The church seemed like an impenetrable force. It was strong against the cold wind. The inside was another story. Another Bible study was taking place inside the same room, which was bristling with hostility once again. At least everyone had showed up, Darko noted. They were all sitting in virtually the same positions as the previous week. Father Luke seemed surer of himself this time as he stood in front of the group. He had Bibles for all of them, which he passed out. Darko slowly took one. He knew the book well. It had been his only consolation over the past nine years. And now he was sharing it with others.
Cynnie gave him an encouraging smile. John was next to her this time. He was virtually ignoring him. Darko was fine with that. It appeared that everyone else was doing the same. Why were they even there? Had they been bribed?
“We’re going to look at Isaiah today,” the priest announced.
Darko knew where this was going. They ended up skimming through several passages. Isaiah was a prophet. God commanded him to marry a known prostitute. He obeyed, but the prostitute ended up running away and returning to her old ways. God told Isaiah to go after her and bring her back, so he did. He ended up paying to get her back. This happened several times. All the while, Isaiah (and God) never stopped loving her and fighting for her.
“Does anyone have anything to say about this reading?” Fr. Luke asked as he looked around the room.
“You should listen to God?” a young man suggested.
Fr. Luke nodded. “And how do you think God would want us to treat Darko?”
The people at the table exchanged uneasy glances.
“I was wrong too,” the priest went on. “I thought I was protecting you all by keeping Darko away. But now I see that Christianity is about much more than following rules and regulations. It is about living a life of love – to everyone.”
“But how do we know we can trust him?” a middle-aged woman asked with suspicion in her voice.
“The same way we learn to trust anyone else,” Fr. Luke said. “Get to know him. Let him earn your trust.”
Cynnie laid her hand on Darko’s arm. “Why don’t you tell them about yourself?” She smiled at him encouragingly.
Darko shifted uncomfortably when he realized everyone’s eyes were on him. He was not sure they were ready to listen. But what else could he do? “My name is Darko Paul Stroud,” he began in a steady voice. “I’m from the small town of Montgomery in Louisiana. I like swing dancing and playing my saxophone.” He glanced at Cynnie. “And the Packers.”
A murmur broke out among the crowd.
“If you’re so open, tell us about the rape!” an older women exclaimed.
Fr. Luke frowned. “If he’s not ready-”
“No, it’s fine,” Darko said quickly. This was what he wanted. A chance to explain. He calmly looked around at everyone before beginning. “It’s probably not what y’all are imagining when you think of rape. It was not violent. It was not about power and control. There was nothing wrong with me. I was not a bad person. And she was my friend.” Icy looks were fixed on him. He willed himself to continue. “We had just admitted our feelings for each other. We started kissing. I guess I got carried away. It did not help that I had had a couple of beers.” He paused. “I thought it was what she wanted. I thought it was romantic. I see now that I was wrong.”
He raised his head. “I paid the price for what I did. I have repented and am more determined to do good. Is that not what the justice system is supposed to accomplish? If it worked, why am I still being punished? Why must everyone hate me for something I’ve already made amends for? Have I really lost my place in society and the world because of one mistake?” He glanced down at the Bible. “I know God forgives me. That should be all that matters. But humans are social creatures.” He looked up at the people. “I would really appreciate it if you gave me a chance.”
The group seemed uncertain. No one said a word. Finally, Fr. Luke spoke. “Thank you, Darko. That will end today’s meeting.”
Once again, John pulled Cynnie away before Darko could talk to her. Fear passed through Darko, but he pushed it away. He had to continue. He had to keep trying.
A light sprinkling of snow covered the ground in every direction. People wore snug jackets and hats. They talked merrily as they held cups of hot chocolate and cider. Cynnie smiled and nodded at a young couple before walking into the gelato shop.
John was the only one at the counter. The shop was usually less busy this time of the year. Not many people wanted gelato, but a few came in for hot chocolate and coffee. The warm drink was made from melted dark chocolate candy bars mixed with whole milk and corn starch to thicken it. Cynnie’s whole family found it absolutely delicious.
John did not even have to ask her what she wanted. He got to work on a cup. “How are the kids?’ he asked.
Cynnie smiled as she thought of her class. “They’re so adorable. I love them.”
John gave her a small smile. “Good.”
“How’s the shop been?”
John shrugged. “About as expected.” He paused. “Darko came in here about a week ago.”
Cynnie blinked in surprise. “Really? What was he doing here?” She hoped he had not come to cause trouble, though that did not seem like him.
John shrugged. “He was trying to get me to accept him. It was ridiculous, really. Like I’m going to change my mind.” He handed his sister a tall glass of hot chocolate.
Cynnie frowned as she accepted the treat. “I’m not going to change my mind about him either.”
John let out a heavy sigh. “Cynnie, I don’t know what you think you’re doing with him. Why can’t you just heed my advice?”
“Because you’re wrong,” Cynnie said defiantly. Her eyes blazed with determination. “I’m the only one who knows who he is. I will fight for him. I will fight for what I want. Maybe you should try that for a change.”
John blinked rapidly. “What do you mean?”
“You won’t tell Dad and Ben you want to take over the shop,” Cynnie said. “You don’t have the courage.”
John frowned. “That’s not the same thing.”
Cynnie shook her head. “Yes, it is. I’m willing to fight. You’re not. Which one of us do you think wants it more?”
John’s eyes narrowed. “Cynnie,” he said warningly.
“No,” Cynnie said firmly. “I know Darko. He’s a good person. You’re just too blinded by prejudice to see it.”
John rolled his eyes. “Everyone else in the city agrees with me.”
“That does not mean you’re not wrong.” Ignorance. The city did not know the truth. No one had told them. Now that they were trapped in fear, they would not listen. Was there any way out? Cynnie thought back to everything she knew about Darko. There had to be something she could use. She clung to the first thing she thought of. “He has a cat.”
John raised his eyebrows, his arms crossed. “So?”
“They love each other. She’s always following him around and rubbing against him. He’s really sweet and gentle to her too.” She smiled at the memories. “Does that sound like the kind of person someone should be afraid of?”
John frowned. “Well…”
“People threaten him, John,” she said seriously. “They tell him to his face that they wish they could kill him. But he doesn’t fight back. He just takes it. He refuses to play their game. He is in control of himself. I don’t care what he’s done in the past. He’s one of the best people I know, and he does not deserve any of this. And he’s a good Christian. Despite everything he’s been through, his faith is stronger than anyone I’ve ever seen. He knows God will take care of him.” Her eyes had a challenging look to them.
John had grown silent. He turned his back and began to fiddle with the equipment in the shop.
Cynnie let out a breath of air. He was not arguing with her anymore. That had to be a good sign. Perhaps she would soon win him over to her side. Hope filled her at the thought.
The next day, she thought she would go over to Julia’s place and try to fix things with her. Luckily, she let her in. The apartment was small and untidy. Julia was never home much. She preferred to be out with friends having fun. She had never seen the need to make her home look great.
Julia was wearing her blond hair in a bun. She wore a silver necklace and red lipstick on her lips. She gave her friend a small smile. “Hello, Cynnie.”
Cynnie nodded cordially. “Hey, Julia.”
“Do you want some tea?”
Cynnie nodded. She walked over to the simple, beige couch and sat down. Julia soon joined her. “So, how are you?” Cynnie asked tentatively.
Julia shrugged. “Fine, and you?”
They talked about things that did not really matter until the teapot began to whistle. Once they both were settled with peach mango tea, the real conversation began.
Julia held her mug of tea with both hands and stared into the liquid. “Cynnie, there’s something you should know.”
Cynnie frowned as she watched her friend. “What is it?” she asked gently. She cared about her and did not want to see her in any distress.
“I don’t have a very high regard for men,” Julia said. “Especially if there’s something negative apparent in them. I don’t think they have the best of intentions most of the time. That’s why I don’t want to get close to any of them.”
Cynnie nodded. “I know.” It was pretty obvious. Why was she telling her this?
“But you don’t know why.” She was silent for a moment. “It’s not just because my dad left.”
A puzzled look crossed Cynnie’s face. There was something else? This was news to her. She thought they had shared everything about each other long ago. “What then?”
Julia did not respond right away. When she did speak, her words came out slow and deliberate. “When I was 15, my older sister was raped.”
Cynnie gasped in surprise and horror. She had not seen this coming. She had never let on that something like this had happened.
Julia grimaced. “She was torn apart physically and psychologically. Her physical wounds healed, but her mind is still haunted by memories.” She turned her head to look at Cynnie seriously. “I’ve always been close to my sister. Her pain hurt me as well. I know exactly what sex crimes can do to people. I wanted to track down the offender and do as many horrible things to him as are imaginable. There is no mercy when something like this is involved. You have no idea what kind of pain it inflicts.”
Cynnie could not believe what she was hearing. Her heart immediately went out in sympathy to her friend. She could not imagine what it would feel like if something like that had happened to one of her siblings, especially Megan. She set her tea down and pulled Julia into her arms. Julia gratefully returned the hug. “I’m so sorry,” Cynnie whispered. “I’m sorry you’ve had to go through that.”
Julia was shaking slightly now. “So you’ll stay away from Darko?”
Cynnie stiffened. Is that where she thought this was going? It was much more complicated than that. “I’m sorry,” she said softly. “I can’t do that. You and your sister don’t deserve what happened to you, but Darko has already served his time. Any further punishment is undeserved as well. Too wrongs don’t make a right.”
Julia sniffled. “But you’re my friend.”
“I’m Darko’s friend too. I want to be a good friend to you, but I have to be a good friend to Darko as well. This does not have to be a zero sum game. It’s not all or nothing.”
Julia pulled away and wiped her eyes. “I don’t know. We’ll see, I guess.”
Cynnie gazed at her sympathetically. She hoped they could work through this. She stood up to leave. There was nothing more that could be done here. She just had to have faith that their friendship was stronger than any resentment Julia had against those people like the one who had hurt her sister.
“We’ll work this out,” Cynnie vowed as she walked to the door. Her relationship with her best friend was important to her; they would have to work to keep it strong, but it would be worth the effort.