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 The Only Thing That Counts

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Anthony van
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PostSubject: The Only Thing That Counts   Fri Oct 13, 2017 6:37 pm

Chapter eleven - Memories

            It was about five pm so, after putting through a load of washing, he quickly put away the groceries. Throwing into the dryer some clothes he needed to wear, Steve then put on another load; all the while his mind was reliving the events of the past few days. Phrases kept spinning about in his mind. His thoughts were all murky with conflicting ideas and emotions. The words, “I don’t have long,” echoed about in his head. It could be true of him too, he thought. What did Paul say; “I’m in His hands.” Was it resignation or faith—‘faith’—what did he say? “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” He had to read for himself where that came from. No doubt he would be able to find some concordance that would give him the reference.

            He showered, still caught up with tumultuous feelings. ‘It should have been me’ he quivered involuntarily, why was he spared? Is there a plan? What’s my role? What’s my responsibility? Dressing his wound and then himself, Steve tentatively put on the clothes straight out of the drier, flinching when hot metallic buttons touched his skin. He wandered into the study and immediately realised that they had been here too. The shutter windows had been jemmied open and his computer was gone! He shuddered at the disquiet he felt from having his home invaded. Then he spent several minutes looking around the rest of the house to assure himself that whoever it was had gone, and nothing else was taken or damaged.

            He thought about giving the police a call but couldn’t face the possibility of answering derisive questions from Constable Davis. He gave John a call filling him in on the theft and then saying he’d be a little late since he hadn’t yet left. Again he took a circuitous route, doubling back several times before being convinced that he was not followed.

            At John and Fiona’s the mood was subdued. Jimmy arrived in his dad’s car, soon after Steve. He related how he had visited Pete’s family. They were utterly devastated and had nothing to say to the police, or vice versa. Nothing could be said that could bring any explanation or consolation to their disarray.

            They all sat down at the meal and John gave thanks and then committed them all into the Lord’s care. When Steve opened his eyes he observed the keen gaze from Jodie’s bright blue eyes as if weighing him up. Conscious of their mutual stares they both averted their eyes and began eating. Small talk was the main feature of the meal apart from the delicious fare of roast and hot chocolate pudding, which wasn’t suitably appreciated by the mood of those present.

            After the meal, over a coffee, Steve confided with John and Jimmy that he would start preparations for his ‘trip’ the next day. Their talk became more general when the girls returned. Was the threat real? What sort of things could they do to avoid the danger it posed?

            It was agreed that now that the police knew, there was some chance the plot would unravel. However Steve was not so convinced, having witnessed little action resulting from his recent visits.

 

            Caz and her husband Kevin left first, as a neighbour was minding their children, and the rest lingered for a while before saying their goodbyes.

            Outside in the dark, standing near their parked cars, Steve, Jimmy and Jodie chatted quietly.

“I’ll follow you home Jimmy and then you can drop me off. I’ll use my bike to get around.”

“No problems Steve,” Jimmy exhaled verbally. “I think I’ll go to work tomorrow. There’s still a lot of stuff to do and even if the police keep us closed, the plants need to be maintained.”

“I’m coming too,” affirmed Jodie, and her directness was meant to deflect any likelihood that she would be contradicted. Nevertheless Steve made an attempt.

“I appreciate it guys, but I couldn’t live with myself if something happened to either of you. I can do what needs to be done.”

“We’re in this together Steve, especially now. Just accept that we’re helping.” Jimmy’s face revealed the pain he was still experiencing.

“A cord of three strands is not quickly broken,” mused Jodie.

Steve looked at her and was conscious that she was quoting, and he also felt that the meaning was more than was immediately apparent. He was about to pursue the contention through, when he was distracted by the full moon beaming down on them.

“Look at that.”

“Mmm…” Jodie sounded her endorsement, though her appreciation turned out to be more aesthetic than his.

Steve went on, “The dark seas, and bright Copernicus Crater, it’s hard to believe there are people up there right now… on some secret base.” He stopped himself from elaborating about the pernicious plan of a renegade army. “Anyway we should go.”

Before he could move toward his car, Jodie gave him a quick hug. “Look after yourself, I’m praying for you,” she said softly and then turned and fled to her car.

“Thanks…” he mumbled.

“What was that about?” Jimmy turned to Steve.

            He peered at Steve, then he lowered his head as he was about to get in his car, and slowly shook his head, a small smile materialized fleetingly. “Come on, let’s go,” came his indistinct voice prior to the door thudding closed. They all set off, one after the other. Steve was eventually deposited at his home without any incident, though Jimmy did comment on his obsessive scanning of traffic.

            At home as he lay in bed he again suffered the racing mind syndrome. The same thought’s recurred—‘it should have been me’. ‘Why wasn’t it me?’ he brooded. It had been a shocking day that had produced quirky memories; Kelly, a delightful looking girl suggesting ‘be there at 11 if you want to talk’, and Jodie hugging him and saying ‘look after yourself, I’m praying for you’.

            That night his dreams unsettled his sleep again. He woke up once, sweat soaked, when he couldn’t understand a lesson in virology. He listened but none of the words made sense. A second time he woke after telling a number of faceless people they couldn’t borrow his car. It was then that he wondered how they had rigged his car in broad daylight, while it was parked just outside Sunset Nursery. Other dreams upset him but again escaped his conscious memory when he woke.

            In the morning sitting having his breakfast, strangely, his thoughts went to Kelly Wilkerson, something she had said wasn’t quite right. She knew something, said something… then he recalled the ‘appointment’ at the café. Should he go? What help could a reporter give? Perhaps he was just interested in her.

            He mumbled, “Should I go? She is certainly beautiful in her own shapely, blonde, blue-eyed, pretty faced kind of way.” He grinned at his own gratuitous statement of the obvious. Would he meet her? He hadn’t decided yet. He knew he wouldn’t just because she was attractive. There was that ‘something’ that he had missed—a mystery—maybe a connection.

            His head was still painful to touch but beginning to heal. His arm, apart from being a little scabby and bruised yellow and blue, was a little more flexible. He knew that his interrupted sleep was the main reason his head felt numb and heavy, as if encased in a layer of clay. Steve wondered about his mental stability. What effect, apart from lack of sleep, was the emotional trauma of the last few days having on him? Paranoia, or was it guilt that was developing into some sort of psychosis? Was he losing touch with reality?

 

            Steve’s arrival at work that Friday would have been quite normal, superficially, if it hadn’t been for the police tape and charred remains of his car. He was there early and did some paperwork before giving Eric Leipstein a call. After an apology for the loss of the suit, and answering his anxious queries about the explosion, he filled him in about their plan to sample the virus.

“Steven are you sure that the virus won’t be contagious?”

“Prof, it seems to be temperature dependent. There was no effect on me at room temperature, so I can only assume it has been designed to survive in a very narrow temperature band.”

“That’s very interesting Steven. We have been doing some research work here on changing temperature parameters, mainly at the higher end, but that work ended last year when funding ran out.”

Steve was intrigued, “What possible purpose would that research have Eric?”

“Treatment; you know, find a vulnerability and attack it. We were just considering low temperature therapy when we stopped.”

            The professor asked how police investigations were progressing and Steve explained that it was unlikely they would consult with him at present, since he was the main suspect in a number of investigations. He concluded his conversation with a request to borrow a notebook computer, which his mentor happily acceded to. He hung up thinking there was something else he was missing. Puzzle pieces were being dropped at his feet and he didn’t really know what to do with them.

            Jimmy turned up and Steve quizzed him on whether he should be at work. It was clear he had had virtually no sleep at all, but he insisted that he needed to do something. Otherwise he would just mope around at home and get all maudlin. They were still arguing when Jodie arrived. Her demeanour was serious and restrained and she spoke infrequently that morning. They soon all busied themselves cleaning up broken glass and doing regular maintenance work. The three didn’t connect much until quarter to eleven, when they were in the office area and Steve suddenly announced that he had something he had to do. He grabbed his helmet and took his bike from the back, riding slowly out of the driveway, past a police removal truck lifting the wreckage, and on to the highway.

            Parking the bike in sight of the café was his first consideration. Then Steve headed into the quaint coffee shop. Kelly was dressed in tailored jeans and dark blousy shirt, and again looked very attractive to Steve. He sat down and they ordered, after which he expected a barrage of questions. Instead Kelly made small talk asking about his family, friends, interests, and even about his work. Almost coyly she asked, “So, do you have a girlfriend?” This caught him by surprise and Steve stammered some before clearing his throat.

“No, er, not really ...well no.”

“Oh…” said Kelly with a winsome smile, drawing her seat nearer to him, “so you’re available.” she winked humorously. And Steve experienced a pleasurable flush of embarrassment, not used to encountering an attractive girl who was quite obvious in flirting with him… or was she joking? He was just insecure enough to not be sure if someone genuinely liked him.

            It occurred to him then to ask how she knew his name when she spoke to him the previous day. Kelly explained that she heard someone call his name as they left, and although that sounded reasonable to Steve, there was another niggling event, some bit of information, that refused to crystallize. 

            These doubts faded into the background as he listened to Kelly’s soft, musical voice. She had just arrived from the US several days ago to pick up a reporting cadetship at a major newspaper. Her position allowed her to work freelance, taking up part time work with a regional newspaper network while selling stories and articles (if they were good enough) to the major paper. She asked him how Pete’s family was taking the tragedy, and how they were coping at work. Steve was reticent to say much and truthfully responded that he didn’t know much of Pete’s family, but he believed there was a funeral service on Tuesday.

            “How are you coping Steve?” was the quiet, concerned question Kelly asked leaning forward and placing her hand on his. A lump came to his throat as he found her care softened his resolve to tough out this emotional roller coaster. Things which he had pushed to the back of his mind started flooding back.

“Okay, I guess,” he managed to murmur before clearing his throat. “I have some good friends and family that support me.” He looked into her soft blue eyes. She leaned even closer and spoke in a hushed voice, “I know we don’t know each other that well, but I’d like you to consider me one of your friends.”

            Steve’s emotions were racing. If not for his self-doubts, for his propensity to misread the situation, and if not for his history with girls; he would have leaned across and gently kissed Kelly on the lips. Instead, he thought about all those things, and commentated in his mind what he thought was happening… “I think she wants you to kiss her, or maybe she’s just a friendly, kind person … too late now … you’d feel silly if you were wrong.”

            The moment passed and Kelly looked up at Steve. “Maybe I could take you for a picnic or something on Sunday and get your mind off this awful mess.”

Steve began to slowly comprehend now how vulnerable the last week had made him. How he needed to pour out his inner anxieties. Had he really considered kissing someone he hardly knew? Was it the way she looked straight into his eyes that seemed to increase the intimacy? He certainly didn’t know Kelly well enough yet to bare his soul, but he did find her easier to talk with than most girls—with the exception of Jodie. He couldn’t determine why his mind went to her now. He decided it was a reminder about what he already knew; that his friends were important to him.

            “Thanks for the invitation, but I have church on Sunday.”  He thought it strange that it was now important that he attend. That there was an expectation that he be there was probably part of his reason, but also issues of life and death, of meaning, that he come to terms with the voice within him that kept challenging him to reflect on his life.

Kelly looked at him, her head tilted, “Funny, I didn’t think a scientist would be into that stuff. I don’t have much time for religion myself.”

He replied quietly, looking steadily at her, “I don’t think scientists are any different to anyone else. They believe things based on evidence and experience, and I suppose …reasoning.”

“What about people who believe because they just want to believe something?” she asked trying to dispute his line of thought light-heartedly.

“Well that’s probably true to some extent too. But I think, to many scientists most of the things in the universe are confirmation of what they believe. Christians are similar. Christians have an explanation of what life is, but it’s a spiritual explanation. Scientists have a notion of the electrochemical phenomena that are associated with life, but they don’t know what life is in purely physical terms. While Christians have a spiritual explanation of origins, atheists have a variety of theories. Because of the nature of time they will only ever, ‘in time’, be theories.”

            Her eyes widened and she had a broad smile on her face. “Wow, you have some strong ideas about that don’t you.”

“Sorry, I did come across a bit strong, I guess, but it’s what I think about a bit.”

“No, no, I don’t mind. It’s interesting to hear different ideas.”

She may have regretted that comment because to Steve it was an encouragement to go on.

            He continued explaining some personal theories about the ‘meaning of life’ with some speculative creationist ideas thrown in. The explanation continued over another cappuccino.

He was tempted to give a dissertation about DNA and how that he believed all the information was already present in the human blueprint. But he stopped and looked at her.

“I’m boring you. Sorry.”

She was hesitant as if she was considering her words, “You seem fairly genuine in what you’re saying. Could you also explain why these things have been happening to you?”

So Kelly was still after a story he mused, “What things?”

“The car explosion, the factory fire and your computers...”

“You seem to know a lot already,” he blurted, and then realised he had confirmed her statement by his response. “How did you come by that information?” he asked more moderately, but still agitated.

“Let’s just say I have my contacts.”

            Steve suddenly felt suspicious. Was it a coincidence that she had appeared just when everything went wrong? How was she connected? If she was involved surely she would know the answers rather than have to ask so many questions—like a reporter. He would have to do some snooping himself.

“I can’t tell you much now, but maybe we can get together another time.”

Kelly seemed to brighten, “Well maybe I can come to church with you. It would be a fairly new experience for me.”

            Steve paused…. To say no, especially to someone outside the faith would be tantamount to saying he had no care for their soul. However, to turn up to church with a very attractive blonde girl who was a non-believer, would also have ramifications—but he felt so unsure. It was possible she may actually benefit from it. Perhaps he could ask Jodie to chaperone, or whatever.

“So, where do you want me to pick you up?”

“Um, here I’ll give you my address…” she quickly wrote on a notepad and handed it to him. “Just sound the horn when you get there. What time?” 

“Nine thirty would be good.”

            Following a few more minutes of small talk they both exited together. Steve closed the door behind them and turned just in time to see Jodie turn her head and disappear into the delicatessen. Steve saw off Kelly and had arrived at his bike, helmet in hands, when Jodie came out.

“It’s good to see you’re not overwrought with …everything,” she searched for words, sniping, “...still have time to socialise with a pretty girl.” Turning away, she bit her lip almost immediately sorry for what she had said. Jodie turned back quickly and called,

“I’m sorry…” but her words were lost in the roar of Steve’s motorcycle engine. He rapidly departed with a puff of blue smoke behind him. Her hand went to her mouth while the other clutched onto the bag with the lunches.

            Steve rode back to work in turmoil. He was bewildered by Jodie’s outburst, but he couldn’t blame her. Pete had just been killed yesterday, two days before he had come back with a story of hundreds dead, and there he was, out with Kelly. He knew he had a reason to meet with her. There was a connection—he was sure. No, he wasn’t sure. He was suspicious—that was even too strong—he had an inkling that there was more to Kelly. He knew it didn’t look good. The problem was that everything he experienced of Kelly was pleasing and distracting. Steve resolved that he should grow up and realise that his ego was just being stroked. Was it cynical to think that a girl couldn’t just like him; she had to have an ulterior motive? He was giving himself a headache. Whatever his thoughts, he couldn’t share them with Jodie no matter how much he wanted to, since her reactions were confusing him and she was obviously angry with him. He wouldn’t be able to get her help for Sunday. Steve was feeling mired in emotions he wasn’t used to.

 

            At the nursery Steve told Jimmy that he was setting plans in motion and headed off to his brother’s place. He passed Jodie on his way out and ignored her wave as he rode off. Jodie was morose for the remainder of the afternoon and didn’t communicate with Jimmy at all. Toward the end of the afternoon Jimmy approached her,

“Are you feeling all right?”

“I’m fine,” she replied feebly.

“You seem a bit down. Is there anything I can do?”

Jodie looked up grateful for Jimmy’s thoughtfulness and gave him a weak smile. “I’m just suffering from a case of foot in mouth.”

Jimmy tried a different tack. “Say, you goin’ to pick me up for church again this Sunday?”

She gave him a sidelong look with a little grin. “Sure, same time,” she checked his reaction.

“Great, I’ll call Steve and see if he wants a lift.” He smiled at Jodie and thought to himself, ‘You’re a dope Steve’.

            Meanwhile Steve and John were on their motorcycles riding considerable distances and actually enjoying the outdoors, the company and doing something constructive against an unseen enemy—a secret enemy that threatened and killed and conspired, seemingly at will. They bought equipment, surveyed routes and visited different ones who might assist with a fairly convoluted plan. Their talk, at one of their stops, turned to Malcolm, and Steve expressed his fears and uncertainties for the young corporal. John suggested they pray for his wellbeing and for the venture ahead, and so they did, aware that nothing but divine protection could see them, and Malcolm, through.

            It was late in the day when Steve arrived home. He rang work and explained he wouldn’t be in that night or on Saturday either. Sally took the call and explained the place was open for business now that the police had gone and repairs had been completed. Jimmy walked in and overheard some of the conversation.

“Is that Steve?”

Sally nodded.

“Can I talk to him?” he asked and walked over. Sally handed him the phone. “Hey Steve I’ve opened the place, is that okay …”

“Yeah, sure...”

            After that Jimmy talked too quietly to be heard by the others. He asked him how things went and then talked about plans for Sunday. Jodie came in just as he hung up. “Steve won’t be in tomorrow, and he won’t need a lift for Sunday.”

“I guess he has other things on his mind,” she said in a muted voice.

“Yeah…” he agreed, but they both had different thoughts about what occupied Steve.
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