“Chris, how’s it going?”
“Fine, Rhonda, and you?”
Chris walked down the hallway on the way to his meeting with the principal and some of the teachers. Everywhere he went in school anymore, others smiled and said hello. He couldn’t help but reflect on how much he had changed and how far he had come since his good friend Justin had literally kicked some sense into him. Indeed, if it weren’t for Justin, he would not be student body president today. For those two things alone, he owed Justin much. Some day, when he figured out how he was going to do it, he would pay Justin back. Thanks also to Justin, he had a fulltime career waiting for him after he graduated high school.
After the final remodeling of the teacher’s break room, and without Chris’s knowledge, Justin had invited Chris’s father, Stewart Munson, over to see it. Stewart owned a construction company named, creatively enough, Munson Construction. Justin knew from some things Chris told him that Chris and his father did not get along very well. Justin also knew that Chris blamed himself for most of the trouble in their relationship.
“Chris oversaw all this?” his dad had asked.
“Trust me,” Justin had replied. “He organized everything. It was an education just watching him work.”
A few days later, Justin told Chris what he had done.
“You talked to my dad?” asked Chris. “What did he say?”
“My friend,” Justin told him, “there is nothing your father would like better than to change all the Munson Construction titles on everything he owns to Munson and Son Construction. He’s seen how you’ve changed. He also came to the school and saw the job you did on the teachers break room. He was very impressed. He told me that as far as he’s concerned, everything in the past is gone and forgotten.” Laying a hand on his friend’s shoulder, Justin continued. ” You have a golden opportunity here, pal. Don’t be stupid and waste it.”
Taking Justin’s advice, Chris had talked with his father that very evening. Willingly, almost anxiously in fact, his father told him of his plans for retiring and turning the company over to Chris when his son thought he was ready to handle it.
College was in his plans of course, and the career would help pay his way through that. It was a win-win situation for him. The career would help him get more education, and the education would make him more knowledgeable, and thus more valuable in his career.
The next day at school, Chris walked up to Justin and shook his hand. “Thanks pal,” he said, emotionally. “You have no idea what you’ve done for me.”
“Oh, I think I do,” said Justin seriously.
Bringing himself back to present reality, Chris tapped politely on the door of the break room, the teachers preferred meeting room since the remodeling job. Without waiting for an invitation, Chris opened the door and stepped in.
“Hey, don’t we look sharp,” commented Mrs. Walker, the principal. The others in the room agreed.
And what she said was true. Another change that Chris had made was wearing a tie to school when-as student body president-he was going to be involved in something important and dressing up a little would advance his cause. Today was one of those days.
Besides Mrs. Walker, the assistant principal and several other teachers were present.
“I’ll make this short,” Chris assured them, taking a seat where Mrs. Walker had indicated. “The student body officers and myself would like to set up a Student Dropout Committee.” He noted with satisfaction that everyone’s interest level rose several notches. “We feel that if potential dropouts had someone to talk to-not an adult, but another student-before dropping out, that we could markedly decrease the dropout rate. Briefly, let me list some of the tools that we would use to convince them to stay in school. As much as possible, members of the Dropout Committee would be former dropouts themselves, and so could honestly relate to what the potential dropout is going through. Another possibility is a school assembly, sponsored by the SDC of course, about staying in school. We would bring in one or two business owners from the community to talk about what they’re looking for in a potential employee. Perhaps they could even discuss problems they’ve had when hiring dropouts as opposed to graduates. Another idea is to visit with former dropouts and encourage them to come back to school. We have other things also, but this will give you a general idea of what we would like to do. One other thing, and it’s something that I and the rest of my officers feel very strongly about: we know that an adult-someone on the teaching staff perhaps-would need to be assigned as an adviser to make the committee official. However, we don’t want someone who thinks their job is to take over and run the committee. We’ll run the committee. We just need someone who is willing to sit back and let us do it our way-within reason of course. The success of this committee will be based on the trust that potential dropouts will have that we’re not under some adult’s thumb. And that’s it. We don’t expect approval today, but if and when it comes, we are anxious to get started as soon as possible. Thank you.”
At first, there was nothing but silence, giving Chris no clue as to how his presentation had been accepted. Then, one of the teachers began applauding, and within seconds the rest had joined in. When the applause stopped, Mrs. Walker voiced her opinion.
“Chris,” she said, somewhat emotionally, “I think I speak for my staff and all the rest of the teachers at this school when I say that we won’t need a meeting to discuss your proposal. The obvious benefits that will result from the formation of this committee speak for themselves.” Looking at the others in the room, she asked, “Who would like to be the silent adviser on this committee so that we can make it official?”
To no one’s surprise, almost every hand in room went up.
Laughing, Mrs. Walker said, “If this is any indication, it looks like we’ll have to have a meeting after all, so we can put everyone’s name in a hat and draw one out. Meantime, Chris, you have our permission as of this moment, to proceed with the formation of the committee. Good luck.”
“There is one thing I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Justin said as soon as Leland appeared in the clearing.
“And that is…?”
“What’s the travel time from here to there?”
“It’s not instantaneous,” Leland told him, “but it’s pretty fast. Earth time? Probably a few minutes. I’ve never really paid much attention to it. Now, what can I do for you, my friend?”
“I was expecting an impath from you, but face to face is even better.”
Chuckling, Leland said, “Right now, the entire Guardian team is scratching their heads trying to figure out how you learned to send an impath message all the way to heaven. I told them I would come down and find out. But first, let’s discuss your situation.”
“Who’s trying to kill me?”
“Calls himself Cerberus. That name ring a bell?”
Justin thought for a minute. “No,” he said, “although I have a feeling that it should.”
“I’ll tell you the story behind that some time. Not too much longer, and you won’t have to worry about him anymore. My Battle Team and I are going after him.”
“That’s good,” Justin told him. “I don’t relish the thought of going through the rest of my life looking over my shoulder most of the time. How much longer?”
“Soon, my friend. First, we have to find him. Then, we have to develop a plan. Then, we have to catch him when he’s alone. This isn’t reality TV. We can’t just go cruising on over to wherever he is in broad daylight in the middle of a busy street and do our thing on him. It doesn’t work that way. And if he’s never alone, then we have to arrange circumstances so that he will be alone.”
“Sounds complicated,” commented Justin.
“It is,” said Leland. “In fact, most of our missions take longer to plan than they do to execute. Now, tell me how you figured out the way to send and impath message through the conveyance tube.”
“I didn’t figure it out,” said Justin. “It was a combination of best guess, a shot in the dark, then pray that it works-which obviously, it did.”
Barely able to contain his amusement, Leland said, “Best guess, a shot in the dark, and prayer. The old standbys of problem solving. Well, that answer ought to impress them.”
“You rang, O knight of mine?”
“Yes, do you have a minute?”
“For you, always. Where are you?”
“In the clearing. I just had a talk with Leland, face to face.”
“What’s going on?”
“Somebody is after me-and you, because you’re with me. Clark and the other guy were hired by the same man. Calls himself Cerberus. According to Leland, I’m supposed to know him, but I don’t remember.”
After a long silence, Samantha replied. “So it wasn’t just bad luck on our part.”
“No,” Justin told her. “Looks like some of my old baggage is refusing to go away. The good news is that Leland and his team will be going after this guy sometime soon. But until then, we could still be in danger.
“Any suggestions?” Samantha asked. “I don’t like the idea of just sitting around waiting for something to happen.”
“Me either,” Justin told her, “and I do have a few ideas. I don’t think I told you this before, and with all the excitement, I kind of spaced it out. When we left the clearing the day you got shot, I had a very uneasy feeling that something bad was going to happen. At the time, I thought that maybe it was just a carryover from how we felt when that man talked to us in the cow barn. When we got to where the Hicksville Beater was parked, that’s when my senses really started screaming at me. In thinking about it now, I have a theory that our impath capabilities also come with a built-in warning system. I say that because my senses didn’t kick into high until we were fully exposed to the shooter’s view. Now, tell me if this makes sense: if someone means us harm, their auras will reflect that intent and broadcast it. Because of our impath abilities, our auras pick up the broadcast, and we get a feeling of danger, as I did.”
Samantha thought Justin’s theory over, and could find nothing wrong with the logic.
“I think you’re right,” she said, “and if so, I think we need to find ways of actively improving it.”
“Lady Fair, we are definitely on the same page on that one. I would like to explore, for example, the possibility of zeroing directly in on an aura that is giving off danger signals, instead of throwing our Vision in the air, hoping we’ll spot the right aura. If we know where the danger is coming from, we will have a better chance of avoiding it all together-or, if need be, going to the source of the danger.”
“Zeroing in,” mused Samantha. “That’s kind of what I did when Clark showed up that morning. As I was turning slowly and examining everything with my eyes, I noticed that the feeling of danger got stronger the closer I came to facing him directly. I hadn’t thought of it again until now, but I think you’re on to something. Maybe that’s what part of the Finding gift is-the ability to zero in; no wasted time.”
“If we explore it thoroughly enough, I think we can find a way to keep our auras on a passive but constant state of alert-not actively looking for danger, but ready to receive any signals of that kind that do come in.”
“Knight of mine, I feel better now knowing we can protect ourselves. You’re very good at this, you know.”
“Good at what?” asked Justin.
“Figuring stuff out,” said Samantha. “My two guardian sisters told me that Aaron referred to you as brilliant, and Leland agrees with him. So do my two sisters. And so do I.”
“Everyone is still here I see,” said Leland.
“Yes,” replied Brother Lynn, “and we’re all very interested in knowing how Justin figured out the method of sending an impath all the way from earth.”
“Well then,” said Leland, a serious look on his face. “I believe you’ll find his method of discovery quite interesting. He used a highly intuitive three-step process of best guess, a shot in the dark, and finally, a prayer that it would work.”
After a few moments of silence from everyone, Senior Angel Aaron was the first to comment.
“I should have known!” he exclaimed, laughing in delight. “Even his guesses are brilliant. He must’ve sent his Vision into the conveyance tube just before we left the clearing last time. And, of course, the first thing he would do upon entering the clearing the next time is activate his Vision to see if tube was still there. The rest of the process he must’ve worked out in his mind between visits to the clearing.” Looking at Leland, he asked, “Am I right?”
“He didn’t go into detail,” said Leland, “but your scenario is the only way it could have happened. And I’ll bet it won’t be long before Samantha knows how to do it also.” Pausing, he grinned, then added, “If he wants any peace, that is.”
“I think,” Brother Lynn remarked solemnly, “that our two new team members have far and away exceeded our expectations. I, for one, am looking forward to the time when both of them are among us permanently.” He thought for a moment, then uttered a final word: “Selah.”
“Selah,” the others echoed in unison, bowing their heads briefly.
“Hi. This is Arnold.”
“Well, hi! How are you?”
“I’m fine, thank you. I’m calling because I need a favor. If you could meet me at Sammy’s Cafe sometime in the next hour or so, I would buy you lunch and explain what I need while we’re eating.”
“How about right now?”
“Sounds good. I’m on my way.”
This is working out very well, Arnold decided as he got in his car. On his way to Sammy’s, he debated the best story to tell Stella. Basically, he had two choices: the I want revenge story, or the pranking a good friend story. After some thought, he decided to go with the pranking story, as it fit better with Stella’s personality.
“Listen,” he said as they were eating. “I’ve got this good friend who’s engaged to be married. Some of us have decided to have a little fun at his expense before he ties the knot, and we need a girl to help us.”
“That would be me, I assume,” said Stella.
“Yes,” replied Arnold. “I told my buddies that I couldn’t think of a better person to play the part than you.”
“I don’t do mean pranks,” Stella told him.
“No, no, no,” he replied. “This won’t be mean. Just a few minutes after you leave, we’ll let him and his fiancée in on the joke.”
“Okay,” said Stella after thinking for a moment, “When, and where? This is going to cost to another dinner later on, by the way.”
“You’re going to love this,” Curtis told her. “Next Friday at the Prospect High senior prom. Everyone knows about the joke except him and his fiancée. What we would like is for you to come in about half way through the prom. I will wait out in the hallway so that I can point him out to you. Do you have something you can do to make you look pregnant?”
“Okay, good. After I point him out to you, you’ll go straight up to him and start making a scene. As I said, everyone knows about the joke except him and his fiancée, so the rest of them will pretend to be shocked. You don’t have to stay long. In fact, I think that a good thirty to sixty-second tirade would be ideal. After that, you will storm out, bawling all the way, never to be seen again. A few minutes later, we’ll let him in on the joke, and everyone will have a good laugh. It ought to be fun. Then sometime in the next week or so, I’ll buy you dinner at the place of your choice.”
“Thirty to sixty seconds?”
“And dinner at the place of my choice.”
“Absolutely. All my buddies are chipping in, so price will be no object.”
“Okay, I’ll do it.”
“You know,” said Samantha as she and Justin walked the path to the clearing, “I just had a thought. If something happens and we feel too threatened, we can always come here for refuge if necessary. Didn’t you say that Lloyd and Connie know about the clearing?”
“Yes,” said Justin, “and they also know that I have impath capabilities, so if we needed to, we could contact them.”
Entering the clearing, they immediately took a seat on the conversation log.
“This place never loses its specialness,” said Justin, taking Samantha’s hand.
“And it never will,” Samantha told him. “At least, it never has for me.”
“I have something to ask you,” Justin told her after a little silence, “and if you don’t like the idea, I won’t be offended if you say no.”
“The answer is yes, Knight of mine.”
“I haven’t asked yet,” said Justin.
“It doesn’t matter. But if it will make you feel better, you may ask.”
“Something’s been heavy on my mind lately. The Barbers have become like parents to me, and for awhile now, I’ve wanted to do something special for them to show my appreciation, but I couldn’t come up with anything. Now I know what I would like to do.”
“You want to bring them here.”
“Yes,” Justin told her, eyes to the ground and speaking softly. “I know that this has been a special place for you for most of your life, and it’s become that way for me too. So if you want to keep it for just you and me to see, I will understand.”
“Justin. Look at me. Where would you be today if it wasn’t for them?”
“That’s easy. I’d be the same loudmouthed, pain in the butt, only cares about himself jerk that I always was.”
“And look at you now,” responded Samantha. “The kindest, most caring person I have ever known. I think highly of them too. So if you would like to express your appreciation by bringing them to our clearing, then I would be honored to have that happen.”
Relieved at her understanding, Justin threw his arms around her and held her tightly. “Thank you, Lady Fair,” he said.
“No,” she replied. “Thank you, for suggesting such a special event.”
Every Friday evening, Samantha had dinner at the Barbers-part of a standing invitation that Connie had issued to her several months ago. Because of the growing mutual respect between Samantha and the Barbers, the Friday dinners had become one of the highlights of the week for all of them.
Near the end of the meal, Justin rapped his spoon on the side of his glass. “I have an after dinner speech I would like to make,” he announced, standing up.
“O-o-o,” said Connie. “this ought to be good.”
“I’m getting sleepy already,” quipped Lloyd.
“I hope he doesn’t try to be funny,” added Samantha with a wink at Justin.
“For some time,” he began, then stopped. Taking a deep breath, he looked at the Barbers and tried again. “For some time, I’ve been trying to come up with a way to express my appreciation for all that you have done for me. Until last Saturday, nothing I could think of seemed good enough. Now, I believe I’ve found something. You’ve heard Samantha and me talk about the clearing we go to every Saturday morning?”
“Yes,” said Connie, looking at him carefully. “I remember you telling Lloyd and me that after what the angels did, only you and she could enter it.”
“Actually, what the angels told us was that no one else could enter unless Samantha and I allowed them to. She and I have discussed this, and we’ve decided that tomorrow when we go to the clearing, we’d like you to come with us.”
Lloyd and Connie exchanged looks. “Of course we’ll come with you,” said Connie, “and honored to do so. Perhaps then, Lloyd and I will better understand why this place is so special to both of you.”
“Actually,” said Samantha, “this was totally Justin’s idea, but I’m glad he thought of it.”
“I’ll pack us a picnic lunch to eat while we’re there,” said Connie.
And so it was that the next morning after the chores were finished and Samantha had been dropped off at the Barbers by her father, a two vehicle caravan made its journey from highway to graveled pasture road to shallow wheel ruts in a forest.
“Now we finish the journey on foot,” Justin informed the Barbers when they had gotten out of their car.
When they came to the point on the trail where Samantha had been shot, Justin paused and made a brief mention of it to the Barbers.
“I’m curious,” said Connie to Samantha. “You pass by this spot every Saturday morning. Surely you must be reminded every time you do that you came close to dying because of what happened here. How are you able to deal with the emotional aspect?”
“It’s not as bad as I feared it might be,” Samantha told her. “It’s like, I almost died here, but I didn’t, and now I still have my whole life ahead of me.”
When they drew to within a few feet of where the trail ended, Justin stopped.
“I don’t see any clearing,” commented Lloyd, “and I don’t see the trail going any further, either.”
“This is where the magic happens,” Justin told him. “To get both of you to into the clearing, you have to be in physical contact with us. So, unless it’s my hand you want to hold, I suggest you take Samantha’s, and Connie can grab mine. Also, you will feel a slight dizziness the moment we enter. This will pass within seconds. Ready?”
At their assurances, Justin walked to, then past, the end of the trail-Samantha and Lloyd right behind him and Connie.
“Whoa,” said Lloyd, releasing Samantha’s hand after they had entered the clearing. “Feels like falling out of bed.”
“That’s just the way I described it,” Samantha told him with a small laugh.
Justin and Samantha stood silently then, as Lloyd and Connie took in a view of the clearing with their eyes.
“There’s an incredible peace here,” said Connie, softly. “I can feel it.”
“Me too,” Lloyd added.
“There’s a log over here we can all sit on,” said Samantha. “Justin and I call it our Conversation Log.”
For awhile, they all sat, no one speaking-verbally, that is.
“Lady Fair-would you be offended if I showed them what I did when I proposed to you?” Justin impathed.
“Absolutely not, Knight of mine. In fact, I’ve been hoping that you would do a repeat performance sometime.”
Without a word, Justin arose from his seat on the log and walked to the center of the clearing. Facing them, he looked up into the sky.
“What’s he doing?” asked Lloyd, almost in a whisper.
“I told him that he could show you what he did here just before proposing to me.”
After about five minutes of staring intently at the sky, Justin lowered his gaze. Smiling then, he returned to his seat on the log.
“That’s it?” asked Lloyd. “He stared at the sky for five minutes before proposing?”
Samantha gave him a knowing look, but said nothing.
“You’ll have to excuse him,” said Connie, quietly, leaning towards her. “Lloyd and Justin-one of them takes after the other one, but I haven’t figured out which it is yet.”
“Here they come,” said Justin. “Keep your eyes on the edge of the clearing.”
Just like the first time, the doe and her fawn were the first to come in. The doe came a little closer than she had the first time, Samantha noticed, with the fawn seemingly content to stay by its mother’s side this time. After a few minutes, they both left the clearing.
“You did that?” Lloyd asked Justin.
“It’s not over yet,” Justin informed him.
After that, the same assortment of forest creatures that had entertained Samantha before, came into the clearing-each one staying for a brief period of time, then leaving.
As far as Samantha could tell, Justin had pretty much duplicated what he had done the first time-though he did throw in a surprise.
“Something new coming in,” he said, looking at Samantha.
No sooner had he finished, than a lone, gray wolf walked hesitantly into the clearing, looking immediately at the humans sitting on the log. Justin impathed the wolf feelings of security and curiosity. As a result, the wolf approached to within a few feet of where they were sitting. After examining them closely for a few seconds, it turned and left the way it had come in.
“Well, that sent shivers up and down my spine,” said Lloyd quietly.
“Mine too,” agreed Connie and Samantha in unison.
“Watch the sky now,” Justin told them. “The grand finale is coming up.”
“This was my most favorite part,” said Samantha softly.
This time, Justin’s timing was impeccable. They all looked up just as the eagles came into view, high above them in the sky. Circling as they had done before, they dropped lower and lower, finally landing-not in a tree this time-but on the ground, 20 feet from the conversation log.
“Marvelous,” said Lloyd. “Absolutely marvelous.”
After thirty seconds, Justin impathed them the desire to return to where they had come from.
“Goodbye, my friends,” said Justin, calmly as the eagles rose into the sky once more.
“Show’s over,” he informed the others.
“Pretty impressive, huh?” said Samantha.
“I’m…at a loss for words,” said Connie.
“You know, of course, that you could make a lot of money with that gift.” Lloyd told him.
“If I abuse it, I lose it,” Justin informed him. “But don’t think I haven’t given it some thought. If I was a veterinarian, for example, then I would have no qualms about using the gift in my occupation. In that type of situation, I would be making money because I am a veterinarian, and not because of the gift I have. However, since I have no desire to become a veterinarian, it’s a moot point. One occupation I have been considering is offering my services to law enforcement agencies. I haven’t discussed it with Samantha yet, but she and I would make a good team doing that sort of thing.”
“Whenever you two decide to do,” commented Connie, “you will be very successful at it. Now, why don’t we eat?”
“Well mother, what do you make of all this psychic mind stuff we saw today?” Lloyd was laying in bed, watching as Connie undressed in preparation for joining him. “It sounded pretty amazing when he told us about it, but to actually see him doing it-I don’t know. It’s almost incomprehensible.”
“I see it as a very special gift,” said Connie as she crawled in beside Lloyd, “and one that the two of them seem to have a lot of respect for. Did you hear what Justin said to the eagles as they flew off?”
“Yes. He called them his friends. Now to me, that shows a real respect for his gift and for the creatures he used it on.”
“Be interesting to see what, if any, effect it will have on their kids.”
“Somehow,” said Connie, “I don’t think this is a genetic pass-along.”
“Anyway,” commented Lloyd, “it was good of them show us what they showed us.”
“I think we have to consider something else, also,” said Connie.
“What’s that?” asked Lloyd.
“Subconsciously, I think Justin was sending us a message to step in and let him know if he ever starts abusing his gifts. I know that he is extremely mature for his age-Samantha also-but there is so much of life they have yet to experience.”
Grinning, Lloyd said, “So they will experience it just like everyone else does. Like you and I did. They’ll be okay. But you’re right. I don’t see it happening very often, but I think we need to be ready to step in and say ‘no’ if the occasion ever arises.”
Arnold Curtis woke up Monday morning of prom week, his senses heightened and anxious to get on with the day. Over the weekend, he had finalized his plans for dealing with Justin and Samantha. As a lead-in to what would happen at the prom, a rumor would begin circulating around school today that Justin was going to be a father in a few months. The nice thing about rumors, Arnold decided, was that no one ever knew who started them. Besides growing bigger with every retelling, even those who didn’t believe the rumor helped to spread it simply by expressing doubt about it to others.