It had been good to see everybody. At the start they had caught up, and everyone had reacted with the expected shock and sympathy at Matthew’s near-accident and commiseration concerning the strange power outage at work. But throughout the session he still felt a nagging sense of unease, and so as everyone bustled about exchanging goodbyes, Matthew quietly asked the pastor if he could talk with her for a few minutes once everyone was gone. He waved goodbye to the last few members of the Bible study group and sank into one of the cushioned chairs in the church’s multipurpose room.
The pastor closed the door and came over to sit down across from him. “So, Matthew, what did you want to talk about?” Her face flickered. “Is everything okay?”
Matthew took a breath. “Meihua…what does it mean when something…out of the ordinary happens?”
Meihua gave him a look, but refrained from saying the obvious. Almost getting in an accident and being in a strange power outage isn’t out of the ordinary enough? Instead, she softened her expression with her usual smile. “There’s a loaded question if I ever heard one.”
“Uh, yeah, I guess,” Matthew stammered, and felt himself blush. He laced his fingers together and looked down.
Meihua leaned forward. “Hey, Matthew. I’m a pastor, but I’m also your friend. We’ve known each other for almost three years, now, right?” Matthew met her eyes, saw her expression was earnest. “What happened?”
Matthew took a breath, then let it out. “You know last Sunday I was nearly in an accident.”
“Thank God you’re okay,” interjected Meihua.
That’s just it, Matthew thought, but didn’t say aloud. “The car went off the road right in front of me and plowed into a tree. The thing is,” he said, looking off to the side, “I thought I felt a tug on my backpack right before the accident. When I looked back there was no one there, so I figured it must have been a branch, but…if that tug hadn’t been there…”
Meihua looked like she was about to say something, but Matthew plowed on.
“And then, just after…ah, after, this girl was there. There was nowhere she could have come from. She was just there. And it must have been her who kept me back that one second, only—” He stopped and swallowed. “I talked to her for a bit before she…disappeared.”
Meihua sat back in her chair. “You don’t mean she ran down the street and you lost sight, do you.” It wasn’t a question.
Matthew shook his head. “One minute she was there; the next, gone. The police came to talk to me. I don’t think they saw her.”
Meihua seemed to notice something in his expression. “Was there more?”
Matthew ran his fingers through his hair. “I saw her again that night. In my apartment.”
Thankfully the pastor didn’t ask “you gave her your address”, or show any reaction to having a strange girl over. She simply stared at him, her expression inviting him to continue.
“This time…she offered to tell me something about Pat.” Matthew realized he was clenching his fingers together and consciously relaxed them. “I…didn’t ask, and she left. Vanished, again.” He wouldn’t say for sure whether that cloud of dust had been real or just his imagination playing tricks on him, but she definitely hadn’t left through the door. “She called herself the Witch of Determination.”
Meihua rested her arms on the table and leaned forward; glancing at her face, Matthew thought she looked trouble. “God works in mysterious ways, but…”
“So you think it was real.” The words tumbled from Matthew’s lips before he had time to think. To his surprise he was leaning forward too, as if something important hung on Meihua’s next words. He hadn’t realized how much he had needed to tell someone, how much he needed to be believed.
The pastor paused, collecting her thoughts. “I think you had some kind of experience. It doesn’t sound like a prank, at least, and while you could pull all that off with a hologram or something I can’t see why someone would do it. But whether it’s a hallucination or a vision from God isn’t really something I can say. They may not even be mutually exclusive.”
Matthew deflated a little. “That was very…analytical.”
She gave him a smile. “Were you hoping I would say ‘oh, yes, that’s clearly a message from God, I got one like that just last month?’” Matthew couldn’t help but grin as well, and Meihua went on. “‘God works in mysterious ways’ isn’t just a saying, you know. I’ve had friends tell me they’ve heard God speaking to them directly. One even saw water multiplied before his eyes.”
“How about you?” Matthew asked, then blushed again. “Uh, I mean, if you’re okay sharing.”
Meihua smiled again, and her eyes went distant. “For me it’s never so much as a voice. I can just feel His presence wherever I am, if I stop and pay attention. And I try to let that fill everything I do.”
Matthew looked down. That was a pretty far cry from seeing a strange girl floating off the ground—I didn’t mention that part, did I. Even beyond that, though, he wasn’t sure he had ever felt what Meihua was describing. What did that mean?
He sighed. “But why a witch. That doesn’t seem very…I mean, is she from God, or, uh…” He started over. “Isn’t witchcraft a sin? Or heresy, or something?”
Once again Matthew was glad to see Meihua taking him seriously. “I think your caution is wise,” she answered. “But even if what you’re seeing is, well, some kind of sorcery, remember that even demons may serve His purposes.” Her friendly smile deepened. “Joan of Arc was also called a witch in her time, but now she is recognized as a saint.”
Somehow Matthew’s image of a fierce, valiant Joan of Arc failed to mesh with the enigmatic, stately “Lady” Erica. “So you’re not concerned about this,” he said, feeling a little downcast.
“Matthew.” Matthew raised his head again, surprised. Meihua was looking at him with some expression in her eyes that he didn’t quite understand. “As your friend, I’m worried that you’ve been through two stressful situations this week—even though it sounds like the second one was unrelated, right?—and yes, I’m worried that it might be getting to you in some medical way. But I have faith in God. We can’t know His plan for us, but we trust in Him. Whether it’s a vision or a hallucination, it’s part of His plan, and the question is ‘what is He asking of you?’”
Matthew’s own words flashed across his mind. What do you want from me?
He took a moment to consider. Meihua had given him a path to follow, and relieved him of the most important question. It didn’t matter if Erica was a hallucination—either she was a message from God or from himself, his subconscious. And the minute she asked him to do wrong, he would know to deny her and cast her out—and likely, to receive medical treatment.
He realized he was smiling. “Thank you, Meihua. That helped a lot.”
“Don’t worry if you don’t know the answer yet, either. After all, that’s how we go through life: trying to understand what God asks of us.” The pastor shouldered her bag and stood. “I’ll see you on Sunday?”
“Yes,” answered Matthew. He stood as well.
As I said previously, this section was written before section 3, even. I’m actually a little annoyed at my characters here; Matthew deciding Erica is all in his head is not necessarily the direction I had wanted him to go. But characters don’t always do what you want, and the story usually comes out better for it.
(On that note, I hope I got Meihua right—a Chinese-American pastor isn’t a natural “role” for me. She is based on a few friends of mine, which helped keep her from going trite.)
Part 6 did not get written this weekend, so you’ll have to wait until December for that.
A reader of the blog told me the “part 5 of ?” was actually putting them off starting the story, since they didn’t know how much of a commitment it would be. Given how far we’ve gotten in part 5, I would guess the story’s going to be more than 10, less than 20 parts—probably less than 15, even. So it’s not that short.
At the same time, though, I’m writing and uploading these parts so slowly that I wouldn’t expect it to end until well into next year, especially with next month’s hiatus. So it doesn’t seem like a huge commitment to read a section or two each month, as long as you don’t forget what happens.
(Even if nobody’s reading this one, I’d still want to finish writing it, but of course it’s much more fun for me if people are reading it.)
EDIT: Changed the pastor’s name to “Meihua” to distance her further from real-world people.