The mind of man plans his way,
but the Lord directs his steps.
Proverbs 16:9 (NASB)
Beakon, Texas; population 1,464
Preacher James Darden passed the sign and then turned his truck off County Road 251 onto East Central Avenue. From there, he could see straight through town past the one traffic light to the lone run-down hotel and gas station on the west side and out to the flat emptiness beyond. The two inches of snow that had fallen during the night softened the outlines of windswept wooden homes and storefronts but not enough to diminish the harshness of years of poverty and isolation. Even the old, dried-out tinsel of the Christmas lights at Central and Main refused to move as his truck passed by.
James made a right onto Church Street and pulled into the snow-covered parking lot of the Church of Christ. He had attended there as a child. Those who were his Sunday school teachers were now his elders. A few of his classmates had stayed on family farms and still attended, but most had gone. He, too, had gone away to a preacher training school for two years. Then his parents’ health had deteriorated. He came back just for the summer, but a series of events had thrust him into the pulpit of his father’s congregation. He was to have taken over just for a few weeks, until they could find another minister. They never did, for who would want to come? Thirty years later, he was still there.
Around the edges of the parking lot, black asphalt peeked through as the sun’s force melted the glistening snow. He remembered another time—him in his dad’s truck, the undisturbed snow, and a joyful slip-sliding spin around the lot that had earned him a No Driving for a Month restriction from his dad.
What if he had followed through on his dream to become a race car driver? His high school buddies had thought he was the best. Did he still have it? No one is here, he thought. No one will see. He backed up and then turned the wheel sharply and shoved the gas pedal down. The truck went spinning around in crazy circles and then careened around the lot. He turned the wheel hard the other way, and the truck slid out of control. He hit the brake, just in time to keep from slamming into the lone scrub oak tree at the end of the parking lot.
“Oh, God, I’m only fifty, and I could have been killed.” It was half prayer, half scolding. Covered with cold sweat, he wrapped his arms around the steering wheel and lay his head down. He didn’t know how long he remained there, eyes closed, until he stopped trembling and his heart quit pounding.
A steady tapping on the truck door roused him.
Buddy. A twenty-year-old boy trapped in a man’s body, his brain damaged in a car accident. Buddy pulled open the truck door. “Mr. James, you okay?”
“I’m fine, Buddy. How are you today?”
“Look what someone did. The snow is all messed up.”
James got out of the truck. “Yes, Buddy. Some foolish guy drove his truck all over the parking lot.”
“The snow was all pretty. Now it’s ugly.” His dark eyes were troubled.
“It’s okay, Buddy. God will make it pretty the next time it snows.”
“I ain’t heard from Jim, you know. Not for a long time. He was my best friend, and now he don’t call me or nothing. When is Jim coming home?”
“Why, this week, I think. He’s coming home for Christmas.”
“Really, Mr. James? Do you think I can talk to him?”
“Of course. Tell you what. How would you like to have dinner with us Saturday?”
A huge smile replaced Buddy’s frown. “Thanks. I’ll be seeing you.”
James shook his head as Buddy turned and ran toward his home. At the end of the street, Buddy stopped and waved before he turned the corner. James unlocked the church door and went into his office.
Jim was coming home. He’d been gone over three months, his first time away from home, and James and Nell had barely heard from him. The few telephone conversations they had shared had been short.
“I’m fine, Mom and Dad,” he’d answered their queries. “Just too busy to talk.”
“Too busy doing what?” James asked.
“Oh, you know, lots of studying. Big projects.”
“What kind of projects?” Nell wanted to know.
“Science projects, things I can’t explain right now. And I have a job in the science lab. I have to work weekends to clean up.”
They had wanted Jim to do his master’s at Texas Plains Christian University, twenty miles away. He could have lived at home like he did during his first four years of college. Some of Jim’s friends from church were at Texas Plains Christian University. He would have had chapel and Bible classes every day to strengthen his faith. But Jim was determined to attend the University of Colorado in Boulder. James didn’t know much about the church there, but he thought that some students at Boulder held a yearly pot festival. At least, that’s what he’d heard.
Jim wanted to major in astrophysics, and CU–Boulder offered the degree he needed; TPCU didn’t. That settled it, at least for Jim. James thought about the check that he and Nell had written from their savings to pay for books. He would have gladly given it if Jim had been attending TPCU. It was the only thing he and Nell had argued about for quite a while. He reluctantly gave in, sure Jim would change his mind after his first semester.
The first semester, however, was over. Jim hadn’t come home even for Thanksgiving, saying he had to stay to finish a paper. His roommate, Pat, was also staying, and they would go out to lunch together. James and Nell had said extra prayers for Jim every night. That’s all they could do—pray and trust God to take care of Jim. Now, Christmas was in a few days. Jim would have several weeks off, and they could all be together for Christmas.
James turned on his computer to finish up next Sunday’s sermon.
“Mornin’, James.” Elder Chris Brown came in through the still open office door. “Have you heard the news about Texas Plains?”
“News? What news?”
“Christine called me and Lee this morning. There’s a huge star shape in the snow at the track field. Strange thing—in the middle of the star there’s a sparkling blue cross. Christine said maybe a UFO made it.”
James’ eyes traveled from Chris’ expensive cowboy boots, jeans, and dress shirt secured with a bolero tie and then to Chris’ face.
Chris’ gray eyes were laughing. “Sounds like some students pulled a good prank,” he said.
“Whew! For a minute you had me thinking you believed in UFOs.” James motioned for Chris to sit down.
Chris shrugged, his face more serious. “Don’t know, but it’s all over the news.”
“Who do they think made it?”
Chris shook his head. “Who knows? Just wanted to tell you. Anyway, gotta go. Meeting in Dallas.” He stood and walked out before James could ask more.
Of all the elders, Chris was the one James liked the least. The man was rich from his investments in TENMAC, the huge oil conglomerate formed from different companies in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. He was on the TENMAC board, and he didn’t mind pushing to get his way, there or at church. James knew that only God could see into a man’s heart, but Chris didn’t leave much to wonder about.
Oh, well. James finished writing his sermon, made a few phone calls to check on sick church members, and then turned off his computer. He was eager to get home to Nell.
Outside, James glanced north up Church Street. The Baptist church stood on the corner of the next block. His neighbors Butch and Millie Sleddon were members there. The Methodist church was on the next block north. Independent grocer Allen Crow and his wife attended there. James liked Allen. He looked south to the Catholic Church. Some of his neighbors worshipped there. Good people, all, in spite of their religious differences. He climbed into his truck and headed for home.
Nell met him at the door. “Jim just called. He finished his work early, and he’s coming home today. They’ll be here in an hour or so.”
“Yes, his roommate, Pat, is with him. His parents flew to Los Angeles to see family, and he didn’t want to go. So he’s coming here for the holidays.” She touched his cheek lightly, the way she always did when she wanted something. “I hope you don’t mind.”
“Of course not.” He leaned over and kissed her. “Just that it’s such short notice, honey. Christmas is four days away. This Friday.”
Nell smiled. “When God said to be hospitable, He didn’t say ‘When it’s convenient.’”
“I know. I invited Buddy to dinner on Saturday.”
She tucked a wayward strand of light brown hair behind her ear. “I’ll run to the store and buy a few gifts to put under our tree for Pat. Just a few little things. He should have something on Christmas.”
He took her hand and ran his finger along the raised gold cross inset with a blue sapphire that graced her ring. “What will you get him?”
She held him at arm’s length to look at his lean frame and then ran her hand through his dark wavy hair. She took his hands in hers and looked at the small diamonds on both sides of the cross on his ring. It matched hers. “Jim gave me some ideas. Come on, let’s have some lunch. Jim said they’d be here about four o’clock. Lots to do this afternoon.”
Jim stood outside his old, green Subaru Legacy Outback and stared at Pat’s broad back while his friend dug through his bags in the backseat.
“Come on, Pat. I didn’t think stopping for a bite to eat would take us all day.”
“Hold your horses. I need my phone.”
Jim opened his car door. “Hurry up. It shouldn’t take three weeks.”
“That’s 30,240 seconds. I need only five more. There.” Pat pulled out his cell phone and turned. A wide grin covered his freckled face. He grabbed his eight-inch ponytail and pushed it back over his shoulder.
“How’d you do that?” Jim asked.
“That thirty-thousand-and-something-seconds thing.”
“Easy. I just—”
“Never mind. Let’s get going.”
Jim eased his long legs under the steering wheel and then turned on the ignition and backed out. The car coughed and shook, but once he put it in first gear, it ran smoothly.
Pat buckled up. “Did I tell you my sister, Sherry, and her husband, Joe, are moving to Denver? He got a promotion. They made him a regional sales manager.”
“That’s great. Maybe we can go to their house some weekend for a break. Did I mention my sister, Janell’s, husband, Mason, is now a major in the air force?”
“Wow! He’s climbed the ranks pretty fast.”
“He’s in the Air Force Space Command. They have him working on some new space vehicle. He can’t talk about it, and we don’t ask.”
“I’d like to meet him.”
“I hope he comes. He’s always been like my big brother and best friend. He got me interested in science and space, you know.”
“I know. You’ve told me about the good times you’ve had with Mason. What are your parents like, Jim? You’ve told me your dad’s a preacher. What else do they do?”
Jim thought for a moment and then responded, “Mom does church stuff. You know, teaching Sunday school and the ladies’ class, visiting members with Dad. Guess the main thing I can say is I think they’re over-protective. And very religious, always talking Bible. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. They really didn’t want me going to school at CU. Dad wanted me to be a preacher. If he knew what Dr. Durand told us—”
“You mean about extraterrestrials?” Pat smiled. “Yeah, to think we got to hear one of France’s leading scientists and UFO researchers. That was so cool. And he’s going to be at CU teaching classes next semester. Wish they were graduate classes, not undergraduate.”
“True. But we’re not going to talk about it around Dad and Mom. Remember that. What about your parents?”
Pat looked out his side window for a minute before he answered. “They’re not home much. Places to go, things to do.”
Jim nodded. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay. Do you think your friend Christine will be around?”
“I’m sure we’ll see her and her friend Marcy at church. I hope you brought some nicer clothes.”
Pat reached down to tie the broken shoelace of his worn tennis shoes. He thought his green camouflage shorts and his long-sleeved red T-shirt looked kind of Christmasy. Except his yellow buttoned shirt over the tee hid most of the red. “What’s wrong with my clothes? All my good clothes are packed or in the wash.” He motioned to a duffel bag in the backseat. “I hope your mom will let me use her washing machine. Ran out of time.”
Jim stared at a brown stain down the front of Pat’s yellow shirt.
“Oh, that?” Pat pulled up his shirt and sniffed. “I spilled my hot chocolate on it this morning, that’s all. It’ll come out. I think the way I dress is very unique.”
Jim ran his hand down the crease of his pants. Evidently, clothes and appearance didn’t matter to Pat. “You can’t say very unique, Pat. Unique already means one of a kind.”
Pat didn’t comment. He was browsing the internet on his phone.
“Well, we will be going to church, so I hope you brought some decent clothes,” Jim reminded him.
“Church? We’re going to church?”
“Of course. I grew up going to church every time the doors opened.”
“But you don’t go all the time in Boulder.”
Jim blushed. “I did cut out a couple Sundays when I had to get a paper done. You don’t have to go with us if you don’t want, but Mom and Dad would like it if you come.”
Pat didn’t say anything. After a few minutes, he looked up. “Wow! All the colleges and universities have snow stars on them. A hundred feet in diameter with blue crosses in the middle.” He ran his finger down the screen. “They’re all over the world. Where there isn’t any snow, they’re raised mounds of dirt in the shape of stars. No … they say it’s not dirt but a compound like cement.”
“That’s odd,” Jim responded. “Dad thinks crop circles are pranks.”
“He can’t say someone on earth made these.” Pat insisted as he continued reading. “They have different symbols in them, relating to the main religion of each country.”
“Well, when we get home, don’t mention them.” Jim left the main highway and turned onto County Road 251. He was absorbed in thought as they drove. One semester at CU had opened his eyes to a lot. For one thing, he and his dad seemed farther apart than ever in their thinking about God’s creation and the universe.
Jim turned the car into the dirt and gravel lane that led to his parents’ home. He parked beside his dad’s truck, and he and Pat took the three steps onto the porch in a single bound. Without knocking, he opened the door and ushered Pat inside.
His parents were sitting in the living room. His mom stood and threw her arms around him. “I’ve missed you, Jim. Your dad and I both missed you.”
“I’ve been gone only three months, Mom. Well, maybe a couple weeks more. But I missed you, too.” He gave her a hug and then turned to his dad. “This is my friend Pat. Thanks for letting him spend Christmas with us.”
Jim’s mom extended her hand to Pat. “And I’m Nell.”
“We’re so glad you’re here, Jim,” his dad said, putting his arm around his shoulders. “You too, Pat.”
Pat shook his hand. “Thank you, Mr. Darden.”
“Dinner won’t be for a little while, so why don’t you boys get your things in the house and unpack?”
“Thanks, Mom.” Jim gave her another hug. “Come on, Pat. Grab your bags, and follow me.”
“You’ll be in Janell’s old room, Pat. I’ve kind of turned it into a sewing room, but it still has a bed,” Nell said.
After they put their suitcases in their rooms, they went out to the back yard, where they received a tail-thrashing welcome from the family’s golden retriever, King. Jim showed Pat his old inner sanctum—a tree house he had built in an aged pecan tree. He saved his best for last: two shelves in the family library filled with books about the planets, sun, moon, stars, and the Milky Way galaxy.
“Are these all yours?” Pat asked. “How many are there?”
“Thirty-four. I’ve been collecting and reading them ever since my freshman year in high school. Some may be a little out of date, but they’re still good books.”
Pat whistled. “You’re way ahead of me.”
“I couldn’t help it. This is what has always interested me.”
“Dinner time,” they heard his mom yell. Jim led the way to the dining room, and they sat down at the table.
After saying grace, James asked, “What are you studying at CU, Pat?”
“Astrophysics, just like Jim. Right now, I’m interested in stars. Our sun, of course. But there are hot stars, cool stars, and other types of stars. Every year it seems some scientist finds out something new about the stars. I’d like to do that.”
“Me, I’m interested in interstellar and intergalactic science,” Jim said. “There are millions of galaxies, you know, and each one contains millions of stars.”
James took a piece of chicken breast, then passed the chicken to Pat. “We know, Jim. You probably have lots of exciting things to tell us about your studies. Oh, by the way, I told Buddy you’d be here, and I invited him to have dinner with us this Saturday. You haven’t forgotten your old friend, have you, Jim?”
“Buddy? Oh yeah, Buddy.” Jim looked down at his plate, trying to find the right words. “Dad, I know Buddy and I used to be friends, but—”
“Used to be? Do you forsake your friends just because they have misfortune? Jim, I didn’t rear you to be like that.”
“Dad, let me explain. Since Buddy’s accident, he’s a different person. You know, having the brain injury and all, he just can’t remember things.”
His mom reached across the table and touched his arm. “But he’s still your friend, and you’re still like his older brother,” she said quietly. “And he still needs you. He asks about you every time we see him at church.”
Jim sighed. “I know, Mom. And I’ve tried—really tried—to keep up, but lately, we have nothing in common. I can’t e-mail him or text him about what I’m doing. It’s like I’m talking to a six-year-old. All he can do is ask, ‘What, Jim? What that mean? I don’t understand, Jim.’ Mom, I can’t communicate with him anymore.”
His dad stopped eating. “Son, he doesn’t need you to explain things to him. All he needs is your smile and your arm around his shoulder. He needs to feel like you still love him.”
“I know, Dad. I’ll give him some special attention while I’m home.”
Jim ate while Pat told his parents about their job cleaning the lab. Every once in a while he added to Pat’s tale about some of their mishaps, but his mind was on the star shapes at universities. His parents hadn’t said anything. Had they heard about them?
His dad drained his coffee cup and gathered his plate and eating utensils to carry them to the sink. “Great meal, Nell. If you all will excuse me for a minute, I think I’ll catch the first five minutes of the news.” He walked into the living room and sank into his chair, and Jim and Pat followed him. Picking up the controller, James clicked on the local channel, just as the news began.
“Good evening, this is Tom Burns of The Latest News, where you always get the latest news first. Authorities all over the world are puzzled by the large star shapes appearing on major university campuses. The shapes are reminiscent of the crop circles of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, but they are made of materials not found on this earth. Many appear to be made of snow, but preliminary testing has proven that the material doesn’t melt. In the Southern Hemisphere, they are made of a hard, earth-colored substance. Stranger yet is the religious symbols that appear in the center of each one. The stars at Texas Plains Christian University and other schools in Texas and the United States are inlaid with a shining blue cross. In Muslim countries, a shining blue crescent lies in the middle of each star.”
James turned the television off.
“Dad? You didn’t hear much of the news. Is something wrong?” Jim asked as he, Pat, and Nell walked into the living room.
“I don’t know what to think. There has to be a natural explanation for all this. Sit down, everyone. We need to talk.”