The talk with Pastor Frank Geddes had helped clear some of her confusion. Julie had been able to sleep with a clear conscience that night. She knew she was doing the right thing now. It was just a very hard thing to do. Julie prepared herself for another confrontation with her mother as she picked up the phone Monday morning.
“Hansen Accounting,” Bethany said neutrally. Usually she was a bit more cheerful.
“What’s wrong, Beth?”
“Julie? Hey, we’ve missed you. Are you all right?”
“I’m great. I’ve been lounging and shopping and just plain being lazy. How’s everything there?”
“We’ve been so worried about you. There was some talk that you were kidnapped, and your fish were stolen.”
“No, Beth. I took the fish. Mom just changed the security code and didn’t tell me. I wasn’t kidnapped, either.”
“I’m so relieved. You wouldn’t believe the rumors flying around here about everyone!” Bethany hesitated, and her voice lowered until Julie could barely hear her. “Someone even said something about . . . well, forget it. It’s not important.”
“Oh, Bethany, it is important. See what’s happening? Thomas is tearing the firm apart with his lies, half-truths, and rumors. I just couldn’t take it anymore because every time I’d say something . . . .”
“It’d be used against you. That’s what happens to me.”
“Exactly. I’m trying to talk to my Mom, but . . . she’s there, isn’t she?”
“In her office. Should I put you through?”
“Yeah. I got to do this sometime.”
“Do what? She’s been upset all morning. Thomas has been with her.”
“Is he in there now?”
“I’m not sure. The door is closed.”
“Well, put me through.” Julie waited.
“Julie!” her mother said, as she picked up the phone. “Where are you?”
“On vacation. Can I come back yet? Have you fired him?”
“Now, Julie, you know I can’t just fire people.”
“Then adopt him and give him your firm. I’ll start my own company. May I have the equipment in my office?”
“Now, Julie, you’re talking silly again.”
“Should I explain to my clients why I’m not there? I don’t suppose you’ll help me out by letting me keep them.”
“Julie, stop it. Just stop. You can’t leave, and that’s final.”
“Yes, I can, Mom. Besides you already changed the locks on me. You don’t really want me there as much as Thomas anyway.”
“Julie, please, stop.” Katie was crying now. “You’ve got it mixed up. The lock change had nothing to do with you. Thomas thought someone might have gotten the code. Come on. I’ll give it to you as soon as you’re back.”
“Mom,” Julie said as quietly as she could. Her mother’s sobs were tearing her up. “I’m sorry. I just can’t work with him. I’ll be back at the end of the week to clear out my office and go over anything.”
“No! No, please, Julie . . . .” Julie had to hang up. She cried against the pillow of the bed for a few minutes before she was able to put her emotions aside, wash her face, and leave the hotel. Ken’s suggestion of doing accounting in the back of the pet store seemed so perfect. It helped ease the loss a little as long as she didn’t think about her mother. As Julie wandered the streets, sight-seeing and window shopping, one part of her mind was hundreds of miles away, planning her changes to make a little office near her fish and her beloved.
She thought of Ken also, and wondered if those awful bruises would be healed when she saw him next. She missed his smile, his eyes, and especially the way his hair fell in front of those eyes and the impatient way he swiped it back.
The next morning Julie began driving down the east side of the state. Wednesday she stayed in Frankenmuth. Then Thursday she made sure she was at the bank before one. Ken was already waiting. He hugged her tightly. “I’ve missed you so much.”
“I’ve missed you, too.” She stepped back to look at his face. The bruises were fading, and only a slight yellowing showed where they’d been. Soon there would be no evidence of the accident except the scar, and that didn’t look near as large as it had now that the stitches had been removed.
“Like what you see?”
“Always.” Julie pulled away from him. “I’ve got to get the money.” She went to stand in line for the teller.
Ken joined her. “You’re not getting away that easy,” he teased. “It’s been forever.” He put his arm around her waist, and they stayed together.
The actual closing didn’t take long, and the Martins gave them the keys to the building and last minute instructions. Linda and Sue both had keys also, they were told, but Sue had put in her two week notice. Another part time guy had also quit.
“Well, at least you’ll get paid,” Julie said, trying to look at the bright side, but it disturbed her that they’d quit so suddenly.
“Yes. Maybe Thomas did me a favor.”
“Thomas? Oh, please, Ken, don’t mention him. Don’t ruin our day. Let’s celebrate. Let’s go look at our store. I want to see again where my desk and computer will go.”
Ken pulled her into his arms and kissed her. “I love you. I don’t want to be apart even to drive somewhere. Should we drop off one of our cars at home? Evan has his license. I can let him use my car.”
“Sure. I’ll follow.” The drive wasn’t long, but Julie couldn’t wait for his return to her side.
Ken ran into the house and threw a sleepy Evan the keys. “If I’m not back in time, you can take my car tonight.” He grinned. “I have a date.”
“Yeah, brag about it, you hot-shot, pet shop owner.”
“That’s me. See ya.”
They went to the store and made their plans. Linda teased them. “I thought you two would be in. I brought in a cake.” She had it in the back.
“Oh, Linda, that’s wonderful. Thanks. Wow. I feel like I just got married.”
“Oh, no. We’ve still got to do that.”
They studied the office which was next to the breeding room. “Maybe if we remove this wall and add lights and….”
“Already remodeling?” Linda teased. “I’ve cleaned your tanks and filled them. They’re ready for fish.”
“Oh, Ken, this is going to be so perfect.” Ken loved the smile, the happiness. There were still dark circles under her eyes, but she was relaxed and brighter than she had been in a long time.
They went out to eat. As they waited for their food, Ken said, “I bought you something.”
“Really? Another betta?”
Ken laughed. “No. I’ve got to go easy on them for a few months.”
“I’ve got something for you, too. It’s in the car.”
“I’ve got your present right here.”
Ken grinned at her eagerness. “You have to say ‘yes’ first.” He reached into his pocket for the small box that had been digging into his leg.
“Yes. Now what?”
Ken laughed. “Give me your hand. No. You know which one.”
Julie switched hands. “Do I?” she asked innocently.
Ken slipped the ring on her finger. Would it be good enough?
Julie pulled her hand close to study it. “Oh, Ken, it’s beautiful. What are you doing on the other side of that table when I want to hug you?” She slipped out of the booth and scooted in next to him, putting her arms around him and kissing him.
A throat clearing interrupted them. “Your salad?” the waitress said, her cheeks slightly pink.
“Look,” Julie said, holding out her hand. “I’m engaged.”
“Oh, well then go right ahead.” The waitress set their food on the table and left grinning.
Ken laughed. “I love you.”
Ken didn’t get his gift until they were back in the car. “I know you already have one,” Julie said apologetically. “I just thought . . . .”
Ken pulled the box out of the bag and opened it. “This is nice. No, I don’t have a leather study bible. Just a hardcover, and then my regular one. Thank you. This is just right for our beginning. This is our foundation.”
“Yes. I knew you’d understand.”
They drove to a park and sat in the car, talking for hours, but Julie’s light mood seemed to disappear with the sun. “What is it?” he finally asked, wondering if he did anything wrong.
“Nothing. I guess it’s getting about time for me to go home.” She started the car.
“Do you want me to come?”
Julie didn’t speak, but she drove to his house. “I have to do this alone,” she said in the driveway. “I don’t want them to blame you or say that you’re controlling me.”
“I understand. But you know where I’ll be if you need me.”
“Thanks. I love you.”
Ken watched her drive away before he went into the house. Evan was in his uniform, preparing to leave. “Well, I guess you want your car back.”
Ken almost declined. Why should he get up early just to go pick him up? But then he thought of Julie. What if she needed him and for some reason she couldn’t come to him? “I better keep it just in case something comes up.”
“Like what? You suddenly run out of milk?”
Ken smiled slightly. “No. I’m just a little worried about Julie. I wish she would have let me go with her.”
“You just want your car. Now I can’t go cruising during break.”
Ken laughed. “I better take you in. Let’s go.”
Julie drove home, slipping her ring into her purse. One fight at a time. Her mother’s car wasn’t in the drive. She soon found that it was because her mother had moved. She was staying with Thomas. “No! Oh, Grandma, she didn’t move in with him.”
“She says she’s renting a room temporarily until the renters leave her house. She gave them a sixty day notice. But I’m so glad you’re back.”
Julie visited late with her grandmother, recounting her travels and giving her the small gifts she had purchased. She checked her fish briefly, feeding them brine shrimp, which she knew they hadn’t gotten while she was gone, and then went to bed. The next morning Julie turned on the old computer in her room to make sure it was still working properly. It would be hard going back to old technology, but if it worked, she might not have to buy right away to start over. Everything seemed to function properly in her brief test. When she’d put things off as long as she could, she finally drove to the office.
Julie noted that both her mother and Thomas’s cars were in the parking lot when she arrived. Bethany greeted her. “It’s so good to see you.” Julie noticed that the light was off on the aquarium she and Thomas had moved over two weeks before. She went to turn it on. “Oh, Julie, they all died,” Bethany said, joining her.
“Died? All of them?”
“One morning, just all of them.”
Julie looked through the glass. No fish. She lifted the lid. A slightly familiar odor, that she knew didn’t belong in the in a fish tank but a car’s tank, wafted out. Great. Someone murdered her fish and she knew who. “Well, pouring gasoline in the aquarium certainly isn’t good for them, is it?”
“No. You don’t think . . . .” Bethany sniffed the water. “Oh, Julie, who could have done this? That’s awful. Thomas didn’t say anything about a gas smell when he took out the fish.”
“Of course not. I’m glad I kept my rainbows and cories home. Where’s Mom?”
“Ah, Julie . . . you know they’re engaged, don’t you?”
Julie slipped to the floor. “Julie. Julie!” she heard someone dimly calling her name.
“Oh, dear,” she heard her mother. “Julie. Julie, wake up. Thomas quick call 911.” Julie moved her head to protest. “Oh, she’s waking up.”
“What . . . what did you do?” she asked her mother.
“No. I’ve never fainted. I just had a bad dream. Tell me it’s not true. You don’t love him.”
“Oh, Julie, you said you didn’t care for him. You don’t do you? At least not that way? And the way you’ve treated him, well you can’t expect he loves you.”
Julie put her hands to her head to massage the ache in her forehead as well as block out Thomas’s smiling smirking face. “I guess I’ll get my things and leave.”
“Oh, Julie, please don’t leave.”
“I can’t stay.” Her voice cracked. “I can’t watch you do this to yourself and the people here. But . . . but I love you, Mom.” Julie rubbed her eyes, and forced herself off the floor, going to her office. She felt like jelly, but refused to give in to her body. Her mother followed. Why did Thomas stay right behind her like a puppy? Couldn’t she say one word to her mother without his nose in everything?
“I love you, too, Julie. Please, Honey, think this through. How will you live? Will you stay with your grandmother? Will she support you? Where will you work?”
“I’m starting my own firm. Perhaps just a few clients at first,” she said, stating facts to keep her mind from the awful truth she’d just learned. She went through her desk, looking for anything personal. “Might as well not build a large clientele, as I probably won’t have much time after the children start coming. Even if I have no clients, maybe I’ll get a job part-time at some store, office, factory, or the like. I’m a CPA after all. There’s got to be work somewhere.”
Julie took her certificates and diplomas, as well as the pictures on the wall and her desk. She grabbed her diskettes, backups she’d made of samples of unusual problems.
“Wait,” Thomas said. “Aren’t those disks company property?”
“No. These are my files.”
“Of company clients.”
“These are my notes.”
“On disk? I don’t think so. Put them back.”
Thomas had enough. He wasn’t going to keep her examples or her books. “No. These are mine.” She threw them in the bag she’d brought. Then she emptied a box of folders to use the box and took her books from the shelf.
“Those aren’t yours either.”
“They are so. These are my books from school and training sessions.” She set them in the box.
“The company paid for those; they stay here.” Thomas came to take them from the box.
“No!” Julie tried to grab them from his hands. “You just want to make it as hard for me to start over as possible.”
He put the books on the shelf, and she grabbed them. Thomas took her arms, one in each hand, causing her to drop the books. “Everything stays here, including the disks.”
“I hate you. You’ve taken everything from me. My job, my friends, even my own mother – just leave me alone.”
“Thomas, let her go,” Katie said.
Thomas released her arms. “You can’t let her steal from you, Katie.”
“I’m not stealing. I never have. Stop lying about people. What have I ever done to make you hate me? What? What did those fish ever do?”
Thomas shook his head. “She’s hysterical. I told you, Katie, she needs to be committed.”
Julie couldn’t believe her ears. “Mom, did you hear that? Listen to what he has accused me of.” She shook her head. It was hopeless. Her mother just stared at her nervously. “If Daddy were here, you’d have been history long ago. What would Daddy say about just turning over all his work to this . . . this chameleon? What did Daddy want you to do with this place? Doesn’t matter, does it? He’s gone. Thomas is here. Did you ever love me anyway? Give it all to him. You can’t destroy me. Neither of you can.”
“Just leave,” Thomas said. “Get out of here.”
“No. Not until I’m finished.” Julie dumped her bag, and refilled it leaving the diskettes on the desk. “There. You want my notes, keep them.” Julie stared at the desk trying to regain control. What had Pastor Frank Geddes said about forgiveness? Forgive him for this? “I will try to pray that God changes your heart,” she said as evenly as she could. Then she looked up at him. “Just so that you will stop hurting people like you’ve hurt me, and these others,” she waved her arm at the office in general, “and especially like you’ve hurt my mother, cutting her off from her family, her church, and all her friends. Mom, if you ever need help, you can come to me. Right now I have to leave.” Julie grabbed her bag and ran through the door, shoving past some of the others who had come to watch.
Her tears blinded her as she drove, but somehow she made it to Ken’s house. He wasn’t home. She went to the pet store. “Linda, is Ken here?”
“Julie, what happened? Let’s go in the back and sit down.”
Julie let her lead her to the small break room. It contained a couch, a small table with two chairs, a refrigerator, and a microwave. “Where’s Ken?”
“He was called over to SaveMart for a few hours. He’ll be back. Do you want to talk about it?” Linda sat beside Julie on the couch.
“My mother is marrying Thomas,” Julie said weakly.
“That nutzoid that wanted to marry you? Oh, Julie, that’s awful.”
“She moved in with him.”
“This quickly? He was just in here last weekend telling Ken he’d never have you. He’s certainly loyal.”
“He’s scum. The worse chameleon that ever lived. He killed my fish.” And then the whole story poured out.
Ken came back from a hectic time of trying to send back an unwanted, unordered, and spoiled shipment of tropical fruit at SaveMart to find customers waiting impatiently at the front counter. He helped them as best as he could, discovering he didn’t know the store as well as he thought. He had to do better. Where was everyone? Where was Linda? When he went to the back he found a part-time girl, Leesa, standing near the entrance to the break room, staring intently at the wall.
Ken approached her. “Why is no one at . . . ?” The girl whirled around and flushed. Then Ken heard the sobs. “Go watch the counter,” Ken directed the eavesdropper quietly. He’d talk to her later. Ken entered the break room and went to Julie. She rose from the couch to meet him, clinging to him. Linda discreetly left the room. Ken sat on the couch with Julie and held her, listening to her morning. He wished there was something he could do, but he was just as helpless to stop Thomas as she was.
But Ken did look for a way to cheer her by easing her into a discussion of her new office at the store. He had wanted to become much more acquainted with his new job, but he instead got Evan to help him move her computer from her home to the office along with a desk. He was nervous approaching her grandmother’s house, and hoped Julie had adequate time to inform her grandmother of all the news.
Ken had noticed that she wasn’t wearing her ring. He didn’t know what that meant, and he didn’t want to stress her more by asking. He’d thought that now that the closing was past, the secrets would be over. They had to be if they were moving her things to the store.
There was nothing Julie could do but move forward. The sooner she was working the better she’d be able to put this behind her, and the sooner she would know if she could actually make it on her own. When Ken suggested helping her set up, she knew she had to do it immediately. She’d done her crying. Now she had to work.
Except she had to tell Grandmother everything. Julie slipped her ring on her finger in the car before she went into the house. Grandmother came to her. “How did it go?”
“Bad. Really rotten. I’ve got to start over.”
Grandmother took her hand, and they sat at the table. She studied her face. “But you’ve accepted it already. Do you know what you’re going to do?” She rubbed Julie’s hand, looked down, and then lifted it. “Oh, my, Julie. You’re engaged.”
“Yeah,” she smiled nervously. “Please be happy for me. He really is wonderful and not at all like Thomas makes him sound.”
“Does your mother know?”
“No. We were fighting about other things. I didn’t want to add any more gasoline to the fire. And Grandma, that night I said that we decided not to get the store, I meant it. But he never canceled it like he said, and we decided to go through with it, so we own a pet store. Ken will help me move my fish, and he’s coming pretty soon to help me move my desk and computer to the store. I’m going to try to set up my own little accounting office in the back. I don’t know how good I’ll be, but . . . You are happy, aren’t you?”
“Julie, you’ve about knocked me over.” Her grandmother stood and walked to the sink. “Everything is changing so quickly, I can barely keep up.” She turned from the window above the sink. “I’ll miss you, Julie. When is the wedding?”
“I don’t know yet. But Grandma, it’s so right. We’ll be working together in our own place, just like mom and dad did. I just know this is right.”
Grandma smiled a little sadly, and Julie longed for more.
“Please. Come see our store, okay? I’ll show you where I’m going to put my office, and….”
“Yes. Let’s go see it,” Grandma agreed more cheerfully than Julie knew she felt. She was trying for her.
“I love you, Grandma.” A knock sounded. “Oh, that must be Ken,” she said, rushing to the door to greet him.
Go to Chapter 20
© 2013, 1997 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.