Eli barely stayed long enough to say hello to Shane and Scott Tuesday and Wednesday evening before he disappeared. Kyle was silent and withdrawn. When questioned Wednesday at the dinner table, he said he didn’t know what Eli wanted.
“Are you two getting along during the day?” Scott asked. “Is he treating you the same?”
Kyle shrugged. “Yeah, I guess. He just clams up again when I mention him coming home. I don’t know what to do to get him back.” He looked up from his food. He’d been pushing the casserole around on his plate without eating. “We’ve got to get him back. I don’t think he’s got any place. He brought his dirty clothes in his backpack to do with our wash, and he hasn’t taken any more of his stuff. He talked to his grandma today and didn’t mention anything about leaving here. I’m afraid he’s sleeping outside in that old sleeping bag of his. What can we do? Give me ideas.”
“He won’t let us talk to him. Maybe we should go to EMU and wait by the bike rack tonight until he gets out,” Scott suggested.
Shane shook his head. “Maybe one of us, but not all of us. And try not to tell him what’s best for him, but just that you wanted to see him, Scott.”
A knock sounded on the door. Scott rose to answer it. “Yes?”
“Are you Scott?”
Scott opened the door wider. “Please come in, Dr. Rigel.”
Kyle stood and came to her as she gave her coat to Scott to hang. “Hello, Doc. Haven’t seen much of anyone in months.” He held out his hand.
Gayle smiled and took it. “It’s good to see you again, Kyle. I hope I didn’t interrupt your dinner.”
“We were just finishing up.” Shane nodded a greeting and began clearing the table.
Scott and Kyle led her to the armchairs. Shane left the dishes on the kitchen counter and grabbed a plate for the cookies Amber had given him at lunch. He arranged them and then set them on the table near Dr. Rigel. “May I bring you coffee or pop?”
She smiled. “Water is fine. Thank you.” She faced Kyle. “I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve spoken with Dr. Franklin and your therapists.”
Kyle shrugged as if it didn’t matter, but he shot Shane a look of fear. “No problem.”
Shane placed the glass of water on the end table and sat on the couch near Kyle.
Gayle Rigel gave a gentle smile. She’d noticed Kyle’s fear, Shane realized. “It’s just that I’m going to need someone starting the end of December, and Bert Thorton said you were looking for a job.”
Kyle straightened, his panic leaving. “A job? I thought Bert….”
“Bert’s people have been with him a long time and are very proprietary about their spots. I’ve hired graduate students for many positions, so I have a lot of turnover. In December one of my medical assistants is leaving. I know you’re overqualified, but it’d be undemanding work while you concentrated on your future plans.”
“Only about nine hours a week to start. Three three-hour shifts. I know it’s not much.”
“It’s good. You know I probably can’t handle much more yet. You’re being kind.”
“I do need someone.”
“Bert promised… I should wait until he has something open.”
Dr. Rigel studied Kyle. “As I said, his staff are set in their ways. I doubt he will need anyone for a long time. I have someone graduating and leaving at the end of the term.”
“This is not your problem, though.” Kyle shook his head. “You don’t understand.”
“Why are you fighting this, Kyle?” Shane asked. “She’s giving you a job.”
“A job I can’t do. When I mess up, she’ll be hurt, and if I mess up really badly, then….” Kyle stood, his tremors causing his head to shake. “I’m sorry. Let Bert risk his career on me, but don’t hurt yourself feeling sorry for me.” He stalked toward his room.
“Kyle Sloan,” Dr. Rigel commanded with an authority that seemed out of place coming from the woman who moments before had been so gentle.
Kyle turned and froze.
Dr. Rigel walked to him, placing her hands on his upper arms and looking up into his eyes. “Kyle,” she said, her voice once again soft. “I’m not doing this because I feel sorry for you. When you were in my class, I admired you. I knew you’d excel at whatever you chose to do. Do you remember that day we ate lunch in the cafeteria?”
Kyle nodded slowly.
“I wanted you in plastic surgery, but you made it clear right away you were set on cardiovascular. Did you realize how disappointed I was?”
Kyle shook his head, not speaking.
“I know you can do the work of a medical assistant. There is not one doubt in my mind.”
“But I’ll never be a surgeon.”
“Maybe not. But there are many other options in medicine, and you’re not going to find them hiding here. The job is just to ease you back in and give you time to explore those options.”
“What if… if I decide to stay a medical assistant?”
Gayle Rigel smiled. “You wait until next spring to tell me that.” She turned and kept one hand on Kyle’s shoulder as she led them back to their seats. She took a swallow of water before she asked, “Any questions?”
By the time Dr. Rigel left, Kyle seemed more relaxed. He walked down with her to her car.
Shane went to the kitchen to finish up the dishes.
Scott followed. “I think I’ll go over to EMU.”
“Sure. Take Eli a couple of Amber’s chocolate chip cookies.”
Kyle came back and rushed into the kitchen. “She really trusts me! I can’t believe it.” Shane guessed he’d moved too fast again when Kyle clutched the counter. But he gave no other outward sign of his condition and kept talking. “A real job. I can stop up any time with Eli, and she’ll show me around her office. Been there before a while back but didn’t keep track of the details.” He motioned Scott to the table as Shane loaded the dishwasher.
Scott hesitated and then sat across from Kyle to listen.
Kyle hadn’t shown any enthusiasm at all in the last five months. Now he seemed to overflow. Scott and Shane exchanged a grin. Kyle was getting better.
At eight Scott admitted he wanted to try to see Eli.
“Ask him to come home. I’ve got some great news. Don’t tell him what it is. Let me.”
“Sure. I’ll tell him.” Scott left.
Kyle and Shane settled into the living room. Kyle decided to read, and Shane grabbed his sketch pad. “Did you draw that picture for Amber?”
Shane laughed. “No. I hadn’t planned to.”
Shane immediately felt his defenses rising. He wasn’t scared. He was just being…. He straightened and faced Kyle to tell him a thing or two and noticed his wide grin. He stopped. Kyle was actually goading him to do something he thought best for him in his old way. Shane hesitated. He didn’t want to give her a picture. Amber would understand, though, if he told her Kyle had suggested it. But he couldn’t give in too easily to Kyle. “Not scared,” Shane said with a slight scowl. “Just don’t think she’d want one.”
“Bet she would. You’re afraid I’m right.”
“Won’t prove anything. She’s too nice to refuse it.”
“You’re still the wimp. Bet she hangs it in her office for everyone to see.”
He was scaring Shane now. “She won’t feel that sorry for me, and don’t you dare pressure her into it.”
Kyle held up his hand. “I promise. I won’t talk to Amber about the bet. You don’t either.” He offered his hand to Shane.
Shane hesitated. That promise would bind him away from his way out — his excuse for forcing an inferior gift on Amber. Kyle was sneakier than he expected.
“You’re scared. Afraid she’ll dump you because you give her a picture?”
“No, she won’t dump me over a stupid picture.” He took Kyle’s hand and sealed the bet. He’d have to start watching him again. “You were supposed to come up with ways to get Eli back, not harass me about these dumb pictures again.”
“Just practicing,” Kyle said, and then sobered. “Can’t think of anything to get Eli. Give me some hints.”
“I told you everything I saw. I think he just wants to be treated with respect. Don’t know how you can convince him that you will, though.”
Kyle stared across the room at the front door. “He won’t come back with Scott.”
“It’s between me and him, isn’t it? Just like you said at the beginning.”
“Yeah. I think so.”
Kyle sighed. “Guess I’ll just go to bed now.”
Kyle was right. Scott came home alone at eleven thirty. He’d seen Eli, and Scott had taken him for dessert. He said the conversation went well until he asked when he would come home.
“What’d he say,” Kyle asked, standing in his bedroom doorway.
“He avoided it. He wouldn’t answer. When I pressed, he walked out of the restaurant. By the time I could pay and follow, he’d taken his bike from the back of my Cherokee and was gone.” Scott sighed and leaned against the wall. “I don’t know what’s wrong.”
“You had his bike? Where were you taking him?”
“He just agreed to the restaurant, but I’d hoped to get him all the way home.” Scott shrugged. “I don’t know what to do. His birthday’s coming up soon, too. I asked him what he wanted to do, and he just said he had to work and go to school. He didn’t want anything.”
“Well, what does he want?”
Kyle grimaced. “Wish I knew.” He turned and shuffled into his room. Scott and Shane went to bed also.
Thursday and Friday evening Eli left as quickly as he normally did. In fact, Friday he left as soon as Scott arrived home, not waiting for Shane. Shane readied himself for his date with Amber. They met in the dining room.
“I’ll be back about eleven,” Scott said, heading for the door. Bert and Carol are taking Kayleigh and me to the symphony again.” He left.
Shane grabbed his jacket and then stopped as he faced Kyle — frozen. Who would stay with him?
Kyle didn’t meet his eyes. Instead he picked up an envelope from the desk. “This came for you today.”
Shane expected another bill but looking at it would buy him a few minutes to think. He slit it open. Could he leave Kyle alone? He was getting better. If Shane offered to see if Ray was available, would Kyle feel babied? He glanced at the paper. It was a letter, a statement of account — and a check for $205 dollars. He backed up to the statement. Sale of Cathedral #4; Sale of bridge #2; Sale of Church #6; Sale of Estate manor home #1. A deduction for supplies (matting); a deduction for commission. Total $205.00.
Shane glanced up at Kyle. “Did Eli tell you about this?”
“The pictures he sent to his grandparents.”
“What about it? Did she sell some?”
Shane folded the papers and put them back in the envelope. He was going to have to talk to Eli. According to the paper they’d sold each of the sketches for $45 to $65 each. That couldn’t be right. They were just sketches–his sketches at that. “A couple, I guess.”
Kyle hesitated. Shane glanced at the clock.
“Amber’s waiting for you, isn’t she?” Kyle asked.
“Yeah. I’m sorry, Kyle. I didn’t realize… didn’t even think Eli wouldn’t be back. What do you want me to do?”
“What do you think? Do I need a sitter?”
Shane shook his head. “No. You don’t. I’ll try not to be late.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’m going to review some of my medical texts. Need the quiet, you know.”
“Sure. Thanks.” Shane slipped out the door but felt guilty anyway. If those texts proved to be a bit more challenging than Kyle’s recent successes, Shane knew his confidence would bottom out again. He needed to get home early.
As Shane drove away from the apartment complex, he saw Eli whiz by on his ten speed. Shane turned around and followed, grinning when he saw him turn into the complex. Kyle would be all right. He’d have to remember to thank Eli, probably when he talked to him about that check.
When he arrived at the Pearson home, Amber hopped into the car and teased him for pulling into the driveway right at six. “Almost thought you were going to be late.”
“Would I do that?”
“Maybe. If Kyle needed you.” Her voice was still teasing.
Shane sobered. “Actually, I thought he would. Eli’s still not back. But Kyle’s getting better and said he’d be okay alone tonight.”
“But you still want to get home early.”
“Thought about it, but he’ll probably be okay. Don’t worry about it.”
“Maybe after we eat, we can go back together and call your mom. You still haven’t talked to her, have you?”
“I tried twice, and she hasn’t returned my messages yet, probably waiting for the weekend. It’s cheaper, you know.” He turned into the restaurant parking lot. He tried to explain the time difference and how they always had this problem, but Amber kept teasing him, so he gave up.
They ate and then drove over to the apartment to try to call his mother. When they walked inside Kyle and Eli looked up from the texts they were reading at the table. Eli stood. “I better go.”
“Don’t rush off on my account. We’re just using the phone and leaving again.”
Eli hesitated. “I just thought we’d study together for a while….”
“That reminds me. We need to get together sometime. I got a statement from your grandparents, but I think there’s been some kind of accounting error. And maybe we can work on a few more ornaments tomorrow if….” He glanced at Amber. “Have you seen them, Amber?” He didn’t wait but brought out the ornaments he’d just received back from being fired last week. It seemed to work. Eli relaxed and quit talking about leaving right away.
Finally, Amber teased him. “You’re not going to call her, are you?”
Shane glanced at his watch. “You really think they’d be home on a Friday evening?” He picked up the phone and pushed in the number as he walked to the couch. Amber snuggled next to him and put her ear near the phone.
After three rings the machine clicked on. As he was about to hang up, he heard his step-father’s voice. “Hello.”
“Hi, Al. Is Mom there?”
“Shane. She was going to call you tomorrow. I’ll get her.” The phone was quiet.
Shane poked Amber. “See,” he whispered. “Told you.”
She just smiled and brought a finger up to trace his chin.
“Shane,” his mother greeted. “I thought you were going to call me back last month.”
“Don’t you remember? On your birthday, I think you were interrupted.”
Shane suddenly remembered. “Oh that.”
“It sounded like a girl or something.”
Amber lifted her head and looked at Shane.
“Do you have a girlfriend now?”
Amber kept watching him, suspicion in her eyes.
“No… yeah. I mean…. Geez, Amber, it was Tara, okay?”
“Oh, of course,” Amber said, snuggling next to him again. “Sorry about that.”
“Who’s with you, Shane? Who’s Amber and Tara?”
“Shane? Are you there?”
“Yes, I’m here. So is Amber… my fiancée. We’re getting married in April.”
“Married? You aren’t serious?”
“He bought me a ring, almost a third of a carat. It’s beautiful,” Amber volunteered.
“Oh, you are serious! Al, he’s getting married. We have to go to Michigan in April. How long have you been dating? You weren’t dating that Tara girl last month, were you? You’ve known each other longer than that, haven’t you?”
“We met in August.”
“While you were dating Tara? You dumped her for Amber?”
“Didn’t you tell her about your sister, Shane?”
Shane winced. The silence on the other end of the line dragged on. He stood, taking the phone away from Amber’s ear. “Mom?”
“What was she talking about, Shane?”
“It’s nothing. I never dated Tara. She just looked me up, but….”
“But you’ve seen your father.”
Shane glanced at Amber. Why had she done that? Didn’t she realize how sensitive his mother would be about this? “Just briefly. Not more than a couple words.”
“So, he’s back. Instant father and all. I do all the work, and he sits back and is taking all the credit. Never did a damn thing for you, you know. Don’t bother sending me an invitation to your wedding if he’ll be there.” She hung up.
“Mom! Mom….” Shane pulled the phone from his ear. “Thanks a lot, Amber. Man, doesn’t your mom go bonkers when your dad is mentioned? He was married to her when Tara was conceived, you know.”
The color drained from Amber’s face. “You’re not serious. After all these years, she’s still….”
Shane ignored her and punched the number back in.
Amber’s arms came around him, and he felt her rest her cheek against his back. “I’m sorry, Shane,” she whispered. “I didn’t know.”
He couldn’t stay angry at her and turned to put an arm around her. His stepfather answered the phone. “Hi, Al. Can you tell Mom, he’s not going to be at the wedding?”
He heard Al repeat the message and then he heard his mother’s voice, strangely subdued. “Is he still with her?”
Shane hesitated. “Yeah. But I don’t talk to him,” he added quickly. “It’s not like you think.”
“He found you after the statue of limitations were up. Or did you know before, and just hid it from me?”
“No. I didn’t know. I guess he just moved back to the state a few months ago. But he didn’t want to see me anyway. In fact, he told me I wasn’t his son at all, and Tara was forbidden to contact me again. She’s just a kid, all starry eyed about having a big brother. She didn’t mean to stir up anything.”
“Oh, Shane,” his mother almost seemed to sob out. “He told you that? That… that bastard. He did it again, didn’t he? You waited by that window so long… so many days… every year on your birthday.” She was sobbing now. “I just can’t forgive that.”
Amber looked up into his eyes, apparently hearing as much as she had when she was sitting beside him. She now looked at him with sympathy, a shared sympathy of someone who’d traveled the same road.
His mother’s behavior baffled him now. He was used to the anger, but not this. “Mom? Mom, I’m okay. I’m great. I’m getting married, remember?”
He heard a sniff and small laugh. “Yeah. Tell me about her.”
Shane sat on the couch and tried to describe Amber with all the flattering terms he could think of.
“And you call Scott the gloss,” Amber whispered.
“Why don’t you send me a picture?”
“Sure. I’ll have Scott take one.”
“Draw her one,” Amber whispered.
Shane shook his head and gave her an annoyed look.
“Sorry,” she mouthed.
When he finally hung up the phone, Amber said, “I think you’re going to have to explain all your mother’s hot spots to me, if I hit two in one night.”
“Two? She’s just hyper about my father. Doesn’t it bother your mother?”
“Not like that. She treats it like a fact of life, not a major her against him thing. She always thought I should have the opportunity to see my father. She knew I was smart enough to see the truth of the situation on my own.”
“Well, Mom was wronged big time. Your father probably didn’t cheat on her like….”
“He did. Don’t minimize it. Mom just forgave and got on with her life. She hurt, but she didn’t hang on.” Amber sighed and sat in one of the armchairs. “I don’t want to argue about this.”
Shane sat on the edge of the couch and took her hand. “Neither do I.
Amber watched him kiss her hand.
“Yes?” he asked, when he realized she had a question.
“Dare I ask why she’s sensitive about your art?”
Kyle snickered at the table.
Amber shot him a glance, but Kyle kept his eyes on his textbook and so did Eli.
“My mom doesn’t know I still draw.”
“Oh? She asked you to quit?”
Shane shook his head and stood. He went to the table and put his ornaments back in the box. He shoved it toward Eli. “If you think they’re good enough, you can send them. If not, pitch them.”
“Pitch them!” Amber reached for the box. “Do not pitch them, Eli. I want them on our tree. They’re beautiful.”
“I don’t need your pity. Man, Amber, don’t think I need anyone tiptoeing around my feelings. Tell me the truth. Don’t sugarcoat it. Just the plain truth. Don’t lie to me.”
“I’ve never lied to you!”
“What do you call that gushy ‘they’re beautiful’ junk? I don’t need that.”
“I didn’t lie! I can’t believe you think I’d lie.”
“You’re like Scott, thinking it’s for my own good. Don’t….”
“Shane!” Eli shouted.
Everyone turned and stared at him.
“May I see the invoice you wanted to talk about? My grandparents have had this shop for years. I doubt there are errors, but let’s look at it, so I can get home.”
Shane’s mind slowly quit circling. As it did, he realized he’d been yelling at Amber over something completely stupid — his pictures. What did it matter if she was overly kind to him? That was a good thing in a wife, wasn’t it?
Shane stepped over to her. She looked at him warily, hurt, he could see. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.
She looked into his eyes and then leaned against him. “Why?”
He knew what she was asking. Scott had asked a hundred times. Why did talking about his sketches make him react like an idiot? He’d tried to tell Scott, but he didn’t seem to understand. Eli hadn’t either. “I don’t want you to be embarrassed later.”
Amber pulled away from him. “I don’t understand. How can I be embarrassed?”
“Cause they’re not that good. Everyone else will see that and think… think maybe….”
Amber’s mouth curved a little at the corner. “Think I’m a good judge of art?”
Shane sighed. “You don’t understand.” He tried to pull away from her, but she wouldn’t release him.
“Yes, I do. Someone said something about your pictures — your mother doesn’t like them, does she?”
Shane did get away from her then and paced to the sliding glass doors. “The sketches are a waste of time. I should be doing more important things.”
“Like your homework, perhaps?”
Shane whirled to face her. “You’re mixing things up.”
“Am I? Or are you?”
“You are! I embarrassed both of them — Mom and my sister. Never should have entered that stupid contest. Should have taken wood shop instead of art. Should have….”
Kyle stood. “That’s it? You lost one contest, and your work is worthless?” He threw up his hands. “Should have known. You wanted to drop out of college when you got that C. What a wimp! So, you didn’t place….”
“I placed. Got second.”
Kyle rolled his eyes. “You’re even dumber than I thought. So, you weren’t first. Just because you weren’t the best kid in the school you just quit.”
“Yeah, look who’s talking, Dr. Surgeon-can’t-handle-being-anything-else. Besides that’s not the point. They printed the stupid things in the local paper. The whole county saw them, and the whole county saw the rotten little home I lived… in.” Shane sank down in one of the chairs as his whole perception of that event shifted. “They saw our rotten little home with every detail. I was so proud of those details. The peeling paint. The sagging porch roof. The broken railing. The weeds along the foundation. The cracked front window pane. The screen door with cotton in the holes to keep the flies out. The curling fly paper to catch the persistent.”
He looked up at Amber. “Scott was right all along. It wasn’t that it wasn’t any good that embarrassed them, was it?”
Amber placed her arm on his shoulder and sat on the arm of his chair. “Sounds to me like it was too good for them. I bet they’d be proud of your pictures now.” She gave a little grin. “As long as you highlighted somebody else’s faults instead of theirs.”
Shane took her hand. He needed a bit of time alone to think and sort through this new revelation.
“The accounting?” Eli asked.
“Thanks, Eli, for….” Shane glanced around the table. He didn’t normally do this. “For… you know.”
“Do you think my grandparents cheated you?”
“No.” Shane laughed. “Eli, I gave the pictures to you.” He stood and grabbed the envelope from the desk. Sitting back down he pulled out the check, signed it and tossed it to Eli. “Here. I just can’t believe they got that much from four pictures.”
“What are you giving it to me for?”
Shane shook his head. Maybe he’d never understand the kid. He held up his hands. “Truce, okay? I just didn’t think they’d get that much money. But if they did, fine. I don’t think they tried to cheat anyone.”
Eli looked at his textbook. Then he looked down the hall toward his bedroom. He stood. “I have to go. I’ll be back Monday morning.”
“Don’t leave, Eli,” Kyle said, but Eli stuffed his book in his backpack, pulled on his jacket and left.
Kyle glared at Shane. “Why didn’t you ask him to stay?”
“Why waste my breath? He’d made up his mind. He was already looking for a fight, and I wouldn’t give it to him. Didn’t you notice?”
Kyle shoved his textbook so hard it fell on the floor. He didn’t bother picking it up. Instead he stalked toward his room.
Shane picked up the book and put it on the shelf. He glanced at his watch. It was only nine thirty. “We can kiss on the couch?” he suggested.
Amber grinned. “Too tempting. Anything else.”
Go to Chapter 23
© 2014, 1999 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.