The last week had been torture. At work Julie was harassed by Thomas, and now at home Evan kept calling, making his declarations. Even though she hung up on him almost immediately when she heard his voice, the stress built. He was calling work and her home, not bothering to hide who he was. Her mother and grandmother both became upset. They wouldn’t let her answer the phone anymore. And the nightmares didn’t cease. Instead they were getting worse.
And all the time Ken never came back. She went into the office every evening, hoping he’d show up, but he never did. She’d finally tried to call him, but got Evan instead. Did Ken care at all? Or was it as Thomas had kept saying, he was just using her. Her doubts caused her to see Ken’s noble refusal of her offer to help in a different light. What better way to draw her in until she trusted him too much to refuse? Then he would start asking for a little at first, until she’d give him anything just as Darlene had suggested. Maybe it was as Thomas said, and she couldn’t know right from wrong without a man like him to help her. Maybe . . . . Aaaaah. She just wanted to scream and scream, but she couldn’t.
Julie thought of going to Pastor Nat, but her mother and Thomas claimed that Pastor Nat was not to be trusted. He was single, and he must be taking advantage of his office to spend time with the single women. Why else would he be spending so much time with Nicole Bryant?
Julie had tried to call Nicole, but she kept getting an answering machine, and her calls were never returned. She had even called Pastor Nat, but he never called back either. Unless they wouldn’t let her speak to him because of what Thomas had said. Was she getting paranoid or was it true? Was no one calling her back, or were they screening her calls? Were all those calls really Evan?
Julie had spent Thursday taking the fish to Detroit that she had arranged to sell. Saturday she had agreed to let Thomas help her move the aquarium. His comments ate into her like she knew they would. She replaced the fish too quickly and pretended illness, which wasn’t hard since she felt sick to her stomach from his lies, and went home early.
By Sunday Julie longed to go to church just to catch sight of Ken. But then Evan had been beside him, and Ken hadn’t said a word, just staring at her as if she’d done something wrong again. Thomas had come home with them Sunday, and Julie had no peace. She escaped to her room, wishing he’d leave. There was some commotion, and then loud talk about stalking Wright brothers and calling the police. Had Evan followed her here?
Monday she and her mother reduced her work load, but still Julie couldn’t rest. She went in at night, still hoping Ken would show up, but her mother went with her. “You shouldn’t be alone, Julie. Not with that stalker after you.”
“Mom . . . .”
“Julie, Evan came to the house for you today. I didn’t want to scare you, but you’ve got to be careful. And his brother was outside yesterday. I just wish you’d let me call the police. I warned him. One more time, and I will call.”
“Ken came yesterday?”
“Now will you let me contact the police?”
“No.” Ken had come for her, and they were keeping him from her. “No. I’m okay. I promise.” She thought a moment. How could she be alone long enough to call? She had to make Evan see reason and let her talk to Ken. She had to know if Ken still cared.
“Julie, there’s something else you should know. We have to switch churches.”
“What? Mom, that’s crazy.”
“I’m afraid not. Pastor Nat talked to Thomas yesterday and refused to let him take communion. That’s just going too far. For a man like that to point fingers and make accusations at someone like Thomas . . . well, the nerve. I just can’t believe . . . .”
“Mom, it means Thomas did something wrong. He’s under church discipline. They’ve confronted him about all the lies he’s telling people.”
“Now, Julie, that’s ridiculous. Thomas doesn’t lie. We really need to get you away from that church. This is hard for your grandmother also. I don’t know what I’m going to do about her.”
Julie stared at her in disbelief. “Mom, Grandma’s been at that church for over fifty years. Don’t do that to her.”
Katie shook her head in a slow, sad kind of way. “This is exactly what Thomas has been talking about. They have you so mixed up you don’t know what’s right anymore.”
“Mom . . . .” Julie gave up and turned to her computer, but her eyes wouldn’t focus. “Mom, I think I should try to sleep. I don’t think I can work.”
“Sure. Let’s go home, Sweetheart. Don’t worry about your accounts. I’ll keep them up. Me and Thomas will keep everything in order for you.”
“Not Thomas, Mom.”
“Julie, you still don’t trust him, do you? After he helped you with your fish, and all he’s done for you?” Her voice conveyed her deep disappointment.
“I don’t know. I’m just so confused.”
Katie put her arm on Julie’s back. “That’s okay. You just rest. We’ll make sure no one bothers you.”
There it was again. Julie was sure it meant they were blocking her calls and visitors.
It was still early when they arrived home. Julie went downstairs to her fish. Now as long as no one picked up the other extension, she was safe. Julie dialed Ken’s number. Evan answered. Couldn’t Ken answer just once.
“Please, Evan,” Julie whispered. “Let me talk to Ken.”
“He’s not here.”
“Evan! Can’t you see I’ll never love you. Please. I need to talk to Ken.”
“Julie, I know. I’m sorry. Really. For everything. And I’m serious. He’s not here. They decided to keep him another night.”
“They? Who? What are you talking about?”
“I tried to get you this morning. I guess I deserved it, but they wouldn’t even listen.”
“Listen to what? Evan!” Julie realized her voice had risen and took a deep breath to calm herself.
“He’s up at the hospital. They say he should be home tomorrow.”
Julie managed to drag out the name of the hospital and the room number from Evan. She didn’t bother going upstairs. She left through the side door.
Visiting hours were almost over when Julie arrived at the hospital, but she hoped they wouldn’t say anything if she was quiet. She slipped into his room and almost thought she had the wrong bed at first. His face was a mess with bruises, and a nasty gash was stitched up on his forehead.
Julie leaned over to kiss his lips, lightly though, because even those looked bruised. He opened his eyes and then smiled when he saw her. “I don’t feel as bad as I look. Honest. The pain medicine is working. Oh, please.”
Julie couldn’t help her tears. She sat in the chair beside the bed and put her head on his shoulder. He caressed her hair. “I love you, Julie.”
“You never came,” she had to accuse. She realized it was ludicrous. He was lying in the hospital. Of course he couldn’t come. Besides they said he tried Sunday.
“Evan lied to me, Julie. He said you loved him. I’m sorry. When I found out the truth we got into a fight.”
Julie lifted her head. “Evan didn’t do this to you, did he?”
“No. Not exactly. Two hundred and twenty one betta jars did this.”
“They all fell on you?”
“It feels that way. My whole body is pretty bruised, but my head got the worst of it. But tell me about you. I’ve missed you.”
Julie wanted to hold him or at least lean against him, but she was afraid she’d hurt him now that she knew about the other bruises. Ken squeezed her hand gently. Then he lifted her hand to his lips to kiss her fingers.
“I need to see you more, Ken. It’s too crazy at home. I’m getting paranoid. Sometimes I don’t know if I’m dreaming, making things up, or if things are really happening. I can’t sleep. I can’t seem to get a hold of anyone to talk to. No one returns my calls, not even Pastor Nat. Or maybe they do and no one tells me. I don’t know. Ken, I’m scared. What if I’m losing my mind?”
“I’ll still love you.”
“So am I. I’ll always love you, Julie. Now I should be out of here tomorrow, so how shall I get around your blockade?”
“If you’re sick . . . .”
“If you need me, I want to be with you. Even if you don’t need me, I want to be with you. Are you still working late?”
“Kind of, but Mom is going in with me now to protect me from stalkers. I can meet you somewhere, but it’s going to be hard to explain myself. I don’t know what I’ll tell them . . . well, yes I do. The truth. I found out a friend was in the hospital. But they question me about everything.”
“Julie, you’ve got to get away for a while. Take a vacation. Stay with a friend. This has gotten out of hand. No wonder you’re paranoid. They are watching you. Who knows what Thomas has said to get them to keep you secluded? You know he probably hasn’t changed his agenda. Since he couldn’t get you through honest means, he’s playing dirty just like Evan did.”
“I love you, Ken.” It was all she could think to say. He had brought up too many things, and she’d have to think about them later.
“I love you, too. By the way, how did you know I was here?”
“Evan. I called for you, and he told me. Actually he came to the house this morning, but they sent him away. He said he wanted to tell me then.”
“He came to your house? He’s driving all over in my car, and he doesn’t have his license yet.” Ken’s jaw tightened a moment, and then he winced. “I shouldn’t do that. But he did tell you. He didn’t make any declarations or say anything stupid?”
“No. Not this time. He even said he was sorry. I don’t know if I believe him, but . . . .”
“Oh, visiting hours are over,” said a nurse, coming into the room. “You’ll have to leave.”
“I’ll call you,” Julie promised. She stood and kissed his lips lightly.
Ken took her hand and held it a moment longer. “I love you, Julie. Don’t let them tear us apart. Thomas, Evan, or your mom.”
“No,” she whispered. “I won’t.” Julie left him.
As she drove home she realized she couldn’t tell them the truth. They’d know it was Ken she’d seen if Evan managed to speak half his message this morning. “Oh, Lord, this is so crazy. Now I’m trying to come up with lies. You’ve got to help me. Please, Lord. I can’t keep on like this.”
When Julie arrived home both her mother and grandmother were watching television. “Going to bed now?” her mother asked as Julie passed the living room.
“You need to get rid of the rest of those fish. You spend too much time taking care of them. You need your rest. You’re on the verge of a breakdown.”
“Yes.” It appeared they hadn’t even realized she’d been gone. She slipped into her room and knelt beside the bed. “Lord, thank you so much. Please help me know what to do. Mom’s right, my Lord, I feel about to break. Help me, please. And Lord, please heal and be with Ken. I know he must love his brother, and it must be really hard to love someone like that. Help him, and please change Evan’s heart. In Jesus name. Amen.”
Julie changed her clothes and crawled into bed. Sleep overtook her.
She awoke at three a.m. She couldn’t quite remember the dream, but whatever it was left her uneasy. She lay staring at the ceiling and tried to think good thoughts. Good thoughts took her back to Ken. “You must get away. Go on vacation,” he had said. And he was right. The only thing stopping her was the pets. She had no baby fish now, and the adults could go a week without being fed if her mother forgot to do it for her. The guinea pigs and hamsters were another story.
Julie spent the rest of the night planning, and as the early morning light filtered into the window she packed her suitcase. As soon as Katie left for the office, Julie began cleaning her aquariums and performing partial water changes. They would be good for at least two weeks, or even a month, unless someone put in too much food and fouled the water. Then Julie cleaned the hamster and guinea pig cages, putting in fresh bedding.
Finally she wrote her letter: “Dear Mom and Grandma; I’m taking the hamsters and guinea pigs to the pet shop, and then I’m going on vacation. I’m not sure where. I just need to be alone for a while. If I won’t be back by Sunday, I’ll call. Don’t worry about me.
“Please take care of my fish while I’m gone. Feed them only a small amount once a day. Don’t feed extra if you forget. They won’t starve. Thanks. Love, Julie.”
Julie then loaded the hamster and guinea pig cages into her car. She came in one last time to get her suitcase. “Julie!” her grandmother cried in alarm. “Where are you going?”
“I just need to get away for a while. Away from lies and talk of stalkers and just everything.”
“Oh, Julie. We’ve tried to make it safe for you here.”
“I know. I just think I’d rest better away.”
“But what about that guy? What if he follows you?”
Julie shook her head and then hugged her grandmother. “Grandma, Thomas is the stalker. Evan was a jerk, I admit. Ken never was, although I know no one believes me, and that’s another reason I have to get away.” Anger broke through her despair. “Mom believes Thomas more than she believes anything I say. He’s a saint, and I’m just a deranged, stupid idiot who can’t make a simple decision.” At her grandmother’s shock, Julie repented. “I’m sorry, Grandma. I just have to get away, pray some more, and… and get some sleep. Maybe if I can’t see him or hear his lies I’ll be able to sleep at night.”
Her grandmother closed her eyes and nodded. “It’s true, his words have kept me up at night also.” She reached up and hugged Julie tightly. “I won’t say anything until she comes home for dinner.”
Julie handed her the letter. “Thanks. And don’t tell them what I said about Ken. They’ll start talking bad about him again, and I can’t stand that.”
“Oh, Julie, you do care for him!”
“Please. Let me get away and figure out for myself what I’m thinking.”
“Of course. Where will you . . . .”
“No. I don’t want anyone looking for me. I want to be alone,” she repeated.
Her grandmother agreed, and Julie finally made it to the car. She was glad it was a warm day. The sun kept the interior of the car warmer than the outside air, so her little pets did not get chilled by her delay. She drove to Wet ‘n Woolly first. Both Linda and Sue were working.
“Hi. I know I don’t have any right to ask favors yet,” she began nervously.
“Don’t be silly. I’m sure you’re not asking for money, but we probably could extend you a little credit,” Linda said.
Julie shook her head. “No, no. Nothing like that. I’m just going on vacation, and I have nowhere for the hamsters and guinea pigs.”
“Credit?” Sue teased Linda. “She’s buying the store. I’m sure she’s not short on money.”
“About that. If anyone, and I mean anyone, including my own mother, comes and asks, Ken Wright is buying the store. My name isn’t mentioned, okay? I’m a silent partner. Silent as in not heard of right now, please.”
“Hey, sure,” Linda agreed. “Is there a reason for secrecy?”
“Just peace in the family. Not everyone agrees with how I decide to spend my money. Don’t worry about it. No one will probably show up.”
“You make it sound like cloak and dagger.”
Julie smiled tiredly. “Yeah. I really need this vacation. I’m seeing monsters behind every betta and angel.”
“Taxes wore you out, huh?”
“Yeah. I guess I haven’t recovered from those months of little sleep. Well, we better bring the little guys in.”
They quickly moved the cages to the back room, and Julie gave instructions on how old the baby guinea pigs were and that they could be sold at Sue’s discretion. All her adults were too old to resell, or Julie would have considered it as she tried to simplify her life. Sue promised to take good care of them for her, and then Julie left.
Now she wasn’t sure which way to go. She started north toward Frankenmuth, but then changed her mind. If they started to search for her any obvious vacation spot would be their first stop. She didn’t want to go too far either. Her bettas needed more attention than the other fish. They were in new tanks with less water which would foul quickly. She didn’t want to leave them alone for a week. She planned to sneak into the office at night at least a few times to check on them. She had turned west on M-57 and now came to Chesaning. Still it was also considered a vacation town. She drove south down M-52 to M-21. Owosso. No one vacationed in Owosso. She eyed the fairly new large hotel downtown, but passed it by. That would be an obvious spot to look. She chose a small motel, and got a room in back where her car wouldn’t be easily visible from the road. She was only thirty miles from Flint. She’d still be able to see Ken.
Julie phoned to have a “get well/I love you” bouquet of flowers sent to Ken’s home. Then she tried to rest, but her thoughts kept going back to her grandmother and what her mother had said the day before about switching churches. Julie finally got up and pulled her stationary from her suitcase. Then she wrote:
“Uncle Cal; I want you to be aware of what is going on. Thomas has told my mother lies about Pastor Nat and the leadership of the church. I believe she is no longer speaking with many of her friends. Now these lies are disturbing Grandma, also, as it is not good to hear bad, untrue things about your church leadership or friends. Also Mom is planning to leave the church, and she may be bringing pressure on Grandma to do the same. I have left on vacation to try to gain perspective, but I worry that I have inadvertently left Grandma to the wolves. If you could talk to Mom, please do so. She doesn’t think I know anything. (Of course, you may decide the same.) Talk to Pastor Nat if you have doubts about my assessment of Thomas. I think he is somewhat aware of what is going on. Thanks for checking into this for me. Love, Julie.”
Julie addressed and stamped the letter. She would mail it in Flint when she went to check on her bettas tonight. Finally she was able to sleep.
Go to Chapter 16
© 2013, 1997 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.