Part Twenty-Four: Heartbreaker
Permissions granted, the boys pedaled full throttle to the Milton County fairgrounds. They added their bikes to the racks edging the parking lot and joined the line at the main entrance.
“My sister’s here somewhere,” Marcus remarked, scanning the crowds. “She was meeting up with Sheldon and some guys. His band, maybe?”
“Levi was cool.”
“Yeah, good guy.”
They skipped the maps and wandered around, getting a feel for things the same way they had all summer long—exploring, sampling, savoring. After circling the midway, Ransom’s stride shifted into something more purposeful. “I must have missed it,” he muttered.
“Looking for something?”
“Yeah. Did you notice anyplace selling cupcakes or anything?”
Marcus smirked. “You want to find the bakery guy?”
“Worth a try, right?”
“Yep.” Marcus cuffed his shoulder and aimed for the center of the fairgrounds. “I noticed something.”
They threaded past stands selling foot-long corn dogs and pink cotton candy. As screams from the roller coaster faded behind them, the smoky aroma of grilling meat wafted their way, quickly followed by the salty-sweet smell of a fresh batch of kettle corn.
Marcus stopped in front of a small red building. “This is the place.”
Ransom stared blankly. “It’s a popcorn stand.”
“Yep. A popcorn stand with a bakery case.”
Marcus waved to Brock and Joey, who stood off to one side of the building, talking to Neil, the almond flavoring and applesauce doughnut expert who also played football. But Ransom had his nose pressed to glass. “These are them!”
“Hello.” An older teen with brown hair falling into gray eyes leaned out the stand’s window. “The turnovers were made fresh this morning. With apples from our orchard.”
Ransom asked, “Are these from the bakery on Main Street?”
“Yes. Loafing Around is dad’s place.”
“Can I get a dozen?”
Money traded hands, and the guy behind the counter shook out a white bakery bag. He filled Ransom’s order … and then some.
“Hey, you put in one too many,” Ransom said.
“Family policy. Anyone who orders a dozen gets the baker’s dozen—thirteen.”
“Thanks!” Ransom took the bag but lingered at the window. “So your dad’s the baker? Is he around?”
“Somewhere.” The older boy pointed toward the midway. “He’s taking my little brothers around, so they’re probably on the rides right now.”
“Right. Of course. Maybe I’ll stop back.”
Ransom moved aside because a line had formed behind him, and Marcus signaled from where he stood with their friends. Right away, Ransom doled out pastries.
“You sure?” asked Brock, though his hand was already in the bag.
“You gotta try these,” Ransom insisted, making sure both Joey and Marcus took one. “This place puts out the best stuff!”
Neil cheerfully accepted a turnover. “No argument here!”
Marcus smirked around a big bite. Wonder when Ransom will catch on that he’s feeding the baker’s son? Last names had never come up, so his friend hadn’t realized that Neil was a Pomeroy. He’d connect the dots eventually. Hard not to in a town this small.
For the rest of the morning and afternoon, Marcus scanned the crowds for any sign of his sister, but they didn’t run into Brenna. Instead, they crossed paths with Prissie.
She did a double-take. “You guys are really tan.”
Ransom slung an arm around Marcus’s shoulders. “Can’t blame a guy for his heritage.”
Prissie rolled her eyes. “No, really. You’re like, ten shades darker since school let out.”
“Makes sense.” Marcus shrugged out of Ransom’s headlock. “Didn’t you notice?”
“Dad said the same thing.” Comparing one forearm with the underside of the other, Ransom said, “We were outdoors for most of the summer.”
Prissie fiddled with the straw of the lemonade she must have just bought. “Both of you?”
“Yeah.” Ransom was clearly enjoying himself. “Every day.”
Marcus worked to hide a smile. This was like tugging yarn in front of a curious kitten. Prissie might not have liked them, but she couldn’t help pouncing.
“Jennifer spends her summers at the beach. Do you have a vacation home, too?”
“Hardly.” Ransom slyly added, “But we were at beaches. And mountains. And prairies. And forests. And caves. We were traveling!”
Prissie’s frown slowly faded. “You?”
“Us?” Ransom asked, all innocence.
“You … did you …?” Prissie’s grip on her cup was causing a dent.
Ransom looked to Marcus and asked, “Did we?”
Marcus gruffly said, “Yep. We did.”
“Yeah, we did.” Ransom beamed. “You didn’t guess?”
“But that’s mean!” Prissie took a step back. “I thought someone was trying to be nice, but you were only teasing.”
Ransom blinked. “Miss Priss. We weren’t trying to be mean.”
“Nope,” said Marcus.
“But I might have been bragging a little,” Ransom admitted. “It was a good trip.”
Prissie’s breaths came short and quick, and Marcus’s stomach knotted. She’s trying not to cry.
“You’re the worst!”
“Aw, geez, Miss Priss. Don’t be that way,” begged Ransom.
“What way?” she inquired huffily.
“Mad,” he said more quietly. “Don’t be mad. We thought of you all summer long.”
“You teased me all summer long!” Whirling, she ran away, blonde braids slapping her back.
Ransom turned to Marcus. “Did we?” he asked.
“Looks that way.”
“But we didn’t do it to be mean.”
“I know,” Marcus replied.
“She’s hard to figure,” Ransom grumbled.
He stared after her, something like regret on his face. “I never meant it to be mean,” he whispered.
Marcus could only repeat, “I know.”
For the rest of the day, Ransom lapsed into the thoughtful silences that were another souvenir of their summer’s travels. Leaving Marcus with little else to do but wonder, watch, and worry.
When school resumed in September, hard stares and simmering glares forced them to retreat to the relative safety of their desks. Ransom muttered, “Guess she’s still mad.”
“She liked getting the postcards.”
“But she wanted them to be from someone other than me.”
“Us,” said Marcus.
Ransom snorted. “Get real.”
“Okay, you,” he conceded. “So leave her alone.”
“Yeah, I’ll steer clear.”
But the strategy only worked intermittently, because Prissie wouldn’t ignore Ransom back. She kept a hawk’s eye on him, as if she expected them to do something far more devious than sending out-of-state greetings. And under her scrutiny, Ransom casually drove her crazy.
“You’re teasing,” Marcus chided.
Ransom shrugged. “She’s going to be mad no matter what I do. Might as well have a little fun.”
“I don’t like how she treats you.”
“It’s no big deal.”
Marcus wasn’t buying it. “Sure about that?”
“Nope, but what can I do? She’s not the most reasonable person I’ve ever met.” Ransom leaned close, eyebrows waggling. “Maybe I should try apologizing.”
“Then why do it?”
“Because it would bug her.”
Marcus shook his head. “Be nice.”
“Yeah, I will.” Ransom wryly noted, “Bet she’ll hate that, too.”
Weekend camping expeditions continued straight into the fall, with Ransom, Marcus, and Landon cramming a pup tent into the small square of grass behind the Turnquists’ garage. Marcus’s foster parents seemed to understand the boys’ determination to hang onto the last vestiges of summer. Until a cold, drizzly day in the last part of September, when Ransom showed up at the kitchen door with a bag of burgers, a bakery box, and a mumbled request.
“Can we use the tent tonight?” he asked.
Mrs. Turnquist hugged herself as she checked the sky. “In this weather?”
Ransom said, “Me and Marcus have camped in the rain before. It’s no big deal.”
“We’ll be fine,” said Marcus. “Please, Mom?”
“Oh, all right. But if you spring a leak, I want you back inside.”
“Thanks, Mrs. T.” Ransom shuffled his feet and repeated, “It’s no big deal.”
Landon pouted over being stranded indoors, but he had a case of the sniffles, so their mom wouldn’t let him out. Marcus grabbed sleeping bags and pillows, and they bundled everything out to where the tent stood ready. Pink plastic teacups in the corner suggested Flopsy had been using it as a playhouse, but otherwise, everything was the way they’d left it.
They feasted on burgers without trading words, but this was a familiar, comfortable silence. For a while, it was enough to listen to the faint whisper of droplets against the tent roof. But Marcus kept a close eye on Ransom. Something’s strange. But his friend kept him in suspense.
Right before bedtime, Mr. Turnquist came to check on them with a couple extra blankets, hot from the dryer. “From your mother, who seems to think you’ll melt.”
Marcus tossed one over Ransom’s head. “Tell her thanks.”
“Will do. Good night, boys.”
Ransom opened the bakery box, which held half a dozen cupcakes.
“The usual?” asked Marcus.
“Yeah, I put in a request with Mr. Manager at the convenience store. Made to order.”
Holding one up, Marcus asked, “Down to the color?”
Ransom grinned crookedly. “Why would I ask for pink?”
They polished off dessert and climbed into their sleeping bags. Only then did Ransom find his voice. In the dim light of a battery-operated lantern, he rambled on about everything and nothing. Same as ever.
That’s when evensong hit.
Ardon’s voice came from one side of the tent, and Havilor soon made it a duet. Marcus pushed up onto his elbows, stricken to the core as they sang for the child given into their watch-care. Because today was Ransom’s birthday.
He trailed off. “Something wrong?”
Marcus slowly shook his head. “Okay if I turn off the light?”
“You going to sleep?”
And so Ransom chatted on, sounding relaxed, maybe even happy. But Marcus was rattled and wretched. He’d been human long enough to know how important birthdays were. Despite Ransom’s every insistence to the contrary, today was a big deal.
Marcus couldn’t convince himself that Ransom didn’t care. He’s marking the day. With me.
“You still awake?”
“Right here.” He reached out, giving Ransom’s shoulder a gentle shove. “Same as always.”
“Thanks for that.”
It was only a little tremor, but the emotion in Ransom’s voice gutted Marcus. He was glad in that moment that his angelic nature was wrapped away in human packaging. Without the incandescence of wings and raiment, Ransom wouldn’t be able to see Marcus pulling at his hair.
Or the tears that wouldn’t stop.
At the same moment Ransom finally mumbled his way into dreams, someone yanked Marcus into heavenly realms. Even with his face hidden behind his hands, he knew where he’d been brought. The faint rattle of reeds meant he was home, which pointed to Aleff’s meddling. But Marcus was safe in someone else’s clutches.
Silk and serenity. Starry darkness. Feeling like a newfoundling all over again, Marcus relaxed into his big brother’s powerful arms, glad for the hushed shelter of midnight wings.
“Why so downcast?” asked Daichi.
“He’s hurt. And it hurts.”
“Weeping with those who weep, is this not friendship?” His big brother softly added, “Rather, let us say this is love.”
“What’ll I do?” Marcus croaked. “Nothing’s changed, and I can’t protect him from consequences he doesn’t even understand.”
“I have known this fear,” admitted Daichi. “But I have no words for you.”
“That’s my job,” came a gruff mutter.
Daichi’s wings parted, letting in a stirring of wind, the soothing touch of heaven’s light, and a sight that would normally have been welcome. All of Marcus’s big brothers were present. The guys he admired most. The ones he longed to impress. Yet here he sat with red eyes, wet cheeks, and snot dripping from his nose.
“My turn,” said Ben, gesturing with both hands. “C’mere, runt. I have a message for you.”
With much squabbling, they passed their little brother around the circle as if he weighed nothing, coddling him like a toddler. Or worse, a pet.
Marcus spent most of his days as a teenage boy, so he knew exactly how he must have looked—pitiful, needy, weak. So while a part of him hated feeling so small, another part found awe. Because these guys were his family, they knew what he was feeling, and their being here was a gift from God.
By the time he landed in front of Ben, Marcus was able to meet the Messenger’s gaze.
“Child of light, child of war, you long for battle, to fight for My glory, to protect what is so loved.”
Ben continued, “Your feet are shod for war, you come with a sword, but the battle is Mine. Stand down, runt.”
“God said that?”
Mussing up Marcus’s hair, Ben admitted, “That last part was mostly me.”
“Are malakim allowed to mess with their messages?”
“Just making sure you’re paying attention. It gets better.”
Ben continued, “Your heart breaks because Ransom is brokenhearted, but you were not Sent to protect fallow ground. These are days of preparation. I will batter and dig, loosen and crumble.”
“He’s doing it on purpose?” whispered Marcus.
“Think of it as … God making good use of what He finds.”
The shift was subtle, but it helped Marcus’s perspective. God’s work is less like demolition … and more like a salvage operation.
“That’s right. And you know the parable,” said Ben. “Rocks and weeds have gotta go, and the till bites deep so seeds get a fair start. It’s a nice story, easy to understand, but it’s different, isn’t it? Watching it happen to someone you love.”
“It does,” said Ben. “But I’ll let you in on a secret.”
Marcus glanced around the circle of avid eavesdroppers. “One they know?”
“For a long time now.” He met every gaze and nodded. “Marcus, the same love that rips you to pieces when you see someone suffer makes it easier to wallow through every kind of crud for their sake.”
Daichi quietly interjected, “It bears all things, endures all things. Never gives up, never fails.”
The words were true, but Marcus shied away from them. “That’s not my love. That’s God’s.”
“Exactly,” said Ben. “We love as He loves. As we are loved.”
Marcus’s throat was so tight, his next words hurt. “Will it be enough?
Somehow. Sketchy at best for someone who would have liked to know if, how, when, and a dozen other clearer declarations. But somehow hinted at someday, so Marcus gave in to trust.
When Marcus opened his eyes, he expected to be back in the pup tent, zipped snugly in his sleeping back, not bundled in his mentor’s wings. The cherub sat with face averted, as if giving him a scrap of privacy.
“Jedrick?” Marcus scrubbed at his cheeks. “Did you send me home?”
“No. This Sending was God’s.” Jedrick’s jaw worked. “Did you find what you needed?”
“Then I will not complain.”
Marcus frowned. “Are you mad at me?”
Jedrick met his gaze. “Frustrated. I would have liked to be enough for my apprentice.”
“I wish I was enough for Ransom.”
“We all fall short.” The warrior looked away and asked, “May I ask something that has been weighing on my mind?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Your friend walks in darkness, and you are a child of light. Why choose such a companion?”
“He chose me.”
Jedrick said, “Friendship binds two lives, no matter who forged the first link.”
“Then I want to believe that God did the forging. Because Ransom just sort of … happened.” After some thought, Marcus said, “Can I ask something that’s been weighing on my mind?”
“If a life might be saved someday, is it worth nothing before that?”
Jedrick shook his head. “There would be no struggle if there was no hope.”
“I’d rather fight than sit in suspense.” Marcus curled in on himself. “I wanted a mentor so I could become stronger, but I’ve never been more afraid.”
“And for myself. What if he falls short?” Marcus hesitantly gave words to his growing concern. “Bonds this strong could become chains.”
“Fear not,” said Jedrick. “Your name is under my hand; your life is under my protection. My strength and my sword are your support. I will not let you fall.”
At the renewal of his pledge, Marcus reached for his mentor’s hand and found his name, still etched across Jedrick’s palm. Marcus said, “It’s almost like God put Ransom’s name under my hand. That’s how it feels.”
“Then I understand.”
“He doesn’t.” Marcus grimaced. “He has no clue about me—what I am, why that matters.”
“Even unaware, he allied himself with a child of light.” Jedrick’s voice gentled. “If he was content in darkness, why choose such a companion?”
“The lost are always looking for a place to belong.” But as soon as the words were out of his mouth, Marcus disliked them. This wasn’t about people in general; this was about his friend. “Ransom doesn’t even know what he’s looking for.”
“Yet he found you.”
Jedrick’s fingers closed around Marcus’s much smaller hand. “Your perspective remains uniquely … human.”
“Happenstance, coincidence, and circumstance—are these not God’s handiwork?”
“No doubt.” Marcus said, “There’s a human saying, God works in mysterious ways.”
“Then behold, a mystery.” Jedrick’s wings shifted and settled in comforting folds around his apprentice. “Somehow, an angel became a boy. And somehow, a Flight captain became his mentor. Somehow, the boy warrior became a best friend. And somehow, a Caretaker became their favorite uncle.”
Far-fetched, beyond rare, and in Aleff’s case, more than a little crazy. “Kinda makes it sound like God’s been making exceptions left and right.”
“For your sake, and for His glory.” Jedrick exuded confidence. “For now, and forever. For who can say when the next somehow will appear? Who can guess where the next somehow will lead?”
“Oh, it’ll probably sneak up on us and from the least likely direction,” said Marcus. “But I gotta say, I hope it’s soon.”
“We will wait and watch together.”
“Ransom and me—we’ve been places, seen stuff, found things. Enough to fill a book. It’s been good, but it can’t end here.” In a smaller voice, he confessed, “I don’t want our journey to end.”
“May the path you share reach into eternity.”
“Yep, that’d be great,” Marcus said gruffly. “Long haul.”
Coming Soon: Angel Unaware print and digital editions,
with the exclusive epilogue, “Truest Friend”
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