The parking lot in the front of Hillside Christ Church was bare on a Monday morning, save for Joey's sizable truck. It hulked in the shadow of a great oak tree just to the front of the covered walkway leading into the church.
In the vacant sanctuary, Kurt and Joey sat waiting on the front pew. The pastor, Ben Leaves, was an old friend of Joey. Kurt didn't know how much time they had left before others would arrive, but there were still new questions that kept popping into his mind that each felt more urgent than the last. He didn't want to be that guy, the guy who assaulted someone with endless annoying questions. As somewhat of an introvert, that felt on the verge of badgering if not outright pestering. He wasn't a master of the art of conversing with a wide variety of people, but he was pretty sure that kind of behavior earned frowns all around.
Indeed, this is why he kept letting questions burn his brain instead of unloading them on his… partner? Mentor? He still didn't know what Joey was to him at this point. He seemed to have taken on the role of a guide. He hadn't revealed much, but the implications of the things that he had insinuated to Kurt were enough that the very fact that Kurt was on the verge of seriously considering them should have him in a straight jacket in the most secured insane asylum that his knowledge of comic books told him must be out there.
Kurt figured that at least one question would be a good start and had a chance of being answered before their company arrived.
"What was the deal at that other church?" he asked.
"The Church of Laramore?" Joey asked.
Kurt nodded his head.
"Remember that guy who went up and made a profession of faith?" Joey asked. "Suppose I told you than in a few years, he would become one of God's greatest instruments in fighting Satan."
"LIke what you do?" Kurt asked.
"Oh, no. In a more traditional manner. The great evangelists of our time are dying out. The likes of Billy Graham are gone. There will be those who rise up to fill that unfillable void. Those whose message of the Gospel will reach thousands, if not millions. Those who refuse to allow politics or personal wealth sully their message."
"So, you were there to influence him?" Kurt asked, somewhat accusatory.
"No, I don't do that. God doesn't work like that. People have free will, that is their gift. He had been asking God to help him with his decision. I was that help. I took away that which would have held him back."
The dark stranger, Kurt knew without having to ask. That much was obvious.
"Funny how no one noticed your little fight out there," Kurt remarked.
"Trust me, no one saw it. They only see what we want them to," Joey explained.
"Even me?" Kurt asked.
"When your eyes have been opened to the fantastic, as yours have, they don't close easily." Joey said. "Anyway, Brad went up. On his own. I was simply there to help him, just as I'm here to help you. Though you are another type of instrument. That incident at the supermarket brought it out of you. That God-given gift that you still haven't realized the full potential of."
As much wonder and unbelievable promise Joey's statement held, Kurt couldn't help but feel disturbed by one implication. In fact, he felt his face begin to flush in anger. What Joey was suggesting was unthinkable to him, that God would do such a thing. Much like a villain in a particular movie who would cause catastrophes to find that one person who would survive it so he would know who his equal was.
"God had all those people killed just so my power would come out?" Kurt was incredulous. The very thought churned his stomach. His God, the one he worshipped and had worshipped almost all of his life was a jealous God, true, but he was a loving, forgiving God, full of undeserving grace. He couldn't make that image jive with the Old Testament God of wrath that Joey was proposing.
Joey shook his head gently, and Kurt felt the claws grasping his stomach lighten slightly. He wasn't thinking clearly and was too quick to jump to conclusions. He realized that, somewhere inside of him, but it did a poor job keeping him from foolishly jumping headlong into those conclusions without a parachute.
"No," Joey said firmly. "It is not God's will that people should hurt each other. That's one of the Big Commandments. As I said, God gave you the greatest gift of all. Free will. To do good or evil. It's that simple. When people, flesh and blood people, choose to do evil, God will use it to bring something good about. Evil brought forth this tragedy in your life, and God used it to show you a gift. Now, you have a choice. You have to decide if you're gonna use it for him."
"I don't even know how to use it," Kurt said.
"Practice will make, if not perfect, at least competent," Joey said with a smirk.
Kurt sat silent for a moment, trying to let it sink in. He couldn't deny that it was something that had crossed his mind, but something so fantastic couldn't have been true. This wasn't a fairy tale or some Tolkienesque adventure. This was the real world and he was an average-at-best human being. These were those powers and principalities that were always being talked about in sermons and Bible studies. They sounded cool and out of this world and, sure, people truly believed it, but it was one of those things believed and never really seen. One prayed and let the power of their prayer fuel the battle between spiritual beings being fought in that realm by those that existed in that realm.
Now, Kurt found that he had been thrust into that realm. No longer an idle bench warmer, tossing an idle prayer here and there, now one of those on the front line. He had faith in the Almighty and the supernatural, but if he hadn't experienced what he had on that day in the supermarket and hadn't seen what Joey was truly capable of, he didn't know if his faith would have stretched that far.
"So, I'm destined to… fight demons," the thought sounded ridiculous to himself as it came out of his mouth.
"Partly, yes," Joey confirmed.
"You know, I'm scared of even the very idea of demons," Kurt said. "The thought of them frightens me. Just to know that such creatures lurk the face of the earth and we can't really see them." He shuddered just allowing the thought to enter his head. "They could be hanging out on your shoulder. Hiding in the shadows of your bedroom as you lie down to sleep. Inside the folds of your covers. It makes the hair on my arm and on the back of my neck stand on end."
"It should," Joey said and Kurt couldn't keep the chill from running down his spine. "You just have to remember that you're on the winning team. You know, the last chapter's written and all that."
"Sure, in the end they lose. This I understand. I also understand that it probably makes them a bit grumpy and they'll do what they can to take as many with them when they go. Not comforting."
"It's not," Joey agreed. "Which is why the likes of you are needed. You are a soldier touched by the hand of God. You've been given a specific power by Him."
Joey placed a firm hand on Kurt's shoulder and looked him directly in the eyes, his own seeming to emit a comforting light. His voice became impassioned, full of holy fire.
"It is the demons, Kurt Collins, who fear YOU."
Kurt didn't respond. He looked away from Joey and down at his hands, which had managed to tighten themselves into sweaty fists. Joey, he realized, was not only his guide and personal Obi-Wan, he was an answer to prayers. Not just his own. The man at the Church of Laramore, as well. A thought occurred to him as he looked back to Joey.
"The unnecessarily rude waitress at the restaurant. What was her story?"
"Nothing so dramatic. A simple thing in the grand scheme of the universe, but to her, it's the world. Pregnant, been at work all morning on her feet with no break. Been getting the rough treatment from most of her customers…"
Kurt dipped his head, embarrassed and ashamed to realize he had been one of those. It was somehow worse knowing that he worked with customers all the time and knew exactly what it was like to have one of those days where they all seemed to hate him for no other reason than the fact that he was there and was the one they saw. He was usually pretty mindful of how he acted around other members of various service industries and tended to be more forgiving than he should. Not on that day. On that day, he had allowed himself to sink to that level and knowing what he was personally going through did not make that thought sit any better.
"Her husband is in a dead-end job that pays next to nothing," Joey continued. "They are struggling and were praying for a miracle. Not an earth-shattering thing, but sometimes a small miracle to the right person is the biggest miracle. One thing that might feel insignificant to one person can, for another, change the course of a lot of different things, big and small."
Opening up and digging deep was something Kurt had always struggled with to a fault, the exception being when he was around Carrie. However, when he did find himself in the midst of a juicy talk, he would begin to warm up and be less guarded. The flow of conversation would start to become more natural for him. Which was why he felt a pang of disappointment when he heard the front door of the church open.
Ben Leaves walked in, a boisterous laugh coming to him at the sight of Joey. Following him was Bruce Chance, more subdued than his lead pastor but a welcoming smile on his face, nonetheless. Ben walked up to Joey, wrapping the taller man in a giant hug.
"Joey!" he exclaimed. "I can't believe I'm seeing your face again."
He released Joey from his embrace.
"How're you doing, Ben?" Joey asked, his smile somehow extending to his voice.
"Being as faithful as I can," Ben replied. He motioned to Bruce, who stepped up and took Joey's hand in a shake before doing the same to Kurt.
"This is my trusty Youth Minister, Bruce Chance," Ben introduced him. "Bruce, this is a friend from back in my seminary days, Joey. He's barely aged a day and I've gotten somewhat rounder. And for reasons I cannot to this day guess, will not spill his last name."
"I like to keep somewhat an air of mystery about me," Joey said good naturedly. Kurt smirked to himself. If they only knew how true that statement was.
"More likely because it's Woopenhiemer or some other such silly and unpronounceable thing," Ben said.
"Always a possibility," Joey admitted.
Ben looked over to Kurt, who extended his hand for a shake.
"And your friend?" Ben asked.
"Kurt Collins," Kurt answered.
"Friend of mine," Joey explained.
"Pleasure to meet you," Ben said.
"So, Kurt, how did you come across Joey here?" Ben asked.
Kurt smiled. The answer to that was something he was still trying to grasp.
"He kind of… fell into my life," he answered.
Ben laughed a knowing laugh. He looked at Joey, shook his head and grinned, hands on his hips.
"He tends to do that," Ben said. "He is the reason I'm a preacher today. I was going through some tough times in seminary and Joey came into my life about then and somehow convinced me to stay on and give it my best. I owe him a lot. Which is why I was glad to hear him say that he was willing to come up and stay a bit to help out with the church.
"And how is it holding up?" Joey asked.
Ben's smile faded a little at that. A shrug of the shoulders and a sigh.
"The same as it's been for the last ten years," Ben said. "And that's not a good thing. We never really get a whole lot of new members. Most of 'em have been going here their whole lives."
"If it's anything like where I come from," Kurt said. "It's probably hard to get new people with a church on every corner."
Bruce shook his head.
"Thing is, there's not a church on every corner here. We're one of the only games in town."
Kurt raised his eyebrows, genuinely shocked.
"You're kidding," he said. This was a small town in conservative Texas, right? Most of these small southern towns had more churches than they had believers. Not as much in the bigger Texas cities, in Kurt's experience, but that was just because there were more mega churches in those places.
"I wish he was," Ben sighed. "People in this town don't really seem to care much about spiritual matters."
"Most of 'em are good people," Bruce said. "Just not interested in darkening the doors of a church."
"Especially during Cowboy season," Ben smiled.
"Well, that part is like my town," Kurt nodded. Even the most dedicated deacon had a hard time resisting the magnetic pull of their Dallas Cowboys.
"And if things seem to be on the upswing, something always happens to bring it crashing down," Ben said. "I fear if we don't make a breakthrough, we're just going to wither and die."
If they were one of the only churches in town, Kurt realized that if something like that were to happen, it would extinguish one of the only flames of God in the entire town. It was a hard thing for him to understand, this lack of a church presence so deep in the Bible Belt. What sort of shadow held sway over this particular town? Kurt would normally dismiss it as just the way things were going now, on a national level. People were generally simply becoming apathetic about spiritual welfare.
That just didn't seem right to him. Why else would Joey be here and bring Kurt with him? Did Joey even know what was going on?
"Of course, we'll help in any way we can," Joey said.
"I'm sure we can find something for you guys to do," Ben said. "Maybe what we need is new blood, new ideas."
"Just point us where to go and there we'll be," Joey assured him.
"Kurt, you're a younger man," Ben said. "Maybe you could help Bruce out with the youth group."
"It would be much appreciated," Bruce agreed.
"I don't know much about doing anything like that," Kurt said, "but I guess I can give it a shot."
"Ah, it's easy," Bruce said. "Rule number one, don't let 'em drive you insane."
Kurt smiled, thinking he might actually already be halfway there. He left the thought unsaid, but it had enough of an echo of truth to it to unsettle him. What if he was just going crazy? A lot of things had happened and were still happening to him. He had witnessed things that should not be. Right underneath everything, his grief still boiled within. Even with all of the fantastic things he found himself suddenly immersed in, a deep hurt still throbbed through his soul, leaving a wound that would take a long time to properly and fully heal.
What if that grief had become too much and was making him crazy? Perhaps he had broken inside and allowed delusions to become his reality. The world was too painful to live in at the moment and the only way he could proceed to the other side of his grief was to give in and accept the supernatural. It was entirely possible he was seeing what he wanted to see and not the truth of what was really there. An emptiness that he would never be able to climb out of.
He mentally shook his head, driving those thoughts back inside of himself. The fact was, something didn't feel right about any of this. There was something going on here, something spiritual and beyond human senses. Kurt didn't know if he was putting too much stock in the changes he was going through, but he did know that in every instance where he found himself in which the supernatural had been involved, he could sense something.
He didn't realize it when it was happening, but looking back, there was always a sense that something was wrong. It manifested itself in a sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach, something bordering on dread and despair. It wasn't quite that sharp here, but he felt something quivering in his stomach and it made him uneasy.
He came out of himself to hear Ben Leaves asking Joey if they had a place to stay. He was saying that he would hate that they were paying for a motel when someone at the church could put them up for free.
"Already taken care of," Joey assured him. "Brother Maynard is putting us up."
"You know Brother Maynard?" Ben asked in surprise.
"I know, I know, I get around."
"I'll say," Ben agreed.
"If you guys want a quick and easy way to start integrating with us," Bruce said, "the monthly church-wide softball game is tonight."
"Right," Ben said. "You're both invited, obviously."
"Sounds a blast," Joey said. "We'll be there."
Sports. Yay, Kurt thought. Nothing like potentially spraining his ankle while trying to impress the new folk. He didn't hate sports; he followed them in a casual way. But playing them? As Joey insinuated, he had gifts. Physical activity was not among them.
Behind the fellowship hall building of Hillside Christ Church was the secondary parking lot for the church. Off to the side of the parking lot was a huge field that eventually flowed down a hill and into a wooded area. Nothing about the land suggested a baseball field, save for an old backstop that stood before a fence on the outer boundaries of the church.
Kurt was up to bat, an old softball bat gripped awkwardly in his fists. Crouched down behind him, Mattie Chance held up a worn catcher's glove. Pastor Ben Leaves stood on what passed for the pitching mound, only it was less a mound and more a circle of dirt in the middle of the grassy field.
He made to wind up for a pitch, though the movement was more for good natured show for his flock than for actual performance. The ball shot out of his hand and flew over the plate, obviously coming in high.
Kurt swung wildly.
Tom Oney, an old insurance salesman who served as deacon, stood behind Mattie to play umpire.
"Strike!" he called.
Mattie pulled the ball from the catcher's mitt.
"Baseball was never a strength of mine," Kurt muttered.
"Maybe if you didn't swing at every single pitch," Mattie's voice came from behind him. "'Specially, you know, the ones that are in the dirt before they even reach you."
Kurt had been briefly introduced to Mattie a couple of hours before the game started. If Kurt was a bit of an introvert, Matte Chance was the exact opposite. The thing that amazed Kurt about her was that she wasn't overly annoying about it. There was a genuine quality about her that somehow urged a person to respond to her. He had barely known her for a handful of hours and already felt comfortable trading friendly barbs. Though he seemed to find himself on the receiving end of her cleverness with very little of his own to shoot back.
"Mattie, what's the point in playing a game like this if you're not gonna take a swing?" Kurt asked. He was somewhat pleased in the philosophical nature of his retort.
"And what's the point of swinging if you're never gonna connect?" she shot back, tossing the ball back to Ben.
She had a point. However, he shrugged in response, as if that was hardly the point.
"You never know if you don't try," he said, choking up on the bat again as the pastor got ready for his next wind-up.
Another showy wind-up and another soft toss over the plate. The ball came in very low, almost into the dirt. Kurt drove the bat down, almost in a golf like swing and smacked the ball with the end of the bat. The ball went up, far into the air and sped past the infield.
"Besides," he said, cockier than he actually felt, "every once in a while, it actually pays off."
He began to trot to first base, watching as the ball soared far into the outfield, making its way to homerun territory. He wasn't big on sports, but that had felt good. The crack of the bat, driving the ball so far was more satisfying than he would admit to any of his old friends who knew how much he scoffed at the game of baseball specifically.
As the ball began to descend past the field of play, a tall form sped to the corner of the field and leapt into the air. A gloved hand reached up and scooped the ball from the air in a miraculous catch, robbing Kurt of baseball glory. Joey landed gracefully, launching the ball back toward the pitcher's mound like a missile as his feet touched the ground.
Kurt, having rounded first base stopped halfway to second and glared at Joey as the ball came back over his head into the glove of Ben. The outfield team let up a cheer as Joey gave Kurt a grin and a wink.
No fair, he thought, shaking his head. Angels in the outfield.
He turned around and trudged back, walking the walk of shame back to home plate. Mattie gave him a playful grin as he took his spot behind the backstop where two of the youth, Cody and Randy stood talking.
"Pays off, huh?" she asked.
"Told you I sucked at this game," he replied sullenly.
Bruce stepped up from his position on deck and grabbed the old bat. He crouched over the plate in front of his wife, looking way more natural in his form than Kurt had felt in his.
"Smack her outta the park, Bruce," he cheered.
"That's the idea," Bruce said.
The first pitch came and Bruce stepped back from the plate as the ball came in low.
"Ball!" called Tom Oney.
"C'mon, swing!" Kurt encouraged him, clapping his hands with more enthusiasm than he thought he would have felt coming into this game. Maybe he needed some normal low-pressure sports to clear his mind of dead girlfriends, angels and demons.
"When the pitch is right," Bruce said calmly.
Another pitch, another…
"Ball!" came the call.
Mattie looked back at Kurt as the pastor stretched his arms to limber his limbs. She considered him with a curious raised eyebrow.
"You know," she said. "Ever since Bruce introduced me to you, I've felt like you looked familiar. Have I seen you somewhere before?"
Kurt tried to hide the expression that wanted to form on his lips, but wasn't sure how successful he was at keeping the darkness out of his eyes. So much for clearing his mind of unpleasant thoughts. He liked Mattie. He liked Bruce. He certainly wasn't ready to broach this subject with them, not at this particular moment. It felt inevitable that he would, eventually. His face had recently been on national news, a fact that he couldn't hide from forever.
Instead of answering, he gave a shrug as if to say he didn't know.
"If you remember if you have, let me know," he said sincerely.
Was he turning into Joey now? Answering simple questions with disarming vagueness. He guessed his teacher was teaching him some tricks. He had to admit, however, that the thought of talking with someone about everything had a cathartic appeal. Other than Joey, he really hadn't had anyone that he felt comfortable talking through it with. Mattie, there was something different about Mattie. But not yet. He wasn't ready, and he didn't know if he ever truly would be, but he felt he had to be closer to ready than he was now.
She had turned her attention back to the game, where Pastor Ben Leaves had heaved another high pitch over the plate that Bruce refrained from swinging at. Another pitch soon followed for the final ball.
Bruce tossed the bat casually to the side and took his base, out where Jamie Nutter was playing his position. Kurt watched him go.
"Now where's the fun in that?" Kurt asked.
"Sometimes you have to do what is boring and necessary for the good of the team," Mattie said, and Kurt found that her philosophical answer may have been wiser, it didn't sound as fun.
"Just so you know," he told her, "the way I play softball isn't a parallel for the way I live my life."
Mattie smiled back at him.
"I'd never presume to think so."
Jenny Leaves stepped up to bat and looked over to her dad in the pitcher's mound.
"Go easy on me, Dad," she called.
"Fat chance!" he replied, smiling.
"Don't worry, Jenny," Jamie called over from first base. "Your dad pitches like a girl."
"You mean superiorly," she smiled as Ben lobbed one toward his daughter.
Jenny swung ferociously, slamming the ball like a rocket toward first base. Jamie, unprepared for the speed of the ball hurling toward his face, dodged out of the way. Bruce took off, making it to second base with nary a bead of sweat dropped, as Jenny planted her feet firmly on first.
Jamie scrambled to get the ball, trying to avoid tripping over his own feet to scoop the ball up from ground.
"C'mon, Jamie!" Mattie yelled. "Show a little backbone and take one for the team for once!"
After making sure the runners had no intention of advancing, Jamie lobbed the ball back to Ben. He trotted back to first base and called back to Mattie.
"Mattie, one must know when it is wise to take one for the team. I have to say that when our team leads by as much as it does, this was simply not a wise time to have my head caved in simply to get an out."
"Valid point," he said.
"Besides," Jamie continued. "With great sluggers like Kurt on the other team, we'll have victory in no time."
Mattie grinned back at Kurt.
"Valid point," she conceded.
Kurt simply rolled his eyes at the comment as Cody went up to bat. He smiled as he looked over the field at the group of people gathered to play. He had to be careful, he thought. If he kept this up, he would be in serious danger of having a good time. He had begun to convince himself that he didn't remember what that felt like.