Nicole felt the headache intensify as she bent once again to open the mould door and remove the newly formed lock switch. She closed the door, straightened, and then trimmed the flashing off the part, setting it in the box. Ten seconds later the next part was ready, and she repeated the movements. If she could just stay still for a while the headache might disappear.
As she straightened once more she looked across the room to the large wall clock. Fifteen minutes to go. Then she'd pick up Rachel for the weekend.
Nat had called, she reminded herself. And seven minutes was not that late, even though those seven minutes had been heartbreaking to watch. It had been even harder than Rachel's outbursts of anger, because she just sat there, staring at the phone and then the clock. Nicole could see her pain -- the despair that took over as each second ticked by. But Nicole couldn't say anything to help. What was there to say? He had promised both of them.
But then the phone had rang, and whatever excuse he had given had satisfied Rachel. Seven minutes after all, was really nothing. She'd been late for appointments by seven minutes before. Nicole thought maybe she could set the clock back by ten minutes in case it happened again. But that wouldn't help, because she knew how it went. First seven minutes, then it'd be ten, and next twenty. Soon he'd never call or show up. Why couldn't he be different?
Especially after their talks late at night. Had they really happened? Had he called just to talk to her? They'd talked for a full forty-five minutes last time, and not just about Rachel, but books and cats and games and places and even Genesis. 'Why, Lord?' she prayed silently. 'I read too much into his calls, didn't I? He never said anything to make me think that maybe... maybe... oh, Lord, just protect Rachel. He didn't mean to be late, did he? He is different, isn't he? Lord, I don't know what to think anymore.'
The clock finally indicated that she could punch out, and Nicole drove to the church to get Rachel. Paul had been good about entertaining her those few minutes while she waited, sharing stories about wildlife, sometimes Michigan wildlife, sometimes wildlife from another country. Today Rachel ran to the car and opened the door. She didn't get in. "Paul wants to talk to you, Mom."
"Now?" Of course, now. Nicole got out of the car and followed Rachel back inside.
Paul sat at Nat's desk and rose to greet her when they entered the room. He came to close the door and motioned Nicole and Rachel to sit on the couch. Then he sat across from her in the chair Nat usually used.
She tried to ignore the strangeness, like a picture not quite right. She'd gotten too used to Nat.
"How are things going?" Paul asked.
The similarity of the question to Nat's question just intensified the feeling of unease. "I'm okay."
"Rachel?" He looked at Rachel.
Rachel seemed confused a moment, and Nicole wondered if it felt just as strange to her, but she'd had a whole week to get used to Paul in Nat's study. But then Rachel shrugged. "I'm okay, too."
"I understand Nat was a little late with his phone call last night."
Rachel looked at Nicole. "He didn't mean it. You didn't have to tell on him!"
"Rachel, please. I didn't say anything to anyone."
"No, Rachel. I found out from Nat's father, and then Nat just called not too long ago. He left this to my discretion. And... I think you need to know why."
"He had to call from the barn."
"That's true, Rachel. He probably didn't tell you he banged himself up pretty badly trying to get to the phone on time. His father told me he lost a lot of blood."
Nicole felt ill. "Blood, but... I don't understand. After he got off the phone?"
"No, before. Near as I can determine, he bled all over the chair he sat in while he spoke to Rachel."
"But...." Rachel began. "I didn't do anything!"
"No. Of course not," Paul reassured her. "I'm only telling you this so you'll know that his call was late for a good reason, and that he even ignored his injuries because he cares about you. I don't want you to be upset with him."
"I wasn't!" Rachel protested.
But Paul focused on Nicole, and she knew he knew she'd doubted. "Is... is he okay now?"
"He'll be all right. Just a bit sore and tired. I think it might cheer him up a little if Rachel makes him a get well card, though." He winked at Rachel.
Rachel scooted off the couch. "I will! Mom will, too, won't you?"
Nicole hesitated. She wasn't an artist; she'd rather buy one. But both Paul and Rachel watched her. "Sure. We'll send something out tonight, if you give me an address. He will be all right, though, won't he? Will he still be able to preach Sunday and... well, maybe that's none of my business." Nicole looked away from Paul's eyes.
"Yes. He should be able to preach Sunday. And Nicole?" When he didn't continue, Nicole looked at him again. "It is your business. You're his friend, and you care, right? He wouldn't have told you about Sunday if he didn't want you to know. And I wouldn't have mentioned his accident if I didn't know you both cared and would want to be praying for him."
Rachel grabbed Paul's hands. "Let's pray for him now so he can get better."
Nicole stared at her. When had Rachel ever wanted to pray before?
"Yes, Rachel. Let's do that." Paul released one hand and reached for Nicole's. Nervously Nicole completed the circle, and Paul prayed. He ended, but instead of releasing their hands he asked Rachel if she wanted to say a prayer.
Rachel bowed her head again. "Dear Jesus. Please make my Daddy better. I miss him. Thanks." She looked up. "Is that okay?"
Paul smiled. "Yes." He stood and took a paper from the desk to give her. Nat's address. "I'll see you Sunday, Nicole. Don't be afraid to call if you need anything. Or you can even call Nat."
"Really? We can?" Rachel asked.
"I don't know," Nicole said quickly. She could just imagine Rachel wanting to call every night, running up the phone bill. She understood the desire to call though.
"He'll call you," Paul said, watching Nicole. "Don't worry, Rachel. He may even call before Monday. Well, I should get home. Daniel surprised us and came home with David, so both my sons are here. They'll be at church Sunday with us if you want to meet them."
"Daniel? Isn't Jared your son?"
Paul focused on Rachel. "I'm his stepfather. And he'll be with us too, so you're right, Rachel. All of my children will be at my home this weekend, as well as my father, and his stepchildren."
"Sounds crowded," Nicole couldn't help noting. "I don't think I've seen Daniel."
"If he stays, you won't miss him Sunday. He looks like me, only his hair has more blond, and he's a few inches taller. No mustache." He grabbed his coat and walked with them outside, locking up as he left. "I'm sure Elizabeth won't mind if you call."
Nicole acknowledged his statement with a nod, and then said good-bye. She wouldn't call until next week after their company left. They went home. Nicole showered and then fixed dinner. Rachel busied herself with her crayons and paper.
As they ate, Nicole couldn't help thinking about the last three Fridays spent with Nat. She pushed her casserole around, but ate little.
"Are you going to make Nat a card?"
"Maybe we'll go to the store and buy one... You'll be good in the store, right?" She'd only been to the grocery store since that Tuesday three and a half weeks ago, and she really needed to buy a few household supplies.
"I'm good now. I'm not a wolverine anymore," Rachel said. "Can we send him mine, too?"
"Yes. We'll have to buy a big envelope."
"Can I buy him a present?"
"I don't know. Can we look?"
"We can look, but I don't have a lot of money."
Rachel made a face. "I know." She finished off her food, and then jumped up and took her plate to the sink. "I'm ready."
Nicole finished eating and then put away the food. Rachel came to her with her school pictures from fall. "I never gave Daddy a picture. He'll want one, right? We can send it with the card."
"Sure, Rachel. Bring it with you." They left. It wasn't until Nicole automatically pulled into the store she usually went to that she realized she couldn't walk back in there. Not after the way Rachel had embarrassed her. She ended up driving to the other side of Flint. Rachel did not question the maneuver.
Nicole kept a sharp watch on Rachel as she grabbed bathroom tissue, laundry detergent, dish soap, and trash bags. Then they looked at the cards. Rachel studied the stickers near them. "Can we give him these cat ones? There's two sheets. One for him and one for me."
Nicole smiled. "Yeah. I guess so."
Out in the car, Nicole signed the card, slipped it into an envelope with Rachel's card, the stickers, and the picture. Then she sealed it, pasting on her last four stamps, since she was unsure of the postage. She delivered it to the collection box outside the post office on her way home.
Nicole had a hard time sleeping that night, and as she hoped, she heard the phone ring in her parents room around midnight. She jumped out of bed and ran across the hall. "Hello?"
"Hi, Nicole. It's me again."
"Oh, Nat. I'm so glad you're okay. You are okay, right?"
He laughed a little. "Yeah. I'm okay. I've kind of lain around today, but tomorrow I've got to go back out and work on the sermon. Paul told you how stupid I was, I suppose."
"He didn't say you were stupid. Just that you were hurt trying to get to the phone."
Nat didn't speak for a moment. "I couldn't let her down. Were things very bad because of the delay? Does she understand?"
"We understand. Rachel even prayed for you to get better."
"Did she? But last night. How did that go?"
"Oh, Nat, I'm so mixed up. I wanted you to keep your promise, but I didn't want you to bleed to death doing it."
"Bleed to death? Nicole, I'm fine. You're not answering the question. Rachel was disappointed, wasn't she?"
"Only until you called. How come you talked for half an hour while you were bleeding all over the place?"
"What did Paul tell you? I didn't tell him that."
Nicole hesitated at his tone. Had she stepped over an invisible line? "I'm sorry. I... I didn't mean to...."
"Hey, Nicole," he said softly. "I didn't mean to snap. I just don't want you to be concerned. I cut myself up some, but bleeding all over the place is a bit of an exaggeration. It's not that bad. I'll have to find out why Paul deemed it necessary to scare you."
"He... he said he told us because we care about you. I think he wanted Rachel to know the extremes you went to just to keep your promise." She hesitated, and then told him the truth. "He maybe guessed I needed to know. I'm sorry."
"I wanted to call you last night." His voice was soft, low, understanding. "I knew you'd wonder. But things just seemed out of my control after I hung up with Rachel."
He was hurt badly, just as Paul said! What could she say? "I'm sorry. I never meant to doubt you."
"I never meant to give you reason. I know neither of you have had anyone you could really trust. That doesn't bother me." He paused. "Although I hope you don't mind if I take the time to find the light switch next time."
She heard the lift in his voice, and she laughed a little. He must be feeling better if he could tease her. "You sound almost good enough to preach." She leaned back against the headboard of her parents' bed to enjoy the rest of their conversation as she had the last two times he called.
It was forty-five minutes later when she heard a woman's voice through the phone. "Nathan? Is that you down here? You're on the phone at this hour? It's not...." The voice became muffled as if a hand now covered the mouth piece of the phone. Then Nat spoke again. "I've got to go, Nicole. I'll call again."
"Please don't hurt yourself to keep that promise. I can be as forgiving as the next guy."
Nat laughed. "I'll remember that. Bye for now."
Nicole replaced the phone and stared at the ceiling for a few minutes, afraid to move and break the mood. But it didn't work. She heard her doubts anyway. He probably had other people he talked to like this. He did call Paul first. The calls meant nothing. He was just being nice. It's for Rachel. But Rachel hadn't been mentioned much after the beginning of the conversation. Nicole went back to her own bed, unable and unwilling to stop the fantasy that hope wove into her dreams.