Greg hooked his thumbs through his belt loops. We all hushed up as if we were waiting for an important news bulletin. “We’re going down the block to do some painting.”
“Huh?” I stared at him. “You mean work?”
“Mark, don’t be so dumb.” He held up a can of black spray paint. “I ‘found’ it in the hardware store.”
We laughed. That meant that Greg had stolen the paint. I felt kind of funny in the stomach. I really didn’t like the idea. But I was new in the neighborhood. If I said anything, the other guys wouldn’t be my friends.
Greg led us to a house with a wooden fence around the backyard. He handed the paint to Sam.
“Wait a minute,” I blurted out.
Greg cuffed me on the side of the head. “Are you chicken?”
I snorted. “Me? Of course not.”
When Greg wasn’t looking, I rubbed my head where he had hit me. It hurt. He’s a year older than I am, and a lot bigger.
After Sam finished painting words on the fence, Greg and a couple of other kids took their turns. Then someone handed the can to me. I took a deep breath and pushed the button on the can. Black paint sprayed out.
“Hey!” The shout came from an unseen person.
We took off running. Then I tripped. I jumped up, but someone grabbed my arm. My heart rate speeded up so much that I thought I would either faint or get sick all over my new sneakers.
I peeked up at a gray-haired man wearing glasses. “What were you doing?” he asked, not loosening his grip any.
“I don’t know,” I said, though it sounded silly.
“Who gave you the right to vandalize my property?”
“Uh, I’m sorry. Are you going to call the police?” I asked. My voice shook like I was going to cry.
“I believe I’d rather keep this between me and your parents.”
I took a shaky breath, then told him my name and phone number. But I would rather have gone to jail than have my parents know what I had done.
Dad came over right away. He looked as though he couldn’t decide whether he was more hurt or more angry at what I had done. I kind of shrunk down inside my shirt.
“Mark will pay for all damages, Mr. Parker,” Dad said.
I gulped hard. My allowance doesn’t cover half the stuff I want to buy. I figured that it would take a big part of my childhood years to pay for repainting that fence.
“I believe I have a better idea,” Mr. Parker said. “I had planned to repaint it, anyway. How about if I buy the paint and Mark does the painting?”
I sagged with relief. I wasn’t looking forward to the work, but painting the fence was a lot better than paying for damages.
I wouldn’t have been so happy if I’d known what else was in store for me at home—Mom and Dad said I couldn’t go anywhere with my friends for six weeks!
“Hurting others is against the word of God,” Mr. Parker said when I went over to his place. He handed me a brush.
I shrugged. “I know.”
“You sure didn’t act like it when you worked my fence over.”
I turned away and carefully drew the brush out of the paint can. I took my time making my first brush stroke nice and neat. I figured that if Mr. Parker saw that I could do a good job all by myself, he would leave me alone.
Mr. Parker didn’t take the hint. In fact, he got a brush of his own and started painting too.
My hand shook. I dribbled paint onto my pants leg.
“Careful,” Mr. Parker said.
“I can’t help it—you make me nervous!” I blurted. I dug the toe of my sneaker into the ground.
“I do? Now, why is that?”
“You keep watching me as if I’m bad or something.”
“Is that so? Well, I know you’re not bad, or you wouldn’t be here now.”
“I never did anything like that before. But Greg said …” I stopped and looked away quickly. I hadn’t meant to mention anyone else.
Mr. Parker chuckled softly. “Greg must be one of the other young fellows I saw running away that day.”
“You saw them?”
“I sure did.”
“You didn’t even ask me to tell you who they were.”
“I was a boy once myself.” Mr. Parker winked at me.
I felt a knot ease out of my shoulders. Mr. Parker was turning out to be a lot nicer than I’d figured.
We started painting again. After a while he said, “Do you ever go to church?”
“We used to.”
“I’m going to ask your folks to come with me on Sunday.”
“They’re pretty busy.”
“We’ll let them decide. I think your parents will welcome the chance for you to meet the right kind of friends.”
My face turned warm. I leaned over and concentrated on my painting. “I have friends,” I mumbled.
“Sure you do, son.”
Mr. Parker didn’t say anything else. I expected him to start preaching and tell me how bad my friends were—how they were not only a bad influence, but how they ran off and left me. I was all set to get mad and tell him my friends were great.
But all he did was start whistling. I recognized the tune—it was a hymn.
My parents were eager to take Mr. Parker up on his church offer. I told myself that it didn’t matter—at least I had somewhere else to go for the next six weeks. I couldn’t wait until my grounding was over and I could see Greg and the other boys again.
The only thing was, I got busy with the kids from Primary. By the time the six weeks were up, I was involved in a ward project to get books for a shelter for the homeless. After that, we Blazers all got parts in a play that we were going to put on at the care center.
The next time I saw Greg, he was leading his gang past the park. He stopped suddenly, and everyone piled into the back of him. They reminded me of robots playing follow the leader.
“Mark, I haven’t seen you around.”
“I … uh … I’ve been busy.” I felt a familiar shrinking in my stomach. Funny, I’d never realized it before, but I always felt that way around Greg.
“Yeah, I heard you were busy painting old man Parker’s fence.”
Greg and the robots cracked up. I clenched my fists.
“Come on—we’re doing something fun.” Greg held up a cloth sack.
I knew that they planned to steal oranges from Mr. McKellar’s grove. Six weeks ago I would have stumbled over my own feet rushing to join them. Now all I felt was sorry for them.
“No, thanks.” I turned and walked away. I had new friends now. My kind of friends. The shrinking in my stomach disappeared. It didn’t come back.