Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Real Enemy - Chapter 1

The Real Enemy

David C. Cook (March 2009)

by

Kathy Herman


Prologue

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Romans 12:21

ROSA Mendez crouched behind the rubble of a razed brick building and held her breath. Had he seen her? She listened for his footsteps moving toward her, but the only distinguishable sound was the squawking of two grackles fighting over a potato chip wrapper stuck in the storm drain.

She gingerly peeked around the side of the brick pile and caught
a glimpse of her cousin Eduardo bounding up the front steps of the
abandoned Pentecostal church, wearing red high-tops and the Super Bowl cap she gave him for his birthday. What was drawing him to this empty old building?

She wanted to follow him inside and ask what he was doing here.
If he had been the Eduardo she had idolized nearly all her life, she
would have. But this new Eduardo? Her heart trembled when she
thought of how he might react if he knew she was spying on him.

Deep voices resonated from inside the church. They sounded
mean, but she couldn’t make out what they were saying. She glanced at her watch. Surely her younger sister, Carmen, could babysit four little girls by herself for a few more minutes. She might not have another chance to find out what Eduardo was up to.

She crept around to the side window and peered in through the broken glass. About a dozen men stood in a straight line, their arms folded across their chests, Eduardo and two others facing them. She ducked just below the windowsill, still as stone, and listened to what they were saying.

“We’re unstoppable. The question is: Are you? Few men are smart enough or tough enough to succeed at this. Ready to show us what you’ve got?”

“I am.”

“So am I.”

“Eduardo?”

“Absolutely.”

“Excellent. Make sure they never get the chance to scream.” The
man laughed. “Oh … and if you get caught? We never heard of you.
Rat us out to the cops, and you’re dead men. There’s no place you can hide that we can’t get to you. Any questions?”

Silence filled the room.

Rosa leaned against the side of the church, her knees about to
buckle, her heart pounding like a kettledrum. What was her cousin
doing with these thugs?

A few seconds later, feet shuffled across the creaky floor and it sounded as if the front door opened. She ran to the rear of the building and hid behind the overgrown shrubs near the steps, studying the guys as they crossed the street and strutted toward the railroad tracks. Their backs were to her, but Eduardo was easy to spot in his red athletic shoes.

Whatever it was they were up to, they had picked the most
secluded part of town to meet. After the woolen mill closed down,
blocks of old buildings on this side of Sophie Trace had been
demolished and replaced with rows of corrugated metal storage
facilities. This dilapidated church was about the only remnant left
standing.

Rosa waited until the men disappeared, then sat on the
crumbling steps, hugging herself and rocking back and forth. How
could Eduardo be stupid enough to get pulled into something that
might put lives in danger and get him sent to prison? Was she brave enough to confront him? Would it even do any good?

Until the past few months she could talk to him about anything. But along with his increasing indifference came a mean temper that frightened her. He had shoved her a few times when she pressed him about why he was avoiding her, and he had even started yelling at the younger cousins anytime they got on his nerves.

Rosa blinked the stinging from her eyes. What happened to the
Eduardo she had looked up to for as long as she could remember?
The doting cousin who taught her to swim when no one else could
even coax her into the water? Who taught her to ride a bike? Not to be afraid of dogs? The math whiz who helped her make an adventure out of everything from times tables to algebra? Eduardo had always been her hero—the big brother she never had.

If only she hadn’t eavesdropped. What if he was in danger? Clearly someone was.

Rosa’s mind screamed with possibilities, and the skin on her arms
turned to gooseflesh. What if they were smuggling illegals into the
country? Or what if it was even worse than that? Her mind flashed back to a recent TV documentary about slavery in the twenty-first century.

She shuddered. Was Eduardo involved in that? The guy who
threatened him sounded capable of anything.

A train whistle startled her. She shivered. The air had turned chilly, and the sun had dropped behind the metal roofs of the storage facilities. She pulled the windbreaker out of her backpack, her hands shaking, and slipped it on, the stranger’s threat replaying in her mind like a stuck CD.

Rat us out to the cops and you’re dead men.

Rosa began to run and then run faster and faster, lamenting that she had shirked her babysitting responsibility and had stumbled into something she had no business knowing but couldn’t ignore. She raced past the high school, vaguely aware that the clock at city hall had chimed five times, and came to a stop at the red light at Stanton and First.

She leaned over, her hands grasping her knees, and tried to catch her breath. What should she do? If she confided in her parents, they would feel obligated to tell the police. No, Eduardo was the one she needed to talk to. Maybe she could reason with him and get him to stay away from these dangerous men.

The light turned green and she darted across Stanton and
raced toward Mockingbird Lane. But what if it was too late? What
if Eduardo had become just like them? What if he was capable of
hurting her—doing whatever it took to shut her up? What if he
knew she had followed him and decided just to deal with her later?

Make sure they never get a chance to scream, one had said. She
swallowed a sob and kept running, trying not to think about what that meant.

Chapter 1


“Ouch!”

Police Chief Brill Jessup yanked her hand away from the stuck
desk drawer and shook it a few times, keenly aware of her broken
thumbnail and the embarrassment scalding her face. She stole a
glance through the blinds covering the glass wall, pretending not
to notice Detective Captain Trent Norris’s amusement. She wasn’t
about to ask him for help. How hard could it be to get the stupid
thing open?

“Everything okay, Chief?” Trent’s voice sounded patronizing.

“Yes, just fine.”

Brill reached for the stack of Thursday’s mail in her in-box and sat back in the well-worn brown leather chair, her thumb throbbing, and her feet barely touching the floor. The desk chair was still too high, but she wasn’t going to call the maintenance engineer and have him adjust it again. Why draw attention to the fact that she was a foot shorter than her predecessor and utterly useless with a screwdriver? She could live with it until she was off duty and could get her husband, Kurt, to help her.

She wiggled out of the chair and ambled over to the window,
her back to the glass wall and Trent’s curious glances, and looked
out through the magnificent trees of gold and orange and crimson that shaded the grounds around city hall. In the distance, beyond
the ridge of rolling hills, the hazy outline of the Great Smoky
Mountains looked almost surreal against the bluebird sky. She had
always admired the grandeur of the Mississippi River when she lived in Memphis, but it couldn’t compare with the heart-stopping view on the other side of the state. Outside, anyway.

She turned around and cringed at the monstrous bookcase that
swallowed up the entire wall behind her desk. The other walls were
dingy beige and bare, except for a few framed pencil sketches of Civil War heroes and an abundance of nail holes—glaring reminders of Chief Hennessey’s passing.

Brill remembered seeing the framed portrait of the chief that
hung in the main corridor of city hall at the end of a long row of
portraits of the other police chiefs who had served the community
of Sophie Trace. How honored she felt to be counted among them,
even if she was the first “redheaded spitfire” to run the department. She smiled. Trent would probably be embarrassed if he knew she’d overheard him refer to her that way while talking with his wife on the phone. Not that he meant any disrespect. Perhaps it was even intended to be complimentary. But she wondered if he would describe her that way if she were male.

She went over to her desk, took a nail file out of her pencil cup,
and began to smooth her jagged thumbnail. Hadn’t she made up
her mind when she accepted this position that she wasn’t going to
allow gender to be an issue nor was she going to overreact if someone tried to make it one? Her eighteen-year record on the Memphis police force spoke for itself. Had any detective cracked more cases than she? It was her captain who first nicknamed her Brill—short for brilliant—and it eventually stuck. When she moved here, she planned to use her given name, but Kurt talked her out of it. She’d been known as Brill for so long that the only person who still called her Colleen was her mother.

Police Chief Brill Jessup did have a nice ring to it. She chuckled aloud without meaning to, recalling that when she was in the second grade, she announced to her teacher and classmates that she wanted to be a lion tamer when she grew up.

A voice came over the intercom on her phone. “Chief, line one
is for you. It’s Kurt.”

“Thanks, LaTeesha.” Brill picked up the receiver and pushed the
blinking button. “So how’s your day going?”

“Great,” Kurt Jessup said. “I’m in Pigeon Forge at the new store. The SpeedWay sign was put up this morning. I thought it might look lost with all the glitzy signs along the main drag, but actually it’s not hard to spot.”

“I think your little quick-copy business just turned into a chain.”

“Yeah, I’m starting to think five stores is enough unless I want to
hire someone to handle HR. I’ve got all I can say grace over.”

“Good. The last thing you need is time on your hands.” Brill
felt her neck muscles tighten in the dead air that followed. Had she
subconsciously intended to turn the knife? She wondered if Kurt was thinking the same thing.

“What time will you be home?” she said.

“I’m not sure yet. I want to stop by the church and finalize my class notes for Sunday.”

Brill sighed under her breath. What made Kurt think he was qualified to teach Sunday school? And didn’t he care that it put
pressure on her to attend? It’s not as though she could opt out without raising a few eyebrows. “So you’re really going through with it?”

“I told you I was. I wish you’d at least pretend to be supportive.”

“Sorry. I think you’re biting off too much too soon.” Okay, so she
was turning the knife. Was she supposed to pretend he was worthy?

“I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree,” Kurt said. “I’ve put
the past behind me. I want to get involved at church, and I really feel called to do this.”

Called? Convenient choice of words. How was she supposed
to argue with that? “Did you remember Emily has gymnastics at
four?”

“It’s right here on my phone. I’ll get her there on time. So how’re things at the station?”

Brill leaned on the side of her desk and looked down at the cars
parked at the meters. “Let’s see … we investigated multiple vehicle
break-ins in the employee parking lot at the tire plant. Responded
to a domestic disturbance on Fifth. Racked up a few speeding
violations. Made a report on a fender bender in front of the high
school. Checked out a ‘popping noise’ on Beech Street—a possible
drive-by shooting we haven’t been able to confirm. Feels strange not having a big case hanging over me. The real challenge of the day has been trying to get this stubborn file drawer open. I got it open once, but I’m not sure what I did.”

“Why don’t you just ask Trent to show you?”

“I can figure it out by myself, Kurt.”

There was that uncomfortable dead air again.

“What I would like help with”—she stood and turned around—

“is making this office look like it’s mine.”

“I’ll help. Where do we start?”

“With a coat of fresh paint—something cheery. These walls are disgustingly drab, and I doubt they’ve been painted since Chief Hennessey was sworn in. I could use a few plants in here too—something alive to offset the abundance of dead oak. I’ll bet if we cut this conference table and chairs into firewood, there’d be enough to burn ’til the next century. We could burn this old desk chair while we’re at it.”

Kurt laughed. “So how do you really feel about your new office?”
Brill smiled in spite of herself. “Oh, you know how I am. When
the walls look grotty, I feel grotty. I’m sure once it’s brightened up, I can make do with what’s here. But I would appreciate your lowering the desk chair a notch. I’ll tell you one thing, I doubt there’s a prettier view of the Smokies anywhere in town.”

“I think you’re right. It shouldn’t take more than the weekend to
do the job—unless you actually want that big bookcase moved. In
that case, you’ll have to wait ’til I can round up some young bucks
to help.”

“Forget it, you’d need a forklift.” Brill scanned the rows of books
that rose almost to the ceiling. “Let’s just paint around it. I’ll weed
out some of the books and put a few family photographs on the
shelves. At least there’s plenty of light in here.”

“It’ll look more professional after we hang your diplomas and
award certificates,” Kurt said. “So, are you starting to feel settled?”

“I’m comfortable with my position, though it still feels strange
being called ‘Chief.’”

“Especially with a Cherokee reservation just across the border.”

“Very funny, Kurt.”

“Sorry, bad joke.”

“Not to mention politically incorrect. You read the literature the
chamber of commerce gave us. You know how Sophie Trace got its
name. There’s a rich Cherokee history in this region.”

“And some bad blood that wasn’t mentioned in the brochures. Wait’ll you hear what I found out at the barbershop this morning.”

Brill smirked. “And they say women are gossips.”

“This wasn’t gossip. There’s a legend. Some people actually
believe that the spirits of the Cherokee who were driven off this land have come back to get even with the descendents of white people who settled here.”

“That’s about the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“They refer to the spirits as red shadows. I kept my mouth
shut and just listened to the barber and a couple old duffers bat
the legend back and forth. Apparently there have been a number of bizarre unsolved crimes over the years, including an ax murder in 2006—seven people were found dismembered.”

“Up in the foothills, not in Sophie Trace,” she said. “And the victims were shot first. I read the case file. The sheriff, along with the FBI, ATF, and DEA determined it was drug related. The victims were tied to a Venezuelan drug cartel. It was likely a territorial issue.”

“Try telling that to my barber and his cronies. They’re convinced
it was the work of red shadows—also last week’s seven-car pileup on I-40.”

Brill rolled her eyes. “We arrested a drunk driver at the scene
with a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit. Come on, Kurt. Those guys were pulling your leg. You’re new in town, and they were having some fun.”

“I don’t think so. You should’ve heard them.”

Brill, a grin tugging at her cheeks, got up and closed the blinds
on the glass wall. “Well, you can tell the keepers of the legend down at the barbershop that I’ll gladly get an arrest warrant for whichever red shadow or shadows poured a fifth of Jack Daniels down our drunk driver’s throat. But I’ll need names and addresses.” She chortled into the receiver.

“I knew you’d find it entertaining. At least a little folklore will keep the case interesting.”

“At the barbershop, maybe. Not here. The guilty party is already behind bars. Case closed.”

“And now you’re sitting around twiddling your thumbs?”

“I’ve got a stack of paperwork to keep me busy.” Brill put the nail file back in the pencil cup. “Actually it’s nice not to be stressed out for a change.”

“I know. I’m just concerned this job isn’t going to be challenging enough.”

“Well, we both know I didn’t pursue this position for the
challenge.” The words cut, and she knew it. Let him bleed a little.

There was a long pause, and she could hear Kurt’s shallow breaths
in the silence. Finally he said, “Maybe after dinner, we can go over
to that big home-improvement center. You can choose the paint for your office.” His tone was even and nondefensive.

“I’m leaning toward deep yellow.” She let her gaze glide around
the room. “Maybe a shade of mustard that won’t make it look like a nursery.”

“You pick the color, and I’ll do the painting. You’ll have a fresh
new look on Monday morning. How’s that sound?”

It sounded great. But was she using Kurt by taking advantage of
his willingness to please her, especially when she had no intention
of letting him back into her heart or her bed? Probably. But wasn’t it better than shutting him out altogether? For Emily’s sake she could pretend to love him. But she could never forgive him—not ever.

“Brill, you still there?”

“Yeah, I’m here. Okay, sounds like a plan.” But if you think being
nice to me is going to change anything, think again.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Turning The Paige - Chapter 1 (Excerpt)

Turning The Paige

Zondervan (March 1, 2009)


Chapter 1


“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”

To Kill a Mockingbird


My mother killed my marriage. Stomped all over it with her
Pepto-Bismol pink pumps and ground it to divorce dust.

Okay, maybe that’s not entirely fair. Mom wasn’t solely
responsible for the destruction of my marriage. Like many
couples, Eric and I had some problems. But the biggest one was
my mother. I turned the page in my wedding album on what
would have been our five-year anniversary to a close-up of the
two of us — happy, bright, shining, and in love. So in love. But
that was then and this is now.

My fingers moved up the glossy page to the cleft in Eric’s
jaw. I loved that Kirk Douglas cleft and had spent many happy
hours kissing it. And the delicious lips above it. Now someone
else was kissing them.

I slapped the album shut. And as I shoved it back into
the closet, the phone rang. I walked over to the nightstand to
check the caller ID. Probably a telemarketer.

As the phone continued to ring, I squinted at the name.
Now where’d I put my reading glasses? By the time I finally
found them, the answering machine had clicked on.

“Paige?” My mother’s querulous voice filled the air. “Are
you there? Or are you out again? Seems like you’re never
home anymore.” She released a loud sigh. “I was hoping you
could come over for just a minute and pull down my other quilt
from the top of the linen closet. This one’s getting too hot and
heavy.” She lobbed one of her famous guilt grenades. “Oh well,
guess I’ll just have to make do. Talk to you soon.”

My turn to expel a loud sigh.

Mom’s “for just a minute” was never that. Every time
I went over to her house — several times a week since Dad
died — she found “one other little thing” for me to do. “Since
you’re here, would you mind bringing the new bag of cat litter
in from the garage? It’s too heavy for me.”

Translation: Clean out the dirty litter box and refill it.

“Could you look up the number to Animal Control? I think
I’ve got raccoons or possums under the house.”
Translation: Call the County and take care of it.

“Would you run up to the store and pick up some chicken?
Breasts are on sale. Oh, and could you pick up a couple
Other things for me too?”

Translation: Do all my grocery shopping.

Since Dad died nearly three years ago, I’d become the
go-to girl for anything and everything my mother needed.
Mom was of the old school, accustomed to having my father
handle everything, from balancing the checkbook to pumping
gas, and had never really learned to do things on her own, or
establish any kind of independence. And at her age, I didn’t see
that changing.

She also had the mind-set that family should do everything
for one another, and considered it an imposition to ask
for help from people who didn’t share her same blood. Which
meant everything fell on me.

My brother Patrick and sister Isabel had seen the writing
on the wall and gotten out of our Sacramento hometown years
ago. Patrick, the youngest, was a free spirit, going his own way
and dabbling in different things. Last we’d heard, he was living
on an ashram somewhere in India. Staying in touch wasn’t
exactly his thing.

As for Isabel, after getting her MBA from Berkeley, she’d
moved to Chicago to join an investment firm. There she’d
steadily risen up the ranks to the executive level where she was
now a corporate muckety-muck in a high-rise office overlooking
Michigan Avenue. Isabel, who’s two years older than me, is
married to David, another executive who shares her same career
drive and Dom Perignon tastes. They work hard and play hard,
flying all over the world to exotic vacation spots — beginning
with their elopement to Barbados two years ago.

Mom still hasn’t forgiven her for that. “How could your
sister go and get married without any of her family there?”
she’d asked me. “A wedding is a celebration for the whole
family — not just the two of them.” She released one of her
signature sighs. “But then your sister’s always been selfish.
I’m glad I have at least one daughter who puts others before
herself. I can always count on you, honey.”

No pressure there.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my mom. And I always try to
honor her as the Bible says. But what about that Scripture that
says “do not exasperate your children”?

A siren split the air. Mom’s ringtone.

I knew if I answered my cell, she’d wheedle me into stopping
by and I’d be late to book club. I’m thirty-five years old
and I haven’t learned how to say no to my mother. Grabbing
my phone, I set it to vibrate and tossed it in my purse. Then
I headed out the door, eager to meet the girls on our latest
adventure.

Last year, at the start of our book club season, Becca, the
founder of the club, had suggested that rather than just sitting
around discussing the books we read, we start to live out some
of the adventures in the books instead. And boy had we ever.
We’d gone sailing, camping, hiking, blind dating, even rafting
down the river — courtesy of Huck Finn — but our biggest
adventure came when we traveled to Paris to take cooking lessons
after reading French Women Don’t Get Fat.

Ah, Paris. J’adore. We’d all fallen head over heels for the
beautiful, cosmopolitan city, but Chloe, my karaoke-singing
pal who used to not have a daring bone in her body, had taken
a sabbatical from work to return to the City of Light for an
extended stay. She was there even now, painting and living out
her French adventure.

Not that I’m jealous or anything. C’est la vie.

Last month for our April book club adventure, in honor
of Kidnapped, where young David Balfour goes on the run
through the Scottish Highlands, I took the girls to the annual
Scottish Games and Gathering in a nearby town. I’d have preferred
Scotland — especially since I’m part Scottish — but two trips to Europe in one year wasn’t in anyone’s budget.

We settled for Woodland.

There we had a blast watching the Highland dancers and
pipers, tasting Scottish delicacies, and watching different athletic
competitions including the hammer throw and haggis hurling. But our favorite event was checking out all the men in kilts.

Shades of Mel Gibson. Talk about freedom.

Today we were enjoying the freedom of a hike in the foothills
north of Sacramento.

“This hill’s too high,” Kailyn whined.

“You think that’s high — just wait’ll we get to Yosemite,”
Becca said. “This is great practice for our Into Thin Air climb
in a couple weeks.”

Annette, who’d been steadily puffing alongside me for the
past hour, sat down abruptly. “I need to rest, y’all. Isn’t it about
time for our picnic, anyway?”

“Works for me. Hey guys,” I called to the rest of the group
as I sank to the ground beside Annette, “time to eat.” Kailyn
hotfooted it over to us but stopped short. She looked at her
new white shorts and then down at the ground with a dubious
expression.

Annette removed the denim overshirt she’d tied around
her waist and spread it out on the grass beside her à la Sir
Walter Raleigh. “There you go, Queen Elizabeth. Now your
royal designer shorts won’t get ruined.”

“Thanks, Mom. You rock.”

“That I do,” Annette said. “Madonna has nothin’ on me.
Well, except money, rock-hard abs, and an estate in England.
Although . . . I used to live in England too.”

“On an estate?”

“Nah. In an Air Force dorm when I was stationed there
in the seventies. My roommates and I formed a girl band and
played at weddings and bar mitzvahs. We really rocked those
receptions.” She hummed a little “Bohemian Rhapsody” as she
began removing food items from her backpack and setting
them on a small tablecloth.

“Bunch of wusses,” Becca grumbled as she and Jenna
joined us. “I don’t know how you ever expect to scale a mountain
when you can’t even make it up a little foothill.”

“I don’t expect to scale any mountains,” Annette said. “I’ll
just watch you.”

“Ditto.” I smiled up at Becca.

“Aw c’mon, that’s not fair. The point of these adventures is
for all of us to do them together.”

“Then you need to pick adventures that all of us are physically
capable of doing.”

“You tell her, Mom.” Kailyn stuck out her tongue at her
risk-taking roommate.

“If we all trained together, we could get in shape to climb,”
Jenna said. “We could work out together every morning. I
could probably even get us a group rate at the gym.”

“No thanks,” Annette said. “I already do a morning workout
every day with my husband.”

“Every day?” Becca’s eyes gleamed beneath her dark spiky
bangs. “Who says the sex drive wanes as you get older?”

“Eww!” Kailyn gave Becca a playful shove. “That’s my
parents you’re talking about.”

“And this parent was talking about walking, not nookie.”

I faced Becca. “Can’t we compromise on the mountain
climbing? You’ve got a mixed group of women here and not
all of us are in as great shape as you and Jenna.”

“I know!” Kailyn’s blonde ponytail bobbed as she jumped
up. “We could go to one of those indoor rock-climbing walls
instead, with those rubber thingies where you put your feet.
That doesn’t look too hard, plus we’d be protected from the
elements.”

“I’m sure that’s just what Sir Edmund Hillary said when
he was climbing Everest. ‘Gee, let’s stay inside so we’re protected
from the elements,’ ” Becca said.

“Shut up, nature girl.”

I clapped my hands the way I used to when my siblings
fought. “Time out. Hey, Jenna, aren’t there less extreme mountains at Yosemite we could climb instead? Say with some pretty waterfalls or something?”

“Well, there’s Vernal Falls. Technically, it’s at the top of a
mountain.”

“Yeah, with steps,” Becca said dismissively.

“Narrow steep steps cut into the cliff.”

“Annette, didn’t you, Tess, and Chloe go up a bunch of narrow
steps to look at the gargoyles in Notre Dame?”

She nodded.

“Well, you can certainly do these steps then,” I said. “And
so can I. Tess will too. Where is Tess today, anyway?”

“She had a date with James. They were going to an exhibit at the DeYoung.”

“Nice. Blowing us off for a guy and art,” cynical Becca said.

Works for me.

“Not just any guy,” Annette said with a small, secret smile.

“This is love.”

“Twoo wuv.”

“Mawwiage is what bwings us togevver today.” The Princess
Bride
is one of my favorite romantic movies.

“Does anyone else think it’s ironic that Tess’s last name is
the same as his first name?”

“No. I think it’s a God-thing,” Kailyn said.

“Yeah, right.” Becca snorted. “It’s just a coincidence.”

“A God-incidence,” Annette corrected her.
Becca rolled her eyes. “Here we go with the God-stuff again.”

Jenna and Becca were the two non-churchgoers in our
group. Jenna never seemed bothered by our occasional God-mentions,
but Becca was. I think it was something to do with her upbringing, but she’d erected a clear No Trespassing sign on that part of her life.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Cousin's Promise - Chapter 1

A Cousin's Promise

Barbour Books (March 1, 2009)


Chapter 1


Ach, there’s a bee in the van! Somebody, get it out of here before I get stung!”

Loraine Miller looked over her shoulder. Her cousin Katie’s face was as pale as goat’s milk, and her eyes were wide with fear. Ever since they’d been children and Katie had been trapped in the schoolhouse with a swarm of angry bees, she had panicked whenever a bee got too close. Poor Katie had been pelted with so many stings that day; much of her body had looked swollen. The doctor had said it was a good thing Katie wasn’t allergic to bee stings or she would have probably gone into shock.

“Get it! Get it!” Katie screamed. She sucked in a deep breath and ducked her head.

The bee flew past Loraine’s shoulder, buzzing noisily.

“Open your window, schnell!” Loraine said to her fianc√©, Wayne Lambright. “We need to get that bee out before Katie hyperventilates.”

Wayne quickly opened the window and shooed the bee with his hand.

“Did. . .did it go out?” Katie’s chin trembled as she lifted her head. Her vivid green eyes glistened with unshed tears. Loraine found it hard to believe anyone could be so afraid of a bee, even though she knew the source of her cousin’s fear.

Jah, I’m sure it’s out. At least, I don’t see it anymore,” Loraine said, hoping to reassure her cousin.

“It’s gone, Katie, so you can relax.” Wayne closed the window and nudged Loraine’s arm. “You know what I’m thinking?”

“What’s that?”

“I’m thinking I can hardly wait to get you on the Side Winder I’ve heard so much about!”

She grimaced. “It would be just like you to try and talk me into going on the scariest ride at Hershey Park.”

Wayne’s eyes twinkled. “Do you really think I’d twist your arm and make you do that?”

“She doesn’t think it; she knows it,” Loraine’s cousin Ella spoke up from the back of the van.

Jolene, Loraine’s other cousin, giggled behind her hand, while Katie’s boyfriend, Timothy, snorted like one of his father’s pig.

“Remember, Loraine, you’re the one who suggested we take this trip to Hershey Park,” Jolene’s brother Andrew said. “So I would think you’d be looking forward to going on all the scary rides.”

“That’s right,” Ella’s brother Raymond chimed in. “Getting scared out of your wits is the whole reason for going to an amusement parks.”

Wayne nudged Loraine’s arm again. “Don’t you remember how much fun we had when we went to the Fun Spot last Labor Day weekend?”

Loraine nodded. It had been fun to visit their local amusement park, but those rides weren’t nearly as frightening as the ones she’d heard about at Hershey Park. Even so, she was excited to take this trip. Ever since she was a little girl, she’d wanted to visit Hershey Park and Hershey Chocolate World. She loved chocolate and had heard there was a ride inside Chocolate World that showed visitors how the various kinds of Hershey candy were made. Their plans were to travel through the night, arrive in Hershey around 2:00 a.m., and check into the hotel their driver, Paul Crawford, had reserved for them. Then they would sleep a few hours and spend all day Saturday at the park. They planned to rest awhile on Sunday, and then maybe take a drive around the surrounding area. Early Monday morning, they would head for home. Loraine figured this trip could turn out to be more fun than if her parents had taken her when she was a girl.

Even though the Amish didn’t celebrate Labor Day, Timothy, Raymond, and Andrew worked at the trailer factory in Middlebury and had Monday off, as did Loraine, who worked at the hardware store in Shipshewana. Since neither Katie nor Ella had fulltime jobs, being gone for three days wasn’t a problem. The same held true for Wayne, who farmed with his father. Only Jolene, a teacher at the local Amish schoolhouse, was scheduled to work, but she’d been able to get a substitute for Monday.

“I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m more anxious to eat some of that wunderbaar chocolate than go on any of the rides at Hershey Park.” Katie smiled and relaxed against the seat, obviously feeling better now that the bee was gone.

“Listen to you. . .talking about food already, and we’re not even to Ashley yet.” Timothy bumped Katie’s arm. “Can’t you at least wait until we leave the state of Indiana to talk about food?”

Katie muffled her snicker.

Loraine smiled. It was good to see everyone in such good spirits. Paul had been laughing and telling jokes since he’d picked them up at Jolene and Andrew’s house in Topeka.

“Hey, Paul,” Timothy called, “Katie’s hungry, so we may have to stop soon and see that she’s fed.”

“I’ll be stopping before we get to Highway 69,” Paul said over his shoulder. “Will that be soon enough?”

Timothy needled Katie in the ribs. “What do you say? Can you hold out till then?”

She wrinkled her nose. “If you don’t stop teasing, I won’t go on any of the rides at Hershey Park with you.”

“Is that a threat?”

“It’s a promise.”

Loraine looked over at Wayne and rolled her eyes. Katie was her youngest cousin, and she’d recently turned nineteen. Sometimes, like now, Katie still acted like an immature adolescent. Timothy, who was twenty, wasn’t much better, always goofing around, mimicking others, and making all sorts of weird sounds. But the two of them seemed happy together and planned to be married in the fall of next year. Maybe by then, they’d both have grown up some.

“I wish people would quit cutting me off and tailgating,” Paul complained as he merged the van into heavier traffic. “Seems like everyone and his brother is headed somewhere for Labor Day weekend. If it’s this bad now, I can only imagine how it will be on the trip home.”

“Hershey Park will probably be crowded, too,” Andrew put in.

Wayne gave Loraine’s fingers a gentle squeeze. “This will be our last chance for an outing with our single friends before we become an old married couple, so we’d better enjoy every moment,” he whispered in her ear.

He looked at her so sweetly she wanted to tousle his thick auburn curls, the way she sometimes did when they were alone. In just a little over a month, she and Wayne would get married; then she could tousle his hair to her heart’s content. By this time next year, they might even have a baby, and their lives would take a new direction—one that wouldn’t include weekend trips to amusement parks. A baby would mean changing dirty diapers, getting up in the middle of the night for feedings, and so many new, exciting things. Loraine could hardly wait to make a home and raise a family with Wayne. It would be a dream come true.

She leaned her head against Wayne’s shoulder and let her eyelids close. She felt safe and secure when she was with Wayne—enjoying his company and happy to know she’d soon be his wife. I wonder what our kinner will look like. Will they have my brown hair and brown eyes, or will they resemble Wayne with his light brown hair and hazel eyes? Will they be easygoing and even tempered like Wayne? Will they have a servant’s heart—generous in spirit and sensitive to others in need?

In her mind’s eye, Lorraine could see a sweet baby with curly auburn hair, gurgling and reaching chubby hands out to his father.

The van lurched suddenly, and Loraine’s eyes snapped open. “Wh–what happened?”

“We’re stopping for those snacks I promised you could get,” Paul said as he pulled off the road and into a gas station. “If anyone wants anything, you’d better get it now, because I won’t be stopping again till I need more gas.”

Loraine climbed out of the van ahead of her cousins and turned to smile at Katie. “Since you’re the one who said you were hungry, I guess you’d better make sure you stock up on plenty of snacks.”

Katie snickered. “I plan to do just that.”
With a sack full of snack foods, Loraine crawled back into the van and released a noisy yawn. “Someone wake me when we get there, would you?” She leaned her head on Wayne’s broad shoulder again. “I hope you don’t mind me using you for a pillow.”

He nuzzled the top of her stiff, white head covering with his nose. “I don’t mind at all.”

Loraine’s eyelids fluttered closed once more. She was almost asleep when Katie let out an ear-piercing yelp. “Ach! Another bee’s in the van!”

Loraine sat up straight. Sure enough, a bee buzzed irritatingly overhead.

Timothy and Raymond swatted at the troublesome bee with their hats.

“Ella, roll down your window!” Timothy shouted. “Maybe the critter will fly out like the last one did.”

Ella quickly did as he requested, but the bee kept buzzing and zipping all around.

Katie screamed when it buzzed past her face. “Get it! Get it! Get it!”

“What’s going on back there?” Paul called over his shoulder. “What’s all the ruckus about?”

“There’s a bee on the loose, and—”

“Paul, look out!”
At the sound of Ella’s shrill scream, Loraine’s gaze darted to the front window. A semi-truck headed straight for them!

Paul jerked the wheel, and the van lurched to the right. As the semi roared past, it slammed into the side of their vehicle. The van skidded off the road and smacked a telephone pole. It flipped onto its side and spun around. Metal crunching! Breaking glass! Screaming voices! Deafening silence. Loraine was sure everyone was dead.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Michal - Chapter 1

Michal

Revell (March 1, 2009)

by



Chapter 1


Gibeah, 1023 BC

Michal ducked as a shard of pottery soared past her head.
She took a step backward into the shadowed hall, gripping
the stone wall for support.

“No! Please! Not my alabaster vase!”

Michal stiffened at her mother’s shrill voice. She crept
forward and looked around the heavy wooden door into the
battlefield of her mother’s spacious bedchamber.

Her father, the king of Israel, held the priceless Egyptian
treasure above his head, his gaze taunting.

“Please, Saul!” Her mother rushed at him, her sheer robe
drooping from one shoulder. She gripped the vase, trying to
wrestle it from his grasp.

Michal’s breath caught. Had her mother lost her mind?
She had to create a diversion. Get her father out of this
room. Or pull her mother away before she died trying to
protect that silly pottery collection.

“Give—me—my—vase!”

Her father’s eerie laughter followed. Fabric ripped as he
yanked her mother forward by her tunic. She gripped the vase hard. Snatched it from his grasp. A guttural sound came
from his throat. He heaved her across the blue tile, and the
vase shattered beneath her.

Her mother’s screams faded.

Silence settled over the room.

Michal cowered, fingernails digging at the mortar between
the stones.

Her father sank to his knees, face cupped between both
hands. Soft weeping came from the corner where her mother
lay. A moment passed.

Darting a quick look at her father, Michal hurried to her
mother’s side. “Are you all right, Mother?” She noted a jagged
cut on her mother’s arm. “You’re bleeding.”

“My vase . . .”

Was that all she could think about? “We’ll get a new vase,
Mother.” Never mind that the urn had been in her mother’s
family since the exodus, dating back several centuries.

“Guards!” Michal called out, hoping one of the cowards
was within hearing distance.

Her father’s piercing wail startled her, followed by deep,
throaty groans as he pushed his purple-draped body up from
the floor. Dark, smoldering rage burned in the abyss of his
gray eyes.

Michal tugged on her mother’s arm, bending to whisper
in her ear. “Come, Mother. Let’s go!”

Her mother clutched a pottery shard to her chest. “I cannot.”

Michal gritted her teeth, wishing she could fly away like
a bird. To somewhere far from Gibeah and her father’s unpredictable
wrath.

“I’ll get Jonathan,” she said. Her brother was the only person who could control the king when he got like this. More importantly,
her brother could issue the command to send for
the singer.

David. The thought of him fluttered her stomach.

“Come here, Daughter.”

She stared at her father in silence, his glare pinning her
feet to the floor.

“I won’t hurt you.”

She’d heard the words before, their promise disappearing
like water through shifting sand. Michal held her tongue,
surprised at how calm she felt. After six months of putting
up with her father’s changing moods, maybe she was finally
figuring out how to manage him. Though staying out of his
way seemed like the wisest option.

She took one step, then whirled about and dashed to the
door. On the third step, she felt her father’s grip on her forearm.
“Let me go!”

He yanked her to his chest. “Do you think you can outrun
a warrior, Daughter?” His fingers dug into her flesh.

“You said you wouldn’t hurt me!” With tears in her eyes,
she writhed to get free. “Why, Father? Why do you do this?”
She winced at the bruise he was giving her, hating him.

Her mother’s weeping grew to loud wails.

Michal felt her father’s fingers slowly release her arm.

“I shouldn’t have . . .” With a wounded look on his face, he
glanced about the room. One hand lifted to his temple as he
sank to the floor again. Moaning, he dug both hands into his
shoulder-length hair.

Michal resisted the urge to kick him and beat him with
her fists. Instead, she drew in a calming breath and rested a
hand on top of her father’s head, brushing the golden crown. “Don’t worry, Father. The harpist will come soon, and you
will be well.”

When he didn’t respond, she slipped from the room, disgust
and despair mingling in her heart.

••

Michal rushed along the cobbled stones, then stopped
abruptly in front of a guard. “Joash, get Marta to help my
mother. She’s hurt.” The guard hurried away, and Michal
ran to the courtyard, where Jonathan sat with her brothers
Abinadab and Malchishua, rubbing oil into their leather
breastplates. “You must come at once, Jonathan.” She bent
forward, dragging in a breath of air. “The demons are after
Father again.”

Jonathan dropped the oilcloth and shield onto the stone
bench and stood. “Tell me quickly, what has he done?”

Michal blurted out the scene in her mother’s chambers,
her words tumbling on top of one another. Her brother’s left
brow hiked up a notch, and his dark brown beard moved with
the clenched muscle in his jaw.

“He’s getting worse,” she said, falling into step at Jonathan’s
side. His long legs carried him faster than she could keep up.
“What are we going to do?” She hated the whiny quality her
voice took on when she panicked, but she was grateful that
Jonathan never seemed to notice.

“Send for the singer,” Abinadab said, coming up behind
them. “At least the house has some peace from the madness
when he plucks those strings of his.”

“I sent for him yesterday.” Jonathan stopped at the entrance
to their father’s harem. “How badly was she hurt?” he asked
Michal.

“She had a cut on her arm, maybe a few bruises. I sent
for Marta.”

“With that temper of his, it’s a wonder he didn’t kill her.”
Abinadab scowled.

“Keep your tone respectful, Brother. He’s still our father
and king.”

“He doesn’t act like a king.” Michal tensed, wishing she
could retract the words.

“Maybe not, but we must still keep in mind that he is the
Lord’s anointed.”

Michal sighed, feeling far older than her fifteen years. A
guard emerged from her mother’s chambers, the king leaning
on his arm. They stepped to the side, allowing the king to
pass. His eyes held a dazed expression, as though he looked
through them instead of at them.

“He’s not a good king,” Michal whispered, when their father
had turned down the hall leading to his own chambers.

Jonathan’s hand on her arm made her look up at him again.
“We have to trust the Lord in this, Michal.”

He walked on toward their mother’s room. His earnest
expression brought a sliver of hope into her heart, but in the
same moment the old doubts rose to haunt her.

“Then why has the Lord forsaken our father?” she asked, hurrying
to keep up. The question had burned within her since the
day their father had returned from a battle with the Amalekites,
shaken to the core. He’d never spoken of it, and she was desperate
to understand. “Please, Jonathan, do you know why the
Most High seems to torment Father rather than help him?”

Jonathan crossed the threshold to their mother’s chambers,
where Michal could see the woman resting on her couch,
Marta at her side.

“The singer will ease Father’s worries,” he said. “Don’t trouble
yourself with the rest.” He touched her arm. “I’ll handle
things here.”

Michal nodded, relieved to be free of the whole ordeal.
Grabbing up her skirts, she raced to the outside of the palace
kitchens where stone steps led to the lookout area on the flat
roof. David. If Jonathan had already sent for him, he could
be coming up the hill from Bethlehem. She might be able to
spot him from the rooftop.

She rounded a corner closest to the clay ovens, where scents
of garlic and leeks mingled with the yeasty smells of baking
bread. One sniff made her stomach growl, but she pressed a
hand to her waist and grasped the rail. She raised her foot to
climb the first step when the echoing sounds of her father’s
screams sent her hopes plummeting.

Her sister, Merab, came up behind her, dark hair flowing beneath
a blue veil, arms crossed in her arrogant older sister pose.
Sometimes Michal saw glimpses of her father in her sister’s
cold eyes and tight smile. She shuddered at the thought.

“There you are. Mother needs you,” Merab said.

Michal let out a sigh. “Jonathan is with her. She doesn’t
need me.” She had to get away from her mother’s demands.

Merab lifted her chin. “Of course she does. It’s always you
she wants.” She shifted from one foot to the other. “You best
hurry—you know how she gets.”

Yes. She knew only too well.

A feeling of rebellion made her pause. Of late her mother
had grown almost as unreasonable as her father, even going
so far as to bring teraphim into the palace. The household
gods made her shiver every time she looked at them.

Michal glanced up at the roof, then back at her sister. “I’ll be there soon.” Before Merab could protest, Michal scurried
up the stone steps to the lookout place between the dual
towers.

A brisk breeze whipped her head cloth behind her while
she gripped the stone parapet. She bent forward, straining
to see against the glare of the fading sun.

David.

She swayed to the music of his name echoing in her heart.
Leaning her weary limbs against the stone tower, she released
an unsteady breath. Below her, ricocheting against the granite
walls of the palace, the sounds of her father’s raving madness
carried through the open windows.

Any moment now the harpist, straddling his father’s gray
donkey, would trot through the imposing gates of Gibeah,
straight to her father’s side.

Oh, please hurry!

The incessant pounding of her heart increased at the sound
of a sudden, earsplitting scream. She clamped her hands over
her ears and rocked back on her heels.

Why, God? Why does my father act this way?

Michal bit back a sob and stretched farther over the rail’s
edge, begging her eyes to find the object of her desire, of
her desperation. Truth be told, she needed the magic of the
singer’s music almost as much as her father did. Maybe then
her fears would subside, her anxious thoughts cease.

She rushed to the other end of the roof. Her fingers trembling,
she flipped her braided hair behind her back and peered
around the towers toward the hills. For a moment the beauty
of the sunset calmed her tattered nerves.

Please come. Don’t make us wait another day.
Her father’s guttural wail coming from below reduced her fragile peace to ashes. She raised her fists in the air and
screamed.

••

Cushioned couches lined the south wall of the king’s court
where Michal reclined beside her mother and sister, her gaze
fixed on the singer. Though it was long after dark, David had
finally come. His sweet music wooed her, and the strings
of his harp mimicked the melodic trill of a nightingale. She
closed her eyes, picturing the cascading blue-green waters
of En Gedi.

Tension slipped from her shoulders, and her restless fears
vanished. David. Had she spoken his name aloud? But David’s
gaze was focused on her father. King Saul was no longer the
crazed madman of a few hours ago. His eyes were clear, and
his lips curved in a smile.

Michal’s heart stirred with something akin to compassion.
She could almost love the king when he was like this.

The music drifted into stillness. David’s head lifted, and he
glanced in her direction. Michal’s breath caught when their
eyes connected. His casual, dimpled smile nearly made her
heart stop. Could he read her thoughts? Could he tell how her
heart yearned for him? His gaze moved past her and lingered
on her sister. Michal shifted in her seat, catching the blush
on Merab’s cheeks.

In a suspended moment, Michal glanced from Merab to
David, who had turned away to face Jonathan and the king. But
not soon enough to hide the look that had passed between them.
A look that told her more than words could begin to say.

David—the man who had captured her heart—was in love
with her sister.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Breach Of Trust - Chapter 1

Breach Of Trust

Tyndale House Publishers (February 5, 2009)


Chapter 1


Librarian Paige Rogers had survived more exciting days dodging bullets to protect her country. Given a choice, she’d rather be battling assassins than collecting overdue fines. For that matter, running down terrorists had a lot more appeal than
running down lost books. Oh, the regrets of life—woven with guilt, get-over-its, and move-ons. But do-overs were impossible, and the adventures of her life were now shelved alphabetically under fiction.

Time to reel in my pitiful attitude and get to work. Paige stepped
onto her front porch with what she needed for a full workday
at the library. Already, perspiration dotted her face, a reminder
of the rising temperatures. Before locking the door behind her,
she scanned the front yard and surveyed the opposite side of
the dusty road, where chestnut-colored quarter horses grazed
on sparse grass. Torrid heat and no rain, as though she stood
on African soil. But here, nothing out of the ordinary drew her
attention. Just the way she liked it. Needed it.

Sliding into her sporty yet fuel-efficient car, she felt for the
Beretta Px4 under the seat. The past could rear its ugly head
without warning. Boy Scouts might be prepared; Girl Scouts
were trained. The radio blared out the twang of a guitar and the
misery of a man who’d lost his sweetheart to a rodeo star. Paige
laughed at the irony of it all.

She zipped down the road, her tires crunching the grasshoppers
that littered the way before her. In the rearview mirror,she saw birds perched on a barbed wire fence and a few defiant
wildflowers. They held on to their roots in the sun-baked dirt
the way she clutched hope. The radio continued to croon out
one tune after another all the way into the small town of Split
Creek, Oklahoma, ten klicks from nowhere.

After parking her car in the designated spot in front of the
library, Paige hoisted her tote bag onto her shoulder and grabbed
a book about Oklahoma history and another by C. S. Lewis.
The latter had kept her up all night, helping her make some
sense out of the sordid events of her past. She scraped the grasshoppers from her shoes and onto the curb. The pests were everywhere this time of year. Reminded her of a few gadflies she’d been forced to trust overseas. She’d swept the crusty hoppers off her porch at home and the entrance to the library as she’d done with the shadow makers of the past. But nothing could wipe the nightmares from her internal hard drive.

Her gaze swept the quiet business district with an awareness of
how life could change in the blink of an eye. A small land scaping
of yellow marigolds and sapphire petunias stretched toward the
sky in front of the newly renovated, one-hundred-year-old courthouse. Its high pillars supported a piece of local history . . . and the secrets of the best of families. Business owners unlocked their stores and exchanged morning greetings. Paige recognized most of the dated cars and dusty pickups, but a black Town Car with tinted glass and an Oklahoma license plate parked on the right side of the courthouse caught her attention.

Why would someone sporting a luxury car want to venture
into Split Creek, population 1,500? The lazy little town didn’t
offer much more than a few antique stores, a small library, a
beauty shop, Dixie’s Donuts, a Piggly Wiggly, four churches—
including one First Baptist and one South First Baptist, each at
opposite ends of town, one First Methodist, and a holiness tabernacle right beside Denim’s Restaurant. She wanted to believe it was an early visitor to the courthouse. Maybe someone lost. But those thoughts soon gave way to curiosity and a twist of suspicion.

With a smile intended to be more appealing than a Fourth
of July storefront, she crossed the street to subtly investigate the
out-of-place vehicle. Some habits never changed.

Junior Shafer, who owned and operated a nearby antique
store, stooped to arrange his outside treasures. Actually, Paige
rarely saw an antique on display, just junk and old Avon bottles.
“Mornin’, Mr. Shafer. Looks like another scorcher.”

“Mornin’. Yep, this heat keeps the customers away.” The balding
man slowly stood and massaged his back. “Maybe I’ll advertise
free air-conditioning and folks will stop in.”

“Whatever works.” She stole a quick glance at the Town Car and memorized the license plate number. No driver. “Looks like you have a visitor.” She pointed to the car.

Mr. Shafer narrowed his eyes and squinted. “Nah, that’s probably Eleanor’s son from Tulsa. He’s helping her paint the beauty shop. She said he had a new car. The boy must be doing fine in the insurance business.”

“Now that’s a good son.”

Mr. Shafer lifted his chin, then rubbed it. “Uh, you know, Paige . . . he ain’t married.”

“And I’m not looking.” She’d never be in the market for a
husband. Life had grown too complicated to consider such an
undertaking, even if it did sound enticing.

“A pretty little lady like you should be tending to babies, not books.”

“Ah, but books don’t grow up or talk back.” He shook his head and unlocked his store.

“I have a slice of peach pie for you.” Paige reached inside her
tote bag and carefully brought out a plastic container. “I baked
it around six this morning. It’s fresh.”

He turned back around. A slow grin spread from one generous ear to the other. “You’re right. You don’t need to go off and get married. I might not get my pies.” He did his familiar shoulder jig. “Thank you, sweet girl.” He reached for the pie with both hands as though it were the most precious thing he’d ever been offered.

The door squeaked open at Shear Perfection.

“Mornin’, Eleanor,” Mr. Shafer said. “I see your son’s car.
Glad he’s helping you with the paintin’.”

“That’s not my son’s.” Miss Eleanor crossed the street, shielding
her eyes from the steadily rising sun. “He isn’t coming till
the weekend.”

Paige’s nerve endings registered alert. “Won’t that be wonderful
for you?” She took another passing glance at the vehicle. “I
wonder who’s driving that fancy car? Too early for courthouse
business.”

“Somebody with money.” Mr. Shafer lifted the plastic lid off
the freshly baked pie and inhaled deeply. “Can’t wait till lunch.”

“Mercy, old man, you’re already rounder than my deardeparted
mama’s potbelly stove.” Eleanor’s blue hair sparkled in
the sunlight as though she’d added glitter to her hairspray.

“You’re just jealous. If you weren’t a diabetic, you’d be stealing
my pie. Paige here knows how to keep a man happy.”

One block down, a man carrying a camera emerged from between one of Mr. Shafer’s many antique competitors and the barbershop. He lifted it as if to snap a picture of the barbershop. Paige swung her attention back to her friends. He could be the real thing. She hoped so and forced down any precursors of fear.

“What’s he taking pictures of ?” Eleanor paused. “I’m going to ask.” Determination etched her wrinkled face. She squared her shoulders and marched toward the stranger as though she represented the whole town.

Good, Eleanor. I’ll head back and let you do the recon work.

Eleanor and the stranger stood too far away for Paige to read their lips, but at least while the two talked, the man couldn’t take pictures. A few moments later, the stranger laughed much too loud. Eleanor reached out and shook his hand, then walked back.

Paige focused on Mr. Shafer. She picked up a watering can
leaning precariously against a rotted-bottom chair. “Is this a new
addition?”

“Nah. It was inside. I just brought it out yesterday.”
From the corner of her eye, she saw the stranger stare at them.
Medium height. Narrow shoulders. Italian-cut clothes. Couldn’t
see the type of camera. The stranger walked their way, shoulders
arched and rigid. Unless he was a pro, she’d have him sized up in
thirty seconds, and then she’d go about her day—relieved.

Mr. Shafer lifted his gaze toward Eleanor. “Who’s your friend?”

“Jason Stevens, a photographer looking for some homespun
pictures about small towns in Oklahoma.”

The way he’s dressed? Paige’s heart pounded. She replaced the
watering can. “Did he say for what magazine?”

“Didn’t ask. Why don’t you? He wants to take a few shots of
us standing in front of our businesses.” Eleanor beckoned to
Stevens. “Come on over and meet my friends. Paige here wonders
what magazine you work for.”

The man continued to smile—perfect teeth, perfect smile.
“It’s for a newspaper, the Oklahoman.” He stuck out his hand.
“Mornin’, folks. I bet you’d like your picture in the magazine
insert.” His camera rested in the crook of his right hand, a new
Nikon with fast lenses, perhaps a D90 or D200. No dents or
sign of use. Who was this guy? He wasn’t any more a photographer
than Eleanor or Mr. Shafer.

Have you used that piece of equipment before today?

“Welcome to Split Creek,” Paige said. “I’ll pass on the picture,
though. I’m not photogenic, but you have a beautiful day to photograph our town.” She turned and started across the
street to the library.

“Of course you’re photogenic,” Eleanor called. “No one wants
to see a couple of old fuddy-duddies like us, but you’d make
front-page news.”

“You two are the center of attention. I’m the dull librarian.”
Paige continued to move rapidly across the street.

“Wait a minute,” Stevens said.

“Sorry. I need to open the library.”

“Come on back, sweet girl. There’s no one waiting to get in,”
Mr. Shafer said.

She lifted her hand and waved backward. Guilt nipped at
her heels for leaving them with Stevens, but she had more at
stake than they did. “See you two later. Nice meeting you, Mr.
Stevens.”

She unlocked the old building that had once been a bank but now served as the town library. It oozed with character—beige and black marble floors, rich oaken walls, tall ceilings with intricately carved stone, and a huge crystal chandelier the size
of a wagon wheel. The areas where tellers once met with customers now served as cozy reading nooks, and a huge, round, brass-trimmed vault—minus the door—held children’s books. The windows still even had a few iron bars. If only the town had high-speed Internet access. They’d been promised that modernization for months.

For a precious moment, she relaxed and breathed in the sights
and smells. Bless dear Andrew Carnegie for his vision to establish
public libraries. Because of his philanthropy, Paige had a
sanctuary. From the creaking sounds of antiquity to the timeworn
smell of books and yellowed magazines, she had quiet companions that took her to the edge of experience but not the horror of reality.

In a small converted kitchen behind a vaulted door in the rear corner, Paige placed a peanut butter, bacon, and mayo sandwich
in the fridge. Reaching down farther into her tote, she wrapped
her fingers around a package of Reese’s Pieces. Those she’d stash
in her desk drawer. The rest of the peach pie sat on the backseat
of her car. She’d retrieve it once Stevens moved down the street,
preferably out of town.

If he worked for Daniel Keary, her life was about to change—
and not for the better. She shook off the chills racing up her
arms. I can handle whatever it is. Snatching up her tote bag, she
closed the kitchen door behind her. With the election nearly
three months away, Stevens could be one of Keary’s men sent to
make sure she still understood her boundaries. Regret took a stab
at her heart, but there was nothing she could do about Keary’s
popularity. She’d tried and failed against a force too power ful for
her at the time. But her prayers for truth continued.

Her sensible shoes clicked against the floor en route to the
front window. Standing to the side, she peered out through the
blinds to the sun-laden street for a glimpse of Stevens. He continued to take pictures. Mr. Shafer would most likely give him a tour of the town, beginning with his store and the history of every item strewn across it. The so-called photographer from the Oklahoman entered the antique shop.

That’ll bore him to tears and chase him out of town.
Paige went through the morning ritual of checking the drop
box for returned books, of which there were six. She changed
the dates on the date-due stamps and stacked the books to be
shelved in her arms. The seasoned citizens of Split Creek representing the local book club would arrive any minute, as regular as their morning’s constitutional. For an hour and a half they’d discuss the merits of their current novel, everything from the characters to the plot. Today they couldn’t storm the shores of the library too soon for Paige.

As if on cue, Miss Alma bustled through the door—her purse slung loosely from her shoulder, her foil-wrapped banana nut
bread in one hand and two books in the other.

“Good morning, Miss Alma,” Paige said. “Do you need some
help?”

“No thanks. If I loosen my hold on one thing, everything else
will fall.”

A picture of PoliGrip hit Paige’s mind. “Well, you’re the first
today.”

Miss Betty sashayed in, a true Southern belle dressed in her
Sunday best, complete with a pillbox hat. “Miss Paige, may I
brew a pot of decaf coffee?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am. It’s waiting for you.” Oh, how she loved these
precious people.

Within moments the rest of Split Creek’s Senior Book Club
arrived. Paige waved at Reverend Bateson, and as usual, Miss
Eleanor and Mr. Shafer were bickering about something.

“At least we agree that Daniel Keary should be our next governor,”
Miss Eleanor said.

At the mention of that name, Paige thought she’d be physically
ill. Keary was running on an Independent ticket, and she
didn’t care if a Democrat or a Republican pulled in the votes.
Anyone but Keary.

“I have banana bread,” Miss Alma said. “But don’t be picking
up a book with crumbs on your fingers.”

“We know,” several echoed.

Paige appreciated the comic relief. The rest of the members
placed chairs in a circle beneath the massive chandelier while
Paige checked in their books.

The library door opened again, and Jason Stevens walked in
with his camera. The sight of him erased the pleasantries she’d
been enjoying with the book club members. He made his way
to the circulation desk and stood at the swinging door, trapping
her inside.

Hadn’t she just swept the bugs off the steps of the library?

“Since you won’t let me take your picture outside, I thought
I’d snap a few in here. Wow—” his gaze took in the expanse of
the building—“this was a bank.” His brilliant whites would have
melted most women’s resolve.

Paige approached the swinging door. “No pictures, please.
They always turn out looking really bad.”

“How about lunch?”

“Are you coming on to me?” Disgust curdled her insides.

He waved his free hand in front of his face. The man knew
just when to utilize a dimple on his left cheek. “I’m simply looking
for a story to go along with my photos. This library is charming,
fascinating, and so are you.”

Revulsion for the dimple-faced city boy had now moved into
the fast lane. “Miss Alma, I’ll help you arrange the chairs.”

“Nonsense.” Miss Alma shook her blue-gray head. “You help
this young man. Those old people can do something besides
stand around and complain about their gout and bursitis.”

Any other time, Paige would have laughed at the remark. But
not today.

“Looks like they have everything under control.” The low,
seductive tone of Stevens’s voice invited a slap in the face.

“I suggest you visit with a few other business owners for your
newspaper’s needs,” she said.

“I’m very disappointed.”

“You’ll get over it.”

“Can’t we talk?” He leaned over the swinging door.

“You can leave, or I can call the sheriff. Your choice.” She
picked up the phone on her desk and met his gaze with a stare
down.

“So much for sweet, small-town girls.” He tossed her his best
dejected look. Obviously he wasn’t accustomed to the word no.

Her reflexes remained catlike thanks to tai chi workouts still done at home behind drawn curtains. With minimal effort, she
could dislocate a shoulder or crash the kneecap of an opponent
twice her weight. Such skills were not a part of the job description
for most small-town USA librarians, but then again most
of them didn’t have a working knowledge of Korean, Angolan
Portuguese, Swahili, and Russian. The ability to decipher codes,
a mastery of disguise, and a knack for using a paper clip to open
locks . . . not to mention a past that needed to stay buried. She
had to resist the urge to toss Stevens out on his ear. Calm down.

“I’m sorry we don’t have the book you wanted. I’m sure one of
the branches in Oklahoma City can help you.”

A silent challenge crested in his gray eyes, and she met it with
her own defiance.

Stevens walked to the door and turned, carrying his camera
the way patrons carried books. “Know what? This town would
be a great place to hide out a CIA operative.”

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Journey to the Well - Chapter 1

Journey To The Well

Revell (March 1, 2009)


Chapter One




“Marah! Come at once!” the voice called sharply.

At the sound of her name she sighed heavily and paused from cleaning the ashes out of the clay oven. She sat back on the ground to relieve her sore knees. Hearing the happy chatter of small children playing in the dust of the street outside the gate, she listened wistfully and sighed. She was nearly thirteen, a woman now, too old for childish games.

Wiping her hands on her dark shawl, she rose slowly and stretched as she looked out over the village. The air seemed less heavy. The village dogs that lay panting in the sparse shade most of the day rose warily, seeking to quench their thirst in the water channels that cooled the street. While the surrounding valley of Shechem retained a verdant green, the town itself shimmered in the summer heat of Elul.

The time of noonday rest must be over. Marah heard voices and activity from the heart of Shechem. Picturing the streets as they came alive with shopkeepers opening their stalls for the afternoon trade, she smiled to herself as she allowed her imagination to take her through the marketplace. At each merchant’s shop brimming with goods, she browsed leisurely, ignoring the persuasive pleas of the vendors. She would take her time, choosing carefully the things she wanted to buy -

She glanced reluctantly towards the house but only for a moment. Did her aunt have still another task in mind? She lifted her chin and strolled towards the gate to watch the children play. It seemed an eternity since she had been free to be a child.

“Marah! Come at once,” the now angry voice called out again.

She had delayed too long. Lifting the heavy braids off her neck in an impatient gesture, Marah turned and walked slowly towards the house. A rivulet of perspiration ran down her back

Like other things around the house, the wooden door to their dwelling was in need of repair. It hung loosely on worn leather hinges. Marah moved it carefully as she slipped inside and stood quietly.

A narrow ray of sunshine spilled into the darkness and fell upon the rounded figure of a woman leaning back upon the cushions of the pallet. The petulant face was deeply creased

around the mouth from constant frowns and made the woman who was in her late twenties, appear much older.

“I am here,” Marah prompted softly.

Immediately the woman began to gasp, as if struggling to catch her breath. At the sign of such apparent distress, Marah moved closer and touched her Aunt Reba’s shoulder.

“Don’t touch me!” Reba roughly brushed the girl’s hand away. “I can’t bear to be touched when I am suffering.”

Marah quickly stepped back.

“Don’t stand there looking foolish. Have you never looked death in the face? Just bring me some cool water.” Reba moaned again.

Her aunt was not dying, Marah was sure, yet it frightened her to think it might be serious. Reba was all she had. Turning quickly to the water jar, Marah averted her eyes lest her aunt see the fear that sprang so quickly to the surface.

As she lifted the dipper, Marah was surprised to see the jar was nearly empty. It had been full this morning.

She handed the dipper to Reba who, with much effort, raised her bulk onto one elbow to drink a swallow or two.

“Aunt,” Marah began hesitantly, as the woman fell back among the cushions moaning pitifully, “the water jar is nearly empty.”

Reba moaned louder. “I feel feverish. You must go and get more water or I shall not last the night in this heat. Go to the Well of Jacob and fill the water jar before it grows later.”

Puzzled, Marah stared at her aunt. “The Well of Jacob? But Aunt, surely the village well is closer. I could go and be back quickly.”

“Did I say the village well? Don’t be a dull-witted girl. If I wanted the water from the

village well I would say so. Now go!”

Marah stiffened at the insult, but still she hesitated. Reba had become unusually strict in the last few days and had forbidden her to leave the house or speak to anyone.

As if reading her thoughts, Reba raised herself up again.

“You have not been out in the last few days. The walk will do you good. Take Hannah with you. You shouldn’t go alone.”

Still Marah lingered.

“Must you stand there wasting precious time? Go!” Reba waved her hands impatiently.

“Yes Aunt”. Marah’s voice was barely audible.

Reba covered her eyes with one hand and the other hand clutched her heart. “Go quickly,” she moaned.

“Will you be all right until I return? Perhaps Dorcas could stay with you?”

“Did I ask for Dorcas? I will just rest until you return. Now go!”

Puzzled and yet relieved to be free of the confinement of the small house for a little while, Marah adjusted her shawl to cover her hair, lifted the water jar to her shoulder and moved gracefully towards the door. Her body, curving into womanhood, filled out the simple garment she wore. Even in her youth she was already tall as were most of the women of Samaria.

Marah looked back for a moment at the woman on the pallet. There was something…but perhaps she only imagined it. She hurried from the house and quickened her step. It would be good to talk to Hannah today.

At twenty-three, Hannah became a surrogate mother when Marah’s mother died three years before. When two years later, Marah’s father also died, leaving her in the care of her aunt, Hannah’s warmth made her life less lonely.

Her father, Jared, grieved for his wife, and feeling his young daughter needed care, had

sent for Reba, his only sister, to come to Shechem and care for their household. How could they have foreseen the change her aunt would bring to their lives? Reba’s small darting eyes had never missed an opportunity to point out a fault.

As Marah neared the house of Hannah and her husband, Simon, her friend stepped out of her doorway.

“So, you finally come to see me, and with your water jar? I have missed you these past few days.”

Marah shrugged slightly. “Reba wouldn’t let me leave the house.”

Hannah’s warm brown eyes highlighted a plain square face. A gentle smile made her appear almost pretty.

“Is the time of women upon you again, child?”

“No, I’m fine” She looked at Hannah eagerly, “Reba said you could go with me to get water. It is cooler now. Can you go?” She looked hopefully at her friend and waited.

“Could I refuse you any request?”

Hannah turned back into the house and reached for her own water jar.

Suddenly, Marah hesitated. “Reba is feverish but has told me to go to the well of our Father Jacob for the water. I am not to go alone.”

“Jacob’s Well?”
With her hand paused in mid-air, Hannah turned and looked closely at Marah, then snorted, “If I should live to see a hundred harvests, God willing, I shall never understand your aunt.”

Hannah reached again for her water jar. “Of course I will come. Your aunt is right. You shouldn’t walk so far from the village alone.”

Marah waited impatiently, anxious to be away lest Reba change her mind and fetch her

back to the confines of the house.

She thought of the many springs that flowed nearby that fed the village well. Why would Reba ask her to go all the way to Jacob’s well when she felt feverish?

Hannah interrupted as though reading her thoughts. “If Reba feels the water from the

well of our Father Jacob will make her feel better, let us go quickly,” she said with resignation.

Hannah cared little for Marah’s aunt.

“You do all the work of the household while Reba spends her time in idle pursuits and

walking through the street of the merchants,” Hannah said more than once. “She takes advantage of you. And all those aches and pains are in her head!”

“She gives me a home” Marah replied once.

“A home?” Hannah snorted. “And what home have you got, Reba’s? It belongs to a distant kinsman. It should have been yours. You are the only child.”

Marah sighed. It was difficult to defend her aunt to Hannah.

“The Leverite law requires you to keep your land within the tribe, yet Reba claims there was not a kinsman redeemer to be found who could marry you,” Hannah had stated flatly. “And what will be your dowry when you do marry? How will you live when the money from the sale of the house and land is gone?”

Shaking her head with righteous indignation, Hannah looked out at the street leading to Marah’s home and folded her arms. “She brings more sorrow to the house. Have you not borne enough with the death of your parents and then to be saddled with that woman?”

Marah kept silent.

“A selfish woman, that Reba.” Hannah rolled her eyes at the ceiling. “Who knows what she will do.”

“I will be all right.” Marah affirmed gently, smiling back at Hannah with trust in her eyes. She understood Hannah’s desire to protect her, for despite prayers and hopes, Hannah’s marriage to Simon had not produced any children. Hannah poured all the mother love of her nature into Marah as if she were her own.

They walked quietly for a time, their sandals making a soft slap, slapping sound in the dust of the road.

“So what is Reba’s ailment this time?” Hannah ventured.

“She gripped her heart and said she was feverish.” Marah’s winged brows knitted together as she recalled the strange confrontation with her aunt.

“Did you not get water this morning?”

“Reba was to go. I have been forbidden to leave the house.”

“For what reason?”

“I’m not sure. Reba has been acting rather strangely lately, perhaps because she hasn’t felt well. I was cleaning the ashes out of the oven and she called me in to send me to Jacob’s Well. Does the well have medicinal properties?”

“Not that I know of, child.” Hannah chewed on her lower lip. She seemed about to say something and then thought better of it. She glanced furtively at Marah from time to time and

then sighed heavily, pursing her lips as they continued in silence. Each was occupied with their own thoughts.
As she and Hannah neared the town gate, some of the village women stopped to watch them pass. They regarded Marah and spoke among themselves.

She decided not to pay attention, listening instead to the barking of the village dogs and soft twitter of the Bulbul birds. In the distance she could hear the chirp of tree crickets. As they began the mile and a half walk to the well, Marah felt a sense of adventure. She had never been to Jacob’s Well before.

Away from the town they enjoyed the cooler air that began to blow down the vale of Shechem.

“Perhaps someone should have stayed with Reba while I was gone,” Marah murmured. “This pain seemed to come upon her so suddenly. It was different. Perhaps she shouldn’t have been left alone. I offered to get Dorcas, but she didn’t want her.”

Hannah glanced quickly at Marah.

“She will be all right, child. We will be back soon with the water she desires. It will

make her feel better.”

Marah nodded, reassured by Hannah’s confident tone.

“I try hard to do as my aunt asks,” Marah said aloud, “but there seems to be no pleasing Reba. Perhaps she will be in a better mood when we return.”

As they walked along in companionable silence for a while, Marah’s thoughts tumbled over one another.

“Hannah. How did you feel when you were to marry Simon?”

“So it is marriage that occupies your mind these days!” The tone was teasing.

Marah blushed. “Well, yes and no. I mean, I merely wondered. I know that one day I shall be a bride. At least I hope I shall,” her words trailed off and she looked beseechingly at

her friend.

Hannah paused, studying Marah’s face for a moment, “It is in the hands of God…”

Marah looked up at Mt. Ebal. The hands of God. Were they like her father Jared’s hands, gentle and loving, yet firm when she misbehaved? Her father had always said, “Doesn’t the God of all the earth know His way?” What was God’s way for her?

She thought of the dream that came to her from time to time. A man, a stranger, reaching out to her. He wanted something and when she tried to get closer he disappeared. Her grandmother had believed in dreams and visions. What did it all mean?

She shook her head. I am only a maiden. Why would the God of all the heavens be concerned with me?

Blinking, Marah looked back at Hannah who was still speaking.

“…If your family has chosen well for you, a marriage can be a good thing. Simon has been a kind and good husband”. Hannah looked off in the distance, musing. “I was fortunate.

As the youngest of three daughters from a poor household and plain; I was almost fourteen when

my marriage to Simon was arranged.”

“At least you were not a maiden forever!” Marah immediately regretted her words. Only one misfortune was worse than being an unmarried maiden. She knew how much Hannah wanted a child. To be barren was a disgrace. God had closed Hannah’s womb and she sadly bore the stigma of it. Marah looked quickly at Hannah but her friend did not seem to be offended. Relieved, she fell silent again and then a possibility entered her mind.

“Do you think that Reba will arrange a marriage for me?” She hung her head. “We

have very little money.”

Hannah hesitated. “How much do you understand of the sale of the property to that distant kinsman?”

“I know it mustn’t pass out of the tribe of my father. That is the law. Reba said that

out of respect for Jared, the kinsman allows us to remain in the house for a small rent. He was very old and married. As my father’s sister, Reba has no inheritance. Reba had to act

quickly and said I must trust her to do what is right.”

Marah paused to see Hannah shaking her head in unbelief.

“That is like trusting a wild dog with a chicken!” Hannah muttered half aloud.

“Reba would do the right thing for us, wouldn’t she?”

Hannah sighed and continued walking. “Yes, child, I am sure she will do the right thing.

And she will arrange a marriage for you one day. She is your family now that your father is gone.”

Though Hannah’s tone did not have a very positive note, Marah was comforted because

Hannah said the words. Hannah would know.

At the mention of her father, tears came to Marah’s eyes. It had been over a year, and she still missed him terribly, longing to hear his booming laugh and feel his gentle touch.

She looked away towards the fields for a moment, imagining his tall figure striding towards her. He would scoop her up in his strong arms and carry her home when she was small. She remembered candlelit evenings sitting at her father’s feet while he repaired a tool or carved something out of wood.

Then Reba came, with her complaints.

“Jared, when will you fix the roof? Don’t you care if I catch my death of cold?”

“The roof is fine, Reba. I repaired it only last month.”

“Jared, do you not care that I struggle to keep up this house? Marah needs to help me more.”

“She does most of the work as it is, Reba. Aieee, she is only a child yet!”

“She needs to learn her duties.” Reba said sternly, her lips pinched tight and arms folded over her considerable chest.

Marah’s father was no match for her.

He worked his fields and patiently endured Reba’s tirades. Marah recalled that he frequented one of the inns more often as the months went by. Then, two years after Reba had come to live in their home, Jared was found dead in the fields. His great heart had given out. Some men from the village gently carried him home. In her grief, Marah had turned to her aunt for comfort. It was a mistake, for Reba had no comfort to give.

“Now which of the young men in Shechem will you have for your husband?” Hannah

asked, breaking her reverie. Then, seeing the wistfulness in the girl’s face she added with a twinkle, “I’m sure there shall be someone, a handsome young man. Probably there shall be a rich merchant passing through who cannot live without you.”

Alarmed, Marah looked at her friend. “I would not wish to leave Shechem. I pray my husband shall be from our own town!”

“Most surely, child, he will be. Perhaps the son of the Shammash?”

Marah’s eyes grew wide for a moment and then they both laughed. The Shammash, who

assisted the High Priest, was a strong influence in the community, but his son was an empty-headed young man.

“Perhaps a shepherd?” Hannah murmured with a knowing glance at her companion.

Marah blushed and made a face. She turned and breathed deeply of the smells of the rich earth stirred by a welcome breeze.

Jesse. When had she not known him? When had that moment come between them when the friendship of children had slipped into the shadows? When had they become aware

of one another in a way that had suddenly made her shy and him protective? Each day when she took their few sheep to him for watching they talked shyly, prolonging the time together. One day soon, Jesse would speak to his father.

As Marah pictured Jesse’s father speaking to Reba, warmth spread through her heart

and an unconscious sigh escaped her lips. She looked quickly at Hannah, but her friend was looking ahead, a slight smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.

“I shall probably not marry for years!” Marah cried defensively, lifting her chin. Then they both laughed again at the improbability.

The two women didn’t hurry, but walked with purpose.

Marah looked over the dry fields and saw the date palms burdened with ripe fruit. As they passed through the narrow valley, she listened to the birds that perched in the groves of

olive trees. It was nice to be carefree, even for a little while.

At the point where the road climbed slightly, they paused to rest and savor the view of the Vale of Shechem. With the valley curving behind the mountains, the walls of Shechem were hidden from view. The mountains seemed to give the valley strength, forming a barrier that protected the valley from the cold winds of the North and the hot winds from the South. The waters that sustained the valley poured forth in a benevolent flow from the side of the holy mountain, Gerizim, bringing moisture and balancing the dry air of Palestine.

Marah breathed deeply again, savoring the breeze at this peaceful time of the day. Ahead she saw the well of their ancestor, Jacob, whose men had dug the well to water his flocks and herds. It stood on a windswept hill that formed the crossroads for foot travelers and caravans passing through Samaria from other lands.

Many villagers still liked to come to Jacob’s Well to enjoy the walk and the cooler air that blew down the vale in late afternoon. It was a well of tradition more than convenience. Both a cistern and a spring, it was fed by surface water as well as an underground stream.

The well measured seven spans of a man’s hand across. Over the years, the ropes used to

raise the water pots from the well had etched deep grooves into the stones forming its rim.

As Marah and Hannah approached the well, they saw three women laughing and talking together. The latest gossip, no doubt.

The women stopped talking and looked up as the newcomers drew near. After showing Marah the ropes to lower her water jar, Hannah exchanged a few words with one of the other women.

Occupied with filling her vessel, Marah paid little attention, knowing that Hannah would share any interesting news.

When she had carefully drawn up the full jar, Marah turned to call to Hannah. The teasing words caught in Marah’s throat as she beheld the startled look on Hannah’s face.

”Hannah, what is wrong? What has happened?”

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Passion of Mary Margaret - Chapter 1

The Passion of Mary Margaret

Thomas Nelson (March 10, 2009)


Chapter 1


MY SISTERS, IF I BEGAN THIS TALE AT THE END, you would know my heart is full of love even though nothing went as planned. I could tell you God's ways are not ours, but you probably know that already. And I could tell you that his mercy takes shape in forms we cannot begin to imagine, but unless you walked in my shoes for the past seventy years, you could not feel the mercy I have been given. The mercy God gives us is our own to receive, and while sometimes it overlaps with others' like the
gentle waves of the bay on the banks of which I now sit, for the most part, the sum and substance of it, the combination of graces, is as unique as we are.

So I will begin this tale at the beginning, on the night my mother conceived me in a moment of evil, a moment not remotely in the will of God, although some might beg to differ on that particular point of theology. It's their right and I don't possess the doctrinal ardor to argue such things anymore. So be it. What you think or what I think on the matter doesn't necessarily make it true. God is as he is and our thoughts do not change him one way or the other. If you've an ounce of intellect,
you'Il take as much comfort in that as I do.

My mother, Mary Margaret the First, as my grandmother called her, began cradling my life inside of her when a young seminarian took her against her will by the walls of Fort McHenry. Most evenings after teaching second grade in South Baltimore, she walked up Fort Avenue to the five-pointed star-shaped fort from which the Battle of Baltimore was fought in 1814, rockets red glare, bombs bursting in air, and so forth; and those British frigates sailed up the Patapsco River with Francis Scott Key on deck, penning what would become our national anthem.

The seminarian knew about what my Aunt Elfi called my mother's "evening constitutional" and sometimes he would join her in the gaslit, city twilight, hands clasped behind his back-at least I picture him that way-bent a bit forward at the waist and listening to her talk about her students perhaps, maybe the other religious sisters, for she had just taken her final vows as a School Sister of Notre Dame. Perhaps she talked about her pupils' parents, or how she enjoyed listening to the radio shows in the evenings in the cramped apartment she shared with her friend, fellow sister, and coteacher Loreto; how their school had been seeking ways to provide at least one good meal to the children a day, considering how many of their parents were out of a job after the crash on Wall Street.

I don't know what my father must have said in return, but I've always wondered. She must have been caught by surprise, surely, because Grandmom said my mother was sharp and quite a good reader of people. He must have fooled her somehow. Grandmom said he was the seminarian at nearby Holy Cross Church. Perhaps he'd even heard her confessions. Not that they'd have been shocking. Grandmom said my mother didn't give her much trouble.

Perhaps as they walked, the sun slanted its rays against the faces of the buildings, turning the stones and bricks from gold to crimson, the sky blazing with magenta and violet as though sheer scarves were waving behind the clouds. Maybe the cobalt night
soaked into their clothing during the chill months, deepening the black of their coats, drawing the color out of their scarves and the character out of their features until they happened by a lamplight.

One evening something evil entered into him and he entered into her and I resulted. Did Grandmom tell me? If so, she certainly didn't employ that terminology. My age necessitated more delicate, obscure phrasing, perhaps something about the things only husbands and wives should do being forced on someone else. I can't recall exactly when I found out, but it feels like something I've always known and preternaturally understood. I might have overheard a conversation. I don't know. That
my mother was a religious sister in an unwanted pregnancl threw fate completely out of balance. When I was thirteen, I figured I could put things aright somehow, maybe justify my existence by picking up the torch my own birth snuffed out.

It's bad enough to be born from the sin of two consenting adults. But I resulted from rage and control, from one person overpowering another in the assumption his right to take was more important than her right to give. That takes "man meaning
it for evil but God meaning it for good" a giant step further. Yet blaming God for the lies of an Egyptian nobleman's wife who didn't succeed in getting Joseph to succumb to her hardly subtle sexual requests and that wine steward's selfish forgetfulness is somewhat different than giving him wholesale credit for rape. You have to draw the line somewhere or pretty soon Ted Bundy truly couldn't help himself and that terrorist they're talking about these days, Osama Bin Something or Other, really is on a holy mission, and who knows where that will end up? That sort of theology shouldn't sit well with anybody, whether you're from Geneva or Rome, so perhaps I have more doctrinal ardor than I realized ten minutes ago! Goodness me. I
suppose I've grown slightly opinionated now that I've entered my eighth decade. So sisters, forgive an old woman a little rambling at times. Not that seventy is that old, mind you. Indeed not.

My mother came home to Locust Island to grow a healthy baby inside of her as she strolled by the shore and prayed in the chapel here at St. Mary's, feeling at home among the sisters. My grandmother's house was just down the street from the school.
She prayed hours and hours on a kneeler, spending more time on her knees than at home. Aunt Elfi most likely joined her frequently because Aunt Elfi knew being present was the first way of helping anyone.

Grandmom said my mother would sit on Bethlehem Point every evening and stare out over the waters of the Chesapeake, her gaze pinned to the spider-legged lighthouse out on the shoals. And she'd cry. Grandmom didn't ask her to expound or emote. Grandmom was second-generation German. The chill had yet to dissipate completely.

I imagine Mary Margaret the First took hope in that whirlinglight of the lighthouse out on the shoals, as I always have. It makes me think that somehow there's somebody capable of warning you of danger, and if you fi.nd yourself in it, that person will climb into a lifeboat and come to get you. It's difficult to take your eyes off the piercing white beam when you sit here on a dark night.

We all want to be rescued and we'll look in the craziest places for that rescuer, won't we? We all want to be found.

Mary Margaret the First sat beneath the same tree under which I'm sitting now. It's one of the reasons I always end up here. The way the tangled roots protrude from the ground perfectly cradles my lawn chair, and on afternoons in late July or August, the canopy of leaves stifles some of the sun's heat. Only when my mother sat here, it was young, a tree with more hope than wisdom.

Conceived in sin, birthed in sorrow, I entered the world in a flow of blood that failed to cease once I had been released into my grandmother's hands. After fifteen minutes or so, Grandmom knew the bleeding wouldn't stop on its own; my mother was dying. Aunt Elfi fetched Doctor Spanyer, who said with an aching stutter that by the time they'd deliver my mother to the h-h-hospital, having to procure a boat to the mainland and then ride two hours to Salisbury, she'd be d-d-dead. The poor doctor died a year later on the way to the very place my mother couldn't go, his wife refusing to believe he'd bleed out when his son Marlow ran over his foot with the lawn mower. He did. She moved away after the funeral.

The inhabitants of Locust Island formed a hardy, scrabbly sort of people back then because every person knew in their core that if something traumatic happened physically, the nearest hospital more than two hours away, there was nothing to be done but die. And if death was the only outcome, well, the sooner the better and heaven above let it be something massive ans quick: a fall from a roof onto your head, a fatal heart attack or a stroke, a smash on the skull with a sledgehammer. A lawnmower accident. Postpartum uterine hemorrhaging.

Aunt Elfi then slipped out into the rain and fetched Father Thomas, our parish priest. Tears in his eyes, for he was my mother's confessor, he anointed my mother's forehead, eyes, ears, nostrils, lips, hands, and feet and prayed the prayer of extreme unction, the first prayers my new ears ever heard. Aunt Elfi said he then picked me up and said, "The final puzzle piece in Mary Margaret's redemption."

I still don't know what that means. I can't say my life is completely explainable, that I don't have a lot of questions. God willing, the answers will be unearthed before I die.

My grandmother named me Mary-Margaret the moment my mother passed away. I've always liked the hyphen she gave, as if somehow it serves as a bridge between my mother and me, a gentle, silent "and so on and so forth." And it is my own hyphen.

Had my mother lived, I most likely would not be writing in this notebook. She planned on giving me up for adoption, wanting me to have both a mother and a father, and returning to her order, teaching, most likely farther away, leaving the entire
ordeal behind her. And I wouldn't have blamed her. Of course Grandmom said she always planned to raise me there in the little apartment with one couch and too many straight chairs; that she would never have let me go to another family when ours was well and good and fuily capable of raising a child. And I can only believe her as she never did pass me on to anybody else.

The main players in this morality tale have passed on: Jude, my mother, Grandmom and Aunt Elfi, Brister, Petra, Mr. Keller, and even LaBella. Except for John, Gerald, and Hattie, and myself. Actually, if you're reading this, I am dead too. I
assume the raping seminarian passed away as well. I never knew what happened to him. Who among us would have the spirit to embark on such a search? I don't even know his name, if anyone discovered his crime, or if he slunk away into the arms of the Church.

And did he take refuge in the arms of Christ? Did he seek forgiveness? Did he, perhaps, turn into something more?

See? Questions. Never to be answered. Most likely I've waited too long. He'd be long in his grave by now. I'm old!

Well, my Aunt Elfi said my mother's soul passed into me as lightning trilled the air around us. Grandmom said she was crazy, we were all Catholic, we didn't believe in that sort of thing; surely the soul entered the baby well before she was born and would she please be quiet and help her wash her only daughter's body and clean up the blood?

The blood she gave for me. Yes, I'm painfully aware of the symbolism.

Aunt Elfi would have carefully rolled up her sleeves, donned an apron, and pulled back her long, white hair. She would have lovingly dabbed each rose-bloom of blood away' leaving a comet of iron-red across my mother's thighs as she wiped her clean'
Aunt Elfi moved in a gentle, Patting way, her voice never much above a whisper.

My mother, by the way' was the product of an indiscretion between my twenty-eight-yet-still-unmarried grandmother and an island tourist from Belgium. Though completely out of character for my thick-jawed grandmother, even less understandable
was that he found her horsey, Germanic face attractive. So sex seemed to be something unredeemed in and of itself in my famrly of females, but somehow taken up and looped around the fingers of the Almighty and put to rights in the aftermath'

Well, Aunt Elfi never misbehaved like her sister' but it only took one look at her to realize someone scrambled her brain with a fork before it was fully cooked.

Later on that September afternoon in 1930, the sky clear and the orange sun gilding the fallen rain' men and women walked home from the dock, from their fishing boats or the seafood cannery at the western edge of our island. Cans and cans of oysters were shipped out from Locust Island every day. Abbey Oysters. The company used a monk as the logo even though many of the islanders were Methodists. As you can imagine, Friday was the best day for sales, a fact that did not escape even the most Methodist of Methodists. Sometimes I walked by the cement block building and looked through the grimy window' watching as the shuckers' hands darted like minnows extracting the smooth, precious meat from the rough, prehistoric exterior. Rounding the corner, the pile of shells grew with each day, only to be carted away and ground into lime.

Those men and women passed by, oblivious to the tragedy as they scuffled down Main Street in front of our building. They didn't know the bell from St. Mary's Convent School that called the girls to dinner served as a death knell for Sister Mary
Margaret Fischer as well as a ringing in of a new life, proof, some wise person once said, that God desires the human race to continue. They figured another day had passed, much like the one before and the one before that, back to the day one of their parents or siblings or children passed away or someone was born into this world. We always remember days when something begins or ends.

And as those two women washed the bloody legs and the pale, fragile arms of my mother-pictures of her display lovely, wavy, dark hair and dark eyes-I lay bundled on the bed, looking up at the ceiling. That's what Aunt Elfi told me. I didn't cry
until Father Thomas returned to comfort us in our sorrow and he gathered me into his fragile arms, crying with me. He was a tender sort until the day he passed away.

I was two days old when Father Thomas, the older members of our parish, and our family, consisting of my grandmother, my aunt, and myself, committed my mother to the earth at St. Francis Church's graveyard. Afterward, they walked right inside
the church, stood by the simple, stone baptismal font, and I was baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Sister Thaddeus, whom I'll tell you more about later, an older schoolgirl at the time, said she watched from the shadows, listening to the Holy Spirit telling her to pray for me every day. And she did.

Afterward, Aunt Elfi brought me to Bethlehem Point, this very piece of land on which I now sit, beneath the same tree, and she held me as the sun went down for good over my mother. She walked back home with me in her arms, fed me a bottle, and laid
me in my bassinette, where I slept through the night. Exhausted, they both deserved that little ray of grace. I never gave them any trouble either.