BROODING – The Heartland Chronicles Book 1 by Andy Williamson
PART I – DANGEROUS GRACE
The Sunday school teacher was droning on about something, but …
Al hadn’t been paying attention to the lesson. He was upset and distracted. Through the basement classroom window, he saw that Uncle Ty (who’d arrived at the house after Al and his family had gone to church) had already packed up his belongings and loaded them into the back of a small U-Haul truck, doing so at nearly superhuman speed. The man was currently strapping his Harley to the trailer behind it. It was almost 10:30 a.m. (church service started at 11:00), and before Al knew it, he saw Uncle Ty close the back of the moving van, hop up in the cab, and drive away again. The only thing that kept Al from crying right now was that he’d pretty much drained his tears the night before. And yet––
The teacher said something then that struck Al so very wrong, he quickly diverted his attention back to the classroom. (Al was normally in the 4th - 6th grade class, but since his regular teacher was sick this morning, his class had been combined with the 1st - 3rd graders.) The teacher’s name was Grace Davis. Al didn’t know her well––she was married to his father’s Associate Pastor.
“God loves good little boys and girls,” the woman had said. The statement was directed toward her daughter, Susan, who was also in class. Disturbed by this––and recalling all that Uncle Ty had said the night before––Al decided to call her on it before she could continue. Without raising his hand, he replied, “God loves all little boys and girls, not just good ones.”
Mrs. Davis turned so fast and spoke with such venom, Al was taken aback. “I was addressing my daughter, Mr. Morehouse. You may be our minister’s son, but if you have an issue that you wish to discuss, you can either raise your hand like a gentleman, or wait until class is dismissed. That way you will not disrupt my teaching, nor undermine my authority when I am correcting my own child.”
“But I was just saying …”
Stepping from the flannel-weave board on the wall (the story of Daniel and the lion’s den now hung there from a mass-produced, Methodist curriculum), Mrs. Davis took two steps toward the table at which her class sat. Though she was an attractive woman dressed in a pretty paisley dress, she now loomed witch-like over her students. For a moment, Al thought he could actually see insanity stirring in her eyes, brimstone running in tendrils from her nostrils, and a cackle hiding beneath her tongue. Just as swiftly, however, she changed back into an image of sweetness and gentility. Al seemed to be the only one to notice.
The other kids sat upright in their chairs, hands folded neatly, eager for the chance to give a correct answer to one of Mrs. Davis’s queries, and thereby receive one of the gourmet chocolates that she doled out as rewards.
Al saw Mrs. Davis change. It wasn’t his imagination. He saw it. The only other person here who may also have seen this lightning-quick transformation was Grace’s daughter, Susan. But Susan looked like she was upset by something else entirely. The girl’s eyes were either staring blankly, darting fearfully, or closed in prayer or sleep. Al didn’t understand it, but he sympathized.
“Al,” Mrs. Davis oozed, “what do we do when we have a question?”
A parental voice within Al’s mind told him to raise his hand like she was goading him to do, but instead––ignoring her lead––Al looked closer at Susan.
He had known her since his father hired her father seven months earlier. In that time, they had played together a few times on the playground or in the church’s gym. Susan was fun, smart, pretty, and a little sad.
She looks a lot sad now, Al thought. She looks lost and scared. He decided to ask her if she was okay after class. Her troubles were undoubtedly connected to this crafty, shape-shifting woman who was instructing them.
“Al,” Grace went on, “do you have a question or not?”
Yes, Al thought, haven’t you got a cauldron somewhere that needs stirring? He caught himself before it slipped. While he was ready to press the woman about her statement, concern for Susan stopped him. If he made a scene now, he might be unable to check on her later. Looking at Mrs. Davis, Al swallowed his pride, put on his most innocent face, and respectfully replied, “No, ma’am.”
“Good,” she told him. “Now where was I?”
Their class was dismissed soon after.
As the other children poured out into the hall to find their parents, Susan stayed in her seat. Al left the room, but tarried outside the door to hear what Mrs. Davis had to say to Susan. He didn’t have to wait long until he heard:
“Stand up, young lady,” the witch spat, “and stop looking so miserable. You’ve been acting weird all morning. What kind of mother are people around here going to think I am if you continue this way, hmm? Answer me.”
“A bad one,” Susan said in a voice so submissive that it broke Al’s heart.
“That’s right. And what kind of mother am I?”
“A good one.”
“And what kind of daughter are you acting like this morning?”
“A bad one.”
“And why do you need to be good?”
“Because God loves good little girls,” Susan answered lifelessly.
“Yes. Now straighten up. I can’t go to the service with you this morning. I‘m helping in the kitchen because we’re having a potluck in the gymnasium after church. So here’s what: I want you to sit in the front pew so Daddy can keep an eye on you from the podium. I want you to put on your sweetest smile and be on your best behavior. That way, when God sees you sitting there, He’ll not only be pleased with you, but pleased with me. Here’s two dollars tithe for you to put in the offering plate when it goes by. Remember, God loves a cheerful giver. I need to collect my teaching materials, so you scoot along and make me proud.”
Al had never been so angry as he’d been the previous evening (when Chris pulled a Judas on Uncle Ty, and his dad evicted him), but the rage he felt inside right now was its equal. Al was furious; morally offended even. Mrs. Davis was crazy all right––to paraphrase Uncle Ty, the lady was a pew-warming, tongue-clucking Pharisee if ever there was one––but Susan was paying the price.
Get her out of here, a strange voice spoke in Al’s mind. Get her out quick.
Al didn’t know whose voice that was (his own? a Higher Source?), but even then a plan was starting to form. There would surely be consequences (ugly ones), but this little girl was more important. Al had already paid the ultimate price last night. What more could his father take away from him?
As Susan came out of the room and headed toward the stairs, Al came up next her, lightly bumped her shoulder with his own, and said, “Hey, Susan.”
Startled, the girl jumped and almost cried out … until she saw who it was. Glancing toward the classroom (very relieved to see the door was now closed), Susan looked back and whispered, “Hi, Al.” She tried to smile for him then, but the performance belied her.
Suddenly, Al was much more concerned about her than he had been. Susan could barely focus on him. Her amazingly long- and dark-lashed, pale blue eyes would find him briefly, and then either dart away or roll up behind her lids. Her left cheek twitched; her feet fidgeted; her hands pulled nervously at the fabric of her pink dress.
Like Susan, Al didn’t know the word traumatized, yet he knew something was way wrong. He started to ask if she was okay, but––already knowing the answer (and wanting to obey this urgent voice in his mind)––he instead took her hand, led her down the hall, and into an empty classroom at its end. The girl went with him easily. Closing the door behind them, Al turned to her and said, “Susan, I don’t know what’s wrong, but … you’re hurting. A lot. Am I right?”
Susan’s eyes rolled up again, and Al squeezed her hand to get her attention. “It’s okay, Susan, I’m right here. Did something bad happen?”
Susan shook her head as her eyes welled with emotion.
“I won’t tell anyone,” Al continued, “not if you don’t want me to.”
As a tear ran down Susan’s cheek, she quickly, ashamedly, wiped it away.
Al repeated, “Did something bad happen?”
After a long pause, Susan nodded.
“Can you tell me what it was?”
Susan shook her head fiercely.
“Was it something that happened at home?”
“Was it something that happened here?”
Eyes crossing and darting, Susan finally looked back at Al. She searched his eyes for trustworthiness and, finding it, nodded once more.
“Was it something that your Mom did here?”
She shook her head.
“Did somebody who goes to this church do something bad?”
“Did they do something bad to you, or did you just see something bad?”
“I heard it,” Susan whispered.
“Okay,” Al said, squeezing her hand again, relieved that she was talking. “Church is s’posed to be a safe place, but … sometimes it can be scary, can’t it?”
Nodding yet again, the girl replied, “Very scary.” Although Al had more questions, Susan beat him to them by asking, “You’re good, aren’t you, Al?”
Al chuckled. “Well, my folks don’t think so.”
“I think you’re good,” Susan added.
Recalling the words of Susan’s mother, Al told her, “You’re good too, Susan. No matter what your mom says. You are good.”
Eyes briefly rolling again, Susan asked, “I am?”
“Yes. You’re good because God made you. Not just because you behave.” Al thought that sentence was odd; he didn’t buy it; not when good performance won praise and bad received condemnation. That whole good/bad thing was kind of messed up, Al thought, especially when it imprinted a character label inside a child’s mind based on behavior. (Get her out, Al.) “Do you trust me?” he asked.
Susan thought for a moment, finally nodding.
“I’m going to get you out of here for awhile,” Al said, “and take you to a Magic Place where you won’t have to be scared. Okay?”
Susan considered this. While she knew she would have to pay the price of her mother’s wrath, she also wanted to be anywhere other than this church. The thought of sitting in the front pew––and behaving like “a good little girl” while looking at her Daddy and Nadja on the stage––was more than she was capable of handling. When she looked back at Al, Susan told him, “Okay.”
Al opened the door a crack, peeked into the hallway, and saw the coast was clear. Leading Susan again by the hand, the ten-year-old boy and eight-year-old girl ran toward a door with an EXIT sign over it, and went outside.
They came out in back of the church, where a narrow strip of faded asphalt separated the building from a deserted field. Two large Dumpsters sat at the far end, and Al––squinting against the sun––spotted a black Camaro parked next to them. He couldn’t see the driver (the windshield was illegally tinted), but one arm dangled out the driver’s window with a cigarette planted between two fingers. The license plate was personalized, Al saw, and read GRIM-1.
(Hurry, Al. No time to waste. Get her out of here now.) Al obeyed.
It only took five minutes to walk three blocks. When Susan realized where Al was taking her, excitement blossomed in her previously vacuous eyes. The sign over the retro establishment was big, beautiful, multi-bulbed, and read: THE LUX.
Looking at the schedule in the ticket booth, Al saw that their Hitchcock Fest was still on. Today’s first feature was North by Northwest. According to Uncle Ty, the movie wasn’t nearly as scary as PSYCHO or The Birds. It was a ‘romantic-comedy-thriller’. Perfect, Al thought. Just what the doctor ordered.
Still holding Susan’s hand, Al adjusted his wind-blown tie, stepped up to the ticket booth, looked at the redheaded teenage girl in the cage, and asked, “Could I have two tickets for the eleven o’clock North by Northwest, please?”
The girl looked down at the diminutive pair, seemed briefly confused, and then smiled. To Al, she said, “You were here yesterday, weren’t you?”
“I was,” Al answered. “With my uncle. He told me this place was magic. He was right. And now I’m taking my friend, Susan.”
“Well, you are certainly a darling couple,” she said. “And look at the way you’re dressed. Are you on a date? Or are you playing hooky from church?”
Susan giggled at that. As she leaned closer to Al, she whispered in his ear, “She thinks we’re on a date.”
Squeezing Susan’s hand, Al replied to the ticket girl, “We’re on a date.”
“Well, I’ve never seen such a handsome gentleman and lovely lady before. That’ll be two dollars, please.”
Al’s heart sank. This had been going so splendidly he forgot he was broke.
Susan slipped something into Al’s hand then. He looked down and saw two wrinkled dollar bills. Recalling where Susan got them, Al grinned lopsidedly, and took a perverse thrill in pushing them under the glass. Ticket stubs in hand, Al opened the door, led Susan into a cylindrical tunnel with flashing lights, through the plush foyer, and into a massive auditorium where the little girl’s oohs and ahhs were music to Al’s ears. After selecting two seats in the middle of the meagerly filled room, Susan spoke reverently, “It looks like a church.”
“I know,” Al replied. “Pretty cool, isn’t it?’
“Really cool. Did you mean what you said before, Al? Are we on a date?”
Recalling the lost and haunted expression on her face only minutes before, Al simply smiled and replied, “Yes, we are. Are you having a good time?”
“I’m having a real good time,” Susan told him.
The redheaded girl from whom they’d bought tickets came down the aisle. Al thought they were busted … until he saw that she was carrying a bucket of popcorn and two soft drinks. As the girl entered the row of seats ahead of Al and Susan, she walked over and said, “It seemed like your financial resources were a little low, and––since you two are so adorable––I thought I’d take the liberty and bring you some refreshments. These are on the house, so … enjoy.”
In utter shock, Al accepted her offering and said, “Thank you very much.”
“Yes, thank you,” Susan added. “Wow, Al. This place is great.”
“I know,” Al replied, “but the magic really starts when the curtain rises.”
Sipping soda and eating popcorn, Al and Susan sat in silence for awhile, drinking in the splendor that was The Lux and waiting for the show to begin.
After a few minutes, Susan leaned over and hushed, “It was my Daddy.”
“Your Daddy? What do you mean?”
“My Daddy was the one I heard do something scary in the church.”
“What did he do?”
Susan leaned closer and whispered, “He and Nadja did a bad thing in his office yesterday. I was under his desk, but he didn’t know I was there.”
“Nadja?” Al asked. “Nadja Kelley? From the worship team?”
Al pondered this briefly. He’d noticed before when Pastor Eddie sometimes visited with Nadja (in the foyer or at church functions), he looked not unlike … a wolf––one who wanted to eat her up. “When you say bad thing, do you mean … like what grown-ups do? In their bedrooms? Like how babies are made?”
Susan wasn’t sure about the ‘babies’ part, but nodded anyway.
Al took her hand again and just sat in silence with her. He didn’t know it, but he consoled her far more than he realized by just doing what he was doing. After awhile, he said, “I don’t ever want to grow up. I don’t want to live under my parents roof anymore, but I don’t ever want to act like a grown-up.”
“Me either,” Susan replied, laying her head upon Al’s shoulder, “they’re way too crazy.” And with that––
––the lights dimmed, the curtain rose, and for the next 2 1/2 hours, Albert Morehouse and Susan Davis found a little peace in their otherwise crazy lives.
GO TO CHAPTER 6.
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