Undying Memories

Undying Memories

A lake, shimmering as the night air whispers over its still surface. A woman, shivering as the night air whispers her name. A wolf, shrinking in the blackness of the night. The surface of the pool shakes as tears drip from that mother’s face. One, two, three. The wet falls slowly from her, and the water beneath lays silently waiting. It soaks up her sorrow and spreads it to the dead entombed below with ever-broadening ripples. The wolf nips briefly at the air before letting a low growl erupt from core to throat… but the woman is not afraid.

A young boy lies just beneath the surface of the pool, watching the ripples separating him from the life he once knew. The depths are eternal, the surface ever-present, torturing him no matter how deep he swims. He touches the surface from beneath, but no ripples form around his fingers. He feels the emptiness inside his chest where a heart once beat, now waterlogged like a sunken vessel. That same emptiness drives the wolf toward his prey. Canine eyes are filled with darkness, deeper than his dead heart. The mother’s heart still holds life… though what life is truly left?

Nightly she approaches the deep waters… but that is all. The trees above sing for her, a reminder of what once was. Everyone else has forgotten. Forgotten his face. Forgotten his laugh. Forgotten his voice. Forgotten her son. The mother will not forget, cannot forget, the trees prodding the deepest corners of her memory. The wolf stalks beneath those same boughs, but cannot approach. He taunts her with growls, howls, and all things fearsome, but she does not give in. Her hope remains. Her life remains.

The boy feels that hope, though the water does nothing to aid his sense of life. He cannot feel the wet around him, cannot penetrate the impassable surface, but the hope seeps through. With each tear, he sees his mother, her face downcast, black wisps of hair sticking to eyelashes. He feels her pain with the first tear, hears her voice with second, and sees her face with the third. The tears continue to flow, bringing with them messages and memories.

Little boys can die, wolves can kill as well as pools of water, but mothers can remember. Nothing can kill memories. The wolf ducks behind a tree and remembers things of his own. He remembers that day he died, remembers the bolder crushing his leg, remembers his fleeing pack. He remembers the loneliness, the trees an ever present memory of his cage. No one ever came for him. No one spared a thought when he passed, and no one spares a thought now.

“A freak accident,” he tries to tell himself. “No one even saw the stone,” but it was there… and his friends were not. This mother is his only visitor… an unwelcome intruder in his wood, unwelcome tears in his pool, unwelcome memories of her own. The woman tortures him with her sorrow, cuts him with her despair, crushes him like a mighty stone: the stone of memories that even He cannot kill.

The woman raises her head, lifts that tear-soaked mask she carries with her. She turns from the pool, raising knees from dampened ground. The boy tries to reach out again, lashing out at the water, biting the surface, scratching the face… but all he manages is memories of his own scratches. Scratches on his face. Scratches of tree branches as he ran from that house. Scratches on his once living heart as screams followed him into the trees. Scratches of dead canine claws holding the boy beneath the waves.

The boy had just wanted an escape, and Death came like a wolf to oblige. Escape from the screaming. Escape from the hitting. Escape from the fighting. Escape from the abusive memories… but memories do not die. Not even Death can kill them. Death followed the boy to the edge of the pool and pushed him. Death follows his mother now. Follows her from the water. Stalks her through the trees. Follows her to the edge of the wood. Watches her disappear into the smoke-curled house where Death takes on a living form: the form of an abusive father and husband.

The boy screams as his mother goes, tears seeping from every pore in his body, but they add nothing to the scene, they add nothing to the water, they add nothing to his pain: the pain of undying memories. The boy, giving up, sinks deeper into the lake, willing himself to die again… but Death is too busy.

Death slaps open the door in that house with more force than the strongest wind could muster. The wolf’s eyes glow from the face of the man behind them. He ushers his wife inside for all the neighbours to see. They see nothing but a family man as he hugs his wife before closing the door behind her. They see nothing but the pain of a lost child, missing the true pain beneath. They are missing the memories. Memories of one month ago are all they have: memories of the boy’s death. They are missing the memories of last week. Memories of yesterday. Memories of today.

Death lashes out at the woman, claws still dripping with the blood of his last victim. This same victim. “Where were you, woman!” The claws come across her face, and she tries not to scream. Tries not to fight. Tries to answer… but memories block her way. Memories of what she knows will happen next lock her up like a boy trapped beneath the water… a boy that shares her memories.

“The lake…” her voice comes out wet and shaky, breaking free from memory’s chains. “I was at the lake.” Quivering words.

Death shouts at her, fangs nipping the air. “The crying. The crying! THE CRYING!” He lets out a low growl, barking out the taunting words. “You sound like the child upstairs. The child that needs you more than a dead memory of a dead boy.”

But memories cannot die.

The child screams in muffled tones, and the woman calms her shaking limbs. No reply can come from the life of a woman who taunts Death with her very existence. No reply voiced. No reply heard. Wooden stairs creak under living feet, Death stalking her like a shadow from low-cupped bulbs on putrid walls. The man is one step, two steps, three behind her; but the beast beneath shimmers in the dying light on walls, rafters, and stairs.

The crying is weak, coming from within a crib, coming from beneath a pillow, coming from her baby. “No!” But she dares not voice such thoughts. Weaker, weaker, weaker still, a pulse pumps within those infant lungs… almost a memory now. The mother pulls the still form of her only child – only child left – from the wooden casing once lovingly fashioned by a father’s hands. That father is no more, but Death still haunts the halls in his shell, walks the stairs with his feet, pads across the carpeted floor on his legs.

One step. Click, on wooden stairs. Two steps. Whoosh, on mouldy carpet. Three steps. Creek. Four… Death has his paws on her. Shoulders disappear beneath his grasp, spinning her crumpling form around. The baby falls. Thud. One final cry, but not from the lips of the child. The mother screams a wetted accusation. “You killed our baby!” She lashes out at him, kicking, clawing, fighting.

“YOU DID!” The voice is enraged, slapping at her face, shaking her.

“Get away from me, you beast!” She runs from the room, tripping over her child… tripping over the memory of what once was. She reaches the stairs, and Death pushes her from behind as she gives into his will. Gives up hope. Gives up life. Each stair reminds her of what she has lost.

One stair. A little boy, no older than ten, sinks beneath the waves of a lonely lake in a lonely forest. He had been the happiness of the family, until he disappeared that day. Disappeared from a father who abused him in the dark, in secret, in the shadows. Disappeared from a mother who soon disappeared from the rest of her family in their time of need. Disappeared beneath the waves. Disappeared… but not from memories.

Two stairs. A husband missing in action, lost to the very thing that had once saved their marriage. Lost in a therapy seat. Lost to the pain. Lost to the family. Lost to his wife. Finally, lost to a bottle. Lost… but not to memories.

Three stairs. A baby in a crib crying, crying, crying. Stomach churning within its frame, longing for a mother’s milk. Longing for a mother’s touch. Longing for a mother.

Four stairs. A mother sits by a lake, tears uselessly wetting its surface. A mother will not lose her son. A mother will lose her husband. A mother will lose her baby. A mother will lose her life.

One step, two steps, three steps, four. A mother lies in a heap at the bottom of a set of stairs, the one thing she has left seeping from emptying lungs. The one thing she has left flowing out of dying veins. A wolf sulks in a lonely wood, a boy cries from beneath a lake: neither having that one thing left. But they are all wrong. One thing always remains for boy, father, baby, mother, wolf. One thing will never die.

Memories.

Audio Credits:

Music (In order of appearance)
Thieves of Time by Nocturn Inferi
Horror_Ambient3.wav by xDimebagx
 
Sound Effects (all provided by Freesounds)
Hard HIT in the head.aif by amsempl
man walking away indoors with leather leathery shoes footsteps foley.wav by bulbastre
Exhale.aif by carroll27
Drowning.wav by sarson
Creak.wav by Q.K.
walking on carpet.aif by MAJ061785
Ghost_FarScream02 by Vosvoy
haustuer1.wav by baujahr66
rocks fall with leaf rustle 3.wav by Halleck
Walking_In_The_Forest by nathanaelsams
Dog_howl_01.wav by CGEffex
ginger11.wav by tomc1985
tap dripping in sink.wav by odilonmarcenaro
WIND, Wind through Wheatfield.wav by Uganda
Lake Waves 2.wav by Benboncan
01-Baby_Crying_small-room.wav by poissonmort

Master of Death

Master of Death

Special thanks to Christopher Vollick who acted as an additional editor on this story

I see the wind blow in a wild rage, giving life to the sand as it whirls around his seemingly small figure. Great bands of white cloth wrap around his head, acting as a shield against the gale. An eye-slit in the cloth appears as a great canyon might when seen from above: a dark gaping hole between the cliffs of white. Sand drives into the cavern with the mighty gusts, descending into the depths with a speed greater than gravity. Reaching the floor of the cavern, it stings his eyes like a swarm of bees that has been enraged by some unknown attacker. His clothes are worn and tattered by the wind, the sand stinging his legs until his flesh is raw, now being exposed to the elements.

I see him fall to his knees, the pain too much to bear any longer. He kneels there, face to the ground for what seems like days; the sand turning to mighty shields of rock around him, leaving him petrified. Finally he moves again, cracking the stone at shoulder and elbow until it shatters like broken glass, giving his arm locomotive liberty. Fighting against the wind, he peels a small leather bag from his back like shedding an exoskeleton. I see him pull a rusty knife from within before discarding the pack to one side.

The strange scene unravelling before me draws me in with wonder and expectation, but also causes my stomach to knot up as though filled with a host of butterflies. A flood of questions fill my mind like a mighty torrent crashing down from above. Who is this man? Where is he going? I watch in horror as he lifts the knife above his head. What am I watching? Some suicidal maniac giving up, the pain too great to bear? I want to call out to him, “Don’t do it! Life is worth living!” But I cannot. I am frozen, stuck in this place, unable to reach him. I want to turn away, but am forced to witness this grotesque crime against life herself. The knife draws closer, slicing through the air with precision and determination, battling the wind for the right to this man’s life. “Stop, I beg you! Please!” I scream, but he is not listening, or cannot hear. The knife draws closer still. Like a scene in slow motion, I watch powerlessly.

“Master death, or be its slave.” I hear a voice, carried to me with the wind. Is this man talking? Or perhaps an alien conversation is brought to me, carried on the wings of the winds, its source a mystery. The blade is even closer now, within inches of the helpless man before me. I try to run, hoping to save him from himself. My feet do not move: chained to a mighty stone. An invisible wall blocks my way and any chance to rescue him.

Tears begin to well up as rusty metal pierces flesh. The man does not cry out nor does he stumble in this act of brutality. I struggle against my chains, the falling of my tears mimicked by the blood dripping down his bleached tunic. “Master death or be its slave: chained against your will.”

“Who are you!” I scream. “Leave this man alone!” The wind begins to laugh as if motivated by directive. A pool of blood forms at the man’s feet as the knife plunges deeper into his heart. The unknown force holds me back, commanding incapacitation. “Surrender. Kill!” The voice continues, transforming from a whisper to a shriek. The wind howls all the louder as the man’s life begins to slip away. The clothing is ripped from his body, giant claws tearing at his flesh. The pool of blood expands, forming a great crimson lake. His naked carcass begins to sink beneath the scarlet blanket. Before finally disappearing beneath the waves, I hear the man speak, his words familiar yet foreign. “Master death or be its slave: chained against your will. Lose yourself beneath the waves. Find your liberty.”

The wind laughs, giving a final cry of triumph before disappearing, taking the man’s life with it. Nothing left of the wind but memories, and the man reduced to bubbles in a pool of vicious death. As if released from bondage, I fall to the ground, now alone. The only evidence of the man lies before me: the lake of blood. Trees of death line the shore, making it a foreboding sight indeed. What am I left with now, besides the recurring nightmare that would soon be unavoidable? I can never forget this sight that I have seen.

I make my way toward the great expanse of blood, and my stomach churns like new butter. It rises to my throat desiring to be emptied. The stench of blood fills my nostrils and I swallow heavily, forcing my stomach back like water down a drain. As I reach the shore I peer into this murky lake of death. I have no words left. No thoughts left. Nothing. What am I to do now? I feel an urge to enter the pool and look for the man, but my stomach revolts at the suggestion my mind offers.

I sit on the bank of the lake, pondering my surroundings, a sea stretching forth to either side. Behind me is revealed a great expanse of sand. The sun bounces off the pearly carpet causing it to sparkle like diamond dust. Travel in that direction is far from favourable. The hot sand on my feet scorches to the bone. The other direction, however, proves no more favourable. A blanket of blood stretches out like the remains of a herd of boar slaughtered in brutality, its foul stench almost enough to drive me away. Those strange words return to me as I contemplate my situation. Master death or be its slave: chained against your will. Lose yourself beneath the waves. Find your liberty. The last line stands out to me like the moon in the night sky. Lose yourself beneath the waves. Find your liberty.

What can it mean, these strange utterings of a suicidal maniac? “He can’t be serious!” I say aloud, hearing my own voice for the first time.

“Lose yourself beneath the waves.” The blood calls out to me sending a chill down my spine.

It might as well be saying “Take this rusty knife and plunge it into your heart!” How can a man survive such a venture?

As if in reply to my unspoken words the lake speaks again, “Master death or be its slave: chained against your will.” The gnarly claws of Curiosity come reaching for me from beneath the waves. He rises like a mighty force, grabbing and pulling me into the air. Lacking sanity and elegance, I jump, being pulled under the surface of the lake. I have no desire for death, but the desires of Curiosity are clear. He continues to pull me under, deeper, deeper, clawing at my mind forcing me to continue into the inky depths.

I find no man beneath the waves. No rusty knife. No purpose. Wrapped in this scarlet blanket, I can see nothing. Sanity tugs at my legs, telling me to rise as my lungs burn for air, but Curiosity battles: slashing at the flesh of Sanity with his sharp claws cutting her wrists continually. Like two beasts at war they continue to grab, tug, and slash. I can imagine the blood level rising in the lake as crimson lines appear on Sanity. She cries for help, but no one comes to her aid. Curiosity continues his ferocity until Sanity releases her grasp, leaving me to the choice that I made. As Sanity lets go, she takes my air with her, leaving me to drown in this pool of blood. Water gives buoyancy to the dead, but the blood lacks such decency. It pulls me under as my life begins to fade. Releasing myself to death, I open my mouth, allowing the blood to flow in, filling my lungs to capacity. Death should hold finality, its bells calling to me, singing haunting songs of despair. The deafening sound continues, endlessly torturing me. “When will death come?” Curiosity speaks, not more than a whisper, yet somehow not lost in the noise around me.

The wind rushes once again. I feel it warm against my face. Falling, falling, falling, never to hit bottom in this endless pool of blood and death. Skydiving through the murky air, my parachute, Sanity, is replaced by the anchor of Curiosity. Clouds appear right and left, blood orange against the backdrop of death. The ground beneath me is drawing closer still, but I am not afraid. Not afraid of death. I have died before, but death did not take me. Tied to that bolder I felt the weight of death holding me back, chained in slavery. It all comes back to me now like a memory from another life. I see myself. No, I feel myself: despair, pain, sorrow. My heart is aching in my chest, no more tears left to cry. “A failure!” He cries, this man who is myself. He kneels upon the sand, a sharp metal blade held firmly in his grasp. “I have failed!” He cries again. “Death take me, I deserve not to live.”

As if answering the call, Death appears in all his horror, grabbing the knife in my hand. He rears his ugly head from within a cloud of darkness. Hands come reaching for me, and I scream. Grabbing the knife from my hand, he answers the call. “Death will be your master, and you my slave.” He sneers, letting out a filthy laugh before plunging the blade into my heart. Life appears like a cliff before me, and death pushes me off the edge. I hang in the air, immovable and afraid.

Death is now a boulder, anchored to my leg, keeping me suspended, enslaved. In my struggle I see a man, rusty knife in hand, but cannot save him. Death has me chained. “Master death or be its slave: chained against your will.” He plunges the knife into his heart and falls from my view. Suddenly, I am falling again, but no longer afraid. Death is not my anchor, but Curiosity. The orange clouds whirl by faster and faster, but I am not afraid. Death cannot take me. I hold the power, no longer enslaved to him. I wield him like an artist would and paint a masterpiece. No more despair, pain, sorrow. “I am not a failure.” My words whirl with the clouds, strengthening my soul.

From Darkness to Light

The light at the end of the tunnel, that luminescent spot in the distance, my only sense of hope in the darkness. Rusty old metal, that smell rising from the junk around me. Traversing the path had always been my greatest challenge, not that I was alone. We all travel toward the light, some faster, some slower. The other day I saw a young boy, caught underneath an old tractor tire, the rubber cracked and split with age. I tried to help him, but what could I do? One man. One lone traveller in the dark. What hope could I offer him?

Back when I had my torch, things were a bit better, but what did I know then? So young, so alive, so… in control. Not really, but I thought I was the king of the world. Everyone wants to be a hero. Everyone wants to make a difference, not just blend in with the great throng in that zombie-like trudge. The light was closer now, now that my torch was gone. Oh yes, I still carried it with that faint hope that I might find some power source in this junk-heaped tunnel. Though I had a light back then, I travelled slower, knowing the batteries wouldn’t last. I searched the wreckage continually, scanning it with my eyes, but found nothing. The only batteries out here were all rusted and corroded, exploded out like some sick-pussy soar. The only light that bathed me now was that soft glow from beyond, that soft glow that we all reached for.

Not everyone makes it, of that I am sure. I’d already seen too many people lost, broken, fallen, no more hope to go on. I wanted to give them that hope, but what did I know about hope? How could I help them as a lonely traveller myself, accompanied by nothing but an empty torch and the darkness.

I’ll never forget that day, the day that the old man came and sat with me. I had managed to build a fire for once. Too much of the fuel in this place was damp or destroyed, and scavenging the good stuff would take more time out of the journey, that precious journey toward the light. A couple pieces of charcoal, some old books and pieces of the shelf they sat on provided some light, warmth, comfort. That one lone match sitting in the crusty old box took some time to light, but finally a small glow licked at the books, tiny tongues of fire arguing with each other as they journeyed between the pages.

Mostly people left each other alone on this road, for what could we offer that the other didn’t already have: some dead batteries, an empty torch casing? The old man was brave though, different. His presence formed in the distant glow of the fire, and grabbing an old rotten bench, he sat with me. I wasn’t sure what was more surprising, the fact that he sat there, or that such a precariously slapped together collection of wood held the man up. None of us were that heavy, winter fat being burned off with all that walking… and not much to eat either. Still, that old stool wouldn’t have held me up, I’m sure of that, so sure I wouldn’t have even tried it.

We sat in silence, me staring perplexed, and him lost in the light of the flames. There was something different about this man, strange even. He came to sit with me, sat on a stool – that by all rights should have disintegrated with a touch – and said nothing. Any and all of these were reason enough to think him strange, but there was more to him than that. He didn’t seem like just another idle wanderer. He had a look about him: that look we all wanted. His eyes sparkled as the orange flames bounced off of them, but their intensity was greater than that. They sparkled with hope. I imagined what his story could be. Has he been there are back again? I thought. Has he seen the light? But no, it couldn’t be. No one has seen the light and returned. Why would they? Only an idiot would leave the Heavenly light we all reached for and come back to this dark, lonely road.

As I sat there pondering this man, he reached behind him and produced a small metal disk. I had not seen it before, or maybe I’d seen it but just hadn’t noticed. The old man wore a similar disk on his head, a crudely fashioned circlet. He didn’t tell me, but it’s significance was undeniable. Somehow I knew, though I can’t tell you how. The metal disk encircled his head like a helmet. How much protection it provided, I didn’t know, but it seemed to be enough. Is that what gives him such hope? Has this helmet saved him in the past? He didn’t answer my questions, but I didn’t really ask them, so what did I expect?

Holding the helmet out to me, he spoke. “You cannot go it alone.” the words sounded distant and his eyes remained transfixed on the flames. “This helmet will be your salvation.”

“Salvation from what?” That was the question I chose to ask, though so many more were swirling around that space between my ears, bouncing, ricocheting, and toying with each other.

“Everything.” That was the response that he chose, though it wouldn’t have been my choice. Did such a simple word answer my question or just fuel my quizzical mind.

I chose to ask the question in a different way, hoping to receive more of an answer. “What do I need salvation from?”

“Everything,” that same reply came. My questions were getting nowhere, and I thought he was going to stop there, but then he turned to me, though his eyes remained at a distance. Like looking at me from a different plane of existence, he continued. “Salvation from… this place. Salvation from… the darkness.” As he spoke the words, a bright light flashed in my mind and I closed my eyes to shield them from the blinding pain. The image lasted but a moment, a moment enough for me to see it. That place beyond, the light in the distance, it was real. I didn’t recognize what I had seen nor could I tell you what it was like. That brief scene flashed in my mind like a skipping record and I was dying to take the needle from the vinyl, ending the cacophonous images, or re-set it, playing the whole scene through the way it was intended.

“I cannot make the choice for you, but I can give you the choice. Walk as a lonely traveller, or walk in the light.” With those words he left, as quickly as he had come. I sat there staring stupidly at the metal circlet he had placed on the ground before me. The man was completely crazy! What could a little metal band do for me? My curiosity at his words caused me to reach toward the thing, and as I grasped it, I saw that image once again. The bright light was all I saw, but it was enough. With bated excitement, I placed the  band atop my head. Suddenly my mind was filled with intense light, so intense I couldn’t stand it. My eyes had adjusted to the darkness, travelling in it for so long that I hardly knew what light looked like any more.

Like coming out of a dark cave I stood there, shielding my eyes from the pain. My fire looked like a poor-man’s attempt at survival as the light spread from my circlet of illumination, cascading in waves around me like a sea of glory. I saw the junk strewn out for miles all around, old car part, furniture, construction equipment. This was the junk yard of junk yards, and there was no crane to help keep things organized or sane. Piles and piles of trash were everywhere, and I saw people, lots of people, lost people struggling through the garbage.

There was but one path toward the light, that one path that I had never seen. Paving a way through the junk, a single-file strand of people marched like a string of survivors in this mess of wanderers. Everyone in the line had a circlet on their head, and the heads of those in the waste were as naked as their sense of direction: raw, unkept, unmanageable. Jumping to my feet, I ran for the one true path and was so excited when my feet hit the cool, but rough pavement. Finally I would reach the light. I now knew the way, no longer stumbling in the dark like a blind traveller. That circlet atop my head had given me hope: hope of salvation. It had shown me the path, the one path, leading toward the light.

I remember those days when I first entered the tunnel: those first days when I thought I was on top of the world with that tin canister of light in my hand. Once the batteries died, reality kicked in and I was as lost as the rest of the lonely travellers. Thinking back now, I see how silly I was. The small beam of light that torch provided has nothing in comparison to the ever-present illumination erupting from my helmet like a volcano shooting giant balls of light.

That hope of salvation spurred me on. It got me excited for what was to come, what lay beyond the light. However, the longer I travelled, the more I looked all about me and saw the wanderers. I knew what it was like to be them. I knew what it was like to travel in the dark: hopeless, helpless, alone. I wanted to scream “Over here! This is the way!” but they couldn’t hear, and even if they could, would they listen? So many travelled through the junk, and many thought they knew the way. Some people gathered together, led by one or another claiming to know the way; but they scurried around, zigging and zagging through the junk in a desperate attempt to pave their own way to the light. I had been in one of those groups for a time, but eventually decided to go it alone again. They didn’t know any more how to get to the light than I did. That’s what I thought then, but I knew it now. I saw them scurrying around like ants searching for food: the blind leading the blind. If only they knew there was a way. If only they would listen, but I wouldn’t seem any different than those other false leaders showing their people the way… another way into more darkness. Whatever the cost, I had to try.

Stepping from the path, I began picking my way through the junk once again. I was amazed at how dirty I felt and how slow I travelled. Trudging through the junk-piles wasn’t easy, but how else would I share the news? I spoke with everyone that I passed, but I wasn’t surprised by their response… or the lack thereof. Many travellers before me had spoken of the “one true way” so why should I be any different than them? Couldn’t they understand? Couldn’t they see the helmet atop my head: the key to salvation? I had been in the light so long, I had almost forgotten how dark it was without it. Of course they couldn’t see.

One day all of that changed. No more did everyone ignore, but that one man, he listened. As he listened, a strange thing happened. No longer did I have one circlet, but two. I often wave my hands around when I talk, punctuating my words with actions. My emotions were on a high, naturally, as I spoke about the “one true path.” It was so clear to me, and I was over-joyed that someone would finally listen to me. As my hands bounced about during my explanation, another circlet appeared in them and I handed it to the man. He took it with some hesitation, but finally was convinced. If my words hadn’t convinced him, the helmet certainly did. I could tell by the smile cracking open his face that he could now see the light, the path, the way. We celebrated together as I led him through the junk toward that long line of people heading for the light.

That’s when it happened. That’s when everything went wrong… just when it had started going right. In the excitement, my foot caught on a loose piece of junk. I couldn’t tell you which one, for all the junk looked the same to me: another discarded shoe, another broken lamp, another dilapidated couch, a busted in TV. Though it was inconsequential before, at least I could identify the difference in the junk when I wanted. As I fell, the circlet of illumination came off of my head. Like falling down a dark well or being sucked into a black hole, the world around me faded. I landed with a crash, cutting my head on something sharp – metal or glass, it really didn’t matter. I tried calling out to the man, but he couldn’t hear me. The darkness sucked up my words, but didn’t spit them out again. Everything faded: the light, the man, the path, the helmet. I began to search frantically among the wreckage for my lost headpiece, but what could I do, really? If only I had a light, but that was the whole problem, wasn’t it?

I searched for hours, days even, but turned up nothing. Maybe if I just walked ahead, wouldn’t I find the path? Wasn’t it right in front of me when I fell? Perhaps then, but not know. In my frantic search, I was completely turned around. I no more knew where the path was than I could find my helmet. The blood which ran in a slow trickle down my face was a reminder. A head wound, and no helmet to protect me.

I lay down in the junk and tears began to mix with the grease and sweat on my face. All was lost. I was finished. I could never find the path again. As I lay there, I felt like that little boy from so long ago, trapped under a giant tire. I couldn’t save myself, and no one around me could either. As I cried out to passers-by, they paid me no mind. Why would they? What could they give me that I didn’t already have? An empty metal torch and the darkness, that’s all they ever had, and that’s all that I had left.

I fell asleep, lying there damp and dirty, wondering if I would ever open my eyes again. Would my head-wound finish me during the night? Would it even matter? What hope could I have of salvation when shrouded in darkness? Closing my eyes didn’t change much. It was just as dark with them open, except that the soft glow of the light beyond didn’t torture me. At least this way I knew I was done.

I don’t know how long I laid there, wrestling halfway between sleep and death. I can’t tell you how it happened, but when I finally did wake, the pain was too great. That head-wound must have been too much because my head ached more that I thought possible. I tried to open my eyes, but as the lids lifted, shafts of incredible light slashed at them like a white-hot knife. Squinting with the pain, I tried to stand. Something wasn’t right… where was the darkness? Where was the junk? It took me some time to adjust to the light, but when I finally did, my heart almost jumped out of my chest with legs of its own. The vision, that little snippet that played over and over in my head… it was real! Someone had taken the needle and placed it at the beginning of the record, but it wasn’t me. I watched as the scene unfolded before me the way it was intended. Somehow I had reached the light: the light at the end of the tunnel.

“Welcome,” a voice called out from behind me… a voice that I recognized. Turning around I saw a face once foreign yet now recognizable, through still not familiar. Another image flashed through my mind. This man sat at a pitiful looking camp fire on a falling apart stool. Across from him, on the junk-covered ground sat… me.

“How…” I stuttered. “How did I get here?”

“Me,” he said simply. This man had never been big on speaking, even when I had first met him. Maybe asking the question a different way would help… thought I doubt it. It hadn’t helped before.

“Who brought me here?”

“Me,” he repeated as I expected, and then as a matter of explanation, he held out a small metal disk. “Remember this?”

I tried to take it from him, my hands shaking with excitement. He brushed me away and placed the metal band on my head. It felt so warm and comforting, like a long lost friend returning home.

“Why me?” I said, overjoyed. Had he come back for me? How did he know where I was? So many questions bounced around inside my head that I didn’t know which to ask first.

He responded simply, in his usual way. “The helmet. The helmet of salvation.”

A Mile in My Shoes

A Mile in My Shoes

A row of shoes sat naked at the door, one pair after another. “All types of shoes for all types of people,” Grandfather used to say. His shoes were all the same, those black penny-loafers kept polished with that black muck that smelt entirely too strong. I had been in those shoes too many times as a younger child, and knew that it would profit nothing to dress my feet with them now. What secrets would I find in those shoes? A silly question, for I knew the answer. I had walked around in those shoes many times after his passing, those many years ago.

I had looked up to my grandfather as a kid, always wanting to be like him, to know what it would be like to walk a mile in his shoes. Now I knew… and it wasn’t all that thrilling. Dark. Damp. Sealed. Dead. That was his life now. Stepping into his shoes, I saw nothing, felt nothing, but not the absence of things. This was a real nothing, as if nothing were a thing to feel. That deep emptiness grated at my emotions, leaving my soul raw and warn from the desperation. I cherished my life now, though it wasn’t that exciting, for what excitement could the life of a shoe collector really have? It held more excitement than Grandfather’s life… or death, stuck in that grave for all eternity.

~~~

Shaking my head to clear the images, I stepped out of those shoes, not sure which was more unnerving, the smell of rotting, dead flesh or that of the rank black shoe-polish. Passing my eyes along the line, I stepped into another pair, the furthest thing from the dead emptiness of my grandfather… or that was my hope. These shoes were large, too large for my feet, too large for anyone’s feet. The mess of bright colours almost hurt my eyes as I looked at them, wondering what might lie behind such vibrance.

~~~

One small room, in one large tent. Bright colours. Joy in the air… but not in the heart. I want to hit someone! Throwing those balls up in the air, day after day after day. Smiling faces! Smiling faces! Smiling faces! I wanted to scream. Why did those faces torture me so? I had no smile of my own but the farce that I painted on my cheeks, that red stream of colour, larger than life against the pasty white background. “You’re nothing but a clown!” they would say to me, laughing at my poor excuse for a face. “Pizza, pizza, pizza!” They would gleefully taunt me as the food was passed out, but I knew they were really talking about me. Zits, spots, and blemishes the make-up could cover up… but hatred? There was no face-mask potent enough to cover up my wretched heart.

I almost beaned a kid the other day as he stood there smiling, so innocent, taunting me with his joy. Soon. I thought, calming the urge to kick a puppy… or hit a kid. Balls were where I started, those soft, meaningless play-things meant for kids… for hitting kids. Soon I’d be promoted to juggling fire. “Who’s the clown now!” I would scream as the flames engulfed my world. They rose in my mind higher and higher, consuming man, woman… and child. “No more smiling faces.” I said aloud, applying the final touches of deception to my face. “No more smiling faces…”

~~~

I jumped out of the shoes and backed away, slowly. Psycho! My search was more frantic now. A tiny pair of shoes was next, barely big enough to fit half of my foot in. How I got into them is still a mystery, but what choice did I have? These child’s tennis shoes, their lime green skin and Velcro lacing, held the most promise.

~~~

Screaming. Fighting. Hitting. “No!” I screamed.

“You’re such a brat!” My father yelled in from the other room as he came storming over. Mother looked at him with soft eyes, but he was not fazed. “I will have no more of these tantrums! Do as you’re told!” Do as you’re told. Those words I hated the most sent me into a fit, lashing out, biting and scratching. Mother released me with a whimper of pain, and I fled. Door slammed. Lock shoved into place. Face thrown at my pillow. Tears falling. They didn’t know. They didn’t understand. Do as you’re told, that woman had said as she played with the buttons of my shirt. Such authority, power, I couldn’t fight it. Where could I run? What could I do? No room. No door. No lock. No pillow… but the tears were still there, plain as day, sliding down my face, splashing against my naked skin as they fell. My shoes, sometimes she didn’t take them off, but this time she did.

~~~

“Monster!” I screamed out-loud, prying my feet out of those sneakers that now lay there torn and broken, my feet larger than the tiny ones they were made for. I stopped thinking now, jumped into another pair of shoes without even seeing what they looked like. A screech. Bright lights. A bus. Smash! Crack! My legs. The blood. Then the pain. Vision began to blacken. The world I knew was gone.

I lay there for a time, crying in the dark, afraid to open my eyes. I had been thrown from the shoes with the impact of the bus, but I didn’t want to look. The musty smell of Grandfather’s old shop no longer soothed me. I came here to run away: run from my life. Escapism they called it. At least, that’s what my psychologist said. One final pair of shoes floated in my mind’s eye, taunting me. These shoes were not pretty, not special, worn, old, almost dead. I knew I had to, but didn’t want to. Why couldn’t I just sit for a time, admiring Grandfather’s old shoes? I was no shoe collector, that was just the lie that helped me sleep at night… because nothing else did.

Grandfather would never let me in the shop with these shoes. “You can’t fix what isn’t there.” He looked at my feet in bitter distaste, those bare-feet of a cobbler’s grandson.

“I just want to try!” I would plead with him. His shoes were always the best and felt so good on my feet, but he would have none of it.

“A shoe for a shoe,” he stuck to his rules. There was enough thievery in these parts that he wouldn’t unlock those cases full of shoes unless he received payment… or a trade. With no shoes to deposit and no money, he wouldn’t even let his own grandson try on a pair. Now the shop was mine. The shoes were mine. I could try them on all day, but it wouldn’t wipe out my pain. I had walked a mile in so many of these shoes, but today the miles hurt like a stone in the sole that wouldn’t go away no matter how many times the shoe was removed and shaken.

“Be thankful for what you have,” mother always said. She was the world’s biggest optimist, but what did that do for her? She still got the same bullet from the same gun.

I had nothing then, and even less now. When that gun was held to my own head, the man telling me to give him what I had, I could not answer. I truly had nothing but my mother and wife. Grandfather had long since passed away with the rest. The man with the gun didn’t seem to care, for he took all that I had with two sharp bullets. Bang! Bang! The sound rattled through my brain, but it was not my head that suffered until I saw the heads of the others, those two beautiful woman with an extra hole in their faces where it didn’t belong.

“Be thankful for what you have,” my psychologist had said it too, but what did he know? He didn’t know what it was like to walk a mile in my shoes, or even a block!

“Escapism is a way of life,” I would argue with him, but he didn’t listen, didn’t understand… maybe he was right. If this was my way of life, it had failed me today. I ran from that old rickety shoe store, thick callouses being my shoe of choice. My shoes were free, and I desperately wanted someone to take them from me. I didn’t lock my shoes in glass cases like Grandfather, but no one ever tried to steal them.

I walked many a mile in many a shoe, but walked many more in my own. The dust of the road caked them as I shuffled along, kicking it up. Maybe I could disappear behind this cloud and never come back. No one would find me. I could die happy… or at least I could die… then maybe someone would take these shoes from my corpse. Grave robbery was a crime, but I cared not. I had no jewellery for them to claim, no expensive suit… just my shoes and the life that came with them.

I don’t know how long I walked for; was it days, weeks, months? It was long enough for me to fall, long enough for me to wish I was dead, and soon I would be. My feet were raw, clothes torn, stomach screaming, and throat parched. One final pair of shoes lay just out of my reach, taunting me. Maybe these would be the shoes. Part of me wanted to die… most of me, but those shoes spoke to that shred of hope within me. I could live a happy life, a free life, a perfect life… with a perfect pair of shoes. Those shoes didn’t look perfect, but the perfect shoes were perfect deceptions, covering up the hideous feet inside them. My grandfather, the clown, the little boy, the dead girl… I didn’t want perfect looking shoes, just perfect shoes.

Though my body screamed against it, I fought to grab the rotting leather straps that lay just out of reach, dragging myself in the dirt with every bit of strength that remained. Soon I had one, and then the other. They had been here for a long time, the leather straps almost disintegrating in response to my touch. That final pair of shoes would be my fate… or death, and I couldn’t decide which would be better.

~~~

Absentee dad, prostitute mom, abusive older brother, dead sister – a life of crime was the result. Escapism, I thought. When parents fail their duties, kids must grow up quickly. That home was no place for this boy, so I left. The streets became my home, and thievery my parents, providing for me better than my “parents” ever had. I wasn’t rich, but at least I was alive… which was more than I could say for my sister.

Now I stood, facing a man with wife and mother, gun in my hand. “Give me all you have!” I screamed at him, but he stood there like a dumb kid, caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Why did he just stare at me? I could see he didn’t have much, but at least he had his health. I hadn’t eaten in days… weeks maybe, and I was desperate. My hunger began to play tricks with my mind and I lost control. Bang! Bang! I heard the gun go off. Was it me who shot it? I saw the two women dead on the ground with holes in their heads, holes in places they didn’t belong. What had I done to them? What had I done to the man with them?

I ran away in fear and found the darkest corner I could, pitching that gun far into the distance. Images swirled in my head as the sound came back to me. Bang! Bang! Two shots, but one death. It was my sister. She had struggled for a time, but finally my brother had enough and just shot her, right in the head. Bang! Bang! This time the sound was slower as he stripped her down and forced himself on her dying body. Bang! Bang! The sound of the bed against the wall.

I had been the kid with his hand in the cookie jar, watching this horror unfold before me. That was when I ran. Now it was this man, staring like a dumb kid at what I had done to him and those two women with him. Bang! Bang! I tried to shake the images from my mind, but my ears kept ringing, the shots repeating themselves over and over again. This was no life for me. I had turned into the very thing I was running from. I didn’t know how, but my life needed to change.

~~~

That was all in the past now. I didn’t know what became of that man so long ago, but I knew what became of me: running a homeless shelter for troubled youth, youth like me. How I’d managed it, I couldn’t tell you. Only one thing I knew. That day so long ago still played in my mind like a skipping record. Those two women I’d shot were dead, but I wasn’t. I was alive, more alive than I had ever known. If I ever met that man again, I would apologize. He deserved to know my story… his story, for it all started with him. I wouldn’t be here today without that tragic accident when the trigger was pulled and two women lay dead on the ground. Somehow, I would tell him, but would he understand? Maybe if he walked a mile in my shoes…

Righteousness like Steak: Rare or well done?

“Well done, my good and faithful servant.” Those words, so fresh, so true. That voice within me podded my heart to beat once again. Joy erupted from within, pouring down my cheeks. The salty flavour of those tears did not leave me as I rose from my knees, the events of the day still swirling in my mind.

“I gave it all away.” I said out loud, not caring who was around to hear. That woman, so helpless, dirty, distraught. Lost her husband, house, kids. What could I do with a few hundred dollars that this woman could not? My spirit rose to the challenge… and I gave it away. “All of it,” I spoke again, still amazed with what I had done. That smile that had stretched across her face was priceless. No money could buy such joy. I could trade a week’s pay-check for the look on that face or the salt on my lips in a heartbeat.

As a kid, I had been taught to do good and run from evil, but never knew that it could be so enjoyable. Who knew that I could feel so good about giving that money away? The next day afforded me the opportunity to help an old lady across the road, and I approached it with even greater joy, knowing the rewards would be more profitable than the inconvenience. Nothing could be better. The view from this emotional mountain-top was so beautiful, and that voice in my head more audible than ever before. “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

Though the climb had been gruelling, I took each step in great expectation, picking myself up when I fell, looking forward to the view from the top. I pushed myself hard, working at each step as the air grew thin, breath quickened, and heart beat louder than a speeding train. Leaving the swampy muck of my former life behind, I pressed on. Thievery, adultery, and selfishness all sunk like giant boulders beneath the inky black sludge of the past.

Now, on the mountain-top, I looked back at the mess my life had been. The swamp was dark and foreboding, reminding me of those days that seemed so long ago: the dark branches of the trees reaching for me, my feet sinking into the mud. I hadn’t known that life could be different, but up here the contrast was daunting. Flowers poked their heads through the green blanket below, speckling the ground in beauty. The trek up the mountain had been worth it, the scene before me breath-taking. Trees dotted the horizon. In the distance, that red globe of might rose to greet the day, shaking hands with the leaves as they caught on the wind and were lifted to the heavens, swirling, dancing, playing in the air before gracefully descending to the blanket of green below, like feathers.

One loose rock. One misstep, and I was falling. The scene below faded from view, the sky replacing it as I fell on my back, sliding down the mountain. Rocks and dirt raced me to the bottom. One slip up and that voice in my head spoke again, “Worthless. You disappoint me.”

“I’m sorry,” I said between tears, digging my heals into the earth to cease my decent. I got up, receiving no help from the voice. “I’ll do better next time, I promise.” It was only a few steps, just a small slip up. Soon I was on the mountain once again, looking down, but the scene was not as awe-inspiring as before. I saw little pebbles scurrying down the side of the rock to their death below: little pieces of my righteousness fleeing, never to return.

How could I have been so stupid? It was just a candy-bar. What did it cost, two dollars? I could afford that… or maybe not after giving all my money away. I didn’t really need it, though. The guilt left a bitter taste in my mouth as I unpeeled the wrapper and took a bite. The sweet flavour of chocolate I had been expecting was swallowed up by the taste of guilt that still lingered on my tongue. I spat it out in disgust, throwing the rest of it away.

Two rights do not wash away a wrong… but three do. That’s what I thought anyway. Three lefts make a right, and I hoped for the same result from wrongs. Once I avoided temptation… then twice, and finally a third act of goodwill left me clean again… mostly. At least that’s what I told myself. The beautiful valley below still lacked the purity it once held in my eyes. The swamp called to me from behind, taunting me with my past. As I looked back, I lost my footing, falling one more time. This time I slid further, struggling against the voice in my head. “You’re nothing but a thief! You haven’t changed at all!” It sneered, pushing against the cold stone of the rock. Tufts of grass flew, rocks dislodged, clouds of dirt obscured my path. A baby tree was my only salvation, sending its roots into the rock, affording me a hand-hold to fight against my vile decent.

Pulling myself from the dirt, I brushed off my clothes, though could not get rid of the grass stains. Marked. I thought. “Marked as a thief.” The voice taunted me.

“God, why are you doing this to me? Have I not climbed the mountain?” I cried out, sinking to my knees.

Silence.

“I will try harder! I will be righteous!” Be Holy, for I am holy. A command of God written in the pages of his word, but what a command it was! How could I live up to such an expectation? I could do nothing but try: try to pick myself up, try to brush myself off, try to climb the mountain. Loose stones tortured me. I fell again. Two steps forward, one step back. Two steps forward, another trip, another slide, another fall. Clouds of dust masked my vision. Soft earth taunted my toes where the grass was ripped and torn. I lost my footing, tripped on an invisible stone in this blanket of dust. On hands and knees now, I crawled, climbing for the top one shuffle at a time. “Marked! A failure! Unrighteous! Unworthy!” The voice would not leave me alone. “No one is righteous, no not even one.” It began quoting scripture at me, prophesying my fate.

Well done, my good and faithful servant? Those were the days. What happened to that voice? As I reached the top of the mountain again, I turned around to look at the valley below, and began to cry. The side of the mountain was torn, ripped up like the face of a tortured innocent man. Dust hung in the air, masking the once beautiful scenery. My vision was obscured by the wet of my eyes, that salty taste of old again on my lips… but not the same, joy replaced with sorrow. The salt enhanced the bitter flavour or my guilt, leaving me all too aware of my unrighteousness. “You are nothing but a sinner.” The voice sneered again.

I could hold myself up no longer. The pain of my failure kicked me in the shins and my legs crumbled beneath me. I fell, but this time did not get up. I didn’t even try. I soared down the side of the mountain like a garbaged tin can, spinning, bumping, rolling. Rocks hit my head, grass ripped at my clothes, dirt caked my face. I halted at the bottom with a final thud – nowhere left to go. The wet dew on the grass turned my powdered skin into a sticky, wet mask of mud.

“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. There is none who does good, there is not even one.”

I knew that voice was right. Why had I ever tried? Was I not destined for the grave? Destruction? Death? Why try to be righteous when I could not?

“Zeal for God.” Another voice entered the scene. This new, pure, crisp voice whispered into my ear, but not like the other voice. “Eager to please, but seeking to work out your own righteousness.”

“Own unrighteousness,” the other voice corrected. “A failure!”

“My child,” the softer voice said, seemingly ignoring the accusations of the first. “You are not a failure.”

I screamed, trying to drown out this argument in my head. “I am not righteous! I am not worthy!” The tears began again as I fought this battle within.

“Unrighteous! Unworthy!” the voice egged me on.

“Not… by… works…” the three soft words tore throw the cacophony with finality. Those three words, long ago heard but forgotten, cut into the battlefield like a hot knife slicing butter. The first voice stepped into the attack, its breastplate or unrighteousness shattered by the swing of the sword. Pieces flew into the air as the hot knife stuck its mark, exposing the voice for who it really was. Its words repeated in my mind. Well done, good and faithful servant. These words spewed from the mouth of the Deceiver with vile intent. Without face and name, the voice had sounded sweet, but no longer. Those cracked, dead lips spat out the words like administering poison. Well done… the Deceiver’s fingers came together, revealing his cruel intent …good and faithful servant.

Those first words of the Deceiver turned sour in his mouth: first words, and last words. The farce was over, being exposed, no more trickery, no more lies, no more deceit. That first voice from the mountain-top left as quickly as it had come.

“Zeal for God, but without knowledge.” sadness was evident in the remaining voice as it spoke once again.

What knowledge? I wondered, though the question was answered simultaneously with its manifestation. “Not knowing about God’s righteousness, you seek to establish your own.” I left my shoulder open for the crying voice, his sweet tears trickling down and falling like the soft pattering of April showers.

“Righteousness…” I asked, letting the voice cry for a time. “…of God?”

“Through faith… not by works so that no one can boast.” The voice finished with finality. “The righteousness of God in Christ Jesus. Because of his death, you are made alive… free… righteous.”

My own righteousness had fallen. I had fallen. My own righteousness was a failure, but I was not. My own righteousness was corrupt, but I was not. The voice stretched out its hand and picked me up from my fallen state on the grass. “Come, walk with me.” The garden had been beautiful from above, high on that mountain-top, but nothing could compare to its beauty now. A leaf brushed against my cheek it glided to the ground. I breathed in deeply and smelt the soft scent of the flowers. The cool, moist air alighted on my face, washing away the dirt and grime. From so close I could hear the birds, rustling the leafs of the trees, singing their soft serenades to each other.

“The righteousness of God.” I said, in awe of this once foreign idea.

The voice which walked with me turned, and smiled. “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

In Whole or in Part? (A story of the armour of God)

Therefore, take up the full armour of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

– Ephesians 6:13-17

“Get out!” She screamed. There were definitely better greetings to come home to after a long day of work. Work. That’s where I was, or at least that’s what everyone thought. My life used to be easy, living the monotony of working toward the American Dream. There was more money in the bank than I could count and the numbers continued climbing, matching my pace up the ladder of success
The climb was hard, long and tiring, but I wasn’t afraid of heights. Each rung was even harder to hold onto as they became wet with moisture from the clouds. The puffs of white in the clear sky looked so beautiful from the ground, but there is nothing beautiful about them when you travel day and night, vision obscured, not knowing up from down, clothes drenched in sweat and moisture, barely clutching the wooden beam which keeps you from falling.
How foolish I had been, how foolish indeed. I always dreamt of Heaven above the clouds: a place of peace and relaxation. What does the head of a mighty corporation do all day but rake in the cash and sit in their chair eating candy? I didn’t know… and never would. It was like God looked down at my ladder, laughing at my pitiful attempts to reach him, before plucking my fingers from the rungs and releasing me. I watched my Tower of Babel fall, and with it my dreams.
“Take up the whole armour of God,” I heard my mother say while I lay there, crippled on the ground. She had taught me well, but I never listened. I wanted to be a warrior, conquering the world in one mighty sweep of success, but I couldn’t hold it together. I charged into battle and my armour fell off leaving me exposed: the very thing I hated. If only I had remembered the whole armour. “Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness.” I was not standing, though. I could not stand, legs broken from the fall.
The shield of faith was the first to go. I remembered the day so clearly. Dressed for work with all my armour, I arrived at the office early per usual. Why did I come so early? Was I such a hard worker, striving to succeed where all else failed? I could fool them as they watched me climb the ladder, but from below all they saw were the clouds. Only I knew what happened behind that shroud of puffy magic… well… Claire and I.
She had more power over her dad than I ever thought possible. I had heard of only children being reduced to spoilage, especially by fathers who had more money than time, but never saw it in action. Stuck at the bottom of the ladder, struggling to climb that first rung, to be noticed from within the crowd, I noticed her. She walked into the office, commanding the room with a gaze she clearly inherited from dad, who needed no words or actions to dictate his control. What he wanted was law, and no one could tell him what to do or think… except for his daughter.
Dropping that shield of faith I had held so long, I watched as she disappeared into the boss’s office. I remembered to carry that shield around, but what more did it do for me than weigh down my ascent (or lack thereof) up the ladder. If I ever hoped to reach that first rung, it might serve me better as a paperweight.
As a plan formulated in my head, I felt my belt of truth begin to slip from my waist to my knees. Quickly scanning the room, I hoped no one had noticed. Life had been so hard for the wife and I. She deserved more than this: an absent husband stuck in a dead end job. Kids, a car, a house, the white-picket fence; that was our dream and we were no closer to accomplishing it than we had been 10 years ago, so full of youth, ready to take on the world. I looked up at the first rung on the ladder from my place atop the shield, watching Claire leave the office that day. What harm would it be? Just a few lies and no one would known. They could fall behind me as I climb the ladder. I just needed a jump-start to get going, then my skill would carry me the rest of the way.
It started out slow, after all, what did I know about wooing a young lady? I hadn’t been on a “first date” in 10 years. Come to think of it, she wasn’t really that much younger than me. As I get older, age seems less of a factor. At 18, 5 years was too many to count, nevermind it being illegal. I didn’t want to go to jail for going out with a minor… but at 35? Thirty didn’t seem that young at all, and Claire didn’t think that 35 was too old… and neither did her dad.
More work was never a bad thing if it meant a promotion, a raise, one more rung up that ladder, the white-picket fence closer. I began to stay later at the office to work on the special projects my boss had me doing, not noticing how dishevelled my armour looked. At the office I ignored it, but it was my glaring fault when sitting down to a late dinner with my wife. I came in exhausted and dropped my bags, breastplate swinging uncontrollably having no belt of truth to keep it in place. Sitting at the table, she asked me how work was while kissing me, a kiss I didn’t deserve. The lies began to trickle out of my mouth like a leaky faucet, but it wasn’t long before the pipes exploded and my world was flooded with an uncontrollable torrent.
I was doing this for her, wasn’t I? I was doing this for us… at least that’s what helped me sleep at night. We had moved out of our downtown apartment and finally purchased a house. I was so happy when we unpacked our first boxes together and went out to eat at the fanciest restaurant in town that night to celebrate my promotion. Third promotion. Third rung, climbing into the clouds. Then in happened. Why now, in the middle of a nice meal with my wife? In such a big city, what were the odds that Claire would be working here. I had never thought to ask her about her personal life too much, and if I had I wasn’t really listening.
The shield of faith I had stood on for 10 years had gotten me nowhere. Still in that downtown apartment, still no kids, no house, still miserable. Putting it down was the best thing that ever happened to my family… but not to my armour. Trusting in God got us nowhere, but trusting in my own wit and deceitful schemes… that’s when I started climbing the ladder. The belt of truth quickly followed as I lied to my wife, hating every minute of it. Could she see that I had misplaced my shield and my breastplate was rattling freely as I shook in my skin like a child seeing a ghost? The breastplate was next, the belt of truth no longer holding it in place. I left righteousness behind in my pursuit of success, meeting with Claire more frequently as I climbed the ladder faster and faster.
I had felt the sting in my flesh before, the sting of burning arrows, but never this strong. When I dropped my shield for the first time the Devil saw his opportunity and shot me once, then twice, but I didn’t flinch. No pain, no gain, right? Now with no faith, truth, or righteousness, I was exposed, naked before my attacker. Exposed, the very thing I hate.
Claire came to our table, being our server that night… or at least she was supposed to be. When she spotted me with another woman, the only thing she served was a healthy dish of fiery arrows from the anger rising inside her. I was at an all-you-can-eat buffet, but I didn’t want any of the food. The plates at this restaurant looked like Heaven, but they had the bitter taste of Hell. The salad bar favourite was “Revenge: a dish best served cold.” As I continued to the main course I saw my plate of choice: adultery marinated in lies. It fed my body well, but the bitter taste left me empty inside, keeping me coming back, my hunger for success never satisfied. Now came the dessert. I knew it was coming, though I never wished it this way. After eating so much entree, how could I have room for dessert, but Claire didn’t care. She heaped anger and jealousy on my plate in giant mounds and like a slave-driver forced me to eat. I didn’t know how much she usually made from tips, but if there was a way to give negative tips, tonight would be the night. Why should I pay for this meal I don’t want, being forced to eat by a waitress who now despises me.
I had heard of second-breakfasts, but never second desserts. When taught about spelling I was always told that the difference between desert and dessert was the extra “S” because you always want more dessert. How wrong that theory was. My second dessert was one of sadness, hurt, pain. Tonight’s second dessert was served by my wife once we got home. I didn’t know what to say, and neither did she. I don’t think she even cared if I ate my dessert, she just kept heaping it onto my plate, making me stare at all the pain I had caused her. I thought the plate would break beneath the weight of all the dessert, but it never did. The only thing that broke was her heart… and mine.
The next morning I tried to put on my armour and get ready for work, but could not. My shield had been gone for some time and my belt was at work, probably in the garbage can by my desk. The breastplate or righteousness? It had been falling off in pieces ever since the affair started, but the last piece fell on the floor of the restaurant last night and I didn’t have to energy or care to pick it up. What did I have left? The helmet of salvation and shoes of readiness, the gospel of peace. On second though, I just had the helmet. Those sandals of peace had been lost last night as I struggled beneath the gaze of my wife, hurt and disappointed. I just wanted to make everything okay, but what could I do? Throwing on my helmet, not caring how lopsided it was, I headed to work.
The hot summer sun of the morning heated the asphalt of the parking lot up like a solar oven. I had never noticed before with my shoes on, but having lost those sandals of peace my feet were raw by the time I reached the door to the office building. Stepping into the elevator I stared at the buttons until my vision blurred. Up or down? I had been going up for a long time, climbing higher and higher on the ladder of success, but where would I be going now? I pushed “up” in hopeless expectation and was rewarded with the gift I deserved. Without armour I was stripped of everything, pierced by the arrows of the devil, barely able to keep that helmet on my head. I was greeted at my desk by a note from the boss to see him in his office. I had been receiving similar notes over the past could of years, while I climbed the ladder, but somehow this time I didn’t think it would lead to a promotion or special project.
The boss shot more arrows at me, and I couldn’t ward them off. Fired: I was finished, defeated, launched from the ladder I had climbed, using his daughter to reach such heights, leaving my armour at the bottom, untouched. I had climbed so high and now I fell, recalling the past couple years of my life, reliving the past as I fell one rung at a time. I remembered the loss of my sandals, breastplate, belt… where was my sword? It must have fallen off when I took off my belt that first time. Not only could I not defend myself, but I couldn’t fight back… and it hadn’t even occurred to me. Creating the illusion of work, I drove around town until quitting time before returning home.
“Get out!” She screamed. There were definitely better greetings to come home to after a long day of work. Work. That’s where I was, or at least that’s what everyone thought. Not really. Who was I fooling? Not myself. I lost all my armour, my job, and now my wife. There was no better place for me than at the bottom of that ladder I had once climbed. “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.” Once I took that first piece of armour off, there was no turning back. What is a warrior without his shield? What is a breastplate without the belt of truth to keep it fastened in place, and what is a sword without a belt to keep it on? What use are sandals when the rest of you is exposed, and a helmet… I took it off in despair and looked at it. Did I even deserve this helmet? Saved by grace and killed by stupidity.
I heard a voice from the Heavens call down to me. “My son, put your armour back on… and don’t take it off this time.” I struggled to my feet and redressed, not knowing what else to do. As I reached down to grab the final piece, the shield of faith, an arrow came whizzing through the air and instinctively I lifted the shield to receive it. The arrow struck hard and true, leaving me unscathed. The climb would be harder, being weighed down by all this armour, but at least I would survive this time. I took my first step, no longer hopeless and defeated, but clothed in salvation, righteousness, peace and faith, wielding the sword of the spirit to challenge all that may come against me.