- 2002 -
The months following Alexia’s ordeal and relocation passed all stretched and sinister like a Tim Burton movie. I’d walk through my home or school, searching any shadowy corner for the evil things I suspected lurked there in wait. I slept with my light on. And when I couldn’t bear even that, I moved upstairs and slept in my sister’s room. But it didn’t matter; the black faces followed me.
I hesitated a long time in naming them. Having spent my life delving in varying degrees into different world religions, I knew about such things as angels and demons; of heaven and hell. In one of my earliest memories, I remember sitting in my room crying about which place I might go once I die. At the end of the day, I knew that they were both a package deal — I couldn’t take one without the other. If I were to believe in pure evil, I must also have to find the courage to flip the coin and discover goodness in its purest form.
In that sense, you might say that the devil was my evangelist. Satan converted me to Christianity.
I had begun to pack my suitcase for my weeklong trip to Black Forest camp when I found myself going over the previous year: church, Wicca, baseball, darkness, light. Something about being away from home a long time, for the first time, made me rethink things. I found myself reevaluating my entire life.
Tracing the timeline of my existence from the most recent events to ones more dated, I traveled back past grade school, through infatuation after infatuation.
Where had it all started? I set the suitcase down half-full.
Propelled by some intrinsic curiosity, I went to the television and began searching through the videotapes for one movie in particular — one from a distant memory, about a hero who walked on a lake and saved the world from evil.
I was doubtful I’d find it. I couldn’t even remember what the cover looked like. We’d recently moved the television to the basement and gotten rid of many movies no one watched. I was fairly certain no one had watched it since Mom pulled it out of the VCR years before. Could it still have somehow survived?
After much rearranging, I found the movie there in the back, collecting dust –– the most overlooked story in our collection. I paused a moment to look over the cover, remembering like a photograph of someone else’s life. I unsheathed it, and pushed it in.
The three crosses from my memory flashed onto the screen. Sounds of screaming people came flooding back while guards roamed the rocky ground with swords and spears.
They have to know whether he’s God’s son or not, a voice repeated in my mind. If he lives longer than the other guys up on the crosses, then they’ll know for sure.
I was surprised to find my heart beating faster; this was it. I would finally find out what happened to this hero.
They had him hung up on that terrible piece of wood now. He turned and said something to the man hanging beside him: “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
Trash talk with the competition. This wasn’t the Jesus I’d heard people talk about, but I liked it. People said I had to act like him if I wanted to get to Heaven. This would make things a whole lot easier.
Some women came crying at his feet. The hero said some words to them, too, telling them to take care of each other and whatnot. And the sky grew darker. While guards huddled around the three men hanging in the clouds, the hero cried out dramatically, hung his head to one side, and came still.
I stood frozen in the middle of basement floor, confused. It had to be an act, I told myself. Some guards were coming along with a block, knocking out the men’s knees so that they’d die quicker. But Jesus was playing dead already, I thought. The guards wouldn’t break his knees now.
When they came upon the hero’s cross, the main guard stopped.
“Wait,” he said. Throwing the block to the ground, he bent and grabbed a spear instead, and gripped the end of it tight. With a quick, horrible thrust, he stuck the point into the hero’s side and a gruesome stream of liquid spilled out.
The guard nodded. “He’s dead.” Lightning cracked around him; a woman cried out.
They were pulling him down, wrapping him in cloth, taking him away…
I paused the video and stared unbelieving at the television.
The hero died first. He didn’t beat even one of the other guys? Wasn’t he supposed to prove his worth by surviving adverse trials, like other heroes? Was he the son of God, or wasn’t he?
Finally, I decided there must have been more to the story.
I took a seat on the recliner and hit rewind.
From the time the hero was born to the part where one of his best friends turns him over to be killed, the hero defied my expectations. He was exactly not who I thought he should have been. Instead of taking over authorities and fighting bad guys, he went around healing people, and at times, running away from those in charge. Instead of telling everyone to behave and obey all the rules so his job could be easier, he spent a lot of his energy telling the especially good rule-followers to loosen up a bit and stop thinking that following rules got them anywhere.
And when he got to dragging that wooden beam up that hill again, it hit me: the hero wasn’t trying to live the longest. He wasn’t trying to prove his power –– but to show his weakness. And what was his weakness? His love for the creatures I’d spent my whole life thinking he’d been competing against: humans.
No, he wasn’t in competition with other humans; he was in a competition with death — death in the world, death in human hearts, and in the blood that they pump. And when he hung his head, it seemed to most like death had gotten the better of him.
But at long last I let the film roll, and saw the best part of the story.
It took three days, just to show everyone he’d really been a goner, but at the end of the story he came alive again. He did win.
I watched the angels, the women at the cave entrance, the disciples on the roads and in the cities, and the hero as he floated back up to Heaven, where he belonged, feeling as if my very definition of story had changed.
My heart pounded at the dread and wonder of what all this meant. Since I’d started going to youth group, the pastor had said something once that had always stuck with me: to lose your life is to find it.
None of it had ever been about trying to live the longest.
A voice came on at the end of the video and some words filled the screen.
The voice was saying something about Jesus and about praying, and I got the sense that I should probably try it. The thought of praying made my skin crawl. I’d never done it before –– I’d never even tried.
In the end, my curiosity got the better of me.
I paused the video to clear my head. I figured that if I was actually about to talk to the God of the universe, I didn’t want him seeing all the usual junk floating around up there.
Then, thinking of my parents, I went upstairs to check if anyone else might be home who I didn’t want overhearing me. The place looked deserted.
I returned quietly and queued the tape up again, feeling very awkward and skeptical. I repeated the voice’s words out loud, sentence by sentence, certain that no living ear could hear me except perhaps those of a cricket or two beneath the sofa. The words came out heavy. The silence that followed weighed heavier. I waited.
I didn’t feel any rush of air or warmth of heart. No presence came upon me proclaiming that I was no longer alone. In fact, the moment felt so horribly anti-climactic that I threw the remote control onto the couch and went back to packing with the sole intention to erase from my memory having ever tried to pray and failed.
I left for camp the next day halfway convinced that all of it — the hero, the darkness, the evil faces — were all mere characters in a story I made up in my cluttered mind. And if I’m completely honest, there are still certain times when this seems so, when the most life and love could possibly amount to seems a purposeless season of wandering through thirsty, uncreated deserts.
But there is a kind of unbelief that’s not without help. At some point along the way, like an irresponsible tenant, I found that management had changed. A revolution swept across my heartland; my republic became a kingdom. I couldn’t tell for how long or how far, but days passed and all at once it became clear that I’d transformed into something altogether new — and more shockingly, I’d found myself with new company. I wasn’t any longer alone. And in no sleeping since that summer, either willful or unwillful, have I seen those flames that threatened me in the very beginning of things.
Like the hero, I had to be the first to die.
The drive home from camp passed like a daydream. Most trips home do, once you’re properly weary from your time away, resting in an afternoon lull between two adventures.
I remember walking through the front door of my house as if for the very first time, dropping my bags on the threshold to embrace my family, everything familiar, everything foreign. Nothing there had changed, of course, but everything had changed for me. I’ve heard people say that when you’re given new eyes, you simply can’t see things the same way you did before.
At last I lay sprawled out on the living room carpet, running my fingers across those alien fibers, watching the sunlight from the windows flitter over them. A thought as distant as those fibers drifted through my mind:
This is not my home, I thought, and nothing had ever seemed truer. This is not my home.