Jars felt like he was looking into his son’s face for the first time. Three years had slipped silently by without a word passing between them. Kyle had changed. Boyish features had given way to previews of the manhood waiting in the wings. The physical evidence of Kyle’s parental union were strikingly evident. The young man had inherited his father’s height, standing nearly eye level as he greeted his father with indifference, dismissing Jars’ offered hand without so much as a glance. Not that Jars had expected a warm reception. He had no reason to. His own behavior—or better put, lack of anything over the past three years resembling fatherly behavior—pretty much guaranteed a cordial reunion. At least at its beginning. Perhaps as the evening unfolded they might make progress.
But what would progress look like?
Jars couldn’t imagine. They were total strangers to one another. No, actually it was worse. The atmosphere between strangers is neutral at first, drifting in one direction or another only after layer upon layer of impressions begin to pile up and take effect. First impressions get the ball rolling. From there the ball either gathers momentum in the same direction or is slapped into another trajectory as revelation melds with past experience. Sometimes the interaction is positive, both parties taking note of familiar refrains in the words coming from the not-so-strange-now person they find themselves warming to.
Then there are those times when the bad vibes that sound from the onset only rattle more intensely with each word exchanged, body language filling in the blanks. The adult version of sticking out your tongue. Thankfully, the smirk he’d seen on Kyle’s face on his eighteenth birthday was nowhere in sight. Jars only hoped it hadn’t gone underground, its bitter roots embedding themselves in the marrow of the young man’s bones.
Kyle had his mother’s blond hair and blue eyes. Eyes that had briefly connected with Jars’ own as the two munched on appetizers of jumbo shrimp cocktail. Although boasting a Victorian dining room, Jars had opted for a window booth in the hotel’s cafe with its rustic timbers and view of nearby Long Lake. The atmosphere was more than casual. It was Saturday evening and the cafe shared space with the hotel’s bar where patrons of all shapes and sizes, mostly men, seemed intent on swapping tales of hunting and fishing prowess. Both beer and laughter were flowing freely and Jars couldn’t help picking up on the general sense of camaraderie. Their server, Janet, a plain faced woman Jars guessed to be somewhere in her forties had warned them that the hotel was packed and the cafe would grow increasingly more crowded as the evening wore on. It was early black bear season. Most of the guests showed up year after year, never missing the annual ritual of feasting and fellowship, bound together by their common love of nature and the pleasure of being out in it. Hunting, especially bear hunting, breathed adventure and some of the men had brought a son along, a rite of passage from one generation to the next.
Jars could only imagine.
“Interesting choice, Dad. What is there about the place that appeals to you?”
The sarcasm was undisguised. Unlike his sister, Kyle had always called Jars “Dad”. He’d had a way of wielding the monosyllabic, even at a young age, in ways that distorted the meaning of the word far afield from its original intent. Jars supposed it was his way of coping with the unfortunate toss of the dice that had saddled Kyle with Jars as his father.
“My selection criteria was pretty simple. A quiet, out of the way place where the two of us could talk undisturbed over a good meal.” If Kyle was looking to bait him he wasn’t biting. The evening was too important.
“I’d say you got the ‘out of the way’ part right.”
Jars grinned. “I’m shooting for two out of three.” He hadn’t expected a crowd. Hopefully, it was a sign that the food was good. He caught sight of Janet threading her way towards them, pausing just long enough to drop off a tub of wing sauce at a neighboring table where an impressive mound of chicken bones was taking form.
Jars had opted for trout, the Billy Martin still occupying most of the space in his stomach. He wasn’t sure if it was local or not. Kyle’s lobster tail definitely wasn’t.
“How’s Cornell?” Jars asked. He had to get the ball rolling in some direction. Might as well start with the relatively neutral topic of education.
“It’s going. I’m thinking of applying to Law School after getting my Bachelors.”
“A lawyer?” This was interesting. Jars hadn’t pictured Kyle as someone up to the challenge of taking on all that was required to pass the bar.
Kyle dipped a generous forkful of lobster meat into drawn butter, letting it soak a moment before continuing on. “Yup. No better weapon around if you’re going to do battle with Neanderthals.”
“Yeah, Neanderthals. Closed minded right-wing Christians who think they have an exclusive lock on what’s right and wrong. Those guys are straight out of the stone age. Their positions on various social issues is as archaic as their out-of-touch-with-reality religion.”
“The role of women. Abortion. Gay marriage. To name a few.” Kyle’s fork transported the lobster from the pool of butter to his waiting mouth.
“And what sort of battle do you have in mind?” Jars wasn’t sure where this was going. Kyle had never struck him as being concerned with the general welfare of society. But then again, he really didn’t know his son. He would have preferred a different topic of conversation but he supposed he had to take what came.
“The longstanding battle for separation of church and state for one. There’s been a lot of progress over the years but there’s more to be done. Same with abortion and gay rights.” Kyle was becoming more animated, his words coming at a faster clip and slightly higher volume. Eyes dancing. “It’s really all one and the same. Just different tributaries of a single polluted stream.”
“And what would it look like when the war was won?” It was easy to get caught up in movements where passions run high. But had his son thought it through to the point where he could envision the end goal: how the world would look if he and those whose ideology he shared achieved their vision?
“Paradise regained, Dad, to use their own parlance. Paradise regained.” Kyle shot him a lopsided grin then turned serious. “A world where people get to do whatever seems right to them without the voice of a two thousand year old dead Jew hanging over their heads.”
Jars couldn’t mistake the inference. For a guy who got himself crucified, Jesus still had a knack for getting under society’s skin. If he were alive today he would probably get himself killed all over again. Crucifixion was probably out. But give an angry mob the opportunity and you never know what they might come up with.
“But don’t other religions do the same?” Jars didn’t consider himself an expert on the topic but had the impression that each religious expression came with some sort of moral code its followers believed should be universally adopted.
“Sure,” Kyle replied. “But Christianity is the one we have to deal with here in the U.S. At least for now. The Muslims are gaining strength of numbers and the more radical ones have an obvious penchant for violence but that’s the sort of stuff you can fight head on.” Kyle poured himself another glass of Riesling from the bottle they shared, a look of growing confidence spreading across his face. “We’ll take care of the jihadists all right. We have bigger guns. It’ll take time but we’ll get the job done. But you can’t shoot the Christians.” He paused. “Too bad. Those guys you have to take out in court.”
The look on Kyle’s face was disconcerting and Jars found himself wrestling with revulsion. Did his son really wish that Christians could be lined up and shot? Disposed of like a heard of diseased cattle?
The remainder of the meal passed in relative silence, punctuated now and then with renewed attempts by Jars to find some area of common ground. Some oasis where the two of them could linger and shield their parched relationship from the desert waste of twenty-one years of neglect.
Jars tried to keep his expectations in line with reality. But reality included the biological bomb embedded in his chest. Reality insisted that he face the fact that this might well be the last meal he would ever share with his only son.
A clock on the wall behind the bar, its face crowned with antlers, confirmed the day was edging closer to an end. In two hours it would be Sunday. Seven more and the Colt 45 Peacemaker program would once again determine his fate. At this point, Jars almost welcomed the possibility of death. It was clear there would be no kindling of warmth between father and son this night. No miraculous bridge spanning the chasm between them engineered by years of emotional distance. The only thing new in the experience was the all-pervading sense of regret Jars felt coursing through his being. It was unfamiliar. And painful.
[Intentional blank line]
In the darkness that hung about the small village of Long Lake there was a presence. A creature without form but with an insatiable appetite for human suffering watched with keen interest the reunion unfolding between father and son. Long had it sought Jars’ annihilation. Its involvement in the man’s life had begun generations ago, with Jars’ great-grandfather, a minister in a small town in the middle of nowhere. But a man whose influence for the gospel of Jesus Christ was becoming an embarrassment, threatening to infect many with a truth the sinister spirit could not allow within the boundaries of its realm. It had taken years of patient meddling but, in the end, it had managed to divert the attention of the preacher’s progeny to more acceptable ends. Like science.
To be sure, pure science was a great danger to its cause if pursued for the purpose of getting at essential truth, truth leading to the One who had created all things in the beginning. But science pursued primarily for financial gain or the accumulation of facts, even if it benefitted the foul race of humanity, was an ally. And science had such a predictable way of transforming almost everything it touched into a weapon! Humanity could be almost as cruel as the demons whose existence they denied.
Jars’ son was among the walking dead. An animated mass of self-absorbed pride ready to engage in whatever battle against Christ darkness chose for him. Jars himself, well… now he was always just a day away from death. True, he had survived the first day of his grand experiment—not that it was entirely his idea to begin with! They couldn’t force their ways upon anyone. But there were countless doorways open to them: greed, lust, bitterness, revenge, hatred, envy. Disappointment, sorrow, regret and plain old discontent could be turned into avenues of opportunity. For that matter, even contentment was useful, if it meant that a person was happy enough with a world of his or her own making, satisfied if only they could enjoy the peace and quiet of their self-appointed kingdom of insignificance. Undisturbed as long as the troubles of the world didn’t come calling at their door.
[Intentional blank line]
Nikki finished the last of her Cobb salad. It was one of her favorite meals, the rich combination of greens, tomato, avocado and chives contrasting with the meaty bacon and roasted chicken breast. Hard boiled egg and Roquefort cheese added their own voice to the feast-in-a-bowl with red-wine vinaigrette tying everything together.
She was sitting in the same booth in the hotel’s grill on the same side she sat when she had first met Jars the evening before. A soft smile stole across her face. God was amazing! Little had she imagined that in the span of a single week she would be part of a surgical team inserting a mysterious looking pacemaker into the chest of an anonymous male patient only to find herself spending time with him four days later during her vacation in a small village in upstate New York more than five hundred miles from where she lived.
Nikki hoped things were going well between Jars and his son. She had spent most of the evening praying for them. Some of the time on her knees in the quiet of her hotel room but mostly in the prayer closet of her mind as she walked around the village, enjoying the quiet charm found in the softly lit streets she roamed well off the beaten path most tourists trod. She had no idea why God had brought them together. But she didn’t need to. God had shown her that He could be trusted. The lesson hadn’t come easily and her heart still ached with the pain of losing her husband. But God had become both her Heavenly Father and, in a way, a surrogate Husband, caring for her and comforting her in Todd’s absence. Whatever came next came by way of a God who deeply loved her and invited her to be a part of what He was doing. He had equipped her with talents, skills and experiences perfectly aligned for her part in His great plan of putting to right all that was wrong. It gave her life purpose and brought her close, deepening her ever growing love for Him. The love that had begun when Mac and Marleah had introduced her to Jesus.
A cup of green tea appeared.
“Thanks, Angie,” Nikki murmured.
She hadn’t ordered the tea but in the few days she’d been staying at the hotel the staff had quickly picked up on her habit of drinking multiple cups of tea daily: two cups of black tea in the morning and three or four cups of green throughout the rest of the day.
A soft buzz sounded somewhere in the depths of her pocketbook. Before leaving, Jars had promised to let her know how things went with his son. Nikki hadn’t expected to hear from him until sometime tomorrow. But it was getting late and perhaps Jars didn’t want to keep her in suspense. They had exchanged phone numbers and now her iPhone was demanding attention. It was the third ring when her anxious fingers found what they sought.
“Hi Nikki. It’s Mac. I’m afraid I’ve got some tough news…”