Copyright 2006, Terry F. Phillips Sr.
I was awakened by a man in a brown uniform a few hours later.
“Hey,” he said. “Hey, are you Stevens? The preacher in Victory?”
“I have permission to be here,” I said, not knowing what was going on.
“Hey, I was told to come get you,” the deputy said.
I rolled out of the sleeping bag and immediately began shivering. I noticed it was snowing and the ground already was covered with a skiff of snow.
I smelled something, too. Then I realized that while I was asleep, I must have gotten cold, for I had rolled closer and closer to the fire and after it went out, I had rolled in the ashes. My sleeping bag was, indeed, well-broken in. And it smelled like fresh ashes. Instead of being brown, it was gray, as I could see in the headlights of the police car.
“Do you want me to follow you?” I said hopefully.
If the answer was yes, then I wasn’t under arrest for trespassing.
“That’s fine,” he said. “You better get in the car quick, you’ll freeze to death out here!”
We were almost back to the paved road before I realized Mark had left our camping place.
In my worst thoughts, I feared we were headed to the county jail. Instead, it was worse. We turned toward the hospital and I became alarmed.
In the emergency room, I met Mark’s parents. One look at their faces told me what I had chosen not to believe, but still I denied it.
Mr. Zellers was with them when I arrived. So was Kent Smith.
Though I was brand new as their minister, the Wilkins started crying when they saw me. It wasn’t professional of me, but I started crying, then.
Mr. Wilkins put his arm around my shoulder. He was shorter than I and much stockier. It seemed that he was trying to comfort me and I was there to offer comfort to them.
“He’s going to a better place,” Mr. Wilkins said through his tears. “But, I sure am going to miss him!”
And I felt his body shake in time with his sobs.
Mrs. Wilkins had a Kleenex® she had shredded in her hands. She was more quiet than her husband. Mrs. Rogers was talking with her.
We were standing in the hallway outside patient rooms. I assumed Mark’s body was laying behind the door to my right, inside the room. What had I gotten myself into? This was supposed to be a part time job and it was already serious and I was already way over my head.
I wasn’t trained for any of this. It scared me.
I wasn’t afraid of offending people. I was a journalism major, for crying out loud! But I was dealing with people. People who had just lost their son.
It was God I feared. Suddenly, I didn’t want this job any more. I wasn’t up to it.
Then, I felt Mrs. Wilkins hand on my arm.
“Kelly,” she said, gently. “Now, I now you are new at all this. But we want you to do Mark’s funeral. Is that OK?”
I looked into her eyes and realized that instead of cutting bait and running from the situation, I was going to have to see it through.
“Sure,” I managed to say.
I was numb. My lips were numb, my body was numb. I could barely feel anything in the soles of my feet.
Then I realized how disheveled my appearance must be.
“I’m sorry,” I stumbled in my words. “I didn’t realize … I was at the Conservation Club …”
“We know, son,” Mr. Wilkins said. “Mark told us you were going to meet him there and camp out. You don’t know what that means to us.”
I soon learned the whole story – Mark was not a popular boy. He was withdrawn, a poor student in school.
Yet, for some reason, he had sought me out.
“Maybe my incompetence drew him,” I thought. “If he rejected people who knew what they were doing – teachers, smarter students – maybe he saw a kindred spirit in me.”
“Your willingness to ride down the creek with Mark meant more to him than you’ll ever know,” his mother told me.
I thought of how he laughed when I stepped into the hole and found myself in over my head. I had to wonder if that was the happiest experience Mark had for some time.
I never did fully understand what happened that night.
Sometime during the night, Mark became sick. Without waking me, he had driven towards Victory, but he never made it.
I didn’t want to ask. Some said he had an aneurysm, others said it was his heart. He was gone and the cause didn’t matter.