Unconditional, p.26

Unconditional, page 26



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It didn’t happen that way, so everything appeared off. Even the store looked different—much bigger, as if it had grown in size. Rather than remaining in the car, he was inside the store, facing the refrigerated area where the soft drinks and beers were stored.

  And reaching into his jacket’s pocket, Josh pulled out a gun. A large gun, like a 9mm Glock. He had no idea how it had gotten into his pocket.

  “Don’t shoot! Please!”

  There were only three other people in the store. That plea had come from the fifty-ish clerk behind the counter. To Josh’s left stood a uniformed cop, and holding another gun was one of his friends who was there that night, Danny Badger, eyeing him wildly.

  “Shoot him, shoot him!” he ordered through clenched teeth.

  The gun in his hands went off. By itself, without him even pulling the trigger. The cop fell backwards against a display filled with potato chips and other snacks.

  Blood, everywhere. On the police officer’s uniform, on the floor, on the walls, all over Josh’s hands.

  But it didn’t happen like that. Why was it happening that way now?

  I shot a cop, he was thinking, and now he was somewhere else. Outside, running so fast through a field of corn. I will never get out of prison now. Never. I’m gonna die in that place.

  But it didn’t happen this way! It didn’t. Oh, Lord, please help me. Please make this stop.

  No one had died, and definitely not at his hand. He continued to run, hiding himself under a bridge. Looking down, he saw his clothes stained with large blotches of crimson blood.

  Then a door closed behind him. None of this made sense. Instead of being outside, he was confined inside a room with black brick walls. The place couldn’t have been bigger than three feet wide. The door was made of steel, with only a tiny window.

  There was no room to sit and even less to lie down. He could barely breathe.

  It didn’t happen this way. None of this was transpiring the way he remembered. The only thing that was the same, the only thing Joshua Coleman recalled from the real time was that all-consuming loneliness. A loneliness that was cold and hopeless and desperate, accompanied by the feeling that his life was over.

  The sound of cabinet doors opening and closing, and dishes being moved around roused him out of sleep. He drank in a soothing breath and sat up, realizing he had fallen asleep on the couch. His father peeked in through the living room door.

  “Oh, sorry, son. Didn’t mean to wake you up. I was going to let you sleep for another few minutes,” his dad apologized.

  “That’s okay, Dad. I’m glad you woke me.” His head felt heavy, the way it did whenever he fell asleep in the afternoon. “I was having a bad dream.”

  “Oh. Well, then, great timing!” Dad chuckled and returned to the kitchen.

  Josh sat up. He looked around at the familiar surroundings—at the coffee table he’d picked up from the consignment shop in town, on which was placed his laptop, the TV’s remote, and a half empty bottle of Coke. The television that sat catty corner near the windows, the loveseat, the end table, on which sat a lamp and both his cell phone and Dad’s. All those familiar surroundings.

  Home. His new home. Not a jail cell.

  “Before I forget, Josh…Richie called you. He wanted to remind you about the PREA meeting.”

  Something inside him revolted, yet he managed to keep himself calm. After a dream like the one he’d just had, a message from the leader of the local prison ministry was the last thing he needed.

  “Thanks, Dad. I’ll give him a call in a little while.”

  “No problem. What’s PREA?”

  “That’s this class everyone has to take before you can be part of a prison ministry. Um, it stands for…” Josh wiped a hand over his face, finally recalling out loud, “Prison Rape Elimination Act. It’s federal. Required.”

  “Oh. Well, I’m glad you’re involved in that, Josh. If you’re ready for that.”

  I thought I was. Maybe I’m not after all.

  He was still groggy and tired. That was why he didn’t like taking naps in the afternoon because they always seemed to leave him even more tired. He would also be up later that night, like a little kid who became overtired. Josh stood and went to the kitchen, where his father was making for an early dinner for them.

  “You’re making pizza?” His son laughed softly. “Cool.”

  “Yeah. I figured you’d like that.” Dad sprinkled shredded cheese over the dough and sauce. He spoke with a not-so-bad Italian accent. “That’s a little mozzarella. Can’t have pizza without mozzarella, right?”

  ‘Nope. You make the crust, too?”

  “Ha! I wish. No, I cheated on that part. Got it at our store. My new store, that is. I did make the marinara sauce, though. Make myself useful since I’m putting you out like this.”

  Josh was about to seat himself at the table. “You’re not putting me out, Dad. I’m glad to have you here.”

  Dad grinned and tore open a package of pepperoni. “You’re a good son.”

  “Better. I guess. I was a terrible son before.”

  “Hey. You were never a terrible son. Ever.”

  Josh looked up at him. Her voice cracked as he said, “We lost the house because of me.”

  “I never worry about that old house, Josh. But I’ll tell you what I have been thinking about. About a new townhouse I’d like to buy eventually.”

  His father was changing the subject, a tactic that he resorted to when he didn’t want his son dwelling on the painful past. He smiled back with appreciation.

  “A townhouse?” he specified. “Not a house, Dad?”

  “Naaa. I don’t need a house anymore, with all its headaches. A townhouse would do nicely, with the homeowner’s association taking care of the landscaping. Less work for me and more money in my pocket. I’m not getting any younger.”

  “Close by, though. Right?”

  “The one I’m looking at right now is about a five-minute drive from this place. It’s near the river walk, which I like. And I never want to be far from you again.” Dad placed the pizza, pan and all, into the preheated oven. “And listen, you need to forgive yourself. That’s all ancient history now.”

  “I did. I have, I mean.”

  “You couldn’t have, or you wouldn’t bring it up now. You have to let go of regret. Regret over the past is going to affect your walk with the Lord, Josh. And your relationships. Everyone you come in contact with. Even your relationship with Valerie.”

  “Mmmm.” He knew his reply sounded noncommittal. Quickly, he added, “I know it does affect the way I think other people look at me.”

  “Of course. And look at you, Josh. It’s affecting your ability to be grateful for the person you are now. A hardworking young man who’s even going into business with his friend. A Christian. And who knows? You might even marry this girl.”

  His father took a seat in a chair facing him. Josh said, “I could see me staying with Valerie forever. I seriously am thinking about marriage.”

  “I could see that, too.” Walter made no secret of how much he liked Valerie as both a person and a prospective daughter-in-law.

  “But I haven’t told her yet. I still haven’t.”


  Swallowing hard, he shook his head. “No.”

  “Because you’re afraid that it will change how she feels about you.”

  “I didn’t get a chance to talk to her the other night after the concert. She seemed a little upset…like maybe something was wrong.”

  “And…you think that has something to do with you? Maybe that has nothing to do with you, son,” Dad explained. “This is something that will be between you until you get it out of the way.”

  “I guess so. I guess it’s about time I said something by now.”

  “Probably better now than when you’re marching down the aisle with her.” Walter was only half teasing. “You need to know, too, where it is you stand with her. If your past makes a difference to her, then your rela
tionship may not be as strong as you think. And you won’t be going to talk to her alone. The Lord will be there with both of you. ‘Where two or more are gathered…’”

  Josh was quiet, mulling over what his father had just said. He figured it wouldn’t take long for the homemade pizza to cook, so he would lend his dad a hand by setting the table.

  When he moved into his own place, he’d carried on his parents’ tradition of keeping a radio in the kitchen, getting a radio that also played music CDs. He loved that radio, because it was the type that could be attached to the bottom of a cabinet, this one set right above his canisters of cereal and Chips Ahoy cookies.

  To his credit, Walter Coleman had youthful taste in music. As far as Josh knew, he still listened to older Christian artists—as well as secular artists—but he was also fond of newer, more contemporary Christian artists as well. Dad had put in one half of a compilation CD, and at the moment what was playing was Sidewalk Prophets’ “Live Like That.”

  There was something calming about that—about listening to familiar, lovable music, while having a simple meal with his father.

  The nightmare is over, Josh. The past is over.

  And I’m here. Where two or more are gathered in My name…

  Josh smiled and faced his father. “I’m really glad you’re here, Dad.”

  “Oh, me, too. Living down the shore. We always talked about making that happen someday. Remember? And we’re closer now, too—”

  “No, I mean here. In my life. I really love you, Dad. I love you a lot.”

  Walter’s smile was tender. “I really love you, too, Josh. A lot. And I’m very proud of the man you’ve become.”

  Their embrace was interrupted by the doorbell ringing. First setting the drinking glasses down on the table, Josh excused himself to get the door.

  Standing on the front step was Elliot. Josh’s eyes widened at the sight of him in a dress shirt and dressy black pants, his curly hair combed and tamed, his face clean-shaven.

  “This is getting to be a regular thing with you now, huh?” Josh maintained a straight face. “And what’s that? Cologne? You smell nice. For once.”

  “Yeah. Shut up, smart guy.” Beneath the gruff exterior was Elliot’s usual good-natured manner. “Just had a few minutes to kill before I meet Kylie at her church. Thought I’d drop by and say hi to your dad. Could care less about you.”

  “Same here, Mr. GQ.” Josh tossed the tease right back at him and opened the door wider for him to enter. “Meeting Kylie at her church, you said?”

  “Yeah. We’re going to see a Christian play at a sister church in Cape May.”

  “Ohhhh, a Christian play! Nice of you to invite us.”

  On their way to the kitchen, Elliot gave him an apologetic glance.

  “It’s really the Youth Group that’s going. A couple of kids couldn’t go at the last minute,” he explained. “And Kylie’s good friends with the youth pastor and his wife. That’s how we got the tickets. Otherwise, we would’ve invited you and Valerie—”

  “Come on, I’m joking. Don’t be so serious. It’s not like we’re putting up drywall or something, you grouchy old guy.”

  Ignoring him, Elliot smiled at Walter. “Hi, Mr. Coleman.”

  “Hey, Elliot!” Dad graced him with a big, welcoming grin.

  “Sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt your…late lunch? Early dinner?”

  “Early dinner. And that’s no problem. There’s plenty. Want to join us?”

  Elliot put a hand over his flat belly. “Ohhh, no, no. I couldn’t. Besides, we’ll be grabbing some dinner after the play.”

  “You sure? It’s homemade pizza.”

  “Homemade pizza? Your homemade pizza? Yeah?” His eyes widening with interest, Elliot changed his mind. “Okay. Maybe one little slice.”

  We got plenty? Had his father forgotten how much that skinny, little guy could eat? Nevertheless, Josh checked the refrigerator for something to add to the meal as Walter pulled down an extra plate and silverware.

  “I think we still have some salad left,” Josh was mumbling, “if it’s still fresh.’

  “It is. I was pulling it out for us anyway.”

  “Oh, boy! Salad and pizza! Perfect.” His best friend smiled at him. “And croutons? Got croutons? And Thousand Island dressing.”

  Ahh, wonderful Elliot! He hadn’t been shy about eating at Josh and his dad’s home since they were young boys. He also had a bit of kid-like taste in food. Meaning, he enjoyed a little lettuce and tomato with his croutons and Thousand Island salad dressing.

  How he remained so thin was anybody’s guess.

  Josh pulled out a bottle of dressing from the fridge. “Only country French and low-fat Italian.”

  “Eh. Okay. I guess it’ll do. Oh, and other reason I came…” Stopping to reach into his pants’ pocket, Elliot drew out a thick wad of bills. He placed the entire amount on the table. “First third. For materials. Our next job.”

  Chuckling, Josh stared at the money. “Wow. Amazing.”

  “And we’ll be done this week with the clinic job, so it’ll be no problem finding the time to do this. We’ll be finishing a basement. Owner wants it turned into a playroom for their kids.”

  “Oh, man! We are going to need the time!” Again, Josh laughed. “Love it, though.”

  Elliot’s eyes glinted mischievously. “Me, too. And, buddy, guess who recommended us to the owners?”

  “Sally. We should really hire that lady to do our PR work.”

  “Wrong. Try her son. He recommended us.”

  “He did?” Looking from Elliot to Walter, Josh filled his dad in on the meaning. “That’s Aaron. The guy I told you about. The one who hates me.”

  “Hates us,” Elliot said. “He ain’t crazy about me, either.”

  Walter brought a bottled water out for the young man he thought of as a second son. “He can’t hate you that badly. Not anymore, anyway, if he knows you’re both honest and you do a good job.”

  That brought to mind that scripture, the one about someone who walks with the Lord finding that He will sometimes change an enemy’s heart. It didn’t happen often, and Josh would have never guessed Aaron Dunovant would have been as gracious as to recommend them for a job. He made a mental note to personally thank the guy the very next time he saw him.

  “A basement. That’s going to be a big job,” Dad said with a low whistle of amazement.

  “Big paycheck, too,” Elliot agreed, turning to Josh and grinning. “Think about what you want to do with all that dinero, amigo!”

  He nodded. With a pair of oven mitts, Walter brought the baking sheet out of the oven and placed it on the stove. The aroma made Josh’s mouth water. His dad then grabbed the pizza cutter from the silverware drawer and sliced it pizzeria-style.

  He has sent Me to set the captives free…

  Josh knew the whole scripture. He had committed it to memory while still living, day to day, in that prison: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those that are bruised.

  To preach deliverance to the captives.

  Free. I’m free. The reality was that, before the prison doors opened, Jesus had unlocked and thrown open the doors of the prison his own heart of flesh had created. Why had he allowed regret over the past to imprison him again? No prison formed by human hands could be as unforgiving and impenetrable as the prison of being unable to let go of yesterday, with all its mistakes, brokenness and tears.

  He came to set me free. Me, Joshua Coleman. His son.

  “Who would like to say grace?” Walter asked, setting the pizza dish on a large enough trivet in the center of the table. “Elliot?”

  His dad had asked Elliot to say grace in the past. Usually the response was a shy grin and hands thrown up in the air. This time, Elliot agreed readily and bowed his head.

“Thank You, Lord, for this day, for this food,” he prayed simply. “And thanks for this family, for Dad and my brother, Josh. Thank You, too, that I’ll be seeing Kylie in a little while. We love You. In Jesus’ Name, amen.”

  “Amen. Enjoy!” Josh picked up his glass and clinked it, first against Elliot’s glass, and then his father’s.

  Think about what you want to do with all that money.

  He had a pretty good idea of what he would be doing with his cut of the money, though he didn’t have it yet. Paying for that particular thing would require some serious stepping out on faith.


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