Shadows in the Fast Lane

Written by Richard Drebert

©Good Catch Publishing

The drugs they shot through my veins beat down the meth, and I quit jerking against the leather restraints. The distorted faces in the room looked human again as the emergency staff bellied up to my bed. Hospital white caressed me into a tranquil shroud of calm. Safe from my rampage, the doctor staunched the bleeding in my hands and arms while my family gathered in the waiting room. It was the last thing I remembered for three days.

***

As a boy, Mama had placed her hand on my head and declared, “Leon, you’ll be my little priest someday.”

I smiled and colored pictures of Jesus sitting with little children on his lap, but when my brother came to live with us, he countered Mama’s prayers to Mary about me.

“Be proud,” he said, thumping his chest. “Act like a man, Leon!”

He put his arm around my bony shoulders, and pride burned in my belly as I slurped from his beer.

Mama, the 11th child among 12 sisters, learned her trade as a seamstress in Mexico City and worked in factories in San Bernardino to make a living. I had several aunts, uncles and dozens of cousins on both sides of the border. My father had deserted my mother in Mexico City before I was born, but he showed up sometimes. I came into the world after he spent some time in San Bernardino.

My father put Mama through hell, and she never let me forget it. They had married when she was 16, and she had a baby the same year (who later died from an aneurism). A brother followed and then a sister. For a while, Mama lived on the streets of Mexico City, trying to survive, while my father indulged in womanizing, drugs and booze.

Pride.

In the barrio at San Bernardino, Mama prayed for protection around me, invoking her saints and angels. To save me from my father’s distorted view of manhood, she dressed me up for Sunday Mass where I partook of my first Catholic communion. She bought me a Bible and taught me to recite prayers to the Blessed Virgin.

At our home on the main street of the barrio, Mama sanctified a perimeter at the edges of our tiny yard. “Leon,” she said gravely, “you must not go beyond this line. It’s not safe, understand?”

On Seventh Street, when I was a grade-schooler, we lived at the crossroads of racial violence. Late at night, bullets creased our walls; whenever gangs congregated on the street in front of our house, I fled to my room to hide. There was a stain on our porch where a man bled out from bullet wounds. When we left for Mass, we never knew if our TV or food or silverware might be stolen before we returned. Mama and I seldom mingled with outsiders, and she carefully weeded out my few neighborhood friends. Mama surrounded me with aunts, uncles and cousins as often as she could. My grown sister lived in another part of the city and came to see us often.

Mama sewed my school clothes and sent me off to elementary classes where teachers placed me in advanced courses. I loved to learn, and my sister encouraged me to study. She became my study buddy when she visited us in the barrio.

“You can be anything you want to be, Leon.”

And I wanted to be a good boy.

***

Marty, my grinning brother, rustled my black hair as I curled up against his strong shoulder. He was 15 years older than me and sprawled on the couch after working all day.

“We’re moving away from the barrio!” Mama said excitedly.

I worshiped Marty at once. “You like that, Leon? We bought a house, and it’s got a nice yard. You and I will be spending time together!”

When he lived in Mexico City, my brother emulated his mentor, my father. Now Mama watched the two of us, feeling helpless.

She silently prayed to the Virgin that her eldest son wouldn’t lead her “little priest” into the empty life that she despised.

But she had some hope. A vital difference set Marty apart from his father: Her son would never desert her. He worked hard, and she could suffer Marty’s lifestyle to get her youngest son out of the dangerous barrio.

My brother and weary mother bought a house in north San Bernardino, and Marty became my mentor. He taught me how to indulge in passions that men had a “right” to enjoy — but only after work and paying the bills. Sometimes I shot pool in the bars while he drank. Marty taught me to drive at 14 — he couldn’t navigate home without me.

***

Long before Marty moved in, every summer Mama sent me on a grand trip to visit relatives in Mexico City to strengthen my Hispanic roots. I especially loved flying with my big brother, who used to live there. On the way, he schooled me.

“Leon, don’t forget! Drink only from the pitcher. We boil the water in Mexico, remember?”

“Okay, Marty.”

I’d be really sorry if I drank from the tap.

In Mexico, life was different than living with my brother and mother in the States. At my Auntie’s house, it took 30 minutes to heat the boiler before taking a shower. She lived in downtown Mexico City and bought our tortillas from a woman on the street who made them that morning.

But, on this summer trip, at 13, it wasn’t the strange culture that turned my world upside down.

“Dad wants to see you, Leon,” Marty said. The man I had learned to hate waited in his big diesel rig, idling at a truck depot outside of town. “He says he wants to get to know you.”

“I don’t want to know him, Marty! He treated Mama like s*** — and he deserted us!”

But Marty and my father didn’t give up.

A few days before our flight back to the States, my cousins and Marty planned one last road trip, and I was excited. We piled into my aunt’s car as Marty drove to the outskirts of town and parked at a massive gas station.

The row of gleaming semi-trucks roared against my emotions like salvos of artillery.

“Marty?!”

I stared after my brother who strolled to the café and soon came out laughing with a man who could have been his brother, but the graying hair gave him away.

My father extended his hand to me as I stood by my aunt’s car with my cousins. “Leon! My boy.” I hesitated and reached out … glaring at Marty.

Dad showed off his truck, a Kenworth with sleeper and padded leather seats. Trumpets blared briefly, and my cousins nodded at his cool cassette player. He tooted the air horn and then …

Chapultepec Zoo. How generous.

My father tried to strike up a relationship with me as I stood watching the monkeys, so I moved off to feed peanuts to the elephants. He offered to buy me novelties, mementos — but all I wanted to do was forget this day. He used all his charisma to win me over, and after a sumptuous dinner, he flashed a few large bills as he paid the tab for my cousins, Marty and me. My cousins and brother thanked him profusely, and I sat in stony silence. I hoped that he got the message.

If not, he got it on the way home. He was telling truck stories as I sat beside him in the back seat.

“Dad, will you just stop?”

“What?”

The sneering amusement in his voice set off an explosion.

“Stop it! Can’t you see I don’t care? I hate you for what you did to Mama. I know what kind of man you are — she did everything for you, and you left her for whores! We don’t need you!” I fought back tears and let all my 13-year-old angst run free, but lowered my voice to a venomous tone. “You’re trying to buy me! Why? So you can feel better. I don’t need nothin’ from you …”

Later that night in my sleeping bag, I wept out all my confusion. How could he try to fill years of my emptiness by taking me to visit a monkey cage? But had I done the right thing, spurning my own father who wanted to reconcile?

Dad made one more feeble attempt to bridge the abyss of abandonment he had dredged.

He met us at the airport, and I ignored the gift he handed me. I sat with my back to him at the loading gate. Marty hung back, and I watched him walk with my father to the main entrance.

It was the last time I saw my father.

On the plane, Marty apologized. “I’m sorry I put you through that, Leon. You never have to see him again.” He stopped, and his face looked troubled. “Dad was real mad at you. Can you believe it? He thinks you owe him because he took a couple days off to see you … I told him to go to h***.”

My brother was my champion, and I respected him, but Mother’s power came from her long-term resolve and loyalty to me.

Mom and I don’t need anyone.

At the airport, Mom’s beautiful smile captured my emotions as I trotted to her arms. She held me a moment and stepped back. A Hispanic stranger at her elbow stood too close, and a little alarmed, I drew her away.

“Leon. I’d like to introduce you to Paul. He, ah, brought me to the airport.”

Marty shook Paul’s hand.

This can’t be happening.

Paul owned land in Mexico, collected rent from apartments in Riverside and had a substantial job at a factory where Mother worked. On our way home, he stopped at his beautiful home in Riverside, a long way from my school, my sister and my house.

“How would you like to live in Riverside, Leon?” Mom asked.

What could I say? I had no choice.

***

No chores. No study buddy. No boundaries.

My brother drank to loosen up on the weekends, but my stepfather drank himself to sleep. I started to slip from my mother’s firm Catholic grip as soon as I moved into my own room with a stereo, a TV and a phone. I felt abandoned all over again. Mama’s time and effort was taken up with another man — tequila in a wound that wouldn’t heal.

I made it my goal to find friends, and Mom seemed pleased about it at first. My search took me from the school lunchroom to the streets. Riverside kids had a way of communicating that I wasn’t used to. They shared. Someone rolled out what looked like a joint for me, and I smoked it like Marty’s cigarettes — but this was different.

My angst went away in a rush.

I didn’t hate my father anymore. I sat on a dirty rug with a circle of best friends, and they all loved me, and I loved them. In fact, I loved everybody. I didn’t care what anyone thought, and I laughed at all the funny faces and strange voices in the room. It took a couple hours for the angel dust (PCP) to wear off before I could stumble home to my bedroom and crash. But I was hooked from the very first puff. And I had found my homies.

My new friends helped crank up my addiction. Pills, snorting, I couldn’t get enough. I teetered at the edge of gang life, but no one could sell me on dying for territory or a street. I dodged in and out of drug houses, learning to deal, steal and wheel, always on the move. White, Asian, Chicano, Black — if you smoked or snorted or shot up, you were my friends — no matter what street you owned in Riverside.

“Sure, come over. My folks are gone to work. We can party!”

By the end of eighth grade, Paul and Mama fought over the best way to reach me, and I was nearly able to break them up. I felt numb to Mama’s pleading and Paul’s ranting over their missing cameras and valuables. Girls and meth (methamphetamine) had stolen my affections, and I was out of control.

Marty tried to help me when Paul kicked me out. I moved back with my brother and enrolled in high school, but only showed up for classes if a particular girl caught my eye.

Marty worked swing shift and drank all weekend, so I had plenty of unsupervised time to get high. My young neighborhood friends on the east side of San Bernardino were gangbangers now, and one of my friends had fought his way to the top of a local gang.

The hope of an unending supply of meth lured me in.

“You need someone to watch your back, Leon. We need to jump you in. You up for it?”

“Nah, Ken, I don’t think so. Where can I score some stuff tonight?”

Ken looked disappointed, and that wasn’t a good thing. “This is your neighborhood, man.” But then he brightened and said, “Sure, I’ll hook you up.”

Back at a couple’s home, his gangbangers hung out on the front lawn. Janey waddled around rubbing her belly unconsciously as her baby kicked. She handed her man, Jorge, a bottle of beer and sat down heavily on the stoop. Music blared from the living room, and a couple of black guys strolled outside.

I was about to go inside and snort a line, when screeching tires laid me out flat. Everyone else dived for dirt, too, and pulled their pieces, but it was too late. From a gray Chrysler a spray of bullets ricocheted off the porch railing. The car sped away, leaving us to take stock of casualties — there was only one: Janey slumped on the steps holding her belly, oozing blood.

I hurled bile into the shrubs as Jorge half-carried, half-dragged Janey across the lawn to a car. Threats and cursing added to the tang of spilled beer and marijuana fumes. Ken gathered his soldiers, and I faded into the warm darkness, shaking.

The two black boys were gone, too. The shooters — rival gangbangers — had seen them with us and sent Ken’s gang a message not to mingle races.

Janey survived, but lost her baby.

I should have read the graffiti on the wall, but my addiction had me firmly by the throat. I was closest to my meth when I was closest to my gang homies, but one day, at one of Ken’s crack houses, I was forced into a decision.

When I casually ambled into the backyard, a couple guys started pushing me, like school bullies. Faces seemed grim as I looked around for support, and I fought back pretty hard, landing a few good punches, until two more homies hopped up to pound on my ribs. A couple more sets of fists closed me up like a jackknife, and I lay still, trying to cover my face as the blows kept falling.

Suddenly they stopped.

I tried to say something through bloody lips, but my chest throbbed too much to breathe. Ken stood a little ways off, smiling a little smile.

“You been jumped in!” Someone laughed, and my assailants reached down to help me up.

About that time, it felt nice to live with my big brother. After my beat down, I stayed home a lot, getting high after Marty went to work, so stoned that I couldn’t think straight most of the time. Shadows freaked me out. Outside the house, inky, sinister figures darted close to the windows, hungrily peering inside at me. Their zoo of faces contorted if I stared too hard, and the beings spoke to me. I covered my ears, but couldn’t shut them out.

“Hail, Mary, full of grace, blessed …” In fear, I repeated the prayer I learned as a child. My religious words only drew laughter from beyond the windows.

Little did I realize that soon they would be inside.

Mom and Paul had taken their annual trip to Mexico City, and my addiction ripped my joints like barbed wire if I didn’t do a line every few hours. I had been up for nearly a week when the d*** shadows came through the walls inside the house. I panicked when I saw their beastly faces, and I dialed the most religious people I could think of.

“Sarah, I’m really strung out! I’m seeing demons!”

My cousins, Sarah and Tonya, had spoken often to me about Jesus, whom I laughed off when I was sober. Now, the name of Jesus seemed comforting when they said it.

“I think I might be dying, and I’m seeing these ugly shadow people — they’re saying bad things to me, Sarah. My heart is beating my ribs to pieces …”

“Stay focused, Leon! Don’t lose it … here’s Tonya, cousin.”

“Lord Jesus, we pray right now that you protect our cousin, and help him.”

Crazy Christians!

The only time good Catholics prayed fervently was when someone was dying! My body started cramping, and the shadows closed in around me. Suddenly headlights filled the room with brightness. My brother was home from work early, and I hung up the phone.

Marty watched me pace for a while and walked with me, helpless to deliver me from my misery. The sun came up, and he put me in a warm shower to settle down. When I opened the shower door, I crumpled to the tiles. Doctors declared to my family in no uncertain terms the reason I was ill: I had overdosed on methamphetamine.

I moved back to Riverside for my 10th-grade year of high school. Mom blamed herself for my addiction, and I wallowed in remorse for about two months before losing momentum in kicking the habit. One difference in my life: I fell for a girl in north San Bernardino, and now I lived in Riverside. Kathy wasn’t just a one-night-stand, but someone I cared about, for the first time.

I had been dealing dope on campus at school to support my own meth habit, but meth was playing havoc with my body. Something seemed to be yanking on my organs and muscles after I snorted or sucked in the fumes, but my brain forced my body to accept the pain. Kathy wasn’t into drugs, and I spent my weekends with her before taking a bus back to Riverside. One day I had to face a new reality.

“Mama, Kathy’s pregnant.”

My mother smiled into her folded hands as she sat at the kitchen table, shaking her head.

“I’m going to do right by her, Mama. I’ll marry her!” And I meant it. I told Kathy, too. I suddenly felt connected to life in a way I had never experienced. I had a chance to do things right and show Mama that I wasn’t like my womanizing father.

My first child would be born in fewer than nine months.

Why Kathy changed her mind, I’ll never know.

“I don’t want to have a baby, Leon.”

I was stunned. Helpless. Crushed. I pleaded with her not to kill my baby, and her decision stripped my emotions to raw nerve as I realized that the god of my catechism stared down at me with rage for the murder I caused. 
            When Kathy told me she was seeing someone else months later, I put up a wall between my family and any other relationship that might steal into my heart. Never again would I allow my true love to touch a woman. I patronized my well-meaning cousins, Sarah and Tonya, when they tried to comfort me, but my father had been right all along: Women were for games, not real life. As for my addiction to meth, the cramps nearly killed me if I indulged, so I smoked pot and drank on weekends instead. It took time for my brain to straighten out, and I recouped my lost education by going to continuation school. I graduated with a 4.0.

***

Norma distracted my mind while I dated another girl. I met Norma by chance at a friend’s house, and she attended high school at Rubidoux, a small community outside of San Bernardino. Active in school and family oriented, something besides Norma’s figure attracted me to her.

When she was 16, she had given her heart to Jesus, this spiritual being that my cousins talked so much about. Norma had the same qualities that I admired in my mother: steadiness, loyalty and faith.

But I lived my father’s lifestyle, sneering away any guilt that touched my soul over crushing hearts for pleasure’s sake. Women were part of a game that I played well, and I dated Norma while dating Rita, a girl I lived nearer to.

I got Rita pregnant and felt no remorse this time when I took her to the abortion clinic and put up the money to kill my baby. I could smoke pot or drink away any feelings, and I kept the whole thing secret as long as I could. Norma still loved me, and I felt less dirty somehow, when I was around her.

My job at a lube and oil shop, Grease Monkey, was going well, and my aptitude for specialized mechanic work brightened a path in my future. I talked about going to Arizona to UTI, a school where I could be certified in the auto mechanic field, and I might never have gone except for Rita’s next pregnancy. This time she wanted to keep the baby, and her mother demanded that I do the right thing. I made plans to attend the auto school and come back to marry her after graduation.

I broke up with Norma before I left for Phoenix.

***

“Come home, Leon. The baby’s dead inside me.”

Rita wept convulsively over the telephone, and I bought a ticket to fly home.

Physicians induced labor, and I knew Rita and I would never be the same. Wracked with guilt, I considered my life at 19 years old: I had fathered three children. Two were murdered in abortions; the one that I wanted so badly, God had taken from me.

He’s punishing me, and I deserve it.

It wasn’t long before I gravitated toward the one person besides Mama who was unshakeable and caring in my sorry existence: Norma. But as deeply as I felt for Norma, I couldn’t ignore the evil voices that still governed my life at this time. The shadows had fastened upon my mind, and each one seemed to have a name: Lust, Unfaithfulness, Greed and Arrogance.

I smoked more pot and couldn’t get enough booze to deaden my guilt for hurting all the women in my life and killing my children. Then Norma got pregnant. Instead of feeling regret, I seized upon her pregnancy as a sign that I had been given a second chance to make things right in my life. Maybe I could still make Mama proud, and perhaps God would slacken off his punishment for my past.

I made promises: “I can take care of you and our baby, Norma. You’re my one and only. I’ll be responsible. I’ll treat you good! Marry me.”

And to God: “Father in heaven, I can do this right, if you give me a chance. I’ll show you …”

I was 20 and Norma 21 when my family and hers attended our small wedding in her mother’s backyard. Mama had returned from a summer vacation with Paul, and I was shocked when I noticed her dress hanging loosely on her thin frame. I didn’t mention it, except to Norma, who had all my affections as we planned the joyous birth of our son.

My brother and I weren’t on speaking terms (we had a falling out over money issues), and I knew there was trouble when he called me at work.

“Mama has cancer, Leon.”

“What? No! How bad?”

I heard him take a deep breath. “It’s everywhere. She’s only got a few months to live.”

I’m doing everything right, and God is still punishing me!

While my mother fought for life every day, I gave up and renewed my contacts with meth suppliers. Mama lost weight, and so did I: By the time Norma and I attended Mama’s memorial service, I had lost 50 pounds. Mama died two months before Lawrence, my son, was born.

God had deserted me when I needed him most, so I made a promise to myself: I would live like my brother taught me — take care of family, work hard to pay the bills, but on the weekends, cut loose. Do it all!

My pride invited evil shadows a little nearer to my soul. They rode with me to the strip clubs and loved to see me advance in my tech training — more money meant more drugs and booze. Lust clawed at my mind, and I yielded.

My marriage vows shattered, and Norma left me over an affair. I tried to forget her and little Lawrence, but no amount of pot or booze — or another woman — could replace the healing virtue I had experienced from being with them.

Why Norma took me back in my angry, arrogant condition, I can only credit to God’s mercy. And God sent my cousins to tell me about the one who could take away my addictions and heal my mind — Jesus. They bought Norma and me Bibles with our names embossed on the front, and I decided to go to church with my wife on Easter Sunday. I sat in the back pew at Colton First Assembly of God, determined to be unaffected by the religious service. But it wasn’t religion that took hold of me.

It dawned upon my heart that roaring down the same highways my father traveled amounted to suicide. After a very simple message in a drama called The Power and the Glory, I accepted an invitation from a pastor to walk to the front of the church and give my life to Jesus. I made new vows to stop meth forever, and I promised to be faithful.

But arrogance still boiled inside me. My life idled at another truck stop on the way to true freedom.

***

I had been running auto repair shops for several years when I decided to open my own. My family of four children, Norma and I attended Colton First Assembly of God, and God had blessed our business from the start. My partner was a friend that I had known for years, and each day I prayed over the doors before opening. I included Jesus in my business plan, like he was a senior partner.

I figured that God needed to be involved in my business so that he would keep bringing in customers. My goal was to keep God interested in my enterprise by doing everything by the book: going to church, caring for my family, keeping away from booze and drugs and no more womanizing. The Son of God became my tool to achieve success; he certainly did some things better than I could, so I needed him.

But Jesus was more interested in possessing me than in owning a string of top-gun auto repair shops. I had no clue that evil forces still lurked just outside my soul. Soon all my preconceived notions of what it was to be a Christian man would shatter to pieces. The Creator of the universe wasn’t interested in sharing me with business, dope or demons.

The beginning of the end started when some real neighborly businessmen dropped by after closing time, with a little weed and speed to share.

“Name your poison, Leon.”

My partner jumped right on it, but I refused the speed. I hesitated and felt “in control” as I took a hit of marijuana just to “network” with my associates.

The first thing on my agenda on the following morning was to find a meth dealer, and my old addiction hounded me as if I had never quit. Sickly guilt hung about me when I looked into my children’s eyes. I stopped going to church out of shame, and Norma enlisted Colton First Assembly of God prayer warriors to bombard the gates of heaven on my behalf.

I graduated from snorting lines to smoking meth, to hide from my failure and ascend to greater heights of bliss. In the beginning, my partner and I had plenty of money to purchase a couple 8-balls a week, worth about $500. My habits revolved around the repair shop: Meth deliveries came to the front door like UPS, and after work I headed off to strip joints or to buy porn from local shops. Insatiable cravings never let me rest, and I begged my wife to forgive me, unless my meth and ego ignited in my head. Then I hated Norma, belittled her and sometimes beat her.

As I lay in bed, day after day, trying to clean up, Norma had to sign employees’ checks, until we were overdrawn at the bank. I stumbled into the repair bays, drained and pale, but customers aren’t stupid. Who wanted a wiped-out drug addict to replace his brakes?

Norma stayed the course. She prayed for the father of her babies to cast off the arrogance he had inherited from his father. With Jesus, my wife stood in the gap, between hell and me.

I had short periods of sanity when I actually tried to find some comfort away from pornography and drugs. During one of these intervals, I sat in the back of our church and listened to a prayer meeting going on. Some of the people were standing in a circle to pray together, and I joined them.

After praying a short time, I felt exhausted and wanted to leave, but a little woman named Barbara stopped me. She touched my chest and said in a crystalline voice: “YOU ARE A VICTOR, NOT A VICTIM, LEON.”

I had enough sense left to know it was God speaking through this Godly woman. I understood that I could never get sober myself, and I faced a choice that would decide my destiny. It was as easy as choosing which size wrench would loosen a stubborn bolt: I chose Jesus, even though my body screamed for meth.

The evil shadows had moved into my shop — I could see them when I was high, and I even talked to them sometimes. One day, while experiencing a drug-induced ecstasy and torment, I told them, “If you want to play, come inside me!”

Suddenly the demons all around me vanished. But I heard their voices clearly coming from inside my head. “Kill yourself, Leon. Leon! Your wife is cheating on you. Kill her! Leon, kill them all …”

On a Wednesday night I attended a service all strung out. I sat with Norma and my kids and suddenly walked to the front of the church. I asked to say something, and Pastor Jonathan handed me the mike.

I introduced myself, but most people knew Norma and me. “I am a meth addict. My life is falling apart. I’m asking for prayer for my family …”

Some men came forward and laid hands on me to pray. Immediately, I felt pain inside me. A tearing. I wanted to fight these men off, and suddenly two more men grabbed hold of my arms to hold me. I started to run, but someone had hold of my ankles. They were praying like they were at war with some force that bound me, and inside my stomach I felt a ripping away until I suddenly fell to the floor.

I coughed loudly, like I was going to puke, and the things/feelings/entities came OUT! I had come off a three-day meth binge, and I braced for two weeks of fever, shakes and vomiting — but when I stood up at the front of the church, I felt like I had never been high a day in my life.  I had tasted God’s unconditional love so powerfully that I wept — but I still held onto shreds of pride, just in case …

***

My business was my downfall. I had gone two weeks without meth, and though my partner was high, I resisted, poring over accounts to find a miracle to keep the bank from foreclosing on my house and shop equipment. It got to be too much for me to bear, and my prayers seemed to go no higher than the ceiling. At home, Norma and I argued, and I knew she was at the end of her rope, too. I could tell.

“I’m high, Norma. I’m so sorry. I been out partying, and I’m dragging bottom.” I held her hand, but I saw little compassion in her eyes.

“No more arrogance. I promise …”

Did she know that I was sincere? I got my answer when she stood up, grabbed the car keys from a hook and tossed them at me.

“Get out.”

I went straight to my connection and bought a 16th of an ounce of speed, which I usually used up over a few days — but I swallowed the whole bagful.

It suddenly seemed like I breathed pure oxygen, and everything in the shop was bathed in lightning, vivid, in motion. I heard people talking to me, and I realized the shadows were back.

At church, Jesus had “swept the house clean,” and now the demons wanted to move back in! Screaming into my head, they said, “Do it this time, Leon!”

I called Norma. “Keep the TV on. I’m going to kill myself. It’ll be a freeway chase, and the patrolmen will gun me down where I stop! You’ll see! Suicide by cop!”

As soon as she hung up the phone, Norma called friends at church to pray for me. I walked outside my shop, a crowbar gripped in my hands, screaming at strange forms stalking around me. When I realized that I had locked myself out of the shop, I grabbed a brick and shattered the big display window in front. Laughing, I ran through the jagged shards, feeling nothing but rage.

“She’s found someone else, Leon.”

I flung the crowbar into the pickup and hopped in, bleeding all over the seats. Norma was expecting me. The kids were safely gone, and she was alone.

At first she looked worried at my wild-eyed appearance, but the compassion was back in her eyes. “Oh, Leon. Go get in the shower …”

I misplaced the crowbar somewhere and did as I was told.

I seemed to be coming off my high, but the images were growing more grotesque as I finished up showering. I glanced into the mirror, and pallid-faced zombies stared from over my shoulder. They were standing in the bathroom with me. One more glance, and I grabbed the sink in both hands, ready to smash my head against the basin — but other calming voices spoke from the corner of the room: Prayers.

I stared hard at the tranquil images of people on their knees interceding for me, and I asked if Tonya and Sarah had come.

“Not yet, Leon, they’re on their way.”

My family drove me to the emergency room, as my mind wandered closer to insanity.

***

The drugs they shot into my veins beat down the meth, and I quit jerking against the leather restraints.

Three days later I woke, slowly fighting toward reality through a tunnel of uncluttered thoughts.

My whole life played through my mind in seconds: high school, Mass, Mama’s death, my precious Norma — people and events created within a divine order, like tools in a Snap-on box, organized and ready for an expert technician to use.

God had plans. I had been spared for a reason. He had humbled me, and my life had a purpose. No shadows darkened any corner of my eye; I heard no voice other than Norma, who stood beside me.

“How you feeling, Leon?”

“So good.”

No arrogance remained in my soul. I can’t explain how it happened, but Jesus replaced my pride with a powerful, wrenching love.

A day or so later, I was at home, watching the news, my eyes riveted to a drama played out hours before. After a high-speed chase on the freeway, a man leaped from his car and pointed an object at a highway patrolman. They gunned the man down in the street.

He had aimed a spoon in their direction. Suicide by cop.

It could have been me.

***

That was six years ago, and today I don’t take for granted a single moment that I spend with my beloved family. My life is a message to be shared, especially to a hopeless young generation.

“Leon, you can’t just walk away! You invested your life in that business!” Some people cannot see the eternal picture like I do.

Perhaps they haven’t been dogged by demons, or addicted to meth, or been rescued from deadly arrogance like me. I can’t allow success, or enterprises, or dreams to separate me from Jesus ever again.

I turned my back on my worldly ambitions and never dared look back. My former partner disappeared with no forwarding address, and this next year, Norma and I should be within reach of paying back my creditors.

The bank foreclosed on my home, but we are victors, not victims! On the day we cleaned the house spic-and-span for new owners, God connected us with a wonderful landlord whom we respect. Norma and I had exactly enough funds to move our five children into a neighborhood full of Christian families. We have lived here for six years.

Jesus has blessed my abilities, and I work with fine people as a lead man in a busy diesel mechanics shop. Each year I gain more certifications in the diesel engine technology field.

“Leon, you’ll be my little priest someday.”

Mama’s dream for her son has come true: I lead my family in the worship of Jesus Christ in my home and minister at Colton First Assembly of God. For those who knew me at my worst, it has taken years to build a lasting trust, and I treasure their confidence in me.

Loyalty.

Pastor Jonathan and my Colton church family opened their hearts to Norma and me, from the very first day I warily sat on the back pew 15 years ago. These loving Christians have nurtured me to spiritual health and have given Norma and me opportunities to grow in our service to Jesus.

“Everybody got his Bible?”

Many evenings our family scrambles out the door and loads up the car with five kids, seven Bibles and boxes of teaching material — weary after a day’s work and school, but happy and secure in our destiny. Over the last six years at church, Norma worked with a grade-school girls’ group (Missionettes), while I taught a boys’ fellowship group (Royal Rangers).

Norma and I felt that our ministries lay with older youth, and God has honored our dream. Now we teach 13 to 18 year olds from all walks of life. Each one knows my story, and they know that Norma and I really love them.

We’re passionate about reaching young men and women who unwittingly sell themselves to the evil shadows that stalk the streets. Demons celebrate a child’s first puff on a joint or first encounter with pornography and wait until the barbs go deep before they show themselves.

Chaos.

We see it in the eyes of youth. Their muscles are taut. Their tank tops and t-shirts scream out expletives. Piercings and tattoos affirm it: “I’ve been crushed inside, and there’s no one that can rescue me!”

Kids strut in jumpsuits at a detention center or slouch in a corner of the church, arms folded hard across chests, and I know the hopelessness they feel.

“God loves you too much to leave you the same as you are,” I tell them, and we share our stories. Jesus chips away the pride, and I watch in amazement as the chaos fades.

Victim or victor? With compassion and the wisdom of firsthand experience, we offer them the choice of fulfillment that lasts a lifetime and beyond.

And the shadows flee.

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