Shane pulled up in front of the brick ranch home near Milan, a small community fifteen minutes south of Ann Arbor. A minivan, a Bonniville, and a Saturn were parked off to the side of the gravel driveway between the garage and an oak tree. Shane pulled up on the edge of the driveway.
He was ten minutes early. Shane checked the mirror, hoping that Amber would notice how much better his hair looked when it wasn’t wet and slicked back. Then he chided himself. Don’t even get set on her. She’s out of your league. She’s probably got a boyfriend… or husband.
He knocked once, and Amber opened the door. “Shane, come on in. I’m glad you could make it.” Her beautiful hair was up today, and she wore a khaki split skirt and white lacy blouse.
Shane was glad he’d changed. He followed her into the living room. A man, just beginning to expand at the waist, rose from a recliner. He stood slightly shorter than Shane and held out his hand. “Hello, Shane. I’m Ray Pearson. I’m glad you could make it.” He motioned to the chair opposite the one he’d been using, and Shane settled in. Ray sat also.
Amber smiled. “May I bring you a glass of lemonade?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
“Amber tells me you’re an accountant,” Ray said.
“Yes. At Weatherby.”
“I’m with GM — Corporate accounting.”
“Really?” Shane settled back and let Ray lead the conversation over business and new tax laws.
The phone rang. “Excuse me.” Ray picked up the receiver from the table. “Oh, Bob?” “Really?” “No, you can’t back out now.” Ray frowned. “No, I don’t think so. You’ll be here in ten minutes, then.” He hung up the phone, his frown remaining.
Amber brought in two glasses of lemonade. “What’s wrong, Dad?”
Ray looked up at her and smiled. “Nothing really.” He glanced toward Shane. “Our other guest will be a little late.”
Shane’s stomach felt queasy. He knew it was too much of a coincidence. Bob was a very common name. It couldn’t possibly be the same one. He took a drink of the lemonade to hide his discomfort. His attention was drawn to the drink. Lemon wedges and pulp floated in the glass. There was even a lemon seed in the bottom. “This is homemade — the real stuff!”
Ray grinned. “Yes. The Lord’s blessed me with two wonderful women in the kitchen. My wife and daughter.”
“Is Amber married?”
At the question, Ray’s eyes twinkled, and Shane knew he’d said the wrong thing. He just wanted to know why their names were different, but Ray must be used to every man hitting on her.
“No. She’s legally my stepdaughter, but in love, a true daughter. Tell me, where do you go to church?”
Shane smiled when he realized Ray was sizing him up as a potential suitor. “Covenant Community. You?”
“First Presbyterian. Joseph Prescott is your pastor?”
“Yes, he is. We’ve been there over seven years now.”
“We? Your family?”
“My friends and I. Roommates since our freshman year. Well, Eli is new. He just joined us a couple months ago.”
“Are you all still in school?”
“No. Just Eli. He’s a sophomore.”
“You haven’t thought about getting your own place now that you’re working?”
Shane shrugged. “I’m saving for it, but….” Shane looked at Ray to see his reaction as he revealed his heart. “We’re all like brothers. Like family. I’m not in a hurry to lose that.”
Ray nodded in apparent understanding. Then he shifted his head to the side. “You had no siblings?”
“A sister but she’s four years older and had her own friends growing up.” He took another drink of his lemonade, the best he’d remembered having. “Actually, a half-sister. She spent the summers and holidays with her father.”
Ray nodded again. “Good friends are a gift from the Lord.”
“Yeah,” Shane said quietly. “Scott and Kyle are the best a guy could get.” He shrugged again. Things were getting too personal. “So this other Lewis? Is he a good friend?”
“I’ve only known him a few months. He’s an architect.”
The apprehension dissipated. The Bob Lewis he’d known was a general laborer.
“He moved into the area six months ago, and his family began coming to our church. Two months ago he started coming with them.”
“He became a Christian?”
Ray gave a slight shrug. “It appears that way.”
His answer made Shane suspect that Ray thought the profession wasn’t genuine. But then Shane knew people sometimes suspected he wasn’t genuine because he’d occasionally slip into the rash words he’d used in high school. He decided Ray was giving this Bob Lewis the benefit of the doubt, and he should also.
Amber appeared in the doorway. “Dinner is ready. He isn’t here yet?” She looked at Shane, and he almost thought it was sympathy she was conveying. That was odd. The apprehension returned.
“Well, we can’t let the food waste,” Ray said, standing.
Shane followed him into the dining room. He met his wife — Amber’s mother, Pam — and their two sons, Mark and James, who were typical preteen boys, all knees and elbows and chatter. As he sat between James and Amber, he studied the table. Mashed potatoes, roasted chicken, stuffing, beans, broccoli, clover rolls, pickles, olives, and he knew he smelled apple pie, but he didn’t see it.
Ray said grace for them, and then the food was passed. He’d just loaded his plate when the doorbell buzzed. Ray excused himself and left the room.
Shane tasted the chicken. “This is great. Wonderful.”
Pam smiled. “I’m glad you like it.”
“Love it.” He took another mouthful and then looked up. He nearly choked, his worst suspicion confirmed. He forced himself to chew slowly and swallow as his father sat across from him. He glanced at Ray and then Amber. Both looked nervous. They’d known.
Bob Lewis met his eyes. “Wow, you’ve grown.”
“Yeah, that kind of happens in seventeen years. You think I’d stay eight if you missed the rest of my birthdays?” He hated the bitterness in his voice. He wished he hadn’t spoken at all. At least he’d resisted his first impulse — to swear and tell him he should have stayed away like he wanted to. It was easy to piece that phone conversation together now.
Bob grabbed the chicken and forked some to his plate. “Things happened, Shane. You were too young to understand.”
Shane resisted the urge to speak, instead concentrating on his food. Kyle would be interested to know the excuses he’d drilled out of him had come naturally from his father. The rest of the table was quiet, even the boys.
“You’re in school here?”
“I’ve been out four years. Accounting.”
“Like your mother.”
“Mom is a billing clerk. I’m a CPA.” Shane stood. “Thanks for dinner.” He dropped his napkin beside his plate and walked through the house and out the front door. He reached his car.
“Wait,” Amber called.
He turned and waited for her.
“Please stay, Shane.”
Shane shook his head. “Your family is perverse. You like watching this kind of stupidity? I’m not here for your entertainment.” He opened his car door.
“It’s not that, Shane, honest.”
Shane sat down, ignoring her.
“Shane, please. I know what you’re feeling.”
He looked up at her. “You can’t possibly know what I’m feeling.”
“Yes. Oh, Shane, I remember waiting and waiting for my father to come, and he wouldn’t show up. He’d make promises, and he’d never keep them. Shane, please, don’t leave like this.”
“I can’t go back in there.”
“He says he’s sorry. He wants to start over.”
“Yeah. Good time for it. I’m all grown and through school and don’t need a damn thing from him. Just skip the tough years and go straight to easy and cheap commitments. I’m sorry, Amber. If he gave half a damn, he’d be out here now.” Shane closed the car door and started the engine.
Amber leaned on the open window frame. “Shane, it took me a long time to forgive my father, and I still struggle with it. Don’t let the bitterness eat at you. Please. You’re too nice for that.”
Shane gave a short, sarcastic laugh. “I’m too nice? How would you know that?”
“Scott told me you were the glue that held them sane as they struggled through after the accident. He’s said more than once he didn’t know what he’d do without you.”
Shane turned off the car engine. “Scott told you that?”
Amber blushed. “Yes.”
“You do like him.”
She laughed then. “Oh, Shane. I like a lot of people. I think I even like you. Come back inside. Let me get to know the guy who keeps everyone sane — the glue.”
Shane couldn’t help smiling. “Glue, huh? Just remember Scott has a tendency to pack on the frosting. He glosses up life.”
“You’re the glue and he’s the gloss? Bet you can show that man in there that you’re strong in spite of him. Don’t let him see you run. Be the better man.”
Shane studied her, letting his eyes appreciate her as he took in her admonishment. “Be the better man?” His only examples of real men were Scott’s father and Kyle’s father. Pastor Joe and a few people from church. Then he thought about Scott and Kyle. They were better men. His best friends had taught him a lot. He didn’t know if he could be like them, though. Then he thought about the man inside who he hadn’t seen in seventeen years. He could be better than that.
But then Amber shrugged. “You’re a Christian, right?”
“Scott told you.”
Amber smiled. “Yeah, when you found Eli. So… how about a cliché? What would Jesus do? He forgave you.”
“And if I don’t forgive in turn I’ll be like the arrogant man in the parable.” Shane sighed. “Look, Amber. I don’t want a show.”
“Maybe dinner was a bad idea. We just thought things would be easier that way — words kept under control. How about I take you to the study and then bring him in later.”
Shane got out of the car. “Sure. But I really don’t know what to say to him.” He followed her back inside, not to see his father, but to be near Amber.
She led him into the study which consisted of a wall of bookshelves, two desks with computers, and a couple soft armchairs beside lamps. She motioned to the chairs. “Let me bring you your dinner.” She set up a TV tray beside the chair and left. A few minutes later she brought him his plate and a fresh glass of lemonade. “Your father will be in after he is finished eating.”
Shane realized he’d taken her from her dinner. “I’m sorry about the stubbornness. Didn’t mean to interrupt everyone’s dinner. Things just hit me then… no excuse, I know.”
Amber touched his arm. “I understand. Mind if I finish my meal with you?”
“No. Of course not.” It was more than he’d hoped for.
She went out and returned with her own food, sitting in the other chair. She brought her feet up to tuck under her.
Shane finally relaxed enough to be able to eat. They’d come to that awkward point where there was nothing real left to say. He thought back through their few conversations. ‘What would Jesus do?’ she had asked. Kyle, Scott, and he had talked about the marketing craze over it and if it was a good thing or just hype.
“What are you thinking about?” she asked softly.
He glanced at her. “Just about what Jesus would do.”
“And what would He do?” she asked in that same quiet tone.
“That’s just it. How can I, a sinful man still seeking my own desires, ever assume I know exactly what the almighty, holy, just Lord of the universe would do? It’s… it’s almost arrogant to assume. I can just go by His word, cause my mind is too… too deceitful.” He’d revealed too much, but then he had one last thought. “Oh wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from this body of death? Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.”
Shane looked at her, afraid he’d see her searching for excuses to leave him. The few times he’d let his convictions show in front of women, they’d teased or run or both. But he knew he didn’t have a chance with her anyway, even with Scott glossing the way for him.
She appeared thoughtful, but not in an uncomfortable way. “I’ve never thought about it that way.” She met his eyes. “Scott said Kyle was the spiritual leader of the group. You don’t do too badly yourself.”
“Kyle’s been a Christian all his life, but I don’t follow blindly.” He’d studied for hours alone after his school work was finished, trying to find holes in Kyle’s assertions. He’d even managed to find one. Kyle argued vehemently, but Shane had laid out the proofs he’d found. He heard nothing until a month later when Kyle presented as fact the proofs Shane had given him. Then they’d argued again, and Kyle pretended he’d known it all along but just said it ambiguously.
She grinned. “Good policy.
Shane glanced up. He’d let his mind wander again. “Yeah. I learned a lot pouring over old texts and stuff. Kyle didn’t know as much as he thinks he did.” Shane shook his head. “Man, wish he would go back to being the know-it-all pain he was. It about killed me this afternoon to see him so weak.” He chastised himself again. It was none of Amber’s business, even if she was working for Scott’s attorney. Then he remembered the legal questions.
“How long have you been a paralegal?”
Amber set her plate on the table. “I received my Associate’s a year ago May. I’d started working for the Hammond’s in March though before I graduated, and by September I was full time.”
“Do you mind if I ask a few more questions?”
“No. Go right ahead.”
A knock sounded on the study door, and then it opened. Ray came in followed by Bob.
Amber stood and took their plates. “We’ll talk later, Shane.” Then she left.
Bob took the chair Amber had vacated, and Ray went to sit at the desk by the closest computer. No one spoke for a few minutes. Then Bob shrugged. “Your mom wouldn’t let me see you after I left.”
“And you didn’t take her to court because I wasn’t worth the hassle.”
“Don’t twist it, Shane.”
“Then don’t make lame excuses. I wasn’t eight all those years. In fact, I’ve been on my own for eight years.”
“You don’t understand.”
“Suppose you explain it to me,” Shane said, using the same words and tone Kyle had used on him.
“I couldn’t come into the state, or she’d have me arrested.”
“I feel sorry for you. That’s why you didn’t bring the bike you promised. I worked for it all winter shoveling snow, and then we needed the electric bill paid. Didn’t get a bike ‘till eighth grade.”
“I couldn’t afford child support. I was putting myself through college. I had a baby and….” Bob stood and paced. “You just don’t understand.”
“Yeah, I heard you got another woman pregnant before you left Mom. Is that the one you married?”
Bob faced him. “Yes. Rose and I have been married sixteen years. You have a sister and two brothers. They’re anxious to meet you.”
Shane’s heart ached. He didn’t want to hear how his father’s new family was so much more important than he had been. He didn’t want to know how he’d been replaced.
Bob sat back down. “I hear you go to church now, too. Maybe you’ll come down to our church. Ray’s an elder.”
“I go with my family,” Shane said neutrally.
“Your mom lives in Ann Arbor now?”
Shane almost snickered, but Ray was watching him. Ray, the elder and father of the girl he desired more and more. Instead he forced his voice into neutrality. “She moved to Arizona as soon as I graduated from high school. I’ve seen her twice since.”
Shane did laugh then. “Not that it’d be such a strange thing being a month short of twenty-six. But no, I’m not. My family is Scott Alexander, Kyle Sloan, and Eli White.”
Bob left the chair again and glanced at Ray before gazing at Shane with a look of disgust. “What kind of church do you go to?” He shook his head. “Ray, he isn’t my kid.”
It hit him like a slap. Shane closed his eyes and tensed, as the pain rippled through him. He wanted to lash out, and he fought hard to keep control. “I think that’s been established,” he said, but his voice sounded far away and hollow.
“Bob,” Ray said. “You’ve misunderstood something. Shane’s friends are like his brothers.”
Bob studied Shane. “So, are you gay?”
Shane snapped. He stood and advanced to stand less than a foot from Bob. “Like it should make a damn bit of difference to you. Think I had the money for my own place when I went to college? I took the cheapest room I could find. With seven other guys. Later Kyle, Scott, and I were able to get a small place. Doesn’t mean nothing but that we were dead broke college students. Me the brokest, with Scott and Kyle always treating me to anything extra, buying the food, pretending it was even between us.”
He paced away and then back. “I don’t know what it’s like? You don’t know what it’s like at all. Everyone rooms up here. But of course you probably didn’t have to go to college that way. Bet your wife put you through school, didn’t she? Shit, at least if I ever get married, I won’t be begging off her, and I won’t throw out my kids ‘cause I wanted better ones.”
This time Bob left. Shane watched the study door until he heard the front door slam, an engine, and the sound of gravel being thrown as the car spun away.
Ray’s hand rested on his shoulder. Shane twisted away and whirled around to face him.
“I’m sorry, Shane. He said he wanted to see you. I think he really would like to know you.”
“Why? He’s got two other sons. He doesn’t need me.” Shane hated that his voice cracked. It really didn’t bother him that much. It didn’t. He took a deep breath. “I’m sorry I lost my temper. I… I know you meant well. Thanks anyway.” He walked through the house to the front door.
“Shane?” Amber called.
He stopped, more weary than angry. “Yes, Amber?”
“Did you want to talk?”
He shook his head and turned to leave.
“I meant about the accident. There was something….”
Shane hesitated. No, he just wanted to be alone. “It can wait. Thanks for dinner.” He pulled open the door and left.
Shane drove for over an hour. When he needed to turn on his headlights, he knew it was time to go home.
Scott, Kyle, and Eli were seated around the dinner table, playing Parcheesi. Scott grinned when he came in. “So how was the cooking?”
“Cooking was great,” Shane said, trying to be upbeat.
“So are you going back?”
Shane hesitated, and then met Scott’s grin. “Only if she asks me over again.”
“How about that Lewis? Was he a relative?”
How could he not lie? Did he want to lie to the people he trusted most?
Scott was out of the chair and beside him. How did he always know? He didn’t want to burden Scott more. He was the glue after all. He was supposed to help Scott, and if Scott knew, he’d feel he’d need to help him instead, and he’d have no one.
Shane sat in the chair as nonchalantly as he could. “I think we both came to the conclusion we weren’t family.” He grabbed the red pieces out of the box. “You guys haven’t gotten too far. Mind if I join in late?”
Scott sat down but kept watching him. Shane tried not to meet his eyes. Kyle rolled the dice and took his turn, his tremors barely noticeable tonight.
“But something’s not right.” Scott wouldn’t give up. He’d seen the pain. He must have a radar for these things.
Shane shrugged. “Sure. The girl is beautiful and a fantastic cook, but I don’t think she’s interested at all.” He grinned at Scott. “But she’d go for you with those honey drop eyes of yours.” That got him. Scott took his turn.
Kyle laughed. “Should have known it was a girl, Scott. The world’s finally returning to normal. I was starting to wonder if something happened I didn’t remember.”
“No, nothing’s happened. I just gave up on women. They’re all jerks anyway.” Oh, great. That sounded bitter, and Scott had his radar going still. He tried to think of something upbeat. “Of course, I could be wrong about this one. She seemed different.”
“She could cook,” Kyle said dryly.
Shane grinned. “Yeah, can she cook. And bake. Her pastries — I’m spoiled for life. Hey, Eli, have you ever made turnovers?”
“No. We… I thought I’d try a pie next week though.”
“Pie? Oh, shoot.”
“I just know I smelled a pie in that kitchen, and I didn’t get any.”
Scott and Kyle both laughed. Even Eli smiled.
Go to Chapter 4
© 2014, 1999 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.