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Jesus saved me when I was four years old.
That’s what my mother told me anyway. I didn’t quite understand what he saved me from. It couldn’t be hell. I lived there.
But maybe he saved me to something instead?
I thought that might be true when we moved from our small one-room apartment to the tiny trailer outside Henderson, Nevada. Nope.
We were still in hell.
At first, I didn’t fit in anywhere. My mom was small, so was I. My father, well, at the time I had no idea what he looked like. He left when I was one.
I scared him off, I guess.
Mom went to a church, and drug me there every Sunday. The pastor said you had to reach something called “an age of understanding” before you could accept Jesus into your heart.
My mom was very proud that I’d reached the age of understanding so young.
I dreaded it. I knew not only did that mean I could be saved, but that it meant I could be damned, too. The pastor told us that until a kid understood Salvation, with a capital “S,” if they died, they would go to heaven. That meant since I “understood the need for Salvation” and “took Jesus as my Savior” that if I messed up, suddenly lost that understanding, I could be damned to hell.
I was a very logical child.
Thus began my life of fear.
I always looked up, everything I did. They called him God the Father in church. All I knew about my real father was that I’d never seen him. I’d never seen God either, but he seemed ever-present, waiting to judge my actions, send me packing to hang with the Devil if I did the slightest thing wrong. Anything against His Will, really.
I went to Christian school. My mom insisted. I learned a lot about God’s will.
We always capitalized Things That Had To Do With God.
By the time I was six, I knew there was something wrong with my church and my school. When my second-grade teacher made fun of my habit of staring off into space with my mouth hanging open, I wondered if she might go to hell.
She didn’t seem to love her neighbor or any of us at all.
That commandment was one of the big ones. There were others too, like the ones about doing your best.
That was Colossians, where it talked about “working heartily, as unto the Lord.” She didn’t work that heartily as a teacher. I didn’t as a student either. I didn’t have to.
It was different when it came to sports. Other kids grew up strong. Good at games. I loved to play them, but I wasn’t any good.
I tried. I had to. It was a sin not to do your best. That part is in Proverbs and Colossians.
God demanded it.
My grandfather told me that. He also told me how white people were the greatest, men were better than women and should take the lead in all things, and that any woman who stepped out of line should be “put back in her place.”
He was a pastor.
I wondered if he put my Grandma back in her place because it didn’t seem like he did. She seemed pretty strong as her own person, but she played the piano in his church every Sunday.
Maybe that was her place, I don’t know.
Elementary school passed into junior high. My body started to change, and I felt sinful urges.
I fought them every day. God was watching, after all.
But I had dreams. Dreams about sins of the flesh. I couldn’t seem to stop those, and I felt guilty about them. In them, I did things. Things I didn’t understand. The girls in them were naked.
I wanted them to be quiet. If I had to, I hurt them.
Satan still had some influence on me.
I discovered I was good at taking things apart and putting them back together. Small things. Tiny electronics. I was growing, my feet were too big for my legs, my hands too big for my arms, but I never lost that tiny motor dexterity.
Instead of getting better, my abilities at sports got worse with size. I was 5’11” in eighth grade, a prime candidate for the basketball team.
If only I could shoot.
Or dribble or pass. My thick glasses over my brown, Italian eyes betrayed the fact that God had shorted me somewhere.
We all have our weaknesses, our thorn in the flesh, as the Apostle Paul said in his epistles, books we were to memorize, understand, and apply to our lives.
That was something I was good at. Understanding them, that is. I knew all the facts. I was on the Bible Quiz team. My brain worked well that way. I couldn’t memorize verses word for word. Rote memorization was never my strong suit. Instead, I learned how to learn.
We moved to a better trailer at some point during those years. Mom was making good money. Her day job was as a receptionist for some construction company. She worked for a Christian guy who went to our church.
Praise Jesus he gave a single mom a job and a chance.
Her night job was different. That boss wasn’t a Christian man, although he wore a big gold cross and told me once he was Catholic.
Catholics were wrong. They worshipped idols, all those statues of Mary and the Saints.
“Make no graven image,” the Ten Commandments said.
My grandfather called them ‘mackerel snappers’ on account of the fact they ate fish on Fridays, for some reason.
He didn’t know about Mom’s night job.
None of the church people did.
That’s because her second boss let her have Sunday and Wednesday nights off to go to church. We were there every time the doors were open.
He was a nice man. His name was Jack Bardlow. Jack said those were slow days anyway, so Mom didn’t have to work them.
Saturday nights were busy.
She went to church tired on Sunday mornings, sometimes getting no sleep at all the night before.
“Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together.” That’s Hebrews.
We went to parties at his house a few times. He had a son also named Jack.
“Hi, I’m Jack,” he told me. “Just like my dad. They call me Jack Junior.”
“I’m Larry,” I told him. “I never knew my dad.”
My mom dealt cards in a casino. That was her night job.
She was good at it, Jack Senior told me once I was in high school.
She dealt with all the high rollers.
We knew gambling was wrong. Playing cards themselves were wrong. I knew what she was doing could be called hypocrisy. But she explained.
“I’m not gambling myself, Larry. And we need the money.”
It’s not hard for a Christian teen to get a job in Henderson. There are still all the usual spots.
One of the guys from our church offered me a landscaping job, but I turned him down. Rumor had it that sometimes he touched the boys who worked for him in bad ways. I’d never been taught what to do about that. We were to respect and obey our elders. I never knew what to do if they asked us to do something wrong.
But some of the boys told me he gave them a hundred dollar bill not to tell their parents about what happened.
Loving money was the root of all evil. But you needed at least some of it to live.
So, I started at McDonald’s for minimum wage. I didn’t want to be greedy.
Greed was also wrong.
But I wanted a car. To pay for dates. To be normal.
And despite the fact that I wasn’t a jock, was no good at sports, and was my own definition of plain-looking, girls seemed to like me, wanted to be around me.
I was still really good at taking things apart and putting them back together. I fixed the biscuit oven at McDonald’s one morning when it broke. My boss thanked me, the owner of the franchise tried to hand me a hundred dollars for doing the repair and saving him a service call.
I turned him down.
If I took that money, he might want me to do other things for money later.
I didn’t want that, praise Jesus. My soul was worth way more than a c-note. At least back then.
We got a new biology teacher my junior year at school.
We dissected frogs. I was good at that too, and fascinated by anatomy.
But at our little Christian school, we were only allowed to study so much human anatomy.
The chapters on the reproductive system had been removed from our textbooks, replaced with a cardboard filler.
One kid claimed to have one of the biology books with that section still inside.
I didn’t look at it. You weren’t supposed to learn about such things until after you were married.
I didn’t want to ever be married.
But I decided I wanted to go to medical school.
I could understand people, at least on the inside. Put them back together if they were broken.
I wanted to see what really made them work.
The human body was a temple.
Some of the temples in our church were in better shape than others. My grandpa had heart problems and diabetes and went to see doctors a lot.
He said it was because of all the sinning he’d done when he was younger. I learned later it had more to do with genetics.
My great grandfather had heart problems, too.
There was a problem with medical school though. Well, more than one really.
I’d been told from the time I was very young that I should go to a Bible college. Then I would be untainted by the beliefs of the world. Things like evolution, and people who didn’t believe in God at all.
I couldn’t imagine how angry God would be at them for that, and what punishment would await their souls in the afterlife.
I’d read the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and it terrified me.
God wasn’t love. God was scary.
But as hard as I looked, I couldn’t find a Bible college with a good Medical School.
My grades were stellar. I could go anywhere.
My grandfather and mother both told me it was ten years of school or more. That I would never make it.
My grandmother took me aside, told me not to listen to them, and told me I could do anything I wanted.
She pulled a diploma from a drawer and showed it to me. It was a nursing degree with her name on it.
She’d never worked as a nurse that I knew of. Just a pastor’s wife who played piano on Sundays.
She wasn’t very good.
There was also the matter of money. Medical school was expensive, and we weren’t supposed to go into debt.
And doctors made lots of money. We liked it when they went to our church and gave a tithe.
It helped a lot with the building program.
My grandfather once preached at our little church and gave a sermon about greed. The title was, “Why a Cadillac When a Chevy Will Do?”
He encouraged people that instead of buying fancy cars, they should use that money to support the Lord’s work.
No one sold their Cadillac that day, but the offering was pretty good.
When he retired from being a pastor, he bought his first Cadillac.
I started applying for scholarships and free money. I secretly sent applications to schools my mother and my church would not approve of.
We went to Jack’s for a barbecue on a Saturday. My mom had the night off. It was a special occasion.
I don’t remember what.
“What do you want to do after high school?” Jack Sr. asked me.
“I want to be a doctor, but I probably can’t be.”
“Medical school is expensive,” I told him. “I’ve been applying for scholarships, but they just aren’t enough.”
Mom shushed me. I kept talking.
“What kind of doctor do you want to be?” Jack wore a uniform. An Army one with lots of medals and decorations. Maybe the occasion had to do with that. Maybe it was his retirement.
I told him I wanted to be a surgeon. To fix people.
“That’s pretty noble,” he said quietly.
I looked at my worn shoes. I needed new ones. They were black, the ones I wore at McDonald’s where I still worked. They had non-slip soles.
My soul felt slippery.
“I want to be the best.”
I didn’t tell him I had no choice. Even as I got older, God still demanded my best.
I didn’t want to go to hell.
“You need to go to the best schools then,” he said. “Where have you applied?”
I gave him a list I kept folded in my pocket. For safekeeping.
My mom raised her drawn-on eyebrows. For the first time in my life, I ignored her.
“Let’s go into my office,” Jack told me. He led me inside, by myself, away from everyone else.
“I work for someone who might pay for your schooling,” he said. “If you agreed to do some work for them later on.”
“The Army?” I asked. I didn’t understand then. It would be years before I did.
“Not exactly,” he said. “More like who your mom works for, and who I work for, too.”
I’ll never forget that night. He offered me whiskey. I turned it down. I’d have no part of the demon of drink.
He smoked a cigar. I admired him.
He was a sinner. He talked about different fields of medicine, asked me if I’d thought about plastic surgery.
I told him I’d thought about surgery for sure. I said I would look into it. It sounded fascinating.
Not only fixing people but changing them. Making them better.
I wished I could change myself.
He offered me money. I knew it was evil, but I wanted to go to medical school. To do that, I needed a lot of that evil stuff.
Jack seemed to have plenty he could get his hands on.
It wasn’t my money. My soul would not be tainted.
He asked about Washington University in St. Louis. I’d heard of it.
He told me he could get me in. He asked if that’s what I wanted.
I said yes.
Med school wasn’t easy. It was enjoyable. I learned everything about humans on the inside.
I learned a lot about them on the outside, too.
I dated, loved, and lost. Mostly lost.
Women liked me, but the things I liked, the things of my dreams, they liked those less. Sometimes they ran.
I wasn’t sorry.
I applied to do my clinicals in Nevada. I was top of my class. They’d let me do whatever I wanted.
I was good. In high demand. I had lots of job offers. I took one.
There was a lot of money involved. By that point, I felt way better about money.
Probably because I stopped going to church.
In the university, I learned about the human body, biology, and evolution. I learned that much of what I’d been taught about God just wasn’t true. I still felt him watching over me, waiting for me to make a mistake so he could damn me.
But I learned that the people in my church had been wrong about a lot of things.
They were uneducated. Small-minded. Such people often made mistakes.
For instance, money could be a good thing. You could do a lot with it. The money I made lifting a woman’s chin helped me restructure a little boy’s face for free.
He was burned in a fire. She was just unhappy.
I finished my clinicals, and me and a few friends I’d gone to school with decided to open our own practice.
Jack’s father was in real estate now. He was very proud.
Then the incident happened. It wasn’t my fault. She was good looking, I liked her. She liked me, too.
And she flirted with me, before she went under. So after the surgery, while she was in recovery, I made her dreams come true.
Then she woke up. Turns out her dreams turned into my nightmares, and a lawsuit. I lost my license and my practice.
Jack’s dad came to me then and told me what I needed to do. I would have a secret practice, and I would take on patients who wanted to make some changes. To look radically different.
I had to keep their names secret, that was all. That was simple. HIPPA made me do that anyway.
I got paid well to do that work, and he gave me a card, a Nine of Hearts. He told me to show it to anyone if I ever found myself in trouble, like before with the woman.
It would keep me safe, out of jail, and would ensure my salvation.
At least, my earthly salvation.
My secret practice thrived. I was rich, my bank account filled with evil.
I could be evil now, too, when I wanted to be. No, needed to be.
I could pay women to do what I wanted. There was no need to put them to sleep. Or to hide.
Jack Sr. died at seventy. Cancer. I couldn’t save him. My mother died shortly after that. Complications from a stroke. I couldn’t save her either.
I wasn’t God, after all.
Men like Jack came and went. I changed people’s faces, gave them a new chance at another life.
I wished I could change my own face.
Then I got a call. Someone needed my help, someone with some bad scars.
I was excited. I needed a challenge. Craved one.
Then a man named Joseph walked in, followed by another man using a cane. His face was scarred, the whole right side of his body, really.
The man with the cane was Jack Junior. He carried two bags.
He needed my help.
I looked him over thoroughly. Doing what he requested, what he needed would require a small miracle.
I said a prayer before planning out the surgeries. There would be several. It would take weeks. Healing would be slow.
God was watching. I would do my best.
I knew it would work out. My best would be good enough.
Praise Jesus. Even after all I had been through, I was still the best.
I hope you are enjoying reading this series as much as I am. You can the rest of this series on Amazon here! Stay tuned for another FREE story right here next week. I hope to see you then!
Troy is a freelance writer, author, and blogger who lives, works, and plays in Boise, Idaho with the love of his life and three very talented dogs.
Passionate about writing dark psychological thrillers, he is an avid cyclist, skier, hiker, all-around outdoorsman, and a terrible beginning golfer.