Alex and Tina
Tina hadn’t anticipated needing them, but now she inwardly thanked Alex that he had asked her to keep his Trooper keys in her purse.
If only she had driven her own car! If she had, she could have left directly after the hearing, be well on her way home by now, and probably wouldn’t have this terrible headache, either.
She didn’t want to take anything for the headache, though, because if she did, she might be able to think. She could not stand another minute of thinking. Not about Jake. Not about Jake and the life they could have had together if only…
She really had to forget him. Just seal all that, that…feeling, that emotion way down in a part of her heart so deep she’d forget it had ever been any other way. Twice now she had fallen in love, and both times with flawed men. No big surprise; they are all flawed. Every one.
Pray for him, he had said. Maybe tomorrow. Not today.
She felt more alone than ever, now that Poppy and Kate had taken Jake’s side. Who could she talk to? Not Alex, that’s for sure. Alex, although the older of the two men, looked up to his brother, she realized, but maybe now that Jake ‘got religion’ as Alex referred to it on his way here, his opinion might change.
Alex tapped on the window and pointed to the lock. She let him in and handed him the keys.
“The rest of them—your grandparents, David and Laura and the kids, Gloria and her husband—they’re all staying at the Ramada,” he said. “How about we grab a couple of rooms, too. Even if we drive like maniacs we won’t be home until midnight and I hate driving at night—“
“Is Jake staying there?”
“Yes. I’d have more time to talk to him, too.”
She made up her mind. “I’ll drive. I don’t mind driving at night. You can sleep if you want and you can call…your brother tomorrow.” She couldn’t bear to use his name.
“Get out and go around to the passenger side.” She slid behind the wheel and tried to start the engine. Her hand shook and she couldn’t turn the key. “Don’t tell me this stupid car or truck or whatever it is isn’t automatic!”
“I’m supposed to trust my life to a woman who can’t drive a stick? Never mind.” He stepped out again and resumed his place in the driver’s seat.
The next words he spoke were when they were back on Interstate 40. She had been about to turn on the radio when he roughly pushed her hand away and took a deep breath. Then he let her have it.
“I know you’re a lot younger than I am, but I still can’t believe you’re being such a miserable, mean little brat about my brother,” he began. “And your attitude about his conversion is appalling!”
She stared at him, open-mouthed. He kept his eyes on the road, focused on driving.
“I wish I had a nickel for every time you and Gloria Stoner told me that forgiveness and restoration were cornerstones of the Christian faith. When I once had the temerity to ask a question about forgiving the unforgivable I believe you were the one who so sweetly—sickeningly, I thought at the time—explained that Jesus paid the price ‘while we were yet sinners.’ I have a very good memory, Ms. Hilbert, and I remember it well. I thought it was a load of rubbish when I first heard it in Sunday school, and I still thought so when you said it, but I do remember you saying it.”
For the first time Tina saw the resemblance between the Garret brothers. She heard no trace of the style of speech Alex usually affected in the salon. The man speaking was definitely Albert James Garret, older brother of Jacob Philip Garret and there was no question whose side he was on.
“Jake came into the diner absolutely devastated. When your grandmother tried to comfort him, he said you were right and he was stupid.”
Tina felt as if an arrow had hit her heart. She didn’t know if the stab of pain came from hearing about Jake’s distress or because Kate had comforted Jake, obviously taking his side, or because truth could still penetrate despite her best efforts to seal it all away from her.
Alex laughed dryly. “Kate said she didn’t raise you to call anybody stupid and she wants to have a talk with you.”
She turned her face to the window. Forgiveness. Jesus paid the price. Restoration. Jesus paid the price paid the price paid the price. Alex’s voice echoed over and over again in her mind. Forgive…Jesus paid. Alex’s voice, yet more familiar somehow.
The throbbing in her head had grown so fierce she wished someone would stick a needle in her skull to relieve the pressure. Just as she began to conjure up a glorious technicolor vision of a foot-long needle entering her skull causing a great hiss as steam escaped, followed by the release of the headache, Alex’s voice pounded on. Forgive, Jesus paid.
“He called that night but you weren’t home so he left a message,” he shot her a sharp look when she made a choking noise, and resumed, “Then when he wanted to try again Poppy told him not to, that he might be putting you in danger. He protected you because he cares so much about you, woman! Why is that so hard to understand?”
When she didn’t answer, he swore eloquently and at length. “I give up. If you’re so pig-headed he’s better off without you.”
They rode along in silence for three hours before stopping for gas and coffee. When they were back on the road and up to cruising speed Alex finally spoke again.
“You go ahead and rest for a while if you can. I’ll drive all the way home. I’m so wound up I couldn’t sleep now if I had to. Remember now, you don’t have to work tomorrow.”
“Thanks for changing my appointments for me.” She didn’t exactly feel grateful, but she knew he did it for what he thought were good reasons.
“You should also know that when you go back on Saturday I won’t be there.”
“Did you arrange to take the day off?”
“No. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking ever since we left Fort Smith. I don’t think I’ll go back to the salon at all, except to resign and call my clients with suggestions about other stylists who might suit them. I don’t want anyone but you taking care of Gloria Stoner.”
“What are you talking about? You’re everybody’s favorite! And I’ll miss you. I don’t want you to leave. What are you going to do? Are you going to another salon?”
“My brother needs me. From what his attorney told us, I don’t think he’ll spend another day in jail and he will have custody of Annie and Joey. They’re great kids, but I keep thinking about how mixed up they probably are by this time. I think I can help. I’m sure going to try. I love those kids, they like me, I think, and I’ll do whatever it takes. And, since he won’t have a wife,” he paused and she could feel him glowering at her in the dark, “I’m going to move to the ranch and keep house for the three of them.”
“You can’t be serious. Does Jake know?”
“No, he’s going to call tomorrow and I’ll talk to him about it then.” He glanced at her and then turned his attention back to the road. “If I believed in that stuff I’d have to say the idea popped into my head like divine inspiration. I just know it’s right.”
“I’m glad Jake doesn’t have to face this alone, Alex.” Tina laid her hand on his arm. “You’re a good big brother, and he’ll probably welcome your help.”
She remembered Austin bragging about being a big brother and how God wouldn’t let anything happen to him because he had to take care of his sisters.
“I wish I had a brother like you.”
She could feel him staring at her. “I can be your brother, Tina. You don’t have to be alone. I can help you with Jake’s children if you want me to.”
She’d taken Schotzie to Happy Tails to You Kennel where he had his own sofa and color TV. She knew he enjoyed himself there, but the apartment seemed dismal in his absence. Without changing into pajamas she flopped on her bed. 1:37. “What kind of a stupid hour of the night is that?” she asked the empty room, and watched the clock change to 1:38, the little blue dot in the upper right corner indicating “a.m.”
I can be your brother, Tina. She could hear him. You don’t have to be alone, Tina. She must surely have run dry of tears by now, but no, here they came again. You don’t have to be alone. You don’t have to be alone. You don’t have to be alone.
“So why am I alone? I know why. Because I’m stupid, that’s why. Stupid, stupid, stupid!” At 1:49 she buried her face in her pillow and cried herself to sleep.