Time in Willow Creek: 1 year, 5 months, 3 weeks, 6 days
Kevin had never been so nervous to arrive at Umbrage Manor. He sat in his car for a few minutes with his eyes closed, psyching himself up for the overdue conversation. The plush leather headrest cradled his foggy head as he tried to sort out his thoughts. Three weeks had gone by since the slip. Two weeks since he let go, and forever and a day since he embarked down this winding road with Juliana. He had to tell her. It had to be done. He was almost certain she would feel the same way, so why was it so hard?
With a quick sigh, he turned off the purring engine, got out the car, and mounted the stairs of the house. His heart raced, and his breaths got shallower the closer he got to the door. Usually, he kept his emotions steady, but his nerves were frayed that night. How did this girl manage to make him so unglued? He needed a deep, cleansing breath before knocking.
No turning back.
After a minute or two, he saw his love bounding down the stairs with her hair waving like a majestic flag. The fear didn’t dissipate, but her presence warmed him like a soothing cup of hot tea. Her bright eyes and dazzling smile comforted him for he knew she welcomed his presence. They hadn’t communicated at all while he stayed away, and he wasn’t sure what he would walk into. She hesitated before opening the door, though. Was she just surprised, or did she have concerns?
He missed her face–her big, brown, innocent eyes especially. They were so expressive. He could easily tell what she was feeling and wondered if she knew they often gave her away.
That’s all he had the courage to say when she snapped out of her daze and finally let him in. They stood in the foyer grinning at each other when a few infant shrieks echoed down the stairwell. Kevin’s face lit up at the sound. He thought she should have been born by then, but he wasn’t sure. He knew Hillary went to the hospital the night of the slip, but he never heard from Juliana.
She gasped and her eyes flew open like she just realized he hadn’t met Abigail yet. “You want to see the baby?”
He followed her up the stairs, his previous fears dissipating a tad. Stepping into the room, he looked around a bit. It was colorful, unlike his own bedroom, but he liked her choices. It was very much her. Jase was sitting in the rocking chair next to the crib, and Hillary had just laid her in there.
“Hey, everybody,” he said.
Hillary gasped. “Heeeey! Me and Jase were just talking about you yesterday. We thought you were dead.”
“Not quite,” he said. “I…” He quickly glanced at Juliana, “I had some important things to do.”
“Hmph. I bet you did,” she said. “Come meet my sweet pea!”
She was so precious and a good mix of both her parents already. Little babies were always so perfect despite how loud, demanding, and smelly they often were. He didn’t think about children much, but he definitely wanted them in the future.
“Abigaaail, somebody wants to meet you,” she sang. “This is Auntie Juliana’s friend, Kevin! Do you want to hold her?”
“Oh…no, thanks. Newborns make me nervous. She’s really beautiful, though. Abigail is a great name too.”
“Thank you,” she said.
“Congrats to you both.”
“Thanks,” Jase said.
“I need to feed her soon so…Juliana, why don’t you and Kevin go talk about whatever you need to talk about.”
She winked at him, and he stifled a snort. When he needed her to know things, she was clueless, but when he wanted to be discreet, she knew everything. He didn’t know Jase at all, but he hoped he could handle Hillary; she was a lot.
Juliana stepped toward the door, so he said goodnight to them. His heart skipped a beat as the fear rushed back. She led him to the balcony where they had their first reconciliation. It seemed they had all their come to Jesus meetings there. They sat and soaked in the sounds of the night and the fresh water smell of the nearby river. He was never one to beat around the bush or stall for time, but he couldn’t bring himself to cut to the chase this time.
“It’s a nice night,” he said.
She was nervous too. He could tell by the way she also had trouble making eye contact. Did she know what he was going to say? Did she already have an answer? Regardless, he couldn’t keep prolonging it. She had been waiting for him long enough.
He swallowed a lump in his throat. “I, uhhh…”
Where did he begin? He needed to say so many things and wished he would have thought it through before he got there.
“I’m sorry I haven’t been around…”
He could have smacked himself for not apologizing for his actions first and felt like such a dunce. He often thought of himself first and realized that was part of the problem with him and her. If only he would have taken the time to hear her out and understand her position the first time, they wouldn’t need to have this conversation. Well, they would, but without all the necessary apologies.
He took another deep breath. “Well…before I go there, I need to apologize to you.”
Her smile disappeared. He hated to remind her of his harsh words, but she needed to hear this.
“I was a jerk…”
She turned her attention to her shoes, and his heart sank. He needed that encouragement and comfort he often found in her eyes.
“I said some…” That wouldn’t do. He cleared his throat and started again. “I was insensitive and…and jealous.”
She began fidgeting with the seam of her t-shirt.
“I wasn’t trying to hurt you,” his tone was borderline desperate and begged her to look at him, “but I know I did, and I’m sorry.”
She nodded, still looking at her shoes and playing with her shirt. What was she thinking? Was she still hurt?
He rubbed his palms on his pants. “There were things going on inside me that I didn’t understand. I, ummm…I dropped a pretty big bomb on you.” He laughed nervously. “The brain is a funny thing. I hadn’t realized it myself, but I said that to you.”
She smirked and smoothed her shirt.
“That’s why I stayed away. I needed some time to think and process everything…and deal with–” He realized he wasn’t saying anything of use for her and got ahead of himself again. “I’m sorry. I’m not as prepared as I should be for this.”
She laughed nervously too.
“Can I start over?”
Butterflies flitted about his stomach. The moment of truth was nigh, and his mouth was going dry. “Everybody was right.”
Something similar to a smile formed on her face. It was enough to encourage him to go on.
The words fell out his mouth slow and careful. “I’ve had feelings for you for a long time. Everybody saw it. You probably did too.” He chuckled. “As much as I’d like to claim I really didn’t see it, I can’t. It’s just that…well, I didn’t want to see it. I mean, we were supposed to be friends…”
She smiled and nodded.
“Either way, I’m sure I’ve been sending you mixed signals, and I’m sorry for that too. I can’t imagine how frustrated you’ve been.”
Even though he was still quite nervous, it was so easy to tell her how he felt. “I tried not to think of you as anything other than a friend because you’re so young and…” He decided to skip the other reasons. They were nowhere near ready for that conversation. “And, well…those were just excuses for me to ignore my real feelings and the real problem.”
She squinted the way she did when she wanted to know more. He knew her so well, yet there was so much more to learn about her.
“I needed to let go of my wife…”
Her eyes softened in that sympathetic way they often did.
“I felt guilty for getting close to you, but at the same time, I…I–I couldn’t be without you!”
Her breaths increased, and she reached for her necklace.
“I thought I’d be betraying her if I allowed myself to act on my feelings. But, she didn’t feel that way at all. It was me. Before she died, she told me not to hang onto her and move on quickly. I didn’t want to, but I tried to do that for her. I…”
How could he explain that wild part of his life? It didn’t seem to be the appropriate moment to tell her. What if she couldn’t get past it?
“I did…a lot of stupid things, and after a while, I couldn’t do it anymore.” He hoped the wording was sufficient. At a later date when they were closer and more secure in their relationship, he’d feel comfortable telling her about all his grief induced trysts. “I didn’t feel like myself, and I felt I needed to pay for what I did so I didn’t see anyone for a long time. A really long time…. But, then I met you.”
She blushed, still clutching her necklace.
“You brought me back to life, and I was so grateful…but I still felt guilty. So, we talked and agreed to be friends and I thought everything would be fine. But…well, you’re just too dang amazing!”
A few tears escaped as she laughed.
“You know how things were afterward. So, like I began to say before, I stayed away to think and process things. I let go of my–Caroline, and…well…I’m free to love whomever I want.”
She was turning the pendant of her necklace around in her fingers. He hadn’t seen that look in her eyes before. It looked familiar. Kind of like…desire? He was so rusty.
“I want to love you, Juliana.”
He felt 10,000 times better after getting it out of his system and wished she would say something. Her beautiful eyes were stuck on him. They looked happy yet scared. Relieved yet concerned. Everything she did was done with caution and intentionality. She even had concerns about the good things. He loved that about her. He wasn’t necessarily a reckless person, but he could stand to have more consideration in his life.
Finally, she opened her mouth to speak. “…I’m glad to know…. To know why, and to know how you feel.”
She always struggled with her words, but she struggled especially then. Was it the newness of the situation? Or, was there something she wasn’t saying? He would respect her feelings regardless, but he wanted to be with her. He wanted to love her with abandon. He wanted to savor the taste of freedom with her. Although he didn’t want to put any pressure on her, he had to know how she felt about them being together.
“Do you…well, how do you–“
He was glad for the interruption and wanted to hear from her. “Yes?”
“I like you…”
A zing of hot energy coursed through his body. “Y-y-you do?” His smile was so cheesy. He knew she did, but hearing her say it felt amazing.
“I do…. But, I’m not ready yet.”
Although he respected her feelings, it still felt like a shot to the heart. He came so far only to be presented with another obstacle to overcome. He took solace in knowing it wasn’t a complete rejection. After all, his main goal of the night was to apologize and tell her how he felt. Her being receptive would have been the cherry on top. He had to keep that in mind to remain calm.
He sighed. “Ok…. That’s fine.”
“Don’t apologize. Please. I want you to always say and do what you think is right for you. Ok?”
She squinted again. “You do?”
“Of course I do! Why wouldn’t I?”
What was that about?