Most neighbors along the street shaded by old oak trees thought they once seemed to be such a nice family. Jason and Lydia Camp lived in a lovely home with their fourteen year old son Matt, five year old daughter Maggie and four year old handicapped son, Michael. Though Jason had been away for several years during the war before the last two children had been born, he had been home for almost six years now.
Matt, through the years when his father was gone, held on religiously to the memories of his father before going away. He cherished the letters his father sent home, and constantly asked his mother when his father would return. Before Jason left, he had casually told Matt to watch over his mother and be the man of the house while he was away. Even at eight years old, Matt took these directions to heart, and grew very close to his mother during their time by themselves. But not long after her husband had been gone a year, depression and anxiety began take its toll on Lydia. She became increasingly distant to Matt, making the memories of his father even more precious to him.
When finally Jason was sent home, things appeared at least to Matt, to go back to the way they were before and Matt was ecstatic. When Lydia became pregnant shortly after Jason's arrival, this seemed to add to the bliss they all were feeling in those first few weeks.
But in a few short months, Matt started becoming wakened in the night from his father's screams. Jason was suffering from PTSD; the war, along with the things he had seen and done weighed so heavily on his mind that he began to seek relief from alcohol and eventually drugs. Both parents tried to protect Matt from the demons his father was dealing with for a while. But these problems, added to Jason being unable to find work, compounded the family's pressure. Jason did find one or two jobs, but he felt they were really beneath him. He took them solely due to the baby coming soon and to ease his wife's nagging. Both jobs were short lived and the problems for the family began to multiply.
Lydia, feeling that she was still in many ways a single mother and realizing more with each passing day how critical their situation was becoming, was unable to deal well with Jason's problems and the fighting that seemed to constantly be going on between them.
After Maggie was born, having a new baby in the house crying and needing so much attention outweighed the joy they all should have enjoyed. More than anything, Maggie's presence added to their stress levels, and when Lydia learned she was pregnant again when Maggie was only six months old, the news just made matters worse.
Almost before Lydia even realized what she was doing, she was enticed to join her husband when he was drinking. Eventually, she began taking drugs as well even though she was pregnant at the time. Their once happy home soon became more like the battlefields Jason once knew, and as Jason's anger and frustration became more than the alcohol or drugs could possibly numb, he began abusing both Lydia and the children.
Matt's own behavior problems began around this same time. He began acting out at school, getting into fights, antagonizing his teachers at every possible turn. At home, when the baby began crying while his parents were in a drug or alcohol induced stupor, he would get nervous and would try to figure out a way to solve the problem himself. He began shaking his sister, hitting her, and locking the girl in the cabinet under the kitchen sink. Seeing that his parents were knocked out when they drank, he decided one day to put alcohol in the baby's bottle to put it to sleep. This solution seemed to work pretty well at the time, and Matt felt as close to calm as he had felt in as long as he could remember.
But the calm was not to last. In a few short months, Michael was born mentally challenged and doctors told Jason and Lydia matter-of-factly that their lifestyle had most likely caused their newest son's condition. Social service personnel got involved in the family's life, but Michael's condition and accompanying health issues nor the threat of losing their children to the system did not sober either of them. If anything, it made their spiral spin even faster out of control.
When Maggie got old enough to get out of the make-shift cage her brother had devised for her, Matt began using an old child safety lock on the outside to hold her and now the new baby securely in. When they got too big for both of them to fit into the cabinet, he began setting them outside in the back yard like house cats and locked the back door so they could not get back inside.
The family's lives grew worse by the day, and eventually, Jason and Lydia began to be in their drug fueled stupors for days at a time. Matt sometimes missed school for weeks at a stretch. Social service seemed to be an ever constant presence at the home, but their office sent different workers to visit each time, paperwork fell between the cracks and they never took the children with them afterwards. Lights were turned off at home more than once, both Jason and Lydia's cars were repossessed, and before long, they both appeared to be shells of the people they once were. Matt himself began to sneak drinks from their discarded bottles and pills from the many plastic baggies that were scattered throughout the house. He also began getting into trouble with the law and before long, was beginning to be threatened by juvenile services to be placed in foster care.
One day, when Maggie was four, Matt received a particularly harsh beating from his father for abusing his sister. In his anger, Matt decided to just get rid of her and the nuisance he thought she brought to his world. He covered her mouth while his parents were drugged to unconsciousness and carried her out of the house. He walked until he couldn't walk any more, which brought him about three miles away from his home, into the depths of the city, and he left the girl in an alley in a run-down part of town.
Matt was only fourteen years old, but as he walked away, he lit a cigarette and a smile formed on his face. He felt he had finally figured out a way to get rid of his problems. In his adolescent mind, he had determined that the source of his problems were these other kids. His family was "normal" before Maggie and Michael came along. His parents just couldn't afford or handle such a large family, especially when one of those children was what Matt saw as defected and worthless. On his walk home, he began formulating how he would get rid of Michael, too.
He returned home late that afternoon, tired from his journey and found his parents still where he left them in their self-induced comas. He decided he had plenty of time to sleep before starting on his next voyage.
Early the next morning, he took the car keys and his brother's hand, loaded him into the car, and drove down the road in the piece of junk his family owned at the time. He was so naïve and deluded, that in his mind he was pleased with himself. He was able to sing along with the radio at the top of his lungs as he drove fairly well down the highway even with his lack of experience.
Though the small boy in the back had never spoken and didn't seem to quite understand, he knew something terrible was going on and rocked back and forth in the back seat. Matt thought he was invincible at that moment; he didn't even think twice when he passed a local cop car even though he had no license. He had taken a few swigs of bourbon before leaving the house to steady what few nerves were rattling in his brain. What he was doing would surely send him to "juvey" this time, but he couldn't have cared less in that moment.
He drove thirty miles before crossing the state line, when he finally found an empty field down a back road. He dragged the small boy from the car, and left his brother sitting in the middle of the field alone. Matt couldn't resist a smile as he took one last look in the rear view mirror at Michael rocking back and forth in the field by himself. He had driven so far away from home, he was certain his brother would never be able to find his way back home. He assured himself that his problems were now gone, and sang and laughed. He was even more jovial on his drive home than he had ever been.
Four days later, his parents slowly yet finally regained consciousness and began looking for their other children. As the realization that they were missing sank slowly into their clouded minds, they became frantic, calling out their names, cursing one another for not knowing where they were. Just as they began to question Matt as to their whereabouts, there came a deafening knock on the door.
Plain clothes police officers were standing at their front door. After seeing a report on the local news station about the brutally abused, molested and murdered body of a young girl being found downtown, their neighbors had placed a call to law enforcement thinking the girl's description was similar to the little girl they rarely saw, but knew was living next door.
At the moment he heard those words, Matt's actions slowly began to weigh on his mind and heart. He began to realize what he had done. For a short time, he went into a light shock, and his parents simply disintegrated in front of him.
After more than two hours of his parents being grilled about the whereabouts of Maggie and Michael with no results, the police began pressing harder and harder on both parents. Neither could explain where the children were or had a reason why this little girl matched their child's description. Being able to stand it no more, Matt blurted it out. Crying and hysterical, he told the police and his parents that he had taken them both and where he had left each of them. He tried to explain that he didn't mean for anything bad to happen to them, just for them to go away; that he had thought they were the cause of their family's lives turning so terribly bad. That he had just wanted a normal life. He just wanted his parents to love him again.
Both his parents were arrested for child neglect among other charges, and Matt was told by the officers that he would be going to the juvenile detention center. His mother glared at him with hate so violently in her eyes, and screamed at him as they dragged her from the house in handcuffs that he was a demon. These words struck his heart like a match to a flame. They burned inside him, and yet, he accepted them as truth. He thought they must be true. The past few years played through his mind like an old movie. He remembered all he had done to his sister, his brother, his parents, his teachers, kids who used to be his friends, and even himself. Who else would do such terrible things as he had done?
Michael was found alive within hours by officials, but custody was quickly given to the state and his whereabouts were not given to any of the members of the family for his own safety.
Jason cared no longer for anyone or anything. He blamed himself, his wife and especially Matt. No longer caring even whether he lived or died, he purposely got into an altercation in the prison yard where he was awaiting trial and was stabbed. Two and a half days later, he died in the local hospital from this injury. Matt learned of his father's death and fell deeper into his own pain and self-degradation.
The judge Lydia stood before felt somewhat sorry for Matt's mother after her husband had also died and allowed her to post bond until her own trial. Going to an empty home overwhelmed her and was the straw that finally broke everything inside her. She looked for her husband's automatic pistol that usually was kept in his dresser drawer, but realized that the police had confiscated it. She scoured the house for any drugs that might have been left behind, but came up empty handed. Distraught and convinced she could not face even one more day, she finally took a knife from the block on the counter, cut each wrist as quickly but as deeply as she could. She slid down the cabinet front to the floor as the blood drained from her. With her last breath, she called out "Oh, God!" in a desperate plea and soon died alone. Her body was found the next day.
Matt was told of his mother's death by one of the counselors at the detention center named John Wake. John was a Christian who held services for any of the boys who would join in on Wednesday nights at the center. Thinking that Matt would need comfort, he was prepared with all the appropriate verses and things he thought he should say to a boy who had lost so much. He was surprised by Matt's reaction. Though he seemed emotionless and indifferent to the news, the darkness inside him that weighed on his very soul became heavier than Matt thought he could bear. He sternly repeated to the counselor what he had come to believe about himself, that he was a demon and unable to feel anymore. The boy's reaction and what John later read from his file bore on the counselor's heart and mind. He could think of little else. He began praying each day for Matt and tried to seek him out and to bring him out of the shell he'd placed around himself.
The actual murderer of his sister was quickly found and eventually convicted, but Matt numbed himself to the proceedings though news of them were all over the media and talked about for weeks within the walls of the detention center.
John's co-workers, as well as the detention center guards, either shook their heads at him or made fun of him for thinking he could possibly make a difference in such a hardened kid as Matt. They told him that the case was hopeless, that even the other kids at the center were afraid of him, that he was wasting his time, and that some of them just couldn't be reached- even by God. John's wife tried to support him, but she too wondered if he was just butting his head against a brick wall that would never be torn down.
But God kept the boy on John's heart and wouldn't let him give up on him even at those times when he was tempted to. The verse that kept being brought back to John's mind was: Isa 55:7 Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
The quiet but stern and tough exterior Matt portrayed covered well the turmoil that continually went on within him. When he acted out with the other boys at the center and with the guards, it was hardly ever because of anything that had been directly done to him or because what had been done was significant to him. Often all it took was someone to look him in the eye for the anger that boiled inside of him to display itself. Matt was afraid that if he allowed anyone to look into his cold, empty eyes they would be able to see the demon he was certain lived inside.
Soon enough, Matt was seventeen and scheduled to be released in just two months when his eighteenth birthday came around. Not only were some of the officials involved in his case concerned about him being out to potentially become an even worse criminal, Matt silently began worrying within himself for this very same reason. After all, wouldn't that be what would be expected by a demon? But the court system was overloaded and strained financially; state guidelines were clear that he could not be held any longer.
John was also concerned. After more than three years of fervently praying and trying so hard to talk with Matt, he began to feel like the time that God had allotted him to make a difference in this boy's life was running out and that he had failed. He questioned why God would give him such a difficult task as this that was beyond his power to accomplish. He was overwhelmed by the feeling that had failed Matt and he had failed God.
He went to his own church one Sunday night and knelt at the altar. Finally feeling broken from the weight of his burden for the troubled boy, he cried to God that there was no more he could do. He now knew that there was nothing within his own power that he could say or do that would change the boy's heart. Tearfully, he handed the burden back to God. John acknowledged that Christ alone could change the boy's heart and mind.
The following Wednesday night, for the first time, Matt wandered in to the service that John held. After having been invited at almost every weekly visit with the counselor, it was only after his burdens had become so great that he finally surrendered. He felt that there would be nothing to lose by going; he might even get Mr. Wake to finally shut up about this whole God thing, anyway.
John, having not been expecting Matt at that night's meeting, could feel the sweat bead along his spine. He had prepared such a simple message. Would it be enough to make any difference to any of the boys, especially one as seemingly hard-edged as Matt? His hands shook as he opened his Bible. He didn't know why he suddenly began turning the thin, wispy pages to the book of Isaiah rather than the Gospel of Mark as he had originally planned, but he felt God direct him to that verse that had ran through his mind so many times during the past few years.
He began to talk about the meaning of the verse, the weight of it, and the great promise that lied within its words. He talked to them about the term "wicked" being such a broad term. It could mean so many things. It could mean anything that God's word considered sin, even the bad things that plagued our minds and stole our peace like a ghost.
Then John began to talk about forsaking these things, giving them all up, handing them all over to God, asking Him to take these things from us- everything from our pasts, whether they be sins from years ago or thirty minutes ago. He explained to the boys that if they would ask God to forgive them for their sins, and agree to follow Him from that moment on, that He would be just and faithful to put those things as far from them as the east is to the west. That His mercy was so wide that there was nothing too bad they could not be forgiven for; not even the worst things they could imagine were too great for God.
John then began to share with them a little bit about his own past. He told them about how many years ago, as a teen himself, he had begun to get into trouble with the police. How he had stolen things from his own Grandmother's home to sell for drug money. How his father had disowned him and left him to rot in a jail cell at eighteen. But then, he talked of how his Heavenly Father had mercy on him and had sent someone into his life to tell him about Jesus. He told them he had accepted Jesus as his personal savior, and how this Father had never left him nor forsaken him. He could tell that some of the boys, including Matt, seemed surprised by this testimony, and he realized he had never shared it with the boys at the center before this night. Surely, John thought, allowing them to see that he was more like them than they had probably thought would convince them that they should also follow the path to the Savior.
At the end of the service, John asked each of them to bow their head and after saying a simple prayer, he asked any of the boys who might be lost to raise their hands if they wished to be saved. He waited a few moments, and each second that passed without even one hand being raised caused John to think that maybe he had failed with this message, and that once again, he had failed to reach Matt.
But the conviction that had been working in Matt's heart had become so overwhelming while hearing the sermon, that he could do little more than hang his head. He couldn't help it; he began to cry silently, but uncontrollably. It was the first time he had cried since that last day at home when he had told the police and his parents what he had done.
As the other boys filed out of the small room used as a chapel, Matt couldn't move. He knew he didn't have near enough strength in his legs to stand, much less walk out of the room. He couldn't speak either. He wanted so much to believe that God could do the same for him as He had done for Mr. Wake, but he was almost afraid to even hope.
John stood at the doorway and patted some of the boys who had been faithful to the little services on the back as they left the room. He didn't even notice that Matt was still sitting there, in the same spot in the back row, until all the boys had left. His heart quickened as he made his way over to where Matt sat, and quietly sat down beside him. He placed his arm around the boy's shoulders almost expecting him to jerk it away as quickly as it landed, but Matt had no defenses up on this night.
Matt received Jesus Christ as his Savior on that night, and the old life passed away as darkness turns to light. Matt was filled with a joy and peace that he had never in his life known. The path for his life changed that night, also. Matt gave everything over to God, and asked Him to direct all his paths from that moment onward.
Matt was called of God to become a preacher shortly after he gave his heart to Jesus in Salvation. He pastored a little church on the outskirts of town for many years, married a lovely Christian lady he meet at a Revival meeting one night, and eventually had four children of his own. The one thing that he was never able to let go of from his past was the brother that he last saw in the reflection of the rear view mirror that day. He knew Michael was out there, somewhere, the only member of his first family that he had left.
He tried once to find him, but court records had been sealed, and he was told that he had no legal right to ask for them to be opened. So he continued to wonder, continued to ask anyone he thought might have some type of clue where he might find more information, and most importantly, he continued to pray. He prayed most every night that God would someday allow him to know whether his brother was alive and well, and perhaps that he might have enough mercy on him to allow Matt to meet his brother again.
He often held services or visited homes for the elderly or disabled, sharing the Good News. When he first began doing this, in the back of his mind he would allow himself to imagine that he might talk with someone by chance who knew his brother. That he would make a connection that would lead him to where Michael might be. And though this hope eventually dwindled to a mere speck on his heart, he still allowed himself to believe he was doing these visitation ministries for his brother. That he was making up to him somehow for what he'd done so many years ago.
One day, while making his usual rounds at the group home that was located just two streets down from his own home, he saw a new resident sitting alone in the corner of the room by the large window. As he came closer to the man who seemed to be just a few years younger than his own forty-five years now, he caught what he thought was something oddly familiar about the mentally challenged man.
He took the chair next to the man, and laid his hand upon his shoulder. For some unexplained reason, he was nervous as he asked the man if he was watching something interesting outside the window.
"Nope nope" replied the sweet man as he began rocking back and forth in his chair, "Watching for my brother to come back."
Matt was choked with all the emotion the past thirty years had held in his heart. Tears welled up in his eyes, as he tried to clear his throat to ask the question that he was suddenly afraid to ask.
"What's your name, friend?" he asked with a hope he almost dared not to have. More prayers than could be counted by anyone but God were answered in just a second's time when his brother looked up at him and smiled, "I'm Michael."
Copyright 2012- Michelle Greene Wheeler
Michelle Greene Wheeler is a Christian who dabbles in writing, art, singing and sharing the Good News of Christ. She and her husband also do ministry work.