DEADLINE A NOVEL
By RANDY ALCORN
MULTNOMAH BOOKS Copyright © 1994 Eternal Perspective Ministries
All right reserved. ISBN: 1576733165
The canary yellow three-by-five card fell to the floor, face down. Retrieving the card and turning it face up, he stared at it curiously. It was a single sentence, consisting of only four words in all-caps pica type. A waitress wiped the table next to him and happened to glance over just as a look of startled unbelief overtook him. She watched his eyes widen and hands shake, and wondered what could possibly be on that card to trigger such a reaction.
Chilled to the bone, he was forced to begin a radical reinterpretation of the flurried trauma of his past eight days. He slowly mouthed the four words, as if doing so would make them less menacing and bizarre.
Three pairs of eyes focused together on the twenty-seven-inch screen. Kansas City's placekicker planted his left foot and swung his right into the football. His teammates' focused energy seemed to lift it that extra six inches above the bar. The fifty-four-yard field goal was good, the first half over.
"All right!" Doc and Finney reached across Jake, slapping their hands over him in symbolic victory.
"No way. Gimme a break." Jake's buddies' celebration added insult to injury. His Seahawks headed for the locker room ten points down.
The three childhood friends-now doctor, businessman, andjournalist-slouched back on the recliner-couch. Doc occupied the recliner on one end, Finney the other. As usual, Jake Woods sat between them, feet propped up on a stool and pillow. All three wore blue jeans, Finney a navy blue Microsoft Windows sweatshirt, Doc a snazzy maroon polo shirt, and Jake a torn and faded gray sweatshirt with an indecipherable message.
It began for the three men like almost every Sunday afternoon the last twenty years. None of them had a clue this one would end so differently.
"Okay guys," Finney announced, "it's pizza time-let's flip." The routine was automatic, a no-brainer. They'd done it since childhood a thousand times, to decide who got to bat first or who had to buy popcorn at the matinee. In the adult version, at half time they staged two coin flips and a tie-breaker, if necessary. Loser drove, loser bought the pizza. No home deliveries. While the winners gloated and kicked back, the loser raced to and from Gino's in an attempt to miss as little of the third quarter as possible.
Shoulders squared and back straight, Doc looked like a career military officer, though he hadn't been in uniform for twenty-five years. "Tell you what, Finn," he jabbed. "Let's just send Woody now and flip later."
Jake Woods, having lost the flip three weeks in a row, flashed a "shut up and flip the coin" glare. His sturdy jaw jutted out in mock insult, as if to say an award-winning syndicated columnist shouldn't have to endure this kind of abuse. Despite his tough no-holds-barred reputation in this city, it was difficult to imagine fit but frumpy Jake being able to intimidate the dapper and ever-confident Doc. Standing there in his misshapen fur-lined sheepskin slippers, with disheveled hair, stray eyebrows veering out, and a two-day beard, Jake was in weekend gear.
"Hang on," Jake said, pulling a quarter from his pocket. "This time I'll flip. I think you guys have been rigging this. Let's see how you do against an honest two bits. Okay, this is between you two-I'll take on the loser. Call it, Finn."
Finney's face screwed up in feigned tension as if he'd been called on to kick a fifty-four yarder. "I can't take the pressure."
"Shut up and call it," Doc said. "I'm hungry. You can pray about it later."
As the coin reached the top of its flight, Finney called "Tails." It landed on the coffee table, which from a distance appeared smooth and shiny, but up close showed countless tiny dents from years of half time coin tosses. The quarter hit on its edge and rolled around like a rim shot, seemingly taking forever to settle.
"Son of a ..." Doc said under his breath, staring at the coffee table. The quarter had stopped rolling around the middle of the coffee table. But it hadn't fallen flat. Balancing precariously, it stayed right on its edge. No heads, no tails.
"What are the chances of that happening?"
"Girls, look at this."
The "girls," each in their upper forties, were fast friends. It came with the package. Married to the three musketeers-or the three stooges, as they sometimes called them-the girls were destined to spend a lot of time together. They might as well like it, and they did. Janet wasn't around as often now, since her divorce from Jake three years ago. But the relationship was amiable-it was a good modern divorce-and Sue and Betsy often persuaded Janet to keep them company during the Sunday afternoon ritual.
Sue, Finney's wife, marched into the living room first, followed by Janet and Betsy. "Oh, did we miss the coin toss? Too bad-it's always so exciting." Noting the look on Jake's face she added, "Lose again, Jake? Hope the Tribune pays you well. We appreciate you keeping us fed."
"I didn't lose. No one lost. Look."
Sue followed Jake's gaze to the coin on the coffee table. "You're kidding. Don't anyone breathe or it'll fall."
"So what are you going to do, boys? Toss again?"
"Nah," Doc replied. "Let's leave it right there. No one wins, no one loses." He looked at Jake and Finney. "Let's just all go together."
"Together." A familiar thought. Forty years ago the three had played army, hunted lions, dug up treasures and discovered aliens together in the fields and hillsides and forests of Benton County. Together they'd exasperated their mothers, annoyed their brothers, harassed their sisters, confounded their teachers and principals, though not nearly as much as they remembered. Together they'd spiffied up and swaggered into Kathy Bates's eighth-grade party, and trembled wide-eyed later that night when the police showed up. In high school they each earned letters in three sports, fought side by side in the state championship football game, and took their dates to the prom together. They'd gone off to college, joined ROTC, and graduated together. They'd entered the Army, traveled off to three different parts of the world, then shipped out to Vietnam as greenhorn lieutenants within three months of each other. In the almost quarter century since the war, they'd been best man in each other's weddings, and seen their children grow up together. And together they'd gone off on more hunting and camping trips than they could count, the kind where it was miserably cold and you hunched in close to the fire and the smoke stung your eyes and permeated your coats and flannel shirts, and you never got off a good shot at anything but an empty chili can, and you told stories you'd told a hundred times and laughed harder than you ever remembered laughing before. This was just Sunday pizza, but "together" sounded good.
"I'll drive," Doc said. Finney saluted good naturedly. Jake kicked off his slippers, which he brought to Finney's every Sunday, and slipped into his Nikes, not bothering to lace them. The guys all grabbed their coats.
"We've got twenty minutes till the third quarter." Doc was half way out the door when he turned. "You made the call, Betsy?"
"Have I ever fumbled the ball, Doc? Of course I made the call. One giant Hula Lula and a deep dish heart-attack-on-a-crust." This was the girls' nickname for the Meat Eater's special, full of the cholesterol their used-to-be-jock husbands' arteries didn't need but especially craved during football season.
"And, guys, don't slam the-" The loud crash toppled a photograph from the mantle. "Door," Sue added weakly, as Janet and Betsy giggled. Nobody noticed the coin fall on its side.
"Bulls in a china shop," Sue said, with more fondness than exasperation.
"Yeah, and there's no china left," Betsy added. "Not in my house. But the bull's still charging!" All three flashed a what-can-you-do expression, laughing together.
As the three bulls made the brisk walk to the car, Jake glanced up at the swirling gray of the Oregon sky. It looked as if it had been rubbed hard with a dirty eraser. No rain yet, but the sky felt heavy, and to someone born and raised here, even the air's smell and taste signaled the threat of long heavy rain. A storm's coming, Jake felt certain.
"With you in a sec, Jake." Doc and Finney were taking care of something by Finney's car, while Jake waited by Doc's. He didn't mind. He breathed in that air, that rich fresh Oregon air. There was no place like this one. Jake, along with Doc and Finney, had grown up in a small town in this same Willamette Valley, less than a hundred miles south of where they lived now. Anyone raised in the Pacific Northwest always wants to come home, and after college and the army Jake's internal homing device reeled him back, along with his friends. He loved the rugged mountains forty minutes to the east, and the jagged Oregon coastline ninety minutes to the west. He loved the endless towering Douglas firs, so thick you could pull over to the side of the road, walk half a mile and be a world apart from everyone else on earth, inhaling the aroma those car air fresheners tried in vain to imitate. He loved something green growing everywhere you turned, and the four distinct seasons, each with its singular beauty, precisely ticking off the cycle of each year. Most of all he loved sharing this huge state with far fewer people than inhabited single cities in the east, midwest, south, or down the coast in California. In Oregon you could drive some roads and see more deer than cars.
Oregon was paradise for the hunter, fisherman, boater, hiker, backpacker, outdoorsman and wilderness lover. There was some of most of those in Jake. But he loved something else about this place, at least this northern Willamette Valley that had always been home. He loved the independent spirit, the rugged individualism, the free thinking initiative of people who weren't slaves to tradition or convention. People who didn't like being told what was right and wrong, who decided for themselves what they should and shouldn't do. A progressive state, Oregon had become home to nuclear protesters, animal rights protesters, environmentalist protesters, homosexual protesters, "legalize marijuana" protesters, "right to die" protesters, and representatives of any and every challenge to the status quo. Why, Jake wasn't sure. Maybe they'd inherited genes of individualism and autonomy from their forebears who braved the Oregon trail, who kept leaving behind the established order of American civilization, going west until the land ran into the Pacific Ocean, stopping only then, so far from the political power brokers of the east or the midwest conservatives or the southern Bible Belters that they could live their own lives as they saw fit. Church attendance was lower here than anywhere in the nation. People had better things to do on weekends than sit in stuffy old buildings, bored and feeling guilty. Oregon was free spirited, a great place to live, Jake's kind of place. He'd been all across his country and a dozen others, but wouldn't trade this place for any other.
Of all times, Sunday afternoons with his friends left Jake feeling free and content. But today an uneasiness gnawed at him. The coin and the clouds and the time of his life conspired to fill him with uncertainty and dread.
"Okay, let's go. Time's wastin'!" Doc took charge again, and they piled into his cherry-red Suburban, a fully loaded four-wheel-drive with a 454 engine. Doc hopped in the driver's seat, Jake scooted to the middle, Finney squeezed against Jake to close the passenger side door. It was a snug fit in the bench seat, but no one thought of hopping in back. It was only a ten minute drive, seven minutes for Doc, half of it on open highway.
Jake always marveled at Doc's cars, thinking they'd be more at home sitting in a shopping mall. This one was a year and a half old, but meticulously clean, with gleaming windows. The smell of the rich gray upholstery was so strong Jake could taste it. How can Doc keep this thing smelling like he bought it yesterday?
"A man's vehicle," Doc started in immediately, before he'd even shifted from reverse to first. "Three men, one of them a real hunk, shoulder to shoulder in the front seat. Must have been a thrill to drive it this week, huh Finn? Made you feel like a man, didn't it?" Doc eyed Finney, who'd borrowed the Suburban two days earlier to move some office equipment. "Not one of those wimpy cars guys low in testosterone drive."
Just as he pulled out, Doc flashed concern at some faint vibration only he would notice. Jake shook his head in wonder. He takes this car into the mechanic faster than some mothers take their kid to the doctor.
Finney noticed Doc's concern too, and traded a knowing smile with Jake. "Hey, it was working perfectly when I had it, Doc! Of course, I had to pull in for gas every other stop light. My wimpy car could make it to Tokyo on the gas this monster burns on the way to Gino's."
"Yeah, well it's still wimpy. You are what you drive. And you always were a wuss, Finney."
"Doc, old buddy," Finney began with a sigh, as if he'd been coerced into dredging up an ancient story. Doc knew exactly what was coming but forced himself to look like he didn't.
Leaning forward and turning to look past Jake, Finney asked Doc, "Remember the dorm wrestling championship? You actually made it to the finals. You were almost in shape back then." Doc sucked in his waist and flexed his arms against the steering wheel to prove he still was.
Finney resumed the familiar folklore. "But somebody beat you, Doc, he beat you real bad. And despite the brain damage you suffered that day-and Lord knows you couldn't afford any more brain damage-I'll bet if you think real hard you can remember who that somebody was."
Doc closed one eye and squinted the other, as if trying to remember.
"And if that somebody is a wuss, Mr. Macho Chief of Surgery, would you explain what that makes you?"
"Hey, I had a wrenched shoulder and torn cartilage in my knee." Doc began rustling through his duffel bag of favorite excuses that grew with the years. "And I'd just had the flu."
"Yeah, and as I recall you'd donated blood that afternoon," Finney added.
"No, that was in the morning. In the afternoon I was having a heart transplant." Both men laughed heartily, the way you laugh with your oldest and best friends. At the same moment, both realized Jake wasn't laughing. His face was scrunched and his expression distant and uncharacteristically troubled.
"Jake," Finney said. "You're awfully quiet. Doc could bore a guy to death, I know, but that's nothing new. Something wrong?"
Jake, right index finger aimlessly stroking his graying temple, made a slow dissolve from the inner world to the outer. "Wasn't that thing with the quarter sort of ... eerie?"
Doc flashed him his familiar screwed-up face that called people "weird" without a spoken word. "You still thinking about that? What's the big deal?"
Jake, his reputation as Mister In-Control and Unflappable on the line, tried to downplay his response. "I don't know," he finally answered. "For some reason, it's almost like ... like it means something."
Doc flashed a spacy look and hummed the theme from The Twilight Zone. "Don't get spooky on me, ol' buddy. Things don't mean something. They mean nothing. Zilch. They just happen. Unless you buy into Finney's way of thinking, that is, which someday you may if you get Alzheimer's. One kook's enough for this threesome. Right, Finn?"
Finney knew how to roll with Doc's punches and counter with his own. But right now his energies focused on Jake, who appeared to need more than a lighthearted slough-off. "Well, I don't know if the quarter means anything. But I know life does. Things have meaning and purpose. Maybe even a coin toss. Who knows?"
"Sure, Finney, whatever you say." Doc rolled his eyes back so far all Jake could see was white. "But I've always found that meaning in life is no substitute for a cold beer with your Pizza. Know what I mean, Woody?" Slapping Jake on the thigh, Doc turned suddenly into the 7-Eleven, his tires bouncing off the curb.
As Doc hopped out, Jake seized the opportunity. "It's weird, Finney. Why is that quarter bugging me? It's like it's ... a sign or something."
"Maybe it is a sign, Jake. I don't know. Maybe Somebody's trying to get through to you again."
Excerpted from DEADLINE by RANDY ALCORN Copyright © 1994 by Eternal Perspective Ministries
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.