Chapter 18


Nat slept until noon. Then he went to check on Libby. She asked again when he was leaving, although he was sure he'd told her. She didn't come home for the dinner with Aaron. "He's Ryan's friend."

"Why don't you, Ryan, Aaron and Donna go out some time."

Libby made a face. "She's got a million kids and that's all she talks about."

"Maybe that's all she has in her life." Nat kissed her cheek. "I know I don't know what's going on, but you do have to realize no one else is perfect either."

"I know that." Libby opened the front door. "You better not keep them waiting."

"Love you, Libby," Nat reminded her, because he knew she was upset with him. When she shut the door, he got into the Bronco and headed to his parents home.

He arrived before Aaron's family. His father sent him two houses down to see what the wait was. Nat almost suggested calling, but then remembered how sensitive his father was to any hint of rebellion. As Nat passed Jordan's house, they came out of the front door. He walked to them, greeting the younger children first as they ran to him. Brian and Brad came next. Brian asked him how he was doing on the computer. Brad remained silent. Donna approached, carrying a tray. "I remembered you liked those chocolate mint brownies."

"You made them again? Great. Can I snitch one?" He reached under the plastic wrap and ate half a square in one bite. "Don't tell Dad," he said with a wink. "You make the best brownies."

"Cooks better than those horse girls," Aaron said, with a smirk.

"I don't doubt it," Nat said to be agreeable. He hadn't eaten enough of any of the girls' or Donna's food to have an informed opinion.

At the big house, Aaron held the door for Donna. Then he let it shut, leaving them alone outside. "Nat. About yesterday. I was just having a bad day. Didn't mean nothing by it." He reached for the door. "By the way, good sermon Sunday. Loved the look on Dad's face." He turned the door knob and went inside, so Nat wouldn't have time to respond.

As they sat around the table, Nat couldn't help feeling a bit disappointed. He wished he could help Aaron. He wished Aaron didn't resent him. He wished he hadn't listened, so he wouldn't know Aaron wasn't sincere, and he could pretend all was well.

He joked with the younger kids. Brian told him computer tales, which Nat supplemented with a few stories he'd picked up from friends in the industry. Nat began to suspect Brian's agriculture major was a concession to the economics of inheritance, and that he may not get to pursue the other without it. He knew how to play the game and get what he wanted. Why hadn't Brad? Of course neither of his interests were approved ones.

At seven Nat reached for the phone. "Excuse me for a few minutes."

His mother who had gathered with the rest in the living room, turned toward the kitchen.

"Who ya' callin'?" asked Gwen.

"My adopted daughter."

"You got a kid?"

"He doesn't have a kid. Do you have to do that now?"

"Here or in the barn," Nat said, punching in the last numbers, wishing his father didn't make it appear like such a rebellious act.

Rachel answered before he heard the first ring. "Daddy!"

"Hey, Rachel."

"That's a cool cat, Daddy. Do the kittens look like her?"

Nat talked about kittens and school. He saw his father draw Aaron into the dining room and then heard them murmuring. Then Donna joined them. Nat remembered to warn Rachel that he might not be able to call Monday before he hung up.

The rest of the evening went quickly. As Aaron and his family put their jackets back on, Nat grabbed his. "I'll walk over with you."

"Making another phone call?" his father asked.

"I may check my E-mail." That wasn't the real reason. He followed Aaron out the door and then around the front of the houses.

"Barns are back there," Aaron said, with a gesture.

"Come with me. I think we need to talk."

Aaron stopped. Donna looked back. So did Brad. Aaron met his eyes. "Sure." Donna and Brad continued toward the house, as Aaron walked to the barn.

Nat followed, but neither spoke until they were in the office. Nat took Jordan's chair and leaned back, stretching.

Aaron sat on the couch. "Catch up time? Guess I'm not good at the social stuff. Be easier when you're home more."

"I'm not coming back."

"Sure you are. You got it made here."

"But no control over about any aspect of my life without a fight. You know that."

Aaron seemed to become stiffer. "You'll get freedom. You have your degree. Just threaten to leave again."

Nat felt a sudden compassion for Aaron. He really was trapped without the education to make a good living for his family elsewhere. But Aaron would take it as pity and resent it, so he couldn't show it. Instead he focused on his plan. "How much do you control on your own?"

Aaron's face became even harder. Then he swallowed, turning away. "I'm sure it's not as much as you get in the city, but you'll have your pastor income also and rent from that house."

Nat knew now why Jordan had defended Aaron. He was holding in his resentment and pain to help his son out of the trap he'd been forced into. "Is it enough to send him if he lives with me and he gets a part time job on campus?"

Aaron jerked his head around to stare at him.

"I'm going to start looking for a house. I'll make sure I have a room for him, and you and he can start saving."

Aaron still stared. "You... It won't work. Dad will cut Brian off if...."

"Will he? Are you sure? I think Brian knows how to stay in Dad's favor on his own. Let him plead his own case if it comes to that."

Slowly Aaron nodded and began to relax. "Brian is the favorite. He was first. 'Cept he's got Steven now."

"If Brian knows what's up he can start hedging his advantage now."

Aaron shook his head. "I can't believe you're going against Dad. Are you serious?"

"I don't want to go against him. I know he only does what he thinks is best for us."

Aaron studied him. "If you don't come back, you might not get your share of the farm."

"I don't want it."

Aaron shook his head. "We'll just have to pay you off. He'll never write you out."

Nat found he didn't care at all. His life was far from here, and none of his plans were dependent on his father's money or land.

"You're rich anyway, aren't you?"

Nat shook his head, only slightly annoyed. He decided to correct the situation and told Aaron the amount.

"What's that?"

"My salary."

"How much is the house?"

"I don't get a house. You know I have an apartment."

"But rents...."

"Aaron, it's different. That's it. That's all I get. I save, pay rent, get my car, feed myself and everything else out of it." He wasn't going to mention Vince's talk of a raise. Who knew if Vince was talking hundreds or thousands per year more. Then he thought of another section. "There is an education fund for conferences and books -- additional education. And they have a health plan with the denomination. He repeated his main point. "I'm not rich. But I've been saving. I hope to put a down payment on a house within the next year. In Michigan."

"Are you getting married?"

"Maybe. I'm still debating. I've got to get to know her better."

"She won't move here?"

"I haven't asked. I don't want to move here. I've been on my own too long."

They sat in silence for a long while. "Does Dad know what you make?"

"He hasn't asked."

After a pause, Aaron asked, "Are you sure about Brad?"

"I'll help with housing and food -- that's all I can promise. I'm already sending Rachel to the church school, which is stretching me."

"You're not living with her yet, are you?"

"No."

"Is she really your kid?"

"I told you the answer to those questions on our way from the airport."

"But you'd be forgiven if you did, according to your sermon."

Nat nodded slowly. "Yeah. I would be, if I really was sorry that I'd sinned against God. But if you go out thinking you can do anything and presume on God's grace, that's a good indication you don't really love God anyway and you're not repentant. You know the verse, 'If you love me, keep my commandments,' Jesus said."

"One of Dad's favorites," Aaron said with a grimace. "But you said...." He shook his head.

"It's not license to sin, but there's grace when we do. Aaron...." Nat decided to risk angering him. "You've been forgiven."

Aaron tensed again. "Don't preach to me. I'm not any more evil than you are. You just hide it."

Nat waited until Aaron's anger subsided. "You're right. I said it Sunday, Aaron. We're all dirty pots." Nat stood and stretched. "But I'm done preaching." He went around the desk to the door.

Aaron jumped up and grabbed his arm. "Wait! Let's settle this with Brad."

Nat turned to face him. "What's to settle?"

Aaron tightened his grip on Nat's upper arm. "You're not going to back out on me, are you?"

Nat couldn't determine what Aaron was thinking. "If he has common courtesy and respect for those he lives with, we shouldn't have a problem. I will expect he won't bring illegal substances into my house, he won't wreck my place, or steal from me, or blast his stereo when I'm sleeping, or invite overnight guests without prior permission. I will expect your support in working out a solution if something major does develop. I don't know Brad or how accurate Dad's assessment is, but...."

"Dad's wrong! Brad's not a trouble maker." Aaron stared at him. "Dad will tell you he drinks. He doesn't. It was just that one time he tried it with friends." Aaron's grip became painful.

Nat tried to pull his arm away. "Let go, will you? I'm not going anywhere."

Aaron released him. "Sorry," he mumbled, closing his eyes. He turned and leaned against the wall. "You're his only chance," he said quietly. "I can't do it all alone." He faced Nat again, putting his back against the wall.

"I'll do what I can," Nat said. "You do what you can to prepare him. I'm assuming his grades are good enough to get in."

"He's smarter than Brian. He'll be wasted here. He's a thinker, like you were. Brian puzzles things out. I can't explain. They think different, but both are smart."

"Good. He's a junior, right? Make sure you get the paperwork done soon."

"I know," his irritation showing again. "I just went through it with Brian."

"Sorry."

Aaron accepted the apology by relaxing again. "Tell me the truth. He can take anything he wants at your place?"

"Anything they offer at U of M - Flint campus. You're paying the bill. You decide that."

"Any science he wants?"

"Any science. Or philosophy. Or humanities."

"But Dad says he'll be corrupted."

"Will he? Look Aaron, I don't even know your son enough to know what he believes. If he has a bit of discernment he can pick the wheat from the chaff in any field of study. And contrary to what you've been hearing, historically science and religion have not been at odds. They've been partners in understanding God and His creation."

Aaron turned away, paced the room, and then stood before him. "Let's get some sleep." They made their way out of the office and barn, locking it back up. Nat started for the big house. "Nat," Aaron said.

Nat turned around to look back. "Yes?"

"Dad's right about one thing. You're a better preacher."

Nat smiled. "You're biased, like the rest of the family. Don't worry. I'm sending Mike books so you can yell at him to stop preachin' at you all the time, too."

"You do that. Might even start going regular again if I can learn something new. Night."

"Night." Nat turned toward the house smiling. Maybe he'd gotten through, or maybe he was just talking for Brad's sake, but he'd learned one thing. Aaron really wasn't much of an actor. He couldn't hide his feelings.



Friday and Saturday went quickly. Nat spent time with Libby early in the day, and then in the afternoons, his nieces and nephews would come now. He'd been told by Susan, Jordan's youngest, that before they were not to bother him, but now Grandpa said they could bother him all they wanted.

The good weather kept Jordan and Aaron both in the field. Brian and Brad were kept busy also. Friday evening was spent at one of Nat's uncle's homes. Saturday evening Nat ate with Jordan's family. At nine Barb started hustling to get the children ready for bed. Jordan stood. "See you in the morning."

Nat followed Jordan to the front door, disappointed. "Up for a walk?" he asked, hoping for a repeat of the other night, confirmation that all really was well between them.

Jordan placed a hand on Nat's shoulder. "Wish I could," he said, keeping his voice low. "Maybe tomorrow evening. Tonight Aaron wants to see you. He's out in the office."

"Really?"

"Really. Thanks. And... well, tomorrow."

"Tomorrow," Nat agreed, and then made his way back to the office.

Aaron sat on the couch, and Brad sat next to him. Nat leaned against Jordan's desk. "Hey. How's it going?"

"How far is Ann Arbor and Lansing from you?" Aaron said without preamble.

So Aaron was shooting for the biggest colleges in the state. The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Michigan State University. "Lansing? An hour or so. Ann Arbor about the same... from Flint. I'm not sure where my house will be. Might be ten to twenty minutes further. If Brad makes it into one of those, you'd not only have higher tuition, but you'll definitely have to find him a car, because I wouldn't have time to take him that far."

"Could I start out in Flint and transfer later?"

"Maybe. Probably depends on grades."

"I'm not worried about grades."

Nat grinned. He'd find out. "Good. I don't care what college you go to, really."

Brad shifted to sit on the arm of the couch. "What if I studied anthropology?"

"Go for it."

"But... You don't care at all? Don't you want me to be saved?"

"Sure. But that's not what you go to college for, and the world needs more Christians in all the disciplines anyway." Nat sat on the desk, letting his feet dangle. "Will you come to church with me Sunday mornings?"

"What if I don't?"

"I'll be disappointed, but I'll still help you go to school. It's obvious you won't come to Christ sitting here becoming as bitter as your father." Nat glanced at Aaron with a slight smile to see how he took the jab.

Surprisingly Aaron looked toward the door and didn't defend himself.

"He's a great father!"

Aaron still didn't respond.

"I can see he is, Brad. I meant no disrespect. He's my big brother, you know -- the one I chased after and tried to be like when I was little."

Aaron stood and walked from the room. Soon the outside door slammed.

"I wish I could do something to help him," Nat confessed quietly. He looked at Brad again. "Sorry. Didn't mean to upset him with my teasing. Tell him that for me, okay?"

Brad stood. "I'll go to church with you. Just Sunday morning." Then he left also.

After the door slammed one more time, Nat stretched, and then went to sit in the chair. He dialed Nicole's number as he turned on the computer. After talking to Nicole, and writing to Paul, Nat went in to bed.



Sunday morning the division was as obvious as last week. A few people went out of their way to make sure he knew they were snubbing him. But several people he didn't know came to shake his hand and comment positively about last week. Another couple started to approach, smiled and said hello. Then before Nat could respond they turned their backs and walked away. Nat glanced back and saw Mike Tallen and his family entering the church. He smiled slightly at the posturing. He met Mike's eye and gave a wave, which was returned, but immediately several of Mike's parishioners approached him.

Nat went into the sanctuary and sat beside his mother. On the other side of him were Susan and Steven. Sandra sat with Gwen. At first he didn't see Aaron or Brad, only Donna and the rest of the kids. But then, as he glanced back one more time, he saw them come in. Ryan and Libby were near the back.

Mike came to the front of the sanctuary and spoke quietly with Jordan and another man. Then Jordan came to Nat and motioned him to the front. He wanted to protest, but then decided he needed to trust Jordan. He joined the group at the front.

"How's it going, Mike?"

"Good, Nat. Heard you gave an excellent sermon last week, but I haven't been able to get with you. You've met Phil Lambert, haven't you?"

The name was vaguely familiar. Nat shook his hand. "Maybe years ago."

"Thanks for the books," Mike said. "I'll be busy for a while."

"Books?"

"The ones you sent."

"I didn't."

"Your church did."

"Oh, Paul must have forgotten to mention that detail."

"Yes, Paul Israel. He sent a lot of addresses, catalogs, and reading lists, also."

"And thirty two web sites of interest," Jordan said, dryly, in Phil's direction. "He doesn't do anything half way. I assume he's just as thorough in matchmaking."

Nat laughed, and Mike joined in. Phil laughed nervously, apparently still unsure of the relationships. "Yeah, Paul is thorough."

Mike glanced toward the back and the big clock over the sanctuary entrance. "We wondered if you'd like to give the offertory prayer today, Nat. You heard Jordan last week. I know it's short notice...."

The relative silence in the pews drew his attention. They were watching the group on the chancel intently. He knew what Mike was trying to do now. Nat smiled and clasped Mike's arm in a friendly way. "Sure, Mike. No problem." He made his way back to his seat.

Jordan began the service. Nat took his cue from the songs before his appearance and then gave a three minute impromptu speech and prayer. At the end of the service Nat made his way out of the church with his family. As they passed Mike, he called, "Will I see you before you leave?"

Nat shrugged. "Probably not. I'll write, though."

"Thanks again," Mike said, "for all your help."

"No problem." As he left, Nat hoped their friendship would be an example others in the two factions followed.

On the way home his father asked, "When are you coming back?"

"I'll try to visit once a year. I wish you all would come see me once in a while."

His father pulled in the drive and shut off the engine of the car. They got out, and his father indicated they not follow his mother into the house. The door closed behind her. "Tell me what you want, Nathan." His voice was low, intense. "Let's draft house plans. Do you want to live near the church? A better house in town than the parsonage? We can arrange that. We can work anything out."

"I'm sorry."

"It's Mike, isn't it? Well, start another church. You can both preach."

"Dad! That's crazy. The congregation is small enough without splitting it."

"Then come home!"

"I'm going home tomorrow." Nat tried to make it to the house.

His father took both his upper arms and turned him to face him. "Please, Nathan."

He looked at his father, begging him to come back. The small trickle of anger that had threatened left him. "I'm sorry, Dad," he said softly. "I can't do what you want this time." Nat went into the house and upstairs to change into jeans.

The kids were over again, and Nat spent his time with them. Dinner was silent, just the three of them. Afterward they went to church, but his father didn't speak to him. As usual in the evenings he stayed in the background.

At home Nat went out to the office, hoping Jordan remembered him. He wrote to Paul and then made sure all his personal writing was erased from Jordan's computer. Jordan still wasn't there, so he went to one of the web sites that he could remember from the list and started browsing through the articles.

"You've become a hermit, Nat," Jordan said beside him.

Nat jumped, and Jordan laughed. "You should be glad I don't have a chance to get you back."

"I'll miss you."

"I want all you people's E-mail addresses."

Jordan grabbed a sheet of paper from the printer and began writing. "Don't forget to write and tell us when the wedding is."

Nat jabbed Jordan's ribs. "How about you all come up to Michigan for the wedding?"

"If you ask her."

"Yeah. If I ask her."

Jordan finished writing and handed him the paper. "Now what's yours?" He wrote it on his desk. "Won't lose it that way." Jordan turned and leaned against the desk.

Nat pushed the chair back and faced him.

"Thanks... for Brad. Aaron never wanted to study anything but farming, but Brad doesn't like farming. The most enthusiasm I've seen out of him was digging the foundation for the new buildings and additions. He examines every rock for fossils." Jordan went to the doorway of the office, and then came back to sit in his father's chair. "If you need any help, let me know. I've got a few avenues, Aaron doesn't."

"What do you mean?"

Jordan shrugged. "I do all the accounting. I do exactly what Dad wants, but he also gives me some discretion... I know you won't expect me to use that discretion unwisely. Aaron... he's not exactly good with money. That's why Dad keeps a closer watch on his share and invests it for him. It's hard on Aaron. His bitterness makes him more prone to waste money, and it's a cycle I can't break -- only halt like this. Don't tell him anything about this."

Nat realized the trust Jordan was giving him. "I won't. But what will Dad really say when Brad leaves?"

"That? It's true Dad doesn't want Brad studying certain things, but he also wants Aaron to get his act together with his money. I've suggested several cheaper schools, that if he budgeted right, he could do it. They don't have the program Brad wants though. Aaron is set on a big university though -- like you and I went to. Flint campus is a concession, but at least it has a name he's satisfied with."

"He was afraid Dad would cut off Brian."

Jordan shook his head. "He thinks Dad hates him. He doesn't, but like I said, bitterness has warped his perception a little. You might have gotten through though. He was shocked to discover he gets more yearly than you make, and you're still willing to help him."

"Really?"

"Reconsidering? The farm is doing well -- most years. Sometimes the weather tricks us and we have a lean year, but we've got enough put aside for that. Brad will still get to college... just not to his choice. And you could still help him to change that part if you were here instead of there. You'd do well here, Nat. You're one who works for the good of the whole. It wouldn't be the same with you as it is with Aaron. Mom and Dad will even accept Nicole, especially when they have no choice. I'm sure she'd find friends here. And Rachel would get along with Susan...." Jordan studied him. "And I'm just talking to myself," he whispered.

"I'm not moving back," Nat repeated for the millionth time it seemed. "It's never been money."

"I know."

"It's never been desire or lack of desire for this church."

"I know. But Nat you won't be controlled. You'd be part of the decisions, like I am."

Nat stood. "Jordan, I thought...." He shook his head, and started for the door.

"Wait!" Jordan caught up with him. "What did you think?"

"Don't use what you know against me. Don't act like you're my friend to manipulate me."

Jordan backed away a step. "It's not like that, Nat."

"What about Mike, huh? You said you were his friend."

"I am! He's willing to work with you -- a co-pastor thing. I talked to him tonight."

Co-pastor for less than a hundred members when he was having trouble getting an assistant with over five hundred? "And so I spend my days doing what?"

"I don't know. One of those long distance education programs. You can get a doctorate. You can start your own ministry... doing whatever you want. You can take over my paperwork and accounting. You'd have the checkbook."

"Stop!" He wished it didn't hurt. Why did Jordan have to be that way. He left the barn and walked toward the house. Jordan called his name twice, but Nat didn't turn around.

As he got into bed he wondered who would take him to the airport the next morning. What if they all refused? He supposed he'd have to snitch some keys and leave the vehicle at the airport for them to retrieve later. His sleep was troubled and intermittent.



Chapter 17 contents Chapter 19