Rachel didn't look at Nat until the door closed between her and her mother. Then she glanced at Nat nervously. The defiance was gone, replaced by insecurity. She sat on the couch, crunching herself into the corner of it. As Nat came to sit in the chair across from her, Rachel watched him warily.
Nat decided the direct approach was best, as he usually did. "Rachel, do you know that stealing is wrong?"
Rachel hesitated and tried to push herself farther into the seat.
Yes, he could tell she knew that. "Do you know why it's wrong?"
"If she loved me, she'd have bought it for me," Rachel blurted out, her look of defiance returning.
"That is not true, but even if it were, that still does not make stealing right. You know that, don't you? No matter how anyone treats you, it doesn't make it right for you to do something you know is wrong. What makes you think your mother doesn't love you?"
Rachel hesitated again, and Nat realized that she was calculating a response. "She yells at me... no, she hits me."
"Are you lying, Rachel? You know lying is wrong also."
"She does yell at me!"
Nat knew that was a possibility. "And why is that?"
"She hates me."
"Do you listen when she speaks softly? If you were my daughter perhaps I would have yelled at you the other night." He doubted it. When he became angry his voice became harder and a little lower. But his father had a temper when he or his siblings had provoked him enough. As a peacemaker, Nat had always tried to avoid upsetting him. His younger sister, Libby, though, would always push him. Nat imagined Rachel was more provoking than Libby had been.
Nat waited, but Rachel didn't answer, glaring at him. "What are you thinking about, Rachel?"
"Why are you even asking? You don't care."
"Yes, I do."
"No. Next time I see you, you'll say, 'How's it going?' and just walk past."
Nat couldn't help examining himself at the accusation. Many times it did seem that way, but how could he change it? There were just too many people, and he was always late for something. When people know they can go to Paul also... when he can take one or two sermons a month, and... But Nat realized he needed to change his words and the way he greeted people.
"I'm sorry, Rachel. I didn't think I did that, but I'll try to change. What if we meet every week, and you can tell me what is going on with you. And if I ask and start to go on, you stop me and tell me you need to see me, okay?"
Rachel stared at him. He'd surprised her as much as she had him.
"Do you like your school, Rachel?"
Rachel shrugged, but kept alert.
"Would you like to switch to our school? You liked it in kindergarten here, didn't you?"
"Maybe. Why would I switch?"
"There are fewer kids in your class. It might be easier to make friends and get help from your teacher when you don't understand something."
"I understand everything."
Nat smiled. "No one understands everything. Not even me. Don't be afraid to say when you don't know the answer or something just doesn't make sense."
"You don't make sense," she accused.
Nat willed himself to relax. "What about me don't you understand, Rachel? Maybe I can explain."
Rachel shook her head and stared at small pane of glass in the closed door.
"Maybe you can think about it over the next week and tell me next Thursday. Let me pray with you, Rachel." He reached for her hands.
Rachel hesitated, and then let him take them. They were smooth and soft as her mother's must have been before she was forced to work in the plastic factory to support her and her daughter. "Your mother loves you, Rachel." He bowed his head and prayed that Rachel would come to understand the love that sacrificed so much for her. He also prayed that Rachel would come to understand God's holiness and His love. When he looked up, she was watching him. He didn't know if she'd even bowed, but it didn't matter.
"Anything else," Nat asked, "Or would you like to go home and think about it for a week."
Rachel scooted off the couch and walked to the door. "I want to go home."
Nat stood. "I'll see you next week then." He opened the door. "Next week about the same time, Nicole, if that's convenient." He waited until she nodded. "Good."
Rachel waited by the door for her mother. Nicole looked as if she wanted to ask about Nat and Rachel's meeting, but then shook her head.
"I'll call you," Nat said.
"Thanks." Nicole slipped on her coat and left.
Nat walked to his office and sat in the armchair. He leaned back and closed his eyes, again going over the information he knew about her. He remembered two years ago when her parents, Darrin and Kelly Bryant, had announced to him and Jay Mittleson, the school administrator, that they were moving to Florida.
"Oh, then Rachel won't be joining us in first grade. I'm sorry to hear that," Jay had said. "She's such a bright little girl."
"You'll still see Rachel at church," Kelly assured him. "But Nicole can't afford to send her to school here any more since she'll have to pay all the bills now."
"But maybe you...."
"Us?" Darrin shook his head. "I told Nicole from the beginning if she kept Rachel, she was her responsibility."
Nat must have looked as surprised as Jay did, because Kelly spoke up quickly. "We didn't mean abortion. We meant adoption would have been best so Nicole could finish school and go to college."
"You weren't here, then, Nat," Darrin said in that condescending way which meant Nat had better not try to judge them. "My wife has had to look after Rachel full time while Nicole works. She's sacrificed a lot for her. We've planned this retirement for years, and we've already held off the move for two years longer than we wanted so that Nicole would have a free sitter. Now the school can do that, and we'll be here in the summer. It's all worked out." Darrin's voice held a tone that said the topic was not open. "Nicole will never find a place to rent as cheaply. We could have supplemented our retirement income by three hundred dollars a month if we rented our house to anyone else."
"We're just charging her for taxes and insurance," Kelly said. "And a little more that probably won't even cover repairs."
Jay had glanced at Nat then, his concern evident, but his words were conciliatory. He had no choice. "I'm sure you're doing all you can for her."
"Of course we are," Kelly said. "And we haven't asked the church for any help. Not like the Cannells. They kept...."
"The church is here to help when there are needs," Nat cut her off from the criticism of a family he knew had struggled very hard with their handicapped child.
Jay was more vocal. "I don't believe in supporting half an issue. Nicole gave up a lot to keep her child. The church is here for her."
But the decision wasn't that easy. Jay wanted to keep Rachel in the school, but the board had made many rules about who qualified for a discount and how much. Rachel didn't qualify until after her grandparents left. By the time the school year had started, the few sponsors were already committed to other children. Rachel was put on a list behind several others.
Nat had meant to check up on Nicole and did call a couple times shortly after her parents left. She always claimed everything was fine when he spoke with her, and soon more vocal claims were taking all his attention.
Nat sighed. That was almost two years ago, and now he needed to finish that sermon. First, though, he called Jay's office in the school section of the building, but the answering machine clicked on. It was after five; everyone was gone for the day. He wouldn't be able to help Nicole until tomorrow.
Nat locked the front door of the church offices and went back to his study to finish his sermon. He liked to have it done by Tuesday, but this week had been hectic. He had trouble concentrating again, but this time because he kept thinking about Nicole and all she had sacrificed for Rachel. Her hands told the story that pride kept her words from speaking. He shouldn't have held her hands. He'd been cautioned several times against holding hands during prayer with single women in case they'd read too much into the gesture. But hand holding during prayer was as natural as praying itself, and he rarely thought others might not have the same custom when the need for prayer arose. But still, he could not forget her hands. He wondered if the cuts and scars would ever heal if she were allowed to leave her job.
The sermon finally came together as he forced himself to focus on the text. When he finished he went home to his small one bedroom apartment. He'd wait to call Nicole until he could talk to Jay about school. He needed to get Rachel into a more controlled environment. He'd heard of problems in the elementary school she attended before. And if she were here, he might be able to check up on her during the day. Yeah. In all his spare time. At least Paul wasn't waiting until he received a paycheck to help. He never had. They wanted him to marry, yet they didn't even give him time to look.
Nat was no closer to picking a wife than he had been three weeks ago when he'd asked Paul to pray that God would send him someone special to marry. The dull ache of loneliness now became acute whenever he saw a happy couple. He laughed at himself for thinking he'd get instantaneous results. Sometimes the answer to prayer came that way, but most often it was a long, drawn-out process.
The next morning Nat was immediately drawn into several situations considered emergencies by their respective bearers. He listened, offered advice, and made phone calls connecting them with other people. It'd have been much harder if Paul hadn't been in the next office helping with other matters. It was almost three when he managed to get to Jay's office in the school.
Nat bypassed Jay's secretary and stuck his head into his office. "Jay, got a minute."
"Sure, Nat, what's up?" Jay motioned to one of the chairs in front of his desk, a chair that had once been in Nat's office until a committee decided the front offices needed to be redecorated.
Nat sat and leaned forward. "I want Rachel Bryant back in school here. What can we do for Nicole?"
Jay inclined his head slightly. "The board says she can get in for fifty percent of member tuition, but when I approached Nicole, she said it was still too much."
"What about a sponsor?"
"All who volunteered are taken. I can put her on the waiting list again."
"Hasn't she been on it?"
"No. Nicole didn't resign for it last year."
Jay shrugged. "Everyone sticks with the same kids. Of all the new people we've got, very few support the school in this way, and they choose who they'll support before they come to me." Jay shifted and leaned forward. "The problem as I see it, Nat, is that Nicole keeps to herself and doesn't let many people know she has a problem. She's not on any committees or in the women's group or anything like that."
Nat quickly thought through the implications. "You don't think she's serious about her Christian walk."
"It's not that at all," Jay said quickly. "Valerie says she felt really disconnected when Jenny was younger." He referred to his wife who had been a single parent before their marriage. "She'd need a baby sitter to participate. Those cost money if you're not already connected to the body. My guess is that Nicole lost her connections a long time ago before her parents left, with working and caring for Rachel. She doesn't feel she has anyone she can ask for help now."
Nat slowly nodded, thinking that this was just one more burden she'd carried alone. He'd have to contact some of the women with children who might be willing to forge a relationship with her. "But about the school...?"
"If you can find a sponsor, I'd love to have her back here." Jay shook his head. "I really wish the church could underwrite a larger portion of the school. There are so many kids in our congregation who would really benefit if we could lower tuition or make it free for those in need."
"I know, Jay. I know. I'd have rather sponsored a kid for a year than had the office redecorated last year, but...." Nat shrugged. They'd discussed it before. There were programs at the church they both considered wasteful that had been in place for years, and trying to change things was a slow and frustrating battle which took a large amount of diplomacy.
"We should focus on one or two outreaches, not twenty-five poorly run ones."
Nat grinned. "And your outreach is number one to keep. Don't tell anyone, but I agree with you." Nat stood. "Guess I should get a hold of Nicole and tell her how it stands." He went back to his office just as Paul was leaving his.
Paul stopped. "What is it?"
"Huh?" Nat glanced over his shoulder and then turned to face Paul. "Oh, just thinking about Nicole again. She needs to get involved. She's sacrificed so much for Rachel that she has lost touch with the people who are here to help her. I was trying to think who I could call who might be friends with her." He shook his head. "That doesn't even sound right."
"Maybe Beth and I can have her out to our house some evening."
Nat smiled. "That sounds great, Paul. Let me know."
"So how'd your meeting go yesterday?"
Nat motioned, and Paul followed him into his office, shutting the door. "Rachel is unrepentant." He leaned against the edge of his desk, and Paul sat in the armchair. "Do you know why Nicole hasn't come to me sooner for help?"
Nat smiled at Paul's joke on himself. It was an area he had struggled with the most. "Maybe part of it." Then he sobered. "But it was because I was single. She didn't say it right out, but implied it. Paul, this really is affecting my ability to help. I need to get married."
"And your bride is?"
"I haven't a guess. I don't have time to meet anyone." He shook his head. "I made sure I set another appointment for Nicole, and if she backs out, I'm going to keep after her. None of this 'I'm fine' and getting overlooked again. I've got to help her through this. She doesn't have anyone else."
"None close." Nat shrugged, not wanting to repeat the conversation from two years before. "Her parents live out of state. So do two of her older siblings. One lives in Pontiac, or somewhere down near Detroit. She was the youngest. An unexpected child... kind of like your Ruth." Nat hesitated. "What would you do if she got pregnant?"
Paul's eyes widened a little. "Aside from it being a medical miracle, I'd probably beat the man to a pulp and ask forgiveness later. She's only two."
"Not now, Paul! In high school."
"Nat... let's pray I never have to think about that. I'm not even sure what purpose your speculation is serving."
"Sorry. I'm just thinking about how Nicole's parents left a few years back." Nat shook his head. He hadn't been going to discuss this. "Anyway, I want to get her into this school as soon as possible. Just a different atmosphere might help some, but there's a lot more to it right now. Can you think of anyone who could sponsor her?"
Nat immediately hoped Paul would volunteer and then felt guilty about the thought. Paul had to make his retirement stretch over another fifty years, give or take, and he had children of his own who had needs also. Just because he had made a few investments while he was younger didn't mean he had unlimited funds, and he certainly couldn't live on what the church wanted to pay him.
"Nicole wants her here?"
"I'm sure she does, but she has too much pride to ask anyone. I'm sure you understand that."
"Well, if that's the case, does she want you asking around?"
"What are you getting at, Paul? I told her I'd look into it. Rachel has a real problem."
"If she has such a discipline problem, perhaps Jay wouldn't want her in the school."
Paul still didn't understand. "Of course Jay wants her back."
"But there are rules. Kids are expelled. David was expelled for a week once, remember?" Paul asked, referring to his adopted son.
"You're not suggesting Rachel shouldn't be here, are you? I'll be able to talk to her right away if there's any problem."
"I thought that was Jay's job."
Nat stared at him, and then shook his head. "Sorry, Paul. Usually we agree on a lot of things, but I'm not following your line of thought here. Do you have a problem with Jay? I thought that was long past."
Paul smiled. "It is. It's not Jay, I'm concerned with. It's you. I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed. There aren't many out there willing to help out with tuition. If my situation doesn't change, maybe I can in the fall, but not before. We invested a little in helping David get started in Nashville. If things keep going well for him...."
"...And if nothing else comes up. I understand. Especially since you're working for free. I didn't mean you anyway."
Paul tilted his head to the side. "No. Can't think of anyone else right at the moment. I'll call you if I do." He stood. "Don't worry about Nicole. I'm sure Beth will want to get to know her."
It was more an impression than anything Paul did, but Nat felt as if Paul was thinking far more than he said. That wasn't unusual. He shoved his speculations aside. "Thanks, Paul. I'll see you Sunday then."
Paul left, and Nat went around his desk to sit down and look for Nicole's number. He found it just as the phone rang. "Hello?"
"Nat, you're always working," his mother said. "You'll never find a wife that way."
He ignored his mother's comment. She'd been wanting to marry him off since before he left for seminary. He glanced at the clock. It was five thirty-eight. "Hi, Mom. How's everything at home?"
"Libby just had another miscarriage."
"No." Nat put his free hand to his face. That was what? Three? Four? "I didn't know she was pregnant."
"She didn't want anyone to know. She was only about ten weeks. Same as always -- ten to twelve weeks. They're both taking it hard." She hesitated, but Nat didn't interrupt, knowing she had something else she wanted to say. "Can you come?"
"Well, as soon as you can. You two were always close, and...." His mother lowered her voice as if someone else might hear. "I think this is straining her marriage. Maybe... maybe you can say something. What do you say to people?"
"There's no formula, Mom. I first listen to them."
"Can you please come? She's really depressed, but she won't talk to me. She said she might talk to you." In other words, his mother had kept at Libby until she promised to speak at some future date.
"I'll call her, Mom." He scribbled a note to himself. Nicole, Libby.
"Nat, just come. You haven't been home in a long time. They have to give you vacation some time."
Nat hesitated. He couldn't leave Nicole right now. "I have commitments, but I'll check it out and let you know."
At her exasperated sigh, he could see his mother with her hand on her hip, shaking her head. "Nathan John Morris, you say that every time we talk. You're not going to do anything, are you? You should be ashamed. A minister lying like you are."
He was convicted, just like she always did to him. "I promise," he said contritely. "I will ask. They're talking about hiring me an assistant pastor."
"I'm hoping Paul is hired soon. It's in committee."
"I wish you would come and preach at our church. You could move away from that awful place. There's more to ministry than the amount of money you make."
"I told you and Dad both. It's not the money." It can't be the money. What money? "I have a commitment to these people. I will ask about vacation, but if you want me to call Libby, I better go. I'll call you back next week after I talk to the elders about a vacation. I love you. Tell Dad I love him, too."
"I love you, Nat. I just want what's best for you."
"I know. I'll talk to you next week." Nat hung up. In the last few years his conversations with his family had degenerated into this pushing him to move home. His father's approach was to lament the teaching of the new pastor they'd gotten, implying their community wouldn't be in that plight if Nat had come home like they'd asked. Nat tried to tell his father to support the man and stop comparing and belittling him. His father didn't seem to listen.
Nat took a deep breath and punched in Libby's number. He heard her husband, Ryan, on the answering machine. At the tone he spoke, "Hi, Libby, Ryan, this is Nat. Just called to see how you were doing. Give me a call."
One more call and then he was free for the evening. Free to do what? Often he'd go out with families or men in the church, either treating them to dinner if he knew the family had financial problems or them treating him to a meal and an evening of entertainment. Many times he'd been with Paul's family, but they'd made no plans. He dialed Nicole's number before he became discouraged about his own famililess situation.
"Hello?" came her distraught voice.
"Nicole? This is Pastor Nat, calling like I said I would."
"Oh, Nat, of course."
"Who is it? Who is it?" yelled Rachel.
"It's Pastor Nat. Now please be quiet."
"He's going to talk about me, isn't he? What's he saying?"
"Nothing, because you won't be quiet. I'm sorry, Nat. I wish...."
"I'm hungry," Rachel complained.
"When I'm finished," Nicole said, and Rachel whined louder. "Nat, I... I don't think...."
"Why don't we go someplace where we can eat and talk? How about McDonald's, and then Rachel can play in the play room. Does she still like to do that?"
"I... yes, but... Nat, I can't... the bills...."
"I'll treat. I'll be over to pick you up in twenty minutes."
"Ah... yeah, sure."
Nat hung up, straightened his desk, and then went out to his car.