By John Thomas Tuft

Kathy Weatherby’s third grade class was just getting into their reading circles when the shooting began. If you are feeling uncomfortable reading these words, imagine how these fellow humans felt in the middle of this random, violent, senseless act of killing ten-year-olds; in essence, blowing their bodies to pieces, papers and books scattered among their entrails and bits of brain matter, all in the name of sending a message of deep despair and lonely rage. A message of punishing them for the killer’s feeling that murder is justified for his not fitting into the world we have fashioned. Kathy was aware that no amount of practice prepares one for the actual terror and mind-numbing fear that floods the soul at such a moment. She frantically tried to hush the screams of the children in her care as she locked the classroom door and ushered the children into a small closet. A nation that cannot face itself in the mirror is a people who are failing even as they mourn another dreadful anniversary of their own making. Among the trembling bodies and the stench of adrenaline-soaked sweat there in the closet, Kathy closes her eyes for a brief moment to utter the three words, the nine letters of the sinner’s prayer.

Frank Hilton just blew his fourth try at getting sober. This was his last “or, else” ultimatum from those who loved him. Get sober and stay sober or, else…”I’m taking the children and leaving you for good” from his wife. Or, else…”I’ll have to fire you and you’ll lose your pension” from his boss. Or, else… “I’ll be forced to suspend your license. Permanently. Even send you to jail” from the judge who up to now has gone easy on Frank. Frank stumbles a bit as he exits Fat Eddie’s and gets into his car. He blew up a balloon before he went in for a quick drink and now uses his stored breath to exhale into the device attached to the ignition of the car. He smiles at his own ingenuity as he drives down the dead-of-night streets. He is reaching for his phone on the passenger seat when he blows through a stop sign. The violent jolt and sounds of breaking glass and wrenching steel happen so quickly that Frank is at first unaware of the pain throbbing in his head with each heartbeat. The powder residue of the explosive chemicals in the airbags burn deeply into his eyes and lungs. He staggers to the curb, tries to focus through the tears streaming from his eyes. The elderly woman in the other car is slumped over the wheel, unmoving. Frank can only manage to cry out the three words, the nine letters of the sinner’s prayer.

Susyn sits in the empty church sanctuary. The eerie quiet and stillness as the shadows lengthen serve to couch her thoughts in sad music. Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” runs through her head over and over. “Ever since I could talk, I was ordered to listen!” The last of the daylight filters through stained glass in an awkward rainbow splayed across the cross anchored to the wall above the altar in the front. What is the point, she asks over and over. This country has three obsessions, as far as Susyn can tell. Rank, mortality, and sexuality. Susyn did not ask to be born as Samuel, Jr. Right away, that puts her at the lowest of all three national obsessions. “Gender affirming” sounds so clinical a term for the choices she’s made about her life. Do ideas about rank or mortality or sexuality make anyone more or less of a human? Susyn is tired of all the words, all the piling up of opinions, the memes, the guilt, the anger, the hate. Why do people who are different have to be the John Coffeys of the world, feeling the shards of hatred like broken glass all through their souls? Susyn approaches the communion table and lies down on top, pulls out a knife. Before it ends, Susyn whispers the three words, nine letters of the sinner’s prayer.

Marian and her husband, Moose, sit quietly chatting at their kitchen table. Life is good. They have each other. They have their home and it’s almost paid off. All of their needs are met. Their two daughters are in good colleges. Their son in high school has just reached driving age.  Being the first family of color in a previously all-white neighborhood has not been the easiest challenge but this is their home, their place. The cell phone beside Moose rings and their son’s name pops up on the screen.  “Dad, I’m scared!” are the first words he hears. “What’s going on?” his father asks. “The cops are following us. I’ve got my old teacher Mrs. Weatherby’s son, I mean daughter, Susyn, in the car and she’s bleeding bad, Dad. I’ve got a hurt white girl in my car, dad, and the police are going to pull me over!” The couple exchange a worried look over the kitchen table, their stomachs in knots. “Why would they pull you over?” Moose tries to sound calm. “Why is she bleeding?” His son’s voice is frantic. “I saw her going into the church and got worried. So, I went back but by the time I did, she was on the altar bleeding bad. I picked her up and got her in the car. Some drunk guy was weaving around, and I sped up and swerved around him. The cops saw it but started chasing me, Dad.” An awful pause. “Dad, tell Mom I love her. I’m really scared.” While Moose urges his son to stay on the line, Marian whispers the three words, nine letters of the sinner’s prayer.  Words that open the gates to the deepest well of our longing: “I need hope.”

I need hope.

Words are magic and writers are wizards.