“What are you willing to die for?” Father Peters asked.

His question hung in the air as the teens surrounding Gabby struggled to come up with an honest answer. Her recent brushes with death hadn’t clarified one for her, either. In those terrifying moments, she didn’t think, she acted. Sometimes, that meant her life could end. She was okay with that. It was just another way she was a screwed-up mess.

It wasn’t that Gabby was reckless with her life. Or suicidal. Her life had been hard. Painful. Often sad. So, if the sand in her hourglass was about to run out, she wasn’t going to try to flip it over and give it another run.

Scott finally spoke up. “My family and my friends. If one of them were in trouble, I’d be willing to die to save them.”

Gabby smirked. Of course.

He always had his spiritual crap together. That was why Scott was The Gang’s moral center and the one person she could not lose. Even more than Hamilton. She relied on Scott’s guidance more than her own instincts. He always seemed to have the right answer.

It was that gift she was counting on to help her find a way to mend her relationship with Hamilton. Because, right now, all she wanted to do was punch her nerdy friend between his cute ears.

“What about your faith?” Father Peters asked. “Would you be willing to die for your faith?”

Gabby rolled her eyes.

Don’t ask me. Not today. You won’t like my answer.

“Would you be willing to put your life on the line for God?” he asked.

“You mean on purpose?” Gabby said.

All eyes, once again, turned to her.

“Yes,” Father Peters said. “Would you?”

“You mean I have a choice?”

Knowing Gabby’s history, he nodded. “Of course. You always have a choice.”

“You sure about that?” She chuckled, thinking of her recent divine field trips. “It makes me wonder…”

“Wonder what?”

“We all have to die, Father,” she said. “I wonder why being a martyr so special?”

“Because it’s the ultimate gift of love.”

She smiled. “I think a lot of teen boys in this room would give a completely different gift in the name of love.” The hall erupted into cackles and laughter, earning a quick and stern look from their pastor. Gabby was being an ass, but she didn’t care. Time everyone else got a taste of her pain.

After the murmurs were silenced, Father Peters turned his attention back to Gabby. “I can see you’re a little feisty this evening,” he said. “Fine. Give me your best shot. Define love for me, Gabby. What does it mean to you?”

Her first thought was of Hamilton, whom she now loved and hated, and shook her head. “I think I’m the wrong person to ask.”

“What? The great Gabby Wells is at a loss of words? I find that hard to believe.”

He knew how much she hated being called that. He was pushing her buttons on purpose. Fine. She’d play along.

“A pint of mint chocolate chip ice cream and friends who don’t stab you in the back. That’s my definition of love. “Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Hamilton stiffen in his seat.

“You have a lot of friends who stab you in the back?” Father Peters asked.

“I don’t have a lot of either, friends or backstabbers, but people who love one another don’t abandon them when all they’re trying to do is help. It takes forever for someone to earn my friendship. I guess it only takes a few uncomfortable moments to lose it.”

Father Peters’ brow furrowed in confusion. He wasn’t alone. Everyone appeared to have lost track of her point. Gabby wasn’t making any sense to anyone but herself… and maybe Hamilton if he wasn’t too dense to notice.

“I’m sorry, Father Peters,” she said. “What was your question?”

“What is your definition of love?”

Love.

She tried to push Hamilton aside for the moment and focus on her truest understanding of love. One person immediately came to mind. Her father. For most of her life, he had raised her by himself. He was firm, but welcoming. Challenging, but understanding. Funny, but serious. He expected the most of her, yet he forgave her when she failed—which happened a lot. He loved her, even when, no, especially when, she hurt him. He cared for her and tried to prepare her for the tough world that awaited her. And when she told him that God was asking her to go after psychopaths, he wasn’t mad at her. He was upset with God. Confused as well, like Gabby, as to why the Creator would ask a teen to attempt such things.

Her dad sacrificed for Gabby through his work, even after the death of her mother, never complaining, at least not to her, as to why he was placed with such a burden. He would lose everything for her, if it would save her.

“Sacrifice,” Gabby said. “To me, love means sacrifice. Willful sacrifice. Making hard decisions, even if they make things worse for you. How’s that?”

Father Peters leaned back, a broad smile pushing his chubby cheeks toward his eyes. “Well said.”

“Do I win a prize?” she asked.

“Your prize is the gift of wisdom.”

“Can I get a receipt, in case I want to exchange it for something else?”

“Wisdom is priceless. Enjoy it while it lasts.”

“Excuse me?” Melanie asked. “What does that have to do with martyrdom?”

Father Peters stood, walking behind the circle of chairs with his weighted stride. “I was your age once. I know how invincible you feel. The world seems like one long buffet of opportunities, just waiting for you to take a bite. However, not all foods are good for you. When it comes to decisions, some of the most enticing dishes are the most dangerous. They look good and smell good, but when you bite them, they are deadly inside.”

“What do you mean?” Melanie asked.

“Sin,” Gabby said. “He’s talking about sin.”

“That’s right. We have only one reason to be here. One purpose to live our life. To reach heaven. That’s it. Nothing else matters if it costs us heaven. What good is a successful career as a movie star if you end up in hell for eternity? What good is making millions of dollars if you use it to indulge in sin that separates you from God? Remember the parables in the Bible, where Jesus tells us that nothing can get between him and us? Cut off your hand, poke out your eye, sell all you have to buy a plot of land… they all tell us we must remove any barriers between us and him.”

“Even if that means sacrifice?” Melanie asked.

“Especially then,” Father Peters said. “What is the greatest thing we can sacrifice?”

Gabby looked around the circle, but saw only downcast eyes and confusion. “Ourselves,” she said. “Our greatest gift is us.”

“Right. That’s where martyrs come in. Martyrs have such a deep faith, a certainty those beliefs will lead them to heaven, that they don’t fear death. Think of the early Christians in Rome. The Christians today being beheaded or burned alive in the Middle East by ISIS. The ones being executed in North Korea or incarcerated and tortured in China. Why don’t they just recant? Why don’t they just abandon their faith?”

“Because they’d lose heaven?” Melanie asked.

“Exactly.”

Gabby raised her hand, frustrated. “That sounds all hunky-dory in theory,” she said, “but a lot of things go through your mind when you’re facing down someone who simply wants to kill you in any number of unpleasant ways. You’re there, all alone. You see contempt and hatred in their eyes. Nothing would bring them more joy than to watch the life drain out of you. What then? What will save you then?”

“That is when you must rely on your faith,” Father Peters said.

An exasperated sigh escaped her lips. “You make it sound so easy.”

“I never said it was easy. I’m just saying what is necessary.”

“No offense, Father, but how would you know? How would any of you know? You haven’t seen what I’ve seen. You… you have no frickin’ idea.”

He paused, stung by her blunt response.

“I can only rely on the lives of the saints to guide me,” he said. “Those who have faced things equally as terrible.”

“Well, isn’t that handy?” she said.

“Let me ask you this, Gabby… how many numbers are in infinity?”

“What does that have to do with anything?” she asked.

“Answer the question.”

“It’s infinity. The numbers never end.”

“Then how much is five in comparison to infinity? Or five hundred thousand? Or five million?”

She crossed her arms, irritated by his inane questions. “Nothing, I guess. Everything in comparison to infinity is basically nothing.”

“Exactly. Our time here, whether we live eighteen years or eighty, is nothing in comparison to eternity. Yet, it determines where we spend it. The saints have taught me that everything in this world is temporary. The good and the bad. Joy and pain. The killers and the friends. They all come and go. So, yes, faith is all that matters in those moments, whether they last seconds or years.”

“Or when seconds feel like years?” Gabby added.

“Yes. I’ll admit I haven’t had to face any life-threatening situations yet.”

“Just hang out with me a little more,” Gabby interrupted. “I’m sure you’ll get your chance.”

The teens responded with uncomfortable chuckles.

“Father?” Scott asked.

“Yes?” he said.

“I read that all martyrs are saints. Is that true? They go straight to heaven?”

“That is our understanding, yes, because they have paid the ultimate price for their faith.”

“What about terrorists?” Gabby asked. “They think they’re going to heaven too?”

“Yes. In those cases, we must rely on God’s perfect justice.”

“But, how do you stop someone who thinks killing you is God’s will and a quick ticket to an eternal party in heaven?”

“You won’t like my answer,” he said.

“Don’t tell me. Faith.”

“You don’t agree?”

“I don’t understand martyrdom, period,” she said. “Why would God ask us to do such a thing? What does he get out of it?”

“It’s not what he gets out of it. It’s what we do.”

“Heaven,” a number of teens said in unison.

Gabby shook her head.

She should have stayed outside. She was not in the mood for theological debates, especially with a bunch of her classmates who could barely handle when their parents took away their cell phones, let alone being asked to die for someone they’d never seen or touched.

She should have spent the time figuring out how to build a time machine so she could dismiss the Russian thug love-connection scenario when it first crossed her mind.

Instead of interjecting more combative remarks, Gabby spent the rest of the meeting avoiding glancing in Hamilton’s direction while figuring out how she could possibly rebuild what she had broken between them.

After the lesson part of the evening was over, the groups broke into social cliques to play ping-pong, video games, or to sit on a couple of worn, overstuffed couches and chat.

Gabby slid out the side entrance into a small garden. At the center of the tiny square enclosure, surrounded by flowers and bushes, stood a large statue of the Virgin Mary. Gabby sat on the cement bench facing her and stared at her weathered faced, wondering why she hadn’t connected with Mary as much as her friends had. She was an important figure in her faith. It would appear they had a lot in common. Not in holiness, of course. Gabby couldn’t hold a prayer candle to Mary’s sinless life, but Jesus’ mother was once just a teenager, like Gabby, facing unknown forces, like Gabby. Yet, instead of relying on God’s strength, Gabby liked to call on a well-honed uppercut.

Gabby felt lost. It wasn’t just the deal with Hamilton. She’d felt adrift way before he cut the cord. Being on call for the Almighty should have added more passion to her life, but the residue from each evil encounter had robbed her of any divine joy. Each morning she awoke more tired than the last, and the burden of God’s holy treks was slowly stripping away her convictions.

She needed help. Looking at Mary’s peaceful gaze, she silently prayed for her assistance. Satan hated Mary, and Gabby hated him. She despised Satan’s relentless pursuit of her soul, injecting his fallen and distorted nature into her life by using human frailty to perpetrate evil. If it wasn’t for his prideful need to offend God with every depraved sinful act, she and her small town could have been left alone from his influence. She hoped Mary, who knew God better than anyone else in human history, could intercede on her behalf. The more soldiers in the battle, the better.

Gabby closed her eyes and shut out the world, trying to listen to God’s words or Mary’s encouragement. The Almighty sometimes interacted with Gabby in whispers, and she desperately needed help out of her moral morass.

Shuffling leaves interrupted her silence as someone pressed through the overgrown bushes behind her. Approaching footsteps were followed by a voice.

“You see demons.”

****

Thank you for reading these free chapters of Gods & Martyrs, the fourth and final Gabby Wells Thriller. If you want the complete novel, you can purchase it at Amazon.

This novel follows up almost immediately after the events which unfolded in Kneel & Prey, Lost & Found and Sins & Suicide.

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