A Work in Progress, Ch. 23 & 24

Copyright Staci Stallings, 2005

Chapter 23

Rebecca hadn’t thought to ask what to wear until she was standing in her closet an hour before he would be there to get her. Jeans didn’t seem right. She reviewed her dresses but decided against them all. Too frumpy. Too frilly. Too blah. Too silly. Finally in desperation she pulled down her brown slacks and tan blouse. They weren’t fabulous, but they were less than horrible, and at the moment that was as good as she could do. Quickly she dressed and stepped out of the closet. Her hair was the next problem. She stepped to the mirror and caught sight of Holly sitting on the bed.

“You are going to be on the President’s list if you don’t be careful,” Rebecca said.

“And you’re going to be the party girl to call if you don’t.” There was a laugh beneath the statement, so she knew Holly was kidding. “Where’re you going tonight?”

She took out the clip at the back of her head. “Eric’s parents’ 25th anniversary party.”

That got Holly’s attention. “Ohh.”

“Don’t ‘Oh’ me. I’m just filling in for his real date.”

Concern dropped Holly’s face. “His real date?”

Rebecca looked at her in the mirror. “It was a joke. You know a joke. Ha. Ha.”

“Well, it wasn’t a very funny one.” Holly wrote something in her notebook. “He’s lucky to have you.”

Surprise jumped through her as she wound her hair up and then decided against that hairstyle and let it fall back down.

“He is,” Holly continued. “Eric deserves someone like you. You guys make a good couple.”

The topic was making it hard to breathe, so she changed the subject. “Have you thought any more about going with us to Bible Study on Wednesday?”

No answer came from the bed.

“I’m going to keep asking, you know?”

“I don’t doubt it. You’ve been asking every day for a week.”

“Well, the good news is finals start on Friday, so in two more weeks, and you won’t have to put up with me anymore.” Rebecca brushed out her hair. She took out two brown barrettes and put them in. Not fabulous, but not bad either.

“That’s true. Unless…”

Rebecca turned toward the bed.  “Unless?”

Holly shrugged. “Well, I don’t have a roommate for next year yet, and maybe you won’t be married by then.”

Flames jumped to Rebecca’s cheeks. “No, I won’t be married by then.”

“So, what do you say? You need a roommate?”

Joy and excitement met in her chest. “I say, ‘Cool! I have a roommate.’”

The phone rang, and Rebecca raced for it. His voice lifted her a few more feet off the ground. “I’ll be right there.” She hung up. “Well, wish me luck.”

“Luck. Not that you’ll need it.”

Life itself seemed more wonderful than it ever had. As she turned at the top of the stairs the memory of where they were going and why slammed into her, and she put her hand on her stomach to settle her nerves. “Oh, Holy Spirit, help!” She stepped down four stairs and saw him leaning against the wall waiting for her. She couldn’t explain the glint of joy she saw in his eyes the second he caught sight of her.

“Okay, now this is what I’m talking about,” he said, appraising her from head to toe.

She held her hands out to her sides sheepishly as she stepped off the last stair. “They aren’t going to call me from Rome.”

“Rome. Smome. You look gorgeous.” He put his hand around her waist and kissed the top of her head. “And no hair spray either. That’s a nice addition.”

Her happiness bubbled over into her laugh. “Addition? Doesn’t that infer that I added something? If I’m not wearing hair spray, how did I add something?”

He scowled at her although she knew he really wasn’t mad. “Are you going to be like this the whole night?”

“Would you want me any other way?”

His smile answered for him. “Not on your life.”

***

The party was already in progress by the time they made it to his parents’ house. Relatives, his parents’ friends, some of their friends—his whole life seemed to be in that house. Although Eric should’ve been so nervous his heart would thump out of his chest, the second he took her hand in his, he knew it would be all right. “You ready?”

“Do I have a choice?” Her nerves were on full display.

“You’ll do great.”

“Then we’d better get in there before I have a chance to run.”

He took a breath, looked at the house. “One, two, three. Ready or not, here we go.” He led her up the short porch step, opened the front door, and ducked inside.

“Hey! Look who made it,” Ryan called out, and Eric smiled the happiest smile of his life.

“And I brought a friend.” He pulled her to his side just as Desi walked in from the kitchen at the other side of the room.

“Rebecca!” she practically yelled. “Oh, reinforcements. Good.” With that, Desi grabbed her hand. “Do you know how to cut cake? I’m up to my elbows in here.” The two of them disappeared into the kitchen.

Ryan stepped up to him and offered his hand. “Nice to see you, bro.”

“It’s been so long,” Eric said with a laugh. He shook Ryan’s hand, and there was a new level of bond there he hadn’t expected.

“How’s Rebecca?”

“Good.”

“I’m glad.” Ryan put his hands on his hips and stepped back but then didn’t move. “Desi talked to Gwen this morning. She moved out.”

That took Eric by surprise. “Ah, man. I hate to hear that.”

“Yeah, well. You lie in the bed you made I guess.”

“So is Gwen all right?” Funny how that question didn’t feel the way he’d thought it would if this moment ever showed up. There was no hope anywhere in it, no prospect of them ever getting together. He didn’t even wish for that anymore. His mind flashed to Diana. He hadn’t seen her in weeks. He wondered for the length of a breath how she was doing. Seeing no way to help either of them, he did what he’d been practicing since Wednesday. God, be with them.

“She was pretty upset. Not that I blame her. We all were. But she really let Jeremy have it at the bar last night.”

As weird as it sounded, he felt bad for Jeremy too. He just couldn’t understand what made Jeremy turn on Rebecca so harshly. “We’d better go see if the girls need some help.”

Ryan’s eyes widened. “Help? Us?”

“Yes, us. It’s our parents.” His gaze swept the room. There were only six people there besides Ryan and Eric. “Where are they anyway?”

“Most everybody’s outside in the back.”

***

The four sheet cakes were lined up on the back cabinet. Only one had been cut. Two women stood at the island diligently designing food trays with ham and other meat, cheese and vegetables.

“I brought reinforcements,” Desi announced to what seemed to Rebecca the whole house.

“Oh, good,” the woman with the upswept auburn hair said. “We need all the help we can get.”

“We’re out of pickles,” a man in his mid-forties said, ducking into the kitchen from the patio door and corralling his tie as he did so.

“Again?” the thin woman with the light brown hair, which hung in soft curls all over her head said with a sigh. “I’m going to run out at this rate.”

“Don’t worry about it, Teres. If they don’t have pickles, they can eat ham.” The lady with the upsweep picked up the tray of food she’d been working on. “I’m headed out.”

Teres sighed again. “Good luck.”

“Here.” Desi handed Rebecca a pie server. “I’ll cut. You serve.”

The man came back in the door just as Teres stood with the pickle jar from the refrigerator. “We need more lemonade.” He spun out the door, then opened it again. “And ice.”

“Here. You get the lemonade,” Desi instructed Rebecca. “It’s in the freezer. I’ll get this.”

Rebecca abandoned one post and ran for the other.

“Ugh!” Teres groaned as she stood at the island, wrenching the pickle jar for all she was worth. “I can’t get this open.”

The red-headed lady came back. “We’re out of ice.” She headed for the freezer.

“I heard,” Teres said, twisting the jar lid that seemed glued on.

Rebecca heard the thump of the swinging door between the living room and the kitchen just as she retrieved two cans of frozen lemonade from the freezer.

“Here, Mom,” Eric said immediately when he saw Teres struggling with the jar. “Let me get that.”

“Where do I put these?” Rebecca asked, her face going flame hot the moment Eric’s presence slipped into the same room.

Teres relinquished the pickles to Eric and retrieved a pitcher from the sink. She rinsed it out and set it on the cabinet near Desi. “Use this.”

“Got it.” Rebecca went to work on the lemonade.

“What’s up with this stuff?” Ryan asked, surveying the bags of cut vegetables strewn about the counter. The patio door slammed behind the red-headed lady and the ice.

“Those go outside,” Teres instructed. “Fill whatever needs filling,”

Ryan picked up six bags. “I’m on it.”

“I need more plates,” Desi said.

“They’re in the cabinet right there,” Teres said, pointing to the cabinet next to where Rebecca was filling the pitcher. Rebecca opened it and transferred the plates to Desi. Without bothering to ask, she opened one of the drawers, then a second before she found a spoon to stir the lemonade. She slipped the faucet to the other pitcher and stirred the first quickly.

The man poked his head in the door. “Napkins.”

“’Scuse me, Adam.” The red-headed lady entered again, brushing past him. “We’re completely out of lemonade.”

“More lemonade. Ready to go.” Rebecca put the final stir on the second pitcher and went to lift them out of the sink; however, they seemed to weigh half as much as she did. “Oh, help!”

In an instant Eric was beside her. “You get that one. I’ve got this one.”

She picked up her pitcher and followed him from the frenzy of the kitchen out to the backyard where half the city seemed to be milling about. Everyone had plates. Everyone was eating. Adam stood at the food spread with Ryan at his side. They seemed to be surveying everything.

“Hey, shouldn’t you and Mom be enjoying the party?” Eric asked as they got to the food table with the lemonade.

“Piranhas,” Adam said. “They’re all piranhas.” He helped Eric dump the first pitcher into the serving bowl. “Did you bring the napkins?”

Rebecca handed Eric the second pitcher. “I’ll get them.” She took the first pitcher from him and went back into the house.  “Napkins?”

“Cabinet to the left of the stove,” Teres said.

It was only a short hunt. “Found them.” She dug two handfuls out of the bag. “I shall return.”

“Hey, tell Ryan to get in here and help me with this cake,” Desi said.

“Will do.” Rebecca walked back out to the food table. “Ryan, you’re being paged in the kitchen.”

“Paged?” he asked in confusion as he stood by Eric. Adam was talking with someone on the other side of the table.

“Desi,” Rebecca clarified.

“Oh, of course.” He left for the kitchen. He grimaced at Eric. “Duty calls.”

Rebecca laid out the napkins as nicely as she knew how. Then she stepped back and realized as she did that Eric had stepped up behind her.

“They shouldn’t be having to do the work,” Eric said in annoyance. His hands were planted on his hips.

His chest was only inches from her shoulder. She looked back at him in concern. “Who?”

“My parents. This party is for them. They should be enjoying themselves—not stressing out over pickles and napkins.”

“Well, it’s kind of winding down. Why don’t you tell them to go have a good time, and we’ll take care of it?”

For one second surprise and uncertainty went through his eyes. Then he smiled. “That’s a good idea, sunshine.”

She laughed. “Sunshine? What’s that? My new nickname?”

He took her hand as they headed for the house. “It fits you. Doesn’t it?” They walked into the kitchen where he let her hand go. “Okay. Mom, you are now officially off-duty.” He took hold of Teres’s shoulders, but she tried to shake him off.

“Eric, stop playing around.”

“I’m not playing around. This party is for you and Dad. We can handle this. Besides Aunt Linda can help us with anything big.” He turned her for the door. “Now, go. Find Dad, and have a good time.”

“But the…”

He pushed her to the door. “I’m serious. No more worrying. We’ve got this covered. Go.” He had to push her all the way through the door and shut it behind her. When she was gone, he turned to the others. “Okay, troops. The rest of this is up to us. What needs done?”

“Cake. Hello!” Desi called from the corner as she lifted the knife over her head.

“Cake. Got it.” Eric sprang into action. “Becca, you get a tray out of the cabinet over there. That’ll be easier than trying to carry them all out two at a time.”

She found the trays. For good measure, she brought two. Side-by-side they began filling the trays with the plates of cake Desi and Ryan were preparing. When the first tray was full, Eric picked it up. “I’ll be back.”

With a teasing grin, Rebecca smiled at him. “Don’t forget about us.”

He winked at her, and his smile melted her knees. “Not possible.” He turned and went through the door. “The cake has arrived!”

***

The best man from their wedding made a toast. Then Linda, the maid of honor, said a few words. Basking in the moment, Eric’s parents couldn’t have looked happier. Rebecca watched them from her place on the little two-seat swing bench in the backyard, and her heart said finally she’d found home.

“And,” Ryan said when all the talking was over, “we have something for the happy couple.” He reached behind the outside bench across the patio and pulled out the silver wrapped gift cascading with purple ribbon. Desi had done a marvelous job wrapping.

Teres looked near tears as Ryan walked toward them. “Oh, you kids. You didn’t have to do this.”

“Don’t discourage them, dear,” Adam said, leaning over to her. “They got us a present.”

She didn’t look convinced even as Ryan handed them the box. “From all us kids.”

When Ryan turned, Rebecca caught the soft, proud smile he sent Eric’s way. She glanced at Eric who sat next to her, and happiness for him overwhelmed her. She could sense that he’d finally taken his place in the family. His gaze caught hers, and he reached down and took her hand. Across the way Teres and Adam ripped the paper off the package.

“Oh, you kids,” Teres said again even before they had opened the box. She swiped at the tears on her cheeks.

“Hey, hey, no crying,” Eric called. “This is a happy occasion.”

Adam pulled the silver platter out, and both parents’ emotions seemed to plummet into astonishment.

“Now who’s idea was this?” Teres asked. “Oh, it’s beautiful.”

“We all picked it out,” Desi said, “but it was Rebecca’s idea.” When Desi smiled at Rebecca, all the gazes in the yard swept over to her. It was like being under a microscope.

Defensively, she searched for a way to deflect their attention. “Eric chose the saying.”

Teres looked closer. “With love all things are possible. Oh.” Her gaze at Eric held all the pride Rebecca felt just being in his presence.

“We wanted it to be special,” Eric said.

“It is.” Teres’s gaze drifted across the small crowd still gathered. “It’s all been so, so wonderful. Thank you all.”

***

As the guests departed later, Eric stood with Ryan surveying the food table. “Well, I say we get the stuff that has to be in the frig in tonight and then come back tomorrow and clean up the rest.”

Ryan’s face fell into skepticism. “Tomorrow?”

“Yeah. They don’t need to be worrying about this. Becca and I are going to church at nine. We can be here by 10:30.”

“You’re going to come clean?” Ryan narrowed his eyes. “Okay, who are you, and what have you done with my brother?”

Eric laughed. “I am your brother.” He shrugged as he leaned over and stacked the Swiss cheese. “I’ve just grown up some, that’s all.”

For a long minute Ryan watched him. “Well, it looks good on you.”

“Thanks.”

Rebecca stepped out of the kitchen and held up a box. “Freezer bags.” She walked over to the food and started the enormous task of sorting and stuffing. “Your mom said we’re all supposed to take some food. They’ve got way-plenty.”

He stopped the stacking. “That reminds me.” Eric stepped over to her and took her hand. “Come here. There’s someone I want you to meet.”

She eyed him with concern but followed him anyway. Hand-in-hand they stepped back into the brightly lit kitchen where his parents stood at the sink.

“Mom, Dad, there’s someone I want you to meet.”

***

The night, being with him, his kiss at the door, the thought of seeing him again in the morning—Rebecca wasn’t at all sure what part made her the happiest. All of it, but mostly him.  She climbed the stairs with gratefulness singing through her. “Being grateful for being grateful,” she said to the stairwell wall as she turned for her floor. It felt better than she ever thought possible.

The happiness hadn’t left by the next morning when she met him at the curb. They had a full day planned, and she couldn’t wait to get started.

“Good morning, Sunshine,” he said, meeting her on the sidewalk. “For somebody who partied all night, you look good.”

“For somebody who’s got finals coming up, you do too.”

He took her hand and led her to the car. “Ugh. Don’t remind me. They opened the Psych test on Friday. I should’ve taken it then.” He helped her into the car.

“Procrastinating again, huh?”

As he got in on his side he laughed. “I think it’s called living.”

Her happiness spilled over into her smile. “There’s a good word for it.”

***

In the church Eric followed her into the bench. He knelt, not because he knew he should, just because he wanted to. It felt right. “Dear Lord, thank You for Rebecca.” He felt her kneel next to him, and that feeling slid through him. “She is the greatest gift You could ever have given me.”

When they sat back, he reached over and took her hand. It felt so right, so perfect. The service started, but he didn’t let her go. Every minute with her beside him was too precious to miss. They sang. They sat. They listened. They sang again, and then it was time for the sermon.

Gratefulness for this young preacher seeped through Eric. It was funny how there were so many things to be grateful for. They were everywhere he looked.

“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get to Heaven,” the preacher said. “If we take Jesus’ message at face value, we have to conclude that the easiest way to get into Heaven is to give everything we have away and go live like a monk. I’m sure you’ve thought that when you’ve heard this text. I sure have. But if we think this message is only about money, we miss the point entirely.”

Eric squirmed in his seat. The richest person he knew was no longer a friend. He wasn’t even sure if he could be called a human being. On her fingers, his tightened.

“The message isn’t about money. It’s about us. It’s about who we are and what we grasp in order to make ourselves mean something in this world.” The preacher let that sink in. “In fact, there is another interpretation of the line, ‘What is impossible for human beings is possible with God.’ It goes like this: ‘If you try to do it on your own, you have no chance at entering God’s kingdom, but…’ and this is the important part, ‘There is every chance in the world of entering if you just trust God to do it.’

“See, there’s a fallacy in the idea that if you give all your money away, you can get into heaven. The fallacy is that you believe something you do can ever earn you a place in God’s Kingdom. We try, we all do, to live by the rules, to do everything right, to earn our way into Heaven. But it doesn’t work that way. We can’t roll the stone back. Only God can. It isn’t about anything we can do. It’s about what He can do in our lives.

“Even in this Scripture, we see the word ‘wealth,’ and we hone in on it. ‘Oh, okay. If I just do this, then He’ll give me that.’ No. God doesn’t want a pay-off. He wants you. Period. Not to serve Him, but to love Him, and more importantly to let Him love you. And then He wants to love the world through you. Each and every one of us has something He’s given us—a talent, a place in life, a perspective—that He can use to help all those around us if we will surrender what He’s given to His plans. Maybe it looks like a blessing. Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it was something joyous that’s happened. Maybe it’s something horrendous.  It doesn’t matter. He can use everything He’s given us. Everything. If we have the courage to let Him… If we have the courage to turn it over to Him… He can move the stones, our stones, their stones, if we let Him work the plans He has for us.

“With love all things are possible, and God is love. Let Him do it, and stop trying to do it on your own.”

The preacher stepped away from the pulpit, stood for a moment, and then raised his hands. Eric’s mind traced back through the words. Maybe it was something horrendous. He glanced at Rebecca, and his thoughts went to Jeremy. But how could God ever make that situation any better? As Eric looked at it, however, he had to admit that he didn’t have any idea how to fix it. He wasn’t even sure it could be fixed. Stop trying to do it on your own.

He took a breath and settled that thought in his mind. He felt her hand brush his, and the understanding of how little he had to do with her standing next to him even at this moment drifted over him. With a glance, he thanked God again for her. Then he put his head down. “God, I know Jeremy isn’t a bad guy. He’s just so lost. Please help him. He needs you more than he knows.”

“Amen,” Rebecca said at his side, and his gaze snapped to her face. She turned to him and smiled. Only then did he realize she was following the service and not his prayers. He smiled at her and shook his head.

“Okay, God. I get it. I know we’re a team. You put us together for a reason. Show me how to do this right.”

***

When the service was over, they went back out to his car. Rebecca had noticed how quiet he was, and it was worrying her. “Okay. What’s going through that head of yours?”

He looked at her, and the uncertainty in his gaze pulled her up short. His gaze slid back out to the parking lot beyond. “I know this is going to sound weird, and I’m not even sure I know how to put it into words.” He stopped and took a breath but didn’t continue.

“Hey,” she said softly, “it’s me, Rebecca, remember? Whatever it is, just say it.”

This breath was harder and filled with more pain. “It’s Jeremy.”

The name knocked into her. “What about him?”

“I know what you think of him, and I don’t blame you really. But I can’t shake the feeling that he’s hurting too.” Eric’s eyes held pity and sadness. He shook his head and let his gaze drop to the steering wheel. “Ryan said Gwen walked out. But besides that, people who are at peace with the world don’t trash other people for no reason.” He lifted his gaze to the church. “It just makes me think there’s more to why he did it than just that he did it. I know. It makes no sense, but I really want to pray for him. I don’t want him to be in pain. I know what that feels like.”

The very thought of praying for him made her ill. Then another face drifted through her mind. It was framed by perfect blond hair but was crumbled beneath a wall of heart-crushing hurt. There had been more to Holly’s story. Maybe there was more to Jeremy’s too. “Okay. So we pray then.”

Surprise shifted his gaze to hers. “Really?”

“Really.” The determination solidified in her. “Right now.”

“O-okay.” He turned to her, clearly expecting that she knew how to do this.

She didn’t, so before she started, she called out silently to the Holy Spirit for the words. Bending her head and closing her eyes, she put her hands in Eric’s. “Dear Lord, our friend Jeremy needs you. He’s in pain. We know that. We see that. He’s made some bad choices, and he’s hurt a lot of people. But we know that’s because he’s hurting himself. Please, Lord, help him be willing to see the hurt he’s caused and to be willing to find a new path. Help those of us who want to be his friend to be patient with him even when that’s not what we want to do. Help us to help him. Help him through us. This we ask in Your name.”

Eric squeezed her hands. “Amen.” When he opened his eyes and looked at her, peace had returned. “Thank you.” He leaned over and kissed her forehead. “You are one special person, you know that?”

“You’re just figuring that out?”

He laughed. “No, I’ve known for awhile. I’ve just been keeping it a secret.” With that, they left for his parents’ house to clean.

Chapter 24

It had been a fun afternoon. With Desi and Ryan around there were few dull moments and many laughs. As the clock wound to four, the cleanup was complete, and Teres insisted they stay for an early dinner, which they did. Unfortunately Desi and Ryan had other plans, so it ended up just the four of them. Nonetheless, over cold cuts and vegetables, every barrier Rebecca had installed around her heart during the previous 19 years now lay crumbled at her feet.  She couldn’t explain it really. It had something to do with love and something to do with acceptance. Most of all, it had to do with being herself and with that being all right.

“So, Eric,” Teres said as they sat around the family table, the meal finished but no one yet having the energy to move, “Ryan told us you’ve been going to church with Rebecca.”

He shifted but only slightly. His glance slid to her as her gaze fell to the table. “Yeah. It started out as a project for this class we’re in, but I’ve really started to like it. It’s helped me see a lot of things more clearly.”

Adam leveled his gaze on his son. “Oh? Like what?”

Once again Eric glanced at her. This time she met his gaze and willed strength into him. “Well, like I declared a major for one.”

“A major?  You’re kidding?” Teres sat back in her chair. “Hallelujah.”

“Sign language,” Eric continued as his finger made a circle on the table. “I want to translate for mainstreamed kids.”

Teres leaned forward. “What does that entail?”

He laughed. “I’m not real sure yet. I may have to actually get a teaching degree to do it, but the more I look at my options, the more I’m sure that’s what I want to do.” He seemed to be talking to the table more than to them. “I love kids, and I love sign language. I think that’s something I could really do and would love doing.” He looked up and met their gazes. “It’s somewhere I can use what He gave me to help others.”

His parents exchanged glances. However, before they had the chance to reply, there was a knock on the patio door. Rebecca’s gaze jumped from Eric to the panes of glass across the room. It flew through her mind how strange it was that someone would show up at the back door rather than the front. But before she could contemplate that thought, horror and fear struck the center of her heart when she saw the face on the other side.

“What’s he doing here?” Adam asked without really wanting an answer to the question. He stood and went to the door, which he opened.

Jeremy’s gaze was on the gray flagstone at his feet, and he hardly looked up even when the door was open.

Adam’s whole posture registered his concern. “Jeremy? Is everything okay?”

“I’m sorry to interrupt.” His gaze slipped up but fell the next instant. “Um, I called Ryan. He said Eric was over here.”

Next to Rebecca’s chair, Eric stood. Even from her spot two feet away, his face gave away no indication of his thoughts when she looked at him.

Jeremy seemed to stop breathing at the movement of his friend, not to mention the look on his face. “Oh, hi, Eric.” It was as if they were three separate sentences. “Umm… Can we talk… out here?”

Eric glanced down at Rebecca. She let her fingers intertwine with his, and the acceptance in her heart bled through her countenance. Finally she nodded her belief that he could do even this. He looked back over at his friend. “Sure.”

***

Somehow when they had prayed for Jeremy, Eric had thought he wouldn’t feel the burning desire to rip him to shreds if he ever saw him again. The more steps he took, however, the more he realized how wrong he had been in that assumption. He followed Jeremy out and closed the door softly behind him. If there was a fight, he wanted at all costs to shelter Rebecca from it.  He took two steps from the door and stopped.

“I guess you heard… about Gwen,” Jeremy said. He was talking more to the stones at their feet than to Eric. “She’s really mad.”

To keep his hands from doing something he would regret, Eric wound them into his armpits. Hardness balled in his chest. “Do you blame her?”

Jeremy looked up, and pain slashed through his face. “I guess you’re mad too.”

“What was your first clue?”

A short, sorry laugh jumped from Jeremy, and he smiled sheepishly. “Look, I’m sorry, man. I’d been drinking, and I didn’t know what I was saying…”

“No.” The syllable cut through the excuse. Eric raised his index finger at Jeremy and lowered it slowly, trying not to yell. “If it had just been that one time, that would be bad enough. But you have done this to her over and over again. And there’s no excuse for that.”

Wild-eyed fear and panic went through Jeremy’s eyes. “You’re choosing her over me? Come on, Eric. We’ve been friends for years.”

“I’m not choosing anybody over anybody. You made that choice. You did. As far as I knew she was your friend too.”

Hate and anger bled down Jeremy’s countenance. “She was never my friend. She’s Rebecca. I mean she’s weird. She dresses weird. She does all this weird, out there stuff.”

“Like what?”

“Like going to church and Bible study and doing papers about God and religion and stuff. Face it, Eric. That’s weird.”

For one, single second Eric considered arguing, but then he realized how futile that would be. Instead he walked over and pulled his foot up on the bench. “I feel sorry for you, you know it?” He wrapped his arms around themselves and took a real look at Jeremy. True pity overtook the anger.

“Me? You feel sorry for me? Why? I’ve got more than you and your family will ever have.”

Understanding flowed through Eric. “If only you could see how wrong you are.” He glanced back into the kitchen, and gratefulness at the fork in the road she represented filled his soul. “Do you know she prayed for you today?”

Horror slashed through Jeremy’s features. “For me? Why?”

“Because you’re hurting and you don’t even see that you are.”

Recoiling, Jeremy shrank back. “I’m not hurting.”

“Oh, yeah? Then why is it so important to you to hurt someone else? Huh? Strength isn’t about money and possessions, Jeremy. Strength is about having the guts to help someone else, someone who needs a hand—not a slap in the face.” He shook his head. “You think you have everything in the world. Well, let me tell you something. What you’re holding is smoke. You just don’t know it yet. You think it’s all about what happens here in this life. It’s not. She knows that. You don’t.”

“You’re talking in circles. She’ll never have as much as I do.”

“Maybe not in the world’s terms, but she’s got what’s important.”

The clear challenge in Jeremy’s eyes was evident. “Oh, yeah? What’s that?”

“Peace and hope. Love for other people, even those who don’t have as much as she does—like you.”

“This is ridiculous. I came here to talk some sense into you, and you’re acting just like her now.”

“Oh, wow. You mean I’m at peace now?” He laughed softly. “No, not yet, but I’m getting there.” He stood for one more moment, gazing at his friend. “It’s about the Christian thing, isn’t it?”

Jeremy’s gaze darted away. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I mean, you didn’t hate her before.” He tried to get the entire timeline to line up in his brain, but his heart knew it well enough to know. “What are you so afraid of?”

Glowering, Jeremy shook his head. “I’m not afraid of anything.”

“Yes, you are.” His brain spun the words for him. “You’re afraid everybody’s going to find out you’re not who you say you are.” Something in him screeched that he should stop right there, but his soul was already voicing the words. “That they’re going to find out you’re not the cool guy who can handle everything, that there are things you’re terrified to face.”

“You’ve got some nerve.”

“It’s true. I always thought you were so together. The hundred dollar haircuts. The designer clothes. The right parties, the right friends, the right girlfriend. If the outside looked that good, how could the inside not be? But that isn’t the truth, is it?” A pause followed only because the next words weren’t there yet. Eric looked at his friend not in pity or in anger but just acceptance. “What’s the truth, Jeremy?”

Every piece of Jeremy wanted to face what Eric said down. It was written all over him. However, every glance gave him away. Strange how Eric had always thought Jeremy was the together one, the one who had it all. Now he could see how wrong he had been.

“I’m not perfect, okay?” Jeremy said like it was strangling him to get the words out. “I’m not. I’m supposed to go to work for my dad’s business when I get out of here. It’s a slam-dunk. Perfect life. Perfect job. Perfect everything. Except I can’t stand the thought of going to that office every day, of giving my life to a company that takes every piece of me and twists it to fit its whims.” He was no longer talking to Eric, more to the air between them. “I don’t want to be on a plane to Sacramento when my kid is playing Little League. I don’t want to call my wife for our anniversary because she’s shopping in Paris and I’m in London. I don’t want to live my whole life trying to get ahead when the truth is, ahead keeps moving further and further away every time I look up.” He was gasping for breath, struggling to hold the pain inside its hole.

“If that’s what you don’t want, then what do you want?”

Jeremy’s entire being deflated. He stepped over to the bench, sat down and put his head in his hands.  “I don’t know. Does it matter?”

Eric sat down next to him. “It does to me.” He sat, waiting for several seconds.

“I want this.” Leaning back, Jeremy lifted his hands to indicate the Barnett’s backyard.

“You want my parents’ house?” Eric asked in shock.

“No, not their house. Well, not exactly. I want…”  Words seemed to fail him. “I want to have a home like this, with my wife and kids. I want my kids’ friends to be able to come over at all hours just because they want to—like we used to. And I want them to feel welcome and safe. I want a worn out couch in my basement that nobody really cares if another stain gets on it. I want a kitchen table that’s got scratches all over it because it’s been eaten at so many times. I want a backyard with a basketball goal that’s actually had somebody play with it.” He wiped the side of his eye. “I’ve got toys I’ve never played with because they’re collector’s items and Mom thinks they’ll be worth some money some day. I’ve got a room full of junk at home that they’ve given me, but I’d trade it all to have for one day what you have here.”

For all the times Eric had been in Jeremy’s dorm room playing with the latest video games, listening to the latest CDs, watching the newest DVDs, he had never once thought he was the lucky one. Until this moment. “Does Gwen know about this?”

“How can I tell her? She’s dreaming of vacations in Maui and a yacht off the coast.”

“So were you until five minutes ago.”

The statement pulled Jeremy’s eyes closed. “Do you think Rebecca can ever forgive me?”

Eric considered the question, and peace drifted through him. “Why don’t we ask her?” Somehow he felt the panic in Jeremy’s soul even as he stood and went to the door.

“Eric…”

But not paying attention, he stepped in and found Rebecca standing with his mother at the sink doing dishes. “Hey, Sunshine. Somebody out here wants to talk to you.”

The soft look his mother gave Rebecca told him that their conversation hadn’t only been about dishes. Slowly Rebecca put the towel down and stepped to the door as if she was taking her last walk down the hall to the electric chair. Wanting only to calm the fear in her eyes, Eric wound his fingers over hers and smiled slightly. She lifted her chin, took a breath, and stepped through the door.

***

The breath she took pulled the Spirit’s peace into her soul. She heard the door close behind her, and she looked back at it wishing Eric would’ve come with her. Her arms slid over themselves at her chest. She stepped over to the bench. “You wanted to talk to me?”

Head down, shoulders slumped, Jeremy looked as beaten down as she had ever felt in her life. Oh, Dear Lord, not again. She’d seen this look. She’d had this feeling. As high-minded as forgiveness sounded, she really wanted to stay mad at him. But he never so much as looked up, just sat staring at his hands or the pavement, she couldn’t really tell which. All she knew was he certainly wasn’t looking at her.

“I was out of line the other night,” he finally said. “Way out of line.”

She tightened her arms at her chest to keep her defenses close to her.

“All that stuff I said, it wasn’t true. It was just about finding some way to hurt you, and I’m sorry.”

For all the words in her head, the only one she could get a voice to was, “Why?”

He sprang from the bench, walked to the edge of the flagstones, and raked his fingers through his hair. “Look, I’m not proud of myself, okay? That stuff I said was stupid and selfish. I was drunk. I was hacked off with life, and I took it out on you.”

She didn’t want to ask. She really, really didn’t, but she couldn’t let the feeling go. “What was so bad?”

The breath he let out was ragged and pain-filled. “My mom’s leaving my dad.”

Rebecca’s eyes fell closed.

“She filed for divorce on Thursday.”

“Oh, Jeremy. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.” He shook his head in quick succession. “It’s been coming for a long time now. They weren’t happy.”

Her thoughts went to her own parents and the hollow life they were pursuing. This particular bend in the road had never occurred to her, but she could see it clearly even as she stood there. “We get a lot of stuff from our parents. Some of it’s good. You hold onto that. Some of it’s not so great.” She thought about Holly probably still sitting on her bed back in the dorm. “But we can always make a new choice for ourselves. Their life doesn’t have to be ours.”

He turned on her, and the crushed look in his dark eyes slapped her anger away. “Why are you being so nice to me? I was horrible to you.”

She breathed in the thanks. “I guess I’m learning that what’s on the outside isn’t always the whole story.” Gentleness for his pain washed through her. “I really am sorry about your parents, Jeremy.” It wasn’t a well-thought-out plan, simply what the Spirit pushed her to do. She stepped over to him and put her arms around his shoulders. “It’s going to be okay.”

Like he was grabbing for the last life preserver in the deep end, his arms came around her shoulders. The quaking of his body shook hers. “It hurts so bad.”

“I know. Believe me, I know.”

***

Eric had just finished straightening the living room, but when he stepped through the door to the kitchen, he stopped at the sight on the patio. The air jammed into the top of his throat. He watched as Jeremy let her go. Rebecca backed up, but her whole attention seemed honed on Jeremy. After one more agonizing minute, Rebecca hugged him again. It was like watching life itself parade before his eyes. When they broke apart, Jeremy nodded, said something, and then stepped away from her. A clap of thunder sounded somewhere far above them as on the patio Rebecca stood, her arms wrapped around herself. She watched Jeremy leave, never moving from that spot.

Her gaze fell to the ground, and she seemed to be pulling her emotions back in. Trepidation trounced through Eric as he walked to the door, opened it, and stepped out. “Everything okay?” He stepped out and shut the door quietly behind him although the voices in him were screaming at him to slam everything in sight. The misery in the gaze she swung to him jerked every other thought to a halt. “What’s wrong?”

“Remind me not to ever judge somebody again.” She stepped over into his arms, and her tears fell freely. He felt them, smelled them as they mixed with the heavy scent of rain hanging in the air.

“Shh.” He stroked her hair, not questioning, just grateful for the opportunity to absorb her pain into his soul. They stood, him holding her, until her tears subsided, and she stepped back. Every piece of attention he possessed was riveted on her. “Mind telling me what that was all about?”

“Life.” Wiping her eyes, she turned and walked to the bench where she sat down. “It’s so weird. I always thought I was the only one who had problems, that everybody else’s life was so perfect, and I was the one who was messed up.”

Eric sat down next to her, sensing she was saying her thoughts as they came rather than censoring them to make sure they made sense. He let them come, thankful for the understanding of how safe she must feel with him to do that.

“I thought I had it so rough, that my parents didn’t notice me, that Liz Ann had everything and I got nothing. But the more I stop focusing on myself, the more I realize how much other people are really hurting in this world. I see that what’s on the outside isn’t necessarily what’s really there.” Her body seemed to sway with the weight of the thoughts, and she leaned over into his arms. “When I was around Jeremy, I felt like the outsider who would never fit in. Even before he said it, I felt it. He just said what I was already thinking.” She took a breath. “And I wanted to be Holly so bad because I thought she was the only kind of girl who you’d ever notice.”

The words tripped through him and snagged on his heart. “I didn’t want you to be Holly. I wanted Holly to be you.”

Questioningly she turned to him. It took him a minute to put what he was feeling into words. “When Holly and I were together, it was like having a root canal with no Novocain.”

Further questions rained through her gaze.

“Everything was so hard. We didn’t have anything in common. She was like hanging out with a block of wood. The harder I tried, the worse it got. I kept thinking, ‘What am I doing wrong here? This is a mess.’ But you… man, every time I’m with you, it’s like being alive again. It’s like plugging in to a light socket I didn’t even know was there.”

“Are you saying I’m electrifying?”

He laughed and then shook his head in awe. “That’s what I mean. You’ve got this thing about just having fun. You don’t care about every little hair being in place or who sees you where or with whom. You just live. You just enjoy life. That’s really cool.”

The silence between them hovered for a moment. Softly the first few drops of rain spotted the flagstone at their feet. Rebecca leaned back on the bench, pushing them both onto the back of it. More raindrops scattered around them, harder and faster. Her gaze traced up to the sky, and she opened herself to the drops trustingly. “It’s raining.”

It never ceased to amaze him how she made the joy run right through him. “Yeah, I kind of noticed that.” He gazed at her for a moment, and then joined her full wonder at the opening of the heavens. The rain was coming in earnest now, and although he knew it was absurd, he was really enjoying the feel of it. It was as if it had come to wash all the junk away.

After a moment, he felt her breath. It was a sigh that almost wasn’t, and one part of his attention dropped back to her.

She never looked at him, just let her gaze travel across the yard to the neighbor’s fence. “Where is this going, Eric?”

At that, his gaze fell from the sky to her face. She glanced at him, but her gaze darted off into the growing night again.

“Where’s what going?” he asked, not aware they were going anywhere at all.

“This. Us. Where’re we going?”

He had no idea what she was talking about. “Umm, home… if you want?”

“No.” She stood from the bench and walked out to the edge of the flagstone. The rain, now coming in sheets enveloped her in its grayness. Nonetheless, when she stopped and turned, it was clear she was fighting not to let the words find her heart. “I’m going back to Rhode Island next Tuesday after my last final.”

Droplets of rain dripped off the edges of his hair as he stood and stepped toward her.

She couldn’t hold his gaze as her arms twisted at her chest. “I know. It’s stupid, but this last week has been so great. I don’t ever want it to end.”

When he got within arm’s length, he reached out to her. “Does it have to?”

“I don’t know,” she said, the words strangling their way out as her fear-filled gaze found his. “Does it?”

As he stood looking at her, calm poured through him. There was only one answer to that question. “I don’t want it to.”

A spark of hope lit her eyes. “You don’t?”

How she could even ask was beyond him. “No. What would I do without my sunshine?”

She tried to smile, but the effort made a tear slide with the rain down her cheek. Tenderly he brushed it away with his thumb.

“But how do we make this work? You here. Me there. It’s a whole summer.”

He smiled at that puny excuse. “You have a phone, don’t you?”

She bit back the smile. “I guess I could get one.”

He laughed out right. “Then I’ll call you. Every single day. Except on Saturday and Sunday when I have free minutes. Then I’ll call twice.”

Her laugh jangled through him, and he pulled her into his chest.

“Oh, Becca. Do you really think I looked this long and this hard to find you and now I’m going to let you go because of a few miles?”

She brushed the tears from her eyes. “I didn’t know.”

He touched her chin and lifted it. “Well, you do now.”

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About Staci Stallings

Staci Stallings shares her heart for God with her novels, articles, and conversations. She loves making new friends, writing, and playing piano and guitar.
This entry was posted in A Work In Progress, Novels and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Work in Progress, Ch. 23 & 24

  1. Sue says:

    I always look forward to seeing your e-mail pop into my inbox. It’s always a delight to read your books!

  2. ERMA MITCHELL says:

    YOU WRITE THE BEST BOOKS,IT’S LIKE ONE NEVER WANT THEM TO END,
    JUST CAN’T WAIT FOR THE NEXT CHAPTER. I AM SO GLAD I FOUND YOU IN THAT LITTLE TOWN OF CALLED SILVERTON.

    KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK

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