It’s actually happened! Jehovah has answered my prayers! I never, ever thought that things could happen so quickly, but now that I’ve seen it with my own eyes, it’s nothing short of miraculous! Where to start…
Today is the day I’ll never forget. When Luke came home he was like a different person. His mood towards the end of the week typically ranges from slightly irritable to outright foul. By this point, he’s been through all kinds of drama at the office and can bristle at the smallest things. Today, though, he was calm and quiet. Even asked how my day was. We ate dinner over pleasant conversation. I felt so good that I suggested we open a bottle of wine, and Luke agreed.
We cuddled on the couch as we worked our way through the bottle. I haven’t felt this close to Luke in months, maybe even years. He really opened up about some of the things he’s been going through at the office: the pressure that’s come along with his promotion, the rigors of training with all their new equipment, and the endless paperwork he has to deal with as a sergeant. Maybe it was the cabernet that loosened his tongue, but he just kept talking and talking.
I sat there, elated, and tried not to interrupt. But nothing could’ve prepared me for what came next. He asked about Chelsea and Walter! I was stunned. Speechless! I nearly spilled my wine. Then I wondered if I had had too much. When he repeated the question I mumbled something incoherent. He said he thought that they seemed like nice people, and that he was actually happy for me to have such good friends. I could’ve died right there in his arms!
My mind was a mess at this point. I felt like I’d been given a golden opportunity and didn’t want to blow it, so I said a quick prayer and gently suggested that we all get together sometime for dinner, that they really liked Luke and wanted to spend more time with us. I held my breath as I waited for a response. And to my intense, unimaginable delight, he said yes! YES!
Can it be? Is this the beginning of a new Luke? I was to excited, so utterly thrilled, that I called Chelsea as soon as Luke had slipped into the shower. She was just as happy, and the planning began immediately. We decided to schedule a Sunday dinner at their house. We both agreed it’s a more relaxing environment of the two homes, and this way Luke will get a chance to see some of Walter’s handiwork. I really think those two will become friends. Oh, I just can’t wait to see how things turn out!
Thank you Jehovah!
Sunday, December 13
The Novaks live in a quaint, two story bungalow. They’ve maintained the house well, and the result is a stark contrast to the surrounding dilapidation. Being this close to the city, the property value must be sky high, and I guess that most of the neighbors know their houses will eventually be demolished when they sell. Until that day comes, many seem content to let nature take its course. Most of the yards are clogged with weeds. The houses themselves seem to frown with age, their sagging eaves and crooked window shutters gazing sadly into the cracked street.
Walter and Chelsea’s house is an exception. A low stone wall encircles the property. The hedges, though mostly bare for the time of year, are trimmed and neat. The house looks freshly painted. Even the loose gravel driveway seems to be groomed. I also note the window cages, which appear to be new. Having patrolled this neighborhood and come face to face with some of the characters behind these doors, I find it prudent. I wonder if Walter owns a gun…
Hidden sensors capture our movement as we let ourselves in through a wrought iron gate in the wall, and a line of lights beside the walkway flicker on. I spot a blurred figure in the frosted glass windows beside the front door as it swings open. Chelsea and Amy squeal in unison and embrace each other like long lost relatives. Walter appears in the foyer next to them, smiling. He’s wiping his hand on an apron with faces of cartoon dogs and cats. The whole thing is like something out of a Lifetime movie with Martha Stewart in the director’s chair. I find it so absurd that I actually chuckle. In all my years on this planet, I’ve never seen such happy people. I’m suddenly wary, remembering what Meade told me: these Witnesses have consistently evaded detection for months.
I enter the house as Walter takes our coats and get my first good look around. Part of me is doing this for the FBI investigation, but I have to admit that I’m curious, too. What is this place where Amy spends so much time? What’s the draw?
The Novaks’s home is small and well decorated without feeling kitschy or cluttered, something all too common for sixty-somethings living on their own. I once responded to a domestic dispute in this very part of town where a couple had started throwing punches when the wife swore her husband had pawned off one of the gnomes from her collection. An entire room of their house was literally crammed full of small ceramic dwarves.
This, though, is nice. They’ve even got a taste for art. There’s a cool wire sculpture of a lion’s head on one of the side tables in the living room and a few abstract paintings hanging on walls. One in particular catches my eye and I pause for a moment to try and interpret it.
“You like art?” Walter asks. I shrug.
“I like looking at it. I wanted to study it in college, actually.”
“Oh? Where’d you go to school?”
“Just a small state university in Tennessee, near where I grew up.”
“I take it you didn’t pursue the art degree.”
“Nope. My mom refused. I had an uncle who was an artist. Ended up on the street for a few years. He’s in a ward somewhere now. My mom thought criminal justice was more promising. I went along with it and here I am.” I let out a soft sigh and the two of us continue to gaze at the painting. “So, are you two collectors?” I ask.
“You mean the art? Oh no, it’s just a hobby for us. I do a little sculpting in my spare time and Chelsea likes to paint.”
“Wait, you mean you two did all these?”
“No, not all of them. Some we purchased. A few were trades. Chelsea and I used to do little art market displays, and sometimes other artists would come by and make an offer. It was fun.”
“Sounds like it. I guess I can look forward to retirement,” I say.
“I never have. I like keeping busy.”
“You still work?”
“Something to do with the military?”
“Oh no, those days are far, far behind me. I’m sort of a handyman now. I fix things around the house, do some plumbing or electrical when there’s a need, that sort of thing. And once in a blue moon we sell a painting or two.”
“That’s it? It’s enough for all this?” I ask with a quick glance around the house.
“Chelsea occasionally deals antiques online, but for the most part that’s it. We live simply. We purchased this house in the 80’s, when property was cheap, and the mortgage’s been paid off for years. We save money by doing our own gardening and we try to make what we can ourselves rather than purchasing. The savings add up.”
I’m nodding thoughtfully but have a hard time swallowing this. I make a mental note to explore this topic further, as it might be a clue to something else.
Walter disappears for a moment behind a corner and returns with two glasses. He hands me one and I take a whiff. It’s scotch, and I can tell immediately not the cheap stuff.
“This is incredible,” I say after the first sip. It’s warm and slick and layered with flavor. “What is it?”
“25-year-old single malt Scotch. Glenmorangie. Not sure if I’m pronouncing that right though. It’s a little out of my league.”
“You and me both.”
Walter chuckles and retrieves the bottle for me to inspect. “Some friends of ours work near the stills in Scotland and brought us a bottle. Not bad, huh?”
“Yeah,” I say, and it’s an understatement. Once I’m done with this glass I’ll probably never be able to enjoy another glass of anything else. There’s a voice calling from the kitchen and Walter is whisked away. I’m left to my own wiles as I wander around the halls looking at things. Other than the art, I find a collection of foreign trinkets on some of the shelves. They look African, or maybe South American. Other than art and knickknacks, the house is decorated with numerous framed pictures. I spot a younger Walter and Chelsea with a little boy. I assume this is the son Amy once mentioned, and I make a second mental note. I finish off my drink just as Amy appears in the hallway. She’s beaming, obviously thrilled that I’m here and not being a total jerk. She loops her arm in mine and leads me towards the dining room.
“Pretty cool place, huh?” she whispers into my ear. I nod. I’ve never been in a house like it before. Though the place is small, it’s clear that Walter and Chelsea have lived a full life together.
The table is set with a spread of steaming dishes. I spot a pot roast, candied yams, roasted corn, stuffing, and a salad sprinkled with blue cheese. It’s enough to make my knees wobble and I grab a chair to steady myself. Just like the last time we ate together, Walter asks if I mind him saying a prayer and I give my consent.
It’s a strange feeling, being around people praying again. It’s been years since I went to church or even thought seriously about God or religion. It just never appealed to me. Not even as a kid. One day in Sunday school when I was about eight or nine, the teacher insisted I recite the ‘Our Father’ prayer. I refused; I just didn’t get why it was so important.
“Why would God want to hear the same prayer over and over again?” I asked her. She sneered at me in response.
“Who are you to question God!” she snapped. Even at that age, I’d decided that if I wasn’t allowed to question something, it wasn’t worth my time.
Half of my brain is replaying that memory while the other picks up bits and pieces of Walter’s prayer. It’s not the ‘Our Father’, and I’m pretty sure he isn’t reciting it from a prayer book. He talks like he’s actually speaking to someone real, someone whom he respects and admires. I’ve never heard anything like it. He even mentions my name. I glance over at Amy, but she’s got her eyes closed like the rest of them. I patiently wait for Walter to finish, and when he does we all dig in.
“How is everything?” Chelsea asks after I’ve cleaned my first plate off and lean in for seconds.
“It’s amazing, Chelsea. As always,” Amy says.
“Thanks, hon,” Chelsea says, brushing Amy’s arm. “Luke, you need anything?”
“No, I’m good. Thanks,” is all I say.
I realize it’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a dinner like this. There was a time, when I was small, when I could look forward to the holidays for this kind of thing. But then my Dad found a younger woman. There was a divorce; our family was split down the middle. And big dinners together–along with just about everything else–were suddenly a thing of the past.
I realize Amy is nudging me and I turn to look at her. She’s smiling.
“Walter asked you a question, babe.”
“Just wanted to know if anything exciting happened at work lately,” Walter says from across the table.
“Yeah. It’s not often we have a police officer over for dinner.”
“Oh. Well, not really,” I say. My mind drifts from the conversation a bit as the three of them discuss people I don’t know. There are also a lot of terms I can’t quite comprehend, and I begin to wonder if the Witnesses have their own coded language. Perhaps that’s one way they’ve evaded the law all this time.
“So,” I finally interject as their conversation hits a lull. Chelsea is opening the oven removing something that smells like desert and Amy is collecting dishes from the table to make room. “It’s just you two? No kids?”
I notice Chelsea pause momentarily as she lifts a pair of well-used oven mitts from a wall hook. Walter glances over to her and then back to me with a smile.
“We have a son, actually,” Walter says mildly.
There’s a crash on the tile floor as Chelsea drops a knife. It flings bits of fruit goo onto the cabinets and she apologizes.
“A son? Does he live around here?” I ask.
“No, I’m afraid not,” Walter says with a frown. “At least, he wasn’t living around here last time we saw him. He moves around a lot.”
“When was that? I mean, the last time you saw each other?”
Amy turns from the sink where she’s washing dishes to shoot me a warning look but I ignore it.
“Oh, I suppose it’s been five or six years now,” Walter says with a strange distance in his eyes. I wait for him to continue, but there’s nothing. What could cause a couple to be so caring and generous to strangers and yet barely communicate with their own son?
“I hope you like peach cobbler,” Chelsea says as she sets a steaming plate in front of me. I take a few bites and decide to let the topic rest.
“So Walter, I think last time we had dinner you didn’t get to finish telling your story,” Amy says from the counter. She’s done with the dishes and returns to my side to pick at my plate of cobbler with a tiny fork. It’s always the same with women. They never want their own portion but they’ll eat most of yours. I nudge the plate in her direction and she immediately holds her hands up. Oh no, of course she couldn’t. She just wants a taste… I glance at Walter and he chuckles knowingly.
“Right, my story. You still interested, Luke?” he asks.
“Sure,” I say, shrugging. I’m frowning at my plate, where half of my cobbler has already vanished.
“I believe last time you asked how it was that I went from opposing my wife to joining her. Well, I can tell you that it didn’t happen overnight. I’d heard so many negative things about the Witnesses that I refused to consider the other side of the argument. The result was, I’d treat all the Witnesses I came across terribly. I once spotted an older lady on the street handing out The Watchtower magazine. I pretended to be interested. She handed me one and I tore it up and threw it right in the trashcan beside her. I was a real knucklehead back then.
“It’s amazing, though, how your life can get flipped upside down in an instant. One night, while I was driving home from work, it started raining really heavy. I mean, it was just coming down in sheets, and I couldn’t see a thing. I veered off the road and hit the embankment. The car flipped on its side and skidded about two hundred feet across the pavement. My briefcase, which had been sitting in the passenger seat, flew through the windshield and was discovered by the paramedics another hundred feet from the vehicle. That would’ve been me, too, or at least pieces of me, had it not been for my seat belt.”
“Oh Walter, don’t be so gruesome,” Chelsea says with a distasteful look.
“Were you hurt?” I ask.
“Oh sure, I was battered to a pulp. Both legs broken, my neck fractured in four places, and I almost lost a finger. I spent four months in the hospital. Because of the neck injuries, some of the doctors thought I might be paralyzed. It was the scariest, most helpless feeling. It takes a man’s dignity away like nothing else. I didn’t even feel like a person any more.”
I realize I’m nodding along as Walter is speaking. I went through some of the same things while in the hospital, and I was only there for a few days.
“Anyhow, I had a lot of time to think while I was laid up in that hospital bed. Couldn’t do much else, really. I worried about myself. What would I do for work if I couldn’t walk again? At the time I was privately contracting as a test pilot for military prototype aircraft. There was no way I could do that without my legs. Sometimes the stress of it all just broke me down. I’d cover my face with a pillow and wish I could just die.
“But Chelsea was there right by my side the whole time. She never seemed to worry about the future, never seemed to even think of leaving me. She kept saying we’d get through it together, that everything would work out. I wondered where this strength was coming from. How was she, this quiet, reserved little thing, able to keep it together, when I, a rugged military man with years of intense physical and psychological training, was collapsing from the sheer pressure?
“Then there were Chelsea’s friends. The Witnesses. The very people I’d viewed as my personal enemy combatants. They came and visited me. They brought flowers and cards and balloons. They brought me food when Chelsea was unable to. They’d sit and chat with me when I allowed them to. These people who I’d done everything to resist–they just wouldn’t give up on me. And where were my friends? Where were the guys that I’d served with overseas, or the ones I’d risked my life for testing aircraft? In all those weeks, I think I got three phone calls. That was it.
“So I’m there, with my legs strung up in casts, so pathetic that even my old buddies can’t take a day off to come see me, and here these droves of strangers are coming in day after day to wish me well. To cook me meals. That kind of thing, it…”
Walter’s draws a ragged breath, his voice catching. He pauses a moment, eyes closed tightly as he holds a fist to his mouth. He takes a deep breath to regain his composure, and says, “That kind of thing changes a man. My whole life, I thought I knew who I was and what I wanted. But when I lost it all, that’s when I found what I really needed. There’d been a hole in my life the whole time, and I’d been trying to fill it with personal accomplishments, the acceptance of my superiors, badges and honor. But in the end it did nothing for me. Nothing. I finally realized it wasn’t the life I wanted.”
“So you became a Witness?”
“Well, not right away. I still had concerns, you see? Those things I’d heard about them were still rattling around in my head. I needed to understand what the truth was. But now I was willing to ask. And that made all the difference.”
We all seem to let this soak in as the room fills with silence. The pan of cobbler at the center of the table holds one last piece, and Chelsea wastes no time shoveling it onto my plate. Since I barely had two bites the first time around, I’m happy to oblige.
“So,” Amy says, her mouth still half full from the last stolen bite of my cobbler, “how long did it take you to actually start studying with them?”
Walter glances at Amy, then back at me. “Perhaps we can delve into that chapter over a future dinner,” he says. “Besides, it’s a clear night, which means conditions are perfect for me to show Luke the balcony.”
The two women nearly applaud this suggestion, though I have no idea what he’s talking about. Still, I’m curious enough to follow behind him as he trudges up the stairs to the second floor.
Like the downstairs, the area here is artfully decorated and well maintained. There’s an old cherry secretary desk by an arched windowsill and a couple of old upholstered chairs. It all belongs to some bygone era, and yet merges seamlessly with the modern art strewn about the walls. Walter leads me through one of the doorways and past a sliding door onto a small balcony. He pops open a closet and produces a heavy looking telescope. He extends the tripod and sets it on the center of the deck. He pulls a small sheet of paper from his pocket and mumbles something to himself as he twists and turns various knobs and dials.
“Take a look,” he finally says.
I lean down and peer into the eyepiece expectantly. It’s been years since I’ve looked into a telescope. My field of view, however, is black. I shift my angle to see if that clears anything up, but the view remains completely blank.
“See anything?” Walter asks.
“A whole lotta nothing,” I say.
“Well, somewhere in that tiny dot of space, lies a planet known as Kepler-452b. Heard of it?”
I back away from the telescope, shove my hands in my pockets, and shake my head.
“Scientists discovered it a few years ago using a powerful telescope orbiting us in space. They say it’s the most Earth-like planet found to date. It’s just a bit bigger than this planet, and they think it may be habitable. Problem is, it’s one and a half thousand light years away.”
“NASA spent over half a billion dollars building this particular telescope and putting it into space for the sole purpose of finding other Earth-like planets. But we still have no way to get there, or even determine if they’re habitable. This seems to be a recurring pattern with us humans. We spend so much time and money looking for the next great thing that we fail to appreciate what’s right in front of our eyes, what’s right under our feet.”
I nod thoughtfully and stare up at the sky. The stars are especially bright tonight, and the view is stunning.
“You know,” Walter says softly. “I wanted to share this with you because it’s a lesson that I learned late in life. Unlike those scientists at NASA, I like looking at the stars to remind myself of how precious what we have now is. Had it not been for my accident, I may have never seen how fortunate I was to have a wife like Chelsea. You’re a better man than me, Luke. You already value your wife. I can see it in the way you speak to her, in the way you treat her.”
“Thanks,” I say awkwardly. Walter smiles and pats me on the shoulder.
“Never forget that like this planet, our wives are a gift. And they’re one of a kind.”