The envelope was bright gold, in a way that mortal paper never could even pretend to be, and the postal delivery man had wings on his shoes.
"Eric Bittle?" the messenger said, approaching the counter at the A Bit of Heaven bakery.
Bitty had to swallow twice before he could manage to croak out, "I'm - that's me."
"Sign here," the messenger said, holding out a clipboard and a quill pen.
Bitty scratched his name next to the large X and the messenger handed over the envelope. "Have a Blessed day!" he said and then simply disappeared. Bitty was left holding a golden envelope in an empty pastry shop.
"If that's a customer, you tell 'em we're fixin' to close," his grandmother said, coming out of the kitchen looking frazzled. "My stars, you'd think we were the only bakery in town, the way they carry on!"
"Maybe not the only one but certainly the best!" Suzanne, Bitty's mother, bragged as she followed her mother, broom and mop in hand.
"Wasn't a customer," Bitty managed to say, and something about the way he said it must have sounded odd, turning their attention away from the usual closing routines.
Suzanne's eyes fell on the envelope in her son's hand and her hand flew to her mouth. "Dicky, where did that come from?"
"A messenger just brought it," Bitty said. "It's got my name on it."
"Well it's not gonna open itself," MooMaw said practically. "Best see what it's all about before we start frettin'."
With shaking hands, Bitty pressed his thumb against the flap so it would register that he was the authorized recipient. The envelope unfolded in his hand revealing a gold-colored card stamped with the official seal from the North-Eastern Temple Headquarters for the Americas.
"Go on, read it," MooMaw encouraged him.
Bitty cleared his throat. "To Eric R. Bittle of Madison, Georgia. You are hereby notified that you have been selected to serve at the Northeastern regional temple in Boston, Massachusetts for your mandatory year of Temple Service. Please report to your local temple on the first day of Hekatombaion, being the day after Midsummer, for transport to the Temple. Failure to do so will cause a curse to be inflicted upon you and your family unto the fourth generation. Have a Blessed day."
Suzanne collapsed into a chair. "Massachusetts! That's so far away! Oh Dickie! I thought you'd serve at the Athens temple, or maybe Atlanta, where you could come home on market day, but up North!"
"Huh," Moomaw said, and Bitty could feel her sharp eyes piercing him, as if she could see that he had checked the "not in local area" box when filling out his draft registration form. "Now Suzanne, there's no call to be carryin' on like this," she said briskly, turning to her daughter who had begun weeping into her hands. "It's not like Eric's goin' to the far side of the world, and it's only for a year."
"What will your father say?" Suzanne lamented, ignoring her mother. "You know that he's been hoping that you'd get Athletic duty."
"Mama, that wasn't gonna happen," Bitty pointed out. "I'm too small for most of the games, 'cept maybe track." A fact that had been pointed out to him - many many times - by the other boys at school, usually with their fists. Because of that, Bitty had learned to run fast, but having only one field sport was a handicap in Athletic selection. Maybe if he'd continued figure skating he could have had a chance but he'd had to quit when they moved back to Madison.
"Best head on home and tell him," MooMaw said. "We'll finish cleaning up in the morning."
Coach was already at home when they arrived, as usual, as the summer training sessions were shorter than the ones during the rest of the year. Richard Bittle was the Head Coach at the local Stadium in Madison, where he trained those local athletes hoping to make the Olympic teams in track and field. Coach had been a star athlete when he was a young man, competing at the Southern Regional games for eight seasons, as well as four National games and twice at the International Games in Greece. Even in middle age he was the perfect specimen of an athlete and Bitty often wondered if Coach was bewildered to have produced such a runt of a son. Not that Coach ever said anything like that, and he'd been the one to suggest the move back to Madison after he'd found out how the boys at the high school had treated Bitty. But each time that one of Coach's young men were selected for Athletic service, Bitty couldn't help wondering if Coach wished that they were his son instead.
Suzanne led the way into Coach's home office as soon as they entered the house, crying out, "Richard, it's all so awful! Dickie's received his Selection letter! What are we going to do?"
Coach got up from his desk, aware that no more work would get done until Suzanne had had her say. He wrapped an arm around her and gave her a kiss on the cheek saying, "Don't think there's much we can do, honey, but let's sit down in the den and talk - you'll be more comfortable there."
Mollified, Suzanne led the way towards the back of the house, veering into the kitchen to get refreshments to tide them over till dinner.
Coach paused a minute beside his son who was hovering in the doorway and gave him a searching look. "All right there, son?"
Bitty nodded and smiled wanly. "Yessir, Coach. It's just Mama...." His voice trailed off and he gave a helpless shrug.
Coach chuckled. "Well, you know your mother! She's got her dander up right now but let her talk it out and she'll come 'round. Can't argue with Selection, after all."
Bitty nodded and followed his parents into the den, curling up in the big armchair and wrapping his arms around his knees. It was a defensive posture, he knew that, but at the moment he needed all the help he could get.
"So what's it to be?" Coach asked once he'd settled into his easy chair. "The Temple, I expect - don't see you asking for shuffling papers in Civil service."
Bitty nodded. "Yessir, a year at the temple in Boston."
Coach frowned in thought. "That's somewhere Up North, isn't it?"
"Massachusetts!" Suzanne lamented, entering the room with a tray laden with glasses of lemonade and a plate of cookies from the bakery. Bitty jumped up to help her, setting the tray on the coffee table and handing out glasses to his parents. "It's practically in Canada!"
Coach bit back a smile. "Last time I checked a map, Massachusetts was still in the Good Ol' US of A."
"Richard, you know what I mean!" Suzanne said sharply. "It's thousands of miles away, and they have snow and cold in the winter, and what if Dickie gets sick? You know how susceptible he is to colds! And with his family too far away to take care of him - "
"Mama!" Bitty turned pink with embarrassment; he'd been sickly as a child but there'd been nothing like that for years and years.
"I think the Temple will be able to take care of its acolytes, Suzanne," Coach said soothingly. "And it's not as if he couldn't pick up the phone and call us if he needed anything."
"But I was counting on Dickie being close enough to come home on market days and festivals!" Suzanne lamented. "My best friend, Marcia, was going to set up a Dickie with a date with her niece who's apprenticed as a cook with the Stadium in Athens - wouldn't that be nice? Maybe we can request an exemption, say that Dickie's engaged to be married? Surely they wouldn't send him so far away then."
"That would be dishonest, honey, and you know the gods punish dishonesty," Coach said gravely. "And hubris, too, to think that we know better than they do. We should be proud that Junior was selected to serve in the temple, no matter how far away."
Suzanne sighed. "I suppose so," she said forlornly.
"Mama," Bitty said, thinking to give her something new to focus on. "It's only a month till I have to go and I'm not sure if I have the right things to wear."
Suzanne immediately brightened up. Shopping was her second-favorite thing after baking, and she began composing a lists of essentials that Bitty would need to take with him. "Oh! And we need to have a gathering for all the family! Not like that little party your Aunt Judy had when her eldest was called up, but a real big family get-together on Midsummer!"
Bitty nodded eagerly - there was nothing that he liked better than feeding a whole crowd of folks - and soon he and his mother had their heads bent together over guest lists and food ideas. Coach, knowing that his job was done, slipped back to his office to finish working on his team roster for the fall season.
And if he spent a good portion of the next hour staring at the desk photos of his son over the years, there was no one else there to take note of the moisture in his eyes and on his cheeks.