Philip K. Dick once said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.” Yet some beliefs are held so closely they blind you to reality. You can’t see the truth until it’s too late.
Elder Sceva and Elder Maxwell are Mormon missionaries with different personalities, but the same purpose - help people come to Christ. There’s only one man in town who might accept that invitation. They believe God has led them to this marvelous opportunity, but the reality is more dangerous than they can imagine.
by Adam C. White
Tuesday, October 28th, 1997
“And we say these things in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.”
The two teens rose from their knees and swatted dirt off their dress pants.
“I knew I should’ve swept yesterday,” Elder Sceva said, straining to see the particles that fell to the floor. His companion sighed.
“It’s fine. Don’t forget to bring something to drink this time.”
Elder Sceva went to the kitchen and tucked a water bottle into the side pocket of his backpack. He returned with a smile on his face, brimming with enthusiasm for the marvelous work that was about to go forth. But before he say something uplifting to start the day, Elder Maxwell headed out.
There was no need to rush, no lessons or meetings to attend. Not even a dinner appointment scheduled. Just endless country roads to pedal down, interspersed with slamming doors. Mormons weren’t welcome here.
The missionaries walked to a metal shed where their bikes were locked up. Pushing the vehicles into an unseasonably muggy morning, they were almost to the driveway when Elder Sceva stopped. “Do you hear that?”
“Hear what?” Elder Mason said, continuing forward.
Despite the leaves crunching beneath his trainer’s feet, Elder Sceva still perceived a faint ringing. Their house - or rather, the furnished basement that their church rented - was the only possible source, since the floor above them was empty, and no one else lived nearby. He dropped his bike and held out his hands.
“Quick, give me the keys!”
“I think someone’s calling!”
Even if that was true Elder Maxwell failed to see the relevance. They couldn’t answer it in time, and there was no caller ID. Rather than waste his time arguing those points, he removed the keys from his pocket, smirking when he saw how indistinguishable they were from each other.
Descending the stairs two at a time, Elder Sceva raced to the door and tried the first key on the ring, praying it would work. When the knob didn’t budge he tried another, and then another, until only one remained. What the others were for was a question he would have to ask later.
When the lock relented he sprinted toward the phone. It must’ve be on the tenth ring. As he picked up the handset he realized how foolish this would look if it turned out to be nothing. Still, he could rest easy tonight knowing he did everything he could. With no official greeting that he was aware of, he did his best not to sound winded.
“Good morning, this is Elder Sceva speaking.” No answer, but no dial tone either, just the standard hum present on any connection. He waited a few seconds before trying again. “Hello?”
A man’s voice came through the speaker. “Uh, hi. I’m not sure if I have the right number...”
“You’ve reached missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Elder Sceva said, unsure whether he should’ve started with that.
“Ah, so I do have the right number!” A light breeze rustled in the background. The caller must’ve been outside. “Sorry to bother you. I’ve been reading about different religions lately and didn’t see much on yours. Do you have time to answer a few questions?”
“Great. Well for starters, what’s the difference between those temples and your chapels?”
“So temples are holy sanctuaries where special ordinances are performed, either for ourselves or those who have passed away. Only members who have a recommend can enter. In the chapels we have our sacrament meetings, which are open to everyone.”
“Okay. That was another question I had - the sacrament. Is it basically the same as what Catholics do?”
Elder Sceva searched for a way to explain the differences without being offensive. “They’re similar, but we don’t believe in transubstination.” Neither of them noticed his mispronunciation of the word. “We partake of bread and water in remembrance of the sacrifice which Jesus made for us, and witness unto God that we’re willing to take upon us the name of his Son.” This explanation was a bit simple, being ripped straight from the sacrament prayers themselves, but only he would know that.
Pleased with his performance thus far, the satisfaction was replaced with dread when he realized Elder Maxwell was out of sight. The only time missionaries were permitted to be alone was in the bathroom. Whether it was Elder Sceva’s fault for running off, or Elder Maxwell’s for not following, the companionship was now in violation of mission rules.
If they were disobedient they wouldn’t have the Spirit with them. Without the Spirit they couldn’t teach. Sure, they could give the lessons verbatim, but it wouldn’t matter. Only the Spirit can touch hearts.
Something had to be done to rectify the situation. Yet Elder Maxwell wouldn’t come inside. Even if Elder Sceva asked, Elder Maxwell would counter with, ‘Why?’, and when told why he would say, ‘So?’. And Elder Sceva couldn’t just hang up on this man, who kept asking questions in spite of the dilemma.
“Do you guys worship Jesus Christ, or do you see him more as a prophet?”
A sudden stroke of inspiration came to Elder Sceva. God must’ve seen his desire to be obedient while also helping people come to Christ, and provided a way to do both. The only question was whether this stranger would accept the invitation.
“I’d love to answer that and any more questions you have, but my companion and I were just leaving. When can we stop by to tell you more about our church?” The words hung in the air for a moment, and he worried they were too direct. Getting investigators to make commitments wasn’t his strength.
“Well, anytime I guess. How about this morning?”
“That sounds good! What’s your address?”
The man sounded awkward as he said, “I’m not really on the grid, I just have a cabin in the middle of nowhere.”
Such humble circumstances weren’t uncommon in this area. Elder Sceva drew a pen and planner from his shirt pocket, holding them at the ready. “How do you get there?”
“That’s hard to describe. Half the roads around here are just dirt and don’t even have signs. The ones that do can get covered up by tree branches.” He let out a deep breath, which sounded like muffled static through the speaker. “Tell you what. If you guys could meet me at the old baseball fields, I might be able to take you to it.”
Elder Sceva had rode by them on the way to more populated areas. Weeds were overtaking it, so that only the most desperate children could play there. Other than an old gas station that doubled as a bait shop, he wasn’t aware of anything else nearby.
“Sure. How about... 10:30?”
“Make it eleven and you’ve got a deal.”
Elder Sceva laughed and wrote it down. “Alright, eleven o’clock at the old baseball fields. And what was your name, sir?”
“Jon. Jon Williams.”
“Well Jon, it’s been a pleasure. I look forward to meeting you!”
“See you soon.”
Rob Klemons set the pay phone back in its metal cradle. Two quarters rattled down into the coin box. He looked over his shoulder to make sure nobody saw him, but the park was empty. He started down a gravel path toward his truck, trying not to grin. It was so easy to lure the religious ones in.
Upon hearing the news of this new appointment Elder Maxwell murmured, “That’s all the way on the other side of town.” Elder Sceva wondered if he should’ve done something different, arrange a later meeting time perhaps, then shrugged. Maybe Heavenly Father was pleased with him, even if Elder Maxwell wasn’t.
They mounted their bikes and pedaled toward the rendezvous point, Elder Sceva trailing behind for most of the way. As the population became sparser and passing vehicles infrequent he was able to catch up. Riding alongside his companion, their wheels clicking in tandem as they coasted down a hill, the humidity was offset by the wind streaming past them, and he closed his eyes to feel the sun on his face. It was like the hand of God caressing his cheek. He said a silent prayer of gratitude for this moment. Then rusty chain-link fences appeared in the distance.
Coming to a halt on cracked asphalt that once served as a parking lot, the two teens removed their helmets and looked around. The place was more decrepit than Elder Sceva remembered, like a relic from the Great Depression, or a glimpse of an apocalyptic wasteland. Or maybe it was just different from what he was used to in Utah. Thinking of the fields he grew up around, he felt a pang of homesickness.
“Let’s wait over there,” Elder Maxwell said, pointing to a dugout that offered a sliver of shade. They set their bikes against the grey brick wall, and opted to stand rather than sit on the dusty benches. A wasp’s nest hung in the corner of the overhead, swarmed with yellow jackets tending to their eggs, but neither one of them noticed, not even when the insects flew by.
“Are you gonna stay in Utah when you get back home?” Elder Sceva asked, looking for any remnants of first base.
“I don’t know. We’ll see.”
“Are you gonna go to BYU?”
Elder Sceva looked from the weeds to his trainer’s squinted eyes. It was hard to tell if he was always this quiet, or if he just had a lot on his mind. Holding off further questioning, they waited in silence until an engine rumbled behind them.
After walking around to meet the man, both were surprised to see someone like themselves get out. Clean shaven, crew cut, medium build, and a friendly face, the only differences were his casual clothes and age, around late-twenties or early thirties. He shook their hands.
“Nice to meet you. I’m Jon.”
“I’m Elder Maxwell. You already spoke to my companion, Elder Sceva. It’s nice to meet you as well.”
The sun was beating down on them with growing intensity. Sweat beaded across the missionary’s foreheads. Jon pointed to their bikes on the wall. “What do you say we load those into the truck and get in the A/C?” The young men agreed and brought them over, careful not to scratch his paint as they hoisted them into the bed.
Crammed beside one another, they found their seat belts and buckled up. The truck wiggled over bumps in the pavement, then they were off to wherever it was Jon lived. Elder Maxwell had claimed a window seat for himself, and took the lead on making small talk. “You don’t have an accent. Are you from around here?”
“Born and raised. But my parents weren’t, so they didn’t have accents either.”
“What brought them out here?”
“Work. My grandpa owned a meat processing plant a couple hours away.”
Didn’t have accents. Owned a plant. He referred to his family in the past tense. Sometimes those who’ve suffered loss were more prepared to hear the gospel, so Elder Maxwell dug a little deeper.
“Does your family still live around here?”
“No. They’ve all passed away. My grandpa was actually the last to go, God rest his soul. Anyways, I inherited enough money to leave, but couldn’t. Too many memories here, you know?”
“Absolutely,” Elder Maxwell said. The response was automatic. In truth, this was the most depressing town he had ever seen, and had it not been his assigned location he would’ve never set foot here.
Just as Jon said, the road became dirt. It wound through a forest and around hills, crossing other trails, making it difficult to tell which way they came from. No other houses were in sight.
Eventually they came to a clearing and saw an old cabin. The wood looked weathered, and there couldn’t be more than one bedroom. At least renovations were being done. Plywood hung on the side, and two-by-fours were stacked by a toolbox on the porch. The truck settled to a stop in front of it.
“You were right. I’d never be able to find this place!” Elder Sceva said, unbuckling. Jon laughed, and everyone got out of the vehicle. Birds chirped at them from the pine trees, which surrounded them with slivers of shade. Mosquitos were blissfully absent.
“Come on in, gentlemen,” Jon said, ascending the porch steps. It was almost a shame to do so, leaving God’s creation for a man-made habitat, but to Elder Sceva an opportunity to teach the gospel was greater than whatever beauty this scenery held. He turned away from the azure sky, and followed his companion inside.
Plastic crinkled under their dress shoes. It covered the entire floor, an easy feat given how small the place was. Sawdust led to a square hole in the wall, covered by the plywood outside. Now the reason for construction was clear - the dim interior had desperate need of another window. Light shined in from one above the kitchen sink, but nowhere else. Jon shut the door and gestured to the couch in front of them. “Have a seat.”
The elders shuffled around a coffee table and set their backpacks on the floor, while Jon went to the kitchen. He came back with two bottles of water, handing one to each of them before taking his seat on a single cushion sofa. They thanked him.
Parched from the bike ride, Elder Maxwell finished the lukewarm liquid in a few swigs, then noticed that Elder Sceva had set his on the table. It was an unwritten rule in missions that when someone gives you food or beverage, you devour it. Elder Sceva might be new, but as a lifelong member of the church he should know better. He jumped right into conversation oblivious to his oversight.
“So Jon, do you live out here year round?”
“Ha! No way! Just a few days at a time. My folk’s old place is in town, and I go there whenever the going gets tough. I’d rather stay out here though.”
Jon stared at the plastic sheeting before he met their eyes. “There’s something special about nature that you just can’t find in the suburbs. It’s not just quiet. It’s peace. Of course it gets boring occasionally, so I pass the time with books.”
“You said you were reading about different religions?” Elder Maxwell asked, recalling the childlike glee his companion shared that information with.
“Yeah. No reason in particular. I have a book about faiths around the world, but the section on Mormons is really short, so I thought I’d give you a call and learn more.”
“I’m glad you did,” Elder Maxwell said. “There’s a lot of misinformation about us out there. It’s best to go straight to the source for truth.” Everyone nodded.
Ordinarily they would make more small talk before starting the lesson, but Jon was ready. He had already forsaken the world. All they needed to do now was show him why he preferred nature. The earth is proof that there is a God, and the peace Jon felt was the Spirit telling him that was true.
Between that, his voracity for reading, and seemingly clean lifestyle, Jon was the perfect candidate for baptism. Even Elder Maxwell had to admit that. So he unzipped his backpack, pulled out a leather-bound book, and laid it on his lap.
“Well, I’d like to start by reading a couple scriptures. The first is in Genesis, chapter 1, verses 26 and 27.” He flipped to the most worn out page in the binding. Elder Sceva retrieved his to follow along, while Elder Maxwell continued.
“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” Elder Maxwell flipped to the New Testament, his companion anticipating the verse and doing the same.
“The second is in Romans, chapter 8, verses 16 and 17. ‘The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God. And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ.’”
After pausing to let it sink in, Elder Maxwell explained, “So that’s why we worship God as the Almighty Ruler of heaven and Earth. He’s our Father in Heaven, and we’re his children. He loves us and wants us to achieve true happiness. He prepared a plan to enable us to achieve this happiness. If we fulfill it, we’ll grow spiritually and live with him eternally.”
This was almost word for word what he was supposed to say. Elder Maxwell could recite the first discussion in his sleep. While memorization wasn’t the most compelling teaching method, it did make things easier, as even a greenie like Elder Sceva knew what to say. He began the next part on cue.
As Elder Maxwell pretended to listen, something burned within him, a sickening heat radiating from his belly. Too many ramen noodles last night, he presumed. Under normal circumstances he would run to the bathroom and wait for the pain to pass, but that wasn’t possible here. So Elder Maxwell sat there, smiled, and endured the agony.
Despite profuse sweating, Elder Maxwell suppressed the fire inside long enough to get through his part about The Book of Mormon. He tried to take deep breaths, but a racing heart made the task futile. The room began to spin like a carousel just getting started. No one else noticed though, and the lesson went on.
“The Book of Mormon is also evidence that Joseph Smith was called by God to be a prophet and a witness of Jesus Christ. You can know that the Book of Mormon is the word of God. You can know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet.” Elder Sceva elevated his voice, boldly proclaiming what he knew to be true. “You can know these things by reading the Book of Mormon, pondering its message and its importance to you, and praying to know that it is true.”
Now it was Elder Maxwell’s turn to bear testimony. “And I know that if you ask with a sincere heart...” He struggled for air. “And with real intent... God will manifest the truth of it unto you...”
Elder Sceva had seen this before - the teary eyes, difficulty speaking, face strained with emotion. Sometimes missionaries got so wrapped up in teaching that they didn’t stop to think about how amazing the message was. Apparently Elder Maxwell had done so, and was overcome with the Spirit.
It wasn’t until he collapsed on the coffee table and started convulsing that Elder Sceva realized something was wrong. He rushed to his companion’s side, concern turning to horror as Elder Maxwell’s pupils rolled back, drool falling from his gaped mouth. Elder Sceva looked up at Jon to ask what they could do, but Jon remained seated, watching the drama unfold. Then Elder Maxwell shrank into the fetal position, knocking down the bottle of water Elder Sceva had put there. It rolled to his feet.
He hadn’t needed any because he brought his own, and didn’t want to drink up Jon’s supply. Now that coincidence seemed like providence. If it was only his companion’s sudden illness then maybe Elder Sceva wouldn’t have known what happened, but the strange smirk on Jon’s told him enough. Something was in the water. Even if the seal was intact a poison could be injected, the mark easily hidden if you were clever. And crazy. In their quest to save one soul, the missionaries had stumbled into the den of a maniac.
Finally Jon stood, the smirk replaced by a scowl, prompting Elder Sceva to shake his companion’s shoulders, yelling at him to come on, we gotta go, get up, HURRY! But there was no response, and no time for first aid. Elder Sceva returned Jon’s glare, and weighed the decision to fight or flee.
As if to answer that question, a sharp metal spike atop a wooden handle appeared in Jon’s hand. The tool looked useful for a wide variety of purposes, such as breaking chips off an ice block, or penetrating the flesh of a teenager. Elder Sceva didn’t wait to find out which.
Sprinting for the door, he was almost there before footsteps started creeping up behind him. The old fashioned knob felt slick in his clammy palms, but he clamped down hard so it wouldn’t slip, then turned. And turned. And turned. Whether by design or misfortune, the latch wouldn’t move.
He considered the hole in the wall where a window was being installed - or might have been installed before someone dove through it, shattering the panes and glass, and any hope Elder Sceva had of doing the same. The plywood in place was more likely to break his neck on impact than relent. With his back against the wall, Elder Sceva prayed to know what he should do.
There was nothing to defend himself with, no one to rescue them, nowhere to run, no place to hide. His companion lay dead or dying on the coffee table, and soon Elder Sceva might be doing the same on this plastic sheeting. He felt a surge of indignation, and then, inspiration.
His left hand extended before him, fingers pointed toward the incoming enemy, while his right arm rose to the side, palm outward, elbow bent to form a ninety-degree angle. Then he summoned all the faith that was in him, and shouted with a mighty voice. “By the authority of the Melchizedek priesthood and in the name of Jesus Christ, I COMMAND YOU TO BE STILL!”
The cabin walls almost shook from the volume. Elder Sceva could feel power leave him. He waited to see whether Jon would collapse to the floor, or freeze in place. Jon stopped, a confused look etched on his face, as if he were struck dumb.
Yet he wasn’t motionless. Those dark eyes scanned himself for injury, and saw nothing. Jon let out a low, nervous laugh, then continued forward.
The stab was painless, almost imperceptible, from beneath Elder Sceva’s sternum up into... something. Somewhere. It hardly seemed important anymore. What mattered is that he had fought the good fight, finished the course, kept the faith. A crown of righteousness lay in store for him, and not to him only, but Elder Maxwell. They would meet again on the other side, where their marvelous work would continue. A brilliant light was just ahead, coming at him with increasing speed, whisking his spirit away to an eternal paradise.
Elder Sceva’s body slid off of the pick and fell to the ground with a loud thud. Elder Maxwell also lay still. The faint hint of feces in the air meant he defecated himself after expiring.
Rob Klemons reached a blood soaked hand into his pocket and withdrew an antique key to open the door with, kicking a lifeless leg out of his way to do so. The forest waved at him with a gentle breeze, and warm sun rays flickered across his face. At least one thing he said was true - it really was peaceful out here. He strode over to the rusty toolbox, grabbed a stainless steel bone saw, and went back inside to begin cleaning up.
For more stories like this, check out my novella Screaming in the Celestial Room, and my novelette Spare the Rod, both available on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/Adam-C.-White/e/B01JSGNG98
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