Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Protector - Excerpt

The Protector
Avon Inspire; Original edition (June 28, 2011)
Shelley Shepard Gray


Nine years ago

“Come on, Ella,” Corrine said, grabbing her mitten-covered hand. “If you walk much slower, we’re going to be the last to arrive.”

“That wouldn’t be a bad thing,” Ella murmured, though she clasped Corinne’s hand and obediently followed her friend down the rocky incline toward Loyal Weaver’s house. “Maybe we don’t even need to go?”

Corrine looked at her like she’d just sprouted two heads. “Of course we do! Loyal invited everyone over for his birthday. It would be rude not to show up.”

Ella pushed the center of her glasses back up on the bridge of her nose and picked up her pace. “Do you really think he meant everyone?” she asked uncertainly. “Maybe he didn’t really mean that.”

After all, through all their years together in school, Loyal had never gone out of his way to be her friend. “Of course he did.” Corrine squeezed her hand. “Come on, Ella, don’t be so worried. It will be fun. You need to relax and smile more.”

The Weavers’ house was now in view, its white twostory frame looking tall and majestic on the hill in front of them. Scattered across the snowy front lawn were dozens of kids. It looked like Corrine had been exactly right. No one from their school had decided to miss the party.

But that was how it was with Loyal Weaver, she mused. He was the most handsome boy in her grade—maybe even in their school. But what was even more special than his looks was his attitude. Loyal was perpetually happy and chatty. He befriended everyone. It was rare to see him ever standing by himself.

Unlike her.

That had to be what happened when you were an only child, Ella mused. Her parents were naturally reticent and quiet. She was, too. But added to that was the feeling that she was never going to completely fit in like everyone else did. She wasn’t super slim. She had glasses. And she had plain-old brown hair and brown eyes. In short, she was the complete opposite of smiling, golden-haired, blue-eyed Loyal Weaver.

Perhaps that was why she seemed to be the only person in their schoolhouse who didn’t jump at the opportunity to visit him. They had nothing to say to each other.

“Oh, there’s Paul! And Mattie! And Peter, too.” Dropping Ella’s hand, Corrine quickened her pace. “Do you think Peter will want to talk to me today?”

“I’m sure he will.” Corrine was pretty and sweet and had her own share of admirers. Ella smiled. “I bet he’ll walk up to you first thing.”

“Maybe.” Raising her voice, she called out, “Hi, everyone. Sorry we’re late. Have we missed much?”

Mattie ran up to meet them, followed by Peter and Loyal and four others.

“All you’ve missed is Mrs. Weaver passing out hot cider and cookies.”

“Oh, I’m sorry about that,” Corrine smiled at Loyal. “Your mamm is a wonderful-gut cook.”

“There’s plenty of treats inside, Corrine,” Loyal said. “Go on inside and help yourself.” He grinned. “But first, I’m afraid you’re gonna have to get by Peter. He’s been standing here like an oak, waiting for you to appear.”

The other kids laughed. Beside her Corrine blushed, then was wrapped up in the circle of the group, everyone walking in unison to the house.

Ella slowed. Not a person had acknowledged her. Or said hello. Or was even waiting on her. As usual, it was like she’d never even existed.

Suddenly, she knew she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t walk into the Weaver’s home and sip cider and pretend everyone there wasn’t ignoring her. She didn’t want to stand off to the side, smiling awkwardly, hoping no one would notice how she didn’t have her own group of friends.

But most of all, she didn’t want to look at Loyal Weaver and chance that he’d see her watching him. Thinking how cute he was, how lucky the girl he chose to court would be. Even after all this time, it didn’t even seem like he knew she existed.

She stopped, half waited for someone to call her name. Then, realized she was standing there by herself. Forgotten again.

There was only one thing to do. Ella Hostetler turned around and walked away.

Chapter 1

No matter how hard she tried, Ella Hostetler found it almost impossible to look away from the white canvas tent that covered the majority of her front yard.

She swallowed. Oh, it wasn’t even her yard anymore. It, along with the house, barn, and most of the possessions inside, belonged to other people.

Now she had practically nothing.

“Ella, please don’t stand and stare any longer. Watching you makes my heart break,” Corrine said, her voice turning more troubled by the second. “Ach, but I knew I should have made you come over to my house today.”

Corrine was a good friend. Her best friend in the world, next to Dorothy. But even good friends couldn’t make difficult things go away. “I had to be here,” Ella said. “Someone had to stay in case anyone bidding had a question.” She tried to smile. “And it’s not like there was anyone else to take my place.”

Pure dismay entered Corrine’s eyes. “Oh, but you’ve had such a time of it. First your father passed away, then you had to nurse your mother before she passed on, too— all while taking care of the house. All by yourself.”

“I am an only child, Corrine.”

“I know. But sometimes, I just feel so bad for you, having to sell everything.”

Privately, Ella felt bad for herself, too. But hearing the doom and gloom in her girlfriend’s voice pushed her to try to sound positive. “It will be a relief to not have so much to take care of,” Ella said, almost believing it to be true. “And the money earned today will guarantee my future.”

“Oh, Ella. You sound like you will never marry. You will.”

“Maybe. Or maybe not. Perhaps I’ll just be like Dorothy. She seems to be doing fine on her own.”

Something flickered in her best friend’s eyes. Was it distaste? Or distrust? “You are not like Dorothy. I’ve never met a crustier woman.”

“She’s not so bad.”

“She’s difficult and bitter. I wish you could have found a different person to move next to.”

“The other half of her duplex was empty. Plus, she’s excited for me to live there. We’re going to work together at the library, you know.”

“I know.” Corrine pursed her lips. “I just can’t help but feel that you’re about to lock yourself away from everyone all over again, Ella. You should be making plans to see more people. To laugh a little. Not work and live next to Dorothy Zook.”

A burst of the auctioneer’s gavel sang through the air, preventing Ella from responding.

Casting another worried look her way, Corrine looped her arm through Ella’s and pulled. “Come on. Let’s go sit down.”

Though Ella let herself be led away from the crowd, she couldn’t help but look over her shoulder. She could feel the knot in her throat expanding, making it almost too hard to continue talking. “I . . . had no idea I had so many things.”

“We all have more than we need, jah?”

Ella flinched. Corrine’s words were true . . . to a point. She’d known auctioning off her family’s farm would be difficult. But this was so much more than that.

First her land and the buildings on it had been bought. And now so many others were picking and choosing through what remained of her parents’ lives . . . putting a value on items that to her mother had been priceless.

Her feet slowed as she again couldn’t resist looking over her shoulder. Against her will, tears sprang to her eyes as she watched the auctioneer point to her mother’s pie safe.

Corrine paused, too. Bit her lip as he called out a price. “Ella, what is important are the memories. That is what everyone says.”

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Bridge to a Distant Star - Chapter 1

Bridge to a Distant Star
David C. Cook; New edition (June 1, 2011)
Carolyn Williford


A Friday morning in May 2009

The heavy fog moved toward him like fists pushing against the win¬dow. Using a frayed handkerchief, the solitary man reached up to wipe a mist-covered spot. Large, heavily muscled, he was an impos¬ing figure accustomed to giving orders, commanding men and ships at will. But as he leaned forward, squinting jet-black eyes to peer out into the gloom of that dawn, he was aware that there would be no submission from the fickle weather, no acquiescence to his hope for an easier route ahead. The toothpick he absentmindedly chewed switched from one side of his bushy-mustached mouth to the other. And then he slumped backward in frustration, sighing heavily. Captain Ray Luis was a great believer in signs and omens. In his estimation, this beastly morning was a harbinger of nothing good.

Though inside the pilothouse and out of the wretched weather, Captain Luis felt the dampness envelop him like a soggy blanket. Usually the view out the window toward the waves filled him with a sense of pride; holding the well-worn, smooth wheel of the ship in his calloused hands could still produce a thrill. But on that particular morning, none of the familiar pleasures would lift his spirits. In good weather, he would trust no other crew member to be at the helm for the formidable journey up the Tampa Bay channel; in this weather, the responsibility of the job weighed on him—and him alone—even more.
Intently peering through the fogged windows, Luis tried to esti¬mate the visibility ahead, shaking his head at his infernal bad luck. Reaching up to rub tired eyes and then scratch his chin, he felt the stubble of a three-day growth of beard. He’d taken all the necessary precautions before heading up the bay. Even so he reminded himself that his freighter, the Wilder Wanderer, was now without cargo and therefore significantly lighter; as a result, she would ride higher in the water, more at the mercy of wind and waves.

The bridge that worried him just ahead was the over five-mile¬long Sunshine Skyway, a marvel of engineering—and beauty—that spanned the bay from St. Petersburg to Bradenton. The golden cables, designed to gently arch upward, proclaimed the elegance of her design, beckoning all who passed over or beneath to savor the symmetry. But wise captains weren’t naive to her siren’s song; they knew her spell was merely a facade, and a dangerous one at that. Beneath the beauty lay treachery for the unwary.

The stark reality was this: Every ship’s captain faced a critical test of his skills by maneuvering through the passage, which measured 864 feet wide and 150 feet tall. On each side of the channel stood bridge piers made of steel and concrete; these structures supported the roadway above, providing a safe journey for people in the cars, trucks, and buses that crossed the bridge, going about their daily lives. All of them traveled blind to any potential emergency or dan¬ger from below. Unknowingly, they placed their trust not only in the worthiness of the superstructure itself, but also in the hands of every pilot who steered his ship under the bridge. Today their lives rested in the hands of Captain Luis.

Clutching the wheel of the Wild One—as he affectionately called the ship—Luis continued his search for the all-important buoys that marked the safe channel under the bridge. Any divergence from that channel was extremely dangerous; no captain wanted to entertain the possibility of that disaster. He felt his ship’s over two-hundred-foot¬long hull begin to pull slightly against his steering. He tensed his jaw in concentration and nudged the wheel more to the left.

When the thunder roared into the darkness, it caught Captain Luis off guard; his head jerked backward in unexpected alarm. The flash of lightning that immediately followed announced the storm was directly overhead. He cursed and then braced himself for the next assault that he feared was inevitable: a gust of fierce wind. It came just as he’d expected, forcing the ship directly into the path of the bridge’s supports.

Grabbing the intercom mike, he shouted for his man in charge at the bow of the ship. “Jaurez! How bad is it up there?”

The garbled voice of Jaurez answered almost immediately. “Captain, they ain’t no seeing in this!” Another crack of thunder with its accompanying lightning struck, and Jaurez mumbled under his breath. “Cursed channel! I swear it’s haunted! Couldn’t see a blessed thing before, and now it’s even worse. Want us t’ drop anchor and sit her out?” Jaurez and four other men were huddled beneath heavy slickers.

“No! Can’t take the chance of being pushed into those piers.” All the captain’s past experience came into play, and he made a quick decision.
“I’m cutting her speed to five miles per hour. Gives us a chance to see where we’re heading in this muck. And let me know soon’s you spot those buoys!”

Suddenly the winds increased again, approaching tropical-storm speeds of seventy miles per hour. The Wild One groaned and creaked in response. Feeling the first rise of panic, Luis glanced over at his radar just in time to see it blink out. For a few moments, he simply stared at the blank screen, uncomprehending. Just as he reached over to give it a useless rap, he heard Jaurez’s shout over the intercom: “Captain! There’s a buoy; we’re passing it port side! We’re headin’ right down the middle of the channel!”

Luis kept his voice calm and radioed back, “Set tight, Jaurez. I’m thinkin’ you’re right. We’ll take it easy … steer on through. But keep a close watch, you hear?”

“Yes, sir! I’ll be mighty glad when …”

But Juarez’s voice was lost in another reverberating thunderclap. Lightning followed, illuminating the seductive lines of the Skyway. That quick revelation also showed Captain Luis that the perspectives were off. This isn’t right! Luis gasped, opening his eyes and mouth wide in sudden shock. We’re not in the channel, not at all! In that hor¬rific instant, Luis realized that the buoy they just passed must’ve been the one marking the right side of the channel. He froze as the realiza¬tion shot like a knife through his gut: The Wild One was headed right toward one of the bridge’s supports.

Grabbing the intercom with shaking hands, Luis shouted, “Jaurez! Hard to port! Let go the anchor! Ram the engines, full astern!” In a frantic effort to prevent the catastrophe, he attempted to stop the giant ship before she hit the bridge. But another show of lightning proved the futility of his efforts. The concrete pier loomed over the Wild One.

There was no stopping the inevitable. They were going to ram it.

Cap’n!” was all he heard from Jaurez before the ship’s bow and the concrete of the bridge met in a rage of violence. The first loud boom! was immediately followed by the howling of grinding steel, and the great ship groaned, as though she were personally injured. Splintering, wrenched roadway released overhead, and great blocks of concrete and warped, twisted steel plunged into the water and onto the deck of the ship.

The collision had thrown Captain Luis nearly off his feet, though he grabbed the wheel at the last moment to brace himself. He took one brief moment to pray, God, oh please!—may the road overhead be clear! Gathering courage to face whatever awaited, he ran out to the bow of his doomed ship.

On the road above, no one suspected that a dire rending had just occurred. If any felt the slight movement of the roadway, they assumed that strong winds were the culprit. The drivers merely adjusted for the pull, intending to continue on safely.

On the deck of his fated ship, Captain Luis froze at the desolation unfolding before him. He watched in terror as huge pieces of roadway dropped into the violently churning waves of black, murky water. But he and every member of the crew recoiled in horror when, all eyes compelled to follow the surreal scene before them, they watched a bus, a Mercedes, and a van launch out into a void of nothingness.

And plunge into the depths of the Tampa Bay.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

She Makes It Look Easy - Excerpt

She Makes It Look Easy
David C. Cook (June 1, 2011)
Marybeth Whalen


Ariel I saw her years later in the grocery store near my house. I had to look twice to be sure it was her. She had lost weight, a lot of weight. Her collar bones jutted out from the neckline of her shirt like the framework of a building. When she spoke to the young woman accompanying her, her neck muscles pushed against her skin as though they were straining to break free. I thought of all our morning walks together and had to stop myself from approaching to congratulate her. She always did want to be thinner.

Her hair wasn’t blonde anymore. It was the exact color of my second son’s hair, a mahogany red that I clearly remembered her exclaiming over as she stood in my kitchen shortly after we met. “I love this hair,” she had said, wrapping a single curl around her finger as my son squirmed and grimaced. “Do you know how much I’d have to pay to get hair this color?” she had said.

“But your hair’s a beautiful blonde,” I had offered. My own hair was auburn. I’d always wanted to be blonde.

She had shrugged, rolled her eyes. “Do you know how much I had to pay for hair this color?” she had said, laughing. And I, as always, had laughed with her.

Now, standing at a distance, it took me a moment to determine that the young woman with her was actually her older daughter. It appeared that the weight she had lost, her daughter had found. She slouched along beside her mom, a permanent sulk on her face, wearing skinny jeans that were not made for her figure and a T-shirt that read “I Didn’t Do It.” An unappealing white roll of flesh poked out between the jeans and the shirt. Her hair was no longer the blonde airy curls I remembered from back then, perennially clipped into ponytails with matching ribbons. Instead it was a dishwater blonde I imagined closely matched her mother’s real color, hanging dank and stringy around her acne-spotted face. I closed my eyes to block the longing I felt at the image of her at eight years old, radiating light and happiness. The girl I was looking at was not the same person. Yet she was.

I found myself tailing the two of them, watching her just like I used to when she was my neighbor, and I was fascinated—too fascinated—by her. Once, I had wanted to be just like her. Once, I would’ve done anything to be like her. As she pulled microwave popcorn and diet sodas from the shelf, I thought about the time when I knew her. Or, when I thought I knew her. There was still a part of me that wanted to talk to her, to ask the questions I never could get her to answer, just in case I might finally understand what drove her to do what she did. I wondered if I looked into her eyes if I would see a flicker of the person I once knew, or if I would just see blankness. I imagined a gaping absence that was always there, even when I chose not to see it.

Chapter 1


I pulled the photo proofs out of the envelope, fanning them out on the granite countertop in my client’s McMansion with a flourish. I loved how the word client sounded, and I threw it around whenever

“I have a meeting with a client.”

“My clients are so demanding. They all want their proofs back yesterday.”

“This client had some very particular ideas about what she wants.” After years of snapping candids of my own children, I took my photography professional after someone with connections noticed that I was good at catching the little moments of life that most of us walk right by—the furrow of a tiny brow, the contentment of one lone spit bubble on a sleeping baby’s pursed bow of a mouth, even the personality of a flailing, screaming two-year-old. “Someday,” went my pitch, “you’ll appreciate the reality of the photos. Not just the posed smiles but the whole package. The mess and the mess-ups. You’ll look back and see pictures that reflect your life as it really was.” If they wanted Sears Portrait Studio, they were welcome to go to Sears Portrait Studio. But if they wanted art, that’s what I created. Few things pleased me more than seeing a portrait I shot gracing one of my clients’ walls, surrounded by a heavy, impressive mat and frame. I aimed to create pictures that caused others to stop and stare, frozen in the awe of how something so simple could be so beautiful. Sometimes I found myself staring too.

I leaned over the proofs on the black and gray flecked counter, watching Candace Nelson’s face as she looked at the photos we’d taken just a week before. I suppressed the urge to talk to her about them, to point out my favorites or ask her what she thought. I had learned the value in waiting quietly. It was as true in art as it was in marriage: The compliments meant more when they were unsolicited.

She looked up at me, her eyes misty with tears. “You totally got it,” she said, pulling me into a hug. Candace Nelson and I had never met before I came to her house to photograph her children, one of whom was born prematurely and had defied the odds, home just a few days from the hospital. Candace had cried happy tears the whole time I snapped, the rhythmic clicking of my camera at times the only sound in the room. Her older two children, I noticed, had a kind of reverence for the baby. It was in the way they had held him and talked to him and even looked at him. Their reverence had hung in the air around them, an invisible force that transferred through the lens onto paper.

“These are just lovely,” Candace went on. “They’re … priceless.”

I nodded my assent, honored to have been a part of remembering the early days of her new son’s life. I had been inspired to start my business when I found old 8x10s of my sister shoved into a faded envelope with the words “Your Priceless Memories” stamped in tacky green and gold on the outside. My mother had apparently stuck the envelope in a trunk and forgotten all about it. I unearthed the photos like a time capsule, Ginny in her patchwork dress and me in a pea green turtleneck that clashed with her dress. My hair needed brushing, and neither of us was smiling. So much for priceless. So much for memories. I longed to give my kids—and other families—so much more.

Candace held up the price sheet I had handed her with the proofs. “Can I keep this?” she asked. “Talk over the order with my husband?” She giggled like a teenager ogling her prom pictures. “I know he’s going to want them all.” She paused, a somber expression washing over her face. “There was a time when we didn’t think we’d even get to take him home, much less take snapshots.” She pressed her palms onto the counter on either side of the spread of photos. “I can’t thank you enough.”

I thought, but did not say, A big fat order would be plenty thanks. My cell phone buzzed in my pocket. I looked down at it briefly but didn’t reach for it. “Oh, you can get it,” Candace said, dismissing me with a wave as she buried her nose back in the photos.

“Yes?” I asked hesitantly into the phone, not sure if I wanted to know. I had left David and the boys supposedly packing up our house for our impending move to the home of our dreams. Three more days and we’d be movin’ on up. It didn’t take much for me to break into the theme song from The Jeffersons in those days before the move, the boys clapping their hands over their ears whenever I did.

“Uh, honey?” David asked. “A guy just called and said he’s got the moving van you rented ready and they’re about to close? He said one of us needs to come pick it up ASAP.”

My heart began to pound in that way it does when I’ve screwed up. I vaguely remembered the conversation from a few days earlier. The man had said if we wanted to go ahead and start packing the van, we’d better get it sooner rather than later. I told him we’d be there by Saturday at noon. I looked at my watch. It was Saturday at 11:45. I backed away a few steps from Candace and smiled as she looked up at me. “Okay,” I said sweetly. “I’ll be there right away. I’m just finishing up here.”

David started to argue about how there was no way we’d make it, but I hung up before he could say more. Another lecture from David about organization was the last thing I needed. Candace looked at me again. “Everything okay?” she asked.

“Oh sure,” I said, gathering up my things. “We’re moving and there’s just some stuff I need to go take care of. You know how it is.”

She nodded as the corners of her mouth turned down. “We moved here five years ago,” she said, gesturing to the palatial digs she called home sweet home. “And I never intend to leave. I told people, ‘Write this address down in ink, because we are staying put.’” The corners of her mouth turned up again.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Pompeii - Prologue

B&H Books (June 1, 2011)
Tracy Higley


From her lofty place above the sparkling crescent Bay of Napoli, Vesuvius looked down upon the surrounding towns and felt the pressure build beneath her grassy slopes.

It was true, the hot springs which bubbled up from deep within brought pleasure-seekers from the north to bathe in secluded groves, and she boasted lemon trees, and long waving grasses where wildlife grazed her foothills. True, her purple, cloud-kissed peak shone always in the sunlight.

But under it all, where the eyes of no patrician nor plebeian saw, underneath she churned with an angry force waiting to be unleashed.

She was their mother, yes. But she could destroy them all.

And she had been quiet these many years, had she not? Too many years for counting, even. She had been controlled, subdued, silent as generation after generation lived and farmed and reveled in her long shadows.

But not for long. No, not for long.

Though the people who lived beneath her believed that they controlled their own destiny, she knew otherwise.

This was her story, after all.


August 9, 70 AD

Ariella shoved through the clogged street, defying the mob of frantic citizens. Men, women, and children crowded the alleys, senseless in their panic to flee the city. They carried all they could, packed into pouches slung across their chests and clutched in sweaty hands. Soldiers ran with them, as though they had all joined a macabre stadium footrace, with participants who clubbed and slashed at each other to get ahead. Beside her, one of the district’s tax collectors tripped and fumbled a latched wooden box. It cracked against the cobbled street and spilled its meager hoard of gold. The tax collector was dead before he hit the ground, and the Roman soldier pulled his sword from the man’s gut only to scrabble for the coins.

Ariella turned her head from the gore, but felt little pity for the tax man, cheated of life by the Romans for whom he had betrayed his people. Still, concern flickered in her chest at the sudden violence in the street.

Something has happened.

The city had been under siege for months. Three days ago her mother announced that the sacrifices in the Temple had ceased. But today, today was something new. Perhaps three days of sins not atoned for had brought the wrath of the Holy One down on them all.

Unlike those who ran the streets with her, Ariella’s destination was neither Temple nor countryside. She returned to her home—if the dim tenement could be called such—from another useless excursion to secure food.

At sixteen and as eldest child, it fell on her to search the famished city for a scrap of dried beef to feed her brother, perhaps a thimbleful of milk for the baby, crumbs for her father whose eyes had gone glassy and whose skin was now the color of the clay pots he once turned on the wheel.

But there was no food to be found. Titus, the emperor’s son, had arrived in the spring with his army of eighty thousand and his siege wall served well its double function—the people were trapped and they were starving.

Not even such a wall could prevent news from seeping through its cracks, however. From Caesarea, word escaped of twenty thousand Jews slaughtered in a day. Fifty thousand killed in Alexandria. Ten thousand met the sword in Gamla. Such numbers were incomprehensible.

Here in Jerusalem, the bodies thrown outside the city were too numerous to count, piled high in rotting mounds, as though the city itself were defiled and would forever be unclean.

Yet we are not all dead. Ariella’s hands curled into tense fists as she rounded the last corner. She would cling to life as long as she had strength, and like her untiring mother, she would hold tight to that elusive thread for each member of her family.

She pushed against the rough wood of the door and slipped out of the rush of the street. The home’s tomb-like interior had the peculiar smell of starvation. In the corner, her baby sister whimpered as if in response to Ariella’s entrance. Micah met her at the door, his sunken eyes fixed on her and his lips slightly open, as though anticipating the food she might have brought. Or perhaps he simply lacked the strength to close his jaw. She shook her head and Micah turned away, hiding his disappointment as all boys of eleven do when they are threatened by tears.

Her father did not speak from his mat on the floor. Ariella scooped the listless baby Hannah into her arms and gave her a finger to suck. Small consolation.

“Where is Mother?” She scanned the room, then looked to Micah. A low groan from her father set her heart pounding. “Where is she, Micah? Where has Mother gone?”

Micah sniffed and glanced at the door. “To the Temple. She has gone to the Temple.”

Ariella growled and pushed Hannah into her brother’s arms. “She is going to get herself killed, and then where will we be?”

She bent to her father’s side. The man had been strong once. Ariella could barely remember. She touched the cool skin of his arm. “I will bring her back, Father. I promise.” Her father’s eyes sought her own, searching for reassurance. The hunger seemed to have stolen his voice. How long until it took his mind?

She turned on Micah, grabbed his shoulder. “Do not let anyone inside. The streets–” She looked to the door. “The streets are full of madness.”

He nodded, still cradling Hannah.

She kissed the baby. “Take care of them, Micah.” And then she left to retrieve her mother, whose political fervor often outpaced her common sense.

The mid-summer sun had dropped in the sky, an orange disc hazy and indistinct behind rising smoke. The city burns. She smelled it, sensed it, felt it somehow on her skin as she joined the flow toward the temple – a heat of destruction that threatened to consume them all.

Her family enjoyed the privilege of living in the shadow of the Temple Mount. A privilege that today only put them closer to folly. She twisted through the crazed mob, darted around wagons and pushcarts laden with family treasures, swatted at those who shoved against her. Already, only halfway there, her heart struck against her chest and her breathing shallowed, the weakness of slow starvation.

She reached the steps to the south of the Temple platform and was swept upward with the masses. Why were so many running to the Temple? Why had her mother?

And then she heard it. A sound that was part shrieking anger, part mournful lament, a screaming funeral dirge for the city and its people. She reached the top of the steps, pushed through the Huldah Gate, dashed under the colonnade into the Court of the Gentiles, and drew up short. The crowd pressed against her back, flowed around her and surged onward, but Ariella could not move.

The Temple is on fire.

The next moments blurred. She felt herself running, running toward the Temple as if she alone could avert this monstrous evil. Joining others who must have shared her delusion. She saw Roman legionaries club women and children, voices raised in a war cry. The yells of zealot rebels and the shrieks of those impaled by swords returned like an echo. The dead began to accumulate. Soldiers climbed heaps of bodies to chase those who fled. She tasted ashes and blood in the air, breathed the stench of burning flesh, and still some pushed forward.

She fought the smoke and blood, climbed the steps and entered the Court of Women. All around her, peaceful citizens were butchered where they stood. Ahead, a current of blood ran down the curved steps before the brass Nicanor Gate. The bodies of those who had been murdered at the top slipped to the bottom.

Ariella swayed on her feet at the carnage. That her mother was one of these dead she had no doubt. Elana’s outspoken defiance of Rome had earned her a reputation among her people, one that matched the meaning of her given name, torch.

She could go no farther. The entire Temple structure flamed now, from the Court of Israel to the Holy of Holies, its beauty and riches and sanctity defiled, raped by the Romans who even now risked their own flesh to steal its treasures.

A groan at her feet drew her attention, and she saw as if from a great distance that indeed her mother lay there, a bloody slash against her chest and a vicious purpling around her eyes. She lifted a hand, claw-like, to Ariella, who bent to kneel beside her and clasp her fingers.

Ariella had no words. What use to say good-bye, when they would all be in the same place soon?

Strange, she was very cold. With the flames so near and so fierce, still her fingers felt numb as she wrapped them around her mother’s hand.

Elana whispered only “Never forget…” before she was gone, and Ariella nodded because it was the expected thing to do. She studied her mother’s face, the eyes open and unseeing, and felt nothing. Was that right? Should she feel something?

After awhile she thought perhaps she should go home. She tried to stand, slipped in some blood that had pooled on the marble beneath her, and tried again.

The noise seemed far off now, though she could see the faces of citizens, mouths gaping as though they screamed in agony, and soldiers, feral lips drawn back over their teeth. But the sounds had somehow receded.

She weaved through the upright who still lived, stepped over the prone who had already passed, and drifted back to her house. Behind her, the Temple Mount was enveloped in flames, boiling over from its base, though there seemed to be even more blood than flames.

The stupor that had fallen over her at the Temple seemed to slough away as she traveled the streets. From open doorways she heard an occasional wail, but largely it was quiet. Too quiet. As though a river of violence had washed down the street while she’d been gone and swept away all that lived.

Her own street was not so peaceful. From end to end it burned.

She searched the crowd for her father, Micah, the baby. Grabbed hollow-eyed friends and wailing neighbors. One old woman shook her head and pointed a withered hand to the end of the burning street. “Only Micah.” She coughed. “Only he escaped.”

Micah. She called his name, but the word choked in her throat. Where would he have fled?

They had whispered together, one unseasonably warm night a few months ago on their roof, of running away from Jerusalem. Child’s talk, but now… Would he have tried to leave the city, to make it two hours south to family in Bethlehem?

Minutes later, she stumbled toward the Lower City. The Dung Gate would lead her south, to the valley of Hinnom and onward to Bethlehem. If she could escape.

Too many joined her. They would never be allowed to pass. She climbed crumbling steps to the rim of the city wall. Would she see a thread of refugees weaving out of Jerusalem, beyond the gates?

There was a procession of Jews, yes. But not on foot, fleeing to safety. On crosses, writhing in death throes. An endless line of them, crucified in absurd positions for the Romans’ entertainment, until they had run out of crosses, no doubt. Ariella gripped the wall. She would have retched had there been anything in her stomach.

She considered throwing herself from the wall. Was it high enough to guarantee her death? She would not want to die slowly on the ground, listening to the crucified.

The decision was made for her. From behind, a Roman soldier grabbed both her arms, laughing. She waited for the air in her face, for the spin of a freefall in her belly, that feeling she loved when her father rode the donkey cart too fast over the crest of a hill.

Instead, the soldier spun her to face him, shoved her to the stone floor, and fumbled at her tunic.

No, she was not going to die like that.

She exploded into a flailing of arms and legs, kicks and screams. She used her fingernails, used her teeth, used her knees.

From behind her head another soldier called. “That one’s a fighter, eh, Marcus?”

The soldier on top of her grunted.

“Better save her for the general. He wants the strong ones to sell off, you know.”

Ariella realized in that moment that since the siege began months ago, she had believed she would meet her death in the City of God. But as Jerusalem died without her, something far worse loomed in her future.

Life in the slave market of Rome.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Sweetest Thing - Chapter 1

The Sweetest Thing
• Bethany House (June 1, 2011)
Elizabeth Musser

The Sweetest Thing

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

How Huge the Night - Chapter 23

How Huge the Night
Kregel Publications (March 9, 2011)
Heather Munn and Lydia Munn

Excerpt from Chapter 23

From Chapter 23

Thursday the power came back on. They sat in the living room, around the radio that crackled with static; they looked at each other, and then away. The room grew quiet as the announcer began to speak.

“Since Mussolini’s declaration of war on France two days ago, Italian troops are pushing west—”

Mama was on her feet. “The thief!” she hissed. “The backstabber, the coward!” Her face was red. Everyone was staring. She sat down.

Papa looked at her. “Saw his chance, I guess.”

“He’s a shame to his nation,” Mama snapped. Julien stared. Then they heard the shift in the announcer’s voice and turned sharply to the radio.

“German troops are approaching Paris at a rapid pace. As we speak, the vanguard is reported to be fifteen kilometers from Versailles. This will be our last broadcast for a while.”

They did not look at each other. The silence was total.

“Today Paris has been declared an ‘open city.’ Our military will not defend it. This decision was made to avoid bombardment and the great destruction and loss of life that it entails. . . .”

Julien realized he had not been breathing. It was an amazing thing, breathing. Tears shone in Mama’s eyes.

“They won’t bomb Paris,” said Papa quietly.

“They won’t bomb Paris,” Mama whispered.

Benjamin stood, his face very still. He walked slowly to the door and took the stairs.

Julien waited, breathing, seeing Paris; seeing Vincent and his mother look up out of their second-floor window at a clear blue sky. He waited until the news ended, until they had read a psalm that said The Lord has delivered.

Then he followed Benjamin.

Benjamin’s door was closed. Julien hesitated, biting his lip, and went into his own room.

He looked out the window in the fading light. They wouldn’t defend it. This was it, then. What Pastor Alex said was true. German tanks would roll down the Champs-Elysées for real in just a couple days. Then the boches would come here. And they would stay.

He pulled Vincent’s last letter out from under his nightstand. I can’t believe you almost died, it said. That’s crazy. He got up, and went and knocked on Benjamin’s door.

No answer.

“Benjamin? You all right?”


Julien opened the door. Benjamin turned quickly, scowling.

“Did I say you could come in?”

“Well sorry,” Julien growled. How am I supposed to help when he’s like this? “Just wanted to say good night.”

“Good night then.”

“Look, it’s not as bad as it could have been, okay? They could have bombed the place to shreds like Ro—” He bit his tongue.

“You’re right,” said Benjamin, looking away. “That’s good for your relatives. I’m glad.”

“And your parents!”

“Nothing’s good for my parents.” His voice was toneless. “Look, Julien, we can talk about this in the morning. I need to go to bed.”

Julien knew when to quit. He turned away. “Sleep well.”

“You too.”

But he couldn’t. He turned and turned in his bed, twisting the sheets.

He got up and looked out at the crescent moon and the stars high over Tanieux, so white, so far, always the same; they would still be there when the Germans were here; they would still be there all his life. They were still there over Rotterdam, too. It didn’t make any difference.

When he finally slept, he dreamed: Paris on the fourteenth of July, the fireworks, bursts of blue, of gold, of red above the city. A whirling rocket going up with a hiss and a bang. Then a louder bang. Then a bang that threw up a great shower of dirt and stones, and people screaming, people running as the shells began to fall—

He woke, and lay shivering. He got up to close the window. The stars shone down like cold eyes.

He heard a faint scratching. Mice maybe. A floorboard creaked. He listened.

And he heard it. Very slow, stealthy footsteps going down the stairs.

He sat up slowly. Magali or Benjamin. Tiptoeing down the stairs to the kitchen, wishing there was something to eat. . . . He got out of bed and leaned out the window, watching for the faint light that would come through from the kitchen. No light came.

But on the ground floor, the heavy front door opened, and a dark shape slipped out into the street. A shadow with a suitcase in its hand.

He ran across the hall and threw open Benjamin’s door. A neatly made bed, a letter on the pillow. He grabbed it, ran back to his room, jerked his pants on over his pajamas, and ran downstairs in his socks. He’d catch him. Benjamin was on foot. He had to catch him. He scrawled on the flip side of the note, I’ve gone after him, pulled on his shoes and jacket, and flew down the stairs and into the dark.

He raced down the shadowed street and stopped at the corner, heart pounding, looking both ways. North, over the hill: the road to St. Etienne. A train to Paris, like he’d said? There were no trains now. Or south—south to where? Oh Lord if I choose wrong I’ll never find him.

Think. What would he do if it were him? He’d go south—north was suicide, but—he didn’t know, he didn’t know Benjamin. Who did? Nothing is good for my parents, he’d said—he didn’t seem to even care that Paris wouldn’t be bombed—

Because his parents weren’t in Paris.

Julien turned, suddenly sure, and ran.

The Kellers had left Germany because of Hitler and his people. Would they stay in Paris and wait for them? “Let’s walk south,” Benjamin had said—and that stupid map—he should have guessed.

He ran, breathing hard, his eyes on the dark road ahead. Oh God. Oh Jesus. Don’t let me miss him please—please—

He broke free of the houses; the Tanne gleamed in front of him under the splintered moon, cut by the dark curve of the bridge. He froze. He ducked into the shadows and breathed.

There on the bridge was a slender figure leaning on the parapet, looking down at the dark water.

Oh God. Oh Jesus. Now what?

Benjamin turned and took a long, last look at Tanieux. Then he adjusted his backpack, picked up his suitcase, and walked away.

Julien slipped out of the shadows and up to the bridge, his heart beating help me Jesus help me, his mind searching for words. Come home. And if he said no? Drag him? Help me Jesus. He was across the bridge, ten paces behind Benjamin; he broke into a silent run on the grassy verge of the road. He caught up to him. Laid a hand on his arm.


Benjamin whirled, eyes wild in the moonlight. They stared at each other. “Why.” said Julien. “Tell me why.” His voice was harder than he meant it to be.

“Let me go.”

“No.” He tightened his grip on Benjamin’s arm.

Benjamin tried to pull away. “Julien, let me go. You have no idea. You have no idea what they’re like.”

“The boches?” This time his voice came out small.

“The Nazis, Julien. Ever heard of them? Yeah, you heard they don’t like Jews—I don’t think any of you people understand.” The sweep of his arm took in the school and the sleeping town. “Your parents are great, Julien—offering shelter and all—they really are. But they don’t know. Yet.”

But they do. They know. “Know what? What’ll they—do?”

“I’m not waiting around to find out.” His face was white and deadly serious. “Trust me on this, Julien. They are coming here and when they do, it’s better for you if I’m long gone.” I believe it is very dangerous to be a Jew in Germany. And soon—

Julien stood silent. The night wind touched his face; the hills were shadows on the horizon where they blotted out the stars. Suddenly he felt how large the world was, how huge the night, how small they stood on the road in the light of the waning moon. Ahead, the road bent into the pine woods, and in his mind, Julien saw Benjamin walking away, a small form carrying a suitcase into the darkness under the trees. His fingers bit into Benjamin’s arm.

“I don’t care,” he said savagely. “Where would you go?”

Benjamin said nothing; the moonlight quivered in his eyes as they filled with tears. He turned his head away. “I don’t know.” His voice shook.

Julien caught him by the shoulders, gripped him hard. “Well I do,” he said fiercely. “You’re coming home.”

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Lady of Bolton Hill

The Lady of Bolton Hill
Bethany House (June 1, 2011)
Elizabeth Camden

The Lady of Bolton Hill