As the clock inched toward eight, Nicole thought perhaps she was more nervous than Rachel. Did he even get her reminder call? Hopefully he didn't think her presumptuous, but he had promised.
Rachel had gone to bed the night before without any trouble. The morning didn't go quite as smoothly. Rachel knew Saturday was cleaning day, but she didn't want to budge. Nicole was forced to resort to throwing the toys into the trash before Rachel would make any effort to get them off the floor. But the fight didn't escalate as it sometimes did, and after the cleaning was finished, they were able to play a game without too much hassle.
Now Nicole tried to concentrate on her book while Rachel colored. She glanced at the clock. Seven fifty-six. Rachel stood and came to the phone.
He better call. Seven fifty-seven. "His clock might be a few minutes different than ours," Nicole said, in hopes that Rachel wouldn't explode in three minutes.
"He's not gonna call, is he?"
"He said he would." Seven fifty-eight.
"Yeah, right." Rachel left the phone and kicked her crayons across the room.
Just then the phone rang. Rachel jumped and grabbed it before the first ring died away. "Hello?"
Thank you, Lord.
"I was coloring."
Nicole listened to Rachel's side of the conversation, and she could see her relax and soften. Nat had kept his promise. He was one of the few men she'd known who had. Even her father had occasionally changed his mind when things became inconvenient. Would Nat do that eventually? Nicole hoped it wouldn't be soon.
They spoke for twenty minutes before Rachel hung up. "He's leaving next Sunday after church for two weeks. He's going to call me on Mondays and Thursdays at eight when he's gone. I've got to take a bath, cause we got church tomorrow." Rachel ran off.
"Wait, Rachel. Your crayons."
Surprisingly she came back. "Aww. Do I have to?" But she picked them up and then ran upstairs.
Sunday Rachel was dressed and ready to walk out the door ten minutes early. Without the hassle Nicole too was able to take a few more minutes on her appearance. They arrived early, and Rachel ran straight to Nat for a hug. Nicole followed, but before she reached him, someone else came for his attention. Nicole decided to take a seat and not interfere. Rachel stayed beside him, holding his hand, and listening in until Nat whispered something to her. Then she came to Nicole. "He has to work now. It's almost time to start."
Rachel behaved and pushed through the crowd after the service to stand near Nat. She wouldn't leave, so Nicole was forced to wait until almost everyone else had gone. Elizabeth Israel came beside her holding Ruth's hand. "You'll be able to come again Friday, won't you?"
"Ah, sure. That would be fun."
"Good. I've got to go." Elizabeth made her way to the door where Jared waited.
As the people left, Nicole moved closer to Rachel and sat in the last pew. A middle-aged couple stood before Nat now, and she heard them ask Nat over for dinner.
"No. Come to our house," Rachel insisted.
Nat laughed. "I haven't seen Mr. and Mrs. Hudson in a long time." He looked up at them. "I'd be honored to join you. What time?"
"As soon as you can get away. You have our address."
"In the directory in my briefcase."
"But Daddy! I want to see you."
Mr. Hudson laughed. "Daddy?"
Nat grinned with a little shrug. "You know, father to the fatherless."
Rachel pulled on his arm. "I have a father. I just want you."
"It's nice to be wanted," Mr. Hudson said, smiling. He glanced back at Nicole. "You can bring your girlfriend."
Nicole watched Nat's face change. "She's not my girlfriend."
Embarrassed Nicole called to Rachel. "Come on, Rachel. It's time to go home."
Mr. Hudson apologized for the mistake.
"No problem," Nat said. Rachel still did not release his hand or come. "I'd just like to avoid any unnecessary rumors." Nat leaned down. "Your mom wants to leave. I'll see you tomorrow after school, okay?"
Rachel studied him with her eyes narrowed.
"You aren't thinking about being a wolverine, are you? That wouldn't be very pretty."
"You won't be around to see anyway, so what difference does it make."
Nat crouched so that he looked into her face. "It makes a lot of difference. Beauty takes a lot of practice, and if you spend more time practicing to be a wolverine, you're going to be one. No one really wants to be friends with a wolverine. They aren't much fun, biting and snarling all the time."
Rachel took a deep breath. "I'll see you tomorrow." Then she went to Nicole.
Nicole stood from the pew and made her way to the door.
"I'm sorry about the mix-up," she heard Mr. Hudson say as she opened the door to go outside.
She didn't hear Nat's reply as the door closed separating them with her in the icy cold, and he in the warm sanctuary. Her eyes stung as the wind whipped against her face. She was glad they had a close parking spot since they'd arrived early.
She thought she was immune to this. She thought it didn't matter. Rachel is what is most important, she tried to remind herself. It didn't matter if she was an embarrassment to him just as long as Rachel was helped. If it weren't for Rachel she could... could.... No. She knew she couldn't leave and find a new church. She'd still be the same person, still have the same past, and she'd still have Rachel beside her advertising her shame.
At home Rachel whined about lunch, refusing all the choices Nicole brought out, until, disgusted, Nicole opened a can of soup, ignoring Rachel's protests. "I'm not eating that!"
"Fine. I don't care. It's not my job to shove food down your throat. If you don't eat lunch, I'm not fixing anything else until dinner."
Rachel stomped her feet, and then went upstairs, slamming her bedroom door. Nicole wanted to give up. She wanted to go into a hole and hide and cry. Instead she finished the soup, made two sandwiches and set the table. She called to Rachel that lunch was ready, and then sat and said grace. Rachel came down as Nicole finished and ate in silence.
Rachel didn't challenge her the rest of the day, and Nicole had time to dwell on her situation. If only there was someone she could share this ache with. She thought of Elizabeth Israel. She said she could talk to her. Maybe she could talk about Rachel, but definitely not about these stupid feelings she kept having. It wasn't his fault. She couldn't tell anyone. I might hurt him, or he might decide not to spend as much time with Rachel to avoid the embarrassment.
Surprisingly the phone did ring that evening. It was her friend from high school, Julie Hansen. Julie was about the only person she still saw occasionally, but even that wasn't like it used to be. Julie was always working, and Nicole always had Rachel with her. But it was good to chat once in a while. Nicole briefly thought to confide in Julie. She knew she could trust her with anything, but Rachel came into the room with her dolls.
"Who are you talking to?"
"Oh." Rachel ignored her then, but Nicole was not free to unload any of her problems on Julie. It was just as well, Nicole thought later. She had to be careful because Julie always wanted to help, and Nicole knew she could never pay her back. She had thought about asking Julie about sponsoring Rachel at the school, but Julie's father had died right about that time, and Nicole didn't want to add to her burdens, as Julie had struggled with her own grief as well as her mother's and grandmother's in addition to making sure the family's accounting firm and none of its employees suffered more than necessary from the loss.
Julie talked about the stress of tax season and her fish who all had babies. Nicole assured her that the one tank Julie had given her was doing well. It held two gold marble angelfish, seven red-orange platies, and a brown plecostomus that wasn't doing a very good job at keeping the glass clean.
After the call Nicole looked at the tank critically. It'd been almost a month since she'd cleaned it, and algae had taken advantage of her negligence, clinging to the glass and obscuring the fish from a causal viewer. She sighed and forced herself out of her chair to do the necessary water change and glass scrubbing. She found the plecostomus half eaten behind a rock.
"You forgot to call Grandpa about my cat," Rachel said.
Nicole had hoped she'd forgotten. Her father had worried the aquarium would ruin the carpeting. A cat would not be an easy request. Since she was elbow deep in fish water rearranging the plants in the gravel, she said, "Remind me when I'm finished with the fish. Can you bring me the net?"
"Is there a dead one? Can I net him and flush him?"
Rachel ran to the back room and returned a minute later with the net. She dipped it into the water and swung it around.
"Careful of the plants. He's back there."
Rachel snagged him, and ran toward the bathroom, net dripping. Nicole sighed, but since Rachel was trying to be helpful she decided not to complain about the water.
Nicole finished her maintenance and replaced the filter cartridge. Her last one. Maybe Julie would be by with another soon. She'd promised Nicole she'd have no expenses when she set it up. She just wanted to share her hobby. So far these two angelfish had not had any babies even though Julie said they were a mated pair.
After she dumped the old water, put away her supplies and washed her arms and hands, she fed the fish some thawed frozen bloodworms.
"Call Grandpa now. Please."
"Even if he says yes, Rachel, we can't get a cat until spring, remember?" She took the phone reluctantly. Maybe her parents would be out.
"Hello?" said her father gruffly.
"Hi, Dad. It's Nicole."
"What's wrong? Car break down?"
"No. Nothing like that. No problems." She didn't want to tell them about Rachel's stealing and attitude. She would be better when they came during the summer. She always did mind better for them.
"Then what are you wasting money calling for? You're not behind on your bills, are you?"
"No. I'm caught up."
"The cat, Mom. The cat."
"Uhh... Rachel wants a kitten."
"You can't afford any pets. Bad enough you got those fish."
"If someone gives her one....?"
"Will someone give you the food? And what if it ruins the carpeting? Cat smell never comes out of anything. What are you thinking, Nicole? You can barely afford your own food."
"It's just that she really wants...."
"Nicole, you're not thinking again."
"He's saying no, isn't he?" Rachel asked. "He hates me."
"He doesn't hate you."
"What are you telling that girl, Nicole? This has nothing to do with her. You can't afford it or afford to fix what it would destroy."
Nicole didn't know what else to say. He'd made up his mind. "Do you want to talk to Rachel before we hang up?"
Nicole handed the phone to Rachel, and listened. "But why? But Grandpa, I wouldn't let it break anything. I promise. Please." "But..." "But...." "I don't know." Rachel listened some more and then brightened. "I'm going to a new school -- at church." "I don't know. Pastor Nat made it so I could go. He likes cats. He'd have one if he wasn't in an apartment. Can I, please?" "Fine!" Rachel handed the phone to Nicole and stomped out of the room and up the stairs.
Nicole lifted the phone. "Dad?"
"You got charity from the church?"
"Pastor Nat says that's what it's there for."
"Now people are going to think you can't take care of yourself."
"I don't care what people think! I'm tired of what people think! I just can't stand it!" She slammed the phone down on the cradle and started shaking. It had been a rare occurrence when she'd lost her temper at her parents, and if they'd been in front of her, instead of twelve hundred miles away, she'd have run to her bedroom and locked the door, just like Rachel.
So what if the whole world thought she was a pathetic wretch. She just couldn't do anymore. And if her father knew the real reason she'd had to accept help, he'd be even more disappointed in her. She couldn't even raise her own daughter right.
Nicole went to bed early.
The next morning Rachel was silent until it was almost time to leave for the day care. "Why don't you make more money?"
"I would if I could, Rachel," Nicole said wearily. Sleep had been fleeting and had given her no rest.
"Get another job."
"When, Rachel? Where will you stay if I worked two jobs? Let's go." Nicole gave Rachel her lunch box.
After that the rest of the week went better. Rachel did not mention the cat again, and each day she came from the school with news of Nat, his jokes, his childhood, his teasing, his little gifts. Tuesday it was a pencil with cats on it.
Thursday Nicole remembered to bring a clean blouse to switch into after work, although it did little to help the rest of her. She kept telling herself it didn't matter; that it was just common courtesy not to go to an appointment smelling so strongly of sweat if she could help it.
Nat greeted her in the outer office. Rachel sat at the oblong table with what appeared to be a new coloring book and crayons. "See what Daddy got me?" She held up the book. "It has lots of cats."
Nicole nodded. "That's nice, Rachel." She looked at Nat. "Thanks," she mumbled.
"Come on back." He led her into his study and then closed the door. They sat across from each other again. "How are you doing?"
"I'm fine," she said automatically.
"Rachel tells me she's being good. Is that true?"
"Pretty much. Since Monday after school."
"Good. I hoped I was able to explain the cat situation to her. You probably know I called your father myself to find out the facts."
"No. I didn't know." She tensed, imagining what her father had said. "I'm sorry."
"Whatever he said. He wasn't happy when he found out Rachel was back at the church school."
Nat shrugged. "Yeah, he did mention that. He didn't know Rachel had problems."
Nicole closed her eyes and shook her head. "Great. Now he knows I'm the worse excuse of a failure he's ever known."
Nat was silent. When she opened her eyes, he watched her with a sympathy she didn't understand. "You are not a failure," he said firmly. "Your father is wrong. There is nothing wrong in accepting help when the burden is too much to bear alone. You're doing what is best for Rachel in spite of pride, parental pressure, or anything else. I admire that in you, Nicole. Try not to let your father's pride tear you apart."
She wanted to believe him that she was doing the right thing. She especially wanted to believe that he admired something about her, but that was too much. Impossible. "No matter how much I try to do the right things, I never get it right," she protested. "I've been a terrible disappointment to him. No one else messed up like I did. I'm a total failure."
She wished Nat would stop looking at her with that look -- as if it was the most terrible thing. She stood. "I've got to go."
Nat caught her before she could open the office door. "Wait. Nicole."
She faced him even though she didn't want to. "What?"
"You know he's wrong, don't you?"
Nicole closed her eyes and took a deep breath before responding. She looked at him. "I'm sorry. I don't usually think about it. I just do what I have to do. I didn't mean to sound like a complaining whiner looking for sympathy."
"I didn't think you were."
"We need to concentrate on Rachel," Nicole said, trying to shift the topic from herself. "I'm glad you care. She needs that."
Nat hesitated a moment, and then backed away toward his chair. "Yes. And she's a sweet girl when she isn't bristling in anger or hurt. Is there anything else I can do to help?"
"Just keep whatever promises you make to her."
"Yes, I will."
Nicole reached for the door knob. "Is that all?"
"Will you let me pray with you?"
Nicole had forgotten. "Sorry." She moved back to the couch and sat down.
Nat smiled, sitting across from her. "No reason to be sorry. You didn't do anything wrong." He took her hands again and prayed. When he finished they both stood. "You can call Paul Israel about anything while I'm gone." He hesitated. "Just a minute." Nat went to his desk and scribbled on a piece of paper. Then he handed it to her. "This is my family's phone number where I'll be staying. Call if you need to talk to me. Paul will have the number and so will Lynette if you lose it."
"Thanks. I'll try not to bother you."
"It's not a bother. If I were really Rachel's father, would it be so strange to call? Think of it that way, since she wants to, and let me know if anything comes up. I'll be calling twice a week, also."
"Thanks," Nicole repeated, finally opening the door.
Paul Israel sat at the table with Rachel, and she talked about the pictures in her coloring book. She grinned at Nat. "Look, Daddy, at what I got done."
Nat went to the table to admire the pictures. Then Rachel reluctantly gathered her backpack and crayons together to leave.
"See you tomorrow evening, Nicole," Paul called as she walked out the door.
Nicole glanced back. "Yes, thanks." The door closed. Nicole went to the car and drove home.
The next evening Nicole wasn't as nervous as she had been the week before as she pulled into the Israel drive. Rachel kept a sharp watch for deer, but didn't see any. Elizabeth met them at the door, just as Nat parked behind her car. Rachel ran off the porch to greet him. He laughed and lifted Rachel onto his shoulders to carry.
The evening passed peacefully. Jared was not there, so instead of playing her own game, Rachel sat on Nat's lap. "Your mom is a better player than I am," Nat told her.
"She is not."
"Afraid she is," Paul said. "Nat can't be great at everything."
"No. That's your job," Nat said, putting his card into the ring. Nicole tried not to be disappointed when she realized he should have played that card before. He'd lost them another point.
Paul laughed. "No. Not quite. Just ask Beth."
"I'm staying away from that one."
"A wise woman," Nat said, as Elizabeth took the trick.
"I knew my secrets were safe with her."
But Nat did improve, and they won the third game. "Victory. Yes! I can't believe it."
Paul laughed. "Enjoy it while you can."
"I am," Nat said, standing to stretch. "I couldn't have done it without you, Nicole."
Elizabeth grinned. "No, I'd say not. We can switch partners for a while if you'd like."
Nat stopped. "But...." Then he grinned. "Us against you girls?"
"He's getting a little too confident, isn't he, Nicole?"
Nicole went along with Elizabeth. "Sure is. How about Paul? Does he think he can beat us?"
"Yes," Nat said.
Paul grinned. "Didn't I warn you about challenging her? Let's refill our glasses first."
After snacks they played again. Elizabeth and Nicole beat Nat and Paul two out of three times. And then it was time to go. "David will be home next weekend so I'm not sure what we'll be doing," Elizabeth said. "But maybe we can get together before that. Maybe Wednesday night. Come at five for dinner?"
"Are you sure? I really owe you dinner."
"Yes. I'm sure," Elizabeth said.
"She's sure," Paul echoed, "And so am I. And don't forget to bring Rachel," he teased her. "If you women get talking, Rachel can show me that new computer game."
"What new computer game? I never played on a computer before."
"Wednesday, then," Paul said.
"If she doesn't turn into a wolverine before that."
"Hear that, Rachel? Your Daddy says no computer if you're not nice between now and then." Paul opened the door to let them out.
"But what kind of game is it?" Rachel asked.
Nat hugged her with one arm and led her out the door. "He'll show you next week, Beautiful. Time to get home now."
The door closed after another goodbye and the three of them walked to the cars. Fresh snow fell again, lightly covering the windshields. Nicole got inside her car and started it. Then she grabbed the snow brush and almost hit Nat with the door as she attempted to get back out of the car.
"Whoa. Sit tight. I'll brush it for you. I've got to do mine anyway." He brushed around her car, and then opened Rachel's door and crouched down. "I might not be able to talk to you on Sunday. I have to leave right away to get my flight. You can talk to Paul after school, and I'll call Monday night, okay?"
"I want to go with you!"
"I know. Not this time."
"No promises. Maybe we'll go someplace fun this summer, like the zoo or Crossroads Village. Now help your mom while I'm gone, okay? It's hard working at the factory all day -- harder than school." He hugged her, and Rachel seemed to cling to him.
"I love you, Daddy."
Nat pulled away and looked at her face. He brushed the hair from her cheek. "I love you, too, Rachel. I've got to go now."
Nat closed her door, and then went to his own car, brushing it off. Nicole waited until he backed out before she could leave.