Crushed chocolate cookies

Foster childDing dong!

“There he is.” I smiled at Craig as I finished placing the freshly baked chocolate cookies on a plate. We walked to the front door together.

“Hello, Mr. White. Mrs. White. Good to see you.” The social worker placed his hand on the child beside him. “This is Benny.”

The boy stared down at his sneakers, which seemed too big for his body. He held a sagging plastic bag.

I kneeled down. “Hi Benny, I’m Karen. I’m so glad you’re here.” He avoided my eyes. When I touched his arm, he stiffened. For a second, I feared he would bolt.

“Please, come in.” Craig’s invitation reduced the tension of the first contact with our eight-year-old foster child. We were to be his third family in the four years since he saw his mom die from an overdose, and we were determined to be the last.

While Craig and the social worker completed paperwork, Benny sat on the edge of the couch, still studying his shoes and clutching his bag.

“I made chocolate cookies; do you want to try one?” I held out the plate.

After what seemed an eternity, he raised his hand, grabbed three cookies, and stuffed them in the pocket of his hoodie.

I cleared my throat. “Okay, these are for later. Why don’t you take another one for now?”

He shot me a glance, then took one more.

Craig saw the social worker to the door and came back with a ball and glove. “Hey Ben, would you like to play catch?”

“Sure.” The last cookie disappeared in his pocket.

From the window, I watched Benny trudge alongside Craig to the playground. Looks like a good start. I turned around to see his bag lying on the floor. I was about to bring it to his room when I thought better of it. We’ll do that together.

By the time Craig and Benny returned, I had started cooking, and food aromas filled the house. “Drumsticks and French fries—I hope you like it.”

Benny slumped into a chair.

“Honey, please, wash your hands first. Craig, can you show Benny the bathr—”

“Nooo!”

I almost dropped a dish as Benny sent the chair crashing to the floor.

“I hate you! I hate you!”

“Benny, what’s wrong?”

Craig reached for the boy, but Benny slapped him, ran to the couch, and seized his bag. “I won’t stay here! Tell Social Services to get me!”

“They’re closed at this hour, Benny. Why don’t you come and eat something?”

“No! I hate you!” He whacked the couch.

“You want to see your room?” Craig tried to distract him.

“I want to leave!” Tears streamed down his contorted face.

“We’ll see about that tomorrow. But if you don’t want to eat, I’ll bring you to your room so that you can sleep.” Craig picked him up, seemingly immune to the yelling and frantic kicking.

I followed them upstairs. When Craig put him down, Benny threw himself on the bed—shoes and all—and hid under the blankets, crying all the while.

Craig whispered, “I’ll eat something, then leave for my night shift. I’ll pray.”

The next moment, I found myself standing alone in the middle of the bedroom, its bright colors shouting failure.

God, I need You.

I sat down at the bedside and laid my hand on the crumpled heap of a child.

“Leave me alone!” He wriggled away from me.

“No, Benny, I won’t go anywhere when you’re so sad and upset. I’ll stay right here with you.”

The leering racing car on the bedspread seemed to mock me as I waited and prayed for a breakthrough. Finally, the sobs subsided.

Following a hunch, I asked, “Benny…may I hold you? I mean—like a baby?”

To my surprise, he pushed back the blankets and climbed on my lap. I held him in my arms and gently rocked him, until his body relaxed and he was fast asleep.

Carefully, I took off his shoes and pulled down the covers—revealing crushed chocolate cookies. I couldn’t help but smile as I wiped them from the bed and tucked Benny in. Then I bent down and planted a kiss on his forehead.

Dear Father, You loved us before we loved You. Please, now help us to love this child. Even if our love will be crushed…like a chocolate cookie, under the weight of his pain, we want to persist in loving him. Amen.

***

AUTHOR’S NOTES

This short fiction story was inspired by:

• “Removed,” a short film about foster care. See www.removedfilm.com and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lOeQUwdAjE0.

• An newspaper article about foster care. See http://www.volkskrant.nl/binnenland/verwaarloosde-en-misbruikte-kinderen-wie-helpt-ze-nog~a3889487/

Karen’s prayer refers to the following Bible verse: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10 ESV).

photo credit: via photopin (license)

 

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Human trafficking from Nigeria to Italy

 

childtrafficking

 

Sadly, the following story–first submitted to the FaithWriters Weekly Writing Challenge–is based on facts, although the girl is fictional. I combined a personal testimony of a girl we met in Orvieto, with details I read on the Internet.

 

 


Hope

My name is Hope. I’m from Nigeria. I’m the girl on the street you try to ignore as you hurry past. Just before you turn your head away, I see your cold eyes, the corners of your mouth pulled down. Don’t worry—you don’t have to buy what I’m offering. But why do you despise me? Is it the color of my skin? My poverty?

I lived with my family in a village in Edo State, the South of Nigeria. My parents were jobless. We were always hungry— sometimes, my mother cooked tree leaves for dinner.

When my brother met a man whose niece in Italy would have work for me, I was thrilled. I could help provide and give my little sister the opportunity I never had—to go to school. The man promised, “You’ll get rich working as a hairdresser.” I’m good at plaiting hair. He even advanced me the travel expenses. Little did I know that it was a ruse.

Before I left, my brother took me to a juju priest for good luck. The grim man, all dressed in red, cut off some of my hair and took blood from my hand. Then he made me kneel before him and swear to pay my debt and be obedient to my sponsor and his niece; otherwise the evil spirits would torture me and take my soul. He marked my forehead with clay, so the spirits would recognize me. I longed to go to Italy, but the pictures next to his shrine scared me—the horribly disfigured faces of girls who had broken their oath.

I didn’t travel alone. We were crammed into the open back of a truck, more than thirty Nigerian girls. At day time, fine desert sand penetrated our clothes as we drove under the scorching sun. At night, the escorting men raped us. I struggled to break loose, but they had knives. “You’d better get used to it,” they scoffed. Some girls complained that they didn’t get paid for the job. They were going to Italy to be prostitutes and mocked me when I said I was going to be a hairdresser.

To cross the Mediterranean Sea, we loaded into a rubber raft, which almost sank under our weight. We had no food, no water. One of the girls fell into the choppy waves. She screamed, but the boat continued steadily forward.

When we arrived in Italy, I found out the other girls were right. The niece had no hair salon; she was a madam. She said that I would have to work hard to pay my debt—50,000 Euro. I had no idea it was so high. At first, I cried every night standing on the curb, shivering and barely dressed. Tears attract no men and no money, so Madam beat me often. Running away was impossible—the evil spirits would find me. I just tried not to feel anything.

One night, I met Victor. He didn’t want sex; he just gave money. He asked my name and talked with me. “Hope, do you know Jesus?”

“Yes. My grandma told me about Him—said she liked Him more than the other gods she worshiped.”

“Jesus is the only God. There are no others. And He loves you.”

“How can God love me?” I wondered. “I do bad things.”

Victor read from his Bible how Jesus blessed and restored women like me. “If you want, I can help you start a new life.”

“No. My oath…the spirits—”

“Jesus is stronger than any evil spirit. You’re safe with Him.”

Victor got me to a women’s shelter where Madam cannot find me. I also met his wife. She teaches me about Jesus and helps me to get my documents, so that I can find a real job.

For now, I’m still on the street, but instead of selling my body, I sell fabrics and other household items. I don’t make much money, but I can send all my earnings to Nigeria. My family is proud of me. And my sister is going to school! I pray that Jesus protects them from the evil spirits, and from the men who threaten them because I escaped.

I’m not afraid anymore.

“You want to buy tissues, ma’am?

“Sir, do you need socks? Two pairs for five Euro only.”

My name is Hope. I’m from Nigeria. Please, don’t ignore me.

***

For more information on human trafficking in Nigeria, see:

Two of a Kind*

cat and dog“Max, no! Go back.”

I groaned as I struggled in vain to push our Golden Retriever back inside the house. He lunged at the cat, which narrowly escaped climbing the nearest tree. Her hisses and snarls mingled with Max’s staccato barks.

Why did Vincent ever get this dog? I told him it would go after Molly.

Using my husband’s favorite ham, I managed to lure Max back into the house.

After cuddling a purring Molly, I headed for the car. Two pairs of gleaming eyes stared at me through the car’s side window.

“Okay, boys. Let’s get you back to your Mom and Dad.”

Sweat beads had formed on my forehead. I switched on the air-conditioning and eyed the eight-year-old twins in the rear-view mirror.

“Why do dogs and cats always fight, Grandma?” asked Jason.

“Because they’re different kinds of creatures, I guess. They don’t speak the same language.”

“They don’t talk, Grandma,” he scoffed. “They just hiss and bark at each other.”

“Yeah,” added Harold, his twin. “Just like you and Grandpa. But you don’t climb a tree!” They rolled with laughter.

“Watch your mouths, young men. Don’t make fun of me.” But a smile made its way up my face at the image of my sixty-five-year-old self, sitting on a branch, hissing at my husband.

The kids were right; Vincent and I squabbled a lot. For no apparent reason, I would grumble, or he would raise his voice.

I sighed as I merged the car into the highway traffic. It’s probably what forty years of marriage do to a couple.

Vincent’s work had always been demanding. I homeschooled our two daughters and later, combined volunteer work with a busy social schedule. Vincent had never developed any hobbies, so when he retired five years ago, he expected me to spend most of my time with him. I wasn’t ready to give up my activities; spending time with my husband was just one more item on my agenda.

Feeling neglected, he bought Max so that he would have a friend around when I was busy. Still, I felt constant pressure to entertain my husband.

Maybe we never really adapted to this new phase in life.

Grandma?” Jason interrupted my thoughts. “If God made both cats and dogs to live in our homes, why are they so different?”

“Good question, honey. I think they both have a role to play in people’s lives. But their roles are different. Cats are quiet company. They can stay home alone. Dogs can be real buddies, but they need more attention.”

“Why doesn’t God help them to understand each other?”

“Well, maybe they would get along better, if they were able to listen to Jesus.”

“So why don’t you and Grandpa listen to Jesus?” asked Harold. “You’re the same kind, aren’t you? It should be even easier for you to be friends.”

I almost missed the exit. “Harold! How Grandpa and I are getting along, is none of your business.”

The boys were quiet until we reached our destination. In the silence, thoughts about my marriage gnawed at my mind. Maybe it is time for a change. But how?

***

Upon my return, I telephoned a fellow volunteer to confirm tonight’s meeting. As I waited for her to answer my call, I realized that the house was empty. Vincent was probably walking with Max, now that the worst heat of the day was over. Or he took the dog for a swim. I smiled–they made a good pair.

Suddenly, a thought popped up. Why don’t you surprise Vincent with a dinner for two?

When I got my friend’s voice mail, I heard myself saying, “Hello, it’s Martha. I…uhm…I can’t make it tonight. Sorry. I’ll call you tomorrow. Bye.”

***

I just finished a garden-grown bouquet when Vincent came back. I quickly reached for the lighter.

“Max, no!” The dog stormed into the living room and was about to ruin my long dress with his filthy paws.

“Sorry dear, I didn’t know you were home.” Vincent entered as I lit the last candle. His eyes scanned the set table. “What–?”

“Surprise!”

“But…why?”

I wrapped my arms around his waist. “Because we’re two of a kind. And I love you.”

Vincent enveloped me in a powerful hug. “I love you too, darling.” He kissed the top of my head.

I looked down to see Molly brushing up against Max, who sat peacefully on the floor, wagging his tail.

 


 

*Another article (fiction) that I submitted to the FaithWriters Weekly Writing Challenge. The topic was “Cat and Dog.”

Hope Against All Odds

More MH17-plane-crashthan two weeks ago, on July 17, 298 people died. They were victims in a war that didn’t concern them, because someone decided to down the airplane in which they sat on their way to their home, holiday, or work.

I know—every day innocent people die in senseless wars. But this particular incident rocked me to the core. Maybe because it involved almost two hundred fellow citizens (Dutch). Or because it’s so easy to imagine being in their shoes.

The following article, “Now Is The Time,” which I wrote for yet another FaithWriters’ Weekly Writing Challenge, reflects my thoughts and emotions. It asks the difficult questions that many people will have, but it ends with a message of hope–and a call to all Christians.

 


 

Now Is The Time

Yes!

Wendy leaps between the closing doors into the train, then slumps down onto the nearest vacant seat.

The young man across from her smiles.

“You made it.”

“Yep.” Not in the mood for chitchat, Wendy picks up her smartphone to check Facebook.

Incredible—how can they keep posting all these irrelevant messages after yesterday’s plane crash?

She’d hardly slept. The sickening image of a plane with 298 people being hit by a missile at 33,000 feet kept haunting her. Had they known what happened? Were they still alive while falling? Will the guilty ever be caught? Wide awake, she’d tried to give words to her distress. Her best friend, a marble cover notebook, patiently received phrases filled with grief and frustration. Only at about 5 a.m., merciful sleep arrived.

She hadn’t heard the alarm. When she woke up at last, she ran to catch the 8.15 train. Being responsible for the social sciences section of a national newspaper, she couldn’t afford to miss the early morning briefing.

The phone rings in her hands. It’s her editor, Stanley.

“Don’t come to the newsroom, Wendy. The boss called; she wants you to cover a Christian meeting. Says she needs some hope amidst the tragedy.”

She sits up straight. “What? You know religion isn’t my thing, Stanley.” The last thing I need is being around a bunch of cocooning Christians.

“Sorry, girl. Write something nice about the effect of faith on mourning. Here’s the address.”

“Wait a sec.” Wendy rummages through her bag in search of her notebook.

Oh no.

In the rush, she left it on her nightstand.  All of the sudden, she feels incomplete. Of course, she writes her articles on her laptop, but the first ideas, the raw emotions—she just has to jot them down by hand, ink on paper.

“Hold on, Stan.” She continues digging until she finds a scrap of paper and absentmindedly accepts the pen the young man offers her.

She’s still writing when the trains stops. The man greets her with another smile and leaves. She holds the pen out, but he shakes his head and mouths, “Keep it.”

“Thanks–no nothing, Stan. Okay, I’ll do my best. Ciao.”

Looking at the address, she realizes that she needs to get off as well. Grabbing her bag, she jolts for the exit.

No!

Too late; the doors snap shut in her face.

 ***

An hour later, she approaches a building adorned with a huge banner that says, “Now Is The Time!”

Time for what exactly? For God to show up, at last?

She wonders how any person in his right mind can believe in a good God—unless they close their eyes for reality.

When she enters the lobby, a person walks up to her. To her surprise, she recognizes the young man from the train.

“Hello, my name is Michael. Welcome.” He seems genuinely pleased and hands her a conference kit in which she identifies an information flyer, folders of Christian organizations, a notepad, and a pen. She takes out the flyer and hands the kit back to him.

“I’m here as a reporter. I’m not religious.”

“That’s good. Neither am I.” His eyes sparkle. “But don’t you need the notepad?”

Wendy stiffens. “No thanks. This flyer and my memory will do.”

Then her reporter instinct kicks in. “What are you doing here if you’re not religious?”

He smiles. “I am a Christian though. You know, Jesus never preached religion.”

A band starts playing in the auditorium.

“Did you know that God doesn’t rule the world?”

Wendy frowns. “Well, actually I already guessed so.”

“Tell me… Who’s behind yesterday’s plane crash? God or Satan?”

What?

Behind the doors, many people start singing as one, in perfect harmony.

Wendy raises her voice. “Then where’s the hope?”

“Jesus is our hope.” Michael lowers his head to speak directly in her ear. “God provided a way out of the darkness—Jesus. He’s come to usher in the Kingdom of light and invites all people into that Kingdom.”

“But how–?

“It’s time that Christians get out of their cozy buildings. It’s time they rise and shine His light into the darkness. The more light, the less darkness.”

Wendy takes the pen out of her bag. “Now, where’s that notepad?”

Michael hands her the kit. Their eyes meet; he smiles, his face all aglow.

Marveling, she puts the pen to the paper as words bubble up.

Hope against all odds. Will light defeat darkness?

Selective Reduction

This story is fiction.

pregnancy-14-weeks“Hey, you’re looking good!”

“Thank you. In fact, I feel good.” A radiant Norma took my arm as we walked into the coffee shop.

We’d been colleagues–two women in the male bastion of the banking world. In addition, we both hoped to get pregnant. When she left the company for another job, about a year ago, we lost contact. To my surprise, she called me yesterday and suggested to meet at our favorite coffee shop for old times’ sake.

While we headed for “our table” in the far corner, welcoming warmth and the aroma of coffee enveloped us.

I took off my jacket and hung it over the back of a chair. “My treat. Espresso, as usual?”

Norma wrinkled her nose. “No thanks. But I’m craving for carrot cake with butter frosting.”

“What? Since when do you eat cake?”

“Curious eh? Why don’t you get our snacks first?”

When I returned with a cappuccino and two oversized pieces of carrot cake, Norma had taken off her coat too. Was it my imagination, or was her slender figure really fuller than it used to be?

For a minute, we just relaxed and enjoyed the cozy ambiance. I scraped some frosting off the cake and savored its creamy sweetness.

“Mmm, this is so good.”

“Isn’t it. How are you doing, Alice? Any news on the baby front?”

“Yes and no. Roger and I found out that we can’t have children, but—“

“Oh honey, I’m so sorry.”

“But we’ve decided to adopt.”

“Adopt? Wow, how courageous.”

“It isn’t courage, Norma. It’s love. Actually, we’ve just been approved as adoptive parents. Now we’re waiting for the agency to match us with a child.”

“You can’t choose a child?”

“Nope. Our agency says that in real life you can’t pick a baby either. Anyway, we’re so excited! This waiting is difficult though; like being pregnant without knowing the gestation time.”

Norma took another bite. “Speaking of pregnancy—I’m in my fifteenth week.”

“How wonderful! I’m so happy for you. Congratulations.” I meant it. Clearly, it hurt being barren, but thank God, the grief had never dominated me. I simply trusted that His ways would bless me more than my own plans ever could.

“Thank you.” Norma avoided my eyes.

“Is everything alright, Norma?”

“Yes, everything’s great.” She hesitated. “I was carrying twins.”

“Oh my, what happened?”

“Winston and I were shocked when we found out. Our life doesn’t have room for two babies. We both have demanding jobs and our apartment has only two bedrooms.”

My stomach churned. “So?”

“We opted for selective pregnancy reduction.”

My hand flew to my mouth. “You had an abortion?”

“They were boy-girl twins. I didn’t have a preference, but Winston always wanted a son. Last week, the doctor just injected something into the female tissue. My own body will absorb the fetal material.”

Carrot cake rose up my gullet. I swallowed hard. “Norma, at three months a baby isn’t just ‘tissue’ or ‘material’. It has a head and arms and legs. Its little face can frown, its hands grasp. Its heart beat.”

“Alice, please, I don’t need to hear that right now.”

I pushed away the cake dish.

She leaned toward me. “Hey, what’s wrong? I shouldn’t have told you this, should I? You can’t even get pregnant. I’m so sorry.”

Closing my eyes, I felt tears flow. “I’m not crying because I’m infertile.”

I need to get out of here before I throw up.

Suddenly, God whispered in my soul. Don’t turn your back on her. She needs My grace.

Did He really say that? Please Lord, I don’t feel like talking to Norma now; she doesn’t seem to regret her choice at all. How can I make her recognize her need to repent?

A persistent Nudge made me decide to trust His discernment more than my own assessment of Norma’s heart. I suppressed the urge to leave and, after a deep breath, I managed to say, “Norma, may I share with you how my life—how I changed when I realized how much Jesus loves me?”

Her eyes turned big. “Do you believe in God?”

“Yes, I do. And He’s there for you too.”

A flicker of uncertainty passed over her face. “I don’t know, Alice. Anyway, if it makes you feel better, talk about it.”

I cleared my throat. “Well, it all started shortly before you left the bank. A friend invited me to a Christian retreat where I heard people sharing amazing testimonies…”

As I spoke, I felt the nausea fade. The disgust gave way to compassion; Norma needed to meet the Author of life.

The Lunch Break

Bestie“Don’t you even think about it.” Sarah increased her walking pace.

“But it’s just a lunch!”

“No Christy, it isn’t. It’s the beginning of the end of your marriage.”

“I thought you’d be happy for me. I really need some distraction. It’s so tense at home.”

“I know it is, honey. But trying to feel better by going out with another man won’t solve anything.”

The young women sauntered around the park, which offered a welcome change from their stuffy office. Sarah heard Christy take a deep breath. The fresh air seemed to instigate her friend’s agitation.

“You don’t know what I have to go through every day. When Harry comes home, he barely greets me. He slumps on the couch, switches on the TV, and waits for his dinner. As if I haven’t worked all day too!”

“Christy, you know that he’s having a tough time at work, with all these layoffs. He’s probably about to collapse under the weight of the mortgage. Maybe he’s depressed, but I’m sure he loves you.”

“Well, I don’t feel it. I wonder if he even sees me.” She kicked at a stone. “Unlike your and Brad’s, our marital ship doesn’t sail tranquil waters. We’re navigating stormy weather and sometimes I feel we’re on the brink of sinking.”

“Maybe you should ask for help to get through this storm.”

“You’re not talking about going to church, are you?”

Sarah hesitated. “Well, it isn’t really joining a church I’m thinking of. But there’s this course which…”

“No. I won’t go to any church. Listen Sarah, I appreciate your friendship, but I don’t share your beliefs. Please respect that.”

Sarah looked at her friend and noticed her clenched jaws. Jesus, help me to find the right words to open Christy’s heart, so that You will have the opportunity to restore her marriage.

Then she heard a whisper of God. Tell her about how I helped you through your hard time.

Thank You, Lord.

As they strolled among lush greenery, the spring sun brightened their path.

“Shall we sit here?” Sarah pointed at a bench under a massive oak tree. “I’d like to tell you something.”

Visibly irritated, Christy checked her watch. “Okay. I guess we have some time before going back to work.”

Sarah’s voice wavered, but she was determined to obey God. “I never talk about it, because it isn’t relevant anymore. Anyway, our marriage wasn’t always as good as it is now. About five years ago, Brad betrayed me.”

Christy gasped. “What? Brad? The superstar husband?”

“Yes, my Brad had a relationship with another woman.” Although Sarah had forgiven him, she remembered the pain. She swallowed. “It was very difficult.”

“What did you do?”

“At first, I wanted to leave him. I felt so hurt, so humiliated. But Brad said he still loved me and asked me to forgive him.”

“Impossible!”

“I had a friend who told me about this marriage course. Brad wanted so much to try it, so at the end I agreed. God did the rest.”

“What do you mean, ‘God did the rest’? Brad betrayed you, not God!”

Sarah realized that their lunch break wouldn’t be long enough to explain everything, so she just said, “Jesus helped me to forgive Brad and began to heal my heart. And we learned to love each other all over again.”

She saw that Christy looked puzzled, so she continued, “A marriage is like a garden; if we want it to flourish and be fruitful, we need to tend it carefully. We must water, nourish, and sometimes prune the plants we want to grow. At the same time, we need to uproot the weeds that harm the garden. Although it wasn’t my fault Brad had an affair, the course helped me to see that I had forsaken my husband in other ways.”

Christy stared straight ahead. Sarah knew she had touched a chord.

“I care about you, Christy. Try it. Harry—your marriage—is worth it.”

A ray of sun penetrated the tree crown and caressed Christy’s face. She sighed.
“Okay Sarah, you win. I’ll cancel the lunch and talk with Harry about the course.”

The young women looked at each other, a little uneasily, and smiled. Then Christy reached out to hug Sarah. “My bestie.”

A bird in a bush nearby started singing.

***********************************************

AUTHOR’S NOTE

To know more about the marriage course described in this story, follow this link http://www.relationshipcentral.org/marriage-course

Faith Writers

Recently I became a member of the Faith Writers community and already I feel very encouraged. They give many opportunities to learn, grow and exchange experience between writers. Two weeks ago, I participated in their weekly Writing Challenge and wrote my first fiction (short) story since high school. The topic was “Googled” and the entry must be between 150 and 750 words long.

Here’s what I submitted–cheating a bit, because I included the suggestions for improvement that fellow Faith Writers gave in their (edifying) comments:

THE ADDICTION

The door flung open, too fast, too noisy. Jessy stumbled into the room, panting and perspiring. For a moment, she just stood there, wild-eyed, confused, not knowing what to do next.

“Hey there! I’m glad you made it. Have a seat.”

The woman in the white shirt who sat at the other side of the room welcomed her, apparently not impressed by her late and loud arrival. About twelve people in a circle stared at her– a many-headed beast that tried to pierce through her shield of shame.

Jessy walked to the only free chair available and sat down. Self-conscious, she avoided to look in those two dozen penetrating eyes. The woman in white spoke again.

“Do you want to share with us why you’re here?”

Jessy looked up, not sure who the woman had addressed. The beast was still staring at her, so she guessed the question was meant for her. Lowering her gaze again, she noticed that one of the brown floor tiles was broken and grey dust had crept into the cracks, forming a crooked finger that pointed in her direction. She wiped her sweaty hand palms at her skirt. The chair on which she was sitting, with it straight back, was uncomfortable. She shifted back and forth, trying to find a better position. The silence was heavy. The beast sat waiting, pushing her with its patience.

Finally, she whispered a hoarse, “I’m Jessy.”

“Hi Jessy,” the beast replied as with one mouth. She cleared her throat, searching for her normal voice that somehow got lost in the mess that she had made of herself. A weird smell entered her nostrils; a sharp, nasty odor–her own fear?–mixed with a delicate, sweet perfume, as from some exotic flower. Then something deep inside of her gathered her thoughts and nudged them towards her voice. She looked at the woman and opened her mouth.

“A couple of days ago, I felt a strange pain, on the left side of my neck.” Her hand went up to touch the sore spot. “My glands were all swollen. I wondered what it could be. I really tried to resist…”

The woman’s nods encouraged her to continue.

“Maybe I should throw away my computer! I managed to do without for more than a day, but yesterday, I lost it. I just had to know. So, there I was at my laptop again, all day and all night, surfing frantically from one website to another, looking up symptoms and diseases, from ‘The doctor knows’ to ‘The patient tells,’ from scientific research to quackery. At the end, I was sure that I had only a couple of weeks left to live. I panicked, preferred to kill myself right away. Somehow, I managed to drive here. I’m desperate. I don’t want this anymore.”

The woman smiled at her. A warm and understanding smile. Jessy then dared to look the beast in the face and identified human beings who radiated compassion. She suddenly realized that every person in this room knew how it feels to be dominated by forces that seem uncontrollable. There was the old lady with the friendly face–she gambled. The big guy, who drank. The beautiful girl with bulimia. The thin man in his fifties–he did drugs. Like her, they used to seek in all the wrong directions whenever they were in need of answers, ways to still the pain, or weapons to fight the fear. They tended to search their way to the light losing themselves in false solutions–devastating deceptions of darkness.

She felt the crippling shame leaving her and took a deep breath to reconquer the space that she had allowed to be occupied with lies. Then she smelled it again: the flowery fragrance, so sweet, so… heavenly. She closed her eyes while she inhaled the perfume and was permeated by a Presence; the Solution to every problem, the Answer to every question. The oppression lifted, as if a huge, sharp claw let go of her soul, her mind.

Jessy locked eyes with every single person in the circle before she admitted, free and unafraid now, “So, I guess that I want to share with you that I’m here, because I… googled.”