Everyone’s gone. For the first time in my life, I welcome the quietness and peace of the office. I have some thinking to do. My world is spinning out of control.
“Hi Natalie!” The voice I had never expected to hear.
Dear God, it’s Walt. Walt is walking out of the supplies’ closet of my office. How long had been there? Hadn’t the Feds picked him up? Wasn’t he supposed to be locked behind bars.
But we hadn’t heard that, had we? We had assumed.
I stand frozen. My thoughts, my actions—it’s as if winter has arrived with a vengeance and it’s sleeting in my brain.
Ice. Rain. Ice.
“Natalie, I had to see you before I left. You know how special you are to me.”
“Walt, I thought…”
He’s laughing in his quiet way, slowly moving closer towards me. “You thought that they had caught me. But they can’t you know. I’m too clever for them.”
Involuntarily, my mind’s calling on God for his Holy Spirit to deliver me from this psychotic freak. I sense the immediate answer to my prayer. A sudden heat penetrates my cold being.
Don’t let him see that you are afraid. Thoughts are beginning to flow, encouraging words, and directions.
“Walt, I’m really sorry for all that’s happening to you. I care about you and want you to get the right help.”
“That’s what they all say, Natalie. That’s what they all say. But none of it is true, you know. They’re all liars. Every one of them.” He’s talking even more slower now.
“All of them, you know. I tell them they’re special. I try to help them, but they don’t care. After a while, they just don’t want to listen to me.” Walt’s voice is starting to waver between loud and soft.
Loud, and then soft.
“Who won’t listen? Walt, I just don’t understand.” I’m trying to gauge the distance between us. Any sudden movement on my part might trigger who knows what.
“They said the same thing. But it’s not true. It’s all lies.”
Oh God, comprehension dawns on me. They…the people whom he had murdered.
“I could have killed her you know. Very easily.” He’s pulling a scarf out of his pocket, twirling, and knotting it. “She wasn’t very nice with you. I heard her…heard everything she said.”
“You know who, Natalie.”
“Yes. She’s never been nice to me. That didn’t bother me. I used to laugh. I could have killed her many times. But when she was being rude to you…I could have killed her. But…”
Walt stops in mid-sentence like he has heard something. Please God, is that your angel who’s going to help me?
“Help!” I’m screaming and running as fast as I can towards the Sanctuary.
The Narthex clock chimes the half hour.
I don’t know if I had underestimated his agility. Walt might appear pale and weak, but he could be fast. I only had a few precious seconds on him. If I was going to die, I wanted it to be in the Sanctuary. Jesus would be with me. I know, Jesus is with us wherever we go, but somehow, emotionally, I feel that’s where I’d feel his comfort the most.
Minutes tick by and no sound of Walt. I wish I’d remembered to bring my cell phone. I’m trying to calculate how long I’ve been crouching by the piano.
Quietly, I crawl towards the pews, maybe he won’t be able to reach me between the pews. The darkened Sanctuary, casting protective, shadowy hiding places.
You are my hiding place, I quietly pray, hardly daring to breathe.
“Natalie! I’m not going to hurt you. I’m going to prove it to you by leaving.” Walt yells, and I hear his voice echo in the Sanctuary. I stuff my fist into my mouth and bite down hard on it to keep from screaming.
Doors slam. Thank you, Lord. Whatever he had heard had scared him away.
I wait, just in case.
Walt was true to his word.
Thank you, Jesus! I can now stand up and leave. I’m rushing out the Sanctuary, I know what I want to do with my life—now that I’m still alive. I’ll definitely move to Paris…
And then, something leaps out from the darkness and grabs me, I can smell the stench of his cologne…
“Natalie…You’re beautiful, you know.” He’s pulling me closer to him.
Dear Lord. It’s Walt. He’s been waiting for me, hidden behind the doors leading to the Narthex. My dream is coming true. I scream, but there is no sound.
“You are so beautiful. I always said that. I’m so sorry I have to do this, Natalie. It hurts me more than it hurts you…” Walt is smiling, I feel the soft silk of the scarf around my neck, pulling tight…
I can’t breathe, I’m trying to pull the scarf away, but he’s pulling tighter and pushing himself against me.
Images of my life flash in my mind’s eye. I hear voices. His. Mine. I’m screaming. I’m thinking about sweet Martha. And Kate. Mitch, Gwen, mom, and dad.
The memories of La Parisienne.
“You okay, Pet?” Gwen’s anxious voice.
I open my eyes, not sure where I am.
“You’re in the hospital.” Gwen supplies the answer to my question. “The doc says that you were saved just in time.”
“Where’s Walt?” I ask, hoarse, my voice barely above a whisper. Who got to me in time?
“Don’t worry. He won’t be able to hurt you any more.”
“Shh… It’s going to be okay,” Gwen murmurs.
Mark, Kate, and Martha are there.
“I am so sorry, Natalie.” Mark’s by my side. “It’s my fault. I should have checked up on Walt.”
“Natalie, I’m sorry too.” Kate lightly squeezes my hand.
“Don’t blame yourselves. I’m glad it wasn’t one of you.” I can barely speak.
“And I’m just glad that you’re still alive. You’ve been out for several days??? Time to get well now.” Dear sweet, commonsense Martha.
I want to ask about Tav, but I don’t want to know the answers.
Left alone with Gwen, I start to cry. She’s holding me, realizing it’s better to let me cry it out. Her gentleness only makes me cry all the more.
“Gwen, can we go home?”
“Yes, pet. Mom and Dad are flying back.”
Gwen’s watching me cautiously as I shuffle out of my room, wrapped in my blanket.
“Mark called to tell you to take it easy…take as much time off as you need.”
I’d forgotten about work. My mind didn’t want to think about it.
“I want to go home.”
“If you want,” Gwen is all concern. “You can quit your job too, if you like.”
“I have to give them a two-week notice.”
“I’m sure Mark will let you have a few days off until then.”
The thought of Mark, Kate, Tav, and the church brought the tears on again.
“Why aren’t you at work today?” I realize Gwen’s still at home.
“Take a guess,” she smiles. “You were in pretty bad shape.”
“I’m so sorry,” I try to apologize, but the tears are coming quickly down again. There’s no Tav and I’m remembering what Faith had said. I can’t get her words out of my mind.
“Don’t apologize. You’ve had a grueling experience.”
Life is unpredictable.
Human emotions even more so. I should have been reeling from nearly being killed, but I’m more devastated at the idea of never seeing a pair of blue eyes again.
“It’s not about Walt. I was terrified, but after I prayed, God gave me this amazing peace…a peace that transcends all understanding.”
“Then what is it?” Gwen’s hurting for me. “I’ve never seen you like this. Is it Frankie? Are you having a delayed reaction to your break up? You seemed fine. He’s not worth it. You’re worth so much more. I just wish you could see yourself the way others see you. Forget about Frankie.”
The thought of my pining over Frankie makes me smile. “No. It’s not him. Poor Frankie.”
“Why don’t you go and sit on the couch and watch House Hunters International—there’s a couple who are trying to find a place in Paris. I’ll fix us some breakfast?”
House Hunters and breakfast. I’m suddenly beginning to feel hungry again.
Food always helps me think straight. I think it must have something to do with my blood sugar or blood pressure. I can never figure out which is which.
“Thanks, Gwen, I feel much better.” I’m gratefully finishing the last bite of toast.
“Okay. No more putting it off. Tell me what’s making you cry.”
“Faith?” Gwen repeats, astonishment in her voice. “You’re worried about your faith? Just talk to Dad.”
For the first time since my encounter with Walt, I’m in hysterics. Poor Gwen, she thinks I’m nuts. She has that look, you know, debating whether she should call the psych ward or not!
“It’s the church’s music director or whatever Faith. You saw her at church…she was sobbing and crying up front, leading the worship.”
“Good grief! Her?”
“She and Tav are an item, and they’re going to ride off together in the sunset, or whatever happy couples do.”
Okay, I expected many reactions to this statement, but not Gwen’s guffaw.
“What’s so funny?” I’m not in the best mood for jokes. I want to be sad and pathetic. Gone is the woman who was going to fight and not be knocked down. I felt punched, and I didn’t feel like getting up.
“You’re an idiot,” is her enigmatic response.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to call me an idiot. You’ll offend all our Bible friends.”
“She can joke. She must be better.”
“I don’t want to feel better, but can’t help myself. God’s doing that supernatural thing again. He’s making me feel cheerful, much against my wishes.”
“That’s because he’s got a great plan for you. Now go get dressed, and we’ll go to the movies and eat tons of ice cream and French fries.”
Gwen knows how to cheer me up. For all the ice cream and French fries I ate, I still couldn’t put on much weight. This drives my friends crazy. I did tell them that I’ll have high cholesterol and triglycerides when I’m older.
It’s fun just the two of us, out on the town, singing, and having the time of our lives—just like we did in the days before falling in love with the wrong men!!
“Mom and Dad!” My parents are here!
“Baby girl!” I’m always my mother’s baby! But it’s so good to be fussed over and pampered.
“Natty, you can come and stay with us—if you like, that is.” My amazing dad.
“Yes, Dad. Thanks, I will. Yes, I will. Thank you so much.”
“Good. You can fly back with us. We’ll take care of the arrangements. Or you can join us later.”
“You’re strong, Natty. You’re going to be fine.”
“Thanks, Mom.” It’s what I needed to hear.
I’m going to be fine. I’m strong.
I can make it to work tomorrow, after all.
Even if I haven’t heard from Tav…
And the look from my mom tells me that she knows that there’s more to the story than just Walt. In the next few days, I’ll tell hear her say, “The counselor’s in.” That’s the running joke between her and Gwen and me.
After several minutes of bliss, I realized the Foo Fighters are my alarm clock, and I’m not at their concert.
I can and can’t wait to get to work. It’s Friday, not only one of the busiest days in the life of the church, but it’s also a week before Christmas. When you don’t want to think about something, a busy church office during the holidays is the best place to be.
But as I park and walk up the stairs to the church office, my stomach is in knots. I can feel the panic rising in me. What if Walt had gotten away? Where was he, anyway? I touch the scarf I’m wearing to cover up the marks on my throat. It was difficult to put that scarf on and not remember the last time a scarf was around my neck.
“You’re already here?” Kate’s in my office. Thank God!
“You didn’t think I’d let you be here by yourself, did you?” She’s giving me the biggest bear hug ever.
“What do you mean, I’m here, ain’t I?” Pete’s mumbling. “I should have killed him.”
“Hi Natalie, you sure you’re okay to be back. You can take as much time off as you need.” Mark’s early, too. And that’s very sweet of him to let me have time off because Christmas at the church is the craziest!
“Nat, you’ll do fine. You’re the rock.” That, of course, is Brad, and with that assurance, which absurdly did reassure me, he’s back to his iPhone.
“Awww….thanks. You guys are the best.”
But no Tav.
And not even a message from Tav. Or an apology for not being here or saying he was sorry to hear about my ordeal.
Once back in the swing of things, I remember the church secretary’s nightmare. You take off even one day from work, and you end up with ten days of work on your desk. Natalie, please order this, change that, Millie wanted someone to pray for her, and on it goes. I expect to feel overwhelmed, instead, I feel joy-filled and needed. It’s a great feeling. It’s seeing how others cope with their tough situation that helps you get through yours.
In the last week, I’ve matured way beyond my years. God must have some plan for me that requires my immediate growing up. I don’t want to grow up!
Martha is one of my first visitors. “Glad to see the color back in your face, Sweetie.” She’s peering at my face making sure I’m doing okay.
“Yes. Feeling much better now.”
“Good, but I’m sure you don’t want a hundred persons asking you about Walt so I’ll stay with you.”
“Thanks Martha!” It really helped to have her there.
Mark and Kate are back in my office for about the hundredth time!
“Come on, you two. I’m going to be fine.” I have to chase them out.
Even Paul has sent over some extra police protection.
I feel loved.
In the trauma of events, I had forgotten what had happened after I passed out. Did Walt have an attack of remorse?
That would wait. Even a thought of him brought back the terror and nausea.
Still no news from Tav.
That’s fine. Life has to move forward. I’ll fly back with my parents, and then move to Paris.
Moment of decision—I need to move on, too. I can’t wait for a phone call or message. Maybe I didn’t mean anything to him, after all. It could be awkward for Faith and for him. I suddenly realize that Faith, who is Queen of all Drama, has avoided the Walt incident altogether. That could only mean one thing. She got whom she wanted—Tav!
Kate hugs me, before picking up her things to take home with her.
“Don’t forget our family’s going to be gone the next ten days. You can always reach us by phone. You have my cell number.”
“Yes. And stop fussing. I’ll be fine. And the church is not going to fall apart. But I will miss you at Christmas.”
“I think you should…” She stopped like she was going to say something, and then left.
Poor Kate. She still felt guilty about leaving me alone to face Walt.
I wait just hoping, like a silly teenager, that Tav would show up, text, or call.
I can get through this. God will show me how to do it.
This is the fork in the road. I have a choice to make.
Mark walks out of his office. “Everything okay?” He has kept checking on me every half hour.
“Yes…I think. Do you have five minutes?”
“Sure.” He pulls up a chair in front of my desk. I sit back down on my nice, swivel secretary chair. This is difficult. In a weird way, the chair represents a sense of security.
“I’ve been thinking about this for sometime…”
“As you must have guessed, I really love working here with you all.”
Tears start to well up in Mark’s eyes. I feel mine beginning to drown me.
“You’re going to leave us.” Mark spoke first, his voice choked.
“I feel like this has become my hiding place, but I also feel I need to move forward. I don’t know if you know, but I’ve always wanted to go to Paris.”
“It will be good for you. I know you’ll be very happy there. You’ll have people who are going to love you, and you’re going to be the best there is.”
Now I can’t stop crying. I hate goodbyes, and I hadn’t even yet left.
“I’d like to leave as soon as possible…right after Christmas.” The idea of continuing to work here with Tav…and Faith was more than I could handle. I needed to find my happy spot.
“I’ll just need a reference.”
Mark smiles, “I don’t think you’ll need one.”
“Thanks, that’s sweet of you to say.”
“Why don’t you carry on? I’ll lock up for you.”
“Thanks, Mark. You’re the best.”
On my way home, but there’s one more goodbye I have to make.
I pick up my cell and call Gwen. “Hi. Change of plans, I won’t be home for dinner tonight.”
“Are you sure? I don’t mean to tell you what to do. But I think you should come home immediately. Mom’ll worry and I’ll have to hear about all the horrible things that are going to happen to you. You know I have panic attacks!”
“Don’t worry. I’m fine. And I promise I’ll take care of myself.”
“Where are you going?” she wants to know.
“My happy spot!” I laugh.
“Sounds like you’re going to make it on your own alright! It’s good to hear you laugh again.”
“Thanks. I like laughing again. I hate the sad, dreary times. Anyway, I also resigned. I spoke to Mark.”
“Wow! You’re healing faster than I expected. I’m very proud of you.”
A new beginning.
I knew where I am going.
Life is good.
Several miles and nine stops later, I am in my happy spot.
It’s still early for the music to begin, but I can hear the bands rehearsing. It had been night the last time I was here, and Tav knew where he was going. I had just followed. This time, I am leading and searching.
Tav. I wish I could hate him. Faith was easy. But Tav…
Finally, there it was!
La Parisienne beckoned me, and I raced toward it like it was my destiny.
I am going to Paris. I could be an exchange student, or just a visitor for three months. It didn’t matter. I am going to travel, to see the world.
Most of all, I am going to see Paris.
Once in front of the restaurant, I step back, carefully, with my eyes, tracing the outline of the Eiffel Tower or Tour Eiffel, as I am going to have to call it. God’s plan was the best ever. I’m soaking in the memory of my time here with Tav. It had been fun, and that would linger with me for a while.
I pull out my mobile, that’s what they call it in Europe, and take another step back to capture the entire façade of the restaurant. In my haste, I step too far off of the curb, and nearly go crashing down.
The strong arms of a passerby steadied me.
“Thanks,” I turn in gratitude to my rescuer.
“You are so much trouble and so difficult to track down.” Tav’s holding onto me.
Wave after wave of shock. It absolutely couldn’t be him!
“What are you doing here?” My throat tight and my hands trembling.
“Thank God I’ve found you.” There’s relief in his voice.
“Why?” What a stupid question. Say something more. Tav, it’s now or never. I love you. I love you very much. Don’t leave me. You smell so good. Say anything.
“I was so worried about Walt…” There’s something about the way he’s holding me and looking down at me.
“I thought… You weren’t at the hospital…”
“I was there, but had to leave to fill out some police reports.”
“Yes. I came back early to surprise you and take you home. As long as I live, I’ll never forget hearing your scream for help. By the time I unlocked the front door and called 911, I could hear Walt up in the Sanctuary. I arrived just as he was…” Tav’s voice trailed off.
Tav was there that evening?
“Martha also came back. She felt very uneasy about Walt so she came back…”
“Then those voices…I heard…those were really Martha and you. I thought I was dreaming.”
Tav drew me close to him.
“What happened to Walt…Clement?”
“When he saw me he ran out the front door…the police have him.”
“Shhh….” Tav’s hushing me with more than just words.
Many minutes later, I unhappily disentangle myself from his arms.
“I’ve been searching for you for hours.”
“Why?” Question after question raced through my mind. What did he want? Where had he been?
“Because I love you and want to marry you. Will you marry me?”
I’m back in Tav’s arms, he’s telling me that he loved me, and that he wanted to marry me. This was no dream. It must be a dream.
“No, I’m not dreaming. I mean yes. Yes, of course.”
“And will you fly with me to Paris?”
“Paris?” This could not possibly be true. This only happened in fairy tales and in the movies. “Now I have to say yes.”
“I thought I could bribe you,” he laughs. Oh that beautiful laugh. “I accepted a job to be the pastor of the International Church of Paris—we need to be married, packed, and moved in about one month. Are you ready for that?”
“Are you kidding?”
God’s plans are way better than good.
“I’m hungry. Can we eat?” I beg. Too many things to think about, and I hadn’t eaten all day.
“I tell this woman I love her and want to marry her and take her to Paris, and she tells me she wants to eat,” Tav tells the waiter as he steers me into the restaurant.
“François, your best champagne! We’re celebrating tonight.” Tav’s smiling across the table at me.
“I thought Faith and you… I mean…how did Faith know you were taking a job. She told me that you and she…” I randomly ask.
“I know what Faith must have said. She wanted to meet for dinner and a heartfelt talk. So I told her the truth… I am in love with you and going to take you to Paris with me.”
“Martha told me not to believe her.”
“Good for Martha.”
Suddenly, something is clear. “Wait… You told Kate and Mark…”
“Yes, they were my references.”
“…and I handed in my resignation to Mark today and told him I was moving to Paris.”
“You what?” Tav choked on his champagne.
“I thought you and Faith…and I didn’t want to work there…you know.”
“What did Mark say?”
“Well, I told him I was resigning and moving to Paris… Come to think of it, he didn’t seem surprised at all. I asked him for a reference and he said I wouldn’t need one.” The fog in my brain has lifted. “It’s all beginning to make sense. And Kate kept insisting that I should call her…I have to call my parents and her…and Gwen….”
“No, you don’t. I’ve spoken to them.”
“Whaat? My parents! Gwen know? They never said a word.”
“I made them promise not to say anything until I’d spoken to to you.”
“You did all this for me?”
Never had I ever expected anything like this. I want to cry. After Frankie, I felt used up—worthless and unlovable. I kept trying to make him see that I was maybe not exceptional, but passable. Now here’s this valuable in so many ways man telling me he loves me and, not only that, he can’t wait to let anyone know he loves me. He’s treating me like this priceless treasure. I’m in serious danger of bursting into tears.
“I’ve taken care of it all. As soon as I saw you in front of the restaurant, I let everyone know that I’d found you and I was going to ask you to marry me. You had us all very worried, you know.”
“I love you, Natalie Taylor.”
“I hate you. Why didn’t you tell me you loved me long ago, and then I wouldn’t have had endless sleepless crying nights…”
“Sleepless, crying nights over me? Do tell.”
He’s laughing, so assured of himself. Now I do hate him.
Of course not, I love and adore this man.
“Say it. You love and adore me and can’t live without me.”
Tav and Paris! I still couldn’t believe it. “Okay, ‘you love and adore me and can’t live without me.’”
“Okay, I love you…”
And God had pronounced it all good.
The beginning of the rest of my life…