9h John Doe
Thomas’ disappearance was soon overshadowed by the deaths of the three boys who had chased him. There was never any explanation found as to why, but three days after Thomas’ death, all three boys were found face down in the stream, after having jumped from the top of the downtown bridge. The explanation was as simple as this: Teddy got inside their heads. Even though Thomas’ death wasn’t slow and methodical like Teddy had planned, it was my act of obedience following his strangulation that gave him all the more power. I stuck his skin with a needle, withdrew his blood, and placed the vial where I was instructed to. Mom had a full collection of teddy bears. I chose one that was small and shy and slipped the vial inside.
Teddy wanted to put on a show. His power grew from an idea planted in the boys’ heads to complete control. He wanted to be the reason a small town lost its sense of comfort, even safety. And the deaths of the three boys did just that. The articles began as inexplicable and eventually became wild speculation that never got close to the real truth. It cast a dark shadow over a town that had been spry and light.
What followed is a lot of the same. After Thomas, Teddy had me in a position I couldn’t break free from. Two people were already dead because of me. What was a third? Or a fourth? It’s how I thought. And Teddy took advantage of it. The years passed. The town emptied. And the body count grew.
I have lived in a prison I helped build, year after year. But, there has never been a child like M. Before her, Thomas was the brightest light I had ever seen. The only difference is the hate I had for the light then, has now become a longing. I can’t believe I am able to admit this to myself. Just hours ago I felt there was no hope for me, no redemption, no reason for me to fight to get free. I didn’t even think it was possible. I used to think Teddy was all powerful, but there has to be something behind that light with even more power. If there isn’t, I would be dead right now.
I just passed a sign. The words are faded and lines of graffiti mark it in both red and black. But, I can still see what it says: Minea‒18 miles. A second and third town follows farther down the sign. One is 48 miles; the other is 124.
With Minea being only eighteen miles away, I know this much. I am either going to die at Teddy’s hands or I am going to get free of him.
Ms. Brands walked away and out of sight. I wanted to follow, but something told me not to. It was a quiet voice talking in the thick of my thoughts. Or maybe it was the fear I now feel when she gets close to me. I have been trying to plead the Blood of Jesus over my mind. I have been trying to rebuke the demon that held my hand and followed me home. I know my authority in Christ, but I also know that right now I don’t believe what I know. Why did Jesus tell me to anoint my little girl this morning? If she is protected under the Blood, how was she taken by a man no one remembers? How was she taken at all? If there is such power in the Blood, why is she not about to come home to me?
I need an answer, because this goes against everything I have ever believed about Him—everything I have ever known. After my dad died, handfuls of people would tell me that it all was part of God’s plan. They had said I just couldn’t see it. That was true. And even years later, I have never been given an answer why. I won’t be able to handle being told that again. It already feels like I’ve been lied to. If there is such power in the Blood, how is my little girl dead?
Despite all the years I have walked with Jesus, ‘it’s going to be okay’ isn’t enough. It feels like my heart has been ripped out and dangled in front of me. My heart is Your home, Lord. And with it gone, it feels like You’re gone too. All the years I have walked with You, to now feel completely alone makes me wonder what I have done to deserve this.
I can’t just sit and wait to see what happens. I have been waiting to see what would happen for a full week, searching for Jesus in the quiet; searching for Him in His word. I didn’t fully mourn the loss of our baby. Maybe because I knew Marcy was just in the other room. But, now I am a father who has been stripped of the title.
So many fathers would hold onto hope that their daughter is still alive. They would thank God for bringing her home safely, even if they didn’t believe in Him, becoming violent to anybody that told them to prepare for the worst. I know that my Marcy is dead. The only hope I have now—the only thing I have control over is bringing her body home and giving her a burial that is dignified. And after that? I don’t have an answer.
Eighteen miles have become fourteen. The fields are bare, with small areas still layered in frost. The plastic bags in the back seat are ruffling. I glance in my rearview. It’s not M I see, but Thomas.
“We’ve been waiting for you, John.” his voice is shy like I remember it to be. “We’re all waiting. The father of the eyes is waiting too.”
I try to say something, but my tongue is clogging my throat.
I glance again. Thomas’ face is now full of eyes. They blink simultaneously, as a small smile becomes wider than humanly possible. I close my eyes, but his face follows. I open my eyes again. He’s now sitting next to me. Small and shy. It’s exactly how I remember him looking. But, now he terrifies me.
“You’re dead.” I’m able to whisper.
“Yes. And soon, you will be too.” he smiles at me again with that wide smile and then disappears.
Fourteen miles have become twelve.
The fear I feel right now is far different from anything I have ever felt. I can only clench the steering wheel and watch as the miles lessen and lessen. Soon, I will pass through the town. Soon, the car will arrive at my childhood home. Who I saw wasn’t Thomas, but Teddy. The something I call Teddy appears differently outside of the bear sitting next to me. It has many eyes. It watched and It laughed as dad stuck me with his piece.
I have been lied to from the very beginning. And now I very well may lose my life trying to get free. But, there is still a light in me. I have to believe that, because something has kept Teddy out of my head, something has kept him from killing me. That little bit of light is all I have going back to my childhood home. It’s the only thing I have protecting me. The fear I feel is heavy.
Twelve miles has become nine.
Janet called for me from the upstairs as I was leaving. I didn’t answer. Instead, I followed after Ms. Brands. And now I’m behind her, back by the school. The voice telling me to avoid her has faded from my mind.
“What did he look like, Ms. Brands? I know you can hear me. Speak!” I’m following her slow dragging with fast steps. Her scent is stale. “Come on, Ms. Brands. You saw what he looked like. You saw! Tell me!”
She turns. Her eyes are as blank as ever. Blank but full. Full of something else other than herself. It should scare me, but it doesn’t. I feel anger. It’s boiling up from the center of me. I close my eyes. There isn’t laughing. But, there is something. It’s a view of a passenger glancing at the driver, though it’s blurred. The view now turns toward the backseat. It’s Marcy. Even blurred to this point, I recognize my little girl: the blonde hair, the blue ribbons tied into bows, the sky blue dress.
My eyes open. My hands are wrapped around Ms. Brands’ neck and I’m screaming. I try to let go, but I only squeeze tighter. I’m watching her eyes bulge. Her face is red—now blue. I can’t let go.
“Just tell me!” I scream. “Tell me what he looks like!”
She won’t. Her eyes remain blank no matter how much they bulge.
“Tell me!” I scream even louder. In trying to loosen my grip, it only tightens. I close my eyes, trying to let go. I’m going to kill her. I can’t stop.
I open my eyes again. I’m not squeezing her neck. I’m squeezing my other hand. She is nearly half a block away from me, now past the school. But, I can feel the anger still pumping through me. The small voice that tells me to go back home makes me even madder. I know that I am too angry to be anywhere near her. But, I also know that there are answers in her. I saw my Marcy in the backseat of a car. Ms. Brands doesn’t have the answers. Something in her does. And it is revealing them to me.
The small voice has gotten louder. Go home. It is saying. You are in danger.
No matter how alone I feel, I know there is power in the Blood of Jesus. It covers my mind, body, soul, and spirit. I am protected. Jesus may feel gone, but He is always present. He is always with me. He knows everything I think before I think it, every action I will take before I take it. He knows that I am going to follow Ms. Brands wherever she goes, because I need an answer. This is the only thing keeping me from the state Janet was in just earlier this morning.
If I’m honest with myself, I am already at that state. I’m just more active. I don’t have a vision of the future. I have a vision of finding my girl and that’s it. Nothing else matters.
Good Things Come in Small Packages
The WELCOME sign is behind me. I am only a couple of miles away now. Minea is a small skyline, with silos accenting both ends of the town. It has been a couple of years since I have been here. But, it is all too familiar.
The fields are as bare as the town. There isn’t a car in sight. Every store is abandoned, with wooden boards across the doors and windows. The homes are weather worn; the yards are thin patches of dead grass.
Fear is crawling on top of me. The presence next to me has filled the air around Minea. It’s thick and heavy. I try to think about the light, but pain shoots through my eyes. There are now children standing in the yards. Their smiles are just as big as Thomas’ was. They move faster than I can blink. I pass one yard only to find they are in the next.
Now, they have formed a line in front of the bridge. Smiles wide. Eyes multiplied. I can hear them laughing. It’s filling every area of my mind. The pain shooting through my eyes has stabbed through my nostrils as well. I am dizzy. The control I felt over the car is now a spin. Or, it feels like it.
“Join us, John!” they’re all in the car with me. I can’t close my eyes. They’re there. I can’t open them. They’re there too. Their smiles! They’re too wide for their faces! “It’s scary under the house! Join us! You put us there! It’s only fair!”
“Leave me alone!” I say, or try to. But, they won’t. I can’t concentrate enough to even know if I’ve passed over the bridge or if I crashed into it.
“It laughed, John! It laughed as your daddy put his piece in you!” they are laughing again. “It watched!”
“Shut up!” it doesn’t matter how loud I scream it, they won’t. The eyes are only growing. I feel watched from everywhere.
“You will die, John.” Now, I can hear the quiet voice of Teddy. The laughing has stopped. It’s quiet. “There is no escape.”
It’s quiet enough that I can hear my heart beating. I am over the bridge, driving on the wrong side of the road. There is no pain in my eyes or through my nostrils, but there is blood: on the seat, on my shirt, clumping in my mustache and past.
There are only a few houses left to pass until I am past town. My childhood home is less than a mile away. Something is in the corner of my eye. Thomas is being chased by the three boys, right next to the car. He looks at me, the terrified boy I remember him being. I feel the same way. He was the beginning of what I’ve become. And now, he is leading me to the end.
Ms. Brands has stopped after walking more than a block past the school. She’s kind of swaying, in front of a house that has a yard sign saying: Everyone Welcome! (except cats)
She is walking toward it, with her keys out and ready to enter.
“Come in, Matthew.” it creaks out of her as she approaches the door. “Everybody is welcome.”
I shake off the shiver I feel from the thought of everyone and follow her toward the door.
Don’t go in. The small voice says. Go home.
I shake off the voice too. Her front door is open. I can see into her living room. It is much cozier than I expected. A small sofa is against the far wall, and a wooden rocker is in front of what is probably a TV.
She is inside now, taking off her black low heels and placing them in the entryway. Every time her eyes meet mine, a chill shoots down my spine. I know there is something demonic in her. But, I also know I am covered in the Blood.
I am up the three stairs and stepping into her house. Another chill. The biggest yet. I close my eyes and shake it away. The door is already closed as I open them again. Her house is lit dimly. The curtains block out most of the natural light. The house has one floor. I can see nearly every room from where I am standing. All doors are open wide. Her kitchen is straight ahead, nuzzled into a small corner.
“Can you find Gizmo and Dizzy for me, Matthew?” she asks, now sitting in her rocker. She is staring at a blank television screen.
“My little stinkers.” a reply that has some sense of life to it. “They are brother and sister yorkie terriers. Gizmo gets a little pink bow in her hair; Dizzy barks his head off if I try and give him one.” a smile has crawled onto her lips.
“They were last in the bathroom, drying off from the bath I gave them when I got home.”
I walk toward the bathroom. It is the opposite corner from the kitchen. “What did the man look like, Ms. Brands?”
“Did you find them?” she asks.
I am nearly at the bathroom. I can’t explain why it feels so dark even with the sunlight spilling through.
“Dizzy. Gizmo.” I call quietly. “You are wanted.” I step into the bathroom. The shower curtain is closed. Out of my periphery, I see the mirror reflecting my movements. I look back toward Ms. Brands. She continues to call for them.
I pull back the shower curtain. Dizzy and Gizmo are dead, floating face down in dirty bathwater.
“Did you find them?” she calls again.
“No.” it’s the only thing I can say. Out of my periphery, I see the mirror reflecting something that’s moving beside me. When I close my eyes, I hear splashes. I hear the sound of twin terriers being drowned.
I can walk enough that my feet drag toward the living room. The bathroom door slams closed behind me. I can hear the curtain draw back and the water splashing. Something is not just in Ms. Brands. It is here, in her house. Maybe it killed Dizzy and Gizmo while Ms. Brands was out. Or maybe, Ms. Brands killed them in the state she has been in.
“Matthew?” her call is a quiet growl.
I glance. Her eyes are like burnished stone.
“Minea.” her smile seems too big for her face. When I look again, she is just sitting and staring.
I’m at the door, scared to look back. I feel watched, from Ms. Brands, from the open rooms, from the ceiling above. I open the door. The day is bright. I enter it, and walk back toward home, but to me it still feels like I’m in a dark room.
What does it mean to fear death? I never have before. Maybe there was a time before Teddy where I dreaded closing my eyes for the last time, but I don’t remember it. I wanted Teddy to kill me earlier today. When he didn’t, the fear of death appeared. And now I am unable to move.
I’ve been parked in this spot many times, only in a car different from the one I’m in, but that’s the only detail that has changed. Like the rest of the town, nothing is alive. The grass is thin brown patches; the trees are as bare as the sides of the house. The shed is barely peeking out from behind the house’s wraparound deck. This is how so many of my nightmares begin.
I dream like everyone else. When my eyes close, I’m somewhere different. Usually, I’m right at this very spot, looking at what I’m now seeing. Until today, it hasn’t mattered. I would dream of the shed and dad’s piece. I would dream of mom dying, leaving me alone with him. And then I would wake to Teddy’s instruction. And I would feel nothing. Fear requires will. I had none. I didn’t care what happened to me. I was biding my time, completely aware that someday it would end. Death hasn’t scared me…
Now it does. I know punishment is coming. If not from Teddy, from the parents I have broken, once I give them back their children. It is a fight in me I don’t understand. The freedom will be short lived: lonely but light. And then I will be seen as the monster Teddy always said I was. It doesn’t matter if I would take it all back. I can’t. Fifteen children are dead because of these hands. Maybe I never touched M. But, she’s dead because of me. I’m fighting to get free from this so that I can finally be seen.
Why do I want to be seen? That’s the question I can’t answer. Something inside me is fueling this, something I can’t describe. I understand what is going to happen if I get free. I’ll be hated by everyone. Death threats will be the only letters I receive. But, something is telling me that is freedom compared to this.
When darkness and I shared a room, I pretended it wasn’t there, despite the many times I knew it was watching. It feels like I’m approaching the same set of mind. More and more I want to reason away what is happening. No matter how many years I have followed The Lord, my mind never completely stops trying to convince me that everything I believe is fake.
Marcy is my mission. Finding her is all that matters. If that means losing myself, and what I believe— my mind is lying to me right now. I’m not going to pretend that this can be reasoned away by what the world says is logic. It can’t. I’m poking a monster, stepping into places that I should avoid. That little voice I ignored is not my conscience, it’s my Guide. I disobeyed. And now the darkness Ms. Brands has given a home, is trying to take up residence in me.
It has already started. From the anger that feels deep enough to be in my marrow, to the sickening thoughts that now circle in my head, darkness wants me back. The Lord has brought me from very dark places, but this is the darkest I’ve ever been. Not even dad’s death compares. The weights are much heavier this time. I’m not a son anymore. I’m a husband, a father—I keep forgetting that’s not a title I can carry anymore. I’m a man who knows exactly where this road heads, a man who can no longer stop himself from going down it.
The longer I sit, the more fear consumes me. I’m trying to convince my hand to open the door, but it doesn’t move, as if separated from the rest of my body. Every time I look up, my eyes catch M’s reflection in the rearview. The peace I see in her becomes dread as it reaches me. I don’t just fear death, I fear the last moment before it. What will I feel? What will I see? Peace filled M. Peace filled Thomas. But, I don’t see any chance of that being my end.
If I get free, my last moment will be filled with eyes, the eyes of the people who need to see me die. If I don’t, it will be the conclusion to a nightmare I entered over twenty six years ago. Neither will be peaceful. But, I know that I fear death because it is much closer than it has ever been.
The door is open. A crease of outside is slipping in. I didn’t even realize my fingers were wrapped around the handle. My other hand is moving senselessly. Just like the rest of me, it doesn’t know what to do next.
The air is crisp. The smallest exposure confuses my senses. Nothing is alive here. How is there a smell of fallen leaves? How is there a sense of cleanliness in the air? The last time I came, it smelled as dead as it appears.
The small crease of outside has become a wide open door. I didn’t expect to feel this way, but the more exposure I have, the cleaner I feel. I am not the man I was the last time I came here. Light wrapped me. I was reminded of love that I thought was long gone. Since then, things have become more and more clear. I can be free.
My feet are outside of the car—now my whole body. In my periphery, I see my childhood home, tall and thick, towering above me. The beginning of the wraparound deck is only a few steps to my right. The shed where this all began is peeking out from where it was hiding. I’m still terrified of it.
As I walk away from it, I relive the steps where I ran toward it. Dad called me with these words: I need help with a little project, kiddo. Now, I hear them again. As loud as when he said them. I’m avoiding it, but I remember coming to his call. I remember the dim lighting, the dusty cement floor, the tools hanging on their little hooks, watching as it happened.
And I remember what followed. I left the shed, numb. He closed the door. As soon as I entered the house, I heard mom’s cries. I ignored them. By then they were disconnected from me anyway, talking about crossing over to the other side. The feeling of dirty crawled all over me.
I walked up the stairs, and entered my room. Teddy began as a quiet voice in my head long before I saw red eyes in place of what had been brown.
He didn’t scare me. I felt safe, just like I do now—but I shouldn’t feel safe. This place belongs to him.
“We’ve been through a lot, John.” I can hear him again, quiet and calm. This is what he wants. He’s luring me in again, becoming that quiet voice that he introduced himself with.
“Why did you ever come to me?” I don’t know what else to say.
“Do you really think you’re going to leave here, John?”
“There is a light you’ve tried to explain away. But, it’s still here. And you can’t control me like you did.”
“Maybe not!” My arm is yanked outward as the children’s voices appear out of nowhere. “But, we can make you go crazy, John!” My other arm is yanked outward. I see flashes of bright color surrounding me. I feel sharp pinches in my ankles, but when I look down, there are just hints of fresh blood starting to bleed through my jeans. Little hands are grabbing my legs, but they feel powerful. When they pull, I nearly fall to the ground. Pain is in my chest, heavy and sharp. It feels like knives stabbing.
“The best way to kill you, John, is slowly.” Teddy’s voice is still quiet and calm.
“It watched! It laughed! It waited!” now the children’s voices are everywhere around me. “You want answers why this happened, John?! Why you?! Because you’re weak! You built a home for the father, and now he watches your pain with glee! We will bleed you dry! We will eat you alive! Your last moments will be filled with fear! And then after you die, we will follow you into the dark!”
I think I have fallen to the ground. But, I can’t tell. Pain is covering my body. I feel the wet of blood in many new spots. My mind is full of terror. Their voices only seem to dig deeper into me. I can’t move my hands to block my face. I’m frozen. I answered my own question. My last moments are fear—
“Beautiful boy,” this voice is crisp and clear, completely separate from the ones surrounding me. “Open your eyes.”
I do. But, I’m not outside anymore. I’m in my childhood bedroom. It’s bedtime. My nightlight is on.
“Jesus loves you. And so do I, my beautiful boy.” Mom’s fingers are caressing my cheek. Her smile is wide. Her eyes are blue and beautiful. Dad is watching me from the doorway, arms crossed, smiling too.
My eyes are open to the outside again. It feels clean, like when I first left the car. But, it’s different from that. I feel loved.
Janet’s face is a canvass of worry. She was waiting outside for me, eyes wet with tears. She told me she wanted me to be okay. I told her a lie. Now, I’m staring up the stairs as her arms wrap around me tightly.
“I miss her, but I know something miraculous is going to happen. He visited me, Matty,” just one of the many nicknames she has given me. “Me. A girl no one has ever wanted. He lifted me up from a place of unbearable sadness, and told me everything is going to be okay. I feel like I need to remind you of what you have told me over and over again. You didn’t get that sad when we lost our second baby, and I couldn’t understand why. Now, I do. You tried to tell me He had a reason for it, that He has a plan for everything. You tried to give me back my light when I only wanted to hide in the dark. I love you so much for that, Matty. So now I need to tell you the same thing. He has a reason for this. Don’t give up, like I almost did. Trust Him. Please, Matty.”
When we kiss after she cries, I taste the tears on her lips. She is saying everything I wanted to hear before Marcy was taken. It would have meant so much to me. Now, it doesn’t mean much at all. She can say all of these things because of Who she saw. I can’t just sit quietly with her, and wait to see what happens. Her tears taste bitter on my lips, instead of sweet and salty. I can’t be the husband she wants me to be. I don’t want to be.
She is above the situation. Having seen Jesus just today, she is able to look at this situation with eyes that no one else can. I haven’t seen Jesus since I was six years old. Trying to remember that encounter is nearly impossible. I remember being awakened by the call of my name, and walking down the dark hall. I remember feeling no fear and finally seeing a man wrapped in incredible light. But, I remember nothing more. It’s like remembering a dream. It has no effect anymore.
“I’ll be okay,” I answer quietly. I just want to get away. The words she said are making me feel sick.
“I love you,” she whispers.
“Me too.” I let go of her and step down the basement stairs. I can feel her watching me with a mixture of worry and bewilderment. She flicks the basement lights on as my feet touch the floor. Now, I hear her stepping firmly up the other stairs.
The word Ms. Brands whispered is bobbing in my mind, sinking deeper and deeper with every passing moment. I’m stepping toward my small office in the far corner of the hall. Shadow lies across the walls, forming shapes from the mess around, to make it seem like things are surrounding me.
“Find me, daddy.” the whisper comes from the shadow. It’s M’s voice. “Bring me home. Please.” Soft and polite, like when she was scared to stay overnight at her first slumber party, and she called me when everyone was asleep. Bring me home, daddy. Please. And I did. And we had our own little slumber party, turning the living room into a fort. She loved it, as did I.
I want so badly to hear that door open, and to hear her little voice call for me. I keep trying to convince myself that I am accepting this. But I’m not. That pain I felt earlier is returning. My face feels broken across the top half. Tears are streaming out of my healthy eye, but the swollen one is a pocket they are leaking out of.
I’m both numb and broken, like a man who has fallen from a great height but isn’t dead. He just lies there, aware that he can no longer move, aware that his life is going to be an uphill struggle he isn’t sure he wants to face.
I am this man. Metaphorically and internally.
The shirt beneath my trench coat is stained with blood in spots, and my pants are nearly all red from the ankles down. The children tried to kill me. Tried, but couldn’t. Just like Teddy earlier today, something prevented it.
I used to close my eyes and see one thing: the shed, as dad pushed his piece inside me. I cried for him to stop, but he would only grunt and go faster. I could feel his force shake the table he had me against. And then when it was over, he turned me around, and said, “our little secret,” and opened the door.
But, the more exposure I have to this reality of light inside me, I remember someone completely different. Dad wasn’t the man who held me helpless against the table, and did what he did to me. He kept me safe, guarding the doorway as mom read a story. And, without him saying a word, when mom said I was loved, I knew it came from both of them.
The feeling that started after seeing mom on the bench today has only evolved into something more defined. It was clean. Now, it’s something more. It’s not just a feeling, but a desire. I don’t just want freedom, I want answers. Everything began on that day. Had it never happened, I wouldn’t be this man, facing a darkness that I used to call friend. I would be free.
But, what does it mean to be free? No matter how far I distance myself from here, the memory of it will live on. I am not free to leave. Not until I feel it coursing through my veins. Not until all of the dirty inside feels washed out, because it’s still there. Dad’s piece is a memory that still slips inside me when I become afraid. The children still surround me when fear crawls on top of me. And Teddy still watches me fidget and fight. I am not free. Not yet, but I will be.
The children gave me an answer. They said that I was weak. Of course I was weak. I was barely twelve. Mom was dying. And dad was supposed to keep me safe. Instead, he led me right into Teddy’s welcome. Teddy used to be just a bear I shared my bed with. By the time I was twelve years old, he found himself on the floor more than on my bed. And then dad invited me into the shed, and everything changed. That day, Teddy was lying on the center of my mattress. I hadn’t put him there.
The shed is on full display. No longer hiding behind the deck, it is making sounds. I can hear dad’s voice rolling from the door as it opens: I need help with a little project, kiddo. The darkness of the inside looks red. Not like a red light, but like a room filled with thick blood.
“There is power in blood, John.” It’s Teddy. I know his voice almost better than my own. “You want freedom? I’ll make a deal. Stick M’s skin with a needle, withdraw her blood, and put it in a vial. Add it to the collection, John. Then, you are free.”
I feel strange. I’m lying down, but moving. I can see my hands and feet dragging back and forth, trying to make a snow angel in the dirt.
“No!” I’m screaming. Or I’m not screaming. I can’t tell. It’s quiet outside, but loud within. I can only hear the beating of my heart. It’s rapid and only growing. “It’s a trick, Teddy! I know what you are trying to do!” The dragging has become a flail. My arms are senseless. It’s like I’m seizing, without the foam or uncontrollable flail of my head. My head is calm, watching the rest of me go wild.
I close my eyes. My heart beat is all I hear. Thud. Pause. Thud. Pause. Now, I hear a door opening. I open my eyes. My hands are under M’s legs, about to lift her from the seat. She’s dead only because breath no longer slips from her mouth. Otherwise, she is still very much alive. She died with her hands pressed together tightly. A sheet of paper is pressed between them, folded down the middle.
I pull it free. In green color crayon, this is written:
Jesus has not given me a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and a sound mind.
The desktop computer in my small office is turning on, but it’s old. I have had it since before Marcy’s conception. I grabbed it from mom’s before she donated it. It was never meant for speed. It was meant for privacy, so that I could have a space of my own, separate from Janet. There is nothing even close to incriminating on it. The most I am hiding from her right now is the real pain I feel.
I typed all of dad’s notes, and saved them in the order I believe they were written. The original copies are peaking out at me from under the desk, in the blue accordion folder. I’m tempted to read through them again, but it hurts me to say, dad can’t relate to this situation. This is the first time I have felt completely alone. Sure, mom is only a phone call away, though I can already map out that conversation. It will begin and end with The Lord. She’ll tell of her many hardships at my age, and how The Lord pulled her through them. Or, even worse, she won’t know what to say.
I’m rocking back and forth in my swivel chair, tapping two of my ten fingers on the edge of the desk. It’s loading the few programs it has on it. The background is a picture of clouds. Usually I see the light tracing them, a silver lining. Today, I see a storm coming.
The feeling of being watched has slipped into the walls, like our bedroom this morning, but stronger. I’m urged to speak a scripture. I remain silent. What would come of it? In the book of Acts in the bible, Luke talks about a group of men who would cast out demons with the Jesus Paul preached. One of the times, the demon replied, “I know Jesus, and I know Paul, but who are you?” And he violently attacked the men, leaving them naked and battered. This morning, I had the authority. Do I still? I am disobeying, because I need answers The Lord isn’t willing to give. Right now, I am one of those men who do not know Jesus. So, I will not speak His name as if I do.
I am in danger, either way I look at it. If I just sit and wait, I fear I will do something terrible to myself. If I continue down this road, I may find myself face to face with the thing inside Ms. Brands.
The page is a search engine. I type in the letters Mina first. What comes up is a page of suggestions: did you mean Minea? I click the suggestion. The first thing I see is an article from the Minea Paper, with the headline THREE BOYS DEAD. I click again. It takes me to an article:
THREE LOCAL BOYS DEAD, ONE MISSING.
Sunday, June 19th, 1983
Darkness covers Minea. Trevor Trills 14, Bradley Penwood 12, and George Thyme 11, were all found dead, face down in the stream beneath the downtown bridge. It is believed that they jumped. Thomas Aerie 7, is still missing. He was last seen walking home from class.
A pall has been cast. With no witnesses, and no explanation, Minea has already taken on the feel of a ghost town. The last sightings of any of the three boys were in school. Each of their teachers reported a “heavy daze.” Separate classrooms, but a “lost” look in each has made this the biggest mystery we have ever had. That is not said with any sense of pride. It is a tragedy that already haunts this town.
However, Thomas Aerie Sr. and his wife Rebecca are “holding onto hope” that God will bring their Little Tommy home. Perhaps, a ray of light in disaster. Perhaps. But, only time will tell.
I am in danger. The descriptions fit Ms. Brands, but they’re from over two decades ago. Those boys encountered what she did. I know I should stay away. This is something with power that has been growing for decades. All day I have been listening to the definite feeling that my little girl is already with The Lord. But, that feeling has become a question: What if she is still alive?
Even though she is dead, mom still talks about Jesus: on the bench, and in memories in my room. Even M said that name before she told me the light isn’t gone. Maybe light isn’t what Teddy hates. Maybe it’s Jesus.
No. He’s the man from the stories, the ones about calming a sea with His words, and walking across the water. They are stories mom used to tell me. Nothing more.
But, what if they aren’t? When I read these words out loud, I feel powerful. And if these words are true, I am not weak like the children say.
“Jesus has not given me a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and a sound mind.” I have never felt power like this. It’s not one of being controlled, but one of control. I say it again. Louder this time. I feel a tingle in the tips of my fingers. It presents in the way Teddy’s did, but the control is mine.
I’m still hunched over M in the backseat. I haven’t moved.
I have come to set you free, John. this isn’t Teddy. The voice is warm and overpowering. You are loved.
Light is appearing beneath me. I look down. The teddy bear that was meant for M’s vial of blood is now covered in light. I pick it out of the plastic bag. It feels weightless. I lift it to meet my eyes. The light has faded from the body, but its eyes are full of light.
I’ll help you find the truth why this happened to you. It’s hidden, and I know where.
“Where?” I ask.
The search engine mapped out the fastest route to Minea: 5 hrs 45 min. It’s in Minnesota. The map is printed and crisp between my fingers. If I leave now, I’ll get there before nine.
I’m standing to leave. The picture I have of Marcy on my desk is of her gap toothed smile after losing the left of her front two baby teeth. Bring me home, daddy. Please. I hear it again.
“I will. I promise.”
I shut off the light and step through the hallway. The feeling of being watched follows me wherever I go. I have no defense against it.
The clutter is a wall I pass by. The basement has become a place to put things we no longer have use for. It began with the first miscarriage, and never recovered.
My walk has become a run. I pass by the room with the water heater. It almost sounds like high pitched laughing. And now, I run up the stairs. I don’t want to face Janet, but I have to.
“Sweetie?” I call.
I hear her reply from somewhere upstairs.
“Where are you?” I ask.
“The kitchen,” I think she says.
I run up the other set of stairs and find her sitting at the counter.
“I have to go somewhere.” I say.
“Where?” her reply is quiet and tight lipped.
“I’m going to bring Marcy home.”
She doesn’t say a word, but I can see it in her eyes. She needs me here with her. She wants someone to hold her. And maybe even someone to tell her everything is going to be okay. But, I’m no good for that right now.
“I have to do this, sweetie. I can’t just sit around here.” I am going to tell her the truth. She deserves it. “I’m afraid of what I might do to myself if I do. I know you don’t agree. I know you want me to stay, but I have to do this.”
“When I had the first, and now, second miscarriage, you didn’t get very sad. I thought it was because you turned to Jesus, but now I think it’s because you turned to our daughter.”
“What does that mean? You can sit there and say this only because you saw Jesus. Where would you be if you hadn’t?!”
Her eyes are wet. She doesn’t say another thing. She just walks away and slams our bedroom door closed.
I’m already sorry for what I said. I start to follow her, and then stop. The keys are hanging on their hook. My leather jacket is draped over my seat at the dining room table. I’ll probably only make it worse.
I grab a sheet of paper, and a pen from the counter instead.
I’m sorry for what I said. I love you.
I’ll keep my phone on, and will see you tomorrow.
There is so much I don’t know about what has controlled my life. Teddy came from nowhere and never left. And now, there is so much I don’t know about this One Who’s come to set me free. He’s the man from the stories mom used to tell, but I know nothing else. I’m a blind man following a Stranger.
But it’s all I have. I am weak. No matter how much perspective I gain, I will never be able to face this property on my own. I have grown Teddy too strong, and given him so much control that he knows me better than I know myself. I will never be free without this Stranger. He’s not only the Man from the stories. If He was, I wouldn’t be walking past the deck right now. The children would gather around and kill me slowly. Teddy would remain the quiet, controlling voice he has always been. If this Stranger was just for stories, I would already be dead.
He has taken a place inside of M’s Teddy, which is held firmly by my right hand. Jesus is a stranger to me, much like my own dad. I remember a man who betrayed me. Yet at the same time, I remember a man who loved mom and I, and protected us. How can they both be him? Which was the real one?
I am scared of the answers. The closer I get to the shed, the more I realize that the pain of questions is far less than the pain of answers. Do I want to know who my dad was? Will it really change anything?
M’s teddy has remained quiet. I have a light to take into the darkness, but at times it feels like it’s just a teddy bear. Jesus has not given me a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and a sound mind. I am starting to understand what that means. There is a light in me, a power much stronger than the one that has held me prisoner. It’s not in the bear I carry, but in me.
The weight of the bear has changed. The light is gone from its eyes. I drop it, continuing to step toward the shed. It’s only feet away. I am not going to stop. I’ve come too far to turn away. There are answers why this happened to me, answers Teddy never wanted to give.
This is the door. When dad called me, I didn’t know what was going to happen when I stepped inside. On that day, I burst through the door, excited to help out. Today, I look at the splintered wood, grab the handle, and pull it open. Before I even step in, I can see the teddy bears perched on the highest shelf. Dad’s pack of cigarettes is on display on the left bottom corner of the table he held me against… it’s the small, dark space I remember.
Your dad hid things too, John. Look in his toolbox. Even without the teddy, the voice is guiding me. It makes the darkness of this place seem lit. I flick the switch screwed into the exposed stud near the door. The light is barely existent. Maybe forty watts dangle from a thin wire high above the table. Dad’s toolbox is tucked under the table. I have never touched it.
I take a deep breath and release. The toolbox is faded red and maybe a little bigger than a twelve pack. It’s heavier than it looks. I put it on the table, and unlatch it. It has two layers; one extends out as I pull back the cover. The tools are rusted but categorized. It seems like something dad cared about. There is nothing but tools in the first compartment. I lift it out. In the bottom compartment, there are sheets of notebook paper. I pull them out:
February 26th, 1981
Anna is terminal. We got the news today. She just smiled and said, “If it’s my time to go, then it’s my time to go. I’ll be with Jesus. And there’s no better place to be.”
This has been a very long road. She was diagnosed a little over two years ago. The doctor estimates she maybe has another 3 to 5 months.
I bedded her down inside, and put on her favorite record of hymns. She said she loved me, and I said it back. I still do love her. I never stopped. But, I am starting to let go of her.
March 15th, 1981
I used to hate dad because he cheated on mom. Now, I’m no better than him. But, I can’t stop myself from going to see Stephanie. Seeing Anna dying in this drawn out way makes me feel sick. Just being in the same room with her tears me apart inside. But, Stephanie makes me feel alive. And to feel alive after all of this is something I won’t give up. I haven’t slept with her. But I have already cheated, because in my heart, Anna is already gone.
I don’t want the responsibility of being her husband anymore. The last two years have been lived on a day-to-day basis. When she was too sick to lift her head, it was my job to try and tell John that Jesus loved him and that everything was going to be okay. I have stopped believing that lie. And I have stopped telling it. Over the last two years I have remained strong, organizing prayer chains for Anna, fasting for days for her, praying in tongues for hours straight. All that’s come of it is a terminal diagnosis. I’m done praying. I’m done believing.
March 28th, 1981
Anna seemed very present tonight, but the medicine was still weighing down her personality. I don’t joke with her anymore, because her reply is groggy and disconnected. She used to be so beautiful, but the sickness has taken away my wife, and left me with a beaten up shell.
Stephanie makes it all go away for a while. I drive down the road to her house, excited, even though I shouldn’t be. I know I should be at home with Anna, caring for her. I miss her body: her lips kissing mine, her breasts in my hands, her moans as I make love to her. I miss that. But, that’s not our marriage anymore. I’m just watching the sickness take away all of the memories I had with her before this.
When Stephanie and I sleep together, I think of Anna. I close my eyes and imagine her lips against mine, her breasts in my hands, her moans calling out my name. It’s a sin what I’m doing. Why I keep doing it, I don’t know. Before I ever met Anna, I had a problem with cheating. Like father, like son. But, then I met Anna. And my heart, my affections, every part of me desired only her.
I hate myself for what I am doing, but I can’t stop. A big part of me doesn’t want to.
April 10th, 1981
It’s become almost nightly. Stephanie’s arms around me have almost become the only way I can fall asleep. Anna takes a variety of sleeping pills and is out by 9:00 at the latest. I always tuck John in before I leave. He probably knows something is going on. He is almost twelve, but he doesn’t say anything. I put on a fatherly face for him, even though I am not fatherly. He wants me to be there for him. Anna wants me to stay true to what I promised her. But, she isn’t enough anymore. The more I see Stephanie, the more I realize that Anna has lost that special place in my heart. When I sleep with Stephanie, I now keep my eyes open. I no longer imagine Anna in place of her. I love the feeling of being with Stephanie. I don’t have to change her messed-in sheets. I don’t have to nod along to disconnected ramblings about the afterlife like I do with Anna. I can talk to her about my day, and then feel her body against mine.
April 25th, 1981
John’s twelve today. The day he was born was the happiest day of my life. I remember holding Anna’s hand, and talking her through it. I remember how tired I was after fourteen hours. I couldn’t begin to imagine how tired she was. And John wasn’t born for another six. I remember Anna saying that despite the horrible weather, it was the brightest day of her life.
I don’t know what I’m doing. I have broken my vows. Reading back over what I have written, I have become a stranger to myself. I don’t want to say goodbye to Anna. I hate myself for what I’m doing. I haven’t been a father since the day we got the news that Anna is dying, and I know my son needs me now more than ever. If it’s hard for me, I can’t imagine how hard it is for him.
This morning, John asked me where I was last night. He said mom woke him up crying for me. He said she was in so much pain. He said he tried to make her feel better by saying a little prayer for her. I didn’t give him an answer where I was, I changed the subject.
It hurts more than I can put into words to watch my wife slowly shut down. I have tried to avoid it, turning to another woman. I have betrayed sixteen years of trust. But, maybe there is still a chance for me. I will end things with Stephanie tonight. And then I will come home and be a father and husband once again.
April 26th, 1981
I told Stephanie we were done. I said how I have become a stranger to myself. I was so close to leaving through the front door, but then I went back. My mind was telling me to leave, to go back home and hold Anna. But, my piece was telling me to tear off her clothes and make her moan. The betrayal continues.
I know what I am doing. And I know that if Anna knew, she would be devastated. How can I know this, and still keep doing it? When it started with Stephanie, it was just talking. She was able to relate to me. I knew it was wrong, that even spending that time with her was a betrayal. But, I kept spending time with her, because she made me feel free. I never planned on sleeping with her. It just happened. A moment that led to another. Then it grew.
I loved how uncomplicated it was. She was an escape for me, other than this shed. Now, there is no escape. I think I would have been free had I left last night. Instead, I can only think about how it feels for my piece to be inside of her.
April 30th, 1981
It’s over. Stephanie realized that our connection has become all about the physical. When she told me to leave, I wanted to hold her down and stick my piece inside. I was so close.
But, I didn’t. I drove half an hour away to Briars Lilly and paid a red haired prostitute 100 dollars for two hours. I never thought I would be writing these words. I feel sick reading them, but I still want to do it again.
I should have walked away from Stephanie. I had an escape, but I went back. Now, I can’t stop myself. The urges never were like this when I used to cheat. I’m controlled by my piece. It wants what it wants, and I can’t say no anymore. But, I have to try. I haven’t completely lost myself yet. The man I used to be is still in there. I can feel him fighting. He’s weak and withered, and tired of the fight. But, he’s fighting. I can’t give in again. I won’t.
May 1st, 1981
My piece keeps me thinking about one more time. It even seems to agree with my stopping. It wants just one more time with the prostitute. One more, then done. I haven’t given in. I know it won’t be just one more time. It never is.
I kept Anna company last night. Her thoughts were stuck in the moment when we met. She remembers what I was wearing, how my hair looked, and how she felt as soon as she saw me. She talked about how much she loved me, and that she wants me to be okay when she’s gone. I nearly told her everything. I was so close, but I held it in. It would be cruel.
It would make me feel better to be able to tell somebody. But, I don’t deserve to feel better. I don’t deserve to have this heavy weight lifted from my shoulders. I chose to go back to Stephanie. I knew what the consequences were going to be. They have only grown stronger.
I am writing with one hand, and palming my keys with the other. I just need one more time. I just need that relief. Relief is the only way I can feel like the man I used to be. The urges get stronger every time. And the window for how long I have gets smaller and smaller. I am losing myself. Soon, I won’t be in there at all. But, I still am. I just need the relief.
May 2nd, 1981
I don’t know how long I was with her last night. I don’t know when I came home. I don’t even know what time it is. I’m in the shed. My piece is wet and erect. I don’t even feel relief anymore.
I saw a cop car parked in front of the school as I was pulling out of the driveway. I’m glad I won’t be around. It’s only a matter of time until it pulls in front of our house. Janet can answer the questions. She has a much better handle on the whole situation anyway.
The people of Payne like to talk. First, they’ll talk about why a cop car is in front of the Mills’ house. And when they find out why, they’ll start to talk about Marcy’s disappearance. I can hear them now. They’ll blame me and Janet for her disappearance. They’ll say, because of the miscarriage, we both weren’t attentive enough. And maybe they’ll even say, “Ironic that Matthew Mills, the man of faith, is losing everything close to him. Where’s his God now?”
I’m done trying to answer that question. If He wants to remain a quiet voice telling me to trust Him, if that’s all He will give me—
None of that matters. Marcy is in Minea. She is only five hours and forty five minutes away. I’m wrong about what I thought earlier. It wasn’t the Lord telling me that my little girl is already gone. It was my sadness telling me a lie. She is in Minea, and she needs me to bring her home. I don’t have to bury my little girl. I know where she is; I have the location on a sheet of paper in my hands. And I have typed it into the GPS as a fail-safe.
My Ford Escape hasn’t even gone a mile, and already I am driving down the ramp toward the highway. My gas tank is nearly full. A survival kit is tucked under the passenger seat, and a back up flashlight is stored away in the glove compartment. Janet had a close call years ago during a white-out storm in winter. Ever since, both cars have had these items, just in case.
But, it’s just a false sense of security. The truth is, you can never be prepared for what’s to come. Life is a series of worsening storms. And shelter is becoming harder and harder to find. I am not prepared for what’s ahead. I know I should turn around while I still can. I can feel that thought overtaking the rest. To drown it out, I turn the radio louder, and listen to a man talk in depth about mistakes. I’m already making one, but I have already gone too far.
Even though I can still see the exit for Payne in my rearview mirror, I have started something I can’t step away from. Earlier today the reality of Marcy’s death was so strong in me, that no one could tell me any different. Now, I don’t know what’s true. Every time I try to listen to the voice telling me she is already gone, I hear her voice calling for me: Bring me home, daddy. I’m scared.
It happened May 2nd, 1981. If dad didn’t know what he was doing to me, then everything has been for nothing… not that it has ever been for anything other than obedience to Teddy. But, at least when I thought he chose it, his death had a meaning. The way I killed him was meant as therapy. Teddy said it would help. It was supposed to take away the pain. It didn’t. It only grew.
Even this morning, I was still dedicated to him, completely blind of my actual position. Teddy has never been my friend; though, he had me believing it for most of my life. Feeding me lie after lie. And I ate it up. I only questioned it in the beginning.
I was already numb long before the shed. Mom and dad never kept her sickness secret. I knew she only had a little time left. And every day I was preparing for it. Dad was different when he came back from the hospital the final time. He no longer tried to encourage me. He hardly said a thing. I kept close to mom, because I knew she needed me. These are things I haven’t remembered for years. I didn’t even know they were still in me.
It’s only the beginning to what I remember. There is no block anymore. No fuzz. No confusion. I was old enough to know what was happening, and now I am remembering it for what it is.
But, it’s like tracing back over steps. Maybe my past will return fully, but right now it feels like I am being given the rest of the answers.
I don’t know why I am focusing on my twelfth birthday. Mom and dad tried to make it special, but her condition was all I could focus on. The reality that it was my last birthday with her darkened any bright moment. The few moments of real joy were weighed down. And dad’s genuine smiles became pretend before the day was over.
When dad tucked me in, he said everything was going to be okay, like he was answering questions I hadn’t asked but wanted to. He said that he would be home soon, and that he loved me. He kissed my forehead, and stepped away. He left the hallway light on, leaving my door open only a crack. I waited to hear his heavy shoes step down the wooden stairs. The front door closed quietly. I got out of bed, and watched him get in his Buick. He looked back at the house once and then drove away.
I listened for mom as I got back into bed. The house was quiet enough that I could only hear the clock in the kitchen ticking. Some nights, it would put me to sleep. This night, I was wide awake. When I would close my eyes, I imagined mom taking her last breath. I opened them again to the same ticking. It was too fast… too slow… then not there at all. I heard footsteps louder than dad’s stepping up the stairs. When they stopped, the light in the hall shut off. When they started again, my door swung open and then slammed closed.
“Who’s there?” I asked.
“A friend.” the voice was kind.
“What do you want?”
“A friend.” it said again. “Will you be my friend?”
“Why did you come here?”
“You know what your daddy is out doing. While your mommy is dying downstairs, he’s with someone else. What kind of man does that?”
“He said he’ll be home soon, that everything is going to be okay.”
“You’ll see. Soon, you’ll need a friend.”
The next thing I remember is waking up. The morning sun was out, my right pointer finger was bloodstained, and the teddy bear that would become Teddy was in the bed with me. I don’t know what happened that night.
Even if I tried to call and apologize, Janet wouldn’t answer. But I imagine she is staring at her phone, waiting for my attempts anyway. I am doing the same thing. I hurt her. But, she hurt me too. It wasn’t just what she said about turning to Marcy instead of Jesus throughout all of this, but about this morning, about the constant snaps and sleights this whole last week. She isn’t the only one who lost our baby. She isn’t the only one who feels that pain.
I don’t know why I am starting to hate this position. I used to take pride in being a husband. But, it’s a thankless job. Janet hasn’t noticed all that I have done for her. She focuses on all of the pain she has felt, but won’t see what I am buried under. A simple sorry would have spoken volumes: “I’m sorry for how I have hurt you. I’m sorry for not realizing all that you have done for me. Can you forgive me, Matty? Can you just stay home with me, and wait to see what ‘it’s going to be okay’ means?”
Had she said that, maybe I would have stayed with her.
I want to know I’m free to leave. But, I don’t know if that will even come, because every answer I get only leads to more questions. If I did something to place Teddy into my life, does that make me responsible for what happened?
Dad’s entry on my birthday was hopeful. And when he said he would be home soon, he meant it. I could see it in his eyes. But, he never did get free. He went back to that woman, Stephanie. On that same night, Teddy first introduced himself. But, he wasn’t in my teddy bear. He was just a voice, a full bodied presence that I could almost see standing within the shadows.
I don’t need to remember what happened that night to know what I did. It’s a pattern. I’ve done the same thing for years with every child. There is power in blood, John. Teddy used the blood from each child to grow his power. I think he used mine to find a home.
The answer was sitting next to me the entire time. I will find something stuffed inside of Teddy, something with my own blood on it. It’s why he has had the power since that very first moment. I helped him have a place in my life. Maybe it was loneliness. Or maybe I really did think he would be my friend. I don’t know the answer to that question. Maybe I never will.
In order to be free, do I have to know every answer? Will this search lead me across every inch of this property, and through every room of my childhood home? I’m trying to just answer one question at a time, even though there are many. But, there is also a very clear path forming. Teddy is the next answer.
Blood has always given him power. What would happen if I took it away?
There is a pocket sized calendar in my car, stuck just above the radio. Every month has a short Proverb. November says this:
Proverbs 9: 11-12: “I, Wisdom, will make the hours of your day more profitable and years of your life more fruitful.” Wisdom is its own reward, and if you scorn her, you hurt only yourself.
Every sign is telling me to turn back. I flip to the next month on the calendar. Wisdom is the focus there, too. My quiet guide has become loud again. I’m tempted to turn back. Just trust, the voice is saying. Just believe.
It’s not enough. It hurts too much. I can’t just believe, not anymore. I have been betrayed by my Best Friend, and I don’t know what to do about it.
“You’ve taken my sons, Lord. You didn’t protect my daughter, even though Your word says that no harm will befall her. You are so much bigger than me. You are Creator, and I am mere creation. But, sometimes I think you just want to see what I will do. What will Matthew Mills do, now that his girl is gone? Will he stand strong, and just believe? It’s cruel to ask of me. It’s cruel for You to take our second baby, and then a week later, our daughter too.
“What am I trusting for? Is it just for the strength to get through another day? Is that all? Life is a series of worsening storms. You used to be my shelter. Now, I don’t know what You are.”
Sometimes it helps to speak out loud. Today, it only hurts. I’ll keep the thoughts inside. It doesn’t feel like Anyone is listening anyway.
My mistake was letting Marcy go to school this morning. Had I just kept her home, she would still be with me. I could have made her hot cocoa, and grilled cheese sandwiches, and watched Disney movies with her all day. Maybe Janet even would have joined us. My mistake was letting her out of my sight.
The Lord told me to anoint Marcy. I thought it was to protect her from the evil in our bedroom. That’s why I anointed Janet, too. Now, I realize it was to see if I would do it. It’s like the dream of dad’s resurrection all over again. I believed it could happen. I waited for it. And when it didn’t, I nearly drowned amidst the drifting.
The dream of dad’s resurrection was a promise You broke. The anointing of Marcy is just another broken promise. I am merely a jar of clay. You create jars of all different kinds, and use them in many ways. You picked up my pieces once, after I broke into countless, and put me back together. You filled me with the sweetest gifts: a wife, and a daughter. I was privileged, on a shelf many never see. But now, you have dropped me again. And I don’t know why.
I’ve left the shed. Fear isn’t crawling over me like I expected it to, like it has so often before. I still have the feeling of power. In fact, I think it might be growing. Teddy can’t control me like he used to. If he could, I wouldn’t be stepping toward the car, at least not at this rate, and not with this sense of security.
I’m not alone. Even though Jesus hasn’t said anything more to me since dad’s entries, I know that this path is guarded by Him. This power—feeling power whatsoever should feel strange to me, since I have never had it. But, somehow it feels natural, like it’s been in me this whole time.
Teddy made me believe I had a friend. Now, I think it’s actually true. Jesus is still a stranger to me. I don’t know His voice like I know Teddy’s. What I do know is this: ever since I found that paper in M’s hand, a part of me that I didn’t know still existed has come back to life. Ever since I started speaking His name, a new me has started to rise from whatever was left of the old.
The car is only another forty or so feet away. I can see M’s head barely poking out from behind the driver’s side seat. My steps are long and quick. The end is near. I can feel that reality starting to stream through me.
Every step. Every moment. They are both numbered now. There is an answer in Teddy, leading to something big. I can feel it.
The truth will hurt, John. these words just formed from silence. Blunt and honest, yet comforting. This isn’t Teddy. The truth is something you haven’t been able to remember, something you haven’t wanted to remember. When you take the blood out of the bear, you will. But, it won’t just be a memory. You will relive it, exactly as it happened.
The end is near, only steps away…
I think I’m ready.
My mind is full of Marcy: her smile, her voice, her goofy personality. Deep in my center, there is that quiet voice telling me that she is nowhere near that evil place, but that she is home with Jesus.
“Shut up!” I’m screaming. It’s all I want to do. “You take! That’s all You do! You give in abundance to the foolish! They watch their kids grow to be a success! But, I can’t even keep what I have! And now You want me to find comfort in these words?! You want me to just accept losing my daughter?! Accept losing the position of being a father?! I am starting to hate Janet because You lifted her up, and are letting me drown! I’m broken, but you don’t care! You don’t care! Why should I?!”
There isn’t a lot keeping me from veering this car into the ditch. Going the speed I am, I would probably die not long after impact. It’s a thought that I am seriously considering. I would only have to turn the wheel slightly. And then…
What would happen if I did die? Would Janet continue without me? Jesus told her ‘it’s going to be okay.’ Would those words still be true? Or maybe the most important question is this: what if I try to die, but live?
I just hit something on the road. It lifted my vehicle for a moment and made an ugly sound. My reaction is immediate. I glance in the rearview mirror. I see my face before the reflection of the highway. My beaten eye is nearly swollen shut. My healthy eye is red—no blue. Blue and flat. But, it wasn’t. It was red and sharp, like the thing that looked at me from inside Ms. Brands. Is it inside me now?
There is another sound. It’s in the vehicle this time. When I look in the rearview again, I see Marcy sitting quietly in the backseat.
It’s not her! I close my eyes, and when I look again, her face is turned away.
“Sweets?” it just comes out, a fatherly reflex.
Her face turns. But, it’s not hers. It’s old and wrinkled, yet her body is still small, like Marcy’s. The sounds she is making are giggles and growls. “Yes, daddy. It’s inside you!” her smile is wider than humanly possible. I can feel that I am probably going twenty miles over the speed limit, but my eyes won’t pull away from the mirror, my foot won’t let up from the accelerator. “And it is powerful!”
My hands have locked up. I am able to only glance at the speedometer: 100. And rising.
“Just a slight turn of the wheel.” she is whispering.
And my hands are following. I can’t control them, no matter how hard I try. I can feel the wheels going off the road onto the warning bumps of the shoulder.
“Je-Jesus!” I scream desperately. “Sa-save me!”
Immediately, my hands are mine again. And I am able to lift my foot from the accelerator. She’s gone from the backseat.
You are in danger. Turn around, Matthew. Trust Me when I say it’s going to be okay. I see everything. There is so much more at work here than you know. That small and quiet voice isn’t so quiet anymore.
“I don’t want to face it, Lord. I don’t want this to be another slow process, where Your plan unfolds over many years.”
It’s quiet again. There is a ramp in half a mile. I’m going back. My little girl is nowhere near that evil place. She is home with Jesus.
This is the first real time that I feel bigger than Teddy. He’s just an old bear in my hands now. Nothing more. His eyes aren’t red, but brown: the color they used to be. I’m not afraid of the truth. I’m not afraid of the hurt. Most of my life has been lived in this fog where my thoughts, my desires, and my feelings were his. I don’t know who I am, because I don’t know where Teddy ends, or where I begin.
I don’t even know what it feels like to hurt anymore. Even that word is strange to me. Teddy has hurt me before, physically, but it never really hurt. It was still numb. It was still his influence on my mind. Even when he hurt me, I believed it to be friendly. When Jesus said that the truth is going to hurt, there is no moment in my life that I can look back on. There was hurt after mom’s death. I know, because it was the one thing that Teddy said would never go away. But, was that hurt, or hate? When I think about it, hate was the only thing I fully felt. It was the only emotion that Teddy brought to the surface. Every other human quality has been buried deep inside me.
Or, did I give it away? There is something with my blood on it stuffed inside of Teddy. My finger wasn’t bloodstained after the shed, but a week before. Maybe I gave away my human qualities to Teddy before dad ever did anything to me.
I can feel a slit in Teddy’s back. With both of my pointer fingers I push in. My right hand digs inside. The stuffing seems new, catching on my dry finger tips, even though it is very old. I can feel where his arms begin, and where the stitching starts. The stuffing is thick. I grab a chunk and pull it out of him. I can feel a folded piece of paper in my palm. It wasn’t inside of the stuffing, but tucked behind it, near Teddy’s front.
I unfold it:
FOR MY FRIEND
I drew four eyes of different sizes with my own blood beneath those words. I don’t remember doing it, but I did. To my friend? I gave Teddy a hold before anything happened with the shed. The truth is going to hurt, because it already does. And there is more to come. The reveal is only starting. I drop Teddy to the ground and step away from the car. It’s nighttime. It was just day. My surroundings are rippling, like reflections in disturbed water: the trees, the sky, even the car.
There is a feeling of being pulled out of myself, like many hands are coming from the house and trying to pull me inside. But, it’s not my body that’s being pulled. It’s something inside of me. I’m detaching from my body. It just stands by the car as I am pulled away, pulled into the house. I am pulled through the wall and up the stairs. The speed is incredible. I close my eyes for only a moment. When I open them again, I am standing in my childhood bedroom. My childhood self is lying in bed, Teddy tight to his chest. Everything is the way it was, from the blue color of the blanket on the bed, to mom’s memoriam card on the floor. I remember reading it every night for days.
Mom was buried on this day. I know, because May 12th isn’t blacked out on the calendar in my room yet. I did it on the thirteenth. I remember what I was thinking, laying there. I remember the hate I was trying to deny, but couldn’t. Dad’s tears only hours before made me hate him even more, because he was gone again. He was out with someone else only hours after burying his wife.
It’s late into the night. My clock was always slow, but only within a few minutes. It says it’s 11:45 pm, so it’s closer to 11:50. I can see by the wide eyed expression on his face that twelve year old John hasn’t slept. He’s been counting the ceiling of white spots.
“I can’t sleep, Teddy.” he whispers.
“Just close your eyes, John, and you will.” I can hear Teddy again.
He just nods his head. He closes his eyes. That’s what I remember about that night. I finally fell asleep, and woke up the next day. But, that’s not what happened. His eyes are open again. He’s sitting up and walking toward the door. Teddy isn’t tight to his chest anymore, but held firmly in his hand.
I am nothing but a set of eyes following his steps. I can’t grab handles, pick up objects, or speak words. I am back in this moment, because the truth is here.
His steps are Teddy’s. He’s halfway down the stairs and he hasn’t looked over at the living room to see if he can still feel mom. I always did. There is no weakness to him. He is without expression. His steps are hypnotic. Emotionless. Soulless.
We are downstairs now. I look over to the living room, but it’s completely white, like it never existed. I can only see what he saw. He opens the door, and walks down the deck steps toward the shed. The light is on. It’s the only thing lit in the darkness, but even that’s dim.
His steps are the same lifeless pattern. He doesn’t wonder why the lights are on in the shed, when dad is supposed to be gone. He just keeps walking. I look back to see if dad’s car is parked. There’s just a gray smudge, close to the white nothingness of the living room, but dirtier, like the streaks a bad eraser leaves behind.
He has stopped in front of the shed. He doesn’t survey. There is no chill that shoots into him. No hesitance. He just pulls the door open.
Dad’s body is hanging. And I am just a pair of eyes, who can only watch. I don’t even know what I feel. I don’t even know if I do. I’m separated from my body, yet I know that if I was attached, the pain would be the worst I’ve ever known. All I feel is pressure, building, and pulsating, like I’m an object filling with too much air. I can’t scream. I can’t cry. But, I need too. Desperately.
A bright orange extension cord is wrapped around dad’s neck. His eyes are lifeless and pained. His feet dangle about a foot off the ground. A piece of paper is duct taped to his dirty white dress shirt. I try to read it, but it’s white. Just like with the living room, my childhood self never looked at it.
He’s just pushing past dad’s body, entering the shed. And now I am too. I am no longer choosing to follow him. But I’m tethered to him, like a balloon in a child’s hand. He has stopped at the tool wall. I try to look back at dad’s body, but even my eyes are now pinned in place: held by hands I can’t see. The pressure is nearly unbearable. I feel like I’m in a body where my skin is vacuum sealed, suffocating my insides. This is the beginning of a hurt that I can’t yet feel. It’s only growing.
He grabs a dark gray box cutter from the wall. He sits Teddy on the table we were held against and then climbs up himself. Even standing on the table, he is barely tall enough to reach the cord wrapping dad’s neck. But, he does. And he begins to cut. The wire is exposed before it snaps. Dad’s feet hit the floor, tossing his dead body face first onto the ground.
My eyes are pulled left. John isn’t standing on the table anymore. He’s sitting on the edge, digging inside of Teddy’s back. Teddy’s eyes are lively deep red swirls. This is the Teddy I know too well, the Teddy I wish I could forget. John has pulled a piece of paper from his back. He unfolds it. There are only two eyes drawn in blood. He gets down from the table and walks over to dad’s body. I know what’s going to happen. He’s going to cut him. He’s going to draw two more eyes on the sheet of paper in dad’s blood.
The pressure is severe. I’m going to burst. I can’t feel any of this, but I need to. I have to. I have to! I try to close my eyes, and can. I squeeze so they won’t come back open. It should hurt! It should, but it doesn’t! It’s just pressure I feel! Pressure! And it’s only growing. I’m going to explode. This pressure is beyond words. It’s pressure without pain, but knowledge that the pain should be there. It should be severe.
I hear something inside of me screaming. It’s detached from me, but getting closer. I can feel I’m being pulled back to my body. I can hear screams. My screams. And as I hear them grow louder and louder, the pressure becomes pain. I’m in my body again. I can feel my hands tightly pressed together, and my whole body trembling. It hurts.
I’ve been back in Payne for nearly thirty minutes. But, I haven’t gone home yet. I’m at the park down the hill from our house. The Escape is idling quietly, and the sun has almost set. There is a smear of bright colors on the horizon. It reminds me of Janet’s pallet when she is painting. But, she hasn’t painted in a long time. After the first miscarriage, she painted her pain in a piece she never named. She used a large canvas, bigger than most posters. She started with a murky gray. Then she added reds and pinks, painting our undeveloped baby, still in his embryonic sack. He was shaped like a broken heart, split down the middle. That painting is somewhere in our basement. Or, maybe she already threw it away.
Janet threw a lot away after the second miscarriage: paintings she had spent hours working on, several bottles of paint, brushes, and varying sizes of blank canvases all ended up in the dumpster. Janet threw a lot of herself away after the second miscarriage. I’ve thrown a lot of myself away in the last eight hours, to a point where I hardly recognize the man I see when I look in the mirror.
Home is just a left turn and a couple of blocks up the hill. But, I don’t want to go back. It’s a few minutes after 4:30. I’ll go home and my little girl will be gone. Even though I know she is home with Jesus, I don’t want to face this. I love my Marcy, more than I can describe—was Janet right when she said that I turned to our little girl instead of Jesus? I want the answer to be no, but I don’t think it is. When I think back to the first miscarriage, I read the Word constantly, but even then, I turned to her. If I was hurting, I wouldn’t close myself away in quiet and wait on the Lord. I would find Marcy and bury my pain in the joy of her company. Janet was right. I wish she wasn’t, because even with this realization, my eyes don’t want to fully turn to Jesus. I don’t know why.
After dad died, I felt things too much. They almost destroyed me. Even though Jesus was right by my side, for years, it felt like I was completely on my own. When I came back to Him, I had to rebuild a relationship that had been unbreakable. I had to learn to trust Him again. And I did, from Marcy’s unplanned conception, to my temporary job at the factory becoming a management position.
But, something changed after the first miscarriage. After the pain of losing dad almost killed me, I decided to avoid the pain of losing our sons. I haven’t wanted to admit this to myself, but it’s the truth. I have only trusted Jesus wholeheartedly when hurt isn’t involved, when things are easy.
And now that things are hard again, I don’t know what to do. What does it mean to trust with all I have? I did when I thought dad was going to come back to life, when I had that dream about his resurrection. But, he didn’t. I don’t think I have ever trusted with all I have since. I want to be able to give all of myself back to my Lord. But this question always meets me: what if it feels like He left again?
Deep inside I know the Lord didn’t give me that dream. Maybe it was my own desires telling me a lie, or maybe the devil put on a fancy suit and appeared to me in a hopeful way. I know it was a lie, but I don’t understand why the Lord ever let it reach me. He knew what it was going to do to me.
Or, maybe I was supposed to have the dream. Maybe I was supposed to turn away, so that when I came back again, my relationship with the Lord was that much stronger. But, I have never reached that point. And I don’t know how to get there, because I thought I was already there. I thought I had been there for years.
“Jesus.” I whisper. “Dad died, and that part of me that trusts You with everything I have, has died too. But, I believe in resurrection. I believe that You can raise that dead part of me and let it live in me again. I want to trust You with everything I have, because You are all that I have. You are the Creator. I want to love you like I once did, like when I was a little boy, and nothing could pull me away from You. But, I don’t know how to get back there. Even though You didn’t give me that dream, it was like You watched as I was torn to pieces, instead of stepping in the way. What if You just watch as I’m torn to pieces again?”
There’s this sadness washing over me. I can’t explain exactly how it feels. It’s a little bit like how I feel after I hurt Janet, after I see that sadness stick to her face, and brim in her eyes. But, it’s still different. It’s a sadness that I feel deep inside me, yet it’s still sitting next to me. A living sadness, strong enough to almost have a solid form. I have never felt anything close to this. But, somehow it’s familiar. Even though I have never felt it, I know it. I know the presence within it.
“Jesus?” my eyes are still closed. “My words hurt you, didn’t they? I’m sorry. I’m just scared. To trust You with everything, means to give You everything. I don’t even know how to. I haven’t in so long, that it’s completely foreign to me. I know Your Word. I know Your presence. You’re my Best Friend, but I have never trusted You like I used to. Not since dad died. But, this is the day that I give it all to you. Please forgive me for anything You see in my heart as sin. Wash me in Your Blood. And cleanse me in my soul. Jesus, give me strength, because facing this reality alone will kill me.”
I open my eyes. The sadness is gone, as if it was never actually here. The sky is a purplish pink splatter of color that is starting to disappear behind the line of trees a few blocks ahead. I take a deep breath, put the Escape into drive, and pull away from the park.
I finally understand what hurt means. It’s the process of a body being taken apart piece by piece and put back together again. Even though the pain is burrowing further into me, the clean feeling is undeniable. I am still sobbing. My hands have become tight and contorted. My whole body is a continuous tremor that has left me flat on my back. I haven’t tried to open my eyes. I don’t want to. My entire life is a sickness that I have spread to countless others.
But, there was a beginning to me, a time before the sickness. I had a reason for being, even a purpose. It was something small: I was simply the only child to Charles and Anna. But I mattered. I made them smile. I brought joy.
Since Teddy, I have only caused pain.
This sickness didn’t start with you, John. It was passed down to you from your father, who was given it by his. I recognize the warmth attached to those words immediately. It’s Jesus. This sickness is a curse that destroyed your father, but not before grabbing hold of you.
“Does it matter that dad passed it down to me?!” I’m screaming. My body is still stuck in a tremor. “I still listened to Teddy! I still did all of those terrible things to children! Why do you care about me?! I am worthless! I only cause pain!” whatever fight I had before knowing this truth, feels like it’s gone from me.
Open your eyes, John. a quiet command.
They stay closed. I open my mouth to say—I don’t remember. I don’t remember anything I was going to say.
Open your eyes, John. this time the voice fills every part of me, like wind passing through my core.
They open automatically. I’m lying on my back. The sky above me is filled with colors I can’t describe, colors I have never seen.
“My sweet boy,” I look to my right. Mom is lying next to me. Her smile makes me do the same. “My sweet John.”
“I wish I still was your sweet boy.” I whisper.
“You still are.”
“No.” I look away from her. “You don’t understand what I’ve done—what I’ve become.”
“It doesn’t matter, John.” her hand tips my face back toward hers. “Jesus loves you. It doesn’t matter what you have done.”
“That can’t be true.” I can feel sickness pushing up from deep inside me. “Not after what I have done. Not after the pain I have caused. He can’t. No one can.”
“Let me show you something.” she sits up from lying down. I watch as she stands without struggle. I remember when she was so sick that she could barely stand on her own. But here, she isn’t in any pain. She offers me her hand with that same smile on her face. It’s an ageless smile, where all the pain she went through with her sickness doesn’t even seem to register. I grab her hand, and she pulls me to a stand.
We are standing at the top of a high hill. Out before us is the endless city. It stretches from where my eyes can’t see, both ways. It looks like it’s built into the mountains far toward the horizon. Built into them, but still separate. The valleys below are lush with life. The streams intersect with many others. Some flow directly toward the city, others branch away from it. The water is so clear it reflects the sky.
“Pain is only for a time, my sweet boy.” she says as she takes a seat on the bench behind us. “Sit with me, and watch.”
I sit next to her. “I see it, mom. It’s beautiful. But, I will never be here with you. Not permanently.”
“You can always be forgiven, John.” she says with an assurance I have never heard before. “You are never too lost.” she grabs hold of my hand. “Now watch.”
She points to the left of us. There are trees that tower over us. The tree closest to us is deep auburn and stretches very high into the air. Every part of it is thick. There are small houses built into the branches.
“What are you showing me, mom?” I ask.
“What you see isn’t a series of homes. It’s a tree house, where any of the children can come and play whenever they want.”
“Why show it to me?”
“That’s where they are.”
“They?” Suddenly, all of the children I killed are standing in front of me.
“You can always be forgiven, John.” Thomas says as he steps out from among the rest of the children. How can he look at me and say that so simply? And how can the rest of them just smile at me, like I’ve done nothing wrong? What I did was disgust—
Mom’s free hand tilts my face back toward hers. “You are never too lost, my beautiful boy. I’ll see you again soon.”
My eyes open. I’m not with her anymore. I’m lying on my back next to the car, staring into a sky where the sun has almost set. I am aware of the reality. I am aware that dad killed himself, and that everything that came after has been a lie Teddy had me believe. That isn’t what I am thinking about, though. I’m thinking about what I was told by mom—by Thomas: you can always be forgiven, John. I didn’t think I would ever believe it, but somehow I do.
I’m in the entryway, taking off my shoes. The lights are on in the kitchen, but I don’t hear Janet. I step quietly up the stairs. After about five steps, I can see up into the living room. Janet has set up a painting studio in the clearing. She is sitting on one of the chairs from the dining room table, and dabbing a thick brush on a pallet.
“I’m sorry, sweetie.” I say before reaching the top step. She turns toward me, but not all the way. It’s just enough to show that I have her attention. “I know where you would be had Jesus not visited you. It was cruel of me to say. And you were right. I have turned to Marcy instead of Jesus.”
“It’s not about me being right, Matthew.” she whispers.
I step into the living room, and over to her. “I know, but you were—you are. You read me too well. You read me today, when I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want to think that Marcy had become an idol in my heart. And when you said that she had, I wanted to hurt you, because it hurt me.” I pause as I kneel down and grab her hands. Her eyes make shapes of curiosity, but she doesn’t reply with words. “But, that isn’t an excuse. I’m sorry for leaving. I’m sorry for my jealousy, my hostility, and my unforgiving heart toward you. Will you please forgive me?”
“Yes.” she says softly. And then she becomes quiet, as if weighed down by something heavy. “I know I hurt you, Matty, probably countless times since the miscarriage. I lashed out at you when you were just trying to be loving. And I’m very sorry.” her eyes are wet. “Will you forgive me, Matty?”
I can only nod my head. I didn’t expect her to apologize. And now that she has, a clog has settled in my throat.
“Can you promise me something?” she breaks the silence.
I can’t speak. It hurts to even try. I just look at her, with eyes that try to express what I can’t say: what?
“Promise me you aren’t going to leave again.”
“I-I promise.” I can barely hear it slip out of me. I don’t know how she hears it. But, she does. And it makes her smile.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen next.” she pauses. “I don’t know what Jesus’ words meant, and I miss our little M as much as you do, sweetheart. But somehow, in a way I can’t describe or explain, I know everything is going to be okay. When Jesus said those words to me, He didn’t just plant an idea in me, but a promise. And despite all of the sadness I feel about losing our M, the promise is stronger. So much stronger. It’s like those words have been etched into my heart. I don’t know if they’ll fade as the days pass. I don’t know anything but those words, Matty. When we lost our first baby, you told me that times come in our life where we only have faith… where everything else is enemy to it. I can’t stand to see you falling away. I—”
“I was.” I interrupt. The clog in my throat has mostly cleared. “But, I’m not falling away anymore.”
Immediately, her eyes are at peace. She doesn’t need me to explain anything more than that. Maybe it’s something she sees in me that has been missing.
“You should sleep, sweetheart. Your eye looks worse. And you are past exhausted.” she rubs my face and then kisses it. “Just let yourself sleep. I’ll get you an ice pack for that eye. Go and lay down.” she stands up and walks to the kitchen before I say anything.
I haven’t even asked her if the cops came yet. I assume they have, but she hasn’t mentioned it. I suppose it doesn’t matter. If they did come, they took a statement, maybe an extra picture of Marcy, and left with some rehearsed set of words.
“What are you going to paint?” I ask as she comes back into the living room, with an ice pack in her hand.
“I want to paint the light I saw today, with Jesus’ hands coming from it. And even though the room was dark, I want to paint black only on the far edges, like the darkness is trying to get as far away from the light as possible.”
“It’ll be your best one yet.” I smile as I stand.
Her face is lit up like a little girl’s. “Really?!”
My smile grows as I nod my head. “I’m just happy to see you painting again. You haven’t in so long.”
“I know. But, it’s alive in me again. I am alive again.”
I wish I could feel the same way, but I’m still struggling. It’s human to hurt. Isn’t it? I know that Marcy is with You, Lord. And even though I trust You with all I have, it doesn’t change the hurt. It doesn’t change that I want to hold my little girl in my arms. She isn’t an idol in my heart anymore. I just miss my little girl. I just want her back.
“I’m tired.” I whisper as I grab the ice pack from her. Janet’s eyes immediately change, as if she knows the multiple meanings of that statement. I can see that she wants to say something, but doesn’t know what.
“I’m gonna lay down.” I say softly as I kiss her cheek. I press the pack to my swollen eye and walk down the hall toward our bedroom.
I am losing everything. It doesn’t matter how far I’ve come. It doesn’t matter what I was told or what I believe. Even though he is now just a bear tipped over with his stuffing exposed, Teddy is still holding me as his puppet. His eyes are a soft red glow again. He knows how to reduce me back to the weak, hopeless man I have always been. He doesn’t deny the truth about dad. Instead, now that it has been revealed to me, he proudly takes credit for it. He has pulled the image from my memories and pasted it into this moment: I see dad hanging in the doorway of the shed, as clear as when it happened. And I am unable to move. I close my eyes. But, the warmth that filled me through and through is now cold. I can no longer hold onto what mom told me.
Something is rising up from the center of me. It isn’t tears building. It isn’t pain. It’s pressure without an origin. Pressure that I should recognize, but don’t. Even with my eyes closed, I only see dad hanging. And now I hear the quiet laugh of Teddy, rising up all around me. He’s mocking me, aware that control is falling back into his hands. I don’t know how to stop it.
“Jesus!” I scream. But, it’s not me. It’s the pressure exploding out of me. “Save me!”
Everything quiets immediately. Teddy’s laugh is gone. My eyes open effortlessly, like a curtain falling away on a stage. And what I see is darkness lit, where light is now growing out of the ground like grass, stroked across the branches, painted on the front and sides of the shed, and bursting from the doorway. And now in the sky, the darkness is peeling away, revealing white light. Not day light, but something cleaner.
“I don’t know You, Jesus. But, I want to.” I whisper as I stand up. “I need to know You. Without You, I am nothing. I’m this weak, stupid man. Empty and dead inside. There is no real strength in me. But, with You, I am strong. I only need to say Your name, and I feel fully alive. Alive in a way I’ve never been before.” I pause, as my feet pull me toward the shed. “If it’s really true that I can be forgiven, please forgive me for all of the pain I have caused. Forgive me for the lives I have ruined, the lives I have taken away. I don’t deserve forgiveness, but if you will, forgive me. Make me new. I don’t want to be this person anymore. I need You in my life.”
The darkness in the sky is only left over flakes, like old paint being peeled away. My walk has become a run. The light is brighter in the shed. It’s the center of this light. The presence emanating from it is something I can’t reach fast enough. It isn’t just light, it’s love. It’s the feeling of every happy moment I’ve ever experienced, multiplied by a countless number.
You have purpose, John. I can barely stand. His voice is coming at me from the trees, the sky, the ground, the tips of my fingers, the beating of my heart. It’s present in my every pulse, in my every thought. I know you through and through.
I’ve fallen to my knees. The light is surrounding me from everywhere. I can feel it passing through me. Changing me.
What’s to come will not be easy, John. But, I am always with you. Even in the dark. immediately, the light disappears. All of it. What it leaves behind is the dark it overtook. But, I feel no fear.
I am changed. Not just clean, or warm, or loved. Changed. And even though I don’t know what my purpose is, I can feel that I have one.
The ice pack is under the swollen side of my face like a pillow. The light of the hallway is causing my already throbbing head to pound even more, but it’s the only light I have. As soon as I entered our bedroom, I wanted to leave. But, I didn’t. I was too tired to turn back toward the hall, too tired to explain to Janet that our bedroom feels like a dungeon. I don’t know if it’s just this room, but I feel trapped. And my thoughts have grown into heavy weights, literally holding my body to this bed: I am worthless. My life is hopeless. I wish I was dead. It’s that familiar darkness that I know. But, I don’t know how to get away from it anymore.
I am terrified, because I know something is inside of me. Something demonic. I can feel it turning every thought into an overwhelming desire to die. I’m thinking about the razors from my shaver. I’m thinking about bleeding out. I can’t stop it.
The longer I lay, the louder it all gets. The weights have become literal hands pressing me into the bed. I feel watched from everywhere, like the walls, the ceiling, and the floor is riddled with eyes.
“Daddy?” it’s Marcy’s voice, but it isn’t her. It’s that wrinkled creature. “It’s powerful!”
She’s laughing in my ear. I can feel the spit. I can hear the growl behind the little girl.
Matthew? amidst the chaos, I hear Jesus’ voice as if it’s the only one speaking.
The weights haven’t lifted from my back. The laughing hasn’t stopped spitting at my ear. I’m still being pressed down. I’m still thinking about dying. The darkness hasn’t gone away. Nothing is different, except one thought. I’m able to think about Jesus. I’m able to imagine the warmth of His presence. And now I feel it. I feel what I haven’t felt since Janet’s miscarriage.
There is a poison inside of you, Matthew. There is no chaos around me anymore. No more laughter. No weights holding me down. Just the quiet of the room. The warmth of Jesus’ presence. The whisper of His voice. I am not able to pull it out of you so easily, because it has been there for years, slowly eating away at your character, your energy, and your love for Me. Just like a cancer, it grows and multiplies. It fills your heart, corrodes your soul, and weakens your spirit. But, this day, Matthew, is the beginning of a process, where I pull that poison from you.
His presence is gone as quickly as it came. But, what it’s left in me is a speechless soul, a stream of tears down my cheeks, and a rapid beating of my heart. I am alive again.
I’m walking toward the shed, but it feels different than it ever has before, almost like I’m walking for the first time. My steps aren’t difficult, but simple. No weights holding me down. No Teddy tingling through me. I’m not haunted anymore. I’ve walked toward this shed many times, but never as the person I have become. I am clean on the inside. Everything is new, despite all of the old: my long and dirty fingernails, my bloodstained musty clothes, my badly scarred face, and a past that doesn’t just disappear. Fifteen children are dead because of me. That doesn’t change, no matter how much I do.
The closer I get to the shed, the clearer it becomes why I’m even walking toward it. There was a note dad left for me to find, a final message he wanted me to see. But, Teddy hid it from me. This is the final answer. This is the last time I am going to walk toward the shed. And once I leave, I’ll never be back.
It’s not far away at all anymore. Yet, every step I take is harder than the last. I’m new now, but the idea that I could have been this person from the beginning—that’s what hurts. What would my life be had I never listened to Teddy? I could have been so much more. I probably wouldn’t have been an important person. But, fifteen children wouldn’t be dead because of me. And that’s all that matters.
But, it’s a question that doesn’t matter. I did listen to Teddy. I did kill fifteen children. And after I have this final answer, my life will become a display: instead of being hidden, I will be seen. They will hate me. They will give anything to see me suffer because of the pain I have caused them. There is no escaping what comes after I leave. I will be seen as the monster that killed fifteen children. Nothing else.
This is a walk I never thought I would take. I’m as close to free as the shed is to me: feet away. The door is halfway open. The dark of the outside matches the dark inside. But, now there is a small light. Cleaner than day.
It’s never too late, John. Even though I don’t know what Jesus is talking about, those words calm me more than I can describe. I step into the shed, and see the source of the light: dad’s pack of cigarettes. What you call Teddy wanted to bury this with your dad’s body. But, it isn’t powerful. It’s weak and small.
I walk over to the pack. The light is the same that shone up at me from M’s teddy, the same that passed through me, and wrapped every part of me. As soon as I grab it, the light disappears. And suddenly, I feel like I found dad’s body again, or, how it would have felt if I wasn’t controlled by Teddy when I did. It’s sadness. Simple and heavy and painful. But, also necessary. I never did feel this. I only knew hate.
My fingers have pulled open the pack. I’m digging inside. What I pull out is a paper folded three times unevenly:
I don’t deserve to live. I don’t want to. I’ve taken away your innocence, and left you with monsters. I see them when I close my eyes. They are the same monsters that have destroyed me. They have made me do things I never wanted to do. I betrayed your mom, my beautiful Anna. And I have destroyed my last love, my wonderful son. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t know what I was doing. I chose to betray your mom. I chose it. And everything that has come from it is my fault. I’m so sorry, John. I wish I could ask you to forgive me.
But, there are no words I can say. Nothing to make it better. I can only leave you with a message. Jesus is the only light. He’s the only one who can take away those monsters I have left in you.
What I deserve is punishment. But, all I can think about is how Jesus forgives, even as I prepare to die. And how maybe He will forgive me.
I love you, John
There are no words to describe how this feels. The sadness isn’t simple anymore. There is nothing simple about it. These are the words of a broken man who thought he had no other option. But, he didn’t have to die. Had I only known that he was sorry, it would have changed everything. I could have had him in my life, instead of the monsters he gave me. I would have forgiven you, dad. If you had just asked me, I would have forgiven you.
Tears are starting to cover my cheeks. This is grief I’ve never known. Pain I’ve never felt. I am now entirely aware of everything I have lost. And with it, everything I could have kept.
Close your eyes, John. it’s a soft command. Even though I have been told this very same thing many times today, it feels new. It always feels new.
I close them. Immediately, I hear the sound of life. I feel the warmth of light. My eyes open. Not far away from me, mom and dad are sitting together on the bench, holding hands.
With my eyes closed, I have sat in the quiet of this bedroom and thought about the poison in me. About when it began: Dad’s funeral? His diagnosis? Somewhere in between? I thought about when my relationship with Jesus lost the close connection it once had. I thought about the first moment that I truly hated Him. It was when dad didn’t come back from the dead, when the lid closed, and the casket was lowered. And then I thought about how it has only been buried, deeper and deeper.
There is a poison in me. Even now it is trying to drip doubt into my faith. It’s trying to ruin my encounter with Jesus by making me guilty over the peace I have: If you love Marcy so much, how are you okay now that she’s gone? I loved Marcy so much, that she became the air I breathed, and the blood that kept me alive. She wasn’t just my little girl. She was my idol.
But, I remember when she was born. I remember how much time I spent with Jesus. Even as she started growing up, that didn’t change. When Janet got pregnant the first time after we had Marcy, it was planned. We had been trying for many months, seeking the Lord through every attempt. And as Janet slowly started to expand, we began to prepare for our little Michael. I pleaded the Blood of Jesus over him from his day of conception. And whenever I spoke about Jesus, something in me would come to life. But then, twelve weeks and three days into the pregnancy, Janet lost him.
After that, I didn’t spend as much time seeking Jesus. And when I talked about Him, I didn’t have the same life inside of me. I haven’t ever since. As Janet began to wear her sadness around, Marcy became a bright light. When she would smile, I would too. And little by little I turned to her instead of Jesus, because she was always there. Always close.
I’ve resented the Lord. Not just because of dad’s death, but because of the first and second miscarriage. And I’ve used Marcy to bury those feelings, to make me believe everything was fine. But, now that she’s gone, there is nothing to hide it. In the past three years, I have become a man who doesn’t love the Lord like he once did. There is a poison in me. And it’s eaten away so much of who I am.
But, a healing is already starting to happen inside of me, because Jesus is enough. That hasn’t been true of my life since—I don’t exactly know when. Maybe it was the first miscarriage. Or maybe it was dad’s death. I don’t know when it stopped being true. I only know that it is. And that’s why, even on one of the worst days of my life, I am alive.