Daring Rescue – Preview Book 2 in the Flee to the Mountains Series will be out this summer. Here is a sneak peek.
The United States is spiraling out of control and is on the brink of collapse. Widespread riots, along with food and gasoline shortages, have hit metropolitan areas hard. Blame and persecution then fall on all people of faith, particularly Christians. With the onslaught of drive-by shootings and arson now targeting churches, many are convinced that the time has come to find sanctuary in one of several, well-stocked shelters tucked away in the more rural, outlying mountains. Believers, after receiving a vision from God, took action and constructed small communities of refuge for a time such as this.
After the loss of his family, Marcus Peterson is approached by two young men, Sam Holton and his friend, who have suffered loss as well. They form an alliance and plan to head east to find a place of safety, taking as many church members as wish to go.
On the day of their planned departure, Enforcers detain Sam, his mom, and his brother just before they were scheduled to join their friends. However, Becky, Sam’s younger sister, hides behind the house in the foliage of a huge weeping willow, watching as her family members are loaded into a van. When an Enforcer spots her, she is shot but manages to escape and holes up at her aunt’s.
Marcus sends the rest of the group east but stays behind to find the Holton family. After days of searching, Marcus runs into Sam, who escaped detention. Together, they continue the hunt for Becky. They have a run-in with Enforcers, and Sam’s leg is broken. Taking a temporary break from their quest, they head to the mountains where Sam’s uncle, a doctor, sets the leg.
When Becky finally ventures out, she meets a young boy, Hector, and Mrs. Madison, a widow who cares for a houseful of abandoned children. Becky then returns home briefly and finds a note Sam left. But he’s not there.
Enforcers come to the Madison home and force the older children to come with them. Two days later, three of these children return, reporting evil conditions at the now government-run school. Wanting to avoid recapture, Becky takes a group of girls and heads to her aunt’s. She sends a lookout ahead to watch for Enforcers. Before they can be warned, the girls are captured and taken as sex slaves to a brothel. However, their sentry gets away and reports to Hector and Mrs. Madison.
Sam and Marcus return. They find a note left by Hector. They set out to rescue Becky. After successfully releasing her, she insists they go back for the others. Knowing they can’t do this alone, they ask Travis, a former Marine, to help. Now the challenge is to free the captives and then flee to the mountains and to safety without anyone getting killed.
Can Marcus, Sam and Becky liberate the others in the brothel? Will their faith remain strong as it’s tested? How many will take the opportunity to leave the city for refuge in the mountains?
Sunlight streamed through the stained glass windows, casting glorious colors on the pews below. Despite riots and food and gas storages, along with layoffs and business close downs all around the country, joyful voices joined the music in imperfect harmony, singing praises to Jesus. Smiling faces raised to the heavens and hands lifted in surrender to God, Creator of the heavens and the earth, as the Wednesday night service drew to a close. These people still held their deep love for God—no matter the circumstances.
Marcus’s heart soared as he played his guitar and sang his love for his Lord and Savior. With five years of sacred schooling behind him, he stood before the congregation as Praise and Worship Pastor. He fingered the last chord of the song.
“We praise you, Lord Jesus. We lift You up in our hearts and lives, surrendering to You in all things. Walk with us each minute of every day. We love You, Lord. Amen and Amen.” Marcus opened his eyes to gaze upon faces full of love, peace and joy. “Have a great week! See you on Sunday.”
“Praise the Lord” rang around the room. It made his heart rejoice to see the smiles on each face and the people fellowshipping after the service. The senior pastor of Southside Community Church, Marvin Peterson, a distinguished man of fifty-eight with graying hair, made his way to Marcus.
“The worship brought tears to my eyes, son. It’s so good to have you leading worship again. The Lord really moved here tonight.” He patted Marcus on the shoulder and headed to the back of the church.
Marcus accepted the compliment and watched his dad chat and laugh with members on his way to the door. His mom, Naomi, a beautiful, natural blonde, threw Marcus a kiss. She joined his dad and linked hands.
He stepped off the stage to follow his parents. Turning, he spied his guitar in its stand. He needed to practice a solo for Sunday. “Hey, Dad, I forgot my guitar. I’ll get the lights and see you outside.”
His dad stuck a hand in the air and waved, but he didn’t look back.
“Great service! It’s nice seeing you back in front.” Mrs. Swain waved.
Marcus smiled and waved back. It’s good to be home, Lord. I missed my family and friends while away at college. He made his way back to the stage. The soft taps of his feet on the carpet seemed a strange contrast to the praise music and energetic conversation that had filled the room minutes earlier.
He picked up his guitar and placed it in its case before latching the lid. Music and worship warmed his soul. Nothing gave him more pleasure than praising Jesus through his musical gifts. He picked up his case, flipped off the lights, descended the stairs and ambled down the aisle toward the foyer.
Pop! Pop! Pop! The rapid reports of gunfire echoed in his ears. Screams followed. His heart stopped, then pounded hard against his ribs. He ran to the exit, dropped his guitar, slammed to a stop at the door and peeked out. Clear. He raced to the church parking lot and stopped short. A dark, four-door pickup screeched away. He squinted, trying to read the license plate. The truck tires smoked as they turned the corner.
Marcus swung around in horror, looking for his parents. People lay on the ground. Church members held cell phones to their ears, calling in a panic for help. Some leaned over victims, while others stood huddled together, sobbing.
He searched through the crowd, spotted his parents on the ground and sprinted toward them. His dad sat with his mom cradled against his chest. Her long, blonde hair had come undone and, in bloody disarray, encircled her pale face. Her now-lifeless, brown eyes openly stared at the evening sky. Seeing, simultaneously, the hole in his mother’s forehead and the torrent of tears flowing down his dad’s cheeks, Marcus groaned, dropped to his knees and wrapped an arm around his father. His dad sucked in a labored breath while blood trickled from the corner of his mouth.
Tears spilled from Marcus’s eyes. How could this be happening? “Dad?” He reached to move his mother, but his dad held her close. Blood soaked his father’s crisp, white shirt. “Dad, where’re you hit?”
In desperation, Marcus looked around. “We need help over here; my dad’s been hit.” Sirens wailed in the distance as he grabbed his father’s hand. “Hold on, Dad. Help’s coming.”
“No, Marcus.” His father squeezed Marcus’s hand. “Your Mom and I are going to meet Jesus today. I love you and Jared very much. Never forget that.” His father sputtered and coughed, his body wracked in a fit of shaking. After regaining his composure, he looked at Marcus with narrowed eyes.
“Give Jesus everything you have to give. Remember, He isn’t the author of evil. He didn’t want this to happen. He loves us too much. Forgive them.”
He coughed up more blood, and it trickled down his chin. He wiped it away with his sleeve, leaving a smear across his cheek. “There are sanctuaries in Idaho. Directions are in the safe. Go east. Find Pastor Phil. Be careful. It’s going to get worse.” He coughed again and became visibly weaker. His body trembled.
“Dad . . .”
“Go downstairs to the built-in bookshelf. Pull the lever on the left side. Everything you’ll need’s there.” He wheezed and labored to breathe.
“Don’t try to talk, Dad. Help’s almost here.” Marcus gulped air, as if to help his dad breathe. The sirens grew louder.
More urgent now, his dad pulled Marcus closer as his voice dropped to a whisper, and he forced out the words, “Promise me you’ll go to the sanctuary. Take all our people who want to go. Rescue as many abandoned kids as you can find. I want you to live. If you stay, you’ll die. Remember, I love you.”
“I love you too, Dad.”
Ambulances with sirens blaring flew around the corner, followed by a dozen police cars, lights flashing, their tires screeching to a halt. Marcus stood and waved. “Over here.”
Medics ran to the injured. One medical tech peeled off, heading toward Marcus, while his partners grabbed the gurneys, hurrying after him. Gently, Marcus lifted his mother from his dad’s arms, revealing the horrible wound in his father’s chest.
Oh, Lord, it’s bad. Please, help my dad. But in that moment Marcus knew his dad wouldn’t make it.
The medic pressed two fingers to Naomi’s neck and shook his head. He then moved to Marcus’s dad.
The second medic arrived. “We have a gunshot wound to the chest. Let’s move.” One man grabbed the Senior Pastor’s shoulders and the other the feet. With a deep groan from his dad, they loaded him onto the gurney and ran for the ambulance.
His mother cradled against him, tears running down his cheeks, Marcus sat rocking. Memories flooded his mind.
Mom and Dad dropped everything to come to his graduation in January and returned the week before Easter. They couldn’t be there for the actual Easter program he would be directing, so they came to the rehearsal. He remembered his great joy and happiness seeing them in the front row with their broad smiles.
In all his twenty-two years, Marcus couldn’t remember a time his parents weren’t there encouraging him . . . loving him. He brushed the hair away from his mother’s face and closed her beautiful eyes. “I’m going to miss you, Mom.” He kissed her cheek as he continued rocking.
Sometime later the coroner’s assistants approached. “Son, is this your mother?”
“I’m really sorry, but we need to take her now.” The man patted his shoulder, then pointed. “When you’re ready, Lieutenant Jones in the gray suit needs to speak with you.”
Marcus looked down at his mother’s beautiful face and kissed her cheek again. “I love you, Mom,” Marcus looked up. “Please . . . be careful with her.” He released his hold and let the men in white coats lift her to the waiting gurney.
“We will, son.” Two assistants placed her in a body bag. They zipped it as Marcus choked back a sob. As they took his mother away, he continued to sit, looking at his bloody hands.
“Why, Father, why? I know things are getting bad, but my parents were the gentlest, most loving people I’ve ever known. They insisted on keeping the food kitchen going, even with all the threats. They helped as many as possible. How could people target those who’re helping?” Marcus cleared his throat as sorrow clouded his thinking. “Mom and Dad taught me about You since I was little. They served You all of their lives. This hurts. How do I tell Jared? Please, Lord, give me the words, because I’ve none of my own.”
His initial shock began to fade, and Marcus looked around at the activity in the parking lot. Lights flashed from numerous emergency vehicles. Crime scene techs worked the area, and police talked with church members who still stood huddled together. Two unknown members lay covered with white sheets. How much time had passed?
Marcus climbed to his feet, using the light pole to steady himself. He yanked out his cell phone and dialed his brother, Jared. The phone rang but went to voice mail. He drew several deep breaths and gave up for now. He located Lieutenant Jones, quietly talking with another officer at the church entrance.
“Excuse me, are one of you Lieutenant Jones?”
“I’m Jones.” He lifted a single finger in his direction. “Okay, go check it out.” The other man hurried off. “What can I help you with?”
“I’m Marcus Peterson. My dad’s the pastor here. But I need to get to the hospital. They took my dad a little while ago. I need . . .” Marcus trailed off as a frown appeared on the officer’s face.
“Marvin Peterson’s your father?”
“I’m sorry, son. We just got word on Marvin Peterson.” Jones raked a hand through his hair. “Your father didn’t make it to the hospital.”
Marcus closed his eyes and blinked back fresh tears; his arms and legs felt heavy. “I’d hoped he’d make it.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.” Jones cleared his throat. “I know the timing’s bad, but I need you to tell me as much as you can about what happened. You said your dad was the pastor of this church?”
“Yes. “ Marcus wiped at his eyes and cleared his throat. “I heard the shooting from inside. I ran out as a black, four-door pickup with plate number 743PB something turned out of the driveway. I missed the last number.”
“You saw the plate? There was enough light to see it?” The lieutenant raised one eyebrow.
“Yes, the sun was just setting.” Marcus pulled on his ear lobe. “My brother and I used to travel with my parents a lot when we were growing up. We passed the time seeing how many plates we could remember. Jared beat me hands down most of the time, but I got better.”
“Please, repeat that number and the make and model of the vehicle.”
“I believe it’s a Ford, four-door pickup, black . . . though it could be navy blue. The numbers were 743PB something.” Marcus repeated as the lieutenant wrote it down.
“So, what happened then?”
Marcus blinked and recited the events of the last hour, while he rubbed his blood-covered hands on his pants. He swallowed hard and wiped at the tears that filled his eyes.
“Did your father say anything?”
“He talked about Jesus. He told me not to become bitter, that God didn’t want this to happen.”
“Do you have any idea who would want to do something like this?”
“No. The church received threats in the last month, two written and three by phone. Dad turned them over to the police a couple of weeks ago.”
“Do you know who your dad spoke with at the police station?”
“Okay, that’s all for now. I suggest you go home.” The lieutenant scribbled another note.
“I need to check on the rest of the people and see if I can help.” Marcus noted more flashing lights and police activity around the parking lot. “How many?”
Jones looked up with a sad shake of his head. “Two others, besides your parents, are dead, and three more were taken to the hospital. Two flesh wounds and the other is critical.”
Marcus nodded, rubbing his hands on his pants again. How could he tell his brother that their parents were dead? He’d gone to a conference across town tonight, where they were discussing the problems in the country and the increased violence against Christians. How ironic.
He wandered off toward the cluster of members at the church entrance. A large, crimson spot on the pavement caught his eyes, and he intentionally flicked them away. He heard sobs as he neared the group and observed the vacant stares on the faces of his church family.
Mrs. Lewis saw him coming and, leaning on her cane, hobbled toward him. “We’re so sorry about your parents, Marcus.”
She eyed him, drawing in a sharp breath. “Are you okay? Is this your blood?” She ran a hand over his arm.
He grabbed her hand and held it. “No . . . not mine. I’m fine. How’s everyone else?”
“In shock; we all are.”
He gently dropped her hand and took her elbow, guiding her back to the others. “Thank you for staying. But everyone needs to go home now. There’s nothing more we can do here. As soon as the police have done their work, we can clean things up.”
“Are you sure you don’t need company until Jared gets back from the conference?” Mrs. Kramer lifted her blotchy face and red eyes to his.
“I’ll be all right. Go home to your families.”
The small group drifted off toward the flashing lights and the police officials who were still working in the parking lot.
Marcus rattled the last door lock in the church before heading to the restroom. The dark familiar hallway seemed to go on forever, but he didn’t bother with lights. He’d grown up here. It was his second home. Only now . . . How could his parents be gone?
He pushed open the bathroom door and flipped on the lights. With a heavy heart he slowly scoured the crimson blood which had dried to his hands. Tears trickled down his face as his parents’ blood flowed down the drain.
Tired and empty, his legs were heavy as he shuffled next door to the parsonage. He pulled out his cell phone and dialed Jared again. He heard the phone ringing as he opened the door. Jared’s phone sat on the entry table, hooked to its charger.
He looked around his childhood home. It smelled like vanilla, from the candles his mom liked to burn. She enjoyed decorating. The living room, with its blue walls, rainbow of pillows and comfortable sofa, looked like a fashion plate from a magazine.
Now his once-happy, childhood home set empty and quiet. He’d returned home three weeks ago after finishing his job at the church where he’d worked as Worship Leader all through college. He and Jared planned to move into their own apartment next week. Now he was glad they’d had the extra time with his parents. He went to the recliner and ran his hand over the well-worn leather–Dad’s favorite chair; his mother could never get him to replace it. Marcus sat and wept. His dad’s Bible set on the end table. He flipped the sacred book open to the bookmark. James. It comforted him knowing these were some of the last words his dad had read. His eyes blurred, and fatigue pulled at him. He reclined the chair and slept.
Jared’s laugh woke Marcus, and he adjusted the chair to a sitting position.
“What? You taking Dad’s place tonight?” Jared continued to chuckle.
Marcus stared, surprised Jared didn’t have a million questions. Didn’t he see the crime-scene tape and officers at the church? “Didn’t you see the police next door?”
“No. Stu dropped me off, and I walked from the corner.”
“Jared, you need to sit down.” Marcus’s voice quivered.
Jared frowned and sank to the brightly flowered sofa their mom had loved. Pain settled deeper into Marcus’s heart.
“A shooting occurred at the church tonight. Mom and Dad . . . ” He cleared his throat. “They both went to be with Jesus.”
“Gone? Both of them?” Jared sat up straight and stared, stunned. “But the threats stopped. What happened?”
Marcus relayed the events of the evening, coughing to clear the pain clogging his throat. “Dad told me he wasn’t going to make it. I prayed and hoped he would, but he died on the way to the hospital.”
Jared rubbed a hand over his face and sagged back on the sofa. “Who else? How many more were killed or injured?”
“Maggie has a flesh wound on her left arm. She’ll be fine. Mrs. Simmonds got hit in the leg. It splintered the bone, but she’ll heal. Her husband, Elder Simmonds, is in critical condition; the bullet punctured his lung. It doesn’t look good. Pastor Jerry Percy and his sister, Kathy Odon, didn’t make it.”
Jared leaned over and put his head in his hands and moaned. All of a sudden he jumped up and left the room. He returned with two handguns, thrusting one toward Marcus. “Here, Dad bought this last month. He felt we needed to be able to protect ourselves.”
“It’s a little late for that, isn’t it?” Marcus pounded the chair arm and shook his head.
“For Mom and Dad, yes, but not for us.” Deflated, he dropped onto the couch. “Promise me, Marcus, you’ll keep this with you at all times. There’s more ammo in the desk. I wish we’d set up the security team we talked about months ago. Maybe this wouldn’t have happened.” Anger filled his voice.
Marcus let the comment go. No reason to dredge up the past. They’d discussed a security team many times. Their dad refused to consider it. He felt it’d make people uncomfortable. Taking a deep breath, he reached out and took the weapon. It felt heavy and awkward in his hand. He set the pistol on the end table.
He gripped the arms of the chair and leaned forward. “Jared, Dad wants us to leave. He asked us to gather those in our church and head east to find Pastor Phil. He told me about a room in the basement with supplies to help us. Did you know about it?”
Jared nodded. “We talked about a secret room before they remodeled last summer, but I’ve never been in it. It never came up after I moved back home from Missouri. How do we enter?”
“Dad said we could get to it through the basement.”
“Even as tired as I am, I don’t think I could sleep. Let’s check it out.”
The brothers made their way to the bookshelf. Marcus felt around until he found the lever on the side of the third shelf and gave it a firm pull. The bookshelf moved away from the wall. They pulled it back, finding a doorway behind it. Motion-sensor lights flooded the room.
Floor to ceiling, open shelves, filled with food, clothing, blankets, sleeping bags, guns and ammo, covered the walls.
“I guess they followed through on what they believed. They said times were going get bad, and people should prepare. Looks like they made ready for a long siege.” Jared opened a large, plastic container. “Here are all kinds of vegetable seeds and gardening tools.”
“This looks like a good collection of medications and first aid needs in this area.” Marcus moved to another shelf. “This shelf holds a new sewing machine and table.” He opened a drawer. “Needles, pins, scissors, bobbins and other necessary items are in here. Hmmm . . . These airtight containers have bolts of fabric and thread.”
A freezer stood, squeezed into the corner. Jared went over and lifted the lid. “This is filled to the brim.” He moved things around a bit. “There’s chicken, pork and beef.”
“They’ve been talking about this for years. I didn’t want to believe any of it. I had plans for my life.” How’d the old saying go? If you want to make God laugh, make plans. Marcus ran his fingers across the stubble on his chin and shook his head.
“I didn’t want to believe that this kind of preparation would ever be necessary, either, but they were right.” Jared sank to the floor in the center of the room and dropped his head while the tears began to flow. “I can’t believe they’re gone,” Jared moaned.
Marcus quickly moved to sit beside him. He draped his arm around his brother and shared his sorrow. Life, as they had known it, would never be the same again.
Funeral arrangements consumed the next few days. Calls to and from members of the church brought them comfort. Marcus knew Jared struggled with the decisions they needed to make. Both prayed long hours for direction. But Marcus felt in his gut that Jared would want to stay. Should he insist they leave as his dad had requested? That’s what he wanted to do.
The morning of his parents’ funeral, Marcus found Jared standing next to their coffins. “Jared.” His older brother looked at him, dry-eyed and somber. “You’ve decided to stay, haven’t you?”
“Yes. Dad pastored this church for years. I know we’re a long way from the three thousand people who used to attend. But I can’t leave the remaining couple hundred without a Shepherd.”
Marcus shook his head. “I don’t agree. I think God wants us to leave, like Dad requested. But if you’re staying, I won’t abandon you.”
In the next hours, saying goodbye to his parents took all his strength. Marcus stood, supported by his loving Father God, as people came by offering their love and comfort.
The days passed and Marcus fell into a routine. He checked on church families and widows each morning before heading back to the church. In the afternoons he helped in the food kitchen, serving meals and doing dishes.
“I have mixed feelings about staying here after Dad asked us to leave,” Marcus said, placing the pan he’d washed on the drying rack.
Mrs. Carson, an elderly lady, patted his arm with her dark, wrinkled hand. “I know dear, but Jared’s like your dad. I remember years and years ago when your dad first came to the church. We were a small group, barely making a go of it. Our last pastor left without notice, and we’d been without a Shepherd for six months. Your parents came, and within hours your dad took the mantel of Pastor. He did a fine job all these years.” She brushed a tear from her cheek. “Your brother will do just as well.”
“I know, Mrs. Carson, but that isn’t my concern. Things are going to get worse.”
She clucked her tongue. “I’m afraid so.”
Marcus took the next pan to wash and began to scrub.
“You scrub that pan any harder and you’ll scour the finish right off,” she sighed. “I think I’d be happy to leave if given the choice. But God is our strength. We have to remember that.” She patted his back. “Maybe, down the road, Jared will change his mind.”
Marcus shrugged. “I sure hope so.”
A knock, then silence, and then knock, knock, knock, signaled a member of the church needed entrance. They now traveled, two or more together, and armed themselves. When services ended, they left a few at a time and staggered their meeting times, increasingly reluctant to allow strangers in.
Mrs. Carson went to the door and let four people into the fellowship hall kitchen.
Sarah Carson, a slim, pretty woman in her forties, hugged the older woman. “Hi, Mom.”
“I didn’t expect you until much later. Everything okay?”
“I’m just sad. My friend’s husband left her and the kids. He took all their money. I’m headed in to talk with Pastor Jared about them. I want to see if we can move them here.”
Mrs. Carson clucked her tongue again. “We already have six families. But I’m sure we have room for another.”
Minutes later, Jared came into the kitchen where Marcus still stood washing dishes. “Marcus, there’s a young mother and two kids in Redmond whose husband deserted her. Would you go bring them back to the church?”
Marcus nodded. “Sure.”
“Thanks. Oh, I forgot that we’re having a men’s Bible study and prayer time tonight at seven. Max asked if we could have extra study time, considering everything that’s happening. I liked the idea.” Jared handed Marcus a piece of paper.
Marcus looked at the note. “This is over by Microsoft, right?”
“You go on ahead,” Mrs. Carson said, scooting Marcus out of the way. “I’ll finish this up.”
“I’ll see you at the Bible study–if I get back in time.” Marcus stuffed the paper in his pocket. Nearly an hour later, he found the brick house without effort. He took the steps, two at a time, and knocked on the door.
“Who’s there?” questioned a female voice.
“I’m Marcus Peterson from Southside Community Fellowship. Sarah Carson told our Pastor you needed help. Pastor Jared asked me to come. Can you open the door?”
The door rattled, and the dead bolt clicked back, before the door cracked open, the chain securely restricting the opening. “Do you have anything that proves you’re from the church?”
Marcus thought fast. In his wallet, he carried a picture of his family, taken in front of the church several years ago. “Here.” Marcus handed the picture to the lady through the small opening.
“Okay.” She handed the picture back, before closing the door, removing the chain and then opening the door. “I’m sorry to be so paranoid.”
“No apology necessary.” Marcus entered the tidy, little house to see two children huddled behind their mother. “Hi there, I’m Marcus.”
“This is Corey; he’s four, and Teigen is two. I’m Patricia, but I guess you know that.”
“Nice to meet you.” Marcus smiled, dropping to one knee in front of the children. “I’m glad to meet you too, Corey, Teigan.” After drawing a smile from each of the little ones, Marcus stood. “Jared would like to have you come back to the church with me. We can put you up there. Is that all right with you?”
“I guess there’s not much choice. We can’t stay here. I’ve seen gangs around the neighborhood. It’s only a matter of time before they break in here. I’m afraid for the kids. When Butch left, he took all our money and most of our food.” She mopped at tears leaking from her closed eyes.
Marcus patted her shoulder. “It’s okay. I understand. No need to go into it. Let’s pack up whatever you think you will need.” She nodded and turned toward the bedrooms.
With his heart breaking for the lady and her situation, Marcus followed. Patricia looked to be only a few years older than his twenty-two years. He could never leave his family like this. Any man, who stole all the food and money from his own family, leaving them with nothing, was scum in his book.
He spent several hours helping them pack before moving them across town. As they neared the church, a red glow lit the sky. Marcus’s heart jumped, and he deeply pressed the accelerator, picking up speed.
“That’s a big fire up ahead, Patricia observed. “I can see flames from here.”
Marcus said nothing, as bile rose in his mouth. Fire engines blocked the road. He had to detour around to pull up in front of the parsonage.
“Oh, my Lord, it’s the church!” Patricia’s hand flew to her mouth.
Fire blazed throughout the sanctuary. People stood next to the fellowship hall, gazing in horror at the fire as it ate away at the building. Firemen worked with concentrated efficiency to keep the fire from spreading to the adjoining building.
The second the car stopped, and Marcus handed the house keys to Patricia. “Take the kids to the parsonage and lock yourselves in. I’ll come when I can.” He jumped from the car and ran to the group of people standing around. “Have any of you seen my brother, Pastor Jared?”
Everyone shook their heads. “My daddy went to his Bible study earlier,” a young girl of twelve or thirteen said. “But I haven’t seen him either. I’m worried. You don’t think they’re in there, do you?”
“I certainly hope not, Angie.” He patted the girl on the shoulder and ran inside, searching every room. Please, Lord, not Jared too.
Pots and pans hung from a ceiling rack in the silent and dark kitchen. Those who helped in the kitchen were already gone. Bibles set opened in the study room, and the lights burned brightly—but no Jared.
Marcus’s heart beat hard in his chest as he ran next door. He barely noticed Patricia and her two children huddled in the living room as he raced by. He checked every room of the parsonage before lumbering back to the fellowship hall. Dread filled him.
The firemen fought the blaze as Marcus paced and prayed. “Lord, I can’t bear to lose him too. Please, Lord . . .”
Several hours later the building lay in smoldering ruins. The firemen discovered the bodies of four men in the basement closet. Barricaded from the outside, the room had become a death trap. The minute Marcus got word of the discovery, he knew they’d find Jared among them.
Numbness spread over Marcus, like a smothering blanket. He felt alone. Like a sleepwalker, he made his way to the backyard. Dropping to his knees, he doubled over, groans of pain the only sounds as no words would come.
He quieted himself and then heard the still, small voice, “My beloved child, you’re not alone. I’ll never leave or forsake you.” Marcus acknowledged the voice as he pulled his arms above his head and bent over. Staying long into the night, he poured out his sorrow to Jesus The following days passed in a blur of pain and regret. I should have left, like Dad asked, then Jared would have lived. Over and over, the thought tormented him. Why hadn’t he listened to his dad? Why hadn’t he insisted Jared listen? He should have stood his ground and followed Dad’s request. Because he didn’t, his brother was dead, now leaving him all alone.
A week after Jared’s funeral, Marcus sat in the corner of the empty dining hall, pushing his food around on his plate. He heard footfalls heading his way. He looked up, seeing Harold Spencer, the one remaining deacon, escorting two young men.
“Marcus, these young men asked to speak with you. They are Samuel Holton and Harland Green from Central Baptist Church.”
Several other kitchen workers followed the men in and busied themselves with wiping down the tables and arranging chairs. All seemed unwilling to leave Marcus alone with two strangers.
“Yes, what can I do for you?” With guarded expectation, Marcus eyed the men. They both were in their early twenties, one white and the other black, and both wore t-shirts and jeans. Each of them had affable, yet serious, looks on their faces.
“We heard about your family and wanted to give you our condolences. We both lost family in recent shootings at our church. We thought it might help to talk with others who’ve gone through similar circumstances.”
“I’m not sure what good talking will do.” Marcus put his fork down. “Have you had lunch?”
“No.” Sam, the tall, pale-skinned man, held his gaze.
“Go, fill a plate and take a seat.”
Harland nodded, and they turned to the food line.
Marcus signaled his protectors they could leave. Turning, the ladies went back to their work in the kitchen , while Harold began mopping the floor, keeping a close eye on the strangers.
“You have quite the selection of fruits and vegetables.” Sam placed his tray on the table and sat down.
“Yes, we’re fortunate to have people who grow large gardens and bring their extras to share with us. It’s only early July. The production will increase as the weather grows nicer. That will help even more.” Not to mention the food I bring over from the stash at home. But then, no one knows where I get it, so why tell these guys?
The newcomers bowed their heads in silent prayer before picking up their forks, the quiet swish of the mop the only sound as they ate their fill.
Marcus spoke. “So, how’d you lose your families?”
Sam pushed aside his empty plate. “Did you hear about the drive-by shooting a few weeks ago at Baptist Central south of here?”
“Nine people died that day, including my dad and both of Harland’s parents.”
“I’m sorry. No one should go through that.” Marcus’s heart ached for them. He wiped his hands on his pant legs.
“You’re right,” Harland spoke for the first time. “But we had each other and Sam’s family as support. We heard from a member in our church that your parents were killed last week and your brother a few days ago. We figured you needed us.”
Marcus studied each of the men seated across from him. The sincere look in their eyes spoke to his heart. Maybe they’re right. “Nothing in my entire life has been harder than burying my family and walking in my dad’s shoes these last few days. I have people looking to me for direction, and I feel empty. When I pray, my prayers seem to drop like lead, instead of rising to heaven.”
“We both know how that feels, but it’ll get better. Jesus will never leave or forsake us,” Sam said with conviction as Harland nodded. “You’ve got to hold on to that.”
“I know in my heart but . . .” Marcus played with his fork. When you have a ten-ton weight pressing down on your heart, it’s hard to hold onto that truth.
“It will get better,” Sam repeated. “Our Senior Pastor, Steve Ford, wasn’t killed, though his injuries are serious. Harland’s dad served as the Associate Pastor. He’d be the one to take charge, but since he died, we’ve stepped up to fill the gap. Until Pastor recovers, we’re his hands and feet. ”
“Here, we’ve lost two Pastors, a deacon and an elder. Right after the shootings, our other Associate Pastor and two of our elders moved, taking their families away from the city. Our church used to have a membership of around three thousand. Now, one hundred fifty are left. Most of those either have no place to go or don’t have the resources to relocate.” Marcus braced his arms on the table and leaned forward.
“Those who work here in the food kitchen moved into several rooms upstairs or next door with me, to provide safety in numbers. Though I’m not sure there’s safety for any of us anymore.”
“Two of our families lost their homes to arson fires in the last two weeks. We set up beds for them at our church also,” Sam shared.
Marcus sat back and ran a hand through his hair. “I’ve always known there’s evil in the world, but it was always out there.” He frowned and swallowed hard. Don’t cry; you’ve cried more in the last week than you have your whole life.
“I had a great childhood. I never worried about anything. My parents always pulled me back when I got out of line. They talked about Jesus every day, never pushing, but teaching by example. I was blessed to have them.” Marcus swiped at the tears that leaked from his eyes despite his resolve. “I’ve had a pretty sheltered life, except for my college days, of course. Nothing prepared me for this.” He rubbed a hand over his face.
“I’m afraid that’s the case for most of us who had the privilege and blessing of being raised in the church,” Harland offered.
Marcus cocked his head to the side. “You’re right. It’s one of my greatest blessings.”
“Both our churches are in rural areas. It’s surprising they became targets when there are so many churches in more populated areas.” Harland stretched out his tall frame.
“My dad called an interfaith meeting when the media blamed Christians of being intolerant. I think that could’ve placed a bull’s eye on our church.”
“How’s that?” Sam asked.
“Dad stressed our rights come from God and God alone, not government. He reminded the people the United States are meant to be a group of sovereign states. The forefathers wanted our country to be a place where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are personal responsibilities, not something the government can give or guarantee us. He went on to encourage the Christian community to unify and stop squabbling. I’m sure, if word got back to the right people, they wouldn’t be happy.”
“Dad attended that conference.” Harland scratched his head. “He agreed the Christian community has to let go of the unimportant minor differences and traditions that divide us. We must focus on working together for God’s Kingdom and the salvation of the lost.” He took a drink of water. “His favorite part came when your dad said God created all men equal, regardless of color. It impressed him when your dad said God loves all people and doesn’t look at race, and we shouldn’t either.”
The corners of Marcus’s lips turned up just a bit. “I guess our parents were on the same page.”
“I am convinced all true Believers are,” Harland commented. “From my earliest memories, my parents taught me prejudice is from the devil. It’s meant to divide people. God chose the family each person is born into and the color of our skin, which is only skin deep. We’re all made in His image.”
“It never bothered me to have a black brother.” Sam smiled.
Marcus grinned. We really are brothers. If they didn’t have different skin color and their features weren’t so different, he’d think they were from the same family. His grin faded. “Anyway, that’s the least of our problems now.”
“Isn’t that the truth,” Sam noted. “All you have to do is look at the riots, and you see we’ve gone downhill. It won’t take much for everything to crumble.”
“Many are in dire straits.” Harland thumped his fork in the palm of his hand. “Unemployment is at an all-time high, with more people being laid off every day.”
“Small towns and rural areas will fare better than the cities. Farmers have the equipment and space to grow the food. But the cities won’t be so lucky.” Marcus shook his head, shaking off his dark thoughts. Nothing we can fix talking about it. “So, tell me your stories.”
“I had a great dad. He served as an elder at our church and worked in middle management for a big corporation in the Human Resources Department. He liked his job, enjoyed life.” Sam cleared his throat. “I still have my mom, an older brother, David, and a younger sister, Becky. I know I’m blessed to have them, but I miss my dad.”
Harland filled in the silence following Sam’s comments. “Sam and I met in our nursery class at church when we were little. We’ve grown up together. He’s the brother I never had. People at our church used to call us the salt and pepper twins. Our birthdays are both in May, a week apart. I know all his secrets.” He grinned.
Sam smiled, punching Harland lightly in the arm. “I think he knows too much, but I know all his secrets too. He rats on me, I rat on him.” They laughed together breaking the sadness and tension. “When we got into trouble, we got equal shares.”
Harland smiled, showing straight white teeth. “I’m an only child. Mom couldn’t have more children. Sam became their second son, since we were always together. I think our antics convinced my parents not to adopt.”
“When our dads and Harland’s mom were shot, I lost two fathers and my second mom.” A slight tremor in Sam’s voice testified to the raw feelings he carried.
Harland nodded. “At least we have his mom. She arranged all the funerals. I don’t know what I would’ve done without her.” He fiddled with his napkin. “It hurts, knowing they won’t be at any important events in the future. They loved Charlene. She’s my fiancée. They were excited for us when we got engaged. They threw us a surprise party.” He grinned.
“Keeping the party a secret proved almost impossible. You kept asking all those ridiculous questions. Why do I have to get dressed up for a church meeting? Didn’t they cancel the evening service this week . . . and on and on . . .” Sam laughed.
“I’m glad I have so many good memories. My parents were a great blessing.” Harland turned serious as the napkins ripped in half. “As happy as I am to marry Charlene, there’ll be a big hole in my day without them.”
Marcus could feel their pain; it amplified his own. He seized the opportunity to change the subject. “When are you getting married?”
Harland’s smile grew, spreading from ear to ear. “The wedding’s on Friday. Charlene Dixon’s been my sweetheart since grade school. Originally, we scheduled it for next June when I graduate seminary, but her papa died the same night as my parents. That changed everything. Her mama passed away in an auto accident last fall. Charlene has a younger brother, Jerome. They need me, and I need them, so we’re getting married now.”
“I can understand that,” Marcus nodded. “When did you decide to be a pastor?” He steepled his hands against his lips and leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table.
“I felt the call of God when I was ten. Sam listened when I practiced my preaching as a teenager and we had long theological conversations about Jesus. Neither of us remembers a time we didn’t know the Lord. He’s always been in our lives.”
“That’s true! ” They exchanged grins.
I’ve missed this kind of camaraderie. Thank You, Lord, for sending these guys.
“Exactly,” Sam smiled.
Harland leaned forward. “I’ve been filling in for Pastor Steve, ministering to those who are left. As anti-Christian campaigns increase, people are scared and have gone into hiding.”
“I’ve heard several families in the east have been hauled away. No one’s heard from them again. It’s getting scary,” Marcus added.
“It’s not a good idea to volunteer you’re a Christian these days. The drive-by shootings and fires aren’t just here. They’re happening all over the country,” Sam chimed in.
The three were quiet again. “Marcus.” The call came from the kitchen.
Marcus turned toward the voice. Margaret motioned him. “Please, excuse me a moment.” Marcus went to see what she needed.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, but our cleanup crew is shorthanded. Would you mind helping today?” Margaret scrubbed a pan.
“No problem. I’ll just say good bye and be right back.”
Marcus returned to his guests. “I appreciate your visit, but the people who usually help wash dishes after lunch had to leave today, so the duty falls to me.”
“We don’t mind helping.” Sam exchanged nods with Harland.
“Hey, I won’t turn down help of any kind. But you might change your minds when you see how many dishes there are.” Marcus waved the dishrag he held.
Harland stood to his feet. “I don’t think washing a few dishes will hurt us.”
“Okay, don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Marcus smiled and led the way to the kitchen.
Marcus washed and rinsed while Sam and Harland set the dishes, pots and pans on the drying racks. As they worked, the men chatted about basketball, school and their childhoods, filling in the gaps and forming a new friendship. They chose to keep the conversation light and avoid the heavier subjects.
After the dishes were washed and floors scrubbed, Marcus led the way to the dining hall with a cup of coffee; his companions followed with cups of their own. As they settled at one of the dining tables, Marcus brought up what’d been on his mind for the past hour.
“When my dad was dying, he told me to leave. He wanted me to gather as many people, mainly kids, and go east. Apparently, a man named Pastor Phil knows of a sanctuary over there somewhere. I’ve never met him, but Dad said Pastor Phil would take us to it. It’s a ranch built a few years ago as a refuge for believers. I’m thinking about going east.”
“Don’t you think that’s a bit extreme? I mean, except for the drive-bys and the arson fires, things are relatively normal.” Sam leaned forward resting his elbows on the table.
“For how long?” Marcus gazed directly at the two men.
“People have been prepping for years. There are even shows on TV about it. My parents talked about places of safety Believers have built around the country in recent years,” Harland stated, scratching his head. “They said God’s been warning His people for some time to get ready for difficult times ahead.”
“I’m leaving,” a voice rang out from the kitchen. “Please, thank your friends for helping. I’ll lock up on my way out. See you tomorrow.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Henderson. See you later.” Marcus turned his attention back to Sam and Harland. “I’d like you to consider leaving with us. There’s safety in numbers.”
The two visitors exchanged looks. “We’ll think about it and talk with our families,” assured Sam.
“That’ll have to do.”
The men rose and headed toward the door. “Marcus, I’d like you to come to my home for the Fourth of July,” Sam invited.
“I’m not sure I’d be very good company.”
“Coming will give you a change of scenery and some normalcy,” Harland added.
Marcus pulled on his ear lobe. He’s right. “Sure, I’ll come.”
Sam pulled a paper out of his wallet and handed it to Marcus. “This has our addresses on it. The directions to my house are on the other side.”
“You came prepared.” Marcus looked at the paper before shoving it into his pocket. “Can I bring something?”
“No. Just yourself.” Sam reached to open the doors.
“Wait.” Marcus looked through the window, checking the parking area and surrounding street. “All clear.” He opened the door and walked out, locking it behind them. “Please, think seriously about leaving. I don’t know how much time we have left, but I don’t believe it’s much.”
“We will,” Sam stated, leaning against the car. “We can discuss it more when we see you day after tomorrow.”
Marcus nodded. “Thanks for coming. God knew I needed you guys, even though I didn’t. I appreciate this more than you know.”
“We’re but simple servants of God.” Harland bowed from the waist. Straightening, he smiled, “See you the fourth.”