Chapter 13

Chapter 13

January 30, 2009

After a fitful night, Dakotah gave up, and arose at 7AM. He poured a small glass of orange juice, swallowed a multivitamin, and put a couple of pieces of bread in the toaster.

The past couple of days had been a whirlwind, and emotionally draining. Yesterday was the worst of the two, with afternoon visitation at the funeral home. Seeing his grandmother in the casket was particularly hard, and he wept openly. Though all who saw her said the mortician did a good job, she didn’t look quite right to him. “Andre didn’t either”, he thought.

Quite a few visitors were from First Baptist; most of them asked him why they hadn’t seen him in church. Almost all of them gave him a puzzled look when he tried to explain he was now a member of New Hope.

Most of the rest of the visitors were former colleagues of the various school systems Elizabeth had taught. A couple of the older ones, remembering her husband,  compared Dakotah to his grandfather when he was younger.

The only saving grace on the first day of visitation was Rev. Daniels and Ely arriving at four o’clock, and staying until it was time to leave. Rev. Daniels was quite active socially, and shared a few laughs, particularly with Rev. Higgins, with whom he attended seminary. Ely mostly clung to Dakotah; she always introduced herself as Rev. Daniels’ daughter, if anyone asked. One older gentleman surmised that she was Dakotah’s girlfriend, but she didn’t correct him, much to Dakotah’s surprise. As the man turned away, Dakotah gave Ely a puzzled look; she said not a word, shrugging her shoulders as a reply.

Dakotah buttered his toast, ate, dressed himself in the same suit he attended Andre’s funeral in, and brushed his hair, noting that it had almost reached his shoulders. “Maybe I should get it trimmed back soon.” he thought.

By 8:30, Dakotah was ready to leave. Grabbing the car keys, he stopped, startled, when he heard a knock at the kitchen door. Dakotah opened the door to find Rev. Daniels and Ely standing before him. Ely was also wearing the same clothes she wore at Andre’s funeral; without the glasses, and now longer hair, she looked stunning to him.

“Ready to go?” Rev. Daniels said, smiling.

“Yeah.” Dakotah replied, confused. “Why are you here?”

“I thought I’d pick you up and take you.” Rev. Daniels said, kindly. “Is that okay with you?”

“Sure.” Dakotah replied, shrugging his shoulders.

“Maybe a trip to Detroit later?” Ely piped in.

Dakotah couldn’t help but smile a little. “I guess so. It’ll be dark by the time we get there, though, and it’s Friday night. The city will be a zoo.”

“Think I can’t handle it?” Rev. Daniels said, teasing Dakotah.

“If you can handle her.” Dakotah laughed, pointing at Ely, “you can handle anything!”

“Jury’s still out on that one.” Rev. Daniels said, grinning.

“You guys are too funny!” Ely laughed smacking them both on the arm.

“Hey!” Dakotah exclaimed in mock indignation. “That’s no way for my girlfriend to act!”

“Oh, that.” Ely said, frowning. “I was humoring an old man I’ll probably never see again. I didn’t want to embarrass you, so don’t let it go to your head, okay?”

“I’m not.” Dakotah said, thoughtfully. “I thought you were just being nice. I appreciate it.”

“Let’s get going.” Rev. Daniels said, looking at his watch. “Lord willing, it’ll go well.”

*****

The trio pulled in the nearly empty parking lot at the funeral home. A bitter wind and snow flurries greeted them as they exited the car, and Dakotah shivered as he clutched his coat over his thin suit.

The funeral director opened the door for them as they made it to the building.

“How are you doing today, Dakotah?” the funeral director said, cheerily. “Will this winter ever end?”

“I’m okay, I guess.” Dakotah replied flatly, shrugging his shoulders. ”I like snow, but I’m getting tired of it.”

“Is there anything I can do for you?” the funeral director asked, full of empathy.

“I think I’m okay, thanks.” Dakotah replied, sighing. “You’ve been really nice.”

“Thank you.” the funeral director said, bowing his head slightly. “If I may say, you’ve certainly been nicer than Mrs. Reynolds.”

“Really?” Dakotah said, rolling his eyes.

“She wanted me to cancel Thursday visitation, and give her a refund!” the funeral director said, indignantly. “I refused, and I told her that’s not what Mrs. Lennon wanted. She trusted me, especially after I did her husband’s funeral, and I didn’t want to violate that trust, even though she had passed. I think if you take advantage of the departed, you’ll reap in a bad way someday, don’t you think?”

You did the right thing, sir, and we thank you.” Rev. Daniels said. “I’m sure Elizabeth and Mr. Lennon is thanking you from above.”

“Thank you.” the funeral director said, smiling. “It’s good to get feedback from someone alive, you know?”

*****

There were not many visitors in the first couple of hours; Dakotah, Ely, and Rev. Daniels spent most of their time chatting amongst themselves. The conversations wandered from Ely going to college, to Dakotah’s job responsibilities, to the potential places Dakotah would have to move to in a month. Nothing concrete came out of the discussions, as Dakotah didn’t want to face the reality of moving.

Aside from a brief “Hi, Grandma.” At the beginning of visitation, Dakotah had largely ignored the presence of his grandmother. He knew in the back of his mind she was there, yet he also felt that she wasn’t there, at least spiritually. He also felt that he was alone; his mother and Grandmother Parker didn’t feel like family, and even though Rev. Daniels and Ely were close, he knew deep down they weren’t family, either. As for his father, Dakotah didn’t think he would show up, not that he wanted him to. He had barely thought of his father over the years, and the mere possibility of him showing up made him cringe.

Dakotah glanced at his watch, for what he thought was the 100th time that day. It read 12:15, still an hour and forty-five minutes before the service was scheduled to start.

“I think this is the hardest part of the whole process.” Rev. Daniels said, putting his hand on Dakotah’s shoulder.

“Am I a bad person to be wishing the funeral was over?” Dakotah said, stressfully.

“No, that just makes you human.” Rev. Daniels said, smiling. “I’m sure Elizabeth is feeling empathy for you right now.”

Dakotah briefly glanced skyward, before looking down. “Miss you.” he thought.

“Oh, my gosh, it’s Van!” Ely exclaimed, almost shouting. “Hey!” she yelled, waving.

Dakotah snapped his head up, and saw Vanessa walking toward them, smiling weakly. Still wearing her nurses’ uniform, she carried fatigue in her gait, and on her face.

Vanessa hugged Dakotah tightly. He noted that she smelled of antiseptic. “I’m so sorry, Dakotah.” she said, sadly. “How are you?”

“Doing okay, I guess.” Dakotah replied, tired of repeatedly answering the same question.

“I can’t believe she’s gone!” Vanessa cried. “Do you know why she died?”

“No.” Dakotah replied, also tiring of that question, too. “Maybe the autopsy will tell us something. Where have you been? I’ve been trying to get hold of you! Work and stuff have kept you busy, huh?”

“Yeah.” Vanessa said, looking down. “I’m on my ninth straight day. Mostly twelve hour shifts, sometimes sixteen. The hospital has been shorthanded lately. I was lucky to take off to come here.”

“Whoa.” Dakotah said sympathetically.

“Dakotah, is there somewhere we can talk?” Vanessa said, nervously.

“Yeah, there’s a little snack room across the hall.” Dakotah said, becoming confused.

Nothing was said for the few seconds it took for them to reach the snack room. A table was set up with fruits, chips, and other finger foods. There were also a half dozen tables with chairs, all of them unoccupied.

As they sat down, Dakotah realized he actually missed her. “Have you eaten yet?” he asked. “Take some sandwiches with you. They’re just going to waste, anyway.”

“No thanks, I’m not hungry.” Vanessa said, looking down. She raised her head, and made eye-to eye contact with Dakotah. “I realize I’m doing this at the worst possible time, and I realize you will have every right to hate me, but I have no choice but to do this now.”

“What are you talking about?” Dakotah said, bewildered.

Vanessa took a deep breath. “I met someone new. Someone really nice. He’s a new resident at the hospital. He’s everything I saw in you, and he isn’t with anyone else.”

Dakotah was stunned for a moment. “Well, that’s really awesome!” he said, grasping what she said. “Congratulations! I hope it works out!”

“You’re not mad that I’m leaving you, that I’m telling you this on the day of your grandmother’s funeral?” Vanessa said, becoming confused.

“Well, I guess it couldn’t be helped, right?” Dakotah said, smiling a little. “Why would I be mad at you? You’re my friend!”

“There’s more.” Vanessa said, sullen.

“What’s that?” Dakotah replied, not understanding her expression.

“I’m leaving New Hope.” Vanessa said, frowning. “I’m going to start attending his church.”

“But New Hope is all that you’ve known!” Dakotah exclaimed, shocked. “What about the kids?”

“God won’t forsake those kids.” Vanessa said, plainly. “I’m sure you’ll be far superior to me in that ministry.”

“Why can’t you bring What’s-His-Name to New Hope, then?” Dakotah asked, not understanding her actions.

“Because his church has their act together, and carry out their ministry right!” Vanessa said, becoming irritated. “I’ve seen many visitors come to New Hope, see our ragtag service, and never come back! I love Brother Daniels to death, but he’s not professional, you know?”

“No, he’s not professional, he just has the Spirit.” Dakotah announced, frustrated. “Look, if that’s where God is leading you, then go, you have my blessing.” Dakotah sighed. “I’ll miss you, though.”

“I’ll miss you, too.” Vanessa said, becoming misty-eyed. “I’m sorry.”

“Good luck, Van.” Dakotah said, trying in vain to force a smile. “See you around?”

“I’d say so.” Vanessa replied, looking at her watch. “I have to go back to work. Take care, okay?”

“You too.” Dakotah said, diplomatically. “Good luck with What’s-His-Name.”

“Robert. Robert Daws.”

“Yeah, him.” Dakotah said, hugging Vanessa. “I hope you find happiness with him.” he whispered in her ear.

“Thanks.” Vanessa said, stepping away from Dakotah. “Bye.”

Vanessa turned away from Dakotah, and seeing Ely and Rev. Daniels, waved without saying anything. They waved back half-heartedly, wondering about Dakotah’s countenance.

“Well, that was interesting.” Dakotah said, scratching his chin.

“What happened?” Ely asked, curious.

“Do you know she’s leaving New Hope?” Dakotah asked.

“Yes, she came by the house last night, and told us everything.” Rev. Daniels said.

“Even the part about not liking the way New Hope is run?” Dakotah asked, trying to grasp their feelings.

“Everyone has a right to their opinion.” Rev. Daniels said, confidently. “If I took it personally with everyone that didn’t like the way I operated, I would never become a pastor!”

“Why didn’t you tell me all this earlier?” Dakotah said, curiously.

“She wanted to tell you herself, in person.” Ely said, consoling him. “It’s only right, I think.”

“Don’t worry about me, I’m okay with her decisions.” Dakotah said, shrugging his shoulders. “Who’s going to take her place on Wednesdays, though?”

“You can, if you want to.” Rev. Daniels said, plainly.

“I’m not sure if-“

“You’ll be fine.” Rev. Daniels said, smiling. “Would you like to have her job? If you don’t want it, that’s okay, too. We’ll figure out something. I just know you’re more than capable enough.”

Dakotah mulled over Rev. Daniels’ words for a moment. “I’ll try.” he said, hesitantly.

“Good! That’s the spirit!” Rev. Daniels said, enthusiastically.

Ely glanced  toward the entrance, and elbowed her father lightly. “Uh-oh, there she is!” she announced in a low tone.

Jean Reynolds strode toward the casket, inspecting it, and the mortician’s handiwork. Dakotah, followed by Rev. Daniels and Ely, joined her.

“How are you doing today, Aunt Jean?” Dakotah said, trying hard to be cheerful.

Jean snapped her head around, and stared at Dakotah for a moment, scowling. “It appears the mortuary is competent enough; why she would suffer the expense to be buried in such an expensive dress is beyond me.”

“If I remember correctly, this dress is similar to the one she wore while she dated Grandpa.” Dakotah replied, pleasantly.

“Sheer insanity.” Jean said, pursing her lips. “She should’ve been cremated. Funerals are such a waste of money.”

“Funerals are not for the dead, but for the living.” interrupted Rev. Daniels. “These services help us attain closure.”

“I had attained closure many years ago, not that it is any of your business.” Jean snapped. “She could’ve married into one of the finer families of Detroit, but no, she marries a soldier, and becomes a schoolteacher.”

“Nothing wrong with that, is there?” Rev. Daniels countered, smiling. “It was her right to live her life the way she saw fit.”

“She always sacrificed herself, and for what?” Jean growled. “Nothing. She had a failure for a son, and as for you,” she said, pointing at Dakotah, “what do you do? Are you even in college?”

“No.” Dakotah said, looking at the floor, suddenly embarrassed.

“Congratulations.” Jean said, looking at Dakotah conceitedly. “You are the sole result of all her labors, that and an old shack, and a run-down car.”

“Ms. Reynolds, Dakotah is highly intelligent, and an exceptionally hard worker.” Rev. Daniels said, sharply. “I assure you, someday, he will be successful in whatever venture he desires to pursue.”

“Humph.” Jean snorted. “I seriously doubt it.”

“Tell you what, Ms. Reynolds.” Rev. Daniels smirked. “You appear to be a woman of means. Why don’t you open up your checkbook, and pay for his education? He has dreams of being a meteorologist, and with your help, he could realize those dreams.”

Dakotah and Ely stared at Rev. Daniels, dumbstruck.

“Absolutely not!” Jean retorted, shocked. “I have never heard such a preposterous proposition. Technically, he is related to me, but he is not in my family line. I do not give charity, particularly to mongrels!”

Ely was about to speak her mind, but her father held his hand up, silencing her before she uttered a word. “I would rather have a mutt than a purebred, anytime.” Rev. Daniels said, gritting his teeth. “They are generally more intelligent, reliable, and loyal.”

Not showing any emotion, Jean checked her watch, and stared at Rev. Daniels. “Save your philosophical ramblings for liberal political gatherings. Now excuse me. I have some business to attend to.” She strode out of the room as she had strode in, several minutes prior, toward the funeral director’s office.

“You were incredible, Dad!” Ely giggled, barely containing herself. “You really told her!”

“I said my peace, but I doubt it sunk in.” Rev. Daniels said, shaking his head. “There are times Jesus tests even my Faith. We’ll just have to pray for her, and also pray that we won’t rejoice when she finally reaps what she’s been sowing her entire life.”

“Why did you ask for her to pay for my college?” Dakotah said, confused. “As if!”

“Your great aunt could easily pay your whole way. Tuition, food, books, and board, if she wanted to, without blinking.” Rev. Daniels said, thoughtfully. “Thought I’d give it a try, and see if we’d get lucky. I figured that she would respond in the manner she did, but it was worth the chance to be wrong.”

“Thanks for trying, Alan.” Dakotah said, smiling. “Woof!”

“Arooooo!” Ely howled, laughing.

“Bark bark bark!” Rev. Daniels chimed in. All three began to laugh. There were five or six others in the parlor, all of which gave the three an odd look.

“Think we’d better hit the buffet before it’s too late.” Rev. Daniels said, looking at his watch. “It’ll be awhile before we eat in Detroit.”

Dakotah, Ely, and Rev. Daniels gathered a few items off the buffet and sat down at one of the tables. Dakotah wasn’t hungry, but he thought he should eat something now, or he may get ill later.

Ely left the food on her plate mostly untouched, choosing to peck and swipe on her phone instead. She began to frown.

“What’s up, Sweetie?” Rev. Daniels asked.

“Oh, it’s just Hannah being stupid.” Ely said, sighing. “She keeps asking if I can go to Ann Arbor tonight. I keep telling her I have plans, but she’s not accepting no for an answer.”

“Keep trying, and stand firm.” Rev. Daniels said encouragingly. “She’ll give up, eventually.”

“She’s just mad because I’ve been spending a lot of time with Dak lately.” Ely grumbled. “She still sees him as a threat.”

“Does she know you spent the night with me?” Dakotah asked, sheepishly.

“No!” Ely whispered strongly, as if Hannah was in the next room, listening. “She’s not going to find out, either. No way she’d understand that!”

“Try not to make it a habit of keeping secrets from her, dear.” Rev. Daniels said, pointedly. “It’s not good for your relationship.”

“I don’t, unless it has to do with Dak.” Ely said, shaking her head. “It really ticks her off when I mention him, so I don’t. Getting so-called dumped by Van isn’t going to help, either. I had been shipping them pretty hard to her.”

“Consider your friendship to Dak one of the tests every relationship goes through.” Rev. Daniels said. “If it survives trials such as this one, then it’s a good relationship. If not, it was never meant to be in the first place.”

“Whenever I move to Ann Arbor, it should get better, since Dak won’t be around.” Ely said, hopefully.

Dakotah grimaced, but didn’t say anything. Ely caught the look on Dakotah’s  face, and sympathetically said “Sorry.”

“It’s okay.” Dakotah said, diplomatically. “I’ll be busy trying to get my own life moving. The church job is only the beginning, I hope.”

“That’s the spirit!” Rev. Daniels said, enthusiastically. “We probably need to get back, though. It’s 1:15.”

The three returned to the parlor. There were a few more visitors now, perhaps fifteen. Dakotah noticed his mother standing by the casket, alone.

“Hi, mom.” Dakotah said, simply.

Sylvia turned, hugged Dakotah, and began to cry. Dakotah, reacting to his mother’s tears, began to cry as well.

“How are you holding up, son?” Sylvia said, wiping away tears.

“I’m okay, so far.” Dakotah replied, gathering himself. “I’m not sure about later.”

“Have you ever been to a funeral?” Sylvia asked.

“Andre’s, remember?” Dakotah replied sharply, instantly irritated.

“Oh yeah, right.” Sylvia sighed. “I hate funerals.”

Dakotah felt a tap on his shoulder. “Excuse me.” the funeral director said as Dakotah turned to face him. “If you have a moment, I’d like to review the itinerary.”

Dakotah nodded, not saying anything.

“Good.” the funeral director continued. “Of course, at two o’clock, the services begin. The first row here is reserved for the immediate family.  “Mr. Lennon, you and Mrs. Reynolds will sit here.”

“Yay, me.” thought Dakotah. He noticed his mother, Ely, and Rev. Daniels sitting in the second row, and breathed a sigh of relief.

“We’ll have our services, and allow everyone to pay their last respects and leave.” the funeral director continued. “You’ll get a chance to have a few moments alone with your grandmother, then the pallbearers will take her to the hearse.”

“Oh yeah, pallbearers!” Dakotah realized. “Who are they?”

There’s several of them over there, talking to Rev. Higgins.” the funeral director said.

Dakotah looked over, and saw several men he recognized as choir members from his old church, one of which was Officer Douglas.

“We’ll try to make the graveside services brief, due to the weather, of course.” the funeral director said.

“That would be good.” Dakotah said, nodding. “I’m not really dressed for this weather.”

Rev. Higgins, seeing Dakotah, walked up to him, the pallbearers following.

“I really appreciate you all doing this.” Dakotah said, graciously.

“It’s our honor, Dakotah.” one of the pallbearers said, smiling. “Your grandma was a fine lady.”

“Shame she died like that.” Officer Douglas said, shaking his head, and sighing. “I think she could’ve been saved.”

“What?” Dakotah exclaimed, otherwise at a loss for words.

“You don’t know what happened to her?” Officer Douglas said, taken aback. “Mrs. Reynolds received the coroner’s report yesterday.”

“N-no, I didn’t.” Dakotah replied, his stomach tightening. “What did it say?”

“I’m afraid she had a stroke.” Officer Douglas said, empathetically. “A pretty severe one, the coroner said. If she had made it to the hospital in time, she could’ve been saved, at least in my honest opinion.”

“I-if I’d been there, she would still be alive?” Dakotah whimpered.

“Easy, Dakotah.” Rev. Higgins said, placing his hand on Dakotah’s shoulder.  “You cannot blame yourself for her passing. This is God’s will.”

“But I-“

“No buts, Dakotah.” Rev. Higgins said firmly. “Did you know she passed out in church three weeks ago?”

“No way!” Dakotah cried, incredulous.

“We called an ambulance for her, but she refused, saying she wasn’t going to the hospital, that the Lord would either heal her, or take her.”

“Why would she feel that way?” Dakotah said, frustrated. “It’s not like she was alone!”

“I’ve talked to Elizabeth many times over the past few years.” Rev. Higgins said, trying to soothe Dakotah. “I think the way the health care system treated your grandfather after he was diagnosed with cancer influenced her. They spent almost all the money they had trying to keep him alive, but it was in vain. I think she didn’t want to give anyone else that burden.”

“She wouldn’t have been a burden!” Dakotah protested. “I would’ve taken care of her!”

“You were the last one she would want to have troubled.” Rev. Higgins said, shaking his head. “She felt you had your whole life in front of you, and she didn’t want you to have to spend it taking care of her, instead of living your own life.”

“But-“

“No buts.” Rev. Higgins repeated. “Like it or not, she made a choice, and there’s nothing you can do about it now, but live your life in a way that will make her happy while she’s watching you from above.”

“Okay.” Dakotah said, defeated.

“She was so happy when you started coming to church with her, especially so when you found Christ, and became saved.” Rev. Higgins said, lightening his tone.

“Yeah, I have to thank her for that.” Dakotah acknowledged. “She always picked me up every Sunday, even if it snowed.”

“I was at first ever-so- slightly irked when you started attending New Hope.” Rev. Higgins said, smiling a little. “I like to think I have one of the best places around for worship, teaching, and fellowship.”

“I’m sorry!” Dakotah blurted, suddenly embarrassed. “I-“

“Don’t be.” Rev. Higgins said calmly, holding one hand up. “between the fact that my old comrade is a good, God-fearing, worker for Christ, and the reports from Elizabeth on your good works at New Hope, I’m convinced you made the right decision.”

“Th-thank you.” Dakotah stuttered, stunned.

“I’m proud of you, Dakotah, and I hope the Lord continues to bless both you and Brother Alan.” Rev. Higgins said, smiling.

“I-I’ll do my best!” Dakotah said, feeling warm inside.

Rev, Higgins looked across the room at the clock on the wall. “Well, I guess it’s time to start. If you ever need anything, or need any advice, my door’s always open.”

“Thank you.” “I’ll do that.” Dakotah said, feeling relieved inside. He took his seat in the front row, sitting in front of Ely, Rev. Daniels, and his mother.

Rev. Daniels leaned forward, and spoke in a low voice in Dakotah’s ear. “I saw what that scoundrel was trying to do. He was trying to get you to go back to 1st, wasn’t he?”

“That’s not going to happen.” Dakotah laughed quietly, realizing the preacher wasn’t serious. “You can bet on that.”

Jean Reynolds briskly walked down the aisle, and sat down in the front row, one seat separating herself and Dakotah. He could feel the chill emanating from her.

Music began to play in the background; it appeared that most of the people visiting the previous day did not return for the funeral. Including family and pallbearers, there were about thirty in attendance.

Rev. Higgins stepped up to the pulpit, opened his Bible, and began to read. “ In the book of John, Chapter 14, Jesus says-“

“Hold on, people!” shouted a voice from the back of the parlor. “You can’t have this party starting yet, not without me!”

Every head in the room snapped around. Dakotah heard his mother gasp, as if she saw a ghost.

“The bastard actually showed up!” Sylvia cried, standing up, and pointing.

Striding toward the front of the parlor was a man, about six feet tall. Thin, with greasy, stringy long hair streaked with gray, a beard similar, extending four or five inches past his chin, he walked confidently,  almost regally. His face was tanned and worn, his clothes dirty, but his eyes were familiar to Dakotah. Similar to his own, and his grandfather’s, he saw them many times in his grandmother’s photo albums.

“Dad.” was all Dakotah could think. He instantly became numb.

Darren Lennon stood before the casket, silent. There was the slightest murmuring behind Dakotah, but on the whole, the parlor was silent.

Rev. Higgins walked up to Dakotah’s father, and put his hand on his shoulder. Darren instantly recoiled, and took a step away from the preacher.

“”I’m sorry.” Rev. Higgins said, pulling his hand back. “You are her son, I presume?”

“Yeah.” Darren replied, coldly. “You from First?”

“Why, yes I am.” Rev. Higgins said, trying to smile. “Pleasure to meet y-“.

“Pleasure’s all yours.” Darren interrupted, scowling. “Never liked the place.” He looked about the parlor, taking inventory of the people in the seats, and seeing Dakotah, Sylvia, and Jean, smiled.

“Carry on, preacher.” Darren said, waving his hand as he plopped down between Dakotah and Jean.

It became immediately apparent to Dakotah that his father hadn’t bathed in several days. He reeked of sweat, and of alcohol. Jean began to cough, and it appeared her eyes began to water.

“Hello, Aunt Jean!” Darren chuckled derisively. “Seeing you here has me all choked up, too! Your plastic surgeon has been kind to you!”

Seething, but not replying, Jean stood up, and walked out of the parlor, dialing her phone.

“Well, that was easy.” Darren, smirked, turning to Dakotah. “Hi, son, remember me?”

“N-no, not really.” Dakotah stuttered, unable to think of anything else to say.

“You have some nerve barging in here!” Sylvia snapped angrily.

“Well, hello, Syl!” Darren said, smiling through his stained teeth. “Still hooked up with that fatass? I think he’s rubbed off on you, though. Getting a little broad back there……”

“I should have you arrested!” Sylvia barked, incensed. “There’s a cop right over there!”

“He’s not going to do anything.” Darren said, coldly. “There are no outstanding warrants on me, I already checked. Now shut up, woman! People are staring at us!” He turned to Rev. Higgins. “I’m sorry preacher, please continue.”

If there were a quiz on Rev. Higgins sermon and eulogy, Dakotah would’ve flunked it. His mind was swimming, unable to process anything. The arrival of his father, after all that had happened during the week, was too much for Dakotah to assimilate.

Dakotah wanted nothing more than to walk out of the funeral home, and keep walking. He knew, of course, that he couldn’t. He knew his grandmother would not approve of him running away from his problems, so, to honor her, he decided to stay seated. Dakotah had purposely ignored the possibility of his father’s return; even considering it was too much for him to take. Yet, here he was, and Dakotah knew he had to deal with that reality.

Dakotah’s attention was suddenly diverted to Rev. Higgins, who was motioning them to stand. Dakotah, his father, and Rev. Higgins stood by the head of the casket, waiting for everyone to pay their last respects. More than half, mostly 1st Baptist members, walked out and left, without going up front. Elizabeth’s former colleagues, remembering Dakotah’s father as a child, did come up to pay their respects, though with Darren Lennon swaying back and forth with his head down, and not acknowledging them, they didn’t know what to say.

One elderly lady did summon up the courage to say hello to him. He looked up at her, and smiled. “Forgive me, ma’am, for looking like this. I was in the middle of a spirit quest in the Andes when I heard the news. Not easy flying from Quito to Detroit, you know.”

“Oh, my!” said the lady, taken aback. “Will you be returning?”

“I’m afraid not.” Darren replied, somberly. “I have to take care of some things here.” The lady blessed him, then shuffled off.

Dakotah stared at his father, incredulous, wondering if by the slightest chance if his story was true.

Sensing his son’s gaze, he turned to Dakotah. “Well, it sounds good, doesn’t it, and that’s all that matters.” Darren said, shrugging his shoulders, and giving an impish grin. Dakotah said nothing, but continued to stare at him.

“If it’s the last thing I do, you’ll pay, you worthless piece of crap!” Sylvia seethed at Darren, pointing her finger at his face. All Dakotah could do was look down, wishing he could be anywhere else but there.

Darren leaned back, and laughed mockingly. “Hey, life is free, baby!” he snickered.

Sylvia raised her hand back as if to hit her ex-husband, but seeing the casket, thought better of it, turned, and stomped off, not saying a word. “She hasn’t changed a bit.” Darren chuckled.

Rev. Daniels and Ely were the last ones to the casket. Ely said a silent prayer, then edged up to Dakotah, putting her arm around him.

“You seem to have an effect on people.” Rev. Daniels said, holding out his hand.

Sizing up the preacher, Darren took his hand, and lightly shook it. “A special talent I have.” he said, coolly. “Have I known you?”

“No.” Rev. Daniels said, mimicking Darren’s demeanor. “I’m Alan Daniels, pastor of New Hope Church.”

“Sorry, I’m not interested in visiting your house of worship. I have no misconceptions of where I’m going.” Darren said, pointing down.

“At least you’re honest about where you stand spiritually.” Rev. Daniels said, keeping an even temperament. “If you change your mind, we’re on the west side, just down the street from the Zippy Mart.”

“If you ever start having a cash bar, I may come.” Darren said, laughing derisively. “Especially if you have happy hour during Sunday school. You could make a lot of bucks that way.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Rev. Daniels said, laughing. “Come on, Ely. We have to get in line for the procession.”

Ely hugged Dakotah, tearfully looked deep in his eyes, and left with her father without saying a word.

“Nice little kitten you have there, son. Not bad.” Darren said, nodding. “I like’m with long legs, like your mom has. That didn’t work out, though.”

Dakotah didn’t reply; he certainly did not want to share the details of his and Ely’s relationship.

“Gentlemen, take your time, but as soon as we’re done here, we’ll go to the limousine, and ride to the gravesite.” the funeral director said, suddenly nervous.

“I’ll pass on that.” Darren said, rubbing the hair on his chin. Turning to the casket and leaning forward, he held his mother’s hands in his. “Say hi to Pops for me, okay?” he said, almost wistfully. Turning, he faced Dakotah, and smiled. “Catch you around, son. Stay away from crystal meth, ‘kay?” With that, Darren sauntered out of the funeral home, leaving Dakotah alone, with only the funeral director, and Rev. Higgins.

Dakotah turned to Elizabeth. “I love you, Grandma, and I’ll miss you. Thanks for everything.” he said, becoming choked up. Dakotah turned, and looking down, walked out of the funeral home, shivering as the cold air worked its way through his thin blazer.

*****

The next hour felt as strange to Dakotah as the previous one. He alone rode in the limousine to the gravesite, a third of the way up a nondescript row of tombstones in the middle of a five acre field. It was a place for the dead to be lost forever, Dakotah thought, especially since he was the only family member to attend the gravesite service. Aside from the pallbearers and Rev. Higgins, there were only a couple of old stalwarts from her teaching days, Rev. Daniels, and Ely. The service was thankfully brief, as the windchill continued to flirt around zero. Dak and Ely held hands and shivered as the pallbearers laid the roses upon the coffin.

After the service was over, Dakotah thanked everyone, including Elizabeth’s former coworkers. “Oh, you’re welcome, but I come here all the time.” An elderly gentleman, dressed snugly in a heavy woolen coat and scarf, replied kindly. “After all, most of my friends are here now.”

Dakotah waved to the funeral director, and pointed to Rev. Daniel’s running Camry, gathering a nod in acknowledgement. Dakotah entered the back seat, shivering uncontrollably, as he buckled up. Stretching, he exhaled forcefully.

“You okay back there?” Rev. Daniels asked, concerned. Dakotah didn’t reply; instead, he stared blankly at the floor mat.

“He’s still breathing, so it look like he’ll make it.” Ely quipped, trying to make light of the situation.

“Dakotah, are you still up for Detroit?” Rev. Daniels, asked kindly.

After a moment, Dakotah finally replied. “Yeah.” was all he could mumble.

“You sure you okay?” Rev. Daniels asked again, becoming worried, as he had never seen Dakotah in that state.

“No.” Dakotah replied simply, without emotion.

“I bet it was a shock, seeing your dad!” Ely piped in, trying to get Dakotah to talk. “He was-“

Rev. Daniels interrupted Ely, grabbing her arm while holding his index finger in front of his lips, and shaking his head.

Five miles passed, then ten, in silence. Dakotah stared blankly out the window, at the myriad pinks and purples brought about by the sunset. Ely and Rev. Daniels both said silent prayers.

Suddenly leaning back, Dakotah closed his eyes, and tilted his head back even further, as if he were looking straight up. Ely saw his lips move, and wondered if he was praying.

Dakotah continued this for a couple of more minutes; finally, he lowered his head, exhaled, and began to cry, slamming his fist against the back of the seat several times. Still, Rev. Daniels, with Ely following his lead, said nothing.

Raising his head, Dakotah stared straight ahead, toward Rev. Daniels and Ely. “I’m sorry about that.” he said, full of melancholy.

“That’s quite all right.” Rev. Daniels said in a comforting tone. “Figure something out?”

“My father…” Dakotah said bitterly, pausing a few seconds to find the proper words, “is scum.”

“Well, that’s a direct answer.” Rev. Daniels said, understandingly. “I agree, he’s not the most pleasant person, but calling him scum is a little harsh, don’t you think?”

“No, I don’t. “ Dakotah said, irritated. “You know, my mother and my great aunt are not nice people.”

“I think your mother is basically a nice person.” Rev. Daniels countered. “I think she just a little messed up.”

“You’re right about that.” Dakotah agreed, nodding his head. “A lot messed up.”

Dakotah continued, his voice gaining momentum. “But Dad was way out of line! He was rude to almost everyone, and he lied constantly. Not only that, he’s a thief, too!” he shrieked.

“Thief?” Rev. Daniels said, surprised. “I admit, the spirit quest story was classic, but what makes you think he’s a thief?”

“Because he stole Grandma’s rings!” Dakotah cried.

“What?” Ely exclaimed, shocked. “No way! How?”

“At the end when he said his goodbyes to her.” Dakotah grumbled, gritting his teeth. “He held her hands in his before he left. I couldn’t see him take them, but when I went to the casket afterward, both the gold wedding band, and the diamond ring Granddad gave to her, were gone!”

“He has a legal right to those rings, since he is, for all purposes, the only heir.” Rev. Daniels said, trying to calm Dakotah down. “Unless she stated who was to get the rings in the will, they’re his, I’m afraid, though the method with how he got them was seriously tacky.”

“Sometimes I think everyone in my family is crazy.” Dakotah said, shaking his head.

“He seemed friendly enough to you, Dak.” Ely offered, trying to put a positive spin on the situation. “At least he didn’t try to insult you!”

“I think I would’ve preferred it that he had.” Dakotah muttered.

“You also have to look into the possibility that he’s going to move into the house.” Rev. Daniels said, solemnly. “How will you deal with that?”

“I don’t know if I can.” Dakotah said, grimacing. “He’s not violent like Frank, at least I don’t think he is, but he’s definitely not good.”

“Well, cross that bridge if you get to it.” Rev. Daniels offered. “Pray for His help, strength, and guidance. Who knows? Maybe the two of you can work something out where it benefits you both.”

“The prayer part is no problem.” Dakotah said, pointedly. “Lord knows, I’ve done enough of that in the past few days. I just hope I get one answered in my favor.”

“Well, if He doesn’t, you have to trust His wisdom, and believe that whatever happens is for the best.” Rev. Daniels said, confidently.

“I’ll do my best.” Dakotah said, his voice full of doubt.

“I know you will.” Rev, Daniels said, encouragingly. “Now, enough of the gloom and doom. Let’s concentrate on what we’re going to eat at the diner!”

Dakotah stared out the window at the rapidly darkening skies, and the bright lights of Detroit ahead. In moments, the drone of the tires and the stress of the day overcame him, and he fell fast asleep.

Ely noticed him first. “He’s out, Dad.”

“Poor guy.” Rev. Daniels said, shaking his head. “If it gets any worse for him, he’d be a modern day Job. I pray things get better for him soon.”

Ely nodded her head in agreement, as the lights of the city became brighter. “I wonder how much brighter Tokyo is?” she thought to herself.

 

*****

Detroit, even in times of a recession, was a busy place on a Friday night. However, Rev. Daniels was more than up to the task, as he smoothly and efficiently forded through traffic.

Dinner was held at the same diner Ely and Dakotah ate after Andre’s funeral. It was full, with people waiting in line to get in, but Rev. Daniels, who grew up with the owner, called ahead, and reserved a booth. Upon sitting down, Dakotah realized he was famished, and at Rev. Daniels’ urging, ordered a half-pound burger, onion rings, and a large chocolate shake.

“Hey, don’t be thinking I’m going to feed you like this when you come in to work Monday!” Rev. Daniels teased.

“That’s fine by me.” Dakotah said, showing his first smile of the day. “I can bring in some bologna and a loaf of bread, and be okay for the entire week!”

“I don’t think you’ll have to worry about bringing in food.” Rev. Daniels said, smiling as well. “I have a feeling Mama will be stopping by, and making sure you, well, me too, are well fed!”

Dakotah felt warm inside. “I don’t know what I would have done if it weren’t for you all!” he gushed tearfully.

“With Ely’s free ride through college, and all the work you’ve done for the church, you’ve been a blessing to us, too. Don’t ever forget that.” Rev. Daniels said, kindly.

“Everything good tonight, Alan?” a lady wearing an apron asked.

“Why, hello, CC!” Rev. Daniels said, smiling. “Everything’s great, as usual. Thanks for squeezing us in tonight.”

“I’ll squeeze you, anytime.” CC said, coolly. Ely’s jaw dropped.

“Heh. I don’t know about that.” Rev. Daniels chuckled. “My feelings haven’t changed. Sorry.”

CC turned to Ely, whose face was almost as red as her hair. “Ely, isn’t it? No disrespect to your mother, but you need to tell your daddy he can move on with his life now.”

“I’m quite content with my life just the way it is, thank you very much!” Rev. Daniels said, nonchalantly.

“Content is just another word for dead.” CC said, smugly.

“Well, for someone who’s dead, I’m feeling pretty good right now.” Rev. Daniels countered, smiling ever so slightly.

“Trust me, you don’t know what feeling good is.” CC winked.

Ely put her hand over her mouth and lightly squealed “Oh my gosh!” Dakotah sat dumbstruck.

“I guess I’ll just have to stay ignorant.” Rev. Daniels said, without blinking.

“Your loss.” CC shrugged, smiling. “Maybe you’ll wise up, someday.”

Rev. Daniels cleared his throat, and gestured towards CC. “Kids, this charming lady is Carol Caminiti, the owner and head cook of this fine establishment.”

Ely looked at Carol distrustfully, without saying a word. Dakotah managed a weak “Hi!”.

“I know you’re Ely.” Carol said, pointing at Rev. Daniels’ daughter. She gave Dakotah the once over. “Alan, where did you find this stray? He doesn’t look like he’s had his shots yet!”

Dakotah looked down, silent, and embarrassed. Rev. Daniels stared at Carol, his countenance soured.

“I’ll have you know Dakotah is one of the most valuable members of my church.” Rev. Daniels said pointedly. “He’s great with the disadvantaged youth, he helps out with odd jobs, and, starting Monday, he’ll be my secretary.”

“Oh, really?” Carol said, weighing Rev. Daniels’ words.

“Not only that, he learned Japanese, just so he could help me!” Ely piped in, forcefully. “I got a full scholarship at UM because of him!”

“Japanese, huh?” Carol said, somewhat skeptical. “Say something in Japanese.”

Dakotah thought for a second. <Your hamburgers are the best I’ve ever eaten.> Note: Japanese dialogue is in between the <>

“What did you just say?” Carol said, suspicious. “You didn’t just cuss me, did you?”

“He didn’t say anything bad at all!” Ely blurted. “He said your hamburgers are really good!”

“I said it was the best I’ve ever eaten.” Dakotah corrected.

Carol laughed. “Well, wait, what’s your name?”

“Dakotah.”

“Dakotah, really?” Carol said, amused. “Dakotah, you are a charmer, I’ll give you that.”

Dakotah gave Carol a confused look, not saying anything.

“Look guys, it’s been a lot of fun, but I have to go back and crack the whip.” Carol said, smiling. “Is there anything else I can get you? It’s on the house.”

“I’ll take a piece of chocolate cream pie, please.” Dakotah said, politely.

“After all you’ve already ate?” Ely said, astonished.

“I’m a little full, but I think I can handle it.” Dakotah smiled, sheepishly. “Especially if it’s as good as the rest of it!”

Carol laughed. “Girl, you better keep an eye on him.” she said to Ely. “Keeping girls away from him is going to be a full time job!”

“Don’t worry, I can keep him under control.” Ely said, staring at Dakotah. Dakotah’s face started to turn red.

“Alan, don’t take so long next time.” Carol said, putting her hand on his shoulder. “Come alone, and I’ll fix you something off-menu.”

Rev. Daniels laughed uncomfortably. “I’ll think about it.”

“Yeah, whatever.” Carol said, shaking her head. “Be careful going home.” With that, she strode back to the kitchen, waving as she left.

“That was interesting.” Ely said, staring at her father. “Will you be coming here while I’m off to college?”

“Probably not very much.” Rev. Daniels said, shaking his head. “As you know, I’m a pretty busy guy.”

“Dad, she probably has a point.” Ely said, her tone turning serious. “Don’t you think it’s time you considered dating someone?”

“No.” Rev. Daniels said succinctly.

“But mom’s been gone almost fifteen years!” Ely exclaimed. “Aren’t you lonely?”

“Of course not.” Rev. Daniels said, patiently. “I talk to your mother every day. And no, I don’t get an actual response, but I know she’s in Heaven, listening. Knowing that’s she waiting for me is a cornerstone of my Faith.”

Silence enveloped the table, as Ely and Dakotah considered Rev. Daniels’ words. “Dakotah,” Ely said, smiling. “would you talk to me every day if I died?”

“Maybe.” Dakotah said, thoughtfully.

“Maybe? What does that mean?” Ely said in mock indignation.

“It means that if we were married, and had children, and you died, then yes, absolutely.” Dakotah said, kindly. “However, if you moved to Japan, and I never saw you again, then probably not.”

Rev. Daniels laughed. “You understand, don’t you, Dak?”

“I think so.” Dakotah said, as the pie was delivered. “You know, someday I’d like to bring you both here, when there’s not a funeral involved.”

“Amen, Dak!” Rev. Daniels exclaimed. “I’ll look forward to it!”

*****

The drive home was uneventful, mainly small talk between the three. However, in the back of Dakotah’s mind, was the possibility of his father taking possession of the house. Having to move out in four weeks was bad enough, but having his father move instead might be worse, he thought.

As they pulled onto Poplar Street, Dakotah knew instantly something was wrong. All the lights were on in the house, and he knew none were on when he left. As they got closer, the knot in his stomach tightened, and his heart jumped.

“The car is gone!” Dakotah shouted. “Someone must’ve took it! It had to be Dad!”

“Easy, Dak, let’s not jump to conclusions.” Rev. Daniels cautioned. “We don’t know the facts yet.”

Dakotah, followed by Rev. Daniels and Ely, exited the car, and noting that the door was unlocked, entered the house through the side entrance. Immediately, they were hit with an acrid smell.

“Ely, go back to the car, get in, and lock the doors.” Rev. Daniels ordered.

“What? Why? Are we in danger?” Ely said, confused.

“No, I doubt it, but please do as I say.” Rev. Daniels said, firmly. “I’ll explain later.”

Shaking her head, Ely did as she was told. Dakotah gave Rev. Daniels a puzzled look. “Just trust me. You’ll understand in a minute.” Rev. Daniels said, confidently.

In the kitchen, they could hear the television playing in the living room. Entering the living room, they stopped, and Dakotah’s jaw dropped.

Sitting in the floor, watching television, was Dakotah’s father; it was obvious he had bathed, as his hair looked clean, and pulled back into a ponytail. His beard was trimmed neatly, now half the length it was earlier. He also wore the same yellow pajama bottoms that Ely had worn a few nights earlier. In his left hand, he held a beer. In his right hand, a lit joint.

“Hello, son, preacher.” Darren said, casually. “I hope you don’t mind me making myself at home. Of course, it is my home. Care for a beer? Hit?” he said, extending his hand out.

“No thanks, I’m good.” Rev. Daniels said. Darren shrugged his shoulders, unperturbed.

“Where’s the car, and all the furniture?” Dakotah exclaimed, exasperated.

“Our beloved Aunt Jean had the house cleaned out and the car picked up while Mom was being planted.” Darren said coldly. “There’s the letter her lawyer left.” He pointed to a letter on the floor near Dakotah.

Dakotah picked up the letter and read it, handing it to Rev. Daniels when he was done. “Executor expenses?” he said, confused.

“Apparently, your aunt charged the estate for the private jet, the five star hotel, and whatever else she could dream up.” Rev. Daniels said, grumbling. “She used the car and the furniture for payment of her services.”

“I suppose you saw the balance?” Darren said pithily.

“Yep. Eleven thousand, right?” Rev. Daniels answered.

“Mmm-hmm. I’m sure her original intent was to auction the house, and bleed all the funds for her “expenses”.” Darren said, making quotation marks with his fingers at “expenses”. “My arrival messed up her plans somewhat, but Lord love her, the old crone is still trying to make a profit!”

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

“I’m sure she’ll put a lien on the house.” Darren sighed derisively. “However, she won’t have the cojones to take me to court, because a judge will throw her “expenses” out. She’s betting I’ll do something stupid to lose the house, have it go up to auction, and collect her money that way.”

“I take it you’re not going to be stupid?” Rev. Daniels asked, smiling.

“I like you, man.” Darren laughed. “You’re not a normal preacher, I’ll give you that. I don’t have any plans right now, just going to hang out here awhile.” He turned to Dakotah. “What about you, son? Kinda sucks without furniture, but you can stay here, if you want.”

“Only if you don’t smoke pot.” Dakotah said firmly. “I’m used to someone drinking, but I’m not going to church smelling like marijuana.”

Darren smiled wryly. “I’m not going to give up my sensimilla.”

“Why can’t you smoke it outside?” Dakotah asked, becoming frustrated.

“What, and get busted?” Darren said, smirking. “You must’ve picked up your mother’s dumbass gene, or unless me getting arrested is what you want, right?”

Dakotah didn’t say anything; instead, he chose to simply stare at his father. “I can’t believe I’m having this conversation with him!” he thought.

“It is his house, Dak.” Rev. Daniels said, calmly. “He doesn’t have to give up his vices for you, or anyone else, except for the law.”

“Actually, it is legal, since it’s medicinal.” Darren said, smugly.

“Oh?” Rev. Daniels said, intrigued. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were under a doctor’s care.”

“What’s wrong with you?” Dakotah asked, suddenly feeling guilty.

“I have severe muscle spasms.” Darren said, self-assuredly. “At least that’s what the doc put down on the paperwork.”

“I see.” Rev. Daniels said, thinking. “No symptoms since therapy began?”

“None at all.” Darren said with a wry grin. “I tell you, it’s a miracle!”

“The Lord truly works wonders.” Rev. Daniels said, the slightest trace of sarcasm in his voice.

“You should know, you’re close to Him.” Darren said, mockingly.

“I’m no closer to the Lord than you, Dak, or Jean Reynolds.” Rev. Daniels said, calmly. “I just listen to Him more than most.”

“Well, you got me there.” Darren chuckled. “I’ve never been good at listening to anyone.”

“Well, can you at least not smoke while I’m here?” Dakotah whined.

“Tobacco, or weed?” Darren laughed, contemptuously.

“Both.” Dakotah replied, gritting his teeth.

“Whether you are my son, or not, you’re in no position to negotiate anything.” Darren said, his voice darkening.

“I have a job, so I can at least pay for the utilities and my own food, and I can keep the house clean.” Dakotah retorted.

“So, all I have to do is pay for my own food, smokes, and booze, and you’ll take care of the rest? Darren snorted. “Why can’t I just get some stupid whore to do all that, plus buy my food and booze, and give me sex, in exchange for a little medicine?”

“Because if you are as smooth as you say you are, you would’ve already had one in tow.” Rev. Daniels said, condescendingly. “One thing you have in Dakotah that you can’t get with anyone else you might find is that you can trust him completely. He’s not going to steal your beer, or your pot. Your house will be clean, and the utilities will be paid, because unlike you, he’s a man of his word.”

“You know, preacher, you piss me off, but I can’t help but like you.” Darren said, shaking his head. “I don’t think I can count on one hand the people that have pegged me in my entire life, but you sir, are one. Well played.”

“I’m not playing at all.” Rev. Daniels said, simply. “I call things as I see them, that’s all. So, what will it be? Will you accept Dakotah’s terms?”

Darren looked down in thought for a moment, then raised his head, smiling. “All right, son, it’s a deal, but I retain the right to chill out here as I see fit when there’s something on TV, got it?”

Dakotah thought for a moment, then looked over at Rev. Daniels.

“Dak, it’s up to you.” Rev. Daniels said, shrugging his shoulders.

Dakotah looked straight as his father, and took a deep breath. “I don’t trust you. I don’t even like you. But I want to stay here.  I owe Grandma that much, to preserve the house, and the stuff that remains, for her sake. I also want to build my own life here, and not feel like I’m dependent on someone else.”

“You wouldn’t be a burden on us, if you moved in, Dak.” Rev. Daniels said, pointedly.

“I know you mean well, but here, I would feel like I’m in a partnership, and not just a sponge.” Dakotah replied, shaking his head. He turned to his father. “I guess I can either go to my room, or go do something away from the house, when you feel the need to party. But I won’t do it every night, do you understand?”

“Cool with me, son.” Darren said, the slightest smile crossing his lips. “I don’t party like I used to; I’m getting old, you see.” He held his hand out. “Deal?”

“Deal.” Dakotah grasped his father’s hand firmly, and shook it once.

“Oh, one thing.” Darren said, withdrawing his hand. “I’m taking my old room back. You can have Mom’s.”

“Seriously?” Dakotah said, making a face.

“Yeah. It would feel weird taking the folk’s bed.” Darren said, awkwardly. “After all, I was conceived in that room!”

“Oh. Okay.” Dakotah said, shrugging his shoulders. Suddenly, a thought flashed before Dakotah’s eyes. “Oh, wait!” he exclaimed, as he sped into his room.

“Noooooooooo!” Dakotah cried from his room.

“What’s wrong, Dak?” Rev. Daniels shouted.

Dakotah entered the room ashen-faced, holding his Bible. “The money’s gone.” he said, downtrodden.

“What money?” Rev. Daniels asked. “You mean the money your aunt had been sending you?”

“Yeah. I kept it in this Bible for safekeeping.” Dakotah mumbled. Swiftly, he turned to his father, anger welling up inside him. “You took it, didn’t you?” he seethed, pointing a finger.

“Hey, whoa, don’t look at me!” Darren said, becoming agitated. How would I know to look in there? It’s not like I’ve ever made a habit of checking out Bibles, you know!”

“Well, you stole the rings from Grandma’s hand!” Dakotah cried.

“Hey, those rings weren’t going to do her any good!” Darren said, indignantly. “Besides, as heir, I had a right to those rings! I’m surprised our aunt didn’t already snatch them!”

“All I know is that you were here before me, and the money’s not there!” Dakotah said, not calming down.

“Yeah, and the guys cleaning out the house were here before me.” Darren said, firmly. “The lawyer probably hired the cheapest labor possible to move the stuff out, and when they saw the money, they snagged it. Tell me, it was all cash, right?”

“Yeah.” Dakotah said, despondent.

“I guess your grandmother never suggested using a bank, did she?” Darren said, putting his joint out in the ashtray.

Dakotah shook his head. “No.” he muttered.

“Look, dude.” Darren said, without sympathy. “You may not believe me. I don’t care if you do, or if you don’t, but I don’t have your money, and I don’t know what happened to it.”

Dakotah looked at Rev. Daniels, who shrugged his shoulders.

“I’m sorry, Dak.” Rev. Daniels said, full of empathy. “I don’t know what to tell you. There’s no way of knowing who took the money. The main thing is that it’s gone.”

Dakotah’s head drooped, and he exhaled loudly. ”Whatever. This sucks.”

“Dak, I’d better be getting along now.” Rev. Daniels said, looking at his watch. “Would you come along for a second?”

Dakotah nodded, and began to follow Rev. Daniels. “See you around, Mr. Lennon.” Rev. Daniels said, saluting Darren with two fingers.

“Later.” Darren replied, without emotion.

Rev. Daniels exited the house, and got in the Camry, starting it.

“Where’ve you been? It’s freezing in here!” Ely said, shivering. “Phew! You stink!”

“I’ll explain on the way home.” Rev. Daniels said, apologetically. He exited the car, meeting Dakotah outside the kitchen door.

“I’d be lying if I said I was comfortable with this arrangement.” Rev. Daniels said, shaking his head.

“Me, too.” Dakotah said, nodding. “He can’t be worse than Frank, can he?”

“I hope not.” Rev. Daniels said, frowning. “You have to keep your eye on him at all times. From what you’ve told me about Frank, he’s a total jerk, but he’s consistent from day to day. Your father is, at least on the surface, highly intelligent, and very cunning. He also doesn’t care about anyone else except himself, and that includes you.”

“I know that.” Dakotah said, slightly perturbed.

“I know you know that, but sometimes one has to say it anyway, you know?” Rev. Daniels said, trying to make light of things. “Listen.” He continued, his countenance becoming serious. “I have a feeling his drug use goes beyond taking his “medicine”. If he asks you to go pick up or deliver a package, don’t. There could be something in there to put you in prison.”

“Really?” Dakotah said, surprised. “That makes sense. Thanks. And thanks for being there with me tonight, well, all day. I don’t think he knows how to handle you.”

“There, but for the Grace of God, go I.” Rev. Daniels said solemnly. “I see a lot of myself in him.”

“That’s scary.” Dakotah said, thinking.

“I better be going.” Rev. Daniels said, looking at his watch. “If you need anything, call me. I’ll be praying for you.”

“I’ll need all the prayers I can get.” Dakotah said, smiling, and shaking Rev. Daniels’ hand.

Dakotah walked around the car to the passenger side. Ely lowered her window just a couple of inches.

“Gomen.” Dakotah apologized. “I didn’t mean to freeze you out!”

“I’ll live.” Ely replied. “Are you going to be okay?”

“Do I have a choice?” Dakotah laughed. “Hey, thanks for being there for me.”

“That’s what friends are for, right?” Ely said, smiling. “See you Sunday?”

“Yeah, I guess we’ll have to do it like the old days.” Dakotah said, sighing. “I liked being able to drive.”

“See you, Sunday, Dak!” Rev. Daniels shouted from the driver’s seat. “Be careful!”

“You too!” Dakotah shouted back.

The Rev. Daniels backed the car out into the street, and drove off.

*****

“Would you mind telling me why I was left in the car, freezing to death?” Ely said, curious.

“Because when I stepped foot in that house, I smelled marijuana.” Rev. Daniels grumbled. “First, I didn’t know what kind of characters were in there, so the safest place for you was in the car.”

“Who was in there?”

“Just his father.” Rev. Daniels said, shaking his head. “However, Dak’s original assessment may not be far off. Secondly, your school still has random drug screenings, don’t they?”

“Yeah.”

“I didn’t want to risk you getting suspended, especially since you have a full scholarship.” Rev. Daniels said plainly. “If the University got wind of that, you may have lost it.”

“Wow.” Ely said, shocked. “Is Dakotah going to be all right? It may be a little weird, but I would rather have him at our house.”

“He wanted to be more independent, and not be a burden to us.” Rev. Daniels said, sighing. “I pray that he made the right decision.”

“Me, too.” Ely agreed.

*****

Dakotah took a deep breath, and entered the kitchen. He sighed as he heard the television.

Entering the living room, he noticed that his father had passed out, spilling beer on the floor in the process. Shaking his head, Dakotah rolled his father over, took a mop out of the kitchen, and cleaned up the mess. He thought about turning off the television, but he was afraid his father would awaken with the lack of noise, and he would much rather have him asleep, he thought.

Taking the clothes he would sleep in out of the pile that was left in his room, Dakotah headed for the bathroom. Turning the shower on, he sighed, and locked the door.

 


Chapter 12

Chapter 12

January 27th, 2009

 

Dakotah parked the car under the carport, and breezed into the kitchen. “Hi, Grandma! What are you doing?”

Elizabeth was sitting at the table, filling out a check. “Oh, paying the monthly utilities, Dak.” she said, frowning. “I swear, I think they get higher every month!”

“Do I have anything to do with that?” Dakotah said, suddenly self-conscious.

“A little, but you don’t impact the bill that much.” Elizabeth said, reassuringly. “That, and the extra I have to pay to feed you, are easily budgeted.”

“That’s good. I plan on paying my way, as soon as I get a job.” Dakotah said, relieved. “Oh! By the way, there’s a new department store in Auburn Hills opening, and I turned in my application there!”

“That’s great news!” Elizabeth said excitedly. “A stock boy, perhaps?”

“I don’t care. I’ll clean toilets at this point!”

Elizabeth laughed. “Be careful for what you wish for!”

“If I can clean the toilet after a couple of days of Frank using it, I can do almost anything, I think!” Dakotah said, smiling.

“I’ve always known you were a capable young man.” Elizabeth said, warmly. “How many people can self-teach themselves a hard language like Japanese?”

“Speaking of Japanese, It’s almost time to go to Ely’s.” Dakotah said, looking at the clock. “Do you need the car for anything, or is there anything that I need to pick up for you?”

“No, I’m fine.” Elizabeth said, shaking her head. “Tell her I said hello!”

“I’ll be back in a few hours.” Dakotah said, hugging his grandmother. “Love you.”

“Love you, too. Be careful.”

“Am I not always?” Dakotah said, smiling.

*****

Weak sunshine streamed into the car, as Dakotah made his way west, towards Ely’s . It had been a cold and snowy winter; although Dakotah, for the most part, enjoyed the weather, he was ready for Spring.

The drama that was prevalent during the Christmas holidays had died down considerably; life had returned to much the same as it had been before. Dakotah continued his work with the kids on Wednesdays with Vanessa, and studied with Ely a couple of times a week. It was as if the mistletoe never existed, at least it seemed so to Dakotah, which struck him as odd. Even Rebecca, who had thrown herself at him at the party, now acted very low key around him. He surmised that perhaps she had found a new flame at school, and that was perfectly fine with him.

Dakotah parked behind Ely’s car, and made his way to the house, noting the snow beginning to melt on the sidewalk. “It’ll be frozen by the time I leave tonight.” he thought to himself.

As he had always done before, he knocked on the door twice instead of using the doorbell. “Come in, it’s not locked!” Ely yelled from within.

Dakotah entered to see Ely laying on the sofa, her feet propped up on the coffee table. “Tough day?” he asked, hanging his coat on the coat rack.

“Yes.” Ely sighed. “I had a test in English today. Modal verbs. I think I passed. Who would ever think English would be harder than Japanese?”

“That’s because you have an excellent sensei!” Dakotah said, smiling. “Need a refill on your tea?” he said, noticing the empty glass next to her feet.

“Well, aren’t you domesticated!” Ely said, laughing. “You’ll make a good house husband some day!”

“Promise?” Dakotah said, taking the opportunity to flirt.

“Sure!” Ely smirked, instantly realizing the meaning behind Dakotah’s comment. “Vanessa will be pleased to have a clean house and dinner on the table after a hard day at the hospital!”

Dakotah rolled his eyes. “Don’t be expecting wedding invitations from us, okay?”

“Oh, you two are going to elope?” Ely giggled, barely containing herself.

“Ha ha. You funny girl!” Dakotah said in a bad Japanese accent. “Seriously though, we’ve kinda gone back to friend mode now.”

“Why?” Ely said, concerned. She had her suspicions on the status of their relationship, as they had not seemed particularly close at church the past few weeks.

“I don’t really know, to be honest.” Dakotah said, shrugging his shoulders. ”We don’t talk very much on the phone any more, and on Wednesdays, everything is just business.”

“Maybe she’s just been busy. I think she’s taking a couple of extra classes this semester.” Ely said, thoughtfully. “I think she’s been working overtime at the hospital too, so probably her responsibilities are squeezing you out.”

Dakotah shrugged his shoulders again. “That’s fine with me. The less drama in my life, the better.”

Ely sighed, loud enough for Dakotah to hear her. “Is there any point in arguing about the same stuff over and over again?” she said, irritated.

“What do you mean?” Dakotah said, beginning to feel dread.

“Nothing.” Ely muttered. “Someday, we will have to part ways, and you’re going to be alone, if you don’t get serious with Vanessa.” she thought. She came to regret ever kissing him.

“I take it you haven’t heard anything from UM?” Dakotah said uneasily, changing the subject.

“No.” Ely said, shaking her head. It had been two weeks since I applied. “I have no idea how long this stuff takes.”

“Are you nervous?”

“A little.” Ely said, biting her lip slightly. “Test scores were good, grades are good, interview with the Asian Studies dean went well. I’m 99% sure I made it, but there’s always a little doubt, you know?”

“You just have to have a little faith.” Dakotah said, encouragingly.

“Faith in God I have, faith in people, not so much.” Ely grimaced.

“Do you have any faith in me?” Dakotah asked, half-jokingly.

“No. None at all.“ Ely said, stone faced.

“Oh.” Dakotah could feel the blood drain from his face.

“Got you!” Ely laughed, punching Dakotah in the arm lightly. “Yes! I can still do it!”

“Hey!” Dakotah exclaimed, realizing he’d been had.

“That’s 387 to 1, in my favor!” Ely said gleefully.

“Aah, aah, you just wait until Becky hears about this!” Dakotah stammered. “She’ll be kissing me to make me feel better!”

“Not working.” Ely said, smugly. “I heard she found someone more genuine than you!”

“Really? You’re not kidding me again, are you?”

“I’m not joking. Some guy on the soccer team.” Ely said, making direct eye contact. “Does that make you sad?”

“Not in the least. Relieved, actually.” Just then, a pang of melancholy tweaked him.

Ely noticed the change in Dakotah’s countenance. “It does bother you, doesn’t it? Why? Don’t tell me you actually had feelings for her!”

“No, nothing like that.” Dakotah said, trying to shake the feeling of sadness. “More of me being put in my place once again, I think.”

“Don’t worry what about people like her do.” Ely said, trying to soothe him. “The main thing is you have true friends and family that love you very much, and would never want to hurt you.”

“Yeah, I know.” Dakotah said, trying to smile. “Let’s just hope Soccer Guy is the answer, and both of them will be happy.”

“That’s the spirit! Besides, there’s a hard-working, spiritual girl who’s crazy for you, right?”

Before Dakotah could answer, saying something along the lines of “Gee, I didn’t know you were spiritual”, Rev. Daniels breezed in.

“Look what I have!” he announced happily, waving a large envelope. It had the University of Michigan logo on it.

“Oh, Daddy!” Ely shouted anxiously. “I hope I made it!”

“If it’s a rejection letter, I would think it would be in a standard envelope, not this huge thing.” Rev. Daniels said, trying in vain to calm Ely down. “Here. It’s addressed to you, anyway.”

Hands shaking, she began to tear into the envelope. Finding the cover letter, she quickly read the contents, and began to shriek with joy.

“I made it! I’m in!” Ely gushed.

“Congratulations! I knew you’d do it!” Rev. Daniels cried, beaming.

Ely hugged her father tightly. “This is the happiest day of my life!”

“I’m so proud of you.” Rev. Daniels said, warmly. “Your mother is in Heaven right now, smiling, I guarantee it.”

“I have to call Hannah, and tell her!” Ely grabbed her cell phone, and rushed into her bedroom.

Dakotah stood there silently, carrying a sad smile. “I guess I’d better be going, then.” He said quietly, turning to get his coat.

“Whoa, son!” Rev. Daniels exclaimed, holding his hands up. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“Home, I guess.” Dakotah said, shrugging his shoulders. “No point in me staying around, if she doesn’t need me to help her study.”

“Just a moment, Dakotah.” Rev. Daniels said, holding his hand up. “You are as much part of this celebration as anyone. I have faith in my daughter that she would make it, but I know that she wouldn’t have excelled so without your help.”

Dakotah smiled weakly. “Yeah, I know. I wonder if by helping her succeed, I lose her.”

“Only God knows.” Rev. Daniels said, sympathetically, placing his hands on Dakotah’s shoulders. You have to trust in Him, and whether the answer is with Ely, or someone else, He knows what’s best for you.”

“You’re right, but I can’t imagine anyone else, even Vanessa.”

“The thing about life is that no one knows what’s around the corner. There could be someone you’ve never met, that will be the one.” Rev. Daniels said, confidently.” Look, why don’t the three of us go out to Steakmasters tonight, and celebrate?”

“I don’t know.” Dakotah replied, disconsolate.

“Dakotah, there’s something that you and I need to discuss.” Rev. Daniels said, becoming more serious.

“What is it?” Dakotah said uneasily, noting the reverend’s change of tone.

“You’ll find out, after dinner.” Rev. Daniels smiled.

“I guess I’ll come.” Dakotah said, shaking his head while smiling weakly.

Suddenly, a shriek erupted from Ely’s bedroom. Running to her father, Ely thrust a piece of paper in his hands.

“Daddy! Look at this!” she said, barely containing herself.

Rev, Daniels scanned the document, and begin to grin broadly.

“Hallelujah! This is awesome! Thank you, Lord!” he shouted, hugging Ely.

“What is it?” Dakotah asked, curious.

“Ely’s been awarded a full scholarship!” Rev. Daniels said, beaming. “Incredible!”

“That’s great!” Dakotah gushed. “Congratulations!”

“I prayed that with my money, her money, and whatever grants we could scrounge up, we could pay her way.” Rev. Daniels said, exhaling. “Most assuredly, this is a blessing!”

“Just think, all the money I saved, and I don’t even need it!” Ely said, joyously.

“Oh, you’ll need it all right.” Rev. Daniels said, holding his hand up. “Every time you want to eat out, or go to a movie, you’ll need it!”

The letter also said that during my sophomore year, I can study in Japan!” Ely gushed. “Isn’t that awesome?”

“Better keep working, honey.” Rev. Daniels said, trying in vain to keep his daughter grounded. “I hear you’ll need a lot of money over there!”

“How long will you be studying over there?” Dakotah said, suddenly concerned.

“Who knows?” Ely said, shrugging her shoulders. “Heck, if I can get a teaching job over there, I may never come back!”

Dakotah’s heart dropped, and his stomach tightened up.

“Get your coats, kids!” Rev. Daniels exclaimed. “”If we hurry, we can beat the dinner rush!”

“I-I think I’ll pass.” Dakotah mumbled, dejected.

“What?” Rev. Daniels said, surprised. “I don’t think so!” “You are an integral part of her success, and I won’t take no for an answer! Got it?”

“Okay.” Dakotah slumped his shoulders, defeated.

“Besides, you haven’t heard my proposition!”  Rev. Daniels said, opening the front door.

“Proposition? What is it?” Dakotah said, perking up slightly.

“You’ll have to find out after dinner!” Rev. Daniels said with a wink.

*****

The three procured one of the last open tables at the restaurant. Even though his heart was down, Dakotah had to admit that the New York Strip steak, baked potato, and salad was one of the best meals he had ever eaten.

“Want some dessert?” Rev. Daniels asked, smiling.

“I can’t! I’m stuffed!” Dakotah said, holding his belly. “Thank you for this meal! It’s the first time I ever had steak!”

The answer stunned Ely, and surprised Rev. Daniels briefly. “Now that dinner is over, shall we get down to business?” he said, firmly.

Dakotah instantly became uneasy; though he considered the reverend his friend and trusted elder, he wasn’t used to the reverend speaking to him in this manner.

“Aaaahhhh, okaaaaayyyy…” was all that Dakotah could muster.

“How would you like to become my administrative assistant?” Rev. Daniels said, smiling.

Dakotah didn’t immediately process the Reverend’s words; all he could muster was a blank stare.

“Wait, what?” Ely said, stunned.

“I need someone to keep track of births, deaths, anniversaries, illnesses, and such, plus keep tab of my appointments and answer the phone. 9 AM to 1PM, Monday through Friday, at the church office, Ten bucks an hour. How about it?”

“Dad, I offered to do that for you, and you said you didn’t need any help!” Ely protested.

“I actually did need help, sweetie.” Rev. Daniels said, looking down. However, I was being prideful, and very wrong. I’m sure you would do a fine job, but I really need someone during weekdays, while you’re at school.

“But why Dakotah?” Ely spoke sourly, not being sold on Dakotah’s qualifications.

“Dak is a good worker, and has excellent organizational skills.” Rev. Daniels said. “Plus, he’s polite, and when he has to, is good with people! Most of all, he needs a good job. It’s a win-win!” he said, making quotation marks with his fingers as he spoke.

Ely shook her head, “I don’t know. Couldn’t you find volunteers? They would be free!”

“Why are you so against Dak working for the church?” Rev. Daniels said, a little agitation showing in his voice.

“Having him next door five days a week, plus Sunday, is weird!” Ely said, aghast.

“Why? It’s not like he’s moving in with us, though we do have a spare bedroom.”

“Dad!”

“It’s okay Ely, I’m just fine at Grandma’s.” Dakotah said, shaking his head while grinning sheepishly.  He held his hand out across the table, towards the reverend. “What the heck, it’s a deal! I’ll take the job!”

“Great!” Rev. Daniels said exuberantly. “Will starting tomorrow be a problem?”

“I have to check with Grandma to see if she has any appointments.” Dakotah replied. “Yeah, I’ll be here tomorrow, if she’s clear.”

“Good!” Rev. Daniels said, smiling. “Now, who wants some dessert?”

*****

Flurries were falling as Dakotah made his way home; a winter of bad weather had given him plenty of practice to hone his driving skills, and tonight was no exception.

A myriad of emotions coursed through him. He was elated beyond words that he finally got a job, working for a man he admired and trusted, but Ely’s reservations troubled him; why wasn’t she on his side, as a friend should be? Ely’s acceptance and free ride at UM was a direct result of his efforts, he knew, and he could feel a deep sense of satisfaction. However, Ely would be gone, perhaps forever. In retrospect, could he have done nothing, and maybe she’d never leave? Dakotah sighed.

“At least Grandma will be happy, and Aunt Lou won’t have to send me any more money.” Dakotah said to himself. “Maybe I can save up, and buy my own car.”

He drove on Elm St., which paralleled Maple St. by one block. He thought of calling his mother at some point, to tell her the good news, sometime later in the evening. He’d have to call his Aunt Lou too, he thought.

Turning on Poplar St., the snow began to pick up a bit, temporarily reducing his visibility. Slowing down, he began to look for the porch light his grandmother always left on for him, whenever he was out at night. He passed the huge 70s station wagon parked at the curb, which, since it was three houses down from Elizabeth’s, indicated he had gone too far down the street, and had passed her driveway.

Confused, Dakotah found an empty driveway a couple of houses down the street, and turned around. Retracing his route, he realized that the porch light was not on, which struck him as odd, as Elizabeth always had it on while he was away. Pulling into the driveway, and parking under the carport, Dakotah exited the car, and realized the entire inside of the house was dark.

A chill ran down his spine as he fumbled with the keys, and his heart began to race. Finally managing to open the door, he turned on the lights to the kitchen.

“GRANDMA!” Dakotah shouted at the top of his lungs. “Grandma, are you okay? Can you hear me?”

From the living room, to the bathroom, and finally, to her bedroom, Dakotah searched and yelled, but neither found her, nor did she answer.

“Where could she have gone?” Dakotah wondered aloud. He returned to the kitchen to see if she had left a note, but found none. Confused, and concerned, he decided to try his room.

As he entered the room and turned on the lights, he saw her, and gasped. At the foot of the dresser, his grandmother was lying in a heap, motionless.

Instantly panic-stricken, and unable to speak, Dakotah rolled his grandmother on her back. Not finding a pulse, he noticed her face was purple, she was cold, and not breathing. He began to immediately administer CPR.

Under his breath, he began to pray. “Please Lord, help me! Save her!  Please!” Try as he might, there was no response from his grandmother.

Dakotah ran to the kitchen to call 911. He told them of the situation, gave them his address, and ran back into the bedroom to administer CPR again.

Within a few minutes, sirens could be heard.  Stopping the CPR, Dakotah rushed to the front door, and opened it, frantically motioning to the EMTs.

“Hurry! She’s in here!” Dakotah screamed.

Swiftly, the emergency workers, carrying their gear, strode into Dakotah’s bedroom, and stopped. One EMT started setting up equipment, while the other examined Elizabeth. Dakotah stood by, motionless, unable to breathe.

Suddenly, the EMT examining Elizabeth stood up, shaking his head. “Phil, put it up. She’s gone.”

Dakotah couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “You-You’re not even going to try? Do something!” he yelled, shaking.

“Son, listen.” The first EMT said in his best soothing tone. We can’t revive her. Rigor mortis has already started. She’s been gone for at least a couple of hours. I’m very sorry.”

Dakotah stood dumbfounded, unable to move or speak. “She’s gone?” was the only thing that passed through his mind.

A hand grasped Dakotah on the shoulder, startling him, and snapping him back to reality. He wheeled around and standing before him was a middle aged policeman.

“Oh, it is you, Dakotah.” The policeman said, full of empathy. “I’m Bill Douglas. Remember, from 3rd Baptist?”

It took a moment, but Dakotah recognized the man. “Oh yeah, you’re in choir.”

“That’s correct.” Bill replied. “I know this may be difficult, but duty dictates I have to ask some questions, okay?”

“Sure.” Dakotah said, numbly.

The officer asked Dakotah the usual questions referring to when and where he found her, and so on. Dakotah answered them all fully, at least to the best of his knowledge.

“Dakotah, the EMTs are going to take her to the county morgue.” Bill said, professionally. “The coroner will do an autopsy on her tomorrow, and the funeral home will pick her up after that. You probably have no idea about who would do the services, do you?”

Dakotah shook his head.

“I’ll call Brother Higgins.” The policeman continued. “He may have an idea, and I know he’ll want to do the service.”

“Thank you.” Dakotah said.

“I guess I’m all done here.” Bill said, closing his notebook. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

Dakotah barely shook his head, still in shock.

Officer Douglas took out his wallet, and removed a small card, handing it to Dakotah. “If you need anything, my number’s on the card.” he said, sympathetically. “You take care, okay?”

Dakotah nodded. The two EMTs wheeled Elizabeth out the front door, loaded her into the ambulance, and left, Officer Douglas immediately thereafter.

Dakotah looked about the living room.  Shuffling zombielike, he walked through the kitchen, then to her bedroom, and finally his, where he found her. There was not a sound in the house, except for the occasional whirring of the furnace. He straightened the furniture the EMTs had moved, giving the appearance that no one had ever been there. He gazed at his grandfather’s picture.

“I guess you have company now.” Dakotah said, sadly. Sighing, he walked into the kitchen, and picked up the phone, dialing the first number that came to mind.

After a couple of rings, a male voice answered the phone. “Hello, Dak!” Rev. Daniels answered cheerily. “Don’t tell me you changed your mind on the job!”

“Alan…….” Dakotah tried to speak, but his voice failed him, and instead, he burst into tears.

“Dak, what’s wrong?” Rev. Daniels replied, instantly concerned. “What happened?”

“Sh-she’s gone.” Dakotah said weakly.

“Gone?” Rev. Daniels said, ascertaining the situation. “My Lord, Dakotah, how?”

“I-I don’t know.”

There was a pause on the line for a moment. “Hang on, son, I’ll be right there!” Rev. Daniels said, strongly. “Okay?”

“Okay.” Dakotah whispered.

“See you in a minute!” Rev. Daniels said rapidly, hanging up the phone.

Dakotah hung up the phone, and stared blankly at the wall for a moment. “Maybe I should call mom.” He thought to himself.

He dialed his mother’s number, hoping that Frank didn’t answer.

“Hello?” His mother answered after only one ring.

“It’s me, Mom.” Dakotah replied simply, numb.

“What’s wrong, son?” Sylvia said, immediately sensing something was very amiss.

“Grandma died.”

There was a brief pause on the line. “Oh my God, Dakotah, what happened?” Sylvia said, her voice trembling in shock.

“I don’t know. I found her on the floor in my room.” Dakotah said, slowly gathering himself. “I tried CPR, and I called 911, but when the EMTs got here, they said she’d been gone a couple of hours.”

“Are you okay?” his mother asked, not knowing what else to say.

The question angered Dakotah. “No, I’m not okay! My grandma just freaking died!” he yelled.

“Easy son, I know that, I know that!” Sylvia countered, trying to settle her son down. “I’m sorry. That was stupid of me.”

“I’m sorry too, mom.” Dakotah replied, regretting his earlier words.

“Look, son, I’ll be over in a few minutes.” Sylvia said, gathering herself. “I’m assuming that she had made plans for this day, so we need to figure out what they are.”

“Okay.” Dakotah said, suddenly overwhelmed.

“Give me a couple of minutes, and I’ll be there, okay?” Sylvia said, soothingly.

“Okay.” Dakotah replied, not knowing what else to say. Hanging up the phone for a moment, he wondered if Vanessa was busy, either at work, or at school. He couldn’t process where though. However, he felt that he needed to tell her what happened. Picking up the receiver again, he called her cell phone.

Three, then four times it rang, then it went to voice mail. Dakotah hung up without leaving a message. Suddenly, the weight of situation reappeared to him, and he began to sob.

Several moments passed. Dakotah racked his brain as to why his grandmother suddenly died, but couldn’t come up with a reason. He knew she had health problems, because of the dizzy spell she had last Halloween, but why? As far as he knew, she never did go to the doctor’s to get a diagnosis. That fact also troubled him.

Dakotah’s thoughts were interrupted by a banging of the front door. Striding quickly, he opened the front door to see Rev. Daniels and Ely standing before him.

“Oh, Dakotah!” Ely cried softly, as she rushed to hug him tightly. Stunned, he didn’t reciprocate the hug initially, but after a few seconds, held on to her with everything he had.

“Why are you here?” Dakotah said, confused.

“Why would I not be here?” Ely said, painfully, not understanding Dakotah’s words. “You’re my friend, and I love you. Where else would I be?”

“I don’t know, I figured you’d be asleep, or something.” Dakotah said, blankly.

“Dak, it’s only ten o’clock.” Ely said, gently. “I’m here for you for the duration, even if I miss school tomorrow.”

“Oh.” Dakotah said simply, his mind finally grasping her words. “Arrigato.”

“Any clue as to what happened?” Rev. Daniels asked.

“I don’t know.” Dakotah said, finally releasing Ely. “I went in my bedroom after searching the house, and I found her. EMT said she had been gone for over two hours.”

“Hmmm. I should call Brother Higgins, and tell him what happened.” Rev. Daniels said, thinking aloud. He pulled out his cell phone, and fumbled with the screen a few seconds. “Sweetie, can you help me out here?” he asked, sheepishly.

“Sure.” Ely replied, swishing her fingers over the screen. “Here you go, it’s dialing.”

“She talks me into buying one these smart phones, and I’m too dumb to work it.” Rev. Daniels said, shrugging his shoulders. “Hello?”

As Rev. Daniels began to speak to Rev. Higgins, Sylvia pulled up, locking her brakes as she hit a patch of ice, nearly hitting Rev. Daniels’ car.

“Dakotah, I’m so sorry!” Sylvia gushed, crying, as she hugged her son. “What’s going on?”

“Brother Daniels is talking to Brother Higgins, grandma’s preacher at 3rd Baptist.” Dakotah answered. “Maybe he knows something.”

“How do I hang this thing up?” Rev. Daniels asked, slightly irritated.

“Press the red phone symbol on the screen.” Ely replied, patiently.

“Brother Higgins had already been contacted by the officer in charge of the investigation regarding her death.” Rev. Daniels said. “Did you talk to him, Dakotah?”

“Yes, he goes to 3rd, and he knew grandma, too.” Dakotah said without emotion.

“Brother Higgins didn’t have any info on, if any, funeral arrangements she made.” Rev Daniels said. “If we do find anything out, we’re to let him know, so he can do the services.”

Turning to Sylvia, Rev. Daniels continued to speak. “Mrs. Howe, I presume? I’m Alan Daniels, pastor of New Hope Church. I wish we could’ve met under better circumstances.”

“Me, too.” Sylvia replied, without emotion.

“I guess we need to start looking for some information.” Rev. Daniels said, taking a deep breath. “Dak, do you have any ideas where she might have kept her personal papers?”

There’s a school teacher’s desk in the living room where she kept her bills and stuff.” Dakotah said. She usually wrote her checks here in the kitchen, though.”

The four of them went to the desk, and found it locked. “Do you know where the key is?” Sylvia asked Dakotah.

“Yeah, I think it’s in this little drawer here.” Dakotah replied, opening a small drawer in a compartment atop the desk. He reached inside, and found a small key. “I think this is it.” he announced.

Dakotah took the key, and put into the lock, turning it successfully.

“Let’s get everything, and put it on the kitchen table.” Rev, Daniels suggested. “We can look through it all there.”

The four of them began to sort through the large assortment of papers contained in the desk drawer. Not much was said, as no one was in the mood for small talk.

Sylvia stopped sorting, and looked at Dakotah. “Dakotah there’s someone we need to find soon, and tell what happened.”

“Who?” Dakotah replied, without thinking.

“Your father.”

Dakotah froze. His father was someone he rarely ever thought about. He had no memories of him, and wouldn’t know what he looked like, except for his grandmother’s photographs, and they were taken long ago.

“I’m not sure if he could be easily found.” Sylvia continued. “He owes me fourteen years of child support, and the cops couldn’t find him then when he skipped out.”

Dakotah didn’t say a word, choosing instead to resume searching through papers.

“I’m sure it’s a lot easier to find someone now, the way everyone is in a database somewhere.” Rev. Daniels said.

“I think I found something!” Ely said, animatedly. “Dad, look at this!”

Ely handed the document over to her father, who scanned the contents.

“Very good, Ely!” Rev. Daniels said. “These are documents from the funeral home on Orchard Avenue. It appears she prepaid her funeral.” He handed Ely his cell phone. “Would you text Brother Higgins, and tell him we found the funeral home documents?”

Continuing to peruse the papers, Rev. Daniels pulled several documents out of a large manila envelope. “Here we go. This looks promising.” The others stopped as he began to scan the documents. “Here’s the deed to the house, and the will. This letter looks important.”

He began to read the letter. “To whom it may concern. If you are reading this, I’m probably either dead, or severely incapacitated. If either is the case, please contact my sister Jean. Her phone number and address are below. She is both my power of attorney, and executor of my estate, depending on the circumstance. Thank you, and God Bless.”
Rev. Daniels looked at Dakotah. “Dak, do you want to do the honors?”

“I don’t understand.” Dakotah replied, puzzled.

“I think you should call your aunt.” Rev Daniels said, patiently.

“It’s past eleven PM, so I guess we call her tomorrow?” Dakotah said, unenthusiastically.

“I think you should call her now, instead of the morning.” Rev Daniels said, persuasively. “I think it’s only right that she finds out as soon as possible, and you should be the one making the call.”

“Me?” Dakotah said, uneasily.

“Yes. You’re her relative, and the one who witnessed what happened.” Rev. Daniels said compellingly. “I understand that it won’t be easy, but I think it’s the best way, don’t you?”

“Okay.” Dakotah replied, his voice tinged with dread.

Ely patted Dakotah on the back. “It’ll be okay. You can do this.” she said, soothingly.

Dakotah arose from the chair, and walked slowly to the phone. Taking a deep breath, he dialed.

“Hello?” An elderly woman’s voice answered.

“H-hello, is this the R-Reynolds residence?” Dakotah stammered.

“Yes it is.” The voice snapped. “Who is this? You are not Elizabeth Lennon!”

“N-no. “I-I’m Dakotah Lennon, her grandson.” he replied, timidly. “You probably don’t remember me.”

“No.” she replied, irritated. “Well, what is it you want, calling me in the middle of the night?”

“I-I’m afraid I have bad news.” Dakotah said, swallowing hard. “Grandma passed away earlier tonight.”

There was a pause on the line. “I see.” she said, not changing her tone. “Have you found her effects?”

“Effects?” Dakotah said, confused.

“Yes, effects.” she replied, becoming cross. “Her will, her deeds, and such.”

Dakotah was taken aback by her attitude. “Oh, yes. She left your phone number on a piece of paper with it.” he said, flatly.

“Put the documents where you found them, and leave them alone!” the woman said angrily. “I will attend to them when I get there. You shouldn’t have been snooping around things that are not of your concern!”

“How else would I have found you?” Dakotah exclaimed, flabbergasted. “You weren’t in her address book!”

“Regardless, as her executor, I advise you to return the documents to their proper place.” she said, unperturbed. “I’ll be there in the morning to collect them, and begin the process.”

“Okay.” Dakotah replied, trying to shed his frustration. “Do you have any idea when you will get here? Maybe I could fix a brunch?”

“I have not ascertained an exact time of arrival yet.” she said, without emotion. “When I do arrive, I will collect the necessary documents, and leave.”

“O-Okay.” Dakotah replied, not knowing what else to say. “See you.”

Mrs. Reynolds hung up the phone without replying. Dakotah, stunned, looked at the receiver, then hung it up, shaking his head.

“What’s wrong?” Sylvia asked.

“I don’t know.” Dakotah replied, trying to get a grasp on what was said. “She said she would be here sometime in the morning. She didn’t sound very nice.”

“Maybe she was in shock.” Rev. Daniels offered. “People sometimes act odd when tragedy strikes.”

“Maybe.” Dakotah said, shrugging his shoulders. “She said to put all the papers back in the filing cabinet, and she’ll get them when she arrives.”

Rev. Daniels nodded, and began to gather the paperwork.

“Are you staying the night here?” Sylvia asked.

“Yes, I don’t have anywhere else to go.” Dakotah said, matter-of-factly.

Sylvia began to say something, but thought better of it, knowing his answer before she even asked the question.

“ I guess I’ll live here. Don’t know why I would not be.” Dakotah said, shrugging his shoulders. “With my new job, I think I can afford the utilities, the food, and the gas.”

“You have a job?” Sylvia said, surprised.

“Yeah, I guess I’m his part time secretary.” Dakotah said, pointing to Rev. Daniels.

“I suppose that next Monday might be a better time to start, since this week will be occupied.” Rev. Daniels said. “Don’t assume that you’ll be living here, long term. Unless you’re the beneficiary in the will, the one who actually gets the house could evict you, or sell the house outright. Just a word of caution.”

The words made Dakotah uneasy, causing him to sigh. “I hope not. I don’t know what I’d do!”

“I guess I’ll be going home.” Sylvia announced, yawning. She hugged Dakotah lightly, and he embraced her in a similar fashion. “You take care, sweetie.” she said, smiling weakly. “Let me know if you need anything, okay?”

“Okay, mom.” Dakotah replied feeling that she wasn’t wholly sincere. “Love you, and thanks.”

After Sylvia left, Rev. Daniels turned to Dakotah. “I get the weirdest vibe between you two.” he said, grimacing. “It’s like her being here with you is the last thing she wanted to do, and that you didn’t want her here, either.

Dakotah thought for a moment. “I’d say that’s an accurate observation.” he sighed. “I guess she came here out of guilt. Honestly, I wish I never made the call to her.”

“I wish I had some concrete advice to give you, aside from praying for His help to guide you.” Rev. Daniels said, placing his hand on Dakotah’s shoulder. “Time will tell whether or not you two become close again.”

Dakotah nodded. “At least I have you guys here. I don’t know what I’d do.”

Well, we’re here for you, forever and ever!” Ely exclaimed, hugging Dakotah tightly.

“Remember, I’m only a phone call away, 24/7/365.” Rev. Daniels said, looking straight into Dakotah’s eyes. “My door’s always open, too.”

“Thanks.” Dakotah replied, relaxing a bit. “It means a lot to me to hear that. When the four of us were at the table together, you two felt more like my family than she did.”

“I’m sure she loves you, even though you may not feel it.” Rev. Daniels said, encouragingly. “Given time, you two may get close again.”

“”I don’t know, it feels like I have no family left!” Dakotah cried. “Mom abandoned me, my father is who-knows-where, I have an aunt and uncle that I only remember meeting once, and now my grandmother’s gone!” He began to weep.

“I know, Dakotah, losing a loved one hurts like nothing else.” Rev. Daniels said, putting his arm around Dakotah. “When I lost Ely’s mother, it took every bit of faith and strength to get through the pain. God only knows why people pass on before we think they should. I surely don’t have any answers. Nevertheless, we’re still here, and we must go on, for their sakes, and our own. As for me, I had a four year old that depended wholly on me, and I couldn’t forsake her, no matter what.”

Rev Daniels put his hands on Dakotah’s shoulders, and looked him in the eye. “As for what you should do now, I don’t have any easy answers. You know and I know that the gig at the church is only a temporary thing. I don’t see you as my secretary twenty years from now, and I think you don’t want that either, do you?”

Dakotah shook his head, without saying anything.

“The part time job at the church is only a step, the first step of a long journey for you. I hope, if meteorology is what you want to make your life’s work, then do whatever it takes to make it so. You have the skillset and work ethic to succeed.”

“I-I don’t know.” Dakotah stammered, shaking his head again.

“I’ve seen you with those kids on Wednesdays, I’ve seen you doing chores at church, and most importantly, I’ve seen your work with Ely. Once you’ve set your mind to do something, you never give up until you finish it.”

“Dad’s right, Dak.” Ely agreed. “If it wasn’t for you working with me and pushing me, I doubt I would impress UM into giving me a full scholarship.”

“Once things settle down, and you find some stability in your life, you’ll have to look inside yourself, pray for guidance, and figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life.” Rev. Daniels said. “Besides being married to my daughter!” He continued with a smirk.

“DADDY!” Ely shouted, slapping her father in the arm. Dakotah’s face reddened, but he couldn’t resist smiling a little.

“Don’t even think it, buddy!” Ely ranted, pointing her finger at Dakotah.

“On second thought, maybe that’s not such a good idea after all, Dak.” Rev. Daniels said, rubbing his arm. “She seems to be as mean as her mother! I think you should steer clear of her!” He gave Ely a wink, causing her to roll her eyes.

“Seriously though, harness the energies you use to help others, and concentrate them on yourself.” Rev. Daniels said, changing his tone to a more serious one. “Find your passion, and make it so.” he continued, pointing forward.

Dakotah took a deep breath, and exhaled loudly. “My head is starting to hurt. This is too much to take in.”

“I’m sorry Dak, but I just wanted to emphasize that this isn’t the end of the world.” Rev. Daniels said. “I think right now you should try and get some rest.”

“I’ll try.” Dakotah replied, unsure whether or not he could.

“Well, I guess I’ll be going.” Rev. Daniels said. “Remember, if you need anything, just call.”

“Be careful going home.” Dakotah said, a wave of worry passing over him. “I’ll call you tomorrow, after my aunt arrives, and we figure something out.”

Dakotah turned to Ely, and held her hands. “Thanks for coming. It really meant a lot to me.”

“I’m not going anywhere.” Ely said, her eyes piercing his.

“Huh?” Dakotah blurted, confused.

“What are you talking about?” Rev. Daniels said, surprised.

“I’m staying the night here with Dak.” Ely said, firmly. “I can’t just leave him here alone after what happened!”

“Ah, you have school tomorrow, remember?” Dakotah said, protesting slightly.

“I’m good on all my classes, and besides, I have a free ride at UM!” Ely replied, confidently. “I can afford to take the day off, so I can keep you company.”

“Alan, is this okay with you?” Dakotah asked, noting that Rev. Daniels hadn’t offered an opinion.

“Sure, I don’t see why she couldn’t, if you don’t have a problem with it.” Rev. Daniels said, thoughtfully. “As long as you two behave, and not fool around, of course!”

“Fooling around?” Ely said, indignantly. “Not happening!”

“Like she said, she has her life in order.” Rev Daniels said. “She’s old enough to make her own decisions.”

“Okay.” Dakotah said, shrugging his shoulders. “Sure. Why not?”

“Good.” Rev. Daniels said, beginning to smile a little. “Now, I mean it, you two. If something happens, I’ll have to get my shotgun out of the closet, understand?”

“Daddy, you don’t even own a shotgun!” Ely protested, rolling her eyes.

“Have you been snooping in my closet?” Rev. Daniels retorted, mocking her. “I don’t think so!”

“I-I don’t think you have anything to worry about.” Dakotah said, confused.

“It’s okay, Dak, I was just teasing.” Rev. Daniels replied calmly. “You, I trust. Others, no so much.”

“DADDY!”

“Call me if you need anything, okay, Dak?” Rev. Daniels repeated.

“Will do.” Dakotah replied, fatigue beginning to set in. “Be careful going home.”

“Be careful, Daddy, love you. “ Ely said, hugging her father.

“Love you, too.” Rev. Daniels said, hugging her back. “Be good. See you tomorrow.”

Rev. Daniels walked out in the cold, snowy night, entered his car, and slowly pulled out into the street.

Dakotah and Ely stare at each other for a moment, without saying anything.

“Can I get you anything?” Dakotah asked, otherwise at a loss for words.

“Something to sleep in would be nice.” Ely replied.

“Something to sleep in?” Dakotah asked, becoming confused.

“Yeah. I don’t want to sleep in these clothes.” Ely said, patiently. I’d like something cozy.”

“Grandma has nightgowns, but I-“

“No!” Ely shouted, horrified. “I’m not wearing her clothes!”

“Didn’t think you would.” Dakotah said, trying to calm her down. “I have some pajamas, but I don’t think they’ll fit you.”

“Ooh, that sounds good!” Ely said, contentedly. “I’ll try some on!”

Dakotah, with Ely following, entered his room, and opened a dresser drawer, pulling out a blue pair of pajamas.

“I’m going to get a shower.” Dakotah announced, pulling a pair of briefs out of another drawer.

“Whitey tighties?” Ely giggled. “I should’ve known!”

“What about it?” Dakotah exclaimed, his face becoming beet red. “They’re comfortable!” He quickly folded the underwear inside the pajamas, out of view.

Gomeni. I think it’s cute!” Ely said, smiling. “I’ll see if there’s anything I can wear.”

Dakotah entered the bathroom, locking the door behind him. Exhaling, and shaking his head, he showers quickly, and dresses. He checked his face for any growth, and finding none, he stepped outside.

Ely stood before him, wearing a yellow pair of pajamas. The sleeves extended past her hands, and the bottoms were baggy, the drawstring making a huge bow in front.

She’s really cute like this.” Dakotah thought to himself.

“These’ll work.” Ely announced.

“Can you get around without falling all over yourself?” Dakotah asked.

“I look silly, but I’ll be fine.” Ely reassured. “Question, though.”

“What?” Dakotah said, curious.

“Why did you lock the door when you took your shower?”

The question caught Dakotah off guard. “Wh-why? How did you know? Did you try to come into the bathroom?”

“As if!” Ely exclaimed, shaking her head. “No, I heard the lock click when you locked it. Did you think I was going to peep?”

“N-No!” Dakotah stammered. “I-I always have locked the bathroom door, especially when I lived at home! Frank never knocked if he needed in there, he just barged in, and did his business.”

“I’m sorry, Dak.” Ely said, changing her tone. “I didn’t mean to come across like that. It just stuck me as odd, that’s all.”

“That’s okay.” Dakotah said, staring blankly. “Look, I can’t even think right now. I have to go to bed, and try to get some rest. Aunt what’s-her-name will be here tomorrow, and I have to be ready for when she arrives.”

Dakotah slipped under the cover, and Ely did likewise. Immediately, Dakotah sat up, and stared at Ely.

“What are you doing?” he shouted, alarmed.

“Getting in bed, silly.” Ely said, puzzled. “What am I supposed to do?”

“My bed?” Dakotah said, his mind spinning.

“Do you really think I’m going to sleep on the couch, or God forbid, in your Grandmother’s bed?” Ely retorted.

“I-I-I uhhhh, it never occurred to me you’d sleep here!” Dakotah said, flabbergasted.

“Well, here I am, so calm down, lie down, and try to get some sleep!” Ely exhorted.

“O-okay.” Dakotah said, obeying Ely’s commands. “I’m sorry, but I’ve never shared my bed with anyone before. It’s really weird.”

“I guess I can understand that, since you never really had any friends.” Ely said softly. “I used to have friends from church over for sleepovers, but that kinda stopped a few years back.”

“This is usually the time I spend thinking before I fall asleep.” Dakotah said, barely above a whisper. “It’s really quiet, and I feel the most peace at this time.”

“Oh my gosh, it’s cold in this bed!” Ely said, beginning to shiver. “Why is this house always so cold?”

“Grandma kept the thermostat low to save energy, since she was on a fixed budget.” Dakotah said. “I agree, it can get cold at first, but with all these blankets, It’ll get warm, eventually.”

“Roll over on your side, please!” Ely said, pushing Dakotah.

“Why?” Dakotah asked, doing as she asked. “I’m not taking up too much of the bed, am I?”

“You’re going to be my heat source!” Ely said, snuggling up behind him, her arms folded up between her and his back. “Ahhh, that’s better!”

Dakotah laid there, speechless, and unable to move, his brain barely processing what was happening. All Dakotah knew at that moment was the girl of his dreams was lying in bed behind him, close enough to feel her breath between his shoulders.

“Are you okay?” Ely whispered, sensing something amiss.

Dakotah shook his head slightly, not saying anything.

Ely reached up and touched Dakotah’s shoulders, causing him to twitch. “My gosh, you’re so tense.” she spoke, and began to rub on his shoulders. “I’m sorry, all of this is too much, isn’t it?”

Dakotah first began to sob, then wept openly, still not saying anything. Ely stopped rubbing his shoulders, and slid her arms under his, hugging him from behind tightly.

“It’s okay, let it all out.” Ely whispered in Dakotah’s ear. “I’m here.”

Dakotah shook his head. “Y-You won’t be.” he said, under his breath.

“What do you mean?” Ely said, confused. “Where would I be?”

“Less than a year from now, you’ll be in Ann Arbor.” Dakotah said, between sobs. “And a couple of years from now, you could be in Japan!”

Ely released Dakotah from her grasp, and rolled on her back, away from him. She took a deep breath, and exhaled, shivering a bit since she was on the cold side of the bed. “You feel like you’re going to be all alone in the world, aren’t you?”

“Yeah.” Dakotah mumbled, wiping away tears.

“As long as I draw breath, you will be my best friend, and I will always hold a special place in my heart for you.” Ely said, looking at Dakotah. “But don’t you think I have the right to live my dream?”

“Yeah.” Dakotah muttered.

“Besides, you’re not alone. There’s Vanessa, and-“

“I don’t care about Vanessa!” Dakotah wailed. “You can’t make me want her any more than I can make you want me!”

Ely sighed, not saying anything.

“Besides, she’s been weird lately.” Dakotah continued, sniffling. “We hardly ever talk at church anymore, and we don’t talk on the phone like we had. She didn’t even return my call tonight.“

“I’m sure there’s a good reason, Dak.” Ely said, soothingly.

“Maybe she figured out what kind of loser I am.” Dakotah whined.

Ely became frustrated at Dakotah, but chose not to say how she felt, biting her lip in the process. After a couple of moments of reflection, she spoke.

“You’re only a loser if you’ve given up, if people have given up on you.” she said, squeezing him from behind again. “There’s a lot of people in your life that care deeply about you. For instance, how much money has your aunt from Kentucky given you?”

“Thirteen or fourteen hundred dollars.” Dakotah said, again wiping away tears.

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why would your aunt send you all that money?”

“Because I needed transportation.”

“Okay, that’s the literal reason.” Ely said, patiently, “But why would she help you?”

“Oh. Yeah.” Dakotah said, gathering his wits. “I guess she loves me.”

“She thinks you’re worthy enough to be helped.” Ely said confidently. “If you were a loser, do you think she would risk that much money on you?”

“I don’t guess so.”

“Right. If dad thought you were a loser, would he offered you, and only you, a job?” Ely said, her voice gathering momentum. She sighed. “And do you think he would keep playing matchmaker if you were a loser?”

“Heh. Guess not.”

“Would Mama offer Andre’s bedroom for you to stay in if you were a loser?”

Dakotah shook his head, not saying anything.

Ely took a deep breath, and began to tear up. “Dakotah Lennon, even though life may take me to the other side of the world, I will never, never, ever forget you. If I needed you, you would come, to Ann Arbor, even to Japan, no matter what it took.”

“You better believe it.” Dakotah said, choking up.

“I honestly don’t think Hannah would do that, as much as we love each other.”

“That’s because you made the wrong choice.” Dakotah said, beginning to smile.

“Time will tell, won’t it?” Ely said, laughing a little. “But, if you were a loser, would I be here spending the night with you?”

Dakotah pulled away out of Ely’s grasp, and rolled toward Ely, so that he was now facing her. “Thank you, Ely. I love you.” he whispered.

“We believe in you, Dak.” Ely whispered back. “You just have to overcome all those years of brainwashing, and believe in yourself.”

“I want to believe what all of you are saying, but it’s so hard.” Dakotah said, wiping away a tear.

“You know, I usually don’t talk spiritually, since my dad is a preacher. ” Ely said, still whispering. “But God is behind you too, if you have faith in Him, and yourself. Pray. Pray for His strength, and guidance, and He’ll help you get through this rough stretch.

“It’s kinda weird hearing you talk like that.” Dakotah said, smiling.

“Hey, I’m not totally the rebellious preacher’s daughter, right?” Ely said, beginning to laugh.

“Whatever!” Dakotah said, joining in the laughter.

Ely rolled over to the side of the bed, and picked up her cell phone. “It’s 2:17!” We’d better get some sleep!”

“Yeah, I don’t know when my aunt will be here.” Dakotah said. “I’m assuming she’ll be driving in from Rochester in the morning.”

“I’ll have Daddy pick me up in the morning. I don’t want your aunt thinking we’ve been sleeping together.”

“I guess we will be sleeping together, huh?” Dakotah said sheepishly.

“Literally, yes, but you know what I mean, baka!” Ely said, swatting him lightly.

“Well, I ‘ll set the alarm at 8:00.” Dakotah said, reaching over to adjust his alarm clock.

“I’m setting my phone to go off at 7:30.” Ely said, swiping her fingers on her phone. “I’m not taking any chances.”

“Okay, then.” Dakotah yawned, the weight of the evening finally overcoming him. “Sweet dreams.”

“Goodnight, Dak.” Ely whispered, snuggling behind Dakotah again.

“Ely?”

“What?”

“Thanks.”

“Anytime.”

“How about tomorrow night?”

Baka-yarō!”

*****

 

January 28th, 2009

 

It seemed that Dakotah had just closed his eyes when he heard the doorbell ring. Slowly getting his bearings, he closed the bedroom door behind him, and stumbled his way through the dark house to the front door.

Still groggy, his heart began to beat faster as he reached for the doorknob. “Who the heck could it be at this hour?” he thought to himself.

Standing before him in the predawn gloom, was an elderly woman, immaculately dressed in an expensive black woolen coat and matching hat.

“Dakotah Lennon, I presume?” asked the lady.

“Yes, I am.” Dakotah replied, the combination of the subfreezing temperatures and the situation at hand instantly snapping him to. “Won’t you come in?”

Dakotah quickly turned on the lamp on the side table, as the lady stepped inside. “I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are.” he said, apologetically. “Would you like a seat?”

“No thank you, I won’t be long.” the lady said, matter-of-factly. “My name is Jean Reynolds. I am Elizabeth’s sister.”

“Really?” Dakotah exclaimed, surprised. ”Don’t you live in New York, somewhere? How did you get here so fast?”

“Yes, Rochester, to be exact.” Jean said, disinterested. “Simply, I hired a private jet and flew to Flint, where I rented a car, and drove the rest of the way here. Now, where are the documents?”

“Oh, they’re over here, in the filing cabinet. I’ll get them-.”

“Thank you, no, I shall retrieve them.” Jean said, interrupting Dakotah. “I wish you hadn’t tampered with them.”

“We didn’t know who to contact!” Dakotah exclaimed, becoming irritated. “The filing cabinet contained the only papers with your contact information on it!”

“We?” Jean said coldly. “Who’s “we”?”

“Ah, it was my mom, my pastor, and his daughter.” Dakotah replied, becoming defensive. “Everything’s in there.”

“I would hope so.” Jean snapped. “If everything’s not In order, I will not hesitate to contact the proper authorities.”

Dakotah became nervous, even though he knew no one had done anything wrong. He chose not to say a word.

Jean quickly scanned the filing cabinet, retrieved the manila envelope, and looked over the contents. “They appear to all be here. I’ll pass these on to my lawyer.”

“I-If you need anything, just ask, and I’ll do my best to help.” Dakotah said, timidly.

“That would be advisable.” Jean said, indifferently. “I’m leaving now, to meet with my lawyer, and the funeral home. I will return later today. See to it that the house remains in its’ present condition.” She wheeled around and exited through the front door, leaving Dakotah speechless.

Watching his great aunt get into a black Escalade and pull away, Dakotah turned, and headed toward his bedroom. He almost opened the door, but stopped himself, and knocked instead. “It’s me.” He announced. “She’s gone now. May I come in?”

Ely opened the door, revealing a made bed, herself fully dressed, and makeup applied perfectly. “That is not a nice lady.” she stated plainly.

“Tell me about it!” Dakotah exclaimed, shaking his head. “I was wondering if she was going to call the cops on me!”

“I’d better call Dad, and have him pick me up.” Ely said, feeling uncomfortable. “I don’t want to be here when she returns.”

“I’ll take you home.” Dakotah countered. “I need some fresh air, anyway.”

“Thanks for keeping me hidden.” Ely sighed. “If she saw me in your pj’s, I would have died.”

“Thanks for making the bed.” Dakotah said, beginning to smile. “I began to wonder if she was going to start counting the silverware!”

Hurry up and get ready then, and take me home!” Ely said in a rush. “Knowing that woman, she’ll be back in an hour!”

Ely exited the bedroom as Dakotah entered it, closing the door behind him. Making sure he didn’t lock the door, he quickly changed.

“Okay, I’m ready.” Dakotah said as he left the bedroom. Pausing, and peering into the living room, his eyes began to moisten.

“What’s wrong?” Ely asked, concerned.

“Grandma always had her morning news shows on TV every day, while drinking a cup of coffee.” Dakotah said, wiping a tear. “It’s really quiet now.”

“You can do the same thing, before you come to the church. Ely said, trying to console him.

“Nah.” Dakotah said, shaking his head. “I always hated those shows. All they had was bad news, and that depressed me. I have enough trouble in my life without hearing about other’s problems.”

“That’s an odd thing for you to say, since you’re always helping others in need.” Ely said, curiously.

“If I can help them, that’s one thing.” Dakotah countered. “But I can’t fix the world’s problems, and with the news, that’s all you hear.”

Ely looked up in to Dakotah’s eyes. “I always pray for them. Don’t you?”

“Yeah, but it doesn’t seem to do any good.” Dakotah replied, avoiding eye contact.

“You don’t know that, do you?” Ely said, pointedly. “What if your prayers help one person? It would be worth it, right?”

Dakotah shrugged his shoulders, and nodded. “You’re right. Ely?”

“Yeah?”

Dakotah clutched Ely, and held her tightly. She reciprocated in kind, patting his shoulders.

“Thanks for everything.” Dakotah said, whispering into her ear.

“Anytime.” Ely whispered back. “Now let go of me, so I can breathe.”

Gomen.” Dakotah said, releasing her instantly.

*****

Dakotah took Ely home, stopping on the way at a fast food restaurant drive through for breakfast. He had planned on cooking breakfast at home, but his aunt’s arrival, and her attitude, changed his plans. In short order, he pulled into her driveway.

“Let us know what happens, okay?” Ely said, emphatically.

“You’ll be the first one I call, I guarantee it.” Dakotah said, smiling a little.

“What about your aunt in Kentucky? She doesn’t know anything about what happened, does she?”

“No.” Dakotah replied, shaking his head. ”I’ll call her this afternoon, after she gets home from work. I don’t know if Unk’s home, and their son is, well, weird.”

“He must really be weird, if you say he’s weird!” Ely said grinning.

“Hey! Pot calling the kettle black!” Dakotah said in mock indignation. They both laugh.

“Ely reached across the seat, and grasped Dakotah’s hand. “You be careful, okay?”

“Absolutely.”

“Call me?”

“Yep. Thanks.”

“See you.”

“See you.”

*****

Flurries accompanied Dakotah as he made his way home; there were isolated slick spots on the streets, but he traversed them with ease.

Arriving at his grandmother’s, he parked under the carport, and entered through the kitchen, as he had a mere 14 hours prior, before his world turned upside down. Dak listened for a moment to the silence, and sighed, but felt that it was no time to be distraught. Gathering the cleaning supplies under the sink, he set about cleaning the entire house, as well as he knew how. Elizabeth kept the house fairly clean, but with the lights on, he saw high places that needed dusting, and cobwebs in the corners of the ceiling. Nothing in the house escaped his scrutiny, from vacuuming, to scrubbing the bathroom and kitchen.

It only took a couple of hours for Dakotah to clean the entire house, as it wasn’t that dirty to begin with. Out of breath, he sat at the kitchen table, looked about, and sighed. He had busied himself earlier, not allowing himself the opportunity to think about his immediate future. However, now that the tasks had been completed, he began to consider his situation.

“What’s going to happen to me now?” Dakotah said to himself aloud. “Will I get kicked out of this house, too?” He thought that maybe he could eke out a living if he stayed there rent free, but if his aunt charged him rent, living there on $800 a month would be impossible. Although both Rev. Daniels and Mama had offered him a place to live, he didn’t feel comfortable taking them up on their offers. He certainly couldn’t go back to his mother’s! There was also his Aunt Louise’s offer to move to Kentucky, but he cringed at the thought of moving down there, away from Ely.

Dakotah heard a vehicle pull up the driveway, parking behind Elizabeth’s car. He looked out the window, and saw that it was the same Escalade as earlier. He opened the kitchen door, noting that not only his great aunt exited the SUV, but also two men and one woman as well.

“Come in this way!” Dakotah beckoned. “The walkway’s clear here!” He noticed that all four were professionally dressed and carried small briefcases, which made him uneasy.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were coming, or I would’ve fixed you some coffee, or something.” Dakotah said, anxiously. “If you wish, I’ll start a pot.”

“That won’t be necessary.” Jean snapped. ”We will do our business here, and leave.”

One of the men and the woman each pulled out a clipboard and their smartphone, and began taking notes, and snapping photos. The man was inspecting furniture, while the woman went through every room of the house.

“The other man, dressed in a black suit and a black wool overcoat, turned to Dakotah. “You’re Elizabeth’s grandson, I presume?”

“Y-Yes.” Dakotah replied, uncomfortably. “What are these people doing?”

“The lady is a realtor, and the gentleman is an antiques appraiser. “The man said with a confident air. “I am Mrs. Reynolds’ lawyer. We have to appraise the house and contents, in order to put it up for auction.”

Dakotah almost became woozy. “A-a-auction?”

“Yes.” The lawyer continued, coolly. “According to the will, Mrs. Reynolds is the executor, the one in charge of making sure Mrs. Lennon’s wishes are carried out, and any debt she may owe is paid.”

“Okay, I know that.” Dakotah said, shaking his head in disbelief. “Why an auction?”

“The will states that all of her material possessions be auctioned off, and put into a trust, with your father as the sole beneficiary.” the lawyer announced. “Of course, that’s minus any debts your grandmother may have, and any expenses generated in the process of executing the will.”

“Why are you telling him this?” Jean said angrily to her lawyer. “None of this is any of his business!”

“On the contrary, Mrs. Reynolds.” The lawyer said, remaining calm. “Dakotah is in the will as well, if you recall. All personal effects, such as her diary, and her photo albums, are to become his.”

Jean harrumphed without saying a word.

“You currently live here, correct?” the lawyer asked Dakotah.

“Y-yeah.” Dakotah stuttered, his mind swimming.

“I’m afraid you will have to vacate within 30 days.” the lawyer said in a monotone.

Dakotah was in shock, speechless.

“However, there is one exception,  that will alter the proceedings.” the lawyer continued.

“What?” Dakotah replied, weakly.

“If your father can be reached, and we haven’t been able to do that yet, he has the option to keep the house, and pay the debts.”

“If I remember correctly, no one has seen him since Harold Lennon passed.” Jean said, with an air of superiority.

“Pretty much.” Dakotah offered in a low tone. “Mom’s been trying to find him for years.”

Jean straightened her shoulders, and pointed at Dakotah. “Unless by some miracle you father happens to show up, in thirty days I expect you to have vacated these premises, is that clear?”

“Y-yeah.” Dakotah muttered, looking down.

“And another thing, young man.” Jean, continued, condescendingly. “Ms. Hawkins and Mr. George are documenting the condition of the house, and the contents therein. If any of it is damaged, or missing, you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Do I make myself absolutely clear?”

“Just who are you, anyway?” Dakotah shouted, becoming furious. “You’re not one bit sad that Grandma died!”

“How I grieve is none of your business.” Jean snapped, scornfully. “I have seen this day coming for many years, and I have taken the steps necessary to mitigate any damages resulting from her passing. This is purely business. I don’t know you, and I don’t want to know you. All you are to me is a potential loss to my bottom line, and I will not allow that to happen. Do you understand?“

“Yes.” Dakotah replied, stunned, but unbowed. The other three, having witnessed the exchange, were also stunned.

“Well, are you finished?” Jean said, irritated. The three professionals nod, without saying a word.

“Good.” Jean continued, completely ignoring Dakotah. “We’ll discuss this on the way to the office.”

Jean turned, and walked out of the house,  the three professionals in tow. Within seconds, the Cadillac could be heard roaring down the street.

Dakotah collapsed in a kitchen chair, cradled his head in his hands, and wept heavily for several minutes. After gaining his composure, he called Rev. Daniels.

“Hello?” Ely answered, anxious to hear what happened.

“Hi.” Dakotah replied, downtrodden.

“What happened?” Ely said, alarmed.

“I always thought that Frank was the worst person possible. I think my aunt is even worse than him.”

“No way.” Ely replied, shocked.

“All I am to her is someone who could mess up this precious house, like I’m some cockroach, or something.” Dakotah stated, becoming angry again.

“What?” Ely said, not understanding. “Why?”

“She and her lawyer gave me thirty days to move out of the house, and if anything happened to it, they would have me put in jail.” Dakotah said, bitterly.

“Wow.” Ely said, shaking her head in disbelief. “I’m so sorry, Dak.”

“They are going to auction everything off, with the money going to Dad, unless they find him, and he decides to keep the house.” Dakotah said, numbly.

“Your dad?” Ely said, incredulously. “Do you even remember your dad?”

“Barely.” Dakotah said, sighing. “Like they’re going to find him, anyway.”

“I’m so sorry, Dak.” Ely said, full of empathy. “What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know.” Dakotah said, his mind drawing a blank. “You don’t want me there, and staying at Mama’s-“

“It would be really weird, but my dad would take you in an instant.” Ely interrupted. “If you had no place to go, I would just deal with it for a while until I moved to UM.”

“There’s also Mama’s.” Dakotah said, sensing Ely’s unease. “Staying in Andre’s room would give me the creeps, I think.”

“And there’s Kentucky.” Ely said, stating the option neither of them wanted to talk about.

“Yeah. I definitely don’t want to go there.” Dakotah said, shaking his head. “I’d have to give everything up if I moved there.”

“That’s not saying much, sorry.” Ely said, pointedly.

“I have my friends and my church. I don’t need much else.” Dakotah said, defiantly.

“I hope you’re right.” Ely said, sighing.

Dakotah looked up at the clock. “Speaking of Kentucky, my Aunt Louise should be getting home from work now. I need to call her, and tell her what happened, even though I’m going to hear her try to sell me on moving down there.”

“Well, you owe her that. “ Ely said, matter-of-factly. “I’ll pass the word to Dad. I’m sure he’ll be calling you soon.”

“Thanks. I’ll call Rev. Higgins first, and see if he knows when the funeral is.” Dakotah said, thinking.

“That’s a good idea. Let us know, in case Dad doesn’t already know.”

“Will do.”

“Take care, Dak. I’ll be praying for you.”

“Thanks, you too.”

Dakotah hung up the phone, and, finding the phone book on the desk, looked up the phone number to 1st Baptist. After three rings, a lady answered the phone.

“Hi, this is Dakotah Lennon. Is-“

“Oh, Dakotah, I’m so sorry what happened to Elizabeth!” the voice on the line gushed.  “Do you know what happened yet?”

“No, I don’t.” Dakotah said, feeling the pain of recalling the previous night. “Is Brother Higgins in?”

“No, I’m sorry, he’s in a business meeting.” The receptionist replied unhappily. “Can I take a message, or is there something I can do?”

“When he finds out when Grandma’s funeral is, can he call me?”

“Oh wait, I have the visitation schedule right here.” the receptionist said. “It’s from 2PM to 6PM Thursday, and 10AM to 2 PM Friday, with the funeral at 2PM Friday. Didn’t you know that?”

“No, no one told me.” Dakotah said, sadly.

“You haven’t had contact with the funeral home?” the receptionist said, confused.

“No, her sister’s in charge of the preparations. I haven’t heard a thing.”

“Not to be insulting, but Brother Higgins said your aunt is…..odd.”

“She’s probably the most cold-blooded person I’ve ever met.” Dakotah said,  plainly. “Thanks for the info.”

“You’re welcome.” the receptionist said, warmly. “Oh! I have an incoming call. Take care, Dakotah.”

“You, too.”

Dakotah wrote the visitation and funeral times down, knowing that they were already etched in his mind. Taking a deep breath, he called his aunt, hoping that she would be the one answering.

“Hello?” a familiar female voice answered.

“Hi, Aunt Lou.”

“What’s wrong?” Louise immediately replied, sensing something amiss.

“Grandma passed away last night.” Dakotah said, solemnly.

“Oh my gosh!” Louise exclaimed, shocked. “How?”

“I don’t know.” Dakotah said, tiring of this response. “I found her on the floor last night, but it was too late.”

Louise paused for a moment. “So, what happening now? What are you going to do?”

“I called her sister in New York, and she came over and took over all the arrangements.” Dakotah said, plainly. “The funeral’s Friday.”

“Oh, that’s good. How are you?”

“Not so good.” Dakotah said, becoming downcast. “My great aunt’s lawyer says I have to move in thirty days. If they can’t find my father, or if he doesn’t want the house, they’re going to auction off the house.”

“Well, I don’t see that happening.” Louise said. “ What are you going to do?”

“I have no idea.” Dakotah said, bracing for what her opinion would be.

“I do. Come to Kentucky.” Louise said, forcefully.

“Thank you, no.” Dakotah said, tersely.

“Give me one good reason why not?” Louise said, becoming instantly irritated. “You’re still pining for that little gay girl, aren’t you?”

“It’s more than that.” Dakotah said, keeping his anger in check. “I have a job now.”

“Really?” Louise said, surprised. “Where?”

“At the church.” Dakotah replied, not know how she would react.

“Doing what? How much?” Louise said, becoming disappointed.

“Answering the phone, and stuff.” Dakotah said, his voice losing momentum. 200 a week.”

“You’re kidding me.” Louise said, exasperated. “That’s it?”

“Well, it’s only twenty hours a week.” Dakotah said, becoming defensive.

“Dak, you could be making 600-700 a week down here, plus insurance, vacations, even bonuses on top of that!”

“Sounds okay, but I think I’ll make a go of it up here.” Dakotah said, wishing the conversation was over.

“I think you’re making a big mistake, Dakotah.” Louise said, slowly regaining her composure. “These jobs aren’t going to stay around forever.”

“I’ll be okay, Lou, promise.” Dakotah said, trying to reassure her. “By the way, you can stop sending me money, since I have a job now. I’m not sure when I can pay you back, for all you’ve done so far, but I appreciate all the help you’ve given me.”

“Well, you’re supposedly a grown man.” Louise said, digging at Dakotah. “I’m not coming up there to drag your butt down here.”

“I know you love me,” Dakotah said, trying to regain his aunt’s confidence, “but give me a chance, okay?”

“Fine.” Louise said, sighing. “If you get your hind end in a sling, I may bail you out. Maybe.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Dakotah said, beginning to smile a little. “Thanks, Lou. Love you.”

“Love you, too, turd.” Louise said, still slightly perturbed. “You take care of yourself, and I mean it! You better call us if you need anything, you hear?”

“Got it. Bye.”

“Bye.” Louise hung up the phone, and muttered to herself, “I’m going to string that boy up, one of these days. He’s become as dumb as his mother!”

Dakotah breathed a sigh of relief, as he looked out the window. The sun began to peek out under the clouds near the horizon, leaving a pattern of reds, pinks, and purples.

“What a difference a day makes.” he sighed to himself.

The phone rang again; this time, it was Rev. Daniels.

“Tough day, eh, amigo?” Rev. Daniels said, with empathy.

“Yeah, you could say that.” Dakotah replied, suddenly feeling exhausted.

“Listen, don’t worry about what you can’t change.” Rev. Daniels said, trying to raise Dakotah’s spirits. “My advice is to pray for strength to get through the next few days. After the funeral, maybe after you finish a couple of days at church, we’ll get together, and figure a way to get you through this mess. Sound good?”

“Alan, I think those are the best words I’ve heard all day!” Dakotah cried, a wave of relief flowing over him. “Thank you!”

“Not a problem.” Rev. Daniels said, chuckling. “It’s what I do.”

“I’m tired.” Dakotah said, realizing the amount of stress he’d been under.

“It’s early, but go fix something to eat, and get some rest.” It’ll do you good.”

“I think I’ll do that!” Dakotah said, also realizing he hadn’t eaten in six hours.

“Good night, Dak. I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Call me anytime if you have any concerns, okay?”

“Thanks, Alan.” Dakotah said, grateful. “Good night.”

Dakotah fixed himself a grilled cheese sandwich, and poured a glass of iced tea. Sitting at the table he clasped his hands together, and bowed his head.

“Lord, thank you for this meal. Thank you, Lord, for blessing me with people who love me, and all the help they’ve given me. And Lord, please tell Grandma I miss her. In Jesus name I pray, Amen.”


Chapter 11

Chapter 11

December 15th, 2008

“Grandma, do you have Aunt Lou’s phone number?” Dakotah asked.

“Yes, I do, Dak.” Elizabeth replied uneasily. “Why do you ask?” Dakotah had been shut out so far on finding a job, and had been becoming increasingly frustrated. “I wonder if he’s going to ask if they’re still hiring where she works.”  she thought.

“I want to ask her if it’s okay to use a little of the transportation fund to get some Christmas presents and cards.” Dakotah said. “Everyone has been so nice to me this year, and I want to give something back.”

“That’s nice of you to think that.” Elizabeth said, nodding her head in agreement. “What did you have in mind?”

“Mostly cards, but maybe a small gift for Ely and Vanessa, and maybe you?” he replied, slightly embarrassed.

“No gifts for me, please, I have too much stuff as it is!” Elizabeth said, laughing a little. “You’re getting something for both girls? Won’t Vanessa get jealous?”

“Vanessa’s just a friend at this point.” Dakotah replied, pointedly. “Ely’s still my best friend, so I’d like to get her something too! Vanessa isn’t the type to get jealous, anyway.”

“I worry about you, sometimes. I don’t want to see any of you get hurt. Just be careful, okay?”

“Grandma, you sound like I’m headed out to war, or something!” Dakotah laughed.

“Dak, you’ll find out that love can be more hazardous than war.” Elizabeth said, without cracking a smile. “Here’s her phone number. I keep it in this organizer by the phone.”

“Thanks, Grandma.” Dakotah said, not fully understanding her words. “Love more hazardous than war?” he thought. “I don’t think it will kill me!”

Dakotah called the number in the organizer. He hoped she wouldn’t get mad at him for asking, and tell him not to use the money for Christmas.

The phone rang three times, then a fourth. Dakotah wondered if there was anyone there. He was about to hang up the phone, when he heard a click, then silence.

“That’s odd, the phone hung up on me!” Dakotah said, surprised. “I’ll try again.”

Once again, the phone rang and rang. On the sixth ring, the phone clicked again. This time however, there was a voice on the other side.

“Hello.” said the voice. It was male, low, and colorless.

“Ah, hi!” Dakotah said, thinking perhaps he dialed the wrong number. “Is this the Jones residence?”

“Yes.”

“Is Louise there?” Dakotah said, slightly relieved. “This is Dakotah, her nephew.”

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen her.” The voice replied, without a trace of emotion.

“This must be Dylan.” Dakotah thought. “He sounds weird. Maybe he don’t like talking on the phone.”

“Well, would you have her call me when she can?” Dakotah asked politely.

“Okay.” With that, the line went dead again.

“What the heck?” Dakotah said, perturbed.

Instantly after he spoke, the phone rang. The caller ID said Ralph Jones.

Not knowing what to expect, answered the phone. “Hello?”

“Hi, Dak!” a more familiar voice said over the phone. “What’s up?”

“Oh! Hi, Lou!” Dakotah answered, relieved. “Who was that I talked to on the phone earlier?”

“That was your cousin Dylan.” Louise said, apologetically. “He’s not too good with talking to people he doesn’t know.”

“Oh, that’s okay. Dakotah replied. “I’m like that too!”

“So, what’s on your mind? Ready to move to Pig Lick?”

“No, not yet.” Dakotah said, sighing.

“Still ain’t found a job yet?”

“No, still trying, though. Grandma says it’s the worst she’s seen in 25 years.”

“Well, the plastics plant is still hiring.” Louise said, still trying to sell the idea of Dakotah’s relocation. “We’re having trouble keeping people.”

“Why? Is the work that tough?” Dakotah wondered if he was physically able to work there.

“No, not at all.” Louise said, shaking her head. “Problem is with the Japs that own the plant. They talk funny, and their ways are a bit weird, and most folks around here can’t handle that.”

Dakotah had a brief thought about himself and Ely making a go of it down there, but he quickly dismissed it.

“I get along with them just fine.” Louise continued. “If I can get along with Ralph’s people, I can get along with anyone!” She laughed.

‘I’ll keep it in mind, as a last resort.” Dakotah said. “I really don’t want to leave everyone here, if I can help it.”

“I understand.” Louise said, even though she didn’t. “So tell me, Dak, why did you call, if you don’t want to move here?”

Dakotah took a deep breath. “I wanted to know if I could spend a little transportation fund money on Christmas.”

“How much did you have in mind?” Louise said, curious. She wondered if Dakotah would badger her for freedom to spend money on dates and things, but he had kept his promise, so far.

“About fifty or sixty dollars.” Dakotah said meekly.

“That’s not too much.” she said, surprised. “How about a hundred, instead?”

“Oh, no, I don’t need that much!” Dakotah protested. “All I have are a couple of presents, and some cards to buy. That’s all!”

Louise laughed. “I think you’re the first teenager I’ve ever seen turn down money! You have my blessing if you need a little more.”

“Thank you.” Dakotah said graciously. “I will pay you back, someday!”

“You don’t have to pay me back.” Louise said, smiling to herself. “Just go and do your best, succeed, and that will be payment enough.”

Dakotah was at a loss for words. “T-thank you.”

“Question: are you going to get anything for your mother?” Louise asked.

“I-I don’t know.” Dakotah stammered, caught off guard. “Part of me wants to, but it still hurts a lot when I think about that night.”

Louise thought for a moment. “Dak, I’m not going to tell you what to do. One could say to forgive her, but my question would be would she do the same thing again if history repeated itself?”

“I don’t know. I guess she would.”

Louise laughed. “Okay, I changed my mind. I’m going to tell you what I would do. I would send or give her a card, and in it, I would tell her how I feel about everything. You still love her, don’t you?”

“Yeah.” Dakotah said, a light coming into his head.

“Then make sure you put it in the card, so that she knows this without a doubt. Make sure also that she knows how hurt you are too, though I think she knows this, too.”

“Okay.” Dakotah said, thinking about what he would say.

“Now, time for the good and juicy dirt!” Louise said, grinning. “What are you going to get for your girlfriend?”

“I-I don’t know.” Dakotah said, once again blindsided by Louise’s query. “I don’t really have a girlfriend.”

“What about that looker you were seeing? Louise said, annoyed. “She dump you? Or are you still fawning over that other girl?”

“Vanessa?” Dakotah replied, uncomfortable. “We’ve gone out to the movies a couple of times, and out to eat after church on Wednesdays, but that’s about it.”

“Do you not talk to her on the phone? Hold hands? Kiss?”

Dakotah exhaled, wishing the conversation would either end, or go to another subject. “Sometimes, no, no.”

“What’s wrong with her?”

“Nothing.”

“I’m sorry, but you are the slowest mover I’ve ever seen! Me and your uncle were doing it on our second date!”

Dakotah’s face turned beet red. “Aunt Lou, why did you tell me that? I thought you were this conservative Baptist! Haven’t you heard of True Love Waits?”

“First, we didn’t have that program when I was your age.” Louise said, pointedly. “Besides, as far as I’m concerned, that program is for the parents, not for the kids.”

“Why?” Dakotah said, confused.

“Because it gives the parents the impression that Bobby and Julie aren’t messing around, even though they probably are. You’d be surprised how many girls at our church wore the ring, only to get pregnant within the year.”

“It’s not like that at New Hope.” Dakotah said, defensively.

“Maybe they use better birth control up there, who knows? Secondly, I was a total rebel, through and through, and a horny one at that! When I saw your uncle, well, he looked a lot better back then.”

Dakotah wanted to end the conversation, but didn’t know what to say.

“I think you still have it bad for that other girl, don’t you?” Louise said confidently. “You’d be smooching on her, if you had the chance!”

“She’s my best friend. We’ve been through a lot together this year. It was her idea to pair Vanessa and me up in the first place.”

“You’re avoiding the question, which makes you guilty!” Louise said, full of bravado. “I’m sorry, kinda, that I’m talking to you this way, but I don’t want to see you hurt, and if you keep fooling yourself, you will be, I promise you.”

“I’ll be okay.” Dakotah said in a monotone, long tiring of the conversation.

“Just make sure you get your so-called girlfriend a nicer present than your so-called best friend.”

“Got it.” Dakotah said, simply. “Lou, what do you get an elderly woman that wants nothing, and has everything?” he asked quietly , finally changing the subject.

“You mean Elizabeth? I don’t remember, does she have a lot of houseplants?”

“Not really.” Dakotah replied.

“You could get her an African Violet.” Louise said. Those are pretty, and they’re easy to care for. The local home improvement place up there should have them.”

“Oh, thanks! I think she’d like that!”

“One last thing, Dak, before I fix myself something to eat.”

“What’s that?”

“Get yourself something with some of the money. You can consider it your Christmas present from us.”

“Really? Thank you, Lou!”

“Just make sure you buy something more than a box of pencils, so to speak. I trust you.”

“Love you.”

“Love you too, Dak. You’d better call me on Christmas, and tell me what you bought!”

“I will! Goodbye, and thanks again!”

“’Bye, Dak! Take care!” Louise hung up the phone, and exhaled. “That boy is a mess.” she thought to herself.

*****

December 22, 2008

The sun had started peeking out from behind the clouds, as Dakotah headed east on Grange Hall Road. The landscape turned from gray to a brilliant white, as snows from the past few days reflected the sunlight. The scenery elated Dakotah; it had been a snowy season so far, and more snow, the better, he thought.

Today had been an adventure of sorts for Dakotah; he was returning from Ann Arbor, first to the anime shop that Ely occasionally visited, and then to the mall there. Since his grandmother didn’t own a GPS, and asking Ely for directions would tip her off to his plans, he instead went to the library, and found the locations and directions to his destinations online.

The roads were clear that day, as the road crews did a very good job of keeping the roads clean. Still, Elizabeth warned him to look out for black ice, and other slick spots along the way, as the temperatures remained below freezing throughout the day.

The sixty-something miles he had traveled one way was by far the furthest he had ever driven. The time alone on the road was a revelation, as for the first time in his life he truly felt free. Behind him were issues of not having a job, of being in a romantic triangle, of having a mother that forsook him. It was just him, the car, the snowy fields, and the radio playing oldies.

From a gifting standpoint, the trip was also a success. For Vanessa, he found a silver cross pendant at one of the department stores. For Ely, he found a plushie at the anime shop that he hadn’t seen at her house. He also found an African Violet at the home improvement store; since he was going to Ely’s today, he would leave the violet there for Ely to babysit until Christmas, when he would give her the plushie, and then take the violet to his grandmother.

He also found cards for Rev. Daniels, Mama, and his mother; his mother’s card simply read “Merry Christmas, Mom: I love you.” He wasn’t sure how to give it to her yet. He thought perhaps early Christmas morning, while they were asleep, he’d stick it in through the mail slot, and hope that Frank didn’t find it first.

Seeing the town in the distance, Dakotah sighed. “Well, it was fun while it lasted.” he said to himself.

*****

Dakotah noticed Rev. Daniels car was not in the driveway when he arrived. Ely’s car was, however; Dakotah sighed in relief, as he had nowhere to drop the violet off.

“Konnichiwa!”  Dakotah announced cheerily as Ely opened the door.

“Konnichiwa, Lennon-san!”  Ely replied back, mirroring Dakotah’s attitude. She took a deep breath when she saw the African Violet. “Oh, are those for me?” she exclaimed, excitedly.

“No, these are for Grandma.” Dakotah replied, taken aback by Ely’s enthusiasm. “I didn’t know you liked flowers that much.”

“Oh, I love flowers!” Ely gushed.

Dakotah began to think perhaps he made a mistake in choosing her Christmas present. “I can get you one too, if you like. They don’t cost very much.”

“No, that’s okay.” Ely said, shaking her head. “I love plants, but they don’t love me. They don’t last very long before they die. I guess I have a brown thumb!”

“Well, would you mind babysitting this one until Christmas? I’ll pick it up that morning, while I’m making my rounds.”

“You’re coming here Christmas morning?” Ely said, surprised.

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking!” Dakotah said apologetically. “Is that a bad time?”

“No, but shouldn’t you be spending some of it with Vanessa?”

“She has a big family, and almost all of them will be in for Christmas.” Dakotah said, shaking his head. “I’d just feel weird there.”

“But her mom and dad like you a lot!” Ely protested. “Sometimes, you have to give yourself some credit!”

“I know, but I’m planning on giving this to her at church Christmas Eve.” Dakotah said, pulling a small box out of his pocket. He opened the box, showing the pendant to Ely. “Think she’ll like it?”

Ely gasped. “Dakotah, it’s beautiful! How much did you pay for it?”

“I went a little over budget, about forty dollars, but it was on sale!” Dakotah said proudly. “Think I did okay?”

“I need you to go shopping with me!” Ely said, laughing. “I can never find bargains like that!”

“Promise?” Dakotah said, smiling.

Ely smiled. There was an ease between them that Dakotah certainly didn’t have with Vanessa. “I doubt that he’d ever flirt with Vanessa the way he did with me just now.” Ely thought to herself.

“Dakotah, can I ask you something?” Ely asked softly.

“Oh, boy, this is going to be a doozy, I can already tell!” Dakotah said, shaking his head.

“If Vanessa tried to kiss you, would you let her?”

Dakotah laughed nervously. “Yeah, I guess.”

“Think you’d like it?”

Dakotah’s face turned red. “I-I don’t know. Maybe. If she didn’t have bad breath, or something.”

Ely laughed. ”Baka. You know good and well that someone so meticulous as her wouldn’t have bad breath!”

“Yes, it’s been established by everyone that Vanessa is as close to perfect as possible.” Dakotah said, rolling his eyes.

“Don’t you realize that she has the eye of almost every single male, and even a few married men, at the hospital? Yet, for reasons only known to God Himself, it’s you she’s picked?”

“I didn’t pick her.” Dakotah said almost inaudibly.

“I know who you picked, but I’m not available.”

“That’s been long understood.”  Dakotah said pointedly. “But don’t you think I have the right to be alone, too?”

“I know how it is to be alone as much as you do.” Ely replied, sympathetically. “I know I don’t want to ever go there again, so forgive me if I try to bring a little love in your life.”

Dakotah sighed. “You bring love in my life every single day, but you probably don’t want to hear that.” he thought to himself. “There’s nothing to forgive. I know you want what’s best for me.”

“And Vanessa’s the best out there, in my opinion.” Ely said, continuing her efforts.

“I know that, absolutely.” Dakotah replied, tiring of the conversation. “However, I may have a thing for annoying redheads, instead, even if they are inferior.”

“Oh? Annoying? Inferior?” Ely shrieked in mock indignation. ”I’ll show you annoying!”

Ely strode over to Dakotah, and began to tickle him. “What did you get me for Christmas? Did you get me a necklace? Maybe a ring? Earrings? Is this annoying enough for you?”

Dakotah, being extremely ticklish, fell to the floor, laughing hysterically. Ely pounced on top of him, sitting on his back while continuing to go for his ribs. At that moment, Rev. Daniels entered the kitchen, and stared at the commotion.

The preacher cleared his throat, causing Ely to jump to her feet, panic-stricken, and embarrassed. Dakotah lay prone on the floor, trying to catch his breath.

“I thought you two were supposed to be studying Japanese.”  Rev. Daniels said with a mostly straight face, the traces of a smile beginning to appear. “Is this some cultural study that I’m not aware of?”

“Oh, no sir.” Dakotah said sheepishly while trying to catch his breath.” Ely was just demonstrating how annoying she could be.”

“She is good at that!” Rev. Daniels said, chuckling. “She takes that after her mother!”

“Mom used to tickle you?” Ely said, recovering from her embarrassment.

“All the time. But I’d be careful, if I were you. After one such night of her tickling, you were conceived, I think.” he said with a wink. Ely’s jaw dropped, and her face became as red as her hair.

Dakotah didn’t know what to think, but he carried a goofy look on his face, which Ely noticed. “Don’t get any funny ideas!” she snapped, backhanding him across the arm.

“Oh, those are very pretty!” Rev. Daniels said, noticing the African Violets. “Are those for you, sweetie?”

“No, those are for Dak’s grandma.” Ely said. “He wouldn’t tell me what he got me, the punk.”

“I guess we’d better get to work.” Dakotah said, looking at the clock. I’ve been out all day, and Grandma’s probably wondering where I am.”

“Well, I’m getting out of this suit, and getting into something more comfortable.” Rev. Daniels said. “Dak, why don’t you call your grandmother up, and update her? Probably will ease her mind.”

“That’s a good idea. I’ll do that.” Dakotah said, nodding his head.

“If you’ll excuse me.” Rev, Daniels said as he left to go to his bedroom. Closing the door behind him, he walked over to the nightstand, and picked up a framed photograph. It was of a young woman with red hair. Behind her were several flower pots with African Violets in them.

“There are times when I miss you so much, honey.” he said, wiping a tear from his eye.

      *****

December 24, 2008

“Dak, do you have Vanessa’s present?” Elizabeth asked her grandson.

“Yes, Grandma, I have it right here, in my coat pocket.” Dakotah sighed.

“In your coat pocket? After all the trouble I went through wrapping it fancy?” Elizabeth shrieked. “You’re such a boy, sometimes! Don’t you know that a lady appreciates things that are done with an extra flair?”

Dakotah pulled out the present from his pocket, and examined it. “I think it’s okay.” he said with a shrug.

Elizabeth took a deep breath, inspected the present, exhaled, and gave it back to Dakotah. “The ribbon is a little crumpled, but passable. Please don’t do any more damage to it, okay? She won’t think it’s very special if the paper and ribbon are messed up.”

“I’ll do my best, Grandma.” Dakotah said, mentally rolling his eyes.

“Dakotah, just because you two aren’t officially boyfriend-girlfriend does-“

“What does “officially” mean? We’re just friends!” Dakotah said tersely, interrupting his grandmother.

“First of all, don’t you interrupt your elders when they are speaking!” Elizabeth said, irritated. “I thought you knew better than that!”

“Sorry.” Dakotah said, remorsefully.

“Secondly, I wish your grandfather could’ve taught you how to be a gentleman, and how to treat a lady! He definitely wouldn’t have put a nicely wrapped present in his coat pocket!”

“I would’ve liked to have known him, too.” Dakotah said, wistfully.

“Anyway, you’d better get going.” Elizabeth said, trying not to reminisce. “Don’t want to be late for the party!”

Dakotah hugged his grandmother tightly. “Love you, Grandma. Thanks.”

“You be careful out there. It may snow later. Give the girls a hug for me!”

“Okay, no problem!” Dakotah said, grinning.

“Behave!” Elizabeth said, pointing at Dakotah, and smiling.

Dakotah laughed. “I will, promise! Bye!”

Elizabeth waved without saying a word. She watched Dakotah pull away from the curb, and drive up the street. Suddenly, as she was turning, she blacked out, and fell. Regaining consciousness a few moments later, she checked to see if anything was broken. Fortunately, only her shoulder felt sore, as best as she could tell.

“Might have to go to the doctor, after all.” she thought.

*****

Dakotah drove carefully  as he made his way to New Hope. He looked at the clock in the car. “This time last year, I was giving Carl my pork chop. Now, I’m driving a car to a church gathering where I’m going to give a girl who likes me a Christmas present! Things can change quickly, I guess!” he thought to himself, smiling a little. Thinking about that night a year ago, his mother came to mind. “Miss you, Mom.” he said aloud.

He pulled smoothly into the church parking lot, and exited the car. A stiff wind out of the West tried to push his spider-like frame away from the church, but he was determined, and forced himself through the door.

The heady aroma of chili met Dakotah head on, and his stomach began to grumble. Thoughts of hunger quickly dissipated, though, as a trio of young teenaged boys approached Dakotah, grinning.

“Hey, Goku!” the tallest of the boys said to Dakotah. “Beat up any aliens lately?”

“Yeah, I beat up your mom.” Dakotah deadpanned, barely cracking a smile.

“Goku! Goku! Goku!” the other two boys chanted, thrusting their fists in the air.

“That was cold, Dak!” The first boy said, laughing.

Dakotah and the other boys began to laugh.” Well, Zeke, you asked for it!” Dakotah said.

“Hey, what’s Mama cooking tonight? It smells good!” asked the second boy.

“Mama’s not here tonight, Hector.” Dakotah replied, shaking his head. “The girls looked up this chili recipe on the internet, and made a batch. We get to try it out tonight!”

“Oh, man.” The third boy said, shaking his head. “Have you tasted it yet? Is it any good?”

“Nope. Smells good, doesn’t it, Russell?” Dakotah said, trying to sell the boys the chili.

“Yeah, but I’m hungry!” Russell said, rubbing his belly.

“Me, too!” Zeke exclaimed.

“It’ll be all right.” Dakotah said, trying to comfort the boys. “Have a little faith in the girls. I’ve eaten their cooking several times, and I’m not dead yet!”

The boys laughed nervously. Dakotah hoped he got through to them.

“So, our cooking hasn’t killed you, eh, Dak?” a familiar voice announced behind Dakotah. “We can fix that!”

Dakotah turned around to see Ely glaring at him. Dakotah realized why the boys were nervous, as Ely had heard every word.

“Don’t worry, guys.” Ely said, soothingly. “Dad ate some a little bit ago, and he said it was the best he ever tasted.”

“Would he say anything else?” Dakotah asked, knowing he was going to get it.

“Keep it up, funny guy, and you’re going to find rat poison or broken glass in yours.” Ely said coolly, as she turned and walked back toward the kitchen.

“Was that the preacher’s daughter?” Hector said, wondering if she was bluffing.

“Yep. She’s also my best friend.” Dakotah said, smiling.

The boys looked at Dakotah in amazement.

“Dude, you’re some kinda tough!” Russell exclaimed, impressed.

Dakotah smiled. There was much apprehension from Dakotah when he started coming to Wednesday Bible study, as old fears about being taunted surfaced. However, with Mama’s and Vanessa’s help, he was able to connect with the kids, especially the three before him. They looked up to him like a big brother, and respected him when he taught Bible lessons. It also didn’t hurt that he knew Dragonball Z as well, if not better, than they did.

“I bet you’re glad she’s not your girlfriend!” Zeke said, laughing.

Dakotah laughed. He could’ve made a comment about wishing she was his girlfriend, but that would just confuse them, he thought. They had him paired up with Vanessa from the beginning, and if they wanted to think that, then that was fine with him.

“What did you get Vanessa for Christmas, Dak?” asked Russell, excitedly.

“Did you get her a ring?” asked Hector. “Yeah, you had to get her a ring, didn’t ya?”

“No, I didn’t get her a ring.” Dakotah replied, slightly embarrassed.

“Well, what did you get her?” asked Zeke, impatiently.

“Promise you won’t rat me out?” Dakotah whispered, motioning them closer.

“Yeah, we promise!” Hector whispered, with the other two joining in.

“I got her a Vegeta action figure.” Dakotah whispered with a straight face.

The three boys howled. “Dak, you’re so stupid!” Zeke laughed, trying not to make too much commotion.

“Hey guys, c’mere!” Dakotah said, motioning the boys to follow him.

The boys groaned, wondering what else Dakotah had up his sleeve. “Dude, can we eat already?” Russell asked, beginning to whine a little.

“Just a second.” Dakotah said, walking over to where his coat was laying. He reached inside, and pulled out three thin book sized presents, and handed one to each of the boys. They all looked at him, confused.

“Open them. A little something from me. Merry Christmas.”

They looked at each other for a split second, and at once began to tear into the presents. Inside each was a Dragonball Z DVD.

“Thank you, Dak! Thank you!” they all gushed.

“Now all I ask you to do is take care of these, and share them with each other, okay? That way, it would be like getting three DVDs.”

The boys nodded their heads in acknowledgement. Hector began to cry.

“What’s wrong, Hec?” Dakotah asked, concerned.

“I-I didn’t think I’d get anything for Christmas!”  Hector cried.

Dakotah began to tear up, as well. “All I can say is enjoy, dude.” He held out his hand, and each boy gave himself and each other a high five. “Now let’s get some chili!”

The boys ran toward the kitchen, leaving Dakotah alone. He said a silent prayer  for all the boys to get something else for Christmas. Suddenly, Vanessa came from behind, and hugged Dakotah with one arm from the side.

She gazed into his eyes, and smiled. “Do you realize how awesome you are?” she said.

“It was just the DVDs I got from my mom last Christmas.” Dakotah said, embarrassed. “I wasn’t out any money on them.”

“But you gave from the heart, and that’s all that matters.” Vanessa said, squeezing him. “Let’s go eat while there’s some left! It’s very good, if I do say so, myself!”

*****

Christmas Eve supper at New Hope went smoothly; Rev. Daniels said the blessing, and everyone ate their fill. Vanessa’s assertion of the chili’s quality was correct, as seconds were given out until it was all gone.

The members of Dakotah’s Sunday School class had earlier agreed to have a post party party, with dessert, and a Dirty Santa gifting game. Almost everyone from the class was there, nine in total.

“Just make sure you clean up and lock up before you leave.” Rev. Daniels told them before he left.

Dessert was simple, cake and ice cream bought from the local grocer. Dirty Santa produced a lot of laughter, as some of the gifts could be classified as odd. Dakotah finished the game with knee-high striped socks. Dakotah himself brought a 20-pack of AA batteries to the game.

“Batteries?” Ely had asked him earlier.

“Everyone uses AA batteries.” Dakotah said simply. “They’re very practical.”

Dakotah was showing his socks to Vanessa, when Ely called out from the kitchen. “Dak, Van, can you come help me, please?”

The two promptly rose from the table, and made their way to the kitchen. As Dakotah entered the kitchen, with Vanessa close behind, they saw Ely at the table facing them, holding her hand up, palm out.

“Stop right there, you two!” Ely shouted, grinning. Dakotah and Vanessa looked at Ely, confused. She pointed up at the top of the doorframe, above Dakotah’s head.

Taped to the top of the doorframe was a sprig of mistletoe.

“Pucker up, you two!” Ely laughed.

“W-what do you mean?” Dakotah said, his face becoming beet red.

“You two are under the mistletoe, so you have to kiss each other, silly!”

The other students had heard the commotion, and were now watching the drama unfold.

Panic seized Dakotah. “K-kiss?” he stammered. He looked at Vanessa, who was embarrassed and speechless.

“Go on, go on!” Ely continued to coerce, motioning with her hands.

“Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!” chanted some of the other students. Dakotah’s heart was racing; kissing Vanessa wasn’t the worst thing in the world, far from it, but being in the middle of a spectacle like this was mortifying, and he was sure Vanessa felt the same way, too.

Dakotah looked into Vanessa’s eyes; she had a sheepish look on her face, to which Dakotah guessed was “let’s get this over with”. He nodded to her, and she nodded back.

Amidst cheering,  Dakotah took a deep breath, closed his eyes, leaned forward, and puckered. He felt a light peck on his lips, then nothing.  He waited a couple of seconds before opening his eyes, then saw Vanessa looking down, and stepping away.

“Are you okay?” Dakotah asked, but Vanessa said nothing, and took another step back, away from the door.

Dakotah glared over at Ely, anger creeping up from within. He was surprised to see her countenance not  gleeful, but becoming rapidly sad. “I hope you’re satisfied!”  he thought to himself. If it were only the three of them, he would have said it aloud.

He was in the process of turning around to check on Vanessa, when Rebecca Jennings nudged Vanessa aside, stood in the doorway next to him, looked up, and smiled.

“It’s my turn.” she said seductively. Pressing her body against his, she  pinned him against the doorframe, and kissed him, very passionately.

Dakotah was too much in shock to squirm, much less try to get away. After what seemed like an eternity, she released her hold from him, and stepped back.

“Merry Christmas.” Rebecca said, smiling.

Dakotah smiled back, ever so slightly, not able to speak. He looked to his right, and saw Ely, beginning to fume. He looked to his left, and amidst the students, was Vanessa, beginning to tear up. Looking down, she began to stride quickly away, across the meeting area, and into the hallway where the classrooms were.

Dakotah was frozen in place, indecisive, for a few seconds. Gathering his wits, he instinctively followed Vanessa into the classroom area.

Rebecca turned, and was about to follow Dakotah, but Ely grabbed her arm, and spun her around.

“I don’t think so!” Ely barked.

“What’s your problem?” Rebecca said, snarkily.

“Don’t you think you’ve done enough?” Ely said, exasperated.

“What have I done? All I did was take advantage of the mistletoe, and kissed him!”

“You call that a kiss? Did you check his tonsils, too?”

Rebecca smirked. “For someone who’s inexperienced, he has a lot of potential. You should’ve taken advantage of it, while you had the chance.”

“You know Dak and I aren’t like that!” Ely protested. “We’re just friends!”

“Really?” Rebecca said, becoming bemused. “He was eating out of the palm of your hand, until you dumped him on Miss Perfect.”

“What’s wrong with that? Ely said, defensively. “They are good together!”

“Are they?” Rebecca said, shaking her head. “A blind guy can see he’s not really interested in her, and she’s not trying to make him interested.”

“So, what’s your angle, Becky?” Ely said, pointing her finger at Rebecca. “He’s not cute, popular, or rich!”

“That’s mean of you to say that!” Rebecca said, taken aback slightly. “He’s not a hottie, but he’s not a dog, either!”

“No, he’s not bad looking, but you still haven’t answered my question. Why is someone like you, who’s socially upwardly mobile, throwing yourself at one who is the opposite?”

Rebecca sighed. “Look, I admit, I’ve been playing the social game at school for a while, and I’ve become good at it. But people in student council, the rich kids, the jocks, they’re all the same to me. They’re boring, shallow people who are just interested in what people think of them.”

“And you’re not one of them?” Ely said derisively, rolling her eyes.

“Does your dad know that you’re becoming like that troll at UM you’re seeing?” Rebecca said, jabbing back at Ely.

Ely seethed; she wanted nothing more than to smack that smirk off Rebecca’s face, but thought better of it.

“This has nothing to do with Hannah!” Ely said, raising her voice. “Why do you want Dak? Is he some trophy you want to make you feel superior?”

Rebecca exhaled, tiring of the conversation, and Ely’s attitude. “I wish you’d believe me when I say that I’m not out to hurt Dakotah. He’s different. I mean, he’s smart, he’s geeky, but he acts really mature, too, like an older guy.”

Ely had to admit to herself that Rebecca was right about Dakotah’s personality. Having spent most of his life around adults, he naturally acted like one in manners and speaking, for the most part, though Ely also knew there was a childlike element to him, too.

“What you say is true.” Ely acknowledged, though still not letting her guard down. “But I still have my doubts about your true intentions, especially after the way you came on to him!”

Rebecca laughed “Well you two have him locked into a shell. All I did was open his eyes to the possibilities!”

“I don’t think he’s ready for such a relationship all at once.” Ely said, shaking her head. “You mess with him like that, and he could open himself up to be really, really, hurt. I’m not going to let that happen, if I can help it!”

Rebecca sighed. “I don’t want him to get hurt either, Ely.” she said, her countenance becoming serious.” I’m tired of people that are superficial and false. I want something…..genuine!”

Ely sighed. “Look, Becky, I want to believe you. Part of me wants to hope you really care about Dak, but knowing your past, I still have a lot of doubts.”

“You know, you’re the only person at school who can call me that, and get away with it!” Rebecca said, smiling. “But, I’ve also known you for a long time, Liz, and I can tell you have feelings for Dakotah, too!”

“He’s my best friend, and I care about him, that’s all.” Ely said, shaking her head.

“Deny it all you want, that’s okay with me. But I won’t forgive you if you change your mind and go after him, because we all know it’s you he really loves.”

Ely shook her head, not saying a word. She wondered where Dakotah and Vanessa were.

“I hope they are doing okay.”  she thought to herself. “This is turning into a bad shoujo manga.”

*****

Dakotah’s mind was still twirling as he followed Vanessa down the hall. “I can’t believe Rebecca kissed me!” he thought to himself. “What the heck was that all about? It’s not like she likes me, or anything!”

Vanessa entered the room where their Sunday School class was held, and shut the door behind her, leaving the lights off.

Dakotah slowly entered the room; the only light source being the glow from the streetlights reflecting off the snow outside.  In the corner, he could begin to see the outline of Vanessa, sitting in a chair. Without saying a word, he sat down next to her. The wind could be heard howling outside, but still it wasn’t enough for Dakotah not to hear her muffled sobs.

“Hey,” Dakotah whispered softly. He reached out and lightly laid his hand on her shoulder. She instantly brushed it away.

“I’m sorry.” Dakotah whispered again, almost inaudibly.

Nothing was said for a moment; Dakotah tried to think of something to say that would comfort her, but could not. Instead, he began to ramble whatever came to mind .

“I don’t know why Ely did that.” Dakotah said, shaking his head. “She should’ve known better, Heck, she knew it would embarrass us! It kinda ticks me off, you know? And Rebecca, why did she do that? I don’t get her at all!”

“Did you not enjoy that?” Vanessa sniped.

Dakotah was taken aback, as he had never heard her use that tone of voice before. “I remember seeing you freaked out, me being mad at Ely, and then there she was. I was as shocked as anyone!”

“It didn’t look like you were shocked.” Vanessa said, her words tinged with jealousy, which was also new to Dakotah. “You certainly weren’t pushing her away!”

“I didn’t know what to do!” Dakotah exclaimed, becoming exasperated. “Until tonight, I’ve never kissed anyone before!”

“It was my first kiss, too.” Vanessa said, dejectedly. “It wasn’t what I had hoped for, as a first kiss.”

“If I were going to kiss you, it would have been somewhere by ourselves. It would have been special.”

“If.” Vanessa muttered.

Dakotah sighed. “Vanessa, you are so awesome. You have been my rock the past few weeks here. There’s no way I could’ve interacted with those kids without you backing me up.”

“But.” Vanessa said sadly. Dakotah could see the pain in her eyes, even in the low light.

“We’ve also had good times going out!” Dakotah said encouragingly, trying lift Vanessa’s spirit. “The movies were lame, but we had fun anyway, right?”

“But.” Vanessa repeated, more forcefully.

Dakotah took her hands into his, and gazed into her eyes. “I care about you very, very much. It hurts me to see you like this.”

Vanessa pulled her hand away from his. “But you don’t love me.”

“I do love you.” Dakotah countered.

“Small “L”, not capital “L” Vanessa countered back.

“You already knew that from the beginning.”

Vanessa sighed. “I mistakenly involved you into my selfish desires. I’m sorry.”

“What do you have to be sorry about?” Dakotah exclaimed, confused. “You’ve done nothing wrong! I do not regret one second I’ve spent with you!”

“You’d rather had spent them with Ely, or maybe even Rebecca, don’t you? Vanessa replied, becoming tearful.

“Look. Ely doesn’t want me.” Dakotah replied, noting Vanessa’s fragile psyche, but becoming irritated, nonetheless. “She has a relationship with someone else. And why do you keep bringing up Rebecca? I’m not interested in her!”

“You and Ely have that spark when you two are together!” Vanessa said tearfully and forcefully. “We don’t have that! Rebecca is aggressive, and she’s very capable of seducing you!”

Dakotah rolled his eyes, and sighed. “Now you’re giving me no credit of having any self-control, that any pretty little thing can throw herself at me, and I’d go gaga? Gee, thanks.”

“My point is that you don’t like me.” Vanessa said, beginning to cry. “I’m just pathetic.”

“Are you kidding me?” Dakotah said, incredulously. “If anyone in this building is pathetic, it’s me. A year ago, I had exactly one friend, who wound up getting killed. My mother ignored me, my stepfather hates me, my father is who knows where. I can’t find a job, and I can’t afford school. I’m not good looking either, to boot!”

“I think you’re cute.” Vanessa said.

“You’re beautiful!” Dakotah said, accentuating the syllables as he spoke. “You work really hard! You’re very smart, way smarter than I am, plus you’re polite, considerate of others, and God-fearing. It is a blessing to me to have you as one of my closest friends!”

“You say I’m all that, and yet you still don’t love me. I’d call that pathetic, if you ask me.”

Dakotah sighed. He and Vanessa were at an impasse, and Dakotah didn’t know what to do or what to say. He then realized he had her present in his pocket, and took it out.

“Vanessa, I’ve been waiting for the right moment, but it hasn’t worked out the way I wanted. I’m sorry that tonight has been a mess, but here. Merry Christmas.” Dakotah looked down, and held the present out for Vanessa to see.

“Why are you giving me this?” Vanessa said, tersely.

“Because you’re my friend, and you mean a lot to me.” Dakotah said in all seriousness.

Vanessa frowned. “I don’t want it. Give it to Ely or Rebecca.”

“Ely’s already getting a plushie, and Rebecca’s not getting anything.” Dakotah said, dismayed. “It took a while to find this! I don’t know if you’ll like it, but at least I cared enough about you to get you something!”

“Maybe I can’t give my heart to you yet.” Dakotah continued. “I still have to prove to Ely that I’m better for her than Hannah. If she still rejects me, I can move on with my life, knowing I tried my best.”

“That’s like me trying to prove to you I’m better for you than Ely, isn’t it?” Vanessa said, coldly. “A silly concept, isn’t it?”

Dakotah shook his head, eyes beginning to tear, without saying a word.

“I’m going home.” Vanessa said, retrieving her coat. “Tell your grandmother Merry Christmas for me.”

“I’ll do that.” Dakotah said, choking up. “Merry Christmas.”

Vanessa exited the classroom, striding quickly down the hallway toward the exit, with Dakotah following.  Nearing the exit, Vanessa met Ely and Rebecca, who were entering the hallway from the meeting area.

“Van, I’m sorry!” Ely said, apologetically.

Vanessa strode past Ely without saying a word.

“Van! Please wait!” Ely shouted in vain.

Dakotah stepped in front of Ely. “Let her be. She doesn’t want to talk to anyone right now.”

Vanessa pushed hard against the door, and exited into the Arctic blast. Dakotah turned to the girls, lips pressed tight.

“Ely, I guess we have some cleaning up to do before we leave.” Dakotah said, tersely. Everyone else had already left.

“Yeah, I guess so.” Ely said, dejectedly.

“I’ll help.” Rebecca offered, trying to smile.

“I don’t thi-“ Ely started to say.

“Rebecca and I have some things to talk about.” Dakotah interrupted. “Go ahead and get started. I’ll be there in a couple of minutes.”

Ely glared at Rebecca, then left without saying a word.

“Ah, about earlier…..” Rebecca said, awkwardly.

“Yeah, about earlier.” Dakotah said, warily. “Please explain.”

“I saw an opportunity, and took it.” Rebecca said simply.

“Even though you knew you’d be hurting Vanessa?”

“She was setting herself up to fail, anyway. She’s way too timid to ever make a move on you.”

“Maybe that’s what we agreed on in the first place, until Ely and I sorted things out once and for all.” Dakotah said, assuredly. “We both felt the risk was too great.”

“There has to be a little risk in life, or it’s not worth living.” Rebecca said, pointedly.

“That’s true.” Dakotah said, frowning. “But you don’t hurt your friends in the process.”

“Like I said, she was going to get hurt, no matter what. Ely has your heart, and there’s nothing Vanessa could do to change that.”

“And what makes you think you could?” Dakotah said, curious. “Besides, why me? Why am I suddenly irresistible to you?”

“Because you’re real, not fake, Dakotah. All of the guys I know are superficial, and view me as a trophy.”

“Don’t you see guys the same way?”

“Yeah, for a while, because that’s how I thought the game was played.” Rebecca said, without emotion. “You’re different. You actually care about people. I guess I want you to care for me, too”

“I do care for you, but just as a friend.” Dakotah said, sympathetically.

Rebecca went up to Dakotah and put her arms around him, holding him close to her. “I can give you what Ely won’t give you, and Vanessa can’t  give you.” she purred. “Someone that can actually love you the way you need to be loved.”

Dakotah chuckled, and pushed Rebecca away, holding her at arm’s length. “I’m flattered, really I am.” Dakotah said, his brief smile fading rapidly. “I don’t trust you, though. Trust is everything to me. I’ve been hurt too much in the past by people I’ve trusted. I’m sorry, but you have a bad track record, and I find it hard to believe that you’d change just for me. Ely, I trust. Vanessa, I trust. You? Uh-uh. Maybe someday you’ll earn my trust, and we can build something from there.”

“You hurt Vanessa when you kissed me, and whether or not you felt it was justified, I feel it was a bad time for you to confess your feelings in front of everyone.” Dakotah continued, making sure he kept eye contact with Rebecca. “I can’t let you treat my friend like that.”

“Sorry.” Rebecca said, dejected.

“You’re still my friend, and I will forgive you, if you make it right with Vanessa.” Dakotah said warmly. “Right now though, you need to get home. Snow’s starting to drift out there.”

“You’re right. I’d better be going.” Rebecca said, nodding her head while looking out of the window. “I’ll try to call her before Sunday.”

“Good. C’mere.” Dakotah said, bringing Rebecca close, then hugging her tightly. “Merry Christmas.

“Merry Christmas!” Rebecca said, smiling a little. With that, she put on her coat, and left.

“Well, wasn’t that just cozy.” Ely said, having witnessed the scene in secret. I’m sure she’s already planning the name of the baby.”

“If it’s a girl, I’ll make sure it’s named Elizabeth.” Dakotah said, rolling his eyes.

“If it wasn’t Christmas Eve, I’d smack you!” Ely said, not understanding Dakotah’s demeanor, as they made their way back to the kitchen.

At the threshold leading into the kitchen, Dakotah stopped, and removed the mistletoe that Ely had placed earlier. He looked down at it, twirling it around  with his fingers.

“You know, you caused a lot of trouble tonight.” Dakotah said, pensively. “What possessed you to put this mistletoe up, knowing how much it would embarrass us?”

“I just wanted to push you two along a little.” Ely said, looking down. “I’m sorry if I hurt you.”

“I’m used to it.” Dakotah said, tersely. “Being embarrassed used to be a way of life for me. However, Vanessa isn’t used to it, and I think you hurt her really bad. You may have even ruined any chances of us becoming a couple.”

“Oh, she’s just upset a little.” Ely said, nonchalantly. “She’ll get over it.”

“If you saw the way she acted towards me in the classroom, you might think differently.” Dakotah said, becoming irritated. “She kept pairing me up with you or Rebecca, and rejecting any words I had to say.”

Dakotah reached into his pocket, and pulled out Vanessa’s present. “She didn’t want this, either.”

Ely gasped, at a loss for words.

“She told me to give it to you or Rebecca.” Dakotah said, sadly. `”All the trouble I had to go through with asking Aunt Lou for the money, of having to pick it out, and Grandma wrapping it, all for nothing, because you had to meddle.”

“I-I’ll straighten it out.” Ely said, shaken. “I’ll call her when I get home, and make her understand why I did what I did.”

“I hope you’re right.” Dakotah said, softening his countenance a little.

“You didn’t help the situation either, by not pushing Rebecca away!” Ely said, suddenly becoming angry. “And you were complaining about the possibility of Vanessa having bad breath? Do you know how many boys that slut has shared saliva with?”

“All I remember about her kiss is that I know she did it.” Dakotah protested. “Honestly, I was too much in shock to do much of anything. I was still trying to get my head straight after kissing Vanessa.”

“That wasn’t much of a kiss, if you ask me. Looked like a couple of kindergarteners playing spin the bottle.”

“It wasn’t the time nor the place for that.” Dakotah said, defensively. “If or when we take the next step in our relationship, it will be on our terms, not yours. Same goes for me and Rebecca.”

“If you mess around with Becky, you’ll get hurt.” Ely said, gritting her teeth. “Don’t come to me for comfort when you get your heart broken!”

“You’ve already broken my heart, so she can’t do too much damage.” Dakotah replied sharply.

Ely looked at her feet, without saying a word.

“It’s not like I trust her at this point, and I made sure she knows that.” Dakotah said, plainly. “She says she’s changing her ways, and all she wants is someone who’s not in it just for themselves. Honestly, I don’t think Rebecca knows what she wants. We don’t have anything in common, other than church.”

Dakotah thought for a brief  moment. “I guess the same could be said for Vanessa, too.” he said, with a hint of sadness.

“What do you mean?” Ely said, confused. “You two are great together!”

“We do make a great team.” Dakotah agreed, tying up the bags of trash. “But I don’t think she’d ever go to a comic-con.”

“I’d think she’d go anywhere with you!” Ely said, encouragingly.

“Yes, out of politeness, because she likes me, but I’m sure she wouldn’t like it. In some ways, she’s more conservative than I am.”

“You’re not as conservative as you think.” Ely said, putting away the pot and pans. “You’ve loosened up quite a bit since I first met you.”

Dakotah thought back to that day in the hallway, on his birthday. It felt like years ago. “Yeah, I guess so. Do you think you’ve changed since then?”

“Nah. I’m the same old me.” Ely laughed.

Dakotah smiled. “If only you could see yourself back then.” he thought to himself. “You’ve changed your hair, you wear contacts, your clothes are far more stylish than they were when I was in school. Yeah, you’ve changed, alright.”

“What are you thinking about?” Ely asked warily, noticing that Dakotah was staring at her.

“Just noting how pretty you’ve become.” Dakotah said, sincerely.

“You’re seriously messed up.” Ely replied, shaking her head. “You can’t possibly compare me to a girl who could win Miss Michigan if she entered.”

“No way she could win.” Dakotah said with a straight face. “She couldn’t sing if her life depended on it!”

Ely laughed as she started to sweep the floor. “She is tone deaf, isn’t she?”

“Rebecca can really sing, though.” Dakotah said, knowing he was about to draw Ely’s ire.

Ely hit Dakotah in the head with the broom, making him yelp, though it didn’t really hurt.

“I knew that was coming.” Dakotah said, brushing some fuzz off his head

“Maybe you should go after Becky, since you seem to like pain.” Ely said, picking off some lint Dakotah missed.

The two finished cleaning the kitchen, shutting the lights off as they entered the meeting area.

“Major drama on Christmas Eve is starting to be a tradition with me, I’m afraid.” Dakotah sighed. Do you remember me telling you what happened last year?”

“About supper at your mom’s last year?” Ely answered. “Yeah, I remember.”

“As messed up as things got here, I wouldn’t trade it for last year.” Dakotah said, wistfully.

“That’s because you have me in your life now!” Ely said, smiling.

“You better believe it.” Dakotah said, nodding. He stopped, and turned toward Ely.

Ely stopped, and looked back toward Dakotah. “What are you doing?” she said, confused.

“There’s one last bit of unfinished business here.” Dakotah said, smiling awkwardly. He took the sprig of mistletoe out of his pocket, and placed it over his head.

“You’re not serious!” Ely exclaimed, shaking her head. “You know I’m not going to do that!”

“I’m just seeing an opportunity, and deciding to take advantage of it!” Dakotah said, his face becoming red.

“You’re asking me to kiss those lips after Rebecca touched them?” Ely said, indignant. “I’d probably catch herpes!”

“Okay, okay, you can kiss me here instead.” Dakotah said, pointing at his cheek.

Ely sighed. “Fine, but this is as just friends. Don’t take this as if I’m in love with you, or anything.”

Dakotah nodded, grinning. He leaned over to receive her kiss, as she stretched upward to meet him. As she was about to apply the kiss, he shifted, cupping his fingers under her chin, and directed her lips onto his, lingering for a couple of seconds before letting go.

He expected her to slap him hard across the face instantly, and he felt that he deserved it, too. However, no slap came. Her eyes flashed anger for a second, then softened. She leaned upward, touching his cheek with her fingers, and kissed him again, staying there longer than the first one.

The shock of the second kiss went through Dakotah’s body, all the way to his toes. After they parted, he was unable to breathe for several seconds.

His eyes focused on Ely before him. She appeared to him to also be in a state of shock, her eyes full of emotion, unable to speak.

“Uhhh….yeah.” Was all Dakotah could muster.

Ely’s eyes began to focus, her mind accessing the situation. “This never happened. Got it, “just friend”?” she said, showing a slight frown.

“Ah, okay.” Dakotah said, not wanting that reaction from her.

“Things are the same as they always are.” Ely said firmly. “I have Hannah, and you have Vanessa.”

“Maybe.” Dakotah said, shrugging his shoulders. “She might not want me now, considering I’ve smooched two other girls.”

“She will not know of what happened here, nor will anyone else!” Ely shouted forcefully. ”Promise? If you tell her that we kissed, you can forget being friends with me!”

“I won’t tell her, I promise.” Dakotah said, unsure of whether she was bluffing. “I don’t want her to get hurt, either.”

“Good.” Ely said, satisfied with his response. “Let’s go home.”

“One question.” Dakotah asked, stopping her before she reached the door.

“What?”

“Did you like it?”

“Like what?” Ely said, as she pushed the door against the force of the wind, drowning out any chances of further conversation.

Dakotah got in to the car, snow already drifting halfway up the hubcaps. Driving home, he looked up into the black sky.

“Lord, if I die before I get home, I’ll arrive in Heaven satisfied with my life!” he said aloud.

*****

Christmas Day, 2008

As a repeat of last year, Dakotah rose to the smells of breakfast cooking. This time though, the sight of his grandfather gazing back at him from the dresser didn’t faze him. Next to his grandfather’s picture was a freshly made copy of Andre and him at graduation in a brand new oak frame he bought with the transportation fund. He briefly wondered if his grandfather and Andre were talking about him in Heaven, but he quickly dismissed it, and looked out the window.

The sky remained grey, with an occasional flurry, which was fine with Dakotah. As he made his bed and got dressed, he pondered the events of the previous night.

“You may have sworn me to secrecy, but I’ll never forget that kiss!”  he thought to himself. Thinking about Vanessa tempered his elation, as he wondered how he could repair their friendship. Rebecca briefly came to mind as well, but he quickly shuttled those thoughts away.

Today’s itinerary was a busy one; breakfast with Grandma, home to drop his mother’s card off, on to Mama’s to give her Christmas card, then to Rev. Daniels for lunch, and to exchange gifts. Picking up the violet, he then would surprise his grandmother that afternoon.

He wanted to call Vanessa up, and wish her Merry Christmas, but didn’t know when the best time was. “Maybe after breakfast.” he thought.

He entered the dining room, where Elizabeth was finishing placing the silverware. “Merry Christmas, Grandma!” he announced cheerily.

“Well, you’re up and at it early!” Elizabeth beamed. “Merry Christmas! Breakfast will be ready as soon as the biscuits are done!”

“Need any help?” Dakotah asked.

“Sure! Get the food off the stove, and put it on the table.” Elizabeth said, cheerily.

“It looks good, and smell even better!” Dakotah exclaimed.

“Did you expect anything any different from your grandmother?” she asked, laughing.

Dakotah laughed. It had been a mostly care-free eight weeks living at his grandmother’s. Although he missed his mother, having no Frank to berate him daily had been a blessing. Elizabeth’s insistence to do the vast majority of the housework left him with plenty of free time, a lot of which he spent studying Japanese. He had found early on he had a knack for the language; now, he could read most of it, and he was beginning to understand conversations, though he didn’t understand most slang and regional accents. As a result, he was far ahead of Ely in fluency, which was perfectly fine with him.

Soon, the table was set, and Elizabeth placed the plate of biscuits on the table.

“Grandma, it seems a shame that all this food is on the table, and only the two of us to enjoy it!” Dakotah said, thoughtfully.

“Most of it will heat up well, so it won’t go to waste.” Elizabeth replied. “Dak, will you say the blessing?”

“Sure!” Dakotah said, cheerily. He had come a long way in the past year in speaking in front of others, particularly such things as blessings. “Dear Lord,-“

Dakotah was interrupted by the doorbell ringing. He and Elizabeth were both puzzled by the timing.

“I’ll go see who that is.” Dakotah said, rising out of his chair.

“The Christmas Guest, perhaps?” Elizabeth said, curious.

Dakotah opened the door to see Vanessa standing before him. It was evident even to Dakotah that she had mostly a sleepless night; even the meticulous application of makeup could not cover the bags under her tired eyes.

“Vanessa! Come in! You’re just in time for breakfast!” Dakotah said animatedly, motioning her toward the dining room.

“No thank you, I can’t stay long.” Vanessa said flatly.

“Merry Christmas, Vanessa!” Elizabeth said, happily. “Won’t you join us for breakfast? Christmas Guest indeed, eh, Dak?”

“I’m sorry, Elizabeth, but I can’t stay. I just stopped by to talk to Dakotah for a moment.” Vanessa said, sadly.

“But dear, you’re as pale as a ghost!” Elizabeth protested. ”Won’t you at least have a biscuit and jelly, maybe some hot chocolate?”

“She won’t give up unless you eat something.” Dakotah said, smiling. “She’s like that to everyone!”

Vanessa sighed, then smiled slightly. “It does smell good. I might have a little something, after all.”

“Good!” Elizabeth said, joyously.” Dakotah, get her a plate!”

Breakfast ensued with small talk about Vanessa’s job and school, and the Wednesday night Bible study class they led. Vanessa ate quickly, finishing first even though she did most of the talking. She patiently waited on Dakotah and Elizabeth to finish.

“You two go on, I’ll clean this up.” Elizabeth ordered, as Vanessa and Dakotah began to help.

“Can we talk, someplace private?” Vanessa asked. “I think my car won’t take long to warm up.”

“We can go in my room. Grandma won’t care.” Dakotah replied, pointing to his room.

Vanessa nodded, and followed him into his bedroom, sitting at his desk while Dakotah sat on the bed.

“Rough night?” Dakotah asked, sympathetically.

“I think I dozed off for a couple of hours.” Vanessa said, shaking her head. ”Look. I have some things to say. Forgive me if I’m not coherent, but I’m exhausted. Eating breakfast is making me sleepy.”

“Want to switch places?” Dakotah offered, smiling. “Bed’s pretty cozy.”

“It looks wonderful, but I have to leave soon. I’m needed to help cook.”

“Okay, shoot.” Dakotah replied. “What’s on your mind?”

“First, I want to apologize for last night.” Vanessa said, looking into Dakotah’s eyes. “I was being rather childish and spiteful towards you.”

“You don’t have to apologize.” Dakotah said, shaking his head. “You were hurting.”

“It was no excuse, Dak. You were the only one to come looking for me, to see if I was okay. And for your concern, I bit your head off, and insulted you.”

Dakotah reached forward, and took her hands into his. “I forgive you, Van.” he said, looking deep into her bloodshot eyes. ”Last night is in the past. Our friendship is more important than whatever craziness happened last night.”

“Ely called me last night, and we talked it out. We’re okay now.” Vanessa said, beginning to smile a little. “I think her heart is in the right place, even though she’s messed up in the head a little, sometimes!”

“You ain’t lying, there!” Dakotah laughed.

“Becky even called this morning, to check on me. She didn’t offer an apology, though.” Vanessa said, shaking her head.

“I believe that. I believe she’s a lot more off in the head than Ely, if you ask me!”

“She’s just young.” Vanessa said, thoughtfully. “Doesn’t help that her parents have given her everything she ever wanted, too.”

“That makes sense.” Dakotah said, thinking. “Me rejecting her advances probably came as a shock.”

“Maybe. Or it may make her more determined. We’ll see.”

A thought flashed in Dakotah’s mind. “Oh! I just thought of something! Hang on!”

Dakotah reached into the closet, got out his coat, took Vanessa’s present out of the pocket, and handed it to her.

“Merry Christmas.” he said, warmly. “Forgive me that the wrapping is all messed up. Grandma would have my hide if she knew how it looks.”

Vanessa smiled. “That’s fine. It always gets torn, anyway.”

She opened the box, and gasped. “Oh, Dakotah, it’s beautiful! You shouldn’t have!”

“You’re worth it.” Dakotah said, grinning.

Vanessa put the pendant on and looked in the mirror, admiring how it looked on her. Wheeling around, she put her arms around him and hugged him tightly.

“Thank you.” She whispered into his ear. “I love you.”

“Love you too.” Dakotah whispered back. “Glad you like it.”

Vanessa released from her hug, but didn’t let go, gazing into his eyes from only a few inches away, her own eyes full of emotion. As the seconds passed, Dakotah thought she was going to kiss him. He was unsure of whether or not to kiss her first, but doing so would start something he wasn’t ready for, he thought.

Vanessa smiled, and backed away. “I almost got carried away there.” she said, sadly.

“Can’t say I wouldn’t have liked it.” Dakotah said kindly.

“I wanted nothing more than to give you one better than Becky did.” Vanessa said, looking down. “It’s not time yet, though.”

“I agree.” Dakotah nodded. “Who knows? Maybe someday, eh?”

“You won’t know what hit you when that day comes, I promise!” Vanessa said, smiling.

“I bet I would, too!” Dakotah said, laughing.

Vanessa smiled. “I’d better go. They’re probably wondering what happened to me.”

“Tell everyone I said hi!” Dakotah said, as they left the room. The two of them went to the kitchen, where Elizabeth was washing dishes.

“Thank you for breakfast!” Vanessa said, smiling broadly. “It was really good!”

“Thank you.” Elizabeth said, nodding her head. “I’m always happy to get good company.”

Vanessa put on her coat, reached in her pocket, pulled out a card, and handed it to Dakotah. “It’s not as nice as what you gave me, but Merry Christmas.”

“Thank you! I’m sure I’ll like it.” Dakotah said, curious as to the contents.

“Don’t open it until I leave, okay?” Vanessa asked.

“Got it. Call you later?”

“You better.” Vanessa said, smiling. “Merry Christmas!”

“Merry Christmas!” Dakotah and Elizabeth said in unison as Vanessa left.

“I think I like her as much as Ely.” Elizabeth said. “Maybe even more so. She has a levelheadedness about her that I really like.”

“Yeah, she’s rock solid.” Dakotah agreed, nodding.

“I was talking about her personality!” Elizabeth teased, jabbing him in the ribs.

“Grandma!” Dakotah protested, embarrassed. “That’s what I was talking about, too!”

“Not to put you on the spot, but I doubt if you’ll find better than her.” Elizabeth said, becoming serious.

“I know.” Dakotah said, nodding his head. “Everyone says that, even Ely.”

“You don’t feel that way?”

“I do in my head.” Dakotah replied, stoically. “But not in my heart. Not yet.”

“Well, you’d better make up your mind.” Elizabeth said, “She’s not going to be around forever.”

“I know.” Dakotah said, thoughtfully. “I guess I need to go get ready to make my rounds. Are you sure you don’t need any help?”

“I’m fine, Dak. Make sure you don’t pick out anything wrinkled to wear!”

“I can dress myself just fine, Grandma!” Dakotah laughed, shaking his head, as he left the dining room.

Entering his room, he opened the card that Vanessa gave him. Inside was a twenty dollar gift certificate to the local Christian bookstore, and a letter folded inside. Dakotah unfolded the letter.

“Every day that I’m with you, I feel that we grow closer. I think if I knew you were to set aside your feelings for Ely for good, I would fall in love with you. If I could know someday that we would be together for the rest of our lives, I would be the happiest girl in the world.”

               Merry Christmas

               I love you

              Van

Dakotah folded the letter, put it back into the card envelope, and sighed, shaking his head.

*****

Dakotah took a deep breath as he pulled out onto the street; it was only a couple of minutes by car to his mother’s house, but already it seemed like hours. He had not been by there since he was kicked out almost two months ago. Sometimes he had an urge to go there, but always panicked, and stayed away.

Dakotah had picked out a simple card for his mother, not much more than “Merry Christmas” and I love you, Mom.” Inside the card, he repeated the text with his own handwriting. He wasn’t up to confronting his mother about that night, especially via a Christmas card.

As he turned onto Maple Street, the lump in his throat began to enlarge, and the knot in his stomach began to tighten. Everything that was so familiar to him over the years seemed odd to him now, as if he were as stranger.

Finally, he saw his mother’s house, with the car parked under the carport. Dakotah decided in advance not to park in front of the house; instead he parked across the street, a couple of houses down. As it was only 9 AM, he hoped that they would still be asleep, and he could deposit his card without alerting them to his presence.

Quickly, Dakotah crossed the street, and started walking up the sidewalk to his house. Heart pounding, and unable to breathe, he noticed the front porch was still snow and ice covered from earlier snows. Unperturbed, he stepped catlike upon the porch, and pushed the envelope through the mail slot, spinning in his tracks and exiting off the porch in only a couple of seconds.

The task accomplished, Dakotah quickly strode down the sidewalk and across the street to the car, glancing over his shoulder to see if anyone was opening the door. Not seeing anyone, he entered the car, being careful not to slam the door. He started the engine and pulled out onto the street carefully, taking care not to spin his tires.

Dakotah breathed in deeply, and exhaled. “I’m glad that’s over with!” he said to himself aloud.

*****

Next stop for Dakotah was Mama’s; she lived to the north about fifteen miles from Dakotah’s old house, and about ten miles east of New Hope and the Daniels’ residence. Dakotah made quick work of traveling there, as the roads were clear.

Dakotah had only been at Mama’s once, as a passenger with Vanessa, to ask for advice on teaching the Bible study class. He was initially unnerved by the myriad photos of Andre, but Mama’s explanation helped him understand. “Child, these are memories of good times, not a reminder of the one bad time!” she said. Still. he didn’t have the courage to see Andre’s room; Mama had left it as it was on the day he died.

As he approached Mama’s, Dakotah noticed cars parked all along both sides of the street. Children were having snowball fights, and teenage boys were playing football in the 20 degree weather. Dakotah wondered if this was a good time to pay his respects to Mama on Christmas, due to the hive of activity there. He quickly decided to forge ahead, since he already got her the Christmas card, and he really wanted to see her today.

Dakotah parked the car in front of a vacant lot a half block from her house, and proceeded to walk there. He wondered if his mother had found her card yet. As he approached the house, he saw a football whizzing through the air, on a collision course with his head. Instinctively, Dakotah raised his hands and managed to catch the ball, though the cold weather and the velocity of the ball stung his hands enough that he let out a yelp.

“Good catch, man!” said one of the teens.

Dakotah tossed the ball back to the teenager. “Is Mama here?” he asked.

“Is your mama here?” asked the boy, cracking a smile. “I don’t think you’re gonna find your mama here!”

“No, not my mama!” Dakotah said, laughing a little. “Ramona Phillips! I always just call her Mama.”

The young man squinted at Dakotah. “Uh huh. If you say so. Yeah, she’s here. She run us out of the house!”

“Okay, thanks!” Dakotah said, and headed up the walkway to the house.

“You better watch out, man!” the teen yelled, giving Dakotah a funny look. “When she gets to cooking for a lot of people, she gets crazy!”

“I’ll keep that in mind!” Dakotah yelled back, giving a thumbs-up.

There was no point in knocking at the door, as people of all ages and sizes kept a steady stream in and out. Most of them ignored him, though some gave him a friendly wave.

“Weren’t you at Andre’s funeral?” more than one of them asked. When Dakotah answered in the affirmative, they always either shook his hand, or said Merry Christmas.

The living room was loud, hot, and full of people. A large Christmas tree hugged against a wall, covered heavily with lights, ornaments and tinsel. Underneath was a small mountain of presents. He scanned back and forth looking for Mama, but didn’t see her. As he made it closer to the kitchen, he could somehow hear her over the din. It was apparent she was shouting.

“Don’t let that turkey overcook!”

“Vonesha! Stir those beans!”

“Anyone seen the marshmallows? Gotta get the sweet taters in the oven in five minutes!”

“NO, NO, NO! The rolls ain’t done risin’ yet!”

Dakotah gingerly opened the door; a blast of heat even hotter than in the living room made Dakotah sweat instantly.

Mama, detecting the door opening, began to wheel around. “I told you kids dinner ain’t ready yet! I’ll-“ At that moment, she saw Dakotah standing before her, mouth agape. Her countenance immediately softened.

“Baby, what on Earth are you doing here?” Mama said, slightly confused. All the girls in the kitchen stopped what they were doing, and turned their attention to Dakotah.

“Oh, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to interrupt!” Dakotah said, apologetically. “I just wanted to give you this card, and wish you Merry Christmas!” He took the card out of his coat pocket.

Mama quickly wiped her hands on her apron, and took the card. “You all get back to work!” she barked. “We only got an hour before it’s time to eat!”

“I won’t keep you.” Dakotah said, feeling out of place. “I know you’re busy.”

Mama read the card, and the note Dakotah placed inside. She smiled warmly, and placed the card on top of the refrigerator. She hugged Dakotah tightly, holding on for more than a few seconds. Dakotah noted she smelled of sage.

“Bless your heart.” Mama said, tearily. “I’d adopt you, if I could! You gonna stay for dinner?”

No, I have to go, I’m afraid.” Dakotah said, shaking his head. “I’m having lunch with Rev. Daniels and Ely.”

“Really?” Mama said, surprised. “I figured you’d be visiting Vanessa and her people today!”

“There’s going to be a lot of people over there, most of them I don’t know, and I’d feel out of place.” Dakotah said, uncomfortably. “Besides, she already had breakfast with us at Grandma’s”

“More than here?” Mama asked. “You act like you’re right at home here!”

“Yeah, but there isn’t anyone here sizing me up, wondering if I’m good enough for Vanessa.” Dakotah said, pointedly.

“Well, I think you’re plenty good enough for her.” Mama said, smiling. “Don’t you let anyone tell you no different, you hear?”

Before Dakotah could answer, Mama swiveled, and stared at a teenage girl. “What are you doing, Monesha?” She thundered. ”You have to butter the rolls before you bake them! You ain’t gonna make no good woman for no man if you can’t learn how to cook! Especially a fine young man like this one!”

“Sorry, Auntie Ramona.” The girl said apologetically. Finding the butter, she began to slather the rolls.

Dakotah bowed his head down, embarrassed. “I guess I’d better go.  Merry Christmas, Mama. Hope everything comes out right!”

“Merry Christmas, Dakotah. Don’t you worry about Mama. I have it under control! You be careful out there, you hear?”

“I will! See you Sunday!” Dakotah sliced through the crowd in the living room, and exited, the cold slapping him rudely across the face.

*****

Dakotah made his way west, under stubbornly overcast skies, toward the Daniels’. He wondered to himself what Ely’s mood would be like when he arrived; would she be distant, or close? He hoped it would be the latter, but he knew better than to expect it.

He pulled up in front of the house, and after inserting Rev. Daniels’ card and Ely’s plushie into his coat pockets, walked up the freshly swept walkway to the front door.

“Merry Christmas, Dakotah!” Rev. Daniels greeted before Dakotah could reach the door.

“Merry Christmas, Alan!” Dakotah answered cheerily.

“Boy, Dakotah, you smell good!” Rev. Daniels commented as Dakotah passed. “What kind of cologne is that, anyway?”

Not know of what Rev. Daniels was talking about, Dakotah sniffed his forearm. “Oh, I must’ve picked that up at Mama’s.”

“Mama’s the best cook in town, in my opinion.” Rev. Daniels said.

“Today, she wasn’t doing any cooking, just ordering the girls around.” Dakotah said.

“She’s just training the next generation of fine cooks, just like she was trained.” Rev Daniels said.

Dakotah nodded in affirmation of Rev. Daniels’ words.

“I heard you were in a kissing contest last night.” Rev. Daniels said, suddenly.

The statement caught Dakotah off guard. “Uhhh, sorta, I guess.” he said, becoming embarrassed.

“Now, I’m all for a good time, but that was a little much, don’t you think?” Rev. Daniels said, his countenance turning serious. “Feelings were hurt, and I don’t like that.”

“I didn’t, either.” Dakotah said, becoming defensive.

“Ely, would you come in here, please?” Rev. Daniels said, raising his voice. Dakotah felt uneasy.

Ely walked in, looking down. “I’m sorry about last night.” she said, subdued. Dakotah had never seen her like that before.

“I had already forgiven you.” Dakotah said, feeling strangely, since they had already “made up” last night. “Alan must not know what happened between us last night.” he thought. “Alan, everyone has hashed things out already. Do you not know this?”

“I know Ely talked to Vanessa last night, but I’m not convinced that she resolved anything.” Rev. Daniels said, pensively. “She may be older than either of you, but she’s been pretty sheltered emotionally.”

“Vanessa stopped by this morning, and we had a little talk.” Dakotah said, beginning to smile. “We convinced her to stay for breakfast, and I was even able to give her the pendant! She’s pretty happy, if you ask me!”

“That’s good.” Ely said, still subdued.

“Well, I’m glad that’s settled!” Rev. Daniels said, becoming relieved. “The last thing I want is bad feelings in my church.”

Dakotah walked over to his coat, and removed the card and the wrapped plushie. “Here you go.” he said, as he handed them out. “Merry Christmas!”

“I had no idea what to get you, Alan.” Dakotah said, smiling sheepishly as the preacher opened the card Dakotah had given him.

Rev. Daniels read the words Dakotah had written inside. “You know, it’s time like these that make all the trials and tribulations of being a minister worthwhile.” he said, smiling warmly.

“Did you go to Ann Arbor to get this?” Ely said, flatly, showing little emotion.

“Yes, I did.” Dakotah said uneasily, noting her odd behavior. “Do you like it?”

“Yeah. It’s great.” Ely continued in her monotone voice. “Thank you.”

“Merry Christmas.” Rev. Daniels said, as he handed a package to Dakotah. “Ely picked it out, and I paid for it, so it’s from both of us!” he said, laughing.

“It’s some sort of Gundham series.” Ely said. “Got it on sale.”

“Cool!” Dakotah said, pleased that he received a nice gift, but concerned that Ely was still acting strangely. “Thank you very much!”

“Glad you like it!” Rev. Daniels said happily. “Food about done, Sweetie?”

“Cheese is starting to brown.” Ely said.

“What are we having?” Dakotah asked, curious.

“Potato boats!” Rev. Daniels said, smiling. “Ely and I have them every year. Her mother used to make them all the time, so we remember her on Christmas by making them ourselves.”

“That’s neat.” Dakotah said. “They smell good!”

*****

Lunch was served, eaten, and cleaned up in thirty minutes; Rev. Daniels and Dakotah did most of the talking, while Ely spoke only in short sentences, never once trying to continue the conversation. This unnerved Dakotah to no end, as Ely usually instigated most of the conversation.

“I guess I’ll be heading home.” Dakotah said, looking at the clock.

“You don’t have to leave yet, Dakotah.” Rev. Daniels said. “I’m not leaving to my folks for another hour yet.”

I’m going to Hannah’s now.” Ely said, simply.

“You are going to be back in time for dinner, aren’t you?” her father asked.

“Yes, that’s why I’m leaving now.”

“Walk you to your car?” Dakotah asked, gingerly.

Yes, if you insist.” grumbled Ely.

“Be careful going home, Dakotah. Merry Christmas! ” Rev. Daniels said.

“Don’t want to forget this!” Dakotah said, picking up the violet. “Merry Christmas!”

Ely and Dakotah put their overcoats on, with Dakotah tucking the violet under his coat. Instead of walking to Ely’s car, she turned, and walked to his grandmother’s.

“Okay, what’s up?” Dakotah said, warily. “You’ve been acting weird all day!”

“I hate you, Dakotah Lennon!” Ely barked.

Dakotah was unable to speak, not believing what she had said.

“There was always this barrier I put between us to make sure you didn’t get too close, and you shattered it!” Ely said, angrily.

“I’m sorry!” Dakotah said, not knowing what else he could say. “I didn’t realize that it was such a bad thing!”

Ely stared hard at him, deep into his eyes. “I do not want you to come here anymore. Do you understand?”

“W-what?” Dakotah stammered, trying to grasp what she was saying. “What are you talking about?”

“You crossed the line.” Ely said, coldly. “I don’t want you here anymore.”

“Hey, you kissed me back!” Dakotah said, protesting. “Doesn’t that mean anything?”

“All the more reason for you to stay away. If we can’t be just friends, then we can’t be friends at all.”

“What about your studies?” Dakotah cried, beginning to panic. “Who’s going to help you?”

“I’ll be fine.” Ely said, emotionlessly. “I appreciate all you’ve done, but I can go at it alone now.”

“What about church?” Dakotah said, his heart pounding. “Do you want me to stay away from church, too?”

“No. The church needs you, Dakotah.” Ely said. “We just won’t sit next to each other anymore. Sit by Vanessa, or even Rebecca, I don’t care!”

Dakotah was speechless. He felt his insides begin to melt. He looked up at the cold steel sky, and began to trudge the final steps to the car. He wheeled around toward Ely.

“I will always, always, always love you!” he shouted defiantly. Ely remained poker-faced, not even offering the slightest twitch. Dakotah entered the car, and buckled up, Starting the car, he looked one last time at Ely, who had already turned and was walking toward the house. Numbly, and trying with everything in his power to concentrate, he carefully pulled out into the street.

Passing her father silently, Ely entered her room, picked up the plushie Dakotah gave her, and fell into her bed, sobbing.

A couple of moments passed; suddenly, a light rap on the door broke the silence.

“What’s wrong, Sweetie?” came her father’s voice from the other side of the door.

“Nothing.” Ely answered, her voice cracking.

“May I come in?” Rev. Daniels said, patiently.

Ely went to the door, and opened it, turning her face away from her father.

“All right. Nothing, eh?” Rev. Daniels said, his suspicions confirmed. “You’re just in here, bawling your eyes out. Move along now, nothing to see here, is that right?”

Ely remained silent, staring at the floor.

“Let’s try this again.” Rev. Daniels said, his voice adding a little urgency. “What happened?”

“Ely took a deep breath, and exhaled. “I told him never to come here again.”

Her words took him aback. “Come again?”

“I told him he’s too close, so he needs to stay away.” Ely said, sniffling.

“I see.” Rev. Daniels said, ever so slightly raising an eyebrow. “So, what really happened last night?”

“Nothing!” Ely said, becoming defensive.

“Right.” he said, starting to become irritated. “After all these years, you’re going to start lying to me now?”

Ely’s face turned pale. “I’m sorry.” she said, weakly.

“And?”

“Dad, I don’t know why you’re butting into my personal life!” she wailed.

“Because I consider Dakotah to be a good friend, and a valuable contributor to the church.” he said, pointedly. “If he did something dishonorable to the point where you had to ban him from here, I need to know about it!”

“H-he didn’t do anything bad, Dad, I promise!” she said, evasively.

“For goodness sake, Elizabeth, what did he do, then?” he said, exasperated.

“He kissed me, Dad!” Ely’s face instantly became red.

“Aaahhhhhh….” Rev. Daniels nodded.

“Then I kissed him back.” she said, quietly.

Rev. Daniels let the words sink in, and then, he began to smile. “You know, maybe I need to keep a closer eye on him. Three girls in one night! He’s becoming quite the playboy, don’t you think?” he said, beginning to laugh.

“It’s not funny, Dad!” Ely shouted, becoming flustered.

“Lord help you, you’re such a mess!” he said, moving aside a stray lock of hair from her face. He placed both hands on her shoulders. “Look, sweetie, I know this has put you in a pickle, but kicking Dakotah out of your life is not the answer.”

“I feel like I cheated on Hannah!” Ely cried.

“That’s an interesting concept, but since you are not married nor engaged to her, I wouldn’t call that cheating. You two are dating, which is the process of finding out if a couple wants to spend the rest of their lives together.”

Ely didn’t say anything, pondering what her father had told her.

“Let me ask you this, if I may.” Rev. Daniels continued. “What did you feel when Dakotah kissed you?”

Ely paused for a moment, her face began to flush. “I liked it. I liked it a lot. It scared me!”

“The possibility of a relationship with him messes up your plans, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah.” she nodded. “Everything I’ve worked for in the past couple of months is messed up because I was so stupid!”

“I don’t think you were so stupid as much as you were for once being honest with your feelings.” he said, grasping her hands. “I wonder how Dakotah felt when you kissed him?”

“He was probably in Heaven.” Ely said, shaking her head.

“Probably so.” Rev. Daniels nodded. “You gave him Jacob’s Ladder, and you promptly kicked it out from under his feet. That’s a long way down, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.” she said, looking down. “He probably feels horrible right now.”

“Sweetie, I’m not saying Dakotah is the answer.” he said, lifting her chin up. “In fact, last night should clarify how you feel about Hannah, right?”

“Yeah.” she said, numbly.

“Ely, this is a process that will take some time. I’ve never told you this, but it took your mother a year before she finally chose me.”

“No way!” Ely said, shocked.

“Way.” Rev. Daniels said, chuckling. “I was against a football player from Michigan. Last I heard he’s not doing too bad. Owns a car dealership in the U.P.. Point is, she followed her heart, and chose a poor, scrawny, theology student with a bad sense of humor.”

“Poor and scrawny, huh?” Ely said, beginning to crack the slightest smile. “Are you saying Dakotah is now like you was then?”

“No. I had parents that loved me and supported me.” he said, his countenance turning serious. “Your mother was the first real challenge I ever had. Dak’s life hasn’t been as easy, as you know. However, there’s something special about him that I can see through his shaggy hair. This is why I don’t want you to push him away, at least not right now. He always says you need him, but I think he needs you just as much, if only as a friend. Besides, you really don’t want him to go away, do you?”

“No.” Ely said, beginning to tear up.

“Then go after him!” Rev. Daniels said forcefully. “Tell him you’re wrong, and beg him for forgiveness. I’m sure he will!”

“I’m supposed to meet Hannah at 2!” Ely said, beginning to panic. ”I’m going to be late if I go after Dak!”

“Go. Call her up, and tell her family showed up. Dakotah’s like a son to me, sometimes.”

“Dad’s that’s creepy.” Ely said, giving her father an odd look.

“Yeah, I guess I can’t have my son and daughter kissing.” He deadpanned. “Future son-in-law, maybe?”

“DAD!”

*****

It was all Dakotah could do to concentrate on driving; Ely’s statement had shaken him to the core. “Is something wrong with me?” he thought to himself. ”First mom, now Ely? Who’s next? Vanessa? Grandma?” Nothing seemed real to him anymore.

He didn’t feel like going home, but there was nowhere else for him to go, either. In his mind, he wasn’t in the proper mental state to go to Mama’s, or Vanessa’s. Besides, as cold as it was, his grandmother’s violet wouldn’t last long in the car, anyway.

He wondered again if his mother received his card, or if Frank found it first, and tore it up. At the moment, he didn’t care one way or the other. It was just another reminder of another heartbreak to him.

As his grandmother’s house came into view, he noticed some at once both familiar, and odd. It was his mother’s car! “Why is she here?” he thought, panic gasping him quickly. “Is it because of the card?”  He wasn’t sure if he was ready to deal with her yet.

Dakotah parked the car in the carport, and after retrieving the violet, entered the house through the kitchen entrance. There, sitting at the table, was both his mother and grandmother, having coffee.

“Hello, honey.” his mother said, forcing a small smile. “Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas.” Dakotah replied, stone-faced.  He sat the violet on the table in front of Elizabeth. “I’m sorry, Grandma. You said you didn’t want anything, but here. Hope you like it.”

“Well, isn’t that nice!” Elizabeth chirped happily. “It’s beautiful, Dak! Thank you!”

“I’m glad you like it.” Dakotah replied, his countenance softening ever so slightly.

“I’ll have to go find a proper pot for it.“ Elizabeth said, looking under the sink in vain. “Perhaps there is one in the attic. If you’ll excuse me.” With that, she puttered out of the room, leaving Dakotah and his mother alone in the kitchen.

The feeling of tension and awkwardness was palpable. “So, honey, how are you doing?” His mother asked, not knowing what else to say.

“Fine.” Dakotah replied, even though he wasn’t. Earlier in the day, he would’ve at least welcomed her, but that was then. Now, he just wanted her to leave.

“That’s good.” Sylvia said, looking into the face of a son she didn’t recognize.

Dakotah wanted nothing more than to go someplace alone, and cry. However, his mother was there, and it seemed like there was something else she wanted to say. He just wished she’d hurry up.

“Thanks for the card. It meant a lot to me.”

“You’re welcome.” Dakotah said simply.

His mother took a deep breath, and exhaled. “Son, you have every right to hate me, but I’m here to ask for your forgiveness for everything I’ve done, and everything I needed to do, and didn’t.”

“I forgave you long ago, mom.” Dakotah said, matter-of-factly. “I love you, remember?”

“Oh, son!” Sylvia exclaimed, tearfully. She walked over to him and embraced him. At first, he resisted, but his emotions got the better of him, and he hugged her back, tightly, and began to cry, not just because of his mother, but for the absurdity of his whole life.

“I’m sorry, son.” she said, releasing him. “I wish I could make it up to you, somehow.”

“You can’t. Not as long as Frank is in the house.”

“I’m afraid I’m stuck with him. We spent too much money in the past, and now we’re up to our eyeballs in debt. I have to have his disability check to pay the mortgage.”

“I’m afraid I’ll never step foot in that house again as long as he lives there.” Dakotah said, pointedly.

“Would you mind if I come over and visit sometimes?” his mother asked.

“I don’t mind at all, as long as Grandma says it’s okay.”

“She already has.” Sylvia said, smiling a little.

“You can call too, I don’t mind.” Dakotah said, softly.

“Well, I’d better go. I have to check on the ham for dinner.” Sylvia said, headed toward the door.

“Having dinner this year?” Dakotah said, curious. They had always had their Christmas meal at lunchtime before.

“Frank’s boys are coming over, and spending the night. Wish me luck.” she said, grumbling.

“I’ll pray for you.” Dakotah replied, suddenly feeling sorry for her.

Sylvia scurried out of the house, into her car, and by making a U-turn, began to make her way home. From the porch, sighing, Dakotah watched her disappear up the street. As he was about to turn to go inside, he heard a familiar honking, only far more furious than usual. Ely pulled up, and parked where his mother had been, only a few seconds prior. Dakotah’s heart began to race, and he felt a lump quickly grow in his throat.

Ely popped out of her car, hustled up the walk and the steps, stopped before Dakotah, and bowed deeply.

“Gomenasai.” she said, raising up to gaze deeply into his eyes.

“W-what are you doing here?” Dakotah said, dumbfounded.

“I came here to tell you that I was wrong, to say I’m sorry, and to ask you to be my friend again.” Ely said, sincerely.

“Is there any reason I should trust you at this point?” Dakotah cried, becoming exasperated. “You’re no more rational than my mom!”

“I know, I know, I messed up.” Ely acquiesced. “Between you and me and Hannah and Vanessa and Becky, I’m so confused! I don’t know where you and I fit in all this.”

“I will always be your friend until the day I die.” Dakotah said, taking her hands into his. “But you hurt me.”

“I know. I’m sorry. My head was telling me it was for the best, but my heart was telling me it wasn’t. They say our hearts can lie to us, but our minds are pretty stupid too, sometimes. Dad opened my eyes, and made me realize I need you as much as you need me.”

Dakotah’s eyes widened. “Your dad? How much does he know?”

“He knows everything now, including the kisses!” Ely laughed. Dakotah groaned in embarrassment.

“He said he had his own trials when he was dating Mom.” Ely continued. “He’s definitely shipping us, in case you haven’t figured it out yet.”

“I’m glad he doesn’t hate me for kissing you.” Dakotah said, relieved. “I’m glad he likes me. I think he’d be a cool Father-in-Law!” He laughed for a split second, then caught himself, as those words were but a fantasy to him, and not to be shared. His face reddened a bit.

Ely raised her hand. “Easy. Don’t get carried away. You’re not even my boyfriend.”

“I know.” Dakotah said, shaking his head.

“Look, I don’t know where this is going between any of us. All I know is that I need our friendship. Will you forgive me for earlier?”

“Done.” Dakotah said, smiling.

“I can’t promise I’ll never hurt you, but I’ll never turn my back on you, okay?”

“”And I’ll do the same.” Dakotah replied, almost at a whisper.

They embraced, holding each other tightly, Ely shivering as she realized how cold she had become.

“You two get in here out of the cold!” Elizabeth shouted, opening the door a little. “You’re going to catch pneumonia!”

“That’s okay, Elizabeth, I have to go.” Ely said apologetically. “I wish I could stay, though!”

“I cooked plenty, if you change your mind.” Elizabeth said. “I always cook extra on Christmas in case someone unexpectedly shows up.”

“I’ll be having dinner at my grandparents, thanks.” Ely replied. “I have to go, though. Merry Christmas!”

“Merry Christmas, dear.” Elizabeth said in a grandmotherly tone. “Be careful out there. The roads become slick after dark!”

“I will. I’m an extra careful driver!” Ely said brightly, giving a wink and a thumbs-up.

Elizabeth laughed, and Dakotah smiled. “Call me when you get home, okay?” Dakotah asked.

“Sure thing! Bye!” Ely hurriedly made it to her car, and smoothly but quickly pulled out into the street. Dakotah watched her until she was out of sight, then came inside.

“I think you have some explaining to do, young man.” Elizabeth said, tersely.

Dakotah swallowed hard. “Okay.”

*****

“So she came by to apologize for a misunderstanding?” Elizabeth said, skeptically.

“Yes.” Dakotah said simply. He didn’t want to go into details about the kisses, or Ely banning him from her life, and calling the whole thing a misunderstanding was, at the core, the truth.

“Dakotah, this whole thing with Ely and Vanessa is weird, but since they are seeking you out to apologize to, or whatever, I’ll not question the matter further.” Elizabeth said, shaking her head. “I do wish you would let Ely go her own way, and pursue Vanessa. She is mature, works hard, and has her act together. Ely is a nice girl, but she’s so flighty!”

“Ely’s more fun than Vanessa, and we have more in common.” Dakotah countered.

“A lifelong relationship is not solely built on fun.” Elizabeth said pointedly.

“Grandma, it’s not like I’m going to marry either one of them this week!” Dakotah protested.

“Just pointing out that in the long run, stability is preferable over a good time.”

“I understand.” Dakotah said, wanting to end the conversation. “How much longer until dinner?”

“Oh, about an hour, I guess. Why?”

“I was going to call my aunt, and wish her Merry Christmas.” Dakotah said cheerily, relieved that no more talk about the girls was forthcoming.

“That sounds nice! Tell Louise I said hello!”

“Will do!” Dakotah replied, retrieving the phone number from the organizer. He dialed the number, wondering if Dylan was going to answer again.

“Howdy!” bellowed a familiar voice after the second ring. “Merry Christmas!”

“Unk!” Dakotah exclaimed, pleasantly surprised. “You made it home for Christmas!”

“Yep!” Drove 1400 miles through six states in 24 hours to get home! I’m a mite wore out, but I’m here!”

Dakotah could hear Louise in the background, but he couldn’t understand what she was saying.

“Your aunt was wanting to know how your Christmas is going! I hear you been having to beat girls off with a stick!”

“Well, I don’t know about that.” Dakotah said, slightly embarrassed. “Tell her everyone liked what I got them! Mom even came by for a bit!”

“Oh, yeah?” Ralph said, interested. “You might want to tell this to Louise, yourself.” He gave the phone to a surprised Louise.

“Merry Christmas, Dak!” Louise said. “What did you tell Ralph a minute ago?”

“Mom came by, and we sort of made up.” Dakotah said, unsure of his aunt’s reaction to the news.

“You’re not moving back there, are you?” Louise said, suddenly concerned.

“Not unless Frank leaves, don’t worry.” Dakotah reassured. “I’m pretty happy where I’m at, right now.”

“Still plenty of job opportunities at the plastics plant.” Louise offered.

“There are still some possibilities out there.” Dakotah said politely. “Maybe in Ann Arbor.”

“Dak, that’s pretty far!” Louise said. “Don’t know if it would be worth your while to commute that far to work.”

“I can always take him to the oil fields! They start off at 60K a year!” Ralph said, loud enough for Dakotah to hear in the background.

“No you will not take him there!” Louise shouted back. “There’s somebody dying there almost every week!”

“I think if worst came to worst, I’d pick the plastics plant.” Dakotah said, trying to settle his aunt down.

“Well you have more sense than your uncle, which isn’t saying a lot,.” Louise replied, toning her voice down. “So, everyone like their stuff?”

“Yeah, everyone did. Your advice on the African Violet was great!”

“Good! Well, I have to get back to fixing supper! I’d give your uncle the phone, but he’s already passed out on the couch!”

Dakotah laughed. “Merry Christmas, Aunt Lou!”

“Merry Christmas, Dak! Tell your grandma I said hi! Call me sometime, okay?”

“Got it. Love you!”

“Love you too!” Dakotah hung up the phone.

“Still trying to sell you on moving down there?” Elizabeth asked.

“Yeah, she says there’s still plenty of jobs there.”

“I hate to say it, but you may have to, if things don’t get better.”

“Well, here’s hoping that things do get better.” Dakotah said. “The last thing I want to do is leave my family and friends.”

*****

Dinner was delicious, and uneventful; baked ham, mashed potatoes, and no phone calls nor visitors highlighted the meal. After they cleaned up the dishes and pans, Dakotah called Vanessa’s home, where he received a playful scolding from her father for not showing up. Vanessa, completely exhausted, explained that her family made a big deal about the pendant Dakotah gave her, and they expected her to bring him over for a get-together sometime soon!

Soon after, Ely called to say she was home, but didn’t give much in the way of details, especially her afternoon with Hannah. Dakotah felt it wasn’t the time to press for details, so he dropped the subject. Ely announced she had a busy day tomorrow, so she bid goodnight.

Dakotah retired to his bedroom, and put a DVD Ely gave him for Christmas in the player. After ten minutes, he was fast asleep.


Chapter 10

Chapter 10

November 2nd, 2008

Dakotah heard a familiar car horn, and smiled. He was looking forward to a bit of normalcy after the high drama of the past month.

“Ely’s here, grandma!” Dakotah announced. “I’ll be back later! Tell Brother Higgins I said hi!”

“I will.” Elizabeth replied. “You need to come by our church once in a while. Brother Higgins has been asking about you.”

“Okay.” Dakotah said, in a noncommittal tone. New Hope felt far more like his church home than 3rd Baptist, even though he was baptized at 3rd.

Dakotah stepped outside; the weather had turned colder, with overcast conditions and a light breeze making it feel more so. “Can’t wait until it snows!”  he thought to himself.

“Ohayou!”  Dakotah greeted his friend, cheerfully.

“Good morning.” Ely said emotionlessly, repeating Dakotah’s greeting in English.

Dakotah frowned. “Something the matter?”

“No, not really.” Ely shrugged. “Why?”

“You don’t seem your cheerful self this morning.” Dakotah said, buckling his seatbelt.

“No, I’m okay.”

“Okay, if you say so.” Dakotah acquiesced, dropping the subject. “I think Grandma wants me to go to church with her, sometime.”

“I can turn around, and drop you off at your grandmother’s.” Ely said flatly.

The words stunned Dakotah. “No, thank you. New Hope is my church home now.” Dakotah wanted to ask what her problem was, but he thought better of it.

“Well, everybody will be glad to hear that.” Ely continued in her monotone voice.

“Aren’t you glad to hear that?” Dakotah cried, frustrated.

“Of course, silly.” Ely replied, her voice beginning to add color. “I’m sorry, I’m not myself today. Bear with me, okay?”

Dakotah exhaled. “Any particular reason why?”

Ely pulled into the church parking lot, and parked. She reached over, and brushed Dakotah’s cheek with her fingers.

“It’ll be okay.” she said, smiling sweetly, while carrying a sad look in her eyes.

Dakotah shook his head while exiting the car. “Women.” he muttered inaudibly.

They walked together to the church entrance, where Rev. Daniels and Mama were greeting parishioners and visitors.

“Oh, there’s my babies!” Mama shouted happily. “Come over here, and give Mama a hug!”

Beaming, Dakotah strode over to Mama, and they hugged tightly. “Good to see you, Mama. You doing okay today?”

“Doing fine, praise Jesus.” Mama said, smiling. “Brother Daniels told me about you getting kicked out! What’s wrong with those fools, anyway? You alright, sweetie?”

“Well, I can’t say I’m not hurting inside, but I’m good.” Dakotah replied. “I’m blessed that my grandmother took me in.”

“Well, honey, if you ever need a place to stay, you come over to my place, you hear?”

“Could I have Andre’s room?” Dakotah said, grinning.

“Absolutely.” Mama replied, tearing up. “He’d be smiling from Heaven if you did.”

Dakotah smiled. He noticed Ely had already gone inside. Noticing Rev. Daniels was alone at the moment, He approached him.

“Brother Alan, can I ask you something?” Dakotah said, still smiling.

“Sure, Brother Dakotah.” Rev. Daniels replied. “What’s on your mind?”

“I want to join your church. How do I do that?”

Rev. Daniels beamed. “That’s fantastic! You’ve made my day! Hey, Mama! Dakotah wants to join our church! Are you good with that?”

“Why, sure, Reverend!” Mama shouted happily. “That’s wonderful!”

“I guess you’re in.” Rev. Daniels said, shaking Dakotah’s hand. “Welcome to New Hope!”

*****

Dakotah took his regular seat in the Sunday school classroom. He was surprised that Ely wasn’t there yet; he had wanted her to be there when he asked her father about joining the church. “I’ll just surprise her when she comes in, if someone else doesn’t tell her first.” he thought to himself.

However, it was Dakotah that was to be surprised. Ely entered the room with Vanessa Blan, and instead of taking their normal seats, with Ely sitting next to him, Vanessa sat beside Dakotah, with Ely seated next to Vanessa.

Dakotah squirmed uncomfortably in his seat. He looked over toward Ely, only to have both girls smiling at him. He smiled back, sheepishly.

“Something’s up.” he thought to himself.

Whatever positive feelings Dakotah had a minute ago dissipated like mist on a hot August morning. He realized why Ely had been acting odd this morning. “She’s setting me up with Vanessa!”  he thought, panic creeping up inside.

There was absolutely nothing wrong with Vanessa’s personality; she was upbeat, cheerful, polite to everyone, and always eager to help those in need. She was also very good looking; tall, blonde, with pale blue eyes, perfect skin, and a nice figure. Vanessa also had a superlative work ethic, keeping a part time job at the hospital while studying nursing full time at the local college. She also contributed a lot of work for the church, too. In Dakotah’s mind, she only had one fatal flaw.

She was not Ely.

Sunday school passed with Dakotah’s mind swirling; he felt all at once betrayed, flattered, and railroaded into something he wanted no part of.

“I’m not ready for this.” he thought. He began to regret his decision to join New Hope, but he quickly quelled those thoughts. “I will not run from adversity, especially in my new church home! Lord, give me strength!” Dakotah prayed silently to himself.

The three of them made their way from Sunday school class to the main auditorium.

“I heard someone has joined our church today!” Ely exclaimed.

Dakotah, still in a daze, said not a word.

“Cat got your tongue?” Ely continued, smiling.

“Oh. Uh, s-sorry.” Dakotah stuttered. ”What did you say?”

“I heard that you are officially one of us now!”

Dakotah quickly gathered himself. “Oh, yes! I finally made the plunge! I had been praying about this for a while now.”

“I had hoped you would join our church for some time now, but it’s still a surprise that you actually did it!” Ely said. She started toward Dakotah as if to hug him, but she stopped herself short, and reached out with her hand.

Dakotah shook Ely’s hand, noting that it felt strange to do so. “I guess I’m not the only one with a surprise up their sleeve, huh?” he said, smiling awkwardly.

“I’m so happy you decided to join us, Dakotah!” Vanessa said, giving Dakotah a light hug. “I’m looking forward to us working together on church functions!”

“Me, too.” Dakotah said, giving Vanessa a weak smile.

“As a matter of fact, Wednesday nights we gather underprivileged children from the local neighborhoods, bring them in for a meal, and teach them about the Bible and Jesus!” Vanessa continued excitedly. “I would be delighted if you joined us!”

“Ah, I kinda already have plans for Wednesday nights.” Dakotah said, grimacing. Lately, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays were nights Dakotah went to Ely’s to help her study Japanese. “I’m sor-“

“Dakotah, helping the church reach kids is more important than helping me with my studies!” Ely interjected, her voice strained. “I’ll be fine without you. Help Vanessa, instead!”

“I’m sorry; I didn’t realize you already have commitments.” Vanessa said, apologetically.

“It’s not a commitment.” Ely said firmly. “He was just helping me with my Japanese. I think helping with the kids is the best thing for him.”

Dakotah looked at Ely, confused. “Are you sure?”

“Yes! New Hope needs you!” Ely said emphatically. “You’ve helped me a lot, but I’m getting to the point where I don’t need your help as much.” She looked intently into his eyes. “Go.”

Dakotah looked over to Vanessa, and gave a nervous laugh. “I guess I’m yours.” he said, biting his lip. Ely winced at that remark.

“That’s great!” Vanessa said enthusiastically. “I understand that you don’t have transportation. Want me to pick you up?”

“Sure.” Dakotah deadpanned, unsure of what he was getting into.

Church service became a series of small embarrassments for Dakotah. First, Ely had Dakotah sit between her and Vanessa, who had moved from her usual place with her parents. Next, Rev. Daniels announced Dakotah’s joining the church, and had Dakotah stand up, resulting in the congregation giving him applause. Finally, he stood next to Rev. Daniels, and shook everyone’s hand as they exited the church. Rebecca Jennings gave Dakotah a big hug instead of a handshake, which garnered a hateful stare from Ely.

After everyone had paid their respects, Dakotah turned to Ely. “Well, I’m glad that’s over with.”

“Did you like your hug?” Ely accused.

“It was okay. Yours are much better.” Dakotah replied simply, noticing Ely’s attitude. “Are you ready to go?”

“Yes, but you’re not going with me. I’m going to see Hannah.” Ely said in all seriousness.

“Oh. O-Okay.” Dakotah said, stunned. “I guess your dad can take me home, when he’s done.”

“Nope. He has a church business meeting. It usually takes a couple of hours.” Ely walked over and put her arm around Vanessa, who was standing nearby. “Here is your ride home!”

Vanessa smiled weakly, and gave a small wave.

Dakotah shrugged his shoulders. “That’s fine with me, if that’s not too much bother, Vanessa. I live on Maple- no, wait, Poplar St. now. It’s about twelve miles from here. Is that too much trouble?”

“Not at all, Dakotah. It would be my pleasure. This way, I’ll know how to find you Wednesday.”

“Well, gotta go! See you two later!” Ely said, walking quickly to her car, and driving off in a rush.

Dakotah and Vanessa looked at each other, trying to figure out what they witnessed. “Okaaayyy……” Dakotah said, puzzled.

Shaking her head, Vanessa led Dakotah to her baby blue Cavalier. “Forgive me, but the car is messy, and I haven’t had a chance to clean it.”

Dakotah opened the passenger door, and sat down, buckling up. “It doesn’t look bad at all.” he said, looking about. Aside from an empty water bottle, the car seemed almost spotless to him.

Pulling out of the parking lot, Vanessa took a deep breath, and exhaled. “Dakotah, can we stop somewhere, and talk? I’m afraid I’m not very comfortable with holding a conversation while driving.”

“Sure. There’s a park near my house.” Dakotah said, wary of what she wanted to talk about.

The miles passed silently; Dakotah’s mind quickly wandered from thinking about Ely, to Vanessa, to working Wednesday nights at the church. None of the thoughts put him at ease.

He noticed Vanessa’s driving style was more conservative than Ely’s, too, as if she were taking a driving test. She smoothly pulled into the empty park parking lot, and deftly parked the car. Clouds had begun to break up, and sunlight streamed into the car, keeping them warm.

“Okay, here we are.” Dakotah said, forcing a slight smile. “What’s on your mind?”

“First, I want to apologize for earlier.” Vanessa said, meekly.

“Apologize?”

“Yes, for setting next to you in Sunday school, and at church.”

“I didn’t mind you sitting next to me.” Dakotah said, beginning to feel empathy for her. “I was just surprised, that’s all.”

“I also want to explain everything.” Vanessa continued. “Yesterday, while at work, I ran into Ely. She asked if we could talk later, and I agreed, curious as to what she had on her mind. Needless to say, I was shocked when I heard she was having a relationship with another girl, and not you!”

“Trust me, I was shocked, too.” Dakotah said, nodding his head.

“She told me what Brother Daniels had guessed. He’s very perceptive, you know?” Vanessa began to blush, embarrassed.

Dakotah’s face reddened also, as it began to dawn on him what she meant. He was also at a loss for words, and stared down toward the floorboard.

Vanessa was staring toward her feet as well. “Mom and Dad always taught me to take the time to see what was inside a person, and not to judge a person by what they looked like.” She realized what she said, and panicked. “Oh! I didn’t mean to say you’re ugly, or anything!” she said, flustered.

“Oh, that’s okay!” Dakotah said, laughing uncomfortably. “No one’s going to compare me to a Jonas Brother, and I’m good with that!”

“Jonas Brother? Ewwwww…..” Vanessa said, shaking her head. She took a deep breath. “Dakotah, when I look at you, I see a kind, smart, God-fearing guy, a person who would do whatever it took to help someone in need. Someone I could trust.”

Dakotah became embarrassed again, and remained silent.

“Can I ask you something?” Vanessa said, very nervously.

Dakotah nodded.

“Do you love Ely?”

Dakotah paused for a moment. He didn’t want to hurt Vanessa, but he felt she deserved the truth. “Yes.” he said, almost inaudibly. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry.” Vanessa said softly, trying to ease his pain, as well as her own. “I see fake people every day. Knowing I can trust you, and believe you, is comforting.”

Dakotah thought for a moment. “I don’t see how you can trust me. If our positions were switched, I certainly wouldn’t trust you.”

“Why?” Vanessa said, stunned. “Because I’m supposedly this good looking female? Do you think I’m that vain?”

“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it that way!” Dakotah exclaimed, realizing that he hit a nerve. “It’s not like that. I mean, almost everyone I’ve ever trusted has hurt me. Heck, even my own mom has turned her back on me!” He began to sob. “You know, when I realized Ely was pairing us up, I felt betrayed.”

Grasping Dakotah’s words, Vanessa anger faded instantly. “Oh Dakotah, please forgive me! I’m so stupid, sometimes! I should’ve known this was too soon, but Ely convinced me you were ready to move on!”

Dakotah took a deep breath, and calmed himself. “It’s okay. It’s okay.” he said, looking up at Vanessa. “Everything has been kinda crazy in my life lately, and I’m just wiped out inside. None of this is your fault. I think she’s trying to convince herself, too.”

“You don’t think she’s committed to Hannah?”

“She told me herself their relationship is more on having fun and stuff, and ours is more like leaning on each other.”

“Sounds like two halves of a whole relationship, You have to have both, I think.” Vanessa laughed. “Of course, what do I know? I’ve never had a boyfriend. I’ve always been too busy with school or work or church to notice anyone truly special. Until now.”

Dakotah laughed nervously. “Well, I guess in reality, I’ve never had a girlfriend, though I thought I was close.”

Vanessa reached over, took Dakotah’s hands, and held them into her own. She stared deeply into Dakotah’s eyes; he instinctively wanted to look away, but didn’t.

“Part of me wants to say ‘You’re closer than you think.’” she said sweetly. “But saying that would be disrespecting your feelings. I want you to trust me as a friend before we even think about having a relationship. It wouldn’t be fair to me to invest my feelings in something you had no intention of reciprocating, either.”

Dakotah pulled his hands away from her grasp, and looked down, pondering what she said. “I-I’d like to be your friend. I’m not ready for a relationship, though.”

“Would you want to do things with me, like go see a movie, or something? As friends, I mean?”

Dakotah gave a weak smile. “Sure. I’d like that.”

Vanessa smiled warmly back.

*****

Vanessa pulled the car to the curb in front of Elizabeth’s house. The thought had entered Dakotah’s mind to have her drive by his mother’s house, but he thought better of it, as he felt he wasn’t emotionally ready for that yet.

“Thanks for taking me home.” he said as he exited the car. “You drive a lot better than Ely!”

Vanessa laughed. “Thanks! Pick you up here at 5 Wednesday?”

“Are you sure you need me there? I’m not sure I would be any good with kids.”

“You’ll be fine, I promise! I’ll be there to help!”

“Okay, I’m trusting you here!” Dakotah said, laughing.

Vanessa took Dakotah seriously for a second, then realized he was just making a joke based on their earlier conversation. She smiled and shook her head as she pulled out into the street.

Dakotah had made it halfway up the walkway when Elizabeth stepped out onto the porch. “Uh-oh.”  Dakotah thought.  “Might as well tell her now. Everyone’s going to know about us soon.”

“There you are.” Elizabeth said, trying to grasp the situation. “Where’s Ely?”

“I can explain.” Dakotah said, walking with his grandmother into the house. “It’s a long story…….”

*****

“Good afternoon, Louise!” Elizabeth announced with a forced cheerfulness over the phone. ”How are you all doing? It’s been a while since we last chatted!”

Louise Jones became instantly ill at ease. Dakotah’s grandmother rarely called, only to verify that she had received her letters, never as a social call. Her intonation was off, too. “We’re all fine, Elizabeth. Is something the matter? You seem troubled.”

“You could say that, though I think, all in all, it is for the best. “ Elizabeth replied, exhaling. “Frank and Sylvia kicked Dakotah out of the house Friday night. He’s living here now.”

“What?!?” Louise shouted, incredulously. “Why? It couldn’t have been anything Dakotah had done! Is he okay?”

“Dakotah’s fine, though he almost got in a tussle with Frank. Fortunately, Ely and I intervened, and he wasn’t hurt.”

“Ely is Dak’s girlfriend, isn’t she? How did you two stop El Blobbo?”

“I shot him between the eyes with bear spray.” Elizabeth chuckled slightly.

“He’s lucky I wasn’t there. I have a concealed carry permit.” Louise said humorlessly.

“By the way, Ely is just a friend, not his girlfriend.”

“Really? I thought they were head over heels with each other!” Louise exclaimed, surprised.

Elizabeth sighed. “I thought so too, until he told me earlier today. She’s apparently been seeing someone else the entire time.”

“What? Dak had better watch out, or that guy’s going to cream him! What is she doing, anyway, trying to play him for whatever reason?”

“Actually, Ely’s significant other is female.”

“Come again?”

“I said, Ely has a relationship with another girl!” Elizabeth said, keeping her voice low so Dakotah couldn’t hear her.

“You’re kidding me, right? Isn’t she the daughter of a preacher? I wonder if he knows about it? Talk about being shocked!”

“It seems that he not only knows about it, he condones it as well.” Elizabeth said, gravely.

This ain’t no Baptist church, is it?” Louise said, bewildered. “I know my church would run her off, and her preacher daddy, too!”

“Our church doesn’t believe in salvation for homosexuals either, unless they repent, and go straight.” Elizabeth said, agreeing. “To make matters worse, he’s leaving 3rd Baptist to join her church!”

“That’s not good. No tellin’ what else they’re teaching over there. These are different times we’re living in, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” Elizabeth said, shaking her head. “I don’t think Ely’s set out to use Dakotah, so to speak. I think the poor boy was trying to grasp anything to give his life meaning, and she became the center of his universe. I’ve had conversations with Ely several times in the past few months, and she’s never given me any inclination that she’s anything other than a kind, hardworking, intelligent, moral girl.”

“Except that she’s in a relationship with another girl, and my nephew thinks that being a third wheel is just fine.”

“We have to start praying for them. They are just young, naïve, and still trying to figure out what they want out of life. Don’t you remember those years?” Elizabeth asked.

“No. As far back as I can remember, I’ve always was too busy trying to survive. Never had time to think about the so-called possibilities of life.” The thought irritated her.

The thought of her sister turning her back on her own son infuriated her. “And exactly where was Sylvia during all this? I have half a mind to come up there, and beat the crap out of her!”

“Now Louise, even if you are serious, you don’t strike me as a person who resorts to violence.” Elizabeth spoke firmly, trying to calm Louise down. “Deep down, I believe she wanted Dakotah to stay, but Frank was having none of it. He had all Dakotah’s stuff out on the lawn by the time I arrived. Sylvia was on the porch, crying, but not saying anything. Whenever I tried to converse with her, Frank kept interrupting, and cursing me. It wasn’t very long before the kids arrived, and then it went rapidly downhill from there. Sylvia simply went into the house, and never came out again.”

“She never did have any backbone.” Louise muttered. “If Frank tried that on me, I’d have thrown him out instead.”

“Now that Dakotah’s living with me, I have a proposition. How about we use part of the money to buy insurance on my car, so he can drive now?” Hopefully, he can go where jobs are, and then save money for his own transportation, and also school.”

Louise thought for a few seconds. “That’s not a bad idea, Elizabeth, but I’d like to talk to him first. Have you told him about the money yet?”

“No, I haven’t, as you wished. Let me fetch him.” As if on cue, the vacuum cleaner roared to life in the hallway. Laying down the receiver, she strode toward the din.

“Dakotah!” Elizabeth shouted, exasperated. Dakotah immediately shut the vacuum off. “Didn’t I tell you cleaning the house is my job?”

“I’m sorry, grandma.” Dakotah apologized. “I was just trying to help.”

“First of all, I don’t clean house on the Sabbath. Secondly, even though I know you’re just trying to help, but I’ve been cleaning this house for almost fifty years, and I’m not going to let anyone else do it for me. You can keep your room tidy if you want, but the rest of the house is mine. Understand? “

“Yes’ ma’am.” Dakotah said, looking down. “I felt the need to be busy, that’s all.”

“I understand.” she said, smiling. “I came to tell you your Aunt Louise is on the phone, and wants to speak with you.”

“Aunt Lou? Really?” Dakotah exclaimed, his face brightening. “I guess you told her, huh?”

“Yes. Now go! She’s waiting!”

Dakotah rushed to the phone and picked up the receiver. “Hello? Aunt Lou? Are you still there?”

“Hi, sweetie.” Louise said, full of empathy. “How are you? I heard you’ve had a rough time of it. Are you okay?”

Dakotah paused for a moment. “I’m okay, I guess. I’ve been better.”

“Well, I can’t believe they did that to you! If your uncle wasn’t delivering pipe in North Dakota right now, he’d be on his way up there to clean house!”

“That’s okay, I don’t want Unk to risk getting into trouble. Ely said it was their loss, anyway.”

“Ellie, huh? Is she that girl you’re crazy about? I heard she’s seeing someone else.”

“Yeah, unfortunately.” Dakotah said, dejectedly. “She’s trying to fix me up with one of her friends from church, though.”

“You don’t sound too enthusiastic. Is she ugly?”

“Oh, no, she’s quite pretty. I think Unk would approve.” Dakotah said, with little emotion.

“Your uncle is a truck driver, Dak. They don’t cull much.”

“Well, he did pretty good with you, Lou!” Dakotah cried out.

Louise had to laugh. “Well, even a pig can find a flower in the pen every once in a while!”

Dakotah laughed as well. “Vanessa’s really nice, but I’m not sure if I’m ready for someone else. All I feel inside is pain right now.”

“This Ellie really threw you for a loop, didn’t she?”

“Ely.”

“Ely. That’s her name?”

“Yes.”

“They named her after a town in Nevada?”

“I think it was Minnesota, actually.”

“You love her, don’t you?”

Dakotah took a deep breath. Telling people his feelings wasn’t becoming any easier. “Yeah. It’s hard to explain. I feel so at ease with her, like I’ve known her all my life. When we’re together, it just feels so good, you know?”

“I know just how you feel.” Louise replied. “I had to explain something similar to your grandmother Parker when I decided I was moving to Kentucky with Ralph!”

“How did that turn out?”

“She didn’t understand why I was quitting college to be a housewife to a trucker. I’m not sure she ever has, any more than I understand why you would fall for some girl who’s involved in another relationship. I know she still loves me, even as I love you, and that’s all that matters.”

“I love you too, Lou.” Dakotah said, tearfully. “I’m glad that you were able to visit last Christmas.”

“Me, too, Dak.” Louise said, smiling. “Your uncle thinks that you’re a great kid.”

“I’m not exactly a kid. I’m nineteen!”

“You are to us, you little fart!” Louise said, laughing. “You know, anytime you want to come down here to live, we have a spare bedroom in our new doublewide!”

“Thanks for the offer, but I’ll just stay here with Grandma. She needs me.”

“Didn’t sound like it to me earlier. If you hadn’t shut off that vacuum, I think she would’ve pinched your head off!”

“Well, I’m trying to figure my place here, but she’s pretty much all alone. There’s plenty here I can do a lot easier than her, like mowing the grass.”

“I think what you need to do is find a paying job. They’ve just started up an automotive plastics plant near here, and I was hired there about a month ago. Pay’s pretty decent, and they’re still hiring! Being a high school graduate, they’d hire you on the spot, I’m sure!”

“Sounds interesting, but I’ll pass. I know that there’s not a whole lot going on up here, but maybe Grandma can take me further away from home to look for work.”

“Why don’t you take yourself?”

“Because I don’t have a driver’s license. You have to have insurance in order to get a license. Frank wouldn’t pay for insurance, and Grandma doesn’t have enough money to buy any, so I’m stuck.”

“I don’t think so!” Louise said, almost giddily. “You see, your grandmother and I have been holding a little secret from you. Ralph and I have been sending a little money to Elizabeth every month to help out on your transportation.”

“What?” Dakotah exclaimed, trying to grasp what Louise was saying.

“Well, the first thought was to buy you a car with the money, but that would take a while, so why not instead put you in your grandmother’s car, and pay the extra on insurance? She wholeheartedly agreed, of course!”

Dakotah thought for a moment. “Lou, do you know how much it costs to insure someone my age? That’s a lot of money!”

“I’m sure we have enough to cover it. She presently has 1500 dollars. Think that’s enough?”

Dakotah couldn’t grasp what his aunt had said, unable to believe what he heard. “How much?” he said, weakly.

“1500 dollars.” Louise said, laughing a little.

“Oh, Aunt Louise, that’s too much money!” Dakotah shouted, becoming panicked. “I really don’t deserve it!”

“You take that money, or I’m going to come up there and smack some sense into your head!” Louise shouted back, becoming impatient. “You absolutely deserve every penny! You’re a good kid, and are long, long overdue for a break! Take the damned money, and make something out of your life, you hear?”

Dakotah was stunned into silence. Suddenly, he began to weep. “Oh, Lou, thank you, thank you, thank you! I’ll make you proud of me, I promise!”

“I know you will, Dak. We wouldn’t have done it otherwise. Now, could you hand the phone over to your grandmother? I need to discuss some things with her.”

“Ah, yeah, sure. I love you, Aunt Lou. Thank you.”

“I love you too, sweetie. I’ll be checking in from time to time to make sure you’re not blowing the money on girls!”

Dakotah laughed. “Not a problem.” He looked at Elizabeth, and pointed to the phone. “Here, Grandma, Lou wants to talk to you.” Goodbye, Aunt Lou, thanks for everything!”

Dakotah handed the phone to his grandmother, shaking his head in disbelief.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him that happy before.” Elizabeth said, emotionally. “Thank you.”

“After all that’s happened, he needed a really good day.” Louise said, wiping tears from her eyes.

*****

November 3rd, 2008

Ely popped into her father’s home office, finding him occupied on church paperwork.

“I think you work more on that stuff than you do on your sermons!” Ely said, pointedly. “I think you need a secretary!”

“We can’t afford a secretary.” Rev. Daniels said, firmly. Besides, I get a better feel for what’s going on in the church. The Lord writes the sermons.”

Rev. Daniels pushed himself away from his desk, and turned to face Ely. “Going to get Dakotah soon?” he asked.

“Yeah.” Ely said, dejectedly. “I hope he isn’t angry with me. I pretty much dumped him with Vanessa yesterday.”

“Your intentions were good, but your execution was a bit heavy-handed.” Her father said. “He did have that deer-in-the-headlights look about him.”

His words did not console her. “Dak has to hate me now, dad! He probably feels I abandoned him, especially after what happened a couple of nights ago! I’m such a terrible person!”

Rev. Daniels put his hands on Ely’s shoulders, and looked into her eyes. “Sweetheart, all of this is new to you both. Mistakes like this are made all the time, even by folks much older than you. Just tell him how you feel, and explain your actions. He’ll understand, and forgive you.”

“You think he will?” she asked, unsure.

“Absolutely.” he said,  smiling. “The one thing you’re forgetting is the most obvious thing of all. He loves you very, very, much.”

Out of the blue, a car’s horn began to blare. Both Rev. Daniels and Ely both rushed to the window to see what the commotion was about.

“That’s Elizabeth’s car!” Ely exclaimed, confused. “I hope everything’s okay!”

Ely rushed out of the house to find Dakotah, alone, grinning broadly.

Ely’s jaw dropped, and for a moment was unable to speak. “W-where’s your grandmother?” she stammered, confused.

“She’s home, watching TV.” Dakotah said, barely containing himself. He took out his wallet, removed his driver’s license, and handed it to Ely. “What do you think? Does it look like me?”

Ely was speechless. “How?”

“My aunt and uncle sent Grandma money for the insurance.” Dakotah said, still grinning. “Awesome, isn’t it?”

Rev. Daniels joined the two outside. “Congratulations, Dakotah! What’s the next step?”

“Tomorrow, I’m going to Oxford Township and look for work, I guess. My aunt offered to keep me in gas and insurance as long as it takes, but I want to find something soon, so I can pay her back.”

“Sounds like a good plan.” Rev. Daniels replied, smiling.

“However, tonight, if it’s okay, I’d like to take you both out to dinner.” Dakotah said, weakly. “Grandma said it was okay if I use a little extra fund money this time.”

“Dak, I’m sorry, but we couldn’t-“ Ely started to say.

“Absolutely!” Rev. Daniels said enthusiastically, interrupting Ely. “Just don’t get us killed, okay?”

“I got a perfect score on my driving test.” Dakotah replied, laughing. “I’m a very careful driver!”

“Ely barely squeaked by on hers.” Rev. Daniels said, winking at Ely. Ely said nothing, but gave her father a dirty look. “Give us a few minutes to get ready, okay, Dakotah?” he continued. “Come on in, and make yourself at home.”

“Okay, I’ll just wait in the living room.” Dakotah said.

Out of view from Dakotah, Ely followed her father into his bedroom. “I think that answers your question on whether he’s upset.” he said, quietly.

“I don’t like the idea of him taking us out to eat.” Ely said.

“Why? We’ve fed him plenty of times. I’ve even financed a couple of your jaunts. Look, from my days as a young struggling pastor, when someone offers you free food, you take it!” he said, smiling.

Ely frowned. “I never dreamed he’d get his license anytime soon. The whole concept of him driving around town is weird.”

Rev. Daniels thought for a moment. “Could it be you like the idea of him being dependent on people, immobile?”

“That doesn’t make any sense. I want what’s best for him!”

“Are you sure?” He was about to say something, but caught himself. “Just make sure you absolutely know where your heart is when it comes to Dakotah. You’re weaving an ever more tangled web, and a couple of people could get hurt if it all goes wrong.”

“I know. The current path is the best for all concerned.”

“Just don’t try to force things, okay? Relationships are organic in nature, and can’t be built like a house. Now go change. He’s probably wondering what’s taking us so long.”

A few minutes later, they met Dakotah in the living room. “Have you picked out a place yet?” Rev. Daniels asked.

“Do you like strombolis?” Dakotah asked. They both nodded. “Great! There’s a sandwich shop over on 17th St. that mom and Frank used to get strombolis from! They always smelled so good!”

“I didn’t know you ate strombolis.” Ely said.

“Oh, I never ate them. They just got those for themselves.” Dakotah said matter-of-factly. Ely and her father looked at each other, and shook their heads. “Oh look, the sun’s coming out!” Dakotah said, as they made their way out the door.

*****


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 dragged 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.


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