It was a windy autumn Sunday as far as Thomas Philips could remember. His grandparents, the avid churchgoers that they were, had succeeded in convincing his parents to join them since it was the beginning of Thanksgiving break. Never having set foot in a church in his life, Thomas was nervous. Forget nervous…he was downright scared out of his mind. His dad had always told him that church was a last resort, a place someone should only go if his/her life depended on it. Yet here they were, on their way to spend the morning at church with his grandparents. It made no sense. But…whatever. Who was he to second guess the authority of an adult?
He would give that much to his dad. The man was the world’s biggest skeptic, but he’d raised his son to know his place. If you are requested to do something by someone who is older and wiser than you, he would always say, you’d better do it without any fuss, Thomas Anthony Philips. He would then bend low and look deep into Thomas’s eyes. Sometimes Thomas could even feel the seriousness of his stare gripping his soul with an iron fist. ‘Cause if I find out that you gave them grief, I’ll beat your --- so hard and so long that you won’t be able to sit for the rest of your life. And that was all it took. Whenever he was asked to do something by anyone, the image of his father’s face would appear, and he would hear those words ring in his mind. Especially now that he was ten. His father was watching him closer than ever because he saw ten as the age when a boy begins to take on the responsibilities of a man.
He felt the car begin to turn left. He looked up to see that they were in the parking lot of a giant white building. It wasn’t as tall as it was wide. It looked to be covering the space of about a half a football field. He knew it was the church, and a sign near the entrance to the lot told the name – though he didn’t really pay much attention to it, and he couldn’t help but wonder why as he reflected back on this moment. But a sense of awe overcame him as he inspected its white frame as if it were far more than what he’d expected. He’d expected something smaller and less appealing, something that shooed people away rather than inviting them to come inside and marvel at the wonders that awaited them. Even the steeple – it rose from the center of the gray roof coated in its own layers of glowing white paint and supported a metal cross at its tip – made him want to go in if only to pleasure his eyes with the beauty of the architecture. There was also a courtyard with a brick path that circled a fountain and led straight to the gymnasium. This was some foreign masterpiece that had somehow found its way into Florida. It was utterly breathtaking.
All the early risers had already claimed their usual slots. His father rounded the lot once before he found a vacant one. He squeezed their little VW into the spot and then muttered a curse. He’d seen this display of feeling numerous times. This mumbling, incoherent cussing was his father’s way of letting someone know he wasn’t happy about something. And he knew what had his father riled up. He was only at the church to please Mom and Grandma and Grandpa.
They made their way across the lot. Another thing that made Dad mad was that the spot they were able to get was all the way at the back. They had to travel past all five aisles to get to the entrance. Getting angry over something like this made no sense to Thomas, but he was sure this was part of the reason his father was upset.
When they reached the third aisle, a car stopped and waved them on. His mother waved a thank you back to the driver, and they continued. He heard the car zoom down the aisle behind them. As they walked, his attention was grasped by a small crowd of people that gathered around the doorway. An older gentleman held the door open and several of them shook his hand. One of the men called him Marvin and cracked a joke on the Gator shirt he was wearing. He smiled back and returned a clever, but pathetic, joke on the Seminoles. Thomas wondered why he hadn’t gotten angry at the man who joked about his shirt. If someone had said something like that to Dad, he would’ve wound up in a hospital if not in a grave. But this man just smiled and let it pass. He even shook the hand of the man who’d ragged on him.
When they reached the door, the man smiled and shook his father’s hand. Dad smiled, but he knew that it was only to be polite. Thomas examined the man while this occurred. Aside from the Gator shirt he wore a pair of jeans that were tucked into a pair of cowboy boots and held up by a leather belt with a gold buckle. His beer gut – were Christians allowed to drink beer? – leaned lazily over the edge of the jeans, but the shirt was thankfully large enough to keep it from seeping out. A pair of glasses was perched on his nose, and even through the sun’s glare, his bright blue eyes gleamed with the joy that took residence deep inside him. The finishing touch was a cross made of four nails tied together with a piece of twine – or was it thread? – that hung from a chain around his neck.
The man took his mother’s hand and gave it a kiss and told her she was beautiful. She blushed and told him thank you. Then he saw Thomas. He knelt down and held out his hand.
“How ya doin’, son?” he asked.
For a minute or so, Thomas just stared at him. He had no idea what to do. He didn’t know whether to be frightened by this man or welcomed by his cheery attitude. All of Dad’s friends never acted like this. Thomas would always say hi, and they would just move past him toward his father. And there would always be this bitter smell when they were around. They would have their hands in their pockets, too, like they were hiding something. Then Dad would take them into his room, and there would be the muffled sound of voices – sometimes he could make out numbers – coming through the crack below the door for some time before they came out and left. But nothing like this. This new display of courtesy and interest was unnerving.
He finally looked up at his father. He received a nod and then took the man’s hand.
“I’m doing okay, I guess,” he said.
The man smiled. He seemed to always be smiling. “That’s good.” He released his grip and stood back up. “Would you like to put him in our kids group for the service? It’s a really good group, the best one in all of the churches in Florida.”
Dad shook his head. “He can sit with us.”
The man smiled that dang smile again. “Okay, if that’s what you’d like. But not before he gets one of these.” He reached into the front left pocket of his jeans and removed a green lollypop. He handed it to Thomas. “They’re real special,” he said. “I only give ‘em to visitors.”
He said thank you, and they moved on inside. As he tried to remove the wrapper, his father swiped the lollypop from his hand and put it in his pocket.
“You don’t eat candy from strangers,” he said.
“Oh, Marvin’s candy never hurt anyone.”
They all looked to the left – the direction of the voice – and noticed another older gentleman approaching. Unlike Marvin who had strips of white streaking across the sides of a gray head, his hair was pure white. And his attire was more formal: a red and white plaid button-up shirt with a red tie looped meticulously through the collar tucked into a pair of black dress slacks that ended at a pair of black shoes shined so well that the florescent lights above glistened off their surfaces. His face was also shaven though little needles of the same white hair that sat atop his head could be seen poking through his skin. And he was smiling too. It seemed to be an epidemic in this place.
He stuck out his hand. “Name’s Chuck Morrison,” he said. “I’m the senior pastor here. You all from around here?”
Dad grabbed the hand and pretended he was happy to do so, again. “We live in downtown Clearwater.”
“What brings you here?”
“My parents invited us,” said Mom.
The smile widened. “Well, it’s good to have you here. Please, feel free to socialize. As for me I need to get to the front. Service is starting soon.”
They said goodbye, and he left. Thomas looked around at all the strange faces. He was terrified of this place. Not scared-terrified but nervous/timid-terrified. It was weird, and he didn’t know if he could handle another smile.
His father noticed a coffee cart and dragged them over to it. If there was one thing Dad couldn’t resist it was coffee. An old lady was there pouring the black liquid into a Styrofoam cup. So they waited. After about thirty seconds she had the cup fixed up the way she liked and left. Dad stepped up to the cart and pressed the lever to waterfall the coffee into his. Steam simmered over the edge and dissipated into the air. While this went on, Thomas continued to look around. He literally didn’t know anyone save the two people he had just met. If he wasn’t concerned that he would disappoint his parents, he would’ve bolted out the door and ran home.
Then he spotted his grandparents. He waved and they came over. They hugged Mom and shook Dad’s hand. Thomas received a pat on the head from Grandpa and a kiss on the cheek from Grandma. They both got coffee, and then the conversing began, leaving Thomas to look around at strangers again.
He looked to the right and noticed Bradley, a friend from school. What the heck was he doing here?
“Bradley? You go to church?”
“Have my whole life,” he said as he arrived in front of Thomas. “I got saved when I was five. How are you?”
“Good, I guess.”
“I’m sure you’ve noticed that everyone’s real nice.”
He nodded. “And they like to smile a lot.”
Bradley laughed. “I guess they do. Hey, you goin’ to the kids’ church?”
“I’d love to.”
Dad cleared his throat. Thomas turned and saw that his eyebrows were pointed down in a V.
“But I can’t, sorry,” he said as he turned back to Bradley. “My parents want me to sit with them.”
“Oh,” Bradley said with a crushed look upon his face. “Okay. Gotta listen to your parents. See you at school then?”
Bradley ran off as Thomas frowned and stared at the ground between his feet. Maybe it was for the best, he kept telling himself, though he knew that wasn’t so. He really wanted to go with the kids, but Dad insisted that he stay. And he knew better than to fight his father.
“Why do you have to do that?” his mother asked.
He turned to see her facing Dad.
“He’s sitting with us.”
“Yes,” she said. “But in front of his friend…? You could’ve been a little nicer.”
Dad grumbled and looked away. That was another thing his father was good at. He was able to keep himself under control when Mom angered him. He loved her so much that he didn’t want to fight with her. Whenever they were about to have a fight he would concede before it began just so he didn’t have to fight with her, because fighting with her would break his heart. And Thomas knew that she loved him for that, as well. That’s why they were perfect for each other. Grandma and Grandpa had fights. He’d been there when some of them had happened. But they always said that Jesus was what kept them together. He didn’t know what kept Mom and Dad together, but they stayed strong somehow. Which was why he admired them so much. Most of his friends’ parents were divorced – probably because of fighting too much, but he never found out. Thus, he could walk around school knowing that he was unique. This could be either good or bad at times. Some kids were amazed by the fact that he had parents that were still together. But others were jealous. This one kid named Sampson – the biggest bully in the whole school whose parents had never been married (he was product of a one-night stand, after which his father ran off with another woman) – beat him to a pulp and left him in the sandbox – he was only five at this time – balling into his hands and yelling for help. Sitting in the principal’s office was probably the most terrifying part. His mother and Sampson’s mother were there, too, standing behind the boys as the principal explained to them what had happened. While he explained, Thomas looked over at Sampson and saw the malicious evil that lurked behind his good-boy façade – or maybe it was just jealousy, but he was pretty sure it was evil. Why else would he bully everyone at school?
People began to move toward the large row of double doors that opened into the sanctuary. Thomas and his parents followed his grandparents inside. When he crossed the threshold he found himself in a giant ovular room. The ceiling narrowed into a point, but where the point should have been was a square opening consisting of a cage of windows that leaked light into the room. What they held up he didn’t know, but he presumed it to be the steeple. They had entered through furthest door to the right. From where they stood, there was an aisle to their left – the center aisle – that led up to the front. There were five rows in all: three to his left, including the center aisle, and two to his right. And in between these aisles were rows of wooden benches with red cushions that he seemed to recall were called pews. All the pews led up to the front, as well, where the stage was. The stage was made of three steps, also ovular in form like the rest of the room, that rose up into a platform where a group of men and women stood holding instruments and/or microphones. Up and behind him and his family was a balcony. A portion of this balcony was built out over the last couple of rows near the center aisle which Thomas saw was holding electronic equipment, probably the equipment that was operating the instruments. It was beautiful.
Most of the congregation was already seated. His grandparents looked around and finally found an open pew to the right. He and his parents followed them. A few people looked at him and then turned to each other, probably wondering why he wasn’t with the kids. He ignored them. He was doing what his parents wanted, that’s all that mattered.
As they neared the pews, he finally noticed how fresh the room smelled. He took his seat and watched the people on stage. The man at the front of the group stepped up to the mike and invited them all to stand. Then the music began. He didn’t know what the song was called, but he was amazed at how up-beat it was. He was into heavy rock-and-roll music and thought that what he would hear at this place would be boring. But he was surprised. People began clapping – some were even dancing – and singing along. He’d never seen a place that was so alive with energy. He realized, at last, why everyone smiled: they had no worries. The people here were full of life, life that they had found in some place that was unknown to him. And part of him wondered where they were finding it because he wanted it to. But another part of him was terrified of it. It was unsure whether it wanted to risk the life that it already had to find this new life.
When that song was done, another began, and it was just as energetic as the first. People continued to praise and worship this man called Jesus, the same man his grandparents had said kept them together. It was amazing. He found himself in even further conflict with himself. And it wasn’t the music that was causing this conflict. It was the people. He knew it. The music wasn’t as heavy as he usually liked, but the people made it come alive. He soon found himself singing too, though he didn’t really know the man he was singing too or the purpose of singing to Him. He was singing because everyone else was sing.
At the end of that song, a younger man grabbed a floor mike and made his way up to the stage. He was younger with tan skin and short brown hair. He introduced himself as Ray, the student pastor of the church. He invited everyone to continue standing and greet those around them. Men and women from around the room began conversing and shaking hands. Some traveled from all the way across the room to say hi to a friend or relative or even a complete and total stranger. Dad did more pretending as people greeted him, and Mom hugged people – that was here thing. After Ray had taken the stage and made his request, the music began again. Now, it stopped, and people took their seats. Ray held up a small slip of paper that he’d gotten out of one of the guides that Thomas had seen being handed out as people walked through the doors before the service. He called it a Connection Guide. The slip of paper he was holding, he explained, was meant for visitors. They could fill out as much as they wanted and put it in the offering plates at the end of the service. Then he asked them to bow their heads and said a prayer.
Three more songs followed. The first was just as up-beat as the beginning two, but the last two softened down a bit. Ironically, however, the energy did not leave. The congregation worshiped with just as much might as with the other songs. It seemed as if this life they had found would never die. It was a consistent beating power that coursed through their bodies. He didn’t know who this Jesus fellow was – he wasn’t even sure if He was real –, but these people loved Him a lot and were devoted to Him. It was like He lived inside them or something.
The last song ended, and the man at the mike prayed another prayer. The band then exited. A man, the man who he and his parents had run into with the white and red plaid shirt and the black dress pants, made his way to the stage. There was only one difference with him: he was now wearing a black suit coat as well. A tall, round table accompanied by a stool of the same height was placed in front of where the band had been. He prayed again – jeez, this was a lot of praying – and then welcomed them to sit. On the table lay an open bible and a small notebook. He flipped through his notes for a moment and left the crowd in silence. The congregation watched him without a word. Thomas was feeling antsy. He was beginning to wonder why this man had taken over and then just ignored them. But then, the man looked at them with a sober countenance.
“I want to begin by telling you a story,” he said. “It will only take a few minutes or so, but I want you to pay close attention.”
Thomas was stunned by the power in his voice. The man went silent again, probably for effect, but his words still rang in the air. He was confused by the man’s words. He thought that a preacher was like a teacher. They weren’t supposed to tell stories. They were supposed to give lessons. But maybe he was going to use the story as a lesson. Some teachers did that, right? Maybe not his teachers, but some.
“I must warn you,” he continued, “that this is a somewhat sad story.” Another pause. “But it ends as a miracle.”
People began to turn and look at each other. It seemed that this was something they weren’t accustomed to either.
He cleared his throat. “This is a story about a little girl, a little girl who was raised in an extremely dysfunctional household. Some of you may have heard this story. It was taken and made into a song by John Michael Montgomery called The Little Girl. And I swear to you on my life that everything about this story is true. It really happened. The source has never been discovered. But there is a reason for that, and I will get to that later.”
Thomas heard his father snicker. As he looked at his parents he could tell that neither of them believed what they were hearing. But somehow, the story had piqued his interest. He was eager to hear it.
The preacher continued: “This little girl…her parents were atheists. Neither of them ever told her about the Lord because they didn’t believe in Him themselves. She didn’t know who He was; she wasn’t given a chance to know Him. But something happened that changed her life forever. Unfortunately, her father was a heavy drinker, and her mother was a severe drug addict. When her father drank he would often become violent, and take it out on his family. Mom and dad were fighting frequently. Soon this fighting turned physical. Her father would beat her mother again and again and again.” A tear slowly made its way down his cheek. “And do you know where the little girl was?”
The crowd looked at each other again. Some people were also crying, and some were still looking at the preacher with no expression – he assumed these people had heard the story before.
He wiped the tear away with his shirtsleeve. “The little girl was behind the couch watching them fight through one of the crevices between the cushions waiting, just waiting for her father’s anger and aggression to turn on her.” He paused again, but Thomas could tell that this pause was not for effect but so that the old man could get ahold of himself. “Well…” he continued, “one night, the fighting got to be worse than usual. Her father was throwing her mother about the room thrusting his fists into her one after the other as her blood and her life spilled out onto the floor. The little girl, terrified, watched from her usual spot behind the couch. And dad…out of his rage…he left the room. When he returned, in his hand he held a gun. From the couch…the little girl watched as her father pointed that gun at her mother and pulled the trigger. Just like that, mommy was dead. And then…whether he was afraid of the consequences or whether he was delusional from the alcohol I don’t know, but…he…” He choked as more tears came down his cheeks. “He turned the gun on himself and took his own life too.”
Several in the congregation were definitely crying now too. Dad sat quietly and rolled his eyes. Mom just watched, as did Grandma and Grandpa.
“So,” the preacher said, “she was taken by Child Protective Services. She stayed in an orphanage for a little while, but not long after, she was placed with a foster family. The mother in this family happened to be a Christian. And this mother took the little girl to church where she was put in a Sunday school class. Now, let me remind you that this little girl having been raised by atheists had never heard about Christ. Never.”
He moved from where he was and went back stage. When he came back he was carrying a portrait of a man. The man had a crown made out of some sort of prickly bush atop His head. His long hair dangled down over His shoulders and mixed with His beard. And His eyes, His eyes were filled with something Thomas couldn’t quite identify. Later he would say that the eyes contained compassion and mercy and understanding. But at the time, he could not put a finger on what this feeling was.
“And the mother knew this,” the preacher went on. “So she told the Sunday school teacher this and requested that she be patient with the little girl. But do you know what happened?”
Everyone was in complete silence. Even Thomas sat at the edge of his seat.
“The Sunday school teacher pulled out a portrait like the one right here beside me, only hers showed Him on the cross, and asked the class if anyone knew who the man in the picture was. Guess what. The little girl raised her hand, and you know what she said? She said, ‘I do. I see that He’s on that cross, but He must’ve got down somehow because that’s the man who held me and told me that everything was gonna be alright while I hid behind my couch the night my parents died.’”
Silence. Total silence consumed the room as this epic ending gripped the crowd. Thomas realized that his mouth was opened. He was baffled. This little girl had seen Jesus. She’d seen a man he was not entirely sure existed. And she’d known Him even though she’d never been told about Him and/or given the chance to know Him through her parents. His heart was racing.
Tears were coming down the preacher’s cheeks again, only now he was smiling. A big, fat smile of joy and excitement gleamed from his face.
“My God,” he said, “came to a little girl who didn’t know Him, a little girl that was destined for hell because of the family she had, and He…He took her in His arms and told her that everything was going to be alright. My God, ladies and gentlemen. Hopefully He is your God too, because only He can express the love and compassion that can save a little girl from the earthly troubles she was placed in. Only He can show the love and compassion required to save a lost soul from the power of sin and death. She watched her parents die in front of her, but the Lord rescued her. And He can rescue you too. Only my God, ladies and gentlemen. Only my God.”
Thomas heard the voice but didn’t realize who it was until a few seconds after. Then he looked to the right to see his father standing up.
He grabbed Mom’s arm. “Come on. We’re leaving. I can’t take anymore of this bull----.”
Reluctantly, she stood and grabbed Thomas. All three of them ushered out of the room. As they moved to the door, Thomas realized that all eyes had turned to them. Everyone watched them leave, and for some reason, he didn’t know why, he felt embarrassed about it. When they were in the lobby and almost to the door, his grandparents rushed in after them.
“What’s the meaning of this?” his grandfather queried.
Dad turned and stared him in the eye. “You really expect us to believe that nonsense. Some little girl saw Jesus. Oh, that’s rich, real rich.”
“Why is that so hard to believe?”
“Because Jesus doesn’t exist, Dad,” he said. “He’s just some stupid myth you all made up and replay in your mind everyday just to make yourselves feel better about the world and your pathetic lives.”
Grandpa’s eyes began to water and this made Thomas want to cry. He’d never seen his grandfather hurt before. Grandpa was a strong man, tough as nails. He didn’t cry. Never had he ever cried. But now, these few words that his father said were causing the tears to rise. It didn’t seem right.
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” he said. “But you could have waited until the service was over.”
Dad was shaking his head. “I’m not gonna listen to another word of that ----.” He turned to Mom. “Come on let’s go.”
Mom turned to Grandma and Grandpa and apologized. This was strange to Thomas seeing how everything was Dad’s fault. But she apologized anyway and then ran to catch up with him and his father who were already halfway across the lot.
When they were back in the car, Thomas sat quietly in the back and watched out the window as the buildings, cars, and pedestrians raced by. He thought about the little girl. Oddly, he believed every word of the story. Maybe Jesus was real. But even if He was, how could He possibly show compassion to a kid like him. He wasn’t necessarily a bad kid, but he definitely wasn’t a good one either.
His parents sat in the front looking away from each other and not saying a word. Dad watched the road and waited for his chance to turn right onto Gulf to Bay. Outside, it had turned into a hot, muggy afternoon in Florida. But it wasn’t called the sunshine state for nothing. It was rough sometimes, living in this state. A lot of times the seasons all appeared to be the same except for slight changes in temperature. Because where he lived was trapped between three different bodies of water, the temperature didn’t really have much of a chance to get too high or too low. But he liked Pinellas County, just as much as he liked Florida. Sure, it had its downs, but they survived. And not to mention, they could go to the beach just about any time they liked.
He let his mind wander again but somehow ended up back on the story of the little girl. He couldn’t remember the last time he was gripped by a story like that. He didn’t like to read that much, and when someone was trying to tell him a story, he usually ignored them. But this story grabbed ahold of him and wouldn’t let go. It was as if it were a living thing that had entered his mind through his ears. Just thinking about it revived some of the excitement it had created in him. His heart was pounding again, though not as hard. The story moved through him nagging him from inside.
“Do you believe that story?” he found himself asking, curiously.
He saw his father’s eyes shift to the mirror. “Oh, Jeez,” he said as his hand came up and pinched his forehead together. “I don’t really believe it, no, Son.”
“Well, there’s a bunch of holes that could be poked through it.”
Dad looked in the mirror and sighed. “Like the fact that the source couldn’t be found.”
“Yeah, but the preacher said that there was a reason for that. You decided to leave before he could tell us that reason.”
“Watch your tone, boy.”
He looked down at the floor. “Sorry, Dad.”
His father turned his eyes back to the road. Mom was still looking out the window not saying anything.
“Listen, Thomas,” Dad said. “I’ve told you before that a church is a place of last resort, correct?”
“Yes,” he replied, reluctantly.
“Now you know why. The reason why is because those ----in’ Christians try to get you to believe in a bunch of lies. Even when you’re not in church, they still try to shove everything they believe right down your throat. That story wasn’t true, and I don’t want you talking about that bull---- anymore.”
“But, Dad –”
“No ‘buts’, Son. This conversation is over. Drop it.”
So he did. There was so much left to question, but he didn’t want to make Dad anymore upset than he already was. So much of him wanted to believe this story, but it was hard to grasp. It was so believable that it was unbelievable. And it wouldn’t be till later on that night that he would come to understand how real it was.
It was around eight o’ clock. He sat in his room in his family’s duplex playing some video game that he couldn’t remember now as he looked back. It was on PS2, that’s as far as he could go. His door opened out into the den where his father sat on the sofa watching TV. The kitchen was small and a part of the den. As he sat on his bed which faced the door he could actually see part of the fridge. He played on and reached another level. Before long he was hungry. He’d eaten dinner around six, but now he wanted dessert.
He exited into the den and walked behind the sofa. “Is there anything to eat?”
“I think there’s some ice cream in the freezer,” replied Dad. “Three scoops.”
“Yes, Sir,” he said.
He opened the freezer and began to scrounge around. Where was that dang ice cream? Ah, there, he saw it. It was hiding behind some packs of ground beef. He used his left hand to hold up the beef and then slid the ice cream out with his right. He placed it on the counter. In the cabinet over the stove were several different bowls and plates. He opened it, grabbed one, and returned to the counter. The last utensil was the ice cream scoop. He went to a drawer to his right just above the sink and found it at the back. As he scooped the ice cream, he looked over at the TV. Family Guy was on. Stewie was in a speedo tanning outside and saying something to Brian. The third scoop splashed into his bowl. He rinsed it off in the sink and placed it on the dish towel that his mother had left out for dishes and utensils that couldn’t be washed in the dishwasher. He clasped the lid back on the container and stuck it back in the freezer.
He began to travel back to his room when his father said, “Hold up a minute.”
He stood up off the sofa and grabbed the bowl. He sat it on the counter. What happened next, Thomas never expected. He turned back to him and kneeled so that they were at eyelevel – this was necessary since his dad was about six three.
“I’m sorry about the way I reacted in the car,” he said. “I’m just concerned about you. Christianity is just dangerous in my eyes, and as long as you’re in my house, I don’t want you socializing with them. It’s only for your safety. When you get older and move out, you can choose whatever path you like. Okay?”
“I love you, you know that right?”
Dad hugged him and then gave him kiss on his forehead. “Now go eat your ice cream.”
That was the last thing he ever heard his father say. He got the bowl from the counter and went to his room. The video game got old so he turned it off and switched on Family Guy. His mother didn’t appreciate it. She thought it was a vile, disgusting program that destroyed family values. But she agreed that it was much better than South Park. So he watched the characters do their random humor and laughed as he ate his ice cream. On the commercials he thought about the girl again. He wondered why that was the only thought to keep going through his head.
And that was when he heard a knock at the door. He looked out into the den to see his father getting up to open the door. He wasn’t concerned. His parents often had visitors come over later at night than eight. Most often these visitors were the strange men that kept their hands in their pockets. Suddenly, that bitter smell was in the air again. He scanned the man that stepped through the door, and sure enough, his hand was in his pocket. Only, this guy was new. He didn’t recognize the face. He was younger and white, but he wore a red jacket and kept the hood over his head as if he were concerned about somebody discovering who he was. But maybe he was just cold.
He continued to eat his ice cream enjoying the chocolate clumps as they raced down his throat. He couldn’t remember what flavor it was, but it was good nonetheless. He heard the clank of his spoon as it swooped for one more bite but came into contact with empty bowl. Commercials came on so he decided it would be a good time to step out to clean it. As he left his bed for the door, he looked back at his father and the man and noticed that the man was holding up a bag filled with some kind of leafy substance like tea. He hurried past the sofa and into the kitchen. At the counter, he returned his gaze to their direction and saw that his father had taken the bag and was filling a small rectangular strip of paper with the leafy substance. When finished, he rolled it up into a…cigarette? So that’s what Dad was doing all those times. He’d seen his parents smoking cigarettes before, but he thought they had come from a store somewhere. From a drug lecture he’d received at school he learned about illegal drugs. They weren’t sold in stores because they were against the law. That’s what this must be. His father was purchasing some drug that was illegal.
He heard his mother down the hall in their room talking. He looked and saw that the door to their room was open. On the door he could see her shadow in the light. It looked as if she were holding a phone. He turned back to see his father looking at him. He must’ve finally realized that Thomas was in the kitchen overlooking what was transpiring. His eyes said everything that needed to be said: Get in your room.
So he did. He moved back crossed behind the sofa to his room and got back on his bed. A new episode of Family Guy was coming on. He had muted the TV when the commercials came on so he unmuted it, but he left it low so he could hear. Something was weird about what was going on and he felt uncomfortable. His mind ached trying to figure out what was bothering him, but he couldn’t. It remained a mystery. It felt like a voice in his head was telling him to get out or hide or something along that line. But hide from what? Run from what?
He surveyed the den again. The man was now standing with his back to the front door facing Dad. The bag and the cigarette still lay on the coffee table they’d bought on a trip to IKEA. And that bitter odor still poisoned the air.
Wait...the man was moving his right hand from his jacket pocket. Strange, he didn’t remember it being there, but it was now. It slipped out and hung at his side. And there was something in it, something shiny. He couldn’t hear what his father and the man were talking about because the TV in the den was too loud, but his bad feeling grew worse by the second.
Then the man lifted his arm straight out toward his father. There was a loud bang followed by the back of his father’s head exploding. The dark red color of blood appeared everywhere behind the sofa. His mind began to swarm with thoughts. He’d never experienced such confusion and terror in his life. He thought about screaming, but maybe the man forgot he was there. If this was so, screaming would re-alert the man of his presence.
He ran to right edge of his door, out of the man’s sight. “Dear, God,” he heard down the hall. He peeked around the edge of the door to see the mass of human that used to be his father leaning back, almost laying, his blood draining down the back of the sofa. That’s when his mother appeared at the entrance of the hallway. She belted a scream and then looked up at the man.
“No, please,” she pleaded.
“You think you can cheat me!” yelled the man.
Mom was crying and begging. He heard the hammer of the gun click back. And, in the last second – which seemed like an hour – he saw his mother’s eyes shift in his direction. She saw him standing by the door huddled in fear, the tears that he had not yet realized he’d shed streaming down his face. He could not say what she thought, but her expression changed. She seemed to come to acceptance with what was happening. It was as if she said, If I have to die to keep you alive, so be it. And then there was another bang. A red hole appeared in her head as she was thrown back into the hall, now laced with her blood, from the power of the impact. Her eyes remained open staring endlessly at him. She was gone too.
Run, said the voice in his head. So he did. He could see that the closet was open on the opposite side of his bed. He quickly jumped in and slid the door shut. His breathing was as rapid as his pulse. He realized that he was drenched in sweat.
Clanking sounds came from the den. He opened the door a sliver so he could see. The man was now scavenging around the room. He picked up items, and if he liked them and wanted them he would put them in a black leather bag. If not, he threw them back shattering some of the fragile ones.
Oh, no! He stepped on something. He felt it through his shoe. It was a toy probably, something plastic. He looked through the sliver again and saw the man turn toward his room.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I forgot about you, little buddy. Come on out so you and I can talk a little bit. I’ve got something to show you.”
The man kept coming, but Thomas remained inside the closet.
“I know you’re scared. I’d be scared too. But listen, this was just a little business transaction. No hard feelings, right? About your parents?”
No hard feelings? Who did this guy think he was?
Then he felt it. A presence beside him. He turned to see a man standing next to him in the closet. He had long hair and a long beard and was dressed in a long white robe like the Jews used to wear in the olden days – at least that’s what he’d heard from his grandparents. And his hands had scars on them, scars from some type of piercings. It took him a minute, but he finally realized that this was the guy he’d seen in the portrait at the church. The only difference was that he was no longer wearing that crown of thorns.
He moved His hand to His face and placed His index finger to his lips. Thomas nodded and returned his attention to the sliver.
What! The man from the portrait was now standing in the center of his room. He looked back to the space in his closet and saw that it was empty. How…?
The man with the gun was standing in the doorway of his room. When he saw the man from the portrait a puzzled look coursed his face.
“Who the ---- are you?”
The man from the portrait said nothing. He just stared at the man with the gun. Then He began to move toward him. If He had legs it didn’t seem like He was using them. His body slowly glided across the floor.
Thomas didn’t know what to make of the man with the gun. He seemed scared. When he began he was surely expecting a quick, easy heist with a swift getaway. But now he was looking for a scared little orphan boy and suddenly found himself in a faceoff with an unarmed man.
“You have a death wish, buddy?”
The man from the portrait continued not to speak.
“Okay, fine,” said the man with the gun. “Have it your way.”
He pulled the trigger. There was that same familiar bang, but nothing happened. The man from the portrait continued to glide toward the man with the gun and was almost there.
“What the ----?” he said.
He fired three more times. Nothing.
Then Thomas saw what had happened. The bullets had stopped just inches in front of the man from the portrait. They just hovered there. His eyes grew wide as he watched the scene. The man with the gun was clearly flustered. His eyes were just as wide if not bigger, and his hands were shaking.
“Okay,” he said. “You win.” He sat the leather case and the gun on the floor of the den, just in front of the door. “Just don’t hurt me.” He began to walk backwards and then made a sprint for the door. “Please…don’t hurt me!”
Thomas heard the front door slam followed by a scream outside. A shadow zipped past his window. The man was gone.
He opened the closet door wider. The man from the portrait was still facing the door, the bullets still hovering in front of him. They each dropped one by one to the floor. He crawled onto his bed. His mouth, unnoticed by him before, was wide open. He also realized, as he watched the man begin to turn toward him, that the bangs had had no effect on his hearing. Sound entered his ears better than ever.
He looked up at the man. Facing each other, a moment of silence ensued.
Then the man finally spoke. He said, “Everything is going to be alright.”
Immense sadness gripped him at last. He threw his arms around the man’s waist and balled into His robe. The man hugged him in return and rested His chin on his head.
And that was how it happened, the day his parents died. He never told anyone what had transpired. It was for him and him alone. It was meant as proof to him that Jesus Christ existed and had died for him.
Following the hug, the man led him to his father and then left through the front door. Why He did that Thomas never knew. He could have easily just vanished from the room, but He chose not to. It wasn’t long after that that the police arrived. One of the neighbors heard the shots and called it in. When they came in, Thomas was next to his father crying into his lap.
But his life did not stop. His grandparents adopted him and took him to church every Sunday. When he entered high school, he joined Ray’s youth group. He immediately got saved and made several friends. Ray’s ministry impacted him so much that when he went off to college he decided to major in religious studies. In 2003, he graduated with his Bachelor’s Degree from Florida State University. Whenever he was back home on breaks during the years he was there, he would joke around with Marvin who never ceased to miss an opportunity to wear one of his Gator shirts. He missed his parents, but he couldn’t deny that their loss had changed his life forever, possibly for the better. And he realized why his father tried to keep him from seeing those meetings over the drugs: He didn’t want his son to end up like him.
Now, he stood in the Florida cemetery where his parents were buried. In front of him the headstone read: DOUGLAS + MARY PHILIPS R.I.P. He released a breath and continued to glaze over words for the fifth time since his arrival. He no longer lived in Florida. After college he had met the woman of his dreams, and they were wed in the church, his best friend and teacher Ray presiding. Then he’d found an opening for a youth pastor in a small Baptist church in Maryland. That was where he now lived. But they had agreed to take this trip down so that his children could see where their grandparents were buried.
His daughter Kayla who was now five stood in front of him feeling the stone tablet with her hand. His son Caleb who was four stood next to him watching her and hugging his left leg. His wife Jessica was standing to his right also watching Kayla. He felt her arm wrap around his back coming to rest with her hand on his shoulder.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
He broke from his scan and rescan of the letters. “Yeah,” he replied. “I’m fine. I was thinking about the night they died.”
“Do you need us to give you a minute?”
He shook his head. “No, it’s fine.”
“We miss you, Grandma and Grandpa,” he heard Kayla say.
Caleb moved from his leg and ran to the other side of the headstone. “Hey, Kayla, I bet you can’t catch me.”
“Oh, yeah,” she said.
And they were off running throughout the cemetery playing tag.
“Oh, no,” Thomas said. “I guess I’d better go get them.”
As he moved, he felt Jessica’s hand grab his arm. “No,” she said. “You stay here. I’ll go get them.”
So he did. He stared at the stone and looked over the letters again. He breathed in and smelled the air rummaging over the events of that long-ago day. And oddly, he found himself think about the story of the little girl. It had been a long time since he had run the story through his head, but he knew why he was thinking about it this time. It was because he was the little girl. Like her, he’d had to watch his parents die, he’d had to hide from the danger of the moment, and he’d been a witness to the impossible.
He closed his eyes and let these thoughts continue. The warm breeze felt good on his skin. Coming back to Florida, he realized how much he missed it here. The seasons never changed here, unlike Maryland where it was freezing cold in winter and blazing hot during summer and mild in between. It was a weird climate there compared to what he’d grown up in, but he felt that was where God wanted him to be.
When he opened his eyes he saw Him. Up on the hill under a tree between a row of headstones stood the man from his room. Only, Thomas now knew Him as Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He still wore the same white robe, and His beard and hair remained the same length, just slightly touching his shoulders and chest. And He was waving. Thomas wondered if anyone else could see Him. It was possible that He was waving to someone else. But he was sure that it was him He was waving at. He had come back to visit the boy whom He had rescued that terrible eve when his parents were ripped away from him.
He smiled and waved back.
“Who are you waving at?”
Out of his periphery he saw Jessica returning with the kids. “Oh…” he sighed, “I thought I saw someone familiar up on the hill.”
“Daddy!” yelled Caleb as he ran up and wrapped his arms around his leg again.
“Hey, buddy.” He bent down and lifted him up by his underarms. When he rested safely in Daddy’s arm, Thomas gave him a kiss on the forehead. “You ready to go see Poppa and Granny?”
“Yeah,” they both chimed simultaneously.
He put Caleb down and watched them both run to car, Kayla chasing her brother.
He felt a pat on his back and turned to see Jessica. “You sure you’re okay?”
He nodded and kissed her. “I feel a lot better.”
As they walked to the car, his arm wrapped around her neck and his fingers laced with hers, he turned back around for one more look at the hill. The man was gone. He smiled again. It was amazing how a ruined life like his could be turned around by such a series of tragic events. But he was happy, and above all, he was complete because he had something that many people failed to receive: He had a brand new life, spiritually and physically; he had a second chance with a family he loved and cherished; and he had a savior – not just a savior but the Savior, the Great I Am whom many sought for but never found, a man…worth knowing.
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