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Carter Smith's heart pounded like a hammer striking a nail. Unclenching his fists, he sucked in a breath and begged God for strength not to wring his client's neck.
James spread his arms, holding an oversized soft drink in his right hand. "I'm sorry, Carter. I know I promised I'd get the money to you this week, but I just don't have it."
"You said that two weeks ago. And two weeks before that."
With fast-food bags in one hand, James's wife hustled past them with their elementary-school-aged, ballerina-decked-out daughter scurrying behind her. She opened the front doorthe one Carter had installedand slipped inside. Carter knew she walked on the hardwood floors he had laid. Took the fast-food dinner and placed it on the kitchen counter he had installed, surrounded by tile back-splash he had cemented. And yet, he had not seen the first penny in payment.
Carter's jaw twitched with the effort to hold back the biting words threatening to spill from his mouth. If he hadn't happened upon the family returning home, they would have ignored his knocks at the front door. Again.
"Two more weeks. I promise I'll get it to you."
Carter glanced back at the minivan in desperate need of a new set of tires. Lauren, his seven-year-old, was twisted in her seat talking to his youngest, Gabe. No doubt the three-year-old had grown bored waiting for Dad to return to the van. His five-year-old, Clay, looked out the window, probably searching the sky for airplanesthe child's favorite mode of transportation, though he'd never been on one.
Carter scrunched his eyes closed. He'd emptied his checking account into the mortgage payment and half tank of gas. He didn't have money for groceries. He turned back to James. "I need at least half. Today."
"Sorry. Can't do it." James shrugged and walked away.
Carter fell into step beside him. "You have to. You owe me."
James stopped at the front door. "Look. I know you need the money. But times are tough for all of us."
Carter thought of the fast-food dinner James and his family would enjoy, the dance lessons his daughter was obviously still able to attend. James had no conception of tough times. In two years' time, Carter had lost his wife and his business. He couldn't even feed his children, if this man didn't pay him something. Anything. It wasn't as if he asked for a handout. James had owed him for over a month.
James gripped the front doorknob. "You're just going to have to wait."
Carter balled his fists. Noting the rise in his blood pressure and acceleration of his heartbeat, he shoved his hands in his front pockets to keep from pummeling the man. "If needed, I will take you to court."
James opened the door and stepped inside. "Two weeks. I promise."
He shut the door before Carter could respond. Itching to beat down the door with his bare hands, Carter clenched his teeth and closed his eyes. After taking several deep breaths, he peered up at the heavens. "God, what am I gonna do?"
He looked back at the van. Gabe was crying. Lauren had obviously given up. She sat forward with her hands cupping her ears. Clay still looked at the window. Carter pinched his lips together. He worried about that boy. Since his mother's death, Clay lived in a fantasy world. He was a good, easy kid, but he didn't get upset at anything. Didn't show sadness or anger. Or happiness. Just seemed to have given up.
Making his way back to the van, Carter popped open the trunk, scooped a juice box out of a cooler, and handed it over the seat to his youngest child. Gabe sniffled then sucked on the straw.
"Dad, I'm hungry. It's past lunchtime." Lauren sounded much older than her seven years. Angry. Bitter. And put out with him.
"I know, sweetie. We'll head home now."
Carter jiggled the keys in his hand as he walked to the driver's side. What would he feed them? There were a couple cans of ravioli left. Yuck. The thought of eating that turned his stomach, but he believed there was still a bit of peanut butter. No bread, but he could eat some on crackers. There might still be a jar of peaches. The boys would like that, though Lauren would probably turn up her nose.
"He didn't pay you, did he?"
Lauren's words cut like a knife through his chest. He pulled out of the driveway. She shouldn't know they were struggling. She should be thinking about baby dolls and dress up.
He looked at her in the rearview mirror. "No. He didn't. But that's not for you to worry about."
Back at home, he fixed the meager lunch for the kids. As he expected, Lauren frowned at the canned fruit, but she didn't say anything. Her silence was like a second jab in his heart. Shouldn't she complain and whine that she wanted something different? Shouldn't he have to fuss at her for not being appreciative for what they had? Instead, his little princess sat stoically beside her brothers, bitterness rolling off her like boiling water bubbling out of a pot.
Glancing away, he spied the pile of bills on the counter. He dotted a cracker with peanut butter as he thumbed through the mass. A knot caught in his throat when he saw the voucher Ms. Rolen had given him.
The sweet senior had been a bundle of nerves when she handed him the paper. Fumbled all over herself as she explained she knew he wouldn't want to use it but that God provided in various ways. It wounded his pride that his financial woes had been so obvious to his fellow church members.
He thumbed the corner of the voucher. The pantry closed in an hour. He'd never, in all thirty years of his life, taken a handout. He scanned the cupboard. Dinner tonight might be possible. He might even be able to scrounge up enough for breakfast, but after that, he was in trouble. And he had to provide for his children.
His stomach churned and his heartbeat raced at the thought of walking into a food pantry for help, not to leave a donation. God, I don't know if I can do this.
"You have too much pride to accept My provision?"
Carter swallowed back the knot in his throat. He cleared the table and wiped Gabe's face. "Get your shoes on, kids. We're going to get groceries."