FIFTEEN

It was now two days before Christmas and some chief pastors, seminary students, Act Teens, and Principal Harrod were gathered together in an emergency session, seeking a way quietly to end the legacy of Mr. Russell Hicks.

“Our church attendance drops every time the Hicks boy speaks. He makes us look like money hungry hypocrites not interested in the needs of our congregations,” said the Reverend Jonathan Edwards Sikes. “At the same time, my own elder board likes him. They want to institute some of his ideas. It’s insane.”   

“He thinks he owns the town,” said Kyle Affas. “He does whatever he wants with no repercussions. Our student movement is down to ten people thanks to the cheap grace he peddles.”

Principal Harrod said, “He’s a lawbreaker. I’m planning on pressing charges for the riot in the school gym. He assaulted Kyle. That should get rid of him.”

Reverend Sikes massaged his temples, deep in thought. “We have to act now, before Christmas. If we wait, we’ll appear insensitive to the town’s people who are deceived by Russell. There could be a large public outcry.”

“Kyle, can you get to someone inside his circle of friends? Someone who knows where we can have him arrested without the public’s knowledge?” Principal Harrod asked.

“Maybe. I’ll see what I can do.”

“Principal Harrod, you swear out the arrest warrant tonight. Arrange with the magistrate to have the deputies ready to act when we call. Kyle, find us a way to end this nightmare. We have to be finished with this by tomorrow.” Reverend Sikes leaned back in his chair. “Let’s pray that when we wake up on Christmas morning, Russell Hicks will be a distant memory.”

Everyone in the room nodded in agreement.    

While the religious leadership of Wilkins schemed, Russell reclined in a beanbag chair at the home of the acne-alleviated youth named Nelson. Though nearly midnight, dozens of people jammed Nelson’s family room to talk with Russell about the true significance of Christmas.

In the midst of the spirited conversation, a senior named Leslie Burbee walked over to where Russell sat, pulling a bottle of very expensive Channel No. 5 from her purse. Unscrewing the top, she held the perfume up for everyone to see. The room fell silent.

“Some of you know that my parents divorced this year. It was very difficult for me because neither of them wanted custody of me.” Leslie paused to wipe her eyes. “On the day of the hearing, it was like I was dying. I felt unloved, unwanted. Suddenly Russell shows up in the courtroom at my side. He took my hand and told me that he was there for me; that nobody would ever love me as much as my Father in heaven.”

Several girls in the room began to cry softly, waiting for Leslie to continue.

“Russell,” she said staring down at him, “you have poured yourself out for all of us with such sweetness, that I want to pour my most expensive perfume out on you as a blessing.”

Russell bowed his head blushing as the fragrance flowed down through his hair onto his shirt. Some people whispered prayers of thanks, while others said, “Glory to God” and “Hallelujah.”      

Jude Sodestrom, however, cursed under his breath. He had loved Leslie since the first time he’d seen her in sixth grade. Each time he gathered the nerve to ask her out, she refused, crushing his fragile ego. Didn’t she think about that? Maybe God was paying her back, letting her see what it felt like to be rejected. And Russell. He got all the girls. He got all of everyone. Adults, kids, male, female, it didn’t matter. His sugary kindness was nauseating. He didn’t have a job. He just took money from people or let them pay for whatever he wanted. Absurd. Jude worked hard at the Food Lion--at everything, though no one seemed to care. Russell hadn’t done anything for him, had he? Peter Longley was such a kiss up. And the Jackson brothers. Russell sucked up all the attention, while Jude was ignored. This has to end. This will end. Leslie Burbee, everybody is going to remember Jude Sodestrom, one way or another.

“Isn’t that a waste of money, Leslie?” Jude said. “Couldn’t you have done something more significant with what that perfume cost? Give it to the Salvation Army or something? We should be good stewards.”

“Leave her alone, Jude,” Russell said, harshly. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing for me.”

Jude’s cheeks flamed. “I just think that poor people need…”

“Poor people are everywhere all the time. As for me, I may be gone tomorrow.”

Jude hated Russell’s dramatics. Can’t these people see through it? Oh, Leslie. Beautiful, beautiful, Leslie. Why do you like Russell more than me? He doesn’t even know you exist. He only cares about his own, silly life.

“Thank you for your gift, Leslie,” Russell said. “Whenever anyone in Wilkins thinks of the goodness of God, they’ll remember what you have done here tonight.”      

That’s it. Jude stormed from the room, out into the cold night. Russell needed to be brought down a notch or two. A little humility never hurt anyone. A plan, insidious and calculated, began to formulate within Jude’s jealous mind. Kyle Affas will help. He hates Russell more than anyone.

At the closest Shell station, Jude dialed information and wrote down Kyle’s number. The phone rang several times before a sleepy voice answered.

“Kyle, this is Jude Sodestrom. You interested in getting even with Russell Hicks for making you look like such an idiot all the time. 

Alert now, angry, Kyle said, “It wasn’t me who fell for his smooth talking nonsense. What happened? Did he steal your girlfriend or something?”

Ignoring the accuracy of the slur, Jude said, “Look, I know you want to nail him with something. I’ll set him up. But it’s going to cost you.”

“Ah. Always looking to make a buck. That’s why you were the Act Teen treasurer before you were…deluded into following Russell.”

“You want him or not?”

“I’ve already got a plan. What I need is for him to be alone somewhere tomorrow, where we can do this quietly.”

“We’re having a Christmas Eve dinner tomorrow night at the Days Inn on Rt. 264. Around six o’clock. He only wants his closest friends there, so it should be easy to get him alone. Usually after something like this he wants to go off and pray. I’ll call you from the front desk when I know where he’s going.”

“I knew you’d come around, Jude. You’ve got a lot more sense than those others jerks. Money sense that is.”

“Just wait for my call,” Jude said, slamming down the phone.

Kyle thanked God for the unexpected news. He notified the Reverend Sikes, who in turn informed Principal Harrod. The plan was set and each crawled into bed that night convinced that the end of Russell Hicks was at hand.

On Christmas Eve, Russell sent the Jackson brothers to the Days Inn to make the dinner arrangements. “The owner’s name is Mr. Singh. I helped his son, Bander, through a difficult situation, so he wants to do something for us. Ask him to show you the room he has reserved for our meeting. He’ll probably take you to the small conference room on the first level that he promised to set up for us.” 
 

When the Jackson brothers arrived at the hotel, they found everything as Russell had said. They stayed for several hours, helping the mostly Sikh employees set up the room, sharing with them the wonderful significance of the sacred Christmas birth.  

That evening, Russell arrived at the hotel with his twelve friends. Mr. Singh met them in the lobby.

“I hope you enjoy the way I have arranged the room. In my country, close friends recline on low couches, eating from communal dishes. Oh, and the food is Indian. Made special for you by my wife Ajaipal.”

“We’re very grateful, Mr. Singh,” said Russell.

The boys arranged themselves on the couches. They plunged into the exotic, succulent dishes with the same enthusiasm they would the dinner buffet at the Golden Corral on Forest Hills Road. Only this was different, better. Flavors erupted in their mouths that reminded them of the diversity of God’s Kingdom. Flaming curries, mollified by cool, creamy yogurts. Foods served to them personally in small powerful portions by a grateful hotel owner, as opposed to the great heaps of same-tasting food, clamored for by bus-terminal lines of overweight people seeking not flavor, only innocuous satiation. The first shall be last? The mustard seed? Stories Russell had told them, manifest in a meal. It was glorious. It made them long to experience the world beyond Wilkins.

“This is sublime,” said Peter, stuffing his mouth with lamb curry.

“What the heck does that mean? Sublime?” Tom McLaughlin snorted, spraying a bisibela bath from his mouth—a dish he would years later request as his last, before his martyrdom in India.

“I just learned it. It means to render something inferior into something of higher worth. Like us, maybe.”

They all laughed. It was a great night. The best ever. Then…

 “One of you is going to get me killed,” Russell said, preoccupied, distant, toying with his dinnerware.

The proclamation was a high, fast curve on the inside of their dinner plates. Their response was a slow swing, slicing the pronouncement backward so that it struck one another unprepared, defenseless. There were bruised egos, battered spirits, and bleeding hearts.

“One of my own friends,” said Russell. “The one who is dipping his bread into the dhal with me right now.” Jude hesitated, his hand in the bowl of yellowish sauce. “Because you see, it has to happen to all of us who live the life. But I feel sorry for the one who betrays the faithful. It would have been better for him if he had never been born.”

The boys confronted within themselves their own thoughts of abandoning Russell. Shamefully they reflected on moments of doubt about their strange friend. Each thought of just being normal. No confrontations. No recriminations from church leaders. No late night phone calls to their parents by concerned friends or youth leaders. Just the normal, insipid Christian life. Why wasn’t Russell satisfied with that? Everyone else was. Yet the journey was exciting, amazing. People being healed. Russell’s popularity. Their popularity. So many wonderful things had happened. And he had such faith in them. Always telling them how great they were—world changers. Who said that about them? No. We can’t hurt him. He has loved us like no other friend.

“Let’s take communion,” Russell said, somberly.

He held aloft a piece of flat, Indian bread, tore it into pieces and gave it to them. “Take and eat. This is the Lord’s body broken for us.”

Then he poured cups of chai, Indian tea, for each of his friends. “This represents the blood of Jesus, the new, transforming promise which was poured out for us.” They sipped the steaming, sweet drink in unison. “I don’t think I will sit with you guys again until we’re all together in the Kingdom.”

Matthew Levinson said, “Yesterday at the Wal Mart I met a lady named Flower who said she was friends with Johnny Witherspoon before he died. She said they used to sit around the trailer park on Sunday nights singing Amazing Grace. She said it was the most beautiful thing she’d ever done.”

“So?” said Peter, testily.

“So, we ought to sing something. Let’s sing Amazing Grace. Want to, Russell?”

Russell smiled. “Sure.”

They sung, off key, heart felt. When they finished, Russell asked if they could go pray together at Lake Toisnot Park. Jude excused himself and went to the front desk to make a call.

At the lake, they sat huddled around a small fire kindled by Tom McLaughlin.

Russell said, “Tonight you all will fall away from the things you’ve learned. You will stumble. You will begin to distrust me. But after I am raised to life with God, you will go out into the world with power.”

“I’m not falling away from anything, Russell,” said Peter. “Even if they all run out on you, I won’t. Not Peter Longley.” 

       
Russell stared out over the frozen lake to where a flock of Canada geese roosted. “Peter, you’re so self-confident. Because of this you will utterly deny our friendship before the clock on the Methodist church strikes midnight.”

“No,” Peter screamed, jumping to his feet. “I would die before I abandon a friend like you. Do you here me, Russell Hicks? I would die.”

Russell wandered over to a place in the parking lot where oil stains shimmered prism-like in the moon’s glow. Peter, Jim and Johnny followed.

“Sit here at the curb while I pray.”

The boys obeyed. They were worried, though. Fear bit at them, gnawed through their small town aspirations like the winter wind through a deficient windbreaker.

Russell too was afraid. Where was Jude Sodestrom? He had disappeared from the hotel. Was this really happening? Fear escalated into terror mixed with an unworldly amazement. Would God just let him die? Sure he talked about living the life and dying the death, but was it actually required? Had he overstated things, pushed too hard, painted himself into a corner? Had he engineered his own destruction?          

”I’m so scared, I feel as if I might die right here, tonight,” he told his friends. “They’re coming to get me. I know it. I made it happen. Keep watch for me.”

Russell staggered away from them, slipping in the frost-glazed grass. He hit the frozen, unforgiving ground hard, snapping his face against the earth. He rolled onto his back, crying. “Jesus, what have I done? Is there another way? Can’t there be another way?”

He wiped his face, tears and mucus coated his palm in a cold, congealed mass. “You’re God. Can’t You think of any other plan? You can do anything. Is death all there is? Don’t make me go through this. I can’t go through with this.”

He tried to stand; couldn’t. “Take away the call, Father. Take it away.” On hands and knees he cried out across the motionless lake, “Take it away!”

“Jesus,” he whimpered, reaching the lake’s edge. He pounded a fist through the thin ice and splashed his face. It wasn’t going to work, he knew. He would suffer without result. A wasted life. No one would remember or care. What’s the point? He needed his friends to reassure him. They believed in him, didn’t they?

Painfully, insides burning with anxiety, he struggled back to the parking lot. Peter was curled up against the others, eyes closed.

“Are you guys sleeping?” Russell whispered in despair. The boys stirred. “Can’t you stay awake with me for an hour? I’m in serious trouble. Please, pray for me.”

Russell staggered off again. The boys wondered what had happened to their confident, conquering leader. Why was he so terrified?

Dropping his dread-wracked body onto a park bench, he marveled at the level of his anguish. “Where is this coming from, Lord? I’ve never felt such terror? Am I afraid to die?”

No.

The response, deep, clear within him, made Russell jerk his body upright. The park was deadly silent. “What am I afraid of then?”

Insignificance.

Russell stood and cocked his head sideways to listen more carefully.

“Insignificance?”

Triviality. All your sacrifice, for nothing.

Shuddering, Russell asked, “Is what’s about to happen worth it?”

Is it worth it? No. Am I worthy of it? Yes. Follow Me. I will use this night for My glory.

Russell inhaled deeply, the icy air resuscitating him like the breath of God. He steadied himself, the truth of God taking hold, swallowing up the fear spawned in falsehood.

“Are you guys still sleeping?” he asked, finding his friends stretched out along the curb. “It doesn’t matter. Here they come. Better get up.”

Drowsy from too much Indian food and the late hour, the boys had not noticed the three darkened police cruisers that had slipped into the park not far from where they had nodded off. Nor had they observed the four officers who had stealthily crossed the park from the opposite side.

“Now,” a faceless, authoritative voice called out, shattering the silence of the night. Immediately headlights, spotlights and hand-held flashlights split the darkness, illuminating the four boys in a brilliant radiance of betrayal.

“Hands out where we can see them,” the commanding shadow ordered from behind the cruiser lights. “Don’t want anyone hurt.” The boys complied as aphotic, crouching phantoms encircled them with weapons at the ready. Blinded by the sizzling, glaring lights, the four friends nevertheless felt a bitter darkness deeper than the winter night closing in on them.

“That’s him, there in the middle.” Jude Sodestrom emerged into the alabaster glow. Behind him came Kyle Affas. Jude walked close enough to Russell to touch him on the shoulder. “This is the amazing, sent-from-God, girlfriend-stealing, Russell Hicks.” He stared at the popular teenager with disgust. “It’s over, Russell. Over.” 

“He’s the one who destroyed the gym,” Kyle Affas said, contemptuously. “He led the assault on me as well. Arrest him.”

Before the officers could move in response, Russell’s eight remaining friends broke through the thin police perimeter, forming a protective wedge around their endangered leader. In the resulting tussle, Peter saw an opportunity. He lunged at Kyle Affas swinging hard and fast. The blow struck the unsuspecting Act Teen leader in the neck just below his ear. Kyle crumpled to the ground in a sniveling heap.

“Everybody stop,” Russell screamed. “Peter, leave him alone. I don’t need your help.”

Russell pushed through the officers and teenagers to kneel beside Kyle. “You, okay?”

“Russell?” Peter said, stunned. “I’m…I’m protecting you. I…

Helping the shaken Act Teen to his feet, Russell said, “Since when do I need your help, Peter? Huh? Since when do I need any of you defending me?”    

The pushing and shoving ceased completely, Russell’s friends suddenly finding themselves without a cause—without a leader.

“And what’s with all the police?’ Russell said, addressing the officer who looked the most in charge. “I walk around town all the time. Why not arrest me then? Why now, with all this force?” He held out his hands to be cuffed. “Take me.”

Sergeant George Bowen surveyed Russell for several seconds before moving. The kid was peculiar. He acted with the authority of a gang leader, but avoided violence, even prevented it. Sergeant Bowen felt drawn to the young man; more so than to that loudmouthed Kyle, who deserved a good crack up side the head.

“Get in the cruiser,” he said to Russell. “The rest of you get the hell out of here before I lock all of you up.”

Forsaking Russell Hicks, the boys fled into the park’s blackness.  

I, however, the recorder of this whole affair, followed Russell to the police car. I was twelve at the time, enamored with Russell and filled with youthful, ill-advised courage. I watched Russell climb handcuffed into the caged backseat. I wanted to say something to him, encourage him, but a gruff officer grabbed me by the back of my jacket, ripping it off my body. Terrified I ran coatless toward the lake.   

Sergeant Bowen drove Russell to the magistrate’s office, where the Reverend Sikes waited with Principal Harrod. The still wobbly Kyle Affas arrived just before Russell to testify on the high school’s behalf.  

Across the street from the magistrate’s office, Peter stood in the shadowy archway of an Episcopal church. In front of him stood three young officers waiting to begin their midnight shift. They smoked cigarettes, while lamenting the need to work through another Christmas morning.

Inside, Magistrate Hiram Priestly, second cousin to the Reverend Sykes on his mother’s side, listened to the sworn testimony of Principal Harrod and Kyle Affas.

“He ordered his friends to attack me, yesterday in the school gym,” Kyle said, relishing the rush of power he felt over Russell. “Tonight, he did it again. Look at this bruise on my neck. I might need corrective surgery.”

“Did this boy actually hit you?” Magistrate Priestly asked.

“Well…”

“Hiram,” Reverend Sykes said, breaking in. “I think the point is that we don’t want to charge a group of innocent teenagers who have been beguiled. We don’t want them to have a criminal record following them around the rest of their lives. We want the ringleader, the instigator.”

Magistrate Priestly considered his cousin’s words. He also considered the free use of his cousin’s beach house in Nag’s Head every August. “I see your point.”

“He caused $178.00 worth of damage to school property as well,” said Principal Harrod. “We’ve got six folding tables that need repair. I have the bill right here.”    

“And what do you have to say for yourself, Mr. Hicks?” the magistrate asked.

Russell stared at his manacled hands without responding.

“You’d better answer, son. If you don’t, you’re spending the night in jail. If you can’t make bond then you’ll be there until your trial date in January.”

Silence.

“Tell the magistrate about your mission from God, Russell,” Principal Harrod said winking at Kyle.

Hiram stood, growing agitated at the late hour. “What are you, anointed from on high or something? A heavenly emissary, perhaps?”   
 

“Yes,” Russell answered. “And you will all see the power of a transformed life, not because you lived it, but because you tried to stop it. Your cathedrals and student movements and positions in the town are meaningless, because you have never experienced intimacy with the Father. I have. I am in the Godhead, and the Godhead is in me.”

“Blasphemy,” said Reverend Sykes.

“That’s all I need to hear,” said the magistrate. “Not only is there sufficient probable cause to detain you for instigating a riot, assault, and the destruction of public property, but I’m also ordering an immediate psychological evaluation.” He scribbled instructions on the arrest warrant sworn out by Principal Harrod. “Take him away, Deputy.”

“You’re eighteen, so you’re in with the big boys,” said the deputy, releasing Russell’s handcuffs. “We’re going to fingerprint you, take your picture, then your spending the night in the drunk tank. Sorry but there’s no other room in the inn.” The burly officer smiled at the joke, as did Reverend Sykes.  

Once processed, Russell found himself on a metal pull-down cot wedged between two drunken men. Four others lay coma-like on the floor, submerged in alcoholic, holiday stupors.

“Whaddayainfor?” the man on Russell’s right slurred.

 Russell did not feel like talking.

“Hey,” the drunk said, belligerent, trying to focus, “you think yer better-en-me?” He slapped Russell hard, slicing open his cheek with razor-like, uncut fingernails. “Too good to speak to ol’ Charlie, boy? You wanna spit on ol’ Charlie, cuz he ain’t good enough?”

With his head bowed, Russell watched the blood drip from his cheek, between his legs onto the cell floor. A red, coagulating puddle formed at his feet, growing larger with every drop.

Ol’ Charlie gurgled up as much yellow-brown phlegm as possible from his tobacco-withered lungs and hawked it at his offensive cellmate. The warm, gluey mass struck Russell’s cut face, where it mingled with escaping hemoglobin and dropped thick and whiskey-scented into the growing pool.

“You ain’t nuttin, boy,” Ol’ Charlie said. “Don’t know who you think you are, but yer nuttin far as I’m concerned.” Ol’ Charlie let out a contemptuous, three-tooth howl that glaciated Russell’s heart, as if he were imprisoned with Satan, himself. 

Outside the jail, Peter rubbed his hands for warmth, but the chill, he knew, came from within. The three officers had left, but Kyle had assembled four of the Act Teens, who stood with him across the street in a devious huddle. Peter couldn’t imagine that they would be planning more harm. Hadn’t they done enough? He took a step toward them, to plead with them to leave Russell alone, but hesitated. Hadn’t Russell said he didn’t need him? Embarrassed him in front of everyone? Him, Peter Longley. The only one willing to fight, to sacrifice everything.

While Peter grappled with his confusion, one of the Act Teen girls lifted her head to brush a stray hair from her face.

“Hey, isn’t that Peter Longley standing there by the church?” The others looked up. “Hey, Peter, you here to help Russell?” she called, chidingly. “Looking for more trouble?”

Stepping out beneath a streetlight, Peter cursed. “I don’t know Russell Hicks anymore. I thought I did once. But not anymore.” Under the humiliation of their laughter, Peter hurried around the corner to the front of the Good Will building. Up the street, to the north, the clock tower above the Methodist church struck midnight. Remembering Russell’s prediction of denial, Peter slumped down against the side of the Good Will and wept.