Title: Jesus Jackson
Genre: Young Adult Mystery
Author: James Ryan Daley
Publisher: The Poisoned Pencil
Jonathan Stiles is a 14-year-old atheist who is coping with his first day of ninth grade at the fervently religious St. Soren’s Academy when his idolized older brother Ryan is found dead at the bottom of a ravine behind the school. As his world crumbles, Jonathan meets an eccentric stranger who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Son of God (except for his white linen leisure suit and sparkling gold chains). Jesus Jackson, as he calls himself, offers to find a faith that Jonathan can believe in—with a money-back guarantee. He also encourages Jonathan in his belief that Ryan’s death may not have been an accident. Jonathan teams up with Henry, his new best friend at St. Soren’s, to investigate. The boys find footprints leading to the ravine that match Ryan’s sneakers. They are warned off their investigation by Ryan’s football friend, Alistair, but they find an ally in Ryan’s grieving girlfriend, Tristan, who also thinks the accident theory is bunk. The police, however, will not listen. But Jonathan knows something the police do not: Shortly before his death, Ryan was doing cocaine with Alistair, not far from the ravine where his body was found. An inspired Jonathan battles sanctimonious school psychologists, overzealous administrators, and a cavalry of Christian classmates on his quest to discover the truth about Ryan’s death—and about God, high school, and the meaning of life, while he’s at it. But he keeps getting distracted by Cassie, Alistair’s quirky younger sister, who holds the keys to the answers Jonathan is searching for, but who also makes him wonder if he should be searching for them at all.
When I first saw Jesus, he was standing like a statue on the fifty-yard line of the high school football field, one arm pointed at the goalpost and the other cocked back—fingers curled around an imaginary pigskin, locked at the ready for a pantomimed hail-Mary in the final seconds of a make believe bowl game. It was a glorious moment to behold…at least, that is, until an invisible opponent rushed his offensive line. Jesus had to fake right, spin left, and duck around a pretend tight end to make a harrowing dash for the touchdown. He hit a few straight-arm blocks, pulled some fancy footwork, and half a second later he was jogging across the goal line, spiking the ball, and moonwalking clear from one side of the end zone to the other.
Now I know what you’re thinking, but stop right there. And trust me: This guy was totally Jesus. The long, straw-brown hair, straggly beard, gaunt frame, and clear-bright eyes; he was a dead ringer for the son of God. The only difference, as far as I could tell, between the Jesus on the football field and the one hanging on the cross in the school auditorium, was his clothes. The latter wore nearly none, of course, while this one was done up all dapper in a white linen suit, patent leather loafers, and a wide-collared, pastel pink button-down disco shirt, opened just enough to reveal a tuft of flaxen hair and a sparkling gold chain.
But before I get too far into this story, I need to stop and explain a couple things to you. First, you need to know that this little run-in with the savior was happening on a cold and dewy Saturday morning, at about nine am. It was the first of September—about fifteen weeks after my fourteenth birthday, roughly three months since my last day of junior high, and exactly two hours after my big brother’s body was found, lifeless and broken, at the bottom of a sixty-foot ravine behind St. Soren’s. I don’t want to dwell on this detail too much at the moment (we’ll get into it all later, trust me), but I just thought you ought to know. For perspective.
Oh yeah, and another thing: I don’t actually believe in Jesus. Didn’t then, don’t now. Not even a little.
So anyway, I watched the old king-of-kings run a victory lap around the track—arms raised, hair streaming behind him in the wind—but just as I was about to wander off, he stopped again on the fifty-yard line, waved his left hand high over his head, and called out, “Hey, you!”
I looked behind me to see if he was referring to someone else, but no one was there. We met eyes and I pointed to my chest with a shrug.
“Yeah, you,” he yelled. “Come on down here, would ya?”
I didn’t have anything else to do at the moment (the cops and paramedics wouldn’t let me near the ravine), and to tell you the truth, I was happy for the distraction. So I put my hands in my pockets and strolled all the way down the aisle, through the bleachers, and onto the field.
Jesus just stood there, grinning at me more like a salesman than a savior, waiting for me to reach him. And as soon as I stepped onto the grass, he hopped back and began bouncing on his toes, his hands cradling another imaginary football.
“All right,” he said, staring down the field. “Go long.”
He started bobbing, weaving, dodging pretend defensemen. “It’s the fourth quarter. We’ve got twelve seconds, and we’re down by five. Now go long.”
“But you don’t have a real ball.”
He shook his head, unimpressed with my logic. “And you aren’t a real wide receiver and this isn’t the real Super Bowl, and I’m not about to get sacked by areal defensive lineman named the Arkansas Annihilator. Don’t be so concerned with reality all the time. Just go long!”
I realized that I was not about to beat this guy in an argument. And seeing as how my current options were to go long with Jesus or go back to the crowd of cops and detectives and school administrators and weeping parents and one very dead older brother in a ravine behind the school, I decided on the former.
“Fine,” I said. “Fine.” And I ran.
I didn’t run very fast, but it felt good to put my body into action, to pump some blood back through all the numbness. I’d been so still and so frozen since the morning, when I first found my mother in the kitchen surrounded by pancakes and bacon and fruit salad and coffee and pastries and juice (she likes to cook when she’s upset), and learned that Ryan had apparently fallen while taking a jog after football practice the previous afternoon. But right then, on that field, I could feel my body begin to warm, the sensation returning (just a little) to my limbs.
The funny thing is, Jesus must have been hiding a real ball somewhere (though I can’t imagine where) because when I finally made it down around the ten-yard line and turned to make the imaginary catch, I got smacked clear off my feet by a solid, real, and perfectly spiraling football.
The pass hit me right beneath the rib cage, knocking the wind out of me. I fell hard and gasped for air. My eyes shut while I struggled to catch my breath and when I finally opened them, there was Jesus, standing straight over me, reaching a hand down to help me up.
“Sorry about that,” he said, hoisting me to my feet. “I was just trying to make a point.”
I rubbed my chest and winced. “I get it. You’ve got one hell of an arm. You could go pro.”
“That wasn’t exactly my point.” He extended his right hand. “I’m Jesus.”
I shook it. “I figured. It’s a good look for you. You really pull it off.”
Jesus tugged at his lapel. “Well, thank you.”
“Aren’t you supposed to wear, like…robes, though? And sandals? And, you know, do things more holy then mess around on a football field?”
“No,” he chuckled, pulling a business card from his pocket. “You’ve got me mixed up. I’m not that Jesus. I’m Jesus Jackson.”
He handed me the card. I looked it over. It read:
Jesus Jackson: Spiritual Contractor
100% faith guaranteed!
Call for a FREE ESTIMATE!
Strangely, there was no phone number on the card.
“So, are you going to try to sell me something?”
His face contorted into what can only be described as a very poor attempt at sincerity. “I’d never sell you anything you don’t need, of course. And even then, before you paid a dime I’d provide you with a—”
“Free estimate. Yeah, I got that much.” In the distance I could hear a siren making its way around the far side of the school. “So what exactly do you do?”
“I’m a contractor. I build things for people, depending on their needs…just not physical things.”
“If not physical, then what?”
“Metaphysical, of course.”
“Gods, to be precise.”
“You build gods?”
“Well, not actual gods, of course—that would be terribly difficult, and possibly illegal. I build the belief in a god. I construct faith.” Jesus Jackson put his hand on my shoulder, turning me toward the far side of the field, where a groundskeeper was laying a piece of sod over some fresh dirt. “Take this guy, Nino Taglione. I’m scouting him as possible client. Nino is fifty-seven years old, and has been working here at St. Soren’s Academy since he was twenty-five. He’s been married for thirty-five years, and just found out that his wife has been having an affair with Joe Shannon, the custodian for the athletic building, for the past twenty-eight. Obviously, this news has shaken his faith in his wife, but more importantly, it has destroyed his faith in God. After all, how could the same god he’s been praying to for fifty-seven years have let him be a such a chump for so long? Right?”
“Well, that’s where I come in.”
“You’re going to restore his faith in God?”
He shook his head. “Not exactly, that’s what priests do…or rabbis, ministers, or what-have-you…. Restoration is difficult, messy work. I’m going to give him faith in a new one.”
“Or something like a god anyway. He has lots of options.”
I was intrigued. “What kind of…options?”
“Oh, they’re endless. It could be a Pantheon of demigods, or a Divine Force, or a belief in karma and the cycle of reincarnation. He can have a warrior spirit guide, an ancestral apparition, a guardian angel…he can have a giant bunny named Harvey with twelve arms and a third eye, if he wants one…so long as he’ll have a little faith in it.”
I thought this over for a moment. “But will he ever see the god you give him faith in?”
“Ha!” Jesus laughed. “No, no. Alas, that’s the thing about gods, they tend to stay out of sight.”
“Well if he can’t see it, how will he know he’s got it?”
Jesus pointed a finger at my nose and flashed his widest salesman’s smile. “Well, you see, I guarantee—”
“One hundred percent faith. Got it.”
“Or your money back, no questions asked.”
Right then, the siren I heard before came screaming past the stadium. An image of Ryan in the back of that ambulance—ghost-white, bruised, bloody, covered in a sheet—snapped into my head. A wave of dizziness overcame me, and I struggled to keep my balance. I said, “You know, well…that all sounds…really great.”
Jesus touched his hand to my arm, steadying me. He spoke softly, “So can I interest you in a free estimate?”
And then—right at that moment, right there, right when Jesus Jackson touched my arm—it all just became too much: Jesus and Nino and free estimates for invisible gods and a dead brother and a magic football and the first real day of high school just three days away…. “No, no, I don’t think I need any god right now…I’m sort of an atheist, anyway. But…um…thanks….” And before I even knew what I was doing, I turned and stumbled toward the sirens and the screams and the crowd and the cold, hard, welcoming seat of my dad’s car.