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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

They Walk Among Us

I started working on this story yesterday when I received news of my brother Rob's impending loss to cancer. He died earlier today. This Christmas Story, which revisits Sikso's world, is in honor of him. May he rest in God's arms and mercy.

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A heaviness settled over Holly’s heart. It was Christmas morning. Why should she feel sadness at such a time?  She shuffled her feet through the leaves scattering the forest floor. She took her sword out and hacked at a couple of branches.  Even that didn’t seem to help. Gloom hovered around her and she had no idea why.

It must be the curse of the steam house. Yes, she had been cursed by the place. All of Reol’s children go in at age thirteen. Sisko went in and received a miracle ring. She went in and other’s feelings affected her own. That meant someone close by must feel sad. But why? Christmas was such a happy time.

Holly huffed. The only way to get rid of this sadness was to find who was sad and make them happy. Interestingly enough, she wasn’t affected by everyone’s feelings. Just certain people. She had no idea how it worked. It just did.

An old man came toward her, a cowl covering his face. As he passed, he stopped and asked, “Do you make tea?”

Holly stopped and stared at the man. His eyes appeared to glow from within the cowl. She wondered at the question. “Well, yes. I could make tea.”

“Do you make great tea?”

She shrugged. “That depends on what your used to.”

The “old man” brushed his cowl back to reveal a young man’s face. His blonde, shoulder-length hair swayed with the wind. “Good answer. But it has been a while since I’ve had a cup of great tea. If you could make me some, I would greatly appreciate it.”

Hospitality demanded she make him some, though she didn’t quite feel like doing it. Then again, maybe it would take her mind off of this sadness she felt. “Sure, follow me.” She turned around to head back to town. “One thing I should tell you, I live alone. If you don’t mind being seen in my house, it’s okay with me.”

He smiled. “Why should that concern me?”

Holly smiled back. “Because, you’re a monk or something. In case you didn’t think it would look proper.”

He held out a hand. “Where’s my manners. I’m Joel.”

Holly accepted his handshake. “My name is Holly.”

“Holly, if you don’t mind me asking, why do you live alone?”

She gazed at his eyes, trying to determine why he asked such a personal question. “Isn’t it obvious? No one will have me.”

“But why? You’re good looking enough, if you don’t mind me saying. You appear to have a pleasant personality.”

“You’ve only known me for about, say around five minutes. How do you know what kind of personality I have?”

He shrugged. “Anyone who can make great tea can’t be all bad.”

“You’ve yet to taste my tea, sir.”

“So true. We shall see.”

They finished the walk to her house in the town of Reol. She made tea as they continued to chat. After a while, she poured him his tea and he sipped it.

Joel sat the tea down. “Not bad, not bad. Not as good as I’m used to. But then, not much else is. However, I can tell by the taste of it that something is off.”

Holly nodded. “Now you know I don’t have the greatest of personalities, right?”

“There is a hint of sadness in this tea.”

“Sadness?” How could he know? Did the sadness come from him?

Joel took another sip. “Yes, that’s what I’m tasting. Sadness.”

“How can you taste that from the tea I’ve made? Is it because you are sad?”

“Me? Sad?” He laughed as if that were the craziest thing he’d ever heard. “No, I’m here to help you!”

“Me? Me? You came specifically to help me?”

He nodded as he took another sip.

She pointed a finger at him, “If this is some strange way to pick up ladies, I’ll have you know I’m fairly handy with a sword.” She reached for hers, propped up against the table.

He waived a hand. “That won’t be necessary. I’m not here to pick you up. What would be the point of that?”

She gritted her teeth. “You don’t have to be insulting.”

“What? It isn’t that you’re too heavy. Just no point in it. Don’t see what is so insulting about that. Taken in the right way, that should be a compliment.”

Holly stared at Joel for a moment. Was this guy a bit crazy or just acting the part?

Joel pointed at her. “If I didn’t know better, and I happen to do know better, I’d think you were a bit schizophrenic.”

She laughed. “It isn’t that, though it could appear that way.”

He stroked his chin. “Let me guess. You feel what others feel.”

Her jaw dropped. “How did you know?”

“Oh, I have my sources.” He grabbed something out of his bag. “I have the solution to your sadness. It is the right tea leaves. It’s not so much how you make it, but what you put into it.”

He rose and grabbed the teapot before Holly could say anything. She watched as he filled a pot with water and placed it over the fire in the hearth. As soon as the pot was boiling, he took it off and let it rest a bit before pouring it over the tea leaves. Soon, he was pouring fresh, heavenly smelling tea into her cup.

Holly took a sip. Then another. Before she realized it, she had drank the whole cup. She’d never done that before. She only sipped tea. “Boy, you are right. This is good.” Then it dawned on her. “That’s funny. I don’t feel so sad anymore. As a matter of fact, I feel happy.”

Joel smiled knowingly.

“What did you put in here?”

“Nothing. Just some tea leaves. The real difference is you.”

Holly shook her head. “No, I mean, what’s blocking me from feeling the sadness of someone else? I don’t lose those feelings until they are fixed within the person.”

Joel nodded knowingly.

“No, I mean, really. People’s emotions that I pick up on don’t pass away that quickly.”

Joel continued to nod and smile. “You’ll get it eventually.”

Get what? Oh! “Are you suggesting that I’m the one who was sad? That I was picking up on my own sadness?”

“Not picking up on it. It is simply that you are sad.”

“Sad over what?”

“That you are alone on Christmas? Or will be?”

The sadness settled in over her again. “Maybe you’re right. I had never thought of it before.”

“More like you've always pointed to an external reason why you felt sad. But it was really you all along.”

She poured more tea into her cup and drank again. “So, how do I fix it?”

“Why, by not being alone. Of course.”

She thought a moment. “But who wants to spend much time with a moody person like me? I can be happy one moment and angry the next. That’s why I tend to be so alone.”

“You could come with me.” He smiled. “Not that I’m suggesting to pick you up, but you are welcome to come with me.”

“That’s a fine offer. But first, where are you going?”

He shrugged. “Could be most anywhere, or at any time.”

“Any time? Don’t tell me you’re a time traveler.”

He held up his nose. “A time traveler? Really?”

She huffed. “What else do you call it?”

He sighed. “Well, if you’re going to come with me, I suppose I’ll break our rule and reveal to you who I really am. Only, you cannot speak a single word of this to no one else.” Joel moved closer. “And I mean, absolutely no one else. For me to tell you this means you are going to go. Either that, or I’ll have to erase this time from your mind.”

She laughed. “As if you could do that!” When he didn’t laugh, she said, “Can you?”

“I’m an angel.”

She simply stared at him. “Seriously?”

“Yep. A real live, from heaven, speaker to the big Boss upstairs, angel.”

She continued to stare at him. “Prove it?”

“How?”

“I know. Aren’t you guys supposed to have flaming swords?”

“Got one right here.” He stood and pulled a sword out from under his cloak. It burst into flames and his whole countenance grew brilliant. The area lit up like a star coming out of hiding.

Holly held her hands over her eyes. “Okay, okay. I believe you!”

He sheathed his sword and the room regained it’s normal lighting. “So are you ready to come with me?”

Holly though a second. “I’ll need time to get my stuff together. I’ll need clothes and such. Do you have an idea where you are going, though? When will we return? What will be our goal?”

Joel threw up his hands. “I haven’t the foggiest. It all depends on where I’m needed and what the problem is?”

She smiled as she rose. “Okay then. Looks like an adventure is in order.”

Holly dashed to her room and quickly threw together some clothes and other items she figured she would need. What did she feel now? A touch of excitement with a sense of dread.  The question was, how much of it was her and how much Joel? Did he dread this? He wouldn’t have asked if he dreaded it. Unless, of course, the “Big Boss” was forcing him to do this. She paused. “Nah. Couldn’t be. It would be natural that I would dread what might happen if I go with some ‘angel’ I’d just met.” She grabbed her bag and slung it over her shoulders. “But exciting too. Who knows what wonders I’ll see with an angel.”

Then she realized where the dread came from. She entered the room where Joel had grabbed his bag and was waiting. She asked him, “Joel, does this mean I’m dead?”

Joel shook his head. “My my, no way. You’ll always be alive.”

“I know we’re made to live eternally, what I mean is whether I’m now going to be dead to this world?”

“Nope. Not going to happen. At least, not yet.”

The dread disappeared. Yep, it was her dread. “I’m ready.”

He reached out his hand. “Hold my hand.”

She stare at his hand for a second. She knew everything would be different from here on out. No more wondering what she would do, because she didn't know what would happen, but God did. She reached out and grabbed his hand.

In a flash of bright light, the pair disappeared from the house, leaving nothing stirring but dust.

--<O>--

The brightness receded to reveal the outskirts of a city. Holly still felt Joel’s hand in hers. She asked, “Where are we?”

“Not sure, but the information I have says it is Belenor. Sikso’s old second home.”

Holly frowned. “I thought you said you had no idea where we were going?”

Joel turned to her. “I didn’t. God tells me when we arrive at a location.”

“I didn’t hear anything?”

He laughed. “Of course not. It is an internal sense that He gives me. A sixth sense, so to speak.”

“Do all angels have that sense?”

He paused. “Yes, as well as some humans.”

A wave of anger overcame Holly. “Why don’t I have that sense then. Am I not good enough!”

Joel didn’t seem to notice the rise in her voice. “Not at this time, apparently.”

“You’re all powerful. You give it to me. NOW!”

Joel’s lips turned downward. “I’m not all powerful, nor can I give it to you, as much as I might desire to.”

Holly stomped her foot on the ground. “Why not? It is Christmas, after all. I deserve a good gift for once in my life. Not this curse I’ve been . . .” Holly froze and then said, “I’m sorry. I feel anger from someone here. We should go find them and fix it before I say or do something I’ll regret. However, why couldn’t you give it to me.”

He smiled. “Because, my dear Holly, you have to have faith before you can get that sense.”

She thought for a moment. “Faith? Faith? What is faith, you, you . . . I’m doing it again. I mean, I know what faith is.”

“Do you?” Joel’s self-assured smile mocked her.

“Of course I do! You crazed an—”

Joel flung a hand toward her and a gag went over her mouth. “I said, you can never speak what I am. Ever.”

Her red face nodded abruptly.

Joel waved his hand and the gag disappeared. “Come. Let’s find this angry person before it eats you up.”

“I can fully agree with that. Damn this curse.”

“Now, now. Let’s not play God.” Joel began walking quickly toward the town gate.

“I’d like to see you deal with something like this. Ha!”

Joel swung around and stared deep into her eyes. “I have dealt with something like this before. For well over 200 years. You don’t know what I’ve been through.”

Holly grinned with her eyes tight as she continued. “I’m sure that is minimal time for an ang—”

Joel held his hand into the air.

"I mean, powerful being as yourself. How long have you been alive?”

“Not important.”

“I’ll bet it is. How long? 1000 years? 2000, 3000? Come on, how many?”

Joel turned around and went into a jog. “We need to find this person. Now!”

Holly dashed after him. “Ah ha! Running from a young woman’s questions, are you? I’ll not stop until you’ve answered me!”

--<O>--

Joel entered the local tavern. He stopped a man heading out. “Hey, do you know anyone who is angry a lot around here?”

The man let out a belly laugh. “Sir, that would be at least half the town.”

“On Christmas?”

“Especially on Christmas. One half is angry about the other half’s happiness.” He stepped out of the tavern.

Holly’s voice echoed from outside. “Hey, watch where you’re going, buster!”

Holly entered the tavern. She said, “Can you believe that guy? Ran right into me without so much as an apology.”

Joel rolled his eyes. “I can see why you live alone, now.”

“Don’t you roll your eyes at me!”

“Calm down, will you? Everyone in the tavern can hear you.”

Holly scanned the room. Almost every eye centered on her. She smiled sheepishly. “Sorry  folks. You can resume your meal.” Then she turned back to Joel and said sternly but quietly, “Don’t think for one minute that I’m letting you off the hook.”

Joel grabbed her by both shoulders. “Focus, Holly. Focus. How in the past have you found the person who has the emotions you’re experiencing?”

Holly thought for a moment. “I’m not sure, exactly. As a matter of fact, I believe they find me.”

Joel looked up to the ceiling. “Funny, that’s what Sisko said. As a matter of fact, that’s what I’ve experienced as well.”

“Well, I don’t find this funny at all!”

“Nor do I, young lady,” a gruff voice sounded from behind her.

She spun around to see a big, muscular, lumberjack-type fellow glaring down at her. She said, “What of it, big stuff.”

“I don’t make a habit of slapping ladies, but in your case, I just might make an exception.”

“I’d like to see you try!”

Joel quickly stood in front of Holly. “Ignore her, sir. She’s not herself today.”

The man looked him over.

“It is Christmas, after all.” Joel gave him his best smile.

The man waved his hand at them and went on to order from the bar. “Just keep her quiet.”

Joel turned back to a gagged Holly. He waved his hand and the gag disappeared. She opened her mouth to speak. Joel put a finger to his lips.

Holly said quieter, “Will you stop doing that?”

“As soon as you control yourself.”

She shook her head. “I can’t seem to control the emotions. They are really strong. Like the person is in this room.”

Joel turned to look at the lumberjack at the bar. He was arguing with the barkeep over the price of his ale. “Could be him. How do you fix it?”

“I don’t know how to fix anger. Usually it passes after a time. It is sort of hard to develop any empathy with someone who is angry too.”

“Why not?”

Holly’s eyes grew wide. “Did you not see how I and he responded to each other?”

Joel nodded. “Yes. I’m surprised your still alive before I came along.”

“It has never been this bad before. Most people are angry for very brief periods of time and over certain petty things. So it usually passes fast. And to be honest, I think this curse has protected me from feeling the worst of it. That is, until today.”

Joel placed his hands down on the table. “Hear me out before you say anything.” He paused until she nodded. “Okay. First, I wish you’d stop calling what the steam house did a curse.” Holly started to say something; Joel held up a hand to stop her. “I know it has been difficult for you.”

“You can say that again.” Holly held her hand over her own mouth.

Joel grinned. “But the steam house only gave you that ability because it saw in you that it would bring about a change for the good. It is like any desire. It pains you until you satisfy it.”

She wrinkled her forehead. “So you’re saying I need to satisfy it somehow? Like what? I don’t understand.”

“By helping that guy over there overcome his anger.”

She sat back in her seat. “That’s an awful tall order you’re asking me to do.”

Joel grinned. “Faith is always a tall order. But with God’s help, doable.”

She stared at the man at the bar, grumbling about something new. She pitied the man to have to  live with this anger day in and day out. She’d only experienced it for an hour or so, and she felt like a mess. She hated living it. She hated him for giving it to her. For the steam house giving it to her, for Joel bringing her here. She hated, hating.”

She rose from her seat and walked toward the man. She tentatively tapped him on the shoulders. He swung around and growled, “What do you want!”

She struggled within herself, but she was determined not to let his anger get the best of her. “I wanted to ask, for, for . . .”

“Get it out lady or get out of here.”

She swallowed the words that wanted to come out. “For your forgiveness.”

He stared blankly at her for a moment. “My forgiveness? I don’t think anyone has ever asked me for that before. Well, except when I was about to beat them to a pulp.”

Holly’s anger began to melt away; it must be working. “And, I wanted to let you know that I forgive you as well. Do you mind if I pray for you?”

“Ha, if you think it will do any good, go ahead.”

She nodded. “Father, forgive us of our anger and heal us of our afflictions that have caused it. Amen.”

The man had wet eyes. He blinked back his tears. “Thank you. You have no idea what I’ve been through. But thank you for that.” He stood and walked out of the tavern.

Holly’s own anger had vanished. She stepped back to where Joel sat. She wore a big smile.

“Looks like you did good.” Joel crossed his arms.

“What? Are you going to say ‘I told you so?’”

“Wasn’t planning on it, though I did.” Joel uncrossed his arms and leaned over toward her. “Where did the faith come from? What is the faith in you?”

Holly ran her fingers through her brown hair. “I’m not sure if I have the terminology right or not, but I believe my faith is trust in God’s ability to use me for His purposes. So I believed, and I went up to the man. The rest happened.”

Joel nodded. “You’ve about got it. But it came when you started looking at what the steam house gave you as not a curse, but a ministry. You can empathize with others like no one else can. You can heal the inner spirit, not merely the outward body.”

“You mean, like Sisko did?”

“Sikso had faith, a great faith. Still, he only scratched the surface of what it meant to heal someone, to really save them. And his faith needed the ring to operate.”

“Okay, my mind is completely blown. You’re telling me that I can heal like Sisko could, without a ring?”

“Yes.” He held his right fingers together into a point and said, “It is a gift. A Christmas gift to you. From God. And I have one too.”

“Really? A gift for me?”

Joel nodded and touched her head. He mumbled some words, then said, “That’s it. I’ve given you the ability to turn on and off your gift of feeling other’s emotions.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Just say, ‘Emotions off,’ and ‘Emotions on,’ to turn them off or on.”

“Why didn’t you give this to me before? It would have made things so much simpler.”

“Because until you’d learned what you needed to learn from that ‘curse,’ as you put it, you wouldn’t have had the faith necessary to use it properly.” Joel stood and stepped out of the tavern. “Ready to go home?”

“Sure, but can I do one thing first?”

“What?”

“Can I give you a kiss on the cheek?”

“I suppose that would be permitted.”

Holly reached up and gave him a kiss. Then she said, “Thank you, Joel. For the best Christmas ever.”

“You’re welcome.” Joel smiled.

Holly jumped up and down. “I’m ready to help the next person God sends me.”

“Cool.”

They clasped hands. As they faded into a bright light, Holly said, “I’m still curious. How long have you lived?”

The light dimmed until nothing but the dirt on the road stirred.

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