The unexpected sound of the doorbell snapped the middle aged man back from his intense focus on packing. Large cardboard boxes, many of them partially packed, already filled many of the rooms of the house with their towering stacks. The moving trucks planned to arrive tomorrow and, as always, there seemed to remain more tasks yet to do than remained time to accomplish them.
Dropping the packing tape roll onto the floor, he rose from his kneeling position and weaved his way through the narrow passages between the boxes, passing the empty rooms of his children as he made his way to the front door. Without fail, passing those empty bedrooms always brought back pleasant memories of countless mornings of love, laughter and smiles. And yet, those mornings were not countless at all, for they came to an end and time subsequently swept his children away to school and left the empty shells of their rooms in its wake. He had done all that he could for his family, and yet he could not deny the nagging suspicion that he had missed passing on something of great importance, although he was at a loss to know what it was.
The doorknob turned in his hand and as the door swung open he saw Susan, his 14 year old neighbor standing on his front porch holding a stack of books.
“Here’s the books your wife loaned us,” Susan stated with a broad grin. “My little cousin loved them when he came for a visit. I read a bunch of them over and over to him.”
“Well, thank you for returning them, Susan. Our kids loved them when they were little, too. Did your cousin have a favorite?”
“Definitely Miss Suzy.”
“Yep, definitely a favorite of ours too. Who could resist a story about toy soldiers rescuing a kind-hearted squirrel’s home from a bunch of unruly delinquents?”
Susan giggled at the man’s attempt at an English accent when pronouncing the phrase “unruly delinquents.”
“It was one of my brother’s favorites as well,” he replied in a more somber tone.
Susan shifted her weight uneasily.
“I’m really sorry.”
“Oh, it’s ok, Susan. It’s been almost a year now and I really didn’t mean to mention it. It just kind of slipped out. Listen, thanks again for returning the books and tell your folks that I said ‘Hello.’”
Susan assured him that she would as she smiled and headed across the lawn to her house next door. Then, easily carrying the light stack of books back into the house, he closed the front door behind him before stacking the books temporarily on the kitchen table. As he did, the stack became unbalanced and tipped over spreading the books across the table. As he began to reform the pile, one book seemed out of place among the familiar children’s titles. It was bound in soft, black leather and was much thicker than the others. Picking it up and staring at its front cover, his mouth turned downward slightly in a indication of disdain.
“Holy Bible,” he read the large silver print aloud. “Well, giving that to me was certainly a mistake. I’ve never needed one and certainly don’t now. I’ll return that in just a bit.”
He then tossed the book across the table where it landed with a thud. No sooner had he done so when a strange smell entered his nostrils. The scent was akin to that of smoke, but not a pleasant scent as that from a campfire or fireplace. It was distinctly unpleasant, almost like that of burning hair. It lasted only momentarily but caused him to look back for any possible source. Only a slight fluttering of the curtains met his gaze. He thoroughly investigated the downstairs and upstairs for a source but there was no indication of fire. However, upon entering the master bedroom, he was confronted by the same unpleasant smell once again, only this time stronger and fouler, mixed with the rottenness of sulfur. Turning once again, he saw a wisp of black smoke coming from the master bath in the direction of the walk-in closet. The smoke clung tenaciously to the air until it was whisked away by the overhead air vent. Rustling and stumbling sounds emanated from the same direction but quickly fell silent. The man could perceive a distinct increase in his pulse rate as he was the only person home, and yet these strange findings could not be ignored. He cautiously moved forward and peered around the door of the master bath to see that the opening to the walk-in closet was ajar but was still swinging slightly on its hinges. His pulse increased another notch as he remembered clearly that he had closed the door earlier.
“Who’s there?” he called out his challenge. There was nothing but silence. The smell, however, intensified and another puff of black smoke wafted through the open door.
“If this is some king of joke, then let me warn you I’m calling the police!”
He inched forward until he could see fully inside the walk-in closet. Nothing appeared amiss. Placing his head cautiously inside the closet, he turned on the light and gazed around the space. Moving in further inch by inch, he still saw nothing out of place until suddenly he was almost blinded by a thick puff of black, foul smoke whose appearance was accompanied by the sudden slamming of the closet door behind him and extinguishing of the overhead light. Immediately, there followed a scream of agony from directly behind him. In sheer terror, he lunged forward and came to rest under the lower rack of clothes, pushing them desperately aside as he turned to see the source of the hideous scream. He peered ahead in complete astonishment, the clothes about him still swinging on their hangers.
Standing before him and completely blocking his way to the closet door was what appeared to have been, at one time, a human male. The dark, hopeless eyes were deeply sunken into their sockets and the barest threads of clothing hung from his emaciated form. He trembled from head to toe as if in constant fear and the dark, foul smoke rose from his shoulders and head, filling the closet with its nauseating stench.
“Who are you?” the question boomed in panic from underneath the lower rack of clothes. “Get out of my house!”
The pitiful form slowly opened its trembling mouth before responding with a gravelly voice that resembled one exposed to chronic heat and smoke inhalation.
“I am not leaving until I have said what I came to say…”
The voice only served to increase the man’s terror.
“Shouldn’t you be saying ‘Fear Not’ or something like that?”
The attempt at humor was ignored.
“That is the last thing I would say to you…”
“Then where are you from?”
The pitiful form slowly turned its face to the ceiling and made an awful gurgling sound mixed with a noise that resembled sobbing.
“From under the infernal sky.”
The visitor’s entire form shook violently as it cried with a screech-like voice.
“And, oh, He’s not there!! He’s not there!!”
“Who, who’s not there?”
“The only One that matters!!”
A hideous scream followed.
“He’s not there!!”
The man hiding under the clothes rack covered his ears to block the screams but they filtered through his fingers nonetheless.
“I don’t understand!” the man screamed back in hopes of finding some clarity. The screaming ceased momentarily as the focus of the visitor shifted from the ceiling to the man partially concealed by clothing. Resembling the opening of a casket, the right arm slowly rose to point a gaunt finger at the hiding man. As the visitor slowly sank to his knees he began to speak.
“Step by step and day by day you strive to join me under the infernal sky where the fires never cease.”
“What do you mean? What have I done to deserve your torment?”
“So I also thought. Until I stood under judgement before Perfection.”
The awful gurgling sound returned as the visitor’s face twitched in agony and his joints cracked as if under pressure.
“Your life mirrors mine. The same fate awaits.”
The concealed man fought the terror rising within. This was not real. This was a lie. His life could not be deserving of this. Yet, there was no denying that, as the visitor spoke, he could feel the very tongues of the flames themselves. The same foul smoke that rose from the visitor seemed to cling to his shoulders as well.
“The same fate awaits…”
“You have rejected the only Cure…”
Other options had to exist.
“The same fate awaits…”
There remained no will to resist. No avenue for reasoning or bribing. His fate was sealed.
“If what you say is true…how long?” he asked somberly.
“Only He knows. But it is already so much later than you think.”
A response began to form on the man’s lips when the visitor interrupted.
“Seek Him while He may be found, for He does not abide under the infernal sky!!”
The hopeless voice screamed in agony.
“He is not there!!”
The pitiful voice of the visitor suddenly bore a shred of familiarity as he gazed again into the hopeless eyes in front of him.
It was the name of his deceased brother.
Without another word, the floor underneath David opened into a chasm as the pitiful figure clawed hopelessly at its edges as it swallowed him whole.
The shrieking then faded as David was dragged into the chasm as the floor closed intact above him. A single puff of black smoke escaped but soon dissipated as the sounds of neighborhood children playing returned to fill the room. The closet light illuminated once more and the closet door gently swung open. Left underneath the lower rack of clothes was the trembling form of the still living brother.
He remained there only momentarily as the lingering terror would not allow him to delay. Bolting through the now open closet door, he stumbled down the stairs and headed straight toward the stack of books. At first unsure as to why he was drawn there, he nonetheless soon became aware that the Bible jumped into his hands.
“There has to be an answer,” he whispered as he frantically thumbed through the pages. Completely unfamiliar with the book, his fingers flipped faster and faster.
“I don’t even know where to start…” he groaned when the Book suddenly slipped from his fingers and slapped against the hardwood floor. As he leaned to pick up the book with a trembling hand, he noticed that it had fallen open to the Gospel of Luke. As he looked more closely, the words seemed to leap off of the page.
“Then Abraham said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.”
The ringing of the front doorbell startled him back to reality although he initially did not move but remained motionless staring at the open book. The second ring jolted him to his feet and he shuffled toward the front door. As his hand reached out for the knob, he hesitated as his mind pondered what might be waiting on the other side. The strange events of the last hour caused him to fear the worst. Inhaling deeply, he turned the knob and found his young neighbor Susan, standing on the porch with a broad grin and a stack of books. Upon observing the man’s face, Susan’s expression changed to one of concern.
“Are you OK?”
The man straightened his shoulders and ran his fingers through his hair.
“Sure,” he responded hesitantly with a shaky grin. “I just wasn’t expecting you back so soon.”
Susan’s expression changed to one of confusion.
“Back so soon?”
“Yes, I mean after you brought the books by earlier.”
Susan looked down at the stack of books.
“I’m not sure I understand. This is the first time I’ve come by today. I have your books right here.”
He could tell by studying Susan’s face that she was sincere. Besides, Susan’s personality was not the practical joking type. The man studied the stack of books for a moment before inhaling deeply.
“Then let me guess,” he began. “Your cousin's favorite was Miss Suzy.”
Susan nodded her head.
“How’d you know?”
Susan then smiled once more before handing over the stack of books. The man turned to enter the house when he realized that he was still clutching the Bible. Gently placing the books on the front porch, he called after Susan who was already crossing the front lawn. At the sound of her name, she turned to face him. He held the Bible out toward her.
“Susan, you and your family know this book pretty well, right?”
He chose his next words carefully.
“Is there hope inside?”
“From cover to cover.”
“Well then, will you sit here with me on the porch and show me?”
He was fighting back the tears.
Susan stepped forward to respectfully take the book.
“The Gospel of John is a great place to start…”
The man’s wife returned from her errands carrying a grocery bag up the brick sidewalk when she noticed her husband and Susan sitting on the front porch. As he looked up to greet her, she had to admit that she had never found her husband’s expression to be more serene; almost as if a great weight had been lifted.
“So,” his wife began with a smirk . “I assume that not much packing has taken place in my absence?”
“Maybe not,” he began. “But, boy do we have something to tell you…”