It was a welcome sight, after all this time.
The red brick building, with its steeple reaching gracefully into the sky, as if to touch the face of God, its windows tinted to catch the sun's warm rays during the daylight hours and cast dancing rainbows on the floor inside, the roses that the brothers so lovingly tended presenting their lovely aroma to all who passed by here.
This was the place he had called home for most of his life.
Behind the wizened structure, he could see the building in which he had slept and eaten. But it had always been this building, the church itself, which had given him the greatest comfort. Here, he had always been able to find strength and peace. Here, he had always felt warm and welcome. Here, he had always felt like he belonged.
But at this moment, he was unable to bring himself to pass through those doors.
He shouldn't be here, and he knew it. They knew everything about him, about his childhood. They would look here; they already had. He'd seen their cars parked out front many times as he passed by, hoping for a chance to sneak inside. And he had always kept walking. It was better for everyone if he just kept walking today.
But he couldn't.
Something was drawing him home.
He drew in a deep, ragged breath, pulled his hat further down across his face, and began to climb the concrete steps.
As he pulled open the door that he had run through so many times as a child, he was at once overcome by a feeling of security and peace that he hadn't felt in what seemed to be a lifetime: surrounded by it, embraced by it, permeated with it. He closed his eyes and let his head fall back slightly, breathing in the familiar scents of oil and incense. It was a powerful feeling, one that he hadn't allowed himself to feel in far too long.
It was difficult for him to believe that it had been only three years since he'd last walked through those doors and down this aisle. But as his feet moved silently along the worn carpeting, he knew that the boy who had left this place three years ago was gone, replaced by the man that had returned.
A lifetime had passed.
He looked through misty eyes at the crucifixion on the altar, and he was shocked to realize that he had never truly seen it before. Certainly he'd seen it, seen it many times in fact. It was there, in front of him, every time he had come into the church; he couldn't miss it. It was in the center of the altar, at the back, a large statuary recreation of Cavalry. But the meaning of what was happening, the pain on the faces of those gathered at the Savior's feet, and his own eyes, half-closed in impending death, those things he had never really appreciated before. But now, the man that had returned to replace the child that had left understood perfectly.
And when he genuflected before the statue of Christ, and when he crossed himself in reverence, he meant it.
He stepped into the pew and went to his knees immediately, folding his hands and closing his eyes as he bowed his head. Everything that was inside of him, all of the pain, the confusion, the innocence he had lost and the hardness that had replaced it... he sent it all to God with one simple prayer.
He found himself whispering aloud, surprised at how loudly his voice echoed against the empty walls of the sacristy. Recovering quickly from the accidental outburst, he lowered his forehead against his clenched hands and began his silent, solitary confession. After a few seconds of silence, punctuated only by his soft breaths, the words slipped past his lips again.
"God, help me. I'm so sorry."
For the first time in a lifetime of hardship and sorrow that had begun three years earlier, he cried for what he had done. He cried for the men and boys he had killed, and for the ones he hadn't been able to save. He cried for what had been done to him, and for hating the monsters that had done it. He cried for the man he had become.
But mostly, he cried for the child he never would be again.
As his sobs abated, he felt someone standing beside him. He turned quickly, wiping the tears from his eyes as he did so. A loving hand rested itself on his shoulder, and he found himself looking up into the face of the man he called Father.
"Welcome home, Templeton."
The priest's office hadn't changed any more than the rest of the church had, and he wondered why he was surprised at that. He had to keep reminding himself that although he felt as though a century had gone by, for the rest of the world it had only been three years. Millions of teenagers had grown into adults in those three years, just as he had. But they were fortunate not to have done it in the jungles of Vietnam.
He had been seventeen when he'd enlisted. Seventeen, and fresh from the end of a relationship that he had thought would last forever. 'Leslie...,' he found himself thinking, but then stopped himself. There was no point in going down that road again. It always ended in the same place. It ended with her gone, and him alone, standing in front of an Army recruiter, saying that Vietnam sounded like a great place to go.
'Besides,' he told himself, as he sank down into the musty overstuffed chair across from the clergyman's desk, 'Nothing ever lasts forever when you're seventeen.'
He hid his thoughts behind his smile as he looked again into the face of the man who had found him wandering in the night so many years ago, taken him in, and raised him.
"It's good to see you again, Father Maghill."
The older man smiled back warmly, his chair squeaking a bit as he settled himself into it. "And you too, Templeton. Although, I must admit, I didn't expect to see you here."
Templeton Peck, "Face" to his friends, chuckled a bit. "Well... I didn't expect to see me here either. I know they've been here asking about me. I've seen them. I probably shouldn't be here at all."
A moment of silence descended, as Face tried to decide what to say next and Father Maghill waited for him to say it.
Face swallowed hard, trying to force the lump to leave his throat. He knew what it was he wanted to say, but for some reason he just couldn't bring himself to say it. Not to this man. He coughed quickly, and pushed himself up out of the chair.
"I shouldn't be here. You'll get in trouble if they find me. I need to go..."
"Whatever it is, son, it's not your fault."
Face froze in place at the whispered words from behind him, his upper body still turned toward the door. "You don't know that," he answered just as quietly, not looking back at the priest, his eyes cast to the floor. "You don't know that, and you can't say that."
Face heard the squeaks as the kindly old clergyman rose from his chair, heard his footsteps on the bare wooden floor as he walked around his desk and toward him. "I know that war does terrible things to men. And I've seen them, the men coming back from that place. Seen the haunted looks on their faces, in their eyes. I've heard their confessions, listened to the pain in their hearts, the confusion in their souls. And they're men." Again, the younger man felt the hand that was so much stronger than it looked grip his shoulder. "You... you're just a boy."
"I am not a boy!"
Face was shocked at the vehemence in his own words. He hadn't intended to speak them so forcefully... had he? His face changed, an expression of horror replacing the anger that had been there before, and he spun to look into his mentor's eyes.
"Oh, Father... Oh, Father, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it..."
But the older man just smiled. "Of course you did. And you're right. You're not a boy."
"Not any more," Face whispered.
Again the silence fell around them, Face wondering why he had just spoken to the priest the way he had, and Father Maghill, for his part, again waiting patiently to hear what the young man had to say.
"Tell me, what burdens your soul so?"
Face closed his eyes and drew a shuddering breath. "I can't tell you, Father."
"I know you, Templeton. I raised you. I watched you grow from a frightened, insecure young boy into an exceptional and promising young man. I know you better than you sometimes know yourself." The priest paused, and Face knew his words were true. "If not me, then who can you tell? And if you can't tell me, how can you be honest with God?"
Face sighed. He'd disappointed the man... again. He'd done it so many times before, but it hadn't mattered to him at the time. But now, just as he had discovered the meaning of the statuary on the altar, he realized that this was one person he did not ever want to disappoint again. And he spoke the words that his mind had been screaming at him for most of the past two years of his life, the words he had never allowed to find their way into his voice.
"I'm afraid, Father."
"Afraid of what?"
The words came out in a rush, tumbling out over his tongue, fighting to find their way out before he forced them to be silent again. "Of everything. Of what I saw there, of what I did there, of the things I felt and still feel, of who I am..." He raised his head and looked directly into the older man's eyes for the first time since he'd arrived. "I'm afraid you'll hate me, Father. But more than that, I'm afraid that God hates me."
"God doesn't hate you, son," the father answered simply, patting the young man's shoulder and squeezing it one more time before he turned to return to his chair.
"How do you know that?" Face demanded, turning to follow Maghill, but stopping himself short of rounding the desk. "How can you know that? With what I've done, Father, and with everything that God allowed to happen to me..." He stopped the words dead in their tracks, pushing them back down where they belonged before he said too much. "It certainly doesn't seem to me that He loved me all that much. Seems to me almost like I was being punished for what I've done."
He was prepared for the question he knew the man would ask next. He knew how he would answer it... tell him just enough to satisfy him, but no more. Not all of it.
"And what did happen to you over there, son?"
That was not the question he was prepared to answer.
"What?" he asked, his shock showing clearly on his face.
"You said that the things that happened were God's punishment? What were those things?"
'He knows,' Face thought, studying the man's face. He could see it there, in his eyes, the complete understanding of what had happened. 'They told him. Those sons of bitches told him!'
"Um... nothing. Nothing really. Just... just stuff, is all. You know... horrors of war and all that."
Father Maghill didn't believe him, and he knew it. And hearing the shaking in his own voice, he doubted that he would have believed himself just then.
But then again, he didn't believe himself to begin with.
"So this stuff, you believe it's God's punishment? For what?"
"Well... for what I did."
"And what did you do?"
"I killed people." He answered immediately, his voice emotionless and detached. He struggled with himself for a moment, trying to take control back from the robot he tended to become when asked about his activities in Vietnam. If he was going to do this, he was going to have to do it right. "No... no, there's more to it than that. I killed a lot of people. Men, boys, fathers, sons, brothers..."
"It was war, Templeton," Father Maghill reminded him softly. "You were a soldier. That is what soldiers do."
"No, but Father... I was trained to kill people, more than most soldiers ever are. I was...," he paused, trying to find the right word to convey just exactly what he had been. "I was an assassin, really. A sniper. Green Beret, Special Forces, trained to kill men with my bare hands just as easily as with a gun. I wasn't there to defend America, or to stop the threat of Communism... hell, I wasn't even there to fight a war. I was there just to kill people. That's all I did. Well... that, and some supply stuff, you know, get people things they wanted or needed but couldn't get there. But that's not what they had me there for. They had me there to kill people they wanted dead." He realized he hadn't taken a breath since he'd started speaking, and he drew one, closing his eyes, determined to finish the thought. He managed to swallow his fear one more time, and without opening his eyes, he said, "And I enjoyed it. God help me, Father... I enjoyed it."
There was no answer. Face had expected him to berate him, lecture him, sermonize to him about the Ten Commandments and "Thou shalt not kill," and how only God had the power to end human life, to tell him that his enjoyment of his duties had condemned him to hell, that no amount of confession would cleanse him.
He certainly didn't expect the silence.
He opened his eyes and looked at the priest, expecting to see his face hardened in anger, but it wasn't. It was soft, understanding, and the older man's eyes were searching his face, reading his eyes, and trying to read the story that had been written there. He nodded his head slowly and leaned back slightly in his chair.
"You hated them. You still hate them." Face nodded, unable to speak, knowing that if he did so the tears would start again. "You hate them for what they did. You hate an entire race of people for what a handful of evil beings did to you."
He was getting too close to the truth. Face didn't verbally acknowledge the priest's statements, but closed his eyes again and let his head fall.
"It's understandable. I'm not going to pretend that I completely understand what happened, but I do know that sometimes, in war, people do terrible things to each other. Particularly to those they believe to be weakest. You will never find more cowards in one place than you will in a war. But what I don't understand, son, is why you hate yourself for hating them."
Face's head jerked upright, his eyes flashing open. He hadn't said that, had he? He felt it, certainly... he knew he felt it. He had cried for feeling it only moments before. But had he said it out loud? Or did Father Maghill simply know his soul that well?
"I don't... I mean, I do... but hate... hate is a sin. I shouldn't hate them. And I shouldn't hate people who didn't have anything to do with... well, with that stuff."
"Yes, hate is a sin. But unfortunately, it's also a basic human emotion. There is no such thing as a human being who doesn't hate someone, for something. But God knew it was a weakness in us, and that's why He's there to hear our confessions. Take your hate to God, son, and let Him take care of it."
"But why would He want to forgive me?" was Face's desperate question. "See, Father, this is what I don't understand. When does it become too much? When is it unforgivable? When does He just throw his hands up and say, 'That's it. I'm done with you.'? I killed, Father. I lied, and I stole, I committed adultery many times...I coveted, Father. Good God, I coveted other men's food! I have damned God in my heart and in my words."
"Templeton...," the older man began, shaking his head.
Face took it as a reminder to watch his language, and he apologized quickly. "I'm sorry! See, look at me! Here I am, Father, trying to understand what to do, how to confess, how to make amends, and I'm breaking a commandment while I do it!"
"No, Templeton." Father Maghill pushed himself out of his chair and hurried to Face's side. "Templeton, son, stop. Stop what you're doing to yourself over this."
"He abandoned me!" Face didn't know where the words were coming from. They had appeared in his mind and sprung from his mouth before he had a chance to stop them. "People were dying all around me! I tried to help them, tried to stop it from happening, but the harder I tried the more of them died. I saw men beaten to death because I tried to get them more food! People died, Father... died because of me... because I couldn't keep my mouth shut!"
Father Maghill was taken aback. This boy, this man in front of him, was almost unrecognizable. In just a matter of seconds, he had gone from confused and troubled to completely panic-stricken. His eyes were wild, his voice a frantic, fever pitch. Not knowing what else to do, the priest reached out his arms to embrace this boy he had raised, but found himself pushed aside.
"No! No, Father, don't comfort me. Don't you understand? I don't deserve to be comforted. I don't deserve to be forgiven! I let men, good men, fathers and brothers and husbands and sons... I let them die! I could have stopped it, if I'd only tried harder. I knew it then, and I know it now. Their blood is on my hands, Father. Mine! And I sat there, feeling sorry for myself sometimes, when I should have been thinking of them... finding ways to protect them, to keep them safe, to keep them alive. And when I couldn't, and when it was all over, I tried to avenge them and purge myself of my guilt by murdering the men who I had convinced myself were responsible for it. And I didn't just kill them, Father. I murdered them. With my bare hands. I felt their necks snap, Father, and it felt good! I took their lives... with these hands..." He looked down at his hands, and found them clenched into fists, which he immediately released. "My hands, Father. The hands that I folded in prayer to ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness I don't deserve."
"Stop saying that, Templeton."
"But it's true, Father. And God knew... God knew what I was. That's why He left me there. I had finally reached that point, Father, that point where He was done with me. And He abandoned me to them. And I damned Him for it..." Face looked up, his eyes swollen from the tears the flowed freely down his cheeks. "I hated Him! And I told Him that. I hated Him for every second that I was in that place... that damned camp. I felt so safe at first, that if I prayed enough, that if I was a good enough person, that He'd find a way to get us out of there. But He didn't. I prayed so hard, Father, and He didn't answer. He didn't do a damned thing! Good men died because I wasn't a good enough person. Do you have any idea what that feels like? Do you know how it feels to know that God has abandoned you? And everyone... everyone around you? He abandoned me then, and I hated Him for it, and now here I am, begging His forgiveness? Why would He listen to me? Why should He?"
And then, with a slight shrug, he was done. He had said all there was to say. He let his shoulders fall and sat against the side of the desk to keep from falling over.
Father Maghill simply stood and stared at him. Where would he begin with this boy? He had thought, after counseling so many returning men, that he would be prepared. But he wasn't. He hadn't been prepared to deal with a man... no, he really was still just a boy... who felt that he was responsible for the deaths of not only those he had killed but also for those he had been completely powerless to save.
The military men who had come looking for Templeton had not told him everything that had happened to the young man in the camp he had escaped from, but they had told him enough that he had pieced together the details in his mind, and they weren't pretty. The young man had managed to arrive back at the Army base under his own power, but apparently hadn't spoken a word for the first several weeks after his return. And none of the men who had come back with him were willing to fill in any of the blanks. One man, one whom Templeton had apparently taken quite a liking to and become quite close with, was believed to have completely lost his mind. And the best count that they had been able to give him was that somewhere close to a hundred men had died in the camp while Templeton was there.
One hundred men.
And he was holding himself responsible for every single one of them.
No doubt he still knew their names.
"Why did you come here today?"
Face looked up, his arms falling at his sides, and sighed. "I don't know. I guess I just wanted to see... I don't know. Looking for something, maybe?"
"And did you find it?"
"No," was the quiet reply.
"Do you know why?" Face shook his head, and the priest continued. "Because it's not here, son. What you're looking for... it's not here."
"Where is it then?"
Father Maghill stepped forward slowly, and placed his hand against the young man's chest. "Its right here, son. It's been with you, all along. You don't need God to forgive you for what you've done, or for what you imagine you're responsible for. He's already done that. You need to forgive yourself. And you need to understand that God isn't the only supernatural force at work here on Earth. Satan's here too, son. And sometimes, in some places, and in certain people, his grip is stronger than God's. What happened to you, and to all those others, in that camp wasn't because God abandoned you, Templeton. It was just that Satan's hold over those men was stronger than God's."
"I thought He could do anything, Father. I really did. I thought that if He wanted to, He could just strike those men down and let us go. But He didn't."
"He told us, after the Great Flood, that we were on our own. That He would never again interfere in the day-to-day life of mankind, as He had been doing since the beginning of time. He left us to our own devices, and Satan saw his chance to warp the world into his own image."
Face looked out the window, at the bright sun that shown in the afternoon sky. "Then it's not just me. He's abandoned all of us."
"No," the clergyman said sadly. "He's with us. Right beside us. Every step of the way. We just need to know where to look." And he motioned slightly with his hand, toward a dusty old poem that hung in a wooden frame on his wall.
Face knew the poem; his seventh grade English teacher had made them memorize and recite it. But he read it now, with the same maturity that had allowed him to understand the crucifixion on the altar.
One night a man had a dream.
He dreamed he was walking along the beach with the LORD.
Across the sky flashed scenes from his life.
For each scene, he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand:
one belonging to him, and the other to the LORD.
When the last scene of his life flashed before him
he looked back, at the footprints in the sand.
He noticed that many times along the path of his life
there was only one set of footprints.
He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times of his life.
This really bothered him and he questioned the LORD about it:
"LORD, you said that once I decided to follow you,
you'd walk with me all the way.
But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life
there is only one set of footprints.
I don't understand why when I needed you most you would leave me."
The LORD replied:
"My son, My precious child, I love you and I would never leave you,
During your times of trial and suffering,
when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you."
Face lowered his head, and placed his hand against the yellowed glass that covered the words. "I thought He'd left me there to die."
"But you didn't die, did you?"
He raised his head, and looked at the aging priest's reflection in the picture. "Part of me did, Father. Part of my soul, the boy I was when I left you... he's dead, Father."
"No he isn't." Face turned and gazed in confusion at the older man's knowing expression. "He's just scared. And he's hiding right now. But you'll find him. It's going to take some time, and a lot of prayer, but you'll find him."
They stood in silence for a few moments, simply looking at each other, each lost in his own thoughts.
The distant echo of police sirens floated in through the open window, and Face pulled himself back to his current lot in life. "I really should be going, Father. I've been here too long already. Hannibal's gonna kill me if he finds out where I've been." He moved quickly toward the door, but then just as quickly spun again, and reached for the priest.
He found himself, at last, after so long, wrapped in arms that loved him, no matter his flaws. "Thank you, Father," he whispered through his tears. "Thank you so much."
Father Maghill reached out and ruffled the young man's hair as he pulled away. "God loves you, son."
And then Face was gone.
"And so do I."
~ fin ~