Russell hit refresh and stared as emails popped in. Same as yesterday, and all the yesterdays now counted as years, his inbox filled with messages from colleagues, students, people who looked up to him, people who wanted to be him. All of them persons he was about to disappoint. And, anger.
He gave in to an old tick he’d once conquered and his desk trembled, set into motion by his knee bouncing up and down almost violently. On the stage or in the classroom, his ticks were invisible. There, he was the master.
Here, he was losing control.
The chair spun behind him when he shot to his feet. A walk in the winter air—that’s what he needed. Clear his head. Come to his senses. Maybe convince himself to turn back before it was too late.
The snow crunched under his feet as he zipped his wool sweater to his chin and dug his hands into his coat pockets. Leaving his gloves behind at the office didn’t help his foul mood, but he wasn’t going back. It fits, at least. I’m not going back.
“Hello, Dr. Blakeley.” The student did a double-take as he passed. Dr. Blakeley never looked up.
Russell was headed for a bench, secluded enough, on the other side of the campus that sat in the middle of a gentle slope, far from the sidewalk. He had nearly an hour before the last afternoon class let out. The palm-sized notepad he carried always in his pocket was small, but big enough. It was the blank page that was a problem.
He stared at his phone. Janet hadn’t responded. Minutes passed before he wrote down her name — the first. Beside his wife’s name he wrote a quick note, something he hoped was true.
After that, the ink flowed more easily. Page after page filled as names came to mind. First friends, then colleagues, then organizations he’d led, all of them relationships about to end. I can’t do it. I can’t. He leaned over on his knees, almost doubled over, and groaned. Can I live with myself if I don’t?
The clock neared the hour mark, and passed. He sat in silence, his eyes squeezed shut, his lips moving, but making no sound.
The crack of a branch above him broke his reverie and the squirrel that crashed to the ground at his feet took off for the low hedge in front of him. Maybe it was the moonless night, maybe it was the finger-like limbs of dreary trees that scratched the horizon, but the neon sign caught his eye as if he was seeing it for the first time. The glowing red Greyhound seemed to beckon.
The walk was not far. He stepped into the fluorescent-bathed lobby and felt the first twinge of life returning to his toes. No one looked his way. No one called his name. It felt good.
He was content to sit and observe. Coins clanked into the belly of the vending machine as a woman pushed a button that let a bag of potato chips drop. By the ticket counter, a man held a phone to his ear and talked too loudly. Curled up asleep in the corner was a man in tattered clothes, a homeless man in for the night.
On the north side of the lobby, there was a celebration of some sort that carried on with hugs, group pictures made with a small instamatic, laughter, and tears. The man at the center of it all beamed for the camera as he held his bus ticket up in front of him.
The public address system buzzed overhead but managed to cough out the announcement that the bus for Little Rock would soon board. A final round of hugs brought the celebration to a close, and the man, with resolve, picked up his small bag and crossed the lobby, headed in Russell’s direction.
“I’m gettin’ on that bus.” He waved his ticket at Russell. “I’m gettin’ on that bus and I’m goin’ to a place I’ve never been to before.”
The only person seated in Section D, Russell knew the remark was meant for him. “Oh? Where’s that?”
“Home.” The man spoke as if he’d just laid down a heavy burden. His toothless smile faded, but his eyes remained bright. “You see, that man that got off that bus eleven years ago was a different man. That man’s gone. He no longer exists.” He thumped his chest with the hand that held the ticket. “This man here, he’s different. I ain’t that man no more. Not even close. You see this?” He waved his ticket. “This ain’t me startin’ over. This is a man that never existed before.”
The remark didn’t make sense but Russell was intrigued, anyway. “So, how do you think your family’s going to react?”
“I dunno.” The man’s voice grew thick. “I can’t make up for the wrong I’ve done. I can only start from right’chere where I am.”
Russell shifted in his seat. “Are you afraid?”
“Nope. Terrified.” He shook his head. “But you know, I think it’s the right kind of scared. Yeah, that’s what I think. And, I’m not going there alone.”
Above them, the public address system hissed. The bus to Little Rock was boarding.
“That’s me.” His grin returned, gaps and all. He pulled something out of his pocket and handed it to Russell. “I’m going home.”
Bent by what must have been years of hard living, the man made his way over to join the line for the Little Rock bus. “I’m gettin’ on that bus,” the man told the woman in front of him. “And, I’m goin’ some place I’ve never been before.”
Russell stared at the tract in his hands that read Steps to Peace with God, and grinned. No going back, he thought. He pounded out a quick text to Janet, hit Send, and held his breath. This time, he got an almost instant response. For the first time in a long time, he felt … peace.
Fifty minutes later, Russell stood at the pastor’s front door. The preacher’s handshake was firm, though Russell wondered. I’m not completely sure he trusts me. Guess that’s fair.
Russell Blakely, president of the Secular Humanist Association, the formidable atheist who’d once taken the pastor’s church to court, stood at his door, just as he’d done countless times over the last year. In Russell’s arms was a stack of books. The top one was Mere Christianity.
“I’ve read them all, pastor. You’ve answered every question.” He exhaled a quick breath. “I’m ready.”
N.B. From the author, Marilyn Stewart: This particular story is fictional but is inspired by those who have left atheism for faith in Christ. Antony Flew is a famous philosopher and outspoken atheist who weighed the evidence of the universe’s design and decided near the end of his life that God (though he did not express belief in Christ) existed. No doubt, it was a costly decision.