Chapter 12
Sunday, September 9
Bobbi leaned up to the mirror in the master bath, and began smoothing foundation on her cheeks. Could she just say, “this is Chuck’s son”? Nobody needed any more information than that, did they? Then she’d just have to act as if it was the most normal thing in the world to bring your husband’s illegitimate son to Sunday school. Piece of cake, right? As if.
“Mommy! He doesn’t have to wear a tie, does he?” Shannon called from Brad’s room.
Bobbi walked down the hallway, and peeked in the door of Brad’s room. Jack stood yanking and twisting his necktie while Shannon inspected him. “Shannon, Jack doesn’t need help getting dressed. I’m sure he’s been doing it by himself for years.” She took her daughter by the hand. “Let’s leave him alone.”
“He’s never been to church before, Mommy. Can you believe it?”
“He’ll be fine,” Bobbi said. “Go brush your teeth. I’ll be there in a minute to check.” Shannon glanced back at Jack, then turned and skipped toward the bathroom. Bobbi knelt down, and straightened Jack’s shirt collar. “You don’t have to wear the tie.”
“Did Brad wear a tie?”
“Only for Easter.” She pulled the tie off, and laid it gently in his open suitcase.
“Thanks,” Jack said, through a frown that was Joel made over.
“What’s wrong? Did Shannon say something?”
“No,” he answered, still scowling.
“Do you want me to get your dad? Would you rather talk to him?”
“No. It’s just… Is church like school? ’Cause I’ve only ever been to school. That’s all I know how to do.”
“You can’t mess up at church,” Bobbi said, smiling gently. “In fact, there is nothing we like better than having someone there who’s never been to church before. You’ll be like a celebrity.”
“Really?” he asked, brightening.
“Really.” Bobbi stood and patted Jack’s shoulder. “You’ll have fun, I promise. Now go brush your teeth. We’ll be ready to go soon.” He didn’t move to leave. “Is there something else?”
“Thanks for letting me stay in Brad’s room and not the garage.”
“Jack… you didn’t… did someone tell you you’d have to sleep in the garage?”
“No, but, you know how Cinderella’s stepmother made her sleep in the cinders by the fireplace?”
Bobbi hung her head, and then motioned for him to come close, but a hug was too much. Instead, she took both of his hands. “I never, ever want you to feel unwelcome here, but I’ll admit this is a little hard for me. I’m not sure exactly how you fit in.”
“Me either.” His lower lip jutted forward. “So what do we do?”
“We give ourselves time, and let things happen on their own, without trying to force them.”
“So I won’t try to be your little boy.”
“And I won’t try to be your mom.” She smoothed his hair, her hand lingering on his cheek. “But I can still love you as Jack.”
“Good, ’cause I think I already love you as Mrs. Dad.”
Jack watched his dad shift a big, black book from hand to hand, so he could unlock the car door. “Hey, I don’t have a book,” he said once his dad got in.
“What are you talking about, Jack?”
Jack could see his dad’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “A book, like you have, like my grandma had, like everybody else has but me.”
“A Bible? I’ll get you one in time for your next visit.”
Jack nodded and settled back in his seat, watching out the window for the rest of the drive. At last, they turned into a wide asphalt parking lot with a large, columned, white building in the back corner. Jack felt a flutter in his stomach. “It’s big,” he whispered.
“Not when you get used to it,” Shannon said.
He didn’t believe her. He dragged himself out of the car, and shuffled around the back end of the car, the long way.
Mrs. Dad came to the rescue again. “Jack, I teach the kindergarten class here. If you’d like, you can come with me and Shannon until you get the hang of things.”
Go with her and his sister. That would be safe, but what about the other little kids? “Won’t they know I’m in first grade? ’Cause I can read, you know.”
“Kids go to different classes all the time, especially when they’re new to church.”
“Are you sure it’s okay?”
“Positive.” Mrs. Dad took his sister’s hand to walk inside, and he wished his mother was there with him. Then Mrs. Dad put a hand on his shoulder. “Chuck, why don’t you give Jack the grand tour to help him acclimate, and then bring him back to class?”
“Sure thing,” his dad said. “Come on, buddy.”
Mrs. Dad squeezed his shoulder as soon as his dad said “buddy.” Did that mean she liked it, or was she mad? Jack twisted around to face her. “Am I in trouble?”
“Of course not, why?” she asked.
“’Cause you squeezed me when my dad called me ‘buddy.’” Jack saw his dad look at her, his eyes narrow. Now he was mad, too. Great.
“Your dad always called Joel ‘buddy,’” she said. “It surprised me to hear him call you that. I flinched.”
Jack didn’t believe her. “You flinch hard,” he said, rubbing his shoulder.
“I’m sorry, Jack. Truly. Now let your dad give you the tour.”
His dad motioned for him, but he kept his eyes on Mrs. Dad as she walked away.
“Are you and Mrs. Dad gonna have a fight later?”
“We don’t fight.”
Jack didn’t believe him, either. “So where are you taking me?”
“Up to the front entrance. We’ll start your tour there.”
“It smells nice in here,” Jack said. “Not like school.”
“It’s better than school.” His dad led him into a huge room, like a theater only there was no screen and it wasn’t dark. “This is where the big stuff happens,” his dad said. “We’ll come back here later, and sing, and then the preacher will preach.”
“The who will what?”
“We’re really starting at square one with you.” Then his dad snapped his fingers. “Let’s just go meet the preacher. It’ll make more sense.”
Jack had to skip to keep up with his dad’s long strides. “Is he like the president?”
“More like a combination leader, teacher, and kind of a dad.” His dad knocked on a door, then pushed it open slightly. “Glen? Can we bother you for a minute?” He didn’t call him mister or anything.
“Hey, Chuck! Come on in!” The preacher talked like a cowboy, and when he walked around his desk, Jack saw his boots and smiled. The preacher smiled back and held out a hand. “I’m Glen Dillard.”
“I’m Jack Ravenna.” He pumped the hand of the preacher cowboy, and then he felt his dad’s hand on his shoulder. He hoped his dad didn’t flinch.
“This is my son,” his dad explained, without flinching. “It’s his first time at church, so I was showing him around.”
Jack looked at his dad and the preacher cowboy. They were about the same size. They both looked old, but not that old. “You don’t look old enough to be everybody’s dad,” Jack said.
“Everybody’s dad? What?”
“My dad said you were the leader-teacher-dad for everybody.”
“Well, that’s a big part of it.” He picked one of those books off his desk.
“Everybody has one of those but me!” Jack said.
“I’ll take care of it, Jack,” his dad said. “I promise.”
“Check downstairs, Chuck,” the preacher said. “There should be some in the kids’ hallway. He can have whichever one he wants.”
“Thank you, Mr. Dillard,” Jack said, eyes wide.
“All right, first rule. You can call me Pastor Glen. That mister stuff is for people you don’t know, okay?” Jack nodded. That wasn’t what his mom told him, though. She said grown-ups were always mister.
The preacher got down on one knee, and held his book open. “Now what I was gonna tell you, this book is full of the stuff God wants us to know. It’s my job to help people understand the stuff so they can do what God wants them to do.”
“When my mom talks about God, she’s mad. Does God make people mad?”
“Sometimes, I guess, but you’ll find out there’s a lot more to Him than that. He knows all about you, and He wants you to know all you can about Him.”
“Mrs. Dad said I had to go to class. I guess she’ll teach me everything.”
“Mrs. Dad? You mean Bobbi?”
Jack nodded. “But I don’t call her that. She’s a grown-up.”
“You’re all set, then. She and God are just like this.” The preacher crossed his fingers tightly. “Your dad’s the same way.”
“If they know so much, how come they aren’t the leader guy?” Jack asked. “Do you know more than them?”
“That’s a good question. God picks out things for us to do, things that we are just right for. Sometimes, it’s being the leader guy, sometimes it’s being a really good mom or dad.”
“So what’s my job gonna be?”
“It’s a little early to tell, but we’ll keep working on it as you get bigger, okay?” The preacher put a hand on his desk and stood up. “Enjoy yourself today, and keep asking those good questions, Jack.”
“We better get to class or Mrs. Dad’s gonna come looking for us,” Jack said. “Bye, Mist… I mean, Pastor Glen.”
“See you, Jack.”
His dad shook hands with the preacher. “Thanks, Glen,” he said. “Let’s go pick out a Bible.” He led Jack downstairs to a brightly colored hallway. A small bookcase held several of those books. His dad pulled one from the shelf and opened it up. “Can you read this?”
He turned the book over in his hands. “It looks like a baby one. I’m in first grade now.” He pulled the books out one by one until he found a safari one. “How ‘bout this one? Can I have this one?” He handed it to his dad.
“It says ages six to eleven. You qualify.”
“Great!” Jack opened the book and held it up to his face, breathing in deeply. “It smells good. Now I can go to class.”
“With Mrs. Dad or with the first-graders?”
“Mrs. Dad today. Since she asked.”
“She’s right in here.” His dad opened the door across the hall from the bookcase.
He took a deep breath and stepped inside. Mrs. Dad smiled, and waved him over to the group of kids seated in the floor. He had a book now. This would work out.
Glen Dillard stuffed his notes in the back of his Bible, but before he could stand up, his wife burst into his office.
“Glen! I need to talk to you!” She shut the door behind her, and took a deep breath.
Glen guided her to sit down in one of his chairs. “Honey, you’re shaking. What in the world’s going on?”
“That little boy,” she said, pointing back toward the door. “The one with Chuck. Glen, he’s one of my kids.”
“Okay… So?”
“Chuck’s the deadbeat,” Laurie said. “I mean, he’s not a deadbeat, but this is the kid whose mother gave me that story about the dad showing up all of the sudden, trying to take her son away. It was all lies, Glen. That woman has lied to me for weeks.”
“What’s her name?”
“Tracy Ravenna.”
It wasn’t a case of mistaken identity. The little boy introduced himself as Jack Ravenna.
Laurie buried her face in her hands. “Chuck had an affair with Tracy Ravenna,” she whispered. “You should hear her talk about him.” She raised her head again. “None of it’s true. To think I believed her!”
“Honey, it’s okay.” Glen knelt in front of her and held her hands in his. “You had no way of knowing.”
“What am I supposed to do now? I can’t listen to her talk about Chuck like that.”
“Well, you call her on it. Tell her who you are and how you know Chuck.”
“But why would she do it? What purpose does it serve? I’m practically a stranger, for crying out loud.”
“Some people lie easier than they tell the truth.”
“I’ve got to apologize to Chuck.” Laurie stood and paced toward Glen’s desk.
“Why?” Glen leaned on Laurie’s chair to balance himself as he stood.
“Because I thought horrible things about him.”
“Sweetheart, I don’t think you’re responsible for what you thought. You didn’t know it was Chuck that Tracy was lying about.” Glen shook his head. “That didn’t even make sense to me, and I said it.”
“No, I understand what you’re saying,” Laurie sighed and stopped moving for a moment. “Can we go see Chuck and Bobbi later? They should know about the other side of Tracy.”
“Probably should wait until Chuck takes the boy back home. You don’t want to talk about his mother in front of him.”
“I don’t want to talk about her at all,” Laurie said, pacing again. “But it’s not right for her to be lying about Chuck like that. He’s worked too hard to make up for what he did.”
Glen glanced up at the clock on his wall. “Are we okay on this for now?”
“What? I’m sorry. You have to preach. I shouldn’t have hit you with this now.”
“Yes, you should have because it upset you, but if we’re okay for the time being, I should go, so people don’t start wondering.”
“I’m fine. Just embarrassed for overreacting.”
Glen squeezed her hand, and then lightly kissed her cheek. “I love you.”
Chuck tugged at the seatbelt, stretching it around Jack to buckle the boy in the backseat.
“So when can I come back?” Jack asked.
“Wednesday, after school. You can come home with Mrs. Dad just like Shannon does.”
“No school bus?”
“Is that a bad thing?”
“No. I just always ride the bus. It’ll be different.” Once Chuck got in and closed his door, Jack asked, “You packed my Bible, didn’t you? I want to show it to my mom. I don’t think she has one either.”
“We can get her one.”
“I don’t think she’d want a kid’s Bible. She’s old. Almost as old as you.”
“We’ll pick out a grown-up one then.” Chuck glanced at Jack in the rearview mirror. Tracy seemed so hard, so unreachable. Was God going to use that little boy in the backseat in all his plainspoken innocence to bring her to Himself?
When Chuck pulled into Tracy’s driveway a few minutes before five, Jack sighed deeply. “I guess this is goodbye.”
“I’ll walk you in. You can’t carry that suitcase of yours anyway.”
“Great! Thanks!” Jack scrambled out of the car.
Chuck got the suitcase from the trunk and took the porch steps two at a time to catch up with his son. “Shouldn’t we ring the bell first?”
“I live here,” Jack said. “I never ring the bell.” The little boy pushed the door open. “Mom! I’m home!” he called, leaning his head back.
Chuck stepped just inside the front door with the suitcase. He glanced out at the street, hoping no one saw him go in.
Tracy made her entrance a moment later, dressed in her standard at-home outfit of shorts and a tank top. Chuck silently wondered if she wore the same type clothes in the winter, but then he stopped himself. Don’t even start thinking about what she wears.
“Jack! I missed you!” Tracy held her arms out and Jack ran to her. She hugged the boy tightly, and kissed the top of his head. “This was the longest weekend of my life.”
Watching mother and son, Chuck felt like an intruder. He shifted his weight and looked away. As he glanced around the living room, Chuck was sure he caught the scent of after-shave. Tracy hadn’t passed the weekend alone. Jack would notice. The kid sniffed everything. But what if… what if it wasn’t a big deal to Jack for his mother to have men there?
“I missed you, too, but it was great! I have a grandma, and a aunt and a uncle and some cousins and stuff, and I played football with my brothers on the same team, and we went to church—”
“Jack, slow down,” Tracy said. “You can tell me all about it.” She turned, and finally acknowledged Chuck’s presence in the room. “You’re out unsupervised again, no bodyguard? Did your wife decide I wasn’t so bad after all?”
Chuck ignored her comment. “He’s a great kid. We had a good weekend. I’ll see you Wednesday, Jack.” Chuck waved to his son and turned to leave.
“Now Chuck, I made you mad,” Tracy said, stepping toward the door. “Don’t leave angry.”
“I’m not angry,” Chuck answered, his hand on the door handle.
“Wait, Dad!” Jack stepped around his mother. “I forgot to tell you! I learned the Bible verse quicker than anybody else did this morning! Wanna hear it?”
“Sure,” Chuck said. “What was the story?”
“Jacob and his brother, and Jacob lied to his dad and tricked him, and he had to run away from home.”
“That’s a good story,” Chuck said.
“Yeah, and the verse is ‘You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.’ ’Cause Jacob told lies, so he wasn’t free.”
He gave Jack a quick high-five. “Great job, but that verse was too easy for you. You’ll have to get a hard one next time.” Chuck turned to leave, but Tracy followed him onto the porch.
“Sounds like you bonded,” she said.
“Tracy, you had a guy here.” Chuck surprised himself when he said it out loud.
She crossed her arms and smirked. “Are you jealous?”
“That’s not good for Jack. He shouldn’t be exposed to you bringing guys in all the time.”
Tracy’s eyes narrowed and she leaned in close to Chuck. “It’s none of your business,” she hissed. “I don’t owe you an explanation. I don’t owe you a confession, and I certainly don’t need you, of all people, to police my personal life.” She pushed a finger in Chuck’s chest. “You are no different from me.”
“That’s where you’re wrong.” Chuck stepped back, widening the space between them. “I’ve been forgiven and that’s why you hate me.”
“I don’t hate you. There’s only one person in this world that I hate.”
“And that’s your father.”
Chuck waited for her to react, to explode, to come clean, something, but there was only silence. A long, uncomfortable silence. “Tell Jack I’ll see him Wednesday.” Chuck could still feel her icy stare as he got in his car.
Bobbi scooped an Indonesian blend into the basket of her coffeemaker, and pushed the brew button. Leaning over the kitchen counter, she breathed in deeply, savoring the rich aroma, and she finally allowed herself to relax. She survived the weekend. Now she had two days to regroup before it began again.
It was hard not to love Jack. He reveled in his new family, soaking in each experience. So eager to please, but desperate to fit in, every instinct pulled at her to shelter him, and build him up. He wasn’t hers though. He belonged to that woman.
She jumped when the phone rang. “Bobbi, this is Laurie Dillard. Is Chuck home, too?”
“Yes, let me get him.” Bobbi started to lay the phone down.
“Actually, if Glen and I can invite ourselves over, I’d like to talk to you both for a minute.”
“Sure. I just put Shannon to bed, so we can talk like grown-ups.” Hopefully this wouldn’t be a performance review of her stepmother weekend.
“Who was that?”
She never heard Chuck come in behind her and start unloading the dishwasher.
“Laurie. She and Glen are coming over. She needs to talk to us.”
“I hope she didn’t try to buy Tracy off, too, and she’s coming to confess.” Chuck put a stack of plates in the cabinet.
Bobbi smiled at her husband. “I don’t think you have to worry. Laurie is about as different from Rita as two people could get.” The coffeemaker kicked off, and Bobbi poured a cup for herself. “Do you want a cup?”
“No. How do you drink that stuff so late and still go to sleep?”
“A delicate balance of tolerance and exhaustion.” Bobbi took a sip. “Actually it makes me sleepy. It’s all warm and soothing going down. Everything gets relaxed. It’s a wonder I make it upstairs to bed every night.”
“Well, the day your doctor tells you to cut out caffeine, I’m moving out.”
“Hey, I’ve gone twenty-seven months, three pregnancies, without it. I can handle it.”
“Spoken like a true junkie.” Chuck grinned and closed the dishwasher.
“So you never told me, what did… how did it go this evening? Taking Jack home.” Bobbi leaned against the counter and took a long drink from her cup.
“She’d had a guy there,” Chuck answered slipping into one of the kitchen chairs. “I could smell the after-shave, so I know Jack could, too. She told me it was none of my business.”
“Which it’s not,” Bobbi replied, flatly.
“But that’s not good for Jack.”
“You’re not responsible for what he learns when he’s with her. You probably can’t undo it in the short time you have with him. All we can do is fill him up with as much that’s positive and good that we can, and trust God for the rest.”
“You don’t sound like a woman unsure about raising him anymore.”
“We aren’t raising him. You have visitation rights. His mother is the one who’s shaping him.”
“For now. That’ll change.”
“Did you watch him this weekend? He didn’t make a move without checking to make sure it was okay. If he doesn’t learn how to function in a family, he’ll be in therapy when he grows up.” She took another sip. “I wonder if she’s abused him.”
Chuck shook his head.
“I don’t mean beating him. I mean, yelling at him, intimidating him, that kind of thing.”
“She does have a temper, and it doesn’t take much to set her off.” Chuck said. “But he’s crazy about her. Wouldn’t he be afraid of her if she was mistreating him?”
“Not if that’s all he’s ever known.” Bobbi rinsed her cup out in the sink. “I see it in kids at school all the time.”
“So should I ask him about things at home?”
“I wouldn’t. Just be aware and watch for any subtle clues. Things that seem odd.” She slipped the cup into the dishwasher. “Hey, I heard a car. That’s Laurie and Glen.”
“I’ll catch them before they ring the bell or Shannon will be down here,” Chuck said, making his way around the kitchen table. Bobbi straightened his chair, and turned the kitchen light out before joining Chuck in the entry hall. He swung the door open and shook hands with the Dillards. “Why didn’t you tell us earlier so we could’ve had this meeting at Dave’s?”
“You want me to send Glen after some pie?” Laurie asked. “It’s not that late.”
“You can just owe me,” Chuck said.
“We can sit in here,” Bobbi said, flipping on the overhead light in the living room.
“Thank you for letting us come by on such short notice.” Laurie perched on the edge of the far end of the sofa, folding and unfolding her hands.
Bobbi slid in beside her. “Whatever it is, it’s not worth getting this nervous.”
Laurie glanced at Glen sitting in the recliner across from them, and he nodded. She swallowed hard and spoke without lifting her head. “I don’t know how to tell you this other than to just say it.” Laurie looked at Bobbi then Chuck. “Chuck, your son is one of my kids.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Chuck said.
“It’s not exactly. I didn’t realize who he was, and I’m sure he and his mother don’t know that I know you. His mother…” Laurie glanced back at Glen, and then rolled her eyes up to the ceiling before continuing. “Chuck, the way she talks about you… And it’s all lies.”
“What kind of stuff?”
“Like when she got the summons, or whatever it’s called. She said you had it in for her and you were trying to take her son away from her to get back at her. She never said your name though. I had no idea it was you until I saw Jack this morning.”
“Why would she do that?” Chuck asked quietly.
Because she’s mental!Bobbi wanted to shout. Just when she started to let down her defenses, even slightly, Tracy proved it wasn’t worth the risk.
“After she came in that day,” Laurie said, “I was so torn up about it. I went home, and told Glen all about this deadbeat jerk trying to steal one of my kids from his mother… I’m just sick, Chuck.”
“About what?”
“Because I thought all these terrible things about you.”
“Not me, someone who only exists in Tracy’s imagination.”
“See, that’s what I told her!” Glen said. “It’s the liar’s fault, not her fault for believing it.”
“Tracy’s a very good liar,” Chuck said. “You didn’t have a chance.”
“What do I do now? What do I say when she comes in Monday afternoon?”
“Call her on it,” Chuck said. “She won’t lie to you again, at least about that.”
Bobbi shook her head silently. What else was she lying about, and who else had she dragged into this mess? “Chuck, it just never ends,” she said quietly. “What else is she going to pull? What is she doing? Priming a witness for a future court case or something? Is she going to make up some story, and sue us for mistreating Jack?”
“Bobbi, you’re doing it again,” Chuck said.
“Doing what?”
“Getting all irrational about Tracy.”
“And you’re belittling my concerns again,” Bobbi shot back. “If she finds out who Laurie is, she’ll switch daycares. She won’t face her again.”
“Well, if she does, she does,” Laurie said. “I can’t listen to her lie about Chuck that way. I’ve got to confront her. Tomorrow.”
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