Georgia Reiss was blessed. She sat behind the wheel of her mother’s 1986 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, the radio turned down, and drove up the country lane. The windows were down on the old yellow hunk of metal, and the wind tussled the little hairs around her ears and neck that had escaped her French braid. A pair of sunglasses sat on top of her head. Her dress fluttered at her knees.
She loved to drive. She loved the feeling of the car rolling through the air, the front end rising and falling as she drove faster and faster, giving her the feeling that if she pressed on the accelerator just a little bit more that the front end would come off the pavement and maybe she’d fly. She had spent a lot of time in her parents’ house these last few years, trapped inside those four walls. Trapped with all the love and care her parents could give her, but trapped nonetheless. But not anymore. Now she was free. Free to just hop into the car and drive to town anytime she pleased.
It was early October. The leaves hadn’t begun to change colors yet, but it wouldn’t be long. The night air had a bit of a nip in it, but on days like this, when the sun was forcing its way through the leaves of the trees, it was easy to think that summer would last forever. Georgia zipped up the black top road, litter fluttering off the shoulder as her car zoomed past. A long barbed wire fence ran the length of the road; on the other side of it, scores of reddish brown cows stood around, chewing cud, and whipping their tails. On the other side, a long line of tall green trees shaded her.
She passed a sign. Six miles to town, it said. Six miles. It was six months ago that she got her drivers license renewed. Six years ago that they took it away from her. During all that time that she wasn’t allowed to drive, she rode in the passenger seat. She looked out the windows at the cows and the trees and the fluttering litter. She saw them all, but none of it mattered. She read the “six miles to town” sign so many times that she didn’t even notice that someone had spray painted graffiti across it. None of it mattered to her as she looked on from the passenger seat. It was all just part of the scenery.
But not anymore. Not while she was sitting behind the wheel. Now the cows mattered — Georgia marked her progress by looking for the cows on the horizon. She felt the way the sun warmed her skin when it passed between the branches of the trees. She read every single sign that she passed as though she was traveling in a new world. There was just something different about being the driver.
On that day, she didn’t really have a destination. She wanted to stop by the book store and pick up a birthday card for one of the ladies at the church. She was turning seventy-five years-old and Georgia felt she had to do something. Other than that, she considered pulling into the old drive-in diner and picking up a chocolate malt. And maybe, just maybe, she’d drive out past Dean Foutch’s place. The last time she had driven out that far, he had been outside working under the hood of his old pickup, his shirt off, and his chest smeared with engine grease. He had heard the old Cutlass roaring up the road and looked up and waved as she drove by. She waved back, and her heart spasmed in her chest like it hadn’t done since she was in high school.
She thought about driving out that way again, and if he was outside, maybe she’d honk. Or maybe she had better not. The man was married after all. Georgia knew she was barking up the wrong tree, but she couldn’t keep her thoughts away from Dean and his oily arms. She was terrible!
Georgia giggled at herself as she passed the “Speed Zone Ahead” sign that signaled she was coming into town. She held a hand up to her face and touched her left temple. The sunlight stabbing through the trees was doing a real number on her eyes, making them twitch, and giving her a headache. Sometimes the sun was like that. All bright, then shadow, then bright again. Flicking one after the other after the other like a strobe light.
Ahead, the red flashing lights of the railroad crossing began to blink. She slowed and braked at the white line in front of the tracks. The train came speeding down the track, sounding its shrill whistle as it made it ways through the outskirts of town.
Georgia felt a wave of dizziness, and her legs began to feel a little like jelly. Her eye … it wouldn’t stop twitching.
“No,” she muttered, knowing full well that she couldn’t stop them once they started.
All the muscles in her body spasmed at once. Her head whipped to the side, her arms flopped in the seat. Her legs thumped the floor board, smashing into the accelerator.
It had been eighteen months since her last seizure. Eighteen months — and the doctors thought that they had them under control. They even let her have her license back. Eighteen months –
The Oldsmobile jumped forward. Perhaps if it was a newer car, it would have cleared the tracks, but it was an old piece of junk. The train smashed into it at more than forty miles an hour, sending it rolling up the tracks.
It flipped three times before the train knocked it off the track. It slid down a ditch on its roof, and skidded to a stop about eighty feet from the intersection.
The train’s wheels squealed to a stop.
And inside the car, the only sound was the sound of Georgia’s hand twitching on the roof.
Matthew Parker sat in his study at home, his laptop computer open on top of the desk. He stared at the blinking cursor on the screen, mesmerized by it. It blinked patiently at him, waiting for him to begin typing again. He read and reread the last words he had typed. And despite the yearning, the muse just wasn’t cooperating. Perhaps, he thought again for the hundredth time in as many days, perhaps it was time he retired.
It wasn’t that he wanted to turn his back on God. He didn’t. He still felt the same conviction in his heart to spread the word as he always did. It was just … different these days. It had taken more than thirty years, but Matthew was afraid that maybe the honeymoon stage was over. Now, getting up and stirring the spirit each Sunday morning, night, and Wednesday evening felt more and more like work. And then there were the revivals, the monthly singings, and the summertime vacation Bible schools. Little by little, the joy of getting up and proclaiming his love for God had been eaten away by the minutia that was his job.
Of course, he’d never say that out loud. He’d never even say it to himself silently, but he knew that the empty feeling inside him came to one thing. Things were just so much harder these days. In the beginning, when he was a bright eyed boy right out of college, his business degree under his belt and with a minor in speech, he was ready to change the world. He got his first job preaching at a small congregation in a little town on the edge of the state. There were only eighteen regular members, and he was younger than most of them by at least forty years. He learned a lot in the six years he spent preaching there. When he was twenty-eight he moved on to a larger church, and it was there that he met his wife. He married her at the age of thirty, and by thirty-six, they had had two children, and he was given the position as full-time preacher.
Since then, Matthew has devoted his efforts to building his congregation. He focused a lot of attention on the young people, knowing that like a lot of other habits, it was best to reach people when they were young. He grew their congregation from seventy-five people his first year to more than four-hundred fifty people at last Sunday’s services. The local radio station broadcasted the services every Sunday morning on both their FM station and their AM frequency. With the money raised from tithes and offering, the church has had more renovations than many of the buildings in the town — and it has afforded him the opportunity to preach full time.
He felt he should be proud of his accomplishments. He has baptized more than two hundred people in his career, has entered into the homes of thousands of believers and nonbelievers, and has prayed for more people than he could ever count. He should be joyous, ecstatic at such a great effort he has made in the name of God, but …
Despite the rather enjoyable life of shepherding a congregation, Matthew had begun to feel … something, gnawing at him. Guilt. It was always there. Nagging at him. It was there every time he looked at his wife’s new van with its DVD player and side airbags. He felt it every time he saw his teenage daughter sitting on the couch, texting her friends with her new cell phone and listening to some garbage on her MP3 player. He felt it every time he heard his son hop onto his Kawasaki motorbike and zip out of the driveway going God knows where doing God knows what. And worst of all, he felt it every time he opened his new laptop computer to write each week’s sermon.
But that wasn’t everything. He was also feeling it at the church. Standing at his pulpit, one hand clenching the beautiful cheery wood altar, his notes for his sermon neatly typed out and sitting next to his Bible. He felt it as he looked out at the nodding heads of his congregation. Face after face after face — a whole sea of eyes looking at him, a cacophony of voices mumbling “amen” every time he brought his fist down onto the pulpit. He knew most of their names, most of their faces. But he didn’t know them. Not really. There were too many to know these days.
And then there was Claire Cook — the young wife of one of the deacons. She liked to help out with the youth services, enjoyed coordinating outings to places like the circus or the annual campout when school dismissed for the summer. She was easily twenty years younger than Matthew, but she was always out there in the crowd, seven rows back from the front, looking up at him with her large blue eyes, her red lips pressed together in a prim smile. Of the four-hundred fifty pairs of eyes out there each Sunday, hers drew him back time after time after time. He’d glance down at her, wearing her stylish modern dresses, the kind that wrapped around her body like it had been custom made for her; he’d watch her until he realized that he was staring, and then he’d rip his eyes away and fling them over the rest of the members, skipping them off their gazes like a flat rock on a smooth pond.
Matthew was not one to be taken by a pretty face. There was something about Claire. Something different from all the other women in his congregation. She was the only one since marrying his wife that sent tingling shivers up his arms whenever they shook hands in the hall after services. She was the only one whose perfume was enough to drown out any conversation that may be going on around him. Her smile stopped his thoughts in their tracks. She was all he could think about.
Especially after the dream. Matthew, like any man, had the occasional sex dream. In most of these dreams, it was he and his wife locked together in animal-like passion, and when he awoke from these dreams, he would roll over and wrap his arm around her, pulling her close to him. But in this dream, it wasn’t his wife. It was Claire. And in the dream, she was all stark colors and shapes. The blue of her eyes glowed, contrasting with the deep red of her lips. And at first he marveled at how her dress conformed to her body until he came to realization that she wasn’t wearing a dress, that she was completely naked, and her skin was so smooth and warm and where their bodies touched caught on fire, but it was good to burn. And their lips met, and he could taste her, and he thought to himself how wonderful she tasted, and how he wished there was a way he could go on tasting and touching and burning and … And when he awoke, his serpent had become a staff, and the taste of Claire was still in his mouth, and he couldn’t stop panting …
Matthew clicked the computer shut and stood up from the desk. He couldn’t keep his mind on his sermon. It was happening more and more. Luckily, he had more than thirty years of sermons carefully filed in the filing cabinet next to the desk. If he had to, he’d dig through the archives and find one he hadn’t delivered in a while. Of course, he didn’t want to do that. Delivering old sermons was like reheating leftovers … they always left something to be desired.
“Maybe I should just quit,” he said again, running his hands through his hair. “Maybe it’s time I hang it up.” But then the rational part of his brain would speak up and remind himself that he had done nothing wrong. He hadn’t slept with Claire Cook. He hadn’t even spent any time with her outside the church. Sure, there had been a phone call or two, but they were church-related — and she was in charge of coordinating many of the youth group events.
And yet, things had been different. He noticed it. He noticed it in the way he spoke to his own wife. He noticed it in the way he looked at his kids. He noticed it in the way he spent all his time looking forward to the next service — not the way he used to, not because of an excitement to stand up and spread the gospel — no, it was all different now.
“Why?” he asked himself, or maybe God. He stepped out of the office and up the hall to the living room. It wouldn’t be long before the kids got home from school –
Just then, the cell phone in his pocket began to vibrate. He didn’t recognize the number, but he answered anyway.
The voice on the other end asked him if he was Matthew Parker, the preacher on the radio. “I’ll be right there,” Matthew said after the voice had finished speaking. He jotted a quick note and left it on the dinner table for his wife and kids to find, grabbed his hat from the hat rack beside the door, and left.
Six police cruisers, two ambulances, and a fire truck sat idling along the railroad tracks, their lights flashing rhythmically over the faces of the bystanders. Matthew walked amongst the crowd, his hat pulled down over his brow, and his Bible clutched to his chest. Many of the people standing around on the side of the road and in the grass along the railroad tracks moved aside for the preacher. A young, pimple-faced police officer with fearful eyes saw him and rushed over.
“Yes,” he said holding his hand out to the officer.
“Her car’s right over here.”
“She’s still in her car?”
“Yes, sir,” the officer said almost apologetically.
“Why haven’t you taken her to the hospital?”
A pair of older, more seasoned officers saw them, and met them halfway to the vehicle. The oldest — a man with “Issacs” engraved on his golden name tag, and a gray, bushy mustache — extended his hand to Matthew and said, “We can’t take her to the hospital. Mr. Parker?”
“Yes, sir,” Matthew said, “Why not?”
“She’s in bad shape, Father. She’s got–”
“I’m not a father,” Matthew said. “I’m not Catholic.”
Officer Issacs waved this away without comment, “We can’t take her out of the car because of the extent of her injuries. The entire front end of the car has pinned her in her seat. Fire department began to cut her out, but most of her left leg’s gone — we cut her out, she’ll bleed to death in a minute.”
“Oh dear,” Matthew said. He squeezed his Bible tight enough to turn his knuckles white.
“It’s a gruesome sight, Father.”
Matthew opened his mouth to correct him, but shut it again. “And she asked for me?”
“Yes, sir. She’s cognizant. A little woozy, but she knows what’s going on. Apparently she’s a member of the church?”
“What did you say her name was again?”
“Georgia. Georgia Reiss.”
“Georgia Reiss,” Matthew said. He couldn’t place the face. When he tried, all he saw was the face of Claire Cook. “Georgia Reiss,” he said again.
“Yes, sir. She’s not got much time left. The paramedics gave her a shot for the pain.”
“They’re on their way. Should be here any minute. They live out in the country.”
The officers led Matthew to the overturned car. The red and blue lights swirled around them, playing at the edges of his eyes, making shadows jump out from behind the vehicles and aid workers. The car sat on its roof, crumbled like a large piece of yellow tin foil. In the worst of the dents, the paint had been scraped away to a dull, uninteresting gray. Mud and dirt and grass clung to the door handle and bumpers. The windows were all shattered, and twinkling chips of glass were scattered around the ground.
They stepped up to the wreck and Matthew stared down into the vehicle. From his height and the angle, all he could see of Georgia was her hair, which lay unmoving on the roof of the car. “Is it safe?”
“Oh yeah,” Officer Issacs nodded. “Perfectly safe. For you.”
Matthew cut his eyes at the officer and then stepped toward the car. Carefully, pulling his slacks up as he knelt onto the glass covered ground, he laid down and stuck his head into the overturned car.
“Georgia?” he said wincing at the sight and smell of the car.
“Brother Matthew!” Georgia said happily, her bloodied hands still gripping the steering wheel in front of her. “I’m so glad you’re here!”
“Of course I’m here,” Matthew said, inching his way into the vehicle. He brought his arms up so that he was leaning on his elbows inside the car. His legs and torso remained outside the car, the backs of his legs warming under the same sun that had caused this accident.
He looked into Georgia’s bruised, bloodied, and dazed face and recognized her. He hadn’t talked to her much, but she was a regular at services. She had been on the prayer list for several years. She had some sort of illness … some sort of …
“You’ve got yourself in quite a pickle, huh?” he said. He didn’t know what to say. He had been at hospitals and at the deathbeds of many of the members of his church, but he had never had to extend pleasantries to someone who had blood trickling out of her hair.
“I had a seizure,” she said.
Matthew nodded. That was right. She was on the prayer list for epilepsy.
“Oh dear,” he said.
“It was the first one I’d had in eighteen months.”
She nodded. Her face was alarmingly red. Probably from sitting upside down. There was also a large knot just above her temple. And the knuckles of her hands were stained with already dried blood.
“I don’t think I’m going to make it, Brother Matthew.”
He swallowed hard and cleared his throat. “Well, don’t give up yet–”
“I’m not giving up,” Georgia said sweetly. “I just know that this is bad. I mean, I got hit by a train.”
Matthew chuckled in surprise.
“I wanted you to help me, brother. I’m afraid.”
“Child, you have nothing to fear. If the Lord has decided this is the day he’s going to call you home, then there’s nothing to fear.”
Georgia squeezed her eyes shut — though out of pain or agitation he couldn’t tell. “No, that’s what I’m afraid of.”
“Child, have you accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal savior?”
“Have you been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost?”
“Then you have nothing to be afraid of.”
“But I’ve sinned! I’ve sinned a lot.”
Georgia began to cry. Her tears welled up in the corners of her eyes, then ran sideways, over her temples and into her hair. Matthew expected her to wipe them away, but she didn’t. Her hands never left the steering wheel.
“We’ve all sinned, Georgia.”
“I’ve done so many bad things, Brother Matthew. I don’t think God will let me into heaven!”
“You’re not a bad person, Georgia. You’re a good person –”
“The way to heaven is narrow and few shall enter therein,” she said. “I’ve sinned so much. Did you know that I didn’t have any seizures until I was seventeen years-old? I hadn’t even kissed a boy yet. And at seventeen years-old, my entire life changed.”
“I was just walking through the living room, and wham! — it hit me! I fell on the coffee table and chipped my front teeth, broke my nose, and had to get three stitches. See the scar?”
He could. It ran along the bridge of her nose. Thin and white, it stood out stark against her pink, blood engorged head.
“They began coming more and more frequently. I had to finish my senior year of high school at home. They took my license away from me. My friends all left and went to college. They all left me behind. They all went on and lived real lives. Going to college, going to parties, getting married, having babies. And I stayed behind. And I hated them for it. I hated them for it, Brother Matthew.”
Matthew nodded his head.
“And my parents were so nice to me. I’m sure they didn’t want their daughter to just live with them forever. I’m sure they were ready for me to leave a long time ago. But they never said anything. They were always so nice. And so I tried to show them how much I appreciated them. I tried to show them by cooking dinner and taking care of the garden and washing the clothes — but I hated it all. I hated doing every dish. I hated pulling every weed. There was never a day that went by that I didn’t hate everything that I was doing.”
“I’m sure they appreciated you–”
“Oh, I’m sure they did,” Georgia agreed. “But I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t do it because I wanted to. I did it because I felt I had to do it. Out of obligation. And I resented them for it.”
“And then there’s Dean Foutch. I’ve lusted after Dean Foutch since high school. And sometimes I drive out by his house just to see if I could see him out working on one of his cars. And on the nights when he’d have his shirt off, I’d go home and I’d imagine him. I’d imagine him completely naked. And holding me–”
“Georgia,” Matthew interrupted. “What you’re describing are normal human emotions. Normal feelings–”
“No, they’re bad, Brother Matthew! They’re bad! You’ve even said so! In your sermons, you’ve talked about how pride and envy are chief sins! You’ve told us how a sin in thought is a sin indeed! And lust!”
The tears came from her eyes faster than before. Carefully, as to not cut himself in the glass, Matthew reached down and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket. He held it to the side of Georgia’s head, dabbing at the tear. It came back maroon with blood.
“I need you to pray for me, Brother Matthew. I need you to ask God to forgive me for all the things I’ve done.”
“He won’t listen to me! It’s too late for me. If I pray for it now, He’ll just assume I’m doing it because I’m afraid of going to hell. I need you to do it for me. You’re better than I am. He’ll listen to you.”
Matthew’s mouth opened, but it didn’t seem to be working properly. Georgia closed her eyes for a moment, and silence hung between them in the car like the lap belts in the back seat. Slowly, she opened her eyes and looked at him. “Please, Matthew. He’ll listen to you.”
“But,” Matthew said. The puddle of blood that had pooled around her hair was spreading, getting nearer his hands and Bible. He pulled the Bible closer to his chest and said, “I’m not better than you.”
“Yes you are, Brother Matthew. I’ve heard you. You’re one of God’s chosen ones!”
He shook his head softly. “I don’t know if that’s true, Georgia,” he said. “I’m just another human being — just like you.”
“No, you’re one of God’s prophets! You’re special.”
“I’m not, Georgia, no. I’m not,” he repeated it. “I have the same emotions and feelings and fears that you have. I’m just a man. I’m no more chosen than anyone else.”
“But you’re not bad. You don’t have to worry about hell.”
Matthew didn’t say anything. He looked down at his hands and saw that somehow he had gotten blood on his knuckles.
“We all have to worry about hell,” he said finally.
Georgia closed her eyes again. Her breathing was beginning to sound more and more labored. Matthew wondered if her parents were there yet. He wondered if maybe they were waiting for him to step away before they saw their daughter. Then she opened her eyes. “Please,” she said softly. “Just ask God to forgive me. It may not have been hell, but I don’t think I can go through anything worse than what I’ve already been through.”
Matthew stared into the poor girl’s eyes and thought about what she had said. He thought about his wife and kids who were probably sitting at home right at that moment, watching television and texting friends on their cell phones. He thought about Claire Cook with her beautiful eyes and her beautiful lips and the way his body tingled when she touched him. He thought about the way his days bled from one to the other, no distinctions, nothing to set them apart. He thought about Georgia.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll talk to God for you. But you need to know one thing–”
She looked at him. Her eyes glistened with tears and pulsed with blood. Her mouth was open. He could hear her breath.
He wanted to tell her that they were the same. He wanted to tell her that God didn’t go around picking and choosing people. He either chose everybody or nobody, but he didn’t pick favorites. But he didn’t tell her that. Instead, he climbed further into the vehicle, feeling the puddle of Georgia’s blood soak into his shirt, touching his skin, lukewarm and sticky.
He reached up and put one of his hands on hers, still clutching the wheel. With the other, he gripped his Bible and held it up toward the floorboard.
“Lord, it’s me,” he said. “It’s Matthew Parker. You called me out of the wilderness of sin as an usher of souls. You’ve bestowed the gifts unto me to reach out and soften the hearts of the sinners, and bring them to you in glory. I have a soul here for you today, Lord. Miss Georgia Reiss. Lord, I have never met a soul more deserving of your mercy. Lord, I ask you to forgive this woman of her transgressions, and welcome her into the home you have built for her in heaven … ”
He went on praying, but for the first time in nearly fifty years, he felt that the only ears that his prayer fell upon, was that of Georgia Reiss. And while he had no doubt that Georgia deserved more than anyone else he could think of a better lot than the one she had been given, he had no idea what was going to happen to her when her body finally gave up — would her soul go to heaven? Hell? Would it just blink away, here one second, and then gone, like it had never existed?
Halfway through the prayer, Georgia began to cry. And one of her cold, sticky hands unwrapped itself from the steering wheel, and she wrapped it around Matthew’s hand. And she began to say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” again and again, and his tears couldn’t help but fall then. “You did it,” she said, “You’ve saved me!”
When he said “amen,” he leaned up and kissed Georgia on the side of the mouth. “You’ll be taken care of,” he said.
“I know,” she said, “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me,” he said.
That’s when the screaming started. Not from Georgia. It was her mom. Someone outside the car, maybe Officer Issacs nudged Matthew’s ankle.
“Your parents are here,” he said.
“They are?” Georgia said. Her eyes were rolling in head, but she smiled.
“Yeah. I’m going to go now. I’ll see you later, okay?”
“Okay,” she said nodding.
Matthew worked his way out of the window, smearing the blood onto his chest and sleeves.
He got to his knees and stood up. He had no idea how long he was in the car, but the sun seemed to have shifted a little. He saw Georgia’s mother and father. He recognized them from services. Officer Issacs was holding Mrs. Reiss back, trying to calm her down and give her the bad news about her daughter. Mr. Reiss stood at his wife’s side, his knuckles in his mouth. His eyes blinked and blinked. Neither of them saw Matthew standing there in his blood soaked shirt.
He looked past them at the crowd of people who still stood around the scene. There were many who were crying. Many who were just standing around and talking. Many who seemed oblivious to the fact that a person was dying just feet away.
Matthew walked through the crowds of people, his hand clenched and unclenched around his Bible. He walked toward his car. He could hear snippets of conversation around him, but for the first time in weeks, his mind was completely clear. As he slipped into his car and started the engine, he thought again about Georgia. She’d be gone by nightfall. But maybe now she had her destination in mind.
And as he drove away from the scene, as he drove into town, as he drove past the street that would have taken him back home, it slowly dawned upon him that he had no idea where he was going.