The evening weather news on TV had said, “The storm will bring torrents of rain and winds that could reach near hurricane force overnight, but it will taper off in the morning and slide off the coast by around 10 o’clock.”
Now the boy stood at the living room window watching as the rain and winds began to ease.
“Aidan, come eat your breakfast please.”
That’s Mom, he thought, always the polite one, putting please at the end of her requests. She never orders; she always asks. Maybe that’s because of her name—Angela.
When he was younger he had thought sometimes that she really was an angel with her flowing golden hair and a ready smile.
Aidan turned from the window and went to the table, where hot pancakes and bacon lay on a plate at his place. His dog followed behind him hoping for table scraps. The boy wore his blond hair a bit long. Sometimes it fell across his forehead and he’d unconsciously flip it back. He had his father’s deep blue eyes, and the few freckles dotting his face made him more cute than handsome.
Sitting down, Aidan asked, “Did you hear the big limb come off the oak a while ago?”
His father nodded, replying, “Yup. We’ll take care of that soon, but it’s not doing any harm for the minute.”
“Chuck,” Angela asked, “will you be going out today when the storm stops?”
“Yup,” his father replied. “I’ll go when the storm dies down to see if any neighbors need help with their trees.”
Aidan’s father, Charles Woods, usually called Chuck by his friends, owned a tree and landscaping business and frequently helped out neighbors without charging them. When Aidan asked him one time why he didn’t charge them, Chuck answered, “Because that’s what neighbors do. We help each other.”
“Have they ever helped us?”
“Sure. Of course, you won’t remember this, but when you were born fourteen years ago, all the neighbors pitched in with casseroles, home-made soups, and salads. I probably would’ve starved if I’d had to feed myself. Then, after you and your mother came home from the hospital, a neighbor stopped by every afternoon and took care of you for a while so your mother could get some rest.” He smiled and added, “So that’s one way that neighbors help each other.”
As Aidan was thinking about that, the power flickered a couple of times and then went off. Fortunately it was still morning, and light wasn’t a problem.
Trying to avoid his mother’s gaze, Aidan dropped a piece of pancake on the floor where the dog snapped it up. The dog was a stray who’d showed up at the Woods’ back door one day. Since his parents weren’t home, Aidan had invited him into the kitchen and given him some scraps. He was a nondescript, brown-colored mutt who probably didn’t weigh more than 30 pounds. The boy thought he was cute, and he was certainly friendly. When Angela got home that day, the dog ran right up to her to be petted. She looked at him and said, “Oh my, how cute.” Then, looking at Aidan she said, “But you can’t keep him in the house.” As usual, she spoke in a kindly voice, but her message was clear.
“Aw, Mom,” Aidan begged, “please?”
When Chuck came in and the dog rushed to him, he looked at the dog and remarked, “Well, I’ll be.” Immediately, Aidan named the dog Albee.
Again, Aidan asked if he could keep the dog. Angela said, “No,” but Chuck said, “Your mom and I will talk about it.”
And that was how Albee joined the family. He slept on Aidan’s bed, much to his mother’s disapproval, and again his parents talked. Albee remained on the bed.
When the storm had passed, Chuck got his jacket and work gloves, asking, “Aidan, would you like to come along?”
Angela looked dubious, but Chuck said, “Don’t worry. I’ll look out for him.”
“Okay,” she said, “but look out for downed power lines.”
Father and son went out to the truck, which was equipped with a cherry picker. Albee watched them forlornly through the screen door. As usual, Aidan smiled at the name on the side of the truck, “Woodchuck’s Tree Service and Landscaping.” Aidan and Chuck climbed aboard.
Besides the tree truck, Chuck had a large truck with a trailer which he used for his landscaping business. Angela usually drove their four door Plymouth sedan.
Chuck started it and backed out of the driveway, turning east when he got to the road. He followed that to Bridge Street, a busier road, and drove slowly, looking down side streets to see if there was any damage.
“Aha!” he said, turning into Cedar Road. There was a tree down across the road. “We can’t do anything about that,” he told his son, “because there are wires down. The electric company’ll have to turn off the power before I can cut up the tree.”
To his left there was another tree down in a yard. The tree had fallen across a driveway crushing the roof of a parked car. There were three people out in the yard, a man and two boys. Chuck pulled up to the curb. He and Aidan got out of the truck and crossed the lawn towards the three.
Nearing them, Chuck said, “I can take care of that tree for you if you want.”
The man before him sized him up before asking, “How much?”
“Nothing,” Chuck replied. “You’re a neighbor so it’s free.”
“You can’t make much of a living doing that,” the man said, suspiciously.
“Oh, I get enough work so I’m fine. Later, when the power company has fixed the downed wires, I’ll take care of the tree in the road. The town’ll pay me for that. Did you call the electric company?”
The man nodded.
Holding out his hand, Chuck continued, “I’m Chuck Woods.”
“Luke Carmichael,” the man responded, shaking Chuck’s hand.
Chuck motioned to the boy standing beside him. “This is my son, Aidan.”
Luke just nodded before motioning to his two boys. “Jacob and Colin.”
Aidan shook Luke’s hand and nodded to the two boys. Teen boys never shook hands. None of them knew why; it just wasn’t done.
Mr. Woods got his chainsaw from the truck as well as some rakes and shovels. He went to work, first cutting limbs from the tree. When he had cut all the limbs he could reach without touching the car, he sawed them into manageable lengths and told the others, “If you put these out by the curb, the town’ll pick ‘em up in a few days, or you could keep them for firewood.”
Luke didn’t move but Jacob, Aidan, and Colin began to haul the remains of the branches across the lawn and pile them by the road. Meanwhile, Mr. Woods cut through the tree trunk near where it rested on the car. Then he and Luke were able to push the part resting on the car off to the side, where he went to work on the limbs he hadn’t been able to reach before. Luke examined the car, shaking his head.
As the boys toted more branches to the road, Aidan watched Colin. Colin’s hair was dark, almost black, and his hazel eyes were quite stunning.
Aidan asked, “Why haven’t I seen you before? You don’t go to my school.”
“I go to The Christian Academy.” For some reason, Colin looked a little scared, or was it cowed?
Aidan wondered for a few seconds before asking, “Why do you go there?”
“Because my parents want me to go to a religious school. They’re really religious themselves.”
“What’s the school like?”
Clearly fearful now, Colin looked over at Jacob, his older brother, who was standing, listening. “It’s okay, I guess,” he said. “I don’t really have anything to compare it to.”
As they continued to work, Aidan learned that Colin was also fourteen. He invited Colin to go to his house sometime, telling him how to get there and saying that it was only a couple of blocks away.
Looking afraid again, Colin replied, “Thanks, but I probably won’t be able to. My parents aren’t big on us visiting others.”
Aidan was puzzled, but then nodded and said, “Well, maybe I’ll bike over here and visit you.”
Colin was a boy full of worries, some big, some small. His 14 years had given him cause for this. Now this new kid was making a suggestion that worried Colin. He was quite sure Aidan wouldn’t be welcomed. He glanced at Jacob and then back at Aidan. “Guess you could try that. I don’t know what my mother would say though.”
By then, Chuck had cut the tree trunk into short enough lengths that when the boys and Chuck paired up, they could take them to the street. Colin worked with
Jacob while Chuck and Aidan were a team. Luke said he had a bad back and couldn’t carry things. Colin knew that was baloney; his father was just lazy. Typical, he thought.
Luke saw Colin’s expression and scowled. He was a large, perpetually unhappy man. He didn’t like his job or his younger son very much. He was fine with his wife and Jacob, but for some reason he hated Colin.
There were problems in the family. Colin sometimes wondered if his family knew that he was a lot smarter than his father. He was smarter than Jacob too, as his school reports showed. His mother was clever in a sly way. None of them trusted Colin, though, and he didn’t trust them. But he did fear them. He wasn’t terribly large for his age, and he believed that any one of them, including his mother, could easily beat him up. In the past he had received beatings from his father, usually for asking questions he wasn’t supposed to think about. So as much as possible he tried to avoid his family, and when he was near them he seldom spoke.
When they’d finished moving the remains of the tree to the road, Mr. Woods and Aidan said goodbye and drove off. Aidan noticed that while Luke and Chuck had shaken hands, Luke hadn’t even thanked them.
Chuck and his son drove around some more but didn’t see much more damage in their neighborhood. As they rode, Aidan asked, “What do you think’s going on with the Carmichaels?”
“What do you mean?”
Aidan described some of his observations and made a point of mentioning Colin’s apparent fear. His father just shook his head. “Don’t know, but I do know it’s none of our business, so don’t say anything to anyone except maybe your mom.”
Back at home they dealt with the large limb in their yard. As Chuck had said, it had done no damage. Now he observed, “I think we’re gonna need to take this old oak down before it falls on the house. Maybe we’ll do that after lunch.”
They ate a late lunch, and in the afternoon, Chuck showed Aidan how to cut a tree so that he knew where it would fall. It took a while to cut it up and Chuck decided to save the cleanup for the morning, as it was nearly dark by then.
In the days that followed, Chuck and Aidan helped some other neighbors. The electricity had been turned off on Cedar Road. Then the lines had been repaired and the power restored. Chuck and his son cut up the tree that lay across the road. Aidan noticed that the three Carmichaels stood on their lawn watching but never offered to help.
On Saturday, driven more by curiosity than anything else, Aidan biked to the Carmichael’s house. When he couldn’t find a doorbell, he knocked.
After what seemed like a long time, Jacob opened the door but not the screen door, and asked, “What do you want?”
Hmm, Aidan thought, not the friendliest of boys. He could see Colin standing behind his brother. Aloud Aidan said, “I came to see Colin.”
“He’s busy,” Luke replied.
“No, I’m not,” said Colin quietly.
Jacob turned, looked at Colin, then shrugged and walked away.
When Colin just stood in the doorway saying nothing, Aidan said, “Hi.” Colin didn’t answer. “Are you in trouble or something?” Colin shook his head.
Then a woman, who Aidan concluded was Colin’s mother, appeared behind him.
“Colin can’t come out,” she said, sounding a little hostile.
Not to be denied, Aidan introduced himself and asked, “Well, can I come in?”
She sighed, opened the screen door and said, “Only for a few minutes.”
Aidan walked into the house and Colin took him to the kitchen. “Why can’t you go out?” Aidan asked quietly.
“My parents don’t want me to have any friends who aren’t at The Academy,” Colin said in a voice that was nearly a whisper. “I think the only reason she let you in was because you helped with the trees.”
“Is that why you said you couldn’t come to my house?”
In a louder voice, Aidan asked, “So what do you like to do?”
“I read a lot, mostly historical fiction. My parents have to approve of a book before I can read it.”
“Because they don’t want me reading books that have sex or non-Christian writing in them.”
Aidan was an avid reader, so for a while the boys talked about books they had both read and Aidan suggested a couple which he thought had nothing in them that Colin’s parents would object to.
In about a half hour, Aidan thought he should leave before Mrs. Carmichael told him he had to. As the boys left the kitchen and headed to the front door, Aidan saw Colin’s mother sitting in the dining room, where she could probably have heard everything they said. He went to her and thanked her, offering his hand. She took it and muttered something. And then Aidan left.
As he rode his bike home, he thought, Hmm, curiouser and curiouser.
Colin was both worried and happy that Aidan had visited. He was worried about what his parents would do. He was happy because it seemed that Aidan wanted to be his friend and he didn’t have any.
He spent nearly all his waking hours in the house, mostly in his bedroom. The visit he’d received from Aidan was like a brief whiff of fresh air blowing gently across him. The only relief he usually found from his boredom was reading. His parents had a long list of books which he longed to read, books like Huckleberry Finn, or The Diary of Ann Frank, books he had heard of but wasn’t allowed to read. His parents never told him why; they just said no.
Oddly enough, his parents didn’t say or do anything about Aidan’s visit. It was as though Colin was in prison and Aidan had come during visiting hours.
Colin felt that he really was in prison, and he hated the feeling. He couldn’t leave the family’s property. When he went to a store, he never went alone, and in the store he wasn’t allowed to say anything. His mother or father or Jacob did all the talking. When school closed each afternoon, his mother was there waiting in the car to pick him up, so he couldn’t do anything with a friend even if he had one.
What made it even worse was that Jacob had no such restrictions. And it wasn’t a matter of age, because he had never had them. Jacob could go where he wanted and when he wanted. Of course, he only spent time with his Academy friends, but it was clear that their parents trusted him and they didn’t trust Colin.
As for church and the family’s beliefs, occasionally Colin would ask his parents a question. Some were not really about their religion but were like, “Why does the pastor have to talk so long? Does he really have that much to say?”
For asking that his father beat him with a belt and then confined him to his bedroom except for meals. The confinement was fine with Colin because he usually spent most of his life there anyway, but he resented the beating.
Once he asked, “What does ‘virgin birth’ mean?”
He was beaten again for having a dirty mind and confined to his room.
Another time he asked, “What’s a harlot?” He received the same treatment.
Colin had recently discovered orgasms and used his right hand to achieve them, cleaning himself with toilet paper and flushing the evidence down the toilet. He always felt very guilty because he knew the church said that what he was doing was a sin. The church believed that sinners went to hell, and the only way sins could be forgiven was by confessing them to the congregation. Colin knew there was no way he could do that. His problem was that he was unable to stop. Each time he did it he felt guilty, and the feeling built up. Usually, when he finished and disposed of the toilet paper, he lay in bed and cried himself to sleep. Then he didn’t do it for a few days until the urge overtook him again.
School had not yet begun in the fall. On Tuesday, Aidan appeared at Colin’s house and knocked on the door. Colin’s mother sighed and let him in. As before, Aidan and Colin went to the kitchen. They chatted for a few minutes before Colin got an idea. He called out, “Mother, it’s a beautiful day out. Can we sit on the back porch?”
After a pause, his mother replied from the dining room, “Alright, but don’t go any farther.”
Aidan and Colin stepped out the kitchen door and onto the porch. Without saying anything, Colin pointed back at the open kitchen window. Sure enough, through the window they could hear the sounds of dishes and silverware being dried and put away. They moved as far as they could from the window without leaving the porch, where they sat, their legs hanging over the edge.
They talked aloud, but between their talking they whispered. Aidan asked quietly, “Does your mom always spy on you?”
Colin nodded, whispering back, “I can’t go anywhere off our property unless she or Father or Jacob goes with me.”
Again they talked aloud for a few minutes before Aidan whispered, “What are they afraid of?”
“That someone will talk to me and try to influence me.”
“Would that ever happen?”
“I don’t know. Would you try to influence me?”
Aidan thought about that for a long time as they chatted aloud. Finally he whispered, “I don’t know if I’d try to influence you, but if you ever need help, you know where I live.”
“Can you remind me?”
So Aidan gave him very clear directions on getting to his house.
Colin nodded just as his mother called them back into the house. They talked a little more in the kitchen before Aidan said he ought to leave. They walked through the dining room where, sure enough, Mrs. Carmichael was sitting, working on some needlepoint.
At the front door, Colin said, “Thanks for coming. Come again soon.” With that, Aidan went out to his bicycle and rode away.
The Woods occasionally drove into the city for dinner and a movie. Wednesday evening they had dinner in an elegant restaurant and then went to see The Bridge on the River Kwai. The movie won an Oscar as ‘best picture’ that year, and Aidan enjoyed it, deciding that Alec Guinness was his favorite actor.
School opened and Aidan grew very busy with homework and friends. For a week or two he didn’t even think about Colin, but one Saturday he decided to try again.
When the boys were in the kitchen, Aidan asked, “Could you show me some of your schoolbooks? I’m just wondering how they’re different from mine.” Colin went to his bedroom and retrieved his books. Returning, he plunked them in a pile on the table.
Aidan opened the top book, a religion text which Colin told him went along with the Bible study the students did. He thumbed through It some, realizing that almost all of it dealt with the Old Testament. He considered asking if Colin also studied the New Testament but decided that might be risky with the boy’s mother listening.
Picking up the English book, he saw that it was nearly all grammar, and wondered if there was a literature book. He poked down through the pile until he found one that was titled, Eighth Grade Reading. As he thumbed through it, he realized that all of the stories he saw were moralistic and, from what little he read, rather saccharine.
He browsed through the math book, which was quite similar to his own except that most of the word problems were written in either religious or moral terms.
Finally he picked up the history book. It was world history but clearly with a religious slant. When it spoke about the spread of the Islamic world, it said only negative things about the religion and the history of the empire. The sections on Greece and Rome said nothing about the gods. The sections on China and India were likewise devoid of any mention of religion except tales of the Christian missionaries.
Putting the books aside, Aidan shook his head but said aloud, “Thanks for showing them to me. What are you studying in history right now?”
Colin talked about Europe and the spread of Protestantism. He didn’t say anything about what the Catholic Church believed at the time but only talked about how the Protestant teachings reviled some of those of the established church. Then he asked what Aidan was studying in history.
Thinking carefully, Aidan responded, “Right now we’re studying about the ancient Greeks and their civilization.”
“Were they Christians?” Colin asked.
“No, their civilization was before the time of Jesus.”
“So they only believed in the Old Testament?”
Aidan was silent for a moment, formulating his answer. “No, I don’t believe they’d ever heard of the Old Testament. They were pagans. Do you know what pagans are?”
“Yes,” Colin replied, “but I don’t know what they believed, except that they didn’t believe in God. I was told in my Sunday School class that because of their beliefs, they all went to hell when they died.”
“Could be,” was all Aidan said, before suggesting that they go back out on the porch. When Colin received permission, they went out the door and over to their spot and sat on the porch. Again they talked aloud, interspersing their talk with whispers.
“Do you think the ancient Greeks are in hell?” Colin whispered.
Aidan shook his head. “Why would they go to hell if they hadn’t even heard of God before?”
“That’s what I wondered,” Colin said, “but I don’t think I can ask anyone at the church or at home.”
“Are there other things about your religion that you wonder about?”
Colin nodded. “But if I ask I get punished.”
“Well, all I can suggest is that you keep thinking and not just blindly believe what other people tell you.”
Later, riding back home after he left Colin’s house, Aidan thought more about Colin’s question. Perhaps Colin can’t ask anyone, but I can.
Though the Woods family might not have described themselves as deeply religious, they attended church regularly and Aidan went to youth group meetings. Most of what they believed had to do with how they treated other people. Their church was a typical New England white Congregational building. The services generally lasted an hour or less and the sermon was usually about 20 minutes long. Aidan liked the church and the service. The people were friendly and caring and he had friends there, both adults and children of all ages. When he was little he had sat quietly drawing pictures during the sermons, but as he grew older he began listening to them. If he had a question, he could ask the minister or the youth minister. Both were very willing to answer him.
The youth group met early on Sunday evenings. The youth minister, Mr. Hartwell, was a young man who organized interesting and often entertaining programs. Sometimes the group visited another church, although not often during a service. There they met with clergy who talked about the beliefs and practices of the church.
One Sunday in early September, the group visited Colin’s church. Before they left the parish house for the visit, Mr. Hartwell cautioned them to be serious and not to question what the pastor said. “Just listen and later we can discuss what you heard.”
Of course Aidan was interested to hear what the pastor had to say. As the group sat in the front rows of the church, the pastor spoke from the pulpit, as though he was trying to distance himself from them. He told them what the church believed, spending quite a bit of time on sin and what would happen to a parishioner who sinned. He did say that the sin could be forgiven if the sinner repented and confessed to the congregation. He spoke for nearly an hour. He didn’t ask if the group had any questions. They thanked him and left.
Back in their parish house, they could barely contain their questions and anger. Everyone vented about the church’s views on sin and having to confess to the whole congregation. “How often do you think that happens?” one girl asked cynically. “Never,” a boy responded and they all laughed.
Mr. Hartwell cautioned them, reminding them that it wasn’t just the church’s pastor but the congregation who believed that. “Never, ever, laugh at a person’s beliefs. If you do, you’re laughing at the very core of their being.” He reminded them that they were fortunate to live in a country where people were free to have different beliefs without being afraid. “Of course, even in this church you won’t agree with people’s beliefs all the time, but you need to respect their right to have them.”
As the group disbanded to go home, Aidan asked Mr. Hartwell if he could talk with him alone sometime soon. The youth minister agreed, and they set an appointment for after school on Monday.
The next afternoon, when Aidan and Mr. Hartwell met in the minister’s office, they sat in comfortable chairs at a low table where they could easily share their thoughts.
Aidan began by saying, “I know a boy, Colin, who goes to the church we visited yesterday. He also goes to The Christian Academy.” He told the minister how he met Colin before saying, “Colin asked if I thought the ancient Greeks went to hell because they didn’t believe in God.”
“What did you say?” the minister asked.
“I said I didn’t think that would happen because they’d never even heard of God. I didn’t think God is cruel.”
“Good,” Mr. Hartwell responded.
Aidan continued, “It seems to me that Colin is very closely watched by his parents and that he’s afraid of his family.”
“How is he watched?”
“Well, he’s not allowed to leave his family’s property. When I’ve visited him, his mother’s always been around, listening to us talking. Most boys would invite me to their rooms, or we might go out and get ice cream or something, but he can’t do that.”
“Have you been able to really communicate with him at all?” asked Mr. Hartwell.
“Lately we’ve been allowed to sit on the back porch where we can scatter a few whispers between what we say aloud. What I’m worried about is that I think Colin feels scared and defeated, and I don’t know how to help him. He’s tried to ask his parents some questions about their religion, but he gets punished, even beaten, for that. He hasn’t asked me for help. He does know where I live but he’d have to come without permission which would get him in trouble. Is there anything you can think of that I can do to help him?”
“I’ll have to think about that. All that comes to mind right now is that you need to keep being his friend, which means that you can’t do or say anything aloud that his family might disapprove of. But privately you can also encourage him to ask questions, if not of his parents then of you.”
“That’s pretty much what my parents said,” Aidan sighed.
“Do you know if he has any friends at school?”
“No. I haven’t asked him but I will. I’d be very surprised if he had many since he probably wouldn’t be allowed to visit them outside of school.”
As he rode his bicycle home, Aidan couldn’t help but be disturbed by Colin’s situation. What a shitty life, he thought.
When school had opened in September, Colin had liked it because it gave him something to do and things to think about, even though the students weren’t really encouraged to think or ask questions. But there were times when he grew sick of all the religious talk. He believed some things, but he didn’t need to have religion pounded into his head. The students’ study of ancient peoples had said nothing about the Greek and Roman gods. Colin was tempted to ask about them, but self-preservation prevented him.
The next time Aidan visited Colin, he said, “Tell me about your friends.” They were in the kitchen and Aidan was sure Mrs. Carmichael would hear the conversation.
Colin answered sadly, “I don’t have any.”
There were tears in Colin’s eyes as he said, “Not real friends. Oh, I do talk with kids occasionally at school. I sit with some at a lunch table and listen to what they say, but I seldom say anything myself.”
Aidan declared, “Well, you can consider me your friend.”
Colin smiled then looked down to his lap. “Thank you,” he said.
Although Aidan was sure Colin’s mother was listening, she never said a word. Colin asked if they could go out on the porch again. She gave her permission and they settled at the end of the porch where they usually sat.
As usual, they talked idly, mostly about books. But then Aidan whispered, “Do you remember how to get to my house”
When Aidan left Colin that day, he was very concerned. Colin seemed to be growing increasingly sad and discouraged. Aidan wondered if what he was doing was helping or hurting Colin. He couldn’t decide, but then he remembered that each time he visited, the last thing Colin said to him was, “Please come back again soon.”
Two nights later, as Colin was lying in bed doing what he often did and just reaching a climax, Jacob walked into his room. He began to say something before seeing what Colin was doing. Then Jacob yelled at him, called him a sinner, and dragged him out of bed. Hearing Jacob’s yelling, their parents came into the room.
Jacob told their parents what Colin had been doing and then hit him twice in the face, breaking his nose and a tooth. He let go of Colin, who fell to the floor, where Jacob kicked him a couple of times in his side before their father said, “That’s enough, Jacob.” Then Luke looked at Colin and said, “I’ll deal with you in the morning.” All three of them left.
Colin lay on the floor crying. His face and side were really hurting, and he decided he had to get out of the house.
Luke had put screws in the tracks of Colin’s bedroom windows so they could only be opened about six inches. Colin retrieved his jack knife from his desk. It took him a while to remove the two screws because he had to reach up and his side hurt like blazes. A couple of times he felt dizzy and had to stop. When he could finally open the window farther, he managed to climb out. That hurt even more. He could never remember later how he did it.
He was still crying as he tried to run to Aidan’s house, but that hurt so much he had to walk. Fearing that Luke or Jacob was following him, he kept looking back. He had to stop a few times to rest, but he was very determined and finally got to the Woods’ house.
He pounded again and again on the door. Finally, the porch light came on and Mr. Woods opened the door. Colin collapsed into his arms.