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Bethlehem Rescue Mission Chapter 5

Chapter Five


Ned felt a small chill as he reentered the room. He was wet to the

bone, and all his clothes were still soaked. The open door and the cold

wind had reached quickly into his damp clothes. He pulled his pistol from

his wet pocket and sat down hard in the chair. He tried gamely to quiet

the rage within him. He was literally shaking with anger.


The TV’s buzzing became more distinct. The familiar musical strains

of The Miracle on 34th Street played again as the TV hummed back to life.

Ned’s patience had ended, and he pointed his pistol coldly at the set,

determined to end the annoyance no matter what kind of commotion it caused.


But before he could think about pulling the trigger, the noise began to

subside and the picture to fade. The television, like himself, was slowly

dying. He felt an ironic kindred with the old piece of metal and plastic.

Relaxing his grip on the gun he issued the set a reprieve. Instead, he

allowed his anger to go in another direction.


He was angry with the stupid clerk, another do-gooder who had found a

way to feel good about himself by patronizing others during religious

holidays. He was angry with Dee, angry with life, angry that he wasn’t…


His mind hit the brakes suddenly. No, he wasn’t going there. That

was ridiculous. Life wasn’t about love. You didn’t need love to get by,

he had proven that. He had never received any love from his father or

mother, and he had become far more successful than others he had known who

had. Love was nothing more than a complicated set of neurons firing in a

certain way at a certain point of time. You could feel love, or powerful

emotions with anyone, it was certainly not on Maslow’s hierarchy of need.

Survival, that’s what was on the top. When you were on the top you

received respect, which in the long run was far more advantageous than

love.


Love was what religious people touted, love for God, love for others.


It kept their “flocks” in line. Whenever anyone got out of line, they

could be accused of not loving God or loving others. Love was a transient

emotion that couldn’t be depended upon and had no real basis in fact.

People did all kinds of irrational things for love which ended up causing

them endless pain. It was ridiculous.


So the fact that he wasn’t loved wasn’t a tragedy. Since love was

not a necessity, he could do without it, and he had. But here Ned’s wall

of denial began to develop cracks. Why was he here? Why was there a gun

in his hand? Why was he so angry? Why was he so angry…


Honesty, Ned thought. Before I die, I want honesty.


His body slowly relaxed as he consciously calmed himself down. He was

surrendering to the truth. OK, fine. He was angry. He needed to stop

lying to himself. He was angry because he hadn’t been loved. His father

hadn’t loved him, his mother hadn’t loved him, in fact she had abandoned

both his father and him when he was only 11 years old. He had never seen

or heard from her again. But his father, even though he was cold and hard,

had at least been honest with Ned. He never sugar coated life, never

talked about God or love. He had reminded Ned at every opportunity that

life was about survival, and watching out for yourself first. If it was in

your best interest to help someone, then by all means do it. It was a

means to an end, though, nothing more.


Love was one of the most dangerous ideas in the world. He had

weakened once, when he fell in love with Dee. He had to admit that Dee had

loved him, really loved him. He had been further weakened when Jes and

Beth had been born. He remembered how he had felt, the love he had only

hesitantly embraced and which he suspected might weaken him. But then he

remembered the distance that began to grow between him and Dee as the

marriage had begun to unravel, the anger and hatred that Jes had begun to

develop towards him as he tried to steer his son away from his stupid life

choices, the distance now that even Beth had begun to have because Dee had

obviously poisoned her mind against him.


And where now was Dee? She was turning to God. God and love, two of

the most dangerous ideas in the world, were combining to ruin his life,

marriage, and family. To Ned it was a complete repudiation of all he stood

for. Dee hadn’t even respected Ned enough to keep respecting his world

view, an ideology they had once shared in college. As soon as she had

children, however, she had begun to change. While he had remained

ideologically pure, rational and unemotional, she had begun to slip back

into the popular mode for modern man, and the ideological distance between

them had grown. Evolution, he thought, some weird quirk of maternal

instinct that had gone awry.


Love was a lie. God was a lie. The God of love was the biggest lie

of all and he hated it most. The reason he hated it most, now with a

greater intensity than ever before, was because these two stupid ideas had

won. He was the one with the pistol in his hand, while the do-gooders

would all celebrate Christmas Eve with candles, singing, and warm fuzzies.

He realized now that these ideas would always win because reality was just

too much for humanity to deal with.


There was an apparent weakness in the human species; it honestly

believed that it needed more than this world could provide for it. No

other species needed love, or God, only humans. Our superior minds had

been cursed with a weak constitution. Perhaps that was evolution’s way of

balancing the scales in the end. Even with the great technological

advantages they had achieved, humans were still too weak to cope with life

without appealing to some deity. Humanity had yet to create the perfect

prosthesis for the human mind, and until they did, the idea of God and the

idea of love would continue to weaken the species. The world would

continue to spit out fumbling do-gooder clerks, holier than thou Rescue

Missions, and misguided people like…like…like Dee he sighed deeply.


He looked down at the pistol in his hand. The sight of it caused him

no discomfort. It was just a tool. You used a broom to sweep your floors,

you used a car to transport you where you wanted to go, and you could use a

gun to wipe the whole slate clean. Everything would begin again. Dee

would go on with her life, Jes and Beth would go on with their lives, even

the stupid clerk would go on with his life. Maybe they would even learn

something about life’s real meaning from his final statement.


He glanced at his watch again. It was 7:03. He looked around the

room slowly. For all his intellectual rationalizations, he couldn’t help

wondering how he had ended up here. Why had his life been dealt such a bad

set of cards? He knew others who were happy, or at least they pretended to

be. Why had he been cursed with a superior intellect? Why couldn’t he

have born with less intelligence and been able to simply accept the

illogical without question, the unbelievable easily? Why did his mind have

to work more efficiently than others? He had always prided himself on his

mind, but now he saw it could be a horrible curse as well. It had deprived

him of the happiness that other weaker persons had been able to enjoy.


Life sucked.


He was feeling sorry for himself. He needed to break out of this

funk. He concentrated on the rain falling outside. It was raining

steadily, but not quite as hard as before. He noticed that the neon lights

were off again. That was a small victory. He didn’t want to think

anymore. He didn’t like where it led him. He needed to reboot somehow, to

return to his rational foundation.


The TV began to hum again. For the first time he was grateful. The

noise was welcome. Somehow the noise made him feel like he wasn’t so

alone. He heard another lively cheerful tune, it was familiar. He shook

his head slowly, a rueful frown breaking out on his face. He knew this

music, he knew it well. How could he not, after all it was Dee’s favorite

Christmas movie. He had always despised it with all its references to God,

love, and Christmas.


In the background he heard a choir singing Hark the Herald Angels

Sing as the picture zoomed slowly in on a brightly lit city on a dark

night. Now the adult choir faded out and was replaced by a scene of an old

man playing his violin on a street corner with children all around him,

dressed warmly with their scarves, mittens and beanies, singing the same

song with great gusto, if a little off key. Snow covered the ground and

was falling gently upon them.


It was pure Hollywood.


Then Cary Grant appeared in the background, smiling paternally,

framed against a large angel in a shop window behind him, a precursor to

his role in the film.


The Bishop’s Wife. Dee probably watched this movie two or three

times each Christmas season. He leaned forward to turn it off when a

thought suddenly occurred to him and he slowly leaned back again. Dee

might be watching this same movie right now. He pictured her cuddled up on

their couch, with a fire glowing softly, her legs tucked under her and a

quilt over her lap. Her eyes would be riveted on the television set. She

would have that innocent look on her face, that gullible look that said she

was buying it all, hook, line, and sinker.


She had looked at him that way once upon a time.


Normally he would have dismissed this drippy sentimentalism, but this

was a different night. It was his last. The thought of Dee was too

strong, even though he fought it. For just a moment he wanted to feel as

though he and Dee were together, doing one more thing before the end. For

once he was willing to suspend his rational side. He would steal one last

decadent bite of intellectually fattening and rationally clogging mind

candy before he left. It certainly couldn’t do any harm, and in some

strange way it made him feel closer to Dee.


He closed his eyes and listened to the children sing Hark the Herald

Angels Sing until the heavenly choir broke out again as Cary Grant helped a

blind man cross the street. He didn’t even need to see the scene, it was

graven on his memory. He knew this movie by heart. A reluctant quasi-

smile actually broke out on Ned’s face as a sense of “all is well with the

world” was allowed one last time to tickle his brain, to allow smoke,

mirrors, and all the power of Hollywood and thousands of years of religious

propaganda to create a feeling of goodness.


His smile faded a little as his favorite character, the skeptical

professor who had no religion is introduced. Ned knew full well that the

rational irreligious professor would ultimately be portrayed as weakening

and returning to church and religion, but even that couldn’t ruin this

moment. He was tired. His fingers slowly began to loosen their grip on

the gun and his breathing became deeper.


The stress and strain of his emotions had taken their toll on his

body and mind. He just wanted to veg out, to find a way to ignore all the

disturbing thoughts, to forget for a few precious moments the pain he was

enduring.


As the movie played, his eyelids began to droop. For the second time

that night an unnatural fatigue began to steal over him. He began to fall

in and out of sleep, not knowing whether he was conscious or in a dream.

Scenes of the movie flickered before him, and then faded slowly as another

emerged. Several times he awoke to witness a scene on the TV, only to fall

back asleep once again.


A snowball fight in a park with a group of children; a restaurant

scene with several old ladies; a tense dinner with the Bishop and his wife,

with each scene his breathing became slower and deeper. All other thoughts

were mercifully forgotten.


Then, there was darkness, but not a depressing darkness. Suddenly,

like an old television coming to life, a new scene emerged. But something

was different. He heard himself laughing, but the laughing sounded strange

coming out of his mouth. It sounded young, childish and joyful. But it

was his laughter. He didn’t understand, but it didn’t matter. And he

wasn’t laughing alone. He felt himself sitting on the floor with a man in

a suit and a warm smile sitting on the floor with him. The man seemed good

and kind, his smile gentle, wise, and…and what he wondered.


Though the man was much older than Ned, he was playing with him

gladly, as if there was nowhere else he would rather be than right there on

that floor with Ned.


Suddenly Ned heard himself blurt out. “Tell me a story.” He was

pleading in a little child’s voice. Why was he speaking like that?


“What? Now?” the man grinned good-naturedly.


“Don’t you know any stories?” Ned heard himself ask innocently.


“Oh, certainly,” replies the man, “I know hundreds of stories.


Then the man repositioned himself to get comfortable on the floor and

began. “Once upon a time there was a little boy and he lived in a town….and

the town where he lived was called Bethlehem.” Ned somehow knew this

story, but he was curious, innocently curious. The story seemed so easy to

believe, so likely to have really happened. He wasn’t struggling with

doubt, or critiquing the story. Something in his memory found that odd,

but he quickly dismissed the thought.


“Angels came down and put ideas into people’s heads,” the man was

saying, “and then people feel very proud of themselves because they feel it

was their own idea…” Ned’s mind stumbled only slightly over this, hanging

on every word. “…the lamb was lost, so David went out to find him. When

he did he saw a great big ferocious lion.” Ned felt the fear of a little

boy facing a giant wild animal bent on his destruction. Ned’s hands were

gripping each other tightly, the narrator now only a bit player as he

imagined the story unfolding in his mind.


“So David said, ‘You get away from that lamb!’


‘You get away from me or I’ll eat you, too,’ said the lion.”


Ned heard himself asking the question, the question that somehow he

knew he had heard before.


“Did David run away?”


“No,” assured the man, “because an angel put another idea into his

head. Then David hurled his sling at the lion and hit it right between the

eyes. And he was surprised because he didn’t know an angel had helped him.


Well, he picked up the lamb and took it back to the fold. Then he felt so

happy he made up another story…” Then the man’s eyes turned distant as he

continued in a warm gentle voice.


“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down

in green pastures, he leadeth me beside still waters. He restoreth my

soul…”


Then the picture gradually faded away. Ned Phillips was filled with

an innocent wonder, a pure and wholesome feeling he’d never experienced,

and a sense of security he’d never known. He was a little child, he was a

grown man. Believing in the simple story was as easy as believing that the

sky was up and the ground was down. He felt strangely warm inside. He

was…then suddenly, a sound began to disturb his mood as the feelings and

the scene began slowly to disappear.


He felt a panic rise up in him. He wasn’t ready to leave. He didn’t

want to leave this place, he wanted to stay, but the sound became louder

and louder and as it did the picture faded away. The offending sound was

not a sound of warmth or happiness, it was a sound of frustration and

anger. Ned’s head jerked up as his eyes opened suddenly.


He was sitting in the chair, the television was humming, but the TV

picture and sound had failed again. Outside, even over the rain, he heard

arguing. A man and a woman were screaming at each other in the parking

lot. A bottle shattered on the pavement. Curses were shouted back and

forth. Their words were indecipherable, but their anger was not. A car

door slammed, tires squealed, and the noise died out.


Ned’s heart was racing and for a brief second he thought he heard a

distant noise, someone talking gently to him, and he wanted to return

there. The dream, or whatever it was, was fading away from his memory and

he could not stop it. He closed his eyes hard and tried to will himself

back, but it wouldn’t work. Ned’s head fell back on to the chair in

despair, pain etched on his face.


It had happened again. He had, somehow, entered a movie. He hadn’t

just been watching it, somehow he had become a part of it. The movie had

become his dream or his dream had become the movie. He had entered it. He

could still feel the hard wood floors of the house on his bare knees, the

sound of the fire crackling in the background, the thumps of his parent’s

steps as they neared the room where he was hearing the story. His parents.


Those weren’t his parents, and that wasn’t him.


Suddenly a disturbing thought occurred to him. Maybe he was losing

his mind. Maybe that’s why he was trying to end his life, he was mentally

unstable. Maybe he was in the final stages and was just now realizing it,

one clarifying moment in the midst of his madness. There seemed to be no

other explanation.


He wondered if everyone who was about to die went through these

experiences. Was it some kind of evolutionary response to help humans cope

with the pain and fear of death? He was losing himself in an imaginary

world.


But it had seemed so very real, as real as the moments he had spent

with Dee in the Christmas Story scene. He could still feel the sense of

innocent wonder as a child, in the warm and secure environment of love and

security. But that wasn’t his experience at all. Any sense of innocent

wonder he had enjoyed had been very short lived as a child. Reality was

their religion. Then he remembered how hard he had tried to make sure Jes

and Beth grew up the way he thought they should. He refused to decorate a

Christmas tree, never put lights up outside, or any decorations for that

matter. A simple wreath on the door was all he allowed Dee, and only after

much debate.


He bought presents for them, but refused to wrap them, and told them

he was giving them to them at Christmas so they wouldn’t “feel poor” but

not because he believed in Christmas. He never once said Merry Christmas

and wouldn’t allow anyone in the family to do so (although he had caught

Dee several times mouthing the words to the kids).


Dee had always wrapped presents, and left stockings on the children’s

beds on Christmas morning so they would have a sense of wonder and

excitement. It was one of the few things she wouldn’t back down on in

their marriage. He wished desperately that he could quickly shake off that

sense of innocent wonder he had experienced, knowing it was all childish

drivel, but a small part of him was reluctant to let it go. He was ashamed

that he was so attracted to a stupid feeling. This was all too confusing.

They were just stupid movies and he was emotionally distraught. It was all

creating chemical imbalances in him that were then creating dream like

visions.


He closed his eyes and leaned back in the chair just as neon lights

began blinking obnoxiously in through the window, past the thin shades, and

upon his grimacing face. He reluctantly opened his eyes.


B


E


T


H


But that was all. The word Bethlehem would not spell out. It was

still broken. The message repeated.


B


E


T


H


Then his face softened and he wearily rubbed his eyes as if he could

massage reality back. Beth. He saw her young, fresh, exuberant face. He

was suddenly so angry at the neon lights that he wanted to go blow up the

Rescue Mission, but before his anger could reach full boil he heard a

familiar voice.


“Dad, it’s me, Beth!”


He was going crazy. This proved it. But something from memory

suddenly told him that this was not a dream. Excitement coursed through

him as he listened hopefully.


“Daaad, pick up the phone!”


Ned smiled and exhaled in relief. He wasn’t losing it completely.

The voice was indeed Beth’s, but it was her pre-recorded ring tone she had

downloaded to his iPhone so he could never tell her he didn’t know she had

called. She hadn’t called in so long he had almost forgotten it was there.



He took a deep breath. He’d already had a phone call from Dee. He

didn’t think he could take another tongue lashing. But Beth wasn’t a

tongue lasher. She had a tender heart and only wanted to please people.

She seemed to work over time to please him. A sudden sense of shame came

over him at that revelation, but he put it away from him, the way he had

always kept disturbing feelings at arms length.


He picked up his phone from the floor where he had dropped it and saw

her smiling face peering back at him. She had imported her picture as

well, making sure that when she called, her smiling face popped up on his

screen. He knew that answering this phone call would only weaken his

resolve, and that rationally and emotionally it was a mistake. But since

these were his last few hours on earth, he figured he was free to make up

the rules as he saw fit. He answered the phone.


“Hey Beth,” he said flatly. He wanted to slap himself for this. He

sounded so differently from the way he felt. He was so happy to hear from

her, she had always been tonic to his soul, but somehow he could not reveal

that side of him. He knew he sounded bored and uninterested. And he knew

that she would realize he knew who was calling her. He wished he

understood this particular weakness of his. It had bitten him more than

once.


“Hi Daddy,” said Beth. She sounded tentative. “Mer—“ she began

before quickly recovering and pretending to clear her throat. She had

almost wished him a Merry Christmas. He instantly knew that she had become

used to using that phrase like a child who leaves the home and begins to

cuss freely. The external constraints had been removed, and it had become

second nature to her.


“Where are you?” she recovered quickly. Ned paused a moment before

replying.


“On the road, Hon.”


“Oh,” she said quietly. There was another long pause.


“When do you think you’re going to be back in town? I miss you.”


Suddenly large tears welled up in Ned’s eyes and he felt a thickness

in his throat. What could he tell her? She couldn’t understand. He

realized that Beth would learn early next morning or later in the afternoon

tomorrow that she had spoken to her father just before he ended his life.

Would that scar her for life? Would she feel she was responsible? Was he

destroying her life along with his? The situation seemed surreal.


Somehow he had not thought about this. He had never expected a call

from Beth. It hadn’t entered his thought processes of his last night on

earth. He just figured that he was out of her sight and out of her mind

and out of her life and she would just move on. He realized only now that

he had been mistaken.


He tried opening his mouth, but nothing came out. He didn’t have a

clue what to say. He cleared his throat.


“Not for awhile Beth,” he croaked hoarsely.


“Dad,” Beth pleaded over the phone, “just apologize to mom, and come

back and everything can be better. I know it can. It’s Christmas Eve, a

time to make things right, a time of peace and love. Just because--”


“Christmas, Beth,” Ned interrupted forcibly, his voice coming back to

him, “is a creation of religious fanaticism and Madison Avenue

hucksterism—nothing more! Besides that, your mother kicked me out. Why

doesn’t she call and ask my forgiveness?” Beth sighed audibly over the

phone. He thought he also heard her sniffing. He instantly regretted the

tone he’d taken with her. Was this the way he wanted to be remembered?


“Daddy,” he heard her say, her voice choked with emotion. “What if

you’re wrong? I know you don’t think you ever are, but, well…what if

you’re wrong Daddy?”


“Wrong about what?” Ned asked defensively. Beth didn’t immediately

answer and he could sense she was weighing her response carefully.


“Everything important, Daddy,” Beth finally said slowly. “I love you,

Daddy. And I miss you. But…but…I’ve got to go…” she said as her voice

began to quiver. Beth hated losing her composure. The line suddenly went

dead. He looked at his phone, but the picture of Beth was gone.


“Oh God I hate my life,” Ned whispered, reaching for his pistol.


Through eyes bleary with tears the red neon sign began blinking into

his face.


B


E


T


H


Obviously the neon light wasn’t fixed yet. And it was cruel fate that

taunted him with his greatest pain as his weakest moment. Then suddenly

the words changed.


L


O


V


E


S




Y


O


U


Ned’s eyebrows furrowed. BETH LOVES YOU. His mind raced madly. What

kind of sign was this? Then the wording of that question angered Ned. It

was a stupid, defective neon sign, nothing more. He tried to remember the

sequence of the words. The message that read BETHELEHEM RESCUE MISSION was

the last message in the sequence of messages, and part of it hadn’t

appeared. That was normal, the machine wasn’t working properly. The

messages would then continue in their loop beginning with the first message

GOD LOVES YOU. So part of the Bethlehem Rescue Mission message had not

appeared, and when the first message looped again, GOD didn’t show up.

That was it. God didn’t show up. He liked the way that sounded. That was

the problem with the world, everyone believed in a God who never showed up.



All he was looking at was a sign. A simple sign. It definitely

wasn’t a…a…oh this sounded ridiculous…a sign. Thoughts of a divine sign

were quickly shoved out of his mind. The neon sign had been broken, it was

nothing more than that. Besides, what kind of a deity would send a sign to

a father, “Beth Loves You.” The only one who could possibly understand

this sign would be…Ned immediately stopped the thought process.


In his entire life, Ned had never been this confused. All he wanted

to do was to end his life, to make a statement, to exit with dignity and

deliberation. It had all been carefully planned and executed. Poor choice

of words, he thought. He might have been careful in his planning, but

there had not yet been an execution. But there wasn’t going to be an

execution anyway, an execution was a punishment. Ned Phillips wasn’t

punishing himself. He was closing a book he didn’t want to read anymore,

leaving a theater in the middle of a stupid movie, walking away from an

unappetizing meal, nothing more dramatic than that. Life had no ultimate

meaning, so ending it was about as meaningful as a wave moving a pebble an

inch or two further out to sea.


The neon light stopped blinking. He looked at his watch. It was

8:32. He had never known that time could pass so very slowly.


Suddenly, the television hummed back to life.



young man looking pensive

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