An Understanding Friend

Mark felt a tightness inside as he slid into his seat. This was the third elementary school that he had attended in the past few years. And although the first day in a new school was always the hardest, something far worse was bothering him: Grandpa Jim was dead. And nobody in his family could explain to Mark what really happens to someone when he dies.

Mark looked down at his desk as the announcements came over the loudspeaker. By the time they stood for the Pledge of Allegiance, he had his emotions under control. When he sat down again, he noticed the girl across the aisle staring at him.

What’s with her? he thought. He felt like making a face at her, but instead he got out his new notebook and the worn, gold mechanical pencil Grandpa Jim had given him.

“I want you to have this, Mark,” Grandpa had said. “It has been exploring with me through miles and miles of wonderlands. I used it to write my best ideas and thoughts in my journal. Sometimes I thought of the ideas myself. Other times I read or heard a good thought from someone else and jotted it down. I’ve had some wonderful adventures while going idea hunting, and I have a hunch that you’re ready to start your own search.”

Oh, Grandpa Jim, Mark had thought, looking at the thin face lying on the hospital pillow, You’re not finished adventuring! And how can I search alone? Don’t leave me, Grandpa Jim. But Mark hadn’t said anything except “Thank you” in a very quiet voice.

And Grandpa Jim had stopped adventuring. One winter afternoon Mark had stood aching and helpless beside a silent grave. Even Grandpa Jim’s gold pencil in his pocket had given him no warmth.

Mark got through his first day at school by avoiding everyone. When some of the guys invited him to play baseball after lunch, he just shook his head and wandered around inside the school yard until the bell rang. After school he walked home alone. Two blocks from his house, someone came up behind him. He moved aside, but instead of walking by, the girl who had stared at him in class fell into step beside him.

“Hi,” she said. “I’m Marci. You’re new here, aren’t you?”

“Yeah,” he said, shoving his hands into his pockets and hunching his shoulders.

“I live on the corner, down from your house,” she said. “I saw your moving van. It’s nice to have someone my age on our block.”

Mark thought, Why don’t you go away, but he just said, “Oh.”

“Do you like to play tennis?” Marci asked. “There are courts next to my house. We could play today if you want. My little brother sometimes plays with me, but he isn’t very good yet.”

“I’ve never played before,” said Mark, hoping to discourage her.

“Oh, that’s OK. We have an extra racket, and I can teach you. You look like you’d be a good player. I’ll come by at four o’clock to get you. See you then.”

Before Mark could protest, she was running down the sidewalk. “Now what’ll I do,” he groaned. “I don’t want to play tennis or anything else!”

Marci rang his doorbell right at four o’clock. His mom answered and called Mark to the door. “Have fun,” she said, gently pushing him out the door after Marci.

Marci explained how to serve and the various ways to hit the ball. Before long, Mark was running around the court, chasing the ball and sometimes even smacking it soundly across the net. He was surprised at how good it felt. He set his jaw and concentrated on each return, until soon he was getting more balls over the net than he was missing.

“You’re good!” shouted Marci, stepping back to serve. “It’s hard to believe that you haven’t played before.”

Mark felt a flush of pleasure as he stretched to return Marci’s serve.

When they had to go home for dinner, Marci said, “I’m glad that you moved here.” Then she jumped into the air, curled into a forward roll, and sprang up beside him again, grinning. “You’re neat.”

Marci asked Mark to do something nearly every day after school. They played more tennis, and she took him exploring in the forest behind her house. They hunted tadpoles and turtles, found giant yellow mushrooms and more kinds of fungi than Mark had ever seen, and chased squirrels until they scampered, chittering angrily, high into the trees’ foliage.

“Let’s have a picnic,” Marci suggested one afternoon. “I know a place along the creek where there’s a deep pool full of fish. Do you fish, Mark?”

“I used to,” said Mark, suddenly serious. He hadn’t taken out his rod since Grandpa Jim had become too weak to go with him.

They met early Saturday morning and tramped deep into the forest. “It’s really beautiful here,” Mark said. The leaves were in full color, and the colors astounded him. He was used to subdued hues of tan and yellow. The flaming oranges and brilliant golds here filled him with wonder. He almost felt happy.

After an hour of walking, they reached the pool. They baited their hooks and cast into the pool.

“I sure hope we catch something,” said Mark. “I love fresh fish.”

“I hope so, too,” said Marci. “You’d better be good, Mark, because I promised Mom that we’d bring some fish home for dinner.”

“I’m already good!” shouted Mark as his rod bent double. He planted his feet and began reeling in a large, speckled trout.

“That’s the biggest one I’ve ever seen!” Marci cried. As Mark reeled it in, she added, “He must be awfully old to be so big. I bet he’s a grandpa.”

Mark went cold. He looked down at the fish. A grandpa. A grandpa he was about to send to his death. He reached down, unhooked the frantic fish, and threw it back into the water.

“Why’d you do that?” asked Marci.

“I couldn’t let him die. He’s a grandpa.” His eyes filled with tears in spite of his efforts to prevent them.

“Oh, Mark,” said Marci. “What’s the matter?”

“It’s my Grandpa Jim,” choked Mark. “He died last winter. I miss him so much. I don’t understand why he had to leave me. I don’t know where he went or if I’ll ever see him again.”

Marci reached out and took Mark’s hand. “You will see him again, Mark,” she told him. “I know why he died, and I know where he is.”

Mark looked up at her, startled. “Where?” he whispered. “Where is he?”

“His body is dead,” Marci explained, “but his spirit lives in the spirit world.” She smiled at Mark. “Did you grandpa believe in Jesus?”

“Yeah,” he said. “He did. I don’t know much about Jesus, but Grandpa told me one time that some of his best ideas came from the Bible. Grandpa Jim liked good ideas.”

“Here’s one of Jesus’ teachings,” Marci said. “‘I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:

“‘And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.’ *

“So, you see,” Marci went on, “only your grandpa’s body died. His spirit is still alive. Someday, because of Jesus, his spirit will come back into his body, and he will be resurrected. That’s why Jesus said that He was the resurrection and the life.”

“You really believe that, don’t you?”

“I really do,” Marci told him.

“Why?” Mark asked.

“Because my dad died two years ago.” Marci turned and looked into the pool. “At first I thought that I would never be happy again. I missed him so much! I still do. I guess I’ll always miss him, but I’m not sad anymore. My dad believed in Jesus, and so do I. Mom had us memorize that scripture so that we could be comforted.”

“Marci, will you help me learn that scripture, too?” he asked.

“Sure,” said Marci. “I wrote it in my journal on the day that we buried my dad.”

“Grandpa Jim wrote in a journal. He gave me his gold pencil to write in my own journal, but I haven’t started one yet. Maybe I’ll do it today. Do you have any more good scriptures that I could write down?”

“Lots,” Marci told him. “In fact, I can give you a whole book of them when we get home. You can use your pencil to underline them right in the book because there will be too many to copy.”

“What book is that?” asked Mark.

“The Book of Mormon,” said Marci.

Mark looked at her beaming smile and felt a warmth creep into his heart.

“The Book of Mormon,” he repeated. He’d never heard of it before. But if the Book of Mormon helped make Marci happy, he thought, maybe it can do the same for me.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Matt Kesler