Ken only waited until she opened the side door of the ranch style home in one of the better suburbs outside Flint before he left the driveway. He shouldn’t have held her, but when he saw her tears he wanted to protect her. And then the desire hit. He had to get away. He knew beyond any sane doubt that he’d never be able to stand seeing her with Evan. And Evan had the nerve to flirt with her right in his living room in front of everyone. Ken didn’t go home. He couldn’t. He knew he’d have to face Evan sometime, but not yet. Not until he could stop desiring to feel her in his arms again. Instead he went to Jim’s.
Jim took him into his study and listened to his garbled confession of pain and anger. Jim was silent for several minutes after he’d ended the tirade of his woes. Finally, he said, “By your own admission you aren’t officially dating, but you believe she’d rather date Evan than you. And since you don’t believe Julie has more brains than to choose an out of work, non-Christian derelict than you, you’d rather lose the pet shop. I guess if I thought my partner was that stupid, I’d back out also.”
“She’s not stupid. It’s just that Evan has this way with women. He’s always been able to get them to do anything for him. Even while he was in prison he talked some girl into visiting and giving him money. He just has this knack.”
“Then I’d be more concerned for Julie since he obviously wouldn’t care beans for her. He’d use her and leave her. Even if she’s brain-dead like you believe, she doesn’t deserve that.”
“I never said she was brain-dead or stupid!” Ken wished Jim would get off the topic of her intelligence. “She’s probably smarter than I am.”
“Oh, so it’s not Evan; it’s your own inferiority complex.”
Ken stood and shook his head. “I don’t get you. Did I catch you at a bad time or something? I’m sorry I bothered you.” Ken turned toward the door.
“Ken,” Jim said quietly. “Don’t leave yet. I’m just trying to get to the bottom of these emotions. Come back and sit down.”
Ken hesitated and then turned back. “You don’t understand.”
“I’m trying to, believe me. Ken, you’re like a son to me, and that’s why I’m being blunt. You love Julie, don’t you? And this isn’t the little, ‘I hope she’ll go out with me’ kind of love. This is the big one, the ‘I want this girl to be my wife and have my kids’ type of love.” Jim stood as he spoke and came to Ken. He put his hands on Ken’s shoulders. “And that kind of love scares you to death, doesn’t it? You’re afraid she won’t return it, and you’re afraid she might.”
Ken turned from Jim. “She’d never want someone like me. She grew up in a happy, loving, affluent family. Did you see that nice house? I grew up with yelling and welfare. It’s a whole different world.” Ken reached for the doorknob to leave the study, but Jim’s voice stopped him.
“You know there’s one thing that’s the same whether it’s in business or in love. If you don’t risk anything, you’ll never gain anything. Think about it. I hope you don’t look back in twenty years and wonder how your life might be different if you took the chances you’re backing out of today.”
“I need to be alone.”
“I know. I’ll be here if you need me.”
Ken turned back to Jim. “Thanks.”
Jim hugged him like a father would a son – a hug Ken never remembered receiving before. Then he released him. “I know you’ll make the right decision.”
Ken could only nod, and then he left quickly before his emotions escaped his tight control.
He still couldn’t go home. There was no place to be alone anymore except his car. He drove the country roads for hours, wandering as far west as St. Johns, then he went North, and back East to Midland. The sun was setting as he drove through the neighborhood he had grown up in.
Ken sat in his car across the road from the house he’d lived in during his high school years. The last time he’d seen his father had been in that small, brick home. It looked just as shabby as it had years before, but the details were different. Bars were on the windows now, and an assortment of children’s toys and old papers littered the yard. He wondered what had happened to his father. His parents were always breaking up and getting back together, but this time his mother said it was for good, and she’d filed for divorce. That was all he knew. After that she had started going to church with Ken and Evan. But Evan quit going a year or so later. His mother became involved with the singles group and seemed to build a new life for herself, sometimes forgetting she had one already with Ken and Evan.
Ken started the engine and left. He wasn’t sure why he had come here. This wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted a marriage like Jim and Sara – like many of the other couples he saw in the church. Was Jim right? Was there really a chance Julie would consider him worth her attention and love? “That’s all this is, isn’t, Lord? I can’t stand it if she doesn’t want me. I’m the one who won’t be able to go back to a strictly working relationship. I’m the one who can’t forget.”
Ken drove back to his house and was surprised that his mother was still there. They were just putting on their coats when Ken entered. “Ken! Where were you? We come all this way to visit, and you disappear with that girl.”
“I wasn’t with Julie. I just needed some time.” Ken studied his mother. He wasn’t sure if he should speak, but he had to. “What finally made you file for divorce?”
“Ken! That’s all ancient history. Leave it be.”
“No. I need to know. Was there some invisible line he crossed? What was it?”
“Wasn’t it enough that he’d been cheating and drinking for years, and I’d had enough?”
“But he always came back. Why didn’t he?”
“Yeah, Mom,” Evan said, joining him. “Where did he go? I’d like to look him up.”
“Forget it. He’s no good. You’ve got a new father.”
Evan laughed in derision. “Oh, right. Gary here really cares. You can’t expect me to buy that.”
“Come on, Allie, you don’t need to take this,” Gary said, taking her arm and pulling her toward the door. “Let’s get home. You let these two take advantage of you just like their father.”
“Now wait a minute,” Ken protested. “I never….”
“Yeah, that’s the perfect father for me,” Evan yelled. “Just get out of here. I don’t need hypocrites like you pretending you care.”
The door slammed, and Evan grabbed a bookend he’d made in hobbycraft and threw it at the door. It left a large dent and fell to the floor. Evan threw the other bookend, and then he started in on the books. Ken watched in amazement until all his books were in a pile in front of the door. Then Evan crumbled beside the empty shelf, put his arms on his knees and his head down.
Ken wasn’t sure what to do. All his anger from earlier was gone. He knelt beside Evan and tentatively placed a hand on his back.
“Leave me alone.” Evan said, not looking up.
“I just can’t stand hypocrites. You’re just as bad as they are sometimes. You really don’t want me here.”
“Don’t lie to me,” Evan said fiercely. He stood, went into his room, and slammed the door.
Ken slowly replaced his books on the shelf. He changed the water in the many betta jars, using the de-chlorinated water he kept in gallon jugs under the sink and under the small dining table in the kitchen. Then he fed his fish before he finally went to bed. In his room he tried to sort out everything. Evan was right. He had many times wished that he didn’t have this responsibility, but he never realized how that made Evan feel. Evan really had no one, not even a church family to care for him as Jim and others at Cornerstone Presbyterian and his home church of Elm Street Baptist did for Ken.
“Lord, forgive me, please. Help Evan forgive me, and… and help me to really feel love instead of resentment. Oh, Lord, if Julie… I can’t stand to see them together, can I? He needs… but she is… what can I do to prove to Evan I do care. I’m just not good at showing it.”
When Julie left Ken she went straight downstairs to the basement to try to contain her emotions so that no one would question her about them. Everything had gone so well until… she still didn’t understand what had happened. Was it what she had said about jobs at the store? Had she somehow offended his parents? What did she do wrong?
And she had started letting herself think that perhaps he cared for her. Perhaps she could have the kind of relationship her mother and father had had with them at the pet store working with living creatures instead of lifeless forms. She had imagined them deciding what to breed next, watching the fry grow together, delighting as the colors came in, each creature a masterpiece from the Creator.
Had Ken possibly read her thoughts about redoing his apartment and became offended? People said that sometimes her face showed all her emotions even though she tried hard to hide it. It was useless. She’d blown it somehow. Mom would be happy, though.
Julie cared for her fish, giving them the water changes that she had been neglecting during her busyness. When she could find no more to do, and her emotions had been subdued, she went upstairs.
“Julie, you’re home!” her mother said, coming to her. “We were starting to worry.”
“I’ve been home. I was downstairs.”
“With that man?”
“No. Alone. With the fish.”
Katie drew her to the kitchen table to sit. “So what did he want?”
Julie shrugged, unable to meet her mother’s eyes. She didn’t want her to see how hurt she still felt. “We decided not to buy the pet store, so I’m not sure when I’ll get the fish out. But I’ll start calling around tomorrow, and maybe I’ll be able to take a day at the end of the week to deliver some.”
“You’re serious? You’re not going to waste your money? Or is there something else?”
“Nothing else. You’re probably right. I can’t make business decisions on my own.”
“Julie, I didn’t say that. It’s just that the whole Wright family is a bunch of thieves. They’d steal you blind.”
Julie stood and went to the refrigerator. “I met his mother and stepfather. They didn’t seem like thieves. They were just trying to get us to hire Ken’s brother into the store. You know how it goes. I guess Ken just didn’t want that kind of hassle.” She took some leftover chicken from the refrigerator and brought it to the table with a cola. She sat down and began pulling the meat from the bones.
“You don’t need that hassle either. I’m glad you’re not involved with him anymore. Thomas will be so relieved.”
“I’m sure the whole office will,” Julie said dryly. She had no emotion left for outrage or even hurt anymore. She just felt numb.
“Yes,” her mother agreed without any trace of guilt. “We were all so worried about you.”
“Well you can let everyone know I’m okay.”
“And that you realized what a creep Ken Wright was.”
“Mom. Please. Don’t tear anyone down. He’s not a creep.” Julie only ate a little of the chicken when she put the rest back. “I’m tired. I think I’ll turn in.”
“Don’t worry. Thomas will forgive you.”
“Perhaps, but will I forgive him?” she mumbled as she left the kitchen.
Ken got little sleep that night. He went into work early, and then came home for lunch at eleven as he had told Evan he would. Evan was ready to go job hunting, but he had prepared lunch for them.
“Thanks, Evan,” Ken said, noting the warm soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.
Evan shrugged. “I figured I could do something. It’s good experience, you know. I might get a job as a short-order cook.”
“You never know.” Ken said the blessing and then bit into his sandwich. He studied Evan as he ate. He seemed subdued, determined. “About last night.”
“I’m sorry,” Evan said. “I didn’t mean to dent your door.”
“No, I mean, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize I made you feel that way.”
Evan shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. I’ll get out of your way as soon as I can get the money.”
“I’m serious, Evan. I’m sorry. I don’t know how to change anything, but I’ll try not to be so defensive, okay? It’s just that… Never mind. I just worry a lot. You know that. Always wondering what’s next.”
“It’s not my fault if your girlfriends like me better than you.”
Ken tried to fight his emotions and only think logically. “You’re right,” he admitted when he was able. “I blamed you for Lynn leaving.”
“She wanted me. It wasn’t the other way around.”
Ken shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. You’re right.”
Evan stood and put his bowl and plate in the sink. Then he faced Ken. “Yeah, right. You say that now, but if Julie likes me better, you’ll freak out.”
He wanted to ask him to stay away from her. He wanted to tell him – beg him – to leave Julie alone, but instinctively he knew Evan wouldn’t.
“Come on. Lie and tell me you won’t blame me. What if I like her? Or don’t you think I’m good enough for her?”
Ken stood and put his dishes in the sink. “Let’s go. I’ve got to get back to work.”
Evan grabbed his coat and the notebook briefcase Ken had loaned him. “Yeah, you’re talking big again, but you really don’t mean a word. I like her. What do you think of that?”
Why is he doing this, Lord? Every time I think we’re starting to get somewhere he has to push me. He just keeps pushing, and then it’s my fault for exploding and not wanting him here.
“Hey, I thought you were talking to me,” Evan said. “Let’s talk. I’m ready to settle down. I think Julie’s the girl.”
Ken shook his head. “Evan, you don’t even have a job.”
“So? I want a girl who will stick with me through thick and thin. Do you think Julie’s like that?”
“You can’t support a wife and children.”
“I wouldn’t have to. She’s got a good job and a pet store.”
Ken remained stiff until the pain subsided. “I’ll drop you off at the mall. There’s a ton of places to apply in there. Then there are places outside it if you have time. I’ll pick you up where I drop you off at three forty-five unless you call by three thirty.”
Ken pulled up by the Sears entrance. Evan twisted in his seat to face Ken. “I’m serious, Ken. You said you’re not dating her, right? Well, I’m going for it.”
“Only because you know I like her.”
“See! What did I tell you! It’s true. You’d blame me whether I did anything or not. Well, now you know. I want her, and it’s not my fault if she likes me better – if I’m the better man.” His mouth twisted into a grin. “We’ll see who the better man is. Yes….” He continued as he left the car.
Ken’s jaw clenched so tightly his head began to ache. He finally forced himself to drive back to SaveMart. He was tempted to cancel the bid for the pet shop as soon as he reached a phone, but then he remembered what Jim had said about Evan not caring. It’s true, Lord. You know he’s just after her to get to me. Why he wants to hurt me, I don’t know, but she’ll be hurt, won’t she? And Evan will probably play the protector against that Thomas she hates. What can I possibly do, Lord? How can I stop him?
Ken went through his afternoon, and his thoughts were taken from himself as he trained the people replacing him. Too soon it was time to pick up Evan. Evan was waiting, talking to two women who were standing just inside the door. When Ken beeped, Evan smiled and bid them farewell.
Evan got into the car. As Ken pulled away and into traffic Evan opened the notebook. “This is all the places I asked at,” he said, tilting the notebook so that Ken could see a long list of store and restaurant names. Then he pulled out the papers from the side slot. “See all these applications I can fill out tonight? I’ll get something soon to get out of your hair. Either that or I’ll marry Julie. That would be better.” He grinned.
“Will you be mad if she chooses me instead?” Ken asked as neutrally as he could.
Evan laughed. “If you think you can convince her. You can try. We know your record with women.”
“How do you know, Evan? I’ve just been a little choosier than you. I haven’t tried for every one that crossed my path.”
“Yeah. What about Lynn?”
“I made a mistake. Lynn obviously wasn’t who I thought she was.”
Evan laughed. “You try, but you won’t win this one. There’s one thing I can do better than you.” Evan laughed some more. “I bet you’re still a virgin. Lynn said you never did it with her. You shouldn’t frustrate the girls like that.”
Would he never get home and away from Evan? Evan’s mouth kept going, and Ken tried to block it out. He thought about his bettas and wondered how many would be appropriate to take to the store. Finally home, Ken began bagging the bettas.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m going to take these to the store.”
“I’ll come. What can I do?”
Ken reached for a green delta doubletail. “Evan….” How could he tell him without making him feel unwanted? “I’ll be back in a few hours. We can do something then if you want. Think about it. What do you want to do?”
Ken realized he’d said the wrong thing and expected some smart remark about Julie or women in general, but nothing came. After he’d bagged the green doubletail, he looked up.
“I want to find Dad,” Evan said with intensity. “Is there any way to start looking? I know Mom is hiding something from us. I’ve always known. They didn’t fight.”
“What do you mean?”
“They always fought before he’d leave. Then he’d come back in a week; they’d kiss and make up. They didn’t fight.”
“Maybe they did it while we were at school.”
“No. He wasn’t out the night before. He didn’t drink. Nothing. He just disappeared. She’s been lying to us for thirteen years. I want to know what happened. Don’t you?”
Ken agreed. “Yeah. I’ve thought about it before, but I didn’t want to drag up the past. I thought maybe… well I didn’t want to hurt Mom, and you were kind of mad about him leaving.”
“I was. But something’s not right. I had a lot of time to think about this, and you must have been thinking too, or you wouldn’t have asked yesterday.”
“We can drive up to Midland tomorrow after work. I don’t know where else to start looking.”
“He’s not there.”
“I know, but maybe someone knows something.”
“We would have heard.”
“Well, if you have better ideas, let me know.” Ken put on his coat and lifted his new plastic box with the bettas. “I’ll be back later.” He left Evan for the pet shop.
Go to Chapter 13
© 2013, 1997 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.