Henry Lucas reached the door to Greyson’s apartment first. Gina Santaria had lingered in the foyer to the building collapsing her wet umbrella and staring up the stairs in dreadful apprehension.
“Where are we going Daddy?” Olivia’s birdlike voice echoed and trailed off as they separated from the first floor. “Wait for me. You’re going too fast.”
The sight of Greyson, Jaio and Cael standing shoulder to shoulder in the living room of the cramped apartment threw Henry. He stood not as his usual confident executive, but as a nervous outsider. But the sight of Jaio, backlit by the glow from the window behind him eased his apprehension.
He took a step into the apartment and Olivia poked her head from behind his leg. Cael closed the door to the bedroom where Ruben lay in the balance and kicked his crumpled shirt behind a floor lamp in the corner. Olivia gleamed at Jaio and strode in front of her father.
“I’m sorry to intrude. I hope this is not a bad time,” said Henry.
Olivia stepped closer to Jaio and looked up at his face.
“I just need to know what happened back there,” Henry continued.
Behind him, Gina’s thick brown hair appeared in the doorway.
“Um, hello?” she said meekly. “Oh, I must be in the wrong place. I’m sorry. I was looking for …”
“Wait, Gina,” Greyson called out to her, moving past Jaio and Henry toward the door. She had already reached the first step back down to the lobby when he entered the hallway.
“Gina, wait,” he called out louder - loud enough to stop her in her tracks. “You came.”
She turned. Her pretty face looked twisted and fearful.
“I shouldn’t have.”
“I’m glad you did,”
“I thought something was wrong. I thought you needed help.”
“I appreciate your coming here. I could use a friend right now.”
“Who are those people?” she asked. “Cops?”
“No, that’s my cousin. He came to… well … I have a lot going on right now.”
“I can see that,”
“But it’s good to see you… to meet you … live,”
“I shouldn’t have come,” Gina said as she turned back toward the stairs.
“You came this far,” Greyson pleaded. “I’m glad you did. Don’t leave now.”
“It’s weird to be here.”
“Not weird to me.”
Gina stood facing the stairs with her back to Greyson.
“If you’re not comfortable, you can go if you want,” Greyson continued. “I don’t know what’s going on in my apartment right now. But I don’t want you to leave.”
She looked at him. His expression beckoned to her. He looked harmless, kind of meek, or sheepish at least. She considered his words; “You came this far…” and recognized them as her own logic an hour earlier as she boarded the subway.
She turned slowly, faced Greyson and walked toward him. He could smell her perfume. Even covered by her bulky sweatshirt, he could sense her gorgeous figure. Though subdued, he traced faint glimpses of that broad smile of hers. They walked back across the hall to the apartment and he introduced her to Cael, Jaio and his unexpected guests; Henry and Olivia Lucas.
Henry sat at the table across from Jaio. Olivia sat on the couch fidgeting with her dress. Cael stood back, somewhat in the shadows of the apartment.
“Hello Regina,” said Jaio. Greyson couldn’t remember having introduced her by name, the kind of details he had become prone to forget.
“Come join us at the table,” Jaio continued. “Mr. Lucas here was asking me about my vocation. Have a drink and join us.”
Gina surveyed the room. She had seen much more intimidating scenarios than this one. She didn’t feel a sense of danger. Instead, she sensed a kind of kinship, as if she had walked in on a slightly dysfunctional family. Jaio smiled, waved her into the room and guided her with his eyes to an empty seat at Greyson’s table.
“You are welcome here,” he said to her as she slung her purse over the back of the chair and took a seat next to the older man, whom she had followed into the building with his young daughter in tow.
Inexplicably, as if driven by some divine instinct, Greyson opened the cabinet above his sink and found a decent bottle of wine that he had somehow overlooked. He hadn’t recalled buying it and figured it must’ve been a gift from someone or simply a long-lost spirit that he had looked past in his previous haste to search his cupboard.
His television beeped, and Olivia’s head emerged from behind the couch.
“Call from mommy!”
Greyson glanced at the screen. The word “Melanie” appeared below his sister’s picture as the buzzing started on his phone in his pocket. Greyson took the call and moved to the corner of his kitchen by the refrigerator.
“Is he OK?” Melanie blurted.
“He’s fine,” Greyson replied. “But do you know who this is?”
“Oh, thank God. I was so worried.”
“Mel,” Greyson repeated. “Do you know who the hell is sitting at my dining room table?”
“Yes, I do,” she replied. “I’m sorry to burden you. We had nowhere else to turn. Do you know the whole story? Do you know why we rushed him out to New York?”
“By ‘we’ I assume you mean you and our long-lost cousin Cael?”
“Yes, and many others,” she replied. “Cael can explain. He is Jai’s guardian. He has protected him - and us - since we put him up in our home three years ago. I hope you listen to what he has to say. It will remind you of Mom and Dad – the best of them. I think you will like him. Ask him your questions about God and religion and human nature. I think he may have some answers for you.”
Gina glanced at Greyson, on the phone in the corner of his apartment. She felt disoriented and disarmed. But something about Jaio’s simple invitation to sit with him eased her tension and broke through her inhibition. She looked into Jaio’s eyes and felt electrified nerves run from her throat, down through her stomach and across her arms and legs. The sensation exceeded the intensity of the greatest of her many orgasms. She floated toward the table, sat down next to Henry and listened to Jaio speak.
Melanie Johnson tucked her iPhone into her purse and closed her eyes for a moment. She turned to her guests from the Christian Science Monitor and nodded.
“He is safe,” she sighed to herself in relief.
Jameis paused before pressing her for further explanation. When he blurted out his question back at the bus stop, Melanie had gasped and flustered. She tried to deny any knowledge of the Holy man from the Middle East, but she couldn’t bring herself to renounce him. Instead, she turned to face Jameis, opened her mouth to speak and promptly froze.
Father Francis stepped in and tried to shoo the pesky reporters telling them the story was in Cedar Falls at the university and they had no business in Churchville.
But Melanie quickly gained composure and addressed Jameis.
“Off the record,” she demanded.
He nodded. She sized him up, glanced at his partner, a step behind him on the side of the dusty road and took a breath.
“What do you know of a Holy man?” she asked.
“I know who it is,” Jameis said, his confidence growing with each of Melanie’s reactions. “I studied the video. I compared it to the UNI bombing. It’s the same individual. It’s…”
“Let’s take this conversation out of the street,” Melanie interrupted. “I live just up the road and around the corner.”
Father Francis looked at Melanie. She returned the gaze with a nod. The secret was out. She figured she may as well control the message. She knew Jaio would outgrow Iowa eventually and his area of influence would extend beyond her reach. She decided Jameis had a trustworthy quality and might be a good resource in slowly managing the outflow of information about Jaio, the miracle man from the Middle East.
Jameis continued to query both Melanie and Francis with questions, some of which they answered and some they deferred until they could sit and talk through their answers more thoroughly.
“When had he come to Iowa?”
“How long had he been there?”
“How did they find him?”
“What was his mission?”
Melanie revealed that he had arrived in Iowa three years earlier and stayed with her family in their farmhouse. She did not say how he got there. She indicated only that her parents had gone to Somalia to meet him and help arrange his travel to the United States. They had provided him with a home, fed him, clothed him and supported him in his outreach to local churches and religious leaders.
She declined to discuss his mission until they could sit and discuss it at length.
“Is he the Son of God? The Messiah? The Second Coming?”
Melanie stopped in the middle of the road.
“That is for you to decide,” she replied. “If you choose to listen to his message and believe in him, then he can be your Messiah. Come sit on my front porch. I will fix you some lemonade. And we can talk all about him.”
Missy rocked in an uncomfortable wooden chair next to Jameis. Melanie had answered most of the logistical questions. Jaio had, in fact, been in Bethlehem and was the figure in the “Miracle in the Middle East” video. She did not know him until a few months prior to his arrival. She had seen the video and the live coverage at the time but did not make the connection until her parents introduced him. Back then, they used Skype until they discovered how easily they could be hacked. In fact, gaps in their makeshift security measures led to the extremists’ discovery of Jaio’s meetings in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
He had special guardians, whom she refused to describe. She believed his survival of the attack to be a miracle. He still had an immense world-wide following and continued to connect with key disciples across the Middle East through encrypted videos embedded in secret web sites and through cutting edge cell and satellite communications tools.
Jameis leaned toward Melanie in deep discussion about God, human nature, scripture and Jaio. Missy sat back and watched the youngest Johnson girl run around the yard with the family dog. She threw sticks out into the winter-flattened corn field and watched as the faithful pet retrieved them and dropped them at her feet.
She squirmed in discomfort at the subject matter of the conversation.
“We Jews don’t even believe in Jesus, never mind a second coming” she thought to herself. “Why can’t they see that this Jaio is just some guy with his own agenda to make a name for himself?”
Melanie explained that Jaio had simple, but undeniably logical messages for people of all ages, stations and religious backgrounds. He had spent his days traveling from church to church speaking with pastors, sharing his thoughts and speaking with parishioners about how to work together to form a more harmonious society based on simple positive human choices to treat others the way they would want to be treated themselves.
“The Golden Rule?” Melissa commented. “Kind of simplistic. And people are buying this as a new concept?”
“It’s not the concept that is new. It is the way he brings it to life and convinces you how simple and right it is. The greatest gift God has given us is the ability to make free-will choices. Jaio helps people understand how to make more of the right choices in their everyday life.”
“It all sounds well and good,” Jameis bantered with her. “But life presents us with choices that are not always so cut and dry. Good, evil, right, wrong. How does Jaio help people deal with moral dilemmas? You mentioned God. What God are we talking about? And which religion is he affiliated with?”
Melanie calmly dissected Jameis’ questions and answered each one.
“It was a revelation when Jaio taught us that God does not determine right and wrong or good and evil. God certainly doesn’t dictate how we should choose to remind ourselves of the gifts of life that we’ve received. According to Jaio, God expects us to come to consensus and decide for ourselves what we believe to be right or wrong and then live to the standard that we set.
“He sees religion as human organizational systems designed to help us remember the values and parameters we have agreed to set for ourselves as well as a way for us to assemble in a social setting and remind each other how we want to honor God’s gift by working together to live in peace.
“Jaio says we have come a long way even in just the past few generations in how we have determined a standard of basic human rights, how we have learned to accept people of different nationalities, creeds, religious beliefs and even sexual preferences. We have so much to be optimistic about and yet so much more to accomplish.”
Missy leaned into the conversation.
“Who do you think is trying to kill him?”
Jameis glanced back, as if having forgotten they were on assignment. Melanie looked at Father Francis, who remained standing and passively listening to the conversation.
“There are many different groups that have their own definition of right and wrong, and good and evil that mismatch with his philosophies. The leaders of these groups have power and followers of their own. They see him as a threat to their hold on the power they have achieved,” Father Francis contributed.
“Terrorists,” Missy asked.
“Passionate extremists,” Melanie continued. “Jaio tells us that many of these extremists have had different experiences all their lives than us, starting from their early childhood. Their parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, friends and teachers all subscribe to a common set of beliefs. And for many of these young people that grow up in certain areas, it is the only reality they know, propagated by the authority figures around them. They believe just as deeply in their moral code as we do in ours. To them, what they did was good and right and just.”
“So, we should just live with all this violence and death?” asked Missy. “Just because they believe it is good?”
“No. We need to reach these people from other cultures, backgrounds and beliefs and listen to them, share our ideas and come to agreement on how we want to work together and cohabitate this world that God has created for us.”
“Sure,” Missy snarked. “Just stay out of range and wear a bulletproof vest.”
“Every great reward has a risk of failure,” said Melanie. “To Jaio, the vision of a better society, living in peace under a more consistent set of values is worth the risk of injury or death.”
“What about the risk to others that may be interested in him, but not willing to die and subject their families to the pain and sadness of loss? What if some of those college students had been killed in the bombing?”
“Even Jaio struggles with that, and we do too,” Melanie’s eyes dropped. “Jaio dealt with that in the Middle East. He has … people … people to help him with security … very smart, talented people with connections and means. We haven’t had an issue with that here until now.”
“Ok,” Jameis reiterated a question he had asked earlier. “But is he the Son of God and if so, what God is he the son of?”
“The Son of God, if you think about it, is a very human way of relating,” Father Francis spoke. “It’s not like God has a physical form - or a mate for that matter. It’s not like Jaio or anyone else, or even Jesus himself, were physically born to God as a human child would be. So, who knows exactly how to answer that or how you would truly define any ‘Son of God’.
“But he definitely has a connection to God unlike any person on Earth. I struggle with this because I have been with the faith for so long and I am not even quite sure how the diocese would feel about this. But yes, I believe him, like Jesus, to be the Son of God.”
“I believe as well,” said Melanie.
Jameis rubbed his five o’clock shadow with his hand. Missy leaned back and stared out over the barren fields beyond the Oak tree. The youngest daughter hung from a branch, suspended upside down by the backs of her knees.
“Crackpots,” Missy thought to herself.
“You are doubtful,” Melanie smiled softly, looking mostly toward Jameis. “Of course, this is a lot to digest. Let me try and provide some perspective. We are the most highly-enlightened, extremely well-educated, and scientifically-advanced society to ever grace the planet. It is crazy to think that we could be – say – fooled by someone with a message of peace and enough charisma to gain a following.
“Compare us to the Roman society around the birth of Christ. At that time, they were the most highly educated, organized, domesticated and intellectual society the world had ever seen. They had roads and running water. They had sophisticated scientific understanding of the world and the solar system, gravity, tides, medicine, you name it. They had a modern system of government. And they developed some very progressive schools of philosophical thought. They were the most intellectually advanced society the world had ever known.
“And yet, Jesus arrived, and these educated, enlightened people had to decide whether they would abandon their preconceptions about life and God, good and evil to adopt a new belief in him and his teachings.
“And some people chose to believe. It started as a small group of 12 apostles. It grew across the Roman territories and beyond to a billion people today - people of all different backgrounds – social, economic, educated, not educated. Others didn’t believe and that is their prerogative.
“The same happened a thousand years later when Mohamed was touched by Allah. He brought the word of God to his people and many chose to abandon their existing creeds to believe in him. His following started small as well.
“People who chose to believe in Mohamed or in Jesus, had to give up some of what they had previously believed to adopt the new ideas and concepts.
“Now today, many people will claim to be too well educated, too rooted in their own science or too vested in the beliefs they have held since their childhood to be open to him. But what if Jesus really was the Son of God - so to speak? What if he were an extension of God or God himself in human form? What if Mohamed’s words really did come directly from Allah – or God? Would you have believed?”
Jameis looked at her pensively. Missy moved her arms across her chest and tried to hold back.
“First of all, I have never believed that Jesus is the Son of God,” she said. “I don’t know enough about Mohamed or Islam. But why should I believe in Jaio?”
“Of course, you would have to meet him and listen to him,” Melanie continued. “But picture this; you are a Jew, 2000 years ago, 20 years after the birth of Christ. You are totally dedicated to your faith and you have believed in the Torah and the stories of the Old Testament for as long as you can remember. Then Jesus comes along, with all new stories and new ways of thinking. And your Rabbi denounces him, calls him a scam artist and a criminal. The Government puts out a warrant for his arrest. And then you find out that his disciples are writing all new scriptures, some of which may contradict or at least redirect the Old Testament that you grew up reading, believing and using to set your moral compass. Would you have believed in Jesus then? Many did not. But others did. Jews. They changed their preconceptions and became followers.
“Bring that whole concept forward to today. If God came back in a second coming, would you be one of the doubters? Or would you believe?”
Missy leaned back. Her mind swirled. She still resisted change in her thinking, but Melanie’s illustration opened a crack of doubt about her own convictions. She wiped her mind and turned to Jameis.
“We have a story to cover at the University,”
Jameis turned to his partner. They had already missed the scoop. CNN had beaten them at every step and moved on to New York. It all seemed trivial to Jameis. They would crosscut between the bombing and the shooting, while keeping tabs on the unrest in the Middle East. And then they would move on as well. More world unrest would occupy their attention. At some point, there would be an election to cover, or a sensational trial. Celebrities would get together, break up, make stupid comments on Twitter and get busted for DWI. Movies would come out. Companies would merge and break apart, surge in the stock market and go bankrupt. He would migrate from story to story, covering a handful of facts, quoting a couple players and then move on as he had done for the past 15 years. He looked at Missy’s young, clear eyes, the wisps of blond hair drifting across her forehead and recognized her eager look to capture the story of the day.
“You know what Missy,” he said to her. “I think the real story is right here.”