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The Sifting

I. On the night He was betrayed, Jesus said, "Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail." It's a passage you've known since childhood. And, according to your parents, you can never see it coming, the sifting. It can begin any time.

For instance, say you're standing in a line at Albertson's, waiting to pay for a pound of Folger's and a box of Cheerios for breakfast the next morning. It's been one of those March days when the desert wind gusts up to sixty miles per hour and drops the temperature to fifty-five in less than a week.

A professor at the local college, you're feeling "lucid," as your ex used to say. Classes are doing well, and you're going to have dinner with a colleague at a restaurant just off the strip. You plan to spend the rest of the evening scanning a photocopy, sent by an old friend now teaching in Jerusalem, of a 2500 year-old document supposedly containing fragments from the book of Ezekiel. If you prove the validity of the document, you're one step closer to proving Jesus is real.

Then, it begins.

Thinking of the crucifixion, you shift your weight, turn to the right, and suddenly notice her. There, in the next line is a young woman you recognize from an adult magazine ad for a local club. The image has stuck in your mind: naked, with long, raven hair flowing over the light brown skin of her shoulders, she looks seductively at the camera, her legs and arms crossed so that you can't see anything.

And now this young woman in the next line looks at you and smiles. Smiling back, you know something hovering on the verge of conscious thought, and then it hits you: you've even seen her outside the ad.

Where, though? A Bible study? A prayer group?

You rack your brain, and the light goes on: she's one of your former students, an incredibly talented young woman who always wore thin, wire glasses and bulky sweaters to class and finally revealed, in an essay submitted three Decembers ago, that she dances off the strip. She is also, unmistakably, the woman in the ad.

She begins, "Hello, Professor." She's got loaves of bread, cartons of milk, bags of cookies, and carrots in her cart.

"Stephanie Parks, right?" The name spills out of your mouth.

"That's right," she says in a voice that brings a quiver to your manhood.

"Still going to school?" You can't take your eyes off her T-shirt, cut off above the navel and covering two good size breasts, nipples clearly visible through thin cloth. She's wearing tight, white shorts, and you wonder if she'll freeze when she gets outside.

"Oh, yeah," she says, head tilted sideways.

"Still work the same place?" you venture.

"You mean dancing naked?"

You nod your head.

She laughs. "Oh, yeah. Money's good. Need it for school."

You notice her eyes: deep, soft, and brown.

"Oughta come in and see me sometime," she says.

It's been years since you've been in a strip joint. The last time, in spite of warnings from God and your ex, you almost ran away with one of the dancers.

"Sure," you respond. "When you there?"

She never takes her eyes off you. Never stops smiling. "Two to midnight, Tuesday through Sunday."

"See you there sometime," you say, moving up to the checkout.

II. The scolding of the small, silent voice notwithstanding, you go to the club the next night.

You expect not to see her there, but as you stroll through the dark room, music pulsing through you and brining you to life, a dancer on each of the three stages, you figure that doesn't matter. You're studying a tall redhead with small breasts and pierced nipples when someone puts a hand gently on your soldier and kisses you on the cheek. Your whole body warms to the touch.

"Well, hello, professor," she says. It's Stephanie, long, crinkly hair pulled off her forehead. She's wearing a black net dress, her dark brown nipples poking through.

"Hello, Steph," you say in a raspy voice.

"Let's go over there." She motions with her head to a table in the far corner.

As you sit down and order drinks, she plops in the chair right next to yours. You look at her through the slightly smoky air, and she tells you a little bit about herself: born and raised in Vermont, third daughter of a Baptist preacher, she moved to Vegas one year after graduation, took your class five years later, and here she is. She likes horses, Chinese food, Stephan King, and slasher movies. She wants to do one adult film before leaving the business. You wonder if you should ask her if she believes in Jesus.

She gets up, places herself gently in your lap, shifts to get comfortable, then wraps her arms around you and kisses you on the forehead. You kiss her lightly on the cheek.

She puts her face an inch from yours, your lips almost touching. Her breasts push against you.

"So what do you do in your spare time?" you ask.

"I worship the devil," she says, smiling coyly.

A sick feeling moves through you.

"You're not serious," you mutter.

"Nope," she says.

"Why'd you say you did, then?" you ask.

"To get a rise out of you. I remember you talking about the Bible in class."

You relax, then blurt it out and tell her you like her and would like nothing better than, after her shift, to take her back to your place.

III. Three weeks later, she moves in. "I'm gonna fuck you to death," she tells you several nights after she has moved her belongings into your house, an old three-story in the center of Las Vegas. You're lying next to her in bed, two fingers inside of her.

"I'll do the same to you," you say.

For several months, it's paradise. Happy as a clam, you continue to teach your classes during the day, and she works the strip club until nine at night. At home, between the sheets, she takes you to heights that you never knew existed. You even find yourself interested in the dark literature she reads and remove from the bathroom your late grandmother's picture of Jesus on the cross.

And then, it happens, that sudden twist that proves that the devil stalks the planet.

Her former boyfriend Raul-a tall, angular dark complexioned man whom she described as "sick, wild, and dangerous"-returns from Europe. He begins to call morning, noon, and night, and curses and threatens you whenever he speaks to you. Stephanie refuses to come to the phone.

"I'm putting a curse on your house, Peter," says the nasally, hollow, high-pitched voice on the other line. Raul sounds as if he's talking out of a hole.

Threats have always unnerved you. You reply, "I don't believe in curses."

Raul says, "I put a curse on you. I use black magic and shit." You imagine Raul as a gigantic black rat.

In the weeks that follow, everything goes wrong: the toilet clogs up again and again, the microwave explodes, the TV shorts out, the dog gets run over just out front of your house, and all kinds of insects invade your house. At night, you can hear them crawling the walls.

Then, one night at the club, as you stand outside the entrance waiting for Stephanie, you meet the rat. He's about 6'1", very thin, with greased back black hair and a short little Hitler mustache.

"Hey, Peter," he says.

"Hey," you say, trying to be friendly. "You must be Raul."

"Right you are, bro," he responds.

And before you know it, he's opened his fly and is now pissing on your shoes. A bouncer standing nearby comes up and slaps Raul on the back of the head; it sends Raul sprawling onto the sidewalk, still unzipped and fully exposed. It's then that Stephanie walks forward and says, "Let's go."

After that, Raul leaves you alone for a time. The house, however, is still overrun by insects, and your new dog, a cocker spaniel, grows a huge tumor under her chin. At night, voices whisper from the attic. Stephanie cries herself to sleep, muttering, "He'll be back."

Then, one cold and windy night, he comes to your house at around 3:30 in the morning. Says he has a gun and pounds on the door, screams like a wildcat, threatens you both, fires a couple of shot through your window, and finally you use the cordless phone on your nightstand to call 911.

By the time a patrol car arrives, he's gone. But for two weeks, he calls every night, never saying anything, just breathing, weird hollow music sifting in from the background.

You wonder if you should pray for God to keep Raul away.

IV. Then comes the evening and night of February 14th.

Around 4:30, you pull into your driveway and cut the engine. A dark chill pierces you like needles.

Humming something from Beethoven, you unlock the front door, walk in, and stop. Heart races; skin tightens. You glance at the red, handprint on the wall next to the staircase in front of you; it may be blood, but you blot it from your mind, turning left into the kitchen.

You wonder why she is not downstairs. Usually, Stephanie meets you at the door.

And then you see the stains in the kitchen, blotches of red spray appearing on the avocado green refrigerator and on the counter in the middle of the kitchen.

You know how this could happen: after all, blood squirts from violent acts. The spray had to originate from a point equidistant between refrigerator and counter. Could be an accident, you silently reason. Then, as you face the refrigerator, your eyes are pulled to the floor between the sink, which is on the other side of the counter, and the oven at the end of the kitchen. Eyes travel left, over yellow linoleum, to the pool of blood.

How could you have missed that?

"Stephanie!" you yell. You're expecting to hear her say something like "Hi, honey" from the computer room on the second floor.

Unnerved by the silence, you take a huge knife from the Chicago cutlery rack that sits atop the counter.

Feeling the weight of death, you move toward the stairs. You flick the dim staircase light on and begin climbing, noticing dark red stains at every step.

On the second floor, your dog stretches before a closed closet door. Its fur bloodied, it can't be alive.

You move to the third floor. More blood stains on the way up. At the top, you flick on the big light and wait. Wind's pounding outside, and fighting fear you look to your bedroom.

Holding the knife in front of you, you step into the room.

The large king-size bed is still unmade, its sheets and pillows soaked dark red. The smell is unmistakable, and you look up to see your paradise suspended from the ceiling. What you see is certainly recognizable, recalling a photo from a book that Raul had given Stephanie years before.

And now this: her body streaked in her own blood, hanging naked, arms and legs stretched to form a gigantic X, her leather-bound wrists and ankles tied to iron rings screwed into the ceiling-wall that slants at a 45 degree angle just above your bed. Her head hangs limply, face hidden by blood-clotted raven hair. Each breast has a dark, jagged gash just below the nipple, and just above the navel is a long, horizontal cut. Blood has flown freely, gathering at and dripping from the tuft of hair between her legs.

Immobilized, you hear a whispering. You listen, wondering if it's the wind. Maybe it's God. Again, the whispering, a soft voice you know. Hellish cold gripping your bones, you watch as Stephanie slightly lifts her head, turns to you, and moves her lips. No words come from her mouth.

Legs shaking, knife in hand, you step upon the bed and move clumsily under her. First, you cut the leather binding her ankles and then, bracing yourself against her body, move to the leather binding her wrists. As you lower her to the bed you sense the light draining from her body. Placed gently on her back on the sheets, she gasps for breath once, twice. You run a hand through your hair, put your other hand on Stephanie's forehead, bow your head and pray.

As you pray, you drop into a dark, infinite place deep in side of you. You pray like your father and mother taught you. You call upon the name of the Lord, over and over, beg forgiveness, and ask that life be spared.

Finally, you feel a kind of peace and open your eyes. Stephanie lies before you, eyes shut, peaceful, no pain on her face. For hours you watch, thinking, This is how she died, this is how she died. And then a fluttering of her lids. Then a slight heaving of her chest, once, twice, three times. Hands gently resting on her shoulders, you can actually feel life and light flowing into her. You take a deep breath, and it is then that she opens her eyes.

"Steph?" you say. "Stephanie."

She looks at you through puffy slits for eyes and whispers through cracked and swollen lips, "Raul was here."

You slowly move off the bed, pick up the phone on the nightstand next to your pillow, and dial 911. When the emergency team arrives, you escort them to the third floor, where they find Stephanie just as you left her. She's still breathing.

V. Stephanie lives. In fact, doctors tell you that, in a year's time, she'll be nearly as good as new. You know this can't be true. For the rest of her life, she'll be battling the terror from the evening that Raul and a friend raped her repeatedly and then used their knives on her. Still, you refuse to press charges, confident that God will even the score.

As you sit in the hospital room next to Stephanie's bed, you spend a lot of time reading the Bible again, and as she lies in her hospital bed and recovers, Stephanie enjoys hearing stories that she was raised on.

When you get Stephanie home, you pretend to make plans for the rest of your lives. "Forget Raul, Steph," you say to her over breakfast one June morning. "We need to move on with our lives. God will deal justly with him."

"Yeah, I guess so," says Stephanie.

"Maybe we should move," you remark.

"Why don't we move out of Las Vegas," she says, "and go to some place like Idaho, Oregon or Montana?"

"Anything to get outa here," you say, slurping coffee.

And just like that, three months later, in May, you get a job offer from a college in the Portland area. You'll start teaching in late September.

Stephanie, who now reads her Bible and insists upon going to church every Sunday, is ecstatic. She's seen pictures of Oregon and knows it's beautiful.

"The Lord answers prayers," she says every night in bed as you two pray together.

"Sure does," you always respond.

As you drift asleep, you know things are fine. But for six weeks straight, right into July, something comes to you in the darkness. A spirit? An angel? You wonder if the spirit that speaks from the blaze of light at the foot of your bed one night might be God.

Then, you have one month left in southern Nevada. Stephanie can't wait to get away from Las Vegas. Before you move to Oregon, you have only one small thing to do to make everything right. You know what it is: it's as clear as the visions from heaven that God sent to Ezekiel.

In the first week of August, you tell Stephanie that you're going to a weekend writing conference in Southern Cal. You do a lot of writing on your own, so she's overjoyed that you're going to "connect" with some other writers.

That weekend, you drive to LA, travel around it, and head north along the crowded beach. It's a beautifully clear day, temperatures in the 70s. You know that Raul often spends weekends with girlfriends in a bungalow north of Ventura; some time ago, Stephanie told you exactly where it is.

The road is easy to find fifteen miles north of Ventura. Beautiful area with lots of cypress trees. Then an amazing thing happens: just as you take the turnoff to the left and begin driving down to Raul's, you look towards the sun setting beyond the trees and over the ocean in a blaze of breathless glory. An angel stands in the middle of the blaze, pointing a sword at you. This is the sign that you were told to expect; it tells you that Raul is home.

Heart pumping furiously, hands wet on the steering wheel, you drive the winding road for two or three miles before spotting the little shack about one hundred yards off to your left, toward the beach. A large cypress tree grows in back of the place. As you park your car, you notice that the sun has just set. Cool semi-darkness surrounds you. By the time you reach Raul's, the growing darkness will render you nearly, if not completely, invisible. You step from the car, holding at your side the sword that Uncle Kaleb gave you years ago.

"This thing's a beaut," you say to yourself, gripping the handle with your right hand and holding it vertically in front of you. You slice the moist, ocean-cooled air several times, and with each pass the blade sings.

"I christen thee Hummer," you mutter, crossing the road and walking the sandy path that will take you to Raul's. As you draw near, you hear voices coming from the back of the house. Nearer still, you recognize Raul's hollow whine and the lilting voice of a female, who is undoubtedly into drugs, stripping, and prostitution. Stephanie told you that all of Raul's girls walk on the dark side.

Quivering with the excitement that Moses must have felt as he stood before the burning bush, you walk around the right side of the shack, and there he is, sitting in a chair under the tree, his back to you. Next to him is a woman with short-cropped red hair. Both are naked. A small fire burns on the beach in front of them.

You silently pray, thanking God for giving your enemy into your hands, and you feel the glory of God filling the heavens of your heart. Then, following the instructions, you quickly and silently remove your clothes.

Gripping it in both steady hands, you hold the sword behind your head and slightly to your right and stealthily move forward. The air is darker and cooler now, and ten feet from Raul, who's drinking from a bottle of beer, his girlfriend glances over her shoulder in your direction. In the light provided by the fire, you briefly study her face. When she shows no fear, you know that God has made you invisible, and stepping forward, planting your left foot just behind his chair, you bring the sword around in a mighty, singing arc, the power of the gesture filling you with such strength that you haven't the ability to stop the gorgeous weapon as the blade slices through Raul's neck and cuts into the woman's skull, just above her eyebrows. She makes no sound as you pull blade from bone. She struggles to her feet, holding her head in both hands. You watch blood run in rivulets down her face and onto her tanned body, streaking sagging breasts and forming a V to the shaved pubic area.

You pause, just feeling good about yourself, recalling suddenly Jesus' words to Simon. Indeed, you have gone through quite a sifting. You feel badly that the woman had to see this, though.

In the half-darkness, Raul, or what is left of him, is still seated, his head in the sand at his feet. His bloodied girlfriend has fallen to her knees and sways dumbly in the slight evening breeze. Tempted, you actually consider comforting her.

Deciding not to touch her, you think: Raul's killing has been divinely sanctioned-and therefore it's not really a killing. Wondering how you're going cleanse your blade of impure blood, certain you'll never get caught, you turn, walk back around the bungalow, quickly dress, and return in the ocean darkness to your car.

As you make your u-turn to head back to the main highway, you know that Stephanie will be relieved that her former boyfriend is not only dead but enduring an eternity in the fiery pit. Then, again, maybe it's best not to tell Stephanie because you love her so much.

As you drive around LA, Raul and his girlfriend now no more than bloody memories, you remember what your colleagues have said about the area around Portland, about how beautiful it is, and can't wait to get home to Stephanie to begin packing. You bring your car up to eighty-five and, beyond LA, fly on home. Just outside of Barstow, full moon overhead, your thoughts turn to the Ezekiel manuscript, and you hum a hymn of praise.

By the time you see the distant glow of Las Vegas, you know things have now been made right. Order is restored, darkness defeated. The sifting is completed. If she asks, you'll tell Stephanie that the conference held in LA went splendidly.

"I had a great time, Steph," you imagine yourself saying. "Even ran into an old friend."

"Oh, I'm so glad," she'll say. Since the Valentine's Day incident, she has been meek and mild.

Your pulse races as you pull into the driveway. You've barely stepped out of your car when the door open and Stephanie walks out to greet you. In the light of the moon, you see that she wearing the tight leather dress that you gave her last Christmas; it barely covers her pussy and contains two small holes for her nipples.

"Hey, Pete," she says, wrapping her arms around you. "I'm gonna fuck you to death."

"And I'll do the same to you," you respond, putting your arms around her and stroking her smooth, round ass. It's the old Stephanie. The weekend has been a tremendous success, and as you walk into the house with her, you known that in Oregon, you and she will have many children and live happily ever after.

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