Jack’s Sermon on Light and Death
My mom had a car, but she could barely afford the gas for going to and from work. If I took it, not only would she freak wondering where I had gone, but I would use up the gas she needed. She would have to find another way to work, too; because we couldn’t afford for her to take a day off. We had an old bike, but I was fairly certain the chain was rusted and that the seat had long since lost its padding. This was one of those days I wished that crummy salesman had given my mom something besides another mouth to feed. And I mean something besides all the half-price appliances and other junk he smooth-talked her into buying before he got into her pants. Not that I’m not grateful for the toaster. It’s the one appliance I use daily. Ugh, I hate that I have to be grateful to him for that.
I’ve spent a lot of time being angry at my dad, for dying. I’ve also spent a lot of time being angry at my mom’s salesman-lover for abandoning her and Joy for more conquests—both monetary and otherwise. But I don’t have the energy for that anymore. I’ve got too much anger for the Peaches, and religion. That’s where I channel everything. Except now, Jack has ruined that hatred. It has died out slowly since the day Joy died and Jack found his way into my life. I want to hate Jack. But, if I did, that would make me no better than a Peach. I was not going there.
The next day had dawned and here I was, about to knock on Jack’s door. I held my hand up and paused. Then, after taking a deep breath, I let my knuckles crack on the thick, hand-carved-by-Jack wooden door.
No one answered for several minutes and I began to worry. Then, someone other than Jack or Dora cracked open the door and peered at me. “What do you want? We’re in session here.”
My eyes went wide, “Is it Sunday?”
The woman squeezed her head out the door and measured me for my intelligence level. “Um, yes.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
Raised brows, “A follower, dear, a follower. This is a chantry.” Then, before I could respond the woman’s face took on an expression of sudden understanding. “Are you looking for truth? You can come in. Jack preaches for free.”
I rolled my eyes, but tried to be polite. “No thanks. I don’t do official following. I’ll…come back later…for Jack.”
The woman twisted her nose and stared down it at me. “Very well, then. Good day.” Then, she squeezed back behind the door and closed it softly.
Jack preaching… The idea of seeing him preach formally was difficult for me to imagine. Perhaps because I’d only ever seen him preach one-on-one on cement porch steps. I tried to picture him in elaborate robes, standing behind an ornate pulpit, with an expression of utmost solemnity. The picture sent a whoosh of giggles exploding out of me. But they fled as soon as they escaped, and I found myself slowly walking back up the steps. Curiosity was drawing me, not quite against my will, into Jack’s door.
After the door had closed softly behind me, I took in the room. My heart was beating fast, a habit, I guess. I glanced quickly up at a high, but plain wood-slatted ceiling. Nice hand-forged wrought-iron chandeliers hung from it. Rustic beams, painted satin-white, set off the beautiful oily-brown of the semi-ornate iron sconces. The walls were also wood, but white washed. Instead of pews there were comfortable upholstered chairs. They looked good for listening but not quite good enough for sleeping—perfect for a chantry. Furry rugs were scattered evenly about the room both beneath the chairs and elsewhere. People lounged comfortably in either the chairs or on the rugs with large pillows.
Then, casting my eyes to the front of the room, there stood Jack. Only, he wasn’t behind a pulpit and he wore no ornate robes. He merely paced back and forth in a sports jacket, button-up shirt, black slacks, and polished leather dress shoes. He wore a nearly imperceptible microphone, but he was not waving his arms and he wasn’t pedantic or over-zealous as he talked. He wasn’t loud and obnoxious. Nor was he impassionate. There was, in fact, a sort of authoritative aura about him that had nothing to do with intimidation or entertainment. He spoke frankly, which I appreciated, and he always knew when to inflect his voice.
Then, I put my finger on it: he was genuine. There was no pretense. He wasn’t trying to make himself appear smarter than he was. He was sincere. He was a real Teacher.
I tiptoed to a back chair and took a seat. Jack, if he noticed me, barely winked and then kept on with his sermon.
“And so, I would ask you,” he continued, “to consider your own heart. Why do you do the things you do from day to day? What drives you? Do you do things so that others will perceive you a certain way? Or do you do them because that’s the kind of person you want to be?” Jack put his hand over his own heart, “It’s what’s in here that makes the difference. Not what people see out here,” he motioned to his face and his clothes. “Certainly, how we act and dress has an impact. But I would suggest that the impact is as much on us, and our soul, as it is on those around us.” He tugged at his sport’s jacket, “I wear this to be respectable, not only to you, but to my profession. I could walk around up here in jeans and a band t-shirt. And, to do so wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. But, if my appearance distracted from my sermon, if it put the emphasis on me and not on truth, then it would be work against what I want to have happen. If I wore it to draw attention to myself, and make a personal statement, and not to draw attention to the truth, then it would be wrong. This is my point. This is my challenge to each of you today. Consider your heart and your motivations. Truly take a look at yourself from the inside out. This will help you further along the path to your chosen Utopia than simply going through motions, to simply appear that you are silver, gold, or white. You need to be silver, gold, or white.”
Jack smiled kindly at everyone in the room, his gaze doing kind of a sweep. Then, he nodded and backed away from the front of the room into the shadows where I saw him switch off the amplifier for his microphone. Then, he pulled off the mic and tucked it into a small black case.
I was going to go up and grab Jack, to get him all to myself. But no sooner than he was free, nearly half the congregation of thirty had surrounded him. A general sound of murmuring arose, though it was muffled. It reached me at the back of the room. The other half of the congregation, who hadn’t stayed to chat with Jack, shuffled past me, hardly glancing at me. They were dressed fine and dropped bills and coins in a very small box sitting on a roughly constructed metal table near the door. Their coins clanked and thudded as they landed on both metal and other money already inside the box.
Still slightly curious, I waited at the back of the room to watch Jack mingle. I could tell after a bit of a heated conversation with one fellow that Jack was fatiguing. He was trying to be kind. But, at last, in his uniquely genuine way, he stopped the conversation with a polite raise of his hand and asked the man to come talk to him on his steps some afternoon. The man clenched his jaw, nodded irritably, and then semi-stomped away.
After the annoyed man passed through the front door, I rose and decided to take my leave. All-in-all the little of the sermon I’d seen had been something I hadn’t been able to imagine before. As chantries went, Jack’s sermon, and environment, was a bit more solemn and reverent. It had less flair and more sincerity. It lacked drastically in being ornate and excelled incredibly at feeling welcoming and comfortable. I basked in it for just another moment, and then startled when I realized that perhaps I was being taken in. Was I? I certainly hoped not.
A few other people came up behind me as I opened the heavy door and stepped out onto the porch. I picked up my pace, jumped several stairs and began walking briskly back to my house. After a few hundred steps I decided to detour through the Learen. The trees were bright and mid-summer green and they called to me as the wind rustled through their leaves.
I entered the forest on a barely-worn path and slowed. I walked close to the trees, letting the warm wind brush my face, delaying the sweat of my exertion, and maintained the calm I had come away from Jack’s with. I ran my hands over the jagged bark of the larger trees, as I passed. Then, I began to weave back and forth around the trees in front of me, meandering over craggy undergrowth, damp moss, packed leaves, and overgrown grasses.
I walked for quite a bit before realizing that I had stopped paying attention to where I was. I took a closer look around me. I wasn’t certain where I was or what direction I was headed. I listened harder. Off to my right I heard the sounds of cars and city life. It reoriented me. I was heading straight for my home in the cheapest neighborhood south of town: Harpersville Bend.
I stopped to climb a few trees. First was the one I had found Zoe in years back when she’d experienced her first death ray. The second was the one I had climbed when my mother had finally told me about how my dad had died. The trees were taller and thicker now. A few love-struck teens had carved shallow initials into them. I looked at those initials numbly. Manny was cute, after a fashion, but I’d never really had room in my heart for love. I was attracted to guys at school, sure, but it ended there. There was nothing for me except finding out the truth about the rays. Then, maybe…
“If you keep hanging off that branch, you’re likely to fall,” Jack’s voice broke my pondering and I nearly lost my grip. I was hanging by my legs and one arm, staring off toward the direction of the sounds of the city.
“Jack!” I yelled.
Jack smiled and I slowly climbed down. “Nice sermon,” I said after regaining my bearings and planting both of my feet on firm ground.
“Thank you, Fern. It was wonderful to look back and see you there. Did I pass?”
I smirked. “Ya, I guess so.”
“That close of a call, eh?” he joked.
I smiled but then sobered up. “Actually, it was way better than I imagined. I was worried that officially preaching you would be different. It was nice to see that even with a crowd you are still you.”
Jack sighed. “Have you ever tried being anyone but yourself? Have you tried faking it?”
I nodded. “Yes, and I’m terrible at it. Not terribly convincing either.”
“I find some people can do it. Some need to do it. Others do it for selfish reasons. But, like you, I find that it requires a good deal too much energy. I’m no pretender. And, I’m glad to hear that when I preach, I’m as genuine as I try to be. Coming from you that’s a real compliment.”
“Because you know how jaded I am,” I laughed.
Jack laughed too. “Headed home?” he asked.
“Yep, just slowly.”
“Did you come to talk?”
I nodded again. “But I forgot it was Sunday. And, I forgot you preach more formally than just on your porch.”
Jack smiled. “I wish I could fit the whole congregation on my porch.”
“Where are you headed?” I asked.
Jack’s hands, which were in his pockets, balled up making the pockets of his black slacks bulge out on both sides. Then, he pulled them out and crossed his arms. He was measuring me, I could see. Then, his eyes settled on something off on the horizon just behind me. He nodded, as if talking to himself inside his head, and then at last, looked back directly at me. “Do you want to see?”
This was the oddest I’d ever seen Jack act and yet I wasn’t afraid, merely curious. “Sure.”
Jack turned and then waved me with his hand off the path and toward a particularly darker piece of the forest. “Don’t worry,” he said, “this is not about to turn into something you’ve seen in a scary movie.”
Jack’s statement was not playful and I could tell, that even though it had been said with a little bit of levity, that he had not intended for me to laugh. And, after walking another few hundred feet into a dark group of trees, I realized why. Jack led me into the dark area. However, directly inside was a clearing and right in the center of the clearing was an altar of stones. A piercing beam of light had illuminated the center section of the small stone slab on the top.
Jack looked at his watch. “Right on time.”
I stepped up beside him and saw that the little ray of sunlight looked like a death ray in miniature. It shone down onto the stone slab, illuminating only that small bit of the dark clearing. It was both eerie and sacred.
“Is…that…” I began.
“No Fern. That is not a death ray.” Jack said.
“It’s just light. Focused light.” Jack answered my unspoken question.
I didn’t know why I felt so afraid. But seeing that pillar of light—even though it was nothing like the ray I had experienced with Joy—I couldn’t help but tense up. Jack sensed my numbness. He quickly walked over and stuck an arm into the pillar of light. I gasped reflexively and took a step back.
“Don’t be afraid of light, Fern. This is just light. And really, that’s all the rays are. And light brings clarity.”
My jaw dropped as I looked at Jack’s arm. There was the hint of a tattoo on his right forearm, peeking out from beneath the cuff of his shirt, that I’d never seen before. It was so faded, or perhaps it had never occurred to me that Jack would have one, but the pillar of light in the grove revealed it in incredible clarity. Jack saw what I was looking at and pulled his sleeve up higher. That tatoo was a crown with wings on either side. They were tattooed on so that they looked like they were flapping to hold the crown up.
“Jack!” I exclaimed, my horror dissipating. I ran over to him and looked closely at the tattoo. “How come I never saw this before?”
Jack arched a brow. “Perhaps because you couldn’t see clearly. You were looking for certain things in a Peach, forgive me for the use of your term, and so you couldn’t see clearly. You couldn’t see what was right in front of you…that I’m a person just like you. I’m trying to live to my best ability too. Like the story of how I grew up with Dora, I’ve made decisions I’m not proud of. And not all remnants of those decisions can be washed away in this life.”
I looked up at Jack. I was stunned and also overcome. I stepped back. I felt chastised, but not really by Jack. By my own conscience. He was right. I had judged him without thinking. Had I done the same to other Peaches? Were there others more like Jack, but I hadn’t been willing to see?
“So, what does this tattoo mean?” I asked, trying to get my thoughts back from their determined focus on my own self-evaluation.
Jack smiled, looking at the picture himself, admiring it to an extent. “It’s a symbol, reminding me that glory takes effort—hard work. But I don’t mean fame. I mean the glory of the white Utopia. Now, I’m not sorry about what the symbol means. But now that I’ve grown up a bit, I sometimes wish I hadn’t made such a permanent mark. I’m not ashamed of it, that’s for sure. It’s part of who I am. But I know now that I don’t need the symbol etched into my skin to remember. I used to think I needed it.”
“Why don’t you need it anymore?” I asked.
Jack sighed, then continued to look at the tattoo in all its contrast under the focused pillar of light. “Because, Fern…I realized that what I want shows in all I do. My actions show what I want. How I live is a more powerful symbol of what I seek than this. And…well, the type of light ray that eventually takes me will reveal the same thing…who I really am inside no matter what I look like on the outside.”
I gulped, overwhelmed at the depth of what Jack was teaching me. I felt internal emotional walls crumbling and my frantic psyche trying hastily to rebuild them before Jack could say something else and obliterate them completely. “So, you’re saying the death rays are simply light that reveals the truth about what’s inside us?” What?!
Jack pulled his forearm back out of the light, pushed his sleeve back down, and stuffed his hands into his pockets again. “I didn’t say that.” He paused. Then, he added, “Is that what your mind taught you, all by itself?”
Jacks direct and frank teaching was really getting to me. It was never surface stuff. He never glazed over things. He always invited me to think—to really think about what he said. He seemed capable of breaking all my barriers, all my hatred and resentment. Everything he said, no matter how simple, seemed to deny me any selfish reasoning I wanted to hold onto. Now, he was showing me that I could get my own answers. I didn’t even have to wait for him to teach me. Who is this guy?!
For some reason I couldn’t answer Jack. I looked around, almost frantically, and could see that he’d brought me to a place very sacred to him. He’d placed even more trust in me. And I didn’t think I could go through with my plan if he continued to trust me. He trusted me to find truth on my own. He wasn’t trying to make me believe what he taught. He was simply putting truth out there and I could grab it if I wanted to—or not. And his confidence in me was so powerful, so infectious, I knew I had to leave. Otherwise I would have to rise to his expectations. I’d have to set my plan aside… NO!
The anger I lived by—however deeply it was hidden—began to aid my psyche in rebuilding the crumbling walls of fear. Maybe this is all a trick? Maybe Jack is just the best of the best? Maybe…
“Uh…Jack, I gotta go.” My voice finally broke the prevailing silence. I backed away, tearing my eyes from his face. I felt awkward, but Jack didn’t tell me to stop. He didn’t ask any questions. Why is he doing this? Why is he trying to keep me from my plan!? He did exactly what he should. He let me leave. I wanted to be angry at him. But I couldn’t. All I could do was get away—and fast.
The minute I was out of Jack’s sightline I ran. I ran, not even noticing my labored breathing or my trembling legs. I ran all the way home. When I charged in the front door, I startled my mom so abruptly that she jumped up out of her chair at the small, dining room table. A book she had been reading flew out of her hands and landed on the floor.
“What in the heck, Fern!” she cried.
I was breathing hard and could barely reply. “Sorry mom. I was…I thought I was late for dinner.”
My mom cocked her head and arched a brow. “Fern, it’s only 10:30 a.m. Did everything go okay with Jack?”
“Um, ya, it was fine,” I replied, still trying to get my breathing under control.
I got my feet moving again and charged into the kitchen for a glass of water. I guzzled it down, mumbled I know not what, and headed to my room. My mom tried to check on me—twice. But I deflected all her questions. Then, after dinner, I headed to the meeting with Zoe and Manny.
“I’ve changed my mind,” I told them. “I think stealing a car is our best option. When can we go?”
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Hi! My name is Angela Tempest. I write fiction that entertains, takes you to another world, and fills your life with truth. I hope you’re enjoying A Search for Utopia. If you love it, there’s more. Check out my author page to read my other stories!