by Chris Hlad

A spirit struggles to find its way home.

D I S C U S S I O N  F O R U M  |  R E T U R N  T O  S T  O N L I N E

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Part 1: 2024—Dallas, Texas

They told him it was supposed to be humane; that much, at least, he remembered. But that was about it. The rest of his life up until now had, for the most part, been a series of flashes. The older he got, the more common they became, and lately all he could see were flashes. But it wasn't always like that, and, despite his current condition, he had found a sense of peace.

He remembered a time when he could still think somewhat clearly; when everything wasn't hidden by these lights. A song ran through his head. Odd time for a song, he thought, but it was there nonetheless. "Blinded by the Light." That was a real old song, but he remembered it from years ago when he was a kid. Hell, that song had been old back then. He hummed a few bars.

"Didn't know you had it in you, Charlie. Most men are crying or trying to break free right about now, but not you. You're humming an old Springsteen song."

Charlie looked over at the man who was preparing a syringe. He saw him clearly, and he knew what he was doing, but then the flash came. Blinded by the light once again. His body heaved against the weight of the leather chair he was strapped to, causing quite a commotion.

The prison doctor didn't jump. He'd seen all types at this final stage of their lives. He did cock his head slightly to one side, though, puzzled. When Charlie had been humming, it didn't seem like an act. He seemed genuinely in the moment, and (strangely enough), content. Now he looked like an animal, his eyes fierce and his body language saying that if he got free of his restraints, there would be hell to pay.

And just like that, the flash was gone, and Charlie remembered none of it. He continued humming the Springsteen song again as if nothing had happened.

"You are an odd one, Charlie."

He'd heard that before.

When he was young, before the flashes started, he'd had a normal life. He had parents who loved him and two brothers and two sisters he cared deeply about. Hell, he was even good at school, with plenty of friends. He was one of those people who was just born likeable… until the flashes started.

Charlie remembered the day the first one came like it was yesterday. He was on the schoolyard at lunch time, playing tether ball when all of a sudden it was like he was surrounded by one giant mirror reflecting the most intense silver lights one can imagine. That's where the memory stopped, but that wasn't where his actions stopped.

Apparently, he continued playing tether ball with his friend, but his friend's head became the ball. He'd pounded him so hard and so relentlessly that he'd broken his nose and both of his cheeks.

At least that's what they told him.

As far as little Charlie knew, anybody could have done that, and he, well, he just wouldn't. Andy was his friend, and he'd never want to hurt him. That's what he told the principal, the police and his parents, but nobody believed him.

It was explained to him time and time again that everybody on the schoolyard had heard the commotion, and everybody saw that it was him who tried to kill Andy.

Kill him! That's what they said to him. Kill. All Charlie remembered was being surrounded by very painful bright lights, and he told them as much, but nobody bought it. His savagery, apparently, had made quite an impression on a lot of people, and he could see, for the first time, fear in the eyes of his parents. He didn't like that, and he didn't understand it. Young Charlie felt like he hadn't done anything because he didn't remember doing anything, but he was having a hard time convincing anybody of that.

"We'll deal with this," his father had said.

"I'm sorry, sir, it's not going to be that easy," a police officer said.

"I'm his father. I'll take care of this," he said again.

"Sir, the parents of the other child are pressing charges," the police officer said.

"I should hope so," the principal said, showing exactly whose side she was on.

"So what, you're telling us we can't take my own son home?" his mother asked, her voice cracking.

"Yes ma'am. We have to take him to juvenile detention until a judge hears his case."

"You can't do that," his father said.

"Sir, I know you know about all of the laws that have been put into place in schools recently. This wasn't just a fight on between two boys." He shook his head. "You didn't see the condition of the other kid. He looked like his head had been stuffed into a blender. We're treating this as attempted murder."

"Murder?" Charlie, his mom and his dad said simultaneously.

"For the time being, yes. We're going to have a doctor evaluate him, and unless he is declared insane, it will most likely go down as attempted murder."

That's when the commotion started, and that's when the police officer took him out to the car. Charlie remembered looking back and seeing the policeman's partner physically restraining his parents from coming after him.

At juvenile detention, he was asked a lot of silly questions by a doctor who didn't seem half as bright as his sixth grade teacher, and that was when she declared that he wasn't insane, just an "…odd one. In fact, in all my years of practicing, I've never seen anything like it. We'll run a CT scan on your head, but something tells me it'll come out just fine."

Well, had they done the tests, they would have seen that something wasn't right, but those tests never happened. Like so many other cases, his got lost in the paperwork, and as far as the judge or his parents knew, he was perfectly healthy. Charlie knew he wasn't healthy, and he still had no recollection of what he'd done to Andy. He hadn't, however, had another of those terrible blinding moments since, and he began to doubt himself. That, unfortunately, wouldn't last much longer.

As he stood before the judge with his parents at his side and the judge started to read the verdict, everything in Charlie's world disappeared; everything except for the blinding lights, that is.

The next thing that he knew after the lights went away was that he was strapped to a gurney in a padded room. There was a small window in the padded door, and Charlie could see a man looking in on him. Once the man realized he was awake, he came in. But he wasn't alone. There were three men in white coats and one policeman. Charlie may have been young, but he knew this couldn't be a good sign.

"Why did you do it, Charlie?" was the first thing that the doctor asked.

Charlie didn't answer. He was scared, and, exactly like the incident on the schoolyard, he didn't have a clue what the doctor was talking about.

"She was your mother, for God's sake," the policeman said. He was glaring at Charlie, and Charlie vomited on himself. He loved his mother, and the thought that he'd done anything to her tore him up inside.

"I guess that's his way of saying 'I'm sorry,'" the policeman said.

"I think you should probably keep quiet," the doctor said sternly.

"Okay. You're the boss here," the policeman snidely answered.

Finally, Charlie spoke. "What did I do?"

"That's a good one," the policeman said.

The doctor gave him a stern look, and he rolled his eyes. He didn't say anything else, though. "What's the last thing you remember, Charlie?"

"Standing up before the judge and then these terrible lights."

"You don't remember anything else?"

Charlie didn't have to think about it. "No."

"Typical," the policeman said.

"Will you please shut up," the doctor said more forcefully than before, although without raising his voice.

"No, I won't shut up. Look, doctor, with all due respect, I've seen this thing more times than I'd like to remember. Somebody goes nuts, kills somebody else…"


"Yeah, kid. You grabbed her throat so tightly that her neck snapped. And now you're going to play the denial card to get a free ride off the government in the looney bin instead of taking a seat in the armless chair when you come of age."

"Get him out of here!" the doctor said to the orderlies.

"You're out of your jurisdiction on that one, doc, but I'll go anyways. I can't stand the smell of bullshit in here, and the puke on top of it isn't helping matters."

Charlie didn't watch him walk out; he didn't care. All he cared about was his mommy. He couldn't have hurt her. "Did I…" He couldn't finish the question.

The doctor didn't answer; he didn't have to. "We'll figure out what's going on, son."

Over the next few weeks, Charlie went through numerous tests to see what was wrong with his head, all of which came back negative. None of his family members ever came by, and he didn't blame them, considering what he'd done to his mommy. He thought he'd never see them again, and he was right. At first he didn't blame them, but the resentment eventually started to build. It wasn't really his fault; the flashes took away his memory and made him do horrible things, but these were things that he would never even think of doing.

Or would he?

As the years went by, he'd have more flashes, but he was kept alone, first in the padded cell as an adolescent and then as a young adult in county, so he didn't hurt anybody anymore. Sure, some of his 'episodes' were witnessed, but the guards and doctors always wrote it off as Charlie keeping up the front that he'd used as a kid to avoid more time behind bars, and he was finally released at twenty-seven—twenty-one years after the incident on the playground.

Charlie had nowhere to go and didn't know what to do, so the state put him on a public housing plan and gave him a mindless job working for the city. All of that made him feel better (or at least more human), and the flashes even seemed to go away, but still that question lingered in his mind: What made me do those things? Were the doctors right and was it all a front? Was it a 'coping mechanism' as the prison shrink (the tall lady with the lisp) had said? Was he really guilty and in some sort of control the whole time?

There was only one way to find out. He knew it was the wrong way to go about it, but he had to be sure. He had to know if he really killed Mommy and was covering it up like the 'professionals' said, and he had to find out soon. The nightmares that he was having about the playground and his mother were getting worse, and he needed some peace of mind, no matter what the cost.

That next night, he executed his plan. He looked in the mirror before leaving the public housing and evaluated himself. He looked normal, felt normal, and wasn't seeing any flashes. So how would it feel now? Would he remember or would he 'cover it up'? Time to find out.

Charlie didn't need to think it through much, because it was all very simple. He clipped his buck knife to his belt, threw on a coat to cover it up, and walked a few blocks down the street from where he lived. He looked at the names on the apartment directory, and found a person who lived alone. He noticed her name was Emily Maston, but he didn't dwell on that fact. This was nothing personal. If anything, it was a clinical trial.

There was no security system at the apartment, so he didn't need to be buzzed in. He just walked to apartment number 202 like a casual friend and knocked on the door. Charlie heard footsteps as she came to the door and opened it. "Hi. Can I help you?"

"God, I hope so. I've been having these terrible dreams and I have to kill you to see if I'm responsible."

Emily Maston, of the Maston family from New England, stood there with her mouth open and a quizzical look on her face, wondering if she'd heard what this stranger at the door had just said correctly, while she should have been reacting.

Charlie pushed her inside and slammed the door as quietly as one can slam a door, pushing her up against the door adjacent to the wall and covering her mouth with his right hand as his left went for the knife. He was going to make this as quick and painless as possible, but remain observant. He didn't want to kill anybody for no reason, but he had to know if the shrinks were right. As he slit her throat and Emily Maston was no longer able to scream, he was aware of everything. He was aware of the life flowing out of her as he watched, and he was very aware of the fact that he did it. That proved he was innocent. Well, innocent of killing his mother and beating what's his name on the playground to a pulp. Now, maybe the dreams would go away.

Calmly, selfishly and with absolutely no real regard for the life that he had just taken, he walked over to the kitchen and started to rinse the knife off in the chipped white tile sink. That was when he heard Emily's boyfriend, who just happened to be a cop, open the door. And, at almost the same instant, he heard the unmistakable sound of a gun being drawn from a holster, a sound he'd heard way too often during his time incarcerated.

Charlie didn't try anything; he'd found his answer and the last thing he wanted to do now was get shot. No, he'd be perfectly content going back to prison (hell, life on the outside wasn't all that he'd hoped for anyways). So Charlie laid himself stomach down on the kitchen floor and laced his fingers together behind his neck, telling the officer exactly where he was, what he was doing, that he didn't have access to his weapon and he wouldn't resist arrest.

Charlie had found the peace that he was looking for, but that didn't stop the flashes from coming back. The only difference now was that the 'authorities' thought he was using them to avoid a new murder rap. It didn't make a difference in Charlie's mind; he wasn't avoiding anything and he did murder somebody. And, while it was never Charlie's intention to get caught, he knew that was a definite possibility. He also knew what the consequences were: death by the armless chair.

And now was the time.

No fewer than four correctional officers unstrapped Charlie from the gurney while a fifth had a gun pointed at him the whole time and strapped him to the chair. He was willing to go on his own accord, but given the violence he exhibited during his so called 'fake' flash incidents, he could understand their security measures.

The armless chair wasn't completely armless; there was only a piece of the armrest that was missing on both sides just below where the wrist restraints went and the middle of his forearm. Poised over the areas where there was no armrest were two large stainless steel blades, which reminded Charlie of little guillotines. This was the state's latest invention of humane capital punishment. The idea was that so long as the proper amount of Novocain was injected into the area that was going to be cut, the prisoner wouldn't feel a thing and would simply bleed out.

And it worked because the prisoners really didn't feel anything, but it sure played tricks on the mind, Charlie's included. After the blades fell he sat there and watched his hands go limp and angle downward at an angle that just wasn't right. And the blood. There was so much of it. It was enough to drive anybody crazy, or at least drive them to see those same damn shiny white lights.

"Good old Charlie," one of the officers said. "Consistent till the end." He looked at his watch. It was one thirty in the afternoon. Right on time.

The silver lights faded, and although his eyes weren't open, he was seeing. He was watching a man and a woman having intercourse on a bed that looked like an antique, and he knew on some level that this involved him, but how, exactly, he couldn't be sure.

* * *

Part Two: 1902—England

The Berkshires received the greatest gift possible on March 3, 1902. The baby was especially special to the Berkshires because they had been trying for so long, and the physicians all told them that they should give up hope, and that it would be best not to dwell on the subject since it was an impossibility. The Berkshires never gave up hope, and their little baby girl was brought into this world just after 1 a.m.

They decided on the name Sharon for their miracle baby, and they treated her like the gift she was. Even when times were difficult, Jonathan Berkshire made sure that his little angel was never in need (or want, for that matter) of anything. This would often mean great sacrifices on his part, but he was more than willing to do so. The same could be said of his wife, Eleanor. She was happy to go hungry during the difficult times so that Sharon would not, and, like Jonathan, she never once complained.

When Sharon reached the age where her education was to begin, Jonathan and Eleanor made sure that she attended school. It was not the fanciest, private school that they both wished they could afford to send her to, but it was the best that they could do.

As Sharon grew into a young woman, she was very happy. Unlike most adolescent girls she knew, she never had an urge to rebel in any way, because deep down inside she knew it would be wrong. She could see the daily struggles and sacrifices that her parents made for her, and she knew that they had been doing this since the day she was born. She imagined they'd been preparing for her and making sacrifices for her even before she came into a real, physical existence. She never asked them about this; she didn't need to. Sharon knew that her parents would do anything for her, and she felt the same way towards them.

Her family wasn't rich by any means, and although she wanted to see the physician for a discomfort she sometimes had, she didn't. It wasn't inhibiting her in any way, but she was curious to know what it was. The odd thing was that it only happened at a specific time: one thirty in the afternoon.

On days that it happened, she would feel a pressure just below her wrists—a sudden and heavy pressure—and then, for about ten seconds, she wouldn't be able to move her hands. It didn't happen often, maybe twice a month, but she did find the whole thing curious. Curious and familiar, in some odd way.

For a while, Sharon wondered if she'd had some sort of accident as a child that she didn't remember, and she wanted to ask her parents about it, but she didn't for fear of hurting their feelings. Sure, it would be good to know if this is what was causing her episodes, but at the same time she didn't want her parents to feel as though she was blaming them for anything.

So, she just let it go, and dealt with it. After all, twenty seconds a month was really no big deal in the grand scheme of things, and there were people who had it a lot worse than her.

Besides, her parents had taught her that God would never give somebody a cross that they couldn't bear, and if this was her cross, so be it. She would carry it not with self pity, but with pride.

Even more so than her parents, her relationship with God was the thing that mattered most to her in her life, and she was thankful that her parents had given her this gift, this knowledge, of a higher power and a higher purpose. Unlike a lot of her friends, she enjoyed going to church, and even looked forward to it. By the time she was around twelve, she would even go to church some days after school because it gave her such a sense of peace—a peace that she couldn't find anywhere else.

It was also at this time that she decided to give her life to God, and let Him chart the course of her life out for her. Her plan was to finish her formal education, and find some way to do His work. While a woman would never hold a position of esteem equal to that of a man, she knew she could still do charitable works through the church that would help her fellow men and women, and wasn't that what life was really all about?

Sharon debated being a nun for a while, but decided against it. She was very outgoing, and the nuns that she saw were usually very quiet and adhered to strict rules. She admired these women for their sense of discipline, but she knew she wasn't cut out for this.

Her faith never wavered, and Elanor and Jonathan couldn't have been more proud of her. As she grew into a young woman, they noticed that she spent more and more time at church, reading her bible and doing her best to serve her fellow man. On more than one occasion, they had heard her talking to her friends about her relationship with God, which made them even more proud. She had her faith, and she wasn't afraid to let others know about it. That was a gift that would serve her well in life.

And it did, until the world seemed to be coming to an end and her faith was tested.

She was fifteen when the sickness started. At first, it was a few cases here and there, but by the time she turned sixteen, it had turned into an ugly monster that seemed intent on destroying all of mankind.

The physicians were calling it the 'Spanish Flu,' but to Sharon, it was something more than just a sickness. It was evil personified, tearing apart those around her, especially those who were around her age. The physicians explained that the disease typically attacked young adults with healthy immune systems. This made no sense to Sharon and seemed to refute everything that she'd learned thus far. Weren't people with weaker immune systems supposed to be the ones getting sick? And wouldn't that mean that the newly born or the elderly would be the most prone to sickness? It didn't make sense to her. Life was fragile enough, and it just didn't seem fair that those who were in their prime were being struck down.

Surely this could only be the work of the Devil? If this was the Devil (and Sharon truly believed that it was), then why wasn't God stepping in and doing anything about it, especially now that her father, a man of faith, had come down with the disease? It made no sense! This thing, this demon, usually didn't attack those who were older. There were exceptions, of course, but why did her father have to be one of them?

"It's just God's way," Jonathan told her.

"It's not right."

"Don't you ever question the motives of God, child!" He tried to yell at her, but it came out as more of a gurgle because the nature of the disease was a hemorrhaging form the mucus membrane, the nose, stomach and intestines.

"I'm sorry, father, but it pains me to see you here like this. Why won't God help you?"

He smiled at her. She was so young and full of so many questions. "It's not that bad," he said as a slow stream of blood started to come out of his nose again. Sharon was right there to clean him; to be of service to her fellow man. "And I'm not done yet. Who's to say that God won't help me?" He coughed, more violently than he'd coughed before, and this time there was more blood. So much more blood.

She tried her best not to let it faze her, but even though it was her father, she couldn't help but feel a sense of repulsion. This was the Beast attacking this innocent, God fearing man, and the blood that came out of him seemed to be mocking her and her beliefs. "Shh, father," she said. "You're right, God may still help you." She didn't believe a word of it, but it was the only kind thing that she could say. Unfortunately, he didn't hear a word of it.

"Father? Father!" She screamed and started shaking him at the shoulders, knowing all the while that he was dead. The Beast had killed him and God had done nothing about it.

Her mother stood behind her, crying silently and doing her best to keep her composure. She'd been standing there the whole time, and knew that Jonathan had moved on to a better place, and the one that was really hurting now was Sharon. "It's okay, baby. He's at peace now."

"It's not okay!" Sharon said, sobbing. "It's not at all okay."

"It's God's will," Eleanor said.

"Not my God!"

Eleanor had no response for this. Sharon was the real spiritual one in the family, and to see her disavowing everything that she believed in was heart breaking and filled her with anger. But she knew—she absolutely knew—that the worst thing she could do right now was get mad at her daughter.

Sharon stepped away from her father and ran out of their dwelling.

"Sharon! Sharon, please come back," Eleanor said, but it was too late. She heard the wooden door open and close, and all she could do now was wait for her daughter to come back. She looked down at Jonathan, and collapsed on his body, overcome by grief.

Sharon just ran, not sure where she was going. She didn't know what to do. She wasn't a doctor and she couldn't cure anybody. Was her purpose now to wipe away the blood of those chosen by the Beast and ignored by God? Was that the best that she could do?

If it was, she wanted no part of it. Her father was a good and righteous man, and he shouldn't have died, but God had let him. It was at this point that Sharon lost her faith completely. She had just turned eighteen, but had seen too much to ever believe that a God who would allow this sort of suffering could possibly be anything but evil Himself. She vowed never again to speak His name or to step foot into His place of worship, and this made her feel better: at least now she had somebody to blame.

She stopped running and continued walking in a daze. Her home was in Plashett, and as she approached the fields that would lead to Plaistow, she had an idea that she would never see home, her friends or her mother again. Her initial reaction to this was sadness, but it was quickly replaced by anger: anger at herself, anger at the Beast, and, most intensely, anger at God. She knew she was leaving not only because of what she'd seen there, but because of her past there.

Plashett was a place where she saw by example the power of love through all that her parents had done for her; the sacrifices she knew they'd made that they thought she didn't know about. These were the things that she had always held close to her heart, and they were positive memories, even now.

But that couldn't outweigh the other experience she had in her home village, because this was where she learned about God. His Unconditional Love. His Forgiveness. His Compassion.

Life was a whole different ballgame, though, wasn't it? When the chips were down, where was God?

She knew this. He was everywhere. He wasn't just in the Church that she went to, but He was in the people that she met and all of His wonderful creations. He was even in the wheat field that she was rapidly approaching. Yes, this was one of His creations too, and as she got closer, she didn't want to go into it. She wanted to burn it down and then pass through. God was everywhere and doing nothing.

She coughed.

Didn't this make him the biggest hypocrite in the world? He had the power to help people; He had the power to help her father and everybody else that was dying from this thing that people were starting to call the Spanish Flu. (Silly people, it was simply the Beast, but for some reason, giving it a medical name made it seem less formidable—less frightening.)

But not to Sharon. Her faith had given her the ability to see things as they really were, and what things really were was God losing a fight, or maybe not fighting at all, which would mean he was something lower than a loser.

She coughed deeper this time.

Sharon now had a clearer idea of where she was going. It was funny what a clarifier anger could be. In fact, contrary to what she'd been taught, it could be a very positive thing, because it let you see things as they really were. She'd heard of being blinded by anger, but that was all wrong. All anger did was let you see things more clearly, and her vision was certainly crystal clear now.

Cough with phlegm. Why was it a pinkish color?

She was going to cross this field and go to Plaistow where she would take Poplar Road to the London Hospital. It shouldn't take her too long to get to the road, and then the hospital was only a few miles away.

Sick people went to the hospital, and although she wasn't sick (another cough—this time the pink was a red that could only be one thing), she wanted to bear witness to what the Beast was doing and what God was not doing. Her faith had taught her to be a beacon, a light, and to not hide, and she had no intention of hiding now. She was going to face the Beast. She couldn't do a damn thing about it, but she could look at it in the faces of those dying and tell it to go to hell, which was more than her God was doing.

She entered the wheat field, which came up to her shoulders. Harvest Season was coming, even if there would be nobody there to harvest the crop. What a waste, she thought.

As she walked, she started plucking stalks of wheat out of the ground—just a few—and held them in her arms like an infant. Somebody cares, she thought to herself. Somebody isn't going to let it all go to waste. She had no idea what she was going to do with the wheat that she gathered, but it didn't really matter. What was important was that she was doing something, which was more than she could say of a certain deity.

The sky that had been grey all morning was starting to get darker, and Sharon felt the first droplets of rain on her head. It felt good, considering how hot she was. She took a deep breath, and it sounded like a gurgle. It must be the rain, she thought. Maybe I breathed some of it in.

She didn't believe it, but it was enough to keep her moving forward. She had to—she would make it to the London Hospital and tell the Beast where to go.

She stumbled on a stone in the field, landing on her hands and knees as the wheat went flying out of her hands and mixing in with the rest of the crop. She breathed deeply again, hot and feeling like she was under water. I'll just lay down for a couple of minutes and rest, she thought to herself. Besides, the rain falling on my face will make me feel better.

It did, but it didn't help her breathing out one bit. In fact, it made her feel like she was drowning. Sharon tried to get up, but quickly discovered that she couldn't. Her breathing became more and more labored, and with each breath she was getting less and less oxygen. She knew what was happening, and couldn't be in denial any more. She was scared. I'm going to die in this wheat field and then what? They told me if I was a good girl, I'd go to Heaven and I believed it, yet here I lay waiting for the Beast to take me away. What now? What now!

As she took her last underwater breath in a deserted wheat field, her eyes were open and reflected a fear that was entirely primal.

Her next feeling was that of light. A light of compassion and love that she had never felt before. It was something that she innately knew she wouldn't even be able to comprehend in her previous life. Immediately, she felt shame, but she also felt forgiveness. The light welcomed her, but she couldn't accept it; she didn't feel herself deserving. She had a choice. She could either accept the light's forgiveness or…

* * *

Part 3: 40 A.D.—Rome

John's mother died giving birth to John, which was common for the time period. Naturally, Mark, his father, was upset, but he wasn't distraught. He'd seen too much in his 55 years of existence to be too upset. Grieving was a natural part of the human condition, and he did grieve, perhaps just not as much as he would have if he'd been born 100 years earlier.

Back in those times, nobody knew what to expect when someone passed on from this existence, but now, now he knew. He'd been taught, and he believed. How could he not? Mark was there. He'd witnessed all of it, and it had changed the world forever.

He'd been fifteen when the one who came to teach died, and, although young, he remembered seeing the miracles performed by the Teacher. He'd never met the man personally, but he'd seen Him from a distance.

Mark had his parents to thank for this. They were gone now, but when they were alive, they were devout Jews. He remembered his parents taking him to see the Teacher, although they could never get very close because of the great crowds that followed him wherever he went, up until the day he died. Even then, he was surrounded by people, although these people had turned on him and sentenced him to die.

He was fifteen at this time, and an adult in the eyes of his parents and his religion. He didn't ask permission to go to Golgotha on that day, and he didn't regret that part of it. There were things of a much greater magnitude drawing him to that place, and even if his parents had said no, he would have gone anyways.

Still, he couldn't get close. He wanted to be near the Teacher, to show his devotion and support, but this great man was surrounded by a mob 50 deep, and those closest to the Teacher were being beaten and sometimes killed.

It didn't matter to Mark. He would have been willing to die just to be close to the Teacher, but it wasn't meant to be. But on that morning, the morning that everything died, he knew in his heart with a certainty that he'd never felt before that the Teacher knew he was there. Through all of the beating and suffering, The Teacher knew he was there. Mark also knew, without a doubt, that he was loved.

He'd heard all of the stories of the Teacher coming back, but he never saw Him, nor did it matter. Like the day when everything died, he knew that everything was alive again.

So, when his wife died, he was saddened, but mainly for himself. She had been his companion for as long as he could remember, and now she was gone. But where she went was to a much better place and to much better company; she was now in the house of the Teacher, and he was still here in the world.

It was a shift, and a shift that he just had to accept. His wife was gone, but his son was here, and he felt that his life's work now was to care for his son and teach him what the great Teacher had taught.

And that is how it happened that at a very young age, John began hearing about the Teacher and the wondrous deeds of love that He performed: through his father. Now, like most young boys, his father was his hero, and he immediately believed everything he said. But as John grew into a young man, his belief didn't falter. When he was at an age where he could think more independently and form his own opinions, all he had to do was look into his father's eyes and see his faith.

But it wasn't just his father; throughout the Roman Empire, there were only two types of people: those who believed and those who did not, and both sides were adamant in their ways of thinking. John became a believer, as his father knew that he would, and decided when he was still very young that he would tell others about the great Teacher, and maybe even change the minds of some of those who still had yet to believe. It would not be an easy task; he knew that from the beginning. In fact, it seemed to be getting more difficult every day, but that didn't matter, as he told his father Mark while he was on his death bed.

"Are you smiling because you approve of my decision?" he asked as he held his father's hand, putting cool water from the clay jar on his warm forehead with a rag.

"Yes, of course that brings me much joy."

"Are you in great pain?"

"Yes," he said, still smiling. He actually looked happy because he was. The pain was excruciating, yes, but it would be over soon. "I will be with the Teacher soon now, son, and that is the greatest joy of all." And with that, Mark died.

John had a proper burial for his father, but didn't spend much time mourning. By nature, he was much more emotional in that regard than his father was, but he focused all of his energy on the promise he'd made to the man on his death bed.

By the year 65, when John was 25, he had already made quite a name for himself amongst other Christians. He seemed to know more than others, and had a way of voicing this to the masses which could be nothing but a gift. Throughout Rome, he was regarded as a great orator and a great believer, and he inspired many, both Christians and non-Christians. Indeed, he was fulfilling the promise he'd made to his father, but more importantly, John knew he was doing what the great Teacher wanted him to do.

As he converted people and became more and more well-known for these conversions, he also made more than a few enemies. When he'd started his mission, he knew that there would be obstacles, but the amount of hatred that was being directed towards Christians seemed to be getting worse and worse every day. More and more Christians were being martyred, and he knew that his days were numbered if he continued on the path he was on.

For a moment, he waivered. He knew he had done the Teacher's work, and he knew that he had done it well. What good would he be if he was dead? Maybe he could keep a low profile until things calmed down and his name was forgotten. After all, hadn't he just recently been told that his name was being mentioned amongst some very prominent Roman officials? John knew that most Romans didn't like Christians, especially in the government sector. If his name was being brought up there, surely it was only so that they could make an example of him. And this thought terrified him, but it was also the answer to his question, for what could be more noble than to be made an example of in the name of the Teacher? That made up his mind, and rather than quieting down, he preached louder, more proudly and with more confidence than he ever had before.

None of this pleased Nero, who was Rome's sixth emperor and just a little bit off his rocker. He was more than slightly paranoid, and suffered from delusions of grandeur.

It didn't help that he was surrounded by people who only reinforced his twisted beliefs.

Nero had heard of this man John, and immediately associated him with John the Baptist, who had somehow lost his head. He laughed at his little joke, and told it to those around him, who laughed much louder and harder than they should have.

"Do you want us to bring his head to you?" one of his servants asked.

"That's a very generous offer, but I need to see how that would feel first." He looked at one of his guards and said, laughing, "Give me his head!" pointing at the servant who had made the suggestion.

The servant had a look of shock on his face, which didn't last long. If you were a guard of Nero, you didn't ask questions and you didn't hesitate. Nero got off of his seat and picked up the servant's head by the hair. "No, this doesn't feel right," he said, addressing his entourage of servants and guards. Then he moved the face of the servant so that it was an inch from his mouth and started screaming. "You want me to mimic Herod?! And that idea was given to him by his daughter! A woman!" Spit flew into the dead man's face as he yelled, and when he was done, he threw the head against the nearest wall. "Somebody clean up this mess! I've got much more in store for this John and his like."

One of his servants immediately began cleaning up the mess that Nero had made. He looked down at his sandals and saw that there was blood on them. This he did not like. "And somebody clean my feet and sandals." He sat back down on his seat, and had his every wish taken care of, as was always the case. And, in Nero's mind, always would be the case.

John heard tales of this incident that happened at Nero's palace, but it didn't really matter to him. Once he accepted that he was willing to die for his faith, and in a sense even wanted to die for it, nothing mattered except his mission. And his mission was preaching. The only time that he deviated from his mission was in the year 64.

It was during the night of July 18th when he first saw the smoke rising from a part of the city that he was close to—the merchants' area of Rome. People were screaming and running away from the fire as John ran towards it. He knew that if this fire got out of control, the whole city was likely to burn, and countless numbers of innocent people would be killed. With the summer winds blowing, the fire could not be allowed to ravage the wooden structures of the Imperial City, so it had to be taken care of immediately. When he arrived at the location, he saw that it was much worse than he imagined, and immediately he began helping people who were trapped in burning structures.

He, along with every other able bodied person in Rome, continued fighting the fires, but it was useless. The fire seemed to be alive, and John kept thinking of it as the Beast. He didn't know why, because he wasn't one to give human or animal characteristics to something out of nature, but something in his head kept saying, "This is the Beast, this is the Beast, this is the Beast."

For six days and seven nights, the fire was fought, eventually leaving the majority of the city in ruins. In addition to being exhausted (as was most every other citizen in Rome who had fought the inferno), his wrists hurt. The funny thing was, he couldn't remember what he'd done that would cause this. He'd felt fine—tired, but fine—while fighting the Beast, but now, it felt like there was something sharp slicing at the area just below his wrists. It went away after a couple of days, and John forgot about it; he had more important things to do. Not only was the city destroyed, but so was the spirit of its inhabitants, and John knew that he could use this to his advantage, explaining how the great Teacher suffered as well and He knew what they were all going through. So, while most of the people's dispositions were as charred as the city, John was a beacon of light.

Nero heard about this, and it drove him over the edge. His hatred of not only John but all Christians grew, and he sent out a proclamation saying that the Christians were the ones responsible for starting the great fire. He also said that these Christians needed to be punished, and the bloodshed began. Once it started, it was as ferocious as the flames themselves had been.

Not surprisingly, one of the first people he went after was John.

It happened one night as John was sleeping under the roof of a friend's tenement. The guards assigned to the task knew where John was staying (Nero had been watching him extra carefully after the fires), walked in the door and arrested him. John knew deep in his heart that he would never be a free man again, and rather than fear, he felt regret. He thought of all the people he would never get to preach to, and how many people he might have helped. He had converted a tremendous amount already, but knew he had more in him. Then he begged forgiveness, not to the guards but to the Teacher, for he felt that he had committed a sin of pride. Who was he to say that he had more preaching to do? If this wasn't his time to go and there was more work to be done, the Teacher would let it be. But, if it was his time to go home, then who was he to be the one asking questions?

Nero's guards had been instructed not to speak when John asked them where they were taking him, and were a little bit irritated when John went along with them without a fight and without saying a word. They were hoping for some resistance and a little mental torment through their silence to his questions and pleas, but as it turned out, they were the ones being tormented.

When they got to what remained of Nero's palace, they took him down several flights of stairs, and John could only surmise that he was now somewhere under the structure. They took him down a hallway that was lit by torches every ten feet or so, and through the dancing light of the flames, John saw many who were in cells in various states of depravity and destitution. He looked at the others as he passed, but still remained silent even though he recognized most of the people that he saw, many of whom were people he had converted. He wondered if they resented their faith now—if, in fact, they resented him.

At the end of the hallway, they opened up the last barred gate and he walked in, without hesitation. The guards were at least hoping for a fight at this point—wanted one, in fact—but John just went in.

He prayed that night, and then he fell into a very deep, very peaceful sleep.

When he awoke, he looked out of his cage and noticed that the cells that were previously occupied were empty. His sleep must have been so deep that he slept through the commotion that must have ensued. That's what he thought, at least. The reality of the situation was that while he was indeed in a deep sleep, those who were imprisoned were, like he, willing to give their lives for their faith, and did not resist when their cells were opened and the guards came to take them away.

There had been no lighting in the cell (aside from the torches), nor were there any windows, so John was quite surprised to see that it was approaching sunset when he climbed up the stairs that he had just descended the previous night. He was flanked by guards, both of whom were carrying the spears that were so common in Nero's regiment. Once again, he didn't speak to the guards. He'd heard the rumors, and knew that they were taking him to see Nero himself.

Now, he'd heard that Nero's palace was quite a spectacle to behold, but most of it was now reduced to burnt rubble. However, there was one part of the structure that remained intact: Nero's garden and patio.

They took him to this large patio area, which was filled with many people and which overlooked a great garden—much bigger than John had expected. And, even though it was Nero's garden, he had to admit that it was stunning. Nero caught the look. "Impressed, I see."

John nodded.

"Fortunately, it survived the fire that you people started. I guess you Christians must like fire."

Nero had been blaming the Christians for the fire from the beginning, but it was understood by just about everybody in Rome that the fire had been started by Nero and his soldiers so he would have something to blame on the Christians. This would therefore give him reason to retaliate, which is exactly what he was doing. Of course, he could have done it anyway without burning down Rome, but he was playing politics.

"We couldn't survive without it," John said, and the people on the patio laughed.

Nero did not. John looked at the crowd, and saw that the ruler was having one of his infamous parties. Most of the people there looked drunk with the exception of the guards and Nero. Nero just looked insane.

"Must keep you warm," Nero replied.

"Yes, amongst other things."

"I've got something else to keep you warm," Nero said, his voice steady. "But first, you should see my collection of animals. Guard!"

One of the guards pushed on a lever, and, much to the delight of the guests, three mangy dogs came out from somewhere beneath the patio. Big dogs. "This can go one of two ways, John, and the choice is all yours.'

He couldn't take his eyes off the beasts. If their size wasn't intimidating enough, their very ferocity certainly sealed the deal. They barked and howled and ran, stopping only occasionally to look at the people on the patio.

"They're hungry, John. And they need to be fed, but I've got plenty of raw meat for them. Raw Christian meat that won't make a difference to anybody. But you, John, you can make a big difference if you just stop speaking this nonsense of the Teacher and tell your people to admit to starting the fire. If you don't, I think the alternative is pretty obvious. Are you really willing to die for this Teacher you never even met?"

John, of course, had already made his mind up. "Yes."

The party on the patio clapped and cheered; they so enjoyed the festivities at one of Nero's parties. And Nero, being a man of no patience and just slightly crazy, said, "Guards!" because he had been prepared for such an answer.

Two guards that John hadn't seen before walked to the where John was standing. They were each holding one end of a large piece of fur—some wild beast that Nero had skinned for his own 'entertainment' purposes.

Immediately, they placed the skin over John's head, letting the rest of the carcass fall to his feet. Then, one of the guards pushed him over and the other immediately got to work.

"No, no, no!" Nero said. "I want to close this one up myself."

He took the rudimentary needle and thin leather thread from the guard, addressing his party: "For your enjoyment, I present a first-hand account of what faith can do for you!"

The stench inside the carcass would have been unbearable if John's faith wasn't strong and he didn't believe in what he was doing. He feared he would suffocate, however, before the real suffering began, suffering he would endure in the name of the Teacher.

Nero made quick work of sewing up the carcass, pricking John with the needle more than once. Much to his delight, John flinched. "Sorry, John, I'll try to be more careful next time," he said, stabbing him again. The party was delighted.

When his work was done, he kicked John over the edge, and he was immediately attacked by the dogs. Some members of the party had to look away as different pieces of his body were dragged off in different directions by the three dogs. Even though they weren't Christians, the scene was too much for them.


Part 4: Eternity

The spirit was on an upward incline, in the embodiment of an older person, neither male nor female. Looking around, the spirit saw that those around him all looked the same. There was no recollection of getting here, just the ghastly sounds of the dogs and then this. The incline the spirit was on looked to be about two hundred yards long, where it then made a switchback and continued upwards. The spirit looked behind, and saw that there were many other people behind him, but the line, if that's what it was, was moving quickly.

The spirit was afraid, and the others sensed it. "Don't be," the one in front of the spirit said. "We're going to somewhere better."

The spirit didn't ask how or why this other knew, but the facial expression of love, peace, and happiness was enough to be convincing.

It seemed like no time had passed before he was at the switchback, climbing upwards again. From this vantage point, the spirit saw that there were many more people than he/she had initially perceived, but the line was much shorter at the top of the switchback.

Before the spirit even realized it, he/she was at the front of the line. The spirit knew that this time was different than the last two. There was no more rebirth; there was only the light, and this time, the spirit knew he/she was worthy. There was a great presence partially blocking the light, and it embraced the spirit, saying simply, "Welcome home." Then the presence moved aside as the spirit moved forward, not near the light, but actually becoming a part of it.

Charlie/Sharon/John were where they were always meant to be, and would always remain.




Copyright © 2009 Chris Hlad

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Chris Hlad lives and works in the great city of Los Angeles. When he's not pretending to be working at his full time job, he's finding inspiration and writing it down. If he's not in front of a monitor, odds are you'll find him floating around somewhere in the Pacific on a giant red surfboard.

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