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"Go back to the States, rest, see the doctors, shake this bug and be back here at the end of August to take the Zaire project." His boss's words still rang in his ears. Medical furlough. The words dreaded by every missionary. Six years in the field in remote locations. He should feel lucky to have made it this long. He didn't.
James Graham moved down the aisle of the plane, following the other passengers, a heavy jacket bought in New York folded over one arm. It had been eighty-two degrees when he left the capital of Zaire yesterday afternoon. The pilot had announced Chicago was forty-five degrees and raining, a cold April evening.
The pain was bad tonight. It made his movements stiff and his face gaunt. He moved like an old man and he was only thirty-five. He wanted to be elated at being home, to have the chance to see his friends, his family. It had been six years since he had been back in the States. Pain was robbing him of the joy.
He would give a lot to know what bug had bit him and done all this damage. He would give a lot to have God answer his question, Why?
He stepped through the door to the airport terminal, not sure what to expect. His former business partner Kevin Bennett had his flight information. James had asked him to keep it quiet, hoping to give himself some time to recover from the flight before he saw his family. His mom did not need to see him at his worst. For fifteen years, since his dad died, he had been doing his best to not give her reason to worry about him.
James could still feel the grief from the day his mom had called him at college to gently let him know his father had died of a heart attack. He'd been ready to abandon college and move back home, step into the family business, but she had been adamant that he not. She had compromised and let him return for a semester to help, then told him to get on with his life. She had sold the family bakery and begun a profitable business breeding Samoyeds, a passion she had shared with his dad for years.
When he'd felt called six years ago to leave the construction business he and Kevin had built, to use his skills on the mission field, his mom had been the first one to encourage him to go. She was a strong lady, a positive one, but she was going to take one look at him in pain and while she wouldn't say so, she was going to worry.
He turned at the sound of his name and felt a smile pierce his fatigue. Six years was a long time to miss seeing a best friend. "Kevin." He moved out of the stream of people toward the bay of windows that looked out over the runways.
They had been close friends for so long, the six years blinked away in a moment. His friend looked good. Relaxed. A little older. They had gone to high school together, played baseball as teammates, basketball as rivals, he on the blue squad, Kevin on the red. They had double-dated together and fought intensely over who would be number one and who would be number two in all the classes they shared in college.
"I won't ask how you're doing. You look like you did that time you fell off that roof we were replacing," Kevin remarked. "I'm glad you're back."
James smiled. "I had to come back just to meet your wife." Kevin laughed. "I have no idea how I ended up married before you did. You'll like Mandy."
"I'm sure I will. She got you to settle down before you were fifty."
"Without you around as my business partner, there was too much work to do without help. I hired Mandy's brother — he's good by the way — and before I knew it, I was thinking more about Mandy than I was about work. I know a good thing when I find it."
"I'm glad, Kevin."
"It's your turn now."
James smiled. "Later, Kevin. We need a few dozen more clinics built before I want to think about coming back to settle down." He had come to the conclusion early, having watched his parents and other close friends, that marriage took time, energy and focus if you wanted it to grow and survive, and unless you were ready to make that kind of investment, it was simply better to wait. He had at least fifty more clinics to build. On the days he wondered if he had made the right choice, he had only to flip open his wallet and look at the pictures of the children the clinics had saved to know that for now, he had made the right decision.
He was a patient man who planned to live a long life. There would be time for a good marriage, someday, not now — not while there was work that needed his attention. "You were able to keep my arrival quiet?"
"They think you were delayed by visa problems in Zaire. They aren't expecting you until late tomorrow."
"Thanks." James rolled his shoulders, hating the pain that coursed through his body and up his spine, making every bone ache. "An hour ride should give me time to let another round of painkillers take effect."
"Do the doctors know what made you ill?"
"No. It was probably an insect bite. They don't know what it is, but they're of the opinion that it will eventually run its course. I think Bob kicked me back to the States just to get me out of his office. He knows I hate a desk job."
He had told Bob to replace him. In the remote areas where the crews worked, it was critical that every man be able to pull his own weight — lives depended on it. They couldn't have a man who winced every time he swung a hammer managing a crew, no matter how intensely he wanted to keep the job.
James could tell that Kevin understood how deeply he had felt the loss; it was there in his eyes. He was grateful it wasn't pity.
"Fifteen weeks of your mom's good cooking, a baseball game or two and you will be back in Africa swinging a hammer, pouring cement, and wondering why you were crazy enough to go back."
The house had been painted, the color of the shutters changed from dark green to dark blue, the flower beds extended along the length of the house as his mom had planned. He had grown up in this house, built in a subdivision of similar homes, the asphalt driveway going back to the garage the place of many impromptu basketball games. His dad had liked to play and James had liked the chance to razz him about getting old. James felt a deep sense of peace settle inside. He had really missed this place.
Kevin pulled into the drive behind a blue Lexus. James glanced at the car, impressed. His transportation for the last six years had been four-wheel drive trucks. He had always appreciated a nice car.
"I'll bring in the bags," Kevin offered.
"Thanks," James replied absently, stepping out of the car and looking closer at the house. In the evening twilight he could see the porch still needed the third step fixed; it slanted slightly downward on the left end, and it looked as if the gutters were reaching the age when they should be replaced. He made a mental note to look at the window casings and check the roof, see what kind of age the shingles were showing. The grass was going to need to be mowed in another few weeks; he would have to make sure the mower blade was sharpened. The thought of being useful again felt good.
"Looks like your sister is here, that's her van."
Kevin shook his head. "Don't recognize it. You were the one who remembers cars."
James led the way up the walk. "Do you still have my old Ford?"
"Runs like a dream. You would never know it's got a hundred eighty thousand miles on it. It's yours if you want it for the summer."
"Thanks, I might take you up on that. You must have found a good mechanic."
Kevin laughed. "With you gone, I had to."
James quietly opened the front door.
His mom had redone the entryway with new wallpaper, a modern design with primary colors and bold stripes. The hardwood floors were slightly more aged but polished until they gleamed. The living room to the right had white plush carpet and new furniture, a gorgeous couch and wing-back chairs. The place was filled with light even though it was now dark outside, the room warmed by a crackling fire in the fireplace. A CD was playing country music.
The house smelled of fresh-baked bread.
There were puppies sleeping in front of the fire on a colorful braided rug. Two of them, white fluffy bears that were maybe three months old. They reminded James of the little polar bears he had seen in the Coca-Cola commercial on the flight home.
His sister Patricia was coming down the stairs, had reached the landing when she saw him.
He met her at the base of the stairs with a wide smile, a motion to lower her voice, a deep, long hug. His ribs ached where she hugged him back, but he ignored the pain as best he could. He had missed her, his companion in mischief. "You've gotten even more beautiful," he said, holding her at arm's length to look at her. Her hair was longer and her face serene for being the mother of two children. Paul must be fulfilling his promise to keep her happy.
She laughed, her eyes wet. "What are you doing here today? We weren't expecting you till tomorrow."
"I like surprises," he replied, grinning. "Where's Mom?" His sister returned the grin. "In the kitchen. She's been so excited at the idea of seeing you."
"James, I'll leave you to the family. Call me tomorrow?" Kevin asked, touching his arm.
James smiled and reached out a hand. "I will. Thanks, Kevin." He meant it more than he knew how to put into words.
James caught his sister's hand and pulled her with him down the hall to the kitchen at the back of the house. He had snuck down these halls as a kid to raid the refrigerator during the night, and had spent a good portion of his teenage years sitting at the kitchen table dunking cookies in his coffee, telling Mom about the day's events. Unlike most of his friends, he had loved to bring girlfriends home to meet his mom.
He leaned against the doorpost and watched his mom as she cleaned carrots at the chopping board. He felt tears sting his eyes. "Is there enough for one more?"
Mary spun around in surprise at his words and he saw the joy he felt mirrored in her face. The knife clattered down on the cutting board.
He steadied them both as her hug threatened to overbalance them, then leaned back to get a good look at her. "Hi, Mom."
"You rat. You should have told me your flight was today." She had aged gracefully. He grinned. "And ruin the surprise?"
He stepped farther into the kitchen, his arm around her shoulders. "What's for dinner?"
"Vegetable soup, beef Wellington, fresh asparagus."
"And maybe apple pie," added a voice touched with soft laughter from his left.
James turned. The lady was sitting on the far side of the kitchen table, a bag of apples beside her. She was wearing jeans and a Northwestern sweatshirt, her hair pulled back by a gold clasp, her smile filled with humor. The black Labrador he had entrusted to his mom when he moved to the mission field was sitting beside her.
The lady was gorgeous. She gestured with her knife toward the peels she had been trying to take from the apples as an unbroken strand. "Your mom swears this is possible, but you're not supposed to arrive till tomorrow, so I have time to find out."
James grinned at the gentle rebuke. "It's all in the wrist," he remarked as he moved toward her.
"Rachel Ashcroft. Most people call me Rae. Your mom is giving me a baking lesson," she said lightly, holding out her hand.
James took her hand and returned her smile with one of his own. Rachel the Angel. His building crew had named her better than they knew. "Mom's a good teacher."
"And I'm a challenging student," she replied with a grin.
"It's nice to finally meet you, James."
He liked the sound of her voice, the fact his mother liked her. Baking lessons were more than an act of kindness, they were a hallmark back to the days of the bakery and James knew his mom didn't just offer lessons to anyone.
He tugged a chair out at the table and turned it so he could stretch his legs out and greet his dog. The Labrador was straining to push his way into his lap, his tail beating against the table leg. "Easy, Jed, yes, it's me," James told the animal, stroking his gleaming coat, glad to see at fifteen years that Jedikiah appeared to still be in good health.
Rae leaned over to look past him. "Patricia, he's not nearly as tall as you claimed," she said in a mock whisper.
Patricia laughed as she pulled out the chair between them. "Now that he's here, he's not nearly as perfect as we remember."
"Rae, I think the problem is he's been gone long enough I've forgotten all the mischief he used to get into," his mom said with a twinkle in her eye as she brought over a glass of iced tea for him. She lightly squeezed his shoulder. "It's good to have you home, James."
"It's mutual, Mom," he said softly, smiling at her, relaxing back in the chair. His journey was over for now.
It felt good to be home.