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by Matthew Byk

Billy's mother told him never to talk to strangers. Even without her lectures, something about the dark man sitting on the bench across the playground chilled him to the bone. His six year old mind could not wrap words around what he felt we he looked at the dark man, but he didn't need words to know that this stranger was bad. Dangerous.

Even though the sun shone brightly, shadows collected around the dark man so that Billy couldn't get a good look at his face. He knew the importance of getting a good look at a bad guy's face, because when the cops came, you had to describe him. He saw it on the cop shows on TV sometimes after school. Whenever a crime was committed, the victim was taken "downtown" and someone called "sketch artist" would sit there with a huge pad of paper and a pencil and draw while the victim described what the bad guy looked like. After a few minutes, the "sketch artist" would turn the pad around and there would be a drawing that looked just like the bad guy, and the victim would cover her mouth in horror and say, "That's him! That's him! I'll never forget those beady eyes!"

Billy liked to draw. He was pretty good at it, and sometimes thought he might grow up to be a sketch artist. But if he had to draw the dark man, which he did later with crayons in his bedroom, all he would remember was a vague human shape with lots of black.

What creeped Billy out more than the dark man was that no one else seemed to notice him. The other kids played and ran and squealed happily. The old lady sitting next to the dark man on the bench didn't seem to realize she was sitting next to a living shadow. Even the pigeons, which usually flock around anyone with the hope of getting some crumbs, acted like he wasn't there.

Billy tried not to pay too much attention to the dark man, even though he could feel the dark man's eyes on him, even when his back was turned to the bench. Blessedly, Billy was still innocent enough to be ignorant of the concept of a child molester, or else his unease would have been even greater. To Billy, this dark man was just some creepy old stranger, maybe a psycho, but as long as he was around a bunch of other people, Billy felt safe enough.

For the dark man's part, he had no desire to molest the boy, at least not in a sexual way. The dark man's name was Maleficious. He needed no last name; his reputation as the boogey man of Flint, Michigan, made damn sure of that. Children spoke of him in hushed tones after the lights were out and the chill fingers of night crept out of the corners of bedrooms. Parents had warned naughty children of him for over a century in this industrial town. Tales of Maleficious abounded around campfires, at slumber parties under blankets, even at some bars by adults when there had been too much drink. He had built up his reputation through hard work over the past hundred years or so by carefully selecting special young children and haunting them. His bright young victims all had fertile imaginations -- perfect for the traps he laid for their fragile little psyches through late night appearances at their windows, or from out of their closets, or through careful enchantments and the introduction of creepy-crawly chimera and nervosa into their bedrooms in the middle of the night.

He nurtured their fears slowly, carefully, until the children became full-fledged paranoids, jumping even at the sight of their own shadows. Most of his victims went insane before he finished with them; some even committed suicide. So long as he was able to reap the sweet Glamour they radiated towards the end of their sanity, he could care less what happened to the little brats.

The boy in the park on that sunny afternoon was special, more special than any child before. This little one was a pre-Chrysalis Changeling, so far unclaimed by any other Kithain as far as he knew. By frightening this one into Chrysalizing, gods, the Glamour he could reap! Maleficious licked his papery lips in anticipation. If it worked, he'd have to dispose of the child, of course. If the child Chrysalized and lived to tell the other Fae of the Court of Carriages his story, well, death would be too sweet a fate for Maleficious to hope for.

Maleficious knew that the boy sensed him; he saw from the way the boy played that he was trying too hard to ignore the predatory dark shadow nearby. Maleficious also knew that no one else in the park would pay him notice; careful use of Cantrips and reliance on the all too human trait to ignore that which didn't concern one made sure that he would remain anonymous to all but the young boy who would be his next victim.

The boy finished his game, and convinced a few of his playmates to walk him home. This didn't matter to Maleficious; he brazenly followed the group of boys at a leisurely distance, not even attempting to hide. He wanted the boy to know that he feared not the light, or the parents, or the police. He desired those first doubts in the boy's mind as to his lack of safety. Maleficious wanted to prick the primordial part of the boy's mind that warned of danger, and he wanted that part of his brain to stay on constant alert.

It worked. Billy felt very ill at ease as he walked home with his friends. They asked him what was wrong. He mentioned that he thought that dark man behind them was following them, that he was a dangerous stranger. His friends looked back, but, of course, didn't see anything. They slugged Billy in the arm, and told him to quit trying to creep them out.

Billy wanted desperately to cry, but didn't dare in front of his friends. He gladly chose to suffer silently rather than show a sign of weakness for his friends to exploit. Thoughts of the Indian burns, wedgies, and bruises suffered by crybabies overpowered the cold sickness swimming around in his stomach. Besides, he'd be home soon enough, and home meant "safe". He'd shut the door behind him, lock it, and go into the kitchen where his mom would fix him a lemonade and some Rice Krispie bars and make everything better.

He waved goodbye to his friends when they reached his walk. He almost (but not quite) forgot the dark man. He jumped the first two steps up his porch like he usually did, then raised his right foot to take the final step up to the front door.

Something cold and wet (the image of dead fingers flashed across his young mind) brushed across the back of his left calf. Billy screamed, and nearly peed his pants. He fell forward onto the porch, quickly yanking his legs up behind him, scraping his left knee pretty good in the process. He scooted on his butt across the porch and backed up to the door. His eyes darted back and forth across the front yard for the dark man, but he wasn't there. That left only one option.

"Under the porch," he whispered to himself in fear. "He tried to grab me." Billy's mind hadn't matured enough to rationalize the fear away, to suggest that perhaps the dark man wasn't stalking him, that perhaps he'd turned down a side street or into the corner store to make a purchase. To the six year old, the only logical explanation was that the dark man had beat him home and hid under the porch, waiting there to grab him and drag him off to a dark cave somewhere to eat him.

Something started shoving against Billy's back, which made him scream again. The monster had somehow circled around him. It was all over for him, Billy was sure. He was a goner. D-E-A-D: dead.

"Billy?" he heard his mom's voice ask. "What's the ruckus?" Billy let out a sigh of relief. His mom was there to save him. He looked up and behind him; the screen door was shoving into his back. His mom tried to open it to see what he was screaming about.

Billy jumped to his feet and scrambled for the door. "Mom! Mom!" When she opened the door, he jumped into her arms and started sobbing hysterically.

"Honey, what is it?" she asked in a soothing tone, stroking his hair as she cradled her son to herself. "What's wrong?"

Between sobs, all Billy managed to say was, "D-dark m-man... after me..."

Once she got Billy into the house and calmed down, she got the story out of him. Concern lined her brow as her son explained about the dark man who had been watching him at the playground, and then followed him home. She was all too aware of the weirdoes freely roaming the streets nowadays. It was probably some pervert planning to make her son his next victim.

"But mom," Billy explained further. "He's under the porch! He tried to grab me before I could get into the house! He wanted to get me and take me away and eat me up!" He was growing more agitated, so she decided to go look under the porch to prove to him that this "dark man" was not under their porch.

Billy stood nervously inside the door and watched. He dared not go out and help, because he knew for sure that the dark man had to be under the porch; he had to be! What else could have tried to grab him as he came up the step?

Billy's mom climbed down the steps, then turned around and bent over. She peered under the porch, and kicked the steps. "There's no one under the porch, honey," she reported. Billy sucked on his fingertips nervously as he watched.

"But mom," he whined, "I felt it! Someone tried to grab me! Something cold..." The words "and dead" were what completed the thought, but he couldn't say them. His mother sighed, and was about to assure him that he was just imagining things when something caught her eye. She bent over and leaned forward, momentarily leaving Billy's field of vision. He heard a "snap" and the bushes to the left of the porch shook. Billy shrieked, sure that when his mom stood up, her head would be gone, because the dark man had cut it off.

She stood, smirking. In her right hand, she held a leafy branch. "I think this is your boogey man," she said as she came up the steps. Billy took a closer look at the branch; the leaves were wet.

"This little branch from the bush was sticking out across the top step, Billy," she explained. "It's wet and cold because it was in the shadow of the porch all day." She opened the door and brushed the branch across Billy's arm. It was cold and damp.

"There," she said, tossing the branch back out into the bushes, "does that feel familiar?"

Billy nodded, and said, "Yeah, I guess so." He felt embarrassed, like a little kid, instead of a big boy, which he was supposed to be. He'd almost peed his pants because a tree branch brushed up against his leg. He would most definitely not tell his friends about this. It would be Noogie City for Billy if they found this little fact out.

"Come on, Billy," she said, "Let's go in the kitchen. I'll bet that little adventure made you pretty thirsty, huh?" She ushered Billy in through the door, and only cast a worried look back over her shoulder after she was sure he couldn't see her.

A wet branch? He wished he had thought of it. That would have been clever, even for him, thought Maleficious. He reveled in the thought of the rich Glamour he would reap when he was done with this boy. Ah, but his work was only beginning. He had so much to learn about this boy. Maleficious like to personalize each haunting. It made his prey's fear all the deeper if they believed that Maleficious knew them better than they knew themselves.

He went back to his laboratory to begin his investigation into this boy. A few days worth of phone calls, trips to city hall, and the odd Cantrip would give him much insight into this boy's mind.

Billy sat at the kitchen table, strategically positioned so that he neither had to look out the window directly, nor was it at his back. He was snacking on lemonade and home made Rice Krispie treats, just as he had known he would do earlier. He had a pretty predictable mom, but she sure knew how to make a kid feel better. Unfortunately, he could hear her talking on the phone in the other room, and that made him start to worry again.

"Yes, officer," she said. "No, officer, he didn't give me a detailed description. Well, if you think it's best, but I just got him calmed down... I see... Well, could you at least send a patrol car around to the park to look for him? Well, I mean, for suspicious characters? Yes. Yes. Thank you, officer. Yes, we'll be expecting someone later today. Thank you, officer. Good bye."

Billy heard the click of the receiver, then his mom came into the kitchen, wiping the palms of her hands on the front of her shirt. Billy knew she was trying not to look worried; she'd looked the same way the summer before when he fell out of the tree in the back yard and broke his arm. She was trying not to look worried so that he wouldn't worry, which actually made him worry more, because if mom was worried, then there was probably something to worry about. Billy didn't want to worry mom any more, though, so he pretended not to notice.

"Who was that on the phone, mom?" he asked.

"Oh, the police," she said. Even her voice betrayed her feelings. To her defense, though, it is difficult to sound convincingly casual when explaining that you've just told the police that there's a stranger stalking your son. "They want to come talk to you about that man you saw at the park."

"Dark man, mom," Billy corrected. "He was dark." A shiver ran up her spine. She knew the answer to her question before she posed it.

"Dark? You mean black, like Michael Jordan or Will Smith, right?"

Billy shook his head, and tried to give words to the feelings that the dark man had evoked.

"Not dark like black, mom, not like color," he replied. "Dark like the closet opening by itself at night. Dark like bad feelings, like angry. Dark like a bad man; a really bad man."

Billy's mom wrapped her arms around herself and rubbed her sides. Billy saw goosebumps rise up on her arms, and determination set in her jaw. The description Billy had given her was one no six year old boy should be able to give. It angered her that someone had scared her son so profoundly at such a young age. Someone had stolen his innocence too early. She was going to find the man who had done this, and he would pay for it.

The police came and went later that afternoon. Since Billy couldn't give an accurate description of the dark man, and no one else had seen him, they couldn't do much about it. They promised to patrol the area around the playground more frequently, and assured Billy's mom that they'd do all they could to keep her son safe.

For his part, Billy asked to sleep in his parents' room that night. Billy's dad was reluctant at first, but agreed when he saw how worried his wife was about this dark man.

Before bed, Billy's dad sat him down to have a talk with him. Billy knew that it was important, because he only got sat down for a talk if he was in trouble of if there was something really important his dad had to talk to him about, like when his grandpa had died.

"Billy, son," his dad began, "you know that I love you very much, right?" All of his dad's sit down talks started off like this. Billy always responsed, "Yeah, dad. I love you, too."

"Yeah, dad. I love you, too."

Billy's dad smiled and tussled the boy's hair. "There's a good boy. Now, this dark man you say you saw at the park, he's got your mom good and worried, Bill," he said. "Are you still scared?"

Billy nodded and shrugged. "A little, I guess," he replied. It was a lie, of course. The dark man had him thoroughly spooked. But he didn't want to let his dad know that. When you're the only child, you've got to be brave, you've got to be tough. Keep a stiff upper lip, and all that, because dad works hard and he needs his sleep at night and he's got too much to worry about already with work and the bills and his golf average and the cars and all the other stuff dads have to worry about. Having to worry about keeping his little baby feeling safe was just one extra worry that he didn't need right now. So Billy kept his upper lip stiff the best he could, and managed a smile for his dad.

Dad chucked Billy one under the chin. "It was just some weird old guy at the park, and you're safe now. Okay?"

"Okay, dad." Dad got up and went over to his recliner to catch his evening TV regimen. Mom was in the kitchen, cleaning up after dinner. Billy went upstairs to his room to draw.

Maleficious spent the entire night and most of the next day researching his new victim. With liberal use of Cantrips and calling in old favors, he gathered enough information about the boy to get a good start on the haunting. He would let the boy rest tonight, maybe even the next, but then it would be time for him to start sowing his crop in the boy's fertile imagination.

It had been a few days since Billy had first encountered the dark man. He hadn't completely forgotten, but he'd done a pretty good job of keeping himself distracted. He hadn't seen the dark man again since the first day, so he had started to believe that maybe the dark man was just some old weirdo, and Billy would never seen him again.

Nonetheless, Billy took no chances. When he went to bed, he made sure that both mom and dad tucked him in. Billy made them say his prayers with him, and asked mom to hang up a picture of Jesus smiling over his bed. In spite of his dad's disagreement, his mom plugged in a nightlight for him. Billy surrounded himself in his bed with stuffed animals, so if a monster came, it might mistake his teddy bear for him.

Billy was all snuggled in on the third night after his encounter with the dark man. He was warm, comfortable, and safe in his bed, cuddled up among his blankets and stuffed animals. His eyes were gazing upon the smiling face of Jesus. He was drifting off to sleep with a smile on his face, murmuring, "Now, I lay me down to sleep..." over and over. All was right with the world. It was going to be a good night.

Scritch.

The sound came from the window. Billy's eyes popped open. His heart was racing. He dared not move. He dared not look at the window. He waited to hear the sound of shattering glass as the dark man's arm shot through the window and his claw-like cold clammy dead hand wrapped around this throat so he couldn't scream and his parents wouldn't hear him and then he'd be dragged out the window and away, away, away...

Now he heard only the thudding of his heartbeat in his ears.

"Just a branch or a bug or something," Billy told himself. "Not the dark man... not the dark man... not the..."

Scritch. SCRITCH!

Billy let out a small shriek.

"Not gonna look. Not gonna look. Not gonna look. Just a branch. Just a bug. Not the dark man. Not the dark man..."

SCRITCH SCRATCH SCRITCH SCRITCH SCRATCH sounded on the window in the pattern of "Shave and a Haircut."

Billy looked up at smiling Jesus. "Oh, Jesus, please not..."

SCRATCH SCRATCH.

Two bits.

Billy screamed. His mom and dad burst into the room to see a wild-eyed Billy curled up in a ball in the corner of his bed against the wall, as far from the window as he could manage.

"Billy, what's wrong?" his dad asked.

"W-w-window," Billy stuttered. One hand lifted, his index finger limply pointing in that direction. "H-h-h-him."

Billy's mom rushed to his side and scooped him up in her arms. He had wet himself. Dad walked over to the window and reached for the drapes. "No!" Billy screamed. His dad's shoulders stiffened, then relaxed. Of course, his dad knew, there was no pervert outside the window. Billy's room was on the second floor. He pulled back the drapes, and Billy buried his face in his mom's breast.

There was no dark man at the window. There was no branch. There was only a frustrated sigh from Billy's dad.

"Billy, look at the window," his dad said. Billy snuggled closer into his mom. Billy's mom shook her head at his dad. Dad set his jaw.

"Billy, I'm looking at the window right now. There's nothing out there. I want you to look out the window," his dad said. Billy shook his head and shrank even further into his mom.

"He's really scared, dear," Billy's mom said. "I don't think that's such a good idea."

Dad sighed again. He dropped the drapes. "Fine," he said, and turned and left the room. Mom stroked Billy's hair, calming the sobbing child. She murmured into his hair, then offered to let him sleep on their floor for the night. After a change of pajamas and a quick trip to the linen closet for a dry blanket, they all settled in for the night.

Maleficious giggled with delight as he sat under Billy's window. The boy's rich imagination was paying off. He'd give Billy a few nights off, just enough to feel comfortable again, and then pay another visit. Musing dark Glamour from the boy was rather like fly-fishing. Flick the lure, let it hit the surface, yank it back, tease, repeat as necessary. And Maleficious knew when to set the hook and reel him in.

So it went for the next month or so. A few quiet nights, then a haunting for a night or two in a row. It started with the scratching at the window, and progressed to creakings in the house at night. Sometimes Billy's closet door opened of its own accord, or the bed shook violently until his mom or dad came into the room. Every now and again, Billy caught a glimpse of the dark man during his waking hours.

One day in school, one of the few places where Billy felt safe, he looked up from the picture he was drawing and saw the dark mane. Instead of being just a dark blob, Billy could see him clearly for the first time. He was tall and thin, and wore all black clothes except for a white shirt that had some stains on it. He wore a long swirling cape, not like a superhero would wear, but one like vampires in the movies wear. His face was gaunt, his lips hung loose, and his eyes were black and beady and crazed.

The dark man gave a wicked toothless smile and said, "Hello, Billy," in a raspy whisper. All color drained from Billy's face as the dark man performed a macabre dance at the front of the room. His arms and legs contorted in impossible ways around his body. He danced around Billy's teacher, who appeared not to notice at all.

The dark man finished his dance and stood by the door. With a grand flourish, he spun around, twirling his cloak about him. He pulled the rotting skull of some small, sharp-toothed animal out of his cloak, and, with a grotesque squishing noise, jammed his fingers into the back of the skull, making a puppet. He raised the skull to his face.

"Well, Mr. Squishy," he dark man said, "Billy's teacher isn't paying any attention to us. What shall we do?"

"Let's get her," Mr. Squishy croaked, expelling maggots and stinking liquid from its mouth.

The dark man scolded his puppet. "You mean get her attention, Mr. Squishy, don't you?"

Mr. Squishy shook his head violently, spraying bits of his rotting self around. "No. GET her." The dark man rubbed his chin thoughtfully with his free hand.

"How do you propose that we get her, Mr. Squishy?" he asked.

"Sharpies," Mr. Squishy cooed. The dark man's eyes lit up.

"Sharpies?" he asked.

"Sharpies in your cloak," Mr. Squishy purred. The dark man spun around again, his cloak billowing out around him like an ink cloud left behind by a frightened octopus. When he again faced Billy, a long wicked dagger that dripped a thick green liquid had replaced Mr. Squishy in his hand.

"Sharpies," the dark man purred in his hoarse whisper. He raised the dagger and started towards Billy's teacher.

"Say bye-bye to Ms. Wilkins, Billy," the dark man cajoled. Billy trembled with fear.

"Ms. Wilkins?" a girl next to Billy said. "I think there's something wrong with Billy." Ms. Wilkins turned from the chalkboard and took a step forward. Maleficious plunged the dagger down behind her, and then raised his fingers to his lips.

"Oopsie! I missed," he said. Billy jumped and shrieked.

"Billy, are you all right?" Ms. Wilkins asked. Billy stared at a spot on the chalkboard behind her. She turned to look at the spot, and saw nothing unusual. She knew that Billy had been having troubling nightmares for a while, which wasn't uncommon for a boy as bright and creative as Billy, but this behavior was just odd.

Maleficious took another faux stab with the dagger at Ms. Wilkins' back. "Drat," he said. "Stand still, Ms Wilkins!"

Ms. Wilkins didn't see the dark man advancing on her with a poisoned dagger. Billy saw him, though. He saw the dark man mockingly plunge the dagger again and again, uttering a buffoonish, "Oopsie!" with each miss.

Billy didn't want to say anything. His parents already thought him crazy. If he said something now, his teacher would tell them and he'd be put in a nuthouse.

Ms. Wilkins came down the aisle to Billy's desk and bent over.

"Billy, do you need to go down and see the nurse? Should we call your mom?" she asked.

Billy's eyes followed the dark man as he came down the aisle after her.

"Finally," the dark man sighed with relief, "a stationary target. This should be easy." He screwed up his face in concentration; his tongue snaked down around is chin then up to his earlobe. He raised the dagger high above him. The green liquid dripped down on Ms. Wilkins' back. Ms. Wilkins reached one hand back unconsciously to brush it off.

"Bye-bye, Ms. Wilkins," the dark man said in a sing-song voice, and plunged the dagger down.

"No!" Billy screamed. He leapt out of his seat and tackled Ms. Wilkins. Being bent over, off-balance, and completely surprised by Billy's lunge, she fell backwards over the desk behind her, spilling that child and his books all over the floor.

"Billy!" Ms. Wilkins shouted in surprise. Billy felt the wind as the dark man's dagger swung past his back, then felt the dark man himself lean over him. He smelled the strong odor of rotting fish as the dark man's cold wet lips pressed to his ear.

"You're a real hero, Billy, but you can't always be there to protect her." With one last waft of fishy air, the dark man was gone.

Billy knew that it didn't matter now what he told his parents, so he told them everything. He could tell from the looks in their eyes that they thought he was completely nuts.

They talked with Billy's doctor and he suggested that Billy take some time off. He thought that the boy was just stressed out. They arranged to take a family vacation out to Billy's Aunt Elizabeth's farm. Billy loved visiting Aunt Elizabeth. There were all kinds of animals for him to play with, and lots of room outside for him to run around and explore. They planned for Billy and his mom to stay with Aunt Elizabeth for as long as it took for Billy to feel better.

Billy knew that he wasn't nuts, but he figured that the dark man didn't know his Aunt Elizabeth, so he'd be safe while he was out there.

Maleficious refused to let his quarry get away so easily. He'd be without all of his resources if he followed the boy, but he wouldn't need them. He sensed that it wouldn't be much longer before the boy's Chrysalis. He planned to follow the boy to his aunt's house, maybe give him a week off, and then force feed him fear until the boy was so full of dark Glamour that he'd burst into his Chrysalis. And then Maleficious would feast enough that he wouldn't need to haunt another child for months, possibly even a year.

Aunt Elizabeth attended church regularly. In fact, she attended daily Mass at St. Jude's parish. She often had Fr. Madeira, the pastor, over for dinner. At one such dinner that she told him of her troubled young nephew, Billy. Fr. Madeira listened with interest.

"He sounds like a troubled young boy," Fr. Madeira said, taking a sip of Aunt Elizabeth's coffee. Aunt Elizabeth nodded.

"Have you ever heard of such a thing, Father?" she asked. "Do you think he might be possessed?" Fr. Madeira chuckled, finished chewing the last bite of chocolate cake, and washed it down with some coffee before answering.

"No, Elizabeth, I don't think he's possessed," he responded.

"Will you talk to him, Father?" she pleaded. "I think someone should talk to him." Fr. Madeira nodded.

"I'll make a point of it. He sounds like a very interesting young man."

Billy loved Aunt Elizabeth's farm. The warm, sunny weather soothed troubled minds, and after a day or so of overprotection, Billy's mom let him have the run of the property.

They enjoyed Mass the first Sunday of their stay. Billy liked the looks of the small country church. Billy didn't know what "nostalgia" meant, but something about the walls of native stone and the thick dark wood rafters made Billy feel at home. If he leaned in close to the back of the pew in front of him and inhaled deeply, he could smell the hundred years of incense, beeswax, and the sweat left behind by thousands of worshippers who'd come to kneel before their God.

Billy also liked the priest who celebrated the Mass, but he didn't know exactly why. The priest seemed very sincere in his prayers. At most churches Billy had attended, the priests seemed to just go through the motions. Even old Fr. Sullivan from his home parish of St. Matthew's, whom his mother always referred to as "that holy, sainted man" and who always had a mint or other hard candy to give you if you could answer one of his "Pop God questions" ("Billy, how many Apostles are there?" Fr. Sullivan would ask. "Twelve, Father." That usually got you a good butterscotch candy.) - even he didn't really seem like he much believed in God any more. He was just going through the motions until he died.

After Mass, Billy told his mom that he wanted to meet the priest. His aunt beamed with pride. "Maybe a blossoming vocation here, eh?" she asked Billy's mom. Billy's mom rolled her eyes and ushered Billy toward the back of the church. Billy didn't have any idea what they were talking about. Aunt Elizabeth escorted them both to the sacristy, where Fr. Madeira was removing his chasuble.

"Fr. Madeira?" Aunt Elizabeth asked. The altar boys heard her and scattered. Aunt Elizabeth thought that alter boys were irresistibly cute and couldn't resist pinching their cheeks and cooing over them if she got within arm's reach. Fr. Madeira turned and smiled warmly.

"Good morning, Elizabeth," he said. He looked at Billy and his mom. "These must be your visitors." He shook Billy's mom's hand, and chatted with her for a while. Then he turned to Billy.

"So, you're Billy." Fr. Madeira squatted down so he'd be at eye level with the boy. A sense of power and strength emanated from the man, forcing Billy to take a step back, even though he liked Father very much.

"How do you like it at your Aunt Elizabeth's farm, Billy?" he asked. He was looking at Billy really intensely. Billy knew that it wasn't the question he really wanted to ask, but you don't pop out a big one like, "Hey, I heard you're a nutcase, Billy. What's up with that?" the first time you meet somebody.

Billy shrugged. "Okay, I guess."

"Lots of land she's got there. I bet you like playing with her farm animals, huh?" the priest asked. Billy nodded and fidgeted some. He had a question that he wanted to ask the priest.

"Do you really believe, Father?" he asked. Fr. Madeira blinked.

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