Rocco slowed down as he pulled onto his driveway. He could see the lights on in the kitchen and his sister Emmalyn setting the long table. He heard what sounded like a morning dove and stopped the car. Out of necessity, he had learned to be on guard for things out of place.
“Step out of the truck!” came the voice, not quite deep enough to be a grown man. “Move slowly and keep your hands where we can see them.”
Rocco obeyed and searched the sturdy boughs of the trees over the drive but could see no one. He should have come home earlier before it got dark. He shook his head as he firmly planted his feet on the dirt driveway. He had been in a gang, too, when he was a teenager. He heard one, two, and three soft drops onto the ground but they stayed deliberately out of sight. Next came the clumsy climbing out of the leafy branches. Within seconds came their hearty and jubilant war cry and the soft stings of three-dozen nerf bullets. Rocco threw his head back and laughed as eleven boys with painted faces surrounded him.
“We got you, Rocco!” the littlest one cried.
“Nice work, men!” the two oldest sent high-fives around the group.
“I’m glad to see you training your younger brothers,” Rocco smiled at Adam and Lance. The seventeen year olds stuck out their chests with pride.
The dinner bell rang and they all climbed in the bed of Rocco’s truck. They laughed each time Rocco intentionally hit a pothole.
Hugo, who was seven, jumped on his back as soon as he was out of the cab.
“I shot you!” he shouted.
“You’re a good shot, Hugo,” Rocco encouraged him.
“This is the first time they let me come! I told them since my birthday was last week and I was seven now, it was only fair that I come along.”
“Seven years old is practically a man, after all,” Rocco ruffled Hugo’s black curls as he set him down inside the front door.
“Rocco’s home!” came the squeal from seven-year-old Holly – Hugo’s twin – and eight-year-old Waverly. Rocco picked up both girls, one in each arm.
“Now what trouble have my littlest princesses gotten into today?” he asked.
“We helped Emmalyn make bread this afternoon,” Holly answered.
“Yes, I can see that,” Rocco laughed. “There’s flour in your hair.”
Waverly giggled. “We had some trouble with the mixer.”
Rocco kissed the girls on their heads, set them down, and watched them run back to the kitchen. All of the children stole his heart in their own unique way. Holly and Hugo had been with him since they were four. He had found them wandering around the back roads, along with their triplet, Howie. Howie was sick. They had done their best to help him heal but he only lived three months after coming to the orphanage. It was heartbreaking. Rocco hated the brokenness that existed in the world and hated even more that there was so little he could do about it.
“Buonasera,” Penelope said, coming around the corner.
“Buonsaera, principessa,” Rocco smiled at her and wrapped her in a bear hug. “I am so proud of you, Penelope,” he said.
“What for?” she asked against his chest. She loved the way he always smelled like sunshine and sweet tree bark.
“For how you have grown up to a strong woman full of grace, love, and mercy. You know who you are and I love that about you. That takes great strength.”
She looked up into his kind face. “You really think so?”
“Yes,” he said without hesitating. “You are special. Not all seventeen-year-olds are like that.” He pushed her blonde bangs off her face. Penelope was plain in comparison with Aurora, but there was a beauty that radiated from Penelope’s heart that could not be surpassed. He formally escorted her into the kitchen where everyone was scurrying around to put the last dishes on the table and get to their seats.
“Boys,” Rocco said to Victor and Hugo, “Wait for the ladies to sit before you do.”
“That’s everything,” Emmalyn said as she slid the last pot onto the table. She undid her apron, hung it over her chair, and sat down with a deep sigh. “Raven, Iris, and Juliette helped with dinner tonight,” she said and the other girls sat down, following her example.
“Thank you, girls,” Rocco said as he scooted his chair closer to the table. “It smells heavenly.” He reached his hands out and smiled as everyone joined hands around the table. “Father God,” he prayed. “Thank You for this day and this food. Help us to glorify You in everything we do. Help us to grow closer together and closer to You. Please help us find children who need a place to live. Jesus, thank You for Emmalyn, Adam, Lance, Penelope, Raven, Gareth, Iris, Duncan, Rook, Juliette, Olympia, Bess, Nicole, Corin, Shasta, Eponine, Felicity, Rowan, Leo, Victor, Terra, Waverly, Hugo, and Holly. Thank You for taking us in as Your sons and daughters. In Your name, Lord Jesus, Amen.”
“Amen,” was the chorus around the table and then the feast began.
“What did everyone do today?” Rocco asked.
“The older girls helped me make winter clothes this morning,” Emmalyn began.
“And we baked bread this afternoon,” Waverly reminded him.
“Duncan and Rook let us go with them when they took it to the homeless shelter in town,” Holly said around a mouthful of mashed potatoes.
“Oh, did they?” Rocco asked and exchanged a glance with Emmalyn. “That was nice of the boys to take you along. Did you tell them thank you?”
“Thank you!” the girls said in unison.
“What’d you do today?” Iris asked.
“I planted three Rowan trees today, actually.”
“Me?” the ten-year-old asked.
“Yes, you,” Rocco smiled. “They’re still saplings but they’ll grow quickly.”
“Just like me!”
“Just like you,” Emmalyn laughed. “I’ve let out the hem of your pants four times already this year.”
Rowan beat his chest with pride. The rest of dinner passed with laughter. Everyone sat back in his or her seat, fully satisfied. Rocco could not help but notice that there were no leftovers. God always provided exactly enough – like manna from Heaven.
“Bess, would you hand me the bible, please?” he asked. The shy fourteen-year-old obeyed quietly. “Grazi, principessa,” he kissed her forehead when she handed it to him. She bowed her head in respect and went back to her seat. Bess had been with them for two years and rarely spoke. She had only told Emmalyn a little bit of the misfortune that had befallen her thus driving her to the streets. She had no father and that was enough for Rocco to make sure he was especially careful with her. They did not talk much – which was fine with Rocco; he was not a talkative man. He took her horseback riding and she would follow him around his early morning chores. She was wide-eyed, watching and learning from everything around her.
“Who remembers where we left off?” Emmalyn chimed.
Corin, who was twelve, sat up in his chair. “Isaiah just told King Hezekiah that all of his possessions would be taken by the Babylonians one day.”
“And some of his decedents, too,” Nicole, who was thirteen, added.
“Very good,” Rocco encouraged them. “Thank you. That was chapter thirty-nine of Isaiah. We’ll pick right back up with chapter forty. Everyone ready?” They all nodded. Rocco cleared his throat, prayed God would open the ears of their hearts, and began reading from the bible.
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice of one calling: ‘In the desert prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’” Rocco coughed, feeling all the dirt of today stuck in his throat. He took a drink of water. “Adam,” he said and passed the bible to his right. “Will you read, please?”
Adam sat up straighter. Rocco had loved watching him grow over the past ten years. Adam had been the first boy he had taken off the streets. It was a blessing to have watched his life. He had truly become a man. Rocco was proud of him. He cleared his throat and read in a clear, strong voice.
“A voice says, ‘Cry out.’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ ‘All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.’ You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’ See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and His arm rules for Him. See, His reward is with Him, and His recompense accompanies Him. He tends His flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them close to His heart; He gently leads those who have young.”
Rocco looked up when he heard a sniff across the table from him. Eponine, who was eleven, had her head bowed, but Rocco was sure the tears were coming from her. Rocco had found Eponine on the riverbank when she was just one-year-old.
“Jesus, please hold her in Your arms, close to Your heart,” he prayed sincerely. It had never been easy running an orphanage and he knew it would never become easy. He also knew, however, that it was right. He would not trade the heartache for the entire world because he knew he was making a difference in these children’s lives. If he could care for even one child and teach that child that there was a God in Heaven who loved him or her, then the heartache was worth it.
Adam passed the book to Lance, whom Adam had found unconscious at age thirteen. Lance pushed back his blonde curls and read clearly.
“Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens? Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance? Who has understood the mind of the Lord, or instructed Him as his counselor? Whom did the Lord consult to enlighten Him, and who taught Him the right way? Who was it that taught Him knowledge or showed Him the path of understanding? Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales; He weighs the islands as though they were fine dust. Lebanon is not sufficient for altar fires, nor its animals enough for burnt offerings. Before Him all the nations are as nothing; they are regarded by Him as worthless and less than nothing. To whom, then, will you compare God? What image will you compare Him to? As for an idol, a craftsman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and fashions silver chains for it. A man too pour to present such an offering selects wood that will not rot. He looks for a skilled craftsman to set up an idol that will not topple.”
Lance passed the book across the table to Emmalyn. Never having been to school, she read very slowly, despite being twenty-eight years old.
“Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded? He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers.”
Victor and Leo giggled. “Grasshopper!” one nine-year-old whispered to the other.
“He stretches out the heavens like a canopy; and spreads them out like a tent to live in. He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing. No sooner are they planted, no sooner are they sown, no sooner do they take root in the ground, than He blows on them and they wither, and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.” Emmalyn passed the heavy bible back to Rocco.“‘To whom will you compare Me? Or who is My equal?’ says the Holy One. Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of His great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing. Why do you say, O Jacob, and complain, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God’? Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and His understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”