Where We Put Our Faith

Matthew sat alone at his desk in the living room, the only light coming from the computer monitor in front of him and the kitchen through the doorway. Smoke rose up from the cigarette between his fingers as he stared at the bright screen. It had been a particularly miserable day and he felt completely drained. He scrolled down the screen until he found the numbers he was looking for and compared them to the piece of paper in his hand.

“Fuck,” he muttered under his breath. Not a single number matched. He wouldn’t even be getting his two dollars back. Matthew crumpled up the lottery ticket and threw it into the small can by his desk.

Picking up the 24 oz can of Milwaukee’s Best Ice on his desk, he gave it a shake. Save for a few warm drops, it was empty. Matthew put his cigarette down and headed for the refrigerator. It was time for beer number three. He reached in, opened the next can and took a swig. Closing the door to the refrigerator, he nearly choked on the beer as turned around.

Standing outside the kitchen door was a somewhat short but slim Asian man. The porch light was off, so Matthew wouldn’t have seen him if he hadn’t been standing so close. The man was older, probably in his fifties, and sported a dark gray wiry goatee with streaks of silver running through it. A black bowler hat sat upon the man’s head as he simply grinned a thin smile at Matthew, just enough to show a row of perfectly straight and white teeth.

Matthew reluctantly opened the door part way to find out what the man wanted.

“Can I help y…?”

Before Matthew could finish, the Asian man took the opportunity to pull the door all the way open and push his way inside. He was very well dressed in a suit that looked custom-made in the fashion of 19th century attire. Black jacket, vest, tie, and shoes, with a white shirt. A silver pocket watch chain hung from the waist pocket and buttons of brass on his clothes. In his hand was a black briefcase which he promptly placed on the kitchen table.

“Let’s get down to business,” the Asian man said authoritatively as he opened the briefcase revealing a large stack of papers. “I’ll just need your signature on these forms and then I’ll be on my way.”

“Wait, what… who…” Matthew stumbled out the words. He didn’t know what was going on and was absolutely flabbergasted that this strange man just pushed his way into his house and basically started barking orders.

“Look,” the Asian man said, “I’m here to help you out, to give you a better life, but in order for me to do that, I need your signature. Legal documents to cover your ass and mine. Without this, there’s no deal.” The Asian man flipped through the pages until he found what he was looking for and pulled out a pen. “Ah! Sign here please.”

Matthew looked at the outstretched document confused, then to the man holding the document.

“What are you talking about?”

The Asian man looked mildly annoyed, then sighed reluctantly. He had come on a bit strong. Couldn’t really fault Matthew for being confused.

“My apologies. To put it simply, what this document states is that in exchange for your immortal soul, you will live the perfect life you’ve always wanted. Everything you do will be incredibly fulfilling, you’ll live in good health, and you can fulfill your dreams. At the end of said contract, your soul is forfeit and shall descend into the pit of Hell where it will burn forever in eternal torment. At your time of death somewhere between seventy-one and one hundred and twenty-two years of age, dependent on when the most Holy One has deemed your time on Earth to be finished, your soul will be collected. Though we cannot control the exact date and time of death, we can push it into a roughly fifty year window. We also guarantee that your death will be peaceful and comfortable as every moment living from the time you sign this contract will be absolutely perfect.”

Matthew just stared at the Asian man in silence for a few moments as he let what he had heard sink in.

“Did you say my immortal soul?”

“Yes I did.”

“Uh-huh. And who is ‘we’?”

“That would be myself and the denizens of Hell.”

Matthew pursed his lips together and furrowed his brows somewhat as he continued to stare at the man. He took a sip of his beer, not once taking his eyes away.

“Wait. Are you telling me that you’re the Devil?”

“Bingo!” the Asian man said with a smile, swinging a pointed finger into the air. “Now you’ve got it. I’m sorry for not properly introducing myself earlier.” He began walking a circle around Matthew. “I sometimes get so caught up in the agreement that I forget the important stuff like introductions and terms of the agreement and what have you. By the way, you can call me Todd.”

“But I didn’t ask for you to come,” Matthew said as Todd continued to walk a circle around him.

“No. No you did not,” Todd replied, “but any salesman worth his salt will identify and seek out those in need of his services. One cannot just sit there and expect the clientele walk through one’s doors. Though in my line of work most people do anyways. Despite this, it is still important to be proactive. Besides, if someone is going to spend the rest of time itself in the lake of fire, shouldn’t they at least have a fantastic life? Shouldn’t they get some small pleasure and enjoyment while they can? Shouldn’t they…”

“Are you stupid?” Matthew cut him off.

Todd stopped in his tracks on Matthew’s left. He turned his head and looked him in the eyes.

“Excuse me?”

“I’m a Christian,” Matthew answered. “I’m not going to sell my soul to you. What makes you think I ever would?”

Todd made an uplifting sigh and continued his circle around Matthew.

“Well, yes, you are a Christian, that I know, but just being Christian doesn’t get you into Heaven. Matthew 7:21. Look, Matt. I know you. You’re a very depressed individual.” Todd looked at the 24 oz can of Milwaukee’s Best Ice in Matthew’s hand. “That’s what, beer number three for you tonight?” Todd glanced into the room with the computer. On the desk was a half empty pack of cigarettes with one almost burned out in the ashtray and then back at the beer in Matthew’s hand. “Let me guess, you’ve got three more in the fridge. I know you. You’re going to drink yourself miserable and drunkenly jack off to whatever pornography suits your fancy at the given moment. You’ll lie down with a cigarette in one hand and the final beer in the other crying about how sorry you are, begging for forgiveness. Eventually you’ll pass out naked somewhere in the house and wake up in the morning feeling horrible about yourself. The next day you’ll try to pass it off and feel renewed, all peachy keen and living for the Lord. And it’ll go great for a few days. Maybe even a few weeks or months. But you’ll fall again and repeat the same process over and over again.”

Matthew inhaled deeply through his nose, eyes closed and held his breath. The words stung. Todd was right. He was a miserable sinner. God wouldn’t want him. Every good thing he ever did was just one broken promise after another to God. Every vow he ever made had been broken. He often became so depressed about it he would sometimes plan to get messed up, not because he wanted to sin, but because he wanted to forget about his sin, even if it meant intentionally sinning in order to escape for only the briefest of times. He hated himself and he hated his life. Oh why couldn’t Jesus come and take him in one of the brief moments of grace he sometimes felt?

Matthew exhaled slowly and then took another deep breath before speaking.

“What of it?”

“What of it!?” Todd exclaimed. “What of it!? I’ll tell you what of it. Heaven doesn’t want you. You’ve rejected the grace of God all too often. You’ve burned your bridges. Your words are empty and hollow. Let’s face it, you’re coming to see me whether you like it or not. You might as well enjoy life while you can because your suffering is going to last forever. And the thing is, you know deep down you deserve it. No amount of continuing to go to church is going to change that.”

Matthew looked away and spoke through his teeth, ashamed of himself, but angry enough about it to fight back against the accusations.

“You’re right,” he said. “I do deserve death and Hell. But you know what? I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!”

Todd froze where he stood. He was stunned, but only so briefly. An evil smile came back across his face and he started circling Matthew yet again.

“Quoting Luther will get you nowhere,” he said. “You Protestants think you’re so great, but you’re the most deluded of them all.” Todd’s clothes started to stretch and break at the seams as his body began to grow. “You don’t worship Yehoshuah. Your American culture won’t let you.” As the clothes fell off Todd’s body, horns began to grow from the sides of his head, his muscles increased, and his skin started turning to red. “Your independence is so ingrained in what you are that though you talk a big game, you rely entirely on yourself. So how about it? Would you like to enjoy your remaining years?”

Todd leaned in behind Matthew, stopping just over his shoulder. A large red hand with terrible claws held up the contract, another held up a blue ink pen. Matthew was sweating profusely and breathing hard. His life had been miserable. He’d always suspected he would burn in Hell for the terrible things he’s done. And here was Satan, offering him a chance to have some happiness before the end. If only he’d just sign.

And then something clicked in Matthew’s head.

If he’s going to Hell anyway, why is Satan trying so hard to get Matthew to sign? Being proactive is one thing, but this was resorting to scare tactics. Satan was supposed to be the most beautiful of angels, not this big red demon that shows up in the movies. This kind of effort is completely unnecessary unless…

Matthew took a deep breath and turned to look over his shoulder. There was the face of the devil staring back at him. A red dragon-like face with black beady eyes looked directly into his. Matthew gulped and then spoke softly, but forcefully.

“FUCK. OFF.”

Satan roared in outrage, throwing the contract and pen in the air. Reeling back, he lunged with his right arm and grasped Matthew firmly around the throat. Lifting him into the air, Satan slammed him down on the floor, squeezing tighter and tighter.

“Do not insult me boy or I will kill you right here where you stand!”

Matthew struggled with his hands to no avail in an attempt to pull Satan’s fingers from his neck.

“Go for it,” Matthew managed to gurgle out. “I hate this life anyway. I’ve got nothing to live for. You’ll just be sending me to Jesus early.”

Satan leaned in mere inches from Matthew’s face and scowled. There was no fear in his eyes. Satan squeezed his neck a little tighter. Matthew choked a bit, but managed to smile. He was telling the truth. He was ready to face death. With a snort in Matthew’s face, Satan released his grip and stepped away.

Matthew lay on the floor gasping for air. When he finally looked up, he saw the Asian man whom Satan had come into his house as stepping out the front door.

Todd stopped briefly and looked at Matthew who was still gasping. He smiled and said, “Just so you know, it is possible to lose your salvation.” With that, Todd tipped his hat and left, gently closing the door behind him.

The following Sunday, Matthew met with the pastor of his church after the service and told him all that had happened. The pastor quietly listened, not interrupting but making sure to absorb every detail. Though the pastor was skeptical about whether this really happened, he was deeply concerned.

“You said at the beginning of our conversation that you beat Satan,” the pastor said.

“Yes,” replied Matthew.

The pastor stood up and walked to the window. He looked outside to see the trees and birds. He felt the warmth of the sun on his face. Normally, he would marvel at God’s creation on the day like this, but not today. The pastor had dealt with tragedy many times over his career. Members abandoning the faith. Death in the congregation. But nothing had ever felt quite like this. Without looking back, he spoke to Matthew.

“If what you tell me is true, then I am afraid you did not beat the Devil. In fact, I fear he may have achieved exactly what he set out to do.”

Matthew was stunned. So much so that it took him a few moments to respond.

“What do you mean?” Matthew asked.

“Satan is the great deceiver and will do whatever it takes to bring us down with him. From what you describe, it sounds to me that his goal was not to get you to sign the contract, but to make you lose what faith you had.”

“What?” Matthew said as he stood up. “That doesn’t make any sense. It was my faith that saved me. That’s why he let me go. He knew if he killed me that I would go to Heaven.”

“In that moment, yes, perhaps.” The pastor turned around to face Matthew, a deep concern and worry for the member of his congregation showed on his face. “But despite your flaws and sinful ways, you still had faith in Jesus. You still hated your sin. But now, I fear, the Devil has turned your faith away from Jesus and onto itself.”

“I….I don’t understand,” Matthew stammered.

“Your faith is no longer in the one who saves but in your own ability to have strong faith. The switch was almost unnoticeable, but it happened. I heard it in the way you approached me. You said, ‘I beat the devil. My faith in Jesus saved me.’ The focus in your language was not on Jesus but on you. Don’t you see? You were already saved. You had your problems, but you were saved.”

Matthew dropped into the chair he had risen from, his face almost expressionless. The words Todd spoke at the end of their encounter rang through his mind. Just so you know, it is possible to lose your salvation.

The pastor carefully pulled a bible off the shelf and laid it open on his desk. Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. And so the pastor began to read the Word and prayed that Matthew would hear.

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Max and the Red Ball

Max fumbled around with his red ball for what seemed like hours. Just rolling it around in his hands, examining every bit of surface as though it contained the meaning of life. And to a toddler, perhaps it did contain the meaning of life. He took it everywhere he went, never playing with it; only examining. From time to time he’d drop the ball and he stare at it confusedly as though the ball had tried to escape. But the ball would always sit there and wait, almost as if it were asking Max to pick him up again. And Max would.

One day, the red ball rolled under the sofa. So Max crawled over and peaked underneath the sofa and there the ball was, sitting lonely in the back. He tried to crawl under but was much too big so he just reached his arm under instead. Max’s arm was much too short to reach the ball, yet he strained anyways to reach it. He strained for minutes, not crying as a normal child would. In fact, he made not a sound until his mother came and scooped him up, at which point he screamed and cried at the loss of the ball. For hours on end Max wept. He wept until his body could weep no more and he feel asleep from sheer exhaustion.

That night as Max lay asleep in his crib, a gentle moonlight shown through the window and cast onto the floor. Suddenly though, as if beckoned, Max awoke and stood in his crib. Looking over the side on the floor in the cast moonlight was the red ball. He stared at it for a while, unmoving, simply perplexed by the mysteries it must hold. Then, after moments of watching, Max attempted to climb over the rail of crib. It was difficult, but after some attempts, he was able to lift himself over the top. Max fell headlong to the floor and snapped his neck. As his last moments of life flickered away on the cold wooden boards, he saw the red ball slowly roll by and settle itself deep underneath the crib.

Wonderless

I remember the night well. I was nine years old that late July evening. The circus had come to town and set up a big tent at the county fairgrounds. My whole family decided to go for a fun filled evening of laughs and amazement. It was a very old fashioned kind of circus, nothing that uses any electricity or a motor except for the lights that keep the tent lit up. It was really something to behold to see things done with such spectacle without any sort of modern trickery. For example, when they wanted to emphasize a specific part of the act, they would shine a spotlight on them that appeared to be made from nothing more than a candle, some mirrors and a piece of colored glass. Truth be told, the flickering of the candle seemed to provide much more of a dramatic effect than a standard spotlight would.

The ringmaster was a classic looking fellow with a dark red tuxedo, thin waxy mustache, and black top hat. His lanky frame allowed him to really direct your focus to wherever he so desired. He was, as they say, a master of his craft. The way he spoke and moved his body, he made you believe that every act was going to be the greatest act you would ever see. Now, I don’t know if it was his words of hype or if the acts were just that good, but every single one of them felt absolutely incredible. Of course, some of them would have been considered nothing but amazing in their own right.

Have you ever seen a man riding a lion riding a horse? I have. I’ve also seen a midget flung out of a trebuchet and catch a fish in his teeth as he flew through the air. The feats performed in this circus were nothing more than amazing. In fact, it was so incredible that no one noticed any of the intricacies that made the show work. But I think I did. In fact, I think I saw something I wasn’t supposed to.

Imagine if you were to purchase a seamless quilt and then sometime after the purchase you were to find one of the seams. Though the casual observer would never notice it, you on the other hand would see it every time and could never stop seeing how out of place it looked. If you brought it to the manufacturer’s attention, they would be either embarrassed or insulted; perhaps even both. You were never supposed to see it and yet now it is glaring so obviously that you can never unsee it and the manufacturer knows.

I think I saw a seam.

About midway through the show, three small horse drawn wagons came trotting out to the middle of the tent. The horses stopped and a door opened on each side of each wagon. That’s when the clowns started coming out. One by one they climbed out of each door of each wagon, sometimes literally falling over each other. There must have been twenty in each. They were ridiculous and each one had their own look. Though I shall not attempt to describe them all, I will note there was something peculiar about them that at the same time made them more delightful. Sewn into the left breast of each clown suit was a tan name badge. The sewing was done very whimsical and childlike and the stitching of each name was done in a different color thread. They had fun names like Scott, Jason, Fred, and Mr. Fluffles.

They all partook in various delightful antics such as spraying seltzer water in each other’s faces and throwing pies. Some of them were much more ambitious performing such feats as making human pyramids which were knocked down with human bowling balls.

And that’s where I think I saw the seam. Immediately after the human pyramid came tumbling down, all the clowns sprang up with life and immediately went into their next routines without pause nor break. That’s when I caught a glimpse of something that I shouldn’t have. It only lasted seconds but felt like minutes.

One of the clowns, a particularly short one, from the pyramid was running to his next set when I saw his face or lack thereof. There were no eyes, nose, ears, or mouth if any kind. It wasn’t as though they had been lost in some tragic event, but instead as if he never had them to begin with. His face was completely smooth, almost more perfect than any face should be. It was made all the more disturbing by how meticulously the standard clown makeup was painted on. The white face. The big red painted in lips. The blue eye makeup. All without any of the features they were supposed to exaggerate. Even the goofy red foam nose appeared to simply be held to his face by some sort of adhesive.

And then he turned his head slightly and looked at me. Or at least it seemed that way. It was as though he was starting a hole into my eyes, even though he had none. I tried to look away and though I averted my gaze down my shoes, I could not help but look back up. When I did, I saw that the clown had turned his body to face me straight on and he looked angry. Though there was no face, his brow had furled in such a way that I knew he was mad.

I tried to look away again, but could not take my eyes away. I only managed to lower them enough to read the name badge sewn into his clown suit. It said BOBO and was written in a teal thread. I fixed my gaze back to Bobo’s face.

Another clown ran up and started tugging on Bobo’s arm, seemingly pleading with him to go. But Bobo didn’t even seem to notice. He just kept staring at me, piercing a hole into my soul. The ringmaster then stormed over to the two clowns shouting with his arms outstretched. Though I could not make it what he was saying, I soon figured it out when the second clown ceased his tugging and pointed at me. The ringmaster snapped his head in my direction and glared directly into my eyes.

Instantly, I was overwhelmed with terror and quickly turned my head to other parts of the circus. And then I saw all the seams. Between all the antics the other clowns were performing, there were circus workers setting up for the next act. Poles and nets were being erected. High wires were being strung up. Midget canons were being moved into position. The sounds of hammer and nails could be heard as pieces were secured into place.

I looked back towards the ringmaster just in time to see him storming off angrily. This time, he did not look back.

I glanced towards my parents who were apparently oblivious to the whole thing as they simply just delighted in the performance in front of them.

I tried to push the frightening experience from my mind and enjoy the rest of the show but I couldn’t. There was so much distracting me from the acts. For example, while the animal tricks were going on, a rollercoaster was being set up for the unicycle act. While the unicycle act was happening, a high dive was being prepared for the trapeze artists. While the trapeze artists were performing their high dive, the target for the midget canon was being put into place. And so forth throughout the remainder of the show. In fact, I was so distracted by all the stuff going on, I didn’t actually see any of the remaining acts themselves.

When we left, my father exclaimed, “Wow, wasn’t that great!”

“I guess,” I replied sheepishly, “but I often found myself distracted all the other stuff going on.”

My mother looked at me confused. “Whatever do you mean dear?”

“You know; all the pieces they were constantly setting up for the next act.”

“You actually saw all that?” my dad managed to laugh out. “The show was so seamless that I never saw any of it. You’ll have to tell me about it when we get home. I was really wondering how they managed to do it all.”

“You mean you didn’t see any of it?”

They both just smiled and shook their heads.

“It must be that childlike wonder,” my mom said. “So curious and observant that you notice the things the rest of us just tune out.”

I never did bring up Bobo the faceless clown to my parents nor did I mention the frightening experience with the ringmaster. There didn’t seem any need to as I suspected that they never saw it happen either. Speaking with several classmates and other people who went to the show, I learned that none of them saw any of what I saw either. I chalked it up to just a bad experience and tried to move on with my life, leaving the whole awful experience in the past.

Throughout the rest of my school years, I found that I was very keen on picking up what others could not and did extremely well. Excelling where others did not and above where others did made me cocky. At the time, I thought there was something great about me, and why shouldn’t I have? I passed through college with flying colors and worked my way up the corporate ladder to become one of the most successful businessmen in the world. I was revered and loved, even by those who hated me. How many people were so good at what they did that they would donate everything on multiple occasions knowing full well that they were good enough to earn it all back in the blink of an eye?

However, after several failed marriages (all of them ending in my favor, mind you), I began to suspect that something wrong with me. Despite all my accomplishments and success, I wasn’t happy. When I began to analyze my life, I noticed that I didn’t have any close friends. In fact, the only people who remained friends with me were the ones who only saw me on occasion. Everyone else grew tired of me and cut their ties just like my many wives. Just like my children. I tried to contact a few of them to find out why they left. Only one person actually got back to me. It was my best friend from grade school. He simply told me, “You take the joy out of everything.” And that was the last I heard from him.

I thought about what he has said for a long while. Looking back through my life, I noticed how terribly boring everything was. There was no sense of wonder in anything as I only had to look at it and could see how it worked. Every single little detail was visible, making whatever it was I was looking at incredibly dull. In retrospect, I was a terrible burden for anyone who wanted to enjoy life. Like a leach, I just sucked all the wonder and awe right out of them. How the hell did I get a woman to stay with me long enough to get married, let alone five? Right, I knew just what to do. I knew how to keep them in tow long enough to suck the last bits of happiness out of them before they couldn’t take it anymore and they ended it in bitter divorce. A divorce that always ended in my favor. Even in salvation I still managed to crush their souls.

Examining my life, I tried to find the last moment I was genuinely happy, the last time I had a genuine sense of wonder. I was nine. The circus had come to town and set up a big tent at the county fairgrounds. My whole family decided to go for a fun filled evening of laughs and amazement. It was a very old fashioned kind of circus, nothing that uses any electricity or a motor except for the lights that keep the tent lit up. It was really something to behold to see things done with such spectacle without any sort of modern trickery. And then I saw the clown. Bobo. That was the moment I lost my wonder. That was the moment I began to see everything. That was the moment my life fell apart.

Suddenly, things were starting to make sense. Suddenly, the moment my life had changed for the worse was clear. With this newfound knowledge, I had regained my sense of wonder, even if it was only for one thing. Who was this clown?

I started by looking at old newspaper clippings at the library from the date I was at the circus. Since I couldn’t remember what it was called, I figured I should start at the one location I knew was concrete. It wasn’t long before I found what I was looking for. The front page of the local paper from that day had read, “RINGLE’S OLDE TYME CIRCUS DELIGHTS AND ENTERTAINS.”

The article went on to give a praising review about how spectacular the show was. The only photograph was of the outside of the tent with people leaving in delight. Aside from the headline, the article provided no useful information, but that was okay. I got what I came for in the name of the circus which I quickly jotted down on a piece of paper before heading home to do some research on the internet.

However, what I thought would be quick with lots of information instead turned into days and weeks of research with very little to find. I found plenty of reviews on the circus, but almost no pictures and what pictures that I could find were always of the outside. This seemed quite strange living in an age of cell phones and Facebook to not be able to find a single picture inside the tent. From what I was able to gather reading various article that no one with a cell phone or camera of any sort was admitted into the tent. If anyone wanted to see the show, they had to leave any picture taking devices outside. According to one interview, this was because they run a very careful show and a photograph could take someone out of the experience and ruin the magic of it all. This seemed like a lame excuse at first, but then I thought back to what had happened to me. If someone were to take a photo, they might see something that was never meant to be seen.

After what seemed like must have been at least a month of tireless searching, I was getting ready to give up. I was no closer than when I started and the fatigue had been weighing heavy. It was about then I stumbled across an article about a man who had committed suicide via malnutrition. The article was from about eight years ago and seemed wholly unrelated to my quest, but I had never heard of someone intentionally killing themselves via malnutrition and it piqued my curiosity and even the tiniest sense of wonder filled me with excitement.

His name was Gregory Walters and he was fifty-six years old when he died. It wasn’t much of an article. If anything, it was more like an extreme obituary. He was a computer programmer who fell into a deep depression at twenty-eight years old and remained that way until he died. The story mentioned a suicide note was left on a message board but didn’t give the contents of it. Not only that, it didn’t even name the message board or his username.

It took a bit of bit of digging, but I eventually found the post. He went by the uninspired handle of gregory_walters2. Apparently, someone already had the handle of gregory_walters. He had actually posted his suicide note three years prior to his death. I guess it takes a while to die of malnutrition. His final post before his death just simply read, “Looks like it’s just about time to go. Always keep wondering. ” The replies were full of annoyance. “Seriously? After all the curiosity you’ve killed? That’s your final statement? What an ass!” Most of the comments shared the sentiment.

Gregory had been posting on this board for quite a few years. No matter what he said, he seemed to excel at sucking the enjoyment out of everything. Someone would point out something strange or peculiar and Gregory would just point out how mundane it really was. In detail. The thing was, he didn’t seem to be getting any enjoyment out of it. It just seemed he had nothing else to do. A few times he mentioned how he was just helping, though he was under no illusion as to why they were upset with him. He knew. And he understood.

This was all very interesting stuff and it soon got a lot more interesting as I was making my way backwards through his posts attempting to find the suicide note. There was a reply from a user that caught every bit of my attention. It was in response to Gregory defending his helpfulness. The user replied, “Just go FUCK OFF already! You and your stupid clown. Nobody gives a shit.”

Suddenly, his death was a lot more important.

Here was a man who like me had no sense of wonder and somehow in all of this, a clown is involved. My memories were taken back to the night at the circus and of that awful faceless clown. I shuddered as a chill ran down my spine. Could things be falling into place?

I continued digging through his posts. For the most part, they were pretty mundane. It took me a while, but I eventually made it to the suicide note after sifting through three years of posts. I suppose to average person reading it, it sounded like someone really had no intentions of killing themselves. But to me, it felt like a terrifying echo.

“I know many of you don’t appreciate the information I give on here. Don’t worry, I understand why. In fact, I understand everything. I have understood everything for the past twenty-five years. It is for this reason I have decided to take my life. I have no intention of making a spectacle of it. There is nothing interesting in that. I simply choose not to do anything to actively sustain my life.

“Ever since that day at Ringle’s Circus, since I saw that faceless clown, there is nothing to wonder anymore. I have no curiosity. I don’t know why or what the clown has to do with it, but for some reason, I can pinpoint to that moment as the day I lost hope. The day I could no longer look forward to something new and interesting. I’m tired of it. Without curiosity, there is no joy. No motivation. Just, emptiness.

“So, I’ll continue try to be of help until the day comes, though I know there will be little appreciation. If I can help one struggling person, then it’ll be worth it, even if it is of no consequence to me. If I can offer one piece of advice that you all need to heed, it’s stay away from the circus. Just stay away.”

I must have read the suicide note twenty times. It seemed so strange to me. Here was a man who was writing to the world about why he needed to end it and what people needed to do to save themselves, and yet he didn’t seem to give a damn. It was so poor that it’s no wonder that no one took him seriously. He even told them that it wouldn’t be a spectacle and then continued to post for another three years before finally dying of malnutrition. When it takes three years of no effort, can that even be considered suicide anymore?

But then I read the comments. Mostly negative, but a few caught my eye. Comments like, “Not this clown bullshit again.”

So. It was the clown. But was it the same clown? Strange he didn’t mention the clown once in the three years after he posted the suicide note, but by all the comments, it seems like it had been a recurring theme.

As I continued to dig deeper and deeper in Gregory’s post history, the posts about the clown grew more frequent. More detailed. He often referred to him as the faceless clown, but in one post, Gregory called him by name. Bob. Gregory hadn’t even seen his whole name tag, but somehow noticed everything else in the world around him from that point on. It seems trivial to focus on such a minute detail, but how does one suddenly understand everything around him and yet miss something on the thing that caused it.

I created a handle on the message board and replied to the long dormant post.

“His name wasn’t Bob. It was Bobo.”

It was about three minutes before I got a reply.

“Oh FUCK! Not this shitagain. Why isn’t this thread locked?”

Over the next few weeks, I posted replies on the various topics that Gregory had posted and replied to, only have them locked within minutes, mostly because they were old threads. Eventually, my account was banned for bumping old threads and what the moderators claimed was spamming. I cursed angrily at the computer before shutting it down.

I was exhausted. Tired. Defeated. I was ready to give up. I plopped down on the couch and stared at the blank television screen. I honestly couldn’t remember the last time I watched it, so I turned it on. All that came up was a solid box that said NO SIGNAL FOUND. That’s right. I didn’t have cable. I walked over to the set and found a remote for Roku. Funny, I don’t recall ever using a Roku, but come to think of it, my last wife used it quite a bit. I turned it on and opened up Hulu. It worked and I began to wonder how long my bank account had been paying for this, not that it mattered. I hit play on a show called South Park and grabbed a beer from the refrigerator. I laughed. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d had such enjoyment so when the beer was finished, I grabbed another one. And when the episode finished, I watched another and grabbed another beer. And so was the cycle of my evening.

I was awakened by the sun shortly after ten the next morning surrounded by empty beer bottles. It was bright and seemed to make my entire apartment glow. Shielding my eyes, I sat up and took a half sleepy look around. The television screen simply had the word ROKU bouncing around inside of it. I chuckled to myself. Apparently I had passed out watching television and though I had a slight hangover, I was feeling pretty good. Though I wasn’t sure why, I had a strange sense of peace about me and I wasn’t going to question it. After a shower and some breakfast, I made my way outside.

It was beautiful. The sky was an amazing shade of blue and clouds of the purest white were scattered about. Birds chirped gently in the trees by the sidewalk as people rode by on their bicycles. On one corner was a young boy hustling newspapers. I’d never noticed him before and the few times I actually read a newspaper, it was because I noticed a headline at the convenience store and didn’t want to take the time to look it up on my phone. I wondered how long this kid had been hustling and so I walked over to him.

“Hey, kid,” I said. “How long have you been hustling papers on this corner?”

He looked up and smiled.

“About three months, sir,” he replied.

“Three months!?” I asked astonished. “How is it you’ve been doing this for three months and I’ve never noticed?”

“Dunno, sir. The last kid worked this corner for three years before I took over.”

“Three years? Has there really been a young paper hustler on this corner for three years?”

“Longer I think, sir.”

“Really? Well what happened to the kid before you?”

“He got a promotion. The Daily Telegram called him up to work in the headquarters.”

“The Daily Telegram?”

The boy looked at me puzzled. “The local newspaper, sir.”

“I’ve never heard of such a paper? How on earth does it stay in business, let alone afford to pay someone to stand on the street and hustle them?”

The boy shrugged. “It’s the old school charm of it all, I suppose. All the big papers have gotten so impersonal, you know. But The Daily Telegram stays small and local, growing only big enough to survive, but not so big as to lose its appeal. Instead of putting papers inside stores, delivering to houses, or having an expensive website, it hires young local boys such as myself so sell in our own little sections of the community.”

“Huh,” I said, surprised. “Well, how much for a paper?”

“Fifty cents, sir.”

The price took me back. I hadn’t expected such a low cost. “Fifty cents!?” I exclaimed. “Surely that can’t be the price. You mean a dollar fifty, right? Or perhaps two fifty?”

“No. Just fifty cents, sir. Although we do appreciate tips.”

I was shocked. How had I never noticed this? It was really quite pathetic for a man who noticed everything. I handed him a five-dollar bill and purchased a paper.

“Keep the change, lad. You’ve made my day,” I said as I walked away.

“Thank you, sir!” he shouted after me.

As I walked down the street, I unfolded the paper to see what the local news was. Considering I had never even noticed the local paper hustlers in this town, I wondered what else I’d never noticed. What I saw when I unfolded it, however, caught me off guard. Right on the front page was a photograph of a large circus tent with the headline “RINGLE’S OLDE TYME CIRCUS COMES TO TOWN.”

Upon reading the article, I found the headline slightly inaccurate as it was really about three towns over. It wasn’t until sometime later that I learned this paper covered all the towns in the county so it was, technically, accurate. I pondered for a while on what I should do. Fear started to overcome me as the pace of my heart quickly intensified. Beating forcefully in my chest, I felt anxiety becoming overwhelming. Deep down, I knew I had to go, but I was in no condition to take myself, so I called for a taxi. The whole drive, I could feel my heart racing. I must have looked like a paranoid lunatic as I could see the driver making concerned glances at me through his rearview mirror. When he dropped me off at the circus, I just stared at the tent for what seemed like an eternity, but was more likely only a few seconds.

“You gonna be okay, bub?”

“Huh?” I asked somewhat disoriented as I regained my senses.

“I said, ‘are you gonna be okay, bub?'”

It was the taxi driver. Looking into his eyes, I could tell that he had a lot of concern for people, something I hadn’t really seen in anyone before, perhaps because I never really paid enough attention to show any myself. I was beginning to think that for all that I saw, there was an equal amount that I had missed.

“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah. I think I’ll be fine.”

In reality, I wasn’t sure how fine I’d be, but with perhaps the only chance I’ll have to find my answers, I walked towards that circus tent.

Inside, I found a seat and waited uncomfortably by crowds of excited families. For all the joy that surrounded me, I was terribly uncomfortable. It seemed like forever before the show started, but once it did, I could not have expected it to affect me the way it did.

The Ringmaster came out, the same one as when I was just a child. Despite now having gray hair, he looked just the same as he did before and commanded just as much presence as he ever did. I’m not quite sure how he did it, but I was impressed. But as he was going through his whole ladies and gentlemen spiel, he seemed to look directly at me without ever breaking his routine. At first, I thought it was just coincidence until he took off his top hat and took a bow. As he did, he lifted his head slightly, looked into my eyes, and gave a slight nod before he left.

Logic dictated that such an action should’ve terrified me, but somehow, I knew that it was friendly. Somehow, I knew that his nod was a gesture of goodwill. I don’t know why, but like most everything else in my life over the past twenty-six years, I knew exactly what it’s purpose was.

Watching the show this time around was a completely different experience. I saw exactly how everything worked, just like I did as a ten-year-old boy. But unlike the first time, I also got to see the show and enjoy it. It was marvelous. The wonder wasn’t there, but it was still incredible to watch. At the end along with everyone, I participated in the standing ovation. As we all filed out of the tent, I could tell from the conversations that people were having that I was the only one who saw the inner workings of the circus. That was okay with me. Considering what I had been through, it was probably for the better. I was just glad that it was finally over. Or so I thought.

Exiting the tent, I felt a hand upon my shoulder. Turning around, I came face to face with the ticket taker who gave me a warm smile.

“The Ringmaster would like to have a special word with you in his wagon if you don’t mind,” he said.

Seriously? What could he possibly want. I was nervous. I hadn’t gotten the answers I wanted when I came, but at this point, I didn’t feel that I really needed them. But if the Ringmaster wanted to see me, then perhaps maybe my answers needed to be revealed. I asked the ticket man for directions and he kindly gave them to me. Upon arriving at the wagon, I found it to be quite simply made and painted red with a gold painted trim. There was no name or anything distinguishing it from the other wagons other than the trim itself. I knocked. The door opened and the Ringmaster invited me in. And so I entered. He sat down in his chair as I just stood there and stared. I apparently didn’t realize that outside of the tent, he was a very casual man.

“Come,” he said, “please sit.”

And so I sat.

He leaned back and smiled as he twisted one end of his waxy moustache between his fingers. He just stared at me for a little bit as though he was analyzing me to make sure he knew everything he needed to before he made any statements. Finally, he spoke again.

“I remember you,” he said.

“I kind of got that feeling,” I replied.

“Twenty-six years ago. You were just a boy. You saw a part of our show you weren’t supposed to see.”

“How could you possibly know who I am?”

“I never forget a face.”

I was taken aback. Really? Such a clichéd line, yet to the best of my knowledge, there could be no other explanation.

“Alright,” I responded. “Fair enough. How did you pick me out of the crowd?”

“I have very good eyes.”

Was this guy for real? Has he been looking for me at every show since then? I was starting to feel uncomfortable.

“Honestly,” he began, “I thought I caught a glimpse of someone I’d seen before during my jabbering at the start of the show. That’s why I did the bow in your direction. I wanted to be sure without calling too much attention to myself. When I realized that it was someone who’d seen some of our more intimate details, I knew I had to speak to you.”

“What the hell did you do to me?” I demanded.

“Do to you? What preposterous presumptions you have. What makes you assume that I’ve ever done anything to you?

He seemed genuinely insulted. I realized I had directed my question at the wrong individual, or to put it more accurately, about the wrong individual.

“Let me rephrase,” I said angrily. “What did that fucking clown do to me!?”

Apparently, I had said the wrong thing. With my words, his eyes burst wide with fire and he stood up, tall and menacingly. He pounded his cane to the floor with great fury. He spoke with a booming anger that made shrink in fear.

“DO NOT SPEAK ILL OF THE DEAD!! Let alone those less fortunate then you.”

I was paralyzed. Too afraid to speak or move. When he saw the fear in my eyes, he seemed to compose himself and sit down. He lit a cigarette for himself and offered me one. I did not decline out of fear of insulting him again.

“Perhaps I should explain,” he said. “The clown of which you speak passed away two and a half years ago. The poor wretch lived a hard life, but he was kind. His name was Bobo.”

“Yes, I know.”

“Oh, so you were able to read his name tag? Well, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. You do seem to have such a fine eye for detail.”

“So, the clown could see me…”

“See you?” he said amused by my statement. “What? No! You did notice that he had no face, right?”

“Of course I noticed he had no face. But he looked right at me. Not just looked, but stared right into my eyes. And then you make this comment about knowing my eye for detail. It seems to me that you’ve seen this thing happen before.”

The Ringmaster laughed gently and took a deep drag on his cigarette. With an exhale and a sigh, he answered my accusations.

“Bobo could not see you. At best, he could make out varying degrees of brightness. Despite his appearances, he was born with eyes, ears, and mouth, just none of the cartilage to form a proper nose or ears.”

“But his head was totally smooth,” I protested. “There were not even holes for ears or mouth, nor lids for eyes to see.”

“Please, don’t interrupt.” He took another drag on his cigarette and then leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and letting his hands hang down. “Bobo was born with skin completely covering his entire head. At the time of his birth, doctors were not sure what to do, only that they knew he would die if they didn’t do something immediately. They were young and not prepared to deal with such a horrible situation. Afraid to make a mouth out of fear that a newborn would choke on any blood, they opted to create a hole in his throat to allow him to breathe. He was fed intravenously through a special tube inserted into his arm.”

I stared at the Ringmaster in complete disbelief. This was so much to take in and didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

“That sounds completely retarded,” I objected. “If he truly had eyes and mouth and ears, then why didn’t he just get the surgery to correct it? It’s not like we’re living in the dark ages.”

The Ringmaster raised an eyebrow and leaned back.

“Retarded? Really? Let me ask you this. If you had spent most of your life living without true sight, muffled sounds, and the inability to properly speak with others; if you had learned to live your life with fulfillment and happiness and then someone offered you to completely turn your world upside down from what you had known, would you take it? If you are honest with yourself, you’ll realize that such a change is a terrifying prospect. Bobo was at peace with who he was. To change that was an element of fear he did not desire.”

I sat and thought about what he’d just said for a moment. We often spend so much time feeling sorry for those less fortunate then us without ever giving pause to find out if they are happy as they are. So often we want to correct their problems without ever stopping to ask if they themselves consider it a problem to begin with. Though I was briefly distracted by these thoughts, it wasn’t long before I got back to the matter at hand.

“Alright,” I said, “if he couldn’t see me, then why did he stop and look right at me?”

The Ringmaster laughed.

“Oh-ho-ho-ho! He wasn’t looking at you. Bobo had incredible awareness of what was going on around him, but on occasion he would have difficulty figuring out what was exactly was happening and he’d have to stop and try to collect himself to move on. You just happened to witness one of those moments.”

“He looked pissed that I saw him,” I replied.

“Of course he looked ‘pissed’. He was having more difficulty than normal figuring out what was going on and he just happened to be facing your direction.”

“What about you?” I asked. “You looked pretty pissed at me, too.”

“Not so much pissed at you, more visibly upset that someone had witnessed the operations of our show that are not meant to be seen by public eyes. We take a great deal of care to make the show as seamless as possible while distracting the eye from how we do it.”

All his answers had seemed pretty reasonable thus far, but that still didn’t explain what happened to myself and Gregory. I needed to know.

“What about Gregory Walters?” I asked.

“Who?” he replied. The Ringmaster seemed to genuinely have no knowledge him.

“Gregory Walters. He saw Bobo the clown and suddenly understood how everything worked. He had no sense of wonder anymore and fell into a depression so bad that he eventually committed suicide via malnutrition. Nearly the same thing happened to me. I was able to see exactly how everything worked. My entire sense of wonder was gone. It cost me friendships, marriages, and my children. The only thing it hasn’t taken from me yet is my life. How do you explain all that? Huh? Two people witnessed that clown and suddenly we know everything? Suddenly we have no more curiosity? Suddenly our lives turn to shit? How do you explain that!?”

The Ringmaster appeared to be taken back, though not by what had happened but by my accusations. He took one final deep puff of his cigarette before putting it out in the ashtray next to him and leaning forward to me.

“Look,” he began, “I have no knowledge of who this Gregory Walters was or the circumstances that lead to his death. I cannot vouch for anything that has happened in his life. Did he see Bobo the clown? Perhaps. But since I don’t personally know anything about him, there is nothing I can say about his situation. I can say this, however. For one who claims to have lost his wonder and knows everything, you sure have a lot of questions.”

He was right. Over the past few months or more, I’ve had a considerable amount of wonder. In fact, I hadn’t even stopped to consider it. I had become so engrossed in finding out what had happened that I didn’t even realize that I couldn’t see how everything worked.

“Let me propose a question to you,” he continued. “Let’s suppose you were witnessing the most amazing thing you had ever seen in your entire life when you visited our circus all those years ago. Now, when you noticed poor Bobo, you also witnessed the inner workings of the most amazing thing in your life at the same moment you were seeing it. Suddenly, everything else doesn’t seem that incredible anymore, does it? I would speculate that at that moment, your eyes and ears became much more attuned to the world around you. I would imagine that you and this Gregory fellow started picking up on little subtleties that the most people would never have noticed.

“No, I wouldn’t presume that you lost your sense of wonder. Far from it. I would estimate that you picked up on so many small details that you didn’t notice the finer ones. I would estimate that you were so preoccupied with the insignificant points that you failed to appreciate what was good and interesting in your life.”

He was right again. Once I started having questions again, I started seeing all the good things around me, like that paper pusher I’d never noticed. Hell, I didn’t even know we still had a local newspaper or even what its name was. But I’d never felt depressed. Sure, I hadn’t been truly happy, but I wasn’t depressed. Then I started to think about the path I took. While I became a burden on everyone else, Gregory became a burden on himself. While I became incredibly successful, Gregory resigned himself to the lonely corner of the internet with no real direction to focus his lack of curiosity. While I had made something of myself, Gregory did nothing to keep himself going. And I believe that’s where we diverged. My constant pushing allowed me to hunt down my source where Greg just gave up. That’s why I was able to break free.

“You seem deep in thought,” the Ringmaster said.

“What?” I asked as I snapped back into the conversation. “Oh, yes. Sorry. Um, why did you invite me in here? You said you had to speak to me?”

His eyes lit up.

“Oh, right! My, how we’ve wandered off topic. My apologies. It’s been so long since I’ve had such a good conversation with an outsider that I had forgotten why I called for you in the first place. But then again, you’re no ordinary outsider are you.”

I nodded.

“Listen, when I noticed you the first time way back when, I realized that you had probably seen all the inner workings of our show and now I know this to be fact.” He sighed and let out a breath. “I’m getting old and in a few more years I shall need to retire. I can’t keep doing this forever and yet the show must go on.”

“You can’t be serious,” I replied when I realized what he was about to ask me.

“I can’t be replaced with just anybody and the other performers all have their own roles. The role of Ringmaster will require a fresh face. Someone who can see what’s going on without putting too much focus on one act over the other. Someone who knows how to run a show.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Was he seriously asking me to take over for him?

“I don’t know the first thing about running a circus!” I exclaimed. “What makes you think I would even want to in the first place?”

A sly smile slid across his face.

“You like a challenge, don’t you? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I presume you’ve been very successful in life, despite your faults. Your quip earlier about marriages, plural, indicates to me that you must have some degree of success, otherwise I don’t imagine these women would keep marrying you.”

To say I was speechless would be to put it mildly. This man seemed to be able to read me like a book and I had nothing to counter him with. As I just sat there dumbfounded, he leaned back and continued.

“Oh, you won’t just get thrown into it. I’d still be running the show for a few more years while you trained under me until I thought it was in good hands. The performers and crew are truly good people and you’ll develop wonderful lasting relationships with them all. It’s a hard life, but a worthwhile one. I wouldn’t trade a day of it for anything else. What do you say?”

The Ringmaster extended a hand towards me. I stared at it for a bit as I thought about my life since that day. All that I had missed. All that I had lost. My friends hated me. My family hated me. I’m relatively sure I must be fired from my job by now for all the time I’ve missed without giving even so much as a phone call. I had alienated almost everyone I knew. At this point, I didn’t have anything except for a regained sense of wonder and a lot of free time on my hands. I didn’t have to think long.

Reaching out and grasping his hand, I gave it a firm shake. With all that time and wonder, I might as well put it to good use.

Imaginary Fear

You know that feeling when it’s late and you’re tired.  You know the one.  You just got back home from being with your friends.  You stayed out all night and watched a bunch of horror movies.  Or maybe you’ve been up the past few hours reading creepy stories in a book or on your computer screen.  You know it’s all silly and you had a good time.  You’ve entertained yourself and now it’s time for bed.

You’re at home by yourself like every night, but now your imagination is working overtime and your senses are heightened.  Those little sounds that you don’t normally notice; you now hear every one of them.  The little glints of light and reflections that you never paid any mind to before are now only fueling your imagination.  An imagination that is currently writing and telling you stories which you do not need to hear right now.

You walk into the kitchen and shut off the lights and can’t help but glance over at the window.  Is something out there?  Nah.  That’s silly kids stuff.  You laugh it off and go through the living room turning out the lights and as you do, you feel a slight need to take a glance over your shoulder.  What are you nervous of?  You do this every single night.  Why is tonight any different?

You laugh and shake your head thinking to yourself about how foolish you’re acting and that you need to get to sleep before work.  Walking into the bathroom, you grab your toothbrush and toothpaste and begin brushing your teeth as if everything is back to normal.  But then you look in the bathroom mirror.  In it you see a dark area.  Maybe it’s the bathroom closet or perhaps a reflection of another room through the doorway.  And though you know damn well that nothing is there, you still feel as though you can see something in that dark area through your mirror and you can’t help but slowly take a look over your shoulder just to make sure.

Goodness, what the hell is wrong with you?  Are you actually starting to believe your imagination?  You spit the toothpaste into the sink and laugh again, only this time it’s more forced.  Then you let out a nervous chuckle at yourself.  This is ridiculous.  You can’t help but laugh at the sheer absurdity of forcing yourself to laugh to calm your fears.  But then you catch a glimpse of one of those dark areas again.  The closet.  The kitchen.  It makes no difference.  What ever area that catches your eye, it sends chills through your body and you don’t know why.

As you leave the bathroom, you pause at the door and hold your finger over the light switch, staring at whatever direction happens to be the way to your bed, perhaps even taking a slow look around your surroundings.  When you’re ready, you flip the switch and a make kind of awkward half run, half walk towards your bedroom, perhaps accompanying it with some awkward sounds of fear and maybe a bit of giggle as if to reassure yourself that there’s nothing there, yet you still move with haste anyways.  Depending on the type of person you are, you may stop at the bedroom doorway or keep moving.  Either way, the result is always the same.  You never actually crawl into bed or even really get near it like you normally do.  You kind of leap into the bed so your feet aren’t within any reaching distance from the bottom of the bed.  You know there’s nothing under there, but your imagination says otherwise.

As soon as you’re in the bed, you quickly pull the covers up high and, if your bed is against a wall, you roll against it, back to the rest of the room.  Hopefully, your pillow hasn’t fallen onto the floor.  You really don’t want to have to reach down to get it.  You just want to go to sleep and let your imagination pass.  And you try to go to sleep, perhaps attempting to think happy thoughts.  If your imagination will let you.  But what if, what if it wasn’t your imagination acting up?  What if there really was something there?  What if you shouldn’t go to sleep?

Nothing to be Afraid of

Such a peaceful relaxing night it’s been. Sitting there at your desk digging away through the splendors of the internet; or perhaps you’re sitting upon your bed or a comfy chair sloughing through a good book. It doesn’t really matter what it is you’re doing at the moment. You could be working on a puzzle for all that matters. The point is that it’s an incredibly peaceful night. And it’s these nights, my friend, that are the most fear inducing.

No, it’s not those stormy nights like the books always tell tales about. The crash of thunder, the flashes of lightning, and the loud pats of rainfall are all joys to the mind that reassure it everything will be alright. No, my dear friend, it’s those quiet peaceful nights that cause the greatest fear, the most internal panic. At least with a storm you know something is happening, but not with a peaceful night. No. Those are the nights where upon you finishing your activity whatever it may be, your mind suddenly becomes aware of the nothing that is going on.

Take for instance this very thing you are reading right now. Chances are that you are reading this on your monitor late in the evening, perhaps with some other creepy tales you’ve found on the world-wide web. Perhaps time has passed and this has somehow made its way to the Kindle or print format. Whatever format your current fancy, I believe it is safe to assume that you were most likely bored and decided to read some tales to tickle your imagination. What you may not have noticed is that the odds are in favor of it being an unexpectedly peaceful night.

Sure, you may sit up and take notice out the window at this very instant and hear the conversations of passersby or the sounds of rain and thunder. You laugh as think to yourself, “Ah-ha! But you are wrong Mr. Storyteller. It is indeed a normal evening.” And you, sir, would be a fool. It is not the now when you shall notice the nothing, but the then.

As you continue to read, your mind will slowly, but surely, begin to forget the words that I have just laid before you moments ago. Perhaps it will be by the end of this warning or perhaps you will read a few more stories. Perhaps it may be an evening where you are performing another quiet but solitary activity, but mark my words, by the time you are done you will forget and then you shall notice the nothing.

I can tell you precisely when it will happen, too! It will happen when you are finished reading and decide to retire for the evening. It will happen when you turn off your monitor, power down your Kindle, or close your book. That is when you will notice the nothing. Not a sound will come from the outside. Not the sound of rain, nor wind, nor automobile, nor man, nor cricket. If there are street lights at your home, they will either work perfectly or not at all. Not a flicker nor moving shadow shall be seen from them. Creaky floor boards and pipes will be unusually silent unless you are the one to cause them to do so with heavy footsteps or a turn of the faucet.

You’ll probably go into the bathroom to brush your teeth, but the nothing that you have now perceived has caused your mind to panic, looking for things that aren’t there and listening intently for even the slightest of noises. As you turn on the faucet, it seems so loud. It should be comforting, but the knowledge of the nothing has caused your brain to panic and now the normal comfort of the sound of rushing water serves only to distract you from it. You turn it off and brush your teeth, watching the mirror with suspicion. You will freeze slightly under the feeling that you may see something from the other room in the reflection watching you.

You’ll laugh and tell yourself there is nothing there. And you would be right. Nothing is there. Nonetheless, you’ll rinse with relative quickness just in case. After perhaps doing any other bathroom business, you will make your way through the home making sure all the doors are locked and all the lights are out. And though you know for certain that nothing is there, your brain tells you that something is there in the nothing and as such, you have to look anyhow. Every window, every open closet, and the space between the bed and the floor is carefully eyed with cautious diligence. Just in case.

Getting into bed, you’ll probably chuckle about how silly you’re being. It’s just your mind acting up from reading ghost stories all night. But wait…you weren’t reading ghost stories this time were you? You were reading Huck Finn. Or where you up all night working on your taxes? It doesn’t matter. The point is, you could have been doing anything when you noticed the nothing.

You will get to sleep relatively quickly. Sure, you may be on edge a bit, but the nothing won’t keep you awake and you’re tired. In the morning you will wake up refreshed, most likely forgetting how unnatural the nothing was the night before. Or if you do remember it, you’ll probably have a good laugh of it with your friends and share a few stories.

The scientists say these incidents are our minds just playing little tricks on us and they would be right most of the time. Yet as disconnected as we may be, we cannot be fully separated from nature and everyone knows, albeit subconsciously, that nothing is completely unnatural. What if one night you were to learn that there really is nothing to be afraid of?

The Unforgiving Christ

Deep beneath the Vatican is an immaculate painting of our Lord, Jesus the Christ, crucified upon the cross.  Painted entirely in browns and dark flesh tones, this painting is the most realistic representation of Christ’s death ever to exist.  And it is locked away in the deepest recesses of the Vatican in lone room long forgotten.  Where it came from, nobody knows, but the dark secret it keeps is one that strikes the very soul.

Legend has it that it was discovered in the rubble of a long fallen down home in early 17th century Germany by a young Lutheran minister.  As the tale goes, he would go through the cemetery into the forest behind his church.  There was an old footpath that had been overgrown with tree roots and various foliage that led to the house of an old Catholic Priest that had died a few centuries before the reformation.  Stories surrounding the old Priest’s home and his acquirements caused rumors to rise up and the church was soon abandoned.  After the Protestant Reformation, a group of Lutherans restored the old church and used it for worship.

The second pastor to minister to this Lutheran congregation found tranquility in nature and would often go out to the woods when he wasn’t needed and just walk.  One day, he came upon the Priest’s old house.  He did nothing that first time but shrug it off and return back to the church.  In the church archives left over from its Roman Catholic history, however, he found records of all the previous Priests and learned that the house belonged to one of the later ones.  With this information, he grew excited to see what documents and artifacts he might be able to find in the old house and so he would make daily treks to the old church.

The Lutheran pastor would paw through the rubble, but for the most part he would find nothing of value.  That is, until one day, he looked through the window of an old fallen down wall and saw what appeared to be a framed portrait.  He couldn’t make out what it was of, but it looked as though it was intact.  It took many days to carefully break away the wall and rubble that surrounded without damaging the item, but he eventually got it, a portrait of great size.

He picked up the large portrait and held it out.  It was very large at three feet in height.  It was also very filthy and he could barely make out what it was.  Deciding that it must be cleaned up, he placed it under his arm as best he could and steadied it with his other hand as he began to walk back.

However, as he walked back, he found himself becoming increasingly depressed for no explainable reason.  The portrait grew heavy in its frame and the normally reasonable walk seemed to drag on for much longer.  When he approached the church cemetery, the sun had gone down and tears of mental anguish slowly rolled down his cheeks.  He couldn’t carry it much further, it was simply too much for him to handle.  So the pastor entered the church and left it in the narthex and then went home.

That night was very restless for him and his wife and child could see it in his face when he arose in the morning, still full of sorrow.  After breakfast, he went to the church to clean up the portrait which took the better part of the day.  As it became more and more clean, he became more and more distressed, cursing himself and all that he was.  And when he finished, the eyes of a crucified Jesus stared down upon him.  Judging him.  Condemning him.  And he broke down in tears as he all at once knew all of his sins.  He pleaded for forgiveness, but he found none.

It was almost midnight before he returned home.  He collapsed in a heap as he fell through the door, exhausted from repentance and tears.  His wife found him the next morning lying in the doorway sleeping soundly as could be as peasants outside looked at him in awe.  With the help of a neighbor, she got him inside and into bed.  When he finally woke up, he just began apologizing for his sins.  Every sin.  Sins that he never even knew he had committed but now remembered in every detail.

He stayed at home for a few weeks and over time he recovered.  The lord Jesus Christ had forgiven him of his every sin and he knew it.  God’s mercy through Christ’s blood shed on the cross had covered all his sins and he was glad.

The following Sunday, church services resumed as normal.  Parishioners were fed the flesh and blood of Christ.  Sins were forgiven.  Spirits were high.  And there was much rejoicing.

 Sometime after the service after he thought all had left, he heard a terrible weeping coming from the Narthex.  Under a table, he found a small child crying uncontrollably.  It was a boy and he was babbling over and over about how sorry he was, and that’s when the pastor saw it.  The painting he’d found had been shoved behind the table, and there was Jesus looking back at him, dying on the cross.  The pastor removed the boy and took him home to his mother before returning and examining the painting.

Just as before, he felt the complete guilt of all his sins at once.  He prayed for forgiveness and repentance in the Lord but received none.  He exhausted himself in sorrow and passed out on the floor.  When he eventually awoke, the anguish was still there as strong as ever.

The story goes that he was eventually dragged out of the church and taken to a hospital where doctors and preachers tried to nurse his mind back to health, but to no avail.  Nothing could convince him that he was forgiven.  They say he eventually killed himself by bashing his head against the stone walls of the hospital when he was left alone one day, a sin in the eyes of the church, but probably for the better.

As for the old church, rumors of demon possessions and evil sprang up and caught like wildfire.  The church was soon abandoned and slowly over time fell into disarray.

The painting would not turn up again until the late 19th century when some children playing in the woods came upon the old church, now over grown with plants.  They found the painting covered with dust rubble, but still intact.  Knowing their father was a man of the arts, they brought it home to show him what they’d found, although they were significantly depressed by the time they returned.

He sent them to bed with good tidings.  When his wife went to bed, he began to clean the painting.  And he felt the weight of all his sins.  And no forgiveness.

When his wife awoke in the morning, she found him dead, his wrists slit and straight razor lying limp in his hand.  Against the fireplace was the portrait of crucified Jesus, immaculately cleaned. And he judged her.  And she felt the weight of her sins.  And she found no forgiveness.

It was days before she was found.  She was next to her husband.  Dead with their two children.  She died of slit wrists and the children of impalement.

The painting moved around pretty quickly at this point, racking up quite a few deaths in mere weeks.  The Vatican heard about it and it was sent for it to be investigated, but only on holy ground.  It was covered, boxed up, and sent to Rome where it was to be examined on the holiest ground.

The group examining suffered from extreme guilt and it took weeks of being away from the portrait with constant supervision and consultation before they could feel the forgiveness and go back to their work.  It was decided that the painting must be destroyed, but when the time came, the guilt overcame them and they could not bring themselves to destroy such an image of their lord.

They covered it with a sheet and left it locked alone in a room for weeks on end until they could once again feel Christ’s mercy.  They called in a Priest who had no former contact with it to take it to the most recessed, dark, and unused areas of the Vatican and lock it in.  And it has been there since and still is to this day.  Nary an individual has seen it for over a hundred years.  Yet on occasion, someone will go down to the dark room to leave a strange trinket with specific instructions no to touch anything.  Those who go down say they feel an uneasiness about the whatever is under the sheet and express that, for no apparent reason, they begin to feel shame and sorrow.  When they ask about it, those who know of the portraits existence grow cold and simply tell them that, “The Devil works in mysterious ways.”