanksgiving breakfast to put together.”

Her attention on the frying pan, Kelly said, “I talked to Mrs. Shepherd already this morning.”

“Oh, lord.”

“Yeah, she’s already having ‘issues’ not knowing if she’ll have the time to make the deviled eggs.”

Marla Shepherd was notorious throughout the St. Matthews community for volunteering for things and excusing her way to the end without ever lifting a finger.

Steven poured himself a cup of coffee and said, “I should have stopped her from the beginning. Who has deviled eggs for breakfast?”

“I know, but the lady means well.”

The pastor made a face that asked sarcastically, ‘Does she?’ as he scooped sugar into his mug and stirred.

Tracy Green came bounding out of the hallway trailing a coloring book behind her. She planted herself in her regular seat at the table and said, “I want eggs.”

Kelly moved the bacon to a plate covered with a paper towel to absorb the grease. “How about you, Pastor Green?”

To Tracy, pastor said, “Honey, you don’t demand at the kitchen table. Remember, ‘Through patience a ruler can be persuaded and a tongue can break a bone’.”

“Proverbs?” Kelly asked.

“Twenty-five.”

All Tracy got out of it was, “I don’t want to break a bone. I just want eggs.”

Steven laughed and grabbed a couple strips of bacon and said, “I’m going to take a quick shower.”

Kelly called after him, “Steven, you have to eat more than that!”

“I’ll be fine. I’ll just be across the parking lot if I get hungry later.”

Kelly shook her head as she placed the plate of bacon in the middle of the table. A moment later she could hear the shower start in the other room.

“Na-ah. I said I wanted eggs,” Tracy whined, eyeing the bacon like they were dead snakes.

“Eggs are comin’, sweetie.”

“Awwww.”

To take her daughter’s mind off the egg demand, Kelly said, “So, you got to meet Julie’s new boyfriend, huh?”

“Yeah. He’s big.”

“He used to play football at high school.”

“Is he one of the Bears.”

Kelly laughed as she started beating four eggs in a mixing bowl. “Don’t ever say ‘Bears’ in front of your father. You know this is a Colts house.”

“Well he’s big like a bear. Can I say that?”

Kelly poured the eggs into the frying pan and set the bowl aside. “I think I’d still steer clear of bears, dear. Even the animals.”

Then she poured a small glass of orange juice and set it in front of her daughter.

“Eggs ready?”

“Coming, honey. Be patient.”

“Yeah. I know. Proverbial.”

“Proverbs, honey, but yeah, that’s where it comes from.”

Tracy sipped her juice in silence for a few seconds before starting to whine, “I’m huuuungry.”

“So, tell me more about Julie’s boyfriend. What’s his name?”

“Doggie.”

“His name is Doggie?”

“Something like that.”

As her mommy finished with the eggs, Tracy plopped her coloring book on the table and opened it. She flipped through some pages, pointed at different animals, and sang “Two by two, two by two. Two eggs sunny side up.”

“So, he was nice?”

Tracy shrugged. “I guess. He got Julie to give us Jell-O pops and stuff.”

Kelly dished out some scrambled eggs onto a plate and turned to give them to her daughter. “There you go, sweetie.”

“NOT SCRAMBLED! SUNNY SIDE!”

***

Steven Green officially became Pastor Green when he buttoned on the Roman collar. He stood in front of the full length mirror in the bedroom and combed his hair. Then he opened his Bible and read a passage to himself.

Then he said a small prayer.

Lord, God, grant me the wisdom to see this day through with Your Word.

Lord, God, grant me the patience to see this day through with Your Word.

Lord, God, grant me the stern hand to see this day through with Your Word.

Then he took a deep breath and stepped out of the bedroom.

Kelly and Tracy were both sitting at the table, Kelly reading the morning newspaper and nibbling at cold scrambled eggs, Tracy poking her toast corners into her yokes.

“She won again, didn’t she?”

Kelly smiled but did not look up from the paper. “There’s a sale at Target.”

“I want a Wii.” From Tracy.

Pastor Green glanced to the table by the front door. “Did you see the church key, hon?”

Still buried in the paper. “I did, yesterday. You put it in your pocket before we left for the show. I told you to leave work behind.”

“So I put it on the table right here, didn’t I?”

Kelly shrugged.

“Hmm,” I could swear. . . . The pastor came into the kitchen and kissed his daughter on the forehead, then he kissed his wife on the cheek as she continued. “Could I take your keys ‘til it turns up?”

“Mm. Just take the church key off my ring. I need to go into town later.”

“To get my Wii,” Tracy sang.

Both parents ignored the not-so-subtle Christmas hint and went back to what they were doing. Kelly read the paper and picked at a piece of toast. Pastor Green went off in search of his wife’s keys in her purse.

After prying the key from the ring, pastor said, “Bye. I’ll see you after awhile.”

Kelly suddenly sat up straight and slapped down the paper. “Oh, I almost forgot.”

Pastor raised his eyebrows and froze.

“Ellen Maypen called. She’s not coming in again today. Her Stanley is still sick.”

“What? Why did she call the house?”

Kelly shrugged. “I don’t know. She said she got the answering machine every time she tried the office. She said she left you a message.”

Pastor Green let his gaze wander to the window, the parking lot and church beyond. “Hm. I wonder why Sara didn’t pick up.”

Kelly narrowed her eyes at her husband. “Steven, don’t go there.”

“What? I just wondered—”

“If Sara Dawn went swimming in the Communion wine?”

Pastor’s face turned into a scowl, but there was a whimsical glint in his eye that confessed that his wife was never too far off. “I never said that.”

“You thought it, and you know it.”

He shrugged.

“On more than one occasion.”

“I just think she needs to be watched is all. The woman is an alcoholic, dear, and she lives in a building rent free, while getting paid, not twenty feet and a flight of stairs from a stash of alcohol.”

“Steven.”

“What?”

“How could you?” Kelly took her hands off the paper and turned to her husband, but before saying anything she turned to her daughter and said, “Tracy, dear, take your coloring book in the other room.”

“Aww.”

“What animals are you on?”

“Giraffes and hippos.”

“Go color and don’t come back ‘til you get to zebras.”

“Awwwwww.”

Mom and dad together: “Tracy.”

“I’m goin’.”

After the little girl stomped into the other room and plopped down on the couch, Pastor Green stepped up and sat at the table next to his wife. “You don’t have to give me the lecture, Kell.”

“Why not? I have to listen to yours every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday.”

She was always teasing him about the lecture-quality of his sermons. He waved it off. “You were saying?”

“I was cautioning you to go easy on Sara. Alcoholism is an illness, Steven, you know that.”

“You’re saying I shouldn’t be concerned.”

Kelly sighed. “How many years has she been living in that cold church basement?”

“That doesn’t mean—”

“Steven.”

“Dear?”

“She’s been with us twelve years. She’s like family. We should treat her—”

“Earl Jessup saw her coming out of Delar’s Liquors with two paper bags shaped like bottles last summer.”

Kelly sat back, narrowed her eyes again. “I don’t believe you,” she said softly.

“What?”

“Earl Jessup is nearly blind, for one. He buys into your whole ‘watch her, she’s sinful’ bit. And Delar’s is a convenience store. They could have been milk bottles.”

“They weren’t milk bottles, and Earl was sure enough it was her.”

“Oh, Earl’s a nut.”

“Kelly.”

“Remember that time he said aliens were steeling carrots out of his garden?”

Pastor laughed. “Earl’s got nothing to do with this.”

“You’re right. We’re talking about Sara.” She leaned forward. “And what if she did tie one on last night? What if Earl was right and she was stocking up for the week of Thanksgiving. Maybe it’s her poor mom’s birthday or something.”

“She better not have.”

“Steven. Think about how depressed that poor girl is all the time. Do we really give her anything to live for?”

“George has been asking her over to his house for dinner. She won’t go.”

“Have you?”

“Have I what?”

“Asked her to join us for dinner?”

“You know I have. She tells us ‘no’ too.”

Kelly tilted her head and wrinkled her chin

She stood and rounded her husband’s chair. She put her hands on either side of his Roman collar and massaged his neck. “I’m just saying to practice patience. Just because she didn’t answer the phone is no reason to think she’s passed out drunk on the floor.”

“Oh, that feels good.” Pastor shrugged off his wife’s hands. “Wait a minute. I never said anything about her drinking. YOU started it! I just wondered aloud why she hadn’t answered the phone.”

“But it crossed your mind.”

“Like it crossed yours?”

It was true enough. Steven and Kelly Green had these broken conversations about Sara Dawn every couple of months, more around the holidays, since she had come to live in the basement of St. Matthews.

She was a really nice girl, very pleasant to talk to and very wise for her age, but she had a lot of dark shadows around her. She had a sufferable childhood, was raised by cold foster parents, and never knew a family. All the evidence behind her parent’s deaths seems to indicate they were a couple who imbibed regularly . . . to the point of their untimely deaths.

It was Kelly who studied alcoholism thoroughly and suggested to Steven that the disease was hereditary.

“It may just be a matter of time before the girl leaves this earth the way her parents had,” she once said in one of these conversations.

“How could you be so dark in your line of thinking when you just said we should take her in and care for her?” Steven had said.

“I’m just saying we should be mindful of her condition.”

Both the pastor and his wife seemed to be of the same mind, but at different times. One of them would always caution a gentle hand, forgiveness, and aid while the other argued watchfulness, a stern gaze and something bordering on paranoia.

The next time they discussed Sara, the tables would turn.

The truth was that neither of the Greens had any experience with alcoholism. They were both raised by ultra-conservative Christian parents who taught them early that alcohol was the devil’s poison.

Their later wisdom, and Steven’s seminary training, gave them a blink or two of balanced thought, but the old learning ran deep. Like someone raised in a bigoted household, even in later life when the rest of the world stands like an open textbook of objectivity, the original words stick like railroad spikes.

The bottom line: both cared for Sara, but balanced on the edge of a precipice of paranoia, just waiting for the day when something horrible confirmed their innermost fears.

Neither could have suspected that day had finally come.

Pastor Green opened the front door to St. Matthews church and crossed immediately to the thermostat. It was set at 68. Since he was going to be working here this morning, he turned it up to 74.

Sara Dawn was never permitted to touch the thermostat because, as pastor told her, “No one is supposed to be LIVING in the church. We have to carry on as though that were the case.”

She seemed agreeable, but alcohol consumption tended to trick the body into a false sense of warmth. He didn’t think his wife was too far off about being watchful—and, he had to admit—patient.

As he strode up the center aisle to the narthex and the office beyond, Pastor Green removed his coat and hat. He called out, “Sara? Sara, are you up here?”

An answer would have come by the time he reached Mrs. Maypen’s desk, but none came. The girl was obviously still downstairs. There were no bicycle tracks in the light dusting of snow they had received last night. Maybe she was sick. Maybe she was preoccupied with cleaning chores. Or maybe she was ‘sleeping it off.’ Whatever the case, Pastor Green wasn’t armed for a confrontation. There was too much going on this week.

Pastor hung his coat and hat on the hook outside his office and used the church key to open his office door. Once inside, he turned on the space heater under his desk and sat down. He tapped a random key on his keyboard to halt the screen saver and set about his first task of the day.

Checking his e-mail.

He browsed up the list of incoming messages from the bottom-up so he could see what the oldest ones were. He had a “Two priests and a monk” joke from his brother-in-law, a request from the Board of Elders to meet next Tuesday evening—after the holidays—instead of tonight, a thank-you note from the community hospital for his gifts and time, a request from Mr. and Mrs. Olejnik to discuss their son Jeffrey, an apology from old Mrs. Hittle for missing service last Sunday, and an e-mail from Sara Dawn.

It was sent last night at 11:10 p.m.

The subject was, I CAN’T WAIT ANOTHER DAY

“Oh, my God,” Pastor Green muttered, “She’s killed herself.”

***

Sara WAS dead. At least that’s how she felt. She woke with uncontrollable shaking, her body freezing and shuddering. Unable to open her eyes to more than slits because the slightest light felt like lasers drilling into her skull, Sara tried to remember what had happened. All she could concentrate on was the pain: the pain of the cold tearing through her skin, the raw pain in her throat, the throbbing pain behind her eyes and the even bigger throbbing pain in the top of her skull. And it felt like she was laying on a lazily-turning merry-go-round.

Sara tried to determine where she was and why she was so cold. She didn’t recognize the room but figured it’s probably a wine cellar in some basement somewhere. She could smell the wine—Breathe through your mouth, Sara, or you’ll throw up—and she could see bottles lying on the cement floor where she lay.

Naked.

I’m naked. I’m NAKED? Oh, my God, what happened to me?

OWWWWWW. A wave of nausea surged up but stopped in her chest. Her limbs, breasts, and stomach may have been freezing cold, but her esophagus was on fire.

Have.

To.

Move.

Have to throw—

Sara’s body heaved and she simultaneously vomited and urinated.

Then she passed out again.

***

Pastor Steven Green sat at his computer and stared. His eyes were as wide as silver dollars. His fingers drummed nervously on the arms of his wing back chair, his knee bobbed as spasms of anxiousness knocked his muscles.

His upper lip was sweating.

Sara Dawn didn’t commit suicide, but he almost would have preferred it. The contents of her e-mail left him both speechless and dumbfounded. The last 12 years were a lie, a horribly vicious lie concocted by . . . oh, he just couldn’t grasp the reality of it.

DEAR STEVEN:

THIS IS A VERY DIFFICULT LETTER TO WRITE, BUT I JUST COULDN’T WAIT ANY LONGER. I’VE SPENT WHAT FEELS TO BE MY ENTIRE EXISTANCE DOWN HERE, THE DAMSEL TRAPPED IN THE KING’S DUNGEON.

I’M BEGGING YOU TO RELEASE ME SO I CAN FALL INTO YOUR STRONG ARMS AND YOU CAN WHISK ME AWAY FROM ALL THIS. MAKE ME YOUR QUEEN AND I WILL KNEEL BEFORE YOU ALL DAY – AND ALL NIGHT. ;-)

I CAN’T BELIEVE MY INHIBITIONS ARE TURNING ME LOOSE. IT FEELS SO GOOD TO FINALLY GET THIS OUT.

STEVE, I LOVE YOU.

AND I WANT YOU.

I WANT YOU IN THE WORST WAY. YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW BAD, AND THE IMAGES THAT GO THROUGH MY MIND….

WHEN YOU’RE STANDING OVER ME, PLACING THE COMMUNION HOST ON MY TONGUE… OH, THE THOUGHTS I HAVE!

I KNOW THERE ARE COMPLICATIONS (THE WIFE)

BUT YOU CAN TRUST THAT I WILL BE AS DESCREET AS I HAVE BEEN THESE PAST YEARS. NO ONE KNEW OF MY LOVE FOR YOU, AND NO ONE NEED KNOW OF YOURS FOR ME.

YOU DON’T EVEN NEED TO LOVE ME BACK. JUST TAKE ME AND MAKE LOVE TO ME IN THE SWEET WAY I KNOW YOU WOULD.

I’VE SEEN YOU LOOK AT ME. I KNOW YOU WANT TO. PLEASE COME.

IF YOU FEEL THE SAME, COME SEE ME DOWNSTAIRS.

I’M READY TO PARTY.

AND I’M READY TO SHOW YOU THE BEST TIME YOU’VE EVER HAD.

YOUR DAMSEL IN DISTRESS

SARA – THOUGH YOU CAN CALL ME “FRISKY KITTEN” IF YOU WANT TO…. MEOW!

“Oh, dear God,” Pastor Green muttered. His eyes closed, he said a prayer of deliverance from this situation, but when he opened his eyes again the e-mail was still there.

“Oh, Lord.”

Then he pushed back on his chair and stood. His knees trembled and he had to sit back down.

When he could stand again he left the office, crossed to the stairwell leading to the kitchen, and pushed the door slightly. When it was open a crack, he turned the side of his head toward it so he could listen for any telltale signs of Sara’s proposed party.

Quiet as a church.

The pastor went downstairs expecting so see what he’d never expect.

And got an eyeful of the unexpected.

***

Pastor Green had to stop in the men’s room across from the offices before getting back to his desk. He threw up in the handicapped stall before getting back to his office and picking up his phone. He had several calls to make. Some would be pleading, some would be fearful, and some would have to be very, very trusting.

There was really only one course of action.

His first call was across the parking lot, to his home, to his wife.

***

Sara heard something that sounded like a scream way back in her mind, a man’s scream. She also vaguely remembered throwing up and getting up to go to the bathroom without actually getting up. She slowly propped herself up and looked at what had sluiced from her mouth, and nose. She turned away and cringed, felt her stomach heave once more.

Whatever had come out of her, and however much wine she had spilled, covered her chilly body from her chin down to her thighs. Her hair was matted on one side as well, and one eye felt “glued” shut from whatever she had been laying in.

“Ohmmy,” was all she could get out. Then she started to cry. With each racking sob came a new pounding in her head, a splitting pain at the base of her skull, and a wave of nausea. Her stomach was on fire and constantly somersaulting.

Then she collapsed again. Only this time she didn’t pass out. She just lay there too weak to move, too sick to move, and too cold to care.

It could have been hours, minutes, or even days for all she knew, but Sara was suddenly no longer alone. Whispering women’s voices found her pounding head.

“Just look at her.”

“Unbelievable.”

“Oh, dear God.”

“What she said to my husband.”

“Get her out of here.”

“Clean her up?”

“Just dump her in the trash.”

“Lost sheep.”

“Lost, hell. She’s a bitch.”

Sara could make out three or four voices. She recognized members of the church’s women’s council, specifically Kelly Green, the pastor’s wife. But there was also Fran Colbourne and Ellie Sauder.

Oh no.

Then Sara remembered.

She remembered the man—boy?—who came to see her last night. What? How could that have happened? Did they? Did he? Did she let him? No, no. She felt INTACT. What happened—?

Sara felt herself lift off the cold and unforgiving ground.

“Ew. I’m stepping in it.”

“Don’t be such a whiner, Fran, and lift her arm higher.”

She lolled her head in a way she hoped would keep her from throwing up again.

“What would possess this girl?”

“The devil, that’s who.”

“Oh, Ellie, you think the devil’s responsible for everything.”

“She’s responsible for herself.”

“Just clean her up and get her dressed. I’ll pack her things.”

“Okay, Kelly.”

“Yes, Mrs. Green.”

Sara felt herself propel forward, floating, the tops of her feet scraping along the floor. Then she smelled hand sanitizer, soap, toilet cleaner and other solvents—

The bathroom!

There was a shower in here that pastor never let her use. He said he was afraid her long hair would clog the drain and they had already spent $2,000 on the plumbing after the kids held their fundraising dog wash down here the year before Sara moved in.

“It’s for emergencies only,” he had said.

If ever she felt like an emergency . . . .

Oh, thank God. Please, just let me stand in the—

SHOWER!

COLD!

“Aaaaaarrrrr!”

“Ssssh, deary. This if for your own good.”

“AAAARRRRRRRAAAAAAA!!!”

Sara was too weak to pull out of the clawlike grasps on each arm as the two women steadied her in the hissing stream. Though the icy water jolted her body and her brain, she still felt sick and death-weak—though now fully awake.

“What’s going on?” She rasped.

“We’re getting you cleaned up,” Fran said.

“Don’t talk to her,” Ellie said. Just do what Kelly said.

Sara still didn’t know how she got where she was, how she managed to get so drunk and pass out, what happened to her clothes, and what happened to the—

“Strange boy.”

“What’s that, dear?”

Ellie snapped, jerked Sara’s arm as she admonished the older woman. “I said don’t talk to her.”

“She said something about a strange boy.”

“Probably somebody she’s been screwing in the church basement all this time.”

Fran gasped. “Goodness.”

Ellie took over both arms, her fingers were like talons, as Fran rubbed some soap between her hands and started washing Sara’s hair and face.

“No,” Sara tried again. Her head thundered. “There WAS. There was a boy here. Stranger.”

“Ellie said I can’t talk to you, and that’s good enough for you.” Fran’s last words of kindness were, “Take this soap and wash between your legs. Get all the filth out of you.”

Sara took the soap but dropped it. Fran tisked and bent down to pick it up.

“Nevermind,” Ellie said. “Just go help Kelly.”

Sara vaguely heard the older woman leave the room and the door shut. Then the spins started again. But it wasn’t the spins. She was being spun.

Sara’s head twirled until a cold wet hand clasped her jaw and squeezed. Her cheeks were pinched in and her lips puckered out like she was doing a fish impression. Through her fuzzy vision, clouded by a combination of the hangover and the splashing mist from the cold shower, Sara made out the ferocious look on Ellie Sauder’s face. The woman was young, probably somewhere between Sara’s age and Kelly Green’s. Usually beautiful with curls of auburn hair around green eyes and modest make-up, Ellie looked worn, severe, as if she were just dragged awake in the middle of the night by some kind of emergency. There were dark circles under her red eyes, coffee on her breath, and no make-up.

Coffee. That sounds good.

What time is it anyway?

Ellie took her hand off Sara’s jaw so she could grip her by both shoulders and shake her. “How could you do this to Kelly and Pastor Steven, you bitch!”

The slap came out of nowhere, unexpected and hard like a two by four. Sara’s head snapped to the left, then to the right as the slap returned from the other direction.

“You bitch!”

“I didn’t—”

“WHORE!”

After one more slap, Ellie Sauder did something Sara never would have imagined she was capable of.

She punched her in the stomach.

Stale breath and nausea heaved out of Sara as she crumpled to her knees. She gasped, trying to draw her breath.

That’s when Ellie’s tennis shoe came up and kicked her in the breast.

Sara tumbled back into the shower stall as Ellie reared back for another kick. She was just strong enough to tuck in her arms and legs to protect her softer parts, but the second kick impacted hard with the underside of her thigh below her left buttock.

“BITCH!”

Sara began to weaken as the beating intensified. Where was Fran? Where was Kelly Green? Where was pastor during all of this? Surely he could save her from this attack?

She tried again, begging in a whisper, “Ellie, don’t. Please, I didn’t—”

“CUNT!”

Fists came down on Sara’s head, impacted with her cheekbone, her eye, her ear, her forehead. Kicks came up on Sara’s legs, stomach.

Then darkness came as she was knocked cold.

***

Sara Dawn didn’t know how she was dressed or how she had gotten to the church narthex upstairs. She was wearing jeans, a sweater that felt like it was on backwards, her wool hat and scarf, her suede jacket, and tennis shoes without socks.

Someone was holding her up while someone else was lightly slapping her face to bring her around.

“Wha? Ellie, no. Please.”

“What’s she saying?” That was an older man’s voice. Earl? Earl Jessup. He’ll save her.

“Earl?”

“Shut-up!” He barked in her ear. His breath smelled of old cigars and coffee. Nausea bubbled in her empty stomach again.

“Earl, calm down. Sara, take this.” The accented voice had to be Mr. Martinez. He was always so kind to Sara, but something in his voice made her want to cry.

And cry she did. Her face reddened and her chin quivered. Tears rolled down her cheeks.

“I-I’m so sorry,” she said, but she had no idea why she was apologizing. She was attacked. A strange boy—

“Get her out of here.” That was Kelly Green. “Now.”

“Come now, Sara,” Mr. Martinez said as he pushed a large paper bag into her arms. She took it weakly. It was stuffed with clothes. One hard edge felt like a box down deep inside. My keepsakes? What? Why?

“Go.”

Sara staggered toward the back door that magically opened before her. She barely recognized Earl’s arm swinging it open.

Bright daylight exploded in her face and made her wince. The light was bright but stung only her left eye. Her right eye refused to open. It felt hot and swollen.

“Help me,” she whispered.

“We did,” someone said. A man. She couldn’t be sure who it was. “And you betrayed us.”

“Leave.”

“Get out.”

“Go.”

Sara staggered out into the bright, but cold, November day. The cold air stung her ankles and hands, but her face felt hot. Hot and numb.

She started to turn slowly around, to beg to come in just long enough to get warm before they—

The back door to St. Matthews Church in Homer, Indiana slammed shut just an inch from her face.

Sara leaned forward, the bag a cushion between her and the door, and rested her forehead against the wood. The hard cool surface felt good against her skin.

“God, please,” she whined, and tears poured from her eyes.

And with them, the last of her hope.

***

The stranger in the trench coat stood at the end of the long winding drive. Though he couldn’t see more than the steeple of the church above the trees, a couple of cars in the parking lot, and part of the front doors and steps, he knew what was going on in back.

A tear rolled down his cheek.

He whispered to no one, “Glenine, you never said this was going to be this hard.”

A voice only he could hear said, “John, it has not yet begun.”

When John fell to earth it wasn’t so much a fall as a “being.”

He woke in a standing position, tried steadying himself, and collapsed after three seconds. Though he landed in a large tuft of leaves, it was the worst pain he’d ever felt—especially since he had never experienced pain in the immeasurable time he’d been a soul in Heaven.

“Aaaaaggghh.”

“Oh, John, please.”

“Why does it hurt so much?” He screamed into the damp-smelling earth. He was clothed, but the clothes hurt. Folds and wrinkles in the fabric pressed against his skin, which felt too tight, it strangled his being. The cuffs of the coat he wore cut into his wrists, the boots on his feet crushed against his ankle bones. The cold air stung his ears with each breeze. Where the earth pressed against his body it stifled him. His lungs were too small. He couldn’t breathe. He was blind because he couldn’t see in 360 degrees around him in any angles—just whatever was in front of the two throbbing orbs in his too tight skull.

He felt every blink, the thin skin of his eyelids mushing together.

It hurt. It hurt to be alive.

John lay in the pile of leaves hyperventilating for a few moments, grunting, groaning, pulling at the belt that held his pants up, that squeezed him impossibly around the waist like a python.

When Glenine didn’t answer him, he sat bolt upright and twisted. He was in a forest thick with earthy smells. The sun shone down in brilliant golden rippling cascades between bare branches and trees with leaves glowing yellow, red and brown. All around him was nothing but forest.

“Glenine!”

“Don’t yell, John, I am with you.”

The voice came from all around him, from inside him, inside his head, but he could not see her, did not feel the angel’s presence.

“I’m afraid,” he confessed, hugging himself around the chest as the dampness of the ground soaked through the seat of his jeans. It was uncomfortable. His legs ached.

“I know you are, child. It’s only natural. You have been born a man.”

“But it hurts!”

“You will get used to it.”

John rolled to his knees and struggled to stand. Eventually, he crawled toward a tall birch tree and used it as a ladder, walking himself up to a standing position. Then he stood with his back against the tree and squinted up toward the sun.

“Don’t stare at the sun, John.”

John held up his hand to shade his eyes. “Why is it so dark here?”

He felt Glenine’s sigh. “It is noon, John. This is as bright as the day gets.”

“You mean it gets darker!?”

“Very dark.”

“What shall I do? Where will I go? . . . Glenine?”

“Yes, John.”

“I want to come Home.”

“You cannot, John. You have been tasked by your Father.”

John swallowed hard. Gagged. It was the first time he had ever swallowed.

It hurt to swallow.

“I understand.”

Silence passed between them as John’s eyes, wide with wonder, began to soak in his surroundings.

The woods in which he stood stretched on for as far as he could see. The trees in the distance were as close together as the ones near him, though he could make out clearings here and there, divots of ditches either man-made or natural where runoff spilled toward a river that babbled within earshot. The leaves applauded overhead, chittering like thousands of tiny palms. John watched as a brown leaf broke from a nearby maple and zigzagged to the earth below. It made no sound as it touched the ground.

“Incredible.”

“What is, my child?”

John closed his mouth. He had been staring agape at the wonders around him as the “pains” slowly became bearable. “All of this. This, this creation.”

“At one time more people thought so.”

“When?”

“Thousands of years ago. Millions. When people first walked out of His garden and saw these wonders for the first time. Trees, leaves, clear water, oceans, chasms, wonderful beasts both fierce and docile.”

“His earth.”

“His earth,” Glenine echoed.

“Glenine?”

No answer came.

“Glenine? I have another question.” John pushed off of the tree and staggered forward. He was able to walk but only in wobbly, tentative steps like a newborn fawn. “Glenine?”

Still no answer.

“Glenine?”

“GLENINE!!!”

“What you yellin’ at, boy?”

The voice that was NOT Glenine came from behind him and made John spin around. Not used to his legs quite yet, he windmilled his arms to steady himself, stumbled to the side, then hit the ground with a grunt.

The man was tall and thin. He wore a padded tan jacket over layers of green and red flannel. The knees of his work pants were stained black with earth and he held a long black narrow rod in his gloved hands. A bright orange hat covered his head and ears. Below the bill of the cap the man’s face was narrow and chiseled. Black hair grew in a patchwork beard spotted with sliver. His eyebrows were bushy and protruded on a wide narrow brow above black squirrelly eyes.

The man and John stared at each other until the man raised one eyebrow higher than the other. “Well?”

“I-I’m sorry. I-I didn’t mean to disturb you, sir.”

“Sheeuute, you ain’t disturbin’ me, boy. But you all are disturbin’ the turkey n’ that disturbs me.” The man snorted from his throat, turned his head, and spit a black gob of something at the ground.

John worked the muscles in his throat but he couldn’t duplicate the sound or the action.

“I’m s-sorry.”

The man tilted his head, chewed at something stuck in his cheek before spitting again—this time something black—then shouldered his rod and tilted his head back. “Aww,” snort, “There ain’t no wild turkey out here anyhow.”

John looked around nervously. He knew vaguely what a turkey was, but he didn’t know how they might react to him or what a WILD turkey might do if frightened by him.

“I’m scared,” John said, looking up to the man with wide, pleading eyes.

“Sheeuute, son, there ain’t nothin’ to be feared about. I ain’t gonna hurtcha.” The man stepped up to John and held out a hand to help him to his feet.

John reached out and took the man’s hand, allowed himself to be pulled up (the skinny man was stronger than he looked), and collapsed into the man’s arms.

“Whoa, whoa there, boy.” The stranger pushed him back up, but held him steady at the shoulders. “You okay to stand? You lit up there, son?”

“Son?” John teetered with his arms out to steady himself but managed to stand still after a moment. He was starting to get the idea of retroactively shifting his weight in subtle ways to keep upright. “You called me ‘son.’ Are you my father?”

The man took a half-step back from John, but leaned his face closer. He narrowed his black eyes and sniffed. “Father? Boy, I ain’t nobody’s pops.”

“I-I’m sorry, then. I-I should go.”

John turned in place, shuffled his feet to keep steady, but after rotating 360 degrees realized he didn’t know where to go.

“Maybe you better sit back down and let me go for help,” the man said pointing his thumb over his shoulder.

“No. No, I’m okay. I’m just . . . lost.”

“Lost? How’dja get here?”

John looked up at the blue sky above the trees but realized he had no way to explain his arrival from Heaven. “I-I don’t know for sure.”

“You got that there . . . .” The man snapped his gloved fingers. The sound was a soft THUP. “Amnesia? Like in the movies?”

“Amnesia?” John asked, sounding out the word on his new lips and tongue. “No, sir. I-I just don’t remember much.”

“Do you know your name at least?”

John brightened, laughed. “Yes! Yes, I do! I’m John. I’m John.”

The man reached out to calm him by resting a hand on his shoulder. “There, there, John. That’s a start. I’m Elmer. Elmer Petrie’s the name.”

“Elmer Petrie?”

“That’s right, and you’re John.”

“John, yeah. I’m John.”

Elmer let out a long exasperated breath. “Well, don’t this just tear the long johns.”

John stared, tilted his head and tried to understand what—

“What am I gonna do with you, boy?”

***

That was three days ago. John now stood at the end of the winding road off Route 9 that lead to St. Matthews church.

He watched through the woods until he saw a vague shape appear, moving right to left toward Route 9 but not along the winding drive. Through a clearing, he saw the jacket and wool hat, the long dark hair covering the ears, the arms holding the overstuffed grocery bag. The shape stopped a couple of times, looked over her shoulder, then continued. At one point she stopped and dropped the bag, staggered to a tree where she bent at the waist and wretched. Her dry heaves looked painful, even at this distance.

From farther to her left another shape charged straight toward John. The huge golden retriever bounded between the trees, apparently blind to the woman wretching nearby. The large dog slowed as it neared John, wagging its tail gratefully.

“Hello, girl,” John smiled down at the dog. “Did you see her?”

The retriever’s ears cocked as the dog tilted her head. Then she huffed softly.

“She okay?”

Wuh-huf.

“You sure?”

Huh-WOOF!

“Ssssh, girl. Not yet,” John sniffed. “Come on.”

John rubbed the tears from his cheeks and turned toward town. He started walking slowly toward his earthly home where he would stay until tomorrow, the golden falling into step at his side.

“You are doing well, my child,” came Glenine’s voice in his head.

“I am doing my best, but it hurts to see her suffer so much.”

“You are starting to realize what it’s like to be Him.”

And, like that, she was gone again.

Glenine had been keeping him company off and on, appearing only in his mind when he seemed to need a prodding to the next step closer to his purpose, his lesson.

John at first panicked with each gap of silence. He felt like a child pushed out on stage for a school drama, his lines and place lost, his knees shaking with fear. But more and more he was coming to accept her vanishing act . . . . And at times grow resentful of it, like she was teasing him or testing him unfairly.

He was starting to realize what it was like to be human.

***

“Let me hold Bailey back,” Elmer Petrie said as he rounded his pick-up truck and put the rod (actually, John learned, a .22 rifle) in the bed in back. Elmer covered the rifle with a towel—“To keep her from slidin’ around”—and rounded to the driver’s side.

John studied the door, the rust-spotted sky-blue paint job and the NRA sticker under the window. He stared at the pocked chrome handle and figured out how to open it.

WOOF!

John stumbled back, his heart hitching in his rib cage, his throat clenching, as the large shovel-headed dog thumped against the window. Its fur was blond, the color of morning wheat, and its eyes were large and honey brown. Its tongue panted and lapped at the glass, smudging and smearing as enormous paws thumped against the pane and shook the entire truck.

“Down, Bailey! Be nice!”

“W-What is it!?”

“That’s my dog, Bailey. What, you never seen a dog a’fore?” Elmer asked, craning his neck behind the cab to see where John stood ten feet away from the truck.

John shook his head. He didn’t hear Elmer Petrie mutter, “Weird som’bitch.”

After wrestling with the dog and climbing into the cab, Bailey’s leash wrapped tightly around his right wrist, Elmer called from inside, “Come on, boy. She ain’t gonna bite.”

John slowly approached the truck. He opened the door and stared at the dog and her master before climbing in. Elmer waited expectantly while the dog pulled at her leash and sniffed.

“Hello, Bailey,” John said softly. He held his hand out to show he meant no harm as he slowly climbed into the cab.

To John—and Elmer’s—surprise, the dog reared back against Elmer and started to whimper.

“What’s wrong, girl? You ain’t gotta be afraid of John. He’s our buddy.”

John said, “It’s okay, girl.”

“She knows what you are.”

Glenine’s voice made John freeze. “What?”

“I didn’t say nothin’,” said Elmer. “C’mon, boy, get in. She ain’t gonna bite.”

“He can’t hear me, John, but she can. His animals have never left Him. They know His love like no other creature in His universe,” Glenine said.

John climbed into the truck and pulled the door shut. He reached out a hand to Bailey and the dog lapped at it excitedly. John could hear Glenine whispering, “He is for you, girl. He won’t hurt you. Ssssh, ssssh. Good girl. Father loves you, girl,” though what Bailey picked up was more a combination of smells and pheromones that said basically the same thing.

John smiled as he ruffled the fur between the animal’s ears. “She’s beautiful.”

“She’s the only thing that ever cared for me,” Elmer said. “She’s been with me since she was a pup.”

John rode in silence to Elmer Petrie’s shack on the far side of Palley’s Woods.

The whole way there he could hear Bailey talking to him.

She said, “I’m here for you, John. I will take care of you. Glenine told me all about you.”

Though what John picked up was more a combination of gentle huffs, sniffs and licks that said basically the same thing.

Sara Dawn didn’t realize she had nowhere to turn until she arrived at the outskirts of town. Walking along Route 9, shuffling her feet in the flurry-laced gravel shoulder, she hummed an old hymn to herself that seemed to ease her throbbing head. Twice motorists slowed to eyeball her, but nobody was moved to ask the bruised and battered homeless woman if she needed any help. Twice Sara stopped, hobbled to the woods lining the road, and dry heaved until her eyes ached.

She didn’t lift her pounding head until she saw the metal legs of the sign that proclaimed, WELCOME HOME. It actually read WELCOME TO HOMER, but local graffiti artists cleverly eliminated the TO and the R.

Sara tried to smile but a piercing shot ripped through her teeth making her wince and frown instead. Touching her molars with her tongue, she felt a loose tooth. Ellie Sauder had punched out her teeth.

Nice.

I guess I deserved that, Sara argued with herself as she groaned forward.

It wasn’t until she reached Main Street that she inspired a reaction in any of the locals. A man coming out of the pharmacy almost bumped into her.

“Watch it!”

“Sorry,” Sara muttered without lifting her head.

A few doors down, she was almost swept up in a wash of women coming out of A.J. Klark’s clothing store. Their arms loaded with what would probably be future Christmas presents they navigated around Sara in two streams, forcing her to stop and clutch her bag tighter so they didn’t jostle her belongings out of her arms. Sara stood like a rock in the rapids of the chattering shoppers passed her.

She was about to continue moving when their voices made her stop again.

“Oh, my God, that’s her.”

“Who-her?”

“HER, the crazy one from St. Matthews.”

“Oh, gosh, you mean the one who tried to break up the Greens?”

“How do you know?”

“Ellie just called me from the church.”

“Ellie Sauder?”

“Mm hm. That’s her all right. Ellie said she beat her black n’ blue for what she did to Kelly and the pastor.”

“Serves her right, the bitch.”

Then Sara continued moving. She hoped they would think they were mistaken, that another voice would say, “No, I think that’s someone else, some poor woman who was wrongly accused and beaten by her husband or something.” But the way she started walking again, at a faster, clipped pace, she knew their suspicions were confirmed.

Sara only hoped they wouldn’t suddenly drop their bundles and charger her, finish Ellie’s job.

Sara Dawn walked down Main Street, crossed over to Raven, then shuffled up 1st, the crossed back over Main to Robin, then down 2nd. She continued crisscrossing the primary route through town until she wore her bare ankles raw and bloody. It took her until she reached the corner of Cardinal and 7th before she stopped and sat down on a bench in the nearby Tots’ Park, a small three-yard wide gap in a residential area with swings, slides, merry-go-rounds and see-saws. At noon the park was empty.

Sara winced when she sat down, a bruise caused by Ellie’s shoe piercing the back of her thigh. She briefly wondered how long the pains would last, how long the hangover would last and how long it would be before she found a new home.

Then she closed her eyes against the harsh daylight and tried to remember what brought her here.

There were fuzzy images, dark and chaotic. She remembered a tall boy, or a skinny man, coming into her room with the case of Communion wine . . . and a gun? Was there really a gun?

There had to have been something wrong with that memory. She didn’t recall feeling threatened or endangered, so why did she think there was a gun?

And what about the reactions this morning? What was that Fran and Ellie had been arguing about? Why were they calling her a whore and other names best suited for adulterers rather than what she really was, a stinking untrustworthy drunk.

Then she thought of a reason for the gun.

HE MADE ME DRINK.

“Oh, I wish I could remember what he said to me,” Sara whispered to the park. If only she knew a reason, knew why someone would want to force her to—

CHARLES WHEAT!

She remembered the threat from last weekend after church. It came back to her like a fog rolling over a beach, and like that the connections were made.

***

Sara was wearing her best sweater and ankle-length skirt. The skirt was black, the sweater Christmas green with black stitching in the outline of holly leaves across one shoulder and down her left arm. She wore her only pair of dangling earrings and put her hair up. She shined her shoes with some polish Mr. Martinez had given her. It was a beautiful Sunday, unseasonably warm. People smiled at her, touched her arm, asked her how she was getting on. They laughed when she commented about the weather, about the funny weatherman on WGTS.

Sara Dawn, as the church’s official altar attendant, acolyte (when no children were present to light the candles before service), and post-service cleaner, was omnipresent for every service. Before service she helped Elder Jessup open doors for older members of the congregation who depended upon walkers for their mobility.

This past Sunday she donned a white robe and lit the candles for the service, sat primly with her hands in her lap looking up at the cross while Pastor Green spoke about the lessons of the approaching holiday, about thankfulness and the virtues and curses of pride, and joined pastor in the narthex after service as he shook hands with each church member on their way out to enjoy the “fine, fine glorious weather.”

Sara shook hands with Fran Colbourne, who said, “Oh, dear, what a lovely sweater. The color really brings out your eyes.” And, touching her gently on the elbow, “You did well with the candles, honey. We’ll have to find you a boyfriend.”

Then Ellie Sauder shook her hand and laughed. “I’m so jealous.”

Sara had said, “Of—?”

“You, silly.” She slapped Sara lightly on the shoulder, a playful tap that said, “Oh, go on!” and said, “I wish I could look as attractive as you without make-up. I feel like I’m slapping mortar and brick on this face to keep looking fresh. You look so . . . so, natural.”

“Thank you.”

“Oh, honey, you’re beautiful. You’ll have to tell me your secret.”

Sara blinked and smiled as Ellie then moved to Pastor Green and kissed him on the cheek. “Lovely sermon today, Pastor Steve.”

When the church was empty and Sara moved to the chapel in the rear of the church, she heard a knock at the back door. Thinking maybe someone forgot something, or maybe Mr. Martinez had locked himself out and needed something from the tool shed, or maybe he had forgotten to clean up the paint he left on the rear stoop from his touch-up job on the door jamb, she crossed quickly to the door and pulled it open.

And her heart leapt into her throat.

Charles Wheat, the man she had only seen in a courtroom, his eyes rimmed with red, fierce with both sorrow and vengeance that stared at her as she took the stand, now stood before her. Wheat was wearing a navy blue suit, his sand-and-gray hair well quaffed. It was dark blond the last time she’d seen him all those years ago. He had probably just come from his own church’s service. Sara knew he wasn’t a member of St. Matthew’s congregation.

A bark of surprise escaped Sara’s lips and she jumped. Before she could move or retreat back into the church, Wheat was on her. He stepped into the doorway and grabbed her roughly by the arms.

“Don’t you dare scream,” he had said in the admonishing tone of a father telling his child not to dare cry before receiving the belt across her back.

Sara shook her head, a wild motion saying, PLEASE, PLEASE JUST DON’T HURT ME.

Her mouth opened and she stuttered without making a sound, her chin bobbing, before she was able to squeak out, “I-I’m so sorry about your—”

“Don’t you dare,” he snapped, his finger pointing at the bridge of her nose. “You don’t say a FUCKING word.”

Sara now nodded as convulsively as she had shaken her head earlier. YES, OKAY, ANYTHING. PLEASE DON’T HURT ME.

“You listen to me, you ignorant bitch,” Wheat rasped through clenched teeth. “I shouldn’t even tell you this much, give you this much of a warning, but unlike you I’m a God-fearing man.”

Sara stared, her green-gray eyes wide and watery gazing up at Wheat’s glare as he towered over her, his fingers digging into the shoulders of her favorite green Christmas sweater.

“You’re gonna die for what you did to me, to my family.”

Sara’s chin curled in upon itself as the tears came. There was no way she could tell this man how sorry she was for his loss. Both of them.

“You’re gonna suffer,” he said. Then tears started to well in his own eyes.

Charles Wheat then abruptly released his grip on her arms and turned to leave.

Sara stood paralyzed, afraid that if she moved she would fall down. Her legs felt so wobbly, like wet cardboard too weak to support anything.

Wheat stopped just outside the door and noticed something on the stoop outside the door. Sara watched as he bent over, holding the door open with his rear as he lifted something from the stoop.

She recognized what it was when he stood up. Mr. Martinez’s paint can. It was a small pint of glossy white paint used to touch up scratches on the door jamb.

Wheat held the can in one hand. The lid in the other.

Sara gasped as the cold gooey paint slapped against her chin, sweater, and front of her skirt. The oily metallic smell of the paint assaulted her senses as Wheat’s smile assaulted her heart.

He dropped the can and lid outside the door, clapped his hands clean, and vanished.

The door slammed shut.

Before going to bed that night, for the first sleepless night in over a week, she balled up her sweater and skirt and tucked them deep into the church’s garbage in the corner of the kitchen. Then she cleaned the drops of paint off the chapel floor with some hot water and turpentine.

That was the first time since the trial that she prayed for herself.

***

Sara opened her eyes and blinked. The pain in her head, behind her eye, in her arms, her legs, her rear, her back and her ribs all continued to throb or pierce. And now her stomach was churning with a new pain, the pang of hunger and dehydration.

She knew now that the armed teenager with the wine was sent by Charles Wheat. He had intended for her to drink herself to death, probably, or to drink until she suffered.

She wondered if he had intended for her to suffer this much.

Sara resumed her trek to nowhere, deciding that she would work her way back to Route 9 and move toward the bridge, toward the Lyle River where the few handfuls of Gates’ and Homers’ economic refugees went to huddle for warmth. She would find a home there.

She’d have to. There was nowhere else to turn.

Stepping onto the sidewalk leading away from Tot’s Park, Sara made her way east. She was vaguely aware of a car slowing down, then speeding past her as she walked, bag in her arms.

Sara prayed as she walked, “Lord, God, I know I have not been perfect—far from it. I haven’t even been a good sinner—not worthy of your forgiveness, but please please look our for me. I’m afraid, Lord, and I don’t know where to turn. Please, please help me. . . .”

Another car, or perhaps it was the same one, slowed again as Sara reached the corner of 8th and Bluejay. The driver waited for Sara cross Bluejay toward the warehouse district and Route 9 beyond before speeding off.

“ . . . I am not worthy of your salvation. I have not been pure. I probably did some unspeakable things without remembering them. For that, dear God, I am so SO sorry.”

By the time she reached the corner of 8th and Old Nine Road, Sara’s cut ankles were throbbing again. Though the cold air was keeping them numb, the constant filing at her skin by the stitching in her shoes became almost too much to handle.

As Sara started across Old Nine Road, a car came up behind her and slowed. This time the driver didn’t speed off and didn’t turn away. He paced Sara, the low motor rumbling ominously like the growl of a panther.

Risking a glance over her shoulder, Sara saw that the car was an old model muscle car painted with gray primer. Some chrome part of the engine was sticking up through a square cut in the hood. She couldn’t see how many, but there were several shapes inside. High school boys, she imagined. Then she thought of the boy with the gun and started to walk faster without looking back.

“Oh, dear God, please don’t let them hurt me.”

The near-empty bottle of whiskey hurled from the open passenger window and caught Sara just behind the left ear. It shattered in a spray of glass, booze, and blood.

As consciousness left her, so did thoughts of God or any hope for the future. The blackness that tunneled around her as her belongings tumbled out of the bag left her with a very clear realization just before her aching face impacted with the sidewalk.

There never was a God.

Elmer Petrie lived in a shack commune on the far northeast side of town. Well out beyond Palley’s Woods, the horseshoe-shaped forest that protected the entire east side of town. As the pick-up truck bounced over the long gravel road, John stared disbelieving at the different colors of the trees. The reds, golds, browns, and various shades in between, fluttered and danced in the cross breeze.

John made a face that Elmer picked up on.

“Whassamatter, John? You look kinda wound up.”

John shrugged. “I don’t know. This just isn’t as beautiful as I thought it would be. There’s no COLOR in it.”

“No color!? Sheeuute, son, Palley’s Wood is the best durn light show this side of the ol’ RCA dome.”

Only understanding one or two words of that, John just shrugged again. “I don’t know about that. It’s a LOT more brilliant where I come from.”

Elmer glanced at him as he negotiated a deep pothole in the gravel. “I thought you couldn’t remember where y’all are from.”

Without missing a beat, John said, “I DO remember the colors though. Maybe I’m from the mountains.”

“Good one,” said Bailey.

John glanced at the dog, looked at Elmer for a reaction. Naturally, the man couldn’t hear the dog talking.

“It’s just up the road a piece.”

“You sure are tucked away, aren’t you?”

“I like it this way.” Elmer tilted his orange cap back revealing a tall forehead. He motioned to the trees passing by the driver’s side window. “Ain’t but a few of us livin’ out here. Just ol’ hunters. That’s Jimmy Dodd’s place over yonder.”

John squinted where he pointed and could make out a short black ramshackle hulk in a small clearing. The only signs of life were a German shepherd died to the bumper of a rusty pick-up truck and a thin column of smoke coming from a stove pipe. “Quaint.”

Elmer laughed. “Yeah, that’s the word.” He reached around Bailey and tapped John on the shoulder. “Don’t sweat it, John boy, my place is a puh-lace-all estate compared to Jimmy’s. You’ll be comfy ‘til yer brain comes back.”

“Much obliged,” John smiled.

Bailey said, “Glenine says you’re pickin’ up nicely on the lingo.”

He patted the dog on the head and whispered, “Shush, dog.”

Elmer glanced at his silent pooch, then to John. He shook his head.

***

As promised, the Petrie Estate was much grander than Jimmy Dodd’s little place. The clearing was a disk-shaped patch of land perfectly cut it seemed right out of the heart of Palley’s Woods in a five-acre radius. The gravel road forked here. Straight ahead was the gate to a chain linked fence surrounding what looked like an auto graveyeard. Rusted hulks of older cars from the 70s and 80s were parked this way and that. John spotted a gleaming red tool chest under a lean-to, a makeshift bench, a generator and utility light stand.

“You work on cars?” John asked.

“That’s how I make my livin’ since getting’ fired from Cate’s Garage. Man’s a butt-head.”

“I see.”

Elmer shrugged as he veered toward the left fork and slowed. “Ain’t much. People would rather come to me for parts—some fixin’—than go to that crook. They know I’ll treat ‘em fair, give ‘em a good price. Maybe send ‘em home with a plate o’ Elmer Petrie’s cookies.” He laughed.

“Cookies?” John couldn’t help the smile, the contrast of a mechanic-slash-junk dealer baking a pan of cookies to give to his customers.

“I done told ya, John, I don’t have a woman ‘sides ol’ Bailey here. I do all my own cookin’.”

John nodded. He had a very positive vibe from this man. There was a kindness in his spirit that ran deeper than people would normally see because he looked like an unshaven, skinny, useless bum. It made John feel a bit sad.

“Here we are.”

The truck stopped next to a newer-looking Toyota and a John Deere tractor. The lot, as John explained it, was where he kept his “payin’ customers’ cars.” The fenced area was for spare parts.

Elmer’s “shack” looked like an A-frame log cabin. Christmas lights, lit despite the time of day, traced the two-story A. Though one window on the far right of the front door was boarded up and covered with a canvas tarp . . . . Though a washer and dryer, rusted through the white enamel, sat sentry on either side of the front door . . . . Though a half-dozen garbage bags—one of them torn open by raccoons, its colorful contents piled here and there—lay stacked to the left of the door in front of a bay window . . . . John could see the hominess that gave Elmer Petrie such a sense of comfort.

“Nice place you got here.”

Elmer blew air between pursed lips. “Sheeuute, it’s what it is. It’s a dump.” He opened his door and stepped out. Bailey followed. He looked back in the truck at John. “But she’s MY dump.”

“That’s what I mean,” John said. “You have a home.”

Elmer shrugged. “C’mon in n’ git warm. I’ll fix us up some stew. You look hungry.” To Bailey: “Don’t he, girl?”

As John climbed out of the truck, Bailey barked.

What the dog said was, “Bark, woof, bow-wow.”

It made him smile.

***

Homer “Home,” Indiana had the pleasure of being left off of most maps. Sometimes it was no more than a pinhead dot to the southeast of the bigger country berg known as Gates, but Gates was really no more than an outlet mall stop-over between Indianapolis and Springfield, Illinois. Aside from the Lyle River and its tributaries there really was no purpose for either town to exist. But farmers and river lovers made sure both communities thrived.

Homer drew so many different KINDS of people that it sprouted arms. Actually, more like tentacles because they bent and twisted through Palley’s Woods, around the Lyle River, into Stillson’s Woods, and alongside square after square of massive crop fields.

The north central side of Homer was home to the founding fathers of the town. The executives from the railroad, the canning company, the outlet owners, lived there. Home Valley Oaks was a gated community with beautiful Georgian and Victorian style houses that ranged in price from a half to two million dollars. Manicured yards in any season and cleanly paved roads, all served as a stark contrast to Elmer Petrie’s plot of land not 200 yards away through the woods.

Elmer Petrie and Jimmy Dodd’s little community was called “Shantyville.” It was named by the Sheriff who used to spend all his time running off moonshiners and teenagers who liked to park and make out in the depths of Palley’s Woods.

Sheriff Dautry was a thorn in the Homer police chief’s side, and he completely ignored the larger community of Gates, so was quickly voted out. The new Sheriff wore a suit and never got “dirty” by going down to Shantyville. People said she was a nice lady.

So, the moonshiners moved back in, some relics from the train yard—who still proudly called themselves “hobos” like their daddies and their daddy’s daddies—that camped like cowboys circling the wagons, and a few poor squatters like Elmer and Jimmy who couldn’t afford to carve out a nicer piece of “Home” all made their own community here. Gated by God’s iron fence, the forest.

Elmer told John all about the history of “Home” as he bustled around the kitchen. John sat in a plush-but-patched leather recliner petting Bailey’s head as her master worked.

“Ladies first.” He interrupted his own story to set down a large bowl of Alpo for the dog. Bailey padded over and started gulping at the meat.

The inside of the A-frame was nothing like its exterior. Immaculately clean, it contained a comfortable-looking queen sized bed and a desk on the upper loft, and the ground floor was one giant living room and kitchen decorated tastefully with a duck-hunting theme. It looked like the interior of a renovated log cabin which, John suspected, was how itstarted.

John admired a stuffed mallard over the unused fireplace and scratched his cheek.

The only thing uncomfortable about the home was the heavy stale smell of cigarettes. Once out of the truck’s cab, Elmer spat out the last of his chew. Once inside, he lit up a Marlboro and blew the smoke into the air. Though he’d stopped smoking when he started cooking, Elmer Petrie had sucked through two cigarettes before lighting the stove.

“Oh, I didn’t shoot Daffy,” Elmer said as he stirred the stew and nodded toward the duck over the fireplace. “I found that in the rubbish pile. Named him Daffy—ya know, after the cartoon duck.”

John smiled and nodded. He was starting to wonder if Elmer Petrie had it in him to shoot a wild turkey if he’d seen one. “You really do have a nice place here, Elmer.”

“Thank ya kindly.” Elmer lit a fresh cigarette and wandered into the living area. He sat on the couch next to John’s chair and propped his legs up on a beat-up coffee table John suspected also came from a “rubbish pile.”

Elmer puffed blue smoke into the air. “It’s cozy ‘nuff I guess.”

“The stew smells great.”

“I bet yer hungry, but Elmer Stew is best when she heats slow. Trust me.”

“Oh, I do,” John smiled.

Bailey jumped up on the couch next to Elmer and rested her head on his thigh. Her chocolate eyes studied John.

Elmer said, “So, you don’t remember how y’all got in the woods, yer not from Home, yer not from Gates, and alls ya know is yer name?”

“Yup.”

“Didja get clocked on the noggin’?”

John’s eyebrows raised.

“Didja get hit in the head?”

“Oh,” John said. He shrugged in response.

Elmer took a long drag on the cigarette, talked through the exhale, “Bet that’s what it were.”

Bailey twitched her nose at the smoke, rolled her eyes up at the blue cloud, then looked pointedly at John before turning her gaze to a button high up on Elmer’s flannel shirt.

John’s eyebrows came together as he tried to figure out what the dog was trying to say. He waved it aside guessing it was just something to do with the poor air quality in the junk dealer’s house.

“We’ll getcha figured out, Johnny boy,” Elmer winked. “And, if not, you can stay here as long as ya like. I ain’t never had a house guest and I’d be much obliged if ya took me up on it. I got a closet full o’ old board games I ain’t never played. And tomorrow we can go to Reverend Doug’s and have some Thanksgivin’ turkey.”

“Sounds really nice, Elmer. Thank you.”

“Ain’t nothin’.”

After a moment, and two more puffs, John looked through the thin haze building in the house and asked Elmer, “So, you a prayin’ man? I noticed the only book you have here is that Bible over on that table, and you mentioned a reverend.”

Elmer nodded as he snuffed out the butt of the cigarette in an overloaded ashtray. “Reverend Doug is kinda weird, but in a good way. He says he talks to angels.” Elmer kicked back and, to John’s relief, did NOT light up another smoke. “He moved into an old psychic shop out on Route 9 just south o’ here. He’s got lots o’ crazy stories, but he’s a good ol’ lost soul—kinda like me, n’ Jimmy Dodd n’ Bailey Girl here.”

“Like a family of brothers?”

Elmer smiled broadly showing brown stained teeth. “Yeah. I guess so.” He coughed hard, wheezed. “That’s a good’n. I’ll have to tell Jimmy D ‘bout that.”

In twenty minutes John would be enjoying the delicious homemade stew.

In two hours John would be sitting in the cozy recliner as Elmer read to Bailey from the Bible.

In four hours he would be reluctantly accepting Elmer’s only pillow and blanket for the couch as Elmer went up to the loft with Bailey to stretch out on the bare mattress.

In six hours he would be awakened by Elmer’s coughing and hacking.

In twelve hours he would be digging a grave.

Sara Dawn’s good eye opened slowly, then closed again. The harsh fluorescent light was a knife through her skull, so she concentrated instead on gathering her other senses.

I’m still alive, she thought, and that’s a good thing. Well . . . it was supposed to be good.

Instead, Sara found herself wishing she had died at some point today. From the wake-up hangover this morning after an apparent all-night forced drinking binge, the screaming and hitting, the kicking, yelling, punching, shoving and humiliation, the painful long walk and the eventual crack on the skull with something hard and heavy, Sara wished she couldn’t feel any of it.

Pain still rolled through her body, though the throbbing on her head was now concentrated primarily on one side, drilling through her from the swollen left eye to the hard lump behind her left ear. The other aches and pains seemed to be subsiding, at least a little.

The air smelled cool and antiseptic. She picked up on laundry detergent, rubbing alcohol, and something like . . . hot dogs? Her body rested on something soft and warm and her upper body and head were propped up with pillows. She felt the stiffness of a needle in the back of her right hand and the scratchiness of plastic tubing just inside her nostrils—the source of the cool breathing and antiseptic smell.

“Oh. You’re waking up,” came a soft, young-sounding woman’s voice. “I’ll get the doctor.”

Sara heard soft footsteps moving left to right, then the SHING of metal rings on a bar. A curtain?

The hospital. I’m in the Community Hospital. How did I—?”

“What’s her blood pressure?” Came a man’s voice as two people came back into the room.

“117 over 72, doctor.”

“Good. Much better, much better.” He held the ‘uh’ sound for awhile on the second much, an indicator that he hadn’t expected it to be better.

Sara’s good eye was forced open with a gentle rubbery touch and a light stabbed her brain. Then her other eye was forced open with a fresh sour pain that felt like someone was trying to unglue her eyelids with a crowbar. Fire split the eye open and the light that stabbed through was red and milky-pink.

She groaned and tried to pull away.

“Ooh, ooh, sorry, dear,” the doctor said. “Looks like that’s going to be quite the shiner.”

To someone else—the woman? A nurse?—he said, “Send those labs over to Community, and as soon as she’s rehydrated take her off the I.V. and see if she’ll drink some Gatorade or orange juice.”

“Yes, doctor.”

So, I’m not at Community. Where am I?

Sara tried opening her good eye again, but now that her bad eye had been forced open, she couldn’t open the other without her brain trying to parallel the issue. To keep the pain down, Sara kept her eyes closed. Whatever was going on, she was being cared for.

“Miss, my name is Dr. Hoff. Do you know your name?”

Sara nodded slightly, parted her chapped lips and whispered, “Sara.”

“Sara? Is that right?”

Another nod.

“Okay, Sara, you’re going to be okay. You’re at my clinic in town, have you heard of it? Are you from Homer?”

Nod.

“Can you tell me who did this to you?”

Sara started to nod her head, but thought better of it and shook it no.

“Is there anyone we can contact for you? Any family?”

No.

“Okay, Sara, now I’m going to give you something to help you sleep while we rehydrate you. You have an I.V. that’s working on your electrolyte and potassium levels. You may also find it difficult to breathe because we’ve taped up your chest. Just rest and try not to exert or upset yourself. You are in good hands.”

Sara nodded weakly. Had they given her the knock out juice already? So tired.

The doctor continued, “You have two cracked ribs, a slight concussion, a sprained wrist, a fractured tibia, two cracked teeth, one missing tooth, a broken nose, several contusions and very bad dehydration.”

Sara started breathing slowly through her nose. She continued listening, but figured the doctor would assume she had fallen asleep.

“But, as near as I can tell, there’s no internal bleeding, your rape kit results are negative, and you were lucky not to have more serious brain trauma.”

Sara wheezed a deep breath and managed, “How . . . get here?”

“A man said he found you passed out on the sidewalk next to a broken bottle. He said he saw some kids throw it from a car. It looked deliberate.”

“Man?”

“He gave a full description to the police and I believe he’s in the waiting room now with an officer. I asked if he could wait here. I may need to send you over to the hospital for a CT scan.”

“Who-man?”

“Didn’t catch his name, but he said he knows you.”

“Mmmaaaann.” Sara’s eyelids fluttered briefly as she sank into sleep.

Dr. Hoff patted the cast on her left forearm and went to make sure the labs made it to the hospital.

***

Some time later Sara’s eyes opened slightly. The light in the room was dim, a small desk lamp illuminating a nearby table. The room appeared to be something out of an old time emergency ward. There were three beds across from her with open ceiling-mounted curtains pulled aside. There were two additional beds, one on either side of her, on this side of the room. Each bed was guarded by a nightstand.

To the left was a cinderblock wall painted dusty pink. Two wide rectangular windows were set high in the walls. She could tell by the deep burnt orange color that the sun was going down. She must have slept for six hours.

To the right was a single extra-wide door with a frosted glass pane running down one side. Through it, Sara could make out the dim shape of another door across the hall, heard a distant muffled one-sided conversation—someone on the phone?—but beyond that there was no one else in Hoff’s Clinic.

Hoff’s Clinic.

Hoff’s Clinic.

She had heard of it before. It was in the heart of town, a converted jewelry store next door to the pharmacy. It was run by doctor and Mrs. Walter and Marjorie Hoff.

How do I know them?

Sara let her subconscious work on the problem while she turned her concentration to her body. The I.V. was gone from her right hand, a bulging piece of cotton under a band-aid covered the bruise. On her right arm was a cast that went from just below her elbow to her wrist. It was white with some kind of protective blue covering. She ran the fingers of her other hand across its hard canvas surface. The arm beneath throbbed quietly but didn’t hurt much. She wondered if she broke it in the fall.

It was tough trying to feel the wound at the left rear of her skull with her right hand, but she managed by reaching behind her neck and raising her elbow. If she were able to mimic the move with her broken arm it would look like she was kicking back to relax.

A hard lump throbbed just behind her left ear. There was a square patch of skin and stubble where her hair had been shaved away, and she touched two—maybe four—wiry stitches.

Sara’s left eye could open slightly without much pain and her right cheek itched a little. It felt rough. She imagined it was scraped by the pavement on her fall.

Dr. Hoff was right about her breathing. A tight bandage corset constricted her lungs and pinched her breasts uncomfortably flat.

She had to go to the bathroom.

Sara noticed a call button on a cord to her right, but she couldn’t reach it, so she decided to try to go it alone. Pulling the thin blanket and sheet off her body she saw the old short hospital gown with the faded PROPERTY OF COMMUNITY HOSPITAL stamp on it. Her bruised legs ended in bandaged ankles and booties. The booties were also marked COMMUNITY HOSPITAL.

Slowly, carefully measuring each ache and throb, Sara sat up and moved her legs off the side of the bed. She eased down and let her feet flatten on the cold tile floor before testing her weight. Then she shuffled toward the only door in the room.

The one-sided conversation in the other room ended and Sara froze as footsteps clicked to the door. Then the door flung open and a fortyish heavyset woman with gray swirls in her hair and a piggish nose came in. When she saw Sara standing there she jumped and pressed her hand to her chest.

“Oh, my! You’re up.”

Sara nodded. “Have to pee,” she rasped. It occurred to her she hadn’t tried speaking since the few words to Dr. Hoff. She figured all the vomiting and dry heaving did a number on her throat.

“Let me help you.” The woman, dressed in a brown sweater with a nametag reading MARJI over a smaller HOFF’S CLINIC HOMER, and black slacks took Sara’s good arm in her right hand and stood so she could help support smaller woman’s weight with her left arm behind the small of her back.

Sara said, “Marji.”

“Yes, dear?”

“Are you Dr. Hoff’s wife?” Sara asked as she was shuffled through the door and to the right. A door at the end of the hall had a sign on it with the stick figures of a man and a woman. Below that, RESTROOM.

“I am. Do you know me?”

Sara slowly shook her head as they arrived at the door. “I don’t think so.”

Marjorie Hoff pulled the door open for Sara and said, “You’re kind of familiar, but I have to say I’m afraid I don’t recognize you . . . um, hon . . . you may want to avoid the mirror.”

Feeling the puffiness around the aches and pains, Sara nodded. “Don’t worry. I’m not anxious to see.”

“Um . . . .” Marjorie started. “Do you think you’ll be okay to take care of yourself and, um, get back into bed?” She sounded a little rushed. “I’m the only one here. Walter’s still out. I have to run to the hospital really quick and pick up some files. I don’t want to wait for him. I need to get some paperwork done before he gets back. He gets awfully cross when the files aren’t wrapped up. I need to get this done. You’ll be okay? I’ll be right back.”

During the rapid-fire explanation, Sara just nodded. She just wanted to go to the bathroom and get back into bed. It was no big deal.

“Okay, dear. I’ll be right back. If you need anything—oh, I’ll be right back.”

Within five minutes, a jangling of keys, a sliding bolt on the front door, the start of a car, then the unanswered ringing of a telephone . . . Sara was alone.

***

The creature stared at her through the window. The right side of its face was a hideous bruise, its eye a red slit. The eye socket was so puffy that the right side of the creature’s face was flat from the scratches on the forehead to the thin scabby lacerations on the cheek. The long brown hair of the creature fell to its left shoulder, the hair on the right side now no more than stubble around the right ear. The creature’s left eye stared at Sara, gray and lifeless, a black shiner making its appearance above a puffy red cheek. The creature’s lips snarled and cracked white revealed a few teeth on the left side but, like the face, the mouth was ruined on the right. A gaping hole marked the place where a once straight white tooth once stood. The creature wore a hideous mask to cover most of its deformities. A shiny aluminum bar shaped like a capital I covered its prominent nose. White tape held it in place across the creature’s forehead and cheeks. The creature was never too proud of its nose, always thought the tip was too round, too “bulgy,” though others once called it “beautiful” and said they were “jealous” of how pretty it once was in a green Christmas sweater.

Sara could not believe she was looking at herself in the mirror. Her sniff was broken by a shudder.

Don’t cry. You’ve cried enough.

Sara finished washing in the sink, careful not to get her cast wet, and dried her hands with the paper towel from the dispenser on the wall, then she exited the bathroom and shuffled back toward her bed, head down, vowing to never look in a mirror again.

On her way back to the clinic’s small ward, she glanced through the archway that lead to the office and outer reception area. A single fluorescent light illuminated the front desk where a computer sat unattended. Files, legal pads, label stickers, pens and pencils, coffee mugs, littered the desk. A sign-in sheet sat on a raised shelf above the computer monitor, next to calendar stands with drug company advertisements. To the right were locked cabinets full of drugs and containers, to the left Dr. Hoff’s office door.

Sara could see into the empty waiting room beyond, wondered who the man was who brought her here. Now, it seemed, she was alone until Marjorie Hoff came back from her errand.

Photographs on the desk caught her attention, particularly an electronic photo frame. It was one of those things she had heard about but never seen. It looked like a picture frame, but the tiny pane was like a mini computer monitor that showed pictures like a slideshow. She—

Sara froze, a chill running up her spine like a straight jacket being zipped. She shuffled into the reception area and bent down to get a better look at the picture in the slideshow before it slid aside for the next one.

By the time it came into focus it was gone.

Was that?

But the next image was a repeat of the first, just from a different angle, as if two of the people in the photograph traded places so someone else could take the group’s photo.

There, staring up at her, were—from left to right—Marjorie Hoff, Dr. Walter Hoff, Pastor Steven Green, Kelly Green and Ellie Sauder. Ellie’s husband must have been the one taking the picture. Sara’s good eye widened. She felt the tape on her forehead strain against her wrinkling brow.

In the picture, Dr. Hoff and Pastor Green had their arms around each other. Both men were laughing.

The next picture: Dr. Hoff and Pastor Green, dressed in polo shirts and standing on a green hill holding up golf clubs.

“Oh, no.”

Then it came to her. Where she’d heard the name Hoff. Over the past year she had heard the name, even saw the man and his wife in church—not knowing they were “the Hoffs”—and realized how close they were to the pastor and his wife.

Pastor in a sermon: “ . . . I’m reminded of the time I was playing nine holes with my good friend Dr. Hoff . . . .”

Kelly Green: “ . . . Are the Hoff’s contributing to the children’s fund again this year . . . ?”

Ellie Sauder: “ . . . Walter and Marji are so much fun. Remember that boat trip to . . . .”

Sara backed away from the photo frame as if it contained a security camera that would fire lasers at her if she moved too suddenly. She turned, shuffled back into her room, and began the search for her clothes and belongings.

She had to escape the clinic before the doctor or Mrs. Hoff mentioned Sara’s name to them. The physician’s oath wasn’t going to save her. This is a small town and the friendship between cops, clergy, doctors and the town board were all too tight to make a difference in Sara’s life.

Finding her rumpled bag in the bottom of a closet inside the ward, she pulled out her wrinkled and bloodstained white sweater, her torn jeans, and her sneakers. Then she grabbed her jacket from the clanging hangers.

When Dr. Hoff arrived five minutes later he was too angered by his wife’s abandonment of the front desk to even notice his only patient had fled.

Jimmy Dodd’s house was never locked. There was no need. No one would try to get past Rufus, his German shepherd guard dog. It wasn’t that Rufus was an attack dog or anything, but his bark could scare the hooves off Satan.

Of course his best friend and neighbor Elmer could get by and come on in. Elmer was like a brother to him and always brought Milk Bones for Rufus.

So it not only surprised Jimmy Dodd that his front door swung open Thanksgiving morning, it made him jump and drop his Budweiser when a stranger in a long wrinkled coat walked in holding an envelope.

“Wha!” Jimmy shouted. “Rufus! Rufus!”

The stranger held out his hands to calm him, but Jimmy could only think the worst.

“What didja do to my dog!?” The smell of beer mingled with the mildew-and-sweat sock odor of the small shack as Budweiser fizzed around Jimmy’s bare feet.

The stranger said, “My name is John. I’m a friend of Elmer Petrie’s. Don’t be alarmed.”

“My dog!”

“Rufus is fine.” John glanced over his shoulder out the door. “He and Bailey are re-introducing themselves to each other.”

“Where’s Elmer?”

John sighed. His shoulders sagged and he tucked the envelope into his deep coat pocket. “I think we better talk, Mr. Dodd.”

***

An hour later they were enjoying a Thanksgiving breakfast together. Two fresh beers, toast and jam, and scrambled eggs.

John was grateful for the food, hated the hungry feeling human bodies got, but he avoided the beer. He wasn’t sure why. It smelled curious—kind of like liquid bread—but something deep within his SOUL’s memory made him shun the drink.

“So, he said I could have it?” Jimmy asked as he sniffed and snorted through fading tears.

John nodded slowly. “Yes sir. All of it.”

“He was like a brother to me, ya know.”

“I know.”

John didn’t know quite what to expect when he gave Jimmy Dodd the news about his best friend, but he didn’t expect the man to take him at his word and collapse into his arms blubbering like the soul survivor of a family disaster.

Evidently, Elmer had told Jimmy that he had been feelin’ sick for some time and didn’t know exactly when the good Lord was gonna take him but, he had proclaimed, he’d have Reverend Doug or someone else come by with this here envelope.

Elmer Petrie’s Last Will and Testimony.

It wasn’t more than a hastily scrawled message on torn notebook paper. It read:

THIS HEER LAST WILL AND TESTIMONY IS BY ELMER RUTHERFORD PETRIE II AND I AM BEIN OF SOND MIND AND BODY.

I HEER BY BEKUEETH BECKWEETH GIVE ALL MY STUFF TO MY BEST BUDY IN THE HOLE WIDE WORLD – JAMES PAUL DODD – WHO IS MY NAYBOR.

I GIVE HIM MY HOUSE – MY TRUCK – MY SCRAPEYARD – MY CUSTOMORS – AND ALL MY BELONGINS – ECSEPT MY DOG WHO IS NAMED BAILEY. I HEER BY GIVE BAILEY TO WHO EVER IT IS WHO FINDS MY CORPS – DOG WILL PROBLY STICK WITH HIM ANYWAYS.

I GESS THATS IT. THANKS ALL.

O PS – I WANT TO BE BURRYD IN THAT SMALL CLEARIN BEHIN THE SCRAPEYARD – BACK O THE CHEVY WAGON WHAT BELONGD TO MY POPA

The letter was signed by Elmer Petrie and two witnesses, Rt.Rev. Douglas Testerbird and Miles “Tookie” Tucker. Mr. Tucker had added the comment, “I witnes that he is rite in his brain – thats for sore.” It was dated almost one month ago to the day.

“He was gonna join me for Thanksgivin’ supper over to the church,” Jimmy sniffed.

“Would that be Reverend Douglas’s church, Mr. Dodd?”

“You ain’t gotta call me mister. Sheeute, we’re as close as ticks now that you carried ol’ Elmer to his last restin’.” He held up his beer can and offered a toast.

Though he wasn’t drinking, John held up his own full can in salute.

“To good friends,” Jimmy smiled brokenly. Sniffed, “This night is kinda special.”

“Thanks,” John said for lack of any other words whatsoever. He wasn’t familiar with the old beer commercial slogan. But neither was Jimmy. He’d just heard that somewhere when he was a kid. They clicked cans and John set his back down.

“I can’t believe he left me his shop n’ house—ya know it’s bigger’n mine?”

John nodded. “He thought really highly of you, Jimmy.”

They finished breakfast, Jimmy taking John’s beer so it wouldn’t go to waste, and took a walk to “say words over Elmer’s grave.” The two dogs fell into step on either side of the men as they walked. The sky overhead smelled of snow, but it wasn’t quite cool enough for flakes. The gray underbelly of the heavens looked like they might open for some rain later on, though, so John pulled his collar tight around his neck.

Jimmy didn’t offer much to add to Elmer’s history of this part of Homer, but John wasn’t really looking for anything in particular. While he DID need information concerning the town and its history, he was more interested in the history surrounding Sara Dawn and how she got to be where she is today, what influence the town had on her, and what influences of darkness might be at work in her life.

According to Glenine, John’s success or failure in the eyes of the Lord would come no later than 11:27 p.m. local time. Tonight.

Jimmy was moved to tears again by John’s simple speech as they stood over the lump of overturned earth that was the final resting place of Elmer Petrie. Jimmy sniffed clear snot up his hawk-like nose and wiped tears on the filthy sleeve of his quilted winter coat.

“Y’all didn’t leave him a marker?”

“Marker?” John asked, glancing up at Jimmy.

“Y’know, a cross or tombstone or somethin’,” Jimmy shrugged as he looked around. His eyes focused on the auto graveyard behind which Elmer was buried. “Guess I could find somethin’ in there.”

“He’d like that.”

“Wish I’d known when he was born, so I could scribe it there.”

John shrugged, then met Bailey’s eyes as the dog wagged her tail. “He was born at Mercy Memorial Hospital in Gates at 3:25 p.m. on May 7th, 1960.”

Jimmy stared agape. “How’d you know all that?”

“He must’ve mentioned it when we were talking,” John said. He winked at the dog.

***

It wasn’t easy leaving Jimmy Dodd. The man was beside himself with his new estate and the loss of his only friend and neighbor, but John promised to meet him later at the old psychic parlor which was home to the Right Reverend Douglas Testerbird.

That seemed to satisfy the man. He sent John off with three cans of Bud in an old knapsack. “You’ll need these t’ keep ya goin’.”

“I think I’ll manage.”

“Still.”

John thanked the man and was on his way.

Thirty feet down the gravel road, Bailey trotting along beside him, Jimmy Dodd called out, “Hey, Johnny, if ya ever need a place t’ hang yer hat, c’mon back!”

John waved over his shoulder and gave Jimmy a thumb’s up.

***

A light chilling drizzle had started by the time John reached the other end of town and the winding road that served as the entrance to St. Matthew’s church. He looked down at Bailey and shrugged. “Guess I have to, huh?”

Bailey looked up at him. “It won’t be as bad as you think. God is with you, John.”

“I know.”

He learned a lot from Bailey including something Glenine had never told him. He had wondered why he had never seen an animal’s soul in Heaven, and how it could be that these animals seemed to possess such knowledge and no souls.

“Oh, we have souls,” Bailey told him. To passersby it would look like no more than a paw scratching a long golden snout or a flick of a fluffy ear. “What makes you think some of the souls you’ve encountered aren’t those of animals?”

The dog explained further, “We were given something when Man was expelled from The Garden, a kind of gift to make up for Man’s mistake.”

“What was that?” John had asked by raising his eyebrow.

“All of God’s creatures—except Man—are immune to time.” The dog then whined. That came out, “I’m not sure I’m explaining myself clearly.”

“You live forever?”

“Of course not, but we can SEE forever.”

John nodded. “Oh, so animals can see the future?”

The dog barked, “Yup! Past, distant history, far future. The beginning. The end. Alpha. Omega.”

“How is that not a curse? I mean, you can see when you’re going to die.”

Bailey performed the dog equivalent of an eye roll. She lowered her snout to the ground and covered it with her paws.

She said, “Have you ever heard of a good—or evil—dog?”

“No,” John admitted.

“Squirrel? Humpback whale? Sloth? Chipmunk? Deer? Zebra? Alig—”

“I get it.”

“—ator. . . . Anyway, we all go to be with Him when we’re finished here. And we all have a purpose, John, just like you. Just like Elmer and Jimmy. Just like Sara too. WE—animals—didn’t break the First Rule. We did not eat of the fruit.”

John thought about this for a moment, then said, “Now that I’m back, I can understand why people are so afraid of death.”

“Right. They have no idea what’s coming for them or how it will end. Imagine if they could knowing what they know.”

John tapped his temple. “They can’t see what I’ve seen. These brains are too small.”

“It has nothing to do with their brains. Look at me.”

John looked at the dog.

“My brain is roughly the size of a walnut, but I know virtually everything except what The Choir knows.”

“How is that possible?”

Bailey huffed and resumed walking. “I don’t have to talk to anyone about it.”

John’s brow whittled as he tried to decipher what Bailey said. Then he realized there was no riddle. Quite simply, human minds are too busy negotiating, conniving, figuring out, guessing, plotting, hunting, cheating, lying, killing . . . . The curse of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. If not for the black and white nature of existence where good and evil coexist, Man would only have the wonder of knowledge, the joy of freedom, and the paradise of Paradise.

“Shame,” John said.

“Ain’t it though,” the dog responded, and followed her master up the winding road to St. Matthew’s church.

Pastor Steven Green had not fully recovered from the revelations of Thanksgiving Eve. His mind was a battlefield of sin, regret, remorse, anger, bitterness, self-recrimination and denial.

It was Thanksgiving morning, the morning of the St. Matthew’s Thanksgiving Pancake Breakfast, and the turnout was phenomenal. Normally, Pastor Green would have been thrilled by such a huge showing on the morning of a holiday. The Board of Elders had argued for weeks that it was a bad idea to have a church-sponsored breakfast on the same day when everyone else is housecleaning, packing, cooking, preparing, and so on.

But Kelly Green had argued—through her husband—that the church’s large contingency of elderly would actually enjoy it as most of them didn’t retain family on holiday evenings if, that is, they had any family at all.

Now Pastor Green sat in his office, staring at his computer screen, reading and re-reading the e-mail from Sara Dawn.

“How could I not have seen this?” He muttered into his fist as he leaned forward on his elbow to soak in every pixel.

Below, in the church’s small hall and kitchen, and even outside the church office in the narthex, crowds chit-chatted, laughed, gasped, and babbled with their mouths full of pancakes, bacon, muffins and eggs.

And yes, Mrs. Shepherd got out of making her deviled eggs. Pastor could hear the woman all the way from the stairwell: “I knew I wouldn’t have time—what with it being a major holiday and all—so I stopped at the Hen and got some donuts.”

Why didn’t I close my door?

Earl Jessup, dressed in a charcoal gray suit and bright yellow tie, poked his head in the door. “Pastor. Ya know, your wife is lookin’ for ya.”

“I know, Earl. Come on in. Close the door and pretend like we’re talking business.” Pastor rolled his mouse to the hot corner that started his screen saver and leaned back in his desk chair.

Earl came in, closed the door behind him, and dutifully approached the pastor’s desk. “Was that it?” he asked, nodding to the back of the monitor.

“Was what it?”

“The letter she sent? Was that—”

Pastor cleared his throat loudly. “Earl, how many would you say we had turn out today?”

Earl jutted out his lower lip, tilted his head and stared at the ceiling until he figured it it. “Mmmm, I’d say ‘bout 104.”

“104?”

“Yup.”

Pastor half-spun his chair and stood up. He tugged a the collar of his sweater wishing he were wearing the more constraining, but somehow more protective, Roman collar. “Now what did you and Bub and Silas Marcum say we’d get?”

Earl huffed a laugh. “I think we said to tell your wife that we wasn’t expectin’ more ‘n 20-25 is all.”

“How do you account for all the extra Thanksgiving morning revelers?”

Pastor now stood in front of Earl Jessup. Being a couple of inches taller than the older man, Pastor Green utilized his full commanding presence with the pointed question.

Earl chewed his tongue and rolled his eyes for a second before responding, “Now, look, pastor, you know as well as I that ever’one here is curious.”

“Curious about what?”

“You know . . . .” Earl rotated his hands like wheels, motioned toward the monitor, pointed out toward the hall.

“About how I had been deceived for the majority of my time here as St. Matthew’s’ pastor? About how a young woman I brought into this fold—out of the kindness and mercy of my heart—humiliated and attacked me this way? About how an entire community now suspects that I would even stoop to such a depraved—”

“They don’t think like that, pastor,” Elmer said, rolling his eyes again. “But the ones who do have gotta be a might suspicious that you ain’t out there minglin’ and settin’ the record straight by standin’ next to your wife at the batter dipper.”

Pastor Green slumped, defeated. “Yeah. Guess you’re right, Earl. Pretty suspicious of the pastor not attending the Thanksgiving breakfast Kelly and I fought so hard to throw.”

“Not to mention she’s gonna be plenty pissed at y’all for sittin’ it out.”

Pastor moved to the door and held it open for the chief of the elders. “What did I tell you about that swearin’?”

***

“We honestly had no idea what so ever,” Doctor Walter Hoff shook his head sourly at Kelly Green. “I swear I didn’t even know the girl had been living here.”

Kelly looked to Marjorie Hoff, eyed the extra biscuits on the heavy woman’s plate.

Mrs. Hoff said, “No idea, Kell. But she was beat bad. Really bad.”

Kelly Green looked down at the wide griddle, turned a couple of the pancakes. She nodded almost imperceptibly. “I know. I’ve asked forgiveness for what was done to her, but I’d say that’s the Lord’s punishment for what she tried to do to my family.”

“You’re right there,” Marjorie said.

“So right,” Dr. Hoff echoed. “I just hope she’s in someone’s care today. It’s going to be rather cold out tonight.”

Kelly said, “Did she mention who did that to her? The beating I mean?”

Dr. Hoff shrugged. “Not a peep. I think she got jumped walking the street to wherever she was going.”

Kelly scooped up a pancake and gestured toward an elderly woman waiting behind Marjorie. “Excuse me.”

The Hoffs slid down the line and the next people stepped up with their plates.

“So sorry to hear about that girl.”

“So sorry.”

***

George Martinez slalomed his way through the crowd in the downstairs hall, balancing a cup of coffee in each hand.

Someone called out, “Hey, George, nice ‘ancaks’!”

Someone else laughed.

George called back, “We never got the sign fixed. It’s pancakes.”

The joker waved and turned away, a gesture that said, ‘nevermind, old man, you don’t get it,’ but George didn’t get it.

Isabella Martinez took a cup from her husband and sipped. “So, she’s not here? The girl?”

“No,” George whispered with an edge of roughness so he hoped she’d get the idea to keep her voice down. “I told you. She’s been kicked out.”

“I wanted to see this bitch you wanted to marry off to our Carlos.”

“ISABELL!”

Mrs. Martinez shrugged and widened her eyes. “Okay, okay. Sheesh.”

***

Ellie Sauder stood by the coffee machines and finished adding the grounds to another pot of decaf.

Fran Colbourne shook her head. “Where? I don’t see anyone.”

Ellie finished loading the grounds and flicked the brew switch. “He’s over there, by the hall door.”

“The man in the coat?”

“Yeah.”

“Never seen him.”

Ellie playfully backhanded her friend’s arm. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about. He’s new, I think.”

“You gonna introduce yourself, El?”

“I can’t do that, Frannie, you know it wouldn’t be right with Ed here.”

“Where IS Ed,” Fran Colbourne said, making a show of looking around and pointing out that Mr. Sauder was nowhere to be found.

Ellie said, “Frannie, it just wouldn’t be right. The divorce ain’t final. Besides, I don’t want Kelly and Steven to know.”

“El, you’re talking about the pastor and his wife; the pastor who MARRIED you two.”

Ellie held her hand up, palm down, and made a patting motion to say ‘keep it down.’ “I know, I know, but they’ll just try to talk me out of it and I don’t even wanna think about reconciling.”

“Your business, I guess,” Fran said as she handed a cup of coffee to a young mocha-skinned man in a digital camouflage uniform. The old lady eyeballed the soldier as he stepped away to peruse the donut table guarded by Mrs. Shepherd.

“Oh, Fran, you are sick.”

“What?”

“Eyeballin’ Carlos Martinez like that.”

“THAT’s little Carlos?”

Ellie’s eyes were back on the stranger. “He just got back from Iraq. They gave him some time off for the holidays, poor boy.”

Fran was still staring at him. “He’s got to be what, 28 by now?”

“Twenty.”

Fran patted her chest with a flutter. “Oh, my.”

Ellie stepped away, muttering through a smile, “Dirty old broad.”

***

“Tell Kelly I’ll be along presently, Earl,” Pastor said, patting the elder on the back.

Earl Jessup nodded and moved off toward the batter dipper as Pastor Green stepped up to a stranger talking to Stanley Maypen. The stranger was a young man, probably in his thirties, with sandy blond hair and bright blue eyes. His features were strikingly smooth and unweathered, his eyes large and clear with lines of tiredness underneath. He was munching on a triangle of toast he was dipping in a cup of coffee.

“Stanley,” Pastor said.

Stanley Maypen was the opposite of his wife. He was tall, slender, and young-looking—except that his toupee was a little too obvious from behind. “Well, how do, Pastor Steve?”

The two men shook hands. “Hope you’re feeling better, Stan,” pastor offered.

“Oh, shucks, pastor, I ain’t the one sick. The missus came down with this flu bug, didn’t want anyone to know it was she ‘twas sick.”

“That so?” Pastor asked, now checking out the stranger as the younger man looked away and winked at someone across the hall.

Stanley twitched. “Oh, sorry. Let me introduce someone.” He reached around the stranger with his arm and turned the young man toward the pastor. As the young man came around he popped the final bite of toast in his mouth and took a quick sip of his coffee. “Pastor Steve, this is John.”

“Hello, and welcome,” Pastor Green said and offered his hand.

“I’m John. Pleased as punch to be here.” The two men shook hands.

“Well, I gotta get to the phone, call Ellen and make sure she’s okay,” Stanley said. He nodded to the newcomer, “John, welcome.” They shook hands and Stanley departed leaving the pastor with the young man.

“So, John. Where you from?”

John smiled showing two rows of perfectly white teeth. “I’m new to town ya might say.”

Pastor said, “You got any family here, or is it just you?”

“Just me. I’m staying at the Reeds hotel outside Gates.”

Pastor wrinkled his lip and nodded approvingly. “Plans to stay here?”

“Yeah,” the newcomer said suddenly energized, “In fact, I left a message the other day that said I was new in town and hoped to join your congregation.”

Pastor Green frowned, then nodded with understanding. “We’ve had some . . . issues with our staff.”

“Yeah,” John said, “The Dawn girl.”

“How did you—?”

John finished his coffee and set the cup down on a nearby shelf. “Oh, please, pastor, it’s all over the place. It’s all anybody’s talked about.”

Pastor’s face was stone. “That so?”

John studied the pastor’s profile for a long minute before clearing his throat and asking, “So . . . . Is it true what they say?”

Pastor’s glare was cold. “What do THEY say, John?”

“That you were havin’ sex with that girl in the basement since—”

“No. Excuse me.” Then Pastor Green stepped away and moved purposefully toward his wife. He had an overwhelming need to put his arm around her and smile at everyone who came back for seconds.

***

Julie Petular and her mother stepped into the hall behind the stranger in the doorway. He too was still wearing his coat.

Julie shrugged and looked at her mother. “You cold, mom? You want to keep your coat on, or . . . .?”

“Here,” the stranger said, “Let me get that for you.” Julie stared at the stranger as he helped her mother off with her coat. He draped it over his arm and nodded at the younger woman. “Miss?”

“Sure.” Julie shook her arms out of Coyote’s letterman jacket and handed it to the man. “I don’t think I’ve seen you at St. Matt’s before.”

“John,” the man said and offered his hand.

Julie shook it and smiled. He had such a strong grip and his eyes were so . . . so blue.

As her mother ambled off to talk to Mrs. Martinez, Julie said, “I’m Julie. Nice to meet you.”

“Well, it’s nice to meet such a lovely and well-mannered young lady like yourself, Julie.”

Julie blushed. “Thank you.”

“You sure are pretty, too.”

Her face burned. “Thanks.”

“That sure is a lovely dress you have on,” John said as his eyes traced her form from her shoulders to her ankles and back up again. “Please tell me you don’t have a boyfriend.”

Julie touched the jacket in John’s arms. “Yup,” she giggled.

John made a tisking sound in his cheek as he looked her up and down again. “That’s too damn bad.”

Julie became a little flustered and reared back a bit. “I hardly know you,” she said.

“I’m sorry,” John smiled. “You’re just really pretty is all.”

“Well . . . . Thanks, but you could be my daddy.”

“I’m insulted,” John said mocking an expression of hurt. “I’m barely 40.”

“And I’m barely 20,” Julie said. She jutted her chin and turned to join her mother at the pancake line.

John muttered, “Bitch,” low under his breath. When the girl was out of sight, beyond the crowd into the line, he tossed her and her mother’s coats into the hallway where they slid across the floor and lodged under a row of folding chairs.

***

Kelly put a couple of pancakes on Mrs. Shepherd’s plate. “How are the donuts going, Mrs. S?”

“Well, dear. Very well.” She turned to leave but stopped and turned back to Kelly as the pastor stepped up next to his wife, “But I’m so sorry about—”

“The girl got what she deserved,” Pastor Green blurted. “I wish you people would just shut up and let it drop.”

“—the deviled eggs,” Mrs. Shepherd finished and moved slowly away, her eyes wide as if afraid the pastor would snap like a rabid dog.

“I’m sorry, Marla. I didn’t realize . . . .”

“Nice, Steven,” Kelly muttered.

“Sorry.”

She scraped at the batter dipper and pulled a couple more scoops. “Where have you been? I’ve been dealing with the ‘I’m so sorry about the little girl’ crap all morning.”

“She hurt us, Kelly. She did.”

“Did she? Us?”

Pastor looked at his wife’s profile. When she didn’t meet his gaze he knew something was crawling under her skin. “What is it?”

“Did you meet our newest member yet?”

Pastor looked up and saw John talking with Ellie Sauder. She was touching his shoulder and laughing like a high school flirt. That made the pastor’s eyebrows knit in overtime. What the? “Um . . . yeah. John? Yeah, I met him. What’s with—?”

Kelly looked up at her husband. “He had some interesting things to say about it.”

Pastor met her eyes. They were as cold as the November glaze on the steps outside the church. “What?”

Kelly dropped the ladle into the near-empty dipper. It hit bottom with a CLANG and the handle slide down the side. Then she pulled off her apron and stormed toward the back of the hall.

“Kell—”

***

Ellie Sauder couldn’t believe her luck. This guy was FABULOUSLY PERFECT. She hadn’t described anyone like that since she met her Ed over twelve years ago. He was a little younger than her, but had a deep soothing voice and eyes that melted her heart.

“El,” he said in a whisper. “I’ve always liked that name.”

“I’ve always liked John . . . John.” She touched the collar of his jacket and flipped it up, then down, then patted it. “So, are you married, John?”

He didn’t answer at first. Instead he closed his eyes and clamped his jaw tight. He growled, “Shut up, shut up,” under his breath so low Ellie could barely make it out.

“Are you okay?”

The vein in John’s forehead went back down and he blinked his eyes. “Sorry,” he smiled. “I sometimes get angels talking to me in my head.”

Ellie decided to play along with what was surely an elaborate flirt. “Angels’ voices, huh? What do they say?”

John smiled at the woman, eyed her lips with a lingering heat that let her know he’d love to kiss them. “They say to watch out for you. You’re trouble.”

“Sorry to hear that,” she said, and started to move away.

John grabbed her arm. “I happen to like trouble.”

Ellie Sauder smiled. “Yeah?”

“Oh, yeah.”

***

Julie Petular was driving a little too fast down Route 9 toward home.

“Slow down, baby, you’re gonna kill us before Christmas.”

“Sorry, mom. I’m just pissed.”

“I know, but slow down.”

Julie was really irritated. That guy that was flirting with her was such an OLD PERVERT. She felt dirty playing along with it at first, but the guy had such a MAGNETISM about him that she couldn’t seem to resist. It was so . . . . POWERFUL.

“I just . . . .”

“Just what, dear?”

Julie slowed and stopped at a light. “I don’t know. He talked to me a little bit. He seemed like such a gentleman. He turned out to be such a perv!”

Her mother just nodded, changed the subject. “Look, there’s another bum.” She pointed down the road as the light turned green.

Julie couldn’t be bothered by the homeless man standing on Route 9 holding the sign. She was too angry about the dirty old man who threw their coats on the floor to be concerned about the pretty golden retriever sitting so obediently next to the guy in the trench coat.

And she didn’t even bother to read the sign he was holding.

Or the fact that it was made from the missing letters of a certain church marquis.

John stood on Route 9 with the sign made of cardboard and the 8-inch tall plastic letters from the St. Matthew’s sign. After every couple of cars he would turn and walk toward the far end of town, toward the dead cornstalk-lined rows of frozen farmland and the Lyle Bridge.

“Are you sure about this, Bailey?”

The dog let out a soft huff and stood, following John with her tail waging lazily.

“I don’t know how this is going to help Sara. We only have—” John looked up at the overcast sky, squinted toward the position of the beyond the brightest patch of clouds “—a few hours I think.”

A slight side to side movement from Bailey’s large golden retriever noggin translated in John’s mind to, “Ten hours, twenty-one minutes.”

John stepped over to a bench in front of an ice-cream store locked and sealed tight for the winter. He sat down with a heavy sigh, folded up the sign and set it next to him. Bailey came up and sat between John’s knees and used her large snout to coerce a pat or scruffle behind the ears. He obliged.

“I don’t understand. It’s NOT going to take me almost ten and a half hours to get to the bridge. Why do I have to hurry there if Sara’s not going to be there until later tonight?”

There was no response from the dog. A car rolled by, a muscle car with a gray primer paint job. It looked like it was full to bursting at the doors with laughing high school-age boys. The car slowed and the driver rolled down his window.

“Get a job,” the kid yelled, “You lazy asshole!”

His friends laughed and hooted, echoed some of his words as the driver rolled up the window and squealed the tires. The car sped down the road and made a quick turn down a side street.

“Don’t worry, John. They won’t be back,” Glenine said between his ears.

“Glenine!”

“John, I can feel your words. You don’t have to speak out loud to me—or the dog.”

Embarrassed by his apparently crazy-looking actions all day, John slumped back on the bench and muttered, “Sorry.” Then thought, “Oh, sorry.”

He turned his thoughts to the kids in the car and asked Glenine, “Was that the one who threw the bottle at Sara?”

Glenine said, “How did you know about that? Did Bailey tell you?”

The dog softly whoofed.

John nodded almost imperceptibly.

Bailey barked and took off running down the street as though she were chasing after a rabbit only she could see.

“Bailey, stop!” John stood up, the sign fell to the ground, and by the time he snatched up the folded cardboard and started after the dog, he’d lost her. “BAILEY!”

Expecting to hear something from Glenine along the lines of, ‘she’ll be back’ or ‘let her go, she is—after all—just a dog,’ John stood in silence. When nothing came, he thought, “Glenine? You still there?”

No answer.

Out loud: “Glenine? Glenine?”

The angel, and the dog with the ancient soul, were gone.

***

Sara Dawn stumbled through back alleys and down long rusted rows of railroad tracks. She cut through yards where no one was home. She climbed short fences and followed the paths of shallow frozen ditches.

She was literally going nowhere fast, but she didn’t know what else to do.

She had no drive or purpose until her stomach started growling.

Sara groaned and hefted her Spider Man knapsack higher between her shoulder blades. She found the discarded kid’s backpack in a pile of recyclables and a stained mattress behind a house on Canary Street. It had apparently been thrown away because it had a broken strap, but Sara sat down with it on a felled tree near a sludge-smelling ditch and fixed it by relocating the brass buckle and tying the other end through the buckle’s ring. Then she moved her belongings from the rumpled paper grocery bag to the backpack, first her shoebox with her confirmation book and life savings, then her under things, and finally her only other sweater. A blue one she hated. Oh, well.

Sara was also luck enough to find two different discarded gloves, one navy blue right-handed mitten and one red right-handed ski glove. She wore the glove on her right hand and the mitten, inside-out, on her left. Now if only she could find some socks to put over her bandaged ankles.

She had also found an old Sharpie marker without a lid. It was dry but still had enough in it to draw this simple picture on her cast:

[IMAGE OF A BROKEN HEART SCRAWLED, INK FADING. Note: I’ll add this later when I have my own computer back, a scanner, and Photoshop.]

Sara found herself in an alley sweet with the aromas of turkey and roast beef, hamburgers and stew, and the tangy-wooden smell of Chinese cooking. She also smelled cat urine.

“Home of the Dragon” was the only restaurant open mid-day on Thanksgiving. A bizarre collection of American and Chinese-American dishes, Dragon was owned by a Vietnamese couple who passed themselves off as Chinese to bring some “authenticity” to their rather unauthentic Asian restaurant. Sara didn’t know the couple, and doubted they would give her a hand-out, but she hadn’t had anything solid to eat since . . . . Well, since before she could remember. If not for Dr. Hoff’s I.V. she presumed she’d be dead by now.

Within ten minutes or so, a skinny Asian man in dirty white trousers and equally soiled white t-shirt opened the back door and stepped out into the alley. An unlit cigarette dangled from his lips as he fished in the pockets of his pants.

“Hi,” Sara tried softly.

The man jumped as if spooked by a sudden gunshot.

“Shit, lady!” The man composed himself and pressed his hand to his chest, then he realized he’d spit the cigarette out and it landed in a cold puddle. “Damn it.”

The man went back inside. The door slammed with a loud BANG.

Sara took a couple fast steps forward, but she didn’t know why. Was I going to grab the door? Call after him? Apologize? Pick up his cigarette and blow on it till it dried?

Yelling in Vietnamese hummed through the door.

“Sorry,” Sara called weakly. She hefted her backpack and started forward again, tugging at the cuff of her mitten.

From two doors down she heard, “Lady! Lady, you come!”

She turned and saw the man standing next to a short and even skinnier woman, her black and gray hair pulled into a tight bun. She held a large steaming stew pot in her hands. The man was smoking a fresh cigarette and saying something in their language to the woman. He had a foul expression and kept shaking his head. No.

The woman again said, “Lady! You come! Here. Come here.”

The woman’s hip was holding open the back door to the Dragon as she held the heavy-looking stew pot. She nodded and tilted her head toward the large pot in her hands. Her smile was wide and toothy. “Come!”

Sara said, “Oh, thank you, thank you.” Tears flooded her eyes as she shuffled back to the restaurant’s back door. “I’m so hung—”

The woman stepped out into the alley, taking two quick steps toward Sara, and flung the whole stew pot like a dirty basin of bathwater, toward Sara. The man yelled at the short woman, but it was too late.

A long olive-colored arch of steaming something curled down out of the sky and caught the front of Sara’s suede jacket and bluejeans. Sara gasped as the hot pea soup stung her skin through her clothes, then instantly cooled to freezing as the air blew through the fabric.

“No!” The man cried in English.

The woman wagged a scolding finger toward Sara. “You bitch! You bitch! I say you before, NO FREE MEAL!”

Then she went back inside, the man following behind arguing in Vietnamese probably, Sara thought, to tell his wife/sister/whatever that she had the wrong vagrant, that Sara had never been behind the Home of the Dragon before.

“I was going to pay,” Sara sniffed quietly.

Her shoulders hitching with sobs, Sara pulled her mitten off and sucked the pea soup out of the fabric.

***

John sat quietly for an hour, maybe more, before deciding to pick up the folded cardboard and continue down the road toward the Lyle Bridge. It occurred to him that he’d reach the psychic parlor off Route 9 long before he reached the bridge, so he set his sites there, planned to enjoy the company of his new friend, Jimmy Dodd, at Right Reverend Douglas Testerbird’s church retreat.

A moment and two blocks later, Glenine came back.

“John.”

“Glenine?” He thought back. “Where were you?”

“Bailey and I had to have a discussion about how much she has told you.”

John frowned. “About what? She hasn’t said anything to me any other loyal man’s best friend wouldn’t have said.”

Glenine said, “Your reason for being earthborn again has far deeper consequences than saving the life of a young woman, John.”

John remembered his Heavenly teachings, the long years of study condensed into the blink of an eye. “I remember,” he thought.

“John, what I taught you was only what you needed to get by. The Lord did not let me tell you anything about the difficulties you would face in His Creation.”

Out loud, John said, “I already witnessed the sadness of a young woman treated unfairly, heard about the brutalities randomly executed upon her. I already know the cold and the loneliness, and—” he squinted skyward toward the clouds, “—the darkness.”

He continued, “Glenine, I’ve had to befriend a man whose innocence touched my heart in a place most humans don’t realize they have. I could SEE his sincerity, FEEL his love, UNDERSTAND his loss and communion with God.”

“I know, John. Elmer—”

“Was buried in his own back yard.” John held his hands out, palms up, “by these hands.”

John then stopped in his tracks and stood up straight. He felt Glenine’s presence swarming about his mind, probing his memory. He felt her touch Bailey’s words, the words that described the scene where a gang of toughs in a muscle car hurled a bottle that shattered against Sara’s head. A man had come to her rescue, carried her to Dr. Hoff’s clinic. Then Glenine’s fingers let go and John resumed walking.

“Why was that important? I don’t understand what that has to do with anything.”

“John—”

“If that man hadn’t come to her help she could have died right there.”

John stopped after a few more steps. He saw Bailey sitting patiently at a corner up ahead. “Glenine?”

“John . . . . If that man hadn’t helped Sara to the clinic, she most assuredly would have died soon thereafter.”

He sighed. “I don’t understand why that particular element should have been kept from me. Why does it matter what Bailey said?”

“Because,” Glenine thought to him quietly, “If Sara would have died, you would not be needed here.”

John thought for a moment, his brow scrunching above his eyes. He looked down at the cardboard and plastic sign under his arm. He thought about his purpose. He thought about the young woman’s life he was sent here to save, how he was to prevent her from killing herself. If she died of exposure on that sidewalk, if she’d have bled to death, if someone had come along and finished the job Ellie Sauder started . . . it wouldn’t have been her fault. She would have died an innocent. She would have ascended, forgiven, her tears washed away by God’s hands after her phantom reunion with her departed parents.

“The man,” John said. “He’s the reason I’m here, isn’t he?”

Glenine didn’t answer.

John continued his trek, head down, until he met up with Bailey. The dog fell into step next to him and huffed an apology.

“That’s all right, girl. You may know everything down here, but you couldn’t have known what I was told in His house.”

***

Sara Dawn sat on the ground behind the McDonald’s on 5th Street. The restaurant, unlike others in the massive chain, was closed. It was a wellknown fact to everyone in Homer NOT connected with McDonald’s corporate H.Q. that Homer’s franchisees did whatever they wanted.

Sara scrunched herself into a tight corner between a fence and a rank-smelling dumpster. Even in the cold she could smell the refuse.

Her trembling hands pulled the newspapers higher in her lap. They were a remarkable insulation against the cold air. Only a light wind or sudden chilling rain would ruin her makeshift blanket.

Sara’s stomach twisted again. The pain roiled in her gut like a rabid ferret trying to eat its way out. She lifted the discarded Happy Meal box into her lap and closed her eyes. Instead of a prayer of thanks for children who don’t finish their food, she simply muttered, “Please let it be too cold for maggots.”

As disgusting as it would have been to even conceive of such a meal 24 hours ago, Sara feasted gratefully on two hard and cold McNuggets, a small crusty paste of ketchup, and a half-eaten hamburger with the lettuce, pickles, and onion pulled out and tucked into a corner of the box. When she was finished, she stood and shoveled some snow off the top of the dumpster into her mitten. She sucked on the ice until it melted into gritty water.

“See you for breakfast,” she whispered and tapped on the dumpster lid. It resounded with a soft CLUNG-CLUNG.

Crying, she shuffled out of the McDonald’s rear lot and across the street. She didn’t bother looking at the traffic. She hoped a speeding holiday maniac would thump her hard, send her body flying into the air and her skull crushing against the pavement.

She crossed the street safely. Sara started to sob as she turned east and headed toward Route 9 and the Lyle Bridge far outside of town.

***

John said, “This is the place?”

Bailey barked.

“You’re sure?”

The dog whined.

“Did Glenine tell you this was okay?”

Bailey stood up and ambled to a light pole. There she squatted and urinated on the curb. She looked sheepishly up at John as if to say, “Just go with it, okay?”

“If you say so.”

John unfolded the cardboard sign and stood facing the road. There was no traffic. It was approaching mid-afternoon. Everyone would be at grandma’s or auntie’s, or mom ‘n dad’s enjoying cranberry sauce, hot and tender turkey, delicious dressing smothered in gravy. Families would be warm and toasty, perhaps around a fire as they enjoy pumpkin pie. They’ll talk about what they want for Christmas. Someone may offer up a joke or—better yet—a prayer of thanksgiving. God would be smiling.

After an hour or so, John folded up the sign and resumed his walk.

“You’re sure?”

The dog wagged her tail. “It’s working. Just keep walking.”

John walked.

“And don’t look back.”

***

Sara reached Route 9 on the far side of town. She couldn’t believe how big Homer was for such a small town. Only a couple of cars passed her, but no one seemed to notice the girl with two different gloves, the dark stain on the front of her jeans, her half-shaved head, and the cast with the broken heart. They just sped along to their Thanksgiving feasts.

Sara wasn’t jealous. There was no need to be. By this time tomorrow she wouldn’t be more than an uncomfortable memory on most of their minds. They wouldn’t have her to—literally—kick around anymore.

At the curb, she almost stumbled and fell into a newspaper vending machine. She righted herself and looked up.

And couldn’t believe what she was seeing.

A man with long brown hair and a trench coat was standing on the curb across the street and a few doors down. He was talking to a large yellow dog wagging its tail at him.

Obviously a homeless man, he was holding a large crookedly-torn piece of cardboard. On the cardboard were a series of letters printed on clear plastic. They had been attached to the cardboard with tacks, staples, masking tape, duct tape, whatever the man could apparently find. The sign probably said something like, “WILL WORK FOR FOOD” or “HUNGRY. WIFE AND KID TO FEED,” or an equally pathetic epitaph. She couldn’t quite make it out, but . . . .

What struck Sara the most was that she recognized the letters instantly as the ones missing from the St. Matthew’s church marquis.

That, and what they said. As the man turned, the gray light shifted slightly and the letters came into focus.

Forgetting her march to destiny, Sara decided to follow the stranger and his dog.

She had to find out what he meant by:

PLEASE HELP ATHEIST

John and Bailey slowed their march out to Reverend Doug’s Psychic Parlor on the outskirts of town. The sidewalk along the slow stretch of Route 9 dwindled to a dirt trail that ended abruptly in front of Mott’s Roadside, a farm stand run by the Mott family. The Motts naturally closed down during the off-season months, so the stand was now a white peeling-paint shack and leaky-roofed pavilion. Empty barrels, vacant shelves, and naked picnic tables populated the area making the wide farm stand look like a post-nuclear drive-in diner.

John placed the folded sign on the surface of a picnic table and climbed up to sit on it. Bailey sat on the ground, her ears perked in the direction they had come, toward their follower.

“This is it,” John whispered down to the dog. “You think she’ll really come out of hiding?”

“You forget,” the dog said with a shake of her thick fluffy neck, “I know everything on earth.”

John smirked. “Who’s going to be the next president?”

“Who’s the president now?”

“Touché.”

“What do I say, Bailey? Glenine?” John was tempted to jump up and pace, anxiety starting to settle into his nerves, but the angel told him not to appear or ‘crazy.’ “I’ve never done this. I haven’t been trained for this. The only one I’ve ever had a conversation with is Elmer.” John buried his head in his hands and rubbed his temples with his thumbs.

Bailey softly huffed. Translation: “Remember, she can’t hear me. If you need help from Glenine or I, we’ll be able to assist.”

“Thanks,” John sighed. “I’ll just have to remember to not talk to you both out loud.”

“Then how am I going to hear you?” Bailey asked with an upturned curl of her snout.

“Don’t worry,” the angel chimed in. “I’ll do all the talking.”

“Thanks, Glenine,” John thought.

“But only if you need me.”

John nodded but disguised it by rubbing the chill out of his ears and scratching the back of his neck.

“She’s here,” the dog and the angel intoned together.

***

Sara Dawn was across the street from Mott’s Roadside, on the wrap-around porch of a darkened house. The owners were undoubtedly celebrating the holiday at friends or family. There were no cars in the garage—Sara peeked in the window—and the driveway had emptied before the last light dusting of snow a few hours ago.

Now she crouched on the porch, behind the guard wall, and peeked over the rail toward the man and the dog hiding under the cold gray shadow of the farm stand’s pavilion.

“Why am I bothering?” Sara winced to herself. She was so tired, so hungry, had been planning to end her life tonight. Now she was captivated by this homeless man and the big golden retriever she followed here. Sara realized she owed nothing to Pastor Green or the church, that finding the missing marquis letters weren’t going to undo the damage caused by Ellie Sauder’s beating or the Green’s cold heave-ho into the icy November day.

But maybe, she thought, just maybe SOME part of my life will receive some closure before I leave this earth. And, who knows, chatting with an atheist begging for “help” might give her some peace of mind. She had already turned her back on God. Now if a random homeless non-believer could convince her that a frigid Thanksgiving evening death would end in peaceful non-existence, well . . . that would be nice.

“The worst thing that could happen to me,” Sara mused silently to herself, “Is the guy rapes and kills me, then feeds me to his dog.”

At least I’ll experience SOMETHING close to love before I die.

Releasing a sigh in a frosty cloud of breath, Sara pulled down her wool hat to hide the missing hair around her ear and tucked her cast into her suede jacket. Then she stood up, stepped down the porch, and started slowly across the street.

***

John rolled his neck until he felt it crack, then straightened the sleeves on his trench coat. He watched Sara cross the street toward him from the corner of his eye and turned to watch her approach when it was obvious that she was heading straight toward them.

Bailey made a nice show by standing and barking at the girl as she drew closer. Sara responded by stopping just outside the farm stand’s perimeter.

“It’s okay,” John called, “She won’t bite.” Then, to Bailey, “Easy girl, she won’t hurt ya.”

“What are you doing here?” Sara called, still not coming closer.

“Just thought I’d come in out of the freezing rain.”

Sara squinted up at the overcast sky, a sky that wasn’t dark enough to threaten rain. Suspiciously, she called, “But it’s not raining.”

John looked out toward Route 9 stretching off into the distance, then back at the girl, “Yeah, but this is the last shelter for a couple miles. I’d hate for us to get caught out in it when it starts.”

Sara nodded, apparently in agreement, but still held her ground. She hugged herself tighter and shrugged to stave off a chill.

“You look cold. Why don’t you join us?”

Sara shook her head. “I-I don’t think so. I-I should be going.”

“It’s all right,” John said with his best mean-no-harm smile. “Bailey won’t let anything happen to me.”

“Why are you here?” Sara asked with her head tilted to one side, still apparently leery about the look he was giving her and what his intentions might be.

Playing it close, appearing as apologetic as he dared without looking more suspect, John said, “I’m sorry. Are you Miss Mott? Am I trespassing?”

Sara simply shook her head slowly.

“My name is John. The chatty one is Bailey.”

Bailey woofed and wagged her tail.

***

“I’m Sara.”

Why did I tell him my name?

It doesn’t matter. Tomorrow you’ll cease to exist.

It matters now.

Does it?

I’m beaten, battered, tired, hungry, and now I’m crazy. I’m talking to myself.

Sara Dawn had no idea what made her step forward, or why she hesitated to begin with. She had already resigned herself to the Final Fate, but as she approached the man and saw his dark eyes she feared him. When I die, she reasoned, I want to do it on my time, not someone else’s.

Then she saw the man’s smile break his face into a warm innocence she hadn’t seen since . . . well, not for a long time if ever. Then the dog wagged its tail.

Sara took a deep breath and stepped under the extended roof of the pavilion just as it started to drizzle.

She kept her distance, afraid her bruised appearance and the metal bar holding her nose straight might scare the guy off.

Why be scared? One more person running screaming from you like you’re some kind of Frankenstein Monster isn’t going to make a difference. You’re dieing tonight anyway, right?

I don’t know.

“Nice to meet you, Sara,” John said interrupting her internal conversation. “Perfect timing.” He nodded past her to the street.

Sara turned and noticed the drizzle through the shadows, the tiny light dusting of ice as the rain froze on impact with Route 9. She shrugged. “Guess so.”

John stepped off the picnic table and stood. He extended his hand toward Sara.

She pulled back a half-step, almost out into the weather, hugging herself tighter and shrugging up her Spiderman backpack.

He was so tall!

Everyone’s tall compared to you.

Apparently reading her fear, John held his palms out as if to say, ‘that’s okay. I’ll just stay here if that makes you more comfortable,’ and sat back down on the cardboard sign.

Sara nodded toward his seat. “That sign.”

John shifted a little and looked at the cardboard he was sitting on as though he had forgotten it was there. He touched it with a finger. “This sign? What about it?”

“I know where you got those letters.”

John’s expression turned down. “I know. I’m sorry about that.” He lowered his head and slowly shook it from side to side. “I didn’t know what else to do. I’m sorry I took the letters.”

Sara started to say something but John spoke again first.

“I’ll put them back. I promise.”

Sara shrugged and started to shake her head. She wanted to tell him she didn’t care what happened to the letters. She wasn’t part of that family anymore.

“Once my message is delivered, I promise I’ll put them back.”

“That’s okay,” she said. “I don’t care really.”

John rubbed some warmth back into his knees. He looked at Sara for a moment before observing, “The rain is coming in a little. You might want to come closer.” He patted the table next to him. “There’s plenty of room, Sara. Why don’t you come here by me and Bailey. She likes when you scratch her behind the ears.”

Sara realized she was making a mistake. She was meant to die tonight. This is just postponing the pain and it was making her hurt even more. She shook her head. “I-I can’t.” She stepped backward and started to feel the icy sting of the rain immediately through her wool hat and the shoulders of her jacket. It patted lightly off the nylon Spiderman on her back.

“Please don’t go.”

“I-I can’t,” Sara said. “I-I have to be somewhere.”

“Please.” John remained seated on the picnic table. He made no effort to try to catch her if she should run, but his expression and outstretched arms were pleading. “I’m no company for Bailey. Please join us for Thanksgiving.

“We’re going to a place, a shelter, where there’s hot food waiting. It’s warm and it’s dry.” John tilted his head, lowered his arms to his lap. “Please.”

Sara blinked the cold rain out of her eyes. Now soaked through the hat and jacket, and under the bandages on her face, she said, “I-I can’t, John. I’m sorry.” She took another step back and shrugged. When she spoke again her voice carried a chill that matched the air. “There’s no help I have to offer an atheist.”

She turned to walk away.

“The sign doesn’t refer to me, . . . Sara.”

Sara now stood within the pavilion of Mott’s Roadside staring at the dark eyed stranger, John, as his dog sniffed at her ankles.

“You don’t even know me,” she said through a squint. “How do you dare call me an atheist?”

Her tone wasn’t confrontational, her voice hadn’t risen barely above a whisper, she didn’t even accent the word ‘dare,’ but Sara was surprised when the man reeled back like he’d been slapped.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Then you’re a believer?”

Sara’s mouth opened. Closed. Opened again.

“Want to talk about it?” John asked. He patted the table next to him.

Bailey nuzzled Sara’s hand forcing her palm to rest on the dog’s wide head. She absently stroked the dog’s fur as she shrugged one shoulder.

“There’s nothing to talk about.”

“No?”

Sara’s lip curled. She poked a finger under the wool cap behind her head and scratched. She felt the wiry stitches there and pulled her finger away. Then she shrugged, her shoulders weak.

John frowned. “We seem to be starting a pretty nice conversation.” He touched the sign under his seat again. “We have a topic, something in common.”

Sara thought for a moment, staring vacantly straight ahead as her mind fondled an unplaceable piece to this puzzle.

“Do you know me?” She finally asked.

“Me?” John looked away, shook his head. “No.”

“So your sign is some kind of trick then? A way to get people to talk to you—to trap them into a Bible-thumping conversation with you?”

John shook his head again. “No trick.”

“I guess I just don’t understand.” Sara suddenly became aware that she was petting the dog and stopped. She folded her arms in front of her again, hugged out the cold.

Bailey jumped up—almost taller than Sara on her hind legs—and nearly knocked her down begging for more affection.

“Bailey!”

Sara cried out in surprise as she stumbled into the table. To keep from getting knocked down by the dog she had no choice but to climb up on the picnic table’s top and sit next to John. She let out a short laugh and patted the dog’s snout. Bailey then seemed satisfied and sat, her paws up on the seat in front of Sara.

“She’s funny,” Sara said. “I’ve heard that guys use dogs to get girls to talk to them. This is probably how, huh?”

John shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. Bailey and I just met yesterday.” Now that she was sitting right next to him, he tried offering his hand again. “I’m John.”

Distracted by the dog, Sara hadn’t noticed the hand. “I know. You said.” Then she flinched, catching the palm in the corner of her eye. “Sorry.” She shook his hand. “Sara.”

“Sara…?”

“Just Sara.”

John’s handshake was firm, surprisingly warm, and just brief enough not to be too brief. He smiled at her. “That’s a nice name.”

“Sara’s nothing special,” she said and, for a moment, John thought she was talking about herself in the third person and not just her name.

She turned back to the dog who was now playfully moving between nuzzling Sara’s fingers and rubbing the back of her head against Sara’s knees.

She felt the man staring at her profile, studying her. John was sitting to her left, so Sara knew he was getting the full view of her damage. She was suddenly self-conscious and leaned away, covering her ear with her hand and tilting her head shyly.

“You’re hurt.”

“I-I had an accident yesterday.”

“Oh, my.” John leaned forward to catch her eye. She remained demur. “I’m sorry. Does it hurt? Is there anything I can do?”

Sara shook her head, lowered her hand slowly, and risked a quick double-take. To her surprise, John’s attention was now focused on Bailey. The dog put her paw in his upturned palm and he shook it.

“She knows tricks?”

“Oh yeah. More than she lets on, I think. Go on, try her.”

Sara wiped her palms on her dirty jeans before holding one palm out to the dog. “Gimmie paw?” She said.

Bailey HUFFED and raised her paw. Sara caught it and shook gently up and down. “What a good girl.”

WOOF!

Sara found herself laughing, momentarily forgetting her pain—

Then forced herself to stop. She cleared her throat and, as though suddenly remembering an uncomfortable appointment, slid off the table. “I should go.”

“Go?” John said. “We just got here.”

Sara looked out toward the street. “The rain is letting up. I should really get going.”

John nodded, resigned. He sighed softly. “If you must.”

“Nice to meet you, John. Bailey.”

Sara started to back out of the pavilion. She waved at John briefly, wiggled her fingers at the dog. “Bye-bye.”

“Bye,” John said. Bailey barked.

She turned and walked away.

***

“Sara,” John called.

She stopped and turned to face his shadow under the pavilion roof.

“You never really answered my question.”

“What question?”

John stood and came to the pavilion entrance. “The one about you being a true believer.”

Sara smiled crookedly, forced. “Bye, John.” She turned her backpack toward him and resumed walking toward the alley next to the house across from them.

Bailey barked. The translation: “You can’t let her go, John. Stop her! Stop her!”

John waited until she was across Route 9, let her glance at them once over her shoulder, before he called out, “I lost everything too!”

Sara disappeared around the corner of the house.

A moment later she reappeared. She called back, “And?”

John shrugged. “We probably have a lot more in common besides the letters.”

A single car shushed by on Route 9 heading out of town, accelerating toward the horizon. Sara shouted over the sound of the hissing tires, “How do you know anything about me? How do you know what MY situation is?”

Bailey turned to John and barked.

John opened his mouth, but nothing came out.

Sara said, “Good-bye, John. You have a beautiful dog there. Take care of her.”

Then she was gone again.

John stood in the entrance to Mott’s Roadside staring toward the corner where Sara disappeared. His mouth opened and closed a couple of times, He put his hands in the pockets of his trench coat and took them out again.

Bailey huffed at him again.

“I have to, girl.”

She was gone. Sara had vanished and wasn’t coming back. She didn’t care about the letters, about the sign. She didn’t care about John or his quest to help an atheist. She didn’t even seem to acknowledge or care that she was the atheist he sought—so he said.

Her smile and brief beautiful laugh at the playfulness of a dog were the last pinches of joy she would ever experience in her eternity.

Something shuddered in John’s heart. Having seen the rare glimmer of the tiniest happiness in Sara’s broken smile made him ache, especially as it poked through the black shroud wrapped around her soul.

Bailey whined.

John moved forward slowly, his human mind racing, grasping at human notions of right and wrong, desperation and remorse. He wished he had the omnipresence of Heaven with him. Human emotion was coursing through his brain, his blood, under his skin. He had to stop her somehow.

Glenine: “John?”

No matter what the cost and the only way he knew how.

Sara had left to throw away God’s greatest blessing to the earth. He had to do or say something to keep her with him, to make absolutely sure she wouldn’t want to carry out her final act. He was sure that a few more moments talking to her, getting to know her, he would be able to quench the losses in her heart, douse the fires in her soul.

Glenine’s voice said, “John, don’t.”

John stepped across the sidewalk and off the curb. “Sara!?”

His mind raced in circles like a crazed animal in a small cage, bumping into walls and gnawing at bars. Help me, Glenine. Lord God, please help me.

“John, I have to warn you. Don’t do what you’re thinking.”

“This is the only way, Glenine. Surely you can see that,” he thought to the angel.

“It’s not, John. It’s a mistake!”

“I have to,” John said in a low growl. “I can’t think of another way.”

By the time he had crossed the street, John was resolved to do whatever he must to keep Sara with him. They had to talk some more. He had to keep her close and safe.

“No, John. Not like this.”

“Then give me another way!”

Time was running short. If he didn’t turn her around before 11:27 tonight, she would be consigning herself to a torment she doesn’t deserve.

Breaking into a jog, John made it to the corner and spotted Sara turning another corner at the end of a long pole barn behind the dark house and garage. She was going to cut across the field, then probably arc back to Route 9 and the Lyle Bridge.

Glenine repeated, “John, listen to me. There is another way.”

“Then tell me!”

“I can’t, John. You have to do this yourself, but not the way you’re thinking.” Glenine said, “There are laws in His kingdom, laws like the tree of knowledge. I can’t break them for you, John.”

Ignoring the angel’s voice in his head, John called out, “Sara!”

She must have heard him, but she didn’t show it. Instead she seemed to lower her head even more and move faster.

“John, stop,” Glenine warned for the last time, “You can’t!”

But it was too late.

He did it. The words came out.

And he more than said it.

He yelled it at the top of his lungs.

Sara Dawn was ready to break into a limping sprint across the open field, but her legs both still ached, the cold air wasn’t helping, and she was afraid she’d trip in one of the deep plow furrows.

She knew it. She just knew it. How she could possibly have thought the mysterious dark haired stranger with the cute dog could have given her any kind of insight into life . . . or death? He called after her about believing in God. Ha! When has God ever answered a prayer? There is no God, and I’M NOT GOING TO FALL INTO A CONVERSATION WITH A NUTBALL TRAPPING ATHEISTS WITH HIS STOLEN SIGN. He doesn’t really care about me. He’s just looking to make quota with his nutball church.

It was foolish of her to think she could find someone else in this world, someone who wouldn’t ridicule her if not simply beat her half to death and cast her out into the cold to die.

Maybe they’ll all be sorry when they read about her death in the papers. Maybe they won’t. It didn’t matter to Sara because she didn’t have any family, anyone who would miss her, so they probably wouldn’t find her body washed up in the Lyle River until the Spring. And it won’t be locals who find her. She’d probably float bloated down the Lyle until it connected with the wide-mouthed Wabash. She’d surf all the way down to the big toe of Indiana, maybe discovered by some fishermen from Mount Carmel. That’s who’d care: people who don’t even know who she is.

As she walked faster, jogged in places with the Spiderman backpack straps clutched in her cold glove-mitten hands, she imagined the whole thing. Who is this woman? Where’d she come from? DNA doesn’t match anything on record. Artist recreations of her face from the fish-picked and rotted skull won’t look much like her. Maybe someone from Homer would recognize her on “America’s Most Wanted,” but they’d say, “No, that’s not Sara. Sara’s long gone, whoring her way across the country.” But others might say, “Yeah, I think that’s that girl from the church basement, the crazy drunk. Oh, she finally drank herself into a stupor and took that final long walk of the short pier.”

Good riddance.

She heard John calling after her, but his voice was farther away. She thought she’d lost him as she reached a row of wind-break trees like an oasis in the middle of the field.

“Sara!?”

She heard him call out again. Damn! He could see her, see that damned red backpack.

Why am I carrying this thing. I don’t need the clothes anymore. I don’t need the money.

Sara turned briefly, walking backwards, and called, “Leave me alone, John!”

“Sara!”

“Don’t! Just leave me alone!”

“SARA!”

She turned and started to jog on a path that would link her back with Route 9. Then she’d easily be able to run along the pavement until she was nailed by a semi or found the bridge and dove off.

Will it hurt?

Don’t think about that.

If I dive without using my arms, don’t break my fall with my cast, I can land square on my skull. If it doesn’t kill me it’ll at least cause internal bleeding. My body will freeze in the surging rocky water. Yeah, I’ll be dead.

Outta here.

“SARA!”

“NO, JOHN! NO!!!”

He called out something else. Actually, he started babbling.

And then she stopped.

Sara let go of the backpack straps and let her arms drop to her sides. What? What did he say? She slowly turned, saw the big golden dog jumping on John, playing probably, John was pushing the dog away and shouting something over and over.

She started to walk back to him, slowly, her legs suddenly feeling like jelly, her aches and pains gone, frozen like the air. Her brain was mush, already dead it seemed and as gray as the battleship belly of sky overhead.

***

Bailey stopped jumping, stopped trying to shut John up when it became obvious that Sara had heard him and was now returning to him.

John took a deep shuddering breath.

Bailey looked up at him. Together with Glenine’s voice, they said, “You have no idea what you’ve done.”

“I did what I had to do to get her back to me.”

“No, John. You’ve done far worse.”

***

John W. Milton, named for the poet and destined to be a great writer some day, woke on Thanksgiving morning and crossed his studio apartment in his bare feet. He reached into the seat of his boxers and scratched his rear as he bent to examine the contents of his fridge. The only thing of interest to him was a large apple pie, still in the cheap plastic pie pan from the grocery store, but he couldn’t open it. He was taking to his mom’s tonight.

The phone rang.

“Sh—damn it.” He straightened up, arching his back to stretch, and checked the caller ID on the display. It was her. He snatched up the receiver.

“Hi, mom.”

“Johnny, good morning! Nice to see my son decided to wake with the dawn and say happy Thanksgiving to his mother.”

She did this every year. No, she did it for every holiday. He always had to be sure to talk to her first before his deadbeat dad in Arizona.

“I didn’t talk to dad yet, mom.”

“I know that dear. He’s still in bed with that floozy, I’m sure.”

“Mom, Gretta’s nice.”

“Gretta is a Russian whore.”

Here we go. John was about to hang up but decided better of it. When he saw his mother for Thanksgiving dinner tonight she’d be all weepy and whiny about how he loved his pathetic father more than her, about how he never comes to visit her—and how Lafayette isn’t THAT far from Homer—and why is he a reporter in that stupid little Podunk town when he could be a big shot Pulitzer Prize winner in Indy?

John sighed heavily into the phone. “Mom—”

“I know. I know. But let me talk bad about the whore now. I’ll get it all out of my system before Christmas.”

“Mom, you always say that.”

A sniff made its way through the phone lines.

“Mom. Mom?” John lowered the phone. “Oh, God.” He put it back against his ear. “Mom? Please, don’t do the waterworks thing. It really ruins the holiday.”

Another sniff. “What time are you coming?”

John glanced up at the clock. “I have to run into the office really quick,” he lied, “then I’ll be over . . . probably about two.”

“Are you bringing a guest?” his mother asked hopefully.

“No, mom. I’m not seeing—” The shadow moved past his shoulder and into the living area of the tiny apartment. “What the?”

“John?”

“I’m bringing a pie, mom,” John said, the phone on his neck as he stared at what he THOUGHT he saw. There wasn’t anything there now, but a chill caressed his bare shoulder and made him shiver.

“What kind of pie?”

“Apple. Look, I gotta go, mom. I need to pick up my laundry.”

“But it’s a holiday. No Laundromat is going to be open—”

Click.

John hung up the phone, then muttered, “Love ya, mom. See you later.” To the living room he called out, “Hello?”

Nothing. No shadow, nothing, but he had definitely felt SOMETHING move swiftly past him. What the hell?

John Milton stepped into his living room and looked around. The chill was still present, moving around. He could sense something, a movement in the air like if someone was walking in circles around you while you kept your eyes closed. You could feel them, almost know exactly where they were as they played the “I’m not touching you” game by putting their hands in front of your blind eyes.

John reached out, swatted at empty air. He felt a cold spot, warm spot.

“What the heck is going on?”

He shivered and moved to the bedroom part of the studio, pulled on his robe and cinched the cord around his waist. Then, just like that, the presence—and the phantom chill—were gone.

Crap, John fretted as he scratched his sandy blond hair and rubbed his sleepy blue eyes, “I hope I’m not coming down with the friggin’ flu.”

John stepped into his bathroom and relieved himself in the toilet, then he stood at the sink and washed his hands. He looked up into his reflection in the mirror—

–And the woman’s wide-eyed expression as she rode hard on his body, writhing and sweating, her palms on his bare chest, her breasts bouncing as she pumped her hips.

John felt himself climax, his body rise deeper into her as his own hands, palms down on a strange mattress in a strange room, dug into the sheets rumpled around them. His own body felt disconnected, worn, as if he hadn’t been occupying it for several hours.

Which, unknown to John, was exactly what had happened.

Not sure whether to ask “Who–?” or “What–?” or “Where–?” or even “How–?” John W. Milton did the only thing his shocked brain would allow. He screamed.

Then the woman leaned forward, her hands around his throat, a line of drool forming a silvery thread from her bottom lip to John’s chin as she pushed her full body weight forward. Her thumbs dug into the divot of his neck.

John’s face went hot as his scream cut off with a popping feeling in his neck.

He couldn’t draw a new breath as the woman leaned forward, still choking him, and pressed her drooling lips to his.

He didn’t know who she was, where he was, how he got here.

All he could think about was trying to breathe and not being able to.

About the pressure on his neck, the woman’s teeth sinking gently into his lower lip as she breathed hot on his mouth.

Then he thought fleetingly about his mother.

And apple pie.

Then nothing.

***

Sara Dawn stepped up to John and blinked. “What did you say?”

Bailey stood behind Sara and looked expectedly up at John as if to say, “Yeah. Repeat it. What did you say?” but the dog made no real comment.

John said, “I know your name is Sara Dawn, Sara Elizabeth Rachel Dawn.”

Sara’s mouth slowly hung open. One eye—her good one—closed slightly in a daring squint to show her disbelief and accusation. But there was more.

“What else?”

John sighed. His shoulders drooped. “I said I was sent down from Heaven to save you.”

She stared, didn’t even blink.

“I said I know what happened to your mom and dad. I know your dad shot your mom and turned the gun on himself.”

Stare. Blink. One tear.

“I know you turned to alcohol. I know you’re planning to kill yourself. But I also know God loves you.”

Sara took a deep shuddering breath.

And punched John in the face as hard as she could with her plaster-cast arm.

In the time John had spent back on earth he had endured all manner of pain and suffering—or so he thought. The mere discomfort of having a body limited by five senses was enough to drive him mad.

He wasn’t prepared for the shock and pain of being knocked out cold.

The shot came quick, from his right. He had no time to react as Sara’s fist, encased in plaster, impacted with his cheek and bridge of his nose. There was a hard thud, a burning sting deep within his sinus cavity, his eyes went cold then black.

John tunneled back into existence tasting Bailey’s breath as the dog licked his mouth and nose. Spitting and sputtering, John sat up—and immediately felt the aftermath of the punch through the throbbing pain in his skull. He touched the back of his head and felt a bump but pulled back no blood. His nose, on the other hand, had bled freely down to his lips and across his cheek as he lay unconscious.

Lucky I didn’t choke to death, John blinked.

“I wouldn’t let that happen,” Bailey hurruffed, “No matter how badly you screwed up.”

John shook some sense back into his damaged head and crawled to his feet.

“Sara?”

As he rose to his full height, he took in a panoramic view of the field. She was gone.

“Where’d she go, girl?” he asked Bailey, panic showing in his voice and shaking hands.

“What do I look like, Lassie?”

“Wha–?” The reference was lost on John, but he didn’t have to decipher Bailey’s reference as the dog took off running and barking toward the road in the distance.

***

John caught up to Bailey at the soft shoulder of Route 9. The road, connecting Indiana and Illinois, stretched off in two directions as straight as an arrow. The two lanes would be flanked by corn or beans in the summer months, but now were nearly lost in the wide grayish-brown squares of sleeping earth. The road’s horizon was short toward Indianapolis as a rare hill crested ahead. Bailey was heading in that direction, toward the Lyle Bridge.

John jogged ahead of the dog and stopped after a few lengths to turn and call, “Come on, Bailey. We have to catch her.”

Bailey sat on the gravel and wagged her tail briefly, a gesture that translated to, “You go. I’m tired. I’m an old dog, you know.”

“Bailey, come on!”

“John . . . . We have time. Remember what Glenine said; you have until 11:27 tonight.”

“What’s that come to?” John asked as he slowly turned and resumed walking.

Bailey caught up to him and heeled at his side. “Just a little over five hours.”

“Not a good enough margin for me.”

Bailey barked, “Not a fan of ‘Mission: Impossible’, huh?”

“Stop doing that,” John muttered.

Bailey, the dog, obviously knew so much more than John ever would about life on earth. The dog was gifted with foreknowledge and historical memory, all bestowed spiritually of course. John had no such gift. So, he relied on Bailey for more than companionship. The dog was his guide, his sherpa. In most cases, like his recent K.O., Bailey would be his lifesaver. John had to forgive the dog her side comments and archaic references. He simply didn’t understand.

Patience, indeed, is a virtue.

The other fact John could not shake: Bailey knew how this would all turn out. If the dog was relaxed, he should be too.

John tried to relax, but found himself worried about Sara, about what he would say when he found her again, and if he needed medical attention for his crunchy nose.

***

Sara appeared as John and Bailey topped the hill. She was probably a couple hundred yards up the road. Route 9 continued straight ahead. The small square building that would be the old psychic parlor and Reverend Doug’s home sat further ahead on the left. A couple miles beyond that, probably on the horizon in the distance, was the Lyle River.

John walked at a fast pace, as fast as he dared without breaking into a run. Sara slowly grew larger as he approached. He could make out the Spiderman design on her red backpack, the limp in her step, and the cast swinging at her left side. As he drew nearer still he could see that her head was bowed and her shoulders periodically convulsed.

She was crying. Heavily, it appeared.

Resisting the urge to cry out to her, John continued moving until he was close enough for her to sense him.

Sara turned and cried out in shock as the man and dog approached her. Her damaged eye was red and even more puffy than before. Her good eye was red and puffy as well, but not bruised. Her cheeks were red from the cold and where her tear tracks froze to her face.

“Sara, please,” John called to her as he halted his advance. Bailey continued forward, playing the happy dog glad to see the girl.

To his surprise, Sara not only didn’t run away, she took a couple steps toward him. As Bailey approached, Sara collapsed to her knees on the soft shoulder and fell forward, burying her face in her hands and sobbing uncontrollably.

Bailey went up to her and nuzzled the nape of her neck.

John approached and knelt beside her. He rested his hand on her backpack.

“Sara, I’m so sorry.”

She cried hard. Her cry became a hoarse scream.

John leaned back and glanced to Bailey who tilted her head and blinked. Translation: “Let her go, John. Just let her get it out of her system. Don’t push it.”

Sara cried more, cried hard, screamed, coughed, sobbed.

“I’m so sorry,” John whispered, leaning close to the back of her head.

After another full minute, she eased herself wearily to her hands and knees. Her cries now became sobs, defeated whimpers. Her strength was completely drained.

“John?”

“Yes, Sara?”

She sniffed. “How did you know all that? Did someone from the home send you?”

“Home?”

“The orphanage? Bixley?”

Bailey licked her chops: “The Bixley Home for Foster Children in Gates. It’s where Sara was raised until she got too old to stay and ended up with Pastor Green and his family.”

John absorbed the message from the dog but was quick to remember not to acknowledge it. He said, “No one from the home sent me, Sara.”

Sara sat back on her rump, her left leg outstretched and her right folded under her left. She crossed her arms across her chest in a weak gesture of defiance. “I don’t believe you. And what’s all this bull about being sent from heaven?”

John sat on the gravel in front of her. He ruffled Bailey’s mane before gathering an answer. “It’s true.”

Sara studied him for a long time before deciding with a raised eyebrow, “You’re crazy.”

“No–”

She nodded emphatically. “No. No, you ARE. You’re crazy.” Sara groaned through the aches as she forced herself to her feet. “I don’t know how you found out everything you did. Maybe a ton of internet research, I don’t know.” She looked down at him, clenched her fists.

John reared back and raised his arms to defend himself, but she didn’t strike. Instead, she turned and continued her journey.

“Just leave me alone, John. Go away.”

John stood, held a hand down for Bailey to stay. “I can’t do that, Sara.”

She turned. “Why NOT? Just go back to your mom’s basement and your expensive computers and video equipment. Find someone else to save.”

“Sara, I—”

“FUCK OFF!”

John’s heart hitched in his chest. He froze and watched as Sara shuffled down the shoulder of the road. He realized, without Bailey saying a word, that she had reached the end of a long and painful life. As her shoulders resumed their sobbing dance and her head sunk yet again, John realized that was the first time in Sara’s short life that she had ever swore. His eyes welled up and a single tear froze his cheek.

Bailey, her head hung low, said, “You can’t give up now, John.”

“She won’t talk to me anymore, Bailey. I don’t know what else to do.”

“You can’t quit. Go after her. There’s time.”

“I don’t know what to say,” he muttered. “Besides, you and Glenine said I had already messed up.”

“Royally,” Bailey acknowledged, “but the damage is done—and you can still SAVE her, John.”

John blinked another tear. Watched her walk.

“Go!”

Instead of running after her, John knelt before Bailey and grabbed the dog by the fluffy ears. “I already messed up, right?” he whispered nose-to-snout.

The dog blinked.

“Then you have to give me something. You have to help me with this next step, Bailey.”

***

John caught up to Sara and, this time, stepped in front of her and held his arms out to halt her. She stopped and raised her arm. “You want another one, freak? Spy?”

“I’m no spy, Sara.”

“Oh, right,” she snarled, “You’re a fucking angel. You came down here to stop me. Well, guess what, Gabriel, you can’t stop me—and I KNOW you’re not an angel because THERE IS NO GOD!” She stepped around him, pushing him back with her cast.

“You’re right,” John laughed.

The laughter made her stop and turn.

“I’m no angel,” John said. “I’m just a soul, a soul sent back to earth to save you, Sara.”

Sara’s eyes closed again. More tears came. She wiped at them with her good hand. “I’m tired. I’m done, John. Just let me go. Let me sleep, please. If you truly want to help me, LET ME DIE.”

John took a deep breath. He said, “The day your parents died you were playing on the living room floor with your tea set. Your favorite toy was a brown teddy bear with some frayed fuzz on his butt that you thought was funny. His name was ‘Mr. T.’ You were watching ‘Simon & Simon.’ You never told anyone you thought A.J. Simon was cute or that your daddy ‘spilled’ tea on Mr. T’s foot.”

Sara’s eyes slowly grew wider as John spoke.

“It was the right foot, wasn’t it, Sara?”

She slowly nodded, tears again pooling in the red rims of her eyes, but now they were tears of memory, painful memory, and not of anger or fear.

“Mommy had been sipping from her little ‘tummy warmer’ all day. Your favorite times were going to church and singing with mommy while daddy stayed home sleeping. You remember specifically a happy day—the day of your confirmation—when mommy bought you that beautiful dress. Daddy took your picture. You love that picture of you and your mommy, don’t you, Sara?”

Another nod, this time slower and broken by hitches of breath. “H-How–?”

“I never touched your backpack, Sara, but I can tell you that you carry that picture with you, in a pink Penny’s shoebox tucked inside your first confirmation book. That’s the book you wrote your own name in with the pen you took from daddy’s work shirt without him knowing. You also have no money.”

Sara’s nod became a slow ‘no’ from side to side.

“Ellie Sauder took that money before they packed your belongings. There was $625.03 in the box.”

Sara started to weave from side to side. Her eyes fluttered briefly.

John said, “To this day you still remember the song that was on the radio when mommy took you to church that day.”

Sara swallowed hard. Her knees wobbled.

“It was ‘Abracadabra’ by the Steve Miller Band.”

John stepped forward, his arms outstretched, just in time to catch Sara when she collapsed into his arms.

Bailey huffed. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”

John lifted Sara into his arms with a grunt, her head fell against his shoulder.

“Yeah,” John whispered skyward, “Me too.”

Earlier that morning, outside St. Matthew’s church, John Milton—actually, the lesser soul possessing John Milton—stood admiring Ellie Sauder’s smile.

“You have beautiful teeth,” the thing inside John Milton said.

“Thank you, Johnnnn . . . ?” Ellie batted her eyelashes the way she did when she was first attracted to Ed Sauder all those years ago. She held the question after John to learn the man’s last name. After all, if she was going to sleep with him, she should know his name, right?

“Milton,” the lesser soul smiled with John’s perfect teeth. “John Milton.”

Ellie laughed and touched his shoulder, then she tucked a loose strand of blonde hair under her wool cap and pretended to shiver.

She hoped he would offer her a ride.

***

WHY AM I DOING THIS? ELLIE, FOR THE LAST TIME–STOP!

She ignored her conscience screaming inside her head. What she was doing was fun, it gave her a rush, it intrigued her. It gave her what she had been missing in her marriage to Ed. It gave her . . . FUN.

John Milton was a mysterious visitor, new to St. Matthew’s church. He had been standing in the corner by the door with his coat on the entire time Ellie stood gossiping with Fran and Kelly. He was handsome, sure, but he wasn’t anything special; at least not special enough to drive the final nail into the coffin of her already-failing marriage.

But then their eyes met.

John blinked and smiled at Ellie—El, as he called her—and his eyes, those ice-blue eyes just drilled right through her heart. And that smile.

IT’S NOT YOU, ELLIE, STOP IT! DON’T START WHAT YOU WON’T BE ABLE TO STOP!

She HAD to speak with him, find out who he was and why he was here. She hadn’t planned to do more than flirt, maybe nothing more innocent than digging up some dirt from another part of town. As she crossed the church basement hall to introduce herself to the new man, her inner voice gave her one more chance, a warning that made her stop in her tracks.

IF YOU FLIRT WITH HIM, YOU’RE NO BETTER THAN THAT ADULTEROUS WHORE, SARA DAWN.

Ellie halted her steps as a feeling like bile rose in her throat. Her conscience was right. WHAT THE HECK AM I DOING?

But then the man gripped the hand she had unconsciously held out to him and squeezed it gently.

“I’m John,” he had said.

That voice. That warm, soothing, lyrical voice carried so much promise. It was the voice of deliverance, the voice of freedom, the voice of excitement. Change.

“H-Hi, John. I-I’m Ell—”

“El,” he had whispered. “I’ve always liked that name.”

***

The lesser soul had been given a name. His name was Sed. He was what hell referred to as a Legad, a Senior Alterling.

In more common parlance, or how they were referred to secretly among members of The Choir of Heaven: “Corporis Decidi,” the Fleshly Fallen. Also known as “twisted souls.”

Hell’s Order of Legad were a legion of souls corrupted into serving the fallen angels of Mastema. Like John before he returned to earth to save Sara Dawn, Sed likewise was a soul. Unlike John, Sed’s existence was one of eternal suffering, The Promised Damnation.

And, unlike John; who had no idea what life was like on earth, how he died, whether or not he was even a HE, or how long he lived; Sed was VERY much aware of what he had been missing. Every hour, every day, every year in hell was a scar across his seared flesh. He knew EXACTLY what he was missing, and he ESPECIALLY knew what he was missing in Heaven.

Sed’s eternity was spent shadowed from the love of God.

He knew no comfort.

He knew no peace.

He only knew suffering, loss, regret.

When Sed was pulled into the company of the fallen angel Meresin, he was chained to the fallen angel’s foot and trained—as John was trained—to prepare him for a return to earth. Sed was tortured, beaten and burned. He was humiliated into slavery and now serves as the Sixth Legad of Meresin.

Sed’s teachings included all of the laws of hell, those rules made to mock the God who cast out Satan and his hosts, and brought him to a new appreciation, a RESPECT for the fallen angels and THEIR god, Mastema.

Sed’s mission was as simple as John’s: Save Sara.

From John.

It was that fact, that NAME, that polluted Sed so much during his training that when he clawed to earth in the form of an alterling—a shadow—he possessed the first human he encountered. . . named John.

***

John (Sed) Milton held Ellie’s hand and caressed it in a way he knew would sink the hook deeper into the woman’s human nature. That was the weapon of the Legad, the ability to look into the weaknesses, the lusts, the EASY thoughts. Human beings, he found, were so easy to corrupt because they were so far removed from their . . . God.

THAT, he reveled, would make his master Meresin’s job so much easier when the time came.

El had no time to react to the tendrils he sank into her. Meresin taught him how to read human beings, how to smell their fears and flavors. In Ellie Sauder, Sed smelled the exaltation of falling into a wild fantasy with a perfect stranger. He also smelled the fear of losing herself, losing her soul (oh, how right she was!—but it was curious how human beings cared so little for that which meant so much).

He said, “Can I give you a ride somewhere?”

“Sure,” she shrugged, almost too eagerly.

***

Screw it, Ellie Sauder decided. Ed was already at his mother’s helping her with his huge family’s precious Thanksgiving. He never wanted to go to HER mother’s, HATED her mother. But Ellie was always ready to bow and scrape to Mrs. Sauder, to take her criticisms about cutting her hair, about how much make-up she wore, about having—or not having—children with her “baby boy.”

I put up with THAT, why can’t he give MY mother the time of day?

That finality, silently decided between them, lead to a simple decision. Ed would go to HIS mother’s house and Ellie would go to hers. They would meet back home some time late at night—“If,” as Ed threatened, “I don’t feel like spending the night at mom’s.”

“Why don’t you?” Ellie had sneered back.

“Maybe I will!”

“I have to work the church breakfast anyway, and if we’re spending Thanksgiving apart, you might as well stay with your precious mommy all damn weekend!”

He smacked her then. It wasn’t the first time, but was closer to being the last, and then he stormed into the bedroom and packed a few things.

Fine, she thought.

Go.

I hate you.

And that made her decision later that morning so much easier. The most powerful thought haunting Ellie Sauder’s mind was how she wanted to strike back at her husband, teach him a lesson, make him suffer like he made her suffer. Cheat on HIM for a change.

She glanced back to make sure no one from the church was coming out into the cold, hooked her arm in John Milton’s, and allowed him to escort her to his car.

***

Though she said he could take her home, John Milton had other ideas. They would go for a nice leisurely drive through the countryside, chat a bit and get to know each other.

A little nervous at first, but comforted in the fact SOMEONE had to have seen her leave with him—not to mention the fact they left from CHURCH, she eased into the warm leather seat of his Civic and smiled at his profile.

“You probably have plans for Thanksgiving, huh?” John asked.

Ellie surreptitiously slid the wedding ring from her finger and tucked it into the pocket of her slacks. “I don’t have ANY plans today, John.”

He glanced away from the road for just a second, his eyes darting to her lips. “Good. Good,” he said.

***

She rode with him around town, the outskirts, even making a couple stops, not realizing she was just along for the ride while he sniffed out another woman, Sara Dawn.

Sed’s senses were distracted by the pheromones coming off the woman next to him. While Meresin told him it was important that he take the woman, learn all he could from her, he had a difficult time concentrating on the task at hand. The body and mind he possessed had not been with a woman in over eight years. Sed’s senses were fuelling John Milton’s body’s desires.

He had tried conversation, asked her about the church, the families involved in the church, then eventually:

“I heard people talking at the breakfast about some crazy woman who lived in the basement.”

Ellie’s face curled into a momentary snarl. “Sara Dawn,” she said. “I have it on a good source that she had been trying to seduce the pastor.”

“Really?” Sed expertly molded John Milton’s expression to show genuine interest. “A seducer, huh?”

Ellie stared out the window of the car and shrugged, “That chick had problems. She was a drunk. Kelly Green told me she drank all the Communion wine—just last night, actually.”

“Damn.”

“Yeah.”

He glanced sideways at her, “What would make somebody do something like that—? in a church, I mean.”

Ellie shrugged. Sed could tell the topic was digging at something inside her, there was a resentment of the woman. He could smell that Ellie Sauder looked down on Sara Dawn for no other reason than she was quiet, she was pretty, and she had a troubled past.

She said, “They say she started drinking when she was just six years old, that her parents got her started. They were drunks too, killed each other. Then Sara, first and last time ever driving a car, wiped out this guy’s family.”

“Someone from here?”

There was a slight nod in the corner of his eye. “Not from our church. Some doctor named Rye or Wheat or something.”

“Wow.”

A slight nod.

Sed had to engage her more, pull at the emotion that caused the resentment, the hatred. THAT was the key to finding Sara and, more importantly, the buttons he’d have to push to draw Sara away from the heaven-sent.

For now, Sed knew, he’d have to concentrate his abilities on keeping Ellie Sauder interested in him. He had to do something to keep her hooked before she panicked or bailed on him.

“The book store?” Ellie asked as he parked the car and switched off the engine.

He looked out the windshield at the glowing Barce & Nobuls sign. “Coffee?”

Ellie shrugged. She seemed slightly agitated. Sed could only imagine because she was wanting to take John Milton to bed and it was taking too long to get there, but he had to speak with Meresin in private, with his head clear of distraction.

Re-setting the hook, Sed whispered, “I’m sorry.”

She met John Milton’s eyes, seemed to melt but only slightly. “Why? Don’t be.”

“I’m sorry because I really want—” Sed forced John Milton’s expression to turn away, to look ponderous, guilty.

Ellie felt it. The smell of her became more intense. “Want–? What is it, John?”

He turned, let his eyes linger on hers. “You.”

He leaned in and kissed her passionately. Her breath came hot and impatient. Good. Good. He pushed her away when he sensed that she had reached the point of no return.

“Coffee to go?” He suggested when their lips parted.

Ellie nodded spasmodically, her chest heaving with deep panting breaths.

“Be right back.”

“Hurry.”

***

John (Sed) Milton was on his hands and knees hugging a toilet in the men’s room of the book store. He dry heaved, gagged, choked, as Meresin wrapped his claws around his skull, pushed a long-nailed finger down his throat.

To anyone entering the tiny stall, they would see only a man with a bad hangover embarrassing himself in the B&N men’s room.

“I have plans for her,” the fallen one said.

“Yes, master,” Sed responded in Milton’s mind.

“The angel’s toy is about to hand us a favor,” Meresin hissed. Sed didn’t know what he was talking about, but had learned over an eternity not to question his masters. “When he does, you will open the door for me.”

“Door?”

“You will know when the time is right, animal. You will feel my presence burning inside you.”

John heaved again. A trickle of blood rolled off his tongue and made a pink swirl in the toilet bowl. His eyes watered as Meresin dug his claws into his ears, his nose.

“Yes, master.”

Sed could sense the joy coming from his master as the fallen one ebbed away, sank back into darkness.

After all, his day was coming.

Meresin, identified by the apostle Paul in a letter to the Ephesians, as the Prince of Revelation.

***

Ellie had to admit that her day with John Milton was better than any date she’d ever had with Ed. The thrill built slowly throughout the day as he toyed with her. He took her for lunch early in the afternoon, they went for a walk in the chilly park, they drove around and around. They talked about the town, people in the town. She loved to gossip.

But she was beginning to lose her nerve about a relationship with this guy, thought about excusing herself out of the situation, when he parked at the B&N.

But then came the kiss. The unexpected passion.

Ellie Sauder had never felt such fire burning within her, never felt so warm and wonderfully FREE. While he was inside getting the coffee, Ellie popped a button on her blouse and fanned herself. Oh, this was going to be the best Thanksgiving ever. She was going to do CRAZY things with John Milton, things he would never forget.

***

Twenty minutes later they were kissing passionately, shedding their clothes as Ellie lead him to the unmade bed in her home. Ed, true to his promise, hadn’t returned and she didn’t care. She almost hoped he would find them together. The look on his face would rival the experience itself.

They moved together like coiled snakes, fingers entwining, legs slick against each other, lips and teeth, hot breath, sour sweat, sweet musk, pounding hearts.

She had never had a sexual experience like this. Nothing else mattered as the rest of the world melted away. He felt so good under her, so powerful.

Her heat mingled with his. The electrical power between them was building, building—

***

The transfer was quick and easy, painless for everyone involved.

Except Sed who found himself ripped from John Milton’s body and consigned once again to The Pit.

Meresin looked down at himself—well, John Milton (the now very much SURPRISED John Milton)—and smiled. The woman’s body felt good around him, lithe and sinewy, not as strong as the man’s but more pliable, more adaptable.

And her mind was quicker, easier to access, dark and filled with corruption, lust, envy, and the knowledge of a million whispered chats.

Meresin used Ellie Sauder’s body to end the life of John Milton. As the human male choked on his last breath, Ellie (Meresin) Sauder leaned forward and pressed her lips to his.

Then Meresin swallowed John Milton’s soul.

Meresin, now happily occupying the body of the adulteress, Ellie Sauder, strolled around the home Mrs. Sauder shared with her husband. Meresin imagined it was modest for a human couple with no children, modest but glaring in some obtuse ways.

The oversized television set, stereo equipment, game center and pool table in the lowest level of the tri-level house were a bit much. The ostentatious air of the mahogany entertainment center made Meresin smile as he ran Ellie’s fingers across its smooth surface. The lower level, obviously—and what Ellie had stored in the back of her mind, would be Ed Sauder’s claim in the divorce. Though Ellie never played with her husband’s toys, she was imagining something different. She would take it all, take it all and sell it CHEAP.

Because, after all, Ed cheated on HER first.

The middle level of the home contained an untouched living room, obviously a museum piece of departed loved ones’ furniture. Kept immaculate, but useless, the living room was nothing special. Ellie/Meresin made her/his way into the adjacent dining room—also untouched—and kitchen. The kitchen was a mess. The sinks were piled high with dirty dishes, spilled food and shoe tracks stained the linoleum floor, and the simple four-piece dinette set was scratched and haphazardly maintained. One green placemat was dotted with stale breadcrumbs and a smear of butter or mayonnaise.

Meresin made Ellie’s body go to the refrigerator and open it. He made her reach for a bottle of Coors and twist it open. He drank. AHH, refreshing.

Ellie Sauder’s puppet master escorted her back upstairs to Ed’s office, clogged with papers, binders, insurance sales training manuals, and Playboys; and then to the bedroom, clogged with Ellie’s exercise equipment, beat-up old bureau and dresser, cracked wall mirror and rumpled sagging queen-sized bed, all of which was draped with discarded underwear, pantyhose, sweatpants, lingerie, Ed’s jeans, boxers, hoodies, ties and dress shirts.

And there, in the middle of it all, was a dead man.

Meresin/Ellie went over to the bed and sat on it. She ran fingers across John Milton’s cool chest.

“Thank you,” Johnny, she said. She bent and kissed him on the cheek. “But it’s time for you to go visit your daddy in Arizona.”

The corpse didn’t answer, just stared skyward. The bruises around its neck were deep purple, almost black.

“I know, I know,” Ellie said, “You promised your mom.”

That’s when the doorbell rang.

Meresin/Ellie jerked in the direction of the upstairs hall, the banister leading down to the front door.

The bell rang again. Then there was a knock. Three hard thuds.

Turning to the departed Mr. Milton, Ellie said, “The police.” In a mocking impression of fear, she crossed her arms placing her palms on her bare breasts and gasped. “They can’t see me like this—CATCH ME LIKE THIS!”

***

The two men were standing on the front step of the Sauder house, an unmarked black sedan parked down by the curb. Both men wore black suits and trench coats, both wore identical black sunglasses despite the overcast day, and both wore shoes so shiny they reflected like black mirrors.

Both men were so pale they could have been albino twins.

Meresin/Ellie pulled open the door and stood naked before them. She demurely lifted the heel of one bare foot and rubbed her knee against her inner thigh. She took a deep breath and pushed her breasts forward.

Even through the sunglasses, Meresin could tell the pale men were not impressed.

The one in the lead said, “You called?”

Ellie said, in as sultry and smoky a voice as Meresin could rouse from her, “You boys came quick. My goodness. Here I am all alone in this great big house with no one to protect me.” She added a breathless squeak at the end, a kind of Marilyn Monroe gasp.

Stone face repeated, “You called?”

Ellie’s shoulders slumped and she stepped aside. “Come in. Jeez, you guys are no fun, no fun AT ALL.”

The men stepped into the house and removed their sunglasses, then their trench coats. They dropped the items on the floor.

“It’s customary to drape them over something,” Ellie said, pointing a nearby chair.

The leader, whose eyes were all black—including the whites—never left hers. He said, “You called?”

Standing straight, speaking in the deeper baritone of Meresin’s voice, mingled with Ellie’s own higher timber, the possessed woman said, “Identify me.”

The man in black said, “You are Meresin, the Lord of Lightning.”

“And you are…?”

“Thatch,” said the leader.

“Reems,” said the other.

“Thatch and Reems. Good.” Ellie’s body took a deep breath. Speaking now only in Ellie’s voice, she said, “Follow,” and lead the two upstairs to the bedroom.

Thatch and Reems were a special breed of demon. Rarely seen, and sometimes recorded throughout history as faeries, elves, wolf-boys, mothmen, aliens and, well, demons, they moved among men only to do the bidding of a Fallen Angel. This happened ONLY when the Fallen was lucky enough to be on earth. THAT only happened in rare occasions, like when a human soul returns and blabs one of Heaven’s secrets to another human. The more infringement takes place by Heaven, the more infringement is allowed by hell. In mockery to the Holy Trinity, Mastema counts three opportunities for every one mistake of a Heaven Sent.

In this case, the UNholy trinity consisted of Meresin, Thatch and Reems.

***

“I’m going to take a shower,” Ellie said. She pointed to the dead man on the bed. “Clean that up. All of it.”

Reems said, “Not a problem,” as Thatch removed his black suit jacket and loosened his tie.

As Thatch approached the body and lifted its arm as if to test its weight, Reems said, “You have a plan?”

Ellie said, “His mother is afraid he was going to abandon her at Thanksgiving, go to Arizona to see his father.”

Reems blinked.

“Make that happen.”

“Car accident?” Thatch asked as he sniffed at John Milton’s neck and mouth.

“Standard missing person?” Reems suggested.

Ellie said, “Take a pilot. Go to a local municipal airstrip and log out a flight. Use the pilot’s plane or take a rental, whatever. Be sure to use the name, and money, of Mr. John Milton.”

Both demons nodded. Thatch asked, “Ball of flame?”

Ellie nodded.

Reems said, “The DNA will belong to the pilot and your friend here, but there won’t be enough left to autopsy.”

Ellie smiled. “Exactly.” She turned and shut the door of the bathroom behind her. A moment later the shower started.

Thatch rolled the body over and started to dress it with his discarded clothes. “Who gets to go down with the plane?”

Reems said, “Play you for it.”

Thatch stood up and made a fist. Reems made a fist. They pumped in unison, 1-2-3.

Reems said, displaying his rock to Thatch’s scissors, “Mine.”

Returning to the chore of cleaning up the corpse, Thatch said, “It’s been awhile since you’ve been in a plane crash, hasn’t it?”

“December 15, 1938, but who’s counting?” Reems removed his jacket and helped his partner clean the crime scene.

***

Meresin took his time with Ellie’s body in the bathroom. He knew the woman liked to pamper herself, so he allowed her arms and hands, fingers and toes, to do what they normally would. The shower lasted awhile. There was exfoliating, cleansing, conditioning, plucking, powdering and cuticle pushing.

Then came the make-up.

By the time Ellie Sauder emerged from the bathroom, she looked as beautiful as ever, and both Thatch and Reems were gone, as was poor John Milton, and the house looked immaculate.

She had no fear that the demons would be seen. After all, they could only be seen or heard if they desired it, and these two were on a mission for one of Mastema’s lieutenants. They wouldn’t mess this up by playing around with the locals.

Within a few hours, Johnny Milton’s mother would become worried, then frantic. Calls would go unanswered. Somewhere between Indiana and Arizona a plane would crash. Local authorities would find the remains of two men aboard—and some luggage (Thatch, Meresin knew, was very VERY thorough)—and the flight would be traced back to a municipal airport where a Mr. John Milton had logged a private charter to see his daddy. Mommy would be devastated. So would daddy.

But know one would know—except the soul of Ellie Sauder crying from deep within her own body—that Mr. Milton enjoyed a sexual rendezvous with Ellie Sauder.

Sure he was at the church breakfast. Sure they talked. Meresin would be sure to let everyone know—as Ellie Sauder—that the two went their separate ways after John talked endlessly about how hi missed his dear sweet daddy.

Situation: clean.

There was only one thing Meresin needed before moving on to the next body. First, he needed to find out what happened to Sara Dawn. To do that, he’d have to find out who the clever future-Legad was who corrupted her innocence and fooled an entire town into thinking the sweet little church mouse was a booze-guzzling whore.

And there was one more thing.

Dropping the towel he had wrapped around Ellie’s body, Meresin started to dress. Ellie chose a knee-length dress, burgundy, matching low-heels and a barrette to hold her blond hair in place.

Then—

***

. . . . They moved together like coiled snakes . . . , fingers entwining, legs slick against each other, lips and teeth, hot breath, sour sweat, sweet musk, pounding hearts.

She had never had a sexual experience like this. . . . Nothing else mattered as the rest of the world melted away. He felt so good under her, so powerful. . . .

Her heat mingled with his. . . . The electrical power between them was building, building—

***

“—Oh, John!” Ellie tossed her head back and groaned in ecstasy. The barrette flew from her blond tresses as her head snapped forward, then back again.

Then she realized something—something horrific.

John was gone.

The bed was gone.

Her—Why am I dressed?

Ellie lost her balance and tumbled forward into the recliner in the corner of the bedroom because the last thing she knew she was kneeling over John as he was inside her, her thighs straining wide and quivering as her blood swarmed with heat.

Crashing to the floor with a thud, her burgundy dress riding up as she slumped to the ground, Ellie screamed.

Then Meresin seized her once again, claws inside her mind, gripping her behind the eyes, his tongue lolling across the top of hers from deep inside her throat.

WHAT IS GOING ON WITH ME!?

Ellie tried to scream again but only gagged, choked. She was aware of another presence inside her, felt the scales crawling under the skin of her arms.

“YOU WILL JOIN ME IN HELL!” The deep voice growled from her own throat.

“NO!” Ellie cried and was once again choked.

Her body suddenly shot to its feet, she twisted and jerked like a zombie in Michael Jackson’s THRILLER video. Her head craned to one side, then the other, her eyes rolled back.

“NOOoaaaawww,” she groaned.

“DIE, BITCH!” the deep voice within her commanded.

Ellie broke free of the grasp of whatever it was and charged for the cell phone on the nightstand. It no longer mattered where John Milton was, why she was dressed, or why it seemed so dark through the windows. Either she was dreaming before—or she’s dreaming now. Tears streamed down Ellie’s face as the creature was once again inside her.

She felt herself rise off her feet and flip over, then she landed on her back on the bed.

She screamed again.

Meresin cursed at her in Aramaic, then in German, and finally, “BITCH! WHORE!”

Ellie’s back arched as she felt her legs thrust apart and her dress bunch up to her waist.

IT’S GOING TO RAPE ME! OH, MY GOD, NO! NO!

“Aawwaaaaa!” she cried. Tears exploded from her red face as she choked on her sobs and screamed within her strangled brain to understand what was going on and why.

Then, as suddenly as she started screaming, she stopped.

Ellie was once again . . . gone.

Meresin sniffed Ellie’s runny nose, wiped at Ellie’s teary eyes, allowed himself to recall the pain and anguish she was feeling. He needed it. It was important that she sound convincing.

Meresin used Ellie’s finger to punch a speed-dial number on her cell. He pressed the phone to her ear, allowed Ellie to peek forward just a little bit—enough to disgorge a new wave of tears.

A man’s voice clicked in after four rings. “What?”

Meresin/Ellie’s breath wavered before she spoke.

Ed’s voice jumped in, hearing the tears, “Ellie? Ellie, what’s wrong?”

“Oh, Ed, I’m so sorry! Oh, Ed—” She squeezed out more tears, blew her nose into a tissue from the nightstand box.

“Ellie? Ellie, are you okay?”

“Ed, I’m so sorry. I don’t want to be without you! Not on Thanksgiving.”

There was a pause on Ed’s end. Meresin/Ellie could hear Ed’s mother’s harsh raspy voice in the background, telling him to hang up. Ed said, “Honey.”

Meresin/Ellie jumped in. “Ed, baby, I’m the one who’s not being fair or forgiving. Please, baby, please come home to me.”

Ed, his voice now taking a slightly firmer edge, said, “Well . . . why don’t you come out here to ma’s?”

Here is where Ellie Sauder would lose it, would remember her husband and that woman. With Meresin in control, history changed. Ellie sniffed, “Are you sure?”

Ed was taken aback. His nervous laugh betrayed him. “Yeah. Hell, yeah. Come on out.”

“But what about your mom?”

“It’s okay, babe. Really.”

“It’s okay?” Sniff.

“Really. Come on.”

“She won’t be mad?”

“No. No, of course not.”

Sniff. Ellie took another deep sigh. “Okay. Okay, baby. I’ll be out in about an hour.”

Ed said, “I can’t wait.”

“I love you.”

“I miss you, baby.”

Snap. Meresin/Ellie closed the cell and went into the bathroom to clean up Ellie’s face.

Then Meresin took one last look around the house and left. Before giving Ellie the surprise reunion with her husband, he would need to make the jump to someone new, someone more useful.

Rumor had it, thanks to Ellie’s memory, that someone would be Charles Wheat.

In her dream, Sara Dawn was a child again. She wore the beautiful white frilly dress she always loved wearing to church when she walked with her mommy.

It was a bright sunny day, the air was a warm kiss on her cheeks as her mommy walked with her down the sidewalk. They held hands and giggled together, skipped over hopscotch squares when they encountered them. Her mother was so beautiful.

“I want to be just like you,” little dream Sara said.

That’s when mommy stopped, startled, by someone approaching on the walk.

“Daddy!”

Sara’s daddy pulled the chrome-glinting pistol from his black work jacket and pointed it at her mommy.

“NOOO!”

He yelled, “I’m sick of it! SICK OF IT!”

“NOOOOOO!”

Sara woke with a whining groan. She was wound tightly into a fetal position hugging the cast on her arm to her chest when her good eye came open.

The dream was over, but she was in a dreamlike place. Her body felt warm and clean, her aches and pains were still there but seemed greatly diminished with the warmth. The light was a warm flickering yellow, and she lay on a soft deeply-cushioned feather bed, a large orange, brown, white and black patchwork quilt tucked in around her.

Sara’s face felt tight. She reached up and touched new bandages over her nose brace. Her stitches still poked in the back of her head, but a clean bandage was covering them as well. Her hair—the hair on the unshaved side—was silky and smelled of baby shampoo.

Sara groaned as she rolled onto her back and soaked in more of her surroundings.

The room was a bedroom in some kind of cabin. Bare oaken beams spanned the ceiling with criss-crossing white Christmas twinkle lights, the source of the warm glow along with a quintet of candles on a nearby nightstand. A small square window pane was dark. Space heaters hummed and rattled softly beyond the foot of the bed, their heat rising to the gently swaying clothes on a makeshift line from one wall to another. She recognized the clothes. They were hers down to the underwear.

Gasping, Sara felt herself under the quilt and realized she had been wrapped in some kind of soft terrycloth robe.

There were two doors from this room. The one immediately to the right of the bed lead, from what she could see, to a small aqua-colored bathroom. The sound of a dripping sink came with the smell of detergent, soap and baby shampoo.

Beyond the other door she heard men’s voices, talking, laughter. And one woman’s voice. She couldn’t make out how many men where there, or who they might be. She heard a couple names: Elmer, Jimmy, John.

John!

Sara started to sit up, pull the quilt off, but remembered her nakedness and kept it tightly wrapped around her shoulders.

Then she heard the woman’s voice draw closer. “I should check on our guest of honor.”

The door opened slowly as if the woman was afraid she might wake Sara if she let the hinges creak. The face that peaked around the corner was round and warm, rosy-cheeked and framed with short brown gray-speckled hair. There was a smudge of dirt on the woman’s cheek and she had a tiny bandage on her chin.

“Oh,” she said in a soft grandmotherly voice, “You’re awake.”

“She awake?” a strange voice called from the room outside.

The woman’s face momentarily disappeared and Sara heard her say, “Now Jimmy, you nevermind. Let me tend to the women folk.”

A deeper voice said, “Yeah. Hushup! You prob’ly why she woken anyhow.”

The woman returned, entered the room, and closed and latched the door behind her.

Sara eased back on the bed, sitting up and pulling her knees to her chest.

“W-Who are you?” she asked with a cracking voice.

The woman approached and sat in a chair next to the bed. She said, “Now, honey, I can’t believe your hurts are so bad that you don’t remember me.”

“There is something about you . . . .”

The woman lowered her head and looked up with her eyes. She shaded her brow with her hand to effect a hood or scarf. She pouted her lip until she looked like an overgrown street urchin from a Dickens story.

Sara drew a breath and patted her knee. “Agatha, right?”

“Good to see you still have your senses, dear.” Agatha stood and leaned over the bed extending her arms to hug Sara. “I’m sorry we’ve never formally introduced.” Sara accepted the hug and squeezed the woman back. She smelled of the same soap Sara did and Sara realized this was the person who cleaned her and her clothes as she lay unconscious.

The older woman sat on the edge of the bed, brushing back a loose strand of silver and tucking it back into the brown. “I’m Agatha Chatwood, or I used to be before my Royal passed on years ago. Now I’m just crazy Aggie, the old woman under the bridge.”

The widow Chatwood lost every part of herself when her husband died. Giving all of her inheritance to charities and churches (Royal Chatwood owned several businesses in Gates and Homer, and a huge pile of stock in the Sweetwater Farming Company out of Danville, Illinois), she wandered off and was never seen again. Agatha once told Sara—after Sara gave her twenty dollars for a new coat—that she came out to jump off the Lyle Bridge. She didn’t know she’d run into so many others who had hoped to do the same, that they would accept her as family, and that they would form a community. “The Homer Trolls,” they were called. The crazy religious people under the bridge.

Agatha was among those Sara rode her bike out to see on warm days. She would give food or gloves, but mostly money, to whomever would take it, saying, “For dollar menus, not for dollar wine. Don’t end up like me, ‘kay?”

Sara rarely engaged the trolls in conversation, but Agatha’s smile was usually too much for her to ignore.

Just as it was now.

Sara shed a silent tear. Sniffed.

“Why the waterworks, honey?” Agatha said as she leaned forward and rested a hand on Sara’s knee. “You’re with your friends now, your new family.”

Sara shook her head and laughed uncomfortably through another sob. “I’m sorry. It’s just been a very bad day.”

“None of that,” Agatha said with a wag of her finger. “You’ve cried enough. You have every reason to be happy. John told us how he found you beat-up by the side of the road, how you was kidnapped and left for dead. But we’ll take care of you.”

Sara’s eyes widened slightly at the mention of John’s name. “John?”

“Of course.” Agatha rose, apparently to fetch him to Sara’s side, but Sara reached out and grabbed her arm, halting her. “What’s wrong, child?”

“Don’t. I want to ask you about him.”

Agatha sat and smiled. She tilted her head like a storyteller reaching the end of a tale. “I don’t know what I could tell you, hon. He’s a friend of Jimmy and Elmer’s—God rest his soul. He just came to us today.”

“So you don’t know he’s from—”

“Kentucky? Yes, but we don’t hold that against him. Even though it’s odd that Jimmy comes to us from up north and has an accent that would rival any country singer and John talks like the Grand Ol’ Northern Gentleman himself.”

“What has he told you?”

“Only that he found you, brought you here, and what he done for poor old Elmer Petrie.”

“Who’s Elmer Petrie?”

Agatha’s smile was ruined by a puckering chin as she tucked away tears. “Elmer was a dear friend of ours, lived up in the woods with his dog.”

“Bailey?” Sara guessed.

“That’s right.” Agatha gathered herself. Took a deep breath. “Poor Elmer passed on this morning. John found him and escorted him to his final rest.”

Based on everything John had told Sara up to this point, she couldn’t help but misunderstand. In her mind, John sprouted white feathery wings and lifted Elmer Petrie up into the clouds with a leap and a flap.

“H-He did?”

“He’s a good soul,” Agatha said. “You’re lucky he found you when he did.”

Sara’s gaze fell to the criss-crossing patchwork of the quilt and her mind wandered across the history of this day: the hangover, the memory loss, the cold shower and beating by Ellie Sauder, the shouted accusations she didn’t understand, the casting out into the cold, sore feat, pounding head, waking in Dr. Hoff’s clinic, escaping, meeting John and Bailey.

John telling her things about herself NO ONE could have known.

“I need to see him,” she whispered.

Agatha said, “Aren’t you hungry, dear? Theodore brought turkey from the QuickMart and dressing, Reverend Doug made potatoes and greens. We’re having ourselves a regular Thanksgiving feast.”

Sara felt the cold clamp on her stomach, but shook it off. “I need to see him, now.” She met Agatha’s warm gray eyes. “Please.”

Agatha stood and clapped her palms against her thighs. “Of course, dear. But first let me find you something to wear. It’s not ladylike to meet with a man in nothin’ but a robe.”

“Thank you,” Sara said, and slowly climbed out of bed.

***

The main room of the psychic parlor was wide and square. The only doors lead outside, to the kitchen, and to the single bedroom and bathroom beyond. A Christmas tree stood crooked in a corner next to a bay window pane that was partially boarded up, the missing glass replaced with opaque plastic and crinkling garbage bags. A makeshift fireplace, constructed in the east wall by Reverend Doug himself, crackled and warmed the room with brilliant orange flames. Space heaters running off a generator out back kept the kitchen and far side of the main room warm. The only furniture was a moth-eaten couch next to the fireplace, a couple round tables, a large throne-like chair (probably that of the fortune-teller when one was in residence), and several folding chairs around two card tables pushed together and covered by a stained red cloth.

Partial cans of beans, corn and carrots sat on makeshift grates over Sterno cups on the table surrounding a large aluminum foil nest filled with golden brown turkey breasts, a couple legs, and strips of bacon. Bottles of water and cans of Budweiser rounded out the feast, most of the beer emptied by Jimmy Dodd who sat next to John.

John sipped his water while he absently stroked the fur on Bailey’s head. He stared toward the bedroom door awaiting Agatha’s verdict. Was Sara okay? Did she get any rest? Is she still upset? Can he talk to her?

Theodore sat across from John and scratched at his black wiry shadow of beard. His wide eyes were a stark contrast to his deep mahogany skin and John couldn’t help but feel his stare.

When Theodore spoke it was a deep baritone that projected, warm and musical but broken by long homeless years roaming the countryside and working any odd jobs he could find. “S’matter, John? You ‘kay?”

John nodded. Smiled. “I’m just worried about her.”

“She be ‘kay, ya.”

“Thank you, Theodore, and thank you for offering her the medicine.”

Theodore smiled wide, his yellowed teeth bare and the corners of his eyes wrinkling with all the joviality of a black Santa Claus. “See there, Reven, I get thanks fr’ the John.”

The reverend sat next to Theodore and picked at the dark meat on his paper plate. “I-I heard Th-Theodore. You certainly ha-have given the g-g-gift of life this se-season.” Reverend Doug Testerbird was a white haired man of medium build with pocked cheeks and thick horned-rimmed glasses bound together at one arm and the bridge with tape, bandages, and string. His stutter was almost buried within a soft whisper of a voice.

“I did, didn’t I?” Theodore beamed.

Jimmy Dodd, his arm around John’s chair, said, “Sure did, Teddy, sure did,” and chugged his beer.

Agatha opened the bedroom door and leaned out. “John, she’d like to see you.”

At the door John and Bailey halted as Agatha whispered, “Something about you has the girl spooked, John. Please go easy.”

John touched the old woman’s shoulder and smiled. “I know. I will.”

***

Sara sat on the bed, still with the quilt around her shoulders, but she now wore sweat pants and a heavy flannel shirt belonging to Reverend Doug.

She smiled at John and nodded to the chair. “Why don’t you have a seat.”

John froze, trying to judge her demeanor. She looked so beautiful despite the bruises, cast, and half a shaved head. Both of her eyes were open though one was clearer than the other.

John approached the chair slowly and eased himself down, keeping his eyes on her as if afraid she would yell or strike out.

Bailey had no problem approaching the woman. She bounded up onto the feather bed and plopped herself down, her head resting in Sara’s lap.

Sara smiled and hugged the dog, stroked her flank and said in a sweet baby-talk, “Who’s a good girl? Who’s the sweet Bailey-girl? You are. Yes, you are.” Bailey’s tail wagged furiously with the adoration.

When Sara finally turned her attention to John, her expression fell but she continued to pet the dog. “John?”

John swallowed hard. “Yes, Sara.”

“What ever happened to Mr. T, my teddy bear?”

John rocked forward a bit, then eased back. He nervously licked his bottom lip. “Your foster parents made you throw him away. It was one of the worst days of your life. You cried harder than you ever had—I believe because the bear was a gift from your mother.”

Sara’s chin quivered, but she held her tears.

John continued. “Nobody but you and God know what happened next.”

“W-What was that, John?”

“You snuck down to the trash bin, outside, in the middle of the night. It was raining. Mr. T was soaked through the stuffing and slimy with garbage.”

Sara chewed her lower lip.

“You cleaned him off as best you could, kept him hidden in several secret places while you lived in Bixley.”

Sara slowly nodded. A tear slid down her cheek and she quickly wiped it away. “I was just thinking how that’s NOT what happened. I concentrated really hard to convince myself the bear was burned, that I saw my foster dad douse him with gasoline and strike a match to him.”

“But that’s not—”

“I know.” Sara swallowed hard, hugged Bailey’s neck and leaned back against the bed’s headboard. “But I needed to see if you were for real, or if this was some kind of psychic put-on.”

John stood, stepped to the bed and sat on the edge of it. He joined Sara in petting the dog, but he kept his distance. “Everything I told you is the absolute truth.”

“I never knew anyone named John,” She said in a near whisper.

John looked away. “I don’t know what my name was before I came to be in Heaven.”

“So where did John come from?”

He shrugged. “I guess it’s the name God gave me so I could get around down here. I needed a name so you’d know what to call me.”

“Do you have a last name?”

John shook his head.

“Do you think—,” Sara caught herself, waved a hand between them, then sniffed hard and resumed petting Bailey.

“What? Go, ahead, Sara. Please, ask me.”

“Do you think it’s possible . . . you could be my daddy?” Tears now streamed freely down her face. She made no effort to stop them or push them away. Sara took her hands off the dog and rested them in her lap. “Could you be my daddy? Could you maybe have come back to tell me why you did what you did?”

John swallowed and had a hard time meeting Sara’s gaze. Her questions were valid, and he found himself wishing he WERE her father so they could have the conversation, the understanding, they never had while he was alive.

All he could do was shake his head. “I don’t know, Sara. I don’t know.”

“But it’s possible, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

Her crying became deeper. The sobs returned. “John, please let me talk to my daddy.” She leaned forward and threw her arms around his neck. She cried hard into John’s shoulder.

He returned the embrace, held her tight and patted her on the back.

He met Bailey’s deep brown eyes as the dog peeked up from behind her.

The dog said, “You are not her father.”

John closed his eyes. He found himself crying with her.

Sara bawled, “Oh, DADDY! I miss you and mommy so much! I miss you so much!”

John rubbed her back, the back of her head and neck. He hugged her tighter, let her sobs soak through his shirt into his skin.

“Daddy! Mommy! I miss you so much. I miss you sooooo muuuch.”

John started rocking her slowly from side to side. He whispered in her ear, “God is here for you, Sara. He’s with you now. Let it all out. Just let it all out . . . .”

“MOMMY! I DIDN’T WANT YOU TO GO! OH, JOHN, WHY DID THEY HAVE TO LEAVE ME!? WHY DID THEY HAVE TO GO!?”

John hummed softly as he rocked her side to side, it was a tune Glenine used to sing to him, a tune which translated to, “God is your rock, your air, your thirst-quenching water. He is the fire that warms you, the love in your heart.”

“Oh, John,” Sara sniffed and choked, “Please tell me you’ll help me. Help me, John. I don’t want to die. I DON’T WANT TO DIE!”

“Ssssh, there there,” he whispered. “I won’t let you fall. I won’t.”

John felt something warm and wet touch the back of his hand. It was Bailey’s tongue. He opened his eyes and looked at the dog.

Bailey turned and pointed her snout toward a clock on the nightstand.

It was 11:32 p.m.

John closed his eyes and hugged Sara Dawn as he rocked her side to side. “I have you, Sara. You’re going to be all right. You’re going to be all right.”

Sara fell asleep weeping in John’s arms. He gently lowered her and covered her with the quilt.

Then he sat in the chair next to the bed.

And watched her sleep.

And prayed.

“What’s next, Lord? What’s next?”

Meresin, inside Ellie Sauder’s skin, drove through town and relished the darkness. He imagined the quaint streets, already decorated for Christmas, crawling with The Fallen, The Legad, the vermin and twisted concoctions of Mastema’s Hell. As it should be, he mused. As it will be.

In time.

He was cautious not to attract too much attention. Too many people in this town knew Ed and Ellie Sauder, knew their frequent fights, knew they were always one major holiday fight away from the Big D. If anyone saw Ellie driving around Homer by herself on Thanksgiving evening alone there would be huge talk. It was bad enough a few people would connect her with John Milton, but it wouldn’t matter. The moron fleshsuits of this surface puddle couldn’t draw the connections if they were given a map.

And Meresin had one more step in his plan with Ellie to ensure she would deny everything.

Sliding the car into park just outside the Rose Well Trailer Park, Meresin eased back in the driver’s seat and pulled Ellie’s purse into his lap. Inside, he found a ballpoint pen and a torn envelope. He also pulled out her wallet. Then he tossed the purse into the back seat and smiled when most of the contents spilled on the seat and floor. That would be a nice touch.
Using the wallet’s flat surface to write on, Meresin used Ellie’s teeth to pop the cap off the pen and wrote—in John Milton’s perfect script—a farewell note on the torn envelope.

When he was finished, he capped the pen and threw it in the back seat. Then he folded the envelope and placed it on the dashboard in plain view. Next, Meresin unsnapped Ellie’s wallet and removed 50 of the $142 in cash she had in the center compartment. He left the credit cards and threw the wallet into the backseat with the rest of the purse refuse.

Stepping out of the car, Meresin walked Ellie’s legs to a nearby storm sewer where freezing water and small chunks of sleet were making splashing noises in the darkness below. He folded the money into a small tight wad with Ellie’s fingers and dropped it into the drain, then he returned to Ellie’s car, climbed in on the passenger’s side, and reclined the seat until Ellie’s body was slack and completely prone.

There was no traffic at this hour on Thanksgiving night, not on this part of town anyway. Charles Wheat and his pathetic neighbors would already be asleep after their thankless lonely meals.

But Mr. Wheat wouldn’t be alone for long. Meresin smiled with Ellie’s lips.

***

If anyone had passed by as Meresin was leaving the woman’s body, they would have seen the car rocking, Ellie’s blond hair whipping up and down, side to side—her head almost smacking the window—and her hips bucking up, her arms flailing, her lips forming wailing grimaces.

The cries were sufficiently muffled this far from the closest trailer home. The only reason they were necessary was because Meresin wanted Ellie to feel the exhaustion explained in her Thanksgiving Day lover’s note.

The Fallen Angel departed Ellie Sauder’s body with her final convulsive gasp.

***

Ellie ached. Her muscles screamed, her bones throbbed. Her head pounded.

WHERE AM I?

Squirming slightly before opening her eyes, she felt cool leather under her body. She had expected the carpeting of her home. That’s where the creature had possessed her, where she had struggled against it, fought it with every ounce of strength she could muster—realizing she was living a nightmare on the heels of a wicked sexual dream. Ellie moaned softly. The air was chambered within an enclosed space that softly muffled back her moan. It made her immediately think of–

A COFFIN!

Bolting awake, expecting to see a lid of satin inches from her face and the sudden smell of moist earth–

“YOU WILL JOIN ME IN HELL,” the thing had growled inside her head.

But she found only the dark interior of her own car, the view from the passenger’s seat.

“What the?” Ellie pushed through the aches and pains and eased herself up to her elbows. She was dressed as she remembered in the last nightmare, in the burgundy dress she saved for special occasions, but her face felt flushed, her fingers trembled, and a cool ooze of drool tickled the corner of her mouth. Ellie sucked in the spittle and rubbed her eyes as she craned her head to make sense of why she was suddenly in the passenger seat of her own car. Why was it so dark? Why is it so cold?

Sure to move slowly in case the monster inside her woke again, Ellie turned and saw the contents of her purse spilled in the back seat. “Oh, God. What?”

Realizing she’d been robbed, possibly robbed and raped, Ellie turned quickly and pawed at the floor of the backseat for her cell phone. Not finding it, she reached up and thumbed the dome light. She found it peaking out of her purse’s side pocket. She snatched the phone, flipped it open, and dialed 9-1- then stopped.

Sprawled across the center console, half in and half out of the back seat, Ellie’s eyes locked on a clean folded triangle of white paper on the dash board. Written on the fold facing her was one word. ELLIE. She slid back into the seat, then slowly reached for the paper.

***

Charles Wheat couldn’t think about eating his frozen turkey dinner. He had spent the day pacing in his trailer home listening to the local radio stations, waiting for some breaking news story about Sara Dawn and her social—or actual—demise.

He paced, sat, stood, paced more. By the fourth repeat of “The Little Drummer Boy,” he collapsed in his recliner in the living room, where he drifted off to restless sleep, he dreamt about nothing more than Coyote Wilcox and the kid’s casual attitude toward what he’d done.

Several times that evening Wheat laughed out loud at the insanity of it, the OBVIOUSNESS of it; of course the woman was going to be talked into getting drunk. SHE’S A DRUNK! The kid probably didn’t even need the gun—loaded or not.

Other times he sobbed. He thought about his dead son and wife. He cried silent prayers for them, hoping that his son could now rest in peace since justice had finally been served. And he prayed that God would forgive his wife for throwing away her life, the pain had been so great.

Even now, this night some twelve years later, Charles Wheat could feel the pain.

Justice against the Dawn woman was an empty revenge.

But then he’d smile as relief washed over him. He’d never again have to worry about her getting drunk and killing another child. He had done the right thing after all.

He had no idea what time it was when he finally passed out in the chair. He didn’t care. He hoped he’d never wake up.

Funny how wishes work some times.

***

Ellie held the torn envelope in trembling fingers, closer to the dome light as she squinted at John Milton’s tiny words. He apparently had a lot to say and the envelope didn’t offer much of a surface. Her first thought: My God, it DID happen. He WAS real. Then slowly, each word in the note served the purpose of a key, unlocking the bolted doors in her mind that left her nothing but a corridor of insanity, Ellie discovered what had happened. She calmed, grew furious, got scared, then relieved, then angry again.

DEAR EL.

I AM SORRY FOR WHAT I DID TO YOU. THERE IS NOTHING I CAN DO OTHER THAN BEG YOUR FORGIVENESS. FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH, YOU WERE AN AMAZING LOVER, YOU ARE A KIND AND GENEROUS WOMAN….AND YOU LOVE YOUR HUSBAND ALMOST TOO MUCH….WHEN I SLIPPED YOU THE DRUG OUTSIDE THE BOOKSTORE, I ONLY WANTED TO LOOSEN YOU UP. I WAS BEING A PIG, I KNOW. I HAD NO INTENTION OF RAPING YOU. ON THE CONTRARY, EVERYTHING WE DID WAS ABSOLUTELY CONSENSUAL. IN FACT, MOST OF IT WAS YOUR IDEA. BUT THE DRUG LOOSENED YOU UP IN OTHER WAYS I DIDN’T EXPECT….OVER

On the reverse:

WHEN WE MADE LOVE YOU CALLED ME BY YOUR HUSBAND’S NAME….AFTER, YOU CRIED. YOU STARTED HURTING YOURSELF, THROWING YOURSELF AGAINST THE GROUND, HITTING ME. I’M SO SORRY I CAME BETWEEN YOU AND YOUR HUSBAND—YOU HAVE TO BELIEVE THAT….I WON’T BE SURPRISED IF YOU WANT TO PURSUE ME, BUT KNOW THAT I’M GOING TO ARIZ TO LIVE. YOU’LL NEVER SEE ME AGAIN…. CALL YOUR HUSBAND, EL. YOU LOVE HIM. GOODBYE….JOHN….PS-I TOOK $50 FOR TRAVEL EXPNS. I KNOW YOU HATE ME…I’M SO SORRY.

Ellie crumpled the envelope and clutched it to her chest. Her eyes watered as her mind raced over the past–what was it?–day. She recalled bits and pieces but none of it made sense. She left the church with John Milton, the new guy. He was handsome, she remembered.

But did I lead him on? I must have. She couldn’t keep a secret from herself, and definitely couldn’t lie to herself. She knew what she had within herself, that she would have seduced a man just to get back at her cheating husband. I did it, didn’t I?

Other flashes of memory didn’t make sense. She barely remembered making love with the man. That memory was overpowered by a feelings of illness, heat and cold, pain. She recalled the disorientation, the dizziness, and the very clear voice in her head.

“YOU WILL JOIN ME IN HELL.”

Ellie blinked, closed the crumpled envelope tighter in her fist. A tear ran down her cheek. A drug? He did say drug, didn’t he? She pulled the paper wad away from her chest and smoothed it out with her fingers. She re-read it. Yeah, she decided. That would explain it. The bastard slipped me something. That’s why I freaked. That explains the flash-terrors, the feeling of being possessed. Ellie had never taken anything stronger than Vicadin and pot. Who knows what he gave her and what effect it would have.

“Must have been LSD,” she muttered to the car interior.

She read the note again, flipped it over to read the back, re-read the front. “You bastard.” Her sudden flashes of hatred for John Milton ebbed as quickly as they came in. Her memory of the sex was clear and raw. She had been in control. She’s the one who was on HIM. Some drug.

Then a new emotion crawled through her veins. She missed Ed. In the note John said she called his name, all she would talk about was him. Ed. Ellie pressed the envelope to her lips and squeezed her eyes closed. The tears came easily and her shoulders shook. How could she let him go? She still loved him. This proved it, didn’t it?

Ellie cried softly for a few minutes as soft frozen rain tick-ticked on the car’s windshield. Then she got out of the car, moved around to the driver’s side and climbed in. She started the car, cranked up the heater, then sniffed and cleared her throat. She flipped open her cell and hit a speed dial.

When Ed answered, she said, “Honey.”

“Babe? You okay?”

“I’m on my way.”

Ed’s voice was a little distant, as though she were stating something he already knew. “Okay. You sure you’re okay?”

Ellie sniffed, pinched her eyes closed. Her chin wrinkled with ages of regret. Why didn’t I fight for him from the start? Why did I let this happen? “I-I’m okay, hon. Just wanted you to know I’m on the road and that the weather is acting up. I’ll–”

“Just take your time. I’ve saved you some turkey.”

“I love you.”

“I know. I’ve always known.” Ed’s voice cracked through the cell. “I love you too, punkin’.”

Ellie drew a long sigh. “See you soon.”

“Bye, babe.”

Click.

And inside her: click.

Some time late tonight Ellie and Ed Sauder would embrace in the magical all-forgiving rapture of make-up sex. They would never know that the baby wasn’t there’s. It belonged to Meresin. And his master, the devil.

***

Meresin silently entered the body of Charles Wheat like dark grease slipping down a drain. He pulled the man’s sleeping sluggish brain into his own and picked through it like a ravenous raccoon tearing through garbage at a campground. This human was so filled with hate and remorse it made the Fallen angel laugh with glee. Like a kid in a candy store, Meresin took time savoring the images burned forever in this man’s head: the mangled form of his dead son, the poor patch job by the local undertaker who didn’t quite get the kid’s face right, the state troopers on the doorstep with their beige uniforms and sullen eyes, “Your wife is dead.”

Oh! The glory!

In the main room of the psychic parlor, Sara Dawn could hear muffled conversations, periodic laughs, and the odd gasp here or there. The cadence of jokes, the subdued mumbles of serious tales, all made their way to Sara’s ears as she pretended to sleep in the big feather bed. One by one she heard each guest say their farewells. Theodore’s booming voice diminished, then Agatha’s. Sara drifted off for a moment but roused just enough to hear Reverend Doug poke his head in and out. Bailey lifted her large head from her coiled position at the foot of the bed and wagged her tail. Doug whispered a hush at the dog then left, the door softly clicking shut behind him. The reverent spoke briefly with Jimmy Dodd who remained behind as well.

Then Sara turned her attention to John asleep in the chair next to the bed. Who was this man, this mysterious soul who knew so much about her life? His story was so fantastic, so unbelievable, yet when she opened herself to his voice it was like something touched her deep inside. There was a connection with John she could no longer deny no matter how hard she tried to discredit his story.

As she let herself finally relax and drift into sleep, she figured out the one thing John could not. He was her father.

There was no other explanation.

Just before falling into slumber, she whispered, “I missed you daddy. I missed mom too.”

Bailey stirred then was still.

“We’ll talk tomorrow,” then Sara slept.

***

The morning after Thanksgiving woke the sleepy town of Homer with a brisk winter frost. Harsh gusts carrying tiny crystals of ice hushed like sandpaper against the siding of homes and churches. Shoppers, crazed with “Black Friday” deals, left town for the strip malls and outlet stores in neighboring towns and larger cities. Those left behind enjoyed their slumber, carried by dreams of stuffing and turkey, cranberries and pumpkin pie.

John woke some time around sunrise with a stretch. Sara was in a fetal position in the bed across from him. The door was open and Bailey was gone.

Stepping out into the main room, closing the door behind him so Sara could continue to sleep, John met Reverend Doug in the kitchen.

“Mornin’, Mr. J-Ja-Ja-John.”

“Good morning, padre,” John smiled and helped himself to a slice from the stack of toast the reverend was buttering. The older man smiled when he saw John close his eyes and say a silent prayer of thanks for the bread, then watched him break it before he ate it.

“I d-d-didn’t realize you wa-were a man of G-God.”

John’s smile broadened. “You have no idea.” Then, changing the subject: “Where is Bailey?”

“Oh, J-Ja-Ja-Jimmy took her outside for a wa-walk.”

“Thank you.” John started to turn to leave but turned back to Reverend Doug. He rested a hand on the man’s shoulder.

“Reverend, I really want to thank you for inviting me and Sara into your home. It means more than you can imagine that you would trust in us so completely, so willingly invite strangers to your Thanksgiving supper.” John turned so he stood face to face with the reverend. “I cannot repay you enough. There are no words I can extend.”

Doug took a deep breath before speaking. He said, “My trust is in the Lord, John. I knew that he would not let serpents into this holy place, that he would allow me to welcome you as the stable keeper welcomed Joseph and Mary. Of course you were welcome to join us and take part. Psalm four: ‘Offer right sacrifices and trust in the Lord.’”

John removed his hand from the reverend’s shoulder and shook his hand. “Thank you,” he repeated.

As John left the kitchen, Reverend Doug called out, “Y-Y-Ya-You’re we-welcome.”

Jimmy Dodd came in with Bailey padding along next to him. Jimmy was rubbing his hands brusquely up and down his jacket sleeves and blowing air as though he had just finished a marathon. “Shiverin’ shiners it’s colder’n cockles out there.”

John welcomed Bailey with a pat and scruff around the ears. Bailey communicated, “Say yes, John. What he offers, say yes.”

John looked up at Jimmy as the lanky man stepped a little closer, blew into his palms to warm them.

Jimmy said, “I was thinkin’, Johnny.”

“What’s that?”

Jimmy glanced to the reverend who was just coming out of the kitchen, then back to John. “Well, you was so nice ‘n all to take care o’ Elmer and . . . well, the place. I, um . . . .”

John caught Reverend Doug’s nod from the corner of his eye.

“Well, I was just wonderin’ if you ‘n the pooch there, ‘n your lady friend would like t’ stay up at Elmer’s place.”

John’s smile showed perfect teeth. “Why that’s very kind of you, Jimmy, but that’s your place now.”

“Nossir.” Jimmy nervously brushed at his jacket, had trouble looking into John’s eyes. “What I mean, sir, is that y’all did so much for all of us here—‘specially by lettin’ us care after Miss Sara. She’s special to all the kin out to the bridge, ya know.”

John nodded, finished petting Bailey and stood facing Jimmy. “I know. And you were all instrumental in helping her as well.”

“Yeah. And all . . . . Anyway, I’d be honored—I mean I can’t go movin’ in while Elmer’s still warm in the ground, ya know. S’not right.”

John stepped forward and offered his hand to Jimmy. “You got a deal, Mr. Dodd.”

Jimmy brightened as if his very soul depended on John’s acceptance of the invitation. “Oh, thank YOU, Mr. John! Y’all have no idea—I mean, Rufus ‘n I’d be pretty darn lonely in those wood without y’all.”

John ended the excited handshake. “We’ll only stay as long as it’ll take to get Sara back to feeling normal again, I promise.”

“Oh, no rush, sir. No rush.” Jimmy clapped his hands excitedly. “Well, she-ute, we’re gonna have a TIME!” He pointed toward the small table next to the couch. “Theo left a bag with some medicine for the girl. I’ll get ‘em, put ‘em in the truck.”

He rushed to the table, snatched a wrinkled Dunkin Donuts bag, and was out the door with a hoot.

The reverend said, “H-He sure has ta-ta-taken to you, Mr. John.” The observation had a slight touch of suspicion in it.

John tipped an invisible hat to the self-appointed holy man and said, “ ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’.”

“Hebrews,” the Reverend observed.

“Leviticus, actually,” John smiled.

“Chapter nineteen, verse twenty.” That was from Sara who stood in the doorway of the bedroom fully dressed in the clothes she arrived in, cleaned and pressed by Agatha the night before.

Her smile was wide and genuine though pressed by her ugly metal nose guard.

“Good morning, John. Reverend.”

“Good morning.”

“Ma-ma-mornin’.”


***


After a quick breakfast, as insisted by the Reverend Doug, Sara, John, Jimmy and Bailey piled into Jimmy’s rusty yellow pick-up and trundled off toward the old Petrie house. Sara sat between the two men, John pressed into the passenger door, and Bailey squeezed in between Sara’s and John’s legs with her head on Sara’s lap.

At the railroad crossing just inside the town limits, a couple blocks past Mott’s Roadside; John and Sara glanced at each other with a smile between them; Jimmy Dodd said, “Mr. John, are you an angel?”

Sara’s eyes widened. Bailey lifted her head and looked to her master expectantly.

“What makes you say a crazy thing like that, Jimmy?”

Jimmy shrugged, pressed his cap back further on his head. “Dunno. The reverend said you gave off some kinda vibe or somethin’. He said you was special.”

Sara relaxed. John said, “We’re all special, Jimmy.”

“Yeah. I reckon’.”

It seemed like they would continue the ride home in silence until Jimmy spoke again.

“It’s just that Reverend Doug—he has this uncanny ability, ya see. He can tell by a person’s aura if they’re good hearted or vile.”

“That right?”

“Yup. He said you have the purist white aura he’d ever seen—well, next to Miss Sara’s that is.”

Sara studied John’s eyes as if Jimmy’s words were a confirmation of what she already suspected. And knew.

“You believe that stuff, Jimmy?” John asked as he concentrated on the naked black trees passing by the passenger window.

Jimmy Dodd laughed. “I wonder some times, but he’d been pretty good about predictin’ stuff in the past.”

John said nothing.

Sara spoke up. “Like what?”

Jimmy shrugged. “Well, like 911. He said he saw that comin’.”

Sara said, “A lot of people could say that after it happened.”

Jimmy said, “Yeah, but he wrote it down ‘n stuffed it in a envelope. He has it, postmarked August, 2001, somewhere in that parlor ‘o his.”

“So you think he’s really psychic?”

Jimmy shrugged again. “Dunno. Nobody’s ever seen what’s IN the envelope. He just shows the outside ‘n tells us what’s in it.”

“You ever curious,” Sara asked, “I mean to sneak it out and open it?”

Jimmy made a face. “Nah. But he sure seems honest, ya know.”

“He’s a good man,” John said.

They pulled up to Elmer Petrie’s front door and Jimmy said, “Here ya go, kids.” He pulled the key from his jacket pocket and passed it across Sara’s lap to John. “If y’all need anything, give Rufus ‘n me a call.”

“Will do,” John promised, and stepped out with Bailey and Sara behind him. They watched as Jimmy drove back down the road to his place.

“What now?” John asked, as much to Bailey as to Sara.

The dog didn’t answer. Sara said, “Let’s go inside. We’ll talk.”


***


Fifteen minutes later they were sitting in the same room, on the same couch, where John had breathed Elmer Petrie’s smoke and tried to smell the delicious stew through the clouds of stale tobacco. Sara had opened some windows for just a few moments while she scouted out some candles. She lit the candles and put them on Elmer’s old coffee table before re-closing the windows and cranking up a space heater.

Bailey lay on the floor in front of the space heater while Sara sat on one end of the couch sideways, her leg folded under her, staring after John on the other end who sat stone straight, both feet on the floor, his left arm resting on the arm of the couch so that he had to turn to his right to look Sara in the eye.

She began with a question right to the point. “How do you know you’re not my dad?”

John swallowed hard. “I don’t—I mean, I can’t tell you.”

“But you know.”

John looked down at Bailey who ignored him. “Yeah. Yeah, I know.”

“Why can’t you tell me?”

John looked at her. “That’s the thing. I’ve said too much already. I was told that I made a mistake by telling you so much of the truth already.”

Sara shrugged. “So that’s it?”

John blinked.

“After all that? After you pull me off the edge of the cliff so to speak, after you treat me so well, SAVE me, after you unveil all those hidden things about me . . . that’s it?”

John swallowed, half-shrugged. “I think so. Yeah.”

Sara looked away, studied the flickering flame of a candle before speaking again. “So, what do we do now?”

Bailey looked up from the heater, stood and turned as if to show her other flank to the heat. Translation in the dog’s movement: “You opened Pandora’s Box, John. You have to keep her here, keep her safe.”

“For how long?” John asked aloud, forgetting the rule.

Sara said, “How long what?”

Shaking off the mistake, John looked at her, “Um, how long had you been wandering before I found you?”

Sara recounted her journey from the time she woke in Dr. Hoff’s clinic, but John’s attention was focused on the twitching of Bailey’s eyes as the dog appeared to watch he and Sara on the couch. Between the dog’s mind and John’s a full discourse was taking place right in front of Sara. And she never knew it.

Bailey said, “Three days.”

John thought, “Three days? Why three?”

“It’s what THEY do. They mock the Trinity.”

“They who?”

“THEM, John, the Fallen.”

“Fallen Angels are coming for Sara? Why?”

“Because she represents a change.”

John looked at Sara as she spoke, studied her delicate broken features, her cracked lips once full and red, her bruised and bloodshot eye once clear and emerald, her hair shaved and jagged once full and lustrous.

“Because she was important enough to save,” John thought.

“No, John,” Bailey corrected, “Because He sent YOU to save her.” Bailey rested her large head on her forepaws and moaned a canine sigh of relaxation.

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying it’s not about HER. It’s about YOU.”

Coyote Wilcox paced the slippery sidewalk in front of the Homer police station with his hands in the pockets of the corduroy coat on loan from Charles Wheat. He looked up at the frosted doors of the station house through a cloud of breath, then over to the two Homer PD cruisers parked in front of it, then over to the jewelry store across the street. He idly fingered the wad of bills in his pocket, the first half of his payment for bringing Sara Dawn to her knees.

It had been a great Thanksgiving for Coyote. All of his dreams were starting to form out of the clouded miasma of his life. After spending the day on the streets—actually just camping out in the shelter of the closed McDonald’s drive-thru or in a front booth of the Home of the Dragon Chinese restaurant—Coyote called the Petular house and felt his heart skip when Julie answered.

“Hello?”

“Hey.”

“Coyote.” It made him smile extra wide when he heard the thrill in her voice, as though she had been waiting for his call all day. “I’m so glad you called. What are you doing for Thanksgiving?”

His mouth formed words, but nothing came out.

“I’m sorry,” Julie blurted, “I guess I should ask how you’re doing first, huh?” Her muffled twitter of laughter nearly caused his heart to burst into flame.

“I-I’m okay,” he said. “Just, you know, hangin’ out.”

As it turned out Julie’s grumpy Coyote-hating father was working Thanksgiving, struggling at the canning plant to pull in some holiday pay for Christmas. Julie’s mom on the other hand had apparently gotten juiced up on adrenaline after seeing her daughter with a boy’s letterman jacket around her shoulders. The days of her reclusive Old Maid Daughter In Training were over. Julie was finally breaking out of her shell a little. And Mrs. Petular thought Coyote was, “such a nice young man.”

Dinner, sitting next to his new girlfriend, in a nice warm house with a grownup who wasn’t suspicious or hurtful, drunk or psychotic was a pleasant turnaround from holidays of the past. He got his fill at the Petular house, got warm, got happy. They played board games and watched a Christmas show or two. It was perfect until late into the evening. Mrs. Petular excused herself with a yawn and excused Coyote with a thank you and a, “You should really get home to your family. I’m sure they’re worried about you.”

Crestfallen, and a bit sick from the rich food, Coyote slunked to the door. Julie joined him out on the frosted porch to say goodnight, and that’s when things got even better.

“Why don’t you stay?” She whispered. Her blue eyes twinkled with the reflections of ice crystals in the air. “I’ll let you in the back door in about twenty-five minutes, okay?”

It was the second time that day she had him dumbfounded. “Really? But, how? I mean—I can’t.”

She kissed him on the cheek. “It won’t be like that, you know.” It was a done deal. Julie had decided Coyote was going to spend the night in her house and she wouldn’t take no for an answer. On top of that there would be no funny business.

Not that it had crossed Coyote’s mind. He had other ideas, ideas involving payment for a job well done and a diamond ring. He nodded and blushed over the cold’s rosy touch as she tapped the tip of his nose with her finger.

Then she returned inside.

Coyote spent the night wrapped in a blanket, curled up on Julie’s bedroom floor. Neither of them slept. They spent the whole night talking, her silky whisper curling down to him from her bed. The next morning he was out the window, on his motorcycle, and on his way to the jewelry store.

Now he stood on the sidewalk across from the jewelry store contemplating a dash into the police station to report Mr. Wheat and his plan to destroy Sara Dawn. It seemed like the proper thing to do, the right thing to do. And, after all, wasn’t that why he went along with the plan to begin with? Sara Dawn was a harpy, a succubus, and—as he learned the night before—a murderer. She had taken the life of Mrs. Wheat and their kid. Charles Wheat never told Coyote how, but he didn’t have to ask. The running theme in this whole menagerie was alcoholism. She must have killed them both in some kind of drunk driving crash.

But was it murder? Or an accident? The images of Sara Dawn’s Communion book, the picture of her with her mother, the news clipping of her own horrible past. Those didn’t seem like the possessions of an evil person. And what was that she had said about her fiance leaving her? That she had remained a virgin, was saving herself for her wedding night—for him—and he left her. Is that evil?

The more Coyote thought about Julie Petular, thought of her as his new girlfriend, thought about the smile on her mom’s face, the pumpkin pie, how they laughed through A Charlie Brown Christmas without either of them needing liquor, smoke, or drugs to enjoy themselves, the more he wondered about what he’d done, what Sara Dawn had suffered through in her life to bring her to this point.

And how he had a hand in her demise.

What if Sara Dawn wasn’t truly evil? What if she was just somehow misguided, on the wrong path? What if Wheat was the devil here, tempting Coyote with money as he plotted the downfall of an innocent woman?

Coyote wasn’t stupid, though he had to admit some of his personal theories were a bit “out there.” He still believed aliens walked among us, still believed the days of the earth were numbered by Aztec calendars, even believed Y2k actually happened (it’s just on a timed delay and should kick in around 2020). But he was starting to wonder about his personal philosophy about heaven and hell. If this—this earth—was truly hell, how could such a beautiful soul like Julie be trapped here?

As he paced Main Street, eyed the rings in the jewelry store window, eyed the police chief’s deputy out on his smoke break across the street, Coyote’s philosophy saw the first seedlings of change. His heart, warm from the previous night, staved off the cold and opened his eyes to a new possibility. Hell existed all right, it just existed in the heart of one Charles Wheat, a damaged man with nothing but vengeance in his soul. Coyote could make it right. All he’d have to do is walk into the Homer PD and bare his soul. It would mean jail as an accomplice—maybe worse if Sara Dawn died last night—and the end of his future with Julie Petular. Or he could walk into that jewelry store, put money down on a new life, and try to bury the demons of the past.

***

Charles Wheat didn’t wake with a warm feeling in his heart. Instead, he woke with a hot head and cold feet, a pounding like a hangover in his temples. And his fingers hurt. No, they burned, actually.

Why do my fingers–?

Then he noticed. From his position on his living room floor, coiled in a fetal ball, Charles Wheat lifted his fingers to his eyes and stared in horror at his bloodied and mangled fingernails—or rather the lack of fingernails. Where they still existed, they were split down the grain. Some had jagged tears running across at deep angles. But many of them were gone, or torn down to the cuticles.

Whimpering, shifting his weight using the heels of his hands, Wheat rolled to his stomach and worked his way up to his shaky knees. As he rose he could feel the stale dampness in his pants, smell the powerful ammonia rank of urine and iron shaving sting of blood. His eyes, now watery with fear, moved around the room until he found where his fingernails had disappeared to.

There on the wall, where a lighthouse painting once belonging to his wife had hung, were long jagged scratches. Red, brown and rust-colored dried blood fingerprints dotted the wall around the lines and curves forming a crude scrawl.

Wheat read the words over and over, his mouth bobbing like a ventriloquist’s dummy without a master.

Then he screamed.

Inside his body a Fallen angel smiled.

John sipped from the mug of instant coffee and winced.

Sara smiled. “You don’t like instant?” She sipped from her own mug, wrinkled her nose beneath the metal guard that held it straight and winced from the pain not the taste.

John said, “It’s just the first time I’ve ever had coffee.”

They were still sitting on the couch, but Sara had moved closer. She now sat next to John with her legs pulled up under her, turned facing him directly. John continued to sit straight, mannequin-like and cold. Bailey had jumped up behind Sara and curled up next to her rump, avoiding John’s pleading gazes and mental cries for more forbidden information.

Sara studied John’s face, her eyes traced the curve of his cheek, the line of his nose, the corner of his lips. Every hair was perfect, every eyelash neatly curled. Could this man really be an angel or something out of heaven? She made a small involuntary sound in her throat. It caught his attention.

John looked at her. “What?”

She smiled again, crookedly. “Nothing. I was just looking at you.”

John studied her, the brace on her nose, the puffy eyes, the bruises, the partially-shaved head of otherwise beautiful brown hair. John swallowed. “What do you see?”

Sara shrugged. “I don’t know. You’re kind of odd-looking.”

He actually laughed as he shifted in his seat. He raised an eyebrow at her. “Odd? Really?”

Moving her mug to the hand on the end of her cast, Sara waved her good hand and giggled. “I don’t mean it in a BAD way. It’s just that I noticed you don’t have a hair out of place. Your skin is almost perfect, not a single blemish or scar, no laugh lines, no frown lines. It’s like you were–”

“Born yesterday,” John shrugged. “Because I was. Kinda.”

Sara eased back slightly and looked down into her mug as if the black wobbling mirror would give her some insight she had yet to discover. Her clothes were uncomfortable, dirty-feeling despite the wash Agatha gave them. Her skin felt stretched, numb. Her arm ached. Her nose itched. A tear formed in the corner of her eye.

“Sara?” John turned on the couch to face her. His leg brushed her thigh. He reached up and touched her ear. “Sara, are you okay? What’s wrong?”

Abruptly, Sara stood up. She crossed to the kitchen area and placed her mug in the sink. Her head was bowed. Her shoulders slumped. Bailey raised her fluffy yellow head and stared after her, then looked at John without thinking a word.

“Did I say something?”

She shook her head slowly. John stood and went to her, sparing one glance toward the dog who continued to ignore him. “Sara, talk to me.”

Sara turned and leaned back against the kitchen vanity as John approached. He kept his distance, his hands idly fingering the rim of his coffee mug. Sara’s face was cast in a soft silver-white light from the overcast sun pouring in through the ice-covered trees in the back. A wounded silhouette painted the near side of her face. John studied her good eye as it stared straight ahead at the kitchen island. She was so beautiful under all that pain. Looking at her simultaneously warmed and chilled his heart.

“Sara?”

She sniffed but didn’t look at him. “I’m okay, John. I was just thinking how I’d be dead by now if you hadn’t come after me. I was really going to do it, to throw it all away.”

“I know.”

Her tone abruptly hardened. “You DON’T know. You couldn’t.”

He chewed his lower lip.

“Because my kind don’t get to your heaven, do they?”

John wanted to say something, something encouraging or confiding, something Glenine-like. He started: “Sara,” but couldn’t continue a thought that wasn’t there. He was just a man, a man born yesterday, and he had nothing at all to offer her.

Seeing the sudden shadow in his eyes, Sara pushed away from the vanity and approached him. Her arms gently slid around his waist and she rested her head on his shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

John took a deep breath before returning the hug. He said nothing.

The stood for a while, him rocking her gently side to side like a mother consoling a child. Sara’s hands climbed John’s back. He could feel the roughness of the cast against his shoulderblade.

When John looked down at her, Sara’s lips were an inch from his. They could feel each other’s breath, see the impenetrable depth in each other’s eyes.

Sara wanted to kiss him, but she also wanted a good stiff drink. She chalked it up to just wanting to feel SOMETHING, to get proof of life. She wanted to be hurt again, physically, so she would know undeniably that she existed, that she lived. But she also realized that she needed something she hadn’t known since losing her fiance. Sara needed LOVE.

John was afraid to kiss her. The human man he was saw through the scars and bruises and wanted to taste a woman’s lips. Something stirred briefly inside him that made him feel exhilarated yet wrong. The curves within the hug, the warmth of her body, became clearer. Then he caught a feeling that was oily and sweet, something selfish within him that wanted only lust. He easily crushed the feeling under his mission, but could see why it was so hard to be human without sin. Impossible. And he wondered how long he’d have to remain here and if he’d be able to fight off such feelings. What other temptations would he face?

Finally, the silence was cut by a voice.

Sara whispered, “John, I don’t know what you represent. Everything within me says you can’t exist, not like this.”

He allowed her to ease out of his arms. She took a short step back, let her arms and hands flow against his, then she gripped both his hands in hers. “I only believe because I have nothing else, and this seemed a better option than death.”

John blinked. In the background, he heard Bailey gently step off the couch and approach, her nails clicking on the hardwood floor.

Sara continued. “Now it’s up to you.” She smiled through a wrinkled chin. Her eyelids fluttered away building tears. “You pulled me away from that abyss.” Sara released his hands. “Now what?”

John cleared his throat. “I–”

“And don’t say you don’t know again.”

They looked at each other as Bailey came up and sat at John’s feet. Neither John nor Sara noticed.

John’s shoulders deflated. “I’m not finished.” He released a long sigh. “You’re still not safe.”

Sara’s brow came together under the nose guard. “You don’t have to worry about that. My bridge jumping career is over.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

Bailey’s bark startled both of them.

Sara, her hand fluttering over her heart, knelt before the dog and scruffed her furry neck. “Whatsamatter, girl? Gotta go outside?”

Bailey barked again.

Sara stood. “You’ll tell me when I get back?” She bent to take Bailey by the collar.

“No,” John jumped. “Let me.”

“It’s okay. I need some fresh a—”

“I got her.” John was nodding stupidly, his eyes flashing like a husband trying to cover up his whereabouts from the past day. “I’ll take her out; give me a chance to collect my thoughts before we proceed.”

Sara released Bailey’s collar and stood, hands up. “Okay, okay. She’s your dog.”

“She’s OUR dog. I–”

Bailey barked again, bounded for the back door.

John said, “Don’t go anywhere. We’ll talk when I get back.”

Sara frowned through a laugh. “Jeez, you sound like one of those people in a horror movie. There’s no monsters out there, John, but I’ll be fine right here.”

He started to reply, but Bailey’s bark got louder and accompanied a vicious growl.

This time he heard the dog think, “John. Now. We go. Hurry.”

“’Kay,” he chirped to Sara before snatching his jacket off the couch and abruptly disappeared out the back door. The screen door to the covered porch banged as Sara watched John and Bailey through a back window. It was a surreal sound considering the snow that fell from the back porch awning as John departed, gesturing wildly as though he were conversing with the dog.

***

Sara Dawn didn’t wait for John and Bailey to get back from their walk. What she was thinking was crazy, but no more crazy than hiking out to the Lyle Bridge on Thanksgiving to go bungie jumping without a cord.

She waited only five minutes, long enough for John and the dog to disappear into the woods behind the A-frame, before bolting out the front door.

With Elmer Petrie’s hunting jacket pulled tight around her shoulders, Sara marched down the gravel road toward Homer’s main streets.

She glanced over her shoulder less and less as she got farther from the house, cutting through the ridges and small forested hills to avoid walking past Jimmy Dodd’s cabin. “Thank you, John,” she muttered to the razor sharp November breeze. “I know what I have to do now.”

Sara was sure the angel (soul, whatever) was testing her with his silence. He wasn’t saying what she had to do next because she was being tested. Like God’s presence hidden from her every time she felt the call of liquor, she had to take these steps herself.

She had to confront Charles Wheat and convince him to forgive her.

Only then, Sara reasoned, could she have peace in her life.

She didn’t think about Wheat’s death threats, about the kid—Bill–he sent to destroy her. She didn’t think about what would happen when he opened the door to see her standing on his porch. She only thought about God and prayed silently for forgiveness for ever doubting He would come around.

“Thank you.”

The cold breeze turned into a wind that bit deeper. It seemed to push her farther and farther from John, and closer and closer to destiny.

Charles Wheat read the words again.

BITCH KILLED THEM

Written by his own hands, in his own blood, gouged into the wall with his own fingernails, the five words called out to him with perfect meaning. While he knew he must have done this crazy thing in his sleep—though how he could actually grind off his fingernails while doing it, and without waking up, was another matter all together—Wheat’s heart was clear on the meaning.

A flood of happy memories, all now bittersweet as they faded more and more with each passing year, seeped from his mind. Charles Wheat had been a successful doctor until the day Sara Dawn destroyed their life. He had a nice house on the other end of town, up on a hill surrounded by similar homes with white columns and cobblestone walkways. There was a bright blue and orange swing set in the back yard next to the pool. That’s where Jimmy used to play. There was an artist’s studio in the loft over the three-car garage. That’s where Donna used to paint beautiful seascapes and lighthouses.

But then came the day the street in front of the house with the blue and orange swing set was streaked with blood. Islands of flesh with tufts of sandy hair dotted the pavement. That was the day Donna painted her last lighthouse, never to be finished, as she watched Jimmy’s Big Wheel paddle into the street, the massive pick-up truck swerving as if driven by–

Sara Dawn.

Wheat shambled to his bathroom and washed his stinging fingertips. He applied Neosporine and wrapped them with gauze and bandages never once glancing into the mirror to see his own worn and shattered image. He knew that looking into the window of his own eyes would mean glancing once again at his broken past, a journey back to the flashing blue and red lights on his street as he returned home from the hospital, ending the last dictation he would ever make and snapping shut his cell phone. He knew that looking into his own face he would see the blank gray face of Donna. Donna, who saw her only son cut down before all his baby teeth were lost. Thinking about those baby teeth washing down the storm sewer in front of his house. Thinking about the tow truck hauling off the truck with the bloodstained tire and grill. Thinking about the blue and red lights flashing in his face, and in the space between catching the ghostly pale and dead-eyed girl in the back seat of the police cruiser, her sobbing boyfriend being pulled back by the police as he screamed, “It wasn’t her! It wasn’t her!” as if Donna’s and his own suffering were no comparison to that of–

Sara Dawn.

Wheat disrobed and stepped into the shower, realizing that he’d have to re-wrap his fingers once again and laughing at his own stupidity. What have I done? The question was aimed at his heart, the path of chaos and sorrow that lead to this point, the delusions, the pain. Through his actions he had hurt Sara Dawn bad. He expected to read in the papers about her suicide, her body being found stinking and bloated with sacramental wine; or her disappearance from the town, the lack of Sara Dawn, the fact that no one knew where she went or what happened to her. They’d all soon forget her either way, but was it enough?

NO.

The voice inside his head was simultaneously his own and someone else’s. There was a depth to his thoughts that had never been there before, a duality, and Charles Wheat wondered if his assignment to Coyote Wilcox had been the final tent stake before raising his psychosis. Before the BITCH KILLED THEM, he wouldn’t dream of doing this. He had been a Deacon at his church, respected in the community, a regular donor to charities. He was the man behind the drug and alcohol treatment center at Our Lade of Mercy Hospital in Gates and the oncology wing of St. Joseph Hospital in Manitou. And then, not six months after Jimmy’s murder, Donna took her own life.

Charles Wheat’s tears were lost in the trailer home’s weak shower spray as he recalled the state troopers greeting him at the door, their Smokey hats in hand and the grim expressions. Only the crucial words got through: Wife, accident, semi, headlong, dead, sorry, dead, dead, dead.

But Charles knew the truth. Donna hadn’t had an accident. The car had gone into oncoming traffic on the highway, across a grassy median, timed perfectly to kiss the full tanker barreling toward it. Donna hadn’t been able to live without their son. There was no recovery, no turning back, no mending, no starting over without Jimmy. There was no closure in the trial. Though the girl’s only support, the boyfriend who was a passenger in the truck, had abandoned her. Though she sat in the orange state jumpsuit with puffy eyes and wet cheeks. Though her display of mock remorse was enough to soften the judge. Though Sara was put behind bars and forced into an alcohol treatment program . . . it wasn’t enough for Donna. They could have burned Sara Dawn at the stake and it wouldn’t have mattered to her. Her baby—their baby—was gone forever.

None of it was enough for Charles Wheat, either, but instead of cashing in his own chips, he sought revenge. He wanted Sara to know the suffering he knew. He wanted her to know what it was like to lose the only family you ever knew, to have them taken from you so suddenly. He wanted her to feel the heartache and the physical HORRIFYING agony of such a loss. He wanted her to be as dead inside as his wife had been.

Wheat stepped out of the shower, toweled himself off, and re-bandaged his throbbing fingertips. He glanced in the mirror for just a second, just long enough to see the face of his wife and son staring at him over each shoulder.

“No!”

***

Meresin loved wallowing in Charles Wheat’s form. He was the PERFECT fit, a Christian, a lover of God, who had disguised himself as a soldier of justice. He was filled with agony and anger, hatred against Sara Dawn and disrespect of his Lord.

Repeatedly, over the next hour, Meresin rifled through Wheat’s mind, plucking out memories and showing them to him, conjuring up images of his wife and child, designing make believe images of Sara Dawn (laughing, drinking, having a great time, snorting lines of Cocaine off a newspaper headline about his wife’s death).

There was no need to outwardly possess the man. He was possessing himself. The images were easy to call, the bloodlust easy to stir. The scrawling on the wall was a great catalyst. As Wheat set about trying to repair, then cover up, the message, all he thought about was vengeance.

It was regretful that Wheat had no knowledge of Sara’s whereabouts, but the man held more within his deliciously rich and blackened soul than the betrayer, Ellie Sauder. He held the name of another flesh suit who might be closer to Sara’s location. Coyote Wilcox, the hitman.

So Meresin relived every meeting and conversation with the teen, poured himself into Wheat’s memories like a rich whore rolling naked on a bed of money. Then he made his move.

***

Wheat finished cleaning the wall and hung the lighthouse picture back in its place. Only a small 3-inch gouge from the elongated leg of the M in THEM protruded from behind the frame, but he was able to scrub out the blood.

Taking the bucket of cleaning supplies back to his kitchen, Wheat suddenly convulsed. The bucket clattered to the floor, the bottle of Orange Kleen and a brush spilling out into a small puddle of pink water. Wheat gasped, clutched his heart. He was having a heart attack! Oh, God! Is this it? Is this how it ends?

Suddenly, Wheat’s legs vibrated. His left arm shot out straight, his right arm out and down at an angle. Looking almost like an Egyptian glyph, Wheat shuttle-stepped closer to the sink, his pelvis rocking side to side, his had lolling back and his arms cranking awkwardly in different directions.

“The bitch killed them!” The voice came from deep within, but it wasn’t his own. It used his vocal cords, pushed the words out with air from his own lungs, but they weren’t his.

Wheat’s own words came out as, “God, help me!” and “Nooooo.”

They melded, the deeper guttural voice rumbled through Wheat’s whine: “THE God BITCH help KILLED me THEM!” and he collapsed to the tile floor with a thud. His body shook, foam sprayed from his mouth. He released one long, painful whine. And then was silent.

***

Meresin, now in full control of Charles Wheat, made him stand and, with the nimbleness of a skilled puppet master, produced Wheat’s cell phone from a pocket and flipped it open with a flourish. He tapped in a number from Wheat’s memory, waited, cursed the kid’s voice mail, then said, “Mr. Wilcox. I have the rest of your payment for running that errand for me. Come to my place now if you want to collect it. You have ten minutes.”

Click.

Meresin could almost smell Sara Dawn’s fate. The Fallen Lord, Mastema, will be very proud.

“Bailey!” John stopped to catch his breath. Long blasts of mist puffed from his mouth as he bent and rested his hands on his knees. If he hadn’t already gotten used to being human, the burning pain in his lungs would have caused him to panic. A new human emotion crept in: impatience. “Come on, dog, quit messing with me.”


John could see the top of the A-frame house down the hill behind him, a slow column of steamy smoke rising from the chimney before getting whipped into nothingness by a chilly breeze. All around him stood Palley’s Woods, pointing straight into the air like an army of giant skeletal hands even as the ground slanted steeper up the hill behind the house below.


“I’m up here,” the dog barked.


“Why the urgency?” John asked. He figured he and the dog were alone. He didn’t bother THINKING the question. “Did I say something wrong again?”


John windmilled his arms as he tried balancing his way over a felled tree. The ice on the mossy side wanted to push him back down the hill, but he leaned in and almost fell headlong up the next incline. “Bailey,” John coughed. “Don’t go too far from the house. I need to stay close.”


“I’m here. Come closer,” thought the dog.


“Where?” John shot back.


Finally, the ground leveled out a bit. John grabbed a long crooked branch from the ground thin enough to grasp at one end. He used it as a cane. A slight twinge found his ankle, probably from that last rut or the slippery tree-skip.


Bailey sat in the middle of a small clearing wagging her tail. She barked at the breathless man as he crested the clearing and leaned back against a tree to catch his breath.


“Didn’t mean to run you so ragged, John, but I needed to be sure we were alone and out of earshot.”


“Why?” John said aloud. Impatience twisted into frustration and came out in his voice. John hadn’t experienced anything like it. “You want me to THINK to you anyway, right? Talk telepathically? What’s the difference way up here?”


The dog stood and sidled over, her head held low, her tongue lolling out. “Okay,” she indicated with a slight huff and shake of her mane, “Maybe I’m not being completely honest with you.”


“What? What are you saying?” John felt another human emotion, something alien to him as a pure soul, drift into his mind. Glenine, in his training, had called it simply “anger.” He felt the reckless power of it flow through his veins and pump hard through his heart. His muscles tensed. John was suddenly on edge, chilled from the inside as he contemplated the dark meaning behind the dog’s confession. What more could happen?


He pushed off from the tree and moved closer to the dog. THINKING this time to Bailey, he projected, “What do you mean you haven’t been honest with me? You’re supposed to be my guide, my helper.”


“No, I’m not.”


John stopped and stared at the animal. Bailey flicked an ear, an expression that translated to, “I never said I was, John. I just said I’d take care of you.”


The human shuddered, and not from the cold. He took the impromptu walking stick and held it at port-arms like a soldier holding a rifle. He stared down at the dog and shook his head. “And you lied to me? How is that taking care of me?”


Bailey sat again. “You’re not going to hit me with that, are you?”


John loosened and frowned down at the stick before dropping it as if it had just turned into an electric eel. “Of course not.”


“Not to get all ‘Yoda’ on you, but you have to watch that anger stuff. You’re going to have to keep a clear head for what’s coming.”


“What’s a ‘Yoda’?” John shook it off. “Nevermind. What do you mean ‘what’s coming’?”


Bailey got up and moved to a small shrub on the far side of the clearing. She squatted and relieved herself. That gesture said nothing more than ‘I have to pee.’


John tried, “Why did you lie to me?”


“LIED?” Bailey huffed and returned to her spot in front of John. “I never said I lied. I said I hadn’t been completely honest.”


Squatting in front of the dog, scratching her behind the scruff of an ear, John considered this. Since he had learned he would be returning to earth in an anonymous form, everything had come to him as some sort of riddle or incomplete quest. Accepting Bailey’s words as a humanities quiz of sorts, he breathed a sigh. “Fair enough, dog. How had you not been completely honest?”


Bailey was nothing more than a dog, never had been anything other than a large golden retriever. She sat and lay down like a dog. She scratched and went to the bathroom like a dog. She ate from a plate or bowl on the floor. She licked herself clean. Only John could hear her thoughts because he was a soul sent back to earth. They were kindred spirits, practically. John had already died once and knew nothing of the world he was returning to. Bailey knew everything, including when she was going to die, but had no knowledge of Heaven the way John had.


Even so, there was something in those deep brown canine eyes that stunned John. And, suddenly, he wasn’t so sure he wanted the answer to his question.


***


There was a big difference, Sara kept telling herself, between her ice-cold quest to end her life and the ice-cold quest to begin it.


She had emerged from Palley’s Woods without calling attention to herself. Even as she had passed Jimmy’s shack, Rufus remained a stolid German shepherd statue tied to the bumper of his truck. All around her the tree limbs and twigs clicked and scraped like knives being sharpened high above her head. To clear her mind of the dark images, she talked to herself in whispers.


“This is crazy, this is crazy,” was the mantra she practiced all the way to 5th Street. From there she headed toward a distant corner and a gas station. There, she figured, she’d find a phone book to look up Charles Wheat’s new address. She figured, even once overheard, that the broken man had left his pretty house on the hill and moved into a small nondescript house on the opposite end of town.


There were a lot of nondescript little houses on this end of town. Sara wouldn’t have been surprised to find Charles Wheat lived in the next hobo cabin over from Jimmy Dodd or Elmer Petrie. She only hoped the phonebooks had been updated.


As she started across the street, a distant rumble caught Sara’s ear. The familiar metallic gargle and heavy bass thumping of a car stereo made her blood run as cold as her skin. She didn’t know exactly what had happened yesterday morning, how she ended up in Dr. Hoff’s clinic, but if what Mrs. Hoff said was true—she had been attacked by some kids in an old gray beater.


Sure, gray primered cars with thumping stereo systems were commonplace in Homer, especially during the summer and over holiday breaks, but she wasn’t going to play the odds. Turning, Sara darted for a space between two houses and crouched low behind a minivan in the driveway leading back to an open garage. She hoped no one would find her, call out to her, or chase her off before the car passed by.


The bass bumped louder, buzzing nearby windows, and the grumbling motor idled closer.


Then Sara had another thought. What if the car pulls in here? What if my attacker lives here, or next door?


She watched, slowly peaking around from the back of the minivan, as a gray primered car coasted past. The car was weighted down with what appeared to be teenage boys. The rear windows were open to allow clouds of gray smoke escape.


The car slowed as it approached a stop sign in front of the house. If it came to a complete stop and the boys in the back seat glanced to their left, they had a good chance of seeing her. Especially if–


A click sounded and the minivan’s rear hatch door pushed Sara backward. She stumbled into view of the gray car, her eyes locked on the magical hatch and the bags of groceries on the bed of the van. The back door of the house squeaked and Sara heard a gasp.


“Who are you? What are you doing here?”


The car in the street revved loudly.


***


John swallowed. He could almost hear the gulp in his throat. “Okay, Bailey. I’m calm.” He took a deep breath. “I’ve been patient. I’m . . . cool.”


The dog wagged her tail. John felt a brief flush of irritation.


“I”m . . . cool,” he repeated almost more to convince himself. “Now. What have you not been completely honest about?”


Bailey stopped wagging. She thought at John, “I lead you up here under false pretenses.”


John’s brow furrowed. “I don’t understand.”


“I didn’t have to go.”


“But you just–”


“Well, yeah, NOW I did.” Bailey stood and barked once, a soft sound.


John stood as well. He glanced back down the hill, through the woods toward the house. He couldn’t see the A-frame nor make out the shape of the smoke puffing from its chimney. He suddenly realized what had happened. He challenged the dog. “Why did you lead me away from her after telling me I had to keep her there to protect her!?”


He started to back down the hill. His voice had risen and he could feel the blood pulse through his temples. He was angry. No, he was FURIOUS. How could Bailey–?


“John!”


“No, Bailey.” He took several steps back and turned to go. “No. You said I had to protect her now that she’s saved.”


Then Bailey barked, three loud WOOFs that translated to the only thing that would get John to stop.


“It’s time you learned who you were.”


***


“I said, ‘who are you?’” The woman was the form and function of a soccer mom coming home with more groceries until Sara realized the bags contained different shapes and sizes of boxes. Christmas presents.


The woman thought Sara was going to try to steal her Christmas presents. Oh, dear.


The woman wore a gray hooded sweatshirt with HOMER CORN stenciled across the front over the green and yellow logo of the high school football team. The word SHUCKERS appeared beneath the cartoon ear of corn wearing a football helmet. Her hair was auburn with waves of gray and her eyes were weary, hungover-looking. She reached into her purse.


What’s that? A gun? Mace? Tazer?


“Who ARE you?” The woman repeated as she produced a long chain with a silver whistle dangling at the end.


Sara glanced into the street. The gray car revved its engines, then sped off with a squeal as the woman blew into the shrill whistle. Sara was almost relieved until the car had gone and she noticed the woman now joined by her stocky bearded husband.


The husband approached quickly. Sara held up her arms as if to ward him off and stammered, “I-I’m sorry. I’m just looking for a phone book. I need to find someone.”


“Get the hell away from my wife’s van!” Mr. Stocky yelled. But then the wife lowered her whistle and—apparently seeing how pathetic Sara really was with her mousy little hands raised and her innocent plea for reference material—came around and stepped between them.


“A phone book?” She asked.


Sara nodded, her cast up to hide her features and protect the part of her face not protected already by a metal splint.


The woman screamed, “GET OUT OF HERE!”

Coyote’s cell phone buzzed. He let it go to voicemail.

“How much did you say that one was?” he asked the bony woman behind the counter as he pointed through the glass to a sparkling waterfall of engagement rings.

“The Bellair Asscher with channel set carre and trapezoids?”

She knew which one he meant. It was irritating Coyote each time she did that, as though she were reading from a copy of “Tight Ass Sales for Dummies.”

He nodded slightly.

“That’s 999,” her smile was more of a pucker. He avoided looking at her. “On sale,” she added as if it made a difference.

Sale or not, with tax it would wipe out Coyote’s entire paycheck—well, the half in his pocket anyway—leaving him some eighty or ninety bucks in the hole. And he didn’t have eighty or ninety bucks.

“Do you have anything . . . ?” Coyote made a circular movement with his hand that said, ‘what’s the word I’m looking for?’ but the sales woman knew what he meant.

“Cheaper?”

She was right, but he still gave her a disapproving glare.

He pretended to study the contents of the jewel case for awhile, until the woman sighed, before, he said, “I’m not sure.”

Baxton’s Jewelry, across the street from the Homer Police Station, was more crowded than usual. The ‘fur coat set’ was in from the Hill, gazing over potential gifts for themselves, their spouses, or cuff links for their fellow managers. Everyone was here to take advantage of the great Black Friday Diamond Sale, and BECCA—as her name tag read—was apparently growing irritated that the ‘easy brush-off’ high school kid with the crush wasn’t so easy to get rid of after all.

Coyote Wilcox took his time, the only trait he considered a benefit from his father. He swayed back and fourth, humming and groaning at every other stone in every other setting.

A woman with a Gucci bag and earrings Becca recognized—they were two hundred dollars on Clearance last year—paused behind Coyote’s left shoulder. She craned her neck to share the view of his case, then wrinkled her nose as if she’d caught an offensive smell coming off the teen.

Becca had no choice but to watch the woman click her expensive heels out the door. Turning to her indecisive young customer, she curtly snipped, “Excuse me, sir, but we have a number of customers. . . .”

Coyote said, “Hmm?” Then straightened up, made a show of looking around the store, then pressed his face back into the engagement ring cabinet. “Looks like it,” he said, steaming up the glass.

Becca tisked and suggested, “Look, if I can talk to my manager about the Bellair Asscher, maybe get the price down, do you think you might be interested?”

Coyote shrugged.

Another sigh. “Sir, I’m about to go on break. If you could–?”

“Break?” Coyote glanced up at her pointed chin without straightening. “With all these customers?”

He quickly changed the subject. “How do I know which one is good?”

After wiping her tongue along the inside of one cheek perhaps, Coyote thought, to remove the taste of whatever rodent she’d had for breakfast, Becca said boringly, “There are three Cs to diamond shopping: Color, Carat, and Cut. And there’s a ratings system attached to each–”

“Four.”

“Pardon?”

“There are four Cs: Carat, Color, Cut . . . and Clarity.” Coyote stood, pulled the wad of bills from his coat and started counting them in front of her.

“Why don’t I just go talk to my manager?” Becca said, and was gone.

As Coyote tucked the money back into his pocket, a couple walked past behind them. Two women and a man. The guy was apparently bored with the necklace shopping expedition (“Why don’t we just get your mother a gift certificate to Kohl’s or something?”) and just grumbled along behind the two women who were evidently sisters planning to join funds for a diamond necklace for their mom for Christmas.

Coyote wondered if he’d be dragged along behind Julie some day as she considered a present for her mom. Shoot, she’ll be the one dragged behind me. Her mom’s great.

His daydream bubble burst at the sound of a familiar name. Coyote’s ears followed the trio as the sisters gossiped.

Woman in brown leather jacket: “And did you hear about Kelly Green?”

Woman in black leather jacket: “The pastor’s wife, from St. Matthew’s?”

“That’s the one. Did you hear?”

“No, dish.”

‘Yeah, dish,’ Coyote thought.

“She’s contemplating a divorce from Pastor Steve.”

“What? You can’t be serious?”

“Sssh. No, it’s true. From what I heard from Josie Burford, who heard from Marcy Gridd’s housekeeper, who heard from Ellie Sauder.” Pause for deep breath: “Josie said some guy from out of town talked to her at the breakfast they had out there yesterday. She said that he said that Pastor Steve was sleeping with a girl he had locked up in the basement of the church. Josie said Ellie’s a witness too. She’s the one who gave the out-of-towner a ride home that morning. She’s also the one who helped patch up the girl.”

“In the CHURCH!?”

“Ssh! I heard this guy—the out-of-towner—told Kelly he knew the girl and that she’d never do anything like that unless she was forced.”

Coyote’s ears burned. He felt droplets of perspiration form along his hairline. He glanced over to Becca who was chatting with a man in an ill-fitting suit near a back door. The guy was shaking his head no, but Becca—bless her soul—wanted that pile of cash in Coyote’s pocket.

Keep talking, Becky.

What was he going to do? Everything the two women batted back and forth to each other, every element of the story no matter how far fetched, it all connected to the phony e-mail he’d created.

Brown leather jacket continued: “And Josie said Kelly told her the poor girl was being kept as a sex slave.”

“What!?”

A hand raised in solemn oath. “Swear to God.”

“Goodness.”

“Yeah, can you believe it? Dear sweet Pastor Steve doing some girl in the church basement right under his own congregation.”

Gasp. “My.”

“They say the church is going to close down now because no one will have faith in a man of faith who isn’t faithful to his own wife.”

“Wha–?”

“You know what I mean, Mae, for Pete’s sake.”

Husband spoke up, “Are you two gonna jaw all damn day, or can we get outta here. I’m tellin’ ya, let’s just go to Kohl’s. Your mom loves Kohl’s.”

A pit of sick formed in Coyote’s stomach. What have I done?

An entire church is going to close down because of what he’d done. His entrapment of a potential succubus has lead to a hundred souls or more being lost without a home.

I’m worse than her—no matter HOW bad she really was! And Coyote had already been wrestling with the disparity of Sara Dawn’s words that night, not to mention the heart rending possessions in her secret box. What demon kept a communion book and pictures of her mom?

Suddenly, the clump of cold cash in his coat pocket felt awfully hot. So did the jacket on loan from Charles Wheat. Coyote looked through the panes of the jewelry store to the police station across the street. What have I done? The whole church?

Brown jacket said, “I think Pastor Steve is a kiddie rapist.”

Loud gasp. “No.”

“Think about it, Mae! He had a young girl chained up in the basement of his church. What else would a man like that be capable of?”

“He should just eat a bullet and get it over with. Hell can have him.”

“You’re right there.”

“Can we just go to Kohl’s, for chrissakes!”

Becca and her suit-challenged manager approached the engagement ring counter. The manager folded his hands over each other on the case’s top, showing off his own glinting signet rings. “May I help you make a selection, sir? Becca spoke with me and I think we’ll be able to–”

“Gotta go,” Coyote blurted.

Becca’s only potential big sale of the day was gone. Her demeanor the rest of Black Friday would net no more than the commission from one pair of fake emerald earrings.

***

Julie Petular was asleep, dreaming of warm beaches and a distant spring break with all her friends—and Coyote Wilcox—when she was stirred awake by the bleating of her cell phone.

She rolled over and snatched the phone off her nightstand and squinted at the number.

“Coyote!” She flipped it open, instantly awake, “Hey, boyfriend.”

The silence on the other end, the low level hiss and shush of a passing car, made Julie’s heart sink. “Coyote?”

“Hi, girlfriend,” he said, though his voice had none of the energy of their talks last night, none of the expectation of his usual greeting.

“What’s wrong?” Julie sat up, rolled her legs out of bed, and stood up so she could pace the floor. “You sound funny.”

“I have something I need to tell you.”

Was that a sniff? Was he crying?

“Coyote, what is it?” Julie chewed the nails of her free hand as she paced. “You’re scaring me. Where are you?”

She almost jumped in on the pause that followed, but he spoke first. “I’m on my way to the police station.”

A million things jumped through Julie’s head, none of them good. She tried to hope for the long shot, that he was being brought in as a star witness to a bank robbery or something. He’ll be a hero. He’ll be famous.

“I need to turn myself in.”

“No!” she blurted. Julie couldn’t believe that Coyote—HER Coyote—could be headed for jail. She imagined maybe he jay walked, shoplifted a Snickers bar. She clamped her eyes shut, partly to stave off the sudden urge to cry but also to concentrate on a quick prayer of support and deliverance.

She must have froze that way for awhile, because when Coyote spoke again it was he who sounded concerned. “Jules? Julie, are you still there?”

Julie swallowed her tears and took a deep breath. “What did you do?”

“It’s not good,” he tried to chuckle but it only came out as a weak cough. “Oh, Julie, I want nothing more than to be with you, to be your boyfriend, your husband—someday, I mean.”

HUSBAND!? Oh, my Lord, he’s killed someone.

“Coyote–?”

“I love you, Jules. It’s because of you—you showing me the way.”

“Coyote, I–”

“I have to do this. I hope you’ll understand.”

In the pause that followed, Julie struggled with the words. There was so much going through her mind, but one thing kept crushing her thoughts: This is going to be the last time you talk to him for a long, long time. She said nothing.

“I love you.”

CLICK.

John continued his trek down the wooded hillside toward the old junkyard A-frame.

Bailey woofed after him, “John!”

“No. Forget it, Bailey, I’m not listening to you anymore.” He arrived at the moss-frosted tree and carefully lowered himself to scoot over on his rump rather than risk another slip. Over his shoulder, he yelled, “I’m tired of playing these games. When the Father sent me back, he never told me about this—Glenine never warned me.”

The sudden voice was spoken. Not THOUGHT from the dog. It was feminine, soft and almost lyrical, and it was coming from behind and to the left of John. She said, “Why do you expect to know His plan, John, when even I don’t know what it is?”

The voice startled John, made him turn toward the sound, causing him to slide off the felled tree, his jacket and shirt pushed up as cold bark raked his side. He winced and quickly rolled and scrambled to his feet.

There, about twenty feet away, stood the most beautiful woman John had ever seen. Granted, he hadn’t seen many having only been born the day before yesterday, but if ever there was such a thing, she would be it.

Tall, probably a shoulder above John, the statuesque blond penetrated John with piercing blue gem-like eyes. Her slender face was proportioned with an exactness that could only have come straight from God. Centuries of DNA trading could not have done this. She wore what appeared to be a flannel housecoat over pajamas and slippers. The cold air didn’t seem to bother her.

In fact, John noted, her breath did not mist.

John stood slowly, facing the what must have been an apparition. “Bailey,” he whispered as loud as he dare, facing down the woman warily. He remembered Bailey’s warning about the Fallen sending three to their one. He already knew from his learnings that Mastema was a trickster. Could this angel be a Fallen?

The dog approached cautiously from John’s left, the woman’s right.

“Listen to her,” Bailey huffed.

And then he realized who it was.

There, in glorious earthly beauty, stood an angel. His angel. His guardian and trainer.

“Glenine?” John stammered as he lowered himself to his knees. As she stepped closer, John could feel her warmth penetrate the air around them. The naked trees stopped clattering upon her approach and her golden hair glowed brilliantly as though lit from behind by the sun itself. With a soft rustle, her gleaming white feathered wings spread out from her shoulder blades through the housecoat. Each step was a glide, a whisper. Palley’s Woods was undisturbed by the angel’s presence. Like Moses, Noah, Mary, and countless others blessed in the Bible by an angel’s voice, John knelt rapt in the glorious presence of God’s envoy.

She said, “Sara is in danger, John.”

All reverence dropped, John jumped to his feet and clasped his hands together, pleading manically, “I know. I was trying to tell Bailey—why did she lead me away—have to help Sara—can’t waste time!”

“Sssh,” the angel whispered softly. Her hush so much softer than John’s panic, but held him like a battle cry. Her gracefulness came to rest easily within reach of John. The warmth now completely enveloped him and made him think briefly of home. Heaven. He wanted to go back there, to be among the other souls, to float on the current of God’s Grace, to feel the love like warm air in your lungs and warm water over your body.

John lowered his arms, glanced only once down the hill, then turned his attention to the angel.

She sat down on the fallen tree and patted a spot next to her. “Come. Sit.”

“But.”

“Not your plan, John. His. Sit.”

“Yes, Glenine.”

She kept her eyes on his as he sat next to her, the bark on the tree was warm against his seat, the frost all but evaporated. She said, “And you can call me by the name I left behind twelve years ago.”

John’s mouth moved but no words came out. Bailey approached and sat before the two of them, her tail wagging in a ‘you’re gonna love this’ kind of way.

“Rachel.”

A tear formed in the corner of John’s eye. “You’re–”

“Sara’s mother. Rachel Dawn.”

***

Sara ran from the house with the minivan full of Christmas presents, out to the sidewalk, across the street, then into the alley between two houses there.

Fortunately, the grumbling gray car had already rounded a corner a block away and vanished. She had a clear shot up the next street, then back over to the gas station and—with luck—a local phone book with a listing for Charles Wheat.

The morning after Thanksgiving found Homer’s streets mostly deserted. The odd car passed by on its way home from Christmas shopping in Gates, or passed in the other direction heading out to larger towns with outlet malls or specialty stores. No one was out just to be out. Everyone had a purpose, a holiday purpose.

Well, all except the kids in the gray car which suddenly turned on the street in front of her, facing her.

Sara froze.

There came a brief pause. The car even braked, its grill facing her down like a gunslinger a block away.

Releasing a yelp of pent up tension, Sara quickly turned and darted toward a tall fence running the length of a house nearby. A sign on the gate said, “BEWARE OF DOG” and had the silhouette of a small chihuahua beneath. Behind her, down the street, an engine gunned and tires squealed. Sara pushed at the gate, but it wouldn’t budge. A loud angry barking then exploded from the other side. She gasped and stumbled back. That was no chihuahua.

The gray car skidded with the echoing screech of an angry eagle behind her. A brash horn sounded, two quick bleats.

“Oh, God.” Sara looked over her shoulder and saw them. The carload of teenagers was right there, blocking her path back across the street.

They all laughed, probably at the ridiculousness of her over sized coat, the cast on her arm, the bent metal nose splint, or perhaps her half-shaved head. She imagined she looked like the perfect target for a gang of bored toughs all looking for some pre-holiday fun. Though she doubted they would recognize her since her medical makeover, Sara knew it wouldn’t matter. She was attracting more attention now than she had before.

“Hey, baby, nice nose gear!” One of them yelled.

Sara quickly turned back to the fence and tried tugging on the gate. It wouldn’t budge and the giant chihuahua on the other side wasn’t about to give up his yard.

There was no way out except toward the street.

“Come on, retard, we’ll give you a ride back to the retard school,” another one called. Then another, this one almost apologetic: “Come on. They’re only kidding. I’ll take you wherever you need to go.” The laughter that followed told Sara he wasn’t entirely as sincere as he tried to sound.

Backing along the fence next to the gate, Sara found a corner and a long narrow gap running next to the neighbor’s garage. She could try that way, make a run for the alley.

She turned quickly and flattened herself against the garage so she could sidestep through.

The gray car revved up again and sped down the street. Sara heard the tires protest as it rounded a corner. They were going to circle back through the alley, she knew, and would try to grab her when she made it to the end of the corridor with no hope for escape. Sara side-stepped back out the way she came, turned, and bolted across the street. Behind her, she heard the gray car shunt down the alleyway, the gravel under the tires crushing as it skidded to a stop where she would have come out.

Then she heard a laugh. Did they see me across the next street? Oh, God, please distract them. But the car revved again, and the gavel kicked up as the tires spun. They were on their way to the end of the alley, around the next corner, back up the street.

How long would they keep up the car chase before jumping out and chasing her on foot?

Sara reached the narrow yard space between two houses on the other side and risked a look over her shoulder. Her question was answered.

As the gray car rumbled and sped up in the distance, two teenage boys in letter jackets—one short with long hair, the other wide-shouldered with a backwards ballcap—were shuffling their way toward her down the narrow gap through which she had just escaped.

She felt like a hunted gazelle, only much less graceful. Turning, her breath coming in frantic puffs, Sara ran across front yards glancing between houses to find a clear path to the next alley. WHY DOES EVERYONE HAVE A FENCE!? God, why didn’t I stay with John?

At the next gap, Sara turned and charged between two houses toward the alley.

Behind her she could hear the stomping boots of the teens on foot, their breaths puffing like linebackers coming down on the quarterback. And the gray car sounded in the distance, only not behind her on the street. They had anticipated her run. The car was approaching from the front, from the alley before her.

Sara stopped. She was trapped.

***

“Rachel?”

The angel nodded. She placed a warm hand on John’s knee and he instantly felt the connection with home. Heaven. Oh, how he longed to return—but there was also a sense of urgency, a cry for John to pay attention to words that would mean life or death. For Sara. And possibly for his mortal self as well.

John turned on the log to face her directly. “But why? Why did you come back?” He glanced at the dog. “Bailey said the Fallen will grow in number—that’s why you had to leave me.”

Rachel the angel shook her head slowly as she smiled. “They won’t this time. They’ll have what they came for.”

John’s eyes grew. “Sara.”

The angel nodded, moved her hand from John’s knee to his shoulder. She leaned close. “The time for His return is at hand, John.”

“His–?”

“The Son.”

John felt a vibration in his spine. The Second Coming? Now? He looked around at the trees, down the hill, saw a flock of small birds take flight through the leafless canopy overhead. He thought about Jimmy Dodd, Agatha and Reverend Doug. He thought about the town, about the churches, the unsuspecting people. Bailey. “Why now?”

“It is His plan, John. It is not ours to understand, only to serve.”

John’s eyes fell upon Bailey. He said, “I was told Sara represented a change. How? And why let her fall into THEIR hands?”

Rachel smiled. “My daughter has a very special soul. They want her because they know that she is meant to carry the Son into this world as the Virgin had before her. If they can prevent that, there will be another two thousand years before His return.”

“The change,” John said flatly. “If the Son returns, judgment will come.”

Rachel nodded as he caught on.

“Earth will return to paradise. The gates of Hell will close forever.”

A smile parted the angel’s lips to show perfect teeth. “So Father devised something to prepare the mother.”

John met her warm blue eyes again. He felt himself pulled into the loving embrace of those eyes, the expanse of glowing heavenly skies beyond them. “If they already have her–”

Rachel edged closer, wrapped her arms and wings around John’s shoulders as she had done in Heaven, drawing him into her embrace and pouring out God’s love into his spirit. She whispered, “They don’t have ALL of her.”

John tried to unpack the riddle behind those words, but kept drawing back into the angel’s eyes. The meaning was there. The meaning–

“Me?”

Rachel didn’t nod, didn’t smile wider. Instead, her gaze became steady, deeper. She kissed John’s head with warm lips. A blessing from the Father. “There is no time in Heaven,” she reminded him. In the softest voice anyone had ever heard, almost a whisper of a thought, she said, “He is Alpha and Omega, and within him is the constant infinity of existence.”

John’s heart pounded. His head pounded. Emotions flooded through his veins like a drug. Of course! Tears welled in his eyes, hot and powerful. A door in John’s heart was opened and God’s wisdom poured in. Instantly, Rachel imparted him with knowledge and wisdom—and more. He felt himself fill with eternity, a single emotional swallow of EVERYTHING. He felt himself armed with history and with the future. A blink. That’s all it was—a flash of God’s plan—and it nearly blinded him.

And it was suddenly all very clear.

John fell into the angel’s embrace, wrapped his arms around her and squeezed as tight as he could. “Glenine,” he said, calling her by her Choir name.

Rachel said, “My darling child.”

“I missed you.” The three words now held a dual meaning in the human’s heart, but the angel understood.

Then John’s heart opened and he saw the truth . . . .

. . . John felt himself drifting down, down through time. Clouds and birds, stars and dust all shushed past him as he descended toward the loan figure crossing the field toward the Lyle Bridge. It was Sara, complete with Spiderman backpack, her head hung low, her determination to die held high.

“THIS IS WHEN I DIED?”

GLENINE SAID, “YES, SARA. YOU DIED ON THANKSGIVING DAY.”

“ALONE.”

“NOT ALONE. YOU’LL SEE.”

“I—I MEAN JOHN—WASN’T THERE TO SAVE ME, WAS HE?”

Another piece to the puzzle hovered just out of John’s reach. When he grasped it in his fall, he understood.

“I WAS ALLOWED TO SAVE MY OWN SOUL? THAT’S WHY I WENT BACK?”

“YOU SAVED YOURSELF. AND YOU … SAVED … YOURSELF, SARA.”

John studied Sara as he dropped toward her morose form.

“BUT WHAT HAPPENS NOW? I KILLED MYSELF. SURELY THAT WOULD UPSET THE FATHER. WHY WAS I PERMITTED–?”

“SSH. WATCH. LEARN.”

***

Sara’s head ached. The cold air burned her skin and exposed part of her scalp. The throbbing stitches itched. The cast on her arm itched. Her swollen eye thumped in time with her heart.

A heart which will stop beating not long after she reaches the Lyle Bridge.

She hoped none of her homeless friends would be spending Thanksgiving on or under the bridge. She didn’t want conversation, or for her friends to become witnesses to her demise. She just wanted to die. Plain and simple. And float away with no one the wiser only to be discovered way downstream some time around May.

A pattering cold rain started and seeped through her wool cap. Sara tugged the Spiderman pack straps in tighter like she was snuggling into a winter coat. The effect did nothing to warm her, but she convinced herself that pretending to get warm might actually help.

To keep warm, and to fight the urge to give up giving up, Sara began to jog. Her legs were still sore where Ellie Sauder kicked her, but she fought with all her might to reach the bridge in the distance.

After twenty minutes of walk-jog-run, Sara spotted the bridge. Warmed by the exercise, but chilled when she saw her soon-to-be last resting place, she slowed to a shuffle and almost tripped on the frozen furrow of a plow track.

The rain had stopped, then gave way to a light snow.

How will it feel? Will there be pain?

She didn’t think so. It’ll be like bungee jumping without a cord. Sara thought she might even close her eyes before she jumped, imagined the cord trailing out from her ankles, then kiss the river’s surface and rocks beneath head first. If the fall didn’t kill her, it would at least render her unconscious. Then the freezing waters, crackling with chunks of ice like an enormous glass of scotch, will cover her over like a mound of earth.

Oh, but the sting of a clinking scotch whiskey would feel good about now.

An icy tear ran down Sara’s cheek as she stepped onto Route 9 and started walking the length of the bridge. Far below, but probably no more than sixty feet, the Lyle River churned and chuckled. It was higher than she thought it would be, the current more swift. The thaw of last weekend probably loaded the streams leading to the river, then the re-freeze last night—and now—were trying to build a hard sculpture out of the tossing gunmetal waters.

Sara didn’t look over the edge. Not yet. Instead, she walked slowly toward the middle, listening to the hissing cheer of the river below. And she thought about that whiskey. She thought about her mother, her father, the last words–

SICK OF IT!

–The crack of the pistol, the sound of mommy’s slumping body, the taste of blood on the air.

She thought about her fiance’s F-150, the rumble if its engine, his eyes—which judged her only when she wouldn’t let him touch her. The thud and yelp, the squish under the massive truck’s tires. The fiance screaming about a kid and Sara wanting to believe against all hope, through the murky haze of liquor, that they only hit a dog or a stray farm animal. Please, God, not a child!

And she thought about the cold judgmental stares of her foster family, every teacher she ever had, and every member of St. Matthew’s congregation. The church had been her only home for over twelve years. And then, following an attack from a wickedly vengeful man, Sara felt God turn away as his flock beat her, spit on her, berated her and tortured her. Please, God, not like this!

Sara stopped at the mid-point of the Lyle Bridge and turned toward the freezing breeze and the churning water.

All I have to do is climb over this rail and let myself drop. Physics and chemistry will take care of me after that. Then . . . peaceful oblivion.

God had abandoned her, so she embraced nothingness. Sara couldn’t let herself conjure up a mental hell. There was nothing worse than the life through which she had struggled so weakly and she was too guilt-ridden, even about poor Mr. Wheat who had set up this final humiliation, to imagine a heaven beyond all this.

But still, she gave it one more try.

She closed her eyes, and tilted her head back, “Dear Father in Heaven, I have cried out to you for help for I cannot see through the darkness of this forest. They have turned against me, God, and left me to rot. I cannot ask for another chance because I do not deserve another chance. Somewhere, Father, some how, I have failed you. I am not worthy of your love, your forgiveness, or your mercy.

“They always say, ‘give me a sign,’ but I don’t think that’s how it works. The sign should be in my own heart, dear God, but I can’t feel it anymore. I am so sorry to have failed you. Goodbye.”

Sara leaned forward slightly. She felt the slippery hardness of the rail pressing into her diaphragm, smelled the snowy/fishy air rising up from the roiling torrent below. She shrugged out of her Spiderman backpack and clutched it to her chest. She contemplated opening it to look at the picture of her mother one more time, but dropped it instead. She shuddered with convulsive tears as the tiny backpack splashed in the water below a few seconds later.

Sara kicked off her shoes and quickly tossed them into the river after the backpack. The coldness of the icy bridge burned and stabbed the bottoms of her feet. She bounced from sole to sole before lifting a leg and hooking it over the rail.

And then . . . the sign she hadn’t asked for.

An approaching car, its tire noise obscured by the cacophony of water below, suddenly revved, then braked, then shunted toward her, its ABS system making rubbery machinegun noises as the tires fought for purchase.

Sara gasped, and turned to see the car sliding toward her, and its frantic driver spinning the wheel and gazing out at her with a hopeless expression on his face. The car turned like a ballet dancer, its wheels locking, then spinning, then locking like the turn tables in a Hip-Hop club.

It wasn’t a very large car, but it carried enough forward momentum to crash through the Lyle Bridge’s railing. Sara watched, horrified, as first the rear tires FUMPED over the edge. The car then tipped up like the Titanic, teetering only slightly before sliding into the river below. The crash of twisting metal, wet crunching, and the splash, echoed through the night. Then silence again.

“Oh, my God!” Thinking only of the innocent terrified face of the man in the car, Sara threw herself over the edge where she stood so she’d land in the water to the right of the car.

The splash was a full-body electric shock. Sara felt as though she were hit with a giant cattle prod. All her limbs, ironically except for the broken one in the cast, felt like they had snapped from the fall. Fortunately, the feeling was only a phantom brought about by the arctic temperatures.

Sara immediately felt cool blood pump into her heart and return only slightly warmer. Her head buzzed and throbbed. The fall had torn off her nose guard, but she barely acknowledged it. She swam toward the car, it’s roof bobbing as it was slowly carried away.

“No!” She pumped her useless arms and legs as best she could and was surprised to find she was actually making headway on the car.

Her mind became sluggish. She stopped thinking about herself, her ability to reach the trapped driver, and only repeated, PLEASE, PLEASE, OPEN THE DOOR. JUST GET OUT.

As Sara reached the car, she felt something tug her under the water. She swallowed a little before bobbing back to the surface, coughing. She banged her numb hands on the hood and then saw the passenger door open next to her. A man swam out, his teeth chattering like hers.

“Sway!” Sara called, barely thinking, THIS WAY. She started to swim toward shore, waving back at the man to follow, when she dipped again below the surface. Water rushed into her nose and mouth as she kicked and bucked her way back to the surface. She almost didn’t make it and imagined one more undertow and she’ll be lost forever.

“Aaaggh!”

Sara looked back and saw the man dip below the surface. That was his first dunk, but she continued toward him regardless of her own mortality. She thought briefly, I WAS GOING TO DIE TONIGHT ANYWAY, IT MIGHT BE WORTH IT IF I CAN SAVE A LIFE. Reaching out, her cold hand found and grasped an edge of the man’s coat. But as she pulled him up she pulled herself down.

This time Sara’s bare feet scraped the rocks at the bottom of the river. She felt silt and grit ride around her legs and into her clothes, but she couldn’t feel her arms. She had no way to swim back toward the surface. In the gloom, the murky undercurrent, Sara’s eyes opened to stinging wet coldness. The man was paddling in circles, trying to grasp at air.

She tried to call out, to wave her useless arms, to kick. Then her head was swallowed up by the numbness and her body began to equalize with the cold.

Sara drifted farther downstream, felt herself stick against the underside of the toppled car. Her lungs, cut off, were burning in her chest. Her throat felt raw against the pressure that pounded within. Finally, she bobbed to the surface. The man was crying out for help between chokes of water and clawed for her as she neared him.

“Go–” she tried “–shore,” and push-pulled him sidelong toward a cluster of large square rocks. She noticed they were tons of broken cinder blocks, probably dumped in the river by a local masonry. The man panicked, raked at her head and pulling out her stitches. Fighting against him, Sara kicked as hard as she dare, thrashed with the arm in the cast as her other grasped and tugged at the man’s coat until the hard plastic cracked against the man-made shore.

Sputtering, gagging, the man found purchase on the sharp blocks beneath Sara and used them—and her—as a ladder. As he scrambled over her to collapse on shore, his foot swung down and broke two fingers on her good hand, crushing them against a block. She opened her mouth reflexively to scream when his other foot, scrambling, clipped her temple and sent her back into the churning river.

Already weak from pulling the man to shore, her adrenaline down to a drip, Sara sank beneath the black water. She surrendered. Sara felt herself go entirely weak. Even her legs stopped churning useless silt from the bottom. Her vision tunneled. Hard numbness started to reach for her. There was no river, no man, no car, no botched suicide/rescue attempt. Warm nothingness was coming down to meet her as she sank. Her arms and legs vanished, then her body below the diaphragm, then finally her chest. All that was left was her mind and that was moving sluggishly toward a distant light.

As Sara’s mind moved toward the light, she felt a warmth overtake her. A feeling of love came to her and she perceived a distant shadow, a silhouette approaching from out of the light. Water dripping from her ice-water soaked clothes, she found herself on her feet. The sound of the river was fading far behind her, and the voice of a weak man crying out, “Lady! Hey, lady!” became muffled and lost.

The silhouette spoke in a woman’s soft voice, “Come to me, baby,” and the light behind it enveloped them both. Sara felt all the pain and numb aches fall away from her body. She felt stronger, bolstered by the gush of love coming from the woman’s voice. As light fell upon them, Sara recognized her mother—just as she remembered her—tall and blond, beautiful and smiling.

“Mommy,” she cried. Tears of joy lined her warming cheeks as her mother lead her toward the light.

“Hey, punkin,” came a man’s voice.

“Daddy!” Pulling her mother along, Sara ran to her father and six arms entwined.

“Come, Sara Elizabeth,” her mother whispered, “There’s someone you have to meet.”

Before the reunited family, a figure appeared. He appeared to be the source of all the love and his presence was so overpowering Sara dropped to her hands and knees. She began to sob and cry. “I am so sorry, Father!” She screamed her tears as the man approached and knelt down before her. She wailed, “Oh, what have I done!? I am so sorry! I am so sor-r-ry!”

She felt the man’s warm hand touch her chin and lift her face. She didn’t want to look into His eyes, couldn’t bare to be subjected to the judgment she knew she deserved, to see the hurt and disappointment in His eyes. She kept her eyes down, focused on his hand.

And that’s when she saw the pucker of a scar just above his wrist.

Sara gasped. Her eyes jumped up.

And fell upon the eyes of love.

He smiled before embracing her. “Your long journey is over, my child,” he whispered in her ear as he patted her back. “You have come home to my Father’s promised house to rest, for there is no child among you who does not have the key in his heart.

“You have opened the door, Sara Dawn. Welcome home.”

***

John, whose heart is Sara’s, pulled back from Glenine, whose soul was Rachel’s, and gazed into the angel’s eyes. John’s chin puckered as worry poked his tear ducts. “D-Did I save the man? Please, mommy—Glenine, tell me I saved the man who tried to save me.”

Glenine smiled. “You saved him. His soul was released a short time later. He went back to the water to try to save you.”

A tear slid down John’s cheek. “He died?”

Glenine lowered her face. “It was his time, child.”

“But . . . I saved myself. I came back BEFORE the bridge. Surely he’s alive now!”

Glenine said, “It is His plan, Sara. One way or another it is served as He commands. There is no changing it.”

John looked away, but all he could see was a golden glow cast upon the frost-covered Palley’s Woods around him. Finally, he sniffed and asked, “Who was he?”

“His name was John.”

John turned back to the angel. Blinked.

“John Milton.”

Meresin finished feeding Charles Wheat’s body and was angrily contemplating ramming the man’s head against the refrigerator until it squashed like an overripe cantaloupe. With a short seizure of vein-popping intensity, Wheat hurled to the floor and quickly recovered as Meresin soaked into his outer skin, fully possessing him.


Meresin flipped open Wheat’s cell phone and was about to speed-dial Coyote Wilcox. The kid was the only link Meresin had, the only chance to locate Sara Dawn, and he wasn’t returning phone calls.


Wheat’s own mind was nothing more than a delicious field of ripe revenge emotions. There were no facts, nothing he could use. There came only a mental picture of the punk, the dollar amount pulled from the bank to cover the kid’s dirty deed, and a tiny dark thought—a wondering—about what can be done to remove Coyote as a witness.


Meresin felt trapped in the island of this pathetic man’s brain.


And then . . . deliverance.


The network of hell reaches more than its own shores. The shadowy minions, the Legad of Mastema’s army, spiderweb throughout the planet. They feed on the dark thoughts of Christians, drinking off them like mosquitoes. They taste their fantasies and darkest mental corners. And they regurgitate fresh ideas, notions from nothingness. The Legad who come to earth lock in on Christians like lions to gazelles because Mastema wants to steal souls away from God. Why possess a heathen or heretic if they were only going to join the weeping and tormented anyway?


The Lord of Lies rewards his Fallen brethren for each Christian soul turned away from God. The pleading screams and gnashing teeth are as sweet as music because they KNOW what they’re missing.


Meresin knew such sweet rewards. His was a taste of earth, to be chosen to occupy the slimy, twisted Christian souls too weak to find redemption. The lonely hearts bachelor with nothing but his Bible for company, young John Milton, was his first. The periodic church-goer and snobbish clique-organizer Ellie Sauder came second. And now, for the exploding orgasm after the foreplay, Charles hate-in-my-heart Wheat. There was no more lust fulfilled as with this man; a healer of hearts and souls, a believer who prayed with his patients . . . until the day his son was taken from him.


Only Sara Dawn herself would be a sweeter catch, for she was one of God’s chosen favorites. Meresin made Wheat’s mouth snarl as he thought about the delicious secrets that must be hidden within the woman’s soul for Him to covet her like that.


Now there came a tingling in Meresin’s pit. He could feel it, even through Wheat’s body. A tremor woke his Lord Mastema. Mastema, Satan, the Fallen general, was reveling.


Meresin dropped Wheat’s knees to the floor.


That’ll hurt when he’s released.


“My Lord, what is done?” Meresin’s gutteral voice harmonized with Wheat’s whiny vocal chords.


The response was a picture, a flash of one of the Choir—the UNFallen—the enemy. Glenine had returned to earth against The Order. Another three Fallen would come to Meresin’s aid.


But the Fallen Lord of Lightning would not have that. Like his master, he was not one for sharing. The joys and pleasures of broken Christians would be his and his alone.


So, Meresin’s plan was not to ask for MORE, just to ask for direction. Meresin couldn’t move from Wheat to Coyote Wilcox without the teen appearing before him. Wheat’s cell was the only available tool for reaching the kid—and currently without success—but there was another option. Three, actually: Thatch, Reems, and Sed, the two demons and the Legad.


Lightning flashed and burned within Charles Wheat’s trailer. His body levitated and thrashed like a marionette with tangled strings. Dribble and blood oozed from his nose and the corners of his mouth. And when he opened his maw, Meresin’s voice bellowed, “BRING HIM TO ME!”


He felt his agents move swiftly to his demand.


And he felt the earth tremble with anticipation.


Soon he’d feel Sara Dawn trembling in his talons, and the Alpha will meet His Omega.


***


Julie Petular cried into her pillow. She had tried to run to Coyote’s rescue, to meet him at the police station, but her tired and crabby father refused her the car keys and ordered her to her room after taking her cell phone. Her mother, she figured, had told him about their “nice visit” with Julie’s new boyfriend. She hadn’t heard it, but Julie figured the conversation ended with a burst of righteous anger from her father.


Grounded to her room with nothing but her Bible, Julie contemplated a return to loneliness. The thought numbed her mind. While she wouldn’t trade her eye-opening salvation for anything in the world, she could not stand the thought of being alone. Not now. Not after finding Coyote.


Julie ached without her phone, not because she was the typical teenager craving a temple tumor. She needed to talk to him. The last thing she’d heard him say—would probably EVER hear him say—was “I love you.” HOW COULD SHE NOT SAY ANYTHING?

How could I not tell him how I feel, how much I care for him?

Coyote Wilcox was the only person who truly understood what she’s been going through. Since they both left high school, it’s been him. He’s the only one who hasn’t judged her, berated her, or mocked her or her God.


She couldn’t let him go. She just couldn’t. All last night he confided in her, told her about his broken home, the way his father had treated him, beat him. Though she was never beaten, Julie couldn’t help but feel the kinship there. Even now: How could her father keep her locked up when she was on the verge of crossing the bridge into the next phase of her life? She had never been . . . .


In love? Could that be why her tears were so hot?


Julie went to the second story window and opened it. A blast of chilly air burst in like an uninvited guest bee-lining it for the fridge. She closed the window and gazed out at the jutting overhang. She could crawl out there, then maybe drop to the snow drift in the back yard next to the porch. The bare black trees in the back yard swayed with intent, cold and bitter. But, she looked over her shoulder to the door of her room and considered staying. Without her coat she’d surely freeze out there. And, without her phone, she wouldn’t be able to stop him and say she was coming to be by his side.


That’s crazy. Julie rubbed her forehead with the palms of her hands. If he truly did something wrong, you know you have to let him atone. He’s trying to do the right thing. Don’t do the wrong thing by holding him back.


A peculiar feeling tingled the side of her neck and she had the very familiar, but very misplaced feeling that she was being watched—through the second story window.


Slowly turning her head, her eyes leading her gaze, she caught the shape of a head and shoulders peering through the window.


Coyote!


Her mind was too slow to grasp the unlikely scenario, that Coyote Wilcox was hovering in front of the window, that somehow his face had melted away and he was nothing more than a black shadow.


Julie’s eyes locked on the eyeless visage hovering just outside the pane. Whatever it was, it had the shape of a man, a large-shouldered man. Though a few snowflakes from the roof line fell to its forehead, they seemed to pass right through. But it was so REAL.


The glass fogged in front of the space where a mouth would be on the shadow. Julie gasped.


In the fogged circle a word formed as though written by an invisible finger. B – I – T – C – I–


Before the H could be finished, Julie’s sucked air to scream.


And the black shadow hovering outside her window imploded silently through the glass and dove down her throat.


***


Coyote hadn’t gone back to the police station. He stood on the sidewalk in front of a clothing store next door to the jewelry store and he stared at the tall opposing windows on the second floor of the Homer P.D. building.


Like the rest of downtown Homer, the police station was formed out of an old building that could have been a hundred different businesses since its construction in 1887. The inside had probably been remodeled a few times, but the outside stood as a testament to the cares of its original craftsman. All build by hand and horse, the two-story headquarters was composed of large red brick. Bare concrete-colored balustrades and pillars built into the frontage on either side of the glass doors gave the building a library feel. It probably was a library a few generations ago. Only the gold stenciling on the front doors declaring HOMER POLICE DEPARTMENT, MALCOM ANDREWS – CHIEF, VERMILLION COUNTY SHERIFF DISTRICT 6 called it what it was. That and the two police cars parked out front. An old police call box from the 20s still sat bolted to a pole between the cars, its case covered by a thin crust of snow.


Coyote thought about what it must be like inside, how much like TV it would be. Would they make him sit in a chair under a hot light while two guys in dress shirts and shoulder holsters played good cop / bad cop and tried to get him to smoke a cigarette? Would the walls be pink? He once heard prison interiors were painted pink to keep the inmates calm.


Minutes past.


He walked across the street without glancing east or west for traffic. The post-Thanksgiving laziness still had the town in its tryptophanic hold. Few people would be stirring and, with most Christmas shoppers making the trek to Marion County or even Gates for their holiday heists, the streets of Homer were dead.


When Coyote stepped onto the curb he froze and quickly turned away, unnerved, as a uniformed officer came out the front door, down the steps, and got into one of the two patrol cars parked out front. Coyote pretended to read a band poster inside the window of Waldoor’s Dime N’ Five. He rocked from side to side, pretending his nervousness was just a way to get warm. When he heard the car speed off, he turned and crossed back to the jewelry store.


What am I doing? Coyote blinked as a new variable added itself to his inner argument. Why did I shut out Jules like that? I’ll bet she’d be able to tell me what to do. Why don’t I just call her and ask her opinion?


Why didn’t I think of it before? If I love her, I need to confide in her more often, don’t I?


In front of Wilmer’s Ice-Cream (OPEN MARCH 15) Coyote sat on one of the cold wooden benches and flipped open his cell phone. He hit the speed dial for Julie. Just before her voice mail would have clicked in, there was an answer. It was Julie’s mom.


In a whisper, Mrs. Petular said, “Coyote, that you?”


“Yes, ma’am. May I speak with Julie, please?”


“I’m sorry, Coyote, but she’s been grounded. She can’t talk to you–” In the background came an angry voice that Coyote thought could have been his own father: “Who the hell is it!?” “–Hang on.”


Coyote held the phone patiently. He watched an SUV silently glide past. He watched a woman come out of the jewelry store—I hope she didn’t buy MY ring!


“Coyote?”


“Yes, Mrs. Petular?”


“Hang on.”


As he strained to hear through the tiny speaker, Coyote could make out Julie’s mother’s heavy breathing and the creak of stairs. Oh, thank you, Mrs. P. I owe you!


He heard a soft knock, Mrs. Petular calling in a harsh whisper, “Julie. It’s him.”


There came the sound of a door, rustling, a gasp, another harsh whisper he couldn’t identify, then a clatter and a slam. What was that?


“Coyote?”


“Julie. Listen, I’m sorry I–”


“Sorry? You hung up on me!”


Why was her voice so tense? Didn’t she realize he might be going away forever? Didn’t she realize the sacrifice he was making for her? Why was she being selfish, not even commenting on the L word he’d dropped earlier? “Jules?” he tried.


“Don’t you Jules me, you sonofabitch!”


“What!?” Coyote felt a tear sting the corner of his eye. It was an angry tear, but also heartbroken. Was this really the girl who poured out her life to him last night? Was this the girl whose love he felt? The girl he couldn’t imagine himself living without? The one he wanted to buy a ring for? “Julie, why are you cursing.”


“Go fuck yourself.”


The phone went dead.


Coyote Wilcox found himself standing, staring at his own gape-mouthed expression reflected through the closed ice-cream store’s window. What just happened?


A gush of bitter emotion swirled into Coyote’s chest. It felt cold and sour, heartsick and fierce. What would make her talk like that? That was so out of character? Could it be simply because he had caused her to get grounded right after saying, essentially, goodbye forever?


“Julie?” He said into the useless cell.


He snapped it shut. CLICK.


Coyote looked down at his feet, felt the cold on the back of his neck for the first time today. What do I do now? He glanced up at the jewelry store marquis, then over at the police station. Like a man with nothing to live for, he set off once again for the far side of the street.


All he could think about was shooting back. It wasn’t so much about doing the right thing anymore. What Charles Wheat had put him through had ruined his chances with Julie. He wanted to see the deadbeat pay.


Coyote pulled his hands from his pockets and marched up the steps to the police station. This time he pulled open the door and stepped inside.


The line had been crossed.

Sara Dawn had no real choice. She could sprint into the alley and hope she got out ahead of the gray car, maybe actually make it across the alley and between the next set of houses, or she could turn and face the two charging toward her on foot.

She hesitated only a second before turning toward the alley and charging. A car, she figured, might be able to hit you pretty hard, but it couldn’t grab you. She might be able to dive out of its way or, if it were too fast for her, stutter-step back and dodge behind it. There really was no other choice. If she’d stayed pinned between the two houses, the big boys on foot would have her within seconds. Sara really had no idea what they wanted, but she was sure they weren’t trying to sell her Girl Scout cookies.

Her choice paid off. As she stepped into the alley not only did she see an open gate two doors down, she saw the gray car stuck not fifty feet away, another big teen in a letter jacket trying to pull a crushed garbage can from under the front fender. Sara could make out the silhouette of the driver pounding on the steering wheel and clearly hear his muffled voice. “There she is! Hurry up!”

Behind her the charging foot teens were gaining ground. They would catch her, there was no doubt in her mind. All she could do now is try to be caught in a public place, or at least get caught on private property where a homeowner wouldn’t stand for a gang-bludgeoning in their back yard. After all, it was a bludgeoning they’d gone for in the past. Not knowing the motives of a gang of high school boys was almost worse than knowing exactly why they were wasting their time with her.

Sara’s thigh muscles burned, her lungs burned, the sweat on her forehead was freezing. She pumped her arms with shush-shush sounds coming from Elmer’s jacket as she charged across the alley, jumped a small discarded filing cabinet, and bolted into yet another backyard through a gap between garages.

This yard was much wider than previous yards, so much so that the owners felt it necessary to occupy almost every square inch of their property with an in-ground pool. Rounding the corner of their storage shed (undoubtedly filled with nothing but chlorine and pool-maintaining supplies) Sara slipped on an icy patch of walkway and slammed into the heavy metal gridwork of an enormous barbecue grill. Something sharp on the metal edge cut her hand, but her momentum was what propelled the collision. The grill, being top-heavy, tipped and slid even as Sara pulled back and windmilled her arms to stay back from the edge of the—oh, God!–pool’s edge.

She watched, terrified, as the heavy metal fell against the vinyl pool cover and used its sharp teeth to tear right through it. Backing away from the edge as though afraid the grill might somehow suck her into the icy water after it, Sara bumped the tool shed even as the wheels of the black metal monster dipped beneath the surface, dragging with it the hapless propane tank, tongs, grill scraper tool thing, and forgotten rusty spatula.

Footsteps from the alley crunched quickly behind her. They were close. Sara wondered briefly if she was going to join the doomed grill at the bottom of Davey Jones’ swimming pool, and would have laughed if she’d found herself wondering if the owners of the pool were named David and Mrs. Jones.

***

John’s eyes popped open and he sucked air like a drowning man breaking the surface of icy water. Glenine was still here, as was Bailey. The glowing blond angel and the not-so-glowing blond dog watched him as he pressed his hand to his chest and tried to catch his breath.

The vision of his death, what had taken him to Heaven in the first place, was an extremely realistic recreation. In fact, he was sure it wasn’t a vision at all. Glenine had taken him back so he could actually feel the memory and know the truth.

“I am Sara Dawn,” he said, as if to test the validity of it by speaking it aloud.

Glenine said, “And I was your mother.” Her thin smile said, “And that’s all there is to it,” but John wanted more. This was a lot to swallow in an instant where a girl’s life is at stake.

“How–?” he started, but Glenine cut him off.

“That’s the beginning of many more questions that all start with the same word.”

John nodded. He tried to understand. This was a lot to take in and he had to get to Sara. But another part of him craved the answers as if knowing how things work would armor him for what was to come. He said quickly, “At least tell me—If I’m Sara’s soul, whose soul is in Sara now?”

“Put simply, yours,” Glenine said matter-of-factly as though none of this was more crazy than John’s two-day lifespan. “The soul is an energy, a force, the spirit of every living creature with a connection to God. You are attributing personality to it, but you’ll recall that your individuality is only relevant on earth. When your soul becomes His, it becomes Him. What lies in Sara’s heart now is the same thing that lies within you.”

John blinked.

“Which contains more of a shock, the electrical outlet at the power plant, or the electrical outlet on the island far away?”

“They’d be the same, wouldn’t they?”

Glenine said, “The outlets and sources aren’t the same, but the power behind them is identical, the current a constant.”

She finished with, “Time is a concept attributable only to those who live and die. In Heaven, your soul is part of the constant that is God’s love. What you have is what she has.”

“What will the Fallen do with her when they get her?”

Glenine stood and motioned for John to do the same. He looked up at her as she smiled. “God has something very special planned for her. The trials of her life have only just begun. If Mastema’s Fallen take her, they will destroy her, feed off her, consume her from her marrow to her soul.”

John felt his heart hitch. “But how can they despoil God’s plan?”

“One way or the other, God’s plan will succeed. Her soul is safe within you” the angel said. As she backed away, her form evaporated slowly into golden mist. While she was still corporeal, her face took on a serious frown. “But you won’t be the one to fail Him, will you, Sara Dawn?”

Glenine vanished in a clap of thunder and rush of cold air.

“Voice of God,” Bailey thought.

John looked down at the dog surprisingly as if to ask, “You still here?” He said, “I have to find her. Do you know where she is?”

Bailey barked once and started running through Palley’s Woods. John, with Sara’s soul tucked safely within his heart, took off after the dog.

As they charged through the woods, leaves, patches of snow, and fallen twigs crackling under their feet, John realized a subtlety in God’s plan.

Sara’s soul will be safe so long as at least one of them lives. The vessels that carry them are not as important as the quality of the force within.

John pumped his arms and legs harder until he caught up with Bailey. “But not her, God. Please, not her.”

***

Sara peered out from the gap between the storage shed’s doors. As she guessed, though the air was cold, the shed was strong with the chemical scent of chlorine and pool vinyl. Oil, old paper, and grease also found her nose (the break must be healing nicely, she thought).

She had backed into the shed, then hid within it, hoping the tracks she left in the dusting of snow between brown grass blades wasn’t enough for them to trail her. Sara held her breath and watched as the the two teens on foot found the pool with the gaping rip in the cover, the water beneath it still bobbing and churning, the escaping air from the grill making gurgles.

As she watched, the first of the teens—the larger one—slipped on the same piece of ice that almost threw her into the pool after the grill. But his athletic ability kicked in and he tumbled backward, landing on his rump and—to Sara’s delight, obliterating what tiny tracks of her remained on the patch between the pool and the shed.

The kid stared into the pool, dumbfounded, as his tiny friend joined him and the gray car rumbled to a stop in the alley behind them.

“Oh, shit!”

“Oh, man.”

“Shit.”

“Oh, God. Oh, man.”

Another teen ran up to meet them. “What did you guys do!?”

“She in there?”

“Oh, man.”

“Did you push her in there?”

“No.”

“Oh, shit. Oh, man.”

A dog barked a few doors down.

“You gotta pull her out of there. She’ll drown.”

“She’s already dead.”

“Did you push her?”

“No!” / “Oh, man.”

“She’s dead.”

“Let’s get outta here!”

“Dude, you killed her.”

Then came a sound like a smack on a leather sleeve. There was a sniff, what could have been a whimper from Mr. Oh Man, then feet retreating toward the revving car.

If Sara had been the one to rip through the cold pool cover instead of the grill, they could have saved her life in the time it took to wonder about it. Instead, they ran. Sara felt her heart sink. She felt sorry for those boys who, for the rest of their lives, will feel the guilt of committing a crime they never committed.

The guilt will consume them, if not overtly in their dreams. They’ll realize one day that they could have done something, but didn’t. They just let me drown. They’ll see it in dreams. They’ll hear the splash. They’ll imagine the cold chlorinated water filling my lungs—all because they chased me here.

Sara cried. She knew that feeling. She wondered what would have happened if she called out to her daddy before he pulled the trigger—either the first, or the second, time. Would the voice of his little girl make him stop and think, make the anger he felt with her mommy subside just enough to realize they had a child to care for?

She pressed her hand to her eyes and sobbed.

The gray car sped away leaving her in silence.

Julie was gone. The Legad stood in her body, her cell phone switched off in her hand.


Sed, the shadow servant of the Fallen Meresin, admired the girl’s body in the full length mirror behind her bedroom door. His Lord was far from here, in the body of the conniving Wheat-man. Meresin couldn’t keep him from enjoying himself, couldn’t interrupt Sed as he rewarded himself using the girl’s body.


But Sed knew he could not stay in the girl forever. He’d be consigned back to his oblivion eventually anyway. Even if he could “hide out” inside the girl’s soul and she lived to be 103, Sed would be drawn back into The Pit after that. Eighty-five or so years were nothing compared to the eternity to follow back in hell. And, once returned, his Lord Meresin would know what he had done. And he’d be punished. Burning, dismembering, breaking, humiliating, for centuries on end—all just for remembering what a young girl felt like. There was no end to Meresin’s displeasure. Being without God’s love was enough. He realized there was no sense adding pain to loss.


Sed stopped Julie’s hand from pulling off her top. He let her hands drop to her sides. The cell phone thudded softly on the carpeted floor. Then, hoping for a reward for his award-winning performance with the boyfriend, he removed himself from the girl and returned to hell to await his master’s pleasure.


***


Julie Petular had gazed into the eyes of evil one moment, then into her own shocked eyes reflected in her mirror the next. Her neck snapped back, her hair tossed, as the black oily shadow erupted from her throat. She couldn’t scream as she watched the vile-smelling fluid from her mouth spray and stain her ceiling. Her eyes burned and watered. Her nose started to bleed. Her eyes rolled back in her head. The black stain on the ceiling slowly faded to blood red, chunks of organ meat dripping from the stucko and splatting on the carpet, her bureau, her face.


Her only thoughts, despite the severe and painful attack, were of Coyote Wilcox. She didn’t know how, but she had the feeling she’d just crushed his heart.


She collapsed unconscious to the floor. The bloody illusion formed by Sed’s escape erased as he descended from her body.


***


Meresin stretched Charles Wheat’s skin into a smile as he received Sed’s word. So, the misguided boy was going to turn himself in.


“Into me,” Meresin’s gutteral voice rattled.


Another spasm and convulsion shook Wheat’s body. It was so strong and uncontrolled that his arm flung against the wall with a loud CRACK. A second elbow formed above his wrist.


Inside his own body, Charles Wheat screamed as the pain tore through him.


And inside the same body, Meresin laughed.



***



The Homer Police Station’s inside didn’t match its outside. There were small lockers, like mail boxes, in the wall across from him, a narrow hall to the left of them. To the right was a bulletin board with wanted posters and notices for bicycle licenses. In the corner of the ceiling was a mounted television. The TV was off and Coyote only saw his own reflection staring back at him.


Across from the bulletin board was a wall with a wide teller’s window mounted in it. There was a small speaker in the glass and a drawer beneath to pass things back and forth with the watch officer on the other side. In the room beyond the glass, Coyote could make out an old Formica counter with a radio set-up, a microphone on a desktop stand next to a headset-microphone. There were olive green lockers on the far side of the room and a rack with black gleaming shotguns. Two pale green desk chairs on wheels, their upholstery tattered to match the worn and yellowed Formica of the radio desk, sat unmanned. The place smelled of a combination of musty old paper and gun oil.


Coyote wondered if the glass was bullet proof.


“May I help you?”


Coyote jumped as if suddenly shocked by an arc of electricity. It wasn’t electricity, but the sudden appearance of a pale man in a black suit startled him.


The man was tall, had bleached hair and black sunglasses. He had appeared through a side door in the watch officer’s room. Another man, equally pale and wearing aviator sunglasses, stepped out from a narrow hall in the corner next to the mailbox wall. This one wore a police uniform.


“Um,” was all Coyote could squeak out.


“May I help you?” The officer prodded. He stepped closer his hand resting on his sidearm.


Instinctively, or as he’d done after watching countless cop shows, Coyote held out his hands and slowly backed away.


The man in black behind the glass said, “Is your name Coyote Wilcox?”


Coyote stopped. They got me.


The officer repeated, “Coyote Wilcox of 8233 Hen Street, Homer?”


Coyote swallowed hard, nodded. “I-I was gonna–”


The one beyond the glass said, “I’m detective Thatch.” Nodding through the glass to the officer, he introduced, “And that’s Officer Reems.”


“Don’t be afraid,” Officer Reems said. “You can help us, Coyote Wilcox.”


“I-I wanted to–”


Detective Thatch said, “Think you can help us nail that bastard, Charles L. Wheat, Number 6, Rose Well Trailer Park?”


“N-Nail?”


“He’s a very, very bad man,” Officer Reems said.


Detective Thatch said, “Yes. A very bad man.”


Coyote was shaken and dazed. How did they know me? How did they know I was coming? What I was coming for?


“I didn’t want to hurt her. He paid me, see?” Coyote scrambled into his pocket and pulled out the wad of rumpled cash.


“We’ll take that,” Officer Reems said, snatching the money from Coyote’s fist. His hand was as cold as it was pale. Coyote shivered.


“Listen, I–”


The detective said, “You can have that back—and more.”


“And more,” the cop nodded.


“If you help us bust him.”


Coyote looked from one man to the next. Odd though they may be, they were at least on his side—or at least not against him. And besides, they were cops, weren’t they?


All the little paranoid delusions that had infected Coyote’s mind over the eighteen years of his life now centered on this turning point. He had crossed the line expecting ruddy-faced, angry police officers who would sooner throw a punk like him in jail than waste their time listening to a story about getting a woman drunk because some guy paid him to.


But nothing was as he expected. Something was sure crazy about these two cops who continued to stare uncomfortably at him through those dark sunglasses. He imagined the eyes beyond them were beady little yellow and green snake eyes. Coyote told himself it didn’t matter. He had spent a long time debating this. All he wanted to do now was honor his decision and get the hell out of there. It didn’t matter that Julie had suddenly turned bitch (better to find out now rather than when the ring’s on her finger), or that the cops were going to pay him to put Wheat behind bars. It didn’t matter that none of it made sense.


Hell, as long as it was going his way, why argue? Right?


He nodded. “I-I’d like to help. I didn’t want anything bad to happen to–”


“Sara Dawn is fine,” Detective Thatch smiled. His teeth were tiny and gray. “She’s soon to be in protective custody.”


“Protective custody,” Officer Reems echoed.


“Take us to Mr. Wheat,” the detective said, his voice low and dark like a secret whispered under a staircase.


“Yes,” Reems grinned with the same tiny gray teeth as the detective. He put his hand on Coyote’s shoulder. “Take us to him.”


Coyote nodded, the cold from Reems’s hand sinking through his coat, twisting like roots through his ribcage until they twined around his heart.

Sara sat on a large box of pool equipment, sobbing and feeling the heat from her own breath against her face as the rest of her body cooled and met the chill outside the tool shed.

Sniffling and wiping her nose on the sleeve of Elmer’s old flannel coat, she turned and examined her surroundings. Might as well. She wanted to be sure the gray car was out of site before trying to run out and continue her quest for redemption.

As expected, the shed was primarily filled with pool equipment. Long skimmer poles, pulled apart in sections, were mounted diagonally on one wall; robotic pool cleaners with long accordion hoses hung on another wall; short shelves contained various chemicals and spare pump parts. Deflated pool toys lay sloppily folded on the floor under the shelves. Sara craned her head and body, looking over her shoulder at the wall behind her. Here she saw gardening equipment, hedge clippers, gardener’s gloves, potting soil, all on a small work bench. To the right was a tool chest and a bench-mounted vice. Across from that was a stack of BETTER HOMES magazines, pool manuals, and a phone book.

Phone book!

Sara turned and pulled the volume out from under the magazines. It was old, probably three years or so, but that was still some time after Wheat left his life back on the Hill. She blew dust off the top and spine, then opened it and started flipping through the residential numbers and quickly finding the Ws.

WALLACE

WALLICE

WALLO

WALLOT

WALLOVICH

Her heart thudded as her finger moved up to trace the next column.

WEGGUM

WEISS

WEISS

WEISS

WEJOHOWITZ

WELD

WENDEL

WENDEL

WHASACK

WHATHUM

WHATT

WHEAT

WHITE

WHITE

Oh! There you are.

C. WHEAT, Rose Well Park, his phone number and address. The only Wheat in the book. It has to be him.

Sara tore the page from the phone book, tucked the book back into the stack, then stood and brushed herself off. She tucked the folded phone book page into her coat pocket and listened for any sign of the gray car before opening the shed door and stepping out into the light.

***

John was out of breath, his legs hurt, and his head pounded. “Slow down!” he called to Bailey, but the golden retriever was at full gallop ever since they left the tangle of Palley’s Woods.

Finally, knowing she’d have to stop and come back to him, John faltered at the edge of an abandoned, frost-covered kiddie park and collapsed on a swing set. Panting, he repeated the mantra, “Slow down, Bailey, slow down,” in a muttering mumble.

The dog returned a moment later and looked up at him. Her tail wagged and she woofed once, a message telepathically sent as, “What’s wrong with you?”

John thought back—he was too tired to speak anyway—“Tired. Have to rest. Head hurts.”

“God gave you a perfect body. How could you be—wait a minute.” The dog cocked her head and sniffed at John’s knee. “When’s the last time you had anything to eat or drink?”

“I had coffee back at the house. Toast this morning.”

“You’re probably dehydrated from all this running. You probably need something in your stomach too.”

John thought about finding a nice quiet diner, sliding into a booth and getting a big greasy cheeseburger or maybe a stack of buttery pancakes. His stomach growled in protest at the tease and snapped him out of the daydream. “I don’t have time to eat or drink anything.”

“We’ll find something on the way, come on.”

Pulling himself to his feet, John said, “What about Sara? She had even less than I did and, if I remember my old body, she doesn’t respond well to hunger.”

“Something greater is pulling her, John. She feels her only chance at redemption is to surrender to Charles Wheat’s judgment and beg his forgiveness.”

Out loud, John said, “That’s where the Fallen are going to trap her.”

“You figured that out, did you?” Bailey asked, turning to lead the way.

“Yeah,” John winced, “I kinda did.”

***

The police cruiser approached Rose Well Trailer Park without lights and siren, but one of its occupants was nervous nonetheless. Coyote Wilcox sat in back behind the bullet proof and mesh divider. Detective Thatch drove and Officer Reems sat on Coyote’s right. The doors were locked and could only be opened by the detective up front.

“Um,” Coyote said, “Won’t he see us pulling up in a police car?”

“You are correct, Mr. Wilcox,” the detective said. “We will drop you off prior to the egress of the park and allow you to approach on foot.”

“On foot,” Reems echoed.

“What do I say to him?”

Detective Thatch slowed the patrol car and pulled over to the soft shoulder, exactly where Meresin—inside Ellie Sauder—had parked her car the night before. He said, “You will demand the rest of your money. When Wheat pays, we will have him.”

“But don’t you guys need to like wire me or somethin’?”

Reems and Thatch shared a glance through the meshed glass. After a strange pause, Thatch lifted the radar gun off the front seat and held it up so Coyote could see it. Across its gold and black surface, the word SPEEDSNARE was emblazoned with a lightning bolt logo. Below that, the words RADAR SPEED DETECTOR and a small label warning against resting the gun in your lap.

“You see this?” Thatch said. “This enables us to hear at great distances. We will be able to record your entire conversation.”

Coyote glanced between the two pale lawmen. “But that’s just a radar gun.”

“It’s a trick,” Reems said quickly. “That’s what most people think. They don’t realize it also enables us to hear conversations inside moving vehicles.”

Coyote pondered this for a moment before unlocking the part of his mind that suspected conspiracy in everything. Cahoots. That was the word. “Alien technology?” he guessed.

Thatch said, “The less you know about it, the better.”

“Whoa.”

“Here,” Reems said, offering Coyote his sidearm.

Coyote’s eyes widened at the sight of the gleaming gunmetal automatic and he leaned away as if Reems were offering him a scorpion. “I-I can’t.”

“You may need it,” Thatch said.

He hadn’t touched a gun since—well, since Sara Dawn. “I can’t,” he repeated.

“Take the gun,” Reems demanded.

Coyote couldn’t see the man’s eyes beyond the sunglasses, but imagined they were glaring pretty seriously. He reached out and gently took the weapon, held it down in both hands, sure not to put a finger through the trigger housing.

Thatch said, “By the name of Sheriff Johnathan Milton of Vermillion County, the Sheriff’s Office and the office of the county coroner, and by the office of Homer Police public affairs officer E.L. Sauder, I hereby deputize you.”

“Repeat after me,” Reems said.

“That won’t be necessary,” Thatch interrupted. “He’s been deputized.”

“Go,” Reems said.

The doors unlocked as if by magic and Coyote tugged at the door handle. Before stepping out of the police car, he said, “All I do is demand the rest of my money?”

“That’s all,” Thatch said.

“And if he won’t give it to me?”

“Blow his head off.”

Coyote got out of the car and tucked the gun into the back of his pants. Considering the level of conspiracy to which he was now privy, the plan made perfect sense.

***

Reems said, “Why didn’t you let me swear him in?”

Thatch responded, “Because it’s stupid.”

“Oh, THAT’s stupid, but using Sauder’s and Milton’s names WASN’T?”

“I improvised. The kid’s an idiot. He’ll never know.”

“And the radar gun?”

“Yeah. Thanks for the help on that one.”

After a short bitter silence, Reems said, “Next time YOU ride the plane crash.”

“Fine.”

Coyote Wilcox, with the cold steel of the 9mm pressing into his back, slowly approached Charles Wheat’s trailer. He glanced over his shoulder once, then twice, testing to see if the patrol car could be seen from Wheat’s porch. The cops were no where in sight.


All kinds of visions played through his head, all of them the products of countless cop shows where some poor slob was sent into the lion’s den with a wire. Those scenes never ended well. The guy was always found out and something bad always happened to him. It didn’t matter that Charles Wheat wasn’t a member of the Mafia, or that he wasn’t a cop gone bad, or even a drug king. It didn’t matter that he didn’t own a gun. All Coyote could think about was the door springing open, Wheat grabbing him and throwing him against the wall, and yelling something about the SPEEDSNARE and how he can feel it spying on him through his fillings or something.


One way or another, this wasn’t going to go well. Coyote reached back to make sure he could easily draw the gun. It no longer felt cold. He climbed Wheat’s porch.


Taking a deep breath and letting it out in a puff of frost, Coyote raised his fist and knocked lightly.


No answer.


He wrapped a little harder. He looked back toward the park entrance to see if the cops had moved. He had no idea. They were hidden around the bend. Or they had left him when he wasn’t looking.


In a harsh whisper, he said, “Hey, can you guys hear me?”


Before realizing he had no way to hear THEM, the door opened.


***


“Dear God, please forgive me for all I’ve said and done against you. My life has not been what it should have been. I have had temptation and transgressions. I have not fully loved you as I should have.”


Sara sniffed back a tear and wiped her nose on the flannel coat sleeve. She glanced up to make sure she was still on the side road that lead out to the Rose Well Trailer Park parallel to Route 9.


She continued. “The tasks that have come before me were not met as challenges to better myself, or to show strength. Father, I have only shown you weakness and immorality. For that,” she sniffed again, “I am truly sorry. And, Father, please forgive me for lumping all my expectations upon you. It is I who have not met YOUR expectations. Please forgive me.”


Her eyes locked on the sidewalk at her feet, Sara thought only about yesterday and how close she had come to throwing away her life. Had she made it to the Lyle Bridge without John stopping her, she would have slapped the face of God and thrown herself into the pit of hell.


Why? Because I lost everything I knew. I lost my home, the trust of the people who knew me, my clothes, my money? Jesus encountered lepers with less and gave them the gift of more. Once they found the light of God’s perfect love, they no longer wanted. They were in pain, friendless, homeless, but they were LOVED. God had touched them.


Sara wondered if she would have such an epiphany confronting Charles Wheat.


Then she realized she had spent so much time running from the teens in the mean gray car, she hadn’t thought about what she was going to say. He surely wouldn’t let her come in and sit down, get her tea and cookies, and laugh and smile and say, “Oh, pish, don’t worry about it, Sara Dawn, I forgive you.”


No. This was going to be hard.


It was more likely that she was going to be yelling to him through the thin door of his trailer, begging to talk to him, crying and on her knees pounding the porch asking for his forgiveness. Instead of him letting her in, he’d probably just call the police. “Remove this trash from my doorstep!”


No, he won’t.


Sara looked up as she reached the end of her street and turned down a desolate stretch of road. The Homer she left behind was still deserted, either half sleeping or half shopping. The road on the outskirts of town that held the tiny trailer park was even further removed. Lonely. She suddenly felt like a gunslinger making that walk down the street at high noon.


It wasn’t likely Wheat would call the police. It wasn’t likely he was going to invite her in. Since he had sent that boy to force her to do those horrible things, what else was Charles Wheat likely to do?


That’s when the most probable challenge came to her mind. Sara imagined Wheat pulling her into his home, beating her half to death, slitting her throat and watching her die as he cried over pictures of his wife and son.


“Your son died for me on the cross, Lord.” Sara took a deep shuddering breath. “The least I could do is return the favor.


“I only ask that you release this man of his pain and suffering. Please pull the bitterness from his heart so he could see you.”


When Sara looked up, she saw a police car parked on the soft shoulder of the road, the silhouettes of two men within. Beyond the car she saw an overhanging sign that proclaimed, ROSE WELL TRAILER PARK.


Sara brightened. Maybe I can ask the police to accompany me, or at least make sure they’re going to stay in their speed trap for awhile. If anything happens, she was sure they would hear her screams.


***


John pushed his legs as hard as he could, arms swinging, breath puffing out into the cold like the steam from a locomotive. He was no longer hungry, or thirsty. He couldn’t afford to stop. This was it. He could feel the urgency coursing through his blood, he could feel God’s will urging him on. No other soul had a second chance like this. By saving Sara he was saving himself—herself. John realized that God had something huge in store for her. She was more important than anything else on earth or in Heaven.


Bailey was right, John realized. Sara probably wasn’t feeling the hunger pangs that seized him earlier. She was focused on a mission too. In her eyes, the only way to be redeemed for her past transgressions, the only way to help John complete his mission, was to confront her past and get the nod of forgiveness from the man she hurt most.


There was only one problem.


It was a trap.


John now knew the Fallen would have zeroed in on Charles Wheat. He heard the clues reading between the lines of Glenine’s words—or maybe she had imparted something in him beyond what she gave. They would use him to get to Sara without even realizing their prey was about to fall right into their greasy claws.


Faster, John, faster!


At the end of the next street, Bailey bolted around a corner and into the street, her blond tail flashing side to side, her paws kicking up puffs of light snow as she bolted across the front yard of the corner house.


A car sped by in the same direction. It was gray, flat gray like primer, and its engine growled loudly.


What happened next pushed an icicle through John’s heart.


He didn’t see it, but he heard it: a screech of tires, a thud, a yelp, more tires screeching and the muffled cries of the teenage boys within the car as the car sped off and left–


“Bailey!”


John rounded the corner and saw the big yellow dog laying motionless against a curb on the far side of the street. “BAILEY!” Hot tears welled in his eyes as he ran up to the dog and fell on his knees before her. “Bailey, no!” John leaned his body over the dog and cradled her head in his arms trying to keep her warm. “Bailey! Oh, God, please, no . . . no . . . .”


John was so swept up in the emotions of losing his friend that his brain didn’t register a darker fact. Bailey was the only one who could lead him to Sara.


He just knelt in the street, cradling the dog, and sobbing.


***


When the door opened to Charles Wheat’s trailer, Coyote reached back and pulled the gun. It wasn’t a rampaging Charles Wheat that made him draw. It was the smell and the sights he glimpsed through that open door.


The cops were right. This guy was bad. Really bad.


The first thing that hit Coyote was the smell of blood, and something sour like rotten meat—or fresh meat from an animal recently gutted. He stepped across the threshold. Then his eyes adjusted to the interior and he saw Wheat’s tiny cracker box of a living space.


The trailer he had remembered was small, scarcely decorated, but held a modest simplicity. The man lived alone. He lived simply. Charles Wheat didn’t have bloody scrawls across his walls, broken glass jutting out from door jambs, torn and shredded upholstery or drapes.


Coyote’s eyes focused on the far wall above the couch. There he saw bloody scrawls drawn over faded pink ones. It was as if someone wrote bloody messages all over the wall, washed them off, and drew new ones.


WELCOME, it said. Then, BITCH


Animal heads—squirrels, maybe?–were nailed to the wall with steak knives. On other walls were smaller letters spelling out things Coyote didn’t understand because they were in a different language. The carpet was stained with mud and dirt, pools of congealing blood and what looked like small animal pelts wet and matted with dirt and blood.


Then there were things he DID recognize: pentagrams, diagrams of inverted stars, their points breaking through circles. The symbols of chaos. Evil.


“Shit,” was all Coyote could say as Charles Wheat stomped into the room from the hallway. He looked like his house. He was covered in blood and gore, his teeth stained dark, his eyes flashing pink. One arm hung at his side, twisted and awkwardly bent. The other arm reached out for Coyote’s throat.


That’s when Coyote raised the gun–.


Wheat knocked the weapon from his grasp and clamped his hand around the boy’s throat.


Coyote opened his mouth to gasp for air, his eyes watering through the pain.


Then Wheat’s bloody maw opened and a black vomit exploded from the depths of his throat and splashed into Coyote’s face. Whatever it was, it CRAWLED down his throat and into–


***


Meresin opened his eyes inside Coyote Wilcox and stared into the eyes of the suddenly shocked—and very much in pain—Charles Wheat.


“You’re a mess,” Meresin’s voice grumbled in twisted harmony with Coyote’s voice. The much stronger teenager effortlessly smacked Wheat’s hand off his throat, then shoved the old man in the chest, sending him crashing against the overturned chair in the middle of the living room. The man whimpered and cried out as his legs went into the air. A crackle sounded as the bones of his broken arm rolled around inside his torn flesh.


Wheat, suddenly released from the Fallen angel’s grasp, must have experienced an inrush of physical and emotional pain, all of which was witnessed through his own eyes, but he hadn’t been able to do anything about it. All he could do was watch while Meresin took his body into the woods behind the trailer park and hunted, passing the time, luring, catching, and gobbling up small animals.


“Quit screaming,” Meresin/Coyote barked. “We have work to do. Playtime is over.”


Wheat cradled his broken arm and scooted back against the wall, tears stained pink rolled down his cheeks as he tried to form the words “Who (or it could have been What) are you?” But all he could do was quiver and cry.


Meresin turned his attention to Coyote’s brain and wheedled out Sara Dawn’s location.


When he realized the kid had no idea where to find Sara Dawn—the whole reason for dragging the punk HERE—Meresin’s fury swelled. He would snatch up the gun, turn it on Wheat with a “See you soon,” then fly into a blind rage against the entire town. He would rip throats from children and small animals. He would crush the limbs of the elderly. He would burn down houses and cause a bloody catastrophe more ferocious than any of Mastema’s–


A knock sounded at the door.


Wheat stopped whimpering and looked up hopefully.


Meresin/Coyote twisted and snarled at the door.


A tiny voice said, “Mr. Wheat, it’s Sara Dawn. I really need to see you. Please.”


Meresin twisted Coyote’s face into a wild-eyed grin.


“May I come in?”


The wolf in Red Riding Hood didn’t have it this easy.

Coyote Wilcox was no more. Meresin had moved in and set up house in the teen’s body.


Relishing the kid’s strength and size, the sinewy muscle in his arms and legs, even in his fingers, Meresin felt closer to his old self. Charles Wheat, by comparison, was feeble, a weakling emasculated by his own self-absorbed grief and vengeful angst. While the emotions inside Wheat were delicious, like anything sweet they soon grew tiresome, sour. Meresin relished Coyote’s mind as well. A void, a clean slate filled with nothing but facts and figures he had never forgotten once he learned them. The kid was just too stupid to know what to do with that knowledge. His paranoia made him dumb.


And now the moment of truth, the payoff, was standing just outside Wheat’s door begging to be let in. I should have known, Meresin thought. The meddling angel would convince the soul to seek forgiveness from the one person on this pathetic hellcap who she had hurt. Amazing. Wonderfully delicious.


Looking over his shoulder toward Wheat’s crumpled stuttering form on the floor, covered with gore and dirt and cradling his broken arm, Meresin made Coyote say, “You have a guest. Could have cleaned up a bit around here. This place is a pig sty.”


From outside: “Mr. Wheat, please talk to me. I understand what you did and why, and I forgive you. Please . . . .” The tiny female voice trailed off. Meresin could practically taste the salt in her tears.


His smile dropping, Meresin turned his attention back to the trailer door, wrapped Coyote’s hand around the tiny handle, twisted, and yanked it open.


The trap had sprung.


***


Sara Dawn cringed when she told Wheat she forgave him for what he had done to her. That was stupid. He’ll think I’m exercising some kind of superiority over him—I FORGAVE YOU, SO NOW YOU HAVE TO FORGIVE ME OR ELSE I’M BETTER THAN YOU.


She sniffed back another tear, looked up at the light gray sky through the rickety tree limbs surrounding the trailer park, then out toward the road where she had passed the speed trap. The police would be no help to her should Wheat suddenly go crazy. The two forms in the car were nothing but pale white mannequins, dummies to make people passing by THINK it was a speed trap. It seemed like an odd way for Homer to spend its money: two dummies in one car, one wearing a black suit–


Sara shook off her distraction and raised her hand to knock on the door one more time.


That’s when the door flew open and she stood face-to-face with the high school kid Wheat had sent to kill her. She barely had time to register the recognition as his hand shot out and seized her upraised arm.


The tiny trailer park was still silent as Sara vanished into Number 6. A light plastic-metallic slam echoed briefly. Then a muffled scream rose to the gray sky overhead.


***


Charles Wheat wasn’t really listening to Sara Dawn’s words, though he was as shocked as the whatever-it-was that jumped from him to Coyote Wilcox. Shivering from his pain, he could only watch as Coyote grabbed the girl and pulled her inside, slammed the door, then slammed her back against the wall, one hand tight around her throat, the other still holding her good arm.


The past day had been a nightmare for him. Wheat could feel the thing possessing him, could talk to it, and slowly began to realize what it was. The demon inside him was nothing out of The Exorcist. This thing was Wheat’s own evil manifestation, his own hatred, revenge, blood lust made real. It’s not that Charles Wheat didn’t believe in demons. He believed in all things heaven and earth—and hell. It had just been so long since he had thought about them—and God sure wasn’t making an effort to console him in the loss of his wife and child—that the abandonment didn’t even leave a hole.


Now Wheat slowly stood, pushing himself back against the wall where he’d been shoved, watching as Coyote ran his hands over the woman’s body, poking and prodding her, squeezing her breasts, her thighs, painting her lips with his dirty fingers while she stared wide-eyed and speechless.


His first thought was that the kid was going to rape her, the attention he gave to her body, the grotesque way he groped her, but then he realized what was really going on. He was looking for bruises. Whenever Sara Dawn flinched, gasped or whimpered in his hands, he would make his finger rigid and poke her hard.


Coyote reached up and grasped the metal T-bar that was protecting her broken nose and tore it away. Sara gasped. He then reached up and pinched her nose until she screamed.


This was wrong.


After years of hate and vengeful daydreams. Years of pain and loss, suffering and regret. Now that he was seeing his manifestation taking physical revenge on the girl he no longer saw a sloppy drunk staggering out from behind the wheel of an F-150. He saw a young woman, a HUMAN BEING tortured by a crazed maniac. Charles Wheat mouthed the words, “What have I done?”


Sara Dawn’s eyes flicked to Wheat’s. She tried to speak, to say, “Please—” but his monster inside Coyote choked the words out of her.


Wheat glanced to the gun Coyote dropped on the floor.


Coyote glanced at him, then to the gun.


The kid said, “No, no. Not like that. Too soon.”


Wheat’s eyes were a question. Had Coyote thought I wanted to shoot her?


Coyote said, “It’s a mess out here. Let’s take her in back. Come on, Wheaties.” Then, still holding—no, CARRYING—Sara Dawn by the throat, Coyote bent down and picked up the pistol and tucked it into his pants. Then, lifting Sara into his arms like a groom on their wedding night, he carried her back to Wheat’s bedroom.


Charles Wheat took one look around his ruined home, then followed.


***


Sara was in shock, but still didn’t realize fully what was going on. Not realizing the boy who carried her to the bedroom had been inhabited by one of Satan’s chief angels, she saw only the twisted man who wanted revenge on her and the teenager who was his instrument. And that room! What had they done? Satanic images and animal sacrifices everywhere. It was no wonder God had to send someone down to save her.


Now the boy—Bill, was that his name?–threw her down onto Wheat’s unmade bed and left the room. Wheat entered immediately after, slid into a corner, and stared down at her while the boy did something noisy in the other room. It sounded like he was tearing apart the paneling.


The bedroom was a cramped space at the back of the trailer. A queen size bed occupied almost the entire space. There was only a 2-foot wide space to walk around it. A tall wooden headboard blocked the wide window behind it. Another window opposite the doorway was dirty with sediment and grit from melted ice, the light coming through was just as dingy. The small closet was open and clothes were piled high inside it, and on the bed, and on the floor.


Wheat looked down at her, said nothing. Just held his arm. Sara looked from her cast to the twisted thing he held cradled against him.


Wheat whispered, “Did he do that?” nodding to the cast and nudging his head toward the doorway.


Ignoring the inconsequential, Sara concentrated on her mission. “Please, Mr. Wheat. I don’t care what you do to me—what HE does to me. I came to beg you for forgiveness.”


“Forgiveness,” he said flatly.


“What happened was an accident. And it was so long ago. Hasn’t there been enough pain and suffering in both our lives? Hasn’t THIS gone on long enough?”


Wheat continued to stare blankly. “Forgiveness,” he repeated. Then his eyes focused. “You killed my son, my wife.”


“Your wife died in an accident, Mr. Wheat. The report was in the papers. The brakes on the car failed. She didn’t drive off that–”


His crinkled and flushed like a small child about to bawl. “I MISS THEM SO MUCH!” A new—something–seemed to bubble up inside Wheat’s face. He turned red, his eyes glistened with over a decade of tears.


Sara said, “You may n-not realize this, Mr. Wheat, but I know what you mean.”


Wheat’s eyes hardened, blackened. “How could you know what I’ve been through?”


“Because I saw my father kill my mother, then himself, when I was a little girl.”


Wheat blinked. “Are you saying that’s your excuse for being a drunkard?” A line of spittle formed at the corner of his mouth when he spoke, as he cried.


“I-It’s,” Sara sniffed back tears, coughed to clear her pinched windpipe, “It’s no excuse. I would gladly take their place if it meant I could give you back your wife and son.”


Blink.


“I swear I would.”


“Would you?”


Sara looked around, looked toward the doorway and the approach of booted footsteps. “What do you think I’m about to do?”


That’s when the boy came back into the room, looked at them both, and said, “Getting along, are we?”


Wheat eyed Coyote’s fists. He held two steak knives in each hand. They were bloodied and had probably been used as part of the gruesome art deco in the living room.


“She killed your kid,” the boy said, “She did. And your wife. . . . So, now we’re going to kill her.”


Sara tried to roll off the bed, roll toward the window, to scream for help, but the big kid was on her in a flash, his powerful thighs straddling her at the diaphragm, pushing out her air and pinning her to the bed. He shuffled the steak knives between his fingers as he balanced himself.


Humming a tune as he worked, the boy leaned forward and grasped Sara’s good arm. He pinned it against the heavy wood of the headboard and plunged a knife into her arm between the radius and ulna bones. Sara’s scream drowned out the sound of the serrated edge scraping the bone, the THUK! Into the headboard, and the squish of hot blood running down her arm.


She screamed again as the boy slammed her broken arm against the headboard and nailed that one to the wall, through the plastic cast.


Two more knives went into the palms of each hand, completing Sara’s immobilization.


In her last scream, just before the pain pulled her into the peaceful oblivion of a blackout, she cried, “Please forgive me!”


***


Thatch and Reems sat in the patrol car and FELT Sara Dawn’s screams. They were so happy that their boss was happy that they laughed and giggled, writhing in their seats like excited five year-olds.


“Great idea,” Reems said, “by the way.”


Thatch stopped giggling long enough to say, “What was?”


“The whole ‘hold still’ thing as the girl walked past.”


Thatch erupted into laughter. “Yeah, that was good, wasn’t it?”


“Do you think he’ll give us reign?” Reems asked hopefully. Knowing that their master, Meresin, was destined to be Mastema’s leader when hell bubbled up into the world on Judgement Day, the demon was inquiring as to their status on the day of celebration.


“Oh, yeah. How could he not?” Thatch said through giggles.


Reems laughed. “Yeah. As much as we helped him . . . .”


Thatch held up a hand to silence his partner in the back seat. “Wait.” His merriment abruptly turned serious. “Who is this?”


As they watched, a man approached toward them down the road. He seemed fairly typical for a human, young and handsome, but he wore shabby clothes rumpled and stained as though he lived in them.


Reems suggested, “A vagrant, come to yell at the lawmen about how it’s unfairly cold in his cardboard box under the bridge.”


Thatch laughed. “I’ll take care of him.”


Getting out of the patrol car, Thatch turned on his false detective’s charm. “What seems to be the problem, sir?”


The man drew closer, closer, and made no effort to slow down. It was as though he was going to walk right through–


Reems watched through the patrol car window as the approaching man put out his hands and shoved at his partner. Thatch exploded into clouds of pinkish-gray cremains, the dust swirling in space as the black suit ripped and fluttered into the air like a pile of laundry spoiled by a hand grenade.


“What!?” Reems tried the door, but couldn’t open it. Thatch had locked it from the front seat.


All he could do was watch helplessly as the man approached, leaned down to his window, and said, “My name is John. I speak for Him.”


With that, a muffled pop sounded within the squad car, its windows instantly turned gray with the flying dust. Reems’ stolen police uniform lay rumpled on the floor as the cremated body settled all over the interior.


***


Inside the trailer Sara’s screams renewed. Meresin, inside his latest instrument, Coyote, leaned forward and licked the blood from her nose and the tears from her eyes, then he tore open his jacket and shirt and breathed deep her suffering.


“W-Why are you doing this to me?” Sara whimpered.


“Because you deserve it,” he said. He glanced over his shoulder to Charles Wheat and smiled. “Don’t she, Charlie?”


Wheat didn’t respond, but it didn’t matter. Meresin made Coyote lean forward and scoop up the blood dripping from Sara’s arms. He smeared it on Coyote’s bare chest, tasted it, his eyes rolling back as he enjoyed the suffering.


“But now . . . time to go.” Meresin made Coyote draw the gun from his belt. He pressed the barrel to Sara’s chest and began to squeeze the trigger.


Then he stopped. Sniffed the air. “No,” he grumbled. “Still too quick.”


Holding the gun to his side, Coyote stretched his long fingers around Sara’s neck and slowly leaned forward.


Meresin’s gravely baritone glutted from Coyote’s throat. “I love doing it this way, slowly increasing the pressure, FEELING the moment when they realize there’s no turning back, when they realize death has them by the ankles.”


As Coyote smiled and Wheat looked on in disbelief, Sara’s eyes bulged. Her arms quivered from their makeshift crucifix as she tried to pull free, to fight off her strangler. Her face turned red, then purple. Her tongue lolled forward all puffy and pink. She made a sound like CAK, then a choking cough. He tightened his grip.


Coyote looked to Wheat and said, “Say goodbye to your troubles, Mr. Wheat.”


As Charles Wheat watched, his troubles did indeed fade away.


Sara’s eyes rolled back, her arms hung slack from the knives, and her legs twitched once under Coyote’s weight. Still, Coyote held her throat tightly for a time after she lay dead, then sniffed her open mouth.


“Something’s wrong,” he sneered.


***


John kicked in the door to the trailer and stomped toward the bedroom. He didn’t know if he was the cavalry, coming in the nick of time, or the clean-up crew, coming to say a few final words to what lie ahead. But he filled himself with God’s fury.


As he left Bailey lying in the gutter, John followed his intuition. He put himself in God’s trust and followed His will until he arrived at the Rose Well Trailer Park. When he saw the two red-glowing figures in the police car, he knew he had come to the right place. God dispatched the demons through John’s arms, he turned, and now he marched straight toward the Fallen.


The narrow hallway was dark, but a door stood open at the end, down on the right. Balling his hands into fists, lowering his brow, John marched forward.


God had given him a name through Glenine. He called it: “Meresin!”


When he reached the doorway to the bedroom he saw a bloody shirtless boy straddling a body, the body of Sara Dawn. She had been nailed to the headboard by steak knives and she appeared—no.


“SARA!”


“You’re too late,” the boy said. But John recognized it not as a teenager’s voice. It was Meresin himself. He took a step forward, arms outstretched to touch and dispel the monster.


Meresin raised a gleaming black pistol and pointed it at John’s face.


***


The flash and explosion from the weapon was much louder and concussive than Wheat would have imagined. With the thunderous POP, the intruder’s head snapped back, blood and bits of skull and brain splattering the hallway behind him. The man crumpled to the floor dead in the doorway as Wheat stared awestruck and in shock.


Coyote raised the gun and blew smoke from the barrel. He then winked at Wheat. “Vengeance is mine, sayeth–”


A gasp of air and a scream erupted from Sara Dawn’s body as she suddenly returned from death. It must have surprised Coyote as much as it surprised Wheat because the kid reared back and scrambled off the edge of the bed.


Meresin realized the trick. Sara’s soul was safe inside the rampaging idiot on the floor. Now it was back where it belonged. “Nice,” he said with a wink toward the ceiling. He raised the gun and pointed the barrel at Sara’s bug-eyed gasping face.


Charles Wheat realized something in those few seconds, the last seconds of his life. He realized that all this time spent crying for his wife and son were wasted years. Before the accident—and it really WAS an accident, wasn’t it? Despite the stupidity involved—he had been renowned as a life-giver. He was a pillar of the community, a physician. He had saved lives. How many more lives could Dr. Charles Wheat have saved if he hadn’t spent the last twelve years wallowing in self-pity and misery?


What kind of legacy was he leaving behind? Regardless of the pain and emotional suffering Donna went through before her death, he had to believe that somewhere—someHOW–she was crying for the mistakes he was making.


And so was Jimmy.


“What have I done?” He said yet again. This time, the question was based not in the mire of misplaced actions or words. This time he was asking for his soul.


“Sara, forgive me!” Wheat yelled. The cry had no effect on Coyote who leveled the gun and squeezed the trigger.


Wheat pushed off from the wall in the corner where he’d been watching this whole time and dove across Sara’s body. His weight would probably tear her arms from the knives holding her up, but he would stop the bullet.


And stop the bullet he did.


***


Meresin howled with rage as the gun discharged and the bullet thumped into the thickest part of Wheat’s chest, killing him instantly. Sara screamed as her arms pulled at the knives. The blade through the palm of her left hand pulled out from the wall and clattered to the floor, her hand hung limp supported by the blade pinning her forearm.


“DAMN YOU!” Meresin howled through Coyote’s voice. He reached out and pulled Wheat’s body off the girl and dropped it to the floor. There he released his anger, pumping five more shots point-blank into the man’s graying face.


When the gunsmoke had cleared, Meresin looked around. The intruding angel-boy was dead and paling on the floor. Wheat was dead, a bloody mess at his feet. There was now only the final strike to make.


Meresin filled Coyote’s lungs and pointed the pistol at Sara Dawn’s whimpering face. He took a moment to enjoy the terror in her eyes, the smell of her blood. Her soul will taste so good, he thought. He could wait no more.


Sighting down the barrel, Meresin pulled the trigger.


The gun discharged with a deafening pop. The headboard next to Sara’s ear splintered as a hole formed. The teeth in Coyote’s arm continued driving the hand away, the weight of the bloody dog pushing Meresin to the floor.


Bailey, just like the true-hearted canines of Hollywood, had burst through the trailer’s bedroom window and landed on Coyote’s arm with a shower of cheap dirty glass.


Releasing the ruined arm, Bailey turned her teeth on the boy’s throat.


But Meresin was fighting back. Gritting Coyote’s teeth, he pushed back at the dog with his good hand, struggling to fight off the animal. But the dog’s neck was powerful, three of its four legs dancing to scratch and find purchase on the teenager’s body.


All Meresin could say was “Off.” His grip on the dog’s matted fur came loose and she turned her sharp teeth to his fingers. Meresin screamed as the dog bit and ripped through his index and middle fingers.


***


Coyote Wilcox had knocked on Charles Wheat’s door one moment . . . .


And was laying on his back at the foot of Wheat’s bed, in excruciating pain, the next. A large yellow dog stood over him, licking his face and whimpering.


If Coyote could understand Bailey the way John could, that whimper would translate to, “It’s okay. Relax. It’s all over now.”


“It’s all over.”


Sara dreamed.

She dreamed of pilfering letters from a sign as she watched herself outside a church across a field of snow. She dreamed of conversations with a big yellow dog, of a kindly man from a cabin in the woods who offered his home and his belongings, having to bury him when he died in his sleep. She dreamed of coming to her own rescue, of a Thanksgiving meal among the poor. She dreamed of barging into a home stained with the blood of hell’s anger. She dreamed of coming face to face with an angel, his eyes burning through the eyes of an innocent boy, the eyes of an angel who had fallen from the Grace of God, filled with bitterness and regret. And she dreamed of returning to her own body, of bolting back to life with a painful gasp, the agony in her useless arms.

And she dreamed of gently dozing in the arms of God. She dreamed of his whispers, His forgiveness, and felt the love she never dreamed was possible. He touched her belly and smiled. When God smiled, Sara cried. The love in that grin was so enormous, so perfect, she could only weep tears of unbridled joy.

“I will send the chief of my angels,” God whispered in her dream. “He will watch over the both of you.”

“I love you,” Sara said.

“I know,” God responded. “You always have.”

***

Marjorie Hoff sat in the waiting room at The Community Hospital and tried to look like any other person anxiously hanging on for any news of a loved one. It wasn’t easy. Everyone in town knew her as Walter Hoff’s wife. And, by now, most of them knew Dr. Hoff had been called in to assist with the massacre yesterday in the Rose Well Trailer Park. A young woman, and a teenage boy, were brought in early last night, the sole survivors of a torture scene and shoot-out that left two men dead and two police officers missing.

Nothing like this had ever happened in Homer, Indiana; especially this close to Christmas. One Homer squad car, void of any sign of the two officers—except for a fine coating of dust or ash—was found parked outside the trailer park. Labs were still being performed on the dust to determine if, God forbid, it turned out one or both of the officers was somehow burned to death and their remains scattered inside the car.

The town pretty much knew what the results were going to be. Officer Peter J. Noland’s uniform was located in the back seat of the squad car covered with the fine ash. He had not responded to calls from family members, friends, or from the Sheriff’s office or the Homer Police Chief. He had no enemies that anyone knew of, but unsavory elements were always looking to strike a match of vengeance against the police, even in a small town.

Marjorie hid behind a TIME magazine and watched as a television crew from ABC-7 in Chicago fumbled for space with a FOX News crew. Local reporters were also crowding the waiting room and the hall between the E.R. entrance and the reception area.

Finally, a nurse made her way through the flashes of cameras and sputtered questions: “Who is the girl? Is the boy local? Whose gun was it? Is the girl related to Officer Noland or Officer Pratt?” When it was obvious she had no answers for the media vultures, they turned from her and continued their vigil of the E.R. doors because, rumor had it, neither victim of yesterday’s attacks had been moved from the close care unit of the Community E.R.

The nurse approached Marjorie Hoff and cleared her throat. Wise not to mention the woman’s name because it would bring the reporters like bees to honey, she simply said, “Come with me.”

Marjorie nodded.

The young nurse, whose name was Cindy, turned and lead the way back through the automatic double doors. Marjorie remained focused on Cindy’s blond hair, kept her head and eyes perfect still, as she was lead through the throng.

“Are you related to the girl? What’s her name? Are you her mother? Are you the boy’s mother? His grandmother?”

Once through the double doors, Cindy lead Marjorie around a corner before turning and smiling. “Sorry,” she said.

Marjorie tried to stand taller, shift the weight that rode in her saddle bags and gravity-assaulted breasts. “Grandmother? Did you hear that?”

Cindy touched her arm. “Marjie, you’re a peach and you know it. They’re just tryin’ to get a rise outta you, get something sensational for the TV up in Chicago.”

“Pathetic,” Marjorie spat. “Awful.”

Cindy shook off the moment and furrowed her brow into a serious angle. “Dr. Hoff sent me to get you.”

Marjorie was more than the good doctor’s wife. At Hoff’s Clinic in downtown Homer, Marjorie served as front desk reception, record keeper, billing administrator, office manager, and drug runner. She also ran records between the clinic and the hospital on a regular basis. Since they were both here, and the victims were here, she had no idea what her husband could want. But Marjorie clutched her purse tighter under her bosom and was prepared to turn and errand-run if that’s what Walter wanted.

“What does he need me to do?” Marjorie asked.

Cindy turned, taking Marjorie by the arm, and lead her down the hall. “He just wants you to sit with the woman for awhile while he checks on the boy.”

Marjorie’s nod was both an acknowledgement and disappointment. She wanted to be more a part of what was going on. Hell, Chuck Goudie was out there! But all she was going to do was sit with an unconscious woman.

She wasn’t left completely in the dark, however, because, as soon as they reached the end of the hall and stepped into the elevator, Cindy loosened up a bit.

The elevator doors closed and Cindy turned and asked, “Mrs. Hoff, how much have you heard?”

“Nothing. Just like everybody else. I hoped Walter–”

“Oh, Dr. Hoff’s been great. He said you two know the girl that was brought in, said she was brought in to your clinic a couple days ago and run off.”

“Oh, my, yes.” Marjorie’s eyes widened as she remembered the poor girl’s beaten features: her broken arm, the swollen and bloody eye, the stitches in her head and the bruises covering most of her body. “What was her name . . . ?”

“Sara. Dr. Hoff said it was Sara, though she’s not awake yet.” Cindy the nurse shrugged. “She looked like dog crap warmed over, then froze again.”

“What happened?” Marjorie asked under moist eyes.

“Well, apparently—as the boy put it—that recluse doctor whose son got killed a long time ago—I don’t know, I was only ten at the time—Charles Wheat? The doctor?”

Marjorie nodded as she followed along, though Cindy was busy adjusting her hair in the blurry reflection of the brushed aluminum elevator doors.

The nurse continued. “He says Doc Wheat paid him money to off this girl. It makes no sense, though. He ain’t sayin’ a word about the two guys he gunned down.”

“Gunned down?”

“Yeah. Point blank they say. But the kid was babbling so much that they had two psych consults checking him out since he was brought in.” Nurse Cindy waved her hand as if to say forget about him, I’m telling the story and you’re going to miss the best part. She said, “Police say this is going to take forever to figure out, ’cause even though the kid’s bloody prints are on the gun, Wheat’s fingerprints are all over the steak knives that were used to crucify the girl—well, Wheat’s AND the kid’s—but Wheat’s prints were bloody too, like he had a hand in it somehow. Still, Doc Wheat left bloody fingerprints all over the whole house. And there were animal bodies, pentagrams, then the whole thing with the dog jumping through the window . . . .”

The elevator door opened and Nurse Cindy stepped out into the fluorescent hall. It took a few steps before she realized Marjorie hadn’t followed. “You okay, Mrs. Hoff?”

Marjorie shook her head. She muttered, “Crucified?” before slowly shuffling along after the nurse.

Cindy nodded, slowly lead the way to Intensive Care. Police officers dotted the hallways around I.C.U. Several of them were gathered around one of the rooms. An armed officer stood outside the door with his arms folded.

“That’s where the boy is, Coyote Wilcox,” Cindy reported in a whisper. As if guiding a tour, she added, “High school drop-out. Figures.”

At the end of I.C.U., Cindy turned and lead Marjorie to another room where a more relaxed officer stood outside. He was reading a People magazine and looked up to flash a toothy grin at Cindy as she approached. “Officer Steve, this here is Marjie. She’s going to be watching our patient for Doc Hoff.” Cindy batted her eyelashes for effect.

Officer Steve nodded, his teeth still glinting, and didn’t even glance toward Marjorie. “Mrs. Hoff. Right.”

Marjorie entered the room and Cindy closed the door behind her.

Sara’s room was dimmed to encourage rest. It was wide, wide enough for two beds; but this was Intensive Care. Most of the space on the extremities of the room were taken up with machines and tanks, tubes and racks of instruments. The bed was slightly elevated and Sara lay in the midst of the white mechanical forest with tubes and wires running from her to digital monitors and machines that bleeped out a constant slow and steady pace. Marjorie looked at the readings as she moved closer. The girl’s blood pressure was very low, her blood sugar was out of whack, and she had a fever of 99.2. Her appearance was not quite what Marjorie had expected. She remembered the broken nose and arm, the dehydration and swollen eye, the huge lump on her head. The girl was a mess. She looked ashen.

Sara looked the same as she did then, but worse. Her metal nose brace had been replaced with a clear plastic one that also covered her sinuses. An ice pack covered her eyes and forehead. A tube fed oxygen into her nostrils. Sara’s arms and hands were both immobilized with heavy post-surgical bandages and inflatable casts. Crimson smears marked the center of each forearm and the palm of each upturned hand. A nearby I.V. line ran down to the wrist of one hand.

Marjorie sat in the chair next to the bed and continued looking around the room. She saw x-rays on the far wall. They appeared to show four separate views of two forearms. Both showed either breaks or fractures in the radius or ulna bones. Two of the images on the far right showed a glowing white rectangular image bending between the two bones, serrated teeth half-sawing through one of them.

Steak knives. “Oh, dear lord,” Marjorie said, and crossed herself.

She sat next to Sara, her hands and purse on her lap, and watched and listened as the machines whirred and bleeped away the time.

***

Coyote Wilcox asked again if he could speak to Julie Petular, but none of the cops in the room acknowledged him. They regarded him the way his father did, with a sad mixture of mild irritation and vile contempt. Dr. Hoff busied himself checking the boy’s vitals, his chart, his bandaged arm and hand. He said something about rabies shots—because no one could find the dog that bit him—and then Doc Hoff was gone.

Coyote had gone over the story again and again, filling in what he GUESSED happened between his arrival at Wheat’s home and the other end of his blackout with the painful dog bites and the mangy mutt slobbering all over him. The parts he guessed at, that he filled in, primarily focused on Charles Wheat; that he’d gone crazy, killed animals, killed everyone else—even himself.

“Really?” a red-faced cop had asked. “Is that why he had one bullet in the back and five in his face?”

The story later twisted into Coyote doing his best to defend everyone and having to shoot Wheat to keep him from killing the girl.

A cop in an ill-fitting brown suit with a dribble of egg yolk on his tie had flatly said, “Great. You’re a hero. Why the hell did you then fire point-blank five times into the guy’s face?”

Coyote had shrugged. “I don’t know. He wouldn’t stay down?”

The story was consistent only in its ending. He clawed his way to the night stand, over the legs of the dead guy in the doorway nobody could identify (the coroner’s report would later be leaked and his oddities showcased: no navel. No fingerprints), and dialed 9-1-1. That was it. He didn’t even know Sara Dawn was on the bed, and still alive. All he knew was that he was helping the police catch Charles Wheat. He babbled about conspiracy for a while, blamed a police mind-control device called a SPEEDSNARE for his blackout, and eventually fingered a couple of cops—named Thatch and Reems—for messing up the sting operation and losing justice against Charles Wheat.

It didn’t matter that Detective Thatch and Officer Reems didn’t exist. What mattered was the detail in Coyote’s story. It was polygraph-worthy if for nothing other than its lunacy, but the nearest lie detector was on loan to another town in Vermilion County.

“That’s all right,” he smiled to the last cop who interviewed him. Perhaps it was frustration, or exhaustion from going over the same story again and again. Maybe he was just giving up, his mind reeling back to yesterday and his vow to do the right thing—to impress the girl who hung up on him. “You guys don’t have to believe me.”

“Why’s that?” the sleepy-eyed cop in the suit had asked.

“God knows.”

The cop raised an eyebrow.

“And that’s all I’m sayin’.”

Coyote closed his brown eyes to shut out the world, perhaps to pray, to ask for a little help. When his eyes opened again they were bright blue. And his name was no longer Coyote.

It was Michael.

***

Marjorie Hoff had just decided to set her purse on a nearby narrow counter and resume reading the Patterson novel she drew from it when an odd sound found her ears between the beeping machines.

She froze and listened for a moment, but the sound didn’t repeat.

When she sat back down and opened the book, a soft groan escaped the girl on the bed.

Marjorie dropped the book on the floor and went to the bedside. “Sara? Sara, dear, it’s Marjie Hoff—Dr. Hoff’s wife—do you remember me?”

No answer. Marjorie removed the ice pack from the girl’s face and felt her cool forehead. “Sssh. It’s okay, child. You need to rest. You’re safe now.”

Sara’s eyes remained closed, but her groan formed words. “. . . want to name him John.”

“What’s that, dear?”

“I want to . . . name . . . John.”

“Who, dear? Who is John.”

“John.”

Marjorie leaned closer, touched her palm to Sara’s cheek. “Try to rest, dear.”

“John,” Sara whispered. “He wants me to . . . name him John.”

“Who, dear?”

But Sara’s eyes only fluttered briefly before the morphine took her back to sleep.

“Did she wake up?”

The voice startled Marjorie and she almost cried out, snapping her hand back as if Sara suddenly shocked her through her skin. But when she saw that her husband had returned, she relaxed and went over to him.

“Doctor.” She always addressed him formerly when the stethoscope was around his neck. Dr. Hoff’s face was a mask of apprehension and worry. “Is she going to be okay?” Marjorie asked.

Dr. Hoff nodded. “Yeah, she’ll be fine. She’ll be pregnant, but she’ll be fine.”

Marjorie blinked. “Pregnant?”

“And don’t ask me how.” The doctor lifted an over sized manila envelope he had been carrying. It was the kind hospitals used to transport test results. Sara’s name was listed as SARA DOE on the sticker at the top because no one here ever learned her last name. He pulled two documents from the envelope, tucked the envelope under his arm, and showed his wife the documents side by side. “Tell me what you see.”

Marjorie leaned closer. They were both blood test results, a full screening—customary when a John or Jane Doe is brought in for treatment—but one was from Hoff Clinic the day before Thanksgiving. The other was from today, two days later.

Marjorie scanned one document, then the other. Triglycerides, white cell count, blood alcohol.

When she didn’t spot the difference right away, Dr. Hoff pointed to a line reading hCG LVL. It showed as 00 on the first test, XX on the second.

“What does that mean?” Marjorie asked, glancing back to see that Sara was still asleep.

Her husband explained as he returned the tests to the envelope. “I thought it meant the labs here were run by a bunch of idiot monkeys. But I ran it again. Same results. And Oscar Dades ran the test himself for me the first time a couple days ago. You know Oscar doesn’t miss anything.”

“But what is it?”

Dr. Hoff exhaled. “hCG is the hormone produced to maintain the corpus luteum, the cyst that forms to protect the egg after fertilization. A display of hCG, usually after about a week, is the first indication of pregnancy.”

“But I don’t understand how–”

“It was negative the first time. That was only the day before yesterday.”

Marjorie shook her head and shrugged indicating she still didn’t get it.

Her husband looked at her. “It means Sara here as at six to twelve days of pregnancy within the past thirty-two hours.”

Marjorie said, “That’s not possible. . . . Is it?”

Dr. Hoff shook his head. “Oscar must have screwed up. That’s the only explanation.”

“So what do we do.”

The doctor met his wife’s eyes and, for the first time since he arrived, they softened into the eyes of her husband instead of the doctor who brought the reports. “We take care of her this time. We don’t let her out of our sight.”

Marjorie nodded.

“This poor girl is homeless. She won’t know the first thing about prenatal care.”

Marjorie looked back at the bed, mumbled something.

“What’s that?”

“She said she wants to name him John.”

Dr. Hoff became professional again. “That’s ridiculous.”

Marjorie’s look was pointed.

The doctor shrugged, holding the position with his hands out to his sides. “You must have heard her wrong. She couldn’t know she was pregnant. Not yet.”

A page from the speaker in the hallway called Dr. Hoff to another patient. “I have to go.”

Marjorie kissed his cheek before he turned to leave. “I’ll watch her.”

Hoff nodded, his eyes on the girl on the bed. “Don’t leave her for anything.”

Then he was gone.

Marjorie whispered, “His name will be John.”

In the silence, the machines continued beeping.

***

A soul drifted into the arms of an angel. The angel escorted the soul to the seaside where she lay curled with the soul, as they had often gone before, singing and looking out over Heaven’s magnificence.

“Am I home now?” the soul asked.

“For now,” the angel said.

“Will I go back again?”

The angel hushed the soul and said, “Not for a time.”

“But you said there is no time here, that it’s all one with God.”

The angel ignored the soul and began singing again.

“You said I would become an angel if I saved her.”

The angel nodded slowly, still singing, her voice an orchestra of beautiful harmonies carried out to the brilliant light of the Father.

Finally, her song finished, the angel replied, “You are an angel. And so much more.”

“More?”

The angel began singing a new song, rocking the soul like a tender baby in her arms. “You are His little angel,” she whispered.

“When will I know more?”

“In time, John. In time.”

They remained on the seaside for a while, the angel singing and the soul cooing. The waves shushed in gentle rhythm far below.

Go ahead. Ask me that again.

I can’t promise you’ll like, or even “get,” my answer, but I can promise that I’ll do what I can to help you.

You’re making a face. Why?

Don’t worry about what I might say because we’re different. At one time, I guess, I was just like you.

Well, I can’t be sure—but anyway, go ahead and please ask me your question again.

I would ask you the same thing if our roles were reversed.

Come on, don’t be shy. It’s just the two of us here. It’s just me telling you this story and you listening to it.

So, go on. I’d be more than happy to tell you anything you want to know. I love to share and to talk.

Please, go on.

***

“What’s heaven like?”

***

I am currently in Heaven, so you’d think the answer would be easy for me. The fact is it’s not a very easy question to answer.

Let’s start with you. Where do you live? Say you live in Belmont, New York; or Kamo, Armenia; or the island of Mapin in the Phillipines. What’s that like?

Would you just shrug and say, “I don’t know. I get up, I go to work or school. I eat, I pray, I sleep, I converse with my friends or family”? Is that really all there is to it? Don’t you think someone from Belmont would find Mapin fascinating? What about the real differences between Belmont and Mapin? Are the trees the same? The streets? The laws? The people? Insects? Weather? Is your life really that simple? Or are you just so used to it that you cannot give it justice when describing it to someone else?

Look at me asking you all the questions.

Where were we?

Ah, yes. “What’s heaven like?”

Oh, don’t get upset. I’ll tell you what Heaven is like. I just need to ask you up front not to expect much to empathize or connect with. And, no, I’m not being all ‘high and mighty’—if you’ll forgive the poor pun. I’m not talking down to you like you’re a child and wouldn’t understand what I’m about to impart. I apologize if that’s how it’s coming out. The cold hard fact exists that it’s going to be hard for me to explain it to you.

But if you want to hear it—if you think you’re ready to hear it—I’ll tell you exactly what it’s like to be in Heaven. I hope you’re comfortable. Make yourself a cup of tea and snuggle in. This is going to be quite the story.

I have to start by setting some ground rules. For starters, you have to open your mind. Pack your imagination away in a little box because, the sad truth is no one has yet to paint an accurate picture of my house of many rooms. Hey, I’m just being honest here. I’ll keep my promise. I’ll give you every detail you want. But the fact is you’re going to have trouble imagining it. You’re too used to the images you’ve been fed. You’re thinking of Warren Beatty in a gray hoodie and wings. You’re thinking of George Burns disappearing before a courtroom full of doubters. You’re thinking of twinkling stars having a conversation about the soul of George Bailey. You may even be thinking about Meryl Streep and Albert Brooks enjoying all the pie they want without worrying about weight gain. Maybe you see Robin Williams rolling through fields of oil-painted flowers and giggling like a child. Or, maybe you’re something of a geek and you imagine Captain Kirk asking what God would want with a spaceship or Captain Picard standing in a vast featureless white space going head to head with his nemesis Q. Maybe your mental image of Heaven is a little more down to earth. Maybe you envision Michael Landon wandering the countryside, lending a helping Samaritous hand to passersby. Or, your thoughts of Heaven may be a bit more bleak. Maybe you’re afraid of what it might be like because all you can think about is Death and how Death comes. Your mind is swimming with images of hooded figures playing chess, guiding a slow boat across the river styx, or pointing at the tombstone of a crotchety old holiday grump whose about to learn a great life lesson.

What do you think of when I say Heaven? It doesn’t even sound like it does when you say it, does it? You’re used to saying heaven. Will I go to heaven? I believe in heaven, but I don’t believe in hell. God lives in heaven with the angels. Oh, my God in heaven, please help me.

Yeah, I know, I know. Get to the good stuff.

Patience. And that’s your next ground rule. Relax. Your open mind will never absorb the glory I’m about to share with you if you can’t calmly listen to my words.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just spoiled. There’s no rush to listen in Heaven. Everyone—

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

There’s so much to share with you. I’ll need to ask your patience with me as well, not just my story. I sometimes get so excited I jump around. You’ll need to hear this in order if you’re going to enjoy it. And you’ll enjoy it, I’m sure. Hey. It’s Heaven.

The third and final lesson is this: I can’t tell you what Heaven is like, not exactly.

Well, that is to say I can’t share my experience with you in a way you could comprehend.

Don’t roll your eyes. Give me a moment to explain. Patience, remember? It’s a virtue. Use it, it’s free.

It’s not like I’m going to renege on you. I told you I was going to tell you what Heaven is like and that’s exactly what I’m going to do. It’s just complicated is all.

Let’s see . . . . How can I explain . . . ?

Oh! Here we go.

You’re a human being, right? You’re the all-powerful top of the food chain, sentient, God-fearing, species on the planet earth, aren’t you?

Good.

Now explain to an unborn human embryo what that’s like.

There’s that face again.

I’m serious. Come on. How do you explain your life to an unborn?

I’ll even give you a head start and some caveats. Let’s pretend this little bubble of cells shaped like a human being has a complete and total cognitive capacity equal to your own. Our embryo can hear you and understand you. It speaks, reads, and understands English, Spanish, Swahili, whatever language you speak. You can talk to it through a special cellular telephone implanted in our unborn’s one-womb apartment.

Here’s the phone. Go ahead. Tell the little pre-fetus what life is like.

Since this is hypothetical, allow me to play the part of the embryo. Now remember, I have magical cognitive ability. I can understand and respond to you, but the only world I’ve ever known is right here within my mother’s womb. I ask you: “What’s life like?”

“Well . . . .”

C’mon, this should be easy for you. How many years have you been alive? Answer the kid.

“Well, it’s big, I guess.”

“Go on. I’m intrigued.”

You’re getting more comfortable now, huh? “Okay, it’s big and there are lots of different kinds of people, all different colors and creeds, religions, socio-economic backgrounds—.”

“Whoa.”

“Hmm?”

“What’s that?”

“What?”

“That word. What’s that word you just said?”

“What, ‘socio-economic’?”

“No, the other one.”

. . .

“Big.”

“Big?”

“Yeah. What does that mean?”

You take a deep nodding breath. You can figure this out. It won’t be hard after all, will it? “Big,” you say. “You live in a small space. The womb you’re in is actually tiny compared to the big wide world I live in out here.”

“Is it?”

“Yup.”

“I don’t understand.”

“What don’t you understand?”

“You said your world is bigger than mine? My womb?”

“It is. In my world—“

“Wait a minute.”

. . .

“How can that be? Where my little, nubby, preformed fingers can reach,” the embryo stretches, “I can touch the end of the universe. See?”

“That’s not the end of the universe. That’s the interior wall of the womb you’re in.”

“The wall?”

“Yeah. You’re in a sack of amniotic fluid surrounded by a wall. That’s your womb.”

“That’s my world. The only world I’ve ever known.”

“Yeah, but only temporarily. Then you’re born into mine—after you become a fetus.”

“Wha?”

“You follow me?”

I’ll pretend I know what you meant by the fetus comment. “So there’s a whole other existence I don’t know about?”

“Yes. You understand now?”

“I guess . . . . I only have one question.”

“Yes, my little embryonic friend?”

“What’s life like?”

Now you see what I mean? Not to be harsh or torture you with that brazenly fictional metaphor, but me describing Heaven to you would be like you describing life to an unborn.

Sure, if we had all day, all year. Maybe a millennia. You’d be able to get through to our little friend. You haven’t even scratched the surface. How will you explain males and females? It may have this all-powerful cognitive gift, but it’s only an embryo. It’s heart just started beating 22 days after it was conceived. And, unless it had a twin in there with it, it wouldn’t even know the difference between its forming body and others. You couldn’t even approach the idea of males and females without explaining that it won’t be the center of its universe anymore.

And, to extend this metaphor to its breaking point, consider God.

Our embryo, created and touched by the grace of God, is aware of its mother. Mother is God to our little friend because it believes there is only its own little self and the nourishment and comfortable, reassuring tha-squish, tha-squish, tha-squish of mom’s thunderous heartbeat. The protector. The overseer. The love.

That’s right, just like your relationship with God.

All right.

Now. . . .

You just asked me, “What’s heaven like?”

Let’s take it from a different angle. Since I’m here, in Heaven, let’s say you asked me, “What is God like when you finally meet Him?”

Okay. Now explain to your embryo friend what mother is like from outside the womb. When the little “it” becomes a little “she” and the little fetus is born into a storm of light and cold air as a baby, when her little eyes finally open to gaze upon that resplendent mysterious face . . . .”

I’ll even let you borrow His words. Tell your fetal friend that she was created in mother’s own image.

Now realize this . . . she doesn’t have a mirror.

. . . Are you okay? You look a little flushed.

I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you take a break and get some rest. We’ve already covered some heavy stuff here and I haven’t even answered your question.

Let your mind swim around in what I’ve told you. My story won’t change during our brief respite. Just take your mind away from it for a little while and come back to me all refreshed and ready to listen with an open mind and plenty of patience.

Smile.

When you come back I’ll tell you everything you ever wondered about Heaven.

Yes.

Everything.

Oh, I’m so glad you’re back. It’s not that I’d be lonely without you here. Heaven is NOT a lonely place. I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but it’s not that I’d miss you either. There is no “missing” in Heaven. How can you miss anything when you have everything?

Okay, the promise. I didn’t forget.

“What’s heaven like?”

I have to begin by making a few “adjustments” so you’ll be able to grasp my concepts. Because Heaven isn’t anything like it is portrayed in movies, television, or books. Well, not all books. There’s one book in particular that hits it pretty close.

More about that later. And I promise, I will not get preachy. There’s no reason to. You see, in Heaven there are no religions.

Again, I’m getting ahead of myself.

We already covered the fact that me describing Heaven to you would be like you describing life to an embryo. So, obviously, I’ll have to put certain things into perspective so the picture is as close as it can be to The Real Deal for you. Sound good?

Deep breath. Here goes.

***

Think of paradise. Make it any paradise you can imagine, and don’t feel constrained by morals, either. If your idea of paradise a 24-hour sunset on a sugary beach with servants and beautiful women, go for it. Be sure to include any decedent food you desire, the ability to intoxicate yourself without hangovers. How about getting high? Yeah, add that to the mix if that’s your thing. The idea is to imagine anything in the world that would give you complete and total joy.

Yes, I know you know. Heaven is about love. See, now you’re getting ahead of me. Okay then, let’s imagine that all those servants and beautiful women (or men—or whatever strikes your fancy) are deeply, drastically, boundlessly in love with you. They shower you with attention, affection, meet your any desire at any second of the endless sunset day. And they don’t interact with each other. This is paradise, remember? If you want multiple wives, it wouldn’t be very glorious if they constantly fought with each other over you, would it? This is your paradise. The sex is always spellbinding. The food is always cooked to perfection. The air and water are always clean and pure. There are no mosquitoes or spiders or bad checks. No lions. No tigers. No bears—except, of course, for your own 50-yard line seats for every Chicago Bears home game.

This is your paradise, go ahead. Close your eyes and imagine it.

Don’t imagine power or money. You don’t need to. Remember, you already have anything you desire, so you already have total corruption-free power. What’s to corrupt? There’s no competition here. The world becomes what you will it to be. Tired of the sunset? Want to go skiing? How about shushing down a powdery mountain in a t-shirt and shorts? No cold. No frostbite. Go for it. You don’t need money, either. No reason to go shopping for anything because it’s all given to you. Don’t worry about breaking your leg, insurance premiums, or the common cold.

I’ll wait for you to form all that in your head.

. . .

Something wrong? You’re giving me a look again.

Okay, good point. Maybe you’re thinking of that Twilight Zone episode where the burglar is shot to death and the afterlife is filled with everything he could ever desire. Yeah, I know the one. Sabastian Cabot played the devil, right? The guy eventually becomes bored because every need and expectation is instantly met. There’s no risk, no adventure, and he discovers that he’s actually “in the other place.”

No, this exercise isn’t like that. It’s not a trick.

Add to everything we’ve discussed, and whatever you started to imagine your paradise to be, a Get Out of The Moment FREE Card. You CAN’T be bored. This is anything you want, any time you want it—including random loss, risk, adventure that puts you in danger. Maybe part of your paradise would be dressing up like a knight and going off to hunt a dragon.

Sure, the dragon could kill you—if you want it to. This is your paradise, remember. I’m not going to judge it.

. . .

Got it?

Great. Now imagine your paradise—excuse me, Paradise with a capital P—is represented by a pencil. Your infinite dragon-slaying, love on the beach, cheesecake three times an hour, surf, sun, sand, whatever can all be reduced to a simple No. 2 pencil.

That’s your Paradise. You may be a tiny spec within that Paradise. It may be huge in your eyes. Go ahead, pretend it is.

My paradise. Heaven. THE Paradise . . . would be every tree that ever grew, every rubber plant that ever contributed to a pencil eraser, every iota of graphite or lead used to fill them; not just now or yesterday but ever—even into the furthest notions of the future. Let’s go ahead and throw in any and every pencil-like tool that was ever invented, pens, markers, paint brushes, chalk, all of it.

No, you still don’t get it.

If we were just talking the size and scope of Heaven versus any Paradise you can imagine, you’d have to take my pencil potpourri and reduce THAT down to the size of a pencil, then repeat the process over and over and over.

Guess how many times.

That’s right. Infinite.

Kind of makes “sex on the beach” seem like nothin’, doesn’t it?

That’s because it is.

And that’s why it’s so hard for me to explain it to you and why I had to resort to chit-chat with an embryo to get my point across.

Did you notice how my description of Paradise included an infinite timeline in either direction? That’s because Heaven is eternal.

That’s the scope. Here’s how it actually works.

When you actually arrive in Heaven, the first thing you’ll notice is that you’ve been “gone” from earth for just about a second.

I know. Fast trip, huh? Well, let your brain soak this up: you’ve also been gone for weeks, years, decades, millennia. You see Heaven is eternal. It’s vastly expansive as well as chronologically infinite.

You’ll want to sit down as you realize what that means.

Yes, it’s infinite in all directions.

Meaning you’re there now, as we speak.

If you are meant to be, that is. Not everybody gets this particular golden ticket.

***

So, Heaven is a paradise too big to imagine that exists in a dimension of time that doesn’t.

Hey, I never said the answer would be easy. In fact I’ve been pretty clear on the translation difficulties.

That was the hard part. The rest is something you’ll easily sink your teeth into.

Well . . . after the bad news.

***

Ready for your next hard truth?

You know how they say your “life flashes before your eyes” when you cross over? You know the stories about being greeted by dear old Uncle Joe and your favorite departed grandmother? The long lost loved ones? The dearly departed standing on the other side of a bridge to guide you across to Heaven’s gates? The kindly man with the beard who looks remarkably like Jesus, reaching out to take your hand or to tell you, “Your time has not yet come”?

You know the stories. “Near Death Experiences,” they’re called. Most everyone who has been clinically dead has some kind of tale to tell about a bright light, a tunnel, the faces of loved ones, the soothing voices saying “See ya later, but not now.”

Some members of the scientific community, and atheists the world over, have said those experiences can be chalked up to simple explosions of endorphins. As your body dies, your brain panics and lets loose all these chemical wonders into your system. They say you’re simply hallucinating, that deeper unused recesses of the mind make it seem so real, so believable, but it’s nothing more than a biological reaction that’s a natural part of dying.

They’re right.

Hey, I said it would be a hard truth. But you have to understand the bigger picture here. Sure, Uncle Joe and Granny Sue are reanimated figments of your imagination. Yeah, your brain is assembling a Heaven greeting card from nothing. And, yes, even the voices and the feeling of Great Love are a chemical lie.

None of that exists.

But ask someone who has painfully broken the breech what happens next.

I don’t have any memory of my own crossover. I don’t even know how long I’ve been in Heaven. The expression “Ignorance is Bliss” has meanings you wouldn’t believe up here (and I say “up” in keeping with that so-you-understand thing I mentioned earlier).

But I can tell you this much . . . .

After your brain’s euphoric chemical bath, the chord snaps. And, yes, those stories are true. There is a tether that holds your soul. When it snaps to release you to Heaven, you will experience a pain like nothing you’ve ever endured. I understand it lasts a mere fraction of a second—if I had to pretend time existed—and that it’s nothing compared to the purity of emotion that follows, but there is pain.

More on that later. You’re more interested in the “life” part of afterlife, aren’t you?

***

I’ve given this a lot of thought since we started talking, and there’s only one way I can explain Heavenly Existence to you.

I’ll have to SHOW you.

So come with me. Take my hand. If you think you’re ready, and my preface so far hasn’t scared the life out of you—sorry, I love a good pun—I’ll take you through my experiences in Heaven as they happen. I’ll stop from time to time to explain things to you, to help fill in your brand new view of Glory, but for the most part you’ll just have to trust me as I take you along for the ride. Just keep in mind what I’ve told you so far: that Heaven is infinite, that stories of near death are not what they appear to be, and that time here means . . . nothing.

You want Paradise?

Pencils down, students.

Here we go.

I wake without waking because I never sleep.

I bask in the glow of the warm sun where no sun exists. There is only brilliant warming Light.

All around me are the lyrical feelings of The Choir.

And, of course, Him.

This day is like any other in Heaven. Though, as a soul, I never sleep or get tired, there are what I would call meditative “down times.” It’s almost like daydreaming, like someone else is stepping in and doing your thinking for you. You just relax and enjoy the ride. Part lucid dream, part summertime lazy vapor stare, the meditation carries me.

There is feeling too. It’s like floating down a warm lazy river on a raft, letting the current carry you along, slowly spinning and breathing deep the freshness of a summer afternoon.

God’s light and warmth—and love—is all around me, in me. He is the air and the sound of The Choir. He is the caress of forgiveness, the smile of appreciation.

God is always with me as He is always with the other souls who flock to Him. His indescribable voice lifts me closer to Him and I gaze in wonder upon his face, a face just like mine. And yours. Like everyone’s actually.

He floats before me, The Choir’s whisper growing louder as He nears, and smiles the words, “I love you.”

***

Can you imagine?

No. I’m sorry, you can’t. This is God saying this. To me. Directly to me.

You may feel him say it to you in church; when you’re pulling a child out of a burning car wreck; when you’re handing your money to a homeless person instead of taking it to Starbucks like you wanted; when you talk your friend into handing you the knife, telling her there’s more to live for; when you take in your elderly parents to care for them in their last days; when you recite your marriage vows; or when you’re on your knees crying your eyes out: “Dear God, please forgive me!”

Oh, yes. He hears. And He says He loves you, but not so you can hear it. He says it softly in the hope that you’ll feel it and respond in kind.

That, my friend, is where faith plays a part.

I know I must have had faith when I was alive because I’m here. There isn’t a single soul in Heaven who didn’t have faith back on earth.

Sometimes you do feel it, God’s love. You get a little tingle, a tiny splash of warmth where your heart is, a sudden euphoric feeling that everything is going to be all right.

Yeah. That’s it.

But I’m talking about HEARING it face to face. When He says it to me up here it’s like He’s also saying, “Thank you for believing in Me, for hearing Me when I told you . . . . I love you, my child.”

***

I feel myself giving the words back to Him. “And I love You. Thank You for keeping me.” And of course by keeping I mean “creating,” but the translation in The Choir’s word somehow echoes simpler, but with infinitely more feeling. ‘Keeping’ implies possession without end, ownership and love. I am part of Him and He is part of me. We are conjoined in The Spirit, floating together on Heaven’s sweet breeze.

And then He moves away. He’s like a watchful parent, easing back but never too far. He watches and appreciates. The love He gives is there in His glow, His ethereal smile.

It is from this distance—not too far at all really—where I play and worship. For every time I call out to Him (“Watch me, daddy! See what I can do!”—Yes, it’s something like that) He leans in with great interest and applauds my very presence. My praise feeds Him and His Love feeds me. We are symbiotic spirits, God and I, and this same spiritual circulatory system exists between the Father and all of the spirits in our Heaven.

There truly is nothing on earth that compares, no love as real as His.

For a time I lean back and gaze skyward (keeping in mind there is no “back” and no “sky” in Heaven, but it’s the closest comparison I can conjure) and I sing along with The Choir.

The Choir are not souls like me. They are more like God, beings of pure light and love, but they sing constantly. Their eternal voices are carried down to all of us as echoes of His word, living reminders that He continues to embrace us.

The Choir are the angels.

I know some of them by name because they have sung to me in my meditation. Each has a different voice, but together they harmonize like . . . well, like angels.

Glenine floats down to me now. She sings sweetly and warmly, a song about His Love and how He watched me my whole life. Glenine is magically beautiful, with golden hair billowing out from a halo of light so brilliant that I cannot make out her face. She drifts to me and her wings enfold me. It’s a loving embrace and she feels like a big sister to me. She is soft and warm. Her body vibrates as she sings. It sooths me like a mother’s voice sooths her baby in the womb.

Glenine sings, “This is a wonderful day, CHILD, is it not?”

I respond, “It is a wondrous time!”

“Are you enjoying the day, CHILD?”

“I am, Glenine, thank you.”

“Fly with me to the valley. Come with me to watch the waves.”

“I will.”

“I have something new to sing to you.”

“Thank you, Glenine. I enjoy learning from you.”

“This comes from The Father Himself.”

“The Father? For me?”

“Yes,” Glenine glows, “It is your time.”

“I am honored. Thank you so much. I love you. I love Him.”

“We know,” she smiles. “Come.”

Then I find myself whisked away, soaring high above an unfolding landscape of green hills and white capped mountains, glimmering lakes and brilliant fields of wildflowers. Glenine is taking me to our favorites place to sit and sing. It is at this Heavenly seashore where she always tells me something new. It’s always something fascinating and amazing.

She has imparted to me the most amazing secrets, showed me images of life on other planets (oh, you’d be surprised—but that’s another story). Glenine has taught me about medicine (an entire med school course in the blink of an eye) and how to cure the most illusive diseases. Wait until you hear that the common cold is actually–

***

What?

I know what you’re thinking. Flowers, seascapes, angels with wings, places and times.

It seems like contradiction, I know. But it’s the only way I can build a picture for you.

The fact is that angels don’t look like they do in Flemish paintings or in Hollywood blockbusters. They are creatures of light and song, just like Him and like the other souls. But there is a difference in their glow, their countenance if you will.

And while I’ve never really SEEN their wings, there is a quality in each angel’s movement that feels like the flight of an enormous beautiful bird.

Glenine is my friend. She has been with me for as long as I can remember. Many of the angels talk to me—even those closest to Him. I’ve been sung to by Neliah, Orphalious, Johnara, Michael, Gondriel and Gabriel. But for some reason Glenine’s song is the sweetest to my ‘ears.’

And that’s saying something considering that we’re talking about ANGEL SONG!

And, well yes, Heaven has fields and trees and flowers, seascapes, and the most incredible gardens you’ve ever experienced. They’re mostly composed of feeling and emotion, but they’re as perfect and real as any beautiful site on earth. I’ll give you an example. Have you ever seen the Grand Canyon? Yosemite? The glaciers off Yakutsk?

Okay, now have you ever seen a form—like the confidentiality agreement you get at your doctor’s office—that has been copied hundreds of times from the copies that preceded it? You can still kind of make out the words, but the document is a mess. It’s muddy and clumpy and hard to understand.

That’s the Grand Canyon compared to its original inspiration here in Heaven. Any wonder of the world you know—on its most amazing day—is nothing more than a cheap copy of a copy, ad infinitum, of the real thing. The Original Garden is here. In Heaven. Just wait ‘til you see it.

Oh. I’m so sorry.

I have never introduced myself to you, have I?

Oh, I am very, very sorry.

I can’t.

It’s not that the name of a soul holds some kind of magical curse, like if I told you my name was Oscar you’d turn to a pillar of salt or something. The truth is as simple as it gets.

Only The Choir have names. Souls don’t have names, not even their earthly ones. I don’t even know what my name was. For all I know my name was Susan, or Brice, or Taiku, or Sh’kt’cp’far.

I guess this is as good a time as any to tell you a few things about being a soul.

For starters, like I said, there are no individual names. You don’t need one. We are all His children, all equally loved, eternally loved. There are no colors or creeds here, either. We are all part of His light, each one of us a glimmering star in the galaxy of Heaven.

Corny, huh? I can only shrug. I don’t really know how else to put it.

I wish I could tell you what my name was before. I just don’t know.

You’d better sit down. It’s time for another hard truth about life in Heaven.

***

You can probably grasp the notion of living out eternity in God’s beautiful garden as I’ve described it so far. If you have faith and have already felt the glimmers of His love, you can probably even imagine a fraction of what the real wonder is like. You may even buy the no-name thing.

But this one will be tough.

You know how I mentioned your built-in Heaven greeting card, the tunnel of light, the loved ones, the friends and departed family gathered to welcome you? How that’s all a physical biochemical process that takes place in your brain at the time of death?

Well, when the cord snaps and you get to the Real Deal, you won’t find Uncle Joe or Grandma here. In fact, you won’t see anyone who has gone before you.

I’m sorry if this truth is upsetting. I can imagine how bonds of love hold living beings together.

But you need to understand this: The only bond of love that means anything is the one you have with God.

When you meet him, you’ll understand. Believe me, it’s not cold or cruel at all. You won’t even remember a single loved one who had passed before you.

Heaven is not the place for tearful reunions—even as great as that sounds.

There’s something else you have to keep in mind . . . .

Not everyone comes to Him.

Would you be able to live eternally in God’s light knowing your dear old Uncle Joe is languishing in The Pit, that he was damned for all eternity, felled by his own self-judgment, cast down to weep without knowing His love?

Remember what I said? “Ignorance is Bliss.”

There is some knowledge taken from you upon crossing over.

And, believe me or don’t, if you were even aware it was taken, you’d be thankful for the ignorance.

***

Glenine takes my hand and kisses it. “You are going back to earth.”

“Back to—?”

“Earth,” Glenine nods.

I gaze skyward and watch the angels swim in currents around one another. They play like enormous birds, their songs flowing down to the golden streets and in and out of every door and window of His house; down through the green valleys and around and round the trees of His forests; through the crystalline waters and with the warming breezes. The angels are so high above us, so high out of reach because they are The Choir. They are the strong arm and messengers of God. They are our protectors, our guardians, our watchers and our confessors. They whisper in God’s ear and He directs them with a nod.

They are beautiful every time I gaze upon them.

Then something happens. I feel a thump within my being, something hard, cold and unexpected.

I collapse into Glenine’s arms and sigh. She cradles me and pets my head. I feel something, but I’m not sure what it is. It’s an emotion deep within my being, a realization that something is horribly wrong and I’m either involved or somehow at fault.

The angel seems to sense this. “Don’t be afraid,” she whispers.

I frown. “What does that word mean?”

So Glenine teaches me about fear.

***

This is a hard time for me. I’ve never experienced anything like this before. It—It kind of makes it hard to speak.

I beg your patience.

Of course Glenine does not PHYSICALLY hold me. And she is not a SHE. The Choir carries the complete embodiment of God. They neither exude masculinity nor femininity. My ethereal perception of Glenine is simply best described as sisterly—or motherly. Until you are in the arms of an angel you feel them only as a glow of pure love. In Heaven they are the loving arms of God, the ones who touch you heart to heart where God cannot. Because God, like Heaven, is so vast that it’s impossible to feel his presence on an individual level. He touches everyone simultaneously, even you down there on earth. The angels represent that special tilt of the head and caress of palm against cheek. They are His face-to-face extension, His twinkle of joy, His smile of kindness.

Did I mention you don’t have eyes in Heaven? While you DO SEE, and smell and taste and feel, it is the EMOTION that paints the picture. Like an ant’s antennae or a snake’s tongue, your emotional connection with God and The Choir are made vivid and beautifully explosive because you FEEL them.

So much to explain within the explanations.

Anyway, back to what I was saying. “I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning of the end,” He said in Revelation 21. That’s really true; in all ways imaginable. While God’s immense love and beauty can be seen everywhere in Heaven, it is truly felt JUST FOR YOU when His angel’s sing with you mono ‘e’ mono.

And singing is a better way to describe it than talking. Everything Glenine and I say to each other comes out as a glimmer of light-love and a lilting humming melody. The phrases of heavenly music entwine, rise and fall, and that’s how souls and angels communicate in Heaven. That’s how God imparts special words to us. Earlier, when He told me He loved me, He was saying that to you too. To everyone.

You don’t like to sing? Don’t think you can carry a tune?

Don’t worry. “Singing” isn’t really the word for it either, though it’s close. Have you ever felt so happy that tears spontaneously cascaded from your eyes? Have you ever felt so angry that your hands throbbed from the tension in your fists? Those are songs. Yup, just like sight it’s all in the emotion.

But now my song is not as lyrical. My words come out with a small discord. It’s enough to make Glenine pause and sing to me her explanation of fear.

I didn’t know anything about fear until just now. I imagine there’s fear all over the earth, but I don’t even know what earth itself is like. That’s part of God’s Plan, the whole “fear Him AND love Him” thing. But Glenine also explains that a lot of fear comes from you, from the world around you, and from an angel called Mastema. But I’d rather not talk about the fallen ones. Not now anyway.

I have the feeling I’ll be hearing enough about them soon enough.

***

I squeeze Glenine around the waist, bury my head against her chest. I begin to weep.

I weep out of joy because God has chosen me to go back to earth. He picked me. He singled me out. I am honored and incredibly blessed.

But I also weep because I am afraid. Everything Glenine sang to me is rolling around inside me, making me quake, making me wonder what earth is like, how much it will hurt, will I be hungry, tempted, hot, cold, sad, wounded, violated, embarrassed, injured, sick . . . lost? None of those things are familiar to me, but they all come out in Glenine’s song.

Naturally I don’t question God. I am part of His plan and I am willing to do anything He requires of me. After all, He had sent a part of Himself, His only Son, to earth. So He knows what the depths of sorrow and regret are like. I do not.

Glenine answers the unspoken song. “He chose you to go back among the flesh because He wishes to raise you up?”

“Raise me?”

***

Raise me.

Yeah, I know. You’re thinking it too. I’m in Heaven. How much higher is there to go? I already feel like the embodiment of God’s love as it is. What more can He give me?

That’s something else I don’t know how to explain to you. Sure, I just talked about The Choir, the angels, and how they sore high above the ceilings of Heaven’s house, in and out of God’s ears, caressing His lips with kisses only Glory can describe. But there is no hierarchy among souls. There are no ranks.

Sure, there is, “kind of,” among The Choir—but never among us souls. We were all too happy to be God’s beloved children. Some of the angels, on the other hand, were not so in love with the idea that God would bring souls to Heaven. Some could not hold on to Grace and burned with the jealousy of the hierarchies. That’s not to say there was a regimental ranking system like in the military. While the Archangel Michael serves as God’s soldier, it is—as Michael sang to me—his OLIM Q MODON OFFICILALUM—roughly: his Born Duty of The Day. The hierarchies are not tiers. They’re job descriptions.

Ready for another hard truth before my story continues?

I need to tell you about Mastema and Lucifer.

How do you feel about Lucifer? You don’t like him, do you? He’s Satan, the Trickster, Pitch. He’s the Ruler of the Pit. The Fallen Angel.

Not true.

I have often sensed a sadness in Michael’s songs when he sings to me of his friend The Brightest Angel. Lucifer’s Q MODON was to bring the brightness of the sun and stars to God’s creation. Michael and Lucifer were—as you would call it—the best of friends, brothers even.

Lucifer is NOT the devil. Nor is he Satan.

Lucifer, sadly, cast himself out of Heaven. He wanders somewhere. No one really knows where. Satan hunts him for sport and The Choir sings for his return to Heaven, but no one can say where he is. Some believe he resigned himself to hell, others that he remains in Heaven only hidden. God knows and no one is brazen enough to bring up the subject—especially we souls who were mistakenly taught that Lucifer was the one who lead the rebellion in Heaven in the first place. The sad truth: Isaiah’s translators made a typo. In Isaiah 14 there is mention of “thou fallen from heaven,” and “O Lucifer.” But if you comb carefully through your Old Testament scriptures, you will find that the authors had no knowledge of—and never mentioned—fallen or evil angels. It wasn’t until the beginning of the New Testament where the trouble started.

Mastema is the one who metaphorically spit in the face of creation. Mastema was a powerful angel, a strong singer within The Choir who was a child leader of the cherubim. The cherubim are charged with keeping knowledge. They are God’s safe-keepers and guardians of Paradise. The cherubim are the angels God sent to guard the gates of Eden when Adam and Eve were cast out. They were the planters of the Tree of Knowledge.

They know it all. Just ask Gabriel, Mastema’s former friend and fellow cherubim.

Mastema was the boldest singer among them, but he winced with jealousy at God’s every breath of love HE perceived as cast to everyone but he. Remember, these guys were the only ones besides God with the knowledge of good and evil.

I’m glad I can’t claim such a curse. Remember the pain I mentioned at the moment of crossover. All knowledge of evil was burned out of me upon arrival, along with the knowledge of my life on earth and my loved ones lost and left behind.

Mastema was called satan, a word meaning “adversary” in Hebrew, that stuck with Mastema upon his fall. He set himself up to battle God, using the knowledge his cherubim were assigned to keep.

The only reason I’m telling you this is because the name Mastema came up in Glenine’s song to me.

It came up in reference to the cherubim.

And the job I would have when I am raised up.

To join the hierarchy of angels.

As Mastema’s replacement among the cheribum.

I remain with Glenine for a time until she tells me I can go home. I always find it odd leaving her. I look forward to our time together, viewing the heavenly sea, the golden rays of God’s light making each wave sparkle. I would say I hate to leave, but those words don’t exist in Heaven; hate and leave. Well, until now.

She kisses my forehead and brushes my hair. She allows me to stroke her wings with some amazement. No soul, to my knowledge, has ever had the privilege of touching an angel’s wings. They are so soft and smooth, but I can feel the tissue beneath them, turning and flexing. Glenine watches me from the corner of her eyes, smiles at my childlike grin.

“Yes,” she says. “You too will have the gift of wings.”

“Such an amazing thing,” I giggle. “I never would have known or even imagined it was possible.”

Glenine takes my arm, both gently removing my hand from her wing and turning me toward the far end of the valley and my home. She says, “Each soul receives a different gift related to the light of their devotion.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Later, my child.” She lifts me into her arms, though if she really were a physical being I imagine her to be nearly a head shorter than me with a slender figure and the arms of a graceful dancer. While I do not possess a sex myself, I often feel—or maybe the closest word is imagine—myself to be a male soul. Maybe I’m wrong. But, if I’m going back, I’m sure I’ll find out soon enough.

Then, as Glenine glides over other homes within His Home, over other valleys and gardens sweet with summer scent, birdsong and music, I feel that pit in my being again. I think I’m afraid. I tell her so.

“Are you not a child of God?” She answers without looking at me. Her concentration is focused ahead of us, over the next range of hills and my humble home beyond.

“I am,” I say without pride. That’s something else that doesn’t exist up here. What God feels in us is more like devout appreciation. You might think He’s proud of the souls who revel in His Grace, of His splendid creation. Pride is not really the word. The look I feel from Him is the same as the look a mother gives to the newborn baby in her arms, not the look a father gives his son as he hits that little league home run. One is closer to God. The other is not.

***

I’m not saying it’s wrong to have pride in your children, in your accomplishments, in the place where you work or your beautiful spouse. I’m saying to be mindful of how easily that feeling pulls you away from God. Take this example . . . .

You’re a woman who meets the most amazing man. He’s clever, witty, charming. He’s a wealthy doctor. He’s even handsome and caring. He caters to your every whim and desire. And YOU caught him. You captured his heart. It’s one of those, “I never would have made the first move in a million years. I figured he’s got to be married or gay,” kind of things. But he’s not. He’s single and, because you caught him before he left the grocery store, because you smiled and made up that story about meatloaf and bread pudding, because you were bold enough to give him your number, because you made the first move, he is now your husband.

Your girlfriends are jealous. Your wedding was the most wonderful, magical event in the history of time. Your children are perfect, well-mannered, A-students with designs on college and careers. They shower you and your husband with love and unspoken promises to care for you until your dying day.

Your husband never cheats on you, he never even glances at another woman. “You are the most amazing woman, heart, mind, and body,” he says every night before you make perfect love. He takes you on cruises, world-spinning vacations to Europe and the Orient. There isn’t a nation you haven’t visited, there isn’t a ring with too few carats, there isn’t a day you don’t share that you pour yourselves into each other.

Wow.

Now admit it. It was your first move that snagged him.

Proud of yourself, aren’t you?

You should be, right? It was your sudden bravery, your finely crafted speech and the way you batted your eyelashes that caught him. That was a proud moment.

Where was God in all of that?

What about how it makes others behave around you. Your girlfriends shun you in their jealousy and you shun them back. Who needs them? You have perfection in your family. Resentment builds around you like a storm cloud. Your life with your perfect man does no harm to YOU, but what about everyone you now ignore. What about the God you ignore? What about the commandment you’re breaking through your pride?

No, I won’t tell you. You should know it in your heart.

Now back to our story.

***

“I am one of His children,” I smile up to Glenine. The rolling greens and ambers of Heaven’s gardens below me get farther and farther away as Glenine climbs.

“So why do you fear His will?” The songs below have faded. There is now only the soft rustling of the feathers in her wings.

“Because . . . I guess because . . . because earth is such an unknown to me. It’s because I’ll be farther from Him. I don’t wish to fall to temptation, Glenine.”

Higher, higher we soar. My ears would pop if this all weren’t metaphorical.

Then, Glenine dips, hovers, her wings outstretched and vibrating softly as she holds me there high above my home. On earth this would be the equivalent of 8,000 feet or maybe 10,000.

She hugs me closer, looks into my eyes. Hers are the softest blue, the most absorbing amazing eyes anyone has ever seen. I find myself wondering if anyone has seen an angel’s eyes this close.

She leans toward my face. She kisses me lightly on the lips. Warmth instantly races through my being making me feel lighter, like I could float here without her holding me.

Glenine says, “Earlier when I sang to you about Mastema, I left out one lesson for you.”

My eyes widen. I smile. “Teach me? Please.”

“Mastema’s pride was not his only downfall. His jealousy of Father’s creation was not his only undoing.”

“I would think that would be enough.”

Glenine smiles. Kisses my nose (if I had one). “Innocent child.”

I laugh lightly. I love being in her presence—His presence.

“It certainly would be enough,” Glenine continues, “but Mastema took it one step further.”

“What did he do?”

“He lost his faith . . . .”

. . .

“. . . and fell from Grace.”

And that’s when Glenine opened her arms, gently releasing me from her grasp and allowed me to plummet to the ground.

I watched in sudden horror as I dropped from her like a 1,000-pound bomb from a B-52.

The rushing air slapped at my body as I twirled and hurtled toward the ground. I watched in terrified amazement as the square green patches of gardens and homes and golden streets grew larger and larger. I was like a skydiver flying high above the earth, getting closer by by the second, except for two things. One, this wasn’t earth, earth’s sky, and I didn’t really have a “body” to speak of. And two, I didn’t have a parachute.

I twirled again and looked back up at Glenine, now just a fairy speck buzzing around high overhead. Then she turned and flew off like a firefly toward another group of angels far away.

She was leaving me to fall to my—

Death?

I wondered what would happen when I smacked the ground. I’m already a soul, bodiless and ethereal. Would there be pain? Though spirit, would I still have the sensation of cracking bones and exploding flesh? Was this some kind of harsh painful lesson God wanted to teach me.

Then I realized.

That’s exactly what it is.

Glenine was explaining to me one of the greatest precepts of Heavenly devotion, the one thing He asks above all else. The stuff of hastily scrawled signs behind home plate: JOHN 3:16. It’s part of each and every commandment, it’s part of every single organized religion.

Believe.

Trust.

Love.

“Whoever believes in Me shall not perish but have eternal life.”

I had failed but, as the ground neared slower and my plummet became a gentle drift, I was starting to understand. I am a child of God. I am in His arms. He cares for me and won’t let anything bad ever happen to me. So long as I have faith and trust in Him I will never want, I will never Fall, and I will never feel pain. He is my rock. My shepherd. He is the light, the truth, and the way.

Even as Glenine dropped me I feared that I would hit the ground like a water balloon. How could I believe such a thing knowing what I know? What I am? Who I’ve been my entire Heavenly existence?

As these things illuminated me, I floated down, down, gently down.

My bare feet lighted daintily upon the front step of my house and I settled into being.

I looked up at the bright star that was Glenine. “Thank you!” I shouted, and blew her a kiss.

I felt her sing back. “You, my child, are always welcome. And that is what you should never forget.”

I prayed that I would not.

Then I entered my house for what would probably be the last time.

But I no longer had fear.

My home.

His son told the world, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. . . . I am going there to prepare a place for you.”

I have described things to you in ways you could understand, or in which you could relate. I’ve talked about seeing gardens and trees, oceans, mountains and stars, I’ve talked about hearing birds and song, touching the feathery smooth wings of an angel, looking into an angel’s perfect blue eyes, houses, homes, bare feet, kisses, a front step. All of that was to give you an idea of the FEELINGS of the moment. They’re just infinitesimal notions of how Heaven feels—and that’s how everything is.

While Heaven has been described as having “streets of gold” and related to a “house of many rooms,” it is really the FEELING of being in the most beautiful place in existence, expansive yet warm, immense yet cozy.

What the Son said is true. Heaven is a house. It’s a dwelling, a place of light and love and family. It’s a place of comfort, peace and fellowship. It is a place of security. And there are many rooms to it. Countless souls, the hierarchies of The Choir, and God Himself all dwell here.

But simply describing it as a giant house doesn’t give you an appreciation of the scope. Let’s try something else.

Imagine the Grand Canyon. Imagine that the Colorado River enters the Grand Canyon not as water, but as a street. It’s a brilliant street.

Yes, of gold.

Now picture a tremendous skylight over the entire thing, a roof if you will. And fill the Grand Canyon with mansions of different sizes and colors. Some are sided and bricked, some stony like castles. Smaller dwellings line the golden street while others have tall towers or are built directly into the canyon walls. There are windows of ornate and artistic stain glass, there are French doors, balconies and terraces. Everywhere you see there are window boxes blooming with yellow, red, blue, white, and purple flowers. There are strings of beautifully colored banners and lights (though it never gets dark here) stretching back and forth, zigzagging above the street. In some places there are archways or bridges between mansions on the left and castles on the right where angelic neighbors have spanned places to meet and sing and love. There are wishing wells and “indoor” waterfalls, gardens and huge trees. Some trees may even be so enormous that they themselves are hollowed out to form dwellings.

There is a song The Choir sometimes sings. It’s about the different mansions; the ones up higher in the mountain wall and the smaller houses down below. I can’t do the translation of the song much justice, but it has something to do with those exalting themselves being humbled, and the humbled being exalted.

My home is way up high on the mountainside. It’s not at the very top, but it is far, far above the streets and lower bridges. From my house I can see for miles and miles. Birds and angels sometimes soar by my windows and sing. Glenine often meets me on my terrace just to sing good morning. (Morning, in Heaven, by the way, comes whenever you desire it. It never gets dark, remember.) I’ll describe my house as the color of sky, the walls smooth and decorated with ornate designs, cherubs and harps, trellises vined with roses or bluebells.

Inside my house it is very airy. The windows and doors are always open. My space is filled with souls like me. There is no loneliness. We are all God’s family, so everyone is welcome in my home, His home. The rooms are all very different. Some, you can imagine, are like adobe common rooms, others Victorian sitting rooms, still others futuristic capsules of bright white with large oval windows peering out on the valleys.

The view from my home is incredible. Well, just take what you imagined before. Pretend you own a mansion built high into the wall of the Grand Canyon. Nice view, huh?

Now multiply that by infinity.

***

My existence continues without further visits, or lessons, from Glenine, but God is always present. I ask Him about His Creation and He smiles down at me like a father who was just asked why the sky is blue or where do trees come from.

“You will know, my child. You will know before too long.”

“I’ve already learned so much from Glenine.”

“I’m glad you have.”

Not all conversations with God are so seemingly wooden. There’s no way I can capture the feeling, the rush, every time He speaks to me.

Let me try another example. Yeah, I know, my examples are kind of out there, aren’t they?

Who is your favorite actor or actress? Singer? Political leader? Astronaut? Millionaire? Architect? I’m not asking who you idolize because that would be putting you on the spot for breaking another commandment, wouldn’t it?

Sorry. Seriously, though. Who would it be really REALLY cool to meet?

Let’s pretend you said Brad Pitt. I hear he’s an actor. I don’t know if he’s any good or not, but let’s pretend you think he’s the greatest thing since movies were invented.

Now imagine he pays you a visit—yes, YOU—out of the blue. Mr. Pitt takes you for a drive, out to lunch, maybe to a ball game to see your favorite team. All the while he asks about you, what you like, what your interests are. He beams and revels with excitement with each new nugget of information you give him about yourself.

But, you say, let’s talk about you! I love your movies! You’re the most handsome, the coolest–!

No, no. He replies, YOU are the one I want to know about. TELL ME ABOUT YOU!

That’s kind of like every conversation with God . . . yeah, times infinity.

Every word is new. Every word is the Word.

God’s comments about what I’ll know “before too long” refer to my presence back on earth. That, I somehow understand, will come to me through Glenine or another angel—maybe God himself—or maybe I’ll just be left to fend for myself. I don’t know.

But in the moments that pass, He tells me about the six days He spent to create the earth, the heavens, and all the other planets and lives from the smallest microbe to the tallest tree.

I have to stop here and ask you what you believe.

Do you believe God created the heavens and the earth, that He said the words, “Let there be light!” and it happened?

Or do you believe that some volatile gasses drifted together and . . . BANG!

He said it would be all right if I gave you the answer.

The truth is, either way, you’re right.

The Big Bang was God’s voice forming the universe. Every creature and animal, plant, bird, microbe or monster that ever walked, crawled, swam or flew was born in that instant. Over the next six “days” He set about forming the perfect universe.

You probably learned all about Evolution in school. You probably heard about slimy critters crawling out of the sludge, sprouting legs, evolving teeth and claws to defend themselves.

Congratulations. Now you know HOW He did it.

For the rest, you just have to have the faith that He did.

To answer your next questions: Dinosaurs? And Six Days?

You don’t have to get comfortable, or take a bathroom break. I can answer these pretty quickly.

As for the dinosaurs, it’s right there in the Bible. No, it’s true. Really. You have to understand first that the word “dinosaur” did not exist when the Bible was written—nor the Talmud or Bhagavad-Gita for that matter. But Genesis refers to “giants in the earth” and the Bible also speaks of dragons 21 times in the Old Testament alone.. Jeremiah speaks of being “swallowed up like a dragon,” and Job spoke of Leviathan, the gigantic scaly creature of the ocean’s depths.

Now as for the earth being created in six days.

Believe it or not that’s even easier to explain.

Think of this: Before God said, “Let there be light!” exactly how long was a day? Days did not exist until Creation began, and the 24-hour calendar day had not been conceived until much later. You’re thinking of a “day” the way your sun rises and sets. You have to think of days in terms of His universe. God created it all. A day on your earth is equal to 24 hours. A day on earth’s neighbor, Venus, is 5,832 hours! There is a planet in the Ortu Galaxy that takes 97,895 hours to go around its suns.

Oh. Sorry. You don’t know about Ortu yet. Nevermind. Suffice to say that we’re talking about God’s days, not yours.

You’ll understand in time.

An angel will tell you all you want to know.

***

Sorry if that got a little deep for you, and sorry if it shakes up your beliefs a bit.

The truth is it doesn’t really matter. You only have to believe in Him. That’s it. You can take or leave dinosaurs and days. Just have faith and trust in Him. He’ll take care of you, and when you cross over all will be revealed in ways I can’t even explain. Maybe we’ll meet and laugh about the crazy way I went about relating my conversations with God.

***

Time passes. Or not. It could have been seconds, years, centuries.

I drift through my home, singing with other souls living there, or visiting. Some ask me about Glenine and others tell stories of their angels and the wonders they experience. There’s no jealousy. It’s not possible, because as soon as you hear another soul’s story it becomes your own. There’s no “brain capacity” in Heaven either. I remember everything I am graced with. Learning never stops and it’s always something new, different, and absolutely fascinating. There’s so much—and yet it’s not EVERYTHING. Total knowledge is reserved for The Choir and God.

I’m not sure I’m worthy of such a gift, but who am I to question Him?

I am about to tell two of my friends about my lesson, the parable of a soul’s drop from an angel’s arms, when God’s light comes blazing into our dwelling.

To me, God says, “I love you, my child.”

We all answer in unison, “I love you!”

Again comes euphoria, the Heavenly surge of warmth that binds us all in His Grace.

Then Glenine enters through God’s light and the other souls recede to other dwellings. They laugh and play as they depart.

“Are you ready to learn?” Glenine says for God.

To God, I nod and say, “I am, Father.”

“You have never questioned me, John. Not even in life.”

“J-John? Did you just—“

“Your name on earth will be John.”

“John,” I whispered, testing it. It feels like an important name.

“Come,” Glenine says, offering me her hand. “It is time for your first day of school.”

Schooling in Heaven is as easy as absorbing. Glenine’s spirit touches me and I am imbued with whatever knowledge God wishes to impart.

So, everything I need to know about my return to earth occurs in the blink of an eye, instantaneously, in a flash of light.

It’s fast.

For the sake of my tale, and so that you might understand a tad of what God has in store for me, I’ll slow it down a bit.

Here, my friend, is just the tip of the iceberg. By now you know my penchant for simile and metaphor. What else would I use?

Let’s say this chapter of my story is Glenine’s lesson in its entirety. The actual study would be equivalent to straight non-stop learning from stacking blocks in pre-school to your final doctoral dissertation.

No, you don’t have to multiply it by infinity. Not this time. Believe me, this will be enough.

She’s not teaching me EVERYTHING.

That comes when I get my proverbial wings.

Oh. The bell is ringing. Time to go.

***

Glenine chooses for my classroom a hilltop setting surrounded by low walls, loose stones from the arid earth, and several low-lying olive trees. There’s a pack mule nearby, munching at sweet dates from an overflowing farmer’s bucket.

I recognize this place, or a place similar to this on earth thousands of years ago.

“Did the Son speak here?” I ask Glenine as I take a seat on a short wall a few feet from her. She sits atop a large stone just a few paces down from the peak of the mound.

“Well, not here exactly. But, yes, this is a representation of one of His stops.”

I looked around, sniffed at the hot arid wind. I smelled mixtures of animal sweat, feces, the musk of life around me—though I appeared to be alone save for the mule and Glenine. There was also a dry yeasty smell, an aroma like cut plant, and perhaps on the breeze a brief hint of some kind of spicy stew.

The sky was blue and immense, like Heaven’s to a degree, but the horizon stopped at distant mountains. This place seemed so small.

“So we’re not REALLY on earth now?”

Glenine slowly shook her head, watching me, perhaps waiting for me to ask a particular question or make a particular observation.

I noticed the intensity and took a stab at it. “This is what it will be like? This is the time period I’ll be returning to?”

“No.” Her answer was too simple. I suspected there was more to it.

“Then you must have brought me here for a reason I have yet to uncover, Glenine. Is that not true. There is something in the air, that animal. Perhaps in the shape and form of these short rock walls?”

“No.”

I took a deep breath.

“Please teach me.”

“There’s no trick, John. I merely like this place because it reminds me of the Son and His teachings. This reminds me what it takes to be a great teacher.”

“Oh,” I smiled, “I see.” I looked around again and absorbed a new appreciation for the place. The Only Begotten was in a place just like this, knowing He was chosen and knowing He would die.

Incredible. That’s the only way to describe it. It was like—

“John.”

Glenine snapped me out of my revelry. “I am sorry. Please continue.”

“I cannot continue if I have not yet started, and that my child is your first lesson.”

***

For a time the angel taught me about patience and how NOT to have any.

She said humans expect instant gratification. They want answers immediately, explanations, solutions.

“Why?”

“Because the core of their being realizes time is short. Precious. For some reason they don’t believe the Father spoke the truth when He promised life without end.” Glenine said, “Many of them are not sure about what waits for them when they cross over. Some aren’t even sure there’s a Heaven at all. Some don’t believe in God.”

“They don’t believe?”

“Some do. Some don’t realize their beliefs are the same as their neighbor’s because they don’t stop fighting long enough to experience God’s wondrous love together.”

That gave my being a slight chill.

“H-How many are like that?” I whispered.

“Enough that you will experience their encounters.”

“Why are there so many?”

Glenine drifts down and sits beside me. She let her wings enfold me. I feel safe there. Sheltered.

“They don’t see the miracles,” she said.

“Miracles?”

“God continues to give them miracles in their daily lives, but they don’t recognize them as such. They want a thunderous boom and an enormous bearded visage to breathe fire down upon them out of the clouds. They don’t believe a miracle is walking away from a simple fender bender, seeing your grandfather survive cancer, watching your mother stand and walk from her wheelchair to her bedside, waking to a bright new day each day there is just a bit more poison in the air, the blooming of a flower from a crack in cement, a child surviving a vicious dog attack.

“They call those things ‘happenstance’ or some ‘MEDICAL miracles.’ They don’t see God’s Plan in anything. To them, it’s humans themselves who guide fate.

“Humans complain about war, famine, disease, intolerance, religion, crime. They complain so much that they don’t see the beauty between those things, a beauty that would overshadow the worst of it and open their eyes to a future of everlasting light WITHOUT those thigns. They complain . . . but they don’t fix.”

I cleared my throat. “But those things—they’re nothing.”

“They are.”

“Well . . . to humans, maybe.”

“They are HORRIBLE to humans.”

“Because they don’t all believe as they should?”

“Right.”

“They don’t believe in God.”

“As I said, some do. But belief is not BELIEF.”

I looked out at the horizon and studied a large bird circling. “I don’t understand why they don’t pray. What could be easier?”

“That’s something you’ll have to understand, John.”

I formed a question with my eyes.

“That you won’t understand them.”

***

I asked the question.

Glenine and I were walking along a golden sun-dappled path through a wilderness of tall willow trees.

“Who was I?”

She stopped and looked at me, but didn’t offer an answer.

“When I was on earth before, I mean, when I was human . . . who was I?”

The angel continued to stare, a small smile curling the side of her slender lips.

“Can you tell me? Is that who I am returning as?”

“The name you had in your life before this life was not John.”

“I wasn’t John?”

“No.”

“Then who—“

“Who you were is not who you are to become.”

“Then why am I going back?”

Glenine plucked a long quill-like leaf from a tree and played it between her fingers. “You are not the first soul to be brought into The Choir.”

“I know,” I said though I almost thought I was with all the attention I’ve been getting.

“It takes a special kind of soul to become an angel.”

“I know,” I repeated, though not impatiently.

“Ask me.”

My smile became a laugh. Glenine, and therefore God, knew what I was thinking before I thought it. I asked the question she already knew was coming. “My house is high up on God’s Heaven. Therefore, as recorded in the scriptures, I must have lead a humbled life before.”

“Your question?”

“Is it only the truly humbled in life who become angels much later?”

“No.”

I studied her as she replaced the leaf on the tree. It held and swayed with the others in the breeze.

She continued, “I cannot tell you this. And you should stop asking about who you WERE. You should concentrate on the person you are being sent to save.”

“Save? Me?”

“There is someone who needs your help more than any other. This human is rapped by despair. This human is contemplating The Surrender.”

“No.”

“You must stop this from happening, John.”

“I will pray for this human, Glenine.”

“That’s not enough,” she said, her head bowed. I swear I heard her sniff back a tear.

“What must I do?”

“Teach her to pray for herself.”

We walk in silence for a long time until she finally touches my hand and nods back the way we had come.

As Glenine flies me back to my Heavenly house, I swear to her that I will. I will get through to this poor woman.

But I had no idea how.

My lessons complete I have nothing left to do but bid Heaven farewell.

Temporarily, I hope. And when I return, I’ll return an angel.

Glenine had told me there was no guarantee that I would be back. Despite the crossover that brought me here inititally, if I do not live my new life on earth with belief, if I do not honor God in my new human existence. . . .

I will be lost.

I hate to be that plain and simple about it, but that’s really all there is to it. On earth I will be as susceptible to death, disease, and dentures as anyone else.

That’s primarily what Glenine was preparing me for. I will be a normal, typical human being. I’ll have to pay taxes, get in traffic tie-ups, vote (or be forbidden to vote—to be honest I don’t know what era or nation I’ll be reborn to). I’ll have to worry about acne, hair loss, broken bones, my children’s grades, my grades, finding a job, keeping a job, dating, defects, fire, rust, itchy sweaters, dog bites, battery life, slippery pavement, slipping in the shower, body odor, drunkenness.

And add to all of that, I’ll be within the grasp of Mastema and his legions. I wondered if Satan would recognize a soul among the humans, or if I would be successfully camouflaged. Either way, as a child of God among the children of God, lost in the space between Heaven and hell . . . either side could take me.

I don’t know how old I’m going to be, if I’m going to start as a newborn or somewhere down the line, or if I’m going to be rich, poor, big or small.

I only knew my name will be John.

And that I had to locate a particular woman and prevent her from committing suicide.

“Final question?” Glenine smiled.

I sighed and smiled back. “Will I remember you?”

“Most assuredly.”

***

“John?” God called.

“Yes, Father.”

“I love you.”

I smiled. In unison with other souls, we responded, “I love you too.”

***

And then I drop.

Unlike Glenine’s lesson of faith, I have no Heavenly ground below me to break my fall. I’m tumbling down, down, down. I grow colder. The air around me grows darker, thinner.

I fall through a void of space, feeling the unimaginable absolute zero freeze but knowing my soul will remain warm so long as I pray.

“Father protect me on my journey . . . .

Then I notice something strange.

Some peculiar form like branches flail out in front of me from either side. They bend close to my body and appear to be growing thorns at the end. I count 3-5-8-10. 10. There are 10 bending spike-like appendages at the end of the veiny stalks, five on each side.

ARMS! Good Lord, they are human arms!

LEGS! I see legs. A gender forms. My skin tone, which could become anything from peach to ruddy, beige, golden, olive, brown, or even a deep blue-black, settles into a faint tan, perhaps a little darker. Am I Latino? Tan Caucasian? Light skinned African? I still do not know.

Hair tickles my scalp and grows long, over my ears. It is curly and dark. The flesh on my face becomes rough like sand as a shadow of beard forms. There is ringing in my ears. My eyes—I have EYES!—burn, there is a cramp in my left knee. My age . . . my age must be . . . I feel like I’m in my 30s. I’m getting a headache. I’m hungry—HUNGRY?—I’ve never been hungry before. What will I eat? CAN I eat? What if I’m poisoned? My bladder fills and releases. My acrid urine sprays out around me as I continue to fall.

SOMETHING IS IN MY EYE!

Oh, the stinging pain! PAIN!? I don’t like this! I don’t want it! Please, Father, take me back!

Take me back!

Take me back.

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