Crusader by Jaxon Schock
“Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”
– Psalm 42:11
Charlestown was once a nice place to live. When I was growing up, St. Mary’s Church was always packed full of good Christians, eager to worship our Lord. My friends and I were free to run and play in the streets – without supervision – until supper. The streets were all so lively, and the joyous laughter of little children would echo throughout. Now Charlestown lies desolate. The laughter is all but gone. The children that remain never leave their parents’ sight for fear that they should be abducted by some kidnapper or molester. Many families have gone away to live in more appealing neighborhoods, places fit to raise their children. With more and more desperate souls turning to sin in their weakness, attendance of the church is at a new low. I mark every newly vacant seat in the pews and mourn the loss of each member of our congregation. I would leave here forever if only I could, but I am trapped in this dead place in which I was born, in which I will die — it is surely my own Purgatory.
I was the last to leave the church after the six o’clock mass. It was so eerily quiet once everyone had gone. I could’ve stayed there all night, basking in the empty stillness of the chapel. But I knew that I would have to turn in early; tomorrow was another busy day. I knelt before the altar in a noble prayer, then arose and walked out the doors and across the dimly-lit street towards my home.
My wife Grace lay asleep on the couch in our living room. Every Sunday night she sits there, waiting for me to return. I was especially late to leave the church on this particular night – arriving home past 9:00 – and so she had naturally grown weary in her waiting. The light of the TV cast a bluish glow on her snow-white skin. She was angelic. I stood above her, watching her chest rise and sink to the rhythm of her breath, imagining the sight of her beautiful brown eyes hidden behind the lids. I knelt beside her and planted a kiss on her forehead before treading up the old wooden stairs with cautious steps so as not to wake her with a careless creak.
As I lay awake in my room, an impure thought entered my mind.
Grace must be an awful woman to have left me alone in this bed. She fell asleep early so that she wouldn’t have to see me tonight. She chose the couch so she would not have to sleep next to me.
I was alarmed at the absurdity of this sudden thought, and I quickly put it out of my head. But the thoughts soon returned and would not leave.
She doesn’t love me, she never did. She hates me! Why did I ever marry her? I’ve wasted my life away! And for nothing!
I could no longer control my thoughts or emotions. A fury grew in me and shook my body violently.
Selfish, insolent, ungrateful bitch! Wretched woman! I must be rid of her forever!
I leapt from the bed and fervently paced the room. Hatred pervaded every part of my being. My body ached entirely until I felt that I would explode. Miraculously, I gathered the strength to utter a silent prayer to God, begging him to spare me from death. Then all at once the fever subsided, and I collapsed back onto my bed.
“I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy.”
– Psalm 116:1
Grace woke me up the next morning. She rubbed my shoulder and ran her fingers through my hair as my eyes forced themselves open.
“Michael? Are you awake? You slept in, honey. Did you forget to set the alarm again?” I must have appeared very strange to her because with a look of concern she asked: “Is something wrong?”
“No, dear. I’m fine.” I hardly recognized my own voice, I spoke in such a hoarse whisper.
“Okay, well… just come downstairs and eat some breakfast in a minute before you have to go.” She had the same confused expression as she walked out of the bedroom.
Was it all a dream? It couldn’t have been!
I still felt a dull ache within me. As I walked into the bathroom, I jumped at the mirror’s reflection. My face was ghostly pale, and my eyes appeared as if each individual blood vessel had popped inside of them. It looked like I had aged overnight.
Something’s terribly wrong with me. I’ve got to figure out what. Fast.
At that moment, it struck me that I was going to be late for the church’s charity event. We had been planning this for weeks. Whatever was happening to me, it would have to wait.
Grace was reading the morning paper when I came down the stairs. She had set the table and prepared breakfast for us: pancakes, eggs, bacon, coffee, and – my favorite – strawberry jam on toast.
“Are you sure you’re alright, Michael?” Grace asked as I approached the seat across from her. “You don’t look well.” I turned to look at her and felt nothing but guilt and shame. She would never know the feelings I felt, could never discover the despicable thoughts that broke into my stream of consciousness like a thief in the night. She would be mortified that I could even think such things. I decided it would be best not to tell her anything about last night, so instead I simply mustered a smile.
“Just a bit under the weather maybe. Didn't get much sleep either,” I replied, with a raspy voice only slightly improved from before.
“Well, I hope you start to feel better soon. This thing you’ve got at the church today is very important, isn’t it?” Grace’s eyes went back to her newspaper as she cut into her pancake and began to eat. She had been waiting for me. “I’m so sorry I fell asleep last night, I guess I was just a little more tired than I thought.”
How could I have thought such horrible things about such a lovely woman? I wanted to tell her that she didn’t need to apologize, that she was the kindest woman I’ve ever known and that I loved her. But I couldn’t bring myself to say any of it. She had done me no wrong, yet I saw her differently than I did just the day before. She had changed somehow or, more likely, I had. Her voice didn’t ring in my ears as it used to. Her smile didn’t bring me the same joy. I could feel myself choking up at this revelation and had to stifle the tears that were welling up before Grace noticed. I scarfed down my toast and desperately hurried towards the door.
“Have a good day!” she called after me. But I was already gone.
“Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.”
– Deuteronomy 31:6
I stopped before the church for a moment to collect myself. A prayer to God has helped me countless times in the past, and this should be no exception. I prayed that the Lord may help me calm my nerves and help me through these challenges. It worked, of course; within a few seconds, I had been able to put these strange events out of my mind. I kept in my mind that He works in mysterious ways, and that whatever was happening to me must be part of His plan. Now that I was assured, I was able to focus on doing one small part of the Lord’s work: charity.
Over the past month, I had been organizing an event to feed the homeless people of Charlestown. It was likely to become a bi-monthly event held by St. Mary’s. If it went well, it could become a staple of the church that I could claim to be a proud founder of. Needless to say, I had been anticipating this day for a while.
We held the event in the parking lot of the church. My grand vision was to provide these people a feast like no other; we would outperform every soup kitchen and shelter in Boston. However, it was evident that would not be the case when I arrived. Our “charity” consisted of a few elderly women, handing out beans, soup, corn – anything that came from a can – from behind a couple of folding tables. The abysmal amount of volunteers in attendance wasn’t surprising, but there were many more homeless than I thought there would be. The line of them stretched all across the lot and onto the sidewalk.
The old ladies told me that the people who had planned to bring cooked food had canceled at the last moment. These few boxes of cans were all we had from the food drive and we would have to make do with them. I thought this might anger me, but I reminded myself that this was part of His plan too, and that I should relax myself and let Him work through me. I relieved one of the ladies of the cans she was handing out and stood behind the table. I was ready.
“About time!” exclaimed the next man in line. “I’ve been starvin’ out here! You guys have been really damn slow.”
“We’re sorry, sir,” I offered without sincerity. My patience was already gone – how had it gone so fast? I tried not to look upset but he must have seen it.
“Relax, I’m only joking with ya!” He smiled at me. The few teeth he had were yellow and rotten. I couldn’t help but wince at the stench of his breath. My visible disgust didn’t seem to bother him. He snatched the can from my hand. “Sucker!” he shouted, cackling as he shambled away from me. I hated him... I hated him and all the other vagrants. They were not the meek that would inherit the earth. They were scum. Leeches that serve no purpose other than to feed off the hard work of the good and kind-hearted people, the few of them that remained. The Lord had provided him with the bread of life and he laughed in his face. He took the bread and he laughed. He laughed.
Judas. May he burn.
We ran out of food long before we had reached the end of the line. The rest of the bums let us know how bitter they were about it. They yelled and threw empty cans at us until some nearby policemen came and shooed them away.
Savages. All of them.
Where were these thoughts coming from? What had come over me?
I wasn’t ready to go home yet; I couldn’t stand to see Grace again so soon. I decided to spend the rest of the day out of the house. I went shopping, walked in the park, saw a movie – anything to get my mind off of the bleak world around me. Before I knew it, the sun had set and I was forced to go back home. I hoped that she would be asleep on the couch again. But when I walked through the door, I found her sitting there wide awake. She had been waiting for me again. But where I expected anger from her, there came only love. She ran to me and embraced me in her arms.
“Where were you all day, Michael? You made me so nervous!” I tried to reply but still I could not find the words. “Well, say something, damn it!” I pushed her away from me. I had never heard her be profane before; although, she looked regretful the moment she said it. “I’m sorry. I just need you to talk to me, Michael.”
“No, I’m sorry,” I said at last. “It’s just really hard for me to see you right now.”
“Then I want you to be honest with me, ok? Are you… are you seeing another woman?”
“No! Of course not! That’s not it at all. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t be here right now. I need to leave. And you have to let me go.”
“What? No, Michael, you just got here!” she cried. Her eyes welled up and the tears overflowed down her already tear-stained cheeks. “Please just stay, let’s talk.” She reached out her arm to grab me, but I slapped it away.
“Don’t! Don’t touch me!” It barely registered with me that I was screaming at her. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
I’ll never forget the look she gave me then. A look of shock, of fear, of love that was now lost. It told me that what we had was gone now and it would never be the same. The look she gave me broke my heart, because it told me that I had just broken hers, and I’d never be able to mend it. Then I turned my back on her and walked through the door into the cold and unforgiving night.
I thought the tears streaming down my face might evaporate from the boiling of my blood. I was both furious and miserable at once, and what I witnessed next would bring me to the brink of insanity. The filthy, toothless old devil from the charity was standing in front of St. Mary’s with his back to me. He was pissing all over the walls of the church.
“What are you doing?!”
“Reverend!” He turned around to face me, piss falling onto the grass of the church’s front yard. “It’s good to see you again!” His half-opened, drunken eyes peered right through me. The tattered sleeves of his jacket did nothing to hide the hideous marks the needles had made up and down his arms. The leper stumbled towards me as he pulled up his pants. He held a bottle in his hand, and now he offered it to me. “Care to drink with me?”
That was the last thing I remember before everything went dark. The next thing I remember was staring down at the old man who lay on the ground. The very same bottle he had offered me was broken and stuck in his gut. Blood was flowing out through the neck of the bottle and staining the grass beneath his lifeless body.
“This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
– Matthew 13:49-50
I sped down the highway with reckless abandon. His bloated corpse had barely fit in the trunk of my Cadillac. Every couple of miles, I swore I heard a sound from the back, but every time I convinced myself that it was just bumps in the road or ghosts in the wind.
At that moment, I didn’t have time to process anything that had happened; I just knew I had to get him away from there or things would go bad for me very fast. Now that I was on the road with him in tow, I had time to reflect. In truth, I didn’t want to think about any of it at first. I wanted the radio to drown out all my thoughts. I wanted to drive right off the Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge and plunge myself into the icy waters of the Charles River. But I forced myself to see it through to the end. After all, this too was part of God’s plan for me. Right?
The most stupid and obvious option was for me to drive the body a few miles down to the waterfront and dump his body in a quiet part of the harbor. This was a sure way for me to get caught. Besides, I had seen enough of the ocean to last me a lifetime. No, I would take him west and bury him in a forest somewhere.
I don’t want to hurt you. My own words repeated themselves in my head as if I were not the one who said them. I had meant them as a warning, but I only now realize they seemed like a threat. Poor Grace. Hopefully one day she would understand.
The devil must surely be hard at work here. Such cruel and wicked events can be explained no other way. I felt powerless in every instant of anger. Rage that I had never known had become active within me. It could’ve come from no other than Satan, I was sure of it. He was responsible for all of this. Even now, I had to be careful to remain calm about it or risk losing control to him again.
When I was sure I had found a good spot, I pulled the car over to the side of the road. Even at night, these forests were beautiful. The tall trees, shrouded in shadow, swayed in the cool, gentle breeze. A chirping choir of crickets and cicadas sang a song that only I heard. It was pure bliss.
My moment of tranquility was rudely interrupted by loud banging coming from the back of my car and the unmistakable cries of a miserable old drunk. He was alive, alright. I grabbed the shovel from the back seat, stepped out of the car, and popped the trunk.
“Please!” shouted the poor bastard. His belly was still gushing blood, his red-stained hands uselessly clutching to the wound. “Please… don’t kill me. I’m sorry, ok? I’m really really sorry, please. Just let me go. I won’t tell anyone about any of this, and you’ll never have to see me again.” I grabbed hold of him by the collar and threw him out of the car and onto the road. He was really weeping now. “Please don’t do this. I’m sorry, I really am! I won’t say nothing – I swear to God!”
The old man didn’t seem to realize that he had desecrated the house of God just a few hours earlier. Still, his cries for mercy struck something deep within me, something I thought was buried. I pitied him more than I had ever pitied anyone. It was truly a shame that it had to come to this.
Then suddenly the moon and the stars flashed so bright in the sky, and communicated to me the very solution to my problems. I knew then what I had to do.
“It’s ok,” I told him calmly. I dropped the shovel to the ground. “I forgive you. And now, I want you to forgive me.” Then I turned my back on him and faced down the road that I had traveled. There was a minute of silence between us, and then I heard him pick himself up and sprint into the shadows of the forest. Another minute passed and he was gone. It was all up to him now, he was the one with the choice to make; I would confess only if he would. I knew my God would forgive me, and that was all that really mattered anyway.
In the dark stillness of the night, I offered a final prayer that would save us both:
“Our father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name…”