This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

This story is protected by copyright (2011). It may not be downloaded or copied for other than your private enjoyment and may not be changed in any way without the express written consent of the author. This story may not be put on any other site without the author's written consent.

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The Pink Necklace

© Matthew Templar

matemp1148@yahoo.com

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I was so proud; oh, in a humble way, of course. My heart was beating hard, my head was spinning from the magnitude of this moment; well, all of the things that led to this moment.

"I am Pastor Tobias Olsen, head pastor of the soon-to-be reopened St. Francis Church of Hope on the north side of the village square in the city, well, town of Domino!" I shouted, raising both hands and brush and twirling around until I rested against the far wall from which I could see the opposite wall I'd just painted.

I was almost straight out of seminary. We were an open denomination that was more interested in serving the Lord and helping others than all the political crap of other Protestant denominations. I'd been asked to re-open the small church in Domino to provide for some needs to those who worked the area. Though the town was small, it was very prosperous and drew a close group of well to do families that seemed to all go to the only other church across the square from mine.

I wasn't sure what denomination that church was, though it looked just like a tall, old stone Catholic church, complete with high steeple and several buildings in its huge acreage and even the classic graveyard. I hadn't been over to introduce myself, which was a flaw in my character. You'd think for a pastor, even a new one, I'd be more open about walking up to people.

I had only been there two weeks and was still getting to know the community as much as they would let me. They seemed very reserved, almost as though they were resistant to my presence. But I was sure it would only be a little bit of time before they came around to see what I brought to the people of their small town.

In the meantime, there were repairs and renovations to be completed in the small church. I leaned my head against the wall as I looked up at the far wall I'd just painted and all the other newly fresh surfaces, almost finishing the whole room, the main nave of the church.

'A fine job,' I admitted to myself.

"Father?"

"Uh, huh? I mean, I'm not a father, I'm a ..." I answered to the high pitched voice coming from near the back of the church.

I couldn't really see anyone there. Chills began to engulf me as I imagined that God had sent a heavenly . . .

"Over here, Father. I'm over here."

"Oh," I said, trying not to sound too disappointed when my eyes came upon my visitor, a small boy of maybe ten years, but he was standing too far into the shadows to tell much else, though there were definitely no wings visible.

"I'm not a priest or father, just a pastor of the Lord and of His people," I explained, building up to the pride that was in my heart as I spoke of my faith and commission.

"Oh, well, that's a good thing then," said the small boy who was drawn out of the darkness, almost compelled by my gentle voice to him. They all said, back at the seminary, I had that quality in my voice, but I assure you, I was just saying ...

"And why is that, my little man? Have you a need that I can help with?"

"We-e-ell ..."

"No, no. Never be afraid to speak your mind in the house of the Lord or to me. Are you hungry?"

"We-e-ell."

"Ha! I insist," I said to the boy with great levity in my voice, trying to challenge him to give in and yet, make him feel welcome. "You can ask me anything. You seem to think I am in a good place as a pastor here?"

"Well, it's not that really. I just think I'm glad that you don't have to depend so much on how good a painter you are."

"Oh, well ... huh?" I said with a start. The conversation had taken a sudden and drastic turn.

"You were leaning against the wall and it's still wet," said the boy, looking down, speaking almost apologetically.

"I, what?" I said, trying to twist around to see my back. Yuck. I sighed and pushed slim fingers through my bush of thick, light auburn hair, until it caught in some gooey ..."

"Wha ...?" said the boy, almost as surprised as I was when I looked at my hand to find,

"Paint!" I finally couldn't hold it in any longer. It was all so insane and I was so tired; the hour was late. It just escaped. My own laughter, that is, its echo, was like music in the empty church. It sprang from one corner, bouncing to the next.

The boy looked around in amazement as if he might see the shape or color of such resonant laughter as it finally died down to a chuckle and whispered away. He smiled at the reverberating, almost magical sound.

"Oh, wow," I exclaimed, totally out of breath. "That was wonderful. I really needed that release, my friend."

"Oh, I'm glad. I wouldn't want to get you all mad or something."

"No, be assured you only blessed me more than I already was. But what of you? Do you have a name? Do you have a need? What may I do to repay your great gift to me, my little friend?"

"I'm not little. I'm eleven, well, in two months," stated the offended boy, resolutely.

"Oh, I see. No, actually, I don't," I said, squinting into the darkness. "Can you come over here, closer, so I can fully see who I'm addressing?"

The boy moved around the last pillar in the small nave of the church to where I was standing. Not too close though. His head was down, but I could make out much more of him than before. He seemed small and thin, but, over all, his was a look that I had come to know since I'd arrived a little over two weeks before that night. The boy had characteristic black hair that almost came to his eyebrows and was a little long in the back, though not too bad. It was obvious that, while it wasn't immaculate, his hair was cared for. I noticed through his open white, button up shirt that he wore a necklace with a beautiful dark stone, tight to his neck.

But the truth be known, and it was revealed to me right then as he raised his head, he was stunningly beautiful.

"If I may introduce myself, I am Tobias Marit Olsen of St. Francis Church of Hope." Though only 26, I somehow felt older, more pious or fulfilled or something, as I held out my hand to the young boy. "And you are ... ?" I asked.

"... Pleased to meet you?" asked the boy, politely.

"Well, I'm pleased to meet you, too, but I was kind of hoping for your name," I said with as warm a smile as I could muster, which, given his beautiful looks and sweet simple smile, was not difficult.

"Oh," blushed the boy. "I am Poquito Torres, of ... well, of here in Domino." He turned and pointed toward the front door. "That building beyond the square, behind the ... OH!"

"What is it, Poquito?" I asked, taking a step past the boy, as though expecting someone or something to come through the door where the boy pointed. His remark made it sound like he was frightened.

"I was going to say behind the other church, but I didn't want to make you mad or sad."

I looked down into two huge black pools that twinkled like Christmas lights where they rested in the cute face of the one looking up at me. There was such innocence in those orbs. But there was something else, something different, like too serious, that I wasn't sure of. A boy in need, maybe.

And wasn't that just why I was in that place at that time?

"What? Sad or mad? Ha! Because of my neighbor across the square?"

Poquito nodded quite strongly, knowing that now his bigger friend, I, would understand.

I knelt to one knee and placed my hands gently onto Poquito's arms.

I could see Poquito try very, very hard to hold in a loud gasp, to not show the fear that seemed to have rage through his young body as someone touched him.

When I noticed the visible signs of the boy's fear, I simply eased my touch on him and went on.

"I am happy that there is another place for your, uh, our village to seek the gifts of our great God. I am here to fill a need among the people of Domino and I have no intention of taking anyone away from the church over there, unless they have a greater need to come here."

Poquito kept staring at me like he was forever entranced by my voice, maybe my easy manner, or maybe it was some feeling of comfort and wellbeing that he had been missing as my voice wafted over the nodding boy.

The boy smiled as his eyes followed my arm as I slowly lifted one hand up to stop the nodding head. Poquito smiled, matching my own silly grin.

"Now," I stated, rising to my feet, thinking I knew of at least one need of the little fellow in front of me, "I think it's time I changed out of my shirt, washed out the paint (Poquito tried to suppress a giggle with his hand), and find something to eat. We're hungry, right?" Weren't boys always hungry?

Poquito nodded, and smiled his cute smile some more.

"My rooms are in the parsonage behind this building, if you'd care to follow." I made a bow and a sweeping gesture with my hand, toward the door at the side of the small church.

Poquito laughed out loud at my funny dance, like I was a crazy matador or something, but he followed close behind me.

* * * * * * *

The water was warm and felt good on my skin as I washed my face, arms and neck. It was dirty work preparing to paint, and even dirtier work if you leaned against the paint. But I couldn't help but laugh at the sight I must have been to the boy who was standing, looking up at the man washing.

Poquito looked questioningly at me when I suddenly broke out in laughter, seemingly for no reason.

"Ha! I was thinking of the paint you noticed so nicely placed ... all over me!" I laughed.

The boy giggled into his hand.

"Now, little one, ah, to me!" I corrected myself as the boy was about to get indignant at the slam to his stature and age. "Why don't you wait at the kitchen table while I wash my hair in the sink (more giggling, to which I feigned indignity right back), then I'll fix us some food while you wash?"

Again, Poquito was nodding, but he wasn't moving away either.

And if you want to get out the milk we can have a small snack. After all, it's almost ten o'clock.

But it was as though an alarm went off in Poquito's head, making him entirely aware of what I had just said. He totally jumped out of one personality into another, the new one agitated and breathing hard. He backed away from me as though I was about to turn on him, his mouth wide open. Then Poquito ran out the door and back into the street.

When I finally turned toward the open door I was alone in the room. Some distance away a door slammed.

'He doesn't even know if I can cook,' I thought to myself, totally confused.

* * * * * * *

"Poquito, it's so nice to see you again," I said, two days later, about mid afternoon, as I was wiping down the dusty pews. "I missed you. But what brings you back to our church?"

Poquito had just appeared, much like before, without a sound, though he was a pleasant surprise to my day. He had also been the only visitor since I'd arrived in Domino.

"Our church, Pastor Tobias?" asked the little one as he walked to the side of the church, near where I was working.

It was much earlier in the day but he was still dressed as though he just got out of school and had taken off his school blazer and tie before his visit to me. Stunning. Wow! Even angelic.

"Oh, yes. This is a church for all people. I assume you are people (giggle and nod) so this is your church too."

"But I go, or used to go to the church over there," said a confused boy, pointing toward the other side of the village square. His head fell as he added, "When they'd let me."

"Makes no matter to God, Poquito. All are welcome here. Now, what is in your heart, my friend? You seem to be looking for something."

I'd thought about the night I'd met Poquito, about the cringe I felt when I touched the boy and mostly about his disappearance until just then. I could no more understand his quick departure than recite the whole Bible. I could try to guess some of what the little one had gone through, causing his fear of being touched. It just didn't seem real to me. So, I was pleased to see him return of his own accord.

"Yes, sir. I'm looking for the confessional. But I don't see one. Is it in another room?" asked the boy with his arms out.

"O-o-oh. Yes, it is in another room, Poquito. It's in the other church across the way. See, we believe here, that you don't need an intercessor, um, someone to go between you and your God. You can ask him anything at all, though it's good to talk about things that bother you with people down here too."

Again, Poquito listened as though in a trance. The words, the sound, something; they must have all been so comfortable to him, it was as though he wanted to hear me speak more. So ...

"Ah, then, yes sir, I need to talk about something ... to you?"

I patted the pew I'd just wiped down and beckoned Poquito to come and sit near me.

Poquito moved to the pew and sat. He seemed to still be in a daze when he realized he was sitting in the pew while I looked on from the middle aisle.

I moved in but sat at the end of the pew, with about ten feet between Poquito and me.

"But why do you sit over there, sir?"

"Poquito, you may call me Tobias if you want. It's what I like my good friends to call me."

I got a big grin for that. Points; I was quickly scoring points.

"So, you see I was concerned that I offended you at our last meeting and I would never want you to feel that way towards me, especially not in our house," I explained, sweeping one hand over my head, indicating the special place in which we sat.

"Oh," said Poquito so quietly that I wasn't sure that's what he'd said. His head hung low as he continued, "That's why I came here, to confess my rudeness to one who is so caring and nice to me."

"Poquito, I think I have no idea where you're coming from, but I need you to know that you can trust me that I won't do anything to scare you away again. I was saddened by your quick exit the other night and I would never want to cause you to be so scared of me anymore."

I thought that I was seeing Poquito nodding softly, his head in his chin and his eyes closed. But the nodding was really sobs and they quickly turned into a waterfall of tears and hard crying. I quickly scooted over to the boy and almost reached around him with my arm, but I stopped.

"May I hold you, my little one? I can't bear to see you cry. What could it be from?"

I could hear Poquito saying something, but amongst the boy's sobs, his chin buried in his little chest and his whispering, I could just barely make out the words.

"I said, I am a horrible sinner and am dirty and don't deserve God's love."

"Poquito, who told you that?"

"Well," said the boy, straightening his head as I tried to raise his chin, "Lots of people said it. They all go to that church, too."

"My little angel, do you know who is the worst sinner in this town?"

"Uh-uh. I mean, no sir. Who? I mean, they all say it's me and the other guys I live with 'cause we're no good wastes and don't have anything to show for our piss-poor lives except when we serve the ... the church and its people." He said it like it was reading it out of a rule book.

I sat there appalled. My mouth hung open as I heard the words coming out of the little one's mouth as though it were a given, as though it were accepted by everyone, common knowledge.

"Poquito, what you've been told is not true. Do you feel like you are the worst sinner in this town?"

"We-e-ell, I don't really know no diff ... , I mean, anything different. They just keep saying those things about us all the time. 'Course ..." Poquito got real quiet after that last word. His head hung down again. "Never mind. It isn't important." I realized that he spoke without the slang you'd expect from someone as young as ten, almost eleven.

I scooted around enough so I was looking more directly at my little friend, trying to show him that what I was about to say was very important.

"I always want to know what's on your mind, my friend. You're very important to me. I care about what you think, feel and do. Everything."

"Oh," said Poquito trying his hardest to allow a grin through his despair. "But who is the worst sinner in Domino?"

"No one, Poquito. We are all sinners and there is no sin greater except one, but you haven't turned your back on your Lord, have you?"

"No, I don't think so, but I can't go to church anymore. They won't let me. They say God doesn't love me anymore; that we're just meant for one thing, serving His people. They say He doesn't love any of us riffraff. And we only get to go, well, never mind."

"I can't believe someone would say that to you, to anyone. God loves all people. It's man that has turned his back to God. You can come to our church any time you want, young man; Our Church," I said, emphasizing the last two words, "and bring your friends too. And that isn't me saying that as much as it is your God, 'cause he loves you all the way down to your toes," I finished, with a finger poke into the ribs of Poquito.

Poquito laughed out loud for several seconds. He looked at the place where I'd poked him, as though it didn't matter that he was touched anymore. As though, though I wasn't sure, that I was no longer a threat to him. At least, I'd hoped that's what he was thinking.

"Poquito?" I asked quietly.

"Uh-huh."

"When you're ready, will you talk to me about your 'never mind' just now?"

"My? ... Oh, well, I don't know. It isn't very nice to talk about, an' I'm not really s'posed to. It's why I ran though, the other night, well mostly 'cause it was so close to ten. But I don't wanna say the other thing, please?" It was a plead more than anything else.

"Of course, my little friend. You never have to tell me anything, but just know that some times, keeping things in hurts real bad after a while. Like trying to hold in a real nasty burp. Better to just let it out, huh?"

"Eww, yucko," laughed Poquito.

I was thrilled that I had a somewhat happier kid with me again. I hated to see someone so young and cute with such big problems.

"How come you don't yell at me like the other pastor does? How come you're real nice to me?"

"Well, I guess I see no reason not to be nice, Poquito. We all spend lots of time judging people in our lives. But we have no right to do it. We need to worry about our own bad things and work on them."

"Oh, yeah. I know that one."

"Poquito, you're almost eleven, right? (Nod and smile.) What could you possibly have hanging over you that could be so bad at your young age?"

The young boy's smile quickly faded. He said nothing, just looked down at his hands as they wrung themselves together in the lap of his blue pants.

"Poquito, I'd like to meet your friends sometime. Do you suppose they, uh, you would all come to a meal if I fixed it?"

"Oh, I don't ... a meal, like eating?" asked the boy, looking at me hopefully.

"Ha. Yes, the eating kind of meal, silly; eating real food; the best kind of eating."

"Can my little sister come too?"

"You mean your little sister lives out there too?" I asked, shocked. "I can't believe anyone would allow a little girl ..."

"Oh, no, she doesn't live there, but, sometimes, she only eats half of what she gets at home and brings the other half to me lotsa days. I can see her getting skinnier and skinnier. But if Momma and Papa knew, she'd never get to leave the house again, I think."

"You mean to tell me you have parents and yet you still live on your own with these other kids?"

"Well, sure. What did you think?" asked the boy, matter-of-factly. That really bothered me. It was like he just took his predicament for granted.

"Well, I assumed you were orphaned, without a family to be with. How about the other boys?"

"Let's see. Justin hasn't got anyone, he says, least I haven't seen anyone. Mark has a dad that won't talk to him, of course, and a little brother that he never gets to see, and Barry Coulter has a mom and dad like me. They just won't let them come home anymore or talk with them."

"And why do you suppose that is?"

"Suppose? I know why that is. It's because ... hmm, never mind." His chin went back to his chest. He was obviously embarrassed to speak of the reason.

"Okay, yes, the 'never mind'. No matter what it is it couldn't change my love for you, for all of you. I want you to ask them if they will come and eat with me, say, tonight?"

"Wow! Really? Tonight?"

"Yup. What's your favorite food, my friend?"

"That's easy. Anything that isn't that stuff we have to eat everyday and is hot and has flavor to it. Yeah, anything that isn't that glop stuff. He he!"

I was almost in tears when I heard one so innocent speak of such horrors, and as though he took it for granted. I was really having a hard time with all I'd been hearing but I still wasn't ready to bore into him for an explanation and risk turning him away again.

"Okay, you go ask the guys if they will come later today while I go get more food. Ha! I'm thinking you'll all eat me out of my pantry. Oh, how many kids are we talking about?" I asked, getting up from the pew.

"Um, well, if they all come there's six of us, oh and Jenna, but she doesn't eat too much."

"Six?" I shrieked with fake aghast, my hand to my chest. "And you're all boys?" My mouth was once again wide open, and my eyes must have looked as big as saucers.

"Yup," giggled Poquito, his beautiful face full of his young joy.

"Oh, my! I'll have to go buy out the whole store then!" I said with a bright smile.

Poquito also gleamed. He seemed as happy as I'd ever seen him, well, of the two times I had. Maybe it wasn't so bad after all.

Just as he was moving toward the door, after we'd discussed a time frame to come by, he told me, almost coldly, "Sir, I mean Tobias, you know ..." His hand went to his neck and grabbed the stone that hung there. "I'm not s'posed to talk about any of that. 'Kay? It's okay if the guys know, but anyone else, uh, uh."

"Your secret is safe with me, my little friend, as long as it won't endanger anyone."

He gave me a questioning look, shook it away and then I got a small smile before he ran to the door.

"Oh, thanks!" he yelled before I saw the door slam.

Okay, maybe it was as bad as I thought,

* * * * * * *

I was so proud as I moved through the aisles of the largest grocery store in Domino. I was finally meeting a need, a very big need indeed. I silently thanked my God for that good fortune, though I was very sad that it was because of six boy's bad fortune. But I brightened up when I thought about their misfortune changing that day.

And, I believed, circumstances would quickly change!

As I approached the check out counter with a cart almost overflowing, I was almost giddy. I spent some time placing the food I was about to purchase up on the conveyor belt when I got close enough. I'd only bought for me up to then, never considering I'd actually have guests in my home. Some pastor, huh?

"My, my. You must be buying for an army, young man," said the nice clerk, smiling as she started to ring up my order.

"Oh, um. Yes, ma'am," I answered, snapping out of my dream-like state. "I'm having a dinner party."

"Oh, I see."

I got a look about me that, in another space or time, might be referred to a shit-eating grin. I almost chuckled out loud. My thoughts were on the contrast to the extremes of my guests-to-be.

"Yes, I'm having some of the most important people in town over for dinner tonight. I can hardly wait!" I'd hoped that my enthusiasm was contagious, if not a bit misdirected.

I had the clerk and the bag boy both smiling at my excitement.

"Oh, my! You must mean like the Coulters and Torres'. How exciting for you. I'm glad to see you are finally being accepted into our midst, Mister, I mean, Father ... uh ..."

"Pastor Olsen. And yes, while one from each of those families will be with me, I doubt it's one of those of whom you are thinking."

"Oh, uh, what?" she blundered as she looked past me to the end of her check out line.

Curiosity forced me to turn to see a very nicely dressed young woman of obvious good means with a young girl at her side, also very well dressed and anxious to leave the store. Both were beautiful and both had tanned complexions but their hair was almost blond. Even so, I was surprised that they both looked so much like ... hmm.

"Oh, yes, Hazel, I almost forgot," I said, looking at the clerk's name tag, "I will have two Torres' there tonight, Lord willing."

* * * * * * *

"I don't get it," said the bag boy who'd helped me to my car with the bags of groceries I'd just bought.

"Don't get what?" I asked as I opened the trunk of my little clunker.

"Everybody's been so cold to ya, yet it don't seem ta faze ya a bit. Now, all of a sudden, ya got a party with important people comin' to your church, well, house, I suppose."

I didn't even stop to think that he really had no way to know how I had been treated, but he was right.

"It doesn't faze me because I know that most people have a good heart, though sometimes it takes some prying to get to it. How about you ... Ronny?" I asked, looking at the boy's name tag.

"I don't know about that. I just know we was told to treat you poorly so's you'd leave Domino alone. Oops! I prob'ly shunta said that, huh?" said Ronny, looking back at the store, his hand rubbing his neck.

"Of course you should, Ronny. It's always good to tell it like it is. The truth is much easier to keep track of than lies, you know."

Ronny was almost as tall as me and looked like he was about 16. He too was tanned but so were most of the townspeople, except maybe the ladies guild and certain indoor types. He had thick dark brown hair and eyes and looked like he could be a jock, if I were into classifying people like that. He wasn't a head-turning handsome boy but he looked well provided for and was certainly good looking enough to have dates.

"So, you really havin' those folks over tonight? You must be mighty proud to know that they're about to accept you. They're about as important as you can get in this hick town, ya know."

Having put all the bags of groceries into the trunk, Ronny was leaning against the cart, absentmindedly rolling it back and forth as he talked. I liked that he appeared to be getting comfortable with me. I didn't find that too unusual anymore. Just wait till he found out the truth about my little soirée.

"I am very proud that I have the company I do coming over in a few hours, Ronnie. But I seriously doubt if they're who you are thinking of."

I patted Ronny on the shoulder, handed him a dollar for his help and only because I thought the tip would shock the boy; okay, and maybe endear me to him a bit; then I walked over and got into my car.

* * * * * * *

Ronny was shocked, I found out later, but it wasn't only about the money. It was also about who he was trying to picture at that new pastor's house that evening. After watching me drive off, he turned and almost ran into the lady with the young girl that had been in the same line, behind that new pastor guy - me.

"Oops! Sorry, Mrs. Torres. I guess I shoulda been lookin' better."

"Yes, I suppose you should have, Ronny. And don't be caught talking to that, that person you just helped out. He's not like us. He doesn't share our ideals."

"Oh, yeah, okay, but, Mrs. Torres, how do we know he doesn't share stuff like us if we don't talk to him?"

"Ronny Davenport, don't you sass me. If you have questions about your place in this town, just ask the father. Father Joseph is well aware of this man's background, it seems. And just be very, very thankful for you and your father's place in this town. You depend on the father and us."

"Oh my. Yes, um, I mean, ma'am. I sure will ask the father after next service, ma'am," gulped Ronny. 'When cows fly,' he thought to himself, with a cold shudder. He still couldn't figure out how they knew so much about that man that made him so evil if they hadn't talked to him. He seemed pretty neat to the boy, actually, almost refreshing.

Then he realized that Mrs. Torres' attitude didn't suggest she would be socializing with that new pastor any time soon. It made him pause to think about who in the Torres family would be at his house that night, unless ... Naw! But, either way, he was determined to find out, if the other guys were up to some snooping, which he knew they would be.

* * * * * * *

Though I never thought of myself as much of a cook, I did like to eat enough so that I could whip up a few things worth taking to past potlucks. 'I also looked a lot like I only ate my cooking though,' I thought as I raised my shirt and patted my bare abs. I was pretty proud that I'd kept fit since college swimming; all the repairs to the old church helped me stay that way, too. I also still ran a few miles in the mornings. It really helped to get me going and I loved the countryside in which the small town was situated.

I'd decided on a simple meal of chicken, rice and beans, corn, with a huge tossed salad loaded with lots of different veggies like peppers, green onions, olives, tomatoes; almost anything I could find. I'd also made a big pitcher of raspberry lemonade to quench thirsts. They'd have to have milk or water after that if they got thirsty. My food budget was blown way into the next month. But I just laughed it off and thought of the great looks on the faces of six stuffed boys. I'd also bought lots of hotdogs and fixings so I could do it again, real soon.

It was nice enough to have the meal outside, but I only had the one picnic table and really no good place to set it, plus I wanted the privacy to be able to talk to the boys without some walkers-by eavesdropping.

I was just about to throw the corn on the cob into the pot of water and go clean myself up when the doorbell rang.

When I pulled open the door there was a brown paper bag burning on the stone porch in front of me. I almost stomped out the fire, but remembered the old gag from my school days. Instead, I calmly looked up to see three teenaged boys running away, laughing like hyenas. The funny thing was, my eyes were directed to a figure directly in line with the running boys who each slapped the boy's arm as they passed, encouraging him to run too.

I caught myself staring at Ronny, wondering what had provoked his interest in me and that of his friends, but then I just waved as though it were the most natural thing in the world, to have a burning bag of poop on one's porch. I saw Ronnie scrunch up his nose, like he couldn't quite understand why I wasn't taking after him or something, then watched as he turned to run to catch up to his friends. But before he took off, he evidently had to look once more at the curious man, me, standing on the porch with the bag of dog turds cooking at my feet.

"Have a great night, Ronny. It's good to see you again. See you later," I called out loud, waving at the flustered boy. Then, just because, I yelled even louder, "Tell the father, 'Hi!' for me!"

Hearing that, Ronny looked like he almost fell on his face, catching himself in time to avoid a collision with the street in front of him, as he took off after the others.

* * * * * * *

I was in the bathroom when the doorbell rang again, not ten minutes later.

'Won't they ever quit?' I thought, wiping my face and walking toward the door.

I quickly pulled open the old wooden door, expecting to see what the brats had left behind this time.

"If you think you can scare me ..." I shouted into the face of one of six boys standing on my porch.

"WHAT? No, sir! Poquito told us we could come. Honest!" said the boy with a look of shear terror on his face.

A couple of the boys began to back off the porch as though they were getting ready to run for their lives. I couldn't blame them.

"Oh, no! I am so sorry!" I sputtered, motioning with my hands for them to come back up. "Please forgive me, my friends. I'll explain in a minute about my outburst. Please know that you are all welcome here, even if things are a little weird right now." I had a really hard time holding back some intense chuckling. I couldn't imagine what the boys thought and was afraid I'd be helping to change a few pairs of wet pants on at least the younger ones.

"Sir," said one of the boys, "Did you know you have a burned bag on your porch that kinda smells like ..."

"Ha Ha! Yes I do. Come in and I'll explain."

As I ushered them in, I was inspecting my new guests a bit. They were all dressed almost exactly alike, just like Poquito had been both times I saw him - bland blue pants and white button down shirts. The only one different was the littlest boy.

I noticed him because one of the bigger boys was helping to tuck his shirt tail in and he had on a nice deep purple sweater vest and purple tie that the others didn't. Then I saw that his eyes were really red and moist and one place on his neck was bright red as well. He also walked with some difficulty, as though he was getting over a sprained ankle or thigh. But one thing stood out about all the boys. I couldn't believe it.

Soon, I had the boys into the house and sat them down at the kitchen table. After we all went around introducing each other and me jokingly wanting to take notes or pin on name tags for the six, I explained my outburst to them, amidst my laughing like some goon, and they seemed to relax and chuckle with me. But I was in awe at those boys.

"What did you think when I opened the door and shouted like a mad man?" I asked the first boy, the oldest of the group, who was closest to me when the door opened. He also seemed to be their spokesperson.

"Well, I was about ready to, uh, well, do somethin' in my pants. I was real scared that we'd screwed up, again."

"Darren, right?" I asked. I continued after getting a nod from the boy. "What do you mean, you screwed up again?"

"Oh, well, it seems we're always screwing up some way or another, sir," he answered, rubbing his cheek. "Everyone says so all the time." His speech was as refined as Poquito's. Amazing. But not as much as ... wow.

Anyway, the other boys nodded their agreement to Darren's statement.

But I just stared in awe, amazed and, well, wowed. There could not possibly be, in all of the world, six boys as strikingly, breathtakingly beautiful as these boys were, one even with his red eyes. They were cute beyond description.

All at once I realized something very strange. Even though these boys had been cast out of their homes and, I thought, left to fend for themselves, they each had on the same necklace, just as I'd seen on Poquito. Each only had the one stone on it, one about which I couldn't recognize what kind it was, but it caught my eye. It was dark with a purple hue to it and though smooth with rounded corners, about an inch square. And, it must have been worn with pride because it was tight around each boy's neck, right under where his Adam's apple was. I saw that they had some markings etched into each but couldn't tell what they were. Later, I'd have to look closer if they'd let me. I also noted that it wasn't tied on but was on a metallic chain of a pretty big diameter, a little too heavy for the single stone, I thought. I'd have to suggest we do something about that too if they enjoyed them so much. I almost smiled as I thought of the pains they must have gone to, to make those stones their 'family' crest or something.

I was also noticing other inconsistencies about this group of Domino's misfits - their clothes that I'd mentioned, they were all dressed in clean, pressed clothes, not the rags you'd expect as in 'Oliver.'

"Poquito's told me some about how you've all been treated by the townspeople. I suggest it stop right now," I said firmly.

"No offense to you, sir, but it isn't gonna stop anytime soon. Poquito told us that you said we weren't dirty like we've been told. But it'll take more than fancy words to change how people treat us. You just don't understand it all."

"I swear I didn't tell Pastor nothin' about how we all came to be sent out, Darren. He still doesn't know. Right, Pastor Tobias?"

"You're right, Poquito. It makes no difference to me why it happened; it just shouldn't have happened. There is no reason I know of for anyone to ostracize, I mean reject such fine young boys, well, any boys; no reason at all. And I certainly won't reject you."

"Yeah, but, you don't know," said a small voice at the end of the kitchen table. "If you were to know, you'd kick us out on our butts right now, I bet."

"Stevey?"

Nod. He was as cute a kid as you could imagine except for the bruising that was almost hidden by his shirt collar.

"Stevey, did you kill someone?"

"Nuh, uh, I mean, no sir."

"Did any of you beat someone up and leave 'em for dead?"

"NO! None of us'ed hurt a fly," answered another of the boys.

"Then I say you are welcome in my house and in our church anytime."

All the boys kind of looked at each other like they must be hearing things. I was pretty sure that, had I been able to put words to those looks, a lot of them would have had something to do with me being nuts to even consider what I'd said. But I wanted to change the direction that kind of talking was taking us.

"But I also think we should eat first. What do you say?" I asked them, pushing myself up from the table.

There was a round of yeah's and yes sir's from all the boys and grins to go with each of them. It was almost like the old conversation had been turned off and the new one, about something they each loved, food, was lit up really bright, almost.

Poquito spoke up, "But what about my ..."

The doorbell rang before he could finish, the sound of which made him grin even more beautifully.

"I think the answer to your question is at the door right now, Poquito. Will you answer it and show her in, please?"

"Yes, sir!" shouted Poquito as he jumped from his chair and ran toward the door.

He was soon back with the little girl that I had seen that day at the store with her mother. It had been obvious to me at the store that this was Jenna, Poquito's little sister. She was just as cute as he was; model material if ever there was.

In fact, as I looked at each of my seven guests, especially the boys, each was the perfection of youth for someone of their respective ages. They were, once again, without exception, stunning.

"Welcome to my home, Poquito's little sister, Jenna," I said, bowing from my waist.

She blushed and took a step behind her big brother, though he wasn't too much bigger than she.

"Everyone, it's a pleasure to have you all in my home. Now, all of you go and wash your hands in the bathroom, um, two at a time, so we can begin our meal."

With some confusion and plenty of bumping one another and lots of laughing, the boys all hurried to the bathroom, to wait for their turn.

"Jenna, if you'd like, you may use the kitchen sink to wash."

Jenna blushed again and just barely reached the faucet and washed her hands, after which, I handed her a clean dish towel to dry them.

The boys looked shocked when I insisted on checking their work. It's a good thing I did too. I even sent two of them back to scrub a little harder. Even so, all the boys, I noticed, must have had a good scrubbing that day. A couple of the older boys actually wore cologne. So, they're pushed out of their homes, on their own and they can afford cologne? Weird.

After a quick 'grace', the meal was met with much appreciation. Of course, there was nothing left when we were done. I had to remind the boys to let the 'lady' go first as a courtesy to her and to make sure she got something on her plate. They were pretty good about it, too. Actually, they seemed pretty well behaved for being on their own. I don't think any of them was at risk of losing a limb or having four tines stuck in their hand.

Though their manners weren't totally exemplary, they were so excited, but they still did their best to keep most of the food either on their plates or in their mouths. While they were eating there was little talking. But there were a few comments about how the food tasted so much better than the 'icky stuff' they got daily, almost like it was prepared for them? It seemed like they hadn't eaten that well in quite a while. It was confirmed when they started to talk after the meal.

The boys and I said goodbye to little Jenna so she wouldn't be walking in the dark and so she wouldn't get in trouble for being away from home for so long. Poquito and I saw her to the door. He gave his little sister a hug along with a peck on her forehead and said he missed her lots, to which she agreed, wishing he could just come home with her. Still, she seemed to understand it wasn't going to happen that night or any time soon, according to Poquito later.

"Thanks again for the food, sir," said the littlest, Stevie, when Poquito and I rejoined the group at the kitchen table. He didn't look like he could be much older than eight or nine. I couldn't imagine why he wasn't safely in his family's home. The redness in his beautiful eyes was practically gone though.

As I looked around the table, it looked like Poquito was the next oldest, followed by Justin, a little older than Poquito, then Mark, Barry Coulter and, finally, Darren who was easily the oldest at about sixteen. Later I found out that they were each about a year apart from the next one, except for a two year span between Barry and Darren.

My heart was breaking for them, by that time. I was beginning to fall for these boys, each one of them. They were being treated as castaways or something and it was burning into me that it had to change and soon. It wasn't even close to being right; I don't care what they'd done to deserve it.

"Boys, I want to make a pact with you; you know, a promise. But a promise so strong that none of us would think of breaking it. What do you say?" I asked them.

They all looked to Darren who kind of fidgeted in his chair, thinking of what to make of my offer.

"Well, we need to know what it is before we agree to anything. Then we can vote on it, like we do with some other stuff, uh, suggestions."

"Okay, but this may be the kind of pact or promise that you consider individually. If one of you decides not to go along with it, he shouldn't be judged harshly by the group or the same if he decides to be the only one or two that go along with my idea."

"I wanna know what you have in mind," said Poquito. "I trust you more than any other adult."

"Thank you, Poquito. While I'll take that as a compliment, I'm sad that you don't feel like you can trust most other adults."

A couple of the boys were rolling their eyes at my comment, but when I looked over at Barry, he was turning red in the face and it wasn't blushing from embarrassment. Darren looked over at him and frowned and barely shook his head.

Barry must have been upset that they weren't trusted, I guess, and couldn't trust any other adult in their town.

While I wasn't certain of the reasons the boy reacted as he did, I was aware that my own anger had grown strong about the issue of trust or adults, or both.

"I take it, Barry, you don't trust most adults either?"

"What's to trust? They're all jerks anyway. You give them everything you have or they want and look what it gets you. Then they blame you for what they did, or at least what they let happen."

"And what did the Father at the church say when you told him about this?"

There was a collective gasp and several, 'You're kidding's', and 'You outta your mind's?' There were even some tears among the little ones. I was really confused by their collective harsh reaction to my question. Wasn't this man supposed to be their advocate, their shepherd, their mentor and hero?

I wasn't quite sure what to make of the outburst at first. But I knew I was pretty naive about the ways of and problems at some churches. I'd just never imagined meeting anyone that was involved with that, especially the victims. But then again, I also realized that my mind was, again, slipping into the worst case scenario concerning the kids in front of me. I couldn't let me get the cart before the horse, before I found out what was really going on. And I was really confused that they were so well spoken and dressed so nice.

"So, you don' trust him, uh, I don't know his name yet. He hasn't shown up over here and I haven't had the time to go introduce myself, either. No excuse, but I will soon." 'Especially now,' I thought.

"Pastor Tobias, Jenna said that everyone was s'posed ta stay away from this evil place, your church. That you weren't really their kind and would prob'ly lie to all of them."

"Really? Who told them that, Poquito?"

Poquito seemed embarrassed or even scared to mention a name.

"Well, lotsa people said it, but mostly it's been the men from the church ..."

"Yeah, but it all came from Father Joseph and you know it, Poquito!" interrupted Barry with anger in his voice.

I could see the boy stiffen, his fists clenched on the table.

"Okay, but what were you guys told? The same thing?" I couldn't figure out why they hadn't said that 'they', the boys, had been told all that too.

"Ha! We aren't told anything. Well, except to obey and do what we're told, or else. We always have to get our news from Jenna."

"Boys, before we go any farther, I want to talk about our pact or my promise to you."

Some of the boys nodded, some just grunted. From what I knew by then, they were probably skeptical that anything good could come of just about anything, anymore. They seemed pretty hard in their resolve, especially for kids so young.

I let out a deep sigh of sadness before I continued. "I want to promise you and you promise me, if you decide, that these things, and any other things we talk about here or wherever we are alone will never be repeated. I want you to have someone you can trust, someone you can go to for everything. Now, I hope there is nothing I say that you can't tell anyone else, especially anyone in this room, but if there is, I would expect to be able to trust you too. What do you say?"

The room was pretty silent for a minute or two. All eyes were on me and I was beginning to think I had something stuck in my teeth from the way they stared intently at me. Then I noticed that the youngest boys seemed a bit hopeful, though the older three boys were shaking their heads with smirks on their faces.

"What?"

"Mister, uh, Pastor, I'm sorry to say this, but you saying all that, promises and all, it doesn't mean anything to us here. We've heard it all before, then all hell breaks loose and we, well, we've got to go back and try to survive some more. It doesn't do any good to hope for something we aren't gonna get."

I was looking at the other kids as Darren spoke. I could see the older boys immediately agreeing and the look of hope leaving two of the younger boys as they too seemed to accept their fate. Then I looked at Poquito, who was almost on the verge of a smile.

"What do you think of what I just said, Poquito?"

"Well, we just got a swell meal; something each of us hasn't had since the day that we ..., that they ... Anyway, you talked with me like you meant it and you came through for us all at least this once. I just think you're different. You even said we weren't the dirty kids the others keep saying we are. Besides, you're new here. You don't even know what's been happening, do you?" Then he stood up and turned to the other kids at the table, without waiting for an answer from me. "Yeah, he's new here, guys. I say we give him a chance. Even if it just means a good meal once in a while, it'd be tons better than what we've got now. Whadya say?"

"It doesn't make any difference, Poquito. Once he finds out what's been happening, he'll be just like them. Hell, he'll prob'ly even be in with 'em like they did that time."

It was Barry that spoke, and it hurt me when I heard the hurt, fear and anger in the boy's voice and saw it in his face.

I slowly reached across the table to place my hand on Barry's where he had it out in front of him. As I made contact, Barry jumped, pulling his hand about halfway out from under the stranger's hand - mine. But Barry squinted his eyes when he looked up at me; that guy that had the nerve to invade his space. What I'm sure he saw was the tear in my right eye, growing slowly until he watched it roll down my cheek and drop to the table.

The little splash was noticed by most of the boys. They all looked up to see the pain in their host's eyes.

"I can't believe what you've been put through," I said. I quickly went on when I realized it didn't come out the way I wanted and several boys were about to protest. "What I mean is, I'm saddened and shocked because I do believe you about what I know so far about what you went through. I also believe it's a lot worse than I can imagine, that there is so much more that I haven't learned yet. I just don't understand how beautiful young boys like you could be forced to endure what you've been through. I, I don't know what to say."

Poquito was very upset when he saw me almost in tears. He walked around the table, sat next to his newest friend and wrapped one arm around my waist while looking down, into his own lap, as though he were ashamed or embarrassed to be doing it.

I quickly looked up at the boy, then to the others who sat there watching.

"See? This is what I mean. Do you see this sweet boy loving me because of a few tears, when I should be loving all of you because of a lifetime of your tears? Are you sure you're really boys? I think I found myself a whole crowd of angels."

My arm went around Poquito and squeezed him tight, making Poquito cough and feign injury, then laugh when I finally released him.

I saw the boys look incredulous at the action of their friend and my reaction, too. I decided it was the perfect time to change the subject to something much lighter.

"So, speaking of angels, who would like some angel food cake with fruit on it for dessert?"

Ah-h-h's went up and boys slowly shook the somber out of them and changed it to some enthusiasm.

"I'll take all that as a yes. But you have to earn it. The price is pretty high." I was joking. I only hoped they saw the humor in my smile. It didn't look like it at first.

"Let's see, a couple of you can clear the table of everything but spoons. Just put it all in the sink or close by. Barry, will you get bowls out of that cupboard. Darren, will you wash your hands again and help me dish up? I'll let you get the whipped cream can from the fridge and you can do the spraying ..."

Darren was pretty cute. You could see a devilish look come over him almost immediately.

"As long as you limit that spray to the desserts, young man!" I laughed.

"Aw!" cried Darren with a hurt look as the others poked and prodded him as they passed.

I almost broke down at his clowning and the others reaction to it. I didn't even want to guess when they'd last had a good laugh.

The place was in havoc-mode for the next several minutes with kids bumping into each other and not knowing exactly where things went. I started directing traffic from atop a kitchen chair, which caused the boys to laugh at me. It looked like it was perhaps the best time they'd had in a good long time.

I looked over to one corner to see Poquito standing there with tears in his eyes. I hopped down from my perch and walked over to the boy.

"Are you okay, little one?" I asked. I placed my hand gently on Poquito's shoulder.

Poquito grabbed me up in a strangling hug, almost desperately squeezing as hard as he could.

"Thank you, Tobias, oh, I mean Pastor Tobias. Thank you for tonight. I haven't laughed like this in a very long time."

"Hey, yeah. You're right, runt, I mean, Poquito. This is good stuff," said Darren, shaking the can of cold whipping cream over his head, ready to top each dessert. "Maybe he is different. Just maybe."

"Good enough for me, guys. Let's dig into our desserts. Everyone at the table. Darren, follow my lead please and keep the whipped cream in the bowl, please."

"Aw-w-w."

Dessert was an opening, a bridge, a leap that I hadn't expected. The boys bantered back and forth as though they were in a different world; certainly different than their circumstances of late. Their talk had nothing to do with their plight, so it was refreshing to see and hear them so animated and almost free.

It was so good to see them lighthearted.

"Boys, what are we going to do about your living conditions? You can't continue to live in that rundown old place and it can't be a good place to study and do your home work."

"First it isn't really rundown, sir. They just don't waste much stuff, uh, furnishings on us. As for studying and homework? You gotta be kidding, sir," laughed Darren. "We all haven't been in school in forever. I haven't for almost four years and the others, well, I know it's been at least two, maybe three years for Justin, almost, huh, Justin?"

I turned to see Justin nodding in answer to Darren's question.

"Oh, we have these guys that are supposed to act as tutors once in a while, especially when we each started, but they only teach us what we need to do ..., well, to do our stuff.

"But that's impossible. Aren't there like truant officers to find you and take you back to school? Aren't your parents trying to find you to put you back into the system? Wait. Your parents know exactly what's going on, don't they?"

"Wow, mister," said Mark, "I bet you thought we're just runaways, until just now, huh?" He didn't even give me time to answer before he said, "You gotta understand that it's that man over at the church and our parents and the town's leaders that pushed us out and pushed us all into the same place. Oh, they know where we're living. That's the way they planned it."

"I, uh, I, I don't get it. I don't understand what's happening here. I figured you guys must have done something to upset your parents so much but I can't imagine anything so bad as to ignite the town's leaders against you too."

"Yeah, well, it is what happened, sort of except this is the way they want us," remarked Darren. "You don't hafta believe us but it's what happened to us, one at a time, until they're done with us. Now that they don't need some of us all as much we have to keep outta their sight."

"He's right," said Poquito. "As long as we stay away from the townspeople, we can keep living here, 'cause no ones had to leave except Chester about a year ago. They even helped him leave. He must have made off okay too cause we haven't heard from him, but his parents did, Jenna said. So'd Father Joseph."

"There was another boy, too?"

"Yup. Chester."

"And he left Domino?"

Nods.

"But I thought no one could be trusted, no adult anyway. How do you know he made it away okay?"

"We just do. We were told. They even told Darren to be ready real soon so he could go find a life somewhere else, huh, Darren?"

"Yup. They said I could leave real soon and go anywhere I wanted; they'd give me money to get out of here. I can't wait. I'm going stir-crazy waiting for so long."

"But these are your parents, your families; good grief, the pastor of your church. How can they tell you that and all of a sudden be so kind and giving, after having treated you like trash up until now? Something isn't right."

"Yeah, well, doesn't matter. First chance I get I'm taking off. I don't know where to but it'll be as far away from here as possible. And I'll write the guys here and tell them where I am so they can join me if they want when their time comes up. Now, we gotta get back over to the house or we'll really get it, if they catch us wandering around or after ten."

And then Darren said something that really confused me and made my head swim in thought.

"It's the rules."

With that, they rose up as one and made their way to the front door of the small house. Poquito turned to thank me again for the great meal and for talking to them, being their friend. Then, he came back to give me another big hug. Some of the boys reached out to politely shake my hand, in fact all the others did except Barry and little Stevie. Barry looked like he wanted to real bad, but just wasn't quite ready to step over that hurdle.

I noticed that little Stevie saw Poquito hug me, then watched as the others shook my hand. His heart was in his throat, I could tell, almost ready to cry, he missed that kind of contact so much. He too walked up to me and looked up at me with desire in his eyes.

I smiled at the young boy and reached out my arms toward him. Stevie's mouth went open and then it turned into a big smile as he fell into my strong arms. I could hear and feel him hum a contented hum.

Later, after they'd left, I noticed that my shirt was wet where the young one had hugged me.

* * * * * * *

I was a mess, feeling hundreds of emotions I didn't even know I was capable of. I'd never been in a place where anger was needed really, before. Oh, I'd get upset at kids I'd see bully others, or something like that, but it was only a little thing; little, compared to the disparity of what I'd just witnessed that night. My chest was heaving as I lie in my comfy bed, trying to imagine what it was that the boys had done, or had been committed to by the elders of that town. I tried to imagine what the conditions were over there and how inconsistent it seemed to see them so well dressed and with such good speech habits and manners.

And, I would certainly make it a point to visit that so-called 'father' of the people of Domino. I hadn't met him yet, and I had very little respect for him so far.

Sleep did not come easy that night. I tried deep breathing and even got up for a small glass of cold milk.

When I got up the next morning I was in a daze. My mind was still spinning when I thought about what all those boys had been through. And I didn't even know what most of it entailed. I saw them as servants of their church, dedicated and left in that place behind the church until it was time to do their duty for whatever service they were needed. It seemed a little cruel to sequester six boys like that and for years. And where did the verbal abuse come to play? Why would they be rejected as members of the community if they were playing such an important part in their worship? But wait! The kids said they hadn't been to church all that much. If they served there, wouldn't they constantly be in church. It must have been why they learned such good manners and proper speech. But ... I was so confused.

* * * * * * *

Brighter Temple of Fundamental Love.

It was an impressive building. It was designed to look like one of the older English stone churches of centuries past, but it was too obvious that it was less than fifty or so years old. Still, it was of a considerable size for a town so small. But, until I came, it had been the only church for at least twenty years.

I'd walked halfway around the building since none of the doors were unlocked in front. I could see what must have been the small dwelling in the back, probably where the kids lived. I almost thought 'where they were kept.' I don't know why, but I shuddered as I considered it.

As I approached the huge wooden doors around the right side of the main entrance, a neatly dressed man came out of another side door about fifty feet down the side of the stone edifice. He glanced at me and looked like he almost tripped. He then hurried across the grass and got into a car and sped away. As my eyes returned to my quest, an open door, I noticed Stevie standing just outside the same door. He didn't even see me standing down the way, but walked to the rear of the church and over to the building I'd noticed, confirming my suspicions as to its use.

Again, he was wearing much the same as the night before, complete with the purple sweater vest, but he also wore a short stole of very intricate purples and pinks around his neck. I couldn't make it out very well, but it almost looked as though it sparkled in the sunlight. All in all he looked almost like a very young angel. He was so cute.

I realized I had been standing there with my mouth agape and didn't know why. I went to try the big doors to the sanctuary on that side of the building but they were locked too. Then I walked down to the door that Stevie and the man had come out of and found it hadn't latched when Stevie went out of it. I'd have to remember to thank him later.

I opened the heavy door that led into a hallway that seemed to go the whole width of the building, probably behind the nave of the church. There were only two doors on the left, the church side, but a few more on the right like they were offices or Sunday school classrooms. To my right was another hallway, of almost equal length. Near me and again at the other end, there were double doors with glass windows that looked like they might lead to the cafeteria area or a gymnasium or auditorium.

I could hear the happy chatter on the other side of the doors as I approached.

As soon as I opened the door all sound ceased! I saw a couple of dozen men and women that had been decorating with long streamers of crepe paper in bright colors of pink and purple, though mostly pink. In one corner were two teen girls and several much younger children, obviously being babysat while their parents worked on the decorating at hand. I also noticed some signs that were laying in another corner, ready to be hung, I imagine. I couldn't see what they said, but I could tell that they had been expensive to make, having stand out letters, and had been used for many years.

But, by the time the door slammed behind me, scaring the crap out of me, I was looking at statues. All were staring through me and had stopped in the middle of whatever they'd been doing. It was eerie.

"Oh, uh, hello. Does anyone know where I might find Pastor Joseph?"

Slowly a woman near the center of the large room cautiously walked over, after getting a nod from the man on the ladder she'd been passing streamers to.

"Um, Father Joseph isn't here, sir. He went into Arbuckle to get more decorations. We're getting ready for a festival Sunday night." Then she smiled proudly. "He said this was going to be the best banquet ever." Then she looked real guilty and turned to look at the man on the ladder who was shaking his head at her.

"Well, good, I guess. I'll have to see if I have late Sunday night free to help you all celebrate," I said, looking around at all the helpers.

There was an audible gasp from everyone and a look of shear terror on the face of the woman I'd been talking to. She was immediately approached by another man who was about her age and, after a short exchange between them, she looked up at me with sad eyes and walked to where several other women were standing, looking at me.

"I'm Edgar Whitman, mister ..." he said, holding out his hand for me to accept.

Ignoring his hand I said, smiling, "I'm not mister anything. You know very well that I'm the pastor at the church across the square from here. I'm Pastor Olsen."

"Well, yes, then, Pastor Olsen," he said, taking his hand away, "See, this festival is a very special time for us. It doesn't always happen every year, just when the Lord calls us to it. So, this is something we all look forward to very much. But the thing is, sir," he continued, almost apologetic sounding, "It's really only for members of our church. It's pretty private and ..."

"Well, I'll just save my talk for Pastor Joseph, then. Thank you," I said, fairly dismissing the man in mid sentence. I walked away without looking at any of the stunned people. Just as I was about to make my exit, with the door open beside me, I said, for the shock value, "Maybe I'll drop by anyway, so I can talk to the pastor afterwards."

It seemed to work. They didn't move until sometime after I'd left the room. And my remark about dropping in might get Father Joseph to talk to me much quicker.

* * * * * * *

"Can I help you?" asked a man that came around the far side of the church from me.

After I left the church decorating committee I'd decided to see about the place that the townspeople had thrown my boys into. Yes, they were officially mine, in my head anyway. No one else wanted them and I wanted them for all time.

"Yes, I was just going over to see how the bo ... to see that house there. I guess I hadn't noticed it before. Does the church own ...?"

"The boys are resting now. If you'll just move along I'm sure they will be just fine. Thanks for your concern though."

That was a major brush off. He didn't seem to mind that I knew what they had done with the boys. He even had on a uniform of sorts; not quite a police officer's uniform but kind of official looking, just the same.

* * * * * * *

It was Saturday and I was planning on having my first Sunday service the next day. I would have been thrilled except for the fact that I hardly expected anyone at all.

I'd had some posters copied and passed them out to several businesses around town but I also found that they were either never hung or they were placed in a way that they were almost impossible to see. I'd also placed some on posts outside the shops, hoping they wouldn't be disturbed, but they too had disappeared.

I'd been walking around the town that Saturday with a handful of flyers announcing the service the next day and a little bit about our church. I'd handed a few to some people who looked more like they were in need of a meal instead of a sermon. I tried to hand them to others as they walked by me but most refused even to take one. I ended up as far away as the main store in town; the one where I'd met Ronny, the bag boy that helped me to the car and helped me, with the help of some of his friends, warm up the porch of the parsonage.

I saw Ronny in the parking lot as I walked through the lot. He saw me too and almost dropped the two sacks he was carrying out for a lady. I waited patiently until he turned to walk back to the store making sure that I was between him and his destination.

"Good to see you again, my friend. I'm sorry you didn't stick around the other night but you seemed to be in a huge hurry."

"I, uh, you. How can you say that? That friend stuff and me being there when you know very well ..." Ronny was pretty shaken. He was also looking around to see, apparently, if anyone saw him talking to 'that evil man.'

"Ronny, I pretty much know my score with most of the people in this town, but I also am very sure that there are really good people that don't want to see anyone hurt and just want to be able to be liked and to like everyone too."

"Like you?" he asked.

"Well, like a lot of people, but, yes, like me. But I want to do more than make sure people aren't hurt and that they're liked. I want to help in any way I can to pull people out of the mess they're in before it destroys their lives. I think there are lots of people in Domino that need that, don't you?"

"You mean me, don'tcha? I can tell."

"I mean anyone who needs help, Ronny, but they have to want help. Why don't you come to the service tomorrow and see what it's all about?"

"Ha! Are you kiddin'?" he laughed out, much as though he thought I was nuts. Then he looked around again to make sure he wasn't being seen with me, or maybe to make sure if he was seen with me, they'd hear him say, "Besides, I got church at the same time as yours. I can't be at both places, and if my daddy thought I was over ta your church insteada ours, he'd have the biggest switch cut off that willow and whip me till a week from Sunday, he would. So, no way I'm gonna go ..."

"Ronny, I know you probably go to the other church. I was inviting you to the contemporary service in the evening. It's mostly for teens like you. Here, look at the times on the flyer." I stretched out my arm to give him a flyer.

He just stared at me. He took the pamphlet but didn't even acknowledge that it was in his hand until I was walking away. I could see him reading it each time when I turned around. He was also a bit confused when I walked into the store. I had to get coffee and refreshments for the crowd that would show up the next day and the fellowship hour that followed both services.

* * * * * * *

When I'd returned to the church, I went to see that everything was in order before I went to practice my sermon for the following day's services. I'd planned one service at 11 AM, which was the same time as the other church's service, and a contemporary service at 7 PM, usually something the young people thrived on and my favorite. I wasn't made of the stuff to put on airs as in some high liturgical churches, though one didn't have to feel that way in such a setting. My experience led me to believe that many people of the cloth (clergy) thought their power came from their appearance and position. I always was taught that I was a humble servant of the Lord and His people.

As I checked the hymn board for the thirtieth time I heard some shuffling and whimpering coming from the back of the church. Okay, the back of the church is really the front of the building but is farthest from the apse or front of the nave and altar. Anyway, the noise came from the direction of the front doors.

I walked gingerly toward the noise so as to not frighten any animal that might be there. I was pretty sure it would be of the Homo Sapien variety but we did have some wild critters around Domino. As I got to the back the whimpering seemed to be coming from the Cry Room, or Mother's Room, which was supposed to be sound proofed and had a window that looked into the sanctuary. It still would have been sound proof if the door were closed.

I opened the door but didn't turn on the light.

"And what could be so sad to make someone I love cry on such a fine day?"

Sniffle. Snort.

So I did turn on the light. There were two children sitting on the couch in the center of the room and each had a stack of papers on their laps that I immediately recognized. One child was my Poquito and the other, somewhat younger boy, I didn't recognize. What was it in the water in Domino that created boys of perfection? That child, maybe six or seven was just as beautiful as the other kids I'd met a few nights before then.

"Poquito," I started, talking quietly and moving to sit near him, on the other side of the younger child. I seemed to have a knack for scaring kids off the first time we met. "What brings you here and who is your charming little friend?"

"His name is Dugan, Pastor Tobias," answered the oldest boy sitting next to me. "And we came here to return your posters. Oh, Pastor, I'm so sorry!" He was almost shouting and was certainly building to a good cry. "They told us to. I didn't want to but they said they were the devil's work and had to be removed or there would be pain."

"Pain? Ha! Whose pain? I don't feel anything ..."

"Ours! If we didn't do it like they said. It's always that way when they tell us something."

"Always?" asked the little one.

Poquito freaked!

He swung around to see Dugan sitting forward, then back to me with terror in his huge dark eyes. Then his hands went up to hold his head and it was like he was going into a seizure.

"Oh no! What have I done? Oh no!"

I picked him up and settled him on my lap. I held him and made sure he didn't hurt himself. He hadn't started anything excessive but I was trying to be ready.

"Poquito? Poquito, what is it? What has happened, son?"

Even little Dugan got up and put his hand on Poquito's. Poquito looked over at Dugan and turned into my shoulder, as if to hide, and cried even harder.

I heard mumbling coming from my shirt but I couldn't understand a word he was saying. I pulled his shoulders away from me so I could look at him. He tried to shy away, but I was insistent.

"Okay, say it again so we can hear you. I promise you, it can't be as bad as you think."

"Oh, yes sir, it can and you don't know what I can think. See, I'm not s'posed to tell Dugan anything yet. It's for the tutors to do before the festival, for the elders. I'm gonna be in big trouble when they find out."

"Why will they find out? Remember, anything that is said here, stays here, right?"

I saw a slight nod.

"But Dugan here wasn't there that night so he doesn't know that promise, do you, Doog?"

"Nuh, uh, but I can learn. I gots lots to learn about this new stuff, don't I, Poquito?" Dugan was beaming with pride. He lifted his head up and swelled out his chest and ...

... That's when I noticed the necklace.

It was the same shape as the others; I had Poquito's to compare it to right there. But the lace was only that, a string, and the color of the stone was an intense pink instead of purple.

Then I had the most horrible thought. 'Could they ... ? Would they ... ? ... And so young?'

"Dugan? (Nod.) Dugan, it's nice to meet you. (Big smile and polite shake of hands.) You certainly are a cutie. (Bigger smile.) Dugan, have you been asked to do something special?"

Amidst huge nods of his head, he answered, "Uh, huh. I gets to be the next helper for the church. We gonna have a big festival party tomorrow and everything. My momma and daddy are so proud they keep crying all the time. (Giggle.) They just keep hugging me and saying stuff like, 'We've loved you so much,' and stuff."

"Oh, and do you know what you will be doing?"

"Nuh, uh. But I gets to do stuff with Poquito and my big brother again, they said. I was sad because I love my big brother and Momma and Dad said he wasn't here anymore, but he musta come back, huh? They said I won a prize and he gots to come back 'cause I was so good I get to be with him again."

"You do?" I asked quietly and cautiously, looking over at Poquito as I spoke to Dugan.

"He's next, Pastor Tobias. He's next!" And Poquito literally fell on the floor crying. Once again he was mumbling something so I leaned down to hear.

"Say it again, please, Poquito."

That time he almost yelled it right into my ear! "I said when Mark finds out, he's gonna be so ... so ... I don't know, mad, sad? I don't know. I just don't know." And he fell back sobbing.

I picked up the small boy again and pulled him into my lap. Dugan had come closer and I noticed tears in his eyes, too. Both boys looked a bit fuzzy, because of the tears in my eyes.

"How come you cryin', Poquito? I thought you'd be happy for me. I thought Mark would be happy too. I can't wait to see him. When do I get to see him?" He was sort of jabbering away.

I didn't pay too much attention. My thoughts were on the poor, sad boy in my arms. I never wanted to let him go. I never wanted him to hurt, or fear, or be tormented again. But I also knew my arms wouldn't hold all of the boys and they needed the same loving.

Poquito, bless his heart, turned it toward the little guy. It was very obvious that he didn't want him to hurt, or be hurt, either.

"Doog, you are a special boy, okay? Mark's a special boy too. You both are. It's about you being so pretty, but it's about other stuff too. I'm not s'pose to talk about it but ..."

He started crying again and turned his head into my chest again. Slowly, he gained some control and looked up at me with eyes that would have torn your heart from your chest. Mine was on the verge of popping out. Those orbs of deepest brown shouted out his silent plead at me before he spoke it.

"Please, Pastor Tobias, please, oh please don't let them do this to little Dugan. He didn't do nothin', I mean, anything. He's just a little kid like we all were back when we were chosen."

He pushed away from me, slid from my lap and grabbed up his little friend in a huge hug. Dugan's eyes almost popped out, from the surprise, not the squeeze.

"He's so sweet and he didn't do anything that he should hafta be what we are. It ain't, it aren't ... oh, hell, it just isn't right ta make him hurt too. Please?"

"Umph! Hey, you squeezin' hurts, Poquito. I thought you liked me. I like you. How come you don't want me to be special too? Pastor To ... Tob ..., hey, Pastor, why don't he like me no more?"

So innocent and so pure. It only made his purity stand out more as I saw such physical beauty, also. I looked to Poquito to see the same beauty in a slightly older boy, whose only flaw that I could see was red, wet eyes that had the beginnings of bags under them. I'd never noticed them before that day.

"Poquito, do you remember how you got to be, well, one of the boys? Do you remember having a festival too?"

"No, I mean, yes but I never knew why I was picked to be ... to serve the church. But I do remember about a week or so after my mom and dad told me I was chosen that we all went to church one night for a huge party, like a festival, I guess. I remember everything was pink and purple."

Poquito looked like he had gone back to that place. His hold had eased on Dugan and was almost looking through the wall in front of him where he stood, remembering back to that time.

"I remember it being a swell party, 'cause it was like my birthday only a hundred times better and it seemed like the whole town was there. It was embarrassing though when they started to say goodbye and all came up and hugged me and kissed my cheek and told me how much they had ... Hmm, that's right," he said, turning to look at me with such intensity that I almost got the willies from his stare. "They all said something about, not how much they loved me then, but like how they had loved me, like before. And some, wow, some even said how much they'd miss me. Oh, it was the women too. The men just patted me on the head or slapped me on the back or my bottom. It didn't feel right then, especially all the dads and other men but I never thought about it being so weird until just now."

He stood there looking at me like a series of lights had gone off in his brain, illuminating his memory to realize more about that period of time.

But we were on a roll, getting to a place, a place that I suspected could be painful for Poquito but important for me if I was going to put an end to this travesty.

"What happened after that, Poquito? After they all said those things."

"They all left, except my mom and dad and Jenna, Father Joseph and some of the men. I found out they were the elders of the church, but they were just other men like Father Joseph. In fact, I found out they were a lot like Father Joseph.

"Anyway, Mom and Dad brought Jenna to me and pushed her into me and ... and ..."

Tears started to flow down his face, over his pink cheeks and onto his red lips. But there were too many to stop there. They continued to run down his neck, even into his shirt, until they started to drop from his cheeks to the floor below him.

"Poquito," I said, reaching for him, "You don't have to say anymore. Just let me hold you. I know it must have been ..."

With a violent twist, he turned away from me, throwing my arms to one side!

"NO! NO! I'm sayin' it and I don't care who hears!" he shouted, almost sputtering through a steady rain of tears wetting his whole front. "They made her tell me goodbye! They made it sound like I'd never see her again! I remember looking up and sayin', 'You mean, so long for a while, huh, like till Sunday for dinner or somethin'. Is'n that whatcha mean?' But then they pulled her away from me before I could even hug her. I didn't know what was happening. It's like it all changed from like this dream come true to the worst, most horrible nightmare, but I was awake!"

Poquito was shaking. Dugan was crying and I was a mess. I was supposed to be the strong one, but to hear Poquito tell of that time, of the betrayal by the ones he loved, it broke my heart into a million pieces. Then I gasped when I realized all of those boys must have gone through something so similar, just as horrible an ending, just as horrible a nightmare. I wanted to hold him so bad, so close. I wanted to take away his pain.

"Then my momma got up close and said she loved me for all these years and she'd miss me too. I, I couldn't understand what she meant. I kept sayin' stuff like, 'No, you just mean for a little bit, huh? I'll see you later, right?' I started lookin' at my dad and then at Father Joseph."

My God!

Poquito simply went white! He froze and stood there as though he'd turned into marble. His face was an expression of cold and complete fear. I'd never seen any transformation so fast and so complete. I knew he would never move again. Then ...

"He just stared at me. He just stared at me."

"Who, Poquito? Who stared at you?"

"He did. It was like he was someone else, someone real bad and evil. Like the worst bad guy ever in the baddest comic ever. He had his arms crossed in front 'a him and he was lookin' down at me like I was the evil one or sumpin'."

Strange. Poquito had almost completely thrown out all of his proper speaking skills for the lingo of the streets, before ... yeah, before all this started, before the tutors, and before Father Joseph showed his true self. I knew that's who 'he' was without asking again.

"I remember his look so bad. I started gettin' real scared. I didn't get what was happ'nin'. I thought I was gonna have fun and be someone special. I thought ..."

His hands went to cover his face as he slowly sank to his knees. He was literally quaking with deep sobs. Little Dugan walked close and gently laid his hand on Poquito's shoulder.

"It's okay, Poquito."

Slowly, ever so slowly, Poquito's head came up to look at his friend. Dugan smiled for him.

"It's okay, Poquito, 'cause now Mark and I are here and we'll make you feel all better. Yeah, we will."

"OH NO!" Poquito cried and bounced forward and grabbed up Dugan in a tight hug. He buried his head into the boy and sobbed. I couldn't imagine Poquito having anymore tears in him, any more cry left in him either.

"Poquito, let go of Dugan. I think you might be hurting him, son." I tried to say it as calm and soothing as I could. Lord knows he didn't need to be disciplined just then.

"Oh God! I'm so sorry, Doog. I doe wanna hurtcha. I just wanna love yah. I wanna love yah like Mark did when I joined 'em. Like all the guys loved me; the only ones that loved us, until, until you, Pastor Tobias. You love us, huh?"

"Oh, Poquito, I love you more than anyone could possibly love someone. I love Mark the same and all the guys. I know I'll love Dugan more and more too."

I reached for Dugan but he stepped back and gave me a questioning look.

"You doe know my brother," he said sternly and with conviction. "He's been gone and now he's just back and he left 'fore you came to Domino. You doe know my brother. I know my own brother. You don't, huh, Poquito?"

Poquito was staring at me all through Dugan's little speech. Then he looked like, 'What do I say?'

I shrugged my shoulders and spoke before Poquito could.

"Dugan, you're right. I don't know your brother like you do, but remember, I've met all of Poquito's friends. We even had dinner together."

Dugan looked in awe at me, then swung his head over to look at Poquito. He looked a little pissed, actually.

"Then how come he didn't come see me? How come I didn't have dinner with him yet and you did? You don't know him. He's my brother!"

"Doog, we know he's your brother," said Poquito. "We know how much you love him and how much you've missed him."

Poquito rose up on his knees. He was almost head high with the boy. He placed his hand on Dugan's shoulder, much as Dugan had just done to soothe Poquito.

"Um, Mark, uh, your brother, Mark, he's been a, really busy when he got back and he had ta do all that stuff before he could come, uh, come, home. Yeah," he said looking up at me for reassurance.

My eyes, my mouth, my sole, every fiber in me smiled at this brave little man who just made Dugan's day, again.

"O-o-o-o-h," said Dugan, as though he finally understood.

"Yeah, Doog. You know he loves you the mostest, huh?"

"He he he, yeah, just like I loves him mostest too. Oh, yeah." Dugan was all smiles and the world was Paradise again to a little six year old whose life was about to change into what must have been, and still was, hell to six other boys.

Poquito sent Dugan home, finally and Poquito assured me he was okay to go to. He really had to get back, he said.

* * * * * * *

Two of my friends from my home town were coming to my first ever service that was on my own, in my own church, as its only pastor. Okay, as its only employee at all.

See, our ministry is laid out for us at the time of our graduation. Though that comes after a year of being a vicar (A student intern to an established church body) between our junior and senior years of seminary, it's still like you're pushed into the real world of actual people and problems, instead of the scenarios you read about and problems you solve out of a text book or lecture.

But I didn't even have that opportunity. I was sent to Domino ... Okay, I actually begged for the assignment. For some reason, starting, or restarting a church that had once prospered in a small town sounded like something I could really sink my teeth into. The weird thing was, nobody in Domino asked for us to come and no one knew I was coming. Hence, the first Sunday service was upon me and I had a membership of zip, zero, nada, no one. Not only that but it didn't look like any members would be flocking in soon.

I'd called my friends earlier in the week and asked them to come. I even explained some of what was going on as I understood it. They both were into kids big time, one being a counselor at a teen center and the other a case worker for Children Services. I just figured they might have some ideas as to what our options would be. But I also truly loved them and knew their presence would brighten my day.

At ten thirty that morning I was sitting by the front doors that were swung open so people felt welcome. No one showed. It was kind of early still.

At ten forty-five that morning I was still by the front door when two people came through the door! I almost grabbed them both up into a huge hug until I met their fragrance a few feet before they got to me. They were two of the indigent people to whom I'd handed brochures the day before.

"So, uh, hi, pastor sir. Uh, you said there'd be food after if we came? Zat right?" said the man, covered in layer upon layer of clothes and pushing a haggard little woman in front of him in much the same condition as he.

Whew. I wish some of the wine had actually gotten in their mouths instead of reeking throughout their clothes along with a variety of other smells.

I smiled my best smile, extended my hand and welcomed them. After all, I was there to serve all people, not just the spiffy clean ones.

"Please come in and take a seat. Yes, while it's only cookies and donuts and drinks, we'll have fellowship time after the service."

"'Kay," they both muttered and weaved to seats about half way toward the front.

At ten fifty my friends from home arrived all chipper and smiles and full of hugs. Their enthusiasm was a godsend until they saw only two others in the sanctuary. They turned to look at me with deep concern.

"I'll explain later," I said, turning to greet the late arriving mob.

Or not.

And that was it. I had four souls at my first service in Domino and I knew two of them at least didn't need saving.

The service was a joy to do, though. I'd been so looking forward to it for almost three weeks, not counting when they presented me with the commission.

Of course, I had to light the candles myself and I didn't serve communion. But I had a good time. Afterward, I talked to my friends, Drake and Diane while we watched the 'couple' serve themselves most of the cookies and donuts. When they should have been full and we were in no way hungry anymore, they looked over at me with pleading eyes, to which I just nodded. As I guessed, they scooped up what was left into a bag she was carrying and took off toward the door, but not without thanking us profusely.

"Oh, and do you have this every day?" the man asked me, stopping at the door.

"No, no, just Sundays, always at eleven."

"Oh," they both said with some disappointment, then left.

We just laughed and said how hard it must be for them. They then took me to lunch and I pleaded with them to stay for the evening service. They had no problem with that. I spent most of the time talking about what I'd been observing, then asked Diana what was happening back home, after Drake excused himself to run an errand, he said. In Domino?

* * * * * * *

I served us up a simple dinner of soup and sandwiches right before the later service was to start and we walked over to the church.

I played the same waiting game until right at 7:00, when the service was supposed to start. I'll have to say I was a little disappointed that my boys didn't make it, but I could only imagine why that would be and it wouldn't be their choice, of that I was sure.

Just as I was about to pull the doors closed, since they opened right into the sanctuary where the service took place, I almost squished a small hand as it reached to hold open the door.

I slowly pushed the door open and in walked Poquito, Mark, Brandon and Justin. I was so happy! After all, they were in the most need, I thought, to hear something warm and strengthening.

"Oh my gosh, guys, ha, thank you for coming!"

"Stevie and Darren had to go to the other church or they'da come too," said Mark.

"Well, you guys just made my day. Thank you for coming, boys."

But my mind was spinning because I'd thought there was no service at this hour over at the other church. So, what were the other boys ... Oh. The festival.

The boys were all as nervous looking as they could be and insisted on sitting near the back until I suggested they sit near the side exit, which was much closer to the front.

I walked to the front of the church and turned to tell everyone that I'd be right back after I vested.

It took about two minutes to wrap a stole, the long colorful thing we wear sometimes, around my neck. I usually would also wear an alb under it, the long white robe, as I did in the earlier service, but the later service was supposed to be more contemporary, for younger folk, mainly, and therefore was more casual.

I thought I'd heard someone come back to where I was in the sacristy, off the main nave, but I didn't see anyone when I looked.

I walked to the door, looking for one of the two candle lighters that was there that morning but there was only one there. Just as I was about to light it, Poquito came through the doorway putting the flame out at the tip of the other lighter!

"Oh, Poquito, you are always such a blessing to me! Thank you so much." I grabbed him and hugged him as he was replacing the lighter. It fell to the floor and we stood looking at it as the noise rang out everywhere. I just laughed while Poquito looked very upset.

"Poquito, Poquito, God has such a great sense of humor, doesn't He? He also has a great way of keeping His children humble."

"He does? O-o-o-h."

"Go sit down," I mouthed to him, still chuckling happily.

I stood there for a second, asking Him for just the right words that day, as I always did, several times throughout the morning. I also asked him for a miracle, or several if need be; whatever it would take.

* * * * * * *

"I welcome each of you to our service this evening." Then I asked, with a smile, "Are there any new visitors to the church today?"

I got a laugh from my two friends, followed by two sets of rolling eyes. But I also noticed that Justin just about raised his hand, until Barry hit his hand and whispered to him.

"Sorry. I couldn't resist. I said 'our service' because you are all a part of God's family."

The service went on as though the place were filled with lots of people. I was actually having the time of my life. I had been excited for that very moment in time to celebrate with the people in our church and I was making the most of it. The contemporary service had always been my favorite, whether as a congregant or leader.

As I stood up from a short prayer and stepped up to the pulpit for my sermon my eyes went to the four boys. They were all so perfectly handsome ... no, beautiful. They were quiet and attentive, except for one or the other looking at one of the doors every few minutes.

That's when I realized - my whole sermon was a sham! I'd written some pompous thing about all the love that's in the world and God wanting to take care of each of us, blah, blah, blah. Oh, it was my belief, true enough, but as I saw those ... my boys, something more pressing, more important and to the point came to mind.

I stepped out of the pulpit and took off the stole and let it drop on the few steps between me and the congregation ... of six. I just wanted to be one of them, to say what I was about to say.

My friends were in the first row being very supportive. I motioned for the rest of the guys to come forward. When none of them moved, except to look around them, I asked them.

"Please come forward and sit closer. What I have to say is so important and I really don't want to yell it to you."

Finally the others came forward and I had them all sitting in the first row.

"I have a problem and I thought maybe, if we all discussed it and prayed together, we could come up with an answer."

"Tobias?" asked one of my friends, very concerned.

"It's not like I'm dying or anything, but I have to admit, I do hurt," I said to Drake.

"Okay, let's start here. You all, well, most of you know me. Some well," I said pointing to my friends from home with my open hand, "And some maybe not so well, yet," I finished, pointing to my younger friends.

"You know that I care when people hurt. It hurts me to know that some people hurt. What some of you may not know," I said looking directly at my four boys, "Is that I won't tolerate someone being hurt, especially when it is knowingly by the hand or mouth of someone else. I will go to any lengths within my power to stop that hurting, even turning it to joy, Lord permitting.

"Well, I know some deep hurts exist in Domino. I know about some people that have never stopped hurting, while others are using that hurt as their tool, for who knows what."

Everyone was looking at me like I was talking in riddles. I was.

"Drake and Diana, I would like you to meet Poquito, Justin, Brandon and Mark. They are all the finest young men you will ever meet, believe me."

My friends bent over to look and smile at the boys as the four glowed with their blushing faces. My friends had faces to attach to the stories I'd told them that afternoon.

"They happen to be some of the ones that hurt."

The four boys gasped. While Brandon and Mark strained to look around, to see if someone would rush in and ... and I don't know what they thought they would do, Poquito and Justin just stared at me with tears in their eyes.

Of course, Drake and Diana immediately looked over when they heard the boys gasp. I motioned for them to sit still when I thought they were about to gather up boys in their arms. I knew they would and I didn't want the boys to run off yet.

A breeze of night air hit me and I shivered a bit. It really felt strange just then.

I continued, "I can't go into why they hurt, mostly because I don't know all the story, but I do know that it's like the whole town, well, the whole church over there, set them up, making them believe they were to be something special and committed to the church's needs for years, only to find out that everyone had turned against them, treating them like they were dead or no better than slaves."

And we all heard the gasp from the back of the church. I lifted my head to see Ronnie standing there, frozen.

I panicked, but tried desperately to show nothing out of the ordinary. I was sure everyone could see or feel my heart pounding like a jackhammer as I slowly walked toward the boy.

"Ronnie, I'm so glad you decided to come. You're welcome to come down to the front with us."

I don't think that was on his agenda. He looked the way I felt, panicking. He quickly looked to his left, then his right, like he had no place to escape, though he'd just come in through the door directly behind him.

But it was a small church and I'd reached him by then.

"Ronnie," I said softly, "You're safe here. You don't have to pretend, you don't have to make up stuff like you think people want you to act. You can just be the neat kid that is the real Ronnie."

I think he heard me. He still hadn't moved. So I held out my hand, not to shake his, but to hold it and guide him to the front.

He didn't even look at my hand as his came up to meet it, thinking I wanted to shake it.

When my fingers touched his, he pulled back so fast he hit himself in the stomach and it woke him up.

"I, uh, I gotta go!" he said as though all the air in him came rushing out.

"No, Ronnie, you gotta stay. You know you don't want to listen to all that crap everyone has been feeding you for all these years; all the lies about how the boys are treated, or how they should be treated. I saw that look every time I met you, but mostly the night of my dinner party."

"Huh? I never ..." he gasped.

"You didn't help your friends, did you? Oh, you were there and you had to be the one that told them about my little party, but you didn't help them with the burning package, did you?"

"But I was ..."

"But you didn't help them, did you?" I asked, interrupting him.

"No," he answered.

"Then please come and meet some really nice friends of mine; all six of them. We were just beginning to talk about something that is really, really important."

I stretched out my hand again and his went in mine, though slowly. We walked to the front of the church where everyone was looking back at us. Barry in particular was sawing his look all the way through Ronnie, as though he were hoping to hit a main artery.

"Everyone, this is Ronnie. Ronnie, this is, well, everyone."

No one laughed. Everyone was dead still, not even breathing.

"Okay, everyone, take a deep breath. I'm not gonna be able to revive six comatose people from oxygen deprivation."

That got a couple of chuckles. I put my hand on Ronnie's shoulder and he winced, as though he wasn't used to contact and it scared him.

"Ronnie, we were talking about your friends here, these ..."

"My friends? They aren't my friends. I don't really even know 'em." He was almost pushing himself away from even being close to them, so I'm sure he at least knew of them.

"Okay, not your friends ... yet?"

He looked at me in shock, his eyes huge.

"Boys, do you know Ronnie here?"

All the boys shook their heads no.

"We don't know any of the other kids in Domino, Pastor Tobias. Those we knew forgot all about us and we were too young to remember 'em too," stated Justin, his chin in his chest.

"Well, that has to change. But I thought if your duty was to the church, you could be meeting and talking to them during Sunday school or fellowship hour after service." I still did not have a grasp, evidently, on what these kids' duties were. I suppose I could have asked them directly but I never wanted them to think I was prying or that they couldn't trust me. I was starting to feel bad that I hadn't taken more initiative toward their cause to be more proactive for them. Actually, I probably didn't want to confirm what I thought was going on.

"You sure don't know much, Pastor," said Barry with some condemnation in his voice. It may have been my guilt that made me think that. "It's not like we serve at the services or anything. Heck, we don't even get to go after the first couple months of our service. Then we just wait until one of them calls us and we meet them in the church and ..."

Poquito elbowed Barry so he'd stop any further explanation. Barry growled and rubbed his arm, then looked up at me with the saddest eyes. They began to fill with tears. I had never seen that side of Barry.

"Sir," said Poquito, "We aren't allowed to go anywhere except where they take us. Mostly we just wait and wait and live in that place. There's too many of us now so they sound like they're gonna let Darren go."

"Go home?" asked Diana hopefully. I noticed tears in her eyes too.

"No. There's no home to go to anymore for us," said Barry. "We been told over and over there's no going back. It's like we gave up our families when they chose us to service them all. There's no family to go back to. We'll still be dirt to them. We're nothing but their whor ... OUCH!"

Barry got elbowed again, but that time by both Poquito and Justin.

"So, where will this Darren go if he can't go home?" asked Drake, standing and moving around to stand by me.

That's when we heard the sobbing. We all looked to see Ronnie crying, his head in his hands.

"I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry."

I put my arm around him and pulled him to me.

"How could you know about this, Ronnie? You're too young to be in on what the men of that church are up to, right?" I asked him.

It took a minute before we could sit Ronnie down and quiet him enough to understand what he was saying.

"My daddy ain't that smart, so all he's got is a job at the cemetery and even that ain't much cause 'a no one much dies around here. That's part 'o why I work at the store, so we can make ends meet, him and me. It's just us. My mom left a few years ago, after she got fed up at ..."

He turned to stare at the boys, then cried some more into his hands. When he was able, he continued.

"See, when there's a funeral gonna happen I always help my daddy with the diggin'. Like I says it ain't often but we both get paid so it's something more. Well, we got tole ta dig another grave but this time in the poor cemetery in the back. We never dig there but maybe once a year."

"Ronnie, why are you telling us this?" I asked, hoping he would get to the point.

"'Cause I remembered the name, well, the first name on the plank thing next to where we was diggin' like it was for that space ..."

* * * * * * *

The night had gone extremely well for Darren. He was ecstatic that he would soon be free from the events of the last eight years of his life. He had never felt so vile and dirty, so used and mistreated. He couldn't ever remember anything else though but he had never gotten used to those feelings.

The men had gathered together, most of the men he had met and been meeting when they needed him, in the special room under their church's sanctuary. Darren wasn't used to that place so much. He had only been there a few times. It dawned on him that he had been there years before when he was being disciplined severely. That gave him the creeps.

He was told to go with his tutor and meet them there, that they had a surprise for him after they relieved him of his service to them - after he performed that service one last time. That thought almost made him vomit, but the stronger thought, the idea that he would soon be free far outweighed the few hours he'd be needed.

There must have been ten men down there! He shivered as he was brought into the middle of their circle. Father Joseph stepped toward him.

"Darren, you've been a very good boy all these years. You probably know that we are having our festival this evening to initiate a new member of your family of boys."

"Who?" asked Darren, then he cringed when he realized what he'd done.

"WHAT?" shouted the Father.

"I'm sorry! I just asked ..."

SLAP!

Darren found himself on the ground with the whole right side of his face on fire. It wasn't that unexpected. He slowly stood up.

"You'll never learn, boy. I guess it's a good thing we're about to set you free. But first we have a little ritual we'd like to bestow on you in honor of your leaving very soon. It's something we do for every boy that grows to an age where they are no longer of use, uh, too old to perform adequately to our needs. Why, even your friend Chester went through much the same thing when we finally freed him. Jacob?"

A man that Darren knew as one of the guards over the boys, one who watched the house during the daylight hours, approached from where he'd been standing by the far wall. His hands were behind him until one of the other men turned to look and ran into him.

Darren heard the clatter of metal on the concrete floor, then he saw the two rings and the very short chain in between them.

In the confusion, most of the men's attention was devoted to the man, Jacob, and the tongue lashing Father Joseph was dealing out to him.

It was Darren's only chance.

Darren had never been so scared. More scared even then when the men came to get him to be the 'one'. More scared then when his parents turned their back on him. He ran as fast as he could, running around the church and back to the old cemetery in the very back that wasn't used anymore. He climbed over the low fence, scraping his leg on the old iron fencing. As he got to the other side he could feel the uneven ground at his feet, but he had no time to worry about that, he had to hurry; even in the darkness, they'd find him for sure; and they wouldn't give up until they did. He knew that for sure. He ran for about twenty feet before he tripped on a low, overgrown head stone and fell right on top of a mound of dirt with fresh new grass growing on it, though it was long from not being mowed recently. His face hit the soft mound and his head came up sputtering. Even as he feared the noise would draw the attention of his pursuers, he looked at the wooden grave marker of the newest grave in the old cemetery.

'Chester Rivera, 1981 - 1997'

Darren couldn't believe there was someone with the same name as his friend who'd just been sent away only some eight or nine months before. No, it was just past a year, he realized. And the last date was that very year, too. His heart started pounding. He had a hard time catching his breath all of a sudden. It didn't make any sense. He couldn't add it all together. His mind wasn't grasping that one thing he needed to figure it all out!

And then it did!

And Darren screamed, then collapsed in tears for his friend who had been freed from his anguish of so many years, until the day they said he could leave Domino, just like they'd told Darren.

As he finally raised his head and looked around, looking for his escape, he noticed a chilling sight. About three spaces from where he lay was a freshly dug grave, complete with two shovels sticking in the fresh pile of dirt next to the cavity in the earth, waiting for its new resident.

But his fear was more than he could take in when he noticed, laying against that pile of dirt, a new wooden plaque that he knew would soon be standing guard over its new owner, relieved of his duty to the city that had raised him to serve them. He crawled on his belly until he could turn the plaque over and read:

'Darren Frombridge, 1982 - 1998'

His head sank to the ground, his heart sank even farther. He realized that was the way it was destined for him.

"There he is. Grab him!"

He saw shadows come all around him. Next to him, the spade that had been used to shovel out his permanent resting place was pulled away. Then he felt a blow to his head ...

... and, as the blackness engulfed him, he knew he was finally free.

* * * * * * *

"You're all right. Just relax. Everything is all right. The doctors said you aren't hurt too bad and you'll be fine in a few days ... Dugan."

The little boy was lost in the huge hospital bed. He was afraid to open his eyes. He'd never known such pain. He didn't know that people could be so mean.

"I ... I," he tried to say.

"What is it, little buddy? What are you trying to say?" asked Barry, bending his head down so he would be sure to hear every word.

"I said, I don't think I like Father Joseph anymore." Tears were streaming down his dirty face as Barry leaned in farther to hold him.

Poquito tried to climb up on the opposite side of the bed but Mark, Dugan's brother, tapped him on the shoulder. Poquito turned to see waterfalls of tears wetting Mark's shirt.

"Poquito, could I, I mean, may I climb up there? I just gotta hold my little baby brother something awful."

Poquito smiled and moved to the side. As he did, my two hands came down to rest on his chest. Hopefully, he felt my warmth as I stood behind him, gently pulling him closer. He sighed a heavy, deep sigh and wiggled closer still, then looked up into my teary eyes.

He kind of snickered and wiped his wet nose and eyes on his sleeve.

"I've never seen so many teary eyes in one place. I think they're all tears of relief and happy stuff, huh?"

"Yes, my young friend, we're all very fortunate that you've all been delivered from your imprisonment by those men. I'm just sorry that during that time, we had to give up one soul to our Lord so some very cruel men could have their way. I'm so sorry."

"I know, but like you told us, he's free now too and always will be."

Drake walked into the room and whispered into my ear.

"Yes!" I shouted. "Kids, Father Joseph was picked up by the state police along with Domino's Chief of Police and Mayor just the other side of Arbuckle. They think they now have everyone. If it hadn't been for Drake calling the state police so soon, this might have turned out differently. Now, we know that no one else will ever be hurt by these men."

They all turned as if their eyes were drawn to where the second bed in the hospital room was surrounded by a curtain, where they'd laid Darren. Justin started to go over there as if he were going to pull back the curtain. Diana pulled him close to her and squeezed him lovingly.

"I don't think we should do that yet, my little one."

"I just wanna know. I wanna see!" cried Justin.

And right then his prayer was answered.

The curtain was pulled back by the doctor that been with Darren for so long.

"Ha! That boy must have an iron skull. Anyone else would have been unconscious for at least a week or more. That boy will be up and around in a few days. It's a miracle."

Justin rushed to Darren's side to match the biggest smile he'd seen on his friend in years.

As they talked, the doctor approached me and held out his hand as if to give me something. I held out mine and a long piece of silver chain dropped into it, a deep purple stone was at the center of it.

"I had it snipped off. It was really tight around his neck," the doctor told me. "That chain was meant to be permanent, I think, and would have slowly strangled the boy eventually."

"You have no idea, doctor, no idea."

We all gathered around the two beds and were even laughing some. The relief was so noticeable; it was so good to see the boys so happy finally.

During all of that I felt warm arms wrap around my waist and looked down to see Poquito's eyes looking back up at me, brimming with tears.

"Thank you so much, Pastor Tobias. He would have been killed, huh? Like Chester was."

I tried to smile, but just nodded.

"It's over, little one, my little one. We all get to start a new life together."

There were seven gasps in the small room. I turned to see all the boys staring at Poquito and me. They couldn't have looked more beautiful if tears weren't streaming down their cheeks.

"Oh, here," said Poquito, holding out his hand. "It was on Dugan."

He handed me the pink necklace that had been tied around Dugan's neck.

"Pink?" I asked.

"Yeah, we all got purple because we were doing, we were, well, you know, anyway, for a long time. Dugan got pink because he was just starting - tonight."

I finally had a chance to look at one closely. One word was etched into it: OURS.

My attention was once again drawn to Justin. He was introducing Darren to Diana.

"Darren, this is our new friend and a friend that Pastor Tobias brought. She's Diana."

He stepped back and Diana leaned down to kiss Darren's forehead. In an instant, Darren was red everywhere that wasn't covered by a sheet and probably several places that were.

He motioned Justin to his side and whispered to him, "She's cute."

Justin let out a loud guffaw and turned to see all the others in the hospital room turned toward him.

"He's okay alright! Ha ha!"

THE END

* * * * * * *

Tobias Marit Olsen, 26
Poquito Torres, 10
Ronnie Davenport, about 16
Mrs. Torres, Poquito's mother
Jenna Torres, 8, Poquito's sister
Darren Frombridge, 16
Stevie, about 8
Barry Coulter, 14
Mark, 12
Justin, 11
Dugan, 6
Father Joseph, older


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