ONE - ISAIAH
Sixty-two-year-old Isaiah Darius Johnson stared in his bible at the yellow-highlighted fourteenth verse in the Book of Job and sipped his third cup of hot coffee. “Man born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble . . .” He smacked his lips. Amen, to that. With everything he was faced with each day, this bible verse struck him like a lightning bolt, thundering in the deep thoughts of his mind. Lately, it was the verse that spoke to his spirit every time he awoke in the morning. And like now, the verse that sometimes kept him up at night.
Was God telling him something? Being a pastor, husband, father, and teacher, performing his daily life had become like a juggling act in the circus. There was always something he had to handle, a phone call to make, or a problem to resolve with the church, his family, or a parent or student in school.
He sighed at the dregs left in his favorite blue mug and placed it down on the square table in the dimly lit kitchen. Many years ago, he had been given the baton of leadership as a young, full-bodied man of twenty-eight from Bishop Haywood Campbell who died from lung cancer. Since then, he’s been racing against the passage of time to save souls and serve his community.
He had a lot of weight on his shoulders and had tried to withhold a good reputation in honor of his predecessor, but inkling within him warned he lacked confidence in his pastoring abilities. Witnessing the downfalls of his daughters was enough to shrink his ego. Why did their lives have to get so messed up? They were good and talented, little girls, but good-for-nothing, parasite men plagued and ruined their lives.
Isaiah raised his gold-rimmed eyeglasses up his wrinkled forehead and rubbed his hands down his toffee brown face. He peered at the neon-green stove clock in the darkness, as he had ten minutes earlier.
An early bird at heart, it was way past his bedtime, but one thought led to another as he sat alone at the table, wondering to God why things had to be as they were. The house was quieter without his wife Cordelia and their three daughters, nothing but the sound of his breath and the chirps of summer crickets filling the silence. What happened to my family? Had I been an absent father?
Isaiah frowned and folded his hands under his chin. He knew there were times he could’ve let one of his fellow brethren or ministers do a task, but he had liked to stay the center of attention. Along with everything else he did, it made him feel important and reassured him he was finally the responsible man his mother longed for him to be.
Like so many Christians, Isaiah had a bad past. Although a religious, old man, he wasn’t always one with a halo over his head. Back in the ’50s and ’60s, he was raised in a matriarch household and had a mischievous behavior that became second nature to him. His mama, aunts, and grandma prayed fervently for him to mature and change his ways. When he grew up, he enlisted in the United States Army as a form of escaping the holy, sanctified women and to fight in the Vietnam War.
Keeping company with his older comrades exposed him to worse trouble with smoking pot, gambling, and drinking, and whether family or friends, he refused to listen to anyone talk to him about God or church.
Isaiah closed his bible and looked up at the framed, black-and-white photograph of his mother, hanging on the wall by the curtained, back door. His eyes ached as he peered at her image in a beam of moonlight. I’m sorry, mama. Please, forgive me. Despite his disobedience, Isaiah knew his mother loved him dearly from the letters she wrote him. While the boys bragged about their old flames and latest conquests, some evenings in his bunk he closed his eyes and dreamt of his memories from when he was a little boy. As a small child, he was afraid of the dark, and she’d tuck him in bed and sing Negro spirituals until he fell asleep.
“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was the main hymn she sang. It was the same song which was performed at her burial. Isaiah’s mother passed on short notice in her sleep at the untimely age of forty-two, and to this day, he blamed himself for her heart attack. From then on, it seemed the closest people to him had gone away. His roommate and fellow colleague, Pvt. William Graham the III, was blown to smithereens from an explosion during warfare. One year after the war ended, his grandmother left him from complications of diabetes, followed by his Aunt Suzanne from kidney failure three months later.
Afterward, Isaiah finally acknowledged he needed to clean his life. Convicted in his heart, he asked God to forgive his sins and help him become a better man for himself and his late mother. His Aunt Betty Jean—his only remaining relative at the time—was able to witness his baptism and salvation at Holy Faith Community Church, the same church he strayed away from as a teenager after graduating high school. His complete transformation was like a replica of Apostle Paul.
As he increased in wisdom and knowledge, he got sharper in the gospel and doubled the size of the congregation more in the following decades, but he never forgot the haunting words of his grandmother.
“Boy, you gonna reap what you sow,” she bellowed in her strong voice, shaking him by his shirt collar.
Isaiah remembered the glare on his Grandma Betsy’s wide, deep brown face, her daisy pillbox hat cocked sideways as she bobbed her head. She was a tough, gutsy old woman who always told him he was a “bad seed” like Rhonda Penmark from the 1956 thriller film. But what she and his mother and aunts didn’t know was that at first Isaiah was acting out. He’d overheard his mama talking about his lowlife father, how he drank, smoked, and fooled around with other attractive women. Isaiah longed for his Daddy to love him, and he thought if he were bad too, he’d want to be a part of his life.
Big mistake. For his misbehavior, all he got in return were hot-tempered lectures, slaps across his forward mouth, and whips by the belt tanning his backside. At the same time, he knew right from wrong, and he chose wrong over right.
Isaiah released a tired groan and scratched his hoary head. It was my fault. Everything! All because of me. Calamities collapsing on him like a domino effect, he feared his grandmother’s words held some truth—that his three beautiful daughters had fallen by the wayside because of his own foolishness. Their current lifestyles were curses he was reaping in the present—the aftermath of his own former stubbornness. “Just wait until you have children, mister,” his grandma had said, “then you’ll know.”
Well, she was right. He knew now. Tonight wasn’t just any night, but it marked seventeen years since he and his wife’s eldest daughter Genesis went missing. How could he have let something so tragic happen? Not a day passed without them thinking about their oldest girl, pondering where she was, if she was alive, and what she was doing. From nightmares to counseling, Genesis’ disappearance had a big impact on the Johnson family. It grieved everyone and was the reason Isaiah believed Cordelia fell ill. He and his wife tried to find her a long, long time ago. They put up posters of their daughter throughout the neighborhood, reported to the police, and even went on public television, but they could never find her. The only thing they had was a farewell letter she’d written, telling them she went after her singing dream.
They figured she left with Mackenzie Barrett aka “Big Mack,” a record producer who filled her sixteen-year-old heart with promises of becoming a superstar R&B singer. But when police investigated him, they found no file under the man’s name, and their daughter’s whereabouts remained an unsolved mystery.
Isaiah scooted out his chair and walked to the window above the cluttered sink. He gripped the counter and looked outside at the full moon. Where are you Genesis? Where is she, God? I know you know all things. He sighed and hung his head. After so many years, he was still waiting for an answer. Their younger daughters, Chandra and Denice, faced possibly worse plights than their sister. Entangled in bondage, Chandra was a cocaine addict roaming the streets, and Denice had been brainwashed in a petrifying love that was enough to drive any woman insane.
He and Cordelia had prayed for their younger daughters and offered to help them, but every time they were either too scared or unwilling to commit to change. And then there was his beloved wife’s misfortune. Isaiah had donated his bone marrow and had high hopes of assisting in Cordelia’s recovery. But Dr. Shannon, his wife’s physician, had said he wasn’t a match. Nothing seemed to work out for Isaiah anymore, and particularly when it came to his family. He felt like a total failure and he didn’t like being placed in a heartbreaking predicament. It was time to break free from his despair and disappointment.
Isaiah raised his head, drew a slow breath, and marched back to bed for the next day.
He loved his daughters, but they were grown women, and he couldn’t force them to return to their church roots, could he? They had to want to for themselves. Praying for them was about all he could do, and though he wasn’t always positive it was helping, for their sake he would continue to do so. Thriving on prestige, he wanted to keep a good name, and the best way was to take a stand against the gang that trespassed their property. For the past three months, the Grim Reapers had spread their invasion on their church grounds, littering and tagging their lot with graffiti and derogatory remarks.
Isaiah grew weary of seeing their creepy drawings and messages every Sunday morning. Together he and the congregation had to think of another way to solve this situation. Their church was private property which didn’t deserve to be treated like trash. Isaiah didn’t know if anyone of the church committee had new ideas, but his mind was made up to do something about it. No longer would their church parking lot be a hangout for gangsters, but a clean, safe environment for the residents of the city. Others might think he’s starting trouble, but the trouble didn’t start with him.
It started with them.
Determination suffused Isaiah’s being as he yanked his blanket over him and sighed into sleep.
He would be the one to light a fire.
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