Light was everywhere—there were no shadows. But then, this was Heaven, and darkness, being merely the absence of light, would find no place here, since light was everywhere. Circular reasoning, thought Aaron, but absolutely true. Back on earth, there were those who would argue that light was merely the absence of darkness, and not the other way around. But they were wrong. Each new sunrise on earth proved it. Aaron smiled slightly. His friends raised an occasional eyebrow at some of his observations. While the rest of his friends accepted ‘that’s just the way it is in heaven’ as a final explanation for this or that, his curious nature always sought to discover the why of ‘that’s just the way it is’. Not that he could change things or even wanted to, just that he was a definite believer that obedience based on knowledge was more productive than obedience based on “that’s just the way it is”.
“Ah, Brother Aaron—first here as usual, I see.” The voice was that of Senior Angel Cornelius John, the leader of the group. Brother Cornelius, as he was commonly called, headed a team of four other Guardian Angels. They rarely used rank when referring to each other, except in introductions. Usually it was just the common titles of Brother and Sister.
Aaron looked at him, eyebrows raised slightly. “I might sometimes be a little too inquisitive for the group’s comfort, Brother Cornelius, but I do show up on time and fulfill my responsibilities, even if a bit unconventionally on occasion.”
“Can’t say as I always agree with your methods,” commented Cornelius, “but I certainly can’t argue with your success. I—ah-h-h-h. Here come the others.”
Three more angels came into the room, smiling at Cornelius and Aaron.
“Thank you all for coming,” said Brother Cornelius. Then, without preamble, he got down to business. “We have a new assignment. His name is Justin Billings.”
The three angels who had arrived last sat attentively, waiting for more details. To their surprise, Aaron groaned.
“Justin Billings?” he asked as he lowered his head onto the table top, “Why me?”
There wasn’t much to see—a dusty, dirt-packed county road bordered on one side by a wide and shallow weed infested ditch, and on both sides by fenced in pastures. Here and there, dragon flies buzzed around in no apparent flight pattern, landing briefly on an occasional thistle or other plant before darting off to other adventures. A small herd of cattle in one of the pastures was occupying its time by grubbing—walking the fence line, pulling up and eating the short vegetation growing there. The majority of the pasture was grazed out, the only food left being what the cows could find along the fence line. Soon, the cows would be moved to another pasture, but the time was coming when the owner of the pasture would begin delivering bales of hay to the herd. With the first bale thrown on the ground from the pickup truck, the cows would stop grubbing altogether and depend on the farmer for their meals. If the meals were ever to stop at some time, the cows would starve to death before returning to grubbing for their food. Such was their mentality.
On this particular day, an oddity had occurred that broke the usual sameness of the scene. Off to one side of the road and partially hidden in the shallow ditch, was a human body.
The boy moaned, coming slowly out of his self-induced stupor of alcohol and sleep. How long he had been passed-out he didn’t know. The sound of a vehicle passing by penetrated through the fog of his mind, informing him that he was not where a person just awakening would normally be. He could feel the sun glaring down on his face and something damp under his back and legs. Slowly, stiffly, he brought his right arm up and shielded his eyes from the light. He felt chilled all over, and if his right arm was any indication, he would be stiff all over, also. He guessed he would find out for sure when he got around to moving the other parts of his body. Opening his eyes, he eased his right arm back down to his side. The sky above him was clear and cloudless. Gingerly, he lifted up his head and looked around, then let his head fall back to the ground. The news was not good. He appeared to be lying in some weeds growing in a ditch that paralleled a highway. When he attempted to get up, he discovered that he was indeed stiff all over. As fast as his arms and legs moved, they might as well have been dead pieces of meat. With the greatest of efforts, he was finally able to stand. Bleary eyed, he lumbered up the slope of the ditch and stopped, surveying his surroundings. The news was worse than not good. His highway was not a highway at all—just a dusty, dirt road with fenced-in fields on each side. He saw with discouragement that one of the fields held a few head of cattle.
“Farmer country,” he said out loud. “Great. Let’s all go to Hicksville and watch the cow milking contest.”
Stiffly, he sat down by the side of the road, his feet planted on the slope of the ditch. Now what? He was hungry, thirsty, hung-over, and just plain beat. A good shower wouldn’t do any harm either, he decided. His only hope seemed to hang on the chance of another vehicle passing by, so he decided to conserve energy and wait where he was. If one car—or whatever it was—had come past a few minutes ago, another should be by sometime soon.
That was his hope, anyway.
Tiredly, and partly to ease the dull throbbing in his head, he moved little ways down the embankment and laid back. Perhaps with a little more rest, and if no cars came along soon, his body would feel like walking down the road to who-knows-where.
He wasn’t sure when he had dozed off, but the sound of a vehicle approaching brought him groggily to his feet. He rubbed his eyes and looked in the direction of the noise. A pickup truck—a fairly old one from the look of it—was coming down the road, clouds of dust roiling up in its wake.
A few moments later the truck eased to a stop beside him. The driver had his left elbow out the window and his right hand on the steering wheel. He guessed the driver’s age at about mid to late fifties. They looked at each other for a few moments, examining and making on-the-spot judgments. Before the boy could ask him for a ride, the old man expelled a brownish stream of liquid from his mouth that landed near the boy’s feet.
“Son,” said the rugged but not unpleasant looking old man, matter-of-factly, “you look like something my dog would drag into the yard.” The old man’s voice matched his rugged appearance.
“I need a ride,” said the boy.
The man released another stream of brownish liquid. “Shredded tootsie rolls,” he stated. “Used to chew tobacco, but the wife hated it, so I use this as a substitute. Hop in and make yourself at home.”
The boy walked around the front of the truck and pulled at the door handle on the other side. With a protesting scrape, the door opened, scraping in protest again when he closed it after climbing in.
“Got yourself into some difficulty, looks like,” said the man conversationally as he put the stick shift into first gear and released the clutch pedal.
Inwardly, the boy fumed. The last thing he felt like doing right then was explaining his personal troubles to some hick-stick farmer.
“Thirsty?” asked the old man as he shifted into second gear.
“Maybe,” said the boy wearily, trying not to show how utterly used up he felt.
“Reach under the seat. There’s a canteen with some water in it. Won’t be cold, but at least it’s wet.”
The boy did as instructed. Unscrewing the lid, he guzzled the water down. It was lukewarm, but some of his fatigue vanished almost immediately. Slightly dehydrated, probably, he thought to himself.
“How far to the nearest town?” he asked as he screwed the lid back on the now empty canteen.
“Not headed to the nearest town,” replied the old man. “I’m taking you back to the house. You need some food in your stomach and a shower or two before you’re fit for making your next public appearance. We’ll have the wife wash those clothes of yours while we’re at it. They reek of stale beer and yesterday’s meals. You got a name?”
“Mark,” said the boy finally, “Mark Brown.”
The farmer gave him a quick, sharp look before turning his eyes back to the road.
“Okay, Mark Brown,” he said, “we’ll use that one for now. I’m Lloyd Barber.”
The boy remained silent. Lloyd Barber, he thought. That’s a good name for the old farmer alright. The name even sounds old.
Though the trip to the house took only fifteen minutes, to the boy it seemed like endless miles of sameness. With nothing more interesting to occupy his attention, he closed his eyes and began plotting revenge on those who had dumped him in the middle of po-diddly-nowhere. A minute or two into his plans, the droning symphony of the truck’s engine lulled him to sleep.
Shortly after Mark Brown and Lloyd Barber left, another figure arose from his sitting position on the embankment sloping down from the road. He looked up at the sky, as if seeing completely through it at some point millions, or even billions, of light years in the distance. Immediately, his face began glowing, as if some connection had been established. Projecting his thoughts through the connection, he said, This is Aaron. He’s on his way. I’m going to observe for a day or two, then I’ll return and report to the team. Bringing his gaze back down from the heavens, Aaron looked in the direction the truck had driven. “It’s started,” he said to himself as he stepped onto the road. As he began walking in the same direction the truck had driven, he simply faded from view.
The sound of the truck engine coming down in pitch brought the boy out of his slumber. He straightened from his slouched position on the truck seat and looked around.
“This is it,” Lloyd said as he pulled to a stop by the house. “Ain’t much, but my wife and I are partial to it. Keeps us fed and what-not.”
It, the boy saw as he looked around from inside the truck, was a farm. They were parked in a small dirt clearing surrounded by an assortment of buildings. Roads—dirt, naturally, thought the boy—headed out from the clearing in several directions. A few chickens were sauntering around, occasionally pecking at the ground as they walked. Next to one of the larger buildings was a fenced in area, filled with milk cows. As the boy watched, a double door on the building swung open and the cow closest to the opening walked in.
“Ever been on a farm before?” asked the farmer.
The boy thought before replying. “Maybe,” he said.
Lloyd waited for him to elaborate, then snorted. “You’re just brimming over with information, aren’t you?”
Mark, whose temper was easily ignited, knew it but didn’t care, bit off a quick retort. Might as well play along play along for now, he decided. There was still the matter of getting fed, showered, and out of this place to somewhere more closely resembling civilization.
If Lloyd noticed the boys’ reaction, he ignored it. “Well, climb out and I’ll take you to the house and introduce you to the misses,” he said.
The boy climbed out of the truck and followed the old man to the house. A slight odor of cow manure assailed his nostrils. Even smells like a farm, he thought, wrinkling his nose in disgust. The sooner he got away from here, the better.
The boy entered the house behind the farmer, then stopped, looking around in surprise. From the farmer’s “ain’t much” statement, he had expected to walk into run-down conditions—worn, board floors, wallpapered walls, and perhaps furniture that was third or fourth-hand. Nothing of the sort greeted his gaze, however. Everything in the home looked new, or near-new, that he could see.
“We may be just simple country folk,” said the farmer, “but we appreciate nice as much the city folk do.”
Mark silently chastised himself for showing surprise. Surprise was emotion, and he didn’t want to give the old man or his wife anything to hook onto. He shrugged his shoulders, as if he could care less what the farmer thought.
Lloyd studied him for moment, his look unreadable to Mark. “Ma?” Lloyd called out, “We have a guest here who’s hungry and tired.” Instructing Mark then, he said, “Sit down at the dining room table there. After you eat, you can shower while my wife fixes you a place to lie down. When you’re rested up, we’ll talk.”
“How are you feeling now?” Connie Barber walked into the spare room she had fixed for Mark, and laid his just washed and dried clothes at the foot of the bed he was still laying in. “You slept for five hours. You must have been tired.”
“I feel okay,” replied Mark neutrally. Actually, the sleep had been invigorating, but he wasn’t about to let Mrs. Barber know that. He didn’t need any smooth, phony expressions of concern from her. She didn’t even know him, and therefore had no reason to care about him, he knew. Thankfully, just a little longer and he would be out of this place.
“ Well,” she said cheerily, “when you get dressed, my husband would like you to go out to the milking parlor. He’s there now.” After a moment’s pause with no reply from Mark, she walked out of the room, closing the door behind her.
Mark sat up, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed. He grabbed his clothes, noticing—with some irritation towards himself that he had noticed—how fresh and clean they smelled. He dressed, then found Mrs. Barber in the living room.
“Where’s the milking parlor?” he asked.
In spite of himself, Mark was intrigued by the parlor. The first thing to meet his eyes as he walked in the door was the large, oblong stainless steel tank in the center of the first room. Fascinated, he walked over and lifted one of the hinged lids. The tank was half full of cold, fresh cow’s milk. A small motor on top of the tank operated a blade assembly that occasionally stirred the milk inside the tank.
“Quite a setup, huh?”
Startled, Mark released the handle of the lid. With a loud, metallic clash, it closed. Jerking around, Mark’s eyes met the pleasant smile of Lloyd Barber. That was twice now the old farmer had made him show some emotion.
“Big milk truck comes by every four or five days and pumps out the tank,” he told Mark. “In there,” he said, pointing to the door connecting the two rooms, “is where the milking is done. Come on and I’ll show you.”
Mark didn’t move. “I need to get to town,” he said, pointedly. The last thing he wanted right then was a glowing tour of the Barber Family Business from the hick that owned it.
“Well,” said Lloyd, “I’m not going to drop what I’m doing right now just because you want to get to town. These cows need to be milked. You can either stay out here and watch me, or you can go back to the house. Either way, we’ll discuss the ride when I get done here.”
“Fine by me,” said Mark, irritated that his request wasn’t being given the attention he knew it deserved. “I’ll be in the house.”
Stupid farmer, thought Mark as he walked back to the house. Maybe he’s got all the time in the world, but I have to get out of here.
“Well, hi, Mark. Did Lloyd give you a tour of the parlor?” The cheery voice of the farmer’s wife grated on Marks already raw nerves.
“I didn’t hang around that long,” he replied impatiently, flopping himself onto the couch.
“That’s too bad,” she said, ignoring his sharp tone of voice. “You would have found it interesting, I bet. Well, make yourself comfortable then. Lloyd will be in shortly.”
With nothing to amuse him, his mind occupied the restless time by fuming. After what seemed like forever, Lloyd came into the house. Relieved, Mark jumped up from the couch. “I’m ready to go,” he said.
Lloyd looked at his watch. “Do you know what time it is?” he asked.
“What difference does that make?” demanded Mark. “I have to get to town. Tonight.”
Ignoring him, Lloyd stripped off his milking coveralls and hung them on a coat rack in the entryway of the back door. “Come and sit down over here,” he said as he passed by Mark and went into dining room.
“What difference does it make what time it is?” demanded Mark again as he sat down on a dining room chair.
“It’s seven o’clock in the evening,” explained Lloyd, reasonably. “If we go to town now, all we’re going to find is empty streets and vacant stores. This isn’t the big city, son. They rolled up the streets in town an hour ago. Won’t unroll them until 9:00 tomorrow morning. Naturally, you’re welcome to stay here for the night.”
“What about the next town, then?”
Lloyd and his wife looked at each other, smiling in amusement. “Well,” said Lloyd, “I wouldn’t exactly call Pickerville a town. It has one small grocery store with a gas pump. The old man who runs the place takes a day off whenever he feels like it. You’re in the country, son. Might as well accept the fact that you’re here for the night.”
Mark sat, silent and sullen. He didn’t want to accept any fact. He wanted to leave. He hated the old man for not making it happen and he hated the circumstances that were conspiring to keep him here.
“Okay,” he said finally, reaching a decision. “I’ll stay the night, but here’s what’s going to happen: As soon as I’m ready to go in the morning, you’re going to drop what you’re doing, and you’re going to take me to Hicksville or whatever its name is and no excuses. I can find my own way from there. Trust me—you don’t want to cross me on this. My dad is a lawyer, so I can make it pretty rough on both of you.”
With satisfaction, Mark noted Lloyd’s small shake of the head to his wife, warning her not say anything that would irritate Mark further. After a brief but hard look at each of them, he turned and headed for the bedroom he had slept in earlier.
After they were sure that Mark was out of hearing range, Lloyd and Connie held a low-toned conversation.
“What did you find out?” he asked.
“Here,” she answered, handing him a slip of paper. “A phone number. It belongs to a family by the name of Billings. Mark is their son. Or I should say Justin is their son—Justin Billings. His father, Robert, is a lawyer, so he was telling the truth about that, at least.”
“Interesting,” said Lloyd. Grinning, he asked, “Are we in trouble?”
“The first thing Mister Billings did when I described Mark and asked if he knew him, was apologize for any trouble his son may have caused us. He was very open with me. Told me that Mar…Justin dropped out of high school when he was a senior, claimed to be bored with school and more intelligent than half his teachers. Anyway, he has been almost uncontrollable since he was 15 or 16, according to Mister Billings. He would like to talk with you, by the way. When I told him that we run our own farm, he said he had a idea that could benefit us and him.”
“What was his idea?” Lloyd asked, interested.
“He wouldn’t tell me. He was polite about it, but said that he’d prefer to discuss it with you first.”
Lloyd looked at his watch. “Well,” he said, “now’s as good a time as any.” Standing up and removing the cordless phone from its cradle on the dining room wall, he dialed the number, then turned to his wife. “I’m going to take this call outside,” he said, “away from possible listening ears.”
“I understand,” she replied, following him to the door but not going out herself.
“Mister Billings,” she heard him say as he walked away from the house, “I’m Lloyd Barber.”