A Straw Man
(The Clay Lion Series Book Three)
What if you could go back in time to save the person you love the most?
Nate's funny. He's a football player. He's ridiculously handsome. In fact, it seems as if Melody's dating the perfect guy, until an unexpected tragedy changes everything about him.
Based on her own family's experiences, Melody knows traveling in time to help him could have disastrous results - the tiniest alteration of the past can have huge repercussions on the future. But with careful planning, she's confident her trip will be a success.
What she doesn't anticipate is that sometimes there are consequences which can never be foreseen and changes that can never be undone.
SPRING SEMESTER – SECOND YEAR
I picked up the last card from the stack and placed the three of hearts on the four of spades and the ten of diamonds on the Jack of clubs. One by one, each of the cards found a home on top of its designated suit until four neat piles topped with kings lay on the end table beside me. It had taken me seven tries and the better part of an hour to finish one complete round of solitaire.
“Finally,” I said with a burst of relief, readjusting my position as I slid my feet from beneath me back onto the floor so I could turn my attention to Nate.
In the chair on my left, he continued sleeping peacefully. His head was tucked into his chest and a trickle of drool pooled at the corner of his lips. My instinct was to wipe it away, but I knew better than to disturb him. With the stress of the night on top of everything else, there was only one explanation for how he was able to nod off so quickly while the rest of us remained steadfast in our vigil. And although I would have welcomed his company, I could not deny him respite, especially when for him sleep was such a precious commodity.
It had been a difficult year for the two of us. Nothing had been the same since the accident in September, the night Nate changed forever. As I listened to his shallow breathing, it brought me comfort to know that despite his struggles, he was still beside me, even if it was only because I couldn’t bring myself to give up on him. He was a whisper of the man I’d fallen in love with our first year, but as I turned to gaze at him, snoring softly through parted lips, there was still a glimmer of the man he used to be. Most nights, even sleep didn’t offer relief from the burden of his guilt. I worried for him, although I was out of ideas for ways to help.
His path of self-destruction seemed to have no end.
After suffering for three consecutive hours on the uncomfortable waiting room chair, I stretched my arms above my head and worked at relieving the fatigue in my joints. As I glanced around at my family, it felt selfish to be thinking only of Nate when they were also in need of prayer. The middle of the night phone call from my brother Charlie had been filled with both frantic exuberance and fear. Today would be a big day for him. And for his wife, Brooke. And for me too, I supposed.
Brooke’s mother rested awkwardly under the crook of her husband’s arm. Their eyes were closed but they weren’t asleep. My mom stared blankly at the pages of an outdated magazine, but I hadn’t seen her turn a page in over half an hour. She chewed the tip of her thumbnail nervously, humming softly to herself. For everyone’s sake, I hoped we wouldn’t need to wait much longer to find out what was going on in the ward beyond the double doors.
My stomach growled. The clock on the wall indicated the sun would soon be rising, but there was no natural light in the waiting room, only the harsh glare of the fluorescents overhead. I had just decided to set off for the vending machine around the corner for a donut when Charlie burst through the doors wearing ill-fitting scrubs and a smile that stopped my heart.
Everyone was suddenly wide awake.
“It’s a girl!” he cried.
In one swift motion, we crossed the room to him, swept up in the emotion of the moment. Mom wrapped him in her arms, and as tears built in her eyes, the tightness in her jaw released.
“And she’s fine? She’s going to be okay?” Brooke’s mother asked.
“They’re both fine,” he replied excitedly. “They had to take her via cesarean, as we expected because of the placement of the placenta, so Brooke’s gonna have a longer recovery. But the baby, even five weeks premature…” He trailed off, a small smile playing at his lips. “She’s itty-bitty but she’s perfect.”
Brooke’s father squeezed Charlie’s shoulder affectionately. “So when am I going to get to meet this new granddaughter of mine?”
He shook his head and ran his fingers through his tousled hair. “I don’t know quite yet. Brooke’s been moved to recovery, and they’ve taken the baby to the NICU just to run some tests and make sure everything’s okay. She came out screaming and her APGAR was a nine, so as long as she doesn’t need any help breathing, it shouldn’t be too long before you can go back.”
It didn’t surprise me how natural talking about all the baby stuff seemed for Charlie. He’d been a father figure to me long before our father’s death, acting as my supportive male role model for as long as I could remember. When he announced Brooke’s pregnancy to the family in the fall, everyone else seemed relieved that they had finally decided to start a family. But unlike the others, I was glad they waited a few years into their marriage, giving them more time together as a couple before becoming parents. Both of them had been pushed to grow up too fast too soon, with Brooke’s younger brother Branson’s untimely death and the unusual circumstances surrounding Charlie’s adoption.
But now, after witnessing how attentive he’d been to Brooke throughout the pregnancy, I was certain that it was finally the right time for him to become a father to his own little girl.
I approached my brother, locking eyes with the person I admired most in the world. “So, are you going to tell us now, finally?”
“Tell you what?” he replied playfully, nudging me in the arm.
I smiled at him. “It’s time for you to tell us what you’ve decided to name her. We’ve waited long enough.”
My demand was bolstered by a chorus of agreement from the others, including Nate who had sidled up beside me.
He welled up at the request and bit at his bottom lip to keep the tears at bay.
“It was Brooke’s idea, if it was a girl… she wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
We waited patiently for him to continue.
“We’re naming her Victoria,” he said finally, “after my mother.”
FALL SEMESTER- FIRST YEAR
I was dreading the final “Incoming Student Orientation” meeting. Each one I’d attended had been more boring and worthless than the last, but the series of seminars was required so I dragged myself from a blissful rereading of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and headed with my roommate Lesley to the student center.
When I saw him, I was suddenly glad that I’d decided to put down the book.
His eyes were grey, the color of fine pewter. They were the first thing I noticed as I approached because they weren’t a real color, like blue or brown or green. They were so unusual I had to consciously force myself to look away so he didn’t think I was crazy for staring at them. But I hadn’t averted my gaze fast enough.
“My mom’s eyes are the same color,” he said smiling, in a way that wasn’t necessarily conceited, but just to tell me, so I knew.
I allowed myself to look again as I sat down beside him, not because I wanted to, but because I needed to make sure I hadn’t imagined them.
Pewter. They were real.
I smiled at him. Tried to recover some shred of dignity. “I guess she can’t deny you then,” I laughed feebly, feeling overwhelmed by the luck of our pairing.
He cocked his head to the side and smirked at me. “Isn’t that what they say about dads? If you look like your dad, he can’t deny you? But my mom actually gave birth to me, so it would be pretty hard to deny that, wouldn’t it?” He chuckled to himself.
Based on his appearance alone I assumed he was laughing at my expense. When I noticed the biceps squeezed into the arms of his football jersey, I was certain of it. My heart sank at the thought of being partnered with some gorgeous jock, probably fresh off the starting lineup, who now thought I was an idiot. I tried to change the subject.
“Do you have practice after this?” I asked, unfolding the questionnaire we were supposed to complete together.
“Yeah. I might actually have to leave early to get there on time. I was hoping I didn’t have to come here at all, but Coach didn’t give us a choice.” He fished a pencil out of his backpack. “I’m Nate, by the way. Nate Johansen.”
“Melody Johnson,” I replied, searching my bag for my own pen. “That explains why we’re together - alphabetical order.” I rolled my eyes. “Really original, orientation leaders.”
He didn’t respond but I could feel him looking at me. I felt my ears redden despite my best efforts to remain calm. “Melody,” he repeated, ignoring the rest of what I’d said. “Like a song?”
I didn’t know how to react. Was he making fun of me again?
“Yeah, I guess,” I said finally, unnerved by his proximity and my sudden lack of intellect.
“I like it,” he said, as if his approval should count for something.
I admitted silently to myself that it did.
We worked together for the better part of an hour, filling out the survey about our orientation experience. I had a hard time keeping myself from staring at him. In addition to his piercing eyes, he was huge, like a boulder. I felt like a wisp of air beside him. I wanted desperately for him not to be a dumb jock so I could feel justified in liking him. Sadly, he wasn’t making it easy, with his snarky responses to each of the questions and repeated threats to write in his own inappropriate answers involving bathroom humor and sexual innuendos. I was initially annoyed by his childlike behavior, but eventually realized he was merely trying to make me laugh. When I let down my guard and gave in to his irreverent humor, I was rewarded with his wisdom.
“How would you rate the food services department?” he read aloud. “Where’s the ‘blows chunks’ option? Seriously. Let me write that in. Their meatloaf on Tuesday had to be made of horse.”
I couldn’t help it. I cracked a smile. “It was pretty gross, wasn’t it?”
He grimaced, pretending to be sick. “It was disgusting. No amount of ketchup could’ve saved it.”
I shook my head and slid the paper in his direction. “Go ahead! Write in ‘blows chunks.’ What do I care?”
I watched as he wrote the words BLOWS CHUNKS carefully in block letters. He was overly pleased with himself.
“You’re funny,” I said, not realizing until the words escaped that I’d spoken them aloud.
Nate cocked his head at me. “My mom says I need to be more serious. You know, take life seriously cuz I’m in college now and football scholarship and big career and blah, blah, blah.” He gestured with his hands, making air quotes, which for some reason I found ridiculously charming. “But I don’t know. Life should be fun, shouldn’t it? If it’s not fun, why bother?”
I considered his perspective, reflecting on my own situation. “She has a point though. We’re not kids anymore. And I get that we have to figure stuff out and grow up…”
He held up his hands before tossing his pencil into his backpack. “Stop right there. You’re bringing me down, Mel.”
I panicked, afraid that he would leave thinking we had nothing in common. “You didn’t let me finish. I was going to say I feel like there should be a way to do both. I was agreeing with you.” I sighed. “For the past couple years I’ve been so focused on keeping up my grades and getting into school, I haven’t had much time for fun. I could honestly use some more fun in my life.”
“Yeah. Really.” I paused. “Are you making fun of me again?”
He furrowed his brow with a look of genuine curiosity. “What do you mean again? I haven’t made fun of you at all.”
I was skeptical. He seemed exactly like the type of person who would delight in making fun of other people. “Seriously? The comment about your mom denying you and my name is a song? You’ve been laughing at me all afternoon.”
He became serious for the first time since I’d taken the seat beside him. “I wasn’t making fun of you, Melody.”
I looked away but could feel him scrutinizing me, as if his eyes were piercing right through me. Finally, I worked up the courage to face him, but regarded him suspiciously, the way a mouse observes a cat. “You weren’t?”
“No. Why would I?”
I hesitated. “I don’t know,” I said finally as I zipped up my bag. I really didn’t have an answer beyond the fact that I sort of always assumed other people found advantages where they could and many times that meant bringing other people down. My father had built a career on it.
There was an awkward silence as he stood up from his chair.
“I might be just what you’re looking for, if you’re looking for some fun. And I’m not kidding.” He looked at his phone. “I’m late for practice. Which dorm are you in?”
I couldn’t imagine why he was asking. “Kellogg. Over in Alderman.”
I had to think for a second. “211.”
“Okay.” He started to amble away but then looked back over his shoulder to wave goodbye. “Maybe I’ll stop by.”