Substitute Family Chapter 7

Chapter 7

Friday was the night of the singles’ picnic and volleyball game. It was also Garret’s birthday.

 Julie had always made a big deal about Garret’s birthday, making a big dinner and inviting both of their families. It had embarrassed him to no end, but he couldn’t make her see that. This year, Emily realized there would be no one celebrating Garret’s birthday with him.

She decided to do something special for him. A cake would be stretching it, because she could never outdo the ones Julie had made. But Garret liked lasagna.

She prepared a lasagna at the apartment at her aunt’s and took it with her to Garret’s house on Friday. She would put it in the oven so it’d be hot when he got home from work.

She also took the food for the picnic and clean clothes. She would change at Garret’s house and go to the picnic from there. The park where the singles were meeting was in the neighborhood where Garret lived. It would save her time from running back to the other side of the city to her aunt’s house to change and grab the food.

Garret had been coming home at 6:30 this week, getting that extra hour of overtime in every evening. To have the lasagna ready when he got home, Emily put it in the oven at 5:30.

She fed the twins their supper of grilled cheese and cooked veggies. She waited until they were finished eating and she had cleaned them up before she changed for the picnic.

At 6:30, the lasagna was done, Emily was ready for the picnic, and the twins were getting fussy. Emily was nervous, and hungry. She started snacking on her veggies and dip.

After waiting for a half hour, she couldn’t figure out why Garret hadn’t called and told her he would be late. She could have called her aunt to watch the kids, but it would be too late to take the twins to their house and then go back to the picnic. And she thought Peg was helping Melanie out tonight because Scott had a work function to attend.

Seven-o’clock came and went. Emily had missed the start of the picnic. She could still go late, if Garret came home soon, but now she was tired and feeling cranky. She gave the twins their baths and put them in their pajamas.

She tried not to let her imagination run wild, picturing Garret in a terrible accident. She almost hoped something bad had happened, because then she could understand why he hadn’t called. If she found out he was having a good time, and had not called to see if she could stay late, then she would be even angrier with him.

“He must have thought that poor Emily would never have plans on a Friday night so it would not matter to her if she stays late,” she muttered as she let the water out of the bathtub.

When Garret walked in the front door around eight o’clock, Emily was sitting on the living room floor, building a block tower with Cody and Chloe.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” he said, as he sat down on the couch. Emily noticed the tired lines around his eyes and mouth.

 “Are you okay?”

“As okay as I can be.”

Since she had already missed the picnic, Emily decided to make the best of her evening. “I made lasagna. I think it’s still warm. Do you want to join me for supper?”

Garret’s eyes lit up. “Lasagna? Homemade?” When Emily nodded, he added, with uncharacteristic enthusiasm, “That sounds good. I just grabbed a quick sandwich at lunchtime.”

“I already fed the kids, but I haven’t eaten yet. We can feed them Cheerios in their highchairs while we eat,” Emily suggested. The anger she had felt seemed to melt under Garret’s unusually good cheer.

“I’ll go and change.”

The twins followed Garret down the hallway to his room. Emily set the table and cut the lasagna. Garret came back, with Cody following on his heels and Chloe in his arms. He was dressed in a faded T-shirt and a pair of basketball shorts. His hair was slightly mussed from changing his shirt, and Emily found herself staring at him for a moment.

He didn’t seem to notice. Emily took a diet cola from the refrigerator.

“Do you want one, Garret?”

“I’ll have some milk.” She brought the milk over as well, and sippy cups for the twins. Garret dished up servings of the lasagna onto the plates, eyeing the steaming food appreciatively.

“This looks great,” he said, a real grin spreading across his face as he looked over at Emily.

After a few minutes, Cody reached for Garret’s plate, and he slid it out of reach of his son. “I think he wants some lasagna.”

“He shouldn’t be hungry. He already had his supper.”

Garret fed Cody a spoonful of lasagna. He reached for the spoon. “I think he wants more.”

Emily brought out a plastic dish and Garret scooped some noodles into it. After a few attempts to spoon up the noodles, Cody reached into the lasagna with his fist and shoved some of the noodles and sauce into his mouth. Most of the sauce went around his mouth, but enough of it got on his tongue. He rolled it around in his mouth, and smacked his lips in appreciation.

“You like that, don’t you, buddy?” Garret wiped his son’s mouth with a napkin.

Emily’s eyes misted over at the gesture. Garret may not be doing everything that Peg thought he should, but he was a good dad.

“I can see you guys get along good.”

“We try.” Garret’s eyes were serious as they met hers. “It’s not easy, being alone with them every evening. But it probably isn’t easy being here all day with them, either.”

“It’s different from teaching five-year-old’s who can talk and use the potty.”

“These guys require a lot more care, don’t they?” He said it like an apology.

Emily did not want him to feel bad. “At least they don’t talk back and fight with each other—yet.”

“That day will be coming, won’t it?” Garret had a sad, far-off look in his dark eyes. “Sometimes, I wonder how I’m going to get through the day, let alone worry about what they’ll be like a year or two down the road.”

“You just take it a day at a time, I guess.”

Garret concentrated on eating, and Emily fell silent also. When Garret finished a second helping of the lasagna, he pushed his plate back, and leaned back in his chair.

“I’m glad you came, Emily. I know Peg was getting exhausted. We talked about day care, but Peg wanted to handle things herself.”

Amazed that Garret was speaking so openly, Emily tried not to say anything that would make him close up again. She knew it was important that Garret had someone he could trust to talk to. After careful consideration, she said honestly, “I don’t mind being here. We’ve been having a lot of fun together, and I wouldn’t have been doing anything at home this summer, other than gardening and reading.”

“I know Julie would be glad that you stepped in to help out.”

“She would be equally pleased with the way you’re taking care of them, you know.”

Garret shrugged, his look one of disbelief and sorrow.

“Julie always took care of them. I helped out whenever she asked me too, changing diapers or giving them baths, but she didn’t ask very often. I still feel pretty helpless sometimes, especially when Chloe starts to cry, and nothing seems to calm her down.”

“That’s pretty normal.”

He nodded, but there was sadness in the depths of his dark eyes. “Sometimes, I just cry along with her.”

 Emily felt tears sting her eyes and she looked away, willing herself not to cry.

Garret rose from the table and brought back a wet washcloth, which he used to gently wipe Cody’s face and hands, and then Chloe’s. He lifted each of the twins out of the highchairs and set them on the floor. Cody toddled off into the living room, probably to find his toys. Chloe immediately started to cry and held up her arms to Garret. He picked her up with a tired groan.

“They’re ready for their bottles and bed, don’t you think?”

“I’ll clean up in here while you give them their bottles,” Emily offered.

He shook his head.

“You cooked dinner, Emily. I’ll clean up the kitchen later.”

Feeling as though she had been dismissed for the evening, Emily started towards the front door.

“Do you mind staying for a few minutes? I want to tell you why I was late tonight.”

“I guess not. Why don’t I give Cody his bottle?”

She sat down on the couch, and Cody came running when he saw that Emily had his bottle.

“I’m embarrassed to tell you why I was late tonight.”

“You don’t have to explain.”

“I want to.” Garret told her about going to the bar for a drink with his boss. She didn’t want to react to that, but she was concerned. Garret stayed away from alcohol for a reason. “I had a couple of sips of beer, and that was it. But Court had invited the other guys on our team. They wanted to take me to another bar for drinks. They wouldn’t take no for an answer. I guess I could have dug my feet in and refused, but I didn’t want to alienate these guys. I have to work with them every day. They’d asked me before but I’d always told them no.”

A look of guilt flashed across his face. “I wish I’d told them no tonight.”

She hoped he had not done anything he had to be guilty about.

“They ordered a round of drinks. I took a couple of sips, but I kept things under control. There were some women hanging out there that my friends knew. They tried to get me to ask one of them to dance. She wasn’t my type. My type was Julie. But she was pretty and she made it clear she was interested.”

Emily’s heart felt sick. She didn’t question too deeply why she cared that Garret had found someone pretty. She’d never been jealous of his relationship with Julie. Once she’d gotten over her jealousy in college, she’d found that Garret was a perfect mate for her cousin. He’d never given Julie, or Emily, any reason to doubt that Julie was the only one for him. Hearing him talk about another woman being attractive unsettled Emily.

“After getting some ribbing from the guys for not asking her to dance, she finally asked me. I felt like an idiot, and I figured I would get it over with and dance a song, then I could politely leave.” Garret rubbed the back of his neck, then looked across the room at Emily. “I guess you could say she made a move on me while we were dancing. And I found myself responding to her like I guess any guy would. We danced a little closer, then she asked me if I wanted to go back to her apartment.”

Tears pricked the back of Emily’s eyes. She didn’t want to hear that Garret had tossed aside his values and gone home with a woman he wasn’t married to. That wasn’t the kind of guy he’d always been. Had grief changed him that much?

“I didn’t go, Em.” Garret met her eyes now, and the guilt had vanished. A strength of character that she’d always associated with Garret was reflected in his eyes. “Instead, I stepped away from her, walked off the dance floor and went to pay for my drink so I could leave. The guys looked at me like I was crazy, but I know I did the right thing. I left her standing on the dance floor and my beer still sitting on the table, and I walked out.”

Emily studied him for a moment. His confession had shocked her. And the fact that he was confessing to her was even more surprising. She had never considered them close, but she realized that he had no one else whom he could talk to about what had happened. He had given up on church and cut all of his ties to it in the weeks following Julie’s funeral.

His friends from work wouldn’t have understood why he didn’t go home with the girl who asked. But Emily knew his past. She knew he had only been with Julie, and they had waited until they were married. She was glad to see that he was holding true to those values, at least in that particular moment

When she stayed silent, his look challenged her.

“Aren’t you going to tell me how stupid I was, Em?”

“No. You don’t need me to tell you that.”

“I shouldn’t have allowed myself to get sucked into that situation in the first place. I didn’t want to go, but I didn’t fight it. I let them talk me into going to the bar and buying a drink, even though I only had two sips, it was still two sips too many. My dad was a mean drunk, and I promised myself I would never start drinking.”

“And you didn’t. You walked away from the beer, and the bar.” And the girl, she wanted to add. The girl he danced with was probably disappointed when Garret turned her down. He was very handsome.

She could hear Garret’s sigh from across the room. “It would be too easy for me to slip into drinking. Just being in the atmosphere made me forget my grief for a little while.”

“That’s why a lot of people drink, isn’t it? To forget their problems?”

Garret agreed with a nod.

“But drinking is never the answer.”

He looked like he was about to agree again, then anger flashed in his eyes.

“And God is the answer, right? Is that what you were going to say?”

Garret’s anger was not really directed at her. She understood that it was coming out of his grieving heart.

“You know I believe God is the answer, Garret. And I know that deep down, you believe it, too. It’s just buried under the grief and anger.”

He glared at her.

“I did not tell you all of this so you could preach a sermon to me.”

Emily smiled. She lifted an eyebrow and met his eyes with a calmness that surprised herself.

“I thought you expected me to preach at you.”

She saw him visibly relax, and his expression slowly turned into a smile.

“I guess I did. I’m surprised you didn’t let me have it with both barrels.”

She mockingly shook her finger at him. “If you ever let it happen again, I will.”

His expression turned serious. “I don’t plan to let it happen again. And if it does, I give you permission to preach to me.”

“With pleasure.” She said it with a smile, but nothing about what had happened with Garret tonight gave her pleasure. And not just because it was a test of his faith. It was a test of hers, as well. She was starting to get a little too attached to the twins, and to their daddy. It could never go anywhere, and she was fighting to keep it from surfacing.

“I guess I’ve kept you longer than I should have. I hope you didn’t have plans for tonight.”

“Nothing important.” Emily realized as she said it that it was true. She could have gone to the cookout tonight and enjoyed the fellowship, but God had more important things for her to do. When Garret had needed a listening ear, she’d been here for him.

As she got ready to leave, she said, “Melanie and Scott are having the baby dedicated in two weeks, and Melanie asked me to invite you.” His mouth tightened into a grim line. “It would mean a lot to her if you would come.”

“I’ll think about it.” His tone was sharp.

As open as Garret had been in communicating with her, Emily was sorry that extending Melanie’s invitation had closed the door again.

End of Chapter 7.

Come back next Saturday, April 24, to read the next chapter in the Substitute Family.

Published by Carol Underhill

Author of Christian romance. Mom to 3 adult children and a spoiled Lab. Household includes several rescued cats. Loves flavored coffees and quiet mornings. Likes finding new authors on Kindle and binge reading all their books.

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