He stood in the doorway of the church, hesitant, as though a force held him at bay. The memory of what had transpired here, the horror, pushed at him, as did the knowledge that by walking into the building he would at last face the issue that he had avoided for so long. And both forces terrified him.
He drove into the church parking lot and drove to a spot close to the back door where he and Roy had entered so many weeks before. Getting out of the Rover, he walked to the door, then stopped.
"What am I doing here?" he asked himself out loud. "What am I gonna say?"
He stepped across the threshold. The air-conditioned interior sent shivers down his back. He wiped his mouth, then thrust his hands into his pockets. Listening, he heard the faint sound of a radio playing music. By the cadence he guessed it to be a contemporary Christian song. He noticed an office to his right, with an older woman seated at a typewriter. He tapped on the open door and the woman stopped typing.
"Hello!" she greeted. "Can I help you?"
"Uh, yeah. I was wondering if the pastor was available." John suddenly felt embarrassed at not knowing the pastor's name.
"Well, I'm sure he's available, but just let me check." The woman picked up the phone receiver and dialed. "Angelo? Betty. There's someone here to see you. Yes. Okay." She hung up and beamed at John.
"You can go right back," she said.
"Is it—his office—I don't—"
"Second door on the right. You can't miss it. It says 'Pastor' on it!"
Johnny smiled back at her. "Right. Thanks."
The door became the center of his vision. As he stepped slowly down the hall, his eyes never left the door. The music grew louder as he walked. John surmised that Angelo was listening to the radio.
At last he reached the door. He stood before it, staring at the placard. He listened, trying to hear beyond the music, but he heard nothing. Lifting his hand, he curled his fingers to knock. Now or never. He rapped on the door twice.
The sound of the pastor's voice startled Johnny. Instantly he was taken back to the church sanctuary, and the girl, and the panic and blood and regret.
He grasped the knob, turned it, pushed the door, and slipped into the pastor's office.
Inside, the pastor sat at a desk covered with several open books and a notebook with nearly a page of writing. The office itself consisted of four or five bookshelves, numerous pictures of a smiling woman and two girls, and a framed, needle-point Bible verse. A couch sat along one wall, with a barstool opposite.
The pastor rose immediately, his hand extended. "Hello, John! I'm very happy to see you."
Johnny took his hand, even more embarrassed now that he knew that Aducci had remembered his name. "Thanks for seeing me. I know you're busy."
"Sit down," Aducci replied, turning off the radio, then coming around and taking a seat on a partially cleared corner of his desk. "Actually, I'm glad you came by. I tried to check up on your progress, but I wasn't able to get much information. Are you back to work?"
Johnny nodded. "Yeah, uh, actually, I've been back for a couple of weeks."
Aducci smiled. "Well, that's great! I'm so glad that everything turned out all right for you. Our church set up a prayer ring for you after the shooting. It looks like our prayers were answered in a wonderful way." He sighed. "I still can't believe that Laura had a gun. She just wasn't the type…well, anyway, I was pretty shocked."
"Yeah." John fiddled with his hands, fervently wishing the small talk could continue. "It was a surprise to everybody, I think."
The older man folded his arms. "So what brings you by?" he asked.
Johnny felt his heart begin to race. "Well, uh, I guess I just wanted to let you know how I was doing," he began lamely, sure that the pastor could see directly into his mind. "After what happened and all, I just wanted to let you know that I was okay…" His voice trailed off.
Aducci smiled at him. "That's very nice of you, John," he said gently. "Was there anything else?"
Johnny clasped his hands together. "Uh, no, I just…well…" He lost his words, and felt his face grow hot.
The pastor slid from his desk, and pulling the barstool closer to John, sat on the cushioned seat. "Sometimes something happens and we get thrown for a loop," he began, his voice soft. "We begin to ask questions that perhaps we haven't asked for a long time, if ever. We begin to question ourselves, and we even question God."
John cleared his throat, glanced over Angelo's shoulder out the window, and then looked the pastor straight in the eye. "It's about God," he stated. "I need to talk about God."
There was a pause. Johnny found that his voice had left him, and he no longer could meet Aducci's eyes. Nervously, he fiddled with his fingers.
Aducci got off the barstool. "Can I offer you some coffee or a soda, John?"
"Yeah, soda's fine," Johnny replied quickly.
"Be right back." The pastor left, and John suddenly felt an overwhelming urge to flee.
I can't stay here. I don't know what to say to him, and it's too late to take it back. How can I talk about something that I don't understand? I need to leave now, while he's gone.
No, I can't leave. I came here to talk about God. I need to talk about God.
He sank back into the couch, resigned to his task. He would see it through.
"Laura had been a member of the church for three or four years," Pastor Aducci said as he handed Johnny a cold can of Pepsi. "In fact, I had watched her grow into a young woman. I had been aware of some trouble at home, but Laura didn't approach me until a month before the shooting."
Aducci's expression became pained. "I still ask myself how I could have missed the signs. Sometimes the role of pastor is far more complicated than I ever imagined it would be."
"Sounds like what I say about being a paramedic," Johnny replied with a small smile.
Aducci nodded. "We both deal with deep issues. And when we miss a signal, it can be devastating."
John took a deep swig of the Pepsi, then, realizing that Aducci was waiting for him to begin, took a deep breath and plunged.
"I don't remember much after being shot, but one thing has stayed in my mind. I keep hearing these same words, over and over again."
"What are they?"
"God is with you. God is with you." Johnny looked up at Aducci. "That was you, wasn't it?"
"Yes, it was."
"I was sure that I was gonna die. I mean, absolutely certain. I've been in a lot of situations in which I've had close calls, but that day I felt death."
"I know. I saw it in your eyes. That's why I fought so hard for you."
Johnny absorbed Aducci's words. "I know that a lot of things were going on, but the only thing that I remember is hearing those words."
"Well, your partner certainly had his hands full. I don't know how he did it all."
"Roy's never really talked about it. I think that we were both avoiding the subject, but I've wondered what happened."
"I know that it wasn't easy for him. We were all in shock."
"He saved my life."
"Yes, he did. Until the other paramedics got here, he had to do everything by himself. My secretary brought a blanket, but Roy never left your side. He knew exactly what to do for you. I saw God working through him," he added thoughtfully.
Johnny felt his heart pound harder. "I should have bled to death," he said softly.
Aducci took a deep breath. "I don't understand everything that Roy did that day. He spoke to the hospital and hooked IVs to your arms and gave you oxygen, all while knowing that you were very close to dying. He knew what to do for you to save your life."
"The doctors said that I shouldn't have made it." Johnny slowly raised his head to look at Aducci. "I knew that I was gonna die, Roy knew it, everybody knew it, and yet here I am today, talking about it." He shifted on the couch, agitated as the memories and doubts flooded him. And he remembered something else…another gunshot as he lay on the floor.
"Was Laura…did she die…"
Aducci pursed his lips. "She shot herself in the head. There was nothing your partner could do for her."
Johnny stared at him. "I never knew…I never asked. Or if I did, they wouldn't give me a straight answer. I didn't realize it until now. They…they were trying to protect me, I guess." He shook his head. "I just don't understand any of this. Not a damn bit of it. Sorry. It's just so messed up. I mean, it all happened in a church. How could God allow it? Isn't this God's house? Isn't God supposed to watch out for His house? How could He allow a girl with a problem to…to do that in a church? It's wrong! The whole thing is wrong, and I just don't understand it at all."
Aducci waited a moment, then spoke with carefully chosen words. "I don't understand it, either, John. There are many, many things that happen that I don't understand. I see so much unhappiness and death, and I wonder what God is planning. I think that God has a plan that we don't always see or understand. Sometimes I see the plan; sometimes I don't. I think that we have free will to act as we want, and while God knows what we're going to do, He lets us make the decisions. And in the end, I believe that everything fits into God's plan."
"Even my getting shot in a church?" Johnny asked ruefully.
"It's difficult to understand, and we may never see the reasoning behind such events, but I acknowledge my limited understanding. I choose to trust God. I think that you may be acknowledging God's power by your questioning here today. I can help guide you, but in the end it will be your decision. You will accept God's plan, however difficult it may be to understand, or you will not. And that will be your decision, John. Just as your relationship with God will be your decision."
Johnny's head bowed for a moment, then he met Aducci's eyes. "Thanks, pastor." He got to his feet and held out his hand.
Aducci took his hand, then asked, "May we pray together before you go?"
Johnny hesitated, embarrassed. "Okay," he replied, awkwardly lowering his head. Aducci placed his hand on John's shoulder, then offered a brief prayer for Johnny's benefit.
They separated, and Johnny once again shook Aducci's hand. "Thank you," he said softly. "Thank you."
He stood before his open locker, fluctuating between feelings of amusement and confusion. The potato lay on the shelf, several eyes having sprouted in the time that it had spent there. He took the tuber in his hands and studied it, once again seeing an image that took him back to the church.
He laughed, suddenly relieved that he had not mentioned the icon to Pastor Aducci, and as he carried the potato to the kitchen, he whistled.