The Little Pipsqueak

© 2012-2015 Matthew Templar
Thanks again to RCN for his editing wizardry. It makes for a smoother read.

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 copyrighted by Matthew Templar, all rights reserved. Distribution, including but not limited to: posting on internet sites, newsgroups, or message boards, or in book form (either as a whole or part of a compilation), or on CD, DVD or any other electronic media, is expressly prohibited without the author's written consent.

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Chapter Sixty-five

When the phone rang, AJ was usually the first, or only one, to jump up and answer it. Jeffy used to jump too but finally figured out that his little 'servant' would be his secretary as well. Okay, not really his servant, but older brothers can have a habit of insinuating their siblings into doing things, especially when that younger sibling was into pleasing his brothers like AJ was. He was a lover and one of his favorite things was their smile when he helped them with something.

So, that time, the phone rang and AJ happened to be closest, something else that also happened quite often, for some reason.

"Hello, McGill residence." Pause. "Oh, hi. Yes, he's here. We got back yesterday." Pause. "O' course." He then used the brother-to-brother sing-songie voice required when that brother's friend called for him.

"Jef-f-f-y. It's for you-u-u-u-u-u."

Well, as it left his lips we all knew who was on the other end.

Jeffy looked over his shoulder at Elliot and me as he took the phone from his little brother. His blush was the purest pink.

"Um, hello?"

I went back to reading my paper and was oblivious to their conversation . . . until a shadow came over me.

I looked up and saw Jeffy looking more concerned than I'd seen someone look in a very long time.

"What is it, son? Is Rachel alright? What's going on," I asked, setting aside the paper and reaching out to him.

"Pop, Rachel said that Eva called and said she was really worried about Ray. Something about if he'd be alright. She said Eva was practically cryin'. Pop, I need to get over there, I mean to Ray's. I, I need to find out."

By then Elliot was standing next to his brother looking worried as well.

"I knew something wasn't right when I talked to his mother, boys. I just don't know what kind of not all right. Trouble is, she said he won't even be home until sometime tomorrow."

"Pop, we've got to do something. Ray's a weirdo, no doubt, but he's a good weirdo. We can't let anything happen to him."

"Yeah, El. Pop, he's one of us. He went through all that stuff with us. We've got to help him."

"Okay," was all I said as I got up and made my way to the phone.

"Mrs. Carlton? Tim McGill again. I'm sorry to bother you again but . . ."

"Oh, Mr. McGill. I, um, I'm glad to hear your voice again. What, um, can I do for you?"

"Mrs. Carlton, we just heard from Jeffy's friend, Rachel, who said she talked to Ray's friend, Eva. She said . . ."

"Oh, I see. Um, I'm sorry to interrupt. She's really a sweet girl. She's been over several times to speak with Ray. Of course, Ray isn't back yet. But he should be back tomorrow."

"Yes, that's what you said, but, frankly, Mrs. Carlton, we need to know, my boys and I. See, you know what they went through together. You know that they became very close during and after their adventures. Please, is there something going on that we need to know? Frankly, I can't imagine some trouble between his father and him."

"Oh, no, no. Oh heavens nothing like that. Oh my!"

She was sounding a bit hysterical. I was worried about her, especially if there was no one with her.

"Mrs. Carlton, I don't mean to upset you."

"Mr. McGill, this isn't easy to say. We've tried to keep it quiet, for Ray's sake, but it looks as if it's getting too big for all of us. And I really need to talk to someone about it."

I was getting a bit shook up by all the mystery and was beginning to run scenarios in my head that weren't at all good. This parenting thing seemed to pick up momentum and keep getting bigger and slightly out of hand at every turn.

"You have my ear. If it's better for you, I can come over there. I can even bring a friend with me, if it will make you feel more comfortable."

"Oh, thank you. That's so kind of you. It's just that Ray was concerned that if the rest of the children, um, his friends knew, they'd pity him. He's had such a hard time making friends until he went through his ordeal with your boys. Then his life took such a positive turn, meeting his young lady friend and being your boys' friend. Then, well, this happened. It just isn't fair."

"This happened? May I ask what? And please know, Mrs. Carlton . . . ."

"Imogene, Mr. McGill. Please call me Imogene."

"Thank you, Imogene. I'm Tim by the way. But please continue. My boys are hanging on me to know what they can do to help."

"Pray, Mr., I mean, Tim. Ask them to pray. Ray was diagnosed with leukemia shortly after their adventures. He and his father have been at the university hospital up state where they began treating him with chemotherapy."

I was in shock! Kidnappings, mob scenes, all the things that these kids have gone through and none of them were as dangerous or completely out of a parent's control than that damned 'C' word.

"Pop? Po-op, what's wrong? You just went like really white. What did she say?"

I turned to see my two boys right next to me with pleading, worried looks on their faces. I didn't want to have to tell them.

"It's okay to tell them, Tim. It's only fair that they know. They need to. But remember, Ray is worried about how they'll treat him now."

"Oh, Imogene, that has to be the least of his or of your worries. My boys will treat him just like their brother. They're good boys and . . ."

"We will?" said Jeffy. "Brothers? El, it must be really, really bad."

I think he was trying to make light of it. I knew he didn't want to hear what I was about to tell them.

"Boys, Ray has been diagnosed with leukemia, a form of cancer that is in his blood cells. He and his father have been to the university hospital up north and he's been having chemotherapy while we were gone camping."

"What?" said Elliot. "But . . . No, that's not right! It can't be! He was just here! He looked fine!"

Elliot was as pale as I felt. He was clinging to my arm one second and pushing away the next.

"Pop, what's gonna happen?" asked Jeffy.

"I don't know, son. But we'll find out and we'll be there for him in every way possible, won't we?"

I said my goodbyes to Imogene Carlton, assuring her that we would be in contact the next day and that we would all be as supportive as possible, in any way that they needed. Then I turned to the boys.

The phrase singing to the choir came to mind. These were the boys that would do anything to help a friend in need. I didn't need to ask them, I just needed to point them. As we walked back into the living room, I tried to explain what was going on.

"Boys, one of the reasons that we didn't know about what Ray was going through was that he was afraid everyone would pity him or maybe even be afraid to be close to him. His mom said that his life has changed so much since your adventures with him that his self-esteem is soaring. And he even has a girlfriend, mostly due to you two," I said, nodding at Elliot and Jeffy.

"I feel kind of bad that we haven't done more with him, Pop," said Elliot.

"Yeah. Like I said he's a weirdo, but he's our weirdo," added Jeffy, smiling.

"What's gonna happen now, Dad? He'll be okay, right?" asked AJ, who had come up to us.

"AJ, it depends on a lot of variables. I mean, lots of things. It can depend on how soon they caught it, how aggressive it is, how well he takes to the treatments."

"And how much we pray for him," Elliot uttered under his breath, but loud enough that we all heard it.

"Yeah. I wanna pray for him," said AJ.

Jeffy looked up and nodded his head.

Elliot excused himself and went into the kitchen.

"Hi, Great Grampa. Um, this is Elliot. No, everything's fine here. Um, may I speak to Joshua, please?"

We could hear the conversation, that is, Elliot's side of it, from the living room and waited with him until Joshua came to the phone.

"Oh, um, hi, Joshua," said Elliot, sounding nervous. "Yeah, um, this is . . . Oh, yeah, you said that." Elliot looked over at us and blushed.

Jeffy was shaking his head. "Oh, brother."

"Sh-h-h-h," I told him.

"Joshua, tomorrow is Sunday and I need to invite you to our church. Well, I mean the one we went to that once, before camping."

"Huh? Oh, yeah. Need to. See . . . our friend . . ."

"Elliot," I called out to get his attention. He looked at me and I continued, "Why don't you invite them both over for dinner and we'll explain then. I think it's easier when you are looking at them. Don't you?"

Elliot gave me a good smile and a nod and turned back to the phone. "Um, Joshua, can you and Great Grampa come to dinner tonight? We can explain then. Dad said that's better and I agree. Okay?" There was a slight pause. "Really? That's great. Thank you. This is pretty important. We'll see you whenever you get here and we can have dinner later."

He didn't even look at me. He knew it was fine with me that they come sooner.

"Okay. See you then. Um, it was nice talking to you. Yeah, I know but it's been a few hours. Okay. Bye."

He was still blushing when he came into the living room and plunked down on the floor next to AJ and Lewis. He immediately started to play with Lewis.

"That was a great idea, Elliot. I'm glad you thought of Joshua. His support will be good to have. And, having him at the Carlton's church is a good idea too. I hope Mrs. Carlton will let us ask the pastor to pray for him."

"Why wouldn't she, Dad?"

"Well, AJ, having the whole congregation know that Ray has leukemia isn't what he wanted, I don't think. But we have to believe that the more people praying, the better. Don't you think?"

I got three good strong, "Yeahs!"

About an hour later the two arrived.

"Alright, what's a-goin' on over ta here? All mysterious, don't cha know."

Lewis grunted and Elliot grabbed him and held him up for Jeb to take. Then Elliot stood up and turned toward Joshua.

Joshua went right over to Elliot with a worried look on his face, and reached out to hold Elliot's hands.

"Elliot, what is happening? It sounded pretty serious on the phone."

"Oh, Joshua, we just found out that our friend, Ray, has leukemia. He's been having treatments in some hospital and is coming home tomorrow. I thought that if we all went to church, his church, and got everyone to pray for him, he couldn't help but pull through."

Halfway through Elliot's explanation Joshua was nodding in agreement. When I looked around I saw Jeffy and AJ nodding too.

"That sounds like a good plan, Elliot. Of course I'll attend the service with you. Who all is going?" he asked looking at us.

"I think we all plan to, Joshua," I told him, looking at my boys nodding.

Then we all looked at Jeb, who was trying hard to concentrate on the baby. Eventually, he looked up and said, "What? Why's everyone of you staring at me?"

No one said anything. We all knew he heard us. We also knew he could be as stubborn as a mule.

"Jebediah Harding," said Joshua, his hands on his hips.

"Okay, Okay! I was gonna say yes. It's just been a long time since this old coot's been inside a holy place. I wouldn't want the ceiling to fall in on us."

All three of my boys were snickering at their great grampa.

"I doubt very much if that will happen. It will be wonderful to have you sharing this time with your family," stated Joshua.

We had a little time to kill until I started dinner. Mostly the two oldest boys told Joshua how they came to really know Ray and the story of their kidnapping.

We decided to start our prayer time for Ray as we said grace for dinner. Elliot was beaming as we made preparations for dinner, knowing that we would again be back in his comfort zone as far as his faith was concerned.

"Now, while we start to pray for him," asked Joshua, "Do you want to make this into a prayer vigil?"

Jeffy leaned over to whisper something to Elliot as they were laying silverware on the table.

"Joshua, could you please explain what you meant by prayer vigil to us?"

I thought it was nice of Elliot to include us all, so that Jeffy wasn't made to feel too uncomfortable.

"A prayer vigil is usually a prayer or series of prayers over a period of time and usually concerning one certain need like Ray's healing. It can be done by one person or, as in our case, by several persons. We could each take turns praying for a certain length of time each. But we could also just stop and pray every once in a while."

"Well, let's start with prayer at our supper and go from there. Okay?" I suggested, looking at my two oldest boys.

"Sounds good, Pop," said Elliot, still smiling, "And, of course, tomorrow at church."

"Yeah, I agree. Maybe we won't need to keep prayin' all the time if he gets better. Huh?" added Jeffy.

So it was that we were all seated around the table.

"Joshua, would you lead us in our prayer tonight," I asked the young vicar.

"Of course." And he bowed his head and folded his hands in front of him.

Elliot was accustomed to doing the same. The rest of us joined in, after checking out how the two were getting ready to pray.

I was about to lower my head and close my eyes when I heard a soft thud next to me.

I almost cried when I saw that little Lewis had flopped his hands onto the table, straight out in front of him, looked at Joshua, then lowered his head down until it rested on his pudgy arms.

I heard a gasp and looked up to see Elliot with huge eyes staring as his little nephew. He looked over at me with his mouth open in disbelief. I just smiled at him and nodded my head, then, after Elliot smiled the sweetest smile, we both bowed our heads too.

When we all looked up at the end of a wonderful blessing for us, our food and for Ray's healing, Lewis was looking all around as though nothing much was happening and he had a 'by the way, where is my dinner', look.

While we tried to make the rest of the evening low key, I could tell that the three boys were anxious for the next day so they could call on Ray and his family.

Bedtime was a combination of assurance of a good experience the next day at church and of a complete recovery for Ray. Once again, my youngest son let his optimism show through, even if there might have been a little doubt in the back of his mind. The older two boys weren't quite as confident but were looking forward to what the next day would bring.

In the morning, Lewis and I didn't cuddle much beyond a good morning hug. He was always awake to tell me that he was tired of squishy pants and I was always quick to make him comfortable. He also usually woke up with an appetite that needed appeasing.

I'd just laid down his spoon, which he quickly grabbed up and aimed for the empty jar of his breakfast. I held on to it, of course. While he was clinking the glass three boys came in rubbing various parts of their anatomies in the hopes of their whole body waking up anytime soon. As we were saying our 'good mornings' to each other and hugged, AJ made the mistake of standing beside Lewis' highchair, something that might not have been as interesting to Lewis if his youngest uncle had been wearing any clothes.

"Yuck!" shouted Jeffy, quickly getting our attention as he pointed to the problem.

Lewis decide that he'd finished playing with the glass jar and wanted to start to work on AJ below the waist. His slobbery spoon was on its way toward AJ's nether region as Jeffy interrupted him.

"Oops" said AJ, jumping away from his nephew.

Elliot was laughing already, one hand covering his mouth while his other hand went down to the same place on him in sympathy to what could have been very painful. "He, he. That could have been bad, AJ."

We all started laughing as Lewis began to move the spoon back to his mouth, something that I had just enough time to prevent by removing it from its inevitable destination.

Clothes for church were discussed over a simple breakfast. We really had plenty of time to make the 10 o'clock service but, again, everyone was anxious.

"I have our clothes laid out for us, Pop," Elliot informed me.

Jeffy nodded his head. He didn't even seem embarrassed or unnerved by his brother taking matters into his own hands. He did seem the most anxious of us and was probably thankful for his brother's help.

After eating, I went to help AJ decide what to wear, though he was getting very good about wearing the right clothes and he had been to church once before.

"I'll call over at Jeb's about 9:15 to tell them we'll be right over. That should get us to the church at a quarter to ten, enough time to talk to the pastor and see if Mrs. Carlton is there."

"Then we can go over to their house after church and see if Ray's home yet?" asked Jeffy.

"Yes. We'll check with his mom, of course, but when he's home we'll go over there as soon as he's up to it."

Everything flowed like clockwork, like we had a purpose that was supported by the answers to our prayers the night before. Jeb was dressed in his suit, though he made a big deal of fussing with the collar that seemed a bit tight. Joshua was even wearing his clerical collar, something AJ, at least, had never seen before.

"Yeah, the guy at the mission place didn't even wear a suit coat."

"That's because he wanted to relate to the people he was ministering to, AJ. Kind of like Jesus wearing simple clothes so He could make those around Him feel at ease while He was among them," explained Joshua.

He went on to explain that he thought it was fitting for him to show the pastor that he was also a minister, if still in training.

Have you ever noticed that few people know how to give good directions until they know how to drive and have done it for a while? Such was the case with Elliot and AJ navigating us to the church they'd attended once. Elliot did pretty good, really, while AJ would have had us in another city if I'd listened to him.

We eventually drove up to a classic gothic church. It wasn't huge but its two spires on either side of the main entrance and the arched stained glass windows along each side made it look very impressive. As we parked and left the truck, AJ jumped ahead as though he were leading us on a tour of his church. We walked to the far side to see where the structure made an 'L' to include offices, the parish hall and classrooms for Sunday School.

We'd walked past the front door, of course, to get to the far side and walked back as the pastor greeted everyone entering the building.

Pastor Gooding was a little bit short, not at all out of shape and appeared to be a few years older than I was. He had a nice smile that never seemed to leave his face. I think he had my three boys, and Lewis wrapped around his little finger after about the first minute of meeting with him before we'd entered and sat down.

Pastor Michael Gooding had an air about him that made you want to know more about him and what he had to say. His voice and his demeanor were very comforting. He'd known about Ray's affliction and was pleased that we had come to support him by asking him if he would include Ray in his prayers that morning.

"Oh, oh, and until he's really better. 'Kay?" asked AJ.

"I think that's a grand idea, Andrew James. And we'll pray that the Lord will let that happen very quickly, right?"

"Yes, sir," smiled my boy.

"Thank you, Pastor. Ray's kinda a weird bird but he's become our friend after some things we went through together," added Jeffy, pointing back and forth between Elliot and him.

"Well, we'll have to hear about your stories, boys. I think Ray was telling me some of your adventure, being taken by someone's parents, if I remember right?"

"That would be my parents, sir. Former parents, that is," said Elliot, with no regret in his voice whatsoever.


Both Jeffy and Elliot looped their arms around mine on each side of me and grinned.

"Yes, sir. See, Pop adopted both of us right after it happened. He's ours now."

"My dad too," added AJ.

"And this little one? How does he fit into the picture if I may ask?" asked Pastor Gooding, poking Lewis in his tummy.

Lewis did his deep scrunch, then exploded with a laugh and grabbed the pastor's finger.

"He's my grandson, sir. While he is my blood, my three boys couldn't be any more a part of me if my blood flowed in them as well."

My three boys seemed to puff up with pride, though they were never at a loss to hear me tell them how much they meant to me.

"Well, I'm glad that you came back to us, Elliot and Andrew James. And I'm especially glad that you brought your whole family with you this time. I sincerely hope you'll all return and become a part of our fellowship. We need more youngsters in our congregation."

Before Jeffy and Elliot could huff out their indignation at being called youngsters, Pastor Gooding moved so he could stand with Jeb and Joshua, not realizing that they were with us.

"Thank you for coming today, my friends. Welcome to our church and our worship this morning. I'm Pastor Gooding," he said, holding out his hand.

Jeb had just taken it when AJ nosed his way between them and explained,

"Oh, Pastor, this is my great grampa and our friend, Joshua. He's a pastor too, huh?" he said, looking at Joshua.

"Yes, I noticed the collar, of course, young man. We'll have to talk. But I know you, Jeb Harding. I was the vicar here when you came once in a great while. Now I see you have a family again. May I just say, it does you well?"

His broad smile turned Jeb's embarrassment into a proud smile and a hearty handshake.

"Well, now, you still remember that far back, do you?" asked Jeb.

"Frankly, Mr. Harding, you've done enough for our community over the years that I think most people know of you, even if they don't know you personally."

"Well, I'll be," said Jeb as a little blush snuck up his neck and shone on his cheeks.

"May I invite each of you to our parish hall to enjoy some refreshments after our service and before you leave? I'm sure members of our congregation would love to fellowship with you."

"Yeah, Dad. Last time they had donuts and juice and everything," added an over-exuberant AJ.

"I suppose it wouldn't hurt if we have time. See, Pastor, we've really come to support the Carlton family."

"Yes, yes. As you said. I will endeavor to include him in our prayers, though, he and his parents have been in our hearts since I heard of his affliction."

"Wo-ow!" said AJ. "Well, we wanna keep prayin' for him until he's healed and all better. Huh, guys?" he said, turning to his brothers, then Joshua.

"We're just really worried about him, sir," mentioned Elliot. "We've only known that something was wrong for two days, though Pop thought something was up sometime ago."

"That's great, boys. Some added people praying for the boy can't hurt. I don't believe the Lord wants to take Ray yet. Maybe He just wants some of us to grow stronger by showing our love for Him and Ray and our faith in Jesus," said Pastor Gooding.

Just then, Pastor Gooding looked over us to see someone behind him. We all turned to see a nicely dressed lady coming up the walk toward the front doors where we'd stopped to meet the pastor.

"Imogene Carlton, I see we have increased the number of friends concerned about your Ray. I'm sure you know this fine group of men," Pastor said, not knowing that we'd never met.

At once, Jeffy and Elliot approached Mrs. Carlton and started to ask all kinds of questions about how Ray was doing and how the treatments went.

"Oh, my. Oh, you boys must be Daniel and Elliot, Raymond's new friends. I'm so glad to meet you finally. All I hear from Ray are praises for his new friends. If it isn't you boys and your family, then it's about Eva and her friend, Rachel."

"Mrs. Carlton, may I introduce myself? I'm Tim McGill, the boys' father."

The boys stood to her side to let her pass.

"Mr. McGill, I finally get to meet you. Thank you for your concerns about Raymond. It touches my heart to know you care so much about the boy, even though you've barely known him for very long."

"Well, he does kinda grow on ya if ya don't watch out, ya know," said Jeffy in all seriousness.

We looked at him, aghast, until Mrs. Carlton covered her mouth and chuckled.

"Yes, I'd say you knew my boy well enough. He he."

It was good to see her happy but it quickly turned into a wet smile and a heavy sigh as she contemplated their future and her love for her only child.

Pastor Gooding stepped up to comfort her, putting his hands on hers in front of her.

"Imogene, it's good to see you here. Is there any word as to how this latest round of treatments went?"

"They aren't home yet, Pastor, though I expect them at any time. I just needed to be here today. It's been several weeks and it's the one thing I feel I can contribute to Raymond's well-being."

"Good, Imogene. I'm glad to hear that. It's also good to see several more supporters for the boy."

Inside the church we could hear the organ start the prelude to the service.

"Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go robe up as the service is about to start." And he was gone through the heavy front doors.

"Gentlemen, I would love it if you would sit with me. Besides your comfort to me, I must admit having such a handsome group sit next to me will be a great honor."

We all blushed a bit, including Imogene Carlton.

We let her lead the way and let her sit in the middle of a pew that barely held the seven of us. Lewis was still in my lap so he didn't take up any space.

When the prelude was finished, the pastor stood to welcome everyone, including their guests. He looked in several directions when he said that, including ours. AJ sat up a bit straighter, prouder.

"But, Dad, Elliot and me aren't guests anymore; we've been here once. You guys are though."

"It's Elliot and I, AJ," corrected Elliot.

Just as AJ was about to make a smart-alecky remark, Pastor Gooding announced the first hymn.

Elliot, AJ and Joshua took hymnals from a rack on the back of the pew in front of us and turned to the hymn. I took one too and held it away from the grabby fingers of my eight-month-old. That lasted until we started to sing, then Lewis couldn't get over our voices doing that loud stuff, I guess. He was in awe.

It didn't take long to realize that Joshua and Elliot had very good singing voices. But the surprise was AJ. His voice was clear and still soprano. He sang from his heart and put his everything into it, just like he did with most things he enjoyed. The rest of us were captivated by his gift and several people turned to notice him as well.

When the hymn was over we all put our hymnals back and AJ sat back with his hands in his lap and a huge smile on his face.

"That part's one of my favorites," he told me. Then he turned to his great grampa sitting next to him and said the same thing.

Jeb in a not too quiet voice declared, "Ya done real good, boy. I didn't know ya had it in ya."

I even saw some folks nod in agreement.

The service progressed through a short liturgy, another hymn and the pastor's sermon, then we stood for prayer.

Pastor Gooding was a blessing. He made the prayers sound as though they not only came from his heart, but the hearts of all of us in front of him as well. When he got to a place where he prayed for those that were ill he spent some extra words to ask for healing for our little friend, Ray Carlton.

I looked at Imogene as she nodded in agreement, but her eyes were covered with her hanky to catch her tears for her son.

When the pastor was done with each petition of the prayer he would say, "Lord, in Your mercy," and the congregation would respond, "Hear our prayer."

Well, that wasn't enough for AJ at the end of the petition for Ray so he added a, "Yeah, hear us, Lord!"

While there were a few gasps, the pastor wasn't the least bit shaken; he just continued praying.

Being slightly embarrassed, I looked over at Imogene to see if she was offended and noticed that her hanky had moved to her mouth to cover her laugh, but it did nothing to hide the admiration in her eyes for my little 'shy' guy.

The last hymn was pretty familiar to most people who'd attended any church in their lives, so it was sung with great gusto throughout the nave. Even Jeb wholeheartedly put his soul into it, as did all but Jeffy who was attending his first service, maybe ever. He wasn't used to any of the church's traditions yet.

Still one voice rang out, filling the room with its clarity and perfection, its confidence in every note. AJ belted out so beautifully that I realized that I was no longer singing, just listening to him. That was partly because Lewis had reached up and, with a grunt, pushed my chin over to look at AJ. In fact, I noticed that many of the congregants that day had quieted or stopped singing, as I had, to listen to my boy bless us all with his gift.

I'm not sure he even noticed everyone staring at him. At the end of the hymn, he simply turned to me with his gorgeous smile and said, "Dad, this is my favorite part! Listen."

Just then, Pastor Gooding, having walked down the center aisle during the last verse and stopped at our pew, turned toward the front of the church and shouted a hearty, "Go in peace. Serve the Lord!"

And the congregation, including Elliot and AJ, shouted, "Thanks be to God!"

"See?" said my young one.

Then, immediately, the service was concluded with a very inspiring organ postlude as we all worked our way to the back of the church.

"Boys, I can't tell you how much your being here has meant to me. And it certainly added a lot of excitement," she added, looking at a smiling, proud AJ.

We were standing in the parish hall where the fellowship continued after the worship service. The boys made their way through the line that led to the treats that day and the adults walked over to the coffee pots and helped ourselves. We met again in the middle of the room to talk.

"But, Mrs. Carlton, do you suppose it would be okay if we came over to see Ray today?" asked Elliot. "I, for one, need to know he's going to be okay."

"Oh, dear. Elliot, sweetheart that you are, I must ask you to wait just a bit longer so I can talk to Raymond and see, first if he is strong enough to have friends over and then, if he is emotionally ready to accept having friends over. He was very worried about how you would react when you heard he was sick."

"Well, Mrs. Carlton, he's got us worried sick," stated Jeffy firmly. "If he wants ta be a lunkhead and think we're gonna slobber all over him because he's a sicky, he doesn't know us very well."

"Good grief, Jeffy. What an enticing picture that is," said Elliot, wrinkling his nose.

"You know what I mean. We need to talk to him, ma'am. Can we?"

Imogene was going to say something when she stopped and reached into her purse.

"Um, excuse me, gentlemen, my phone is ringing and it could be Raymond, Sr. calling to say they're home."

She walked a few steps away with the phone to her ear.

While she was away, several people came up to AJ and mentioned what a lovely voice he had.

The organist was among them and asked if AJ and Elliot were interested in joining the choir.

"We only have an adult choir but you boys are certainly talented enough to sing with us. We're hardly a professional group, but we love what we can offer to the worship experience and we have a lot of fun doing it."

"Can we, Dad?" asked AJ, turning to me and grabbing my arm, almost spilling my coffee.


"Yes. I'll say oops. Simmer down a bit, Mr. Hyper. Let's find out what it would entail. That is, when practice is and things," I said as I was looking at the organist.

"Oh, yes, the practices are on Thursday nights at 7 PM. We usually sing about every other week unless it's a special service. There aren't too many of us, but with your boys, they would add so much. And we don't start up again until September. We don't meet in the summer."

"Okay then, I'd say it's up to the boys. I'm okay with it."

"Elliot?" asked AJ.

"I, um, I guess it's okay if it doesn't interfere with my studies. I do enjoy it a lot."

"Then me too!" AJ chirped. "I wanna do it too."

I couldn't believe it when we heard several people clap when they heard the news. Even the pastor walked up just then to thank the boys.

"Now, Jeffrey, would you like to sing also? Don't be shy."

"Sir, um, thanks but I don't think they need someone squawkin' up there. I'm good just listenin'."

"And, Joshua, what about you? Are you ready to start coming to our services and maybe add your voice to the praise?"

"Oh, Pastor Gooding, I need to start attending church again, for sure. And I really want to use the skills that I've learned. I know God wants me to. But I need to talk to my mentor, back at school, and ask what I should do. I still want to serve the Lord, preferably as a pastor."

"Good! We need more young, vibrant men in the ministry. It doesn't matter what denomination you are as long as you're doing God's will in your life. So, if you would, may we talk after you've spoken to your mentor? I would really like to know more about you, my boy."

Joshua agreed enthusiastically.

Mrs. Carlton approached, putting the phone back into her purse.

"My friends, I need to hurry home. They are back and need their lunch. Please excuse me. We'll talk very soon, I'm sure." And she started to walk away.

"But, Mrs. Carlton, may we come and see Ray? I promise we won't stay very long. Just long enough to say we're batting for him. Please?" asked Elliot.

"Oh, boys, I don't know. He's very tired and really . . ."

"Imogene, don't you think it would give him something less to worry about if he knew his friends were supporting him and wanted to fight with him? Don't you think that would offer him some needed strength?"

"Oh, Tim, you offer a compelling argument. I just don't know . . ." she said, then looked at my two boys. Their puppy dog eyes must have stirred something in her.

"Oh, okay. Do you know the way there? Remember, you can't stay very long."

"Yes!" shouted Jeffy, making most of the room look toward his outburst.

"Oops!" said AJ, for his brother, as he ran to catch up with the others.

End Chapter Sixty-five.

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