Anthony Spencer is egotistical, proud of being a self-made business success at the peak of his game, even though the cost of winning was painfully high. A cerebral hemorrhage leaves Tony comatose in a hospital ICU. He 'awakens' to find himself in a surreal world, a 'living' landscape that mirrors dimensions of his earthly life, from the beautiful to the corrupt. It is here that he has vivid interactions with others he assumes are projections of his own subconscious, but whose directions he follows nonetheless with the possibility that they might lead to authenticity and perhaps, redemption. The adventure draws Tony into deep relational entanglements where he is able to 'see' through the literal eyes and experiences of others, but is "blind" to the consequences of hiding his personal agenda and loss that emerge to war against the processes of healing and trust. Will this unexpected coalescing of events cause Tony to examine his life and realize he built a house of cards on the poisoned grounds of a broken heart? Will he also have the courage to make a critical choice that can undo a major injustice he set in motion before falling into a coma?
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About the Author
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By Wm. Paul Young
FaithWordsCopyright © 2012 Wm. Paul Young
All right reserved.
A CONGREGATION OF STORM
The most pitiable among men is he who turns his dreams into silver and gold.
Some years in Portland, Oregon, winter is a bully, spitting sleet and spewing snow in fits and starts as it violently wrestles days from spring, claiming some archaic right to remain king of the seasons—ultimately the vain attempt of another pretender. This year was not like that. Winter simply bowed out like a beaten woman, leaving head down in tattered garments of dirty whites and browns with barely a whimper or promise of return. The difference between her presence and absence was scarcely discernible.
Anthony Spencer didn’t care either way. Winter was a nuisance and spring not much better. Given the power, he would remove both from the calendar along with the wet and rainy part of autumn. A five-month year would be just about right, certainly preferable to lingering periods of uncertainty. Every cusp of spring he wondered why he stayed in the Northwest, but each year found him again asking the same question. Maybe disappointing familiarity had its own comforts. The idea of actual change was daunting. The more entrenched in his habits and securities, the less inclined he was to believe that anything else was worth the effort if even possible. Known routines, even though painful at times, at least had their own predictability.
He leaned back in his chair and looked up from the desk cluttered with papers and into his computer screen. With each tap of a key he could watch the monitoring feed from his personal properties; the condo in the building adjacent to where he sat, his central workplace situated strategically in downtown Portland midway up a midsized office scraper, his getaway house at the coast and larger home in the West Hills. He watched and restlessly tapped his right index finger on his knee. All was quiet as if the world was holding her breath. There are many ways to be alone.
Although people who interacted with Tony in business or social situations would have thought otherwise, he was not a cheerful man. He was determined and ever in search of the next advantage. That often required an outgoing and gregarious presence, broad smiles, eye contact, and firm handshakes, not because of any true consideration, but because everyone potentially held information that would be valuable in positioning for success. His many questions created the aura of genuine interest, leaving others with both a sense of significance but also a lingering emptiness. Known for gestures of philanthropy, he understood the value of compassion as a means to more important objectives. Caring made people that much easier to manipulate. After a few halting attempts he has concluded that friends of any depth were a bad investment. So little return. Actual caring was inconvenient and a luxury for which he had no time or energy.
Instead he defined success in real estate property management and development, diverse business ventures, and a growing investment portfolio, where he was respected and feared as a severe negotiator and master deal maker. For Tony, happiness was a silly and transient sentiment, a vapor compared to the smell of a potential deal and the addicting aftertaste of the win. Like Scrooge of old, he took delight in wresting the last vestiges of dignity from those around him, especially employees who toiled from fear if not respect. Surely such a man is worthy of neither love nor compassion.
When he smiled, Tony could almost be mistaken for handsome. Genetics had gifted him with a six-foot-plus frame and good hair, which even now in his mid-forties showed no evidence of leaving even though the lawyer’s gray had started to salt his temples. Obviously Anglo-Saxon, a hint of something darker and finer softened his features, especially noticeable during rare moments when he was transported out of his customary business demeanor by some fancy or unhinged laughter.
By most standards he was wealthy, successful, and an eligible bachelor. A bit of a womanizer, he exercised enough to stay competitive, sporting only a barely sagging belly that could be sucked in appropriately. And the women came and went, the wiser the sooner, and each feeling less valuable for the experience.
He had married twice, to the same woman. The first union, while both were in their early twenties, had produced a son and a daughter, the latter now an angry young adult living across the country near her mother. Their son was another story. That marriage had ended in divorce for irreconcilable differences, a poster story of calculated disaffection and a callous lack of consideration. In only a few short years Tony had battered Loree’s sense of worth and value into barely recognizable bits and pieces.
The problem was she bowed out gracefully, and this could not be counted as a proper win. So Tony spent the next two years wooing her back, throwing a magnificent remarriage celebration, and then two weeks later serving her divorce papers for a second time. Rumor was these had been prepared even before the signatures were inked on the second set of marriage certificates. But this time she came at him with all the fury of a woman scorned, and he had financially, legally, and psychologically crushed her. This certainly could be chalked up as a win. It had been a ruthless game, but only to him.
The price he paid was losing his daughter in the process, something that rose like a specter in the shadows of a little too much Scotch, a little haunting that could soon be buried in the busyness of work and winning. Their son was a significant reason for the Scotch in the first place; over-the-counter medicine that softened the ragged edges of memory and regret and tempered the painful migraines that had become an occasional companion.
If freedom is an incremental process, so, too, is the encroachment of evil. Small adjustments to truth and minor justifications over time build an edifice that would never have been predicted. True for any Hitler or Stalin or common person. The inside house of the soul is magnificent but fragile; any betrayals and lies embedded in its walls and foundation shift its construction in directions unimagined.
The mystery of every human soul, even Anthony Spencer, is profound. He had been birthed in an explosion of life, an inner expanding universe coalescing its own internal solar systems and galaxies with unimagined symmetry and elegance. Here even chaos played her part and order emerged as a by-product. Places of substance entered the dance of competing gravitational forces, each adding their own rotation to the mix, shifting the members of the cosmic waltz and spreading them out in a constant give-and-take of space and time and music. Along this road, pain and loss came crushing, causing this depth to lose its profoundly delicate structure and begin to collapse in on itself. The deterioration rippled on the surface in self-protective fear, selfish ambition, and the hardening of anything tender. What had been a living entity, a heart of flesh, became stone; a small hardened rock lived in the husk, the shell of the body. Once the form was an expression of inward wonder and magnificence. Now it must find its way with no support, a facade in search of a heart, a dying star ravenous in its own emptiness.
Pain, loss, and finally abandonment are each a hard taskmaster, but combined they become a desolation almost unendurable. These had weaponized Tony’s existence, equipping him with the ability to hide knives inside words, erect walls protecting the within from any approach, and keeping him locked in an imagination of safety while isolated and solitary. Little true music now existed in Tony’s life; scraps of creativity barely audible. The sound track of his subsistence didn’t even qualify as Muzak—unsurprising elevator melodies accompanying his predictable elevator pitches.
Those who recognized him on the streets nodded their greetings, the more perceptive spitting their disdain onto the sidewalk once he passed. But plenty of others were taken in; fawning sycophants awaited his next directive, desperate to win a scrap of approval or perceived affection. In the wake of alleged success, others are carried along by a need to secure their own significance, identity, and agenda. Perception is reality, even if the perception is a lie.
Tony owned an expansive house on acreage in the upper West Hills, and unless he was hosting a party for some advantage, kept only one small portion heated. Though he rarely bothered to stay there, he retained the place as a monument to vanquishing his wife. Loree won it as part of their first divorce settlement but had sold it to pay her mounting legal bills relating to their second. Through a third party he bought it from her for pennies on the dollar and then threw a surprise eviction party, complete with police to escort a stunned ex-wife off the premises on the day the sale closed.
He leaned forward again and switched off his computer, reaching for his Scotch, and rotated his chair so he could stare at a list of names he had written on a whiteboard. He got up, erased four names and added one, and then slumped back into his chair, the horses in his fingers again tapping their cadence onto his desk. Today he was in a fouler mood than usual. Business obligations had required attending a conference in Boston that held little interest for him, and then a minor crisis in personnel management meant he was returning a day earlier than planned. While it was annoying that he had to deal with a situation easily handled by subordinates in the company, he was grateful for the excuse to withdraw from the barely tolerable seminars and return to the barely tolerable routines over which he had more control.
But something had changed. What began as a hint of a shadow of uneasiness had grown to a conscious voice. For a few weeks Tony had felt a nagging sense he was being followed. At first he dismissed it as stress overreaching itself, the fabrications of an overworked mind. But once implanted, the thought had found fertile soil; and what began as a seed easily washed away by serious consideration spread roots that soon expressed itself in nervous hypervigilance, sapping even more energy from a mind constantly alert.
He began noticing details in minor events, which individually would draw barely a wonder. But together they became in his consciousness a chorus of warning. The black SUV he sometimes spotted shadowing him on his way to the main office, the gas attendant who forgot to return his credit card for minutes, the alarm company that notified him about three power failures at his home that seemed to affect only his property while his neighbors’ remained undimmed, each outage lasting exactly twenty-two minutes at the same time three days in a row. Tony began to pay more attention to trivial discrepancies and even how others looked at him—the barista at Stumptown Coffee, the security guard on the first-floor entry, and even the personnel manning the desks at work. He noted how they glanced away when he would turn in their direction, averting their eyes and quickly changing their body language to indicate they were busy and involved elsewhere.
There was an unnerving similarity in the responses of these disparate people, as if by collusion. Theirs was a secret to which he was not privy. The more he looked, the more he noticed, so the more he looked. He had always been a little paranoid, but it now escalated to constant considerations of conspiracy, and he lived agitated and unnerved.
Tony kept this small private office complete with a bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom, its whereabouts not even known to his personal lawyer. This was his retreat down by the river just off Macadam Avenue for the times when he simply wanted to disappear for a few hours or spend the night off the grid.
The larger property that housed this hidden hidey-hole he also owned, but had years before transferred the title to a nondescript shell company. He had then renovated a portion of its basement, equipping it with state-of-the-art surveillance and security technology. Other than the original contractors, who had all been hired at arm’s length, no one had seen these rooms. Even the building blueprints did not disclose their existence, thanks to construction payoffs and well-placed donations to local governmental chains of command. When the proper code was entered in what appeared to be a rusty telephone junction box keypad at the back of an unused janitorial closet, a wall slid sideways to reveal a steel fire door and modern camera and keypad entry system.
The place was almost completely self-contained, tied to power and Internet sources independent from the rest of the complex. Additionally, if his monitoring security software discovered any attempt to backtrace the location, it would shut and lock the system down until reset by entering a new and automatically generated code. This could be done from only one of two places: his downtown office desk or inside the secret lair itself. As a habit, before he entered he would turn off his mobile phone and remove its SIM card and battery. He had an unlisted landline that could be activated should there ever be the need.
There was no show here. The furnishings and art were simple, almost spartan. No one else would ever see this place, so everything in these rooms meant something to him. Books lined the walls, many he had never opened but had belonged to his father. Others, especially classics, his mother had read to him and his brother. The works of C. S. Lewis and George MacDonald were among the most prominent of these, childhood favorites. An early edition of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was prominently displayed, for his eyes alone. Crammed into one end of the bookshelf were a plethora of business books, well read and marked, an arsenal of mentors. A few works by Escher and Doolittle haphazardly hung on the walls and an old phonograph player sat in one corner. He kept a collection of vinyl records whose scratches were like comforting reminders of times long gone.
It was in this hidden office that he also kept his critically important items and documents: deeds, titles, and especially his official Last Will and Testament. This he frequently reviewed and changed, adding or subtracting people as they intersected his life and their actions angered or pleased him. He imagined the impact of a gift or the lack thereof on those who would care about his wealth once he had joined the ranks of the “dearly departed.”
His own personal lawyer, different from his general counsel, had a key to a safety-deposit box secured in the downtown main branch of Wells Fargo. This could be accessed only with his death certificate. Inside were instructions revealing the location of the private apartment and office, how to gain entry, and where to find the codes for opening the concealed safe buried in the foundation floor. Should anyone ever attempt to gain access to the box without a certified death certificate, the bank was required to notify Tony immediately; and as he had warned the attorney, if such ever occurred, their relationship would terminate without consideration, along with the healthy retainer that arrived promptly the first business day of every month.
Tony kept an older Last Will and Testament, for show, in the safe at the main office. A few of his partners and colleagues had access for business purposes, and he secretly hoped that curiosity would overtake one or the other, imagining their initial pleasure at knowing its contents followed by the sobering event of the reading of his actual will.
It was public information that Tony owned and managed the property adjacent to the building that housed his secret place. It was a similar structure with storefronts on the first floor and condos above. The two buildings shared underground parking, with strategically placed cameras that seemed to blanket the area completely but actually left a corridor that one could invisibly pass through. Tony could quickly access his hidden refuge unnoticed.
In order to justify his regular presence on this side of town, he publicly purchased a two-bedroom condominium on the second floor of the building next to his hidden office. The apartment was complete and lavishly apportioned, a perfect front, and he spent more nights here than at either his West Hills house or his getaway at the coast near Depoe Bay.
Tony had timed the walking distance between the condo and his secret sanctuary through the parking garage, and knew he could be sequestered away in his special sanctuary in less than three minutes. From the security of this enclosed and protected asylum he was connected to the outside world through recordable video feeds that monitored his personal properties and downtown office. The extensive electronic hardware was more for self-protection than it was for advantage. But nowhere had he hidden cameras in bedrooms or bathrooms, knowing that others would occasionally use them with his permission. He might have been many things distasteful, but a voyeur was not one of them.
Anyone recognizing his car driving into the garage would simply assume, and usually correctly, that he was coming to spend the night in his condo unit. He had become a routine fixture, part of the background noise of everyday activity, and his presence or absence sent no signal, drew no attention, which was just the way he wanted it. Even so, in his heightened state of anxiety, Tony was more cautious than usual. He altered his routines just enough that it would allow him to catch a glimpse of someone who might be tailing him, but not enough to create suspicion.
What he couldn’t understand was why anyone would be following him in the first place, or what might be their motivations and intentions. He had burned bridges, most bridges actually, and he supposed that therein he would find the answers. It has to be about money, he surmised. Wasn’t everything about money? Maybe it was his ex-wife? Perhaps his partners were preparing a coup to wrest his portion from him, or maybe a competitor? Tony spent hours, days, poring over the financial data of every transaction past and current, every merger and acquisition, looking for a pattern that was out of place, but found nothing. He then buried himself in the operations processes of the multiple holdings, again looking for… what? Something unusual, some hint or clue that would explain what was happening? He found some anomalies, but when he subtly raised them as issues with his partners, they were either swiftly corrected or explained in a manner that was consistent with the standard operating procedures he himself had created.
Even in a struggling economy, business was steady. It was Tony who had convinced his partners to maintain a strong liquid-asset base, and now they were carefully purchasing property and diversifying into enterprises at better than liquidation values, independent of the banks that had withdrawn themselves into self-protective credit hoarding. He was currently the office hero, but this did not give him much peace. Any respite would be short-lived, and every success simply raised the bar of performance expectations. It was an exhausting way to live, but he resisted other options as irresponsible and lazy.
He spent less and less time at the main office. Not that anyone looked for opportunities to be around him anyway. His heightened paranoia made him more testy than normal and the slightest irregularity set him off. Even his partners preferred that he work off-site, and when his office remained dark, everyone sighed in collective relief and actually worked harder and in more creatively focused ways. Such is the debilitative power of micromanagement, a strategy that Tony often took great pride in wielding.
But it was into this space, this momentary reprieve, that his fears had surfaced, his sense of being a target, the object of someone’s or something’s attention, unwanted and unwelcome. To make matters worse, his headaches had come back with a vengeance. These migraines were usually precipitated by vision loss, followed closely by slurred speech as he struggled to complete sentences. It all warned of an impending slam of an invisible spike through his skull into the space behind his right eye. Light and sound sensitive, he would notify his personal assistant before crawling into the darkened recesses of his condo. Armed with painkillers and white noise, he slept until it hurt only when he laughed or shook his head. Tony convinced himself that Scotch helped the recovery process, but he looked for any excuse to pour himself another.
So why now? After months without a single migraine, they were happening almost weekly. He began watching what he consumed, concerned that someone might be trying to slip poison into his food or drink. Increasingly he was desperately tired, and even with prescription-enhanced sleep felt exhausted. Finally, he set an appointment for a physical with his doctor, which he failed to keep because an unexpected meeting required his presence to resolve issues pertinent to an important acquisition that had gone sideways. He rescheduled the appointment for two weeks later.
When uncertainty impinges upon routine, one begins to think about one’s life as a whole, about who matters and why. Overall, Tony was not displeased with his. He was prosperous, better than most, which was not bad for a foster child whom the system had failed, and who had quit crying about it. He had made mistakes and hurt people, but who hadn’t? He was alone, but most of the time preferred it that way. He had a house in the West Hills, a beach retreat at Depoe Bay, his condo by the Willamette River, strong investments, and the freedom to do almost anything he wanted. He was alone, but most of the time preferred it… He had reached every objective he had set, at least every realistic goal, and now in his forties he survived with a brooding sense of emptiness and percolating regrets. These he quickly stuffed down inside, into that invisible vault that human beings create to protect themselves from themselves. Sure he was alone, but most of the time…
Upon landing in Portland from Boston, Tony had driven directly to the main office and initiated a particularly volatile argument with two of his partners. It was then that the idea occurred to create a list of those he trusted. Not of people he would say he trusted, but those he actually did trust. Those he would tell secrets to, share dreams with, and with whom he would expose his weaknesses. For this reason he had cloistered himself away in his hidden office, pulled out a whiteboard and Scotch, and began writing down and erasing names. The list was never long, and originally included business partners, a few others who worked for him, one or two he had encountered outside of the job, and a couple of people he had met through private clubs and travel. But after an hour’s contemplation he whittled even that down to six people. He sat back and shook his head. It had turned into an exercise in futility. The only people he truly trusted were all dead, although there was some question about the last name.
His father and particularly his mother topped the six. He knew rationally that much of his memory of them was idealized by time and trauma, their negative attributes swallowed up by his ache for them. He treasured the faded photograph, the last one taken before a teenage partyer lost control and turned glory into rubble. He opened the safe and pulled it out, now protected inside a laminated sheet, but he tried to smooth out its wrinkles anyway, as if caressing it could somehow let them know. His father had talked some stranger into taking their picture outside the now-extinct Farrell’s Ice Cream shop, he a gangly eleven-year-old with his seven-year-old kid brother, Jacob, standing in front of him. They had been laughing about something, his mother’s face upturned with the joy of the moment written large upon her beautiful features, his father grinning wryly, the best he could do. It was enough, his father’s grin. He remembered it clearly. An engineer not given to much emotional expression, it would unexpectedly slip out anyway and almost meant more because it was not easily accessible. Tony had tried to recall what they had all been laughing about, staring his question into the photograph for hours as if it might yield the secret, but try as he might, it lay just outside his grasp, tantalizing and maddening.
Next on his list came Mother Teresa, followed closely by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. All great, all idealized, each very human, vulnerable, wonderful, and now dead. Pulling out a small notepad he wrote down the names, tore off the single sheet, and then toyed with it between his right forefinger and thumb. Why had he written down the names of these people? It had been almost without thought, this final list, perhaps a true reflection of a source very deep and maybe even real, perhaps even a longing. He detested that word, but loved it somewhere. It sounded weak on the surface, but it had sure staying power, outlasting most other things that had come and gone in his life. These three iconic personages represented, along with the last name on the list, something larger than himself, a hint of a song never sung but still calling, the possibility of someone he might have been, an invitation, a belonging, a tender yearning.
The last name was the most difficult and yet the easiest: Jesus. Jesus, Bethlehem’s gift to the world, the woodworker who supposedly was God joining our humanity, who might not be dead, according to the religious rumors. Tony knew why Jesus was on the list. The name bridged to the strongest memories he had of his mother. She loved this carpenter and anything and everything to do with him. Sure, his dad loved Jesus, too, but not like his mom. The last gift she had ever given him lay inside his safe, in the foundation of the building that housed his secret place, and it was the single most precious thing he possessed.
Not two days before his parents were so forcefully stolen from his life, she had inexplicably come to his bedroom. The memory was etched into his soul. He was eleven years old, working on homework, and there she stood, leaning against the door, a slip of a woman in a floral apron, flour highlighting one cheek where she had brushed away hair that escaped the tie holding her tresses up and away from activity. It was because of the flour that he knew she had been crying, the trail of tears running a jagged course down her face.
“Mom, are you okay? What’s wrong?” he had asked, getting up from his books.
“Oh,” she exclaimed, wiping her face with the backs of her closed hands, “nothing at all. You know me, I sometimes start thinking about things, things that I am so grateful for, like you and your brother, and I just get all emotional.” She paused. “I don’t know why, my dearest, but I was thinking about how big you’re getting, a teenager in a couple years; then you will be driving and off to college and then you’ll get married, and as I thought about all this, do you know what I felt?” She paused. “I felt joy. I felt like my heart was about to burst out of my chest. Tony, I am so thankful to God for you. So I decided to make you your favorite dessert, Marion-berry Cobbler, and some caramel rolls. But as I was standing there, looking out the window at everything we have been given, all the gifts, and especially about you and Jake, I suddenly wanted to give you something, something that’s especially precious to me.”
It was then that Tony noticed her clenched fist; she was holding something. Whatever it was fit in the small grasp of this woman already shorter than he. She held out her hand and slowly opened it. Curled up on her palm was a flour-anointed necklace with a gold cross at the end, fragile and feminine.
“Here.” She held it out. “I want you to have this. Your grandmother gave it to me, and her mother to her. I thought I would one day give it to a daughter, but I don’t think that’s going to happen and I don’t know why, but as I was thinking and praying for you, today seemed to be the right day to give it to you.”
Tony had not known what else to do so he opened his hand, allowing his mother to drop the finely woven thread onto his palm, adorned with the small delicate gold cross.
“Someday, I want you to give this to the woman you love, and I want you to tell her where it came from.” The tears were now rolling down her face.
“But Mom, you can give it to her.”
“No, Anthony, I feel this strongly. I don’t exactly understand why, but it is for you to give, not me. Now don’t get me wrong, I plan to be there, but just like my mother gave it to me to give, I now give it to you, for you to give.”
“But how will I know—”
“You will,” she interrupted. “Trust me, you will!” She wrapped her arms around him and hugged him long, unconcerned for the flour that might be transferred. He had not cared either. None of it had made any sense to him, but he knew it was important.
“Hold on to Jesus, Anthony. You can never go wrong by holding on to Jesus. And know this,” she said as she pulled back and looked up into his eyes. “He will never stop holding on to you.”
Two days later she was gone, swallowed up in the selfish choice of another barely older than he. The necklace still lay in his safe. He had never given it away. Had she known? He had often wondered if this had been a premonition, some warning or gesture by God to give him a remembrance. Her loss had destroyed his life, sending it careering down a path that had made him who he was, strong, tough, and able to withstand things that others struggled with. But there were moments, fleeting and intangible, when the tender longing would slip in between the rocks of his presentation and sing to him, or begin to sing as he would quickly shut such music away.
Was Jesus still holding him? Tony didn’t know, but probably not. He wasn’t much like his mother anymore, but because of her, he had read the Bible along with some of her favorite books, trying to find in the pages of Lewis, MacDonald, Williams, and Tolkien a hint of her presence. He even joined, for a short time, the Young Life group in his high school where he tried to learn more about Jesus, but the foster system in which he and his brother landed shuttled them from home to home and school to school, and when every hello is just a good-bye waiting to happen, social clubs and affiliations become painful. He felt that Jesus had said good-bye like everyone else.
So the fact that he had kept Jesus on the list was a bit of a surprise. He hadn’t given him much thought in years. In college he had briefly renewed the quest, but after a season of conversation and study had quickly relegated Jesus to the list of great dead teachers.
Even so, he could understand why his mother had been so enamored. What wasn’t there to like about him? A man’s man, yet good with children, kind to those unacceptable to religion and culture, a person full of infectious compassion, someone who challenged the status quo and yet loved those he challenged. He was everything that Tony sometimes wished he was, but knew he wasn’t. Perhaps Jesus was an example of that bigger-than-yourself life, but it was too late to change. The older he got, the thought of transformation seemed increasingly remote.
And it was the God-thing that he couldn’t understand, especially as it related to Jesus. Tony had long decided that if there was a God, he or she or it was something or someone terrible and malevolent, capricious and untrustworthy, at best some form of cold dark matter, impersonal and uncaring, and at worst a monster taking pleasure in devastating the hearts of children.
“It’s all wishful thinking,” he mumbled as he crumpled up the paper and indignantly tossed it at the garbage can across the room. Living people couldn’t be trusted. Reaching for a fresh bottle of Balvenie Portwood, he poured himself a triple and turned back toward his computer, switching it back on.
He brought up his official Last Will and Testament and spent the next hour expressing his suspicion and antipathy by making major revisions and printing off a new copy, which he signed, dated, and tossed with the old back onto a pile of others already in the safe, locking and resetting the alarms and turning off his desk lights. As he sat in the darkness thinking about his existence and who might be pursuing him, little did he know he was drinking his last Scotch.
DUST TO DUST
God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.
He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.
Morning burst through his uncovered window with a vengeance. Bright sunlight mixed with remnants of Scotch sent his head into spasms, a morning migraine to murder the day. But this was different. Tony not only couldn’t remember how he had gotten back to his condo, but he was in the grip of pain unlike any he had ever known. Sprawled and passed out on his couch in an awkward position might account for the stiffness in his neck and shoulders, but nothing in his memory compared with this piercing pounding, as if someone had unleashed an unstoppable series of thunderclaps inside his head. Something was extremely wrong!
Sudden nausea propelled him toward the toilet, but he didn’t make it before forcefully ejecting everything that remained in his stomach from the night before. The exertion only accentuated the excruciating pain. Tony felt raw fear, long imprisoned by sheer willful determination, now bursting its bonds like a beast, feeding off expanding uncertainty. Fighting the debilitating terror, he staggered out the door of his condo, pressing both hands hard over his ears as if it would keep his head from exploding. He leaned into the hallway wall, frantically searching for his ever-present smart phone. A frenzy of pocket rifling produced nothing but a set of keys, and he was suddenly hopelessly awash in a terrible vacancy, an absence of connectedness. His would-be savior, the electronic purveyor of all things immediate but temporary, was missing.
The thought occurred to him that his cell phone might be in his coat, which he usually hung on the back of the kitchen chair, but the condo door had automatically locked when he exited. One eye wasn’t functioning properly, so he squinted with the other at a blurry keypad, trying to remember the code that would allow him back inside, but the numbers spilled over one another and none of them made any sense. Closing his eyes he tried to concentrate, his heart pounding, his head on fire while growing desperation continued to build inside. Tony began weeping uncontrollably, which infuriated him, and in a flurry of profanity-empowered panic he began punching numbers randomly, frantic for a miracle. A wave of blackness dropped him to his knees and he slammed his head against the door. It only exacerbated the pain. Blood now streamed down his face from a gash where he had engaged the edge of the doorjamb.
Tony’s confusion and agony increased until he was entirely disoriented, staring at an unfamiliar electronic keypad and in one hand holding a set of unfamiliar keys. Maybe he had a car nearby? Reeling along a short hall, he tripped down a flight of carpeted stairs and out into a parking garage. Now what? Pushing all the buttons on the key fobs, he was rewarded by the flashing lights of a gray sedan not thirty feet away. Another upwelling of darkness yanked him off his feet and down he went a second time. On his hands and knees, he crawled frantically toward the car as if life depended on it. Finally he made it as far as the trunk, hoisted himself to a stand, steadied for a moment while the world spun, and once again dropped, this time swallowed into a comforting nothingness. Everything that hurt and tugged so desperately for his attention stopped.
If anyone had witnessed him fall, which no one had, they might have described a sack of potatoes tossed from the back of a moving truck, collapsing in a heap as though no bones inhabited his body, dead weight pulled down by gravity. The back of his head struck the top of the trunk hard; his momentum spun him toward the concrete floor where his head bounced a second time with a sickening thud. Blood now oozed from his left ear and pooled from the gashes in his forehead and face. For almost ten minutes he lay in the dimly lit underground garage before a passerby busy looking for car keys in her purse stumbled over his leg. Her shriek echoed off the concrete. No one heard. Visibly shaking, she dialed 911.
The dispatcher, sitting in front of an array of screens, took the call at 8:41 a.m. “Nine-one-one. What is the location of the emergency?”
“Oh my God! He’s bleeding everywhere! I think he’s dead…” The woman was hysterical and on the verge of shock.
Trained for this, the dispatcher slowed the cadence of her voice. “Ma’am, I need you to calm down. I need you to tell me where you are, so I can send help.” While listening she muted the call and on a separate line prenotified Portland Fire of the potential medical emergency. She quickly typed information and codes into the call log, maintaining communication to an expanding set of first responders. “Ma’am, can you tell me what you see?” She muted and switched, quickly stating, “Engine 10. M333 respond Code 3 on a UN3 at 5040 SW Macadam Avenue, cross street is Richardson Court, just north of the US Bank and beneath Weston Manor, in the first level of an underground parking garage on the river side.”
“Medic 333 copy, switching to ops 1,” came the response through her headphones.
“All right, ma’am, slow down and take a deep breath. You found a man who appears unconscious and there is blood… Okay, help is on the way and should be there in a couple minutes. I want you to stand to the side and wait for them to arrive… Uh-huh, that’s right… I will stay on the line with you until help gets there. You did great! They are on their way and almost there.”
Portland Fire arrived on-scene first and, locating Tony, did a quick initial assessment before beginning medical procedures to stabilize him while one of their crew calmed and interviewed the distraught witness. The ambulance operated by American Medical Response (AMR) was there only minutes later.
“Hey, guys, what do you have? What can I do to help?” asked the AMR paramedic.
“We have a fortyish male who the lady over there found laying on the ground next to his car. He’s vomited and reeks of alcohol. He’s got a large gash to his head and facial cuts and has been unresponsive. We did a manual c-spine, and he’s on a non-rebreather.”
“Did you get vitals yet?”
“Blood pressure is 260 over 140. Heart rate, 56. Respiration’s 12 but irregular. Right pupil is blown and he’s bleeding from the right ear.”
“Looks like a pretty significant head injury?”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m thinking.”
“Okay, then, let’s get him on the board.”
They carefully logrolled Tony and placed him on a full backboard. The fire crew securely strapped him down while the AMR paramedic started an IV.
“He’s still pretty unresponsive and his breathing is erratic,” offered the fire EMT. “What do you think about tubing him?”
“Good idea, but let’s do it in the back of the ambulance.”
“University COREL status is green,” called out the driver.
They put Tony on a gurney and quickly loaded him into the ambulance while the driver called in.
Tony’s vitals plummeted and he went into asystole, a type of cardiac arrest. A flurry of activity, including an injection of epinephrine, got his heart restarted.
“University, Medic 333. We are coming to your facility Code 3 with a fortyish-year-old male found down in a parking garage. The patient has an obvious head injury and was unresponsive upon arrival. Patient is 5 on the Glasgow Scale and is in full spinal precautions. He had a brief period of asystole, but return of pulse after 1 milligram epi. Last BP was 80/60. HR 72, and we are currently bagging him at a rate of 12 breaths per minute and preparing to intubate. We have an ETA to your facility of about five minutes, do you have any questions?”
“No questions. Administer 500 cc’s of mannitol.”
“Dispatch, Medic 333 is transporting with two firefighters aboard.”
Siren howling, they exited the garage. It took less than five minutes to climb the winding hill to Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), the hospital sitting like a gargoyle above the city. Wheeling Tony into the resuscitation rooms where incoming trauma patients are triaged, a crowd of doctors, nurses, techs, and residents converged and what ensued was orderly chaos, an intricate dance where each knew their role and expected participation. Rapid-fire questions punctuated the conversation with the first responders until the doctor in charge was satisfied, and the crew released to ease down from the adrenaline charge that usually accompanied such a call.
An initial CT scan and later CT angiography (CTA) revealed subarachnoid bleeding, as well as a brain tumor located in the frontal lobe. Hours later Tony was finally admitted to 7C, Neuro ICU, room 17. Attached to tubes and medical paraphernalia that both fed and kept him breathing, he was oblivious to being the center of so much attention.
Tony could feel himself drifting, upward, as if drawn insistently toward something with a gentle but firm gravitational field. It was more like a mother’s love than a solid object, and he didn’t resist. He had a fuzzy remembrance of being in a fight that had exhausted him, but now the conflict was fading.
As he rose, an inner suggestion emerged that he was dying, and the thought easily anchored itself. Internally, he braced as if he might have the power to resist being absorbed into… what? Nothingness? Was he merging with the impersonal all-spirit?
No. He had long decided that death was the simple end, the cessation of all conscious awareness, dust relentlessly returning to dust.
Such a philosophy had granted him solace in his selfishness. When all was said and done, wasn’t he justified in looking out for himself, controlling not only his life but also others’ lives for his benefit and advantage? There was no single right thing, no absolute truth, just legislated social mores and guilt-based conformity. Death as he viewed it meant that nothing truly mattered. Life was a violent evolutionary gasp of meaninglessness, the temporary survival of the smartest or most cunning. A thousand years from now, providing the human race survived, no one would know he had even existed or care how he lived his life.
As he floated upward with the invisible current, his philosophy began to sound rather ugly and something in him resisted, didn’t want to accept that when the curtain was finally drawn, nothing and no one had meaning, that everything was part of the chaos of random self-interest pushing and pulling for position and power, the best techniques manipulative and egotistical. But what were the alternatives?
On one specific day, hope for anything more had died. That stormy November morning, for almost a minute, he held the first shovelful of dirt. Standing in wind-driven rain, he stared down at the small ornate box that held his Gabriel. Barely five years old and hardly a breath, his little boy had fought courageously to hold on to everything beautiful and good, only to be torn from the tenderness of the ones who loved him most.
Tony finally let the soil fall into that abyss. Shattered bits of his broken heart tumbled in also, along with any remaining scraps of hope. But no tears. Rage against God, against the machine, against even the decay in his own soul, had not saved or kept his son. Begging, promises, prayers, all bounced off the sky and returned empty, mocking his impotence. Nothing… nothing had made any difference as Gabriel’s voice went silent.
With these remembrances his drift upward slowed and he hung in the inky blackness, suspended in a moment of question. If Gabe had lived, could that precious little boy have saved Tony’s pathetic existence? Three other faces flashed to mind, three people he had failed intensely and miserably: Loree, teenage sweetheart and twice his wife; Angela, his daughter who probably hated him almost as much as he hated himself; and Jake… oh, Jake, I’m so sorry, little man.
But what did any of it matter anyway? Wishful thinking, that was the real foe. The what-if, or what could have been or should have been or might have been, was all a sucking waste of energy and an impediment to success and in-the-moment self-gratification. The very idea that anything mattered was a lie, a delusion, a false comfort as one drifted toward the ax. Once annihilated, what remained of him would be the illusions of those still living, retaining temporary but fleeting recollections, bad or good, all momentary bits of a mirage that his life had significance. Of course, if nothing had meaning, then even the idea that wishful thinking was the enemy became absurd.
Since hope was a myth, it could not be an enemy.
No, death was death and that was the final word. But, he then mused, this could not be rationally believable either. It meant that death itself would have meaning. Nonsense. He shut out his thoughts as just ridiculous and incongruous wonderings to avoid embracing the irrelevance of an empty and futile life.
He was rising again and could see in the far distance a pinpoint of light. As it approached, or as he drew nearer, he wasn’t sure which, it grew in substance and intensity. This would be the locus of his death; of this he was now certain. He had read about people who died and saw a light but always considered it no more than the final firings of neuro-circuitry. The brain was greedy for one last, pointless grasp of any vestige of thought and memory, a desperate clutch at something as elusive as quicksilver in a calloused hand.
Tony let himself go. He felt caught in an invisible river, engulfed in an antigravitational wave that propelled his consciousness toward the point of brightness. Its brilliance increased until he had to turn his head, squinting to protect himself from the luminescence that both pierced and warmed. He now realized he had been cold in the grip of whatever was suspending him. But even while he turned his face away, something within him was reaching out, as if responding to an invitation inherent in this dazzling.
Abruptly, his feet scraped against what felt like rocky ground and his hands brushed against walls on either side. Smells of dirt and leaves filled his senses. Was he buried and looking up from the bottom of a grave? The terrible thought occurred to him, and corresponding fear instantly squeezed breath from his lungs. Was he not completely dead and mourners had gathered to pay their last respects, not knowing that he was in fact still alive?
The rush of alarm was brief. It was finished and he was being undone. He gave himself reluctantly to his end, folding his arms across his chest. The intensity of the light was so overpowering he was forced to turn completely away. The rush was terrifying and exhilarating. He was propelled into the dismantling fire and blinded by…
ONCE UPON A TIME
Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.
—C. S. Lewis
It was sunlight! How could it be sunlight? Any clarity of thought Tony had established disappeared in a rush of sensory overload. He again closed his eyes, letting the distant radiance warm his face and wrap his chill in her golden blanket. For a moment he cared about nothing. Then, like an impending dawn, the impossibility of his situation crashed his reverie.
Where was he? How had he gotten here?
Tony opened his eyes carefully and looked down, squinting to allow them to adjust. He was clothed in familiar old jeans and the pair of hiking boots he wore to navigate low-tide beach rocks at Depoe Bay. Tony had always been more comfortable in these clothes than the suits he wore to his daily grind. These boots should be in my beach house closet, was his first thought. They bore the recognizable scores from scraping against the ancient coastal lava along the Oregon seashore.
Looking around deepened his bewilderment. No clues indicated where he was or even when he was. Behind him lay the opening of a small black hole, supposedly the place from which he had been so unceremoniously ejected. The shaft looked barely large enough to fit through, and he couldn’t see a foot past its entrance. Turning back, he shielded his eyes against the sunshine and scanned the landscape spread before him, mentally cataloging his growing number of questions.
However he had come to this place, whether expelled, delivered, or propelled through the dark tunnel, he was now centered in a narrow mountain meadow strewn with wildflowers: orange agoseris, a scattering of purple anemone and the delicate whites of alumroot interspersed with the daisy-like yellow arnica. It was an invitation to take a deep breath, and when he did he could almost taste the scents, strong and savory with barely a touch of salt in the wind as if an ocean lay just beyond the range of sight. The air itself was crisp and clean, no hint of anything not native to the place. Below him lay the expanse of a huge valley surrounded by a range of mountains similar to the Canadian Rockies, postcard picturesque and panoramic. Central to the valley was a lake radiant with the early afternoon’s reflections. An irregular shoreline cast shadows into attending valleys and river feeders that were invisible from where he looked. Thirty feet in front of him the meadow vanished sharply and dangerously into a ravine, the floor at least a thousand feet below. Everything was stunning and vivid, as if his senses had been unleashed from their usual tethers. He breathed deeply.
The lea in which he stood was not more than a hundred feet in length, sleeping between borders marked by the precipice along one side and the steep mountain slope on the other. To his left its floral-colored patterns abruptly ended at sheer rock walls, but in the opposite direction there was a single path barely discernible and disappearing into the tree line and encroaching thickness of bushy green foliage. A slight breeze kissed his cheek and teased his hair, a waft of perfumed fragrances lingering in the air as if a woman had passed by.
Tony stood absolutely still, as if that would help quiet the storm inside his head. His thoughts were a cascade of confusion. Was he dreaming or insane? Was he dead? Obviously not, unless… unless he was completely wrong about death, a thought too disconcerting to take seriously. He reached up and touched his face as if that might confirm something.
The last thing he remembered was what? The images were a jumble of meetings and migraines, and then a quick jolt of alarm. He remembered careering out of control from his condo, clutching his head because it felt about to explode, and stumbling his way to the parking structure in search of his car. Being drawn toward a light was his last memory. Now he was here, with no idea where “here” was.
Assuming he wasn’t dead, maybe he was in a hospital, loaded with drugs that were trying to calm an electrical storm firing inside his brain. Perhaps he was caught in the backwash, creating unrealities in his own head, neural net connections of incongruent hallucinations collected over a lifetime’s expanse. What if he were sitting in a padded cell, locked in a straitjacket and drooling on himself? Death would be preferable. But then again, it was more than tolerable if comas or insanity delivered one to shores like this.
Another cooler wind bussed his face and he again inhaled deeply, feeling a wave of… what, exactly? He wasn’t sure. Euphoria? No. This had more substance than that. Tony didn’t have a word for this, but it clearly resonated inside like the dim remembrance of a first kiss, now ethereal yet eternally haunting.
So what now? It seemed that he had two choices, besides just staying in this place and waiting to see what came to him. He had never been one for waiting… not for anything. Actually, there were three choices if he included stepping off the cliff to see what would happen. He couldn’t help but grin as he shrugged that idea away. That would make for a short adventure; to find out he was not dreaming and not dead.
He turned back to the cave, startled to see that it had vanished, absorbed back into the wall of granite without a trace. That option removed, he was down to only one obvious choice, the path.
Tony hesitated at the trail’s beginning, letting his eyes adjust to the darker interior of the forest. He glanced back at the vista behind him, reluctant to leave its embracing warmth in exchange for this cooler uncertainty. Again, he had to wait while his vision corrected and he could see the trail dissolve into the underbrush not thirty feet ahead. The woods were chillier but not uncomfortable, the sun filtering through the canopy above casting shards of light that captured dust motes and occasional insects in its beams. Lush dense undergrowth hemmed in the rocky and defined path, which almost appeared as if it had been freshly laid and awaiting him.
He could smell this world, a mixture of life and decay, the piney dampness of old growth, moldy and yet sweet. Tony took another deep breath, trying to hold the scent. It was almost an intoxication, a remembrance of Scotch, similar to his beloved Balvenie Portwood, but richer, purer, and with a stronger aftertaste. He grinned, at no one, and plunged into the woods.
Not a hundred yards from where he began there was a branching of the trail, one to the right that inclined away, another that dropped downward to the left, and a third that went directly ahead. He stood for a moment considering the options.
It is an odd feeling, trying to make a decision about matters where not only the outcomes are unforeseeable, but the present situation is unknown. He didn’t know where he had come from, didn’t know where he was going, and was now faced with choices with no knowledge of what each might mean, or cost.
Standing suspended between options, Tony was struck by the thought that he had been here before. Not actually, but in some sense truly. Life had been a long series of encountered choices, intersections, and he had bluffed his way to decisions, convincing himself and others that he completely understood where each would take them, that each was a simple extension of his own correct evaluations and brilliant judgments.
Tony had labored diligently to extract certainty out of option, to somehow control the future and its outcomes by exuding an aura of intelligent prophetic prescience. The truth, he now understood, was that eventualities and consequences were never inevitable, and marketing and image-making were the tools of choice to cover the disparity. There were always interfering variables outside the range of probability that muddied the waters of control. Creating the illusion that he knew and then bluffing became his method of operation. It was a grueling challenge to remain a prophet when things were so unpredictable.
He stood facing three choices with not one clue as to where each would lead. Surprisingly, there was an unexpected freedom in not knowing, the absence of any expectation that would eventually find him guilty of a wrong decision. He was free in this moment to pick any direction, and that autonomy was both exhilarating and frightening, a tightrope walk potentially between fire and ice.
A closer examination of each of the particular paths did not help. One might initially appear easier than another, but that was no guarantee of what lay around the next bend. He stood, frozen by the freedom inherent in the moment.
“You can’t steer a docked ship,” he mumbled, and took the middle path, making a mental note in case he had to find his way back. Back to where? He didn’t know.
Less than two hundred yards down the trail of choice he encountered another three-way branch, and again had to evaluate and choose. He simply shook his head, hardly pausing, and took the one that climbed upward to the right, adding the turn to his imaginary notebook. Within the first mile or so, Tony faced more than twenty such decisions and quit the mental gymnastics required to track where he had come from. To be safe he probably should have always picked the middle path. Instead, his journey had become a jumble of right, left, up, down, and straight. He felt hopelessly lost, not that he had been found to begin with or had any sense of a destination, which only added to his feeling of bewilderment.
What if it’s not about getting anywhere? he wondered. What if there was no goal or objective here? As the pressure to “arrive” eased, Tony unintentionally slowed down and began paying attention to the world around him. This felt like a living place, almost as if it were breathing along with him. The wing-tunes of insects, the calls and color flashes of birds announcing his presence, and the occasional movement of invisible animals through the underbrush only added to the sensation of unsettled wonder. Not having an objective had inherent gifts—no timetable demands and no agendas—and Tony hesitantly allowed the surroundings to begin assuaging the nagging frustration of being so utterly disoriented.
At times the footpaths took him through old-growth timber, a wonder of massive trees standing almost shoulder to shoulder in their grandeur, twisted arms locked in seeming solidarity that darkened the floor beneath their conjoined canopy. Not a lot of old growth left in my life, he thought and shrugged. What I didn’t sell, I burned.
One trail took him under a cleft in the rocky face of the mountain, almost but not quite a cave, and he couldn’t help but quicken his pace in case this little gap closed and crushed him in a stony grip. Another choice took him through a scarred area where fire had some time past ripped the heart out of the woods, leaving stubs and relics of the aged along with scatterings of a new generation of tender growth, feeding off the death of the past and emerging to salvage what had been lost, and more. One path merged and followed an ancient and dried sandy riverbed, while another was a barely discernible climb on velvet moss that swallowed his footprints as he passed. But always another crossing, and more alternatives.
After several hours of hiking, wandering, and wondering, it occurred to Tony that the number of direction decisions was diminishing; options were significantly decreasing. The singular footpath slowly widened into something that could easily be a narrow lane, the trees and brush on either side closing ranks to form an almost impenetrable barrier. Perhaps he was finally getting somewhere. His steps quickened. The thoroughfare, now a road, began an easy descent, the woods thickening until he had the sense of striding down a green-and-brown carpeted hallway with a blue cloud–dotted ceiling.
Turning another corner, he stopped. A quarter mile in front and sloping away from him, the walls of emerald turned to stone. The road ended at a massive door built into what appeared to be the ramparts of a colossal rock structure. The construction was not unlike fortified cities Tony had seen pictured in books and modeled in museums, except this was gargantuan in comparison.
He continued toward what he now believed was the imaginary door of an imaginary fortification. He had never questioned the profoundly inventive power of the human mind, one of evolution’s most impressive accidents, but this creation was staggering and beyond any expectations. He surmised it was the combined result of neurologically stimulating drugs and an imagination unleashed, the collected residue of children’s fables with castles and ramparts. But it felt so real and tangible, like those few dreams he vividly remembered in which the details never escaped, the kind that felt so actual you had to trace your steps to conclude they were impossible. This was like that; real but impossible. The only explanation was that he was caught in the chaos of a most vivid dream!
Such a conclusion was an instant relief, as if he had been holding his breath waiting, and finally his mind had found an organizing principle. It had been stated. This was his dream. This was a projection of an unleashed psyche empowered by medicine’s best psychotropic drugs. He raised his hands into the air and shouted, “A dream! My dream! Incredible! I’m awesome!” It echoed back off the distant walls and he laughed.
His mind’s creativity was inspiring and impressive. As if hearing the accompanying sound track to this movie of his hallucination, Tony did a little dance, arms still raised, head upturned, slow spin to the left, then the right. He had never been much of a dancer, but here no one could see him and so there was no chance of embarrassment. If he wanted to dance, he would dance. This was “his” dream, and he possessed the power and authority to do whatsoever he wanted.
This did not quite turn out to be the truth.
As if to prove a point, Tony pointed his palms toward the distant rock monstrosity, and as if he were a magician’s apprentice, commanded, “Open sesame!” Nothing happened. Well, it was worth an attempt. It only meant that even in vivid dreams, his control was limited. There was no turning back and so Tony continued his walk, enthralled by the grandeur and scope of his imagination. Since this was his mind at work, then all this must mean something, maybe even something significant.
By the time he reached the door, Tony had come to no conclusions about the meaning and import of his vision. Although it almost seemed trivial in comparison to the structure into which it was carved, the portal was massive and made him feel tiny and insignificant. He took time to examine it without touching it. While obviously a point of entry, there were no visible means of access, no knob or keyhole, nothing that would allow him admission. It seemed it could be opened only from the inside, which meant that something, or someone, had to be in there to open it.
“Well, this should be interesting,” he muttered to himself, and raised his fist to knock. Tony froze! He heard a knock, but it wasn’t him; his hand was still raised. He looked at his fist, confused. He heard another knock, strong and loud. Three raps on the door, from the other side. He even waved his fist around in front of his face, to see if somehow he was inadvertently creating the knocking sound, but nothing happened.
And then it came a third time, three raps, strong but not insistent. He looked back at the door. A clasp had appeared where he hadn’t seen one before. How could he have missed it? Hesitantly, he reached out and felt it, a piece of metal cold to the touch that operated a very simple lever that lifted a bar keeping the door in place. He didn’t remember seeing the bar earlier either. Without another thought, as if on command, Tony raised the latch and stepped aside as the immense portal easily and without a sound swung inward.
On the other side stood a man Tony didn’t recognize leaning against the massive doorjamb. His face lit up in a wide and welcoming smile. But the biggest shock was that when Tony looked past him, he was looking up the road he himself had so recently traveled. He was inside the edifice, and without realizing it had somehow opened the door from within. Slowly he turned around to be certain, and it was true. He was already standing inside, looking farther into a sweeping open land, likely more than half a dozen square miles in area. The property was confined inside gigantic stone walls, a boundaried fortress in contrast to the wild and free world outside.
Reaching for the wall to steady himself, he turned back. The man was still there, leaning against the doorjamb, smiling at him. As if caught in vertigo, Tony felt the world tilting and his footing slip, his knees buckled, and a familiar darkness began clouding his vision. Perhaps the dream was ending and he was returning to the place he had come from, where things made more sense, and where at least he knew what he didn’t know.
Strong arms caught and gently helped him to the ground, leaning him against the wall on the other side of the entrance he had just opened.
“Here, drink this.” Through a muddy haze he felt cool liquid being poured into his mouth. Water! It had been hours since he’d had any water. Maybe that was what had happened, dehydration. He had been walking in the woods; wait… that couldn’t be right? No, he was lying in a parking structure and now he was in a castle? A castle, with… with who? The prince?
That’s stupid, he mused, his thoughts a jumble. I’m not a princess. And that made him chuckle. As he slowly sipped the refreshing fluid, the mist gradually lifted and his senses began to clear.
“Dare say,” came the voice, strongly accented, British or Australian if Tony was to hazard a guess, “if you were a princess, you would scarcely fit the fables, being as homely as you are.”
Tony leaned back against the rock and looked up at the gentleman hovering over him with a flask outstretched. Hazelnut-brown eyes sparkled back. He had a mildly stocky build, probably only an inch or two shorter than Tony, and appeared to be in his late fifties, maybe even older. A high forehead and receding hairline gave him an air of intelligence, as if he needed the extra room for deep thought. His dress was old-fashioned, wrinkled gray flannel trousers and a worn brown tweed jacket that had seen better days and fit a little too snug. He looked bookish, his skin the pasty white of long periods indoors, but his hands were those of a butcher, thick and rough. Childlikeness danced on the edges of a playful grin as he patiently waited for Tony to collect his thoughts and finally find his voice.
“So”—Tony cleared his throat—“do all those trails end up here?” The question seemed rather shallow, but in the myriad of so many it was the first to surface.
“No,” the man answered, his voice strong and resonant. “Quite the opposite, actually. All those paths originate from here. Not often traveled these days.”
That didn’t make sense to Tony, and in the moment it felt complicated so he asked another simpler question: “Are you British?”
“Ha!” The man threw back his head and laughed. “Oh, heavens no! Irish! The true English,” he said as he leaned forward again, “although, in the spirit of accuracy, though I was born in Ireland, I am probably thoroughly British by culture. There wasn’t much of a difference when I was young so your mistake is entirely forgivable.” He laughed again and lowered himself to sit on a flat rock next to Tony, his knees up so his elbows could rest comfortably.
Both of them looked back up the road quarantined by woods.
“I will admit,” the Irishman continued, “just between you and me, I have continued to grow in my appreciation for the contribution the British made to my life. However, they almost accidently killed a few of us during the Great War by shelling short. Too few mathematicians, I suppose. Thank God we were on their side.”
As if to celebrate his sarcasm, the man removed a small pipe from the tweed pocket that covered his heart, inhaled, and slowly blew out the smoke like a sigh of relief. The scent was pleasant and lingered until absorbed by the stronger forest fragrances. Without looking, he offered the pipe to Tony.
“Would you like to try? Three Nuns sitting cozy in a Tetley Lightweight, another ‘thank you’ to the British.” He bowed slightly as he finished his sentence.
“Uh, no thank you, I don’t smoke,” Tony answered.
“Just as well, Mr. Spencer,” the man responded wryly. “I’ve been told it can kill you.”
With that he slipped it back into his jacket pocket, bowl down, still lit. A piece of unrelated cloth, trouser maybe, had been sewn into the pocket. Most assuredly smoldering embers had eaten away the original.
“You know me?” asked Tony, trying to place this stranger in his memory, but nothing connected.
“We all know you, Mr. Spencer. But please, forgive my poor manners. Truly bad form. My name is Jack, and I am honored to finally meet you, face-to-face, that is.” He held out his hand and Tony took it, out of habit if nothing more.
“Uh, Tony… but you already knew that? How do you know me exactly? Have we met before?”
“Not directly. It was your mother that first introduced me to you. It is small wonder that you have little recollection. I never considered myself that memorable anyway. Nonetheless, childhood influences have staggering formative consequences, for good and evil, or for life.”
“But how…,” Tony stammered, confused.
“As I stated before, we all know you. Knowing is quite layered. Even our own souls we hardly apprehend until the veils are lifted, until we come out of the hiding and into the place of being known.”
“I’m sorry?” interrupted Tony, feeling rising aggravation. “What you just said makes no sense to me at all and frankly seems utterly irrelevant. I have no idea where I am or even when I am, and you are not being very helpful!”
“Indeed.” Jack nodded soberly, as if that might comfort.
Tony buried his head in his hands trying to think, resisting as best he could the irritation he felt growing. They both sat silently looking back up the road.
“Anthony, you do know me, not well and not truly, but substantially, hence your invitation.” Jack’s voice was sure and measured, and Tony concentrated on what he was saying. “I was an influence on you when you were a young man. That guidance and perspective, shall we call it, has undoubtedly faded, but its roots remain.”
“My invitation? I don’t remember inviting anyone to anything! And you don’t look familiar to me at all,” Tony asserted. “I don’t know who you are! I don’t know Jack from Ireland!”
Jack’s voice remained calm. “Your invitation was many years ago and probably remains at best but a vague feeling or longing for you. If I had thought to bring a book and you could smell its pages, that most assuredly would help, but I didn’t. We never actually met, at least not in person, until now. Would it surprise you to know that I died a few years before you were born?”
“Oh, this just gets better,” Tony exploded, standing up a little too quickly. His legs were rubbery, but his anger propelled him a few steps back up the road in the direction from which he had come. He stopped and turned around. “Did you just say that you died a few years before I was born?”
“I did. On the same day Kennedy was assassinated and Huxley died. Quite the trio turning up, as they say, at the ‘pearly gates’…” He said this using his fingers to form quotation marks. “You should have seen the look on Aldous’s face. Brave new world, indeed!”
“So then, Jack from Ireland, who says he knows me”—Tony again moved closer, his tone controlled even while he could feel his ire and fear pushing the perimeters of internal boundaries—“where the hell am I?”
Jack hoisted himself to a stand and took a position not even a foot away from Tony’s face. He paused, his head slightly cocked as if listening to another conversation before he spoke, carefully emphasizing his next words.
“There is indeed a sense that the word hell might be an appropriate word for here, but then, so would the word home.”
Tony took a step back, trying to process what Jack had said.
“Are you telling me that this is hell, that I’m in hell?”
“Not exactly, at least not in the sense that you imagine it. I am certain Dante is not lurking anywhere nearby.”
“Dante, with his inferno and pitchforks and all. Poor boy is still apologizing.”
“You said, not exactly? What do you mean, not exactly?”
“Tony, what exactly do you think hell is?” Jack’s question was calm and measured.
It was now Tony’s turn to pause. This conversation was not going in any direction he’d anticipated, but he quickly made a mental decision to humor this curious man. After all, he might have information that would prove useful or at least helpful.
“Uh, I don’t know… exactly.” No one had ever asked him so directly. The question of hell had always been an assumption. As a result, Tony’s response came out more a question than a statement. “A place of eternal torment with fire and gnashing of teeth and stuff?”
Jack stood listening as if waiting for more.
“Uh, a place where God punishes people he is angry with because they are sinners,” continued Tony. “Uh, where bad people are separated from God and good people go to heaven?”
“And you believe that?” asked Jack, again cocking his head to one side.
“No,” responded Tony adamantly. “I think that when you die you die. You become worm-meal, dust to dust, no rhyme, no reason, just dead.”
Jack grinned. “Ah, spoken with the certainty of a man who has never died. If I may, might I ask you another question?”
Tony barely nodded, but it was enough and Jack continued, “Does your believing this, that dead is simply dead and that is ‘all she wrote’; does your believing it make it true?”
“Sure! It’s real to me,” retorted Tony.
“I didn’t ask if it was real to you. Obviously it is real to you, but what I asked was if it was true.”
Tony looked down, thinking. “I don’t get it. What’s the difference? If it’s real, isn’t it true?”
“Oh, not at all Tony! And to make matters even more convoluted, something might be real but not actually exist at all, while truth remains independent from what is real or perceived to be real.”
Tony raised his palms and shrugged, shaking his head. “Sorry, this is way beyond me. I don’t understand—”
“Oh, but you do,” interrupted Jack, “much more than you realize, no pun intended; so let me give you examples that will clarify.”
“Do I have a choice?” Tony acquiesced, still at a loss but more interested than aggravated. Somewhere in this man’s words was hidden a compliment, and while he couldn’t grasp it, he could sense it.
Jack smiled. “Choice? Hmm, good question, but for another time. To my point, there are those who ‘really’ believe there was no Holocaust, that no one has actually walked on the moon, that the earth is flat, that there are monsters living under the bed. Real to them, but not true. Closer to home, your Loree believed…”
“What does my wife have to do with any of this?” reacted Tony, more than a little defensively. “I suppose you know her, too, and just so you understand, in case she’s lurking around here, too, somewhere, I have no interest in talking to her.”
Jack held up his hands in surrender. “Tony, calm down, this is just an illustration, not a reprimand. May I continue?”
Tony folded his arms and nodded. “Yeah, sorry; as you can see, not a favorite topic of conversation.”
“Yes, I do understand,” resumed Jack. “That is also for another time. Again, my question: Did Loree at any time believe that your love for her was real?”
It was bold and almost absurdly personal in the current circumstances, and Tony took a moment before answering candidly. “Yes,” he admitted. “There was probably a time when she believed my love for her was real.”
“So, you think it was real to her?”
“If she believed it was real, then yes, it was real to her.”
“Then it begs the question, was your love for her real to you, Tony? Did you truly love her?”
Instantly Tony felt an internal guard go up, the discomfort associated with a perceived accusation. Normally, now would be the time to change the subject, to make a witty or sarcastic remark to deflect the emotions being exposed and turn the river of words toward more lighthearted and irrelevant banter. But Tony had nothing to lose in this exchange. He would never see this man again, and he was intrigued by the moment. It had been a long time, he thought, since a conversation had gone so deep so quickly, and he had allowed it. Such was the safety of dreaming.
“Honestly?” He paused. “Honestly, I don’t think I knew how to love her, or how to love anyone for that matter.”
“Thank you, Anthony, for that admission. I am certain you are correct. But the point is that she believed in your love, and even though it didn’t exist, it became so real to her that she built a world and life around it… twice.”
“You didn’t have to bring that up,” muttered Tony, again looking away.
“Just an observation, son, not a judgment. On to a second illustration, shall we?” He waited for Tony to catch up and then began. “Let’s just suppose, for the sake of this example, that there is truly a God, a being of—”
“I don’t believe any of that stuff,” interjected Tony.
“I am not trying to convince you of anything, Tony,” maintained Jack. “Not my job. Keep in mind that I am dead, and you are… confused. I am simply positing something to amplify the difference between real and true. That is our subject if you recall.” He smiled, and Tony couldn’t help but respond with one of his own. There was a kindness in this man that was disarming, almost deeper than genuine.
“So let’s suppose this God is good all the time, never a liar, never a deceiver, always a truth-teller. One day this God comes to you, Anthony Spencer, and says this: ‘Tony, nothing will ever separate you from my love, neither death nor life, not a messenger from heaven nor a monarch of earth, neither what happens today nor what may happen tomorrow, neither a power from on high nor a power from below, nor anything else in God’s entire created cosmos; nothing has the power to separate you from my love.’
“So, you listen to God tell you this, but you don’t believe it. Not believing it becomes what is real to you, and you then create a world that holds not believing the word of this God, or the love of this God, or even in this God at all, as a fundamental cornerstone of your life’s construction. Here is one question nestled among many others: Does your inability to believe the word of this God make what this God has said not true?”
“Yes,” Tony responded too quickly, and then, thinking, changed his mind. “I mean no. Wait, let me think about this a second.”
Jack paused, allowing Tony to sift through his thoughts before speaking.
“Okay,” Tony replied, “if what you assume about this God is true… and real, then I guess my belief wouldn’t change anything. I think I’m beginning to understand what you’re saying.”
“Do you?” challenged Jack. “Then let me ask this: If you choose not to believe the word of this God, what would you ‘experience’ in relationship to this God?”
“Uh, I would experience…” Tony was struggling, looking for the right words.
“Separation?” Jack filled in the blank. “Tony, you would experience a sense of separation, because separation is what you thought was ‘real.’ Real is what you believe, even if what you believe does not exist. God tells you that separation is not true, that nothing can ‘really’ separate you from the love of God—not things, behaviors, experiences, or even death and hell, however you choose to imagine it; but you believe separation is real, and so you create your own reality based on a lie.”
It was too much for Tony and he turned away, rubbing his hands through his hair. “Then how does one ever know what is true? What is truth?”
“Aha!” exclaimed Jack, slapping Tony on the shoulder. “Pontius Pilate speaks from the dead. And there, lad, is an ultimate irony! Standing at the fulcrum of history in the very presence and face-to-face with truth, he, as so many of us are wont to do, declared it nonexistent, or, to be more accurate, declared ‘him’ to be nonexistent. Thankfully, for all our sakes, Pilate did not have the power to turn something real into something that wasn’t true.” He paused before saying, “And Tony, neither do you.”
Excerpted from Cross Roads by Wm. Paul Young Copyright © 2012 by Wm. Paul Young. Excerpted by permission.
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