I shifted uncomfortably in the white leather office chair as the bright light overhead made me squint. I’d never been called to my bosses’ office before, and I knew it was not a good sign. I looked around at the imposing desk – a large maple wood antique desk that looked like it had been around since the beginning of time. There were pictures of the boss and his son – a fisherman who many looked up to and every now and then even tried to emulate.
The bossman had two distinct personalities – he could be kind or vengeful. It depended on the day, but lately, many felt that he had gotten softer over the years, not in a bad way but in a more relatable way. I hoped that he was feeling charitable, but screw-ups like mine did not go down easy in an organization like this. It would mean my job or worse. The clock clicked slowly, and still, the boss did not appear. The light continued beating down on me. Waiting is always the worst part. It seemed that with each second that passed, so did the last sands of my redemption.
“God dammit, when is he going to get here?” I uttered under my breath.
“I’m here,” said a deep baritone. I startled in my chair and looked across to the desk to my boss G. He was an older man, dressed in a cream-colored suit. His green eyes looked stern and gentle at the same time. His beard looked perfectly groomed, and his hands were well manicured. They started to strum as G looked at me intently. I wanted to break the silence – wanted to apologize like hell for my mistake, but some things are not easily rectified and certainly not with a simple “I’m sorry.” The boss was the authority on forgiveness and second chances. I sat there, hoping he could see my willingness to make it right. I made eye contact briefly and then looked to the floor in deference to my mentor.
The silence continued until the door opened, and Pete entered. Pete was G’s, righthand man. He trusted him implicitly. Pete was older – no as old as G, but this guy had seen a lot and helped develop the organization. His stock of gray hair seemed to be thinning, and his eyes looked wherry. He always had a lot of paper in his hand and frequently looked harried. When he entered – I tried to apologize. Pete shot a sharp glance at me.
“Don’t say a word – don’t say a fucking word!” he shouted as he put the papers on G’s desk. “The numbers are worse than we thought, and I have no fucking idea how we’re going to minimize the damage.” G sighed and looked at me. My heart started to beat faster as I looked down, not able to meet anyone’s gaze.
“How did this happen?” G asked calmly. I looked up and started to shake – it was not a dream. This mistake was serious enough to make it to the top of G’s To-Do list.
“I got distracted,” I mumbled. It was the truth, but it was so insufficient.
“You got distracted? You got distracted? What the fuck does that mean?” Pete got in my face. A little bit of spit started to froth in the corner of his mouth, and he reminded me of a rabid dog. It started to make me laugh, but then I caught myself and bit my lip. I thought about the distraction – the woman – her face, her lips, her smooth, soft body, and her laugh, the pure perfection that is the female form. It threw me off my game, and shit happened that I couldn’t undo, but maybe G, in his infinite wisdom, could.
“I’ve got this, Pete, you can go,” said G wearily.
“Okay, just remember what he did…what it means to all of us before you pass sentence,” Pete said as he left and slammed the door.
“Hey, G –I’m so sorry. I can’t tell you how big the knot is in my chest. I feel like shit. I just want to make this right,” I begged. G’s eyes narrowed, but he realized that I was sincere.
“Okay, Em, I get that you feel bad; hell, we all do. Mistakes can happen, but you took your eyes off the prize, and he..”
“He died,” I said quietly. I’ve never known the sensation of tears, but right now, they were close and started to sting. “But you…you can change this…you can make it right, and I swear to you that I’ll never be distracted again,” I pleaded. G considered my offer. He said nothing and turned to the screen at the end of the room and hit the play button.
The picture was pitch dark. Then a small light broke through, then more lights seemed to move around randomly against a rough cavernous wall. The lights were crude and sat on top of hard hats. The faces of the men under the hats were smeared with coal dust. They were coming out of the depths of their jobs back to the real world; the world where they would no longer be invisible.
My guy – Keith covered his eyes as he came into the light, but he was happy to
see Gloria was waiting for him. He kissed her passionately, and she reciprocated in-kind. Her face was pale and classically beautiful even though his kisses smudged it with coal dust. She didn’t care. Keith was the one person who loved her just for her. There were no conditions – no power-brokering between fathers to see who would use their children’s marriages to consolidate and elevate their status into the pissing circle that was Macon’s high society in 1946.
Working in the mine gave Keith a very muscular physique, which made him stand out from the other men that moved in Gloria’s social circle. Her girlfriends envied her even if they made fun of his profession behind her back. He didn’t even hate the job, which was rare in the mining industry. It paid well and was only slightly dangerous. But Keith knew what he was doing; he knew his way around a mine. He was a foreman, and his guys trusted him.
He climbed into Gloria’s blue and white Corvette convertible and turned on the radio to Elvis’ “Love Me Tender.” It was the perfect ending to a less than perfect day, but it instantly became better because this man was with the woman, he loved. It should have been that simple - but life is never that simple.
That night Keith and Gloria went to the local soda shop and ordered the usual, two cheeseburgers, onion rings, and strawberry malts. Just as their waitress had delivered their dinner, Bucky Brooks walked up and started in.
“Gloria – for God’s sake, when are you going to get this walk on the wild side out of your system. You can’t be serious?”
Bucky’s family was the closest thing Macon had to the blue bloods and had been members of the Chamber of Commerce since before the Civil War. His family owned the mine, but other than showing off the rocks that his father’s employees had risked their lives to get, he was rarely there or had any interest in the family business. He’d always had a thing for Gloria, who rejected him every chance she got. Now she marveled at his arrogance, somehow thinking that it would prevent Keith from cold-cocking him into next week because his family was well established.
Keith ignored him and started to dig into his cheeseburger. This piss ant was no threat, and to even dignify him with an answer would give him too much legitimacy.
“Bucky, just leave. You’re not welcome here,” Gloria said as she sat closer to Keith in their favorite booth. Bucky started to get into Keith’s face but noticed that some of the diners, who were also coal miners surrounding him, ready to pounce if the need be. Rich outsiders did not belong; Bucky was on their turf now. Keith raised his hand to tell them to back off.
“Now why don’t you go back to Daddy and Mummy at the club and leave us alone,” Keith said, not looking directly at him. Bucky realized that he was outnumbered and started out of the diner. He got into his Roadster and sped away as the other diners looked on. Gloria squeezed Keith’s hand.
“I’d give anything to just get out of this town, to go up north. There are plenty of mining jobs away from here. I know we could be happy,” she said. Keith smiled he was not sure what he had done to deserve such a beautiful and smart woman. He felt blessed every day they were together. He gave her a kiss and said, “I’m working in it.”
G pointed to the screen and saw me in the corner of the diner. I was dressed in a pullover with a pair of jeans, watching my charge. I lit a Marlboro and took a drag. This was a habit that I knew was bad, but it instantly helped me blend in. I kept an eye on Keith and Gloria, making sure they stayed out of harm’s way. A waitress came over and poured me another cup of coffee and offered a piece of cherry pie. Her face was pretty, angular in a Rita Hayworth sort of way with wavy raven hair and full red lips. She leaned over ever so slightly so that I could see her breasts struggling to stay inside her tight waitressing uniform. An instantaneous wave of desire started to rush over me. I had always been so focused on my job that a woman like her rarely landed on my radar, but this one seemed to have honed in on me and was making her intentions obvious.
“Can I get you more sugar, Sugar?” she asked in a silky southern drawl that had me flushed and flustered.
“Um, sure – thanks.” I mumbled, not sure how to react.
She leaned in and whispered in my ear, “You can have a taste of my pie anytime you want sugar, just give me a call.” She slipped a piece of paper into my hand and stroked my palm as she walked away. I opened it and found a phone number with the name “Lily” next to it. I felt my pants getting tighter and had to catch my breath. I looked over at Keith and Gloria, who were paying their check and getting up to leave.
“Shit!” I said, realizing I could not leave in my current condition without attracting some real attention. “Okay, think of golf, baseball, world hunger… yeah, world hunger, that’s a good one,” I said as the blood started to return to my brain and away from my groin. I put down a 10 spot, which paid for my food and a generous tip as I rushed out and saw them speed away. I got in my car and followed them, keeping a few car lengths behind to avoid being spotted. They got back to his place safely and settled in for the night. All seemed well, so I went to the apartment I was renting just down the street.
I opened the door, threw my keys on the counter – grabbed a beer, and turned on the TV. The Philco Radio Time with Bing Crosby was on. I let it play in the background while still trying to get Lily out of my mind. Her face, hands, and body…I could not settle down until I saw her again. I started to pace as my heart beat faster. I picked up the phone four or five times before I finally had the balls to call her. Each ring told me this was a bad idea, but I didn’t seem to care. I could not control myself. I was obsessed and felt like I had to get it out of my system if I could function for work. Besides, what could it hurt? I never worked outside the rules even though I know my co-workers did, plenty of times.
“Hello,” she answered in her slow southern drawl. “Sugar, is that you? I was hoping you’d call.”
“Yes…yes…it’s me,” I answered slowly.
“Look darling, I live pretty close to the diner; if you would like to come over, I’ll make some coffee,” she said. “I live at 4466 Elm – I’m looking forward to seeing you.”
I hung up, jumped in my car, and flew over there. She answered the door wearing a corset and fishnet stockings while licking a spoon with whipped cream.
“I hope you enjoy my pie,” she said in a whisper. I started kissing her with reckless abandon. She grabbed my belt and started to unfasten my pants. It was all happening so fast it seemed unreal, and yet there we were, practical strangers, pulling off our clothes and naked before we knew it. Her soft white skin felt like warm silk next to mine. My head was swimming as we touched. I had been thirsty all my life, and now I knew what it was like to drink the miraculous water of this mirage.
I carried her into the bedroom, and our lovemaking caused her to moan with ecstasy. I loved the music of this unfamiliar sound. Every ounce of me was consumed by this woman. She bit softly at my ear and then let her nails scratch my back to the point that it drew blood, but I didn’t care. We had sex six times that night. Truth be told, I had never had sex before, never really felt like needed it until I met her. After the final tryst, we collapsed, exhausted and sweaty, onto her bed. We held each other as the ceiling fan circled above, attempting to cool us down. I remembered her getting up to get some water as my eyes closed once more, thinking this perfect night was probably a dream.
I awoke the next morning to the sound of warning bells. It was 10:00 in the morning. I jumped up, disoriented, realizing I was still at Lily’s house, which was just a mile from the mine. The alarms continued to blare.
“Shit – its morning – Keith – shit!!” I yelled, realizing that I had let my charge go unguarded. I looked around for Lily, hoping to say a quick good-bye, but she was gone. I pulled my clothes on and jumped in my car. “Please don’t let anything bad happen to Keith or any of his men – please!” I prayed. When I got there – there were police cars and ambulances. “What happened?” I asked a cop as he ran by.
“An explosion – some type of cave-in – there are miners trapped down there,” he
replied, not slowing down.
I looked around at the men who had gotten out. They were standing there looking shell shocked, their faces caked with soot, sweat, and blood. I didn’t see Keith with them.
“Hey, where is Keith?” I asked in a panic.
“He’s still down there, trying to get more guys out. We were all trapped; that brave son of a bitch moved a boulder and got us out. He went back for his last two men,” said a man who looked like he had been to hell and back.
Shit, if I hadn’t been screwing around, this wouldn’t have happened. I slipped past the cop that was guarding the entrance and started down the mine myself. I grabbed one of the hats with a light that had been left behind by a panicked miner.
I berated myself as I walked toward the explosion. The cave smelled metallic with traces of gunpowder. It was dark and dank even with the smoke from the explosion wafting about. I should have been there when he got up; I should have been with him period. Why did I let my guard down? Goddammit, a piece of ass was not worth the feeling of doom that hit the pit of my stomach. My light caught a man pulling another man up from the edge of the mine. It was Bucky Brooks that piss-ant was actually redeeming himself.
“This mine is about to cave in, get the fuck out of here!” He yelled as the second man climbed out. He put the other man over his shoulder and ran towards the shift of light, which was his ticket to safety. The one man was able to climb up, the other was unconscious and was put onto a makeshift gurney. “Go, save yourselves, I’ll get Keith,” Bucky implored. The men nodded, took the injured, and headed to the light.
Keith started to come up the edge and put his hand out for Bucky to grab.
“Hey Keith, sorry, man, but right now – I’m a hero. I’ve helped save those last two guys, but the mine looks like the shaft is about to give way,” he said, looking around but not looking as scared as a man who might also be caught in a cave-in might be. “You see, I’ve been around these caves all my life with my Grandpa. I never forgot all the lessons he taught me about explosives, cave-ins.”
The air got cooler like something bad was about to happen. I hurried to the end of the shaft to get to Keith.
“I know you’ve felt very lucky to have Gloria by your side, but it looks like your luck has just run out, my friend,” he said as he let go of the safety line.
My hand tried to catch it before it slipped away, but I was too late. The last thing I saw was Keith’s terrified face fall back into the dark abyss. I tried to jump in and save him. He hit bottom with a thud while I was just a second away from breaking his fall.
Then at once, I saw Lilly. She was not in her usual waitress outfit but clad in black. “What are you doing here?” I asked and ran over to Keith, praying he was still alive. “Can you help him – please?!” I begged as I got down on my knees to try to resuscitate him. Lilith smiled and opened what looked like a dark steel door.
Countless spirits and demons jumped out, flying past me, unholy screeching hitting my ears. I tried to catch them and put them back, but there were too many. I shoved Lilly aside and closed the door. Suddenly, the parade of entities came to an instant halt. But the ones that had just gotten free were gone in an instant. I saw Keith’s soul pull out of his lifeless body.
“Keith, I’m so sorry…this was not supposed to happen…you’re a good man.” Keith looked sad and shocked. At least he would be going to heaven – that was my only consolation.
“But Gloria – she’s…” he stopped speaking because the shock was too great.
A white light started to surround him. A golden iridescent light started to take the shape of a door. Keith was drawn to it and started to walk through. Lilly held up her hands, and the doorway shut before Keith could go through.
“You did this – you tricked me- you bitch!” Any feelings of lust now turned into a white-hot rage.
smiled, unfolded a pair of black wings and faded out. The golden doorway closed with a loud clink and faded away.
I stood there, dazed. Not only was Keith dead, but his chance for everlasting peace had just closed to protect heaven from the ungodly mess I had made of everything. I could hear the sounds above ground of more rescuers and the voice of Bucky saying he had tried to save Keith, but the rope gave way, and he fell back. There was a scream from Gloria followed by sobs. I looked at Keith and started to step back. I closed my eyes, and when they opened, I was back in G’s office.
“G, you have to believe me, I didn’t intend for any of this to happen. I want to make it right for Keith, for everyone,” I begged, trying to hold back my tears. G took a long hard look at me before he started talking.
“No one ever intends for these things to happen. But they do out of arrogance or carelessness, and then the prayers start to roll in. It’s amazing how devout someone can become when they are in dire straits if only that devotion had been there before they got themselves into trouble.”
“I understand you being angry at me. I get that. I let you down, but Keith. He was a good man,” I said, hoping to plead my case.
“He was a good man, a very good man,” said G wistfully. “Em – do you have any idea who that woman was? The woman you had sex with?” His eyes looked deep into my soul, and I could tell he didn’t like what he saw. “Her real name is Lilith, have you heard that name before?”
“She was supposedly Adam’s first wife,” I replied and wondered why we were getting into a religious/philosophical discussion, especially one that was outside of most biblical texts.
“As you know, the balance between them and us can be very tenuous; one small slip up and can move the scale in their favor and it can never be in their favor. Lilith was sent to deliberately distract you so she could open one of the gates of hell to let those spirits out into the world. As you saw, they could not be contained very easily, and now they are out in the world. It’s snagged the fabric of time. Each of those spirits, ghosts, and demons need to be sent back to the time and place that they came from.” G leaned in closer to me to make sure that I get the point. “Until that day arrives, you can never come back here, and neither can Keith.”
I was taken aback because Keith’s sentence seemed harsh, even some might say vengeful. “I understand me, but why, Keith?” I asked, knowing that I was treading a very fine line between deference and blasphemy, but dammit, I was going to advocate for my charge.
“I’m not punishing Keith, I’m motivating you. As long as you feel responsible for his afterlife, you will be motivated to make things right. If I just fixed it with the snap of my fingers, you would never learn just how resourceful you are. Sadly people stop praying because I don’t fix things easily for them as they would like, and they lose faith. They pray for answers, and sometimes the answer is no. The truth is they need to have faith in themselves to overcome their adversity. That’s what I’m asking you to do, fix your mistake and learn from it.” I knew he was right. He was God for God’s sake.
“You will not be alone in your quest. Paranormal investigators seek out ghosts and spirits and those who are gifted with the ability to see and talk to entities and work to send them back where they belong. These people are called mediums,” G-replied. “They can help you along the way.”
“This seems impossible,” I said, feeling dejected.
“No, an impossible task would be Hercules and the Augean stables,” chuckled G. “That story cracks me up every time.” I glanced at G with a surprised look on my face. “What? I can’t read other people’s stuff? It’s a good story. Look, you can do this. I know you can, and when you do, you and Keith will both have a very high place here. But be careful with him, right now he’s in shock but when he really grasps what happened. He’ll be an angry spirit and rightfully so. He was going to be a father. I'm not going to kid you - it might take years. - maybe decades to get all the spirits that escaped back. But you mustn't give up hope. I believe in you."
Somehow knowing that God had faith in me helped take some pain away, but I was still at a loss of how to fix things. G showed me how to go forward and back in time, so I could see who the best group of people to work with was, but I was forbidden to interfere with the natural course of their lives. I needed to know who these gifted people are. The human banishment of entities was a very powerful way of keeping evil spirits from inhabiting the earth's plane so they would never come back.
G put his arm around me. "Think of yourself as the prodigal son. You sinned and are about to learn what it's like to be on your own to capture those evil spirits, but at the end of the day, when you've completed this task, you will be rejoiced and welcomed back to the kingdom of the Almighty. Pretty cool - right?"
"I'm really am very sorry," I said as a tear ran down my cheek.
"I know you are. I love you, anyway. I always will."
He snapped his fingers, and with that, I took my place on earth - grounded until all the entities that Lilith had let out were back where they belonged.
I turned to Keith, who appeared on the road next to me. "Hey, we have a special mission from God that only you and I can accomplish. Are you with me?" Keith nodded sadly and shook my hand. We started down a lonely road, and a journey with a final destination that we knew was heaven, but the road to redemption was going to be a true test of faith, hope, and love.