Friday, December 4, 2009

First Chapter: And Thy House

Editor’s Note: With it being time for another Fiction Friday and since my latest book will be coming out soon, I am posting the first chapter for your reading pleasure. To give you and idea of where this is headed, this is a story about a man who divorced his wife and raised his children out of church, but comes to discover that he was wrong after the girls have reached an age when he has begun to lose influence with them.

Chapter One

At the top of the steps, going up to the church building, the greeter pushed the glass door open. Martin shoved the door open even farther. The greeter stumbled and regained his footing as Martin brushed past him.

Another man held out a church bulletin. “Welcome to…”

Martin brushed aside the bulletin and made a beeline for the doors of the auditorium. Other greeters milled about the otherwise deserted foyer. A man and a woman stood at the double doors of the auditorium watching the people inside, blocking Martin’s way. The man looked up as Martin approached. He pulled the door open. Martin shoved this door even harder than the last, knocking it into the man’s face.

The man stepped back and rubbed his nose. Martin figured it served the man right. He hadn’t asked the man to open the door. But he hadn’t intended to injure him. He just wanted him out of the way. The door swung closed behind him. Martin scanned the crowd, looking for a particular head of hair. He scanned one section of the room, then the next, but didn’t see her. There were many people. They were all idiots, he thought. Up on stage, Wayne Hiller was preaching away, like there was no tomorrow. As far as Martin was concerned, he was the biggest idiot of them all. He was equaled only by Kim, the woman he had come to find, but he didn’t see her.

“Sir, is there something we can help you with?” The woman greeter spoke softly from the open door behind him. Just behind her, the other greeter stood with his head tilted back and a blood soaked handkerchief held to his nose.

“Kim Fraiser,” Martin spat the name at her, “Where’s Kim Fraiser sitting?”

The woman stepped forward and looked over the crowd. “I haven’t seen her today. She might not be here.”

“Where else would she be?” Martin raised his voice. More people turned their heads.

“I don’t know,” the woman said. She looked thoughtful. “She might be—I don’t know. She must be here somewhere. Maybe you can take a seat and wait until the service is over to look for her.”

Martin started to tell her he would do no such thing, but he saw a familiar face, that of Mark Dawson, coming up the aisle toward him. Just seeing his boss’s face calmed him some. He slipped the printed e-mail message he clutched in his hand into his jeans. Kim had caused enough trouble. He wasn’t about to let her mess things up his boss. In Martin’s eyes, Mark was as much of an idiot as Kim to come to church here, but he also stood between Martin and that promotion he wanted. That was worth overlooking some things.

“Is everything alright?” Mark asked in a voice so quiet that the people staring at them had to strain to hear.

“I’m looking for my ex-wife.” Martin spoke softly for the first time since entering the church building.

Mark turned to look back at the congregation, not scanning the building as the other two had done, but looking at one section, perhaps one row. “I haven’t seen her today.”

“She has to be here. She’s always here.”

“Usually,” Mark said, “but I don’t see her. Come sit with us. If she’s here, she’ll stick around for a while after church and she’ll be easier to spot.”

Martin followed the man down the aisle. What else could he do? It wasn’t like he could say, “No, I didn’t come for church. I just came because I felt like yelling at my ex-wife.”

She deserved everything she got. He felt the folded page in his pocket. She had these people fooled. They all thought she was something special, but Martin knew better. “I’m spending the week with Mom,” the e-mail from Joanna said. Kim wasn’t even supposed to see the girls without him being there. He considered calling his attorney, but decided it served his purposes better to show all these church people what a hypocrite their church secretary was. Besides, he knew what his attorney would say, “Joanna’s considered an adult now. She can do what she wants.”

They reached the seat where Mark had been sitting. A woman Martin recognized as the owner of a restaurant he had visited a few times moved over and Mark sat next to her, leaving Martin the outside. Obviously, this was Mark’s wife. Martin wasn’t sure why he hadn’t drawn the connection when he’d seen Mark in the restaurant before.

Martin settled in his seat and having nothing else to do, listened to Wayne Hiller.

“I look at this passage and here this man is in hell…”

Martin suppressed a laugh, realizing that Wayne thought the passage was true.

“…he first cries out for help for himself. I’m sure any of us would do the same. The fire in hell is hot, but notice what it says, starting in verse twenty-seven.”

Martin watched for them to put the reading on the screen so he could see what was in the passage, but the congregation had their heads down, staring at open Bibles. Mark handed Martin his own Bible and looked at the one in his wife’s lap. She moved it so that they could both see it easily. Martin looked at Mark’s Bible, loaded down with bookmarks and pages of handwritten notes. It reminded him of how Kim’s Bible had always looked. He hadn’t thought that Mark would do the same thing. Mark was no sissy. He had proven that a few months back when they’d found three guys trying to break into the paint shed. Two of them had been cooperative. As was the third one, after Mark chased him down and tackled him.

“It says that this man prayed that someone would be sent to his five brothers to warn them, so they wouldn’t have to suffer the torment of hell.”

On the page in front of him, Martin found the verse the pastor had referenced. For what it was worth, it appeared to match what he said.

“When we look at a group of people like what we see here today, we expect that there are some who have never accepted Christ as their Savior. Maybe that person is you. Maybe you aren’t sure if you are saved or not. Maybe you know you are lost and you want nothing to do with Jesus.” Wayne looked right at Martin when he said that.

That only made Martin angry. Kim must have known he would show up and told Wayne. She knew he would go looking for Joanna. Martin looked away.

“What this passage tells me is this someone is praying for you. It could be a friend or family member, the person sitting next to you. We have a lot of people on our prayer list because they need salvation. But it could be someone like this rich man, a brother who has already gone to hell and doesn’t want you to go too.”

Nope. No brothers.

“Maybe it isn’t a brother,” Wayne said, as if he had read Martin’s mind. “Maybe it’s a parent, a grandparent, a spouse or child who is praying for you, even from the depths of hell.”

The thought crossed Martin’s mind of the years he had been married to Kim. “I’m praying for you,” she had told him on numerous occasions. He had found her on her knees crying many times. That went on until he found a line in a Dickens novel and started saying, “Woman, I don’t want you flopping down against me.” She stopped mentioning it, but Martin suspected something when she would lock herself in the bedroom, sometimes more than an hour at a time, and come out with puffy eyes. She had surely quit, after all this time, which was more proof that the preacher wasn’t as smart as he thought he was.

“You may be like the rich man’s five brothers who wouldn’t repent, even if one rose from the dead.”

That would be worth seeing, Martin thought. Lots of people would show up at church if they started raising the dead. Martin looked over at Mark and Ellen. They both stared at the preacher, taking in every word. He looked a couple of rows in front of were they sat. A couple of teenage girls sat there, next to a woman he guessed to be the parent of at least one of them. The woman stared at the preacher, but the girls were doing something else. At first, all Martin could see was the hand signals they were making. One finger. Three fingers. Two. Then he saw one of them holding several cards in her hand. He turned his attention to them. It made it easier to tune out what Wayne was saying.

The card game went on until everyone stood up and the musicians began to play. Martin looked around at the others. He still didn’t see Kim. He didn’t feel as much like yelling at her in front of all these people or in front of Mark. He had plenty to say to her, once the crowd cleared. They wouldn’t take long to disappear. Their eyes were on their watches. Women were gathering their purses. A few people were already heading for the doors, even while a few people made their way toward the front. It wouldn’t be long and Martin would be free once more.

And then it was over. The crowd flowed from their seats into the aisles and out the doors. Martin handed Mark’s Bible back to him and thought he would slip into the crowd, but Mark stopped him. “Let’s see if we can find Kim.”

Most of the crowd disappeared, leaving small pockets of people talking. A woman walked toward Martin and the Dawsons.

“Tiffany, have you seen Kim Fraiser?” Mark asked before she reached them.

She paused for a moment before she said, “No. She isn’t here. She went to see her sister last week. She’ll be back, Tuesday.”

It took Martin a moment to take in what the woman had said. Kim wasn’t in town and hadn’t been all week—not even in the same state. So where’s Joanna?

“I’m Tiffany Hiller,” the woman said, extending her hand to Martin, “the pastor’s wife.”

“Martin Zale.” He shook her hand.

“This is one of my guys from work,” Mark said.

“We’re glad to have you here,” Tiffany said with a smile that seemed genuine. “Are you going to eat with us?”

Martin gave her a dumb look, not understanding the question.

“Bumble Bee has a lot of us over for Sunday dinner,” Mark explained. “You’re welcome to come.”

“I don’t think so,” Martin said. He had already spent more time with these people than he intended.

“Maybe some other time.” Tiffany smiled again. She walked off, but not far before she spoke to someone else.

“You really are welcome to come,” Mark said. “There’ll be plenty to eat.”

“No, I’ll see you tomorrow.” Martin turned around and walked away before Mark could insist.

Out in the foyer, Martin saw the man whose nose he had busted. The man took a step back as Martin approached. Martin didn’t say anything to him as he walked past. He did notice a drop of blood on the man’s white shirt.

The crowd hadn’t cleared out of the foyer as quickly as they cleared the auditorium. Martin didn’t realize what was causing the bottleneck until it was too late. Wayne Hiller stood in the doorway, shaking hands and talking to people as they made their way out of the building. Martin thought it was arrogant of him to stand there like everyone wanted to shake his hand. He looked for another door and saw several people walking out that way. He turned to follow them, but the crowd kept pushing him toward Wayne. Martin persisted in pushing through them until he noticed that the music director stood at that door. Given a choice between the two men, Martin didn’t care, but he would have to walk around the building if he went out by the music director. He turned back around and followed the crowd, having lost a few positions in line. He regained positions, as he could, pushing past one person and then another. Most didn’t seem to care. They were all too busy talking to each other, like they were the dearest of friends, to notice a man pushing his way toward the door, while trying not to call too much attention to himself.

Martin had nearly made it to the door. There were only a couple of people in front of him. One of them looked like she wanted to spend all day talking to the pastor and the other looked like she was as impatient as Martin. He felt a tap on his shoulder. Thinking it was someone who wanted to squeeze past him, Martin ignored it. He stood there, waiting for the woman to finish talking and he felt the tapping hand again. Once more, Martin ignored it. Again he felt the tapping on his shoulder. Martin turned around to snap at the person bothering him.

Just behind him a Down’s syndrome man with graying hair looked up at Martin. The man was short—even shorter than Martin’s small stature. The man spoke in a barely understandable voice. “This is your first time here.”

“Yes.” Martin turned around, hoping the man was satisfied.

He must have been because Martin heard him speaking to another person. “Want to hear something important?”

“Of course,” the other person said.

“I’m going to heaven. Are you?”

“Yes, I’m going to heaven too.” The other person said.

The little man repeated the conversation with another person and another, each saying they were going to heaven. All the while, the woman kept talking to Wayne.

Martin felt the hand of the childlike man on his shoulder again. He knew the man would ask if he were going to heaven. Even after Wayne’s sermon that morning, Martin knew how he would answer. He wasn’t a bad person. He did more good than bad. And if those girls could get by with playing cards in church then Martin felt that he get into heaven too. He knew he had done more good than the Down’s syndrome man. The tapping continued until Martin turned around, ready to give his answer.

“You’re going to hell,” the little man said.

The ready answer Martin had thought of wouldn’t work. He tried to think of a retort. This was why he didn’t like church. He pushed his way past the people in front of him and out the door.