About mid-morning of the following day Ma Miller dropped Michelle off at the Stone House, where the young woman hoped to catch up with her friend Vicki Frasier. She hurried up the broad stone steps and pulled the ancient bell chain that dangled next to the large, oaken door. She could hear the golden peal of a gong somewhere far off in the house. As she waited, she looked back over the expansive, circular driveway and noticed that the Mitchells had finally decided to cultivate the shrubs in the middle, putting in an artificial waterfall which splashed merrily over field stones dug up from the vicinity. She wondered what kind of plants had been planted around it. She could recognize the ferns, but that was about it. Or were they ferns? Well, maybe Ken could tell her. And that thought immediately brought back the memory of last night and the twinge in her belly. What had she been thinking, coming on to him like that? Ken was right, they couldn’t just pick up where they’d left off. And maybe she’d thought they could. But as she tried to sort through what she was thinking, it fled away, like so often when she didn’t have someone to share it with.
“C’mon, Vicki,” she muttered and reached for the handle again. Just as her hand closed around it the door swung open to reveal a mid-sized lady with auburn hair, bright green eyes, and a bright smile. Her belly was swollen and Michelle instantly deduced that this was a child on the way.
“Yes?” she asked in a husky voice and then recognition came. “Mike Hayes! Where have you been all this time?”
“Hi, Erin,” Michelle answered. “You’re right, it’s been a long time.”
“Well, come on in!” the other woman laughed, stepping aside to let her come through the doorway. Michelle gazed up at the truly palatial atrium of the Stone House. The floor was marble and it was a good eight feet before the foot of the giant chestnut staircase that wound up the back wall before splitting and going up to the second floor. It had been about a year and a half since she’d seen it last and it was larger than she remembered.
“What brings you to our humble home?” Erin asked, pushing the door shut with a resounding thud.
“Well, actually I was looking for Vicki,” Michelle began, only to be interrupted by a squeal of delight and the pattering of little feet. A red-headed boy of about two came skittering around the corner calling for his mommy and slid to a halt as he noticed the visitor. He quickly slipped behind his mom and clung to her pant-leg.
“This is Elijah,” Erin said proudly, putting one hand on her son’s shoulder. “Say hello to Miss Mike, Elijah,” she coaxed.
“Hello, Elijah,” the dark-haired woman greeted him, crouching down to his level. “I’m Michelle.” He just pushed a thumb into his mouth and peeked at her from behind his mommy’s leg. She straightened up.
“Come on and have a cup of coffee,” Erin invited her. “Except I can’t have the coffee.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Michelle replied, glancing at her friend’s sister’s pregnant form. “When’s it due?”
“Three weeks.” The red-haired woman heaved a sigh. “And when she comes, I’ll finally get to have that latte I’ve been dreaming about for the last eight months.” She took Michelle’s arm affectionately and directed her down the long hall to the left.
“I thought you shouldn’t do that when you’re nursing,” the other lady remarked.
“Well, once in a while won’t hurt. Nothing like when I was working at the D.A.’s office.”
“You’ve quit that?” Michelle asked incredulously.
“Sure!” Erin replied, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. “I am first and foremost a wife and mother and since Elijah came I have had nothing but joy.”
“Lots of work, I guess,” her guest replied.
“I enjoy it. And when my little girl gets here, I’m going to be glowing even more.” By now they had entered a gigantic kitchen with a long, wooden table off to one side. Light poured through a pair of tall French doors facing a broad back yard and a fair-sized pond. The walls were painted a pale yellow, the wood cupboards and marble counter-top glowed with a warm, golden luster, and the place smelled of food and home. It struck a chord in Michelle and suddenly she found herself longing for a kitchen of her own. Not as big as this one, but still one that she could call hers.
Erin directed her to a chair by the table, but near enough to the counter so they could talk while the lady of the house puttered around, preparing the hot beverages. Little Elijah remained glued to his mother, peeking at their visitor now and again curiously.
“You said it was a girl,” Michelle put in. “Did they already tell you?”
“The doctor let it slip out, even though we asked him not to tell us,” Erin told her. “Larry was a bit disappointed. He was hoping for another boy, but now we’ll have one of each.”
“Well, there’s still a chance he might get his wish,” Michelle returned. “I’ve been told that those ultrasounds aren’t all that accurate.”
“Not if I have anything to do say about it,” the mother laughed. “I have always wanted a girl. Larry’s got his boy. Now it’s my turn.”
“I say.” The dark-haired woman watched as Elijah slipped around his mother and smiled out from between her legs. Michelle held her arms out to him. He hesitated a moment, looked up at his mommy, who nodded, then pattered around her and came at his guest with a flying leap. Michelle caught him up and laughed.
“Gotcha!” He squealed with delight and immediately tried to wriggle away. His captor put up a bit of a fight – just for fun, mind you – and then let him go. He skittered back across the floor and hid behind his mother again, almost making her spill the mug of coffee she’d made for her guest.
“Elijah, calm down!” she admonished him. She padded across to the table and set the large cup down in front of Michelle, before pulling up a chair herself. Elijah looked up at her with liquid blue eyes.
“Oh, all right,” she sighed and gathered him on to her lap as well as she could. He perched there, leaning against her pregnant belly and grinned at Michelle. The two of them chatted for a while about how things were going with Erin’s family and Michelle told of her trip to Germany. Elijah moved back and forth between the two women’s laps several times before being banished to the playroom where Aunt Rian was waiting to entertain him.
“So, is Vicki around then?” Michelle asked when Erin had returned.
“She’s around,” Erin sighed, sitting down again. “Just not here at the Stone House.”
“Oh?” the dark-haired woman was surprised. “Did she get her own place?”
“Yes. She got married.”
“Vicki? Married?” Michelle shook her brown tresses. “She didn’t tell me about it. I thought I’d be maid of honor or something!”
“Well, it was all a very hush-hush affair,” Erin began. “Vicki was kind of worried about Vern making all those advances, so she and Bill eloped.”
“Bill?” A premonition was dawning in Michelle’s heart, but she didn’t think she could believe it.
“Bill Martel. You know, the big guy you used to hang out with.” That just about knocked the younger woman out of her seat.
“Vicki married Bill Martel?”
“But I thought Vicki was never going to get married!” Michelle said incredulously. “Not after all that baloney with the married guy when she was at college. And she was going for a doctorate, for crying out loud!”
“And she still is.” Erin smoothed her maternity blouse with a satisfied look on her face. “It took all of us by surprise – except for maybe Ken. I think he was behind it.”
“Ken was playing matchmaker?” This was getting better and better.
“Well, nobody knows for certain, but after your – hm – adventures two years ago Vicki and Bill began to see more of each other. Neither said anything, but the next thing I knew, Vicki was wearing a rock. Not a very big one, mind you, but a genuine one.”
“And when was this?” Michelle leaned forward, somewhere between delight and anger.
“Oh, about three months ago.” Erin settled in to her tale. “When Vern found out, he went over to Bill and had a big fight with him. Bill put it to him straight, that he and Vicki loved each other and that was that. Vern then went off and tried to ‘talk some sense’ into Vicki. She would have none of it and told him to get lost. That was just about when his classical guitar career began to take off, so he left on a tour. I think he was planning to get her back when he got back to Southall. And I think Vicki knew it, too.” She smiled to herself as she thought of what happened next. “Then, just at the beginning of August – two days before Vern was due back – Bill and Vicki packed up and left town. They just got back about a week ago, legally husband and wife, courtesy of a justice of the peace in Massachusetts.” Erin shrugged. “If even Ken and I weren’t invited to the wedding, it must have been a very quick affair.”
“Is she happy?” Michelle pressed, thinking of her own ill fortune.
“It’s like she’s walking on clouds every time I see her.” Erin began gesturing as she spoke. “It’s Bill this and Bill that. They’ve got a cozy little place in Druin proper.”
“And she’s still going to school?”
“Yeah, by correspondence. And Bill’s doing pretty much the same thing, except for him it’s seminary.” Well, that wasn’t so hard to believe. After all, the big man had a heart the size of Kentucky and he prayed with a fervor that Michelle had rarely seen anywhere else.
“Do you have an address for her?” she finally pushed out.
“I can’t remember it correctly, but I could take you there.” Erin glanced at the clock on the wall. “After all, I need to get some groceries and those films I dropped off at the drugstore.” She thought for a moment. “Vicki may not be home, though. Say, what day is it?”
Now it was Michelle’s turn to be pensive. She’d been back for four days and jet-lag was still gnawing at her.
“Wednesday?” she said after a moment.
“Oh, she’s home, then. Wednesday’s one of her days off.” Erin hoisted herself out of the chair. “Come on, Mike. It’ll be good to see my little sister again.”
“Uh, Erin, it’s Michelle,” the dark-haired girl pointed out as she followed her friend out of the kitchen.
“Oh, right, I forgot,” the other woman apologized. “These name-changes are tough on me. Now....” She stopped in at the play room where Rian sat on the couch with a book and Elijah was sprawled in front of a large TV, watching computer-animated vegetables sing about being thankful for what you have.
“Elijah dear, let’s go to the store,” she called. The boy immediately leaped up and echoed, “Store!” Within minutes the three of them had all hurried out and piled into the Mitchells’ dark blue Caravan and they were off to Druin.
Vicki and Bill’s home was definitely cozy, especially when compared to the big mansion that Erin lived in. Vicki did not seem at all surprised to see Michelle and the dark-haired woman suspected that the town grapevine had been going full-tilt again. What are they saying about Ken and me? she wondered.
“It’s so good to see you, Michelle!” Vicki exclaimed as she let her friend out of a warm embrace. “I was planning on going by your house today to see if you were there.”
“I guess I saved you the trip.” She allowed herself to be pointed to a couch while Vicki turned toward the little boy.
“Not to mention that you brought my favorite nephew with you,” she laughed. “This is turning out to be some day.”
“I was wondering where you were last night. From what you’d been writing you were a regular at singles’ flock since that summer.” Vicki broke into a broad smile and waved her left hand in Michelle’s direction.
“I got married. No more singleness for me.”
“So I heard,” Michelle replied, pouting just a bit. “And you didn’t tell me!”
“Hey, I e-mailed you the day it happened. And you haven’t checked your e-mail again in three weeks.” Vicki gathered Elijah up and planted herself next to Michelle.
“My inbox is too full.”
Vicki turned to her sister who was still standing in the doorway.
“Sit down, Erin,” she invited. “Have a chat.”
“Sorry, dear,” the older woman sighed. “I need to go to the store. Mind if I leave Elijah here while I shop?”
“Sure.” Vicki stroked his bright red locks. “I just got a new Blue’s Clues video that he’ll love.” And she got up to put on the TV while Erin let herself out. When Elijah was taken care of, Vicki sat back down with Michelle and drew her feet up under her.
“You know, I was considering making an exception last night and showing up for flock so I could hear what you’ve been up to.”
“It was good you didn’t,” her friend sighed. “I made a bit of a fool of myself.” She wrapped her arms around her midriff and put her feet up on the couch.
“Ken?” It was more of a statement than a question.
“Who else?” Michelle paused and then looked back at her best friend. “What happened to him? I haven’t heard anything.” Vicki sighed as she thought of their friend.
“He’s been having a really tough time since – well, you know.”
“Hm, yeah.” The dark-haired girl stared past her friend at one of the framed prints on the wall. “Sometimes I wonder if I did the right thing, breaking it off like that.” Vicki reached out and put one hand on her shoulder.
“You did, Michelle, and nobody knows it better than you do.”
“I hate the fact I hurt him,” she sighed in return.
“Then I won’t tell you any more,” the other woman said and leaned back.
“No, Vicki.” Her voice was adamant and she picked up eye contact, green boring into blue. “I need to know why he’s like that. I need to know what I’ve caused so I can forgive myself. I need to know how to pray.”
“That’s a first, coming from you,” Vicki remarked, pulling at her short, red hair.
“I’ve changed a lot.”
“And so has Ken.” Vicki sighed. “Oh, all right, I’ll tell you what’s been going on. Ken was really down after you split up that summer. He still came to church, but dropped all involvement with flock. He avoided all of us. The only one he’d talk to sometimes was Larry. Then, shortly after you went back to college for your last year, he stopped coming altogether. Bill mentioned something about him having traded words with Pastor Jenkins. I tried to catch up with Ken and find out what was going on, but when I found him at work one day, he wouldn’t talk to me. All he said was that it was my fault you’d left him.”
“Ken said that?” Michelle gasped.
“He did.” Her friend nodded sadly. “Bill saw him around a few times, but Ken wouldn’t talk. Then all of a sudden he broke off contact even with Larry. That in itself was unusual. We heard something about him taking a trip to Florida. It was some time the end of May and he went with Vern and a couple of his buddies.” She curled her mouth in distaste. “We didn’t even find out that he’d gotten back until Bill ran into him coming out of the pub up in Druin, drunk silly. Ken tried to run away from him, but Bill just picked him up, took him to his house and sobered him up. He had a long talk with Ken and I guess that’s where he turned around. Started coming to church again. He hung out with us a lot then and I could tell he was different. Still quiet, but he smiled more. Except when we mentioned you.” Michelle grimaced.
“He said that you were just a dream and nothing would ever come of it.” Vicki sighed to herself. “But we never stopped praying.” Then she smiled. “And would you believe he was the one who was constantly inviting us to hang out, then leaving early so I got stuck with Bill.” That brought an involuntary smile from Michelle. “It was his idea that we go elope in the first place and he warned me about Vern, too.”
“He did?” The dark-haired girl sighed. “He really cared.”
“More than you think. He always said that if anyone deserved to be happy, it was Bill and me.”
“So what happened to him, then?” Michelle prodded.
“Well, his turnaround was quite dramatic and he worked so hard at Vern’s business that he made general manager within three months of his talk with Bill. He didn’t really get involved at church much until last Christmas, though. They had him play Joseph in the Christmas pageant and after that I think he started going to flock again and now he sometimes helps out with the fifth-graders in Sunday School. He seems on an upward swing, but if you ask me he still hasn’t gotten over you.”
“I say,” Michelle sighed and proceeded to tell Vicki about the happenings of the previous evening. Vicki put her arm around her shoulders.
“He’s still hurting,” she said after a long pause. “I think he’s going to have to learn to forgive you before anything else can happen.”
“Yeah, and I need to ask his forgiveness.” She looked away to where Elijah was watching the glowing screen. “It’s not easy, but I’ve been forgiven by God. Now I need to make it right with Ken, even if nothing ever comes from it.”