Excerpt from The Ultimatum
                            





                                              
                                            

    Jered Manson ran for his life.

    His lungs ached.

    He glanced behind. The guy was still after him.

    Maybe he should give up. Stop running. Let whatever happens, happen. But just as Jered let the thought in,
    he got a break.

    Just as Skimmy, Scummy—whatever he was called—ran across the street toward him, a van drove in the way.
    The sound of hands slamming against its side merged with a honk. Shouted words.

    Jered took advantage of the distraction and darted into an alley. An open delivery truck was parked like an
    invitation. He hurtled inside.

    But it was nearly empty. No place to hide. And when the truck’s owner came back, he’d surely make a ruckus.
    “What you doing in there? Get out of my truck!”

    By then Scummy would have caught up, he’d hear the yelling, and Jered would be dead.

    All for a portable CD player.

    Way back during the first block, Jered had nearly dropped it, given up the loot in the hopes that Scummy  
    would be satisfied and not come after him. But from what Jered had heard about Scummy, retrieving the goods
    wouldn't be enough.

    During the past three months Jered had learned that revenge was the motivating factor on the streets. You do
    me bad, I do you. It didn't need to make sense. Logic and reason had nothing to do with anything. Honor did.
    The street’s form of honor.  It didn't help that Jered was skinny, looking more wimpy than tough.

    A lady walking on the sidewalk at the end of the alley hesitated and pulled up, as if she saw something coming.

    Scummy?

    A half-closed dumpster stood across the alley. He jumped down from the truck, crossed the alley, tossed the
    CD box inside the dumpster, hauled himself up and over the edge, and fell into the garbage. He couldn't reach
    the lid to shut it and didn't want to risk the noise, so he scrambled under the half that was closed, pulling the
    garbage around him as cover.

    Within seconds he heard footsteps and huffing.

    He froze.

    He held his breath.

    The footsteps came close, and Jered heard a leap onto the back of the delivery truck, a few steps inside, then a
    jump down. More steps. Far. Then near.

    When Scummy kicked the dumpster, Jered stifled a yelp. He clamped his hand to his mouth to hold his heart
    inside.

    With a few cuss words, Scummy moved on.

    All was quiet.

    Except Jered’s heart. He tried to take deep breaths but didn't dare gasp. It was a full minute before he could
    trust his body, when he didn't have to consciously think about his heartbeat or getting his next lungful of air.

    Only then did he let his muscles relax. But as they did, he sank deeper into the trash. A black garbage sack was
    sliced open, and the rancid smell of rotting Chinese food hit his nostrils like a slap. Jered hadn't noticed the
    smell before. He’d been too busy surviving. But now...

    He covered his face with his hands, against the smell, against the stress, against the reality of where he was
    and what he’d become. He heard his dad’s voice in his head. “Jered, what are you doing in the trash? Stupid
    kid! Don’t you have any sense?”

    Sense had nothing to do with it; survival everything. Survival was the king he bowed down to every morning
    as he hoped to make it through another day, as well as the king he worshipped every night when he was still
    alive. Actually, now was a time to celebrate, for he had survived. Again. This time.

    Enough of this. He rubbed his tears angrily and climbed through the garbage to the open side of the dumpster.
    The fresh air was cool—in all forms of the world. He set the CD player on the lid and rearranged some sacks so
    he could get high enough to climb over the edge. As soon as his feet hit the ground—

    “Whatcha doing there, kid?”

    It was the delivery man, back at his truck.

    Jered brushed off his jeans, knowing the dumpster was not responsible for their dirtiness. “I lost something
    inside.” He picked up the CD player.

    The man walked toward him, disbelief clear on his face. “Food can’t be very good in there.”

    “I wasn't searching for food.”

    The man dug a bill from his shirt pocket, looked at it, and handed it to Jered. “Here. Go get yourself something
    to eat.”

    If Jered had any pride left, he would have argued. He took the bill. “Thanks. ’Preciate it.”

    The man nodded and they parted. “Take care of yourself, okay, kid?”

    He was doing his best. He really was.

                                                                                              ***

    Annie McFay ran for her life.

    She stepped onto the front stoop, zipped her jacket to her chin, and began running—toward something or away
    from something, she wasn't sure.

    Running was her sanity, her time alone when she had to think things through. The fact it was helping her lose
    the ten pounds she’d put on since she turned thirty was another factor. Working at the Plentiful Café, where
    lo-cal was as foreign as tiramisu, did not help her waistline. People expected down-home cooking at a
    small-town diner, and that’s what they got.

    Out of habit, at the end of her driveway she turned right, heading toward Steadfast’s town square. But after
    three strides, she changed her mind and ran in the opposite direction. She’d be around people soon enough.
    She had to be at work in less than two hours. Until then...

    When she found her rhythm , she let herself zone in on her problem: She had no idea what to do with her
    husband, Cal. With his disapproval. More than anything she wanted him to understand what a difference
    Jesus was making in her life, how much better she was feeling about everything—except her marriage.

    Why couldn't he see that her newfound faith was not a threat to what they had? If anything it would make it
    better. Cal was a good man. She could hardly wait to see the better man he could be with Jesus behind him,
    backing him up.

    She grabbed a deeper breath that had nothing to do with physical exertion. Its vapor flew past her cheek and
    slid through her ponytail.

    How could a decision seem so right, so good in her own mind, yet seem wrong and bad in her husband’s?

    She heard Cal’s voice in her head: “Don’t go overboard about this religion stuff, Annie-girl.”

    Overboard? Moi?

    Annie sidestepped a puddle and acknowledged her penchant for jumping into new projects with too much
    gusto and not enough stick-to-itiveness. Could she help it if her paintings never looked as good as the ones
    by that TV guy, Bob Ross? The eighty-five dollar’s worth of art equipment wasn't really going to waste.
    Ten-year-old Avignon—Avi—was playing with it. The fact Avi seemed to have more innate talent than her
    mother was something Annie would rather ignore.

    Another puddle. Another thought. Could Annie help it if she was horrible at the tele-marketing she’d tried to  
    do in her spare time from their home? Hey, she’d readily admit that was a mistake. It was hard to cold call
    when she herself hated to receive such calls.

    Then came the mamba lessons, the needlepoint kit she’d started and set aside, the How to Speak Italian tapes
    (just in case they ever traveled to Tuscany), and the handy-dandy donut maker she’d bought from a shopping
    channel.

    The truth was, she liked to flit from project to project, never landing long. She meant well. It was all part of
    the cost of finding herself. Finding her talent, her purpose. Finding out why she was.

    What Cal refused to understand was that Jesus was helping her do just that. Not that she had it all straight yet,
    but ever since she’d invited the  Lord into her heart—ever since He’d readily accepted her invitation—she felt
    as if she finally had a shot at answering the purpose question.

    Wasn't it natural that she wanted to share her newfound hope with her husband? Together, they could discover
    what’s what.

    Truth be told, Cal was a bigger flitterer than she was. But unlike her projects, his forays were often pricey.
    “You gotta spend money to make money, Annie-girl.” Yeah right. Prove it.

    His goal followed the ever-popular get-rich-quick scenario. If, along the way, he found some inner truth,
    whoop-dee-do, but if not, he didn't seem to mind. And there was another motive behind Cal’s schemes. One
    that Cal would never admit. He wasn't searching for his purpose, but he was searching for a way to make his
    father proud. The fact Fergis McFay had died soon after they were married—Annie had never even met the
    man—was a detail that seemed beyond Cal’s ability to embrace.

    Any comment Annie had made toward that effect—“You don’t have to keep trying to please him, Cal. He’s gone.
    And you please me plenty, so ease up”—was met with a look that screamed at her ignorance and warned her to
    leave it alone.

    So be it. If Cal wanted to waste his time trying to gain brownie points from a dead father, who was she to  stop
    him? As the queen of quirkiness, Annie had no latitude in judging the oddities of others. So for the most part,
    she let Cal try to get-rich-quick and was there to catch him when he failed. Which was always.

    Pooh. What was money anyway? As long as they had enough to pay their bills, celebrate Christmas in a decent
    fashion, and take an occasional trip to Kansas City or Saint Louis for a weekend, Annie could have cared less
    how many zeroes were behind the dollar amounts in their bank accounts. You can’t take it with you—as her
    recent ten thousand dollar inheritance from her mother had proven. Sometimes Annie wished they hadn't gotten
    that money. It only added fuel to Cal’s entrepreneurial fire.

    A dog barked as she ran by a house, and she detoured across the street. Rehashing the past was getting her
    nowhere. Nor did complaining. After ten years of marriage she and Cal were a good complement to each other.
    She liked to cook; he liked to eat. She liked to dink around the house, and he liked yard work. She liked
    country music, and he liked the pretty female singers. In most areas of their lives their corresponding interests
    drew them together like two magnets finding their mates.

    Until a certain man had turned their magnets around, repelling one another...

    Annie ran between Steadfast’s tiny hospital and the elementary school on the edge of town, stopping to catch
    her breath at the ball field. The ball field had been the location of her transformation. Had she meant to come
    here this morning?

    The last time she’d stood in this spot it had been covered with a big white tent. A revival had come to town
    in August, and her friend Merry Cavanaugh, the librarian, and Merry’s beau, Ken Kendell, the police chief, had
    invited all three McFays to join them.  Posters were all over town for the Praise Show, even in the window of
    the café. Word of mouth had popped with excitement.

    And Annie had been curious. A “praise” show? Praise was not a word she associated with religion. She had few
    memories of church as a child, but most revolved around eating cheap store-bought cookies as the adults stood
    around and talked, or being told to sit still during a sermon from a man whose face got way too red when he
    yelled at them. The best part of church was getting a new pair of patent leather Mary Janes every year. She
    loved how the shoes made a funny sticking noise when they touched.

    Praise? Please. It was not in her church-going memory bank. And yet, Merry and Ken had been persistent.
    Excited. So what could it hurt? When Annie had suggested to Cal that they accept the invitation, he’d been
    adamant against it. “No way. You’re not getting me in there with a bunch of fanatics.”

    She asked him to explain, but he shut up, shaking his head. No how. No way. And though that should have
    been the end of it, for some reason Annie had felt compelled to add, “I think Avi and I will go. If that’s okay.”

    Cal had raised an eyebrow and flipped a hand. “Knock yourselves out. Work yourselves into a praise-the-Lord
    tizzy.”

    Tizzy was not exactly what happened, but the Praise Show did get something working in Annie that night.
    She’d felt a stirring unlike anything she’d ever experienced. And a joy. And a longing for what Merry and Ken
    obviously had, as they sang and raised their faces toward the sky. Even Avi had been moved. She’d taken hold
    of Annie’s arm and looked up at her with excited eyes. “I like this, Mama. I want this.”

    Exactly what “this” was hadn't been clear at first, but as the main speaker began to lay out what they were  
    offering, telling about God sending His Son to earth, Jesus dying on the cross because He loved the world that
    much, taking the rap for everybody’s sins... And then the raising up to heaven part being a promise that we’d
    live in heaven someday if only we believed He was who He said He was. How could Annie not believe? How
    could she say anything but yes to someone who’d done all that—for her?

    When they invited people to come forward to make it official, she looked down at Avi, and Avi looked up at
    her. “Let’s do it, Mama. Let’s go.”

    And so they did.

    At the memory, Annie sank to her knees, right there in the field. Was this the spot where it had happened? She
    looked around. It was pretty close. And she knew it was the perfect place to do what she should have done the
    moment she’d started worrying.

    She scanned the field. No one was around. It was way too early. The sun was just starting to come up on the
    horizon amid a blaze of pink and steel blue. The sun. The Son. He’d changed everything for her then. He could
    help her now.

    “I want Cal to know You, Jesus. Show me how to reach him.”

    She tried to think of more to say, but these few words had expressed what was directly on her heart better
    than a hundred that beat around the bush or sounded eloquent. With an “Amen” she stood and headed home.

    She was doing her best. She really was.. (continued)


                                                                             Copyright 2004, Nancy Moser,
                                                                                      Multnomah Publishers