Chapter 9

Chapter 9

October 31, 2008

“Explain to me again why you’re not cleaning house this afternoon?” Frank said, angrily. Friday afternoons had traditionally been the day Dakotah cleaned the house, so his mother wouldn’t have to do anything while she was off weekends.

“I’ve already explained it to you and mom a couple of nights ago.” Dakotah said tolerantly. “I’m going to a Halloween party this evening.”

“You? A party? “Frank laughed, mockingly. “What kind of wacko loser would invite you to their party?”

“Hannah’s not a loser. She’s a friend of Ely’s, and she’s a student at Michigan. The school is sponsoring it.”

“Oh? College party, eh? Well, if you get drunk, and thrown in jail, don’t expect us to bail your ass out!”

“It’s for people under 21, so there’s no alcohol.” Dakotah said, his patience rapidly waning. “I don’t drink, anyway.”

“What the hell’s the point of going to a party if there’s no booze?” Frank shouted, incredulously. “A geek like you is not going to get laid, anyway, so you should be getting drunk! Put some hair on your shrunken chest!”

“Whatever. I have to go get ready. I’ll clean house tomorrow.” Dakotah turned to go upstairs.

“Instead of partying, you need to be looking for a job, you bum!” Frank sneered.

Dakotah turned and faced Frank. The sedentary lifestyle Frank had been living the past couple of years was not treating him well. The powerful barrel-chested body he once had become bloated and flabby. Still, he wasn’t someone Dakotah wanted to tussle with.

“Frank, I’ve put applications in at every convenience store, gas station, and restaurant that were taking them, plus I’ve registered at the employment office. I honestly don’t know what else I could do.”

“Well, things are tight, and we can’t keep feeding you forever. You’re going to have to either pull your own weight, or find someplace else to live.”

Dakotah shook his head, and walked up the stairs to his room without saying a word. The month or so since his mother had been laid off had been stressful at times for them; the unemployment checks that his mother was getting were nowhere near what she was making on the assembly line. However, this had not slowed down the amount of beer, movie rentals, and lottery tickets that Frank purchased with his disability checks.

Entering his room, Dakotah went to his closet, and retrieved the costume he was to wear to the party. Actually, it wasn’t a costume at all, but a suit with a dark blue jacket, and brown dress slacks. They were originally his grandfather’s; Elizabeth thought it a good idea for him to have dress clothes in case he had a job interview, so she gave him a blue suit, and a brown one, as well. There were also several ties, one of which was a bright red one, and he chose that to go with the suit.

To portray the character Koizumi Itsuki, his jacket had to have the school crest on the lapel; Ely was in charge of this, having to go to a cosplay store in Ann Arbor to get one. She was to pick him up at 3:30, and go back to her place while she finished getting ready, also to fine tune his costume, if needed. Dakotah checked the clock; it was 3:15, so he quickly finished getting dressed, and made his way to the front porch, where he would wait on her. Since the altercation with Frank a month ago, Ely had stopped honking her horn when she arrived.

Stepping out on the porch, Dakotah noticed the wind had picked up, blowing leaves from the big maples next door, and piling them up against the hedges in their front yard. “Oh well, more work for me!” he thought. It was quite the warm wind, unseasonably so. He surmised it would be a good night for trick-or-treating; it didn’t really matter at their household, as their lights were always off on Halloween night.

A sense of dread began to creep up on Dakotah as he waited; although he was used to being around people in a church setting, being at a party was another matter entirely. He figured that a good percentage, if not most, of the people there would be unfriendly to him.

He wasn’t sure about Hannah, either. Even though Ely had repeatedly vouched for her character, they had never met, nor had they ever spoke on the phone. Dakotah felt this was odd; “Perhaps a friend of a friend is not my friend?” he thought.

On schedule, Ely pulled up, beckoning Dakotah to get in. Once he was buckled in she quickly accelerated out into the street.

“In a hurry, are we?” Dakotah said, becoming a bit nervous.

“Well, I have to get a shower, do my hair and makeup, get my costume on, get your costume ready- ah, from what decade did those clothes come from, anyway?”

“70s, 80s, who knows? It’s okay, isn’t it?” Dakotah said, unsure.

“No!” Ely said, forcefully. “We can get away with the pants, but the jacket has to go! Fortunately, I picked up a proper North High jacket at the cosplay shop.”

“Isn’t that kind of expensive?”

“Twenty dollars is all, and it’s worth every penny! Can’t have you going there, and being judged Ultimate Fail!”

“Ultimate Fail? What does that mean? It doesn’t sound very good.”

“They are having a contest for the best costume.” Ely replied. “Winner gets 500 dollars, but the one with the worst costume is judged Ultimate Fail, gets a joke prize of some sort, and is generally humiliated by everyone.”

Dakotah thought for a minute. “Should we even be going to this? It doesn’t sound like very much fun. Watching someone being embarrassed isn’t something I want to be a part of.”

“I promise if things go bad, we’ll leave.” Ely said assuredly. “I don’t like a zoo atmosphere any more than you do, trust me.”

“What about Hannah? Would you leave her there, if she didn’t want to leave?”

“I’m sure she would leave, too. She understands how I feel about such things.”

Dakotah paused for another moment. “Am I being paranoid in thinking Hannah is purposely avoiding me? You’d think we would have at least one conversation over the phone by now.”

“Yes, you’re being paranoid.” Ely said, irritated. “Look, once you two get to know each other, you’ll be best buds. She has a lot of Andre in her, I think.”

“You think so?” Dakotah said, slightly relieved. “Maybe I am being paranoid.”  he thought.

*****

“So, are you excited about the big party?” Rev. Daniels asked.

“More apprehensive than anything, Alan.” Dakotah replied. “I’m not too much on being in crowds.”

“You always seem fine to me.”

“”Being at New Hope is different than at a party with a bunch of college students.” Dakotah said, frowning. “I tend to get messed with by someone.”

“Well at least you’re not there alone this time. Ely will be there, as well as Hannah.”

“What’s your opinion of Hannah?” Dakotah asked, eager to hear what the pastor had to say.

“She seems to be a nice girl. I’ve only met her a couple of times. I’ve asked her to visit New Hope some Sunday, but she has not taken me up on the offer.”

“I’ve never so much as spoken to her.” Dakotah said, shaking his head. “I feel uneasy about her feelings toward me. Am I being paranoid?”

“I could see why you think that. Time will tell, as it always does.”

“Well? What do you think?” came a voice from the hallway.

“Wow, Ely. That’s pretty cool!  You dyed your hair, and everything!” Rev. Daniels said, impressed.

“Whoa.” Dakotah said, simply. Ely wore a blue and white sailor style school uniform, with a brown sweater and matching brown stockings. Her red hair had been transformed to a purple-gray color, and she wore round spectacles.

“Is that a wig?” Dakotah asked, incredulously.

“Nope! I dyed it!” Don’t worry, it’s just temporary! I bought a bottle for you, too, Dak!”

“Wait, what?” Dakotah exclaimed, panicking. “Why do I have to dye my hair?”

“Because Koizumi  has dark brown hair, and you don’t!” Ely said, grinning.

“Do I have to? Really?” Dakotah whined. He looked at Rev. Daniels for support, but he just shrugged his shoulders, and smiled.

“Sometimes, you just have to go along with what the ladies want.” Rev. Daniels said. “Wait until you get married. This isn’t anything!”

Ely gave her father an odd look.

Dakotah took a deep sigh. “How do I put this on, anyway?”

“You’d better let me do it.” Ely said, handing Dakotah a trash bag with a hole in the bottom. “Here, put this on.”
“Can I wear this to the party?” Dakotah said, putting on the trash bag.

“Sure, but once we get there, we don’t know each other!” Ely laughed.

Ely quickly made work of coloring Dakotah’s hair from a light sandy color to a dark brown, parting it in the middle with a curved lock of hair between the eyes.

Dakotah immediately began blowing the lock away from his eyes. “This is a pain in the butt!” he fussed.

“Leave it there! It’s part of “the look”! “ Ely fussed back.

“What look is that?” Dakotah protested. “The look of a kewpie doll?

Rev. Daniels began to laugh out loud. “That’s it Dakotah, you could go as a kewpie doll!”

“You’re not helping, dad!” Ely shouted, frustrated.

“Okay, Dak, we’d better let the little lady finish.” Rev. Daniels said, still chuckling.

Dakotah sighed. “She sure is stressing out over a stupid costume party.”  he thought.

Soon, Dakotah was prepped out to Ely’s specifications. She brought out a DVD with the Haruhi characters on the cover, and showed it to her father.

“See, doesn’t Dakotah look like Koizumi?” Ely asked.

“Dakotah has a pretty good getup, but yours is the best by far!” Rev. Daniels said, smiling.

“Really? You think so?” Ely said, surprised.

“You should be a lock on the best costume prize.” Dakotah added.

Ely looked at the clock. “Wow, we’re right on time. We’d better get going!”

“I’d better use the facilities before we leave.” Dakotah said. “Ann Arbor is over an hour away.”

“Well, hurry up,” Ely said, irritated. “and don’t mess anything up!”

After Dakotah left the room, Rev. Daniels took Ely’s hands, and held them in his. “Kiddo, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you this high strung. You okay?”

Ely shook her head. “I think so. I don’t know.”

“Fretting over Hannah and Dakotah meeting for the first time?”

“Kinda. I’m not sure if they are compatible. Hannah’s personality is so strong, and Dakotah’s is the opposite.”

“I think Dakotah has a lot of personality.” Rev. Daniels countered. “He’s also a lot stronger inside than you think.”

“I don’t know. Hannah can be a bit much, if you’re not used to her. Dakotah’s default mode is to go hide.”

Rev. Daniels gave a wry smile. “I’m not sure about that. You never can tell, he could meet a girl there.”

“Yeah, right.” Ely laughed.

“Oh? You don’t think it’s possible for Dakotah to find someone else?”

“Well, I guess anything’s possible, but I don’t see it happening.”

“Why, because you’re convinced he has eyes only for you?”

“It’s not my fault he’s in love with me.” Ely said pointedly, all the while trying to keep her volume down, so Dakotah wouldn’t hear her.

“Have you ever told him it would be in his best interest to find someone else?”

“The subject hasn’t come up, no.”

“Why wouldn’t it? You’re not doing him any favors by stringing him along; as well as you or Hannah, for that matter.”
“But he has no life outside of New Hope, and working with me on my Japanese. I’m sort of the center of his life.”

“”Ely, I love him at church, and he’s a great guy here. However, my concern is that you like this arrangement, too.”

“I love Dak. He’s the best friend I’ve ever had.”

“No, you don’t understand. Do you realize what you two look like when you’re together?”

Ely became a little self-conscious. “No, not really. I figure that we’re a couple of friends, just hanging out.”

“Not exactly. The way you two interact, gazing into each other’s’ eyes while conversing, the way each of you watch the other while they move about the room, remind me of newlyweds.”

“No way.” Ely gasped.

“Yep. Here’s something you don’t know. You two have the couple thing down so well, that a couple of girls from church assume that Dak is taken, and haven’t approached him.”

“What? Who?”

“Rebecca Jennings, for one.”

“Well, that’s not happening! She’s too young!”
“Is she? She’ll be 17 next week. That’s what, 2 ½ years younger than him? Not that big of a stretch, if you ask me.”

“Besides, she’s the type that would dump him in an instant if someone better came along.”

“Really? The Jennings have been coming to church for about six or seven years, and Rebecca’s always been a nice, polite girl. She doesn’t strike me as the type that goes through a lot of boys.”

“Trust me, she’s no good, dad. Who’s the other one?”

“Vanessa Blan.”  Rev. Daniels said, smiling, waiting for the reaction he knew would come.

“WHAT?” Ely yelled, clasping her hand over her mouth, realizing she was loud enough for Dakotah to hear her from anywhere in the house.

“I assume  she’s not too young, since she turned 20 back in September. Anything else you want to add about her personality? Think carefully, since I’ve known the Blans for about 15 years.”

Ely looked down, anxious. She had known Vanessa as far back as she could remember, and until a couple of years ago, regarded her as a big sister, albeit one that was tall, blonde, and very good looking

“No.” Ely said, shaking her head in disbelief. “Are you sure? Sure, she’s friendly to him, but she’s like that to everyone.”

“Well, she told me that you were very lucky to find a guy like Dakotah, that she wished she had that kind of luck. What do you think?”

Ely realized she was jealous of Vanessa, and it troubled her. “I don’t know.” she said, downtrodden.

Rev. Daniels leaned over and held his daughter’s hands into his own. “Sweetie, I don’t know if you’ve realized it yet, but from where I sit, you’re carrying on two relationships.”

“Do you think so?” Ely said, sadly.

“Think about it. No, you may have not so much as kissed him, but emotionally, you two are intertwined. If the couples that come in for marriage counseling were as committed to each other as you two, my life would be a whole lot easier! But seriously, for your sake, for Hannah’s sake, and especially for Dakotah’s sake, you have to figure out who you want. You can no longer have it both ways.”

Ely began to weep. “But I can’t leave Dakotah like that! He has no one!”

“Ely, I’m not saying walk out of his life totally. You can still be his best friend, even. Bring him over for your Japanese studies, if he wants. However, if you are committed to Hannah – you are committed to Hannah, right?”

“Yes. I love her.”

“Okay. What you have to do is set boundaries between you two. First, you have to understand, since you are committed to Hannah, that you have to push him away, and not to give him hope that someday, if he stays patient, you’ll come around, and choose him instead. Second, after you break his heart, and you will break his heart, you’ll have to pick him up, dust him off, and make him understand that he is not as pathetic as he thinks he is, that there are plenty of girls out there that would be happy as his girlfriend. If he doesn’t believe you, have Vanessa talk to him! Finally, I’m giving you this chance to fix it yourself. If you need my help, just point him my way, and I’ll point him in the right direction. Now, do you understand all this?”

“I think so. I’m not sure if I can tell him tonight, though. I don’t know what to say, or how to say it, yet.”

“That’s fine, as long as you do it soon. This is really for the best for all three of you.”

Ely took a deep breath, exhaled, and hugged her father.  “I love you.” she said, teary-eyed.

“Love you.” Rev. Daniels replied, hugging her tightly. “Speaking of Dakotah, where is he? Is he still in the bathroom?”

At that moment, Dakotah entered the room! “Oy!” Dakotah said loudly, as he exhaled. “Ever since mom’s been laid off, she’s been experimenting in the kitchen. Lunch was a Norwegian – Mexican curry with brown rice!”

“And you ate that?” Ely said, making a face.

“Yeah, it wasn’t too bad, but it sure cleaned me out!” he said laughing, as the other two joined in.

*****

The first minutes of the trip were eerily quiet. Dakotah instantly knew as he entered the living room, something was off. He noticed Ely had been crying, and he felt that he was the topic of discussion. Rather than inquiring about their conversation, he felt better to make a joke about his mother’s cooking, and his resulting gastric issues, instead. The vibe in the room lightened, and Rev. Daniels gave his usual speech about being careful, and having fun.

However, the mood in the car remained somber, as Ely, who usually was quite talkative and cheerful, had been silent for the entire trip thus far.

As they turned onto Grange Hall Road, Dakotah decided to force the issue.

“Hey, you OK?” Dakotah asked. “Did you and your dad get into an argument?”

Ely exhaled. “More of a discussion, I guess.”

“Was it about the party, Hannah, me, or all of the above?”

“Look, can we talk about that later?” Ely said, irritated. “I-I just want to go to the party, and have a good time, that’s all!”

“Gomenasai.”  Dakotah said sadly. “Are we pretty much on schedule?”

“Yeah, I think so. Hope we don’t run into any traffic jams going into Ann Arbor.”

“I really do think you’re going to win the contest!” Dakotah said exuberantly, trying to bring his friend out of whatever melancholy she was feeling.

“Probably not, but thank you.” Ely said, showing a faint smile.

“I hope they have good food there.” Dakotah said, keeping the conversation flowing. “I’m getting hungry!”

“Dak, if a girl at the party asked you to dance, would you go with her?” Ely asked, wistfully.

“Why would a girl ask me to dance?” Dakotah said, confused. “Hannah has someone set up for me?”

“No, no, no, she wouldn’t do that, and I wouldn’t let her if she did.”

“I don’t know. I doubt that anyone would ask, so your question is irrelevant.”

“You may be surprised, especially one that’s slicked up to look like Koizumi! Girls like guys in cosplay!”

“I’ll probably be picked on as an otaku geek loser.” Dakotah countered, sullen. “Why are you trying to get rid of me? So you can have more time with Hannah? Don’t worry, I’ll disappear into the background. You won’t even notice I’m gone.”

“Dakotah, you frustrate me so much, sometimes!” Ely said, angrily. “Your life isn’t The World vs Dakotah Lennon! I know you’ve had it rough, and I know your home life sucks, but there are a lot of people who love you! I love you! Why? Sometimes I wonder, but the truth is, you’re a great guy! Heck, even Vanessa Blan and Becky Jennings want to go out with y-!”

Ely caught herself from finishing the sentence, but it was too late. She glanced over, and saw Dakotah looking down, and shaking his head.

“Vanessa? Becky? No. It’s not like you to make things up-“

“This isn’t coming from me, baka, this is coming from Dad! Are you going to call him a liar, too?” She reached into a cubby and shoved him her phone. “Call him! Call him, and tell him he’s a liar! If you’re that stupid, you deserve to be alone!” She began to cry.

“Ah, Ely, you’re going 70 miles an hour.”

“Damn you, you’re going to either get me a ticket, or us killed!” Ely shouted, applying the brakes. It was the first time Dakotah ever heard her swear.

“I’m sorry, but it’s rather hard to believe.” Dakotah explained, trying to grasp what she had just said. “They’ve both been nice to me, but neither of them has given any indication that they are the least bit interested in me. Is your dad sure of this?”

“From his point of view, and I guess everyone else’s, we are a couple.” Ely sighed, regaining her composure. “Vanessa even said I was a lucky girl to have you, and wished she was that lucky.”

Dakotah thought for a moment. “She probably meant that she wished she had a good relationship with a nice guy, not necessarily me.”

“I don’t know, dad seemed pretty convinced she liked you.”

“I’ll remain skeptical, for now. So, what evidence does he have about Becky’s desire to go out with me?”

“Why are you asking about Becky?” Ely said, crossly. “Are you interested in her now?”

“I’m just curious as to why, me, the World’s Most Pathetic Geek Loser, would have two cute girls suddenly interested in me. What’s with the attitude when I mentioned Becky? You don’t like her? This is also news to me.”

“The girl you know in church is not the girl I know in school.” Ely said, grimacing. “Becky does whatever she can to manipulate people so she can get whatever she wants.” I’ve seen her break up relationships, put best friends against one another,  and demean people, just so she could either move up the social ladder, or get a boy she liked.”

Dakotah shook his head. “Have you talked to your dad about this? Maybe he could talk to the Jennings, and help her get straightened out.”

“If her behavior was bad at New Hope,  then Dad intervening would be a no-brainer, but at school, I don’t have any clout. I’m not sure if her parents would be receptive to me calling her out. Either way, the idea of you going out on a date with her makes me cringe.”

“Does the idea of me going out on a date with Vanessa make you cringe?”

Dakotah expected Ely to get mad, but instead, she began to tear up.

“Dakotah, if we were in an actual romantic relationship, and Vanessa asked you out, would you dump me for her?”

“Never.” Dakotah said firmly.

“I mean, she’s better looking, taller, she’s got big-“

“Stop it, you’re being silly!” Dakotah protested. “Look, not that it matters, since you’ve already made your choice, and it isn’t me, but if we were together, all of the Vanessas and Beckys of the world could not tempt me from your side!” Dakotah looked down, sadly. “In my heart, you are irreplaceable. I know that anyone I meet in the future will not come close to how I feel about you, but what choice do I have?” He wiped away a tear.

Ely sighed heavily. “Whoever is wise enough to take you for their own, and cherish you for who you are, will be a lucky girl indeed.”

“I wonder if they’ll have games like bobbing for apples there.” Dakotah said, desperately changing the subject.

“You’d never win. Your nose is too big.” Ely laughed, poking him in the ribs.

“You’d get first place, because your mouth could hold two!” Dakotah retorted, smiling. He hoped the rest of the night would pass smoother.

*****

It was dark by the time they made it to their destination, a recreational center on the campus, but Ely, with her prior knowledge of the area, navigated easily to the proper parking lot. There were plenty of students milling about the entrance, and music could be heard blaring from inside.

Ely pulled Dakotah close by her side. “Are you okay?” she asked, sensing him tensing up.

“I’ll be alright. It’ll be over in a few hours.”

“Try to make the best of it, and have some fun, okay?” She cooed, trying to comfort him. “This can’t be worse than Andre’s funeral, can it?”

“I wasn’t a target at Andre’s funeral.” Dakotah said, nervously.

“You’re not a target here.” Ely countered, slightly irritated. “Look, there’s all kinds of supervision and security here, making sure nothing bad happens to anyone. That’s the whole purpose of having this party in the first place, so students can go somewhere safe.”

“Maybe so, but school was supposed to be safe, too.” Dakotah muttered.

Ely checked her phone. “Oh, good, Hannah’s already here!”

Dakotah gritted his teeth as they entered the rec center. Thriller was blasting over the PA, as several young adults attempted to gyrate on the dance floor. Several more were milling around the concession area to the right of the dance stage, while the rest of the students were hanging out here and there. Dakotah estimated that there were several hundred, maybe even a thousand, guests. “Nope, not in my comfort zone.” he thought.

Ely grabbed Dakotah by the arm, and drug him through the crowd. “C’mon, she’s near the dance floor!” she yelled above the din.

Soon they came upon a small group of people, one of which was wearing a blue and white sailor-type school uniform, with orange-yellow ribbons in her hair.

“Hannah.”  Dakotah thought. He instinctively numbed his emotions.

“Ely! Or Yuki, that is!” Hannah shouted exuberantly. “You look awesome!”

Both Ely and Hannah leaned toward each other, and kissed each other lightly on the lips. Dakotah groaned internally.

“You look incredible, Han, er, Haruhi!” Ely gushed. Dakotah noted that  Hannah didn’t particularly look that much like Haruhi Suzumiya. Instead of dying her hair to match the character, as Dakotah and Ely had done, her hair remained light brown, with blonde highlights, not the dark brown hair that Haruhi had. She was also about forty pounds overweight, although since she had an endomorphic body, and was about five feet, seven inches tall, she didn’t look obese. All in all, she was about thirty pounds heavier than Dakotah. He took a deep breath.

“Han, this is Dakotah.” Ely said, pointing toward Dakotah.

Dakotah had thought about what to say long before this moment; taking another deep breath, then stood straight, and with arms at his side, he bowed slightly, eyes closed.

“Konbanwa, Haruhi-san! Watashi wa saishūtekini o ai dekite totemo ureshīdesu.”  Dakotah smiled weakly.

Hannah stared at Dakotah for a few seconds without saying a word, then looked at Ely.

Ely laughed. “Dakotah doesn’t know you don’t understand any Japanese. I think he said “I’m very happy to meet you, or something like that. I didn’t know he was going to do that, or I would have told him in advance! “

“Actually, I said I’m very happy to finally meet you!” Dakotah laughed.

Hannah remained expressionless, and didn’t say a word. The DJ selected a slow song, and seeing her chance, grabbed Dakotah by the wrist, and proceeded to drag him onto the dance floor.

“What are you doing?” Ely protested.

Don’t worry, I got this.” Hannah said firmly. “Go get yourself a cookie, or something.”

Ely stared at them, slack jawed. “Go get something to drink, or something.” Hannah ordered. “Dakotah and I are going to have a little talk.”

“Ah, Hannah, I can’t dance.” Dakotah said, trying to keep his composure. “And you should be nicer to Ely. You were being rude-“

“She’ll be okay.” Hannah interjected, cutting Dakotah off. “Just move with me, and don’t step on my feet.”

“Try not to step on mine, and we’ll be just fine.” Dakotah snapped.

“Whatever. I don’t why you’re wasting your time with Ely.”

Dakotah was taken aback for a second, but gathered himself quickly. “Why do you think I’m wasting my time with Ely? She needs my help to achieve her dreams.”

“She doesn’t need you, period. She was just fine before your pathetic self came into her life.”

“Tell me, Hannah.” Dakotah said, snarkily. “What have you done to help her achieve her goals? Kissing her isn’t going to help her learn Japanese.”

“A geek like you wouldn’t understand.” Hannah shot back, anger flashing in her brown eyes. “I’ve shown her the real world, the possibilities that she can achieve. See the faculty over there? Those are the heads of the Asian Studies department. I’m going to introduce her to them, in order for her to get an upper hand when it comes to admissions.”

Dakotah wanted to push her away, but Hannah was holding him tight against her, and he didn’t want to create a scene in front of Ely, who was obviously watching them. “And helping her become proficient in Japanese before college isn’t giving her an upper hand?”

“Okay, okay.” Hannah, said, softening her stance. “Look, you may truly be a nice guy. Who knows? However, I’ve seen dozens of guys like you tell a girl they love them, only to drag them down, and prevent them from achieving their life’s desires.”

“First, as far as I know, there’s no guy on this Earth like me. Second,  I didn’t come here to battle you, I came here to be your friend. I’ve had to come to accept the reality of the past few months that I don’t stand a chance with her. I love her. I love her with all my heart, and if the only way I can stay in her life is to be Friend A, then it’ll have to do.”

“That’s exactly why you have to walk away. There’s no room for both of us in her life. And no, I don’t want to be your friend. You are not an ally, you are the competition. Oh, look, the song’s ending. I guess I should thank you for not stepping on my feet.”

“Likewise.  I’m not giving up and going away, though.”

“Go ahead. Find out the hard way you have no future with her. When she’s living in Japan, and you’re living in a basement somewhere, you’ll be just a distant memory.”

“No, it’ll be you who’ll be a distant memory. She’ll see through whatever spell you have on her, and you’ll be gone.” Dakotah thought to himself.

As Hannah and Dakotah made it to Ely, he could see Ely’s face filled with apprehension. He wanted to tell her that everything was okay, if for no other reason that he didn’t want his discussion with Hannah to ruin Ely’s night. However, before he could speak, Hannah grabbed Ely’s hand, and started leading her away.

“Come on, there’s the dean to the Asian Studies department! You have to go meet her!” Hannah cried, towing Ely along behind. Ely tried to turn back to look for Dakotah, but she was unable to, as it was difficult for her to keep her balance while being led through the crowd.

Dakotah looked about; he was thirsty, and a bit hungry, but the concession area now had a long line there, and he hated being in line. He guessed that the next course of action would be to go find a bathroom, and maybe by the time he was done, the concession line would be much shorter.

He started walking along the wall of the rec center, deftly maneuvering around the partiers, recalling old skills he learned in school. It took a while, but he finally found the restrooms. Apprehension began to creep up his spine.

“Why did I come here?” he thought. “Well, I guess there’s no doubt what Hannah’s feelings are.”  He remembered Hannah’s words, and he became despondent.

Exiting the restroom, he found a water fountain. Glad that he now didn’t have to stand in line at the concession area, he quenched his thirst. Worst came to worst, he could eat when he got home, whenever that would be.

Dakotah now began to look about for Ely. She was nowhere to be seen. Avoiding eye contact with everyone, he slowly began to make his way back to the dance floor area, where he saw her last.

“Hey, dude!” shouted a male voice. Without looking up, and hoping it wasn’t directed to him, he kept moving.

“Dude! Hey, dude! Wait up!”

Dakotah froze, and slowly turned around, uneasy. In front of him was a young man about his height and build, wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and glasses. Dakotah stared at him blankly, not knowing what to say.

“Kyon, right? Kyon from Haruhi Suzumiya?”

“Ah, n-no.” Dakotah stuttered. “Actually, it’s Koizumi.”

“Huh? Koizumi? Why? Koizumi is an asswipe! Nobody likes him!”

Dakotah is taken aback a bit, and started to become more nervous. “Um, it wasn’t my choice. My friend wanted me to be Koizumi.”

“Oh, yeah? Did he want to be Kyon? Where is he?”

“Actually, my friend is a she. She’s dressed as-“

“Whoa!” The young man said, interrupting Dakotah. “She wanted to be Kyon? I’ve heard about love theories between Kyon and Koizumi, but this is taking it to another level!”

“No, no, no, she’s dressed as Yuki Nagato! It’s a long story…..”

The guy shook his head. “Dude, if I were you, I’d pull my shirt tail out, loosen my tie, and mess my hair up some. You’d rule as Kyon!”

Dakotah looked about for Ely and Hannah, but they were still out of sight. “No point in pleasing them now.” he thought. He proceeded to do as the guy suggested. “How’s this?” he asked the young man.

“Awesome! Dude, you rock!”

Dakotah hoped that he was right.

“By the way, my name’s Jeff.” the young man said, reaching his hand out to Dakotah.

Hesitantly, Dakotah shook his hand. “Dakotah.”

“Dakotah? Really?”

“Uh, yeah.” Dakotah said, looking down, embarrassed.

“Extreme name!” Jeff exclaimed, grinning. “Did your folks name you after the truck, or the state?”

“You’re mocking me, aren’t you?” Dakotah muttered, darting his eyes about to see if Jeff had any cohorts.

“Oh, no, man! My bad, I didn’t mean to offend you!” Jeff said, apologetically. “I have a bad habit of saying silly crap. You cool?”

“That’s okay.” Dakotah replied, exhaling.

“So what was it?”

“What was what?

“What you were named after?”

“I honestly don’t know. It’s spelled with an “H” at the end.”

Jeff paused, rolling his eyes, visualizing the spelling in his head. “Cool. That’s really cool.”

“Really? I always hated my name.”

“Dakotah is a smooth name. You should have a name like Jeff. Definitely not smooth!”

“Jeff’s not so bad.”

“Seriously? Everyone’s named Jeff, or John, or something.”

“I’m not named either of those.”

“Oh yeah, rub it in, Mr. Elite name!” Jeff deadpanned. Both Dakotah and Jeff began to laugh loudly. For the first time all day, Dakotah began to relax.

“Kyon!” shouted a chubby guy wearing a blue Starfleet uniform, and sporting pointy ears. “Awesome!”

“Ah, Spock?” Dakotah said, unsure.

“Hey, Rick!” Jeff said, excitedly. “This is Dakotah, with an “H”! Dakotah, this is my roommate, Rick!”

“Dakotah? Your name is almost as cool as your costume! Kyon is inspired, dude!”

“Ah, thanks, Rick!” Dakotah said, becoming a little more at ease. “Nice Spock.”

Rick laughed. “It’s an okay getup. Who ever heard of a fat Spock? It’s almost as bad as a fat Haruhi!”

“Fat Haruhi? Does he mean Hannah?” Dakotah thought, curious.

“Hey, Rick.” Dakotah asked, gaining confidence by the minute. “Did this ‘Fat Haruhi’ have a Yuki Nagato with her?”

“Are they with you?” Rick asked, incredulous. “Yuki is smokin’, dude!”

“Well, they were. They sorta took off, and left me.” Dakotah said, sadly.

“Made you dress up as Koizumi, and dumped you?” Jeff said. “Harsh.”

“Koizumi? Wait, what?” Rick asked, confused.

“The ladies had him made up as the esper, dude. Fortunately, I made the suggestion that he would be a boss Kyon, and he agreed. Scored major points, if you ask me.”

“Agreed. Kyon good, asswipe bad.” Rick said, laughing. “So, what happened, Dak-man? Did they find some studlies?”

“Ahhh, it’s not like that. They are sorta ‘together’, if you know what I mean.” Dakotah said, pointing his index fingers at each other.

“Oh. LGBT.” Rick said. Dakotah nodded.

“Sucks.” Jeff said, shaking his head. Looking quizzically at Dakotah, he pointed at him, and asked “You?”

“No, no, no, no.” Dakotah said quickly, shaking his head, and crisscrossing his hands quickly. I’m just a friend of Ely’s, the girl who’s dressed as Yuki.”

“Yeah? Ever make a move on her?” asked Jeff, smiling.

“No, as much as I’d like to.” Dakotah said, looking down. “I respect her too much.”

“You know what we have here?” Rick said, pointing at Dakotah. “A virgin with honor!”

Dakotah’s face reddened.

“That’s okay, Dakotah with an ‘h’.” Jeff said, quickly. We’re virgins without honor!” Both Rick and Jeff both began laughing loudly, with Rick starting to snort.

Dakotah was unsure whether to hang out with Jeff and Rick, or escape. They seemed harmless enough, but they weren’t exactly his type, either.

“Hey, Dak-man.” Rick asked, catching his breath. What are you studying here, anyway? Haven’t seen you around campus.”

Dakotah looked down, and took a deep breath. “Um, I’m not in school right now. I don’t have the money for tuition and stuff. I’m trying to find a job right now, but it’s hard where I live, with the economy. Hannah, er, Haruhi, got Ely and me tickets to this party.” Dakotah wanted to go home, even if it meant walking all the way.

“That sucks.” Jeff said, sympathetically. “You ever tried school loans? You don’t have to pay them off until you graduate. That’s how I made it here.”

“I don’t like the idea of getting into debt. The borrower is a slave to the lender, you know.” Dakotah replied matter-of-factly.

“That’s true.” Rick said, nodding his head. “I know of guys that are over 100K in debt, and all they have is a 30K job. That would suck.”

“Yeah, but how long would he be working in order to cash flow his way through school?” Jeff countered.

“Good point.” Rick agreed. “You wouldn’t be able to get your Met degree until you were 30, dude!

A light came on in Dakotah’s head. “Jeff, are you a meteorology student?”

“Yeah, both of us are!” Jeff said, enthusiastically. “Why?”

“Oh, I was thinking about becoming a meteorologist, someday.” Dakotah said, feeling a little vulnerable. He hadn’t thought much of his career path in the past few months.

“Seriously? That’s awesome, Dak-man!” Rick shouted enthusiastically. “It’s a great field to get into! So much depends on the weather, and climate, you know?”

“Yeah, with AGW, the whole world is going to be radically changed, and they’ll need mets and climatologists to figure out what’s going to happen.” Jeff chimed in.

“AGW?” Dakotah asked.

“Anthropogenic Global Warming.” Rick said, confidently. You know, manmade climate change.”

“Rick knows his stuff on climate change.” Jeff said, praising his friend. “He’s helped out on research studies that resulted in scientific papers being published!.”

“The world as we know it is coming to an end.” Rick said, with a hint of sadness. Polar ice melting, sea level rising, jungles becoming desert, all because of the greenhouse gasses mankind has released into the atmosphere in the past 200 years. Deforestation hasn’t helped either.”

“I don’t know about that.” Dakotah said self-assuredly.

“Oh, really?” Rick asked, surprised.

“Denier.” Jeff whispered in Rick’s ear.

“Do you think the world isn’t warming?” Rick asked, becoming a little defensive.

“Oh, if scientists say it’s warming, then who am I to say they’re wrong?” Dakotah said, looking straight at the two students. “However, God is in control, and He will decide what happens here on Earth.”

“You don’t think mankind has messed up the climate?  Jeff asked, expecting an emotionally charged answer.

“Mankind has always messed up, from the first days.” Dakotah said, voice unwavering. “I feel that God is ultimately calling the shots. All He has to do, if He wants, is to turn down the wick on the sun a hair, and we’d be fine. Or, He could turn the sun up a hair, and we’d all roast. I’m not saying that we should throw up our hands and say “Oh, it’s in God’s hands, we’re all going to die anyway, just keep on polluting.” God appointed mankind as stewards of the Earth, and I think we have a responsibility in taking care of it. If we are responsible, I think we’ll reap His blessings, and He’ll take care of us in return.”

Jeff and Rick looked at Dakotah, stunned. A low “Whoa.” was all they could muster.

“Of course, this could be the beginnings of the Tribulations.” Dakotah continued, smiling. “If the world wasn’t someday coming to an end, and Jesus wasn’t coming back to herald a new Heaven and a new Earth, Christianity would be rather pointless, wouldn’t it?” he said with a wink.

Rick and Jeff were speechless.

“Anyway, Jeff, what are you going to do when you graduate?” Dakotah asked, still smiling.

“Oh. Oh yeah, I’d like to work for the National Hurricane Center.” Jeff replied, snapping to. Someday, I’d like to ride with the Hurricane Hunters, and fly into storms. That would be the ultimate!”

“Jeff’s pretty hardcore when it comes to tracking tropical cyclones.” Rick said. “He stays up all night sometimes, checking the latest satellite images and dropsonde readings. He even has his own blog!”

“Oh I remember when Ike, was it, passed near here last month.” Dakotah said. “That was a little eerie!”

“The Atlantic season’s not over, yet.” Jeff said, projecting a serious side not shown before. “There could be something popping up in the southern Caribbean in the next couple of weeks.”

“I hope it’s not too bad.”  Dakotah said. “People have suffered enough this year, already.”

“Agreed.” Jeff said. “What are you wanting to concentrate on when you get to school, Dakotah?”

“Snow.” Dakotah said. I like snow. I want to figure out where snowstorms are going, and how much snow they dump.”

“Good luck with that, when the Earth warms up!” Rick laughed. Dakotah and Jeff joined in the merriment.

“I wonder where the girls are?” Dakotah said, wanting to find Ely.

“Hey, let’s all of us look for them!” Jeff said. “I want to see the smokin’ Yuki and the fat Haruhi!”

“”Trust me, you don’t want to see the fat Haruhi.” Rick laughed.

“Surely she wouldn’t win Ultimate Fail, would she?” Dakotah said, slightly concerned, not for her sake, but for Ely’s.

“No, they’ve done away with the UF prize.” Rick said. “People felt that it was taunting, and shouldn’t be allowed.”

“Of course,  in most years, I’ve heard that that UF winners or losers, whatever, tried to take the prize.” Jeff said. “Remember Leo?”

“Yeah, Leo ruled!” Won it four years in a row! The last year was off the charts! Probably the real reason they killed the prize.”

“What did he dress as?” Dakotah asked, unsure if he wanted to hear the answer.

“A veterinarian.” Rick said, grinning.

“Why did he win? That doesn’t sound so bad.” Dakotah said, confused.

“He took a ride in a pickup truck to the nearest cow pasture, and rolled around in fresh patties until he was covered.” Jeff said, barely containing himself. “He said he just treated a cow with colic, and he hadn’t had the chance to clean up! Awesome!”

“I see.” was all Dakotah would say, trying hard not to visualize Leo. Looking ahead, he spotted Ely and Hannah, waiting in line at the concession area.

Before Dakotah could say anything, Jeff saw them, too. “Nagato!” he yelled.

Ely turned slowly, confused and a little embarrassed. She was soon surrounded by an admiring Jeff and Rick, with Dakotah bringing up the rear.

“You were right!” Jeff said, very excitedly. “This has to be both the coolest and hottest Yuki ever!”

“Ma’am.” Rick said, bowing. You are the ne plus ultra of costuming!”

Ely’s face reddened. “Th-thank you, I guess.” She said, meekly.

Hannah stepped in between Ely and the two met students. “Alright, you losers, you confessed your love to her, now back off!”

“Whoa!” Rick shouted, stepping back a step. “I was just complimenting her on her costume!”

Ely saw Dakotah standing behind Jeff, and noticed his costume alteration. Pushing Jeff aside, she poked her finger in Dakotah’s chest. “What the heck? I can’t believe you would do this, after I worked so hard!” she yelled.

Jeff took out his phone. “Hey, let me get your picture! Kyon and Yuki, the awesomest couple of Halloween!”

“I don’t think so!” Hannah shouted, knocking Jeff’s phone from his hand. It landed on the floor with a crack, the battery cover and battery skidding across the floor.

“My new phone!” Jeff screamed, picking the pieces off the floor. “Hey, the screen is broke! You owe me a new phone!”

“Should’ve gotten insurance, loser.” Hannah said with a shrug.

Rick grabbed Hannah by the arm, spinning her around. “You broke it, you should at least pay for fixing it! What’s with you, anyway?”

Hannah used both hands, and pushed Rick away. “What are going to do, use a Vulcan Death Grip? I’m not afraid of a fat Spock!”

“I’d rather be a fat Spock, than a fat Haruhi!” Rick shot back, flipping off Hannah in the process.

Enraged, Hannah lunged toward Rick, and started swinging with both fists clenched, managing a solid blow to Rick’s jaw. Rick staggered and fell down, managing to grab Hannah, and drag her down on top of him. This was fine with Hannah, as she continued to pummel him as she sat straddled across his midsection. Jeff pushed Hannah off of Rick, only to be pushed himself by Ely. Feet became entangled, and as a result, Rick, Jeff, Hannah and Ely were sprawled on the floor. Dakotah, stunned by the proceedings for a few seconds, made his way over to Ely, and helped her up.

A hand grabbed Dakotah by the arm. He turned to see a large man with even larger muscles staring down at him. “All right, let’s go! Get up! You’ve had your fun!” the man shouted.

“We’re getting kicked out?” asked Rick, defiantly.

“Now.” The man said, staring down Rick, and pointing at the doors.

“This sucks!” Jeff yelled angrily. “You crazy bitch, this is all your fault!” he yelled at Hannah.

Hannah lunged at Jeff, but was grabbed by the security guard and stopped cold. “Back down, people!” the guard barked, holding his hand up in front of Jeff’s face. “Campus police has been notified of the incident. Any further trouble from any of you will result in possible arrest and jail, not to mention possible suspension or expulsion from school.”

Ely gasped. Dakotah shook his head. Hannah, Rick, and Jeff swore under their breath.

The group exited the rec center, and began to go their separate ways; Rick and Jeff began to walk to their dorm, while Hannah and Dakotah escorted Ely to her car.

“Good luck, Dakotah with an “h”!” Jeff yelled, waving.

“”You too, guys!” Dakotah yelled back as he waved. Ely stared at Dakotah, as Hannah scowled. Rick and Jeff were soon out of sight.

As they reached Ely’s car, Hannah turned in front of Dakotah, facing him.

“Thanks to you, our night was ruined!” Hannah said, sharply. “You purposely messed up the outfit, and you brought those geeks over, which resulted in us getting kicked out before the judging!”

“I’m sorry.” Dakotah apologized. “I didn’t know-“

“What if the Asian Studies faculty saw her getting kicked out, now that I introduced her to them? What if that causes her to not be accepted in school?”

“I’m sure that I’ll be fine.” Ely said, trying to make the best of things.

“This is what happens when you associate yourself with losers!” Hannah yelled, pointing her finger at Dakotah. “They’ll just pull you down to their level!”
“Dakotah is not a loser, Hannah.” Ely said firmly. Dakotah remained silent, staring at the ground.

“Whatever. I can’t convince you otherwise. You’ll just have to learn for yourself, the hard way.” Hannah sneered. “Go on. Take him home. Call me when you get home, okay?”

Ely and Hannah embraced for a few seconds, and kissed, while Dakotah got in the car and buckled up, ignoring them.

Pulling out onto the street, Ely waved while Dakotah stared straight ahead.

“Sometimes you make it really hard for me to defend you.” Ely said, scornfully.

Dakotah snapped his head around, and stared at Ely, incredulous. “What the heck did I do to deserve that? I didn’t do anything wrong!”

“Explain to me how you did anything right! You messed your costume up, on purpose, then you brought those  fanboys over, resulting in us getting tossed out of the building! I hope the Asian Studies dean doesn’t remember me when I apply there!”

“First of all, you have been hypersensitive all evening! I can’t see anyone living up to your standards! Secondly, wasn’t those guys reaction to you what you wanted? Finally, if anyone is going to be lowered to another level, Hannah would be the one pulling you down!”

‘Hannah is not to blame! She’s just being protective!”
“Protective, like a pit bull?”

“Jerk! That’s my girlfriend you’re talking about!”
“Sorry to be you! You know, in all the years that I’ve known Frank, I never realized he had a daughter!”

Without saying a word, Ely pulled the car over in a parking lot, unbuckled her seat belt, and slapped Dakotah across the face as hard as she could.

Tearing up, partly from pain from the blow, but mostly from the situation itself, Dakotah unbuckled his seat belt, stepped out of the car, and began to walk.

“Hey! What are you doing?” Ely yelled.

Dakotah stopped, and faced Ely. “Isn’t it obvious, baka? I’m walking home.”

“Well, baka, it’s 55 miles to home, and it’s 9PM!”

“So? It’s not like I have to be anywhere. I’m a NEET loser, remember?” Dakotah turned, and began walking again.

“Suit yourself! It’s not like anyone would miss you!”  Ely got in the car and sped off, leaving Dakotah in a cloud of dust.

Dakotah chuckled, derisively. “I didn’t think she’d leave.” However, he didn’t believe that she would be gone long either. “She’ll probably come looking for me in a few minutes, expecting me to beg for forgiveness, and a ride home. But first, she has to find me!”

Dakotah took a right at the first side street, then a left at the next street parallel to the main road. He began to pick up the pace; although he didn’t walk as much as he did during school, he was still in prime shape. He figured by the time Ely turned around and came back, he would be about a mile up the road on the parallel street. Of course, there was the slight possibility she went home, but he believed that if she cared about him in the least, she would be back.

He hoped that he was right.

The parallel street came to and end after ten minutes of brisk walking; he turned left again, toward the main road. Reaching the main road, he began to walk north again, toward home, keeping an eye for both Ely, and any potential trouble.

Looking behind him, he noticed a slow moving car coming up the road, but at about a half mile away, he wasn’t sure if it was Ely. He continued, checking for places to run to in case of trouble. After about ten minutes, the car was now about a quarter mile away. He thought he heard someone from the car yelling something.

Dakotah stopped. He finally recognized the headlight pattern on the car as being the same as Ely’s Corolla. He decided to wait for her; there was always the slight possibility that if he kept up the game of cat and mouse, she may give up, if it became too late.

At about 200 yards, she finally saw him, pulled up to where he was standing, stopped, and got out of the car.

Ely was visibly shaken when she reached Dakotah. “Where have you been? When I didn’t see you, I thought you may have been hit by a car, and left for dead!”

“I took a detour.” Dakotah said, calmly, though inside, all he wanted to do was take her into his arms. “I had a feeling you were coming back, so I disappeared for a bit.”

Anger flashed into her eyes. “Why? Why did you put me through this? I was so scared that something happened to you!”

“Because I wanted to make sure you actually missed me, instead of pitying me.” Dakotah replied, firmly.

“Pity you? It wasn’t out of pity.” Ely snapped. “It just wouldn’t be right to leave you out here alone, so far from home, though part of me thinks you deserve it.”

“Oh, I deserve walking 55 miles home? For all the atrocities I committed tonight?”

“You ruined everything! Can’t you see that?”

Dakotah took a deep breath, and clenched his teeth. “Fine. Show me everything that I erred on.”

“First, you messed up your costume, on purpose!”

“You do know there is no more Ultimate Fail contests, don’t you?”

“No, I didn’t know that. Hannah said-“

“Rick and Jeff, or the fanboys as you call them, told me not only that it was abolished, but why it was abolished. Hannah’s a sophomore, so this should be common knowledge to her.”

“So, what if it was? You still messed up your costume!”
“You made a big stink about Ultimate Fail when you saw my original getup. That means, at least to me, that Hannah knew that there was no Ultimate Fail, and she told you about it in order to create a stir. I could’ve worn Grandpa’s old suit, and been just fine!”

“No, you wouldn’t!” Ely said, becoming frustrated. “You would’ve embarrassed me in front of Hannah!”
“Hannah couldn’t care less what I was wearing! Did she say how good I looked after you put in all that hard work?”

“I don’t remember.” Ely said, becoming pensive. “Things were a bit of a blur.”

“You want to know what was said during our dance?”

“Y-Yeah.” Ely replied, becoming unsure.

“She told me in no uncertain terms to buzz off, and leave you alone, for good. She also told me that she and I would never be friends. It seems that I am the competition.”

“I think she’s just being insecure. She’s usually really nice, though a little hyper sometimes.”

“She wasn’t being too nice when she was beating the crap out of Rick!”

“That’s another thing. You brought those losers with you!”

“Those losers were meteorology students! If you had listened to them for a few minutes, you would’ve realized they were very accomplished, and hardworking! They had as much right to be there as we did, probably more so!”

“They called her fat! What was she supposed to do?”

“She broke Jeff’s phone, and called Rick fat, first, remember?”

“Well, she was trying to protect us.”

“Maybe she was trying to protect you. She had me in cahoots with the other two. All I was trying to do was to find you. Rick just wanted to show Jeff your amazing costume. Jeff must’ve agreed, since he wanted to take our picture, with me as Kyon, not Koizumi. To tell you the truth, I liked being Kyon better, and shouldn’t that have been my choice from the beginning?”

Ely sighed. “Let’s just go home. My head hurts.”

“Agreed. We’ll sort out what happened tonight later.”

They got into the car and buckled up. As Ely started the car, Dakotah looked upward, and exhaled.

“My head is pounding, too.” he thought.

*****

The ride home was mostly in silence; this was fine with Dakotah, as he had much to ponder. “I wonder what Ely sees in Hannah, anyway?” he thought to himself. Hannah’s violent, and her personality blows. Opposites attract, maybe?”

 

“Speaking of opposites, Vanessa Blan? As far as I know, the only thing that I’ve impressed her with is my Bible knowledge. She’s nice, though, at least on the surface. Ely seems to vouch for her character, but then again, she vouched for Hannah, too. Ugh!”

Finally, the stress of the evening, along with the drone of the car, and the darkness, caught up with Dakotah, and he nodded off. Ely took notice, and sighed.

“I’m sorry, my friend. You didn’t deserve this.” she thought.

*****

Dakotah woke up as he made into town; he was more than ready to get home, get a shower, and go to bed. Even the prospect of cleaning house tomorrow appealed to him!

He looked over, and saw Ely. She looked exhausted to him. “I’m sorry, I should’ve kept you better company.”

“That’s okay.” Ely replied, softly. “ I’ wasn’t sleepy. I’ve had a lot to think about.”

“Understood.” As they turned onto Dakotah’s street, he noticed something amiss. Parked in front of his house was his grandmother Elizabeth’s car.

“I don’t like this.” Dakotah said, feeling dread. Ely said nothing.

As they pulled in behind Elizabeth’s car, he saw Elizabeth and Frank in the front yard, arguing. There appeared to be trash bags and boxes of stuff next to Frank. Sylvia was on the front porch, crying.

“What’s going on?” Dakotah yelled.

“I’ll tell you what’s going on, you degenerate!” Frank bellowed.  “Your ass is getting kicked out of the house!”

Dakotah felt the blood drain out of his face. “What? You can’t be serious! Mom! Why are you doing this? This is your house, too! Tell him he can’t do this!”

“I can do whatever the hell I want!” Frank sneered. “You’re 19, and my name is on the deed!”

“Mom!” Dakotah wailed, his voice cracking. Sylvia turned, and crying, went into the house.

Dakotah looked at Elizabeth and Ely, in shock. “That’s alright, you’ll always have a place to stay with me.” Elizabeth said, soothingly.

“Dad would take you in a heartbeat, too!” Ely chimed in.

“Talking isn’t going to get your crap out of my yard!” Frank shouted, full of himself. “If you don’t pack up and leave, I’m going to haul it off to the dump!”

“Go to hell, Frank!” Dakotah screamed, full of fury, fists clenched. He began to stride toward Frank. Ely grabbed him from behind, trying to stop his progress.

“Oh? You want a piece of me?” Frank laughed. “Heh! Bring it! It’ll make my night!”

Dakotah tried to extricate himself from Ely, but she was holding him with everything she had. “Let me go!” He yelled at Ely.

“No! You’ll get killed!” Ely screamed.

Frank started to walk toward Dakotah, kicking a bag of clothes out of the way as he walked. He was about ten feet from them when Elizabeth stepped in between Dakotah and Frank.

“Stay out of this, old-“ Frank was unable to finish his sentence, as at that moment, Elizabeth took a large can of bear spray out of her purse, and sprayed Frank directly in the face. Frank immediately fell to the ground, writhing and screaming  in pain.

“Not too tough now, are you?” Elizabeth yelled near Frank’s ear. “Let me tell you something, you bastard! You’re damned lucky I didn’t bring my .44 with me, or I’d blow your bloody head off! You are a worthless pile of excrement! I hope someday you get everything you deserve!”

Staggering, and howling, Frank felt his way up the porch steps, and into the house. Elizabeth turned to Dakotah. “What were you thinking? He would’ve pounded you into the ground, and he would’ve enjoyed every moment of it! Ely saved your neck just now!”

Dakotah took a deep breath, and exhaled. “Sorry, grandma. I just lost it a minute ago, I guess.” He turned to Ely “Arrigato.”

 

“Ie, ie.”  <You’re welcome.> Ely said, smiling a little. “I guess we’d better get this stuff loaded up!”

“I’m glad you came along, dear.” Elizabeth said to her namesake. “We can get all of his stuff in one trip.”

The three made quick work on loading their cars; Dakotah had a few sets of clothes, a TV and a DVD player, and a few other odds and ends.

Suddenly, Frank reappeared on the porch. “Hey, you almost forgot your stupid picture!” He threw the picture like a frisbee, crashing at Dakotah’s feet. Shattered glass flew everywhere; fortunately, Dakotah was not cut.

Dakotah carefully picked up the photo of Andre and himself. The photo was ruined, causing Dakotah to weep.

“It’s okay.” Ely said, trying to comfort him. “I can always make another copy. I have the original on my backup hard drive.”

“Let’s just go.” Dakotah said, dropping the picture onto the ground.

*****

Dakotah, Elizabeth, and Ely unpacked Dakotah’s clothes and things into his father’s old room. Afterward, they congregated into the dining room, Elizabeth preparing glasses of iced tea and cookies for them.

Without warning, Elizabeth fainted, spilling tea and cookies onto the floor.

“Grandma!” Dakotah shouted, rushing to her aid, with Ely close behind. “Ely, call 911!”

“On it!” Ely replied, fumbling for her phone.

“Stop! Don’t!” Elizabeth said, half conscious.

“What? You can’t be serious!” Dakotah cried, shaking.

“You need to go to the hospital, and get checked out!” Ely agreed.

“No, no, I’ll be alright in a minute. My blood sugar must be a tad low. It happens, sometimes.” She started nibbling on a cookie. “With all of the excitement, I guess I didn’t realize it until it was too late.”

“Well, you almost gave me a heart attack.” Dakotah said, sighing in relief. “I didn’t know you were diabetic.”

“I have a touch  of it.” Elizabeth replied, smiling a little. “I keep it in check with my diet.”

“Maybe you need to go to the doctor for a checkup?” Ely said.

“No, I’ll be okay. Every once in a while,  I’ll get a minor dizzy spell, but this is the first time I actually passed out. I’ll just remember that if I ever have to tangle with Frank again!”

They all laughed, and began to clean up the mess. “There is something I wanted to ask you, Elizabeth.” Ely said. “Where did you get that massive can of pepper spray, and why do you carry it in your purse?”

“Well dear, it’s actually bear spray. It’s an old habit I carried over from teaching at inner city schools. If a hiker can stop a thousand pound grizzly with it, my odds were pretty good with a troublemaking juvenile delinquent. Worked pretty good on Frank, too, didn’t it?”

“No doubt!” Ely said, laughing. She checked her phone. “I guess I’d better be going. I actually don’t have to be home yet, but all the excitement of the evening has me wore out!”

“Be careful going home, dear.” Elizabeth said, giving Ely a hug. “Thanks for your help.”

“Glad to be of help. Dak, would you walk me to my car?”

“Sure.” Dakotah answered, thinking that it was odd that she would ask him. He usually did that automatically, without her asking.

“Some night, huh?” Ely said as they reached her car.

“Well, if we never met, you’d be in Ann Arbor collecting your prize for best costume about now.”

“Maybe.” Ely said, smiling a little.

“Sorry to be so much trouble.” Dakotah said, forcing a small smile.

Ely wrapped her arms around Dakotah, and held him tightly. Dakotah did likewise, breathing in deeply the scent of her hair.

“You’re worth every bit of trouble, and then some. “ Ely said, misty-eyed. “You’re my best friend, and I love you very much.”

“Knowing you is the best thing that ever happened to me.” Dakotah said, eyes also moistening. “Oh, here, before I forget.” He said, taking his North High blazer off. “You’ll probably be taking this back tomorrow, right?”

“Yeah. It was fun dressing up, but I’m ready to get into regular clothes, and getting this dye out of my hair. It’s stinks.”

“Oh, that was the dye that smelled like that?” Dakotah said, and began to laugh loudly.

Ely, also laughing, slugged him in the arm. “Jerk! You know my hair normally don’t stink!”

“Ow!” Dakotah yelped,  recoiling in pain. For a petite girl, Ely packed quite a wallop. “Save your punches for Hannah, so you can keep her in line!”

“I don’t have to keep her in line! You, on the other hand, is a full time job! Now go in there, and check on your grandma!”

“Yes, ma’am!” Dakotah shouted, saluting her. “See you Sunday?”

“You betcha!”

“Hey, wait! Hearing you say that, you could’ve dressed up as Sarah Palin!”

“Get in there before I get your grandmother’s gun, you idiot!”

“Okay, okay, I’m going! Call me tomorrow!”

“Okay!” Ely ended any further ramblings by Dakotah by getting in the car, and pulling away, waving at Dakotah as she left.

Dakotah watched her until she turned down the street, then he rushed in the house. Elizabeth had already cleaned up, and changed into her bedclothes and robe.

“Are you feeling better?” he asked.

“I’m fine now.”  She replied, smiling. “I must’ve given you quite the fright.”

“Don’t you think you should see the doctor, to make sure everything is okay?”

I passed my physical with flying colors two months ago.” Elizabeth said, reassuringly. “I know what happened, so I can prevent it from happening again. Having said that, how are you doing?”

“Honestly, I’m numb. I haven’t even started to process what happened tonight, or where this takes me.”

“You’ll always have a home here, Dakotah, no matter what.” Elizabeth said, hugging him. “We’ll talk about going forward tomorrow. Right now, I’m all tuckered out from today’s excitement. I think I’ll go to bed.”

“Grandma, can I ask you something?”

“Anything, Dak. What is it?”

“Do you really have a .44, and would you have used it on Frank?”

“Maybe.” She said with a wink. ”Do you really think any jury would convict a 70 year old retired schoolteacher?”

“I sure wouldn’t !” Dakotah said, laughing. I think I’ll get cleaned up, and go to bed, too.” He hugged Elizabeth tightly. “Goodnight, grandma. I love you.”
“Goodnight, Dakotah. I love you too! Would you like pancakes for breakfast tomorrow, or bacon and eggs?”

“Oh, wow, it’s hard to choose!”

“How about both? You could use a little filling out!“

Dakotah laughed. “Awesome! “

 *****

Dakotah showered, dressed, and made it to the spare bedroom. Exhausted, he flopped, face first, into the bed. However, sleep eluded him, as his mind began to churn.

“Why, mom? Why?” he said to himself, as he began to sob.


Chapter 8

Chapter 8

September 25, 2008

“Fifty dollars!” exclaimed Dakotah, looking at the currency in disbelief. ”Grandma, you shouldn’t!  I didn’t do that much, and besides, I shouldn’t get paid!”

“Don’t be silly, Dak.” Elizabeth lightly scolded. “I would’ve had to pay a handyman twice that to put gutter guards up, which is better than the two hundred dollars I had to pay this spring to have the gutters cleaned out. You are a bargain!”

Dakotah smiled slightly. “Maybe, but it still feels weird taking money from you. You’re my grandmother, after all.”

“You’re not taking money, like some bum begging on the street for coins to get booze! You earned it!”

“Yeah, but what about all the times you’ve fed me and hauled me around, not to mention the lunch and collection plate money?” Dakotah said, sadly. “What I did today doesn’t come close to paying you back.”

“Why should you pay me back?” Elizabeth exclaimed, becoming frustrated that she wasn’t getting through to him. “We’re family! This is what families do! I do this because I love you! If our positions were reversed, would you not help me, and ask for nothing in return?”

A light suddenly shone in Dakotah’s mind. “Yeah, since you put it that way. I never thought of it that way before. I’m always worried about being a burden on you, on Mom, even to Ely.”

“I understand, Grandson, but times are tough around here right now, and jobs are scarce. Just keep doing what you’re doing and try to keep a good attitude. The tribulations of these days will pass, and life will get better.”

“I know, but I feel so useless.”

“Dak, you take care of your house, don’t you? When was the last time your mother lifted a finger to do anything aside from cooking the occasional meal?”

“I don’t know.” Dakotah said, shrugging his shoulders.

“And when was the last time I mowed the lawn? Who’s helped me move furniture when I did a thorough house cleaning?”

Dakotah gave a sheepish smile. “I understand. I’m not totally useless. It’s kind of hard when you hear about it almost every day.”

“You mean Frank?” Elizabeth’s eyes flashed with anger. “Next time he says something to you about you being useless, just give him a hard look, if you can stomach it. That is the epitome of useless!”

They both chuckled. “Another thing.” Elizabeth continued. “Understand that yes, in a way, you are a burden to me. However, as a family, we carry each other’s burdens.”

“All I do is help out around here a little bit.” Dakotah said, a little confused. “Not too much of a load, to me.”

“I don’t think you realize how precious and valuable you are to me.” Elizabeth said, gazing intently into Dakotah’s eyes. “Before you came back into my life, I, for the most part, was alone. I haven’t seen my only son in years. I do have a sister. I don’t think she’s ever met you, as she’s lived in New York for the past thirty-five years. I do talk to her on the phone occasionally, but she’s not part of my life. I have some friends from my teaching days, but I never spent much time with them socially. I have a church family, but I see none of them unless I’m in church.  So, in a nutshell, you are a shining ray of light in my otherwise dreary world!” She began to wipe away a couple of tears.

Dakotah went to his grandmother, and hugged her tightly, something he never would thought of doing just a few months ago. “And you’re a light in mine, too, Grandma! I love you!” He began to tear up, as well.

After a moment, they parted. “At least I’m not the only light in your life.”  she said. There’s a pretty little girl that’s shining pretty brightly too, am I right?”

Dakotah sighed internally, hoping his grandmother wouldn’t catch on. Everyone, even her father, didn’t know the truth about Ely’s relationship with Hannah. Dakotah took the official role of boyfriend a couple of months ago, but in reality, their relationship was strictly platonic.

“Ely’s wonderful, Grandma.” Dakotah said, smiling. “She’s funny, smart, a lot smarter than me, I think, and really, really kind, with a big heart. She’s been a blessing, for sure!” “Or a curse?” he thought. Although he had resigned himself to this strange pseudo-boyfriend role, there was still a sliver of hope that she’d leave Hannah for him, and it ate at him.

“I’m so happy for you, dear.” Elizabeth said, smiling. “Having her around has forced you to mature quite a bit. How are her studies coming along? Are the materials I picked up at the library helpful?”

“Yes, they have been quite helpful, at least to me! Japanese seemed extremely difficult at first, but when I stopped thinking about sentence structure and stuff as how we do it in English, and started thinking of them in Japanese, things became much easier. With her other classes, she hasn’t had nearly as much time as I have to study, so I think I’ve advanced past her. So far, I’m more of the guy who reads questions out of a book, and sees if she knows the answers.”

“Ah, but you are with her, and that’s what’s important!” Elizabeth said with a big smile.

Dakotah nodded. “Grandma, you are more correct than you could ever know.”  he thought.

A familiar honk of a car horn pierced the silence. Dakotah looked at his watch. “Oh, wow, she’s here, and I haven’t cleaned up yet!”

“That’s okay, Dak, you go get cleaned up, and I’ll stall her. We haven’t had a good chat in a while!”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.” Dakotah thought. Living this lie with Ely never made him feel good to begin with, and now his grandmother was going to have a chat with her. He hoped that their stories would correlate.

Hurriedly, he washed up, and dressed with clean clothes. It had been a warm day, and he had worked up quite the sweat installing the gutter guards.

Dakotah could hear an animated conversation in the other room, but he couldn’t tell if they were joking around, or arguing. His heart raced as he strode into the living room, hoping that everything was okay.

It was, as both Elizabeth and Ely were laughing. He took a deep breath, and exhaled. “Sorry to keep you waiting.” he said.

“It’s okay, Dak.” Ely replied, smiling. “My fellow Elizabeth and I hadn’t had the chance to talk in a while. It gives me a chance to see what trouble you’ve been getting into, and not telling me about!”

“A nice girl like you shouldn’t be getting involved with a scoundrel like this one.” Elizabeth chimed in. “I expect the police to come and pick him up any day now!”

“Aren’t good girls supposed to be attracted to bad guys?” Dakotah countered. “I’m sure if I was thrown in jail, my sweetie would bail me out!”

“Oh? You have a sweetie?” Ely said, smirking. “Who is he? Is it Frank?”

Everyone started laughing. “Oh, you are so mean!” Dakotah chuckled. “That’s okay, if he was the only one to bail me out, I’d rather take my chances in jail!”

Dakotah looked at his watch. “Ely, we’d better get going. It’s getting late, and we have to study for your test tomorrow.”

“You’re right, Dak.” nodded Ely. “Elizabeth, it’s really nice to see you again! Hopefully, someday soon, we’ll have a lot more time to catch up, and pick on your grandson! He’s so easy!”

Elizabeth hugged both Dakotah and Ely. “Ely, I’m looking forward to it. Make sure he behaves!”

“Not a problem.” Ely said, grinning. “I think he has the basics down!”

“Love you, Grandma.” Dakotah said. “See you tomorrow!”

“Love you too, Dak. Ely, take care.”

“You too, Elizabeth.”

Dakotah and Ely got into the car, and Ely pulled out into the street. “I think that went well.” Dakotah said with a sigh. “She likes you a lot, you know.”

“I know. I like her too. She’s a sweet lady. She loves you very much.”

“I know.” Dakotah frowned. “It kinda hurts to have to put on this charade in front of her, you know? Not to mention your dad, Mama, and everyone else at New Hope.”

“What are you saying, Dak?” Ely said, suddenly despondent. “You want to end this? Break up with me, so to speak? Or maybe even walk away for good?” She began to tear up.

“Hey, hey, no!” Dakotah shouted, putting his hand on her shoulder. “I could never walk away! You’re the only friend I have!”
“Aside from Hannah, you’re the only true friend I have.” Ely said, sniffling. “Knowing you has given me comfort and confidence in myself.”

“I am your biggest fan, after all.” Dakotah said, smiling.

“You know, I know Hannah loves me, but our relationship is totally different than yours and mine. Of course, she’s supportive, and I know she loves me, but our relationship is built on being affectionate with one another, and having fun. Mine and your relationship is based on two pathetic people trying to get through the trials and tribulations of life, and lifting each other up as necessary, don’t you think?”

“I don’t think you’re the least bit pathetic.” Dakotah countered. “Me, on the other hand-”

“Yes, we all know, Mr. Whiny Whiny Boo-Hoo.” Ely interrupted, mockingly. “I understand that you’ve had a hard life. When we first met, you were being run over by that Christian extremist. But understand, you have a whole lot of people in your life that care a whole lot for you. Your grandma, your aunt and uncle in Kentucky, my father, Mama. Even your mom does in her own way, I think.”

“I hope you do, too.” Dakotah replied, reflective.

“You know I do.” Ely replied, softening her attitude. “Dakotah, I don’t think you appreciate, or believe, your own value.”

Dakotah attempted to speak, but Ely held up her hand, cutting him off. “I think all of these years living with Frank has brainwashed you. You’re a lot smarter than you give yourself credit for. Erica and William from Sunday School are straight-A students who are in Central High’s Honor Society, and you smoke them in class every week! It’s not like they’re not trying, either. Dad and I have been discussing about asking you if you want to teach one of the elementary classes. We’re always shorthanded in those classes. I know it’s way out of your comfort zone, but I think you have what it takes. You are kind, patient, and not only do you know the Scriptures, but are able to explain them in a way everyone understands. I’ve learned a lot from listening to you in class, and I have a preacher for a father!”

Dakotah’s face reddened, embarrassed. “Ah, I don’t see myself as a teacher. I can’t imagine myself in front of a bunch of kids trying to teach them something. I’m not a very good speaker. I stutter a lot when I’m nervous. You ought to know that by now.”

“Moses stuttered.” Ely said, trying to sell the idea.

“I’m not Moses, and I don’t have an Aaron to speak for me, either.” Dakotah said, irritated.  “Look, it feels good that you and your father think so much of me, but I don’t feel any calling to do anything. I’m sorry, but I don’t think it’s my time, at least not now.”

Ely thought over Dakotah’s words for a moment. “I’m sorry, Dak, I shouldn’t have been trying to pressure you into doing something you’re not comfortable with. You know, we are so much alike, you scare me sometimes. I’m also shy, withdrawn, and bad at making friends. If it wasn’t for the fact that my dad was pastor, I would probably fade into the background.”

“Now who’s being a whiney hiney?” Dakotah said with a smirk.

Ely punched him in the arm. “Jerk.” she said, laughing.

“You know, I’m actually relieved that we don’t have a romantic relationship.” Dakotah said, grinning. “You’d be pounding on me every day!”

Ely hit his arm again, harder this time, eliciting a wail from Dakotah. “Double jerk! Just because we’re not boyfriend-girlfriend, doesn’t mean I can’t keep you in line! You need to know how to talk to a lady properly, so when the future Mrs. Lennon comes along, she won’t be pounding you!”

“Okay, okay!” Dakotah laughed, rubbing his arm. “Maybe it would be easier if I met a girl who wasn’t as abusive as you?”

“Not gonna happen.” Ely said, also laughing. “Don’t you know? Being abusive is in a female’s genetic code!”

“Oh, boy, that really gives me something to look forward to!” Dakotah said, wincing, as Ely pulled into the driveway.

*****

Alan Daniels noticed Dakotah’s nearly empty plate. “Would you like another piece of chicken, or some mashed potatoes?”

“Doumo arigatou gozaimasu, Sensei.”  Dakotah said, bowing his head slightly. “Another piece of chicken would be great!”

“Shouldn’t you have said gozaimashita, Dakotah?” Ely said, correcting him.

Gozaimashita is past tense.” Dakotah said, confidently. “After the meal, I could say that, since it had already happened. Gozaimasu is correct here, since the meal is ongoing!”

“You’re wrong, Dak!” Ely retorted, staring at him.

“Am I? Go look it up, then, and see who is correct!” Dakotah said, unwavering.

“Loser does the dishes?” Ely goaded.

“Ely, he’s our guest.” Rev. Daniels interjected. “Guests do not do the dishes!”

“It’s a deal!” Dakotah smirked, looking Ely in the eye.

“Better pick out an apron!” Ely yelled, as she ran to her room.

“Dakotah, you don’t have to go through this.” Rev. Daniels said, grinning. “If you lose, I’ll do the dishes.”

“It’s okay.” Dakotah said, smiling. “She’s about to get her comeuppance!”

Suddenly, a loud shriek erupted from Ely’s bedroom. “Noooooooooo! I can’t be wrong! Dakotah, I hate you!”

Both Rev. Daniels and Dakotah began to laugh hysterically. “Sweetie, make sure you wear an apron, so Dakotah can see you in a domestic way!”

Ely went into the kitchen, and after a moment, stepped into the dining room wearing a bright blue floral print apron. “How’s this?” she said, posing while holding a small scrub pad. “Domestic enough for you?”

“June Cleaver would be proud.” Rev. Daniels said, smiling.

“Ely-chan, no koto ga daisuki da yo.”  Dakotah said, enunciating the Japanese perfectly.

“Wow, that’s really good!” Rev. Daniels said, impressed. “What did you just say, besides the Ely part?”

“Did you just say what I think you said?” Ely said, stunned.

Dakotah chuckled. “Easy, Ely. I didn’t confess my love for you just now. The actual meaning is more like “I like you very much”. If I said Koishiteru, or Aishiteru, then you would have every reason to be embarrassed.”

“How do you know all this?” Ely said, confused. “You didn’t just pick this up by reading the answers out of my textbook!”

“Well, I have a little surprise for you, my domesticated friend.” Dakotah said, excitedly. “Grandma checked out some Japanese language materials from the library, with DVDs in them, so not only do I know what to say, but how to say them! Surprised?”

Ely was stunned. “Why did you do this?”

Dakotah smiled. “Because I want to be able to help you achieve your dream, and I can’t really do it if I’m reading answers out of a book.”

“What about your dream, Dak?” Ely said, pensive. “You should be studying meteorology instead!”

“She does have a point, Dakotah.” Rev. Daniels chimed in. “I think your intentions are admirable, but you can’t sacrifice your dream for someone else’s, particularly if you have the mental skill set to achieve yours.”

“I understand all that. I heard the same argument from Grandma.” Dakotah said, firmly. “However, there’s not a lot I can learn about meteorology more than I already know, without going to school. I can’t afford school, at least not now. So, in the meantime, I’ve decided to not wallow in my own misfortune, and instead, help someone I truly care about. Besides, learning Japanese is extremely challenging, and a lot of fun! It took me a couple of hours to learn how to recite “Ely-chan, no koto ga daisuki da yo” without messing it up!”

Ely began to tear up. “Dakotah, you’re incredible!” she exclaimed, hugging him tightly. “I’ll make sure your work won’t be in vain!”

“You’ll be fine. I have faith in you.” Dakotah said, reciprocating in the hug.

“Tell you what, let me do the dishes, while you two go study.” Rev. Daniels said, smiling, “No fooling around in there, promise?”

Dakotah’s face turned red. “You don’t need help?”

“Oh, no. I’m just loading the dishwasher! “

“Wait, what?” Dakotah said, confused. “You mean Ely was just going to load the dishwasher? I was prepared to hand wash them! Were you going to let me do that if I lost?”

“Well, I was at least going to have you put the apron on!” Ely said, giggling. “You would have been cute!”

*****

Dakotah yawned, and looked at his watch. “It’s ten o’clock already! Time flies, eh?”

“I’m not sure if I would call this fun, but having you here makes it nice.” Ely said, smiling. “I’m starting to get tired, too.”

“I think we made good progress today, don’t you think?”

“Yeah, but I think you made a lot more progress than I have.” Ely said, grumbling to herself. “I believe you are my equal in Japanese language knowledge, if not a little better. I’m kind of jealous of your extra study time.”

“You know, I used to hate school.” Dakotah said, thinking. “But most of my angst- look at me, I’m using angst in a sentence!”

Ely laughed. “Anyway, most of my angst was due to the fact that I felt that I was a target.” Dakotah continued. “I never could concentrate on the task at hand. Now that I can concentrate, learning stuff is a lot easier!”

“I knew you were capable of being a really good student.” Ely said, encouragingly. “College should be no problem for you!”

“If I ever get there.” Dakotah said, frowning. “Kinda hard saving money for college when you don’t have a job.”

“Things will pick up soon, and you’ll be on your way, don’t worry.”

“I hope so.” Dakotah was unsure if that day would ever come.

Ely’s countenance brightened. “Hey, I have just the thing to cheer you up! How would you like to come to the under 21 Halloween bash at  UM? I can ask Hannah to get you a ticket!”

“Seriously?” Dakotah was at once excited and dismayed. Any time spent with Ely was a plus, but he did not like crowds one bit. And how would Hannah like him being there? She hadn’t gone out of her way to interact with him in any way, although he hadn’t, either.

“We’re going as Haruhi Suzumiya characters!” Ely said excitedly. “Hanna is going as Haruhi, and I’m going as Yuki Nagato!”

Dakotah had watched a few episodes of the show during earlier visits to Ely, so he knew most of the characters of the show. There was also a poster of the anime on the wall, which he studied. “You could be Ms. Asahina. She has red hair, too!”

“You’re kind to compare me to Mikuru, but no.” Ely said, slightly embarrassed. “I don’t quite have the body she does, as you can plainly see.”

“If you wore the bunny suit, with proper padding, you could pull it off!” Dakotah said, smirking.

“Sometimes, Dakotah, you can be quite the ass!” Ely asserted quietly, but forcefully. “You should know that most girls are sensitive to the way they look!”

Dakotah’s face lost all color, and his eyes began to moisten. “I’m so sorry, Ely. I was only trying to be funny. Hurting you is the last thing I could ever do.”

“Most of the time, however, you are quite the sweetheart.” Ely said, beginning to smile, while wiping away a tear of Dakotah’s.

“Well, you were going to have me model an apron.” Dakotah said with a slight chuckle.

Ely began to laugh a little too. “Maybe you should wear the bunny suit!”

Dakotah laughed, too. He began to scan the room. It looked like it had been plucked out of a girl’s bedroom in Tokyo. Several anime posters adorned the walls, the bed was covered in assorted Japanese plushes, and  Japanese knick-knacks dotted the shelves, desk, and nightstand. One exception was an 8×10 picture of Dakotah and Andre, taken at their graduation. Dakotah picked it up, and stared at it.

“You still miss him, too?” Ely said.

“Yeah, not a day goes by that I don’t think of him.” Dakotah said wistfully. “He’d be in college right now. He always said he wanted to be a preacher, just like your dad.”

“He would’ve made a good one. He had the gift.”

“He would’ve been a great one.” Dakotah said, setting the photo back in place. He picked up the photo next to it. It was a 5×7 of a young couple, with a small girl in between. “Do you remember your mom much?”

“No, not really.” Ely said sadly. “She died when I was only four. Drunk driver killed her when she was only 27. Dad still cries when we go see her grave.”

“He never had a girlfriend after that?”

“No. He loved mom so much. He always said that she was his soul mate, that she couldn’t be replaced by anyone.”

“You know, although my dad is still alive, I haven’t seen him for a long time. In a way, alcohol took him away, too.”

“That’s sad. I think that’s just as bad as what happened to mom, maybe worse.”

“Knowing what alcohol can do, I’ll never touch a drop.”

“Promise?” Ely said.

“I will if you will.”

Ely held her hand out, pinkie finger extended. “Pinkie swear?”

Dakotah locked his pinkie with hers, and they shook hands. “Teetotalers for life!”

“For life!” Ely repeated.

Just then, Rev. Daniels peeked his head into the room. “Does this mean you two are engaged?” he said, smiling.

For once, Dakotah’s face didn’t turn crimson. “Ah, not this time. We were just making an non-alcohol oath.”

“Oh? That’s great! I’m very proud of both of you! I don’t preach against the drinking of alcohol, just the getting intoxicated part of it.”

“Can’t get drunk if you don’t start in the first place.” Dakotah said.

“You’re absolutely right! Having said that though, it’s been my experience that such oaths are easy to say, but difficult to see through. A person cannot see the road ahead of them; when situations arise that puts a person at a crossroads, they often make just as rash decision as they did when they made the oath.”

“That’s when a person’s faith kicks in, to pray for the right decision, and stand steadfast on that decision.” Dakotah said confidently.

“Dak, if half the ministers I know did that, there would be a lot more people in good, strong churches!” Rev. Daniels exclaimed, impressed.

“I just know people that talk a lot, and never back it up.” Dakotah said simply. “ I don’t want to be like those people.”

“Well put, Dak.” Rev. Daniels said. “It’s getting late, and someone has to get up early to go to school. “

“Can he stay the night?” Ely pleaded.

Dakotah was stunned. “Ah, I probably need to go home, as I’m sure that I’d be too much of a bother.”

“Dakotah’s right, Ely. You’d have to get up early to take him home before school, and I have shut-in and hospital visitation tomorrow. Mrs. Eads likes me to be at her home for coffee at seven o’clock, so me offering transportation is a no-go.”

Ely rose from her bed. “Let’s go, Dak.”

Rev. Daniels held his hand up, stopping Ely in her tracks. “Sweetie, you sit this one out. I’ll take Dak home.”

“But Dad, I-“

“No buts. By the time you returned here, it would be past  11:00. You need your rest, so you can be at the top of your game tomorrow. Capisce? Do you mind me taking you home, Dak?”

“Fine with me. Talk to you tomorrow, Ely?”

“You bet. I’ll be grilling you to see what embarrassing stuff Dad told you about me!”

“I wouldn’t  do that to you, would I, sweetie?” Rev. Daniels said innocently.

“Then how did Mama know about that birthmark on my behind?”

“Ah, Ely….” Dakotah murmured.

Ely realized what she had said, and let out a shriek. “Get out! Get out!” she cried, pushing Dakotah in the back, and toward the door.

*****

The evening had cooled off nicely when Rev. Daniels had pulled off into the street. “Nice night, isn’t it?”

“Pretty nice.” Dakotah replied. “It’ll be Fall, soon.”

“Dakotah, I have a confession. I could’ve easily let you stay the night, and let Ely take you home in the morning, but I wanted to talk to you. Alone.”

“Oh.” Dakotah mumbled, dread suddenly gripping him.

Rev. Daniels took a deep breath. “Dakotah, how do you feel about my daughter? Do you love her, are you just friends, or what?”

“I care about her a great deal.” Dakotah said, noncommittal.

“Are you in love with her?”

Dakotah instantly became very nervous. “Ahhh…..”

“Listen, Dak. As a minister, I’ve trained myself to discern the truth. Every once in a while I’m fooled, but on the whole, I can figure out where a person’s heart is on a matter. It’s a useful skill; with it, I can help people see the truth in their particular situation. I promise I’m not going to kick you out of the car.“ he said, chuckling. “Dakotah, are you in love with Ely?”

“Y-yes.” Dakotah stammered.

“I thought so. I can see it when you talk to her, when your eyes follow her, the way that she has you eating out of her hand.” Rev. Daniels thought for a moment while Dakotah sat in silence. “You know, you remind me a lot of myself when I was dating Ely’s mother. Jane was a pistol, a lot like Ely is now! Keeping up with her was a full time job! But you know, she absolutely brought sunshine into my life! Do you feel that way about Ely, Dak?”

Dakotah felt courage growing inside of him, and he spoke.  “She has an internal glow that makes me glow inside, too. All I want is to be near her all the time.”

Rev. Daniels took a deep breath. “Now, for a harder question. How do you think she feels about you?”

Dakotah knew the answer, but he didn’t want to tell him about Ely’s relationship with Hannah. “I know she cares for me a lot.”

“But she’s not in love with you, is she?”

“No.”

“Do you know her friend Hannah? What do you think of her?

Dakotah did not like where this was going. “Does he suspect something between them?” he thought. “I’ve never met her. She seems okay, I guess. She would have to be, to stay Ely’s friend.”

“Have you ever heard of Facebook?”

Dakotah became a little confused. “A little bit. Isn’t it some kind of online social thing?”

“Then, you don’t do Facebook?”

“I don’t have a computer.” Dakotah said, matter-of-factly.

“Ah! Well then, long story short, I have a friend who’s a professor at UM. He does do Facebook, and has Hannah as one of his “friends”. A couple of days ago, she posted on her site a photograph.”

“A photograph?” Dakotah became uneasy.

“Yes. It was a photo of Ely and Hannah. Kissing.”

Dakotah gasped, partly because the truth was now out, and partly because there was actual physical evidence of the nature of Ely’s and Hannah’s relationship. Dakotah never wanted to dwell on that reality, and it hurt. A lot.

“Did you know of their relationship, Dakotah?”

Dakotah did not want to betray Ely’s trust in him, but he couldn’t lie to her father, either. “Yes, for a couple of months, now. She told me not to tell a soul.”

“I see.” Rev. Daniels thought for a moment. “She really put you in a tough spot, didn’t she? Almost everyone at church, and I guess everyone in your family, has you two pegged as a couple, although neither of you actually admitted to it. It’s almost like living a lie, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.” Dakotah said, dejected.

“So, why do you subject yourself to such heartache? I know you’re in love with her, but you’re running the risk of being broken, and bitter. I can honestly say you are not in a healthy relationship. Don’t you agree?”

“I know, I know.” Dakotah began to tear up. “Please understand, Alan. I haven’t had the easiest life. My father abandoned me and Mom when I was little. Mom married a good-for-nothing who openly hates my guts, while Mom just stands by and never says a word against him. I was always terrorized at school; the guidance counselor even said I was worthless! However, when life was at its grayest, your daughter gave me a ray of light. When I lost my best friend, and life was at its blackest, your daughter shone. She has told me many times that I have been the same for her. I believe with all my heart that the Lord brought us together. Through her, I now know you, Mama, and the rest of the good people at New Hope. She, along with my grandma, has given me confidence that fighting the good fight will not be in vain. If I never, ever, so much as kiss her, it will still be enough. I love her. Aishiteru. “ Wiping tears from his eyes, Dakotah said, “Heh. I guess I’ve been lying to myself all this time.”

“Confessing feels good, doesn’t it?” Rev. Daniels said, pulling onto Dakotah’s street. So, what are you going to do now? Are you going to tell her what you just told me?”

“No.” Dakotah said, sadly. “I’m afraid I would force her to choose between myself and Hannah, and I would lose. I can’t risk that. I’ll just have to keep doing what I’m doing, and see what happens. Are you going to say anything to her?”

“Yes, I am. Don’t worry, I’m going to make sure she understands completely that you are not at fault. You know, the fact that she is in a homosexual relationship is not really my concern. I would be a hypocrite if I condemned her, wouldn’t I? The two things that concern me is that first, she didn’t trust in me enough to confide in me about her and Hannah’s relationship, and second, that she put you in an incredibly awkward situation. I know she’s still a kid, but I thought I taught her better than that!”

Rev. Daniels pulled up to the curb. “Remember, Dakotah. You are a fine, upstanding young man. There will always be people who want to tear you down, but don’t believe them, even if what they say seems to make sense.”

Dakotah shook his hand. “Sir, thank you for everything. You’ve been a great help. Maybe I can come over again soon?”

“Why, sure! You’re the closest thing to family we’ve had in a long time!”

Dakotah felt a lump in his throat, as the car pulled away. “It would be awesome if he were to become may father-in-law!” he thought.

Dakotah walked up to the drive, noticing that his mother had already arrived from work. “I hope I don’t catch any flak for being late.” he thought.

He entered the house, seeing both his mother and Frank waiting on him. Whatever positive vibes he had after talking to Rev. Daniels quickly vanished, replaced by dread. Whenever both of them were together, and he was the center of attention, it was never good, he thought.

“Dakotah, we need to talk.” Sylvia said, frowning.

“Sorry I came in so late.” Dakotah said. “At least you hadn’t made it to bed yet.”

“Who was the dude?” Frank said, growling. “New boyfriend?”

“Ha ha ha, you’re not funny.” Dakotah said without emotion. “That’s Ely’s dad, the Reverend Daniels.”

“Oh, that was nice of him.” Sylvia said, trying to change the mood. “I guess he likes you, then?”

“He’s really nice.” Dakotah said, still wondering why they waiting on him.

Sylvia tone hardened. “Look, son, I’ve just received notice that I’m going to be laid off at the end of next week. As of right now, I have no idea when, or if, I’ll be called back. Things are looking pretty bleak at the plant right now. Rumor has it they may shut the plant down, but of course, that’s just a rumor.”

Dakotah was stunned. He knew the economy was bad, since he couldn’t find a job, but his mother had been an employee there for fifteen years, and he always thought she had enough seniority to not get laid off.

“What’s going to happen now?” Dakotah said, concerned.

“Looks like I’m going to be drawing unemployment for a while.” Sylvia said matter-of-factly. “In the meantime, things are going to be really tight, so we all have to pitch in, and conserve as much as possible.”

“It would be good if someone got a job.” Frank said, scowling toward Dakotah. ”It’s bad enough trying to make ends meet without having dead weight living in the house.”

“It’s not like I haven’t been trying to find a job!” Dakotah shouted, exasperated.

“Easy, son. I know you’d help, if you could.” Sylvia said sympathetically, shooting a hateful stare toward Frank. “We’ll just have to make it through this together, as a family. Right, Frank?”

Frank rolled his eyes. “Yeah, whatever.”

Sylvia gave Dakotah a hug. Somehow, it felt odd to him, unlike the hugs from Ely, his grandmother, even Mama. “It’ll be alright, son. We always make it through, somehow.”

“I’ll do whatever I can, mom.” Dakotah replied, heading upstairs. “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, son.” Sylvia replied. “Love you.”

“Love you, too, mom.”

*****

Dakotah changed, and prepared for bed. He was about to get the Bible for his nightly reading when he heard the phone ring downstairs.

Uneasiness hit the pit of his stomach. “Ely.” He thought.

Running down the stairs, Dakotah arrived at the phone, just as it stopped ringing. He picked up the handset in order to check the caller ID, but before he had a chance to look, he heard Frank becoming loud in his den. Nervously, he quickly turned on the handset.

“And another thing, if you honk your horn on Sunday morning, while I’m trying to sleep, I’m going to call the cops! Just because you’re some preacher’s daughter doesn’t mean you can get away with crap!” Frank bellowed.

“Okay, Frank, I got it!” Dakotah yelled into the handset, irritated.

“Boy, you need to tell that girl not to be calling here all hours of the night!” Frank boomed.

“I’m sorry it’s so late, but I wouldn’t have called if it wasn’t extremely important.” Ely said, firmly.

“What’s the matter, you miss your period, or something?” Frank said,  snarkily. “Bet it’s not Dakotah’s! “

“That’s enough, Frank!” Dakotah screamed as he burst into Frank’s den. “That’s uncalled for! You apolo-“

Frank wheeled around, grabbed Dakotah by the shirt, and slammed him into the wall, knocking down an 8×10 photo of Frank and his two sons. “Who the hell do you think you are? This is my frikken house, and I can talk to anybody anyway I frikken like!” He threw Dakotah down on to the floor, causing Dakotah to writhe in pain. ”You don’t like the way things are in this house, you can get the hell out!”

“That’s enough, Frank!” Sylvia appeared, seething, and assisted Dakotah to his feet. “For the record, your name is not on this mortgage!”

“No, but it’s on the marriage license.” Frank growled. “If I go, you’ll have to sell the house. I promise you that.”

Sylvia picked up both handsets, handing one to Dakotah. “Let me tell you one thing, Frank Howe. I’m a survivor. I’ll make it, somehow. You, on the other hand, will have to fend for your worthless, lazy, self, and I don’t think you want to go there, do you?”

“Talk all you want, old woman.” Frank sneered. “That’s all you have done your entire life, and you’ve never backed up those words once!”

Sylvia and Dakotah exited the den, Sylvia slamming the door as hard as she could. “I’m sorry, son. I wish I’d never married that bum.”

“It’s okay, mom, I’m alright. Frank doesn’t scare me like he used to.” They hugged tightly, the first time in months, Dakotah thought. He then realized that Ely was still on the line, and was yelling his name.

“Oh my gosh! I’m sorry, Ely!” Dakotah said frantically.

“Dakotah, are you alright?” Ely cried, sobbing. ”I thought he was going to kill you!”

“I wasn’t really afraid.” Dakotah said, trying to calm himself down, as well as Ely. “This isn’t my first tussle with him.”

“Why did you start something with him?” Ely sniffled, confused. “You know he’s just looking for an excuse to do something!”

“He started it, by insulting you, Ely.” Dakotah said, bristling. “I wasn’t going to let him get away with that!”

“Dak, that’s not like you. You’re more of the “turn the other cheek” kind of guy.”

“I know.” Dakotah said, quietly. “If Frank had insulted me, like he has thousands of times in my life, it wouldn’t have bothered me in the least. But when he said those things to you, something snapped inside.”

“In other words, you were defending my honor?” Ely said sweetly.

“I guess I was.” Dakotah replied, suddenly embarrassed.

“That’s good. I’m glad to have someone like you on my side, even if I don’t deserve it.”

“Why would you say something like that?” Dakotah said, confused.

“Because I put you in an impossible situation.” Ely replied, forlorn. “Dad had a talk with me after he got home. He told me of the photo on Facebook, and of his conversation with you.”

“I’m sorry, please don’t be mad!” Dakotah pleaded. “I didn’t know what else I could say. I couldn’t lie to him!”

“No, I’m the one should be sorry, Dak. I’m the one who put you in this impossible situation. None of this is your fault! I guess I was scared I would be scorned by everyone.” Ely’s voice cracked. “I hope you can forgive me.”

“Of course I forgive you, Ely.” Dakotah said, sympathetically. “You’re my best friend! How could I not forgive you?”

“Thank you. Your friendship means a lot to me.”

“What did your father say to you, anyway?” Dakotah said, wondering if Rev. Daniels told her how he felt about her.

“As soon as he mentioned Facebook, I knew he knew.” Ely said. I had to tell him everything then. He wasn’t mad, just disappointed, and a bit sad that I didn’t confide in him, and that I put you through all of it. We’re good now, I think.”

“That’s it?” Dakotah asked, still probing.

“Well, there was a lot of crying and “I love yous”.  said Ely. “Why?”

“I was wondering if your father told you what he thought of me.” Dakotah said, becoming a bit nervous.

“Oh, he had nothing for praise for you! He even said you’d make some lucky girl a good husband, while winking at me!”

“Gee, I wonder where you get your teasing streak from?” said Dakotah, laughing.

“I don’t think he was teasing me. I’m not sure if he believes Hannah and I are serious.”

“He hasn’t seen you two together: he’s only seen us together, and how comfortable we are with each other. If he saw you two together for a period of time, then he’d know for sure. Heck, I haven’t even seen you two together!”

“Well, in your case, we can fix that!”

“Oh, as in the Halloween party?” Dakotah asked, uneasily.

“Yeah!” Ely said excitedly. “I figured it out! You’re going to be Koizumi Itsuki!”

“Yay, me.” Dakotah said in a monotone. “Don’t I need a school uniform, or something?

“I’ll figure something out. I have over a month!” There was a pause of a few seconds. “Wow, it’s really late! I need to get some sleep! Talk to you tomorrow?”

“I’ll call you. No need in having you disturb Frank.” Dakotah said matter-of-factly. Even though his mother made a stand earlier, he didn’t believe she would hold her position if the going got tough. “Love you.”

“Love you, too.” Ely replied. “Daisuki, Koishiteru, or Aishiteru?”

“Koishidaishteruki.”

“You’re hopeless!” Ely laughed.

Dakotah hoped that he could always hear Ely laugh like that.


Chapter 7

Chapter 7

July 20th, 2008

A muggy, drizzly morning awaited Dakotah as he waited on the porch for Ely to pick him up. This was the week to go to Ely’s church; he had been alternating between her church and his grandmother’s for the past seven weeks.

Dakotah felt he was starting to know Ely better. In several ways, she was like him; quiet around people she didn’t know, polite, respectful of others, eager to help those in need. However, when she was on familiar ground, she was very charming and outgoing, things that were alien to him. “Maybe I have no home turf?” Dakotah thought.

Dakotah looked at his watch. She was usually a few minutes late, though her Sunday School class was informal enough not to start at a set time. Everything seemed informal at the church. The Baptist church Dakotah and his grandmother attended was regimental in its program schedule: two hymns, announcements, another hymn, meet and greet, prayer, offerings, two hymns, the sermon, a call to the altar while two more hymns were sung, a prayer, then dismissal. At New Hope, the 10:30 start time was more of a suggestion than set in stone; sometimes it was nearly 11:00 before Rev. Daniels made it to the pulpit. Two weeks ago, they were about to say the closing prayer, when Mama spoke up to alert the congregation that the offerings hadn’t been collected yet! As haphazard as the church was seemingly run to Dakotah, no one was complaining, or even grumbling. If this happened at 3rd Baptist, he was sure they would run the preacher out of town!

Although she remained flirty at times with him, Dakotah was still unsure whether or not if she actually liked him from a romantic standpoint. Oh, if he only knew what she was thinking! Even though he trusted her completely as a friend, he still was too timid to tell her how he felt. The risk of scaring her off was too much, he thought. Besides, he was in no position to ask her out; he had neither a job nor transportation, and the prospects for gaining either were more none than slim. Dakotah frowned.

At that moment, he heard a familiar horn beeping. It was Ely, announcing her arrival as she had done every time she picked him up. Frank complained he was roused every time she picked Dakotah up; although he liked that Frank was being inconvenienced, he’d rather not risk poking the bear too many times, at least not now.

He opened the door, and the sight of her robbed him of his ability to speak. First, she was wearing a robin’s egg blue cotton sundress. Second, in the past few months, she had grown her hair out, and now, had tied it up in a French braid. Third, and the most striking, was that the thick glasses were gone, replaced by….nothing.

“You like?” Ely said, smiling.

“W-w-wow.” Dakotah stammered. “You look awesome! Are you wearing contacts, I hope?”

“Yes, silly!” Ely laughed. “I don’t think I could make it here without some sort of help! I’m using some of my earnings to help pay for them! They take some getting used to, in wearing them, and in looking at myself in the mirror!”

Dakotah got in the car. “I don’t think I’ll ever have a problem looking at you!” he exclaimed. Realizing what he said, Dakotah looked down at his feet, blushing.

Ely noted his words, and sensed his sudden awkwardness. “Dak, I’d like to talk to you about some things after church, if you don’t have anything planned.” she said in a subdued tone.

“A-about some things?” Dakotah said nervously. “Great, I messed everything up. She probably hates me now.” he thought to himself.

“It’s okay. It’s nothing bad, or anything.” Ely said, putting her hand on his shoulder in reassurance.

Dakotah didn’t reply. He was numbing himself to what possible horrible things that lay ahead.

*****

Sunday School was a blur to Dakotah; although he usually was by far the best in his class in general Bible knowledge, he barely raised his hand to answer anything, though he knew all the answers to the questions. Ely, who always sat beside Dakotah in class, looked at him with concern.

He tuned out the regular church service, too, going through the motions while singing the hymns. Mama had to poke him in the ribs so he could take the collection plate. “You all right, hon?” she asked with a worried look on her face.

“I’m OK, just lost in thought, I guess.” he said, putting the dollar his grandma gave him in the collection plate.

“Well, if you need anything, or need somebody to talk to, you just give Mama a holler, y’hear?”

“I promise, Mama.” Dakotah replied with little emotion.

Mama leaned over, looking past Dakotah to Ely, who was sitting on the other side, and whispered, ”Sweetie, you’d think that a fella that was sitting next to a pretty flower such as yourself wouldn’t be in such a funk.”

“I know, right?” Ely whispered back. “Do you have any suggestions?”

“Give him some sugar. That’ll snap him out of it!”

“Sugar?” Ely said, confused. Dakotah didn’t know what Mama meant either, but he felt uneasy.

Mama beamed. “Give him a little smoochie!”

Dakotah’s heart skipped a beat, and he felt both pale and hot at the same time. Ely giggled. “You know best, Mama!”
Dakotah braced himself. “She’s not going to do it, is she?”  He thought, both excited and mortified at the same time.

Ely leaned over near to Dakotah, and he swallowed hard, bracing himself. However, there was no kiss. “Dak, I care about you too much to create a spectacle in front of everyone. No worries.” Ely whispered in his ear.

Dakotah exhaled, and slumped in the pew. He was relieved, yet somehow, he was disappointed, too.

*****

Dakotah had largely ignored Rev. Daniels’ sermon, thinking of the earlier conversation instead. “Does she really want to kiss me? Do I mean that much to her?” he thought. “Is this what she wants to talk about after church?”

The congregation arose to leave, some of them lining up to pay their respects to the preacher, others talking together in little groups. Ely and Dakotah got in line, leaving Mama to gab with parishioners. Soon, they were facing Rev. Daniels.

Ely hugged her father. “It’s hard to believe you’re my little girl.” He said, with a hint of sadness. “You look so mature now!”

“Thank you, Daddy.” Ely replied, smiling. ”I’m still me!”

The Rev. turned to Dakotah. “Take care of my daughter, okay?”

“You always say that, but she’s the one that’s driving.” Dakotah replied, sheepishly. “All I do is sit in the passenger’s seat.”

“I know, but I feel better knowing you’re with her.” Dakotah felt warm inside.

“Well, sir, I’ll do my best to take care of her!” Dakotah exclaimed, grinning.

“You don’t have to call me Sir. Alan’s fine with me.” Rev. Daniels said.

“I’ll try, er, Alan.” Dakotah replied. He was uneasy about calling elders by their first name, as he was always taught to say “sir” and “ma’am”.

Ely grabbed Dakotah’s arm. “Let’s go!” she said forcefully, pulling him along. “Bye, dad!”

Exiting the church, Ely looked about, making sure no one could hear her. “So, you’re going to take care of me?” she said, pointing her finger at Dakotah.

“Aa-aahhhhh….” Dakotah stammered, caught by surprise. “I guess, maybe? I don’t know.”

“Let’s get this straight, Dakotah.” Ely said, her blue eyes riveted on his. “I need no one to take care of me.”

“I’m sorry; I was just going along with your father. I don’t think I could do much, considering that I have neither a job, nor a car.”

“I’m sorry, too, Dak. I didn’t mean to snap at you like that, but sometimes Dad irks me, because I consider myself to be pretty independent. Heck, he raised me that way.”

“I think that even if you’re 18, or any age, your dad’s going to worry, because he’s your dad.” Dakotah thought on that for a second, and wondered if his real dad ever thought of him, much less worried about him.

“I suppose you’re right, Dak.” Ely said. “Come on, let’s get in the car, and turn the A/C on. It’s hot out here on the parking lot, and I don’t want to get all sweaty.”

As they pulled out of the church parking lot, Ely turned right, instead of left, as they normally do when she took him home.

“Where are we going?” Dakotah asked.

“Nowhere in particular.” Ely replied simply.

*****

The car became silent; neither Ely nor Dakotah offered to start a conversation, and it unnerved Dakotah. As they made it out of town, and into the countryside, Dakotah began to stare out the window, unable to speak. “I need to say something, but what?” he thought.

The clouds started to break up a little, and the sun began to peep out. Soon, they came up on one of the county parks, and Ely pulled into the driveway, parking the car under a shady spot in the parking lot. “There are not a lot of amenities, so not many people come here.” Ely said. “I like to come here to think sometimes.” Dakotah said nary a word, too nervous to speak.

Ely took a deep breath. “Dakotah, if I ask you something, will you tell me the truth?”

“S-sure.” Dakotah stammered, unsure of where the conversation was going.

“Promise?” Ely said, with a hint of sadness.

“Yeah. I promise.” Dakotah replied uneasily. He had the feeling he was going to be put in a very uncomfortable situation.

She reached out, and held his hand. How do you feel about me?”

A jolt passed through Dakotah. He felt both elation and terror. Out of reflex, he initially looked down, but taking a deep breath, forced himself to look into her eyes.

“You’re v-very special to me, Ely.” Dakotah said, his voice trailing off. “Lame.” he thought.

“Special?” Ely replied, curious.

“Y-yeah. Well, more than that. You mean a lot to me. I don’t know how I would’ve made it past the last couple of months without you.”

“Do you like me?” Ely said quietly.

Dakotah stared into her eyes. “Of course I do. How could a person not like you?”

“Not as in friend-like. As in kissing-like.”

Dakotah froze mentally. His face became red, and he felt himself begin to sweat. He tried to swallow, but his throat was dry. “Y-y-yeah.” he said, looking down, embarrassed.

Ely reached out, put her fingers under his chin, and raised his head, so that their eyes met. He noticed those big, beautiful blue eyes were beginning to moisten.

“Thank you.” she said. “Thank you for being so honest. But I knew you would be. That’s what I love about you most.”

Love? She loves me?” Dakotah thought, his mind and his heart racing.

Ely withdrew her hands and swallowed hard. Her countenance changed to one of sadness. “I’m sorry. I know you’re going to hate me. But I have to be as honest with you as you are with me.”

“What? Why is she saying this?” he thought, suddenly unable to breathe.

“Bear with me, Dakotah. What I have to say is the one of the hardest things ever. First of all, I love you. You are everything a girl could ever want in a guy. You are funny, smart, kind, and truthful. I feel like we’ve been friends for years. I trust you with my life.”

Dakotah was bewildered. “But-“

Ely cut him off, holding her hand up. “Please, let me finish.” Tears started rolling down her cheeks. “What I’m about to say has only been told to Andre. Will you promise to keep it a secret?”

“Y-yeah.” Dakotah replied, stunned, not knowing what was coming next.

“I don’t mean to put you down by saying this, but I was alone in the world, too, at least relationship-wise. Who would want to ask out a geeky preacher’s daughter, anyway?” Dakotah began to raise his hand, but Ely stopped him. “Besides you, I mean?”

“Back in February, dad let me go to a comic-con in Pontiac. Have you ever been to one?” Dakotah shook his head. ”You have to go to one someday. They are so cool! Anyway, there was this girl there wearing Clannad cosplay, She was very self- assured, and strong. I so wished I could be like her, you know? Anyway, she saw me, stopped in her tracks, walked over to me, and said I looked like Nagisa, only with blue eyes!

“I don’t know who she is.” Dakotah said, almost inaudibly. “She must be cute.”

Ely managed a weak smile. “She’s way cuter than me, thank you for saying so. Needless to say, I was flattered, and embarrassed. I wondered at first if she was mocking me, but after talking to her a little bit, I realized her feelings were genuine.”

“So, this girl has a brother, I assume?” Dakotah mumbled, downtrodden.

“Why do you say that?” Ely said, slightly irritated.

“Because you have a boyfriend, I guess, and through her is how you met him?” Dakotah snapped back, feeling betrayed now.

Ely shook her head, frowning. “You know, Dakotah, you can be such an idiot sometimes. For the record, Hannah doesn’t have a brother.”

Dakotah was taken aback from Ely’s vitriol. “Your friend Hannah?” he said, looking down, dejected.

Ely took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Dakotah. You’re not making this any easier. Can you bear with me, and listen, without interrupting?” Dakotah was completely confused, but nodded without saying a word.

Ely continued. “Hannah and I started talking at the comic-con, and found out we both had the same interests. We exchanged phone numbers, and began calling each other almost every day. She’s a student at Michigan, and sometimes, they have screenings of full length anime features at one of the performing arts halls on campus. One day, she asked me if I wanted to go see The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. Of course, I was excited! I was going to hang out with someone, not because I was the preacher’s daughter, but because of whom I was.”

“It was probably the most fun day of my life. Being around all those college students made me feel mature, and I felt like I belonged. I felt free! Hannah was amazing, too! She’s so funny, smart, and hip; just her asking me to go to the movie flattered me!”

“After the movie, we went to her dorm room. She has anime posters in Japanese all over the walls, so cool! She made some herbal tea, and we talked for a while, about everything. She asked about what I thought of same sex relationships; I told her about Andre, and that I supported what consenting people did privately, as long as it didn’t harm anyone, was okay.”

Dakotah felt a knot growing in his stomach. He didn’t know where this was going, but he didn’t like it at all.

“Hannah then asked me if I would be offended if she kissed me. I didn’t know what to say, or what to feel. I was shocked, embarrassed, and my head was spinning. I told her I didn’t know, so she took my hands, leaned over, and kissed me.”

Dakotah was dumbfounded. Trying to speak, his mouth opened, but nothing came out. There were no words he could think of to say.

Ely began to cry. ”When she kissed me, I felt warm inside. I didn’t feel like someone was trying to take advantage of me. What I felt was real. What I felt was love.” She took his hands in hers. “Dakotah, I’m so sorry. I have been giving you the idea that I was interested in you romantically. I flirted with you to test you, to see if you were genuine, to see if you could be trusted. I knew you come from a conservative upbringing, and I was afraid that you would hate me for my relationship with Hannah. I realized that you are as I was, just a few months ago. Alone, and looking for someone to care about you, and to care for.”

Dakotah began to cry. Still, no words came out. Suddenly, he felt more alone that he could ever remember.

“I know you must hate me, and you have every right to, Dakotah.” Ely sobbed, looking directly into his eyes. ”You didn’t deserve to be misled like that. I was trying not to be hurt, and instead, hurt you much worse. I don’t deserve your forgiveness, but I need to ask for it, anyway. You are very special to me, closer to me than anyone besides Hannah. I need you as a friend, Dak. Please forgive me?”

Dakotah’s mind was still spinning. He looked into her eyes; all he wanted to do was to hold her, to comfort her, to kiss her as Hannah had done. Surely she would know his feelings were no less real, his love for her was no less strong? He quickly gathered his senses, however, and he knew in his heart that she was not going to reciprocate his love.

Dakotah coughed, cleared his throat, and took a deep breath. Exhaling, and wiping away tears, he looked into her eyes. “Ely……Ely, I-I thought you were the one for me.” He said in a very low voice. Ely began to speak, but Dakotah held his hand up, silencing her. “Pl-Please, let me finish, this time.” He continued. “I-I love you. When I’m with you, I’m the happiest person in the world.  You don’t care that I’m a geek. You don’t care that I’m a loser.”

“You’re not a-“ Ely tried to interrupt, but was interrupted herself.

“I AM!!!” Dakotah shouted. “Or maybe, at least, I was. Until the day you picked up and handed me my binder. Then on the saddest day of my life, you picked me up, took me to Detroit, and gave me hope. Hope that maybe I am somebody.”

“You are somebody, a very important somebody to me.” Ely said, gripping Dakotah’s hands tightly. “I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have you in my life.”

“You glow.” Dakotah said.

“I what?” Ely said, confused.

“You glow. Whenever I see you, you have a glow that comes from inside, like it’s from your soul, or something. When I’m near, I feel it. Not only from you, but I feel it from inside me as well, but only when you’re near me.”

“I think what you’re feeling is what you ate.” Ely said laughing, slightly embarrassed.

“I mean it!” Dakotah said forcefully. He then softened his tone considerably, and squeezed Ely’s hands tighter. “You know, how can I hate you? How can I not forgive you? I don’t trust people much either, so I can kind of understand why you did what you did. All I know, all I want is to be near you, to be part of your life, for you to be part of my life, and if that means as just friends, so be it. I have to be near…..that…..glow!” Dakotah relaxed his grip. “I love you.”

It was Ely’s turn to start crying. “I love you, too! Oh my gosh, I thought you were going to be angry, and walk away! I was so scared I was going to lose you! You are so awesome!”

“Kinda hard to walk away when you’re 20 miles from home.” Dakotah said, laughing.

Ely gave Dakotah a puzzled look. “You mean if we had this discussion while parked in front of your house, you’d walk out on me?” She said, unsure.

Dakotah shook his head, smiling. “You mean I gotcha? Yes! Finally!”

“Yeah, you got me.” Ely said, now smiling broadly, as she wiped away a tear. I’m only ahead of you 50 to 1 now!”

Ely leaned over, and pulling him to her, hugged him securely. “I’ll never forsake you again, Dakotah.” She whispered in his ear. “I promise with all my heart.” With that, she kissed him on the cheek. “I love you, Dak.”

Instinctively, he turned his head toward her, and their lips nearly touched. Ely quickly pushed herself away. “Easy, just friend.” She said, smiling slightly. “I don’t want any accidents to complicate things! I’m already taken, remember?”

“I was just going to kiss you on the cheek, but you moved your head back, just friend.” Dakotah replied, also smiling. ”I’m not going to say I wouldn’t minded an accident, though!”

“I know, but for the sake of our friendship, you have to not go there. I love you, but just as my friend. Hannah is the one that I’m in love with.”

The words stung Dakotah. “I know. You’re my best friend, my only friend, and I have to protect that at all costs. I don’t want to be alone again.”

Ely looked at herself in the rear view mirror. “Oh my gosh! I’m such a mess!”

“I don’t think you look bad.” Dakotah said, encouragingly.

“And you’re biased. Trust me, I need to re-do my makeup! I’m supposed to meet Hannah this evening, and she hasn’t seen me without my contacts yet!”

Dakotah thought for a few seconds while Ely went to work on her face. “So, where are you going tonight? Movie?”

“Close.  Hannah and I are going to one of her friends from the anime club at UM. He’s supposed to just received a copy of season one of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya on DVD. It’s supposed to be one of the best anime series ever!”

“Better than Dragonball Z?

“Are you kidding me? Way, way better! That stuff is for junior high weenies!”

“Thanks.” Dakotah deadpanned, rolling his eyes.

“You know I’m just kidding!” Ely laughed.

“I was thinking.” Dakotah said, looking upward. “Maybe I could tag along, and watch it with you guys, seeing how awesome it is, and everything?”

Ely frowned. “I’m afraid that’s a no-go. First, I’m going on a date with my girlfriend. Second, Hannah isn’t too thrilled with me having you as a friend.”

“She thinks I’m competition?” Dakotah said, smiling internally.

“More of a threat. To be honest, she doesn’t like you. She thinks you’re this conservative Bible thumper that hates gay people.”

“What gave her that idea? What did you tell her about me, anyway?”

“That you’re this geeky conservative Christian that knows the Bible from back to front. I tried to explain to her that you’re cool with the concept of gay people going to Heaven, but she’s not convinced. She also thinks that you’re after me, too.”
“Well, you yourself didn’t truly trust me until today, so what chance do I have with someone I’ve never met?” Dakotah said, slightly frustrated.

“I know. Let me work on that, Dak. I’m sure in time you and Hannah will be best buds!” Ely closed up her makeup bag. “There! Do I look better now?”

“Beautiful, as always.” Dakotah said with a slight smile.

*****

Ely took Dakotah back to town, dropping him off at the park at his request. Dakotah needed some time away from family to mentally digest what had transpired earlier, and to figure out what to tell them about his relationship with Ely. His grandmother had been hinting about financing an official date between Ely and himself; now, that scenario was never going to happen.

He decided that he would tell them that Ely was looking for just a friend, that he didn’t meet what she was looking for in a relationship, which was as close to the real truth as he could get. Her secret relationship with Hannah would be safe with him; he didn’t know how to deal with the people at New Hope, though, as they believed he and Ely was an item, too.

He stopped by his grandmother’s for supper; smelling her cooking, he realized that he hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast, and he was famished. She was disappointed at the news that he and Ely would be only friends, but she encouraged him not to give up, that he was still young!

The folks at home were pretty blasé about it all. Frank, who after fussing about Ely waking him up honking her horn again, stated that Dakotah needed to chase fat, ugly girls, that they didn’t care who was interested in them, as long as they were fed. His mother, though she gave him a hug, and told him there were actually other pretty girls who would be interested in him, seemed distracted. Work at her job had slowed sown, and overtime was no more.

Mentally exhausted, he showered, and made his way to bed. Hoping to take his mind off things, Dakotah turned on the radio. The news was on, proclaiming that the economic downturn could be the worst since the Great Depression. Dakotah sighed, wondering if he would ever get a job.

Finally, music began to play. Originally not paying attention to the melody, Dakotah realized what the song was. Angrily, he reached over, and shut the radio off.

The song was I Kissed a Girl by Katy Perry.

“Damn.” Dakotah swore, as he began sobbing silently.


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.


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