Lesson Plans by Cole Parker

13-year-old Neil Swenson has lived a life of restriction, sadness and denial.
Now, he's moved to Mississippi and is hoping things change.

Part 1
Chapter 1

Tory Edgerton sat in church, his shirt collar irritating his neck, his suit jacket too warm, his parents too close on each side of him. He was bored, as usual. And again, as usual, without being too obvious about it—being obvious would bring a sharp rebuke from his father—he looked around the room. Luckily, the three of them had been late today and were sitting near the back, his dad not wanting them to become a spectacle by moving to the front after the service had already started.

Well, in fact, it wasn’t so much luck, it was more that Tory had dawdled more than usual, earning some scathing remarks from both parents but no physical blows. He rarely received those now that he was past the small-child stage, now that he was a teenager.

He’d gotten away with the dawdling, and he could take the remarks in stride, as accustomed to them as he was. Now, sitting in the pew, he was reaping the benefits. The three of them had slid into one of the rear pews when they’d arrived. Being in the back was Tory’s wish; sitting in the front pews didn’t allow him to look around. Here, near the back, he had a panorama in front of him.

He had to be careful, though. His dad wanted him to focus on the sermon and only the sermon. So Tory moved his head slowly, as casually as he could make it appear.

The left side of the church nave, where they were sitting, was about two-thirds full. Most of the worshipers were older. He could spot only two kids, and both were teens older than he was. He smiled, seeing that they looked as uncomfortable as he did. He knew them both. Timothy McAdam was a troublemaker at school, always in trouble, not a nice kid at all. Church didn’t seem to be straightening him out any. He was sitting next to his mother, who struggled trying to raise him. Tory knew this from overheard conversations. Timothy’s father, well… No one spoke of him, and Tory didn’t know what the story was. But Tory knew how Timothy acted at school; he stayed as far away from Timothy as he could. It helped that the boy was in the 11th grade and Tory was in the 9th.

The other boy was Frank Bromley, who was paying strict attention to Pastor Hendly’s sermon, something Tory never did. Frank was the churchy sort—self-righteous, sanctimonious—just the sort of kid that Tory had no use for. Frank was a year older than Tory, and he and his parents had a Bible-study night together with a group at the church; they’d invited Tory’s parents to come with them and bring Tory along; they wanted the boys to be friends. But Tory and Frank had nothing in common, and Tory didn’t like the older boy. He’d been afraid his parents would welcome the opportunity to spend more time in church and had been surprised they’d declined. His father had encouraged Tory to go, however, but hadn’t protested when Tory had told him he didn’t want to. He’d been amused when his parents also declined the invitation when he’d said he didn’t want to go.

Even so, Frank’s parents had continued to politic for the boys to get together, and Tory had had to find ways to undermine their suggestions. The two had no relationship. Spending any time at all with Frank was an ordeal, and Tory avoided it like the plague.

Tory let his eyes roam to the right side of the church. It was less crowded on that side, so he could see who was sitting there better. There were a few kids, but not many. And then his eyes did a double-take and moved back to where they’d just been.

A boy he’d never seen before was sitting in the front pew. He looked to be Tory’s age. He was dressed just like Tory, in a sports coat, dress shirt and tie. Tory could only see that much of what he was wearing but could see the bright, blond hair, neatly combed, and the pale cheeks.

Tory tried to keep scanning, but for some reason, his eyes kept returning to the blond boy. Then he saw the boy suppress a yawn, and Tory smiled. He wondered who the kid was. That he’d never been here before, Tory was sure. He’d have to find out about him. Since the boy was in the front, maybe he was like Frank, overly religious. Tory hoped not. He’d had to put up with religious talk all his life because his parents were so active in their church and engaged with the people there and all the church-related activities. At 13, he had little choice but to listen and be dragged along. But it didn’t mean he had to like it, and he’d formed his own opinions about things.

So maybe it was the same with this kid.

Tory could only hope.

In the meantime, he kept watching the kid even though he was just sitting quietly in the pew, just as Tory was doing. He wasn’t even looking around. But then, he was in the front row, and a stern-looking man dressed in black was sitting next to him. Perhaps the kid was just as immobilized as Tory was. Tory decided to pretend that was so and allowed his thoughts to begin to fly free. He did have the sense to lay the hymnal in his lap beforehand.

♂ ♂

Tory had long ago given up hope of moving his parents along after services. They liked to stay and chat. His mother was the worst. This seemed to be the highlight of her week. She’d chat from sunrise to sunset, given the chance. The only thing that saved Tory was the fact that most NFL football games started at noon on Sundays here in Mississippi, and they had to be home by then each week so his father could watch his favorite team, the Saints. The service usually got out a little after 11; Tory didn’t think this was a coincidence. This was the South, and football was king. Tory’s dad was going to be glued to his sofa at game time. His father’s word was law in his home. It said so in the Bible, as the man reminded his wife so often, usually with a smile in his voice. Usually.

Just as he reminded Tory that sparing the rod spoiled the child. The Bible told him beating his child was perfectly all right. Luckily, the law said differently; besides, Tory’s father wanted to retain the respect he’d gained in the community over the years. Tory was old enough by now to have learned what the law said and also was perfectly capable of telling people if he was beaten, and his father knew he would. Tory was a spunky kid with enough self-confidence that he wouldn’t put up with stuff he didn’t agree with without making a huge fuss.

Having to wait before leaving after church was over had always been a thorn in Tory’s side, but on this day, Tory didn’t mind it at all. He wanted to get a better look at the blond boy, so he was in no hurry to rush off. Normally, his parents liked him to stand with them as they met other churchgoers and chatted after church, chatting about the most god-awful stuff. Things like how hot it had been lately—or cold if it was winter. Or how layoffs were affecting the economy. Or the fear that the Democrats were going to continue getting elected and keep ruining the country. Stuff like that. But his parents liked having the entire Edgerton family on display at church; in other words, they liked having Tory with them while they chatted so everyone could see what a perfect family they were.

Tory had found ways to get away from them, however. They could never deny him when he said he needed the john, which, surprisingly, seemed to be the case most every week during chat time. Also, if he told them he didn’t feel all that well and needed to sit down, that too worked, although sometimes it meant being fussed over at home afterwards and even being kept in for the rest of the day—he didn’t use that one much. Especially when it wasn’t raining.

Today, he begged off when his parents started talking to the Chapmans, two adults even more smug about their righteousness than his parents were of their own, which was saying a lot. Both his parents were born-again Christians who never passed up the opportunity to advertise the fact. Tory thought they ardently believed that every word of the Bible was the word of God, just as Tory was sure his parents felt they were headed for the Pearly Gates to visit God on his shining white throne when He was ready for them. Tory had to work hard to keep from rolling his eyes, hearing what he did on those church steps on Sundays.

Today, Tory told them he needed to go speak with Meredith, a classmate of his last term, about a reading list they were to finish over the summer and which he hadn’t got around to looking at yet. Heck, it was only the second week of summer vacation. He had plenty of time. But, it gave him a reason to wander off, and his parents were so busy with the Chapmans it was easy to break away.

Instead of bothering with the loathsome Meredith, a girl who tended to be clingy with him, Tory went looking for the blond boy.

Tory had been feeling something for a couple of years now, something he was sure would cause his parents to lash out at him if they ever knew. He’d heard about the horrors of homosexuality all his life. He’d also heard about the evils of masturbation even when he had no idea what that was. And then he’d discovered it by accident, and he found that his classmates had made similar discoveries, some quite a bit earlier than he had. It hadn’t taken him long to discount the horror stories his parents had told him about that. That made it much easier to discount the two of them as a source of accurate information about a lot of things and especially made it easier to dismiss what they’d said about homosexuality.

He certainly hadn’t given a thought to quitting masturbating, and likewise, as he became more and more convinced he was gay, he didn’t spend much time thinking about whether it was right or wrong. When he discovered that some of his friends were gay, it simply reinforced his thinking. Gay was simply something one was or wasn’t, there was no right and wrong to it, and he had no need to think about it any more than that.

He knew why he wanted to find out about the blond boy. He knew what had compelled him in church to keep returning his eyes to the front pew. He’d felt something, something deep inside and intense, when he’d first spotted that blond hair and then seen the face beneath it. That had been all the way from the back to the front of the church, and his view of the boy had been principally in profile. Tory wanted to see what it would feel like to be closer to the boy, see him from the front, maybe even speak to him if the opportunity presented itself.

He was lucky, he knew. A lot of boys, especially those who were new to a place, were shy and had a hard time talking. Tory didn’t have a shy bone in his body. He’d have no problem talking to the blond boy at all.

Chapter 2

Darn it was hot. It was bad enough, having to sit through another sermon, but I was used to that. I wasn’t used to the heat. At home, it was usually some variation of cool, cold, or colder. I never did understand why we had to move to the United States, let alone Mississippi, a southern state touching the Gulf of Mexico. The people here spoke funny, nothing like how the people in England talked, and this state had that ridiculous name with all those esses in it.  It had cities with really odd names, too, some of them even silly.

The name of my city in Sweden was very straightforward: Sala. Two syllables. Here, I’d looked up city names and found some in Mississippi that were just crazy. I mean, what kind of names are Biloxi, Picayune, Olive Branch, Pascagoula. Of course, while I was researching Mississippi, I checked out states nearby, and Alabama, the state right next to Mississippi to the east, had some crazy names, too, like Huguley and Boaz, Wetumpka and Sylacauga. Georgia, next to Alabama, was worse with Alpharetta, Tallapoosa and, well, I couldn’t believe it when I saw it, and I had to turn off my computer really quick so my father didn’t see it, but…Cumming! Cumming, Georgia. Glad we weren’t moving there! I’d be too embarrassed to tell anyone where I lived! All I could think of was some man lying in bed next to his wife and speaking on the phone answering a question from some woman about where he lived, and saying, “Cumming, Georgia!” Golly!

But just seeing that name caused a recurrence of the problem I’d been having so often now, one I couldn’t talk to anyone about. Father had been very specific about sex. I wasn’t to have anything at all to do with it or even think about it till I was over 21 and married. Sex was for having children and nothing else, and any other reason than being used for procreation was forbidden and I’d go straight to hell. The Bible said so. Therefore, I knew I wasn’t supposed to get erections. Father would be really mad if he knew.

Of course, I was 13 now, just, and I was starting to think that not everything Father said was true. It was awful of me to think that. I knew I was wicked. But he believed everything that the Bible said, and some of it, well, how could it be true? Maybe you just had to believe in miraculous things to believe the Bible, and my problem was that I didn’t. Believe like that, I mean. I just didn’t. My mother had been a scientist, and I’d heard both sides of their arguments. Her side made more sense to me. And then she’d gotten sick and died a couple of months ago, and Father had said that perhaps she should have believed in God a little stronger. That perhaps God took her as vengeance for her lack of faith.

So not only didn’t I believe in Him like Father did, I didn’t like Him much, either. And I thought Father was probably wrong about what he’d said, and if he was wrong about that, I should be questioning some of the other things he’d said. Mother said I should question everything. Father said that was evil, the work of Satan, putting temptation in our path, and we should never question the Bible.

See what I’m doing? I don’t like it, but I do it all the time. I start thinking about anything, like moving to Mississippi, for instance, and God and Satan and all that stuff starts creeping into my head, and I hate it. I want to be a normal boy, and no boys I know think about this stuff all the time. I think I’ve been brainwashed.

I’m in a different country now. I’m going to try to make friends here. I’d love to have friends. I didn’t have many in Sala. My father didn’t approve of any of the boys I could have liked. He didn’t even let me go to school. He thought I’d be corrupted by evil thoughts there and that most boys were wicked. I was home-schooled, and he hired people from the church to do that. If it weren’t for my mother, I wouldn't know anything but the Bible.

We moved to the United States after Mother died. Father was heartbroken. Even though the two didn’t see eye to eye on many things, they still loved each other. But with her death, he no longer had a viewpoint in his home to balance his own, and he began to become more and more righteous with his opinions. His church asked him to moderate his sermons and then offered to get grief counseling for him, but instead, he quit. I think he knew they were going to fire him if he didn’t change, and he wasn’t about to change. So he quit and told me the church establishment was too liberal in Sweden, and he knew it was more conservative in the American South. So we moved here, and he was looking for a new pastorship.

Father had heard that there were churches in America, especially in the South, that believed the things he believed, and so he’d brought us to Mississippi. He was looking for a place where he could resume being a pastor, and he’d rented a house just north of a medium-sized city called Bannister. The house was just southwest of a town, Roselle, which was too small to call a city. I think Father settled there simply because he found a house on a street called New Zion Road with another street close by named Church Street. He told me God was leading him there.

Anyway, to move along here and stop beating around the bush, not a burning one, either—see, I’m doing it again—he was going to churches in the area and talking to the pastors to see if anyone knew of an opening. He needed a job.

I was dragged to church every Sunday, no matter where we were. Mississippi, Sweden—it made no difference. Every Sunday, church. Here, though, the sermons were in English. That made them different even if they were just as boring, telling me what an awful person I was just because I was human. But the English made it different, and that made a nice change. I spoke English because Mother had grown up in Manchester, England. She had spoken to me in English when I’d been little; Father had always spoken to me in Swedish, but he too spoke English. He’d gone to university in Manchester.

So, that’s enough background, isn’t it? You don’t want to know about other stuff, do you? I mean about me? Personal stuff? I didn’t think so. I couldn’t talk about that, anyway. I don’t like to talk about myself. The fact is, I haven’t had much practice. Father always said children should be seen and not heard, and I never thought he liked to see me much, either. When Mother died, I lost my only real friend and the only person I could really talk to. As Father kept me away from other children, I had learned how to be OK just being alone by myself.

But I, and maybe because of that, or maybe it’s just my personality, I’m really shy. When someone wants to talk to me, I freeze up. I’m afraid I’ll make some sort of embarrassing mistake and they’ll laugh at me. And there are other things, private things, that make me very uncomfortable when I see another boy, and I get scared he’ll speak to me. So I don’t know how I’m going to make friends here, but I’m going to try, even if I have to defy my father. I’m starting to feel I want to do that. It’s a strong feeling and seems to be growing. He never wants to listen to anything I have to say, but that’s going to change. I want to go outside all by myself, meet people, talk to other kids, go to school where other kids are, and especially be free of all the religion that’s been pounded down my throat. I’m going to do it, too. I’m going to tell Father that’s what I’m going to do now that we live in the United States. In Mississippi.

As long as I don’t lose my nerve. Father’s awfully stern.

It was Sunday, and we’d been in Mississippi for three weeks now. This was the third church I’d attended. One thing about Mississippi, there are lots and lots of churches! Anyway, I sort of liked this one. The pastor wasn’t ancient like so many are, and he seemed down to earth and friendly. He wasn’t telling us all how sinful we were, either. This was kind of nice!

Father must be hating him.

Chapter 3

Tory moved around, milling through the crowd, eyes open for a flash of yellow hair. Pastor Hendly and his assistant stood by the large front doors of the church, speaking to people as they came out. The assistant seemed to have the job of keeping the doorway clear. He was very clever about it, Tory noticed, moving people along and out of the way without them realizing it was happening. Tory watched, fascinated with how smoothly he did this. The assistant was a young man, early twenties, Tory judged, and quite handsome.  He led a youth group on Tuesday nights. Tory didn’t attend, though his dad kept pushing him to. Tory had enough of church having to go once a week. Twice would be torture.

But then, if he had gone, he would have had the chance to see what the assistant was all about.

Tory shook his head. He wasn’t interested in older men. They didn’t excite him like the blond-haired kid had.

So he turned from the door and kept mingling. Tory couldn’t see his quarry anywhere; that was his problem. Then he thought of the restroom. At each end of the church’s vestibule were stairs leading down to the basement. On the east end, the stairs led to a hall where the men’s room was located; farther along, there was a large area where church socials were held; the other staircase led past the women’s room. Tory charged down the east stairs, his normal manner of negotiating steps, and crashed into the men’s room, expecting to discover his prize.

The urinals were all free, but one of the stall doors was closed. So sure of himself that the blond boy was inside, he almost knocked, but at the last moment realized that wouldn’t be at all mannerly, and if the kid was shy, as he expected a new kid might be, it might even scare him. So, instead, he walked to the row of sinks and washed his hands. And then dried them. And then washed them again. Still, the door remained closed.

Tory had a thought then. What if the boy was really shy and embarrassed to flush the toilet knowing someone was outside listening? That would be really shy, but still… So, cleverly he thought, Tory dried his hands, then went to the restroom door, opened it, and closed it. But stayed inside.

And perhaps he’d been right because almost immediately, the toilet flushed. Tory got a big grin on his face and waited for the boy to come out.

The stall door opened, and the assistant pastor emerged. He stopped when he saw Tory and frowned.

“I thought I heard whoever was in here go out? What’s going on?”

Tory was a boy with an irrepressible nature and a very quick mind. Rarely was he embarrassed. He had more than his share of self-confidence, and he displayed it then.

“Oh, sorry. I thought that was my friend Rodney in there and was waiting to surprise him. Darn, I guess he’s hiding somewhere else. See ya.”

As Tory turned to go, the assistant pastor said, “Rodney? I don’t know any Rodney. Who is he?” He looked at Tory with suspicious eyes.

Tory had simply used the first name that had popped into his head, so he had no Rodney to identify. But that was no problem. “Oh, you wouldn’t know him. Today was his first day here. He wanted to see what it was like,” Tory said, making it up as he went. “I don’t think he liked it much, if you want the truth. He probably took off as soon as he could, which is why I can’t find him. Well, see ya around.”

And this time he made good his escape.

♂ ♂

Tory climbed up the stairs to the vestibule and had already turned to go back outside when he heard voices coming from the nave. He peeked inside and saw a tall, slender man in a black suit, his back turned to Tory, facing Pastor Hendly. They were talking to each other. As Tory was about to leave, he realized that this man could be the person who’d been sitting next to the blond-haired boy. The suit seemed the same, and that man had been tall and thin, too. He stopped to look closer, and saw that the man’s forearms were raised and extended in front of him.

Tory got the impression that, standing in that position, the man could have a smaller person in front of him, between himself and the pastor. He could be holding the person there, one hand on each of the person’s shoulders. Could it be that the boy he hadn’t been able to find anywhere was here, right in front of him, but hidden between the two men?

Only one way to find out.

“Hey, Pastor Hendly, great sermon today,” Tory called out from the doorway, a good distance from where the men were standing just below the pulpit.

Tory had never found Pastor Hendly to be nearly the strict, no-nonsense man the pastor he’d replaced a few years earlier had been, and he even thought the pastor rather liked him. Tory knew the pastor had seen him when he was looking around and not paying attention during sermons because the man had caught Tory’s eye now and then during those restless times. But the pastor had smiled on those occasions, and once he’d even winked at him, and Tory had felt the man understood what it was like being thirteen and locked up in church on a soft summer day. And then, after a Sunday when Tory’d been more restless than usual, Pastor Hendly had spoken to him alone after church and told him that he himself had been the same way when he’d been a young teen, way, way before he’d found his calling.

So Tory liked the man and thought the feeling was reciprocated, and he expected the interruption wouldn’t bother the pastor. Therefore, Tory wasn’t surprised to see the man smile back at him. “Tory,” the pastor said, calling out to where Tory was standing at the rear of the nave, “this is adventitious. Can you come down here? There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

Tory marched down the long aisle wearing a smile, but not the faked one he’d donned when he’d called out. This was a real one, an anticipatory one. He was pretty sure what was about to happen.

“Mr. Swenson, I’d like you to meet Tory Edgerton, the son of two of our most faithful members. They come to church every week, rain or shine, and Tory comes, too. He’s 13, just like your son. Tory, this is Mr. Swenson and his son, Neil.”

At that, the boy who’d been hidden escaped from his father’s hands, which had tightened as the new boy appeared. Neil didn’t leave his father’s side, however, just moved so he could see Tory, who was now standing in front of him.

Tory looked back at him and hoped his heartbeat, which had about doubled in speed and seemed determined to leap out of his chest, wasn’t obvious. Neil was indeed the blond boy he’d been looking for, and the effect he had on Tory up close was befuddling. Tory’s breathing became ragged, and he felt light-headed for a moment.

Thinking about it rationally, which of course Tory couldn’t do at the moment, this boy wasn’t conventionally cute. His face was very slightly pinched, his nose just a tad small, and his eyes… On reflection, Tory realized it was the eyes that really got to him. They were a light-blue-green color that seemed to change with the light, and right then they showed both fear and eagerness. How Tory could read that, he had no idea, but it was the plainest thing in the world to him. The boy was scared and eager to meet him at the same time.

“Hi,” said Tory, his voice sounding funny in his ears. He cleared his throat and tried again. “I’m Tory, just like Pastor Hendly said.” He giggled, saying that, not at all in control of himself. Then, remembering, he turned to the man and held out his hand. “And glad to meet you, too, sir.”

The man took his hand and shook it peremptorily, looking at Tory suspiciously. Tory withdrew his hand as soon as he could. Keeping his smile in place, he asked the man, “Say, it looked like you and Pastor Hendly were busy talking. Maybe I could help out by showing Neil around? I’d be happy to.”

He could tell Mr. Swenson was about to say no when Pastor Hendly said, “What a good idea. This has to be awfully boring for Neil. We’ll probably be talking for another fifteen minutes or so. Why don’t you introduce Neil to some of our other young people, Tory?”

“Just what I had in mind, sir. Come on, Neil. Let’s see who’s still here.”

Tory could see Neil’s eyes change, the fear becoming predominant. But, the boy looked up at his father, who didn’t react at all, and then took a cautious step toward Tory.

Tory smiled at him and led the way to a side door, then out of the nave and into the sunlight.

When they got outside, Tory stopped and turned to face Neil. Just the sight of him was taking his breath away. Unable to think clearly, he simply blurted out, “Are you real?”

Neil’s forehead wrinkled. “Huh? Of course I’m real. Why are you asking that?” Tory could see he was confused, and he was happy that what Neil had said hadn’t been voiced in a confrontational way.

Tory didn’t answer immediately. He was stunned. Oh, my God! he thought, Neil has a British accent! First his looks and now this! Tory finally stumbled through an answer to Neil’s question, hardly knowing what he was saying. “Well, we were in the church, and I saw you, and…and your hair…and, well, I couldn’t help thinking about angels.”

Tory saw Neil’s eyes open wider. He could almost read the blond boy’s thoughts: was this some crazy person talking to him? What was going on here?

Tory saw this confusion and the return of the scared look Neil had had before and immediately realized how absurd he’d sounded.

“I’m sorry,” he said. He so wanted to reach out and touch the boy, but used most of his willpower to resist. “I know, that sounds crazy. It’s just, well, I don’t know how to talk about this without sounding ever crazier. It’s just—hey, I just have to say this—I’ve never met anyone whose looks affect me like yours do. Like I want to make friends with you. Like—” He stopped and did something he never did. He blushed.

Chapter 4

Oh, My God! This boy came into the nave where Father was holding me captive, keeping me from meeting anyone while he asked the pastor if he knew of any pastoral openings. It seemed the pastor was another of those adults who loved the sound of his own voice, and the two men were droning on and on, rattling away, as Mother used to put it, talking about all the churches in the area and their pastors and congregations, and I was stuck.

Then the handsomest boy I’d ever seen came and rescued me!

I still can hardly believe it. Even as shy as I felt, and even as my heart took off pounding at the sight of him, I still was sort of scared to walk away with him. But his smile was so…so…so attractive and enchanting, and he looked so happy, I forced my feet to move. Father of course wasn’t happy, but then he never is, and he wasn’t about to embarrass himself in front of someone who might be able to help him find work. So he didn’t do anything more than just stare at me, willing me not to go with this boy on my own volition. But I ignored him! I stood up for myself for once by simply moving my feet. I can’t believe I did it.

We went outside, and the first thing this boy did was ask me if I was an angel.

My face must have shown something, because he immediately apologized…sort of. He said he’d never seen anyone who looked like I did, and I realized he was saying that he thought I was attractive! No one’s ever said anything like that before and certainly not a kid who probably was a movie star in his spare time!

Then he told me my looks got him all confused and stuff, but I could hardly understand what he was saying because his looks were confusing me, too. All over, if you know what I mean.

Then he sort of shook himself and stopped blushing, which he’d done just looking at me. He kind of glanced around then before he yanked off his tie, unbuttoned his collar, and said, “Whew!”

I giggled.

“Hey, nothing’s much worse than a tie on a warm day. You have to feel the same. You have to, unless you’re an alien from some cold planet or possessed by some demon. I guess if you’re a creature from hell, it would seem cool up here. Not cold because this is Mississippi, and it’s never cold, but in comparison…”

He wiggled his eyebrows and laughed, and I did, too. This boy was amazing! I couldn’t have spoken like that to a complete stranger to save my life, making stuff up like that, worried I’d sound silly. He seemed totally at ease after his initial embarrassment.

“So, do you go by Neil, or would you rather I called you something else? I’m Tory, and that’s the name everyone uses. A lot of the kids here get nicknames hung on them, all sorts of stuff, like Slim if the kid’s fat or Speedy if he walks kind of slow or Piggy if his father runs a pig farm, but for some reason, no one’s ever hung one on me.”

He looked at me. I realized suddenly it was my turn to talk. He’d asked me a question. I hoped, really hoped, I’d be able to do this. This kid seemed really nice. And I liked looking at him.

“No, I’m just Neil. That’s all,” I said. Hey, I did it!

“You’re new here, aren’t you? Are you just visiting, or have you moved here to stay? I hope you’re staying. Oops, did I say that? I don’t think you’re supposed to say things like that. But I mean it. See, just being with you is rattling me.” He grinned again. I didn’t know if I liked the grin or the smile better.

And then he changed the grin to a smile! Darn, he was so good looking. And so animated! I’d love to have a friend like him. But he was way out of my league; I knew that. Once he saw how boring I was and klutzy and…well…shy, he’d go away. Still, this was really nice. Being here alone with him. Talking to him.

Oh, it was my turn to talk again. Usually, when I was with adults, they did all the talking. I wasn’t used to having a turn. But he was looking at me and waiting. I gulped.

“Uh, yes, we’ve just moved here. I don’t know if we’re going to stay.” I stopped, but he was looking at me as though expecting more, so I forced myself to continue. “My father is a pastor, and he’s looking for a church to serve at. If he finds one and they hire him, I’m sure we’ll stay.”

I saw his expression change. He’d been glowing, sort of like a second sun in the sky. Now, some of that faded. I didn’t know what I’d said to cause that, but that was me. I guessed he was already seeing that I wasn’t what he was hoping for, whatever that might be.

“Oh,” he said. Then he started walking, and I watched him walk away. He only took three steps, however, before he stopped and said, “Hey, aren’t you coming?”

“But I thought—” I started to say, then realized telling him what I’d thought would make me seem awfully feeble, wouldn’t be smart at all, so I just moved after him. He started walking again when I caught him, and I stayed with him this time.

We only went a few more steps before he started speaking again. “So you’re a pastor’s son. I guess, then, that means you’re really into all this religion and church stuff, huh?”

His voice had lost a lot of its life. But, when he looked over at me for my response, I could see some hope in his eyes. And then I realized what might be happening with him. He’d been disappointed when he’d learned Father was a pastor, and so he probably figured I was interested in all that stuff. That’s when he’d lost his enthusiasm.

But he came to church himself. Pastor Hendly said he came all the time. Wouldn’t that mean he was into religion and a true believer and all? Well, maybe. But if he’d come with his parents, then maybe he was just like me; maybe coming hadn’t been his idea. But how was I to know?

This was confusing and difficult for me. I really wanted this kid to like me, so I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. So maybe he wanted me to be religious, and maybe he didn’t. I only had a fifty-fifty chance of saying the right thing!

Oh, wait. I had an idea. “Tory?” I said, tentatively, “are you into it all? I mean, you’re here. At church. The pastor said you never miss a Sunday.”

“I hate it,” he said. Well, he certainly wasn’t shy about stating his opinion! He didn’t seem worried about whether I agreed with his opinion, either. He was either braver than I was or didn’t care what I thought of him. I wished I could be like that, as independent as he was.

But I knew what to say now, too, and it could even be the truth.

“I don’t like it, either,” I said and saw his eyes light up again. It made me feel strange and excited, all the way down to my stomach, seeing that.

“You don’t?” he asked hopefully. At least it sounded hopeful to me.

“No. I’ve had to deal with it all my life. My mother kept me sane, but since she died a few months ago, I’ve only had my father, and he’s one hundred percent religion, one hundred percent Old Testament, one hundred percent of the time.”

He had something else in his eyes now, but I didn’t know what it meant. What I did know was it made my heart beat even faster.

We were walking across a wide lawn. I’ll say this for Mississippi: things were sure green here. The grass was lush, trees were in full leaf, and I could see butterflies flitting here and there. It was pretty in Sweden, too, but this felt different, somehow. Burgeoning with life. Maybe what I was feeling was the absence of winter looming. That was always with us in Sweden. Here, I had no sense of icy winds just over the horizon.

Across the way I could see a white rail fence and horses grazing lazily in a field. There were even some young ones, much more active than there mommas. Scattered clouds speckled the sky above. A soft breeze fluffed my hair. Everything seemed so peaceful.

He didn’t speak for a while, and somehow, that didn’t make me nervous. Sometimes, with strangers, I thought silence meant I had to fill it, and I never knew what to say. It didn’t seem that way just then.

We crossed a road and then were up against the white rail fence I’d seen from a distance. As we watched, a dark horse with a white blaze on its face ambled over to us. Tory stooped down and picked some grass, and reached out with it in his upturned palm. The horse leaned its head over the railing and ate it.

I laughed. He looked at me questioningly.

“It’s the same grass that’s on the other side of the fence,” I said, and then he laughed, too. “There’s no need for him to risk anything if he stays behind the fence,” I added. I knew that’s how I felt a lot of the time with strangers.

“It’s a her,” he said. “Maybe she’s just sociable, or maybe she’s lazy.” He laughed, and then I did, too.

It was remarkable, the feeling of closeness, of unity, it gave me, both of us laughing together like that about something we’d just shared.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt such joy.

He petted the horse’s neck, then asked me if I wanted to.

“Oh, no!” I took a step backwards. “I’ve never touched a horse. They’re so big, and they might bite.”

“This one won’t. You can tell by how she’s holding her ears. She’s very friendly. She likes people. Just don’t move fast. They scare easily, even though they’re big. But she won’t mind if you pet her.”

“I’d rather not.” I hoped he didn’t think I was a sissy. But she did scare me.

“No problem. I guess you don’t ride.”

“I’ve never been on a horse. Actually, I’ve never done much of anything.”

He gave me a glance, looking more somber than before, then smiled again. “We’ll have to do something about that, then, won’t we?”


Part 2: Chapters 5 to 8 >>>

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