THE TRANSFORMATION by TERRI KRAUS

TRADE Paperback
ISBN:  978-0-7814-4867-3
David C. Cook
$14.99
Copyright © 2009 by Terri Kraus

THE TRANSFORMATION
CHAPTER ONE

The early Spring morning warmed as the sun rose higher over the city. Oliver had walked around the building, the church, three times, each more slowly than before. It was Romanesque in design, massive in execution. The cornerstone of the building bore the chiseled date, 1888. The property it stood on occupied about half of a city block square of land.
The stones would have been moved into place with mules and block-and-tackle back then. An amazing feat, Oliver thought, one that would be hard-pressed to be duplicated today, even with heavy machinery. With its chiseled, thick stone walls, sturdy piers, groin-vaults— Oliver reveled in old architecture—this structure added up to a near-perfect building.
Robert the Dog walked with him each circuit, sniffing the grass with some interest but never more than a few feet away from his master.
“What a magnificent building,” Oliver said, his tone small, deferential, and yet the dog looked up. It was obvious to Oliver that his companion’s soul—or whatever it was that dogs possessed instead of a soul—was as impressed, as filled with awe, as Oliver was.
But impressed was not the same as being enamored with the prospect of working on such a structure. Oliver was falling in love with this building. Immediately obvious to his contractor sensibilities and to anyone who had ever picked up a hammer and a nail was the reality that there would be no altering the footprint of these walls. Moving the stones would be horrendously difficult, and altering walls would require steel bracing, deep, thick cement foundations, and a huge amount of temporary supports. So the building was as big as it was ever going to be. The only possible way to expand might be with an annex, with a connecting hallway between the old structure and the new. But this existing church, the bones of this church, dictated that there would be no easy modifications happening.
Oliver sat on the main steps of the church . . . the building. Robert the Dog sat next to him and stared down the cross street.
“It’s a real church, Robert. I don’t know if I want to work on an historic church—like remodeling it and making it something different. Changing it into something other than a church, I mean.”
Robert the Dog snorted. He snorted a lot in the morning. Oliver thought it was allergies but didn’t want to subject the dog to veterinarian tests and some fancy, expensive regime of daily pills or shots. Shots—maybe we could do shots. But pills—never. Robert the Dog could sense any pill, no matter how tiny, and would spit it out with obvious disdain on the floor, regardless of what meat or cheese it was wrapped in. So they both were resigned to live with a few springtime morning dog snorts and wuffles.
“I know it’s not a church now. But still, it was God’s house once . . . consecrated ground. I bet He still cares what goes on here, you know?”
The dog did not look up.
“Maybe I don’t want to be the one who helps . . . destroy an old church. Maybe destroy isn’t the right word. Alter? Change? Something like that. What if she wants to make a . . . a . . . I don’t know . . . a nightclub out of this? Would you want me to do that? Really? To a church? What would God say? Worse yet, what would my mother say?”
Oliver knew that if a stranger had come by and heard him talking to a dog . . . well, he couldn’t blame them for thinking it was clearly an odd situation. But having Robert there, listening, or at least pretending to listen, was something Oliver really needed—an ear, a face, someone to talk to. He couldn’t talk to his brother like this . . . and certainly not to his mother.
“I need the job, but I’m not sure about working on this church. Maybe if I don’t want it so badly, it will look like I’m busy and she won’t expect a low bid. Do you think that will work, Robert?”
The dog turned his head and offered what looked like a sidelong, pickerel grin.
“Yeah . . . I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
It was at the moment of the dog’s imagined grin of agreement that Oliver saw something out of the corner of his eye—a person coming towards him. Cars had gone past and a few pedestrians had walked by on South Aiken while the pair sat on the cold stone step, but they were anonymous cars, anonymous people, not stopping or slowing, passing on their way to somewhere else. But this singular person headed directly towards the church, as if on a mission. Oliver knew it had to be Samantha Cohen.
Robert the Dog stood up and offered a soft welcome growl.
“I think it’s her, Robert.”
The woman looked both ways at the curb, then jogged across, her mane of dark hair flowing behind her like a living halo of curls and waves, like some wondrous creature inhabiting an underwater reef.
Oliver normally did not notice such things, but he noticed today—she was that eye-catching and attractive, even from a distance. A tall woman, she had to measure nearly six feet, maybe even taller than Oliver, and she was smiling widely. Her dark eyes were the color of buttered rum with a swirl of cinnamon, a drink Oliver had never once consumed but had heard about in sophisticated movies featuring burly men in ski sweaters by crackling fireplaces of rough-hewn stone with rustic lumber mantles. Artsy, for sure. Exotic, Oliver thought, and quite . . . he didn’t know how to describe this beautiful woman but tried striking, then gorgeous. Yet even those words did not justify how pretty she was.
Long legs. Very long legs. Like a dancer. And womanly. Oliver did not want to blush trying to think of the proper—or modest, or chaste—adjective to describe what he saw. Buxom flashed through his thoughts, but he banished it as quickly as it arose.
“You must be Oliver Barnett,” the woman said, her voice as rich, warm, and syrupy as it was on the phone. “I mean, who else would be sitting on the steps of a church at this time of day, unless you were a hobo or a homeless person, and you don’t look like one of those at all. I’m Samantha Cohen.”
She stuck out her hand—long fingers with the scarlet polished nails trimmed short, not long and witch-like, the type that scared Oliver. Even the women in church with long, curved nails would set internal warning bells ringing. This woman set none of those bells off, but a bell of a different type.
Samantha wore some sort of quilted black Asian-style kimono/Geisha jacket. Although Oliver knew little about clothing styles for the feminine form, he guessed it was silk. Delicate embroidery decorated the sleeves and collar and knot-and-loop closures, rather than buttons, marched up the front. Oliver impressed himself by noticing such detail. Then he observed her slacks—so loose and flowing that they appeared to be pajama bottoms.
He blinked. Pajama bottoms? She walked here in pajamas?
“And who is this fine-looking, noble dog?” Samantha said, sweet as honey, and held out her hand to Robert the Dog. Robert, as if assuming the person-to-dog introduction was to be expected, lifted his right paw and let Samantha bend down and take it and gently pump it up and down a few times. She did not adjust her Geisha jacket, and Oliver could see more of her than he felt comfortable seeing. He tried not to look.
“Robert,” Oliver said. “Robert the Dog.”
“Nice to meet you, Robert the Dog. Did Oliver and you walk around this place? I bet he told you that this might be too big of a job, right?” She leaned closer to the dog, and Robert stood up and lifted his head towards her. “Did you tell him he’s wrong? You should have.”
Then Samantha stood back up, tugged her jacket back into place, and fished around in its left pocket. “Let me show you around, Oliver and Robert the Dog. Follow me.”
She hurried up the steps, inserted an enormous key into a gigantic lock, and turned it with a grimace until a tumbler or two fell with an iron-like clunk. She grabbed the massive door handle.
Oliver decided her nail polish was more magenta than red.
The door hesitated, then swung open on hundred-year-old-plus-hinges, with hardly a squeak . . . perhaps simply a metallic whisper. The interior glowed, filled with the early morning’s light now tinting through a thousand slivers of glass in a wall of stained-glass windows.
It was the most beautiful sight Oliver had seen in decades. Maybe even longer.
• • •

Robert the Dog entered the quiet space, lit by the dense blues and purples and reds and greens and golds of the stained glass catching the first light of the sun, and padded slowly up the middle aisle. It was flanked by rows of heavy, dark wood pews with blue velvet cushions and thick stone piers, supporting the arched ceiling. He made his way up to the choir, with its elaborate woodwork façade, and stopped just before reaching the high altar, then turned around and stared back at his two human companions.
Samantha had taken Oliver’s hand—a first time ever in his career as a contractor that a client, or potential client, had taken his hand—and led him around the interior. She pulled him down the side aisles, pointing at the splendid, original, old stained-glass windows in pristine condition, with the apostles and disciples and Jesus and Moses and virtually every top-ten Bible story rendered in finger-thick leaded glass.
“Aren’t they stunning?” she asked, not waiting for a reply but providing the answer herself. “Yes, indeed. And that big round one . . . it’s glorious. Like God’s eye, isn’t it?”
He nodded.
“We’ll have to find a way to light them to their best advantage,” Samantha added. She pointed to the rafters. “Are they mahogany?”
Oliver stared, even as she pulled. “Probably not. Maybe oak. Or walnut. Stained to look like mahogany. Or a mahogany veneer.”
She squeezed his hand (another first) and replied, “Well, whatever they are, they’re glorious. We’ll need lights on them, though. We’ll need to illuminate those beauties.” She ran her other hand over one of the pews. “We’ll keep these for seating. Or some of them. Have to section them up, for sure. And the pews in the balcony will have to go away, too, because that’s where the live music will be. The organ up there, I’m not sure about that yet. It came with the church. The pipes will stay, of course . . . part of the ambiance. And then there’s the altar or whatever Christians call that area . . . that will have to go as well. I’m assuming that the height difference in the floor here, with these few steps, is not just wood framing. I would like this area level, all at one height with the rest of the space, but I’m not sure that can be easily done. And the . . . pulpit, is it? Maybe that could be turned into a reception desk.”
They arrived back at the front of the church and Samantha let go of Oliver’s hand.
“What do you think? Magnificent space, isn’t it?” she said. “Can’t you just see it at night, the windows illuminated, the space lit by a hundred candles?”
Seldom rendered speechless, Oliver felt tongue-tied this morning. He was caught up now, not only in the beauty of the building but in this woman’s energy. The fact she had actually touched him, held his hand, was so disconcerting that he was having trouble forming a logical string of thoughts.
Church, stained-glass windows, cut-up pews, altar, pulpit, steps. Christians, holding my hand, God’s eye.
Samantha looked directly at Oliver, then turned to the dog. “I’ve overwhelmed him, haven’t I, Robert the Dog?”
If Robert could agree, or look like he agreed, he did just that with a curious tilting of his head.
Samantha smiled. “I do that a lot. My father says that’s a good skill to have when negotiating, because the other side gets all . . . bamboozled . . . and that means you can then get expensive for cheap.”
She sat down next to Robert on the first step of the platform and wrapped her arm around him and pulled him close. “Is he bamboozled, Robert?”
The dog leaned into this strange woman and tilted his head backwards and up, to stare into her eyes.
“You’re not bamboozled, are you, Robert?” she said and gave him another quick hug, which Robert obviously enjoyed.
Oliver slowly turned around, trying to take the interior in, ignoring Samantha’s dialog with his dog, as if he were listening to a soft whisper in a far corner. Not a whisper, really, but an insistent plea in a small but powerful voice. He craned his neck to the side so as to catch the voice.
There is something special about this building. I don’t know what it is that I feel, but there is something here, inhabiting this space. Something . . . illuminating. Something exposing? Is that it? Under God’s eye.
“Mrs. Cohen?”
And the truth will set you free. Maybe that’s what I’m feeling.
“It’s Miss Cohen. Samantha, actually, but Miss Cohen works, if you like that sort of formality. And yes?”
“It’s a truly magnificent building. I’ve never seen anything like it or felt it . . . I mean, as churches go . . . except maybe in books. But when . . . how . . . why—”
“And you want to know what, too, right? You want to know what I plan to do to this wonderful old church filled with all these ancient mementos of God and heaven and Jesus, right?”
Oliver held open his palms, as if in supplication. “Yes.”
Samantha stood, and because she was on a step higher than Oliver, she towered over him. Even Robert the Dog had to crane his neck to keep her face in view. In the glistering blue and purple and red and green and gold light, she was much more beautiful than Oliver even first observed.
“Well, Oliver, I plan on making this into a nightclub and a restaurant—maybe more one than the other. I’m not sure of that at the moment. Can’t you just see it? Intimate booths, crisp white tablecloths, simple vases of blue flowers, lots of blue votives, cool jazz music. I’m still looking for an executive chef. I’m tempted to call the place Blue, because of that big round window. The gorgeous shades of blue in it.”
Oliver had been stunned into silence with his first apprehensions coming to fruition.
Samantha broke the ice by softly asking the question that had apparently been on her mind ever since meeting Oliver. “Why did you name the dog Robert?”
It took a moment for Oliver to compose himself enough to answer. It was not that the scope of the project had derailed him. He was just so surprised to have made a correct guess earlier about what she planned on doing to the magnificent structure.
“Robert was the name I always wanted to have,” he answered.
“Instead of Ollie?”
Oliver Barnett shook his head—he hoped not in an angry, but in a kind, bemused way. “Not Ollie. It’s Oliver. But I would have liked to be called Robert. I’m not sure why.”
Oliver Barnett had never really liked his name, never felt at peace with the way “Oliver” sounded as it came out of his mouth. And when he signed documents, that big initial, that all-important O, always seemed, to him—and maybe only to him—lopsided, more oval than round and perfect. A circle had to be just so, or it wasn’t a circle, but something else.
His friends claimed that if anyone was an Oliver, it was he—that the roundness and the sharp finish to the name perfectly suited him. What a “sharp-finishing name” was exactly, he did not understand, but it was his given name. And what person has the right, or the audacity perhaps, to go and change it now? So he would scold himself whenever the name-changing urge came upon him.
He blamed his mother.
In time, Oliver grew bold enough to ask for the full, three-syllable rendition of his name, sometimes insisting, but insisting in a very nice way.
He could blame his mother for a lot of things. . . but he didn’t, not really. And even if he did, it would never be to her face. Never.
A shaft of sun came in through a clear section of window and he caught a glimpse of himself in the reflection of the glass display case by the altar, to the left of Samantha and Robert.
Oliver stood a breath under six feet tall. Had he taken his baseball cap off, he would have noted that he needed a haircut ($14 at Discount Clippery, east of where the Greengate Mall used to be and where a huge Wal-Mart now stood). He wore his hair short, eliminating the need for hair dryers, styling gel, and false pride. The blond color had been, for a few years now, edging ever so slightly towards grey. The latter better matched his eyes, a sort of gun-metal grey with a heavy tint of warmth in them. He was no longer stocky, but because he had been most of his life, he still carried himself as if his clothes bore the tag Husky, instead of the standard Large. The extra pounds had come off only a few years before, after twelve months of agony, deprivation, and exercise, and he was now lean and fit. His face, previously rather round, was now not that far from angular, with the beginnings of a pair of jowls gone and his almost-double chin eliminated. It still looked odd to him—as if he were simply borrowing a narrower face from someone younger, someone better looking than himself.
“I don’t have a battered self-image,” he told his friends, “just a buttered one . . . with lots of salt.”
Samantha Cohen interrupted his thoughts. “So . . . Oliver, you want to hear about my plans? Or do you want to bail right now?”
His quick answer surprised him. “No. I’m very interested. Show me what you want to do.”
• • •
Robert stayed in the truck. It was a nice morning, cool but sunny, and Oliver felt safe enough to leave the windows nearly all the way down. There was nothing of value to steal in the truck, plus he had parked right outside the coffee shop, where he sat by the window. He had to waste at least another forty-five minutes to allow the morning rush of traffic to thin enough to make the return trip home with a minimum of anxiety.
He unrolled the blueprints and placed the salt and pepper shakers in the far corners, his coffee cup on another and the large sugar dispenser on the other. The lines of the existing church building stood out in bold and he traced them with his fingertip.
Very nice proportions.
He rearranged his improvised weights and flipped the next sheet—a transparency, with the architect’s rough sketch detailing the interior modifications: lighting, cabinetry, counters, tables, built-in booths, bar, serving area, downstairs kitchen—and a host of other non-major projects. Widening a staircase. Adding another.
I don’t know. Making a church a nightclub. . . .
He had agreed quickly to provide an estimate, and his quickness nearly unnerved him. Being spontaneous and decisive was not his nature, and he knew that.
Do I want the job, or did that woman just get me all jangled up? Or was it the building as well? No, probably more her than stones and mortar. Yeah, it was her. Jangly.
He stared outside. Two pedestrians with earnest, going-to-work grimaces passed by, each wearing earplugs and holding a tall cardboard cup of expensive coffee.
She got me all jangled. Well, jangled isn’t the right word. Jangled is confused, sort of. She got me . . . . Then he started to think about Samantha, what she was wearing, and how the folds of the black silk fell in such an easy manner.
He shook his head and drank the last of his coffee. Since he had ordered a plain coffee, refills came free. Getting up for one gave him a chance to change the tone of his internal dialog and get back to the subject of this project—the project for the woman in the black silk kimono jacket. He shook his head again.
But I need the work—we need the work. And, somehow, I feel like I’m supposed to be here.
He stood and debated on that third cup. The clerk behind the counter smiled and held up a half-filled pot. The question was answered. He walked carefully back to the table, not wanting to spill.
What if I have to stop somewhere on the way home now? Where? It’s not like the turnpike, where you know how far apart the rest stops are.
She had beguiled him, he knew, because he ignored that warning in his thoughts and took an unusual third cup in one sitting. Maybe the caffeine was making him a little bold and edgy.
And these are big cups, too. Free refills.
None of what she planned to do with the church was beyond Oliver’s skill as a carpenter and contractor. Cabinets, booths, some knee walls, a bar, lights, bathrooms—he could do all of that. The additional stairs might be tricky, depending on the thickness of the floor. The commercial kitchen downstairs . . . well, for the kitchen equipment, he would subcontract that portion of the job. He knew a kitchen guy who did good work and had done a number of restaurants in Greensburg, near where Oliver lived.
Better for him—better for me.
I could do this.
A sudden furry bit caught his attention. In the truck, right outside the window, Robert the Dog had sat up and was looking out the window of the truck. Oliver could see him stretch, then circle around a few times on the seat and disappear from view.
But . . . I would have to commute. My heavens, commute? In that traffic? Every day? This will have to be for some big bucks for me to take the job.
At the far corner of the transparent overlay Oliver noticed, for the first time, some penciled figures nearly erased. However, because of the angle of the hard morning sun, the architect’s sharp, definitive figures were still visible. A dollar sign caught Oliver’s attention. The architect must have roughed out an estimate for the work. Oliver knew some architects were good at that sort of ballpark guess on costs, though some came in with dollar amounts that were laughable—like estimating labor costs at only $20 an hour.
Oliver held the page up to the light. The architect had itemized a dozen different sub-projects and assigned a figure to each one. When he saw the sum total, Oliver nearly dropped the paper. The architect had figured a total cost of over $400,000 for what Oliver had already figured, in his head, to cost no more than $150,000—a ballpark figure, sure, but a job for which Oliver would have been daring to bid a total price of $200,000.
Samantha might be expecting a bid twice as large as he was preparing.
And now the job has gotten more interesting. Maybe the commute wouldn’t be so bad.
He set the paper down and sipped at coffee cup number three.
Maybe I could sort of camp out in the church and not worry about commuting. There was a shower downstairs.
As this option came to mind, Oliver noticed that Robert had sat up again in the truck and was staring at where Oliver was sitting, making it apparent the dog thought it was time to go.
Whatever the traffic will be, it will be. We can leave now.
• • •
Oliver turned onto his street and Robert the Dog began to wiggle in a subtle but obviously excited way, realizing they were home. Oliver slowed and carefully drove along a narrow driveway and onto a narrow parking area next to the garage.
Oliver lived in an efficiency apartment he had created above the detached garage. His mother lived in the house, a not-so-big old farmhouse where Oliver was born and raised. It was nearly in the shadow of the Jeannette Memorial Hospital, recently acquired by some large health organization, though they had not yet changed the name out front. The house lay three blocks from the high school and two blocks from the football stadium, the recent home of the most heavily recruited quarterback in all of high school football in western Pennsylvania. Oliver did not play sports in high school, but was a football fan.
His mother would be at work, Oliver knew, so he let Robert run the yard for a while, then whistled for him and the dog tore up the steps and into the apartment. He felt pretty sure his mother had never liked Robert, but merely tolerated him for Oliver’s sake.
For the next three hours, Oliver made lists, extensive tabulations of everything this job might require. Miss Cohen said she was looking for excellence and quality. Oliver made two columns for two kinds of materials. One he labeled Mahogany, though the supplies listed were not mahogany; they were materials at the top end of their category. The other list was labeled Pine, designating lower-end materials. If she suddenly developed colder feet, fiscally speaking, then Oliver would already have a clear idea of how low the bid could go without sacrificing the integrity of the project.
He started a separate page for the staircases. He had explained to Samantha that morning that he would not have a firm number on them until a qualified structural engineer looked at the floor, and they had a chance to tear up either a portion of the floor or get into it from the ceiling below.
Oliver worked sitting at his kitchen table, tapping at his calculator, and scanning web pages on the Internet to check prices. While he worked, Robert slept in a cozy alcove at the end of the main room of the apartment.
Some carpenters hesitated to show their home to clients, supporting the cliché that the shoemaker’s children never had proper shoes. But Oliver had spent a long, long winter doing the work in this apartment and had built a stunning interior space with high, vaulted ceilings and hardwood flooring. The back of the garage faced north, looking down a long hill, with Jeannette some three miles distant. The town looked better from there than up close, and Oliver had carved out a covered porch with screens and built-in seating—where Robert now slept—with a set of French doors to the apartment that could be closed in cold weather.
His bedroom area contained not much more space than required for a king-size bed, with two eyebrow windows above. This, his inner sanctum, was as cozy as a berth on a luxury liner, with wainscoted walls. The bathroom was small but done entirely in granite and glass tiles with a waterfall shower and heated towel bars. The streamlined “bachelor” kitchen faced west, catching the afternoon light, and there Oliver had used stainless steel appliances and poured concrete counters, stained and etched (after seeing such a style in an Architectural Digest magazine featuring some millionaire’s home on Nantucket or Cape Cod or someplace out east where the wealthy have vacation homes). Oliver liked to cook and enjoyed the extras he had put into the kitchen.
The big living space was open, with a built-in computer desk in one corner and a widescreen TV on a long wall surrounded by custom bookcases. The walls were a pale grey-blue. A scaled-down highback leather sectional in dark brown and an easy chair upholstered in a soft fabric with shades of blues and browns provided comfortable seating. A plush Berber wool area rug bordered in leather lay over the apartment’s hardwood floors under the seating area, and on it sat a sleek coffee table, the home of the “coffee table book” on the great cathedrals of Europe that had been Oliver’s gift to himself a dozen Christmases ago. After seeing the apartment, a few of Oliver’s acquaintances had made offers to buy it from him outright—until they found out his mother lived in the house beside the garage and was not planning on moving anytime soon.
The floor was double-insulated and the automatic garage door opener was the quietest he could find, but he still could feel the garage door rumbling below as it ratcheted itself open. He heard his mother’s old Buick rattle inside. He heard a slam and the garage door wheezed shut.
He sighed, long and loud. Robert raised his head. The dog had heard the door as well. Then the dog laid his head back down and shut his eyes. Oliver thought Robert was squeezing them too tightly. He waited a long ten minutes, then stood and headed downstairs.
If I don’t, she’ll just call me. Might as well be preemptive
• • •
“I was praying for you this morning. In that terrible traffic. Getting lost. I was worried sick,” Mrs. Rose Barnett said as she shuffled along the linoleum floor in her kitchen. Oliver had offered, often, to replace the old floor with tile, but his mother would not hear of it. Rose Barnett was a few years past retirement age and looked even older, her white hair done up in tight curls once a week at Lucy’s Shear Beauty Salon, reminiscent in shape of an old leather helmet that football players wore a hundred years earlier. Her face was narrow, pinched, both by time and personal inclination, cheeks not sunken in, but neither full with youth or vitality.
“The linoleum is not worn through. No need to spend money on fancy stuff. You think I can afford what you spent on your kitchen? Well, I can’t. And I won’t,” was her reply.
Oliver knew she could afford it, but never pushed the issue further than making the offer.
Oliver smoothed at the plastic cover over the threadbare tablecloth as he sat at the kitchen table. His mother rewarmed the coffee she had made that morning, before she left for her job behind the counter at the Italian grocery store a few miles down Route 30. Every day she would come home with a bag of meat and cheese ends—the last inch or so of the ham loaf or cheese brick, whatever they couldn’t sell to a customer—and if she was alert, she would grab them and take them home and make soup or ham salad or melt the cheese on noodles.
“Did you get lost? You ever been to Shadyside?” she asked her son.
Oliver shook his head. “No. I found it right away. I’ve been through there a few times. You pass it if you go to the museums and take Fifth Avenue.”
“What kind of church was it? An old rundown place like you thought?”
She poured some skim milk, straight from the plastic jug, into her coffee. She knew Oliver drank his black, so she placed the jug back in the refrigerator.
“No. Well, it is old, but not rundown. It’s big. Like a real church.” He tried to explain it to her, even tried to show her the pictures he had taken with his digital camera.
“I can’t see a thing on this silly little screen,” she complained, squinting. “What do they want to do to it?”
Oliver hesitated. Do I tell her the truth and weather the storm now, or wait? “Some sort of coffee shop. Maybe serve some food. You know, fancy pastries and such.”
His mother’s eyes, narrow and close-set, grew even narrower. “Still God’s house, isn’t it? Crosses and stained-glass windows? God’s house. Sacred. Moneychangers in the temple. I wouldn’t do it, if I were you. Could easily bring about God’s anger. You don’t want an omniscient and all-powerful God angry at you, do you, Oliver? It’s not the way I raised you, is it, now? Turn your back on God and deface a house of worship? God’s wrath is on those who curse His house. I think that’s in the Bible. I’m pretty sure it is.”
Rose wore knit pants with sewn-in creases and a loose-fitting floral print blouse, and she clutched at its faded pink plastic buttons. “Oliver, you’re a good boy. You’ve always been a good boy. You’ve always obeyed me. You don’t have to do this kind of work. I bet your father wouldn’t have done it.”
Oliver let the comment pass. He would not talk about his father—not now. Perhaps never with his mother. “Mom,” he said, even and calm, “it’s not a church any longer. It used to be a Presbyterian church when it was built—like over a hundred years ago.”
His mother shook her head, as if resigned to be saddened further by her elder son. To her, Presbyterians were not real Christians, but only pretended to be. It was an old argument—one Oliver would not revisit today.
“The congregation got too small, and they sold it to the Korean Christian Church.”
“Koreans? Like from Korea?”
“Yes, Mom. There is a large community of Koreans on the north side of Pittsburgh.”
Under her breath, she muttered, “All the more reason never to go to Pittsburgh.”
“And then the church became too small for them . . .” Oliver continued.
“The Koreans?”
“Yes, and they moved to a bigger building.”
“Now . . . who bought it?”
“A very nice woman.”
His mother waited. Oliver knew he would have to continue.
“Samantha Cohen is her name,” he added.
His mother bent closer to the table. “That sounds Jewish. Is she Jewish?”
Oliver shrugged. “I don’t know. I didn’t ask. Maybe. I don’t know Jewish names.”
“It’s Jewish, alright.” Then he watched as his mother, left hand at her chest, her right cradling her forehead, said, “Jews defacing God’s holy church. I never thought I would live to see the day when my own son is a part of such . . . heresy.” She glowered at him.
Oliver knew better than to argue, at least right now, so he leaned back, tried to force down a sip of very hot and very bitter coffee, and let his mother’s talk remain unanswered. There would be no defusing it, once the fuse had been lit. Oliver knew that from a lifetime of trying to quench, or ignore, that sputtering, hissing, ever-closer to the explosion fuse.
• • •
The air had turned a springtime chilly, so Samantha grabbed a zippered sweatshirt from the hook in the hall closet. Her father would have a veritable conniption fit if she left the house without proper—meaning warm—outerwear. He insisted she carry a sweater or coat or shawl if the temperature was at all on the chilly side. Even though he wasn’t home, Samantha humored him.
She walked towards the church, which was only a few blocks from her house. While negotiating the purchase, she had spent hours inside the former church building, but all during daylight hours, not having seen the interior after sunset. She needed to spend time inside, determining if the stained-glass windows allowed enough light in via the streetlights to be visible, or if they would have to install some sort of outside illumination. She did not want to have to go to that expense or trouble, knowing that any outside lamps would need zoning board approval.
No need to aggravate that starchy board more than necessary. I’ll be asking for enough favors as it is.
She waited for a break in the traffic on South Aiken, jogged across the street, and, from the corner, noticed a diminutive man standing in the shadow of the stone port cochere. Samantha was not a woman who could easily be intimidated, and if she ever became so, her level of anxiety depended on the size of the perceived threat.
Unless this guy has a gun, I have no need to be nervous, she told herself. He’s too tiny to be a threat to anyone. Even though she remained calm, she reached into her pocket and wrapped her fingers around the tiny canister of pepper spray attached to her key chain. Her father insisted she carry it. She had objected some, but now was glad she had it. Her hand, hidden in her pocket, thumbed the spray canister around, so she could easily extract the weapon.
The church is on the busiest street around. Why would any criminal in his right mind pick this place to stage a mugging?
She stopped at the corner, for just a moment.
But then . . . criminals are not known for their logical approach to their business, are they?
She walked at an even pace towards the church. As she drew nearer, the small man, wearing a dark overcoat that was at least five inches too long for him, stepped out of the shadows.
“Miss Cohen,” the man called out. “How fortuitous is your visit.”
Samantha leaned forward and, without taking another step, squinted, as if squinting would help her pierce the darkness. “Mr. Han?” she called out. “What are you doing here so late?”
Mr. Ito Han bowed at the waist, a long, slow bow, precise and deliberate. “I am honored that you recall me, Miss Cohen. Our meeting was not long in duration.”
“Of course I remember you, Mr. Han. Or do they call you Pastor Han? I’m Jewish, so I’m never sure of what titles you folks prefer.”
“It is your preference, Miss Cohen. I have no need for titles. And, as some churches do, I am what they call ‘pastor emeritus’ now. Retired. In the way. Honorable title for such an unworthy servant.”
The gentle Korean man rubbed his hands together as if his bones were chilled, despite the temperate air of the evening. “Miss Cohen, I would have called, should have, of course, but I did not expect to be walking past my old church this evening. Like reminiscing and visiting an old friend. My car is in the public lot down the street. So now that I am here, and you are here, perhaps . . . a little favor, I may ask, but I do not desire to trouble you in any way. I planned to call this week. You are, after all, the new titleholder of this building, and I wish not to bother you. But there is one thing I believe I have forgotten inside these walls, and I humbly seek a time when I might retrieve this trifling.”
Samantha hurried her reply. “Well, of course you can come in. Right now is fine. Actually, I was on my way in. I haven’t been inside after dark, and I wanted to see what the windows looked like.”
Mr. Han bowed slightly. “You are kind, Miss Cohen. Most kind. I must inform you that the windows do lose a certain vibrancy in the dark. But they take on a . . . how to describe it? In Korean, there is a word for a deeper being, a less transparent quality, and . . . thicker. Yes, dark and thick perhaps offers the best sense of the word. The images on the windows simply become less transparent, and more real, much more so. Yes, the windows grow less visible and grow more real. It is what happens. I am sorry, Miss Cohen. It is the best this poor linguist can do with that odd word.”
Samantha unlocked the door and opened it, stepped in, and motioned for Mr. Han to follow her in. She snapped on the downlights in the vestibule. They walked into the narthex, then into the main sanctuary silently, Samantha’s eyes going from window to window. A car’s headlights passed, illuminating a robed man, sparkling, for just a second, the image. Then he was back to being thick.
“Thick is a good word for them, Mr. Han. Visible, yes, but . . . thick,” Samantha said, agreeing with his Korean assessment. “So, Mr. Han, what was it that you are looking for? Could I help you find it? During the inspection, I don’t think I saw anything of value that was left.”
“It is such a trifle, Miss Cohen. It was left in the office.”
They both entered the pastor’s office area, bare except for two wooden straight-back chairs.
“It was hidden, Miss Cohen. Hidden so well that it was far from view and forgotten. Hidden from the person who had hid the item, I must confess.”
Mr. Han dragged one of the chairs to the massive stone wall, flanked by two arched windows. He climbed up on the chair with surprising agility and pulled a small stone out of the wall. He turned to Samantha. “The mortar was loose when I moved in, Miss Cohen. I did not damage the stone.”
He reached in the cavity and extracted a glittery item—a piece of jewelry, perhaps a locket on a thin chain, Samantha thought. Mr. Han carefully reinserted the stone.
“I would have never known that stone was loose,” she said.
Mr. Han slowly stepped down from the chair. “Then the hiding place proved most effective, did it not?” the old pastor answered.
He looked down at the locket in his hand. Samantha could not help but stare. Mr. Han opened the locket. Inside were two miniature photographs.
He looked up. “This was my mother,” he said softly and touched the picture with the gentlest of touches, his finger tracing along his mother’s face. “And the little boy is myself.”
Mr. Han seemed to wobble a bit, and Samantha drew close to him and took his arm.
“Sit down, Mr. Han.”
He complied, like a doll being placed in a play chair by a toddler.
“Do you want some water? I could get you a glass . . .”
“Not necessary. Just a momentary lapse. I will be fine.”
Samantha drew the other chair close, ready to steady the old man should he waver again.
“I always preached the truth in this building,” Mr. Han said, as if confessing some secret, hidden trait. “I think for all the years I stood in the pulpit, God’s eye behind me, I never once knowingly uttered a falsehood.”
“Is that what that window is?” Samantha asked.
“I am not certain. It is the image that I conjured up, a least, and I felt his eye upon me.” He looked up at Samantha, his eyes clear, focused, but as if in turmoil. He smiled, perhaps trying to hide his emotions.
“Really?” Samantha asked.
The old man’s smile was knowing, curious. “It is appropriate to be amused by such ideas, Miss Cohen, but I will tell you that many in my congregation believe that this space will always be a place of truth. It will always be holy, even if those in authority above me say it has been officially ‘deconsecrated.’ My people, who worshipped God here in spirit and in truth, are praying that this will continue here, some way, somehow.”
Samantha sat back, taking in what Mr. Han, with his beatific expression, was saying.
“I have never told anyone about my past before,” he continued. “I don’t know why I feel I must tell you this now, except that I may never visit this place again. Perhaps to be at peace as I close the chapter in my life here.
“My mother was a shaman, Miss Cohen. In Korea, she was called a mudang—an intercessor between the gods and humans. She held services, or gut, in order to gain good fortune for her clients and to protect villagers and to guide spirits of the dead to paradise. She alone would meet with the spirits. It is not a job anyone desires. A woman does not want to become a shaman. She is chosen, as it were, following a severe physical malady or a prolonged mental ailment, which indicates possession by the spirits.”
He sighed and his shoulders sank, as if displaying how burdensome this truth, this secret, had become in its withholding, and now in its retelling.
“Before she passed, she came from Korea to visit me here once. She hated the blue color in the glass in this building—especially in the round window. Her response was immediate, visceral. She began to tremble and shake when she for the first time stepped foot inside this space. In our national flag, there is the traditional symbol of yin and yang—done in blue and red. Blue always provides negative energy. It is t’argukki—the balancing of yin and yang. Red, good, positive; blue, negative, evil—a sign of confrontation. Blue sums up the power of brutal awareness. She heard me preach once and then, for the rest of her visit, refused to enter this place. Except for the last day. For just a moment.”
He looked down at the tiny photos in the locket, photos of a beautiful young woman and a cherubic baby. “That last day, she revealed to me a dark family secret. She said that this building possessed a mighty spirit, and that spirit—not spirits, but a single, powerful spirit—forced her to tell me the truth.”
Mr. Han clenched his fist, as if summoning up the strength to continue. “I do not want to burden you, Miss Cohen, but I feel obligated to tell you this story about this place you now possess.”
He took a deep breath. “The secret was this: I was born as the result of her being taken by Japanese troops and forced to be a comfort woman, servicing the invading army during the Great War. So that moment, I knew then why I was less Korean than some. In her great shame, I was sent to America to live with my aunt and uncle.”
He snapped the locket shut and stood up, as if weary from telling the story, as if having accomplished whatever mission he had. He was finished.
“That is my story, which no one ever knew. Perhaps this building, with the God’s eye window, does have a way of demanding the truth and helping God change people. Perhaps it does make people inside its walls confront what they have kept hidden, for keeping secrets can prevent true wholeness. God’s power can do that. It is a spiritual place, for sure. I pray that you will only be blessed and empowered by the truth that has always been spoken in this place.”
He looked around. Then he reached out and touched the stone wall with just his fingertips, as if expecting them to contain some manner of electrical current. “I will miss these stones.”
“Did she ever come back?” Samantha asked. “Your mother. Did she ever come back?”
“No. My mother remained agitated during her visit and died within two weeks of returning to Korea.”
“I am so sorry,” Samantha said.
“Sorrow is not necessary, Miss Cohen. I was told that the last words on her lips were to acknowledge God—not her gods, but my God. The one true God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It was the truth that changed her. Perhaps the truth of this place—who can know? So I buried that small locket in this church. To venerate her memory, to keep it close and protected. To keep this heart of hers close to God. Now I will bury the locket in the new Korean church.”
Mr. Han slipped the locket into the pocket of his oversized trench coat. “I have bothered you for too long this evening, Miss Cohen. I must take my leave.”
On the steps of the church, Mr. Han stopped. “I will pray that you will know the truth, Miss Cohen. I will pray that prayer for you every day. And, along with my congregation, I will pray that this place will always be its home.”
He stopped suddenly, then looked about like a small child, as if seeing the church for the first time, blinking, eyes wide. “You know, Miss Cohen, there are stories in the Old Testament that speak of men building altars to God—to honor and praise him. And those stories often end with the statement, ‘And the altar is there to this day.’”
Samantha looked surprised. “Really? They’re still there? I guess I should have paid closer attention in Hebrew school.”
Mr. Han offered an inscrutable smile. “Perhaps the exact stones are indeed still there. I am not an archaeologist. But what that means—in a spiritual manner, what those stories meant to me—is that once a place is consecrated to God as a place for worship, it remains consecrated. This is a sacred space, Miss Cohen. This may be a concept not present in the American way of thinking. Of course, as owner, you have every right to do with it as you will. But I believe it will always remain sacred, consecrated. One of the last prayers my congregation offered in this place was that whoever follows us here will feel God’s power—and be changed by His love.”
He wiped at his eyes. Samantha thought he might have been tearing up.
“We Koreans are a unique people,” he continued. “We have great reverence for place. The birthplace of ancestors. The burial places of parents. God’s temples. They are all inhabited by memories—but only God’s temple is inhabited by power, and only God’s power is forever, Miss Cohen. We have prayed that this place will continue to change people, long after we as a church have departed. You need to be aware of those prayers, Miss Cohen, because they are powerful. Because this . . . this building . . . is sacred space. You will be changed as God orders His universe according to His desires.”
Samantha listened carefully. After a long moment, she replied, “Perhaps God will make me slimmer, Mr. Han? That would be a change I would welcome.”
Mr. Han returned her smile. “You have a good soul, Miss Cohen. I pray that you will embrace the changes God may provide for you. It would be a remembrance to my mother, and an honor to her name.”
With that, he grinned, pulled the coat close to his throat and, with a renewed lightness in his steps, walked away . . . slowly at first, then with each step a little quicker than the one before.
As Samantha watched him leave, a dozen questions gathered, unanswered, in her thoughts.
• • •
“So, did she eat you up over this, or what?”
Oliver sat in the booth at Denny’s opposite his brother, Tolliver. They had both heard every possible joke and question and had seen every shocked and puzzled reaction imaginable when they were introduced and both of their real given names presented. When Tolliver was in high school, even though he was four years younger than Oliver, he wound up growing taller than Oliver by more than five inches. Since then, everyone called him “Taller.” The name started out as “Taller than Oliver,” but was quickly truncated to simply, “Taller.”
Taller was thinner, more strikingly handsome, with a more classical face, his speech more articulate and his bearing more personable, than Oliver—at least that’s what Oliver thought, since Taller always received the lion’s share of attention, most of it from young women who seemed to throw themselves at him. Not that Taller ever refused any of their entreaties.
And Taller quickly grew more distant from his mother, unlike Oliver, who was the good and obedient son. Taller was only three when his father died. After that, Oliver had assumed the role of head of the household and Taller took the role as prodigal son.
“No. She was . . . okay,” Oliver answered.
Taller grinned as he speared at his hash browns. “Come on, Ollie,” Taller said, the only person to call Oliver “Ollie” on a consistent basis. “I know her better than that. A church. A Presbyterian church. A Korean Presbyterian Church. And a Jewish woman. Sounds like the start of a bad religious joke. Ma didn’t roll over on this one. That much I am sure of.”
Oliver salted his eggs again and added four shakes of pepper, one shake at each edge of the over-medium eggs. “She . . . wasn’t overly happy, I guess.”
“Not happy? I bet she warned you about causing the onset of the apocalypse if you took the job.”
Oliver cut a very square piece of egg white, careful not to open up the yolk just yet. You have to keep the egg white and yolk and toast in the right proportions.
Oliver knew that Taller knew their mother well. They both knew that playing out this charade any longer fell into the category of the ridiculous.
“Not the apocalypse, exactly. She nearly promised God’s wrath, though. His damnation, she said, was all but a guarantee.”
Taller grabbed at the dainty paper napkin on the table and dabbed at his face. He merely looked over to the counter and grinned, and their waitress hurried to the table.
“What can I do for you? Coffee? I can get you another sweet roll if you like. On the house. They don’t count them or anything. Like, we don’t do an inventory.”
Taller reached out and touched her bare arm, almost stroking it like you would a kitten. The waitress might have been twenty, with a wholesome look and a sad—abandoned, perhaps, but not jaded—almost innocent grin.
“You’re sweet,” he said, and Oliver saw his brother’s eyes find her nametag without being obvious about it, “Emily. I would love another cup of coffee. Could you get a clean cup for me, too?”
She took off, faster than waitresses were supposed to take off, and returned with coffee, cream, and a new, clean cup, pouring it eagerly.
Oliver had to raise his cup and call out, “Miss?” twice before she poured him another cup.
When they were alone again, Taller asked, “So, will you risk God’s damnation and your mother’s scorn to take the job? Offers big money, I bet. Good publicity. Like the job in Butler, on Alice and Frank’s place.”
Taller worked for Oliver. In some ways, Taller proved the better craftsman. He “listened” to the wood, he said. He became one with it, let it have its way sometimes. He lacked motivation, Oliver thought, but he had a way with wood.
“I’m not sure. I have a meeting with Samantha on Friday. A couple of questions to iron out. Then I’ll decide.”
Taller sat up straighter, just a bit, but Oliver noticed.
“Samantha? We’re already on a first-name basis?”
Oliver hesitated. In an instant, in his mind’s eye he allowed the present moment to flash forward a month into the future. He saw Taller with Samantha, Taller’s charm and good looks and tallness overwhelming the woman. He saw them together, holding hands, and . . . and he forced the thought away.
“No. Maybe. She said she prefers being called Samantha.”
Taller let his face take on that grin that was so familiar to Oliver. “Is she pretty?”
Oliver shrugged, trying his best to be noncommittal.
Taller grinned wider. “You’re terrible at poker, Brother. She must be an absolute knockout.”
Emily was back at the table. “More coffee?” she said sweetly, her attention fixed on the younger brother.
Taller looked up, directly into her eyes, stared for a long second, then replied, soft and warm, “Emily, I would be delighted to have more of your excellent coffee.”
She walked away, and Oliver was more torn than ever. It was a really big job, an important job. But could he stand seeing his brother with Samantha if what he thought might happen really happened—and he had no reason to doubt that it might? And then, even as the thought entered his mind, Oliver dismissed it as silly and childish.
Everyone is an adult here, he told himself.
And Oliver knew that O. Barnett Custom Construction really needed this project.❖
________________________________

Buy Terri Kraus’s  THE Transformation at:
Amazon
ChristianBook.com

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After eleven co-authored books with husband, Jim, Terri Kraus has added her award-winning interior designer’s eye to her world of fiction. She comes to the Project Restoration series naturally, having survived the remodel, renovation, and restoration of three separate personal residences, along with those of her clients. She makes her home in Wheaton, Illinois, USA, with her husband, son, Elliot, miniature schnauzer, Rufus, and Siberian cat, Petey.

Visit Terri’s website
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About Vicki Hinze
USA Today Bestselling and Award-Winning Author of 40+ books, short stories/novellas and hundreds of articles. Published in as many as 63 countries. Featured Columnist for Social-IN Worldwide Network and Book Fun Magazine. Sponsor/Founder of ChristiansRead.com & CleanReadBooks.com. FMI visit www.vickihinze.com.

One Response to THE TRANSFORMATION by TERRI KRAUS

  1. He went to nursing school to better understand the care for Terri. Office Equipment Wholesale

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