“How long do you plan to keep putting this off?
The words pierced through Marie Stanford's peace of mind, threatening to suffocate her. These intrusions always gave her the same sick feeling in the pit of her stomach.
Though the sudden interruption rattled her inside, she kept lacing her brand-new saddle wood boots, which had just arrived by UPS. After she finished, she glanced up to give the man an eye roll, letting him know she wasn't pleased.
The strangers always found them. She and her husband, Gary, finally ended up returning to Stone Plains where her best friend, Katie lived. Still, this hadn't stopped. In the same week they'd moved, she’d spotted a Mexican across the street seated in a metallic-blue-looking Honda Accord staring at her. He'd given her a message that was just as creepy as the others.
"Recuerda tu deber."
Not long after she got rid of him, someone who was obviously a man of the cloth started watching her. She'd assumed he was visiting the sick and elderly in the neighborhood. She'd left her driveway to leave for work one morning when he gestured to roll down her window. His ensuing weird message was similar to the ones the others had given her. She'd smirked at the thought that the dents in his brown Chevy were evidence that he'd tried to give someone else the same message, and they weren't any happier about it.
This stranger had simply walked up to her house on foot and was dressed better than the rest. Huge muscles pulsed from under a black t-shirt. A brown leather jacket sheltered him from the cold. A little stubble spread across the bottom half of his face, giving him a manly appearance. The October breeze flapped against wavy brown locks of hair, which he kept struggling to push away long enough to speak. She'd have thought he was attractive if she weren't so annoyed.
He seemed in no hurry as he released several silver smoke curls from his lips. His expression said that time was something he could make more of. Still, it was soon for her when he placed his right foot on the last step below her porch.
“Who the hell are you?” she demanded with a Southern drawl, an effort to keep the upper hand. To him, she looked like a bear defending her cubs.
He shifted his foot as if he was considering taking another step. Marie glared, as if to say don't you dare. He looked as if he were about to say something, but instead, he flicked the cig onto the ground and placed his foot on the second step. That turned out to be a mistake.
Marie reached for the twenty-two rifle that was angled against the back of the porch near her.
“ Don't come any closer. I'll shoot you if you take another step.
Now---- just who are you?”
The man bit his lip, seeming shocked. Marie blushed, realizing she seemed paranoid, but before she could apologize, the man spoke,
" Like the others, I've been sent here today to relay a message. This time it's only two words... Stop stalling."
His voice held a touch of firmness.
“Marie, why are you resisting it?"
The rest had walked away after delivering their message, but instead, he maintained her gaze, the color of his eyes changing from deep brown to a cold blue that penetrated her thoughts. Unable to move for those few moments, she found herself feeling calmer.
Strangely, his eyes reminded her of her late grandmother, the one who read tarot cards for everyone. She'd made strange predictions about Marie's future, but Marie never believed in them, even on her seventh birthday when her grandmother had pulled the Knight of Swords, the Strength card, and the Judgment card in one hand for her destiny reading. The ravings about being "chosen," and how she must take swift action someday when it was required had made the old woman appear to the family to be losing her mind, like a few had in previous generations.
A thought in the back of her mind kept nagging her about how everything seemed too familiar. What could it all mean?
It was getting harder to ignore.
Putting her questions aside, she placed the 22 back against the wall, sighed loudly, and slumped down onto one side of the porch swing. Patting the seat next to her, Marie beckoned the stranger to come sit.
"It's certainly been an odd week."
There’d been the dreams, of course, too, but she didn't mention them.
The man put an arm around her shoulder. The physical touch made things real, and made her face shift back from calm to bristling. Right away, she started spitting out anger in full force,
“Who sent you? The priest that came by two days ago?”
The man scooted a few more inches away from Marie. Facing her, his eyebrows flattened in sympathy before he replied,
“I'm sorry I can't give you all the answers."
His blue eyes sparkled like two sapphires set in wedding-style tiffanies, revealing that it was a riddle she had to figure out for herself. She dropped her head in response.
“I bet you're gonna say that if I don’t do this, I’ll regret it." Her voice wavered, a mixture of her doubt and confusion.
When she looked up, he was gone. Goosebumps appeared on her forearm.
She realized then the task was inevitable.
A trip to the local pawn shop made her feel guilty and foolish, but there was no way she'd be using the 22 rifle from home registered to her husband. No need to take him down with her.
Looking at knives, rifles, and handguns made her feel like a criminal though she hadn't even done anything yet. Realizing she had to choose something and an hour had already passed, she settled on a semi-automatic Smith & Wesson, wondering,
Why would she, of all people, a schoolteacher, be expected to take anyone’s life? Was it justified to kill someone even if they might do something horrible in the future? A man could change, couldn’t he?
A voice in her mind whispered,
You know what you must do…
Rebellion against her destiny had gotten her nowhere and she was tired of struggling. It would be no easy task to take a life, even if it meant the world would be better off for it, but by now, she was afraid that if she didn’t follow her so-called “destiny,” soon, the powers that be might take action to make her or her husband sorry that she hadn’t. Why couldn’t someone more qualified do this instead? Her mind was a whirl of confusion.
Walking out of the pawn shop, she saw a billboard with the Nike emblem.
“Just do it.”
The universe had just offered a clear answer.... So, she would do the deed and get it over with the next day.
Marie stood before her classroom of students and taught like any normal school day, but behind her painted-on smile, sadness was brewing in her heart. Later, she stopped by the office mailbox to find that someone had left her a note written in strange, black calligraphy. Her eyes widened when she realized the note actually stated that the name of her "target" was Billy Winston. It was signed “From a Concerned Citizen.”
This was a child in her classroom! She'd expected the target was an adult. Waves of terror passed through her at the thought of what she was being asked to do.
She tried the rest of her lunch break to distract herself by reading the Old Schoolhouse Magazine laying on the table in front of her, but her thoughts drifted back to her classroom experiences with Billy.
Billy was only seven. How could anyone know for sure he would destroy the world before it happened? She had to admit that he was a troubled youth, though. She'd saved weaker or younger children from him, arriving just in time to break up the fights. There was relief in all those children’s eyes. It was palpable. The situation had prompted her to speak with the school counselor, Jane Bridges, who admitted that the boy had problems at home. She knew what those problems were, but couldn't talk about them at length.
Returning from deep thought, Marie looked up from her magazine to find that the same child she was supposed to murder was walking into the teacher’s lounge where she was, about to enter it. She opened her mouth to scold him for being there, but instead of speaking to her, Billy dashed toward a chair, put his face on the table, and began sobbing.
Putting her hand on his arm to soothe him, she said,
“What's wrong, Billy. Did something happen?”
Billy raised his head and began to confide in her about how earlier on the playground he'd been punched by an older bully much worse than him, and how bad things were at home with his abusive, alcoholic father. By the time she finished consoling him, she was determined to refer the boy to the school social worker. Noting no physical bruising, she sent Billy back to his classroom.
It was then that the whole situation began to change. She expected Billy to reply, but instead the scene around her began to disintegrate, collapsing into a surreal maze of distorted reality. Her vision blurred as she was being lifted from the body she'd been housed in for over 30 years. Eventually, all sound became completely warbled. Marie wondered was she having a stroke, some kind of psychotic break, or was she going to die.
Whatever this was, she knew she had no time left to do whatever it was she was supposed to do.
Shortly after, she found herself speeding at what seemed a high velocity through a vortex, one that was dark until she got near the end, where she began to see a pinprick of light. The closer she got, the more her insides felt like they were on fire. As Marie began to remember the truth, she realized the whole situation had never been real in the first place.
Whooshing toward the pinpoint of light that got bigger by the second, Maria noted that all of her former memories came flooding in, until she finally realized that her real name was Rajah, and this simulation of having to kill a young boy had just been a part of her step-in soul training. She had never really been Marie Stanford, the teacher, at all. It was just a role, much like being in a play. Killing Billy was just a test. She must have gotten too deeply immersed in her human consciousness to recall the mission. Most step-in souls encountered this problem, but to be able to become one of the A-team she'd have to overcome that.
In training for the team over the past four years, she'd learned a great deal from these simulated experiences. The A-team was sworn to continually bring forth the will of the Source of all living things. As a member, she would soon be helping ensure that the world continues regardless of man's foibles, preventing nuclear events, dangerous diplomatic decisions, or other events that could eventually result in the premature end of mankind.
Of course, the team had already done a lot for mankind. It prevented Earth's destruction when Kim Jong-Un almost hit the nuke button during the Donald Trump/Kim Jong Un nonsense. The Source had also used the team to correct a few of His own past mistakes, like when he created Adam without the ability to discern right from wrong. A member of the A-team was sent to enter the serpent's mind and cause it to tempt Eve, so that the humans on Earth would eat of the tree of knowledge. An angel had then moved the tree closer to the dwelling place of Adam and Eve so that she would notice it sooner. The serpent's stand-in soul caused the beast to slither over there just about the same time and the angel allowed it the power to speak for a time. The plan had worked perfectly because now most humans considered the consequences of their actions prior to acting making it easier to prevent the destruction of Earth and its civilizations.
The angels were used as His last resort when the A-team failed. The team had stepped in for several people prior to the 9.11 attacks, yet the plan failed to elude the attack and its aftermath. Brian Clarke managed to rescue Stanley Praimnath, but that was only because an angel had whispered in the man's ear, "Brian you'll be ok." It gave the man the strength he needed for the task. The angels also assisted in tasks that involved physical healing or brief suspensions of the known laws of the universe applied at the Source's discretion.
Through the program, the team had prevented disasters. They'd released the Covid-19 virus in China just in the nick of time to reduce Earth's population within the last seven years before the global warming problem would have been irreversible. Raja was still in training, so this had just been a simulation...a trial run like so many others she'd done recently. None of the experiences she'd thought were real during the trip had actually taken place.
She hoped the Source would be understanding of her recent simulation failure, but the captain likely wouldn't. She recalled that Captain Rhen had told her in prior conferences that this problem needed to be taken care of quickly. Likely, that was also why they'd kept sending her so many strangers to urge her to ramp up her progress.
When Captain Rhen finally appeared at the gate to grant her access to her soul dimension, she assumed he was going to scold her. After all, usually when a soul replacement trainee got jerked out of a mission before it was complete, that could only mean the powers that be were so disgusted with it, that they saw no need to continue the simulation. The captain's unhappiness was noticeable in the way his brows furrowed. The lines in his forehead were creased with concern. To her surprise, when he finally spoke again, he was more gentle than she expected.
“Well, you did get a little closer this time," He said, the pitch of his voice dropping a notch before he patted her shoulder. Reading his thoughts, she could tell he realized this exercise hadn't been easy for her, and that there was really no point in trying to make her feel worse. So, maybe he was learning from experience, too.
“Captain, with all due respect..."
"I know what you're about to say, Raja. You disagree with our approach."
"Yes, Captain, I don’t believe this is at all the right approach to this scenario. It wouldn't be too late for the boy to change. My debriefing with the Source will include a statement that at the age of seven no one was there for him, not his mother, father, teachers, or others in his life who could have helped him become a better person, save for Miss Stone. The boy could have benefited a positive father figure, in particular. That could be why everything happened the way it did in real time.”
“Nonsense. The child would still destroy the World if he was allowed to reach the age of thirty-three. In this type of scenario, the comes from within the person's own nature. The best course of action in that case is to destroy the person before he or she can do that? Otherwise, it's a hit or miss. They may still end up in the same position later. The A-team doesn't take chances like that. Are you ready to go back and complete the scenario as it should be done?"
Rajah ignored the question, but she knew if they sent her into a real situation, her choice would never be that simple as Captain Wren wanted to make it. If she had to work through the scenario again, she would do it her way, not theirs, and killing would be the last resort.
“This time I’d like to go back as his father, not his teacher.”
" I expected just as much. You've always been compassionate and willing to play the long game, but sometimes being straightforward is the best way. If you actually are approved for the A-team, you will eventually realize that."
The Captain set the proper coordinates, knowing that arguing with her would be futile.
“Well don’t look down on reentry,” he joked, “Just keep in mind that it will be quite an adjustment playing a male role this time. I hope you are ready.”
Raja nodded, believing that regardless of the obstacles, she would soon be on the A-team saving the world her way, and she hoped she could prove to the powers that be that it was worth the extra time and effort.
She looked forward to when all practice simulations would be done, and she would receive her well-earned stripes.
Marie chuckled, realizing that after all she might have to go through in the meantime, she'd probably need some kind of vacation before the real deal.