Sarah giggled as Ian breathed on her neck. “I forgot about how passionate you are. It’s like we’re teenagers all over again.”
“We shouldn’t have done this,” said Ian, getting up. He caught his breath on the other side of the bed as Sarah rubbed his back.
“You don’t miss us?” she asked.
“You know that’s not what this is about,” said Ian.
“I’ve heard the lecture before.”
Ian turned and looked at her. He brushed her hair back and then kissed her nose: “I’m trying to change my life. And you keep trying to pull me back into the past.”
“I didn’t pull you in,” said Sarah. “You came here and, well… you came.”
Ian laughed, “Why do I even fucking come back any more?”
He got out of bed and started dressing.
“You think you’re so fucking holy now?” snapped Sarah, getting angry. “You think going to church makes you somehow immune to all the bullshit? Well, fuck you!”
Ian buttoned up his shirt and bit his tongue.
She always got angry fast, even when they were younger. His friends warned him, but he kept coming back. She was predictable, maybe the only certain thing in his life.
“So that’s what you’re going to do now?” she spat. “You’re going to fuck me and leave, pretending that somehow all the shit you survived was my fault? Fuck you and get out of here, you piece of shit.”
Ian took one last look at Sarah, “I’m sorry I hurt you. I meant nothing but the best for you, even when it didn’t seem like it.”
Sarah wiped away a tear, “Just get out, please… I can’t handle you leaving and going like this. Make up your mind.”
“How long are you back?” asked Jamie.
“Just the week,” Ian took a drag of his cigarette. “Seminary a wild time?”
“It’s not Animal House. Just a bunch of fucking prudes, you know? But I’m happy.”
They both looked out at the lake.
“Remember when we ran from the cops that one night?” laughed Jamie.
“Yeah,” chuckled Ian. “Not sure what they were looking for.”
“Probably smelled the pot.”
“Maybe. Didn’t take much to outrun them.”
“Not at all.”
Ian looked at the water and took another drag of his cigarette, “Do you ever wish you could go back to those days?”
Jamie laughed, “Go back? We’re still here. It’s you who’s moved on, man. Some fucking holy man and shit. Look at you go, though.”
Ian smiled, “I’m glad you’re happy for me, man.”
“What are you doing back here?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Every time you come back, it’s always fun. But you’re not the same.”
Ian stopped and watched the snowflakes fall around him. He looked down in front of the house and saw the X the police spray-painted to mark where her body fell.
When he was ten years old, he’d watched a neighbor get stabbed on the stop over a transaction gone wrong. It turned out that she was a prostitute. He kept it inside all these years, wondering why she’d had the blessing of dying and he hadn’t.
Every time he talked about it with his therapist, she would bring it back to that single moment in time.
“The more you hold these memories in,” she said. “The more it hurts to come back.”
Ian sighed, “It hurts to go back… but it hurts even more to remember. Was there anything good about what happened when I grew up? Was God even there?”
“The longer you hold on to this pain, the harder it will be to see those moments when you go back.”
Ian crouched down on the asphalt and touched the X.
“I remember you,” he said. “I don’t want to, but I remember you.”
“How has your time back been so far?” his dad asked him as Ian relaxed on the couch.
“Nothing’s changed,” said Ian.
“That’s not true. We got new cars.”
Ian sighed, “Nothing’s changed.”
“That’s some Christmas spirit.”
Ian stopped in front of the gravestone and looked down at it.
“This is weird still,” said Ian. “I guess I still miss you in a strange way. You were gone too soon. I remember reading your name on the news. Kyle Anderson killed in a car wreck. Sarah left me for you, and I can’t help but feel like I am guilty for your death.”
Ian looked at his own breath, and thought about the things he imagined himself saying. He imagined himself beforehand kneeling before the tombstone and crying out. He imagined himself tearing his clothes and asking God why he was still on this earth.
Instead, he sat down next to the grave and stared at it.
His fingers slowly moved along the words etched in the stone.
When Ian was at seminary, he always boasted of a better world in class – a wonderful world. Yet every time he came home, he faced the grim belief that the world was never this ideal. The world was broken and beyond redemption.
Kyle had fathered a child with Sarah, and yet he was the one who died.
Ian had come close to death several times, yet for some reason he was still there.
Erin and Ian made out on her couch as heavy metal blasted throughout the house. She let out soft moans as he kissed her neck and made his way down to her stomach. He wasn’t going to be able to enjoy this forever, he figured. Might as well get it all out now. If he slept with Sarah, he could sleep with Erin no problem.
“Wait,” she said.
“Okay,” said Ian as he relaxed on the couch.
Erin got off the couch and came back with a spoon, candle, and syringe. “Do you remember this?” she asked. “It made sex so much better.”
“I can’t do that,” said Ian.
“Oh, so you’ll fuck me but you won’t shoot up with me?” asked Erin. “Makes perfect sense.”
Ian looked at her directly in the eyes as she started boiling the water, acid, and heroin in the spoon.
“I have to go,” he said. “It was nice catching up with you.”
“Aren’t you a man any more after that Jesus shit?” she laughed.
Ian opened up the door and walked away in silence.
Ian sat next to the hospital bed.
Greg opened his eyes and released half a smile, which was all he had left. Shortly after Ian left, Greg took a shotgun to his mouth and pulled the trigger. He somehow survived it, and he was still in recovery. When he woke up, he thought he was in heaven and then he pleaded with the medical staff to let him die.
“Hey man,” he said.
Ian forced a smile, “Hey.”
The oxygen machine kept giving off soft hisses.
“I’m going to be out of here soon,” said Greg.
“I’m glad to hear that.”
Ian looked out the window at the traffic below. How many people in those cars were considering putting a gun in their mouth that night? He read somewhere that depression and suicide rates were highest around the holidays.
“Hospital food tastes bad,” said Greg.
“I know it does,” said Ian.
“How’s the God stuff?”
“Oh, you know… same old, same old. Getting taught how to walk on water next week, I guess.”
Greg let out a raspy laugh.
“My face,” Greg scratched his nose, “my face looks terrible.”
“You look better than you did beforehand.”
“Don’t joke, Ian. I’m going to be regretting this the rest of my life.” Ian sighed and squeezed Greg’s hand tighter.
“This is God’s judgment for me trying to take my own life,” Greg looked away.
Ian reflected on the dozens of times he tried to take his own life, or at the very least considered it. Before he became religious, he had spent time in his father’s study examining the family’s shotgun. Something in him clicked that night and he knew his time wasn’t over yet.
“Do you believe God’s judging me?” asked Greg.
“No,” Ian leaned back. “I don’t think God’s judging you.”
“Why did I live then, Ian?”
“I don’t know the answer to that. But I’m glad you’re here.”
Greg pulled Ian in and started weeping on his shoulder, “I just want to die, I just want to die…”
Ian sat across from his parents as they drank and started eating pizza.
“How’s the cult stuff going?” his mom asked.
His father laughed loudly.
“I don’t think that’s funny,” said Ian.
“What?” asked his dad. “Can’t you take a fucking joke any more? Jesus doesn’t laugh?”
Ian thought long and hard about that question in the back of his head. Why is it there were never any portraits of Jesus laughing? Was Christianity always so serious?
“How are your friends?” asked his dad.
“Nothing’s changed,” said Ian.
“Why don’t you come down to the church?” asked Reverend Gerrin. “We’re serving the homeless tonight.”
“What’s the fucking point, Rev?” asked Ian. “What is the fucking point to it all?”
“You got your life turned around, Ian. Not everyone gets the chance you got. You owe it to yourself, to the world, and to God to make something of yourself.”
“I don’t know if we can see eye to eye on that, Rev.”
“Come down to the church, Ian.”
Ian forced a smile as he scooped out soup to the people in line.
“Thank you so much,” some of them would say. “God bless you.”
“I appreciate hearing that,” Ian would always say.
Reverend Gerrin would occasionally pat Ian on the back, as if Ian was doing him proud.
Ian finished closing up shop and put his apron away.
“Hey, there is one more thing I need you to do,” said Reverend Gerrin.
“What is it?” asked Ian.
“There is a passed out homeless woman in the back. We need help putting her into bed. Could you help us?”
Ian followed Reverend Gerrin to the back to seeing a homeless woman in her thirties passed out at a table.
“We think she’s high or drunk or maybe both. God loves her all the same, I suppose.”
They both carried her on their shoulders to the back and laid her on the bed. Ian immediately noticed that her shoes were soaking wet.
“Oh shit, Rev,” he said. “She might have frostbite.”
“Great,” whispered Reverend Gerrin as they laid her into the bed. “Can you take off her boots and see? I’ll get a nurse to look at her.”
Ian thought back to Sarah, how he used to rub her feet to feel closer to her. He thought of the women in his life that came in and out who would feel that connection to him too. Then he thought of the One who washed the feets of His followers.
“Yeah, I can do that,” said Ian.
Ian almost threw up after taking off her shoes. They must not have come off all winter.
“God, help me,” he said.
He took off her socks and saw feet that were mangled, toenails long and yellow. There was dirt, crusted skin, and blisters covering the bottoms of her soles. Ian held a rag up to his nose to stop himself from vomiting.
He walked back, got a bucket of hot water, soap, and a rag.
As he came back, he saw the woman semi-conscious looking around.
He pulled up a chair next to the bed, and started washing her feet.
The dirt on the bottom of the feet slowly started to scrape off as Ian kept scrubbing. It was a miracle there seemed to be no visible frostbite. The smell waned, and he felt less sick.
“Why are you doing this?” asked the woman.
Ian thought for a while and then said, “It’s Christmas, I guess.”
The woman looked to the side and wiped away a few tears, “Will anyone remember me when I die?”
“I’ll remember you,” said Ian.
Memories of his past relationships flooded his mind. He remembered the laughter, joy, and excitement of being a teenager. He remembered the passion of love, the conversations he had about moving out someday. A single tear fell down his cheek.
“Yeah,” Ian whispered. “I’ll remember you.”
Ian stepped out of the church and saw the snow continue to fall. His cell phone rang.
Jamie was calling. “Hello?” asked Ian.
“Is there hope for me, man?” asked Jamie.
“What do you mean?”
“I want out too. Is there hope?”
Ian paused and said, “Yeah, I think so.”
Jamie sniffed, “I’m here alone on Christmas Eve. I just did a few lines of coke and I don’t feel a fucking thing. I haven’t felt anything for a long time.”
“You bring a presence to life that no one else brings, Jamie. It’d be terrible if you didn’t know about that for yourself. I certainly appreciate and love you.”
Jamie paused, “Can you come over, man?”
“Yeah. I can come over.”
Ian hung up the phone and put it back into his pocket.
He thought back to his classes, where he argued that there was still some good in the world, that everything was created with purpose and intention, that everyone’s life had inherent value. He thought back to Erin and Sarah, who had hurt him deeply. He thought back to his avoidant parents, and to the prostitute who died in front of him. He thought of Greg, wanting so desperately to be in heaven to escape his pain.
Then he thought of the laughter, the joy, the good times he had with the people he once loved. He didn’t come back to make amends or to show off his life. He came back because he loved them all dearly, and a piece of them went wherever he went.
Ian may never understand why bad things happened to any of them, or why he survived his multiple encounters with death. But he knew he had a chance tonight to do good, and that was enough. Perhaps heaven is much closer than Greg thought.