|A Dark Road|
"The nearest simile I can find to express the difficulty of sending a message is that I appear to be standing behind a sheet of frosted glass, which blurs sight and deadens sound, dictating feebly to a reluctant and somewhat obtuse secretary. A feeling of terrible impotence burdens me. Oh it is a dark road."
-- Excerpt of a Spiritualistic communication purportedly received
from the late Frederick W. H. Meyers
In early September, when autumn chilled the lengthening nights and chased at summer's tattered skirts, a violent thunderstorm settled over Oachita County, Georgia. High winds tossed the tops of old trees and when lightning lit the sky it reflected from low-hanging clouds and shone on the wet pavement of a narrow, two-lane highway that wound its way among forested hills.
Father Tom Kelly knelt in the mud beside his car, hunched his shoulders ineffectually against the driving rain and tried again to loosen the lug nuts that held his right rear tire on.
"Picked a poor time for a flat, Padre," a quietly amused voice said from behind him.
Startled, the priest dropped the four-way and turned to find a young man standing there. Relieved, he noted the dripping uniform and the badge pinned to the stranger's chest. "Officer! You are the answer to my prayers!"
"Robin." The young man dropped down to crouch beside him. "Robin Devereaux. I'll get this for you. Do you have flares, in case someone comes along? This is a dangerous stretch of road. Lot of accidents happen along here. Especially on a night like this." He made short work of the lug nuts and moved over to raise the vehicle.
"Um, no flares," Father Tom said, feeling guilty.
"Keep that flashlight ready, then, and wave it down the road if you even think you hear a car. Oh, and I'm a fireman, not a cop. A paramedic. For some strange reason they don't trust me with a gun. I can't think why not!" He gave the old priest a cheerful grin as he pulled off the flat tire and maneuvered the spare into place.
"A fireman?" Tom stood, holding the flashlight on Robin's hands and listening for cars.
"Uh, yeah. Off-duty," Robin added.
Tom glanced around, wondering where Robin had parked. Robin caught his look. "I'm on foot myself, Father. Had a bit of car trouble of my own up the road a ways."
The priest looked back the way he'd come. "Did I pass you? I didn't see anyone."
"I'm not surprised." The young fireman grinned ruefully. "The car's, um, not exactly on the road anymore."
"Good heavens! Are you hurt?"
"Just wet. I waited for what seemed like forever, but no one came by so I decided to hoof it." He finished tightening the lug nuts, disassembled the jack and dropped the jack and the flat tire back into the trunk.
"Well, you're not 'hoofing it' anymore," Tom said. "Hop in and I'll take you wherever you need to go."
"Thank you, Father. I will. Just a ride to the nearest phone would be great." Robin opened the passenger door and climbed in as Tom slid behind the wheel. "You know, maybe we're the answer to each others' prayers!"
Tom laughed. "I wouldn't be the least surprised." The dome light washed the car's interior with yellow light and the priest got his first good look at his new friend. Robin couldn't have been more than twenty-five, a tall, slender man with broad shoulders and narrow hips. He had a broad, honest face, strawberry-blond hair and clear blue eyes. He caught Tom studying him and smiled shyly.
"I really do appreciate the ride!"
"That's okay. I really do appreciate the tire service."
They rode along for a couple of minutes in a companionable silence that was broken only by the sound of rain on the roof and the swish! swish! swish! of the windshield wipers. Robin laced his fingers together in his lap. He had been intently studying the floor mats, but now he looked up, a shy, sideways glance, like a bashful child.
"Padre, can I ask you a question? As a man of God, I mean?"
"Of course." Tom smiled. "I'm much better with philosophical questions than I am with flat tires."
Robin grinned briefly and looked away. "Is it possible, do you think, to communicate between the living and the dead? Can you ever get a message to the other side?"
Tom glanced over as a bright burst of lightning briefly lit the car's interior and found Robin's face solemn and sad.
"Scripture generally advises against it," he answered carefully.
"But what if there are special circumstances? What if it's really, really important?"
"Who is it you need to get a message to so badly?"
"Jackie. Jackie Randall. He was my partner. And my best friend." Robin's quiet, pain-laced voice was barely audible above the storm and the road noises. "Father, we had the most terrible fight."
The lighted sign from a gas station loomed in the distance. Tom slowed the car, prolonging the journey. "Why don't you tell me about it, son?"
Robin Devereaux slouched in the passenger seat and studied the backs of his hands. "Not really much to tell," he replied. "Jackie and I were best friends for years, but then I blew it and before I had a chance to fix things . . . ." His voice trailed off.
"How did you blow it?"
Robin shrugged. "There was this girl that Jackie was seeing. Sharon. I didn't like her. I figured she was taking him for a ride, and I didn't think she was good enough for him. I guess I wasn't too tactful about telling him so. He just got mad at me and for the last couple of months or so things were pretty cool between us. You know the song, When A Man Loves a Woman?"
"Otis Redding," Tom nodded.
"'Turn his back on his best friend if he put her down,'" Robin quoted sadly. "Anyway, it probably would have blown over eventually, but then this guy I knew, Greg, saw Sharon out at a roadhouse with some other man while Jackie was working. My friend had his camera with him so he snapped some pictures. Sharon didn't know Greg from Adam so she didn't hesitate to pose with her boyfriend. Greg gave me the pictures and I took them in to work and confronted Jackie with them."
Robin tipped his head back and blew out a long breath. "Man, why did I do that? I knew how hung up on her he was. I knew how those pictures would make him feel. I mean, the whole idea was supposed to be to keep him from getting hurt, not to cut him and then rub salt in the wounds.
"I guess at that point I was thinking more of myself than of him. He'd hardly spoken to me for two months -- thought I was trying to break them up so I could have a shot at Sharon myself. I just wanted my friend back, Padre. I thought that if he saw I was right about her . . . I dunno . . . I suppose I thought it would just magically fix everything."
"It didn't work that way." It was a statement rather than a question.
"No, Father. No, it didn't. He just blew up. He actually accused me of faking the pictures, and he filled out a transfer request to go to another shift so he wouldn't have to work with me anymore. I tried to apologize, but he wasn't listening. He said he wasn't ever going to speak to me again.
"Turns out he was right." Robin fell silent as Tom turned into the gas station and stopped the car beneath a lot light.
"What happened?" the priest prompted.
"We got called out on an MVA -- uh, a motor vehicle accident. Up in the hills. It was a night like this." Robin stared out the windshield. His gaze was fixed on the blinking Lotto sign in the gas station window, but Tom could tell from the distance in his eyes that he was seeing a long lost scene that had played out on a rainy night gone by. "It was a couple of kids -- just one car. The driver lost it on the wet pavement and hit a tree. Luckily neither of them was too banged up. I got my victim squared away and loaded into the ambulance.
"Normally I'd have gone back over to help Jackie, but he'd been pretty clear about not wanting me around so I stayed back and started picking up the stuff I'd used. All at once this other car came out of nowhere. A drunk driver. He saw our lights and panicked, thinking it was the cops. It happened so fast. Just a squeal of tires and a flash of headlights and then . . . ."
"And then it was over. Just like that, that sudden, it was over. No time for I'm sorry. No time for goodbye. Nothing. It was over." The glaring white lot light shone in through the windshield, casting moving shadows of raindrops to mingle with the tears on Robin's face. "There's so much I needed to tell him, Father. Don't you see? So very much that I needed to say."
The old priest considered the troubled young man beside him. "If you could send Jackie a message, Robin, what would it be? What would you say to him?"
"That I'm still his friend and I always will be," Robin answered with no hesitation. "That one stupid fight shouldn't be a defining moment in a friendship, or a lifetime. That maybe blood is thicker than water, but what we had was thicker than blood and not even death can sever those ties."
Tom reached over and rubbed Robin's shoulder comfortingly. The young man was shivering, but whether it was from cold or emotion Tom could not tell.
"And don't you think he knows those things?" he asked.
Robin looked down at the floor again and shook his head sadly. "No, Father, no. I really don't think he does. And I want for him to so badly."
They sat in silence for a couple of minutes and then Tom offered the only answer he had. "Pray, Robin. Pray and have faith. If Jackie needs to hear your message, trust that God will find a way to get it to him."
Robin nodded and felt for the door handle. "Thanks, Father. And thanks again for the ride."
"No problem. You going to be okay?"
"As okay as I can be." With a final smile Robin slammed the car door and turned away. Tom watched until the young fireman disappeared into the lighted gas station, then shifted gears and continued on his journey.
* * *
Two days passed before Tom Kelly pulled up to park outside the Oachita County, Georgia, fire station #1. It was a modern, one-story fire station with a vehicle bay in the middle and offices and living accommodations on either side. The big bay doors stood open to the sunshine, showing two engines and a rescue squad. Tom gripped the shining silver badge he had found on his car seat and went inside.
The sound of a television led him to the day room, where half a dozen firemen sat watching a soap opera.
"I'm telling you! Monica is Megan's evil twin! They were separated at birth and Megan doesn't know she has a sister, but Monica does and she's planning to ruin her."
"No, man. You've got it all wrong. It's just one person. She's got a split personality. That's why Tank can't tell them apart!"
One of the guys glanced up and caught sight of Tom. "Hey, guys! Company!"
"Hello, Father. What brings you here?"
"He found out you're cooking tonight, Pete, and he's come to give us all Last Rites."
"Oh, hardy har har!"
"So, what can we do you for, Father?"
Tom smiled around at them. "Actually, I was hoping to return a lost badge."
As one, the assembled firemen said, "Ohmmmm!" They sounded like a roomful of fourth graders waiting to see a classmate get in trouble.
"Somebody's gonna be sorry!" Pete sing-songed.
Tom held the badge out of sight in his palm and reconsidered. "I'd really hate to get him into trouble. Maybe I should just look for his name in the phone book instead."
"Oh, don't worry, Father," one of the firefighters said. "We promise to only torture him a little."
"I'd rather you'd promise not to torture him at all."
"Is there a problem?" a new voice asked from behind him. Tom turned to find a tall, spare man, middle aged, with salt and pepper hair.
"Somebody lost their badge, Cap," Pete supplied. "The father came to return it, but now he doesn't want to because he thinks we're going to torture the guy."
"I see." Cap gave Tom a friendly grin. "Why don't you step in my office, Padre? We can discuss it in private and I'll do what I can to protect him, okay?"
Tom followed the captain into his office. Cap closed the door, leaned against his desk and held out his hand. "Okay, let's see what you've got here."
Still half-reluctant, Tom handed over the badge.
The captain's face darkened with shock and sorrow. He put one hand down on the surface of his desk, to steady himself, and looked up at the priest with haunted dark eyes.
"There's been some kind of mistake, here, Father. Robin Devereaux never lost his badge. I pinned it to his shirt myself before we closed the lid on his casket."
Cap's gaze wandered to the wall. Tom followed his eyes and found himself looking at an old picture. And there was Robin in the sunshine, next to a younger version of the man before him. They stood together in easy camaraderie, smiling for the camera.
Shivers ran up and down Tom's spine as Robin's voice came back to him.
"Had a bit of car trouble of my own . . . ."
"Jackie. You're Jackie Randall."
The captain's eyes closed in pain. "It's John. Only Robin called me Jackie. Father, I don't understand."
"No, I know. But I think that I do."
"Maybe we're the answers to each others' prayers."
"Sit down, Jackie, and let me tell you a story. I have an important message for you . . . ."