There was a man lying on the floor of his cell in Eastern Yugoslavia. The ceiling of the room had a crack across it in the shape of a cross.
He was lying there, unattended for a third day. Hungry and ravished with thirst.
Yesterday he had looked at the bones in his forearms while the sun shone through the tiny portal like a diluted flashlight beam. He was looking forward to that ray of light today, as the day before he’d been unaware of how short of a time it would stay.
The only other thing he had to occupy himself was a tiny pebble which had dislodged from one of the corners, no telling when. No hope in that miniature chip for escape.
Not that he dared to try.
He had finally surrendered, after being on the run for more than twenty years.
Instead he rolled the chip back and forth with his naked heel. Sometimes between his forefinger and thumb.
He wondered, if it would get any smaller during his ten-year sentence in this tiny concrete room.
Three days without water and food, and he already knew that he was going to shrink, if not die altogether.
The thoughts of his wife came the very first night, after the gorgeous ray of light turned out. Before the hunger, before the thirst. Right there in the dark.
He had been running ever since the divorce.
That, then the loss of his career, had been the final straw that broke his faith in the Lord.
Ever since, time had been one long, never-ending payday.
Run. Steal. Eat. Hide.
Run. Steal. Eat. Hide.
All across Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro…
Countless shopkeepers shortchanged. Countless single-serve friendships, robbed then abandoned for the sake of his own saving grace. Left in the rear in self-exoneration.
But they had been after him. He knew it.
God knew it.
He wondered if in some small way, that his wife had known it. Foreseen it? Left him in some subconscious desire of self-preservation…
He thought of how their separation had begun.
With a diamond necklace.
How does a diamond necklace separate loved ones?
He knew the answer.
It had taken him three days away from her and the kids to land the score. The surprise and love-making that briefly followed when he gave it to her were eventually replaced by suspicion at his deepening absences.
The more distant she got from him, the harder he studied the art of the steal. The more extravagant the symbols of his love became.
The less time he actually spent at home.
The first time she disappeared with the kids, she had taken a few of his gifts along.
But by the third time… she had taken nothing. Just the children.
The very first diamond necklace was on the coffee table staring at him when he walked in with roses.
He had wondered why, when he was trying so hard to show her that he loved her.
Working full-time. Thieving on the side.
He always thought he could fix it.
He lifted the necklace in his hands and thought of throwing it across the room. Then he considered…
Maybe she will be back.
He opened a beer and watched an episode of Greatest Heists.
But when he finally went to bed for the night, he saw it.
Her wedding band was on his pillow.
He was lying curled up in the corner in the early morning of his second day in the Yugoslavian penitentiary. It was black as a coal seam and dry as a desert.
Every few minutes he’d hear a whistle. It sounded as if it was coming from beneath the slab. Like someone in Hell was shaking a tin sheet of metal. Making a pretend thunderstorm.
Mocking his dry tongue and lips. A rainless thunderhead.
Not even a flash of lightning to reassure him that color was still a thing.
It was hours before a sliver of gold appeared deep in the recesses of that portal. A tiny light in the back of more than four feet of stone.
A hole bored large enough perhaps to roll a baseball down through to him, had not an iron grate capped the far end.
He had lacked the desire to move until he’d seen it.
It had illuminated his entire eye socket over the next hour and a half.
He would look like some astronomer staring through a telescope at what? Yellow. Then white. Then yellow again.
Then back to the heavy dark.
He thought that maybe after a few more years he would consider it the most beautiful thing on Earth.
Before the light had come on that second morning he had lied there thinking.
What else was there to do, besides roll his pebble? Die of thirst?
The first time he had talked her into coming home he was relieved, but he had to make promises.
No more lengthy absences.
Amazingly, she didn’t even ask him where it was he was always off to!
That lasted, until she had caught him having dinner with one of his co-workers. She had been so angry that he needed something big to heal the wound he’d created.
Two days, he’d thought. I can pretend to be ashamed for two days and score that new Lexus she wants. Then it will all be okay.
I can fix this.
When he’d come home with it. She was gone.
Broken promises are broken promises.
When he realized he could make out the crack on the ceiling he knew the ray was close. It would start to creep its way along the top of the far end of the tube any minute today.
But he was so weak. Instead of jumping up to his knees and peering through the portal, he just lay there for a minute looking at the crooked cross and thinking of his poor Catholic mother.
How he wished he were back in Norway with his ex-wife and kids.
The second time his wife had returned he had thought it was because he promised to go to marriage counseling.
It had been because his mother had asked her to have mercy and show her son some grace.
What a fool he was!
He had thought he had fixed it. Fixed it good!
He didn’t even have to go on a fake business trip to make her divorce him. He simply had gotten weak and stolen a ring from Abraxas jewelers, switching out a real for a fake.
An easy nab! An amateur take!
But he had been caught. Two days after the switcheroo the Norwegian police showed up and tossed him in rehab.
How he wished he were caught back in Norway for this!
His wife had left him. His career came to an end.
He was a kleptomaniac. It was obvious to all but him.
He really did think she would be there when he got out.
But there he had stood. Roses in hand. Thinking he could fix things again. Also still thinking of when it was that he’d get an opportunity to get his hands on some dirty metal after all this had blown over.
But there was no one there to hand the flowers to and there was no job to go to. Worse, there was no one who would listen to his side of the story.
He’d had no friends for so long. Just the warmth and comfort and satisfaction of a job well done. That had been enough for him.
Lying here on the floor under the cross, he realized that it had never been enough for everyone else.
The light had snuck down the tube to where he could see it from the corner of his eye.
He wondered if he even deserved to look the light of God right in the eye.
He’d never been so sure if he believed in all his Mom’s Catholic craziness, but before he had been caught, he’d at least believed… in something.
He rolled over the other way instead. Ashamed.
The light came full on in the shaft.
On the opposing wall it lit up some sort of scripture that someone had chiseled into the stone. He’d not noticed the night before being so focused on where the light was coming from.
“Grace is the Love and Mercy of a God who desires us to have it. It will never be because of anything we will ever do to earn it.”
The tears started flowing as he thought of his mother. More tears as he thought of his wife. He was almost as dry as a bone.
Maybe he should die in his stupidity!
He rolled onto his back after hearing the temporary mocking of the underground thunderhead.
And then, from the crack in the ceiling, came a drop of water that fell directly on his chapped lips.
His heart leaped.
Hope nearly burst from him like a lion after a wounded lamb.
But he didn’t dare flinch. He would never reach the ceiling, he could only look to the cross-shaped crack. And then the drip became a steady thread of water.
He let it fill his mouth time and again.
Nectar of God.
After he was satisfied and before the light from the portal waned away, he sat up.
Under him had been a tiny hollow spigot.
When the thin stream fell into it, a gentle but beautiful note rose from its depths.
It wasn’t rainless mockery from hell after all! It was life-giving water from the cross!
His eyes adjusted and he rubbed his hands together in the sliver of water. When his palms were clean he moistened his eyes.
In the corner was a plate of bread he’d not noticed. Pushed under a two-inch doggie door during the dark of night.
He cried again re-reading the wall and thanked God.
What could he do? How could he escape?
His probation officer found him in Yugoslavia a week later.
They extradited him to Norway.
Two years after that he lay there beside his forgiving ex-wife thinking,
What a woman!
I will never lose sight of what God’s trying to show me because I’m lost in awe of where he’s coming from.
And every time he thought of a shiny new watch he told himself,
“It’s more important I be here in bed with the one I love, than be out there chasing dreams.”
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Jay Horne is an author and publisher out of Bradenton, Florida. He is a husband and father of four.
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