“You know, when I invited this newly bestselling, Southern Christian author to My Skanky Late Night Show, I didn’t actually think he’d take my invite!” The hostess threw out an emphatic line from her script, waiting for the live audience to react. They did, with loads of “haha!” and “oh!” and “hmm”. She continued to mock her guest for the fun of it, like she always did, on her comical talk show that wasn’t any more appropriate than the title suggested: My Skanky Late Night Show.

Meanwhile, her guest, Jason Applebee, was sandwiched among the audience with his book agent who wasn’t very happy.

“Are you sure you want to do this? We could leave right now and she’d look like a fool, but at least it wouldn’t be you,” he hinted.  His blonde brows furrowed to show his concern. “I’ve told you a thousand times, Jason. This is a trick! She’s an atheist. She doesn’t WANT your book to sell.”

This book agent only had one thing running through his mind. Why in God’s name would Jason Applebee want his first book interview to be on the skankiest, most ungodly talk show in TV history?!

“There’ll be gag reels, bullying…”

“Don’t worry, Ben.” Jason bent in close and replied quietly. “I’ve prayed about it and I’ve looked to the Bible for guidance.  It’s what God wants. I’m not going to question His plan. Just go with the flow.”

Jason straightened his back, glancing around at the audience he was mingled with. He found it odd that he was placed in the midst of the people applauding. He was quite aware that usually, guests of a show wait backstage for their turn. Maybe Ms. Skanky’s method was different.

“This guy has the cleanest police record, I couldn’t even find anything to poke “em with when I did a background check,” Ms. Skanky joked. “You probably recognize his book cover if you’ve been to the store for pancake syrup this week.”

With those words, the screen behind her lit up with a caustically realistic parody of Jason’s book: Dead at Last.  The book cover was illustrated with an artificial looking face of Jesus.  His smile was uncanny and fake, and he loomed over the hospital bed of a deceased patient.

“That is not your book cover!” The book agent objected when he saw how the crowd laughed. “See? That. That is a blatant attack! Pure blasphemy. I am appalled.”

“I have no idea what this world is coming to, seriously. Death in the pancake aisle?” Ms. Skanky smiled at herself, and everyone including her clapped – a harrowing thing to do after that prank – when cameramen steered towards the entrance of the backstage. “Give it up for Jason Applebee!”

Jason knew that was his cue, and he also noticed the cameras were not pointed at the audience where he was.  They had set him up.  Ben was right, but he didn’t let that change his determination to glorify God with the interview. Though it wouldn’t hurt to let the drum roll hold out for more than they expected…

Instead of getting up and wading through the crowd, he remained seated and bent over again to talk with Ben. “Nothing she can say or do will rob me of God’s mercy. If she wants to play unfair, I’ll play fair enough for the both of us. Just pray for the light of the Lord to shine through all the darkness that fills this studio.”

Ms. Skanky, who’s real name was Cate Blithe, acted surprised as the empty entrance lingered. “And Jason is not joining us onstage,” she said with a faux face.

The cameramen continued to record the deserted door when suddenly; a crewman peeked out and shrugged, speaking without a mike.  Cate sauntered over and repeated him loud enough for everyone to hear. “Jason is not backstage!” Her eyes panned the audience seeing if anything was happening.

When Jason didn’t come, the HD screen blinked, showing a news report of an action car race.  There was one red car, speeding along the highway, flying fast with a trail of cop cars behind it.  Scrolling across the bottom of the screen was the report: “Police car chase at 10:45 in the Manhattan area. Jason Applebee is on the run, currently driving 80 MPH in a red sports car on I-495.”

The sound of guffaws filled the studio as a UFO floated onto the screen. In a flash, the car vanished with a beam of light.

Of course, it was another prank. My Skanky Late Night Show was fabricating a story to demean the Christian author, before he even said the first word of his interview. Jason had been warned… but he said his God’s plan was higher.

“A Jesus UFO!” Someone in the audience screamed out.

Cate shined her smile at the interjector.  Then her eyes met Jason’s as she pretended to spot him for the first time. “…Wait, that’s him!” The cameraman aimed his camera into the audience.  “That’s Jason. Harry? What’s he doing in the studio?”

Harry, the producer, grabbed a mike so that everyone could hear him. “I have no idea, Cate.  I didn’t see him come in.”

“Wasn’t that Jason on the news report?”

“It was…” Snideness soaked the studio as the cameras zoomed in on where Jason was seated. “But uh, that’s him.  Somehow, he is in this building. I’ll call the police to come pick him up after we’re over.”

There were laughs. It was a load of sarcasm.  Lies. In fact, it was difficult to see the truth when the entire script was one big string of lies, but Jason reclined in his chair, taking it all in.

“Well, you’re here now!” Cate appeared friendly and signaled for Jason to join her on stage. “Sorry about your police record! All that driving and then the higher powers just bamph! chose to teleport you to the last place you want to be. Smackdown in New York City.” The screen popped up with a phony photo of Jason wearing “I HATE NY” on his t-shirt and a frowny face.

“Ha, ha, ha!” went the crowd. “Ha, ha.”

Jason let his expression show that he didn’t take the jokes personally. “Yeah, God’s awesome like that.” He glanced around him thoughtfully, observing the woman next to him in the audience. “It’s funny though. The guy you called Harry is the one who told me to sit here. I thought for sure I was going to have to interview this fine woman beside me.” He bent close to the woman and gave her a charismatic smile before getting up to pass her, stepping onto the aisle that led to the stage. “I’m sure she’s got just as lovely a story as me.

“There are so many people here with stories, I’m honored that you chose mine to tell.” Jason looked for his place to sit before turning to the cameras that had followed him.  “But I’m afraid you’re mistaken if you wanted the author of Dead at Last. My book is a beautiful story of my late wife and her journey through cancer. It’s the one you might have heard of, called Home at Last.”

The audience grew quiet from the humor shift. Another kind of spirit filled the room.

That made the book agent beam proudly. Ben prayed Ms. Skanky learned a lesson or two for all the muck she spread around. God would have to pull his own prank on her before the hour was over.

If God answered Ben’s prayer, which Ben was sure He would, it would be a night to remember. This night God will gain the victory on TV. I’m sure of it.

“So Jason, about your book, Home at Last… Let’s talk about it,” Cate said, sitting down in her chair after Jason took his own seat. It’s about your late wife?”

Jason couldn’t hide the smile as he thought back to the woman who made his life so rich. “Yeah… Misty.”

He turned his gaze to the hostess and spoke. “Ms. Blithe, you would have loved Misty. Everyone who knew her did. Her kindness was like a summer breeze, touching everyone around her. She never allowed herself to see bad in people.

“Misty never had a bad thing to say about anyone…” Jason let his mind wander from the stage as he thought about his wife’s struggle, and the strength that she blessed him with to the very end.  Even now, he could feel her memory lending him the strength to face Cate and her deliberate tricks.

“She was my angel. A little piece of heaven in my life. And a glimpse of what forever is going to be like when my life is over.”

Cate was attentive. “So your wife Misty, she was a Christian and she’ll be in heaven when you get there.” She shot a joke towards the audience. “Because in order to get to heaven you need to read Jason’s book, guys, he’ll tell you all about it.”

“Ha! Ha ha ha.”

Another attack! Ben turned his face away from her newest attempt to jab Jason for being Christian and living by the book, God’s Word.

Jason, on the other hand, didn’t let Cate’s pokes affect him. “Yes, she’s waiting for me in heaven, but if you think my book is the go-to guide to reach eternal life, you’ll be disappointed. It’s actually just an ordinary book about the life of a simple Christian woman. The focus of my book is Misty’s battle with cancer and the struggles that my wife had while fighting for her life, as well as the hopes that kept her strong.  My goal with this book is to help others who face similar challenges to find hope in little things.  Little things like hand lotions, mint candies, fuzzy socks and soft wraps to keep the chill off their skin.  Friendly hellos or welcoming smiles were always encouraging, but kind words were the biggest form of hope that Misty received.” Jason shifted a little, trying to get more comfortable.  The chair was harder than it looked.

Cate glanced away for a silent moment before inquiring.

“Jason, I don’t mean to turn this into a debate, but while you’re here, can you go ahead and give your own spin on the popular question? Why do bad things happen to good people?”

Her dark red lips formed her next, memorized words. “We’re all aware why bad things happen to bad people, after all.” The audience supported her sarcasm with sighs and chortles. “But Misty didn’t deserve cancer. Explain to me why you never gave up on your so-called ‘God’.

“I mean, take the tabloids, for example. They say I’m on heroin again and you don’t see me knocking on their door, wanting answers from them on how I’m doing,” she joked. “Well, I don’t know why you’d want to sing happy songs every Sunday to ‘God’ when ‘He’ puts cancer into your life and then blames you with the tragedy.”

“Ooo! Ha, ha,” the crowd said.

Jason furrowed his brows, trying to grasp Cate’s comparison. Finally, he laughed along with the crowd. “Well, Ms. Blithe. First of all, if you ever actually went to one of our services, then you’d know that our songs are not always ‘happy songs’. They’re meant to uplift and encourage us as well as praise God.  And second of all, I don’t understand your comparison.  God’s Word is not the tabloids. One is truth, and the other is what sells.”

Jason shared a secret with the audience. “You know, just between you and me, God doesn’t ever tell us that only good things happen when you’re good.” Jason glanced at the camera to connect with the people on the other side.  “What He does tell us is that He’ll be with us all the time, and help us get through the troubles no matter how bad they are.”

Ben egged Jason on quietly from his seat in the audience. Cite Romans! Come on! There was a verse – Romans 8:18- that spoke of sufferings and how small they were up next to God’s glory… Ben knew it would smack that sarcasm right out of the ballpark! Spirit, come on. Work with us!

“Wait, lemme see if I get this. You’re saying, while Misty was puking and losing all her hair thanks to chemo, ‘God’ gave her an irreplaceably warm and fuzzy feeling that you consider ‘God being with her’.” Cate passionately confronted Jason’s faith.

“She felt ‘God’ in every kind word anyone spoke and ‘He’ was the one who was with her through all those trips to the oncology center… day after day… week after week… Don’t you think that’s kind of  undermining humanity to credit some… omniscient mass for what friends and family are responsible for? Jason. I would think you’d want the credit for being there.”

Jason gingerly shook his head, as if in dismay. “No one in their humanly right mind would want to stay with a sick chemo-patient. Ms. Blithe, what do you think kept me at the side of my dear Misty?”

Cate has a beautiful smile, Jason thought. It’s a shame she’s poisoned with bitterness.

However, his question seemed to affect her, so this time, her expression was pure in the mere, unguardedness of her feelings.

“Why don’t you… tell me yourself, Mr. Applebee. This is your chance. You may not be aware of it yet, but I am interviewing you.”

“Ha, ha, ha.”

Jason affirmed, “all right.” He glanced at the camera, but then decided to give Cate his attention. “The only thing that was keeping me at my wife’s side during her treatments and sickness was love.  It’s what keeps anyone together during hard times. Without it, no one would spend their time nursing a friend, a companion, back to health.  Especially when you know the worst is inevitable.” Jason rested his elbow against the arm of the chair. “And God is love.”

A verse came to Jason’s mind and enticed him to use it against the atheist’s arguments. He and Ben encouraged each other with it during hard times. Romans 8, verses 17 and 18: If we are sons, we are also heirs of God; but we are also co-heirs with Christ in such a way that we will be glorified with him.  The sufferings of this life are not worthy to even be compared to the future glory that will be revealed in us.  Jason’s spirit burned inside him. Christians would alone understand the message.

…as silence lingered, Harry the producer signaled to Cate, away from public eyes. Come on, the next gag reel was due! It was her job to say her lines so it could happen.

Cate saw him, but chose to let Jason talk instead.

“Can you expound on that, Jason?”

Jason continued to struggle on whether to quote Romans. He wanted to, but a gentle peace fell over him with the realization of another verse, one that his wife would always turn to.  Jason knew, at that point, God wanted him to forgo his own knowledge so that his wife’s wisdom could be spoken.

“Misty and I would always encourage each other with truths from the Bible. She would always remind me of an important passage at the beginning of 2 Corinthians. Christians are told that God, the Father of our lord Jesus, who is also the Father of mercies, comforts us in all our troubles and in all of our sufferings, so that we can comfort others who are afflicted.

“I, as a Christian, am called to comfort you with the same comfort that my wife and I received from God. You, my dear Cate Blithe, will not find anyone on this earth who hasn’t been touched by love. And the love of God comforts those who are weary from the troubles of the world.”

Jason narrowed his eyes daringly, considering whether to keep silent, but then his eyes twinkled as he realized his next words weren’t unacceptable on My Skanky Late Night Show.

“There are lots of bad girls like you in the world. You wouldn’t want your life to be nothing but bad all the time, would you?”

Cate could almost feel a poke-back from the Southern Christian man. Her smile widened. She was also charmed by the respect he had for her as a woman.

“Well. Karma: do good and good comes back to you. That is a popular theory, you know.”

“Ha ha ha ha…” The audience was baffled. Was Cate flirting with Jason?

Ben, Jason’s book agent, was surprised by the sobriety that was present. He was also suspicious when he noticed how active the crewmen were offstage. Watching them carefully, he hoped to spot a clue or answered prayer.

“Karma’s a nice belief as long as you’re a person with good karma.  If you’ve got bad karma…” Jason shrugged. “…well, let’s just hope you’ve got good friends who love you enough to stick around through the tough times.” Jason slid forward in his chair.

“God isn’t that. Where karma gives you what you deserve and lets you fend for yourself, God experiences life with you. He builds your faith, your courage and your self-confidence, and then He’ll help you overcome whatever it is that you’re going through. All He asks is that you love and trust Him in return.”

“Oh. Ok, um, let’s go back to talking about your book.  Did you know early on that Misty’s story was bestseller material? Or… were you doing it as more of a… Therapeutic way to … like, move on after she was gone?”

One of the crewmen sent Cate more signals behind Jason’s back, but she ignored his warnings.

“I wasn’t aiming to make a top-selling book.  I just wanted to share the comfort that my wife and I found as we lived through our struggles. Sure, it helped me find my own comfort after Misty was gone, but that’s not why I did it. Not at all.”

Jason reached out and touched Cate’s chair with his fingertip. “I did it for you, or for the woman in the audience, or for the man I met in the parking lot. Anyone could be going through a tough time. They might need to know that they’re not the only ones in the world who’s living an unfair life.”

Cate let Jason’s words sink in. She glanced at the camera, trying to figure out a joke to keep her audience interested.

“This guy? Believe it or not? Hasn’t been anywhere outside of Southern Oklahoma before today.”

“…” The crowd was blank.

Cut it! Harry slid his finger across his neck. It was time to wrap it up. Cate acknowledged it this time.

“We’d love to keep you on for another hour, Jason, but that’s what you get for being the last guest on my show,” she joked lightheartedly. Cate stood up from her chair and reached out to take his hand and shake it.

Ben’s leg was shaking in anticipation. No more gag reels? No bullying? Cate was being too nice. Too fishy.

Ben knew to expect more mischief from this celebrity. She had a history with drugs, fashion, sex, and criminal activity, both under the radar and publicly. Ben wasn’t one to judge, but with the way her skin sagged and her face was doused in makeup… it was impossible not to believe she had gotten herself in trouble again. Tabloids aren’t usually right, but they can’t always be wrong when the proof is sitting right in front of you.

Jason reached out and took Cate’s hand. “I’m glad that I could be here.”

*  *  *

After the wrap but still within the hour, Cate strutted down the backstage hall that led to her costume room.  The producer met her there.

“Where was the gag reel? I couldn’t say my lines without the gag reel, Harry,” Cate caught his collar for a minute, speaking quietly to keep the volume low, before she sped up her pace to get ahead of him.

Harry was louder. “Don’t you blame this one on me, Skank! It was you. We were waiting for you!”

Cate rolled her eyes.

Harry cursed at her insolence.

Cate’s assistant walked towards them and had her own words to say. “The show wasn’t good, was it?!”

Cate reassured her. “No, it was fine.”

The producer disagreed. “I don’t know why you were asking him those questions, Skank. It was irrelevant to the show!”

“It was fine,” Cate reassured.

“No, I’m not so sure you get it! Ever since you bounced back to heroin and your fiancé ditched you-“

“I said it was fine!!” Cate threw her hands up. Finally, she found her door. ‘Cate Blithe’ was posted on it. This room was as close to home as she’d ever had and right now she really needed a rain check!

“Besides, you can’t fire me!  I AM the show!”

The producer stormed off, calling Cate names.

Before she could close her door, her assistant started ranting about the latest. “It’s already in the Daily Dibs. You’re bridezilla from Hell and Brad’s talking all about you.”

Cate walked into her room and collapsed on the couch.

“You’re still on drugs, according to Brad.” She waited for Cate to react.

“I don’t want to do this right now. I need a cigarette.”

Cate reached for the coffee table, where a pack of tobacco killers rested, waiting for her attention. What does it matter? She asked herself. I’ll just be dead, anyway. She retrieved the lighter from her back pocket and flipped it open.

“So it’s true?” The assistant lingered. “Brad knows you better than anybody.  You were together for 5 years.”

“Ughhh… My lighter’s not working, Zoe. Find me another, could you?”

“Do you realize what this’ll do to your career? All of us? Don’t go down that road again!”

“Zoe! I said I don’t want to talk about it!”

There was an awkward silence.

“I’ll get you a lighter ONLY AFTER you tell me that you’re on heroin.”

Cate’s eyes glazed over from the stress. What does it matter if I am? I’d be dead. Finally. Her thoughts changed when she thought of the book cover her designers had worked so hard to prank Jason with. Dead at Last.

Zoe started out the door.  “Fine. By the way! Our guest Jason Applebee asked me to deliver that. I’m sure he’s the last person you wanna hear about right now.”

There was a basket filled with an odd assortment of items next to the ashtray. Assorted mints. A pack of extra soft handkerchiefs. Some hand sanitizer.

Cate waited until Zoe closed the door. She slowly stood up, grabbing the square silk pillow from the couch and her unlit cigarette, retrieving the note that was nestled among the gifts, and reading it as she stopped in front of the vanity desk.

It’s not a batch of flowers, but do you know how deadly flowers can be to a cancer patient? Since Misty’s battle with cancer, I’ve been giving a different kind of gift, one that doesn’t interfere with a person’s health. Thanks for inviting me to be on your show. God bless.

Cate pressed the pillow against her chest and stared down at the message. A sudden softness fell into her heart. Not like a pillow, but not unlike it, either.  It was a feeling she didn’t recognize. She set Jason’s note on the desk and pulled out the seat, stiff and lifeless. Then she sat down and read the message once more.

Running her fingers through the auburn hair on her head, Cate pulled on it until it was resting in the bed of her hands. What was left was a head without hair. She gazed at herself in the mirror.

Anyone who saw Cate thought many things.

“She has an eating disorder,” one magazine said.

“She’s depressed after her breakup with Brad.”

“Her plastic surgeon messed her face up!”

So many opinions and now, Brad “confirmed” the rumors about her relapse as a heroin addict. Nobody knew the truth.

Only one person in her life knew the truth – Brad- and he denied it to make Cate look skankier.  For what? Money.

But that was all right.  Good publicity for the show, right? The more she needed rehab, the more stories to tell.

Cate pushed the answering machine on her desk when she saw the red light blinking, punching in the security password. It beeped and a man’s voice started to speak.

“Cate Blithe, this is Dr. Reilly from the oncology center. You didn’t come to see me for the results on your blood work yesterday, but I have some really great news.  You did really well in your last round of chemotherapy. I want you to know… You’re clean. Your cancer is in remission.

“I will go ahead and schedule an appointment for some follow up scans, but it looks like you’ve got yourself an angel, because you’re free.”

The cigarette fell onto the desk as Cate listened to the voice machine change her life with new words.

New life.

New possibilities and for what? Why?

What had she done?

Knock knock.  “Your lighter.”

Silence.

“Cate?”

Cate put her wig back on, picked up Jason’s message, and quickly opened the door.

“Yeah, um. Thanks, Zoe. Set it on my desk.”

“Where are you going!?”

“Out.”

*  *  *

“I have no idea what happened out there, but you held your own.”

Ben defended Jason as he backed out of the parking lot. They weren’t going to stay for the after party. It was late and good to be headed to the hotel. They didn’t owe anyone anything!

“Whatever pit they dug for you, they fell in it,” he laughed. “Because you didn’t have any problems.”

Jason let his fingers trace the dashboard of the rental car, thoughtfully. “It was a success, I’ll agree with you there.  I just wish I knew what I was called to do. Doesn’t Misty’s legacy deserve more than some lame, sick jokes on a late night TV show?”

Jason flipped open the glove compartment and let a book fall out into his hands.  He caressed it gently, admiring the double exposure photo cover, showing in one place a woman laughing with the blue sky behind her, and in another the hands of two people, clasped in the affectionate symbol of love. Centered at the top were the words “Home At Last”, and the bottom corner showed Jason’s name in smaller lettering.

“I didn’t even make a difference. I prayed to show someone kindness, so it could help them turn their life around, but… there’s really no hope for any of them, is there?”

In the car’s rearview mirror, Ben caught a glimpse of someone’s silhouette, exiting the backdoor of the studio. Before he could examine to see who it was, a light blinded him.

HONK!!

“These New York drivers are mad!” Ben stepped on the gas. The faster they could leave, the better!

“Never say never, Jason, but honestly! I don’t think our place is in this world! We’re best keeping our ministries down south where people are resilient! I mean, I’m not trying to say it’s a hellhole up here, but I don’t really think I need to say it…”

Jason let the book slip into his lap as he looked over at his friend.

“I left one of Misty’s signature care baskets behind. It’s what she would have wanted. If anyone can make a difference, it’s her.”

“That’s great, man. ‘Go into all the world’. That’s what Misty’s doing,” Ben said as he reached over to grip his best friend on the shoulder. “At least as long as you’re here to keep her legacy alive.”

Jason smiled when he thought back to the pleasure his wife had in giving gift baskets to others, even during her painful hours of treatment. She found strength in the charity she so tirelessly worked to do.

“She always was my better half.”

Jason gripped the book and finished his thought in a prayer to Misty. No more pain or troubles, Misty. You’re home at last.

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