Authors: Sharlene MacLaren
Tags: #General Fiction
She pursed her lips in a straight line but refrained from speaking, so he went on, treading lightly.
“I know you don’t want to see me, and I can respect that, but don’t deny me my niece and nephew, Rachel. They need me as much as I need them.”
She moved to the sink and started rinsing dishes in silence. He walked up next to her, putting his back to the sink and folding his arms, his large frame dwarfing her small one. “Tell me what it is that makes you so angry with me.”
“I don’t feel like talking about it,” she said flatly.
“Are you mad because I’m the one who lived?”
“Oh, stop it,” she spat, bending to open the dishwasher.
“Or maybe you wish we’d gone together?”
“I said stop it,” she hissed. In fast succession, she loaded plates, cups, and saucers in the dishwasher rack, hardly caring how she arranged them.
He sniffed and swallowed. “I can’t turn back the clock, Rachel. You don’t know how much I wish I could—or how many times I’ve replayed that day in my head, wondering what I could have said or done differently to keep him from taking Devil’s Run.”
Her teeth had a firm hold on her lower lip as a tear slid down her cheek. If he didn’t think she’d bolt on him, he would have dabbed at it. “We’ve always been close, Rachel—you, John, and me. I know he’s gone, but can’t you and I at least be friends?”
“I—I don’t know,” she stammered, swiping the stray tear with the back of her hand. “And that’s the plain truth.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
Rachel couldn’t believe how the day was dragging on. Would the man ever leave? First, he’d made fast work of the garage, hauling items back to the basement and placing everything in its rightful place under her supervision. Then, he’d swept out the garage and moved her car back inside. Next, he’d set to changing lightbulbs, fixing a loose door hinge, replacing the batteries in all the smoke detectors, and finally mowing the lawn, with Meagan sitting on his lap and helping to drive the lawn tractor. Normally, Rachel hired someone for that job, but the sixteen-year-old who’d done it all summer had quit when school had started again, so it’d been a good two weeks since the lawn had been mowed. She made a mental note to look in the classifieds for someone willing to take on the task through the end of fall. By seven thirty, she and Meagan were hungry, but at the risk of having to invite Jason to stay, she delayed fixing anything. It wasn’t that she didn’t appreciate his hard work; she just didn’t like feeling indebted—or encouraging his sense of obligation to her.
Seeing him for the first time in ten months had shaken her topsy-turvy world at a dangerous tilt, reminding her of long ignored issues—namely, issues that went back further than John’s death, things Jason knew good and well she harbored. Oh, why couldn’t he have left them alone?
She sat at her office desk, sorting through a wad of unopened mail. Johnny sat nearby, playing with blocks. Several minutes later, Jason sauntered in, all sweat and grime, and wearing a buttery smile. His dark, almost black, hair was a mess, and his matching deep-set eyes assessed her. Meagan clung to his pant leg like a wet noodle.
“I see you’ve had a chance to do a little cleaning.”
Her housekeeping habits were none of his concern, and she resented his observation. “I couldn’t very well sit idle while you sweated away, could I?”
His smile widened. She took care not to return the expression, going back to her mail, instead. “I do appreciate all you’ve done, Jason, but you can leave whenever. You’re probably tired.”
“Not till we’ve eaten. Come on; let me make a hamburger run.”
“No need,” she said, even as her stomach growled audibly.
“Yeah!” Meagan cheered, jumping up and down. “I want a kid’s meal with chicken nuggets! Can I have a root beer?”
“Of course,” Jason said, laughing. “You want to ride with me, sugar plum?”
“Yes!” Meagan squealed, jumping up and down like a grasshopper on caffeine.
“Do you have a child seat in your car?” Rachel asked, despising herself for relenting.
“I’ll take your car.”
Argh! Begrudgingly, she told him her order, then opened the desk drawer to get some cash, but he disappeared before giving her a chance to hand it over. “The keys are—,” she called out.
“Got ’em!” he yelled back.
Once they’d finished dinner, Jason lingered for a while. When the kids had been put down for the night, he and Rachel sat on the sofa and watched a mindless TV sitcom, one that had them both laughing, despite her wish to remain reserved in his presence. The truth was, there were few things better than a satisfied stomach and a good laugh, and she’d been without both for a long time.
At the show’s conclusion, they both stood up, she as if propelled by an explosive force, he in a leisurely fashion, unfolding his long, burly body and stretching both arms toward the ceiling, his supple muscles creating a distraction. With a hard swallow, she squared her shoulders. “Thanks for coming over, Jason. I appreciate all you did, and…well, it’s been a while since I ate a good, old-fashioned, juicy cheeseburger.”
“My pleasure,” he said.
She walked him to the door and smiled, trying to make it look as genuine as possible. “I know Meagan loved seeing you.”
“I plan to come back, you know. How’s next weekend look?”
“I have plans,” she shot out.
He arched a dark eyebrow. “Okay, then, but I promised Meaggie I’d watch some princess movie with her, and she needs to know I keep my word, so I do plan to return.”
“Great. The next time you come visit your folks, I’ll send her over with the movie. You can watch it there.”
He angled his head and gave her that sizing-up look. “You’re not still mad at me for the way I surprised you today, are you?”
“No, I’m not mad.”
He leaned forward with a glint in his eyes. “Slightly annoyed?”
A hollow chuckle pushed out. “Well, after all, you didn’t have an invitation.”
“Would I have gotten one if I’d waited?”
“Point taken. Good-bye, Jason,” she said, opening the door and stepping aside.
Thankfully, he didn’t press her; he just grinned and tugged a strand of her hair as he walked past. “I’ll see you, Rachel. And I do mean that in the literal sense.”
He whistled a popular tune on his way to the car.
“Got a hot date tonight, boss? A little bird told me it was your birthday.”
Jason loaded the last of his tools into the back of his pickup truck and looked across the yard at his foreman, Todd Carter. The rest of the crew had already cut out for the day. An overcast sky threatened rain.
“A little bird, huh? I suppose her name was Diane Leverance.” Rarely did his office assistant forget anyone’s birthday or anniversary.
“She told me today when I stopped in the office. Meant to wish you a happy birthday. ’Fraid I forgot.”
“No biggie. Pretty much celebrated it this past Sunday anyway, up at my folks’ house. Then, last night, Candace treated me to a steak at Harvey’s Place. She’s working the late shift at the hospital tonight.”
Todd gave an absent nod. “So, you’re spending your birthday alone, in other words.”
“Birthdays have never been a big deal to me.”
Especially not this year’s
, he thought. Matter of fact, he planned to stop at Buff’s Burritos on his way back to the condo. A big, spicy burrito would suit him just fine. After that, he’d jump on his bicycle and do his usual fifteen-mile trek on the paved path that wound around the lake.
“Same here. I’d just as soon forget about them altogether, and I probably would if it weren’t for Carlene, who celebrates everything, including the dog’s birthday!”
The two exchanged a chuckle. Todd removed his tool belt and threw it onto the front seat of his truck, then propped his arm over the door and surveyed the massive two-story, brick waterfront home they’d spent the last several months erecting, now complete as far as the outside went, save for landscaping the yard and pouring the driveway. “House has shaped up nicely,” he commented. “Did I tell you this is Carlene’s dream home? I tell her, ‘Dream on, my dear. No paltry carpenter like me is gonna be buildin’ something like this anytime soon.’” He combed four fingers through his hair. “I tell you, Wilcox spared no expense on this place.”
Jason leaned against his truck and looked at the mansion-like structure. “Funny, I drove Candace past it last week, and she promptly insisted I build her the same house. Frankly, I wouldn’t want the headache of owning this monster. Think of the upkeep on an eight-thousand-square-foot home.”
“No kidding!” Todd said, crawling into his truck and cranking the engine. “Wilcox isn’t what you’d call young, either. What is he, anyway? Seventy-something? Don’t know what he’d want with a big ol’ house like this when he could very well kiss the dust tomorrow.”
They talked for a few more minutes before Todd waved good-bye and drove off. Jason slid onto the dusty cloth seat of his old Ford pickup, the vehicle he’d reserved only for work, turned the key in the ignition, and sat in the driveway, staring at the house, one hand resting on the steering wheel.
“What profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?”
Not for the first time, the passage of Scripture skipped through his mind. So many of his clients looked for peace and contentment in material possessions. Why else would they fork out the dough for such extravagant houses? Not that he was complaining; every contract represented more capital for pouring back into the business. But he’d learned that a padded wallet does not generate happiness. Sure, he understood folks’ thinking; he’d even once been of the same mind-set.
The more money, the bigger the party!
Throughout college and even after graduation, he’d been all about earning lots of money. But not anymore. Lately, since making a recommitment to Christ just after John’s death, he wanted to be a good steward of his income, live simply and sensibly, make smart investments, and then prayerfully give the rest to worthy causes that advanced the kingdom.
Unfortunately, Candace did not share his heart for missions. No, she wanted the big house with all the bells and whistles, the fancy cars, the exotic vacations, and the stylish, name-brand clothing. He wasn’t even sure where she stood in terms of her faith these days.
Perhaps that’s why he was dragging his feet and had yet to put that ring on her finger.
The last Sunday in September finally promised rain as storm clouds gathered—dark, gloomy, and restive. Rachel moved about the house in mechanical fashion, nerves taut, energy low, mood morose, matching the weather. She hated feeling sad, for it affected her ability to parent, which only dragged down her spirits even more.
The phone blared at eight thirty, just as she was sitting down to breast-feed Johnny one more time before church. She sighed and got up to answer it, crossing in front of Meagan, who sat on the couch watching cartoons, thumb in her mouth, a doll tucked under her arm.
“Hi, Mom,” Rachel said into the receiver after checking the caller ID.
“Just thought I’d see how you’re doing this morning, honey,” Arlene Roberts said, her voice chipper. “Wanted to invite you and the kids over for lunch today. You feeling up to it?”
“Oh, I…I appreciate the offer, Mom, I really do, but I think we’ll stay home today, if you don’t mind.”
“You spent last Sunday alone,” her mother reminded her.
“Well, not entirely. Jason stopped over to see us.”
“He did? You never mentioned that. Did you enjoy your visit with him?”
“He did a lot of things around the house,” she replied, evading the question.
“Really? Oh, I’m so glad to hear that. You know your dad would be happy to—”
“I know, Mom. You guys have been more than generous with your time, taking the kids off my hands when I need a break, bringing over meals or inviting us to your place, even helping me sort through John’s stuff. Truly, I know I can call on either of you when I need help around here. It’s just…I don’t like to be a burden.”
“You’re never a burden, honey,” her mother assured her. “The thing is, well, Dad and I worry about you. We want to do whatever we can to lighten your load.”
“Well, don’t worry anymore, okay? We’re managing fine,” she fibbed.
A long pause and a heavy sigh carried over the line. “We’ll look for you at church, then,” her mother said.
After their good-byes, Rachel put the phone back in its cradle at the same time that Johnny let out an ear-shattering yell. Meagan switched up the TV’s volume until the sound echoed off the walls.
“Meagan, turn that down,” Rachel ordered as she picked up her howling son.
“I can’t hear it good,” she wailed back. “Tell Johnny to be quiet.”
“I said, turn that down,” she repeated.
Rather than obey, Meagan threw down the remote and ran to the stairs.
“Your clothes are lying on your bed,” Rachel called after her, knowing very well she’d need assistance putting them on.
Plopping into a chair, she retrieved the remote and hit the off button, then situated Johnny in her lap so he could suckle.
“Oh, Lord, I’m too frazzled to go to church,” she whispered. “I can’t do this. I just can’t do this.”
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me
” came the gentle reminder.
A silent tear slipped down her cheek.
Rachel tugged continually at Jason’s thoughts. Since seeing her a week ago, he’d dredged up a lot of memories, recalling the early days when she used to play with John and him for hours on end. Because their parents had been close friends, the three had grown up together, shooting hoops and playing tag, hide-and-seek, hopscotch, and the occasional game of “Mother, May I?” to appease Rachel. Being together had been natural back then. In fact, often, they’d simply sat on the back steps and bantered back and forth about school, sports, and mutual friends. Rachel had been a sister in the truest sense, and either boy would have laid down his life for her—that is, until she and John had fallen in love, forcing Jason to take a giant step back. Oh, he and Rachel had remained friends after that, but the deep affection he’d held for her had ceased to exist, unless he counted their never-discussed, completely impromptu kiss just before she’d married John. He remembered it vividly, of course, and he had a feeling she did, as well. In fact, he didn’t doubt it played into her angry feelings toward him and her desire to place blame, misdirected as it was.