“YOU TOO can feel your heart cradled in God’s love.”
The words murmured from the sound system, and their truth was real. No one dared look away. The Most Reverend Trooper “Two Points” Kincaid paused in his impassioned delivery, his eyes wrapped in moist tears of sincerity.
On the first row sat his wife Sharon, one year his junior, and at fifty-three, still strikingly beautiful. Jeffrey “Jack” Kincaid, twenty-eight, sat on the platform at the Reverend Kincaid’s back. He took after his mother, and he was being groomed to take over the ministry. Somewhere in the balcony of the enormous building, seventeen-year-old twins Cody and Casey, high school basketball stars as their father had been, were surely surrounded by adoring school-age girls just hoping for a bit of their attention.
As on every Sunday morning, Trooper expected to have his family with him. He was well aware of the two enormous video screens at his back that made him into a man larger than life, and he made sure every nuance of his expression wrung empathy from his congregation. His family played a part also, and yet his eyes still searched for his daughter Lindsay. Like her brother, she also carried her mother’s stunning features, and when the family gathered on the platform at the end of each Sunday’s live broadcast, her beauty smoothed out the tall, angular frames of her father and younger brothers. Now twenty-one, her presence made the family sparkle, and her attendance each week was worth many a donation in the day’s offerings.
This week she was nowhere to be seen.
Behind him, members of the choir hummed softly as hydraulics underneath stepped risers lifted them aloft for the end of the morning service. Great plaster columns ringed the platform, and burgundy carpet extended for acres. Anchoring the platform, an enormous white Bösendorfer stretched along for over ten feet, costing well over a grand for each of its hundred-twenty-plus inches. It gleamed under lights that seemed to twinkle from between the exposed superstructure of the old sports arena. Along the platform’s perimeter, a garden of tropical flowers softened the ten foot drop from stage to concourse.
Trooper glanced down at his custom-built pulpit for a moment, and then he looked across the vast space enclosed by the coliseum’s free-span roof. In spite of his missing daughter, as he spoke, he made sure his voice was warm and convincing.
“God is faithful, my people. My life is evidence of that.”
His words echoed across the auditorium, and pausing to give them time to infiltrate his listeners’ hearts, he soaked in the choir’s soft melody. The barest of a smile hovered at the corners of his mouth, and he let his eyes look up for dramatic effect. As the smile spread across his face, he glanced to his wife. He watched her roll her eyes, and a sour knot twisted in his stomach. He hoped he could trust her to be on her best behavior when he called the family to the platform to show their unity under the Divine Hand of God’s presence.
He looked out into the spotlights rimming the balcony in the distance. He motioned with one hand across the broad swath of people.
“As I invite my family to come and stand by my side on the platform, I would like to encourage those of you with a need, whether personal, physical, or financial, to gather with the pastors and their wives standing near you and allow them to offer your need to God.”
A muted rustle told that the people were already moving.
He continued, “Also, please keep in mind those outside our walls who need the help of the Father. I recently learned that just last week a couple in our fair city lost their lives when their home burned to the ground. It was by the grace of God that their only child was spending the night elsewhere. The Word says Jesus loves the little children. As you lift your own needs before the Father, remember this young man who needs our prayers. His family is gone, but God will be there for him.” He had no doubt the Hand of God would provide for the child’s needs, for God rained mercy and love upon the just and the unjust. However, He especially loved little children.
He went on to encourage his congregation, the timbre of his voice growing deeper, “The Word says that where two or three are gathered in His name, there He will be also. Please gather for prayer as my family draws to my side.”
The music swelled in volume, and the white Bösendorfer rang with fortitude. All around the great arena that was home to Trooper Kincaid Christian Ministries, in the shifting colors of people’s clothing, and in the murmuring of distant voices, it was clear his people were doing just as he had asked. Still, the Reverend’s heart beat uncomfortably fast in his chest. He hadn’t located Lindsay, and the lights and cameras were readying to carry the image of the Kincaid family around the globe. Trooper Kincaid Christian Ministries depended on that image, and it would not do to have it tarnished.
“Get here, Lindsay,” he muttered, even as he held a smile on his lips. He loved Lindsay, God knew that. He loved the beautiful young woman with all his heart. It was just that he never seemed to understand her, and it was beyond him why she couldn’t see the importance of this final moment in front of the cameras each Sunday morning.
Catching movement in the video monitor built into the top of the enormous pulpit, he glanced down. The monitor was telling him his family was gathering at the Family Altar, and the cameras were ready.
Turning, he smiled at the sight of his beautiful Sharon. She wore a blue and purple sequined dress this morning, probably Vera Wang, if he knew his designers. Her shoes shimmered from black to purple, and he knew they had set the ministry’s accounts back more than whatever she had spent on the dress. She looked beautiful, though, and that was what counted. Jeffrey reached to his mother’s elbow to pull her close and whisper something in her ear. She smiled and gave her son a kiss on the cheek, completing the picture.
A commotion at one of the sets of steps leading from the concourse caused Trooper to turn, and he closed his eyes for a moment. The twins were tall and lanky like he had been at seventeen, and while they danced a ballet of magic on the basketball court, in tan chinos and coordinating polos, they were oversized, rambunctious puppies that constantly tripped on too-big feet. Casey had stumbled on the steps, and his brother yanked him upright, doubling the disorder that was sure to be picked up by at least one camera now that the sermon was over.
Stepping forward to catch up to his teenage boys, he placed his hand on one son’s neck. “Have you seen your sister?” He thought this was Cody, although he wasn’t entirely sure. When he caught sight of a camera and noticed a red light flicker on, he smiled and waved his free hand, aware that a good image of a father and son together on the platform would go a long way.
“Lindsay?” The boy glanced at his father and grinned impishly.
That was when Trooper was certain which son he held in his hand. He threw his arm over the boy’s shoulder and pulled him close as he spoke through his smile, “Tell me she’s here, Cody.”
“Sure, Dad.” With a characteristic lack of pretense, he reached and grabbed his father’s jaw in his big, athlete’s hand, and he kissed him full on the cheek. “She’s here, if you want me to say so, but I haven’t seen her. Ask Casey. Besides, she’s been off her feed the past few weeks.” He kissed his father’s face again and laughed before letting him go. “Better yet, ask Jack.” He pointed to his older brother. “He’ll know.” Then, he was gone, crashing into his brother, creating yet another disruption.
“Two Points, I’ve just come from outside.”
A voice at Trooper’s side made him breathe easier, and he was relieved to feel a familiar hand on his shoulder. It was John Winston, the only person who ever called him by his old high school moniker. His voice had a layer of warmth no other person ever offered the central figure of Trooper Kincaid Christian Ministries, one that spoke of true love and not words that were just another way of staying in the boss’s good graces.
“It’s Lindsay, John. Have you seen her?” He reached for John’s free hand and grasped it in his own, pulling it to his waist as if warmly shaking the hand of one of his most devoted ministerial staff.
“That’s what I’ve come to tell you.” John leaned in close to his ear, pulling in his proffered hand until the two men stood chest to chest, one in a pale suit, the other wearing dark, literally touching. His lips brushed the minister’s ear, privacy being paramount. “She’s just arrived, but she’s rather disheveled. Talk to the cameras and say something. Anything. It’ll take me a moment to get her into something presentable, and I’m sorry, Two Points, but she’ll have to wear a hat. I think knit with all her hair gathered underneath.”
Trooper looked down at the burgundy-carpeted floor for a moment. Hats were not Sunday morning attire, not for his family, not on television for broadcast to the entire world. Sundays were for hairdressers, highlights, and hairspray. Sundays were for glittering with all the magnificence God had given His creation. The Word clearly stated that a woman’s hair was her glory, and to cover it with a hat was to demean what God had meant to be shown in praise of the Creator.
“Knit, John?” He glanced away to see his eldest son flash a grin, one that matched his mother’s, as he motioned with his head for his father to join the family. The boy was good, he had to admit that. The cameras were rolling, and even though they weren’t broadcasting yet, Jeffrey had signaled in a way that no one would catch, even keeping a smile for the viewers. However, Trooper knew that particular tilt of his head, the one that said his father needed to drop everything and get to the Family Altar. The twins would never have that subtlety about them, not even at twenty-eight.
“I don’t think Lindsay wants to be here today, Two Points.” John glanced at Sharon. “Your wife looks good this morning. Is that a new dress?”
Trooper cleared his throat. “When isn’t it a new dress?” He smiled as he said it, and to the cameras it was just a warm cordiality for an old friend.
“Dad!” Jeffrey’s impatience showed as he waved to his father, but his tone was still bright and cheerful. “Check on Lindsay.” He smiled, but his words were a signal that he hadn’t been able to find her either, and he was concerned.
“John says she’s on the way,” He gave John’s hand a final shake before separating from him. “Thanks, John,” he said more quietly. “You’re the friend every man should have, and I love you for it.” As John’s face flushed with pleasure, Trooper slapped him appreciatively on the shoulder and moved toward his family, the lights shimmering in his hair.
He was aware of the shimmer, even though he couldn’t see it himself. It was the hairspray he used, one designed for televised sports. It had real gold in it, and with the pump of a finger, the highlights became real. Of course, those same highlights washed out when the televangelist stepped back into the workaday world of family, friends, and a business that had become just that—a business, but they sure looked good under the lights. Those gold highlights made the man seem, well, a little closer to the One he tried to emulate, a bit nearer to God than those around him, and for that, people came when the doors to the old sports arena opened, and when the call for finances filtered out over the airways, people responded, and generously, too.
It was the ointment in the alabaster box, washed across Trooper’s life to show God’s love to His most favored servant, and Trooper appreciated it as his due from the Master above.
There was a fly in the ointment, though. Bucky Simms with the Chronicle had become interested, and for the last week, he had been very interested indeed. No one would talk to him, though. No one at all wanted to talk to Bucky Simms of the Chronicle, not last week, not next week, and if they could help it, not ever. Bucky Simms was known for finding flaws, even where there were none.
No, Bucky Simms was not welcome at all.
SHE HAD been good once, Lindsay knew. She had been twelve, and when she was twelve, she knew she could find God, that He would show up if she did something just for others, something magnificent enough to get His attention. She hadn’t accepted then that God was just what He appeared to be, a sham. She knew it now, had become convinced that God was something invented by her father, by all the fathers of the world, by all the fathers of history, for the sole purpose of manipulating others. The cash they garnered didn’t hurt, either. God knew, her father had certainly come out on top in that phase of the game.
She had truly been good then, back when she was twelve, or she had at least believed she was. She had wanted to be, and she had wanted God to be real. She hadn’t known how to get His attention, though, not until she’d seen the frantic reporter on the television unable to control her normally staid emotions, as yet another mobile home washed away from the town’s last refuge for those who did the real work of the world: the housekeepers, the janitors, and the laborers who worked at jobs that paid them just enough to survive.
Creekside Mobile Home Park had its picturesque qualities when the sun was bright and Rockaway Creek burbled along, neatly bound within its rocky banks. There had even been a bridge once, a small footbridge that led over the shimmering water’s surface to a small grassy area just on the other side. When Creekside Park was new, there had been picnic tables sitting around the green space, and families had enjoyed the amenities that the secluded area offered. The tops of the trees had rustled in the breezes from earliest spring to the first touch of winter, and there were birds, glorious birds that built nests in the tallest branches. After great windstorms, it had been a favorite pastime of the local bird watching society to scramble through the green space looking for small birds that had been blown out of their nests, gathering them up in the hopes, sometimes successful, that the small creatures could be reared to adulthood and released back into the wild.
However, no one had visited that area in decades. The bridge and the tables had all washed away in one of the creek’s many flash floods several years after Creekside Park was built. By the time Lindsay was twelve, the floods happened with every heavy rainfall. Many of the homes carried an odd odor of mustiness that never seemed to dissipate even on the brightest of summer days. Plug-in air fresheners and scented oil sticks barely took off the sour smell that permeated even the clothing the occupants wore—and they were just that, occupants, people there for the duration. No one owned the trailers in Creekside anymore, no one, at least, who lived there. Creekside Mobile Home Park was a place a person moved to when options were limited to none at all, and those who could get out, got out as quickly as possible.
Those who were forced to live in Creekside Park soon learned an important lesson. The first hammering of raindrops on tin roofs was the signal for residents of the park to gather essential belongings into one location, ready to grasp and run if they had to sprint for the safety of higher ground. On that night when Lindsay was twelve, one family new to the park was caught unawares. Had the flood been a normal one, they would have quickly learned from the drenched shoes underneath their beds and the precious memories stored in boxes at the bottoms of closets that had to be thrown out when the waters receded, but this flood was anything but normal.
The week before, in a minor downpour, garbage in the creek, accumulated over the decades, and catching on rocks and filling the pools that could have long ago absorbed much of the sudden influx of water, had finally filled to the bursting point. Shifting once again, it had blocked what little drainage was left. The flooding water had not quite reached the floors of the mobile homes along the creek’s bank, but it had been very slow to drain.
A number of the park’s residents had commented on the fact, but each of them considered themselves transitory, even if the moving on they regularly talked of had been postponed many times for some of them, finances defeating them at every turn. Under other circumstances, they might have been able to guess just how bad it was, but no one remembered the way the creek had been many years before when the park was built, back when Rockaway Creek was a beautiful place one would actually want to visit.
Now it was just a junk-filled wasteland that was ignored when possible, and at other times put out of mind as soon as could be done so, the residents grateful their musty carpets hadn’t been soaked once again, and they could all sleep in their beds that night, despite the old smell of water that never seemed to go away.
That new family had been asleep in their beds that fateful night. New to the city, just in from the country and desperate for a fresh start, the young family had been forced to take the cheapest home Creekside had been able to offer. It had seemed livable, if a bit mustier than the other homes in the park. It was small, but then all the homes in Creekside were small. However, running water could be heard just outside the windows, and that had appealed to the young mother.
With the central air conditioning system broken many years before, and only one small window unit to purr along in the larger of the two small bedrooms, the family slept together under the coolness of the murmuring compressor, with the baby in the crib, and their kindergarten son on a soft pallet on the floor. The water that night swelled so fast, the small air conditioner didn’t even have time to quiet its soothing murmurs before the tin walls containing the struggling family and all their possessions were yanked from their cinderblock stanchions and thrust into the roiling flood.
That was the reason for the reporter’s tears. Other residents, ones who had taken the time to talk to the young couple and gotten to know them, pleaded on air for someone, anyone, to do something, telling what they knew of the people whose home was now just an empty expanse of black water. The reporter’s normally expressionless face broke at the realization that this family had come to Creekside looking for a fresh start in life, and now their lives had been taken from them, and all because this particular mobile home park happened to be located just over the edge of the city’s boundaries, making no one responsible for the upkeep of Rockaway Creek. That lack of responsibility had just caused four people to be swept away, four people who in all likelihood were already dead.
It was when the reporter’s camera aimed into the night lying heavily across the black waters, and the floodlights picked up debris carried along by the flooded stream, that the budding teen watching knew what she must do. This was her opportunity to accomplish something big enough to get God’s notice, something that would cause Him to pay attention to her, to Lindsay, and to prove He was real. She had been galvanized. Surely God cared that these people had just lost their lives and that more people living in Creekside Park might soon follow.
She had done what she had planned that night. She got her teachers and classmates involved, put up flyers in local businesses, and elicited the participation of anyone who wanted to help clean the creek. Parents of her classmates began to offer backhoes and trucks, and from there, the responses reverberated as a cause extraordinaire throughout the city. Trooper and Sharon saw the notices in the paper, as well as reporters on television telling of the upcoming Clean Up Rockaway Creek Day that had been initiated by Lindsay’s school. They had no idea it was Lindsay’s proposal, though, and their own involvement in their ministry efforts—as well as decorating a new home in the city’s most affluent subdivision—conspired to keep them so busy that the Clean Up Day was acknowledged as just one more good thing on God’s agenda, something that He was doing through the good people who lived alongside them in their fair city.
Jeffrey, a freshman in college at the time, learned of his sister’s project when he happened to be home the weekend of the Clean Up Day, and Lindsay made her bid to drag him along.
“Jack, you must come with me!” With a brightly colored bandanna tied around her head, she flew into his room early that Saturday morning. She was dressed for working, and her clothes were the most rugged she owned. “You have to drive me down to the creek. You must! We’ll be late, if you don’t hurry.”
He rolled over and groaned, pulling his pillow over his head. This was his first night to sleep in the new house, and his bedroom had been low on his mother’s priority list for blinds. The multilevel flat roof was raised in every possible room to allow clerestory windows to wrap the ceilings, flooding the interior spaces with light. In addition, his bedroom had a solid wall of sliders that opened to a balcony that hung over Stone Creek.
“Jack!” Lindsay jumped onto his bed. “You have to know about this. Get up and go with me.”
“Get up?” His words groaned from underneath his pillow.
“Yes, Jack! Get up!” She reached and rumpled his hair. Her big brother was her favorite person in the whole world, and with him home, how could the weekend be any less than perfect?
JEFFREY had come in from college a day early to catch the final meeting of the Youth International Rally held at the church just the evening before. He had attended the rallies since entering the youth department at thirteen, and he had been unwilling to miss this year.
Now he wished he had. She had been there, and in that unexpected meeting, the life he had known was changed forever.
IT WAS YOUTH camp, and Jeffrey was fifteen. The camp was large, and churches came from hundreds of miles away. With his mother’s good looks and his sideways grin, he attracted the girls like flies to a pot of golden honey.
All week one fourteen-year-old girl doted on him. It wasn’t love. Even Jeffrey understood that. He didn’t even know what love was, just that when he was with her, he felt good, and by the end of the week, he wanted to be with her as much as possible.
On the last night of the camp, several of the counselors planned a series of events to exhaust the campers, one of which was an extended hike through the woods. As the group passed the stockade-fenced pool enclosure, he impulsively grabbed the girl’s hand and pulled her aside, laughing as he held his hand over her mouth. As he giggled and put his arm around her to hold her still, in the darkness, with the sounds of the other campers growing fainter in the woods, he held her far longer than he should. However, she didn’t seem to mind, and once the sounds of the others were gone entirely, he removed his hand from her mouth and whispered to her quietly.
“May I kiss you?”
He could barely get the words out. It wasn’t that he had planned to ask her to kiss when he pulled her aside. He had only felt he needed to be as close to her as he could, and kissing seemed the one thing he knew.
“If you want.”
As his lips touched hers, his arm brushed the catch on the gate, and it suddenly swung in, causing them to stumble and almost fall to the ground. He laughed, catching her. He blamed the pounding in his chest on the near fall, not realizing there were other things happening just at that moment that could be equally responsible, things like having a girl alone with him in the darkness, a girl with a too thin tee and a willingness to offer him a suddenly desired first kiss.
“I’ve never swum alone in the pool. I’m going to get in.” The fact that Jeffrey had gone forward three times during the week to offer his heart to God was washed away in the intensity of this one moment in the darkness. All that was now important to him was spending time with this beautiful girl. To make matters even more enticing, the pool fence offered them total privacy.
“We don’t have suits, silly. Besides, there’s no lifeguard.” Her words were whispered with intensity, but in the warm darkness of the evening, they didn’t say no at all, not the way Jeffrey heard her speak. “The lights aren’t even on. We can’t see.”
“And no one can see us. We won’t get in trouble.” With clammy hands that could barely grab the damp fabric of his shirt, he pulled it quickly over his head.
“You’re really doing this?”
“I’ve swum in my boxers before. They’re no different than a swimsuit. This’ll be fun.” He kicked his sandals aside and stepped out of his shorts, hanging them on the fence. His boxers hung limply from his fifteen-year-old waist, and in the darkness, they did seem much like trunks. “Go in with me, please? The water’s warm.”
Somewhere in the darkness, a frog started up its throaty call. It was as if the two campers had the night to themselves. The girl laughed, and she rubbed her arms as if suddenly chilled.
“You go. I don’t have anything I can wear. I’ll sit on the side and watch you swim.” She pushed him on the chest with her hand, letting it rest against his skin a little longer than she might if she hadn’t felt much the same as he did. However, after a moment, she pulled it away and removed her shoes, sitting on the side of the pool and dropping her feet into the warmth of the water. “Go, now. Just don’t make waves. I have to stay dry.”
He leaned in and kissed her cheek, then before she could respond, he slipped into the water, sinking to the bottom, and leaving her alone.
JEFFREY had met that girl again the previous evening, and he hadn’t even known who she was. She had walked straight up to him after the meeting and shaken his hand cordially. There had been something familiar in her manner, but he hadn’t known just what.
“You never called, but then I realized I never gave you my phone number. He looks just like you.” Her voice was bright and friendly. “I saw him just once before his new parents took him. I couldn’t name him, of course, but when they came for him, I called him Jack, for you. They had no other family, they said, and he would be special to them.” Conversations of people from many different youth groups entwined around them. “I wasn’t supposed to meet the parents, but I refused to turn loose of him, forcing them to come to me.”
In that moment, Jeffrey felt his stomach turn inside out.
HE SURFACED at the opposite side of the pool and shook the water from his head. Just a touch of the moon could be seen rising over the trees, and he could barely make out the girl sitting on the far side.
“Come over here, Jeffrey. Swim back to me.”
He put his arms in front of him and pushed the water aside in a smooth breaststroke. Coming to rest in front of the girl, he placed his hands on the concrete coping on either side of her and looked into her face. He could see the outline of her head with the enlarging moon just behind her.
“Kiss me again. You never kissed me properly after the gate fell open. On the lips, like you started to do. Then we have to go before someone finds us.” She teased him, touching his hand where it rested beside her.
With a surge of motion, he thrust himself out of the water. As he broke free, his mouth found hers, his heart pounding with the brazenness of what he’d done. This time he rested both of his arms on her legs, pulling her feet around him and leaning back in the water.
“Don’t. You’ll pull me in,” she whispered, but there was laughter there, and she didn’t really sound as if she meant for him to stop. “I can’t get any wetter, or my counselor will know I’ve been down here at the pool. I’ll get in so much trouble.”
“Get in,” he pleaded. “What does it matter now?”
“One more kiss, and we have to go. The hike will be over before long, and we can’t be found in here.”
Her words were soft and short, and to Jeffrey, in the sultry night air, they were the taste of chilled water sliding down a parched throat. A cricket nearby chirped loudly, almost breaking the spell. For a moment, he tried to focus. He really did. Just for an instant he knew he should climb out of the water and gather his clothes, then the two of them should rush to join the other campers as quickly as possible. He certainly shouldn’t be planning to pull this girl into the water with him.
Then, those rational thoughts slipped away.
“I REALLY loved you that night, you know.” The beautiful young woman, certainly no longer a mere girl, turned, distracted as laughter rang from one set of seats nearby. Her eyes had begun to turn red.
Jeffrey suddenly saw her as she had been in that pool that night, the moonlight shining on her face as he held her. His heart slowed to a standstill, the world around him fading. Someone else whispered his words for him.
“I didn’t know.”
He glanced the direction of the laughter, suddenly cold, not really seeing what had caused him to look that way, and then back to the girl, wanting to speak, and not knowing what to say. What could he say? He was in shock, and his vocal cords were as frozen as his thoughts in his head.
A child? He was only nineteen.
HE PULLED on her legs, pulled hard so she would fly into his arms, sinking with her into the pool. His feet quickly pushed them both to the surface of the water, and he laughed as they broke through to the mugginess of the night air.
“Jeffrey! Look at me—” In spite of her admonition, she couldn’t finish her words, because he pressed his lips to hers, stopping her in mid-sentence, only releasing her after several long, silent moments.
“Call me Jack.” His words escaped with an intensity that surprised even him.
“Jack?” She giggled, caught off guard by his words.
“Besides, you told me to kiss you, and I did.” He was delirious with the audacity of his actions.
“Sure, Jack.” She giggled again, her arms resting across his shoulders.
“I like it when you say my name. Say it again. Call me Jack.” He pulled her closer.
“Jack. The name fits you.” She leaned forward and kissed the end of his nose.
AS HE HEARD music start up, canned, the background noise that told the ministry staff to start shutting the building down section by section so the crowds would slowly empty, he simply looked at her. His mind had gone numb. In the balcony far above, he was distantly aware of the top tiers of seats going dark as the first set of lights was turned off.
“I wasn’t ready for the responsibility, and we really should have gone on that hike. Did you truly love me, Jeffrey?” Then, quickly, she caught his hand and held it for a moment, shaking her head. “No, don’t answer that. It’s been four years, and it’s the ancient past by now. I hoped you would be here; that’s the reason I came when my youth group decided to attend. I did love you, though, Jeffrey. I just want you to know that.” She dropped his hand and sighed, brushing her hand down her skirt, fingering the material nervously. It was her eyes that told the truth of the matter. They shimmered with moisture, and she spoke her words quickly.
“He’s three, now. His birthday was last week.”
FINALLY, with a sudden, all-consuming realization of what his body had been attempting to tell him all along, intent sprang full-blown into Jeffrey’s mind. Before, if they had been interrupted, even accused of impropriety by the camp staff, he wouldn’t have understood the charges, because there had been no intent in his mind. However, now, in the pool next to this girl, with his body pressed against hers, he was no longer innocent of the possibilities that were open to him. With an immediate clarity of purpose, he knew what this moment was all about, what had to happen, and the situation changed for him.
It would have been better if it had been love. Not right, but better. It was not, though. This girl had doted on him all week, and he had only pulled her away from the group because she had been at his side when the opportunity had provided itself.
“Jack, no,” her words whispered, when he pulled her tight.
“I love you. I thought you loved me, too.” His lie was whispered and urgent.
“I do love you, but—”
“Then you love me, and I love you.” They were the first passionate words he had ever whispered, although he didn’t think of them that way. He thought of them as convincing, and they were. “And that means we should do this.”
With those words, her resistance melted, and events raced down a path no fifteen-year-old should follow. Neither should a fourteen-year-old, if the matter be told. However, that road was soon traveled, even if the full realization of their actions didn’t hit them until the moment was done.
After rescuing cast-off clothing and exiting the pool, the two children couldn’t find the courage to look in each other’s eyes. The other campers returned, their laughter driving the frogs and crickets back into the decaying leaf litter along the trail. Their friends called to Jeffrey and the girl, surprised to find them already back at camp. Had they taken a short cut? Their hair was wet; they must have had a water fight. Could anyone join? And before too many minutes passed, water fountains were filling cups and plastic bags, balloons were scrounged, and eager hands were sending watery projectiles flying through the air.
Jeffrey loved water fights, but he didn’t love that one. He sat on a bench, looking for signs of the girl, wondering if she’d tell. Even when a water balloon hit him on the head, he didn’t cry foul, or that he would be getting even for such a dastardly deed. It was when one of his friends tackled him, taking him to the ground, the mud filling his mouth, that he began to retch. Everyone thought it was because of what he had swallowed. Only Jeffrey knew it was because of what he’d done. Well, one other person knew, but she wasn’t anywhere around, not anyplace Jeffrey had been able to find, anyway.
It was a small favor, he’d thought at the time. He couldn’t have faced her. It was the worst thing he’d ever done.
WHEN JEFFREY looked up, she was gone. Later, he knew she couldn’t have just disappeared. The massive auditorium was too large, too open for that. He must have been in shock. After camp, he’d destroyed everything from that week, telling himself he’d never show an interest in girls again. He’d spent weeks reading his Bible for hours, praying for forgiveness.
At nineteen, he knew better. God had specifically built each man to be attracted to women in just that way. It was up to the man to control those drives and use them properly. Eventually, he had learned how to accept what he and the girl had done, to understand that it had been no more than one brief moment in his past. It was regrettable, but it was also something he could not undo.
Now, nearly four years later, waves of ratcheting guilt held him tightly bound in a straitjacket. His teenaged indiscretion was not simply an awkward memory.
It had taken solid form. He had a son.
JEFFREY reached a hand up, pushing Lindsay away. He couldn’t face the day, much less with her harassing him. Get up and go with her? Sure, Lindsay, and he had a three-year-old son he’d never met. He really did not want to face this day.
He felt her yank the pillow from his head, and before he could hide once again, she grabbed his face in both her hands. She leaned to touch her forehead to his, and her nose pressed against his nose. She spoke in the most charming voice she knew.
“You are my sweetest big brother, perfect in every way. You know you are, Jack, and I love you very much. Get up, please. For me.”
He refused to open his eyes, and he groaned. “We live on the creek, little sister. Walk out to the balcony and jump off. You’ll land in it. Why do I need to take you there?”
She pulled at his eyelids with her fingers, but he simply squeezed them tighter.
“Look at me, big brother. Jack, please look,” she pleaded. Then, she threw herself down beside him. “You came home all this way just to go to that meeting at church, didn’t you?” When he pulled his arms up and wrapped them over his face, she poked him in the side before reaching up to squeeze the muscle in his arm.
“It’s real, Lindsay.” He laughed. His sister’s teasing was bringing back memories of better times, back when he hadn’t known he was a father.
“Are you working out?” She giggled. “I'm one of your college sweethearts. Tighten your arm for me. I want to know what your muscle feels like.” She squealed as he did so. “Dad tells Mom that he’s lucky to have such a perfect son—”
One of his arms interrupted her torrent of words, as he clamped a hand over her mouth.
“Stop it with the perfect stuff, Lindsay. I’m not perfect, and you know it.” The girl from the night before. A three-year-old. Even when he did something outstandingly stupid, his family saw him as perfect. It was an impossible standard to have paraded before him year after year. This morning, it was crushing.
“How are you not perfect, big brother?” Lindsay grabbed his arm and played with his fingers. “Even I think you’re handsome, and that’s saying something, because I have really high expectations. You’re not even mean to me, and I pick on you all the time. Now,” and she jumped up onto her knees, pulling the comforter off him, “you have to get up. I need to go to Rockaway Creek.”
“Rockaway?” He tried to remember what it was he’d heard about Rockaway Creek. A clean-up effort, perhaps? He sat up, squinting as a ray of sunlight through one of the clerestory windows hit his face. “Say one of Dad’s prayers for me. Ask God to turn off the sun until after I get up.”
She knelt across him, one knee on each side of his torso, blocking the sun, and once again she grabbed his face in her hands. “That’s why you’ve got to do this for me, Jack. This is so important, even God’s got to notice.” She leaned down and kissed him on the cheek. “And yes, Rockaway Creek.”
“Why Rockaway? That’s just a trailer slum down there.” Impulsively, with a suddenness intended to catch her off guard, he grabbed her around the waist with both arms and rolled her over onto the bed next to him. “Why Rockaway Creek? Tell me, little sister, or I’ll tickle you until you wet your pants.” He held one finger up as if he might do exactly that, and it caught the strip of light streaming in from overhead. It glowed. He glanced at it and grinned.
“What, Jack? That’s sunlight, you know.” She giggled.
“No, it’s not,” he said ominously, although he couldn’t keep a grin off his face.
“Yes, you bully. I know sunlight. Now, let me up.” She was her grownup self now, or as grown up as a girl of twelve could be. “You’ve got someplace to take me.” She struggled but not seriously.
“No,” he repeated. “This is the Holy Hand of God. The light is the presence of God that shined on Moses’s face when he descended from Mt. Sinai, and it’s about to speak directly to one twelve-year-old girl’s ribcage, if she isn’t forthcoming with news about Rockaway Creek.”
She squirmed from underneath his hand, dragging the comforter with her as she scrambled off the bed, holding it over her head and chanting loudly into the room, “Jeffrey’s got to get up. Jeffrey’s got to get up.”
On her third pass, the bedroom door flew open, and in ran their eight-year-old twin brothers, Cody and Casey. Even at eight, the boys already had their father’s lanky build, and they were dressed identically.
“No! Not the twin tornadoes!” Jeffrey laughed to see Speed Racer plastered across their chests.
“Jack!” Their voices chimed out as one as they ran to the bed. One tow-headed boy scrambled up to jump on him, and Jeffrey knew it was Cody, because he was the live wire of the two. He was always first, and he sprawled on the bed and curled into a ball, Jeffrey’s hands tickling him.
“Cody, you’re dead meat, you know that? No one attacks me on Saturday morning without paying a very steep price. No one.”
“Jack, I’ll pay.” The second twin climbed on the foot of the bed, and he stood with his arms extended. It seemed that Casey wanted what his brother had, and right then, his brother had Jeffrey. The second twin leaped into the fray, pleading for his big brother to tickle him, too.
“You, too, little Casey? You can’t offer to pay. I just take what I want, and right now I want a piece of you. Take that!” He reached and grabbed his brother’s ear, yanking on it until the eight-year-old squealed in delight. “Can’t take it, huh? I’ll get the other one, then. You’ll pay. I don’t get revenge; I get even. How many times have you heard me say that?”
“A million,” Casey squealed in a high-pitched voice.
“How many?” Jeffrey turned, grabbing at Cody as he leaped off the bed and out the door. “Help, Lindsay. One’s getting away.”
“A million,” Casey called out once again, his laughter taking his breath away.
“Louder, little twin. Tell me again.” He pulled the boy close, wrapping him in his arms.
“A million,” he yelled at the top of his voice. “More than a million!”
Right then was when Cody bounded back into the room with a can in his hand. Knocking the top off, he jumped on the foot of the bed, aimed it at his siblings, and pushed the nozzle hard. Silly String pumped from the can, shooting across the bed. Jeffrey reached to grab his leg, missing his ankle, but snagging the pajama bottoms, causing the boy to stumble off the bed and to the floor. When he stood to run, Jeffrey called to him to freeze.
“No, you don’t, you little shrimp. No one gets away with spraying Silly String in my room.” Jeffrey leaped from the bed. He scrambled to his feet just in time to scoop the boy in his arms. Tickling him to make him drop the can, it clattered to the hardwood floor, just as a pair of sock-clad feet stepped inside the door. Jeffrey sat hard on the floor and looked up with a grin.
It was his father, tall and lanky, looking barely older than his pictures from high school. His hair stood straight up, and he yawned.
“Just get up, Dad?”
“You did make it home, Jack. How was the Youth International Rally last night? Last big meeting of the week, I heard. There’s a girl been looking for you all week, I understand. Someone from summer camp several years ago. Really nice and exceptionally pretty, or so your Uncle John says.” His father winked. “Don’t let the pretty ones get away. Find some way to snag ’em, because those are the ones that always go quick. Did she find you last night?”
At his father’s words, the straitjacket was back. He held his brother, because he didn’t know what else to do.
“Sorry, Dad. We didn’t mean to wake you.” He put his face next to his brother’s and breathed in the little boy smell that was his. He wondered if she’d told Uncle John what she’d told him.
“Did you, Jack?” His father walked over and rumpled Cody’s hair. “John said she was there every night asking for you.”
“Did you get to meet her, Dad?” He reached and pulled Casey to his side, now holding one brother under each arm. His question was nothing more than a distraction to keep from answering his father’s question. He hoped he wouldn’t call him on it. He did not want to talk about this girl.
“Nah.” Trooper yawned again. “John just told me about her. I thought if you saw her, maybe you might invite her over for the day. After church tomorrow, of course, possibly for lunch, if you want.”
“Did John say if she said anything else?” Jeffrey blew a raspberry on Casey’s neck, grabbing a shock of the boy’s hair, as he searched for ways to keep from looking at his father.
Trooper turned to walk out the door, and then he paused and frowned, looking back at his son. “She met you at summer camp when you were fifteen or sixteen, or so she told John. That was the age you were the last time you went. You know, even back then I never could decide what made you quit attending. You always seemed to enjoy it. Anyway, she said you two swam together once that week. That was odd, I thought, because I don’t remember the camp ever having coed swim times.” He paused, pulling at an ear, and then he ran a big hand through his hair and laughed. “Oh, well. I’ll tell John she missed you again. It’s good to have you home, Son.” He walked out the door and then reappeared, rubbing his chin with a frown. “Yes, and your sister has a job for you today. I told her you might have other plans, but she seems to think what she needs is more important. You know how to handle her, though, so I’ll leave it in your hands.” He waved and was gone for good.
“The creek? Will you go with me, Jack?” From behind, Lindsay threw her arms around his neck and leaned her head onto his shoulder to whisper in his ear. “Please?”
Jeffrey knew one thing. He didn’t want to stay around the house. What would his family do if that girl actually told someone he’d fathered a baby when he was only fifteen? He couldn’t lie about it. He wouldn’t. If anyone found out, it would be a disaster worse than anything he’d ever known. Today, he needed to be gone, somewhere no one would ask him about his old summer camp days.
“Sure, Lindsay.” He drew in a deep breath. She would be his ticket for the day. “What are you planning to do there?” Something that could include him, he hoped, anything that would keep him out of the house.
“I’m going to help clear the creek. Lots of people are planning to be there, and we’re making it safe for the people who live there.”
“Safe? What’s wrong with the creek, and why are you helping?”
“Silly! So their houses don’t flood anymore.”
“Go play, boys.” Jeffrey pushed his two brothers away, calling after Cody, “Don’t forget your can of Silly String. You’ll want that.” He turned to Lindsay. “They’re just trailers, you know. There are no real houses on Rockaway Creek.”
“They’re real to the people who live there. Just because the people who live there aren’t rich doesn’t mean their houses should flood. God cares about them, too.”
“That’s my little sister.” He reached an arm and hugged her tight. “I love you, Lindsay.”
She laughed. “You should. Now get dressed, because everyone else is already there.”
Once she was gone, he stood and walked to the sliders, pushing them back to open the room up to the balcony. He felt the sun on his bare skin, and as it warmed him, he leaned onto the waist-high stainless steel railing, resting his elbows. Craning his neck, he looked down into the creek far below, hearing the sound of the water as it tripped over the stones that cluttered their way through the ravine. The trees that his parents had paid someone to trim to within an inch of their woody lives cast dappled shadows onto the surface of the water far below, and on the opposite side, hundreds of yards away, flowering shrubs had been planted, just perfect for viewing from his family’s home.
He shivered as a cloud dimmed the sun for a moment. He had a son out there. He couldn’t have imagined that a day ago. This place could have been that boy’s home, too. Yet, he didn’t even remember the girl’s name. He could still see the tears that had filled her eyes the evening before. She missed the baby, even now, three years after giving it up. Would he have felt the same, if he had known?
The sun came back out, and Jeffrey felt his skin warm. He turned when he heard Lindsay burst through his door.
“Jack, you haven’t gotten ready at all. We’ve got to go!”
Her voice was the epitome of exasperation, but he just smiled. “Coming, Mother, dearest. Your growl is my command. That bandanna on your head becomes you, Sis.”
“Just hurry, Jack.” She dug through several of his drawers, pulling out a pair of jeans and one of socks, and throwing them on the bed. “There. Put those on. I need you, Jack. God needs you. If you’re there, He’ll surely notice what I’m doing. Please.” She put her hands together in a pantomime of a prayer, and she made a face that was a desperate plea for his cooperation.
He placed his hand on her head and yanked the bandanna off. “This is what’s been slowing me down. I need one of these for me.” He laughed and put it on his own head. “I’m ready, now. Let’s go.”
“Jack!” She grabbed at it, as he held her at arm’s length. “Give it back. Beside, you can’t go without a shirt. Get dressed, first.”
“I can’t go without a shirt?” He raised one eyebrow. “I’m that horrible looking, then, that you refuse to be seen with me?”
She jumped and snagged the bandanna. “No. The newspaper will be there. They’ll be taking pictures, and you know how Mom and Dad feel about you and shirts in public. You get your picture in the paper without a shirt, and they’ll roll over. Me?” She giggled. “I’d show it to all my friends and tell them it’s my favorite brother in the paper.”
He laughed, pointing his arm to the door. “Go, Sis! I’ll pull a shirt on, and if you’re really good, I may find a place where the newspapermen can’t find me, and I’ll pull my shirt off just to cool down. If your friends are watching, I can hardly stop them, can I?”
Giggling, she ran from the room, calling back, “There’s bacon in the kitchen. I fixed it especially for you.”
He did get dressed, tossing his flannels on the bed and slipping on the things his sister had dug out for him. He also pulled out an old shirt from the bottom of a drawer, one that wouldn’t suffer too much extra damage from a day in the creek. Then, the smell of Lindsay’s bacon pulled him from his room.
“THIS IS cutting it close, Lindsay.” John Winston studied the beautiful young woman in front of him, and as he shook his head in dismay, he reached a hand to massage the back of his neck. What a time for the jackhammers to kick in, and just when he needed to get Lindsay to the platform. She certainly couldn’t go in the torn jeans she wore.
“John, don’t make me do this. I shouldn’t be on that stage, and you know it.” She was curled up in a chair, her eyes dark with lack of sleep. “Just tell Dad and Mom that I feel bad and have to sit this one out. I do feel bad, you know.”
She laughed at that.
John grinned. “You hate this, don’t you, Lindsay. Why do you have so much trouble giving your folks ten minutes just once a week?” He said it lightly, but without her on the platform, the donations for the week would suffer, and God help them, that was a thought no one wanted to contemplate. The ministry was at a crux in its finances, and he knew those finances inside and out. It was a year’s salary for some men just to run the lights in the auditorium, and that was just a fraction of the cost to heat and cool the facilities.
He pulled a pale yellow dress from a wardrobe, one with a summery feel to it, and he held it out to her. “You’re the one finishing up a degree in fashion. What have you learned in that school? Tell me, is this the latest in runway design or not?” It had a gauzy overlay on the outside with a nubby texture across its surface, and he felt it would flatter the casual look of the knit cap he intended for her to wear.
She sighed very dramatically, and he understood as if she had bared her soul. It wasn’t the dress he held. It was the cameras, the fake smiles, the knowing she didn’t mean any of it. More importantly, she was convinced that God wasn’t really there. She had made that clear to him more than once.
“It’s all a sham, John. You know that.” She caught the dress as he tossed it at her, laughing. “Summer? You want me to wear summer this final time, John?”
“It goes with the hat you’ll wear to cover your hair. You are beautiful, Lindsay. You do remember that?” He dug in another wardrobe and pulled out the knit cap, tossing it her direction. “Lipstick is the only makeup we have time for, so get dressed, Lindsay, for me, if not for your parents.”
“You love them, don’t you, John?” She looked up from the chair, still holding the dress and cap. “Whom do you love the most? Mom or Dad?” Then, she laughed. “Don’t answer that, at least not in public. It would paint you in a bad light. Has Dad ever found out?” When he frowned at her, she laughed again, and it was pointed. “He’s a smart man, John. Forgiving, too. Don’t you trust him?”
“Do you hate him that much, Lindsay?” Her words cut deep, and he felt his jaw tense. The jackhammers pounded. “Me, too? Do you hate me that much? Your secrets have always been safe with me. I hope mine are safe with you.”
She laughed, standing, as she threw the dress and cap onto the chair. Crossing the room, she pressed one hand to his face and closed her eyes for a moment. Then, she reached and kissed his cheek.
“I think you’re the only one I love, John. I used to worship my father, but he’s never understood me, and I certainly don’t understand him. Mom? She’s just Mom, and I have to take her as she is.” She patted his face. “You didn’t ask about Mom, did you? I do love the twins. Dear God, I love them, and Jack most of all.”
“God? You mentioned God, Lindsay. Have you ever found room for Him?” He knew they needed to hurry, but Lindsay rarely talked to him, really talked anymore, and he missed their chats, as oddly misinformative as they could be.
“I was twelve, John.” She pulled off her shirt and threw it aside, then reached to unfasten her pants.
He turned away. She had dressed in front of him, probably hundreds of times. He thought nothing of it, anymore, but while in the church, the appearance of propriety was important.
“I invited God to my party when I set up that mission to clean Rockaway Creek. Jack came, and even you. You were there. We performed a miracle for those people, and God never showed. Did you catch what I said, John? We performed a miracle, and I got my picture in the newspaper and everything, thanks to that brother of mine. I didn’t want that, you know, the recognition. I wanted God. However, God didn’t come to my party, John, and I don’t intend to go to His, not without complaining, anyway.” She had the dress on by then, and she grabbed the cap to pull it over her hair. “You do have the lipstick? I have none with me.” She grinned at him impishly.
As he opened the tube, he offered it to her. “Did it ever occur to you that you were the hand of God to those people, that a little girl of twelve saw the need and brought God’s miracle to them?”
She grabbed the lipstick and slashed it across her lips. “Don’t you dare suggest that to me, John. I saw that news report where that poor family was washed away, and I worked to get others involved in cleaning that creek. I gave God the chance to show up, and He never did. Don’t you tell me that I brought God’s miracle to those people. I brought my miracle to them. There is no God. I thought I must be wrong when I was a child, and at twelve, I thought I’d been given the perfect opportunity to prove it.” She thrust the lid on the lipstick and slammed it into John’s waiting hand.
“You’ll smile for the cameras, Lindsay?” He hoped so, but he wasn’t entirely sure this morning. “You do look beautiful.” She needed to believe in herself, and besides, it was certainly true.
She snorted and then grabbed his jaw with her hand. “Marry me, John. You and I would be perfect together. Marry me.”
He kissed her on the cheek. “That’s the Lindsay I love so much. Just smile, girl, and the world will love you for it.”
“I will smile, John.” She sighed heavily. “Just promise me you’ll be in front of the television monitors, and that you’ll watch. Then, someone will know my lie, because when I smile out there, it’s only because you asked. I want someone to look at my smile and think, ‘My God, that girl can lie like a rug, and no one can tell. Damn, she’s good.’”
“No profanity, please, not in the church.” He smiled to soften his words as he reached to a shelf and held out a pair of shoes. “Thank you, Lindsay. We must hurry.”
“When must we not?” Her tone was very cryptic, but still, she slipped the shoes on in record time, and the two of them were soon at the back entrance to the Family Altar. Through the door, it was clear her father was covering her absence very handily. There was even laughter from those still out on the auditorium floor, as he finished what was obviously a very amusing story.
LINDSAY watched John walk away, wondering for the hundredth time why he hadn’t been her father. John understood her. She always felt bad, and John knew all of it. Uncle John, she’d always called him as a child. Jeffrey never had, but the twins still did. He was an uncle to them, and John seemed to love them as much as he was devoted to her father. Strangely devoted, she had thought when she was a teenager, but now she accepted John as John, having come to know people at the university who were so much stranger. Besides, she had grown fond of him, and he was able to listen and not divulge anything she told him, no matter how horrible it might be. She knew, because she had made up some whoppers over the years, just to see if they ever got back to her parents. Not one ever had.
She turned back to the Altar, just for a moment practicing her smile for John. Oh, God, it felt fake! How could she go out there and pretend it was real? It made her as bad as her father.
She knew there was more, though. The pain was all of her life wrapped in a nutshell, and it hurt to crack it open in public with a smile no one believed. It was no more than window dressing, and she was certain it must carry over the broadcast to the viewers. It must, or they were as deluded as her parents.
Another round of laughter filtered in around her. She wouldn’t be surprised if the jaunty stories were about her, either. She had always seemed to amuse her father. Inspire him? Never. He always seemed to find new and inventive ways to refuse to show his love to her, and that was what made her want him to feel her pain as deeply as she had felt it for years.
SHARON felt good this morning, and she laughed at Trooper’s stories, joining in with those still in the congregation, those faithful souls who would stay in their seats until the last Kincaid was off the platform and had left the building. They were the core of the ministry, the “old-timers,” some would say. In her darker moments, those times when the world seemed pitiless and hostile, Sharon might use the same derogatory phrase, but today was not one of her darker moments. Something in her brain chemistry was working correctly on this bright and enjoyable Sunday morning. Her endorphins were bleeding crazily into her system, and her neurons were flashing their messages on steroids. Today, Sharon wanted to be alive, and she felt generous to those still in their seats.
“Jack.” She leaned to her son’s side and whispered for his attention, even as she smiled for the cameras. She would play Trooper’s game today, the one that said they were a perfect family, united under the Holy Hand of God, the game that held the Kincaids up as a bastion of excellence the rest of the world could emulate, all because God had sanctified this family over and above other less deserving ones. Besides, she was beautiful, and this morning, she knew it. At fifty-three, it helped to have a designer dress covered in sequins to keep the focus off the fine lines around her eyes, but even so, she had no doubt about the splendid figure she cut in front of the television crews. She even did her own hair and makeup, and on this morning, she was proud of how good she looked.
“Mother?” Jeffrey kissed her on the top of her cheekbone, just below her eye.
“Your father must be frantic.” She laced laughter into her words. However, she could see Jeffrey was equally anxious, and she knew he would feel her words were aimed at him, too. She patted one side of his face to soften her comment.
“How so, Mother?”
“Your sweet sister. She seems so far away on this beautiful Sunday morning . . . so far away, I cannot seem to make her out at all. Do you think she has been raptured?”
“Be sweet, Mother.” Jeffrey grasped his mother’s hand, and he squeezed it gently. “She’s here already, and John’s bringing her along.”
Sharon laughed gaily and lightly, knowing her eyes sparkled in her well-applied mascara and tasteful eye shadow, and she kissed his hand, gently, of course, so that her lipstick remained unscarred. “I should not worry, then. Did you notice the pearls?” She patted one ear. “I wore them just for you.”
“I love you, too, Mother. However, I also know pearls and rubies are all you wear. They do suit you, but then you know that.” He touched the ring she wore. “See?”
Just then, the crowd began to chuckle at something Trooper said, and Sharon whispered, “I know this story. This one’s about you, Jack. Remember? You took your sister across the country on your father’s motorcycle. I was so frightened the whole time you were gone.”
But she smiled. Other, darker things frightened her now, and for this one morning, she didn’t intend to let any of them through to mar this perfect morning.
JEFFREY remembered. Lindsay had been fifteen, and he had already been away at college for four years, sleeping in his new bedroom in the Stone Creek mansion only a couple dozen times in all those years. He thought he had lost his little sister forever by that time. After the day he’d gone with her to clean up Rockaway Creek, she’d seemed to change, to distance herself from her family, her parents most of all. The church, too. It seemed she lost interest in Trooper Kincaid Christian Ministries after that, and being away so much, Jeffrey had seen it more clearly than the others. He caught the changes in flashes that were often months apart. Each time the difference was palpable, and he had felt his sister as more withdrawn than the time before.
The spring break before his graduation, he had come home for two nights to finalize plans for his upcoming trip to Europe, his parent’s graduation gift to him. He had been in the garage toying with his father’s motorcycle, polishing the gleaming monstrosity. All four of the garage doors had been open, and the sunshine streaming inside had felt good.
Lindsay had stepped into the garage, a younger version of her mother. She had been wearing ragged jeans and a too-low tank top, and she had taken his breath away. She wasn’t the little girl who used to jump on his bed any longer. When she tucked a strand of hair behind one ear, he saw what his mother must have been at the same age, and suddenly he knew he must do something to hold on to this sister he loved so very much.
“Come try it out, Lindsay.” His voice was bright, as he swung a leg over the seat of the bike. It was low-slung and black, the essence of power. “Has Dad ever let you take this out?”
She laughed. “I’m fifteen, Jack. When has Dad ever let me do anything?” Her expression sparkled, even though there was something tortured behind her words.
“Get on, Lindsay.” He jerked his head to emphasize his words. “See how it feels. Remember that old commercial we used to watch years ago? Try it; you might like it.”
“Sure.” She put her hands in her back pockets, and she moistened her bottom lip. However, she didn’t move toward the motorcycle. Instead, she leaned back against her mother’s car, also big, the largest model they made. Pushing her thick blonde hair back over one shoulder, she spoke to the floor. “I waited for Him that day. Remember?”
“Waited?” He picked up the helmet hanging on the handlebars, and he began to polish it with his sleeve. It had been a long time since his sister had talked, really talked with him. He wanted it to happen today.
“At the creek. You remember; you were there.” She raised her head and grinned. “You never did take your shirt off. All my friends wanted you to. They followed you like little ducklings. You can’t have forgotten that. You were a madman that day, working like God wouldn’t show up if you didn’t make it all happen yourself.”
He smiled into the helmet at her words, and he could see his resemblance to his sister in his reflection. No, he had not forgotten, but there had been other pressures crowding his mind during that cleanup. Only by keeping his hands very busy had he been able to get through that day, those intolerable minutes strung together along the banks of that creek. The thought of holding a small boy who looked like him had flooded through his thoughts continually.
He turned and glanced at Lindsay. “Get on. You can, you know. I don’t bite.” They had been very close once, and he was used to the feel of her arms across his shoulders. He missed that.
He knew he was being taken to task. Her tone was that of the old Lindsay. “Escape. That’s what a motorcycle is, you know. It’s not just two wheels and a motor. Those are simply the mechanics of the machine. What a motorcycle really is, is freedom. Get on. I think you need a bit of freedom.”
She laughed, and tears began to flow down her cheeks. “Oh, big brother, you have no idea. For freedom, for escape, I’ll do as you ask. Where’s my helmet?” She sauntered to him, and slapping her hands on his shoulders, she swung one leg over to nestle at his back.
“Welcome, little sister. I’ve missed you the past few years.” With the massive new church building the ministry had just bought, he knew he would be expected to show up each Sunday; and while he might see his sister more, seeing her was not what he wanted. He wanted to have her back, to enjoy the sister who had teased pitilessly with him, who had pushed him mercilessly just to get a response from him. He missed that Lindsay, and today, just for this moment, she was with him again.
“Where’s my helmet, Jack?” Her voice was insistent this time. When he handed her the one he was holding, she slipped it on and clipped it under her chin. Then, with both arms around his torso, she leaned her head against him. “Anywhere, big brother. I’m willing. Take me anywhere; just don’t leave me here.”
“That bad, huh, Sis?” He paused, and then on a whim, he hit the starter. The big bike rumbled into life.
“Thanks, Jack. I’ve always loved you best, you know. I’ve missed you, and I’ve wanted to tell you that so many times. You’re just so perfect, so untouchable, and I’m not perfect at all. God doesn’t even like me, anymore. I thought maybe you didn’t like me, either.”
Jeffrey revved the motor, unsure how to respond. He was the imperfect one, the Kincaid who had made such a gross mistake at fifteen that sometimes he woke at night in heart-pounding fear, certain that his world was crashing down upon him. At those times, he felt just one day away from a DNA test that would prove he had betrayed his family’s honor all those years ago.
“I’m not perfect, Lindsay.” He whispered his words, though, and when Lindsay asked him what he’d said, he called out something entirely different.
“Hold on, little sister,” and with a screech of tires, they were a black arrow shooting down a quarter mile driveway that looped through the trees, finally reaching the wrought iron and wooden gate that kept all intruders at bay. Then, as it dutifully swung aside, Jeffrey hit the gas, and the big bike surged onto the road, tearing the air as it took them where they needed to go, away, far away.
They did have to return, though. The bike was not Jeffrey’s, and they had made no plans. It was exciting, however, and there was a new look of life on Lindsay’s face as she sat behind her brother when he backed the bike into the garage. Taking her helmet off and handing it to him to hang on the handlebars, she leaned over and rested her head on his back once again.
“Thank you, Jack. It wasn’t true freedom, but it was enough of a taste that I know it could be real. I needed to know that, to know that escape might be possible someday. I might never make it out, but just to know it’s there is important.”
He felt wetness on his shirt that told of the tears that were leaking from her eyes.
“Go with me, Lindsay.” His words were impulsive, and he wasn’t sure at that exact moment just what he meant. He did know he wanted to reconnect with his sister, and not just for a crazy half hour on his father’s motorcycle.
“Go with you?” She chuckled, rubbing her hand across his back. “Where? Church? School? I’m only fifteen, Jack. Where would you take me? You’re leaving for Europe this summer. Like Mom and Dad would let me do that.”
That was exactly what he wanted, though. How great would it be to spend two months with her traveling to places they’d only heard of! Plus, he would be far away from little boys that were just now turning six. He wanted to know that boy sometimes, and at other times, he wanted to run far away. Even so, he knew his sister was right. His mother and father would not send her to Europe with him. And so, he shifted his plans to what was within his grasp.
“On this bike, Lindsay. Go with me on this bike.” He said the words firmly and with conviction. He could do this, just take the bike, even if his father said no. He could. He knew it. For Lindsay, he would. This moment with his sister was that important.
“Now, Jack?” She laughed, and he could feel her hand as she reached to her face to wipe her eyes. “That sounds so good to me, even if we both know we can’t. Thank you for the offer, though.”
“This summer, Lindsay. All summer. We can do that.” He looked out of the garage past the shadowy outline of the doorway, and he saw a redbird land on the asphalt. It hopped around for a moment, ignoring the two people in the garage, and after a bit, it snatched something from the ground. In a flicker of wings, it was gone as if it had never been there at all.
“Your trip, big brother. Europe.” She whispered her words into his shirt. “You smell good, the same big brother I remember from so long ago. I miss your smell, just as I miss so many other things when you’re not home.”
Her words steeled his determination.
“I want you, Lindsay, not Europe. Can you understand that?” His words were suddenly tight and fast. “I’m not going to Europe. I’m taking Dad’s bike to California, then to Oregon and Maine. Anywhere, and I’m not making any plans at all, just to go.” He turned to look over his shoulder at his sister, grinning when she looked up to catch his eye. “Want to take a ride?”
She laughed and pulled her arms tighter around his waist, her expression quickly fading to misty eyes. “Don’t tease me like that, Jack. I would want that too much to tease about it. Please start the bike again. I want to imagine you would really do that for me.”
He did start the bike again, but later he also told his parents his change of plans. Now, on this Sunday morning, his father was regaling his audience with excerpts from that bike trip. The crowd was eating it up.
“Mother.” Jeffrey touched her elbow with a smile, noticing the door at the back of the Family Altar. Someone emerged, and there stood his mother’s beautiful mirror image, Lindsay, his sister. “It seems the rapture has left our loved one here for another day. Lindsay is just behind you, and in a cap, nonetheless.”
Trust his sister to stir things up in the most original way possible.
SHARON turned and reached for her daughter’s hand. She pulled her forward, extending one hand gently to touch the knit cap covering her hair.
“How charming, Lindsay.” Her words were sweetly spoken, though. After all, Lindsay did look charming. She could look no other way, because she had her mother’s beauty, and even in her most ragged moments, there was a charisma about her that no one could deny.
“It was John’s idea. I ran late this morning.”
“Yes, John takes good care of us.” Sharon impulsively kissed Lindsay’s cheek. She would have done so anyway, but at that moment, she noticed a camera pointed right at them, and the red light on the front had suddenly flickered on. “Camera,” she whispered. “Smile.”
She was pleased to see Lindsay do so. It lit up her face. At that moment, she saw Trooper turn to his glowing daughter to blow her a fatherly kiss. Stepping to join them, he gathered his two basketball players to his side, standing at the back of the group of six. In front, Sharon pulled Jeffrey to stand between her and Lindsay. What a picture she knew they made, three lanky basketball players in back, and three beautiful blondes in front. Even without looking, she could see Trooper crinkle his eyes as he began his family speech to the whole world.
“Welcome to the end of this Sunday’s service at International Faith Center. I would like to introduce each member of my family to you and have them say a few words. First, I would like to present my charming daughter, Lindsay. Lindsay?”
Sharon watched the camera shift to the young woman in the knit cap. When she spoke, her eyes were clear and honest, and her words touched people’s hearts. Trooper had said it before, and he was right. Lindsay was the one that rounded out his family, and without her, nothing would ever be right again.
IN THE SOUND booth, John arrived out of breath, just in time to see the camera shift to a full-screen shot of the beautiful young woman he had just delivered to the Family Altar. When her smile broke across her face, it was real, and no one could have said otherwise. For a moment, even he was convinced. Then, he leaned in to the monitor and chuckled, remembering Lindsay’s request. “Damn, she’s good.” When the technician working the controls glanced at him with a puzzled look, John just winked. “It’s a direct quote. My apologies. You have to know the whole story to understand.”
He stood, his hand automatically reaching to his neck to ease the throbbing that no longer seemed to go away. It eased for a moment, and he let his hand fall away before it got there. He smiled. Lindsay was good for him. He felt like his old self, the one who used to play tennis and go camping in the woods. There was little doubt in his mind that once she excised the demons that haunted her, she would go far in life, and he would support her all the way
However, his stomach had begun to rumble, and until lunch was over, he would let himself think of nothing other than steak, not Lindsay, not tomorrow, and especially not the devil, himself, in the form of Mr. Bucky Simms, once again knocking at the ministry’s door.