Chapter 6

Chapter 6

May 30th, 2008

Dakotah Lennon’s insides felt like a giant hand had grabbed them all, and crushed them. The moments after the news had hit were particularly rough; both his mother and grandmother had tried to console him, but he was having nothing of it. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he dared Frank to say something; he was going to take a swing, even if it meant getting beat up, or kicked out of the house. Instead, Frank shook his head, and walked away, saying nothing.

At that point, Dakotah ran up the stairs, and shut the door, jumping face first into his bed, while crying in anguish the entire time. Sylvia had started to go up the stairs after him, but Elizabeth stopped her; “Let him sort this out on his own.” she said.

For the couple of hours, Dakotah didn’t do much more than wallow around on the bed, and sob. Feeling the call of nature, he quietly and quickly made it to the upstairs bathroom, so as to not let his mother know his location. After completing his business, he went to go wash his hands and face, looking up to see a pair of puffy, bloodshot eyes. He took a deep breath, and exited the bathroom, hoping to get back to his bedroom before anyone noticed.

However, this was not to be. His mother, alerted by the toilet flushing, came to the bottom of the stairs as he was exiting the bathroom. “Son, are you alright?” she asked.

“I’m okay.” Dakotah replied before he closed the bedroom door.

“If you need someone to talk to, I’m here.” Sylvia yelled.  Dakotah didn’t reply. He went to his desk, and sat down in the chair beside it. Looking out the window, he could see a few clouds. “Supposed to rain later.” he thought. “Perfect.” He muttered.

From his seat, he looked over toward his bed, and on the nightstand beside it, saw the Bible Elizabeth gave him for Christmas. He picked it up and sat down at his desk again, and opened it at random. It came to Hosea, chapter six. He read the verses, and found nothing of any help. “I’d better check the New Testament.” he said to himself, and flipped the pages again. This time, he came upon Luke, chapter 18. He read the parables, and about the rich man who wanted to go to heaven, and healing of the blind man. “Please help me understand.” he prayed.

However, after reading the verses over and over again, no inspiration came to Dakotah. Exhaling, and with tears in his eyes, he closed the Bible. He clasped his hands, closed his eyes, leaned over the desk, and bowed his head.

“Lord, I don’t understand. Why did You spare me? Why did You tell me not to go with them? Andre wouldn’t have wrecked if I went with them! He always drove real careful when I was with him!”

Looking up, with tears in his eyes, he continued. “Lord, I prayed earnestly for their safe return. I know I’m not the only one, either. I know it was Your will, but I don’t understand why You chose to disregard our prayers! It’s not fair!”

Dakotah took another deep breath, and then exhaled. “Lord, You should’ve taken me! Andre, Tulio, and the others had a future! They were going to be important! Me, I’m just nobody!” he sobbed. “The world would’ve been better off.”

Dakotah looked over at his clock. It read 12:10 PM. He then looked out the window, and noticed it had just started to rain. He took a deep breath. “Lord, are you crying, too? Why? You have Andre and the rest with you. Are you crying for their families? I just don’t understand.” Taking another deep breath, he put on a pair of jeans. “Maybe Grandma will have some answers.” he muttered to himself.

Finishing dressing, he made it down the stairs, and into the living room, where his mother was watching a talk show. “Mom, I need to take a walk, and get some air.”

“Are you stopping at your grandmother’s?” Sylvia replied, sadly.

“Maybe. Probably.” Dakotah said, with a bit of evasiveness.

“You know, I can help, too.” His mother said pointedly. “After all, I know you better than anyone, including your grandmother.”

“That’s true, I guess.” Dakotah said, frowning. “But I need to get some air, and clear my mind. I’m hurt, I’m confused, and I don’t know how to feel, or what to think.”

Dakotah walked to the door, and grabbed his windbreaker. “I love you mom. I know you’ll always be there for me. But you can’t help me right now. I don’t know if grandma can, either. I just know I have to get out of this house for a while. I probably won’t be back until after you go to work. I’ll probably be up when you get home, so maybe I’ll have things figured out, and maybe we can talk then, if you’re not too tired.” Dakotah opened the door. “Have a good night at work, mom.”

“Son, be careful.” Sylvia said, wiping a tear. “I love you.”

“I love you, too. I’ll be fine.” With that, Dakotah took a deep breath, and left.

*****

Dakotah walked at a brisk pace toward the city park; he knew, being a Friday, and with a light drizzle, the park would be mostly empty. He regretted somewhat wearing the windbreaker, as the temp was in the mid-70s, and as a result, he began to sweat profusely. Finding a park bench under a tree, he took off the windbreaker, and sat down.

Dakotah stared across the park blankly, seeing a solitary jogger, and a couple of housewives pushing strollers along the paths in the distance. Closer, and near the highway, Dakotah noticed several squirrels foraging in the grass. He watched their movements, which seemed mostly random to him, and how they interacted with each other. One of the smaller squirrels found a nut, and started to make off with it, when he was intercepted by a much larger squirrel. The larger squirrel took the nut, and made away with it, with the smaller squirrel in pursuit. The larger squirrel started to cross the road, presumably on its way to its home base, when suddenly, a car came rushing down the street. The squirrel zigged and zagged, and the car slowed down and veered to one side, but to no avail, as Dakotah could hear the telltale thump.

Dakotah closed his eyes, and shook his head. “This is a cold, unfeeling world.” He thought. He looked to see the remains of the squirrel, only to see it wasn’t dead, but it was badly hurt. Dragging itself by the front legs, and somehow still holding the nut in its mouth, the squirrel made it over the curb to the grassy area between the road and the walking path.

Dakotah walked over to the squirrel. Its breathing was labored, rapid and weak, and blood was coming out of his mouth. He didn’t know what to do for the squirrel; he knew that it didn’t have much longer to live.

“I’m sorry.” Dakotah said to the squirrel, tears rolling down his face. “I wish I could help you, but I can’t. Can’t do much of anything, really. Sorry.”

Dakotah wanted to pet the squirrel, but knowing that an injured animal can bite savagely, wisely chose not to. Feeling his shirt getting damp from the rain, he put his windbreaker on. Looking around, he noticed the smaller squirrel about ten feet away, looking intently at Dakotah.

“Oh, is this your friend?” Dakotah said to the smaller squirrel. “I’m sorry that I couldn’t save him.” Looking over at the first squirrel, he noticed that its eyes were closed, and likely dead. Taking a deep breath and exhaling, he turned away from the squirrels, and started walking away. After walking about fifteen feet, he turned around toward the two squirrels. The smaller squirrel zipped over to the dead squirrel, sniffed it, took the now dropped nut, and ran away.

Dakotah shook his head. “So much for compassion for your fellow squirrel.” He sighed. With that, he started walking to his grandmother’s.

*****

The cloud cover began to break up, the mists stopped, and Dakotah had shed his windbreaker by the time he reached Elizabeth’s house. Emotionally, he felt numb inside; physically, his head was pounding, and his body ached.

Reaching the door, he knocked. He heard shuffling of feet inside, followed by the usual peek out the window. Elizabeth quickly unlocked the door, stepped outside, and gave Dakotah a hug.

“You’re a mess.” she said. “Are you hungry? I’ll bet you haven’t eaten today.”

“N-no, I haven’t.” Dakotah replied. “I’m not really hungry. My head is pounding, and my body hurts. Can I have some aspirin?”

“After you eat something.” Elizabeth said firmly. “Taking aspirin on an empty stomach only makes things worse. Now, would you like a sandwich? I have some sliced ham.”

“OK, I guess. My belly feels like it’s full of knots. I hope it won’t make me sick.”

“You’ll live. If you do get sick, and throw up, at least you’ll feel better afterward.” Elizabeth said, putting her hand on his shoulder, and smiling warmly.

“I don’t know if I can feel better.” Dakotah sobbed, eyes tearing up again.

Elizabeth grasped Dakotah’s shoulder tighter, and looked him in the eye, her face only inches from his. “You will, in time. Look, it’s never easy when you lose someone you care about. Have you ever lost someone who was close to you before?”

Looking down, Dakotah shook his head. “Didn’t think you had.” she said. “When I lost my Harold, especially since my son and his family were also no longer part of my life, I felt alone, and empty.”

Wiping tears, Dakotah looked up. “What did you do?”

“I prayed to the Lord for strength, for wisdom, and for guidance.” Elizabeth replied.

Dakotah stood up. “Praying doesn’t work! I prayed last night to bring Andre back safe, and he’s dead!” he shouted.

Elizabeth, for a few seconds, was stunned; gathering herself, she pointed a finger at Dakotah. “Dakotah Lennon, you should be ashamed of yourself! Who do you think you are, anyway? Are you greater than God Himself?”

It was Dakotah’s turn to be stunned.” I-I-I don’t understand what you are saying!” he stammered.

“You didn’t say a prayer; you gave the Lord an order!” Elizabeth said with force. “Obviously, it wasn’t His will to bring Andre and the rest home alive, was it?” Softening her voice, she continued: “I know this has hit you hard. I wish I had answers as to why God let this happen, but I don’t. You may never know until you see them in Heaven someday. However, just because you pray for something doesn’t mean the Lord should drop everything and make it so. I thought I taught you better than that.”

Dakotah began crying again. “I wish I tried harder to stop Andre and Tulio and the rest.” he sobbed. “It was like something was telling me not to go with them.”

“And where did that voice come from?” Elizabeth asked.

“The Lord, I guess.” Dakotah said with a sigh.

“You guess? Have you no faith?”

“I don’t know.” said Dakotah in a low voice. “My faith didn’t bring them home alive.”

“Faith isn’t like that.” Elizabeth said, with empathy. “Faith is not expecting God doing what you want, it’s trusting Him and His will to do what is right.”

“But why Andre and Tulio? Those guys had a good future in front of them. Someone like me, I could under-“

“STOP IT! STOP THAT RIGHT NOW!” yelled Elizabeth, furious. “Don’t you EVER sell yourself as worthless! Is God’s wisdom so small, that he doesn’t know who to take, and who to leave?”

“No.” said Dakotah, feeling as low as the living room throw rug.

“Whatever reason He had to take those boys may be something we may never know.” Elizabeth said, toning down her voice. “Regardless, we have to have faith in Him that He is doing the right thing, and the best thing.”

Elizabeth put her finger under Dakotah’s chin, and raised his head, so that they made eye contact. ”God loves you, Dakotah. Not only that, He needs you here. Have faith; He knows what He’s doing.”

Dakotah took his handkerchief out of his pocket, and blew his nose. “I’ll try to have faith, even though all this makes no sense.”

Elizabeth smiled. “Since when did life ever make sense?” she said.

“I lost my best friend though.” Dakotah said, eyes tearing up again. “Andre was the only real friend I ever had.”

“I’m not so sure about that.” Elizabeth said. “What about Ely? She seemed really nice.”

“Grandma, I only talked to her twice. I’m not sure if she was nice to me because of Andre, or if she pitied me.”

“For goodness sakes, Dak! For once, I wish you’d stop selling yourself so short! You are such a nice young man!”

“Sounds like a true nerd to me.” Dakotah said without emotion.

“And your point is?” retorted his grandmother. “Lord knows, there are worse things than being a nerd! Maybe Ely is a nerd, too, you ever think of that?”

Dakotah blinked. “No, I never thought of it that way. I think she’s too cute to be a nerd, anyway.” As soon as he said that, Dakotah blushed.

“Aha! So you do like her!” Elizabeth shouted, pointing a finger at her grandson. “And what’s wrong with that? Think she’s too good for you?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Look at me grandma, I’m a geek!” Dakotah shouted, exasperated. “I’m a skeleton with skin on it! People ask me if I have any Froot Loops!”

Elizabeth chuckled. “Forgive me, Dak, but the Toucan Sam reference was funny! Your nose only looks big because you’re skinny. Your father was thin too, when he was your age, but by the time he was in his 20s, he had filled out nicely. I’m sure you’ll be the same! However, even now, you’re not a bad looking kid!”

“Love you grandma, but I know you’re biased.” Dakotah said, smiling.

“I’m not biased. You’re special to me because you’re my grandson, but I love you enough not to call you something you’re not.” she said pointedly. “Look, the world is mostly filled with average-looking people. The thing that makes a special someone special is what’s on the inside, not on the outside. Is Ely that special someone for you? I can’t tell 100%, but I do like her, at least on the surface. I think you two would make a good fit. She’s already made a step toward you. The next step is yours.”

“What do I do? She offered me her cell phone number, but I don’t have a phone.”

“What’s wrong with your home phone?”

“Nothing. I just don’t want Frank nosing in on my business.”

Elizabeth’s brow furrowed. “You need to stand up to Frank. You have every right to be there as that no good freeloader. Tell him to buzz off, if he wants to barge in on your conversation. Dak, you need to grow a backbone, and that’s a good place to start!”

“I could always call her from here.” Dakotah said.

“I don’t mind, but in a way, that’s running from potential conflict. You should center your social life from your home. I believe that you’ll respect yourself in the long run if you do.”

“I’ll try.” Dakotah said, not sure if he could follow through with his grandmother’s suggestion.

“What you need to do is to go to her church Sunday.” Elizabeth said encouragingly. “After all, she invited you.”

“But what about praying for guidance? Shouldn’t I do that first?” Dakotah said nervously.

“That’s fine, but unless you get some strong feeling that it’s a bad place, you should go anyway, just to see how other churches work. If their doctrine doesn’t match up with your beliefs, then at least you’ll know for sure.”

“What about Ely? If I don’t like the church, then I could ruin our friendship.”

“Andre went there, and you were best friends, correct? If Ely is of good character, then you can go to different churches, and still be friends.”

Dakotah remained a little stressed. “Well, maybe not this Sunday. I don’t think I’m up for any more emotional tribulations at this time.”

“That’s fine, as long as you don’t come up with an excuse each week.” Elizabeth said, pointing her finger at Dakotah. “You need to escape your cocoon, and this is a good way to do it.”

Dakotah took a deep breath, and exhaled. “Okay, a week from Sunday, and I’ll go. I’ll need a lift over there, and back, though.”

Elizabeth smiled, and winked. ”Oh, I don’t mind taking you over there, but I’m sure you can find your own way home!”

“Grandma!” Dakotah said in protest.

*****

June 2nd, 2008

There was an overflow crowd at the funeral home. Andre was a very popular person in his neighborhood, and hundreds came to give their final respects. Dakotah was no exception.

Elizabeth was his transport to the funeral home; seeing the parking lot and the neighboring streets full of cars, she stopped in front of the entrance. “I’ll let you out here; when you’re done, ask the funeral director to use his phone, so you can call me to pick you up.”

“You’re not coming?” Dakotah said nervously.

“Andre’s your friend. I probably taught some of the people here, but I don’t have a need for closure. You do. Now go on. You’re holding up traffic!”

Taking a deep breath, Dakotah got out of the car, and waved at his grandmother as she pulled out into the street. Taking another deep breath, he began to look around. He knew not a soul. Some were teary-eyed, others were laughing. Almost all the people around him were African-American. Andre, Tulio, and the gang at the lunch table at school were the only people of color that he knew, and they were dead. He wished he knew Andre’s parents, or his uncle; at least he could’ve said his condolences to them.

There was a group of white people gathering across the street; they were very odd, as some of them appeared to be carrying signs of some sort. Maybe they were from Andre’s church?

Dakotah was very nervous about going inside. He’d never been to a funeral before; the prospect of seeing Andre in the casket made him nauseous. A large part of him hoped that it was a closed casket ceremony. Taking yet another deep breath, he steeled himself, and made his way inside, getting in line. He stopped to sign his name on the visitor’s ledger, as did almost everyone else before him. For reasons unknown even to him, Dakotah scanned the two pages of signatures on the ledger. Then he saw it.

In perfect penmanship, the name Ely Daniels.

“Ely’s here!” Dakotah said to himself.  But where? He scanned the interior of the funeral home. Although he figured she should be easy to spot, since she was probably the only red-haired white girl in the place, she was also small in stature, maybe 5’4”, and could easily be hidden in the masses.

Dakotah entered the main chapel area, and he could see the casket ahead. It was open, and he could see the outline of Andre inside. He immediately began to tear up, and tremble. “Lord, help me through this.” He said in silent prayer. With every step, more tears began to fall, and his legs became weaker.

As Dakotah neared the casket, he wept openly, enough that the people around him began to notice. Suddenly, an arm slid inside his left arm, and grasped his hand. He turned to see Ely, eyes moist, a sad countenance, a plain black dress. She squeezed his hand.

“C’mon, Andre’s waiting.” she said, as she led him to the casket. They stood before Andre, hand in hand. The first thought Dakotah had been that he didn’t look much like Andre. Oh, he knew it was Andre; although the embalming had just began to deteriorate a little bit, what Dakotah noticed was that Andre, while alive, showed so much life and energy, that this body in front of him was literally but an empty shell.

“You should’ve stayed home with me, and played video games.” Dakotah said almost inaudibly. Suddenly, without warning, he became angry. “Dude, what were you thinking?” he cried, loud enough for many around him to hear.  “You promised me you’d be careful! You were my best friend, and now you’re gone!” With that, Dakotah leaned against the casket, and began to bawl.

Ely tugged on Dakotah’s arm. “Dakotah, there’s someone here who wants to meet you.” Gathering his composure, he let Ely lead him away from the casket.

She led Dakotah to a humongous black lady; she wore an electric blue dress, with a matching wide-brimmed hat. Ely began the introduction: “Dakotah, this is-“

“Dakotah! The lady interrupted. “Come over here, and give Mama a hug!” Dakotah was trying to grasp what she said when she took two strides toward him, and engulfed him with her girth. Dakotah could barely get his breath, as she squeezed harder and harder.  All Dakotah could do was hug back.

“You poor baby, it’s almost too much to take, ain’t it? she asked, finally letting him go.

Desperately catching his breath, Dakotah took a step back. “Y-yeah. I still can’t believe it, Mrs.…..”

“I’m sorry, sugar, I’m Andre’s mother.” the lady said. My name is Ramona, but everybody calls me Mama.”

“I’m so sorry, Mama.” Dakotah said, tears welling up again. “I should’ve tried to stop them!”

Mama put a finger on Dakotah’s lips. “Sh-sh-sh, ain’t no point in beating yourself up over things that are done and done. Dre’s in a better place now.”

“I know.” Dakotah said. “But it doesn’t make it any easier. He was the best friend I ever had.”

“He was my baby.” Mama said, sadly, the weight of the situation suddenly hitting her. “But you know, Jesus is gon’ get me through this, and He’s gon’ get YOU through this.” she said, pointing a finger at Dakotah. “Dre’s up there in Heaven right now, looking down at us, saying “You all don’t worry about me. I’m good. I’ll be waiting.””

The Old Rugged Cross started playing over the speakers. “Ramona, are you ready to start?” A nattily dressed man asked.

“I guess there’s no time like the present.” Mama replied. She turned to Dakotah and Ely. “It was so nice meeting you, Dakotah. I hope we can meet again, and talk for a little bit.”

Dakotah hugged Mama tightly, which would normally be way out of his comfort zone, but today, he didn’t care. “Me, too. Are you going to be okay?”

“No, but I’ll make it. I always do.” Mama turned to Ely. “You take care of him.” She said, pointing at Dakotah. “He’s a fine young man.”

“You can count on me, Mama.” Ely said, squeezing Dakotah’s arm.

“You two better invite me to the wedding, too!” Mama said, laughing. Dakotah turned crimson immediately, and his heart skipped a couple of beats. “You two look so good together!”

“Guarantee it, Mama!” Ely said, grinning. Dakotah was speechless.

“Ahh….” Dakotah said, as they made their way to their seats.

“God love her, even on the worst day of her life, she found it in her to kid around.” Ely said with a slight smile. ”What’s the matter, all this talk about marriage fried your brain? Are you one of those noncommittal types?”

Dakotah was unable to speak.

Ely lightly elbowed him in the ribs. “Easy Dak, I’m just kidding around. Hmmm. You are one of those that believe everything he hears?”

“Maybe. I don’t know.” Dakotah said, his brain swimming.

“I’ll try to take it easy on you, for now, until you get used to me. “ Ely said.

Dakotah was unsure of what that meant. Before he could reply, a minister, carrying a large Bible with many bookmarks and pieces of paper sticking out of it, made his way to the pulpit.

“That’s our minister.” Ely whispered. I think you’ll like him.”

The minister, short, thin, with a round face, receding hairline, and thick glasses, kindly smiled to Ramona, cleared his throat, and began to speak.

“You know, in many ways, days like these are the hardest that I experience as a pastor. Funerals are never easy, but for the most part, a person who passes is not a surprise. Folks die of old age, cancer, heart attack, and so on, and subconsciously, we are prepared for that death, at least I am, so there is little shock when they do pass.”

“Folks, let me tell you, Andre’s accident brought me… to…my…knees! From the time Mama first started bringing him to church around ten years ago, his energy and joy of living affected us all! From being a leader of the youth, from working in the soup kitchen on Tuesdays, to singing in the choir, that young man was full of love! He loved his Mama, he loved his church, and most of all, he loved his Jesus!”

Mama began to tear up, as several in the seats shouted “Amen!” Dakotah was stunned. He didn’t know any of this about Andre, only that he went to church on Sundays. He turned to Ely, and whispered “Really?” she nodded, smiling.

“When I found out the Lord had taken Andre to His bosom,   I cried out “Why Lord? Why did you take this vibrant young man so early in life?” You know what he said? Not a thing. And I have a feeling he’s never going to tell us, either.”

Dakotah thought “Well, I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s stumped.”

The minister continued. “Then I realized I was thinking about this all wrong. I should be thanking the Lord for blessing us with Andre for the time he was here with us! Not only that, We should all be happy, for Andre is with the Lamb of God, singing, laughing, praising Him, not feeling any pain, and not having a care in the world!” A few more “Amen” and “That’s right!” were shouted out from the gathering.

The minister, gaining momentum, increased his volume. “Brothers and sisters, I know you all are hurting, as am I, but we should take this opportunity to remember Andre as he would want to be remembered; by singing, by laughing, and by praising God!” Many of the mourners were beginning to shout now.

Just as quickly, the minister held up his hand to quiet the crowd down, and he began to speak in a much quieter tone. He pointed in Andre’s direction. “Some day, every single one of us is going to return to dust here on Earth. As for me, when that day arrives, I know I’m going to be up in Heaven, having a good time with the Lord, Andre, and everyone else who made it there before me. Now, If any of you aren’t sure what’s going to happen to you when you die, you can pray to the Lord to come into your heart, and if you believe with all your heart that Jesus died for your sins, you will be saved, and you can join Andre and me in Heaven! Now, if you’re unsure on how to do that, then you can come and talk to me, or perhaps another pastor, and we’ll do our best to help you understand.”

The last few sentences the minister uttered were done so while he stared directly at Dakotah. A chill crept down Dakotah’s back; he knew the he was saved, but he felt he was being put into the spotlight, and he did not like that one bit.

With that, the minister said a prayer, thanking the Lord for blessing everyone for having Andre in their lives, asking for comfort and strength for those that are hurting, and to open the eyes of those who can’t see the Light. Having finished, he nodded to the funeral director, who dimmed down the lights a bit, and turned on a digital projector. Pictures of Andre throughout his life showed on a large screen to the side of the casket, while the song I Can Only Imagine played through the speakers. Dakotah began to tear up, and he could hear Ely sniffle next to him. Instinctively, they held each other’s’ hands. As the song finished, the last picture appeared. Dakotah gasped. It was the photo Ely had taken of him and Andre on their graduation night. Dakotah covered his face with both hands, and wept.

Ely placed her arm around him, and patted him on the back. “I’m sorry.” she whispered in his ear. “I didn’t know you would take it like this.”

“I-It’s OK.” Dakotah replied, gathering his composure once more. “It surprised me, that’s all. I’d really like a copy of that.”

“Hey, I promised, remember?” Ely said, squeezing his arm.

The lights brightened up, and the ushers began to direct the back rows for one last viewing of Andre. Dakotah and Ely were near the front; they had a few minutes before their turn. The minister was talking to Mama, and the rest of Andre’s immediate family. Ely raised her hand, and began to wave at the minister. Raising a finger, the minister finished talking to Mama, and started making his way to Ely and Dakotah. Dakotah became nervous; he wasn’t in the mood to talk about being saved to a minister. As he reached them, Ely turned to Dakotah, and said “Dakotah, I want you to meet the Rev. Alan Daniels, the pastor of New Hope Church, and my dad!”

Dakotah’s jaw dropped. “Hi.” was all that he could muster.

“Nice to meet you!” Rev. Daniels said, shaking Dakotah’s vigorously. “Andre had mentioned you many times, but he said that you might already have a church home?”

“Yes, I go to 3rd Baptist, with my grandmother.” Dakotah said quickly. “I was saved and baptized there two years ago.”

“Brother Higgins is a fine preacher.” Rev. Daniels said. We had a few classes in seminary together, back in the day. A good man.”

“I’ve been trying to talk him into joining us at New Hope.” Ely said, smiling.

“You’re more than welcome to come and worship with us.” Rev. Daniels said.

“Actually, I was thinking of coming by this Sunday.” Dakotah replied.

“Great! I’ll be looking forward to seeing you Sunday!” Rev. Daniels said.

“That’s awesome!” Ely said, excitedly. “Pick you up?”

“Ah, OK!” Dakotah said happily. “Do you know where I live?”

“Well, if I take you home tonight, then I’ll know!” Ely said, grinning.

Dakotah began to blush. ”Tonight? It’s only three o’clock in the afternoon.”

“Dad, I was thinking of taking Dakotah out to eat after this is over, and to talk.” Ely said. “Today’s not been an easy day for either of us.”

“Fine with me.” The Rev. said, checking Dakotah over.

“Ah, I’m afraid I can’t go. I don’t have any money on me.” Dakotah said, dejected.

“That’s OK, it’s on me!” Ely said. “It was my idea, after all.”

Rev. Daniels took out his wallet, and handed Dakotah a bill. “Here, Dakotah, this one’s on me.”

Dakotah looked at the bill in shock. “Twenty dollars? Sir, I couldn’t! I don’t know when I could pay you back!”

“Bring my daughter home safe, and show up for church Sunday, and we’ll call it even.” Rev. Daniels said with a wink.

“Deal! Thank you, thank you!” Dakotah exclaimed, shaking Rev. Daniels’ hand.

By then, the ushers had made it to Dakotah and Ely. Ely and her father hugged, said their goodbyes, then Dakotah and Ely walked to the casket.

Dakotah began to tear up again. “Wish you could come with us, big guy.” He said, sadly. I’m going to miss you.”

“Love you, ‘Dre.” Ely said, also tearful. “See you when I get there.”

They turned, and met Mama at the end of the front row. Both of them took turns hugging her. “I’ll see you Sunday.” Dakotah said, forcing a smile.

“And I’ll make sure he does.” Ely chimed in.

“Bless your hearts.” Mama said, tearfully. “I’ll see you two Sunday.”

Dakotah and Ely started to walk to the door. Did you want to go to the gravesite?” Ely asked.

“No, I think I just want to get away from all this.” Dakotah said.” I need to find someplace quiet, relax, and think.”

“And talk?” Ely asked.

“Yeah. And talk.” Dakotah laughed. “We have a lot to talk about.”

“Yes, we do.” Ely said, smiling.

As they neared the door, they heard shouting outside. Someone up ahead said. “Why are those crazy bastards here?”

As they neared the door, the shouting became louder. Over the din, they heard a voice over a bullhorn. “God has once again has taken a homosexual to hell. Repent, or die two deaths!”

Dakotah and Ely looked at each other. “What are they talking about?” Dakotah asked, confused. “They aren’t talking about Andre, are they?”

They exited the building to chaos. The people that he saw across the street when he arrived had unfurled their signs. The signs said “God hates fags”, “God’s justice is served”, “God hates America” and “No fags in Heaven”. In between the protesters and several hundred angry mourners were more than a dozen police cars, with about 20 officers in full riot gear. Dakotah and Ely were in shock.

A blur raced past Dakotah and Ely, muscling his way through the crowd, and to the police line. Hands in the air as not to be hit by a billy club, he was seen animatedly pleading with an officer. Ely recognized the man, and gasped.

“Daddy!” she yelled, horrified.

Two officers hoisted Rev. Daniels onto the hood of a squad car, while another officer reached in the trunk, took a bullhorn out, and handed it to him.

Rev. Daniels began to shout through the bullhorn. “Brothers and sisters, as much as these so-called protesters disgust me by spreading their lies at a time of mourning, they have a legal right to do so. All we can do is render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and pray for these misguided souls. Let’s all move on, okay? Those getting in line for the procession need to go to their vehicles now. I don’t want anyone doing something stupid, and getting hurt, arrested or both. We need to show these people whose God’s children really are.”

“Fag enabler’s just as bad as a fag!” the voice from the other bullhorn shouted. Mourners began to shout back at the protesters, some saying insults at the protesters, others voicing threats. A few went back in the funeral home, trying to keep Mama from seeing all this.

The plan failed. Mama left the building, mourners parting a path for her. She made it to the police line, and asked for the bullhorn from Rev. Daniels. Reluctantly, he gave it to her.

Mama took a deep breath, and shouted through the bullhorn with her loudest voice. ”Now you all look here! There ain’t one amongst you got a bigger right to put a whoopin’ on these crazy people more than I do! But I ain’t gonna disgrace the memory of my baby by gettin’ thrown in jail for putting a knot on someone’s head! And ain’t none of you either! So let’s get on out of here, and go place my baby in the ground…..”at that point, Mama began to break down, but she gathered herself up quickly, and continued. ”and let him rest in peace!” She then turned to the protesters. “God open your eyes, so you can see the evil you all are doing!”

Rev. Daniels came down from the police car hood, and escorted Mama to the hearse, as mourners began to go to their cars. Ely led the way to her car. Unfortunately, they had to pass near the protesters to get to it.

“You’re going to hell, Dakotah! Just like Andre!” a familiar voice shouted. Dakotah spun around to see Tim pointing at him, face full of anger. Dakotah paused for a moment, and as Ely grabbed his hand, he moved on, quickly.

“I can’t think of anything that would try a person’s faith more than that.” Dakotah said, with a touch of anger.

“You’d like to clobber him, wouldn’t you?” Ely asked.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t, at least a little bit.” Dakotah said thoughtfully. “But if I did, I’d regret it.”

“Me, too.” Ely said, smiling, as they made it to the car.

They buckled up, and Ely pulled out onto the street.

“I just remembered! I have to call grandma! She’s supposed to pick me up!” Dakotah exclaimed, remembering.

“Here’s my cell phone.” Ely replied. “You reminded me, I need to make a call, too. Call your grandma, then press and hold three for the speed dial.”

“Got it.” Dakotah said. Never having used a cell phone before, Dakotah couldn’t figure out how to use it.

“Just hit the green button to turn it on, and enter the number. When you’re done, hit the red button to hang up.” Ely said.

“Okay.” Dakotah dialed the number, and after a few rings, Elizabeth’s voice was heard. “Grandma? Yes, it’s me. I’m with Ely. We’re going out to eat somewhere. No, it’s not like that. It went pretty good, except for the anti-gay crazies outside protesting. For real!  It was nuts! I thought there was going to be a riot, but Andre’s mom, and Ely’s dad, calmed everyone down. She’s probably going to take me home after we eat. Yes, we will.”

“Dakotah’s voice suddenly became louder, and more agitated. “Yes, Grandma! Grandma! Love you. Bye.” Dakotah exhaled.

“What was that about?” Ely asked. “Your face is red! What did she say?”

“You really don’t want to know. She really tried her best to embarrass me.” Dakotah took another breath. “She succeeded.”

“Now you really have my curiosity up.” Ely said, smiling. “You have to tell me what she said!”

“If you insist.” Dakotah said, his face getting redder by the second. “She said no kissing on the first date.”

Ely laughed. “Would you be disappointed if we didn’t?”

Dakotah’s brain locked up, and he was having trouble breathing. ”I-I-I don’t know. I-I thought we were just going out to eat. I didn’t think this was a date.”

“You really don’t know anything about relationships, do you?” Ely said, sympathetically.

“If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have any friends at all.” Dakotah said, sadly.

“What about your church? Don’t you have friends there?” Ely said.

“No one my age. They’re either old people, or people with little kids.” Dakotah said, frowning.

“Well, at our church, they have twenty in the young adults Sunday school class.” Ely said. “They’re all nice, so you’d have lots of friends there!”

“You think so?”

“Sure! You’re a good guy, so you’d fit right in. Hey, Dak, could you dial the number? Just hold down the 3 for the speed dial.”

Dakotah did so, and handed the phone to Ely. “Hannah, I’m sorry, The funeral was kind of rough, and Dakotah and I-. Dakotah. Andre’s friend from school. Yeah. Anyway, we’re going to get something to eat, and chill. Call you later. Bye.”

“Who’s Hannah? Did you have other plans? You didn’t have to cancel them on my account.”

“She’s a good friend. I was going to her place to watch movies, but I need to go somewhere, and talk about Andre with someone who knew him well, swap stories, and maybe cry a little.”

“Understood. I need to do that too. Thank you for taking me.”

“My pleasure, Dak. I think we’ll be really good friends!”

Dakotah certainly hoped so. Looking around, he noticed that they had passed all the chain restaurants in town. “Where are we going, by the way?”

“Detroit.” Ely said simply.

“Detroit!” Dakotah shouted. “That’s over an hour away! Why are we going there? Don’t you think it’s dangerous there?”

“Andre, Tulio, and the rest were going to Detroit, and they didn’t make it. We’re doing this trip in their honor.”

“Oh, I see.” Dakotah said, still uneasy. ”Do you know where we’re going?”

“I figured we’ll drive around until we see someplace that looks good, and stop.” Ely said. “Don’t worry; I have this GPS to help us get back home.”

Dakotah bowed his head. “Lord, please bring us home safe, and I really hope you’ll grant us this request.” he thought in silent prayer.

Ely looked over at Dakotah. “Are you praying?”

“Doesn’t hurt.”

“I like you, Dak.” Ely said, smiling broadly. “You can be funny, without even trying.”

“I like you too, Ely. You’re a fun person, even though you like to make me uncomfortable sometimes.”

“I’m your friend. I’m not trying to hurt you, just having a little fun. I want us to laugh together, you know?”

“I like that.” Dakotah said, smiling.

“Now, onward!” Ely shouted, pointing forward. “Detroit awaits!”

“Onward!” Dakotah shouted.

*****

As Ely and Dakotah drove into Detroit, they could see the skyscrapers in the distance. Although the city had been in decline for decades, it still presented an impressive sight.

“This is cool! I’ve never been here before!” Dakotah said, awed.

“You’re kidding. You’ve never been to Detroit?” Ely said in shock.

“No. We never went anywhere.” Dakotah said, sadly.

Traffic picked up considerably as they continued into town. “Rush hour, I guess,” Ely said. “Fortunately, most folks are going home to the suburbs from work.”

“Let’s see where this takes us.” Ely said, as they exited the main thoroughfare onto an off-ramp. Dakotah was unsure of Ely’s choice, as there were many derelict buildings in this section of the city. However, he chose not to say anything, as not to give away his nervousness. Ely sensed it anyway. “You’re awfully quiet all of a sudden.”

“Do you know where we are?”

“Detroit.” Ely said with an impish grin. “Dak, you need to trust me. I have a GPS, right here.”

“Yeah, but do you know where we’re going?”

“To Heaven.”

“Not today, I hope!” Dakotah exclaimed.

Ely laughed. She turned down another street, and up ahead, in amongst the many shades of dark brick buildings, was a diner, shiny and resplendent in chrome and polished stainless steel.

“You knew where we were going all along!” Dakotah shouted.

“I told you to trust me.” Ely said, simply. She deftly parallel parked her mid-90s Corolla into a small spot on the side of the street. “Dad and I used to come here when I was learning how to drive. He said if I could drive here, I could drive anywhere.”

“Nice.” Said Dakotah, impressed. He rushed to the diner door, and opened it for Ely.

“Thank you!” Ely said, smiling. “Where did you learn such good manners?”

“Grandma.” Dakotah replied. “She taught me all the old school gentlemanly tricks.” They both laughed.

They sat down at a booth, and took their menus. The chrome and stainless wasn’t cheap; although the food on the menu was plain American, the prices were quite high. Dakotah had just enough money for a burger, fries, and a chocolate shake. Ely ordered a fried chicken salad, and a cherry flavored water. Dakotah hoped she had brought enough money with her.

As they waited for their food, Dakotah gazed into Ely’s eyes. They sparkled with a brilliant blue he’d never seen on anyone.

“Ely, something has bothered me these past few days, and I need to ask you a question.”

“Sounds serious. Go ahead, do your worst.” Ely said, staring back at Dakotah.

“How come neither you nor Andre mentioned that you knew each other until graduation night? We saw each other in the hallway several times after you saved my binder, yet you never introduced yourself as Andre’s friend. Andre never mentioned you once in all the years that I knew him, either. I don’t get it.”

Ely straightened. “As for me, I didn’t know of your relationship with Andre until the night before graduation, when he pointed out your picture in the yearbook. I can’t speak for Andre, but he did ask you to come to our church a couple of times, right?”

“Yes.”

“Did you ever see Andre and me together?”

“No.”

“I never saw you two together, either. Besides, you know what kind of personality Andre had. Was there ever a person that didn’t like Andre?”

“Tim, that I’m pretty sure of.”

“Why didn’t you tell Andre about me when I saved your binder after the altercation with him?

“Because I didn’t want Andre to pound him into the ground, and get suspended.”

“Andre may have said something to Tim, but he wouldn’t lay a finger on him, I’ll guarantee that.” Ely said. “You don’t know him as well as you think.”

“Andre was the best friend that I had!” Dakotah protested.

“You’re right. But you were only a small slice of his world.”

Those words hurt Dakotah, but he knew she was right. He nodded in affirmation.” You know, I never understood why Tim had it out for Andre. It wasn’t like he was gay, or anything.”

Ely gasped. Frowning, she looked down, and thought for a few seconds. She reached across the table and grasped Dakotah’s hands, holding them firmly. He began to squirm, suddenly feeling very uncomfortable.

“Dakotah, I don’t know how to tell you this without breaking your heart, but yes, Andre was gay.”

Dakotah jerked his hands away from Ely. “NO!” he shouted, in shock. “I don’t believe you! I can’t believe you! We talked about girls and stuff! We were coming here to Detroit on graduation night to dance with girls! No way he’s gay!”

Ely held both hands up, trying to calm Dakotah down. ”Listen to me, and think. Why did a person with a magnetic personality as Andre not ever have a girlfriend?”

“He always told me he was too busy, that he had to get his life in order before settling down.”

“Okay. I think I get it, now. Dakotah, do you consider yourself a conservative Christian?”

“Well, yeah, I guess so.”

“What does your church say about gay people?”

“That they are an abomination.” Dakotah’s voice began to trail off.

“If Andre was gay, would he go to Heaven?”

Dakotah began to tear up. ”I was always taught that they wouldn’t.”

“Then explain to me how you are different than Tim, and the rest of those people with the signs.”

“I’m not out there screaming at people while their loved ones are in the funeral home!”

“But your heart feels the same way.”

“I don’t hate gay people! Jesus tells us to love everybody! I loved Andre! He was like my brother! I’d trade places with him right now if I could!”

“Andre loved you too, like a brother. I think the reason he didn’t come out of the closet with you , and didn’t say too much about his church, is because of your beliefs on gays. ‘Dre didn’t want to risk his friendship with you.”

“What does your father think about gay people?” Dakotah asked.

“Dad always taught me that we are all God’s people, and everyone should be loved the same.” Ely said. “It is not our place to judge people, either. That is Jesus’ job only. We believe that as long as you are not causing harm to another person or oneself, knowingly or not, then you haven’t committed a sin.”

“My head hurts.” Dakotah said, rubbing his temples. “It sure takes a long time for them to cook food here, doesn’t it?”

“That’s why diners are cool.” Ely said. “It gives people time to talk! Dad and I had several hours of good conversations here. Ah! Here’s the food!”

*****

Dakotah had lost most of his appetite by the time his meal had arrived; however, after a couple of bites, he realized the burger, fries, and milkshake were all exceedingly good, far better than the fast food fare he was used to, and he ate heartily, until there was not a crumb left.

“Were you hungry?” Ely asked, smiling.

“Not until I started eating. The food here’s amazing!” Dakotah said enthusiastically. “Thank you for bringing me here!”

“My pleasure.” Ely said, looking at her watch. “It’s seven already. I guess we’d better be making our way home. I have to be at work in the morning.”

“You have a job?” Dakotah said, impressed.

“Yeah, starting tomorrow.” Ely said, biting her lower lip. “Dad helped me get a part time job at the hospital, cleaning rooms. I’m kinda nervous, though. I’m usually withdrawn around people I don’t know.”

“You didn’t know me when we met in the hallway. If that was the case, why did you help me?” Dakotah said, puzzled.

“I guess God told me to.” Ely said. “I just got the feeling that you needed help, and I was the only one who could. So, I did.”

“And you’re still helping me.” Dakotah said, wincing. ”Am I that pathetic?”

“Yes! Yes, you are!” Ely said, laughing. “But, you’re a good person, with a kind heart. I think you’re very special, and worth every bit of trouble. You may not realize it, but I needed you there at the funeral today, too.”

“But I didn’t do anything.” Dakotah protested.

“I had to help you through your pain, and that helped me through my pain.” Ely said. ‘Dre was the first friend that I ever lost, too.”

“I guess being pathetic is good for something.” Dakotah said, shaking his head.

“Dak, I feel like I’m totally pathetic too, sometimes, but I know deep down I’m not. Neither are you.”

“You don’t know me very well.”

“And you don’t me, either.” Ely said, wrapping an arm around Dakotah’s side and giving him a light hug while looking into his eyes. “I could totally screw up tomorrow, and get fired. How pathetic would that be?”

“You won’t screw up tomorrow.” Dakotah said, reassuringly.

“How do you know? You don’t know me.” Ely said with a slight frown.

“I have faith in you.” Dakotah said.

Ely poked Dakotah in the chest. ”And I have faith in you, too.”

Dakotah had to laugh, as he knew she had made her point. He opened the door to the car for Ely.

“Careful, you’re going to spoil me.” she said.

“I’ll try.” Dakotah laughed, as he shut the door.

*****

The rush hour traffic had largely abated by the time they had left the diner; they were making good time going home. It was a nice evening; temps were in the 70s, with just a couple of clouds. The sun sank lower in the sky, casting long shadows across the road, and nearby fields.

“Dak, now that you’re officially a high school graduate, what are you going to do?” Ely asked.

“Well, I have no way of affording school right now, so I’m going to find a job, and save up.” Dakotah said, twisting his mouth.

“Jobs are tough to find. I was lucky to get what I have.”

“I know. Especially since I have to rely on Grandma to take me around.”

I may be able to help with that, if you need a ride sometimes.”

“That’d be great! I would pitch in some gas money, too.”

“Well, that’s settled.” Ely said. “You know, you could get a student loan, and go on to school. You wouldn’t have to start paying it back until after you graduate.”

“True, but I don’t like the idea of being in debt. Mom always seems to be behind on her payments, and Grandma told me stories of when they had to sell stuff to make ends meet. If it takes an extra year to save up enough to get started, then that’s okay with me.”

“That makes sense.” Ely said, nodding her head. ”What are you going to study? Do you know what you want to do?”

“I think I want to study meteorology.” Dakotah said. “I like learning about how weather works, and maybe I can use that to help people.”

“Oh, that’s so cool!” Ely said excitedly. “You’d make a cute TV weatherman!”

Dakotah blushed. “Well, I don’t know about that. I’d probably work for the National Weather Service, or something.”

“Well, I think you’d make a fine weatherman.” Ely said, smiling.

“Any idea what you want to do?” Dakotah asked.

“I want to learn Japanese, go to Japan, and live over there for a while!” Ely exclaimed. “That would be so cool!”

Dakotah gave her a puzzled look. “How would you live over there? Would you be a missionary?”

“Oh, no, nothing like that.” Ely replied. “I would like to tutor Japanese people English, or maybe even teach school kids.”

“What’s so special about Japan? They make some pretty cool anime, and electronics….but-“

“Japan his little crime, everyone is polite, and everything is really neat and orderly! Bullet trains, Mt. Fuji, shopping in Tokyo, I could go on for hours! The country is just awesome!”

“Michigan doesn’t have anything for you, does it?” Dakotah said, slightly dejected.

“Does Michigan have anything for you?” Ely replied, pointedly.

“Mom’s here, and so is Grandma.” I’m not sure if I could leave them. They need me.”

“How? You’re mom has a job, and your grandma looks rather spunky. If there was a career opportunity across the country somewhere, you wouldn’t take it?”

“I’m not sure.”

“I think they would understand if you left. They’re not that selfish, are they?”

“No.”

“Then I don’t see a problem. Do you like it here?”

“Not really. I like it when it snows. It’s so peaceful then.”

“I have a hunch that although they would miss you a lot, they would accept your decision to leave, if you found something somewhere else. Who knows? Maybe the new place will have lots of snow, too!”

“Maybe.” Dakotah said, with a sigh.

*****

The sun had almost set by the time they arrived at Dakotah’s house. Ely pulled up to the curb, and Dakotah stepped out.

“8:30 Sunday morning, okay?” Ely said.

“I’ll be ready! Will you be able to find this place again?”

“Oh, ye of little faith.” Ely said, mocking Dakotah slightly. I’m saving it on the GPS, even as I speak. Now, what’s your phone number?”

This made Dakotah uneasy, as he wouldn’t put it past Frank to listen in on their conversations on the other cordless phone. He took a deep breath. “656-8675. I can’t guarantee that Frank won’t be trying to listen in on our conversation.”

Ely thought for a few seconds. “Well, if you think he’s spying, just call me Elizabeth; when I say Elizabeth, hold the phone away from your ear. Got it?”

“Got it.” Dakotah said, grinning. ”Ely, this may sound weird, but for being one of the worst days of my life, it wasn’t too bad. Thank you for everything.”

“I had fun this evening, too.” Ely said, smiling sweetly. “Maybe we can do this again sometime?”

“That’d be cool!” Dakotah replied excitedly.

“Great! See you Sunday!”

“See you Sunday!” Dakotah waved as he shut the door to the Corolla. Ely pulled away, leaving Dakotah to watch her as she turned a couple of blocks up the street.

“Wow.” Dakotah thought as he walked to the house.

Dakotah unlocked the door and stepped inside. Standing nearby, scowling, was Frank.

“Where’ve you been?” Frank grumbled. “Your mother has called three times, and that old bag, twice, wondering if you were home yet.”

“I called Grandma to let her know I was going out to eat. Don’t know why they’d be worried.” Dakotah took a deep breath, and exhaled. He knew Frank didn’t care if he ever came back; more than likely, Frank was upset because his mother and grandmother were bugging him with phone calls.

“Well, call the old woman. I’ll text your mother, and tell her you’re home.”

“Okay.” Dakotah replied, and started to get the phone in the living room.

“Hold it.” Frank said, stopping Dakotah in his tracks. “You got a girlfriend now, or was it some guy in drag?”

“It was a girl. She’s just a friend.”

“Friend, huh? Well, I’m gonna tell you this once. I ain’t gonna do no babysitting, you hear?”

“No problem.” Dakotah said simply, and made his way up the stairs, phone in hand.

“Frank babysit?” Dakotah thought to himself, shaking his head. “Does he really think I’m that stupid?”

Entering his room, he dialed his grandmother’s phone.

“It’s me, Grandma.” he said.

“You’re just getting home? I was beginning to wonder if you two got a room or not!” Elizabeth said, her voice agitated.

“Grandma!” Dakotah shouted in protest. “We just went out to eat, that’s all.”

“Where in the heck did you go? Detroit?”

“Actually, yes.”

There was a brief silence over the phone. “Not exactly the safest or smartest decision, I must say. Anything could’ve happened!”

“Ely had been there several times before, with her dad, She had the place on her GPS, and she had her cell phone, just in case anything weird happened. Besides, we had faith that the Lord would take care of us. Didn’t you?” Dakotah realized what he said. “I’m sorry, Grandma. I didn’t mean to sound like that.”

Elizabeth gave out a chuckle. “Don’t apologize, Dak. You are absolutely right. You’re growing up right before my eyes. I’m very proud of you.”

“Thank you, Grandma.” Dakotah said, smiling.

“Now tell me this.” Elizabeth said. “Is she a keeper?”

“Yeah.” Dakotah replied, feeling warm inside. ”She’s wonderful.”

*****

The conversation lasted a little while longer, with Dakotah talking about the protestors, the diner, and most of all, Ely. He then took a shower, and when he made it back into his room, his mother was there, waiting on him.

“I hear you had an eventful day.” she said, eyes sad.

“Yes, I did.” Dakotah yawned, realizing that he was quite exhausted.

She began to tear up. “Oh, honey, I’m sorry.” She cried out.

Dakotah became confused. “For what? Why are you crying?”

“First, I’m happy that you’re home, safe.” she said, tears flowing. “But I have a burden on my heart!”

“Burden?” Dakotah was thoroughly confused now.

“I tried to talk you into leaving with those boys! If you had listened to me, you’d be dead, too!” she sobbed.

Dakotah shook his head. “God told me not to go. I listened to Him, and I’m still alive. There’s no point in crying; it’s all done and over with now. Time to move on.”

Sylvia regained her composure. “Do you forgive me, then?”

Dakotah hugged his mother tightly. “There’s nothing to forgive. I love you, mom.”

“I love you, too.” Sylvia said, wiping a tear.

Dakotah yawned again. “Well, mom, I think I’m going to bed. I’m exhausted.”

“Before I go, I have to ask.” Sylvia said at the door. “Are you two an item now?”

“We’re not boyfriend-girlfriend, if that’s what you mean, but she is really, really nice. I like her, and I think she likes me, too.”

“Well, if there was a silver lining out of all this, I hope this is it. Your happiness means a lot to me. Good night, son, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Dakotah wondered about her sincerity when she made that last statement about her being concerned with his happiness, but he was too tired to care. As he lay stretched out on the bed, he thought of Ely, Andre, and the events of the day. Closing his eyes, he clasped both hands over his heart.

“Thank you Lord, for this day.” he said. “Say hi to Andre for me.”


Chapter 5

Chapter 5
May 29, 2008

“Let me have a look at you, Dakotah!” said his mother. She reached up, and started to redo his necktie. “Mercy, son, can’t you do something as simple as tying a necktie? How are you supposed to go out in the world and be a success that way?”

“I could always buy clip-on neckties.” Dakotah said with a shrug. “No tying required.”

“Oh, you big silly!” she said, laughing. “Neckties won’t make you or break you. If that were the case, I’d have Frank out there in a suit, selling insurance!” They both laughed loudly.

“I’m not sure why I have to be all ready to go now.” Dakotah said, already beginning to chafe under the dress shirt and necktie. “We still have over two hours before we have to be at the civic center.”

“Because I have to take pictures!” Sylvia said with a smile. “And, your grandmother will be here in thirty minutes!”

“Ah, she’s going to be at the civic center, isn’t she?” Dakotah said, now confused.

“No, no, no, not your grandmother Elizabeth, your grandmother Cathy.” His mother said nervously.

“Grandma Cathy? Really?” Dakotah had not seen his mother’s mother for a long time. “How many years? Five? Eight? Ten?” he thought.

“I know it may be a shock to you that she’s coming, after all these years, but she wanted to see you on your big day. Trust me; it was a shock to me, too!”

“But why now?” Dakotah had become nervous, too. His mother rarely ever spoke of her. Of course, Frank had never anything nice to say about her, but he never said anything nice about anyone.

On cue, Frank walked by, on his way to the bathroom. “Probably sizing you up, so she can figure out how much of an inheritance she’s going to give you. I’ll put in a good word for you, for twenty percent.”

“Frank, behave!” Sylvia said, irritated. “Today is a big day for him, and I don’t want you sabotaging it.”

“Don’t worry; I’ll be a good boy.” Frank said as he entered the bathroom.

“That’ll be the day.” Sylvia thought. She turned to her son. “I know you have a lot of questions regarding my and your grandmother’s relationship, or lack thereof. All I can say right now is that a lot happened between us in years past. However, that has no bearing on today, as this day is all about you. Just be nice to her, okay?”

Dakotah thought this was an odd request, as he always tried his best to be kind and polite to people. “Sure.” He said.

Just then, there was a banging at the door. “That’s probably your grandmother, and she’s early. That figures. Go answer the door while I finish my hair.”

Taking a deep breath, Dakotah strode quickly to the door. Gritting his teeth, he opened the door. There, standing before him, was a lady wearing a pink dress suit with matching shoes. Not a strand of her meticulously coiffed auburn colored hair was out of place.

“Oh, look at you!” she said, excitedly. “How much you’ve grown! Do you remember me? I’m your Grandmother Parker!”

Dakotah smiled. “Not really, but I knew it was you, from the pictures of you that mom showed me. Would you like to come in?”

She looked past Dakotah, and into the house. Especially since Dakotah had daily chores, the house was spotless.

“No thank you, I think I’ll just stay out here on the porch. It’s a beautiful day!” Dakotah nodded, as there was not a cloud in the sky.

“Can I get you something to drink?” Dakotah asked, trying to say something polite. He really didn’t know what to ask the lady, without coming across as rude.

“Do you have any orange kool-aid?” she asked, making a whimsical face.

The question caught Dakotah off guard, as he wasn’t expecting an odd choice as that. “No, I’m afraid we don’t have any orange kool-aid, or any kind, for that matter.”

“Oh, Dakotah, don’t you remember? Whenever you used to come over for a visit, I would feed you cheese puffs with orange kool-aid!” she said, laughing. “By the time your mother picked you up, you looked like you had carotenemia! You were a messy child!”

“Ah, okay.” Dakotah replied, forcing a light chuckle. He had no recollection of the scene his grandmother described.

“Do you have a girlfriend? I’m sure a handsome lad such as you has to fight them off!”

Dakotah thought of the red-haired girl who had saved his organizer a couple of months back. Although he had seen her a few times since then, they had never spoken, instead occasionally exchanging a small wave.

“Not at this moment.” He said meekly.

“Well, when you do, have her give me a call, and I’ll get her cosmetics at half off!” she said, handing him a business card.

Dakotah looked at the pink business card, and then looked at his grandmother, and smiled. “Okay, I’ll do that!”

“That’s a good boy!” she exclaimed. At that moment, Dakotah’s mother came to the door, camera in hand. “Ah, there you are, mother! Can I take a picture of you and Dakotah?”

“Oh, heavens, no!” Sylvia’s mother said, shocked. “I’ve been on this porch sweating like a pig, and I’m a mess!” Dakotah tilted his head slightly in confusion, as his grandmother did not appear to look different to him.

She looked at her watch. “Oh, look at the time! I would like to stay and visit longer, but I have to meet with a client! Congratulations, young man, I’m sure you’ll do well in life! Toodle-oo!” With that, Cathy Parker hustled off the porch, entered her pink car, and roared off.

Dakotah stared at his mother. “Well, that was ah…..”

“Strange?” interrupted his mother, finishing the sentence. “That’s Mother, Domestic Goddess.” she said with a sneer. “All she wanted was a perfect house, with a perfect marriage, and perfect kids, something straight out of a 1950s TV show. Dad took care of her well enough, but Louise was a tomboy, and followed Dad around all the time, so that left me to be her little princess.”

“At least that’s what she wanted me to be.” she continued. “Instead of going to see the Tigers play with Dad and sis, I had piano recitals and etiquette lessons. Needless to say, by the time I graduated high school, I was a rebel that wore pumps and taffeta. Found the first guy that promised a fun life away from home, and I married him.”

“Dad?” Dakotah asked.

“Yep.” She replied. But several years later, I committed the unpardonable sin in her eyes. I divorced him. That was something no self-respecting housewife would ever do, according to her code. She’s barely spoken to me since.”

Dakotah was stunned. A barely audible “Whoa.” was all he could muster.

“I’m sorry, honey. I didn’t mean to dump that on you today, but she just drives me nuts, you know?” Sylvia hugged her son, eyes teary. “Let’s get some pictures taken before my mascara runs, OK?” She turned, and opened the door. “Frank, get out here, and take our picture!”

“Is Old Ironsides gone?” yelled Frank from the den.

“Yes, it’s safe to come out now, you chicken!” said Sylvia, laughing. Dakotah started to chuckle, and sighed in relief.

Frank stared at the digital camera. “How do you work this thing?” he asked, frustrated. Both Sylvia and her son rolled their eyes.

*****

The civic center parking lot was almost packed by the time Sylvia and Dakotah arrived. Rush hour traffic had delayed their arrival, and it was almost time for the students to line up for the procession.

“I bet grandma’s already found a seat inside.” Dakotah said sadly. “I was really hoping to see her before the ceremony.”

His ears perked up when he heard a familiar voice, calling his name. “Grandma?”

“There you are!” Elizabeth said, relieved. “I was wondering if something happened to you! Where’s that husband of yours, Sylvia?”

“Oh, he was mumbling about some stupid ballgame on TV he didn’t want to miss.” Sylvia replied with a frown. “Honestly, though, I’m glad he stayed home.”

“Lord, I don’t know what you saw in that man.” Elizabeth replied, shaking her head.

Sylvia almost replied ”Yeah, I sure can pick them.” But thought better of it, and instead looked to her son. “You’d better get in line, honey.”

Dakotah hugged them both, and started to jog toward the procession line. “Don’t do anything silly now, y’hear?” yelled his grandmother. Dakotah waved back.

Watching Dakotah, Sylvia wiped a tear. “My, how time has flown.”

“Yes it has.” said Elizabeth. “Yes, it has.”

*****

Dakotah checked his watch. He had ten minutes before the ceremonies were to start; the procession line wasn’t really a line at this point, with clumps of students taking pictures, and chatting amongst themselves. He quickly found a huge gold mountain, surrounded by several slightly smaller gold mountains. Andre looked almost regal in his graduation robe, Dakotah thought to himself.

Tulio saw Dakotah before Andre did. “Hey, Wing, we made it!” and gave Dakotah a fist bump.

Dakotah smiled. Andre’s football friends had taken him in as one of their own; he ate lunch with them daily, and he rarely ever was bothered at school anymore. He even got to sleep later in the mornings, as Andre picked him up at home, and took him to school. Frank didn’t care for Dakotah socializing with black teenagers, but Frank would’ve picked apart anyone Dakotah hung out with.

Andre turned, and saw his friend. “Dude! Where have you been? I was beginning to wonder if your stepdad grounded you tonight!”

They all laughed. “No, my mom’s mom came by to say hello after about ten years, or whatever. Coocoo, coocoo!” said Dakotah, rolling his eyes.

“I know how it is, Wing.” Tulio said. “I have an Uncle Leroy that gets drunk and sleeps in the back yard.”

Andre piped in. “Hey, Dakotah! You comin’ with us tonight? All of us are hittin’ Detroit after the ceremonies. I heard there’s a couple of clubs that’ll let us in.”

Dakotah felt his face go flush. “I-I don’t know, Andre. We’re too young, aren’t we?”

“It’s cool.” said Tulio. “You slip a guy at the door a twenty, and you’re in. Nothing to it.”

“But I don’t have very much money.” Dakotah replied, flustered. Although it was true that he was nearly broke, Dakotah was looking for excuses not to go with his friends. Sneaking in underage to a club was way out of his comfort zone, and to him, very wrong.

“I got this, Dakotah, no problem.” Andre said, as he showed off a wad of money. Dakotah’s eyes became big. “Been saving my wages from work, plus everyone’s been giving me money for graduation. We are going in style, my friend.”

“Where in Detroit are you going? It doesn’t sound very safe. What if there’s shooting, or a fight?” Dakotah was grasping for any excuse now, desperate.

“Ain’t nothin’ gonna happen, Wing.” said Tulio, pointedly. “All we’re going to do is sit back in a corner, and chill. Maybe do a little dancing with the ladies. That’d be cool, right? Find you a little hot mama to dance with?”

Dakotah’s face became red. “I-I don’t know about th-that. I doubt if anyone would dance with me.”

At that moment, a voice came out of the P.A. system, a voice the students recognized as the principal. “Graduates, if you’ll take your place in line, we’ll begin. Thank you.” The band began to play, and students began to organize alphabetically.

Before moving to his place in line, Andre turned to Dakotah. “See you in a minute, Dakotah!”

“See you!” Dakotah yelled back.

*****

The graduates filed in the civic center as the band played, and to their seats. Speeches were made, awards were given, and finally, diplomas began to be given out. In years past, there had been as many as 350 graduates; in recent decades, due to the decline of the rust belt, people moved away in search of better opportunities, so only 197 graduated this year. Dakotah was 85th, between Jasmine Lancaster, and Walt Lester. He knew both of them, but was close to neither.

Tulio’s name was called, and a loud roar came from the bleachers. He was the best football player the school had in many years, and had accepted a scholarship to play at Michigan State. He took his diploma from the principal, and punched the air with his fist, yelling “Hell, yeah!” as the crowd cheered for him.

“Jasmine Lancaster” the principal announced, and she calmly walked to the podium, and accepted her diploma with mild applause. Dakotah swallowed hard, as he knew he was next, and he didn’t want to trip getting his diploma.

“Dakotah Lennon”. Dakotah took a deep breath, and swallowed hard. Quickly, he strode to the podium to the sound of a few claps, though he didn’t hear them. Carefully making his way up the steps, he took the diploma with the left hand, and shook the principal’s hand with his right.

“Congratulations” said the principal.

“Thank you” Dakotah replied with a smile.

As he took his first step from the podium, a loud whistle pierced the civic center, echoing off the walls. Dakotah looked up and saw Elizabeth shaking her fist in a circular motion, yelling “Whoo! Whoo! Whoo! Whoo!” Dakotah was embarrassed, but he couldn’t help shaking his head and smiling as he returned to his seat.

“Walter Lester” the principal said.

*****

Soon, all the diplomas were handed out, the band played, and the principal dismissed the graduates. Most of the graduates tossed their caps in the air; Dakotah didn’t, as he wanted to keep his cap.

The crowd descended from the bleachers to floor level; more hugs were exchanged, and many more pictures were taken, the graduates now showing off their diplomas to the cameras. Dakotah was no different, holding his diploma in front of him as his mother and grandmother took turns taking his picture with the other.

Dakotah turned to his grandmother. “Why did you do that?” he asked.

“What?” she said, innocently. “Oh, that! To give you memories, my young man.”

“Well, you’re right about that. Glad I don’t have to go to school tomorrow, I’d never hear the end of it.” The meaning of his own words struck Dakotah: “I don’t have to go to school tomorrow, or ever again.” He felt a combination of relief and angst, which confused him.

There was a tap on his shoulder, followed by a familiar voice: ”Congratulations!” Dakotah spun around to see the red-haired girl. She hugged him tightly, saying “I’ll miss seeing you next year.”

Dakotah was stunned; he lightly put his arms around her, not knowing what else to do. The top of her head came up to his chin, and he could smell her perfume, which was wonderful to him. He took a quick but deep breath before murmuring, “I’ll miss you, too.”

Both Elizabeth and Sylvia looked at each other, also stunned. “Dakotah with a girl?” they thought. Elizabeth cleared her throat.

Dakotah whirled around, embarrassed. “Ah, th-this is a friend from school. Uhhhhh….” He had no idea what her name was.

The girl smiled, and spoke. “My name is Elizabeth, but everyone calls me Ely.” Nice to meet you.

“Ely? How nice! My name is Elizabeth, too, but everyone always wanted to call me Liz or Beth. Ely is much nicer. I’m Dakotah’s grandmother, and this lady next to me is his mother.”

“Hey girl, you’d better stay away from him, he ain’t nothin’ but trouble!” a voice boomed. Everyone turned to see Andre, grinning broadly.

Dakotah was desperately trying to wrap his head around what was going on around him. He had never mentioned the knockdown by Tim to Andre, or having Ely save his binder. “You know each other?” he said, incredulously.

“Yeah, man, we go to the same church.” Andre said. “Same Sunday school and everything.” Andre had asked Dakotah to go to church with him a couple of times, but Dakotah always declined, choosing to go with Elizabeth to the Baptist church she was a member of.

“Would you like to come to our church some Sunday?” Ely said, pushing her glasses up her nose. “We’re non-denominational, and we don’t care where you come from!”

“Thank you, I’ll think about it.” Dakotah replied, smiling. “Can’t be too bad, if they go there.” He thought.

“Dude, you comin’ with us?” Andre said, with a little impatience. We gotta go soon.”

Dakotah thought carefully. Part of him wanted to go, but something was nagging him, telling him not to. “No, I don’t guess so. I’m worn out from all of this.”

“Honey, it’s okay, you can go.” Sylvia chimed in. “You don’t have to go home with me. You’re grown now.”

Dakotah thought for a moment. He trusted Andre, but the idea of going out on the town as Andre suggested didn’t seem right. “I’m really sorry, Andre. I don’t feel up to it tonight. Maybe next time?”

“Bro, you’re missing out the night of a lifetime, but I’m cool with your decision.” Andre said, disappointed. He gave Dakotah a fist bump. “Catch you later!”

“Wait!” Ely yelled out. Let me take yours and Dakotah’s picture together.”

“Make it snappy! Ha ha! Get it? Snappy?” said, Andre, laughing.

Dakotah and Andre posed together, arms around each other, and grinning. “Say weenies!” shouted Ely.

“Weenies!” They both said, as she took their picture. “I’ll get a couple of copies printed for both of you.” Ely said.

“Cool. I’m out. Last chance, Daaaakoooootah!” Andre said, drawing out Dakotah’s name for over five seconds.

“Next time.” Dakotah said. “Andre?”

“What, dude?”

Take care.”

“Be safe. Promise?” added Ely.

“Promise. See you Sunday?”

“I’ll be there. How about you, Dakotah? Sunday School is at 9:30, regular services are at 10:30.”

Dakotah looked at his grandmother, looking for a sign of approval or disapproval. She smiled sweetly, and shrugged her shoulders. Dakotah had hoped for a more clear understanding of what his grandmother meant, so to him, the decision was his.

“I’ll think about it.” he said with a weak smile. His grandmother’s church was pretty conservative, and had influenced Dakotah quite a bit. “What kind of dogma do these people believe in, anyway?” he thought. However, he figured if Andre and Ely go there, it couldn’t be too bad, could it? “Where is this church, anyway?” he asked.

“228 Madison Street, next to Benny’s Used Cars.” Ely replied. Dakotah realized that the church was across town, about ten miles away.

“I’ll have to talk to Andre, and see if he’ll give me a lift there, if I decide to go.” Dakotah said, sounding noncommittal.

“Do you have a cell? You can just text me if you need a lift, and can’t find Andre.”

Dakotah became uncomfortable. A friendly girl was way out of his comfort zone. “No, I don’t have one. I’m sure I can contact Andre.”

“Well, looking forward to seeing you in church!” Ely turned to Sylvia and Elizabeth. “Nice meeting you!”

“Nice meeting you, too.” Elizabeth answered. With that, Ely left the three, disappearing into the crowd.

Elizabeth turned to Dakotah. “Something you haven’t told us, young man?” she said, smiling, knowing full well she was embarrassing her grandson.

“Well, I only talked to her once before, a couple of months ago. She and Andre must’ve been talking behind my back.” Dakotah needed clarification from Elizabeth about going to Ely and Andre’s church. “Grandma, do you know about that church? Is it okay?”

“Well, I’m sure they probably don’t play with snakes, or eat fire.” Elizabeth said, laughing. “If you’re looking for my blessing, you’re asking the wrong one. Pray about it earnestly. God will give you the answer.”

Praying wasn’t Dakotah’s strong suit, as he felt he wasn’t worthy to ask for God’s blessings. “I’ll try.” He said.

“Well, It’s almost past my bedtime.” Elizabeth said. ”Congratulations, Dakotah. I’m very proud of you. Sometime, you’ll have to bring your lady friend over for supper, so I can give her the proper once-over!”

“You’re not funny, Grandma!” Dakotah said, smiling. “Be careful going home, and I’ll see you tomorrow! It’s time to mow your lawn, again.”

“Yes, I know. I’m tempted to use weed killer on the whole yard. Take care , Sylvia. Keep that man in line.”

“Full time job, with overtime.” laughed Sylvia. “Take care.”

*****

Crowds were starting thin out of the parking lot as Sylvia and Dakotah made their way home. “Son, what are your plans?” Sylvia asked.

“Well, I figured I’d take a shower, and head to bed soon.” Dakotah said, a little confused.

“No, no, I mean now that you’ve graduated, what are you going to do? Are you going to college? You know I can’t help you financially.”

“Yes, but not immediately.” Dakotah said. “First, I have to get a job, and start saving. Hopefully, I can start school after Christmas.”

“Getting a job is good. Not much out there right now, the way the economy’s been.”

“I know. Even fast food jobs are scarce. Couple of guys from school have been looking for months.“

“Son, it’s okay to dream, as long as it doesn’t turn into fantasy. The best thing for you to do is to get some income. At least you can buy a car. Your own transportation is important , if you’re going to work any place long term.”

“I’m not interested in finding a factory job. I don’t want to be stuck like everyone here.” Dakotah thought. “Well, I’ll start looking Monday.” Dakotah said. “Probably not much I can do this weekend.”

“Except go to church with your girlfriend?” Sylvia said, smiling.

“Well, since I’ve talked to her a total of two times, and we’ve never been out together, I wouldn’t exactly call her a girlfriend. She really is nice though, isn’t she, mom?”

“She seems so. I wonder what Frank would think of this development?” she said, laughing.

“Please, I hope they never meet! She’d run away, for sure!” Dakotah said with a hint of worry.

“We’ll worry about that when the time comes. Who knows, he may have a heart attack, or get run over by a bus by then.”

“That’s not nice, even if it is Frank.” Dakotah said with a laugh. “He’s one of God’s children, too!”

“It’s okay; I have lots of insurance on him!” They both laughed loudly.

Sylvia pulled up into the driveway, and into the garage. As they both entered the dining room, they split up, Dakotah going up the stairs to his room, while Sylvia stayed downstairs, noticing the flickering light coming from under the study door.

“Congratulations, son. I’m very proud of you.”

Dakotah came down the stairs, and hugged his mother. “Love you, mom.” he said.

She held on tightly, kissing his cheek, a tear trickling down hers. “I love you too. Very much.”

With that, he ascended upstairs.

*****

Dakotah showered and prepared himself for bed. Between dealing first with Grandma Cathy, the graduation ceremonies, and then Ely, had left him exhausted. He knelt down at the bed to pray.

“Dear Lord, thank you for blessing me with making it through high school. Please give me the wisdom to make the right decisions for my future. Also point me in the right direction in choosing whether or not to attend Andre and Ely’s church, and if I do, give me the strength and wisdom not to be influenced by them, only by You. And lastly, keep an eye out for Andre and Tulio and the gang tonight, and keep them safe. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.”

With that, Dakotah climbed into bed, and turned off the light. Thoughts turned to Ely, the way she felt, the way she smiled, the sound of her voice, the way she smelled. “Could it be she’s the one? “That would be beyond awesome!” he smiled to himself in happy thought.

*****

There was a loud banging at the door. Dakotah rubbed his eyes, and looked at the clock. It said 7:58AM. He quickly opened the door, and went down the stairs. To his surprise, he saw Elizabeth talking animatedly and loudly to Sylvia. Frank slowly shuffled out of the bedroom, cursing softly.

“What the hell is wrong with you, old woman? Have you finally gone senile?” Frank said.

“Shut up, you fool, and turn on the TV to channel seven!” Elizabeth barked. Tears were in her eyes as she turned to Dakotah. “Sweetheart, I’m so sorry. Please sit down.”

The television came to life, and by the time Frank changed the channel, the logo for “Channel Seven, Eyewitness News” popped up. The normally chipper anchorman appeared saddened, almost depressed. He began to speak, and the scene cut to what appeared to be an automobile accident. Dakotah, still groggy, focused on the scene, and then he saw it.

A purple mid 70s Impala.

“Tragedy strikes the area last night, when a car of newly graduated high school students, on their way to a party, lost control and crashed, killing all five aboard. Tulio Morris, an All-State linebacker that was to play for Michigan State in the fall, was one of the victims.”


Chapter 4

Chapter 4
March 10, 2008

The alarm clock began its daily unholy screech, causing Dakotah’s eyes to snap open. Without focusing, he reached over, and quickly shut it off. With a slight groan, he sat up in bed, and rubbed his eyes. He looked out the window, and from his 2nd story vantage point, he could see nothing but low clouds in the still dark sky. “Another perfect Monday.” he thought. He checked the clock; reading 5:20AM, Dakotah figured he was on schedule, and set out to make his bed.

Moving quickly and quietly, since his mother and Frank were still asleep, Dakotah fixed his breakfast of two cherry toaster pastries, ate, cleaned up his mess, went upstairs, showered, put on his clothes, and checked the clock: 5:50. Satisfied, he put on his shoes, socks, and overcoat, grabbed his organizer, and headed out the door.

A cold, damp, biting wind greeted Dakotah as he stepped onto the porch. High school was five miles away; he could’ve slept until 7:00AM, and taken a school bus, but after being constantly taunted, and having his belongings stolen or vandalized, getting up early and walking to school was the better option.

Dakotah really didn’t mind walking, even if it were raining, or snowing. He was able to talk his mother and Frank into buying him rain gear and galoshes by convincing them that if he got them, they wouldn’t have to take him anywhere by car; if he needed or wanted to go somewhere, he’d just walk. Walking afforded him the luxury of traveling alone, and in peace. No harassment from fellow students, or snide remarks from Frank.

Sometimes, on the worst days, his grandmother Elizabeth would pick him up, take him to her house for breakfast, and then deliver him to school. She had only came into his life again in the past couple of years; he vaguely remembered her, his grandfather, and his dad as a young boy, and after his mother and father divorced, she was not in his life until recently. Dakotah believed his mother and Elizabeth were on good terms, but Frank hated her, and he was forbidden to go over there for many years. One day, however, he was sick at school, and his mother and Frank were unavailable to pick him up. A nurse, who recognized his last name, contacted Elizabeth on a hunch, and she picked him up.

At first, Dakotah was wary of his grandmother; Frank had poisoned his mind with embellished stories of what kind of mean person she was. Over time, he realized those stories, as far as he was concerned, were false. More and more, Elizabeth’s house had become a refuge for him when things had become too crazy at home. She had even helped Dakotah get his driver’s permit, and taught him how to drive! However, Dakotah hadn’t been able to get his driver’s license because doing so would require him to be put on someone’s insurance. Frank wouldn’t allow it, and Elizabeth couldn’t afford it.

Since Christmas, Elizabeth had several times offered Dakotah a place to live, permanently. Each time, he refused. His mother needed him, he thought. She worked second shift at the GM plant nearby, and needed help keeping the house up, as Frank was supposedly unable to do so. If he left, who was going to help his mother?

The almost inky black sky had lightened to a steel gray; as Dakotah passed the gas station, he knew that he was on his last mile before school. Checking his watch, it read 7:30. First bell was at 8:10, so he felt everything was still on schedule. That gave him plenty of time to get to his locker, and get to his first class, World History.

Suddenly, a blast from a car horn and screeching of tires came out of nowhere, causing Dakotah to jump away from the sidewalk, and on to a city bus bench. He looked over to see a large African-American teenager exit from the car, a purple mid 70s Chevy Impala, grinning.

“Wassup, Daaa-koooo-taaaaa!?!” said the teen. “Howya like my new ride?”

“Andre?” panted Dakotah, catching his breath. “Where did you get that?”

“It’s my birthday present from my momma and my Uncle James. Got it Saturday.” said Andre, proudly. “Cool, isn’t it? I have to save some money for a good stereo, though. The previous owner kept his system.”

Dakotah could see his reflection in the huge wheels. “How are you going to keep gas and insurance in this thing?”

“Uncle James is going to have me detail cars at his car lot.” Andre replied. “He’s going to pay me real well, too.”

Dakotah looked at his watch. “Man, I’d better get moving. I’ll be late!”

“Easy, Dakotah, I’ll give you a ride. Or would you rather not want to be seen riding with a black man?” joked Andre.

“Are you sure you want to be seen with a geek white boy?” said Dakotah, grinning. “Think of your rep!”

“Well, mine is as about as bad as yours, so you might as well get in!” Andre said, also grinning.

Dakotah didn’t know Andre even had a permit, much less a license. He wasn’t sure if he could drive well; would he be putting his life on the line? Andre was one of the few true friends Dakotah had, and he trusted him.

“Well, don’t kill me, or anything, ‘Dre.” Said Dakotah, smiling. “I don’t want Frank to ground me!”

Andre laughed. “I’m not worried about Frank. It’s your mom and grandma that I’m afraid of! I wouldn’t want to incur their wrath by hurting their baby boy! I’ll make sure that we get to school safe and sound.”

It was a cold, gray, twenty degrees this morning; cold, even for Michigan standards. Dakotah had kept warm by walking quickly, but now that he had stopped, he started to feel the cold creeping in. “I guess I’ll take you up on your offer, as long as you don’t charge me fare!”

“That’s a deal!” Andre said, opening the passenger door from inside. Just one thing!”

“What’s that?” said Dakotah as he climbed in the car.

“Don’t call me ‘Dre!” shouted Andre, as both teens laughed loudly. Andre turned his left turn indicator light on, looked behind him, and to the left, and carefully pulled out into the street.

*****

The Impala, and its occupants, arrived at the school without incident, shaving about twenty minutes from Dakotah’s commute. Andre pulled the car up to the front steps, and Dakotah exited, heading to the front doors. Turning back to his friend, Dakotah yelled “Thanks for lift, buddy! I’ll see you inside!”

“See ya!” Andre yelled back.

The school building was built as a WPA project during the Depression, and showed its age. Three stories tall, it featured concrete columns, stone masonry, and drafty windows. Improvements usually came when the local economy was good; however, that hasn’t been the case for several years.

Dakotah checked his watch; it read 7:43. He was about twenty minutes ahead of schedule; he didn’t particularly care about having to set in his first period classroom for twenty minutes waiting for class to start, but Dakotah didn’t want to be a target by hanging out in the halls, either. He picked up his pace.

Being early, the halls were mostly empty. It actually felt pretty good to Dakotah to be here early, as he didn’t have to maneuver around people to get to class. Making it to his locker, he retrieved his World History book, and stuffed his overcoat inside, using a bit of force to shut the locker.

Arriving at room 135, Dakotah tried to open the door. It was locked. “Dangit!” he thought. “I hope I don’t have to wait long!” He felt very awkward and conspicuous. He checked his watch again, which read 7:51. He tried to slouch and be inconspicuous, checking his watch every thirty seconds or so.

Finally, at 7:57, Mr. Williams, the World History teacher, showed up, carrying a cup of coffee, and a newspaper. “Good morning, Dakotah. You’re here early. Do you need my help with something?”

“Oh, no.” Dakotah replied. “I just got here early, and didn’t know what else to do, so here I am.”

“Well, come on in.” Mr. Williams said, smiling. “I usually don’t have students while I have my pre-class coffee, but you’re welcome to come in, as long as you don’t make too much noise.”

“Thank you.” Dakotah said as they entered the room. Dakotah took his seat, which was usually next to a window, about half way back. He opened his textbook to the chapter they were studying, and began to stare out the window.

Mr. Williams noticed Dakotah’s actions. He took a sip of coffee, and said, “Dakotah, where are you going to college? Have you found a place you like?”

“No, not yet.” Dakotah said with a hint of embarrassment.

“Not to plug my alma mater, but Eastern Michigan is a good place to go. It’s reasonably priced, and has a good faculty. What are you going to try to study?”

“Meteorology, I guess.” Dakotah said sheepishly.

“Hmm. I’m not sure if they have anything there in meteorology. Have you talked to Mrs. Johnson?”

“Yes, but we haven’t figured out anything yet.” Dakotah replied with a shrug. He had met with the school’s guidance counselor once, but he got the feeling she wasn’t interested in helping him.

“Well, Dakotah, I wish you luck. You’ve been a pleasure to have in this class, and I’m sure you’ll do fine in college, no matter where you go.”

“Thank you.” Dakotah said with a weak smile.

“Well, it’s time to open the door, and face the day. Nice talking to you, Mr. Lennon. Come by early any time, if you want to talk.”

“Thanks.” Dakotah replied.

Mr. Williams rose from his chair, and opened the door. While the classroom was never quiet, the room erupted with a cacophony from the hallway as soon as the door opened. Boys yelling, girls giggling, the sound of feet running, all this made Dakotah wince, and withdraw. He looked at the pages in his textbook. “Expansion into the New World”, the title read.

Finally, the second bell rang, and an all-too-familiar voice pierced through Dakotah’s ears, and settled into his stomach. “Hey, faggot. Seen where you and that queer homeboy rode in on some homo hoopty.”

“I’m not gay.” Dakotah said in a low monotone, barely audible above the din of students taking their seat. “Neither is Andre.”

“Whatever, faggot, you ain’t convincing me of nothin’. Ya’ll queer to me.”

Dakotah continued to look down. “Whatever.”

Mr. Williams rose, and cleared his throat. “Okay, class, please turn to page 352, Expansion into the New World.”

*****

The hour quickly passed. Dakotah checked the clock, and being it was one minute before the bell rang, took his completed classwork, and put it into his organizer. At that instant, the bell rang. Dakotah quickly rose from his desk, and per custom, took quick, long strides out the door.

However, once Dakotah made it to the hallway, he was cut off by the boy who was sitting next to him. “Whoa, slow down, faggot.” He said, as they left the room. ”What’s your hurry? Off to see your boyfriend?”

Dakotah stopped, and stared at the boy. He was six inches shorter than Dakotah, stockily built, with a shaved head, a developing goatee, and a skull earring.

“C’mon, Tim.” Dakotah said, irritated. “I gotta go. I’m on a schedule.”

Tim pointed a finger at Dakotah. “I always thought you were gay, and now I know, after seeing you getting picked up by that queer gorilla. You’re going straight to hell!”

“Look. Dude. I am not gay, and neither is Andre!” Dakotah said forcefully. Now I have to get to Trig!”

Dakotah took a very small step to the left, and then almost instantly, took a giant stride to the right, circling around two girls. Suddenly, Tim ran up to the side of Dakotah, and slammed him into a row of lockers with both hands. His organizer and history book skidded across the floor as he crumpled to a heap.

Tim came up to Dakotah, pointed his finger at him, and shouted “You’re an abomination, and you’re going to hell!” With that, Tim stomped off.

Dazed, and staggering, Dakotah tried to catch his breath, and find his books, which were in the process of being kicked around by a couple of sophomores. Seeing his history book, he limped over and attempted to pick it up, and in the process, had his hand stepped on. Shaking his right hand, and in pain, he managed to pick the book up with his left hand. It was pretty roughed up, but still serviceable, as best as he could tell.

Looking about the hallway, Dakotah could not find his organizer. Panic started to creep into the pit of his stomach, as all his schoolwork and notes were in it and most of that was irreplaceable. Suddenly, he felt a tap on his shoulder. He spun about, and before him was a girl, holding his organizer. She had red hair, petite, and wore thick lensed glasses, which fronted a pair of deep blue eyes.

“Are you looking for this?” she said in a soothing tone, a small smile coming from her lips.

“Oh, thank you, thank you!” Dakotah gushed under a wave of relief. “I was so worried that I lost it!”

“You know, God doesn’t work that way.” The girl said in a quiet voice, barely audible above the din. “He loves everyone.”

“I know. Even Tim.” Dakotah replied simply. He then realized he was no closer to class, and checked his watch. “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh! I’m going to be late! Thank you, thank you, thank you, God bless you, I have to go!” With that, Dakotah took off, as close to a run as possible. The girl gave Dakotah a small wave, and then continued down the hallway.

Dakotah had three minutes to get to his next class, Trigonometry. His locker was close by, on the adjacent hall, but his Trig class was on a lower floor, on a different wing of the school. Darting in and out of the sea of students, he made it to his locker, opening his combination lock on the first try. “A blessing from the Lord.” He thought to himself. He quickly exchanged books, and shut his locker, locking it in one motion. Still almost at a jog, he checked his watch. He had a minute and a half before the bell was to ring, and he had a long way to go.

Mr. Griffin, the Trigonometry teacher, was not one to suffer fools, and particularly did not like students who were late for class. A write-up from him would mean a signature acknowledging the infraction would have to come from either his mother, or more likely, Frank. If the write-up wasn’t signed, he faced possible suspension from school. Dakotah put aside those thoughts, and concentrated on moving quickly.

Making it to the stairs, he skipped every second stair until he almost reached the bottom, where he jumped off the fourth from the bottom step. The hallway was now almost empty, and seeing no teachers or school officials, he began to run. He rounded the corner to the hallway where his class was held, three doors down and on the left.

He was twenty feet away from the door when the bell sounded. Reaching for the door, he tried to turn the knob, but it was locked. Breathing heavily, he knocked on the door. After what seemed an eternity, the door opened, and Dakotah was greeted by a middle aged man with thinning hair, and thick glasses. He carried a dour expression.

“Mr. Lennon, you are late.” The man said. “You know you are supposed to be here at 9:25.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Griffin.” Dakotah said with sadness. “I fell in the hallway on the way to class.”

“You should be more careful, Mr. Lennon.” said Mr. Griffin, his face remaining almost expressionless. “I’ll give you a pass, this time.” he continued, accentuating “this time”. “Now please take your seat.”

“Thank you, sir.” Dakotah replied, keeping a low tone while inside, every nerve in his body collapsed with relief.

Sitting at his desk, next to the window, halfway down the row, he felt the bruised area where he landed earlier. Dakotah gritted his teeth, and tried to not get angry. “Forgive him, for he knows not what he does.” he thought.

“Hey man, you alright? What happened?” whispered a familiar voice. Without looking over, Dakotah replied in a whisper barely audible, “I’m okay. I’ll tell you about it later.”

*****

The end of third period bell meant it was time for lunch; Dakotah usually arrived and left early, making it to class before anyone else. Today was different; he had stopped at his locker and checked his history book to see if there was any chargeable damage. Flipping through the book, he found a couple of partially ripped pages, and a page with a footprint on it, but on the whole the book was in good enough shape for him not to pay a fine when he turned it in.

As it were, he had to stand in line for lunch. Dakotah generally disliked standing in line, as people tended to want to cut in line in front of him, sometimes even pushing him out of the line, the other kids making him go to the end of the line.

Today was different, as the students in the line he was in behaved as they should. This allowed Dakotah to reflect on what happened earlier. His mind did not linger on Tim’s accusations. Occurrences like this had happened off and on ever since middle school.

The memory of the girl kept running through Dakotah’s mind, however. He had been largely ignored by the opposite sex throughout his life, unless he was being teased. This girl was not only nice to him, but she went out of her way to be kind. What did she mean about what she said? Did she think he was gay, and God loved him anyway? He hoped not!

“Hey, you! Whattaya want?” A gruff voice barked, snapping Dakotah out of his reverie.

“Oh! I’m sorry, spaghetti, please.” He replied to the lunch lady, embarrassed. She promptly plopped a large spoonful of spaghetti on his tray.

Grabbing a piece of garlic toast and a carton of milk, Dakotah dug out his wallet, and took two dollars out. His mother tried to get Dakotah on the reduced lunch program, but she had made too much money. Frank was responsible for giving Dakotah lunch money, but sometimes he “forgot”. Fortunately, his grandmother became aware of Frank’s “amnesia”, and provided backup, so Dakotah wouldn’t miss lunch.

Dakotah scanned the lunchroom for Andre. Dakotah, usually being one of the first at lunch, had his pick of empty tables to sit. No one but Andre ever sat by him. Since he arrived at lunch late, he was worried that he wouldn’t be able to find an empty table, or that Andre had already eaten, and moved on.

Dakotah found an empty table, and he also found his friend. Andre, however, was not alone, but at a table with four African-Americans. He recognized two of them as football players from his grade; the other two, he didn’t know, but they were built like football players too, so maybe they were underclassmen, he thought.

This put Dakotah in a quandary. He didn’t want to slight his friend by sitting alone at the next table, but he was uneasy sitting at the same table with Andre’s friends. Not because they were black; Dakotah had found people of color, on the whole, were nicer, at least to him, than their Caucasian brethren. The reason Dakotah was apprehensive was because they were jocks, and he was a geek. He never got along well with jocks, who were apt to show off their athletic prowess at his expense.

Andre eliminated all thinking Dakotah had on what to do, as he spotted him, and waved. “About time you showed up, my brother!” he shouted. “I saved you a spot!”

Dakotah took the seat next to Andre. Although at 6’1”, he was as tall as the others, (except Andre, who about 6’5”) his lack of muscle mass made him look like a middle school student. Andre spoke first. “Fellas, you all know Dakotah, right?”

The others at the table grunted and nodded. Dakotah managed a low ”Hey.” , heard barely above the din.

Andre continued conversing.” Hey Tulio, did you make it to the game last night?”

The senior starting linebacker looked at Dakotah. “Yeah, man. It was cool. Big Shot went off on those damned Bulls.”

Andre continued. “Man, I heard Tay got hurt. Bad?”

“Naw, Tay’s alright. Got banged up a little, kept playin’. Shot better after he got hurt.”

“It’d be bad if he missed the playoffs.” said another. “Can’t get back to the Finals without Tay.”

“Tay’s always getting banged up. That’s ‘cause he’s got that chicken-wing body.”

“Yeah, he’s almost as bony as Dakotah.” Andre quipped.

Tulio’s eyes flashed bright, and pointed at Dakotah. “Hey, we can call him Chicken Wing!” he said, laughing.

All the guys at the table laughed out loud, save for Dakotah, who looked down and shook his head slightly while forcing a weak smile.

Andre noticed the stressed look on his friend’s face. “Hey, man. You know we’re just havin’ some fun, right? Tuli didn’t mean anything by it. We’re all friends here. Right, fellas?” Andre looked around the table.

Tulio spoke up, looking at Dakotah. “Look man, if Andre says you’re cool, you’re cool by me, too. How about you guys?” Tulio looked around the table, and got a couple of nodding heads, and a “Yeah, man.” from the other.

“Well, I’ve been called worse names than Chicken Wing.” said Dakotah, smiling. A light suddenly flashed in his mind, and he checked his watch. It read 12:16. “Whoa, I gotta go see Mrs. Johnson. Guys, nice meeting you. Andre, catch you later!”

Andre stopped Dakotah. “Wait, what did you want to talk to me about?”

“Oh, it was nothing important. Later!” Dakotah took his tray and left the table.

“”Seeya, Chicken Wing!” Tulio yelled out across the lunchroom. Dakotah hurriedly waved as he left. Tulio looked at Andre. “Dude.”

“Hey, he’s gold.” Andre said. “I’d trust him with my life.”

“So when you make it to the big time, he’s going to be your bodyguard? Man, you are soooooo dead!”

The table erupted in laughter.

*****

Dakotah arrived at the administrative department of the school. It wasn’t very far from the cafeteria, so the walk was brief. He had visited here only a few times in the three and a half years or so he had been a student there. Although he was a senior, coming here was still out of his comfort zone.

Reaching Mrs. Johnson’s office, he checked his watch, and saw that he was on time. Dakotah emitted a deep sigh, partly because he wasn’t late, but mostly because he was here in the first place. He never cared for being any place where he was the main topic of discussion. Taking a deep breath, Dakotah lightly rapped on the door.

“Come in.” said a woman’s voice on the other side of the door.

Dakotah gingerly entered the room. Books upon books lined the bookcases behind the guidance counselor’s desk. Combined with dim fluorescent lighting, sunlight struggling through a small window with dark shades created a foreboding ambiance, thought Dakotah.

A small, thin woman with short dark hair was standing behind the desk. “Please have a seat, Dakotah.” She said in a monotone. Dakotah did so, beginning to feel more uneasy by the second.

“I’ll be brief, Mr. Lennon.” She said, coldly. “Why do you think you should go to college?”

The question caught Dakotah off guard. “Aaaah, s-so I could study meteorology?” he stammered.

“Here is the financial aid paperwork I gave to you to take home for your parents to fill out. There is no information on here regarding their income. How am I supposed to send this in if it’s incomplete? Do you have any idea how much they make?”

“No.” Dakotah mumbled, looking down. “I gave them the paperwork to fill out, but they never did, so I thought maybe I could do it on my own.”

Mrs. Johnson became irritated. “It doesn’t work that way. You live with your parents, right?” Dakotah nodded. “Well, if your parents made enough money, they could pay your way through college, and you wouldn’t need financial aid. If they made next to nothing, you could qualify for some, although with a 2.8 GPA, you’re not going to get many offers. The system requires that you show proof of income to prove you’re telling the truth. Do you understand?”

Dakotah nodded, dejected. The paperwork had sat on the bar counter for two months. He had tried to remind his mother to fill it out, but she never did. Frank could’ve also have filled it out, but that was a no-go.

“Mr. Lennon, although you do have good ACT scores, with your low GPA, and improperly filled out financial aid paperwork, I personally think you’re not cut out for college. I’ve seen many like you over the years. You have a dream, but you don’t have it in you to see things through. You could get student loans and take classes, but odds are you wouldn’t make it to graduation, and then you’d have to pay thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of dollars back to the banks for basically nothing. You’re better off getting a job after you graduate high school. If the dream is still there, you could save your money, and go to school in a few years. Do you understand?”

Dakotah nodded, almost imperceptibly.

Mrs. Johnson walked to the door, and opened it, handing Dakotah an excuse slip for his next class. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have several other students I need to meet with. Good day.”

Dakotah slogged out the door, and into the empty hallway, his feet feeling like lead. He felt as if all the energy in his body had left him. “Stupid, stupid!” he thought to himself. “Why did I even bother? It’s not like I was ever going to be a meteorologist, anyway.”

He thought about signing himself out, and going home, or to his grandmother’s, but he really didn’t want to hear what kind of loser he was from Frank, and he also didn’t want to get a scolding from his grandmother either. “Even when the odds are against you, and there is no hope, keep trying until the very end.” She always said.

Dakotah arrived at his locker. He retrieved his literature book, and with a sigh, slammed the locker shut, the door making an echo throughout the hallway. “Is it the very end?” he thought to himself as he began to walk to class.

*****

The smell of pizza permeated throughout the house, as Dakotah transferred a load of towels into the dryer. He and his grandmother originally planned a meal at an Italian restaurant across town, but he called her and cancelled, saying he wasn’t feeling very well. Andre, sensing something amiss, offered Dakotah a ride home, but he refused, saying that his home was in the opposite direction from the school as Andre’s, and that Andre should save his money.

Dakotah started a load of darks in the washer, and headed to the kitchen to check his pizza. Cutting lunch short to see Mrs. Johnson had left him hungry. Dakotah stopped as he entered the kitchen. There was Frank with his pizza, sliced and on a plate in one hand, and a can of beer in the other.

“Hey, that’s my pizza!” Dakotah said in dismay.

Frank turned his head, and looked at Dakotah. “No, that WAS your pizza.” He said with a smirk. “There may be another in the freezer, or not, that’s your problem. Anyway, wasn’t that old hag supposed to take you out to eat?”

“We were, but something came up.” Dakotah said in discomfort. He didn’t like to deceive people, even people like Frank.

“Whatever.” Frank said as he was leaving the kitchen to go to his study. “Don’t forget to vacuum the living room.”

Dakotah walked over to the refrigerator, and checked the freezer. There was no pizza left, only some corn dogs. He took three out, shook most of the frost off them, and put them in the microwave.
Yum, yum.” he thought sarcastically.

*****

Dakotah finished his chores, completed his homework, took a shower, and got ready for bed. Leaving only the nightstand light on, he opened his Bible to Matthew, chapter 5. Reading and studying the Bible gave him comfort when he was troubled, and tonight was no different.

He stopped at verse 22. “But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the
judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca,
shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall
say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.”

“Raca?” he thought. He’d never heard of that word before. He looked up the word in the Bible dictionary in the back. “An Armenian word of contempt, meaning empty-headed, worthless. Hmm. Sounds like me.” He thought with a sigh. With that, he placed the bookmark in the Bible, and turned out the light. Lying down, hands held together, he said a simple prayer. “Lord, look out for everyone, and please, help me to be the best I can be. Amen.”

*****

Sylvia Howe opened the door to her son’s bedroom, and peeked in. Dakotah was sound asleep. Checking the clock on the nightstand, it read 11:52. “Good.” She thought. “I’m not too late.” She took a card out of her purse, and laid it on the nightstand beside the Bible. “Happy birthday, dear.” She whispered as she kissed him on the cheek. With that, she left the room, as silently as she entered it.


Chapter 3

Chapter 3
Christmas Day, 2007

Dakotah awoke to the smell of frying bacon. Almost immediately, his stomach began to rumble, and whatever cobwebs that lingered in his head dissipated quickly. He looked about. The room was painted in a pale blue, and contained a well-worn cherry bedroom suit. The dresser and chest were both covered in knickknacks and souvenirs from trips taken in the distant past. A two toned brown braided rug partially covered the hardwood floor.

Getting up out of bed, he glanced again at the dresser. On the dresser was a large, ornate mirror, with a framed color photo of his grandfather directly in front of the mirror. Dakotah first stared at the photo, and then stared at his reflection, which was directly above the photo. Although the facial features and hair were different, the shape and color of both his and his grandfathers’ eyes were exactly the same. A chill went down his spine.

At that moment his grandmother entered the room. “You up, Dak? Breakfast is ready.” Noticing that he was next to the photo, she smiled. “Every day I see you, you remind me so much of your grandfather. Not only in your eyes, but also in the way you act.” This information did not put Dakotah’s mind at ease. The fact that not only was he wearing his grandfather’s old flannel pajamas, he also bore a resemblance to him, too, gave him the willies. He decided to vacate the bedroom for the kitchen, at once!

*****

An elaborate spread, at least for two, awaited Dakotah as he entered the dining room. Scrambled eggs, bacon, ham, sausage, biscuits, gravy, and pancakes were presented on fine china, with antique silverware. Dakotah became puzzled. “Are you expecting company? “, he asked.

“Company’s already here, Dak. You, that is! It’s been over fifteen years since I had this setting out. It was a wedding gift from my mother, and every Easter and Christmas, we’d have a big meal on this china. Having you here on Christmas morning was the perfect excuse to bring it out again!” Elizabeth was beaming, inside and out. “Normally, we’d dress up in formal attire, but since this is breakfast, and only eight AM, I’ll cut us some slack this time”, she said with a wink. “Now hurry up, and wash your hands! The food’s getting cold!”

“Yes, ma’am!”, Dakotah shouted, smiling.

*****

A stuffed Dakotah sat at the table. He’d eaten at his grandmother’s several times before, but it was usually either sandwiches, or a hamburger. The way this meal was prepared and presented was something out of a TV show, and he was impressed. “Do you need any help?”, Dakotah asked as his Grandmother cleared the table.

“No, thank you, Dak.” , Elizabeth replied. “Shouldn’t you be getting ready to go back home? It is Christmas morning, and your mother’s probably anxious for you to get back.”

“I’m in no hurry. They are probably still asleep.”, he said. Suddenly, a thought flashed in his mind. “Wait a minute! We’re supposed to have company today!”

“Really?”, she asked, curious. “Who is it, some of Frank’s relatives?” Elizabeth suspected Dakotah’s mother wasn’t on good terms with her mother, as Dakotah never mentioned her.

“Oh, no, thank goodness! I’ve had enough of his family to last a lifetime! It’s my Aunt Louise, and Uncle Ralph, from Kentucky. His house had a fire, or something, and they’re staying up here for a couple of weeks for Christmas.”

“That’s odd.”, she said. “Doesn’t he have relatives down there?”

“I’m pretty sure he does, but I think Aunt Louise missed mom and Grandma Parker, so here they are. I don’t really remember them much. They send a family photo with their Christmas card every year. They also have a son who’s a year older than me, I think, but I never had anything to do with him, either.”

“Well, at least you’ll someone to talk to today.”, Elizabeth said with a smile. “Maybe you’ll have something in common!”

“I doubt it.”, he replied, making a grimace. Dakotah knew he was pathetic, but at least he wasn’t some backwoods redneck.

“Oh, don’t be a sourpuss.”, she chided. “You know, you don’t have to turn into a recluse every time you meet someone new.”

“Okay.” Dakotah didn’t want to drag out this conversation any longer than he had to. It was his experience that once people met him, they either ignored him, or tormented him.

“Dak, you’d better go get ready; it’s almost nine. I’ll finish up here.” Elizabeth wondered if her grandson’s reluctance to meet new people was from natural shyness, or something more. “I’ll have to get him to trust people, somehow.”, she thought to herself.

*****

Dakotah came down the steps, showered, and even though he was wearing the same clothes as he did the previous night, his grandmother had laundered them for him.

“That’s my grandson!”, Elizabeth exclaimed. “Nice and neat and clean! Your grandfather would’ve been very proud!” She reached under her small Christmas tree, picked up a gift, and handed it to Dakotah. It was meticulously wrapped, and heavy. It felt like a book. “Merry Christmas, Dak!”

Dakotah gingerly tried to unwrap the present. “Go ahead and rip it, Dak! It’s just paper!”, she exhorted.

It was indeed a book. A Bible. “It’s a Scofield study Bible.”, she said. “It’ll help you understand the trickier bits. Your grandfather bought me one thirty years ago, and I use it almost every day. I’m still learning from it, too. Dak, thanks to the Lord, prayer, and lots of it, plus reading the Bible, has helped me survive all the trials and tribulations I’ve come across through the years. From my pregnancy with your father, to Harold’s passing, I’ve made it through with Jesus’ hand on my shoulder. If you give Him a chance, he’ll be there for you, too.”

“Thank you, Grandma.”, Dakotah said with a smile. “I need all the help I can get.” I wish I got you something for Christmas, but I have no money.”

“Dak, you spending the night, and having breakfast with me this morning, was the greatest gift you could give me.” , she said, wiping away a tear. “Now, you need to get on home.”

Dakotah reached out, and gave his grandmother a hug. “I love you, Grandma. Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas, Dak. I love you, too.” Dakotah put on his coat, and his rubber boots, and headed out in the bright sunlight.

*****

Five inches of snow awaited Dakotah as he stepped outside, turning the normally gritty central Michigan town into a winter wonderland. He liked all four seasons, but winter was his favorite; he spent many hours and days in his earlier youth building igloos and snowmen, throwing snowballs, and sledding down the big hill up the street. Being in the snow eased his mind, and his worries and troubles were a little farther away.

As Dakotah passed the same Nativity he saw just 12 hours previous, he remembered the despair he was in at the time, and the relative good spirits he was in now. His grandmother had lifted his spirits immensely; there were times where he wished he would just pack up his belongings and move there. He knew she’d take him in a heartbeat. However, he didn’t want to leave his mom alone, either, at least not yet. He felt Frank didn’t really care about her; Dakotah was sure that he was the only person in the world that she felt cared about her, and he wasn’t going to forsake her.

But Dakotah realized that’s exactly what he did to her last night by walking out of dinner, and he felt guilty. “How do I make it up to her?” , he said to himself. “I didn’t even get her anything for Christmas!” He knew that he couldn’t get her anything now; all the shops were closed for Christmas, and most importantly, he had no money. He could go upstairs and make a homemade Christmas card, but that seemed childish to him. “I guess I’ll figure something out when I get there.”, he thought.

Dakotah reached the block his house was on. He took a deep breath and exhaled, a cloud of steam escaping from his lips. “Well, I guess I’d better get this over with.”, he said to himself.

As he made it to the door, he smelled something cooking inside. He thought it was turkey with stuffing, but he wasn’t sure. Dakotah stepped up on the porch, gritted his teeth, and tried to turn the knob on the door. It was locked. He usually kept a keychain on him, but he realized in his haste last night, he’d left his keys upstairs. “So much for sneaking in.”, he thought. He knocked lightly on the door, and waited. There was no response, and after a minute or so, he knocked again, this time a little louder. The house was equipped with a doorbell, but it stopped working a few years ago, and Frank didn’t see fit to fix it. Still not getting a response, he banged on the door. “I’m home!”, he yelled.

Finally, there was a stirring inside, and then the sound of footsteps coming to the door. The door swung open, and his mother stood there, wearing an apron over an old pair of jeans and a t-shirt, beads of sweat covering her forehead. Dakotah managed a weak smile. “Well, look who finally decided to show up!”, his mother said loudly, a hint of irritation in her voice.

Dakotah’s eyes began to moisten. “I’m sorry, mom.” , he said softly.

Sylvia Howe’s features softened, and she began to tear up. “I’m sorry too, baby.” , she said, hugging him tightly.

“Why are you sorry, mom?”, Dakotah said, puzzled. “I’m the one who walked out.”

“It was my idea to have a Christmas Eve meal with Frank’s kids. I just wanted everyone to get along for one night.”, she replied. “Will you forgive me?”

“I’ll forgive you, if you forgive me, mom.”

“Done.”

“Done. Love you, mom.”

“Love you too, son. Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas, mom.”

“Now son, give me a hand with this meal. I need potatoes mashed, and the table set. I have a half hour to get everything finished before I have to get cleaned up and dressed. Your aunt and uncle will be here by noon, probably before that, if I know them.”

Dakotah looked around. “Where’s Frank?”

“Where else?”, his mom replied, the irritation creeping back. “In the den, playing the stupid Playstation.”

“Ah.”, he muttered. His stepfather bought himself a Sony Playstation 3 for himself for Christmas. Frank was never much help around the house, but now, his duties were nonexistent. “Dakotah needs to earn his keep.” , was his thinking on the subject.

Sylvia noticed the Bible Dakotah was carrying. “Is that your Christmas present from your grandmother? Let me see.” She inspected the Bible. “Wow, that’s really nice! Leather cover, and your name on the bottom. They even spelled your name right! Hope you get some good use out of it.”

“Me, too.”, replied Dakotah. He wasn’t expecting much from his mother for Christmas, but he was wondering. “Mom? Not to sound like a spoiled brat, but when can I open my stuff?”

“If you don’t care, I’d like to have you open your presents after my sister leaves.”, she said. “I’d like to take pictures, and I simply don’t have time now. Now get that potato masher, and get mashing.”, she said, pointing to the hand tool. “They’ll be here in a little over an hour, and I’m still a mess!”

*****
At 11:45, the table was set, and all the food was prepped. Sylvia was dressed, but getting her hair to look the way she wanted to was frustrating her. Dakotah had changed into Sunday clothes, and brushed his hair, a rarity nowadays. Frank, however, was still on the PS3. He didn’t like his sister-in-law, or her redneck husband, for that matter, so he subconsciously decided to be a jerk, which actually was pretty normal for him.

Suddenly, there was a loud banging on the door. “That’s them! Dakotah, get the door! I’ll be there in a minute!”, yelled his mother from the bedroom.

“Got it!” , Dakotah yelled back. He opened the door to see a bear of a man, all of six feet, four inches tall. Behind him, barely seen because of the big man’s size, stood a woman that resembled his mother, only older.

“Well, lookie here! You must be Dakoter! Boy, you growed up like a weed! You still growin? Remember me? I’m your Uncle Ralph!” With that, Ralph grabbed Dakotah and gave him a huge hug, enveloping him with his girth. Dakotah could barely breathe.

“Easy honey, you’re going to break him in two!”, said the woman. “Poor thing’s skin and bones! Sweetie, you come down to Kentucky with us, and we’ll put some meat on your bones!”

Dakotah finally could get enough breath to talk. “Merry Christmas, Aunt Louise! I think I’ll stay up here, thank you. Mom still needs me.”

“Just call me Lou!”, his aunt said. “I’m not much on talking formal.” Louise saw her sister exit the bedroom. “Well, there you are! Boy, you sure spent a lot of time fixing yourself up just to look like that! Look at those bags under your eyes! I don’t know what you’ve been up to, but you better stop doing it. You look like death warmed over!”

“You’re no beauty queen yourself, Lou.”, Sylvia retorted.

“Don’t I know it, sis!”, Louise said, laughing. “I’m old too, so I’m entitled to look like crap!”

“Sugar, you’re still prettier than a field full of flowers!”, boomed Ralph. “I wouldn’t trade you for any woman in the world!”

“Yeah, you’re full of something, too, you big knucklehead.”, Louise said with a smirk. There ain’t no other woman out there stupid enough to take you in, anyway!”

Ralph turned to Dakotah. “Watch and learn, boy. Here you have two sisters that ain’t seen each other in five years, and the first thing they do is size each other up.” I seen cows do it, I seen chickens do it, and women ain’t no different.

“I’m gonna pretend you’re a chicken, and wring your neck! Don’t be telling that boy stuff, and warping his mind!”, Louise sniped at her husband.

“Aw, I was just messing with the boy a lil’ bit! I don’t think he’s taking me serious, anyway. Ain’t that right, boy?”, Ralph said with a smile.

Dakotah gave Ralph a sheepish look. “No, I don’t guess so.”, he said in a low voice.

“See? He knows I’m harmless!”, Ralph said loudly. “Boy, you all right, I don’t care what your momma says!” Dakotah gave his mother a quizzical look.

Louise took Dakotah’s hand. “Sweetie, he’s just pulling your leg.” He’s always trying to stir up trouble! Ralph, try to behave for once!”

“I’ll do my best, dear.”, Ralph said. “Hey, Syl! Where’s that worthless husband of yours?” Ralph said it loud enough that Frank could hear it anywhere in the house. Loud enough that it hurt Dakotah’s ears.

On cue, Frank entered the room, stretching his fingers. “Hello, Ralph, Louise. Good to see you again.” Dakotah was surprised at how small Frank looked next to Ralph.

“Pleasure’s all yours.”, Ralph said with a smile, knowing full well that Frank was not enjoying this. “Just kidding, ole buddy. You been doing all right?”

“Can’t complain.”, Frank replied dryly. It was now his turn to watch the clock.

Ralph kept forcing the conversation. “Well, when you going back to work? You’ve been off for quite a while.”

“I’m on permanent disability.”, Frank said in an even lower tone. Doctors said my back is shot.”

“Well, I reckon.”, Ralph said, shaking his head in false pity. “If that ever happened to me, I might as well be shot and thrown into a ditch. Man ain’t worth nothing if he ain’t useful. “

Frank bristled. “I am useful. I take care of the house, and help raise Dakotah. Sylvia rolled her eyes. “Besides, my disability check helps the economy.”

“The economy’d be a whole lot better if more folks were working, and not sittin’ on their ass drawin’ a check I paid taxes on.”, Ralph continued, trying to provoke Frank. It appeared to be working, as Frank’s face began to turn crimson. Dakotah usually hated conflict, but he was starting to enjoy this.

The sisters looked at each other, and decided to defuse the situation. “I think it’s time we eat.,”, Slyvia said. ” She looked to her husband. “The rolls are about done, and I want to get them on the table before they burn. Give me a hand, will you please, honey?”

Frank gave her an angry look. “Can’t Dakotah do it? My back’s been acting up today.”

“Dakotah needs to visit with his kinfolk for a little bit. He hasn’t seen them in years.” ,She said, firmly.

“OK”. Frank grumbled, realizing that she was getting him away from Ralph. He looked at the clock over the sink as he entered the kitchen. It read 12:05. “Crap.”, he thought. He turned to Sylvia. “I don’t know how much of his BS I’m going to take.”, he muttered.

“It’ll be OK.”, Sylvia replied, putting her arm around him. “Sis is about to put her leash on him.”

Frank visualized that sentence, and chuckled. “Shock collar works for me.” With that, he started placing rolls in a wicker serving basket.

Meanwhile, Louise was giving her husband a quiet earful. “I swear, I can’t go anywhere with you. Must you always stir the pot?”

“Well, I-“

“I didn’t say you could talk!”, Louise whispered forcefully. “For crying out loud, it’s Christmas! You will behave yourself from here on out, or Ralph Jones, you’re going to regret it! Do I make myself perfectly clear?”

“Yes, ma’am.”, Ralph replied, barely audible. Dakotah swore that Ralph shrunk a foot as his wife talked.

Sylvia and Frank entered the room. “It’s ready!”, Slyvia announced.

*****

The spread wasn’t as elaborate as Dakotah’s grandmothers’, but Sylvia used her best dishes. Turkey, dressing, and all the fixings were on the menu today, and Dakotah was a little surprised his mother cooked this much, especially since she cooked last night.

Ralph was enthusiastic. “Woowee, Sylvia! Boy, I wish Lou could cook like this! I’d be 400 pounds for sure!”

Louise hit her husband on the arm. “Well, when get home from two weeks on the road, don’t be fussin’ when I give you a can a Spam, and tell you to have at it.”, she said strongly.

Ralph looked at his wife sheepishly. “Sorry, honey, I’se jus’ kiddin’.”

Sylvia cleared her throat. “Would anyone like to say the blessing?” Everyone looked about, but no one was volunteering. Frank made a crooked smile. “Hey, Dakotah! Why don’t you do it this time?”

Dakotah was aghast. He’d never had to say a blessing before, especially in front of people who were essentially strangers. His mind went blank. “Uhhhhh…”, he stammered.

“Come on honey, you can do it.”, encouraged his mother.

“Thank you, Lord.”, Ralph said in as low a voice as he could muster. Dakotah still heard it easily though, and a light popped in his head.

Dakotah cleared his throat. “Thank You Lord, for bringing us all here today to celebrate the birth of Your Son Jesus. Thank You for blessing us with this meal; may we uh, continue to ah, honor You as we live by your Son’s example. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.”

Sylvia smiled. “Great job, honey!”

Dakotah turned to his uncle. “Thanks for helping me, Uncle-“

“Just call me Unk, ‘Coter!”, Ralph said, grinning.

“OK, Unk!” Dakotah thought for a split second.”Coter?”

“Well, what do ya want me to call ya? Dakotah sounds like a high-fallutin’ name, and I don’t do anything high-fallutin’.”

“Grandma calls me Dak.”

“Well, all righty then, Dak it is!”, said Ralph at about 100 decibels. “I like it. It’s real manly. You tell the girls at school that your name is Dak, and you’ll be fightin’ them off! Hey, you got a girlfriend?”

Dakotah’s mind went into vapor lock. “Uuuhhhh…. not at th-this time.”, he stammered.

“Hah!” More than likely he dies a virgin!”, Frank sniped. “What girl would even be caught dead with this geek, unless it was a geek girl?”

Louise stared daggers at Frank. “Not everyone is a horndog, like some people I know, Frank.”, she said forcefully. It’s rather refreshing to know that there are still nice shy boys in this world. Boys with moral standards.”

“Well, knock me over! I’da never guessed you liked shy moral boys with high standards! Why’d ya marry me then?”, Ralph said with a wink.

“Because, you, my love, are an entirely different force of nature!”, Louise said, laughing.

“Force of nature, eh? Well, I reckon I’ll show you what kinda force of nature I am, later!” Ralph was now grinning, but his face was turning a little red, as was Dakotah’s.

“The force of nature I was referring to was gas.”, Louise said bluntly. Everyone laughed; even Frank chuckled a little.

“Aunt Lou, does that mean you married Unk because he farts a lot?”, quipped Dakotah. The room became quiet, and everyone stared at Dakotah. “Oh my gosh,” Dakotah thought,”Did I say something wrong? I was only trying to say something funny, and I might’ve made them mad!”

Instead, the room exploded in laughter. “Dak, you ain’t right, but I like you anyway!”, said Ralph, wiping tears from his eyes.

“So, the truth comes out at last.”, Frank said with a smile. “Not that any of us were surprised, you know.”

“Worst kept secret in Kentucky.”, grinned Louise. Thought the EPA would come and arrest us both! Forget about us owning small birds! Pet store thought we were running a coal mine!

“And you’re still with me, after all that. That’s why I love you so.”, deadpanned Ralph.

“Anyway, I guess Dylan wanted to stay in Kentucky?”, said Sylvia, wanting to change the subject. “How’s he doing?”

“Oh, he’s fine.”, Louise replied. “He decided he’d rather stay at home with Ralph’s folks for Christmas. “

“Is he working or going to school?”, asked Frank.

“He ain’t doing much of nothin’ right now.”, Ralph said, with a bit of irritation. “Not much work around our parts. Too young yet to drive a truck, but I don’t think he’d want to do that, anyway. He started tech school this fall, but he dropped out after a month. He ain’t figured out what he wants to do with his life yet, he says. I hope he’ll figure it out soon. His mama’s got a bad habit of babying him.”

Louise gave Ralph a dirty look. “I don’t baby him.”, she said, sharply. “He’s just unsure of himself, that’s all. We’re working on him, both of us, and his grandparents. He’ll be just fine. You weren’t exactly the prize pig yourself when you were his age, honey.”

Frank decided to dig at Dakotah again. “That sounds like someone here, doesn’t it, Dakotah?” Sylvia snapped her head and stared angrily at her husband.

Ralph interrupted as Sylvia was beginning to speak. “So, Dak, what are you gonna do when you graduate high school? I bet you could go to college and get a degree!”

“I think I’d like to become a meteorologist.”, Dakotah replied with a low tone. Sylvia and Frank’s jaws dropped. They’d never heard Dakotah say he was interested in anything.

“All right! Well, ain’t that just too cool!”, boomed Ralph. “Ol’ Dak wants to be a weatherman! Well, I reckon you got the smarts to be one!”

“News to me.”, Sylvia said, frowning. “You’d think that someone would share something important like that with his mother.”

“Oh, sorry, mom. I just figured that out last night.”

“So, did your grandmother come up with this idea?”, asked Frank, irritated.

“No, I figured it out on my own.”, Dakotah said simply. “It sounds like fun, figuring out what the weather’s going to do.”

“We’ll talk about that later.”, Sylvia said, flummoxed. “Lou, when are you going to get your new house?”

At first Louise wanted to give Dakotah support for making a decision on his career, but seeing Frank’s and Sylvia’s faces, changed her mind. “Should be here sometime in early January.”

“Always wanted a doublewide, and now we’re going to get one, with a ten year warranty, and everything!”, Ralph said happily. Tilting windows, drywall, garden tub, and the works! I’ll have to figure out how to get Lou to do something instead of soaking all day in that tub!”

“Hah! You’re the one who’s going to be soaking his hemorrhoids!”, Louise shot back. It’s going to be a blessing, after being at Ralph’s mama and daddy’s place for the past three months.”

“Did they ever figure out what happened to the old trailer?”, asked Frank.

“Not really, all they came up with was that it started in the kitchen. Thank goodness no one was at home when it happened.”, replied Louise.

“Thank goodness.”, agreed Sylvia.

Ralph spied a shoebox sized present under the Christmas tree. “Hey Frank, did you get me a Christmas present? You know, if I’da known you were going to go through all the trouble, we could’ve stopped at Wal-Mart, and got you a gift card, or a can of beenie weenies, or something.”

“It’s not yours.”, Frank said, coldly. “Actually, it’s Dakotah’s.”

“Why ain’t ya opened it yet, Dak?” Ralph said, slightly puzzled.

“Oh, I was going to wait until you left.”, Dakotah replied.

“Oh, don’t wait on us!”, said Louise, with authority. “Go ahead, open it!”

Dakotah looked at his mother, who gave him an affirmative nod. He took the present, ripped open the paper, and lifted the lid to the box. Inside were brightly colored flat objects.

“What is that, Dak? Looks like movies.”, said Louise.

“TV shows, mostly. Anime, to be exact.”, replied Dakotah.

“Looks like cartoons to me!”, said Ralph, at only 80 decibels this time.

“They are. Japanese cartoons.”, replied Dakotah, feeling slightly embarrassed.

“They pretty funny?”, continued Ralph. “I like Bugs Bunny and Speedy Gonzalez!”

“No, these are more action oriented, with swords and guns and stuff.” You might like them.”, said Dakotah, uneasily. Having strangers checking out his Christmas present made him feel awkward.

“Didn’t know you could understand Japanese.”, said Louise, impressed. Did you learn it at school?

“No, the shows have English subtitles. All you have to do is read.”, said Dakotah, sheepishly.

“Is that all you got? What did your grandmas get you?”, asked Louise.

“Grandma Lennon gave me a Scofield Bible. Pretty nice, too.”, said Dakotah.

“You actually read the Bible?”, Louise said, with a bit of surprise.

“Yeah, it helps me, sometimes.”, Dakotah replied, with a bit of embarrassment. He was the center of attention, and he did not like it one bit.

Sylvia and Frank looked at each other as if an alien had abducted Dakotah, and replaced him.

“What about your Grandma Cathy? Did you get your card?”, continued Louise.

Dakotah looked at his mother and stepfather, neither of which was making eye contact with anyone. “No, I never got anything. Was I supposed to?”

Louise raised an eyebrow. “That’s odd. She sent out all of cards a week ago. Anyway, here’s a little something from us.” She handed Dakotah an envelope.

“Open it up, Dak!”, said, Ralph, back up to 90 decibels again. “Ain’t much, but it’s better than a hole in the head!”

Dakotah opened the envelope, which contained a card with Santa Claus and Rudolph waving. Inside was a $20 bill.

“Thank you!”, said a grinning Dakotah. “I wish I had something to give you back!”

“Well, just don’t use it to get into trouble, and we’ll call it even.”, said Ralph with a goofy smile.

*****

The Christmas meal was finished, and Dakotah was helping the ladies clear the table. Ralph was in the living room watching a basketball game, while Frank had excused himself to go to the bathroom, which had access to the den.

“Hey, Dak!”, Ralph bellowed out. “That there’s women’s work! Come on in here, and watch the ball game with me!”

Louise yelled back. “Dakotah’s doing what a real gentleman’s supposed to do, unlike some people I know.”

“Do you two always carry on like this?”, Sylvia asked her sister.

I’ll have to admit, he more rambunctious that I’ve ever remembered.”, replied Louise. “I think the house burning down has bothered him more than he lets on. He’s a very independent, take-care-of-business kind of man, and having to rely on his folks, and being at the mercy of the insurance company, has worn him down.”

“Sounds rough.”, Sylvia said sympathetically.

“It has been, but we’ll make it through. I have total faith in Ralph. He’s a good man, even though he can be a total mess!” Louise turned to Dakotah “Dak, why don’t you go and keep your uncle company. You’re about the closest thing to a man he’s been around all week.”

Dakotah nodded and went into the living room. Louise then turned to her sister. “Sly, why don’t you ever talk to your mother anymore? When was the last time you two had a meaningful conversation?”

Sylvia frowned. “I guess right after Dad died. We got into it about Frank, and she told me as long as he was around, don’t bother talking to her.”

“Momma says different.”, Louise retorted. “She told us that you told her to stay out of your life, and Dakotah’s.”

“She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. She’s probably getting Alzheimer’s or something.”, Sylvia said nervously.

“Seemed pretty with it this past week.”, Louise replied with disgust.

“How would you know how she is from day to day? You’ve been gone the past twenty years!” Sylvia was really trying not to attract attention.

“Unlike you, I talk to her over the phone several times a week.”, Louise replied, indignant. “Whatever. So, let me ask you this. Where’s Dakotah’s money?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. What money?”

“The money Momma’s been sending him every year on his birthday, and on Christmas.”

“Never got anything.”

“Nothing.”

“Nope.”

“That’s funny, she never forgot Dylan.”, Louise felt like her sister was more of a stranger than a sister. “He got twenty dollars every birthday, and Christmas.”

“Well, like I said, she’s not as friendly with us, as she is with you.”

“Well, like I said, we saw her put the money in the card, and we ourselves put the card in the post office box, along with Dylan’s. Now, are you going to say I have Alzheimer’s, too?”

“And like I said, we never got the card. Maybe it got lost. Post office does it all the time.”

“You know, it’s really interesting that Dylan got his card two days ago, after travelling 600 miles, yet a card mailed at the same time, from the same place, can’t travel four miles in a week?”

Sylvia shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know.”

“I don’t know, either.” Louise turned to the living room. “Ralph! You about ready to go? Momma’s going to have dinner done soon.”

“Heck, I ain’t even got Sylvia’s fine cooking settled down yet!”, Ralph hollered back.

“I’m sure you’ll make room. You always do.”, Louise replied, trying to smile. Without Sylvia looking, she pointed to Dakotah, and then pointed toward the door.

“Hey, hold up!” Ralph was at 100 decibels again. “I ain’t showed Dak our new pick’em up truck! C’mon boy, and grab your coat! You ain’t gonna believe what all’s in this truck! You can even watch your Jap cartoons in it! Grab one of them discs!”

Dakotah was both excited and apprehensive. He wasn’t sure if his uncle would like anime or not. “Are you sure?”

“Heck yeah!” I wouldn’t have said it if I didn’t mean it! Now git!” Dakotah ran up the stairs.

Louise turned to her sister. “Thanks for having us. Food was really good.”

“Maybe we’ll do this again, sometime?”, Sylvia asked.

“Maybe.”, replied her sister. She gave Sylvia a hug. “Love you. Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas. Love you, too. Ralph, Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas, Syl.” Ralph took a deep breath, and yelled with all his might, “Merry Christmas, Frank! Are you stuck? If you want me to, I’ll call 911!”

From the den, Frank said, “No, I’m good. Merry Christmas!”

Dakotah came down the steps with a DVD. “I’m ready.”

“Good deal!” Ralph showed Dakotah the key fob for the truck. “See this here button? If I push it, the truck will start itself! I already did it a few minutes ago, and the truck should be getting warm inside!”

“Cool!” replied, Dakotah, impressed.

“Well, let’s go, then!”

Outside was a big black truck. It had four doors, chrome wheels and bumpers, a 6″ lift kit, offroad lights on top, and black and stainless steel step bars on the side.

“Whoa, this is cool!” Dakotah said, impressed.

“You ain’t seen nothin’! Wait’ll you get inside!” Ralph was beaming proudly. “Dak, if you would, get in the back!”

Dakotah did as he was told. “Here, gimme that DVD!”, Ralph ordered. “Reach up there, and pull down that screen!” Dakotah saw what looked like the top half of a laptop pressed against the roof. He reached and pulled, the TV screen pivoting down. Ralph turned the volume knob fully clockwise. “Watch this!”, Ralph yelled.

Suddenly, the theme song to Dragonball Z was booming through the speakers. For once, he couldn’t hear Ralph. After about thirty seconds, Ralph turned the volume down. Dakotah’s ears were ringing.

“How’dya like that?”, asked Ralph, grinning. “Boy, you need one of these systems in your bedroom! Guaranteed to drive your mother and Frank nuts!”

“No, thank you, Unk. I’d like to be able to keep hearing when I’m old.”, Dakotah said with a smile.

“Dak, can you hear me?”, asked Louise. “I was wondering, does your Grandma Lennon still live in the same house she used to?”

“Yes, she does. Why?”

“Well, I was wondering. Your grandma Cathy sold her house, and moved into a two bedroom condo when your grandpa George passed. Supposed to be cheaper living, that way.”

“No, she still has the house. I help out during the summer with mowing and other chores around the house.”

“That’s good to know that she’s able to make it work, especially with your help. You’re a fine young man, Dakotah.” Louise pointed her finger at Dakotah. “Don’t anybody tell you any different, you hear?”

“Yes, ma’am. You’re not the first to tell me that.”

“Well, I guess we’d better get going.” Louise took the DVD out, put it the case, and handed it to Dakotah. “Remember one thing, Dakotah. If you ever need a place to stay, our door is always open.”

“I’m pretty sure I won’t need it, but thank you.”

“We love you, Dakotah. You take care of yourself, and Sis, you hear?”

“Love you too. I’ll do that.” Dakotah felt odd about telling people he barely knew he loved them, but they were his relatives, after all.

Dakotah was about to exit the truck when a huge hand reached across the seat and grabbed Dakotah’s arm, freezing him.

“Dak, I almost forgot to tell you something real important!” Ralph spoke as if the stereo volume was maxed out, making Dakotah wince.

“What is it, Unk?”

“Make sure you wrap that rascal!”, Ralph said with a huge grin. Louise rolled her eyes, and covered them with her hand, shaking her head. Dakotah gave Ralph a blank stare.

Louise punched Ralph in the arm, hard. “He doesn’t know what that means, Ralph! Do you, Dak?”

“Ah, no. Never heard of that phrase before. What does it mean?”

Ralph couldn’t resist. “Well, you could ask your momma or Frank. Maybe they’ll tell you.”

Immediately, Louise hit Ralph again in the arm, harder. “Don’t listen to him, Dak! He’s just trying to cause trouble!”

“I wasn’t going to let him leave with the possibility of him actually asking them.”, Ralph said, rubbing his arm. “I was just kidding around, Dak.”

Dakotah spoke up. “I guess whatever Unk said was bad?”

“Yes.”, replied Louise. “You’re a sweet and innocent young man. Please try to stay that way.”

Ralph piped in. “Yeah, Dak, you all right.” Ralph offered his hand, and Dakotah shook it. “Take care, ‘ol buddy.”

“You too, Unk. Lou.”

With that, Dakotah exited the truck. He looked about, and noticed it was starting to snow. “Cool.”, he thought. The blast of a pair of air horns pierced the otherwise serene scene as Ralph and Louise Jones pulled out of the driveway, waving. Dakotah waved back.

*****

Dakotah looked out of his bedroom window. It was snowing heavily now. “Maybe another six inches tonight.”, he thought.

He looked down at the DVD player. He had watched a couple of episodes of the anime his mother had got him for Christmas. “This has been a pretty good Christmas, after all.”, he thought.

There was a knock on the door. “Dakotah? Can I come in?”, asked his mother.

Dakotah opened the door, and his mother came in and sat in the chair by his desk. “Do you like your shows?”, she asked.

“Oh yeah, they’re really cool. Thank you!”

Sylvia nodded her head, and smiled. “You know, you really surprised us when you said you wanted to be a meteorologist. Why do you want to be one?”

Dakotah thought for a few seconds. Well, I like the weather, and learning about weather. Maybe I can help someone from getting stuck in a snowstorm, or something.”

“You know you have to go to college for that, don’t you?”

Dakotah looked down. “Yeah, I know.”

“Son, I’m not going to tell you can’t do it, but you’re only a C average student. I doubt you can get very many scholarships with those grades. You know we can’t afford to help you with any schooling, don’t you?”

“Yes.”, Dakotah muttered.

“About the only way you can get through college is either to work your way through, or join the military, and get the G.I. Bill.”

“I really don’t want to join the military, mom.”

“Well, maybe you can figure something out. Go get some sleep. Tomorrow we take down Christmas decorations.” Sylvia kissed Dakotah on the forehead. “Good night, son.”

“Good night, mom.” Sylvia left the room, turning the light out as she left.

Dakotah looked out the window at the falling snow. His eyes moistened. “There’s got to be a way.”, he thought.


Chapter 2

Chapter 2
Christmas Eve Night, 2007

“You want any more, Dak?”, Elizabeth Lennon asked her grandson.

“No, Grandma,” Dakotah replied. “I’m stuffed, as always.”

“Good! Then you’ll have plenty of energy for Lennon Family 101!”, she said with a grin. Thirty years of teaching kids gave her plenty of insight on how to keep kids mentally involved in what she was teaching.

“Lennon Family 101?”, Dakotah said warily, as he was unsure if she was kidding him, or did she actually have a family history book?

“Well, maybe not exactly. I could show you the genealogical research that takes our family tree back to England in the 1480s, but this is not what I had in mind right now. What I’m going to talk about is how you specifically got to where you are now. I’m afraid that some of it is my fault.”, she said sadly.

“No way!”, Dakotah shouted in surprise. “You couldn’t hurt anyone!”

“Sweetie, I’d never hurt you willingly. I would give my life for you. But sometimes, you can hurt someone through kindness. I’ll explain.”

Elizabeth took a deep breath. “I’ll start this by asking a question. What do you want to do with the rest of your life?”

Once again, Dakotah was blindsided. “I-I-I don’t know.”, he stammered. “I mean, they have Career Day at school, but nothing there interests me.”

“Is there anything at all that interests you? What do you like doing? What would you want to do?” Elizabeth had never heard her grandson ever say anything that interested him as a career. Not even when he was very small, when asked, he never had an answer.

“Warcraft.”, he said, half-jokingly.

“What? What is Warcraft? You mean, join the military? Oh, Honey, I don’t know.“ She was immediately worried, as the current United States involvement in two wars could possibly put her only grandchild’s life in danger.

“No, Grandma,” Dakotah replied, sensing her dismay. “Warcraft is a video game. No way would I join the military. Well, I would if we were being invaded or something.”

Elizabeth was at once relieved and concerned. “Dak, you can’t spend your life playing video games. I know that seems to be your stepfather’s profession, but it’s not what I call a career choice. Haven’t you ever dreamed of doing something cool for a living?”

“Grandma said “cool”. Weird.”, he thought.

Suddenly, he had an inspiration. “I’d like to be a weather guy.”, he replied.

Elizabeth raised an eyebrow. “A meteorologist?”

“Yeah, that would be, ah, cool!”, he said with a small smile. “Nobody would want a freak like me on TV telling the weather, though.”

Elizabeth scowled. There were times she could go down to her ex daughter-in-law’s house, and take a baseball bat to both her and her husband. She leaned over, put her hands on his shoulders, and looked him in the eyes, her face only a foot from his. “I’m going to tell you this one time, young man. YOU…..ARE……NOT……A…..FREAK!”, she said, forcefully. “I’m not saying this because I’m your grandmother, either. I’ve had thousands of kids come through my classroom doors over the years, and as a retired professional, I can honestly say that you are not close to being a freak. Dak, for years, I’ve wished your mother would sign over custody of you over to me, if for no other reason than to give you a place to live away from that pig your mother married. She never would, and since she had a job, and you weren’t physically abused, I couldn’t take her to court.”
“But you were emotionally abused.”, she continued, straightening her back. Honey, you are a kind and loving person, who wouldn’t knowingly hurt anyone. You remind me in a lot of ways of your Papaw Harold, God rest his soul. However, you are also gullible, and believes whatever anyone that you trust says. Why you would trust him, anyway?”

Dakotah thought for a minute, unsure of what to say. “Well, I was always taught to respect my elders. You’ve even said that.”, he said, softly.

Her eyes softened. “Honey, this is true, to a point. If someone who truly loves you and wants what’s best for you gives you sage advice, that’s one thing. They only want you to be the best you can be. However, breaking your spirit by calling you names and belittling you is abuse, and they don’t care what’s best for you. All they want is to put you in your place.”

“And another thing.”, she continued. “Let me ask you this. Did your mother ever stop Frank from tearing you down? Did she ever say anything to you to set things straight?”

“N-no, I don’t think so.”, Dakotah said in a low voice.

“I’m sorry, sweetie.”, Elizabeth said, sadly. “If your mother let Frank abuse you like that without either her giving him what for, or setting the record straight afterward, then she’s no better than he is.”

“But Mom loves me!”, yelled Dakotah vociferously. “I know she does!”

“Of course she does, in her own way.”, Elizabeth said in an even tone. “Let me ask you a question. What does a mother bear do when her cubs are threatened?”

“She attacks whatever’s after her cubs.”, he replied.

“So why wasn’t Frank ripped to shreds?”, Elizabeth shot back. “Because her wanting him there overrode her need to take care of you properly.”

She sighed, and took a deep breath. “Look, Dak, I’m really sorry I had to dump all this on you now. I wish I could’ve been there more when you were younger, and put a stop to all this nonsense. However, your father didn’t get along with your grandfather, so you all stayed away most of the time, except for Christmas. After your father left your mother, and Frank came in to the picture, I almost never saw you. Unfortunately, that was about the time your grandpa was diagnosed with cancer, so all of my time was used between taking care of him, and work, since I was still teaching. “

She gave him a hug, patting him on the back. He resisted for a split second, but hugged her back. This was out of his comfort zone, as he almost never received any affection or closeness at home. Frank would always chide his wife for “babying” her son.

Tearfully, she looked into her grandson’s eyes. “Dakotah, even though I haven’t been there for you in person, there has never been a day where I haven’t been on my knees, and prayed for you.”

Dakotah began to tear up, as well. “I love you, grandma.” Grabbing a tissue, he said, “Grandma, do you think I could have another piece of pie?”

“Absolutely.”, she said, smiling.

*******

“Grandma?”, Dakotah said, about to take his last bite, “What about this Lennon 101 thing? Weren’t you going to tell me about that?”

Elizabeth looked at her grandson, and smiled. “We did get sidetracked there, didn’t we? You have to forgive us old folk sometimes, we change the subject without even knowing it!”, she laughed.

She reached into a bookshelf, and took a photo album out of it. Dakotah could tell it was very old, as it was well worn. “Someday, I need to transfer all these photos in a new album.”, said Elizabeth. “This one here has about lived out its usefulness. Don’t want to lose any photographs!”

She flipped a few pages, and smiled, wistfully. She carefully peeled back the clear plastic page cover, and gently pulled off a photograph that was stuck slightly to the page. The black and white photograph was of a young man in an Army dress uniform. His eyes showed a person of seriousness, and a sense of purpose.

“This”, she continued, “is your grandpa Harold after he made it through boot camp. When I first met him, he was every bit as skinny as you are, but the Army put some meat on his bones! I almost didn’t recognize him!”

“Did he fight in any wars?”, asked Dakotah.

“Oh, no, we were lucky in that regard.”, Elizabeth replied. “He went in during that “sweet spot” between Korea, and Vietnam. The most action he saw was when their car got stuck in a ditch in France! He worked as a mechanic, and did maintenance on tanks.”

Dakotah spotted another black and white photo of a young lady. She wore her hair in a poodle cut, and had a long strand of pearls around her neck. The gown she wore was of pink taffeta, and very elegant. “Is this you, grandma?”, he asked.

Yes, that’s me.”, she replied. “I remember that night well. That was the night he proposed to me. I was a sophomore in college that year, and he was about to be shipped out to France. At the time, it was the longest year of my life! We were married when he returned, and used his G.I. Bill to get this very house. Those were good times.”, her voice softening in remembrance.

“To continue, life was good for the two of us. He used his skills to get a job at the old Dodge plant up the road. You wouldn’t remember it, as it’s no longer there. I earned my teaching certificate, and accepted a position teaching second graders. We wanted three or four kids, but we decided I should work a couple of years so we could save up some money to pay the house down, and buy a new car for me.”

“Right on schedule, I became pregnant. Of course, it was to be your father. We had everything ready; all we needed was to know whether it was going to be a boy or a girl, and back then, you didn’t find out until the baby was born!”, she laughed.

Suddenly, her face changed to a frown. “Unfortunately, we could’ve used modern medicine to treat the complications of the pregnancy. I started having a lot of pain, and I also began to spot blood. We were afraid that I was going to lose the baby, so the doctor told me to stay in bed for the last four months before your father was born. Waiting on your father to come home from France was a walk in the park compared to this!”

“Finally, it was time for the baby to be born, and the doctor decided to go with a c-section. It was still three weeks early, but we couldn’t wait any longer. Fortunately, the only thing wrong with your father was that his birth weight was a little low, about five pounds. As for me, the doctor found issues with my reproductive organs, so he did a complete hysterectomy on me. Needless to say, I was heartbroken.”

“However, I still had your father, and he was healthy! Here’s his newborn picture.” She pointed to a small baby lying in a bassinet. The color photograph had faded some, and had a yellowish tint. “I thanked the Lord for blessing me with a healthy baby, and stopped feeling sorry for myself. I had a baby to raise! And so I did! It wasn’t very long before he was a little butterball!”, she said, smiling. She pointed to a cherubic baby boy in a sailor outfit. “Your grandfather hated this outfit on him. He wanted him in an Army outfit, but I told him they didn’t make Army clothes for babies, and besides, the blue in the sailor uniform matched his eyes!” Dakotah squinted. Everything in the photo was faded to the point that he couldn’t tell the color of his father’s eyes, or the striping in his outfit.

Elizabeth turned a couple of more pages in the album. The colors in the photos were still a little off, but they were mostly clear, if a little out of focus. She pointed to a boy wearing plaid bell-bottoms, and a canary yellow shirt. “Man, I’m glad I didn’t have to wear THAT!”, thought Dakotah, shuddering internally. The boy was holding a trophy. “This was when he was chosen the best student of 5th grade. He made a perfect score in every test he took that year.”

“He was really smart, wasn’t he, Grandma?”, asked Dakotah, a little curious.

“Today, he would be classified as gifted.” , she replied. Of course, there weren’t any programs for exceptional students while he was in school. In a way, those high grades worked against him, because over time, he became lazy, as his accomplishments were achieved with very little effort. I could’ve given him extra work myself, but at the time, I didn’t think it was necessary. Maybe I should’ve, but it’s too late, now.” She stared at the floor.

Seeing his grandmother this way saddened Dakotah, too. “I don’t think it’s your fault things turned out the way they did.”

“Of course it is.”, she said, wiping away a tear. Let me explain. Your grandfather and I grew up during the end of the Depression, and two wars. We didn’t go hungry, but both our parents had to pinch every penny to make ends meet. As kids, we took odd jobs for literally dimes and quarters. When your father was born, we decided that he was never going to have to go through all that. He was only going to get the best we could give him, thinking that a life without worry would free his mind to excel.”

“We sent him to one of the best private schools in the state, where he learned French, and took piano lessons. Every time he earned an “A”, we bought him a reward. It seemed that it was working, because he excelled in every class he took. We were thrilled. Christmas brought a dozen presents under the tree, and his birthday parties were the talk of the neighborhood. Harold worked a lot of overtime, and I took a couple of extra cleaning jobs a week, in addition to my teacher’s salary, to pay for it all, but it was worth it, or so we thought.”

Dakotah was stunned. “Not even the so-called rich kids in the neighborhood are treated this well.”, he thought to himself.

“Of course, we didn’t know it at the time, but we were building a house of cards.”, Elizabeth continued. “All of our plans for your father were financed through our labor. Unfortunately, in the late 1970s, the country, and especially this region, was hard hit by recession. The Dodge plant started laying off people, and although Harold wasn’t laid off, the people I cleaned for were, so I lost those jobs. The school I worked at started cutting back, and I was reduced to part-time work.”

“We didn’t have very much money in savings, so that dried up quickly. We had bought your father a new car earlier in the year, so that had to go, too.”

“You bought dad a new car when he was in high school?”, Dakotah exclaimed. Not only did he not have a car, he only had a permit, and only because Elizabeth had taken him down to the DMV to take his written test.

“Oh, it was nice, too. A 1978 Dodge Aspen. It had bucket seats and a V8 engine in it. Your grandfather even helped install the headliner on it, since it came off the same assembly line that he worked. Good thing the judge we had at the time was friendly with Harold at the local AMVETS, because your father accumulated quite a few speeding tickets! They got him for doing 112 once, I think. They should’ve taken his license, but all they gave him was three points, and a trip to traffic school. We sold it soon after that, though.”

“Finally, Chrysler announced they were going to shut the Dodge plant down. We had to cash out the savings we had for your father’s college fund, in order to pay off the house. With my meager income, plus his unemployment, we were able to squeak out a living.”

“What did grandpa do for a living after that?”, asked Dakota, with concern.

“He got a job at a gas station, fixing cars, and doing service on them.”, his grandmother replied. He didn’t make the money he had when he was at Dodge, but we were able to put food on the table, and keep the lights on.”

“I bet dad didn’t like having his car sold, and stuff!”, said Dakotah.

“What hurt him terribly was when we had to stop his private schooling, Dak.”, replied Elizabeth. “Nowadays, we probably would’ve home schooled him, but that wasn’t an option back then. He didn’t adjust to public school life very well; he thought he was better than anyone there, including the faculty.”

“But didn’t he realize that you were also a public school teacher?”, Dakotah asked, puzzled. The irony of the situation was not lost on him. “He should’ve given them more respect.”

“I’m glad you feel that way, Dak.”, Elizabeth said, smiling. “You have a sensitive heart. Reminds me of your grandpa Harold. I’m positive he would’ve loved you very much.”

Dakotah felt warm inside.

Elizabeth continued. “Soon, your father started getting into fights, usually getting whipped. He was prideful and stubborn, and didn’t want to make any friends. It seemed that we had inadvertently created a monster.”

“Monster?”

“We had filled his head with so many notions of him being this ultimate kid that he believed that everyone was beneath his contempt. We, unfortunately, didn’t tell him to how to be humble, or give people respect. We ourselves did, of course, but we assumed incorrectly that leading by example would work in this case. Our emphasis on raising him was making sure he was happy, and that he was going to succeed. However, he felt that society in general, and us in particular, had failed him, so he lashed out at everyone, me and your grandfather included.”

Dakotah felt unsure. Disappointment was a way of life with him. His father had life kick him in the teeth, but at least he should’ve realized his parents loved him. “I guess I don’t understand why he would be mad at everybody. It wasn’t anyone’s fault that he had to go to public school, or that he lost his car or his college fund.”

“Remember what I said earlier and pain and suffering building character?”, Elizabeth replied, patiently. “Your father never had to suffer at anything, and your grandfather and I made sure of that. When things got rough, he didn’t know how to cope, so he lashed out, like a three year old that had his favorite ball taken from him.”

“So, what happened next? He graduated high school, didn’t he?”

“Yes, Dak, but he didn’t make it easy. At the first school, he was first suspended, then expelled, for fighting and truancy. I went to the school board, pulled a few strings, and enrolled him in the high school next to the middle school where I taught, so I was able to keep better tabs on him.”

“Before Harold’s layoff, we had planned on visiting Northwestern, Purdue, and Notre Dame. They all were very interested in him, even talking about offering him scholarships, as he had the qualities they were looking for. However, the subsequent expulsion changed all that, and the offers stopped. An old Army buddy of Harold learned of our situation, and offered your father a co-op spot at General Motors Institute, if he graduated high school.”

“What’s General Motors Institute?”, asked Dakotah, his interest piqued.

“Now, it’s called Kettering University, but back then it was called General Motors Institute.”‘ replied Elizabeth. “Back then, it served as a training ground for engineers with General Motors. You would study for twelve weeks, and then work on the assembly line for twelve weeks. When you earned your degree in five years, you worked for G.M. as an engineer for a set time.”

“Sounded like a good deal to me. What happened next?”

Well, for the first three months, he did well, as his group started off in the classroom. He ultimately wanted to be an architect, but the classes he took at the Institute were pretty close to what he would’ve taken at one of the more prestigious universities, so he was in good spirits. Unfortunately, he was unprepared emotionally for his turn on the assembly line. The foremen there treated him like they would treat any man on the line; if he didn’t do the job to their specifications, they let him know it! Needless to say, he didn’t handle it very well, and dropped out of the program in less than a month.”

“Your grandfather and I were exasperated, and didn’t know what to do with him, or for him. For about a year, he didn’t do a whole lot; he ran around with his buddies, or stayed in his room, and listened to music. We decided to just support him the best we could, and let him figure it out. Harold got him a part time job pumping gas, and although he didn’t care for it, he had some cash in his pocket every week, and that lifted his spirits a little.”

“Eventually, the economy improved, and General Motors announced they were building a new plant where the old Dodge plant stood. Your father took a test, and was hired on the spot. Harold could’ve been hired, too, but he enjoyed working on cars, and the camaraderie with customers, so he stayed at the gas station until he was diagnosed with cancer.”

“Funny how he turned his nose up at working at an assembly line, only to do the same thing a few years later.”, noted Dakotah.

“Your grandfather and I wished your father’s future would’ve involved college, a white collar career, and all the benefits that come with it, but we were unable to impose our wishes on him. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Elizabeth looked into her grandson’s eyes. “Dakotah, what have you learned tonight?”

Grinning, he said, “That you can cuss?”

Elizabeth lightly smacked him on the back of the head. “Seriously, Dak. Did you learn anything, or did you let it go in one ear, and out the other?”

“I guess, if you want to get what you want out of life, you will probably have to work hard, and fight for it.”

“Not bad. There may be hope for you, yet!”, Elizabeth said with a smile. “Now, I ask of you again. What do you want to do with your life?”

“I don’t really know. The weatherman thing was just something off of the top of my head.”, he said with a shrug.

“Well, I’m going to help you find out. I can’t put you through college, but I can help you figure out what you want to do, and give you all the moral support necessary in order for you to succeed. However, YOU are the one that has to do the heavy lifting, so to speak.”

“Grandma?”

“Yes dear.”

“How did mom and dad meet?”

“That my boy,”, she said, laughing, “is a story for another day!” It’s late, and it’s time for bed! If Santa catches you up, he won’t leave you any presents!”

Dakotah headed off to the spare bedroom. “Grandma?”

“Yes, Dak?”

“I love you.”

“I love you, too. More than you could ever imagine.” She walked over to him, and kissed him on the cheek. “Now get some sleep. Tomorrow is a big day!.”

 


Chapter 1

                                December 24th, 2007

“Hey, you girly boy! Get off your worthless butt, and get down here! It’s suppertime!”, yelled a gruff voice in disgust. “Or you can stay up there, you loser, I don’t care!”

A couple of young voices chanted in unison: “Girly boy loser! Girly boy loser!” One of them, a boy whose voice was changing, continued, “Hey, fairy, we got ya some pink panties for Chri-“

A woman stormed in from the kitchen, and got in the boy’s face, cutting him off mid-sentence. “That’s enough, Carl! There’s no reason to be like that on Christmas Eve!”

The other boy, older than the first, stuck his finger in the woman’s face. “Bitch, you ain’t tellin’ us nothin’ “, he yelled. “You ain’t our momma!”

The man stood up. “Boys, That’s enough!”, he said, face reddened with anger. “You will not disrespect your stepmother in this house! Now, apologize, and sit down!”

The younger boy, was 14 years old, and was midway through his growth spurt. He could stare his stepmother directly in the eye, but decided to cast them down, his greasy, shaggy brown hair covering them. “Sorry”, he mumbled in a low tone, and sat down at the kitchen table.

The older boy remained standing, defiant, staring at the woman he hated. He was old enough to remember his father at home, and blamed the woman across the room for his father leaving, although this was not true, as his father was promiscuous years before his first marriage crumbled. No greasy hair covered his brown eyes, as he kept his hair almost to a buzz cut. 16 and feeling every year of it, he stood every bit of his father’s 5’10”, and carried some of his father’s stocky build, although he was not obese, as his father was.

“Rick. Park it. Now.”, repeated the gruff voice, full of authority, and anger. Frank Howe may have been 100 pounds overweight, and on medical disability from his job at an auto assembly plant, but he was not going to be embarrassed by anyone, much less a punk kid. Without apologizing, the boy sat next to his brother, staring off into space.

Sylvia Howe took a deep breath, all the while not acknowledging her husband, or his two sons. “Soon, their mother will be here, and the boys will be gone.”, she thought to herself, and turned her attention to the stairs. Softly, she spoke: “Dakotah. Dakotah, honey. It’s time for supper. I made your favorite. Fried pork chops, mashed potatoes, and macaroni and cheese. C’mon, sweetie.”

A door opened in the upstairs hall. the light went out, and the door closed again. Without a sound, a wraithlike figure appeared at the top of the stairs. Although only six feet tall, his ectomorphic frame made him look six inches taller. Thin, straight, shoulder length sandy hair that framed a pallid face also contributed to his ghostlike appearance.

“Nice of you to join us.”, Frank scowled. He never cared much for Dakotah in the ten years that he knew him, nine of which was in Sylvia’s house. Dakotah was always soft, weak, and too quiet. Never showed interest in girls, or in boys either, somewhat to his relief. He was glad they didn’t carry guns in the house, as he thought his stepson would someday snap, and shoot them all up, as well as many as he could at school.

Dakotah sat without making a sound. His mother handed him a plate with pork chops on it, and he selected the most browned one, which was also the largest. “Hey, that was mine!”, yelled Carl. “Sylvia, you promised!” She took a chop, nearly as large as the first one, and put it on his plate.

“That’s not the biggest! I want his!”, the younger brother continued to whine. “See brother, I knew we wouldn’t get treated right here! Dad, make him switch me his pork chop!”

“Yours is big enough!”, interjected his father. “Has your mother spoiled you so much that you’re going to bitch over less of an ounce of pork chop? Shut up, and get some mashed potatoes.”

“She don’t make them right!”, continued Rick, becoming louder and more shrill, his pubescent voice cracking under the strain. “They’re always too lumpy, and there’s not enough butter in them!”

“Shut up, you loser!”, snapped Rick to his younger brother. “You’re always crying about something. I wished you stayed home. No, I take that back. I wished I stayed home. God, I wished I stayed home! “

Dakotah stood up, and switched his plate with Carl, taking the pork chop that his brother had, and putting it on the pile. “Here.”, he said in a low, quiet voice. “I’m not very hungry, anyway.”

His mother looked her son with eyes wide open. “But this is your favorite! Why are you doing this? Son, I beg of you, sit, and eat!”

Dakotah gave the slightest of smiles. “I’m just giving him my coat, mom. I think I’m going to get some fresh air, and go visit Grandma for a little while. Besides, it’s snowing a little bit, and I like how the town looks with a fresh layer.” He put on his heavy coat, his rubber boots, and his leather gloves. He turned to his stepbrothers with a big smile, and shouted, “Merry Christmas, guys! Hope you get what you want!” Opening the door, he said, in a lower tone, “Love you, mom!”, and he stepped out into the snowy darkness.

“Fag”, muttered Rick. Carl wasn’t saying anything, as he was chowing on his second pork chop.

Frank shook his head. “I hope that loser gets out of the house quick, after he graduates.”, he thought to himself.

                                                                                                           ***

Dakotah took a deep breath, and exhaled as he stepped off the porch. “Well, that’s over”, he said to himself. “I so wish I was out of here. I don’t even care where. Afghanistan or North Korea’s gotta be better than this.”

Keeping a lackadaisical pace, he looked both ways, and seeing no traffic, crossed the street. It was only a half mile walk to his grandmother’s, but he was in no hurry, even as he noticed the snow coming down harder. “Awesome.”, he thought. “National Weather Service said six inches tonight. Might get more. That’d be cool!”

He continued on, awash in the extra light the snow reflected, and in the silence it brought. He began to relax, and his eyes began to moisten. “Lord, why do you put me through this? I haven’t done anything to deserve all the crap people put me through. I hate my life, I hate it. I’m a loser in school, I’m a loser at home, I really don’t have any friends to speak of, girls mock me, and freshmen even want to pick fights. I just don’t understand.”

Stopping, his eyes remained down. Dakotah still had a couple of more blocks to go before he reached his Grandma’s, and he didn’t want her to see him crying. “She worries too much about me as it is.”, he thought.

Just then, he looked up, and saw one of the nicer Christmas displays in town. There wasn’t any inflatable snowmen or animated Santas, just a 3/4 scale Nativity, with lighted angels suspended from wires above. Christmas hymns played from a speaker within the manger. Dakotah listened to the one playing at the moment:

What Child is this who, laid to rest
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom Angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?

This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and Angels sing;
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

” I guess you didn’t have it too easy either, did you?”, Dakotah said aloud. “I’d better get before I get too wet. Grandma’d have a fit.” With that, he picked up the pace, hustling the rest of the way.

                                                                                                                 *** 

Dakotah’s paternal grandmother lived in a simple small Cape Cod style house with white aluminum siding, green shutters, and a small porch. No Christmas lights adorned it, and there was only one room lit, a heavy blind blocking most of the light from escaping. Surrounded with hedges and small gardens, the home was park-like during the warmer seasons, but seemed oddly bleak now.

He knocked on the door: “Grandma, it’s me!”, he yelled.

“Me, who?”, a voice shouted from within.

“C’mon, Grandma, it’s me! Your grandson. Dakotah!”, he shouted back, a little perturbed.

The door opened, revealing a thin gray-haired lady in a Christmas themed green housecoat. “Get your rear end in here and get that wet stuff off before you catch pneumonia!”, she scolded. “Didn’t I teach you better than that?”

“Yes, Grandma”, Dakotah replied, somewhat dejectedly. “Couldn’t you tell it was me outside?”

“Sweetie, don’t you remember when your father used to drop you off while he was on he way to work, and your grandpa would answer you that way when you knocked on the door, and said “me”?”, she replied. “Do you even remember your father? Take that coat off. I’ll go get you some dry clothes.” She hurried off to her bedroom.

“Barely.”, he replied, staring blankly. “I wish she hadn’t brought him up.”, he thought. “How old was I, when he left? Four? Five? I wouldn’t know what he looked like, if it wasn’t for the pictures hanging on the walls in this house.”

After a minute, she brought out an old red flannel shirt, and some blue sweatpants. “Here, Dak, put these on.”, she ordered. They’re a little short on you, but it’ll do while your clothes dry out.”

Dakotah looked at the clothes uneasily. “Aren’t these grandpa’s?”, he asked, warily, as if they had some unknown disease.

“Why sure they are.”, she said, with a hint of irritation. “What’s wrong with them?”

“But he’s …….dead.”

“So? It’s not like he died in them! Boy, when you get a little age to you, you’ll realize that you have to be practical, and make do with what you got! A lot of people wanted me to sell this place, and move to a retirement community after your grandpa died. Now, why would I do a foolish thing like that? It’s paid for, everything’s in good shape, and most importantly, most of my memories, good and bad, are in this place! See that kitchen table in there? I’ve had it ever since we were married. I can’t tell you how many thousands of times your grandpa Harry and I shared meals and talked and played cards on that table.” She wiped a tear.

Dakotah felt a tear too. “If Grandpa being gone still hurts, then why don’t you leave for a happier place? Leave the pain behind for a new tomorrow?”

“Boy, if you weren’t a kid, and my grandson, I’d be tempted to give you a cussin’.”, she shot back. “You can’t run from pain, Dakotah. Pain and suffering, and how you deal with it, makes a person who they are a lot more than even love. People nowadays want to cover up pain. Hide it. Numb it. Run away from it. It makes them weak, so when things get worse, and trust me, it always will get worse, they just can’t cope. You have to embrace the pain, learn to conquer it. Pray for the Lord to take it,, if it is His will. Most of the time, He won’t, because He knows you need it to grow stronger.” She looked Dakotah in the eye. “You want to know about your daddy?”

“N-not really.”, he stammered. His mother never spoke of him, especially after Frank moved in. And he was perfectly okay with that.

“Well, too bad.”, she said, forcefully. “It’s high time you knew about him. You’re 18, and all but grown. I’ll call your mama, and tell her you’re spending the night here. And get your butt in that bathroom, and change, I don’t want you seeing your grandpa anytime soon!”

                                                                                                             ***

Dakotah emerged a few minutes later, dry and warm. He heard his grandmother talking animatedly over the telephone.

“Don’t worry; he’ll be over first thing in the morning. I really don’t give a damn what that fatass loser husband of yours thinks. It’s more Dakotah’s house over there than Frank’s, anyway. Goodnight, Sylvia.”

“G-g-grandma?”, Dakotah stammered. He’d never heard his grandmother talk like that to anyone before, much less his mother.

“I’m sorry, Dak, but sometimes people just tick me off, and that crew over there does a pretty consistent job. I love your mother like a daughter, but she’s so stupid sometimes, especially when it comes to men. You can see that Frank’s no good, that he’s just using her for a place to live.”

“Your mother is insecure, and feels like she needs a man to take care of her, which is ironic, since she wound up having to take care of the two men that’s been in her life, first your father, then Frank. Sometimes I think she’s hanging on by just a thread.”

And YOU!”, she exclaimed, pointer her finger at him. “You’re not helping matters much! What’s this I hear about you walking out of the meal your mother cooked? You hurt her feelings, and I expect you to apologize to her tomorrow morning when you see her. You’re better than that, and you know it.”

“Grandma, it was horrible over there!”, he retorted. Those boys were calling me names, cussing Mom, just being a couple of brats. Of course, Frank wasn’t helping.”

“So your solution was to give the boy your pork chop, and leave.”

“What was I supposed to do? Take the pork chop and smack Carl across the face with it? I would’ve got pounded, if not by Rick, then by Frank. I did what Jesus said, and offered him my coat.”

“Dak, honey, it’s not that simple.”, his grandmother said, sadly. “Jesus was also so disgusted with the moneychangers, he ran them out of the temple, quite forcibly. And when he comes back, he’s going to judge the whole world, and a lot of folks aren’t going to need coats or cloaks where they’re going. I’m sure you’ve heard of World War 2?”

Dakotah nodded.

“Sometimes you have to fight evil for the greater good.”, she continued. “What would the world have been like if we didn’t fight? I know I wouldn’t want to live in it. Let me show you something.”

She reached into a large oak bookcase, and pulled out an old photo album. She turned the pages to one of a soldier. “That’s my Uncle Zachary, your great-great uncle. He was killed in Italy.” She flipped a couple more pages, showing a man in a Marine uniform. “This was my cousin Cecil. He was killed on Iwo Jima”

Dakotah stared at the photographs. They were young men, not much older, if any, than he was.

“Now Dak, was the United States in the wrong for going to war against Germany and Japan? According to you, if the U.S. was to follow your example, we would just let them walk over us, and enslave us? Is this right?”

Dakotah became confused. “I-I don’t know.”

“You see, the passage you drew you inspiration from tonight doesn’t mean for you to let the oppressors walk all over you. It means that you must forgive them, and help them, if necessary. Tell me, what did we do to the Axis powers after we won the war?”

Dakotah thought for a minute. “We rebuilt their countries?”

“That’s correct, Dak.” Although part of Germany was divided to the Soviet Union as part of the peace process, most of Germany, and all of Japan, was rebuilt, largely by the U.S. In centuries past, to the victor went the spoils of war. We instead followed Jesus’ example, forgave our enemies, and help them rebuild, so that today, Japan and Germany are two of the larger economies in the world. Now do you understand?”

Dakotah was trying to understand. “A little. So I should stand up to Frank and the boys, even if it means I get my butt kicked?”

“Yes, though I doubt it would come to that, especially in Frank’s case.”, she said, reassuringly. “I believe your mother feels she’s all alone in this fight, that you’re not someone she could depend on. It’s time for you to step up. So far, in your life, you’ve never been made accountable for anything, save your grades, and maybe the cleanliness of your room. Your ancestors had to make a tough choice, and ultimately made the supreme sacrifice, so you, I, your mother, even Frank and the boys, could live in freedom. I think the least you could do is grow a little backbone.”

She smiled. “Now, do you want something to eat? I have some leftover baked ham in the fridge. I’m just getting warmed up, and you need some energy so can comprehend all this grown-up stuff.”

“Grandma?”

“Yes, dear.”

“Why are you unloading this on me now, on Christmas Eve? Couldn’t you have given me bits and pieces of this info over the years?”

“Because I wanted to wait and see if you would pick up anything on your own, and to see if your mother would teach you anything. Looks like a big fat no, on both accounts. So tonight, on the eve of Christ’s birth, is another birth, of sorts. Yours, into adulthood.”


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