Nat drove away from them, but couldn't stop thinking about them. When had he started loving Rachel? That little girl was so desperate for male attention. He hoped he could fill the void that her father should have.
And Nicole. There wasn't any way to fill the void for her. Her father had made it clear what he thought. Nicole's words of pain were the results of his misplaced pride. He didn't dare tell him he was the one paying for Rachel's schooling, especially when he insisted Rachel be taken out of that school.
Nat had tried to smooth over the situation, but feared he'd just made things worse for Nicole. He thought they kept in closer touch. He assumed they had known of the trouble. He assumed Darrin Bryant would be open to talk to him since he used to be his pastor. He shouldn't have assumed. He should have called Nicole instead. He knew that when it was too late. He rarely made mistakes like that anymore, and it still bothered him.
Sunday Nat briefly saw Rachel before he went back to pray with Gary Quinn who would lead the songs that morning. It would be nice when David Israel finished in Nashville and came home to fill in on the weekends when Mike and Shelly Greene, the normal worship team, took off. After the service Nat slipped out while Gary gave the benediction.
The sun was settling in the west when he landed in Topeka. In the terminal Nat spotted Aaron leaning against the wall in his jeans and plaid shirt. He'd gained a few pounds in the last two years, and his brown hair looked a little thinner in front. He pushed away from the wall. When Nat reached him, he took his hand and then drew him into a short hug before pulling away. "You're still short. What's the city suit for?"
"I came straight from the pulpit." Nat was the shortest of his brothers, but rarely felt it away from them. It had taken a few years in college to realize five ten was a bit better than average height and not the mouse size Jordan and Aaron tried to make it seem. He was actually the same height as his father. "Are you alone?" They walked toward the luggage retrieval area.
"No use dragging the whole family through the city. You'll be there soon enough to see them -- the horse girls, too." They reached the conveyor that would bring his luggage from the plane and waited with the crowd. "'Course you're desperate."
"I'm not desperate. I just haven't found anyone I want to make a permanent commitment to. Maybe one of the horses will have a great personality."
Aaron laughed. "Desperate. What's wrong with those city girls? Too fast for you?"
Nat studied the luggage coming toward them. "I don't have much time to date back home. The church keeps me busy."
"Back home? Flint your home now?"
Nat snagged one of his suitcases and looked at his brother. "Yeah. I guess it is."
"Dad wants you home. Not that you've ever been much help on the farm, but...." Aaron shrugged. "You'll come back here. One of the fillies isn't too bad."
Nat decided to joke his brother's comments off. "So the horse-girls are really thoroughbreds. The truth comes out." He grabbed the second suitcase and turned to leave the crowd around the conveyor.
Aaron took one of his suitcases. "You know Mom wouldn't show you nothing else. Nothing but the best for you."
Nat thought he detected jealousy but had never been aware of it before, so he knew he must be mistaken. He followed Aaron from the building. Although he saw no snow, the wind made it feel as cold as Michigan.
Aaron set his suitcase in the back of a silver pickup truck, indicating that Nat do the same. Then he covered them with a tarp. The faint odor of livestock wafted toward him as the tarp settled. Nat decided it wouldn't be good to ask what Aaron had last hauled in the back of his truck.
As they drove toward home, Nat tried to start the conversation going again. "So they still have the chickens?"
"Barn cats. Libby's got a fancy cat. Paid almost a thousand dollars for it cause it's supposed to be pregnant by some fancy tom. Kittens are supposed to be worth bundles, if she can find anyone to pay that much for a dumb cat. Ryan about hit the roof."
"Really? When did this happen?"
"Bet the kittens will be good for her."
"Good for her? She could have had any of those pregnant barn cats. She didn't need to waste her money."
"Yeah, right, Aaron. A plow horse or a thoroughbred. Why breed barn cats when they do fine on their own?"
"Why breed cats at all?"
"Because she can't have a baby."
"It's not the same."
"No. It's not."
Aaron glanced at him. "Maybe you should skip the wife and breed cats."
Nat laughed. "I'd rather have a wife. I think she'd keep me a little warmer during those Michigan winters."
"Oh, the reverend is getting racy. Better not let Mom hear you. She thinks you don't know what sex is. City life has corrupted you."
"It wasn't city life. You can't grow up on a farm and not know what sex is."
"You learned nothing in the city?"
Nat was annoyed Aaron would imply he wasn't living up to his commitment to Christ, especially since he was a minister, and doubly accountable for his actions. "Experience isn't the only teacher. I'm not a hypocrite."
"Sorry." Aaron pounded his hand on the steering wheel. "Man, you've been gone forever, Nat. We hardly know you anymore. Over ten... No, it's been almost fourteen years since you left home. Can't even joke any more."
"No, I'm sorry, Aaron. You're right. There are a few areas I don't like jokes about, though."
"Guess I just have to treat you as if Mom were listening to every word. You've turned into an old lady."
Nat laughed. "Not quite." He sobered and decided to let Aaron know just where his limits were. "Don't imply I don't mean what I preach, though. The only reason I went into the ministry is because I truly believe Christ is the only way to God, and the only hope."
"You never grew up."
Nat shifted to study Aaron. "You don't believe?"
"Don't go lecturing me! Just because I don't have a high sounding degree doesn't mean I haven't studied things, too. You know how stupid you sound insisting that the world was made in six literal days?"
Nat knew his father believed that, and so had Nat growing up. It was another rule, like card playing, and this one had snagged Aaron. "I don't insist. I'm not a scientist."
Aaron pulled off the road and stopped. He stared out the windshield for a moment before looking at Nat. "Say that again?"
"I don't know how long it took the earth to be created. I'm a theologian not a scientist. Genesis is a book of theology not science."
"Dad will kill you." Then Aaron laughed. "He's gonna blow his top when he finds all that money he wasted to send you to college turned you into a liberal."
"I'm not a liberal."
"You just said...."
"I believe every thing the Bible says. I just think some people read more into Moses' account than what he meant. He was refuting the gods of Egypt and showing the Israelites who this God they served really was. It wasn't about the Earth, but about God."
Aaron started along the highway again. He didn't speak, and Nat was left to ponder this new news that his brother didn't really believe. He'd always thought his whole family believed -- that there was never a doubt among them. Aaron was right. He really didn't know them anymore. It made him feel more alone than the Friday nights he'd spent with his books longing for company.
The loneliness was only equaled by the growing ache in his stomach. He'd missed lunch. "Is there a McDonald's or anything along this route now? Maybe if I grab a burger I'll be more anxious to visit the family than the refrigerator."
"Don't worry. You'll get fed." He flashed a grin toward him then. "Yep. All the little fillies have brought wares for you to taste."
"They don't even know me."
"Mom showed them your picture, even your baby pictures."
"Yep. They really liked that one in the little bathtub."
"You're not serious! She didn't."
Aaron laughed. "Yep. They know all about you." He was obviously enjoying himself.
Nat turned to stare out the window to escape Aaron's jab. The moon lit the empty fields, only broken by an occasional tree line or farm buildings. He had resigned himself to being fixed up, but now he dreaded it. He couldn't just meet the girl and get to know her. He really shouldn't have come. He wondered how Nicole was doing with Rachel. He should call her tonight after Rachel was in bed and they could talk.
He saw the steeple of First Gospel church in the distance and knew they were almost to his little home town. As they approached, the small white building beneath the steeple stood out with the light coming from its windows. The parking lot was packed. He'd almost forgotten there would be a service, since Cornerstone didn't meet on Sunday nights. Aaron turned into the lot.
"Aw. Aaron. Come on. Let's just go home."
"What? The Reverend wants to skip church?"
"I just traveled a thousand miles or so. I'm tired."
"Dad's here. Do you want to disappoint him? I'll go home if you want to face him later." Aaron turned the truck, and seemed to have some pleasure in the idea.
Nat wanted to go home, but Aaron was right. His father would not let either of them forget it if he expected them here. "When's it over with?" Nat asked in defeat.
Aaron laughed and pulled into a parking spot. "You're a liberal."
"I am not! I'm not a legalist either. God's not going to zap anyone dead for missing Sunday night service. Man, I can't believe the terror he used to put me through." Nat turned to Aaron, realizing his family still lived under the oppressive legalism he'd been freed from in college. "The gospel isn't a bunch of rules, Aaron." He saw the look he knew meant his audience didn't want him to say another word. "If you want to know what I mean, ask me sometime. I didn't learn it here."
He opened the truck door and got out to let Aaron know he'd dropped the subject. Pulling his coat closed, he went to church. Aaron reached the door a second before he did and opened it for him.
Nat had expected the entry to be empty and all to be seated in the pews for the service. Instead people crowded the entry-- his mother, cousins, nephews, nieces, old friends from school days. A sign hung across the doors to the sanctuary, "Welcome Home, Reverend Morris". He wanted to protest. He'd never pastored here. This wasn't his home. But his mother was hugging him before he had a chance to recover. His father drew him into a brief hug, also. And then everyone talked at once.
They led him downstairs to the pot luck dinner they had prepared. He did his best to be pleasant and entertained in spite of his exhaustion and hunger. Fortunately, they soon requested he bless the food, and they let him pick first. His mother followed him and told him who made what, requesting he try a bit of each. Plate loaded, Nat sat at the closest table. His father sat across from him with his own piled plate.
"What is this, Dad? I'm no celebrity."
His father grinned. "Let the women have their fun. The food's worth it, ain't it?" He took a large forkful of baked beans. After swallowing them he said, "Besides, gotta remind these people who you are," he said a bit lower. "You'll get the pulpit without much trouble."
Nat glanced around, hoping no one heard that. "Dad!" he whispered. He shook his head. He couldn't get into it here. He'd never even met the new minister, but surely the man knew his father's intentions. Hopefully Nat could set his mind at ease. He was not after his position. He could only imagine what the poor man had to face with his father on the board of elders. He was worse than ten Vince Fredericks because in such a small congregation and with so many relatives he had that much more power over him. Even if Nat wanted to move closer to home, he'd never accept this church.
He saw himself and his family clearly for the first time. He hadn't admitted it at the time, but this had been why the position in Michigan sounded so good. He was out of their control and expectations. He could follow his own conscience instead of his father's and not be faced with his disapproval. He was as bound to his father's approval as Nicole. Nicole? Why had he thought of her now?
"Nat, I want you to meet Amy." His mother stood beside his father.
Next to her a willowy girl with long blonde hair smiled at him. "Hi, Nat." The blue dress she wore was conservative enough in cut, but it clung to her figure, revealing all that any man could want to know. He forced himself to look up into her face where the blue of her eyes matched the dress.
Horse-girl, indeed. Where did his mother find her? She belonged in some New York modeling agency. "Hi, Amy. Are you new around here, or do I know your relatives?"
His mother tapped his father's shoulder, and he left his seat. "Here, Amy. Sit down and visit. I'll talk to my son later."
Amy's smile stayed as she took the seat. He found she was a younger sister of an acquaintance from high school. No, he didn't remember her. She was bright and cheery, but with all the guests, Nat didn't feel he should linger. When he ate all he could he excused himself, disposed of his Styrofoam plate, and began mingling among the friends and relatives he hadn't seen in so long, trying to find Libby. Along the way he was introduced to the Lisa and Rhonda that his mother had mentioned over the phone. Both were pleasant in appearance and manner also, although not as model shaped as Amy. But as with Amy he could find nothing to hold his interest, and his concern for Libby grew when neither had seen her either.
Nat finally tracked down Ryan. After the customary welcome and small chat, he asked where Libby was hiding.
"Oh, she stayed home. Said she didn't feel up to parties." Ryan shrugged as if it didn't matter at all to him.
Nat couldn't believe his disappointment. The one person he specifically wanted to see wasn't here.
"Don't take it so hard," Ryan said, clasping his hand on Nat's upper arm. "It's nothing personal. She hates everyone, you know. Just wants to be with her new cat."
"Whoa, Ryan. What's going on? This sounds serious."
Ryan held up his hands. "Don't even think about practicing your stuff on me, Nat. Ask your brothers. This isn't my fault."
"I'm not practicing anything. I'd just like to help if I can."
"Nothing you can do." Ryan looked beyond him. "I've got to talk to someone. See you around." Ryan left him abruptly.
Nat stared after him. Elizabeth was right! His sister's husband was a jerk. He didn't know any of these people.
"Hey, Nat, what's wrong?"
Nat looked up into his oldest brother's face. What was different about Jordan than he expected. He closed his eyes and leaned against the wall. "Just tired, I guess."
"I tried to tell them you probably would be, but they had their mind made up." Jordan looked across the room. "Have the energy to meet one more person?"
"As long as she doesn't expect a date."
Jordan laughed. "No. He doesn't. He already has a wife." Jordan took his arm, looked around, and then pulled him around the corner to the back staircase. "Come on."
It was a relief to be away from the crowd and noise. Nat followed Jordan up the stairs, through the choir door, to another door on the opposite side of the pulpit. He gave a short knock before opening the door. Nat stepped into the small room. It held one bookshelf and a desk.
A man turned the desk chair and then stood. His hair thinned on his forehead, not hiding the lines around his eyes. He held out his hand, and smiled. "It's good to meet you after hearing so much about you. I'm Mike Tallen." Nat shook his hand.
"Pastor Mike," Jordan clarified, as if Nat might misunderstand the significance of him at the desk in the pastor's study.
Nat focused on Mike's words. "I'm sure you've heard too much about me."
"Nothing bad, I assure you."
Nat grinned. "Sometimes that's worse. I've got an elder in my church that I just realized is very similar to my father." Nat glanced at Jordan. He couldn't say all he wanted to.
"Your church?" Jordan asked. "Dad has made it quite clear this will be your church."
Nat looked from Jordan to Mike wondering how Jordan could put Mike in such an uncomfortable position. It was true then. His whole family was a bunch of jerks. He tried to hide his disappointment and focus on Mike. Regardless of how he felt now was the time to make his stand. "No, Jordan. This will not be my church. I've got a commitment to the people in Flint. I'm not leaving them."
"Even if your wife doesn't want to leave here?"
"I have no wife."
"Situations change," Jordan insisted.
Nat decided Jordan was as stubborn as his father. "Mike, I don't want your job. I'm sorry about any pressure or misunderstanding this has caused. Maybe sometime while I'm here we can get together for coffee, but right now I'm beat." He focused on Jordan. "Will someone please take me to the house?"
Jordan studied him, and Nat resisted that irritation the came at the delay.
"You didn't preach this morning, did you?"
"Yes, and teach Sunday School before that."
"With traveling, you are beat," Mike said. "We can talk another time."
"Sure, Mike. I'll bring him in some time this week. Let's go, Nat. I'll find a bed to tuck you into."
Nat knew he was teasing, but could barely smile in response. He said good-bye to Mike and followed Jordan out of the room.
"If you go back down there, you're going to get ambushed. Come on." Jordan led him to the entry where they found their coats. Then he followed him outside. "Let me take you home. You can be asleep by the time Mom and Dad get in. You won't get to bed until three if we don't."
"Thanks, Jordan." They took his luggage from the back of Aaron's truck and moved it to the trunk of Jordan's Buick. They drove through the village and then out past the open fields. Finally they passed both Jordan and Aaron's homes -- rectangular one story modulars set on poured concrete basements. He knew Aaron had added an extension in back of his five or more years before. He seemed to recall his mother saying Jordan had also, but he wasn't interested enough to ask. He thought there was a new barn out behind the houses, but he'd know better in daylight.
They came to the old two-story family home his parents still lived in. Jordan helped him carry in his suitcases and decide which upstairs bedroom Mom had planned for him to use. He moved quietly and efficiently, and then he was gone.
Nat opened his suitcase and changed out of his clothes. He completed his routine and turned out the light. Just as he was about to get into bed, he remembered Nicole. He went to his parents room down the hall and sat on the edge of their bed to use the phone. After entering his calling card number, he called her. The phone rang several times before he heard her sleepy voice.
"Hi," he said softly, leaning back against the headboard. "Didn't mean to wake you, but I thought this might be the only time we could talk."
At the surprise in her voice, he smiled. "Yeah, it's me. How's Rachel? Is there anything I should know when I call her tomorrow?"
"You mean later today."
Nat glanced at the clock. It'd be almost one for her. "I didn't realize it was so late, Nicole. I just got in. I only wanted to make sure... but if everything's okay...." He sat up to end the conversation.
"It's all right. Call when you can. I really don't mind. I didn't even expect you'd have time to."
Her understanding let him relax again. "Thanks. My family pretty much has control of my time right now."
"But you'll still call at eight?"
"If they try to stop me, I'll fight like a lion or should I say wolverine."
Nicole laughed in a low, quiet way that soothed instead of jangled his tired body. "She's been pretty good, considering everything."
"You leaving, not being sure she can trust you yet. That's not personal, you know."
"I know. So how are you doing, aside from not getting enough sleep?"
She laughed again for him. He'd have to get her to laugh more often. Why hadn't he noticed it before? "I'm okay."
"You always say that."
"You don't want to hear me whine, do you?"
"I want the truth."
Nicole took a deep breath. "Well... I was a little depressed because of Dad's call last night, but nothing can be done about it, so I just have to try to stop thinking about it."
"What did he say?"
"I've failed. Rachel never did those things while they were here. It must be my fault."
"I'm so sorry, Nicole. You trusted me, and I messed up. I assumed things I shouldn't have. I should have come to you instead of thinking I could change his mind about a silly kitten."
Nicole didn't speak for a few seconds.
"I'm sorry," Nat repeated.
"I... you just wanted to make Rachel happy."
"Not a good excuse, though."
"I... It's okay. I didn't blame you. I... I never expected an apology."
No. She'd probably had very few. He remembered her surprise when Rachel had. "That's why I called tonight. I'm getting all my news straight from you -- not your Dad, not Rachel, not even Paul... at least not about you. As long as you don't mind the hours I call."
"No. Not at all. I... I'm just a little surprised."
"I know. And you know something? I realized my Dad is a lot like yours. When he realizes I don't follow all the legalistic rules he believes are law, he is really going to be disappointed with me. It's going to happen this time, and I dread it."
"But you don't do anything wrong!"
Nat laughed a little. "All the time, Nicole. That's why I just had to apologize. But he'd be more disappointed if he knew I've been playing cards on Friday nights. To him it's a major sin."
"Cards? He's worried about cards when... when... I'm sorry. I shouldn't say anything."
"It's okay. I just wanted you to know that just because someone is disappointed with you, even your father, doesn't necessarily mean you're wrong. Rachel's disobedience isn't as simple as you employing the wrong parenting technique. We'll work it out. We just have to remember that God is in control, working all things to good."
"I'll try to remember. Thanks."
"No problem. Sermons any time."
She laughed her low special laugh again, but then Nat also heard vehicles pull into the gravel drive.
"Sounds like I've got to go now. I'll call Rachel at eight."
"Thanks, Nat. Bye."
"Bye." Nat hung up and snuck back into the guest room, closing the door. Then he got into bed to pretend he was asleep. Soon he no longer needed to pretend.