The one thing he didn’t know how to run was the postage meter, so he left everything on Leta’s desk with a note that explained he had resigned. He asked that she mail out the letters first thing the following morning.

Now that the decision had been made to leave the ministry, Paul experienced a sensation of freedom so potent, he felt drunk. For a man who avoided anything remotely related to alcohol, the sensation was heady.

On the way back to his house, Paul wandered into the garage and rooted through his camping equipment. Having sorted through most everything recently, he easily found the camp stove, sleeping bag, tent, and other supplies he needed. And since the car was conveniently parked there, he loaded up the gear in the trunk.

When he was finished he walked into the house. For the first time in recent memory, he was hungry. He paused in an attempt to remember when he’d last sat down to a meal. Probably one Annie had cooked, and they’d left, what?…two days ago—no, three.

He rummaged through the refrigerator, brought out eggs and cheese—a little dry and dark around the edges, but still edible. An omelet. He used to be famous for his omelets. Family famous.

He cracked the eggs into a bowl and whipped them with a fork and had the silliest urge to sing. Only an hour or so earlier he couldn’t force himself to utter a single note of a well-loved Christmas carol; now he bellowed it out as if performing in an Italian opera.

The meal was delicious, the best he’d had in weeks. Nothing against Annie, but Joe’s wife-to-be had a thing or two to learn about cooking. He remembered Barbara’s first attempts at creating meals. Once again he smiled.

He stacked the dishes in the sink, filled it with soapy water, and left to pack his clothes. He intended on packing light. A sweater and an extra set of clothes plus a few changes of underwear were all he needed, he decided.

He checked the house one last time before he headed for the car. On second thought, he went back to the church. He didn’t stay long, anxious as he was to be on his way.

He remembered what Joe had said about letting someone know where he was. Bethany might phone, and when she learned he’d resigned and no one knew where he was…well, she’d worry about him and he didn’t want to spoil her Christmas.

It was only fair, too, that he let Leta know that she’d been a good secretary over the years. She deserved that much. He didn’t worry about the elders finding a replacement for him. As far as he was concerned, he hadn’t done the church much good the last several months anyway.

Sitting back down at his desk, his favorite fishing hat perched atop his head, Paul typed out a minor list of instructions for Leta. He listed the name of the campground where he was headed and wished everyone a Merry Christmas. For the first time that season, he meant it.

Eager to be on his way, Paul got into the car and was ready to leave when he remembered the dirty dishes soaking in the sink. He sat for a moment, then decided to leave them. He’d wash them when he returned.

The drive to the campground took him nearly two hours. It was a peaceful drive, with only his thoughts to keep him company. But this time they weren’t weighted down with regrets about what a poor job he was doing seeing to the spiritual needs of his congregation.

If he had any regrets, they all fell in the area of Madge Bartelli. He loved the old woman. But she was the straw that had broken him.

God had asked too much of him. It had been difficult enough to watch Barbara die, but to ask him to go through the ordeal a second time was unfair.

"Unfair,” he said aloud, and felt better for having said it.

He paid his fee at the private campground and located the very campsite he and Joe had stayed at a few years earlier, or one he assumed was the same. Pitching the tent on his own was no problem, although it took him longer without Joe there to lend a hand.

He set up the camp stove and lantern and stored the food he’d bought on his way out of town.

Dusk came with perfect timing. Paul was sitting on a log, his tent pitched, his dinner cooking, humming softly to himself. He hadn’t felt this content in years.

When he’d finished his meal, he sat and watched the stars appear one by one against a backdrop of black velvet.

Barbara had never been keen on camping, but she’d been a good sport, especially in the early years of their marriage. Later, after the kids were born, Barbara had stayed home and Paul had taken the kids with him.

Now it was just him, sitting alone in the night. No responsibilities. No obligations. No clock to punch.

How he missed his wife in those bittersweet moments. How he wished she were at his side. How he longed to tuck his arm around her shoulders and to have her head rest against his chest.

His arms were empty. As empty as the night. As empty as his heart.

The freedom he’d experienced earlier was replaced with a crushing pain. For the first time since Barbara’s death, he could identify his feeling.

Betrayal. God had betrayed him.

He found he was standing, his face turned to the sky. His back was as straight as a flagpole and his arms as stiff. They dangled at his sides, and his hands were clenched into tight fists. He’d wanted to run away. Escape. But his misery had followed him.

"Damn you!” Paul shouted into the silence. His words echoed back to him, bouncing off the hillside again and again, until gradually they faded.

Damn you. Damn you. Damn you.

Sadly Paul realized he was the one damned.

15

"I imagine you’re wondering why I’ve called you all here,” Gabriel said to his three charges.

Shirley, Goodness, and Mercy glanced nervously at one another. Gabriel could see that they were anxious about this meeting, especially Goodness, whom he’d talked to briefly only recently. They stood straight and tall, their wings folded neatly behind them. Each one wore a worried, if not mildly curious, look.

"I’ll admit we’re a bit inquisitive,” Shirley was brave enough to acknowledge.

Mercy stepped forward eagerly. "I want you to know, Gabriel, I haven’t been up to any of my old tricks. None of that kid stuff for me!”

"You mean other than what happened with Edith?” he asked evenly.

"Oh. That was quite a while ago now.”

Gabriel rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "And as I recall, there’s the small matter of sitting in an elevator shaft recently. Would you care to explain to me how that happened?”

"Ah, no,” she answered in a small voice.

"That’s what I thought. Now tell me how Catherine Goodwin’s prayer request is being handled.”

Mercy’s head drooped, and her eyes avoided his.

"I believe there’ve been circumstances out of Mercy’s control,” Goodness intervened on her friend’s behalf.

"Would you care to explain what’s happening, Mercy?” Gabriel linked his hands behind his back and paced in front of the three prayer ambassadors.

"Well,” she faltered, as if unsure where to start. "Catherine asked that Ted marry the woman God intended.”

"That’s correct.”

"I wish she’d been more specific,” Mercy muttered. "It’s clear to me Joy and Ted are ideally suited. They care deeply for each other.”

"That’s wonderful,” Gabriel said. "Then matters are progressing smoothly. I couldn’t be more pleased.” He gave her a wide smile. "I had my doubts, Mercy, but you’ve done an excellent job.”

"Ah.” Mercy cleared her throat and raised her index finger. "Everything’s not going quite as well as it appears,” she said miserably.

"Oh? Are there complications?”

Mercy nodded. "Just when it looked as if everything were about to fall into place the way it should…”

"Just a minute.” Goodness raised her hand and frowned. "Did you consider that perhaps Blythe and Ted were supposed to be married?” she asked her friend.

"Not until recently,” Mercy admitted with reluctance, cringing at the idea of the two together. A dejected, unhappy look came into her eyes. "It doesn’t matter anymore.”

"Why’s that?” Gabriel asked.

"Ted’s asked Blythe to marry him.”

The announcement was followed by a short, stunned silence.

"I see,” Gabriel said, and then focused his attention on Shirley. "How’s everything progressing with Karen?”

The oldest of the three angels brightened. "Fabulous. She’s taking riding lessons and has made a new friend, and you wouldn’t believe the changes in her mother. Maureen’s been dating Thom Nichols, the owner of the riding stable. The two have a lot in common.” She offered him a Little Mary Sunshine smile and added, "A romance seems to be brewing there.”

"I’m pleased to hear this,” Gabriel said. "You’ve proven yourself once more. How about Karen’s nightmares?”

The light in Shirley’s eyes faded. "She woke with one recently, and it took her grandmother almost an hour to calm her back down.”

"From what I understand, her mother was away on a business trip that night, and out of the blue, Maureen happened to phone her parents’ home.”

Shirley had a small coughing seizure. "Yes, as luck would have it…”

"Luck?”

"Karen needed to talk to her mother,” Shirley insisted with a righteous tinge. "It was such a little thing to leave a message for Maureen on the bed.”

"We’ll talk more about that later,” he said severely, and moved down the line. He faced Goodness, the last of the trio. "How’s Paul?”

Goodness looked more discouraged than ever. "As you already know, he’s resigned as pastor.”

Shirley and Mercy gasped.

"In all fairness, I believe you’ve made a mistake, Gabriel, in assigning me this prayer request. I don’t know how to help Pastor Morris. He’s camped somewhere in the tules, roasting chocolate squares and marshmallows between graham crackers and singing silly songs.”

"I see. Are you asking to be relieved from this assignment?” Gabriel asked. He’d known from the first what a difficult case this would be for the young Goodness, but no one had appreciated his insight.

"No,” Goodness said firmly, surprising him. It looked as if she were even more shocked at herself. "I refuse to give up on Paul Morris. He’s given up on himself, but I won’t do it. There’s got to be a way for him to overcome this depression.”

"Perhaps,” Gabriel suggested, "what he needs is a little help from his friends.”

"Friends?” Goodness questioned. "You mean like Shirley, Mercy, and me?”

"Perhaps a few human friends might be persuaded to help,” Gabriel suggested. It didn’t escape his notice how easily the three of them were willing to fall back on their old tricks.

Goodness and Mercy exchanged a look, one Gabriel preferred not to question. He looked over the three prayer ambassadors standing before him. They’d surprised him by how well they’d managed thus far. Better than he’d anticipated.

"You may go now,” he said.

***

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