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The EncounterSometimes God Has to Intervene
By Stephen Arterburn
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 Stephen Arterburn
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHow do you tear down a wall you've been building most of your life?
I looked out the window of my Gulfstream G650. It was the middle of the day, but you'd never guess that by looking at the sun. Alaska was progressing through the long polar night, and the periods of daylight were slowly growing longer, but the sun stayed close to the horizon most of the time.
My pilot's voice echoed through the cabin: "We've begun our descent into Fairbanks, Mr. Rush. We'll be on the ground in about twenty minutes."
What in the world am I doing here?
I enjoyed visiting Fairbanks. It's where I lived until I was nine. But I had spent the last twenty-six years in Miami, and my tolerance for the Arctic climate was considerably lower than it was during my youth.
January was definitely not the time for me to make this trip.
But I didn't have a choice. Not really.
"Jonathan, you've got to get to the bottom of this, and you have to do it now. It's eating you alive."
"You mean, just drop everything and jet off to Fairbanks?" I protested. "Just like that?"
Tim Moser, my counselor, was adamant. "Yes. Just like that."
"I can't just walk away and go off on some wild-goose chase," I told him.
Tim's face filled with concern. "Don't tell me you can't get away, Jon. If you don't, it's going to destroy you."
"What if I hired a private investigator? Wouldn't that be as good?"
Tim leaned back in his chair. "Jon, you came to me for advice, and I'm giving it. I think this is something you have to search out for yourself. I know you're great at delegating, but this is your task. No one else can do it."
I tried to think of other excuses, but couldn't muster anything. And now here I sat aboard my private jet, about to revisit the ghosts of my past in hopes of finding peace.
Realistically, peace was more than I could hope for.
I'd abandoned that hope long ago.
* * *
My driver, a tall young man who looked like he was in his twenties, stood in the terminal. He was holding a fur-lined parka.
I gave him a little wave. The gold name tag on his uniform said "Ryan."
"Welcome to Fairbanks, Mr. Rush."
I nodded and traded my briefcase for the parka. I glanced down at his feet, then at mine. My Italian loafers were definitely not the best choice of footwear, but I'd forgotten to ask him to bring a pair of bunny boots.
Too late now. I hope my feet won't freeze before I get to the limo.
"Right this way," he said.
As I followed Ryan toward the airport exit, a young woman came running up. She was short and disheveled, with curly blonde hair trailing down into her eyes.
"Mr. Rush," she said, "I'm Erica Bingham, a reporter for the Daily News-Miner. Could I ask you a few questions?"
I shook my head and kept walking.
She fell in step with me. "You know, it's not often our only local celebrity comes to town. Can't you spare a little time for an interview?"
"The last personal interview I gave was to Barbara Walters, and she had a tough time convincing me to do that one."
"Why is that?" Erica asked.
"I don't like reporters," I said.
She was undaunted. "Oh, come on. We're not all that bad."
"True," I said. "There are a few reporters I like, but it's a very short list."
"Could you at least confirm or deny the rumor?"
"That Advanced Data Systems is planning to open a branch office here in Fairbanks."
I stopped and flashed a smile. "Do you know what I dislike worse than a reporter?"
She shook her head.
"A reporter who can't take no for an answer." I nodded to Ryan. "Let's go."
Ryan picked up my bags, and we headed for the terminal door. As we walked away, I felt a twinge of guilt. My pastor would not have approved of the way I had treated the reporter.
I don't suppose God approved either.
Old habits die hard.
* * *
Near the terminal door, my driver said, "Mr. Rush, if you'd prefer, you can wait inside the terminal while I get the limo."
I shook my head. "I can handle it."
When I followed Ryan out of the terminal, the cold air hit me like a baseball bat to the chest. I kept my mouth shut and breathed through my nose, but it didn't help much. After living most of my life in Florida, breathing Alaska's winter air was almost as bad as taking a polar bear jump into freezing water.
We made our way out to the limo, and I settled in the backseat while Ryan took care of my bags and then slid behind the wheel. I closed the partition between Ryan and me. He hadn't seemed overly chatty, but I didn't want to give him the chance to start. My business in Fairbanks was my own, and I wanted it to stay that way.
Ryan had barely pulled out of the airport parking lot when my BlackBerry chirped, signaling an incoming e-mail. I was surprised it had taken this long for someone from the office to contact me. They'd managed on their own a lot longer than I'd expected.
I pulled it out and looked at the sender. It wasn't from the office; it was from Tim.
The e-mail had only one line: "Have you written the letter?"
I sighed and wrote back, "Not yet."
Seconds later, the phone rang. I was tempted to let it go to voice mail, but I knew that Tim wouldn't let me off the hook that easily.
"Hi, Tim," I said, hoping that I didn't sound as guilty as I felt.
Tim got straight to the point. "So why haven't you written it?"
"I've been trying, but I can't find the words."
"Where do you get stuck?"
I hesitated a second and then said, "At 'Dear Mom.'"
"I never said it would be easy."
"You were right."
"This is important, Jonathan. Promise me you'll write the letter today."
I didn't reply for several seconds. Tim knew that although I had many faults, dishonesty was not among them. If he could get a promise out of me, he knew I'd be honor-bound to fulfill it.
After a few more seconds of silence, Tim's gentle but insistent voice broke through. "I'm waiting."
"All right," I said. "I promise. I'll do it before I go to bed tonight."
"Good." I could hear the satisfaction in his voice. "I'll call tomorrow to make sure you followed through."
"I'm sure you will," I said.
I smiled as I closed the phone. When Tim latched on to a reclamation project, he was like a pit bull. There was no letting up.
And it just so happened that I was his current project.
* * *
I shook my head and scratched out the words. That wouldn't work.
That wouldn't work either.
I crumpled the paper and threw it into the trash can.
I couldn't explain it to Tim, but this was why I hadn't been able to write the letter. I didn't even know how to start. How do you write a letter to your mother when you don't know what to call her? When you don't even know her name? When you don't know the point of writing to her in the first place?
I tossed my pen onto the desk and walked over to the window. The lights of Fairbanks twinkled in the distance.
I wanted so badly to just go home and forget the whole thing. This was a crazy quest, an exercise in futility. But I promised Tim I'd follow through. And even if I were the kind of guy who breaks promises, I'd never break one to Tim. He had saved my life.
Crank it out, Jon, I told myself as I sat back down at the desk. Just get something on paper, if for no other reason than to get Tim off your back.
So I picked up my pen and began to write:
Dear person who gave birth to me,
I don't know what to call you. I don't know your name. And I don't feel right calling you Mother or Mom because you were neither of those things in my life. You did bring me into the world, and for that I guess I can thank you.
I don't remember what you look like. If I were to meet you on the street, I'd walk right past you. There are snatches of memories, but they are fleeting and cloudy.
But although I don't remember you, I do remember the day you left me.
It was the worst day of my life.
I've hated you for most of my life, but I've got to get rid of the hate. A very good friend told me that if I didn't, it would destroy me.
I think he's right.
Chapter TwoMy task was simple. I was supposed to find out as much as I could about my mother. Tim had the crazy notion that if I could understand her and perhaps even learn why she had abandoned me, it would help me exorcize my personal demons.
I didn't think it would be anywhere near that simple since I had to do this alone, but I didn't have any better ideas to offer, so I agreed to come on this fool's errand.
But where was I to start? I'm a CEO, not an investigator.
Up to now I hadn't even been able to discover my mother's name.
So for lack of a better place to start, I decided to visit my last known address in Fairbanks. I told Ryan I wanted to get an early start and to bring a pair of bunny boots for me. He was waiting in the lobby when I came down at eight fifteen.
"Where would you like to go, Mr. Rush?" asked Ryan.
"The Kellner Children's Home," I said.
Ryan hesitated. "Are you sure?"
"Okay," he said.
I couldn't quite read his voice, but it sounded strange.
Ryan pulled out and started driving toward the home. At my request he had traded our limo for something a bit more practical—a four-wheel-drive Jeep Cherokee.
I was nine years old when I left Alaska. The last five years there were spent at the Kellner Children's Home. For all I know, that's where my mother dropped me off. The home was established in the 1950s by Gladys Kellner, a woman who had no children of her own but had enough love for hundreds. By the time I was there, she had passed away. But her legacy lived on.
It was eight thirty in the morning and still pitch dark outside. I strained to see through the darkness as Ryan rolled the Jeep up the long driveway toward the main house. Something didn't look right.
The main gate was closed, but that wasn't the problem. The problem was the bright yellow sign attached to the gate.
"Closed. No trespassing."
My heart sank.
"Wait here," I told Ryan.
I got out of the Jeep and walked up to the iron gate. It was padlocked with a heavy chain.
I squinted, trying to make out the details of the main house. It was still too dark to see much, but from this distance it looked like a bombed-out World War II relic. A few thick stone walls still stood, but the building was a blackened shell. Open holes gaped where once there were windows. A few heavy beams jutted from the ruins.
I knew it was useless to waste any more time here, but I'd come too far to be stopped at the front gate. I went back to the Jeep and climbed in.
"What happened?" I asked.
"I don't know," said Ryan. "It was already closed when I moved up here." He turned back and looked at me. "Where would you like to go now, sir?"
Ryan flashed me a puzzled look.
"Drive around to the back entrance."
"But, Mr. Rush ..."
"Just do it."
Ryan backed down the driveway and pulled onto the road. About half a block farther down, we intersected with another road. "Hang a left here," I told him.
"Sir, are you sure ..."
Ryan threw me another look that seemed to say, "It's your funeral," but he turned and followed the road around to the back of the property.
"There's a place back here where the older kids used to sneak out at night," I said. "Mr. King, the custodian, kept a pretty good eye on us, but there was a place where the fence line crossed right through the trunk of a willow tree. Rather than cut the tree down, they just brought the fence up to one side of the trunk and continued it on the other.
"We got pretty good at climbing the willow. It was our private exit. As far as I know, he never figured it out."
"Ummm. This is not exactly tree-climbing weather, sir."
"Let's just see what we find."
We got around to the back gate, which was just as imposing as the front. It was also padlocked with a heavy chain.
"Come on," I said. "I'll need your help."
"Mr. Rush," Ryan replied, "I don't think it's a good id—"
"Where's your sense of adventure?"
"I could get fired," he said.
"Look. If they fire you, I'll hire you as my personal driver. Will that work for you?"
He looked exasperated.
"I take care of people, Ryan. And if I take care of you, you won't regret it," I said. "Let's go."
Ryan sighed and got out of the Jeep.
We were in luck. About ten feet to the left of the gate was the place where the willow had stood. Now there was only a snow-covered stump. It looked like the tree had fallen fairly recently because most of it lay inside the fence line and the hole in the fence had been patched with a web of yellow caution tape.
The Arctic cold had made the plastic brittle, and Ryan and I had little difficulty tearing it apart. I stepped inside the fence and followed it back to the gate. "Aren't you coming?" I asked.
Ryan shook his head. "This is as far as I go, Mr. Rush. Trespassing is not in my job description."
"Okay," I said. "You can wait in the Jeep. This shouldn't take long."
* * *
The sun was peeking above the horizon as I made my way up the stone walkway toward the main house. There was a large gap where the huge oak front doors had once stood. I entered the remnants of the building that I had called home for five years of my life. Thick stone walls surrounded what had once been the building's foundation, but they were now broken and jagged, covered with a blanket of snow.
My bedroom had been on the second floor, but even if it were still there, I'd have had no way to get to it. The staircase had been completely burned away. I stood on a small patch of blackened earth inside a hollow stone shell.
If I had had any hope of finding out about my mother here, it evaporated. The main office, which had been off the first floor, was completely gone. And the building had long since been cleaned out. It wouldn't have mattered even if it hadn't been. The fire had obviously destroyed everything.
I just wish my memories could be burned away as easily as this building was.
I heard footsteps crunching on the snow behind me.
"Changed your mind, did you?" I said as I turned around.
My mouth went dry as I found myself looking down the twin barrels of a 12-gauge shotgun.
Chapter ThreeAda Rose Guthrie had a routine, and she followed it closely. Up by five every morning. Stoke the fire in the wood stove. Take Tundra out to do his business. Then off to Merv's for breakfast.
Since Ada walked nearly everywhere she went, it was much easier to follow her routine during the warm summer months. Once winter kicked in, she had to stay house-bound most of the time. A few of the local churches would drive her around if she asked. But Ada didn't have a phone.
Of course, there was bus service out her way. She could hop on the Gray Line and go anywhere she needed to, but she didn't like taking the bus. It didn't fit her schedule, didn't fit her timing. And there were too many people. Too many.
So mostly she walked.
Problem was, if she didn't go out to Merv's, she didn't get breakfast. That meant she had to wait for the Meals on Wheels delivery, and sometimes that didn't get there until late in the afternoon.
So even in the winter, she would venture out if it was warm enough.
It was only about seventeen below this morning, and there wasn't much wind. So today she would have breakfast. She pulled on her old worn Carhartts, a couple pairs of socks, bunny boots, fur-lined mittens, a sweater, a ski mask, and a scarf, and topped it all off with a hooded parka, then started the half-mile walk to Merv's.
Some days, if she was lucky, someone would stop and give her a ride.
She hadn't been lucky today, but it didn't matter now. The bright lights around Big Merv's Diner were an inviting sight. Kind of like an oasis in a desert.
Ada had never been in a desert—she had never been out of Alaska—but she kind of figured this is what walking through a desert would be like.
Except for the cold, of course.
Excerpted from The Encounter by Stephen Arterburn Copyright © 2011 by Stephen Arterburn. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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