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What If?: Chapter One

When Ed Flagel shot forward in his chair, it stopped just short of tipping over all the way and taking him with it. "What do you mean you aren't going to run for reelection?"

President Maury Goodman almost broke out laughing at Ed's near-calamity. But when he saw the shocked look on his best friend's face, he forced himself to remain silent. Laughter wouldn't be an appropriate response to Ed's all-too-frantically-asked question.

Even so, Maury couldn't keep from smiling inwardly at the thought of carrying out the new task God was assigning him to rather than leading the tiny all-Christian country of Holyland another four years.

The new task sounded even more impossible than leading a new nation, however, and God hadn't provided Maury with any of the details yet. That didn't matter, though.

At least it shouldn't.

Service was a matter of faithful obedience, something Maury had spent almost all of his eighty-two years practicing. Since God was God and he was not, he was counting on God's help to carry out the new mission. Maury couldn't even imagine how disastrous the results would be, otherwise.

He had known for several months that he would need to make a public announcement about not seeking reelection. But he'd kept the news to himself to avoid disappointing the citizenry any sooner than necessary.

And he certainly hadn't counted on Ed's showing up at 5:15 that afternoon with candidacy paperwork in hand for him to sign…to keep from missing that night's midnight filing deadline.

A deadline Maury had no intention of meeting and paperwork he could throw away unsigned. Without guilt.

What kind of reasonable response could he give his friend. He didn't get any further than "I-" when Ed started talking again. This time in a quieter-yet an even more urgent-tone.

"Don't you know how much the citizens of Holyland love and respect you? How much they-how much we-depend on you? No one else could've done such an effective job as Holyland's first president. "

Maury gulped before attempting to smile graciously, but he feared his smile looked insincere. In his heart, he knew better than to let himself get drawn into something that clearly countered God's perfect will for his life.

He waited silently for Ed to continue.

"Under your leadership, we've turned this deserted city and its environs into a tolerably comfortable place to live in." Yes, Maury had spearheaded that. But he could name dozens of other Holylanders-male and female-who could've done just as well. Maybe even better.

"Your success at unifying our nine thousand-plus citizens, many of whom have nothing in common except their faith in Jesus, was astounding. And your ability to work within the constraints of a constitution that still needs a good bit of tweaking? What can I say? "

He grinned at Maury. "Your success has been almost miraculous." He reached over and poked his friend's arm playfully. "But you already know that, don't you?"

"I…" Maury couldn't hide his blush. Although he hoped rather than believed he'd done an adequate job as president, he knew he didn't deserve Ed's sincerely exaggerated praise.

What should he say? Would Ed be able to understand or accept the whole truth? Maury was skeptical. "If I've helped to get this new nation off to a proper start, I couldn't be more pleased. But it's been a team effort. I couldn't have asked for more support, encouragement, and advice from Congress and the Supreme Court." He narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. "Most of all, though, from my fellow Holylanders."

Ed settled back in his chair and smiled. "Be that as it may, your leadership has tied more ragged, loose ends together than the man-in-the-street could imagine the existence of. I don't have to tell you the job is only half-finished. Surely you don't want to desert…"

He paused momentarily when he saw the president cringe. Apparently at the word desert.

"Maury, we need you to finish what you've started. Holyland's future is in your hands."

Maury's mind had barely moved past the word desert. Could his pursuit of God's new assignment actually endanger this new country's proper development?

Of course not! He had more faith in his God and Savior than that.

Ed was not just a good man, but one Maury trusted implicitly. He wasn't God, though, and he couldn't see these issues from God's perspective. Not regarding the presidency, anyhow. Should Maury reveal God's plan for him? He was still skeptical of that. Or should he just make up the most plausible excuse he could think of to justify his decision?

Since he was still wrestling with God to learn the details about "the impossible task"-as he'd recently begun calling it-he opted for the second choice. Ed would never understand the whole truth. Not yet.

The corners of his mouth drooped slightly as he attempted to swallow a frustrated sigh. "For nearly four years I haven't had a life of my own. I've given everything I have-everything I am-to the leadership of this country.

"I'm eighty-two-years-old, and I'm tired. Worn out. No matter how smoothly the gears of government appear to be meshing, you can't possibly know what I've gone through…"

Oh, the tales he could tell.

Ed patted Maury on the shoulder. "You're right, old friend. I don't know, and I can't know. But you didn't have to do this all by yourself." His tone had changed from compassionate to mildly critical. "The Constitution permitted you to select a vice president. It was your decision not to. If you had, perhaps—"

"Perhaps my failure to designate a vice president was a mistake, but how could I have pulled some other Holylander away from his or her family and job just to hold my hand while I did what I didn't need help doing? "

Ed nodded. He understood. He had been drawn away from his own normal life during the two years he worked fulltime on the Constitution Task Force.

"That's a commendable way to look at it. A man like you would never fail to take those things into consideration, but the right vice president wouldn't have minded the temporary loss of—"

"Giving up the pastorate of Calvary Church for the presidency of Holyland was a sacrifice I can't think about without mixed feelings." He wiped a tear from his eye. "And often with regret. I miss it. Calvary was where I belonged. Where I felt like I was doing what God wanted." He sniffled once. "I understand they have a new pastor now…"

Would this new task be just as fulfilling? What he wouldn't give for God's assurance of that right now.

Ed gave his friend a compassionate nod. "I understand. I joined Calvary not long after you left. The people really miss you."

"Mmm. Since we didn't know one another at all before the migration and neither of us likes to talk about those days, you probably don't realize I pastored a Calvary church in New America."

Ed's mouth twisted into a smile that was anything but cheerful. "Until the liberals got so sick of us they decided to stick us out here in the wilds of Asia, where we're completely cut off from the rest of the world."

Maury smirked. "More importantly, where we're cut from them." He shook his head. "We think we're in Asia, but nobody knows for sure. None of us Holylanders, anyhow.

"As I was about to explain, a number of my former congregants formed the nucleus of Holyland's Calvary Church. When the forced migration brought us here, I worked with that same group to pick up where we'd left off in New America. Minus the opposition, of course.

"Unfortunately, some of my previous members hid their faith to avoid the kind of persecution you and I experienced personally." Ed nodded. That kind of persecution wasn't something a man could forget easily-probably never would-and he wouldn't want to talk about it with anyone who hadn't experienced it.

"If they'd helped us protest the elimination of totally free speech, the freedom to worship openly, and the right to live according to biblical principles even when it offended certain groups, those people would be here in the middle of nowhere, too. Worshipping and living without fear."

Although Maury kept his concerns about those fearful baby Christians to himself, he prayed for them daily. Usually more frequently. Who was feeding them the spiritual food they needed? The true-believer ministers had all been sent here. Only the pretenders who didn't believe in the Bible and the joy-boys who succeeded at making even the liberals happy remained in New America. No source of needed spiritual food from preachers like them.

As much as Maury wanted to share his concerns with Ed, they were between him and God. Had God's new plans for him resulted from his constant prayers for New America's lost? God couldn't reveal the details soon enough.

Ed puffed his cheeks out and then let them deflate slowly. "Old friend-new old friend-I don't think you're telling me the whole story. No matter. I believe in you. I accept the fact that you have a good reason for avoiding a second term as president."

He forced a grin. Not a faux grin, but not a very convincing one, either. "Or at least a reason you're convinced is good enough. I'll trash the papers I brought for you to sign."

Maury put his hand out. "The trash can is here behind my desk." He stared at it distastefully. Why hadn't the liberals let them bring shredders?

Then he narrowed his eyes and looked into Ed's. "Who do you think will take my place?"

Ed shook his head. "No idea. What if nobody else is running? Would you change your mind then?" Despite the nearly indistinguishable grain of hope his words suggested, his face revealed nothing but severest doubt.

"Not as long as I'm answerable to God rather than to man. That doesn't mean I don't care, though. But I can name dozens of Holylanders who would do an excellent job building on what I've begun.

"I know how faithful my constituents have been, though,. So faithful I'm afraid none of them would probably run against me. I can't blame them for their consideration, but they don't know I'm not running. If we get the word out in the next half hour, that problem should go away."

Or would it?

The two men stared at one another for several minutes while the reality of the presidential election dilemma sank in.

Ed broke the silence. "You want me to call the Registrar of Elections and check?"

Maury nodded. "I'd feel better if I knew I won't be leaving the sheep without a worthy shepherd."

Ed entered the familiar number and pressed Send. Holyland had domestic phone service-texting, too. But no long distance and no Internet. He gave Maury a sideways glance. "Speakerphone?"

"Yes, please."

The Registrar answered on the second ring. "Hello there, Ed." They still had Caller ID, too. "It's been a while. Business or pleasure?"

Maury didn't give Ed a chance to respond. "Roy, this is the President, and I regret that this is business." He didn't wait for Roy's acknowledgement. "Can you tell me how many people have registered as presidential candidates?"

"Besides you, you mean?" Roy's chuckle sounded out-of-place compared to the urgency of Maury's tone. "Of course you need to get your paperwork in or you won't be one. I'm sure you've filled out the registration form. I can send someone to pick it up. Save you the trouble. The deadline is 6:00 p.m. today, and I can't bend the law even for—"

"6:00 p.m.?" Maury and Ed sounded like identical twins who'd just been called on to give a speech in some language they didn't know the first word of.

"What happened to the midnight deadline?"

Although Ed had voiced that question, Maury's thoughts were running far ahead of Ed's words. His desk clock read 5:30. No way could he and Ed find a willing candidate and complete and submit his paperwork by 6:00.

"You were sick the day we changed the time in the Constitution. Only day you missed in two years. That deadline was such a minor detail we didn't bother to tell you. Can't be a problem now, can it?"

Ed and Maury looked at one another in disbelief and then at the phone in Ed's hand.

"How many people have filed, Roy?" Maury probably sounded more irritable than concerned. A tone no one in Holyland had ever heard their much-loved president use.

"Just one unless you get your paperwork here by 6:00." Roy still hadn't caught on to the seriousness of this situation.

"I'm not running."


"Who is it, Roy?"

"Some guy named Santana. Pearce Santana."

"Who the…uh, who in the world is that?"

"I dunno. The paperwork got pushed under the door . I found it when I arrived at work one morning."

Maury and Ed looked at one another. Stared into each other's eyes. "Who is Pearce Santana?" they asked simultaneously.

By that time Roy didn't sound like he felt as brave as he sounded before. "Like I said, boys, I dunno."