Michael Stewart has weathered his share of hardships: a troubled childhood, the loss of his mother, even the degradation of living on the city streets. Now he’s raising his teenaged daughter, Elizabeth, on his own and doing the best he can at work and at home. But he’s turned his back on his faith—that is, until the morning Michael and Elizabeth volunteer for a food pantry at their local church. While storing boxes in the basement, they step through a mysterious door . . . and find themselves in first-century Jerusalem during the tumultuous last week of Jesus Christ’s life. It is a dangerous and violent place, where doing what your heart tells you is right can get you imprisoned—or worse—and they are thankful to take refuge with a kind widow. But when they come face-to-face with Judas Iscariot and the condemned Christ himself, Michael realizes that before they can escape Jerusalem, he must experience history’s most necessary and shattering heartbreak—and that pain and loss must happen if Michael is to be set free: to live, love, and reclaim the blessings he has in the present day.
|Sold by:||SIMON & SCHUSTER|
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About the Author
Michael has published a number of books through established trade houses, including the trivia book So You Think You're a New Yorker, which was an iconic work lauded by columnist Cindy Adams. In addition, he published seven sports-themed books for children through Enslow, and a volume of a children’s book series through HarperCollins.
Read an Excerpt
“Let’s save each other some time today, Elizabeth. What are you
“In a sec, Dad.”
Michael sighed and looked in the mirror. His head was pounding from a few glasses of pity wine the previous night, and he noticed a web of inflamed capillaries spreading across the corner of his left eye. I look awful, he thought.
Disgusted, he retreated to his bedroom and pulled open the top drawer of his worn dresser. A thin layer of dust was across the top, and absentmindedly he brushed it away. He stared down sullenly into the contents of the drawer and pushed aside a few pairs of socks. There it was at the bottom—a simple gold band. He turned it sideways to read the inscription: I’M GLAD I FOUND YOU. LOVE, VICKI.
Michael sighed and rubbed it gently against his T-shirt. He rarely wore it, except when he wanted to prevent any awkward encounters with unattached women. One look at the ring and they would be sure to leave him alone.
He slipped the ring on his finger and rubbed his stomach, uncomfortably aware of how his belly was gaining a foothold over the worn elastic waistband of his pajamas. He was beginning to understand why women complained about feeling bloated all the time. Adding to his misery was the humidity of the April day, so he chose a simple white T-shirt, light gray sweats, and a pair of his favorite old sandals. He pulled the sweats above his belly and sighed. Now I look like Fred Mertz.
He dressed conservatively these days even though he was just forty. With his daughter now a teenager, he believed he needed to set a good example. Michael had seen what the kids wore at the local middle school, where Elizabeth was in the eighth grade. She was becoming a young adult, and sometimes he felt alone against the world in protecting her. No matter how hard he tried to be open, there was no way he could agree with belly rings and low-cut shirts.
I hope she doesn’t come down in another skimpy tank top. He was well trained by this point. She would wait upstairs until they were miserably late, with no time to spare. Then it would be a last-second struggle: he would barely see her run past him on the way to the car, leaving him time to register only the most horrific thing she was wearing.
Today, though, he felt ready for the dress-code war.
His determination was swayed by the startling ring of the phone. “Elizabeth, are you going to get that?” Michael shouted upstairs. He chided himself for waiting for an answer; her friends called almost exclusively on her cell, meaning that she wouldn’t waste time picking up the house phone.
He ran into the living room and saw the phone out of its holder, along with the empty wine bottle sitting on the side table near his recliner. He bent down and dug furiously along the cushion of the chair. “Got it,” he muttered. He noticed the caller ID said unknown. His stomach lurched and he threw the phone back onto the recliner. Probably the bank again. Why can’t they leave me alone?
Elizabeth, sandals on her feet, T-shirt tied up to her navel, and oversize shorts hanging low on her waist, sprinted down with the upstairs phone in her hand. “Sure, he’s here, hold on.” She glanced up and saw her father scowl. “Oops,” she whispered as she handed it to him.
“Hello?” He paused, looking annoyed. “Yes, I understand my financial obligations. I’m working as hard as I can and as fast as I can to keep up. I need a couple more weeks. My boss cut my salary in half, sir. So I’m trying to find other ways to make it up. Can you give me more time?”
Elizabeth stood motionless on the stairs, watching her father’s brow furrow. For the first time, she noticed some strands of gray hair peeking through the sides of his head, near his ears.
“Good-bye.” Michael sighed. He clicked the phone off and looked down. I really need to clean this carpet, he thought randomly.
“Everything okay?” Elizabeth asked, noticing the shiny gold ring on his finger.
Michael gazed at his growing daughter, undeterred.
“No. Change the shirt.”
“Change the shirt. Change it or we won’t go.”
In this rare case, Michael knew he held the upper hand. She needed him to take her to this event to receive the proper credit for school. Every student in the honor society needed a certain number of community-service points, and she was still short.
“Oh, fine. Whatever.” Elizabeth rolled her eyes dramatically but then scampered up the stairs back to her bedroom.
Michael was aware that Elizabeth was gradually becoming less attached to him, which meant that the most positive aspect of his life was slowly eroding. He tried hard not to think about it. But on this Saturday morning, he didn’t mind the power-broker role for, if nothing else, it kept her with him.
Elizabeth walked down the stairs in an oversize, faded-white Springsteen concert T-shirt. Michael was slumped in the recliner, still clenching the phone and staring off into space. She smiled, trying to cheer him up. “Hey, Dad, does this shirt go down far enough?” The shirt fell past her shorts, well below her knees.
He looked up. “I see you were in my closet. Did you ask?”
“No. I wanted to pick out something you would approve of.”
“So you took one of my favorite T-shirts?”
“Bruce wouldn’t mind, right?” asked Elizabeth as she flashed an angelic smile.
Michael smiled weakly. “Bruce isn’t your father, I am. But this time I approve. C’mon, let’s scoot.” He slapped his knees before standing up.
Opening the front door for her, he was happy to see that the rain had finally stopped. “Who’s my baby?”
Elizabeth didn’t answer, knowing from experience that it would only encourage him to ask it again.
Michael smiled as they climbed into the car, deciding it was probably best not to tease her more. He had finally upgraded to a Camry a few years back because it gave Elizabeth more room in the backseat to keep her video games, DVDs and CDs. However, Elizabeth had now taken a liking to sitting in the front. He still couldn’t get used to it. He watched as she put in the white earbuds and began playing with the iPhone. Michael once again felt a mingled sense of pride and worry as her fingers rapidly began moving.
“Who are you texting?”
She looked at him. “Both.”
“What’s the boy’s name?”
“How old is he?”
“I’m not sure.”
“You’re not sure?!”
“Okay, okay, he’s a couple of years older than me. So?”
Michael grimaced and took a deep breath. “Is that perfume?”
“Where did you get it?”
“Mommy’s drawer. You said I could have anything in there.”
He glanced over at his daughter and noticed how much she had grown up over the past year. Her hair was neatly brushed, the once girlish curls now straight and pulled into a tightly wound ponytail wrapped in a simple green elastic band. The smell of sparkly nail polish filled the car.
“You’re not meeting him here, are you?” asked Michael.
“He might be here later. Do you want to meet him?”
“Um . . . no . . . ah, yeah, yes . . . I don’t know.”
Elizabeth laughed. “Well, which is it?”
“Let’s just get through this day first, okay? I can only manage one crisis at a time.”
Boys, he thought as he turned onto Ocean Avenue, watching a few teenagers pushing and shoving each other playfully on the adjacent street corner. Michael remembered he used to be one of them, though he had been quiet and shy when he was fourteen, not outgoing like Elizabeth. Plus, when he was young, there was none of this texting immediacy in getting a girl to like you: you spent days, months even, trying to figure out how to bump into her in the hall, or to find the right friend of hers who would deliver a note for you. At that age, it was all about trying to be alone long enough to just kiss a girl. Well, one special girl.
He shook his head, thinking of her again. I wonder if Valentina is married, he thought, remembering his first true love back in elementary school. He drifted off briefly, only to be distracted by Elizabeth’s feverish texting. Her phone chirped and she giggled as she read the new message.
Michael nudged her shoulder with his hand. “Who’s that?”
There was no response. Unfazed, Elizabeth kept swaying to the beat of My Chemical Romance. It was so loud Michael could hear every lyric that leaked out through the tiny earphones. The scary thing was that he couldn’t be sure exactly what they all meant.
He could see in the far distance the boats docked side by side in the harbor. The wind had stopped its howling and a shaft of sunlight struck the cross atop the old church, casting a long shadow across Main Street. Children were pulling their parents into the local toy store, where another birthday party was about to begin. Old men and women were rummaging through the contents on an outdoor table, searching for the best bargains at Perry’s Five and Dime. Just another ordinary Saturday morning in Northport.
“Elizabeth? Elizabeth Ellen!” Michael gently lifted his daughter’s chin upward while she kept up with her digital connections.
“What, Dad?” Elizabeth asked, pulling out one of the earbuds.
“We’re here.” He scowled to himself in the rearview mirror, for this was the last place he wanted to be.
Michael parked the car near the corner of Main and Church Street. From there he could see scores of young kids and adults pulling food off trucks parked awkwardly on the sidewalk in front of Our Lady by the Bay Church. They were all there to help organize the food-drive donations.
The next thing he knew, the passenger-side door swung open and Elizabeth threw her phone back onto her seat before jumping to the curb. “Elizabeth!” Michael said as he climbed out quickly. “Wait . . .”
Elizabeth was already across the street heading toward her best friend, Laura. He sighed as he locked the car. “Always following, always following . . .”
“Hi, Laura!” Elizabeth squealed.
“Hey, Liz! Ah, hi, Mr. Stewart.”
“Hi, Laura. Hey, Liz, remember you’re here to help out and get your community-service credit for school.”
“Only my friends can call me that.” Elizabeth rolled her eyes.
Wow, Michael thought, that’s two eyerolls for today; the day’s getting off to a great start!
He watched her turn to Laura and whisper, “Fun killer.” Elizabeth had been using the phrase more often lately. Despite some residual hurt feelings, Michael had become resigned to it.
“Hey, Mike!” shouted a woman in a pretty blue dress from across the street, startling him. “I tried calling you last night. Were you out?”
He smiled as he walked over to give the woman a quick kiss on the cheek. “Susan, you know me better than that.”
Michael couldn’t help but notice how her light reddish brown hair touched her bare shoulders. “You look great today, Sue.”
She looked quizzically at him, casting a quick glance at the ring on his finger. “My, Mike, did you have a hard time getting out of the chair again?”
He nodded. “I’ve had a rough week, Sue. There are so many things changing in my life. I’m not adjusting at all.”
“Well, call me then. Or come by and we’ll talk.” She rubbed his right arm gently. “I know what you’ve been through.”
“Believe me, I know you know. I appreciate your kindness.” Michael meant it, too. Of all his neighbors, Susan Horn was the only one he considered a true friend. Ever since her husband walked out on her almost ten years ago, Michael and Susan had spent many hours talking about everything from child raising to life without a spouse.
Susan smiled. “I guess we’ve got some work to do today, right?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Isn’t that why we had kids?”
She laughed and tapped his forearm a couple of times. “Good one.”
Susan walked back to the front of the church. Kids and parents were already going back and forth up the steps that led to the three big open doors of the church. To the far right stood Father Dennis, watching his flock work like little bees, and chatting with volunteers.
Oh, no, Michael thought, I’m going to be spotted.
As if on command, Father Dennis immediately saw Michael in the crowd and waved to him. Michael cringed. He hadn’t been to mass in over a decade. It seemed as if every time Father Dennis saw Michael, he would ask, “Where have you been?”
As Father Dennis approached, Michael quickly grabbed a carton of food and ran up the stairs two at a time. “Hi, Father!” he said as he passed the priest.
Father Dennis smiled. “Good to see you working so hard for the church, Michael.”
“Glad to help out.”
Michael moved past the holy water sitting on the table near the entrance of the church, quickly dipping his fingers inside the bowl. He touched his forehead with it. Inside the building, it was cool and dark, with only four lights illuminating the lip of the altar. Michael could see the gleaming figures of Jesus in the center of the altar, Mary on the left, and Joseph on the right.
Michael knew his way around a church. As an altar boy, he’d helped serve mass four or five times a week. Sometimes Michael would do a mass, funeral, and wedding all in the same day. He liked weddings the best. Everyone was happy, and he would get a big tip from the best man. Michael knew the words from the mass by heart. When he graduated from Holy Child and his life as an altar boy ended, part of him was extinguished, too.
Today the church created in him mostly feelings of fear and pain. He and Vicki always used to go to church together. She felt that she had to pray for those who needed help because someday they might need some.
Ha, Michael thought, what help did I get?
To him, church was filled with a bunch of phonies who sat inside an air-conditioned building on a wooden pew without ever really hearing a word of the mass itself. Then the same parishioners went out on the street gossiping about each other and their neighbors. He didn’t need or want any part of it.
And yet, he couldn’t escape it: Father Dennis was walking right behind him.
“Michael, isn’t this a beautiful church?”
Michael looked around the church. He saw the five arched windows along each of the two long sides of the building, under one of which were engraved the words my friend, your sins are forgiven. The stations of the cross depicted in wooden carvings were affixed to the right of each window, while big white candles with green ribbing sat below. He took in the organ situated high above the pews, the altar made of white marble, and the podium from where the lector read.
It’s beautiful, sure, Michael thought, but where’s he going with this?
“Michael, your church awaits you,” Father Dennis said with a pat on the back.
“Michael, we could really use your help.”
“In what way, Father?”
“What about joining the choir?”
“Are you kidding? With my voice?”
“Michael, God doesn’t care what you sound like. He only cares what’s in your heart.”
“No offense, Father. But I think I would turn even God off with my voice.”
Father Dennis laughed and patted him on the shoulder. “What about being a lector?”
“I’m not sure . . .”
Father Dennis smiled. “Well, if you think you’d like to help out, let me know.”
Michael looked up one more time at those carvings of Jesus’ last moments on earth. “Well, I should go help the kids some more,” he said, walking away.
He didn’t want anyone calling him lazy. That word tore at his spine. Michael winced, remembering the dark days of living in Queens, defending his sanity against the daily verbal battering.
“You’re not even trying to find a full-time job, you lazy jerk!”
Michael sat there quietly in the living room recliner. Silence was his most effective weapon in the Richmond Hill house. His older sister would not get the satisfaction of knowing she got to him. Of course, she couldn’t see his knees rising slightly as his toes curled into the carpet.
“Look at me! When are you going to get a job?” she demanded.
I am working, Michael thought. He had a part-time job writing for a weekly football publication in Port Washington. Since he had no car and it was such a long trip by bus and train, on the weekends he slept overnight on the floor beneath his office desk. That’s not working?
He knew he could have tried to do something noble and become a policeman or fireman or gone back to school to become a teacher. But he really loved sports and was willing to work his way up by doing all sorts of part-time work. For some reason, to his sister Connie this just wasn’t enough.
“Say something!” she screeched.
“Okay,” Michael shouted, boiling over, “how about ‘shut up’?”
“Don’t talk to her that way!” his father bellowed, rushing in from the kitchen.
Michael instinctively stood up and pushed past him as he made for the stairs. Great, now he gets involved.
“Get down here!” his father screamed. “Get down here, you moron!”
Michael didn’t obey him; instead, he slammed his bedroom door. He listened to his father run up the two flights of stairs, wondering whether the old man was going to come through his door and finally confront him. He knew it wouldn’t be much of a match: Jim was fifty-three years old while Michael was only twenty-two and in the best shape of his life. He lifted weights constantly and had little fat on his body. Meanwhile, his father smoked two packs of cigarettes a day and spent his nights drinking scotch.
But he’s still my father, Michael thought, listening to him climb the stairs. Michael’s stomach tightened as he leaned his 180-pound frame against the door.
“Let me in. Let me in!” Jim was trying to barrel through the door.
Michael didn’t answer; instead, he planted his weight more firmly against the wood.
Thump! Thump! Thump! His father was angrily throwing himself against the door. Michael grew afraid that he might physically hurt the guy if he got in. He knew his father had such an overstated view of his own importance that he wouldn’t be expecting Michael to fight back. I’d like to punch him . . . although he’s my father.
Still uncertain, Michael continued to lean against the bedroom door, his hands clenched tightly around the doorknob. He listened for any movement, then cautiously opened the door. His father stood there glaring at him. Michael hesitated, then stepped aside and let his father into the room.
“What are you doing talking that way to your sister?”
“Why are you always defending her?”
“You have to stop mouthing off to your sister. Are you going to stop it?”
Michael didn’t respond. Instead, he turned and flung himself facedown on the bed.
Jim took another step into the room. “Answer me,” he demanded.
In an effort to avoid his father’s menacing stare, Michael focused on the torn curtain covering the only window in the small room.
“Do you hate me?” Jim nearly whispered.
Stunned, Michael grimaced. Are you serious?
“Look at me,” his father said forcefully as he moved closer. “Do you hate me? Are you angry about your mother? Do you hate me for what happened to her? Don’t you think I did my best?”
Michael was silent for a few seconds before turning to him. “I know you did your best,” he finally replied weakly.
Jim walked to the bookshelf, his thumb scrolling across the book spines, with his back to Michael. “Then why do you hate me?”
“Then why won’t you be like the rest of us? Why won’t you be part of this family? Why won’t you talk to me about how you’re feeling?”
Michael looked up slowly. “You’re always yelling. You never listen.”
Jim spun back to him quickly, his hands clenched in front of him. “Stop acting like a child. Then I’ll listen.”
Michael shook his head slowly.
“Do you miss your mom?”
“You’re so silent and quiet. You’re never around us. You never go out with us for dinner. It’s like you’re not even here.”
Michael rolled onto his stomach, his head resting on his pillow. Glancing down, he noticed some crumbs that had fallen from his dinner last night. He pushed himself up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed to kick the crumbs under it.
He sighed. “I miss Mom. But I love her in my own way. I’m not angry at you. Just because I haven’t cried in front of you doesn’t mean I don’t care. I’m angry at the way she died. Okay?”
“I tried, Michael. I really did.”
“I know, Dad. . . . I guess she’s in a better place now.”
In one explosive motion, Jim whipped a book off the top of Michael’s dresser, hurling it against his closet door. “A better place? What do you mean by that, you dumb—”
“Nothing!” Michael shouted.
His father scowled at him. “Yeah, in a better place. Better than here. Yeah, I know you don’t like it here. You’ve made it very clear.”
Michael shook his head and gave up. “Go away. You’ll never understand. Please just go away.”
“Sure, whatever. You’ll just use this as another excuse. I wonder if you really cared about her at all.” With that, Jim left the room.
Michael leaped up and slammed the door. He crumpled onto the floor, glancing at the contents of his tiny room: the steep piles of sports books around his bed, several empty soda cans littering the desk and bookshelf, even Bruce Springsteen’s The River album, nestled under his dresser. A Springsteen poster draped the back wall while a photo of tennis star Chris Evert hung crookedly over his bed.
He thought about what he’d said. He’d meant heaven, but his dad had totally misunderstood. I didn’t mean it that way, he thought. He wondered why he could never properly communicate with his father. It had always been difficult, but it was bleak now without his mother.
It seemed like only a few minutes later when he heard a soft knock.
“Michael, Father Pete here. Can I come in?”
Father Pete was a friend of the family’s, particularly his father’s. They had grown up together, and Father Pete handled all the family religious functions such as weddings, funerals, and baptisms. He was often over at the house during the holidays.
Michael stood up and opened the door. He cleared some papers from his desk chair and invited the priest to sit.
Father Pete wasted no time. “Michael, your father thinks you need psychological help.”
“My father is the one who needs the psychological help.”
“Why don’t you talk to him?”
“I can’t talk to him because he never listens. He’s always yelling.”
Michael reached down and grabbed The River album and turned it over to show Father Pete the lyrics to the song “Independence Day.” It was a sorrowful description of Springsteen’s relationship with his father and the inevitable parting between them. Michael played it over and over in his tiny room, the lyrics echoing in the attic, as if the pleas from Springsteen’s voice would resonate with his father. He so wanted his dad to be a positive part of his life.
“It’s well written,” the priest said, looking up at Michael. “I like the part about the son leaving St. Mary’s Gate. It’s very symbolic. Why can’t you two talk to each other like we’re doing now?”
“He won’t listen. I can’t talk to someone who’s always yelling.”
“Well, Michael, he says his conditions are you either get psychological help or move out of the house.”
“That’s interesting, Father. So he’s saying he feels I need help mentally but he’d throw me out of the house if he doesn’t get his way. I’m not sure I could ever treat my son like that.”
Father Pete didn’t answer.
“Look, Father, I’ll go for psychological help if he comes with me. I want him there with me so we can both discuss things, like about Mom and everything.”
Father Pete looked encouraged. He stood up and headed toward the door. “Great! I think that will be fine.”
It wasn’t long before he returned with Jim’s answer. “Michael . . . he won’t go with you. I think you’re either going to have to go alone or else leave. He’s ranting about something he said you almost did. He said something about you and your mother. He wouldn’t explain it to me. Did you do something to your mom or say something before she died?”
“Father, he has it all wrong. I’ll just say this: I wasn’t going to do it.”
Father Pete stared at him, perplexed. “Michael, that’s between you and your father.” He paused. “Do you have a place to stay?”
“I guess so,” Michael said, wondering if he could move into his friend Steve’s apartment in Flushing.
“God will take care and serve you, Michael.”
Michael laughed bitterly. “Ha! I have to do this on my own.”
As Father Pete stood there watching him, Michael started to pack his belongings: a few T-shirts, some torn shorts, a faded pair of jeans, and several socks, none of which matched. He grabbed some loose change and put it into the front pocket of his sweatpants. A dollar was lying near the side of the bed. He reached over to put it inside a shoebox.
He gathered up several of his own poems, including one about his father, and stuffed them inside the shoebox. Thoughts of the past year since his mom died almost overwhelmed him.
He turned around and looked at the priest. “Is this how God serves me?”
Father Pete glanced down at his folded hands, a sad look on his face.
“I’m sorry. I know, Father Pete. But can I just catch a stinking break?”
Father Pete shook his hand, passed him a hundred bucks from his dad, and told Michael it was time to leave.
Michael grabbed more boxes of food, following Laura’s and Elizabeth’s giggles and smiles up to the front of the church. An hour had passed, and now the area was cluttered with cartons leaning against the white marble fence surrounding the altar.
“The pile is getting too big,” Father Dennis told the volunteers. “I need two helpers to bring some of this down to the basement for now.”
He looked around. By now, most of the students were bored and tired. The parents looked pretty exhausted from climbing all the stairs. He spotted Michael and Elizabeth.
“What about you two?”
Michael looked suspiciously at Father Dennis. Why does he think we’re not tired from all the lifting and carrying? “Yeah, sure, Father.”
He felt a pat on his back. “You’re a good man, Mike,” said Susan, flashing a big smile at him. Michael returned the gesture with a wink.
Catching the exchange, Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “We’d be happy to do it. Right, Dad?”
“Ah, sure,” Michael said, his voice echoing throughout the big church.
He felt the bulky cell phone and keys inside his pockets. “Father, can I leave these here?”
“No one will steal them?” Michael said, trying to lighten the mood.
“I will bless them to make sure,” the priest responded with a smile.
Michael had already left his wallet behind in his car. He hated to be weighed down by items of any sort when working. In fact, he’d stopped wearing a watch in high school, feeling it restricted him too much.
Elizabeth and Michael began moving some of the cartons. The doorway to the basement stairs was just to the left of the altar. It was about fifteen steps down before they reached the floor of the darkened room.
He looked around. The room was fairly large, maybe forty by sixty feet. Collection baskets and random piles of outdated hymnals littered the floor. There wasn’t much room for more boxes.
“Great,” Michael said, annoyed. “We’ll have to move some of this mess before we bring down the rest of the cartons.”
“Chill, Dad. This is supposed to help the needy.”
“Chill? Okay, I’ll chill. But, you know, I’m pretty needy. When is someone going to help me?”
“Oh, Dad. You have to lighten up a bit. Life’s too short.”
He turned from her and muttered under his breath, “Yes, I know life’s too short.”
Elizabeth began bouncing around the room. She picked up all the baskets and stacked them in one corner. Then she sprinted around the other side of the room, grabbing outdated missalettes and organizing them into piles on a nearby folding table.
“Look, Dad, the Empire State Building,” she said with a smile, placing an old mustard-colored book on top.
Michael looked at the tall pile of books. “Great, but what about the cartons of food on the floor? How about making the Eiffel Tower with that so we can get out of here.”
“Stop with the chill stuff . . . or I’ll start using that word.”
“Yuck, don’t use that word,” she said, laughing while picking up a discarded penlight in the corner and shining it on him. “You’re old people. You can’t talk like that.”
“Old people? Ouch!” Michael peered at her with puppy-dog eyes and his bottom lip stuck out. He sucked in his stomach and pulled up his sweats higher than his belly button. “Now I am as old as Fred Mertz!”
“Um, Dad, Fred Mertz is dead.”
“Yeah, so what’s your point?”
As if on cue, they both fell into a fit of laughter. “Okay, you’re totally freaking me out now,” Elizabeth said with a grimace.
“What is this?” Michael asked with interest, picking the mustard-colored book off the pile. He thumbed through it while Elizabeth continued to work. It appeared to be a worn diary. The word on the cover—Miraculum—was faded and barely legible. Michael thought the word might be Latin. Many of the pages were falling out and the handwriting was mostly faint and spidery. The first entry was not legible. But the next one said 1797. Michael let out a low whistle. “Wow. I should show this to Father Dennis.”
“Ah, Dad, don’t you want to get out of here?”
“Yeah, sure, but . . .”
“We’re almost done, Dad.”
Michael put the small book in his pocket. When everything had been cleared away and nearly all the boxes were neatly stacked, he noticed for the first time a steel door marked with a gold cross in the center of the floor.
Elizabeth walked over to check it out. “What is it?”
“I don’t know and I don’t want to know.” Michael could hear Father Dennis up above thanking the volunteers for their help. “Let’s get out of here, Elizabeth, and get the rest of those cartons.”
“Go ahead, Dad. I’d like to see what’s in there.”
“Do me a favor: don’t open it. Just leave the door alone.”
Michael ran upstairs to grab the last of the cartons but bumped into Father Dennis, who was helping parishioners locate empty areas to place their food cartons. “I need to show you something, Father, when I’m done.”
“Okay. I’m a little busy right now. And thanks, Michael, for staying around to bring the last of these downstairs.”
“No problem, Father, glad to help!” Michael called over his shoulder. When he reached the basement, he dropped the cartons on the floor and looked around.
Oh, no. Michael saw that the steel door in the floor had been pulled back. Are you kidding me? He walked over to it and peered down. It was pitch-black, but he could make out a dark stairway.
“Elizabeth! Are you down there?”
The only response Michael heard were his words echoing below.
I can’t believe she’s going to make me come after her. He took a few steps down the old, wooden stairs. They creaked a bit under his weight, making him nervous.
“Elizabeth Ellen! Answer me!”
He started counting the steps, and by the time he came to the ninth one, he stopped. “Elizabeth Ellen Stewart. Come up here right now or I’ll really be a fun killer!”
Michael had thought that should sufficiently scare her to return, but there was still no answer. With the complete absence of light, the darkness below felt sinister.
He took a few more steps. Nah, she’s always been afraid of the dark. Why would she go down here? Michael climbed back up the stairway, convinced that she must be somewhere upstairs.
Michael ran back into the main part of the church. He spotted Father Dennis chatting with some parishioners. “Hey, Father, did Elizabeth come up here? Have you seen her?”
Father Dennis turned around and shook his head. “I haven’t seen her up here.” He noticed the book sticking out of Michael’s pocket. “What’s that?”
The priest pointed. “That book in your back pocket. Let me see it.”
Michael pulled it out and handed it to him. Father Dennis started paging through it.
Michael grew impatient. “I’ve got to go find Elizabeth.”
The priest looked concerned as he scanned through an entry before placing the book in his back pocket. “Michael, I’m going to hold on to this. I’ve never seen it before and yet there are reflections from many of the previous pastors of this old church.”
“That’s nice, Father . . . but about my daughter: do you know where she is?”
“Maybe she went outside with her friends?”
“I don’t think so.” Quickly he ran to the open front door and looked up and down the street. There was no sign of her.
Michael ran back to the basement stairs. He reached the trapdoor and called again. “Elizabeth? Are you down there?”
He started descending the stairs now at a rapid clip. He could feel panic beginning to set in. What if she’s fallen and hurt herself? He was so far down into the subbasement that he wasn’t sure anyone would be able to hear him from above if he needed to call for help.
Suddenly, his feet hit solid ground. He stretched out his right arm and felt a concrete wall. Leaning slightly to the left, he reached out and touched another wall. They were about six feet apart, creating a tunnel, although he could only see complete blackness ahead.
Still no answer.
Michael shuffled slowly forward. As he took each step, he kept the fingertips of his right hand against one wall while his left balanced him upright on the other. Every five steps or so, he took a deep breath. The air felt cold and damp in his lungs.
“Elizabeth, I’m really getting worried now,” Michael said, trying to sound calm and rational. “Come back and we’ll talk. I’m sorry if I upset you upstairs.”
Michael tentatively took more steps, trying not to think about the assortment of rodents that must live down here. After traveling about thirty more feet, he stopped when he felt the floor underneath him shake slightly. “What was that? Did you feel that?” he called out, trying to remain calm and hoping that Elizabeth would respond.
The ground underneath his feet felt different. Has the floor changed to sand under me, or is that my imagination?
“Elizabeth, you are going to be grounded! Yeah, I know you’re fourteen, but I can still ground you! You can even kiss your iPhone good-bye for at least a month!”
He paused. “She won’t care. She’s a teenager. Yeah, I’ll chill out. Hear that, Liz ? I said I’m going to chill out !”
While he was wondering why he kept expecting Elizabeth to respond to the word chill, he felt the floor shake again; this time it had a more defined feel, more intense.
“Great! Thank you, Elizabeth. Thank you for making this lovely experience at the church even longer, and much more fun.”
He stopped walking when a gust of warm air hit him. “Oh, God, please let her be okay.”
The shaking under his feet became more frequent. His eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and in the distance he could now see what looked like the beam from a miniature flashlight. The light remained steady, like a beacon drawing him near.
“Elizabeth!” Michael shouted, stumbling toward the light. “Is that you up there?”
Suddenly his head struck the ceiling. He winced and ducked, realizing the tunnel was narrowing. He heard a muffled sound in the distance, then felt the floor shake more violently.
“What is that?”
“Dad!” cried a voice faintly.
Michael’s heart raced. “Elizabeth?”
There was no answer.
Michael moved more quickly now, hands skimming over the walls, stumbling a few times as he tried to reach the light. “Elizabeth, can you hear me?”
The ground shook again and the muffled sounds became more discernible.
Even though he could hear her, Michael still couldn’t see her. “Where are you?”
“Over here, Dad!”
The ground shook again and Michael could make out a small figure in front of him. She was partially blocking the light coming from above, and seeing her silhouette was a relief.
“What were you thinking?”
“Shh!” she whispered. “Shh!” She reached out and grabbed his back. “Dad! Oh, Dad!”
“Why did you come down here? I said not to. You could’ve been hurt, you could’ve—”
“Look!” Elizabeth pointed, cutting him off. “Look! Look at this!”
Michael shielded his eyes and gazed through what appeared to be a sewer grate at the end of the tunnel. Beyond it, he could see dirt bouncing up from the churning wheels of carts and the sandaled feet of men running past them.
“Where are we?”
© 2010 Michael J. Sullivan
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Necessary Heartbreak includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Michael J. Sullivan. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Necessary Heartbreak tells the story of Michael, a single dad from New York who has lost his faith after his wife’s death and is struggling to raise his feisty fourteen-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. When Michael and Elizabeth stumble upon a trapdoor in their church basement, they discover a portal leading back to first-century Jerusalem during the tumultuous last week of Christ’s life. There they encounter Leah, a grieving widow; a menacing soldier who is determined to take Elizabeth as his own; Judas on the last night of his life; and a close-up of the man Jesus. Unable to return to the present, Michael comes face-to-face with some of his most limiting beliefs and realizes he must open himself up to the possibility of a deeper faith in people, in himself, and in love if he is to find his way home.
1. Compare Michael and Elizabeth’s relationship with Michael’s relationship with his own father. How are their power struggles and communication difficulties similar and different?
2. Discuss Michael’s relationship with religion. What changed his once-strong faith? How is his belief in God different at the end of the novel? How do Elizabeth’s and Leah’s faith change throughout the novel?
3. Is Michael too overprotective, or just a concerned parent? Does Michael use his fear for Elizabeth to hold himself back from life? Why does he push people away?
4. Why does Michael consistently avoid women and feel almost uncomfortable with them? What is he afraid of? Why does he have so much trouble letting go of Vicki and moving on, going so far as to search for her in Jerusalem?
5. Talk about the different ways Michael and Elizabeth deal with losing Vicki. Throughout the story, they hide their emotions from each other. Why can’t they talk about her with each other? Why do they each blame themselves for her death, when clearly it’s neither one’s fault?
6. How did the narrative format of the novel, incorporating flashbacks throughout, impact your read?
7. Why does Leah take Michael and Elizabeth in so easily? How are they able to accept life together so quickly? What do they learn from each other? What do Michael and Leah see in each other of their missing spouses?
8. Leah and Michael discuss having a “reverence for life,” in both Leah’s time and Michael’s. Michael admits that not much has changed. Reread the passage on pages 157–158 and talk about how the two cultures respect life.
9. Discuss the difference between “kill” and “sacrifice.” Why does Leah ultimately decide not to sacrifice Cassie? What does Elizabeth learn from Cassie? Discuss Cassie’s significance to the story and what she symbolizes.
10. What does Michael make Leah believe?
11. How is the second time Michael denies Christ different from the first?
12. Why do Michael and Elizabeth keep finding excuses to stay in Jerusalem one more day? Is it because they’re drawn to Jesus, or do you see another reason?
13. Why are Michael and Elizabeth so intent on helping Jesus, even though they know how the scene will play out? Why must Michael shoulder his burden? How can Elizabeth lift Michael’s burden?
14. How does Leah break through Michael’s façade? Why doesn’t he ask her to come home with them? Did you like the ending of the book? Why or why not?
15. How does heartbreak shape each character? Do you agree with the title, that heartbreak is sometimes necessary?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. When Michael is a teen, he repeatedly listens to Bruce Springsteen’s album The River and relates especially to the song “Independence Day.” Listen to that song or just look up the lyrics. Is there a song in your own life that has particularly resonated with you or helped you through a difficult situation? Share with your book club.
2. Leah shares a Passover feast with Michael and Liz. Research the history of Passover and try making some dishes for your own feast, such as charoset and matzos.
3. Read the story of Jesus’ crucifixion in the New Testament of the Bible. How do the descriptions in Necessary Heartbreak change your impressions of those events?
A Conversation with Michael J. Sullivan
What inspired you to write this story, mixing time travel with ancient times and customs?
I grew up with a romantic, idealistic view of the church. Over the course of many years, this view eroded, especially during the winter of 1983–84. I was without money and a roof over my head, riding the E train in New York City at night. I sought help from many, including a family friend who helped run a church. He turned me back into the cold New Year’s Eve night in 1983. As I sat on the train pondering, I started to write this novel, drawing on some of the key childhood experiences that still touch my soul today. And I wondered whether this was the church I wanted to be part of in the future. I found myself questioning the wrong person—Jesus Christ. So I wanted to send my characters back in time to restore the meaning of life to myself. I wanted my characters to be part of history’s most important moment. I wanted them to experience what the true meanings of love, faith, and sacrifice really are.
Tell us about your research on Roman and Biblical times. How much is real and how much is enhanced by your imagination?
I tried to stay faithful to the actual events, but I wanted to look at those events from the perspectives of the characters. My first editor, Jenn Kujawski, was instrumental in the research. We dedicated many weeks, even months, to this particular part of the process. The great benefit of this experience was that I learned so much about Jesus Christ, the person.
Can you tell us about your personal faith?
It continues to evolve. I’m human. I question certain aspects of it. As I go along in these books, I learn more through the research process. I continue to gather a greater understanding of what an incredible role model Jesus is for me and for anyone else.
Has your faith ever faltered, like Michael’s?
Yes, many times. It was at an all-time low after I watched my mother die from cancer at the age of forty-seven. She suffered so greatly, and I wondered why she had to endure so much pain at such a young age.
Michael and Elizabeth both have rather volatile relationships with their fathers. How were you able to capture teen angst so well?
I have two daughters myself. As they get older, they become more independent emotionally. I utilized some real-life experiences and allowed them to unfold on the page.
How did you create the character of Leah?
I first wanted the character to be of a background different from Michael’s so I could show that people have much more in common than they realize. In addition, I incorporated several personality characteristics of women I’ve met and admired.
Is the story of Leah’s husband based on real events?
No. I wanted to take the emotional temperature of the times, when confrontation between Jews and Roman soldiers erupted daily. I wanted to show the reader some of the normal tragedies a woman would have had to endure.
The novel captures the viewpoints of a middle-aged father, a teenage girl, and a woman from Biblical times. Which character was the hardest to write?
The most difficult character was Leah, because extensive research was involved. Being of Christian background, I needed to pay particular attention to this character. We spent many, many weeks researching every little detail of Leah’s home, how she would make a living, and the relationships she would have.
Which character was easiest?
Michael. Most of the material associated with him comes purely from my heart: my experiences, my emotions, and my feelings regarding past and present relationships.
Which is your favorite?
Leah is no doubt my favorite. She is intriguing, strong, possessed with the ability to understand the reality of any situation. I built this character from many different women I’ve come across in my life. It was fun to revisit those particular experiences.
You have a successful career as a sportswriter. What made you decide to start writing fiction?
I’ve sat on this story idea for a very long time, over two decades. I’ve tried to revisit it on several occasions, but could never find the proper angle. I spent many nights wondering why my mother was dealt such a severe fate, suffering the ravages of cancer. There were days when a feeling of hopelessness engulfed me, and I wouldn’t know where to turn for answers. One hot May night I awoke with my answer. I dreamed I was on that street when Jesus was riding the donkey, Palm Sunday. I was chasing Him, trying to ask Him why we have to suffer.
Do you lay out your plots beforehand or are there surprises in the writing process?
I would say both. The Biblical scenes were prepared in an outline. And then the characters took over: their personalities evolved, their strengths and weaknesses were unveiled. Some of the flashbacks were written a couple of decades ago, refined and polished over the past couple of years.
Was there ever an ending when Michael and Leah ended up together?
Good question. I’m in the process of answering that in the next book.
Which authors and/or books have most impacted your own writing?
The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale, is one book I could read or listen to over and over again. His ability to simplify what life can be to us all motivates me to try and make every day a great one.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
When you’re writing, give yourself ample opportunity to absorb yourself in the story. And it’s fine to incorporate the experiences that move you. There’ll be some rejection—all writers have to listen to many different opinions about their work. But remain faithful to yourself and the work.
Can you tell us about what you’re working on next?
I’m currently writing the sequel, called The Greatest Christmas Gift. It picks up with Michael and Elizabeth in Northport seven months later.