“No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.”
–Philippians 3:13-14 (NLT)

Austin Carter felt completely lost. He was wandering in a dark forest of hopeless depression. Perhaps an avalanche provided a more descriptive picture. All the values he once held dear seemed to be sliding away.
There was a battle going on within his heart, and the perplexed man appeared to be stuck walking a circular path. Once outgoing and friendly, the Austin’s personality had curdled like sour buttermilk, and bitterness oozed from him like poison.
AS a cab driver, Mr. Carter’s time was his own, and he could cut himself off from the outside world whenever he chose. Sure, he had to make money, but the ability to retreat was one reason he had gone back to driving.
He no longer placed his trust in a loving God, for these days the God he had once believed in seemed very distant now. God was only a crutch for the weak anyway, Austin surmised. Since God apparently didn’t care, Austin had made up his mind not to trust anybody.
Secondly, since the closure of the Bread of Life Shelter, part of Austin’s heart had closed with it and turned to stone. As a result, he hadn’t talked to Brenda Cook since leaving the shelter. Austin wanted to keep it that way, for the rage he felt consumed him, growing stronger each day.
As far as he was concerned, Brenda had betrayed him by giving up too quickly. After all, the shelter had been his life, and there were certain things about its operation that Cook knew nothing about.
But rather than wallowing in self-pity, Carter decided to listen to yesterday’s message from Topaz again. He had heard it while stuck in traffic, but now he could give it the attention it deserved.
Starting the engine, he drove to a somewhat remote spot, looked around to make sure no one was watching, and played the message.
“This is Topaz from the airport, and I’ve changed my mind.” Becoming exasperated, she continued, “Please don’t pick me up again. I’ve been thinking about what I shared with you in the cab. You seem like a nice guy, but I really don’t know you, and I’ve said too much. Please forget everything we discussed. I think it would be best if we went our separate ways, with no hard feelings.”
Topaz’s words hit him like a slap in the face, but Austin had to admit that she might be right. On the other hand, he didn’t really understand her words. He could have helped her out. He growled aloud, “When I picked up that woman, all that talk of building another shelter sounded right. But I guess it only offered me false hope.”
Reluctantly, Austin prayed. “God, I don’t know if you’re out there anymore, but I was wondering if you really do have a plan for me. After everything that’s happened, I feel all washed up.”
Austin gazed at the dark sky. Seeing a shooting star out of the corner of his eye, he laughed cynically. “I can’t believe I would have taken that as a sign once. But God, now I feel like a flash in the pan. My life, like that star, has faded away.
“Who am I kidding, anyway? I don’t have anything to offer. I acted on impulse and tried to go the extra mile. But like a fool, I was burned, and I jumped too quickly. Again, God, if you’re out there, I’ve learned my lesson. It will be strictly business from now on.”
Opening his eyes, Austin decided that the matter was settled. Maneuvering his way back to the street, he felt his stomach rumble. Not knowing the neighborhood very well, he decided to be adventurous.
Since he was in the mood for Chinese, Austin gunned his engine and headed out. Coming to a stoplight, he glanced quickly at his phone.
“I wonder what the Chinese Cultural Center is like,” he muttered. “I’ve never been there.”
Upon arriving, he saw that all the restaurants which sounded the best were closed for the night. “Just my luck,” he grumbled, becoming irritable. “I guess I’ll just drive around.”
Mr. Carter finally found a restaurant he liked the look of, and judging by the tantalizing smells wafting through the door, he knew he hadn’t been wrong. As he started to head inside, however, his phone rang, catching him off guard. Jumping a bit, he decided to ignore it. “Whoever it is can wait,” he sighed. But as the caller was persistent, he supposed it to be one of his regulars.
Answering the phone, he lied without looking at the screen. “I’m in heavy traffic right now. You’ll have to call me back.”
Ending the call, he continued toward the restaurant door when second thoughts assailed him. Shaking himself, he grimaced.
“I can’t give up a good fare. What was I thinking? I guess I’ll just have to kiss those dreams of Chinese food goodbye.”
with a sigh of regret, he left the doorway and headed towards his cab. The phone to his ear, Austin found the caller’s number in his list of recent calls, and the frantic voice on the other end began without a word of greeting.
“You don’t know me, Austin, but I had to call. Topaz Miller was just hospitalized. The doctors say she’ll be all right, though,” the stranger continued without taking a breath. “It’s just exhaustion. They told her she was killing herself by working so hard, but do you think she’d listen? Oh, no! She wants to get right back out there.”
“Who are you?”
“Oh yeah, my name is Nancy White. I’m a social worker at Calvary Presbyterian here in Phoenix.”
“I have two questions,” Austin snapped. “What’s that got to do with me? And where did you get my name and phone number? I’m busy, and I don’t really know Topaz Miller too well. I just gave her a cab ride once.”
“The nurses found your name and number in her belongings and brought them to me.” The social worker forged ahead aggressively. Then she almost shouted in excited relief. “A cab driver? That takes care of one problem. You can pick her up from the hospital tomorrow. The doctors want her to stay here overnight.”
“Wait just a minute. I already told you I don’t know her, and her welfare is none of my concern. Why should I come clear across town? Get one of those medical vouchers for her, and then we’ll talk.”
“That’s the problem,” Nancy White sighed. “We no longer offer that voucher program, and I’m afraid Topaz has no family. I’m very concerned about her.”
“Well, if you’re so concerned,” Austin snarled, “then you drive her, or get somebody else to take her home. I’m not a chauffeur. This call is taking too long. I have to go.”
“Please wait a minute,” Nancy pleaded, contrite for the first time. “Try to find it in your heart to listen. The higher-ups won’t allow hospital personnel to drive her. They say the liability is too great. If I was found out, I could lose my job.”
“And you’re asking me to lose work while I protect your job?” Austin shot back angrily.
“Maybe you’re right,” Nancy conceded in a tired voice, “but I have already told you I’ve looked everywhere. If I can think of any other avenues, I’ll try them.”
With that the call ended abruptly, and Austin’s mood began to improve.
“That was a narrow escape.” He patted his stomach and whistled. “Looks like I’m having sweet-and-sour chicken after all.”
Austin was discouraged when he discovered a zoo inside the restaurant. He groaned profusely, and when his number was finally called, he jumped up without hesitation.
“Do you have sweet-and-sour chicken?” Austin demanded.
“Of course.” The little man who showed him to his table spoke in perfect English. “only the finest.”
Before he had even reached his table, Austin had placed his order. But 20 minutes later, when the food hadn’t come, Austin grew angry. Standing, he searched for the waiter, but he couldn’t find anyone to flag down. He started towards the exit with a vengeance, planning to walk out and never come back. When someone tried to block his path, Austin just pushed the man away, barreling ahead furiously.
Trying another tactic, the same person called, “Excuse me. I’m the owner of this restaurant. Didn’t you enjoy your meal?”
“It never came,” Austin grunted. “You have lousy service.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” the owner smiled. “We had an emergency in the kitchen, and we’re short-handed. I’m sure you understand.”
“Yeah, right,” Austin muttered, in a voice so low he was sure the owner couldn’t hear him.
“I’ve just taken over management of this restaurant, and we pride ourselves on excellent service.”
“Yes,” he smiled, “but the emergency is all straightened out, and we want to prove that our food is excellent. Your meal will be on the house. We truly regret any inconvenience, and we want you to be a regular customer. So if you will bear with me, sir, I will personally make sure your order is expedited as quickly as possible.”
Still grumbling, Austin nodded and went back to his table.

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In short order, his meal arrived. True to the owner’s word, everything was excellent.
Soon enough, Austin leaned back, smacking his lips. “There’s nothing like a full stomach.” He shifted and yawned lazily. “Why rush?”
After enjoying his last drink, he thought he’d better get back on the road if he was going to make any money that night. But on his way out, he gave into his sweet tooth. He sidled over to a platter of fortune cookies.
Although the doctor had told him to cut back on sweets in general, Austin grabbed a cookie and walked to his car. Popping it into his mouth without thinking, he tasted paper and cursed. Austin set the soggy paper on the dashboard and pulled out into traffic.
Austin whistled and flipped on the radio, deciding he was in the mood for some good old-fashioned classic rock. Stopping at a light, he found his favorite station and turned up the volume. A few minutes later, he found himself getting lost in the beat.
To his dismay, Austin discovered that he was trapped in the middle of construction. It was apparent that he would be detained for some time.
Partly out of curiosity and partly out of boredom, Austin absently picked up his cookie fortune. He haltingly read, “He who burns his bridges too quickly is left only with ashes.”
While he tried to shake them off, the words of his fortune haunted Austin for some reason. Like a playlist, they relentlessly repeated in his mind until his phone rang about 20 minutes later. This brought him back to reality.
“Hello,” a somewhat familiar voice said hesitantly. “This is Nancy White again. I’ve been trying everything to get Topaz a ride from the hospital, but no one else will take her.” She went on in a humble tone, “Please do me a favor and hear me out. I have a proposition for you that I think might be a win-win.”
“That sounds interesting, but talk fast. I’m in between calls, but that will change any minute.”
“The problem is that Topaz won’t get paid until next week. So after I called you a few minutes ago, I had an idea. Let Topaz pay you next Friday, and I’m sure I can drum up some business for you.”
“The girls I work with are always calling cabs whenever they stay at happy hour too long on Fridays. By emailing them and giving them your cell number, I’ll make sure they’ll call you first.”
“Well, I don’t know …” Austin began to weaken. “You’re clear across town. How do I know it would be worth my while?”
“That might be true on other days,” Nancy admitted, “but on Fridays I can guarantee you’ll do better than you expect.”
“Okay.” Austin pulled out his phone. “You win. I’ll try it. When do you want me there?”
“They say you should be at the hospital by 9 tomorrow morning. I’ll text you the room number.”
As soon as the call was completed, Austin’s mind went back to the fortune cookie, but he tried to push it away. He abhorred superstition, and he told himself that the saying was just a note that somebody had come up with to make a buck.
Austin had pulled several all-nighters, so he decided that his tiredness was causing fuzzy thinking. It was getting late anyway, so he called it quits for the night and headed to his room at the YMCA.
“My focus needs to be on getting some shut-eye,” he reprimanded himself. But he found himself tossing and turning for what seemed like hours.
Finding sleep to be futile, Austin began to think out loud. He had to admit he longed for his little apartment above the shelter. It had been nothing to sneze at, but it had been a place for him to hang his hat for 20 years.
In contrast to that apartment, this dump reminded him more of a prison cell than anything, and the walls which confronted him now were bare. All the room contained was a bed and a bathroom down the hall, and with no kitchen he was almost forced to go out to eat.
Austin yawned, and finally found himself nodding off. “This is better than counting sheep.”
He smiled, turning over, but he sat up with a start when he remembered his neighbor, who was getting more and more disruptive.
As if on cue, the loud knock that Austin dreaded rang in his ears.
“Go away, Jerry!” Austin yelled.
But as this was a regular occurrance, the disturbed cabbie knew that his neighbor wasn’t leaving until he accomplished his “mission”. Austin had tried to ignore Jerry in the past, but nothing had worked.
Furious and disgruntled, Austin climbed out from under the covers. It was either answer the door, or pay for a new one.
“How did I get into this mess, anyway?” he moaned as he dragged himself out of bed.
Fuming, he shouted, “Jerry, there’s no reasoning with you!”
“I guess I might as well have some entertainment,” Austin thought, as he reluctantly let his neighbor into the room.
Jerry’s no-nonsense reply invaded the air. “This is Secret Agent 4237 on inspection detail. Our files show that you are a spy, and I have a search warrant in my possession. I’ve been ordered to conduct a thorough investigation of this domicile.”
“Go back to bed, Jerry!” Austin yelled, “It’s the middle of the night, for goodness sake!”
But the tension only grew worse. Jerry shouted authoritatively in a Gestapo-like voice, “You’re very clever, and you may fool other people, but you don’t fool me!”
Then Jerry began to survey the room, rummaging through Austin’s belongings, but in a few minutes he straightened up. He snarled like a dog whose bone has been stolen.
“I’ve found nothing, but one day things will be different. You have what we’re looking for. If you hand it over, the feds might go easy on you. But as far as I’m concerned …” Jerry waved his arms wildly. “… they should lock you up and throw away the key!”
Motioning to the door, Austin finally ushered Jerry out and went back to bed grumbling to himself. But in the end, he was even more restless than before. He continued to puzzle over the course of events.
“I can’t just lie here. Living like this is killing me. I’ve got to settle this once and for all. Tomorrow isn’t soon enough to move. But where will I go?”

To Be Continued …

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