“Jed!” Rafael whispered as loud as he dared. “Jed, where are you?”
He heard the dry leaves rustle behind him in the dark woods.
“Jed! Oh look at what they did to you!” He wiped the stream of blood that ran down the boy's bruised face. “You shouldn't have stayed. They weren't after you, y'know. It was really me that got Hector angry. He don't like when people leave his gang.”
“Go...” Jed's voice trailed off as he closed his eyes.
“I can't leave you here! Hector will be looking for us.” Rafael sat next to Jed and wrapped his arms around his knees. His cheek stung, and it felt sticky with blood. “Why did you take my beating? I ain't been the greatest friend. Fact is, I was once as mean as Hector, laughing at you and throwing mud at you and stuff.”
“It doesn't matter. Everyone is like that on the inside, even if they don't say anything.”
Rafael hung his head. “I don't want to be like that anymore. I'm sorry, Jed.”
A damp fog floated around them, making even the air thick and hard to breathe.
“Go to my house. My dad will keep you safe.”
“You mean the king's house on the hill?” He shook his head. “They won't let me in. I tried once to visit you. I thought maybe if I saw how you lived, I could make myself a better boy, but they wouldn't let me in. I even pulled the weeds and swept the path, so that maybe I could buy my way in, but still they said I couldn't come in.” He rubbed his sore cheek. “Maybe if I try to clean myself up, they'd let me in.”
“I have been getting a room ready for you.”
“For me? Why?”
“Because I want you to be my friend, my brother. I love you, Rafael.”
A cool breeze blew through the woods and the poor boy shivered. “Your brother? You've got everything you could ever want. Why would you want me to be your brother?”
“Take my shirt.”
“No, I'll get it dirty.” Yet, Rafael eyed the warm wool shirt in Jed's hand. “If I brought you some water, maybe I could take it then.”
“It's yours. I'm giving it to you.”
Rafael's eyes glistened with tears in the moonlight. “But, I ain't got no rights to it!”
“It's a gift.”
Both jumped as a dog's howl reverberated through the night.
“Take it, Rafael. Go now! They will let you in.”
“But what about you? Hector will kill you!”
“I”m fine. I'll catch up with you later, after I take care of him.” He offered the shirt again.
Rafael slowly reached out his thin grimy hand and took it. He never saw a shirt with no holes or tears or even a smudge of dirt on it. As he slipped his arm into the sleeve, a soothing comfort warmed his whole body. “Thanks, Jed. It's great.”
As Rafael scurried through the woods, the brambles seemed to trip him and clutch at his arms and legs. He could hear the dogs barking in the distance, coming closer and closer. His heart pounded. He gave a final burst of effort to break free of the tangled brush and into the path that led to the house on the hill.
He stopped. There it was, the King's house, gleaming in the soft light, so magnificent and beautiful!
Rafael's pulse beat like a drum in his ears as he neared the gate. Maybe he could ask for a job in the stables or kitchen. He didn't deserve a room in that wonderful place. He didn't deserve this warm shirt. He looked down and gasped as he saw that his hands were clean! He turned them over and back again in amazement. He touched his cheeks and knew the blood was gone.
Standing before the door, his knobby knees wobbled as he raised his hand to knock... but it opened!
A man with white hair and kind eyes looked down at him. “Hello, Young Man. Come in!”
“Hello, Sir. I'd like to come in, but I'm wicked and dirty and don't got no rights to be here.”
“You are dressed in my Son's shirt. That is enough for me.”
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