A companion short story to the Secret to Life series


Summer 2003, Los Angeles, CA

Jennifer clung to her mother’s hand as they walked through the doors of the church. Just before her fifth birthday on June 17th, Jennifer and her mother Judith moved to Los Angeles. Both were excited to be starting school after summer was done.  

Judith, Jennifer’s mother, had just begun to attend the Baptist Church after moving from Portland to Los Angeles for her new teaching job. She accepted a part time job for the summer teaching English 1010 at a community college. Her new job teaching third grade was set to start in September. 

Jennifer clung to her mother’s hand as they walked through the doors of the church. A bald gentleman with a beaming smile and sporting a blue, pin- striped suit, held the door for Jennifer and her mother. “Good morning ladies. I’m Richard.” The potbellied man extended a hand to Jennifer’s mother. “How are you this Sunday?”

“We are well. Thank you.” Jennifer’s mother shook the pudgy hand of the sentinel. 

“What a beautiful little lady and that is the prettiest shade of blue. Why, it even matches my suit.” 

Jennifer grinned at the compliment and hugged a little tighter to her mother. Richard extended a hand and shook the tiny fingers framed by the blue flowered sleeve. 

“Are you visiting or new to the area?”

“We’re brand new. I am working this summer at a community college. They have implemented an online English class.”

“Really? How does that work?”

“It is all email based. I send out an assignment, the students do the assignment then send it back to me for grading.”

“Wow. I’ve never heard of such a thing. I own a hardware store not far from here. My wife does the bookkeeping and I make sure the customers are happy.”

“That is good to know. Our apartment will probably need a few things as we start unpacking boxes.”

Richard opened the door for another couple arriving at the church. “Please have a seat anywhere you like. Services will start soon.”

“Oh. Well thank you.”

“Your welcome, Mrs.?”

“It’s just Miss Judith Johnston. I’m sorry Richard. I didn’t catch your last name.”

“Wilburn. Richard Wilburn. When you need something from the hardware store, just look up Wilburn’s Hardware.”

The 60-year-old Richard Wilburn gave a grandfatherly smile to young Jennifer. She and her mother turned and walked slowly toward the church pews looking for a place to sit as a woman with white, poodle type hair soothingly glided her fingers along the piano keys. A quick glance to the opened book next to Judith, she discovered the hymn that everyone had begun to sing. 

Jennifer snuck a peek at the black kinky haired girl sitting next to her. She was trying to settle a little one-year-old boy. He squirmed and squealed as he fought to escape his older sister’s clutches. Upon seeing the struggle, a plump lady with ebony skin and black kinky hair like her offspring plucked the inexperienced escape artist out of his sibling’s arms.

Jennifer’s new neighbor sagged against the back of the pew as the congregation started into the second verse. Jennifer half turned to the kinky haired girl. 


The brown eyes of the exhausted girl glanced at Jennifer. 

“Hi.” Came an equally quiet reply. 

“My name’s Jennifer.”

“My name’s Shantee.”

“Let’s be friends.” Jennifer looked at Shantee with pleading azure eyes. 

Shantee smiled and nodded her head enthusiastically. “Okay.” 

Judith beamed at her little girl and admired how easily it was for her to make friends. Judith also felt blessed that after trying for so long to get pregnant with her previous husband although the doctors had said nothing was wrong with either of them, they could never conceive a child. Their attempts always proved unsuccessful. Her former husband, Mike Detenston, divorced her and found another woman to begin a family with. 

In her twisted anguish of not being able to conceive a child and the rejection of a divorce, she found herself in a dive bar, downing one drink after another. A group of young men entered the bar. From the way they acted, they seemed to be military personnel on leave. They talked to her for a short while, buying her drinks and flirting heavily with her. 

She remembered walking out the door of the bar with the young soldiers. She also remembered a wrinkly older man with strange eyes. She noticed that his eyes didn’t move. His eyes didn’t dart around like other people’s eyes. They seemed–lifeless. She remembered waking up in the passenger seat of her car, then driving to her apartment with a hangover and nursing herself back to sobriety for Monday morning third grade class. 

Judith looked at her little girl, concluding that the unmemorable night gave her the best gift of her life. Through the services, she felt warm and welcome in her new-found congregation as well as at the church barbecue that followed. Judith and Jennifer were introduced to countless members whom she would have only fleeting memories of all the different names and faces. 

Outside, Brandon Wilson crouched close to his best friend. “My father says it’s the mark of the beast.” The brown-haired boy drew with a stick in the sand three jagged lines parallel to each other. “I heard him tell your dad that whoever has the mark, needs to die.”

“Who has the mark?” Justin Telegan asked as he drew idly in the dirt next to the three crooked lines. His sandy hair neatly cropped above the ears did little to enhance the nine-year old’s cognitive skills at grasping the meaning behind ‘mark of the beast.’

“She does.” Brandon pointed his decade old finger at two girls giggling at a distant table. “The one in the blue dress.”

“Why?” Justin asked.

“My dad said that the mark of the beast is three lines.” Brandon explained. 

“Why?” Justin asked again.

“I don’t know. She has three lines in her eyes. That has to be the mark of the beast.”

“Why?” Justin asked only mildly curious to the importance of the information. 

“My dad says that the eyes are the windows to the soul.”

“Oh.” Justin acknowledged. 

Brandon was relieved to have, in his mind, relayed valuable information about important world events that his father had spoken of almost continually in the past year. He scribbled out the secret message in the dirt and looked at his young compadre. “Come on. Let’s go to your house.” 

Judith caught Richard Wilburn’s attention and flagged him down as he meandered between the tables of the dining congregation. He approached Judith and rested a hand on the back of her chair as he bent down to hear her better.

Judith was just about to speak when he held a finger up and dug in his pocket. Pulling out a small remote, he adjusted his hearing aids. “There, now I’ll be able to hear you.”

“I just want to thank you for introducing me to everyone. It was wonderful to meet you. And thank you for the barbecue. It was delicious.” 

“You’re leaving so soon?”

“Yes. I still have some papers to grade before tomorrow.”

“Oh. Well thank you for joining us. Hope to see you next week.” Richard stood to allow Judith to get up from the table. “Do you live far? Can I drive you?”

“We’ll be fine. We only live about seven blocks from here.” 

Judith jumped in surprise as she felt a hand on her shoulder. Spinning on her heels, she now faced a dirty old man with wild unkempt hair. The smell of garbage and urine accompanied him in his wobbly shuffle. His grey, greasy, food-stained beard held the remnants of his last several meals. His heavy clothes solidified with dirt and the dried grease from food and perspiration caused the fabric to cement into semi-pliable board.

Judith stumbled back from the surprising appearance and odor of the wrinkly old man. He was shaking and jittery doing all he could to keep his balance. One eye pierced into Judith while the other swiveled to the side and back. Judith gasp at the sudden intrusion of personal space. A dirty, almost deformed hand came up close to her face. The out stretched claw turned to reveal two white marbles. 

Richard stepped in to intercept the shaky homeless bum. “James. It’s good to see you out and about.” James turned his good eye to Richard and smiled. Crooked, stained and missing teeth showed the man’s extensive dishevelment. “Are you hungry?”

A breathy grunt emitted from the man as his attention turned from the marbles to the promise of food. Richard passed him off to another patron who had come to assist James in getting a bite to eat. 

“I don’t know what happened. One day he was our local channel nine weatherman. Then suddenly went off the deep end, talking about how he was a teacher of Jesus when Jesus was just a boy.” Richard explained about the sudden intruder. “He became obsessed with studying stars and the constellations. His wife divorced him and took everything he ever had. He didn’t care, as long as he was left alone with his telescope. A few years ago, he lost his telescope and came up with two marbles. He hasn’t talked since. He was really a brilliant man, very intelligent.”


Judith walked home with Jennifer holding her hand. She was transfixed by the story and wondered at what bizarre reason James might have for acting that way. She felt sorry for the man and the life he had lost with his family. She wondered where his family might be or even if they cared. Regardless of the event and the hot afternoon, she was happy to be spending it with her daughter, the sole purpose she used to keep putting one foot in front of the other. 

In the backyard of Justin’s house, Justin and Brandon poked the caged pit bull with a stick. There was a tiny blue sock tied to the end of the stick. The two boys poked and prodded the dog to bring it into its aggressive fighting state. Justin had copied what his father had done when he took the dog to dog fights. Brandon had seen the little girl take her sock off to wiggle her toes in the grass then promptly forgot it and ran off chasing Shantee. He casually picked up the sock when no one was looking and stuffed it in his pocket. 

Judith and Jennifer had passed down the alley behind Justin’s house. It was the last leg of their journey back to the apartment complex. The sun was hot making the otherwise pleasant day a bit on the unbearable side. 

Brandon propped the alley gate open. Then both boys climbed atop the kennel and flipped the latch with a stick. The pit bull lunged to the gate, battering it with his head, sending it in an arc until it crashed into the side of the kennel. The pit bull tore out of the gate and turned to lunge at the boys who now assumed the idea had backfired when the deranged dog turned on them. After a few unsuccessful lunges at the boys, the K-9 sniffed around the backyard before associating the smell of the blue sock with a scent coming from the alley. 

Sniffing out the gate and into the alley, the robust killer smelled and spotted his prey. With a bark and a lunge, the muscle-bound beast launched himself towards the unsuspecting duo.

Judith heard the commotion and turned to see a mouth full of sharp teeth leap through the air at her daughter. She grabbed Jennifer and rolled her around turning her back to the coming attack. Snarling teeth ripped at flesh yet she felt nothing. A grunt of a man and a thud to the ground caused Judith to peek at the sounds while still sheltering Jennifer. 

On the ground was the crazy man who had surprised Judith at the barbecue. The dog had James by the face and continued to rip flesh from bone. James tried to beat the dog off, but only seemed to annoy the beast. The man howled in pain as Judith screamed in fear. Judith covered the eyes of her daughter as she scooped Jennifer into her arms and ran. She dared not stop until she was in front of her apartment door.

Fumbling with the key she turned to see the large pit bull turn and charge toward her. The man, James, lay unmoving in the gravel alley. 

Inserting the apartment key, she fumbled with the lock. Jennifer clung to her mother’s neck with her arms and her tiny legs wrapped around her waist. Jennifer cried into her mother’s neck as Judith made several attempts to turn the key. 

Panic had prevented her from remembering to pull the key back out slightly before turning. She fumbled some more as the tan and black marbled beast raced across the parking lot. The key turned. The door opened. Spinning around the door she shoved it closed with the weight of her body. 

A hundred pounds of kinetic muscle and bone hammered like a freight train against the door a split second before the latch slammed home. Judith shrieked in fear as she leaned all her weight against the door. The door pushed open and a muzzle, baring teeth, snapped at her just beyond the edge of the door. The pit recoiled to make another lunge. Judith slammed the door shut. The pit lunged only to find a solid door to bounce off. 

Judith grabbed up Jennifer again after locking the door, ran into the bathroom then closed and locked that door too. Flipping open her phone, she called for the police. 


Richard met Judith in the hospital lobby. It had only been a day since the pit bull had tried to attack them. Richard’s face was ashen as he approached. Jennifer clung to her mother’s hand and pressed close to her leg. With her right hand, she held a toy doll to help console her. 

“Is he alright?” Judith asked insistently.

“I’m not sure. The doctors don’t think he’ll last the day.” Richard turned and walked slowly with them as they made their way to the ICU. 

“Why does Jennifer have to be here?” Judith was concerned about her only child. She had hoped for a whole passel of children and a loving husband, but she would be denied that save for one lovely little girl. 

“James asked for her by name. He said, ‘blue dress,’ then he said, ‘Jennifer.’ He pointed to his bed like he wanted her to be here.” 

“I thought you said he couldn’t talk.”

“That’s the miracle, I think.” Richard continued. “That’s why I asked you to come down here so quickly.”

“What do you think he wants with Jennifer?” 

“I don’t know.” Richard pushed the button inside the elevator that would take them to the ICU. 

The three gathered close to the hospital bed. James had bandages covering his face except for his mouth. Both eyes were covered causing Judith to wonder how he would be able to know who she or Jennifer was. The man’s chest rose and fell steadily as he slept. 

“James. James.” Richard nudged the old man’s hand. 

James jerked and took a deep breath.

“James. Judith and Jennifer are here.” 

James lifted his hand bending his wrist motioning for Jennifer to come closer. 

“It’s ok sweetie. He just wants to say hi. He won’t hurt you.”

He set his clenched hand atop her head and slid it down to her ear. James gasped a breath and began to cry. He trembled and gasped for breath after breath trembling with each one. Five minutes pass as James wept with joy.


“H…h…hands.” James voice was barely audible. He hovered his trembling hand in a circle in front of Jennifer. 

“I think he wants to give you something.” Judith whispered in Jennifer’s ear. “Hold your hands out.”

Following her mother’s instruction, Jennifer held her hands out. James hovered his hand above Jennifer’s. Two glistening white marbles dropped out of his hand and into the cupped hands of the small child. With a wrinkled weather-beaten finger, he stirred the marbles. One around the other, he made them spin around each other several times. With a smile on his face, he rested his hand back on his chest and exhaled the last bit of his air.