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James cleaned himself up by going to drug rehab. He connected with a guy who lay flooring. He started a business and began attending church.
And he opened a MySpace account.
God works in mysterious ways, sometimes.
He remembered a girl he once knew. Rachelle. Slender with high cheek bones, beautiful lips, and an empathetic disposition. She was like a magnet for the despairing—always counseling troubled friends and acquaintances.
And she was a Christian.
And not to mention gorgeous. Perhaps the thought of starting a family crossed his mind.
But no. Just friends. Just fellow Christians making a connection, that was all.
“Hey!” he wrote. “Next time you’re in Norman, give me a call. I’ll take you to lunch.”
She remembered him. He was that guy who drank a lot. But maybe…
“Sure,” she responded.
Rachelle watched the door, waiting. James entered. He looked so different. He had a thin, muscular build that radiated with energy, as if he were preparing to run a marathon. That vacant expression on his face was gone. He smiled, showing dimpled cheeks. And his brown eyes were alive with interest.
Something had changed.
He took the seat in front of her. “And I thought I was early.”
She grinned. Silverware clinked on plates, mingling with the rumble of conversations. Servers passed, balancing a half-dozen plates on their trays.
“I like to pick my seat,” she said.
James looked around. “Really? You’re a table-sitter?”
“Don’t tell me you’re a booth-sitter.”
“Absolutely.” He leaned back in his chair. “I get to put my feet up.”
Rachelle raised an eyebrow. “On a first date?”
He grinned. “Maybe. But really. How does a girl like you end up choosing to sit at a table.”
“You know me. I live on the wild side.”
She grinned. “I like being able to watch people.”
“Really? You a psychoanalyst or something?”
“I see,” he nodded, grinning. “You’re not psychoanalyzing me, are you?”
“Maybe.” She winked.
“And what does your spidey sense tell you?”
“Hmmmm,” she said. “Let’s see. You’re a booth-sitter, so that means you find fulfillment in isolation. The padding of the booth represents the way in which you surround yourself with silence, which probably stems from a bad haircut when you were a child.”
He laughed. “Dead. On.”
She shrugged. “I’m good at what I do.”
He smiled. And it was a nice smile, really. The sort that seemed to light a room.
“So what have you been up to?” she asked.
His natural smile faded, replaced by another sort of smile—one that didn’t reach his eyes.
“I thought,” he cleared his throat, “I thought people knew.”
“Well…most people who get out of prison don’t look like you.”
His shoulders relaxed and he smiled. “Whew. I thought I’d have to start with that. I’m pretty sure that’s on the ‘not to bring up on your first date’ list.”
“Oops,” she said. “Guess I’m breaking all kinds of rules. But really. I’d expect someone who just got out of prison to look…different.”
He raised an eyebrow. “You mean not brazenly handsome?”
“Yeah. Something like that.”
“No,” she said. “Really. You look like you just got back from summer vacation, not prison.”
He nodded. “Tell you the truth—prison was the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
She bent forward. “Why’s that?”
“That’s where I met God.”
“So what happened?”
He shook his head, grinning. “You wouldn’t believe it.”
As he told his story, a calmness settled over her. The first-date jitters fled and she felt herself relaxing into her seat. It was almost like she was at home, watching a movie with her cat.
Comfortable. That was the word.
He sipped his drink and downed the last of his steak. “And that’s it.”
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” she said. She watched a couple who sat at a table, a toddler sitting in a wooden high chair.
“God knows all of us—everyone.”
“Me. You. Her,” she pointed, “Him. All of us.”
“And loves us. I didn’t know that, didn’t believe that until that day.”
“It means everything, doesn’t it.”
“So have you figured it out?” she asked.
“The social worker—she asked you what you’re going to do with your life. Have you figured it out yet?”
He grinned. “Lay tile.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I know.” He leaned back. “Serve God. Whatever he wants me to do in any way he wants it.”
“Thanks. How about you?”
She shrugged. “Same.”
“Hey, you can’t steal my answer.”
She laughed. “Fine.” She sipped her drink before gazing at the ceiling. “I’ve always wanted to adopt a child.”
“Because too many kids don’t know what it’s like to be loved. Nobody deserves that. But if I can be that person…if they can know that no matter what happens. No matter how bad things get. At least they know…that somebody loves them.”
He tilted his head and studied her. Those eyes seemed to penetrate her barriers and she felt like he could see right through the facade to where nobody was allowed. Like he could read the sub context of what she had said…
I want to adopt so nobody has to feel the way I did.
But nobody was allowed into that part of her past.
“Hey,” he said. “Don’t worry about it.”
“About what?” she said, feigning nonchalance.
“Everyone’s got a story. Everyone’s got a past, some happier than others.” He pointed to the sky. “But God—that’s the greatest story of all.”
She smiled. “It is.”
They remained in silence for several seconds. Yet it wasn’t awkward. Again, it was comfortable.
He looked at his watch. “I really hate to do this. I could, literally, stay here for hours with you.”
“But I’ve got an AA meeting.”
“I’m glad you found me,” she said. “Thanks for reconnecting.”
“My pleasure.” He stood.
She remained sitting, eyes fixed on the seat he got up from. Her breaths came out slow and long, almost like she were drifting off to sleep.
“Tomorrow?” she said.
“What was that?”
“You doing anything tomorrow?”
He smiled. “You’re breaking all sorts of conventions, aren’t you?”
“You pick the seat next time,” she said.
“Pick you up at six?”
She stood. He extended his hand.
“Don’t be silly,” she said. She embraced him, wrapping her arms around his neck, inhaling the scent of his cool cologne. Her heart thudded against her rib cage.
His lips touched her cheek bone and she smiled.
“See you tomorrow,” he said.
Six Months Later
Oh boy. James had confronted terrifying inmates, a consuming drug addiction, and suicidal thoughts.
He padded the pocket of his cargo shorts. The tiny box was still there. Just like it was last time. And the time before that. And the 800 times before that.
“You sure you’re okay?” Rachelle asked.
Not at all. “Just fine.“
“You seem tense.”
But she didn’t know the half of it. James Metcalf was a convicted felon. And now he was en route to meet the girl’s father. He would propose tonight.
Only Rachelle couldn’t know all that. For her, this was nothing more than an overnight hospice visit.
His stomach turned and his fingers shook as they had for the last six hours of eastern Oklahoma roads.
It was going to be a long trip.
He studied the road as it barreled past them. The car hummed and the scent of Rachelle’s lavender perfume hung faintly in the air.
“Turn here,” she said.
Grass grew almost as tall as the trees. Rusted cars and an old couch littered the lawn. Her dad’s trailer had weeds growing around it and branches over the top.
“Nice place,” James said.
She elbowed him in the ribs.
He pulled their suitcases from the trunk and walked toward the house.
“Let’s hope he’s not lucid today,” she said.
She smirked. “It’ll make things easier. Trust me.”
“So why come at all?” he asked.
She shrugged. “That’s what daughters do, I guess.”
James raised an eyebrow.
“Look,” she said. “He’s family. That’s enough.” She looked at the trailer. “Right?”
As they entered James nearly gagged. The place smelled like canned food that had been opened then left to expire. A haze of smoke filled the air, followed by a guttural cough.
“Dad?” she said. “Don?”
Another guttural cough.
“Come,” he said. His voice sounded like a deep, slow-revving chainsaw.
James wiped the sweat from his forehead and let out a loooooong breath. Oh boy. Again, he padded the box. This could be a really bad idea. Maybe he should just wait a little longer. Give the man time to get used to the idea of them together.
But, no. The man was terminal. He may not last long enough.
James stepped into Don’s room. Clothes covered the floor and a respirator hissed. He looked gaunt, like his flesh had wasted away into the grease-stained bed-sheets.
“Who’s that?” Don said.
“Dad.” She grabbed his hand–rough and calloused and gray-colored. “This is James–the man I was telling you about.”
“James,” she said. “My boyfriend.”
His face contorted like he’d sniffed a diaper. “You brought a felon into my house?”
James’s chest tightened. Silence followed, long and awkward. Okay, so this was a bad idea. The entire trip, he’d walked a fence of indecision, hoping a gust of wind would throw him on the holy-stink-I-can’t-do-this side of the fence.
That gust of wind had come. Again, he padded the ring, drying his sweat on the hem of his pocket.
“Hey,” James said, “maybe it’s best if–”
“Dad,” she said. “We talked about this.”
He said nothing. Then he began snoring.
She let out an exasperated sigh. “Sorry.”
“Why don’t we call it a night,” she said. “Hope he’s better tomorrow.”
James laid on the couch, listening to the sounds that surrounded him–a ticking clock, cicadas calling from the grass, her dad’s husky snores. Not for the first time, he looked at the clock, wishing for the minutes to pass.
Don cleared his throat and his snoring stopped. Soon after, a light flickered on, followed by the rumble of the television.
James should get up, do what he came to do, talk to the man, get it over with.
Yet he remained.
God, help me.
He closed his eyes, trying to sleep. Tick. Tick. Tick.
There’d be no time, otherwise. They’d have to leave early enough as it was. They couldn’t wait for him to become lucid.
But the way that man reacted to him…
Tick. Tick. Tick.
Fine! He stood and approached the man’s door. The light of the TV glowed on his sunken face. There was so little life in the man, as if he were in the waiting room of Death’s office.
James cleared his throat.
Don’s eyes flicked toward him. “You again, huh?”
“Did you bring the mail?”
James raised an eyebrow.
“The milk’ll go sour if you don’t bring the mail.”
James’s head dropped. Just as he summoned the gumption to chat, the man’s mind had left him.
When the sun rose, Don was awake, but his mind was gone. Rachelle changed his bed-sheets, tidied his room, and kissed him goodbye. “Call me if you need me.”
Don grunted and continued staring at the television.
Rachelle slung her bag over her shoulder. “Ready?”
“One more thing,” he said. James entered Don’s room holding a folded piece of paper. Okay, so it was kind of tacky. Can I marry your daughter? While he was at it, he might as well make check boxes with yes and no.
But what other options did he have?
He left his phone number, partly hoping the man wouldn’t find the note.
They merged onto the freeway and Rachelle fell asleep, leaving him alone with his thoughts.
Maybe they could go back next weekend, block out a couple of days. And maybe he could…do something for the guy and soften his heart a little. Clean his house or something. Do his dishes. Mow his lawn. Something like that. And maybe if he woke, he’d see what they’d done, and…
James sighed. It was no use. The man may never come to his senses. But at least he could try.
Rachelle’s phone rang. She stretched with a yawn. “Hello? Yes. Okay.” She let out a long breath. “Thank you.”
She closed her phone and stared at the road.
“Everything okay?” he asked.
She remained silent.
Her lips tightened. “He’s gone.”
James’s stomach sank. He reached his hand to hers. “When?”
“An hour ago. His nurse was there…when it…”
The rumble of the car filled the silence.
She shrugged. “Yeah. It’s not like we were close.”
James nodded. “You sure?”
He tapped the box in his pocket. His chance had past. Should he feel relieved? The man was clearly an obstacle.
And yet…it’s something he’d always wanted to do, always felt he should do.
But now he couldn’t. His body seemed to sink into the front seat, as if something heavy had fallen on him.
Before he realized what he was doing, he pulled over to the side of the road.
He got out of the car. A semi whizzed past, honking. The gust nearly knocked him over. He opened Rachelle’s door.
And she was weeping.
He reached for her hand. She exited and wrapped her arms around him, her chest heaving.
“Shhhhhh,” he said. “It’s okay…It’s okay. Shhhhhh.”
The ring in his pocket felt heavier. He reached down and…
No. There’d be another day. Instead, he held her until her sobs quieted and her tears dried.
Within a few months they were married.
And within three years, they were separated.
To be continued…
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