Of course temptation is better than what we have;
otherwise it would not be
Russell and Sarah were quite
astonished by the events from the day before. But for Russell, it really shook
him up. Maybe it was because he felt somewhat responsible. Yes, it was Sarah’s
idea to do something about what was going on but he ready agreed to it. Maybe
if he had been discouraging then Thomas would not have followed along.
To calm himself down, Russell was
making his second trip that day out to his place in the woods. He already went
that morning with his wheelbarrow of seed, but had to come back because he was
getting hungry. But with everything going on he felt that he needed an extra
dose of refreshment and some time alone. Besides, he had finished another
birdhouse and was eager to get it up.
He was at least feeling better
after hearing that Thomas’ cut was not as bad as it first appeared and that it
did not require as many stitches as expected.
Because of what had happened, the
four never got together to make their secret agent plans. That was a great
relief to Russell. What was going on was too serious for the likes of him. He
was going to stay out of trouble, not harass anyone, and spend as much time by
his pond as possible. There were no maniacal pipes out there. After all, his
birds and fish and squirrels were all gentle friends of his.
He was trying to occupy his mind
with what kind of birdhouses to build next. He needed a new theme. The one in
his wheelbarrow completed his recent theme of space objects. It was a very
clever replication of a space shuttle and complimented his already occupied
Apollo spacecraft, asteroid, and nine planets (which resembled more the nine boxes
although Saturn did have a spiffy ring around it). His space station was an octagonal
tube that encircled a tree trunk. It took him the better part of a day just to
assemble it. He was quite pleased with that one.
For a new theme he thought of
animals, but the idea of a bird flying into the mouth of a cat, even though it
is made of wood, just seemed too odd. Besides, nearly every animal that he
thought of looked like a large rat with bulging red eyes.
A carnival theme?
Too complex. How about baked goods? Now that is
something gentle on the mind. Maybe he could make a birdhouse that looked like
a biscuit. But he had already done cakes and cookies a couple of years ago. He
needed something new. He thought about transportation. “Yea, that just might be
the ticket,” he thought. “There are cars, ships, planes, boats.” He was
thinking about the first one being an old-fashioned stream engine.
He was walking very slowly and was
still a good distance from his paradise. He was trying to picture how a steam
engine could be done (and still be recognizable) when he was greatly startled.
There was a man standing in the path about 20 feet in front of him. Russell
stopped and simply stared. No one was ever out here before.
The man stood there smiling, overly
smug like someone not wearing underwear and knowing that you would never find
out. He had his arms casually crossed in front of his chest. He was dressed
with black slacks and a long-sleeve buttoned black shirt, not exactly hiking
They both silently stared at each
other for several extended seconds.
The wheelbarrow dropped to the
ground as the handles slid out of Russell’s hands. “Are you Jocum
or one of those other guys that Toni and Thomas met?” he asked haltingly.
The man did not raise his arms or squeeze his
eyes tightly together or even twitch the slightest muscle, but just then
hundreds, perhaps thousands of branches crashed to the ground in circle of at
least 100 feet. Russell jumped like a spring.
“Whoa,” Russell cried out, “What’s
going on here?”
Though they surrounded him none of
the branches were within thirty feet. In fact they left Russell and the man
together in a clear center.
The man never moved. He kept his
eyes tightly fixed on Russell never losing his smile.
Then all of the fallen branches
began to twitch and jerk. Their writhing became more pronounced. There was much
scrapping on the ground and thrashing against bushes. Russell turned several
times in a rapid circle. The same thing was happening everywhere. The man
seemed oblivious to the surrounding drama. It was as though he was somewhere
else and only his image was there in the woods. But, in fact, he was very real.
And then the writhing stopped and
each “branch” raised up one end, its black slit eyes
riveted on Russell. Their forked tongues flickered and hissed. Russell groaned
in horror. He was too paralyzed to even cry out. He knew that he was done.
But none of the black snakes inched
closer to him. They simply stood their ground and menaced. Every one of them
portended of wanting to fling themselves forward and strike their fangs inches
into Russell’s flesh but were being held back by an unseen leash.
“Is, is this magic?” stammered
“Magic? Laughed the man. This question seemed to rouse him from his
sardonic gaze. “No, my child, this,” he lingered on that word like a showman,
“is the supernatural.”
Sweat was oozing from every one of
Russell’s pores. “What? What’s the difference?”
The man laughed again, this time
even heartier. “It is the difference between a unicorn and a horse, between
Atlantis and Rome.”
Russell stared blankly with
obviously no comprehension. It is hard to have one’s wits revving like a
Ferrari when surrounded by hundreds of black, hissing snakes.
Seeing his dilemma the man offered
some help. “Quite simply, one is fake and one is real.
You, my boy, cannot wave a stick and make spoons levitate no matter how hard
you try, but to turn branches into snakes—that, as you can see, is all too possible. Ah, it has been done before; you’ve
probably even read about it in your Sunday school.” The man seemed almost
wistful. But then he quickly snapped back to menacing. “For a mile around I can
turn every branch into a poisonous adder and every leaf into a scorpion.”
Russell eyed the snakes. This was
bad enough. It did not take a mile of snakes to do him in. In fact, only one
was sufficient. He could feel his every breath. His body seemed as though it
were stuffed with rags. However, still the snakes did not inch any closer. Many
slid side-to-side but it was as though there was a pane of glass in front of
“So, who are you?” asked Russell.
“Who do you want me to be? I can be
your most delicious fantasy, your most enticing pleasure. Do you want me to
love you? I will hold your hand and lead you. Have you been wronged? I will
justify your anger. I will fan your secret passions, bring to you what you want
to see, and smother you with your richest temptations. And I will make all of
this as easy as can be. Who do you want me to be?”
With that he morphed into all
sizes, shapes, and colors of people at the rate of four per second, each one
gazing at Russell and smiling. It was like watching someone ruffling through a
pack of picture playing cards but in 3D.
Russell’s jaw fell slack. He
thought that one of those people was Allison, the girl in one of his high
school classes that he wished that he knew better. Another looked like his
favorite grandmother who passed away last year and yet another was his father.
Actually it seemed as though all of them were familiar both those whom he
longed for and those who bullied him. After fifteen seconds the show stopped
and what stood before him was the man once again.
Seemingly unperturbed by his
fantastic display the man continued. “I am Terese’s office manager, Floyd Fullman’s co-worker, and Carl’s new best friend. I can be
Allison or whomever you want and I will take whatever I want. Do you know me
“You’re, you’re the Devil,”
proclaimed Russell. He jerked his head around quickly expecting the snakes to
be unleashed at the sound of that word. Once he guessed the answer he figured
that the game would be over. But nothing changed.
The man laughed longer than what
seemed to be appropriate. This further unnerved Russell as was probably the
“So what are you going to do with
me?” asked Russell.
“What do you want me to do with
you?” countered the man.
“Umm, let me go… unharmed.”
“And why should I do that?” the man
tightened his face.
How could Russell successfully
answer that question? The Devil has no stomach for mercy or compassion. And
Russell knew that a great many men and women over the millennia have stumbled
over this very question and paid with their souls. There was no logical reason
that would catch the Devil off guard. There was no moral reason that would be
convincing. There probably was not even an immoral reason that would do the
trick. He stood in silence while the Devil peered at him. He could pray, but he
did not know what to pray for. Still, the Devil glared at him, his face
tightening ever so slightly more. Pages of Scripture flew in succession through
Russell’s mind and then one page stopped with one verse magnified more than the
others: “Resist the Devil and he will flee from you.”
“That’s it,” thought Russell. He
felt hopeful. But then he wondered, “But what does that mean?” He wondered if
he pushed him real hard then he would scamper away like an ape with all of his
snakes following him. That seemed quite stupid since most of the time that
anyone would apply this verse the Devil himself would not be standing right
there in front of him. Besides, Russell had this image of him putting his hands
on the Devil and then having them burst into flames. That seemed oddly unlikely
but, still, it was not worth taking a chance.
Instead, Russell asked, “What do
you want from me?” Even as he was saying this he wondered why he was asking. He
knew that he was doing nothing more than stalling. He just wished that he could
be more clever.
“What do I want from you?” smiled
the man. His voice was soft, even gentle. “Why everything, of
“Well, you’re not going to get
anything.” At this, Russell raised his voice. Was this a false heroic akin to
leaping off of a boat to save a woman’s hat when you know darn well know that
you cannot swim?
Remaining perfectly calm the man
replied, “And what do you have that will prevent me?” He spoke with the
condescending confidence of a warrior with his sword on the neck of his feeble
There was silence. Russell’s head
hung down. The man smiled with a firm arrogance. “I thought not.” He took a
couple of steps forward. “This game has wasted enough of my time. I could be
off starting a war somewhere; not dawdling with a minor character.”
Russell’s eyes darted back and
forth as his brain searched for something. Then he sputtered out, “Greater is
He who is in me than he who is in the world.”
The man stopped short and his smile
tightened considerably to the point of appearing grim. The great warrior did
have a seam in his armor. But Russell knew that there is a chasm of difference
between saying something and standing on it. It was not as though the Devil had
never heard this before.
“And who is in you? Do you have a
tapeworm? Perhaps you roasted and ate your little, longed for girl friend
Allison. Was she good? Do you wish that you had more?”
“In me dwells God’s Spirit. I am a temple of God.”
The man straightened up. There was
silence again but this time it was throughout the woods. The snakes were quiet
“You think mighty highly of
yourself, don’t you? What makes you think that you are worthy of God? Moses
could only glance at His back but here you are God’s own temple. Are you
greater than Moses? You certainly don’t glow and, besides, how could all of God
fit inside such a boy as yourself even though you are rather dumpy? Don’t you
think that if God wanted a temple that He would pick something better than a
crippled boy? I’ve seen God’s temple and I can assure you that you aren’t even
worthy to be splattered against its walls.
“I think that it is time to
dispense of this myth of your own self-importance. Pride is a sin, you know.”
The Devil snickered. “Now what do you say that we stop playing this old woman’s
game and get back to real business?”
He stiffly flattened out his hand
and held it upright, his fingertips inches from a tree. Then he calmly pushed
his hand into the tree as though it were only a mirage. When the tips of all of
his fingers emerged out of the other side he stopped. He was quite peaceful,
almost playful. Then he slowly moved his hand up the trunk of the tree so that
it appeared like a shark’s fin cutting through water. After he had gone about two
feet he paused and then withdrew his hand. He turned towards Russell and
“I have everything that you could
ever possibly want and in exchange I only want one thing. That seems quite
fair, don’t you? Millions have accepted this deal. What’s the matter with you?”
Russell pushed against the back of
his teeth with his tongue.
“One thing, only one small thing
and you can have it all.” The Devil appeared slightly larger and enticing. “And
consider that if you accept my offer then at least you’ll still be alive five
minutes from now. Now doesn’t that count for something?”
Russell stammered. Many things
flashed through his mind. Yes, there were a lot of things that he wanted. It
would be easy and then he would be out of here safe and sound. He stared at the
ground and staggered in a small circle.
The Devil continued. “With money
you would never have to worry about getting a job and stress like your parents.
You could travel, have lots of adoring friends, all of
the chocolate that you could want. You could even have your own dessert chef
and every night have fresh chocolate pastries. And, Allison, instead of
watching her from the corner of your eye, you could be married to her and have
lots of children.”
Like a rapidly cascading montage
Russell saw expensive cars, his name everywhere, people swarming him and
begging for their picture with him, a huge house, a swimming pool, dirt bikes,
an enormous TV, people grinning like fools and slapping him on the back telling
him how wonderful he is, a great body, Allison hugging him tightly, sleeping
late, no more school, piles of ice cream sundaes. On and on came the images.
But most of all he saw himself tall and athletic. He felt almost overwhelmed.
Yes, it would be easy and at such a small price. Who would know? And just
before he died he could repent and all would be forgiven. He looked up. The
Devil was leaning towards him.
“Who would know?” the Devil asked.
“It is just you and me here.”
Russell came back as though shook
out of a dream. “But I know that it’s true,” he proclaimed. “I know that I am a
child of God and that I am His temple.”
“Oh, do you? Well, I know that its not true and I’ve been around a lot longer than you
have. I have seen God and have spoken to Him and believe me, it’s not true.”
Russell was taken back. How can you
argue with someone who has actually spoken to God?
“I, I know that it’s true because
it is in the Bible.”
The Devil laughed. “The Bible. Fairy tales written by men
with fantasies of immortality. It is full of contradictions and stories
that even a three-year old would recognize as hooey. What fish swallows a man
and spits him out whole? What donkey talks in perfectly good Hebrew? Who is
beaten, whipped, crucified, speared and then pushes away a rock and walks out
of a cave alive? Is this what you are trusting in? You’re riding a unicorn. You
are leaning on a broken reed. I can write a better Bible than that. Give it up.
The mark of true wisdom is knowing when to surrender.
Better to be a slave in my house than a corpse at the door of God, eh son? What
do you say? You are only throwing pebbles at a mountain. Come over to me and
live and I will show you things that your mind could not imagine and your eyes
have not seen.”
At this the Devil took a step
closer and extended his hand. Russell stood fixed. Doubt was creeping in on all
fours. “He has actually talked with God,” he thought.
The Devil could sense it. He had
tempted the best and had won many, many times. He knew each person’s weaknesses
and it was not hard to set up the scenery. David and lust,
Eve and the desire to know, Peter and his cowardice. He even got one of
Jesus’ handpicked apostles to turn on Him. They were all the same, only the
props were different. And teenagers, they were the easiest of all.
“Moses, David, Peter, Elijah—these
were the hall-of-famers, the top of the line, the
superstars and they all fell. What makes you think that you are better than
they were? Faith is the greatest of all tormentors for it only impedes
“But, but,” Russell could only
The Devil stepped closer; his arm
was still extended. “You are but a crippled boy pushing a junk wheelbarrow in
the woods. Instead, you could be a god.” He knew that he was closing the noose.
Soon this boy would be hanging from his belt like millions of other souls.
“Even Jesus gave in. Are you better
Russell felt like he was slapped
out of a stupor. “Jesus didn’t give in,” he thought. “And if God wants to
create a fish that can swallow a man and then spit him
out whole then he can. And if He can create talking people then He can create a
“No, you’re wrong,” Russell yelled.
“If you’re the Devil then there is a God and if there is a God then He can and
did do all of those things that you said couldn’t happen.”
The Devil sneered. “The choice is
yours. The opportunity is fading. You can choose abundant pleasures or your
blood can scald the ground. What will it be? Your time is nearly up.”
Then, as if the panes of glass were
removed, the snakes started to slowly crawl towards Russell. There was no where
to go, he could not take out his opponent, and there was no one to intervene.
He was the only piece left on the board and he was checkmated. He felt himself
getting dizzy but he had to resist. If he was going to be killed he wanted to
do it fighting, not lying on the ground unconscious.
He swayed and took a step back but
it was on his bad leg and it gave way and he fell to the ground. He looked up.
The Devil who only a second ago was twenty feet away was now standing right
over him. The adders were coming closer but now they were intermingled with
thousands of scorpions all with their claws held high.
The Devil and thousands of his
horrors versus one dumpy, crippled boy, Russell thought. The odds were not
Russell mumbled, “I rebuke you in
the name of Jesus Christ.”
“Bah,” said the Devil. “That may
work for angels but in your mouth they are only parroted words.”
Russell sagged. He dropped his head
and leaned over and put both of his hands on the ground. He knew that the fangs
and the stinging would be horrible. He also knew that the Devil would not let
it happen quickly. Mercy is never in the vocabulary of the wicked.
He did the only thing that he had
left. It had saved him from the Niss, perhaps it would
work again here. He prayed barely audibly, “Jesus, save me.” And he wept.
He did not know what to expect.
Perhaps one of the large men that Toni and Thomas talked about would leap over
the horrors and whisk him away to safety. He waited. Nothing happened. The only
sound that he heard was the rustling of dried leaves getting louder and louder
as the snakes slithered towards him. The ground seemed to quiver with their
He clenched his teeth and tightened
his eyes. Yes, it was going to really hurt badly. He felt his arms quivering
and then his entire body. “I’m going to collapse into heap,” he thought, “and
then they are going to swarm all over me. When the search party finds me I will
be bloated with poison. This is going to really hurt Danielle.”
The quivering of the ground became
more pronounced and then there was a loud noise surrounding him. It was first a
loud crack and then a rumble. It lasted for several seconds but he still did
not open his eyes. He was shaking like he had been hit with an electric shock.
Then he fell over onto his side.
The noise and shaking stopped. He
opened his eyes. All around him was a chasm whose depth he could not fathom.
Its width was at least twenty feet at its narrowest. He could not see any
snakes. He could not even see the Devil. But back in the woods beyond the edge
of the crevice he could faintly discern the shadowy shapes of a number of
people. And then he fainted.
Russell slowly opened his eyes. At
first everything was murky like looking through the silt from the bottom of a
pond. It was as though all of the world’s colors had been washed out. He could
hear a faint, intermittent hum. He tried to put his hand on his head but could
not tell if he had succeeded or not.
He wondered if he had died and was
waking up in Heaven. Perhaps the hum was angels singing.
He heard a muffled voice. It was as
though someone was at the end of a long tunnel. He closed his eyes again and
strained to concentrate on the voice. It was becoming clearer. It was high
pitched, almost squeaky. He could feel the fuss leaving his head.
“Russell? Russell? Can you hear
He could now feel his hand on the
top of his head.
“Russell? Russell? Are you OK?”
He opened his eyes with a jolt. Inches away from him was a face that rapidly came into
“Russell? Are you OK?” came the voice again.
“Huh?” he said with the barest hint
“He’s coming to” he heard as the
face turned away. He discerned a groan in the background.
Suddenly everything became clear.
It was Danielle who was staring at him.
“What… what are you doing out in
the woods? Go away. Go home, now. Get out of here,” he said confusedly. He was
weakly trying to shoo her away with his arm.
Danielle replied with even more confusion. “What are you talking about? You’re
at home. You’re lying on the couch.”
“What?” he replied weakly. He tried to sit up but Danielle gently pushed him
“You need to rest for a while,” she
reassured him. “I have some water here. Do you want some water?” She held the
glass up to his lips but he did not respond to it.
“Where am I?” he asked.
“You’re at home,” she replied
firmly. “I just told you that. Are you OK?”
Russell looked around; his eyes
were focusing. Sure enough he was home. The groaning was his mother on the far
chair with her head buried in her hands. She was mumbling, “You two will be the
death of me yet. I try so hard and this is the thanks that I get.”
“What happened?” Russell asked.
Russell’s mother got up and began
pacing the room. She held her hands cupped to her chest. You could almost see
the worry lines deepening by the second.
“That’s what we’re wondering,”
Danielle replied. “We found you propped up in the doorway. It looked as if
someone put you there. “How long were you there?”
“I… I don’t know. What time is it?”
8:00,” came Danielle’s answer.
“A.M. or P.M.?” asked Russell.
“A.M. or P.M.?”
Danielle responded with bewilderment. “What do think, that you’ve been
wandering around the countryside for days with amnesia? You’ve only been gone
for several hours. It’s 8:00 at night. I know that you’ve had a rough time of
it, but it couldn’t have been that bad. Here, have some water and when you feel
up to it I’ll help you up to your bedroom so you won’t go tumbling down the
stairs. Oh, and here.” She handed him a brown bag.
“This was next to you. It has some kind of wafers in it. They’re actually quite
good. Where’d you get them from?”
Russell looked like a boxer getting
up from a knockout punch. He stared dumbly at the bag.
“Oh forget it,” she replied. “Here,
this will make you feel better.” She folded a wash cloth, poured some water on
it, and laid it across his forehead. “By the way, your wheelbarrow is outside
next to the door.”