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Bethlehem Rescue Mission Chapter 2

Chapter Two

Ned glanced down at the number on his key. Dim lights above every

room door cast only enough light to recognize the numbers. His room was

number seven. He passed room five, then six, which was missing its number

entirely, and finally came to number seven. The seven hung crookedly, the

top screw missing. He stared at the door and took a deep breath.

It was cold outside, and he was wet and getting wetter by the second.

The rain was coming down in sheets. Normally fastidious about his

appearance, Ned let the rain saturate him without thought. His hair was

lying flat against his head, water streaming into his eyes. The sound of

rain falling on the roof was getting louder, and he could hear water

draining from water spouts nearby as it hit the old asphalt. He was cold,

but no colder than his heart. He didn’t think he could feel anything

anymore, and he was almost right.

His heart began pounding again. He didn’t have to do this. He could

run to his car and leave this pig sty behind forever. He could wait and

think this over. As he pondered these thoughts a red glow brightened his

door. He didn’t turn around. He knew it was the glow from the Rescue

Mission’s neon sign. Apparently it was working again, trying to inspire

hope in a hopeless world through digital electronics and religious clichés.

Hope. How he hated that word. Hope was a crutch for people who

couldn’t handle reality. Well, Ned Phillips could handle reality without

hope. And death was the ultimate reality. Fate wouldn’t determine his

end. He would call the shots all the way.

With rigid determination he inserted the key slowly into the lock,

turned it, and hesitantly pushed in the door, the last room he would ever

enter. It was as dark as a tomb inside. His fingers groped along the left

inside wall till he found the light switch and flicked it on. Ned blinked


“Well,” he thought, “that was a mistake.”

As he slowly surveyed his last residence he discovered the room had

all the charm and ambiance of an old gas station restroom. As he stepped

inside, almost reluctant to shut the door behind him and close off his

escape, the room’s aroma greeted him. The smell of mold, smoke, human

sweat and a cheap fruity sanitizer, a token attempt to minimize the odor,

combined to make a smell that perfectly fit the room.

Two small twin beds separated by a table were on the right side of

the room as he stood looking at it. He tossed his rolled up package on the

nearest bed. The room’s one lone attempt at decoration was a painting in a

cheap black plastic frame hung above the two beds. It pictured a small

outdoor European café on an overcast day. The picture decorated the room

like a cheap, gaudy piece of jewelry on a bag lady. A dim wall lamp hung

between the two beds trying desperately to cloak in shadows as much of the

room as it could.

Two forlorn looking bed covers, one with a large mysterious stain

upon its rust orange colored top, hid the thin, sagging mattresses. The

beds were bedraggled orphans, used and abused over the years.

One small black bedside table sat between the twin beds, water

stained, chipped, and sporting one unmatched leg, spray-painted black in an

attempt to mask its differences from the other three. Because its one peg

leg was shorter than the other three, the table listed slightly to


The bathroom was a small darkened cave to the back and right of the

room whose odor discouraged anyone from illuminating its dismal, prison

cell interior. It was clearly only to be entered and used in moments of

greatest need. Ned was thankful he would not need the room.

The walls were covered in a cheap dark paneling that had, over the

years, been chipped, nailed into, spilled on, and at several places

crushed, so the white press wood showed through. On several walls,

squarish holes indicated where a lamp or electrical outlet had once been

installed, but later removed. Like the rings in the trunk of a tree, these

holes served as indicators of that time in the distant past when the

management ceased caring what the room looked like.

The over 20 year old black, brown, and beige shag carpet sported

assorted cigarette burns, stains from foods and drink and other things Ned

would rather not think about. The ravages of time were forever etched upon


To the left sat one large heavy black naugahyde chair in front of a

small black box that Ned was surprised to discover was a television set.

Multiple tears in the old chair had been repaired with black electrical

tape, but apparently long after the tape had been exhausted, the chair was

still taking hostile fire from the room’s occupants. The frequently

exposed interior stuffing, yellowed now by sun and time, contrasted with

its more recent wounds where the stuffing was of a lighter hue.

There was only one window in the room, and it faced the outside

walkway. Like the tattered sails of a ghost ship, the threadbare, dirty

brown curtain attempted vainly to cover the window that faced the

dilapidated Rescue Mission across the street. The curtain’s main purpose

had obviously changed over the years from originally cloaking the outside

world, to serving now as a dreary gown upon a leprous interior, feebly

hiding from public view the horror within.

Ned looked closer at the television set that sat in front of the

naugahyde chair. It was an odd looking device, enclosed in an all black,

cracked plastic frame. The controls at the bottom were ancient. Two small

knobs, one for power, one for volume, occupied the bottom left, while a

large channel knob sat in the middle on the bottom.

Thirteen numbers, once painted in white to set them off, had long

been rubbed away. If Ned peered closely enough he could make out the

numbers, though it was like trying to read Braille. Trying the channel

knob, he noticed that no matter how hard he twisted, it was permanently

stuck between the five and the six stations. A pair of rabbit ears was

perched on top of the set.

Ned smirked. He remembered Gabe’s comment that the repairman hadn’t

arrived to fix the set. The last call for repair on this television set

must have occurred when Milton Berle ruled the airways. Obviously the

repairman had died and been buried fifty years ago, but the Atlas Motel

hadn’t gotten the message, so they assumed he was still on the way.

Ned let his gaze drift back to the small bundle on the bed. His

light jacket was rolled up to conceal his handgun within. As he stared

around the filthy depressing room he felt powerful waves of sadness.

He allowed himself to wonder what Dee and the kids would think about

the last room their husband and father had occupied. Would they feel any

sorrow and compassion? Any regret? Then again, Ned thought, wouldn’t the

Coroner just come and remove his body from the room? Would Dee ask where

he had died? Would the kids be curious? Would they understand what he was

trying to say with his last act? Would they get his message of the

futility of life and the darkness of his soul?

No, probably not. Definitely not, he corrected himself.

This last moment, this act, was his and his alone. He would die, as

he had lived, misunderstood, unappreciated, and alone. He tried to steel

himself against waves of emotional nostalgia; Dee’s young and vibrant

attitude in college when they had fallen in love, Jes and Beth as children,

running towards him to be picked up and hugged, or carried to bed at night.

Of course, Dee might have a different take on that.

That thought brought an entirely different vision of Dee, a hard

faced, cold woman who had no more warm feelings towards him than she did

towards the dog that pooped on her lawn. Then a scene of Jes’ face,

contorted with anger, tears filling his angry eyes as he cursed Ned and

stormed out of their house six year ago, never to return. He had barely

spoken to Jes since, and when he had it had always been stiff and

uncomfortable. He vividly remembered Beth’s sweet young voice over the

phone begging him to “be nice to Mommy” so he could come home. She had

called often at first, but then, gradually, she had grown more distant and

the calls had stopped.

Life was a cruel joke. As he stood there, a dim red glow bathed the

back wall. He turned reluctantly and through the thin drapes could be

clearly seen the message slowly scrolling down:








Before the word GOD could appear Ned turned away in anger.

There was no God. Only weaklings needed someone other than

themselves to blame for how life turned out. He suddenly rushed to the

small black table between the bed and quickly opened its only drawer.

Reaching in he discovered what he had suspected: a Gideon Bible. He hated

the Gideons.

One last time, he thought, one last time.

His father, like himself, had been a fervent atheist. When their

family had gone on vacation and stayed in hotels or motels, his dad had

always made a big show of going first to find if there was a Bible in the

room and then throwing it ceremoniously in the trash can. Ned had carried

on that tradition his entire adult life. Ned Phillips had personally

disposed of literally hundreds of Gideon Bibles all over the United States,

and parts of Europe. This would be his final act of defiance, of rebellion

against the religious establishment.

“Here’s to you, Dad,” Ned said gruffly as he found the trash can in

the bathroom and dropped the Bible in. He then wetted some toilet paper in

the sink and dropped it on the top. This would discourage rescue attempts.

It was a small act of defiance in the great conflict, but he would remain

consistent to the end.

Ned couldn’t help feeling a bit of irony. He hadn’t thought much

about his father in years. They had never been close, and he never

particularly liked him as a person. His father was brash, arrogant,

cutting in his remarks, and the two had clashed frequently. He had died a

bitter old man, alone in a county nursing home. Ned has visited him

exactly once at Dee’s urging, nagging actually. Within five minutes his

father, hooked up to an oxygen tank and pale as a ghost, was telling Ned

what a disappointment he had been as a son. Ned had simply turned and

walked away forever.

Hating God and religion were about the only thing they shared in

common. But he was determined not to die like his father, hooked up to

tubes, alone, waiting, and wishing to die.

After throwing the Bible in the trash can, he felt as if somehow he

had purified this pathetic excuse for a room. He went over to the bed,

gently unrolled his coat and felt the cold steel of his salvation. He held

the pistol he had bought several months ago comfortably in his right hand.

It would just take a moment, he thought, and everything that had once been

Ned Phillips would cease to exist forever. The world would continue on in

its downward spiral until it blew itself up, or some natural catastrophe

destroyed all life on earth. Then, maybe life could start again in some

other way, maybe some better way.

He walked heavily to the naugahyde chair and collapsed in it.

Despair and anger struggled for supremacy within him. He didn’t want to

see another sunrise. He had nothing more worth living for. And he felt

very sad.

The sadness disturbed him the most. What did he have to be sad

about? A group of cells would cease to function, nothing more. There was

no great purpose to life anyway, no matter what the philosophers said. He

had done everything he had interest in doing and living no longer held any

attraction to him. It was a clear, logical, unemotional choice.

Ned silently cursed himself. His conclusions were certainly clear

and logical, but not unemotional. Why did he feel such sadness? Why was

this all so hard now? As he had gone over it many times in his mind he had

been able to think so clearly and dispassionately.

He needed to clear his mind. As he sat slumped in the chair an

annoying red glow appeared on his face, a glow he could almost feel. He

certainly hadn’t planned this part very well. Some message was scrolling

down the display at the Rescue Mission. Didn’t the religious people have

any feelings? The last thing anyone at the Atlas Motel needed or wanted

was some kind of neon religious lecture.

The blinking red lights, the silence and the ugly memories were

distracting him. He was in danger of becoming sloppily sentimental. He

would not suffer the indignity.

He rubbed his eyes wearily, then glanced at his watch. It was 6:30.

He was wondering if he’d be able to hold off until 12:01, the appointed

time. Time was passing too slowly. He needed a distraction. He hadn’t

figured on the swell of emotions he would experience in his last few hours.

He had thought it would be easy to be calmly detached and unemotional.

His eyes fixed on the television set. The one time he was willing to

sit in front of the tube and it was probably broken. He half heartedly

leaned forward and turned the power button on. A tiny white light emerged

in the middle of the small screen and grew larger while a buzz indicated

that something was still working.

While the television’s picture struggled to come into focus the sound

was coming through clear and he heard a familiar song that tugged at his

memory. It was cheerful music, which he could hear clearly enough, even

through the buzz, but the picture was still fuzzy. The cheerful music was

like lemon on an open wound. He was hoping to catch a tragic movie, or the

news, anything depressing to help get him in the mood.

He reached for the knob and tried desperately to change the channel,

but it wouldn’t budge. It was as if someone had welded the knob in place.

In exasperation he looked up at the screen just as the movie title

appeared. Ned rolled his eyes in disgust.

No. Not that, he cringed—anything but that.

The words appeared on the screen, The Miracle on 34th Street.

Christmas movies!

This was just cruel and unusual punishment. He had forgotten that

they had a virtual monopoly on all stations this time of year. He was

about to turn the set off in disgust when it began to flicker and suddenly

the screen went blank and the music slowly died out. Just his luck. He

glanced at his watch and noticed he was still clutching a pistol. The

sight of the gun drove all thoughts of the television set out of his mind.

He couldn’t take another onslaught of memories, not now. He needed to

stick to his plan.

He tried desperately to keep his memories at bay, but it was like

trying to hold back a wave on the shore. His heart began beating rapidly

and he consciously tried to remain calm and detached. It wasn’t working,

and he suddenly discovered his hand holding the pistol was moving closer to

his head, almost as if it were a separate part of his body trying to

mercifully put an end to his pain. He felt a rising panic. It wasn’t

supposed to happen this way. He closed his eyes tightly, trying to ward

off what was coming, when suddenly, out of nowhere, he thought he heard the

sound of bells.

His eyes blinked open and he saw that the old television screen had

flickered to life again. A Christmas ditty was playing. “Deck the Halls,”

he thought. But when the picture finally focused, he saw a scene of snow

covering the ground and a gravely voiced narrator saying, “There it is, my

house at Cleveland street. Good old Cleveland street. How could I ever

forget it?” A group of young boys dressed in heavy jackets were running

down the street in 1940’s home town America.

He recognized the movie at once. It was A Christmas Story. Ned

Phillips had a hard and fast rule—he hated all things Christmas, and

especially Christmas movies. He couldn’t stand the sentimental

shucksterism. He had watched the movies in secret when he was a young boy

and his father was gone. In spite of his father’s mockery of them he had

actually found them enjoyable. He later realized that he had only been

attracted to them because they were forbidden. They were sentimental and

intellectual junk food.

He tried desperately to maintain a ban on them at home, but he

learned from Jes and Beth that when he was out of town during the holidays

(which was frequently), Dee had watched them with the kids. When he had

confronted her about it she had been thoroughly ashamed and repentant. But

the next year she did it again. It was a weakness in Dee. She was far too

sentimental. Finally, he had lifted the Christmas movie embargo for Beth’s

sake, who could get him to do anything with her big blue eyes.

However, over the years his negative, biting sarcastic commentary

throughout the movies had caused Beth and the family to start watching them

without him again, which wasn’t hard since he was rarely home. But for

some reason this movie had always appealed to him since it was so

unrepentingly commercial and highlighted what modern day Christmas was

really all about—blatant commercialism. Ralphie knew what he wanted and he

went after it—Ned could admire that kind of single-minded devotion. And

the scene of Ralphie in the Pink bunny suit was worth the price of

admission all by itself.

Without realizing it, Ned’s grip on the pistol loosened and his hand

slowly descended into his lap. This was what he needed. He’d watch for a

few minutes, relax, and clear his mind. Ned leaned back and relaxed in the

chair, the smell of his damp clothes and wet hair now mixing with the other

odors in the room. He rested his head on the back of the chair and began

to watch the movie more out of an attempt to shed some of his darker and

painful emotions than anything else.

After a few minutes a deep weariness descended upon Ned and his eyes

began to dim. His breathing grew heavy. And contrary to his will, Ned

Phillips fell asleep. To an onlooker it would probably have seemed a

rather sudden, restless, almost unnatural sleep. But Ned’s mind was not

asleep, indeed it was just beginning to stir.

A series of scenes passed before him in a gentle blur of images as he

drifted in and out of sleep; a storefront window with a gigantic Christmas

display, with toy trains, tanks, planes, and a Red Ryder BB gun with a

compass in the stock; a little blond haired boy with glasses wearing a cap

and scarf looking into the window with longing in his eyes.

Then the same boy dressed up as a cowboy in a daydream shooting bad

guys with his trusty Red Ryder BB gun while his little brother and his

parents huddle under the kitchen table in fear.

Now he’s in a large department store and Ned felt himself being led

roughly up a glittered and tinseled stairway of a lavish Christmas display.

At the top a large snow mountain framed a real life Santa and his elf.

Ned’s heart started beating fast. He was afraid. He was suddenly in

Santa’s lap, overwhelmed, unable to speak or respond to Santa’s question:

what does he want for Christmas? The next moment he felt himself slipping

down a giant slide brokenhearted.

Suddenly everything went dark. Then a new scene emerged and Ned

found himself in a comfortable chair next to a Christmas tree. His wife

was coming down the stairs, she’d put little Jes and Beth to bed. She

turned off the living room lights so that the colored lights on the tree

illuminated the room in a soft colorful glow. Dee, holding a glass of

wine, came and sat on Ned’s lap. They both gazed quietly out upon the snow

falling outside as Silent Night played on their phonograph quietly.

“It’s beautiful outside,” Dee said softly, as the large snowflakes

fell quietly on the street outside.

Ned puts his arm around Dee’s waist and was flooded with feelings of

warmth and love. She turned to gaze into his eyes and they clinked their

wine glasses together.

“Merry Christmas,” she said to him warmly.

He looked into her beautiful eyes and tried to speak, to respond, but

nothing came out. Desperate, he tried again, but something was wrong. He

couldn’t speak. Dee’s eyes looked at him questioningly. Ned tried

desperately to speak, to say that he loved her, but nothing came out. He

desperation he realized that he couldn’t even change his expression; it was

frozen in cold indifference.

What was wrong? Why couldn’t he speak to her? Why couldn’t he tell

her how he felt? It was tearing him up inside. The pain in Dee’s eyes

sliced into him. Then, slowly, her expression turned to hurt and with

tears in her eyes, Dee ran out of the room.

Crying. Ned was sure he heard crying.

He woke with a start and found himself in the naugahyde chair in the

Atlas Motel. There were tears streaming down his cheeks. He’d been

dreaming. It was just the movie…but it had seemed so real that he still

felt the pain of Dee’s disappointment.

The television flickered fuzzily and the sound disappeared. He had

no idea how long he had been asleep. Never in his life had Ned experienced

anything like this. He took deep breaths to calm himself and angrily

brushed away his tears.

He got up and walked to the window, drew the curtains back angrily,

and looked out. The neon light at the Rescue Mission was mercifully out.

It was dark and the rain was so heavy that little could be seen, which was


Ned couldn’t shake the feelings he had experienced in his dream.

They drudged up other painful memories. The dream had seemed so real. He

knew he had just been watching a movie while he fell asleep and obviously

through the power of suggestion he had…what? He still wasn’t sure what

happened. The scene in the movie was still vivid in his memory, but Darren

McGavin was the actor who should have been sitting in the chair. But

somehow, some way, it had been him. Ned Phillips had entered the scene.

He shook his head in an attempt to clear it.

All he knew was that he’d forgotten how much he loved Dee. He closed

his eyes and tried to will himself back into that scene, but he couldn’t.

He found it difficult to breathe. This felt worse than when he and Dee had

broken up. In the dream he had been with the old Dee, the one who still

loved him. He had seen her, smelled her, felt her, sensed her love for him

once again, and then, in an instant, it was gone again.

He turned and looked at the pistol he had left lying in the chair.

Was he making the right decision? What if their relationship could be

salvaged? Hope sprang up in him so powerfully it almost overwhelmed him.

Then, just as quickly, his mind took over again. Dee couldn’t stand the

sight of him. She wouldn’t talk to him if you paid her.

“It’s not gonna happen, Pal,” he said softly to himself.

“God, I wish I could hear from her one more time, though” he thought

to himself. That thought sounded almost like a prayer and he silently

berated himself for it.

Suddenly a song broke the awful silence. It was from a musical,

“Meet Me in St. Louis.” It was the Trolley Song. His heart raced wildly.

It was Dee’s favorite song, and she had made him download it to his iPhone

as her personal ring tone.

Dee was calling him.

young man looking pensive


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