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per amica silentia lunae

or, across the ferny brae with the evil voodoo celt

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...they were late sleepers"

The next Sunday, I was again walking at dusk, this time for pleasure- the weather had turned fine- something to treasure in the late autumn in the DC area. Crisp cold air, the last few leaves, a sky fading from brilliant to dark blue. The sunset stained the west in an outrageous beauty that lifted my heart, even knowing that part of the grandeur was caused by air pollution.

Walking up the path toward St. Ambrose's, I saw him again- clad this time in a ski jacket and jeans this time, his towhead clear against the dark trees. There was a man talking to him, enthusiastically, with a great waving of arms. There was something odd in the boy's stance- a trapped look, as if he had actually been backed up against the huge rough wood cross that stood iconic in silhouette some yards away near the church door. I realized that he was afraid this time, near to panic, in fact.

As I approached, I recognized the green-covered book the man was gesturing with, frowned, and lengthened my stride. I have a natural antipathy towards evangelists with Gideon Bibles (and it's not just that I'm an English professor, I might add). In any case, the boy was far too young to have to endure the kind of foaming at the mouth that he was receiving. He met my eyes with a look of pure appeal- all child this time, no dreamy tiger's stare- and began to edge towards me. The religious enthusiast wheeled on me, but I ignored him, addressing the boy. "Is he bothering you?"

"Yes," came the answer, near a whisper. I held out my hand, and he fitted his mittened palm into it. The evangelist started to bluster, but I cut him off.

"You know, if I called the police and told them you were harassing a child, I think they'd be very annoyed with you. Or maybe I should go over to the rectory and mention this to the Pastor- for some reason, I doubt you're of the same denomination. He'd probably think you were poaching." Right then, the porch light on the rectory came on, and a curtain was pulled aside. Perfect timing. "So why don't you find someone else to bother?"

"You're in league with them too, the Catholics and the demons!" He gave a wave that encompassed the church, the boy, and myself, then snarled and walked off.

"Thank you," came that quiet voice from my side. We stared at each other for a long second.

"What's your name?" It was the only thing I could think of to say.

"Please tell me yours first." It was an odd request, but there was something very solemn about him then, so I decided to comply.

"I'm Robert James Burkhart." I don't usually use my middle name, but there was an air of formality to this occasion, and I didn't feel I was humoring him, either.

"My name is Thomas Rushenko. My parents want to call me Tom or Tommy, but they don't." He said this last with some satisfaction, then added wistfully, "I don't have a middle name."

"Pleased to meet you, Thomas." I shook his hand.

"Will you walk me home, Mr. Burkhart?" Again, there was appeal in his eyes, and he took my hand once more. His small fingers felt chill in mine, even through the mitten. I nodded.

After a short walk, we ended up at a split-level house with a well-kept yard. I remembered it- it had been sold recently, and I'd noticed moving vans there only a week ago. A woman was standing in the doorway; she rushed out to meet us. "Thomas! Where have you been?" She noticed me fully. "Has he done anything wrong?" There was agonized worry in her voice and real fear in her eyes. I shook my head, and she sighed and relaxed visibly. "Are you all right?" She must have been speaking to Thomas, although she was still looking at me.

"He saved me from a bad person." Thomas said in his precise, soft voice. "May I go inside now?" She nodded absently, and he went indoors.

She seemed satisfied with a bare-bones description of the encounter, and more worry-lines faded from her face. My estimate of her age decreased by five years, maybe as much as ten, even though her hair was salt-and-pepper and there were crow's-feet at the corners of her soft blue eyes.

A small, balding man came out and offered me his hand. "Thank you, Mr. uh Burkhart. Thomas," there was the briefest hesitation here, as if he had wanted to use a nickname, "told me you 'saved him from a bad person.'"

"It was nothing, Mr. Rushenko," I replied, keeping my voice warm while I wondered what exactly was going on.

"We'd like to talk more, but dinner's on and..."

He was interrupted by his wife. "Mr. Burkhart, do you have any children?"

"No. I mean, no, I'm not married." I wasn't going to bring up my long and weary divorce; the process had just finished (or so I devoutly hoped) and painful memories still lingered.

"That's good." I must have let my puzzlement cross my face, because there was an instant more of that fear in her eyes before she recovered. "Good that you can understand children without having any, I mean. Good night." She turned abruptly and hurried inside the house. I shook my head and continued my walk home, trying to fathom whether Thomas's oddness came from his parents... or vice versa.

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"It was nothing, Mr. Rushenko," I replied, keeping my voice warm while I wondered what exactly was going on.

He's not the only one. :)

Constructive criticism might come later, but when I get sucked into a story (a good sign) I usually have to make a conscious effort to read it with a critical eye, rather than just immersing.

So for now, all I can say is: I like it. :)

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