It looked remotely like Dot. But it wasn't her.
I didn't need to ask her if something was wrong. I knew it immediately. My senses deciphered the person who stood before me. The smells that lingered on her clothes: alcohol and smoke -- and a musky smell that wasn't hers. The disheveled look of her clothes and hair. The body language that spoke volumes. Her expression was numb, empty, and her head hung low. Her eyes avoided mine, and I looked past her and into her room. It didn't look the best, but I didn't see anything that suggested that we were not alone. I did see the teddy bear I'd given her -- it had been thrown against the wall and lay in a furry lump on the floor. But the most obvious clue was not a physical one -- it was a spiritual one, the darkness that clung to her like a lead shroud.
A groan came up from the pit of my stomach, and I prayed that God would blind her eyes from my pain.
"Ready for dinner?" I asked, cheerfully carrying on as if nothing was wrong.
"No," she mumbled. "I'm not feeling so good."
That's an understatement, I thought. I considered confronting her, but dismissed it almost immediately. She needed love and care right now. So I handed her an escape hatch. "Are you getting another of your headaches?"
She took it. "Yeah . . . headache."
I feigned sympathy. "I'm sorry. Were you resting?"
"Yeah . . . resting."
"I'm sorry." I paused. "Tell you what -- why don't you go back and relax, and come get me when your headache's gone. Okay?"
"Okay," she said. "Thanks."
She closed the door. I shut my eyes and my body went tense for a moment. I wanted to scream, to cry, but held them in as I rushed back for my room. Then I released my groan of pain -- not for myself, but for Dot's pain.
Then I got the cell phone and hit the familiar speed dial. "You alone?" I asked when I heard Clark's voice.
"No," he answered curtly.
"Can you get to the camper van and call me back?"
I ended the call. Two minutes later Clark called back. "What's the problem?"
I gave him the full story of the last eighteen hours, including my signals to Dot that precipitated the event in her room. I told him about Lea's call, and trying to get through to him.
He groaned. "The battery on the cell was recharging, so I turned it off. And the storm had interfered with Johnny's phone. I didn't think anything would happen. I'm so sorry, Perry."
"It's okay," I dismissed.
I told him about this morning, my breaking, and our talk. "I must've come across as too heavy-handed. Anyhow, she told me she was going out to think things over. I was exhausted, so took a nap. When I woke up, I went to her room. Something had happened." I paused. Part of me didn't want to even say the words, hoping it would all go away. But I pressed on, my voice unemotional. "Clark, I've ministered to enough alcoholics to know when someone's been drinking, and I've ministered to enough hookers to know when someone's been . . . " My voice faltered, but I had gotten the message across.
Clark was shocked and saddened. "Oh, no. Not Dot?"
"Yes. She didn't admit anything, but I knew. I've had enough experience there to last several lifetimes." I paused. "She was alone in the room, but something had happened while she was out. Clark, the spiritual darkness on and around her was so heavy that it was almost tangible."
"What did you do?"
"I handed her an excuse to give her some time to herself, and came back to my room."
We were both silent for a minute.
"What do you suggest?" he asked.
"The obvious. We pray for her, and love her through it."
"I can't believe she would do such a thing," commented Clark, amazed.
"This is a fire she's gotta go through. But she won't be alone. I'm going to be fasting for her, starting now. Since she doesn't suspect I know, that's to my advantage. And needless to say, this is just between us. Let's see what happens."
"Agreed. I will fast with you."
I smiled. "Kinda thought you would. Thanks." I paused. "She's got a doctor's appointment in three days. How's the weather look on your end?"
"I think we'll be clear by then."
"Good. We'll probably fly back after the appointment."
Before we ended the conversation, we prayed together. I walked around the room for a few minutes, waiting on God for the next thing to do. Then I got out the notebook and composed an email to Jack. Trying to be vague yet getting the point across, I put together the cryptic message informing him of the prayer need and what Clark and I had planned. Then I sent it off.
I suddenly remembered the scripture that had touched Clark so strongly when he first arrived -- "Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you." -- and involuntarily quoted the verse that followed it: "Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour:"
I spoke aloud, addressing the roaring lion. "Okay, you won the first round. But we're not giving her up without a fight." And I went to my knees in prayer.
The restaurant's name was Skippy's, and it had a nostalgic 1950's flavor to it. By the time we arrived, the families had moved on, leaving only the couples and groups of friends. They had an Elvis impersonator with a wireless microphone roaming from table to table, serenading the patrons. His voice wasn't half bad, and his style was right on the money. Dot and I sequestered ourselves into a corner booth, and a waitress roller-skated over to us. I ordered something to drink, and Dot absently ordered a hamburger. Dot was poor company indeed, and I don't think that mattered to her at the moment. On the outside she appeared showered and clean, but the inside was another story. She barely spoke a dozen words, and avoided all eye contact with me. I just let it slide and prayed for her.
The Elvis impersonator got to our table. He spotted my cross and broke into a rendition of "Amazing Grace". I was flattered. Then he turned to Dot, who was half-heartedly picking through her meal. He commented on how lovely she was, then started crooning "Love Me Tender". Inwardly I grimaced at the unintentional low blow, and saw every muscle on her tense up. Halfway through the song, she suddenly said, "Bathroom," and left the booth. The Elvis impersonator finished his song to the rest of the crowd that was watching us, and moved on.
I had a bad feeling about Dot's sudden bathroom break, but shrugged it off with a reminder to be patient. After five minutes had passed without Dot returning, I realized with a groan that she'd taken off. On the outside chance I was wrong, I described Dot to our waitress and asked if she had seen her. She told me Dot had left the restaurant. As I kicked myself for ignoring God's tap on my shoulder, I quickly paid the check and headed back to the hotel. One look told me she hadn't returned. And, I noticed, her cell phone was still on the bedside table. So she was out there alone, with no way to contact her.
I pulled out my cell phone and hit the speed dial.
"Hello?" came Clark's voice.
"Dot's taken off," I announced. "She's running."
"Are you sure?"
"I've got the bruises on my butt from kicking myself to prove it. Yes." I quickly summarized what led up to her action. "I'm in her room now, and she's not been here. She also doesn't have her cell phone." I took a deep breath. "Clark, this is more serious than either of us imagined. Now we pull out all the stops. You call Monk and Lea, and Kevin. I'll call Jack. I want major prayer cover -- as many people praying for her as we can get. I'm going to stay here -- she's gotta come back eventually."
"Acknowledged," he said, and ended the call. There was no time to waste.
I looked through the room. I didn't expect to find anything out of the ordinary, but didn't feel like sitting down just yet. I picked up the discarded teddy bear, Grape Juice, where she had flung it against the wall. I straightened him up, and held him for a moment, a reminder of a more innocent time, mere days ago. I could smell her fragrance on him. As I placed him in a sitting position on her bed, I said, "She'll be back." I walked into the bathroom and saw the discarded clothes in the corner, every item a piece of evidence supporting what I already knew. My nose caught smells that dredged up long-distant memories of bad times gone by. I kept the use of the lights to a minimum, not wanting to alert her that I was waiting for her.
Then I sat in the same familiar chair by her bed. And I prayed. And I cried. And I prayed. I was never more serious about anything -- not since the night Barbara left me. I pressed hard into prayer, sometimes sitting, sometimes pacing the room, sometimes flat on my face begging God to bring her back alive.
It was 5:17 in the morning when I heard the key turn in the lock. I didn't move, not knowing what to expect. I saw her drag herself in and lock the door behind her. Her short hair was a mess, and looked abruptly uneven. Her clothes were torn and dirty and looked as if she had slept in them. I thought I saw a bruise on her cheek. My hand deliberately pressed the power button on the cell phone, producing a beep that got her attention. She looked over and saw me. I was so glad she was alive, but ached inside at what I saw before me.
"I'm glad you're okay," I said.
"I'm a big girl," she informed me. Her tone was caustic. "I'm quite capable of taking care of myself."
She moved into the room. I noticed she was walking with a limp.
"So I see. Looks like you got into a fight."
"I had a rematch with GI Jane."
I remembered the skinhead gang member from the other night. "What happened?"
"She recognized me. She made the first move." She smiled with a grim smile. "Big mistake."
"Looks like it," I commented dryly. "What's going on? Ever since yesterday afternoon you've had a cloud over your head. Then you bolt and run from the restaurant without saying a word. Now you show up here looking like something the cat dragged in. And I want to know why."
"Because I wanted to, that's why. I'm a big girl." She paused. "Why should you care about me, anyway?"
I stood and slowly moved closer to her. "I love you, Dot."
She walked past me, ignoring me. "Look, why don't you just leave me alone? I'm going back to New York and drop this whole scene."
"You're limping. Is there anything I can do?"
She whirled on me and exploded. "Why are you treating me so nice? Look at me -- do you know what I did?"
My eyes didn't waver from her face. "You got drunk and screwed around," I answered. "Among other things."
She froze. "You know?"
I nodded. "And that doesn't change things. I still love you."
"HOW CAN YOU LOVE ME?" she yelled. Then her voice died down to a whimper. She turned away from me, wrapped her arms around herself. "You need someone else, someone . . . clean. I'm not clean. I'm dirty." Her head was hung in shame.
I approached cautiously, then wrapped my arms around her. My senses were bombarded with the smells of alcohol, smoke, sweat, and blood. But it didn't matter. I loved this woman with a compassion beyond me.
My voice was practically a whisper, forced out with emotion. "What you did . . . doesn't matter to me. I love you."
Her hands opened and touched my arms. Her eyes opened and saw the purple teddy bear sitting on the bed, waiting for her. Her body started shaking, and she started sobbing. I held her tighter, praying like nothing else matter -- which it didn't. Her tearful release continued for several minutes, and, somehow, I was able to turn her around. Now her face was buried in my chest, her arms holding onto me with a grip of desperation.
She tried to explain. "He was . . . an old boyfriend, in town on a job assignment. He asked if I would join him . . . for a drink . . . for old times. He had to go back to his hotel before going to the airport. We . . . " She started sobbing again, and I just held her.
"It's okay," I said, comfortingly.
"No, it's not," she argued, looking up at me. "I'm dirty."
"I love you," I repeated.
"How can you love me?" she pleaded with pain-filled eyes.
"I have told you before. The same love that I can love you with is the same love that can clean you up." I paused. "Because it's not me."
"You mean . . . Jesus?"
"Yes!" I breathed. "That's what it's always been!" I paused. "Remember those Bible stories I told you while you were recuperating? Well, I've got one more for you." I paused, then proceeded. "The religious leaders of that time wanted to trip Jesus up with anything they could, to spoil his reputation with the people. So they brought a woman before him, one who had been caught in the very act of adultery. Back then, the punishment for adultery was death by stoning. They dragged that woman through the streets and tossed her at his feet, demanding to hear from him what should be done with her. They figured they had him now. But instead of doing what they thought, he did something totally different, and turned things back on them, forcing them to leave the area in shame.
"The woman had probably seen people stoned to death, and knew it was a slow, painful death. She couldn't run. She just lay there in the road waiting for that first rock to hit her. But it never came. Finally she looked up at the one man standing in front of her. That was Jesus. He asked her where her accusers were. She looked around and said they were gone. Then he told her that he didn't accuse her either, and instructed her to go and not to sin anymore.
"She had been given a second chance on life. She had, in that one dramatic moment, been cleaned of all the crap she had ever done. And she knew someone very special loved her. He helped her to her feet, and she walked away clean. And forgiven.
"You can be clean in the very same way she was, as I was. If you want it. Do you want it?"
Through all of this, our eyes were locked, and I prayed it was getting through to her.
"Just say yes," I softly offered.
The silence was deafening. Moments passed like hours. Her mouth opened a couple of times without sound. Then: "Yes."
She nodded. "Yes."
Tears were streaming down both of our faces. I took my arms from around her and held her hand; it was soft, and my heart was bursting within my chest with emotion.
"Then, let's pray."
It took a few minutes to put together the three-way call, but I soon had both Clark and Monk on the line.
"Perry?" asked Monk, anxiously. "Is everything okay? Is Dot okay?"
I took a deep breath. "My brothers, I have great news . . . "