“As always, I thank you for coming.” Brother Cornelius smiled serenely at his team. “I believe that Brother Aaron has a report for us…?”
“Yes,” said Aaron, standing and addressing the group. “This was a particularly satisfying task for me. You may recall that at our last meeting when the name of our assignment was announced, I lowered my head to the table and uttered something like ‘why me’?” Looking around, he saw the others nodding in agreement. “Well,” he continued, “I did so because this isn’t the first encounter I’ve had with our Mister Billings. I got to know him indirectly though others who I’ve been assigned to assist at times-and I can tell you that at no time did I come away with a positive experience where he was involved. So, you might be able to understand my despair when his name was revealed. Anyway, this encounter has made up for all the previous, ah, disappointments I’ve been dealt because of him. I was able to arrange a confrontation between him and Lloyd Barber, the outcome of which has given me hope-high hope, I might add-that Justin Billings will get his act together in time for the next phase of our operation.”
At the word ‘confrontation’ from Aaron, and knowing Aaron’s penchant for unusual-and sometimes radical-solutions to a problem, Cornelius looked at him with more than a little suspicion.
“What did this confrontation involve?” Cornelius asked hesitantly.
“Short version?” stated Aaron. “Let’s just say that his mouth was the cause of him forcibly taking a swim in several hundred gallons of soupy cow manure.” Though he tried to make the statement as solemnly and as regretfully as possible, the slight smile on his face gave him completely away.
“Soupy cow manure,” stated Sister Isabelle, “E-e-e-w-w-w.”
“Awesome,” said Brother Lynn.”Gross, but awesome.”
Sister Charity said nothing, letting the distasteful look on her face express her feelings.
And Cornelius, who knew that a reprimand from him would accomplish absolutely nothing, sighed quietly and rolled his eyes.
Justin’s resolve lasted for an entire day. His doubts about working for the Barbers started at 5:00am the next morning when Mrs. Barber knocked on the bedroom door and informed him that breakfast was ready. Groggy, bleary-eyed, and wiping the sleep from his face, he shuffled into the dining room.
“What time is it,” he managed to croak, smoothing his hair back as he sat down at the table.
“Time to milk the cows,” said Lloyd with a smile. Then, cheerfully irritating, “Don’t worry. You’ll get used to the early rise-and-shine routine. And starting tomorrow? I’d appreciate it if you got dressed before coming to the table.”
“Who gets up to go to work at this un-godly hour,” said Justin to no one in particular as he began eating.
“Folks who earn an honest living,” replied Lloyd. “And that includes you, now.”
“Great,” replied Justin, sarcastically.
The day was eventful and not as long and boring as Justin had thought it would be. After helping Lloyd milk the cows, they engaged in other activities that Lloyd referred to as “the morning chores”. The evening milking and the rest of the evening chores, Justin was told, would begin at five o’clock that afternoon, “doing the same thing we’re doing now,” said Lloyd.
During the course of the day, Justin began formulating a plan to get out of there. He had insinuated to Lloyd the night before that he wouldn’t quit on him, and he didn’t feel right about reneging on his promise so soon. Maybe, he decided, just slipping off and disappearing would be the best way. Further thought on the matter convinced him. All he had to decide now was when the best time would be to leave. He considered that problem as he opened the parlor door and let another cow in to be milked. After securing the cow in the stall, he grabbed for the milking device. If he left during the day, he decided, he would be missed too quickly to get very far, so-
Lloyds voice broke through his mental focus. He looked at Lloyd questioningly.
“That’s the bull,” said Lloyd with a smile. “I don’t think you want to try and milk him.”
With a sheepish return smile, Justin opened the stall and let the animal out. He remembered what Lloyd had said that morning about running the bull through with the rest of the milk cows. “Keeps him a little tamer,” was his reasoning.
By the time the evenings work was finished, Justin’s plan was also finished. He would leave tomorrow evening after the work was done. He would plead tiredness, and announce that he was going to bed early. It would be easy to fix the bed to look like he was in it. During the day tomorrow, he would gather as much food as he could fit in his pack, and perhaps a change of clothing. Then he could be out the bedroom window and headed towards town within minutes. He didn’t expect to actually get to town that night. His plan was to reach a major road, then find someplace close by and out of sight to sleep until morning. After that, hitch a ride to town, then on to freedom.
The next morning, the elation of what he would be doing that evening was such that he popped right out of bed when Connie made her breakfast announcement. He dressed quickly and walked into the dining room.
“Good morning, all,” he said cheerfully as he sat down. “Those eggs smell wonderful.”
“Well,” said Connie in surprise. “Is this the same Justin who was so tired and grumpy yesterday?”
“Maybe it was all that hard work I did then,” answered Justin as he politely wolfed down the scrambled eggs and sausage on his plate. “Could you pass the pancakes, please,” he asked Lloyd.
Last day, thought Justin happily as he followed Lloyd to gather the cows into the holding pen to be milked. Most of the cows were partially laying down, legs tucked up next to their stomachs.
“Up and at ’em!” shouted Justin when they got to the herd. “You’ve got the rest of the day to eat and lay around. Right now it’s time to pay for your room and board by donating some milk! Come on, number 42! You’re setting a bad example for your buddies! Up, up, up!”
As the day progressed, so did Justin’s cheerfulness.
Amused at first, Lloyd grew increasingly suspicious. Yesterday had been a typical work day for him, but he knew it had been hard on Justin, who was not used to all the physical labor they had engaged in. The boy was planning something, he decided, but what? He quickly ruled out revenge-Justin’s apology had been too sincere for a sudden reversal like that. Only two other possibilities were left then: the boy was genuinely happy about getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning to begin another day as a hired hand on a farm, or he was getting ready to bail out of his agreement. Lloyd opted for the most believable possibility, bailing out. Why am I not surprised, he thought to himself. He headed into the milking parlor, where he had left Justin on his own thirty minutes earlier. The boy would take off tonight, he decided. That would give him the most time to put some distance between him and the farm.
“How’s it going?” he asked Justin.
“Just great, Mister Barber,” said Justin with a smile. He chuckled. “I was just thinking what my friends would say if they could see me now.”
“Not many people have had the experience of milking cows, I’d say. At least we have milking machines these days,” reminisced Lloyd. “My dad owned six cows, and milked them all by hand. None of these cows have been hand-milked. All they know is the machine.”
“That’s interesting,” said Justin.
“Well, I’ll leave you to it,” said Lloyd. “Looks like you have everything handled. Supper should be ready about the time you finish.”
“Sounds good, Mister Barber.”
In the house, Lloyd sat at the dining room table, deep in thought. He had honestly begun to like the boy, even after suspecting that Justin was going to bail on him.
Connie came into the dining room and took a chair across the table from him. “He’s leaving us, isn’t he,” she stated.
Lloyd looked at her.
“His pack is stuffed with food and a change of clothing,” she replied to his silent question. “That explains his Mr. Sunshine act this morning.”
“Oh, it wasn’t an act,” Lloyd informed her. “He’s genuinely thrilled to be going-or thinks he is.”
“Well,” she said, conspiratorially, “there are a few items that he forgot to include in his pack, so I took the liberty of adding them.”
Lloyds mouth turned up in a slight smile. Knowing his wife, her “additions” would be good.
“A flashlight might come in handy once he realizes that country roads don’t come with street lights. Also, he’ll need the light to read the letter I wrote him.”
Lloyd’s smile broadened. “Letter…?”
“Yes,” said Connie. She looked up at the ceiling in thought, then repeated as nearly as possible the exact wording of the letter.
“If that doesn’t make him think about what he’s doing,” said Lloyd when she was finished, “then nothing will.”
Just as he had planned, Justin pleaded tiredness after supper and disappeared into the bedroom. Earlier in the day he had tested the bedroom window, assuring himself that it would make no noise when he opened it. After arranging the bed to look like he was in it, he took a few minutes before leaving to tidy up the room. It was the least he could do, he decided. Once through the window, he looked west at the lowering sun. He estimated that he had an hour before dark. Shouldering the pack, he set a rapid pace down the road leading to where he had originally found himself.
Just before losing sight of the house, he turned, looking at it for the last time. Earlier, his exuberance at leaving had completely overridden his conscience. Now, he was beginning to feel uncomfortable about what he was doing-very uncomfortable, in fact. With resolve, he decided to keep walking. Given enough time and distance, his conscience would back off and let him be.
That was his hope, anyway.
Over an hour into his walk, Justin stopped along the roadside. His enthusiasm had vanished along with his adrenaline. He was too tired to go any further, and wasn’t sure if he wanted to, anyway. The sun had disappeared beneath the horizon, pulling the colors of the sunset and most of the remaining light of day with it. What little light was left would be gone in the next few minutes, he knew. He realized something he should have thought of earlier when he was packing: when the sun goes down in the country, it gets dark-black dark-especially when there is no moon out, as was the case this evening. Soon he would literally not be able to see his hand in front of his face. A flashlight would have been a good thing to pack, he realized, berating himself. Thinking that a little food might restore some of his energy and put him in a better mood, he realized then that in addition to not packing a flashlight, he had also not packed a can opener.
“Some escapee you make, Billings,” he muttered out loud. Disgusted, he decided to eat the one can of Spam he had taken, which at least had a pull tab on the lid. He zipped open his pack, and there, on top, was a flashlight with a folded sheet of paper rubber banded around it. Connie Barber, he thought. It had to be. Curious, he pulled the paper off and turned on the flashlight.
“Dear Justin,” the writing began. “This is Connie. You forgot to take a flashlight, so I put one in the pack for you, along with some warmer socks. There’s also a can opener in there somewhere.
“Lloyd and I have already forgiven you for what you are doing, so please don’t feel any guilt because of how you think it might affect us. We have run this farm for years on our own. Your leaving will not change that. We will continue to do just fine.
“With that said, I want you to know that we both genuinely like you. It takes a good person to admit when they are wrong, as you did yesterday. Lloyd and I took an instant liking to that person. We also liked the cheerful those-eggs-smell-wonderful person we saw this morning. And, yes, we even like the I’m-bailing-out person you are playing now, even though we don’t agree with what you are doing.
“Remember what you told Lloyd just before you agreed to work for us? Justin, being an adult isn’t something you suddenly decide to act like, and then you are one. (There is a whole lecture behind that statement, but I’ll leave that for you to work out on your own.)
“What I’m asking is that you come back and talk to us about what you are doing. If you decide afterwards that you still have to leave, we will understand. Lloyd will drive you to town tomorrow afternoon (he and I have already discussed this) and buy you a bus ticket, and I’ll pack you a lunch so that you’ll have something to eat on the way. Of course, Lloyd and I are hoping that you will change your mind and stay with us for awhile. Either way, the choice is yours. Connie.”
Justin lowered the flashlight and his head. He knew he really only had two choices, and they weren’t whether to leave or stay, but whether to walk back to the house now, or try to get some sleep and walk back in the morning.
An hour and a half later, physically spent, mentally drained and emotionally shot, he entered the Barbers’ home without knocking, dropped the pack just inside the door, and went straight into the bedroom. Too tired to even undress, he grabbed the pillow from the bed and stretched out on the carpeted floor, falling asleep almost immediately.
Early next morning, Connie quietly opened the door of Justin’s room and shined a flashlight on the room’s ceiling. The small amount of reflected light cast a moonlight-like glow in the rest of the room and was enough that she and Lloyd could see Justin asleep on the floor. Connie turned off the flashlight and closed the door.
“Hmmm,” said Lloyd, softly. “He came back. What’s he doing on the floor?”
“Yes, I heard him come in late last night,” said Connie just as softly. “I’ll bet that he didn’t want to soil the bed spread.”
“Well, let him sleep for a few hours,” said Lloyd. “I’ll take care of the morning chores.”
Justin came to about 9:00am, refreshed and hungry.
“Good morning, Justin,” said Connie cheerily as he walked hesitantly into the living room. She was running a vacuum over the carpeting. “Lloyd told me to let you sleep for awhile,” she said, turning off the vacuum. “He says that he’ll be in as soon as the morning chores are done. Then you and he can talk. Meantime, if you’d like to take a shower, I’ll rustle you up something to eat.”
“So I didn’t sleep through breakfast this time?” he asked, hopefully.
Connie cocked her head to the side and looked at him in amusement. “There was an extremely rude kid named Mark Brown who slept through breakfast here a few days ago,” she said, “but I don’t think he’s around anymore. Now go shower.”
Justin was just finishing his hours-late breakfast when Lloyd came in from the morning chores and sat across the table from him. After accepting a glass of orange juice from his wife, he remained quiet until Justin was finished eating.
Each of them looked at the other in silence.
Lloyd was the first to talk. “The suspense is killing me,” he said dryly.
Justin was beginning to appreciate this man’s wry sense of humor. “No punishment?” he asked Lloyd.
“You looked in pretty rough shape laying there on the floor last night,” Lloyd informed him. “Some mistakes are their own punishment.”
A short silence followed. Then: “So all I have to do is say ‘no’ and I have a free ticket out of here?”
Lloyd sat back in the chair, arms folded, and studied Justin. “Yep,” he said.
Justin looked at Connie, then back at Lloyd. “If it’s all the same to you,” he said, “I’m going to pass on that offer. I know you think I’m not much of a bargain, but I’d like to give it another try-for real this time.”
Brother Cornelius stood in front of the group, smiling serenely. “Thank you for coming,” he said. “Before I ask Brother Aaron for his progress report, I do have a small announcement. This will be my last meeting as your Senior Angel. I have been asked, and have accepted, responsibility as Supervising Angel. I will still attend your meetings on occasion, but as you know, I will now have other Guardian teams to help. I leave you in capable hands, however. Now Brother Aaron, if you’d please give us your report?”
“Pardon me,” said Aaron as he stood up, “but in whose capable hands are you leaving us?”
With a smile and a wink, Brother Cornelius said, “Oh, did I forget to tell you? That would be you. Now, Senior Angel Aaron, why don’t you take over the remainder of the meeting while I sit back and try to look appropriately important.”
Aaron looked at Cornelius and established mind contact. “I’m not sure I want this,” he impathed.
“I know just how you feel,” returned Brother Cornelius, “but someone above me likes the job you’ve done so far on our latest assignment. It was radical, but quick and very effective. The message that came down was, ‘He’s tailor-made for the Billings kid. Let’s let him run the whole show.’ You’ll do well. Now, about that report…?”
The others in the room knew what Cornelius and Aaron were doing. Impathing was common in meetings, and actually made the meetings shorter, as time was not wasted by two people discussing something that didn’t apply to the rest. Usually, only subject matter that applied to the team as a whole was vocalized. Everything else was impathed.
“Sorry for the delay,” said Aaron. “I-just a moment, please.” His face took on a look of concentration. Someone was impathing him. “Well,” he said after just a few seconds, “if I can actually get this meeting started, maybe we’ll accomplish something. I just received word that a new member has been assigned to our group. His name is Leland Hayes. He’s a Battle Angel.”
The others looked at each other in surprise. A Battle Angel on their small team. This was heavy. Battle Angels weren’t used for the type of mission this team was on. There were enough Guardian Angels to have filled the spot left by Aaron’s promotion.
“Anyway,” continued Aaron, “Justin Billings appears to have sincerely changed his ways. After the manure pit experience and a rather sorry attempt to bail out on the Barbers a few days later, he has asked for time to prove his sincerity to them. On a personal note, I believe that his sincerity is genuine-which brings us to the next phase of our mission: boy meets girl.”
At that statement, Sister Isabelle’s attention sharpened considerably.
“That’s correct, Sister Isabelle,” said Aaron, who had been watching for her reaction, “Justin Billings, boy, meets girl. In this case, the girl is someone you’ve been Guardian Angel over for her entire life.” Addressing the entire team, he said, “Her name is Samantha McCallen”.