Everything But Love

by Joel Young

Chapter 7

Is This What Love Feels Like?

"I enjoyed listening to you and your friends sing during the service," Mrs. Carter said to me as we were leaving the sanctuary. "Michael Row the Boat Ashore" is such a simple but beautiful piece of Christian music! Did you know it dates back to the early 1800s? A Southern Baptist preacher from Georgia wrote it."

Mrs. Carter had not liked me since she found out that I grew up in the Unitarian church. And I strongly suspected that she was the one who had complained to Pastor John that "Heart and Soul" was a dirty song. I knew Mrs. Carter was wrong about the origins of "Michael Row the Boat Ashore," but I was unsure if I should risk correcting her. After all, she had just complimented me, and Pastor John was trying to keep peace in the congregation. But I couldn't stop myself – even though I knew that learning the song's origins would probably not go over well in an all-white, southern church.

"Actually," I said. "It's a gospel song from the Civil War era. Freed slaves sang it as they rowed Northern abolitionists off an island in South Carolina."

Mrs. Carter stared daggers at me. "You are wrong, young man!" she said. "Someone with no Christian training like you has no right to contradict their church elders. We know much more than you do about such matters!" She turned and walked away from me.

"If you don't believe me," I said, raising my voice just a bit. "Look it up!"

I didn't mention my run-in with Mrs. Carter as I ate lunch with Aunt Gretchen, Uncle Nathan, and Mason after church. I did, however, share my plans to make some changes in my life. "I've decided to start lifting weights and running track to build up my strength," I told them.

"You are puny!" Mason said.

"Mason!" Aunt Gretchen scolded. "That's not a nice thing to say to your cousin. You apologize."

"Sorry, Shrimp," he said as he stood up and took his dishes to the kitchen sink. Mason headed upstairs. Aunt Gretchen just rolled her eyes.

"Can you use the gym at school?" Aunt Gretchen asked. "For all of your exercising?"

"Yes, Ma'am. The high school has an excellent weight room," I said. "And the running track is almost brand new."

"Well, I'm glad you can use their facilities," she said. "Your uncle and I voted for the millage when they wanted to build a new high school."

"Yeah, it's a great building," I said. "Oh, I also have to go to an orthodontist next month to get my braces off. And I need to get new glasses – and clothes – not to mention a haircut."

"Sounds like you're trying to get ready for a beauty pageant!" Aunt Gretchen said sarcastically. "I certainly hope you don't expect me to be your personal chauffeur! And, who's going to pay for all of that?"

"Mom gave me a credit card to cover my extra expenses," I answered. "I think I can get rides home from school if I have to stay late to use the weight room or the track. I will need a ride to the orthodontist and eye doctor – and maybe to the Farm and Family store for some new jeans. I don't know where to get a haircut."

"I'll take him clothes shopping," Uncle Nathan said to my aunt. "And I need a haircut, too. So, James can come with me."

"Well, I suppose I can make sure he gets to his doctor appointments," Aunt Gretchen said. "I am his guardian."

I began working on my goals that week. I started lifting weights three days a week, and I ran track on the two other school days. There was always someone who would give me a ride back to the farm after my workouts. Uncle Nathan took me to the Farm and Family store for some new clothes, and we stopped at his barbershop on our way home. Aunt Gretchen made my appointments with an orthodontist and eye doctor for late October. I got my contacts first, but I still wore my glasses for a few more days. I wanted to show off my new look all at once.

On my first day at school wearing my new contacts and having my braces off, I ate lunch with Sylvia and Mark. I hadn't told them about the changes I made, and they didn't seem to notice. But Sylvia kept looking at me strangely. "Something's different about you," she said. "But I can't figure it out." I blinked my eyes several times to give her a clue. "Oh," she said. "You're not wearing your glasses."

"That's right," I said. "I'm wearing contact lenses." I smiled and opened my mouth wide.

"Oh, my God!" she said. "You got your braces off, too! You look fantastic!" I turned toward Mark to see if he had noticed.

"Cool," he said. "I'm happy for you."

I was disappointed in his reaction. I thought he might show a little more enthusiasm. After all, he was the one who told me to close my mouth as he took off my glasses at the sleepover. Then, he had told me I was beautiful.

"I've got some news myself," Mark said. "Guess who invited me to the Sadie Hawkins dance on Friday?"

"I already heard," Sylvia said. "Debbie Dickson has been bragging about it to her girlfriends. They all think you're super cute."

I felt a pang of jealousy overtake me. I had hoped Mark would compliment my appearance. I wanted him to tell me that I looked great. But instead, he was thinking about Debbie Dickson!

"I couldn't believe she asked me," Mark said. "She's like the best-looking girl in the 10 th grade! Who are you taking, Sylvia?"

"Danny Rundles," she answered. "He's not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he's nice – and a good dancer." Sylvia looked at me. "Has anyone asked you to the Sadie Hawkins dance, James?"

I shook my head. "No, but that's alright. I'm not really interested in school dances."

"Are you sure?" Sylvia asked. "I could ask around and put a bug in a few ears."

"No, but thanks anyway. I'd rather stay home," I lied.

I felt depressed. I knew I shouldn't be jealous of Mark going to a dance with Debbie Dickson. Still, I couldn't seem to shake off the green-eyed monster that stalked me all afternoon.

For the rest of the week, I secretly hoped that a girl would ask me to the Sadie Hawkins dance. I really didn't want to show everyone that I didn't know the first thing about dancing. I just didn't want to be left out while my friends were having fun. But no girl asked me to be her date for the dance. So, on top of being jealous of Mark, I started to feel like an outcast.

Mason, of course, was invited to the dance – by Missy Holloway, the girl that left him with blue balls earlier in the year. I was afraid Mason might try to get me to jack him off again after his second date with Missy. "If he tries anything like that again," I thought to myself. "I'll 'murdelize' him!" I liked that word. It was a made-up combination of the words 'murder' and 'pulverize.' I had heard it on the old 'Three Stooges' television show.

I decided I should make plans for Friday night so that I didn't just sit at home feeling sorry for myself. I'd been missing practicing the piano, so I asked Pastor John if I could use the choir room on Friday evening to work on my lessons. He agreed and gave me a ring of keys to the church. His only stipulations were that I finish by 9:00 p.m. and lock up when I left. Uncle Nathan said he'd give me rides during his work breaks at the dam.

After school on Friday, I got Mason to give me a ride to a bookstore that also sold sheet music. I bought another copy of the Beethoven Sonata I had been working on with Peter. Uncle Nathan dropped me off at the church at about 6:00 that evening. "Be ready at 9:00," he said. "Remember, I won't have much time before I have to get back to work."

It was strange being in the church all alone. I was looking forward to practicing, but I started to feel a little uneasy – well, actually, I felt kind of creeped out. So, I went straight to the choir room and concentrated on Beethoven. I remembered almost all of what Peter had taught me, and I was able to play the first three movements pretty much from memory. After about two hours, I had finished memorizing the fourth and final movement of the Sonata. I decided to play the entire piece one last time before wrapping up for the night.

About halfway through, I thought I heard a noise in the hallway outside of the choir room. It startled me, but I kept playing. "It's probably nothing," I told myself.

I finished the piece and took a deep breath. I was pleased with the progress I had made. But then I looked up and saw a pair of eyes staring at me from the dark hallway! I looked closer and realized a young boy was standing at the choir room door.

"What are you doing here?" I asked in a jittery voice. "The church is closed."

The boy turned and ran down the hall. Without thinking, I got up from the piano bench and chased after him.

"Please don't hurt me!" the kid screamed as I got close to catching up with him.

The boy tried to escape into the assembly hall, but the doors were locked. He turned around just as I got within an arm's length of him. He looked petrified.

"I'm not going to hurt you," I said. "But why are you here? There's not supposed to be anyone in the building at this time of night."

"I was cold," he said in a sad, almost pitiful voice. I asked how he got into the building, but he wouldn't tell me.

I looked at the boy more closely. He was probably about ten years old, and he had long, straggly, dark hair and an ashen complexion. He was wearing a worn-out, green pea coat that was much too small for him. He stuffed his hands in the pockets of the jacket and cringed as he leaned against the door to the assembly hall.

"What's your name?" I asked.

"That's none of your business," he whimpered as he drew into himself, almost as if he expected me to hit him.

I didn't know what I should do. The boy clearly needed help. He looked as if no one was taking care of him. "Are you hungry?" I asked. He didn't answer, but I saw a desperate and ravenous look in his eyes. "Come on," I said as I opened the assembly hall with one of the keys that Pastor John had given me. "By the way, my name is James."

The boy followed me as I headed toward the church kitchen. I opened the refrigerator and took out a container of lemonade. I found some cubes of cheese leftover from a church luncheon. And there was half of a small chocolate sheet cake. That was all I could find for him to eat.

I took the food, a paper plate, and some flatware to a table, and the boy sat down. I poured him a drink and served him a piece of cake. I set the plate of cheese next to him. He attacked everything so fast I couldn't believe it. "Slow down!" I said. "You're going to make yourself sick!" He slowed down a bit, but he kept shoveling food into his mouth as if it might disappear at any minute. "When was the last time you ate?" I asked.

"Ah, this morning," he answered. I didn't believe him.

I sat with him until he finished eating. "Thanks," he said. "I've got to go now. My ma and pa will be mad if I get home late." Again, I didn't believe him. But there was really nothing I could do but let him leave.

It was close to 9:00 p.m., and Uncle Nathan would be at the church soon to take me home. "Let's clean up here," I said. "Then you can help me lock up before you go home."

When we finished in the kitchen, and I had turned off the lights in the choir room, we headed upstairs to the main entrance. We went outside, and I locked the church door. "Thanks," the boy said. "You're music was cool. I wish I could play like that." Then, he started to walk away. He looked back at me a few times before turning a corner and disappearing from my view. Something did not feel right to me.

I didn't expect Uncle Nathan for another five minutes or so. I went across the street and stood in the recessed entranceway of a bank. I watched the church carefully. Soon, I saw the boy come back. He went to one side of the building. He pulled a screen away from its window frame, pushed the window up from the bottom, and climbed inside.

I crossed the street again and waited outside of the church for Uncle Nathan. Once he got there, I told him about the boy. "Well, we can't just leave him in there," my uncle said. He drove to the gas station down the block and used the payphone to call Pastor John. "Do you want us to call the Sheriff?" he asked.

"Pastor John is on his way," Uncle Nathan said as he hung up the phone. "He wants to hold off on getting the law involved. I'm going to call my boss and see if I can get the rest of the night off work. We're not really busy." Fortunately, getting off work turned out not to be a problem for him.

Pastor John arrived a few minutes later, and I told him everything that had happened. "I don't think the boy is dangerous," I said. "He's mainly just scared." I pointed out the window that the boy used to get into the building.

"Nathan, can you wait out here in case the kid tries to climb out the window and escape?" Pastor John asked. Uncle Nathan agreed.

I gave Pastor John the keys he had loaned to me, and he opened the front door to the church. We saw no lights, nor did we hear any sounds. But when the Pastor turned on the hallway light outside of the sanctuary, we saw the boy get up from a pew and run.

Pastor John and I went into the sanctuary, but we didn't see the boy. "I'm sure he's in here somewhere," the Pastor said. "The only other exits are through the side doors, and he didn't run that way." We walked to the Alter. I noticed that one of the large cabinet doors near the floor was slightly open. It was the same cabinet where the sound system had been stored.

I pointed to the cabinet door. "Let me try to get him out of there," I said. "He might be less scared if he sees me and not a total stranger."

"This is James," I said. "I know you're hiding in the cabinet. You need to come out. No one will hurt you. I promise."

Slowly, the cabinet door opened, and the boy crawled out. He looked terrified! I smiled at him. "It's alright," I told him. "I only want to help."

The boy stood up. When he saw Pastor John on the Alter, he panicked and ran toward me. He threw his arms around me. "Don't let that man take me away!" the kid screamed.

The three of us stood there for some time without saying a word. Then, Pastor John suggested that we sit down and talk. I took the boy's hand and led him to the front pew. We sat down, and the kid grabbed me around my waist. I saw tears in his eyes.

Pastor John sat on the steps of the Alter and introduced himself. "What's your name, Son?" he asked.

The boy said nothing. "It's alright," I assured him. "Tell us your name."

"Toby," he finally whispered.

"It's nice to meet you, Toby," Pastor John said. "I don't want you to worry. James and I are here to help – nothing else. James's uncle is waiting for us outside. He's a good guy. I'm going to go get him. Will you wait here with James?"

Toby turned away from Pastor John and buried his face in the side of the jacket I was wearing. But he nodded his head.

After Pastor John left the sanctuary to get Uncle Nathan, Toby looked up at me. "Am I going to jail?" he asked through his tears.

I put my arms around him and held him tight. "Well," I teased. "If anybody tries to put you in jail, they're taking me right along with you!"

Toby seemed confused. "But I stole from the church," he confessed. He hung his head and looked so sad. "I only did it because I was hungry."

"Well," I said. "Stealing is wrong. But this is a church, and we believe in forgiveness. What did you take?"

"A microphone and some speakers," Toby said. "I've been trying to sell'em, but I couldn't find anybody to buy'em."

"Where's the stuff now?" I asked.

"I hid it in that big wooden box in the small church. The box with the lid that comes off," Toby said.

"The little church?" I asked. "You mean the chapel across the hall?" Toby nodded his head.

I started laughing quietly. "Toby," I said. "That box is an immersion pool! You baptized the church sound system!"

Pastor John and Uncle Nathan walked into the sanctuary and heard me laughing. "What's so funny?" Pastor John asked.

Holding on to Toby's hand, I stood and asked Pastor John and Uncle Nathan to follow us. We all walked to the chapel, and I pointed to the immersion pool. "Look in there," I said.

Pastor John took the lid off and looked inside. Fortunately, there was no water in the pool. "The sound system!" he exclaimed. He seemed relieved to have the equipment back.

Toby clung to me as he started sobbing. "I'm sorry!" he cried. "Please don't put me to jail!"

"Nobody's going to jail," Pastor John said. "Let's all calm down, okay? Toby, we need to ask you some questions. Do you promise to answer them truthfully?"

Toby just stared at Pastor John, but then he nodded his head.

"Where are your parents? Pastor John asked.

It was like pulling teeth, but the Pastor finally got Toby to tell us what was going on. He was from a small town east of Tellico Falls. His father got drunk all the time and beat up Toby's mom. Toby's mother had to run away. Then, the dad started beating up on Toby, so he ran away, too. "My grandma lives in Texas," Toby said. "I want to go and stay with her. But it's really far away."

Pastor John asked more questions while Toby continued to cling to me. His grandmother lived in Bellevue, Texas. He had never been to her house before, but he was sure she'd take him in. Toby finally told us that his last name was Cross. His grandmother's name was Mary Strand.

"Let's all go into my office," Pastor John said. "Maybe we can get Mrs. Strand on the phone." We followed the Pastor, and once we were all seated in his office, he picked up the phone and asked to be connected with long-distance information. Soon, he had Mrs. Strand's telephone number. He dialed it and put the call on the speakerphone. Someone answered the call on the third ring.

"Hello," a lady said.

"Mom!" Toby screamed! He started crying again, "Mom, come and get me! I'm scared!"

"Toby!" his mother cried. "Is that you?!? Where are you? Are you okay? Oh, God, I thought I might never see you again. I love you, Toby!"

Come to find out, Mrs. Cross had already escaped to her mother's house in Bellevue. Her husband had never hit Toby, so she thought he'd be okay until she could get settled and take Toby to be with her. She desperately wanted to come to pick him up, but neither she nor Toby's grandmother had a car.

"I'll take him to Bellevue," Uncle Nathan said to Pastor John. "If you think it's a good idea. It's only about three hours from here."

"That would be very kind of you, Nathan," Pastor John said. "I'll go with you."

"Can James come, too?" Toby asked. "Please!"

I wasn't sure why Toby had become so attached to me all of a sudden, but I was feeling very protective of him. I looked at Uncle Nathan to see if I could ride along, and he said that I could go. Pastor John finalized the arrangements with Mrs. Cross. The plan was for us to leave Tellico Falls in about an hour, and we would be at her house by 1:30 the next morning. Mrs. Cross and Toby were crying as the phone call ended. "Don't worry, Baby," she said. "We'll be together again in just a few hours, and I'll never let anybody hurt you again!"

Uncle Nathan, Toby, and I took the truck back to the farm to get ready for our trip. We were going to drive the family sedan to Texas after we picked up Pastor John. Uncle Nathan introduced Toby to Aunt Gretchen and explained what was going on. "Oh, you poor dear!" my aunt said. "Is there anything you need, Toby? Is there something I can do for you?"

Toby looked at me and stretched up, trying to whisper in my ear. I bent down a little. "Can I take a bath?" he asked.

"He's fine, Mom," I said. "I'll take him upstairs and let him clean up a bit before we leave."

"James," my aunt said. "You called me Mom!" I smiled and gave her a quick hug.

I took Toby upstairs and found a new toothbrush for him. I got him all set up in the bathroom. Then, I went into my room to find him some different clothes. The ones he was wearing needed to go straight into the trash! I packed my duffle bag for him with the jeans I had outgrown, a belt, a couple of shirts, and a few pairs of socks and underwear. Some of that stuff would be large on him, but it was the best I could do. I put a clean outfit for him in the bathroom. When we came back downstairs, Toby carried the duffle bag I had given him. He looked like he was feeling 100% better!

Aunt Gretchen handed me a picnic basket. "Take this - just in case you men get hungry on your trip."

We picked up Pastor John at his house and set off for Bellevue, Texas. Toby sat in the back seat with me, and he leaned against my chest. "I wish you were my brother," he whispered.

"Me, too," I replied as I kissed him on top of his head. Toby snuggled up to me and fell asleep. As I looked at him, I realized that I felt very protective of him, almost like a parent watching over a child. And then, it hit me. "Is this what loving someone feels like?" I wondered to myself.

"Tomorrow," Pastor John said to Uncle Nathan. "We have to report Toby's father to the authorities."

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