Redemption

CHAPTER ONE

Catch a Falling Star

Monday 5 March 2001.

Washington DC.

The warm breath lingered over her tear-smeared cheek, to become an instant

paralytic as the disembodied voice whispered. “Scream for me.”

Carla Simmons obliged until her lungs burned and in her final fading moment of

awareness the maniacal laughter continued its mocking.

When she awoke, it was with sudden alarm to find leather restraints pinning her

limbs to the icy surface of a steel table. Her predicament fuelled her breathing to

become erratic whilst powerless to influence the blade resting on her bare skin. Carla

had little time to react, for the proceeding cut released precious life blood to snake the

contours of her trembling limbs. The brutality forced a rapid rush of adrenaline

through the dulling cocktail of sedatives still flooding her otherwise unresponsive

body. Her response was to contort her back and through clenched teeth, stemming the

held scream as her vision blurred. She became lost to the distressing reality of her

sedated mind that refused to concentrate on the simplest of thoughts. A reluctant

witness to her own anguish, incapable to muster resistance as her tormentor mutilated

her flesh. Her ordeal became an endeavour to block the mounting pain, a scream once

again her only surrender. The pitiful try echoed the confines of her prison until once

again she slipped into an unconscious darkness.

Carla’s next sentient thought was to her breathing, shallow and strained. Her body

remained in a personal prison, unresponsive as the simplest effort became a struggle.

She sought to swallow against the dryness of her throat as clouded senses hindered by

disorientating bright flashes of colour crossing her vision. Carla craved to push past,

closing tear-stained eyes in a battle for control. Then with reluctance, opening with

hesitant glances to examine her unfamiliar surroundings, ever fearful of her returning

tormentor. “Why is this happening to me?” She whispered, twisting in the restraints.

All around, the prison remained in foreboding shadow but for a single fluorescent strip

light suspended from the ceiling. Its unfiltered light flickered in a harmonic buzz to

stay lit, adding flashes of disorienting colour behind her now closed eyes as she turned

away. The smallest effort to move sent a pang of pain in contribution to a mother of

all headaches within her skull. It released an immediate wash of nausea and a wish to

retch. The resulting stab of pain pressed against her breast, forcing her racked body

backward to the ice-chilled table with a final cough. Now retired to forced solitude,

she calculated how long since the start of her ordeal, a futile task, as she considered 

having passed out numinous times. The only certainty was as her nausea dissipated, it

uncovered an expanding list of abuse and fuelling an internal fight for control of a

fragile mind. Still coping with an increasing discomfort of a failing body, Carla

prioritised her thoughts. She tried to find a reason to be living an unimaginable

nightmare and make sense of the cascading memories flooding back. One of which

was the disturbing ominous hooded figure gripping her flailing limbs. As her mind

raced with increased uncertainty to perhaps becoming a casualty to her own stressed

imagination from a drug induced state. The details of her tormentor fleeting as Carla

tried to concentrate, but she soon returned to the constraints of her physical prison.

With a reluctant tug, the shackled restraints confirmed the nightmare was all too real

and offered little chance of freedom. In her anguish, she became despondent to the

isolation and the growing possibility of her fate. Soon the passage of time became

incalculable as Carla once again passed in and out of consciousness. What she knew

was the entire ordeal was taking an alarming toll on her physical and mental state.

Worst of which was the warming irritation emanating from her right thigh, starting as

an itch and swelling to a discomforting burning until a sudden spasm emanated up her

side. Her reaction forced her to release her held breath until the sensation ebbed, and

with caution she eased her arched body to the table. Further spasms continued of

varying degrees but becoming manageable as she returned to her isolation of

constrictive restraints. Carla dreaded the uncomfortable truth, to not awaken from this

disturbing nightmare to find herself in the safety of her apartment. A fleeting hope, her

experience nothing more than a tortured dream, but her conclusion was her

circumstances were far from safe. So with eyes shut she pushed passed welling tears

threatening to cascade her already tear-stained features. Her nightmare becoming a

battle to focus, gripped in the struggle of a constant foreboding to her darkened

surroundings. For the room fuelled heightened fears to what lurked within its walls.

Including the possibility her tormentor watched and revelled in her flailing discomfort.

Her white-walled prison appeared small, with grime stained tiles covering floor to

ceiling. No sign of the room’s past, but various chains and pulleys of ominous intent

hung in the far corner. The only means of hope and escape were a small rust scared

door that remained closed. Carla concluded she was being held in a sub-basement of a

much larger complex, continuing to her desperation and need to being discovered. Not

that it mattered, for her restrained predicament hindered any chance of escape. “I just

want to go home?” she sobbed as her mind travelled a roller-coaster of emotions until

returning nausea caused a further need to retch. She clutched the table to cough, a

fitting response to having little in the way of content in her stomach as she gasped for

breath. The taste of the air hung thick with ominous odours, stoking a craving for

cleaner air as the mixture of stale and decay conjured visions of further despair. Her

predicament made the hairs of her neck bristle to consider the possibility she was not

the first to share such a grizzly fate. That frightening realisation made her chest tight

again, increasing her breath to an alarming rate. Her world spiralled, losing control in

hyperventilating stress. Soon hysteria threatened, tensing her body as an internal battle

raged to stop her going frantic. She pulled against her restraints, still hindering any

ability to clutch her chest, the leather taut and cutting flesh. With her heart racing,

sweat soaked the creases of her skin as matted hair fell across her stained face. The

resulting struggle made for a wish to focus, craving a calmer place in her floundering. 

In her haste, Carla almost missed the faint sound hidden in the chaos. So faint it was a

strain to hear at first, but her subconscious filtered its rhythmic simplicity as she

pushed past the building hysteria. The sound brought a smile of recognition, a

laughable response under the seriousness of her predicament. In anguish she gripped

the source of normality emitting from the darkness, almost insignificant.

From a dark recess within the room filtered the distinct sound of a leaking pipe,

long forgotten in the decay. It became a catalyst in Carla’s ongoing battle to regain

focus within the chaos, with the need to slow her own erratic breathing to its rhythm.

To dissipate to a more manageable rate as she strained to clutch at her chest until her

heart rate normalised. With it, the tightness across her chest faded with release of a

lingering breath. The panic attack ebbed to leave Carla motionless with exhaustion.

Just thankful for a temporary reprieve from her torment as she twisted dried lips to the

remaining pains of her awakening body. Her immediate need was releasing the

building tension emanating throughout her tired limbs. A quick change of position,

she curved her back, bracing against the restrictive restraints and the surface of the

table. Once again, sweat soaked flesh pressed against the grime-stained fabric of what

remained of her underclothes. Then came the inevitable disappointment as the leather

held, adding to another failure that forced her backward in frustrated exhaustion.

Further attempts of resistance followed with equal results, and before long she

returned with reluctance to her forced solitude.

Carla was desperate to return to a happier time, a safer time, but her fading sanity

conspired against her. Her memory turned to the ill-fated morning of her abduction,

the day starting like any other sun-drenched morning and reminiscent of a normal

workday shared by millions. She had left her apartment to walk to the private parking

bays situated underneath the single bedroom apartment complex, a small rental in

picturesque Washington Heights. It was a normal routine, completed countless times

as she fumbled for the elusive car keys in her shoulder bag on approaching her

reserved space. There came a sense of satisfaction as the car's central locking flashed

with an echoing response from the recovered keys. That moment signifying the end of

her normal life as a stinging pain to her neck brought the spiralling darkness and

beginning of a frightful nightmare.

With reluctance Carla’s mind shifted to the present, swallowing a silent curse for

being so predictable to her choices that morning. What if she had changed her

morning routine, to have started later, taken the bus or just worked from home? The

list was endless, and all did not involve entering that parking garage. She struggled

with finding a reason for someone to harm her, let alone strap her semi-naked to a

metal table, then subjecting her mind and body to agonising brutality. “I’m just a

personnel assistant from New Hampshire, for Christ’s sake,” she cried out. “What do

you need from me?” The outburst went ignored as the shadows once again refused to

surrender any secrets. With a blaze of anger, and clasping hands into fists, Carla beat

the table in frustration. The metallic thud echoed the narrow confines as she slumped

backwards. She noted her forced paralysis fading to the point a growing list of injuries

emanated throughout her body. She had to see for herself as she adjusted her position.

The exertion made her wince as breathing became restricted. With hesitation, she laid

back and inched fingertips towards her right side, reaching a smear of warm blood that

coated her fingertips. Undeterred, she traced the inflamed wound, a deliberate cut that 

felt deep and congealed with blood. Through curled lip, Carla braced and traced the

outline of the wound. The slightest touch racked her side, urging her to give up as the

pain increased. She felt to be giving up the struggle, and her fading health showed her

own immortality as she feared she would die alone. A failed try to refresh chapped

lips, Carla noted the latest symptom to explain the increasing dizziness and

overwhelming urge to sleep. She took another deep breath, filling her lungs to release

a strained scream of frustration. A futile gesture, taking little solace in the inevitable

outcome, but she needed to vent.

From the shadows a maddening sadistic laughter filled the room.

It replaced Carla’s dying echo, tensing her limbs as fear replaced any pain in

search for the source, taking a morbid pleasure in her suffering. Once again, the

restricted confines and limited light proved useless to uncover what lurked. Had she

imagined the laughter, amplifying earlier doubts to what was reality or becoming a

victim of her own mocking imagination? In her present state, there was no certainty it

was not another symptom of a failed mind. But her frustrated search had now opened

the skin around her restraints, adding to her growing injuries and further loss of

precious blood. Time became a constant struggle against increasing trauma. Her only

release left was opening the emotional flood gates, of which she did with a pitiful sob

as stressed emotions took hold. Carla floundered, helpless, as throughout her confines

the chilling laughter echoed.

When Carla emerged from her latest blackout, she was at once aware of her

weakened state, as a light-headiness contributed to unable to concentrate. Fuelling an

effort to stay awake, even raising her head to glance at the lower half of her torso was

a challenge. With breathing shallow, chest heavy as she sensed sweat navigate the

curves of her face and neck. She pushed through the exhaustion and desperation to

muster what little strength remained to keep breathing. The situation proving difficult

as her eyes rolled back into her skull, and she fell deeper into her closing mind.

When Carla returned to consciousness, she no longer cared about her physical or

mental state, only craving the suffering to be over, even if it meant death to achieve it.

The parts of her body no longer numb were a wave of increasing pain. She struggled

to study the latest additions of violations to her body. Her fraught senses lay open to

her flesh, now cut in half a dozen fresh places, the scale of brutality inflicted

registering on her fractured mind. It all threatened to overwhelm her, but she forced

herself to focus on her surroundings. She noted similarities between her inflicted

wounds, and to the shapes now adorning her prison’s tiled walls. Not that

understanding their meaning helped, it only stoked an increasing fear of the unknown.

Sudden movement alerted her to the far side of the room, chilling her entire body

on hearing the distinct rustle of heavy fabric trailing the tiled floor. Her body’s

response was releasing adrenaline, allowing Carla to find the strength to glimpse a

slow-moving shadow stalking the darkness. Through red strained eyes she pressed

past the tightness of her dry throat to speak. “Why are you doing this?” She asked as

her voice became an inaudible croaking whisper. “Who are you?” Her questions went

unanswered as the figure circled, resulting in a flash of anger to build. Carla took that

rage to flex, pulling on her restraints. “What do you want with me?”

The ominous figure inched closer, yet staying in the shadows in continuing

circling. “Who is who is unimportant,” answered a chilling disembodied voice.

Carla flinched at the sudden response.

“You are an abomination, a whore that darkens His light. I’m an instrument of His

anger to purify that light. You’re guilty of spreading false prophecies by claiming to

speak in His name.” With those chilling words, a gloved hand appeared from beneath

a dark brown sleeve to point in Carla’s direction. “Evil lingers within you, speaking

through you and using you as a defiled vessel to spread lies. To the eyes of our true

God, you are a heretic. So repent your sins, and together we will defeat this evil, and

send it back to hell from where it came.”

The room’s limited strained light hindered recognition of her tormentor as Carla

struggled to understand the cryptic conversation.

It was then the figure lent forward, revealing what appeared to be a robed man,

features shrouded under a large hood.

Carla’s eyes widened to the realisation her imagination had not played tricks, and

she had seen a robed figure restraining her earlier in her ordeal. She remained

transfixed in terror, unable to move as though an unwilling observer.

A hand protruded from the folds of the figure’s robes, revealing a glint of metal

and the obvious instrument of Carla’s torture.

The blade was a mixture of precision and cruelty of design. With a saw-toothed

edge protruding from a gilded shaft that narrowed to a delicate fine edge and honed

with a razor-sharp tip.

The mere sight and its slightest touch against her skin drew an instant response of

fear from Carla as she pleaded. “You needn’t do this. You have the wrong person. I

swear, as God is my witness, I didn’t do what you say I did.”

“If true, let the true God be your witness as He too can be your salvation.” The

figure restrained Carla’s ankle in a tight gloved hand, followed by a shallow chanted

whisper, reciting words Carla did not recognise, let alone understand. In her thrashing,

she drew blood from her lower lip, the coppery taste filling her mouth as she reacted

to what came next.

The blade’s gentle pressure inched forward to rest against the bare flesh of her

inner thigh.

Carla’s body reacted with the piercing of flesh by arching her back and twisting in

pain as her jaw locked tight.

“You are a host to evil, a heretic and a witch. Your words speak against the one

true God, and in His name I shall release you of this affliction.” The robed figure

sliced again into her reeling body, continuing to recite the unrecognisable words.

Carla turned to her uncontrollable screaming, uttering in hope the name that will

bring her salvation. “SIMON!”

Saturday 17 July 2027.

Sufferance, MO.

In the beginning, as life set forth across God’s creation, there have been many

questions about that journey. Do our choices in life define us come judgement and can

we become a better person to ourselves and to one another? Perhaps the choices are

a willingness to sacrifice everything we have for the greater good or simple 

understanding the difference between good and evil in its many forms? Maybe it's

denying temptation to follow the simple path rather than working hard in reaching

those same goals, but it all leads to further questions...

The pen paused over the page as Father George Peters reread the last paragraph of

the dinner sermon. With a heavy sigh, he considered his words in a hunt for the

intended message without risk of sending the captive congregation of hungry and

homeless to sleep. The words faded as his mind wondered to a fond childhood

memory back in Edinburgh. To an adolescent boy who would go with parents to their

local Sunday morning service. To sit in forced reluctance to listen to the same

message filled sermons from his hometown parish priest. In those times, and being

from a respected Catholic family, those first experiences with religion were that small

draughty church. The buildings stone lined dreary interior flooded by cascading shafts

of coloured light from ornate glass windows provided by occasional breaks in

otherwise dull greying Scottish mornings. The youngster’s interests fast evaporating

in forced captivity with a wish to be anywhere but within these four walls. Further

frustration came by the harsh wooden pews, causing a constant need to shuffle feet to

his parent’s growing annoyance. A further reprimand from his mother and the boy’s

posture sank to a forced search of the surrounding congregation. Obvious to note,

most shared the same blank, bored expressions as attention remained on the priest

stood elevated behind the carved altar. That priest’s name was Father Donald, a tall

stoic man of impeccable morals whose ever-watchful gaze expelled welcoming

warmth over thick-rimmed glasses. Thinking back to those days, hard to imagine the

younger Father Peters had ever considered the priesthood. For boredom could never

describe those earlier experiences. I wonder did you experience the same doubts when

preparing your own sermons, old friend. The thought passed as Father Peters pressed

his pen to his lips. Guess it helped to believe in the message you were trying to

deliver. The fleeting recollection of his friend, who the priest would become, brought

the slightest of smiles to an otherwise sombre mood. With a scratch of unshaven

cheek, he searched for the words in conveying his own unfinished message. Before

long, time passed in silent contemplation at the half finished sermon until pushing a

strained back into the comfort of the high-backed chair. The chairs leather responded

with a groan of resistance to his movement, it’s worn out condition over time

symbolising his own circumstances since arriving at the Refuge of Lost Souls. For he

too considered himself threadbare and beaten, but, for now, welcomed the relief to his

aching limbs. With a need to complete the job at hand, Father Peters pushed the

scratched frame of his glasses against his misshapen nose, an unintentional result of a

former boxing youth. He felt the discomfort of heavy, tired eyes as his mind turned

back to the memory of his childhood and of his friend Father Donald. He longed to

hear once again the old priest’s distinctive gruff voice, to offer wisdom filled advice

so needed.

“It’s never easy understanding Gods message,” the aged priest would explain. “To

understand, you must understand the power of the messages you’re seeking to invoke.

Without those feelings, there’s nothing to nurture, to grow.”

No truer words spoken and perhaps why the words I seek fail me, my old friend.

Perhaps I’ve lost their true meaning? As the concerned filled thoughts passed, Father 

Peters considered his increasing shortage of spiritual fulfilment these past few months.

The void replaced with a darkening depression that became harder to move past with

each day. That was why he turned to founder recollections of that bored, irritable child

so many years ago. He sought to recollect how those chilly Sunday mornings ever led

to his calling to the priesthood. It was clear he missed the old priest, always a force of

inspiration. Helped no doubt by his tough Gaelic tone looming from the man’s giantlike persona and impassioned love for the church and the community he served. Father

Peters flushed with embarrassment, a sentiment to being a fraud compared to his old

friend and wishing he had the same resolve.

Nothing appeared to fluster Father Donald, not even when interrupting local

teenagers who had forced their way in to the church office one late evening. The

culprits paraded in his office as he circled the group in menacing judgement, striking

the correct amount of fear in each shamed face. Not they needed to worry, for Father

Donald was always a man of compassion, never holding a grudge as he recognised the

good in all. Then applying the correct intimidation through long silent disapproving

glares, the group’s punishment was a casual wave of hand and an invoking verse on

the sins of stealing. The only applied threat was of informed parents. Back in those

days scaring any respectful Catholic boy back onto the correct path of which it did for

Father Peters. Thinking back, it was natural to laugh about that night, but for months

the youngster feared his strict parent’s wrath if ever they found out. So he spent each

Sunday service that followed low in his seat, believing Father Donald would mention

his crime to the entire congregation and to his parent’s embarrassment.

The elderly priest explained years later his reason for not informing on those

responsible. “Simple,” he had answered with a mischievous grin. “I noticed potential

in one scared lad that night and understood the great deeds he would achieve in the

world if given the chance.”

Hope you were right, Father, Father Peters thought with fond recollection.

Still, the young Father Peters repaid for his crime by volunteering around the

church during his summer break. Not knowing it was the start of a growing friendship

that would last decades. The next few years Father Donald watched as the youngster

grew into a young adult. He always encouraged his achievements in various career

paths, but somehow knowing he would return to that small church with a passion to

don the robes of the priesthood himself. Father Donald even sponsored his young

protégé’s doctrine, making the lengthy journey from Scotland to Rome, to attend the

ordination in person. Where he reached to embrace the new priest in enormous arms

afterwards, visible tears rolling his face and helpless to mask his pride.

The next years, Father Peter’s career included various assignments around the

country. But without fail, his friend’s written correspondence arrived to keep the

young priest updated with news of home. On one particular occasion choosing to visit

in person, understandable under circumstances as he brought grave news of Father

Peter’s mother's sad passing so soon after his fathers. Even now, her loss contributed

to a deeper sadness, for he had been close to her and had taken the news hard.

Father Donald had consoled his friend as best he could. “Nothing prepares a

person for losing a loved one, leaving us with our memories and to always know they

loved us.”

Father Peters thanked for his friend’s kind words, agreeing to have had more time, 

but even to this day still hid the guilt. He hid behind church commitments as an

excuse for missing many visits back home during her illness. The truth being unable

to face her failing health and unwilling to witness her withering away from the

matriarch she had once been. It had been easy to leave the responsibility to Father

Donald, who gave her the spiritual support needed in her last weeks and never judged

his young friend.

Father Peters drew a deep pained breath to the returning guilt, adding it to an

expanding list of regret over the years. With a gentle rub at his temple he regarded the

other choices made and what had happened to that eager, energy filled young priest.

The same priest who had accepted the challenge to manage one of the much sought

after New American refuge centres? A position sought by many within the diocese,

answering the humanitarian appeal after the civil breakdown of the then United States.

A time when the country suffered the greatest economic crash in its history, resulting

in the federal government invoking an international call for support. Charitable and

religious organisations heard that call worldwide and rushed much needed aid for the

displaced, losing everything in the economic collapse and unrest that followed.

During the days leading up to taking his new position, Father Donald had rung to

offer congratulation. Whilst unable to hide surprise to his voice at a young priest

granted such a prestigious position. That night they had talked for hours, Father

Donald continuing to wish all the best for the future, knowing his friend would

achieve so much doing God’s wonderful work.

The following years Father Peters immersed himself into his work and the new

undertaking. Further exchanges with his old mentor were brief and all infrequent.

Perhaps explaining how Father Peters had missed the warning signs to his friend’s

failing health, the lengthy pauses and shortage of breath when speaking on the phone.

Father Donald hid the facts with not wanting to burden others with what he

considered a trivial matter.

Then, a little over seven months since their last conversation, Father Peters

received a letter enclosing what would be the last correspondence from Father Donald.

The cover letter was from his friend’s housekeeper, who informed him of his sad

passing from colon cancer. A condition suffered for many years, and towards the end

he had been in tremendous pain but never wanted to impose or burden anyone with his

own problems. That selflessness another fine quality Father Peters admired and gave

him something to aspire to become, perhaps making him a better person. With sombre

reflection Father Peters closed his eyes on remembering the father figure his old friend

had become. Then, with a push of emotion, he released a throaty growl to hide his

embarrassment and again turned to the sermon. Old friend, I’m so in need of your

wisdom tonight. Your no-nonsense approach so full of confidence and when all else

failed, resorting to the threat of a swift kick up the arse. Once again, Father Peter’s

cheeks flushed with fond memories before forcing to focus, mind becoming a pit of

self-doubts and constant tiredness threatening the unfinished sermon. His lack of

concentration was a constant struggle against a loss of purpose, culminating in the past

few weeks often becoming detached from himself and those around him. He found it

easy to wallow in his lack of commitment to the priesthood, including considering

continuing as manager of the refuge. Once again the darkening mood chipped away at

him, to form a constant pressure. With an annoyed frown, he pushed past the growing 

negativity. The challenge was finding a path to the normal day-to-day reality, ignoring

the questions to where it all had gone wrong. Not helped by the shabby individual

staring back from the large mirror on the far wall. A far cry from the youthful priest

who’s once thick locks now thinned and flecked with grey. To expose the lined,

solemn features framed behind temporary taped glasses. The once toned figure

replaced by middle age of little exercise, a dangerous smoking habit, and the whiskey

hidden from inquisitive eyes in his desk draw. “You’re looking older than your years,

Peters, my boy,” he confessed, puffing out his cheeks and patting the solid mass of

stomach under the threadbare green cardigan. Another scratch of unshaven cheek,

considering his change of mood stemmed from the pressures of managing the refuge.

With a mute nod, he dismissed the theories, attempting to clear his mind. So returning

his glasses further down his crooked nose, he concentrated on the still hall-filled page.

The briefest of time passed and once again the words became a blur, the pen reluctant

to write as thoughts transpired against him. His mind returned to considering the

declining state of the refuge from its once prosperous beginnings, trying to note the

time the rot had set in to it all changing. Perhaps as far back as when the diocese

suffered a major scandal, rocking the church to its foundations. That scandal

culminated in further revelations, including a well-publicised investigation and trial

involving arrests of clergy at the highest positions. An uncovered trail of secrecy

implicated even his Holiness and senior clergy, hiding the truth for decades. It became

a precursor to further shocks that included a financial mismanagement investigation

escalating from the global banking collapse. The church became broke overnight with

financial losses and mounting compensation payments totalling in the hundreds of

millions. It was inevitable they would never amass the financing resources needed to

support interests and commitments outside of Rome. This left the refuge centres and

overseas charities forgotten, struggling to fend for themselves as many faced closure.

If not for the support of the remaining local businesses and small public donations

each month, the refuge would have closed years ago. Though, the priest’s personal

and refuge troubles paled in comparison after Christmas 2022. A day pivotal to

hastening his struggles with faith and the increasing disenchantment towards his own

belief and loyalty to a religion he so loved. Even now, the memory invoked emotions

to the horror and loss of life, a day becoming synonymous as 9/11 and the Paris

chemical attacks of 2024. The investigation that followed uncovered a large

commercial transport plane had diverted from its permitted flight plan. The alternative

flight path put it on a course for Rome and Vatican City. It was unknown to

authorities the plane packed with explosives intentionally headed to the crowds

attending that year’s Christmas mass. Over four and a half thousand pilgrims died,

many thousands injured, and the death toll included his Holiness himself and a large

proportion of senior clergy.

Father Peters had collapsed to his knees on watching the live coverage of the

devastation. With tear-filled face he wailed in anger to a God forsaking his most

devoted and thinking back, perhaps that moment was the catalyst to him questioning

his faith. To fuel doubts, including a rising sense of hypocrisy to face his congregation

week after week and trying to inspire trust in a God willing to sacrifice so many.

In silent contemplation Father Peters’ attention came back to the words etched on

his notepad and with reluctance ripped the top pages as he struggled to his feet. 

The leather chair scraped resistance across the wood floor as he rose.

An involuntary tug at the hem of his cardigan was a failed response to his unkempt

appearance. On glancing up, he saw the wall clock above the door, making a quick

calculation. His presence needed downstairs soon enough. So with a stretch of back he

started for the door, but a forgetful mind made him turn and sweep up the glass and

half-empty bottle of neat whisky. He deposited his secret indulgence back to their

hiding place of the large oak desk drawer. Locked from prying eyes and certain to

have forgotten nothing else, Father Peters left his private office.

The Refuge of Lost souls was a modest two storey red brick early ninetieth century

build in what was once the business district of Sufferance. It offered, on the second

floor, a small office and half-dozen bedrooms, occupied by the occasional guests and

staff living on site. The ground floor offered storage and a spacious kitchen that led to

the main dining hall, allowing the refuge to cater for the needy passing through its

doors each day.

Father Peters took the long narrow panelled hallway running the full length of the

building. Its windowless dated interior never more emphasised by the moulded twined

light fittings, throwing a pale yellow gloom throughout as he went on his journey. The

priest’s footsteps crossed faded flowered carpet, his passage conveying groans of

resistance from the hardwood floor with each step. From the floor below resonated

noises of preparations from the kitchen, as familiar odours of cooking permeated from

the stairwell. Those same odours antagonised the lurching hunger from a missed

lunch, but forgetting his own needs he continued to memorise the short sermon. On

reaching the stairs, his concern went to a door he knew gave access to the roof. The

door ajar, where a narrow shaft of light highlighted the dust filled confines of the

hallway. It was common knowledge that often the volunteers used the roof for the

occasional unauthorised cigarette break. Well aware of the penalty Sister Angela

would inflict if caught doing so on the premises. With guarded apprehension Father

Peters approached, flinching to the haunting whistle emanating from the slight gap as

he pulled on the door handle.

The staircase shared the interiors dated panelling and ascended well-worn steps to

a half opened heavy fire exit.

With care Father Peters pulled himself up each step using the bannisters for

support and reached the door.

The metal-framed door gave brief resistance on rusted hinges.

Father Peters stepped out, to become consumed in an overwhelming light, and

forced to shield his eyes. With hesitation, he allowed his senses to adjust to an abrupt

change of environment.

From the street circling below came the distinct sounds of everyday life, merging

with the half-dozen vents and air conditioning units. The nearest with a shudder and

clatter disgorged heated contents into the evening air.

Father Peters, though struggling with the sunlight, continued his exploration for

the culprit who had left open the doors. With realisation he was alone he came to

appreciate the cooling remnant of a breeze that brought instant relief from the

building's sticky interior. A glimpse of his scratched watch, grateful there was still

time until required downstairs. He fumbled at his shirt breast pocket under the frayed

cardigan to retrieve the crumpled packet of cigarettes. Then, crouching from the 

breeze, he sheltered the flickering flame of the plastic disposable lighter. With eyes

closed, he took the first intake of the slender cigarette, bringing a welcoming calmness

and immediate change to his mood as the intoxication flooded his system. An

immediate respite from self-inflicted gloom, allowing enjoyment in the peace the

rooftop offered. With a slow release of breath, the smoke dissipating as he paced the

gravel-strewn roof in continued contemplation.

The surrounding neighbourhood expanded on all sides of the refuge, which stood

in an elevated position offering a vantage to recognise what remained of the original

town of Sufferance. The town’s distinct dark dated grey tenements included

dilapidated shop fronts of nineteen forties architecture. All stood in poor contrast to

the vast modern city of New Eden to the east. It's continuing erosion of the once

sizeable town of Sufferance’s boundary with each passing year. That realisation

brought a sudden pang of sadness to the knowledge Sufferance would give way to the

never ending industrial and residential construction projects of New Eden.

Father Peters took another slow draw of the cigarette, contemplating how long

until the refuge was to close its doors. It too deemed no longer necessary in the

modern city or to the masses of the unfortunates pushed out. Not long before the

refuge, like Sufferance, became a forgotten footnote in the history books. With

cigarette fast depleting, he continued his pacing, kicking a stone under foot until a

reflective glimmer broke his concentration.

In the distance hovered an advertising drone, its enormous screens rotating through

various advertisements of the latest must have products. Its programmed route brought

it past the high-walled security of Paradise Valley Estates. Were sways of plush green

lawns circled by rows of luxurious white clad homes, housing many of the wealthy

and influential of New Eden. Those same resident’s safe behind high-floodlit

protection, granting a piece of the New American dream and all well away from the

masses scraping meagre existence a few miles away.

Father Peters studied the estate, lips twisting in bubbling anger to the vast vanity

project, causing a sudden need to shift his attention. A stroll around the rooftop, he

recognised New Eden’s business district to the north. The skyline filled with large

factories manufacturing cheap plastics to high-end luxury goods. All sold in the latest

multi-floored shopping mall, were there exteriors bristled in the dying light with

glaring media advertisements for items only the privileged could afford. But all of that

dwarfed compared to the monumental project in its centre and dominating even the

largest of businesses. The vast rising constructions resembled monolithic headstones

forced from the ground. The three state-of-the-art high rise constructions known as the

Reformation Towers and coming to represent New Eden’s vast wealth and opulence.

Father Peters continued his observation, incapable to stem a need to shake his head

in annoyance at remembering the infomercials advertising the project.

For each tower stood one hundred and thirty levels of glass and reinforced

polished steel. When completed will house the multinational global entity known as

the Order of Light. The Order’s opened hands emblem already embossed the nearest

tower to signify its dominance to the surrounding area. The Order had weathered the

worldwide economic collapse almost unscathed. They took advantage of the chaos to

buy competitors and bankrupt America as though it were any other acquisition and

merger. The result was their corporate logo branding almost every item sold in New 

America.

Father Peters shielded his eyes again to fixate on the closest of the constructions.

He noted huge cranes positioned further steel support frames into place to complete

the last levels. Soon to become another example of the Orders’ increasing need for

power and wealth disguised as religious belief and enlightenment. Who would have

thought their idea of God was the same as running the world’s biggest corporate

entity? With that thought, he sensed his mood darkening again and flicked the

growing ash from his cigarette. He felt desperate to change his current train of

thought, but it was not to be. For the disappointment and bitterness continued to swell

as he became caught in the Order's rhetoric’s and way of doing business.

The sound of a siren offered a reprieve, forcing attention back to the present.

Observing an ambulance, green and blue flashes highlighted its position as it sped up

the freeway off ramp leading to the older parts of town.

“What a surprise, heading for Slumville.” A derogatory street term so despised by

Father Peters, who chastised himself even though it best described the older and less

desirable parts of Sufferance.

The town’s decaying streets turning into the home for the unwanted pushed out to

the fringes of the ever expanding city. To become deemed irrelevant, were they

suffered in the name of progress as Sufferance’s once prospering businesses and

industries moved to the more modern city. That left those unlucky to not move with

the work, to become the unfortunate scraping a meagre existence in the run down

parts of the familiar town. A situation mirrored throughout the entire country.

Father Peters contemplated what the country had become since the troubles.

Maybe historians would say it began with the worldwide debt crisis caused by

complacent banks. Those same institutions gambling other people’s money and found

that the money was not infinite as losses stacked one after another. It took just one

major bank to hide a massive mortgage debt. Starting the dominoes falling, the

situation sped up with a run on the banks again turning to the government for a

bailout. This time the price was too high, the federal government was incapable of

helping, and this triggered a panic in the markets. The impact was for larger industries

and corporations short of capital, unable to raise funds. Soon those companies could

not make loan repayments or pay wages, drowning in a debt of their own making and

causing a cascade. The once glorious America, a beacon to the world, now bankrupt

after one inept administration after another mishandled the situation. Their federal

spending soon outweighed the diminishing revenue from the tens of millions now

losing their jobs. The situation became global, as world economies so dependent on

the mighty dollar crashed, escalating to civil unrest in many major cities worldwide.

The only hope rising from the despair was major developments like New Eden,

somehow untouched by the world’s economic downturn. Positioned to offer a lifeline

to so many as opportunities rose to fill the positions being offered in its growing

infrastructure. The by-product was moving the unwanted elements to areas vacated in

and around Sufferance, where they turned to the seedier side of society, shunned and

ignored.

Father Peters, in silent thought, kicked a stone and flinched as it resonated off the

closest vent with a violent clatter to break his train of thought. With a flick of ash, he

took another needed intake of the cigarette, its contents fast extinguishing the spark of 

bitterness threatening his mood. It became a temporary euphoria as he slipped a spare

hand into his cardigan pocket and resumed his pacing. He soon reached a low wall

that snaked the entire edge of the roof, wide enough for a person to sit, if brave

enough. A cautious peer over the ledge brought a flood of nausea that made him take a

step back to a more comfortable distance. With the cigarette still smouldering and

gripped in the corner of his month, he rocked on his heels. A curious glance skyward,

he observed the slight changes of colours from yellow to orange in the filtered

gathering sky. “May be rain later,” he mused, almost jumping at the sound of his own

voice.

Through the low clouds, a rhythmic flash caught his eye of a distinct shape. The

helicopter navigated the gathering clouds on its intended destination, an immense

complex visible off the shores of Lake Solace to the west. Even from the refuge,

Father Peters could make out the towers of columned white, protected by high walls

soaking the heat of the dying day. The effect made for a mystical shimmer of the

surrounding air. Almost hiding the extensive high facade of intersecting steel and

glass linked walkways above distinctive stain-glassed windows. The looming complex

inspired by Gothic trappings included modern architecture of glass domed rooftops. A

design completed by spires of multiple security towers bristling with digital

communication arrays and satellite receivers in paranoid surveillance of the immediate

area. The building symbolised the genuine power of New Eden and known worldwide

as The Monastery of Light. The religious element of the Order of Light and it seated

his Eminence Cardinal Vladislav Ambrozij and his clerics.

With a begrudging snort, Father Peters admitted to being impressed on seeing the

huge monastery on his arrival in the city. The priest joined other visitors, in awe, to

walk the Pilgrim Path for the first time.

Sizeable groups of visitors weaved the well-manicured park, flanked by

ornamental fruit and blossom filled trees. Canopies of bright colour ending at an

ornate archway, topped by giant marbled hands opening to mimic the emblem of the

Order. As they passed through, the path led to an impressive red timbered entrance

hall, arched in smooth white stone. The gathering crowds ushered inside found the

interior as impressive as the exterior. White marbled carvings decorated the walls and

ceilings, depicting scripture from the Book of Enlightenment.

Father Peters noted nothing in history came close to its grandeur. Not even

Europe’s cathedrals or the Vatican’s own Sistine Chapel. Never had one place

imposed such spiritual and religious imagery on the masses as the Monastery of Light.

On that same visit he attended the nightly mass, to stand surrounded by thousands of

the Orders’ faithful, waiting to witness the lighting ceremony. The immense crowds

gathered on the pilgrim path, clutching small white candles flickering in the evening

light. It was impressive as their attention concentrated on the observation gallery

protruding high above the main entranceway, not waiting long as the crowds erupted

in response to the figures appearing.

Cardinal Ambrozij emerged, flanked by his most trusted bishops. The frail

cardinal, swathed in full ceremonial white, raised a hand to silence the crowds before

addressing them with the verse of the Enlightened Flame.

In unison, the crowd recited the same passage, their attention focused on the

marbled archway Father Peters had passed through earlier in the day. There was a 

flash of blue flame that leapt up the arch, converging in a solid flame cupped between

two marbled hands to represent the Light of the True God. The marbled hands

remained lit as followers and visitors moved under the arch on to the grand hall for the

last service of the evening. Four huge floodlights flanked the arch and beamed sky

wards, symbolising the touching of heaven of the true God.

Father Peters could not resist an annoyed grunt to the fact the Order gave a belief,

a hope of a fresh start in spiritual enlightenment. The fact not lost on him to the same

purpose, lacking his own church for many years. Wish we had marketing like that. The

thought flared his nostrils. Our damn church wouldn’t be in such a bloody mess.

The prior history of the Order had started as a small community, encouraging

many to flock to teachings by the Order’s clerics and inspirational leader. Within as

little as ten years that small backward community grew, investing its growing

resources in vast building projects. Also including housing for its followers willing to

work in its many industries, funding it all.

“Order of Light my arse,” Father Peters spat, drawing on the cigarette’s last

remaining morsel, extinguishing the remnants against a kitchen vent. With attention

once again drawn to the darkening skyline of massing clouds, he considered again that

rain always brought in more for the dinner service. With a tug of cardigan, he was

about to leave, when noting a single bright flare breaking the gathering clouds. Stood

in puzzlement, the object flickered between blues and yellows, expelling a fiery tail

expanding in its wake. Father Peters remained transfixed as the spectacle unfolded as

he analysed what he was seeing. The night sky had always fascinated him from an

early age. He had often studied the sky through an old beaten telescope, but never saw

something so… beautiful? “Too fiery a tail for a shooting star,” he considered.

“Possibly debris burning up in the lower atmosphere, or...” With speculation the hairs

rose on the back of his neck on realising the mysterious object continued to grow.

Sensing unease in the pit of his stomach, he remained wide eyed with surprise to note

the object appeared to change direction mid-flight. In shock and disbelief he took a

step back, concluding the fiery spectacle now headed for Sufferance, including the

refuge. He calculated the estimated speed and size, concluding the impending impact

would level an enormous part of the old town within a matter of moments. With no

place to hide, he threw himself to the ground and curled tight, awaiting the inevitable.

The air above became heated, tensing every muscle in his body and with eyes shut

tight, breath forced from his lungs as he tried to scream. “Oh, sweet Mary, Joseph and

all the saints in Heaven,” he shouted, pushing his head deeper into his chest whilst

reciting a prayer and then silence. On opening one eye, Father Peters was very much

alive. There had been no sudden moment of bright light, no crashing force of power

ripping him from his hiding place. So with caution, he lifted his head before rising to

his feet. A quick brush down from the dust and dirt of his impromptu dive for cover,

he resumed his search as an eerie silence descended the entire area. With a flash of

confusion, he questioned his sanity. Had my mind played tricks, imagining what I had

seen? He thought. A curious inspection to the contents of his cigarette packet

confirmed what he had smoked. Then with a dismissal of the idea with a shake of

head it was then he spied a familiar figure.

A middle-aged vendor appeared distracted until hearing a repeated shout of his

name snapping him from his forced shock. He recognised Father Peters trying to gain 

his attention as he offered his own cautious wave. “What was that, Father?”

“Blakey, tell me you saw what I just saw a few minutes ago, a fiery light?”

With a rub of unshaven chin, the vendor pondered the question before pointing. “I

did, Father, looked to be heading to the old tenements?”

With a wave of acknowledgement, Father Peters hurried to the other side of the

rooftop and with his knowledge of Sufferance he recognised the area in question.

Three square blocks dominated by three large twined towered tenements built with

distinctive red tiled rooftops, but nothing appeared out of the ordinary. There was no

smoke, fire or residents screaming in panic as expected from an object the size of a

small pickup hitting a built up area. In fact, there was a distinct lack of response,

including emergency services to the entire spectacle. His curiosity would have to wait.

With a silent curse, Father Peters in his haste for answers had lost track of the time.

Now late for dinner service, he considered the consequences between taking a major

impact event over facing the wrath of Sister Angela for a tardy attendance. He rushed

for the door, answers having to wait as he made a mental note to catch the next news

vids. With a shrug of disappointment he reached the stairs, remembering to close the

door, oblivious to the far-reaching consequences of what he had seen. The

consequences of the night were to test his faith in ways he could never imagine. For

unknown to the priest, his long awaited sign of faith had arrived, and it trailed flames

in its wake.

The track was a dust-laden labyrinth of well-used pathways of broken curves and

dips. Once part of an area stretching two full blocks, it was now a derelict landfill of

what had been the Harold Jacobs Recycle Plant. Flourishing amongst the concrete

slabs and brick waste were islands of rough straw grass, broken by crisscrossing

protruding roof struts, twisting fingers snaring the unsuspecting. A desolate and

somewhat dangerous landscape, but challenging to the youngsters racing the wellwarn tracks, testing the symbiosis of rider and bike.

It was every day challenges, like today, that pushed Jake Selby to race those

dangerous curves. He was a typical eleven-year-old kid whose thick curling mop of

black hair lashed his flushed features, trying to hold his breath to power through the

last lap. With eyes tightened in determination, pushing forward to gain on the rider

ahead. Timing was the key, a touch of a brake, a controlled slide passing into the

corner with a flurry of dirt and grit. Now on the inside, the end in sight, it was with the

last push of momentum, urging tired muscles for more power and desperate to peddle

faster. It fuelled an internal struggle in constant need of approval and acceptance by

those around him. Just many personal insecurities to overcome including being short

for his age and baby fat filled features making him appear younger than his years. So

what he lost in height he gained in energy and enthusiasm to push the threshold, often

resulting in a weekend grounded when his mother found out. Regardless, she would

be the first to describe him as rough around the edges, but deep down knowing he was

a decent kid at heart. Just thankful in the fact he was not following others his age and

less fortunate in Sufferance. To roam the streets and get caught up in drugs, drink, or

joining the gangers in darker parts of the city. Rather, a surprise considering his early

start in life could have put him on a much unique path. Jake was smart and often quick 

to ask questions, but lacked concentration towards his overall studies. Soon lost to a

world of his own imagination, that same imagination his mother encouraged, nurtured,

in less troublesome ways if possible as he grew older. Those troublesome days

increased with the summer spent exploring the neighbourhood rather than stuck in the

refuge, under the keen eyed supervision of his mother. So it was in those sun drenched

months when quality time became limited, but neither blamed the other as both

cherished the time they spent together. Especially as his mother, Lisa Shelby, worked

the long hours in the Refuge of Lost Souls kitchen, preparing the two daily servings.

Often starting at five and finishing well into the night. It was gruelling work, even

with volunteer help when available. Thankful it provided a roof over their heads

which was more important and besides it enabled her to squirrel money away. A

chance to save towards a place they could call their own, well away from Sufferance

and New Eden.

Jake accepted the arrangement, for it left him to his own thoughts and inquisitive

curiosity. Also, never admitting to anyone since their arrival at the refuge, he had

never been happier. Facts being they were local to school, where he was making

friends for once. Including, it was longest time spent in one place, since he could

recall. Their life before comprised escaping one rundown apartment after another,

always unable to put down roots before having to move on again. It was a routine that

always started in the early hours, awoken by his mother. Who with hurried need

retrieved the continuous packed travel bag of their few cherished belongings and

clothes before back on the road? Making their way to a new town where another flea

pit apartment awaited them before months or even weeks passed until the vicious

circle started again. With age, Jake questioned why, but his mother’s response

remained a wall of upsetting silence. Though Jake was a smart kid, recognising her

shield of silence hid a darker truth. That truth being his father had been a drunk,

violent, and deadbeat. What memories he had of him were vague and frightening,

remembering that their last night together, listening to the heated argument, one of

many the past few nights. Anger filled voices silenced with the cries of his mother and

finally slamming of doors. The experience left a young Jake cowering under his

covers, waiting in silence and unable to sleep until disturbed by a soft sound of

movement entering his room. A shape caught in the dim illumination of his night

light. Jake tensed to the intrusion until recognising the shape come to sit on the side of

his bed. Ever cautious to stay silent, Lisa wiped the remaining tears lining her flushed

cheeks, before gentle leaning in to kiss her son’s forehead. Her reassuring touch in the

ambient light, insufficient to hide dark bruising or the latest swollen lip as she offered

a forced smile. Her explanation was always not to worry, and he should sleep. Then in

silent observation she needed to protect him as she pushed back his hair to uncover the

soft features as he faked slumber. Unable to resist the temptation, she would sweep

him up in her arms in an embrace, unable to hide the released emotions. Becoming a

pivotal moment starting a chain of events that became a nomad life of late night

escapes and years of desperate struggle. But no matter how hard they tried to escape

that old life, the vicious torment returned as his father would track them to their next

apartment. In the beginning Lisa fell for the apologies, the charm and heartfelt

explanations of how he had changed, wanting to be a family again. Those lies over

time became tiring until seeing through them to the real man underneath of false 

pleasantries as he fell back to his former drink fuelled violent ways. Another escape

brought them to New Eden, promising fresh opportunities for all. What waited was

homelessness and desperation until a chance meeting at a rundown refuge. It was here

they huddled against the cold to fight a lingering hunger. They hoped for a few hours

rest under a warm roof and maybe grateful of an offer of a warm meal.

Father Peters recognised their plight, coming to sit and listen to their story. The

night ended with the offer of a spare room, a few nights rest until getting back on their

feet.

Lisa was reluctant to accept unless she repaid the generosity by working in the

kitchen, an arrangement that became permanent and was a turning point for the young

family. As time passed, they hoped their old life was behind them, but fate had other

arrangements with the sudden reappearance of Jake’s father once again. This time

appearing sober and dressed as a man of means, explaining to be working again and

getting his life back together. He needed to reconnect with his family without causing

further trouble. For Lisa she felt conflicted, recognising the same stories. Jake was

older and at an age to make his own choices. She understood a child’s need to connect

with their father. Against her better judgement and reluctance, she allowed supervised

visits in the hall if Jake agreed.

Since Jake could remember, he had struggled with memories of his father. Now

confronted with the bogyman the man had become, he spent their first meeting

fidgeting, clutching his mother’s side, whilst observing the stranger stood before them.

Two years had passed and to his father’s credit the arrangement continued without

incident, but far from proving he was an exemplary father. But it was a start. It also

proved to be the start of a fresh beginning for Lisa and Jake. For whatever the

outcome they refused to move again, supported by Father Peters explaining that

whatever happened they would always have a home at the refuge. That uncovered a

softer side to the old priest, admitting to enjoying the laughter and a sense of a family,

lacked for many a year. Never more clear than last Christmas. Still half asleep, they

ushered Jake downstairs. An enormous Christmas tree stood in one corner of the hall,

brightly decorated with paper ribbons and lit in coloured lights flickering in unison. At

its base were stacks of wrapped items of varying sizes, the largest of which being a

brown paper covered item. He approached and encouraged to read the tag with his

name written in bright red pen.

Jake had never experienced a Christmas like it. Everyone had gathered, including

Father Peters and Sister Angela, watching Lisa enticing Jake to unwrap the gift.

Emotions ran high as he tore at the wrapping, releasing a small gasp of excitement as

he uncovered the dark blue bike. Unable to suppress his joy, Jake leaped at Father

Peters to wrap arms around the smiling priest.

Father Peters laughed and crouched to return the hug whilst trying to keep his own

composure.

A last flurry at the remaining paper, Jake pulled the bike out with a wide grin

lighting his face.

Lisa came to offer her own hug of gratitude to Father Peters, incapable to resist the

emotion at seeing her little boy so happy. The bike was far from new. It had been a

reclaimed frame found in a storeroom. Father Peters had searched for parts through

barter and exchange until restoration was complete with a new paint scheme of 

metallic blue.

Christmas was several months ago and Jake cherished his gift as he raced, testing

his knowledge of the track for any advantage over the competition. With a decisive

push of speed, the finish line passed with an impressive close second. The momentum

pushing him to ascend the largest of three earth mounds dominating the site. From

here it overlooked the whole unofficial track as Jake caught his breath. Adrenaline

continued to flood his system, heart thumping as he checked the remaining rider's

pass, unable to stem satisfaction of his triumph. It was worth the pained response from

arms and legs. His enthusiasm would not wane as he searched for his next challenge.

A steep descent ended at a barrel and plank jump packed against a mound of dry earth.

The front wheel rested against the edge of the drop, hands gripped white in

preparation. Jake, sensing perspiration run down his neck and back, remaining focused

to the drop before him. Off to his right a small group of riders stopped to watch, a feat

few would try themselves.

Jake lived for the moment and the rush, slowing his breathing to focus on the silent

countdown. Three, two…

Below, Jake’s audience of spectators scattered, breaking his focus as his

expression changed to confusion in search for the cause to their sudden flight. A rush

of heated air overcame him, forcing Jake to the ground. Any exposed skin tingled with

heat as he flinched at the trailing flames of dark greys and orange. His eyes and open

mouth were awash of grit and dust as he saw the fiery spectacle rushing overhead. All

Jake could do was to roll onto his stomach to cough the contents of the dust cloud

enveloping the whole site. “Cool,” he coughed in complete amazement.

The flamed object rocketed overhead, continuing on a low trajectory before

dissipating towards the populated area of the old town where towering tenements

stood in the distance.

Without hesitation, Jake untangled from the bike, pushing off in desperate pursuit

of the fiery object.

The last view his friends had was of his blue and white backpack bobbing on his

back as he rode across the waste ground in pursuit.

Jake covered the site in haste, taking jumps and dips like a professional. A glance

of oversized watch showed impending curfew was fast approaching. With priorities

changed and frantic peddling, the narrow gap cut in the boundary chain fence fast

approached. With little time to slow, he pulled hard on the handlebars, clearing the

gap to hit the pavement with a screech of brakes and tyre.

Startled pedestrians shouted alarm to his sudden appearance, but he was already

down the street.

In the back of Jake’s mind, he feared a mother’s wrath, but even with the

impending threat of being grounded, his curiosity got the best of him. He focused on

the fast disappearing object, proving more important. Turning on to the main

expressway flyover, he weaved grid locked drivers, leaving their vehicles to join other

shocked onlookers at the spectacle overhead. All attention remained on the object,

ignoring the kid speeding further into the old town, back pack bobbing in his wake.

Jake slowed on entering the interchange, turning at Mario’s Coffee house where

Sufferance changed from run down businesses to a more built up residential district. It

was the prime route in to the city and so the traffic grew heavier, hindering Jake’s 

ability to keep up his speed without risk to himself. He had also lost sight of the

object, forcing him to work on instinct and awareness of the area. Then, taking various

shortcuts through alleyways and side streets, he exited into a large communal area.

The open ground appeared to adjoin residential gardens backing on to a large

tenement. A frantic exploration of the actual area uncovered no evidence of what had

happened to the object. No smoke or debris, nothing. With disappointment, Jake

dismounted, choosing to push his bike over the uneven ground.

The tenements loomed over him, greeting him with every day neighbourhood

sounds including televisions blurting out the latest mind numbing shows. There came

the distinctive voice of Mrs Basilio arguing with her oversized waste of a husband. A

shirtless individual sat lounging in his favourite recliner, oblivious to his wife’s

gesticulating rant as he watched the game. Mrs Basilio screamed a last insult,

explaining how he sucked the life out of her and she was moving in with her mother.

Jake ignored it all, pushing his bike further into the residential gardens separated

by a high chain fence, decorated with coloured plastic strips fluttering in the breeze.

Those same strips directed towards a few smallholdings and gardens cared for by local

tenants growing what few fresh vegetables and fruit they could. It was also the site of

the occasional block party in the warm summer evenings. Today deserted as distant

sirens brought Jake’s attention to a few blocks away. Sensing they were getting closer

caused a sudden need for urgency, understanding that witnesses to the object’s

flaming spectacle by now must have reported to the authorities.

Just then, there grew a strong pungent stench of rotten eggs mixed with petrol that

almost caused him to retch. So composing himself, he continued through the gardens,

opening to a larger open green space reclaimed with weeds and wildflower. He

remembered a worn path that led to a block of garages at the rear. Soon, pushing

through the wild-grass and onto the worn pathway, he came across six lockup garages,

weathered concrete construction roofed with corrugated sheeting. Years back, they

offered secure parking for many residents of the tenements. Now, like most living in

Sufferance, those same residents could neither afford the basics regardless have means

to own the luxury of a car. So now the garages lay abandoned to the elements, and in

the past Jake and friends had spent many an hour exploring those left open. A not too

pleasant memory returned when caught trespassing. That brought on a sudden pang of

guilt at remembering to being brought home in the rear of a police cruiser to face his

mother’s wrath. He pushed the memory to the far reaches of his mind as he came to

pass rows of slatted doors in various degrees of ill repair. Jake stopped at one set of

double doors that had seen better days.

Large patches of flaking paint air brushed by ganger tags to highlight local rivalry

daubed both doors.

With curiosity, he noted the light plumes of greying smoke protruding from

between the cracks. With a search of the immediate area, he uncovered rusting railings

hidden in the long grass. So tugging on the straps of his backpack, he removed it so to

retrieve a bike lock. A reassuring click fastened the lock around the railings, and with

his bike secured, his attention shifted back to the doors. He kept a tight grip of the

handles, still resisting. Then bracing his legs, he pulled until the doors gave way just

enough to enable him to push his upper body inside to explore. A sudden rush of

smoke greeted him, filling lungs with an acidic taste that made him cough and wretch. 

He spat to rid the taste as he backed out with need of fresher air. His eyes stung red

with a demand to blink past the irritation before a final cough cleared his throat.

Unperturbed and with a wipe of eyes, he tried again. This time the smoke appeared

less dense, continuing to disperse through the open space he made with his body as he

pushed inside to investigate. What he found was a windowless, unlit space, unable to

search further. Undeterred, he came back to his bike, reaching for the battery lamp

hooked on the front. With a stubborn pull, it sprang from its cradle. Jake smiled with

satisfaction at finding a reason to have the large lamp after all this time. Another of his

mother’s safety measures if ever caught out in the neighbourhood after dark. As he

examined the lamp, the irony not lost on him as his curfew did not allow him out after

dark to even use it. The switch appeared stiff, but with a firm metallic click it switched

on to Jake’s relief. Then, with the lamp in hand, he returned to the garage where he

noted smoke hung in patches close to the ceiling. With eyes narrowed, he became

accustomed to the darkness, now making out the far side. He remained low and under

the thinning smoke, greeted with a familiar stench smelt earlier down at the

tenements. The light flickered as he swept the room to uncover more colourful graffiti,

and further ganger tags adoring the walls. There was also a patch of green mould

covering the far corners, showing rainwater had crept through the gaps in the

corrugated roofing. It all made the floor conditions slippery underfoot. Jake continued

to recoil from the stench that grew as he made his way further in, his free hand over

his nose as he panned the light around the space. It was then a loud crash from behind

made him jump.

The double doors slammed shut, enclosing the room in complete darkness but for

the wavering light of the lamp in Jake’s shaking hand. With a nervous swallow, fears

amplified with what might lurk in the darkness. An unfortunate moment for his light

to struggle to stay lit. It added to the creepy atmosphere, and Jake’s increasing

agitation. With a frantic shake, he stabilised the flicker to illuminate the far wall where

he noticed a wood stained door. He assumed it lead to another room adjoining the

garage. A quick examination uncovered the age battered door had swollen shut on

rusted hinges as smoke passed through broken panes in its panelled window. With a

trembling hand, Jake gripped the round door handle. Even in the obvious poor state, it

remained anchored tight into the frame, resisting movement. In need of leverage, Jake

hooked the lamp to his trouser belt, grasping the handle in both hands. With a brace of

legs and arch of back, he put his full strength into the effort.

The door fought before budging with a crack of splintering wood, followed by a

harder jolt as the full frame gave way, shattering glass across the floor.

Jake fumbled backwards and off his feet, hitting the ground hard if not for his

backpack cushioning his fall. He recovered from having the wind knocked from his

chest, remaining sat sprawled with the handle still in his grip. In a state of confusion,

his gaze went from handle to the opened door resting sideways on its remaining rusted

hinge. With a twinge of a bruised ego and embarrassment, Jake picked himself off the

floor, discarding the useless handle as he rubbed his bruised backside. A last check

confirmed to have suffered no other injuries, and so retrieved the lamp from his belt

and entered.

Someone had piled discarded tyres against one wall, still smouldering, answering

the reason for the pungent odour hanging heavy in the air. 

Jake moved further in, noting collapsed crates and twisted corrugated sheeting

littered the centre of the space. He passed the light to the roof, uncovering a large

opening the size of a compact car where overhanging branches of the mature ferns

outside now blocked the space. A rhythmic sound of small stones striking metal

emanated, and a single droplet of water hit his hand. The rain increased, soon trickling

a course through the thick branches to smother the small patches of smouldering

debris hissing in protest. A fresh scent of damp pine filled the air, a refreshing change

from the otherwise pungent odour.

Jake moved further forward, pushing aside cardboard boxes and more sheeting,

uncovering the remnants of an old car. Its body a patch work of peeling paint and rust,

half hidden by a green tarpaulin stained in dust and grime. Its roof and left side was a

mangled twist of metal, crushed no doubt by an object smashing through the ceiling.

So edging around the wreckage, he was careful not to become snared on any sharp

metal protruding fragments.

It was then came sudden voices from outside, getting closer as Jake froze, his heart

lurching in fear at the possibility of being caught. Time slowed in a desperate wait,

until the voices grew fainter, the threat passing. Not until he was sure of his safety did

Jake release his held breath, but his anxiety flared again at movement from further in

the room. He was not alone.

The scraping rustle of hard fabric emanated from under a wooden workbench

along the length of the far wall. His light found a large rusting oil drum oozing black

tar contents from a gash down its side, congealing around its base before spreading

across the floor.

Further movement brought Jake’s attention to the remains of a heavy used

tarpaulin. So crouching for a closer inspection, he tugged on the material and made

something move further under the desk. Jake was not taking chances, keeping his

distance whilst using the lamp light to discover what was hiding. “Hello,” he asked.

“Somebody need help?”

The response was a muffled groan.

Jake flinched, the lamp choosing to flicker in protest before a hurried slap against

his palm in hope for enough power to uncover what might be lingering. To his

surprise, it remained lit once again, and he aimed it under the workbench. “Hello. Do

you want me to get my ma or Father Peters?” Jake took a step closer, hesitating as the

lamp flickered again. He knelt to reach and tug at the tarpaulin again.

A pain-filled scream filled the compact space, making Jake lurch backwards, as he

offered his own scream of surprise. On losing his footing, he sat spread legged with

the echo of his own heartbeat filling his ears. His breath constricting his chest as he

noticed what had made him scream.

Oil covered arms flailed to obscure a startled half naked man.

In Jake’s panic, he still shone the lamp towards the discovered stranger, causing

further distress. “Sorry, mister,” he apologised, lowering the lamp to risk as little light

as possible. Jake noticed the stranger was young, not his own age but perhaps the

same as his mother. The tarpaulin covered his modesty, but what flesh showed was

blistered red with painful burns and blooded gashes? The most serious of which was

across his forehead, above a swollen closed eye. A thin layer of oil covered him,

making for a ghastly sight. 

Jake stumbled for words. “My… my name is Jake.”

The stranger remained silent, his uninjured eye wide as his breathing remained

heavy from obvious pain showing on his stained features.

“Didn’t mean to hurt you, you know, with the light or nothing,” offered Jake.

The stranger groaned and rolled on to his side, matted hair clung to his face as he

appeared to slip into sleep.

Jake studied the half-comatose stranger, seeing hundreds of homeless since living

at the refuge, but never one as desperate and helpless as this one. Time passed, and he

continued to study the man with comforting reassurance he poised no harm. Instinct

was to involve the emergency services, but felt an urge for secrecy. Involve no one.

The peculiar words came from deep within, an inner voice as Jake navigated the

pooling oil. A quick rub of the grime across his top resulted in making it worse, and so

retrieving the lamp he made the scant distance back to his bike. On returning, Jake

once again searched for observing eyes. The continuing light rain appeared to keep

prying eyes from the tenement as did the increasing darkening grey sky that reduced

visibility further.

Several blocks away sirens sounded and the familiar sight of searchlights from

police drones patrolling street by street.

Jake glanced back, considering what to do next. The stranger is secret. Knowledge

is dangerous. The strange words ebbed as he considered his options, mouth twisting in

thought. A battle started in his mind about how to help and keep the stranger safe,

keep him a secret. Tell no one. Jake entered the garage again, mindful to close the

doors, and came back to the adjoining room.

The stranger still lay unconscious under the tarpaulin.

As Jake observed, he continued his nervous habit of biting his thumbnail when

stressed, wrestling with his decision. What would Father Peters do? He thought. So

clipping the bike lamp to his belt again, he pulled on his backpack. A quick search of

its contents uncovered a juice box and sandwich prepared earlier. The retrieved items

placed within reach, leaving the lit lamp on a hook protruding from under the bench.

“I will be back in the morning Mr, before morning service if that okay?” Jake pulled

on the tarpaulin, trying to make the stranger more comfortable. “Tomorrow I will

bring you something to eat and clean clothes, so you don’t catch a chill or nothing.

Don’t worry Mr, I will keep our secret.” He checked that the supplies remained in

reach and then left the stranger bathed in the flickering light for comfort. Once

outside, he pulled up his hood, adjusting the backpack over his shoulders.

The rain was dissipating.

As he knelt to unlock the bike, he turned to confirm the doors secured and no

further need for investigation from those curious to the garage's contents. He was soon

on the worn path, made to a soup consistency by the brief shower. The entire time his

mind a struggle with secrecy, and the impending punishment for missing curfew. Even

that prospect did not dampen his mood or wipe the grin etched his oil-splattered face.

For unknowing to Jake, keeping the secret would affect everyone he loved, in ways a

young child could never imagine.