My mind wandered off again at Luke 13:30 in my KJV Bible: "And, behold, there are last which shall be first, and there are first which shall be last." I know it's silly, but ever since that day, whenever I read that verse I think of him.
Archie was my first love, a ragtag little boy who bragged all summer about starting kindergarten in the fall. As a sophisticated first grader, perhaps I would condescend to visit him from the big kid's side of his chainlink cage. Perhaps.
Ours was a stolen love: my parents forbade me and my sisters to play with any of the Morgans. I didn't know why. I didn't understand the peculiar smell on Mrs. Morgan's breath or why her speech was slurred. I thought it odd that she was always in that tattered nightgown with her hair disheveled when I'd race Archie back to his house. I asked my mother why Archie had all those uncles and where his daddy was, but she just frowned and said, "Shush!" That was the first time Daddy spanked me: he knew I had disobeyed.
But I loved Archie, and if I didn't take care of him, who would? I remember those terrible overalls. One side seam was split, so he'd clutch them with one hand to keep them on and hide the holes in his dingy underwear. Is that why he never beat me at racing? Was he just concentrating on keeping his pants up?
The day I saw that ugly burn on his arm they were even worse. He wouldn't talk, but the suspender buckle was broken and the strap torn. Even with two hands they kept falling that day, so I sneaked the big safety pin from my mother's sewing box and fastened the strap together. I didn't care if I got spanked: Archie was crying.
Archie yearned for school: he wanted to read like I did. He wanted a puppy, and he wanted to visit the beach. He had never seen the ocean but his mother promised their whole family would go on his birthday. It would be a picnic like the ones I described, with fried chicken and everything. He could eat the leg, his mother promised. They'd have potato chips and rootbeer, with chocolate cupcakes. Over and over he told me, until we both knew the menu by heart. Every day we'd meet behind Mrs. Hamilton's camellia bush. I'd bring storybooks and read to him. He'd follow my finger and read with me, but I knew he was only pretending: he just memorized the words.
I asked Archie which day was his birthday, but all he could say was, "soon". Then that Saturday late in August he was so excited he stuttered. "T...t....tommmmorrow I. . .I'm five!" We talked about his picnic -- digging forts, building sandcastles, and chasing waves. "I can swim," he told me solemnly, but I knew he was lying. When he said, "I wish you could come," I knew it was the truth.
After church that Sunday we three girls were tussling with Dad while Mom fixed lunch. Music was playing on the radio. I remember Mom hushing us so she could hear the news. She always did that -- no reason for alarm.
I thought of Archie's picnic while waiting for the news to end. As I picked fuzz from the rug, I heard it: Archie Morgan. . . birthday party. . . five years old. . . tragic accident . . . deep hole. But Archie couldn't swim.
I remember rocking on my mother's lap for the longest time, while Daddy told me how sometimes the first would be last, and the last would be first: Jesus said so. "Archie was the lastborn in his family," he said, "but firstborn in heaven. God in His wisdom, took Archie home."
I didn't know what my mother meant when she said, "Yes, before it's too late." I just knew my best friend was gone.
Sometimes I wonder, am I the only one left who remembers Archie? I wonder if anyone else he knew on earth has reached heaven? All the time I was racing Archie to his house, Archie was racing for home. Perhaps he's waiting there for me at the finish line under a camellia bush. It's taking me a long, long time to catch up. I know it's silly. With Jesus beside him, I should rejoice. But when I think of Archie, even now I cry.
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