Thunder crashed near the church, startling the Pastor from his deep and troublesome sleep. He sat up on the edge of the sofa. The lights were still out and the candles had burned down. He looked at the grandfather clock and heard the ticktock of its ever-swinging pendulum. Its ornate black hands showed the time to be a few minutes before midnight.
Jonathan’s parting words lingered in his mind: He would receive another visitor at midnight.
Only a few minutes to go, he thought.
He clung to the fragile hope that it was all a terrible dream. It had to be, he told himself, there is no other rational explanation.
Thunder crackled in the distance.
He clamped his hands over his ears and tightly squeezed his eyes shut to damper the loud thunder. But there was no way to close his mind to the bothersome sounds and images of the past that had returned to haunt him. “Oh, how wrong you are, Jonathan!” he shouted, hoping his recent visitor could hear him. My eyes do see and my ears do hear, but I wish it were not so!
I must get hold of myself, he thought. He massaged his painful leg. The pills were never totally effective. It’s my thorn in the flesh, he reminded himself. All the pills do is give me these horrible nightmares.
But was it a nightmare? It was all too real to be a dream. And he doubted he was having visions because visions were to reveal the future, not the past. Could it be a Satanic attack? he wondered. Fright gripped his heart. He felt so alone. “My God, where are You?” he called out. “Send your angels to protect me, Lord!” And he wondered, Has the Lord already sent an angel— Jonathan? But why? Only to torment me? Maybe Jonathan is a demon! Then he cried out: “What do You want of me, Lord?” But there was no answer.
Would he ever escape the memories? Would he ever be set free? Or was his past destined to finally destroy him? No, I will not surrender to that night, he told himself. It happened long ago. It’s buried in the past and there it will remain. I’ll get my mind off it. My sermon! Of course! I’11 get my mind back into the sermon. “No,” he argued out loud with himself, “I’ll pray first. That’s what I’ll do.” He slid off the sofa and knelt down beside it on the carpet, resting his elbows on the deep, plush cushion. He squeezed his eyes shut and tightly locked his hands together to pray.
He knelt there, praying fervently for several minutes, asking God to honor his life of stewardship and obedience by sparing him from what he feared might befall him at the midnight hour. “Hasn’t my ministry proven me worthy, Lord? Hasn’t the price I’ve paid been enough? Please, Lord, come to me...help me!”
Bong, chimed the grandfather clock. Bong...bong.... The Pastor stared wide-eyed at the clock. Minutes had slipped by and midnight was only seconds away. He started counting the bongs out loud, his apprehension growing with each stroke of the pendulum: “Five...six...seven...eight...nine...ten...eleven...twelve!”
The sound of the last bong died away, then all was silent in the Pastor’s study. It was midnight.
The Pastor remained on his knees at the sofa, his eyes tightly closed. He heard his rapid breathing, the ticking of the clock, and the incessant pattering of rain. He was afraid to open his eyes, afraid of what he might see. And he covered his ears, afraid also of what he might hear.
Maybe it really was only a bad dream, the Pastor thought; Nothing is happening! He ventured to open his eyes. At first, he cautiously glanced from side-to-side without moving his head. Then he turned around and slowly scrutinized every shadowy corner of his study. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, he rose from his knees. Midnight had come and gone.
“It was only a dream!” he said out loud, hoping he was right. Then he said it again, shouting gleefully: “Only a dream!” He scurried over to his desk and sat down to resume work on his sermon. “Only a dream!” he kept muttering.
He had written but a few words on the legal pad when he noticed the yellow pages had taken on a pale, greenish hue. Out the corner of his eye he saw a green glow that could only be coming from—No, that’s impossible! he thought. There is no electricity. He glanced at the computer monitor, and what he saw turned his face into a pallid mask of frozen horror. For across the green screen, written in large, black letters against the vivid green screen, was “SURRENDER!”
He bounded from the chair and frantically scurried over to a light switch on the wall. It was still in the on position. All the lights remained out, but the computer was getting power from somewhere—or some thing! He flicked the wall switch down to off, then up to on. Still no electricity. He feverishly flipped the switch off and on, off and on. But still no lights.
“Oh, my God, spare me this! Have mercy on me!” He went back to his desk and collapsed in the chair, overwhelmed by his ordeal. I’m having a nervous breakdown, he thought. Oh, my! That’s it! Of course! It’s so obvious—why didn’t it occur to me sooner? It’s not a dream, not a vision, not a Satanic attack. Jonathan is nothing more than a figment of my imagination! Stress! That’s what is causing this. And now l‘m hallucinating. I’m losing my mind! Then he looked again at the green glow of the computer screen. But stress can’t light up a computer screen, he told himself.
Lightning flickered across the room, illuminating everything in it for a split second. But his mind would not wrestle with the impossibility for lightning to illuminate his windowless study. Not now. For he had glimpsed something on the other side of the room that had not been there before.
“Who’s there?” he called out in a dry, croaking voice.
But the only sounds to be heard were the distant crackling of thunder, the pounding rain, and the monotonous ticking of the grandfather clock.
“Jonathan?” he called out. But there was no answer. “Jonathan!” he demanded in a scolding voice like that of an agitated father calling for his young son. But still there was no answer.
Only a shadow, he told himself. He slumped back in his chair. Got to get hold of myself.
Then, in the dim candlelight, the “shadow” moved.
The Pastor gripped the arms of his chair. His wide, frightened eyes locked on the apparition. Then it moved again—toward him! It took on the shape of a man and was slowly walking toward him. Closer and closer it stepped, until its features became visible.
The Pastor gasped. It was a gruesome figure of a man. He wore the uniform of a World War II soldier, a uniform torn, dirty, and blood-stained. In the figure’s abdominal area was a sickening mass of bloody, shredded cloth and glistening, ballooning intestines that bulged through a jagged stomach wound.
The Pastor turned away from the ghastly sight for fear he might vomit. He mustered the courage to look again, his hands shielding all but the soldier’s face.
The apparition wore a steel helmet. From under the brim, dull, sunken eyes stared back at the Pastor. The colorless face was twisted with pain and suffering.
“D-e-s-m-o-n-d,” groaned the soldier, slowly and laboriously. “D-e-s-m-o-n-d,” he said again, this time more intently.
“W-what do you want of me?” stuttered the Pastor.
“You...left...me...but...I have found you. Don’t you recognize me?” The soldier raised his hand and pointed at some black stenciled lettering above the right pocket of his shirt.
The Pastor squinted his eyes to read the small inscription in the dim candlelight. “Fargone! Tony Fargone!”
“Yes, Desmond. ‘Far-go-nee—rhymes with Tony,’ you used to say.”
“Yes! Yes! But everyone insisted on calling you ‘Far Gone.'”
“Because they thought I was hopelessly crazy.”
“You were...undisciplined,” conceded the Pastor. “Far Gone! Yes, 'Far Gone Fargone—rhymes with Tony.'”
“But not as far gone then as you are far gone today, Desmond.”
“Are you saying that I’m crazy?” Then he burst out laughing. “Maybe I am crazy! You, Jonathan, Grandfather, Amanda—it’s madness!” His laughter turned into sobbing, and tears streamed down his cheeks.
“I have had much time to think about that night,” Desmond. I was your best buddy. I taught you everything about being a man—a ‘man’ as I thought a man to be back then. Remember how I taught you to drink whiskey? To smoke? And surely you can’t forget the things I taught you about women!”
“How dare you! That was long ago,” dismissed the Pastor, “only a brief episode in my life. I was young and naive, spiritually immature. I never knew from one battle to the next if I would live or die. Yes, I experimented with drinking and smoking. But you know I never did anything with a woman back then. Amanda was the first and only woman in my life. And there will never be another. She became my wife, in case you don’t know. I married her when I returned from the war. My life changed. I committed my life to the Lord. I gave my all to the ministry. And so much of it was because of—of you! And, thank God, Amanda was a godly influence on me. Yes! Thank God for her!”
“Amanda did point you down the right path. But you strayed down another.”
“What are you insinuating?”
“And you continue to walk farther and farther down the wrong path.”
“My life...since then...has been impeccably righteous,” insisted the Pastor. “God is my witness. I’m no longer a slave to the sins of my youth, and I’m certainly not intimidated by them.”
“Then why have you shunned Bert all these years? Why have you never accepted Curtis as your adopted son?”
The Pastor glared at Tony, with anger and hurt on his face. But he said nothing.
“I’ll tell you why,” said Tony, “because Bert reminds you of me and that night, the time of your greatest shame. You hated what you did, then you hated yourself for doing it, and now—and now you are consumed by that self-hate.”
“All right, all right! “ shouted the Pastor. “It’s true! I left you behind. But let me tell you, Tony, I have paid for it—dearly! That night has haunted me all these years!”
Tony stepped over to the Pastor’s desk and picked up the television’s remote. He aimed it at the Sony and pressed a button. The screen lit up with a dizzy image of jagged, flashing lights.
“What are you doing?” asked the Pastor. “How did you do that? The electricity is out.”
Tony did not answer.
The remote emitted a beam of blue-white light that slowly telescoped across the room, over to the Sony. The beam enveloped an indiscernible image on the television screen. Tony moved the beam and dragged the image from the screen to the wall of the study. The image grew bigger, filling the entire wall with flashing lights. Then it faded into another image, a dark and dreary one.
“France, 1945,” said Tony. “It was raining lightly, remember? The night was dark and cold, and the clouds hugged the ground. The world had turned into mud and the trees were reduced to skeletons, stripped of their branches and leaves by bursts of artillery shells.”
Beads of perspiration glistened on the Pastor’s forehead as he listened to Tony and watched in dread the unfolding scene before him. With a quivering voice he said, “Now you have come for vengeance.”
“Vengeance is not mine, Desmond. Watch and listen.” He continued to narrate the scene on the study’s wall: “The Germans were advancing....”
The Pastor watched shadowy figures stealthily creep and crawl across the muddy battlefield. The scene dissolved to two men firing a machine gun from a fox hole.
“You and I were ordered to stay at our outpost and man the machine gun,” said Tony. “I was the gunner and you were feeding me belt after belt of ammo.”
“We held them off for a while,” the Pastor said, his voice trembling.
“Then it happened,” Tony went on. “Some Kraut caught me in his rifle sights and let me have one right in the leg.”
The Pastor winced, for he saw every vivid detail unfold before his eyes. “They were overrunning our position,” he said.
“You started to drag me back to our unit, then you—”
“We both would have been killed,” pleaded the Pastor.
“You saw the Germans coming closer. And then you left me. You ran for safety and left me behind with a bullet in my leg!”
“I could only save myself, not both of us,” insisted the Pastor. He watched himself as a terrified young soldier running and slipping through the mud and debris of battle. Some distance behind him, in hot pursuit, was a rifle-carrying German soldier. “He’s been chasing me ever since,” the Pastor softly cried.
“You saved yourself. But as for me, I couldn’t move my leg. I lost my rifle in all the confusion. I was scared to death. I remember praying, promising God that if He let me survive I would change my ways and try to live a good, Christian life. After a while a Kraut came running toward me—almost stepped on me. But he saw me in the mud at the last second. I’ll never forget that crazed, hateful look in his eyes. He raised his rifle and hesitated for a second. I saw a flicker of light flash off his bayonet. Then he yelled—some wild, primal yell—and plunged the long blade into my stomach.”
The Pastor jerked his eyes away from the horrible sight.
“Look!” demanded Tony. The Pastor reluctantly looked back at the image on the wall.
“The Kraut left me for dead, but I wasn’t dead—not yet.” I looked at my guts bulging out from the bayonet slash across my belly. I spent the last minutes of my life praying and watching my blood ooze out of my guts and drip into the mud.”
The Pastor looked away again, feeling nauseous. “Please, please—no more, no more. I’ve tried, Tony. The Lord knows I’ve tried over all these years to make amends for what I did.”
“The pain was unbearable, Desmond. I was so afraid.”
“Please, Tony, forgive me!” begged the Pastor, looking again at his old friend. “Give me some peace of mind after all these years.”
Tony nodded. “Jesus forgave you on that cross, Desmond. And I forgave you long ago. But you have never forgiven yourself. And it has kept you from surrendering all and entering in to God’s rest.”
The Pastor nodded, with tears again swelling up in his eyes.
The image on the wall gave way to horizontal flashes of sparkling colors, then quickly faded away, leaving only stark grayness.
Tony aimed the TV’s remote and the grayness became a cloud that slowly spread around and over and under himself and the Pastor.
“What’s happening?” asked the Pastor. “What are you doing?”
“Taking you with me,” said Tony. “We’re going back.”
And the gray cloud closed in around them.
Continue to Chapter 14 >
© Frank Allnutt. All rights reserved.