The following is based on a true story. It is an abridgment of the novella Love the Unloved which is available on Amazon. Names have been changed to protect identities. For more information, visit my Love the Unloved page.
James and his little brother filled a ceramic bowl with perfume. They bent toward it, grinning with anticipation.
“Watch this,” James said as he struck a match.
The door opened and slammed shut. Mom was home.
Uh oh. James’s pulse raced. He wasn’t stupid. He knew what slamming doors meant.
Was it the mud? Crap. He should have spent more time scrubbing. Or maybe it was the cat. Who’d have thought Mittens would stumble like a drunkard when they nipped his whiskers.
She charged into the house, her footsteps causing the light fixture to tinkle.
This was bad. Reaaaaaaaly bad. He trembled. What had he done? He’d done well on his seventh grade exams, so that couldn’t be it. There was the cat? The mud? Could it be his missed homework assignment?
Yet she walked past them. He let out a breath. Thank God. The breeze of her passing seemed to carry his curiosity with her into the kitchen. He crept down the hall, ducking beneath the shadows.
Dad was there, sipping a can of beer. She slapped a folder onto the table.
“What’s this?” Dad asked.
Mom remained silent.
He opened the manilla folder and his face sunk. “What?”
She folded her arms across her chest.
Dad whispered words James would never forget.
Mom dropped James off at his new school on her way to work–77 miles from his old friends, his old school, and his little brother.
He sat alone in the hallways, arriving a whole freaking hour and a half before school started. Schools could be quiet so early.
The clock ticked in the long empty halls. Lockers lined the walls, standing like silent soldiers. Dumb, meaningless quotes polluted the walls. You can do it! Believe and you can achieve! You are loved!
Gradually, students filtered in—laughing, joking, slapping each other’s shoulders. And James walked. Alone. The flow of people avoided him, like a river diverging around a rock.
Somebody talk to me.
When school ended, he rode the bus to the bowling alley. The cigarette smoke clung to his clothes like a disease. The sound of balls smashing pins echoed. For two hours, he hefted the ball and threw it at the pins.
He became a dang good bowler. But at what cost?
And while alone, he couldn’t stop thinking—
Mom and Dad were Christian.
The Bible forbids divorce.
Mom and Dad divorced.
Mom and Dad can’t be Christian.
And if they weren’t Christian, why should he be?
He began to tremble and a hollow sensation crept into his chest.
No. He couldn’t think that.
He said another silent prayer.
God. Help me.
Another day passed. He looked in the mirror. Dark circles surrounded his eyes. He wasn’t thick anymore, but gaunt. His black hair was shaggy, like it had lost a fight with a cat. When he arrived at school, he again sat alone in the empty halls, wishing for somebody to talk to. Again, students arrived and pretended he wasn’t there. And again, he bowled and bowled and bowled.
God. Help me.
Somebody help me.
Another day passed. And another.
Same story. Nobody to talk to but himself.
Not even God.
Where was Jesus now?
He dismissed the thought. Or he tried to dismiss the thought, but it remained—growing and festering like a cancerous cell.
Dirty, dirty, dirty. Sinner of sinners. James was a Judas—abandoning Jesus when times got tough.
He was spiraling, and fast—diving headlong into a rocky bottom, a bottom from which he may never return.
Something had to change.
He approached Mom’s bedroom. Piles of paper stood atop the dresser. Dirty clothes covered the floor. An empty bottle of scotch stood atop her bible.
She lay in the center of the bed, still dressed in her Walmart vest.
“Mom, I’m gonna live with dad.”
She lifted her head, as if seeing him for the first time in months. “James?” She sat up, furrowing her brow. “Honey, are you alright?”
“Fine mom. I just wanna live with dad.”
“It’s just something I’ve gotta do.”
She sat up. She too looked gaunt. Her dark black hair had new streaks of gray. The lines on her forehead never vanished, even when she fell asleep on the couch watching TV.
“Is everything okay?” she asked.
No. Everything was wrong. Everything was horrible.
Help me, mom.
He exhaled. “Fine mom.”
“Are you sure?”
“James? You’d tell me, wouldn’t you?”
He sighed. “I miss my friends.”
She sighed and her eyes glistened. “I understand.”
No you don’t. It was worse than that.
“So I can do it?” James asked.
She nodded. “Sure.”
But he knew it wouldn’t be enough.
There was Tom. And Doug. And Mike. They were James’s best friends.
Or they used to be.
They walked the halls, wearing letterman jackets and tossing a football. Doug laughed and Mike slapped his shoulder.
Tom nodded at James. “Hey.”
“What’s up?” James said.
But they passed.
It figures. They shared six months of memories—memories without James.
They’d adapted. That was all. Found a new dynamic. One that didn’t include James.
That was just fine. James was fine.
He walked with his head down. Students jostled him as they passed on either side. The rumble of conversation was punctuated by laughs and shouts. He looked up just as he approached Rachelle, a girl from school. She wore a white blouse and light blue pants. She smelled like vanilla. He wanted to smile. She bent forward, studying him. There was something in her expression. What was it?
Oh. It was pity.
Yes. James Metcalf was one to be pitied.
“You okay?” she mouthed.
He forced a smile.
She smiled, but it didn’t touch her eyes.
Help me, Rachelle.
He stopped in the middle of the hall and watched her walk past.
God help me.
God help me.
His gaze fell on the other kids. They wore leather jackets, dyed black hair, tattoos and piercings. They looked like animated ghosts—no life, no enthusiasm, no happiness.
They looked like James felt. Maybe that was a crowd where he could fit in.
He approached, but looked back one more time. Rachelle was looking at him with those same eyes.
Please stop me.
But she kept walking.
If God wouldn’t help, if Rachelle wouldn’t, then what did it matter?
He turned back toward the “bad kids.”
After all, James was a bad kid.
For the next several years, James experimented with alcohol, marijuana, and heroine. He eventually build his own meth lab and that’s when he got caught. The judge slapped him with a ten year sentence.
He was terrified.
He was relieved.
How had this happened?
James rocked back and forth in his bed. The springs squeaked like a dying mouse. The sink leaked incessantly.
Drip. Drip. Drip-drip.
The light from a single bulb highlighted prison bars—patches of white mingling with rust.
The voice was back, that hollow whisper in his mind.
They’re coming for you James.
Jamsey Jamsey. Are you there?
Lost, aren’t you? Had to take the drugs, didn’t you. Had to get caught, didn’t you? Had to tell the warden off, didn’t you?
Now you’re in solitary James. All alone.
Okay. He was going crazy.
A shadow moved.
No. Not a shadow. He was imagining things.
A spider skittered across the concrete floor. He inhaled the damp scent of mold and rust.
He had to get himself together.
Wind whistled. Or maybe it was a ghost.
Leave me alone!
But that taunting voice didn’t leave him alone. It was like a midnight shadow—always stalking him, always behind him, taunting.
His throat tightened and his eyes dripped like the broken faucet. His chest convulsed with sobs.
Cry baby James.
Drip drip. Sob. Drip drip. Sob.
The weight of this place was like a boulder. At first, a mere burden to carry. With each day, his strength to endure weakened. And so the boulder crushed him. More and more and more and more. The agony so deep, he had to get out. Now! Had to get out. Now!
Drip drip drip.
He rocked back and forth. Squeak…squeak.
The boulder doubled in weight. He couldn’t stand it. Couldn’t tolerate another second. It had to end. The boulder was crushing him and the only way to get out was to end it. Drop the weight before it crushes you.
It had to end. It was the only answer. It had to end. He had to die. It was the only answer.
His heart beat faster. He dared to smile.
Gonna end it, poor Jamsey Wamsey?
He nodded his head.
Suicide. Gone forever. Get out of hell.
The hollowness in his chest grew and grew, until it consumed.
Death. Death. Death.
He stood, looking for something. A shoelace. A belt. Maybe he could jump and land on his head.
The hatch opened. Light spilled in, blinding.
“How about some reading, son?” someone said.
Was that real?
Don’t leave me. Help me!
A man dropped something into his cell.
He scampered across the floor like a wounded animal and grabbed it. A book. He could barely make out the text.
He remained still.
Is Jesus gonna save you, Jamsey?
“Leave me alone!”
His voice echoed in the empty hall.
He opened the book. A piece of paper spilled onto the floor. A chart of some sort.
365 days to read the Bible.
The boulder wouldn’t leave. He had to end it.
Yet a spark of something was there. Hope maybe? No. James Metcalf didn’t know how to hope.
Still, his heart raced.
But no. He wasn’t a Christian—hadn’t been since he chose to abandon God. And he’d done way too much. His past was too rocky to ever come back.
End it, end it, end it!
Yet he studied the paper. It was day 301.
Maybe tomorrow he could die.
Today, he read…
1 Corinthians 10:13—No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.
James was dirty. James was lost. James was irredeemable.
Or was he? There was a promise there—nothing was impossible, no temptation too great to overcome. No addiction too strong. Not drugs, not booze, not suicide.
He knelt down and prayed.
God. If you get me out of here. I promise I’ll serve you forever.
He lay on his bed and stared at the ceiling. The boulder was still there, but he felt stronger. Yes, he could do this. He could endure a little while longer.
God help me.
Chains dangled from his wrists and ankles as he sat in the chair. The woman in front of him studied a file. Crosses littered the wall with scriptures and cheesy pictures with cats and “inspiring” quotes.
“I’ve been reviewing your file, James,” the woman said. She was old, with a sky blue blouse she kept tucked into a plaid skirt. Her bifocals hung low on her pointed nose as she peered at James.
She looked at him, but he said nothing.
“Why are you here, James?”
“That’s not what I meant.” She bent forward. “Why are you here. On earth? What are you going to do with your life?”
He shook his head. “Don’t know.”
She pressed her lips together and tapped her desk with her fingernail. “You’re an odd one, James.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
She chuckled. “It wasn’t a compliment.”
“Do you know who I am?” she asked.
“I’m a case worker—your case worker.”
“I’m here to help you, James.”
“So help me.”
She shook her head and looked up to the ceiling, mouthing something.
“I just find it odd…” she stood from her chair and approached a filing cabinet, “…that there are over a thousand inmates, each of which has a file as thick as a phone book.”
She opened the filing cabinet and pointed.
“And yet…somehow I found yours.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “I’m a Christian woman, James and I believe that God plays a role in our lives, sometimes. And I believe that God directed me to that.”
She pointed to his file.
“Why?” he asked.
“I reviewed your case, James. Yours is different than any other I’ve seen. See, if I can get the judge to cross out one word of your sentence, you could be out of here in six months.”
James’s eyes widened. His heart raced.
He stopped himself. He slowed his heart rate and sank back into his chair, leaning his head on the back. Nothing good happened to James Metcalf.
He couldn’t allow himself to hope, because if he did, it would crush him.
“So do it,” he said. “Or don’t do it. I don’t care.”
“Can you tell me why, of all the files, I happened upon yours, James?”
Could it be because, of all the prisoners, only he had made a promise that wouldn’t be broken?
But since when did God listen?
He shrugged. “I don’t know why, ma’am.”
“Haven’t a clue, have you?”
She sighed. “Do you think the ‘cool inmate’ act is going to get you out of here?”
She closed his folder. “So much for that.”
His eyes widened. He had let the hope in. Stupid, stupid hope.
“No!” he said.
“Don’t,” he said. “I…I’ll be good.”
She shook her head. “Now you sound like the rest of them.”
He tightened his jaw. “I’m not.”
She bent toward him, eyes narrowed. “Convince me.”
He dropped his head. Fine. I surrender. He was already at the bottom, anyway. What could be worse than what had already happened?
“I made a promise.”
“What kind of promise?”
“A lot of inmates make promises to God.”
“I was…” He looked left, then right. “I was gonna kill myself.”
Her eyes softened.
“I was looking for a way to do it. In solitary. But before I could, a man dropped a Bible in my cell.”
She sat back in her chair. “Go on.”
“I read a verse and it changed me.”
“1 Corinthians 10:13.”
“Huh,” she said, nodding approvingly. “And…”
“And I made a promise. If He got me out, I’d serve him forever.”
She nodded. “And will you, James Metcalf?”
“And if He doesn’t get you out of here? Will you still serve him?”
His throat tightened. His lips began to tremble and his eyes glistened. “I can’t do this anymore.”
He felt lighter, like he’d dropped a pair of dumbbells he didn’t know he’d been carrying. Tears dripped freely from his eyes.
But he also felt exposed.
She smiled. “This front you put on—that’s all it is—a front. Drop the front, and I’ll see what I can do.”
Six months later, James was free. And he’d never return again. Like Jean Valjean, he’d given his life to God so he could be free, and he had a debt to repay.
To be continued…
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