Previous Challenge Entry (Level 1 – Beginner)
Topic: Work (07/27/06)
TITLE: The Preacher
By Ann FitzHenry
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Once a handsome young man with a quick smile, Jack’s leathery face hung from decades of hard labor. Sagging with middle age, his hollow cheeks and tiny eyes permanently squinted from the sun. His lips, cracked and bleeding, looked as if they hadn’t smiled in years. Working 10 hours a day moving rocks would do that to a man.
Before joining the chain gang, Jack lived a comfortable life in the suburbs. A member of the young executives club, he spent his days sitting behind a desk in a windowed corner office. Wearing a white shirt and tie, he wasn’t the type of guy that had dirt under his fingernails. Coming home late one night after an office party, he noticed the back door had been kicked open. Alarmed he yelled, “Rachael, Rachael!” Following the trail of blood in the hallway, he found his wife’s body lying under the kitchen table. With his mind numb with alcohol, he made a horrible mistake and ran.
The next morning a paper boy discovered the scene and called the police. Found hiding under an overpass, Jack was arrested the next day. The only suspect, he was convicted to 99 years of hard labor at Madison State Penitentiary. Nicknamed “Hell’s Hand Basket,” Madison State was infamous for its swift executions of the condemned.
For the first few years, Jack fought for his freedom. To anyone who would listen, he proclaimed his innocence. Subjected to scorn and ridicule the other inmates laughed, “Innocent? That’s what they all say.” After a while, even his closest friends stopped coming to visit. Deemed a delusional liar he was forgotten and thrown away.
With anger gnawing at his soul, Jack became a shriveled shell of a man. With nothing to live for, he easily assimilated to the rhythms of prison life. Morning inspection and evening lock down were welcome distractions for his fragmented mind.
One day the routine changed as Jack watched a fellow inmate take his final walk to Gertrude, the prison’s electric chair. As the condemned man passed Jack’s cell, the air around him reeked with fear. Once proud and powerful, the man cried for his mother. Reduced to sobs, Jack heard him beg, “Momma, help me. I can’t see Jesus.”
With silent tears streaming down his face, Jack prayed for the first time in ten years. As he uttered the Lord’s Prayer, he answered God’s call to minister to the damned. In his other life, Jack sat on a cushioned pew every Sunday and listened to sermons about service. This call was much more urgent and meaningful. All the time he had been in prison, God’s work hadn’t stopped. It had just changed locations. Jack didn’t want another person to die without knowing Jesus. When he began witnessing to others, he quickly became known as “the preacher.” Enduring catcalls and beatings, he was the crazy “innocent” man who believed in God. Leading his congregation in five-minute sessions, he could be seen with a tattered Bible on his knees teaching the gospel. Over time a small group of men accepted Christ as their Savior.
Yesterday another one of Jack’s flock took his walk to eternity. As he paused at Jack’s cell the prisoners jeered, “Hey, Preecha, where’s Jesus now? Billy’s goin’ to see Gertie.” Ignoring their calls, Billy and Jack locked hands between the bars and bowed their heads in silent prayer. When Gertrude dimmed the lights a few minutes later, Jack’s worn lips cracked a satisfied smile. Billy was on his way to see Jesus.
Remembering the moment, Jack suddenly felt weak and nauseous. Gasping for breath, he clutched his chest and fell forward with his ax in his hand. As he lost consciousness, Jack saw blaze orange for the last time. When his heart exploded, his lips curled in a peaceful smile. Like the others before him, the prisoner known as “the preacher” took his final walk to eternity.
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