The boy appears in the fourth pew from the back on the left, one Sunday in March, a grey rainy morning and a greyer, rainier afternoon. He stays for all the services and doesn't speak a word, doesn't lift his gaze even to the pulpit, just sits and listens and stares at his hands. The sadness and fear on his face are so naked that they make Evan want to leave his chair and pull the boy into his lap; his glasses are a little crooked on his nose, and his lips are pale with worry, his long eyelashes cover clouded blue eyes.
Evan thinks, privately, that he looks like an angel.
It's Holly who actually finds out the boy's name and story - staying with the two women on the edge of town, a distant American relative, sent here by his family for God knows what reason -
His name, Evan asks, sharper than he intends, looking up from his book as they sit in the parlour that evening. What is his name?
Holly blinks, mouth a fetching pout that reminds Evan of his failures.
Peter, she says. His name is Peter.
Evan doesn't see Peter in town. He looks, covertly searching in the windows of the shops for a glance of red hair, a foreign accent in the voices around him, but is unsuccessful. One miserably cold and slushy day when he's bundled up inside their small home, fighting off another bout of flu, Holly comes back from her errands with stories about the little American boy she'd seen at the chemists that morning. Evan pays sharp attention, submitting to having his temperature taken and juice and pills put into his hand. "Poor thing, both his aunts - that's what they said for him to call them, how d'you like that - are ill and he'd come into town for medicine for them and got lost. Politest boy, held the door for me and carried my bags to the car. Wouldn't let me give him a lift home, either. Soaked through."
Evan's heart hurts at the story, and he shivers, imagining walking in the freezing rain still coming down outside. A bit of orange juice sloshes over the rim of his glass, and Holly tsks and goes to fetch a washcloth. Evan quickly stows the pills in the hem of his pyjama shirt before she comes back. One never knows when they'll come in handy.
It's two Sundays later and already the elderly women of the congregation have adopted the pale, silent boy as a substitute for their own good-for-nothing off-to-richer-climes sons. They sit next to him, not allowing him solitude or, by the snippets of their conversations Evan's overheard (and this propensity to make lightning-fast judgments on those you should be guiding is ONE OF THE REASONS you're having such troubles), original thought. The boy, however, is more civil than Evan would have been: he shares his hymnal with Mrs. Douglas (even though she's nearly fully blind) and is getting used to the ways of the services (Holly'd said, a week or so back, that Peter had been raised a Protestant).
Evan has worked especially hard on his message for the day, about the infinite love and compassion of God and Christ. He'd felt almost like himself again while writing it, and hopes it will be well-received. He suspects it's wrong, but one of the gauges by which he judges his performance (apt word, isn't it?) is the number of people he can move to tears with his words. Today, it's seven, which should be a respectable, gratifying number. He made seven children of God cry with love for Him.
However, at his conclusion, he'd glanced down at the fourth pew from the back on the left, and there were rather a lot of old women, and that was all.
Evan frowns as he mulls it over again. He doesn't understand what part of his message could have caused such offence, and is inexplicably hurt by the boy's absence - everyone else in town, it seems, has had some level of contact with him already. Everyone else in town knows Peter's voice, or his footsteps. For a moment, Evan scowls, consumed by a jealousy he wishes he knew how to quit. He sighs, and heads back to the cloakroom for his coat - he's been here long enough.
The boy is startled by the sudden burst of light from the hallway; Evan is just as startled to see him there and they both leap back, twin wordless gasps. Evan recognises Peter (something flutters inside) and gives a laughing breath, a friendly smile that doesn't reach his eyes. "Goodness, you startled me," he murmurs, moving inside the small, dark room for his coat, plucking it off a hanger.
Peter's eyes are on the floor; there's not enough room to bolt past Evan and outside so he's trapped where he is for a moment, embarrassed and awkward. For a few seconds, Evan's glad of his embarrassment, his awkwardness, and does nothing to assuage them. "...I'm sorry," Peter murmurs back, fidgeting before he resumes his seat on a crate near the wall of the little room, staring down at his wringing hands.
"Oh, that's all right," Evan says kindly, since he must. "What are you doing in here, anyway?" he asks, shrugging his coat on. The boy hunches his shoulders, shakes his head, glancing off to the side. Evan notices that Peter's eyes are red. "Are you all right?" Peter nods. Evan raises an eyebrow. "I noticed you left the services this morning."
"...I'm sorry," Peter murmurs again, shoulders higher now around his ears. Evan waits for him to continue, looms a little, in a way he's established as very effective. "I didn't mean for you to notice."
Astonished at the answer, Evan laughs again, shoving his hands in his pockets. "Well, I'm sorry for noticing," he replies, teasing. "Though I did wonder what I'd said that was so offensive."
The boy pauses, tensing. Evan's immediately aware that he's said the wrong thing and takes a step towards the boy to apologise, but Peter presses back against the wall, curling in a bit more around himself. Evan freezes, confused and worried. "Peter, I'm sorry, I shouldn't've teased," he murmurs, feeling a twinge of guilt just after the twinge of happiness at getting to use the boy's name. "...But what did I say to upset you?" Peter shudders and rests his forehead on his palms, in his lap, and Evan hesitantly approaches, sinks down next to him, crouching. "It was about God's love for us. His children." He watches Peter's shoulders tense more, and dares to touch them. "His and Christ's love for you and me." He closes his eyes, slowly expelling a breath as he slides his hand along the line of the boy's shoulders, the shadows and light in the room hiding Peter's face.
Evan waits, expectantly. Taking in a harsh breath, Peter shakes for a moment, and then quietly begins to sob. Moving closer, Evan offers up a small prayer of thanks to Whoever put him in this place, at this time, and rubs Peter's back as his small body wracks. "God loves you, Peter," he says quietly, for the first time in a long while, convinced of the truthfulness of his words.
Peter's tears gradually subside, and he sighs, shaky and ashamed. "...He shouldn't."
Peter doesn't offer any explanation for his words in the cloakroom, and Evan doesn't like to ask for any. He believes that Peter will explain, when he knows how or why he should. Because of his silence on the subject, Peter's grown brighter, friendlier in his presence, willing to smile and talk with Holly and her women-friends from the church. She was able to persuade him to join their small choir, and the sound of Peter's voice on Sundays is a sort of heaven and hell that Evan can't comprehend - it shakes his heart loose in its cage, makes his toes curl.
Still, though, Peter doesn't talk much with Evan. And when he does he doesn't look at me.
Evan is aware of a realisation forming inside his mind before he knows what it is - he studies Peter carefully, tracks patterns and progress and analyses them for meaning.
Peter will let Mrs. Douglas hold his hand, but won't let the children in town, when they ask him to come help them play.
Peter doesn't wear his glasses when Holly takes him to the next town over to the cinema, but does wear them to church services and functions.
Peter looks directly at Holly, and Mrs Douglas, and the grocer's wife, and Penny in his Sunday School when he talks to them, but won't do the same for Mr Douglas or the grocer or Penny's father.
Frowning, closing his book, Evan goes to put it back on the shelf, and comes to give his wife's shoulder a squeeze. He smiles at her, then heads to the table near the windows in their cosy little library, where Peter's currently sitting, reading quietly. Evan puts a hand lightly on the back of his chair, stands beside him. He sees Peter tense, smiles down at him for the quick glance Peter shoots him. After a few seconds, Peter looks up again, and smiles. "Did I take your seat?" he asks, in an accent soft and slow and hypnotising. Evan shakes his head, and so Peter raises his eyebrows and goes back to reading.
Evan notices that Peter's ears and the back of his neck are flushed.
And then Evan notices the tremble in hands below him and knows.
The hitch in his breath makes Peter glance up again, but Evan is already gone, moving away and out of the room and out of the house, down toward the garden he's been tending as his heart threatens to burst out of his chest from happiness. He didn't feel this acute a sense of freedom and joy even when he received his Call, or when Holly said yes. Quaking from the immense burden lifted off him, Evan stops where he is and kneels and prays, thanking God, whether it's appropriate or not, for giving him the best gift: hope.
When he opens his eyes, they first fall on a small little seed packet labelled "heartsease," stuck in one section of the herb garden. Willing to take the hint, Evan stands and turns to go back into the house and plan.
"Do you still think God shouldn't love you, Peter?"
Peter glances around quickly, nervous. Of course, there's no one else in the little library; he and Evan have been here every afternoon this week, undisturbed (Holly's currently very busy with her charity work and visits). He glances over at Evan, who's obviously waiting for an answer, and sighs as he sets his book down. "...I don't know. I'm more worried that God doesn't love me."
"Because." He narrows his eyes at the man across the table. Evan breaks into quiet laughter, and so a minute later Peter does too, relieved to be off the hook. Sighing happily, Evan turns the next page in his book (his colour's so much better, Holly's noticed, and he hasn't been ill for two months).
"I know what you mean. We see things in ourselves that no one else sees, things that are so shameful to us that we can't think anyone would be able to see past them, especially not God." Peter gives the man a curious glance, surprised to find Evan just looking pensive, thinking things through. "But those things, the ones that we've tried so hard to conceal, were given to us by God, so why should He hate anyone for them? If they were given to us by Him, why should they need changing at all?" He laughs lightly. "The things one thinks of, when one's mind wanders."
Peter laughs politely as well, and thinks about this, lapsing into a quiet deeper than his usual characteristic silence. Watching him carefully, Evan smiles a little to himself, and waits.
"Peter, Evan wanted to show you something in the garden," Holly calls up as she comes inside with the mail, shuffling through the envelopes. Surprised, Peter tilts his head over the banister.
"He did? Did he say what?"
"No-oo, though he did seem excited about something," she sighs, frowning at another bill. Shaking his head, Peter sets the silver polish down and the spoon he'd been working on, and stands to walk down the stairs and outside. He wipes his hands off on his jeans and breathes in the warm spring air; the evening is beautiful and heavy, a full-blown rose about to lose its first petal. The outline of Evan's thin figure near the edge of the garden makes his throat close up, but he swallows and presses forward, vowing to tell him today (as he had every day for the past three weeks) that, in another week, he's going to be going home.
"Holly said you had something to sh - "
Evan raises a hand, cutting him off. Peter stops and sighs, smiling as he waits for Evan to stop analysing the birdsong or the direction of the wind or whatever it is he's studying so closely this time. After half a minute, Evan's hand drops, and he smiles over at Peter. "Thought I heard a new one."
"Mm. I'm not sure."
Peter gives him a quizzical look, but shrugs and seems to accept it. Evan is unusually keyed up, it seems. "You all right?"
"...Again, I'm not sure," Evan laughs, shifting his weight to his other foot and doing a slow, lazy pirouette on it, clasping his hands behind his back as he stops. "I think I very much could be. Spring is a time of change, you know, Peter. To everything there is a season."
"Yeah, turn turn turn. Seriously, Evan." Peter frowns a little, reaches a hand toward his arm. "What's up?"
Evan pauses, looks a little nervous. "...Let's..." he trails off, and moves them toward the tree at the corner of the garden, til they're standing under its lowest-hanging branches. "Good?"
"Well, I suppose so. Unless a lightning storm comes up, then we're dead."
Evan pauses, and lets out a sharp bark of laughter. "Appropriate. Oh, my dear boy." He seems to settle, taking a few deep breaths to calm down. "...Yes. All right." He looks nervous.
Peter takes a step forward. "Everything okay?"
Evan fidgets and leans back against the trunk of the tree. "It could be. ...It really very well could be. Look." He points to the edge of the garden, at the spot where he has herbs growing. Peter raises an eyebrow and goes to see.
"...Well, there's some mint trying to take over everything, and sage, and Johnny Jump-Ups and - "
"Wild pansies. Those are heartease."
"Oh." Peter laughs. "We call them Johnny Jump-Ups."
"...Well, that's certainly less romantic," Evan mutters, shoving his hands in his pockets as he comes to stand by Peter. Peter gives him a half-curious, half-suspicious look.
"You wanted to show me the heartsease?"
"...Mm. It's bloomed, you see." Peter nods and has another look. Evan, shaking a little from nervousness, tries to hide the fact and then can't - he puts a hand on Peter's arm, slides his thumb over the soft skin on the inside of his elbow. "Peter." Softly, sweetly.
Peter doesn't look up. Evan doesn't know whether to say his name again or leave the entire thing alone, but then realises that the hand attached to the arm he's holding is trembling. He slides his own hand down to it, tangles their cold fingers together. Quietly, Peter makes an unsure whimpering noise but Evan's past uncertainty - he squeezes Peter's hand and uses it to pull him a step closer, moving in enough himself to slide his other hand, warm and sure, onto the boy's back. Still shaking, Peter laughs a little, nervous reaction, and ducks his head as they more or less embrace. "You knew?"
"After a long while," Evan murmurs, delighted with the laugh and the hold they have on each other. Genuinely smiling, he leans down enough to press their cheeks together, feeling his warm Peter's cold one. "I told God I'd wait til the heartsease bloomed, to make sure."
"...Bargains with God over wildflowers. The basis of any good religion," Peter murmurs, making Evan laugh, the sound caught by a wind that's cropped up.
"Also having other gods before Him," he adds, making Peter blush.
"If you say anything about graven images, I'll - "
Evan kisses him, cutting him off. Arms slide familiarly around Peter's waist, holding him close, prompting him to drape his own arms over broad shoulders, use them to raise up on the balls of his feet. Peter's lips are a little chapped from biting, but Evan's are soft and dry. Their shyness lasting a few seconds, the two boys (Evan's only 21; Peter's 15) suddenly cling together, hands sliding into hair and over shirted backs and arms. Peter groans and sags against him, and Evan supports him, even as he slips his tongue into the other boy's mouth. In the pocket of Evan's jacket, a small bunch of heartsease, freshly plucked, are being steadily squashed.