Ben Jacobs was on his third tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2009 when his world changed forever; he was severely injured during an explosion and was left hovering near death. While in the between place, an angel from God visited Ben and gave him the ability to see into other people's memories.
Upon returning to New York, Ben finds it difficult to handle the pain of his injuries and becomes one of the many who call the streets home. There are those who try to help Ben and encourage him to see God and the good in life. But one cold night, Ben stumbles onto a scene he can't quite comprehend: he sees his homeless friends from Vernal Hill being loaded onto a bus at gunpoint. Ben wonders what he should do. Certainly no one will believe his claims; he's a homeless alcoholic veteran with a bad brain and a strange angel living inside him. But he's also a witness to a conspiracy, and there are those in power who want him silenced.
A novel of religious fiction, We're All Important centers on the importance of faith in life. It taps into the universal truth about the very essence of the human condition.
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)|
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We're All Important
By Stephen Nnamdi
iUniverse LLCCopyright © 2013 Stephen Nnamdi
All rights reserved.
The bite of a late fall wind blowing in off Lake Erie made Ben Jacobs clutch his ragged overcoat tight to his chest. The black hoodie he wore underneath didn't help much either, but he pulled the hood down to cover as much of his face as he could. He was a big man, though not as muscular and fit as he had been in the past. Prime physical fitness was tough to maintain when you lived on the street. Just four years ago he'd been the epitome of a U.S. Marine with buzz-cut black hair and large brown eyes that, if you looked closely enough, revealed a depth of sadness as deep as Lake Superior. Anger smoldered in his eyes as well, as it had since he'd come of conscious age.
So much had changed in seemingly so little time. His formerly full face was now haggard and prematurely creased with dirt-filled wrinkles. His ribs humped beneath his barrel chest like the ridges on a Ruffles potato chip. The overcoat didn't fit him; it was too small. So was the hoodie. His teeth were stained yellow and rotting from a lack of dental care, even though he could have seen a dentist through the VA. When he washed up in the public restroom at the bus terminal, he sometimes saw a flash of his former self stare back at him in the mirror, but those flashes were coming less often these days, and he didn't really care anymore. The headaches were so fierce now that the pain blinded him and made him want to puke. Oddly, the whiskey helped a little, and he'd been drinking as much of it as he could afford to pay for on his meager disability checks.
Ben pressed his back against the wall of the alleyway where he'd slept in a Dumpster, the dawn now completely broken and the world once again lit in the wan northern sun of early morning. He looked up at the posh high-rise condos rising from the pavement to create canyons and alleys in a miniature version of the Big Apple. Cafés, fast-food restaurants, and all kinds of shops with holiday decorations in the windows lined the streets of the city center. Office buildings swallowed thousands of workers every day, and promptly at rush hour those same buildings spit the occupants out as the workers hurried home to dinner. He shivered. It was the beginning of another day, and he dreaded it. He closed his eyes, trying to decide whether to go to the shelter. Ice coated the metal grate of the storm drain at his feet. His feet were numb. The sneakers he had on were worn out and unfit for such cold North Country weather.
The Thanksgiving dinner he'd eaten at the soup kitchen just a few days ago seemed like an eternity past. He recalled the kind old woman on the soup line, a lady named Gloria whom he'd seen quite often of late. She was always quick with a smile and a kind word. He liked that. He found comfort in her genuine caring. He recalled feeling warm. He recalled lots of things in those frigid moments. The face of the angel that had come to him as he floated in darkness, almost in a womb of some kind. At the time, he'd been unaware that as he was seeing the angel a medivac chopper flew fast to the rear to get him to the field hospital before he bled out. The angel appeared first as a pinpoint of white light and then he took an amorphous form in the blackness.
"Wh-where am I?" Ben asked. His voice sounded garbled.
"You are in the between place."
"The between what?"
"The between place."
His mind went fuzzy with the passage of time, making his memory of the first time he'd seen the apparition less distinct. As Ben stood in the alleyway shivering in the cold, the image of the creature of light vanished, just like it always did. Every time he grasped the image from its hideout in the depths of his mind, it revealed itself for a split second and then went away, almost like it rejoiced in taunting him. He wasn't even sure what he'd seen was really an angel. He wasn't sure of anything, except that his mind was a whirl of confusion. It had been since he was wounded four years earlier in Afghanistan, a time so alien to him now that it was like he'd lived several lives, and none of them had been good.
Gritting his teeth, he made his way to the bus stop and sat down in the booth covered with ads showing the smiling faces of the beautiful fashion models you never saw in Wal-mart. All around him were workers who had jobs, money in the bank, and a nice place to live. The woman seated next to him moved farther down the bench, bumping into the person next to her.
"Excuse me," she said.
"No problem," the man to her left replied.
The lady was wearing a wool coat and a scarf around her neck. Her gloves were leather and her shoes expensive low white heels. She looked straight ahead at the traffic passing by, trying her best to ignore him. He was used to being invisible, one of the forgotten poor, one of the unimportant souls of the world. He sighed. He could tell by the angle of the sun peeping through scudding gray clouds that the bus should arrive soon. Sheila Childs's bus. She was one of the few in Vernal Hills that showed compassion. There were others. Like Gloria at the soup kitchen. But there were also evil people. Indifferent people. And there were lost and confused people like him.
All kinds of people were everywhere. And yet they were all the same with dreams and hopes and a desire to be loved and to love. They were all just people regardless of what they looked like or what religion they followed. Even in his dark time Ben knew that to be true. Even when the despair became so intense he thought of slowly wading into frigid Lake Erie until the water filled his mouth and lungs he knew there was good in the world, and that the angel would be very upset if he committed the sin of suicide. He stayed away from the lake.
Ben saw the bus roll up and stop at the streetlight down the block. The slightest smile inched the corners of his mouth up in anticipation of the heat inside the bus. He fingered the few coins in his pocket. The bus pulled up, stopped, and the door hissed open. Passengers busy with their Wednesday morning business disembarked and flooded the sidewalk while everyone seated at the bus stop rose and pushed toward the open door. The lady next to him hurried into line. Ben followed, letting all the well-dressed riders get on first. He was the last to board. He didn't care if there wasn't a seat. He'd stand, if Sheila let him. She was behind the wheel, as he expected. She gave him a sad look when she saw him. She always looked sad when she saw him, and that somehow made him feel sad too.
"Morning Sheila," he said as he mounted the metal steps.
"You look like crap," Sheila said.
Ben looked down the aisle and was pleased to see there were a few seats left in the back of the bus.
"It's cold outside," he said. "Burr!"
Sheila smiled and craned her neck to look him in the eye. He towered over her as she sat at the wheel. "I'll say. Colder than a witch's tit." As she closed the door of the bus, she said, "Gonna hit the high teens tonight. It'll be dangerous out there for you."
Ben ignored her statement of the obvious and pulled change out of his pocket. His disability check from the VA didn't go far, but it kept him from starving. It kept him in booze too. It kept him suspended in the world of the poor unable to claw his way out. Still, he knew he was better off than most of the homeless he'd come to know in the city. Many were members of the walking dead club, except they didn't know it.
Sheila reached out, touched his hand. "You put that money away," she whispered. "I got you covered."
In a flash, Ben saw Sheila in the arms of her man, a tall muscular black guy with kind eyes and a quick smile. They were naked and kissing passionately in the dim light of their bedroom, man and wife enjoying the physical pleasure of each other's body. The image was highly erotic, the cocoa-colored skin of her legs wrapped tightly around him in contrast to his deep black back. Ben swallowed hard and pushed the image away, embarrassed and feeling like he'd intruded on her privacy. Having a window to memories, other people's memories, could be awkward at times, and this was one of them. Sometimes he hated the angel for giving him this gift. Mostly, though, he tried to forget he had it.
"Thanks Sheila," he said, pulling his hand away from hers. The images vanished as quickly as they had come.
"You're a good man," Sheila said as she put the bus in gear. "Go on back and get warm, Ben."
Ben hesitated a moment, his intent gaze taking in the kindness of the woman in the driver's seat. It wasn't something he could see, except through her act of small generosity. It was something more like a feeling, a knowing. "You're a good woman too, Sheila. You know that, don't you?"
Sheila laughed and shook her head. "Sometimes my Lawrence doesn't think so, especially when I burn his toast in the morning. Now go on. Go get warm, okay?"
"Come on! Get going!" a young man in a suit shouted. "Anytime today lady!"
Ben shuffled to the back of the bus where he wouldn't bother anybody. Being homeless was an exhausting full-time job. As he slumped onto the last seat in the back of the bus, he felt the shivering subside. The dry heat blowing through the vents along the dirty windows comforted him. He pulled the hoodie down over his face to hide the sunlight, yawned, and rested his head against the Plexiglas pane.
Sheila watched Ben make his way down the aisle, noting how the other passengers aboard averted their eyes as he passed. When she saw him settle down in his seat, she put the bus into gear and continued her route. The man named Ben had shown up on her bus a month or two back as the chill of autumn began to really kick in off the lake, and she'd let him ride without giving him a hassle. They'd talked when the bus wasn't crowded and he could sit up front in the seat behind the driver, and little by little the bare bones of his story had come out. The fact that he was a veteran was enough for her. She wouldn't hassle a vet, especially not one who was wounded in the line of duty. Not after what had happened to Leroy.
Not everyone was fortunate in life. Not everyone could live in the world without getting burned. In fact, nobody could. It was just a question of how bad and often the burning got, and what you did about it when the inevitable heat got turned up.
She knew that firsthand, having grown up in Brooklyn in a modest middle-class family that had turned out to be just as vulnerable to tragedy as any other. Her brother, Leroy, had been killed in Desert Storm during the first day of the ground offensive in the Gulf War. She'd always remember when the two men in immaculate dress army uniforms knocked on the door of their apartment. An Iraqi sniper had killed her brother on February 24, 1991, and her parents had never been quite the same since. They'd tried to move on, and in a sense they had. Yet Sheila knew the gap Leroy had left in their lives would remain open forever. Twenty-two years later she and her mother still cried on the anniversary of his death.
A taxi cut her off and she leaned on the horn as she hit the brakes.
"Damned moron," she mumbled.
The cabbie gave her the finger.
She shook her head and laughed. No sense in getting angry. That'd just give her high blood pressure and bleeding ulcers. She eased up to the next stop.
"Industrial Plaza!" she shouted. "Next stop Parkside!"
About a dozen or so professionals got off and headed to the black-glassed revolving door in front of one of Vernal Hills's biggest office buildings. She let the few passengers waiting at the bus stop get on, and put the bus into gear, her thoughts ranging back in time. Seeing Ben often put her in a reflective mood, and she'd often wondered why. Very few people, except her husband Lawrence, had that effect on her. She guided the bus through heavy traffic on Front Street, passing the old redbrick county library and a park lined with trees. They were at the edge of the central business district, and the environs were going downscale fast. The city had been hit hard with the Great Recession, losing jobs by the thousands. Sheila and Lawrence, who also worked for the Sunshine Bus Company, had been lucky to escape being laid off.
Sheila's mind wandered back to the early 1990s and her brother. She'd been in high school when Leroy had enlisted in the army and gone off to war. So much had changed since then. She'd tried college, but books and her didn't get along. She'd gone to work at Family Grocery on Water Street, one of several in a local chain owned by millionaire Shandon Hilton, not of the illustrious hotel family but still richer than she'd ever be. She'd seen him when he'd come in to check on the store. A limo would pull up in front, and every employee, including her, would freak out.
"Now just chill, Sheila girl," her manager always said when she saw Sheila was panicked. "That man's gotta put on his pants one leg at a time just like anyone else."
"Now you keep stocking the produce section like I told you," the manager said, shooting Sheila a wide toothy grin. "I'll take care of mean old Mr. Hilton!"
Just thinking about those days at the store made Sheila smile, and her mood improved. Mrs. Washington, her first manager at Family Grocery, had been more than just a boss. She'd been a mentor. She'd taught Sheila the business, and eventually Sheila worked her way up to become manager. With confidence behind her, "mean old Mr. Hilton" no longer scared her. There was something about him that had always struck her as off, like he wasn't being himself. Like his whole persona was something he put on like a pair of shoes.
Now she drove a bus for a living. She looked around at her adopted city, sad that it had declined and still not recovered. "Parkside!" she yelled.
A few more people got off. A few more got on. That was her day—a few on and a few off until she finished her shift. Lawrence, who drove long-distance charters for the company, would be home the day after tomorrow. He'd only been gone for three days, but it felt longer than that to Sheila. It always did.CHAPTER 2
Disembodied faces of soldiers covered in dirt and blood grinned, the teeth white against the otherwise impenetrable blackness. The eyes of the men glowed red, and then the screams came. Loud and unearthly and terrifying. Ben ran as hard as he could in a futile attempt to escape, pumping his arms, but he remained paralyzed and forced to keep looking at the faces. His heart raced. He could hardly breathe. Suddenly, a white-hot flash blinded him. He felt himself burning. His skin peeled away in drapes of ashen flesh. His lungs filled with fire.
Nooo! Oh, God! Not again!
"Ben! Wake up Ben!"
Ben lurched awake from the recurring nightmare that had been with him since that awful July day in Helmand Province. He was soaked in sweat and panting. His eyes were wide in fear as he peered out from under the hoodie that obscured much of his face.
"Wha-what's happening?" he cried. He saw Sheila leaning over him, both hands on his shoulders. He saw a dozen passengers all standing up and looking at him, their panic and terror plain to see.
"You were screaming, Ben!" Sheila said. "Calm down! Just chill out, okay! Everything's fine. It was just a bad dream."
"Man, that guy's a real freak-o!" a male passenger said to the lady next to him.
"I hope he doesn't have a gun," an older lady said, clutching her purse to her chest.
"I'm calling the cops!" a middle-aged Latino said. He was obviously a professional, judging by his suit and tie. He had his cell in his hand and was pushing the buttons.
"Don't do that!" Sheila yelled. "No need for cops!"
"Wha-what's happening?" Ben asked again, a little calmer this time.
Sheila's hands remained on his shoulders, and visions of a smiling heavyset woman in a grocery store streamed in. A frost of gray sprinkled her short black her. She was laughing with Sheila near a pile of bright red tomatoes. The vision vanished when Sheila took her hands off him and stood up, facing toward the front of the bus. He heard the Latino guy saying there was a crazy bum raising hell on the number ten bus at the intersection of Randolph and Ninth Avenue.
"You better hit it, Ben," Sheila whispered. "This isn't going to be where you want to be. No way, no how!"
"I, I, I saw the dead faces again," he said, his voice breaking. He felt tears hot in his eyes. A few ran down his cheeks. "I can't get away from them! I can't, I can't get away from the fire!" He covered his face with his hands and began to cry.
Excerpted from We're All Important by Stephen Nnamdi. Copyright © 2013 Stephen Nnamdi. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Received this wonderful book as a gift and so glad I did! It touched my heart and makes me want to help and be a blessing to others. We don't know the things that others go through so don't be so quick to judge! I'm bringing my New Year with some much needed adjustments! 2014 here I come! Thanks Stephen Nnamdi for We're All Important!