The Good Shepherd's Keeper: Vol. I

a story by B. Civyl

Prologue

     Noor’s eyes scanned across beige sand that stretched out from her family’s beach towels to the lapping waves of the Gulf of Oman.  The laughter of young boys playing soccer filled her heart with nostalgia as she watched her own boys, a little older at seventeen and sixteen, roughhousing in clear, blue water that glimmered with rainbow hues from the sun.  It was a gorgeous day.  The sky was the color of a ribbon for a newborn baby boy, with not a cloud to be seen but for the fluffy, white contrails that striped down the middle.  Noor would have thought the day perfect was it not for the thick, black plume of smoke wafting from far out at sea; a haunting reminder of the war embroiling her nation.

     The nostalgia soon passed, forcing her emotions to focus back on her fear, while her eyes remained focused on her kids.  Sure, they were boys now, but they would not be much longer as military service was required in Iran.  She wondered how the war ever got started in the first place.  Some pointed to the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani as the tipping point, while some traced it as far back as the hostage crisis of 1979.  Either way, poverty had been crippling her community for years, and dilapidated roads and houses served as a constant reminder that even in a peaceful war of international sanctions, it was still the poor that suffer.

 

     Noor watched her older son launch the younger into the air, and she thought back to yesteryears, sitting with her father at the dinner table and studying her Qur’an.  He was a wise man that studied at the madrasa.  She would never forget his advice when she and her husband first told him that he was to be blessed with a grandchild:

For all the complexities that come with raising a child, the duties of a parent can be easily summarized as the responsibility to care for the welfare and the future of the child.

     “Every parent has a God-given right to uphold this duty to their children,” he would tell her.  She remembered fondly how proud he was of her when she deducted that the duties of the government could be easily summarized as the same – to protect the welfare and the future of its citizens.

 

     But how much longer could she protect her boys?  It would not be long before duty called.  It was the responsibility of the government, after all, to defend its citizens, and her boys were eager to avenge the death of their father to an American cruise missile.  Silently, she prayed for an end to the war.  She prayed for a savior – someone to help the Ayatollah and the American government to see that violence was not the answer, someone to bring peace before her boys would be marched into battle.  I beg this of you, Allah.

    Then something happened.  The joyful laughter of children at play turned to panic as people started shouting and pointing back to the road behind her.  Noor snapped her head around to see government vehicles, a jeep and a pickup truck full of soldiers driving onto the beach and approaching the water.  Beachgoers cleared out of the way and huddled closer as the popping of a Kalashnikov fired into the air. 

 

     “Get out of the water!  Get out of the water!” the soldiers shouted as kids scurried to reunite with their parents. 

 

     Noor feared the worst – another attack by the Americans.  But why here?  The airbase in Kish was already decimated at the beginning of the war.  There were no more strategic targets on the island.

     A cameraman and a reporter from Al-Jazeera ran past, dodging between the children rushing in from the water.  They pointed the camera out to sea and waited. 

     What in God’s name is going on here?  Noor breathed a sigh of relief and hugged her boys as they returned to her.  “Thank God you’re okay.”

     “What’s going on, mom?” her younger boy asked.

     “I don’t know, dear.”

     A moment later, though, a commotion arose as people began pointing out to sea.  The soldiers had exited their vehicles and were facing the beach, guarding anyone from going into the water.  Noor squinted her eyes to see clearer a peculiar object.  It looked like a small beach ball at first, bobbing between the waves.  A neck and shoulders then appeared, followed by arms and a sternum.  The commotion grew louder at the realization that it was a person.  Noor and her children gathered forward with the other onlookers for a closer view.

     The man rose slow and ominously, as if emerging in slow motion from the top of an escalator.  He was dressed in a tattered white robe sopped with years in the salty depths of the ocean.  The figure was otherwise dark and grim, as if the sun shone upon all on the beach but this one gloomy soul.

     The soldiers stepped aside to clear a path for the man, seemingly unfazed that he emerged from out of nowhere in the sea.  He strode wearily onto the beach as the soldiers took guard alongside him.  Even hunched over and wheezing, the man looked tall, maybe six-and-a-half feet, lanky and malnourished.  His bare, boney feet sank into the sand as seawater crested around his ankles.

     “I am Usama bin Laden.”  His voice was deep, scratchy and waterlogged.

     A collective gasp echoed from the crowd, but Noor was silent.  That’s not possible.

 

     The man straightened as if finding his strength.  He raised his head to reveal a long, shabby grey beard and a blackened right eye that protruded like a grape.  “By the grace of Allah,” he grated, “I have risen from the dead and returned to your world.  I am the savior Allah has promised, sent down upon Earth to reign in a new era of peace and enlightenment, and to return all its inhabitants to the one true religion of Islam.”

     Hope filled Noor’s heart for the faintest of moments.  “To reign in a new era of peace” – it was exactly as she prayed for – a savior.  But bin Laden?  She could not believe that of all people, a loving and merciful God would choose bin Laden to resurrect.  That did not stop some of the other beachgoers from dropping to their knees.

     “Yes, bow!” the shadowy bin Laden character demanded.  “Bow before me in recognition of this miracle which Allah has bestowed upon you.  Bow in submission to your one anointed guide, your one true ruler, for Allah has breathed life into my body and returned me to your world for this purpose.  Bow to me as I am your only path to salvation.”

     Noor’s knees stiffened as she recalled her Qur’anic studies and the prophecy of the one-eyed Dajjal.  No.  You’re not fooling me, she told herself, looking to her children who in turn looked upon her for direction.  “Stay standing,” she whispered.  She was not the only one in disbelief.

     “How do we know you are who you say you are?” someone shouted.

     “Yeah!  Prove yourself!” insisted another.

    Bin Laden grinned devilishly, his smile as chilling as a rotting corpse in a cemetery on a frigid, late-October night.  “The righteous need only look into their hearts to find the truth.  But as you are weak in faith, I will humor your demand.”  He raised his arms toward the sky.  His one eye was fierce and triumphant.  “Behold as I rain fire from the heavens!”

           

     Noor looked skyward with everyone else.  She saw nothing at first but a bird swooping from left to right.  The hesitation brought with it a crippling anxiety that gripped her lungs and froze her heart.  Then a blinding flash, a thunderous BOOM!  In an instant, the sky went from a peaceful baby blue to hellish hues of orange and red.  Then another BOOM!  And another.  They shook the Earth with pounding vibrations as the sky lit up with fire so vast and so violent that waves of hot energy blew over the beach in a resounding display of the mysterious man’s power.

      “Fear not!” bin Laden shouted amidst frightened screams.  “Fear not for I give you only the proof you demand!”

      And then it was over.  The raging blaze that tore a hole in the sky closed up like the flame of a candle blowing out in a stiff wind, leaving behind only dense clouds of dissipating white smoke.  The screams ceased and all went quiet as bin Laden’s eye scanned sinisterly across the beach.

 

     Noor could not believe her eyes and yet she could not unsee it.  This bin Laden, this Dajjal – he was powerful indeed.  But was it a power gifted by God or that of the devil?  She was not sure.  The only thing she was sure of was that she would not bow with the increasing number of beachgoers that had taken to their knees.  It was forbidden to pray before anyone but God, and God bin Laden was not.

     Something tapped Noor’s shoulder.  She looked to her right.  A soldier stood there, flashing his weapon.  She saw another not far away, traipsing through the crowd.

 

      “Get down,” the man ordered, pointing to the ground.

 

     She had no choice.  Noor took her youngest by the arm while looking to her older.  Then she lowered herself to one knee, then the other.  Her children followed.

     A chant rose among the crowd “… Allahu Akbar … Allahu Akbar … Allahu Akbar …”

 

     Noor mouthed it but would not speak it.  God forgive me.

Chapter 1

Signs of the Universe

Eight months earlier …

    “Thank you for joining us on CNN.  I’m Vanessa Myers reporting from Capitol Hill, where President-Elect Lois Schuyler has been working with officials to put together an economic recovery package she hopes to be ready and waiting on her desk for her first day of office in January.  Her efforts come following the successful public administration of the vaccine for the COVID-19 virus that killed thousands and sickened millions more, crippling the global economy and triggering the worst economic crisis in the history of the stock market.

     “Since the end of the government shutdown and the public’s return to everyday life, many across the aisle have accused Schuyler of stoking fear in investors, claiming that a wait-and-see approach would allow the promise of a new incumbent to spark optimism in a volatile market.  Those in Schuyler’s corner, however, warn that even if a bill is ready to be signed on Inauguration Day, it may be too late for the millions of Americans whose federal benefit and welfare payments were suspended.  Consider the millions more whose livelihoods were crippled amidst the months-long shutdown of basic goods and services, and for many a new legislation cannot come soon enough.”

            “I’d like to welcome to our discussion now, Secretary of State hopeful, Richard Tomlinson, who met with Lois Schuyler this morning to discuss the ongoing challenge of partisan gridlock that is plaguing our capital.”

   *                      *                      *                      *                      *

     Rock music blared through The Shaggy Canteen – a quaint, half-empty pub in Brooklyn.  Between a pool table and a broken cigarette machine stood Elijah Cole with a microphone in hand.  He brushed a black lock of hair over his ear, the tip barely long enough to tuck behind his lobe.  Then he belted out the final lyrics of his favorite song by his favorite band.

…  …  …

I’ll always be me

It’s all I can be

This you will see

Through the keyhole in me

Look straight through the hole

To the depths of my soul

     The pub came alive at the conclusion of the song, despite the scattered empty tables and bar stools that littered the tavern.  Joy shone through Elijah’s smile as he handed the microphone to the next singer who promptly cleaned it with a disinfectant wipe.  Where he once slapped high fives with the regulars on the way back to his table, he was now greeted with many a thumbs-up, including from the pub’s owner, a tall and stocky man who looked like he styled his hair with motor oil and one hundred twenty volts of electricity.  Elijah did not mind peoples’ lingering fears, though.  He was just happy that “Shaggy’s” was open again and people were slowly getting back to their lives.

 

     God, I needed this.  It was the first time all week that Elijah felt like himself again – a chipper and fun-loving man of relative youth who still enjoyed nights of mild debauchery as a welcome reprieve from his forty-hour per week, dead-end job and his fatherly responsibilities.  Maybe it was a rough couple weeks back at work, trying to recuperate from his business’s shutdown amidst the coronavirus outbreak, or maybe it was just the winter blues.  Maybe it was the two shots of Patrón working their way into his bloodstream, but it felt good to forget about life for an evening – and not just the pandemic or the return to the daily grind, but also the bizarre coincidences which seemed to accompany his current bout of melancholy.

     Elijah’s mother rose to her feet and kissed him on the cheek.  She was a short woman, maybe one hundred pounds if she was dripping with sweat, fully dressed in her hiking boots.  She made Elijah look like a giant, even at a shade under six feet with a slow-growing beer gut.

     “That was incredible, dear.  I haven’t seen you sing in forever.”

     “Thanks, Mom.”

     Elijah reached across the table and slapped hands with his friends, Mitchell and Sean.  He then kissed his wife and sat down between her and his father.

     “… So then I opened the envelope and wouldn’t ya know it, the same damn thing was written inside.”

     Elijah knew immediately the story his father was telling.  He heard it so many times throughout the years – about how he was supposed to be born a girl.  Eve was to be her name.  When she was born a he, however, his parents had not a single name picked out for him.  So, as his father always told it, he stumbled into a church – drunk, Elijah supposed – and the pastor wrote a name on a piece of paper, sealing it inside an envelope and instructing his father to open it only once a name had been chosen.

     Normally, Elijah brushed the story off as just another of his father’s whacky anecdotes, and there were many.  Now, in light of all the occurrences of the past couple weeks, something about the pastor predicting his name struck Elijah as oddly familiar – another in a long chain of strange instances that followed him everywhere he went; weighing on his psyche.  Even at the bar I can’t escape this shit.

    He wondered if perhaps such weird occurrences had always been there and he just had not noticed.  The sadness, after all, felt familiar.  It reminded him of his childhood, back before he and Mitchell became friends, before Sean and their band, before he had anyone but his parents to share with in life’s griefs and pleasures.  Now he was a grown man with a beautiful wife at his side, and, according to his mother-in-law’s text, his greatest pride lying asleep in a racecar-shaped toddler bed back home.  Still, ever since the happenstances started a week beforehand, a peculiar somberness festered within.

     Elijah hoped he could escape it if only for one night, but it was back again.  It scared him how quickly he went from happy to sad.  He had only just sat down with his friends and his family – a moment before enraptured by the cheers of strangers and acquaintances throughout the tavern.  But his father’s story sent a tingle up his spine, and with it came that hint of remorse that accompanied the question he found himself asking far too often: What the fuck is going on?

    Elijah buried his nose in his cell phone, browsing through his karaoke app for another song to sing while trying to hide his face; his father rehashing another story from his youth.  His wife, Kristy, however, was far more observant than he would have liked.  She nudged his arm.

     “Hey.  You alright?”

     Elijah looked to his right.  Kristy’s concern was evident in her wide, brown eyes.  “Um … yeah, fine.  Why?”

     “You look sad.  It’s your birthday.  You should be having fun.”

     “I am having fun.”

     “You sure?  You look like something’s bothering you.”

     Elijah would have cursed her acuity were it not one of the things he loved most about her.  There was not much he could hide from his wife.  Kristy had a way of reaching into his heart and retrieving any emotion, any secret, any memory.  He could share with her even his most obscure beliefs, but he would not share with her what he was feeling that night.

     How could he?  Even he did not know how to describe what was happening.  Something about the world was different but finding the words to explain it was like trying to paint a picture of thin air.  Besides, it was madness – the perfectly timed songs on the radio, the people turning to him for help and guidance, the number seven repeating itself over and over again.  Somehow it was all connected.  He did not know it so much as he felt it.  But that did not mean he could talk to his wife about it.  She’ll think I’m raving mad.  So he lied, difficult as it was.

     “No, I’m fine.  Just trying to figure out what to sing next.”

     Kristy smiled and picked up her glass of water, brushing her full, light brown hair back over her shoulder.  “Then drink up!  I’m driving!  Enjoy yourself!”

    Elijah could not help but smile.  He lifted his beer mug and clinked it against her glass.  “You trying to get me drunk?”  The earthy draught tickled its way down his throat.

      Kristy bit her lower lip.  “That’s the plan.  Get you drunk, drag you home, take advantage of you.”

   Yet another reason Elijah loved her so much – she could free his thoughts of even the most worrisome of troubles, whether luring his mind to other, less disturbing matters, or to his loins.  He placed a hand on her thigh, un-casually high, as he leaned in quietly.  We’re married.  You don’t have to take advantage.”

   A long, brown lock of hair fell down over Kristy’s face.  She brushed it aside and grinned seductively.  “Oh, but I want to.”

     For the moment, Elijah forgot that his friends and parents were sitting at the same table.  He was about to plant on her a long and passionate kiss, but then reality jabbed him in the arm with its finger.

     “What are you two love birds whispering about over there?”

     Elijah jerked and looked back at his father, abashed.  “Oh, um … nothing, Dad.  We were just …”

    “I was just telling Sean and Mitch here how nice it is catching up with them.  It’s crazy how we always bump into each other here but we never get a chance to sit down and talk.”

     Elijah was grateful his father changed the subject so quickly.  He was not a good liar and telling his parents that he and his wife were talking about sex would have been awfully uncomfortable.

     “I remember when you guys used to come to the house and practice.  You remember that time the neighbors called the police on you?  You guys were nefarious around the block.”

     Sean came alive at the remark; a small hunk of chicken hanging from the drumstick in his hand.  “That’s how we got our name!  They told us to quit makin’ such a ruckus!  Ruckus Nefarious!”

     Everyone laughed as Sean took another bite from his drumstick.  He was a short man with curly, blonde hair and a muscular physique hidden under his navy blue FDNY t-shirt.  His friends joked that he had the metabolism of a child, eating anything he wanted and then burning it off in the weight room a few hours later.  According to his buddies at the fire station, Sean was quiet and businesslike while on the job.  Sitting around the station was a completely different story, though.  This was more like the Sean that Elijah knew.

     “I still think we shoulda played The Clash for those cops!”  Sean held the drumstick like the neck of a guitar as he pretended to strum at its strings.  “A little ‘I Fought the Law’, bro!”

     “What about the other one?” Elijah’s father asked, chuckling.  “What was his name?  Jon, right?  How come I don’t see him around anymore?”

     The thought of detailing Jonathan’s life made Elijah worrisome.  The last thing he wanted was for his parents to think negatively of his friend, especially considering how proud he was of him.  So he sat quietly while Sean and Mitchell took turns telling Jonathan’s story – about his depression and the drugs and three children he fathered with three different women.

 

     “But he’s doing much better now,” Elijah was compelled to chime in.  “He got help and he got clean.  He’s got his own place now and his oldest daughter lives with him.”

       “The sweetest little girl,” Kristy told her in-laws.  “Her name’s Patricia.”

           

      Mitchell pushed his glasses back up onto the bridge of his nose.  “He’s working two jobs to keep up with child support on the other two.  That’s why he’s never around.”

           

      “That’s unfortunate,” replied Elijah’s mother.

     Sean did not bother to swallow his food before adding his two cents.  “It is.  It sucks we don’t see much of him anymore, but he’s being responsible, and that’s a big change for him … a good change.”

     The inquisition did not end with Jonathan.  Elijah’s father was all too eager to learn about Sean’s and Mitchell’s lives since the band broke up, even if it was nothing Elijah had not already told him before.

     “What about you, Mitch?  What have you been up to all these years?  Was that a Mercedes I saw you pull up in?”

     “An Audi, actually.”  Large, both in height and girth, Mitchell looked Samoan, although his father was proudly Native American.  Per usual, his hair was pulled back in a ponytail and his beard kept short and neat.  “But I’m thinking of trading it in for something bigger.  I went for sporty last time.”  He flexed his broad shoulders.  “I think I’m ready for something roomier this time around.”

     Sean was quick to pounce on his friend.  “Bro, you can’t even buy yourself a pair of pants!  How do you think you’re gonna afford a new car?”

    Everyone broke out in laughter.  Mitchell was notorious for wearing shorts even in the dead of winter; even with a sport coat and tie.  It was a fashion statement that had not changed since high school – or perhaps not fashion but rather a matter of personal preference.  Whatever the reason, Mitchell was unapologetic. 

     He held his cell phone out as if taking a selfie.  “Ninety percent of my business is done over the phone, dude.”  Then he placed his other hand to his chest with his palm toward the floor.  “What do I need pants for when the web cam only sees from here up?”

      Again, everyone at the table laughed.

 

    “Well, it looks like the recession’s not hurting you,” Elijah’s mother added.  She looked to Sean and then to Elijah.  “You guys must be proud of your friend.”

     It was true.  Elijah was proud of Mitchell.  In fact, Mitchell was the reason Elijah chose to go back to school in the first place.  He thought if he got a degree like his friend, maybe he too could start his own business, or at least earn a better job than working in the mail room for some corporate big-wig’s marketing firm.  Mitchell was his inspiration, and yet staring across the table at his friend, he saw disappointment in his eyes.

     For as much as Elijah admired Mitchell’s professional success, it was Elijah’s success as a family man that Mitchell looked up to.  He tried his hand at marriage once but his career got in the way.  It was a shame he kept guarded from all but his closest friends.  He brushed off the compliment.  “Nah.  With everyone staying home, online services have been in even more demand.  As long as there’s a need for web administration, we seem to be pretty recession-proof.”

     “I wish I could say the same thing about the department,” Sean added.  “They’re talking about layoffs.  Maybe if Schuyler gets that budget bill passed, we’ll be okay.  But I’m not taking any chances.”

      Elijah sat quietly as Sean detailed his plan to win a national firefighter competition being held in a few months.  He figured if he won, the fire department could not can him, so he had been training “seven days a week for seven weeks”, eating “seven small meals a day instead of the normal three”. 

Mitchell, meanwhile, took the stage to sing a song by the band, Seven Mary Three.  When he returned to the table amidst the pub-goers’ applause, he informed Elijah that there were seven more songs before it would be his turn to sing again.  Then he ordered his seventh beer of the evening.

    Am I the only one that sees this?  Even the song Mitchell sang seemed to fit perfectly the emotion Elijah was feeling – “Cumbersome”.  What the fuck is going on? he wondered again.  It was getting to be too much.  Elijah exhaled deeply and drew in a long breath.  His wife’s hand touched his arm.

 

     “Honey, are you sure you’re okay?”

     “Yeah, fine.  It’s the booze.  That’s all.”

     “Light-weight,” Kristy snickered.

    “Yeah.”  Elijah closed his eyes and exhaled again, trying to push the weird happenstances from his mind.  Even if he could tell his wife what was wrong, it was not the time or place.

   Fortunately, Kristy’s attention was lost to the horrific shrill of some liquored-up redhead who could barely stand up straight, never mind hold a pitch.  That did not stop Kristy from bobbing her head and mouthing the words to the song.  Next, it would be her turn, then Elijah’s parents who sang “New York, New York”.  Sean sang “Bust a Move” by Young MC.  Elijah’s turn came and went shortly after that.

     Eventually, the large and boisterous Bertrand “Birdie” Shaginaw appeared from behind Elijah’s parents.  “Well, now I know we all been friends for some time now, but I’m afraid I am gonna have to charge ya for your meals tonight!”  He handed a leather-bound folder with the check to Elijah’s father.

     “Hey, how ya doing, Birdie?  Happy to be back up and running?”

    Birdie grinned.  “Well, it’s been a little slow …”  He leaned toward the table, glancing side to side and speaking softly.  “But hey, I got my regulars … and as long as people need a place to drown their sorrows, I’ll be alright.”  Then he pointed to an engraving in the table between Elijah’s parents that read: T.C. & C.M.  “Now if I could just find the fuckin’ vandal responsible for carvin’ up my table.”

     Elijah’s parents erupted in laughter.

     “That’s been there for forty years, Birdie,” Tom said.

     “Yeah?  How do you know that?”

     “Cause I’m the one who put it there!”

     Birdie squinted and took a closer look.  “Thomas Cole and Carol …”

     “Marsh,” said Elijah’s mother.

    “Well I’ll be …”  The perplexity vanished from Birdie’s face the instant he shot upright.  “Yeah, I knew that.  I actually been meanin’ to talk to ya ‘bout that.  Ya see, I’m gonna have to bill ya for a new table.  That’ll be seventy-seven dollars.”

      Elijah coughed.  It seemed an odd number for Birdie to choose.

    Tom chuckled and pat his son on the back.  “Birdie, with all the business we’ve given Shaggy’s over the years, you could have refurnished this place twice already.  And yet you still have these shitty tables leftover from when your dad used to run the place.”

     Birdie cocked his head to the side.  “Yeah, well … just keepin’ it classic, ya know?”

     Tom chuckled but his attention was quickly taken away when the check folder was lifted from his hand.  Mitchell opened it and placed his credit card inside but Tom snatched it away.

     “No … now … he’s my son … and it’s his birthday.”

     “Yeah but like you said, I haven’t been hit as hard as by this whole coronavirus scare.  Besides, it’s the least I can do after …”

     Carol touched her hand to Mitchell’s arm.  “That was a long time ago, dear.  You need to forget that.”

     “Maybe someday I will.”  Mitchell nodded to Birdie who took the folder from Elijah’s father.

 

    Tom did not object.  “In that case Birdie, why don’t you go ahead and add that bill for the new table to this tab and good ol’ Mitch, here, will take care of it for me.  Okay?”

     Birdie winked.  “You got it, boss.  Be right back with the receipt.”

–          –          –          –          –

    Kristy yawned as she helped her husband to her silver, beat-up Nissan Altima.  He was visibly intoxicated, his head bobbing and his knees wobbly as he tried to navigate the parking lot.  It reminded her of their honeymoon in Mexico when he got smitten by a restaurant’s house strawberry tequila and then threw up in the cab on the way back to the resort.  It was one of those memories you look back and laugh at, although it was not one she wished to repeat, not in her own car, the shit-box that it was.

     The drive home from Shaggy’s was a relatively short one, maybe twenty minutes if there was little traffic and you caught a few green lights along the way.  At one o’clock in the morning, though, fatigue was setting in.  So Kristy cracked open the window and a brisk wind nipped at her cheeks.  If helped for a minute, but then her eyelids went heavy again and her vision blurred.  A quick shiver snapped her out of it.  That is when she noticed her husband nodding off next to her.

     She shook his knee.  “Don’t go passing out on me.  If I have to drive home, the least you can do is talk to me.”

    Elijah sounded as groggy as she felt – worse, in fact.  “Yeah, sure.  What do you want to talk about?”

    Kristy considered the question for a long moment, trying to come up with the most thought-provoking event of the evening.  “How about that story your father told us tonight.”

Elijah chuckled.  “Which one?”

     It was a valid question.  Tom told a lot of stories that night.  “The one about your name and the priest,” she answered as she pulled onto the expressway.

     “Oh.  That one.”

    Kristy found his tone unsettling, as if he did not want the story heard.  Surely, there was nothing to be embarrassed about.  “What?  You don’t like that story?”

     “I … uh …” he sputtered.

     “I’m surprised,” she added, hoping to spark some kind of positive response.  “In all the time we’ve been together, I’ve never heard that one before.”

     “Yeah, well … nothing really surprises me anymore.”

     What an odd thing to say.  “What makes you say that, dear?”

     Elijah sputtered again and he squirmed in his seat, turning his head out the window.  “Um … I … never mind.  We can talk about it another time.”

     Something was not right.  Kristy could feel it.  She had sensed it for the last week now.  He was hiding something.  Maybe this was it.  “No, talk to me now.  What do you mean, nothing surprises you?”

     Elijah opened his mouth but said nothing at first.  “I … I don’t even know how to explain it.”

     “Try.”

    Elijah turned back to his wife.  She took her eyes off the road just long enough to see the anxiety in his.  “There’s just been a lot of weird stuff going on lately,” he told her.

    “What kind of weird stuff?”

    “Well, this guy at work named his kid after me.”

   Kristy’s head snapped to her right almost instinctively.  It was about the last thing she expected him to say.  “He what?”

    “He named his kid after me.”

   Wow!  My husband!  And while she thought to congratulate him, there was a more pressing question.  “Why’d he do that?”

     “Because I helped he and his wife through a rough patch a while back.”

     “You never told me that.”

     “Because I didn’t think it was a big deal.  Besides, that was months ago.”

     “Obviously it was a big deal if he named his son after you.  Tell me what happened?”

     Elijah huffed and stared ahead.  His speech was only slightly slurred, though his head still swayed from side to side with the motion of the car.  “It was nothing, really.  We just got to talking one day.  I don’t even know why.  It’s not like we’re work buddies or anything.  I just deliver mail to the guy.  But one day he starts telling me about how he and his fiancé were close to breaking up and how it hurt so much because of how much he loved her children.  So I gave him some advice.  I don’t even remember what I said, but apparently it helped because they got back together and got married, and now they’ve got another kid – apparently named Eli.”

    Kristy could not help but smile.  She had long considered Elijah the greatest blessing in her life.  He was just a good man, someone that made people’s lives better just for knowing him.  It made her happy to know his life was a blessing to others around him as well.  She could not have been prouder.  “You obviously made an impact on him.”

     “Yeah, but to name his kid after me?  Don’t you think that’s a bit strange?”

     It was a bit strange, for sure, but no more so than a priest predicting his name before it had been chosen.  She flipped her blinker and glanced over her shoulder.  “Maybe.”  She switched lanes.  “It’s flattering though, isn’t it?  Maybe you should just focus on the positive.  The guy obviously thinks very highly of you.  You should feel good about yourself.”  Somehow, she suspected it was not advice to which he cared to listen.

     “Yeah, maybe.”

     Kristy wondered if he was being humble or lacking in self-esteem.

     “But then there was this lady in front of work,” Elijah added following a brief quiet.

     “What lady?” Kristy asked.

    “Just some lady.  I don’t know who she was, but she was standing at the front door a couple days ago when work got out.  Everyone’s pouring out of the building and she’s just standing there, staring at me.  She didn’t even bother to look at anyone else walking past her.  Then when it’s my turn, she stops me and starts begging me for money.  Said something about her daughter being home alone.  She was in trouble.  I couldn’t make out exactly what she said; she was so distraught.  Said she needed seven dollars for a cab.”

     “So what’d you do?”

     “I gave her everything I had.”

     “How much was that?”

     “Exactly seven dollars.”

    Elijah paused, leaving Kristy to ponder the meaning of his bizarre story.  Kristy, however, did not find the story bizarre at all; just another example of how generous and kind-hearted a man she married.  She would have thought him bragging – He should be bragging! – were it not for the somberness weighing down his voice.  “I don’t know why you’re surprised,” she told him.  “You’re a good man.  People can tell just by looking at you.”

     Again, Elijah went silent.

    Kristy considered piling on, doting over him in an effort to lift his spirits, but something told her to wait.  He was thinking and she did not want to interrupt that.  He’ll respond when he knows what he wants to say.

     “It’s not just the people at work, though,” Elijah soon said.  “There’s all this other weird stuff going on too.”

     “Like what?”

    “Like last week, I was working on an essay in the living room while you were watching television.  I was writing about how kids’ role models have changed and how kids grow up nowadays wanting to be celebrities and social media stars instead of scientists and doctors.  I swear, every time I wrote about a celebrity, that person appeared on television – whether it was a commercial or a cameo on the show you were watching:  Bill Gates, J.J. Watt, Bono, Angelina Jolie … it was so weird.”

    Maybe it was weird, but Kristy did not think it so.  She was raised in a Christian family and brought up to believe in the mysterious ways in which God works.  And though her relationship with God had wavered over the years, she still believed in karma.  She still believed in miracles, and she still believed in the gentle nudges of fate that guide us in life’s purpose.  “Maybe they’re signs from the universe,” she replied without so much as batting an eyelash.

     She resisted the urge to elaborate.  A few minutes to sit in would do him some good.  He was even less of a believer than her.  And though he maintained his belief that life had to come from Something, be blamed religion for all the horrible acts carried out in God’s name.  She did not disagree, but the stories of the Bible she grew up on – there was no way he was ready to accept any validity to their truths, let alone to actually believe that God had a plan for him.  But the more she considered it, the signs, the story of the priest, the more she considered that maybe there was some truth to it.

     “Signs from the universe,” Elijah uttered after a lengthy silence.  “I like that.”

   Kristy smiled genially.  “Just remember, seeing signs is one thing, but interpreting them and understanding what they mean is something else.  Think about that.”

     Elijah nodded.  His eyes were drawn out the window again.  Certainly, he was – thinking about it.  And it carried him silently all the way home and almost all the way to bed.  But Kristy told him she was going to take advantage of him.  They made love instead.  She fell asleep on his chest that night.  The last thing she remembered was him thanking her.  When she asked for what, he replied, “For being you.”  Then she dreamed of a white horse, and she woke up the next morning feeling tranquil and loved, and thankful for a wonderful night out with her husband.

     God, I love him so.

© 2018 by B. Civyl