Chapter 1

BENEATH THE WORDS “MAY love always be our home” stenciled on the living room wall, Lauren Bauman’s piano had at last found its home. Now it was time for her to do the same, and today the journey to that home would finally begin. She couldn’t wait to take off on the road trip, even if it was with her sort-of brother.
She ran her fingers over the walnut finish on the forty-year-old Yamaha that had been her mom’s prize possession. It still maintained the showroom floor sheen, but after its most recent move, it likely wouldn’t sound as beautiful as it looked. She sat on the bench, splayed her fingers over the keys, and played the first measures of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” one of her mom’s favorite pieces. No doubt, she would be pleased with the Yamaha’s new residence, a place called Our Home where formerly-homeless young adults were loved and learned how to live.
But a few measures of the song was all Lauren’s ears could take. The move from Brainerd to this northern Minneapolis suburb had wreaked havoc on the tuning, creating a warped, almost haunted tone. Later this week though, a master piano tuner would mold those notes back into shape, and beautiful music would flow from the keys once again.
A door slammed behind Lauren and she jerked her hands from the keyboard. Even after these past four years of living with the Brooks family, she was still uncomfortable playing for anyone other than God.
“How’s it sound?” Nate whipped past her to the kitchen. He was always packing away food, yet he didn’t gain an ounce. Life was unfair.
She slid the keylid over the ivories and joined Nate at the kitchen island, a half-eaten apple in his hand. “Right now, it sounds a lot like a musician on a wavy lake. It didn’t appreciate the ride down, but after the tuner comes, it’ll be all ready for the residents to take lessons.”
“Hmm.” Nate bit into the apple then spoke with his mouth full. It didn’t matter that his mom had constantly chastised him for the action. “Mom and Dad are gonna miss the music.”
“You think so?” They’d rarely mentioned her music, but then she’d seldom played the piano when they were around.
He shrugged and wiped an arm across his chin. “Well, mostly they’re gonna miss you. And Jaclyn, she’s gone all drama queen on us with her big ‘sister’”—he made air quotes— “moving away from home.”
But the Brooks’ house had never been Lauren’s home. Not really. She stared out the patio doors at a backyard bursting with new spring life. “It’s time.” Time for her to make her own home. The Brooks’ place had just been where she’d temporarily stored what little she owned until she graduated from college. She would be forever grateful to Nate’s family for taking her in after her dad died and letting her stay until now. With college behind her, and a job waiting in New York, it was time for her to blossom.
Nate set down his apple and touched her arm, drawing her attention from God’s artwork beyond the patio doors. “You’re gonna do amazing things, Lauren.”
“Thanks.” Still, after four-plus years, she couldn’t come up with more than one-word sentences when talking with Nate, although their relationship had drastically changed from adversarial to one of respect. Nowadays he was the first to stand up for her and believe in her like a true big brother would.
And now he was helping her move twelve hundred-plus miles across country in an old
school bus Nate and a friend had converted into an RV, with dreams of road-tripping around the country. This would be The Draken’s maiden voyage, so naturally they had to throw in some fun stops along the way. With three weeks until her job started, they had a lot of time to enjoy the road trip. She couldn’t wait to get going!
Lauren pushed away from the island. “You ready?” The Draken was already packed with her few belongings. Without a place to call her own these past four years, accumulating things hadn’t made sense. Now she was grateful for that wisdom.
“Almost.” Nate wiped a napkin across his face and left it on the counter. She shook her head, holding in a chuckle. Some things never changed. “I need to talk with Nancy first.” He nodded toward the office where Our Home’s administrator was bunkered in for month-end work. “This involves you too.” His voice sounded way too somber.
What was up with that?
With nerves tingling in her hands, she followed him to the office. He knocked on the French doors.
Nancy looked up from her computer, grinned, and waved them in. “About to take off?”
Nate held a chair for Lauren, then sat beside her. “There’s something I need to ask first.”
Uh-oh. Dread churned in her stomach. What could possibly be wrong? The Our Home organization had nothing to do with their trip.
Nancy closed her laptop. “What’s on your mind, Nathan?”
“I, uh, well you know it’s a long drive from here to New York.”
She didn’t comment but raised her eyebrows.
“And I . . . ” His fingers drummed out a rapid beat on his thighs. “So, I have someone to keep me company on the way home, I’d like to ask Jet to come with us.”
Who was Jet? Nate had never mentioned him before. With Nate bringing the request before Nancy, it made sense that Jet was part of Our Home’s family.
Nancy took in a breath and folded her hands on her desk. This Jet guy must be trouble. “You’re free to ask, and he’s free to leave.”
“I know that, but I wanted to get your impression first.”
Nancy’s mouth drew into a grim line, and she directed her gaze to Lauren. “Do you know Jet?”
She shook her head. “He lives here, I assume?”
“For the past month.” Nancy nodded toward Nate and shook her head. “One of his strays.”
No surprise there. To help fund college, Nate had become an Uber driver, which he then turned into a ministry of sorts. He was always bringing strangers to Our Home, many of whom had been pretty jagged around their emotional edges. Time spent here usually smoothed those edges.
So, if Nate thought this Jet would be a good fit for their road trip, who was she to argue? She’d learned to trust his judgment.
Lauren looked directly at Nate, affirming him. “I wouldn’t have a problem with it.” Well, maybe that was a little lie. Adjusting to strangers always took time. Yes, she’d lost some of the insecurity of her high school years, but not all of it.
Perhaps this was one of those God-provided challenges. Being stuck in a vehicle with a stranger on a long road trip was one way to face those insecurities dead-on. Being shy wouldn’t be an option. Clutching her hands in her lap, she turned her attention to Nancy. “Nate should have someone ride home with him.” Especially since Josh had to back out. Nate’s younger brother had a mentor opportunity that combined theater and disabled children, and Nate had
given his blessing. That was another change in him over the past four years.
“Just so you are aware.” Nancy focused on Lauren. “Jet can be quite abrasive, and he likes to get things his way.”
“True.” Nate splayed his hands. “But I think this road trip would help him. And besides.” He patted a fist over his heart. “It feels like God’s telling me he should come.”
How could she argue with one of Nate’s God nudges? Every stray he’d picked up this past year had been the result of one of those proddings.
Still, apprehension stewed in Lauren’s gut. Or was that her old foe, fear, invading again? Well, he wasn’t allowed back in. She was no longer that frightened teen from five years ago. She’d learned how to stand up to her fear, rather than let it control her. This trip wouldn’t be any different.
Lauren stood, taking control over the situation. “Let’s go invite him.”
Nate stood beside her and glanced at Nancy. “Do you know where he is?”
“Check the shop. He’s taken a liking to working on cars.” She picked up her glasses but didn’t put them on. “A word of caution, Nate. Go into this road trip with your eyes wide open.”
“We are.” Lauren looked to Nate for confirmation.
He grinned. That word of caution was only an encouragement for him.
Nancy put on her glasses. “Remember, Nate, the same ground rules apply for Jet on the road as they do for Our Home. He messes up, it’s tough-love time.”
“Gotcha.” Nate gave her a thumbs-up and turned to leave.
“One more thing, Nathan.”
Nate groaned and turned back to Nancy. “What?”
She shook a finger at him. “No. More. Strays. Got that?”
“Yes, Mom.” Nate smirked.
They finally escaped Nancy’s office and hurried through the house that had once belonged to Nate’s aunt and uncle, the same couple who’d created an apartment for Lauren in their Larchmont, New York home. The same couple who’d become like parents to her, even more so than Nate’s folks.
She followed Nate through the kitchen and mudroom to what had once been a garage. Now it housed different training areas: woodworking, construction, art, and more. The young adults fortunate enough to find their home here would get much more than a roof over their heads. They learned many home basics like cooking, cleaning, home maintenance, self-maintenance, finances, things many people take for granted.
Some residents were studying for their GED, others were learning to fill out college applications. Plus, Bible studies were held once a week. Attendance wasn’t mandatory, but highly recommended.
Best of all, Our Home was wrapped in prayer.
Of those who’d moved on, a vast majority had become successful, contributing members of society, rather than lurking on the outskirts, not sure where or how they fit in.
“There he is.” Nate pointed to the far corner of the garage where denim-covered legs protruded from beneath the front of a car. A man squatted beside the legs, giving instructions. As she and Nate approached, the instructor patted those legs. “We’ve got company.”
A man who looked inches taller than Nate—who was six-foot-two—slid from under the car. He wiped grease-stained hands on his jeans, and his near-black eyes cut her way, giving her the shivers.
Something about him was familiar, and that something wasn’t good. Jet-black hair—was
that where he got his name?—was tied back in a short ponytail. It took all her strength not to step back in fear. This was who Nate wanted to ride with them?
In her head, she recited the verse from 2 Timothy, “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” With all the times she’d recited that verse to herself, one would think it would have taken root by now.
Regardless of where she may have seen him, he wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t eager to turn his life around. Masking her unease, she gave him a smile.
Which he didn’t return. Okay then.
“Good to see you again.” The volunteer trainer offered his hand to Nate.
“You too.” Nate shook the man’s hand. “Mind if I have a minute with Jet?”
“Sure thing. Be right back.” The man slapped Jet on the back. “Good work there.”
Finally, the slightest of smiles made an appearance followed by a hasty exit.
“Whatchya need?” Jet crossed his arms and leaned against the car, propping one ankle over the other.
“You know that road trip I’m going on?”
Jet shrugged. “What about it?”
“My little brother can’t go, so I thought I’d invite you instead.”
Finally, light flickered in Jet’s eyes. “Seriously? You’re asking me?”
“Thought you’d enjoy it.”
Lauren elbowed Nate. “Introduce us?”
“Oh, uh, yeah. Jet, this is my sister, Lauren.”
A grin broke through her fear. Nate had only recently dropped the “sort-of” from in front of “sister.” Maybe they weren’t blood siblings, but they were definitely siblings-at-heart.
“And Lauren, this is Jethro Wurm, AKA Jet, he’s . . . ”
Lauren heard nothing else as all her blood seemed to gush to her toes, and she became light-headed. She had seen Jet before. Years ago, during those awful middle school years she’d endured with no mother around to cry to.
Back then she’d known him as Jethro Wurm, the wormy bully who’d made those middle school years a living nightmare.
~*~*~
“NICE TO MEET YOU.” Jet stuck out his hand, but slowly retracted it as Lauren’s face turned an ashen white. She covered her mouth and mumbled something before she spun and made a hasty exit through the garage. What had he done wrong now?
Wait. Putting himself down for no reason—or any reason for that matter—was the exact type of thinking his counselor had warned him about. Casey would tell him to assess the situation before making any judgment. What were the facts?
A – Lauren is Nate’s sister. Sort-of sister, that is. Nate had previously explained their complicated relationship.
B – Jet had only met Lauren this one time and knew little of her other than that she’d been taken in by Nate’s family when her dad died.
C – All Jet had done in this exchange was to greet her and offer his hand. That was it.
Had he scowled, though? Getting rid of that constantly-angry face was one thing he had to work on. Still, a scowl usually didn’t send people running away in fear.
Something jabbed his ribs and Jet shook himself back to the present.
“You okay?” Nate looked from Jet to the house entrance Lauren had retreated to. “You don’t know each other, do you?”
Jet breathed in slowly then puffed it out to the count of four, a technique his counselor had taught him to deal with his mental beatings. “Never met her.” Not that he remembered anyway. Was she someone he’d had to put on the street, courtesy of his mom’s property management business? There’d been too many for him to remember each family and every stricken face as he’d evicted them from their apartments. Their homes.
Wouldn’t they get a laugh out of him being the homeless one now?
“Huh. Weird.” Nate shrugged. “I like Lauren, but she’s always had this quirky side I don’t get. You get used to it.” He cocked a grin and rubbed his hands together. “Now back to our road trip. What do you think?”
Road-tripping with friends, with no one badgering him or putting him down. No one bossing him around, making him do their dirty work. Having fun for fun’s sake. What would that be like? More than anything, he’d love to go, but there were obstacles.
“I’m supposed to be looking for a job.” That was one of the conditions of him staying at Our Home.
“You can do that online, can’t you? There’ll be lots of time on the bus.”
True. And if he did get interviews, he could set them up for when they returned. “When do you expect to be back?”
“Couple weeks.” Nate bent over the engine of the Honda Accord Jet had been working on with the help of Gregg. The auto mechanic from Starr Repairs was one of the many volunteers at Our Home. Before coming here, Jet had no idea that people really wanted to help others. Especially someone like him.
“What’s wrong with this car?” Nate went around to the driver’s door.
Jet shrugged. “Nothing that I know of. Was just giving it an oil change.” One of the many
things Gregg had taught him since moving in a month ago. He pulled out the dipstick and wiped it on his work jeans. Then he stiffened, waiting for the reprimand for getting his pants dirty.
But none came. Would he ever get used to that? He returned the dipstick to the tube. “Why me?” Nate was one of those guys who always had friends around. Why wouldn’t he ask one of them, someone he knew better?
Nate gestured to the car. “Reason number one. You’re an engine whisperer. At least that’s what Gregg tells everyone. Says you can make an old Cougar purr. I took The Draken in for a once-over, and they said it looks good, but stuff happens.”
“I’m not that—” He stopped himself and struggled with spitting out his next words. “Th-thank you.” His counselor had also encouraged him to think positively about himself and to accept compliments. Who knew that would be so difficult? Fact was, he was good with engines, and he enjoyed working on them, something he hadn’t realized until he’d moved in here. Apparently, having a mechanical aptitude was a trait inherited from his dad, which meant his mom would hate him working on cars. But her opinion did not matter anymore. Gregg’s did, and Nate’s did.
“Reason number two.” Nate made a motion like he had his hands on a steering wheel. “Josh had to cancel out, and Lauren doesn’t like to drive big vehicles, and I’m gonna need a break on the road.”
“Don’t you need a commercial license to drive a bus?”
“Just your regular license.”
“And you’d let me drive?”
“Of course. One thing my uncle drilled into me was that distracted driving—and that means tired driving—isn’t ever acceptable. He learned the hard way.
And thanks to Nate, that was a lesson Jet hadn’t had to learn the hard way. If Jet would have driven that night he’d literally bumped into Nate in the parking lot . . . He shivered just thinking about it.
But then, that night, he hadn’t cared if he lived or not.
Things had changed. Nate credited God for the change. Everyone at Our Home seemed to credit God for things, yet they never pushed religion on him. Someday, he might even show up at the daily devotions.
“Reason number three.” Nate pushed away from the Accord. “Josh and I had some fun stuff planned that Lauren’s not into—”
“What kind of stuff?” Maybe he wasn’t into that either.
“Baseball game in Milwaukee. Amusement park in Ohio. That kind of stuff.”
Jet couldn’t suppress a grin. “Sounds like my kind of fun.” Things he hadn’t taken time to do since his failed attempt at a college education. His mom’s company had kept him too busy.
“And reason number four.” Nate held up four fingers. “I like Lauren, but a week with only her? Might send me to the looney bin.”
“Is she always that moody?” Jet thought back to her reaction when Nate introduced them. Had it somehow been his fault?
“Naw. When she moved in with the family, she was, but her dad had recently died, so that was understandable. On top of that, I was a jerk to her. It’s a miracle she even likes me.”
“You? A jerk?” That wasn’t at all who Jet had seen in Nate. From the moment Nate found him stumbling out of the bar toward his car until now, Nate had been nothing but a positive role model. As they were the same age, that meant something.
Nate snorted. “Just ask Josh. My parents. All my relatives. They’ll give you an earful. Now
Jaclyn, she’s a little blind. She looks up to her big brother.” Nate gestured toward the garage doors. “So, you coming with us or not?”
“On a few conditions.”
“Name ’em.”
“I help pay for gas.”
“No argument there.”
“And I pay my own way. Entertainment. Food. Lodging. Whatever.”
“Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that part of the deal.” Nate grinned. “Lauren and I are broke, just-graduated-from-college people, so yeah, you pay your own way.”
“Good. When do you leave?”
“There’s the catch. We leave as soon as you can get ready. We’ve got tickets to the ballgame at Miller Park tonight and the drive is over six hours with food and bathroom breaks.” He checked his watch. “How fast can you pack?”
“Five minutes.” Considering he had only the few items he’d purchased since arriving at Our Home, packing wouldn’t take long. “But, dude, you really want me to shower before we go.”
Nate rubbed his nose. “Man, you’re right. Take as much time in the shower as you need.”
“Give me fifteen minutes.”
“Sure that’s enough?” Nate rubbed his nose again.
“Dude.”
Nate laughed. “Fifteen minutes, and I’ll meet you in Nancy’s office. She wants to give us a send-off.”
“I’ll be there.” And he couldn’t be more excited either. For the first time in his life, things were looking up. Maybe he’d finally learn to leave the past where it belonged. Behind him.
~*~*~
WHAT WAS WRONG WITH her?
Lauren sat on the floor in the main floor bathroom, struggling to calm the shakes. She’d thought she’d exorcized those demons long ago, yet here she was trembling, afraid to step outside the door. How was she going to spend the next week in a cramped bus with him?
Did he remember her? Was she the only one, or had she been one in a succession of victims?
Every whispered name—Dummy, Klutz, Fatty—every subtle but hurtful action flitted through her brain like an old-time film. The milk “accidentally” spilling on her food. His foot “unintentionally” jutting out to trip her. The elbow “inadvertently” knocking her books from her hands. And so much more. No one had believed her that the angelic son of the city mayor was a bully.
No one but her dad. The school hadn’t believed him either.
But that was years ago. Ten, to be exact. And she was no longer that scared, insecure little girl who had no clue how to defend or stand up for herself. What would Sheila tell her to do? Nearly five years ago, Nate’s aunt had stepped into the mom role for Lauren, teaching her to overcome her insecurity. That was who Lauren needed right now.
Lauren got up and hugged her still-trembling body. One thing she’d been taught when dealing with bullies was to avoid them. No way could she avoid him on this road trip. She could always fly to New York instead. Yes, that was what she’d do. Now that Nate had a friend to join him, the two guys could travel across the country, stop at all the places Nate wanted to visit, and avoid those places Lauren had on her must-see list. It would be a win-win for all of them.
With a tissue, she wiped her eyes then reached for the doorknob. Someone knocked before
she could turn it.
“You okay, Lauren?”
Nancy. Technically the administrator of Our Home, but emotionally a mom to so many who’d resided here.
Lauren cleared her throat. “Yes.” Her voice wobbled. Naturally, Nancy had seen Lauren fly past the office to the restroom, and she’d be concerned. That was what made her so good in her job.
Putting on her best I’m okay face, she stepped out of the bathroom.
Nancy’s gaze probed Lauren’s eyes that were probably veined in red. “Nathan said you were out in the shop and suddenly turned white as a ghost. Are you feeling well?”
Lauren shrugged, still not trusting her voice.
“Is it Jet? Do you know him?”
How did Nancy know that?
Nancy put her arm around Lauren’s shoulders. “Want to talk about it?”
Yes, she did, but as much as Nancy was a mom to others, Lauren still relied on Sheila. Lauren sighed. “I need to talk with Sheila.”
“Understood.” Nancy squeezed Lauren’s shoulders. “Go ahead and use my office. Take as long as you like.”
“Thank you,” Lauren whispered then slipped into the office and closed the door. She also drew the curtains on the French doors. Lauren had no doubt that her face would convey all her emotions when talking with Sheila.
She sat in Nancy’s chair and spun to face the back wall made of bookshelves and a Murphy bed. A remnant from when Sheila and her husband Ricky lived here, before they established Our
Home. She quick-dialed Sheila’s cell. Normally, she didn’t like bothering her at work, but this was an emergency. To Lauren anyway.
It rang four times before going to voice mail. Shoot! She left a brief message and reclined in Nancy’s chair, her eyes closed. Now what? Nate wanted to leave right away, but if she stepped foot on that bus, she was certain that memories would flood through again. Riding with Jet would be torture. Well, she’d just have to tell Nate to head out without her. She’d use some of Sheila’s frequent flyer miles to get her to New York early. That would give her time to . . .
Time to what? All her belongings were in the bus, so she wouldn’t be able to set up her apartment. She squeezed her head between her hands. What was it Sheila would tell her to do if avoiding the bully wasn’t possible?
Show confidence. Easier said than done. If Jet hadn’t changed, she should stand up to him, tell him his behavior was wrong, and she wasn’t going to put up with it. Again, easier said than done.
More than likely, Sheila would tell her to use this time as a learning opportunity.
The phone sang out “I Have Confidence” from The Sound of Music. Sheila’s ringtone. Oh, to be like Maria from that movie! She steeled her voice before answering with a simple, “Hi.”
“What’s wrong, sweetie. You didn’t sound good in your message.”
She sighed. “Because I’m not,” eked from her vocal cords.
“Talk to me.”
Lauren stared at pictures on the bookshelves of the Our Home family, beginning with Sheila and Ricky and their son and daughter. A family meant to be photographed. They looked like they didn’t have any problems. Lauren knew differently, and that was how she and Sheila connected so well.
“Remember me telling you about that boy back in middle school? The one who bullied me until Dad had to pull me out?” He’d enrolled her in a different school, one that involved miles of traveling for him. But he’d sworn then his daughter was worth it.
“Of course. And you’ve run into him again.”
Lauren laughed, but not with humor. “You could say that. He’s Nate’s latest project, and Nate just invited him on our bus ride.”
Silence answered from Sheila’s end. Lauren knew Sheila was contemplating the response. That was another lesson she’d taught Lauren. Listen and think before reacting. “What do you want to do?”
Another lesson she’d learned. Sheila never jumped in to solve Lauren’s problems. Rather, she encouraged Lauren to think about what she could do herself to handle the issue.
“I want to fly to New York.” In saying those words out loud, she knew what Sheila’s answer would be, but hoped for a surprise.
“I see. Do you think that’s the best way to deal with him? If you do, we’ll fly you home.”
No surprise. She also knew that if she chose flying, Sheila would be disappointed, and Lauren hated disappointing her.
Lauren sighed. “No. I should face him.”
“That’s my girl.”
“But I really don’t want to.”
“Understandable, but you can do this, Lauren.”
“I will.” Although her insides still quaked and didn’t match her promise to Sheila. Was that what facing her fears was all about?
They exchanged a few more words then said their goodbyes. Yes, Lauren would pull on her
big girl panties and ride the bus with Jet. She’d just put on headphones and read a book in the back. It was one week with him. What could possibly go wrong?