"Family Matters - Short Story"

"Family Matters"

© R. L. Brown 2005

I had never met Julie's husband before the day of her accident, but the moment he walked through the door of the preschool I managed, I had no trouble guessing exactly who he was. His emerald green eyes and wavy brown hair were mirrored by the twin four year olds who raced towards him.

"Where's Mummy?" Tynan, the more outgoing of the boys, demanded.

The man squatted down to their eye level and moistened his lips as he looked intently at Tynan and Kyle - but didn't answer straight away. My stomach tightened in fear of hearing what I'd begun to dread during the last hour I'd waited alone with the boys.

Julie Morgan was much younger than most of our other mothers and although she was reserved and quite cool toward the other mums and staff, I had developed a real soft spot for her. Julie was obviously devoted to her sons, and over the past year I'd worked hard at building up a rapport with her.

Since she was always waiting at the door well before preschool finished at 3pm, I had been growing steadily more anxious as time passed and there was still no sign of her. After half an hour I'd begun making phone calls, but hadn't been able to get any response from either her phone number or the neighbour she'd provided as an emergency contact.

"Why isn't Mummy here?" Tynan repeated impatiently.

"Mummy's had an accident . . . in the car. She's gone to the hospital so that the doctors can make her better."

Julie's husband raised his stricken eyes to mine, looking over the boys' heads.

"Is it serious?" I asked.

He nodded slowly and swallowed hard. "She's in emergency surgery now."

My heart turned cold inside me as I gazed down at him, crouched on the floor with the boys huddled in his arms. He looked several years older than Julie - more my own age - and although his firmly set jaw and solid frame gave every indication of maturity and strength, the thought of what was facing him made it nearly impossible for me to speak.

I’d only spoken to Julie that morning, yet now her life was hanging in the balance. Despite the playroom’s bright colours and the familiar smell of paint and play dough, all its childish cheerfulness seemed to have faded, and the room was now oppressively silent.

"You'll want to be with her - would you like me to take the boys home with me tonight?" I managed eventually.

He hesitated, breathing out slowly as his eyes returned to the small boys.

"No - I want to keep them with me," he answered finally, scooping them up into his arms as he turned toward the door, "until we know which way things are going."

I nodded, my eyes getting moist as I wished that there was something – anything – more that I could offer them.

“I’ll be praying for you all,” I said softly as I held the door open for him, not even sure if he heard me as he strode quickly toward his car with his sons.

I rang the hospital again as soon as I arrived at the preschool next morning, but as I wasn't a relative, the nurse I spoke to had been as unwilling to give me any information as the night staff had been. After a sleepless night praying for Julie and her family I was desperate for news about her and was just wondering whether I should try ringing her husband at home when I saw him walking up the path, a miniature image of him holding on to each of his hands.

I certainly hadn't expected to see him and was even more surprised by how relaxed he looked as he chatted with the twins. He was dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt and although he was unshaven, the dark stubble merely added to the effect of casual unconcern. It was only when I opened the door to him and noticed his unmatched shoes and the inside-out seams of Kyle’s t-shirt that I could guess at his hidden emotional turmoil. Suddenly he seemed so vulnerable that my heart melted and I longed to put my arms around him.

He met my anxious look with a tired but encouraging smile.

"Julie's out of danger - she's going to be okay." His eyes were dark ringed with lack of sleep, but the relief in his face was obvious.

"She's got a mask on her face to breathe with!" Tynan told me importantly, "And tubes in her arms!"

"And she's getting better," Kyle added in a quiet voice.

"I've just taken them to see her - she kept asking for her boys," he explained, ruffling Kyle's hair as the small boy snuggled in against his muscular leg. "And the little guys are a lot better about it all now they've talked to her. Julie thought I should bring them here today anyway - it might help to keep them in routine."

"But we haven't got any lunch!" Kyle whispered urgently to him.

"Oh . . . I didn't realise," he looked at me apologetically. "What do they need?"

"Don't worry about it. Just bring the boys and I'll organise anything they need while Julie’s in hospital." I bent down to Kyle and Tynan, "Why don't you go and make a painting to take into Mummy to make her room nice and bright?"

"That's a good idea, kids. Mummy would love that," he agreed, his eyes following them as they ran over to the easels on the far side of the room.

"How is she?" I asked when he turned back to me, "I rang the hospital, but they wouldn't tell me anything."

"She's got a long way to go, but the surgery was successful. The internal injuries aren’t quite as bad as they seemed at first, and they're actually moving her out of intensive care this morning, which is a good sign. She’s still on a lot of pain killers - both her legs were fractured too - but it was great to be able to talk to her. She’s going to be okay.”

I let out a long breath. "That’s such good news - but it must be a terrible shock for you all. I imagine Julie'll be in hospital for a while?"

He nodded. "I'm going to stop by work now to organise some time off so I can look after the boys, and then go back into the hospital. We'll have a better idea of what we're facing when the specialist sees Julie today, but I'm not sure when that will be. What time do I need to be back to pick up Tynan and Kyle?"

"We finish at three - but don't worry if you're running late - I'll certainly be here until you come. If there's anything else I can do to help . . ." I paused, thinking quickly, "Kyle and Tynan usually only come to preschool on Mondays and Tuesdays - but why don't you bring them every day for the time being? It would be no trouble and they're certainly happy here."

He considered my suggestion for a few moments before answering, "That would be great. If I can work part-time while the boys are here I'll be able to spread my leave a lot longer. Julie's going to need a lot of help even when she does come home, and we haven't really got anyone else to turn to."

He seemed to relax a little and held out his hand with a sudden grin, "I'm sorry, I've been so distracted that I haven't even introduced myself - Russ Morgan. Are you Amanda?"

"Yes, Amanda Shepparton." I answered, my heart beginning to race uncomfortably when he retained my hand some moments longer than necessary. He was staring intently at me, seeming to take in every detail of my fair complexion and wavy ash blonde hair as though he'd just realised that he hadn't stopped to look at me before.

I had inherited my father's willowy frame and in my heeled boots I stood eye to eye with Russ and I found myself looking straight back into his clear green eyes, completely unsettled by his penetrating gaze. I felt an unfamiliar flush spreading through me and I took a deep breath, willing my heart to slow down.

"Thank you for what you said yesterday afternoon – about praying for us. It just clicked with me now that you must be the Amanda that Julie's mentioned to me before - she said you were the only person she'd met since moving back who'd had any time for her. I'm very glad to have the chance of meeting you," he explained, finally releasing my hand from his firm grip. "Thank you for looking out for her - she complains that no-one else talks to her - but I know she can be pretty hard to get on with."

"Oh, no – I wouldn’t say that – I think Julie’s just a little shy," I answered quickly, confused by my reaction to him and wondering whether I could take a step back without it seeming too obvious.

“That’s one way of looking at it. But I think Julie said you’ve been asking her and the boys along to some of your church meetings?”

“Yes - a little while back - but she didn’t end up coming,” I said, hoping he didn’t think I’d overstepped my role in speaking to Julie a couple of times about my church and my beliefs. I’d never stopped to think about what her husband might have to say about it.

“She’d be bound to find some excuse,” he shrugged, seemingly unperturbed, “though it’s always worth trying.”

Russ seemed in no hurry to leave, but I was feeling more and more flustered as well as being aware of another parent waiting to speak to me.

"If you’ll excuse me, I'll catch up with how things are going with Julie this afternoon,” I explained, backing away, “but please tell Julie that I'll be taking extra special care of Tynan and Kyle for her."

I looked up at the clock when I heard Russ’ car pull into the car park the following Friday and saw that it was exactly five minutes to four again. At least he's consistent, I sighed to myself as I walked over to open the door. My frustration had nothing to do with his time keeping - an extra hour of my time looking after the boys was the least I could do to help out - but battling to overcome my foolish infatuation with him had turned his arrival each afternoon into something which I both longed for and dreaded.

I felt intensely ashamed that no matter how hard I tried I seemed powerless to extinguish my feelings, but I told myself that as long as Russ never became aware of them, I couldn't possibly hurt anyone but myself. I took a deep breath and unlatched the door, my heart racing as I heard Russ’ confident footfall along the path.

"I'm so sorry - can't believe I'm this late again!" Russ apologised, a boyish grin dimpling his cheeks, "I keep trying to get away earlier!"

"Don't worry about it - just means my paper work gets done here instead of at home." I answered lightly, turning away quickly so that he wouldn't see my flushed cheeks. If my heart had melted when I had seen him in a rumpled t-shirt and jeans, the effect of him arriving straight from the office in a stylish business shirt and loosened tie was indescribable.

I walked over to the table where Kyle and Tynan had been busy colouring in, and began to help them pack away the pencils. Russ followed me over, giving each of the boys a warm hug before sitting down on the table next to us, his large frame dwarfing the toddler sized furniture.

"And I forgot to return your dish!" he shook his head in mock distress, "But that casserole was delicious, Amanda - thanks again."

"I'm glad you liked it," I answered, gathering up the pencil tubs and spare paper, "I've made another one to help you over the weekend. Tynan said he loves chicken - so I hope that's okay."

"Sounds great thanks - but you're really spoiling us! I don't usually do anything more adventurous than steak and veg, but it looks like I'll have to try expanding my repertoire while I'm cooking for the boys."

I went over to the lockers and collected the boys' bags. At first I'd been worried when I'd realised that Russ was making it a habit to settle in for a chat each afternoon, but on reflection I knew it was only my own irrational feelings that had led me to read anything else into his friendliness. It was only natural while Julie was still in hospital that he'd appreciate the chance to talk and unwind with another adult before heading home with the boys.

Over the last few days I’d also discovered that despite Julie’s apparent lack of interest in spiritual things, Russ seemed just as committed to his faith as I was and had spoken openly with me about his beliefs and church involvement when the conversation had drifted in that direction.

As I made the final checks around the centre I filled him in on what the boys had been up to, and we chatted about our respective days. Russ was such a down-to-earth and genuinely decent guy that I found it hard to understand why Julie had always seemed so stressed and unhappy. Personally, I couldn't have thought of anyone making a better husband and father.

"Any word on when Julie's expected to go home?" I asked as we finally headed out, "I was hoping to pop in and see her again later tonight."

"That would be really nice - I know she appreciated your visit the other night - and the specialist thinks she'll still be in until at least early next week," Russ said as he led the boys through the door ahead of me while I paused to turn on the security system. "I've had the boys staying at my place this week, but we're going to move into Julie's over the weekend so I can look after her when she comes home. It'll probably be a while until she's back on her feet - I might rent out my house for the time being - it would be one less thing to worry about."

"Don't you live together?" The words escaped my lips in surprise as I closed the door behind me.

"Goodness no! After Julie had had her taste of freedom and agreed to come back to town, I certainly offered her and the boys a home - but she wasn't prepared to give up her independence."

He shrugged, continuing in an unnervingly matter-of-fact way, "We've always had very different values and I'm relieved she's been mature enough to swallow her pride now she's had this accident. I know the little guys are more than a handful for her at the best of times, but she's always insisted on doing it on her own. I’ve spent as much time as I can with them on the weekends and during my holidays to give her a bit of a break, but it's really time she grew up a bit and accepted some more help - if only for the boys’ sake."

I turned back to lock the door, feeling incredibly uncomfortable in the light of these unwelcome revelations. It was hard to believe that he and Julie were separated and I couldn't understand how she could possibly want to push away a man like Russ. I wondered if this accident might somehow bring them back together - Russ certainly seemed keen to move back with her and the boys - although his offhand attitude and often less than flattering comments about her were disconcerting.

I was so distracted by my thoughts that it took several attempts to find the correct key from my bulky key ring, the warmth of the afternoon sun tingling on the back of my neck as I bent forward in concentration. I didn’t usually put my hair up for work, but this morning I’d swept it up into a french roll and the bare skin on my neck felt unfamiliar. As I fumbled with the lock Russ’ voice right behind me made me jump.

"I really like your hair done up like that. It looks lovely."

The sudden flush of heat which engulfed my whole body was instantly replaced by an icy coldness which chilled me to the core and I nearly snapped the key off in the lock as I turned it quickly in agitation.

“Oh, it just keeps it out of the way . . ." I blustered in embarrassment, feeling horribly guilty about the extra time I'd begun spending on my hair and make-up, "I thought it might be easier than trying to wash paint and play dough out of it."

I forced myself to not to panic as I slowly turned around to face him - telling myself it was only my own attraction to him which made me make too much out of an innocent compliment - but as I met his gaze the intensity in his eyes confirmed my suspicions.

I looked away quickly, walking over to the boys who were absorbed with a small lizard they'd discovered by the path. Russ closed the gap I'd made between us with one long stride and as I tried to put my keys into my handbag they slipped through my shaking fingers and jangled onto the concrete. He bent down and scooped them up, handing them to me with a grin.

"You're rather young to be managing a preschool, aren't you?"

"I'm nearly thirty - and I assure you I'm completely qualified for the responsibility," I retorted, my nerves frayed to the limit as I prayed for an escape. "Do I need grey hair to be trusted with your boys?"

"Hey - you know I didn't mean anything like that, Amanda," he chuckled in amusement, "but when Julie first told me about the lovely manager at the preschool I must admit I did assume she was talking about someone middle-aged and matronly. I never imagined the woman she was telling me all about was so young . . . or so attractive."

His words removed any lingering doubt about his intentions and I stared at him wide eyed with shock. How could he flirt so shamelessly like that,in front of his sons - and while his wife was lying in the hospital? What about his Christian beliefs that he’d spoken so convincingly of?

At least I now understood why Julie's marriage was not all it seemed and I was desperate to find a way out of the situation without making a scene that the boys might report to their mother. The groaning brakes of a bus pulling up only metres away gave me the opportunity I needed.

"That's my bus - I've got to go!" I cried as I fled towards it. As the doors opened with a mechanical sigh, I could hear Russ calling that he'd give me a lift home but I didn't look back, flinging myself onto a vacant seat and hoping that the bus was heading somewhere in the direction of home.

I stared straight ahead, hot tears stinging my eyes as I silently called down upon myself every reproach that I could imagine. Obviously Russ and Julie already had problems, but that didn't excuse me encouraging anything to develop between us. I'd never had any intention of acting on my attraction to a married man – apart from the hurt it would cause so many people, there was no way I would ever defy God’s laws like that - but had I somehow led Russ on?

Surely he didn't think that my care for the boys or sending home the casseroles was anything other than my way of helping them and Julie? If I'd had any idea that my feelings for Russ had been reciprocated I would have been so much more careful!

I sighed deeply, aware that no amount of regret would bring me closer to figuring out how to get myself out of this mess, and began to pray for forgiveness and wisdom.

I waited until the last half hour of visiting time to go into the hospital that evening, confident that Russ would have the boys at home in bed and that there would be no chance of our crossing paths. Julie was alone and teary when I entered the ward and I was glad that I'd made the effort to visit, despite my own internal conflict. Her jet black hair and dark brown eyes emphasised the unnatural paleness of her skin, and although the bruises on her face were beginning to lighten she still looked battered and defeated.

She missed Kyle and Tynan terribly, and as we chatted about what the boys had been doing through the week I realised that I couldn't go ahead with my newly formed plan of taking leave from work from Monday. While it would solve the problem of Russ, I could see how much Julie was depending on me to care for her sons and I couldn't have given her the reassurance she needed that any of the other girls at the centre would give them the same close attention.

As we talked, my thoughts were still preoccupied with searching for another solution when it occurred to me that I could arrange to pay for someone else to do the overtime and wait back with the boys each afternoon. That way I'd be doing the right thing by Julie and ensuring there was no opportunity for Russ to take his advances any further. It was with a sense of relief that I returned my attention to our conversation.

The first warning bell for the end of visiting hours had just rung when I heard small footsteps running along the corridor and turned to see Tynan and Kyle race into the ward, rugged up in their pyjamas and dressing gowns. Russ entered a moment later, grinning from ear to ear.

"They wanted to give Mummy a kiss goodnight - I thought it couldn't hurt them!"

I swallowed hard, looking at the floor as he leant over and kissed Julie lightly on the forehead, painfully aware of my flushed face. He'd known I was coming in tonight . . . surely he didn't drag the boys out this late just so he could see me?

"I'll leave you with them, Julie," I tried to excuse myself as the boys scrambled up onto the bed, but she gave me such an imploring look that I hesitated.

"Please, Amanda - can you give me just a few minutes with them and then come back?" she asked. "There's something I need to talk to you about."

I nodded and slipped out of the ward, guiltily aware of Russ’ eyes following me out into the corridor. Did Julie suspect the way I felt about her husband? Had she seen the way I’d reacted when he’d come in? I waited in a cold sweat - the strong smell of hospital antiseptic turning my already nauseous stomach - until Russ and the boys came out and sent me back in. I walked towards Julie's bed with leaden feet, hoping that they would be well gone before I left.

"I didn't want to ask in front of Russ," Julie began apologetically, "I know he adores the boys and he's doing his best - but I'm really worried about them. Russ mightn't remember how young they are and let them stay up too late or eat too many takeaways - his bachelor habits aren't exactly right for four year olds. I might be another week until I get home and can keep an eye on things. What if they’re not okay?"

I breathed out in relief at her simple question, pleased I could honestly reassure her. "I've been making their lunches everyday and I've sent home a couple of casseroles, so no matter what else Russ has been feeding them I know they've had at least two nutritious dinners this week as well!" I took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze, "I've been watching them closely and they're doing fine. They really miss you, Julie, but apart from that you wouldn't know there was anything out of the ordinary happening."

The final bell was ringing as Julie leaned back against her pillow with a deep sigh. "You're such a beautiful person, Amanda - and I know Russ thinks so too, he hasn’t stopped talking about you all week. I always told him he would be so much happier if he could find someone like you. "

Her words made me feel so utterly and thoroughly ill that I was amazed that I could keep on my feet. The room was spinning around me as I accepted that somehow she’d become aware of the dreadful situation, though I had no idea to what extent. What sickened me most of all was the way she lay there in quiet resignation, still holding my hand as though I were her greatest friend.

I don't know what I would have done or said next if Russ and the boys hadn't bounded back into the room right then, my surprise and disappointment that they hadn't left yet jolting me from my daze.

"Julie said you'd caught the bus in - thought we'd better wait and give you a lift home." Russ said, smiling as though it were the most innocent offer in the world.

"Thank you, but I'll be fine thanks. I don't have long to wait."

"Let Russ drive you home, Amanda," Julie said, giving my hand a firm squeeze before releasing it, "Then I won't have to worry about you getting home in the dark."

I hesitated, feeling as though I were stuck between the proverbial rock and the hard place. Although the thought of going anywhere with Russ right now was anathema to me, refusing the offer without good reason would only confirm poor Julie's suspicions. I would have much preferred to deal with the situation by avoiding Russ completely, but it was only a short trip home and the boys would be with us the whole time.

"Thank you - I will then. And I'll come and see you . . . soon, Julie," I answered, careful not to announce my plans in front of Russ again.

I managed to occupy myself with Kyle and Tynan on the way out to the car, and the trip home felt much less awkward than I had feared until we approach the turn off toward my suburb.

"How about we stop in at "Jim's" and all have ice cream for supper?" Russ suggested to the enthusiastic approval of the little boys in the back seat.

My skin shrunk tightly against me - this wasn't in the plan. "No, thank you. I'd like to go straight home please."

"Come on, Amanda," Russ brushed off my reply lightly. "It's not that late - it will only take another ten minutes - and this place does the best waffle cones and hot fudge in town."

"No, thank you," I repeated firmly, speaking with careful emphasis to ensure my meaning was clear. "I'm not interested."

"Oh, I see," he replied, the disappointment on his face obvious as he glanced quickly at me and then stared straight ahead at the road, his profile stiff in the headlights of the passing traffic. My hands were shaking and - despite my relief that he'd gotten the message more easily than I'd dared to hope - I just felt like curling up in a ball and crying.

"But Uncle Russ, we can still go without Amanda can't we?" Tynan's voice sent my thoughts spinning madly.

"Wh - what did he call you?"

"Uncle Russ," he answered flatly.

"You're his uncle?"

"Of course I am - Julie's my little sister."

"But I thought you were her husband!"

"What on earth made you think that?" he demanded.

"Everything. . ." I answered, overwhelmed by confusion as I tried to replay all our conversations of the past week. "Your surnames are the same . . . and the boys are the spitting image of you."

Russ shook his head in disbelief, "It's hardly surprising that the boys look like me! Julie and I were like two peas in a pod when we were growing up, until she started dying her hair and wearing those dark contact lenses. And of course we have the same name - Julie has never married."

"Oh. That makes sense now - but when you turned up I just assumed you were their dad. Julie had never mentioned anything about their father not being around."

"No - I'm sure she wouldn't have! When she was seventeen she ran off with a . . . " Russ caught himself, obviously remembering the children in the back seat, "a real l-o-s-e-r. He left her before the boys were even born. I had told her he was b-a-d n-e-w-s from the start, so I guess I'd made it really hard for her to come back when she found it out for herself. Eventually though I talked her into moving back here so I could at least be there for the boys."

The implication of what he was saying slowly began to sink in, and as though Russ were reading my thoughts he looked across at me again, a smile spreading across his face.

"You really thought I was Julie's husband?"

When I nodded he laughed so hard that I was relieved when he pulled over to the side of the road and turned to face me, "No wonder you gave me the cold shoulder!"

"It's not funny!" I complained, although I too was beginning to laugh with sheer relief, "Here I was thinking that your wife was in the hospital and that you were . . ."

"That I was what?" he teased.

"Never mind. . . I just felt so dreadful in case you'd thought that I was leading you on!"

He grinned, my heart melting completely as two irresistible dimples appeared in his cheeks. "And weren't you?"

I looked at him helplessly as two small voices piped up from behind us. "Hey - Uncle Russ! Are we getting ice-cream or what?"

He looked over into the back seat, his smile even wider than mine.

"Yeah, little guys - I reckon we are."

© R Brown 2005

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