It was a nice calm day when school let out. The birds were singing and the only clouds in the sky were the big white puffy kinds that signal a beautiful afternoon. My backpack was laden with the oversized textbooks issued by the school as I walked home from school and worried about the mountain of homework my teachers had assigned. I knew I could never finish enough of it to appease all of them.
I walked home along South Rice, heading north, past the Bellaire City water tower. I was so wrapped up in my thoughts about the most beneficial combination of homework assignments to do that I didn't even notice the glum kid sitting on the sidewalk until I stumbled over his legs.
"What the hell are you doing sitting on the sidewalk like that?" I yelled when I regained my balance. "Shouldn't you be home, or at least somewhere waiting for your parents to pick you up?" It was about a quarter to four and the nearby elementary school let out at three o'clock.
He looked down sheepishly at his black and white sneakers. All I could see was his sandy blond hair as he mumbled to his shoes, "I-I'm lost."
I wanted to help him. My mom had lost me in a department store once when I was five and I had been terrified. I didn't even want to think about how freaked out I would have been if I become lost in a neighborhood as big as Bellaire. "Where do you live? Maybe I can help you get back there."
"4432 Wendle," he answered.
"Hey, you're in luck, kid. I know exactly where that is. In fact, it's only a few streets away from where my house is."
He looked up at me hopefully. I could finally see his face. He had cherubic cheeks, his straight bangs falling slightly over his bright aquamarine eyes. "Really?" he asked. "Would you take me home?"
"Yeah. I'll be your personal escort. What's your name?"
He stood up slowly, easily lifting his half-empty bag off the ground and onto one shoulder. I envied his workload. "Michael," he said softly.
"You got a last name?"
He shook his head. "My father told me not to tell strangers."
"Okay, just Michael. My name's Alec."
We started walking in the direction of our neighborhood. We didn't say much at first, but then Michael looked up at me and asked, "What grade are you in?"
"Eleventh," I replied with pride for being nearly graduated, but also with misery for having the homework of someone nearly graduated. "What about you?"
"Fourth," he said.
"Do you enjoy school?"
"Most of the time," Michael answered.
"When is most of the time? Which classes?"
"Well, most of them are all right, but I like music class and religion class the most."
"Religion?" I asked, raiding my voice. "Since when are schools teaching that?"
I'm sure that some disdain bled into my statement. I wasn't very religious at all, and I was out to show everyone that religion was only a veil to cover reality; a fuzzy baby blanket that humanity had outgrown when science was developed.
"They've always taught religion," Michael said innocently.
"Where do you go to school? It's not a public school is it?"
"St. Vincent DePaul."
I looked at his white polo shirt, and sure enough, there was the school name embroidered in thread that matched his navy blue shorts.
"You do know that religion is just a nice fairy tale right?"
"But it's not!" he answered ardently.
"Fine, tell me why it isn't."
"How else could the sunsets be so amazing and the sunrises be so calm?"
"Actually," I said in a matter-of-fact way, "it's because light bounces off the particles in the atmosphere and the color depends on the type of particles and the angle that we see it."
"But who could have planned all that?"
"It could have just happened randomly with the Big Bang."
"The Big Bang doesn't disprove God," Michael said plainly, as if he had never heard an argument using the Big Bang as ammunition against his beloved deity.
"The Bible says God created everything in seven days, doesn't it? Now we know without a doubt that it took millions of years for just the earth to be created."
"God's days are different from your days. You live on earth, in this time. God lives everywhere in all time."
"Yeah. Sure, kid." I didn't want to talk about this subject anymore. I always got annoyed when religious people, even half-pint religious people, refused to accept the facts right in front of them.
I didn't want to continue with the conversation because I also didn't want to crush the kid's innocent young hopes and beliefs so harshly. The world itself would do that in time, and he'd learn the real truth.
"So how did you get all the way over near the Bellaire Library when your school and house are both inside of the highway?
"I told you," he said defensively, "I got lost."
I looked at him and said, "Sure you may be lost now, but that's not the whole story, is it?"
"All right. I was running away from home. Then I got lost, and I couldn't go back even when I wanted to."
"Why were you running away?" I asked sternly.
"My father doesn't listen to me," he said in a stubborn, childish tone.
"I bet you he listens to you more than you think."
"No he doesn't!" The kid was really being headstrong, but it was best to let him vent. "I want a trampoline, one of those big, big ones for the backyard, and my dad doesn't even listen to me. I've asked and asked him for it. I told Mom that I wanted it, too. I even told her to tell dad, and he still doesn't get me one."
"Maybe you don't have enough room in your backyard for a trampoline. I know that most houses on our side of the neighborhood wouldn't be able to fit one of those in the back. On the other hand, maybe he knows that once you get it, you wouldn't use it after the first day. Trust your father. It may seem unfair, but I'm sure he knows better than you right now."
He lowered his head and said in a soft tone, "I guess you're right." It seemed like he was yielding to defeat, but I couldn't see him smiling as he looked down. Instead of being somber like a person who lost an argument should be, he was grinning as if he had won.
During the gap in our discussion, I took time to look around. We had come pretty far during our conversation, and we were only a block or so away from Michael's house.
I thought our conversation was over, and then he asked, "Do you believe in God?"
Oh no, this topic again.
"No. I outgrew that when I was thirteen."
"You don't believe in God? Why?"
"Too many things happen to good people."
"Like what?" Elementary school children have the tenacity of pit bulls when it comes to questions.
I sigh, "It's not a very happy subject. I don't know if I should tell a fourth grader."
"I can handle it." Michael's young bravado was endearing. He puffed out his chest and everything.
"If you say so. Do you know what cancer is?"
"It's something where your cells go wrong and start to push out other cells."
"That's really good. My youngest brother was two when he was diagnosed with skin cancer. It was strange for a toddler to get it, but the doctors said we shouldn't worry; skin cancer is the easiest kind to treat. But he never got better. He would go into surgery to have this freckle removed, but it would come back in a mole. He got worse and worse… If there is a God, he wanted my brother to suffer and die."
I continued venting, "My mother couldn't handle it. She felt so guilty. If she had only put more sunscreen on him… If she had only taken more time off of work to hold him while he was in the hospital…If she had only prayed a few more decades of the rosary… If only she had been a better mother Jacob wouldn't have died. She tried a double whammy a year later: taking too many sleeping pills and cutting her wrists. I came home from middle school and found her in the bathroom covered in blood. Thankfully the ambulance got her to the hospital in time. No loving God would want her to suffer like that."
Michael slowed his pace and said, "No, God wouldn't want that." His voice was now coming from behind me, but it wasn't the voice of a child from before. It was more mature now.
I spun around and was face to face with the same aquamarine eyes, but the kid was now my height. His school uniform had been transformed into a pale flowing garment. His hair was somewhat longer, and the color of polished gold. His appearance was that of someone my age, but his skin glowed as if tiny fragments of the sun had been carefully embedded in every square inch of his skin. Not only had his body been changed, but his face, although recognizably Michael's, was full of profound wisdom and insight.
My mind was going through all the possibilities, but only one even halfway reasonable explanation came to me. I was talking to an angel. But no! Angels don't exist. They can't exist. All the same, I was standing in front of a very luminescent young man in a white robe, who had been eight years younger only seconds before. This was no dream either. None of my dreams had ever been so vivid to come close in comparison to this.
"God always hears your prayers, but sometimes He chooses not to answer them because it's for the best. You yourself said that."
Rage bubbled deep in my heart. "What do you know of suffering and unanswered prayers you fucking bastard!" I shoved as hard as I could and he stumbled over the pavement.
He frowned, but his expression lacked anger. It was a look of profound empathy, like he knew exactly how much my mother was hurting, and how much I was hurting.
"Your mother is getting better, and she's already become part of God's plan."
"You're a nut job. What the hell are you on about?"
He smiled at some inside joke, "Hear me out. You remember Mrs. Davis had a son last year?"
"Died of SIDS, another miracle of God."
"Your mom spent a lot of time with her after her baby died. Your mom doesn't know this, but having someone who lost a child so nearby saved Mrs. Davis' life."
I was about to say something snide but he continued, "If your mom hadn't gone through such a trauma, Mrs. Davis would have tried to kill herself. And that suicide would have been successful."
All of a sudden all of the fight vanished from me. I sank to the stones of a raised flowerbed.
"Your sister isn't going to cure cancer, but she is going to be an NICU specialist. She's going to be a great doctor who develops new ways to save extremely premature babies. If your brother hadn't died, she would grow up to be a very successful financial analyst, but those precious souls wouldn't be able to do the good that God has planned for them."
Maggie, my older sister, was a freshman in college when my mom tried to kill herself. She was still majoring in business math but she was taking all of the necessary pre-med courses. My head was starting to spin.
I remembered the conversation we had about the trampoline and my own words echoed loudly in my mind. I bet you he listens to you more than you think... Trust your father. It may seem unfair, but I'm sure he knows better than you right now...
I could feel hands around my shoulders as he helped me to my feet. "You look a little ill." He produced a Nalgene water bottle from a pocket in his robe. "Drink a little of this and splash some on your face." The water was cool and restoring on my lips and he smiled widely as I wiped a handful on my face.
"God has plans for you, Alec. All you need to do is play along."
He grabbed my hand and put something in it, "Take this and keep praying; He'll keep hearing you. I'll guide you to the best of my abilities. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must be going home."
He walked up the porch of the nearest house, and I lost sight of him behind the thick bushes in front of the door.
I glanced at the object in my hand. A rosary with gems the color of Michael's eyes and opals marking every decade. The cross was simple silver. Stunning.
I moved to see if I could catch him, but he was gone.
It's been a while since that encounter. Every time I think that it was a hallucination, I ask someone else to hold the rosary. I'll trust their verification of reality more than my own. I use the Nalgene he left with me periodically. It has a college name printed on it, so I'll probably apply there. I still don't know what God's plan for me is, but I guess I'm going to find out.