It took Jerry 67 minutes exactly to drive the six miles between First Presbyterian Church and home. Sleet varnished roads and houses, the north wind tossed trees and powerlines, and the air filled with tinkling sounds of fracturing ice. Jerry passed three cars in ditches and none on the road save for Charlie’s tow truck. Even it didn’t look too surefooted.
The timing of this elders’ meeting could not have been worse. He should have called it off, but they’d been delaying their decision about the widow Petersen’s fire-damaged house for months now. The poor woman lost everything. Broke his heart to think about it. The husband returns to dust, then a couple weeks later, so does everything he left behind.
They agreed on a bake sale to raise the rest of the funds to repair the home. Afterwards, Jerry slipped a couple Franklins into the pot to keep the other elders’ Jacksons and Hamiltons company. He wrapped them in a Lincoln so no one would feel bad about their own generosity.
Pulling into the drive of his home, Jerry saw Meghan’s face appear from behind the curtained window. Her wide eyes spoke worry, and the tension added a decade to her 39 years. Even the way she let the drapes fall back into place felt anxious to him.
He took a breath and stepped out of the car. Ice crystals poured out of the sky and stung his face with needles of cold, as if to drive home the misery. Meghan flung upon the door and stood there, arms wrapped around herself, trying to keep all the pieces together.
“She’s worse,” she said, and the steam from her breath fell to the ground in the cold.
Jerry took three steps toward the ranch house before stamping his feet at the threshold. “How so,” he replied.
“One-oh-six,” his wife said. “I put her in a cold bath, but it did nothing.”
From across the room, his cousin Cecilia yelled through a cloud of Kool smoke, “What you be doin’ out when your daughter’s sick like that, Jer?” A doughy man next to her adjusted his Case International cap and nodded—T.J., the common-law husband.
Jerry said nothing.
Three people stood in the hall leading to Emma’s room. The one with the hollow face of an Egyptian mummy was his brother-in-law, Clint, who typically said nothing and who chose to stay typical as Jerry pushed past him—only to run into Barbara, all 340 Little Debbie pounds of her.
“What kind of father are you?” she said with tears in her eyes. “You shoulda got her to Bozeman yesterday. Now what?”
Jerry thought to come back with an explanation that neither he nor Meghan thought much of the fever then. Emma came home from school shagged out after cheerleading practice at the middle school. A regular thing. He didn’t have a Magic 8-Ball he consulted in times like these. How could he have known his only child’s fever would leave her teetering between life and death.
The third face in the hall was his neighbor, Sandi, pastor over at the Church of Christ across the street from First Presby. She stood all of five foot nothing and Jerry almost missed her behind Barbara. Sandi said three words no one wanted to hear: “I’m so sorry.”
Dear God, Jerry thought, was his little girl gone?
He sprinted now, only to hold up on entering the room. Ken from one street over, the man who delivered him in this same house 41 years ago, hovered over a small, ashen form that lay still, Meghan’s handmade quilt twisted tightly around her, the fabric stirring only with shallow breaths.
On seeing his daughter that way, Jerry swallowed hard and shut his eyes tight to hold in the tears. The next voice he heard was not Ken’s.
“We can’t get a life flight in here.”
Lars, the town’s sheriff.
“Heaven knows I’ve tried,” the lanky officer continued. “It’s the sleet, you know. Copters can’t fly in it. We might try Charlie, but by truck it would take a day to get to Bozeman in these conditions.”
Jerry stared at the doctor, but Ken just shook his gray head. Then, he felt a small hand on his back. Meghan slid around him and began to sob. “What are we going to do?”
He looked from his wife’s wet face and caught the eyes of the others. Each face held the same question. Each looked to him for an answer.
At this, Jerry scanned the room, let his eyes dwell for a minute on the child he would die for, and made a decision. He backed away and pushed through group, breathing hard, trying to the clear the stench of mildew and ashes from his nose. That smell he’d encountered before at the bedsides of the elderly moments before they pierced the veil. That vile smell, come to rest in his daughter’s bedroom.
“Hon,” Meghan called after him, “where are you going? Stay with me. I need you.”
“There goes the hero,” Cecilia said from her chair, “off to save somebody else. Can’t save his own child for the life of him, though.”
Jerry didn’t look back. He already knew T.J. was nodding in agreement.
Outside, the sleet beat on his face, only it it seemed colder now and filled with venom. And though he swore he’d been inside for less than five minutes, Jerry paused before the car, horrified to see a quarter inch of ice obscuring the windshield.
He’d have to run.
It was a dozen blocks to the house, the one that realtor Barbara sold a few weeks ago. The men who lived there showed up in church one morning and Jerry swore he’d never heard more gossip about a group like that in his life. Everyone at First Presbyterian had an opinion. Jerry knew because he’d heard every one. Nothing good in any of it, either. At home, after the service, he thought he might have to soap out his ears.
But he couldn’t get the man who identified himself as Josh out of his mind. It wasn’t that Josh was all that much to look at. In fact, Jerry swore the man might have come from a Hollywood casting director’s cattle call for “Man #3” in some imaginary motion picture. Still, that Sunday Jerry couldn’t take his eyes off Josh. It seemed to him that this nondescript, 30-ish stranger knew a wonderful secret, and Jerry could almost see it on his face.
So he ran. He hurled himself through the yards between him and that tired house down by the old Northern line. He stumbled and pulled himself up each time because Emma needed him to do this. Because there was no other answer.
The lights in the place burned low. Jerry prayed that someone would answer. He had no other plan. This had to work.
He took the step leading up the porch wrong and felt his ankle go funny. He bit the side of his mouth and salt leached over his tongue. Grabbing for the railing, he pulled himself up and nearly fell into the door with his knocking.
And that face showed through the hoarfrost on the storm door. The face of the man who was his only hope.
At that moment, a warm wash of tears flow down Jerry’s cheeks and cooled on his chin.
“Listen,” he said through the storm door window, “I know you don’t know me well—”
The door opened wide and Josh stepped aside. “Come in,” he said. “Tell me how I can help.”
With those words, something in Jerry’s chest felt warm, as if something deep in him knew everything was going to work out, that he’d made the right decision. Jerry could almost see his Emma dancing in the school’s ballet program a week from today.
“My girl,” he spat before a different kind of tear flowed, “she’s awfully sick. And I know this is a lot to ask, but could you come and pray for her? I know that if you come and pray for her, she’ll be fine. I don’t know how I know that, but I do.”
Jerry hesitated to say anything more for fear that too many words might spoil the plea. He stared down into the man’s eyes, only to see Josh look away.
No, he thought. Would his only hope turn him away?
The smaller man motioned to three others in the room. The quartet gathered their coats. The tallest one, a dark man Jerry thought might be an Arab, said, “We don’t have a car. Did you drive?”
Jerry shook his head.
To this the four others nodded and drew their hoods around them tighter before plunging into the ice outdoors.
While Jerry ran, each foot crunching through the ice-coated grass, the others lagged. How could they, the church elder thought. But then the warmth in his chest flared and he caught himself slowing to draw alongside them.
The five walked ten minutes in silence. For that reason, they heard the sobbing coming from Jerry and Meghan’s place clearly.
That warmth that a moment ago buoyed his hopes turned chill in Jerry’s chest. Now he lagged. Now he was the one who could not keep up.
But he prayed—hard. Big prayers. Prayers that he knew rose up to heaven like incense, like the scent of the pines at Stone Lake Camp where he, Meghan, and Emma spent those wonderful fall days amid the fluorescent yellow of maples and aspen. He could feel the blaze of the hearth, and the thought of it warmed him.
He looked toward the door of his home, heard the crying inside, and sought refuge in the face of a man he barely knew. And that young man’s countenance told of every happy ending in every book Jerry had read at his daughter’s bedtime.
A breath later, the five entered the house.
“Them?” Cecilia said. “These bozos are your answer? Well, way to go, hero, because Emma’s dead.”
But Jerry did not feel the cold in the words. That smell of death and disorder was not in his nose. Even when Meghan buried her face in his chest and wet it with her tears, he only felt the warmth. He looked to Josh, and knew then the warmth came from the stranger who now seemed more like a friend he’d known from forever ago.
The faces of family and neighbors—Jerry could see their anger burn. He could hear their anguish. He walked to his daughter’s room and touched her dead face, then kissed it once. Josh put a hand on the taller man’s shoulder and said to the others, “You all act as if she’s passed on; she’s only sleeping.”
“‘Only sleeping,’ repeated Clint, the silent one. “You idiot, she’s dead! Can’t you tell dead when you see it?”
Jerry could hear Cecilia’s cackle join with her husband’s. Clint chuckled along with them. Even Sandi was smiling. Off to the side, Jerry caught Lars rolling his eyes. Ken scratched his head and went back to filling out an official-looking document.
Then Jerry saw something break on Josh’s face. The man’s eyes narrowed and he shot one finger out of the girl’s room.
“You all need to leave,” he said in a low, flat voice. “All of you, except the mother.” With his other hand, he pulled Meghan toward him and placed her at her husband’s side.”
“Jerry,” Clint said. “Seriously, dude, c’mon.” He stood there with his palms out and a grin on his thin lips.
“Do as the man says,” Jerry said. “Now.”
The sound of muttering. Nasty words that family should never speak, even when alone. But Jerry didn’t care. Not now.
And when the house was empty save for a tired church elder and his wife, and four men huddled around a dead little girl’s bedside, something incredible happened that the town still talks of today. Something most would never think possible. Something found only in the hearts and minds of six people who knew a wonderful secret.
It sounds different in a modern setting, doesn’t it? Yet a couple realities still hold true: some laugh and some have faith.
And when [Jesus] had entered, he said to them, “Why are you making a commotion and weeping? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. But he put them all outside and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him and went in where the child was.
God help us if we claim to have faith but are laughing on the inside. If we look deep into our own hearts, I believe more of us might find ourselves among the scoffers than the faithful. Tragically, there’s only one place for faithless people like that. And those on the outside are never permitted to witness the miracles, never allowed to taint the work of God with their unbelief. Explains a lot, doesn’t it?
It’s time to believe, folks, because we’re going to need a lot of miracles soon enough.