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Beyond Church DoorsA NOVEL
By Sylvia Brown-Roberts
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Sylvia Brown-Roberts
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIs It Just My Imagination?
What's wrong with me? Why can't I fall asleep tonight? I hate it when this happens! I climbed into my queen-sized bed at 10:00, and now the red digital numbers on my bedside clock shout that it's almost 11:15. I've prepared for sleep. I've tried all my favorite slumber positions, but none of them have worked their magic. Covers on, covers off, I've done that routine. My feet have even searched for the cool spots in my bed, a trick that usually works to start my dream journey. Except for slivers of the streetlight's glow that slip through the miniblinds, my bedroom is dark. The room temperature is just right. I've said my prayers. Wait, here it comes. My eyelids begin to shut down; the sense of drifting is finally here.
In my dream, I smell frankincense. I see myself in my bed. The dark figure of a man sits on the side of my bed, and he looks down at me. I feel his warm, strong hands. They make a steady rhythm, a kneading rhythm. This is not a sexual touch; it's soothing. His hands rub my neck and shoulders, my outer arms, and travel down to my lower back. The hands stop there. Then, the pattern repeats: neck, shoulders, arms, and lower back. I'm not afraid. I feel protected. I hear his whispery voice say, "Everything's gonna be alright, Nikolis. It's okay, Baby Girl. Sleep. Sleep on. I've got you."
Initially, there is peace. Briefly after that, an ominous sense startles me from this dreamy state to consciousness. Suddenly, I sit up! Is that a sound downstairs? Is someone on the staircase? Did I really feel those hands rub my body? Was there actually someone here with me? I rub my eyes and shake my head. My heartbeat bangs in my ears. One minute, I'm in a soothing dream. The next minute, I'm scared that an intruder is in my house! I grab my baseball bat from under the bed and race downstairs, all the while praying, "Lord, please help me. Please protect me!" I turn on the lights and check the front door. It's locked, and so are the living room and dining room windows. Everything looks okay so far. My feet carry me quickly to the kitchen and the back door. Things in here seem normal. The door still appears locked like when I checked it before bed, but my hands jiggle the handle anyway. The door opens! I know I locked this back door! I'm anal about locking my windows and doors before turning in for the night. My brain scrambles while my fingers lock the door and my eyes peek through its small windowpane. My eyes scan the back yard and the fence. No one is in my yard, but I think I see a shadow moving on the other side of my back fence. Yes, there's a figure moving down the alley between Poplar Street and Hart Avenue.
Once more, I smell frankincense, like in my dream earlier. I sniff my right shoulder. The aroma is on me, but I didn't put any of the fragrant oil on my body before bed. Was someone in my home? Was someone in my bedroom touching me? Maybe I wasn't dreaming after all.
I turn on all the lights on the first floor and sit in the chair nearest the front door, armed with my bat and now a kitchen knife. My first thought is to call my best friend, Jacee, but why wake her up at this time of night? She's alone at her place just like I'm alone here. Rational thinking returns and I call 911, and pace while I wait for the Trenton police to arrive.
Within a few minutes, they show up. I peek through the window while they park their black and white cruiser, get out, and walk up my front steps. When I open the door, it makes me feel good to recognize one of the two men. It's Brother Sampson, a member of the church and a Trenton police officer.
"Sister NikkiMac, what's up? We got a call about a possible intruder here. Are you okay?" I'm so relieved to see him that I almost hug him, but respect his official capacity and shake his hand instead. He's over six feet tall and carries at least two hundred seventy-five pounds on his thick frame. He has a sense of humor, but he doesn't take any mess from folks. He's a hard worker at church and he commands respect in his job. His expression is filled with concern for me.
"Brother Sampson, I'm so glad to see you!" He introduces me to his partner, Officer Suarez, and they come inside to listen to my account, but I omit the part about my dream. I'm not sure why I keep that part from them, though. I tell them about the noise I heard and the dark figure I saw. They check outside, even in the alley. Brother Sampson returns and observes me with a look of care.
"Sister NikkiMac, did you see any signs of forcible entry?"
"No. I believe I locked the back door before I went to bed, but when I got up to check on the noise, the door was closed, but it was unlocked."
Brother Sampson frowns ever so slightly and says, "Is that right? Sister NikkiMac, do you mind if we search inside your house?"
"No, I don't mind. Please do a search." All of a sudden, my knees get wobbly. Brother Sampson notices, and he gently helps me to the sofa. The officers search inside the house, open closet doors, and go through the basement. My attic is only a crawl space, but Officer Suarez scoots up there and checks it out. As they look around outside the house again, the beams from their flashlights pierce through the darkness. The officers return to the house and ask me more questions.
"Sister NikkiMac, does anyone else have a key to your back door? A relative, maybe?"
I turn my head from side to side while I answer Officer Sampson, "No."
"An angry boyfriend, perhaps?" Officer Suarez asks delicately.
I flash my eyes and reply, "Absolutely not! Officer Suarez, I live alone, and I don't have a boyfriend. Even if I did have a boyfriend, he wouldn't have a key to my house."
Brother Sampson looks sharply at his partner and speaks softly through clenched teeth, "Man, I told you she was a good Christian woman."
"I didn't mean any disrespect, Miss McQuaige. I'm trying to figure out how the door that you locked got unlocked. Sometimes people leave a spare key with a neighbor and it gets into the wrong hands. Sometimes a purse gets stolen with the house keys and ID inside. You didn't say anything about these two things earlier, so I asked about a boyfriend because I'm trying to cover all bases." Since Officer Suarez shows clear concern for my situation, I bring my attitude back in check.
Brother Sampson turns to me, "Sister NikkiMac, we checked the alley, your carport, yard and garden areas, and we didn't see any evidence of someone being on your property outside, but it is dark out there. We'll swing by here on our patrols tonight and keep an eye out. This is my cell number. Use it if you need to, Sister." He hands me an official business card. I grab my cell phone right then and enter the cell number in my contacts list. Before the two officers leave, we all double-check my doors and windows.
"Thank you so much, officers. I really appreciate you for not treating me like a crazy woman who sees things that aren't there."
"Sister NikkiMac, I've known you and your work in the church long enough to confirm your sanity. If you suspect something isn't right, it needs to be checked out. That's our job." Brother Sampson gives me a friendly wink. Officer Suarez nods his head in agreement.
"Thanks again, officers." I close the door, lock it, and watch them until they drive away. Not even bothering to go back upstairs to my bed, I get some blankets and a spare pillow from the linen closet. I keep all the first floor lights on. Then, I make a cup of ginger tea. A click of the remote turns on the television. Its soft background noise reassures me. The sofa makes a comfy retreat for my spirit and body. I place my baseball bat, cell phone, and my knife where I can quickly reach them. I sip the tea and give thanks and pray to God for His peace and protection. Eventually, I feel sleep come my way. My last view before slumber is of the clock on the wall with its hands positioned at 12:55. It is officially Sunday morning. My eyes close.
When I open them later, the clock reads 8 o'clock in the morning. I briefly wonder why I'm downstairs on the sofa instead of upstairs in my bed. "What in the world?" I say out loud. Then, I remember last night. The knife, my cell phone, and the baseball bat rest near me. I bow my head and pray. "Thank you, heavenly Father, for watching over me last night, and for waking me up this morning." Just hearing my voice say the words gives me courage, and I check the two doors and the windows. Everything is the same as when I fell asleep. My feet carry me upstairs, where I search every room before slipping out of my pajamas and stepping into the shower. I leave the shower curtain open a little, because the well-known shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho pops into my head. I chase the vision away and alter my thoughts so I don't jump out of my skin.
I've lived here alone for many years, and this is the first time I've ever experienced a feeling of danger while in this house. I finish getting dressed. Then, I reach for my small ring box that I keep on the table next to my bed. The box holds a cherished ring that my late parents gave me. Every morning after getting dressed, I take out my blue chalcedony ring, place it on the third finger of my right hand, and kiss the stone in memory of my parents. Something's strange, though. The ring is on the table, but the ring box is missing. I look under the bed while I run scenarios through my head about the ring's place on the table without the ring box. This doesn't make sense to me at all, but I'll have to figure it out later. Right now, I'm ready to be with my fellow Christians. Except for Poppa Pace, Jacee, and Brother Sampson, I don't want to talk to anyone about my experience last night. First, I need to process this, because I don't think I'm crazy, and I don't want anyone to think my imagination is running wild. I also don't want well meaning but alarmist people to make me afraid to live alone. I eat some oatmeal with raisins. I check my doors and windows again, grab my Bible and my purse, leave my house, and drive to the church building. On the way, I sing His Eye Is On The Sparrow.
Chapter TwoNew Converts Reception
In spite of last night's events, I arrive at the church building with a sense of calm. Jacee meets me on the church steps.
"Good morning, NikkiMac. You look a little tired today. How was your evening?"
"I knew you'd notice, Jacee. I did have a weird experience last night. I thought I heard a noise in the house, and I thought I saw someone running in the alley behind the house, so I called the police." I try to make this sound light so Jacee doesn't stress, but it doesn't work. Jacee stops in her tracks and grabs me by the elbow.
"What do you mean? Somebody broke into your house! Did the police catch him?" Her hazel eyes flash with alarm, and her voice booms.
"Jacee, calm down! Brother Sampson and his partner came right away. They searched and didn't find anyone. Brother Sampson even gave me his direct contact number so I can reach him if I have any more problems, so I feel better. To be honest with you, Jacee, I think I had a crazy dream and I might have imagined things, even the noise."
"But what about the person you saw in the alley?"
"Jacee, you and I both know that folks still travel through that alley to get into their backyards and to their back doors. Maybe one of those teenaged girls on Hart Avenue or Poplar Street told her boyfriend to slip out the back way because her parents were coming in the front door!" I force a smile, but Jacee doesn't return it. Instead, she stares at me for a minute before she speaks.
"Well, thank God you're okay, but we'll talk more about this after church. Did you tell Brother Pace? What did he say?"
"No, Jacee. I called him this morning, and we'll talk after church."
"Well, I plan to be in on the conversation, Miss McQuaige." When she calls me by my last name, it means her mind is made up. I realize that we're a little late for worship service, so we enter the church building and find our seats. The song leader moves through the fourth verse of Lord, Send Me, and then Minister Obadiah Johnson stands before the congregation.
"Good morning, brothers, sisters, and visiting friends. It's a privilege to see you this Sunday morning. Every Lord's Day is special, and we're instructed by God to meet collectively for worship. This particular Sunday is special to our congregation for another reason: we're going to recognize our members who've been baptized this year. It's all about encouraging them in their walk of faith."
"Amen, Brother Johnson!"
"The idea for this Sunday program came from Sister NikkiMac, one of our hard workers in the programs for children. Sometimes people who are longtime members of the church forget that new converts often face strong challenges. This is especially true if those new converts are the only ones in their households who are in the church. It can be difficult as new members move from one way of life to another, and we old-timers would do well to remember that fact. Today, at the end of worship service, we're going to have a New Converts Reception in the dining hall. Please stay for a few minutes, have some light refreshments, and get to know some of our newest members of the congregation. I challenge you to find out one thing you didn't know about each of our ten new members." He asks the ushers to distribute index cards with the names of the ten members on each of them. Underneath each name is a blank space for us to record one fact we discover about the member. Brother Johnson instructs us to keep these cards and use them as a springboard for becoming better acquainted.
"This should be fun, NikkiMac," says Jacee. I'm glad I have her as a life friend as well as a Christian sister. Brother Johnson reads the names of the new converts and asks them to stand.
"New members, please stand so we all can see who you are. We're doing this at the start of service because some folks leave right after they take communion. Don't think I don't notice that some of you regularly slip out of the auditorium before service is over, but that's a topic for another Sunday."
"That's all right, preacher!"
"Say it, Brother Johnson!"
"This is Sister Chloe Shasheem. She was baptized recently after a Sunday evening service." Chloe stands up quickly. She's a slim, tall, and shapely woman, with a short haircut and eyes shaped like almonds. Her skin is the color of a ripe Georgia peach and her jet-black hair looks straight and silky. Her remarkable eyes flash instead of gaze. She doesn't smile, but she does give a brief wave before she sits back down.
"Jacee, I haven't noticed her here before, have you?"
"No, I can't say that I have, NikkiMac. Why?"
"She looks about our age and she looks interesting, that's why. Oh, you know what? You and I were at that weekend conference in Baltimore recently and we attended church there. That's probably when Sister Chloe was baptized here. We need to make sure we introduce ourselves to Sister Chloe at the reception this afternoon."
"Whatever, NikkiMac, but she doesn't seem all that friendly. Would it have hurt her to smile when she stood up just now?" I look closely at Jacee to see if she's kidding, but her facial expression says she's not. Her hazel eyes darken and she pats her fluffy Afro.
After our minister has the ten new converts stand to be recognized, the song leader comes forward to direct Holy, Holy, Holy. We continue with scripture reading and sing two more hymns before the selected brothers come to the communion table for the Lord's Supper. Prayer is offered, and after all members of the church are served the unleavened crackers and the grape juice, Brother Vonner leads us in singing How Great Thou Art. Our minister then enters the pulpit to deliver the sermon.
"You all know I'm not the best singer in the church, but it's okay with the Lord because I sing from my heart. I want you to sing Never Alone with me, church, because that's the theme for my sermon this morning. Is that all right with you all?"
"Sing, Brother Johnson!"
Our minister clears his throat and starts off the song. He's right, he's certainly not the best singer, but sincerity can be heard in his strong voice. We join him and sing all four verses of the hymn with gusto. "Thank you for singing with me. The words to that hymn connect with the scripture found in Hebrews chapter 13, verses 5 and 6. Please find these verses in your Bibles." The rustle of the turning pages is a familiar sound.
"These verses remind us that God is always with His children. In good and bad times, when there's peace and when there's trouble, when there's joy and when there's sadness, He is always with us. That should give us comfort and faithful confidence! That should keep us away from depression! When we fully put our trust in God, we embrace His presence. We walk daily like we know He's taking care of all that concerns us! Y'all don't hear me, church!"
"We hear you! Amen!"
Brother Johnson preaches for a short while longer, and then we stand for the invitation song. No one walks forward to be added to the church, so the ushers collect the offering and a brother offers a prayer of thanksgiving. Another brother reads the announcements, and then Brother Sampson leads us in a closing prayer.
"Amen," repeats the congregation after the prayer. I greet church members quickly, because I want to get to the dining hall to speak with the new converts. Except for Sister Chloe and an older sister, I remember witnessing their baptisms. I think Brother Johnson introduced the cute, petite older woman this morning as Sister Lovey Grace, but I'm not sure I heard her name correctly.
Excerpted from Beyond Church Doors by Sylvia Brown-Roberts Copyright © 2013 by Sylvia Brown-Roberts. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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