They drove for the next several miles in silence. Alexis settled back in her seat and watched her fish contentedly. Both James and Dustin watched the birds. Eventually, Steve lifted his hands partway off the wheel. “I don’t get it.” He said as he made a questioning gesture. “Why fish?”
James looked away from the birds towards the front seat. “Alexis has a degree in marine biology.” He replied. “She adores fish.”
Alexis didn’t look up from the three that were swimming in her bowl. “They swim like flying.” She said in awe. “They’re like little angels drifting through the water.”
Steve regarded her dubiously. “You studied those things?” He asked nodding in the direction of her lap where the bowl sat.
“Yes!” She answered excitedly.
Steve shook his head as he directed his attention back to the road. “Well, I don’t mean to begrudge what you did your learning in.” He muttered. “Fish to me don’t seem that interesting. I like to catch them and I like to eat them but beyond that, they’re just smelly little things that live underwater.”
Alexis closed her eyes and shook her head in disagreement. “They’re much more than that.” She said with a dreamlike smile. “They’re us only much more beautiful.”
James cleared his throat. “It’s really neat to hear her talk about them once she gets going.” He quipped from the back seat. “When I first met her, I sort of had the same mindset about fish. There’s just thousands of them out there though and they’ve all got something special about them.”
Steve gave a smirk and cocked his head to the side. “They’ve got fins and gills.” He snorted dismissively. “That’s really all that you need to know about fish if you ask me.”
“No.” Alexis replied, suddenly opening her eyes and turning to face him. “They really are us. People are born with webbed feet and the baby that’s in my stomach right now is breathing water just like fish do. We came from them only we lost the ability to fly and swim. They’re just remarkable!”
Steve gave her a sideways glance. “So now you’re talking about evolution?” He asked sounding suspicious.
“Yes.” Alexis replied.
“Well I believe that God created man.” Steve shot back.
James gave a nervous chuckle. “Well, either way that you choose to look at it it’s something that’s pretty impressive.” He said disarmingly.
Steve glanced back at him. “It’s impressive that God created man and all that you see.” He interrupted. “I don’t believe in evolution. He and only He is responsible for all that is good in the world.”
Dustin was still thinking about James’s sculpture at the Bay Bank. He thought about how its many screens of beauty and destruction drifted just above the heads of passers by. “What about things like this?” He asked. “Is God also responsible for earthquakes and death?”
Steve shook his head. “God doesn’t mess with that evil junk.” He answered confidently. “God only makes things nice for humans. It’s the Devil that causes things like earthquakes and drug addictions.”
No one chose to argue Steve’s point. There were nervous glances exchanged all around. Dustin himself didn’t believe in the Devil. He didn’t know what Alexis and James believed in. They’d mentioned being blessed before. Alexis had thought that the fire hydrant was a gift from God. It had saved her fish.
Dustin’s own faith in God was tenuous. He saw the creator more in the abstract than his partner Steve did. To Dustin, God was a force that rained down both devastation and tenderness upon the earth. Each was dependant on which direction its many branches of fate swung and in his mind there were more bad ones than good ones. If He created man, that was His most evil deed.
As they neared the outskirts of town Steve looked over to Alexis. “I’m really sorry ma’am.” He said sounding as meek and as apologetic as his natural demeanor would allow. “I didn’t mean to argue religion with you or insult your fish studying.”
Alexis sighed. “That’s okay.” She said calmly. “Everything is a gift from God.”
Steve didn’t say anything else. A fire truck rushed past, its siren blaring. Up ahead they could see smoke. “That’s the Denny’s.” James said.
As they passed by the blazing building, Steve spoke again. “I’m not sure about a lot of what goes on in the world but I do know that God sent Dustin to meet me at that 12-step meeting three years ago and in doing so He helped me to get off drugs.”
Dustin looked down. “Thank you.” He said feeling self conscious.
“No.” Steve said, turning his head to face him. “Thank God.”
James pointed towards a small church on the corner. “There!” He said directing their attention towards the structure. “That’s where Alexis’s mom lives.”
The building was constructed like an old western church house that would have appeared more at home on the prairie than in downtown Redwood. Dustin had passed it several times and thought that exact same sentiment on each occasion. The earthquake had shattered several of the churches stained glass windows and the wooden block steeple that once sat where the roof peaked had fallen off into the parking lot.
Alexis made a whimpering sound when she saw the steeple. “Oh no!” she said her forehead creasing in both sadness and surprise. “Mom didn’t tell me that the steeple had fallen!”
As Steve maneuvered the truck into the churches parking lot, James grabbed the garbage bag at his feet. “She probably didn’t want you to get alarmed sweety!” He said reaching over to give her a soft pat on the shoulder. “At least the cross is still standing.”
Steve smiled. “Well lookie there!” He said sounding overjoyed. “The cross is still standing!”
Dustin looked down at the cross. In an odd coincidence it had somehow become dislodged from the top of the steeple during the collapse. It had now imbedded itself into the tar of the churches parking lot. It stood before them at the edge of a line of broken wood and shingles facing right side up.
“That’s a damned miracle!” Steve hollered, putting the truck into park and slapping his hand down hard on the steering wheel. “The cross is still standing!”
Dustin shook his head. “It’s not a miracle Steve.” He muttered.
Steve swung around to face him. “How can you say that buddy?” He asked in a hurt tone. “I know you’ve got conflicted issues with God but that cross is sitting right there in front of us just like it was planted on Mount Zion!”
“It’s not a miracle.” Dustin said again. “Remember when I told you that there was no such thing as fate, karma or divine intervention? It’s like that. If you go around calling every random thing a miracle, then you can blame God and the Devil for all of your shortcomings.”
Steve’s eyes took on a puppy-dog like quality. “I’m not saying it’s bad.” He defended. “I’m just saying that it’s God’s hand doing good work here and giving us hope.”
James hesitated before opening the door. “I made that cross.” He said. “I don’t think that the metal I used would have been hard enough or heavy enough to pierce the parking lot.”
Steve threw his hands up in the air. “A miracle!” He applauded. Then, turning back to Dustin he shot him a rueful glance. “Stick that in your ear you damned heretic killjoy.”
Laughing at their exchange, James got out and crossed in front of the truck to help Alexis out of her seat. As he sat his garbage bag down and opened the passenger side door, Steve looked over and smiled at them both. “So, you folks are church people after all?” He asked.
Alexis’s still wore her frown from seeing the crushed and mangled steeple but quickly she managed to turn it into a tight little laugh. “My mom’s a minister.” She said with a strained sort of happiness. “She’ll be very interested to hear your thoughts on God.”
“How about that?” Steve said still sounding surprised. “I thought you folks were a bunch of liberal communist and here you go having family out there spreading the word of God.”
James kindly regarded Steve. “It’s been really nice talking to you.” He said. “We should get together once things get back to normal.”
Steve beamed. “That would make me happy.” He said earnestly.
As her husband helped Alexis from the car, Dustin got out preparing to take her place in the front seat. “Goodbye.” He said to the two of them.
“Goodbye.” Alexis said as she turned to go inside. Suddenly she went bounding forward as she tripped and stumbled over the garbage bag that James had sat on the ground.
James rushed forward to help her. “Honey!” He called in alarm.
Alexis didn’t fall but her arms went wide as she struggled to maintain her balance. Seemingly, in slow motion, they all watched as the fish bowl spun wildly through the air. It shattered next to the cross.
Alexis screamed. “Oh my God!”
James rushed over and scooped up the fish one by one. “We’ve got to get them in some water.” He said rushing up the churches steps as his wife followed. Together they disappeared inside.
Dustin looked down at the shattered glass, the cross and the crumpled old garbage back that littered the parking lot. From within the bag, he could see the image of a kitten peaking out at him. It was ironed onto a plain white T-shirt that said “Hang in There”.
“They’re still alive!” James called from the front door.
Alexis came to his side carrying a tall drinking glass which contained the three fish. “It’s a miracle!” She declared.