Authors: Ted Dekker
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MY NAME IS RENEE
Gilmore, but really, this is Danny’s story.
Danny, the one who saved me. The one who helped me believe in love again. My precious Danny—my priest who was no longer a priest, because he never really had much love for religion. My mentor, my rock, my lover, who was locked away in prison because of me.
For three years he was behind bars. During this time, and with his patient help, I put all my guilt behind me. My mind was sound, my world was whole, my bank account was full, my debt was paid, and my enemies were long gone.
Or so I thought.
The truth is, my greatest enemy was always myself. I was always a calculating person, carefully managing my life to keep everything in order. I have an inordinate capacity to rise up with strength and deal with the fires of crises when I have to, but my first reaction to the most severe crises looks more like a meltdown than an uprising. Like an engine woefully cranking and grinding before it fires and comes to life with an earsplitting roar.
On the morning that my world melted down in earnest, I was standing in my kitchen, trying to decide what I should eat for breakfast. Normally this was an easy task, because I was a person of habit. If I didn’t perceive my world as ordered, anxiousness could creep into my mind like an obsessive ghost. It’s often small things that bother fractured people, because we’re convinced that small things always add up to big things, and those big things turn into goblins that gobble us up if we’re not careful.
An unmade bed, for example, soon becomes sheets on the floor. Then pillows on the carpet, joined by dirty socks and shoes and books and belts and newspapers and empty cartons and dirt, all adding up to heaps of garbage attracting rats and roaches. A dirty plate in the sink soon becomes a pile of moldy dishes surrounded by half-eaten pans of lasagna and crusted silverware and leaking bottles of liquid soap and oily pots and pans, providing lots of places for all those rats and roaches to nest and feed as they plot your demise. The bathroom—mercy, don’t get me started on the horrors of where a wet toothbrush might ultimately lead.
A little disorder gives way to complete chaos and before you know it, you’re holed up in the last corner, armed with an old .38 Special and only two bullets to fend off the army of rats daring you to take a shot while they scurry over the piles of moldy rubbish. The way to avoid chaos is to maintain perfect order in all things, including what you put in your mouth.
I know that people who don’t deal with obsessive compulsions find this a tad annoying, but the truth is, we’re all fractured in some respect. We just demonstrate our brokenness in unique ways. Some with a steely resolve that covers up the wounding but keeps even the closest friend out. Some with food or other sensory addictions. Some by keeping so busy they don’t have time to really know themselves at all. Others simply live in denial.
Danny, the man I loved more than my own life, believed our thoughts and emotions aren’t really us at all. We are consciousness separate from thoughts, beliefs, and emotions, temporarily cohabitating with them until the day we die. In reality, we are love and can best find God’s love when we are still and aware in the present, beyond thought and emotion. But then, Danny was a priest.
he often said.
Let it all go. Live in the present, not in fear of the future, which is only an illusion.
Easier said than done.
I tried, trust me, but for the most part I was bound to maintain a semblance of peace by keeping my world straight. For me that had somehow translated into starting every day with a breakfast of one hard-boiled egg, half of a grapefruit with a light sprinkling of sugar, and a single glass of orange juice.
Dressed in yellow-checkered short flannel pajama bottoms and a matching top, I stood in the middle of my two-bedroom condo kitchen on Long Beach’s north side, staring at the refrigerator, thinking that I really should get a life and eat something other than my habitual breakfast.
The refrigerator was white, as were the toaster, the GE electric can opener, the wooden paper-towel holder, the Black & Decker coffee machine, the dish washer, and the stove-top— all as spotless, gleaming, and shiny as the polished chrome faucet.
I stepped up and pulled open the refrigerator. Eggs: two dozen, stacked in two clear plastic trays on the right, flush with the forward edge of the glass shelf. Orange juice: one half-empty, clear plastic container beside the eggs. Grapefruits: three, in a wooden bowl below. There was more in there: Zico coconut water, cheese, butter, tomatoes—the usual stuff any vegetarian might keep, each item neatly in its place. But all I could really see were the eggs, the grapefruit, and the OJ.
These observations were more subconscious than conscious, I suppose. Most people have similar kinds of thoughts; they just don’t identify and order them the way some of us tend to.
It took me seven minutes to boil the egg, cut the grapefruit, and pour the orange juice into a tall, narrow glass. Then another three minutes to wash and dry the boiling pot, clean the serrated knife, wipe down and shine the counter, the sink, and the faucet. I called it my ten-minute breakfast prep.
Satisfied, I slid onto the high-backed bar stool at the white-tiled breakfast bar, crossed one leg over the other, and ate my breakfast as I always did, beginning with a sip of orange juice followed by a bite of egg.
My therapist, Laura Ashburn, claimed that I had at least borderline obsessive-compulsive disorder characterized by persisting thoughts and impulses that caused severe anxiety, despite the realization that those thoughts were irrational. Evidently these thoughts translate into worries about cleanliness and order, among other things. I followed her advice and tried Zoloft, then Prozac, but neither helped much and both gave me a case of nightly sweats. They say the average mattress is home to entire colonies of microscopic, squirming mites that if not routinely eradicated quickly multiply to half the weight of the mattress. Give them a nightly diet of sweat and you’ll soon be sleeping on a swarm of mites who might prefer you to the mattress.
Worse, the Prozac leaking out of your pores as you sleep doesn’t calm down mites the way it soothes humans; it turns them into vicious little mutants that grow into rat-sized fiends with a taste for flesh. This theory grown from my overactive imagination wasn’t based on any actual research, naturally, and I didn’t really believe it, but it kept me seeking alternative solutions. Danny would say those fears weren’t the real me, no more than the anxiety was.
Truthfully, I’m quite normal.
My mother and father divorced when I was a teenager, at which time my father vanished from my life. I left Atlanta at age twenty after my mother was killed in a car crash, and I made my way to California with fifteen thousand dollars of a life insurance payout in my pocket, determined to begin a new life in the world of cosmetology.
That didn’t quite work out as planned. For a couple of years I seemed to have it all: classes at Beautiful Styles Cosmetology in Burbank, a livable apartment, cash for what I needed when I needed it. But my money ran out before I could properly monetize my new skills, and I’d somehow (for the life of me I still can’t figure out why) hooked up with the wrong crowd. What had started out as just another way to make ends meet led me to experiment with various substances and landed me at the mercy of some very nasty people.
I may have fallen flat on my face, but what counted was that since then I’d become a whole person again, ready to take on the world.
Well, sort of.
I lifted my glass and washed down the last of my boiled egg, then got up and washed the plate, the spoon, and the glass. They all fit nicely into their respective cupboards and drawers.
I walked into my bedroom and glanced at the green-and-yellow-checkered comforter pulled smooth under twin matching pillow shams. Atop this was a fluffy white tiger. There were two nightstands holding crystal lamps, the oak rocking chair in the corner, the small walk-in closet filled with every article of clothing I could possibly want, which wasn’t all that much. The golden corduroy-covered sofa set in the living room, the desk and computer in my office—none of them was really mine. Danny had bought them for me.
Danny Hansen, the priest who was no longer a priest, incarcerated in my place, serving a fifty-year sentence. My husband who had never legally been my husband, though that made no difference to me. I didn’t need a piece of paper to prove my love for him.
The phone out on the breakfast bar rang and I swiveled my head. It wasn’t often I received a call at nine o’clock in the morning. My first thought was that it would be a sales call of some kind. Either that or the prison, calling to inform me that something terrible had happened to Danny.
I hurried back to the kitchen and snatched up the receiver on the fourth ring, saw that the caller ID read
, and pressed the handset to my cheek. “Hello?”
For a moment I thought I could hear gentle breathing. I was tempted to feel some alarm, but I let it go, reasoning that it was only the hiss of distant static. I was too paranoid.
My imagination knew no bounds. It was no one. Or maybe it really was someone breathing.
No, only static.
I hung up and turned back toward the bedroom, dismissing unreasonable thoughts as they strung through my mind. Danny was calling me from a guard’s cell phone, bloodied and lying on the side of the road where the transport van had tipped over, killing everyone but him. He was hurt and couldn’t speak. He needed my help.
But I knew it wasn’t anything like that. It had to be a wrong number.
A knot tightened in my gut as I headed into the bathroom. It’s hard for me to express just how much I loved Danny. Maybe if you knew him the way I did, you’d understand.
He’d grown up during the war in Bosnia and at fifteen watched Orthodox Christians rape and murder his mother and sisters. Danny had done what any devastated young man might do in such a violent setting: he found a gun, hid behind the stove in his house, and then shot the men who killed his family.
Over the next four years he threw himself into the war and became one of the best-known assassins in that gut-wrenching conflict. When the fighting ended he came to the United States and became a priest in honor of his mother, a devout Catholic. He wanted to do his part in righting what was wrong in the world from the vantage of someone who’d seen horrible injustice.
But Danny’s desire to help brutalized victims like his mother and sisters was his undoing. It began several years after he’d become a priest, while he was aiding a boy who’d been victimized by a pedophile. The pedophile managed to get out of prison, thanks to his father, who was a judge. Then he killed the boy whose testimony had helped convict him.
Outraged, Danny had forced the pedophile into a warehouse and cut off his penis. He didn’t mean to kill, but the man had bled out. Rather than turn himself in, Danny justified and covered up the murder, something he came to regret years after meeting me.
That was Danny’s first victim in this country. Over the next decade there were more, many more, all as deserving of harsh judgment, all untouched by the law. He always gave his subjects one chance to change, and if they refused, he changed them permanently, as he put it. He wasn’t a serial killer with a pathological compulsion to kill, but a vigilante of sorts, all the while also serving the oppressed as a priest, however unorthodox his methods.
He was an outlaw, in the same way those who assisted Jews in Nazi Germany had been outlaws. In the same way Martin Luther, Gandhi, and Jesus had all stepped beyond the law to serve truth and justice in their day.
In that way, Danny and I were similar. I was one of those abused victims he’d come to save. I too took the life of a man who would have otherwise destroyed his wife and children, knowing the law would never save them. I’m not trying to justify what either of us did. It was terribly wrong. I had accepted responsibility for my crimes and fully intended on paying the price, really, I had.
But Danny and I fell in love, and at the last minute he stepped in and took the fall for what I had done, demanding that I remain free. He knew war; he knew prisons. He insisted that the prison system would chew me up and destroy me, and he couldn’t live with that. No amount of objection on my part could change his mind.
After receiving the breathy phone call, I stepped up to the bathroom mirror, withdrew my week-old toothbrush from its holder, applied a thin line of toothpaste to the brush, turned on the faucet, wet the bristles, and started on my lower left molars. Teeth are far more delicate than most people realize. Even a small speck of food can quickly cause a rotting mess if left alone.
Danny was in prison and I was alone. Desperately alone and all too aware that it was my fault.
The phone rang again and I hurried to rinse my brush and mouth. An image of Danny struggling to push the buttons on a cell phone as he lay in a pool of blood next to a transport van returned to my mind. Or maybe he’d crawled into the tall grass by now and was hiding from the guards until I could come to his rescue.
Crazy, I know, but that’s what went through my mind.
I rushed back through my bedroom, rounded the door frame, and snatched the phone from its cradle.
This time there could be no mistaking the sound on the line. It wasn’t static. It was breathing.
I listened for a long moment, undeniably unnerved. The difference between static and heavy breathing is actually quite distinct, and when the certainty that I was listening to the latter settled into my mind, my own breathing became shallow.
It could be some morning drunk who’d called the wrong number twice in a row. It could be Danny hidden in the grass unable to speak because his throat was cut, or afraid that he’d be heard if he tried. It could be a maniac breathing down my neck.
I had to know which.
More breathing, heavy. A man filled with perverted fantasies. One of my neighbors peeking at me through a hole in the wall. A grocery store clerk who moonlighted with a knife and a rope.