THIRTEEN

In late November an enterprising Lifestyle editor at the Raleigh Observer began a search for undiscovered writing talent in North Carolina. In the Saturday edition of the paper, she requested that previously unpublished authors send submissions of no more than 3,000 words to her office. In the following weeks Lisa received hundreds of pages of disappointing prose. Ready to abandon her project, her assistant handed her a poem that he suggested she read. It was titled “Growing Up Again.” Lisa read it and cried.

The poem appeared in the December 10th edition of the Observer, garnering such rave reader response that the author, Harold Owens of Wilson, became a local celebrity.

“I’m in my first semester at Wilkins Tech Community College,” Harold said during a local television interview. “College is great but I owe everything to a teenager named Russell Hicks. I used to be blind to my true identity, but he helped me see.”

Russell Hicks. Local papers had done back-page stories about the boy, but when Nelson Wallthorpe saw the interview on television, he rushed for front-page copy ahead of the larger newspapers.

“Get an interview with the Hicks boy,” he screamed into the phone to a reporter. “I want something written by yesterday. Get my meaning?”

“He’s not in town,” a recent, UNC journalism, graduate told Nelson the following day. “Kids are all out on Christmas break. Some neighbors said he’s away on a retreat. A lady named Mrs. Longley said her son’s with him and they’ll be back Tuesday.”

Nelson cursed. Leaning back in his office chair with his hands clasped over his head, he pressed his brain for a semi-original idea. Remarkably he birthed one—a semi-original one.

“It’s the Christmas season, right?” The graduate nodded. “So let’s do the whole miracle of Christmas thing. Dig up everyone who claims Hicks helped them. Get a picture of him from the yearbook and print it along with the page-one story.” Nelson stood up, the ideas flying. “Do a history on the kid and his relationship with Johnny what’s-his-name, the one that got killed earlier this year in Wildwood Trailer Park. They were friends, I think. And pull the original ad written by that nut case Isaiah Cranston. See if it fits.” Nelson blew a stream of coffee-scented breath through his teeth with satisfaction. “We could have us a story that’ll bust hell wide open. If we do this right the wire services might pick it up. Put us on the journalistic map where we belong. Get on it.”

After the graduate had left the room, Nelson had another thought. He thought that this was going to be a Christmas to be remembered.

On the snowy morning of December 22, Russell and his friends were returning from a prayer retreat in Redman, where they had spent a day praising God for all that He had done in Wilkins. As they approached the town limits, they decided on hot, egg and cheese biscuits at Flo’s. When they entered the restaurant, Flo herself gave Russell a ferocious hug.

“What’s that for?” he asked, blushing and stomping snow from his shoes.

“That’s for all the good you’ve done here, Russell.” The ten or so customers in the restaurant applauded. “Look,” Flo said, holding up the Wilkins Daily Tribune. “You’re famous.”

Peter and the others gathered around the newspaper to read the article. Dated the previous morning, the article described Russell’s exploits in great detail. Most of the people the boys had met in the past months were quoted at least once in the report.

“I doubt if you’ll get home without getting mobbed,” said a burly factory worker. “People are looking for you; reporters and others. They know your van.”

“I don’t want all this attention,” Russell said, trembling. “How can I get home without people seeing me? Really, Flo. Can you help me?”

“Most people want fame,” Flo said, not seeing the problem. “But you can use one of my other cars if you want. I have a new Dodge Colt that’s never been driven. It’s across the street at Hanson’s Automotive. Just go in there and tell them I said to give you the keys. Bring it back when you’re done.”

“Peter, can you go?” asked Russell.

So three of them went and found the Colt in the parking lot of Hanson’s. When they opened the car door, Charlie Hanson came out to see what was going on.

“Flo said we could use the car. Russell Hicks needs to get home.”

“Russell Hicks,” said a wide-eyed Hanson. “The kid in the paper yesterday?”

“Yes sir.”

“Sure he can use it. That kid is amazing. I was in jail with Harold Owens way back. Harold’s been helping me quit drinking. I’ll get the keys.”

The boys brought the Colt to Russell. He slid into the driver’s seat, while his twelve friends piled back into the van, carrying steaming bags of biscuits.

The snow made driving difficult. The Dodge Colt bucked and lurched over plowed icy patches, tossing Russell like a bronco buster. Trying to make the turn onto his street, Russell over steered, slamming sideways into a snowdrift. He gunned the engine, but was unable to extricate the vehicle from its frozen hold. It didn’t matter though, because the crowd surrounding his apartment building had spotted him. Camera crews, newspaper reporters, and grateful Wilsonians descended upon his whining Colt, ready to offer what was for some of them, reciprocal help.

Several of the crowd tried pushing the car loose while Russell pressed the accelerator, but the number of good Samaritans was such that they worked at counter purposes. Billy Balkman, along with six reformed Demons lifted the front end of the Colt, as Kenny Madison and four former WICCAN youths shoved from the back. Debbie Webster ordered three girls she was counseling at the Crisis Pregnancy Center to pull on the passenger side of the car at the same time as Arnold, the repentant white supremacist, suggested to his African-American friends that they pull from the driver’s side. The end result was that the Colt remained stuck.

I have an idea,” shouted Mr. Jarris’ daughter. “Let’s lay down some branches to give the car traction.”

The crowd agreed, so they pulled branches from trees planted by the Wilkins Department of Parks and Recreation and laid them out in a path before the Colt. Slowly the car moved forward, surrounded by the cheering throng, some of whom threw their coats in front of the car where there were not enough tree limbs.

In this way Russell Hicks of Cooleemee, North Carolina entered Wilson to begin what would be the final week of his brief life. He thanked the people for their help and appreciation but refused any interviews. His friends arrived to shield him, giving Russell the chance to slip away from the people.

Later that day, Russell walked along the frozen football field at Wilkins High School, wondering at the way in which the events of his life unfolded in such sovereign unpredictability. His commitment was to live the life of truth without wavering, yet that commitment seemed to take on a life of its own. He didn’t understand it at all. Still, he would see it through.

He wandered across the school parking lot into the open school gymnasium. The Act Teens were busy setting up tables, painting placards, and arranging freshly printed brochures.

“What’s going on?” he asked a senior he knew to be an officer in the teen group.

“We’re setting up for our protest rally tomorrow.”

“What’re you protesting this time?” The cold, vacancy of the sports sanctuary made Russell shudder.

“A group of homosexual students has gained permission to start an afternoon club beginning in January. We can’t have that happening in our school.”

“We can’t, huh?” Russell said, wanting to scream. “Got to run them off, huh?”

“What would you do, Mr. Celebrity,” said the student with a sneer. “Join them?”

In a blaze of revelation that jarred him like a lightning bolt, Russell knew what he must do. He considered acting immediately, but it was already late. Instead he left the gym, returning to the football field, where he sat in the empty bleachers listening to God.

The following morning, Russell was hungry, so he invited his friends to meet him at a small diner near Barton College. Arriving first, Russell found the diner closed. He checked his watch against the operating hours posted on the door. It should be open.

“Is it closed?” asked Peter, who arrived with his friends to see Russell yanking violently on the front door of the diner.

Russell slapped an angry palm against the locked door. “No one will find comfort in this unwelcome place again.”

“Take it easy,” Peter said. “It’s just a place.”

Russell glowered at Peter. “No place is just a place. Don’t you understand that?”

“What?”

“Let’s go. I’ve got something I need to do.”

The boys followed, concerned at the rage that seemed to be simmering within Russell.

They arrived at the high school, where Russell went directly to the gymnasium. Pushing past the youth he had spoken with the previous day, he marched to the center of the gym and looked around.

Huge banners covered the walls, screaming rejection at the gay community. Words so steeped in condemnation that Russell’s stomach twisted, firing hot bile up into the back of his throat. Teams of Act Teens and their parents marched around the gym, clothed in anti-gay T-shirts, chanting derogatory slogans. 

At the far end of the cleverly named “Rally for Righteousness” stood four teenagers who Russell presumed were the offending group. One of them, a slight boy wearing an American flag jacket, gathered the courage to raise a placard that read: “Freedom and Justice for All.” Once held aloft though, the sign was pelted with plastic bags of paint, thrown by an assault force led by Kyle Affas. The sign-bearing boy began to cry.

“Look at him cry,” Kyle said, laughing. His followers joined in the mocking. They began to advance on the retreating group of four. 

“Matthew, find the cops,” Russell shouted. “They must be here somewhere. If not, call them.” Looking at Peter, he said, “Kyle’s got the football and there’s tens seconds left in the game. Don’t let him score.”

Seeing the Act Teen leader closing in on the paint-splattered boy, Peter grinned widely. “Got it.”

He sprinted across the gym, zeroing in on his prey with the Jackson brothers at his heels.

Kyle Affas was preparing to throw the first punch of his life, when Peter slammed into him with such force that the Act Teen leader felt certain he was en route to meeting his maker. The Jacksons, between the two of them, leveled the rest of the advancing Act Teens with a bone-crunching thunderous clap that earned them the nickname the Sons of Thunder.

Russell flipped over the folding table in front of him, spilling badges and pamphlets across the floor. Furious at the intrusion, parents and participants alike chased Russell back and forth across the gymnasium as he ripped down banners and overturned displays.

At the height of the pandemonium, Russell raced to the top of the bleachers, where protected by his friends he faced the disoriented mob.

“No place is just a place. Every place is God’s place. God’s places are places of prayer for all people. This gym is God’s place. But you have turned it into den of condemnation where you are robbing these students of a chance at transformation.”

Some people in the crowd dropped their heads, while others simply began setting tables upright.

Russell walked down through the people over to the four teenagers. “I’m Russell Hicks. Come on and let me by you lunch.” As they left the gym through a rear exit, the police arrived.

Sheriff’s Deputy, Don Burrnett, interviewed a hundred witnesses, the majority of whom did not wish to press charges. The majority thought that perhaps the protest was a little harsh, though they hadn’t intended to hurt anyone’s feelings. They considered the Hicks kid pretty brave to do what he did, and his words made a lot of sense. Plus he’d already helped so many people in Wilkins; maybe they should just forget this little incident.

There were others, however, who were not about to let this go—Kyle Affas and the seminarian protest organizers to be exact. Once Kyle regained his senses, he and the others began seeking a way to destroy Russell Hicks. They thought the gym assault might have been the way, but they feared the popularity Russell had gained, so they waited and plotted against him. 

That afternoon Russell met with the Gay and Lesbian Student Youth Organization at the Wilkins Community Center. They talked for several hours about spiritual wholeness and understanding one’s true sexual identity. It was not an easy discussion, but the youth organization thanked Russell for his help. They agreed to remain friends and meet on a regular basis to deepen their friendship..

After the meeting, the boys passed by the diner where they had been the day before. It had burned to the ground. 

Peter said, “Russell look. The diner you were cursing is a pile of ashes.” 

Eyes straight ahead, Russell said, “Constantly put your trust in God. Don’t let any opposition stop your from doing what God has asked you to do. If you command that bridge abutment up there to be ripped up from the ground and thrown into the river, and don’t doubt it in your heart but believe that what you say will take place, it will be done for you.”

The boys stared uneasily at one another.

“I’m telling you this because whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that it will be given to you, and it will. Also, whenever you pray, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him and let it drop, so that God may also forgive you your own failings and shortcomings. If you don’t forgive others, neither will God forgive you.” 

Matthew Levinson asked, “Are you talking about Kyle and the others that oppose you?”

“Let’s go back to the school,” said Russell, leaving them to find their own answers.

The school parking lot was deserted, so Tom pulled around to the back, where Principal Harrod stood with his hands on his hips.

“Uh oh,” Tom said.

“Just the person I wanted to see,” Mr Harrod said, eyeing Russell as he exited the van. “I had a feeling you’d be back to the scene of your little riot.”

Russell said nothing.

Agitated by the defiant silence, Mr. Harrod said, “By what sort of authority do you storm into a lawful protest against degenerates in our society and disrupt it?”  

“Tell you what, Mr. Harrod. If you’ll answer my question, I’ll answer yours. Was Johnny Witherspoon right or wrong in accusing you of cheating on your wife?”

Mr. Harrod furrowed his brow in troubled thought. He realized that if he said that Johnny was wrong in accusing him, then Russell would ask why he had Johnny killed and the whole problem might resurface with disastrous results. On the other hand, if he admitted that Johnny was right, then he’d have to admit his affair publicly, also with potentially career ending ramifications.

“It’s none of your business, Russell,”

“Then by your choice, the authority by which I live is none of yours.”