When Malcolm J. Hawkins, the Head of Psychology at Bethel University in Alabama, feels his position and his credibility threatened by up-and-coming English professor Ginnie Gillan, he decides to use her husband Edmund’s gullibility against her. Feeding Edmund a steady diet of drugs and manipulation, Mal lights the fuse of the greatest tragedy Bethel has ever known.
Eighteen-year-old Alma Broussard, her quirky mother Moline, and her feisty Aunt Pauline run a chicken farm in Bethel. Their lives seem wholly separate from the feuds of academia—but dark secrets lurk in Moline’s past that will bring the people she loves straight into the path of a murderous madman.
In the wake of death and destruction, the town that used to be called Heaven’s Gate will find no easy answers, but there may still be hope for redemption. Shooting at Heaven’s Gate is a Theology of the Cross novel in which genuine goodness, bona fide evil, and suffering truly live side by side.
Envy is a littleness of soul, which cannot see beyond a certain point, and if it does not occupy the whole space, feels itself excluded.
Dr. Malcom J. Hawkins III, Professor of Psychology at Bethel University, sits at home in his favorite chair with a pompous grin on his face. His hands move ritually up and down the chair’s arms, endlessly soiling the upholstered pattern of apples and bananas. Day by day, as he rubs the arms of the chair, the smell of rot increases. Day by day, he eyes the table beside the chair and the drawer where he keeps the gun he plans to show the fool. Day by day, he patiently assesses the progress of the despicable Ginnie Gillan, wife of the fool. Why is she so admired by everyone at Bethel? How is she even a tenured professor? He read her many publications—too many, in his opinion. Nothing but drivel about spiritual warfare going on beneath the surface of all the earthly things one does. She contends that great literature portrays a battle between personified love and hate, good and evil in the flesh. In one of her silly articles, she even challenges the reader to choose a side. “Whom do you follow?”
Ha! Mal follows Me, not Thee. He is interested in a more powerful deity, one who will not allow himself to be crucified but will live and destroy all loftiness, all goodness and love, leaving only the reality of down-to-earth hatred behind.
Ginnie Gillan and all her kind must be destroyed. Not by him, though. Mal will keep his own hands clean. Instead, he has chosen the perfect pawn.
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The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.
Some people in this world go unnoticed—quiet people who never win first place in any contest because they never ask to play the game. They make no argument when they are pushed to the back of the line and raise no protest when something is taken from them. They are the backdrop against which more self-assured people act, the timid shadows that give definition to the bold. And yet, on occasion, one of them will satisfy the hauntings of a confused nature, darting back and forth between good and evil because he cannot determine which to pursue. Edmund K. Gillan is one of these.
Edmund—born in the middle of the month of August on the hottest day on record in 200 years for Montgomery, Alabama—arrived prematurely, not quite five pounds, and nearly died at birth. He came feet first, without crying, the last of six children, the only boy, and the only blue-eyed child of brown-eyed parents. Because the house he was born into was very large and busy, with ruling voices louder than his, by the time he was five years old he had learned to burrow himself into a corner of his mind that blocked all sound, a hiding place from those voices who blamed and condemned him for being himself. In that hiding place, he needed only to be, not to do.
In his daily life, he did not want to be noticed. Yet there was a silent, agitated voice that continuously pricked his thoughts: Affirm yourself, it said. But he did not. He did not make waves, did not create a problem for any one of his tall, beautiful sisters, yet each of them seemed to relish creating problems for him. Because of his smallness, they thought him inconsequential and denounced him as the runt. Soon his handsome, successful father called him the same. Not his pretty mother, though; she called him Eddie, and sometimes, “my big boy.” He loved the nickname—but of course, he wasn’t a big boy, so he sometimes wondered if his mother was making a joke.
He created walls for his hiding place made of thick, impenetrable stones, through which only he could see. He believed himself to be invisible to anyone who crossed the path beyond his walls, yet those who crossed were not invisible to Edmund; he noticed each one, imagining what it would be like to walk beside them, to be like them—the bigger-than-life people, the handsome, the beautiful, the brave. But he made no effort to join them.
When he was six, Edmund saw death for the first time and was, of course, blamed for it. Not a human death; only the death of a kitten belonging to his curly-haired sister, the one closest to him in age.
“Princess has gotten out!” his sister screamed from the kitchen. “Princess is gone!”
“Who left this open?” his pretty mother asked, coming in to shut the kitchen door.
“It wasn’t me! Edmund did it,” shrieked the eight-year-old. “Edmund left the door open, and now Princess is gone!”
“Edmund!” His mother stood with her hands on her hips. “Go find that kitten right now!”
Edmund had not left the door open, but he didn’t say so. He could see that his mother knew the truth, too, yet she gave him a look of disappointment and let him take the blame. Was she hoping he would learn to stand up and fight for himself? Well, he did not. He went to look for the kitten, first on their property and then beyond it, where he found a bully instead. The boy pushed him down in the dirt alongside his sister’s dead kitten, now mangled by the bully’s dog.
“What you get!” the bully shouted, stomping Edmund’s hand with his shoe.
What I get for what? he wanted to ask. But he did not. He hid behind his walls, hid his face in the dirt until the bully left. Then he picked up the dead kitten and ran home, carrying the bully’s sin. It was not his sin, not this time, but he was the one who paid for it.
His sister kicked him. “Edmund left the door open,” she continued to whine to his mother. “It would not have happened if he hadn’t left the door open!”
Outwardly, Edmund simply took it and walked away from her. Only behind the fortification he’d built in his mind did he stand up for himself. “I did not leave it open! I would never leave it open!” But in his head, a voice shouted back, “You might as well have done it. Always, you’ll be accused.”
Apart from the singular conversations Edmund had with himself—and he had many over the years—he rarely conversed with anyone. When his father, a tall, handsome man with black hair, stood towering over him and asked what he wanted from his life, Edmund shrugged his shoulders. His father scowled then, the way he often scowled at the one thousand and one employees who worked under him in Montgomery’s only soft drink bottling plant. “I might have known you had no ambition.” Then his father walked away.
In truth, Edmund had an ambition. He wanted to be a teacher like his mother, ever since he left his own second-grade classroom on the first day—no one noticed he’d left—and sneaked into hers. At first, he watched her from the hall until he saw her turn to the chalkboard, then he crept into a shadowed back corner. When his mother faced her class again, she did not see Edmund, but he saw her, smiling at her class. He could see how much she loved her students, and he wanted to be one of them.
He ought to have told his father he wanted to be a teacher, but he worried that the dream would disappoint him. His father expected his only son to be courageous and possess other virtues Edmund did not have and didn’t imagine he ever would have.
Because he was afraid of being himself, Edmund lacked authenticity, leaving him as some sort of counterfeit brand, like a pair of cheap shoes tied together by their laces and tossed into a box of bargains in the back of a Dollar Mart.
Still, he had affection for his pretty mother. At times, he simply stood in front of her until she noticed him. Sometimes she held him close while her sweet perfume attached itself to his clothes. He saved those clothes and did not put them in the laundry basket to be washed as his bossy oldest sister instructed. He put them under his bed. During the night, when the house was silent, he tucked them beneath his sheets to breathe in the sweet smell of his mother, as if she were holding him again—only him, not the others. His pretty mother, his only flesh and blood harbor in the march of his young life, was the only person he loved. But he never imagined telling her so.
His mother spoke to him in gentle ways, even when she corrected him, and she was a wonderful baker of all kinds of pies. He would watch as she made the fillings, waiting for her to finish and then hand him the spoon to lick. She always did that for him—no one else. “Here’s the spoon, Edmund. It’s all yours.” Those times, he thought of shouting so she could hear, “I love you, Mama!” Yet he could not release the words. He could not take the risk of making himself even more vulnerable. Oh, how he wished he had!
They were—all eight of them—in the station wagon when the accident happened; the accident that took the life of every family member except Edmund. He emerged outwardly unscathed except for a head injury he caused himself by beating his forehead against a piece of twisted steel—all that was left of the station wagon’s front seat where the distorted, dead bodies of his mother and father were entrapped, then pried out and taken away before his eyes, along with the battered bodies of his sisters.
Just before her death, his pretty mother moved her brown eyes toward him as if there was something she urgently wanted to say to him, and right then, he tried with all his might to tell her he loved her. But he was unpracticed and could not make his voice heard. The moment was forever missed, and he still hates himself for that.
One day after the tragedy, he turned ten years old, but his distraught grandparents on his father’s side, who took him two hours south to Bethel, Alabama to raise as their own, didn’t even remember his birthday.
Soon after the accident, he began having violent headaches, as if the walls he had built in his mind were crumbling in a war against a much stronger entity than he. As he wept, his grandmother wrung her hands in front of her heart. “Oh, look how he suffers!”
His grandfather, Bethel’s shrillest preacher, raised his arms upward. “The world is full of suffering, boy. Overcome it or live under Satan’s foot!”The first of many warnings he would fasten in Edmund’s head.
Edmund is in his late thirties now and an adjunct professor of sociology at Bethel University, where he began as a freshman years ago. When he met his wife, Ginnie, he’d just begun working on his master’s, and Ginnie, a few years older, was already a tenure-track professor. Edmund likes the freedom of being an adjunct and does not mind the lesser salary. Ginnie makes enough for both of them. His agonizing headaches persist, but he supposes he’s overcome suffering. He’s told no one about the pain except Ginnie, who dismisses it; and Dr. Mal Hawkins, Professor of Psychology, who provides Edmund with a special type of relief.
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