Chapter 1: Preacher
“Preacher!” Bang. Bang. Bang.
At first, I couldn’t tell if I was dreaming it or hearing it. Then it happened again.
“Preacher!” Bang. Bang. Bang.
I looked at the clock next to my bed. It was five o’clock. It was still dark outside.
“Preacher! Preacher!” Boom! Boom!
I threw the covers off, slipped on the pair of jeans I left hanging on the doorknob and hurried to the front door rubbing my eyes. I wondered what my neighbors would say if this racket woke them, as it had woken me. Then I remembered I had no neighbors.
“Preacher, let me in. Let me in.”
I assume he stopped banging on the door when he saw the lights go on inside.
I peered through the peephole that fortunately I had just installed the day before. The young man who had been knocking was now about ten feet back from the door, looking up at the bell tower. I don’t know what he was looking for, but from the looks of him, I don’t think he did either.
I recognized him, but I didn’t really know him. He goes by the name Atreyu. That’s the name of the teenage warrior who is sent to save the world in The Neverending Story. Atreyu is a fixture in town. Most everyone has driven by and seen him standing on the side of the road, waving his arms and speaking as if he’s lecturing someone who isn’t there.
“Preacher,” he yelled again.
He means me, I said to myself, still watching him through the peephole.
Atreyu is tall and lanky, with long tangles of dark hair. He didn’t have the kind of facial hair that would make growing a beard possible. The reason I could tell that in the dim streetlamp light was because he was growing a beard anyway. It was thin and looked like he had trimmed it wearing a blindfold. I guessed he was about twenty-five.
Around the top of his head was a thin light brown headband, the kind Atreyu wore in the movie. I don’t know whether he got the name Atreyu because of the headband, or he wore the headband because of the name.
I hadn’t made up my mind about opening the door. I wasn’t afraid of him so much as I wasn’t sure I could get him out of my home if I let him in. But he seemed like he needed help as he nervously darted his head from one side to the other, sometimes stretching his neck out and sometimes not. Then suddenly he bent down and picked up a half brick from the sidewalk and, lifting it over his head, he charged the door. That decided it for me.
It’s interesting to me now as I retell this story that I actually fumbled with the doorknob trying to remember which way to turn it. At first, I turned it to the right, which was right, but right didn’t work, so I tried left, which was wrong, so that didn’t work either. I could picture the brick chipping away at my door, the door I had just refinished.
In a panic, I got the door open only to find Atreyu calmly standing there gently holding the brick.
“It’s broken,” he said, holding it out to me. “If it’s broken it gets thrown away.”
He stepped up to me and lightly tapped my chest with his fingertips. His tapping came in three groups of two taps. The tapping wasn’t hard. In fact, it might have tickled me if he hadn’t also been uncomfortably close. He was so close I could tell oral hygiene was not his highest priority.
“If it’s broken it gets thrown away,” he repeated as he tapped again.
What he said made me sad. I knew—in my heart of hearts—he was talking about himself. He too was a broken brick. He too was thrown away. I did the only thing I could think of. I used my most compassionate voice and asked, “How can I help you?” I didn’t know how I could help this broken man, but I did know this: I was the only one around who was awake.
As soon as I asked him how I could help, he double-tapped me again. Then he handed me the broken brick. He held it gently in both hands and placed it gently in mine. It was the kind of care you’d pass a baby with. When I stared down at the broken brick wondering what to do next, he seized the opportunity to dart around me and into the church. As he went by me, he said, “I need to go through the roof.”
By the time I had secured the door Atreyu was out of sight. I stood still and listened, hoping Atreyu would make enough noise for me to know which way to go. No noise came, so I headed down the stairs to my workshop. All my power tools were still plugged in. I certainly didn’t want Atreyu to get hurt, but what I thought about as I hurried down the stairs was how much I didn’t want to get sued.
“Atreyu,” I yelled as I neared the bottom of the stairs.
There was no answer, nor was there a light on.
I turned the light in the large room on anyway and called out, “Atreyu, are you down here?”
Again, there was no answer, but to be sure I stood there for a moment and just listened. I couldn’t imagine he might have made it through my workroom in the dark without making a sound. Even with the lights on, I have a hard time walking through the room without stubbing my toe on something that would create a huge racket.
Satisfied the lower level was clear I returned to the main floor. Several lights were already on because I had turned them on to answer the door. The first room I headed for was my bedroom. That’s when I heard him. He was in the attic right above where I stood in the hallway. It sounded like he was jumping up and down, or stomping on a spider.
The attic was a small storage space with a ceiling maybe seven feet tall down the middle and tapered to nothing on either side. It was unheated and dusty with loose plank boards for a floor and two bare light bulbs for illumination. The former occupants used the space for the storage of seasonal things like Christmas decorations and a large rope that looked brand-new.
The stairs to the attic were through a door at the end of the hallway. I ran to get to him as fast as I could, so I didn’t notice at first he wasn’t stomping anymore when I got upstairs. He was on his knees in the middle of the room prying up a floorboard.
“Atreyu, what are you doing?” I yelled from the doorway.
The yell startled him. His face turned pale, and he began scooting back away from me as I approached him.
I wasn’t mad, but the urgency in my voice was stronger than I intended. It was, after all, five in the morning, and an uninvited guest was working at dismantling my home.
I felt guilty. I did want him to stop what he was doing. Actually, what I wanted was for him to get out of my home. But I didn’t want to scare him as much as I had. I don’t want anyone to be afraid of me.
Holding my hands up, palms out, I walked toward him very slowly and said, “I’m not going to hurt you, Atreyu.”
I couldn’t tell if he believed me. His eyes were still very big, and they were completely focused on me.
“Remember me?” I asked, stopping about six feet away from him.
“Preacher,” he said gingerly.
“This is a church, and it is where I live,” I tried to explain, but his expression gave me no hope of convincing him this was no longer a church and I have never been a preacher. “Yes,” I finally said, “I’m the preacher.” I was going to regret that soon.
“I need to go through the roof,” he said, standing up and coming closer to me. His eyes didn’t blink as he stared at me. He looked like a puppy I had forgotten to feed. I knew what he was saying was very, very important—at least to him.
I took a couple of steps back so I was standing over the spot where he had been working. He had already pried two smaller boards up.
“What are you going through the roof for?” I asked, trying to make peace with him.
As I knelt down, I asked, “Is there a hidden treasure up here?” I was trying to be funny. It’s a nervous habit.
Atreyu didn’t laugh. He was staring back at me with both eyes and mouth open. He didn’t look so much afraid anymore, but more like he was waiting for me to keep going. It made me wonder if he might actually be looking for some hidden treasure beneath the floorboards in my attic.
I began lifting a board for a closer look. “Is this the spot?” I asked, not seeing anything but ceiling insulation and dust.
“Through the roof,” he told me. Stepping up behind me he tapped me on the back with his left hand and pointed at the open spot over my shoulder with his right.
This must be the spot, I told myself since Atreyu had gone from scared rabbit to construction foreman when I knelt down next to it.
I realized it was too late to go back now, but the dismantling of my attic floor could very well last all night and still not satisfy whatever it was in Atreyu’s mind. I decided I’d humor him with lifting one more board, but then my plan was to tell him going through the roof was a church activity that needed to be celebrated closer to Easter. I figured that would buy enough time for him to forget whatever going through the roof meant.
That’s when I found what was hidden in my attic.
It was in a light brown canvas bag, with a blue label that said “Blue Label Grass Seed.” Atreyu leaned over my shoulder while I opened it to look inside. He got the first peek at our treasure by blocking my view with his head.
“That’s bad,” he said, standing quickly. He was shaking his head no.
“What is it?” I asked before looking inside the bag.
“It’s bad,” answered Atreyu.
I held the bag open and looked inside. It was a revolver.
I knew not to touch it. I closed the bag and got to my feet.
I’m not against revolvers, but I assumed there was a reason this one was hidden in a church attic. And I doubted it was a good one.
“It is bad,” I said as I headed to the door. “We have to call the police.” Then I stopped to look back at him and asked, “How did you know to look here?”
His eyes got big once more.
“It’s okay,” I reassured him. “You’re not in trouble, but the police are going to ask how you knew where to look.”
He darted around me for the second time that night. Just before he disappeared, I heard him say, “I have to go through the door.”