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Month: September 2022

A SHORT STORY: And Then There Was One by Lorilyn Roberts

When Elon began college in his freshman year, Friedrich Nietzsche was one of his heroes. In fact, at one time, Elon thought Nietzsche was a genius—until he read what he said about free will.

Elon reached a crisis point as a philosophy student when he couldn’t accept the beliefs of those he once admired. The 20-year-old believed that humans were free to make choices. He did not think that everything he accomplished in life was the result of some ethereal force that might be capricious or fickle.

“Free will must exist,” Elon argued with his atheist friends, but what was that boundary between free will and pre-determinism?

When Elon heard Christians talking about free will, he thought they might know something that he didn’t. The college student spent the next two years studying the scriptures and became a Christian, to the shock of many. Not only did he confess Jesus as his Savior, but he was determined to go to graduate school and become a pastor or theologian.

One afternoon during his senior year, his pastor called him. “Elan,” he said, “I received a letter in the mail addressed to you that says ‘confidential’ on the envelope.”

“Who is it from?”

“There’s no return address, but I don’t think it’s junk mail.”

A pause in the conversation ensued as Elon mentally checked off several names of friends who might have sent him something in jest, but he dismissed them. All of his friends texted when they wanted to communicate.

“I’ll come to the church right now,” Elon said.

He made the ten-minute drive in only five. When he arrived, the secretary hurried him into the pastor’s office.

Pastor Lehman was an older man close to retiring and had played an integral role in Elon’s life following his conversion. After the perfunctory greetings, the pastor handed him the envelope. With a bit of sweat on his brow, Elon opened it, but to his surprise, there was no writing on the stationery. As disappointment set in, he heard a voice inside his head.

“Elon, you have a dinner appointment this Friday at 6:00 p.m. at the Fountainhead Restaurant. Two messengers will greet you when you arrive. They will recognize you even if you don’t know who they are. Will you be there?”

“Yes!”

“Yes—what?” Pastor Lehman asked.

For an instant, the college student forgot where he was. He stared at the blank invitation in his hand. Still somewhat shaken, he handed him the letter.

Pastor Lehman looked at it. “It’s just a blank sheet of paper.”

“I know,” said Elon. “I heard a voice asking me if I could come to dinner at the Fountainhead Restaurant Friday at 6:00 p.m. The voice said two messengers would greet me even though I may not know them. I said I would be there.”

*

Friday arrived, and at the appointed time, Elon, dressed in his Sunday best, walked up the sidewalk to the Fountainhead Restaurant. Two men in white robes appeared at the entrance, and Elon, with his heart beating wildly and more than a drop of perspiration on his forehead, shook their hands.

The messengers, whether angelic or human, Elon wasn’t sure, ushered him inside. The sweet aroma of fresh bread filled his nostrils, and the beaded sweat on his forehead evaporated in the coolness of the air. Hues of various intensities filtered through the restaurant, radiating beauty like exquisite stones, and the view through the windows reflected nothing he had ever seen. The restaurant seemed to be floating in the clouds.

One messenger escorted Elon to a table where three other young men sat. Each one introduced himself by his first name, Bill, David, and John. Elon took a seat beside them and engaged them in conversation. “Are you guys from around here?”

“Where is here?” Bill asked.

Elon chuckled. “That’s a good question.”

Hungry folks filled the restaurant, some older, some younger, and some—well, they seemed ageless. As the young men talked, Elon learned they were also college students and new Christian converts. But none lived near him in Florida. Bill was from California, David was from Texas, and John lived in Rhode Island.

Soon a waiter brought them water and bread, and for the next few minutes, they engaged in conversation about their goals. Like Elon, they were driven to achieve great things for Christ. After a while, when Elon looked at his watch, he couldn’t believe an hour had passed.

At that moment, one of the messengers reappeared, and his mysterious words prompted more unanswered questions.

“You have just eaten manna from heaven and tasted living water. When you leave, do many good works. If you are found to be faithful, sometime in the future—perhaps many years from now—you will meet again for the second course.”

“Good works?” Elon asked. “You mean—like in a Christian sense?”

The messenger nodded. “Good works are what you do—feeding the poor, sharing the Good News, serving in church, teaching the Bible—all those things you long to do in your heart now. The devil wants to steal your hunger for the Lord. Only three of you will return for the second course.”

The college students exchanged glances. Elon felt a lump in his throat. Would he return? Or would he succumb to the world’s temptations and be led astray?

*

Elon finished college and went to seminary. While in seminary, he fell in love with the school librarian, and the couple married when Elon graduated. A small church hired him, and he was an associate pastor for the next two years.

Late one night, when Elon was praying, he remembered the restaurant encounter with the two messengers. What were the other three men up to—had they been faithful in good works? So much time had passed, Elon lamented his unworthiness in God’s sight that he had not invited him back for the second course.

As he was praying and seeking forgiveness, he heard the messenger’s voice.

“Elon, do you hear me?”

“Here I am.” He looked around but saw no one in his study. Even the dog was asleep.

“Go to the Fountainhead Restaurant Friday at 6:00 p.m., and I will meet you there.”

Elon thought about how far away the restaurant was from his home now. How could he even get there since he and his wife shared one car? But before he could reply, the voice spoke,

“Elon, there is a Fountainhead Restaurant in this small town.”

“I’ll be there,” Elon said, and his spirit soared. The week went by agonizingly slow. He had never shared with anyone about the previous encounter, but now he would.

His wife just smiled when Elon told her. After kissing him, she said, “You never told me you had entertained angels. Just don’t wait this time to tell me what happens.”

Elation filled Elon’s heart. Thankfully his wife didn’t think he was hallucinating. He spent the next few days in prayer, reading his Bible, and fasting. Friday night couldn’t come soon enough.

*

Much to Elon’s surprise, he found the Fountainhead Restaurant through an internet search, and Friday night, he arrived at the restaurant clean-shaven and wearing his Sunday best. He had even been to the barber, which greatly pleased his wife. He arrived an hour early, perhaps over-exuberant to meet the messengers. When they weren’t there, doubt set in. Suppose he was hallucinating that night? After all, at that very moment when he heard the voice, he was lamenting not being invited back, blaming it on his many failures and doubting his worthiness.

Before he could get too gloomy in the early evening Florida sunshine, Bill and David arrived—thirty minutes early. Did that mean John was the one who would not return?

Bill and David were all smiles, and the three young disciples of Christ exchanged handshakes and slapped each other on the back.

“Great to see you, Elon,” Bill and David said. They exchanged pleasantries with the unspoken acknowledgment that John would not join them.

As they were talking, two messengers in shining robes appeared. “Good evening, Gentlemen.” They escorted the young men into the restaurant and took them to a window table.

“This special table is reserved for you,” the server said.

Once again, the view was breathtaking. The vibrant colors of the clouds were heavenly, creating a kaleidoscope of images beyond human experience.

The restaurant was half full, unlike last time when it was so crowded. Elon imagined what the second course might be.

Sweet aromas filled the restaurant with delicacies he couldn’t wait to taste. The three men shared their lives over the past decade. They had all become pastors, and two were shepherding churches. Bill was a missionary to an unreached people group in Africa.

Soon the second course arrived, and four plates of steaming hot food filled the serving tray. Who was the fourth plate for since there were only three of them?

The messenger answered Elon’s thought. “Take what you want. John’s talents will now go to the three of you.”

The men dove into the food. Elon couldn’t remember when he had tasted such heavenly salmon. It was like God knew what his favorite entrée was and fed him precisely what he would have ordered under ordinary circumstances.

When they finished, one of the messengers returned, thoughtfully gazing at the men. “The next course will be the dessert, but only two of you will be invited back.”

Who would not return? Elon wondered.

The messenger added, “Remember, your good works are not for salvation, but rewards.”

“What happened to John?” Elon asked. “Did he lose his salvation?”

The messenger replied. “No, you can’t lose your salvation. However, if you fall away because of sin, you lose rewards. The rewards you would have earned are forfeited, and God gives the talents for those rewards to others.”

Elon returned home, thinking about John. He had seemed so full of the spirit; he could quote Scripture better than all of them. What happened?

Many years went by. Elon served in several pastoral roles, but life was not easy in the pulpit or at home. One trial after another came his way, almost to the point he wanted to quit the pastorate.

But his wife encouraged him. “Don’t give up,” she would say. “If you are faithful, God will reward you.”

He tried to be a good father but felt he often failed. As he grew in the knowledge of the Lord, he often doubted that God would call him worthy of anything. Sin always seemed crouching at the door, tempting him to do wrong things. How easy it would be to have an affair, steal money from the church, or teach only from his favorite scriptures that he knew well without digging deep and teaching from the entire Bible.

Then one night, a voice awakened him in a dream. “Elon.”

Elon recognized the voice and sat up in bed.

“Meet me at the Fountainhead Restaurant this Friday at 6:00 p.m.”

The family had moved two times since the previous engagement, but Elon knew there must be a Fountainhead Restaurant in the small town somewhere.

“I’ll be there,” Elon said. He was so excited he could hardly go back to sleep. He thought about waking up his wife to tell her, but she lay so peacefully beside him that he decided to wait until the morning.

*

6:00 p.m. Friday arrived, and Elon showed up an hour early. His wife had taken him shopping for a new suit—which he had put off buying for years, and he had made a trip to the barber. Why? Elon wasn’t sure because he was almost bald.

He saw that Bill was waiting, and his old friend greeted him warmly. “It’s so good to see you, Elon.”

Elon chuckled. “I guess it’s just you and me for the dessert.”

Bill glanced around, looking for the messengers.

Elon noted how much older he looked. Thirty years had passed since their first encounter when they were still college students. Perhaps David had died. He had seemed so full of the spirit, so driven to serve God. Surely, he was still doing so. Of the four of them, Elon figured he would be the one to finish strong. But David wasn’t here for dessert. That meant only the two of them had a chance to finish well.

The two messengers appeared, and they again escorted them inside the restaurant. The room was almost empty, with just a few patrons eating. As before, the view was spectacular. They floated in the clouds with the stars shining down like messengers singing songs of praise.

The two men talked about their lives, families, and careers. Soon one of the messengers arrived with four dessert plates—including Elon’s favorite, chocolate cheesecake. The angel said, “The other two men who started with you have lost their rewards, so their talents have been passed on to you. Use them for the glory of God; at the main course, you will understand.”

“If this is dessert,” Elon asked, “what is the main course?”

The messenger replied. “Remember, the Bible says, ‘Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.’ Now you taste; next time, you will see.”

Elon felt sad only one of them would make it. Emboldened, he asked the obvious. “Can we not both finish strong?”

The angel studied Elon, peering into his eyes with so much love Elon’s heart melted. “You each have free will,” the messenger replied. “You can receive all the rewards God wants to give you, but the reality is, one of you will finish well, and one of you won’t. Jesus has given you salvation, but you must earn rewards.”

Elon thought back to his first two years in college when he embraced an atheistic theology and admired men like Nietzsche. How good God had been to rescue him. Later that evening, Elon prayed, “Please, Jesus, help me to finish well.”

*

Years passed. Elon’s two sons grew up, married, and he became a grandfather. Then his wife died, and the joy of living left him. He was old now, and the tasks of daily living were challenging. He limped, his eyes were dim, and he could no longer hear the birds singing.

“Perhaps the angel spoke to me, and I didn’t hear,” Elon lamented. Nevertheless, he continued to live for God’s glory, more determined than ever to finish well. He no longer cared about rewards, whether he earned one or none. He only longed to see Jesus.

Despite being weak and frail, Elon read his Bible each day and prayed. When the day came that he breathed his last, his sons were by his side. He knew this was his departure to glory, and he had never shared with them his religious experience. And so he shared the story with his sons.

“I guess I wasn’t found worthy,” Elon said. “I never heard from the messenger a fourth time. Even though I won’t receive any rewards, I’m okay with that. All I want is Jesus.”

His older son, whose heart was tender, replied, “The main course is the real thing, Dad. Now you will ‘see’ the goodness of the Lord.”

Elon thought about that. Maybe his son was right, and he tried to remember the messenger’s final words.

*

The day of glory came, and two angels escorted him to his heavenly father’s house. An unfathomable number of people filled the heavenly abode. As the angels led Elon through the eternal gates, he saw John way back in a sea of people.

Elon reflected on the angel’s words. John was in heaven because Jesus paid the price for his sins. Salvation was God’s gift, but rewards were earned. John would never be close to Jesus because he had forfeited his talents.

The messenger escorted Elon through the heavenly city, passing David and Bill along the way. When Elon neared the main course, he could see Jesus. Overcome with emotion, he bowed and worshiped.

Jesus walked over to Elon and said, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

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A SHORT STORY: Counterfeit by Lorilyn Roberts

The powerful leaders of the New World Order sat eating lunch in the new Hanging Gardens of Babylon designed by Kai, a renowned horticulturist. Surrounded by tropical ferns, prickly succulents, meandering vines, and exotic flowers, they chatted about secret matters of which the common people had no knowledge. Kai knew their secrets because the garden he created was their favorite hangout. He noted that while the rest of the world ate green—they ate meat and other delicacies he couldn’t even identify.

The globalists valued Kai’s knowledge only to satisfy their selfish ambitions. Kai was not important except for his horticultural expertise, and he was under orders to keep what he knew a secret. That wasn’t hard to do in the largely deserted city.

The plebeians, like Kai, had once been middle-class citizens. “Own nothing, and you’ll be happy,” the World Economic Forum touted. The globalists convinced the masses that a virtual world would be far more pleasant than the future world which would not include animal meat, living in big houses, or driving gasoline-powered cars.

“We must make sure the population is reduced so we have sustainability. The future of humankind depends on our willingness to sacrifice,” they claimed.

As Kai thought about their lies, he suppressed his anger only to perform his job. Then he would go home, turn on the computer, and escape. His virtual reality consisted of dozens of gardens worldwide. He had the benefit of both worlds—but was it a blessing or a curse?

Kai lamented. The common folks probably couldn’t even remember the fragrance of a rose. Living in ghost towns because of population depletion, they would return home each day from monotonous factory jobs, plug themselves into the computer, and escape into a virtual existence.

One of the guests waved his hand to get Kai’s attention.

Kai walked over. “Can I help you?”

The man nodded. “Yes, I would like more wine.”

Kai went to the bar. As he poured the drink, he saw his daily visitor, a white dog, eating some elderberries nearby. He had recently noticed the white dog limping, but today the animal seemed better. Kai knew the berries were good for inflammation, but how did the animal know that? The world-renowned horticulturist knew almost everything about every plant species, and he had intentionally planted medicinal specimens in the garden. Therapeutic drugs were only for the elite, but Kai knew of the healing powers in the leaves of plants.

After serving the wine, Kai returned to tending the garden. His mind wandered as he imagined some divine being speaking everything into existence, and now that God had given him this unique position, he made it his goal to protect every green thing he had painstakingly planted.

But there was a cost. Kai lived a lonely life. He knew too many “secrets.” They would liquefy him if he shared that secret knowledge. The uncomfortable truth was that isolation caused by multiple pandemics created a lifestyle where commoners lived alone. Things didn’t go well for those who complained. Liquefaction was how they eliminated humans who were troublemakers.

The white dog came over to Kai, and Kai leaned down to pat him on the head. “I should give you a name,” Kai said, “but if I do, I will love you too much.” He feared the elite would discover the animal and remove him from the garden. So Kai maintained his distance emotionally but longed to embrace the dog’s unconditional love.

It was almost time for the rich rulers to depart, and Kai would close the garden and head home, eat his veggie meal, enjoy his allotted wine, and hook himself up to his computer. Before going to bed, he would enjoy a few hours in the gardens he had virtually designed.

Seeing that the dog no longer limped lifted Kai’s spirits. He ran his hand along the dog’s back. “I’m glad you’re feeling better.” Kai glanced in the direction of the restaurant guests. “Now go hide. They’ll be leaving soon, and I don’t want them to see you.”

The dog brushed up against his legs and ran off. Kai smiled. The garden was not only a getaway for the globalists, but there were a few animals that had survived the war, and they made their home here, too.

*

Later that evening, Kai parked himself in front of his computer, and his 3-D virtual reality sprung to life. Kai enjoyed traversing the gardens worldwide—gardens that no longer existed Pollution, war, and plagues had decimated the grasslands and forests. His virtual world was the blueprint for recreating those gardens.

Tonight, though, his interest was superficial. Kai thought about the white dog who lived in the natural garden. The botanist yanked off the headphones and removed the 3-D glasses. Was this how he would live the rest of his life? If given a choice, which world would be better? No beauty existed now, no gardens—except the one he designed.

Virtual reality wasn’t freedom; it was bondage. Despite his preeminent position, Kai knew that he would always be inferior to the globalists. They only wanted his knowledge.

What would he give to have the old world back? With its realness came love, joy, and the travails of experiential living, even if it was messy and unpredictable; at times, even painful. But sameness was dull and boring. A virtual reality contained nothing but figments of one’s imagination. Without realism, nothing was real—especially a virtual world that didn’t exist.

*

The next day Kai went to the garden, and the white dog greeted him as usual. His appearance was reassuring, and Kai would reward him with a treat. Afterward, the dog would disappear into the woods. His leg was healed now, and Kai figured he probably wouldn’t see him as much. That made him sad, but it also kept his best friend safe.

That afternoon, a truck pulled up to the garden gate. Kai saw an unusual tree in the back of the truck—a tree he could not identify. “I didn’t order this tree,” Kai said.

The delivery man handed him the purchase order.

Kai glanced at the paperwork. “I don’t know this person.” He watched as the delivery man set the tree on the curb, and then he left. Kai examined the tree’s leaves. He knew every tree on the planet, or almost, and he did not recognize the species.

Later in the afternoon, Kai’s boss arrived. “I bet you are wondering about the tree?”

Kai nodded, “Yes. I don’t recognize the species.”

“It’s a brand-new creation, developed in the laboratory by our top scientists. The tree has a triple helix.”

Kai blinked. “What?”

His boss laughed. “You heard me. Scientists have improved on the double helix design and can’t wait to propagate the tree. They selected this garden as the trial site because of your expertise. As you know, there are only a few gardens left. You must be thrilled.”

Kai was speechless. Finally, he muttered, “I will keep you apprised.”

His boss seemed pleased. “Good. You’re an excellent record-keeper, which is another reason why the elitists chose you. If this tree thrives, the geneticists plan to create hundreds of new species with the triple helix design. Perhaps it will replace all double helix life forms.”

After a few more disturbing comments, Kai’s boss left. Kai walked over to the triple helix. Sadness filled the gardener’s heart. He had poured his life into what he hoped would regenerate the wastelands of the world, and his garden was about to be destroyed by an invasive, artificial species.

As he moved the tree to a more permanent location, his boss returned. “I forgot to mention, scientists created the tree in the lab under low light conditions, so be gentle with the sunlight.”

“Okay,” Kai said.

As his boss requested, he moved the tree away from the others into the shadows. He also didn’t want to contaminate the habitat if it had any parasites or diseases. He set up a file for the tree, meticulously entering the data into the computer.

Three days passed. Kai checked the tree each day. But he noticed when he was near it that it felt like the tree was watching him, or was it just his imagination?

He also noted that the white dog would not go near the triple helix. He went out of his way to give a wide berth to it. And the trees next to the triple helix were no longer thriving. Fallen leaves littered the ground leaving some of the branches bare. Concerned, Kai moved the triple helix further away to protect the precious trees he had raised from saplings.

Nighttime approached, and Kai was running late. As he made his final round in the darkening garden, the dog was reluctant to accompany him. Normally, the white dog followed Kai, wagging his tail, as Kai checked on plantings and secured the building. Kai shrugged. Maybe his leg was bothering him again.

When he checked the triple helix, he noticed something odd. What was that dark strand on the trunk of the tree? He approached it to get a better look, and something lunged out at him and bit him on the cheek.”

Kai writhed in pain. Petrified, he watched as a snake slithered up the trunk. The third strand of the tree’s DNA was a snake!

Horror filled him as the pain increased. He ran his finger over the injury, and blood covered his fingertips. He hurried inside the building to examine the puncture wound. When he looked in the mirror, relief filled his mind. The fang mark was small, and it wouldn’t be noticeable in a couple of days. But how much poison had entered his body? He knew the snake was venomous because whatever the globalists did was toxic. Did the dog know something he didn’t know?

He walked outside looking for his four-legged friend, but the dog wasn’t around. Who would believe him if he shared what happened?

“A tree bit you?” they would scoff.

“No, a snake. The snake was part of the tree—part of the triple helix…” He couldn’t even put it into words.

Every horrid thought entered his mind. He sat on the ground with a cloth covering his bleeding cheek. If they fired him for insanity, where would he go? Nobody needed a gardener because there were no gardens on the planet. Spending hours each day in a virtual world hooked up to a computer was a different kind of death—and not the way Kai wanted to spend the end of his days.

Maybe God who created the plants and trees and flowers that he so dearly loved was punishing him for entertaining powerful people who claimed to be God.

“Oh, God, please have mercy on me.” But Kai heard nothing. He had never been a religious person anyway. Perhaps the Creator had gone to another universe to start over, but would a loving God abandon his creation? Surely He wasn’t that fickle.

Besides, Kai wanted to preserve God’s great handiwork. Otherwise, the remnant that he cherished would be destroyed by a concoction that Frankenstein scientists dreamed up in a lab.

Unexpectedly, he felt the presence of something nearby. At first, he was terrified, but when Kai looked up, he saw the white dog standing beside him. Relieved, he reached over and wrapped his arm around his neck, clinging to him as if his life depended on it. Then the dog pulled away, ran a short distance, and arched back, wagging his tail.

“He’s coaxing me to follow him,” Kai said. He remembered the direction the dog was leading him—to the elderberries. He stood. The elderberries had healed the dog. Perhaps the berries could heal him.

He followed the dog, wondering how many elderberries he should eat, but after consuming a handful, he fell into a deep sleep. The following day, when he awoke, he was surprised he felt no lingering effects from the bite. He promised God as he began his gardening work, “There will be no triple helix plantings in this garden as long as I am the gardener.” The question was, how could he destroy the tree that tried to kill him without getting caught?

An idea entered his mind. What was it his boss said—expose the tree gradually to sunlight. What if he did it quickly? What if he burned the tree in the sunlight?

He wasted no time moving the triple helix to the brightest spot in the garden. He would also deprive the tree of nutrients and water.

Then he had another thought. He would hang a bright light over the tree at night after the sun went down. That way, the tree never saw darkness, and the third strand of the helix would be forced to endure unrelenting light. With no reprieve, the snake couldn’t hide in the shadows, striking anything that came near. He was exposed now—a snake that wanted to substitute God’s perfection with his own counterfeit.

After a couple of weeks, the tree died, much to Kai’s delight. He made careful readings of the tree’s demise, and the snake disappeared into the tree never to be seen again.

The scientists brought more trees, and they died, too, because of Kai’s expertise. After a time, the scientists gave up and moved on to other projects. For now, the garden was safe under the care of Kai and the man’s best friend. But who knew for how long?

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A SHORT STORY: Rarer Than the Gold of Ophir by Lorilyn Roberts

“Why do you strike the fish above the eyes,” Emma asked her dad.

Jace remembered what he said to his beautiful daughter those many years ago. “That’s a good question, Emma. The reason is that you want to stun the fish into unconsciousness so when you bleed him out, he doesn’t suffer.”

“Oh,” she said as she watched.

His wife edged over to Emma. “There’s no need to traumatize her,” and she redirected Emma’s attention elsewhere.

Emma was only ten then, and it was her first fishing trip. Kate, his wife, had reluctantly agreed to go. She wasn’t the outdoor type, but Jace, having no sons, hoped to instill the value of living off the land into his daughter before she grew up and a lucky man stole her heart. Sometimes he would say to her when she was a teenager, “I hope your future husband loves hunting and fishing.”

Kate was right. Jace had performed the bludgeoning act so often that he didn’t even think about it. After throwing the unconscious fish into the ice cooler, the survivalist steered his new Stealth 210 aluminum crappie boat to the dock on Lake Istokpoga. After a successful day fishing, he remembered how he looked forward to eating crappie for the next week. Nostalgia swept over him. That seemed so insignificant now.

As Emma grew up, Jace made sure she had a survivalist mentality. “You never know what the future holds,” he would say. “Better be prepared for anything.”

Kate, his wife, wasn’t the least bit interested. She was only interested in the Bible regarding those topics. She would tell him, “I trust the Lord to take care of us,” and Jace would reply, “The Lord helps those who help themselves.”

What if Jace had known then what he knew now? What would he have said to her?

But Jace was a pragmatist. All the religions in the world wouldn’t put food on the table, and it didn’t take a rocket scientist to see food shortages were coming. Grudgingly, Kate agreed to stock up on food and other necessities just in case the worst scenario unfolded. Still, Jace reasoned, as long as they had the 27,000-acre lake stocked with crappie, the family should never go without food.

In return, Kate asked Jace to go to church. Jace kept his part of the bargain for several years, but when the church started teaching about the rapture, he and Kate had a blow-up. “Nowhere in the

Bible does the word ‘rapture,’ appear,” Jace said, and he quit attending church.

While dismissing his wife’s urgings to read the Bible and pray, Emma was different. “You need Jesus,” she would say. “Suppose the rapture happens. You might have a lot of skills and be able to survive all seven years of the tribulation, but you don’t have to go through it if you believe Jesus died on the cross for your sins.”

Jace had replayed those memory tapes in his head ad nauseum. Now he couldn’t stop them. They ran on autoplay. His focus returned to the present as he reached his destination. The last time he was here, a small stream percolated through the sandy forest. Now it was just a barren wasteland hemmed in with dead, bearded trees from lack of rain.

He sighed. He had spent the last three years in the Ocala National Forest after he lost his home because he couldn’t pay the property taxes. “The water table must be near zero,” he mused. The rains had been sparse for a year or more. Where would he go for water?

Depression sank into his soul. He was in this predicament because of the choices he had made. Now those conversations, a distant memory, tortured him. Jace trusted his skills as a survivalist with total disregard for the Bible.

The media and globalists blamed the disappearance of millions of people worldwide on aliens who came in UFOs and “beamed” them up. They said the aliens took all the bad people and left the good people behind.

Why did he listen to those liars? His wife and daughter weren’t bad people. He believed the news headlines for a long time, but eventually, he started to ask questions. Did that make sense? He had been duped, like an ostrich with his head in the sand.

Since Emma and Kate’s disappearance, the hour hand of time swept faster as the days and nights decreased in length. While it bothered Jace not knowing what day, month, or year it was, the speeding up of time was the least of anyone’s problems. People made it whatever day they wanted, just like they made up everything else.

Jace stared at the empty riverbed. Where had all the water gone? The dead trees made him sad because so many creatures had called the forest their home. Soon a sandy desert would reclaim the land.

It was so subtle and bizarre how it all began. Jace returned from work to an empty house one day, turned on the news, and heard the headlines.

“Do not panic,” the religious guru said. “We’ve been tracking the skies with the VATT telescope at Mt. Graham, Arizona. Our observatory in Castel Gandolfo, Italy, is in contact with astronomers, and our  sources have assured us everything is going as planned.”

“What does that mean?” a reporter asked. “Millions have disappeared.”

“We should know by tomorrow what the aliens’ demands are, but we’re confident their intentions are peaceful. They wanted to remove all the troublemakers on the planet to allow a more peaceful coexistence for those left behind.”

The interview lasted a while, but Jace tuned it out. Were they really aliens? Where was the evidence? Or was this the rapture? Which story was more believable?

At first, Jace believed what the government said. The media seemed so sincere; after all, they had all the facts, right? What did the aliens want?

Because of the speeding up of time, Jace began to mark on paper each night he slept, but there were so many Xs now he didn’t bother to count them. However, if he had to guess, he would say it was eight years since the day millions disappeared.

As the pain of surviving intensified, memories of Emma and Kate became more dream-like, and every time he thought about them, he sunk into a cavernous depression. Great effort and skill were the only ways to survive in a world without adequate food and water, and his depressed state of mind made it harder.

Initially, after the disappearances, life was relatively easy and calm, perhaps to give people time to grieve for their loved ones, but that didn’t last long. Soon a reset took place. A one-world government took control of all the countries and implemented a digital currency. That was how they controlled people, initially, through a phone app. Control was at the core of the globalists’ agenda. Then they wanted the app inside of people. Once they rolled out the mark of the beast, hell followed. There was no other way to describe it; eight nightmarish years steeped in persecution, suffering, and torture.

It began with destroying Bibles. They wanted anything of a religious nature on the internet purged, like Christian blogs, devotionals, stories, and testimonials.

Then the burning of print books began. It was easier to burn all books than to sort through those that were Christian and those that weren’t. Jace’s wife had purchased many religious texts, and Jace, being a good citizen of the New World Order, purged every book from the house and took them to the tax collector’s office. The collection center reimbursed his property taxes for the following year, which allowed him to keep his home a while longer. When he lost his job selling boats, he couldn’t pay the mortgage or taxes.

He asked himself, “What would I give to have that Bible I gave to the tax collector?” Everything he once treasured, like his boat, was in a trash heap somewhere. The water was gone, so nobody needed a boat. “Meaningless, meaningless,” Jace muttered.

He remembered when pastors preached about survival, it was a different kind of survival, called salvation. Specific trigger words were forbidden in this new world, like saying, “Jesus.” 5G listening devices were everywhere, so if you uttered his name, drones would come after you. Jace had seen what the drones did to people. It was impossible to talk about God, listen to a sermon, or read Scripture. Even if you quoted a Bible passage in the privacy of your home, somehow, the globalists knew.

Jace couldn’t remember when the worst part began, but when it did, everything changed. Without the mark, you couldn’t function in society. It was worse than the infamous ESG scores in China. These new ESG scores functioned on steroids. The drones hunted down everyone who refused to receive the mark and killed them. And that’s when Jace knew the truth. Emma was right. Aliens had not taken them; God raptured them. That was when Jace fled into the Ocala National Forest.

While Jace embraced some Biblical truths, he wasn’t sure about others. He knew the mark of the beast was true. He had lived through that nightmare. Emma warned him, “If you get left behind, don’t take the mark.” But could everything else in the Bible regarding prophecy be true?

Jace sat beside the dried-up riverbed feeling useless and unimportant. Who cared if he died? The survivalist set up his tiny one-person tent and crawled into his sleeping bag. What would he give for running water, a cup of coffee, and some decent food? Fortunately, in Florida, there were insects, dandelions, and succulents to eat when the hunger pangs became overwhelming.

His mental funk was debilitating, so Jace crawled out of his sleeping bag and set up his small ham radio and antenna. He had charged the solar panels earlier. The radio was his only link to the outside world. He turned the dial to listen, but there was nothing except static.

Jace had not seen a human being or heard anyone’s voice on the radio in months. It had been a shorter time since he heard someone sending Morse Code, but he didn’t have his straight key to reply to the sender—it quit working a long time ago—and it probably would have been stupid to respond anyway. The government would have tracked down the signal, and since he didn’t have the mark, a drone would have sought him out and killed him.

Still, hearing CW on the radio assured him that at least one other human being was alive. The CW operator sent CQ, CQ, CQ, followed by his call sign and the words, “I haven’t seen anyone in over a year.”

Jace thought about the fish he used to catch. Unlike their quick end, he felt himself bleeding out, painfully, a little bit at a time, aware that there was nothing he could do to stop it.

That night, he dreamed he was in a desert and desperately needed water. When all hope seemed lost, an oasis of percolating water shot up from the sands. “Oh, if I could only reach it,” he whispered, but he was too weak. As he lay in the sand, breathing his last, water droplets edged closer. When he reached out to touch one, an unfamiliar sound startled him.

He got up on his haunches and looked out the tent. Was he dreaming? Next to the dried-up riverbed, a man was cooking fish over an open fire. Jace recognized the smell of crappie. Should he stay hidden in the tent or meet the visitor?

It didn’t take him but a few seconds to decide. The smell of fresh fish on the open fire was a lure he couldn’t resist, and to see another human being was surreal.

He stepped out of the tent, speaking as he approached the fisherman, “Hi, I’m Jace.”

The man looked up and motioned, “Sit, and I will give you fish.”

The visitor had deep-set brown eyes with a head covering framing his face, and he wore a white robe tied around the waist. His clothing was not American, although his Floridian accent was familiar. Right now, Jace didn’t care about any of that. All he cared about was food.

The man handed Jace a large container of water, and Jace drank every last ounce of it. Then he felt guilty. He should have saved some for the man who offered it to him.

The stranger gave Jace all the fish, saving none for himself. When Jace was full, the foreigner said, “You’ve been in this wasteland for five years. The remnant of believers in Florida might be a thousand—if I include you in that count.”

He seemed to be hinting at Jace’s indecisiveness. While he had not received the mark as described in the Bible, neither had he fully embraced Jesus as his savior. Jace was a survivalist.

“The word of God is even rarer than the remnant,” the visitor shared. “There might be a thousand Bibles hidden away in the United States—in strange places, but none near you.”

“Who are you?” Jace asked.

The stranger didn’t answer his question but asked Jace one. “Remember your dream?”

Jace nodded, perceiving the man must be an angel in disguise.

“I gave you spring water for your physical thirst, but what about your spiritual thirst?”

“What do you mean?” Jace asked, but he knew the answer before he even asked the question.

The angel replied, “I must go. Even though the days have been cut short, two years remain.”

Jace threw his hands in the air. “Two years of this living hell?”

The supernatural creature nodded.

“This is how it all ends?” Jace asked again.

The angel shook his head. “No, Jace, this is not how it all ends. “The Lord wants to give you living water. The water I gave you is only temporary. It’s passing away. You need the living water of salvation.” Your wife and daughter have prayed unceasingly for you.”

Jace knew the angel’s purpose was singular, and God’s patience must be running out. When Jace drank the spring water, he saw the goodness of the Lord in the desert of death.

“Will I survive two more years?” Jace asked. “Will I make it? Please tell me.”

The angel seemed saddened that Jace asked the question. “Exercise your free will.”

Could he survive two more years? Did he even want to?

Jace bowed and uttered the words that would change his life for eternity. “Today is the day of salvation. I believe, Jesus, I believe. Please give me living water for my spiritual thirst.”

When the new believer looked up from his encounter with God, the visitor from beyond the grave was gone.

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A SHORT STORY: The Gatekeeper by Lorilyn Roberts

Ivan, the gatekeeper, summoned the young lad, Leonid Portnoy. Having just turned 21, Leonid was now considered an adult according to the village’s laws.

The majestic sun hung over Ivan’s shoulder as he stood next to the gate. Gently rolling hills and pleasant valleys surrounded the obscure town. At an undisclosed location, it was the only city in the world where people didn’t have to work if they didn’t want to, and everything was provided to its residents for free.

Hidden City would remain hidden as long as Ivan was its gatekeeper. For decades, he had protected the village. As the oldest living resident, Ivan didn’t know everyone in the village, but everyone without exception knew Ivan. And while his life was coming to an end, he had never shared the secret to his longevity.

A stranger visited Ivan when he was young and gave him a book. Then the stranger told him some truths that made him shudder. Ivan never saw the stranger again, though he searched far and wide. After all these years, Ivan never shared what the stranger told him. Now, the sick man sat beside the gate with the setting sun at his back. How many more days would he be able to perform his duties? He had summoned Leonid Portnoy to appear before him. Where was he? The perfumed flowers along the fence lifted his spirits. Ivan glanced at his watch and massaged his fingers to warm them. So much to say, Ivan mused, but so little time.

The hour was late, and Ivan admitted he had a sense of dread. Perhaps Leonid got off work late. Maybe he didn’t see the summons. Life changed for all the young people in Hidden City when they turned 21. A house and car were awarded to each resident if he had been a good citizen. Money didn’t exist. If a person wanted something, all she had to do was request it, and in 30 days, she received it—free of charge.

Many thought Hidden City was just folklore. But almost everyone who believed it existed wanted to live there. A few souls knew its location, but entry was forbidden under the penalty of death.

By contrast, nobody from Hidden City ever wanted to leave. Why would they? Everyone was rich, could have whatever they wanted, and never went without food.

Ivan began to cough and reached into his robe pocket for a throat lozenge. He hoped to silence the cough before Leonid arrived when he would need to talk. The ongoing cough was a reminder of the progression of his disease. He would not escape the ravages of its curse despite outliving everyone else in Hidden City.

But at last, Ivan saw Leonid approaching in the distance.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” Leonid said as he neared. “I stopped by the store on the way home. Only when I arrived did I see the summons.”

Ivan waved his hand dismissively. “No problem, Leonid.” Ivan pulled up a chair and pointed. “Please, have a seat. I have some business to discuss with you.”

Leonid complied immediately. “Am I in trouble?”

Ivan laughed. “Of course not. You are one of the most trusted young men, and…”

Relief crossed the lad’s face that the gatekeeper wasn’t going to reprimand him, but when Ivan stopped midsentence, Leonid leaned in. He didn’t want to miss something important.

Ivan bit his lip, unsure of how much he should tell Leonid. There was no guarantee the young lad would agree to his business proposition, and if he didn’t agree, the information he shared could put Leonid at risk.

*~*~*

Leonid’s life had not been easy. Both of his parents died before he turned twelve, so he had been raised by various families in the village. That was typical because most people died before age thirty. If someone lived to forty, that was unusual. Leonid didn’t know how old Ivan was, but the fact that he had white hair made him seem ancient to the lad. Ivan had no power beyond his duties as gatekeeper, but his old age earned him great respect.

Leonid’s thoughts returned to the present. Why had Ivan summoned him out of the thousands who lived in the city? He anxiously waited for Ivan to finish his sentence. Soon the sun would settle below the hills. Leonid did not like walking around after dark, especially when it was such a long walk back to his apartment.

“…and what?” Leonid asked.

Ivan glanced around, perhaps making sure no one could overhear their conversation.

“Leonid,” Ivan said, “I want you to take over my duties as the gatekeeper of the village.”

Leonid stared at Ivan in disbelief. To take over the duties of gatekeeper seemed way beyond his abilities. Not that it was hard, but the prestige that went with it, the trust of the government and the people—plus it was a full-time job. Ivan’s house was beside the gate. Did that mean he would live in Ivan’s house? And what about Ivan? Did he not want to be a gatekeeper anymore?

“Why do you want to step down from being the gatekeeper?” Leonid asked. “It’s the most prestigious job in the village.”

Ivan’s eyes appeared sad to Leonid. Perhaps Leonid didn’t want to know the answer; he regretted asking the question.

But Ivan didn’t wait this time to answer. “Leonid, I’m dying. I have the cough of death, and you are the only one I trust to take the job of gatekeeper.” He waved his hand. “I know the government will find someone to replace me if you don’t accept my offer, but who knows if the appointed person might be dishonest. The outside world is very different. Money is needed to purchase things like food, cars, and gas. A greedy person who wanted to get rich could do so easily at the expense of the folks who live here and abscond with all that wealth outside the city gates.”

“What’s money?” Leonid asked. In Hidden City, everybody had plenty and needed nothing

Ivan pointed to the barbwire fence. “Beyond that fence and gate, people live a long time. They don’t die young. So supplies are limited and there isn’t enough food. Land is expensive. That’s why everybody wants to come here. They know the residents can have everything they want. However, if the government allowed visitors into the village, Hidden City would be exposed for what it is, and the landowners don’t want that to happen.”

“Has anybody ever left Hidden City?” Leonid asked.

Ivan shook his head. “Anybody can leave, but they can never return.”

“Why is that,” Leonid asked. “I’ve never understood why.”

Ivan lifted his head toward the heavens. “Leonid, there is a cost to freedom. In Hidden City, no one is free. And although everyone’s life is shortened, the citizens have everything they need. Nobody goes without.”

Leonid’s heart focused on Ivan’s words; everyone’s life is shortened. “Why have you outlived everybody, Ivan? My parents died before they reached thirty.”

“I can answer that only if you agree to be the gatekeeper,” Ivan said.

Leonid stared across the fields outside the barbwire fence. What was out there? Leonid knew he only had two choices. He either left Hidden City forever, or he became the gatekeeper. He knew his conscience would bother him too much to turn down Ivan’s offer and remain in the village.

The truth was, Leonid had already contemplated leaving. He felt drawn to go —unlike his friends. Leonid knew the folks outside Hidden City lived longer. Once a week, supplies would arrive, and the delivery guys were often older—at least older than anybody in town. What would it be like to be free—but where would he get the money? That seemed important to the outside world, even though he didn’t know what it was.

Leonid had shared these thoughts many times with his friends and never understood why they were so disinterested. Why was he different? Finally, he replied, “Let me think about it for a day.”

Ivan nodded. He reached inside his mantle and handed something to the lad. “I want to give you this book. I want you to keep it, but don’t let anyone know you have it. It’s forbidden in the village.”

Leonid took the book from Ivan and examined it in the dim sunlight. “It’s ancient, isn’t it?”

Ivan nodded. “It belonged to the previous gatekeeper. He gave it to me before he died.”

Ivan’s words scared Leonid. “Suppose I decide that I want to leave the village? Is it forbidden”— Leonid pointed beyond the gate—”out there?”

“Only by those who hate the book,” Ivan said. “But don’t worry about that right now. Go home and read some of it. Then come back tomorrow, and we will talk some more.”

Leonid bid his new mentor farewell. He had much to think about, and the book was thick—there was no way he could read it all in 24 hours.

When he returned home, his cooked dinner was waiting for him, and the aroma whetted his appetite; he had selected his meals the previous week. Tonight he had salmon—a rare delicacy in the village—with rice, asparagus, and cheesecake for dessert.

After finishing, he made himself comfortable in his favorite chair and pulled the book out of its protective covering. On the front cover were the words, “Holy Bible.”

“So this is a holy book,” Leonid whispered. Holy books were not allowed in the village. He opened it, and written on the cover page were the words: “True freedom is spiritual. John 8:32. ‘And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’”

For the next few hours, Leonid read the words in the holy book. He thought about Ivan’s words, the barbwire fence surrounding Hidden City, and the gates that Ivan protected to keep outsiders from entering. As far as Leonid knew, nobody had ever left the city, but could they? And why couldn’t they return?

If freedom existed outside the barbwire fence, why would anyone want to come into Hidden City? Was it just curiosity?

But Leonid had one question the Bible didn’t answer. Perhaps it didn’t matter, but why did the residents of Hidden City die young and those beyond the barbwire fence live longer? And why had Ivan lived longer than everyone else?

That night Leonid tossed and turned in his sleep. For the first time, he felt an awakening. For years, questions had filled his mind about things that no one was allowed to talk about; could Ivan answer his questions? And if he did, would that make Leonid obligated to become the next gatekeeper?

Unexpectedly, the concept of freedom loomed large in Leonid’s mind. New insights from the Bible and Ivan’s words pricked his soul. Leonid remembered the Hidden City rulers telling the citizens they lived in paradise as special people. Was that the truth?

The lad turned on the lamp next to his bed and opened the book to re-read Ivan’s words: “…the truth will set you free.”

***

The next day at about the same time, Leonid returned to meet Ivan. Ivan appeared much older than the previous day, reminding Leonid that Ivan was sick. Leonid still didn’t know what to do, but he didn’t want to disappoint Ivan, who had chosen him to take his position.

“Greetings,” Leonid said.

“Thank you for returning,” Ivan replied. “Did  you have a chance to look at the book I gave you?”

Leonid nodded. “My eyes have been opened to things I never thought about before.”

Ivan smiled. “The truth will set you free. You can be free even here in Hidden City, where you are not free.”

Leonid pointed beyond the gates, but before he could ask his question, he saw a man approaching. “Look.”

Ivan stood to greet the outsider. “Can I help you?”

The man said, “I am a journalist, and I wanted to interview the gatekeeper of Hidden City.”

“That’s me,” Ivan said, “but I don’t do interviews. Besides, you aren’t allowed to videotape or take pictures. You can read it right there on the fence sign.”

Ivan glanced at the fence where Leonid perceived a hidden camera. “And I need to inform you, we are being watched,” Ivan added.

The man simply said, “Thank you,” and walked away.

Ivan said to Leonid, “On the fence in multiple languages is written, “No entry, no trespassing, no filming, and no photography.” That’s why I am here, to ensure the law is followed.”

Ivan began to cough, taking several minutes to get his voice back. “So what do you want to ask me, Leonid? My time is short, and I need to know tonight if you will take my position as gatekeeper. I may not live another twenty-four hours.”

It took some time for Leonid to recover after hearing this revelation. Dozens of questions swirled in his mind. Before his mentor died, Leonid needed to know the answer to one question that only Ivan could answer. “Ivan, why have you lived so long, and why does everyone else here die young?”

Ivan nodded. “Yes, I knew you would ask that. I shall tell you now as it weighs on me. Many years ago, spent nuclear waste was dumped here and contaminated the area. Certain parts of the village are more polluted than others. It depends on where you live and how much radiation exposure you receive as to how soon you will die. Those who receive the most radiation die first. Me—I never enter the village. I am the gatekeeper, and this is where I stay. I am at the rim of the exposure, on the border between where it’s safe and where it’s not. I’ve lived almost as long as those outside the village.”

Leonid’s eyes widened. “You mean we live on a nuclear waste site?”

Ivan’s countenance fell. “Yes, that’s what I mean.”

“Why would anyone want to enter this wasteland?” Leonid asked. “That doesn’t make sense. If the people of Hidden City don’t know about the pollution, then they don’t know to leave.” Suddenly, Leonid felt like all he wanted to do was get as far away as possible.

Ivan replied, “Leonid, there is a cost to being free. Throughout history, many have died in the pursuit of freedom. But some people don’t want freedom. They want to be taken care of by the government. They want possessions. They don’t want to be productive citizens. Perhaps they are lazy; perhaps they are just unmotivated. But in return, unwittingly, they receive death. A famous American once said, “Give me liberty, or give me death.’”

Leonid tried to comprehend everything Ivan told him, but his words were so packed with meaning that understanding them all at once was difficult.

“What about you, Ivan? You know all of this, yet you choose to be the gatekeeper. Why?”

“Do you remember the passage I quoted in the book?” Ivan asked.

Leonid nodded. “I memorized it. ‘True freedom is spiritual. John 8:32 ‘And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’”

“You see, Leonid, I am free, even though I live between two very different worlds. The freedom I have comes from the words in that book, and no government or person can take that from me.

Leonid focused on Ivan’s words as he continued.

“My home is not here; I’m just a gatekeeper. Many people pass through, and I can share these truths. That is my calling. Because I protect the gate and do my job well, people trust me, and with age comes even more respect. What’s most important is the truth in the book set me free so I can share that truth with others. If you believe the words in the book, you will be set free, too, no matter what you choose to do.”

Ivan gazed into the heavens. “Soon, I must go to the place where eternal truth resides, and I will meet the gatekeeper who died to give me eternal freedom.” Ivan paused. “Does that make sense?”

Leonid nodded. “And I bet they have no need for money in that place, do they.”

Ivan laughed. “You get it, Leonid. I knew that you would. There is no need for money. The debt to live there has already been paid.”

“By Jesus?” Leonid asked.

“That’s right,” Ivan replied.

Leonid stood and walked over to the barbwire fence. He ran his fingers along the razor-thin edge of the wire. He noticed, perhaps for the first time, the rolling hills and wildflowers clinging to the rocks in the distance. Survival was difficult where freedom reigned.

Leonid turned toward his village, studying its kempt pathways and modern structures. He contemplated his two futures. Then he faced Ivan with his decision. “My freedom comes from above. Let me take the mantle from you, and may I grow in wisdom to become as righteous as the gatekeeper who died for me.”

Ivan smiled. “Bless you, Leonid. You will make an excellent gatekeeper.”

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