To tell the truth, I’m a little nervous about sharing this, because it’s a kind of writing I’ve never tried before. I’ve written songs, choral arrangements, and instrumental music; I’ve written blog posts and essays, poetry and lyrics, journal articles and conference papers; I’ve written a couple of computer science textbooks, and a whole book of progressive Christian theology with new hymns; and, of course, I’ve written a great many sermons. But for a long time now I’ve been thinking how the sermon is a highly overrated form of communication; I’ve been thinking that perhaps I can say more, and have more fun, in some other way. So now I’m working on a novel. It’s genre fiction. In fact, it’s paranormal romance.
I’m having a lot of fun writing it, and today I’d like to share just a little sample with you. This is from early in the book, starting with the second time Mark and Sandra meet. (The first time, let me just say, things didn’t go so smoothly!)
I hope you enjoy this sneak preview. And, please, I could use some feedback! If you love it and want more, tell me so; if you think I should go back to songwriting, tell me that (gently!). And if you have wishes about where you’d like to see the story go, I’d like to hear them. I can’t promise to grant them, but I can promise to take them seriously.
The rest of the day passed quickly, but with none of the work Mark had intended to do. First, there were several walk-ins, and he spent a little time with each one. Then there was a lunch meeting with Katie Polluck, a church member who had recently lost her job. Then Shirley Johnson needed someone to take her to an appointment with her doctor, and her doctor said she needed to go to the ER. And Shirley said she wasn’t going to the ER, where they would probably put her in the hospital again, with dirty hair; and Mark finally got her to agree to the ER only by promising to first take her to the beauty parlor for a quick wash.
By the time he left the hospital, it was after 7:00 PM. He drove through the McDonald’s to pick up something for dinner, and then decided to take it back to the church. He knew the day wouldn’t feel productive if he didn’t get some writing done. Perhaps he could have just a little time for it now.
That’s how it happened that Mark was alone in the church, working in his study, the second time he met Sandra. He was lost in his work, playing around with chord voicings at the piano keyboard, when he heard her voice at the study door.
Turning, he saw Sandra, wearing black leggings and a knit hoodie dress, with a heavy plaid shirt tied around her waist. “Sandra! I was just thinking about you. What brings you here?”
She took two steps into the office and planted her feet. “I just need to say, I’m sorry. About yesterday, Pastor.”
“Just Mark, please.”
“I’ve been getting hassled a lot recently,” she said, “but not by you. And my friends tell me you’re not … like that.”
“Well, like an intolerant, ignorant, bigoted, judgmental, holier-than-thou, flaming asshat, actually.”
Mark laughed. “I hope not! But it sounds like you’ve met some.”
“You have no idea.”
“No, probably not. But I know at least that it is annoying when people stereotype you because of your religion.”
“Yes. Sorry again.”
“Can we start over? Give me thirty seconds?”
“Fair enough. Go.”
“My name is Mark Collins. I like to write music, and sing. I like to run. I like movies. I like to walk in the woods. I always tell the truth—well, almost always. And I’m telling the truth now when I say that I never had any plans to persecute you, or convert you, or make any trouble for you, or whatever it was you were afraid I was going to do back at the park.”
“But you do think I’m going to hell, don’t you?”
“No, I don’t. For that matter, I don’t really believe in hell.”
“And you don’t want to convert me—to make me change?”
Mark thought about that. “Well,” he said, “I’m pretty sure we could all do with some change. Let’s just say, I don’t think I know what change you need.”
He sighed. “To me, being a Christian primarily means following the way of Jesus, which is mostly about treating other people with lovingkindness. It isn’t about judging people, and it isn’t about having all the answers. Jesus wasn’t really all that interested in what people believed—or, anyway, he was far more interested in how people behaved.”
“Sounds reasonable. But are you telling me that everyone in your church feels that way?”
“Well, no. There are a lot of … diverse views. I suppose there are a few people in the church who would cross the street if they saw you coming, if they knew. I’ve been pastor here for just two years. Many of the members are more … well, more conservative than I am. Especially the older members.”
“Ah. Then maybe it would be best if they didn’t see you talking to me. I usually keep a low profile, but ….” She trailed off.
He gave her a skeptical look. “Low profile. Really.”
“Yes, really, Pastor Dickhead.”
“Did you just call me a dickhead?”
She smiled. “Yes, but I meant it in the nicest possible way. And now it’s my turn.”
“To do what?”
“To tell you about myself. Only, it’s not really a telling thing. More of showing thing. And now I have to get back to the bar.”
“The Rose and Feather?”
“Yes. Stop by some time.” She looked pointedly at Mark’s dinner, a Quarter Pounder still in its wrapper on the desk. “You’re not really going to eat that, are you?”
“I was, yes.”
“Eew. We do a much better burger at the Rose and Feather. Organic, local beef.”
“I’ll keep it in mind.”
“Gotta go. Blessed be, Pastor.” She paused in the doorway, and looked over his shoulder at the shelf above. “By the way—nice candle.” With that, she was gone.
Mark looked too, over his shoulder at the shelf above his desk. Then he looked again, sharply: the green pillar candle on the shelf was alight. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d lit that, or any other candle in his study. Months, probably. Did she do it? And more to the point—how did she do it?
He slowly unwrapped his Quarter Pounder and took a bite, watching the candle. He stared at it reflectively, until his tired eyes began to tear up. Then, blinking away the tears, he became aware of another light in the room. He turned to look, and saw a fox.
A luminous fox. In his study. In his church.
It was a glowing apparition of silver and blue, and it was watching him. He turned slowly in his chair to face it squarely. What do you say to a luminous fox?
“Hello, fox-friend,” he said. “Is there something I can do for you?” It didn’t respond. Its eyes were bright, and seemed very alive and intelligent. “You’re quite beautiful, aren’t you? Why are you here?” Again, no response. “Would you like something to eat?” He slowly broke off a bit of his burger and held it out. The fox’s mouth opened, but not to eat. It cocked its head, and its tongue lolled out. Clearly, it was laughing at him.
Then there was a sound like hundreds of tiny bells. The fox began to turn around, as if chasing its tail, but ever so smoothly, and it began to spiral up into the air. It gave a sudden call, like a bark or a scream, and Mark seemed to feel the force of it with some unfamiliar part of his spine. It made him blink for a moment, and when he opened his eyes again, the apparition was gone, and he was alone in his study once more.
“I’ll be damned,” said the pastor. “God bless you, little fox-friend.” He got up and walked around the spot where the fox had appeared, but there was nothing there to be seen. As the shock of the moment drained away, he felt very tired. He sat back down, put his head down on his desk, and closed his eyes, just for a moment.
Mrs. Fludd found him sound asleep there at 8:30 the next morning. After waking him and sending him home for a shower and a shave, she phoned her friend Trisha Michaels, who was on the church board, to tell her they were working their pastor too hard.
Mark had too many obligations that day, and the day after as well, so it was Friday before he found a chance to visit the Rose and Feather on Seventh Street. The Rose and Feather was actually below Seventh Street, he found—six steps down from the street level.
It was early afternoon, and the place was very quiet. Inside the light was low, and it seemed dim after the daylight. The interior was finished in rough, darkly stained wood. There were a dozen four-top tables in the middle of the room. Around the walls, on the entrance side and to the left, were casement windows in street-level window wells; seating there was in booths, with high dividers between them. Along the wall to the right of the entrance was the bar, with no windows on that side. To the rear there was a small, empty stage, with swinging doors to the right that appeared to lead to the kitchen, and an open passage to the left that appeared to be another exit. A couple of the booths seemed to be occupied, but all the tables were empty, and nobody was sitting at the bar.
Mark went to the empty bar and took a seat. The bartender was a petite young woman with purple, spiky hair. She was perched on a stool in the far corner, with a notebook in her lap and a book in her hand, but she looked up, smiled, and said a bright hello. Mark thought she seemed to be about 18—was that even legal for tending bar in Illinois? She came over and put both hands on the bar in front of him, her tank top revealing tattooed arms and shoulders.
“What can I get you?” she asked.
“Let’s see,” he said, looking at the taps, “you could draw me a Guinness, and something to eat. I hear you do a good burger here?”
“Yup. But our cook’s off now until five o’clock, so that’s all we have to eat.” She pointed to the chalked sign behind the bar. “Veggie soup? Beef stew? Cheese and bread board?”
“Beef stew sounds good.”
She drew a pint glass of Guinness about three quarters full, set it down by the taps, and went into the kitchen, coming back a minute later with a bowl of stew and a hunk of bread on a plate. She put that down in front of Mark, and said, “Just another minute on that Guinness.”
“Thanks, that’s good.” Mark bowed his head over the steaming bowl and gave thanks, silently. He broke the warm bread and inhaled the scent of it deeply before biting into it. “Ahh … this is heavenly.”
“No, thanks. It’s perfect just like this.”
She topped off the glass of Guinness and set it down in front of Mark on a stone coaster.
“Thank you. Beautifully done.” Mark savored the first swallow. “Okay, this is, like, the perfect meal,” he said. “I can’t believe I’ve lived in this town for two years and never found this place before. Is it always this quiet?”
“No,” she said, “it’s busier at night, especially when there’s entertainment. But yeah, this is pretty normal for, what, nearly two.”
“Huh. I like the atmosphere—sort of cave-y, in a good way. It feels safe. Sorry I interrupted your studies, by the way. Feel free to get back to it—don’t worry about me.”
“That’s okay. I needed to rest my eyes.”
“Is it for a class you’re taking?”
She gave him a look, as if daring him to make some kind of crack about it. But he only smiled and said, “Neat. Tough class?”
“No, totally boring, really. But it’s required for the major.”
“Well, good luck.” He looked over to the stage. “Who performs on the stage here?”
“Locals, mostly. Never anything too loud. Open mic on Tuesday nights. Singer-songwriter, spoken word, that kind of thing.”
“Hmm.” That sounded like a clue. “Do you maybe take a turn at the open mic?”
“Sometimes. You a therapist?”
“No.” Mark thought for a moment. “What makes you think I’m a therapist?”
“Something about the way you talk. Like you want to get me to share and stuff, but not like you’re trying to get into my pants. Like a therapist. Or some kind of investigator—but they usually lay it on thick. You’re … nice.” The way she said it, it didn’t sound like a compliment, particularly.
Mark laughed. “Thanks, I think. Well, I’m not a therapist … but you’re close. I’m a pastor.”
Mark couldn’t think of anything to say.
“I’m Terri,” she said, offering her hand. “Sandra told me about you—said you might come in.”
“Hmm. Yes, and I’ll definitely be coming back again. To try that famous burger. And, of course, to try to get into your pants.”
He was gratified that she looked surprised, for maybe a tenth of a second, but then she laughed. “Good try, Pastor. But I still say you’re nice. I should get back to the books, but let me know if you need anything.”
“Thanks. Could I have the check now, please? I’m not—I’m not planning to eat and run, but I am expecting a phone call, and I might have to.”
“Sure thing, Pastor.”
“Just Mark, please.”
She got his check and left it by his place, then retired to her book and her stool in the corner.
Mark took out the Kindle reader from his jacket and opened to the fantasy novel he was reading. He ate slowly, savoring the stew, and lost himself in the book. After a while, surfacing from the story, he realized first that his bowl was empty, and second that someone was sitting on the barstool next to him. He looked up—it was Sandra.
“So, Mark,” she said, “how do you like the Rose and Feather?”
“Well,” he said, closing the book and putting it down, “it’s oddly perfect, so far. Not what I was expecting. I mean … well, I’m not sure what I was expecting.”
“More pagan-themed tchotchkes? Crystals, candles, pentagrams?”
“Well, okay, pretty much.”
“They’re here, if you know where to look. There’s a couple doing tarot readings in booth four. There’s a charm over the door. There are some carvings, here and there. And then there’s Terri’s tattoos. Didn’t you notice?”
“Well, sure, but I didn’t want to stare.”
“Did you meet Terri?”
“Yes. She seemed to be expecting me.”
Sandra called over to Terri in the corner. “This guy hitting on you, Terri?”
“Yeah,” she called back, “but I cooled him off.”
“Hey!” said Mark. “I never—you said—” He broke off, seeing that they were both laughing at him. “Now why does everybody think I’m obviously harmless? It’s that pastor thing again, isn’t it?”
“No, it’s you. Believe me, it’s not because you’re a pastor, but in spite of it.”
“Around here, at least, knowing you’re a church guy doesn’t make people less likely to think you might be a sexual predator.”
“Ah. Then you’re saying … it is a compliment?”
“It is. ‘Angels and ministers of grace, defend us.’”
Wow, he thought, she recognized a quote from Star Trek IV. “Hamlet, act one, scene four. You’re full of surprises. Speaking of which … tell me about the candle.”
“You know what candle. The one you lit in my office.”
She batted her eyelashes, saying, “Whatever do you mean?” Then she laughed. “Well, I wanted to see how you’d take it. You were honest with me, so I felt like I should be honest with you. And the first thing you need to know about me is that things like that happen. You’re here, and you’re not pretending it didn’t happen, so I’m guessing it didn’t freak you out completely.”
“No,” said Mark. “Well, not completely. It doesn’t bother me that strange things happen—I’ve been aware of that since I was a kid. It’s part of why I do what I do. But if you cause strange happenings—well, that’s beyond my experience.”
“I can, sometimes, make strange things happen,” answered Sandra. “More often, though, strange things happen around me, way beyond anything I could make happen by myself. The world is full of magic, you know.”
“Yes, I think that too,” responded Mark. “But, you know, in my tradition, we never tell the magic in the world what to do. We pray, of course … but anyway, I wonder whether we’re talking about the same thing. I mean, I can’t light a candle with a thought. Might be handy in church, come to think of it….”
“Hah! Have you ever tried?”
“No. And I wouldn’t know where to begin. Just not one of my talents, I suppose.”
“You never know. It’s sort of like wiggling your ears. It seems impossible at first—until you’ve done it, and you can feel where those muscles are.”
“Interesting theory. But I was actually more freaked out by the fox.”
“Yes, the fox. Oh, come on! Don’t pretend you don’t know anything about the fox.”
Her eyes narrowed. “I don’t know anything about any fox, Pastor Dickhead.”
“Whatever you say, Witchiepoo.”
In the corner, Terri choked out a laugh, spluttering and coughing.
“Mechanical engineering good for a laugh, there, Terri?” called Mark.
“Hilarious. I just snorted Coke out of my nose. And spilled it all over my notes, too. I’m gonna go clean this up. Don’t say anything funny while I’m gone.”
Mark turned back to Sandra. “Sorry I doubted you. I thought it must be your doing. There’s never been a fox in my office before.”
“Tell me about the fox.”
“Well, right after you left, I was looking at the candle, when suddenly there was this—I can’t believe I’m saying this—this luminous fox, right in the middle of my office.”
“What did you do?”
“Well, I couldn’t think what to do, so I offered it some of my Quarter Pounder. It wasn’t interested.”
“Then it … I don’t know how to describe this. It made this barking sound that went right through me. It sort of danced in a circle, up into the air, and it vanished. Oh, and it seemed to be laughing at me.”
“Well, I wouldn’t know how to do something like that. Conjuring a spirit fox, I mean—the part about laughing at you, I could maybe handle. Was there anything odd about its tail?”
“Besides being made entirely of light, you mean? I didn’t really notice the tail. The eyes were … compelling.”
“The kitsune of Japanese folklore sometimes has multiple tails, so I was just thinking. But actually, I’m pretty sure ….” Her eyes unfocused, and she stared into space for a moment. “This is just what I meant when I said that strange things happen, beyond anything I could make happen by myself ….”
After a few seconds, she looked at him sharply again. “So, here’s the thing. I’m not sure what’s going on, but I think you should come to our circle this Sunday night. Quick action—that’s fitting for a fox spirit. I’m not sure what you’ll see, but I’m pretty sure you won’t be bored.”
“Okay. But how about you come to my service Sunday morning too?”
“Are you sure your other, um, participants won’t mind my being there at your circle? I wouldn’t want to intrude, or to alarm anyone. Maybe they’ll be worried I’m going to take out my Bible and start smacking them with it. You were.”
“Well, let’s ask one of them.” She called to Terri, who was just coming back in from the kitchen. “Terri, would you mind if the pastor here came to our circle Sunday night?”
“No, I wouldn’t mind. He’s nice. And harmless.”
“Oh, bite me,” said the pastor.