Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Lightkeeper's Bride - Chapter 1

The Lightkeeper's Bride
Thomas Nelson (October 19, 2010)
by
Colleen Coble



Chapter 1


The lapel watch on her blouse read half past nine when Katie Russell removed the skates from her boots and dropped them inside the door of the Mercy Falls Telephone Company. She pulled the pins from her Merry Widow hat, then hung it on a rack. Smoothing the sides of her pompadour, she approached the switchboard in the room down the hall. “Has it been busy?” she asked the woman in front of the dangling cords.

Nell Bartlett sat with her stocking feet propped on the railing of the table that supported the switchboard. Her color was high and her voice clear and energetic as she answered a question then disconnected the line. A faint line of discontent lingered between her brows as she eyed Katie. “It’s your shift already?”

Nell was unmarried and still lived with her ailing mother, though she was thirty-five. On the street she dropped her gaze and barely whispered a hello, but in front of the switchboard she came alive. Whenever she entered the office, she removed her hat, let down her hair, and took off her shoes.

“It is indeed,” Katie said, approaching the switchboard. “Has it been busy?”

“Not too bad. I only received three calls last night.” Nell’s tone indicated her displeasure. “But the rings have increased quite nicely this morning.” She rose and stepped away from the seat in front of the switchboard but kept one hand on the top with a proprietary air.

Katie settled herself in the chair and donned the headset. Nell slipped her shoes back on, wound her hair into a bun, then put on her hat. Out of the corner of her eye, Katie watched her scurry from the room, her mousy identity back in place.

Katie peered at the switchboard then forced herself to put on her hated glasses. She nearly groaned when the light came on at her own residence. She plugged in the cord and toggled the switch. “Good morning, Mama.”

Her mother’s voice was full of reproach. “Katie, you left before I could tell you that Mr. Foster called last night while you were out gallivanting at the skating rink.”

Katie bit back the defense that sprang to her lips and kept the excitement from her voice. “What did he say?”

“He asked to speak with your father and they went to the library.”

Such behavior could only mean one thing. Heat flooded Katie’s face. “He asked Papa if he could court me?”

“He did indeed! Now you mind my words, Katie. You could not make a better match than this. You need to quit that ridiculous job and focus on building your social ties.”

Katie opened her mouth then shut it again. Another light flashed on her switchboard. “I must go, Mama. I have another call.” She unplugged the cord over her mother’s objection. Her parents didn’t understand how important this job was to her. She thrust the cord into the receptor. “Operator,” she said.

“Fire! There’s a fire,” the man on the other end gasped.

Katie glanced more closely at the board, and her muscles clenched. The orphanage. “I’ll call the fire department, Mr. Gleason. Get the children out!” She unplugged and rang the fire station with trembling hands. “Fire at the orphanage, hurry!” She rushed to the window and looked out to see smoke billowing from the three-story brick building down the street. People were running toward the conflagration. She wished she could help too, but she turned back to the switchboard as it lit up with several lights. Moments later she heard the shriek of the fire truck as it careened past.

She answered the calls one by one, but most were people checking to make sure she knew about the fire. The afternoon sped by. She relayed a message out to the North house and managed to chat a few moments with her best friend, Addie North. One call was Mrs. Winston asking the time, and Katie realized it was after one o’clock. At the next lull, she removed the waxed paper from her sandwich and munched it while she watched the board.

The light for Foster’s Sawmill came on. She plugged in. “Operator.”

Bart Foster’s deep voice filled her ears. “I’d recognize that voice anywhere.”

Katie pressed the palm of her hand to her chest where her heart galloped. “Mr. Foster, I’m sorry I missed your call last night.”

“I had a most rewarding chat with your father,” he said, a smile in his voice. “Did he tell you?”

Her pulse thundered in her ears. “He did not.”

“Excellent. I wish to tell you of our conversation myself. Might I call tonight?”

“Of course.” She wasn’t often so tongue-tied. All her dreams of respectability lay within her grasp. From the corner of her eye, she saw her boss step into the small room. “I won’t be home until after seven. Will that be too late?”

“Of course not. I shall call at seven-thirty.”

“I look forward to it. Did you wish to place a call?”

“Someone must be there since you are not quite yourself.” The amusement in his voice deepened. “Connect me with your father’s haberdashery, please. I’ll see you tonight.”

“Of course.” She connected the cord to the shop then turned to face Mr. Daniels.

“I just stopped by to commend you on the way you handled the fire call, Miss Russell. You kept your head about you in a most admirable fashion.”

She stood to face him. “The children? Are they all out safely?”

He nodded. “I just came from the site. The building is a total loss, but everyone is safe, thanks to your quick call to the fire department that I was told about. Well done. I’d like you to consider more hours. You’re the best operator I have. People like you, and you’re most efficient.”

She couldn’t stop the smile that sprang to her lips. “Thank you, sir. I’m honored. I love my job.”

“Then you’ll increase your hours? I’d like you to work six days a week.”

She realized the plum that had been thrown into her lap. These were tough times, and jobs for women were scarce. But her parents—especially in light of Bart’s courting—would be less than pleased.

“Katie?”

“I would like nothing better, Mr. Daniels, but I fear I’m going to have to cut my hours instead. Nell will be delighted with the extra work.”


Will Jesperson brushed off his hands and surveyed the gleaming glass on the Fresnel lens in the light tower. Whether he’d done it properly was up for debate, but he liked the way the sun glinted through the lens and lit the floor of the tower. His eyes moved outside again. He’d found it hard to keep working when he would rather study the clouds and the waves from this vantage point.

Beautiful place, this rocky northern California shoreline. He still couldn’t believe he had landed such a perfect job. Instead of pursuing his hobby once a week, he could do it every day. There were weather balloons in the shed just waiting to be used. He eyed the rolling clouds overhead and held up a finger. The wind was coming from the north. Was that common here? He’d have the time and equipment to find out.

He stepped outside and leaned against the railing. The beauty of the rolling sea transfixed him. Whitecaps boiled on the rocks poking up from the water at the mouth of the bay. Seeing them reminded him of his grave duties here: to save lives and warn ships of the dangers lurking just below the surface of the sea. Squaring his shoulders, he told himself he would keep the light shining bright—both here at the lighthouse and in his personal life. God had blessed him with this position, and he would do his best to honor him with his work.

He removed his pocket watch, glanced at the time, and then stared back out to sea when he heard a man yell. Were those shouts of alarm? Through the binoculars he saw a ship moving past the bay’s opening. A puff of smoke came from a smaller boat trailing it—gunfire? The small craft caught up to the ship, and several men clambered up the mast.

Pirates. Will pressed against the railing and strained to see when he heard more shots across the water. Additional men poured onto the ship and were already turning it back toward the open ocean. He had to do something. Turning on his heel, he rushed toward the spiral staircase. The metal shook and clanged under his feet as he raced down the steps. He leaped out the door and ran down the hillside to the dinghy beached on the sand. The pirates shoved men overboard, and he heard cries of pain. He clenched empty fists. No weapon. Still, he might be able to save some of the men thrown overboard. Shoving into the water, he put his back into rowing, but the tide was coming in and the waves fought him at every stroke.

He paused to get his bearings and realized the ship was moving away. The smaller boat, attached by a rope, bobbed after it. Something whizzed by his head and he ducked instinctively. A hole appeared in the side of the boat behind him. The pirates were firing on him. His hands dropped from the oars when he saw several bodies bobbing in the whitecaps. Men were already drowned.

The wind billowed the sails and he knew he had no chance of intercepting the ship. But he could save the men that he could reach then inform the authorities of what he’d seen. He grasped the oars and rowed for all he was worth.

###


At 3:03 a light came on and Katie answered. “Number, please.” The caller, a man whose voice she didn’t recognize, sounded breathless.

“Is this the operator?”

She detected agitation in his tone. “It is. Is something wrong?”

“Pirates,” he said in a clipped voice. “Just off the lighthouse. They shot some sailors and dumped others overboard.”

She sprang to her feet. “I’ll contact the constable. Do you need further assistance?”

“I need a doctor at the lighthouse. I’ve got two injured men. The rest are—dead. I couldn’t get their bodies into the boat, but they’re washing up onshore now.” His taut voice broke. “I had to leave the men on the shore to get to a phone, but I’m heading back there now. Tell the doctor to hurry.”

“Right away,” she promised. She disconnected the call and rang the doctor first. Saving life was paramount. The constable would be too late to do much about the pirates. With both calls dispatched, she forced herself to sit back down, though her muscles twitched with the need for activity. She reminded herself she’d done all she could.

The switchboard lit again. “Operator,” she said, eyeing the light. The call originated from the bank.

“R-10, please.”

She plugged in the other end of the cord to ring the Cook residence. Instead, she heard Eliza Bulmer pick up the phone on the other end. “I’m sorry, Eliza, we seem to have a switched link somewhere. Would you hang on until I can get through to the Cooks?” Katie asked.

“Of course, honey,” Eliza said. “I just picked up my wedding dress, and I’m trying it on. So if I don’t say much, you’ll know why.”

“You’re getting married? I hadn’t heard. Congratulations.”

“Thank you.” Eliza’s voice held a lit.

“Just leave the earpiece dangling, if you please.”

“I can do that.”

There was a thunk in Katie’s ear, and she knew Eliza had dropped the earpiece. Katie waited to see if the ring would be answered at the Cook residence but there was only a long pause. “There’s no answer, Eliza. You can hang up,” she said.

The other woman did not reply. If the phone were left off the hook, it would go dead. Katie started to raise her voice, but she heard a man’s voice.

“You said you had something to tell me. What is it? I need to get home.”

The voice was familiar, but Katie couldn’t quite place it. It was too muffled.

“Honey, thank you for coming so quickly,” Eliza said.

Though Eliza’s voice was faint, Katie thought she detected a tremble in it. This is none of my business she thought. I should hang up But she held her breath and listened anyway.

“Would you like tea?” Eliza asked.

“No, Eliza, I don’t want tea. What are you doing in that getup? I want to know what was so all-fired important that you called me at work—something I’ve expressly forbidden you to do.”

Katie’s stomach lurched as she tried to place the voice. Identification hovered at the edge of her mind. Who is that?

“Very well. I shall just blurt it out then. I’m out of money and I must have some to care for my daughter. I need money today or . . .”

“I won’t be blackmailed,” the man snapped.

A wave of heat swept Katie’s face. She heard a door slam, then weeping from Eliza. She wanted to comfort the sobbing young woman. Numb, Katie sat listening to the sobs on the line.

The door slammed again. “Who’s there?” Eliza asked in a quavering voice. She gasped, then uttered a noise between a squeak and a cry.

Katie heard a thud, and then the door slammed again. “Eliza?” she whispered. A hiss, like air escaping from a tire, came to her ears. “Are you all right?”

Only silence answered her.

She jerked the cord from the switchboard and broke the connection. Unease twisted her belly. She’d already dispatched the constable to the lighthouse. But what if Eliza was in trouble? Her fingers trembled so much she had trouble slipping the jack back into the switchboard. She muffled her mouthpiece with her hand and asked Nell to come back early. She had to make sure Eliza was all right.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Silent Order - Chapter 1

The Silent Order
Summerside Press (November 1, 2010)
by
Melanie Dobson


Chapter 1


“Let’s go home,” Nikki whispered, her lips quivering. Even her toes, squashed into the sharp points of her strapped Mary Janes, wouldn’t stop shaking. “Liz…”

“Hush,” her sister hissed as she swung open the side door of Man¬giamo’s. Nikki held up the small battery-powered lantern, and the shiny countertops in the kitchen glowed.

Nikki’s knees knocked under her navy blue skirt and she pressed them together. Her father’s employees left the restaurant hours ago, around midnight or so. Everything inside was still except her heart, which had been hammering in her chest since she and Liz snuck out of the house. Somehow Liz had secured the key to the side door of Man¬giamo’s, but she wouldn’t tell Nikki why they needed to get inside.

“No one knows,” she whispered as the door creaked closed behind them. No one would find out she and Liz were here.

Their parents and older brother were asleep in their large home, a few blocks up Murray Hill. As she and Liz snuck down to Mayfield Road, the usually bustling streets in Cleveland’s Little Italy were draped with an eerie fog. The silence unnerved her—even the alley cats had stopped howling for the night.

As Nikki followed her sister across the kitchen, Liz pulled a second key out of her purse.

Nikki gasped. “Where did you get—”

“I told you to shut up,” Liz barked as she pushed the key into the lock of another door—a door that kept the kitchen staff out of their father’s private lounge.

Nikki leaned closer. “Papa’s going to kill you.”

“He’ll have to catch me first.” Liz laughed, sounding more like she was twelve than twenty-one.

Her sister teetered daily between the frivolities of her youth and the weight of adulthood. The shiny red barrette in her bobbed black hair matched the red bow on her scalloped dress. Even in the dull light, she exuded glamour.

Until this moment, Nikki never thought to ask why Liz was dressed to the nines—she was still trying to wake up after her sister shoved her out of bed in the middle of the night, saying she needed help. She hadn’t told Nikki why they needed to come here, but it didn’t matter. Nikki always seemed to be on call for her older sister, and Liz knew it. She covered for Liz whenever her sister slipped away to visit one of Cleve¬land’s many nightclubs.

But never before had Liz tried anything as daring as breaking into Mangiamo’s back room. Their father’s sanctuary.

Their brother was allowed inside this room when invited—and he bragged about it often—but Salvatore never talked to either of his daughters about the place. Didn’t really talk to Nikki at all. She knew the extent of his fury, though, and she feared him almost as much as the spineless henchmen who bowed to him like he was God on earth. She’d never bowed, but she usually cowered when he was around, hop¬ing he wouldn’t notice her. He rarely did.

Her sister wasn’t afraid of anything, including their father. She had the gift of being able to charm almost any man. If their father discovered them trespassing in his den, though, no charm would work. Discipline would be swift. And painful.

The knob turned in her sister’s hands, and as she cracked open the door, the stench of cigar smoke mingled with the lingering smells of spicy sausage and cheese from the kitchen behind them.

“Liz—” she repeated.

Liz grabbed the lantern from Nikki’s hands. “Tell me if someone comes to the front door.”

Light illuminated the gray stone that lined the narrow staircase below them. Her sister stepped down and slowly descended into the dungeon.

Nikki propped the door open with her heel, waiting in the darkness. She had thought there was a small room in the back of the restaurant, not a basement, but she wasn’t surprised. Secrets bound their family together like the tangled silk threads layering the web of a black widow.

The girls at Nikki’s school envied these seemingly luxurious threads, but she knew that the Cardano money only covered the secrets with a blinding sheen that most people couldn’t see past. She and Liz knew the truth, and they were trapped in their family’s web for the rest of their lives.

Her mother refused to talk about their family’s secret life, and her father usually refused to talk to her, period. Silence stopped even the walls of the Cardano mansion from sharing their secrets, but the walls knew. They knew about her father’s mistress over on Woodland Ave¬nue. They knew about the bitter tears her mother shed. And they knew about the dirty money that surged through her family like water from a fire hose, money that never seemed to extinguish the smoldering inside her father for more.

Nikki watched the light in her sister’s hands turn the corner at the bottom of the steps, and she rested her back against the post, praying Liz would hurry.

Light from the city lamps trickled in through two small windows at the side of the room, illuminating the shiny tops of the kitchen ovens and the draped tables that filled the dining room. Instead of windows by the imposing front door there was a wall filled with paintings of Italy.

The restaurant couldn’t possibly support the Cardano family life¬style, nor could the factory where her uncles refined sugar, but there was always plenty of money. Some mornings she walked down the stairs and the dining room table was hidden under silvery green mounds of cash. Someone supplied her father with thousands and thousands of dollars at least once a week, but she didn’t know who paid him, nor did she want to know. She just wanted to rush out the door each morning before the others woke up to join her friends at Saint Anthony’s.

Their mother liked to pretend that her husband’s business ventures were perfectly legitimate as she tried to induct her daughters into the high society circles like they were members of Cleveland’s elite. Two years ago, Liz began rebelling against the dog-and-pony show and decided to flaunt herself in circles not so pleasing to their mother. The more their mother and father disapproved, the happier Liz seemed to be.

Salvatore ignored Liz’s exploits for a long time, but everything changed in July. For the past three months, her father had kept Liz home around the clock, under surveillance. On the rare occasion that her father let Liz go outside the estate, she was escorted by two of his bodyguards.

Tonight, however, the man who was supposed to be standing guard outside Liz’s door was sleeping beside it instead. Nikki assumed Liz, with her smooth words and alluring smile, offered him a couple of drinks from the stash she snuck into her room under her longer dresses.

The lantern light blinked below her.

“Liz?” she called in a hushed voice.

When her sister didn’t answer, her gaze wandered back toward the six rows of tables that separated the kitchen and the front door. The chairs and table settings appeared to be in their proper place; there was no hint of the loud patrons who had departed four hours ago and no bloodstains left from the man shot inside the parlor back in March.

Nikki shivered. Did the man’s ghost stay behind to haunt those who’d murdered him?

She glanced back down the staircase, at the light bobbing on the wall below. She should have asked Liz why they needed to come here in the mid¬dle of the night, but it was much safer to play along than ask questions.

A sharp click sounded in the dining room, and her heart leapt. Turning, she squinted in the dull light, but nothing moved. No one was in the restaurant at this hour, she told herself. No one but her and Liz.

She whispered her sister’s name one more time, but Liz didn’t respond.

Holding her breath, she pressed her hands against the doorframe and pretended to be one of the Sicilian statues in her father’s pictures. If the murdered man had come back for vengeance, perhaps he wouldn’t see her. Surely he would know she didn’t have it within her to hurt a soul.

She peeked around a column as the front door crept open and a man walked inside, built thin as a rail and a good head taller than she was. The evening was warm, yet he wore a dark overcoat and hat, the uniform of a Cleveland Mafioso.

And he looked very much alive.

She stepped down into the stairwell. If anyone except their father caught her and her sister, they might bump them off, and there were no guarantees with their father.

She and Liz had to get out of here.

Nikki locked the door behind her, and as she rushed down the stairs, she struggled to catch her breath. Air didn’t come until she reached the bottom, but even then, her breathing was shallow. The room in front of her seemed to spin.

Steadying herself against the wall, she took a deep breath and hiccupped.

The basement was one room, a dank space fortified with cold stone and a solitary brown hat rack that hovered in the corner. An old table stood in the middle of the room, surrounded by folding chairs, where the men probably dealt business ventures along with their cards. At the side of the room, a much shorter set of steps led up to a storm door.

Liz swiveled around by an open closet door, a narrow metal box clutched in her hands. “I told you to stay upstairs.”

“But someone’s—” Nikki didn’t finish her sentence. The door above her swung open, banging into the wall. Apparently her father wasn’t the only one with a key to this place.

Liz shoved the lantern into Nikki’s hands and tucked the metal box under her arm. Then she stepped toward the second set of stairs. Nikki followed her lead, but at that moment, the storm door began to shake. Someone else was outside.

Liz swore and grabbed Nikki’s arm, shoving her into the closet. Liz squeezed into the tight space beside her and yanked the door closed, the lantern shining like a beacon until Liz punched the button on top. The closet turned black.

On the other side of the door, Nikki heard muffled voices as sev¬eral men greeted each other. At this time of night, surely this meeting wouldn’t last long. They’d finish whatever deal they’d come to resolve and disappear back into the night. She and Liz would escape minutes later, going home to the safety of their beds before daylight. No one would be the wiser.

Her ear pressed against the door, Nikki strained to listen to the men’s words. Rough talk about the Puglisi family, interfering coppers, and the blessed Volstead Act floated under the thin crack beside her feet and burned her ears. They were making a pact to work together under the nose of the government.

A hiccup swelled in her throat again, and she swallowed hard, holding her breath for a good minute. When she finally released her breath, her hand raced to her mouth to squelch another hiccup, but in her panic, her fingers knocked the lantern in Liz’s hands. She groped for the lantern in the darkness, trying to stop its fall.

Liz reached out to catch the lantern, but when she did, the metal box in her arms fell to the floor, and the crash echoed around them.

Nikki froze.

Liz swung open the door to the closet, pushing Nikki in front of her, and Nikki stumbled forward. Chairs slid back, and the men at the table opened their coats. She saw her father’s face first. The anger etched in his eyes. And there was another emotion she’d never seen before.

Fear.

Her brother sat there, stunned. And all three of her uncles.

There was another man beside them. A man with bushy blond hair.

Nikki watched in horror as the blond man reached for his gun.

“Stop, Heyward,” her brother yelled, but she could see the malice in Heyward’s eyes. He wasn’t going to stop.

“Blast it, Nikki.” Liz shoved her toward the storm door, her eyes still focused on the blond man. “Run.”

Heyward shouted, commanding the others to shoot. Nikki snapped out of her stupor when she saw the gleam of his gun. Racing up the stairs, she slammed open the storm door and burst outside.

Cool air flooded over her as a gunshot echoed down the alleyway. Lifting her skirt, Nikki ran into the billows of the fog, but with every step, her sister’s face trailed her. The faces of the men haunted her soul.

Another thread for their family’s web of secrets. A thread she could never escape no matter where she fled.

Divine Appointments - Chapter 1

Divine Appointments
WaterBrook Press; Reprint edition (September 21, 2010)
by
Charlene Baumbich


Chapter 1


Attempting to release the stifling heat from her body, Josie threw back the covers and heaved a sigh. Stuck in her languid, sweltering, hot-flashing body, she rolled out of bed, shucked off her damp pajamas, and dragged herself down the hall. Within a few moments, she stood in her kitchen, eyes closed, head stuck in her freezer.

Who would believe that at 2 a.m. on a below-freezing February morning in Chicago, I’d be standing here like this? Up until a minute ago, certainly not her. Hoping she was trapped in a nightmare, she willed herself to open her eyes. Wake up! But instead of pulling out of a deep slumber, she looked straight into the swirling curls of mist flowing over a low-cal frozen dinner four inches from her lips.

While waving freezer air toward her sweaty armpits, she surveyed the items before her. Healthy everything. See, I am sane. So what has led me to such a preposterous moment? But she knew. Same as always, her course of action was set as a result of last night’s Internet research.

Research: her instinctive course of action against the unknown.

In an attempt to find something—anything—short of hormone replacement therapy to help her through what she hoped was a brief perimenopausal stage, she’d clicked from one medical and holistic site to the next. One set of survey results reported that some women stuck their heads in the freezer for relief. Her initial reaction upon reading that finding had been, Not in a million years. But when this tsunami of a hot flash rolled into her forty-seven-year-old body, the idea rose to the forefront, and desperation led her straight to the kitchen. Much to her surprise, the bizarre procedure seemed to help. Or had the flash simply begun to subside already?

Always analyzing, Josie. Give it a rest. Who cares why? You feel better, and that’s the goal, she thought, her eyes landing on a small container of frozen yogurt tucked behind a bag of broccoli. But as she reached for it, a chill quaked her body. She closed the freezer door, crossed her arms over her bare chest, and quickly padded back toward her bedroom. Once the hot flash retreated, the reality of the cool temperature in her condo set in.

Even though she had no need to pinch pennies, she still tried to look after her dollars.The first thing she did when she moved into a new dwelling—an annual event—was swap out the thermostat for the latest and best energy-efficient model. During the winter, she programmed it to sixty-five during weekdays, then up to sixty-eight in the early evenings after she got home from work, and down to sixty-two at night. Summers, well… When the flashes began last July, she often found herself lowering the temperature a notch no matter what she’d programmed.

In the faint red glow of her bedside clock, she opened her dresser drawer and withdrew a powder blue cotton pajama set with three quarter-length sleeves. Counting the set of pajamas still on the floor, and in keeping with her lifelong motto to simplify, it was one of four identical sets, all pastel blue, all worn year round. Shivering, she scooped the soiled pj’s off the floor and scurried to the master bathroom. She turned on the light, ran warm water on a washcloth, and wiped her face and neck and then behind her ears. She gulped a glass of water, slipped on the clean pajamas, and smeared a dab of night cream over her cheeks, then laid the damp items over the top of the hamper to dry. “No sense risking mildew,” she heard her Grandmother Nancy say.

Grandmother Nancy had dealt with bountiful piles of laundry produced by seven children. “It doesn’t take long for damp things to sprout moldy wings,” she used to say in a singsongy voice. Josie smiled at the memory of one of her many sayings.

Once back in bed, she drew the flannel sheets up to her nose. “Freezer to flannel? Come on, body!” she chided, tired, yet now wide awake. Although occasional daytime hot flashes were annoying and embarrassing, the sleep deprivation these rampant night sweats caused was wearing her out. The last time she looked at the clock, it said 3:15 a.m.

Next thing she knew, her alarm was ringing. Five-thirty. Time to get up and work out.

To further boost her morning cardio workout and burn off the few M&M’s she’d nabbed from the small art deco bowl near her key hook, Josie walked down her building’s five flights of stairs. Anxious to gulp a blast of fresh air, she stepped out onto the sidewalk while tossing a “Good morning, Howard,” over her shoulder to the doorman. She sucked in her breath. The wind blustered, causing her to pull her scarf a little tighter around her neck.

When she’d contracted for the job in Chicago, she told the Realtor that proximity to her labor was primary. This move’s goal: as often as possible, leave the car behind. Despite the cold, she felt a renewed surge of gratefulness for that freedom. The last two years, both her Houston and Raleigh locations had kept her sitting in traffic too many hours a day. She needed exercise and more scenery than the exhaust pipe of the car in front of her. She set a brisk pace down the sidewalk, only slowing after she skidded on a small patch of ice and nearly lost her footing.

When Josie was growing up, her mother constantly asked her why she moved so quickly. “Where’s the fire? Walk like a lady, Josie.” She’d heard it a thousand times. But in all ways, Josie was a mover. She almost always walked a different route to work. Residing just under a mile from her current job, she’d explored nearly every city block between it and her condo—within the boundaries of reason and safety—by foot. But today after chugging only two blocks, and even though she’d pulled her scarf up twice, the tip of her nose was nearly numb. In these freezing conditions, she decided walking didn’t make sense, not with “L” stops only a short distance from both ends of her journey.

Before her virgin ride last summer, Josie had made sure to memorize and follow the “L” safety instructions posted on the Internet. She learned where to locate both radio and call buttons in the cars and on the platforms and programmed emergency numbers into her cell phone. She stayed alert, toted her handbag and briefcase cross-body style, and kept her transit card handy so she didn’t have to rummage for it.

Immediately after swiping her card, she tucked it back into the slot in her handbag she reserved solely for that purpose. She zipped the bag closed and settled comfortably into her seat. Riding the “L” was second nature now. Relaxing, really. So simple, she thought, as she leaned back and recalled her first “L” adventure. She’d studied the maps and made sense of the different color-coded lines, and she possessed a steel-trap memory. During that first ride, her every move was calculated to make it appear as if she’d been riding the elevated system for years.

A big man stood just a few feet from Josie—the type of guy that might inspire caution in “L” riders. Although she couldn’t see his face, he reminded her of one of the people she’d encountered at a previous job.

In Atlanta, Josie had been in charge of notifying the employees being laid off, not a task regularly included in her consulting work. The first employee to receive her dismissal notice was Roger Elmquist, a physically daunting bruiser of a man.

“Roger,” Josie said the day she let him go, “I need to see you in my office, please.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He was always polite. Large in stature but quiet in voice. Good at his job, but his position was being eliminated. Bottom line. End of story.

Once she closed the door and asked him to take a seat, she got right to the point. “Roger, I’m sure you are aware that your company is streamlining operations. Sometimes through no fault of an employee—and such is the case with you—a position with a company becomes obsolete. I’ve called you in here to let you know that, unfortunately, this is your last day on the job.”

Roger looked at her as if he did not understand English. Josie had heard rumors of his penchant for karaoke, but she couldn’t picture the man in front of her at the mike.

“Human Resources has arranged for you to receive job counseling. I’m sure they’ll help you find just the right match for your skill set.” She stood and held out her hand. “Good luck, sir.”

Roger remained seated, eyebrows knit together. He stared at her outstretched palm.

“Roger?”

He blinked, then looked up at her.

“Roger, they’re waiting for you in HR. You’re a good worker, and management here is giving you a great recommendation. I’m sure you’ll land on your feet.”

After a very long pause, Roger stood. He appeared shorter, smaller, his shoulders slumped. Without saying a word, he left.

The next day, Roger’s itsy-bitsy wife stormed into the building, wanting to see Josie. Josie could hear her yelling clear through the glass in the reception area.

“What do you mean I can’t see her? She crushed my Roger! He can’t even lift his head off the pillow this morning. What kind of a monster—what kind of a company—doesn’t give notice, or warning, and just upends a man like that? Do any of you even care that six years ago he tried to take his own life, he was so despairing? Of course not! All you know is your own power and greed!”

When she threatened to storm the place if Josie did not have the common decency to look her in the face and explain exactly why her Roger was treated that way, Josie started toward her office door. Some people, she thought, need a strong word about simmering down.

“Is that her?” the woman yelled, noticing Josie through the door. “I swear, if my Roger slides back into depression, I am going to hold you personally accountable!”

Before Josie even reached for the handle, a security officer appeared. First he tried to reason with the woman, explain that she needed to calm down. She made the mistake of drawing back her arm as if she was going to strike him. He grabbed her wrist and said, “Come with me. It’s time you leave before you get yourself in real trouble here.”

“Any trouble, sir,” she said, speaking through clenched teeth, “has been brought about by this company’s lack of common decency.” At that, the fight seemed to drain out of her, and she began to cry. She cried so hard they nearly had to carry her out. “You’ve sapped the life out of my Roger,” she said, sniffing. “You have no idea how hard he worked to build himself back up as a man after he lost his last job. And now you’ve gone and robbed him of his dignity again.”

Decency. Dignity.The words twirled in Josie’s head as she scanned passengers in her car.

That older woman to her right…Hmm. Might be on her way to a cleaning job. Or maybe to visit a sick sister in the hospital. Yes, that’s it. She wore a tired sadness around her eyes. Likely a widow, which gave her something in common with Josie. Although Josie had never married, she understood the responsibilities and nuances of an oldish woman living alone. What they probably didn’t have in common was that Josie liked it that way.

Josie’s body jerked slightly to the left. She glanced at the floor as a stream of murky winter-boot water shifted in the opposite direction.

How quickly life ebbs and flows when you’re off to the next station.

Her eyes shifted to a stately man wearing a plaid neck scarf. He somewhat resembled Victor. Tall. Lean. Strong jaw. Powerful presence. She studied his shoes, his haircut, his fingernails. This guy was richer than Victor, she thought. Likely a CEO. They briefly made eye contact, which she had not meant to happen, and he nodded at her. She nodded back, then averted her eyes. She was glad when he stood to get off at the next stop. After he departed, she swiveled and watched him walk down the platform. He even moved like Victor. Erect, shoulders squared, chin tucked to chest, military cadence. She leaned back to see around a couple of heads, unable to take her eyes off him, wondering what Victor was up to lately. If one person on this earth moved faster than she did, it was Victor.

She recalled the day she’d finally caught Victor on the phone to ask his opinion about a high-paying corporate job dangling in front of her. She wasn’t surprised by his answer.

“Pick something that keeps you in the lifestyle to which you are accustomed: fluid. It’s a big, wonderful country we live in, Jo. You’re a strong woman. Make sure you can always call your own shots. Why be another corporate clone?”

Who wouldn’t heed the voice of such a powerful father? She’d called her father Victor for so long that sometimes it seemed easy to forget he was her father, not just Victor Brooks, military lifer, man of convictions with the power to influence.

She watched the stranger until he disappeared when the train took off again. Movin’ on. Within forty-eight hours of Victor’s call-your-own shots pep talk, she had begun the process of incorporating and setting up shop as an independent systems analyst and consultant. Two weeks into her well-planned flurry of self-promotion, her sterling résumé and focus on the world of corporate insurance landed her first major client. Interesting, how the course of a life can take shape during such short encounters, like how a passing stranger can jog such memories. It seemed so very long ago that she flew to Denver to seal the deal and sign a year’s lease on an apartment. One year was how long she estimated that first contracted job would last. In fact, she finished three months ahead of schedule, which gave her the opportunity to take a class and score another software certification.

You’ve come a long way, baby, she thought as she recalled the worn, uneven floorboards and the banging water pipes in that first apartment, which was the last dwelling place she rented. From that day forward, she bought.With every annual move, she upsized her income as well as the value of her condo or town home. Shrewd research and negotiating skills proved each real estate investment a more luxurious accommodation than the last. She smiled at the satisfying fruits of her diligence.

But as the elevated train car rounded the last bend before her stop, she watched the skyline change and wondered if her next move, due to take place in only four months, might be the end of that grand roll. Not long after she’d signed on here in Chicago, the housing market tanked. It would be interesting to see where she landed next and what kind of hit she’d have to take. Then again, in some areas, housing was selling so far below market value that she still might make out. Seemed lots of folks were already looking for 2009 to end, and they weren’t even six weeks in. But wouldn’t it be just like her to land on her feet in the midst of an economic downturn? Victor would be proud.

The train lurched to a stop. Josie stepped out of the car and was once again reminded why she’d ridden today. The wind howled down the raised “L” platform. She hiked up her briefcase strap and held a gloved hand over her nose. A man frantically ran up the stairs toward her, coat flapping open, as if he’d been sitting at the table and just noticed he was late. Could be on his way to a shareholders’ meeting. Likely runs late every day, a habit his wife finally gave up trying to change. When they passed each other, she got a whiff of his cologne. Cheap.Too strong. Maybe he’s having an affair, and they woke up late.

She trudged down the slushy sidewalk, trying to expel the remnants of that guy’s fragrance from her sensory memory. It brought to mind a VP in Augusta she’d once invited in for drinks after a dinner date. He’d scrutinized her surroundings over the top of his wine glass.

“A bit stark,” he’d said, shifting his eyes to hers. “Don’t you think? I bet you’ll be happy to settle down one day, finally personalize a place and make it your own. I can’t imagine moving every year. What we put up with to make a decent living, right?”

She’d replied with a flat no, and that was the end of him. How she’d made such an error in judgment, she could not imagine.

She entered her work building, pulled her scarf from around her neck, and hopped on the elevator, which had just landed. Moving on and up has definite advantages, she thought, even though as a military child, it had at first been difficult to keep moving away from new friendships. But she’d soon realized that all that moving also offered its perks, and she’d quickly learned how to take advantage of them. Endlessly able to start over, she’d reinvent herself, try on new personas. The more moves, the better she became at leaving her old self and longings behind. At one base, she played the shy child, while keeping her nose stuck in a book. At the next, she was the tireless sojourner, off exploring and blazing new trails. “Follow me!” she’d shout. But whatever persona she tried on, she made sure to keep an emotional distance from those brave enough to attempt to make friends with her.

Funny thing to ruminate on now, she
mused, since at the moment she was pressed against the back wall of the elevator while two more people squished their way inside.

Well, I was who I was, and I am who I am, she thought when she exited the elevator at her floor. She opened her coat and involuntarily shook like a dog trying to expel a spider off its back. She detested cramped elevator rides.

Hopefully, she thought as she removed her boots, swapping them for heels, the next place is warmer than Chicago.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Long Time Coming - Chapter 1

Long Time Coming
Abingdon Press (November 1, 2010)
by
Vanessa Miller


Chapter 1


The double doors opened, and the guests stood as Deidre Clark came into view. She was a vision in white. Small clusters of sparkling beads accented the front and back of the bodice and traveled down the wrap of the skirt. Her veil was covered with the same sparkling beads that accented her gown. The princess-style headpiece was pinned to her hair as the veil flowed down her back. Her mother had asked that she not cover her face with the veil. Loretta Clark’s pastor had taught them that the veiled bride held secrets that the husband would have to uncover. But Deidre’s mother didn’t believe that a husband and wife should have secrets.

The musicians began to play and the soloist stood.

“Are you ready?” Deidre’s uncle asked.

She looked at her uncle, who was standing in for her beloved father, who had died way before his time. She pondered her uncle’s question for a moment. Was anyone ever ready for such a thing as matrimony? She looked down the aisle at her groom, Private Johnson Morris. He’d told her when they met that he was career military. His dream was to one day wear general stripes like his hero, Colin Powell. Johnson had lots of dreams, and Deidre wanted to help him achieve them all. She nodded. “I’m ready.”

Still behind the double doors and not quite in the sanctuary yet, Deidre took a step as the soloist sang, “At last, my love has come along.”

Although some might say that this particular song wasn’t appropriate for a church wedding, Deidre requested it anyway. She had been terrified that no one would ever want to marry her. But Johnson had come into her life and swept her off her feet at last. She took another step and then her wedding coordinator stopped her.

The woman lifted the veil and put it over Deidre’s face. “There . . . simply beautiful,” she said as she gently pushed Deidre toward the sanctuary.

“My lonely days are over,” the soloist continued.

Deidre kept walking as the veil was placed over her face. But as she neared her groom, Deidre’s thoughts turned to a conversation she had with her mother earlier that day.

Loretta had walked into her dressing room, kissed her on the cheek and then asked, “Did you tell him?”

Deidre turned toward the full length mirror and smiled at her image.

“Did you tell him?” Loretta asked again.

“Not yet,” Deidre said. She could see her mother’s eyes fill with worry as she glanced at her. She turned back to the mirror, choosing to ignore her mother. This was her day—her never-suppose-to-be day—and she wasn’t going to let anything spoil it, not even reality.

She was standing next to Johnson now. They recited their vows, and the preacher pronounced them husband and wife. Deidre let out a sigh of relief as Johnson lifted her veil of secrets and kissed her.



Chapter 1



Twenty-three and played out. Like the words of a tired, old, blues song, Kenisha Smalls had been strung and rung out.

“Too young to give up,” she chided as she pulled herself out of bed. But when her feet hit the floor, and her knees buckled from unexplained pain, she reminded herself that she had actually lived a hundred dog years, lapping at the crumbs from underneath other folk’s tables, and being kicked around by more good-for-nothings than she could count. A few years back, Kenisha thought some good would have to come into her life to even out the bad. But when James, her first baby’s daddy got arrested for armed robbery, and then Terrell, her second baby’s daddy got himself shot and killed trying to be a kingpin, she’d stopped praying for the sun to shine through her drab days, and resigned herself to embrace the rain.

Guess that’s how she’d hooked up with Chico. Kenisha had been dazzled by his olive skin, wavy hair, and bulky arms. Dazzled by his corporate job and technical school education. Of course, all that dazzling occurred before her responsible boyfriend started hanging around her crack head brother, Kevin Carson. By the time she had given birth to her third child, Chico had quit his good-paying job so he could give crack his undivided attention.



Now, the only time Kennedy saw her crack head father was when he made his first of the month visit. Begging for a loan that he knew his broke behind couldn’t pay back. She remembered the first time she refused to give Chico her rent money. He’d punched her in the face so hard her teeth clickety-clacked. Grabbing the iron skillet that she’d been frying chicken in, she’d chased him out of her house. When she walked back in, and saw Jamal, her oldest child, standing in the kitchen holding a butcher knife, as his eyes blazing with fury, she swore right then that she would have nothing more to do with Chico and his crack demon. Shaking her head to ward away bad memories, Kenisha grabbed a washcloth and towel from the hall closet. Jumping in the shower, she allowed the hot water to assault her weary bones. As the steam filled the small bathroom, she wallowed in the horror story her life had become. What next? How much can happen to a person before the Almighty decides it’s time to pick on someone else?

“Ah, dawg.” She knew she’d forgotten something. Bumping her head against the tiled wall of the shower, she turned the water off and stepped out. She had an appointment that might make her late picking up Jamal from school. Not wanting to leave it to chance, she decided to call her sister Aisha Davis to see if she could pick up her son.

Before she could get her clothes on and make it to the telephone, Chico knocked on her back door. She was familiar with his knock. It was the first of the month, “baby, can I please get a loan” kind of banging that rolled through her head twelve times a year.

“Don’t I have enough to deal with?” She picked up the pink frilly robe James had bought her on her fifteenth birthday. It had been soft and pretty, but the drudge of life had worn on it. Thought she would have replaced it long ago. But the kids kept coming, and the men kept leaving.

She picked up Jamal’s leather belt, secured her tattered robe, stalked down stairs and flung open the back door. “What do you want, Chico?”

“Ah girl, quit tripping. You know you’re happy to see me. Them hazel eyes of yours sparkle every time I come over here.”

She ran her hands through her short layered hair as the skeleton strolled up to her, and puckered his lips. The five-day stench and sunken cheeks made Kenisha back up and give him the hand. “If it’s money you want, my welfare check hasn’t even arrived yet.”

Crossed eyes, and a deep sigh accused Kenisha of misjudging him. “How you know I didn’t come over here to see my beautiful little girl?”

“Did you happen to get a job and bring your beautiful little girl some child support? ‘Cause, Kennedy likes to eat.”

“Why you got to be like that?” He leaned against the kitchen sink. “See, that’s why I don’t come by more often. You always trippin’.”

Kenisha opened the back door. “Boy, who do you think you’re fooling? You don’t come by more ‘cause the first only comes once a month.” A strong wind blew her robe open, exposing two bony thighs.

“Girl you need to quit selling them food stamps. You know I like a woman with meat on her bones.”

Kenisha rolled her eyes and waved him toward the coolness of the outdoor wind.

“Oh, so it’s like that?” Pushing himself off the sink, he told her, “Just get Kennedy down here. Let me see my baby girl, and I’ll be on my way.”

“She ain’t here. They spent the night over at Aisha’s.”

Walking toward her, he got loud. “How many times have I told you not to have my daughter over at your sorry sister’s house?”

“When the telling comes with a check, that’s when I’ll start listening.” Still holding the door open, she motioned him outdoors again.

He poked his index finger into the middle of her forehead. “Make sure my daughter is home the next time I come to see her.”

He walked out. But before Kenisha slammed the door, she told him, “Yeah, right. We’ll see you in thirty days, Chico.”

She sat on the couch as her body shook with rage. Her rage wasn’t only directed at Chico. But at all the men who’d promised her sweetness, then made her swallow dung. She was tired. Wished she’d never met any of them. She sure wouldn’t be in the fix she was in now if she’d waited until marriage to have sex. Maybe she should have signed up for karate classes when she was six or seven. That way she could have broken her mother’s boyfriend’s neck that night he took all her choices away.

Clicking on the TV, she hoped to find enjoyment in somebody else’s drama. Dr. Phil was putting a smile on a woman’s face whose house had been robbed and ransacked. “Ain’t that ‘bout nothing? My life is raggedy, but I don’t see nobody offering me so much as a needle and thread to stitch it up.” She turned off the TV and stood. Might as well just deal with it. She picked up the phone and dialed Aisha.

The phone rang three times before Aisha’s angry voice protruded through the line. “What have I told you about calling my house so early?”

Caller ID wasn’t meant for everybody. It was 10:45 in the morning. And Aisha’s lazy behind was still in bed, screening calls. “You need to get up and fix breakfast. My kids have a hot meal every morning.”

Aisha yawned. “Your kids ain’t no better than mine. They can walk downstairs and fix a bowl of cereal just like the rest of them monsters.”

Rolling her eyes, Kenisha wondered why she’d agreed to let Diamond and Kennedy spend the night over at her sister’s house. But she had been too tired to get on the number eight bus and pick them up. Blinking away unwanted tears, she allowed her fist to smash against her living room wall.

Ever since her doctor had told her about the cancer eating away at her body, her walls had gotten punched. When her doctor told her that having sex at an early age was one of the factors for cervical cancer, she’d wanted to kill the men that had paraded through her life, took what they wanted, then left her diseased. “I need you to pick Jamal up from school today.”

“Oh, no. I’ve already got two of your kids over here. Dawg, Kenisha, I’ve got four kids of my own. What makes you think I want to baby sit another?”

Grabbing some tissue, and wiping the moisture from around her eyes, she said, “Look Aisha, I’ve got an appointment.” Kenisha’s third radiation treatment was scheduled for today. She’d missed her second appointment when Aisha promised to pick up her kids, but never showed. “It’s important or I wouldn’t ask.”

Kenisha heard the rustling of the sheets as her sister sat up in bed.

“What’s so special that you can’t pick up your own son?”

“Nothing special. Just another rainy day.”



###

Deidre Clark Morris sat behind her oak desk trying to decide whether to respond to her emails. At last count, she had seventy unopened messages. She just couldn’t make herself read another parent complaint about the athletic programs she was forced to cut. And she didn’t have the patience to deal with teachers complaining about old textbooks. The superintendent had already given her his sorry-about-your-luck look the last time she told him that she needed to replace the textbooks.

Today, she didn’t have the energy to fight. Deidre had other things on her mind. Consuming things. Things between her, Johnson, and God. Please God, don’t let it come.

It was her monthly cycle. Due yesterday, but thankfully absent. If it didn’t show up today, maybe she’d finally have some good news to report to Johnson.

Another email appeared in her inbox. This one was from Johnson. The header read, “How are you doing?” On an ordinary day, a simple message like that from her husband would have put a smile on her face. Would have made her think of the “When a Man Loves a Woman” song.

But today was not ordinary. This was the day she would either get her period or be pregnant. So she knew that her wonderful, loving husband’s email really meant “After seven long years of wishing, and waiting, are you finally pregnant?”

Leave me alone. Those were the words she wanted to shout back across the email line. But salvation in the name of Jesus, and a couple deep breaths stopped her tirade. Consigning Johnson’s email to the same devil the other seventy could go to, Deidre signed off her computer. It was 3:30; the students had been gone since 2:50.

“It’s time to go.”

A knock at her door stopped her from packing up. “Come in.”

Mrs. Wilson, the stern-faced, second-grade teacher, walked in with little Jamal Moore in tow. Deidre knew Jamal. Had greeted him several times in the hallway. He was always well groomed. One of the first things she noticed about Jamal, after his signature zigzag cornrows, was that his pants fit. Either he or his mom didn’t buy into that sloppy, hanging off your backside fad that most kids were wearing.

“What’s up?” Deidre asked.

Pointing at Jamal, Mrs. Wilson told her, “His mother didn’t pick him up. I need to leave him with you.”

“I was just getting ready to leave, Mrs. Wilson. I can’t stay with him today.”

Mrs. Wilson gave Deidre a piercing glare. “Now I understand that you are the principal of this school, and therefore more important than the rest of us, but you are also the one that closed down the after-care program—”

Deidre held up her hand. “The superintendent closed down our after-care program, Mrs. Wilson. Not me.”

With hands on healthy hips, Mrs. Wilson told her, “I don’t care if it was you or the superintendent. You didn’t stop him. And you promised to take turns watching these errant children. Well, it’s your turn.”

Deidre looked toward Jamal. With the exchange going on in front of him, he couldn’t be feeling very wanted, or cared about. For goodness sake, his mother had left him to fend for himself. Abandoned him. He didn’t need to listen to this babysitting tug-of-war. “Go home, Mrs. Wilson. Jamal and I will be just fine.”

“What’s your number?” Dismissing Mrs. Wilson as she harrumphed out of the office, Deidre smiled at Jamal. “We’ll get your mom on the phone. She’ll be here in no time, you’ll see.”

She opened her desk drawer, grabbed the Reese’s Cup she’d been saving for a special occasion, and tossed it to Jamal. She stood and picked up the telephone. Her smile disappeared. The oozing warmth between her legs screamed, “Failure.” With as much composure as she could muster, she put down the phone. “I’ll be right back.”

Picking up her purse, she ran down the hall to the teacher’s restroom. In the stall, sitting on the toilet, her worse nightmare was confirmed. “Oh God. Oh God, no.” She did everything right. She’d used that chart religiously. She and Johnson had waited until her body temperature was at the right level. How could she not be pregnant? Banging her fist against the restroom stall, she declared, “It’s my turn, God.” But, no matter how much she wanted it to be, it was not her turn. Would probably never be her turn.

She put her elbows on her thighs, hands over her face and cried as if she’d carried a baby to full term, watched him play in the backyard, grow into a young man, then held him, as he slowly died in her arms.

Twenty minutes later, Jamal found her that way. He tapped on the stall door. “Mrs. Morris, what’s wrong?”

“I-I g-got my period,” she blurted between gasps. She clamped her hand over her mouth as her eyes widened. The superintendent had been itching to fire her. He’d certainly do it now. How could she blurt such a thing out to a seven-yearold child?

Jamal smirked. “My Mama always screams, ‘Thank You, Jesus’ when she gets her period. The only time I heard her cry was when Mr. Friendly – that’s what Mama calls it – came late one month.”

Although she hated to admit it, Jamal’s statement caused her to be upset with God. Women who didn’t want children seemed to spit them out, while she and Johnson remained childless.

She closed her eyes, blinking away the remnants of tears as she thought of her husband. The day they met, he’d overwhelmed her with his deep dimpled smile. Scared her, when he declared that he believed in destiny, and she would be his wife. But the following week she was hooked, so into him, that when he told her how many children he wanted, she couldn’t bring herself to tell him that two doctors had pronounced her infertile.

She should have told him. But he was all she’d ever wanted. Their love was so new, she’d been terrified of losing him. After the Lord saved her soul, she’d thought that if she charted her fertile periods and prayed . . .

“Mrs. Morris?”

Sniffling, Deidre wiped the tears from her face. “I-I’m sorry, Jamal. I’ll be out in a second.” She blew her nose, took the pad out of her purse and lined her underwear with it. Flushing the toilet, she adjusted her clothes before opening the stall.

As if he were talking a lunatic down from a ledge, he asked, “Do you need me to get you anything?”

Washing and drying her hands, Deidre shook her head.

“When I’m sad, Mama holds my hand. That always makes me feel better.” He stretched his hand. “Do you want to try it?”

Deidre’s heart swelled with love for this little boy who reached out to her when she needed it most. She grabbed his hand as they walked back to her office.

He squeezed her hand. “Feel better?”

A tear trickled down her cheek. “Much. Thank you, Jamal.”

Back in her office, Deidre put her files in her briefcase. “If you don’t mind, Jamal, I’d like to go home. I’ll call your mom and give her my telephone number and address.”

“That’s fine with me. Just as long as you let her know where I’ll be. I wouldn’t want her to worry.”

Deidre almost told him that she was sure his mother wasn’t all that concerned. If she were, she wouldn’t have forgotten to pick him up. That was the other beef she had with God. She and Johnson would be great parents. They’d never leave their children to fend for themselves. But alas, the babies were gifted to the unfit, while she, Deidre Clark-Morris, babysat.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Grace - Chapter 1

Grace
Avon Inspire; Original edition (October 26, 2010)
by
Shelley Shepard Gray




Chapter 1




CHAPTER 1
December 20, 8:00 am

“Anna!” The Christmas bells that hung on the door of her childhood home, the Brenneman Bed and Breakfast, tinkled as Katie Lundy worked to shut the heavy wooden door behind her. As she gazed at the pair of candles adorned with red ribbons on the front table, a familiar warmth settled over her. “Anna? Are you here?” she called out.

Before she could completely shut the heavy door behind her, parents started fussing.

“Katie, whyever are you creating such a ruckus in the house?” Her mother’s form suddenly appeared in the doorway leading to the kitchen. Wiping her hands on her apron, she chided, “You could have woken up all of our guests.”

From the other side of the foyer, her father came into sight. “Yes, Katie, that yelling would be a problem…if we did have a houseful, which we do not, thankfully.” As he looked her over, his frown contrasted with the twinkle in his eyes. “But you are loud enough to wake the dead, child.”

No matter how old she got, receiving criticism from her parents never failed to make her cheeks bloom like roses in July. “I’m sorry.” Making sure to keep her voice down, she craned her neck to look beyond her mother into the cozy kitchen. “I’m looking for Anna. Is she here?”

“I am,” Anna announced from the landing at the top of the stairs. Looking down at Katie from the well polished spindles, her best friend and sister-in-law smirked. “I think someone is excited to go shopping today.”

There was no reason to lie. She was eager about their planned outing for the day. “I can’t help it. It’s been a long time since we’ve played hooky.”

Her mother grinned. “If you’re this wound up about a shopping trip, I’m thinking you should plan more outings.”

“It’s only because they are so rare that I’m excited. If it was a usual occurrence, it wouldn’t matter so much.” As Anna walked down the steps, Katie continued. “Jonathan got an unexpected day off at the lumber yard, so he’s with the girls and Eli.”

Her mother clucked. “You should have brought the bobbeli here. I would have happily taken care of him.”

“Jonathan didn’t mind watching the baby. Besides, I wasn’t sure if you had houseguests.”

“It’s December twentieth. Of course we don’t have houseguests,” her mother said. “All I’m doing is getting the house readied for our family holiday.”

Though they never formally closed the inn for the celebration of the Lord’s birth, Katie couldn’t remember a time when they ever had hosted guests at the inn.

Once the calendar marked December fifteenth, visitors suddenly stopped arriving. Their absence allowed the large, rambling house to become a home once again.

This year, in honor of young Eli’s birth and Anna and Henry’s marriage, everyone decided to spend a whole week together. Katie and her family, Anna and Henry, Rebekeh and her family, and this year-at Anna’s and Katie’s request-Winnie-who was Jonathan’s sister, and Winnie’s husband Samuel, were going to stay the week of Christmas as well.

Yes, the house was going to be mighty full, but joyous and merry too. It would be the perfect time for Katie to take a breath and rejuvenate. Lately, she’d been so tired, it was all she could do to keep her eyes open at night. Once or twice, she’d even fallen asleep during Eli’s nap.

Jonathan thought she was doing too much, and she probably was. She had many responsibilities now, with a home, a three month old baby, and two busy stepdaughters.

But all of it was a joy. And nothing that couldn’t be resolved with a little bit of comfort from her parents.

Speaking again, her mother worried her bottom lip. “I went shopping yesterday, but I feel sure I didn’t buy enough flour and sugar. Rebekeh plans to do a lot of baking.”

“Just give me a list, Mamm,” Katie said. “I’ll pick up whatever I can.” Katie was just about to motion for Anna to hurry and put on her boots and cloak when Henry walked down the stairs waving a sheet of paper.

“I’m afraid our plans are about to change,” he murmured.

When he stopped by his bride’s side, Anna pulled the paper out of his hand. Moments later, she frowned. “Oh no.”

Katie strode closer, her mother right behind her. “What on earth is wrong?” she asked. “You both look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“This is a mailed-in reservation,” Anna murmured.

“So? What’s special about that? We get them all the time.”

Henry showed them the envelope he still held in his hands. “Our zip code was either written wrong or the mail carrier couldn’t read it. So, from the postdate, it looks like it’s been on a trip around Ohio.”

Katie tapped her foot. “And? Come on, Henry. I want to go look at fabric.”

“Well, the fact of the matter is, Mr. Levi Bender is planning to arrive here today.” He pointed to a sentence at the bottom of the page. “We were supposed to have contacted him if we were full up by the eighteenth.”

Katie’s mother leaned her hand on the banister with a sigh. “And here it is December twentieth. How long is he plannin’ to stay, Henry?”

“Through the holiday,” he said grimly. “He says here he plans to stay until December 28.”

Although she knew it wasn’t a Christian response, Katie felt a swarm of irritation buzz through her as all her plans began to evaporate. She’d been really looking forward to only being surrounded by family for the next week or so. It had been such a crazy year and a half, with Anna and her brother marrying, she marrying Jonathan…his barn burning down, Winnie in the hospital.

And Eli being born in October. All Katie wanted to do was enjoy peace and quiet and her family. She didn’t want to have to cook and clean for a guest. She didn’t want to have to keep reminding her girls to keep their voices down, either.

“This man is going to ruin our Christmas! Can’t we turn him away?”

Her father glared. “Of course not.”

Her mother walked to her daed’s side. “Well, we’re just going to have to be grateful for a Christmas guest. That’s all there is to it.”

“But now how are we all going to stay here together?”

“One man’s arrival won’t change things.” A line appeared between her mother’s brows. “Not too much, anyway.”

Katie reached for Anna’s hand. “Anna, let’s get going now, then. With a guest arriving, chances are gut that we won’t have another chance to get away.”

With a look of regret, Anna shook her head. “I’m sorry, Katie, but I won’t be able to go. If we have a guest coming, I’ll need to prepare a room.”

With a sense of dismay, Katie felt all her anticipated plans fall to the wayside. “But-“

Anna turned away from her. “Irene, which room would you like to put him in?”

“In the room up at the top of the stairs, I suppose. It’s our best room.”

She was talking about the attic room, of course. The room Katie had planned to occupy with Jonathan. It was lovely, and claimed its own private bathroom-something that Katie had been looking forward to since she still got up often with Eli.

As everyone looked upstairs rather mournfully, her mother sighed. “I have to say that having a guest here for Christmas has put me in a dither. What in the world are we going to do with Mr. Levi Bender here the next eight days?”

One by one, everyone scattered. Soon, only Katie stood alone in the foyer. A strong sense of loss filled her. And though she knew it was not their guest’s fault, she couldn’t help feel resentful. No matter how pleasant the man was, his presence was going to spoil their relaxed holiday plans. “Levi Bender, how in the world are we going to be able to get rid of you?” she murmured…just before she finally unhooked her cloak and joined her mother in the kitchen.



***

December 20, 2:00 pm

It had taken him all day to get there. First, Levi had had to rise with the roosters at dawn and tend to his small menagerie of animals. Then, after checking and double-checking that all was in order for the two teenaged boys who would be staying at his home for the week, he’d waited for the Englischer to pick him up and drive him to the bus station in Columbus.

Because snow was still falling, the bus was running an hour late. Levi had sat in his chair and sipped too-expensive coffee out of a Styrofoam cup that a vender had been selling right there in the lobby. He’d kept to himself and tried not to notice the looks of interest passing his way. Those same looks that he always felt whenever he was out in the outside world.

After claiming a seat on the bus, he’d ridden for two hours, switched busses, then rode for another hour and half to Peebles. Now he was in an Englischer’s car again. On his way to the Brenneman Bed and Breakfast.

“So, have you been to this area before?”

“No.”

“Oh. You got family out here?”

In spite of the generic question, Levi felt a shudder rustle through him. “No,” he said again, this time with more force.

In the rearview mirror, the taxi driver raised his eyebrows. “Sorry, buddy. Didn’t know that was a sore subject.” His tone and the slight inflection at the end of his reply led Levi to believe that the driver was waiting for more explanation.

Levi merely looked out the window. In his experience, that was how most Englischers were-too nosy about things that didn’t concern them at all.

Because he certainly wasn’t going to tell anyone why he’d left his community to travel by himself for Christmas. Why he’d rather stay in the company of strangers than in the midst of people who’d known him for all of his life. Why he was willing to sleep in a small guest room with only a bathroom down the hall than spend another night in his own bed. In a house that he and Rosanna had designed and help build.

Rosanna!

Even just thinking her name brought a fresh wave of sorrow. Like a toothache he couldn’t help probing, bringing more pain to the surface. Since he was already hurting, Levi pushed himself to recall another person who had once meant so much to him…Ruth.

As the taxi traveled the winding roads toward the inn, Levi closed his eyes and let the agony fill his body for one last time before he went about pretending that the two most important women in his life had never existed.

Of course, that was the crux of it all…wasn’t it? Rosanna and Ruth weren’t around, and they never would be again. Ever.

Because he’d killed them.
***

December 20, 3:30 pm

“Miss? Do you need any help, Miss?” the Englischer asked with a concerned expression. “You look like you’ve kind of got your hands full there.”

Melody wasn’t used to speaking with strangers. But as the moment passed between them, and he kept rudely staring at her, awaiting a response, she shook her head. “No.” Hurt flashed into his eyes. “I mean, Dank-thank you. But no. I’m fine.”


After treating her to another long look of doubt at the quilt bag on her lap and the worn suitcase under her feet, he shrugged and walked away.

“Don’t you mind the driver, Miss,” the elderly lady sitting across the aisle from her on the bus said. “I’ve ridden with Graham before and he’s a worrier. Always has been. And, well, pardon my sayin’ so, but you do look like you’re about to deliver at any moment.”

Shamed, Melody turned to the window and hugged her quilt bag more tightly.

It had been a long journey to Cincinnati, Ohio from Sonora, Kentucky. It had taken almost as long for her to find the correct bus to take her to Adams County. Now she was in a hired van to the Brenneman Bed and Breakfast to spend the next week, if she was lucky.

Her employer, Mrs. Sheridan had given her some money and a gift certificate when Melody had come to work in the coffee shop looking even worse than usual. “I really think you need to take some time off, dear.”

“I’m fine,” she’d murmured, mainly because she had no choice. This was her job.

As if Mrs. Sheridan had read her mind, she murmured, “No, dear, I don’t think you are. Hold on a moment, I’ll be right back.”

Moments later, she handed Melody an envelope with a hundred dollar bill and a gift certificate inside. Melody had held it like it was on fire. “What is this?”

“It’s an early Christmas gift. It’s a certificate to the loveliest little inn north of Cincinnati. In Ohio.”

“What would I do there?”

“Relax for a bit.” Mrs. Sheridan’s eyes softened as she recalled the place. “It’s a real beauty of a place, I’ll tell you that. The Brenneman Bed and Breakfast has a wide wooden porch in the front. It runs the whole front of the building. The house just shines, it does. It’s all white-washed, and has shiny black shutters. In the spring, glorious flowers decorate every available inch of land around the house.”

In spite of herself, Melody was mesmerized. “And in the winter?”

Her boss sighed. “In the winter, they decorate a bit with greenery. Nature provides holly bushes in the woods. Mrs. Brenneman clips some sprigs and places them in glass bowls. A few of the windows have candles and garland. And they polish everything with the most heavenly scented orange oil. At night, when the snow is glistening outside and the rooms smell of hot spiced cider, wood from the fire and orange oil, why I have to say there’s nothing else in the world like it. You should go, dear.”

For a moment, Melody, too, had been taken away. But even the thought of traveling by herself was disconcerting. As was the cost. “Thank you for the idea, but I’m afraid I can’t accept such a gift. It’s too much.”

“Oh, it’s not so much, really.” All smiles, she explained. “Mr. Sheridan and I won this in a charity auction about six months ago. It’s good for a week’s stay.”

In spite of her will not to, Melody found herself gripping the envelope. It took everything she had to weakly refuse one more time. “I couldn’t.”

“Yes, you could, Melody…if you dare. I think you need some time off.” Her voice lowered. “I know that things haven’t been too good for you here. Sometimes, if you can’t find a comforting place in your own hometown, it’s time to venture somewhere else. Go there, Melody. Go to the Brenneman’s and relax and learn to smile again. It will do you and the baby a world of good.”

A world of good.

The kind words had rung in her ears the rest of the day. They were so different than everything else she was used to hearing. Most folks barely looked at her.

None directly spoke of her circumstances.

Yet, did she really imagine that people would speak of her-to her frankly?

Plain and simply, she’d been raped by an Englischer, abandoned by her family, and now was looking forward to forever being a symbol of foolish behavior for everyone in their community. As in, “Don’t go walking alone like Melody did. Look what happened to her.”

As in, “Look what happened to Melody. Now she’s going to have to carry that burden for the rest of her life.”

As in, “Melody, you’ve shamed us.”

Consequently, she’d retreated into herself. If others wouldn’t have a care for her feelings, she would.

That night, Melody had clumsily knelt by her bed and prayed. “What should I do?” she’d whispered.

Tightly, she’d closed her eyes. With bated breath, she’d strained to hear words of guidance. And then, like a gift that it was…she heard the Lord’s voice.

Just as clearly as if he’d been standing at her shoulder. Go, Melody. Go and learn to smile again.

“Miss? You going to get up anytime soon?” the driver asked. “We’re here.”

She stood up with a start. To her right was the Brenneman Bed and Breakfast, looking just as lovely as Mrs. Sheridan described.

“Oh! I’m…I’m sorry. I’ll get my things and hurry out.”

To her surprise, a woman sitting in front of her picked up the suitcase and carried it out of the van. The driver helped her down the step and took her payment easily, not even counting it before slipping it into his black wool coat.

“Merry Christmas,” he murmured before closing his door and pulling out of the driveway.

Leaving her alone. Staring at the wide front steps. At the garland that was roped around the porch railing. Suddenly, everything seemed to be too much. The trip, the traveling, the stress. The cold. A wave of dizziness fell over her.

The front door opened. A pretty woman just about her age stepped out and stared. “May I help you?”

The world was tilting. Threatening to go black. “I’m Melody Gingerich.”

Blue eyes narrowed. “And?”

“I…I came to stay for Christmas,” she murmured. In a haze, she did her best to concentrate, but the woman’s reaction was truly puzzling.

“You came to do what?” the girl asked, her voice sounding high pitched. Almost angry.

“I have a certificate.”

“For what?”

As the girl’s eyes continued to stare her down, Melody fumbled for a better explanation. But truly, all ideas fled her mind. She didn’t know what to say. How to explain about everything she’d been through. Everything she’d done.

Then, it didn’t matter. Because her knees gave away, her world spun and her suitcase fell to the ground with a thud.

Seconds later, she felt the cold icy snow cradle her cheek…as her world went black.