“Hello,” Morris answered nervously.
“Well hello, young man,” came the voice of Rev. Fen Sloughheart. “You certainly don’t sound sick, but I noticed you weren’t in church this morning. Is something wrong? Something we need to talk about?” The ersatz friendly tone sickened Morris. He didn’t immediately answer. “Morris? I sense something’s wrong. Do you…”
“You’re damn right something’s wrong!” Morris screamed, shocking himself at the virility of his response. “I hate you! I hate you … You bastard! You’re scum and I don’t want to have anything to do with you! I don’t want to see you or hear you or…
“Now, now, Morris,” Sloughheart interrupted. “Did your visitors get you all upset just now?” Morris was stunned. “You know … they’re probably not the best friends to have; they could quite possibly lead you astray, and we wouldn’t want that, now would we?” Another pause. “Especially when you’re practically drowning already… Right?”
“What … what do you mean?” Morris barely managed a whisper now.
“Ah!” Sloughheart laughed. “It didn’t take long at all to calm you down, now did it?” More laughter. “You’re pathetic and weak, Morris. You and I both know that, and we both know what you did … don’t we. We both know just how sick you feel right now; just how dark and lonely inside; just how frightened … like a damn, squealing rabbit caught in a trap. Right? You’re like a scrawny, wretched rabbit… Am I right, Morris?”
“How did you know anyone was here … in my house?” he managed to force out the question, feeling like he was about to vomit. His query was met by more laughter … cruel, mocking laughter.
“Why Morris, I have a lot of members, faithful members, in my church. You don’t think some of them live in your neighborhood?” Fen chuckled. “Morris, there are a lot of folks who just want to keep you straight … to help you. I want to help you. You should know that… Your momma should know that by now… Especially now.”
“What the hell do you mean, you son of a bitch?” Morris felt the rage rising inside. He was scared alright, but not so scared that he wouldn’t give his very life for his mother. The thought of Fen Sloughheart doing anything to her, anything at all, made him feel … well, murderous.
“Calm down, calm down, you miserable twink,” Fen retorted. “Your momma’s perfectly fine. In fact, you can ask her yourself if you want to… Would you like that? Why, she’s right here.” Morris sunk to the floor. He could barely breathe. “Morris?”
“Joy!” Lucent shouted just as Blue, Able and Moxie walked through the door. “Joy! Oh, thank God! Then they must have moved you out of ICU into a room…” Everybody in the living room jumped up; Able ran to the back door to tell Rue and Bane. “Oh, no, that’s alright. I’d much rather hear your voice anyway… No, I know they would’ve called, but this is so much better! Thank God!”
“Put her on speakerphone,” Moxie said excitedly. Lucent complied. Lucent could barely contain herself. Everyone felt the same way, of course.
Joy laughed, weakly but genuinely. “Fair enough.” She sounded tired and winded. “How is everybody?”
“How are we?” Blue asked through laughter. “You never cease to amaze me, Reverend. Always the shepherdess, God bless you! We’re fine… How are you?”
“Oh … I’ve been better, but you know… It’s not every day I take a bullet in the back, so I guess considering the circumstances, I’m doing quite well.” She laughed again. “And I trust you’re taking good care of my church, Blue Poorman?”
“Ha, ha! Never like you, Joy; never in a million years. No, you need to get back on your feet, and back to Splinterbit, presto!”
“He did wonderfully this morning, Joy,” Sage Wiseman interjected. “You don’t have anything to worry about with Blue at the helm, my dear.”
“No, I certainly didn’t think so,” Joy replied. “And thank you, Blue. It means a lot to me… Wow, I didn’t know I’d get so fatigued so fast.” Her voice sounded even more winded.
“Hey, my friend, you’ve gotta take it easy. You’re still a ways from being up to par, so it doesn’t surprise me, and as much as we’d like to, we’re not going to keep you on the phone, o.k.?” Lucent assumed her medical-professional voice. “You need your rest.”
“Yes ma’am, Dr. Keener,” Joy chuckled along with everyone else.
“Joy! Are you coming home?” Bane shouted with glee. “Can we see you?”
“Are we coming to get you?” Rue asked with obvious anticipation and hope.
“Hey guys! Well … not right yet, o.k.?” Joy knew, of course, the little boys would be disappointed, so she jumped on it before they could say anything else. “But I’m sure you’ll see me tomorrow, and I’ll be wide awake waiting for you to come visit… Right now the doctors just want to keep for a little bit longer, just to make sure I’m getting better and stronger … just a little longer, o.k.?”
“But we can take care of you here,” Bane offered.
“Yeah!” Rue joined his brother. “Ms. Keener’s like a doctor, and we’ll all be glad to help!” Lucent (and everyone else) stifled laughter.
“Soon enough, baby boys, soon enough. I promise.” It sounded like Joy was on the verge of tears… grateful tears, to be sure.
“That’s right, and we will take good care of her,” Lucent put a hand around each boy. “All of us!”
“Absolutely,” Effete assured them. “And Joy’s right; we’re going to go see her tomorrow, o.k.? Promise!” Rue and Bane still looked disappointed, but they had to grudgingly accept waiting till the next day to see Joy. Still, they each hoped, deep inside, that somehow – maybe, just maybe – she’d be ready to come home… They would just bring her home tomorrow, right?
“Listen, I’m uh … I guess I am fading,” Joy spoke softly. “Before I hang up, though, I need to let all of you know … Well, I’m glad you’re all together. I umm … hold on.” She was trying to clear her head now. Lucent was about ready to cut the call with instructions to Joy to go to sleep. “You need to know that I’ve forgiven him.”
Almost everyone in that living room, it seemed, was ready to say something at the same time. Joy seemed to anticipate the reaction.
“No … no, just hold on. I umm … I’m not trying to be a super saint, or something. I have good reason… Well,” she laughed again, weakly. “I mean beside the fact we’re supposed to forgive, I have good reason… I know.”
“You know?” Effete asked cautiously. “Do you mean you know … uh, who was standing across the road?” She tried to veil her question somewhat for the sake of her boys, but they knew what she was really asking anyway.
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure.”
“Hey, Joy, before you go,” Blue jumped in quickly. “I almost forgot… Able, Moxie and I went to visit Morris Graver this afternoon. In fact, we just got back. We went to apologize for the little dispute we had at the Frosty Parlor – we found out Morris was the young man – and, anyway, we actually spent some time visiting.”
“Ah, good!” Joy sounded a bit revived by the news. She knew, then, that they knew. They were all on the same page. “How did it go?”
“Very well,” Able answered. “In fact, I’d almost say we’ve made a new friend… I’m not completely sure about that, but it was a better … um, encounter than we ever expected. Everything went fine, and something tells me we’ll probably get together again. At least, Morris sounded like he wanted to.”
“Very good… Very, very good,” Joy answered. “Listen, all of you. This is important, and I know you already know it is, but pray hard and do everything you can to pull him close. Pray for him, love him, encourage and help him … any way you can… Sage, I hate to be presumptuous, but you take the lead on this. Will you?”
“Of course … I’ll do the best I can, and I know everyone here’s on board, Joy. You don’t worry about that,” she replied reassuringly. “And we’ll certainly do whatever we do in a way that doesn’t make Morris feel like he’s just a project, or some special case we’ve taken on … but you should know, there are … well, there are other interested parties involved…”
“Yes, I’m sure I could guess … which is why it’s so imperative that all of you stay involved.” Joy paused and everyone could hear her breathing deeply. “When I get out of here, I’ll…”
“Right now, Joy Brighterday, you’ll rest,” Lucent insisted. “Doctor’s orders … or maybe I should say almost doctor’s orders.” She winked at Rue. Joy and everyone else had another good chuckle.
“O.k. Fair enough,” Joy responded compliantly. “I think I’ve about given out anyway… Hey, I love all of you. You know that, right?”
“My God, yes!” Effete answered. “No doubt about it!”
“We love you, too, Joy!” Everyone chimed in.
“Rest well, Joy, and we’ll see you tomorrow,” Effete looked at the boys, who both grinned.
“O.k. then … I look forward to it.” Her voice sounded haggard. “Love you and God bless… Bye for now.”
“Bye!” came the chorus in reply. Lucent clicked the phone off and put it back on its base.
The silence that followed was palpable. Each one knew they were swimming in deep, shark-infested waters now.