Ken drove home, knowing he’d not get much sleep again tonight. He hoped Evan wasn’t too upset with him, but knowing Evan nothing Ken could do would please him anyway. Evan was waiting when Ken came in. He stood and stretched. “So, are you ready to go take in a movie?”
“I’m sorry, Evan. I lost track of time.”
“Really. I hadn’t noticed. I guess you had fun with your friends. Suppose they didn’t want me around.”
“I wasn’t with friends, I….” He stopped, but Evan knew why.
“You were with Julie. Trying to stake your claim without me. Cheater.”
“You’re crazy if you think I’m going to willingly provide you with equal time with my girlfriend. Besides she says she loves me, so there’s no competition. You might as well forget it.”
Evan laughed. “That doesn’t mean anything. Lynn told you that, too, but that was before she knew me.”
Ken began feeding his fish. He waited until he could speak without anger or defensiveness. “I’ll see if I can get Wednesday off. Have you had any more ideas about Dad?”
“Do you have access to a computer? I heard you can search on those sometimes.”
“No.” He’d used one in college, but couldn’t justify the expense afterward. Julie had one. He almost mentioned it, but then remembered Evan’s intentions. Maybe he’d talk to Julie about it alone some time if they could find no leads in Midland. He didn’t know if she had an internet connection or not.
“None of your friends have one?”
“A few. I’ll ask around.” He finished with his fish. “I’ve got to get up early. I’ll be home at ten thirty to eat and take you back to the mall.” Ken went to bed to get his four hours of sleep before he had to get up for work.
Julie felt better in the morning, but she was as tired as if she hadn’t slept at all. She’d been given the day off, but she knew she’d stop in later that night to feed her bettas. Julie decided that she wouldn’t take the rainbows or the cory catfish to the accounting office. She rearranged fish and put them downstairs so they wouldn’t be moved until she was ready to take them to Wet ‘n Woolly. She knew she had to have help moving the aquarium, but she dreaded working with Thomas. She would have asked Ken to help her if it wouldn’t cause such an uproar.
The phone rang, and it was Katie. “Julie? I thought you weren’t hanging around with those Wrights anymore. You don’t have something going with that Evan now. He just got out of prison, you know.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Mom. I met Evan once. We exchanged only a couple sentences.”
“Well, he called here for you. Tell him you’re not interested.”
“What makes you think he is? Really, Mom. Every guy who calls doesn’t want to go out with me. I’ll call back and make sure it’s nothing important.”
“Oh, Julie, I worry about you. Don’t believe a word he says.”
“I’ll be careful,” Julie reassured her, but inside her mind raced. What could he want? Did something happen to Ken?
Julie called the number as soon as she disconnected with Katie. Evan answered on the first ring. “Julie. I’m glad you called back. Your secretary was a little vague.”
“Did something happen? Is everything okay?”
Evan laughed. “Yeah. Everything’s great. I just missed you.”
“Missed me? You barely know me.”
“Yeah, but I want to know you better.”
“Evan, is Ken there?”
“No, he’s working. You have the day off, don’t you? I’m free if you get me before ten-thirty.”
Julie hesitated only from surprise before blurting out, “No.”
“I dreamed about you last night, Julie.”
“Evan….” She wanted to remind him that she was dating his brother, but her grandmother was too close, and she didn’t want any scenes yet. “I’m not interested.”
“In my dreams? I never thought about settling down before….”
“Please don’t call me again.” Julie hung up the phone. Her nerves were causing her to shake, but she didn’t want her grandmother to worry. She tried to laugh. “Some guys won’t take no for an answer. Did I suddenly become irresistible when I turned twenty-five?”
Grandmother laughed. “You’ve always had your admirers, Sweetheart. You’re a very, pretty girl.” She looked at Julie more closely. “I believe your mother is right, and you have a touch of the flu. Why don’t you let those fish be and go lie down for a while?” Julie went back to bed. She was still tired, but she couldn’t sleep.
Ken was able to get Wednesday off as long as he worked Saturday. He also suggested to Bob that he switch to part time status, so he’d be available to solve problems that came up but still have time for his own business. Bob agreed so quickly that Ken knew he could bargain. He was able to get his hourly wage slightly more than it had been on salary. His medical insurance would be dropped unless he could afford to pay for it himself. He doubted he could. He’d have to see if the pet store could pick it up. He had a couple weeks to make the switch. Bob didn’t mention it, but it was obvious that Nanci wasn’t adjusting as quickly as he had hoped.
At lunch Evan was quiet until right before he dropped him off. “Julie called me.”
“Just to talk.”
“I’ll be back at three thirty.”
“Are you going to call her?”
“No.” Why should he? If she was calling Evan, then she apparently hadn’t been sincere.
Evan left the car. “See ya.”
“Well, Lord, that risk fell flat. Is the store a bad risk also. Just help me get over her quickly.” Even though he prayed it would be so, Ken doubted it would. After three years Lynn’s betrayal still stung, and Jim had been right; this was deeper.
Ken spent the evening with Evan, and they managed to avoid any uncomfortable spots. Wednesday they drove up to Midland. They knocked on many doors, but found no one who knew them from thirteen years before. It was a dead end. Not even the same person owned the house they had rented.
Thursday Evan waited until Ken was ready to drop him off to job hunt before he nonchalantly said, “I talked to Julie again today. Yes, things are definitely looking good. She voiced her feelings quite ardently.” Evan grinned. “Guess we’ll see who gets her.” Then he shrugged and reached for the door latch. “Of course, I don’t know if I really want a woman who will declare herself to two different men within a week. But she’s kind of fun to be with.” Evan left the car. “See you in a few hours.”
Ken felt like his gut had been kicked. He forced himself to drive out of Evan’s sight before he parked. He leaned against the steering wheel and breathed deeply, trying to stem the pain. “Lord, I don’t know if I can do this. He could barely force himself back into work.”
Friday when Ken picked Evan up, he had good news. “I start at Taco House tonight at eight.” He pitched his new uniform to Ken.
Ken pushed it back at Evan after his seat belt was fastened. “Congratulations.”
“I know it’s not much, but one guy was telling me that you can be a manager within a year on the night shift.”
“Go for it. Work hard, and you’ll make it. That’s how I had to do it. Work your way up. And I took classes at night.”
“Let’s celebrate,” Evan suggested. “You can splurge for that, can’t you?”
Ken agreed and took him out to eat. Evan was easy to talk to that evening, and they had a good conversation. As they waited for dessert, Evan asked, “Did you talk to any of your friends about looking for Dad on the computer?”
“I haven’t had a chance. I’ve been with you or working. Maybe next week. I’ve got to work tomorrow.”
“I get off at six. Are you going to be able to take me home?”
“Tomorrow… I’ll see if I can take a quick break right after I get there. Next week I’ll try to change it so I go in a little later. That way you won’t have to wait.”
Saturday evening Ken worked with his fish while Evan watched television. The phone rang, and Evan answered it. “Hi. Oh, Julie. How’s it going?” “Afraid not. I’ve missed you, too. Will I see you soon?” “I’ll be waiting.” Evan hung up the phone and grinned. “She hasn’t called you, has she?”
Ken couldn’t stand it any longer. He left, shutting the door harder than he wished he had. He hadn’t wanted Evan to see how much pain he had caused him. “I can’t do this. I can’t, Lord.”
Ken drove by the accounting firm, but he couldn’t stop. He drove aimlessly for an hour and ended up at Jim’s. A couple extra cars were in the driveway, and the porch light was on. He had company. Ken didn’t stop and he drove until he knew he had to take Evan to work.
Evan was waiting, and he hopped in the car as soon as Ken pulled up. “I hoped you hadn’t forgotten me.”
“I’ve never forgotten you.”
“But you want to kick me out.”
Ken shrugged. “Like you said, it’s not your fault the women prefer you. Just do me a favor and quit talking about it.”
“Jealous?” Evan teased.
“Yeah,” Ken said, too upset to lie. “So just drop it, okay.”
Evan said nothing else, and Ken left him to go home to bed. He set his alarm early to pick him up.
After he’d brought Evan home the next morning there wasn’t enough time to go back to bed so he readied himself for church. She was going to be there. “Lord, I don’t know if I can face her. Please help me.”
Evan came from his room dressed in his best jeans and shirt. “Mind if I tag along? Since I don’t have a car, it’s my only chance to see Julie.”
No, Lord. No, I can’t do this. But he couldn’t tell Evan he wouldn’t take him to church, no matter what his motive. Ken introduced Evan to his acquaintances. Jim joined them, greeting Evan warmly.
Then Julie entered with her family. She looked straight at him and Evan. Her eyes were dark and her faced lined, as if she hadn’t slept in days. His first impulse was to draw her close and let her rest those weary, pain-filled eyes against his shoulder. But before he reacted Evan did. “Hi, Julie,” Evan said cheerfully. “I hoped I’d see you here.” Julie ran past them toward the rest room.
Ken stared after her until her mother’s voice drew his attention. “Stay away from her!” she said fiercely. “Both of you, just stay away from my daughter.”
“Katie,” Jim began.
“Don’t Katie me, Jim Greene. If the harassment doesn’t stop I’m going to call the police no matter what Julie says.”
“What harassment?” Jim asked, but Katie left for the rest rooms. Jim stopped an older woman. “Mrs. Hansen, what’s happening?”
The woman stopped and looked up at Jim. “If these young men are really your friends, then tell them to take no for an answer and leave Julie alone. Every time the phone rings the poor girl cringes. How can you two call yourselves Christians?” Mrs. Hansen asked. She shook her head and left them.
The service was starting. Jim turned to his wife, “I’ll be in late.” Sara nodded and ushered the children in to find a seat. “Come,” Jim commanded Ken and Evan.
“Service is starting,” Evan said. “Can’t this wait?”
“Well, I don’t know what she’s talking about,” Ken said. “I haven’t talked to Julie in a week. She chose Evan.”
“Why wouldn’t she?” Evan asked. “Actually I think she would have dated both of us, but Ken can’t share.”
Jim looked at Evan incredulously. “I hate to call you a liar, but that doesn’t sound like Julie, and that’s not what I heard from her mother.”
“Jim, just forget it,” Ken said. “It didn’t work out. And Julie admitted her mother already hated me because of things someone else said, so the thing is pointless.” Ken left and went into the sanctuary. He quietly found a seat.
A minute later Evan slid into the pew beside him. “Great friend, Ken,” Evan whispered. “Calls people liars before he’s exchanged two sentences.”
Ken ignored him and tried to concentrate on the service. Unfortunately his eyes kept straying to where Julie was sitting between her mother and grandmother. Thomas sat next to her mother. They were several pews ahead of him. Julie slumped in the pew and often leaned against her mother or grandmother.
As the last hymn played, Evan said, “Let’s get out of here before policeman Jim comes for us.”
“Jim’s my best friend.”
“Some friend. I bet you told him all about me,” Evan whispered. “That’s why he thinks I’m a liar. Julie must be the one lying. What better way to get out of flirting with both of us?”
Ken left simply so Evan would stop talking about Julie. Evan went to bed when they got home since he was to work again that night.
Ken took a drive. Something didn’t seem right, but he wasn’t sure what it was. He went by Jim’s house but his car wasn’t home. What am I not seeing, Lord? Could Evan possibly be lying? What reason would he have to harass Julie? Evan doesn’t hate me that much, does he? He wouldn’t ruin my chances with Julie if… If she rejected him, and his ego couldn’t stand that I won his stupid challenge. But did he ruin it? Will Julie even talk to me?
Her car was not at the accounting firm. It was home. Another car was parked out front aside from the other two that had been in her driveway the night he dropped her off. He sat across the street, debating. No. Her mother hated him and it didn’t sound like her grandmother was too happy with him either. There was no way to see her.
Then Thomas came out of the front door and straight toward him. Katie followed. “Stalking is against the law,” Thomas said. “If you don’t stop now, we will call the police. This is your only warning. You better leave if you don’t want to end up in jail like the rest of your family.”
“I’m sorry. I haven’t been calling. If Evan has been, I need to know.”
“Don’t try that with me. I know you were trying to scam her with that pet store. You can’t be trusted either. At least now she’s seen your true colors, so you can’t scam her anymore.”
“I never tried to scam her . . . .”
“We know what you tried to do. You’re just like your father and brother. You just haven’t gotten caught, doing your stealing more subtly, preying on young girls.”
“What? That’s . . . .” But it was useless. Katie believed every word Thomas said, just as Julie had told him. Ken started the engine and pulled away quickly, not caring whether Thomas got out of his way in time or not. So these were the lies he’d been telling everyone. Preying on young girls. He was mixing Ken up with Evan. “Oh, Lord. My whole life is ruined. Evan ruined everything. All I’ve done is try to help him, and he’s destroyed my life. Julie will never forgive me for this. Lord, did you see how hurt she was?” Ken turned on a rural road and drove until he was away from anything but empty fields. He pulled over and gave in to his emotions, calling out to God in his desperation.
Two hours later he went home. Evan didn’t emerge from his room until almost eight. “Did you sleep well?” Ken asked, looking up from the book he had been unsuccessfully trying to read.
“Yeah. Pretty good.” Evan wandered to the kitchen. “What ya got to eat in here?”
“Why do you hate me?”
Evan glanced back at him. “What are you talking about? I don’t hate you.”
“What have I ever done that you want to destroy my life?”
“Oh, I get it. You’re upset that Julie isn’t loyal to you.”
“No.” Ken stood and came to him. “I’m upset because she was, and you lied, harassed her to death, and ruined not only the only chance I’ve ever had to have a wife, but you’ve also ruined my chance to own my own business. You’ve totally destroyed my life, but you feel no remorse.”
“Oh, yeah. It’s the same as always. You believe everyone else but me.” Evan slammed the refrigerator shut. “You’ve always listened to everyone else. What I said never mattered.”
“Knock it off. You lied, and you know it. I trusted you, and you . . . .”
“Yeah, believe her. Go ahead. You’re just like everyone else.”
Ken grabbed Evan’s shirt. “Stop it. Stop talking about her that way. She’s far too good for you.”
Evan swung, and his fist connected with Ken’s jaw. Evan struck him again before Ken could comprehend what had happened, and the blow sent him into the shelf of bettas. The shelf cracked apart with the additional stress, sending Ken to the floor. Jars fell around him and on him, hitting his shoulders, his face, his head.
He became aware of sobs. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Ken tried to open his eyes, but his vision was blurred and his head throbbed. He vaguely heard Evan telling someone his address. Then Evan was beside him. “Come on, Ken. Wake up. Please. I need you. Please. You’re the only one who loves me. I’m sorry. God, if you’re there at all, you gotta help him. Fix everything. Don’t let him die.”
“I’m not gonna die,” Ken mumbled.
“Hey, Ken. Can you hear me?”
Yeah. Stop yelling in my ear, he thought. He tried to move. His hand splashed against water, and it seeped through his clothing in cold patches. He realized what had happened. “My fish.”
“I’m sorry, Ken.”
Ken forced himself into a sitting position, but had to wait a full minute for the pounding in his head to become semi-tolerable. He opened his eyes, but he still couldn’t see. He lifted his hand to his eyes and realized blood blocked his vision. Evan brought him a washcloth which was soon filled with blood.
“No. Hold it there,” Evan said. “The ambulance is coming. Don’t move anymore.”
Ken winced in frustration and tried to get his point across. “Pick them up. New water. Save… save as many as you can.”
“But it’s been almost ten minutes.”
Bettas, you idiot. “Just do it.” As long as they didn’t dry out and weren’t injured in the fall they might live.
Evan wasn’t moving. “Please.” Ken asked weakly. He saw a jar with a little water. He tried to reach for it, but he fell to his side.
“Don’t move. Please, just don’t move. I’ll try to find all the fish, okay?”
Ken heard Evan moving around, pouring water, and picking up glass. Then several people were there, asking him questions. They took him to the hospital. After numerous tests that he was vaguely aware of, they gave him a room for the night.
He awoke around six. His head still hurt, but he was able to think and see. He reached for the phone and called SaveMart. Nanci answered.
“Nanc….” Ken cleared his throat and tried again. He hadn’t thought his voice wouldn’t work. “Nanci. I’ll try to be in tomorrow.”
“What’s wrong? You dying or something?” she asked sarcastically. “You’ve been doing a lot of schedule rearranging lately.”
“Sorry,” Ken apologized, but he wasn’t sure why. Maybe he wasn’t thinking as clearly as he thought. “I’m kind of… They got this tube in my arm. What is this?” he asked the aide who came in.
“An IV. Are you sure you’re up to phone calls? How’s your head?”
“You aren’t in the hospital! What happened?” Nanci’s attitude left, and she seemed sincerely concerned.
“I . . . what happened?” Ken asked the nurse.
“Concussion. Eighteen stitches.”
“Oh, Ken, that’s awful. Don’t worry. You just get better.” Ken hung up the phone. Had that really been Nanci?
The aide took his vitals. “How long will I be in here?”
“They’ll probably let you go home in a few hours. You’re looking a lot better. But I’m not the doc, so you’ve got to wait for the official release. It should be by noon.
Ken rested a few minutes and then called Jim. Sara answered. “Is Jim still home?”
“Ken? Yes.” She sounded sleepy, and Ken guessed too late that he’d woke them up.
“Ken?” Jim asked. “What’s up?”
“Sorry to wake you. I just woke myself.”
“Is anything wrong?”
“You were right about Evan.” Ken paused to let his head subside. After a few breaths he continued. “I didn’t know he was harassing her. I didn’t . . . .”
“Ken, are you all right?”
“Not exactly. We . . . we kind of got into a fight. I’m in the hospital.”
“Oh, Ken, no. Which one? Ken?”
“I . . . I don’t know where I am. My head hurts. I think I need to rest.” He hung up the phone.
Ken lay completely still until the sharp pains subsided. A nurse came, and when he complained, she said she’d get him more pain medicine. He drifted back to sleep. He awoke to voices.
“I didn’t mean it. He hit the fish, and they all fell on him.”
“Evan, you have a little more to be sorry for than that punch.”
“I know. But it was like he had everything. He’s better than me at everything. I’m nothing, and he has everything. I’m sorry,” Evan whined. “I never meant this to happen.”
“Just like you never meant to harass Julie.”
“I didn’t want Ken to know she didn’t want me. You don’t understand. He had everything.”
“No. I do understand. You were too selfish and self-centered to realize Ken was sharing with you everything he could. You let jealousy cloud and destroy the only real friendship you have. I have two brothers. We competed and had rivalries, but we never tried to steal each other’s girlfriends. That’s too personal. We never wanted to inflict real pain to each other. Don’t expect sympathy from me, Evan. You don’t deserve it.”
“You’re all the same,” Evan muttered. But his protest wasn’t loud or strong.
“You’ve misunderstood,” Jim continued quietly. “Not sympathy. But if you are truly repentant, meaning you are going to actively seek to change, then we’ll forgive you. But don’t bother me with apologies and words that will mean nothing to you the minute Ken is better and goes back to work.”
There was shuffling and then silence. Then Ken felt a hand in his. He opened his eyes, and Jim smiled. “You’re not looking too good, Son.”
Ken tried to return the smile, but squeezed the hand instead. “Thanks.” It was for calling him son, but it sounded more like he was joking back.
“Have you seen a mirror? You’ve got a couple of nasty black eyes, a bruise on your cheek, and a lump on your forehead along with a large bandage.”
“Don’t worry about it, Ken.”
“Please. She didn’t look good at church, but they wouldn’t let me see her.”
“They won’t let me either. I’m going to talk to Pastor Nat, but . . . . Don’t worry. I’ll try to get things straightened out for you.”
“Thomas is telling lies.”
“I know. You and Julie both have been surrounded by lies.”
“She said she loved me. Last week. Before . . . before Evan . . . .”
“Then keep remembering that. I’m sure she wouldn’t say it flippantly. We’ll work this out. You just rest.” His pain medication was working, making him drowsy. Ken closed his eyes and followed Jim’s advice.
Go to Chapter 15
© 2013, 1997 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.