“There’s no way you’re going on that youth convention, Thomas, and that’s final.” Dad’s voice came loud and curt, bloodshot eyes narrowed, flashing danger signals. His lean, weather-beaten frame straightened to full height, his mouth clamping in a hard line.
I bit my lip, digging the heel of my boot into the dirt with sharp jerks.
“And if I hear any more on the subject, you can tell that James lad to stop picking you up for church Wednesdays. You’re slow enough at school without that … that … seminary stuff taking your time.”
He stomped off past the hen sheds, muttering and shaking his head. “Should never have let you join in the first place. Not been the same since. Always trying to change things, do things.” He tore down a dead branch overhanging the path, swishing it violently. “As if I haven’t got enough problems without you pestering. I’m sick of it, do you hear? Sick of it!” His words ended on a shout as he snapped the branch across his knee.
The hens scattered in all directions, squawking, flustered. One rushed panic-stricken into a pile of loose wire netting. I’d left it there this morning when the school bus arrived before I was ready. (Okay, so I was late—same thing.) Anyway, I never finished the job properly.
“Now look what you’ve done,” Dad yelled. “Can’t you do anything right? That’s all we need, a hen with a broken wing.” Grabbing the screeching hen, he marched back toward the house.
“Get on with the chores,” he flung over his shoulder, “and keep out of my way.”
The twisted, choking feeling in my stomach swam up my throat and stuck there. I hadn’t cried since Mum died in a car accident nine years ago, and I wasn’t about to begin now. We used to live on a Devonshire farm back then, but after the funeral we moved north to Yorkshire. It’s been so cold up here. Seems like Dad’s forever mad at someone for taking Mum, and I’m the one who gets it every time things go wrong.
I think he could use a few of those scriptures my teacher’s always quoting—especially the “forgiving” ones. I’m getting an idea what they’re on about.
I had really thought today would be a safe time to ask about the youth convention, though. I’ve never been to one before, and a boy’s 16th birthday should stand for something, surely?
But no such luck. In fact, the only bright moment was getting that card at breakfast. No one had ever bothered before. Come to think of it, no one had ever believed too much in me at all—that is, before this new seminary lady moved in to the branch. She seems to understand that I’m not as slow as I look. Probably because she’s an artist too.
Dad doesn’t care much for my drawings. “Waste of time,” he calls it. I try to leave sketching until he’s not around, but it doesn’t always work out too well. Like the other day. I was sure he was down the bottom field fixing fences. I’d noticed a bunch of tiny pansies poking bravely through cracks in the concrete by our goat shed and waited my chance to copy their soft power.
It was a gentle spring morning. Scents of dew-covered grass mingled with fresh hay. Even the whiff of goat skin added a satisfying flavour to the feel of the day.
I was just relaxing, content, penciling in the lines of shape and shadow, when Dad’s furious roar sent my papers flying.
“Can’t I leave you alone for ten minutes without you letting me down?” His muddy boot slammed into the upturned page. “Now get up. If you’ve no jobs to do and your schoolwork’s finished, then at least turn your hand to something useful. This’ll get you nowhere!”
I sensed his frustration. I don’t fit his image of a son.
Picking up the ruined work, I headed slowly for my room. My thoughts were not worthy ones. It’s all very well learning how to handle these situations in church, but when it comes to real life—first it’s hard recognising the feelings I should be having, and when I do, then it’s even harder to make them happen. Wonder if anyone else has this problem? I mean, whoever wants to feel friendly and loving when someone’s shooting rotten thoughts back at you? There must be some secret to it. Trouble is, I’m not sure I really want to find it.
I’m not even sure I really want to stay around here any longer. Maybe Mum’s brother down at Portsmouth would take me in. Mind you, sharing the Church with him could be even more difficult than with Dad. Oh well, who cares?
That was Monday. By the time Wednesday came round, I’d done some deep thinking. I’d carefully avoided conflict with Dad, three and a half quarters decided to pack my bags the following Friday (Dad’s night out at the pub), and given in to the recurring idea that I ought to attend seminary this one last time, if only to thank Teacher for the card.
I edged my way into the back row, taking a long look round. I would miss this crowd, especially Sharon, third row from the front. Her smile always seemed sweeter for me than for anyone else. Pity I wouldn’t be getting to know her better.
The lesson didn’t start too exciting—you know, all that talk about reaching the highest degree of glory. My mind kind of switches off when those “Sunday” words begin, going into neutral with other thoughts creeping in, like working out a different way to milk the goat. (It’s all this growing that’s causing trouble. My head used to rest comfy on the bulge of her stomach, so I could milk with my eyes shut, dreaming a little about this and that. But now my head pokes out above her bony back, and my chin won’t rest easy on that ridgy spine.)
As I was saying, Teacher was going on a bit. Her long black hair swung, glinting in the sunlight as she moved around. I was leaning back, half following the words and enjoying the expressions crisscrossing her face. Then all of a sudden, she produced this piece of pie, oozing bubbly juice, and thick with chunky apple piled between covers of tawny, crumbling pastry. Now, if there’s anything I’m partial to, it’s apple pie—and there was a dollop of cream on top.
“Whatever is she going to do with that?” I asked myself, sniffing a sweet cinnamon smell. “There’s not enough for us all.” I glanced at the others. Everyone’s eyes had opened wide. They were definitely paying attention.
“I’m about to give this to one student,” Teacher continued. “Let me see now … Thomas? Looks like all that farm work is stretching you fast. I’m sure your stomach could manage this pie?”
Couldn’t it just? I hardly dared believe my luck. I had been sure she’d give it to James—he’s the smartest lad, the one whose hand flies up at every question and who knows every scripture the week before we’re asked to learn it. It was his Mum who sent the elders down our way a couple of years ago.
If not him, then surely Sarah? Sarah does everything right. Her work’s neatly handed in on time. Teacher has a special sort of smile for her, I’ve noticed.
But me! I didn’t need asking twice. Did I eat that pie fast? Every crumb tasted like it knew exactly where it should be. And I could feel 22 eyes watching every mouthful. I sat back, rubbing my stomach. She’s right—it has stretched lately.
Then she asked a kind of weird question. “How do the rest of you feel at this moment?”
I mean, how would anyone be expected to feel? Slightly sick, I should think—like they’d been cheated out of something worth having. At least, that’s what James said, and the others nodded. They weren’t too cheerful.
“Good,” said Teacher. “Remember that feeling every time you’re tempted to go astray, because it’s the kind of sensation you might get, only worse, if you don’t make it past the terrestrial kingdom.”
You know, that pulled me up short, making prickles creep up and down my spine. The feelings I’d enjoyed, munching that pie, were great. No way would I have wanted to be the one missing out. Maybe there’s something to all this.
I never did leave home. Weeks went by, and the apple pie memory faded, slipping into a corner somewhere in my mind. Something like my drawing collection—the best ones are treasured and stared at now and again but lie shut in my cupboard most of the time.
If it hadn’t been for the accident, the apple pie corner would probably have stayed closed for a lot longer.
It was a Saturday morning. I know, because Dad had been drinking at the pub the night before. I was down the yard at 5.30 milking Mrs. Nephi. (I call her that because Nephi found wild goats in the promised land. I’ve often wondered whether he liked them as much as I do. I mean, he seemed to care for outsiders, and no one else in the scriptures ever seemed to reckon much to goats, did they?)
I’d just found a good spot to rest my chin—there’s an extra lump of gristle to one side of Mrs. N.’s backbone that’s softer than the rest—when all of a sudden this fox appeared, right out of nowhere, rushing in front of us.
Well, old Mrs. Nephi went crazy, staggering sideways, then stumbling across the stand. I hadn’t bothered to tether her. She never moves an inch normally. Simply gazes into the distance, grinding her teeth round and round like some old lady thinking and thinking.
But this time, back legs bucked, hooves clattered down into the bucket, milk splattered all over … and me? My head snapped back, and I fell off the stool, crashing into the heavy gate beam wedged up against the goat shed.
The beam toppled, missing my neck by inches but hitting my arm, crushing the bone with wicked pain. I remember screaming in agony until things went swimmy and black.
My shrieks must have been right powerful. Only something dreadful could waken Dad on a Saturday morning. Next thing I knew he was leaning close, yelling at me.
Somehow he got me to the hospital, ten miles away. I never, ever, want to try to drive in that condition again. The pain was so terrible, bumping over those country roads, I wanted to cry and whimper like a child. Only the sight of Dad’s tight-lipped face forced back the anguished gasps.
Come to think of it, Teacher could have used an experience like mine when we did that scripture on suffering in the Doctrine and Covenants—19 something-or-other. I need to go over that one. And to think my agony was nothing compared to His. I daren’t begin to imagine His pain—and all for the likes of me and my dad. So I pulled out those apple pie thoughts to check them through again. I don’t want to miss knowing someone who loves me that much.
The day after my accident, Teacher appeared on the doorstep. I could just about see and hear from my makeshift bed on the sofa.
“Why, hello, Mr. Bell.” She didn’t give him a chance to slam the door but kept right on talking. “I’ve brought this pie to cheer up Thomas. I know he’s fond of apples. Could you help him eat it?”
If there’s one thing Dad and I have in common, it’s appreciation of apple pies.
“I … er … I, that’s right good of you, Miss … er …” He was lost for words—my dad was actually tongue-tied. My eyes bulged, and I couldn’t keep the grin away.
“The name’s Jenny, Mr. Bell. I’m Thomas’s seminary teacher, I …”
She got no further. Dad’s tongue loosened fast. “Kind of you—yes, most kind—but I’m sorry, you can’t see the lad. He’s … er …”
Guessing the lie he would offer, I quickly waved, calling out, “Sister Summers, hello! Thanks for coming. Is that for us? Can you stop a minute? How’s Sharon? How’s the class? How’s …” I’d run out of questions, but Dad had opened the door again by this time, sheepishly stepping aside.
She came again and again. Each time Dad softened more. I didn’t realize Teacher cared for animals so much. She could even milk Mrs. Nephi!
Good job she got on the right side of Dad though, because he wouldn’t have let the home teachers round for anyone else but her. And that blessing they gave me—I don’t remember getting a feeling like that ever before in my whole life. The comforting warmth rushed clear through to my toenails.
Now I’d heard Teacher mention miracles before, but I’m not kidding, I never thought it could happen to me … me, Thomas Bell! I healed all right. So fast that the doctors weren’t sure what was going on. And they were convinced that such a messy break could never mend straight. But it did.
Dad was equally amazed. And incredible as it may seem, he actually looked at my seminary booklets one day while I worked on them. I wanted to keep going, despite the arm. I mean, I couldn’t let her down, could I, not after she had gone to so much trouble. Besides, she makes me feel kind of important. I enjoy that feeling—belonging, somehow.
I’m planning on watching her mouth drop open one day soon. Now that my arm’s in use and I’m milking Mrs. N. again, I’ve made myself a promise. With each squeeze and squirt I’ll repeat a scripture reference until they’re all glued in my brain.
Today our class finished for the year. I gave Sister Summers a box of chocolates.
She looked sort of choked, and I heard her sniff as I turned away to hide my red cheeks. On thinking it over, though, perhaps it was the words, not the chocolates, that made her cry.
“Teacher,” I said, “I’ve decided to start saving for a mission. I want to take part in all the blessings of eternity. Not only that, but I want to help others feel they’re important to someone—you know what I mean?”
She nodded, her lips wobbling a little, and she dabbed away at her eyes with a tissue.
“Oh, and by the way,” I finished in a bit of a rush, because my own eyes weren’t staying too dry either, “Dad says, if I earn half, he … he’ll pay the rest.”
I had to leave the room quickly. But not before I caught a glimpse of her face—it was glowing with such a strange look. Could that be the joy she’s always on about?
Maybe her mind has a “chocolate corner.” I like the idea of being a memory that’s pulled out every now and again.