How was she going to tell Gabriel that his new friend Kenny had been killed? That’s not something you expect to have to tell an eight-year-old. But it was on Dixie’s mind that Wednesday as she left for school.
“How are you doing Dixie?” Liz Bushnell was concerned about her young friend. “You know you can take another day off if you need it. Or the whole week for that matter.” Her kind eyes blue eyes searched Dixie’s.
“I’m fine Liz. I need to keep busy. Besides I may need to take time off when Joe comes home. I don’t want him to be by himself if he doesn’t want to be those first few days.”
“All right. But I’m telling you, if you need a break say so.” Dixie agreed that she would.
“I’m going to need to talk to Gabriel today about Kenny’s death. I called his mom last night to tell her what had happened. She said it was okay if I talked to Gabriel about it.”
“Yeah, no problem. Maybe the best way for you to do that is for y’all to have lunch together. You can eat here in the music room for some privacy.”
“That’s a good idea,” agreed Dixie.
“You look a little beat Dixie, are you sure you’re up for all this?”
Dixie smiled at her friend. Liz had become more than her student teacher supervisor. She was thankful for her friendship. “I am. It has to be faced at some point.” She squared her pert chin and said, “It will be hard, but it’s important.”
As lunch got closer Dixie’s mind started spinning. How would she tell a third grader what had happened? Breathing a prayer, she decided the only way for it was to be honest, without giving too much detail. She met Gabriel in the lunchroom. He was surprised and excited to see her. “Hey buddy,” she greeted him. “How ’bout you have lunch with me. I have something to talk to you about.”
Gabriel lit up. She hated to disappoint him with bad news, when he thought he had been singled out for a privilege.
Dixie had pulled up a table and set two chairs for them to eat at. She set his food down at the table when they got back to the room and pulled his chair out for him, then sat down across from her little friend.
“Buddy, I have something I need to tell you. Something that will probably make you sad.” His blue eyes searched her face. “You remember Kenny who came with us the other day to church?”
He nodded his blonde head solemnly. “Yes ma’am, I like him.”
Pain gripped her heart, remembering how comfortable Kenny and Gabriel had been with each other. They were used to being invisible, but they had seen one another.
“Yeah, buddy, I know you did. Gabriel, something bad happened to Kenny. He was hurt on Monday night. He was taken to the hospital and they tried to help him. But they weren’t able to. He died, buddy.” She didn’t want to be vague and say he had passed away, better to be clear so he didn’t misunderstand.
“He died?” The big eyes swirled with tears.
“Yeah, he did, buddy. I’m sorry. I didn’t want to have to tell you, but I didn’t want you to hear from someone else. How are you feeling?”
He looked down at his plate and blinked. Then he turned a bright, eager smile on her, “Is he in heaven?”
It was her turn to look down at her food and think. There was no way she would be able to get that food to go into her mouth, she shuddered. Was Kenny in heaven? They hadn’t really discussed his faith in Jesus. Did he understand that all men had sinned and the only way to an eternity with God was by relying on the sacrifice of Jesus’ perfect life in place of our own broken ones? She didn’t have the answer.
She met his expectant, crystal eyes. “I’m not certain. We hadn’t had a conversation about his faith in Jesus. So I can’t be sure. You know the way to heaven, don’t you?”
He nodded seriously. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness, 1 John 1:9.”
Dixie smiled. “Yes, exactly.”
“Well, I know God is kind and fair, so I know he’ll do the right thing. I hope he did know the way.”
“You’re right, bud, we don’t need to worry one bit. God is fair and he’s very kind. We can trust him and leave Kenny in his hands.”
Gabriel nodded. “I’ll miss him though. I was hoping we could go to church together again.”
“I agree, I’ll miss him too.” A tear escaped her tightly guarded heart. She hadn’t wanted to worry Gabriel or upset him.
He reached out and patted her hand.
She changed the subject to something happier. “How are your sister and baby brother doing?”
He smiled and shared their latest antics. After lunch she helped him put away his tray and join his class.
“How did it go?” Liz asked when they were back in the classroom.
“You know, that little boy is special. Of course he was sad, we both were. But his confidence in God’s goodness and trustworthiness was a comfort.”
Liz nodded her brunette bob. “I told you he was special!”
Dixie conceded, “Yes you did! And you were right.”
The rest of the week was a blur of emotion and details. Sheriff Walters had contacted a cleaning service to put Joe’s house back in order. Dixie was glad of that. She did not relish that job. Arrangements were made for Kenny’s funeral, and for a couple of ladies from church were scheduled to check in on Joe and cook his meals for a couple of weeks. Dixie visited both of her friends at the hospital in the evenings, alternating between the two. Joe was scheduled to come home Friday and the funeral would be Saturday. Dixie would collect Joe and get him settled.
On Thursday Dixie went over to Joe’s small white frame house to make sure it was ready for him. Walking up the creaking front steps was emotional. Even though the day was clear she could picture the emergency vehicle lights whirling around the property. She set bags down and fished the key Joe had given her out of her purse. Pushing the front door open the awful image of chaos and blood superimposed itself on the tidy room. Sunlight painted the faded couch. The rug was gone but there was no trace of blood. Dixie shivered. With a shake of her curls she drove the gloom away and went to the kitchen. Setting the bag of groceries down on the counter she surveyed the kitchen. Bread, milk, eggs, coffee, some bananas, and yogurt. Opening the old fridge she wrinkled her nose. Something had been in there too long. She tossed out a few outdated and suspicious items, and put the fresh groceries away. After clearing out the fridge, she bagged up the trash and set it by the front door to take to the can outside. Setting a bright potted mum on the little breakfast nook table she surveyed the area. Satisfied, she moved down the hallway to the room Kenny had stayed in. As far as she knew no one had been in the room since the night Joe and Kenny were shot, except maybe the police.
Kenny’s duffel bag was scooted up to the wall by the door. His jacket hung on the desk chair. A pair of shoes poked out from under the bed. The bed was made, but rumpled as if he had been sitting on it. Reverently Dixie entered the room, almost afraid her presence would break some spell. Her hand grazed the quilt covering the bed as she moved around the room. On the desk in front of the window were a couple of books. The pew bible she had given him and a small, green, spiral notebook, as well as some change, a pen, a couple of CDs, and a pack of gum littered its surface. She leaned over the top of the desk to examine the books. It tore at her heart to pick up each piece and put it in a paper sack she had brought from the kitchen. She didn’t want Joe to have to deal with Kenny’s things, but it felt unnatural to remove them without their owner’s permission.
She saved the books for last. Leafing through the notebook she realized Kenny had used it like a journal. The jacket and shoes she put in his duffel bag. In the bathroom she found his razor, and a Ziploc bag of toiletries, including nail polish and eye makeup. She chuckled; he had made an impression for sure. Back in the room Dixie wondered, how could a life be distilled to two bags of clothes, and odds and ends? She put the duffel bag over her shoulder and flipped the light off. The trash went in the truck bed, the paper bag and duffel on the passenger seat of her truck. She stood for a minute leaned against the door of her truck, looking at the simple house, feeling the moment. A little breeze teased a tendril of hair across her face, she felt the soles of her feet pressed down into her boots rooted firmly in the dust, the sun slanted across the tin roof and blinded her. The day was real, she was real. But the moment felt unreal. Stolen. Strange. Sighing, Dixie rubbed a hand across her cheek, looked away, and broke the trance.
As Dixie drove back to town with the autumn sun slanting onto her face, she realized she was headed to ‘their’ spot by the river. Her truck pulled into the dirt patch by the bank where she and Kenny had stopped at twice before. Dixie cut the motor and hopped out of the driver’s side, then leaned back in to grab the small notebook from the paper sack of Kenny’s belongings and the blanket from behind the seat.
Dry grass rustled under her feet and the song of the river supported and dominated every other sound. She spread the blanket under the oak tree and settled her back against its enduring trunk. Setting the journal beside her she rested her head against the scratchy bark, closed her eyes, and remembered the first time she sat in this place with Kenny, just weeks ago. The river sang to her, holding its memories deep within its breast. What had they talked about? God’s love. Dixie remembered she’d felt generous, expansive, telling Kenny that God loved him. His response had humbled her, “I know God loves me. I’m not worried about Him loving me.” Kenny hadn’t worried that his Creator loved the person he had created. He was worried about everyone else. That was the moment conviction had caught fire in her heart.
She reached out her hand, feeling the cover of the little notebook. Should she read Kenny’s personal thoughts? She knew she would. But she hesitated, looking for... for what? For permission? Putting the notebook in her lap she listened a minute more to the tumbling river song. God had brought Kenny to her, to teach her, she knew there were still things to learn. Opening the front cover she read the first page. He had written his name at the top; Kenneth Brian McNab. His middle name was Brian. The first few pages talked about his life at home, questioned his dad’s abuse of him, begged God to make him normal. Several pages in she read an entry from the night before he’d left home.
I can’t take it no more. Why would someone whip a person they love? My dad must not love me. Not if he can whip me black and blue. My backside is so sore I can hardly stand it. I don’t know why God made me this way, or even if he did, but I can’t change for a mean old cuss like him no how. I wish my mama was here. Maybe she would love me. Maybe she would tell him to stop treating me like trash. Well, I’ve had it. Robbie said I can come stay with his family so I’m going to. I’ll look for a job and be a productive person. I just want to be kind and helpful, I don’t want to hurt nobody. And I don’t want them to hurt me.
Dixie wiped a tear, and chuckled, remembering the first time she had met him. She had been so surprised when she picked him up. But she had seen that hurt in his eyes, heard it in his voice. She could never shake that image. Had she even noticed he’d been whipped? She couldn’t remember seeing him limp or flinch. Had she said the right things to him that day? She sure hoped so.
She read through the next few entries. One talked about the “nice girl” who had picked him up and given him a ride. He wrote about the lunch he’d had with her family and how fine they were and how he wished he could fit in, but he’d felt he stuck out like a sore thumb and they’d had to “put up with” him. There was an entry about Gabriel. He wrote about meeting “a little guy with more problems than me” and how he had “inspired me to be brave in tough situations.” He wrote about Joe, saying, “I wish he were my real granpaw. Nobody’s ever been so kind to me before. He doesn’t look at me as gay, he just sees me as a person. I can tell it by the way he talks to me. I don’t have to be nothing different than who I am to him.”
Then she came to the last entry, written the day he had died.
I been reading the book of John, like Dixie said I should, so I can find out who Jesus is. If Jesus is God, and he became man, so that we can know who God is, then we best listen up. I knew about Jesus but I didn’t know all the things John says about him. I’m going to make a list of what I’ve learned:
He is light, he forgives, he came to show us his Father (I guess that’s God), he heals, he is bread, he is kind, he’s the lamb, he is a stairway to heaven.
I don’t understand a lot of things that Jesus said. But he wasn’t afraid of talking to anybody. He helped all kinds of people, different people, even when the pharisees didn’t want him to. I always wanted to belong. I think I can see myself in these stories, belonging. He said hard things. He talked about life and death and sin. But I recon if he’s all those things this book says he is, then he gets to. I like the part that says he shines in darkness. Seems like I got a lot of darkness in my life and I want him to shine. My Daddy, and people at church, are upset about me being gay but I know that’s not the half of it. My heart isn’t like Jesus or what he says I should be like, it’s dark. I think if he wants to forgive me and if I can belong to him then he has the right to tell me what’s what. I don’t understand it all. I know I’m different and I might always will be. But he touched all kinds of people in John’s book so I’m going to ask him to touch me too. Jesus says I just got to believe he came from God and he’s the way back, and I do. I think I want his light, I think I want him, more than anything.
I don’t want to make things hard for Dixie. I know her mom and some folks at church don’t want me around, but I think her Daddy doesn’t mind. I hope I can keep going and learn more about Jesus. If Joe and Dixie will take me I’ll keep going, being near Dixie used to make me feel brave, now I think Jesus does.
I’m glad Dixie brought me to Joe’s. If I’ve learned one thing from him it’s that no person’s story is ever finished. He tells me - ‘who knows what part of their story you’ll find a person in, be patient, it’s not over.’ I like that.
Dixie didn’t even try to stop the tears, but she did close the book, and put it aside so they wouldn’t smudge the page. She had never seen Jesus from that perspective. The Light, traveling around Israel, shining in dark places and touching everyone, even the ones he wasn’t ‘supposed’ to.
Dixie leaned her head back against the gnarly skin of the oak and let the water sing a song to her heart. She couldn’t wait to tell Gabriel that Kenny believed. She wondered - what dark places did she need light shined on in her heart? What dark places in her town needed light? It seemed her world had had a healthy dose of it light recently. Her mother’s darkness had broken, already the freedom and openness that had swept through the house was refreshing. The secret had lost its power. Sadie had realized her friendship was more important than her image. Her dad had realized people were more important than public opinion or church politics. What about Dixie’s own heart?
Across the water a heron stood on stilts creeping up the bank, his head turned to the water, patiently watching for a fish. A squirrel scampered in the trees, knocking loose leaves that danced down to the blanket. She felt almost drowsy in the dappled sunlight. She was too tired to think anymore.
Saturday, the day of Kenny’s funeral, dawned a dreary gray. How many movies had Dixie watched, the scene of a rain-drenched cemetery dotted by black umbrellas tugging at the heart? It looked like it would be that kind of day.
Joe had gotten settled at home the day before. Sharon and Dixie had gone to pick him up from the hospital. Nellie Parker had met them at his house. A retired nurse in their church with a heart for helping, she had volunteered to spend the first couple of nights with him to keep an eye on things. They had gotten him settled, fed him lunch, and spent a little time visiting. Dixie wanted to make sure Joe handled being back in his house without any issues, after the trauma he had endured there. After getting him situated she was satisfied that he would be fine with Nellie. He was sad, but he was at peace. They left in the early afternoon to let him rest.
Nellie was planning on bringing Joe to church for the funeral today. Richard and Dixie had told him it wasn’t necessary, but he insisted. Dixie couldn’t blame him. He had been close to Kenny in the short time they’d known each other, and had even tried to save his life. She would have felt the same way.
Dixie dressed in a black pencil skirt and blazer with pearls, and headed downstairs for breakfast. At the bottom of the stairs she noticed the light on in the den. Her father sat in his chair, a cup of coffee and bible in hand. He was intent on its pages. Dixie imagined he was gathering strength for the day ahead and collecting his thoughts for Kenny’s service.
In the kitchen her mother sat at the table, her own cup of coffee and the newspaper spread out in front of her. When she heard Dixie’s footsteps she looked up and smiled in greeting. Dixie could get used to her smile, she noticed for the first time in a long while it reached to her eyes.
“Good morning dear, can I get you some breakfast?”
The word dear, that had once sounded cold, didn’t bother Dixie anymore. It actually sounded loving instead of forced.
“No thank you, I’m just going to have coffee and a yogurt.” She saw her mother’s eyes flicker and a protest form on her lips, but just as quickly she thought better of it and it disappeared.
“You look pretty. You’re ready early.” The service wasn’t until 11:00 p.m., it was just 8:30 a.m. now.
“I know, I wanted to be there when he was brought to the church. I’m also going to pick up Gabriel on the way so I’ll leave in an hour or so.”
“I understand. Daddy won’t be far behind you. He’s just taking a little time to prepare now. But he said he wanted to be at church by 10:00 as well.”
The clouds burst at that moment and emptied their contents on the town. Sharon and Dixie both looked at the window as if to confirm the downpour was indeed a reality.
“Rain for a funeral is so inconvenient but I always felt it was appropriate, as if God had joined his grief with ours. Such a thought is comforting - that he would commiserate with us lowly mortals.”
Dixie stared at her mother, surprised, she had never heard her so poetic or expressive. Her mother caught her startled look and chuckled. “What? Have you never heard me indulge in romantic notions before?”
Dixie shook her head.
“Well, where do you think your imagination came from? It’s not all from your father, he’s really quite practical himself.”
Would wonders never cease. You thought you knew a person and then before your very eyes there emerged a new side of them, or they changed all together. Rebirth, Dixie supposed, was a human’s birthright, part of the journey on the road to transformation.
Dixie finished her coffee, then ran upstairs to brush her teeth and grab her bag. On her way back down she stopped by the den.
Richard looked up at his daughter. She looked beautiful. “It still surprises me that you’re grown, I half expect to see a little freckle faced girl come bouncing into the room with braids and missing front teeth. But it’s been years since that little girl has visited.” Dixie was giving him a strange look. He reined in his emotion. “What can I do for you, darlin’.”
“Thank you for taking care of Kenny’s funeral. It means a lot to me, Daddy.”
He reached out for her hand and pulled her down to sit on the arm of his chair. “It’s the least I could do, honey.” He pulled a copper curl through his fingers. “I wish things had turned out differently. But they didn’t. At least we can honor his life and lay him to rest properly.”
She kissed his forehead. “I’m going to pick up Gabriel now. He asked to ride with me. His family will meet him there and take him home after. I wanted to be at the church when,” she swallowed hard, “when they bring Kenny over.”
“Alright sweetheart. I’ll be there soon. Just need to put on my tie and coat.”
Gabriel’s dad lifted his son up onto the seat of Dixie’s truck and then handed up his forearm crutches. “Thanks for letting him ride with me,” Dixie said.
“He insisted. He’s a pretty strong minded little fella.” His dad’s smile was proud. “We’ll meet you there in an hour.”
The ride to the church was quiet. Dixie was preoccupied with her thoughts, and Gabriel respected her need. After parking she helped her little friend inside. The church was empty. They settled on the front row side by side.
“I found Kenny’s journal, buddy. He wrote about trusting Jesus for forgiveness. I thought you would want to know.” He gave her a big smile. “How are you doing buddy? Do you have any questions?”
“I’m glad he believed in Jesus to forgive him,” said her little friend. “What happens after the funeral?”
“Well, we will go out to the cemetery and tell Kenny goodbye.” Dixie had to swallow past a lump in her throat. “When we leave he will be buried in the ground. Later we can come and bring flowers and remember him if you want to.”
“I want to.”
“Me too, Gabriel. I’ll always remember Kenny.”
By 10:00 o’clock the men from Mortimers had arrived. Richard met them in the church foyer and gave them directions. They brought the simple wood casket to the front of the church; an arrangement of greenery and fall flowers was set carefully on top. Joe had asked to purchase the flower arrangement, but everything else had been taken care of by Dixie’s parents. The men stationed themselves in the back to assist as people arrived.
Dixie stood and rested her hand on the casket, Richard joined her, as did Gabriel.
Richard brushed the tears from his daughter’s cheek. “He changed our lives, didn’t he? It was said more to himself than anyone else.
Gabriel slipped his little hand into Dixie’s. She was thankful for their presence.
“When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll,” Dixie sang softly, “whatever my lot thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.” Richard and Gabriel joined her on the chorus. “It is well, with my soul, it is well, it is well, with my soul.” Together the trio sang three verses of the beloved hymn. A declaration of hope and trust in God who sees us all. They embraced and Richard moved to the back of the sanctuary to direct the first guests.
“Thank you for being my friend,” Dixie whispered, her hand resting on the smooth wood.
Gabriel reached up his little hand and said, “Me too.”
Dixie kissed Gabriel’s blonde hair and they walked to the back of the church to greet people with Richard.