Flee from Evil
I can’t sleep. I had one of those dreams tonight. I don’t know why I call them dreams when they really are nightmares, but they carry a truth I don’t want to believe, while preparing me to deal with what’s to come. And even now, I’m left with a weird mixture of fear … and awe.
It’s been over a year since the last one, three days after my fourteenth birthday. The one I now know was telling me Daddy would die, preparing me for the grief, and reminding me to focus on eternity in spite of my temporary loss.
In the dream, my entire family—Mom, Dad, my little brother, Tibo, and I—walked through a lush garden on a beautiful day. The sweet smell of honeysuckle saturated the air, birds sang in the trees, and a soft breeze caressed my skin. It was amazing how a dream could stir every sense the way this one did. Mom and Dad swung Tibo by his arms. He giggled so hard I thought he’d turn blue. Tibo’s body never seems to warn him of its limits like other kid’s bodies do—one of the many dysfunctions that come with his version of autism.
The wind picked up, rifling through our clothes and hair. The fluffy white clouds grew dark and full, then lightning split the sky.
I looked to Daddy. He squeezed my shoulder and gave me the it’s okay smile. The one he’d wear while handing me tissues as a little girl having a tear-fest over a lost stuffed animal or a fight with my best friend. Somehow, no matter how bad things were, that smile made everything right. I knew, at least, my Daddy loved me.
Just as my pulse slowed with the gesture, the wind grew fierce and the black clouds formed into scaly, dragon-like creatures that swooped down and around us with extensive oscillating wings, lifting us off our feet, and setting us back to earth. After my toes touched the ground, I scanned the garden for my dad, only to spy him in the taloned grip of one of the creatures as it flew toward the sun. My heart took off again as my mother clutched Tibo in a fit of hysterics. But Daddy gave me the smile once more. A tinge of melancholy laced his voice as he called out. “We’ll be together again soon, Sweetheart. Until then, lean on your heavenly Father.”
The clouds broke open, and amidst the brilliant beams of the sun’s rays pouring to the earth, all four creatures erupted into a glistening white reflected against the silver scales that covered their bodies, radiating a majestic beauty. Somehow, I knew my father was in good hands.
I think about his words, to lean on God, every day. I need to remind myself each morning since I no longer have an earthly father to support me. But what did he mean that he’d see me soon?
Was tonight’s dream the answer to that question?
Once again the vision placed us in the garden—only Mom, Tibo and me, this time. My little brother spun in circles, as he always does, only in this dream the spinning seemed to possess a purposefulness they’d never had before. Again, the sky turned dark, and the clouds formed creatures. Again, I was lifted with the wind, but rather than being settled back to earth, I found myself in the arms of a beast, a stretching distance yawned between myself and my family. Where was this creature taking me?
As the ominous form carried me through the sky, darkness and light flashed around me as though the two fought a heated battle against each other. Were they fighting for me? Were the creatures my enemy … or my protection?
What is God trying to tell me now? I’m afraid to ask. Am I going to die? Will I see my Daddy soon as he’d promised in the other dream?
I feel peace in the possibility. But my only concern, if this is truly the case, is who will care for Mom and Tibo when I’m gone?
Cassandra strode through the parking lot, her kids, Sophie and Tibo, in tow. “I can’t believe you still go to this church, Mom.”
Greta Hessing lifted her brow. “You mean the redneck church?”
“I didn’t say that.” Cassandra’s ten-year-old son turned in a circle—one of his many autism perseverations. She pulled him along.
Mom tucked her purse under her arm. “But that’s what your fancy friends at that Country Club used to call it.”
Cassandra ground her teeth. “They weren’t my friends, Mom. They were patrons. I waitressed there and that was a long time ago.”
Mom waved her hand. “Didn’t you hang out with a few?”
Cassandra shrugged to stave off the shiver her body ached to do. She didn’t want to go there. Too many bad memories. Tibo took another circle. Sophie, his fifteen-year-old sister, prodded him straight this time.
“You know Jesus was a redneck.”
Would the woman ever understand that Cassandra’s choice to get a college degree had nothing to do with placing herself above her family, as Mom always seemed to suggest. She just loved the study of things and knew God chose each to follow different paths with different goals, all for the same glory.
Greta’s chin hitched higher. “That’s okay. Since Pastor Vince started here, we’ve become very diverse. His goal was to make us look more like the body of Christ. You know, different parts with different functions, all working in the same body.”
Huh? Did Mom just pick those words from her brain. Cassandra might just like the new associate pastor.
“But even so, we’ve kind of adopted the term, redneck. It was first used for field workers with sunburned backs, so we take it to mean hard-working and down-to-earth. At least that’s what Pastor Vince always says. You’ll love Pastor Vince. I think he’s leading the sermon this morning.”
Cassandra sighed. The words you’ll love Pastor Vince seemed her mother’s mantra these days.
“He’s cute. He’s single.”
“And he’s refined. Well educated. Just your type.”
So maybe he didn’t look like a Duck Dynasty knock-off. “And a former drug dealer as I recall you mentioning.”
“Yes, a forgiven sinner.”
Or a man capitalizing on his wastrel youth.
“Mom, I’m not looking to replace Tim.” There’d never be another Tim. He had everything the world could offer in terms of physical possessions and still willing to give it all away. That’s why his parents had always kept a tight rein on his earnings at their pharmaceuticals company. Why had Tim let them control his life? Cassandra guessed he’d hoped they’d come to know Jesus one day like he had in college.
Finally reaching the front steps of the church, Cassandra and her mom shook hands with the greeters.
Patting Mom’s arm, Cassandra said, “I’ll take Tibo to Children’s Church.” She released a breath. “And explain everything.”
Mom pointed. “Down that hall, first door on the right. I already gave the teacher the heads up about Tibo. He’ll be fine.”
Cassandra wasn’t convinced. She wished she’d interviewed the woman before they came, but with the move from the large home she’d lived in with her husband of almost 16 years, back to her home town of Water’s Edge, Maryland, she’d been a bit preoccupied.
She squeezed her son’s hand and peered at the blond hair and profile so much like her late husband’s. “Your Daddy loved you so much.”
If only she could be certain Tibo understood.
“Much,” he repeated, as he usually did the last word of her sentences.
After introducing herself to the Children’s Church leader and enduring the look of fear at the word autism, Cassandra assured the woman her son was docile and wouldn’t cause any trouble. Hadn’t her mother already explained this? More questions followed. Cassandra answered each and gave the teacher her cell number, promising to keep it on despite the rule of no phones on during the service.
Exiting the room on a sigh, she glanced at her watch then stopped at the closed sanctuary door. The minister’s voice murmured from the other side. Not the familiar rasp of the senior pastor, Pastor John, whom she’d grown accustomed to as a child attending Water’s Edge Community Church. Something about the tone gave her gooseflesh. Smooth and silky—like a scam artist’s voice, selling a bill of goods she didn’t need to buy. Boy, she was predisposed not to like this guy. Was it because her mother wanted to fix them up?
A greeter wished her a good morning as he opened the door. If only Mom didn’t have to sit near the front—probably to ogle the minister she’d been raving about for years now.
Cassandra accepted the Bible from the gentleman in the back, and walked down the center aisle as the pastor’s voice praised his Creator. Too embarrassed at coming in late, she focused on straightening her pencil skirt and finding her family in the second-row pew.
But that voice …
This time more than gooseflesh erupted from her skin. Her knees threatened to buckle. She pulled her gaze from the carpeted floor, up the steps of the altar, ascending from the loafers, crisp jeans, tidy polo, dark goatee … into the eyes of …
Whoa! That was worse than the knife that nearly killed him so many years ago. Vince knew the congregation noticed too. They shifted in their seats waiting for him to continue what had formerly been an unblemished sermon.
The woman looked up and stole his sanity.
Man, she still looked good. Those auburn curls cascading down her shoulders. But it was more than that. Her green eyes blazed as she caught sight of him in the pulpit. He thought she might take the rest of the aisle and hammer him dead.
Instead, she froze. Jaw clenched. Hands balled. She stepped back like she was going to flee the enemy, until a young girl called out to her.
“Mom,” the dark-haired teen whispered forcefully. “We’re right here.”
Cass thawed. Vince could almost see the icicles breaking off her shoulders and hitting the ground. She managed a weak smile, but her eyes were filled with something else. Probably the memories he’d given her. Memories he wished he could cherish, but he’d ruined them. Instead, they held themes of betrayal and hurt.
I am forgiven. He had to say that to himself in a way he could believe it. He shuffled through his sermon notes and saw those words scribbled on the sides. When had he written them?
A peace washed over him, but the cloud still hung over his head. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death …
He sensed he was headed to that valley again. A different path this time, but shadow and death lurked all the same.
Vince finally mustered speech. “You are forgiven.” He scanned the faces of the parishioners. Some enraptured by his supposed oratory gift, others seemingly incredulous that he’d faltered. He’d never done that before.
His gaze hit on Cass, and he couldn’t drag it away. “You are forgiven,” he repeated. Her jaw tensed and her nostrils flared. Vince swept his attention over her head and around the congregation again. “You are set free.”
Crazy. Seeing Cass at that moment reminded him of how free he really was. Far from the man he’d been before. He no longer bore the same chains. Though he could see Cass still saw him in light of those. He couldn’t tell her. Not today. Because if the congregation knew she was part of his past, after the spectacle he’d just made of himself, they’d also know she was part of that past—the one he’d admitted to when he first became a pastor here. He couldn’t do that to her. She was different from all the rest. The one who truly loved him. Maybe not him for him, but she loved him because that’s the person she was. He glanced toward her to confirm the ire in her eyes. Was she still that person?
The service ended. Vince took his place at the exit, greeting the grateful congregants.
“Pastor Vince.” Eleanor Drummond grasped his hand with a shake that could rival a linebacker’s. “Never seen you flounder like that before.” She didn’t mince words. Just stared those chocolate brown eyes into his, as if to read his thoughts.
He gave a weary chuckle. “It happens to the best of us.” His eyes wavered, but he refrained from scanning for Cass. “Lost my place. Guess God needs to keep me humble.” He squeezed her hand and tilted his smile the way that always weakened the ladies. “Happens to the best of us,” he repeated, his mind whirling with torturous memories.
“Pastor Vince.” Kat Lewis, sporting contrasting blond and brown tresses, pinched the edges of his hair. “Gettin’ a little long, don’t ya think?”
“I have an appointment with you this week.” He winked.
Her husband reached out his tattoo-laden arm to shake. “You flirtin’ with my wife, Pastor.” His growl ended with a note at humor, but left Vince shaken just the same.
“Of course not, Billy.”
Kat smacked her husband on the sleeve of his church-going Harley T-shirt. The one less faded and without holes. “You know I only have eyes for you.”
Billy fished his fingers through his motorcycle-blown hair. “Then maybe you should stop touchin’ the pastor’s neck.”
“That’s my job you big dope.”
Should the church do a Bible study on love and respect in marriage? Vince smiled as he looked between the two parishioners. He couldn’t find a couple more in love than this one. Their love just looked a little different sometimes.
“Wonderful sermon.” Mrs. Hessing practically worshiped him. Great. He could use an ally. “This is my widowed daughter, Cassandra.”
“Cass …” Breathe.
Her eyes burned into his.
He sucked in some air. “Cassandra, nice to meet you.” He gave a curt, but friendly nod.
Cassandra’s nod was not so friendly. She gathered a young boy and the teenage girl to her and trundled them out the door.
Mrs. Hessing’s brows knit as she stared after her daughter. She turned back to Vince. “I’m sorry. I’ve taught her better than that.” She put her hand to her chest. “I guess things are still hard for her since her husband’s death a year ago.”
He nodded. “I’m sure they are Mrs. Hessing.” Search for platitudes. “Just keep praying. God will get her through.”
Ugh! He hated platitudes—even if they were true—but he couldn’t reach his heart right now. Must be somewhere nailed to the blue carpet, under his feet.
How dare he?
Cassandra’s teeth hurt from clenching so hard through that entire service. She now knew what it was like to turn to stone. It had been her only defense as the memories assaulted her, tearing at her weakened flesh.
How dare he act like he didn’t even know her? Although, in a way, she was glad he did. She didn’t need to explain her past relationship with him to her mom.
How dare he become a pastor? What a joke. Vince Steegle a pastor. A beloved pastor at that. Her mother practically worshiped the grass he trod. Pastor Vince, this and Pastor Vince, that. Cassandra had had no idea her mother’s icon of righteousness was Satan incarnate. Last she knew, he’d aspired to politics.
Cassandra pushed her kids through the parking lot. Sophie almost tripped as she stepped over a curb. Tibo did his requisite twirl and followed behind.
“Tibo, hurry up.” She waved at him like they were crossing a busy intersection.
He caught up.
She rushed them over to the used Lincoln Aviator Tim’s parents had bought her five years before his crash in the Lexus. They sat silently in the car, waiting for Mom, but the woman took her time moseying from person to person, greeting them as if she had nowhere better to go. She didn’t, but Cassandra needed to be free of this place—now.
“Mom, why did you rush us out of there?” Sophie’s voice wobbled from the back seat. Cassandra knew she hesitated to ask. Always so keen to Cassandra’s emotions. So mature for someone so young, having helped to care for her special-needs brother, and transition to life without a father … or his family’s money. Not to mention all the accusations she’d endured from her paternal grandparents. They never said them to her face, but it was apparent in everything they did. They’d never accepted her little Sophie as their own.