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Suspense Contemporary Christian

Norm had waited out in the drizzling rain before the slightly hungover young woman opened the shop late—a full eight minutes after the advertised six o’clock open time. In Norm’s line of work as a pastor, waiting was his stock-in-trade and he had grown quite used to the fact that things like opening times and scheduled meetings were more suggestions than anything you could rely on. 


Standing under the awning, huddled under his umbrella, the morning rain had come sideways and caught in his gray beard and wet his face. He panted out shallow clouds of vapor and tapped his foot to keep warm as the girl fumbled with the bolt lock inside. Henri was probably still in bed, snoozing his alarm, his breath full of whiskey, Norm thought. 


Norm shook out his umbrella and rushed in as if he might be late—but, he knew better than to expect Henri on time. The bitter smell of fresh burnt grounds overpowered the caramel and chocolate notes that hung in the air. There was a stench of fresh grounds discarded in the trash bin. They steamed like wet autumn leaves decaying in the rain. The young woman filled the carafes. 


There was also a smell of freshly baked cinnamon bread that reminded Norm of his mother’s kitchen. The young woman was playing some lovely jazz music, soft and rhythmic. The brewing sounds, clicking of presses, and hissing of steam were jarring by contrast. There was always this push-and-pull: the warmth of home pulled you in, out of time, into an air of comfort, while at the same time, the sounds and smells of commerce and the preparation of the morning’s product drew in the cold, hard transactional nature of the world, which broke the spell completely.


Out of reflex, Norm picked up a worn-out weeks old newspaper from the newsstand that time forgot, which was by the door—a horrific-looking green wire thing. Henri would be along any minute, he thought. He settled into the corner of a booth seat by the window, where he could see Henri coming, and snapped open the paper. 


Several times each minute, he pushed up his round glasses, peering over the paper and looking out into the wet October morning. It was now half past the hour. Norm hadn’t read a word; in fact, he was totally unaware of the date on the paper, or the fact it wasn’t weeks old, but nearly two full years old. He only noticed it in passing as he tossed the old paper in the trash, pacing a bit to keep warm. The passing of time. Strange, Norm thought, how one could live a life in a day or how the days of life that really mattered compressed the space between them so that it seemed that no time had passed at all.


Norm couldn’t stop thinking about the text message from the night before. I don’t have a father


Norm had heard this more times than he could count. Hell, he’d thought the very thing himself. More times than he could count. Thought it about his real father. Thought it about his heavenly father too. Sometimes it was all he thought. But those moments passed.


Norm spotted Henri shuffling across the intersection at 11th Street, breaking into a jog with a magazine held overhead. Norm bolted out of his seat, went to the door, and ran halfway down the block to meet him with a hearty hug. Henri hugged back, but only a pat. Then, when Norm stayed glued in there, gave in and gave a solid embrace for just a moment. Thank God, Norm thought, letting out a characteristic chuckle to break the tension. 


When Norm had his arms around him, he could feel every bone through Henri’s flannel shirt, and it concerned him—he had always known Henri to be stocky and muscled—and here he was nothing but a bag of bones.


“Good to see you,” Norm said, “Let’s get inside.”


Henri didn’t say anything. He just looked at Norm, a tear hanging in the corner of his eye. And he shook his head as if to say, nice try. Henri's skin was pale. Great purple bags hung beneath his eyes. Even the stubble on his chin looked hungry and disheveled as if it lacked the energy to read the blueprint and assemble in the proper places and just patched up any old place instead. 


What had it been now? Norm thought, was it really two whole years?


Norm rushed up to the counter while Henri got settled. A chalkboard sign stood on the counter with elegantly written words: 'Today's Special: Caramel Hug. Warm your soul.'


“We’ll take two of today’s special!” Norm said.


The young woman behind the counter had tattoos of vines climbing her arms with sharp-ridged leaves and bundled grapes wrapping around the arms in patterned circles, which brought to Norm’s mind the vinedresser from whose perspective the rebels are already clean. A swell of emotion caught Norm by surprise—that his father had placed this here for him at this moment—and fat tears pooled in both eyes, burning behind his eyelids, and trickling uncontrollably down his cheeks. Norm pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed up the tears. The young woman muttered to herself audibly, this guy is having a day.


She poured out frothy concoctions from a shiny, metallic contraption, releasing a hiss and puff of steam. And as she worked, she said, “Anything else?” The contents were divided into two deep-blue mugs, warmth seeping through their ceramic walls. 


“Of course, yes. Throw in a bear claw… two of those Boston Crème’s… and what do you think, which of these breakfast sandwiches—let me see—how about one of the ‘Sausage or the Egg’ and one, no, two of the ‘Holy Guacomoles’… really love that name,” Norm said.


“Is that all?” the young woman said, pressing her upper lip down on her lip ring and scowling, as she cocked her head to the side.


“You’re right,” he said, “two bear claws.”


“You taking that to go?” she asked, scanning the room.


“No, no. We’re sitting over there by the window,” Norm said.


“I’ll bring it right over,” she said. 


She smelled vaguely of menthol cigarettes and baby formula.


* * *


“Here, drink, drink up. There’s a small feast coming. Today we eat well,” Norm said.


“You didn’t have to,” Henri said.


“Nonsense,” Norm said waving off the comment.


“I don’t have a father,” Henri said, and then continued, “I don’t have a home. I don’t have ten dollars to get a decent meal. No money for rent. I’m f**ked.”


“I know what it’s like,” Norm says.


“Do you?” Henri says. “Do you really? What are you going to hit me with this time? God in the gaps, is that it? Cast your cares? Or have you got some new platitudes to dust off?” 


The young woman came and set down the food, leaving the tray. 


Henri said, “You ordered all of this?”


“You looked hungry,” Norm said. “Why haven’t you been eating?”


“I’ve been eating a little,” Henri said as he tore into a sausage, egg, and cheese sandwich. “I’ve been working at P.J.’s Gentlemen’s Club as a barback. For free. Trying to work off my debts to Tommy. The short-order cook lets me scrape off anything the customers don’t eat and take it home.”


“That’s disgusting,” Norm said.


“You try going three days without a meal and then you tell me if some slob’s half-eaten pork roll and soggy disco fries don’t look like Christmas dinner.”


“What happened to all the money you made with Donald?” Norm asked.


“You mean the hedge fund—my brilliant benefactor—who God struck down during covid with a heart attack brought on by a prolapsed valve?” Henri said. 


“I hadn’t heard that Donald had died,” Norm said.


“He died alright. Donald was supposed to have a mitral valve replacement. He was an orthodox Jew. He was trying to rationalize it with his Rabbi—having pig flesh sewn over his heart,” Henri said. “What kind of sadistic shit is that?”


“I see,” Norm said, breaking off pieces of the Boston Crème donut to reveal the cream inside, placing the torn bits of dough on his napkin. “But what about all the money you made at Donald’s?”


“You really want to know? Gambling with Tommy. Strippers. Sometimes two or three at a time. Blow. Let’s not forget that. The Mercedes. Let’s see, what else. Aspen. SXSW with Mailer and the boys, after Money came out. Other trips with the old Wesleyan crew. Shall I go on?”


“Did you talk to Alfred—Mr. Tetrault—at all—about going back to work with him building houses?” Norm asked.


“Come on, you know better than that,” Henri said.


“I just don’t understand. You’ve got to help me here. For years—years—you were making like half a million dollars a year, plus what Alfred gave you to get your start. It can’t all be gone?” Norm said.


“Typical Priest—”


“—Hey! Pastor, not Priest. I’m not Catholic for… not Catholic,” Norm said.


“Typical Pastor, you count up all the good times. But you forget about the downturn after 9-11, about the Financial Crisis, about Sandy flooding the Financial District, about the downturns in ’18 and ‘20 before covid, about the covid shutdowns. I can go on. Those are just the big ones.” Henri said.


“I see,” Norm said.


“What kind of God kicks you when you’re down? That’s what I want to know,” Henri said.


“So, you’re dissatisfied with God, is that it?” Norm said.


“He doesn’t exist,” Henri said.


“You want what God can offer, but just without God—is that it?” Norm said.


“It’s one of two things. One, God is real and He’s to blame. Or Two, God doesn’t exist, and all these things that are happening are blind chance,” Henri said.


“Just playing devil’s advocate here, but if it’s blind chance, why take it so personally?” Norm said.


“At least if there was a God, I could tell Him to go f**k himself!”


“So, I’m right. You want what God can offer. You just don’t want Him in the picture,” Norm said.


“You mean, do I want peace that passes all understanding? The desires of my heart? My enemies laid low? Someone to direct my paths? Sure,” Henri said.


“That’s not what God is offering,” Norm said.


Norm picked up the Boston Crème donut, which at this point was a circular crust of chocolate hovering over a crème center, with the sides completely removed. Norm took a big bite and some custard got on his beard, which he promptly swabbed up with a napkin.


“What do you mean?” Henri said.


“That’s not what’s on offer. You misunderstood,” Norm said.


“Come again?”


“Those are just the results of the offer,” Norm said. “God offers a way home. Offers to be by your side. To be a father to you. Offers a family. The rest of that stuff is just a consequence,” Norm said.


Both men sat in silence gazing at each other. Then Norm said, “Think about it. I need another cup of joe.”


* * *


While waiting at the counter for the young woman to make the beverages, Norm’s thoughts drifted back to the prior day’s events.


Bob Baker had walked into his office all red-faced and said, “I know what you’re going to say, but I really need two hundred dollars.”


Norm immediately knew something was wrong. Bob was an affable guy who could be a bit talkative, but he’d never looked so agitated or barked out demands. His eyes were glassy, the pupils engorged, and his face was unusually flushed.


“I need the money, you son of a bitch, you hear me,” he’d said.


Norm had looked at him and said, “It doesn’t work like that Bob. You know what we do. You’ve volunteered for us. We make donations to the shelter and our parishioners, if they are moved to, will contribute to someone we are praying for—and you are on the list.”


“F**k your list. Was my son on your list? My son. What about Eddie, huh, did he not make the list?” Bob said. And Norm knew at that point that this was not going to end well. Bob had been a U.S. Air Force vet who’d been working construction for Alfred for a few years and he’d been homeless now going on about two years, ever since his mother passed away and he’d lost her home in foreclosure. With his silvery white hair and big Western mustache, he was quite the character. Despite being homeless, he was a proud fella. He had both a gym and tanning membership and kept quite the social calendar for a homeless man. Recently though, he’d been turned away from the shelter multiple times for being drunk and seemed to be sinking lower. It was about three months since his eldest son passed away from Leukemia. But he’d never talked about it in church or said a word to anyone. And now it was coming to the surface.


“What about you Pastor? Huh, you have a nice son at home. A healthy son. How would you feel if He took your son? Would you praise His name then?” Bob had said.


“What are you saying, Bob? You’re scaring me,” Norm had said.


“I’m saying, give me the f**king two hundred dollars like I asked. Because right now, I feel like I don’t give a damn what God thinks. I feel like going on a mass murder spree. Maybe I’ll start with your son and then maybe some of the other sons of the faithful. We can start a reverse Passover. How does that sound?”


“Just hold on Bob, I’ll be right back,” Norm had said. And then he had gone into his office and called 911.


Police sirens were blaring out on the cobblestone streets, coming through the windows.


“You f**king snitch!” Bob said, and he ran out of the door but didn’t get far before being handcuffed.


* * *


The young woman placed down the two mugs, and Norm took them back to the table. Of the food they had ordered, only one of the bear claws was left.


“Here you go,” Norm said, placing down Henri’s mug. “Do you remember what you told Alfred,” Norm asked.


“I told that son of a bitch to give me what’s mine, that’s what I did,” Henri said.


“What did you have against him? Against your father,” Norm said.


“You mean, Coach. The revered high school basketball coach. The one that ordered me to do drills at home before junior prom in high school—wouldn’t let me get dressed until I hit thirty free throws straight. That who you mean? The drill sergeant. The tyrant.”


“I know he was a tough-love sort of guy to you, but he gave you a job, and offered you his company, didn’t he?” Norm asked.


“So, I could stay there, under his thumb. Taking orders?” Henri asked.


“We all take orders from somebody. No getting around that,” Norm said.


“Not from him. Never,” Henri said.


“Do you know if he kept Bob Baker on?” Norm asked.


“You mean after your little incident? Yeah. I heard,” Henri said.


“Is he keeping him on?” Norm asked.


“He is, that’s what I heard from Adam—he’s keeping him on,” Henri said.


“Good. Thank God,” Norm said.


“That’s the difference between you and Alfred, I guess. Someone threatens your son and you run to the cops. Alfred just doesn’t give a damn. Especially not about me,” Henri said.


“That so,” Norm said.


“It’s a fact,” Henri said.


“He waits for you out on the porch every night. I don’t know who he has watching you, but he’s got someone on payroll checking-in. He updates me every so often about what’s going on with you. I’d heard about P.J.’s and all that a while back.”


“Waits up. Yeah. More like keeping his claws dug in,” Henri said.


“He sits out on that porch, sometimes until two in the morning, just waiting and watching for a car to come up the drive. Big guy like him. Out in the cold, huddled up. Sitting on that uncomfortable porch swing. Waiting,” Norm says.


“Is that what he tells you,” Henri says.


“You know he had to sell off the framing business, four trucks, and all those municipal contracts, all to set you up in New York,” Norm says.


“Like I said. I helped build up that business. All I asked for was what was mine to begin with,” Henri said.


“The whole thing was yours, you stubborn ingrate,” Norm said. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”


“No, brother. Tell me how you really feel. I deserve it,” Henri said.


“Come home,” Norm said.


“You know I can’t. He could never forgive me. Maybe he’d set me up with my own crew doing framing jobs or something, but I could never come back, could never look him in the eye. You know that,” Henri said.


“He’s waiting for you,” Norm said.


“He can wait until kingdom come but I’m never coming back.”


“Then that’s just what he’ll do then,” Norm said. And he got up, dusting off the crumbs from his beard and the top of his cardigan. He looked down at his younger brother, not sure when he’d see him again. If he’d see him again.


“I love you, brother, I’ll be praying for you. You know where to find me.”


“Hey Norm,” Henri said, tears in his eyes, “Thanks for this.”


“Any time. Literally, any time.”


“It means a lot,” Henri said.


“He’s waiting up,” Norm said, and walked out of the shop into the rainy October morning.

September 18, 2023 06:47

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8 comments

Hannah Lynn
14:35 Sep 28, 2023

Tough times can definitely test us and these characters have had more than their share. Well written story and I like the brother twist, I didn't see that coming :)

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Jonathan Page
07:09 Oct 07, 2023

Thank you, Hannah!

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Jacob Chudnovsky
15:33 Sep 26, 2023

Well-written. I like the straightforward style. I also enjoyed the reveal that they are brothers. I didn't catch on to that earlier.

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Jonathan Page
21:55 Sep 27, 2023

Thanks Jacob!

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Judith Jerdé
23:04 Sep 19, 2023

OK, one thing for sure I’m going to need a cream donut and a bear claw not to mention a big cup of ‘joe.’ A well-written story about the human condition. I certainly understand your character’s struggle with faith in God. I just wrote a poem about that very struggle.

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Jonathan Page
04:36 Sep 20, 2023

Thanks Judith!

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Mary Bendickson
19:15 Sep 18, 2023

Real family time.

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Jonathan Page
04:35 Sep 20, 2023

Thanks Mary!

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