This wasn’t the story I thought I was going to write. And I waited to late in the day to start, so take that for what it is. At least I wrote!
Hunter Vanderson wanted to be a saint. Adults were always asking him what he wanted to be when he grew up, and that’s what he said. “A saint.”
Some adults laughed and some looked confused at his earnest reply. “Since when was you Catolic?” asked Mr. Fustings next door when he heard the news.
At the time, Hunter had never heard of a Catolic. “I’m not Catolic, sir,” he replied. “I’m six.”
Mr. Fustings grumbled and headed straight to Hunter’s parents and told them they better keep a closer eye on their boy.
“What’s this about being a saint?” his father asked.
“What’s filling your head with such?” his mother wanted to know. Had he been sleeping with his window open again? Maybe he was getting a head cold.
His older sister, Daisy, eight, laughed. “You’re gonna get eat by a lion,” she said. “That what Preacher Peabody says. Saints is just lion snack cakes.” She poked her brother’s stomach. “A lion ain’t gonna like you much though. I bet you taste like week old brussel sprouts.”
Their father smacked her hand away. “Leave your brother alone, young lady. A lion would like him fine!” His family looked at him. “And there isn’t any lions around here.”
“Zeke!” Hunter’s mother stood with her arms crossed over her chest. “You always on about being the king of your castle. Well?” She nodded at their son. “This here son of yours is talkin’ about bringing the devil into your kingdom. What’re you gonna do about it?”
His father ended up not doing much. Hunter was sent to bed with a bible to read and an empty stomach. He never had to confess why he’d been telling anyone who would listen of his wish to be a saint.
Everything he knew about saints came from a picture he found in the street. A diligent eye could find all kinds of things in the gutters and parking lots. It was a scrap from a magazine that had caught his attention. A slick page, colorful in spite of its time being blown about in the sunshine.
It was a picture of a man looking heavenward and a hint of a smile. Hunter liked the smile. It was nothing like a smirk or a grin. And an aura of gold light encircled the man’s head. Knowing better than to show anyone at home the picture, he asked his teacher. Miss Roy stared at the picture for a minute, with her usual, steady gaze. “He’s…a saint.”
“What’s a saint?”
“Oh, well…I guess a saint is a very good person.”
“How do you know he’s a saint?”
“The light around his head.” She looked away to scan the playground for the other children. They weren’t likely to go missing, but she was religious about checking on them and counting heads.
Hunter waited for her eyes to come back to him. “But you don’t have a light around your head and you’re a good person.”
She almost laughed. “You’re sweet, Hunter. But the artist can see the light and then help us see it. Okay?”
He nodded and tucked the picture in his pocket. He didn’t understand at all.
“You should ask your folks, Hunter. I’m not really the one to explain beliefs.”
“Why?” he asked. He recognized that face Miss Roy got when she didn’t want to answer a question. He was sorry he’d made her look at him that way.
But then Colby Clawson tripped and fell face first on the pebbled playground. Colby screamed like he always did when something didn’t go the way expected. Nobody screamed like Colby.
A saint is a very good person. If he were a very good person, people would see the gold light around his head in photographs. With that thought in his head, Hunter ran after Miss Roy to help red-faced Colby Clawson.
Hunter dashed past Miss Roy, taking longer to run in the pea gravel in her pale green high heels.
Hunter knelt beside Colby. “Hey,” he said, unsure how to be helpful. The screams hurt his ears and he worked hard to keep a helpful face.
Colby stopped screaming. He’d never had anyone but a teacher come to him when he fell.
Hunter pulled his schoolmate up to his feet. “You okay?”
Colby nodded, wiping sweat from his face with his fingers. Hunter patted Colby’s shoulder. He’d seen adults do that sometimes, pat each other when someone sounded upset.
Colby looked like he might scream again, but instead he spun around and ran toward the swings.
Miss Roy was looking down at him. She stood lopsided in the gravel. Sweat glistened across her face. “That was nice of you, Hunter.”
“I’m going to be a saint when I grow up,” he said.
“Oh. Okay. Um…yeah. That sounds great. Good.”
But Hunter never told his family about the picture or Colby.
“You can be a good person,” his father finally said one night when it was just the two of them sitting on the sofa, sharing a bag of microwave popcorn and watching another super hero save the world. “But I don’t want hear no more talk about being a saint. You got that?”
Hunter swallowed the over buttered popcorn and a broken kernel lodge itself under his tongue. “How come?” He stuck a finger his mouth to get at the kernel.
“Didn’t you listen to your sister none?” he asked.
“But dad, you said yourself you don’t got no lions around here. Not even at the Harris’s farm where they got that petting zoo.”
His father sighed. “Boy, I mean the getting eaten part. I just mean saints get tossed to lions. They get killed. People kill ‘em. You got to be dead to be a saint, and that’s why your mother don’t wanna hear about you being a saint.”
“What about you, dad? You believe that?”
“I don’t know. I see no reason to go looking for lions though. You get yourself a proper job and you’ll be safe. See? Just like we are here.”
Hunter didn’t know what to make of this. Miss Roy hadn’t said anything about saints having to die. His father offered him more popcorn but Hunter shook his head. How could you do good things if you died? That familiar feeling of not being told things came over him.
His dad sat beside him now staring at the TV. A handful of popcorn crunched in Zeke Vanderson’s mouth. He took another swig of his beer. The light from the screen glinted on his glasses.
Hunter suddenly found his dad more interesting than the superheroes throwing cars at each other. Maybe his dad didn’t know everything. Maybe he was wrong about saints. The saint in the magazine picture didn’t look dead.
“I’m going to bed, Dad.”
“What? But the movie’s not over.”
“It’s okay. I’m tired.”
His father shrugged. “Night then,” he said and turned back to the TV. The slightly scorched popcorn bag rested in his hand.
Hunter headed down the hall, not paying much attention to anything other than the questions in his head. He brushed his teeth and climbed into bed. He tucked the picture of the saint under his pillow. Who could he ask about saints? Who in his world could be trusted to tell him the truth about being good and dying?
Curled under his thin blanket, he stared at the lines of light coming through his old blinds. It was late, but the street lights burned bright all night.
A strange sound snapped him awake. He’d been about to drift off. Someone or something was making a lot noise, beating the walls possibly. He waited for his father’s voice. If someone was breaking in, his dad would take care of it. His dad had a gun and army boots. Every time he cleaned his gun, he’d smile proudly.
“We is safe as houses in here!” he’d say.
If someone was breaking in, his father would get them. Unbidden, a lion came to
mind. Imagine a lion coming in through the window! He wasn’t entirely sure his dad could shoot a lion. The banging stopped. If he was honest, he wasn’t sure his dad had it in him to shoot a man.
His mother and sister were spending the night elsewhere. Aunt Nicole had had another baby and they’d gone to help out for a few days.
The music of the ending credits drifted down the hall. Hunter got out of bed and made his way back to the living room. He went slowly and didn’t turn on any lights.
His father was in the living room, stretched out on the floor, his eyes glazed. Popcorn was down his front and pieces stuck to his face. “Dad?” Hunter’s heart picked up speed. He knelt beside his father. “Dad?”
His father wasn’t breathing. No gold light appeared around him. He had no aura. He had only the light of the television.
Years later, Hunter knew a lot more about saints. He knew more than anyone in his family or Miss Roy or any teacher since. And when people asked him what he wanted to do with his life, he still liked to say he wanted to be a saint. Some people laughed, but a few asked why.
“Because my dad taught me not to be afraid of lions,” he’d say. No one understood exactly what he meant, but they always accepted his help.