Mike drove along the interstate, not thinking about God. Normally, this took a great deal of work, but alone in his car, he was not the Reverend Doctor Michael Reed, head of the largest megachurch in the state of Tennessee. In the driver's seat of his Honda SUV, he was not the televangelist broadcast all over the South every Sunday to nearly a million people, not to mention the twenty thousand that packed his church to hear him speak in person. Following the long row of red taillights past Rivergate, he was not the bestselling author whose books on faith had landed him on every major news program in the country. He was not even Michael Reed, loving father of three, devoted husband of one.
Driving and singing along with Metallica's "Enter Sandman", he was just Mike.
He took the Hendersonville exit and all at once the bustle of the interstate, of Nashville itself, seemed far away. The Honda managed the curvy roads into the low hills that surrounded the city, past the lavish homes of the other rich and famous-the county music people-that also congregated to the Athens of the South. Many of them-regulars on the charts, industry moguls, lucky divorcees in both of the other two categories-attended his services regularly and often called him for advice on everything from their marriages to their affairs to what songs they should release from their albums. He had appeared in more album dedications than he cared to remember.
He wondered, with the giddiness that can only come with fantasy, what it would be like to be mentioned in a Metallica album. Even the first of his three dinners at the White House wouldn't come close.
Mike pulled into his driveway and stopped at the security gate. He punched in his code on the small mounted keypad and followed the curved driveway as it ascended the hill toward the house. As usual when he was working late, several of the lights inside were on. The children would be in their rooms, watching cartoons or finishing up their homework before bed. Joanne would either be cleaning up the kitchen after dinner or, if he was lucky, already in bed reading. Though he would never admit it to her, he liked her being a morning person, in direct contrast to his night-owlishness. Most nights, she was snoring by nine and he could stay up until midnight or later, working on his sermon for the following Sunday, answering his correspondence, or returning phone calls that simply could not wait. When they had built the house, he had insisted that his office be downstairs in the very back of the house so that, he said, his work would not disturb his wife. In truth, and he still cringed at the thought of the deception, it was the other way around.
Mike reached up and hit the button to activate the automatic garage opener. While the door cranked upward into the cavity of the garage, he popped Metallica out of the CD player and slipped it, upside down, into the visor organizer in between Steven Curtis Chapman and Toby Mac. The door reached its apex and he pulled the SUV inside, parking it next to Joanne's Nissan. He looked at his wife's car again, recalling the argument that took place over it, one they would never have allowed with anyone else, even one of their children, to watch. She had wanted the Nissan, built just down the interstate in Smyrna, while Mike had wanted her to have a Jaguar or a Mercedes or even a BMW, something that he had never thought he would be able to provide for her when she married him newly out of seminary. Everyone who lived within ten miles of this new house at least had a BMW. But Joanne was adamant and her decision, like most of her decisions, proved to be a good one. The press had gone on and on about their "humble" lifestyle, a ruling based almost solely on her choice in automobiles.
Now, as he got out of the Honda and closed the garage door, he smiled at the Nissan, another indicator of how lucky he was to be married to Joanne.
Mike was thinking about Joanne as he entered the house, "Enter Sandman" still ringing in his ears, the guitar chords casting rhythm to his steps. He hung his keys on the hook next to his office door and proceeded down the hallway to the kitchen. The room ahead was ablaze with light, two pizza boxes still lying on the stainless steel countertop of the island.
He entered the kitchen and everything went from brilliant illumination to total blackness.
When Mike awoke, the first thing he was aware of was the cataclysmic pain in his head. The second, and far more disturbing thing, was that he couldn't move.
He raised his head without opening his eyes and a wave of nausea ripped through him like a claw, forcing him to return his head to its original resting place on his chest. He paused a moment, waiting for the wave to ebb, then opened his eyes a sliver, just enough to begin figuring out what was going on. The light from the kitchen dug into his skull, but he fought against it and the second, smaller wave of sickness that swept over him. Finally, when he was able, he opened his eyes further and looked down at himself.
He was sitting in a chair at the kitchen table. That much he could tell from the bit of wood that he saw to either side of his thighs, beyond the coils of plain brown rope tied around his middle, securing him to the chair. His arms were free of the ropes wrapped around his torso, but they two were bound by similar cords from his wrists to almost his armpits. Even his palms were tied together in a prayerful fashion, leaving only his fingers free to move. His hands, he saw as his head tilted so carefully upward, were atop the worn Bible from his office.
"Wake up, sleepyhead," said a male voice right in front of Mike.
Mike jerked his head up to see who had spoken and regretted the move at once. The nausea returned and this time there was no stopping it. He managed to turn his head sideways and spew the sparse contents of his stomach mostly away from his body. A solitary line clung to his lower lip, trailing down over his shoulder and out of his sight.
"Well, now," the voice said again. "You must feel better after that."
Before he could look up again, Mike heard another kitchen chair slide against the tile floor and footsteps as the man walked away from the table. He then heard a drawer open and, at last, he looked up to see who had spoken. His stomach groaned again in protest, but lacking any more ammunition, it did so in vain, a minor inconvenience compared to what Mike saw on the other side of his kitchen.
The man was not large at all. Several inches under six feet and slightly built. He stood at the kitchen counter, dressed head to toe in black, and pulled several dish towels from a drawer by the refrigerator. When he turned back around, Mike saw he was approaching middle age, patches of gray at his temples and crows feet dug clearly into the spaces around his eyes. He wore no facial hair, but seemed to have a wild look about him. Mike thought it was something in his dark brown eyes, something in the way the man smiled when they faced each other.
The intruder walked over to Mike with the towels and began cleaning the vomit. He whistled as he worked, just out of Mike's line of sight, and he recognized the song as "Enter Sandman".
"There," the man said, standing back up and walking away from the table again. Mike turned his head, slowly in case his stomach decided to revolt again, and watched the man open the cabinet where the Reeds kept their trash can. He tossed the wad of towels in and bumped the door shut with his leg.
"No sense in keeping them," the man said, smiling again. "You can never get that smell out."
"What do you want?" Mike asked. The words came out a bit garbled, but were clear enough to Mike's ears.
Apparently, the man understood. "What do I want? Hmm. That's a good question. Let's see if you can guess." He walked back to the table and sat down again in the chair opposite from Mike, his dark eyes glittering.
"Where are Joanne and my children?" Mike asked. "If you've done anything to them-"
"You'll what?" the man asked. "You'll kill me? Now you're getting ahead of yourself. How about I just tell you why I'm here, since you apparently don't want to play along, and we can get started. You were out longer than I thought you'd be anyway, so you're rather pressed for time."
Mike wanted to ask a thousand different questions, but they all jammed on the way to his mouth, so he sat there, waiting for the stranger to speak again.
"My name is Robert," the man said. "and what I want from you is exactly what every one else wants from you?"
"What do you mean?"
"You, in case you've forgotten from that blow to the noggin, are the Reverend Doctor Michael Reed, founder and pastor of the Holy Word Baptist Church, adored by thousands every Sunday in your stadium of a venue and on cable by many more."
"I know who I am," Mike said. He was growing agitated by the man's playful tone, but knew he was in no position to resist.
"Great, that'll make things easier," Robert said. "People come to you every week, looking for salvation. Looking for God. Correct?"
"I guess you could say that."
"Well, let's just say that I'm a wayward sinner and I'm looking for the same thing. For God."
"So you broke into my house and-"
"Ah," the intruder said again, his smile widening. "That's where things get a little different. You see, I'm what you might call a 'cynic'. I've been looking for a long time for some reason to believe that there is a God out there, some loving, benevolent heavenly caretaker who guides us with a gentle, but firm, hand. I've been all over the word, Reverend, and have seen a lot of reasons not to believe in a God, but I have yet to see one thing that makes me believe that there is one."
"Well," Mike said, trying to keep his voice even. "If you'd like to come by my office at the church tomorrow morning-"
"No," Robert said. "It doesn't work like that. I see you all the time on television. I'm a big fan, really. I admire how much faith you have and I think to myself that if anyone can convince me there is a Big Man Upstairs, it's this guy. But, like I said, I'm a cynic. So, here's the deal. You ready?"
Mike felt the nausea coming back, but this time it had nothing to do with his headache. Now, it was born of pure dread. Still, he nodded.
"Good. Great," Robert said. "Okay, your wife and kids are safe-for now. They are upstairs, tied up and, hopefully, getting a little sleep although they didn't seem too much like sleeping when I saw them last. That little girl of yours really has some lungs on her."
Mike thought of Sarah being tied up by this stranger, not knowing why it was happening or if her daddy was coming to help her. Anger rose inside him, consuming the nausea, and he pushed against his bonds, looking for some way to strike out against the man sitting, so calm, across from him.
The rope held and Mike, exhausted, slumped in the chair.
"Anyway," Robert continued, "you and your wife and your kids can all make it out of this okay. If everything goes well for you, and I hope it does, then by dawn I'll let them go, let them let you go, and you'll never see me again and you can go back to your happy, church-going lives."
"And if not?"
He pulled a handgun from under the table and set it on top. "Then I kill all of you, starting with the youngest, and finishing with you after you have watched all the others die."
Mike felt the fury rising again. He knew, in some remote corner of his mind, that the Bible spoke out against wrath, but that small voice was drowned out by the certainty that no one in the Good Book had ever had his family held at gunpoint by a lunatic. He felt himself trembling as his rage sought some avenue through which it might escape and attack this Robert, but the ropes held him again, as though reinforcing his conscience.
"What do I have to do?" Mike asked. "Is it money? If it will make this go away-"
Robert laughed. "Now, don't insult me. I realize that money can solve a lot of problems, but the Bible warns against greed and I am not a greedy man. No, money isn't what I want from you."
"Like I said," Robert said, leaning forward. "I want what everyone else wants from you. Faith. I want you to convince me that there is a God who cares about me and who loves me regardless of all the evil things I've done and, believe me, Reverend, that's some list." He reached out and tapped the Bible beneath Mike's trussed hands. "Simply put, you have until dawn to convince me that there is a God and that, despite my sinful ways, He loves me."
"That's it," Robert agreed. "If you've convinced me by dawn, then you all go free. If not, you all die. It's as simple as that."
Mike couldn't imagine anything less simple. He looked up at the clock and saw, for the first time, how long he had been unconscious.
Robert followed his eyes and nodded. "It's a quarter past twelve right now. Dawn will be at exactly six thirty this morning. That gives you just over six hours to save your family and yourself."
"That will take a miracle," Mike said, more to himself than to his captor.
"Well," Robert said, "you're always talking about how God has performed miracles in your life. Let's see if he has one more to spare."
Heavy silence descended on the kitchen. Mike, trying to keep calm and think of a possible way out of this danger, closed his eyes and tried to focus on what he could say that might sway the man before him into believing as he believed.
"Are you praying?" Robert asked him. "That's good. Pray away if you like. At least that lets me know you're not a hypocrite. In the meantime, I'm going to run upstairs and tell your lovely wife and children that you are home to save them." He stood up, taking the gun with him, and disappeared down the hall toward the stairs at the front of the house.
Mike listened for the receding footsteps, then the clomping of feet going upstairs. Then, he leaned back in his chair, pushing with steady force until he could slide his bound arms beneath the table. His fingers felt the unfinished wood underneath until he found a rough edge on one of the support pieces, one Joanne had complained about as soon as the table had been delivered. Mike had promised to sand that rough spot down numerous times and now, as he began rocking back and forth, rubbing the ropes over his wrists against the wood, he was thankful for that one broken promise to his wife.
As he rocked back and forth, he turned his head as much as he could to listen for any conversation he could pick up from upstairs. Robert had said that his family was alive, but without any way of being sure, he would not trust the man's word. He picked up no sound from outside the kitchen until he heard footsteps descending the stairs. He scrubbed the rough spot under the table a few more times with such rigor that he scraped the exposed skin of his hands and felt a long sliver of wood enter the meaty flesh at the base of his left thumb. Wincing, he leaned back, pulled his hands back once more, and placed them back on the worn Bible before him.
Robert returned to the kitchen and went straight to the refrigerator. "Your family is very relieved that you are home," he said, opening the door and leaning forward to look inside. He rummaged around a moment, blocked from Mike's view by the island, and stood up holding three plastic bottles. "You wife said to tell you that she has faith that you'll succeed in delivering them and your kids say they love you. I'm going to take a couple bottles of water up to them, so you don't think I'm all bad. Is there anything you want me to tell them when I go back up?"
"Tell them I love them and that I'll see them soon."
Robert smiled and pointed at him. "There you go. That's what I want to hear. Faith. That' s what I'm looking for, man." He turned away and started back down the hall. "I knew I came to the right place."
Mike heard the retreating steps and moved again to tuck his arms beneath the table to work more on the ropes. He was nearly in position to begin sawing at the cords again when he heard the hurried footsteps again, not heading up the stairs as before, but back toward the kitchen.
Leaning back nearly to the point of tipping his chair over, Mike hauled his bound hands back and swung them over the table just as Robert came back into the room.
Robert stopped a moment and looked at Mike, as though trying to divine the cause of the flushed look on the preacher's face. Finally, his narrowed eyes widened and he smiled again. "Do you have any straws? They're not quite in a position to drink these without them?"
"Check the drawer next to the fridge."
Robert nodded and checked the drawer. "Oh, bendy straws," he said. He pulled one out and demonstrated as though Mike had never seen one before. "You, Reverend, are indeed a practical man."
"Thank you," Mike said, sounding anything but thankful.
Robert left the kitchen again and, this time, Mike waited until he heard the steps moving back up the stairs before moving his hands back beneath the table. He pumped his body back and forth, scraping the biting ropes against the rough wood, hoping to feel at least some loosening in them before the madman returned. He caught several more splinters with the meaty part of his hands, but went on despite the pain, knowing the pain should he fail would be far worse.
Mike was so intent on his sawing that he failed to hear the footfalls coming downstairs until they had almost reached the bottom. With as quick a motion as he dared, he leaned back and hauled his arms back above the table, wincing at the red, raw patches of skin and the tiny dots of blood that stood out on them like stars in the night sky. He pulled at the ropes and, to his surprise, the bonds seemed to loosen a bit.
Robert came back into the kitchen. "Would you like anything to drink? It could be a long night and I want to make sure you keep your strength up."
"No," Mike said. "Let's go."
"That's what I want to hear," Robert said, returning to the table and taking his seat across from Mike. "Enthusiasm. One holy warrior ready to kick some heathen ass. Where shall we start?"
Mike flipped open the Bible with his fingers and began flipping through with some difficulty. From the distance of his fully extended arms, he could barely see what page he was on, and only his familiarity with the book-this book in particular-allowed him to find his way.
"John 3:16," Mike said.
"For God so loved the world," Robert recited, "that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. I hope you don't mind the King James Version."
Mike, his thunder and a good deal of his hope stolen, sat back and stared at the man.
Robert laughed. "You think it will be that easy? That you can just quote a few passages from the Bible and win me over? You seem to think that I haven't already given this a great deal of thought, that I haven't done my research. I know your John and all the rest of them. I know Matthew, Mark, and Luke like they are my brothers." He reached across the table and picked up the Bible. "I know this thing probably as well as you do and, to tell you the truth, Reverend, I find it . . . lacking."
"Well, if you already know the Bible," Mike said. "What do you need me for? Every answer you're seeking is in there."
"In here?" Robert asked. He opened the Bible, flipped through the worn pages, then tossed it over his shoulder. "You may think that old, musty tome is the word of God, but you're not going to sell me on it. I've read the whole thing, cover to cover, more than once and I'm convinced the Bible is nothing more than the word of man, of several men, actually."
"Inspired by God-"
"Inspired by nothing," Robert argued. "Lies and propaganda, all designed to keep our primitive ancestors from bitching too much about their horrible lives. The word of men, written by men, edited by men, and, now, believed by men too stupid to think for themselves."
Mike said nothing. He thought back to a night long ago when he and several other seminary students had gone out to eat at a local restaurant. A young woman, overhearing their conversation about God and their callings to serve Him, approached them and introduced herself as an atheist before launching into a tirade about the fallacy of religion and the oppression of women within Christianity and several more topics before her friends had finally pulled her away with wry grins and half-hearted apologies. That night, the future Reverend Doctor Michael Reed had learned one of the great unspoken truths of what would become his life's work: faith cannot be argued. Standing against logic, belief in God breaks down to a matter of choice, an internal struggle of the spirit that results in either stronger conviction that God exists or, in the case of that young nameless woman, in the case of the crazed man sitting across from him, stronger conviction that He does not.
Mike had been called to make that choice again and again over the years, through trials and triumphs, and each time he had cast his lot with God. For Mike, it just felt right.
Now, however, he needed to find some way for Robert to feel that rightness and, had his faith not been as strong as it was, he would have considered the task impossible. As it was, he considered it highly unlikely and sensed, with growing despair, that he was condemning his entire family to a violent death. He thought of Joanne, of Mike Jr., of little Sarah. He knew the odds of saving them, and himself were slim, but he also knew, just as he knew there was a God, that he had to try.
"Okay," he said. "Let's look at it from another angle. Every human being, from birth, has the intrinsic ability to judge right from wrong."
Robert laughed again. "Oh, not the C. S. Lewis argument. You think I haven't read every Christian apologist out there? All their arguments are flawed because they want you to see things exactly the way they see them and not to see they things they refuse to see. For example, I disagree that people are born knowing right from wrong. A baby takes a toy from another baby and it doesn't know that it's wrong to do so until someone older, even an older child who has been properly indoctrinated, tells it 'that's a no-no'. Right and wrong are created by social agreement among people, not some supernatural being."
"You have thought this out," Mike said, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice.
"Maybe if you had thought it out a little more," Robert said, "you'd have some better arguments. Instead, you just go about your perfect little life thanking some mythological guy for things that are really a combination of hard work-I'll give you that much-and a whole lot of luck. You can thank God for the sun coming up every morning, too, but if you stop, does that mean it won't come up tomorrow."
"You know," Robert said, standing up and moving behind his chair. "I get you, what you're going through right now. More than you realize." He moved around the table and sat down on the corner within inches of Mike's left arm, the gun dangling from his hand. "The exasperation you're feeling right now, that's exactly what I go through every time I meet some hard-nose religious type who can't bear to see what's right in front of their noses. Now you, you look at me the same way. I don't understand how you can believe in God and you don't understand how I can't."
"I do understand," Mike said.
Robert leaned in close enough for Mike to feel the man's breath on his cheek. "Oh, really?"
"I understand how faith falls short in the face of logic. I realize that it's a lot easier to find reasons not to believe than it is to find reasons to believe. I get that. If I didn't, I don't think I could do my job. I cater to people who want to believe despite what their senses tell them, people who want to listen to their hearts over their minds. It's easy to not believe. Faith is hard."
"Then why do it?" Robert asked, waving the gun in front of his face. "Why not take the easy road and follow the trend set by thousands of years of discovery. The church insisted the earth was the center of the universe-wrong! The church insisted that demons caused mental illness-wrong! The church has been proven wrong on so many counts, how can you still give it credibility on anything?"
Mike's eyes focused on the gun, hovering just beyond the tip of his nose.
"Because I know there is a God."
Robert heaved a frustrated sigh, stood up, and circled back to his chair. Sitting down hard, he laid the gun on the table and put his face in his hands. "But how?" he asked. "How do you know? I told you I want to believe you-really, I do-but you have to do better than that. If you can't give me something concrete, something that I can have some Oprah "ah-ha" moment with, this is going to end very badly for you and your family."
"Why don't you go check on them and I'll see if I can find a way to articulate it?"
Robert stared at him. "Now? Just as we're starting to get somewhere, you want me to go make sure they're okay?"
"I need a moment to think," Mike explained, " and I'd appreciate it if you would go check on them so I can do it alone without that gun waving in my face."
Robert picked up the gun with two fingers and seemed to consider a moment before standing up and tucking the weapon into his pocket.
"Fine," he said. "I'll go make sure they haven't choked on their water or anything. No potty breaks, though. A little urine stain on the carpet comes out a lot easier than blood if I have to shoot someone."
Mike was in motion the moment Robert left the room, pulling hard enough on his arms to bend them a fraction at the elbow. He tucked his hands under again and began to saw away with renewed vigor as the heavy footsteps climbed the stairs. The rough hewn wood dug into his bonds and into his skin, but he ignored the pain and pressed harder, pushing upward with as much force as he could muster. He knew that Robert, eager to pick up their conversation, would not tarry long upstairs, regardless of the condition his family was in.
This was his chance, if he was to have one.
Straining the muscles in his arms, he pressed the ropes against the underside of the table. The flesh below his thumbs on both hands peeled away nearly to the bone, oozing blood that made even the jagged board begin to smooth out. Still, the ropes seemed to loosen an infinitesimal amount with each pass until, with a hard pull, the cords over his hands and forearms came free.
He worked fast, listening hard for any sound of Robert's return and knowing there would be swift retribution if he was found partially unwrapped. Starting with his upper arms, he unraveled and yanked, mindless of the burns caused by the ropes as they reluctantly slid off his exposed skin. His arms emancipated, he bent over and pulled at the cords binding his legs, his excitement and fear of discovery driving him with maniacal strength and speed. In less than a minute, he had his legs free and began unwinding the remainder from his torso and the chair.
He heard the top stair creak under Robert's weight just as he whipped the final coil from around his chest.
Mike stood up. His arms and legs screamed at the renewed flow of blood, but he fought off the pins and needles sensation and looked around for something he could use as a weapon. He looked first at the knife block on the counter, but to reach it, he would put himself in full view of Robert as he reached the bottom of the stairs, giving up his element of surprise. As the steps drew closer, he thought of the rope, but could think of no way of using it in the short span of time he had before the madman returned. Nothing else on that side of the kitchen looked promising and he knew he lacked the time to retreat to his office and back before being discovered, not that he could think of anything there that might help him.
In the end, as the footsteps exited the stairs and came down the hall toward the kitchen, Mike picked up the chair in which he had been seated. He padded to the door separating the kitchen from the hall and, hoisting the chair over his shoulder, waited for Robert.
"You wife is very nice, Reverend," Robert said as he moved down the hall. He had apparently slowed halfway down, possibly to look at the family pictures hung there. "She said a prayer for me while I was up there, for God to forgive me of my sins and-"
Mike swung the chair the moment Robert appeared in the doorway, landing a hard blow on the man's collarbone that resulted in a loud cracking of the bone.
Robert tried to lift the gun, but it rested in the hand on the side of his now-broken collarbone. His arm, instead of raising the weapon to bear, flapped to the side as he crashed against the opposite wall, howling in pain.
"You son of a-" he shouted, his words cut off as Mike swung the chair again, this time missing as his target slid down the wall out of the way. The chair struck the wall and punched out a large chunk of drywall.
Mike hauled the chair back for another swing, but Robert was already moving. Dashing into the kitchen, he reached with his left hand for the gun still held in his right and tried to put as much distance between himself and Mike as possible.
Still clutching the chair, Mike charged after the intruder. Every moment of fear and uncertainty that had passed since he had awoken tied to the chair manifested now as wild energy as he drove forward, closing the gap just as Robert took the gun with his left hand and raised it.
Mike brought the chair down again. He was not close enough to strike the man fully, but the wooden legs struck the hand holding the gun just as it reached his eye level. Both Robert and the gun roared, the sound deafening in the small space, and both fell to the floor.
For a moment, Mike thought he had been shot. He could not imagine being so lucky that the bullet he could almost see leaving the barrel had somehow missed him. Against his better judgment, he paused a moment, waiting for some sharp pain to let him know where and how badly he had been hit. When no pain came, he looked down and saw Robert reaching across the floor, his fingers a few inches from the gun.
Mike lunged and slammed the chair down on Robert's forearm. This time, the chair shattered and Mike let the pieces fall as the man recoiled from the blow with a loud hiss of pain and anger. Moving again, Mike dropped to the floor, reaching for the gun with his bleeding hands as the wind was knocked out of him from the impact. The metal felt cold in his grasp and, as he rolled to face the attack he felt coming, he found the trigger and pulled.
The gun roared again, stopping Robert's lunge and sending him backward into the corner cabinets.
Mike waited a moment, the gun in his trembling hand, before he dared to move. Only when he sensed no motion from the man lying a few feet away did he scramble first to a sitting position, then to his feet.
Robert lay against the cabinet doors, blood pouring from a savage hole in his chest. He looked up at Mike, eyes wide, and opened his mouth to speak. Instead of words, another gout of blood spurted out onto the floor.
"You want to know if there's a God?" Mike asked, standing over the dying man. "Why don't you ask Him yourself?"
Mike stepped over the motionless body, avoiding the dark red pool growing around him, and left the kitchen to set his family free.
Lee Smiley lives in Tennessee with his wife and four children. Learn more about him at: http://leesmiley.livejournal.com