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By Ennis Smith

I started to write this as a weekly challenge project, but it sort of took on a life of its own. I'd like to know if the content is strong enough to hold attention. More dialogue; less dialogue? Too wordy? Please feel free to disect it.
So, here I am, checking the text-messaged address, just to make sure this is the right place. The old weathered wooden numbers dangling from an ancient address plate match the numbers displayed across my cell-phone screen.

“816 Destiny Lane. It can’t be possible.” I whisper. “End.”

This house, in fact this entire block, resembles the home and street my family resided in for three years, back in the early teens. Except for the street name, everything else is identical. I remember our house had the same type of hand railing surrounding the porch. I had put two coats of red stain on the wooden pillars, dowels and planks myself. Time, it seems, has not been kind to this railing’s faded and partially stripped stain.

The metal frame of the screen door, once matched the color of the vinyl siding, but now appears to be a dull brown riddled with scratches and rust. The tattered screen hangs flimsy from the frame. Holes were punched through the fabric. Looking at this wreck of a screen door reminds me of changing our screen, back in the summer of 2011. Isaiah, our youngest son, had tripped while running up the porch. The little guy flew right threw the screen door. Thinking about that incident now, brings a smile to my face.

Although the red brick pavers of the flower bed are still lining either side of the masonry porch, the flowerbed itself is overrun by weed coverage. But, as I lean over the old rickety railing, I’m looking threw the weeds in the south-west corner of the flower bed, when I see it. Yes, there it is. It’s the pink stone. This has to be some weird sort of coincidence.

I remember in the summer of 2010, I worked on a construction project, excavating for an existing sanitary sewer line. As the excavator operator was digging, he hit a small boulder about forty feet underground. That boulder was unearthed and brought up to the surface, where I washed it off. It was this stone; a beautiful, sixteen-inch round pink smooth boulder, I just had to have for our flowerbed. I brought it home. The wife, kids and I all wrote our names across its smooth pink surface, using a permanent marker. Then, just before setting the stone in the flower bed, I remember placing a small four-inch strip of leather down. I set a spare house key on top of the leather, before rolling the 40-pound boulder over the key. My wife and I packed topsoil around the family stone, as it had affectionately become known, to give it the appearance of being half-buried.

I can’t believe it’s here. I descend the crumbling precast concrete steps and head straight for the weed choked stone. Suddenly, I remember the directions in the text message, and dig deep into my pocket to retrieve my phone. Touching the screen, invokes the phone’s voice activation system.

“Computer, display the last text message.” I say. The phone responds with a beep, followed by a digital feminine voice recanting the digital time stamp.

“Message received. 12:30pm. Sunday, July 7, 2021. Sender: Unknown.”

Two small beams of light flicker, from the phone resting in my palm. A twelve-inch by twelve-inch holographic projection of the screen appears before my eyes, displaying the text message. I read through the last few sentences aloud, slowly.

“’816 Destiny Lane. Bring a pair of leather gloves. You’re gonna need them.’ Did someone really send me out here, to prune weeds? End.”

The projection disappears. The phone beeps twice, as I replace it in my Dockers-shorts pocket. As I stand in the unkempt front lawn, looking at the pink stone, I begin to silently pray to God for some type of understanding.

'Lord, I’ve trusted and obeyed you for the last eleven years of my life, and you’ve never lead me astray. In fact, everything leading up to now has been for some sort of good in our lives. So I’m not even going to try to lie to you. I don’t understand any of this. Why am I here? What is this place, and why does it perfectly resemble my past? If there is such a place as purgatory, is this it? Did I do something unforgivable and now I’m doomed to spend time here? Please tell me what to do.'

Deep within the pit of my soul, just between my heart and stomach, I feel warmth resonating. A voice answers, between my ears, outside of my head.

'My hand is in this, son. This is for you, but not for you specifically. Remain faithful.'

I sigh and shake my head. While I’m relieved to hear from God, I’m still no closer to an answer than I was before I asked the questions.

“Alright then, I guess I know what the gloves are for.” I say.

Reaching into my back pocket, I pull out my brand new cowhide gloves, and slip them on. I kneel low over the flower bed and begin to yank and pull at the three feet of overgrowth towering over the stone. Bumble bees, lady bugs and flies flee as the weeds are ripped from their roots. Eventually I clear enough brush to wrap my hands around the stone. Though the years have faded the permanent markings off the stone, its smooth pink surface remains ever beautiful. I smile, finally admitting to myself, where I am.

“I’m really home. I don’t know how or why, but this place is my old house.”

I roll the old stone away from its hollow. Centipedes, rolly-pollies, and ants scamper away. An invisible plume of decomposed vegetation wafts up my nostrils and I stammer back, for a moment, as my eyes water over the assault. Clearly, this stone hasn’t been moved in years. But, as I look in the bottom of the dried and dusty hole, I see the silver house key, shiny and glinting as bright as the day I had the thing cut at the hardware store.

“It can’t be. You have to be at least ten years old, now. Surely someone had to have moved in after we left. Someone’s kid should have found you years ago.”

Examining the key, I can’t find any rust on it. The small leather strip is now dried and mildewed, but the key remains brand new in appearance. As I remove my gloves, and touch the little key, I immediately see a vision inside my head. Two figures are sitting inside an empty room. One is slouching in an old fashioned black leather lazy-boy recliner circa 1980’s. The other is sitting upright in a leather office chair that appears to be missing the stalk and rolling wheels. The chair simply hovers over the carpeted floor. I can’t make out their faces, in the shadows.

“He’s here,” says lazy-boy, sitting up and retracing the chair’s foot rest. Anticipation resounds in his adult voice. I can make out the silhouette of his nose and lips as he speaks. He’s facing the other.

“I know. I can feel him, too.” The young man in the hover-chair says. It’s a boy, maybe middle to late teens. In my mind’s eye, I watch his silhouette turn toward me. “Use the key in the door, sir. Come on in.”

Shaking my head and blinking, rattles me back to consciousness. I’m staring at the door key in my hand. In the back of my mind, a whisper reminds me of God’s words.

‘…remain faithful…’

“Okay,” I say, “…let’s find out what’s behind that front door, shall we?”

I take a deep breath and bolt up the porch steps, rip open the ancient screen door, thrust the key into the familiar dead-bolt lock, and twist. The deadbolt clicks incredibly loud and echoes through the street, as if a fire cracker had just exploded. Still holding my breath, I pull the key from the deadbolt lock and thrust it into the front door lock. The key slides in easily and the door lock spins without my help, starling me. I exhale as the old wooden door slowly creaks open on old rusted brass hinges.

As I cautiously step up through the threshold and immediately plant my back against the familiar interior sidewall to my left, the door slams shut. I’m petrified. The darkness of this room is numbing. My eyes are wide searching every corner of the pitch blackness for any signs of movement. I can feel my heart pounding in my throat. What does God want with me, here? I don’t remember my living room ever being this dark before.

I hear a teenage snicker to my right, where the living room television would have been resting against the wall, some 10 years ago. My breath catches, as I try to focus on the source of the laughter. I think my eyes are beginning to adjust to the darkness.

“Don’t laugh at him. You remember how scared you were, when you arrived, thirty minutes ago.” A young man’s voice calmly speaks, to my left. My head jerks in that direction.

I muster enough courage to find my voice. “Who…who’s there? Who are you two?” I start. Now the sweat begins to trickle down my back.

“Mr. Smith, please don’t be alarmed,” says the calm voice on my left side, again. He must be in control. “Believe me when I say, you are among friends here, sir. I apologize for the theatrics, but it’s necessary to ensure that we’re all prepared for what we’re about to see. At least, that’s what I was told.”

“Yeah man,” the teenage voice to my right adds. “…supposedly, this is gonna totally trip us all out.”

The young man says, “Mr. Smith, you’ll remember, there used to be a soft pink rocking chair set against that wall. If you reach out, you’ll find it there. Won’t you take a seat?”

There’s a brief moment of silence, when all I can hear is my heart beating. My eyes still haven’t adjusted to the dark setting of the living room, so I’m at the mercy of my hosts. I reach out and, sure enough, my wife’s old reading rocker is right beside me. I stroke the soft fabric-back of the chair and remember countless days of reading books in this chair, conversations shared, and watching the kids play their video games while I lounged in this chair.

I slowly slide down into its comforting familiarity and instantly receive a whiff of Potpourri fabric mist; the kind my wife still uses to freshen our living room furniture in our home now. My muscles relax, and despite myself, I smile and chuckle, somehow knowing that I’m in no danger here.

“Comfy, Mr. Smith?” the teenager to my right asks in the darkness. “He said you’d love that chair. He told me you always did.”

“I am.” I say. “He who? Just who are you two, anyway, and what is this all about?”

I’m amazed at how my body remembers the feel of the old chair. My arms drape against the low arm rests. The back of my head finds the familiar crook of the chair-back cushion. I used to rest my head in this crook with my eyes shut, when I was in need of deep contemplation. Instinctively, my legs cross at the ankles. Despite my tensions concerning my purpose here, I really am quite relaxed.

“Your answers begin now, Mr. Smith. Allow us to introduce ourselves, to you,” says the voice of the young man, on my left.

I hear the paused wrenching of manual chain-work. Sunlight begins to stream into the tiny living room, as the vertical blinds draping across the large bay window slowly open. I squint slightly, against the invasion of the sun’s bright rays. Apparently, the teen is also ill-prepared for the bright light.

“Yikes, man, that hurts! You should’ve let me know you were doing that,” he shrieks.

“Sorry guys. The Lord’s light is a bit bright to those who aren’t prepared for it,” the young man says.

And just like that, I know who they are, before I even look into their eyes. Of course they’re the only two, here! I’m the third and final guest. They were waiting for me, to get started. My logical mind won’t allow me to accept it, but my spirit leaps for joy, knowing that any and all things are possible with God. I’m simultaneously excited and afraid to look into their faces, and choose to focus on the tan Berber carpet as my eyes continue to adjust to the new light. God speaks to me again.

'They need you. I brought you here to inspire them. Talk to them, son. You are the elder.'

God’s voice speaks an indescribable joy into my heart, and I begin to weep as I raise my eyes toward the man seated to my left. Our brown eyes lock and I see he is taken aback at the sight of me. His eyes widen and his thick eyebrows rise. His mouth hangs agape and transforms into a huge dimpled smile. I see a finely trimmed mustache above his top lip; no chin hairs yet. But I recognize the indented and crinkled line of skin on top of his forehead, just between the eyes. It is all that remains of an eight-stitched scar from a winter slip and fall, at age nine. His ears are pierced with imitation diamond studs; one in each ear. Through his corn-row braided hair, I see not a single dash of gray, and his hair line has not yet begun to recede.

His body is toned for such a short man. I see rounded shoulders, a broad little chest, and sinewy arms. He’s wearing a sleeveless T-shirt exposing a cursive-tattooed phrase across each brown skinned bicep. I already know that the left arm reads ‘I Stand Alone’, while the right arm, which appears to be healing indicating it’s a new work, reads ‘I Do Not Fail’. A 10K gold crucifix dangles from a small golden chain draped around his neck. The wedding band circling his ring finger resembles the same golden band on my own ring finger. Although the golden glint of his ring has not yet dulled, they are identical. Baggy jeans and a relatively new pair of sneakers, round out his wardrobe. This young man sports the hardened look of an inner city gangster, but I know his heart has recently been changed by the Lord. I nod toward him, wiping away my fallen tears. His chest heaves, as he begins to stand up from the old lazy-boy chair. In turn, I stand and shake his hand.

Next, I turn my attention to the teenager still rubbing the darkness from his eyes. I can’t help but chuckle at the site of this lanky young man seated in a black leather executive hover chair that vaguely resembles the new model I’m planning to purchase for my home office next week. His skinny frame appears to be swallowed up by a blue short-sleeved, crew necked, silk shirt. I turn a glance to my corn-rowed counterpart, and twitch my head back toward the teen.

Look at this guy the gesture implies.

Corn-rows bursts into laughter, as if reading my mind. I fold my arms across my chest and take in the site. The teen jumps up from the hover chair, buries the heels of both hands deep into his eyes, and rubs like a mad man. His silk shirt is too big for him. He’s wearing a pair of black dress slacks that were bought one size too big for his slender waist line, as well. I can see the point tip of his belt poking into the left side of his shirt. The kid is wearing a pair of badly worn, black, wing-tipped dress shoes that could stand a decent polish and buff. While he digs hard into his eye sockets, I get a good look at the 10K gold ‘Class of 1991’, red ruby, studded ring wrapped around his finger.

“You let me walk out of the house looking like that?” Corn-rows asks me.

“Hey, if I remember right,” I start, “we paid a whole forty dollars for that shirt, back in 1989. That shirt was awesome.”

“Yeah, but look at those shoes,” says corn-rows. “Lord have mercy, would it have killed us to at least spit shine them, once or twice?”

“They sure were comfortable, though.” I say. “Ugly, but comfortable.”

The kid, realizing he’s being scrutinized, abruptly stops his rubbing and stares wide-eyed at the both of us. I watch his brown eyes bounce side to side, like he’s watching a fast paced tennis match. Clarity quickly contorts his facial expressions, from quiet calm, to horrified amazement.

“Holy…what the…how the…what in the name,” he jibbers.

“Take it easy, kid.” I say. I step toward the teenager with an outstretch hand, but he recoils.

“Don’t touch me! Who are you?” the kid yells.

He back-peddles so quickly, that he doesn’t see the hover chair behind him. His calves collide with the seat, sending the chair floating back against the wall, and the kid landing hard on the carpeted floor. He’s hyperventilating. Corn-rows quick steps to the kid’s side. He reaches toward the boy to hoist him from the floor. The kid whips out a flailing kick that connects with his crotch.

“Don’t you touch me, either! What the heck's going on? Who are you people?” the hysterical boy shouts.

Corn-rows is lying paralyzed on the floor, moaning and writhing in pain, clutching his crotch. Meanwhile, the kid manages to slide himself up the wall, to his feet and is now flicking glances between the downed man, the front door, and me. As he eyeballs his surroundings, his mouth spats every type of obscenity imaginable. His chest is heaving a mile a minute between hollow gasps. I see the damp of his teenaged armpits infiltrating the silk shirt and sweat is pouring down his bony temples. He’s gonna make a break for daylight unless I do something here. I inhale deep, mentally draw on every time my father had ever yelled at me, and let the fury rip, with a point of my finger.

“Ennis Charles Smith, shut your mouth, and sit your behind down, now!” I roar.

Two terrified faces stare back at me; one from the floor, the other against the far wall. I stomp across the living room, and plant my hands around the skinny shoulders of the petrified kid. Drawing his face close to mine, he gasps.

“Now you listen to me, Ennis.” I tell him. “You calm it down right now, before you give yourself a panic attack. Do you understand me?”

“I think he’s already in the middle of one. I forgot how high strung we used to be,” says ‘Corn-rows’. I glance down at the young man and notice his ashen face is beginning to take on its natural color again. He’s picking himself up from the floor, and brushing off his jeans.

“Knock it off, Ennis!” I yell at him. The young man freezes, wide-eyed.

“You will both, get hold of yourselves, sit down, and remain calm. Do I make myself clear?” I chide.

“Yes, sir,” says the kid.

“Yes, sir,” says the young man simultaneously.
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