Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Ruby Among Us - Chapter 1

Ruby Among Us

(WaterBrook Press May 20, 2008)


Chapter One: How to Measure Grief

The first person to hold Ruby was the last person to let her go.

That was her mother, Kitty. I watched her kiss Ruby gently on the forehead while she was still connected to that big, noisy machine, though I already felt that Ruby wasn’t really there. She’d been asleep so long that day. They said it was a coma. I was on the other side of the window but could tell the moment her heart stopped. I saw a doctor turn off the machines I knew had kept her body breathing. I knew; Ruby was gone.

I watched through the glass as Kitty fixed on the monitor, a frightened look in her eyes, as if she hadn’t been aware her only daughter was dying. Her face contorted with pain, and she crumpled over Ruby’s body. Her shuddering seemed to shake the walls around me.

I wrenched away from the white-collared preacher and his wife and ran and ran toward that gleaming silver room. People called to me.

“Lucy. Stop. You can’t go in there. Children aren’t allowed.”

Big hands tried to grab me. But no one could stop me. Ruby was gone, her breath taken away when the respirator had been removed, and Kitty was alive and alone. She needed me.

I burst through the heavy door and threw myself toward Kitty’s slumped body. She turned to me in time to spread her arms wide. I fell into them, and she caught me and held me so tightly I thought I might stop breathing. I kind of hoped I would; I could have died at that moment, snug in Kitty’s arms. But after a little while she loosened her embrace, and I reflexively inhaled, an involuntary instinct of survival my eight-year-old body performed against my will. My lungs, now filled to near bursting, could no longer contain the sob that had been crawling from the well in my chest since earlier that day when I’d found Ruby lying on the back porch.

Ruby had been watering our flowers–a wild mix of cosmos, daisies, and tall wild varieties of blooms that attracted butterflies and hummingbirds to taste their sweetness. That afternoon she’d called for me to look at a hummingbird drinking from the hanging feeder beside the back door.

“Lucy! Come see! The hummingbirds are like little bees!”

She always told me when they came so we could watch and count them. The weekend before we’d seen ten at the feeder. “And mija? Please grab my inhaler too.” She said the part about the inhaler casually, almost like an afterthought.

“Coming, Ruby! I’m pouring the lemonade!”

I’d always called my mother and grandmother by their given names. I don’t know why Ruby or Kitty allowed it, but they did. I knew other children who had mothers and grandmothers with boring names, but not mine. Even my own name was picked by Ruby because she thought it was special: Maria Lucero
.
“Oh, my Lucy,” she explained. “Lucero means light.” And where a ruby is loud, red, and hard, she said, Lucero meant all that was bright and the very air I was to her. “You are my breath, my very life,” she would whisper in my ear, kissing the top of my head. I never imagined Ruby as hard and loud–the things she said her name meant–but instead as smooth and vibrant. Though I didn’t know how to tell her at the time, she was my light, and I wanted to be just like her.

Ruby. Kitty. The names rolled off my tongue like crayons on paper; I liked that. The day before, my red crayon had rolled off the table as I drew a picture of Ruby, my hand in hers, each of us with a blue flower tucked behind our ear. We dove to catch the crayon as it dropped to the floor and giggled at how it seemed late for some appointment under the couch where we couldn’t reach it.

“We will need help getting out that one, Lucy.” Ruby smiled and I knew someone would be over to help, a friend whose name I could never remember…

“Lucy!” Ruby called again from outside. “The hummingbirds are going away!” I heard a cough. “Do I need to come help you, mija?”

“No, Mommy! I’ll hurry!”

During special times, like before bed, I’d call her Mommy. Sometimes I called her Mommy Ruby, even if it sounded silly, because it was our secret name. She was Mommy and Ruby to me, and I could call her both.

I’d carried the glass pitcher toward the fridge, sloshing lemonade all over the floor, when I heard Ruby call me a third time. “Lucy, hurry!” she coughed, hard. “There are two now!” Ruby coughed again, more violently.

Hurry, I told myself. I grabbed our glasses and scrambled to the coffee table in search of Ruby’s inhaler. She usually left it there, but not this day. I thrust the glasses on the coffee table and rushed to look in the bathroom. Kitty was always nagging Ruby to keep her inhaler in the same place all the time, but Ruby was too busy.

Running from room to room, I searched until I finally found the inhaler on the nightstand beside Ruby’s bed. My breath came out in deep, short gasps as I rushed back to the coffee table for the lemonade glasses, this time careful not to spill the drinks.

When I reached the door, the hummingbirds were gone and the heavy glasses of lemonade crashed to the deck, covering the porch with sticky glass shards. Slivers of glass surrounded Ruby, glistening like jewels as she lay on the porch where she’d fallen.

My hands flew to my mouth to stop my scream. I needed to help Mommy Ruby. I knelt to wipe away the glass, but it cut both of us, spotting my hands and her arms with little dots of blood. I shook Ruby and she moaned.

“Wake up!”

I remembered the inhaler and frantically pawed to the edge of the porch where it had been flung, cutting my hands more on the glass shards.

“Breathe, Mommy Ruby! Breathe!”

But she couldn’t. I saw the panic in her widening eyes and tried to spray the inhalant in her mouth and nose. Her flailing began to stop as I tried to breathe into her with my mouth like I’d seen on TV, my own breath a weak whisper.

“Ruby…” I cried as loud as my cracking voice would allow.

“Help! Please, help!”

Nobody came. So I screamed, loud and piercing. Neighbors appeared. Someone pulled me off Ruby and handed me to someone else with a hard chest–someone who held me while my small fist bounced off him. I tried frantically to force myself down. Neighbors had circled round Ruby, and I was pulled away to the scream of an arriving ambulance.

In the emergency room, the flat red line on the machine blared in my ears and Kitty pressed her wet face against me as her tears mixed with mine. The nurses wheeled Ruby out, leaving Kitty and me standing in the hallway, very still. It was that quiet moment of death, when things move in slow motion, when strangers turn sadly away as they pass your family in the halls and the medical staff stares with hopeless expression at the floor.

I felt poised, panicky, and completely frozen in time all at once. I searched the hall. Cold floors, shiny metal, too-bright light hurting my eyes. Then it rose like an earthquake and rumbled out of me: a quiet broken noise followed by a clear, piercing cry.

“Ruby! Mommy Ruby!”

I tore down the hall. The nurses who were rolling away her bed froze on the spot, staring as if I’d turned into a monster. One nurse tried to keep me from tearing the sheet from Ruby’s face until a doctor stopped and silenced her with a look.

“Let her say good-bye to her mommy,” he said quietly.

The other nurse turned to me with tears and helped me fold back the sheet. I put my hands on each side of her face. “Mommy Ruby, I love you.” I leaned over to kiss her lifeless lips and gave her a gentle hug, like I would have done when she was napping or when I was the first to wake up in the morning. Then I smoothed her hair and put my hands on her face like I’d done a million times when I tried to sweet-talk her.

“I’m sorry for not coming sooner with your medicine,” I whispered.

The nurse gently helped me cover Ruby’s face, and she was gone. I turned back slowly to find every person in the hallway sobbing and not one grownup to hold me. The abandonment terrified me. Where would I go without Ruby? Who would take care of me?
Would I be sent to an orphanage like in that movie Annie?

“Lucy!” Kitty moved from the back of the small crowd where she’d been standing, stunned by her own grief. “Lucy! Come here, baby. Come to Grandma Kitty.” I ran. Grandma Kitty wanted me, and I knew in her arms I would be safe.

No one questioned Kitty as she carried me out of the hospital, put me in her car, and drove me home–to Ruby’s house. How strange it was to come home without Ruby. Only the buzz of the fridge greeted us; immediately I had the urge to find Mommy Ruby even though I’d just felt her cooling skin on my lips back at the hospital. I ran around the house, calling her name, looking under the kitchen table where she used to take cover during games of hide-and-seek. Kitty hadn’t stopped me in my mission to find Ruby alive until I stood in the center of the living room crying, reaching out to touch the roses in the middle of the coffee table, as if they were Ruby herself, not loud and vibrant but soft and delicate.

Wordlessly Kitty reached for me, hugged me to her, and took me for a bath. I screamed when she doused my shampooed head with water. Ruby had always warned me before rinsing so I could hold my nose. Kitty didn’t even tell me the water was coming. I coughed and sputtered, lashing at her for being so mean, half expecting to be given choice words of punishment.

Instead Kitty pulled me out of the tub and wrapped my goosebumped limbs in a fluffy pink princess towel. I slipped into the Barbie gown she held up, and she tucked me into bed, saying it wasn’t my fault Ruby died. In my heart I didn’t really believe her.

Kitty had a way of looking at things that most people found strange. Ruby had always said so. Now Kitty said that since she was my Ruby’s mommy, I could be her daughter too. “A granddaughter is a kind of daughter.” She leaned down and kissed my nose, just as Ruby would have done, and turned out the light.

I felt only a short moment of panic that Kitty wanted to replace my Ruby, but I was too tired to argue about it. Kitty said good night; it was so much like Ruby that I knew Ruby had learned it from her–except for the prayer. I wanted our prayer that night, but Kitty didn’t know how to say it. With her eyes cast to the side of my pillow, she quietly offered to learn if I’d teach it to her, but I said no. It was my prayer and Mommy Ruby’s prayer anyway, I’d decided. I would never say it with anyone ever again. Not even Kitty.

The morning before Ruby’s funeral, Kitty found me in a big, old white chair on the back deck staring at the sunrise. There were no hummingbirds, just bright, empty sky. I pretended Ruby sat with me in the chair the way we’d sit together in the mornings before school. I imagined that my hands resting on the arms of the chair were interlaced with hers; if I closed my eyes long enough, I could feel her breath on my neck and her kisses–unending kisses–behind my ear, through my hair, at the nape of my neck as she whispered how much she loved me.

I had dressed in the yellow and orange floral print sundress Ruby had bought for my first day of school. I hadn’t worn it yet and wished Ruby was there to iron out the wrinkles still creasing it from the store racks. I knew grownups wore black to funerals, but I didn’t have anything black. Besides, Ruby had always said I looked pretty in bright colors. I smoothed the soft cotton dress over my knees and waited for Kitty to chide me.

“I should have known I’d find you here.” Kitty stepped onto the deck. “Ruby told me about your little morning teatimes together.”

I said nothing. It was true, but I didn’t want to share it with Kitty right then. I only wanted Ruby. Kitty extended a red floral teacup. I stared hard at the steaming cup for a few moments, trying to imagine Ruby’s hand giving it to me. But I couldn’t summon the vision. I took the cup without a word and sipped deeply. The tea tasted good, just how I liked it– not very hot, not very strong, with cream and sugar.

“You look beautiful, Lucy, just like Ruby.”

I looked up at Kitty and admired her long black muumuu dress with the rich red rose print. The roses blossomed over her heavy chest, down her trunk to the hem, enfolding in the seams and opening back up, the fabric flowing with her steps as she walked toward me. I couldn’t articulate the idea at eight years old but grasped clearly that this was Grandma Kitty’s way of rebelling against dreary mourning garb at her daughter’s funeral.

“Look at me, Lucy.”

I stared at the roses on the muumuu, unable to look in her eyes because then I’d see Ruby and the big hole in my chest would deepen and hurt even more. Kitty cupped my chin with her hands and turned my face to hers. I saw her red-rimmed eyes, teary pools in the center.
What happened to my strong, bossy Kitty? I wondered. This face was so forlorn and weak.

I was happy when Kitty barked again for me to look at her. The sternness in her voice made me feel more secure, like she was in control, taking care of me. She took me firmly by the shoulders. “It’s terrible, a terrible thing, you losing Ruby. I-I don’t know why.” She fumbled with words between sobs. “I don’t know why God did this to you–to us. I don’t.” She took a breath and fell silent, her carefully applied makeup now tear-streaked.

Tears streamed down my face too. Once, Ruby had said God was a friend to children. I wasn’t sure when she’d said it–so many memories had already begun to fade the day after her death–but if it were true, then why did he take her from me?

“Your mom,” Kitty was saying, “would defend God and say he always has a purpose.” She shook her head and stared at her hands, then away at the sky, as if she wasn’t really talking to me. “I don’t know what God was thinking.” Her eyes followed the sunrise as we sat quietly. “How could you do this?” she asked the sky. Something brought her attention back to me. “Oh, Lucy, you’re shaking.”

“I’m sorry, Kitty.”

“You haven’t done anything to be sorry for, dear.” She reached to me with a lace-edged embroidered handkerchief. I worried about soiling the pretty fabric with my tears, but Kitty dabbed at my face like she didn’t care. “You’re just a little girl and can’t understand such things. All this talk about God and his not being here for us must be confusing.”

But I understood more than Kitty knew. I’d already begun tucking away most of the memories of my mother; I felt my faith being hidden away too. Later I’d wonder if I was tucking away my faith to protect it or to get rid of it.

But then all I knew was that Kitty didn’t think God was there for us, and I felt the heaviness of that drop over me, a blanket of fear and confusion. Even as I followed Kitty’s emotional leading, I thought of Ruby, and at that very moment I felt like a bad girl doing something I was sure my mom told me to never do…because secretly I still believed in heaven. Ruby was there. And if there was heaven, wasn’t there God? Ruby had told me so, hadn’t she?

I reached from my confusion toward Kitty, wanting to make her feel better and hoping she could make me feel okay too. She was so sad for Ruby; I was so sorrowful for Kitty. We both loved Ruby and we’d both lost her. And then Kitty told me a granddaughter is a kind of daughter, and I was hers.

I looked over at Kitty, who was staring up at the hummingbird feeder. A jeweled green bird had appeared, flitting around us like a bumblebee. I wondered if it noticed that Ruby was gone, if it had watched the whole thing, witnessing how slow I had been that day.

I balanced my teacup on my knees and watched the hummingbird dart around us. It paused near my shoulder, its wings buzzing, as if studying the splashes of color on my dress. Was he accusing me? I glanced at Kitty again, but she said nothing, as if it was an expected thing to have a hummingbird fly right up to me on the day of my Ruby’s funeral. Her eyes followed the hummingbird as it darted away, staring long after it had disappeared.

My cup rattled, causing Kitty to finally turn her head slowly toward me, and the hollowness of her eyes, so lost and sad, engulfed me. I knew that I somehow should have found Ruby’s inhaler faster, but I didn’t know Ruby could die. Now I had not only hurt my Ruby, but I’d hurt my Kitty too. The doubt seeded in my mind started to grow, its roots already reaching deep. What if God was mad at me for not getting help to Ruby in time? What if he had already forgotten about us?

What if Kitty didn’t have anyone but me? Kitty leaned toward me then and took one of my small hands in hers, careful not to upset the teacup in my lap, her red wooden bracelets softly clunking with the movement. We didn’t talk anymore before the funeral, just sat holding hands and looking out over Ruby’s garden. I knew one thing only then. Kitty wasn’t Ruby, but she would take care of me.

A grandmother was a kind of mother too.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Broken Angel - Chapter 1

Broken Angel
(WaterBrook Press (May 20, 2008
Chapter 1


Day One

I am not a man that women look at twice.

Yet she did, the woman I loved. Caitlyn. The name I would give to you in honour of her memory.

She was a dark-haired beauty. She saw beyond my shy conversations, and saw something in my eyes perhaps, a loneliness of soul that touched her. At first, our eyes held contact longer than necessary. On my later visits, we exchanged smiles, our first tentative conversations. A touch of fingertip to fingertip.

Our love grew, until we pledged to seek a life beyond the prison that held her. She was six months pregnant when we escaped, became man and wife, pledging together to be parted by nothing short of death.

Our pledge lasted until the end of her pregnancy, when you were thrust into this world among the echoes of your mother’s death. You did not kill her, Caitlyn. By taking her away from any medical help, I was responsible.
And although I knew then that someday I would have to pay the price for my love for you, it has arrived far, far too soon...

Chapter One


With late sun spreading an orange glow, wind carried the chorus of baying bloodhounds to Jordan and Caitlyn. They had climbed to the top of the mountain and reached the barren and stunted scrub pines, which grew at awkward angles from crevices in the rock.

Jordan consulted his vidpod, and assured himself that the GPS coordinates were correct. He glanced around.

Below, on one side, was the valley where the bounty hunters followed their dogs. The trail that Jordan and Caitlyn had taken up the mountain from that valley was a snake of betrayal, with the bloodhounds roaming free, picking up their scent on bushes and across the long grasses.

Jordan had seen Appalachian bear hunts and knew this would be the same, the noise of hounds galvanizing the killing lust of the Rottweilers straining against leashes, waiting for the bounty hunters to release them once the prey had been sighted. To the Rottweilers, there was no difference between bear or human. Nor, probably, any difference for the bounty hunters.

The other side of the pinnacle was a drop of hundreds of feet where a waterfall fed an ancient rift of stone that widened into a valley, with the occasional bounce of sunlight off curves of the stream far below and a panoramic view of other mountain tops.

They were trapped.

Jordan put his arms around Caitlyn, as if protecting her from the noise of the hounds. He was a tall man in his fifties, thin and muscled from years of repetitive labour. The wind plucked at his untrimmed, greying hair.

“Papa,” Caitlyn said, leaning into his chest, the wind rocking them slightly.
Papa. One gentle word.

It had been three days since they had fled the collective, with bounty hunters in pursuit. Jordan had taken them half the length of Appalachia, and was exhausted. He knew he could contain the exhaustion enough to hide it from Caitlyn, and hold it off long enough to do what was needed. His sorrow, however, was so overwhelming that he didn’t know if he could trust his voice.

He stepped back and took her face in his hands, desperate for time to stop. Through the years, it had been too dangerous for the luxury of photographs. Jordan’s scrapbook of Caitlyn’s childhood was a series of different moments committed to memory, moments where he was far too aware that it would all be taken from him someday.

This day.

Without her coat, lying on the ground beside them, Caitlyn’s slenderness was striking. To Jordan, the beauty in her face gave her a dignity much greater than her lack of size. The pupils in her eyes were eerily large, her fingers like long claws. He had learned to love those fingers and hands, the unnatural thin delicacy of her legs and arms and torso. He’d long stopped noticing the coarse hair on the hunch centered between her shoulders.

Caitlyn smiled back at Jordan. A small, hesitant smile that betrayed the fear she tried to hide from him.

“This is my fault, Papa,” she said. “I am so sorry for what I’ve done to us. Whatever it is, I didn’t mean to do it. Tell them that. You don’t need to be punished. You’ve done enough, never leaving someone like me.”

Her words almost broke the last of his strength and composure. But Jordan knew what she meant. She wondered if she had inadvertently broken a law. If she had triggered something that the Elders needed to punish? Had she been seen without her coat, or said something that was reported?

“No,” Jordan told Caitlyn. “You did nothing wrong.”

He wanted to hold her again. But it would be a comfort of deception and shame. His shame. He should tell her that they were paying for his sins, not hers.
Hiding during the day, traveling the dangerous paths through the valleys at night, he’d been snatching moments to write the letter that would explain. Because she would despise him later, he wanted his final memories of her to be untainted by the horror of comprehension that would come with truth.

It was not the time to confess his sins. It was time instead to send her into the abyss.

Jordan could not hope for a sacrificial ram to appear, but understood what it must have been like for Abraham to climb Moriah to the place of sacrifice with trembling mixture of faith and hope and sadness that was a far heavier burden than any physical weight. Caitlyn, like Isaac, in her trust had been totally unaware of the purpose of their climb. Isaac’s ignorance could have only deepened Abraham’s sorrow, as Caitlyn’s did for Jordan.

Yet Abraham wouldn’t have seen in Isaac’s eyes what Jordan saw now in his daughter.
The wind and the height, as it always did, awakened an instinct in Caitlyn. On other days like this all through her childhood, Jordan had taken Caitlyn to places where they could be alone and quiet, often at the edge of a cliff to give them a view, with Jordan hiding from Caitlyn how badly he was trying to suck the marrow out of each second together.

That sweet poignancy of those picnics had always intensified as he observed little Caitlyn marvel at the hawks soaring below them, their shadows flashing across the tops of the pines of the valley. Caitlyn had watched with unknowing longing, the way God’s touch makes human souls instinctively yearn for a place unseen.
Despite the baying of hounds, a constant reminder of the danger, Jordan hoped that this same longing had returned to her.

In the last few months, triggered by puberty occurring far later than most girls, changes had rapidly forced themselves on Caitlyn’s body. She’d became voraciously hungry, especially for milk and meats. The hunch between her shoulders had grown like a cancer, spreading down her back in slow ripples, shiny and swollen until near bursting. The coarse hair draping her shoulders and upper back and arms became thicker than straw, and the outer layers of what had once been hair became dull with a sheath of dead, flaky skin. Fear from a first menstrual cycle Jordan had been able to explain. As for the growing bulge, he did little except assure her that it was what her body was meant to do. Anything more would have meant revealing the horror that he was too cowardly to expose, except by letter.

Jordan wore a hip pack. He unbuckled it and squatted as he reached inside. When he stood again, he offered Caitlyn a piece of clothing.

“You need to wear this.”

She frowned. To her, it was obviously far too small. Jordan knew better.

“A microfabric,” he said. “It will stretch.”

She ran the shiny smooth black material across her face. “Microfabric?”
All her life, her clothing had been rough cotton. She’d never seen material like this. “From Outside,” Jordan explained, although this answer alone would raise a dozen more questions. Before she could ask, Jordan spoke again.

“You’ll need to shed all your other clothing. Step into it, and pull it up your body.”

He faced the other way to give her privacy, although her thin body had few curves to suggest womanhood. Perhaps the microfabric wasn’t needed, but he wasn’t going to send her into the abyss naked, like an animal.

“Papa,” she said, “at the back. I can’t reach.”

He turned to her.

The microfabric emphasized her sleekness. It was sleeveless and would not restrict her arms. She spun to show him her back. The shiny black suit was open in a long slit, and the monstrous bulge of her back protruded part way through.
Jordan was satisfied with the tailoring. The suit was worth the money and risk of getting it smuggled into Appalachia. “Leave me your blouse,” Jordan said. “Put the rest of your clothes on. The coat too.”

He didn’t have to tell her why she needed the coat. To hide the bulge.

“Remember everything I’ve taught you about Outside.” He’d always let her believe they would be escaping together.

He took a shoelace from his pocket that he’d kept in preparation, and tied it through a button hole of the blouse.

“Papa, what is happening?”

Through the years, he’d suffered her anguish at any reminder that she was so different. How much easier it would have been to show her a cocoon discarded by a butterfly, explaining the purpose of her hideous hump and what joy could be ahead of her? But it would have led to the other questions that he had never wanted to answer. So again and continuously, he’d been a coward. Not explaining.

He placed the vidpod in her hands. “Unregistered. Use it for navigation. I have one too.”

“Unregistered!” All Appalachians knew the sentence was five years in the factory for anyone caught in possession of an unregistered vidpod.

“That’s not important,” Jordan uncoiled a rope from the hip pack. Thin, nylon, lightweight. “Below us is stream. Follow it upstream to a cave behind a waterfall. Inside, you’ll find instructions. Hurry out of the valley. Travel tonight. I don’t know how long I can delay them. ”

She blinked hard. “No, Papa!”

“You have to make it Outside.” Jordan spoke as he tied one end of the rope to the trunk of a stunted tree.

“Nobody makes it Outside. Please, don’t leave me.”

“There is a man named Brij. Among the Clan. He’s waiting for you.”

“The Clan!”

“Caitlyn, you’ve been taught not to fear the legends.”

“I can’t go without you.”

“We can’t both make it.” Jordan threw the loose end of the rope over the edge of the cliff. He had full confidence she could climb down with ease. She was light-boned. Muscle and sinew. Unnaturally so, and unnaturally strong. “This will get you to a ledge below. You’ll find more rope to help you climb down.”

“Not without you.” She wept.

“Listen to the hounds,” he said. “We don’t have much time.”

“Why didn’t you tell me earlier this was your plan?”

He tested the rope again, looked over the edge and swallowed back the feeling of vertigo. He knew Caitlyn didn’t share that fear. “I can only ask that you trust me.”

“I won’t leave you.”

“You have no choice, he said, shaking off the spinning sensation. “You can’t be taken, dead or alive. You must not fall into their hands.”

“Who are they?” She reached for him. “Tell me what this means! Papa, I’m afraid.”

He stepped back. It hurt, not to reach for her. “Trust me, Caitlyn.”

“Papa!” He’d never rejected her before. But if he held her now, he would lose his resolve and keep her in his arms until the dogs arrived.

“Caitlyn. I love you as big and forever as the sky.” That had been their game.

Caitlyn, how much does Papa love you?

As big and forever as the sky, Papa.

He squatted and reached into the hip pack again. The letter. His confession. He walked around her again, and slid it between the microfabric and her body.

“Take the rope,” he said. He spoke in such a way that she wouldn’t fight him any longer. “Now.”

He helped her over the edge of the cliff.

“Papa,” she cried. “Papa!”

He steeled himself to ignore her, acutely aware at how little her delicate body weighed. He waited until her weight was no longer on the rope, then untied it and eased it down the cliff.

“Papa!” Wind brought her plaintive cry up to him.

Jordan leaned forward and whispered it again. “I love you as big and as forever as the sky.”

Then he took the lace that he’d tied to her blouse. He began to walk quickly, dragging the blouse behind him. The longer he could keep the hounds pursuing her scent, the better the chances that Caitlyn would make it Outside.

At best, he’d stay ahead of the hounds another half hour. Long enough to make it difficult, if not impossible, to backtrack and discover where Caitlyn had escaped.
The dark of night would be a mercy of sorts. He’d hear the hounds, but in the final moments, they’d only be a frenzy of shadows, throwing themselves upon him.

Then, finally, his guilt and grief would end.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Embrace Me - Chapter 1

Embrace Me
(Thomas Nelson March 4, 2008)


The First Chapter


Drew: 2002

It's amazing how good a priest looks when you've got nobody else to turn to.

The sign says he should be here. The front doors are unlocked and I walk right down the isle. It feels creepy, despite the white walls─that Catholic, old world creepiness cemented by the statue of Mary standing on the earth, stepping on a serpent whose mouth stretches wide in agony.

Good for you, Mary. We've never given you enough credit. Not that we'd overdo it like these guys. I shove my hands in my pockets, looking around at the altar, the stone baptismal font, two pulpits─one big, one small─two rows of pews, a side altar with a statue of Joseph, I think. The doors at the back, another side altar with the statue of Mary.

But I see no carved wooden booth with a curtain hanging down like they always show in the movies. So I call out, my voice reverberating against the stone walls of the small church. "Anybody here?"

No answer.

Thomas, his stained-glass face eating up the late afternoon so=un, looks doubtful of my presence and I can't blame him.

I sit on the front pew, my gaze resting on the rack of votive candles flickering in the red cups and then skating up to the round glass window in the back wall where Jesus─hands spread wide and welcoming, a dove above his head, beams of light shining─looks out over the room.

A small man enters the room─much younger than I expected.

"Hello there."

"Are you the priest?" Great. I'm in the greatest inner crisis of my life and God sends a guy fresh out of seminary who probably doesn't know a thing about the real world. Fitting.

"yes. Sorry I'm a little late. There's always so much to do before mass begins."

"I understand. I hear the priesthood is waning."

"An understatement. Too much to give up these days. Are you here for confession?"

"Yes."

"Are you visiting Ocean City?" He sits down next to me, laying a comfortable arm across the back of the pew.

"Sort of. Extended stay. My mother and I used to vacation here when I was younger. I'm not Catholic."

He stares at me, brown eyes calm as he rubs the five o'clock shadow on his chin, then straightens his short dark hair. "Well, God isn't choosy about who's allowed to confess their sins if they are truly repentant. Are you a religious person?"

"I used to be a pastor─nondenominational."

"Oh my. Well, I won't hold that against you." He chuckles then settles into something more relaxed. I'm not a priest by apparently he recognizes someone else willing to answer a call. "Forgive me. I sometimes say too much. So what's on your mind? And just to reassure you, this will still remain confidential."

"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned."

"You're not Catholic. This isn't the movies. No need to go with such formalities." He waves it away. "But you did say it so heartfelt. I'm not used to that these days. Vacationers. You know, they went out the night before and committed all manner of mortal sin, and they're planning on doing it again. Thankfully, God is the true judge of the heart, not me. I only do what I'm supposed to and leave the rest up to Him. It's all any of us can do."

"I wish someone would have told me that a long time ago."

"so, tell me your troubles. I'm Father Brian, by the way."

Brian? I smile.

"Yes, I know. The trails of being a young priest with a youthful name."

"I don't know where to begin."

"Repentance goes a long way in the saving of our souls. Anywhere is fine. God knows the end from the beginning anyway. Unless, of course, you're an open theist. Are you an open theist?"

"No. That never made any sense to me."

"Nor to me. Sorry for interrupting. Go on ahead. Just talk to me."

I try to form the words on my tongue. Nothing comes. I imagine the surf pounding outside. Seagulls circling above a piece of trash. I picture sunbeams and Bibles and Jesus dying on the cross. Even picturing the Resurrection and the anticipated gathering of the nations does nothing to resurrect my tongue from the bottom of my mouth.

He leans forward slightly. "Are you ready for this?"

"I don't know."

"Tell you what. Write it all down, then come and see me. Be assured that God is waiting to forgive you. He joys in a repentant heart." He taps the back of the pew three times. "Even if you're no Catholic."

"All right. That's what I'll do."

"then come back. If you make an appointment, I can give you all the time you need. Do you mind telling me your name? I'll pray for you in the meantime."

"Drew."

"Good, Drew. Come back soon. In the interim, pray like your life depends on it. And would you pray for me too?"

"I've forgotten how."

"There's no trick to it."

"I don't need a rosary or anything?"

"No. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm not quite picturing you as the kind of man who's used to asking a woman for anything. Oh there I go again! Forgive me."

He doesn't realize he just landed a firm punch to my jaw. "Thank you."

"Feel free to stay and pray."

Thanks, but the statuary kind of gets to me."

He laughs. "A common response from protestants. No worries. Just call me when you're ready."

The priest rises and walks toward a door at the side of the church. A minute later a young woman stops before a door right next to it. Oh, that's the booth. Her head is bowed, perhaps beneath the weight of her sin, and her hand trembles as she reaches for the knob.

I can't watch another second of this.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Healing Promises - Chapter 1

Healing Promises

Multnomah Publishers - April 15, 2008

Chapter 1


Most days, Clint Rollins loved his work.

Most days. But not today.

He leaned back in his swivel chair and listened to the hum of voices, computer keys, and his partner’s detailed explanation of a new case. Only a week back to work, and he already needed a quiet weekend to rest.

“You listening, Rollins, or still suffering from vacation withdrawal? Maybe it’s just too early on a Friday morning.”

Steven Kessler’s ribbing jerked Clint back to the reality of working in the FBI’s Crimes Against Children Unit. Another child missing. No easy cases.

“I’m listening.” Clint rubbed the back of his neck.

Too bad criminals didn’t care if cops were up to snuff or not. His head still ached from a nasty cold that’d been dogging him for weeks. According to his physician wife, he needed a vacation to recover from his unprecedented two-week vacation. But no one in DC stayed home with just a cold. So he was back on the job in mid-January, doing his second favorite thing.

Putting criminals in jail.

He’d still rather be hanging out with Sara and the munchkins.

“One of Baltimore’s finest is heading our way—point cop for the kidnapping case.” Steven handed over a new file. “The suspect was spotted with the child at a hotel outside Blacksburg less than an hour ago. His license plate matches the one given in the AMBER Alert. Local cops are keeping watch to be sure no one leaves, and there’s a Learjet ready and waiting. We’ll head out as soon as Sergeant Moore arrives.”

At his partner’s no-frills tone, Clint flipped through computer printouts and watched his quiet weekend disappear. “Why aren’t the Baltimore or Virginia field offices handling this one?”

“Because we’re the best.” Steven grabbed paperwork and motioned for him to follow.

Clint checked his Glock and stood. “Cute. More details. Real ones.”

“We are the best. But you’re right. The reasons go deeper. The boy’s mother is Ben Dickson’s girlfriend.”

“Dickson.” Clint frowned. “The Baltimore police chief?”

“Yep. And Dickson’s an old pal of Unit Chief Maxwell.”

“Interesting queue of string pulling. What else do we know?”

“Wes Standish went missing from the playground after school yesterday. Babysitter called Dickson’s girlfriend to say she’d lost him, and a missing-persons report was filed right away. So lots of cops went to work round the clock, and Dickson breathed down Quantico folks’ necks to get their data inputted and analyzed.”

Clint flipped through the file again as they walked. “They know who snatched Wes?”

“Mom says the ex-husband. A community college professor in Christiansburg named Ed Standish.”

“So Mom and the chief want us involved to get a federal conviction when we catch the guy.”

Steven shrugged. “Likely. But according to eyewitness accounts, Dad’s not the kidnapper. A few people saw Wes leave with a tall, younglooking blond man. Dad’s middle-aged, balding, and average height.” Steven stopped and held out a second file, this one much thicker. “What makes this case top priority for us is ViCAP flagged three cold cases with a similar MO and victim profile.”

Clint grabbed the file as adrenaline shot through him. “A serial?”

“Could be.”

Clint scanned the info from the FBI’s violent criminal database. “So we have January kidnappings from parks, boys ages five to six, brown hair, blue eyes. No ransom and no bodies. But this one looks more like a domestic, a disgruntled dad who lost custody.”

“Whether it’s the dad or not, we need to bring Wes Standish home and nab this suspect.”

Clint froze midstep, staring at pictures in the file. “Any of these boys could be James’s twin.”

Steven’s jaw clamped tight. “Coulda done without that.”

“Sorry. I should’ve kept quiet.”

They continued in silence. Steven’s six-year-old son had been injured in a school shooting in October. His girlfriend, Gracie, had been kidnapped in November. And last summer, they’d been too late to save a little boy named Ryan and a teenage girl named Olivia—failures that still haunted Steven.

They both needed more recovery time. But work wouldn’t wait. Wes Standish needed to come home. Today.

Steven answered his phone as soon as it buzzed. “Stay where you parked, and we’ll meet you there. I’ll drive to the airstrip.”

Pulling up short in front of the outside door, Steven narrowed his eyes at Clint. “Let’s make sure we bring Wes home before he ends up looking like Ryan. I don’t want any more rescued kids never leaving the hospital.”

And that was that. For both of them.

The condescending cop seated facing him grated on Clint’s nerves. Even the high-end business plane couldn’t make this trip pleasant.

He usually managed to keep away from the local and federal ego dances. But this officer was a piece of work, smirking at the Learjet’s fancy mini-conference-room interior and acting like his department had every right to claim the glory when Wes made it home.

“Even before you Feds got on board with our hunch about Standish, we knew we’d be bringing home a prize today.” The over-forty officer crossed his beefy arms and flashed them a blinding smile.

Steven crossed his arms in return. “Enlighten us as to your reasoning.”

Clint rested his throbbing head on the Learjet’s leather seat, rubbing his temples as Steven and the cop locked wits. He tried to pray, but the cabin’s August-in-Texas temperature dampened his concentration.

“You up for this, Rollins?” Moore’s curt question bristled. “You don’t look so hot.”

Steven stifled a chuckle.

Everything in Clint wanted to rattle off how they’d recently taken down an international kidnapper and solved a three-person cold-case murder. Not to mention that all the events involved people he loved like family. But he refrained. “I can handle it.”

Moore cleared his throat. “After we found out about the cold cases, Chief Dickson ticked off a list of Standish’s favorite gambling places. Said his girlfriend always kicked her estranged husband out after the holidays, and he’d be gone for weeks each time. It’s why he lost his job at the University of Maryland last year. They separated after that, and he moved back home to Christiansburg, got a job at a community college. She finalized the divorce this January in honor of their history. That’s obviously what set him off.”

Steven shrugged. “All circumstantial. And there are other—”

“Look, the guy’s a world-class loser. A sleazeball with a Ph.D. Him rotting in jail would be the best thing for his son. But since you can’t connect the dots, here’s one for your superior profiling. Standish has been teaching early childhood education courses at a community college near where his brother lives in Blacksburg. We’re heading to Blacksburg. All the missing kids fitting the same MO for Wes’s case match Wes to a T, and they all disappeared in January when Standish was on his benders. And as the chief mentioned to the agent at NCAVC, Standish used to sit in a dark room, watch the kid sleep every night. Guy’s a pervert. Case closed.”

“Hardly.”

Even if the folks at the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime agreed that Standish fit a violent pedophile’s profile—and Clint wasn’t convinced of that—Moore’s speech sounded more like gunning for a promotion than good investigative skills. Good thing they had federal jurisdiction and this Baltimore officer didn’t. And thank the Lord not all police they worked with were like Moore.

The Baltimore cops were clearly trigger-happy when it came to Standish’s guilt. Just thinking about the other possibilities increased Clint’s headache a million points on the Richter scale. He closed that mental file and watched the plane come in for a landing.

Steven’s arm punch got Clint’s attention. It smarted more than he
wanted to admit. “What?”

“Got your picture in place?”

“Always.” He slapped his vest under layers of winter wear. “The family Christmas photo is right here.”

Steven grinned. “Got mine too.” Steven might be the CACU’s head coordinator, but he still tended to follow Clint’s lead, just as he’d done since Quantico. In most things anyway.

A Blacksburg cop was waiting for them with a car at the Virginia Tech executive airport. Moore took the front seat. “Got an update for us?”

“My sergeant just radioed as y’all were landing. Shots were fired. Suspect tried to leave but opened fire when our guys approached.”

“He’s gone?”

“Nope. Still out there shooting. They can’t get close to the car.”

Clint met Steven’s hard look. “Let’s do this fast and careful so we can get home before midnight.”

Minutes later, they eased into a run-down hotel’s parking lot and stopped behind two squad cars. Unsnapping holsters, all four exited the car and crouched behind the nearest vehicle.

Clint flashed his credentials, and the local sergeant nodded. “Manager called in the tip, said our suspect checked into room 102 early this morning. When he tried to leave, we moved in. He just dumped the kid in the car and took off into the woods. We’ve been dodging bullets ever since.”

Shots punctuated his report.

Two of the local cops returned fire.

Moore’s neck veins bulged. “The boy still alive?”

“No way to tell. He wasn’t moving, and we haven’t been able to get to him. Backup’s slower’n Christmas.”

Moore’s eyes locked on to the tan Impala’s open trunk and grew wide as his face got red. “You shot up the car?”

“No.” The officer stayed in firing position, gun trained on the woods, too busy to care that he’d just been insulted by a big-city cop. “Those were from his last volley before y’all arrived.”

Clint studied the car. Tangled trunk metal and busted taillights said their kidnapper wasn’t a sharpshooter. He moved to the front of the patrol car. “I’m going to check on the boy.” He caught Steven’s gaze. “Pray. And cover me.”

With his heart pounding out of his chest, Clint crawled along the black asphalt faster than he’d ever done at Quantico. Reaching the Impala, he paused to listen. Nothing. His back to the tan metal, he reached for a door handle.

Opening the door a crack, he felt inside.

When his hand touched a heavy down jacket, he swerved to face the car. The boy lay unmoving, hands bound with duct tape, a black hood over his head. Clint stripped it off and felt clammy flesh, a flickering pulse.

This boy needed medical help. Now.

Clint’s hands shook as he pulled the boy out of the car and onto his lap, then gathered him into his arms.

Shots rang through the metal behind him. But he had to keep moving. He was ten feet from safety.

He held tight to the boy and lunged toward Steven.

Searing pain ripped through his left arm.

Then everything went asphalt black.

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Warriors - Chapter 1

The Warriors

(Bethany House April 1, 2008)

Chapter 1

Tower of Constance, Aigues – Mortes, Provence, France– a.d. 1 3 5 3

The condemned lay hunched over the dungeon floor to carve his last words, using a beak pried from the carcass of a seagull. He breathed deeply and bent even lower, blowing dust off the letters, when something caused him to freeze.

He cocked his head to one side. Slowly closed his eyes. Then exhaled the breath, slow and trembling.

It was not a new noise that had alarmed him, but rather a new quiet. The ringing of hammer blows outside had ceased. He nodded faintly, absorbing the terrible truth.

The carpentiers had finished his execution stake.

He glanced over at his three brethren huddled in the cell’s far corner and staring darkly at the stone floor. None had uttered a word since hearing their friends’ death howls the day before. This morning their gazes were hollow with fear, for fresh sounds of doom seemed everywhere. From outside their window slits floated the growing clamor of a mob surrounding the gallows. From the guards’ room below he could hear the clanging of swords and the curses of returning soldiers.

The hour of their death was upon them.

He sighed and fought back a misting in his eyes. The men’s wasted appearance would never betray it, but they were the last known members of the once proudest and most feared military order in the world: The Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ, Knights of the Temple of Solomon.

Knights Templar.

How far the mighty had fallen! Only a century ago, his forebears had sailed as heroes in the king’s own ships from the quays of this very town, Aigues-Mortes, as crusaders sworn to the recapture of Jerusalem. The king himself, along with his cardinals, had stood by, tossing them tearful waves and bids of “Godspeed.” The same offices that today condemned their order as devil worshipers and deviants, slaughtered its members and hunted down all who refused to flee until only these four doomed men remained.

He shook his head and willed himself not to sully his final moments with bitter thoughts.

Reading again what he had written, he caressed the words with his fingertips, then bowed his head for a long moment. Thankfully, the limestone had proven softer to pierce than he had thought possible, allowing him to inscribe the words of this most important message over the course of the last three days. He carefully turned the stone over, concealing his work, then returned it to its place in the floor with a dull thud. The soldiers would notice nothing amiss.

As to who would ever read his words and when, he would leave that task up to Almighty God. He who had inspired them would surely bring a reader in due time.

Forty minutes later, the carver of the message did indeed burn alongside his three fellow Templars, staring calm and upright through the flames even as his brethren writhed and lofted stomach-churning howls.

Some of those watching testified that, during his horrific final moments, the man looked heavenward with the beatific smile of a saint. A few of those near the front fell to their knees and began crossing themselves in repentance of their earlier taunts.

Finally it was over. Within the hour, farmers had carted off the charred remains and fed them to their swine. Peasants looted the pyre for kindling. By evening, coastal winds had chased off the remaining ashes and swept them into the nearby marshes of
the Camargue. Three days later, the dead man’s odd demeanor had been exhausted as conversation fodder. A week later it was forgotten.

Years passed, too numerous to describe. Prisoners came and went, as did many more such executions. Through it all, the dead man’s hidden message went undiscovered. Yet somehow, against all logic and human reason, an awareness of its existence seemed
to linger through the ages.

Only the Tower itself survived the passage of time intact. Eventually, the structure’s dark renown would spread across Provence and all of France, whispered of as the bleakest of earthly hells, its only abundant feature the misery of those inhabiting that dreaded second floor.

The Middle Ages dragged on, and the Tower’s oppressive presence worsened still. Centuries flowed around the dismal sight of the pale, weather-stained edifice thrust up into fog and clear blue sky alike as a soaring rebuke to the very notion of mercy.
Indeed, every era of the second millennium would dawn upon the Tower, confining some wretched soul or other, usually of marginal guilt—petty thieves, indigents, prisoners of conscience, the royally disfavored, the politically unfortunate. Most would leave as withered cadavers laid out on slat boards, swathed under heaps of the town’s famous sea salts.

Years after their imprisonment, Tower survivors would find it difficult to describe the place’s horrors. They would struggle to capture the density of the resignation that seemed to drip from its chamber’s ceiling. Or the depth of gloom that clung to its barren limestone walls. Or a despair even more pungent than the brinescented winds that flowed through its narrow windows from the swamps and salt beds around Aigues-Mortes.

A name that, in the old Proven├žal, fittingly meant Dead Waters.


With a very few of its inmates, however, the Tower and its notorious bleakness had wrought a far different, even opposite effect. The grim atmosphere seemed to focus hearts and minds on eternal things. It appeared to wear away the barriers separating
this world from the next. And, in one or two cases, it seemed to provoke astonishing manifestations of the spiritual.

It happened in the case of the Templar and his mysterious inscription in the floor stone. It also happened nearly three hundred years after his death, when the Tower was converted to a women’s prison.

During this period, the Tower housed the inmates for whom it would become most famous: a group of Huguenot women, including the heroines Marie Durand and Anne Salieges. The latter would be remembered for surviving a seventy-one-year imprisonment, begun when she was an infant in her mother’s arms.

The former was celebrated for carving RESIST in the Tower’s stone with her adolescent fingernail and for nurturing the prisoners’ defiance.

Every morning, the Chief of the Watch would grumble up his obligatory offer of clemency in exchange for the women renouncing their Protestant faith. Every morning, Marie would shout down their refusal.

They would be released decades later, broken and stumbling old stalwarts, yet Marie Durand’s engraving would remain to become one of the most celebrated ever left by a woman’s hand.

But the other, far longer and more provocative message, carved and hidden in that same chamber by a Knight Templar three centuries before, would lie undetected and yet supernaturally whispered about for eons.

Translated, its opening lines would read as follows:

A Call to War

The stillness and solitude of this place have sharpened my sight and allowed me a wondrous revelation. I have been shown things of which most mortals know but a glimpse. I have beheld the battlefronts of a vast and ancient war.

I may be called a soldier, yet in the face of this war I know nothing. I am less than a spectator. This is a war beyond all things, beyond all conflicts, beyond time itself.

Do not be deceived, for although my words may bear the ring of legend, they describe
truth of a supreme order. Truth so monumental that by comparison the reality of our present travails, the urgency of our earthly Crusades, are as trifling as the grains of salt upon these nearby shores. Truth of such magnitude that it could alter the course of a conflict which has engulfed heaven and earth since before the dawn of history.