My mind is my prison, a prison I tried to escape from the first time I realized it. When I couldn't escape, I screamed. Sometimes those around me could hear me. Other times they stared at me as if they didn't know me at all. How could they? I didn't know who I was myself.
I searched endlessly inside my prison for some sign of recognition or familiarity, but so often everything changed. At once, I could do anything and everything. I could be anyone and make all love me with my charm and wit. I said all the right things. I did all the right things. Nothing could ever go wrong, so I could easily believe.
All at once the ideas that had made me so powerful and irresistible came too fast. There were too many of them to form anything except a blinding noise in my head that made me cower in the darkness of my prison. Suddenly nothing remained amusing. And those who loved me began to look at me with fear in their eyes, claiming their apprehension was for me, not of me. But I knew the truth.
I was again trapped forever in my prison with the light coming only faintly, as though from a distant tunnel I'd never reach.
"Undress for me."
His voice... Nothing resembling seduction. A demon. My personal demon who kept me paralyzed under his gun. I couldn't find him. I smelled death--his decay, his sickness. I closed my eyes against the horror. The light appeared and grew stronger, blinding me, and it was almost more terrifying than what waited outside.
The end of the road means the beginning of new life for you...
"I'm dying, and you're my soul mate. We'll be together forever. Do you care if you die, my sweet?"
I hated him. That hatred filled me until I thought I'd shatter into a million pieces as he drew the cold steel across my breast to my heart. Then he released the safety.
"We're meant to be together. In life. And in death."
When he pulled the trigger, I faded into the black.
Someday I'll come to you in night. And my voice won't be a scream that wakes you. It'll be a whisper that will slowly break you...
Life and light slammed me into reality. Back to his body, impossibly heavy over me. Stickiness between us. On me. I waited for a heartbeat, but all I heard was my own. For the first time, I wanted to live. Not die. Not fade away into peace. I knew God had given me a second chance. He was all I'd ever need.
Those thoughts lifted me and carried me toward the blinding light.
But I was in a prison, and when I woke to find my prison door thrown open, I cowered in the corner of my dark cell instead until, like a newborn baby bird, I heard his voice. And I followed it into the light.
"Freezing in here again," Gregg Stevens' brother commented, noting the central air unit's ongoing temperature regulation problems, when he entered his office at Wayward Angels. "You've got an appointment at a quarter after twelve?"
Gregg nodded. On his desk was a short stack of files that he closed one by one and set in a pile to the side. One of his own songs came on the radio, and he quickly turned it off. As long as his songs weren't played, the radio never went off until he left for the day. "I'm hoping to hire someone to fix all the things that keep breaking down around here."
Craig had come unusually early for lunch, but Gregg knew to expect that, just like he could always expect his brother to end up finding fault in everything he did, everything he said. And, sooner or later, their conversation would turn to Christie Renata Zondervan, Craig's pet artist, signed to his Contemporary Christian record label, Mission Records.
Gregg had co-produced and co-written her second album--a bestseller that'd won her countless awards. Like an idiot, Gregg had gotten involved with her romantically earlier in the year. As soon as he realized she was falling for him, he broke it off. Despite the length of time since then and how he and Christie had moved on with their lives, his brother remained fixated on the inappropriateness of the relationship.
"Can the shelter afford that?" Craig said, his frown revealing a multitude of questions he didn't need to voice.
Located in Milwaukee's Inner City, Wayward Angels shelters provided services for teenagers. Wayward Angels for Girls helped pregnant and drug-addicted teens learn how to live productive lives through the Jumpstart Program. They were given a place to live and training they could use to make a life for themselves when they left. Almost two years ago, Gregg had opened its counterpart, Wayward Angels for Boys, which focused on troubled young males--drug addicts, law breakers, the abused and the lost. It also used the Jumpstart Program to help the boys learn how to live productive lives through adequate training that could lead to a job.
Under Gregg's supervision in the last year, the number of volunteers had tripled and their donations had skyrocketed, so he and his friends no longer paid for most of the programs out of their own pockets. In addition to the regular shelter and services, they now offered a full-time medical clinic with psychiatric staff, and an outreach program to the local schools. Colleges and tech schools provided free education programs to the kids checked into the shelter, and local businesses regularly joined the cause by giving generous trial-period jobs to those who completed the training. Gregg's involvement covered every aspect of the shelter, and, as many had said, he'd found his calling in life, apart from the musical career he'd spent a lifetime pursuing without contentment.
Gregg shrugged. "I'll be paying the person I hire out of my pocket. We're only looking at a few hours a day. Volunteer salary."
At six foot two, with dark hair and eyes, the brothers were often told how much alike they looked--and how unlike their personalities actually were. Gregg wondered sometimes if Craig wore his always-pressed trousers and fancy, white-button shirts to play racquetball. From the top of his well-trimmed head to his polished shoes, his older brother looked elegantly uptight.
Craig pulled out the chair in front of the functional desk, then sat back in a relaxed position. Gregg knew he qualified as anything but. The drill was about to begin.
"So who is this person you're interviewing?" Craig said, his tone smooth and unruffled.
Leaning on one padded arm of his chair, Gregg stretched his long legs out in front of him. This next reaction ought to be fun to watch. "Not sure. She said she saw the ad in the paper this morning and called. She's the first who's responded. Probably the last, too. I doubt too many'll be interested in a job like this. Not enough hours and little more than minimum wage."
Craig sat forward. His eyes all but bugged out when he demanded. "She?"
"Yeah, she." Gregg fought a grin he felt rising inside him. "Wrap your small mind around the fact that some women have more mechanical skills than us, big brother."
Onyx eyes narrowed, Craig refused to respond. "What kind of experience has she had?"
"She said she could fix anything."
A hoot of incredulity escaped Craig. "You don't find that vague?"
Gregg couldn't help wondering what made a person set himself against something before he knew anything about it. "I figured I'd interview her in person instead of the phone. That's usually how it's done. I didn't get a chance to call you to tell you we'd have to skip lunch today." He flipped the radio back on.
One of Christie's older songs was playing, and for an instant, his brother seemed immobilized by the sound of her voice. Then he shook his head as if he'd been in a trance. "Maybe I'll stick around. I have experience hiring mechanics."
After completing college and seminary in Chicago, Craig had come to Milwaukee and started Mission Records. He owned his own business, yeah, but Gregg knew he just wanted to stick his nose in where it wasn't needed or wanted. Craig did a lot of volunteer work for Wayward Angels himself, but he didn't hold an official position. Not that it stopped him from constantly telling Gregg the best way to run the place. Namely, his way.
You're unbelievable. Nothing I do will ever make you give me any credit. You'll never see me as anything but a loser who threw his life away until two years ago. Might as well have some fun with you, if I can't win your approval.
Gregg stood and gathered the files he'd just signed off on. As he opened his office door and dropped them into the bin attached to the door--where Chad, the administrative assistant could pick them up easily as he moved from office to office--he said casually, "So how are album sales?"
He turned back in time to see the look of uncertainty that always came over his brother's face at the mention of his business. Christie's first album, produced by Craig, had made a minor splash. The rest of his artists couldn't be considered well-known. Christie's second record, with Gregg's help, flew to the top of the charts. Along with Gregg's own first Christian album, Someday You'll Need Me, the two releases put Craig's record label on the map and made him a fair amount of money. But Christie hadn't made an album since, and Gregg had withdrawn from music entirely after his first Christian album sent him down paths he'd never wanted to take again. Without Gregg involved, his brother's company declined once more, not that he'd ever acknowledge Gregg's hand in his own success.
"It's a slow time of year for album sales," Craig offered.
Gregg shrugged, flipping through the stack of messages Chad delivered earlier and he hadn't looked at yet. "I wouldn't know. I never had a problem with slow sales."
His first few albums, in the bluesy rock style he loved, had broken just about every record in existence for sales. To date, they still sold in droves, though he'd left behind his music career long ago. He'd walked away at a time when he'd essentially been on top of his game the world over. Craig had tried fruitlessly to get him to make a Christian album for a long time, and, when Gregg finally agreed, his fans seemed to have been waiting anxiously for it. But he'd realized he couldn't serve the Lord and make music. One way or another, the music lifestyle always messed him up.
Clearly unhappy with Gregg's unconcerned jab, Craig stood, walking over to the window overlooking the parking lot. The awkward silence gave Gregg a twinge of guilt. His brother had spent a lifetime compulsively doing the right thing, a practice that no doubt made him an expert at finding fault in everyone around him. Gregg could easily be considered an easy target for fault-finding. He'd made every mistake in the book at least a hundred times, in full view of the world. Gregg put up with the subtle criticism. Craig's inexperience in the ways of the world provided him the opportunity to tease his brother mercilessly--a fair trade, some might say.
"Were you in love with her at any point?" Craig demanded, under this breath.
Christie. Gregg had been waiting for her to become the topic of conversation. "In love with who?" he said.
Craig sent a sigh of exasperation over his shoulder. "Christie. Exactly how many women have you been with in the last few months that you don't know who I mean?"
Gregg dropped the messages on his desk. He'd have to turn this topic around before he seriously lost all interest in talking to Craig today.
"You dated Christie for quite a while," Craig continued. "Why would you do that if you weren't in love with her?"
"We didn't date. We saw a lot of each other because of her album, but we didn't get involved until after its release." Why am I explaining this? Much rather dispatch him and get on with the lady mechanic interview...except she's not here yet. Anything's more interesting than this anyway.
Craig turned on him, fury straining his expression. "You slept with her! Why would you do that if you didn't love her?"
And why does he make it so easy to taunt him? "Have you ever seen a woman aroused, Craig? They get all pliant, like a cat. Sometimes they actually purr. And then they get aggressive--"
"I don't want to hear this!" Craig insisted like a haughty old woman.
"Then what do you want to hear? That I seduced her? I know it's what you believe. Sorry to burst your bubble, big brother, but the sexual thing between us was initiated by her, every damn time."
Craig snorted. "She was a virgin."
Gregg shook his head, not bothering to look at his brother. "Here we go again. Like I've told you at least a billion times already, I didn't know she was a virgin."
"How could you not know?"
"I've lost count how many times I've said this part, too," Gregg muttered, sweeping the loose papers on his desk into a side drawer, where he could take care of them later. "You don't always know. She wanted it. Have you see this woman, man? Have you ever really looked at her? She's gorgeous. She's any man's fantasy. She was all over me every time we were alone together in a room."
Craig's face had gone blood red.
Might as well finish this and make it good. "What would you do if she put her hands on you? Would you have the strength to say no to what's freely being offered?"
Craig turned away again to look out the window.
Gregg snorted. "You'd think she was your sister the way you protect her honor. We broke up months ago. Why can't you let it go? We both have."
When he finished clearing off his desk, he noticed that his brother's color hadn't returned to normal. Gregg couldn't decide if Craig's reaction stemmed from embarrassment or if he was just seriously POed.
Gregg couldn't help his chuckle. "Have you ever kissed a woman, Craig? I mean, really kissed? And MaryAnn Post knocking you down and forcing herself on you doesn't count."
Craig shook his head. "There's no point to this conversation. I'll be back later and we can do a late lunch."
So they could go over this bull all over again, Gregg knew, watching his brother stalk out of his office and shut the door hard behind him.
Why couldn't Craig let it go? Christie was his pet protégé. Everybody knew that. He'd put a huge chunk of his financial resources, his company's reputation behind her career.
Gregg's mind played over the tender way Craig treated Christie whenever the two of them were together, the soft way he talked to her, more often than not tripping over his own tongue. The way he could barely get himself to look at her, despite the fact that they'd worked so closely in the five years they'd known each other. They should have been comfortable enough to eat off the same plate. Either making an album together made you grow sick to death of each other, or forged a closer relationship. In Craig and Christie's case, it was a closer relationship that had obviously made Craig overprotective of her.
The realization came into Gregg's mind out of thin air but floored him nevertheless. Unless his brother had a thing for her himself.
He dropped heavily into his chair, chuckling at his own stupidity. So obvious now. Why else would Craig spend so much time upset about history? The animosity must spring from Craig's natural intolerance, and his unwillingness to allow Gregg to backslide into his old, heathen ways. Now he knew the problem came about because his brother was too chicken to admit he loved the woman.
Though Craig didn't know it, Gregg had beaten himself up about his inappropriate relationship with Christie for a long time. But their relationship had never gone as far as Craig assumed, and Gregg refused to relieve him of the assumption because it'd been so much fun to tease him.
Truthfully, Gregg had found himself in a bad place at that time, and his resistance to Christie's sweet but surprisingly aggressive seductions had been almost nil the last two times they'd gotten together. After almost a year of celibacy, of avoiding all of his old addictions, of trying to follow Christ cold-turkey in thirty-three years of a godless life, he'd felt both lonely and unsure of himself. He and Christie had gone too far, yes, but it hadn't gone anywhere near as far as it would have in the past.
The only way to move forward in his walk with the Lord came down to asking for forgiveness, cleansing and strength before letting go. The alternative was turning his back on Jesus. That Gregg couldn't do. He and Christie remained friends, but tension and awkwardness reigned whenever they saw each other. She seemed justifiably embarrassed about the whole thing now and clearly regretted her boldness. He had tried to put it behind him by acting like nothing had happened since.
How long had Craig had feelings for Christie? From the start? Remembering how upset his brother had been each time Gregg mentioned seeing her outside the recording studio, he could only guess Craig had been in love with her for a long time. Ironically, Craig had suggested the two of them work together in the first place. Craig had entertained ideas about Gregg getting into Christian music since the day he'd left his secular music career behind, but Craig had obviously never considered Christie's album might lead to more between them.
Another mistake that'll have more ramifications than just the surface ones, Gregg acknowledged.
He'd explain the truth of what had happened between him and Christie to Craig when he came back, but at the moment he had an interview to prepare for.
* * * *
"You have an appointment soon, don't you?"
Stormie Knight's father's voice floated down to where she lay on a mechanic's dolly under one of his cars, and she rolled herself out just enough to see him. He stood beside the car on the cobblestone parkway, wearing an impeccably clean silver suit, with every gray hair in place and the usual grim expression on his lined face. Obviously, he'd come home for lunch to check up on her again.
He glared at the broken body of her Geo Storm, also on the driveway. "What do you plan to do with that heap of junk?" he said, not for the first time since it'd been towed here.
"Fix it. Restore it."
She couldn't think about that now and murmured, "Soon. What time is it?"
Stormie let out a cry of dismay. "I'm late. I'll be late." She rolled out the rest of the way and jumped to her feet. Her stomach growled insistently. She should have recognized her hunger before, but she'd gotten so into rebuilding the engine, nothing had penetrated. Not even the possibility of meeting Gregg Stevens--the Gregg Stevens, her idol for more years than she could remember.
Frantically, she tried to wipe away the excessive grease on her hands with an equally greasy rag, ignoring her father's unvoiced-for-the-moment disapproval. "This car won't be taking you anywhere."
The idea of taking one of his, taking charity from him, didn't appeal to her at all. She didn't have time to argue today. When he held up a set of keys to one of his cars, she shook her head.
Motioning toward her face, he said, "You should really think about cleaning up."
She didn't have time--for the lecture, or for cleaning up. She ran into the house. She didn't have time for any more than to get out of the grease-covered coveralls she wore over a pair of baggy overall shorts and a yellow tank top. Though it was early November, the weather had been unseasonably warm, and she sweated profusely whenever she worked under a car.
In her bedroom, still stuck in the past with her posters of rock stars, an explosion stuffed animals collected over a lifetime, a variety of musical instruments and black curtains, she shucked her shoes and the coveralls quickly. She'd just moved back into her father's house a few weeks ago, but the piles of accumulated clothing looked natural enough to have been there forever.
Struggling to get her shoes back on, she realized she'd forgotten to put on underwear again that morning. And she didn't have time to put any on, since it'd require undressing and re-dressing. She had less than fifteen minutes now, and the Wayward Angels shelter was over on the Northside. Who would notice anyway?
In the mirror, she saw her hair and she lunged closer with a gasp of shock. Her hand went to take out the messy ponytail at the top of her head, and then she remembered she'd put the ponytail in right after her shower without bothering to dry her hair first. If she took the ponytail out now, she'd look like a complete psycho.
Lowering her hand, she saw the grease coating it. What she wouldn't give to wash her hands, but she had to go.
Grabbing the keys to her Harley--the only vehicle she'd ever bought with her own money; the only one that hadn't been destroyed--she ran down the elaborate, winding staircase in the mansion she'd grown up in. She felt a familiar irritation at seeing her father waiting for her at the marbled floor at the bottom. She went right past him, out to the seven-car garage. He followed her out, watching her toss a small tool box and belt into the saddlebags. "Don't you think you should give yourself more time, Stormie?" he said. "First you disappear for how many months without a word where you were..."
Her reach for her wraparound shades stalled. She waited for it. She waited expectantly for "again", but he surprised her when he didn't say it.
"And then I get a phone call from the New York police, saying you were in a car accident and Laredo was dead--"
She wheeled on him, close enough to smell his expensive aftershave. "I told you I didn't ever want to talk about that again, old man."
His expression revealed no repentance, let alone acquiescence. Her father never showed either emotion in his interactions with her. But his lectures came more and more often since her return, and she'd tired of it. After thirty-one years, she'd had more than her fill of his condemnation.
She jumped on her bike and sped away, scolding herself for not planning her morning better. This job felt like an answer to prayer for her, a step toward the light, and she wanted it. Strange and new as the Christian stuff was in her life, she couldn't deny that this job felt like her destiny. Maybe someday she'd be free because of this opportunity. Someday she could fly from her prison forever.