Robert Darrow was there, seated in his traditional spot in the pews, to the right of the altar but up close all the same. That was truly his spot. He hadn't missed a Sunday since he was a boy. Even in that blizzard when he was twenty"his childhood friends had long since ceased attending years before and, in such weather, even his family declined to go"Robert attended.
He had outlasted two pastors, both of whom had moved on to teach at parochial schools. Even his suit was a constant fixture. Sure he had replaced suits as he outgrew them, but he always bought the same dark blue wool suit, stiffly starched white pressed shirt, and matching blue tie, which was still the original tie from his childhood. It had to be mended on occasion, but he insisted on wearing his traditional, Sunday meetin' tie for each service.
Robert Darrow lived alone now that his mother had passed and all his brothers and sister had moved away, but he did not seek continued relations with people. He had never been interested in girls or even having close friends, but he was always eager to help others whenever he could. Some would call his life boring, but he was quite content in his devout relation to God and especially Jesus Christ, who he privately considered his one true friend.
So, there Mr. Darrow sat in virtual ecstasy listening to Pastor Crawford's address about Christ's miracles. He could almost imagine himself sitting and listening to Christ's sermon as he fed the gathering with the single loaf of bread. Was that the wedding's wine and feast that he could taste and smell so vividly?
If only he could have known the man. Did He look like all the pictures? How did His voice sound? He imagined that the sweetest of harmonies could only approach the warm timbre of the Savior's tones.
Perspiration beaded on his forehead and streamed down his cheek as he sank deeper and deeper into his fantasy and musings. The church melted away. Reality and imagination danced and swirled in his head, becoming confused and entangled. Hand in hand he was walking with Him. They shared secrets. Together they stood above the multitudes, speaking. It was the two of them and that was all
Robert could see the lush gardens of Judea. He could smell the sweet smoke of frankincense rising as the two of them sat in a busy sanctuary talking of the past and all possible futures. Robert sharing his experience of one such future and Christ speaking of the Truths of all such experience.
Robert's smile widened as he sat there in the church. His eyes became increasingly distant. His breathing quickened to match his galloping heartbeat. He could almost feel the rapturous sensation begin to come on as his left hand and then arm began to tingle.
Suddenly, his head throbbed and his vision swam as a rippling pain struck through his chest. Confused and surprised, he emerged from his dream struggling to catch his breath. He rubbed his chest with his right hand while he opened and closed his left hand, trying to shake the numbness. Everyone in the church saw him make an uncustomary shift in his pew. He made a sound like he was gargling the saliva in the back of his throat and slumped over into his pew.
The whole assembly jumped. Two women rushed the children out. The Pastor flew down from behind his pulpit, while everyone else came forward to Robert Darrow's aid.
"He's having a heart attack!" someone yelled.
"Get a doctor!" pleaded several voices.
Shuffling feet, panicky voices, and general commotion erupted throughout the small Midwestern church. Pastor Crawford, meanwhile, returned to his pulpit and tried to calm the congregation.
In all the confusion and bustle, Robert Darrow's dimming consciousness faded to darkness. His moment of terror...what to expect next"darkness, utter black emptiness, nothingness, panic, confusion, desperation, his mind raced at dazzling speeds. The terror quickly faded as he became awash with warm contentment and acceptance. There was no fear. He could hear thoughts and taste realization. Answers sweet and terrifying circled his mind like preying sharks in the salty soup of his mind. He could see all. The panic was all but gone as he accepted his fate. He knew he was young, a mere thirty-two years old; however, the prospect of ascending to his greater glory and meeting Him in all his resplendence...he was ready.
There was no glowing tunnel and no bright light. There was only darkness for a brief moment and then he felt as if he was waking from a very restful sleep.
A very pleasant if a little mischievous face greeted him as his eyes opened.
"Hello Mr. Robert Matthew Darrow."
He was confused for a moment and, quite understandably, disoriented, but he sat up just the same. He was lying on a soft...the softest bed of grass imaginable. This bed was a circle of green within a larger circle of beautiful marble with marble benches spaced evenly apart. Behind the marble benches were marble columns that, in turn, supported a marble cornice that formed a another circle above. He thought of the ruins of Greece or Rome and the arrangement of the stones of Stonehenge.
"I said, 'Hello Mr. Darrow.' You are Robert Darrow, are you not?"
Still lying on his back, Robert answered hesitantly, "Oh, um...yes...I'm Robert Darrow, but...?"
"Oh, I must apologize. Things could be run more efficiently here, but with so many new arrivals each day things can get hectic and confused.... You do understand don't you?"
"No matter, we haven't much time together just yet."
"You mean I'm not...?"
The man stroked his graying beard thoughtfully and a little playfully, answering, "...not ready for your 'greater glory' yet, no. You still have some work to do yet."
Robert was confused even more, "Then why...? Where...? What...?" He scratched his head in bewilderment and looked about questioningly.
It seemed was inside, but he could see no enclosing walls or even a ceiling. It was just a feeling he had. A sense of confinement...a feeling of finiteness within infinity. However, this place, whether confined or not, was vast. It was warm and comfortable, even welcoming. Perhaps this was the womb of existence, opening its loving arms and accepting him. And then, he heard a wretched sound that seemed to wash over everything, though he seemed to be the only one troubled by it. It was a scream, undoubtedly. Fast on the heels of the first, a second and then a third scream came to him. Finally, he stood and demanded, "What is this place?"
The stranger, who had been kneeling near Robert's prone body, stood as well to face him. From his knees, the stranger seemed unthreatening, even meek. Once he had stood to his full height, though, he struck quite a formidable figure. His beard made him seem old, but his eyes, hands, and frame were solid and strong. Robert was temporarily taken aback by the stranger's deceptive presence. Not wanting to appear as terrified as he was though, Robert stood his ground and tried to look the stranger in the eyes.
"Relax Mr. Darrow. You don't see any fire do you? And brimstone is terribly unattractive. You have nothing to fear from this place. And I'm not Satan or Lucifer or any other fallen angel from anyone's religion so..."
Robert interrupted tentatively, "So this isn't Hell?"
The stranger, his eyes dancing with playful menace, smirked slightly and said, "Good, you're a quick study. That will make things so much easier."
"So, where..what is this place?" This time, the question was calmer and more polite.
"You are impatient, aren't you."
Robert took a deep breath, his agitation beginning to show in his demeanor, "I apologize, but you have to understand. This is all new to me."
Before Robert could inquire, the stranger began, "This is the...Afterlife. The most accurate comparison I can make of it to you is that it's not unlike a great posh resort with restaurants, beaches, fields, libraries, cinemas, and anything else you can imagine but a thought away. One of the conveniences of existing beyond the confines of space and time is that distance has no relevance. You can walk a mile if you so choose or you can merely visualize your destination and you are there. It's all up to you. You're only limited by your own imagination. You can have all that you...."
Yet another scream interrupted him. He looked about disgustedly and tried to continue. It was quite a sight to see that ageless column of strength roll his eyes like an impatient school boy listening to another lecture about discipline from a school dean or counselor. While the stranger cast his eyes about following another of the horrible cries, Robert took advantage of the distraction and ran toward the grievous cry. He couldn't explain, even to himself, why he needed to see the source of those howls, but he did. He felt an undeniable compulsion.
Further cries from other directions threatened to distract him, but the steady and easily distinguishable sobs and agonizing wails ahead drew him on. The stranger was not following, nor was anybody else. Occasionally, he would pass someone, but no one tried to stop him. It was as if they didn't even know that he was there or just didn't care. He ran by both open and shut doors. He noticed that the place did resemble a resort or, rather, a city of resorts.
Soft looking and timeless, the buildings, some massive and intimidating and others simple and small, spread out in every direction. The architecture was of no specific origin, though it all appeared to have borrowed or stolen conventions from all time periods. He waited and waited or someone to confront him; for someone to stop him dead in his tracks. Instead, he ran until his chest and lungs struggled to supply him with adequate oxygen.
And then, he was there. He wasn't quite sure where "there" was, but he had definitely arrived. There were two smallish cottages set some distance apart from the main body of buildings. There weren't any other structures like these. They were simple square buildings with black, wrought iron fences surrounding a fairly unkempt yard that still touted wild flowers growing in bunches here and there. The walls of the cottages were both overgrown with thick ivy. Even the windows were more or less covered by the wiry vegetation. The door to one of the cottages was propped open while the door on the other was closed.
A shriek leapt from behind the closed door and lunged at Robert. He lost his balance and started to fall backward only to be couched in the stranger's immense hands. Not realizing the stranger was behind him, Robert jerked forward with surprise. Robert spun around, but the stranger was gone again. He was there, leaning against the cottage with the closed door. The screams, now more forceful and rhythmic, seemed to be of no more than annoyance to him while they were terrifying and heart-stopping to Robert.
"Before you run off again or pound down this door for whatever reason that you may think you have, I'd like to let you in on the situation."
The stranger's calm relaxed Robert enough so that he might listen.
"Well, I've already told you about the amenities of the living...or rather 'afterliving' accommodations," he paused with a slight chuckle, but when Robert didn't reciprocate, he continued, "There is a catch."
"And what's that?"
Another scream from within. Robert's calm began to dissipate.
The stranger began again, "Well, you see, all is bliss and plenty here as long as you are completely here...as long as even your memory on earch is as dead as your body. That's to say, you need to be completely forgotten."
"You mean, as long as I'm forgotten, I'm safe? What about my brothers and sisters? They're all young and we're all very close?" Well, they weren't actually close. His devotion to his faith had more or less alienated most of his family and friends from himself long ago and a mere superficial fraternal bond remained. He didn't need to share that though.
"You have nothing to fear, Mr. Darrow. Time doesn't work the same here as it does there. A single lifetime can pass in just so many hours here. But in those hours or days...that time of remembrance on earth, you will experience total agony. You won't be capable of eating, sleeping or even getting accustomed to the pain. Each moment is as the first. And the pain is like a fire that burns from the inside out. No amount of aid or comfort or any help can ease the pain."
Robert asked, "Are you sent here to experience that first day of pain while you are remembered?" He motioned toward the cottages.
"On no. Those other cries you heard were random souls suffering. This...is a residence. We had to separate him about a millennia ago. He was just too disruptive and disturbing to the other...guests."
"Well, who is this? A tyrant? A criminal?"
The stranger pointed to a tarnished brass plate on the gate. Robert rubbed at it desperately. He had to know. The oxide build-up rubbed off easily to reveal to Robert but two letters. Initials."
He read them aloud, "JC." Again, "JC." He tilted his head in thought for just a moment and then it hit him. The realization swung around and struck heavily, bluntly. As if he had truly been struck, he crumpled to the ground in front of the gate. Still looking at the name plate and digesting the possibilities of his thoughts, he asked, "You mean...Him?"
The stranger nodded his head with more reverence than Robert had seen his show thus far. He sat motionless for a moment, but then stood abruptly. "Does that mean that everyone like Him...Shakespeare, Lincoln, Caesar...all suffer like that?"
"No. You see, these men are remembered largely for their accomplishments while His memory as a man...as the Man is what is remembered and not necessarily his teachings."
"But that's not true!!! His words are what are important!!!"
"Oh, I agree. But his memory as the Man who accomplished whatever feats like...feeding the multitude with a single loaf of bread or changing the water to wine is what is remembered and His words are secondary. It's not that the water was walked upon that was important, it's that He did the walking is what is important."
Robert remembered his own musings in the church and fell back down. He muttered, "Oh, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I didn't know."
"Of course you didn't know. How could you? But now you see the problem. Good. Well, it's about time for you to be going. So...."
"Sorry Mr. Darrow, there is a time for all things and that time can't be delayed."
"Who are you? Will it be you who greets me when I return?"
"Oh yes. I'll be here. I've always been here and always will be here. I am the...Caretaker."
"Yes, yes. I think that did it. Praise the Lord, you've saved one of the flock."
It was the Pastor who was talking when Robert was resuscitated. The artificial lung was still feeding him with oxygen and the adhesive pads of the Automatic External Defibrillator were still attached to his chest. He felt weak, but he was alive. He began to weep quietly for his shame and for his opportunity to set things right. As he lay there, he decided that things had to change. He had to deliver the message of what he had learned. He had to end the blind suffering and tormenting.
He spent several days at the hospital in which time he had many of the congregation visit him. One particular woman, a widow who's soldier husband had died in Columbia recently, visited him every day. Maybe she was seeking company. Maybe she was seeking some kind of closure with a loss with which she hadn't been able to come to grips. Maybe she just couldn't think of anything else to do with herself. Whatever the reason, she was in his room on countless times when he delivered a strange but compelling message. He talked about pain and torture and letting go. He spoke of a lasting peace, of a path toward infinity. Mary Anne Wilmington, the widow, fell in love with first his message and then with the man. She began to share his words, however revolutionary they may have been, with everyone.
Other people, outside of the congregation, including many young people began to visit him even after he had returned home. Individual visitors slowly became groups. They gathered in the rooms of his house, in his yard, and on his street. The disenfranchisement that modern Christianity had caused with so many of the faithful urged many to lend an ear to this new message. The refreshing words of hope without the fear of condemnation drew the attention of millions.
He began to receive letters in the mail first from all parts of his home state of Indiana, but then from different parts of the country and then the world. Just months after his heart attack, his crusade received national and international attention.
Six months later and two weeks after his thirty-third birthday, Robert Darrow was asked to appear in church by Pastor Crawford, but this time as a speaker. The Pastor would respectfully and reverently take Mr. Darrow's old seat on the pew.
Robert Darrow stood behind the pulpit before a full church that Sunday and began to speak of the importance of Christ's message as opposed to the memory of the suffering Martyr. Hr chose to word his delivery so as not to offend, but rather to attract people to a different way of approaching faith. He spoke of love between neighbors, brothers, and enemies and how such love would eliminate the need or presence of enemies. He spoke of harmony and peace, but omitted any mention of Christ.
As he spoke, sweat began to drip from his brow. His words became more intense. He spoke until he became hoarse and had to grip the sides of the pulpit to steady his balance. His head became light and his chest began to hurt, racking and then slowing"missing beats.
In mid-sentence, that old pain in his chest returned. His hands became numb as he stood and felt his life empty through his heart that had collapsed and become a kind of hole. He lost his balance and collapsed at the altar.
The shocked congregation leapt to its feet and rushed forward. People crowded around to help. Mary Anne Wilmington, who loved Robert Darrow but had never told him, gently cradled his head in her lap.
He looked up at her and tried to speak. She leaned closer to hear him. He whispered with his lat breath, "Please. Forget me. Don't torture." He then died.
The Pastor demanded, "What did he say? Please, tell us. What was his final message?"
Mary Anne Wilmington, who loved Robert Darrow but never told him, looked up and repeated what she ruly thought she had heard. "He said, 'Don't forget me. That would be torture.'" She then wept and held him close.
The Pastor sympathetically said, "And we shan't. He shall forever be remembered as the Modern Prophet. He shall take his place next to Christ in all of our hearts."
Robert Darrow opened his eyes as if from a very restful sleep and saw the Caretaker's face. Now though, the Caretaker did not seem as kind and his beard had lost all trace of grey and was instead dark as pitch.
"Welcome back Mr. Darrow."
After hearing this, Robert Darrow was gripped by a raging fire that burned him from the inside out. The scorching heat spread immediately, like a wildfire sweeping across all existence. He was consumed by the pain. He was pain. He tried to scream but nothing came. Then it stopped all at once. He caught his breath and then came the burning again. This time, though, he found his scream amidst the fire. He cried out for mercy but to no avail.
The Caretaker smiled and said, "Yes yes. I know. Scream out your melody. There's no shame here...and no pity. Let me help you up."
He more or less lifted Robert from the ground and led him off toward other screams. "Mr. Darrow, we've already arranged for your stay in advance so as to not disturb the other guests, if you don't mind. This screaming can become tiresome and you will be doing it for such a long time."
He led Robert Darrow to the second cottage set off away from all else, sat him down in an elegantly furnished room, and left. He shut and locked the door and slammed a finely polished brass plate onto the gate that read, "RD." He then blew a filthy tarnish onto the plate with his own breath and walked away with the two screams echoing behind him.