Sunday, November 30, 2008

One Perfect Day - Chapter 1

One Perfect Day

FaithWords (October 22, 2008)

Chapter 1


Gordon, where are you?

Betsy, a middle-aged yellow Lab, looked up as if she had heard Nora speaking. The two — owner and pet — had been best friends for so long that the twins frequently teased their mother about mental telepathy — with a dog. Betsy thumped her tail and gazed up from her self- assigned spot at Nora’s feet.

Leaving the bay- window seat, where she’d been staring out at the moon lighting fire to the frost-encrusted winter lawn, which sloped down to the lakeshore, Nora crossed the kitchen to set the teakettle to boiling. Tea always helped in times of distress. She brought out the rose-sprinkled china teapot and filled it with hot water. Tonight was not a mug night but a “stoke up the reserves” night. If there had been snow on the ground, this was the kind of night, with the moon so bright every blade of grass glinted, when she would have hit the ski trails. An hour of cross-country skiing and she’d have been relaxed enough to fall asleep whether Gordon called or not. So, instead, she drank tea. As if copious cups would make her sleep deeply rather than toss and turn. Perhaps she would work on the business plan if she got enough caffeine into her system.

Betsy’s ears perked up and she went and stood in front of the door to the garage.

Nora’s heart leaped. Gordon must be home after all. But why hadn’t he called to say he was at the airport? His business trip to Stuttgart, Germany, had already been prolonged and here they were trying to get ready — with just four days until Christmas. The last one for which she could guarantee the twins would still be home. Her last chance for perfection. When he’d told her a week ago he had to fl y to Stuttgart again, the word “again” had echoed in her head. Betsy’s tail increased the wag speed and she backed up as the door opened.

“Mom, I’m home.” Charlie, the older twin by two minutes, and named after his father, Charles Gordon Peterson, came through the door in his usual rush. “Oh, there you are.” Grinning up at his mother, he paused to pet the waiting dog. “Good girl, Bets, did you take good care of Mom?” Betsy wagged her tail and caught the tip of his nose with her black- spotted tongue. “Smells good in here.” He glanced around the kitchen, zeroing in on the plate of powdered-sugar–dusted brownies. “Heard from Dad?”

“No.” Nora cupped her elbows with her hands and leaned against the counter. At five-seven, she found that the raised counter fit right into the small of her back. When they’d built the house, she and Gordon had chosen cabinets two inches higher than normal, since they were both tall. Made for easier work surfaces. “Go ahead, quit drooling and eat. There’s a plate in the fridge for you to pop in the microwave.” “Where’s Christi?” Charlie asked around a mouthful of walnut- laced brownie.

“Upstairs. I think she’s finishing a Christmas present.”

“Are we going to decorate the tree tonight?”

“We were waiting on you.” And your father, but somehow he always manages to not be here at tree- decorating time.
While Gordon was not a “bah, humbug” kind of guy, his idea of a perfect Christmas was skiing in Colorado. They’d done his last year, with his promise to help make hers perfect this year. Right. Big help from across the Atlantic. While Nora knew he’d not deliberately chosen to be gone this week before Christmas, it still rankled, irritating under her skin like a fine cactus spine, hard to see and harder to dig out. Charlie retrieved his plate from the fridge and slid it into the microwave, all the while filling his mother in on the antics of the children standing in line to visit Santa. Charlie excelled as one of Santa’s elves, a big elf at six feet, with dark curly hair and hazel eyes, which sparkled with delight. Charlie loved little kids; so when this perfect job came up, he took it and entertained them all in his green- and- red elf suit. He could turn the saddest tears into laughter. Santa told him not to grow up, he’d need elves forever.

“One little girl had the bluest round eyes you ever saw.” Charlie took his warmed plate out and pulled a stool up to the counter so he could eat. “She had this one great big tear trickling down her cheek, but I hid behind my hands” — he demonstrated peekaboo with his fingers — “and she sniffed, ducked into Santa, caught herself and peeked back at me. When he did his ‘ho ho ho,’ she looked up at him with the cutest grin.” He deepened his voice. “ ‘And what do you want for Christmas, little girl?’ ” Charlie shifted into shy little girl: “ ‘ I — I want a kitty. My mommy’s kitty died and she needs a new one.’ ” He paused. “ ‘And make sure it has a good motor. My mommy likes to hold one that purrs.’ ” Charlie came back to himself. “Can you believe that, Mom? That’s all she wanted. She reached up and kissed his cheek, slid off his lap and waved good- bye.” “What a little sweetheart.”

“I checked with Annie, who was taking the pictures, and got their address. You think we could find a kitten that has a good motor at the Humane Society?”

“Ask Christi, she’d know.” Christi volunteered one afternoon a week at the Riverbend Humane Society and would bring home every condemned animal if they let her. She’d fostered more dogs and cats in the last year than most people did in a lifetime. She’d found homes for them too, except for Bushy, an older white fluffy cat, with one black ear and one black paw. His green eyes captivated her, or at least that was the excuse for his taking up permanent residence. “I will. Be nice if there was a half- grown one with a loud motor.”

“Loud motor for what?” Christi, Bushy draped across her arm, wandered into the kitchen, a smear of Sap Green oil paint on her right cheek, matching the blob on the back of her right forefinger. Tall at five-nine, with an oval face and haunting grayish blue eyes, she looked every bit the traditional blond Norwegian. As much as Charlie entertained the world, she observed and translated what she saw onto canvases that burst with color and yet drew the eye into the shadows, where peace and serenity lurked. Christi would rather paint than eat or even breathe at times.

“A little girl asked Santa for a kitty for her mother” — he shifted into mimic — “ ‘ ’Cause Mommy’s kitty died and she is sad.’ ” “That’s all she wanted?”

“Gee, that’s what I thought too.” Nora motioned toward the teapot and Christi nodded. While her mother poured the tea, Christi absently rubbed the paint spot on her cheek. “There are three cats for adoption right now. I like the gold one, she loves to be held. The other two would rather roughhouse.”

“You think it would still be there until after school?” “I’ll call Shawna and tell her to hold it for you. Are you sure you want to do this? What happens if she doesn’t really want it?”

“Can anyone turn down one of Santa’s elves?”

“You’d go in costume?”

“Why not?”

“I could paint you a card.”

“Would you?”

“Sure, have one started. All I need to do is change the color of the cat. Luckily, I made it white, like Bushy here.” She rubbed her cheek on the cat’s fluffy head. “How long until we decorate the tree?”

“Give me five minutes.”

“Okay, you two start on the lights and I’ll finish the card. You want me to sign it for you?” Christi had taken classes in calligraphy and had taught her mother how to sign all the Christmas cards in perfect script.

“You know, you’re all right for a girl.” Charlie bounded up the stairs to his room, where all his herpetological friends lived. Arnold, a three- foot rosy boa that should have been named Houdini, was his favorite.

Nora handed Christi her mug of tea. “Take a brownie with you.”

“Thanks, Mom. You heard from Dad yet?”

“No.” Nora knew her answer was a bit clipped. “Something must be wrong.” Christi’s eyes darkened in concern. “Did you call him?”

“I tried, cell went right to voice mail.”

“So, he was on it?”

“Or he let the battery run out.” As efficient as Gordon was, you’d think he could remember to plug his phone into the charger. The two women of the family shared an eye rolling.

“He’ll call.”

“Unless he’s broken down someplace.”

“You always tell me not to worry.”

“Well, advising and doing are two different things.” Nora set her cup and saucer in the dishwasher. “Want to help me unroll the lights?”

“I was going up to finish that card.”

Nora checked her watch. “Ten minutes?” “Done.” Christi scooped Bushy up off the counter, where he’d flopped, and headed up the stairs, not leaping like her brother, but lithe and regal, the residuals of her years of ballet and modern dance.

Nora and Betsy headed for the living room, but when the phone rang, she did an about- face and a near dive for the wall phone in the desk alcove. “Hello.”

“Nora, I’m sorry I didn’t call sooner.”

“There, you did it again.” She tried to sound harsh, but relief turned her to quivering Jell- O.


“Apologize. Now I can’t be mad at you.” His chuckle reminded her of how much she missed him when he was gone.

“Where are you?”

“Still in Stuttgart. Art and I got to talking and I didn’t realize the time passing. I had to get some sleep.” “You’re up awfully early.”

“I know. Trying to finish up. Is the tree up yet?”

“What, are you trying to outwait me?” “What ever gave you that idea?” He coughed to clear his throat.

“You okay?”

“Just a tickle. Look, I should be on my way home this afternoon. I’ve got to wrap this thing up, but I told them the deadline is noon and I’m heading for the airport at three, come he- heaven or high water.”

“Well, don’t worry about the tree.” She slipped into suffering servant to make him laugh again. “The kids and I’ll get that done tonight.” It worked. His chuckle always made her smile back, even when he couldn’t see her. “They have school tomorrow, right?”

“Right. Last day, so there’ll be parties. I have goodie trays all ready to take.”

“You made Julekaka for the teachers again?” Nora chuckled. “Gotta keep my place as favorite mother of high- school students.”

“Is that Dad?” Charlie called from the stairs. “Tell him to hurry home. I have to . . .” The rest of his words were lost in his rush.

“Charlie says to hurry home.”

“I heard him. Give them both hugs from me.” “Do you need a ride from the airport?” She glanced at the clock. Nine p.m. here meant four a.m. in Germany. Good thing Gordon was a morning person.

“No, I’ll take a cab. I love you.”

“You better.” She hung up on both their chuckles. How come just hearing his voice upped the wattage on the lights? And after twenty- two years of marriage. As people so often told them, they were indeed the lucky ones. “Please, Lord, take good care of him,” she whispered as she blew him a silent kiss. She joined Charlie in the living room, where a blue spruce graced the bay window overlooking the front yard, where she and Gordon had festooned tiny white lights on the naked branches of the maple, which burst into fiery color in the fall, and the privet hedge, which bordered the drive. Lights in icicle mode graced the front eaves, while two tall white candles guarded the front steps. She’d filled pots with holly up the flagstone stairs and hung a swag of pine boughs, red balls and a huge gold mesh bow on the door. “Here.” Charlie handed her the reel of tiny white lights and pulled on the end to plug it in.

“I already checked them all this afternoon. Just start at the top of the tree.”

They had a third of the lights on the eight- foot tree when Christi joined them, setting the finished card on the mantel to dry.

“I didn’t put it in the envelope yet, so don’t forget this in the morning, or are you coming home before going over there? Shawna said she’ll put your name on the golden cat. She’s already been fixed, so she is ready for her new home.” Christi picked up another reel of light strings. “You need to put them closer together.”

“Yeah, right, Miss Queen Bee has spoken,” Charlie mumbled from behind the tree.

“You don’t have to get huffy.”

“You don’t have to be bossy.”

“All right, let’s just get the lights on.” All they had to do was get through this drudgery part and then all would be well. Gordon always tried to skimp on the lights too. Like father, like son. Silence reigned as they wound the lights around the tree branches, punctuated only by a “hand me another reel, please” and “ouch” when a spruce needle dug into the tender spot under the nail. Nora sucked on her finger for a moment to ease the stinging. Inhaling the intoxicating spruce scent brought back memories of the last years and made her grateful again for all the joys they’d had. One more thing to miss tonight, the rehash she and Gordon always did post–tree trimming, when the children had gone to bed, like Monday morning quarterbacking, only with more smiles and laughter. Much of the laughter came because of Charlie’s clowning around.

“What if she doesn’t like the cat?” Charlie asked.

“Then we’ll take it back,” Christi said matter-of-factly.

“By ‘back,’ I’m sure you mean to the Humane Society. Bushy would not like another cat around here.” Nora’s hands stilled. This she needed to clarify.

“Of course, Mom.”

Nora looked up in time to catch a head shake from her daughter and one of the “I’m trying to be patient” looks Christi was so good at. Why was it so quiet? “Oh, I forgot to put the music on. Messiah all right?”

When both twins shrugged, she knew they’d rather have something else, but were giving her the choice. She crossed to the sound system, hit the number three button and waited a moment for Mariah Carey’s voice to flow out. She’d play the Messiah after they went to bed. They’d all attended the “ Sing-Along Messiah” concert the second weekend in December.

At least Gordon had been home for that tradition. A bit later they all three stepped back with matching sighs. “All right, throw the switch.” She looked at Charlie, who had taken over that job years earlier. This certainly was a night for memories.

When the tree sprang to life, they swapped grins and nods. The ornaments were the easy part. By unspoken agreement, they decided to hang the ornaments, which they’d bought one per year on their annual family shopping trip and dinner- out tradition, higher in the tree to keep away from batting cat’s paws and a dog’s wagging tail. While the twins snorted at her sentimentality, she hung the ornaments they’d made through the years, some like the Santa face with a cotton ball beard, beginning to look more than a bit scruffy, but dear nevertheless. The ornaments that their Tante Karen had given them through the years on their Christmas presents brought up memories and set the two to recalling each year and what their interest had been then. Nora knew that her sister watched both the twins and the shops carefully through the year to find just the perfect ornament. When the twins had trees of their own, they would already have seventeen ornaments each to take with them. The thought made Nora pause. The home tree would look mighty bare. She hung the crocheted and stiffened snowflakes she had made one year and had given for gifts. Then three little folded- paper- and- waxed stars she’d made in Girl Scouts took their own places.

When they’d hung the final ornament, they stared at the box with the glorious angel that always smiled benignly from the top of the tree.

“Let’s leave that for Dad.” Christi turned toward her mother. “I agree.” Setting the angel just right with a light inside her to make her shimmer was always Gordon’s job — for years because he was the only one tall enough and now because they wanted him to have a part, no matter how many miles separated them.

Charlie shrugged. “I am tall enough, you know.” “I know.” Nora gathered her two chicks to her sides and they admired the tree together. “Thank you. I know it is late, with school tomorrow, but I really appreciate your helping the tradition continue.” She tried not to sniff, but her body went on automatic pilot.

Charlie’s arm around her back squeezed and Christi leaned her head against her mother’s. Together they turned and surveyed all the decorations; the mantel was the only thing that Nora changed year after year, and all was done but hanging the Christmas stockings. The hooks waited. Charlie picked up the fl at box that held the cross- stitched or quilted stockings and they each hung up their own. Nora hung hers and Gordon’s, while the kids hung the ones for Bushy and Betsy. “Now Santa can come.” Christi smoothed the satin surfaces of her crazy- quilt stocking, with every satin or velvet piece decorated with intricate embroidery stitches, cross- stitch, daisy chain and feather. “When I get married, will you make my husband a sock to match?”

“I will.” Just please don’t be in too big a hurry. Not that Christi was dating anyone. She often said she left all the flirting up to her brother, since all the girls were after him all the time. But Nora often wondered if Christi was a bit jealous, not that she would ask. Her daughter talked more with her father than she did with her mother. Unless, of course, it was a real female thing.

“Anyone for cocoa? The real kind? I can make it while you get ready for bed. I’ll bring the tray up.” “And brownies?” Charlie asked.

“Fattigman?” Christi loved the traditional Norwegian goodies Nora made only at Christmastime. “Of course, and since you’ll be getting home early tomorrow, you can help me with the sandbakles.” Charlie groaned. Pressing the buttery dough into the small fluted tins was not his idea of fun.

“ ‘He who eats must press.’ ” Christi sang out the line her mother had often repeated since the time they were little. Nora watched her two swap shoulder punches as they climbed the stairs. No matter how much they teased each other or argued, the bond between them ran deeper than most siblings. Gordon called it spooky; she figured it was a gift from God.
Time to make cocoa, as her family had called it. In her mind, hot chocolate came in a packet or tin. Good thing she’d picked up the miniature marshmallows. Betsy padding beside her, she returned to the kitchen to fix the tray. If only Gordon were here. Carrying the tray up the stairs was his job.

Copyright © 2008 by Lauraine Snelling

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Beloved Captive - Chapter 1

Beloved Captive

Barbour Publishing, Inc (November 1, 2008)

Chapter 1

May 2, 1836

New Orleans

It was a terrible thing to wish.

With every roll of the carriage wheels, Emilie Gayarre fought the urge to pray that her arrival would come too late. The request she'd traveled so far to make stood a greater chance of being granted were she begging the funds from her father's estate rather than making the request to him personally.

Yet if she were made to return to Fairweather Key without fund to build a school for the children, Judge Campbell would see to it that the children were sent off to neighboring keys where the price for their education had already been paid. "If only the old grouch would pry open the coffers and do what's right."

"My friend is not an unreasonable man, you know." The Reverend Hezekiah Carter, her elderly traveling companion, reached over to pat her sleeve. "Perhaps you will change your mind and visit upon the morrow rather than rush to his side."

She'd been thinking of Judge Campbell when she spoke her musings aloud, but the words certainly had a bearing on her situation with her father. Emilie stayed her fidgeting fingers and swung her gaze toward her father's oldest and dearest friend.

How easy it would be to agree, to avail herself of a warm bath and a good night's sleep before attempting the visit she dreaded. But the letter had been marked urgent, the word sure in their insistence that the daughters of Jean Gayarre see to their father's last wish: an audience with him at the family home should he survive, and a reading of the will should he perish before their arrival.

"No, Reverend Carter," she said, even as she hated it. "Time appears to be of the essence. I'll not disappoint my father by delaying in meeting his last request."

Though I've sorely disappointed him in other matters.

The old preacher merely nodded.

As the carriage rocked over uneven streets, the earthly smells of the city pushed away the stench of the docks. To their right, a fruit vendor juggled samples of his freshest produce, while across the way a woman sold pastries right from the folds of her apron.

"Are you fearing your father tonight, lass?"

Emilie swung her attention to Hezekiah Carter. "Fearing?" She gave the question but a moments thought. "I don't suppose I ever feared my father, though I surely disliked him on occasion."

Leaning heavily on the silver-topped cane, the reverend shook his head. "A clever response, Emilie, but not a direct one." His piercing gaze challenged her. "Shall I rephrase the question, or will you rephrase your answer?"

She sighed. This man knew the Gayarres far too well. Any hope of deflecting the true meaning is his query disappeared under his persistent stare. "Indeed," she began, "I do wonder what awaits me, though I'd not call my feelings fear." Emilie paused. "I believe I am yet in awe of the man as much as I am reluctant to return to his home."

Reverend Carter reached across the space between then to grasp her hands. "Then it is well you chose not to face this alone."

"I chose?" A grin threatened. "Would that I'd known there was a choice."

He affected a surprised expression. "Dare I believe a woman of your quality would travel unaccompanied? One must be concerned with the dangers of ruffians who ply the shipping trade nowadays."

His grin joined hers at the reference. Some two years past, the reverend's own son was on if the ruffians. Now Josiah Carter's sole enterprise was to love his wife and his God, dote on his newly born son, and make his living saving others from the ravages of the Florida seas as a wrecker. Emilie smiled at the reminder of the man's transformation from infidel to husband. Her smile broadened when she thought of his wife, her half-sister Isabelle.

"A penny for your thoughts, my dear," the old preacher said.

"I was thinking about Isabelle and Josiah," she said, "and what an interesting life one lives when following God is one's priority."

"Indeed you speak the truth," he said.

Too soon the carriage rolled to a halt, and the coachman called out. A moment later the iron gates gave entrance to the courtyard, where the news of their arrival had brought a collection of servants running.

Her smile faded. In this home, she had first learned of Isabelle. An errant slip of the tongue by a gossiping housemaid had sent Emilie on a quest to find the young quadroon woman who shared her father. Here the plans were made for freeing this slave who was her half-sister.

Here, too, I will likely have to atone for the success of those plans.

Emilie tugged at her gloves to disguise the shaking of her hands. When the carriage door opened, she straightened her back and closed her eyes to offer an entreaty to the Lord that she might not be thrown in the Cabildo as befitting her crimes.

"welcome home mademoiselle."

Emilie opened her eyes to see Nate, the husband of Cook. "Thank you, Nate," she said with a genuine smile. "It's wonderful to see you again."

He tipped his hat, then lifted her down onto the cobblestones. "It's right nice to have you back here again."

One step into the courtyard, and Emilie's concern returned. The home seemed less of a home and more of a haven for the dying. Lamps that never went unlit were dark, and curtains in rooms that once invited guests to enter now stood closed.

"My father?" she asked of Nate.

"Up there waiting for you last I heard," he said as he gestured toward the second floor.

Reverend Carter glanced up at the darkened windows, then shook his head. "On the morrow, perhaps?"

"No." Emilie squared her shoulders, and head held high, she walked toward the front door. "I shall not wait until then," she whispered. Trembling fingers formed a fist, then with care rose to come near to knocking on a door that swung open on silent hinges.

Cook took two steps backward and clutched at the scarf at her neck, "Miss Emilie, Lawdy mercy and bless my soul. My prayers done been answered. You've come home!"

The housemaid's cry brought a half dozen familiar faces running. Each exclaimed as if a lost treasure has been suddenly found.

Emilie nudged past and walked into her father's home as if she were certain he would receive her. In truth, she had no idea whether Jean Gayarres would welcome her or whether he'd merely sent for his daughters to exact some measure of revenge. Or did he seek only Isabelle's counsel and not wish to see me at all save to banish me?

The question had lain dormant as Emilie boarded the vessel in Fairweather Keys, and until she saw the gates swing open and heard her footsteps echo in the long hallway that led to her father's room, she felt no need to disturb it.

Too soon, however, the lamplight chased her to her father's door. Just once could she remember breaching the sanctum that was Jean Gayarre's chambers. As a small child, she'd had the great misfortune to lose a button off her favorite doll's dress beneath the heavy cypress door.

A moment's worth of demanding ended when a hapless servant girl, no more than a child herself, had agreed to go in and fetch it. Even now the sound of the girl's soft knock echoed in Emilie's mind, followed by the creak of the door. Emilie remembered peering inside at the heavily curtained bed positioned before windows that were swagged and festooned with matching tassels and loops.

The servant girl had crept toward the button on hands and knees, and Emilie shadowed her despite warnings to the contrary. What great fun it seemed to a child of no more than six or seven.

And then a sound from the bed. Her father, his voice thick and nearly unrecognizable, called an unfamiliar name and then repeated it. "Sylvie, ma chere, c'est vous?"

Much as in the present, fear had held Emilie's lips shut tight and kept her feet glued to the floor.

"No, sir," the servant had said. "I'm D-d-daisy, sir. I k-k-keep the girl when my mama's busy."

A rustle of bed coverings sounded, and then a man rose. Bold as you please, he stumbled toward them without bothering to don a dressing gown or cover the stench of his breath.

"Sylvie," he repeated, ignoring Emilie completely, then swept the poor servant girl into his arms and deposited her behind the bed curtains. Only when the servant girl's bloodcurdling scream chased her from the room did Emilie flee.

After that, Emilie had never gone near the door again.

"Would you like me to go in with you?"

Emilie started at the sound of Reverend Carter's voice. "No," she said. "Thank you," was added as an after thought.

His nod was hasty, as was his retreat, despite the impediment of the cane. "I shall have Cook prepare a light supper for you," he called. "Perhaps some of her biscuits and red eye gravy."

In truth, the thought of food did not hold any appeal. Neither did opening the door, yet she must.

One hand on the knob and the other pressing against her furiously beating heart, Emilie somehow manages to find herself inside. She blinked hard to get her bearings. The same heavy velvet curtains were now drawn against the afternoon sun, casting a pall across the mountain of quilts piled on the grand bed. In the middle of it all, the skeletal form of Jean Gayarre lay propped on more pillows than could surely be comfortable.

"Miss Emilie, that you?" This from the girl who'd fetched clean water for her bath more times than Emilie could count. Yet she knew not the girl's name.

"It is," she said, tossing aside the reminder of her formerly self-centered life. Before she left, she would know this girl's names, but now was not the time to ask. Not with Papa watching.

And watch he did, his eyes clear and bright even as his face wore no expression. A week's worth of travel had not been in vain, for Jean Gayarre had not yet gone to his reward. His mouth opened and closed, putting Emilie in mind of a fish in want of water.

Was he working to find the breath that would order her from the room or welcome her home? A sound escaped from the old man's mouth, something akin to a baby's soft whimper. She held her finger to her lips, halting. "Don't try to speak, Papa."

"Ma belle fille," emerged from cracked lips in a breathless gasp.

She grasped his hand and held it, painfully aware of the lack of strength in his icy grip even as her heart softened at his tender greeting. "Oui, Papa, c'est moi. C'est Emilie."

The old man looked past her. "But where is…?"

"Isabelle?" she offered. "She was unable to make the journey."

To say more seemed unwise, so Emilie kept her silence and turned her attention to the bedchamber's condition. The windows were shut tight against the danger of draft, and a great fire had been laid in the massive fireplace, wrapping the room in oppressive heat.

With her free hand, Emilie shrugged out of her wrap and passed it off to the nearest housemaid. "Thank you," she said to the young woman's retreating back before returning her attention to her father.

"Never…thank…a servant," he said. "Makes them…"

The rest of his admonition was lost in a fit of coughing that left Papa struggling for each breath. Finally, the old man's eyes closed, and he rested. For a moment, she thought he might have breathed his last. Then he stirred. A look came over his face that could only be describes as disappointment.

"I summoned two, yet only one of my daughters has arrived." He paused and seemed to collect either his breath or his thoughts.

"Isabelle is abed with child, Father, and unable to travel," Emilie said.

"And you. You're Sylvie's girl," he whispered.

Sylvie. Emilie's gaze darted from the bed curtains as her heart lurched. Did her father remember that long ago day? What significance did this name hold over a man who would repeat it after all these years?

"No, Papa," she said as she forced her attention back on the old man's nearly lifeless form. "My mother was Elizabeth, your wife." She added what she hoped would be a smile in order to placate him. "I'm told I resemble her."

"Ha!" The force of his statement startled Emilie, as did the flash of anger on his face and his sudden move to rise up on one elbow. The motion sent pillows flying and caused a tray of what looked to be sweets to fall to the floor. As the servants surged forward to clean the mess, her father banished them all from the room.

The moment the door closed behind the last of the startled household help, Jean Gayarre fell back onto the remaining pillows. Emilie hastened to arrange them, then stopped when Papa motioned for her to move away.

Before she could step away from his grasp, Emilie felt her father's hand encircle her wrist to hold her captive. Despite his pallor and the exhaustion written in dark circles beneath his eyes, jean Gayarre still held some measure of his former strength.

"Indeed you resemble your mother."Brown eyes slid shut, and his grip loosened. "Tres jolie, my Sylvie was," the old man muttered as he pointed to the bedside table, then allowed his hand to fall to the coverlet as if the effort caused him the last of his strength.

"But, Papa, my mother was…" the breath died in her throat as she spied the lone portrait at his bedside. The woman smiling back at her from the bonds of the silver frame could have passed for Emilie's twin.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Death and Life of Gabriel Phillips - Chapt.1

The Death and Life of Gabriel Phillips

FaithWords (November 5, 2008)

Chapter 1

ANDY MYERS DIDN’T want children. That was one of his conditions when he married my mom. No kids. Period. Case closed. You would think someone so adamant about not reproducing would have gone out and had a vasectomy, but Andy didn’t think that way. He didn’t want kids; keeping that from happening was my mother’s responsibility. When she failed, he immediately made an appointment for her at an abortion clinic in Indianapolis. He didn’t ask. He just assumed she would terminate my life before my feet ever hit the ground. She refused. He walked out. And I didn’t hear from him until I was thirteen. I think he sent money to my mother every month, at least while he was able. I’m pretty sure he did. The courts probably made him, and a cop like my dad wouldn’t risk going to jail, at least not over something as insignificant as money.

I guess that explains why I always hated my old man. Despising him was imprinted on my DNA just as surely as my dark brown hair and blue eyes. The girls always loved my blue eyes. More than one lost her moral resolve when I put those baby blues to work. I got my eyes from Andy. I think they may have been part of the hook he used on my mom. I’m not sure. My mom never talked about him that way. For that matter, she hardly talked about anything that happened before she and I moved to St. Louis from her hometown in Indiana when I was really little. I didn’t even know I had my dad’s eyes until I looked into them for the first time ten years ago. There was no mistaking the eyes, even with that thick sheet of glass between us.

I think of that hatred in a different way, now that I am on the other side of the equation, with a son of my own. And I think about Andy Myers a little different as well. You know, life is funny. If my life had gone the way it was supposed to, I wouldn’t be sitting here with you right now. I would be somewhere, assuming I survived as long as I have, but I wouldn’t be sitting on the beach of Lake Michigan, watching my wife and son play in the water and talking to you. When I stand back and look at my family in this place, we look like the happy ending of one of those Hallmark Hall of Fame movies my wife loves to cry through. My life shouldn’t have turned out this way, not that I’m complaining. But it strikes me as sort of hilarious to think that if my father hadn’t walked out on me, none of this would have happened. I hated him for what he did. Who would have ever thought it would have led to this?

It all goes back to when I was about the same age as my little boy. Back then my dad worked as a cop in Trask, Indiana. Believe it or not, my wife and I live there now. We moved there a few years ago, but that’s another story in itself. As for my dad, everyone in town knew him when he lived there.

That doesn’t mean they liked him, but they knew him. He grew up just outside of town, and made a name for himself as the star athlete in the local high school. In a school as small as Trask High, it doesn’t take a lot of talent to stand out from the pack. After high school, my old man got it in his head that a career in sports was in his future. He tried walking onto the Ball State football team, but didn’t make it past the first few days of practice. After Ball State, he tried a few of the local small colleges, without success. Eventually he quit college altogether and joined the navy before the army could draft him. Vietnam was still going on, so my old man figured spending a couple of years on a boat beat getting shot at in a jungle. My dad wasn’t a violent man, but he never lost that star athlete swagger he carried around the high school campus.

I’m not sure why he moved back to his hometown after the navy. I guess there are worse places to live. He met my mother soon after, but that didn’t turn out so well. Around the time the two of them got married, he joined the local police force. No one ever told me why my dad became a cop. I don’t know if a career in law enforcement was his lifelong goal, or if he just sort of fell into it. At this point, I guess it doesn’t matter. All these years later I occasionally hear stories about him, but I think that has more to do with the way his career ended than anything else. No one ever signed off from police work quite like my old man.

I came along less than two years after my parents got married. By then my mother was a single mom. My dad walked out on her when he found out she was pregnant. Now I could understand him leaving if she’d been out whoring around, but my mother wasn’t like that. No, my dad walked out because my mother made the mistake of giving birth to his child. Like I said, Andy Myers didn’t want children, and my arrival did nothing to change his mind. He was gone by the time I was born, and my mom moved the two of us to St. Louis not long after.

Like I said, when I was about the same age as my son, Andy Myers (and if it is all the same to you, I would prefer calling him by his given name. I’ve already called him “dad” more in the last few minutes than I have in my entire life) worked as a cop in our beloved metropolis of Trask. I don’t know if living alone was making him have second thoughts, but he started seeing another woman. He’d been with other women before Loraine Phillips, if you know what I mean, but those relationships were all very short- lived. Loraine was different. His time with her could actually be measured in months, not hours. The way he tells it, they weren’t so much dating as using one another to cure one another’s loneliness. That sounds like a load of bull to me, but, hey, it’s his life. He can tell himself whatever lies he wants. The two of them met in a bar, and they ended up in bed back at his apartment the same night. Again, that wasn’t exactly a remarkable event for Andy Myers. He thought of himself as six feet one inch, 205 pounds of sex appeal. And he had those killer blue eyes. Throw the whole package together, and look out. At least that’s what he says. He seems to think he was really something back in the day. But I don’t think getting Loraine into bed had as much to do with my old man’s charms as it did with her sexual appetite.

After that first encounter, he tried to play the gentleman and begin a real dating relationship with her. But the first time he went by her place to pick her up, she met him at the door wearing nothing but a twelve-pack of Bud and a seethrough gown from Frederick’s of Hollywood and started clawing at his clothes. I’m thirty-two, and it still creeps me out to think my own father told me this stuff, but he did. I guess he needed to. My story doesn’t really make sense without it.

That night pretty much set the tone for the rest of their relationship. They never went out on actual dates. For that matter, they never really had an in-depth conversation, either live or over the phone. They would go as long as two or three weeks without talking, but then she would call and ask my dad if he had time to drop by. He knew what that meant. And he never said no. At times he felt a little guilty about the whole thing, but the sex was good and Loraine never seemed to want much more than a purely physical relationship. Besides, with a body like hers, few men would have complained. Andy’s friends thought he’d fallen into every man’s fantasy: a hot woman, wild sex, and no strings attached. What could be better? He knew the answer even then, although he couldn’t admit it to himself.

Andy didn’t know Loraine had a kid until he’d been with her for several months. The boy was never around when Loraine called, and she kept any signs of him out of view when Andy came by. Her system worked pretty well until the kid walked into the kitchen one Saturday morning. Andy was sitting there, eating a bowl of cereal in his underwear, when the boy came up, stuck out his hand, and said, “Hi, I’m Gabriel. Gabriel Phillips. What’s your name?” Finding a strange man sitting in his underwear in my kitchen when

I was Gabe’s age would have sent me running down the hall screaming for my mother, but the sight of Andy didn’t seem to faze Gabe. He sounded like he was running for mayor at eight years of age. I bet my old man nearly crapped his pants at the sight of him. Then the kid said, “You like Cap’n Crunch, too? It’s my favorite, but my mom hardly ever buys it. Says too much sugar is bad for me. But it sure does taste good.” Andy fumbled over his words and said, “Yeah, they’re real good,” or something like that. He always was a great conversationalist.

I don’t know which is weirder: the fact that Gabe wasn’t scared by a strange man in his kitchen, or that Andy wasn’t scared off by discovering the woman he was seeing had a kid. Neither one makes much sense to me. I guess I should be jealous of Gabriel Phillips since he was the only exception to the “no kids allowed” rule my dad ever made. I should, but I’m not. Not anymore. Andy told me there was a quirky, awkward charm about Gabe that drew people to him. He was a little guy, really small for his age, which he came by naturally—the kid’s dad wasn’t exactly Shaquille O’Neal. Once you got to know Gabe he didn’t seem so small; he almost seemed like an adult. Keep in mind, I got all of my information secondhand several years later, and time has a way of glossing over any faults and amplifying people’s good qualities. Be that as it may, Gabriel Phillips, I am told, genuinely cared about people, especially people others overlooked. People were just drawn to him. Maybe it was something supernatural. I’m not sure. But it sure cast a spell over my old man. Meeting Gabe didn’t make Andy run away. If anything, it made him more of a “boyfriend” than he’d ever been before. He started going by Loraine’s house on a more regular basis.

And not just for sex. He tried taking both mother and son out on something like dates. When Loraine feigned headaches, Andy still took Gabe. They went to ball games, or to the local hamburger stand, or wherever. Andy often said, “I’d never met another child quite like him.” And the first time he said it to me, I walked out on him. The last time they were together, Andy drove Gabe down to Cincinnati for a Reds game. Loraine was supposed to go, too, but she didn’t. I doubt if she ever said why. Maybe she didn’t want to be stuck in a car with the two of them for two hours each way. Or maybe, like me, she thought it a little strange that my dad took such an interest in the kid. Andy wasn’t trying to replace the boy’s father. Gabe already had one of those. I like to think maybe Andy saw in Gabe a little of what he could have had with me, but that’s more wishful thinking than anything else. And wishful thinking only makes things worse, not better.

About a week after the Reds game, Andy was fighting to stay awake while working the graveyard shift. The Trask police force was always woefully understaffed, then and now, which meant Andy had to pull all-nighters at least one week out of the month. On this particular night he couldn’t shake the cobwebs out of his head. It wasn’t just because of the late hour. He’d been over at Loraine’s house right before reporting for duty, and was still in the fog that sleep usually takes care of after such activity. He was so out of it that the police dispatcher didn’t get a response from him until she radioed a second time. “Trask 52-2,” the dispatcher said, “we have a 10-16 at 873 East Madison, apartment 323. That’s a report of a domestic disturbance at eight-seven-three East Madison, number three-two-three.” He switched on the car dome light and fumbled for a pen and paper to write down the apartment number. They didn’t have fancy in- car computers back then.

Andy suppressed a yawn, picked up his mic, and radioed back, “ 10-4, dispatch. Trask 52-2 is 10-8.” 10-8 means “in service.”

“10-4, 52-2 at two-oh-six. By the way, Andy, we’ve had three calls from the same location. You want me to get the sheriff’s department headed that way to back you up?” “Naaaahhhh,” Andy yawned and said. “Let me check it out first. Probably nothing. No sense dragging anyone else out at this godforsaken hour if we don’t have to.” The mic hung in his hand as he stared at the apartment address he’d written down. He cursed under his breath, then said to no one, “Good old Madison Park Apartments. What would an overnight shift be without at least one call from there?” He let out another yawn, arched his back in an attempt to stretch the fatigue out of his body, then started his patrol car. Andy and every other Trask police officer could make the drive to the Madison Park Apartments from anywhere in town in their sleep. Late- night calls came from there at least once or twice a week. The walls were so thin that when someone coughed in one apartment, the people next door shouted, “Shut the hell up.” Most of the emergencies turned out to be nothing more than blaring televisions or couples arguing a little louder than they should. Andy figured this call would be more of the same.

A handful of people milled around under the only working streetlight in the complex parking lot when Andy pulled in. A woman wearing an oversized T- shirt came running over as soon as he stepped out of his car. Immediately she started chewing on his ear. “What took you so long?! I called half an hour ago.” Andy recognized the woman everyone in town called “Crazy Cathy,” although she didn’t recognize him. At least not right off. About a month earlier he’d arrested her for public intoxication. One day around noon she’d gone for a walk down Main Street, bombed out of her mind, screaming obscenities at the lunchtime crowd going into the diner. She was notorious for that kind of stunt, which is why everyone called her Crazy Cathy, although Cathy wasn’t her real name. Even when she wasn’t drunk, she would walk around town, acting all nuts. All the kids in town thought she was hilarious, especially when she’d been drinking. They would yell things at her to try to get her riled up. She died a few years before I moved to town. The way I hear it, she wandered out into the street while drunk and was hit by a truck. That’s not much of a way to die, even for Crazy Cathy. But she was cold sober the night she got my old man out in the middle of the night. At least she appeared to be. She kept yelling at Andy, “I know no one gives a damn about what happens out here. You think we’re all just a pain in the ass.” Her call to the police couldn’t have been much more than ten minutes earlier, but time slows to a crawl when you are waiting for a cop to show up. Andy didn’t try to defend himself. He just kept walking across the parking lot, growing more coherent with each step. There’s something about the gravelly sound of a chain- smoking woman’s voice that yanks you back to reality. “I’m sorry, ma’am. It’s been one of those nights” was all he could say. “Like hell it has,” she yelled back. “You think your night’s been bad? You should have to listen to that kid carry on. He was screaming so loud it sounded like he was right there in my apartment with me. Sounded like something out of that damned Exorcist movie. Kid couldn’t have screamed any louder even if his head had been spinning around. Made my skin crawl. And it wasn’t the first time I heard that damn kid yelling. It gets worse every time he’s here. I called you people about him before. Called last week. But nobody did nothing.”

She didn’t stop yelling until Andy got to the stairway leading up the outside of building three. He did his best to ignore her. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but you’re going to have to stay down here,” he said to her as he reached the stairs. “Don’t get too far away because I will need a full statement from you as soon as I check everything out.”

Andy went about the business at hand. He went up the stairs of building three in search of apartment 323. Another neighbor waited for him at the top of the stairs. “Oh, Officer, I’m glad you’re here,” the woman said. To Andy, she looked like she may have been maybe twenty. As it turns out, she was a twenty- four- year- old single mother. Seems like half the population at Madison Park has always been made up of single moms. “My son came running into my room scared and crying, which is why I called,” she continued. “I started to go over and knock on the door myself, but I was a little nervous about doing it. I’ve met the guy a few times. Our boys play together when his son stays with him, but I don’t know him well enough to knock on his door in the middle of the night, especially after what my son heard.” “That’s probably wise, ma’am,” Andy said. He felt a little funny about calling someone “ma’am” who looked like she had just graduated from high school. “You said your son heard something that shook him up?”

“Yes, sir. My son, he’s eight. He came running into my room. He was shaking, he was so scared.” “I’ll check it out. You should go back to your apartment, miss. I’m sure everything is fine. There’s probably nothing here for your son to be afraid of, but if there is, I will take care of it. Which apartment are you in, just in case I need to get a statement from you?”

“I’m right next door in 325.”

With that, the woman went back into her apartment. Andy heard the dead bolt turn and the slide of the chain into the extra lock. “These people sure are jittery,” Andy said with a sigh. He’d never seen so many people get so shook up over a blaring television. Calls like this at this hour always turned out to be someone asleep in front of a blaring television stuck on the late, late show. Even before twenty-four hour cable networks, local stations broadcast late into the night, usually filling the dead air with old movies. Andy walked over to apartment 323 and listened at the door. He didn’t hear anything. No yelling. No banging. Nothing. He looked at his watch: 2:17 a.m. All the local stations would have switched from movies to test patterns by now. No wonder it was quiet. “Police department,” he called out as he knocked on the door. No response. He could see a light shining through the peephole. He knocked again, with more authority this time, and called out even louder to wake up the sleeper in front of the television, “Police. I need you to open the door, please.” As he waited for a response, he heard the muffled sound of a man’s voice on the other side.

Andy reached up to bang on the door again, when it opened. A man in his mid-thirties motioned him inside as he continued talking on the phone. “Yes. Yes,” the man said, “thank you, Father.” The man turned his back and continued talking on the phone as though no one else was in the room. Andy took a quick glance around. A brown couch with oversized cushions, along with a ratty recliner, were the only furniture in the room. Andy also noticed the living room didn’t have a television. He looked closely at the man on the phone. He was wearing a faded polo-type shirt and a pair of Levi 501’s, but no shoes or socks. He was walking around barefoot on the linoleum tile of his apartment. “Sir,” Andy said, “I need you to get off the phone.” “Amen. Thanks, Eli. Hey, I gotta go. The police are here now. Thanks for praying. Keep it up.” The man spun around to untangle himself from the extra long cord, then hung up the phone. “I’m sorry, Officer. I was just about to call. You were next on my list. He’s back here.” The man turned down the narrow hall toward the smaller of the two bedrooms. “It happened so fast,” he said with a matter-of-fact tone, “there just wasn’t any time. I ran in there as fast as I could, but by the time I got to him, it was already too late. I just had time to tell him good- bye and then he was gone.”

Andy felt like he’d walked into the middle of a conversation. The guy’s words didn’t make any sense and his demeanor just didn’t seem right. At least that’s how Andy remembered it when he told me about that night. He had trouble reading the guy, which set Andy’s nerves on edge. As a policeman, he prided himself on his ability to figure people out in an instant. I never thought he was as good at it as he did. “He’s in here,” the man said as he motioned into a small bedroom. Andy thought it odd that the man wouldn’t move past the doorway.

When Andy looked into the room, the entire floor appeared to be painted red. The room was pretty small, maybe seven feet by nine feet, and most of that was filled with furniture and toys, which made the scene look bloodier than it really was. The remains of a shattered goldfish bowl lay near the dresser, the bottom drawer of which stood open. A small boy, maybe eight years of age, was on the bottom bunk. His skin had a bluish gray tint to it. Even before he got to him, Andy knew the boy was dead. Blood soaked the pillow under the child’s head, with a smear running along the side of the mattress up from the floor. Andy’s feet slipped as he hurried across the room, his adrenaline kicking into high gear. Instinctively, he knelt down beside the child and felt for a pulse in his neck. Nothing. Then he laid his head on the boy’s chest and listened for sounds of breath, but didn’t hear a thing. “How long has he been out?” Andy shouted toward the boy’s father.

“Ten...maybe fifteen minutes. I...I’m not sure,” the man replied. “I don’t know how to do mouth-to-mouth, but I didn’t think it would do any good. I knew he was gone right after I got to him.” The man’s voice cracked just a little as he spoke. He swallowed hard and said, “I just knew he had already gone home.”

Andy shook his head and muttered something under his breath that questioned the man’s emotional stability. He reached under the boy’s body to lift him off the bed and start CPR. As he raised him up, the boy’s limbs hung limp and lifeless. Most of the bleeding had stopped, although a few drips fell from the back of the boy’s head. The pillow was soaked crimson and the boy’s hair and shirt were wet.

“My God,” Andy said as he looked for a place to lay the boy

on the floor. About the only time my old man ever mentioned God or Jesus was when he was really upset. Even then, they were nothing but words, not divine beings. “Holy, holy Christ,” he said as he laid the boy on the floor and squared himself around to try to revive him. He reached under the boy’s neck to raise his head up for the three quick breaths he had only performed on Resusci Anne, the CPR dummy, up until that day.

Only then did Andy take a close look at the boy. He looked him right in the face and it hit him. “Wait a minute. No...Gabe?” he said. Suddenly adrenaline gave way to nausea. A lump of bile hit him in the back of the throat as Andy fought to keep his composure. “Gabe?” he repeated. “You knew my son?” Gabe’s father asked. “How?” Andy kept staring into the boy’s face. “I’m a friend of his mother,” he replied but didn’t elaborate. “How did...” Andy cleared his throat and tried to speak again. I guess in all the excitement he forgot about trying CPR, not that it would have done any good. The kid’s lips had already turned blue and his body was slightly cool to the touch. “How did this happen?”

“I—I...I’m not exactly sure,” the boy’s father replied. “It all happened so fast. My boy had night terrors, and he would wake up screaming all the time. I guess you sort of get used to things like that after a while. They got even worse after his mother and I split up a while ago. I heard him screaming, but I thought I was the one having the bad dream. I woke up just in time to hear him fall. I ran in here, but I couldn’t do anything. I tried. Really, I tried, but I could feel his life slipping out of him, felt his spirit leaving. All I could do was kiss him good- bye and promise I would see him soon. Then he went home.” The boy’s father paused, then said, “Do you know what my son’s name means, Officer?” That last question really got to my pop. He didn’t know what the meaning of a kid’s name had to do with anything, especially with the man’s kid lying dead on a cold, bloody linoleum floor. My old man also found the dad’s lack of emotion rather odd. This was far from the first time Andy had dealt with a family member after a death, but this was the first time he’d seen a parent show so few signs of grief. A couple of years earlier he’d had to break the news to a couple closing in on retirement age that their thirty-seven-year-old son had died in a car crash. A doctor had to come to the house to sedate them both. But this guy was calmer than a televangelist during a tax audit. Maybe he was in shock. Everyone responds to death in different ways, that’s what I think. My old man, he wasn’t so sure.

“God is my strength,” the father went on. “Gabriel means ‘God is my strength.’ His mother wanted to name him Keith, after Keith Moon, the drummer from the Who. She’s a big fan of the Who. The name just didn’t seem to fit. I took one look at him and knew I had to name him Gabriel. It took me a few years, but I finally figured out why. God had talked to me through my son, Officer. Didn’t know it at the time. God was telling me to make Him my strength. Right now I don’t know what I would do if I hadn’t listened.” Andy made a mental note of how the father seemed to keep his distance from the boy. He never moved from the doorway as he spoke, while Andy stayed on his knees next to the body, his pants legs soaking up the liquid on the floor.

As Andy looked down, Gabe seemed much younger to him than eight— younger and smaller. The boy’s mother had once said something about how the other kids picked on him because of his size. Now he seemed smaller still. Andy knew the boy was dead, but he felt a strong urge to reach out and protect him. He grabbed his radio with his left hand, the hand that was covered with blood from the back of the boy’s neck. “Trask dispatch, 52-2. I have a 10-100. Request you get the coroner and Harris County started out here right away.” 10-100 means a “dead body.”

“ 10-4, 52-2,” the radio crackled back. “Are you sure you want to make the call on the body, Andy? I can have a paramedic and ambulance to you in no time.”

Andy paused for a moment. I don’t know what he hoped to accomplish, but he told the dispatcher, “Okay. Do that. I guess it couldn’t hurt.” Maybe he wanted the kid to still have a chance. More than likely, he just didn’t want to be haunted by the “ what-if” questions that follow emergency responders even when they do everything they possibly can. “What-ifs” are about as useful as wishful thinking, but they can sure be hard to shake in the middle of the night. Andy reached over and lightly stroked the boy’s head with his right hand, then stood to his feet. I think it was his way of telling Gabe goodbye. Once the paramedics and sheriff’s deputies showed up, he wouldn’t have another moment alone with the boy. Well, almost alone. The dad was still standing in the bedroom doorway.

“Did you know my son long, Officer?” the father asked.

“No, not too long,” Andy replied as he let out a long sigh. Turning from the boy, he scanned the bedroom. Toys were scattered across the floor, along with a variety of clothes.

Typical kid’s room. The sheets and blankets of both bunk beds were strewn about, which seemed odd if Gabe slept in the room by himself. “Did you stay in this room with your son, sir?”

“No, he’s a big boy. He’s able to sleep in his room all by himself,” the dad smiled and said.

If my old man wasn’t already about to pop, that smile put him over the edge. He couldn’t figure out how any father worth a dime could carry on a normal conversation right after his son died in his arms. “Which bed was your son sleeping in?” Andy asked. He also wondered why such a small room had bunk beds if Gabe was the only child in the house.

“I tucked him into the bottom bunk, but I guess he climbed up on top sometime during the night. You know how kids are.” That’s just it. Andy didn’t know how kids were, but he nodded his head as if he did and kept studying the father. About that time he heard the dispatcher notifying the local ambulance service, which back then was run by the volunteer fire department.

“I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t catch your name,” Andy said.

“John, John Phillips. And you?” he replied with a smile as he stuck out his hand. Andy refused it, using the blood on his hand as a convenient excuse. Funny. I’ve never known anyone who shakes with his left hand. “

“Officer Andrew Myers,” he replied.

“Are you the same Andy Myers who took my boy to a ball game a few weeks ago?” Andy nodded. “Oh, I have to tell you, my son never stopped talking about that game. He had the time of his life. Thank you for taking him.”

Andy didn’t reply. The ball game felt like a lifetime ago. I guess in a way it was, because nothing was ever the same after my dad walked into that apartment. Nothing.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

White Christmas Pie - Chapter 1

White Christmas Pie

Barbour Publishing, Inc (September 1, 2008)

Chapter 1

Three-Year-Old Girl Abandoned in Small Town Park. A lump formed in Will Henderson’s throat as he stared at the headline in the morning newspaper. Not another abandoned child!

The little girl had been left alone on a picnic table in a small Michigan town. She had no identification and couldn’t tell the officials anything more than her first name and the fact that her mommy and daddy were gone. While the police searched for the girl’s parents, she would be put in a foster home.

Will’s fingers gripped the newspaper. How could anyone abandon his own child? Didn’t the little girl’s parents love her? Didn’t they care how their abandonment would affect the child? Didn’t they care about anyone but themselves?

Will dropped the paper on the kitchen table and let his head fall forward into his hands as a rush of memories pulled him back in time. Back to when he was six years old. Back to a day he wished he could forget...

Will released a noisy yawn and rolled over. Seeing Pop’s side of the bed was empty, he pushed the heavy quilt aside, scrambled out of bed, and raced over to the
window. When he lifted the dark green shade and peeked through the frosty glass, his breath caught in his throat. The ground and trees in the Stoltzfuses’ backyard were
covered in white!

“Pop was right; we’ve got ourselves some snow!” Will darted across the room, slipped out of his nightshirt, and hurried to get dressed. He figured Pop must be outside helping Mark Stoltzfus do his chores.

When Will stepped out of the bedroom, his nose twitched, and his stomach rumbled. The tangy smell coming from the kitchen let him know that the Amish woman named Regina was probably making breakfast.

“It didn’t snow on Christmas like Pop said it would, but it’s sure snowin’ now!” Will shouted as he raced into the kitchen.

Regina Stoltzfus turned from the stove and smiled at Will, her dark eyes gleaming in the light of the gas lantern hanging above the table. “ Jah, it sure is. It would have been nice if we’d had a white Christmas, but the Lord decided to give us some fluffy white stuff today, instead.”

Will wiggled his bare feet on the cold linoleum floor, hardly able to contain himself. “I can’t wait to play in the snow with Pop. Maybe we can build a snowman.” He rushed to the back door, stood on his toes, and peered out the small window. “Is Pop helpin’ Mark milk the cows?”

Regina came to stand beside Will. “Your dad’s not helping Mark do his chores this morning,” she said, placing one hand on his shoulder.

Will looked up at her and squinted. “He’s not?”

She shook her head.

“How come?”

“Didn’t you find the note he wrote you?”

“Nope, sure didn’t. Why’d Pop write me a note?”

Regina motioned to the table. “Let’s have a seat, shall we?” When she pulled out a chair, he plunked right down.

“After you went to bed last night, your dad had a talk with me and Mark,” she said, taking the seat beside him.

“What’d ya talk about? Did Pop tell ya thanks for lettin’ us stay here and for fixin’ us Christmas dinner yesterday?”

“He did say thanks for those things, but he said something else, too.”

“What’d he say?”

Regina’s eyes seemed to have lost their sparkle. Her face looked kind of sad. “Your dad said he would leave a note for me to read you, Will. Are you sure there wasn’t a note on your pillow or someplace else in your room?”

“I didn’t see no note. Why would Pop leave a note for me?”

Regina touched his arm. “Your dad left early this morning, Will.”

“Left? Where’d he go?”

“To make his delivery, and then he—”

Will’s eyebrows shot up. “Pop left without me?”

She nodded. “He asked if we’d look after you while he’s trying to find a different job.”

Will shook his head vigorously. “Pop wouldn’t leave without me. I know he wouldn’t.”

“He did, Will. That’s why he planned to leave you a note—so you would understand why.”

Will jumped out of his chair, raced up the stairs, and dashed into the bedroom he and Pop had shared since they’d come to stay with Mark and Regina Stoltzfus a few
days ago. There was no note on the pillow. No note on the dresser or nightstand, either. Will ran over to the closet and threw open the door. Pop’s suitcase was gone!

Will’s knee bumped against the table, bringing his thoughts back to the present.

He lifted his head and glanced down at Sandy, his honeycolored cocker spaniel, who stared up at him with soulful brown eyes. “Did you bump my leg, girl?”

Sandy whimpered in response.

Ever since Will had been a boy, he’d wanted a dog of his own, but Pop had said a dog wasn’t a good idea for people who lived in a semitruck as they traveled down the road. Papa Mark had seen the need for a dog, though. A few weeks after Will had come to live with Mark and Regina, he’d been given a cocker spaniel puppy. He had named the dog Penny because she was the color of a copper penny. Penny had been a good dog, but she’d died two years ago. Will had gotten another cocker spaniel he’d named Sandy. He’d bred the dog with his friend Harley’s male cocker, Rusty. Sandy was due to have her pups in a few weeks.

Sandy nudged Will’s leg again, and he reached down to pat her silky head. “Do you need to go out, girl, or are you just getting anxious for your hundlin to be born?”

Sandy licked his hand then flopped onto the floor with a grunt. Maybe she only wanted to keep him company. Maybe she felt his pain.

The lump in Will’s throat tightened as he fought to keep his emotions under control. A grown man shouldn’t cry over something that happened almost sixteen years ago. He’d shed plenty of tears after Pop had gone, and it had taken him a long time to come to grips with the idea that Pop wasn’t coming back to get him. Tears wouldn’t change the fact that Will had been abandoned just like the little girl in the newspaper. He wished there was a way he could forget the past—take an eraser and wipe it out of his mind. But the memories lingered no matter how hard he tried to blot them out.

Will’s gaze came to rest on the propane-operated stove where Mama Regina did her cooking. At least he had some pleasant memories to think about. Fifteen years ago, he had moved with Papa Mark and Mama Regina from their home in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, to LaGrange County, Indiana, where they now ran a dairy farm and health food store. On the day of that move, Will had made a decision: He was no longer English. He was happy being Amish, happy being Mama Regina and Papa Mark’s only son.

Now, as a fully grown Amish man, he was in love with Karen Yoder and looked forward to spending the rest of his life with her. They would be getting married in a few months—two weeks before Christmas. Will didn’t need the reminder that he had an English father he hadn’t seen in almost sixteen years. As far as he was concerned, Papa Mark and Mama Regina were his parents, and they would be the ones who would witness his and Karen’s wedding ceremony. Pop was gone from his life, just like Will’s real mother, who had died almost a year before Pop had left. Will’s Amish parents cared about him and had since the first day he’d come to live with them. They’d even invited Will and Karen to live in their house after they were married.

As Will’s thoughts continued to bounce around, he became tenser. Despite his resolve to forget the past, he could still see Pop’s bright smile and hear the optimism in his voice as he tried to convince Will that things would work out for them after Mom
had been hit by a car. Pop had made good on his promise, all right. He’d found Will a home with Regina and Mark Stoltzfus. In all the years Pop had been gone, Will hadn’t seen or heard a word from him. It was as though Pop had vanished from the face of the earth.

A sense of bitterness enveloped Will’s soul as he reflected on the years he’d wasted, waiting, hoping for his father’s return. Is Pop still alive? If so, where is he now, and why hasn’t he ever contacted me? If Pop stood before me right now, what would I say? Would I thank him for leaving me with a childless Amish couple
who have treated me as if I were their own flesh and blood? Or would I yell at Pop and tell him I’m no longer his son and want nothing to do with him?

Will turned back to the newspaper article about the little girl who’d been abandoned. “It’s not right,” he mumbled when he got to the end of the story. “It’s just not right.”

“What’s not right?”

Will looked up at Mama Regina, who stood by the table with a strange expression. He pointed to the newspaper and shook his head. “This isn’t right. It’s not right at all!”

She took a seat beside him and picked up the paper. As she read the article, her lips compressed into a thin line, causing tiny wrinkles to form around her mouth. “It’s always a sad thing when a child is abandoned,” she murmured.

Will nodded. “I was doing fine until I read that story. I was content, ready to marry Karen, and thought I had put my past to rest. The newspaper article made me think—made me remember things from my past that I’d rather forget.” He groaned. “I don’t want to remember the past. It’s the future that counts—the future with Karen as my wife.”

Mama Regina leaned closer to Will and rested her hand on his arm. “The plans you’ve made for the future are important, but as I’ve told you many times before, you don’t want to forget your past.”

“What would you have me remember—the fact that my real mamm died when I was only five, leaving Pop alone to raise me? Or am I supposed to remember how it felt when I woke up nearly sixteen years ago on the day after Christmas and discovered that Pop had left me at your house and never said good-bye?” As the words rolled off Will’s tongue, he couldn’t keep the bitterness out of his tone or the tears from pooling in his eyes.

“I don’t know the reason your daed didn’t leave you a note when he left that day, and I don’t know why he never came back to get you.” Tears shimmered in Mama Regina’s eyes as she pushed a wisp of dark hair under the side of her white
cone-shaped head covering. “There is one thing I do know, however.”

“What’s that?”

“Every day of the sixteen years you’ve lived with us, I have thanked God that your daed read one of the letters I had written to your mamm when she was still alive. I’m also thankful that your daed brought you to us during his time of need and that
Mark and I were given the chance to raise you as if you were our own son.” She smiled as she patted Will’s arm in her motherly way. “We’ve had some wonderful times since you came to live with us. I hope you have many pleasant memories of your growing-up years.”

Jah, of course I do.”

Mama Regina glanced down at Sandy and smiled. “Think of all the fun times you had, first with Penny and now with Sandy.”

Will nodded.

“And think about the time your daed built you a tree house and how the two of you used to sit up there and visit while you munched on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and sipped fresh milk from our dairy cows.”

Will clasped her hand. “You and Papa Mark have been good parents to me, and I want you to know that I appreciate all you’ve done.”

“We know you do, and we’ve been glad to do it.”

“Even so, it was Pop’s responsibility to raise me. The least he could have done was to send you some money to help with my expenses.”

Mama Regina shook her head. “We’ve never cared about that. All we’ve ever wanted is for you to be happy.”

“I know.” Will slid his chair away from the table and stood.“I think I’ll get my horse and buggy ready and take a ride over to see Karen. Unless you’re going to need my help in the store, that is.”

Mama Regina shook her head. “An order of vitamins was delivered yesterday afternoon, so it needs to be put on the shelves. But Mary Jane Lambright’s working today, and she can help with that.”

“Guess I’d better check with Papa Mark and see if he needs me for anything before I take off.”

“I think he plans to build some bins for storing bulk food items in my store, but he’ll be fine on his own with that.” Mama Regina smiled. “You go ahead and see Karen. Maybe spending a little time with your bride-to-be will brighten your spirits.”

“Jah, that’s what I’m hoping.”

“Don’t forget your zipple cap,” she called as he grabbed his jacket and headed for the door.

“I won’t.” Will smiled as he pulled the cap from the wall peg. He was glad he and Mama Regina had talked—it had made him feel a little better about things. He figured he would feel even better after he spent some time with Karen.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

One Holy Night - Prologue & Chapter 1

One Holy Night

Sheaf House (April 1, 2008)


November 19, 1966

Mike McRae dropped his battered duffle bag on the concrete floor and glanced through the bank of windows to where the wide-bodied army transport sat waiting on the snow-dusted tarmac. Waiting to take him and his buddies halfway around the world to war.

Viet Nam.

The name hung between him and his family as they gathered in the spare, unadorned military terminal, trying to pretend that this trip was nothing out of the ordinary. But it seemed to Mike almost as if he were gone already, that he had moved beyond the point where he could reach out to touch them. Their faces, loved and familiar, blurred before his eyes as though he looked at them through a mist.

His father cleared his throat before shoving a dog-eared, plain, tan paperback book into Mike’s hands. “Thought you might be able to use this sometime,” he said, his voice hoarse. “You and Julie used to like to sing some of these old songs when you were kids. Remember?”

Mike looked down at the book he held. It was his father’s old service hymnbook that he’d gotten as a young Marine at Sunday worship aboard a ship headed out to the South Pacific during World War II. Frank McRae wasn’t much of one to attend church, and the gift surprised Mike. Maybe spiritual things meant more to his father than he had thought.

It evidently surprised his mother too. “Oh, Frank, I didn’t think you paid any attention. Julie taught you those songs when you were just a toddler,” she added, lightly touching Mike’s shoulder. “The two of you sounded like little angels” She stopped, her voice choking.

Mike could feel the heat rising to his face. To cover his embarrassment, he flipped open the worn cover and stared down at the inscription on the title page. No date, just the owner’s name: Frank McRae.

It was Mike’s turn to clear his throat. There was suddenly a lump in it despite his skepticism about anything that had to do with faith or religion.
“Well . . . cool. Thanks.”

Blinking back an unexpected prickle of tears, he glanced over at his mother, Maggie, who was thin and wan from surgery and chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. His sister, Julie, hovered near her, still in her white nurse’s uniform after coming straight to the airport from the hospital where she worked. Behind her stood her husband, Dan, holding their daughter, Amy.

“I know you’ve got a lot to carry already, but”

Mike waved his father’s words away. “It isn’t heavy, Dad, and who knows. You lugged it through all those battlefields, and you made it home. Maybe it’ll bring me good luck too.”
On impulse, he pulled a pen out of the breast pocket of his fatigues, clicked it open and added his name below his father’s, added the date too. Squatting down, he zipped open his bag and squeezed the hymnal in among his clothing.

When he straightened, his mother stepped forward to give him a fierce hug. “When you get there let us know you’re okay and what unit you’re assigned to. Write as often as you can.”

“I will, Mom.” He struggled to keep his voice from choking up. “Love you.”

“Love you too.”

“You get well, okay?” he whispered in her ear.

“I will. I’m going to beat this cancer, God willing.”

Inwardly Mike sighed, though for her sake he managed not to grimace. He and his mom had always been close, but he got awfully tired of all this God talk. On the other hand, if there really was a benign force somewhere out there in the universe, he supposed prayers couldn’t hurt.

Julie crowded in to put her arms around him as well. “I’m sure going to miss you, little brother.” She was crying openly, not making any attempt to brush away her tears.

“Aw, you’re going to be too busy with this little princess to think about me,” Mike returned awkwardly, reaching over to tickle three-year-old Amy under the chin.

She leaned out from her father’s arms, reaching for him. Dan surrendered the child, and she wound her arms around Mike’s neck, nestled her golden head against his shoulder, giggling, as he tugged on her braid.

Mike was relieved to see that Amy, at least, seemed not to comprehend the dangers he was heading toward or the length of the separation that lay before them. He turned to clasp Dan’s hand in a handshake he hoped would say everything he couldn’t.

Dan pushed his hand away and embraced him without speaking, pounding him on the back at the same time. Only Frank held back, frowning, as he stared through the windows at the plane.

Outside Mike could hear the engines revving up, signaling that it was time to board. The last of his buddies were heading outside. Hastily handing Amy back to Dan, Mike kissed his sister and mother, shook his father’s hand, then zipped up his parka and grabbed his duffle bag.

“Thirteen months,” he said, forcing a grin. “See you all back here next Christmas.”

“Don’t forget to tell Terry hello from all of us. Remind him Angie and the kids want him to stay safe and to hurry home. Give him a kiss from Angie,” Julie added with a wicked grin.

“Yeah, right!” Mike chuckled in spite of himself, then hefted his bag. “It sure will be good to see a friendly face when I get there. With luck, I’ll end up in Terry’s platoon.”

“It’ll be more than luck,” his mother said. “I’m going to pray about it. And we’ll be praying every minute until you’re home safe with us again.”

Mike gave her a crooked smile, then with a quick wave to all of them, turned and strode out the door and across the tarmac. By sheer willpower he kept his stride steady, refusing to let himself turn to look back at them. He knew that if he did, he’d never make it to the plane.

Every step of the way he could sense their eyes following him, and their love. When he reached the stairs, he ran up them, not letting himself think about what he was leaving behind or what lay before him.

Hurriedly he moved through the open door into the plane’s dim interior, feeling, like the severing of an embrace, the moment when he disappeared from their sight.

Chapter 1

“Mom?” Closing the front door behind her, Julie Christensen stamped the snow from her boots onto the welcome mat in the foyer. “Hello—it’s me!”

“Come on in, honey,” her mother called from the kitchen. “I’m just putting a hotdish in the oven. I’ll be right out. Are the streets still bad?”

Jiggling awkwardly from one foot to the other, Julie pulled her boots off one at a time with her free hand and dropped them onto the mat to drain. “The plows have cleared all the main streets now, but they’re still icy in places. I barely got through to the hospital this morning, though. That was quite a blizzard.”

She could hear the oven door open and close. “Your father got to the office late,” her mother responded. “He called to say there were a lot of fender-benders.”

Julie went into the living room on white-stockinged feet. “I brought in the mail. There’s a letter from Mike.”

Maggie pushed through the swinging kitchen door, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. “Well, it’s about time. It’s been three weeks since the last one came, and he had hardly anything to say then.”

When Julie held out the letter, her mother dropped the dishtowel on the arm of the easy chair and reached eagerly for it. She frowned as she studied the handwriting on the outside.

“He’s still okay.”

Noting the tightness in her voice, Julie reassured her hastily, “Of course he’s okay. We’d hear right away if he wasn’t.”

Maggie looked up. “He’s only written three times in the past three months.”

Julie dropped the rest of the mail onto the coffee table. “Don’t forget the letter he sent Dan and me last month.”

“All right, four then.”

“They’ve been involved in several operations.”

“That’s about all he’s told us.” Maggie sighed. “I want to know how he’s doing—really. What it’s like over there. How his health is.”

“Mom, he’s a guy. Guys don’t talk much about stuff like that.”

Maggie gave a short laugh. “I know. Your father’s the same way. How was work today? Is Diane Henderson doing any better?”

Julie hesitated. Diane had been fighting breast cancer for more than a year, and Julie was tempted to gloss over their friend’s condition. But when her own mother had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer the previous fall, Julie had promised she would always tell her the truth and not conceal anything, no matter how unpleasant it was.

She shook her head. “Not good. I’m afraid she isn’t going to make it through the night. Steve and the girls are with her, and their parents are on the way. I said goodbye to her before my shift ended, but I don’t know if she could hear me.”

Her movements unsteady, Maggie went to the fireplace, grabbed the poker and prodded the sizzling logs, releasing a shower of sparks that swirled upward and out of sight. Squatting down, she laid another log on the fire, jerking back from the heat as the flames licked at the dry bark. The wood began to hiss and pop, the sound loud in the quiet room.

When she finally stood up and turned around again, Julie could read nothing in her face. As usual since she had lost her abundant chestnut curls to chemotherapy, her mother had tied a bright scarf around her head. The loss of her hair bothered her more than the terrible bouts of nausea she suffered during treatment, Julie thought. Even now that an inch-long, silky growth of new hair covered her scalp, she still kept her head covered even at home.

Pulling off gloves and muffler and unzipping the parka she wore over her starched, white nurse’s uniform, Julie threw them onto the sofa, then went to give her mother a quick hug. “How’ve you been today? Are you feeling all right?”

“I’m fine.”

“You look tired. You haven’t been overdoing it, have you? Are you sleeping okay?”

At the barrage of questions, Maggie raised her hands. “Now who’s the mother here? I’m supposed to be asking you that. You’ve got a three-year-old at home, a husband who’s a pastor, and you work all day on a cancer ward. With that much stress, it’s a wonder you’re not sick”

“Mom, you’re always doing that.” At her questioning look, Julie burst out, “You always change the subject if it’s about you! You always think you have to take care of other people, and you act as if you aren’t important at all!”

Maggie raised her eyebrows, but before she could protest, they heard a car pull into the driveway. At the same instant the mantel clock tolled four o’clock. Julie went over to the window.

“It’s Dad. What’s he doing home so early?”

“I hope there’s nothing wrong. He hardly ever makes it home before six-thirty.”

The engineering firm owned by Frank McRae and his high school buddy, Larry Bringeland, had landed a major contract with the State of Minnesota that had been taking most of his attention for the past eight months. He usually worked late on the job site or at his office in Minneapolis, thirty miles southeast of their home in the small bedroom community of Shepherdsville.

He’s more worried about Mom’s appointment tomorrow than he’ll admit.

Julie bit her lip to keep from blurting out what she was thinking. Her mother was already nervous enough about the appointment at university hospital the next morning, where she was scheduled to receive the results of tests to determine whether she was finally cancer-free. She didn’t need any more anxiety.

After a moment Julie heard her father come into the kitchen, banging the back door behind him. When he appeared in the doorway, he first glanced at Maggie, then apparently reassured, grinned at Julie.

“Thought I’d find you here. You girls have a good day?”

Maggie went to give him a kiss and help him to slip out of his overcoat. “You’re home awfully early. We ought to celebrate.”

He chuckled. “Sounds like we’re on the same wavelength. We finished our last meeting early, so I decided to take you out to dinner.”

“But I just put your favorite hotdish into the oven.”

“Stick it in the fridge. It’ll keep till tomorrow.”

Seeing the look he gave her mother before he crossed the room to warm himself in front of the fire, Julie smiled. After almost twenty-five years of marriage, they still acted like young lovers.

“We’re not going anywhere until we read Mike’s letter,” Maggie insisted. She handed Julie the letter and sat down on the sofa. “Why don’t you read it so we can all hear it together.”

Eagerly Julie tore open the thin air-mail envelope. Pulling out several creased, humidity-stained sheets of paper, she unfolded them and stared down at the pages thickly scribbled with Mike’s free-flowing handwriting.

February 19, 1967
Nha Trang, South Viet Nam

Dear Mom and Dad,

When you arrive in the Nam, the first thing you notice is the intense heat, followed by the stench of sweat and fuel and refuse that permeates everything. Next is the sound—a vibration that raises the hair on the back of your neck—the roar of helicopters and jet fighters taking off and landing, and the occasional whump of artillery fire. Gritty red dirt coats everything, from your boots and fatigues to your food. You chew it with every bite you eat, breathe it in with every lungful of air.

It’s a strange feelingas if you’ve dropped into an alternate reality, a parallel universe that revolves along its own separate course on a totally different plane from life in the real world. Ten months, and I’ll be home. That thought is the only thing that makes life here bearable.

Sorry I haven’t had much to tell you up till now. It’s taken a while to get oriented and figure out what what’s going on. I have some great news to share, though! I got that transfer to the medic unit I asked for. Instead of running sweeps through the jungle and setting up ambushes, my job will be to accompany the medics during our operations, get them in to the wounded, then get them and the casualties back out to safety.

“Thank God!” Maggie said, relief flooding through her. “At least he’ll be a little bit safer with the medics.”

She saw Frank open his mouth as if he were going to say something, but he abruptly closed it again without speaking. Tilting her head, Maggie gave him a questioning look.

“I still can’t get over Mike’s joining the army instead of taking a student deferment,” Julie broke in. “I never thought my little brother was cut out to be a soldier.”

Wondering at Julie’s quick change of subject, Maggie said thoughtfully, “Mike has taken his share of detours, but he’s always been a good boy at heart.”

“He’s too easily influenced by the wrong crowd,” Frank said, frowning.

Maggie gave him a reproachful look. “Oh, Frank, he’s just idealistic. All the kids are nowadays—you know that. They think political action will solve the world’s evils. And Mike has always acted as if he could change the world on his own.”

When Frank only shrugged in response, she motioned to Julie to continue, irritated at his stubbornness.

I’ll never get used to killing another human being, but at least now I’ll be helping to save lives. I know you faced the same thing in the South Pacific, Dad, and I keep wondering how you got through it. But at least back then you knew who the enemy was. Here in the Nam you never really know for sure who’s a friend and who’s an enemy. You can’t afford to trust anybody outside the guys in your platoon, otherwise you could end up dead real quick.

Frank’s gut clenched. Leaving the fireplace to move restlessly around the room, he passed his hand over his face, wishing he could as easily wipe away the stark images that haunted his thoughts at unguarded moments.

“All those years I spent chasing Japs through the jungles of the South Pacific, thinking we were going to fix it so no son of mine would ever have to go through what my buddies and I did. Or die like Bobby did.” He gritted his teeth. “And now Mike’s a grunt in Viet Nam, and those people over there are no different from those lousy, stinking—”

His gaze met Maggie’s, and the pain that shadowed her face silenced him.

“You know I don’t like hearing you talk like that,” she said, her voice muffled.

He rarely brought up his wartime experiences. He knew how his hatred for the enemy he had faced during World War II shocked his wife and daughter whenever it boiled briefly to the surface, like now. The truth was, at times the violence of his anger shocked him as well.

Maybe that was the problem, he thought now. If he was ever going to lay the demons of the past to rest, he had to confront them.

But even after all those years, the emotions were so raw that just the thought of intentionally unleashing them made him feel sick to his stomach, as if he teetered on a precipice. Plunging over the edge would surely destroy him. And so as always before he pushed the jumbled feelings and images down deep, out of sight and feeling.

Cocking his head, he winked at Maggie. “Honey, the last thing I want to do is to make you unhappy.”

He kept his tone light, but he meant what he said. Since he had first known that he was going to marry Maggie Clayton, he had worn his love for her on his sleeve. Her recent illness and the possibility that he might lose her had only intensified his feelings.

His breath shortened at the thought that Maggie might lose her cruel struggle, but he resolutely pushed that fear away as well. It was a month since she had completed her second course of chemotherapy, following surgery the previous September. Her oncologist had assured them she had an excellent prognosis with this new drug, and Frank refused to entertain any doubts about her recovery.

“Go ahead and read the rest of the letter, Julie,” he prompted gruffly.

I’m getting along okay. I have to admit I miss Terry already. Seems like he’s been gone a couple of weeks instead of only a couple of days. It’s going to take some time to get used to the new platoon and especially to my new squad leader. He’s okay, but he hasn't been with the platoon much longer than me. After two tours of duty, Terry knew his way around. He looked out for me, showed me the ropes and how to survive in the jungle. I hate to admit that base camp feels pretty empty without him, but when you see him, don’t tell him I said so! Don’t want him to get a swelled head.

One thing that’s helped is that I’ve grown kind of attached to a little orphan kid who works off and on at the base as a translator. Well, she’s not a kid, I guess. Her name is Thi Nhuong, and she’s seventeen, but she’s so small and delicate, kind of cute, with eyes that are always smiling. Everyone else calls her Merry, but I always call her by her real name. I know she likes that.

Anyway, she’s great fun to be with. She lost her whole family in the war when she was only nine years old, and she was raised if you can call it thatby a cousin. She was on her own by the time she was thirteen, and from what she’s told me, she had it pretty rough. But in spite of all she’s been through, she seems so joyful at heart.

“I sure hope Mike doesn’t get it into his head that he’s in love with that girl!” Julie’s father exploded. “I’m not going to stand for my son getting mixed up with some . . . some gook! She’s probably a prostitute—”

Before Julie could blurt out an angry remark, her mother cut him off with quiet vehemence. “How can you say such a thing? You don’t know this girl. If Mike cares for her, I’m sure she’s exactly what he says she is.”

“You’ll notice he’s giving us very few details.”

“Maybe there’s nothing to tell. World War II has been over for twenty-two years, Frank, and the Japanese are our allies now. It’s time you let go of your anger. Besides, the Vietnamese are a completely different people.”

“All those slanty-eyed people are alike—sneaky and cruel. Look, the war was barely over before the Chinese went Commie. Then so did Korea, and we ended up in a war with them.”

“North Korea,” Julie interjected.

He ignored her. “Now we’ve gotten dragged into this war with Viet Nam—”

“North Viet Nam. And Congress has never officially declared war.”

He rounded on Julie. “Then what are we doing over there, blowing up the place and getting our men slaughtered? Most of the South Vietnamese support Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Cong, and those who don’t are in it for all of the money and power they can get from us. We’re playing right into their hands.

“Mike was right the first time, and he needs to take his own advice. You can’t trust any of those people everperiod! They’ll knife you in the back as soon as look at you.”


“Please, the two of you!” Maggie cried. “Enough! You’re not going to settle this, so leave it alone.”

Julie bit back her angry reply and stared at her father. From her grandparents she had learned that he had idolized his older brother, Bobby, who had died in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp after enduring the brutalities of the Bataan death march. Now she wondered how much he knew about the horrific experiences his only sibling must have been subjected to. He’d never opened up about the subject, a sure indication that it must be unbearably painful to him.

“You’ve never shown the least prejudice against Terry and his family—or any of the black engineers you employ,” she pointed out, keeping her voice neutral. “Why do you hate the Japanese so much?”

Frank folded his arms across his chest. “Black people have fought and died to preserve our freedoms in every war we’ve ever been involved in. Jordan Williams served honorably as a pilot over Europe during World War II, and Terry’s served two tours of duty in Viet Nam. They’re decent, honest men.

“The Japs—excuse me, the Japanese,” he amended sarcastically, “are different. They have nothing in common with us. You didn’t see what I saw during the war, but if you had, you’d find it pretty hard to forgive too.”

“You’re right—we didn’t experience what you did. But Mom’s right too. At some point you have to forgive or your bitterness will eat you alive.”

He turned his back and moved to the window to stare outside, his hands clenched in his pockets. Julie glanced from his rigid form to her parents’ wedding picture on the mantle. In spite of the white strands that now lightly streaked the hair at his temples, he was almost as youthful in appearance as he had been when the photograph was taken, following a spur-of-the-moment ceremony in San Francisco just before he shipped out for the South Pacific a few months after Pearl Harbor.

He had been all of nineteen, a year younger than Mike was now, wearing the neatly pressed uniform of the Marines. Under his rakishly canted hat, his curly red-gold hair gleamed in the muted, sepia tints of the yellowing photograph as he smiled proudly down at his new wife, his clear blue eyes sparkling, dimples deepening at each side of his mouth.

At forty-five he was still as handsome, though he carried a few more pounds than the lean youth in the picture. Julie had been completely in love with him from the age of not-quite-three, when he had stepped off the airplane that had brought her back the flesh-and-blood daddy she had never met to replace the photos that couldn’t quite satisfy the longings of her young heart for a father of her own.

It was the one memory from her early childhood that stood out with vivid clarity, and one she would always cherish. No matter how much she disagreed with her father on some issues, no matter how annoyed she became with some of his attitudes, she knew she would always adore him.

Her gaze shifted to the picture on the opposite end of the mantel, next to the one of her taken in white cap and uniform after her graduation from the University of Minnesota Nursing School. It showed another young man, this one in army uniform but with the same disarming grin, blue eyes, and dimples as the one in the wedding picture. The only difference was that Mike had inherited their mother’s rich chestnut curls, closely cropped in this picture. It had been taken after her brother finished basic training and just a few days before he left for Viet Nam.

“Let’s hear the rest of Mike’s letter,” her mother said, her voice ragged.

Guilt stabbed through Julie. Dad and I have to stop this. These arguments are taking too much out of Mom. She needs to focus every ounce of energy she has on getting well.

She frowned down at the pages in her hand.

I hope both of you are getting along okay. Mom, I have my fingers crossed that the chemotherapy is doing the job and that you’re not having any more bad side effects from it. What’s the latest report from the doctor? Good news, I hope! I’ll keep thinking positive thoughts on your behalf.

Dad, I know how tough this must be for you, but remember to take care of yourself too. You know how much Mom depends on you. We’ve always leaned on each other, and we’ll stick together through this till Mom’s well again.

Gotta go. Gonzales is bugging me about the lamp keeping him awake, and I need to get some sleep too. Tell Jules to give that niece of mine a big smooch and tell her I’ll bring her a pretty silk dress from the Nam when I get back to the world (in time for Christmas, I hope!). And Dad, punch that big lug Dan for me just for general principles and to keep him in line. Tell him he’d better take good care of my best sister and my little Amy until I get there.

Don’t forget to say hey to Terry from me. I bet he’ll be home before you get this letter. And give Angie, Terrance, and Shawna hugs and kisses from me, too.

As they say, keep those cards and letters coming! Seriously—your letters make me feel like I still have some connection to the world. I’ll write again as soon as I can.

Love you all,


Julie folded the letter and put it back into the envelope, fighting back the aching sense of loss that overwhelmed her every time she thought about her little brother in an environment so alien and so far from home and family. Suddenly she felt too weary to deal with any more emotion.

“I’d better go. Dan promised to have dinner ready by the time I got home, and he and Amy will be wondering where I am.”

“Have you heard whether the weather’s cleared in Juneau enough for Terry’s plane to take off?” Maggie asked. “After that long flight, he must be crazy to finally get home.”

Julie laid the letter on the coffee table with the rest of the mail. “I’m hoping Angie got some news today. If Dan has heard anything, I’ll let you know.”

She kissed her mother goodbye and grabbed her parka, muffler, and gloves. Frank walked her to the door and waited while she pulled on her boots.

“Are you sure you don’t mind driving your mother into Minneapolis to the hospital tomorrow? Larry can ride herd by himself for a day if he has to.”

“You really need to be there with that big project going on.” Julie zipped up her insulated parka and wound the muffler around her neck. “Tomorrow is my day off anyway, and Amy will be at nursery school. Besides, I have a whole list of questions I want to ask Dr. Radnor.”

He tugged a stray red-gold curl that had escaped from the pins that held her hair back. “It sure helps to have a nurse in the family,” he teased.

He accompanied her outside onto the sidewalk in front of the expansive, white frame, Dutch Colonial-style house. It was growing dark, and the air was already so icy it burned her lungs with every breath.

Directly across the street a white, wrought-iron archway defined the entrance to Shepherdsville’s town park. Beyond it Julie could make out the sprawling native stone pavilion and the playground that were the park’s main attractions. Fifty yards from the pavilion’s far end, the graceful stone arch of a footbridge spanned icy Shepherd’s Creek, which bisected the park.

She turned abruptly to face her father. “You didn’t seem all that sure that Mike’s transfer to the medics is a good thing.”

His face settled into hard lines. “I didn’t want to say anything in front of your mother, but medics have to go right into the worst of the fighting to take care of the wounded and get them out. I saw plenty of them gunned down. It seemed like the Japs deliberately aimed for them.”

Julie shivered in the sharp wind. When she pulled open the door of her battered, bright orange ’62 Beetle convertible, it gave a protesting creak.

Frank lightly kicked the VW’s rear tire. Nodding at the faded, mud-splattered sticker on its back bumper that prominently featured a peace symbol and the words “Give peace a chance,” he growled, “Why don’t you scrape that thing off? Since Dan’s so gung-ho for non-violence, I’d think he wouldn’t want to be associated with the tactics of those student demonstrators who are leading all the riots.”

Julie slid behind the wheel. “Now, Daddy, you know you hate this war as much as Dan and I do.”

“I don’t believe this country has any compelling interests in Southeast Asia that justify our getting involved in their civil war. That doesn’t mean I agree with being disloyal to our government and giving aid and comfort to our enemies.”

She engaged the clutch and twisted the key in the ignition. The engine reluctantly coughed to life.

“If anyone actually advocates giving aid and comfort to our enemies, it’s a very small minority. Please, Dad, let’s not argue about this right now. I need to get home.”

To her surprise, he leaned down and gave her a light peck on the cheek. “Love you anyway,” he said with that disarming smile she could never resist.

She grinned back at him. “Love you too, you old galoot. Take care of Mom, and I’ll see you in the morning.”

Waving goodbye, she put the car in gear.