The scene wavered, then firmed around them. Smith stared about eagerly. He had hoped that in going back to help his father /and Mr. Hobart, couldn't forget about him/ that he would find himself at his family home. Not that he'd likely even recognize it, at the moment. But instead, as he slowly turned around, he found himself in a place that could well be considered where it all had ended...or began.
Blackened timbers and singed bricks still held the shape of the church. There the doorway, which Ray had so bravely carried him through to no avail, stood blocked with short boards, piled rubble, and frayed yellow police tape which rustled in the cold breeze. He recognized the smell; it had a sharp, cindery bite which struck a chord in his memory. There were many things blocked off in his past..but the smell of the fire that had claimed his life was not one of them.
A cough drew his head around, to meet Bob Hobart's worried gaze. "Over there" he tipped his head meaningfully, "he's over there."
It was his father. He knew that instantly, though he couldn't have said how. The man standing by the edge of the dirty steps was well bundled against the cold, head tipped back as he studied the ruins. But the tilt of his head, the off kilter stance...these things said 'dad' to him in ways he could never possibly explain. Just as he could not have explained how he knew that the man standing there with his breath frosting the air before him was terribly unhappy. He just knew.
Another cough from Bob, and he collected himself hastily. He could do this, he'd done it before for other people many times. His father wouldn't recognize him, of course. He would see a stranger, maybe the age of his son, but not his true identity. And he would have to deal with that, because it was the best he was going to get. For now. Squaring his shoulders, Smith nodded at Mr. Hobart and stepped forwards.
Once he'd started moving, each step came easier. When he was only a few feet away, he paused respectfully until his father, lost in thought, noticed his presence. He wasn't going to rush this. He had to get this one right.
He came here often. He would stay away for days, sometimes even a week or more, before he found his steps retracing the way to this barren spot. Where his son's life had ended. /Been taken from him/ he reminded himself. He took another breath of the freezing air, let it out in a long, slow plume. And another. Just as he'd been doing every minute, every hour, every day, every week since they'd gotten that phone call. BWLWG, he called it ironically in his mind. Back When Life Was Good, indeed. He didn't say that around her, of course. It would only sharpen the pain.
He ran his gaze over the debris still coating the steps, a piece of charred wood here, a scrap of cloth (from the wall hangings?) there. The site had been cleaned up, of course, the church members pitching in to do their best to clear the front area at least, until the deacons decided to whether to rebuild on the spot or go elsewhere. But no amount of superficial tidying could make it look other than it was. A burnt out shell. Lifeless. The hope that the sight of the building had always raised in his heart was gone.
He prayed that they would raze it to the ground.
It wasn't that he had lost his faith. It burned in his soul still, but...he had doubts. He knew it was not God who had taken his son from him, but the manipulations of a angry boy who had run loose with no correction for too long. But still, his heart was bitter. Why should his son die while that, that beast still walked and breathed the clean air of the world? He struggled with his hate, praying that God would help him to come to a place where he could find forgiveness for what had been done...but it was hard. So hard.
He was a private man, and had always found it hard to show his emotions, but he had managed to open up more to his wife recently than ever before in their marriage. Their pastor had encouraged them to talk, and they had gathered several times in the past months in the evenings for prayer and companionship. They were clinging together through this, and they would make it through to calmer waters, he was sure of it.
But for now, he was still lost in a sea of anguish and regrets, and he didn't know how to reach that quiet shore of acceptance.
He sighed, shifted, and slowly stepped forward, walking up the steps and reaching across the yellow tape to lay a hand on the blackened sill.
If only he hadn't forgotten to check his messages that day. He never forgot, normally, it was a part of his routine. His son had known that. Had waited at the church, assuming that his dad just been held up at the job and would arrive a bit late.
Funny. His son had told him once that he was proud of how his dad wasn't afraid of technology, like some of his friend's dad's were.
He wished now he'd never touched a computer.
He didn't know for certain what his son had endured in his last few minutes on earth, but he had a pretty good idea from talking to the firemen on the scene and the doctor who had examined him.
The firemen had just shaken their heads, talked softly about how confused inhaling smoke could make a person, how it sapped the strength and made people make mistakes they normally would not have made. He'd asked them to show him where that fireman, the one who'd tried to save his son, had found him, but they'd refused to allow him to enter the smoldering mess and he'd had to be content with peering through the still-smoking timbers. He had seen where the shattered roof beams lay atop the now askew rows of pews. Made of hardwood, they had burned more slowly than the walls and ceiling and he could still see their curved shapes thrusting up through the ash here and there. That was where his son had collapsed, trying to escape the inferno, they told him.
He'd never even made it close to the door.
The doctor had been reluctant to tell he and his wife many details when they had met with him, but he had bided his time and gone back alone, and gotten his answers. His son had most certainly been conscious and moving in the fire before he died. His throat and lungs were coated with smoke particulates, seared by the heat of the air he'd been breathing. He'd had bruises on his legs and elsewhere, where he'd probably bumped into things trying to find his way through the smoke.
The fireman-Patterson, his name was-said that his eyes had been open when he pulled him out.
He hadn't told his wife.
Now, breathing in the acrid smell which always lingered where fire had touched, he leaned gingerly forward and looked once more at the spot. It had rained off and on for many days recently, further settling the ashes and streaking the ruins with a black sludge. Nothing new here. Didn't accomplish anything, hanging about this place, as if his son's spirit still lingered. They'd talked about that, late one night when the darkness made such topics easier, somehow. She'd said she just didn't feel that he was around, and asked if he felt the same. He'd thought for a few minutes, lying quietly beside her in the concealing dark, before agreeing. And he'd been truthful. He hadn't, didn't feel his son's presence in their house, or when he visited this place. Not even at the cemetery, where they spent many an hour just sitting quietly. His wife was sure that their boy had gone to Heaven to be with the Lord. He was proud of her rock-steady faith.
But her belief didn't numb the pain of his loss, or the grief of missed opportunities and old misunderstandings... or stop him from looking for his son at the breakfast table each morning.
He sighed. It was time to go.
When he turned, he almost jumped when he saw the young man in the black leather jacket standing behind him at the foot of the stairs with another, older guy, both watching him quietly. He had good hearing, always had, and he would have sworn he was alone. He'd never heard a sound when they walked up.
For a heart stopping moment, he'd thought he was seeing a ghost.
His son had had a jacket like that. He'd loved the thing, worn it all the time. Was wearing it, as a matter of fact, the night ...he shut that thought off quickly, and looked carefully at the boys face. No, this wasn't his son. Just had a similar jacket. They were popular with high school kids, he saw one just like it practically every day. He was just upset, that was all. His fault for hanging about getting maudlin at this place, when he knew it did no good.
He cleared his throat. "Can I help you?"
Now that he was facing his father, Smith found himself inexplicably tongue tied. How was he going to do this? Maybe the Judge should have sent someone else.
Bob came to his rescue. "We were just passing by, and thought we'd take a look at the old church that burned down. Such a shame. Me and my wife used to come here, how about you?" Hobart was quite pleased. They had already found his friend, and it sure looked like they were needed.
"Off and on. My wife likes the new Baptist church off Montgomery too, so we kinda split our time between them." He looked at the older guy. It was odd, he reminded him of someone too, but he couldn't decide who it was. Whatever. It didn't matter, he had to be starting home before his wife got worried. She didn't like for him to keep coming back here by himself.
"If you'll excuse me," he started to say, when the younger guy interrupted.
"Would you mind if we walked a while with you? We've got to go that way too."
"Ah, not at all. You from around here?"
"You could say that. I did use to live hereabouts, and he" jerking a thumb at his companion, "visits a local family quite a lot." Hobart rolled his eyes, and Smith grinned.
"Really" his father said, not truly interested. He quickened his pace, wishing he'd worn a warmer coat. He'd found he just wasn't paying attention to little details like the weather, lately. Too much on his mind.
"Yeah...say, did you know that guy that got killed here, what was his name?" Smith prodded. "Young guy, I heard, was a real shame. Must have been hard on his family."
He kept his eyes straight ahead. "My son."
"Oh." Smith paused, not actually sure how to get the conversation around to faith. He didn't really want to just say 'hey, it's me dad, I'm dead but I haven't got to Heaven yet, 'cause God is letting me help other people awhile first and even then I think He's gonna let me have another chance at life, isn't that great? Oh, and don't expect me to reminisce much, 'cause I don't really remember you OR mom'.
Somehow he didn't think that would be the right approach here.
So he switched tactics, and went for broke.
"Say, if it's OK with you, we were going to have a small prayer circle tonight, but both the couples who was coming had to back out at the last minute. Would you and m- your wife like to join us?" He held his breath. This was where it could get tricky.
His father turned his head /OK, this is good, at least he's looking at me now/ and stared. "Not to be rude, but we really are doing quite well. We've been to a lot of prayer meetings lately." he finished dryly.
Again, Hobart came to the rescue. "It would really be more of a kindness to us, truly, sir. We're rather at loose ends tonight, and our time was to spent with those in need and fellowship with God. And, forgive me for my forwardness, but it sounds like you could use Would you consider letting us join you two, just for an hour?"
Although the idea of inviting home two strangers he had just met on the street sounded ridiculous, not to mention dangerous, in this day and age, he found himself seriously considering it. /It might be a good idea at that. Get her mind off...things. These two seemed pretty harmless./ He nodded abruptly and slowed his pace, allowing the two men to walk beside him the rest of the way to his house.
It was coming on dusk when they arrived, and the chill in the air promised a frost or maybe even a dusting of snow by morning. He escorted them in, running through explanations quietly as their guests hung up coats and scarves in the entryway.
He saw her eyes linger on that black leather jacket as it was hung on the last empty hook, and almost regretted inviting them.
But then she rallied, bustling about and seating everyone around the casual square table they used for card games and extra seats at those times when the dining room overflowed with holiday guests. The young man, 'Smith' he said his name was with a smile, 'just Smith', sat quietly, looking about with interest at the homey kitchen. He seemed interested in everything, accepting the mug of hot cocoa with a nod and a genuine look of thanks. Like he'd not had any for a long time, and had missed it a lot.
In truth, Smith didn't really recall the cocoa, but it tasted wonderful and was just one of the things bombarding his senses at the moment. This whole house was a place overflowing with memories for him- he could feel them nudging gently at his conscious mind, trying to get his attention. He wanted to jump up and run his hands over the counter, touch the old rooster figure that sat perched on the windowsill, investigate that cream cow-shaped cookie jar on the shelf...and most of all, just sit and bask in the prescience of these two people. And he'd been away long enough to almost see them as a stranger would; or maybe it was just that he was seeing them without the filter of childhood resentments and misconceptions. He wanted to just sit and soak in the reflection of their warmth for each other.
But he didn't have the luxury of time to do that. He had a job to do. Once that was closer to his heart than any before it.
"So. What would you like to share tonight?" There, that seemed like a good beginning.
His parents exchanged glances, and his mother gave an almost imperceptible nod. "Well, we've recently had a ..a loss in our family." His father swallowed. "You know that already. It's been about five months since our son passed on, and well, it's just been a hard time for us." His mother reached over and squeezed his hand in support as he wound up his speech with relief. She knew how hard it was for him to talk about it, because it was the same for her most days.
Hobart cleared his throat delicately. "Are you...was he a Christian?" Smith shot him a look. He wasn't sure they should be venturing onto that ground yet. Then he shrugged mentally. They had to get their feet wet here at some point. And that was a good question to get his mother talking.
His parents took their visitors forthright approach well, his mother actually lighting up a bit. "Oh yes, he was! We even had him baptized when he was just a baby. And he truly did believe. Went to church every Sunday of his life, practically. Now, I'm not saying he was perfect, no sirs! But he was a good boy at heart. Just going through some rough patches, lately. He was almost 18 when he died, getting ready for college." She smiled lovingly at her husband. She was glad he had invited these two home. It gave them a chance to share some of the good memories. And this younger boy was so nice. He reminded her so much of her own lost son. Even the way he dressed..."Those two had such tiffs over where he was going to go! Made the house just shake a couple times, didn't you?"
He nodded a bit jerkily, guilt shading his response. He'd never told her that their son had been waiting for him to discuss that very topic one more time at the church. The boy hadn't wanted to upset her with their arguments any more.
"Still, I think they were reaching an agreement finally. It was that school in Michigan, wasn't it, dear?" she asked.
"Yeah, honey, that one." /That was the one their son had wanted to attend, but his own viewpoint had been 'What's wrong with the local university? It sure was a lot cheaper'/ Another thought he kept to himself. Just another regret in a growing pile.
"He would have done so well there. He was very bright, really, though sometimes I must admit he could be a bit lazy. But that's how teenagers are, isn't it?" she asked the boy sitting across from her, sipping his cooling cocoa slowly. She wondered if he spent much time with his family himself, he looked so...hungry. Not for food, but for companionship. Impulsively, she reached out and caught his free hand. "Do you two need a place to stay for the night? His room is still made up...I, well, I just haven't wanted to do anything with it yet, you know? But I'm sure he'd like for us to share it with others. He cared allot about people. Didn't he, honey?"
His father was clearly caught a bit off guard by her unexpected invitation, but rallied quickly. "Yes, he did. If you two would like to stay the night, you would be welcome. The other spare room is full of stuff, but I have an old sleeping bag you could lay down on ...his floor. It would be comfortable with a pillow or two."
It was settled.
As they were about to rise, his mother caught his hand again, and sent her husband a beseeching look. "Would you two mind if we said a prayer right now? It would be very special if you joined us."
Smith smiled. "'If two or more of you are gathered in My Name, I shall be there'" he quoted.
"Yes, exactly." she beamed. "C'mon honey, join hands. Let's do this right." Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and her face went still. The other three followed her example, and listened solemnly as she began. "Lord, it's me again. You know that each and every day I think of You, and of Your promise to those who believe in You. I know that my child is with You now, and that he is out of pain, and that You've wiped away any tears from his eyes. I know that all of this fits into Your plan somehow, even if we can't see it nor understand it. Please, Lord, help us to deal with his absence in our daily lives, and remind us that he still lives with You, and that we will see him again one day." Her eyes opened, and she looked at her husband quesioningly. He nodded and cleared his throat.
"Lord, I think my wife has pretty much said it all already. You know what is in our hearts and minds before we say it, and you know how much we miss our loved one." He hesitated, then plunged on. "And Lord, You know that I've been having a tough time of lately. I just can't seem to come to grips with how I feel. Lord, I guess I've been stubborn long enough. I've tried on my own to cope with this, but I just can't do it any more. I'd like to ask for you to give me a hand. I know my boy is with You, and I know he's all right. Help me to accept what has happened, Lord, and help me to forgive that boy who set the fire ...and myself as well." He opened his eyes and met his wife's eyes squarely. "I've been keeping some things to myself, Lord, that I really shouldn't have. And I'm going to stop that right tonight. I'd appreciate it if You would be with me and help me find the right words in a bit." He stopped speaking, sitting back resolutely. But he did not let go of the hands that held his.
Hobart seemed content to stay quiet, so Smith finally cleared his throat. "Ah, God, You know all that this family has been through lately, and You know the real situations of everyone here." /That was well put, he thought/ Please, would You continue to be with this family in the days and months ahead, and help them come to terms with what has happened in their lives. Lord, I believe that their son is well in Your hands. I think he's busy doing Your work, and that he's happy, wherever he is." He looked up, and saw three pair of eyes fastened upon him. "Lord, I ask that You give would assurance in their hearts that this is indeed so. Amen."
Much later, long after everyone had found their beds and fallen asleep, a quite figure slipped downstairs and entered the kitchen. With the ease of long familiarity, it worked by the light of a single small bulb to heat water and stir it and a packet of instant cocoa into a mug.
When she turned about and saw her youngest guest sitting at the table, she just smiled.
"Couldn't sleep either?" she asked, and smiled again at his nod. "Just like my son, he was always up at all hours. We used to have to buy cocoa-mix boxes at a time to keep it in the house." Her smile dimmed. "I miss him at night the most, I think. We used to talk till the wee hours of the morning, on anything we could think of. I can remember being sorry for myself, because he was growing up so fast and would be leaving for college soon. No more late night cocoa." She sighed. "I'd give anything to have to have my cocoa alone because he was off to college, now."
Her eyes turned on him speculatively. "You didn't know him, did you? I'd say your about the same age. What high school did you attend?"
He shook his head. "I knew him well once, but I've...kinda lost touch of late. We did go to the same school. But it's been awhile, and I don't think I could tell you much about it."
His mother smiled. "Then let me tell you, instead. Would that be all right?"
They sat long into the night, talking and laughing and sharing stories.
Smith was up before dawn the next morning, knowing it was time to go. He had left briefly once already, to take Hobart to the hospital, where he would soon wake up with no memory of the last extraordinary twenty-four hours. It seemed the only change he had desired was for his grieving friend to find peace. Smith would have liked to stay ...but he had memories now, fresh ones to treasure until he was given his old ones to turn over. And he had helped his parents to become more open with each other, and encouraged their faith in God. That would have to be enough for now.
While his mother had talked, he had sat still, content to listen. He still had not really recalled any of what she spoke of, but he was starting to understand the reason. If he was in this situation, with all his memories intact, he doubted he could have been a very clearheaded observer as he found himself to be now. And he knew, from the first moment he'd joined them, that he loved his parents deeply. So he couldn't recall the particulars of their life together at the moment-it didn't matter.
He had faith that one day he would.
Maybe, just maybe, one day all of this would be moot, and he would be allowed to change his own world, to rearrange that one event that had led to all of this grief. Maybe. One day.
As he opened the door to walk away, his eye was caught by the row of four hooks. One for his dad, one for mom, one for company, and the last one, the fourth one, for him. He hesitated only a moment before slipping off the black leather coat and hanging it carefully in it's old place of honor. He stood for a moment, staring at it, then quietly eased the door open and left.
They would discover it later, and treasure it with wonder. They told no one except their pastor of their thoughts and suspicions, and kept their hopes close to their hearts. And when their search for those kind men that had visited them for just one night bore no fruit, they were not surprised. No nearby church had them as members, no one recognized them from descriptions. Their efforts left them with unanswered questions, and little else. Their pastor reminded them of God's mysterious ways, and that seemed the end of the matter.
Except for one thing.
Sometimes, usually late at night (for without fanfare, her husband had begun joining her when she went downstairs for her 'cocoa time'), they would take the jacket from it's hook, where it was carefully hung, and examine it, running gentle hands over each mar and fold. They didn't talk much on the nights it was brought out. They didn't need to. Their eyes met across the leather and spoke volumes in the silence. For, from the initials on the collar lining, done in a young man's careless scrawl, to the tiny row of black X's on one sleeve from a mother's careful stitching, it seemed an exact duplicate of their son's favorite.
The one they had buried with him.
With one difference. They had had their son's jacket professionally cleaned, before laying it across his legs in his casket, along with other mementos of his life that had been special to him. It had been spotless, odorless, all damage repaired or hidden, cared for so that it almost shone.
But this jacket bore tiny scrapes across the back, scattered cuts in the leather here and there. A cuff was missing a snap. As if it had been through hard times. But it was none of these things that kept their mouths still, and their hearts full.
It was a small thing, really.
Permeating it, never seeming to fade, was the acrid scent of smoke.