Prologue

Charles Benton.  Neighbor.

“Where am I?  Is anybody there?”

The darkness was so complete that I didn’t dare move.

“Who’s that?” A voice came out of the darkness.  “Here, over here.  Where are you?  Who are you?”

“John, my name is John.”  A tentative step, then another in the direction of the voice.  “What’s your name?” I said.  “Where are we?  What’s going on?”

“Hey, I don’t know.  I just got here. My name is Charles.”  Reaching out, groping, finally touching with arms outstretched.  “There you are.  Be careful,” Charles said.  “I have no idea what’s underneath us, so watch where you step.”

“Well, ok.  I think I have you.  Let me grab your sweater.  You can grab my coat.”

“Ok, I got you,” Charles said.  “So, what’s going on?”

“I have no idea.”  I turned toward his voice.  “You sound familiar, though.  Do I know you?”

“Don’t think so.”  He seemed to hesitate.  “Where are we, anyway?  Any ideas?”

“Well, all I can remember is…..”  I stopped.  A jumble of memories collided in my mind like a train wreck.

“What?”

“Well, I was driving home from work.  The roads were icy.  I can’t remember anything else.”  Something was nagging at me, a persistent thought that, for some reason, I wasn’t too eager to pursue.

“Yeah,” Charles said.  “I seem to remember icy roads too.  And it was dark and some jerk had his brights on and I couldn’t see a damn thing.”

“Maybe we’re in the hospital,” I said.  “Maybe we had an accident and we’re in a coma or something.”  That couldn’t be right.  I felt around my face for bandages.  Nothing.

“That’s a load of crap,” Charles said.  “We aren’t in a hospital.  I don’t feel a thing.  No pain, nothing.  What about you?”

“Me neither.”

“I still have the same clothes on,” Charles said.  “You know, from when I was driving.  I put my coat in the back seat like I always do.”

“Well, I’m not cold so we can’t be outside,” I said.

“Me neither.”

“No pain.  Same clothes.  Think maybe we’re hallucinating or something?”

“How would I know?”  Charles said.  “I ain’t no shrink.”

“I think you were right about the accident thing.” I didn’t like saying it out loud, but it was the only logical explanation.

“That wasn’t my idea, it was yours.  And why would you say something like that anyway?  Don’t be ridiculous.  It’s gotta be a dream or something.  I’m just dreaming you up.  You ain’t nothing but a figment of my imagination.”  Charles couldn’t seem to stop talking, but I didn’t blame him a bit.

“Well, if I’m in your dream, then you made me up,” I said.  “I can’t figure that.  It doesn’t seem right somehow.  But you should know everything about me if I’m a figment of your imagination.  Tell me what you know.”

Charles was quiet for a long moment.  “I don’t know nothing about you,” he said finally.  “You said your name was John, that right?”

“Yes.  Anything else?”

“Not a thing.”  He sighed.  “Not a damned thing.”

“Well, I got lots.  Seems as if I know who I am.”

“Well, who are you then?”

“My name is John Forsythe, and –“

“John Forsythe?” Charles said.  “Not the guy from the church, no way.”  He laughed loudly.

“What do you mean?  Who are you?  How do you know me?”

“I’m your neighbor, Charlie Benton.  The guy you always give the finger to.”

“I don’t give you the finger.  I don’t do that sort of thing.”  Now I remember why I never liked this guy.

“Well, it’s just a way of saying….”

“Saying what?”

“Never mind.”  Charles said.  Then he laughed. “Anyway, we’re neighbors.  Ain’t that a hoot?”

Yeah.  What were the chances? 

I wasn’t sure what to make of it all but I had a growing suspicion.  “Look, Charlie, I know we haven’t exactly been great neighbors.”

“You got that right.  When ya gonna give me back my shears?”

“They aren’t yours, they’re –“

“There you go again, all holier ´n thou.  You saying I stole them shears from you?”

I let go his sweater and he immediately let go of my coat.

“Charlie, look –.”

“No, you look.  You know nothing about me.  I’m stuck here with you but I don’t have to like it.”

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  “Charlie, I’m sorry.”

Silence.

I tried again.  “Charlie, I think this is serious.”

“You think?”

“No, I mean this situation we’re in.  It’s serious.”

“Whaddayamean?”

“I don’t think this is a dream,” I said, pausing for a moment.  “I think we’re dead.”

There, I said it. 

“Dead?  I don’t wanna be dead.”

“And I think some things are going to start happening soon.”

“Things like what.  What are you talking about?”

I could hear some real distress in his voice.  Charlie was quiet for a moment and I let him chew on it.

“You talking about that church stuff aren’t you?”

Yup, he was scared now.

“Well, if we’re dead,” I said, “there should be nothing, absolutely nothing, according to you, but we’re still here, and we’re still conscious.  That sort of means that –“

“I know what it means.”

Silence again.

“Suppose you’re off the hook.”

It wasn’t a question.  What was there to say?

“Can I get in on it yet?”

“Get in on it?  You mean….become a Christian?  Now?  I don’t think so, Charlie.  It’s a bit late for that.”

We were both quiet for a moment.

“You could have tried harder.”

It wasn’t so much an accusation, just despair talking.

“I tried, Charlie.  I really did.”

Was that true?

Silence.

“Can you put in a good word for me?”

“I don’t think it works like that.”

“Well, what good are you then?” he said, his voice rising.  “Can’t you do anything?  My life is on the line here.  Don’t you bloody care what happens to me?  Do something.”

“What do you want me to do, Charlie?”

He sighed heavily.  “I dunno.  Nothing I guess.”

It was always a pain talking to this guy.

“That Jesus fella, he can do something, right?”

“Well, yes.  But that was before.”

“Not now?”

“I don’t think so.”

The darkness was fading.  Light was growing.  I could see the outline of Charlie to my right but he was facing away from me, looking toward the light.

“Do you see anything?” I said.

“Not sure.”

The light seemed to emanate more and more from one place a little way off.

“There’s someone there,” Charlie said.  “He’s coming this way.”

“It’ll be all right,” I said, putting my hand on his shoulder.

“Liar.”

That word cut me like a knife.

He didn’t even look at me.  His eyes were fixed on our visitor.  I let my hand drop from his shoulder.

I wasn’t scared.  I thought I would be, but I wasn’t.  Still, I was overwhelmed by what was about to happen, like I was taking a deep breath and couldn’t stop; it just kept filling me up the closer he came.  My eyes were moist with anticipation.

Jesus.

I dropped to one knee.  I could see Charlie hesitate and then he did the same thing.

“Please, stand up,” Jesus said.

“Lord,” I said.  I stood up and looked at him.  Even now, I cannot tell you what he looked like.  It was his piercing, deep blue eyes that held my gaze.  Charlie stayed on his knees.

“Introduce me to your friend,” he said.

I reached down and pulled Charlie to his feet.  He didn’t want to look at Jesus but the Lord took hold of the rough stubble of his chin and pulled his face gently around and looked into his eyes.  Tears streamed down Charlie’s face and he started to sob and then just sank to the floor in a heap.  Jesus turned to me and I saw the moisture in his own eyes.  He didn’t say anything, but his eyes were curious and I could see a question there.

“I tried to tell him….”

“I know,” Jesus said.  Then he took my arm. “Come, walk with me.”  The light was now all around him.  It seemed to follow him but there was nothing to see, no room, no landscape, nothing but a floor that seemed to be made of crystal.  We walked for a moment and his touch on my arm brought fresh tears to my eyes.  I couldn’t believe that he was here with me in the flesh.  But there was still a question waiting to be asked.

“Is there anything –”

He shook his head.  “There is nothing more that I can do for him.”  He seemed to hesitate and I felt free to press him on the matter.

“Lord?” I said.

“Well, there may be something you can do for him.”

“Me?  What can I do?”

“Well, this isn’t a usual thing but there may be one last service you can perform.”

“What is it, Lord?”

“Normally, I don’t like to suggest it….”

“Lord,” I said, “I would do anything to help Charlie.  Please, just tell me.”

He turned to look at me, those blue eyes more opaque, more mysterious.

“You can take his place.”

“Take his place?”  The thought blossomed in my mind like a virus.  “Lord, how could I ever take his place?  I mean, you want me to go where he’s supposed to go?”

“And he would go where you’re supposed to go.”

“But, but…” I swallowed hard, thinking furiously.

I didn’t want to go there.  No way.

“Take your time.  Think about it.”  His hand was on my shoulder, rubbing gently, without judgment or obligation.

“Lord, I don’t think…..”  My eyes glanced at Charlie still sobbing on the floor but I tore them back, not sure I wanted to look at Jesus either.

“I didn’t think that was allowed.”

“Normally, it’s not.  But under certain circumstances…..”

I didn’t know what to say.  It was silent for a long moment.

“There’s supposed to be a lot of fire down there.”

“Yes, there is.”

“And pain?”

“Yes, there’s pain.”

I hated pain.  I was such a coward.

“And you expect me to do this for Charlie?”  I said, looking into his eyes again.  If he wanted me to do it, then I would do it.  Maybe it was just a test.  But the look in his eyes told me that he was deadly serious.

“I know it’s not easy.  I had to make the same decision once……for you.”

“But you can handle it.  I’m not sure I can.”  I hung my head.

“I understand,” he said.  “It would be impossible to do on your own.”

It was how he said it that struck me.  There was something going on here that I couldn’t put my finger on, something deep and mysterious.

“I will go,” I said slowly, carefully, and then added, “if you come with me.”   I looked up.  “Besides, you promised.”

“I promised?” he said, but his head was turned away and I had the distinct impression that he didn’t want to look at me.

“Yes, I will go and you will come with me.”  I spoke with more conviction.  “Charlie can go to heaven and I will take his place in hell but you will be there with me.”

He turned toward me, his blue eyes curious.  “But if I go with you, then it wouldn’t be hell, would it.”

“I don’t care what you call it.  It will still have fire and pain and suffering and that’s bad enough.  I can do without the streets of gold and a mansion on the hilltop but I can’t do without you.”  Then I was grabbing on to him and pleading.  “Lord, I only want to be with you.  Can’t you go with me?  I just want to be where you are.”

He took me in his arms and held me to his chest, a tight, strong hug.  “Of course I will go with you.  We will always be together.”  He pushed me away at arms length and looked at me.

“You’re right,” he said.  “I promised.”

Then I looked around and saw flames starting to lick around the edges of the floor, but growing and coming nearer.  He put one arm around my shoulders and led me toward them.

“Lord?”

“Don’t be afraid.”

I still cringed as he led me into the middle of the fire, which seemed to reach out for us, growing and, finally, engulfing us with a roar.  I whimpered as I hid my head against his shoulder.

“Lord,” I said again, shaking.

“After so many Sunday school classes and you’ve forgotten already?”

He was right.  There was no pain.  The fire did not burn.  There was a strange warmth and the fire seemed to make me stronger.  I felt vital and excited.

“What is this?”

“This is the Fire of my Presence, the power of the Holy Spirit.”

“But I thought we were in hell?”

“And I said it wouldn’t be hell if I was there.”

“But where is Charlie?  Wasn’t he supposed to go to heaven?”

“Charlie is in a place of flowing streams and green meadows, a place of stately trees and lush gardens,” he said, and then added quietly, “but Charlie is alone.  I am not there with him and he is in great anguish.”

Then I understood.  It struck like a hammer blow upon my brow.

Charlie, poor Charlie.

The pain and anguish I felt in that moment made me drop to my knees and sob.  I could hardly think.

“You’re experiencing a small portion of my sorrow for Charlie,” Jesus said.  “I can’t let you feel the full force of my grief, for it is mine to bear and it would overwhelm you.”

“Your pain?”  Already it was starting to subside and I tried to stand up.

He pulled me to my feet but I was still bent over  hugging my body as I tried to shake off the pain and sorrow.  He straightened me up, looked into my face and then took his thumb and wiped away my tears.  I took a deep, shuddering breath and finally calmed down.

“I don’t understand.”

“You’re not dead,” he said.  “You’ve had an accident.  You’re in the hospital and your family is very worried about you.”

“But what about Charlie?”

“This is your vision, not his.”

“So, he’s all right?”

“Well, he’s not all right,” Jesus said, “but he isn’t dead.”

“Thank goodness.”

Jesus turned and looked at me intently.

“Well, I just want another chance to talk to him,” I said.

“I thought you didn’t like him.  He stole those shears–“

“Damn the shears.”  I said and then stopped.  “Oh, sorry, Lord…..”

“No, I think that was said exactly right.”  He laughed and his voice reminded me of  my children.

“Will I live?”

“Of course.  Always.”  He was still smiling.  “Just remember that the things that matter most require the most sacrifice.  Don’t be afraid to embrace the desert.  Pain, difficulty, and problems are generally how I get my best work done.  If you’re going to help me, you need to follow me deeper into the desert.  Besides you always have my promise.  I will be with you, no matter what happens.”

The light was growing behind him and his face became darker until I could only see the form of his body.  Somehow I was lying down and someone was saying, “Again.  Clear.”

My body jumped as a jolt surged through me and then a face thrust itself in front of mine.   A thumb and finger forced open one eye and then the other.  “He’s alright.  He’s back.  Put him on an I.V. drip and for God’s sake keep an eye on him.”  Then he looked down at me and said, “We almost lost you there.  But you’ll be fine now.”  I faded away into darkness again.

The next time I woke up, I turned my head and saw my wife seated in a chair against the wall, her eyes tired and red.  “The children?”  I whispered.

Immediately, she stood up, came close and caressed my face with her fingers.  “They’re fine.”

My head was bandaged, one eye covered, only breathing space for my nose and mouth.  Then came the pain.  Oh, God, how it hurt.

“What happened?”  I said.

“You had an accident,” she said.  “You hit Mr. Benton, our neighbor, almost head on.  Icy roads.  Out on the highway, by the turnoff.  No one’s fault.”

I wasn’t so sure.

Some jerk had his brights on and I couldn’t see a damn thing.   Charles Benton.  Neighbor.

“Where’s Charlie?”

“Right over there,” she said, indicating the other side of the room.

All I could see was another body on a hospital bed, wrapped like Lazarus in the tomb.

“I’ll talk to the nurses and see if we can get you another room.  I know how you feel about him.”

“No, no,” I said, shaking my head.  “Don’t do that.”

Now Charlie will have to listen to me, if he ever forgives me for putting him in the hospital.  Charlie Benton of all people.  God sure has a weird sense of humor.  I started to laugh but it hurt so bad that I groaned instead and sank into unconsciousness.

*****

Charles Benton.  Neighbor.  by Bert A. Amsing
Copyright 2012 by vanKregten Publishers. All rights reserved.
http://www.desertwarrior.net    https://desertwarriornet.wordpress.com/

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