(written for the [Fiction] Friday prompt on March 20, 2009.)

It had been a dark and stormy night.  The rain had finally stopped but the wind still blew coldly against his face on the dark road as he stood there, staring at the opened hood of his car, the only light being the thin beam of his flashlight combined with the periodic flash of the car’s hazard lights.  Occasionally there would be a brief glow from the full moon as it peaked through the thinning cloud cover only to be blanketed again as the winds pushed the clouds around like a bully.  He had tried to call for help but his cell phone was out of battery and he had left the car charger at home after taking it out of the car for some reason that escaped him at this moment.  It had been an hour since the last car had gone by, speeding past him and his blinking car as if they weren’t even there. 

His car had come to a stop when it had suddenly run out of gas despite having been filled just the night before.  Pastor Andrews was sure that the fuel had been siphoned off by the same folks who had done so before, townsfolk who were reacting to the news stories rather than listening to the facts.  He was furious at himself for not checking the fuel gauge before leaving town but he was in a hurry and had barely thought to buckle his seatbelt before pulling out of his parking spot at the church after his meeting with the High Priest.  The meeting had been scheduled to last for thirty minutes, but given the media attention to the current situation, it had extended to two hours, making Pastor Andrews late for his next appointment, and therefore, making him leave in a hurry that caused him to be in his current situation.

At last another car’s headlights appeared in the distance and Pastor Andrews tried to flag the driver down.  He waved the tiny flashlight, one that had been on his keychain for many years, a gift from one of the children in the church.  He flicked the tiny light on and off, hoping that this effort, coupled with the brighter flashing of the car’s lights, would cause the driver to slow down enough to see that he needed help. 

The oncoming car slowed down and then pulled over to the muddy shoulder in front of Pastor Andrews’ car.  The driver got out and walked slowly over to Pastor Andrews.  The man had a much larger flashlight and was shining it on Pastor Andrew, then on the car and back again.

“Car troubles, eh?” asked the man, rhetorically.

“Yes, yes,” said Pastor Andrews.  “Out of gas.”

“You should have filled the tank before you left town.”

“Yes, yes, I know.  I was in a hurry.  A meeting ran late and made me late for my next appointment.”

“Where ya headed?”

“I’m on my way to Thunderton… to the orphanage there.”

“I see you’re a man of the cloth,” said the man, shining the flashlight at Pastor Andrews’ clothing.  “Are you cut, Father? Your collar is stained red.”

“Oh, no, no,” said Pastor Andrews.  “I am not a Catholic Priest; I’m a Pastor in the Universal Church of the Heavens.  Our collars are, in fact, red.”

“Oh, I’m sorry for the mistake, Pastor,” said the man.  “I can give you a ride to Thunderton, if you’d like.  I doubt any gas stations are open this time of night but I’m sure your car will be alright out here for the night – there’s no one around here for miles.  You can hitch a ride back in the morning, I’m sure.”

“Thank you very much,” said Pastor Andrews.  “If it is truly no problem for you to bring me there, I would be most grateful.  Let me just get my bag.”  Pastor Andrews returned to his car and closed the hood, which he had opened simply to try to draw more attention to his need for aid.  He opened the trunk and pulled out his suitcase, then closed and locked all of the doors. 

“Here, let me help you with that,” said the man, taking the suitcase.  They walked to the back of the man’s van and he put the bag inside.  Closing it, he turned to look at Pastor Andrews, shining the flashlight on him.  “Wait a minute,” he said in a suspicious voice.  “I know who you are.  I saw you on TV the past few days.  You’re that creep priest who has been inappropriate with children. Pastor Pedophile, they’re calling you.”

“I assure you, the reports you have heard on the television are completely untrue,” replied Pastor Andrews quietly.

“People like you disgust me,” said the man in a loud, angry voice.  “Of course you will deny it all, say it’s all a big mistake or a misunderstanding.  But I read it on the internet, too, and there would never be anything false or misleading there, especially when it is also on the TV.”

“I assure you -”

“And now you are heading to an orphanage, to prey on more innocents?” said the man, backing away towards the driver’s side door.  “I will not be part of your disgusting habit.  Rot in Hell, Pastor Pedophile.”

The man jumped into the van, started it and stood on the gas pedal.  The wheels spun on the muddy shoulder, splashing mud all over Pastor Andrews, who was still standing behind the van.  “My suitcase!” he shouted.  “You have my suitcase!”

The van sped away and Pastor Andrews stood there alone, watching the red taillights fade off in the distance.  The mud, sticking to his face and his clothing, was cold and wet and made the wind that much more unbearable.  The moon tucked behind the clouds once more, leaving the flashing hazards as the only light source, causing strange shadows to appear and disappear every second.  Pastor Andrew fell to his knees, splashing more mud up and around him, but he did not care.

“God,” he prayed, “I have been faithfully doing everything you have asked of me.  I have followed all of the rules you gave me when you came to me with the bright lights and the powerful words.  I am now tolerating the negative publicity and the awfulness of the consequences from doing what you have asked.  But now I am humiliated, now I am alone.  I pray that if it is your will, you will help me out of this situation.  Amen.”

The wind picked up further and Pastor Andrews shivered.  He stood and walked back to the car, unlocking it and searching for a towel to put down on the seat before sitting.  Finding nothing he could use in the car he decided to just sit in the car anyway, hoping to be warmer than standing outside in the wind.  Opening the door, he was about to get into the car when a movement caught his eye.  Squinting in the darkness, he saw what he thought was someone walking toward him. 

“Hello?” he called.  “Is someone there?”

There was no response.  But Pastor Andrews was certain he heard footsteps slowly approaching.  I wish I had a real flashlight, he thought.  He reached in and turned on the car’s headlights, hoping to illuminate the situation better as he walked to the front of the car.

A man appeared in the headlights, walking toward him.  Pastor Andrews waited and the man eventually arrived at the car, stopping next to Pastor Andrews. 

“Hello,” said Pastor Andrews.  “Are you in need of help?”

The man did not reply.  He looked distant, as if his eyes were set on something in the distance, yet not focusing on anything at all.  His clothing was a non-descript gray in color.  It was a one piece outfit and covered his arms, body and legs completely.  His shoes were also gray and he wore a gray hat and gloves.  The only part of his body that was visible was his face and even that took on a gray hue in the dim light of the car’s headlights.

“Can you hear me?” asked Pastor Andrews. 

The man did not reply. Suddenly he reached into his backpack and pulled out a long, metal object.  Pastor Andrews, thinking it was a gun, backed away but the man simply held it out to him.  Hesitantly, Pastor Andrews reached out and took it, finding that it was a large flashlight. 

The man reached into his bag again and pulled out a large, soft towel and handed it to Pastor Andrews, who stared at it for a moment, confused.  Next, the man reached around to his other shoulder and removed a second backpack and handed it to Pastor Andrews.  Pastor Andrews opened it to find a full set of clothing, soap, shampoo, shaving supplies, a toothbrush and toothpaste in it. Finally, the man reached into the first backpack one more time and pulled out a five gallon gas can, filled with gas, and walked over to Pastor Andrews’ car.  Opening the gas cap, the man poured the fuel in until the gas can was empty, at which point he replaced it in his back pack after closing the car’s gas cap tightly. 

“Wow, I-I am -” stuttered Pastor Andrews.  “Thank you.  Thank you very much!  May I offer you a ride back to town or to… wherever you came from?”

The man stared at Pastor Andrews, or more accurately, around Pastor Andrews.  Pasto Andrews looked at the man’s eyes and saw nothing, no life, no soul.  He tried talking to the man but no answers came.  Suddenly, the man turned away from Pastor Andrews and began walking away from the car, continuing up the road in the direction he had been walking.  Pastor Andrews turned on the flashlight to follow the man’s path but he could not find him in the powerful beam of light, as if the man had simply disappeared.

Pastor Andrews was confused and shocked as he put the towel down on the driver’s seat and placed the backpack with clothing and the flashlight on the passenger seat.  Turning the key, the car roared to life.  Pastor Andrews whispered a prayer of thanks and then pulled back onto the road again to complete his journey to the orphanage.

The drive took him about thirty minutes to complete but he made it into Thunderton just a little past midnight, about six hours after he was supposed to arrive.  Most of the children were asleep already but the staff members were awake and were happy to see that Pastor Andrews was alright.  After he recounted his story over a cup of hot coffee, there were prayers of thanks for the good fortune of the man who did not speak but provided assistance, as well as prayers for the man who had sped off in the van without helping or understanding.

Pastor Andrews retired to his staff room at the orphanage and unpacked.  After he completed emptying the backpack of its contents, he realized that his laptop had been in the suitcase that the man in the van had taken.  He considered calling the police to report the theft but decided he would do so in the morning, when he was feeling more awake.

As soon as he began to undo his collar and to get ready for bed, a loud knock on the door startled him.  He walked over to it and opened it, finding the town sheriff, holding Pastor Andrews’ laptop.  Behind him was the man from the van, standing against the wall.

“Pastor Andrews, I am here to place you under arrest,” said the Sheriff. 

“What for?” asked Pastor Andrews.

“For child endangerment, for inappropriate behavior with children… you name it, we have a lot of detail now that we have your laptop.”

“I assure you, sir, that I have done nothing wrong,” said Pastor Andrews quietly.

“We have your laptop!” shouted the Sheriff, opening the laptop to show the screen to Pastor Andrews as well as the rest of the staff who had congregated around the commotion at the door.  “We see the pictures of the children.  See?  These are all the innocent ones you have been abusing.  You kept good notes in here, Pastor Andrews, and I thank you for making my job that much easier.”

“I assure you that things are not what they appear,” said Pastor Andrews, looking from the staff, who knew the truth, to the Sheriff who clearly was not interested in the truth.

“I should warn you, Pastor Andrews, that anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.  You have the right to remain silent.  You have the right to an attorney.  If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.  You have-”

“I know my rights,” interrupted Pastor Andrews.  “But I also know the truth.  The truth is that I have not committed these horrific acts to these poor, innocent children.  I have been saving them.  This whole orphanage is setup because of my efforts. Ask the staff, they will tell you!  I am -”

“The staff will be interviewed in due time,” said the Sheriff.  “And those found to be assisting you in these activities will be prosecuted as well.”

“Sheriff, I beg you to hear me out!  The notes are all the things these kids’ parents and guardians were doing to them.  I rescued them!  The parents were then dealt with by the Universal Church of the Heavens, placed into rehabilitation centers to become productive members of society again.  There has been no foul play here at all.”

“If this is true, then you’ll have nothing to worry about.  Until then, you will have to come downtown with me, I’m sure you understand.”

Pastor Andrews looked at the ground.  “Am I at least allowed to put my shoes back on?”

“Yes,” said the Sheriff, “but stay where I can see you.”

Pastor Andrews began to walk back into the room to get his shoes when all of a sudden the building shook violently and the lights flashed brightly, turned off, and then flashed brightly again.  The staff members in the hallway outside of Pastor Andrews’ door, the Sheriff and the man from the van began to shout in fear as the flashing of the lights repeated itself several times before stopping.  There were noises coming from the children’s rooms as the children awoke and began to stir, getting up to see what was happening.

The lights rose again throughout the building, brightening into a brilliant, white light that would have been blinding under normal circumstances.  But these were clearly not normal circumstances.  A loud, booming voice rose as if coming from the walls and the ceiling and the light all at once.  “Pastor Andrews speaks the truth!” the voice rumbled, shaking the floors.  “He has done no wrong and shall not be punished!”

The floors and walls began to rumble and shake again as the light continued to build in intensity.  Pastor Andrews, still barefoot, walked back to the door to see the Sheriff slowly backing away, toward the door to the outside.  Reaching it, he shouted over the noise of the shaking building, “Pastor Andrews, in light of this new… evidence… you can remain here tonight.  But do not leave town.”  The Sheriff, along with the man from the van, opened the door and left.  As soon as they were out of the building, the shaking stopped and the lights returned to normal, causing everyone to blink from the newly restored dimness.

Pastor Andrews tried to calm everyone down but was not really able to do so given his own level of panic. He had seen this light before, had heard the voice of God before, yet it was different this time.  It sounded closer, more real.  Angry. Eventually he convinced the children to go back to bed and told the staff that they should follow him outside to pray for insight into what had just happened.  He walked to the door and stepped outside, barefoot, and walked to the middle of the open, muddy playground outside the building.  Dropping to his knees he prayed a prayer of thanks.

The loud, booming voice returned as the night sky lit up with the same brilliant, white light as had filled the building moments ago. “You have done your job very well, Pastor Andrews, but you have not done it exactly as you were instructed.  You were instructed to provide all of the people, the parents and the children, to us.”

“I-” started Pastor Andrews.  “I, could not hand over the children, they are innocent in all of these activities.”

People, adult men and women, stepped into view, surrounding Pastor Andrews and the staff.  They all looked distant and their eyes were empty.  The booming voice continued.  “Look.  See the work you have done, the service you have provided.  Thousands of souls provided to us for energy.  Thousands of bodies, provided to us for slaves and soldiers in our galactic wars.  You have done well and we have decided that you have done right to keep the children.”

“Soldiers?  Slaves?” stammered Pastor Andrews, looking at all of them.  “Souls for energy?”

“Surely you did not believe we were your God,” continued the voice, booming so loudly that the ground shook as more and more men and women in gray clothing walked into view.  The light surrounding the mass of human shells, Pastor Andrews and the orphanage staff shifted to show a large spaceship descending through the sky, coming to rest in the playground.  “Surely you realized that your God would be merciful and you were asked to be merciless in your efforts.”

“I -” began Pastor Andrews, but he could not continue.

“We have decided that you have done right to preserve the children as whole beings,” continued the voice, “for in doing so you have ensured a future source of energy and soldiers for us.  The children shall grow and start families of their own, eventually repeating the mistakes of their own parents and requiring your special kind of justice.  Our armies will be fully staffed and our dominion over the universe shall be complete!”

“No!” shouted Pastor Andrews. “No, this is not right!  This is not what my intention was!  This is cruel and awful.  These men and women were supposed to be rehabilitated, supposed to be able to lead normal lives again.  The children were supposed to be able to become responsible and mature adults.  They will not repeat the mistakes of their parents because I took them out of those situations early enough!”

“All that happens in life has happened before,” boomed the voice, this time coming from a being that was walking from the spaceship.  It was bright white and had a human-like form but did not seem to have any physical parts to its body — just light.  “You have performed well, Pastor Andrews, and you will continue to perform well.  We are taking our first shipment from your planet and we are pleased with the results.  Half will be slaves in our mines, half will be soldiers in our armies.  We will return in one year for the next shipment.”

The empty-eyed human shells walked slowly to the space ship, filing into it one by one.  The being with the booming voice that had come from the ship said, “The human soul is the most powerful source of energy we have found in all of our travels around the universe.  Your service to us will ensure that we can meet our goals.”

“No,” said Pastor Andrews. “No.  This is not right.  God will not allow this to continue.  God will save us all. God will -”

“If your human God exists, and we will neither confirm nor deny this, then why does your God allow this to happen?”

“Free will,” said Pastor Andrews, quietly.

“Free will,” repeated the being.  “Humanity’s best excuse for its awful behavior.  Keep up the good work, Pastor Andrews.”  The glowing being turned and followed the last of the human shells into the ship and the ship silently departed, leaving the playground silent and dark.

“My God provided me with a way to stop this,” said Pastor Andrews to the staff.  “He provided the media with reports that I was a pedophile.  I will confess to the crimes that have been reported and will be sent to prison, unable to complete this task.  I do this of my own free will, as God has granted it to me.  Being a part of this… slavery effort… is far worse than me being labeled and treated as an abuser.”

With that, Pastor Andrews stood up and walked to the Sheriff’s car that was still parked at the gates of the orphanage.  Reaching the sheriff, Pastor Andrews began to speak, to confess the sins that the media had decided he had committed as well as those that he now knew were the real sins he had committed.  As he spoke, he looked at the Sheriff and noticed the empty, distant stare and the gray uniform and Pastor Andrews collapsed to the ground, crying, keenly aware that he had nowhere else to turn and completely alone with his thoughts as he searched his soul for to find an answer to questions he just barely understood.