Freedom doesn’t feel the way I thought it would. I’m standing in this shed, terrified to leave it. I don’t want to be seen. I just want it to be over. I just want to be where mom and dad are, where the endless city is, where there is only joy, only light, only love. I tried to call for them, but they didn’t turn around. I tried to walk toward them, but I couldn’t move. I was just there. And then it faded.
… This is a freedom I never thought I could have. Now that it’s mine, I wish it wasn’t just the beginning of what’s to come. I am a new man, who will pay for everything the old me did. Am I a coward because I want out? I know the answer to that question is yes. For most of my life, I have taken away so much. Now, I expect to be given a new life without any consequences? Without repercussions? Without being seen for who I have been? There are always consequences. And that is what my freedom will be.
There is a purpose for you, John. It’s a reminder that drops into my mind like a stone into water, and spreads outward. I don’t know why, but suddenly I’m thinking about Matthew, about the way he hugged M before having her run into the school. There was only happiness on his face when he turned around. Nothing else.
Before ever bringing her out here, I wanted to take her home. That hasn’t changed. The more I think about it, the more it spreads throughout me. I have a purpose. Maybe it’s as small as being the one who brings her home. But, I have always taken. I have always caused pain. What if my purpose is to bring back some kind of joy, even though she is dead?
The reminder has reverberated, causing every part of me to come to life with the idea. I grab all of dad’s notes from the shed, and tuck them away in a bottom trench coat pocket. All that’s left in my right hand is the paper I pulled from Teddy.
Burn the paper, and the thing you call Teddy. Do not take anything from this property with you. it’s a command that has a severity to it.
I dig down into my pocket and pull out the handful of dad’s notes. I haven’t known about them until today, and now I can’t bring them with me. I want to. This is a part of dad that I never knew. But, I can’t take them. Jesus has guided me all this way. He told me to take nothing.
But, they are just notes. Why can’t I take them? What will happen if I do? The paper with the eyes is the one I’m supposed to burn, not my dad’s notes. Just take them. This thought has crawled into my mind.
I’m skimming through dad’s notes again. They are notes of his struggle, notes of his pain, notes I can relate to. I fold the full sheets in half, and walk toward the car.
I’m sitting on the couch across from Janet’s canvas, watching her paint. She hasn’t asked me why I’m not sleeping. She hasn’t said a thing. She is just smiling back at me shyly. It’s the same smile she had when we were newlyweds and I would watch her paint. Her cheeks would get many shades of red. The many shades they are now.
Our first apartment was a shoebox, with one tiny room leading into another. She used our kitchen as her studio, spreading old sheets across the ugly tile floor. I had only begun working at the factory. It was one of the only reasons we didn’t find a different place to live. The pay was good. The apartments were cheap. The town was safe.
But, Janet and I didn’t meet in Payne. We met in Anderson, North Dakota, a town that is about an hour away from here. It was where she was born, and where I grew up, from eight years old on.
The first place I lived after moving out of my mom’s house was a room-for-rent: three hundred and fifty dollars a month, with working cable and internet. It was where I met Janet. She was eighteen; I was twenty. She answered the phone when I inquired about the room at her mom’s; she answered the door when I came to check it out. And from the moment I saw her, I was caught. We married eight months later.
“I always wanted to be a dad,” I say softly.
Immediately, she stops dabbing her brush in the middle of the canvas and turns back toward me. She doesn’t say a thing.
“But, I didn’t realize how that would change us. Not as people necessarily, but as a couple. You are so special to me, Janet, but I haven’t really shown you that in a long time.” I pause. “Do you remember when we were newlyweds?”
She nods her head.
“There was just something so organic about it. We didn’t really know what we were doing. We only knew that we loved each other. That hasn’t changed.” I didn’t plan what is happening. I’ve gotten down on one knee. “I don’t have another ring to give you, I only have this symbol. I’m proposing that we be newlyweds again. I want to start over. I want to discover you again, because the beautiful woman I am looking at is the woman I married. You are who I married. Will you start over with me, Janet?”
Her eyes are wet and leaking. Nearly ten years later and her expression is the same it was the day I proposed. She pulls her ring off her finger and hands it to me.
“Yes, Matty,” she says with an alive smile. “You are who I married.”
I slip the ring back onto her finger. It feels new, like the way it did the day I slipped it on her finger for the first time. I stand and hug her, able to just be here. No resentment. No hostile thoughts. Nothing but this moment.
“You have always been the only one for me,” I whisper. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.” she says as she squeezes me tighter.
I look down at the notes in my hand. Even with the car’s internal light on, they are covered in shadow. Dad’s entry for April 25th, 1981, he wrote that the day I was born was the happiest of his life. There are a few mentions of how much I meant to him. But even so, his entries are a reminder of who I no longer am, just like M dead in the backseat. And that’s why I can’t take anything with me. This property is Teddy’s. He was grown here. The blood from each child still remains in the bears on the shelf in the shed. Everything on this property is cursed. Dad’s notes are not just sheets of paper; they are a way to keep Teddy alive in my life, a way for him to follow me once I leave. I won’t take them with me. I will burn them with Teddy.
I push in the car cigarette lighter, and glance in the rearview mirror once more. M is a reminder of what I’ll never be again, of what I’m about to burn. I open the driver side door. The light in the car is still bright enough that even as I lean out of it, I can read the notes. I start at the beginning. The more I read them, the emptier they become. Just as I’m a new person, so is he. The man who wrote these notes isn’t my father. This is a sad shell. But, someday I can have him again.
“Look in the mirror!” it’s Teddy, deep and dark and distorted. My eyes look. I see M now replaced with every other child I’ve killed, like a reel of images constantly changing. “You don’t deserve to have redemption! You are a disease, John! And fifteen children are dead because of you!” It’s suddenly freezing, and feels like Teddy is back in the passenger seat. I’m a new person, but he’s trying to flood back the old. It’s the tingle shooting through me, the chill crawling over me, the dirty feeling trying to seep back through. I’m new, but the shame wearing heavy on me is old. Old and familiar.
I close my eyes searching for that new feeling, but all I feel is the old. I hear the sounds the children made when I wrapped the bag over their heads. The sounds of the suffocation. The sounds of desperation. Everything is heightened. Teddy’s not just reminding me of the old, he’s making me relive it. I feel their little hands against my arms. I desperately wish I could pull the bags away. But, I can’t. It’s just a memory of what has already happened.
This wasn’t me! It was Teddy. With every child it was Teddy, because I would have pulled the bag away! I feel their fingers pulling. I hear their little voices pleading. If I would have been in control, I would have let them go.
A soft pop. I open my eyes. The cigarette lighter is ready. It’s quiet again. Even at my weakest, Teddy isn’t able to control me anymore.
“It was a lie you told me.” I whisper, as I grab the lighter and step out of the car. “They’re dead because of you, because I let you in.” I walk toward Teddy, who’s tipped over and only feet away from the front of the car. “But, even with all that power I helped grow in you, you are still weak.” I’m standing over Teddy. The notes are in my left hand; the lighter is a dim orange glow in my right. I haven’t been able to imagine this moment. I never thought it would come. But, here it is. Teddy is now the small, defeated object. Not me.
I press the faded orange tip to the bottom edge of the sheets. They catch fire immediately, peeling back and flaking away. There isn’t even a part of me that wants to put them out. I want to drop them into Teddy’s split open back and watch him burn. And I do.
But, immediately a smell comes from the flame, like a body that’s rotting. The fire is consuming Teddy, coming out of his back, and burning through his arms and legs. But, the smell is only getting worse. And fear is starting to consume me. Teddy doesn’t feel like he’s dying. He feels like he’s getting stronger. The smell is the smell of rot. Decay. Death. Everything I want to leave. Yet, it’s surrounding me again. I can’t get away!
The fire is now eating Teddy’s face. But, he’s still growing. I can feel him. The presence of Teddy is tall above me. He’s not this small, burning bear. He’s bigger, so much bigger than I am. He always has been.
“How do I get free, Jesus?!” I scream. “What do I have to do?!” This isn’t even me screaming. It’s something from within me, who screams when I can’t.
Know Who I am. His voice isn’t a quiet whisper this time. It’s like thunder, making the ground shake.
I don’t know Who He is. He’s the Man from the stories mom used to read me from that thick leather book she always had with her. I only remember the stories. I don’t remember Who He is. I wish I could. But, I only remember the stories.
Silence answers my silence. The silence is all consuming, like nothing else is around me, like this world has been muted. With my eyes closed I hear mom’s voice.
“This is from the book of John. That’s your name too, because he was a great man, like you will be. I want this to stay with you forever. John 3:16 says, ‘For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten son, so that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.’ That means Jesus died for you, John. He loves you that much. He died for you.”
She used to say this to me almost every night before she got sick. I only remember it now. And that’s all I remember. Life before Teddy is still a heavy fog. Things are revealed in small pieces. But, I now know Who Jesus is.
“Jesus.” I say as I open my eyes. “You are the Son of God.”
I can only hear the quiet crackle of flame at my feet. I look down. Teddy is black, and still burning. He isn’t a tall presence above me. He is ashes at my feet. This is freedom. It’s not just because I’m free from Teddy, but because I know Who Jesus is. Not a stranger. Not a Man from the stories mom used to tell me, but the Son of God.
This is the kind of hug Janet and I shared when we were young. It’s a living expression that speaks without words. Our hug is a verification of what has been missing between us. And now, what the Lord has returned. I have never stopped loving Janet. I know that. But, I also know that I haven’t loved her like this in a long time, because our hugs haven’t been like this in a long time.
Her tears have soaked the right shoulder of my shirt. I don’t think they are tears of sadness. I don’t feel sadness in this hug. My few tears haven’t been from sadness, but the overwhelming sense of renewal. I believe she can feel the same thing.
“Matty?” she whispers.
“Yeah, baby?” I answer.
“Something miraculous is going to happen.”
“It already has.”
She lets go of me immediately and steps back. Her child-like eyes meet mine. They tell me to continue without her saying a word. Maybe she doesn’t understand what I mean. Or maybe she just wants to hear it, even if she does understand.
“Something miraculous has already happened.” I say as I smile at her. “This hug with you is miraculous. The life that has returned to your eyes is miraculous. Just think about how earlier today you were a shell. Now, you’re new.” I pause. “The work Jesus has already done in my heart is miraculous. I’m new. I’m new, sweetie, even though everything apart from the Lord is telling me I should be broken. But, I’m not. That’s miraculous.” I pause to brush away tears from both of her eyes. “Getting to feel this close to you again is miraculous. Getting to love you wholeheartedly again is miraculous. I love you with a depth that goes beyond words, Janet. The miraculous has already happened. The proof is in this moment.”
She didn’t expect this. It’s written all over her face. Her tears are a steady stream running down a speechless display. When she said something miraculous was going to happen, she was talking about Marcy. She thought it was what I needed to hear. Of course I want Marcy back. That will never change. But, my survival doesn’t depend on it. She isn’t my air, she isn’t my blood. Jesus is. I want my Marcy back, but I don’t want her back the way she was. She was an all consuming presence in my life.
I understand Janet’s speechless display. She saw that my purpose was found in Marcy. She saw that she wasn’t first after Jesus, but a distant second. And I think she still wonders that. Even with our little girl gone, she thinks she’s still a distant second.
“I know that look, sweetie. And I’m so sorry.” I press my hands against both sides of her face and draw her close. “I’m sorry that I put Marcy before you, that I loved her first, that I found happiness in her and struggle in you. I have taken you for granted. The fact remains that you are the most precious gift God has given to me. And Marcy is an extension of you. I can only ask you to forgive me. And then spend every day proving that you are the most precious gift, second only to Jesus. Please forgive me for all the times you felt replaced and unimportant, because you are irreplaceable. You are my wonderful wife. You are my other half. And you are so very important to me.”
Her expression is the same as it was when I re-proposed to her only minutes ago. It’s still speechless, but with an entirely new context. Not bewilderment, but jubilation. The newness I feel is now glowing on her. Her tears are now just sniffles.
“Yes, Matty. Yes. I forgive you.” she’s smiling. “I love you so much.”
I gently pull her face in to touch mine, and say the same thing back before I kiss her.
Teddy is just remains. Where the flame has died, I put my foot, dislodging a large chunk of him. He’s now just pieces of my past. I don’t feel him at all anymore. But, I know I’m not alone. The reality of Jesus is overwhelming. And with Teddy gone, my purpose is a spotless clarity. I will leave soon. I will return M to Matthew. And then I will turn myself in. But for this moment, I’m basking in the crackle of the flame. It’s Teddy’s defeat. And my victory. I am free.
“I am free.” when I say it out loud it satisfies even more. “I am free.” The details of this freedom are becoming more and more clear with every passing moment. It’s a clarity I shouldn’t have, a knowledge I shouldn’t possess. Yet, I do. I can hardly remember any of my childhood, yet, somehow what I was taught during it is coming out of me now, like I’m a garden filled with seeds that are only now starting to grow.
I don’t remember when I was told these things, but I know I was taught them. They were simple teachings then, but have become complex understandings now: It’s the realization that my reason for life hasn’t been lived out, but is only starting to arrive. It’s the realization that God has a plan to take all of what I’ve done in my past and turn it around for good. It’s the realization that, despite all the pain I’ve caused, there is a purpose for me that is much greater, that somehow I will be a light with what time remains of my life.
I shouldn’t know these things. I haven’t been taught them. I was taught simple truths, that Jesus loves me, that He died for me, that through Him, and only Him, I can have eternal life. Those are simple teachings, that a child’s mind can hold without confusion. But, the realizations I’m having now aren’t child-like. They aren’t even simple. They are revealing a plan on my life that Teddy hasn’t been able to change. How is that possible? How is there still a purpose for me, beyond bringing M back home? No matter how new I am, my past is what people will see. They’ll see the man who took their children away, not the one who wishes more than anything that he could give them back.
My eyes are open to what Teddy blinded me to: purpose. It’s always been inside of me. A seed in the ground. But, it hasn’t grown until now, because darkness is all I’ve known. The light I had as a child was quickly blotted out by what dad fell into, by what he did to me. And since then, Teddy convinced me that my only purpose was found in him, found in his direction. Maybe Teddy came into my life to stop my purpose from happening. Maybe he knew that it was full of the light, full of what he hated.
Or… what if my purpose has always been this? What if Jesus knew what dad would fall into, and how it would affect not only him, but me? What if He saw the darkness that would come before it ever did and allowed it? What if my purpose has always been the testimony of how Jesus set me free?
Just like with a hug, a kiss can show many things. A peck usually means the relationship is on life support. Shallow and short usually means things are strained but not wanting to be discussed. But, deep and extended means a relationship is in health or has been repaired or is in the process. Just like with our hug, our kissing is sign of renewal. We’re in a sensual state. Our tongues are dancing in unison. Our lips are old partners that know exactly where to meet—
I hear knocking. It’s muffled and quiet, but immediately it pulls me out of the moment. Like earlier today, our kissing is interrupted by a knock at the door. Except this time, Janet doesn’t pull away. She just keeps kissing me. The knocks don’t seem to affect her. But, they affect me.
I close my eyes again, trying to get back to the place I was at with Janet only moments ago. I can’t.
The knocks are closer to pounds on the second set. Now, Janet’s eyes open. She glances toward the stairs, her bottom lip bent in annoyance.
“You should probably answer that,” she sighs. “It doesn’t seem to be going away.”
My reply is a nod of the head as I walk toward the stairs.
The third set of knocks are as loud as the second, accompanied by a voice.
“Mr. Mills?!” it’s a man, a voice I don’t recognize. “This is the police!”
It feels like a pit has opened up on the inside of me. Is Marcy on the other side of this door? Is he holding my dead daughter? I’m afraid, Lord. I’m afraid.
“I’m coming!” my reply is just a tick above a whisper. It’s the loudest I can muster. My tongue is clogging my throat. I’m not ready for this, Lord. I’m not ready. You have done a miraculous work in me. You have renewed my marriage. You have renewed me. But, I’m not ready for this, Lord. Give me the strength to open that door.
“Who is it, Matty?” Janet calls from the top of the steps.
I can’t speak to answer her. I just offer my hand. Something in her eyes light up as she runs down the steps and meets it with hers. She moves toward the door effortlessly, unaware of what’s on the other side. She doesn’t know that our dead daughter is only feet away.
She opens the door without a second thought. She didn’t hear who it was. She doesn’t know what she’s going to see. But, I do. Give me the strength, Lord. Give me the strength.
I see him before Janet does. But, he’s not holding Marcy. And his face isn’t sympathetic, but stern.
“Matthew Mills?” he asks, seeming to already know.
“Yes.” I can hardly speak. My tongue is still stuck in my throat.
“I need you to come down to the police station.”
“Why?” Janet beats me to the question. “Is this about our daughter?” how can she be so calm?
“No Ma’am.” he doesn’t expound. He remains a statue outside of our door. “I just have some questions I want to ask your husband.”
I’m here but I’m not. I’m watching but I’m not interacting. They’re talking about me like I’m somewhere else entirely.
“If these questions aren’t about the kidnapping of our daughter, what are they about?” Janet can be as sharp as a knife when she wants. “Tell me or we aren’t going anywhere.”
I hear her, but I’m not looking at her. I’m not looking at the police officer either. I’m staring past him. Somehow, I know what he’s going to say before he says it. This visit isn’t about Marcy, it’s about Ms. Brands.
“Edna Brands was found dead. Your husband was the last one seen with her.”
The pit in my stomach has become a sour swamp.
Although the moment to bask in Teddy’s defeat has ended, the feeling of victory hasn’t. I’m sitting in the car, ready to leave. He’s really gone. Part of me was afraid that as soon as I got back in the driver’s seat, he would return to the passenger seat, and quietly laugh at my vain attempts to get away. It’s a part of me that’s practically mechanical, a part of me that expects him to be wherever I am. And now that he’s not, that part is like a dead and rotting limb. It doesn’t need to be attached to me anymore. But, the amputation of it isn’t something I have the ability to do. I wouldn’t even know where to start.
Maybe some part of me still believes he did what he did to protect me. Maybe some part of me is terrified to leave, to be seen, to be hated. Maybe it’s trying to stay in the dark, because the dark is all it has ever known. I know what’s to come isn’t going to be easy. I’m going to be hated. But, I’m not afraid. Or if I am, the peace filling me far outweighs the fear.
I look in the rearview mirror. My reflection doesn’t fit the way I feel. My face is bloodstained and scarred. Scabs from old cuts mark my cheeks. This isn’t who I am. This face doesn’t match the man I have become. I am new, in the body of something old and homely. This body is a display, a consequence for the years I’ve followed Teddy. I have to wear it, because this is the man the people will see. I’m new where it matters: on the inside. But, the outside will not be new. Not here. Not until I die. Then the newness will match.
I turn the key to start the car. An urgency is starting to build on the inside of me. I need to bring M home before the end of this day. The digital clock in the car says it’s a few minutes after five. I have just enough time if I leave right now. I don’t know why getting her home by midnight matters. I just know it does. The more I learn about my purpose, the easier it is to read the details attached.
Without looking out at the property again, I put the car into reverse and back away from it.
The officer told Janet something I don’t even remember hearing and then walked away. She hasn’t said a word since the officer left. She has hardly even looked at me. Does she actually think I did it? Is that why she is being quiet? I don’t know what to say to her. I shouldn’t have to defend myself. She should know that I would never do that. She should know.
We’re walking toward my Escape in silence. I don’t know what she’s thinking. No clues are written on her face. No bent lip. No wandering eyes. No pauses or attempts to speak. She’s just quiet. The longer she goes without speaking, the more it hurts.
“Say something.” I mutter as I open the passenger door for her. This isn’t how a new beginning with her should feel. I feel judged and dissected. I feel like I have to defend myself.
“I know you didn’t do it, Matty.” she stops and looks at me. “I’m praying that they’ll know that too, that the Lord will open their eyes to the truth. I never thought you did it. Not even for a second.” she smiles something reassuring at me as she kisses my lips softly. And then she gets into the car. I close her door.
It’s what I needed to hear. She didn’t doubt me for a moment. Not even for a second. It makes every word that she said to me inside the house even more special.
Some part of me wants to blame God for this: first Marcy? And now this?! But, it’s my fault. This is a consequence for following Ms. Brands when I was told to leave her alone. This is a consequence. And the outcome is out of my hands. It’s my word against what they believe happened.
Lord, I trust You with everything. This is my own doing, my own mistake. But, Your Word says that You turn even what the enemy means for bad and use it for good. The enemy is trying to destroy me. He set in motion a plan that I walked right into. He’s trying to frame me. But, You are my Savior, more than able to deliver me. Let the truth be known, Lord.
I open the driver door and get in. Janet starts the car from where she’s at, and immediately takes hold of my hand, meshing her fingers with mine.
This town doesn’t resemble what it was when I entered it earlier today. It’s hard to describe. Every shut down shop is still as empty as when I arrived, every house is still empty and forgotten, and every street branching from Main leads to the same emptiness. On the surface, it hasn’t changed. But below the surface, it has. Ever since Teddy caused those three boys to jump from the downtown bridge, Minea has been a place for secrets, a place for curses, a place for him to control.
But now I realize even Teddy’s power was small. What took him twenty six years to build has been taken away in less than a day. It only took the mention of Jesus for everything to change.
I back the car out and drive toward the police station. Even from here, I can see Ms. Brand’s house. Two cop cars are parked along her curb with the lights still flashing. A white van is parked in her driveway.
I see Janet looking out the window. Her face is pulled down into a sad display.
“What do you think happened to her?” she asks without looking toward me, her fingers now seeming restless with mine.
Does Janet need to hear what I think? Does she need to hear that I think the evil Ms. Brands was exposed to ended up killing her just as it did her Dizzy and Gizmo? And that now it’s trying to frame me? Would she even believe that? Janet hasn’t experienced the demonic like I have. She didn’t see it in Ms. Brands; she didn’t see the change in her personality, the quiet growls that came from her. She saw a lady with lost eyes. She didn’t see what was beneath them.
“I don’t know.” it’s not a lie. I don’t have the details. I shouldn’t bog her down with them, especially now, as we’re driving down to the police station.
“I think you know more than you want to say. Is that it?” now she’s looking at me.
“Yes,” I whisper. “I’ll tell you later.” I look at her, and smile. “I promise.”
Her restless fingers have calmed and mesh with mine again as she looks back out the window. The peace covering her amazes me. Her faith is child-like. She doesn’t need to know why this is happening. She accepts that it is, and holds onto the Lord’s words with all she has: it’s going to be okay. Those five words have carried her through this day and continue to. I know it will be okay, but that doesn’t mean the hardest days of our lives aren’t ahead of us. That doesn’t mean that the road to that promise won’t be dark and painful—is this just the fear talking? What happened to the assurance I had before the police officer came? The newness I felt? The renewal? Do I still feel that?
I don’t know. Once again, I am a man split in half. There is a part of me filled with peace that matches Janet’s. But, there is also a part of me that’s absolutely terrified. And that’s the part that is overwhelming. That’s the part that makes my old anger seem new. That’s the part of me that wants to curse God and question His almighty power.
Even with all the change He has done in me, there is always a part that wants to deny, wants to negate, wants to explain it all away. It’s inescapable. It’s my biggest enemy, able to undo my certainty and leave it a mess of jumbled knots.
Calm me, Lord. Give me the peace that Janet has. Give me the strength to keep my eyes on You, even as these waves crash all around me, even as the current tries to pull me under—help me to keep my eyes on You.
Like my life with Teddy, Minea is behind me. Except… when I close my eyes, I can still see it. When I close my eyes, I’m not leaving but driving toward it. I don’t know if I’ll ever really get to completely leave. I’m free from Teddy, but I’m not free from the memories. Maybe that will come with time. Or maybe that’s part of my consequence.
I’m a selfish person, selfish in my newness. I want more than what I have. I want Minea to disappear from my mind completely, not to linger as a nightmare. I want a new start. I want my mind to match my soul. But, I know that isn’t realistic or even fair of me to ask. Those memories stick to me like my skin because they have been me for so long. All of the things that I leave behind still belong to me in some way. Even in my newness, some of the filth remains.
Why does my security seem to disappear as I drive out into the dark? I’ve walked in the dark for most of my life, without any sort of light. Now that I have the Light, why am I more afraid of the dark? Teddy is powerless. But, my memories don’t portray him as powerless. Now with a complete picture, my memories cast Teddy as a master puppeteer. If I build him back up in my mind, could he find his way to me again? If I believe he is still powerful, could he return?
The headlights on this car are weak and dim. The darkness covers everything. And I feel watched from everywhere. It’s familiar, like returning to an empty home. It’s what I know. My mind doesn’t want me to accept my freedom. It doesn’t even know what to do with the reality. It wants what is familiar. It wants to go back home, back to what it has always known.
I know the darkness much more than the light. I know Teddy much more than I know Jesus. I hate to admit that. But, it’s true. I know hatred much more than love. Pain much more than peace. And anger much more than calm. But, I’m new. I have to keep saying that.
“I’m new.” when I say it out loud, it only seems to echo from someplace empty. My heart? My soul? My fear that only seems to be growing?
Since leaving my childhood property, the reality of my freedom, the reality of Jesus has started to run through my fingers like precious sand. What feels real right now is the darkness surrounding me, the memories flashing before me, the dread coursing through me. What I feel is all consuming.
But, something small remains within. It’s a small impulse, growing stronger as I focus on it. I know what I’m going to say. Somehow, it feels more familiar than the darkness I’ve known for all these years.
“Jesus.” it’s a quiet call, one I’ve repeated many times today. “Help me.”
Suddenly, a streak of bright red color appears across the horizon ahead of me. It’s the last of the sunset, seen only at this moment because I’m driving down a decline. And it bleeds into me immediately. Jesus isn’t gone. He is in everything.
The police station looks like the thrift store it’s next to: a small brick building with outdated signs. It isn’t intimidating. Only one cop car is parked out front. It’s a small town operation, almost pathetic in its appearance. Yet, it’s now the place where my future is decided.
Janet hasn’t stopped holding my hand. She hasn’t urged me inside. She is staring out at it like me.
“What do you think is going to happen?” I ask without turning to look at her.
“I think the truth will be known.” she turns to look at me. “Jesus has you, Matty. Just tell them the truth.” she uses her free hand to turn my head toward her. “Leave the rest up to Him.”
I nod my head as I open my door and plant a foot on the pavement. The building seems even smaller, now that I’m standing outside of it. But, my heart is still racing. And no matter how small it seems, it has now become a mountain in my mind that I don’t have the faith to remove. Instead, it only seems to be growing as the moments pass.
Even as Janet’s hand slips effortlessly back into place with mine, the small building continues to grow in my mind. The front door shrinks off into the distance, becoming a mirage; the surrounding trees almost look plastic. Even my free hand looks fake as I sway it across my face. For a moment I think about hitting myself again—
“Mr. Mills?” my eyes follow the call. The cop who came to our house is now getting out of the parked cop car. “I’ll bring you inside for questioning.” he’s much taller than me. I don’t know why, but it’s all I can focus on. It makes me feel even smaller. “Follow me.”
I listen to what he says, taking short steps behind his. I feel like a child: completely helpless, smaller than everyone else around me. Janet’s hand doesn’t even feel like my wife’s, but like my mother’s. It’s like I’m a little boy again, being brought into a situation my mind can’t fully comprehend. It was like when dad was first diagnosed. I only understood certain things that I was told. I didn’t understand the details or the technical terms. I understood that dad was sick. I understood that he was helpless. Like me, he became a child who had no control over the outcome.
It was a losing battle from the moment it began. Over those three years, a man who wanted to control everything, learned to let it all go. He put all of his strength, all of his hope, all of his love into his relationship with Jesus. And at the end of his life, he was just a little boy waiting for his Daddy to bring him home.
Many times I have wondered why he decided to give up. I have wondered why he stopped fighting, when there was still so much to live for here. I have wondered why he was okay leaving me behind. That question has hurt me in the deepest places. Why did he leave when I still needed him so badly?
I’ve never understood the answer to that question. But, as I walk toward this building, feeling like a child again, I finally do. This is the place I was always meant to come back to: the place of a child; the place of helplessness, where I give away all control and take my Daddy’s hand, trusting that He knows the way.
The streak of red is gone from the horizon, but the revelation remains. Jesus is in everything. He is even in my mind, quieting the past and feeding my newness. The old memories are still playing like old film from somewhere inside, but my focus is on the newness. I’m thinking about how it will feel to bring M back home, and the hope that will come from it. It gives me hope.
Matthew may beat me to within an inch of my life as soon as I bring M to his door. Light may not return to his eyes at all. But, it’s the best I can give. He won’t wonder what happened to his little girl. He’ll get to say goodbye. It’s something none of the other parents have: closure.
And after that? Whatever happens, happens. I can’t really imagine how it will feel to be hated by everyone. I haven’t been a relevant character in a room since before mom died. I have merely existed. I can’t begin to imagine what it will be like to be important only because of the pain I’ve caused. And the horrible things I’ve done. There are fifteen families that I will have to face. They won’t see the story of how Jesus set me free. They’ll see the pain I’ve caused them. And my name will continue to match what they perceive me to be: I am anonymous. I am not a person to them, but a tragedy. I’m the one who took their life away. Their spark. Their happiness.
Whatever my purpose is within it all is something I can’t see. But, it’s the certainty of purpose that keeps me going. Even though I can’t see my purpose, I know it’s there, wrapped up in my consequences. It begins with bringing M home before midnight tonight. That’s the only clear direction I have—
I don’t even know how I’m going to get back to Payne. The gas light just came on. The needle is barely above E. And I don’t have any money. I didn’t even think about how low it was when leaving Minea. It seemed small compared to everything else. Except now, it’s the very thing keeping me from my purpose.
“Jesus.” I say, glancing over at the passenger seat automatically. “I haven’t known purpose until I started to know You. This purpose doesn’t come from anywhere else. It’s because of You. If I’m supposed to bring M back to Payne myself by the end of this day, I know You will make a way.”
I don’t need to say anything else. I know what faith is. It’s loyalty. I showed it for twenty six years with Teddy. And now, I will show it for the rest of my life with Jesus. Faith can bring freedom or it can bring chains. I know both. If my purpose is to return M before midnight tonight, it will happen.
Suddenly, the dim lights of this car climb a single sign on the side of the road: Gas station 10 miles.
The police station interior matches my low expectations. It is one large room, divided into several offices by cubicles. The officer hasn’t said another word since we entered the building. His steps in front of Janet and I are his only constant. He leads us past the empty cubicles and toward the back of the room. There is a wooden door. A gold colored number 1 is the only thing marking it.
“I’ll have to ask you to wait out here, Mrs. Mills.” he says, glancing back. “There’s coffee and magazines right over there,” he points to the right of us, where there is a makeshift waiting area in the corner.
“Okay,” she agrees, and then looks at me. “I’ll be right out here, Matty. I love you.” calm still covers her face. “Everything’s going to be okay.” she lets go of my hand, as the officer leads me toward the room.
I love you, too. I mouth the words so she can see. A small smile crawls onto her face as she walks toward the waiting area.
“Ready when you are, Mr. Mills.” the officer is already standing in the room. It’s not dimly lit, but closer to an office. Dull blue carpet is on the floor. Tube lights stripe across the ceiling in sections. A cheap wooden table sits in the center, with one foldable metal chair placed on each side. “Have a seat.” he says as he closes the door. I do.
“I am the officer who followed up on your daughter’s disappearance from school today.” he starts before ever sitting down. “I talked to Ms. Brands, Mrs. Fig, and a few of your daughter’s classmates at school. At 3:31 pm, I came to your house to try and get any more valuable information. Your wife was home, but she couldn’t say where you were. Meet me at this point. Where were you?”
“I was driving.” I answer quietly.
“Do you believe in demons?” why am I asking this question?
“Is that relevant?”
“Okay.” he sighs. “No. I believe in fact. I believe that everything has an explanation. And I believe the explanation for this is very simple.”
I stare at him blankly. “Tell me what you think, officer.”
“I believe that you were frustrated. I believe that you knew Edna Brands was the one who called your daughter down to the office. You expected answers from her. And when you didn’t get them, you drowned her in her bathtub.”
“You asked where I was driving.” I disregard his accusation.
“Yes. Where were you driving?”
“Where is that?” he asks coldly.
“It’s a small town in Minnesota.” I pause. “Do you believe in demons?” I didn’t even ask it this time. It just came out of me.
“No.” I can see his face starting to tense. “I already answered that question. Why do you keep asking me that?”
“You said you talked to Ms. Brands?”
“What did she say?”
“She talked about her dead husband.”
“Did she say anything else?” I’m asking the questions and he doesn’t even realize it.
“Had you talked to Ms. Brands before today?”
“She has never been that person. Before today, she was a sharp toned attendance woman. She didn’t like her job, but was too old to get something else. She was almost condescending in her reply when I would call into the school if Marcy was sick.” I pause. “Ask anybody about Ms. Brands, and they will tell you she wasn’t sick. She didn’t just happen to lose her mind today. It was taken from her.”
I expect skepticism to flood his face, but instead he just clears his throat. “Why were you driving to Minea?” he doesn’t disregard my theory. I can see the conviction in his eyes.
“Ms. Brands came to my door before I ever came to hers. That was a couple hours after Janet and I left the school. I think it was a little after two. She knocked on my door and said that a man took Marcy. Something was in her. You could feel it as soon as you looked in her eyes. They weren’t empty, but full. You could feel something looking back at you that wasn’t her. I knew that it had the answer. It knew where my little girl was, so I followed her back to her house. I knew I was supposed to stay away, but I didn’t. If you are a father, you understand.”
“How did you get those bruises on your face? Were they self inflicted?”
“Yeah. As soon as I found out Marcy was missing.” I pause. “I know what you think happened, but I didn’t kill Ms. Brands. I followed her back to her house, trying to find out more about where my little girl was. She had me come in behind her as she entered her house. She sat down in her rocking chair. I asked about Marcy; she asked about her dogs, Dizzy and Gizmo. She sounded closer to Ms. Brands. There was actually direction to her request. I thought maybe she knew more, so I went to find them. She said they were drying from the bath she had given them. But, when I went in the bathroom, I pulled back the shower curtain and found their bodies floating in the tub. And as I left, that thing in her said one word to me: Minea.”
His eyes are wide. He’s not even looking at me anymore, but past me.
“My wife kept telling me that there were demons torturing her.” he says, almost blankly. “She kept saying they were the reason she didn’t want to live anymore. She kept saying she didn’t want to remember what happened to her when she was a little girl. I disregarded what she said. I told her to stop focusing on it, to live in the real world. Then one day, she took a gun from my study and tried to quiet them.” he pauses, closing his eyes. “She can’t talk. The bullet did irreparable damage. She can’t communicate with me or my sons at all. Except, sometimes when I look into her eyes, I still see that same fear. And it makes me wonder if she is still being tortured.”
“Do you believe in Jesus?” I ask quietly.
His eyes avoid mine. “Why is Minea important?” he avoids my question, too.
“When I got home, I researched it. The first article that came up was about three boys who had jumped to their deaths off a bridge for no reason, and a little boy who went missing. The townspeople who last saw the three boys reported there being a lost look in their eyes. It matched how Ms. Brands was acting. That article was from 1983. That is where the man took my little girl, so I printed out a map, programmed my GPS and started driving toward it.”
“Why did you come back?”
“Because I was never supposed to leave. My wife was given a word from the Lord early today that everything is going to be okay. But, I didn’t want to hear it. I wanted answers, not to be left helpless, forced to trust that God would do something eventually. I wanted my little girl back more than anything.”
“Wanted?” he asks. “Don’t you still want her back?”
“Of course I do. But, it’s out of my control.” I pause. “You learn a lot from being helpless.”
“Yeah. I suppose you do.” he’s staring past me again. His eyes aren’t blank, but searching. “I suppose you do.” the pause is long. “Excuse me if I seem distracted, Mr. Mills. What you’ve told me is hitting close to home. I don’t really talk about my wife. I shouldn’t even be talking about her now. But, I understand those bruises on your face. You just wanted to feel something. I haven’t. Not for a very long time.” he sighs as he presses his palms to his face. And then, almost immediately he pulls them away. And the man looking back at me isn’t the vulnerable person he just was. Like he switched masks behind his hands, he is no nonsense once again. His eyes match his stone-like face.
“Do you have any more questions for me?” I ask.
“Here’s the thing, Mr. Mills. I read people. I read them very well. Every little tick tells me a story. It tells me whether or not their story is fabricated. I see through the act people put on, the characters they wear, the emotions they use. I see through it all.” he pauses. “I didn’t see a lie on you once. I can’t promise that this is the end of this process. But, I know you didn’t kill Edna Brands. And I will do all that I can to prove it.”
I close my eyes and smile. “Thank you, Sir.”
“You can call me Rick, Mr. Mills.”
“And you can call me Matthew.” my eyes are still closed. One deep breath follows another. Now I open them. “This wasn’t coincidence, Rick. You being on the case, you interrogating me. It was all for a reason.”
He only nods his head as he opens the door for me to leave.
The neon light from the gas station overhang surrounds me. It paints everything in lifeless shades. I am a skeleton in the rearview mirror; M is nothing but my fifteenth victim. Whatever hope I felt is gone. There is something that this pale light displays so simply: I am not redeemed. I am not new. I am just a blood stained man, searching for a freedom I don’t deserve.
Some part of me is screaming inside, telling me to hold onto the newness. But I’m tired. I will never be free from Teddy, because his identity has become mine. I grew him for too long. I can’t see who I’m supposed to be.
If I could only see the newness, it would change something. I know it would. But, this body doesn’t match. I need to see the newness on this face. Even just a glimpse. I only need a picture of something I haven’t seen before. I know the sensation of newness. It’s cleanliness. But, this reflection always dirties it. Even after everything I’ve experienced today, this reflection makes it feel like nothing has changed.
But, it has changed. If I continue to believe the lie that I am never going to be free, I never will be. I am a prisoner of my own perception. My life is where it is because of a lie that I believed, a lie that I helped grow until it consumed me. If I embrace the newness, couldn’t it consume me like the lie did? Couldn’t it change my perception entirely? If I choose to see the newness, will I?
Teddy is still in the car with me, wearing a different identity. He is my doubt, my reluctance to receive the newness. He is the voice telling me that nothing has changed. But, it has.
If I don’t see that now, if I don’t choose to embrace it right now, I never will. Jesus came to set me free. He came into the darkness and led me out. I am not a prisoner anymore. The bondage is now my own. The prison is in my mind. I will never be free if I don’t accept that I already am.
I look at my reflection and then close my eyes. “I am new.” I whisper as I open them again. My reflection is the same, but clearer. I see the purpose showing through me. Another man is present in my eyes. A new man. This is me. I’m no longer a dead body buried under the darkness. I am new.
My eyes fall onto the dull green digital numbers of the car clock. It’s 5:25 pm. Nothing about my purpose has changed. I have to bring M home before midnight tonight. And the assurance that it will happen has never been stronger. Despite all of the uncertainties, I know it will happen. This assurance is more than faith, this is a palpable, almost touchable thing. I will bring her home before midnight tonight. Nothing can stop it from happening.
… The wind is howling. I see time add another minute. I don’t know what to do next. I know I’m going to get there tonight, but I don’t know how. Something has to happen soon. I still have at least five and half hours to go, with only a six and a half hour window. I close my eyes, because what I see tells me that it’s impossible. Past the pale light of this station, darkness is everywhere. But, when I close my eyes, I can focus on what I know. It will happen. No matter how impossible it seems, it will happen.
The wind has practically become a wild animal surrounding me. I feel it pushing against the car. I hear the rustling of leaves as they blow across the windshield.
… And now, I hear nothing. As suddenly as it started, it has stopped. My eyes pop open automatically, as if they were on a timer. And the first thing I see is bright green within the dead leaves that remain on the windshield. A fifty dollar bill is wedged under the driver side wiper.
I can only marvel at what has happened. The way the interrogation ended still baffles me. I think it always will. Rick was convinced that I killed her when we stepped in that room. He had me pegged guilty before I said a word. But, now, here I am. I’m holding Janet’s hand, walking down the stairs, about to leave the station. When I play it over in my head, I know I should still be sitting there, hopelessly defending a story few would believe.
Demons? Only a man who has experienced them in his life would understand—
“Matty?” Janet asks quietly.
“Yeah?” I look over at her.
“He believed me.” my tone sounds as awe-struck as I feel. “He knows I didn’t do it.”
“I know.” she smiles. “But, how?”
“I’m still reeling from how.” I say as I look up to the night sky.