The sleepy, eastern Washington wheat town of Antioch has suddenly become a gateway for the supernatural-from sightings of angels and messianic images to a weeping crucifix. When a self-proclaimed prophet mysteriously appears with an astounding message. The national media...
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The sleepy, eastern Washington wheat town of Antioch has suddenly become a gateway for the supernatural-from sightings of angels and messianic images to a weeping crucifix.
When a self-proclaimed prophet mysteriously appears with an astounding message. The national media and the curious all flock to the little town-a great boon for local business but not for Travis Jordan. The burned-out former pastor has been trying to hide his past in Antioch. Now the whole world is headed to his backyard to find the Messiah, and in the process, every spiritual assumption he has ever held will be challenged. The startling secret behind this visitation ultimately pushes one man into a supernatural confrontation that will forever alter the lives of everyone involved
The sleepy, eastern Washington wheat town of Antioch has become a gateway for the supernatural?from sightings of angels and a weeping crucifix to a self-proclaimed prophet with an astounding message.
The national media and the curious all flock to the little town?a great boon for local business but not for Travis Jordan. The burned-out former pastor has been trying to hide his past in Antioch. Now the whole world is headed to his backyard to find the Messiah, and in the process, every spiritual assumption he has ever held will be challenged. The startling secret behind this visitation ultimately pushes one man into a supernatural confrontation that has eternal consequences.
Frank Peretti, whose books have sold more than 12 million copies and is widely credited with reinventing Christian fiction. He is the author of Monster as well as the international bestsellers The Oath and This Present Darkness. The Oath has sold more than a million copies and was awarded the 1996 ECPA Gold Medallion Award for best fiction. Peretti lives with his wife Barbara in the Pacific Northwest.
Sally Fordyce left the house as soon as the breakfast dishes were done, walking a little, jogging a little along Highway 9 -- a narrow, straight-as-a-string two-lane with a fading white line and an evenly spaced parade of utility poles. This was eastern Washington State, quiet and solitary.� Wheat fields, spring green, stretched in every direction over the prairie swells.� Straight ahead, the highway dipped and rose gently into the distance until it narrowed to a vanishing point at the far horizon. The sun was warm, the breeze a little biting. It was April.
Sally was nineteen, blonde, slightly overweight, and severely unhappy, mainly because she was no longer married. She had believed everything Joey, the trucker, told her about love, and how she was that girl silhouetted on his mud flaps. The marriage -- if it happened at all -- lasted three months.� When he found another woman more intellectually stimulating, Sally was bumped from the truck's sleeper and found herself coming full circle, right back to being Charlie and Meg's daughter living at home again.� She had to keep her room clean, help with dinner and dishes, get home by eleven, and attend the Methodist church with them every Sunday. Again, her life was not her life.
She had tasted freedom, she thought, but she was turned away. She had no wings to fly and nowhere to fly even if she did. Life wasn't fair. (To hear Charlie tell it, he and Meg must have made up a list of all the dumb mistakes they hoped she would never make and given her a copy. Needless to say, things were tense.)
Even before she tried Joey, the trucker, Sally used to find escape out on the wheat prairie in the stillness of the morning. Now she returned, even fled to this place. Out here, she heard no voice but her own thoughts, and her thoughts could say whatever they wanted. She could pray too, sometimes aloud, knowing no one but God would hear her. Dear God, please don't leave me stuck here. If you're there, send a miracle. Get me out of this mess.
In all fairness, it was past time for Sally to feel that way. Except for those who had wheat farming in their blood and couldn't wait to climb on a combine, most everyone growing up in Antioch heard a call from elsewhere -- anywhere -- sooner or later. When they came of age, all the kids who could find a way out left -- usually -- for good. Sally had come of age, all right, but had not found a way out. Charlie and Meg would probably tell you that she was not the kind to look for one, either. She was still waiting for it to come to her.
The halfway point of her jog was a spreading cottonwood at the top of a shallow rise, the only tree in sight. It was monstrous, and had to have been growing there long before the roads, farms, or settlers came along. Sally double-timed her way up the rise and was breathing hard by the time she reached it. She'd developed a routine: Every day she braced herself against the huge trunk and stretched out her leg muscles, then sat and rested for a moment between two prominent roots on the south side.� Recently, a short prayer for a miracle had also become part of the routine.
The stretches went easily enough. She had cooled down, her breathing had settled, she could feel the flush in her cheeks from the exercise and the cool air. �
She rounded the tree
And almost jumped out of her skin.
A man was sitting between the two roots, exactly in her spot, his back against the gnarled trunk and his wrists draped lazily over his knees. He had to have been there all during her stretching-out, and she was immediately curious, if not offended, that he had said or done nothing to indicate his presence.
�"Oh!" she gasped, then caught her breath. "Hello. I didn't see you there. "
He only chuckled and smiled at her with a kindly gaze. He was a remarkably handsome man, with olive skin, deep brown eyes, and tightly curled black hair. He was young, perhaps as young as she was. "Good morning, Sally. Sorry if I startled you."
She probed her memory. "Have we met before?"
He shook his head teasingly. "No."
"Well, who are you?"
�"I'm here to bring you a message. Your prayers have been heard, Sally. Your answer is on his way. Be looking for him."
She looked away for only a moment, just a slight, eye-rolling gesture of consternation. "Be looking for who -- ?"
He was gone.
She walked around the cottonwood, looked up and down the road and across every field, and even looked straight up the trunk of the tree.
He was gone, just like that, as if he'd never been there.
After one more hurried trip around the tree, she stopped, a hand against the trunk to steady herself, her eyes scanning the prairie. Her heart was beating faster than when she'd come up the rise. Her breathing was rapid and shallow. She was shaking. �
At our lady of the fields church in Antioch, Arnold Kowalski was busy dust-mopping the quaint little sanctuary, pushing the wide broom between the pews and down the center aisle, moving a little slowly but doing a thorough job. Arnold had been a soldier, a carpenter, a diesel mechanic, and a mail carrier, and now, since retiring, he had taken upon himself the unofficial title of church custodian. It wasn't a paid position, although the church did provide a little monetary gift for him each month as an expression of love and gratitude. He just did it for God, a few hours a few days a week, pure and simple. It brought him joy, and besides, he liked being in this place.
He'd been a devout member of Our Lady of the Fields for some forty years now. He never missed Sunday morning mass if he could help it. He never failed to make it to confession, though now at seventy-two the confessions were getting shorter and the penance easier. He liked to think that God was happy with him. He considered himself happy enough with God.
Except for one thing, one minor grief he had to carry as he moved slowly down the center aisle pushing his broom. He couldn't help wishing that God would pay just a little attention to Arnold's arthritis. It used to flare up occasionally; now it was only on occasion that it didn't.� He was ashamed to think such a thought, but he kept thinking it anyway: Here I am serving God, but God keeps letting it hurt. His hands throbbed, his feet ached. His knuckles cried out no matter which way he gripped the broom. He was never one to complain, but today, he almost felt like crying.
Maybe I'm not serving God enough, he thought. Maybe I need to work longer. Maybe if I didn't take any money for what I do here�.�.�.
What am I missing? he wondered. What am I leaving out? �
He always took off his hat when he entered the building and blessed himself before entering the sanctuary.� Right now, as usual, he was wearing his blue coveralls. Perhaps a tie would show more respect.
He pushed a little more dust and dirt down the center aisle until he stepped into a beam of sunlight coming through a stained-glass window. The sun felt warm on his back and brought him comfort, as if it were God's hand resting on his shoulders. From this spot he could look up at the carved wooden crucifix hanging above the altar. He caught the gaze of the crucified Christ. �
�"I don't want to complain," he said. Already he felt he was overstepping his bounds. "But what harm would it do?� What difference would it make to this big wide world if one little man didn't have so much pain?" It occurred to Arnold that he had addressed God in anger. Ashamed, he looked away from those gazing wooden eyes. But the eyes drew him back, and for a strange, illusory moment they seemed alive, mildly scolding, but mostly showing compassion as a father would show to a child with a scraped knee. Sunlight from another window brought out a tiny sparkle in the corners of the eyes, and Arnold had to smile. He could almost imagine those eyes were alive and wet with tears. �
The sparkle grew, spreading from the corners of the eyes and reaching along the lower eyelids. �
Arnold looked closer. Where was the light coming from that could produce such an effect? He looked above and to the right. It had to be coming through that row of small windows near the ceiling. To think he'd been attending this church for so many years and never noticed this before. It looked just as if --
A tear rose over the edge of the eyelid and dropped onto the wooden cheek, tracing a thin wet trail down the face and onto the beard.
Arnold stared, frozen, his mind stuck between seeing and believing. He felt no sense of awe, no overshadowing spiritual presence. He heard no angelic choir singing in the background. All he knew was that he was watching a wooden image shed tears as he stood there dumbly. �
Then his first coherent thought finally came to him. I have to get up there. Yes, that was the thing to do; that would settle it. He hurried as fast as the pain in his feet would allow him and brought a ladder from the storeroom in back. Pausing before the altar to bless himself, he stepped around the altar and carefully leaned the ladder against the wall. Every climbing step brought a sharp complaint from his feet, but he gritted his teeth, grimaced, and willed himself up the ladder until he came eye to eye, level to level with the carved face. �
His eyes had not been playing tricks on him. The face, only a third life-sized, was wet. He looked above to see if there was a leak in the ceiling but saw no sign of a stain or drip.� He leaned close to study the image for any sign of a device or some kind of trickery. Nothing.
He reached, then hesitated from the very first tinge of fear. Just what was he about to touch? Dear God, don't hurt me. He reached again, shakily extending his hand until his fingertips brushed across the wet trail of the tears. �
He felt a tingling, like electricity, and jerked his hand away with a start. It wasn't painful, but it scared him, and his hand began to quiver. Electric sensations shot up his arm like countless little bees swarming in his veins. He let out a quiet little yelp, then gasped, then yelped again as the sensation flowed across his shoulders, around his neck, down his spine. He grabbed the ladder and held it tightly, afraid he would topple off.
A strong grip. �
A grip without pain. He stared at his hand. The vibration buzzed, and swirled under his skin, through his knuckles, across his palms, through his wrists. He lightened his grip, tightened it again, held on with one hand while he opened and closed the other, wiggling and flexing the fingers.
The pain was gone. His hands were strong.
The current rushed down his legs, making his nerves tingle and his muscles twitch. He hugged the ladder, his hands glued to the rungs, a cry bouncing off the wall only inches from his nose. He was shaking, afraid he would fall. He cried out, gasped, trembled, cried out again.
The electricity, the sensation -- whatever it was -- enveloped his feet and his scream echoed through the building.
Sunday, pastor Kyle Sherman prayed the prayer of benediction, the pianist and organist began playing the postlude -- a modern rendition of -- "Be Still My Soul" -- and the congregation of the Antioch Pentecostal Mission rose to leave. The after-service shuffling was the same as one would see in any church. Folks gathered up their coats, Bibles, Sunday school papers, and children, then formed slow-moving clusters in the aisles and doorways to joke and chat. Families, singles, friends, and visitors passed through the main doorway where the young pastor stood to shake their hands and greet them. Kids went as wild as their parents would tolerate, running outside after being scolded for running inside.
Dee Baylor was among the departing saints that day. A steady and constant presence at Antioch Mission, she was a robust, heavy-set woman in her forties with a prominent nose and hair that added measurably to her height. Short, mousy Blanche Davis and tightly permed, blue-rinsed Adrian Folsom were walking with her across the gravel parking lot as the three worked excitedly to keep the Christian grapevine alive. �
�"That's all he said?" Adrian asked.
Dee didn't mind repeating the story or any part of it. "Just that 'her answer was on his way.' And according to Sally he said his way, not its way."
�"So who was he talking about?" asked Blanche.
�"Maybe her future husband," Adrian ventured. "God told me I was going to marry Roger."
"So what about the crucifix at the Catholic church?" Blanche wondered.
"You can't limit God," Dee answered.
"No, you can't limit God," Adrian agreed with extra insistence in her voice.
"But a weeping statue?" Blanche asked, making a crinkled face. "That sounds awfully Catholic to me."
"Well, it's something a Catholic would understand."
Blanche considered that in silence.
"We need to be seeking the Lord," said Dee, her eyes closing prayerfully. "We need to be expecting. God has plans for Antioch. I think the Lord is ready to pour out his Spirit on this town."
"Amen." That was what Blanche wanted to hear.
"Amen," Adrian echoed.
Dee looked up at the sky as if looking toward heaven. The clouds were breaking up now. Patches of blue were beginning to show, promising a pleasant afternoon.
Adrian and Blanche walked and continued the conversation until they noticed they were by themselves. They looked back.
She was standing still, clutching her Bible to her bosom and looking heavenward, her lips moving rapidly as she whispered in another language.
They hurried to her side. What is it?
All she could do was point, then gasp, her hand over her mouth.
Adrian and Blanche looked quickly, afraid something might fall on them. They saw nothing but billowing clouds and patches of blue sky.
"I see Jesus," Dee said in a hushed voice. Then, raising one hand toward the sky she shouted ecstatically, "Jesus! I see you, I see you!"
Brother Norheim walked by. He was old, bent, and hard of hearing, but a respected church pillar. He knew how a church should be run and how the Spirit moved and how to properly wash out the communion cups so as not to offend the Lord. When he started "Bless the Lord, O My Soul" from his pew in the evening service, everybody sang right along whether Linda Sherman could find the right key on the piano or not. He could see the ladies were excited about something. �
�"What are you looking at?"
"I see the Lord!" Dee gasped, and then she broke into a song. "I see the Lord�.�.�.�I see the Lord�.�.�.�He is high and lifted up, and his train fills the temple!"
Adrian and Blanche kept staring at the clouds, hoping to spot something, making quick sideways glances at each other for clues.
Brother Norheim looked the sky over, smiling with three golden teeth and three gaps. "The firmament showeth his handiwork!"
"What do you see?" Adrian finally asked.
Dee pointed. "Don't you see him? Right there! He's looking right at us!"
Adrian and Blanche looked carefully, following the point of Dee's finger. Finally, Blanche drew in a slow, awe-struck gasp. "Yeeesssss�.�.�.�Yes, I see him! I see him!"
"Where?" Adrian cried. "I don't see him."
"Isn't that incredible!"
Adrian put her head right next to Blanche's, hoping to gain the same perspective. "Show me."
Blanche pointed. "See? There's the top of his head, and there's his ear and his beard�.�.�."
Adrian let out a crowlike squawk she usually saved for funny jokes and deep revelations. "AWWW! You're right! You're right!"
Now all three women were pointing and looking while Dee kept singing in and out of English. Brother Norheim moved on, glad to see the saints on fire, but others came alongside to see what the commotion was all about. Dave White, the contractor, saw the face right away, but his wife, Michelle, never did. Adrian's husband, Roger, saw the face, but found it an amusing coincidence and nothing more. Don and Melinda Forester, a new couple in church, both saw the face but disagreed on which direction it was looking. Their kids, Tony and Pammie, ages eight and six, saw Jesus but also saw several different animals on top of his head.
"Look!" said Adrian. "He's holding a dove in his hand, you see that?"
"Yeeahhhhh�.�.�." Dave White said in a hushed voice, his face filled with awe.
"He's ready to pour out his Spirit!" Dee announced with a prophetic waver in her voice.
"Eh, beats me," said Roger, squinting at the sky.
"He's speaking to us in these last days!"
"You're crazy," Michelle insisted. "I don't see anything."
"Hey Pastor Sherman!" Tony yelled. "We see Jesus in the clouds!"
"There's a rooster!" Pammie squealed.
"It just kept going from there," Kyle Sherman told me. "The three women started seeing all kinds of things because the clouds kept changing. For a while Jesus had a dove in his hand, and then after that he turned into a door -- you know, the door to the sheepfold, the door to heaven, whatever you want -- and then --" Kyle looked toward the ceiling as he recalled the appearance of the sky. "Uh�.�.�.�a flame, I think." He drew it in the air with his hand. "Kind of wavy, you know, up and down like a pillar of fire."
Kyle hadn't used any names up to this point, so I asked him, "Are we talking about Dee Baylor?"
He nodded, looking abashed.
"Adrian Folsom and Blanche Davis?"
Kyle nodded again, a reluctant yes.
"Makes sense," I said, picking up my coffee cup and taking another swallow.
It was Monday, the typical pastor's day off. Kyle Sherman and I were sitting at my kitchen table with coffee cups and a bag of Oreo cookies between us. He was still in his twenties, dark-haired, wiry, a fresh horse ready to gallop. For the past four months, he'd been at this table in this little house several times, keeping in touch and trying to be a good shepherd.
And hoping to keep some strays from straying further, I surmised. I know I caught his attention the moment he arrived to take over the pastorate. I was still the official pastor until I passed my mantle to him, but I was conspicuously missing. Antioch Pentecostal Mission had a pastor -- a former pastor -- who couldn't go near the place.
Kyle immediately did the pastoral thing by coming after -- coming to -- me and becoming a regular part of my life, welcome or not. The minister in me understood what he was doing and admitted that, if I were in Kyle's place, I would have done the same. As for the rest of me�.�.�.�well, I'll get to that.
Today's visit was decidedly different from the others, however. I hadn't heard quite so many Praise Gods or Hallelujahs from Kyle today. I could tell the spiritual escapades of Dee Baylor and company were weighing on him.
"Dee seems like she's --" Kyle was either struggling for words or waiting for me to fill in the blanks.
I filled in the blanks. "Dee is a follower with followers. Meg Fordyce has a little prayer and praise meeting at her house once a week, and Dee gets out there pretty often. Just put it together from there."
I could see a light bulb coming on, but Kyle apparently wasn't comfortable with my drift. I'm not sure I follow you.
"Kyle, it's simple. Meg told Dee about Sally seeing an angel. That means someone else is getting a special visitation from God that Dee isn't getting. You don't get something from God without Dee getting it too. She won't allow it."
Kyle actually looked disappointed. "So what about Sally? You think she made the whole thing up?"
"You can talk to Charlie and Meg about Sally. It's up to you, but no, I don't believe her. It sounds too much like the vanishing hitchhiker." Kyle laughed. "You've heard about that, right?"
"Oh yeah." He paused. "So Dee's copycatting?"
"No, with Dee you get it back with interest. Sally saw an angel. Dee's seeing Jesus."
But Kyle shook his head, still unsettled. They're excited, Travis. And not just Dee and Adrian and Blanche, but the Whites, the Foresters --"
"Excited about what? Jesus in the sky with a rooster on his head?"
"Pammie thought it was a rooster."
"Hey, you asked me." I set my coffee cup down on the table like a judge closing a case with a gavel.
"So what about Arnold Kowalski?"
I made a conscious effort not to roll my eyes. "Didn't a statue of Elvis start crying once?" I looked in my empty coffee cup and then at the coffee maker. There were still at least two cups in there. "You need a refill?"
I got up and poured another cup for myself. "Maybe Arnold Kowalski is the Catholic version of Dee Baylor."
I could tell from Kyle's tone that he was getting impatient with me. "No, now come on, Travis. Kowalski went to Dr. Trenner down in Davenport, and he took x-rays and the whole thing. He says the arthritis is gone."
I sat down, my hand still on the handle of my coffee cup, and just looked at him. "What do you want me to say, Kyle?"
He sighed. "Just say what you think."
"I've already said what I think."
He stared at his empty coffee cup, dragging it by the handle in little zigzags around the table. "But you don't suppose God could surprise us once in a while? You know, do something we weren't expecting?"
I leaned forward. "Kyle, what these people experienced, they expected. Trust me." I leaned back, sipped my coffee, and tried to come up with some closing comment. "If you want my advice, I'd say don't sweat it. This kind of thing comes and goes and the wrinkles wash out eventually."
"I just need to take a position on all this."
The very thought of someone else having to take a position gave me a dark little pleasure. "Yeah, you're the one who has to remain stable, aren't you? Well, it won't hurt to let the jury stay out a while."
"I think Dee and Adrian are watching the clouds again today --"
There was a knock at the front door.
"It's Rene," I said, then hollered, "Come in!"
She came in. "Hi, Trav."
Her blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she was wearing her old green sweats, same as she did every time she came over. I introduced my big sister to the new pastor, and I took pleasure in another thought: Rene lived in Spokane, so she didn't have to worry about Kyle calling on her.
"Don't let me disturb you, she said, turning toward the bedroom."
"We were just finishing up."
"Uh --" Kyle fished around for his lost thought but apparently found another one. "Anyway, the ministerial's going to meet tomorrow morning to talk about all this. I think Nancy Barrons is going to be there."
"Great," I said. "Newspaper coverage. That'll put the fire out."
Kyle raised an eyebrow at me. "Hey, Travis, the whole town's buzzing about this. There's a lot going on out there and you're missing it."
I smiled. That made three pleasurable thoughts in a row.
Rene came out of the bedroom with my laundry basket. She was giving me a look, most likely a comment on how full that basket should have been but was not after a week.�
Kyle was still talking. "Anyway, why don't you come with me?� I haven't gotten to know all the ministers yet. You can introduce me, sit in and listen, have some input."
It was a ploy, pure and simple, and not the first time Kyle had tried to get me moving in the old church circles again. I gave a little disarming chuckle and wagged my head.
"It'll be at the Catholic church. We'll all get a chance to look at that weeping crucifix."
I made a face. I couldn't help it. "Get real!"
Kyle just raised his hands in surrender to logic. "Hey, you can bicker about hearsay or you can go straight to the source and see it for yourself."
"And sit down with all those ministers again? Not this year, thank you."
Rene walked behind me to the refrigerator and checked my supply of frozen meals and leftovers.
Kyle looked at me for a moment, and I knew I wouldn't like his next question. "Do they have something to do with it?"
"To do with what?"
"Yes," Rene answered.
I shot her a glance over my shoulder and she shot me one back.
Kyle had no fear of thin ice. "With you resigning your pulpit, sitting here in this little house all by yourself --"
"Never changing your clothes," Rene cut in, "not shaving, not cleaning up --"
"I change my clothes!" I said.
She looked at the laundry basket on the floor. "There's only one shirt in there. Have you worn that same shirt all week?"
I looked down at the shirt I was wearing. I couldn't remember how long I'd worn it. "I like this shirt." I turned back to Kyle. "And you're living in the parsonage now, with my blessing. You're welcome to it."
Kyle raised his hands to show a truce. "I didn't mean�.�.�.
"Trav, we're not trying to pick a fight."
No, they weren't picking a fight. It was just the same old dilemma: friends whose loving concern keeps stumbling into your raw nerves, with every irritating stab well meant.� I stared at my coffee cup because I couldn't look at them.
"It's your life, I know that," Kyle said gently. "We just care about you, that's all."
Then you might come up with a solution I haven't heard already, I thought.��
But I didn't say it out loud. We had already had that conversation and it got us nowhere. Instead, I just looked at him, managed a smile, and reminded myself that I really did love this kid -- sorry, this man. This fresh new pastor, this up-and-coming man of God with the young, pretty, piano-playing wife and the two energetic kids. I reminded myself that twenty years ago I was sitting in his place. I was thinking the same things, offering the same solutions, excited for the same reasons. Man, did that feel like a long time ago!
"Thanks for the invitation," I said finally. "Not this time. Maybe later, when I've got something better to say for myself."
He returned my smile. "Okay." And to his credit, he dropped the subject.� "I gotta get going. Give me a call if you change your mind." With that he rose, patted me on the back, and headed for the front door.
"Oh, I will," I promised almost jokingly.
After Kyle closed the front door behind him, I looked up at Rene, still standing by the refrigerator. She was in her late forties and looking great, though giving me a somewhat scolding look the way big sisters do. It had always been her role to run interference for me while reaching back to swat me when she thought I needed it.
"We're, uh, we're doing better, Kyle and me," I said. "We got along pretty well today, all things considered."
She shrugged. "One of these days you're going to give him a lot of credit just for coming back."
"I do already."
"You gonna let me cut your hair today?"
"Maybe next time."
"You're getting pretty shaggy."
She came around and sat in Kyle's chair, facing me directly. "I don't know when that will be."
I figured it would be a week, just like always, but I could read in her eyes how wrong I was. "You and Danny going on vacation or something?"
She sat back in the chair and sighed deeply. "Travis Jordan, I owe you an apology. I've been wrong."
"Wrong about what?"
She drew a breath and sighed it out. "Wrong about letting you just sit on your rear." This was Rene's characteristic bluntness, her tough love. "Trav, it's been ten months. You know Marian would be upset to see you like this. I'm upset. Danny and I have been talking about it, and he's right: I thought I was helping you by doing your laundry and planning out your grocery list and cooking most of your meals. But�.�.�." She looked away and drummed her fingers on the table while she built up to it. "I can't be your mother anymore. School's starting in the fall, and by that time you're going to have to be a clean, resourceful, responsible adult again. You're going to have to be an example."
"In other words, get a life."
"No, you have a life. I'm telling you to get on with it. I mean�.�.�."� � She looked around the house. It was a small place. She could see the dining room, living room, and bedroom from where she was sitting. "When we were kids, Mom would never let us get away with a mess like this. We had to clean our own rooms, remember? Now here I am, cleaning yours. What's wrong with this picture?"
I looked around. This was a mess? I'd come to regard it as simply having everything I owned in plain sight and within easy reach at all times.
"I shouldn't even have done this, but I talked to Don Anderson yesterday, and he has a washing machine in stock that was damaged in shipping. It works fine, it just has a dent in it. He said he'll let it go for a hundred dollars. Travis, buy it. Hook it up and use it. Get yourself some rope and make a clothesline out back. The weather's warming up. You can dry everything back there. And did you try that meat loaf recipe I gave you?"
That meat loaf. "Uh, yeah. I think I cooked it too long."
"You used to cook when you and Marian were in California. I know; she told me. And you still have the makings for meat loaf in the freezer. Try it again. Try all the recipes again, and keep trying, 'cause after today, I'm out of here." She hurried around me and picked up the laundry basket. "I'll do this load, and then�.�.�.�you'd better buy that washing machine." She bent and kissed me on the cheek. "We're gonna talk someday. We have to."
"Sounds like we just did, I said."
"We will. I promise. Bye."
She smiled at me, turned, and went out the front door.
I heard her Bronco start up and drive off, and then the remarkable quiet of a small eastern Washington wheat town set in. Such towns have no ambient rumble of traffic. The only airport is a small strip for crop dusters several miles west of town. I could hear the electric whir of the clock on the wall and the intermittent drip from the kitchen sink. Somewhere in the neighborhood a dog barked. A breeze caused a dry leaf to skitter along the concrete just outside the patio door.
I sat motionless and intensely alone, ignoring the coffee growing cold in my cup and trying to get through my head what had just happened. It could have been the proverbial two-by-four against the side of the head. It sure felt like it.�
I finally got up and stood in the archway between the kitchen and the living room, numbly scanning the disheveled state of the one-bedroom bungalow. The coffee table had disappeared under books and magazines I'd planned to read or been reading, most of them open to wherever I'd begun or left off. I had to assume that I had flung my coat and hat over the chair near the door, but I sure couldn't remember doing it. I could probably blame the post office for the newspapers and catalogs that were spreading like kudzu over every level surface including the floor. The cluttered kitchen counters were filled with dirty dishes and cereal boxes still stood around after a week of breakfasts. It suddenly occurred to me how embarrassing it would be if my landlord were to drop by.
I made my way to the bathroom and found something equally messy in the bathroom mirror: a graying, weathered, whiskered, forty-five-year-old former�.�.�.�what? Anything I had ever been, I wasn't anymore. I knew that much. A question from my ordination application came back to me: Are you always neat and clean? I stifled a laugh. Not today.
But Rene's point was well taken: Someone else was going to have to look at this face when September rolled around a whole classroom full of sixth graders. I'd managed to regain a teaching position I held years ago, when Antioch Mission was a fledgling congregation any small-town, small-church pastor can tell you the value of a secondary source of income. Because the job didn't start until September, it had always remained an abstraction to me. I'd shaved perhaps twice since the job interview, and never viewed the upcoming responsibility in light of the fact that I was a wreck.
Things will have to change, I told myself. Pretty soon. Tomorrow, maybe.
Enough of the face. I left the bathroom and looked out the bedroom window expecting to see the same winter-browned hill that rose just west of my place, with a tight grove of wind-battered cottonwoods at its crest.
There was somebody out there.
I stopped. I'd never seen anyone on that hill before. I wasn't even sure who owned that land.
But there was a man standing by the cottonwoods, resting an arm against one of the old trunks. He was facing my direction, and didn't appear to have anyplace else he needed to be.
Was he looking at me? I went closer to the window and shifted my head back and forth, squinting a bit. He was looking at me. He wasn't just looking west or looking toward the house. He was looking at me. I could feel my brow furrowing, and he responded with a slight smile and a nod.
There was something about those eyes that held me. From here, I guessed they were deep brown. But that gaze you didn't see every day. It seemed to say, without words, I know you.
Who was this guy?
His hair was long and black, parted down the middle, curling down to his shoulders.
He had a beard.
I looked away, catching myself, corralling my runaway thoughts. Uh-uh, no Travis, don't think that.
He was wearing a white robe, wasn't he? I looked again, and yes, he was. A white robe tied in the middle, open at the neck, with long sleeves that hung loosely from the arms. I couldn't see his feet because of the tall grass, but it was a reflex, a natural step to imagine sandals. I'd been to Sunday school all my life. I'd seen the pictures.
He was still looking at me, and seemed to be enjoying how awkward I felt staring back.�
I finally shook my head and said, "No. No way."
He laughed, nodding his head yes.
I casually moved away from the window.
Then I ran to the patio door and bolted outside. Whoever this guy really was, I was going to know it within the thirty seconds or so it would take me to reach the crown of the hill. It was a gag, right? Somebody sent him to shake up the weird old former minister.
But now the breeze played across the deserted grassy slope and the cottonwoods stood stark against the sky all by themselves, just as one would expect on a warm April day. He was gone. Just like that.