I stumbled back a step or two as if punched in the gut, and then stood frozen.
The mysterious little girl began playing with her doll, it’s black hair matching her own. She began marching it up her leg, as if strutting the catwalk, already lost in her own imagination. Completely oblivious to the fact she had just called me by my name.
“How-“, I stammered. “How do you know my name?” I managed.
She sighed, tilted the doll at the waist and sat it on her lap. “This part’s always boring,” she said rolling her eyes. “You’re all alike. Always stuck on the who, what, and how and not on the why.”
“Do I know you from somewhere?”
“Did you go to school with my daughter?”
She picked up her doll and began playing with it again. “This is a waste of time.”
“Wh- what!?” I began muttering how ridiculous this all was and stared at her again. “Ok then. Why are you here?”
She smiled. “There you go!” Congratulating me on asking the right question. She dove back into her backpack, pulling out a small brush and began teasing the doll’s hair. “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean, ‘you don’t know.’?” I glanced around feeling like maybe I had finally lost my mind.
“It’s so complicated your head would probably explode by the end of it.” She mimed and explosion with her doll somersaulting through the air. “Imagine me like a welcoming committee. We’ve seen your pain. It’s scary big.”
She fished around her bag again and pulled out two small jackets for her doll. A powder blue one and a bright red one. “You know, we know all about what you do and how you do it. We can’t always figure out the ‘why’ though. Hmm…,” she said tapping her knee in deep thought as to which color jacket to choose. “That’s what makes you so interesting to us. The ‘why’.”
“We!? Who’s we!?” I looked around thinking maybe there’s some secret society of little people that have taken an interest in my pathetic life. None of this was making sense. None of this seemed real. “Are you some sort of, of-“
“Yes!” I practically shouted. “Are you?”
“I shouldn’t get into it. He sent me here for introductions and to maybe see how you’re doing, and if you’re open to talking. What do you think blue or red?” She held up the two jackets.
“Who?” I paused a long moment, then whispered, “God?”
She just sat there holding up the two jackets.
“God’s interested in how I’m doing?” That’s it, I thought to myself. Its official: I’m losing my mind.
“You’re not losing your mind. Now pick one.”
“You can read my mind too!?” I said
“Hmph! Pick!” She whined her growing impatience.
“Uh, I don’t know. Red, I guess.”
“Oh wow red! See, I would have gone with blue. What a cool feeling. He wants to talk to you, but he always sends me first. To test the waters I guess. Dunno why, maybe he thinks you’ve lost control or something.”
“I lost control!” my voice practically shouting through the morning air in disbelief. “No, not me. Him. He lost control.”
“No,” she frowned shaking her head. “He’s always had control.”
“I can’t believe it. I can’t believe He exists. I renounced his existence months ago. It has felt so one-sided. All the bad things that happen in the world. All the bad things that have happened to me! I used to pray. I used to believe in something. But I know my faith is a joke. Like some big waste of time.”
“That’s sad,” she said with a frown. “Why do you say that?”
“I have unanswered prayers”
“Right, you’re the only one who feels God doesn’t answer them. It’s easier to say he doesn’t exist when you miss the message or refuse to take the answer he’s given you.”
“Answer!? My daughter’s dead! What is that an answer too!” I was hot with boiling rage, and definitely shouting now. “Where’s his might when a good, beautiful little girl gets murdered?”
The little black-haired girl stopped dressing her doll, and looked up at me. So much pity in her face, her eyes shimmering. As if she was holding back grief for Sierra’s death. A dead little girl she didn’t even know. “Good, beautiful people die in this world all the time,” she said.
“But she wasn’t ready.”
“Come on Tom, who are you to question that?” She finally had the doll dressed, wearing the red coat.
“How can…How can he be so cruel?”
“All you should have ever worried about was if she was ready. You helped prepare her for that.”
“Why do you say that? How do you know?”
“You know, human behavior is puzzling. Always asking questions and wanting reason for every little action. One of the biggest gaps between God and his people is the demand for reason. He doesn’t create things halfway, leave them undeveloped, or broken.”
I couldn’t believe I was getting a lecture from a little girl. “But this world is full of broken people,” I said.
“Yes, sin has caused a terrible toll on this world. It wasn’t his intention.”
“She was six years old!” I shouted angrily. “She was a beautiful little girl. Nothing my daughter ever did deserved such a horrible, lonely death.” Images of her dead, purple body laying in the morgue flashed through my mind. Sierra. So full of life. Once. It was hard to recall her lying so still on the cold metal without breaking down. Her beautiful voice strangled out of her. “She was innocent,” was all I managed to utter.
“Sin can take it’s toll on the innocent as well as guilty.”
Shoulders slumped, I couldn’t say anything else. I was near tears.
“What is holding you back?” she said. “Why is the pain so great?” The little girl set her doll down and stood up on the bench, her head taller then my own, then she crouched down coming to eye level with my own. She looked around and gently put her small hand on my slumped shoulders.
“I guess I still have questions,” I said. “It doesn’t seem…fair”
I could feel her take a giant breath and let it out. “I know. And you’re not going to get them all answered. We’re concerned about all this pain and guilt that you’ve carried around with you for so long.”
“She was my world. She was my life. I miss her. And I’m angry. Angry with the man who took her. Angry with God.”
“Yeah,” she sighed. I noticed her looking away from me. Out towards the park and then up 1st Street. “This is such an odd place, but I like to come here as often as I can. There’s so much pain and so much beauty all mixed into this one tiny space. It feels like one giant contradiction after you’ve been-.” She cut herself off and looked back down toward me, her hand still on my slumped shoulders. Sticking her bottom lip out she frowned. “You’re not satisfied.”
“Well, why don’t you go talk with him?”
“Who? Him him?” God?”
“Him.” She pointed straight ahead. Standing at the corner of 1st and Amistad was the same dirty-looking man I had seen earlier. Shaking the last cigarette out of a red and white pack of Marlboros. I didn’t even notice that he never got on the bus.
Getting up, I turned and cautiously walked toward him. He was facing the street, inserting the end of his last cigarette in his teeth while he rubbed the back of his scalp, scratching the graying stubs of hair. His hands as dirty as the brown leather overcoat that came down to his knees. It was well worn and stained. As I got closer, I noticed he had brown pants and a pair of plain looking, cheaply made, brown leather shoes that appeared to be just as used and well-worn.
I looked back at the girl with a skeptical look on my face.
She nodded vigorously, her black pig-tails bouncing up and down.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a lighter, lit the end and took a slow drag. Blowing out the smoke he turned and smiled warmly, “ask anything.”
“Where have you been?”
* * *
We sat on the green bench in silence for a while as he finished his cigarette. I watched as the mysterious girl ran around the park, playing on the swings and then to the merry-round that made her giggle as she spun. She laughed and laughed, and it made me think of when I used to take Sierra here.
The sun was warm on my shoulders while I was thinking what to say next. He took one final drag, dropped the smoking bud onto the ground, and stomped on it, grinding it into oblivion with his foot.
“Who is she?” I finally asked, watching the little girl play.
“A shepherd’s daughter. She still likes to tend to lost sheep. Her name is Rebekah.”
“A shepherd?” I raised my head skeptically. “They still do that? I’ve only heard of shepherds in the Bible some hundreds of years ago. Is she-?”
“Dead?” He said, cutting off my question. “In this world, yes. She was the youngest of seven. She had gotten sick on a pilgrim journey with her family through Damascus.”
“Damascus? Just how old is she?”
“All souls are timeless Tom. She took great delight in caring for the little lambs of her family’s flock, combing the young wool and feeding them until they were old enough to join the rest. On their way through Damascus her family stopped by a small stream for water. It was filthy. Her entire family got sick, but she was the only one not strong enough to fight the infection. By the next sunset she was dead. Her family mourned for days. It broke her heart to see her father in anguish dressed in sackcloth and dust sprinkled on his head.”
It was apparent to me now that Rebekah was not an ordinary little girl that I had just met at a bus stop.
“Like your daughter, her life was precious to me, and I mourned with her father as well.”
“Mourned!? With me!? I’d never felt more alone! You took all that I ever wanted. All that I dreamed of.” My voice cracked as all the pain began to well up and form a lump in my throat. “How could you? How could you allow it?”
“Tom, this universe is filled with the awe-some and the awe–ful. Somewhere in the middle is you. You’re looking for answers, everyone does. I’m going to tell you something that you already know. Not everything I do is going to make sense to you. Not in this world anyway.
I create forests and sin burns them to the ground. I create oceans of great bodies of water and sin poisons them with chemicals or brings great floods. And with the creation of man, bore in my image mind you, and yet again sin destroys them. But you know what,” he said with a sideways glance, “I still create.”
“I’m angry because she’s gone. Because she had this special spirit that left and I’ll never see again in this world. I think about the things I’ll never be able to do with her. Things she won’t experience. I’ll never get to take her to college or walk her down the isle for her-.“ I stopped short. My voice cracking and the lump in my throat hardening into a bitter rock.
“You’re still grieving Tom. And you still blame yourself. That’s the weight that’s dragging you down and drowning you in this misery. Why can’t you let go?”
“I can’t let go!” I shouted. “I can’t let go because all I see is what my child could have become. Because all I see is that window open.” My vision became filled with Sierra’s face and her voice whispering in my ears;
Keep me safe daddy.
“It was my fault. I couldn’t-,” my voice trailing off.
“That’s what you see,” he said squinting into the morning light. “You know what I see?” he said. “I see a white chapel in a small country town, like this one. The church bell is ringing, a wedding is about to begin. A young man is standing at the front of with a pastor dressed in white robes. The entire church is full; every single pew filled to capacity. Everyone’s there. Family. Friends. The music begins to swell and through the doors comes a beautiful young woman in a gorgeous white dress. She is just sparkling. Radiant. It is such a happy moment. It’s your daughter Tom. She’s getting married.”
My vision begins to blur as I looked him in the eye. The lump in my throat choking me. The way he described it, so vivid, like he was actually there. Reliving an actual moment that can never happen.
“Twenty-one years from now a young man in upstate Wisconsin is going to fall asleep while driving. His car will smash through a guard rail and plunge seventy-seven feet into a ravine. He’ll be coming home from watching his cousin play in a hockey game. He’ll be driving a bit too fast. The rain just a bit too slick. He will die, by himself, scared, alone, and in pain. He has no wife or kids, but his family is very close to him. As it always does, the outpouring of grief for a soul so young will be incalculable.
But souls are drawn to each other, Tom. And they don’t always meet in the way you expect. The way a lucky few of you have experienced here on earth. She has the most beautiful wedding.”
The bald man began to get a far away look in his eyes. “I love weddings. Everyone danced and sang through the night, no one leaving until the very end. She’s there smiling, and laughing. The whole time. And you’re there, walking her down the isle.”
“But how? You speak about something impossible.” I turned and looked at him. “I can’t even imagine it. You speak as if it’s real.” Tears began to form in my eyes and several trickled down, staining my cheeks.
He continued with that far away look, “It’s happened. It’s going to happen. It’s happening right now.”
“I just wish-,” as images of Sierra continued to flash through my head. Imagining what could have been. “I just wish I didn’t hurt so bad anymore. But I see it happening over and over. And I can’t help but keep thinking it’s my fault. It’s all my fault.”
Then he reached over to me, grabbing a hold of me and wrapping his arms around me. He had a quiet strength in his grip that was much more than what I would have expected from his thin frame. I felt myself return the embrace and the numbness from the past few months gave way to sobs.
“I know,” he whispered into my ear.
Grief shook my body. The wall, so carefully constructed was burst as a wave of sorrow for my daughter racked my body. All the time and effort holding it in, managing it, keeping it together fell apart into a million pieces. I continued to hold on tightly as tears streamed onto my cheeks. But they weren’t just my tears, they were his.
“I know,” he whispered between sobs, “because I lost my own child once.”
I cried for longer than I could remember. His grip never wavered. He held me firmly in until finally the tears subsided. The storm cloud constantly hovering over me was still there, but didn’t seem to press against me like it had before. It felt like the sun was finally breaking through. I released my embrace and it was only then that he too let me go.
I wiped my face and looked around. I began to feel awkward and aware of the world again. The smell of his leather overcoat. The birds in the air. Children’s laughter as I slowly became aware of my surroundings.
“I love this place,” he said finally. “I’m sorry it turned out this way.”
“Will I ever get to see her again?”
“In time,” he said with a smile.
I felt a tug on my left pant leg, Rebekah grinning at me still clutching her doll. “Time to go. It was nice to meet you Tom.”
I got up and went to kneel down to give her a hug, and she leapt into my arms, nearly toppling me. We hugged for several seconds. When I looked around, the bald man was nowhere in sight. “He’s gone,” I said.
“You know that’s not true,” she whispered into my ear.
I released Rebekah’s embrace and touched her cheek. She beamed like she had when I first meet her, vaulting from the last step on the bus earlier this morning.
“Can I at least say good-bye?” I said getting up and looking over my shoulder down the street, perhaps hoping he had snuck off without noticing and I could catch up with him.
When I looked back to where Rebekah was, she was gone too.
In an instant I was again by myself on the sidewalk at 1st and Amistad. But I no longer felt alone. I took a deep breath and walked over to the bench where just moments ago I was talking with Rebekah and the scruffy, mysterious, bald man.
I sat for a long while, replaying the events in my head. No one would believe me. I didn’t care. Pretty soon a small song bird landed on back of the bench. It hopped along the top of the bench and stopped. Turned to me and tilted it’s head as if examining me. It began a song and I smiled at the sound of it. I was reminded of Rebekah, my unbelievable conversation I just had, and all the good things in the world. And it made me feel loved.
I could hear the next bus belch, making its turn onto Amistad a few blocks down. I would soon board the bus, the driver would punch my ticket, and I’d be back into the real world. I pictured myself sitting at my desk typing on my computer as if this morning hadn’t even happened. It made me want to treasure these last few seconds all the more.
Then, subtly my mind went back to the bird. It had began to weave it’s singing tweets and chirps into a song I have heard before.
One flew over the mountain…
It was so familiar to me.
One flew over the sea…
Something rolling and melodious. Something fun and innocent.
And one flew all the way home to me…
And then it hit me. It was Sierra’s song, the one she constantly sang.
As the bus pulled up and grunted to a stop, the bird flew away, and I watched it climb. High above the trees, above the houses, and off into the clouds.
* * *
That night I told my wife all that had happened. I was afraid she wouldn’t believe me, but I had to tell someone. When I told her of the wedding that the bald man had described to me she began to weep. We both cried together and held hands, and for the first time in awhile we felt close again.
On my way to bed I opened the door to Sierra’s room and walked in. It was still the same. We never had the heart to touch it since that night. The window across the room would always haunt me. The room was dark, and the air smelled a bit stale.
Too many bad memories I always thought. But as I walked toward her nightstand, and sat down on the floor beside of her bed, the awful memories didn’t come flooding back. Only good ones. Ones of her smile. Or the first time she learned how to ride a bike without training wheels. And then her song. Lifting into the clouds.
I sat on the floor by her bed, and looked up at all the glitter and hanging ornaments that still adorned her room. My hand bumped something solid and I reached down under her bed.
It was her Bible.
Covered in dust, I wiped off the pink cover and binding. The cover had a few creases where it had slammed against the wall. There was a bookmark where I had stopped reading that night long ago. I took it out and an examined it. It was pink with princesses and two unicorns galloping. It reminded me of Rebekah and of the strange old man. And I was comforted.
This short story was bore out of several things: Isaac Slade’s lyrics from the song You Found Me that got the ball rolling. Ann Rice’s novel entitled Angel Time was another wonderful influence. Finally, to the memory of Sierra Thomas, whose spirit leapt into my life from tragedy to inspire this whole thing. I hope to see you one day in heaven and give you a great big hug. The pain of losing a loved one has affected me personally as does the process one takes in suffering. Grief is a powerful emotion, but I firmly believe our souls are never alone even in our darkest moments.