It had been a long time since Nat had awakened to the smell of bacon and coffee. He allowed himself to lie and savor the aroma for a few minutes, before his stomach prompted him to get some of that food. He rushed through his routine, putting on jeans and a dress shirt. He slipped into his sneakers and went downstairs.
His mother rose from the kitchen chair and moved to the stove. She poured eggs from a bowl into the frying pan. "Your father's already out in the accessories barn, complaining about you lazy city folk. He wants you to join him when you finish."
"Which...?" He cut himself off. No used reminding her of his long absence from home. He'd find which one they kept them in. He opened two biscuits on his plate and ladled gravy over them. "This looks so good. I haven't had a real breakfast in years."
"Well, all three of those girls can cook. I made sure of that. I was afraid you weren't eating right." She brought the pan to the table and let the eggs slide to his plate.
"But Mom, I don't love them."
"Of course you don't. Not yet. But when you get to know them better, one should stand out. Your father favors Amy, although I do think Rhonda will be the best mother. She's the middle of seven." She sat across from him and took a drink of her coffee.
"I'm not buying a car or hiring a maid. Isn't there supposed to be something more? Don't women want love?"
"Of course they do. But a sensible woman knows she can love a responsible man much longer and easier than a fool. Same is true in reverse."
"And where did I get the notion there was something more?" he muttered, cutting his eggs to let the yolk run into the gravy. "This is great, Mom. You're the best cook around." He stuffed another forkful into his mouth.
"You're special, Nat," his mother said. "But you're not getting younger. Neither are we." She stood. "But your father will talk to you about that."
"What? Is someone sick?"
His mother turned back from gathering the dishes. "Heavens, no. You do have an imagination. Probably where you get those romantic notions from. Finish your breakfast." She washed the last of the dishes.
"I want to see Libby today."
"There's probably time this afternoon. Amy will come at five to help me with dinner, so you might want to be here. You may just fall in love and satisfy that soft heart of yours." She took his empty plate. "Your father is waiting."
Nat grabbed his coat and headed out back. Rain drizzled down, and his shoes were soaked with muddy water before he realized he'd stepped into a puddle. He no longer owned a pair of work boots, but he wondered if he should buy some for the duration of his visit.
He looked into each barn. The first held vehicles, the second a combine, the third housed tractors. The fourth building sat behind Aaron's house, dwarfing it. Nat pulled open the door and saw the different accessories that the tractor pulled through the fields -- the plow, the tandem disk harrow, the fertilizer sprayer, the seeder. He made his way around the tandem disk harrow to the lighted doorway behind it. The room was an office. His father sat with his feet on one desk. Jordan studied the monitor of a computer at a second desk. Aaron read a farm journal on the couch.
His father sat up. "About time you got up. How soft are you now?" Jordan turned from the computer, and Aaron lowered the magazine.
"I'm on vacation. This is nice. Just build it?"
"Almost two years ago. I want you to preach Sunday."
Nat sat in the armchair and leaned back. "Mike's taking a vacation? Don't the elders fill in for him?"
"He's taking a long vacation. As soon as you can tie up your loose ends, he's leaving."
Nat tensed. Jordan hadn't been joking. His father had made too many plans. "Are you offering me a job?"
He laughed. "Yeah. I got you the job."
"I don't want the job."
His father stood and came around his desk to lean against it. "Of course you want it. What's your pay? We'll work something out. I can put you on our medical insurance here. A side benefit, just for you and your family."
"I don't want it."
"You won't have any expenses. You'll get our house. Lots of room for kids there. No way you can lose."
Nat stood and went to the door. "Sorry. I'm not interested. Is there a car I can borrow? I'd like to go see Libby."
"Wait a minute here. This isn't settled. How soon can you be moved?"
"I came to see all of you, not to switch churches."
"There is nothing that church has that we can't offer you! Now sit down and listen a minute." He motioned to the chair Nat had been in.
Nat had the urge to scamper back to his seat. Instead he walked out the door. He could hear his father yell again as he walked through the barn.
"Love of money is a sin, Nathan Morris. Pride over your position in the big church will bring you down."
Nat opened the outside door and escaped. He had the urge to run and gave into it, something he hadn't done in years. He ran past all the barns and up the drive to the big house. But he didn't want to stop. He kept running down the road for another half a mile, until his lungs burned. He slowed and walked, letting his body adjust to the unaccustomed exercise. He decided to walk a little further before he returned. He was already wet.
Why did he feel like such a child around them? Had nothing changed at all? No. Everything had changed. He wasn't going to be pushed around. If they couldn't talk about something else, he'd leave. But not before he saw Libby.
A car pulled along side of him. He glanced over as Jordan put down the passenger window of a late model Buick. "Get in."
Nat almost decided not to, and then thought he'd be resorting to the childhood position he felt pushed to. He got into the car, and then Jordan continued driving at a slow speed.
Jordan handed him a set of keys. "It's to the Bronco. You can use it while you're here."
"Where is it? Wait. Let me guess. The barn?"
Jordan laughed. "Yeah. The one right behind the big house." They drove a little further.
"Where are we going?"
"Dad wants to know what you want."
"Nothing. I am not moving back. What's the big deal anyway?"
"You're the only one not home besides Arleen, and if Dad could find some way to convince Roger to move to Kansas, he'd do it." In other words, his older sister had a husband to hide behind. Nat would have to fight this.
"Jordan, you tell Dad that I'll leave tomorrow if he keeps at it. I made a commitment. I'm staying."
"They pay you a lot, don't they?"
"This isn't about money."
"Dad's willing to give you a whole lot -- all the benefits of the farm without lifting a finger."
"You're not listening either. Take me back to the Bronco."
Jordan drove close to the ditch and made a U turn. "Will you preach Sunday? Mike already made arrangements to visit his family in Wichita this weekend when Dad told him you were doing it."
"I'm on vacation. Besides, you don't just stand up on Sunday morning and pull forty-five minutes of exposition out of thin air."
"Call Mike." Jordan pulled into the drive and stopped by the barn. "See you later."
"Yeah, sure." Nat left the car and went to the barn. He wanted to change his shoes, but knew he'd ruin his other shoes if he did, so he stayed in his soggy sneakers. He found the Bronco between a Cadillac and a minivan. His father hadn't exaggerated. The farm had some good years recently.
Nat pressed the remote on the dash of the truck, and the barn door opened. He drove out and back toward town.
Libby's husband owned and operated the grain elevators near the railroad. They lived in a small white house between the elevator offices and Ryan's mother's home. Nat remembered hearing that Ryan's father had died a little over a year before. Nat knocked several times before Libby let him in.
"Hey, Lib. How's it going?" He shoved the door shut and hugged her. Then he stepped back and looked her over. She'd gained more weight since he'd last seen her. Her long mouse brown hair was rumbled, as if she'd just gotten up. Her eyes were red, and her face moist. He reached to hold her again. Depression and pain had taken a toll on her, hiding the pretty, bouncy teenager she'd once been. "I missed you last night."
She clung to him for a few minutes, letting her depression out against his shoulder. When she did pull away, she went into the kitchen. Nat slipped off his coat and hung it on the coat stand. Then he kicked off his shoes and socks to dry before he followed. She pulled out a ginger ale from the refrigerator. "You still like these?"
"Thanks." A large tan cat with cheetah-like spots entered the room. It stopped and looked toward Nat warily. "Wow. Is that the cat?"
"The cat? What'd they say?" Libby picked up the cat and brought her to Nat.
Nat let the cat smell his hand before rubbing her behind the ears. "Aaron just said that she's pregnant and expensive. It's a Bengal, isn't it?"
Libby smiled. "Yes! You know. You're the only one." She set the cat on the table. "Look at her rosettes. And look at her fur, the way the ends are gold. It's called glitter. She's won awards and everything." Libby took Nat into the family room to show him a small shelf of awards. "Her breeder really didn't want to give her up, but she's got two others with new litters. The father's a marble Bengal. The kittens should be great. The vet thinks four or five."
Nat stroked the cat. "She's beautiful. What's her name?"
"Asian Bloom. I just call her Asia. Do you want a kitten?" Libby asked, looking into his eyes for the first time.
He'd take one for Rachel in a minute, if she'd been able to have one. "I'll see if I can get my lease amended. How much?"
"Oh, I wouldn't charge you, Nat."
"But I'm sure you have expenses. The vet and all. If I can get the lease changed, I'll buy one. I have a couple months before they'll be old enough, right?"
"Yeah." Libby turned away. "If nothing goes wrong."
Nat put his hand on her shoulder.
She leaned against him for a minute, before looking up. "Lease? Mom said you were moving here."
"No. I'm not. I've never said that."
Libby went to sit on the couch. "I should have known it wasn't true."
Nat sat beside her, and the cat settled between them. "I'm sorry, Libby. I wish we lived closer, but I can't come back."
"I wish I could move away. Not that anything would change."
"Do you get out with friends much?"
"They all have kids. Everyone has a family. Ryan's always working."
"Have you joined a Bengal club or anything?"
"I hope to show the kittens. I'll save the sweetest one for you. I know you'll have kids." She turned to face him. "You know they aren't that far removed from the Asian Leopard Cat. They recommend caution around very young children. But Asia is gentle. Maybe you won't have trouble. Let me know."
Nat touched her face. "You're not marrying me off, too, are you? Isn't there any romance left in the world?"
"No. There isn't. If I were you, I'd never get married."
He let her lean against him, and Asia obligingly moved out of the way. He wished he could help, but had no words to offer. "Do you want me to try to talk to Ryan?"
She pulled away from him. "About what?"
"What's hurting you. Him working too much."
"That's not bothering me."
She stood. "Look at me. I'm an ugly, rotten mess. I don't blame him for staying away. I can't even give him any kids to come home for, and I'm through trying. Doc says it's pretty hopeless anyway. Never should have gotten Asia, but what else can I do?"
"I think raising kittens is a great idea, Libby. Meet other breeders. Get involved with competition. Keep business records. You can do it. You'll show Aaron a thing or two, and earn back all the money you invested in Asia and more."
Libby's defensiveness left and she hugged him. "You're the only one who understands I have to do something. I have to be able to look forward." She pulled away and sat beside him. "You really think I can do good with this?"
"I think you'll do great. You always had a way with those wild barn cats. You're more than ready for the big time."
"After I sell these kittens I want to get a male from a different breeder, and another female." Nat encouraged her and listened to Libby's plans and dreams the rest of the afternoon. Her enthusiasm grew, and she took notes and showed him books and mailings.
At five the phone rang. A simple thing, but Libby stopped in mid-sentence and stared at it through two more rings. When she rose to answer it, her shoulders sagged. "Yes?" She handed the phone to Nat.
"Nat, it's five fifteen. Where are you?"
Nat wasn't sure whether to be annoyed or laugh. "I'm right here, Mom. What's up?"
"I asked you to be here for dinner."
"I thought you were just starting."
"Amy is here."
"And...?" But then Nat couldn't let her continue. "Libby and I will be over in a few minutes."
Libby shook her head.
"Okay, Nat. But make it quick. You're wasting precious time."
He didn't bother explaining his time with Libby was better spent. She had an agenda, and it meant getting him married off. He hung up. "Mom says it's time to go."
"No, Nat. I don't want to. Please. I'm not up to company."
Nat could see her backing away into the hole he'd spent all afternoon drawing her from. "I'm not up to getting married off to the highest bidder, best cook, or whoever else they drag over. Give me a friendly face so I know someone is on my side over there. I'm feeling like it's me against the world, right now."
"You against Mom and Dad? The only thing you ever did that they didn't like was not come home."
"And not marry. And I'm not taking the pastorate away from Mike Tallen. They know I'm rebelling, and they're out to get me. Are you going to help me?" He watched her waver. "Please?"
She signed. "Let me shower and change."
Nat kissed her cheek. "I love you, Libby. Thanks."
She stared at him for a long moment and then disappeared into her bedroom.
Lord, Nat prayed silently, help me find the root of this depression. Help me show her Your compassion. I bet she doubts that, too, just like Aaron. Lord, is Aaron upset with me? Show me what I did and how to fix it. And about Mike Tallen, Lord. Please give the man strength and peace to deal with this family. Thank You, Lord. In Jesus Name. Nat replaced his shoes and socks, which were almost dry.
When Libby emerged, her hair was pulled back in a ribbon, and her face was clear of tear tracks. She had switched from jeans to a slack suit. "Hey, you're looking better than me."
"You don't want to look good, do you?" Libby asked. "Who is it this time?"
Libby wrinkled her nose. "I'll stay home."
"No, you can't. You promised. Besides it's your job to give me the other half of the picture."
"All you men see is the body. What difference does anything else make?" Libby whirled and headed back toward her room.
Nat caught her arm and turned her to face him. "Wrong. Did you and Amy fight in school or something?"
"Amy's nose doesn't come out of the sky long enough to notice her inferiors. Besides she didn't go to school with me."
"Oh, yeah. That was... one of the others."
"Come on." He led her to the door and handed her a coat. "Bet Amy doesn't have a great cat like Asia waiting for her at home." He gave Asia's chin a rub as he waited for Libby.
"Nat, you're as crazy as you used to be."
"Is that good or bad?"
Libby hugged him. "Good. I miss you so much sometimes."
"You should call me more. Come and visit me. If Ryan doesn't want to come, maybe he won't mind when he's particularly busy."
"He wouldn't watch Asia."
"Well, minor detail. We'll think of something." He held the Bronco door open for her.
"You're such a gentleman, Nat. No wonder they all are lining up."
"They don't know that."
Inside the big house he went upstairs to change his shoes. When he came down, Libby was in the living room by the door where he'd left her. "What's up?" he whispered. "This is home."
She shook her head, indicating she didn't want to talk about it.
"There you are," said their mother from the dining room doorway. "Where's Ryan?"
Libby shrugged. "Working, I guess."
"You could have waited for him."
"I begged her to come with me, since I haven't seen her in so long," Nat said quickly. He followed Libby to the love seat and sat next to her, and Amy followed his mother into the living room. Both women took a seat.
Amy said hello and still smiled. This time she wore slacks and a sweater just as revealing as the blue dress had been. Nat wondered if she purposely bought her clothing slightly snug.
The conversation was light and superficial. Libby said nothing. Even later at dinner little of substance came out in the conversation. He felt he was grasping for small talk by the end of the meal. Even his father said little and did not mention the church or their earlier confrontation.
Amy kept smiling. He started to wonder why. Maybe her clothing cut circulation. If he were younger, still a teenager, he would have whispered this observation to Libby. But he was not. He was a minister, and he knew his thoughts were not charitable.
His watch alarm beeped as dessert was passed. He turned it off. "Excuse me."
"What's that?" his father asked.
"Nat, if you were younger...." his mother warned.
"Sorry. I promised someone I'd call. Excuse me." He went to the living room and dialed Nicole's number. Rachel answered on the first ring. "Daddy?"
"Hi, Rachel. How'd school go today?"
"I missed you."
"I missed you, too. Did you get all your homework done?"
"Yep. I finished everything in school. Do they got lots of animals still? What do the cats look like?"
Nat heard movement behind him and glanced up. Everyone had entered the room, and Libby stood beside him. "My sister has a great big cat that's going to have kittens soon. It's tan with black spots like a wild leopard cat. It's called a Bengal."
"Like a tiger!"
"Smaller. Spots instead of stripes. I'll take some pictures."
"Oh, Daddy, I wish I could have a kitten."
"I know. I'm going to see if I can get one. If I do, you'll be able to come and see it all the time."
"Will you? Really?"
"I'll try. No promises. I might have to move first."
"Move? Away from here?"
He heard the fear immediately. "No. I promised you I wouldn't do that, Rachel. I meant to a different apartment in Flint. I'll still live close. I promise. Tell me, were you real beautiful today, or were you a bit of a wolverine?"
"I was beautiful... mostly."
Nat laughed. "Keep working at it, Sweetheart." He let Rachel tell him more about her day, before he admitted he was missing dessert. "I'll call again Thursday, Rachel."
"I love you, Daddy."
"I love you, too. Bye." He hung up.
Before he could turn to face them his father asked too quietly. "Who was that?"
Nat stood and walked past them back to the dining room. "A girl at the church. Her father isn't around." He sat down and took a forkful of carrot cake. Amy could bake. "Good cake, Amy."
Libby sat next to him.
"Rachel loves cats, too, but her grandfather won't let her have one."
Everyone took their seats. "Wait a minute, Nat. I don't understand. What is your relationship to this girl?"
"I'm her pastor."
"You weren't talking like any pastor I've ever heard."
Nat shrugged. "I guess I'm more like a surrogate father."
"And her mother?"
Nat looked up. "Is Nicole. Are you guys interested in being surrogate grandparents? Rachel would think that's really great." He knew they were shocked, and all he could do was pretend it was the most normal thing in the world for children to attach themselves to him.
"No, I'm not a surrogate grandparent. Nathan, are you dating that woman?"
"I'm not dating anyone right now."
"Did you?" he insisted.
"No. Nicole's never been married."
"Oh, Nat," his mother said, her hand raising to her mouth. "Stay away from those fast women."
A surge of protective anger went through him, but Nat kept his voice even. "Nicole is not a fast woman. She's a single parent doing the best she can with a demanding, bright, and disillusioned child. Now I've said enough. Drop the subject. My parishioners are not your concern."
Amy for once was not smiling. "No, Nat. Let's not drop it. How many single women do you help with parenting? How do they show their appreciation? I don't think it's at all appropriate for a minister."
"Oh?" Maybe this would work out after all. Her illusion of him was shattered, and he'd no longer be forced to listen to her inane chatter.
"My husband will not be running around with other women's children and calling them up."
"Perhaps he won't. Do I know him? Someone I went to school with, maybe?"
This seemed to confuse her. He heard Libby snicker, and reached for her hand under the table. Libby squeezed it, and then said quietly. "I wouldn't mind being a surrogate aunt to a cat lover."
"Why, thank you, Libby. Rachel will be quite excited. She has little contact with Nicole's sister or sisters-in-law." Nat decided to be even brasher. "Just so it doesn't surprise you, she has started calling me Daddy."
He felt guilty when he saw his mother turn pale. "Mom, I'm doing nothing wrong. Really. I just talk to her for a few minutes after school and call her up twice a week. And I'm going to take her to the zoo this summer. Just like a big brother type thing. You've heard of that, haven't you?" Maybe not. She didn't seem any more relieved, and Nat suspected maybe the Big Brother/Big Sister program was more a Big City type thing. He searched for another example.
"Nat, I don't want to marry someone who does that," Amy tried again.
The smile was a frown now. "You don't want to marry me?"
"I don't even know you." Nat stood. "I can take you home, Libby."
Libby followed him to the living room. Before they were ready, his father came to them. "Nathan John Morris, I am ashamed. Straighten your act up right now before it's too late. I expect you to preach Sunday. And then arrange to take over First Gospel within the next few months." He shook his head. "Don't blow it with Rhonda and Lisa, either."
"I may stay and visit late," Nat said, to avoid another fight. He opened the door for Libby.
After they were in the car, Libby started giggling. "I'm glad I came, Nat. It used to be me getting those lectures, you know."
Nat smiled, glad she was happy, but he was not. He felt ashamed, not because he cared for Rachel and Nicole, but because he'd let his temper and his frustration with match making goad him into remarks he shouldn't have said. He should have been the peacemaker. Wasn't that his job?
"Are you upset with me?"
"You? No, Libby. I just don't think I did the right thing, but I can't determine what I should have done. I didn't mean to be so introspective."
"Do you like her?"
"We're not dating."
"That isn't what I asked."
Nat hesitated. He knew what Libby was asking. What surprised him was that he wasn't sure of the answer. "I... care about her as a person."
"You wouldn't ever date her?"
"Libby... she isn't...." Nat couldn't say it. He pulled into her driveway.
"Isn't what? A virgin? You weren't the first so she's trash?" Libby jumped out of the car and ran toward the door.
What? Nat ran after her, catching the door before she was able to close it. He came in after her and caught her in the kitchen. "What is it, Libby? I don't understand what just happened."
She shook her head, her eyes closed. He pulled her to him as her tears came again. He sat with her on the couch and let her cry until she could speak. "I'm sorry. It's just post-pregnancy depression, you know."
He brushed her hair from her eyes. "Is it? Please let me help, Libby. Talk to me."
She shook her head again. Then she swallowed and looked up at him. "I'm okay. It's nothing. Do you think Rachel would like some photocopies of articles about Bengals? I have some here...." She stood, went to her bookshelf, and began sorting through a stack of paper.
Nat watched and realized she wouldn't tell him tonight. She needed more time, and so did he. "Yes. Rachel would love anything about cats."