"I don't know if you believe in God or whatever, but before I lost my son, I had an intuition. I went in and sat on my bed and just kind of put my head back. And it was like God appeared in the hallway."

Cheryl Hansen pauses just long enough to make sure her listener is getting all this, then continues."And He said, `Love thy sons, for I'm taking one of them home on his birthday.' But I had two boys; which one was he going to take? Well, it turned out it was Troy. I feel that if this hadn't happened, He would have found a way for . . . well, not found a way, but He probably didn't mean for it to happen in the manner it did. But I think He was letting me know He wanted my son back."

She is utterly serious about that vision. She believes it with all her might - believes 6-year-old Troy Ward's brutal murder at the hands of Arthur Gary Bishop on June 22, 1983, was somehow part of a plan, albeit a strange and unfathomable one.

In large part, it's what gets her through the bad times. The thought that Troy was so special, so "perfect," that God wanted him in his presence both comforts her and confirms her own suspicions that her son was truly special. And when she gets down, she finds she can comfort herself by admiring a drawing of Troy cradled in the arms of God - a sketch given to her at the funeral.

Still, for Hansen, the bad times are getting fewer, the crying jags farther between. Although she misses her son, she has, to a remarkable degree, gotten on with her life. She seems determined not to let the void consume her as well. She works at a nursing home and was married late last year.

With a steady gaze and a stolid expression across her face, Hansen is matter-of-fact in recounting the events leading up to Troy's death and its aftermath.

"For the last three days he was alive, he slept in my bed with me because he felt like something was . . . I think he knew something was going to happen, and he wanted to express his love for me in a manner of holding me tight and saying `I love you Mommy.' "

In fact, Hansen is so unfazed that she almost seems to be coping too well. Part of it has to do with the countless times she's retold the same story - told it so many times that there are certain phrases and stories that are recited almost by rote. But what sometimes comes across as a lack of feeling is more likely a mental toughness time-tempered through years of adversity. In a life cratered with many personal pitfalls, Troy's death is her blackest depth of despair. But Hansen leaves the impression there's no hole she can't climb out of.

"You feel a sense of loss," she said. "And you feel bad that your son was murdered. But in my thoughts he's better off now than he was down here. Nobody will ever hurt him again. I don't feel sorry or angry. I'm just kind of living my life and not letting the past hold me back."

Even when contemplating Bishop's impending execution, Hansen was more practical than vengeful. She thinks life in prison would be a more severe penalty for the likes of Bishop. But she doesn't want her taxes used to keep him alive on death row.

"After he's gone, that's just one person we won't have to pay money to feed," she said.

Other victims' parents also show more charity toward Bishop than what might be expected. Debbie Fisher Robinson, mother of Alonzo Daniels, another Bishop victim, said she understands that Bishop was unbalanced, and for that reason she doesn't hold a grudge. But she does not forgive.

"I know he's sick," she said. "But to forgive him? I can't forgive him for taking my son's life. I just don't understand why he couldn't have let him go."

In some ways, she's even less forgiving of the police detectives who she said accused her of selling her son after she failed a polygraph in the days following his disappearance on Oct. 16, 1979 - the first in Bishop's assembly line of death.

"The police found a mattress in my room with a blood stain," she said. "They thought I might have hurt him."

She said she believes she flunked the polygraph test - as did Cheryl Hansen - because of the guilt she felt at his death - a guilt perhaps any parent would feel, regardless of culpability.

"He went to clean up his room, but he was spilling stuff, so I spanked him and restricted him from going outside. Then I was doing my laundry and he came up to me and said, `Mommy, I'm sorry. Can I go outside and play?' And I said, `yes.'

"I felt guilty because I got soft-hearted and let him go out. If I had stuck to his restriction, you know, maybe this wouldn't have happened. I carry that guilt a lot."

Robinson now lives in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where she moved with her husband. She works as a hostess in a restaurant and spends much of her spare time worrying about her two boys, one of whom shows the same gregariousness that she believes brought death to Alonzo.

"I have a 5-year-old, and if you put his picture with Alonzo, they look exactly alike. It scares me because he's friendly. He has a big smile, and big brown eyes. He's not scared of nothin'."

She said she's come a long way from the years immediately following her son's death - years characterized by alcoholism, drug abuse and "hanging out with the wrong crowd," people she would only describe as criminals and drug users.

But after a stay in a detoxification center in 1985, Robinson began a slow ascent back to respectability and self-respect. She finally found she could talk about her feelings, finally express the anger, frustration and the astonishment that something so horrible could have happened to her.

But the legacy of Arthur Gary Bishop still intrudes into her life. She said she still suffers annual grief around Alonzo's birthday and Christmas. At those times, she maintains an even keel only by thumbing through a collection of photos.

"It's not like it used to be where it was haunting me every day and was looking at every child," she said. "But around those times of year, I have a little book with baby pictures. I save it for those particular times, and I go through it. . . . I miss him. I want him back."

She also said she and her husband have separated, due at least in part to the self-absorption of those annual bouts of grief.

"Sometimes I don't know if I will ever get over it," she confessed. "I'm kinda like . . . I'm striving to make my life happy." Then, as though trying to convince herself, she added: "I believe I'll make it."

But where Robinson is hesitant about the future, Claude and Lora-Lee Petersen are absolutely sure. They insist on it. They feel they were victimized once and for all when Bishop took the life of their son, 11-year-old Kim Petersen, on Nov. 9, 1981. They simply won't allow him to continue to intrude on their lives.

"About the time the trial ended, we realized that if the bitterness and pain and anger - or however many words you want to use - if we let that become too much of our life, it would consume us," said Claude Pe-tersen. "That was the reason we didn't go to the sentencing. If we let ourselves be victimized by him, the only thing it will do is we will become other victims. We just said that's not going to happen."

The Petersens, who moved to Henderson, Nev., about a year ago, said they try to focus on the positive things - on their two daughters and the other "blessings."

"We say as long as he can't hurt any people, we don't care about him," Claude Petersen said. "He's not a part of our consciousness."

"And we're also saying we don't focus on the violent way Kim died," added LoraLee Petersen. "We miss him and we talk to the girls about him and they know about him. But we try to focus on the positive things. That's our choice."

And Bishop's execution, she said, is only another form of the nihilism they want to leave behind.

The execution "won't really be any relief to us," she said. "It's still a form of violence, and we don't want to focus on that at all. The only relief with him passing on is that we won't have to keep going through what we're going through now. This is hard because it puts us back quite a few steps when we focus on the bad times."

They reserve judgment on whether Bishop's much-publicized apologies to the families are sincere or not.

"If he's really doing it for me, it won't make me happy," said Lora-Lee Petersen. "It won't make my journey any easier."

Throughout, the Petersens stressed that they have tried to put the tragedy into perspective, and they don't kid themselves into thinking their attempts are always successful. But by and large, the Peter-sens come across as an example of the kind of strength a family can muster to cope with an incomprehensible loss.

They also make it clear that part of their fortitude comes from their religion. Claude Petersen said that while they were previously involved with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they have now become "somewhat hard-core Mormons."

"We're not dogmatic," said Claude Petersen. "But religion plays more of a day-to-day role than it used to."

LoraLee Petersen said that perhaps their most important lesson has been to stop taking things for granted.

"You kind of slide along in life," she said. "You think things always happen to someone else and that things are great and wonderful. But it's not true. It can happen to anyone. It makes us appreciate so much more the few minutes we can have with our girls.

"We still go through hard times," she acknowledged. "There are days when it pops up and we have a hard time. Those are the times when I go and try to count my blessings. If I always focus on what I don't have, that leads to bitterness, and I don't want that to be a part of our lives. If we allow ourselves to feel that bitterness, the family feels it; the children are very perceptive. If I let it become a part of me it will become a part of them. I have that choice. And I won't let that happen."