Still Here

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“I’m not a miss. I’m not a shot of potential and a glass of failure. I’m still here, ain’t I?”

Marquez tilted his head and shaved a bit of hair off of Jamie’s chine. The machete was sharp.

“I don’t think that’s the best idea to push on us, vato. You got some people angry. We invested in you.”

Jamie pulled at the zip ties that held him fast to the concrete pillar. Abandoned parking garages were the worst place for this sort of thing. You could practically feel all of the bodies stashed around.

“Then it’d be a big waste to off your investment, don’t you think, Marky? Come on, let me talk to Jefe.”

Marquez leaned back and scratched his chest with the butt of his blade. Flies buzzed around, even in the shade. They were attracted to the sweat.

“I don’t know, guero. He’s pretty busy.”

“He’ll want to talk to me.”

Oye! Ya estan terminado con el hoyo?” Marquez had turned and was yelling to his partners. They raised their shovels and shouted back from the sun-baked earth outside of the protective shade of the dusty parking structure.

Casi ya!

They were just about finished with the grave. Great.

Marquez turned back to Jamie.

“Yeah, I think he won’t want to talk to you, seeing as how you’re a dead man. Dead men is scary, vato. He don’t want to talk to you.”

“Look… I may know something about the diamonds.”

That got his attention. One eyebrow rose.

Esta lista!

Marquez looked over his shoulder and shouted back to his associates.

Espera un momento!

He looked back to Jamie.

“Then why didn’t you turn them in, estupido? At the end of the job like you said?”

Jamie avoided his gaze. His reply was cut off as Marquez continued speaking, jabbing his machete toward his chest.

“You said that the protection showed up and you couldn’t get the diamonds out of the compound. You said you dropped them.”

“I may have dropped them off instead of just dropping them. They’re in a safe place.”

“Where?”

“Not far.”

Marquez looked left, then right. He folded his arms, the machete sticking menacingly out of one side. He stared at Jamie; Jamie stared at him.

“Just take me to Jefe- I can straighten this all out.”

“That was a lot of diamonds, my friend, but Jefe is no puppy mutt criminal, vato. He has experience. He’d rather have fear and trustworthy men than a big score. I take you to him, he slit your throat himself.”

Great. The “stash the stolen goods” part had gone beautifully. The “get away from the cartel that wants to kill you” part, not so much.

“Where are they?” Marquez asked, letting his head roll around like he wasn’t interested, but his eyes betrayed him.

“Close. I told you already.”

“Tell me where they are.”

“So I can make you happy before I die? No thanks.”

Marquez glanced over his shoulder again. His assistants were starting to wonder what the holdup was. Marquez took a step closer to Jamie, his blade raised.

“That’s a shame, vato. I really like to be happy.”

Jamie watched as the blade fell. And his arms were suddenly free. Marquez stooped down and cut away the zip ties from his feet as well.

“I also like to be rich,” he said under his breath. He glanced up at Jamie with an understanding in his eye. There was a tacit accord between them.

Amigos! Yo voy al otro lugar para matarle. Aqui alguien quizas oyera sus gritos. Regresare.

Marquez took Jamie roughly by the crook of his arm, keeping the machete at his throat.

“We’re going to get into the truck, and you will tell me where we go. If you do something stupid, I kill you. Ok?”

“Whatever you say, Marky.”

“Good.”

The walk to the beat up truck was a tense one. Jamie marveled at their vehicle when they finally reached it. For as much money as these guys had, he would have thought they might drive nicer cars. Not on the job, he thought, realizing why. Nice cars were conspicuous. When you drive into the desert to kill somebody, you take the beater.

“Get in.”

Jamie did as he was told. The car door slammed, and the dirt and sand flew up into the air, making Jamie cough. The driver’s side door opened, and Marquez slid in, sheathing his machete.

“Let me see your hands.”

“Why would you want to-”

Tus manos, tonto! Give me your hands!”

Jamie did as he was told. A pair of handcuffs clicked into place around both hands, snaked through a handle on the dash.

“Thanks. These feel great.”

“Just be happy you can feel at all, guero. Your life is in a delicate place, I think. Everyone wants you to die.”

“But not you.”

Marquez hit the gas and the truck tore out onto the dusty, abandoned road, putting new tracks in the sand. He smiled.

“I want you to give me the diamonds. After that, no me importa.”

“Your compassion is touching.” Jamie fidgeted with his cuffs. They were fixed tightly, and the handle they went around was surprisingly strong. Jimmying free did not seem to be an option. “Turn left here.”

It was a quiet ride, just dust, occasional directions, and the beating, blistering heat. As they neared a cave, Jamie sat up suddenly.

“Stop here.”

Marquez gave him a glance, then braked. He shut off the truck.

“The diamonds are here?”

“In that cave there. You walk in about thirty feet, then look around for a stack of three rocks. It’ll be on your left. The diamonds are buried underneath that, only about six inches down.”

Marquez repeated the instructions to himself, then nodded. He opened his door and started to get out.

“Hey!” Jamie said, holding up his cuffed wrists as best as he could. “Aren’t you going to uncuff me?”

Marquez smirked.

“What for? I know where they are now, yes? What do I need you for?”

Marquez slid his machete out of its sheath as he cautiously approached the cave’s entrance. Jamie shouted after him.

“You took me out here to kill me, then? Right after you nabbed the goods?”

Marquez disappeared into the blackness, but his voice carried out.

Si, vato! Que otro? Estupido…”

Then, there was a gunshot, and the sound of a body hitting the ground. Jamie leaned back in his chair. A second later, a dark-skinned, slick-haired hombre in a bulletproof vest and shades stepped out of the cave, heading toward the truck. The vest had the letters “FBI” printed across the front.

“Hey, thanks, Carlos,” Jamie said, sitting up again.

“Don’t mention it. That clown pulled a freakin’ machete on me.”

Carlos took Jamie’s hands and rotated them, trying to see what kind of cuffs held him. He kept talking.

“We thought you were a miss. A shot of potential with your first assignment, and then a big ol’ tumbler full of failure.”

Jamie smirked.

“I’m still here, ain’t I?”

Felicity

misty

To be loved and yet not known is shallow

To be known and not loved is what we fear

Hanging in balance, we straddle the row

Hoping to be held without holding dear

 

“Give your heart in pieces,” the prudent say

Like carrots meted out before a mule

If he eats a few, then snubs one- it may

Be easier for the heart to o’errule

 

Some truth is there spoken, but more suppressed

If love’s without fear, then fearless is best

A life with hands open is ever blest

How much more to live with an open chest!

 

I am known by God, and loved- let it be

If another loves me, felicity.

Steadfast

(For this week’s exposition, I wanted to post this piece that I wrote about three years ago. Enjoy.)

“Indeed we count them blessed who endure.  You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end intended by the Lord- that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful”

-          James 5:11 NKJV

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Perseverance is a deeper subject than it seems.  It is more than simply “toughing it out.” Sometimes, even oftentimes, gritting one’s proverbial teeth is not enough.  Perseverance may seem to be an inert, even passive concept, but it is rather the opposite.  Continuing in one direction is not to set a course and then do nothing; perseverance is more like a battle than a plotted course.  In life there is hardship.  Plans fail.  People fail.  Ideas fail.  Setbacks are too numerous to list.  Perseverance is holding on tightly to what you learned in the light, even when it is dark all around.  It is buffeting the advancing swarms of despair and self-pity.  It is fencing with rationalizations to depart from what one knows to be good.  It is wrestling with the desire to give up and go somewhere else.

It is a hard thing, for surely everyone has heard of the concept of “attrition”, which is the steady wearing down of an opponent using third-degree methods.  A steady trickle of water will eventually wear through a concrete barrier, a steady flow of wind will eventually carve out a mountainside, and, when he has no source of replenishing, a steady flow of setbacks will defeat a man.

A few weeks ago at jiu-jitsu, I found myself engaged in multiple bouts with a three-striped purple belt (a rank higher than my own).  I was defeated many times by this ‘foe’, and yet he wanted to continue fighting me.  My opponent had much more experience than I had, and was several years older as well.  He was quick, he was strong, and he knew his technique.  After losing to him several times, and being challenged by him yet again, I accepted.  As we proceeded to engage, I lunged at my opponent and he deflected my attacks, and soon I found myself first inside the confines of his guard, next, on the inside of a very tight choke called an arm triangle.  In a moment of defiance, I slowly twisted my head enough so I could look my attacker in the eyes, and through a tightly compressed throat said to him “I can breathe longer than you can choke me.”

He then proceeded to tighten his already vise-like grip on my throat, as he flexed all of the muscles in his arms and chest, directing their strength toward my throat.  My carotid arteries were mostly closed off by the pressure of his hold, and my throat was only occasionally open enough to give me any sort of air.  I held my composure and put my chin square with my chest, attempting to keep some small passage of air open.  His grip increased in intensity; I only focused on staying conscious.  He choked me for a good minute and a half, employing all of his strength.  Just as I felt the edges of awareness starting to fade around me, his grip loosened, then broke.  My opponent had spent all of his strength on his attack and had nothing left in reserve.  No longer able to resist me, I rolled from under his grip, mounted, and proceeded to submit him in a conventional triangle choke.

Was what I did necessary?  Probably not.  It was just training, and I could have tapped out when his arms closed around my throat.  However, it seemed very symbolic to me to defeat an opponent more skilled than myself through patient endurance.  I have heard it said that one cannot win a war of attrition because it slowly wears one down over time.  Certainly it is true that when confronted with steady, constant opposition, the thing to do is to deliver a decisive blow to the source, and thus be saved from wearing down.  However, in life, one cannot always get to the source of opposition, and hardship.  So what then, is my conclusion?  In the strength of God, with perseverance I shall defeat attrition.

Be encouraged, friends.

I’m From the Future

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Chris clenched his eyes shut and held his fist against his lips, trying to keep the laughter from busting out of him. His body shook with the effort.

“Shh! Come on, shut up. He’s coming.”

Brady socked Chris in the arm, distracting himself from his own urge to laugh. It was a good plan. This was going to be classic.

Chris fell backwards onto his back, still chuckling. His face was red as Brady prepped the living room. He set the pillows straight, smoothed out his shirt, and sat down uprightly as the footsteps approaching the door grew louder.

“Ah, B, I don’t think I can do this,” Chris managed to utter between spasms of stifled laughs. He was shaking his head as he started to rise. Brady could hear Jimmy’s feet on the front doorstep now. There was no time to waste.

Brady glanced around the darkened room quickly, ensuring that nothing was amiss. He smiled roguishly.

Chris grew suddenly alarmed as he heard the jingling of keys at the door, and Brady mouthed urgent orders for him to get up on the couch and pull himself together. The lock clicked open. The door started to creak inward, spilling luminescence in from the porch light beyond. Chris and Brady silently argued with each other, hurrying to get into place, then suddenly they both froze into their positions on the sofa, looking towards the door.

A thin framed, wire-rimmed glasses-wearing teenager shuffled into the entryway balancing several brown paper bags filled with groceries. He turned back towards the door, not seeing Brady and Chris- who had finally succeeded in pulling it together. This was going to be too good.

As the newcomer turned the lock and shut the door, he turned back toward Brady and Chris, still not seeing them in the darkness. The tension was almost too much for the two of them to bear; only the promise of a good joke kept them in a serious disposition.

The lights flipped on. A startled yelp filled the house. The groceries fell to the floor.

“Hello, Jimmy,” Brady said in a grave, almost exasperated voice.

“Hey, Jimmy,” Chris added with a nod.

The thin teenager had backed into the wall with his arms out, but now, seeing who the intruders were, he clenched his eyes shut and softly banged his head against the wall.

“For crying out loud, guys… What in the world are you doing in my house?”

Brady saw that old, ‘I’m going to make a joke about your mom’ look in Chris’ eye, so he gave him a sharp yet invisible elbow, and Chris remembered the character he had to play.

“A necessity, I’m afraid. It’s been so long,” Brady said, sincerity in his eyes. Chris leaned forward and pensively rubbed his hands together. He was in character now.

“What the heck are you talking about, Brady? I saw you in chemistry fourth period today. And again, why did you break into my house?”

Jimmy bent over and started picking up the groceries. No eggs, from the looks of it, so Brady didn’t feel bad. Not that he would have anyway. This was going to be too good.

“Forget the nourishments, Jimmy, and have a seat. You’re… well, you’re going to want to sit down to hear this, I’m afraid.”

“Come into my house,” Jimmy started muttering, “tell me what to do with groceries I bought for my-”

“PUT THE FREAKIN’ BAGS DOWN, JIMMY!” Chris shouted, rising to his feet. Jimmy stopped dead in his tracks and slowly turned to look at his classmates. All the grumbling had gone out of him, it seemed. Brady beamed inwardly. Chris was a convincing actor when he wanted to be. He really looked like he was in a state of urgency.

“Just have a seat, Jimmy. It’s important.”

Cautiously, Jimmy stepped to an over-sized easy chair and sank into it. He held one eyebrow raised as he regarded the intruders. Chris shook his head, covering his forehead with his hand as he took a seat once again.

“You don’t have to yell…” Jimmy began.

“I know,” Chris said quieter, deliberately avoiding eye contact. “I’m sorry, it’s just- there’s just no time for screwing around. This is more important than you could ever imagine.”

“What is this all about?” Jimmy asked, craning his neck backwards, as if repulsed by the strangeness before him. Brady sighed and clasped his hands together.

“We’re from the future, Jimmy.”

Jimmy’s raised eyebrow drew up even higher. Chris nodded in agreement.

“Are you high?” Jimmy asked.

Chris scoffed and shifted in his seat.

“I wish I was. Then I could forget about all this crap. Freakin’ giant robots with their laser eyes destroying everything that was once good and beautiful. People who run around-”

“Christopher!” Brady cut him off. “We have to give him some context. It has to be shocking for him.”

“If this is you guys’ idea of a joke, I’d appreciate-”

“We’re from thirty years in the future, Jimmy, and you’re going to shut up and listen to us.” Brady stood up suddenly and ran a hand through his hair. “I’m tired, and I’ve travelled a long way and a long time to get here. We knew going in that it was a long shot and that you probably wouldn’t believe us, but we had to try. We have to try. For humanity’s sake. We remembered all of those books and comics on time travel you used to read, so we thought maybe you’d realize that this is for real.”

Jimmy had sunk lower into the large chair now, his legs extended too far in front of him and a disgusted, confused look on his face.

“It’s just for fun.”

“Time travel is not fun,” Chris said gravely, looking straight at Jimmy with wide eyes.

“It isn’t,” Brady agreed, “but you have to believe us, because the future of mankind depends on you.”

It was quiet, then. Brady and Chris looked to Jimmy with imploring eyes. Only the tic-tic-tic of the mantle clock made any sound.

Jimmy appeared to debate with himself.

“Why should I believe you?” he finally said softly.

“Jimmy, in twenty-five years you are going to have a breakthrough. See, you work for the company that Christopher and I own, and your research into biomechanical artificial intelligence fields got just a little too good. We saw a business opportunity and started building robots to help people-”

“Model C-7 fifteens,” Chris added.

“Yeah, C-7 fifteens,” Brady agreed. “Everybody bought one. It was like having your own little personal assistant who didn’t get tired, didn’t need to eat. It was great. But then,” Brady’s eyes narrowed and he gesticulated wildly with his hands, “they started getting self-aware. We built them too dang smart…”

“Ok, stop, guys,” Jimmy said, shaking his head. His head was nearly level with his torso now, the way he was slouching. “That’s the plot to Terminator. Or I Robot or something.”

Chris’ jaw steeled and he frowned.

“That’s what we call one ironic piece of-”

“Oh, very clever!” Brady declared loudly, throwing his hands in the air. He looked angry. “You think you’re the first one to notice that very embarrassing fact? That our own storytellers had warned us about this since the twentieth century, but we didn’t listen? No, it’s real- and all life on the planet is almost wiped out now.”

“Almost wiped out?” Jimmy asked, sitting up a bit.

“There’s a small remnant left,” Chris answered. “But not much. You died already.”

Jimmy swallowed hard, unable to hide his reaction.

“It’s too late in the future, Jimmy, the machines are too strong. But here!” Brady clenched his fist and stepped toward the gangly teen. “Here, there is still something the three of us can do to make sure that when this war comes, the humans come out on top.”

“Are… are you guys going to hurt me?”

Chris looked away sharply. That one almost made him break character. As it was, a snort still escaped from him, but Brady kept it together.

“No, we’re not going to kill you so that you never make the invention. I see where your head is at. Somebody else was bound to if not you, and there’s no telling what kind of chaos we’d create by killing somebody in the past. It has been discussed, but no.”

Chris looked back now, rising to his feet and stepping nearer to Jimmy, who was turning his head as he scooted back in the chair, trying to sit up. Skepticism started to wash away.

“We only have one real shot at this, Jimmy,” Brady began. Chris fell to his knees in front of Jimmy, and Brady joined him. “There’s only one way for humanity to survive.” Brady held his trembling, folded hands before him. “Will you help us? Will you save humanity?”

Jimmy looked uncomfortable, but grave. He was shaking. He looked from Chris to Brady as they kneeled like supplicants before him. It was still for several tense moments, and then, his puberty-ridden voice squeaked out a response.

“What do I have to do?”

“PPPBBTTH!!!”

“HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”

The dam had burst, the mission had succeeded. Chris and Brady howled with laughter, rolling on the floor and slapping the ground in delight.

“I told you,” Brady shouted between breaths and guffaws. “I told you he’d believe us.”

“I’m from the future!” Chris declared in a mocking voice.

“Oh, man… oh, this is the best. This is the best freakin’-”

The boys were cut off by the sound of the doorbell. Still laughing, they glanced to the door, and the handle started to turn. The door gently eased open and a man stepped inside, a stern look on his face. He was tall and well-built, and he looked a little bit like Jimmy.

Brady hit Chris in the stomach.

“You said Jimmy lives with his mom!”

“That isn’t my dad…” Jimmy interrupted.

Terror instantly replaced the mirth in the boys as they realized a strange man had just entered the house, and they were alone.

The tall, good-looking intruder glanced down at the fallen groceries and shook his head. He glanced about briefly like he was taking it all in deeply. Then, looking toward the group of boys as if he had momentarily forgotten about them, he descended the small step that led into the sitting area.

“So many memories…” he said wistfully. He shook his head as all of the boys watched, frozen. He cleared his throat, then spoke again. “James,” he said, nodding respectfully at Jimmy. “Just a quick message for you. You grow up to be wealthier than these losers ever dream of. You have a smoking hot wife and a mansion in the Hamptons. This one weighs four hundred pounds, last I checked,” he said, pointing down at the currently very athletic Chris, “and this one can’t seem to hold a job longer than a few weeks, and he’s got some sort of bowel condition too.” The middle-aged man smiled, then, a winning, charming smile. “You boys were right about one thing, though. I do end up inventing something pretty important. It just isn’t robots.”

Hardly believing their eyes, Chris and Brady glanced at one another, scared out of their wits.

“You boys may want to run,” the man said, glancing at his watch. “Chris, your mother is about to come home early and see that you aren’t babysitting like you promised, and Brady- well, I’m not even going to tell you what’s waiting for you at home, but it isn’t pretty, and you better get there before things get worse.”

Nobody moved. Brady’s knees were visibly shaking.

“Did you hear me?” the man demanded. “Go!”

Bumping into each other and staying as far from the well-dressed epiphany as possible, Brady and Chris tore out of Jimmy’s house like a pair of rockets. The man watched them go, shaking his head. Jimmy remained seated in his chair.

“They sure can run, I’ll give that to them though,” the man said.

Jimmy slowly rose from his chair. He inched toward the messenger. Then, glancing upward, he nodded.

“So you heard them talking at school?” the man asked. Jimmy nodded again. The man glanced out the door again, straining to see if he could still catch a sight of them. “I tell you what, if you’re going to bother planning something, you should keep your big mouth shut when somebody might hear you.” Jimmy nodded again.

“Thanks, Uncle Stephen.”

Uncle Stephen reached down and tussled Jimmy’s hair. He’d get his growth spurt soon, he was sure.

“You’re welcome, sport.”

They looked at each other approvingly for a moment.

And then they laughed. They laughed good, hard, and long.

“Who falls for that?” Jimmy asked amidst rolling fits of laughter. He wiped away the mirth from his eyes and held his hands out in pantomime. “I’m from the future!”

Secure

Deluge

The skies cloud with rain and the Thunder shouts

His great battle cry from the lofty height

Water rises up and the Doubter doubts

The fierce North Wind blows with his icy might

 

But I am not troubled. I will not fear.

The One who fights for me is greater still

All blows will fall back on my foes’ own tier

Ev’rything must bend to His staunchest will

 

Uncertainty shows me that I must trust

I’ve learned that I’m stronger in face of pain

Poverty shows me that riches are dust

Deluge is no threat- I’ll dance in the rain

 

That which no one shall ever take from me

Is joy, for it is ever heavenly

Sincerely Yours,

megaphone- speaker

A friend of mine had an interesting task recently. She, in preparation for a speech of her own, had to research several young speakers and listen to some of their orations. The problem? Many of them, evidently, were… less than savory to their audiences. They came off as brash, inflated, or simply immature. Having to listen to someone condescending is always a trial, and evidently this was no exception. Many of these speeches proved lackluster, to be conservative with our judgment.

This friend, being the astute, terrifically intelligent person that she is, said something intriguing to me during the course of her research. She mentioned that all of the best speakers she had ever listened to had one trait in common: authenticity. After musing upon the point, I had to agree with her. All of the best speakers I have ever heard struck me as genuine as well.

Authenticity, transparency, sincerity (call it what you will) is not a characteristic that is often spoken about in our culture, and yet it is something that is almost universally respected. It is refreshing to meet someone and realize that what you see is what you get. It sets one at ease to have an instructor who has no ulterior motives. If I am going to be preached to, I want it to be from someone who believes what they’re saying. Conviction should precede speech, not the other way around. Someone who strikes me as genuine is someone who has my attention. (A good thing for a speaker)

What’s shocking about sincerity is that it is a quality that can never truly be faked. A person can make himself appear sad, angry, elated, or any number of things, but people have a keen eye for spotting insincerity. Dale Carnegie, in his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People (an excellent read, if you have not yet gotten around to it) mentions how off-putting flattery is. Typically, unless one is a master flatterer, it ends up simply being annoying. In order to come off as sincere, he says, one actually needs to be sincere. If I want to pay someone a compliment that means anything at all, I need to first appreciate the corresponding quality in the one I compliment. A phony reeks from a mile away.

The men and women I admire most in this world are authentic and sincere and open, and I want to be like them. The difference between these sorts of people and the terrible speakers that my friend had to endure might be multi-faceted, but it is a crucial distinction that one group is pretentious and the other is not. What is pretentiousness, anyway, if not hiding behind an insecure façade? People who are authentic, in my experience, are not hiding anything at all. This gives them an air of humility, for no one is perfect, and to keep from hiding is to admit this. Someone who reeks of pretention is proud- a strange twisting of what one might expect, but it is always evident.

We live in a very pretentious world, full of white lies for the sake of image and edits for the sake of obscuring what is really happening. And yet- none of us likes this quality when we meet someone or have to listen to someone speak. A different friend of mine once said something very wise to me that I will never forget. He said, “People can’t relate to perfection, but they understand brokenness.” Everyone is broken, in some way at least. Yet we find it so necessary to hide this fact- especially when speaking or instructing others. Don’t misunderstand me; I am all for putting one’s best foot forward, but pretending to be perfect is nothing more than farcical. Genuine people, the sort of people I admire and wish to emulate, have no hesitance in admitting their faults, but because of this their strengths appear that much more real. I don’t have to question them or wonder if they exaggerate their good qualities. And yet most everyone lives in such fear and behind such masks.

I am broken. I admit to that.

But see- you are too. If I’m upfront about who I am, I will most certainly show the uglier colors in me, but then they will be exposed. Darkness cannot hope to survive in the light. If it is apparent to all who are close to me what my weaknesses are, those things will probably be pointed out to me, and then I’m on the road to God-willing having a better heart.

My point, in all of this today, is to encourage you. It is a frightening prospect to live life with no secrets, to be transparent. If I may be so bold as to bend one of my rules and assume your feelings for a moment- remember that you like those sorts of people. That you admire them, even though they aren’t perfect. Let’s try and be like them in that. I want to be like that.

What is Coming, and What is Here Already

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“You keep quiet!”

I hit the concrete like a marble hitting glass. Everything hurt. There was a squeak of rusted metal as the iron bars clamped shut and more shouting, this time in an unintelligible tongue. Unintelligible to me, at least.

Such is life in a Japanese prison camp, in the midst of the greatest and most terrible war this world has ever seen.

“Hey! You look here!”

The guard proceeded to untie his pants and urinate on me. It was depressing, and disgusting of course, but I lacked either the strength or the will to move. Probably both. The warm, unwelcome liquid finally quit flowing, and the guard took a walk, laughing to himself all of the way. I didn’t even bother looking up. All I felt was the cold, damp floor beneath me, the warm, damp clothes on my back, and the ache in my flesh. The piss started to soak through my threadbare shirt and get into the lacerations on my shoulders, which made me curl up unconsciously and wince at the horrible, shameful pain.

It wasn’t until I felt someone touch me that I opened my eyes.

He had removed his shirt from his own back and was using it to wipe at the open sores on mine, trying to get the foreign contaminant as dry as possible. He seemed old, but you could never really tell in this place. When a man gets down to about eighty-five pounds, he’s nothing but skin and protruding bones- more skeleton than man. It’s almost impossible to discern age, because everyone looks like they’re already dead. He worked quietly, in an unassuming way. It hurt, what he was doing, but I knew it might prove helpful. As helpful as anything could, at least. A sudden spasm of the terrible cough I’d picked up wracked my body, and the skeleton of a man looked down at me with compassion in his eyes. That was something I’d not seen in quite a while.

“I’m sorry that I’ve already drank my water for the day,” the man said softly. “It would have been better to clean you with, but this will have to do until we get some more.”

He went back to his work, then. The soft scraping of the fabric against my skin was the only sound. I watched him as he completed his task. He had a big nose and his hair was dark, so he couldn’t have been too old. A couple of grays here and there.

He rose to his feet, squinting in pain and supporting his knee with his bandaged hand. He groaned, then shook his head and feebly walked to the corner of the small cell, only two steps away.

“They must have made a mistake,” he wheezed, breathing heavily as he sank back down to the floor. The small amount of effort it took to reach me and scrub at my skin for a minute had exhausted him. Still, I felt that he had more stamina than I. I was fairly certain I could not stand. Starvation has a funny way of taking the fight out of you.

“They don’t usually put prisoners together here,” he continued. The corner of his withered lips inched upward into what almost resembled a smile. “They must not have seen me, or thought me to be already dead!” He chuckled quietly to himself. I did not share his amusement.

“You’re British,” I said, hearing the Queen’s English in his accent. He nodded.

“How the Hell’d you get over here?”

The prisoner reached a trembling hand up to his nose and winked.

“That’s a rather long story,” he said. “But suffice it to say, you Americans are not the only ones fighting in the colonies.”

With effort and a lot of pain, I slid up the wall a little ways so that I could prop myself against it. I gritted my teeth against the sensation.

“How do you know I’m American?”

He pointed at my arm, where a tattoo of Old Glory rested in the folds of extra skin. I suppose that was as good an indicator as any.

The man across from me looked upwards and tilted his head toward the wall.

“It must be a lovely day outside.”

I glanced around. There was no window in the whole of the prison as far as I could tell. I looked at him like he had lost it. He probably had.

The man chuckled.

“I’m sorry- an odd observation in a dark room, I suppose. The air feels lighter today. I guess that it might be a sign of a clear day beyond these walls.”

“The air smells like vomit, rotting flesh, and the stink of these Japs holding us here,” I said. He just sort of avoided my eyes after I said it, like he was embarrassed or something. I couldn’t imagine why. I motioned to the wall with my head, and I immediately regretted the exertion. I tried to say my piece regardless. “The only lovely day I’m looking for is the one where American B-17’s, B-22’s, and whatever the Hell else we’ve got show up to get us out of this place.” I took as deep a breath as I could manage. Speaking felt like choking. “I heard their engines passing over a couple days ago.”

The man nodded solemnly.

“That will be a lovely day, indeed. God be praised for it.”

I narrowed my eyes at my new cellmate.

“What are you, some kind of a chaplain?”

I asked my question and there it was again- a smile. Right there on his face, in the middle of the bowels of wherever the heck we were, was an honest-to-goodness grin.

“I suppose I am. After all, with only me in the cell, I have nearly been press ganged into the position. Who else would have done it for me?” He chuckled then and leaned his head back. He seemed truly amused. “Of course, with your arrival, I suppose that we will have to find a civilized manner of election. When I was alone here, I ran uncontested for whatever duties I wished.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“You can keep the job, thanks.”

He shrugged.

“I’ll treasure it. My name is Peter.”

“John.”

“My, but we have Biblical namesakes.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Delightful.”

I couldn’t handle it any longer, the man was clearly insane, even if he didn’t exactly act like it. He had a strange way about him. It was a different sort of bearing than I had ever seen.

“What the Hell is wrong with you?” I demanded. The growing smile began to fade from his lips. “What reason in the world do you have for smiling? Have you seen what they do to people here? Haven’t you seen the guards make your buddy kill your other buddy because they threatened to kill the whole row if he didn’t? What the Hell reason do you have to smile?”

The man looked like he had been taken aback by what I said, as if I had somehow offended his British sensibilities. There was no place for sensibilities here, only anguish and thoughts of revenge.

“I apologize if I have upset you,” he began in his telling accent. “I only thought that today has been an exceptionally good day, and so my natural response is to grin.”

“A good day?” I wheezed. I laughed a dry and bitter guffaw before coughing again. He raised his chin and looked at me confidently.

“Yes,” he affirmed. “I now have a cellmate, something I never thought to have again. I was beginning to doubt if I would ever get the opportunity to again converse with a living person who speaks English, and here you are. I woke up this morning, and now I have you here as well. These are good things.”

“Buddy, they don’t have good things in here. Good things are only coming if we manage to live long enough for the bombing squads to blast this place to smithereens and get us out. Smile if you want to be an optimist about what’s coming. Me, I gave up the optimists’ approach long ago. But those bombers, they’re coming. I heard ‘em a couple of times. Their engines are real loud.”

Peter scratched his nose and looked off for a moment as he thoughtfully replied. I was resting up from doing so much dang talking. The smell of the cell and my own filthy skin made me want to vomit. I always wanted to vomit in this place.

“Do you do addition, John?” Peter asked calmly.

“Addition?” I whispered. Conversing with a looney tune like this one could be a confusing experience, I thought.

“Two plus two is four, three plus five is eight; that sort of thing.”

“Yeah I do addition. What’s wrong with you?”

He paid my comment no mind.

“When you were a school lad, did your instructor lay a multivariable calculus equation on the desk before you, citing several proofs and theorems connecting space and time from the work of Einstein and Newton and the like? Pages and pages of complexity?”

I raised my eyebrow again.

“Of course not. I started with two and two is four, just like everybody else.”

“So you did,” the prisoner continued. He scratched at his torso absent-mindedly, and I saw his shirt rise as he moved. His flesh was so bitten up by fleas and roaches, and who knows what else, that it hardly even looked like skin any more. “You were presented with something simple first, so that you would get the way of it. No distractions, just one concept. And from there you learn. Maybe, one day if you chose to study higher mathematics, your training to solve simple equations would help you, because you could break down the complexity of calculus into something manageable. You could see the math in it through the muddle, because you’d been trained in simplicity.”

I coughed again, then, and the Brit waited patiently for the fit to subside before he spoke again.

“It is the same with us here. I think that God sometimes allows us to experience lows in life to show us one concept, with no distractions. Here, in the depths of this dungeon and suffering, I have nothing but myself and God. In the absence of distraction, I have learned that this is all that I need. My needs are fulfilled, I am alive, and I am thankful. This is good.”

“What’s that got to do with calculus?” I asked him. He was almost making sense, even if I didn’t buy it. Cleverest lunatic I ever met. His eyes were calm as he focused them on me.

“In the simplicity of having nothing, in realizing that God is all I have need for, now I am equipped to see good elsewhere as well. This morning my few sips of water were cooler than usual. What a treat it was! As I sit on the floor, I experience the sensation of oxygen passing through my lungs and out of my mouth. What a delight! And above all of these small things, I have now been given you for whatever time we may here remain together, and this has been the greatest blessing of them all. My mouth may bleed from dryness, my feet- ha! I don’t want to discuss what is happening with my feet. There is much suffering, it is true, but I have learned from reduction to see also what is good.”

I cocked my head at the man.

“What, so next you going to tell me you don’t hate the Japs who did this to you? That everything is hunky dory?”

I sneered in contempt. He waited, considering for a moment. It wasn’t easy for him to talk again, but he finally did.

“No. No I don’t hate the Japanese. I hate what has been done to me, but how can I hate another of God’s creation? I cannot.”

I scoffed at Peter and went off on a blue rant against the devils who stuck us in this place. He just averted his eyes again, just like the first time I said the word “Jap.” It bothered me. Finally, I didn’t have the breath to speak any longer and I was feeling unbelievably fatigued from the effort. He had the floor by default.

“You would be wise, my friend,” he began, “to examine your own heart first. You are right that wrongs have been done to us. You are right that the American planes will one day come. But listen to me closely,” he said, leaning forward and continuing like he had never heard my outburst at all. “The bombers are coming, and that is good. Good things are coming. But here- even here! Good things are present already. No matter what happens to me now in all that remains of this life, I will relish in its goodness with a depth I have never before known. Because I have seen the essence of good, and that is God Himself.”

He leaned back against the cold wall, then, his eyes shut in satisfaction. I stared at him in disbelief, contrary to him in my heart, but unable to bring my mouth to form any words. I sat there for what must have been hours, just staring at the contented, beaten skeleton of a man who dared to hold onto peace. I saw the corners of his thin lips begin to curl upwards before I ever heard the noise.

In the distance, a fleet of American engines hummed and started to grow louder. They started getting louder than I had ever heard them before.