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As We Forgive Those

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Bernice rapped on the door to Apartment 42, hard, firm knocks that echoed in the hallway like the hand of God Himself. Vonetta examined the heel she had eased out of her new shoe, noting where the shiny fake leather rubbed. With any luck, it wouldn't rub through her hose, though she had some clear nail polish in her handbag, just in case. She snuck a quick glance at Bernice, calm and perfectly dressed as always, the white lace collar of her dress fresh and smooth against the dark skin of her neck. Vonetta suspected that there was no emergency polish in her bag.

She sighed and shifted the cloth bag carrying their church pamphlets from one hand to the other, feeling sweat trail down her ribs. If she was this tired two months along, by nine months she'd hardly be able to drag herself out of bed.

She sighed again. Bernice gave her a sharp look but didn't have a chance to speak before the door whipped open. A bleary-eyed man in a t-shirt and sweatpants stood there, his unwashed-looking hair standing on end, like he'd run his fingers through it and forgotten to smooth it down.

"Scully, can't you understand I don't want to talk--"

His mouth snapped shut at the sight of two women in flowered dresses standing in his doorway staring at him. He stared back and then poked his head around the doorframe to look down the hall, as if he'd been expecting someone else. Vonetta half-turned, too, to search the empty hallway. With a disappointed-sounding huff, he pulled back to eye them both. "Can I help you?"

"Good morning, sir. We..." Bernice's voice faded in Vonetta's ears, the familiar tent-revival cadence a soothing background hum to Vonetta's wandering thoughts. It had been too hot this morning to eat breakfast and it had only gotten hotter since but she should have had something because now she was beginning to feel quite dizzy and--

"Vonetta."

Vonetta looked up to find two pairs of eyes looking at her. Bernice's were exasperated and concerned, while the man's scanned her face and body, which she realized was swaying slightly. She froze.

"Are you okay, dear?" asked Bernice.

"Fine. I'm fine."

This amused the man for some reason. A flash of a smile streaked by so fast she thought she'd imagined it.

"Would you like some water?" he asked.

She stole a quick look at Bernice, who reached for the bag in her hand. She gave it up gratefully. "Yes, thank you," she said. "I'd be obliged."

The man opened the door wider and motioned them inside, disappearing into his kitchen where she could hear the clink of glasses and the refrigerator door being opened.

Vonetta stood awkwardly inside the door, looking around. It was clearly a bachelor's apartment, comfortably male and a bit musty, like library books and sweat.

A basketball was wedged between the desk and a chair and she smiled, thinking of her nephew Isaiah, who wanted to be the next Kobe Bryant and after that the first black President of the United States. He'd be nine soon, nine going on forty, and she would miss it when he stopped confiding in his aunt, his face so solemn and trusting.

"Vonetta?"

Again she found herself the object of much scrutiny. The man held out a glass of water and she took it, resisting the urge to roll it along her neck, instead bringing the cool glass to her lips.

"Please, sit." He motioned towards the small dining room table near the door, and shoved back a pile of newspapers and magazines to clear a spot for them. She and Bernice sat. The man hesitated, moving towards the third chair, then away, and back again, to Vonetta's amusement. She knew he was wondering if he'd ever be able to pry them out of his apartment.

Finally, he slumped into the chair, muttering quietly if ungraciously about how his day couldn't possibly get any worse. Bernice raised her glass to her lips to hide a small smile but his unamused squint suggested she wasn't fast enough. Vonetta wondered what had happened to this man, maybe something this Scully did, or whoever it was he didn't want to talk to. She reminded herself that everyone had troubles and dealt with them in different ways. Like having an affair when things got tough. Blinking rapidly, she took another sip of her water.

"--and this is Vonetta Washington," Bernice was saying.

"Mulder," the man said, nodding at them both. He reached toward a magazine, one with a galaxy on the cover, and began picking at the address label.

"We are here as Witnesses to God's love and compassion, to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ," Bernice said.

"I think you're here because Mrs. Washington was wobbling in the heat," he said, though his half-smile took the edge off his words. "I'm sorry, I'm not interested in your message or your purpose. I really don't have time for this. But please, by all means finish your water. I'm not a complete assh-- jerk," he amended.

Vonetta wondered if he realized that despite his efforts to keep his manner bland and pleasant, his fingers betrayed him, alternating between scratching off the magazine's address label and smoothing the frayed edges against the glossy cover.

His hands froze when the phone started ringing.

"Don't sit on our account, Mr. Mulder," Vonetta said. "Go get your phone."

"No. The machine'll get it." But he looked at them like he was looking through them, like he could see whoever was calling standing just behind them. When the answering machine clicked on and a woman's voice began speaking, he bolted out of his chair.

"Mulder, it's me. I know you're angry at me but you have to let me explain why I went with him. I thought--" Her voice was cut off when he flipped the volume down without picking up the phone. He stood still for a moment, glowering at the machine as though he was contemplating tossing it out the window. He rubbed his eyes and turned back towards his unwelcome guests.

"Excuse me," was all he said as he stalked back to his chair and stood behind it, rubbing his hands along the wooden frame. Vonetta thought probably the voice belonged to his girlfriend, this Scully perhaps. Maybe that's why he was so mad. Maybe she'd gone off with some man and now she wanted to explain why she should be forgiven. Vonetta's hand clutched her glass and the ice cubes rattled, the abrupt noise in the silent apartment earning her a quick glance from Bernice. She glanced away. She supposed the woman on the phone wanted to explain how it won't happen again, she's so sorry, even if what she really meant was that he was sorry he'd gotten caught.

She. She'd gotten caught.

Vonetta looked up at her reluctant host sympathetically. He took no notice as he stared blankly at the door. She recognized his look from her own mirror, the look of someone trying to understand how it could be possible that she still walked and breathed despite the way her heart felt pierced, the way her skin felt as if it had been scoured from her body. Her wooziness welled up and she closed her eyes. When she opened them, he was holding out her re-filled glass and a bottle of aspirin. She took the glass and looked mournfully at the aspirin. As much as she wanted one, her doctor had advised against it until the baby was born.

"Thank you, Mr. Mulder. You're very kind."

"Not Mr. Mulder. Just Mulder," he said with a shrug, setting the aspirin within her reach. He stared at the table and at his balled-up hands. His sneaker tapped out a twitchy rhythm on the wooden floor but he didn't say anything, didn't ask them to leave. She had the feeling he was still mulling over that phone call, and was too distracted to put the energy into prying them out of his house. She watched him and sipped at her water, taking careful, deep breaths between sips. James had been staying at his mother's house for the last week. No one knew yet. Vonetta had been too ashamed to tell Bernice that her marriage was falling apart. She glanced at Bernice who was looking at her, her head cocked to one side and nodding slightly. Vonetta flushed, feeling like a bug under glass. Bernice reached out and patted her hand, then sat up even straighter, turning to Mulder.

"In the book of John," Bernice said, "it is written that Jesus was teaching at the Temple when the Pharisees arrived and pushed a woman into the middle of the crowd. An adultress. You can imagine, she was so scared, probably crying, expecting to be stoned."

Vonetta knew where this was going. She'd been repeating this Bible lesson to herself all week, to no avail. She wondered if Bernice had come to the same conclusion about this man. Mulder lifted his chin to watch Bernice and his foot-tapping slowed to a wary beat.

"But it was a trap. If Jesus agreed that she should be stoned, He would break Roman laws that decreed only they had the power of life and death in these matters. Yet if He did not have her stoned, He would break the law of Moses."

Mulder leaned back in his chair and rubbed one hand across his lips and jaw. "Why are you telling me this?"

"Because I think you ought to hear it, Mr. Mulder."

"Just Mulder. And I'm not married."

"That wasn't my point."

"Okay, fine. I get it. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." His front chair legs hit the floor as he leaned toward her. "I've read the bible, too, Mrs. Farmer."

"I promise my story is a short one, Mr. Mulder. As I was saying, it was a trap. So Jesus bent down and wrote with His finger in the dust on the ground. And still they pressed their case. It was then that, yes, He said let he who is without sin cast the first stone. And He continued to write in the dust until finally they all had drifted away, from oldest to youngest, and He told the woman that He would not condemn her, that she should go and sin no more."

"I don't know what kind of conclusions you've drawn about what you heard, but it's not what you think."

"It doesn't matter what I think. My question for you is, what do you suppose he was writing in the dirt?"

Vonetta and Mulder gaped at her for a second before Mulder spoke.

"I don't know," he said, wiping a hand across his eyes and glancing at the ceiling. "Navajo symbols spelling out the human genome."

Now it was Bernice and Vonetta's turn to stare blankly at him. He shrugged.

"You asked."

"Vonetta?"

"Maybe he was writing his name in the dirt. Just stalling for time until he thought of something." Her simple answer embarrassed her. James hated when she stated the obvious. But Bernice just laughed.

"You might be right, darling, you might be right. But I've always wondered. I figure I'll just keep searching until I find my answer."

Vonetta couldn't understand why Bernice thought she'd find an answer to a 2,000 year old question. "How will you know when you find it?"

"I'll just know."

"You'll never be able to prove it, of course," said Mulder. Vonetta turned to him, a bit surprised he'd want to continue the conversation. But unlike her, he seemed not at all puzzled by Bernice. The look on his face was almost sympathetic.

"True," replied Bernice, "and it may not be an answer that suits all folks, but I'll know in my heart. Someday, I'll get to the end of the road and I'll find that answer and I'll be free."

After weeks of going door-to-door with Bernice, Vonetta thought she'd heard all of Bernice's mini-sermons, but this was a new one. She glanced again at Mulder to see how he was taking it. He didn't notice her scrutiny as he gently stroked the stars on his magazine cover with his fingertips.

"Free." He nodded. "Have you ever--?" He coughed and took a drink of his water.

"I beg your pardon?" Bernice asked.

"What about that woman who was going to be stoned?"

"What about her?"

"Jesus never asked her why she did what she did. Did he think it didn't matter?"

"Well, I never thought about it, but I suppose it didn't really matter."

"Why not? Would it have made a difference if she had a good reason to do what she did?"

"No, a sin is a sin. But she had to reconcile herself with the Lord, to repent and ask for forgiveness from the Lord."

"What about her husband? From him, too?"

Bernice sighed. "I imagine she would ask for his forgiveness, too, but he should give it to her. Remember, Jesus said 'let he who is without sin cast the first stone.' The husband was a sinner, too."

Vonetta stiffened. "You mean he deserved it." She noticed that Mulder looked kind of sick, too.

"No, not at all, Vonetta. I don't mean that." Bernice reached out and rested her hand on Vonetta's arm. "I just meant that he couldn't cast the first stone, being a sinner like the rest of us. No, he'd have a hard road ahead, learning to give his forgiveness. He'd have to give up his anger and work to be a better Christian. Just like her. And I can't help but think that they could help each other, that they'd be stronger together than apart."

Vonetta leaned back in her chair, and Bernice withdrew her hand, turning to include Mulder in the conversation again. "Still, Jesus didn't need to know why she did what she did. He loves us, and we must find our faith in that. And we can pray, Mr. Mulder."

"That's easy to say, but what if someone was beyond forgiveness?"

"Beyond whose forgiveness? Ours? The Lord's?"

"It's debatable, but let's start with ours. I know a man, for example, an evil man, who has killed people and betrayed many more. Who would trade away the entire planet just to save his own skin."

"We can pray for him, too. Pray that he will turn to the Lord."

Mulder's mouth twisted into a bitter smile. "I think he thinks he is the Lord, ma'am." He pushed his chair away from the table, and Vonetta suspected he'd be asking them to leave. She slipped her foot back into her shoe to get ready, but Bernice ignored them both.

"Haven't you ever had great hope, Mr. Mulder, a great, grand, irrational hope? And despite all that you'd seen and all you'd been told, held on to that hope?"

He stopped moving and looked at Bernice, shaking his head back and forth a bit, a small smile struggling through. Vonetta had seen that look before on people trying to figure out Bernice. All she knew was that Bernice had a way of speaking to people's hearts. Maybe someday she'd learn how to speak to people like that, too. She hoped so.

"You are something, Mrs. Farmer. Okay, I'll bite. Yes, to answer your question. I have."

"Why couldn't that hope include this man's redemption? We're only human -- everyone is tempted by something. Maybe he could be tempted to do good."

"Do good." Mulder echoed.

"Even the best of us can be tempted, Mr. Mulder, and maybe the worst of us can be tempted, too. The temptation doesn't have to be the worst thing in the world. The minister might be tempted by rage, but the soldier could be tempted by peace, the loner by the promise of a normal life."

Vonetta watched a twitch run through Mulder's body. She turned back to Bernice, who was still musing about temptation.

"Maybe an evil man could be tempted by the chance to do something good for once. Maybe our leap of faith will be rewarded, and perhaps in turn we will be forgiven for our actions."

"Like a bank deposit? Forgive now in the hopes of being forgiven later?"

"No, I don't think that's it," Vonetta broke in, a little nervously. At Bernice's encouraging smile, she continued. "We have to forgive because it's the right thing to do, not because we'll get something out of it. We have to have faith in Jesus, too, that He will see into our hearts and forgive us."

"What if he didn't?"

"What if he didn't what?"

"What if Jesus abandoned you?"

"He wouldn't," said Vonetta.

"Well, what if you thought he did?"

Vonetta had no idea what to say to him. She looked at Bernice, hoping she'd respond.

"I don't understand," said Bernice.

"I have to say, I've never really understood the religious impulse, so bear with me." He paused until they both nodded. "What if that woman who was to be stoned..." he said slowly, running a finger along his sideburn and down his jaw, all the while staring at a framed poster on his wall. "Okay, forget that example. Imagine someone did something terrible, so terrible that she thought God had abandoned her. Would she then try to do something good? Would she try to save the world to make up for it?"

"Perhaps," said Bernice. "But my point was that it doesn't work that way. It's not a... what did you call it? Oh, yes, a bank deposit." Bernice smiled. "It's not a deposit. We have to repent and to trust that He would not abandon us, no matter how terrible our actions." She shook her head. "The world is such a cynical place these days, Mr. Mulder. I keep coming back to my great, grand hope, that people are capable of marvelous things. Maybe she tried to do something good because it was the right thing to do."

"Yes. Yes, there is that," he said with a gentle smile. He looked down at his hands and back up at them. "Well, I hate to break this up, but..." With that, he rose from his chair, looking more serene than he had when they'd knocked on his door.

"Of course, of course. We appreciate your kindness today, and the opportunity to talk with you." Bernice pulled a pamphlet from her bag and left it on the table as she stood. She tapped it once. "I have to believe, Mr. Mulder, that faith and trust and forgiveness will be rewarded. Yours will, too. Never give up on a miracle."

"Oh, I want to believe, Mrs. Farmer." This time, his smile was wider.

Vonetta smoothed her skirt as she stood. "Thank you for the water, Mr. Mulder, and for letting me set a spell," she said. "I feel better now." And she did. Maybe when she got home, she'd even call James and they could talk.

She and Bernice said their good byes and the door closed behind them. Walking down the hall towards the elevator, Vonetta thought about Bernice's ability to reach out to everyone, even the non-believers. Some day, she thought, I'd like to be able to do that. She turned to Bernice.

"How did you know what to say to him?"

Bernice rubbed her hand down the back of Vonetta's arm. "Oh, honey, I wasn't talking to him."