Mocked by Faith ~ Healing the Faith
I knew what I did was deplorable before the car ever exited The Gates, yet that knowledge didn't stop me. I'd left my wife of less than a year in tears, feeling unloved and unwanted. After our unconventional contracting for marriage, the kept secrets, the loss of our son, Kaiden, accusations of infidelity, and the lies to hide my drinking, I'd unwisely hoped she'd understand my need to bring justice to our faith.
Alexia needed me to remind her of my love and devotion to her and my son Jayden, and I had denied her. The consideration that leaving to pursue the man who had single-handedly tried to devastate my life would cause her such anguish had never crossed my mind. In retrospect, it should have been the first thing I thought of.
How could she really understand the motivation behind my actions? Of course she knew about the mental and physical abuse from the ex-minister; however, she had never lived through it herself. The moments that led up to my abrupt leaving replayed in my thoughts.
"Thank you for coming. We're sorry for the rush, but we were left with no other option." Minister Jeff had paced back and forth on the stage during the emergency meeting at the church hall. "Our three other churches had a revolt of sorts."
Ignoring the gasps and hisses, he continued, "The rectories were stormed by parishioners refusing to wait any longer. They demanded an immediate response. Last night, there were four lotteries drawn, one for each of the four communities. It was the only way to appease the crowds. Even though we didn't partake, we had to do ours as well."
He held up the three folded pieces of paper I recognized from when we'd signed up for the drawing. "These are the names that were drawn. We haven't read them yet." Minister Jeff looked back at the Council, each of them nodding. "I wanted everyone together when we did. The three chosen here will fly to England tonight to join with the nine members selected from the other churches. The search is being funded by Mr. James McNear, Mrs. Catherine Chesterfield from England, Mr. Jose Martinez from Mexico, and Mr. Pablo Dali from Argentina." Everyone shifted their glazes toward my father.
"It's the least I can do since I couldn't be part of the lottery." Without thinking I brought my hands together and sounded off a few slow claps. The rest of congregation started clapping to show him his due respect as well.
My mother cried and caressed my father's back in her own show of support. She knew he really wanted to go. Unfortunately, his age and financial responsibility prevented him from entering his name in the lottery. Down deep, we all knew he'd kill the man who'd hurt his son and our beloved communities.
Silencing the crowd with his hands, the minister called the meeting back to order. "Now for the names. Each one of you will have one last chance to pull out, but if you decide to go, you'll go home and pack to leave immediately."
When his hands shook too much to unfold the first paper, Mrs. Arbella relieved him of the notes. She was the least viewed council member. Her job at the ministry kept her behind the scenes. Compatibly of potential couples had always been her first priority. It was a job she loved and had done for decades.
She sighed after seeing the first name. "Johnny McNear."
"I'm in!" he hollered, running to join them on the stage, never looking back to see the devastated expression coloring his wife's face.
"Joey McNear," Mrs. Arbella scowled. She knew his reputation for being wild and crazy at times, hence his nickname: Crazy Eight.
"Going!" Joey kissed his wife, Madison, on the cheek, leaving her sitting there looking flabbergasted.
Squeezing Alexia's hand, I waited as Mrs. Arbella unfolded the last piece of paper. The chance that they'd picked me was slim. What would the odds be that they'd pick three names from the same family?
Alexia tensed at my side, clenching her eyes shut as she held her breath waiting for the last name to be called. "Justin McNear."
"Yes!" I released my grip on her hand and leaped from my seat.
I should have looked at my wife, should have said I loved her again, but instead, I made my way to the stage to celebrate. The Council welcomed us with handshakes and hugs. At this point the room had been filled with the cheers and the clatter of everyone moving to get closer. There was some clapping from those unable to break through the craziness.
Looking over the sea of the parishioners, I searched for my family. Alexia was the only one I couldn't find at first. When I finally found her, she was in the middle of a group hug with Madison and Ginger.
I elbowed Joey and Johnny then motioned toward their wives, indicating that we should join them in celebrating the news. None of us had expected what we found when we approached them.
They were clutching hands as promises of forever friends tumbled from their lips. The tears they were shedding weren't tears of joy, but those of heartbreak.
Startled, they pulled away from each other when Johnny gasped Ginger's name.
Shaking her head, Ginger ran away from him and out the door. Johnny watched, speechless at her reaction, then took off running behind her.
Not sure what else to do, I'd reached out to hold my wife. Alexia had other ideas and pulled away, stomping her way back to our table.
"Alexia, wait! Don't do this!" I implored, trying to catch up with her.
"I'm not, you are." She sobbed in hysterics.
"Please? Don't be mad." My attempts to embrace her failed.
"I don't want you to go! Stay here, stay with us." Tears streamed down her cheeks.
"Let's talk about this at home," I hissed, grabbing the baby and his diaper bag.
Being the lousy husband that I was, I stormed off, leaving her to say goodbye to her parents. Her reaction had infuriated me. Why couldn't she see it my way? By the time she slid into the car, my need for alcohol had reached an all-time high. All I wanted was a beer so I could calm down enough to demand her support in this.
I refused to talk on the ride to the cottage. With my set jaw, cold stare, and twitching fingers, the hostility rolled off me in waves. The car slid into the driveway without me even looking at her once. After slamming it into park, I jumped out and retrieved the baby.
Ignoring her, I stomped into the house carrying the baby in his car seat. There were too many things to do, so I placed Jayden at his mother's feet once she entered the house and went into the other room to pack.
My bags had to be kept light enough to travel with ease. Rummaging through my closet and drawers, I grabbed the essentials only, tossing them in my bags. The one thing I'd never leave behind was the sketch pad I'd used to draw my sons and wife. I needed to have a piece of them with me. After I'd left my bags by the door, I sneaked into the garage to grab a beer from my trunk. Of course I didn't tell Alexia that.
I had just finished downing my second beer when two cars pulled up out front. They never saw me ditching the cans back in the box before slamming the trunk. Now that the need for alcohol had been satisfied, it took no effort to smile at our families who had come to say goodbye.
My father met me in the yard, clapping me on my back and passing me the manila envelope that held everything we'd need, including money and credit cards. His high-end car dealerships had many influential connections—ones we'd need to find Mark, the ex-minister who had embezzled all our churches' money.
"Very proud of you, son. Make Mark pay for all he's done to us. Hear me, boy?"
"Yeah, you don't have to worry, Dad. I've got this. He's going down. I don't care if it takes a year; I will find him."
Regretfully, I hadn't looked over my shoulder before spouting off.
Following my father's pointed finger with my eyes, I found Alexia glaring at me. "Lexie, I . . ." My words died in my throat.
When she sniffed the air and scrunched up her face, I knew I'd been busted breaking the promise to quit drinking I'd made just hours before.
"You're still drinking?"
"It was just a beer!" My harsh retort came out harder than I intended.
"Just go! We don't mean anything to you!" Her cries tore me in two.
She barreled into the house. Before I could follow her, Minister Jeff turned onto our street with the Joey and Johnny. The time to go had arrived. He pulled up, letting my cousins hop out.
"Where's Lexie?" Johnny glanced around.
"We had a fight; she's inside. Let me go smooth it over then we can leave."
"You don't have time. Minister Jeff has already booked our flight and we're just barely going to make it. Grab your bags; we'll call from the plane."
My shoulders slumped in defeat as I turned to walk toward the house. This wasn't how I envisioned my leaving. My bags sat on the porch thanks to my father moving them. Pulling me into a hug, he and my mother whispered their goodbyes. Joey and Johnny took the bags from my hands so I could hug and kiss everyone properly. But it hadn't been them I wanted to kiss and hold. I'd only had enough time for one last glance at our cottage before we sped off.
"Don't look so emo. The girls will be taken care of by the community," Joey had said as the house disappeared from sight, but he had no idea what he was talking about. Alexia needed a lot of guidance.
Her training to be at home and to raise our child would war with the fact that she would have no husband to guide her. She'd proven time and time again that she would always think the worst. Her insecurities ruled her emotions, and she had a knack for overreacting.
I'd spoken with my cousins in the weeks leading up to the lottery that in the event one of us was picked to go that the others would tend to our wives' needs. We never thought about the possibility that we'd all be selected.
Alexia wasn't the only one who would be scared. My job as her husband and father of my son had been put on hold. In our world all the responsibilities fell upon the men to handle. Who would be there to keep her in line now that we were all gone? My father would provide financially for her and Jayden, but when it was improper to be alone in a room with another man without a family member or minister present, what then? He couldn't be with her every time she left the house or someone came by to visit.
Who would hold her after she made her daily trek to the cemetery to sit at our son's grave? Knowing it would be forever before I, too, would sit by his resting place during my lunches had panic rising in my chest. His twin Jayden would be changing and growing without me there to see his first strides in life. How much more could Mark rip from my life?
By the time we boarded our flight to England, I was an utter mess. I ached for absolution from Alexia, and my hands shook from craving to touch her as I had last night when we desperately made love on the living room floor. My thoughts raced as I tried to come up with a way to make up for all of my inadequacies.
Once the plane had taken off, I used the onboard phone, hoping to reach her and plead for forgiveness, for understanding. My heart felt like it would implode in my chest when no one answered. The pained expressions on my twin cousins' faces mirrored my own. Their wives had taken our departure just as badly as Alexia.
Madison, Ginger, and Alexia only had each other now that we were gone.
Grabbing my sketch pad, I flipped it open to the last sketch I'd done of her emerald eyes. The same eyes I had seen in my dreams for ten years before my father had found her and arranged our marriage. As I stroked the sketch, visions of Alexia with her eyes brimming with tears as she stood so accusingly before me in the yard of our cottage filled my thoughts. I pulled a pencil from the pouch, releasing a shaky breath, and began writing her a letter to post once the plane landed. Tears of regret started slipping down my cheeks before the pencil even touched the paper.
Dear Alexia ,
I did this to us. Never think this mess was your fault. The need to face Mark once and for all overrode my ability to think correctly when it shouldn't have. I know nothing I say will heal the wounds I have left behind, but I will find a way to make this up to you. You're everywhere I look. I know this is my fault, that you would have been here if I'd only asked you to join me.
When this is over, I will return to you and Jayden. I'll beg you both to forgive me. If I have to kneel at your feet in front of the whole community, I will. When I told my friends you owned me, I meant every word. My soul, heart, and body are always yours. You and our son are my world. My sun and stars. Without you, everything is lost in the darkness.
Maybe you would be better off without me, but I can't let you go. I love you too much to ever be without you. You think I'm gone, but I am right there beside you. I left my heart with you; take care of it until I come home. I will be the man you deserve.
Please still be waiting for me.
I love you forever,
I folded the note and pocketed it to post later. When Johnny tried to call Ginger, he had no luck getting through. For the first few hours of our flight, we took turns continuing to call home, each of us coming up empty. I couldn't stop fidgeting, and Joey finally commented on it.
"Dude, you need to stop, and don't blame it on how you left Alexia. Yes, it's wrong that you didn't have time to say your farewells, but face it, you're hooked. The booze is going to ruin your life if you don't give it up."
"I know, and by the time we get home, it will be a thing of the past." I glanced toward the small window, hiding my humiliation.
Sneaking a beer or two before leaving, after I had promised I would quit, had set Alexia off on her tirade. I'd tried to justify it away by saying I needed to celebrate.
Celebrate what? Leaving my wife and infant son so soon after we buried Kaiden, Jayden's stillborn twin? That was nothing to celebrate.
"We'll do what we can to help you, but you have to man up. We can't stop for you, cuz." He elbowed my shoulder.
I nodded. "Yeah, I know. I have to do it myself."
With my mind battling the urge for a quick drink, I decided to try to sleep it away. Easier said than done. I succeeded in getting a few fitful hours in, only to be plagued by memories of Alexia walking on the beach in Aruba wearing nothing but the scanty white bikini she'd purchased for our honeymoon. The sun had illuminated her long red curls like raging flames. Her emerald eyes resembled gemstones as they shimmered with tears from laughing so hard. Her laugh—her laugh had resounded in my ears like wind chimes blowing in the springtime breeze. She was so lost in the view before her that she hadn't seen that every male on the beach was drooling over her. Overcome with jealousy, I had run up, whipped off my shirt, and slipped it over her taut physique.
Those images were detrimental to sleeping.
I stared out the window into the darkness and calculated the time difference. She'd be eating dinner right about now. Visions of Alexia feeding my son from her bosom plagued my thoughts. It was a sight I hoped to see again in person very soon, but this quest had no definitive time frame. I said a silent prayer for her to be well and safe until I returned.
A young brunette woman across the aisle cleared her throat, gesturing to the champagne in front of her. Waving my hand, I tried to turn her down.
"Please? Don't make drink alone. I'm Kayla." She reached across the aisle, offering to shake my hand.
"Justin. I really shouldn't." But my body was screaming the complete opposite.
"It will make the flight pass quicker." Without waiting for me to turn her down again, she slipped the drink onto my tray.
"Maybe just one to steady my nerves." Of course I accepted; it promised to make my hands stop quaking.
She took pity on me and started buying me drinks. I failed to correct her assumption that I, too, was of legal drinking age. While my cousins slumbered, she rattled on about her recent breakup with her boyfriend. I had no interest in her woes; I had my own to agonize over. By the time everyone woke and we landed, I'd rid myself of the withdrawals that came from pretending I didn't have a problem. If I hadn't used booze to escape the loss of my son three months ago, I probably wouldn't have developed the nasty habit of pouring myself into the nearest bottle of liquor.
When I saw Paulie standing at the arrival gate, I was relieved. My childhood friend had stood by my side no matter what. Even after the other adherents of my faith had pushed me away because I had strayed toward the outsiders we always avoided, he'd never let their prejudice tear our friendship apart.
I had always thought my parents wouldn't find the right one for me. I knew the outside world in general had negative views of arranged marriages, but I'd been hunting for the girl with the emerald eyes who haunted my dreams. Ever since I was a small boy, I'd dreamt of those gem colored green eyes. I searched our community first, hoping to find her, but she had remained a mystery to me until the day of my wedding. Luck had been on my side when my father discovered Alexia on his business trip to Minnesota and had arranged our marriage straight away.
Grabbing Paulie in my arms, I laughed. "Glad you drew the short straw."
"I think you'll be surprised with your welcome. A lot has changed since Mark was exposed." He kept his arm around my shoulder as my cousins and I proceeded to the baggage claim to retrieve our luggage.
Everyone conversed about the uprising in the communities we were associated with. Four communities made up our faith: Argentina, Mexico, Minnesota, and England. England and Minnesota were deemed sister churches and the same went for the ones in Argentina and Mexico. Our churches were instituted when the three Archangels were eradicated from the echelons of the Catholic Church. We remained, to this day, devoted disciples to all seven original Archangels.
Paulie illustrated in vivid detail the events surrounding the upheaval that resulted in the premature drawing of names. "It started as a simple meeting to discuss the lottery to search for Mark; before we knew it, everyone lost their heads. Surprisingly, Abigail led the charge on the minister and the Council. She went ballistic over the way they had initially ignored the abuse charges. The ultimatum was issued: pull the lottery then and there or no one would leave the meeting hall. It scared every bloke in the room, but we all backed her. The only thing I didn't comply with was the demand for a recount of your abuse. When Abigail reminded everyone her husband Robert had been there, too . . ." He heaved a heavy breath and continued, "Anyway, Robert came forward and shared his experience since he was there with you. Sorry, man, it was his story to share, too. Everyone knows about all of it." His eyes pleaded for understanding.
"It's okay; sooner or later it would have come out anyway." I patted his back, letting him know I didn't blame him.
Even though the abuse was emotional and physical, at least it wasn't sexual. What I endured had been too much for me to handle as it was, but that would have been the end of me. I wanted to be pure for my wife even though everyone thought the opposite had been the case. Alexia's love led me through it and helped me reconstruct my life, and I repaid her by walking out three months after we interred our infant son, Kaiden, leaving her alone to raise Jayden until I returned. Shaking away the not so pleasant thoughts, I dragged my suitcase off the conveyor belt. Once Joey and Johnny had theirs, we walked toward the exit.
A laugh bubbled out of my chest when we reached the car park. "Seriously? This has to be my dad's handiwork!"
"Yeah, he had three of them delivered this morning. The delivery twit said to return them when we were done." Paulie chuckled, clapping my shoulder.
"Only my father would send three Peugeot 4007s for us to track a lunatic in." Raising my hand, I snatched the keys Paulie threw at me out of the air.
Once our cases were stowed, we piled into the black French compact crossover SUVs. I whipped out of the spot and followed the traffic toward the highway. As if I had never left, I fell back into the way things worked in England. It felt normal to drive on the left side of the road.
My reintegration was well under way. Eleven months away couldn't expunge ten years of assimilation. Granted, Alexia and I had been here a few months ago for Paulie's and Jonathan's weddings, but I had felt different with her by my side. Now I felt more brazen and rogue, like I had the month I ran away after my sixteenth birthday.
I pondered calling my wife again, but I knew she'd be asleep by now. We were five hours ahead of her. Crisscrossing through the traffic, we drove north toward the community I'd once called home, the same one that eschewed me for courting nonmembers of our faith. That small deed had nearly devastated my life. No one in our society had been willing to accept me as a possible husband for their daughters.
That tiny act of rebellion had also led me to the revirgining retreat and to Minister Mark, the man who had persecuted me for a month. The same man who had embezzled eighty-five million dollars from our churches after he'd been exposed by Robert and me.
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