Editor’s note: This year, the Presbyterian Outlook partnered with the Presbyterian Writers Guild in a short story contest called, “An experiment with modern parables.” Writers were invited to submit a short story that would “stimulate the readers’ appreciation for an issue confronting the church in a fictional format,” calling for stories that would “introduce the reader to the ethical and theological challenges before the church (a contemporary parable).” The Presbyterian Writers Guild would select the contest winner and the Outlook would publish the winning story in our pages. As it turned out, there was a tie for first place. This is one of the winning stories.
Charles Crane quietly took a seat at the back of the Wednesday evening Bible class. He’d been attending it for a few months. The class was held in fellowship hall, a brick building across a pleasant courtyard from the church sanctuary. A good thing, in Charles’s mind. He’d be afraid to go into any building sanctified for the worship of God. He wasn’t sure what would happen if he did enter the sanctuary, but he wasn’t eager to find out.
Estranged from church life for too many decades, he’d decided he needed to see how far in that direction he could go. Put his toe in the door, so to speak, and see what he could discern. This low-key, post-sunset Bible study, taught by pastor Rick Malone, a knowledgeable, white-haired, kindly chap, suited Charles. With each weekly class, regularly attended by about 25 mortals, Charles grew more relaxed.
After opening with prayer, Pastor Rick said, “Let’s continue our study of the Psalms. This week we’ll look at Psalm 139, which reassures us of God’s close presence so beautifully.” He began reading the Psalm in his mellow, deep voice, and Charles listened intently. Charles didn’t have an open Bible in his hands to follow along as the others did, not sure if it would be okay for him to touch the Holy Word of God. But he’d found listening worked well. Yet, the more of this passage the pastor read, the more anxiety-ridden Charles grew.
“Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” the pastor read. “If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, You are there.” He paused to explain to the class that Sheol in the Old Testament was a place of darkness to which all the dead go, a place cut off from life and from God.
Charles shuddered, knowing he was already at least halfway there.
Rick continued reading. “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to You; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to You.”
Charles’s shoulders sank and he felt limp with despair. To God, night is bright as day? This meant God knew everything about him, everything that had happened to him and everything he’d done. His nocturnal existence hadn’t kept him hidden. The thought made him lose what little hope he had left.
The remainder of the hour-long class went by as a blur. He wished he could run out, but felt too weak to even stand. An odd state for someone who possessed superhuman strength.
Eventually the others attending left, saying their goodnights to each other. Charles tried to stir himself, but remained slumped in his seat. All at once he found Pastor Rick pulling out an empty chair in the row in front of Charles, rotating it to face him.
“Are you all right?” the pastor asked, sitting down in the chair he’d turned. “You look a bit downhearted.”
Charles sat dumbfounded. He’d never spoken to the reverend before, except to say thanks when Pastor Rick had welcomed him, a stranger, to the first class Charles had attended. Charles had hoped that since then he’d gone largely unnoticed.
He made the effort to straighten his posture. “I … I am … downhearted. Yes.” And then he realized this was his chance, maybe his last, to ask a profound question. A question to which he’d long feared the answer.
Charles leaned forward toward the pastor and paused to think how to pose his query. He didn’t want to frighten the warmhearted man waiting, a caring patience in his gray eyes, for him to speak.
“Can I ask you a hypothetical question?” Charles began.
Pastor Rick smiled. “Of course.”
“Okay.” Charles took a moment, rounding up his courage. “Here goes. You’ve heard of vampires? You know, like at Halloween some kids might dress up as one. And there are all the Dracula movies.”
Pastor Rick drew his brows together in puzzlement. “Sure, of course. We’re all at least somewhat acquainted with vampire mythology, I think.”
Charles nodded, quirking his mouth at the word mythology. “Well, what if vampires really exist? In rural parts of Eastern Europe, people still believe in them.”
“Do they. Hmm. So your hypothetical question is about vampires?”
“Yes. Say a vampire — one of the living dead, separated from God and existing outside God’s laws of nature, craving blood and doing bad things — what if this vampire had found a possible cure? Let’s say he discovered there’s an elixir he could take to turn him into a mortal human again.”
Pastor Rick nodded slowly, as if working to take all this in. In a puckish tone, he replied, “Well, that would be a good thing, wouldn’t it?”
Charles could barely find the wherewithal to ask the crux of his terrifying question. “But if he were suddenly changed from an unclean creature into a normal human being, would he still be separated from God? What about the evil things he may have done? In those verses you read tonight, it said that God sees everything, even in the darkness. What this vampire did in the dead of night, hidden and secret, is still seen by God. Right?”
“So … would God forgive him all his sins? Would God take back someone who was one of the living dead?”
“I take it this vampire must be a believer, if he’s so fearful of God?” Pastor Rick asked, tilting his head a bit, as if beginning to enjoy the postulated scenario.
Charles thought back over a century ago, when he was still mortal, before he’d traveled to the wilds of Eastern Europe and been attacked by a vampire. “Yes, I … he had attended church and trusted in Jesus before he became one of the undead.” Charles sadly nodded, remembering his long-ago youth. He felt so old, though he’d been turned at 31 years of age and still looked the same. Or he assumed he did. He couldn’t see himself in a mirror. But his hands looked youthful, and his hair, which he seldom cut and wore tied back at the nape of his neck, was still brown.
Pastor Rick seemed to have noticed Charles’s slip, saying I, then correcting it to he. His usually calm eyes looking troubled now, he told Charles, “I think I can reassure you. In Romans 8, Paul says, ‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ ”
“Neither death, nor life,” Charles repeated, nodding with quiet awe. “So you believe that means that God would accept him, the ultimate outsider, back into the fold of humanity. And forgive him?”
“God is always willing to forgive a repentant sinner.” Pastor Rick reached to touch the sleeve of Charles’s denim jacket. “Why are you so troubled, son? Do you believe in vampires? Do you somehow think you’ve become one?”
Charles straightened his back and carefully removed his arm from beneath the pastor’s fingertips. “Oh, that is a question you should not ask.”
“But… I am asking. Perhaps you could use some counseling.”
Charles shook his head. “No. You’ve told me what I longed to know. I’ll be all right now. As for vampires, my dear reverend, they do exist.” He smiled, exposing his teeth. “You see my incisors? Aren’t they a bit too long? And do I not have a certain stillness in my body as I sit here? You may have noticed I don’t blink much. Should you touch my skin, you would find my temperature rather cold.”
Pastor Rick leaned back, a stark look creeping into his eyes.
“You’re in no danger,” Charles assured him. “I won’t attack you. I stopped doing that long ago, when blood bags were invented.”
“Oh.” The gentle pastor seemed at a loss for words, and he was growing pale.
“I’ll leave you now,” Charles told him. “Will you be okay? You won’t faint when you get up?”
“Faint?” Pastor Rick shook his head and stood. “I’m … fine.” He appeared steady on his feet but looked stunned, as if his mind was in a whirl.
“I want to thank you,” Charles said. “You have put my mind at ease. If the elixir works, maybe I’ll see you in church Sunday morning. In the sanctuary, in the sunlight. Wouldn’t that be grand?”
“It would, indeed.” Pastor Rick’s voice sounded breathless and halting. “May God bless you.”
Charles felt tears come to his eyes at the reverend’s parting words. “Thank you,” he repeated and left Fellowship Hall. As he walked out into the night, he knew what hope felt like again, a feeling he’d all but forgotten.
He wiped away a tear from his cheek. Funny, he hadn’t known until now that a vampire could weep.
Charles walked the six blocks to his white, wood-framed condo on the edge of a park, where he’d lived the last 20 years or so. A published author, his long career had finally begun to flourish when he’d noticed how popular vampire fiction had become. He started writing a series with a vampire hero much more handsome, fearless and adventurous than himself. A vampire who tried to right wrongs.
Book reviewers commented on how realistic he could make his fictional vampire’s existence sound. His novels had done very well, allowing him to move into an upscale condominium complex. He liked where he lived, in a modern apartment, with his coffin kept in the walk-in closet. He often took strolls in the adjacent park at night, always wishing he could see it in sunshine. He, of course, had to spend the daylight hours hiding from the sun’s rays, protected in his earth-lined coffin.
Charles unlocked his front door and entered his home. The words Pastor Rick had quoted from Romans, that neither death nor life could separate a believer from God, kept repeating in his mind, making him feel increasingly secure and ready to take a huge risk. He went to his refrigerator in the kitchen. Opening it, he found, next to the three blood bags stored there, a small vial containing a rare elixir.
He’d discovered, through various secret back channels known to the small population of vampires in America, that there was an herbalist in Eastern Europe who had inherited the recipe for an ancient cure. A potion that could restore a vampire to his previous mortal state. Charles had contacted the aged woman who made the cure, negotiated with her to buy it and have it sent in an overnight shipment. It had arrived securely packaged on his doorstep a few months ago, with instructions saying that, if refrigerated, it would be good for three months, but no longer.
Once he’d received it, however, doubts began to scare him, preventing him from drinking the elixir. What would God think of him trying to return to the mortal fold to once again be a part of the human population? Would a former undead be accepted? Was he, in fact, still human? Would he be forgiven?
Charles hadn’t wanted to be turned into a vampire a century ago. Fate in the form of a blood-thirsty, unevolved vampire had caused him to become something he’d never wished to be. Until he was so viciously attacked, he hadn’t believed vampires existed. And then, suddenly, he’d become one, alienated from God, feeding on blood, cursed to hide from the sun.
He picked up the glass vial from the refrigerator shelf and studied its amber-colored liquid, not knowing what secret herbs it had been brewed from. The expiration date was only a few days away. Should he swallow it? Take the risk that it might not work, that if he stayed up to meet the sun, its rays would burn him to ashes? And if he did survive the cure and become mortal again, would God accept him and end the long separation he’d felt from his Creator?
Charles spent the rest of the night praying. Or at least, he tried to pray, not knowing if God listened to one of the undead.
Just before dawn, he sat on the polished wood floor in front of his big living room window, and drank down the contents of the vial. It tasted like cut grass smelled. As it entered his system, he could feel something happening inside him. Odd pangs surged this way and that throughout his body. Outside, the first rays of dawn lit the horizon beyond the trees. As the sky slowly brightened, he felt the sun’s rays soar through the window, stinging his skin. Soon a vapor began to rise from his fingertips, sending him into a panic.
He knew what was happening. The sun was burning him up!
He came back to consciousness in a heap on the floor. Sunshine from the window poured over him, no longer burning, but warming his skin. He lifted his hand to shield his eyes from the unaccustomed brightness.
“Thank you, God! Thank you!” he cried. Tears of joy streamed down his cheeks. He was human again! Normal! Eager to experience the daylight he hadn’t seen in a century, he rushed out his door and ran to the park. There he did a cartwheel on the thick grass, so vivid and green. He kissed low-hanging leaves on an oak tree, feeling he was part of the natural world again. A couple walking along the path nearby noticed his exuberance and laughed. He waved at them, just like any other ordinary, happy, human being.
He sat down on a park bench for a while and contemplated all that this change meant. He could lead a normal life, eat food, meet people, maybe make friends. No more robbing blood banks. No more thirst for blood. He would be accepted. He could even go to church on Sunday and worship with everyone else, be a part of the fellowship there. Oh, what a blessing was in store for him! He couldn’t wait to talk to Pastor Rick again and be welcomed into the sanctuary.
After a while, he noticed that the sky had darkened to the east, becoming overcast. Yet the sun still shown between clouds above him. A shaft of sunlight streamed down on him, like a shining beam from Heaven. He lifted his face to soak in the rays. And then he noticed a rainbow forming an arc across the eastern sky. A rainbow! The sign God gave in the Old Testament after the flood. This rainbow seemed meant for him. Charles saw it as God’s sign that he was indeed forgiven for the evil in his past. It seemed to him a heavenly welcome back into the fold of humanity.
That Sunday, Charles went to church for the morning worship service dressed in a brand new suit he’d bought to celebrate his new beginning. He’d gone to a barber and gotten his hair cut short. Now that he could see himself in a mirror again, he’d assessed his looks and decided he appeared quite presentable for his return to church. He sat in a pew about halfway down the center aisle of the sanctuary, thrilled to feel at ease in a place he’d been afraid to enter as a vampire. Looking up at the marvelous stained glass windows, through which sunlight flowed in a myriad of colors, he felt in awe of the beauty he’d missed for so long.
A couple sat down next to him, and he exchanged smiles with them.
“New here?” the husband asked. “I’m David Mason. My wife, Karen.”
Charles happily shook hands with them. “Charles Crane. Yes, I am new here. Hoping to join. I’ve met Pastor Rick. Attend his Bible classes.”
“That’s great! Welcome,” David said.
Charles smiled to himself, certain now that he need no longer feel like an outsider. The organist began to play about 10 minutes before the service was to start. He sat back with contentment, enjoying the music.
Soon a family, parents with two teenage children, filed into the pew in front of him. The father admonished his son, speaking in Spanish, to move further down to give them all more room.
“Why don’t they learn English?” a man in back of Charles grumbled.
“This neighborhood has changed so much,” a woman replied in a disparaging tone.
This exchange troubled Charles. Would Jesus care what language anyone spoke?
Across the aisle a pair of women took seats, perhaps a mother and her grown daughter. They were dressed in shabby clothes and looked tired and worn down. As Charles glanced at them, he noticed David was studying the women, too.
“Homeless,” David whispered to Charles. “Living out of their car.”
“I see,” Charles replied. “It’s good they feel welcome here. The church is helping them, I suppose?”
David shrugged. “We’ve tried. I’m on session and it’s become an issue as to how many handouts we can continue to give them. Maybe they’ll move on to another church.”
“Hmm,” Charles said, not knowing how to react to that statement. “What’s it like, being an elder of the church?”
“Lots of problems,” David sighed.
“Well,” David lowered his voice and leaned closer, “there’s a gay couple who want to join the church and be married here. As you can imagine, there’s a controversy about that.”
“There’s a group of members here,” David went on, “who say that if this church is going to be so welcoming to gays, they want to leave and form a new church.”
“You mean, split the congregation?” Charles asked.
“That’s basically what would happen,” David said.
“Just because some people are different?” Charles knew better than anyone what it felt like to be different.
David shrugged. “That’s a common problem in lots of churches these days. People have firm ideas and don’t want to change. They interpret the Bible a certain way, and that’s all there is to it. Others believe something else. How can you bring people together who don’t want to be brought together?”
Charles began to slump, his shoulders sagging. He’d been so happy, so comforted when he first walked in, to feel at one with the congregation. And now to find there was so much underlying discord, so much judgment of others going on. If they knew his history, what would they think? Would he still be welcomed?
Charles sat through the service, listened to the choir and heard Pastor Rick’s sermon about God’s mercy and grace, available to all. The sermon seemed at odds with what Charles had observed and heard sitting in the pew before the service started.
Afterward, the congregation filed out of church, shaking hands with the minister at the door. Charles got in line. When Pastor Rick saw him and took his hand, he seemed delighted.
“You’re here! You’re … okay?” the minister asked.
“I’m well,” Charles replied. “Can I talk to you privately?”
“Absolutely. Give me a few minutes and I’ll meet you in my office.” Pastor Rick gave him quick directions.
Charles found the pastor’s study in the church office and waited. In about 15 minutes, Pastor Rick came in.
“Go ahead, have a seat,” the minister said as he closed the door to his study. He sat down at his oak desk in a high-backed leather chair. A tall bookshelf filled with books covered the wall behind him. “Really happy to see you come to the Sunday service. You, um, got past your vampire worries?”
Charles sat on a blue upholstered chair in front of the desk. He smiled and leaned forward. “See my teeth? No more long incisors.”
Pastor Rick’s eyes widened with astonishment. “You took the elixir you mentioned?”
“I did. Just before dawn a few days ago. I collapsed, but when I came to, I was bathed in sunshine from my window. And I thanked God to be a part of humanity again.”
Pastor Rick nodded in a baffled manner, as if not sure what to make of what Charles was telling him. “That’s wonderful. You wanted to talk to me about something?”
Charles exhaled, growing serious. “Your sermon was about mercy and grace, but I didn’t sense much mercy and grace in comments I heard sitting in the pews. Someone behind me complained about the changing neighborhood and people not speaking English. The two homeless women there were regarded as a problem. And I heard that part of the congregation wants to leave because they think this church is too friendly to gays.”
Pastor Rick nodded. “A lot of churches are facing these issues.”
“Well, I don’t understand. I was a vampire, a creature considered to be vile and evil. I lived the existence of the ultimate outsider for many decades. Can you understand what it’s like to feel so alone, so judged and rejected?”
“I can only imagine,” the pastor said with empathy. “But you say you’re restored now.”
“Yes, and you probably can also only imagine how thrilled and grateful I was to see the sun, to attend a service in the sanctuary, to feel sure that God has forgiven me.”
Pastor Rick smiled. “Of course God has. I’m so happy for you, that you feel God’s love and grace.”
“I do feel that from God,” Charles exclaimed. “But not from the people sitting around me in the pews this morning.”
“How do you mean?”
“They seemed so judgmental. One group can’t go along with what another group thinks, and so they want to go off and start their own church. Homeless people are an unsolved headache, and people born in another country aren’t accepted. They’re looked upon as outsiders. I can identify with those who are being ostracized and judged. What would the congregation think of me, if they knew my history? I doubt they’d want me in this church! You call the building where you teach the Bible class fellowship hall. Where’s the fellowship?”
Pastor Rick leaned back heavily in his chair, looking like he felt inadequate to find a good response to Charles’s probing questions.
Charles paused, seeing the pastor’s reaction. In a quieter tone, he continued, “So, I don’t understand. God has accepted me, and I think God would accept all of the people in the pews that others are so suspicious of. I thought that coming back to church after a hundred years I would experience pure joy being a part of a Christian congregation again. But instead, the more I sat there, the more discouraged I became. Your sermon about grace and mercy was profound. But how many really heard it?”
Pastor Rick remained silent for a long moment, appearing to be deep in thought. “You’re right, Charles.” He leaned forward. “Being new here, you observe our church with a clear eye. I hope you’ll continue to attend.” He folded his hands on his desk and looked at Charles, his gray eyes urgent. “We have some serious issues here that I’m trying to help solve and heal. You understand better than most. Would you do something for me?”
“What?” Charles asked, surprised that the pastor thought he could be of any assistance.
“Pray for our church. Pray for me. Would you?”
Charles’s eyes widened. He perked up. “Sure. I can do that. I’ll pray that God will help us turn darkness into light. ‘Night as bright as day,’ like it says in that psalm. No one should feel like an outsider.
LORI HERTER and her husband Jerry live in southern California where they are longtime members of a Presbyterian church. Lori has written romance novels and a vampire series. Her website is loriherter.com.