Nat dreaded going down to breakfast the next morning, but his father was already gone. Sun streamed into the kitchen windows proving the weatherman wrong the day before. His mother served him silently.
He'd see Libby and then go home. There was no use hanging around, arguing about the same old thing. "Good food," Nat said to let his mother know he appreciated her.
She set down her coffee and leaned toward him, resting her arms on the table. "You only came home to help Libby, didn't you? Not to see us."
"Mom, I came to see everyone. The timing was for Libby, but...."
"Okay, okay, but you want to help Libby, right?"
"She's really perked up since you've been here. I guess Ryan even mentioned it to Aaron. But you know two weeks won't do anything. After you leave things will go back to the same as always with her. To really help her, you've got to be available long term."
It was a good try -- one of the best so far, Nat noted with a detachment. "So what do you suggest, Mom? I still haven't really seen Jordan's or Aaron's families, or any of my cousins." He shrugged. "Of course if they wanted to see me they would have at least called."
His mother sat back. "Nat, is that it? Of course they've been wanting to see you. But they all know if we can come to an agreement, they'll see you all they want. You need time to find your wife."
Nat wiped his toast across his plate to soak up the last of the egg yolk. "So... You told everyone I was busy." He ate his toast to hide his frustration.
"Well, you have been!"
Nat conceded that his time had been filled. "Who all asked for me? Who called?" Apparently his secretary and answering machine had spoiled him. He'd never had to ask before.
"They know not to call yet." She shook her head and stood, grabbing his plate to take to the sink. "Although we had quite a few calls yesterday afternoon questioning your choice of sermon topics.
"Really? Who? Did they need more information? I should call them back."
"Your father took care of the calls. Don't worry about it."
Nat stood. "Guess you're right, Mom. It's not my flock, is it?" Although he felt he was leaving the job half done by not following up on questions. He grabbed his coat and looked at the key hooks by the door. He turned back. "Where's the keys? I was going to take the truck into town to get a new tire."
"Your father did it."
Nat hesitated to rethink his plans. Jordan and Aaron were probably in the field, and the kids were in school. He went to the phone and called Libby. She agreed to come and get him.
"You should stay here," his mother said after he hung up the phone. "Your father will want to talk to you."
At first he felt the irritation again. But then he paused and said a small prayer silently. He went to his mother and hugged her. "That's one more reason I can't live here, though. I've made my own decisions so long, I can't go back to letting Dad make them for me. But I love you both very much, and I don't want to fight about these things." He hugged her again.
She pulled back and looked into his eyes. "Nat, you'll have your own life and family. Just like Aaron and Jordan. Your father isn't trying to make your decisions. We just want what's best for you."
"But I have to decide that, Mom." He went to look out the window for Libby. He almost mentioned Aaron's sons and the college situation he'd found out about, but decided it was none of his business. If Aaron wanted his second son in college, he'd have to fight his own battle. Nat couldn't do it for him. Nat shook his head slightly. No, he could never live here. If Aaron didn't even have control of his share of the money to do with as he pleased. But maybe he was reading things into it, like his father said. No one had really come right out and talked to him. Of course, that disturbed him more.
His mother put her arm across his back in a loose hug and glanced out the window also. "But you haven't decided anything, Nat. That's the problem. You'd have a wife by now if you had."
"Maybe I've decided I don't want a wife," he snapped, and then instantly regretted it. "Sorry, Mom. Just a bit touchy right now, I guess." Libby pulled into the drive. "I better go. See you later."
Nat went outside and got into the passenger seat of Libby's car just as she turned off the engine. "Let's go."
She restarted the car and pulled out of the driveway. She still hadn't spoken when they stopped in her driveway.
"Sorry, I'm a grouch, Libby."
"He really let you have it, didn't he?" She got out the car and waited until he came around and walked with her to the front door.
"I'm not moving here."
Libby gave a short laugh. "Yeah, right." Inside the house she hung their coats.
Libby ignored him and went into the kitchen and then the bedroom. Nat stopped following, waiting outside the bedroom doorway until he heard her. "Oh, Asia, not on my bathrobe. You have a box. Oh, here comes another one. Nat!"
Nat was already beside her watching Asia give birth to a second kitten on Libby's pale blue bathrobe. Then Asia began to lick her baby clean. Nat sat on the edge of the bed. It wasn't the first time they'd seen a birth. "Rachel should be here."
Libby jumped up and came back with the cardboard box lined with old towels and her camera. She snapped Asia's picture, and then glanced at the picture count. "I'll take a few more later," she said, sitting beside Nat on the bed.
"Thanks. She'll love the pictures."
"Who said they were for Rachel." The side of Libby's mouth turned up, and he knew she was teasing. "I should take a picture of you with Amy and send that to Nicole."
"Don't you dare." And then because he knew she was about to tease him, he added, "Unless you send a copy to all my parishioners. Nicole shouldn't get special treatment."
Libby laughed. "And what would they say?"
"Elder Vince Frederick would be upset. He expects I'll fall in love with his granddaughter this summer. He reminds me of Dad."
Libby laughed again. "Oh? Bet you haven't told Dad that."
"No." He looked into her eyes. "So how was it really Sunday? What happened after I left."
Libby shrugged and turned away, watching Asia pant with labor. "No one talks to me."
"Libby! Come on. You're the only one I can trust."
Libby turned and stared at him. "What do you mean? You can trust everyone. Didn't Jordan tell you how you did?" Then Libby shrugged. "You're right. He'd tell you whatever Dad does. At least I think he would. Everyone talked a lot. Loud. I think a few from the other side think you should stay now. You proved those letters after your name mean something. Now more people want to oust Pastor Mike and hire you."
Nat stood. "Libby! What about the Gospel? Did they hear the message at all? I'm not trying to oust Mike."
Libby focused on the cats, reaching out to rub her finger between the ears of the first tiny kitten. "I heard you," Libby said quietly.
Nat kneeled down beside her. "What did you hear?"
She still didn't face him. "Jesus forgave the prostitute. Did he forgive the murderer?"
Nat froze. Something in the detached way she spoke warned him the question wasn't as academic as it sounded. He chose his words carefully and watched her. "If the murderer is truly repentant and trusts that Jesus is his only way to salvation from God's judgement."
"But what does... the murderer have to do?" She picked up the first kitten. Asia tried to protest, but a third kitten was making its appearance.
"Nothing but ask forgiveness and trust that Christ's sacrifice is sufficient."
"Praise God for His provision." He stopped short of adding anything else. He knew that the Lordship of Christ in a believer's life was an issue also, but legalism had reigned too long here, and that discussion could wait for another day. Lordship followed if repentance was sincere.
Libby turned to face him, tears running down her face. He took the soft kitten from her hands and set it down beside Asia. Then he gently took her in his arms and held her. She leaned against him, and he could feel the slight shake of her body as she continued to cry.
It wasn't until Asia was cleaning her fifth kitten that Libby finally spoke. "I think I missed all the good pictures." She sat up.
"Never mind the pictures," he said softly. "Talk to me. Tell me about what hurts you."
"It happened after you left for college." Libby focused on the cats and snapped two pictures before she set down the camera. "It happened too fast. He was the cousin of a friend of a friend -- only visiting. Looking for a job. He worked harvest and left. He was twenty-two. I was impressed he wanted to go out with me. I was stupid." She stood and looked down at him then. "Never tell anyone! Never! You must promise me."
Nat raised himself from the floor and sat on the bed again. "That's part of the deal, Libby. A pastor keeps your confessions private." He took her hand until she sat beside him.
"What about a brother?"
"Your brother will too. You trust your favorite brother, don't you?" he teased gently. He knew now what the rest of her confession would be and how much pain she'd hidden. "I'll still love you, Libby," he said, guessing that might be why she'd remained silent all these years.
Libby squeezed his hand and then stared at the kittens. "I'll never have babies. The specialist in Topeka says he's seen it more than once. The abortion was botched a bit." She bit her bottom lip, and he pulled her close before she drew blood, letting her cry against his shoulder again.
After a little longer she said, "God won't forgive me, Nat. I've tried."
He turned her to face him. "God has forgiven you."
"But I still had another miscarriage!" Libby stood again.
Nat stood also and took her arms in his hands. "You still have to live with the consequences of your actions, but God has forgiven you. You can approach Him in prayer, and you will not be held accountable for that sin, because Jesus has paid the price for it. He will stand beside you at judgement, and the Father will see His perfection and accept you. Do you believe that? Do you trust Jesus as your hope and advocate?"
She stared into his eyes for a long time, and then slowly she nodded.
He pulled her to him. "Thank you, Lord." Never had the answer meant so much to him.
When she pulled away from him she sat on the bed again. "You say things in such a different way. Dad's right. It's the letters after your name."
Nat laughed. "No, little sister. I can give you tons of books to read that are just as available to the person with no letters. I plan to send a few to Mike Tallen."
"Find easy ones for me, okay?" Libby glanced at Asia once more. "It looks like five is it. Care for lunch?"
Nat followed her from the bedroom and sat at the kitchen table as she made them soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. After she sat down, he said grace. He let her lead the conversation, talking about what she wished. As she cleared the table she said, "I feel so much better now, Nat. Do you think the depression is cured?"
Nat hesitated, but knew he had to be honest. "No. But when it comes on strong again, you know the truth now. You're forgiven. And the more you learn about God the more you'll be able to fight it."
"I have to go back to church, don't I?" Libby said without enthusiasm. "I would if you would be there."
"No, Lib. Then you'd be doing it for me, not God. Besides you said you liked Mike."
"I like his wife. I never really met Mike, too much. But they're just going to tell me a bunch of rules, and that's just the opposite of what you said."
"Dad is pretty controlling. That's the main reason I can't live here," Nat conceded. "But you call me whenever you have questions about things, okay? I'll let you know if it's Dad's rule or something you need to be concerned with."
They went in to look at the kittens again. Their soft fur had dried completely. Three bore the rosette spots of their mother, and two had marbled markings. "I'll watch for the best one for you and Rachel." She checked the kittens. "Three girls and two boys. Do you have a preference?"
"No. You choose... Well, maybe a girl so Rachel can have kittens some day."
Libby smiled. "You're serious about Nicole, aren't you? You know that really helps me feel forgiven, I think. You aren't condemning her, so I know you're not secretly condemning me. You know how some people will tell you one thing, but really mean another. You're real, Nat. Nicole is lucky." She brought a kitten up to her face and rubbed her cheek against its fur. Then she transferred all of them from her bathrobe to the box. "Think I can get this clean?"
"Might be easier to get another."
"Maybe for a big city preacher. Hear you make millions."
"Yeah, right. Don't believe every thing you hear. I probably make a lot less than Ryan." Libby prompted him, and since it was just between them, he told her.
"Only? You're right. Ryan makes more. I should come see you next."
"That's what I told you. Nobody comes to Flint, but everyone complains I don't visit here more often. I've got a fold out couch."
Libby laughed. "Can't wait to see the smog and slums."
"Hey, Flint isn't that bad. We don't have any smog. And there are a lot of nice neighborhoods also. We've got some great people in Flint."
"Yeah." Nat agreed.
The phone rang. It was his mother telling him to be home at five for dinner. Nat groaned as Libby relayed the message. "Who is it this time?"
"Amy again. Maybe I'll come get that photo."
"And leave your babies at home?"
"Asia can handle it without me." Asia meowed near their feet. "Oh, okay. I won't leave before I feed you. Guess all that work would make you hungry."
The evening went smoothly. Nat tried not to make waves. Libby tried to stir things up, though, and ended up getting them both into giggles with just a word about some childhood event. Nat could tell his parents weren't quite happy with them, but they didn't want to discourage Libby's good mood. At seven Nat went to the phone. His father sighed, but said nothing. He'd won this battle, although he'd had to almost bleed to death to do it.
"Hey, Rachel, Asia had five kittens." Rachel was eager for all the details Nat dared give. No, he hadn't gotten her card, and she hadn't gotten his pictures yet. They spoke for half an hour before Nat promised to call again Thursday and hung up.
Libby sat near him, and Amy sat in the chair across from him. His parents weren't in the room. Amy leaned forward. "What are you really looking for, Nat? If I know, we can avoid this awkwardness, because I don't think your ideals are the same as your parents."
Nat adjusted himself in the chair. "Our goals are not the same, that much is true."
"What do you want in a wife? Children? Social helper?" She glanced around the living room. "Decorator? Your mother thinks cook, housekeeper, and children."
"She's wrong." Then guiltily he glanced toward the dining room, but after hearing the faucet in the kitchen he relaxed.
"I thought so. You like that woman's child. It's children you want most."
He felt more than saw Libby's mood shift. He reached for her hand, squeezing it gently. "No. It's not my priority, or I'd have married years ago."
"Then what do you want?"
Nat thought about the list of attributes he'd given Paul two months before. Then he thought of Nicole. "A friend who shares my convictions and that I can share my joys and pains with."
Nat glanced at Libby. Her mouth twitched before she spoke. "No passion. I thought sex meant a lot to you men."
"Oh, I think that part will take care of itself without a lot of worry," he said as dryly as he could.
Libby laughed. "Here you almost convinced me you were immune from male pride."
"Me? I'm finding out I have as much as the rest of the family."
"So you were preaching to yourself," Amy asked.
Nat smiled. "Always. What did you think?"
Amy hesitated. "It was... unexpected. Although I'd like to think my goodness counts for something. After all, I'm not a rapist or murderer or fornicator."
"No, you've never sinned in your life, have you?" Libby said sarcastically. "What need do you have of Christ?"
"Libby," Nat said softly.
Libby quickly left the room, going through the kitchen and out the back door. Nat followed, but she reached her car and was gone before he could stop her. Nat reentered the house.
His father met him in the kitchen. "What happened?"
"Libby's just hurting."
His father snorted. "Wish that girl would grow up."
"Dad... Just pray for her, okay?"
"Don't you think I have been? What kind of a father do you think I am?" He shook his head. "I'll be out in the office."
Nat watched the closed door long after he left. His father wasn't a bad guy. He was just a man trying to do what he felt best for his family which he loved very much. Nat needed to remember that. It was too easy to forget when they disagreed about how that love boxed him in.
He turned to face Amy. "Yes?"
"Want to talk about it?"
"Your sister's problem. This isn't the first time she's been rude and obnoxious."
Nat grabbed his coat. "No. I don't want to talk about it. Sorry to be rude, Amy, but I've got to...."
"Nathan, stay here," his mother said from the sink. "Both of them need time alone. If you do, go upstairs."
Nat hesitated. Then he smiled and went to kiss her on the cheek. "You're a wise woman, Mom. I'll go upstairs and pray. Thanks." He rehung his coat and went upstairs before he could be stopped.