“Why have you gathered all of us here?” John asked wearily.
Cynnie glanced at Julia with a frown. Her friend had insisted on meeting with the members of her family. She knew what this was about. Why could she not just let it go? Why did it have to come to this? The only ones not there were Helen and baby Brett, who were still in the hospital. Ben did not look too pleased to be away from them. “Is this really necessary?” Cynnie asked.
“Yes!” Julia insisted. “You all need to be set straight!”
“Julia, darling,” Antonio said, “we’re fine. We don’t need your help.”
Julia narrowed her eyes at him. “Obviously, you do.”
“Julia-” Cynnie began.
“I am not talking to you!” Julia said, glaring at her. She turned back to the group assembled before her and folded her arms. “You’re acting like you’ve adopted Darko. How could you do such a thing?”
“Hey, Darko is cool,” Ben said. “So he made a mistake in his past. So what? It just proves he’s human.”
Daisy nodded. “He’s never seemed like a threat. He’s a nice guy.”
“Even I agree,” Molly said. “He’s earned a second chance in society.”
Julia gaped at them. “I can’t believe what I’m hearing! You all need to get your priorities straight! When he harms someone else it will be on your consciences!”
John rolled his eyes. “It’s time to leave, Julia.”
Julia’s eyes tightened. “Fine. If you won’t do something, I will.”
“Yeah right,” Ben said. “Just get out.”
Cynnie bit her lip as she watched her stomp her foot and storm out. She was not sure if her friend would actually go through on her threat. But then again, what could she possibly do?
Darko was feeling much lighter at the next Bible study. He talked more energetically with everyone there. They were all becoming friends. They were eager to discuss the passages that were read. After the meeting, Father Luke asked to speak with both Darko and John.
They walked outside to the back of the church. There was a nice lawn with tables and chairs for people to congregate. A path wound through the area. Fr. Luke led the way with the other two men on either side of him. He walked with his hands clasped behind his back.
“It seems like you’re making good progress,” Fr. Luke began.
Darko nodded. “This is more than I’ve ever achieved in the past.” He had begun attending services with John and Cynnie. The rest of the church was slowly starting to accept him as well. “It’s good to have a support system.” That was what his parole officer had told him. Unfortunately, his family and people in his town would not comply.
“Good,” Fr. Luke said. He looked to his left. “And what do you think?”
“My family loves him,” John said. “We’re pretty respected in town and a lot of people know us, so I think it will influence people positively.”
Fr. Luke nodded. “That is the goal we must look to next.” He glanced at Darko. “How do we get the rest of the city to accept you?”
“Now that people are interested, if I could just get them all in one place to talk to them…” Darko trailed off thoughtfully.
“Excellent idea,” Fr. Luke said. “I will see what I can do.”
“I will also help out in any way I can,” John vowed.
Darko felt touched by their support. It meant a lot to him, especially considering both had initially rejected him. Change was possible. And it was happening now. They just had to work a little harder. “Thank you.”
Fr. Luke stopped walking and turned to face Darko. There was a serious expression on his face. “You are Catholic, correct?”
“Yes,” Darko said, not sure where this was going.
“Would you like me to hear your Confession?” Fr. Luke asked. “It has probably been awhile.”
Darko blinked in surprise. Yes, it had been awhile. While he was in jail, he had wanted nothing more than to be absolved from his sin. He had become disillusioned upon his release. But now… He knew he had already been forgiven, but Confession was a physical reminder that could provide relief to the human person. Maybe it was just what he needed. “That would be great.”
John smiled. “I will leave you two alone then.”
Darko watched him leave before turning to the priest again. He proceeded to relate to him all of the sins he had committed since his last Confession. Fr. Luke talked to him and consoled him. Then he absolved him from his sins. Darko was crying by the end. He embraced the priest, feeling an amazing sense of relief. This was a new beginning.
“I must apologize for not being quicker to offer my help,” Fr. Luke said as they neared the church again. “I’m not very good at seeing that good people can do bad things. I like to think that the people under my care are perfect and that I only need to protect them.”
“I understand,” Darko said. That was probably how his own priest back in Louisiana had felt. It made sense. Priests were supposed to protect their congregations from evil. It was their duty.
Fr. Luke hesitated. “You’ve shared your past with me, so I will do the same with you.”
Darko stopped walking. They faced each other. He was surprised by the statement, but it made him feel good that he trusted him. He nodded for him to continue.
“I always had issues with my parents,” the priest began. “We never got along. My father was an alcoholic and my mother was very strict. They made me feel guilty about everything I did wrong. I learned to obey rules without question. I made a promise to myself that I would make myself perfect so that I could be accepted.”
“But no one’s perfect,” Darko said.
Fr. Luke smiled wryly. “No one ever told me that.” He shook his head. “My parents were verbally abusive to each other. They were always fighting. I would often get caught in the middle. I left as soon as I could and never looked back.”
Silence passed between them. Darko could not imagine having parents like this. His had only had a problem after he had committed a crime. They had been more forgiving prior. What would have been like to go through that his entire life? It was unimaginable. “At least you found God,” Darko said.
Fr. Luke smiled. “I viewed God’s laws like any other rules.” He paused. “That is, until I met you.”
Darko blinked. “Sir?”
Fr. Luke stared at him seriously. “You helped me see that it is the spirit of the law and not the law itself that is important. Christianity is not meant to exclude sinners. It is for sinners. I was missing something important. I was missing love. For showing me that, I owe you a debt of gratitude.”
Darko looked at him in surprise. He suddenly felt overwhelmed. No one had thanked him for something in a long time. No one ever seemed to see what he could contribute. “You’re welcome.”
Fr. Luke smiled at him. “I think you have a bright future ahead of you.”
Darko was enjoying his day off on Saturday when he heard a knock on the door. Awhile ago he had stopped assuming the worst whenever someone came to visit him, but he had many friends now. Usually it was them at the door. He thought nothing of it as he walked over and opened the door. He was only surprised when he saw Julia standing there.
Julia was wearing a pink blouse and skirt, red lipstick, and her blonde hair up in a bun. Her lips were pursed tightly and she crossed her arms. “Aren’t you going to invite me in?” she asked through her teeth.
Darko frowned. He was suddenly uneasy. He had never had a good relationship with this girl. And she did not look happy now. But he did agree that whatever was about to happen should not happen in the hall where everyone could see. He stepped aside to let her in. He almost had a tired look as he shut the door and asked, “What is it you want?”
“I want you to leave this city,” Julia said.
Darko rolled his eyes. “That’s not going to happen, Julia.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “If you don’t, I will have to take drastic action.”
Darko raised his eyebrows. “Like what? Report me to the police?” He shook his head. “I’ve done nothing wrong. You can’t do anything to me.” He used to be afraid of such threats and harsh words, but now he could feel himself growing stronger. He was starting to care less about what other people thought about him. He knew who he was and that was all that mattered.
Julia gritted her teeth. “That’s it! I’m tired of you! I want you out!” She stomped her foot.
Darko just stared at her calmly. “Actually, you’re in my apartment. You’re the one who needs to get out.”
“I will get rid of you!” Julia vowed as she turned to exit the room. “Just you wait and see!” She slammed the door behind her.Darko let out a heavy sigh and shook his head. Some people were just so stubborn that they would never learn.