Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Rhythm of Secrets - Excerpt

Rhythm of Secrets
Kregel Publications (December 22, 2010)
Patti Lacy


Spring 1969, Chicago, Illinois

Stormy days call for Rachmaninoff. Rain thrummed the window and blended with cantata chords Sheila Franklin coaxed from her piano. Soon she’d be done with the choir piece and could continue her Rachmaninoff affair. Or maybe she’d play jazz, wild and free, though Edward had forbidden it. But Edward wasn’t here . . .

“Jesus is love.” She sang as she played, but her movements jerked rather than flowed; a second-year music student could do as well. Eager to be done with it, she glanced at the clock. Ten more minutes, that would do it. Ten more minutes, and she’d play the jazz she’d heard when Papa set a needle on a scratched record in their marvelous Esplanade parlor. Or Rachmaninoff. Yes, Rachmaninoff would be better. Safer. Sheila sat up straight, precisely positioned her hands on the keyboard, but her past refused to be disciplined. Her past . . .

Oh, New Orleans! Images of the noisy French Quarter and Maman’s heart-shaped face pulled her into a keyboard promenade, slow and sassy, toward the Mississippi. A tugboat sounded . . . or a wrong note. She glanced at her hands, again heard the musical hiccup. She hadn’t missed a key. It was that darned phone, threatening to shut down a riotous Mardi Gras parade. Irritation clapped through her. She continued to pound the keys, but the wretched thing buzzed insistently.

When icy resentment froze her hands, she stared at them. Her diamond solitaire dazzled her eye and reminded her of her commitment eighteen years ago. She’d agreed to interruptions like this when she’d married Edward Franklin . . . and his congregation. Life, death, or a dozen things in between waited at the other end of the line; the knowledge propelled her toward his phone. She and Edward had battened down their marriage with the surety, the safety, of Christ. And it was enough, Lord. Yes. It would have to be enough.

As she moved to his study, she kneaded her knuckles but could do nothing for the memories. Beautiful memories. Painful memories. The lonely Russian composer understood—she knew from his music—but Rachmaninoff would have to wait.

She picked up the phone from its perch on Edward’s roll-top desk. “Hello?”

Static answered, and a noise like the wings of a large bird taking flight. She leaned against the desk, reminding herself to be polite, even if it was Mr. O’Leary, ringing up Edward from the pay phone outside the neighborhood pub. Or someone who needed money. “Franklin residence. Can I help you?”

“Is this Sylvia Allen?”

She tried to breathe; nearly choked. Her elbows banged against solid oak. Nobody knew she’d once been Sylvia Allen except . . . What was this? Blackmail?

The room whirled, rows of Bible commentaries reduced to smears of gold and blue against a wash of brown. Only the surety, the solidity, of Edward’s desk kept her from crumbling to the floor.

When Edward found out about Sylvia Allen, her marriage would crumble, like a mansion built on sand. She would crumble, all her secrets exposed. Who would dare do this? She gripped the phone and stumbled into Edward’s chair. The telephone cord stretched taut, but the connection held. Her mouth opened. Nothing came out.

“Hello? Are you there?”

This is a man’s voice. Could it be?

“Mrs. Allen?”

It’s not a blackmailer. It’s . . . him. Intuition set a wildfire ablaze with blues and reds, violets and oranges, in a heart accustomed, with his absence, to a sputtering light. He’d found her, after all these years. Heat raced to her limbs and set off sparks in her fingertips.

“Y—yes. I’m Sylvia Allen,” she whispered, though she longed to burst out in song. He’s alive! As if she’d put on glasses, Edward’s study came into brilliant focus. She took in the glorious words on Edward’s book spines, the glowing face of a portrait of Jesus. Even the rain let up to gift a window view of scarlet Japanese maples and budding tulips. Alive! Like . . . him.

“This is Samuel.”

Yes. I know, baby. An inner symphony began, the chords so dramatically chromatic, her slick hand struggled to hold the phone. “Y-yes,” she managed.

“I’d like to see you, if it’s possible.”

If it’s possible? I’d give my life for it. “Of course.” Somehow she’d managed to answer in a controlled way. Hadn’t she? She cradled the receiver against her shoulder, wanting him to speak again and fill the tinny void. He really wanted to see her? Could that mean he’d forgiven her?

“I hoped we could have dinner. Friday night. Do you know a place?”

She closed her eyes to concentrate. He had such a lovely voice!

“Ma’am? A place?”

His all-business tone muffled her music. She’d best gather her wits. “Y-yes.” She cleared her throat to stall for time. Somewhere discreet. Out-of-the way. “Yes,” she repeated, “Etienne’s.” Her voice sounded shivery, distant. Like it belonged to someone else. And wasn’t she somebody else? Three somebodys?

A time was arranged. Forty-eight agonizing hours away. The dial tone sounded, and she fell to her knees, shag carpet cushioning the phone receiver as it plunked next to her. “God,” she prayed, “thank You.” Whispery words fought their way out. “Make him understand. Make him love me.” Her heart thumped the pleas until her chest ached, but she gladly accepted the pain. How long had she prayed for this moment? Twenty-two years, two months, and five days.

The chiming clock reminded her of choir practice, prayer service, and the shirts that needed to be pressed and hung in the clothes bag for Edward’s three-day meeting in Dallas. An amazing coincidence, that meeting. A coincidence allowing her to arrange this other meeting with her Samuel.

She rose from the floor, hung up the phone, hobbled to the kitchen. As if she were in a stranger’s home, she grazed the chair arm, the counter edge, yet she was ushering in hope, joy, and something else. Something looming, now that she’d had decades to pay the price for what she’d done. Had one call changed everything? Had God sent a precious, dangerous gift her way? Something akin to the explosive power tucked into an atom? As she gathered her things, she prayed that she could harness that power which had been stored up all these years and keep it from destroying them all. Her Edward. His church. Most of all, her Samuel.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Digitalis - Invitation

Barbour Publishing, Inc.(January 1, 2011)
Ronie Kendig


Invaluable skills came with bloody faces and dead objectives that left Colton Neeley wishing he could rub his eyes raw. Those same skills were the reason Uncle Sam had denied his request for an early exit from his commitment with the Marine Special Operations Command/Team. And the same reason he couldn’t muster enthusiasm for his friend who’d been granted his freedom.

“Never thought you’d get out.” Colton slumped back against the wood slats of the lawn chair, watching his four-year-old daughter, McKenna. She sat on the fifty-foot dock that stretched over the private pond. She tossed a pink lure-tipped line into the water as his dad helped.

“You and me both.” Beside him, his partner and MARSOC buddy Griffin Riddell sat with his elbows propped on his knees. “What about you? Thought you wanted out.”

“Denied.” The word felt like a weight around his gut. Colton shifted his gaze to the water rippling around Mickey’s bobber. “Eleven years wasn’t enough for Uncle Sam. Said my sniping and recon skills were too invaluable.”

Griffin whistled. “Man, after what you went through in Fallujah, I half expected them to toss you without so much as a thank-you-verymuch.” His grunted. “How you doing with that?”

Colton picked up his soda and took a swig. “S’pose I’ll be all right.” He glanced over at the grill. Probably should get up and flip the meat in a few.

“Two months as a hostage. That don’t just disappear, know what I’m saying?”

Oh he knew all right. More than knew. Though Colton didn’t want to remember, the mention of that city and what happened snapped faces into his mind like a flickering silent movie, bringing with it phantom pains in his spine and legs.

“What about the flashbacks?”

“Daddy, look!” McKenna’s mouse-like voice squeaked as she giggled. With his father next to her, she held up the end of her fishing line. “I caught a seaweed.” Another giggle.

“Save it, Mickey,” he called toward the pond, where his daughter sat between his mom and dad on the short pier. “We’ll grill it.”

She batted white-blond hair from her face as her papa took the rod. “Daddy.” The cutest scowl tugged at her fair features and blue eyes as she planted her hands on her hips and turned to him. “You can’t eat it, silly. It’s a weed.

He chuckled as she and his mother baited the line, while his father pointed out that if they’d use real worms, they’d catch something besides weeds. Naturally, Mickey and his mom ewwed out the option.

Though Colton’s attention never left his family, the patient, waiting gaze of his buddy burned through Colton’s resolve. He shook his head, knowing he wouldn’t get out of answering that question. About the flashbacks. Fallujah. The girl. . . “I see that kid’s face every day and every time I look at Mickey.” The brown eyes. The misinterpreted trust.

Clearing his throat, he sat up straighter. “Started therapy last week.” He shrugged, scrounging for hope that this would be over soon. “Like the counselor. Joined an experimental group for a new med—seems to be working.”

“Going all the way, huh?”

“I want to be whole. Get out there and play with Mickey and forget that two months of captivity almost paralyzed me, that the hum of a light isn’t my brain getting fried.” He roughed a hand over his face. “Forget it, man. This is the Fourth. We have a barbecue.”

Colton pushed out of his chair and strode to the covered patio, where plumes of heat rose from the gas grill. As he worked the steaks and burgers over the cast-iron grate, he let the tendrils of smoke carry off the depression and haunting images. As the meat finished cooking, he stood in silence, soaking up the laughter of his family and guests, Griffin and his ten-year-old nephew.

Ten minutes later, they gathered under the covered porch to munch on the cooked-to-perfection corn on the cob and meat. Once their bellies were full, they leaned back and sighed as the fans circled lazily overhead.

“Now, that was a meal,” Griffin said as he clamped a hand on Dante’s shoulder. “You need to learn to cook like that.”

Dante grinned. “Yes, sir. Grandpapa would love it.”

Gathering plates and dishes, Colton’s mother waved them off. “Y’all go on and enjoy your time. Colton, get the sparklers for McKenna and Dante while I clean up.”

The blond wonder jumped up and down, squealing. “Yes, Daddy! I love them! Please—please—please?” She threaded her hands in mock prayer.

“All right, darlin’.” He rustled her hair. “I’ll be right back.” He stepped into the dark night and headed to his truck, where he’d left the small bag of sparklers. Reaching behind the front seat, he cocked his head and groped for the fireworks. As his fingers grazed the bag, which scooted farther out of reach, he spotted his Remington 700.

Regret choked him. He paused and leaned against the seat. Hung his head. God. . .please. I just want a clear mind. With a final grunt, he snatched the bag and slammed the door shut on the truck and on his shaky thoughts. “All right, Mickey, here we go.”

Bouncing from the back porch toward him, she squealed. “Dante, look, look! Daddy got sparklers and poppers—my favorite.”

A noise screeched through the night.

His heart jack-hammered at the familiar sound.

Crack! Boom!

He dove to the side. Hearing hollowed out, he blinked. A dusty road spread before him. Shouts pervaded the Iraqi street. Men darted for cover. Colton scrambled, feeling the weight of his gear on his back.

“Take cover,” he shouted to his team as he rushed up against a building. Spine pressed to the wood, he reached for his radio. Gone. He cursed. Under attack and no backup, no airstrike. He searched the street, his mind pinging.

Movement to the side flared into his awareness. Instincts blazed. He grabbed his weapon—but it wasn’t there. Oh God, no! He patted the ground, his hearing still muffled by the first IED detonation. Where’s my rifle? Where’d it go?


“What?” he shouted, searching for his weapon.


Kaboom! Pop-pop-pop. Multi-colored flashes lit the bloody day. Colton scrambled for cover beside the Humvee. He scoured the dust and smoke for his team. Where were they? He glanced over his shoulder—then remembered the Remington.

As he rushed to the back door of the Humvee, another blast shoved him against the steel. Oof!


Yanking open the door, he noted civilians on the other side of the Humvee and hoped they stayed clear of the violence erupting around them. He didn’t need to find another foot—or any other body part— during cleanup. He lifted his weapon and only then realized it was empty.

Sound from behind yanked him around.

A white-haired man rushed toward him.

“Get back!” Without his weapon ready, it’d be hand-to-hand. But he wasn’t letting his weapon go. No way would someone find him with his pants down. Not here. He wasn’t going to die in Iraq because he didn’t have his gun. They did that to the civilian contractors. But not to him, not to a MARSOC sniper.

“What are you doing? Don’t do this.”

When the haggard man rushed him again, Colton drove a hard right into his face. The old man flew back and slid across the hardpacked earth. Colton quickly eased a slug in and chambered the round.

Crack! Boom! Pop-pop!

He ducked, and when he came up, a girl with wide brown eyes appeared out of the dust. His heart rapid-fired. No. Couldn’t be. He’d killed her already. The villagers had used her as a suicide bomber—then captured him and nearly killed him. No way, no how was he going back there so they could drive a thousand volts through his body.

He dropped to a knee and lined up the sights.

The girl drew back and yelped. “I’m scared.”

Why was she speaking English? He shrugged. They’d trained the children to gain confidence and intelligence. He’d fallen prey once. Won’t happen again.

Maa-i-khussni, not my problem,” he said, all too familiar with the way the radicals worked the American soldiers. Soldiers who were here trying to help.

“Cowboy, it’s”—Boom! Crack-crack-pop!—“girl.”

“Don’t care, man. I’m not letting them take me again.” Sweat slid down his temple into his eye. He blinked—

Wait! Her eyes. How had they changed from brown to blue? He shook his head to dislodge the disparity. The heat. Had to be the heat. Using his upper arm, he swiped away the sweat. Realigned the sights. His heart rate ratcheted when more civilians emerged around the girl.

“Ambush!” He lowered his head and peered through the scope. Focused on nailing the shot, holding his position. Considered the elements.

“Colton! No!” a familiar voice shouted.

But they didn’t know. Hadn’t been there.

“Marine, stand down! Stand down!”

His finger slid into the trigger well.

It’s a girl. A little girl.

And they’d used her to get to him, to extract information and kill him. Never again.

Target acquired.

Why are her eyes blue? No, not blue. He was seeing things. They were brown, and he wasn’t letting this happen again. No remorse. Gently, he let his finger ease back on the trigger.

Forgive me, Father, he prayed silently, as he did with every kill.

A tremendous weight slammed into him and knocked him sideways. Crack! As the weapon’s recoil registered, so did the fact that he’d lost his gun. He went flying. Hit the ground—hard. Thud! Stars sprinkled through his eyes. The edges of his vision ghosted. His ears popped. He howled at the pain. Blinked.

Night? Why was it night?


Again, he blinked. A man almost as dark as the sky behind him loomed over him. “Legend?” Aches radiated through Colton’s body, leaving him disoriented. “What. . . ?”

Screams and cries suffused the night.

Something ominous clouded Legend’s face. He straddled Colton, pinning his arms to the sides. “You with me, Cowboy? You here?”

“What are—get off!”

“Where are we?”

“What do you mean?”

“Where are we? Answer me, Marine!”

Qualms squelched by Legend’s drill sergeant voice, Colton paused. “My ranch.” A horrible, horrible feeling slithered into his gut. The events crashed in on him. The screaming. The little girl in Fallujah. Blue eyes. “No!” Everything in him went cold. For a split second, he locked gazes with Griffin, then jerked his head to the side. Strained to see.

A half-dozen feet away lay his Remington 700. Beyond, his mother and father huddled over—

“McKenna!” The pounding roar of his pulse deafened him.

The small huddle shifted. His parents parted, and Mickey sat up. Colton squirmed, but Griffin held him down. “Get off me now, or so help me God—”

His buddy shoved off and cleared the path. Scrabbling over the dirt drive, Colton pushed the weapon out of reach and dove toward his daughter. When she saw him coming, Mickey screamed—and lunged for his mother.

Her rejection punched him in the gut. He sat, stunned. “Mickey.” His voice cracked. He reached for his beautiful, precious four-year-old with a trembling hand.

Liquid blue eyes came to his as his mother let out a sob again, pushed to her feet, and rushed up the steps into the house with McKenna.

Colton dropped back, numb. I almost killed my daughter. A half moan trapped the air in his throat.

“Son?” Blood dribbled down his father’s chin.

Did I. . .punch him? Appalled at himself, Colton pushed his father away. Stumbled to his feet. Staggered to the barn. I almost killed my daughter. Arms and legs felt as heavy as cannons. He couldn’t tell between reality and the nightmare of captivity. Couldn’t tell the difference—he gasped for air—between his own daughter and an insurgent’s pawn.

He swayed. The heady scent of the barn lured him inside. How. . . how could he do that? Lose grasp on reality like that? He gripped the half wall of a stall. Gripped it tight. Wood dug into his hands. What’s wrong with me? He shook the wall. Shuffled back—and drove his heel through the wood. It splintered and swung inward.

A horse shifted aside and nickered in protest.

Colton spun around and grabbed his head. Anger burned to rage. Seeing Mickey’s stricken face. Knowing what he’d almost done. Almost put a sniper bullet through his daughter’s tiny frame. The impact alone would have ruptured every major organ in her body.

Colton wobbled. Hot tears streaked down his face. His knees grew weak, and he stumbled. Fell and dragged himself to the wall. With his back against the steel of the barn, he again held his head. A demoniclike growl clawed through his chest. Tears slid over his cheeks.

“God, where are You?” He rammed his elbows into the steel. “Why? Why. . . ?” His fingernails dug into his scalp, wishing he could gouge the memories from his mind. He growled—sobbed. Banged his head. He let out a loud, stuttering moan, still shrouded in disbelief and pure agony.

A hand clamped on his shoulder. Griffin. He’d been the voice in the flashback, ordering him to stand down.

Humiliation cloaked Colton in a suffocating fabric. “I told them. . . .” He groaned. “I told the Brass I had to get out.” He smeared the tears away, then wiped his hand down his jeans. “I need time. . . .” The memory of Mickey’s terrified expression strangled his words. His chin quivered. “To heal up.”

Shoes shuffled and crunched against the dirt and hay.

Colton rubbed his face and shuddered as he looked up. When he saw his partner crouched in front of him, he wanted to say something—anything that would explain how he’d become some monster who couldn’t tell the difference between pure innocence and a girl with a bomb strapped to her chest.

Fingers threaded, Griffin took a deep breath, then pointed his fingers at Colton. “I met a man not long ago who can get you out.”

Wariness wedged into Colton’s ability to believe his partner. “No way. I’m locked in.”

“Not only get you out but give you the time you want.”

Colton shook his head. “Stop messing with me. I can’t take jokes right now.”

“No joke.” White teeth shone against Griffin’s ebony skin as he smiled. “I tell this guy I need you, he’ll get you out.”

“Need me? For what?”

“I’ll give you all the time you need to get your mind back where it should be.” Griffin straightened and towered over him. “But then you're going to be part of a very special team.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Angel Harp - Chapter 1

Angel Harp
FaithWords (January 26, 2011)
Michael Phillips

Chapter 1

By yon bonnie banks, and by yon bonnie braes, Where the sun shines bright on Loch Lomond, Where me and my true love were ever wont to gae On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond.

O ye’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak’ the low road An’ I’ll be in Scotland afore ye: But me and my true love will never meet again On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond.

—“Loch Lomond”

It is a terrible thing when dreams die.

I haven’t cherished many dreams in my life. My dreams were quiet and personal. I usually thought of myself as a relatively simple person. I didn’t care about changing the world or being rich, or even for that matter having a fancy home. I could have been content most anywhere.

Everyone wants to be happy, I suppose. I don’t know if I would call that a dream.

There were a few things I had dreamed of, being loved by a good and worthy man and loving him in return, having children and raising them and loving them and being loved by them, grow¬ing old with my husband and watching our sons and daughters mature and blossom and raise children of their own. But one by one those dreams had been taken from me.

My husband is gone now. The circumstances aren’t important. At least I don’t want to dwell on them. They’re too painful. Suffice it to say he is gone.

We had planned to have children, of course, but kept putting it off. First it was the money problems of newlyweds . . . thinking we needed a bigger house before starting a family. . . my husband’s career . . . my own part-time work.

Suddenly years slip by. My husband died and there were no children.

I wasn’t particularly old when I found myself alone, only thirty-four. Not even past my prime, as they say. But it’s old enough to feel old if it comes before you’re ready for it.

My friends told me I needed to get out, to see people, to start “dating” again. What a horrible thought! I could hardly imagine it. Good heavens, I already had a gray hair or two. My hair was either dark blond or light brown, whatever you want to call it, so it hid the occasional grayish strand pretty well. But I knew they were there. I also knew what they meant—that the clock of life kept ticking and I wasn’t a teenager anymore.

It isn’t as if a single woman, a widow—gosh, what a thing to call myself at thirty-four!—can just snap her fingers and suddenly find a line of eligible, successful, sensitive, handsome, nice men in their mid to late thirties lining up at her door. It doesn’t happen that way. I had never considered myself that good-looking. I know men judge differently, but when I looked in the mirror I couldn’t rate my looks at more than three-and-a-half or four

Maybe four-and-a-half.

And when did four-and-a-half turn heads? Ten is the standard in our world.

I’d been told I had a nice smile, but it hadn’t been seen much lately. The people at church told me I ought to go to the singles group. That prospect sounded as bad as dating. Sitting around with a bunch of twenty-somethings noodling on guitars, or with thirty-somethings checking each other out, obviously “looking”—no thanks.

I’m not exactly sure how the next few years passed. If time flies when you’re having fun, it somehow also goes by when you’re not. I continued to work half-days as a teacher’s aide and threw myself into my music. Once a week I drove four hours for a lesson with the harpist I had studied under when I first took up Celtic music years before. I occasionally lugged my small harp to my second-grade class. From that a few private lessons resulted when parents called to ask if I would teach their children on a more regular basis. And when asked to play for weddings or garden parties or to provide background music for a social event or mixer, I usually accepted.

Over the years my little harp studio grew. I added students, then also gradually added harps until I had six in all.

It is hard to describe the personal bond a harpist feels with his or her favorite instrument. A harp is part of your very soul. Even though I had six harps, they were all favorites, for different reasons. Of course my big pedal harp, a Lyon & Healy 15, which I called the Queen, was the most majestic of the six. But my black twenty-six-string Dusty Strings my father had given to me for a birthday years before was perhaps the most special of all. After my husband died I named it “Journey.” I don’t know why—I hadn’t called it anything before that. But a day after the funeral, realizing that this small harp had been with me for a long time and had been through a lot with me, I just started calling it Journey.

I had four other harps as well, two thirty-four-string harps called Aida and Shamrock, which I called by their model names. Then I had two small lap or ballad harps—a very small twenty two-string Irish harp made by Walton which I called the Ring, and a twenty-six-string harp my husband had made from a kit, called the Limerick.

There is a story behind the Walton “Ring.” When my husband proposed to me, knowing of my love for the harp, he asked me, “Would you like a diamond ring, or a harp some day?”

I’m no fool. I knew which cost more . . . by about ten to one. I chose the harp!
So as an “engagement ring” of sorts, he ordered the little ballad harp from Walton in Ireland, had it shipped to us in Canada, and surprised me with it before we were married. Hence, the name.

Five years later we were able to buy the Queen from another local harpist who had decided to sell it, and pay her over several years. Otherwise, at that time in our lives we would never have been able to afford a large pedal harp. We made the final payment just three months before my husband died. I had my two “rings”—the Ring and the Queen—but my husband was gone.

The other harps had come along gradually as I began to give more and more lessons.

What does one person need with six harps? I can imagine someone wondering.

For weddings and parties and church services I nearly always played on my pedal harp. Its sound was so full and large and rich it could fill a cathedral. That was the sound you needed on such occasions. And for outdoor garden receptions or open-air weddings, you needed large volume such that would carry without acoustics helping magnify the sound.

But obviously you couldn’t wheel a sixty-nine-inch-tall, eighty-pound harp into a hospital room. My Dusty Strings portable level harp suited that purpose perfectly. I could carry it in its case with one hand, and it had a rich and vibrant tone that could easily fill a large room.

For my own purposes, the Queen and Journey would have been all I needed . . . along with my sentimental favorite—the Ring!

If you plan to give harp lessons, however, your students have to have something to play and practice on. Some people bought harps. But it is a huge financial commitment for someone to make before they are absolutely certain their initial love for and fascina¬tion with the instrument are going to last long enough to justify it. So I used the four others for loaners and rentals—the two larger student-size harps for older children and adults, the two ballad harps for younger children.

I loved teaching children to play the harp. That was the bright spot in my life. But was it enough in itself to give the rest of my drab existence meaning?

Turning forty didn’t exactly wake me out of my lethargy. At first it just stunned me.

Forty! Good heavens, am I really forty? I thought.

Not that forty is really very old either. There are millions to whom forty would sound pretty good. But if you’ve never been forty, it’s a milestone that means you’re not young anymore. The years are be¬ginning to tick by ever more steadily. Whenever that indefinable thing called one’s “prime” is, anyone can be excused at forty for pausing to wonder if it passed by without their knowing it.

At first I became dreadfully depressed. If ever I’d had the chance to marry again, I had just wasted half my thirties doing nothing about it.

Gradually that phase faded. Then I went through a period of trying to deal with it by forcing myself to look the cold hard facts in the eye and accept them like a grown-up and quit being a cry¬baby. Every day I told myself, “You are forty, you are a widow, you are middle-aged, you have more gray than you can safely keep plucking out, you are going to live the rest of your life alone. Deal with it.”

That was more depressing than telling myself I had just wasted six years! I quickly gave up that tactic, too. Even if my you’re¬ getting-old mantra was true, I didn’t have to keep reminding myself.

A day came I’ll never forget, though I wouldn’t mind forgetting it. It was a nondescript Sunday in November—gray, threatening rain, cold, dreary. I had nothing to do, nowhere to go. There were no lessons scheduled. I saw nobody. As dusk began to fall about five-thirty that afternoon, I realized the whole day had gone by and I’d not seen another soul all day. I was sitting on the couch of my living room, and from out of nowhere I just started to cry. For no reason, I just began to cry.

The sad truth had finally hit home that I was lonely. I was alone in the world . . . and it felt awful.

I cried myself to sleep on the couch, woke up about ten in pitch black, cold and hungry, and dragged myself to bed.

A week or two later I had a dream. I mean an actual dream, at night in my sleep.

I think my husband was the focus of it, but I can’t remember. It’s not important. You know how sometimes you have dreams and the story of the dream, if you want to call it that, fades but the feelings it arouses remain with you. This was one of those.

I woke up crying. The words were ringing in my head: Don’t let me die, don’t let me die.

I was so sad and lonely at that moment. Strange to say, I felt even lonelier than after I realized I would never see my husband again. I just lay in the dark and sobbed and sobbed until I could sob no more.

Finally I got up and went to the bathroom, blew my nose, splashed my face with cold water and tried to take a deep breath, then went back to bed. I turned the wet pillow over and lay down on my back and just stared up at the ceiling of my bedroom in the darkness.

The words didn’t go away.

Don’t let me die, don’t let me die.

As I had returned to wakefulness a few minutes earlier, with fleeting phantasms of my husband evaporating like mist from my brain, I had the sense that he was calling out for me to help him, that I might somehow have been able to save him. No wonder such an uncontrollable sadness flooded over me. It was like blaming myself all over again for what had happened.

But gradually I realized that it wasn’t my husband speaking at all. It was the dream itself. The dream was saying, “Don’t let me die.”

I had no idea what it meant.

After an hour or so, I began to doze. When I next came to my¬self, light was visible behind the curtains of my bedroom. It was morning.

Almost the moment I opened my eyes, again came the words from the middle of the night, though now slightly changed: Don’t let the dream die.

I got out of bed and threw back the curtains. Yesterday’s rain had passed and a brilliant pink-and-orange sunrise greeted me.

And I knew that it was indeed a terrible thing when dreams died. I had given in to lethargy and despondency and loneliness. I had let hope slip away. I had allowed my dreams to fade.

As I stood looking out on that bright sunrise, I thought to myself that maybe it wasn’t too late.

Some of my dreams were gone forever. I could never get my husband back.
But I could not let them all die. There were still dreams worth dreaming.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Someone to Blame - Chapter 1

Someone To Blame
Zondervan (September 21, 2010)
C. S. Lakin

Chapter 1

Irene once heard that if you fell off a cliff in your dream, you would always wake before smacking the ground.

If only real life were that merciful.

She pulled her damp cheek away from the warm glass of the truck window and gazed at the Trinity River meandering hundreds of feet below, gloomy green water snaking through a precipitous canyon. Narrow curves hugged the steep sides of cliff with only a short retaining wall of stacked rocks separating them from disaster — many of the stones chipped, some ominously missing from the ledge.

Irene imagined the fear a driver would feel straining to discern the gray road on a foggy night. Stunned as the stone wall came up too fast, too close, jerking the steering wheel, hearing the chilling screech of tires spinning out on loose gravel. And she could almost taste the desperate panic contained in the freefall, the driver trapped in the confines of the car as the vehicle plunged to the rocks and icy water below.


Maybe that word came closest to defining this indefinable sensation of pain. No other words quite fit, and Irene desperately needed one that would. For months she had tested adjectives, placing them alongside the events that punctured their lives, yearning for a match.

Raw. Horrific. Suffocating. Tragic. Debilitating.

Impotent, feeble words.

After you fell for a while, you’d reach a constant speed — terminal velocity. Irene remembered reading that a skydiver in freefall leveled out at two hundred miles per hour. Had the person who invented that term realized the implied double meaning? How a fall at that great a speed could only be terminal?

Haunting images flooded her mind. Desperate people leaping from skyscraper windows in a futile attempt to escape a fire. A plane exploding at high altitude, spilling people out of their seats thousands of feet above the polar ice caps.

Yet, those tragic victims suffered only a merciful few seconds of horror before death.

When you lose a child, you tumble in freefall continually, without acquittal. The ground rushes up at you, your mind frantic and disbelieving. Impending doom pulls you toward impact at dizzying speeds.

But you never hit bottom.

Never a reprieve from panic. Never startling awake before the moment of contact. Never breathing that sigh of relief as the wisp of nightmare dissolves and you learn you are safe, tangled in bedcovers, your husband sleeping undisturbed at your side.

You are always falling.

Irene wrenched her eyes from the river and turned to Matt. He had barely spoken all day, but she was growing accustomed to his long stretches of silence. She watched him shift his weight and hunker down over the steering wheel, eyeing the rental trailer in the side-view mirror as it dragged behind them like an albatross.

They had sold most of their furniture with the house, shed it all, along with as many memories as possible. Crammed all the tangible remnants of their past into that twelve-foot box dragging behind them. How was it so easy to fit the pieces of their lives into such a small container?

The strain etched in Matt’s face was telltale: his red, tired eyes; the pallor across his features; a grimace that annihilated any former trace of joy. Even the way he gripped the wheel evidenced the weeks of sleepless nights that eroded his concentration.

Exhaustion — plain and simple.

Irene knew she looked just as haggard. She adjusted the small vanity mirror attached to the sun visor so she could see into the backseat. Behind her, Casey’s eyes were closed. Indecipherable strains of music filtered out of her daughter’s headphones. Irene wished she could smother her own inner monologue that easily.

They had left the Motel 6 in Redding at dawn with the air already sweltering and shimmering across the highway. Matt had made one trip north the week before to relocate his work trailer and other equipment. Irene knew he had disposed of most of his tools, given them away or thrown them out. An inconceivable act. But then, nearly every choice they made these days seemed incongruous.

“Where are we now?” she asked.

“Almost to Willow Creek.” He glanced at her, his eyes vacant. “Do you need to stop?”

Irene shook her head.

Casey leaned forward, raw impatience in her voice. “How much longer?”

“About an hour,” Matt said.

“You hungry?” Irene turned and touched Casey’s shoulder, felt a barely perceptible flinch. “We could get a bite.”

Casey flopped back against her seat. “Let’s just get there.”

“There” meant the coastal town of Breakers — their new home. Most people would visit a place before making such a big decision, but theirs had been an act of hasty desperation. Irene had accepted the first job offered; she’d had no energy to think beyond that. She left all the moving details to Matt.

As they rounded another treacherous curve, her eyes caught a makeshift cross half buried in the weeds alongside the road, faded plastic flowers stapled to the wood. The sight snagged her heart, like hide on barbed wire.

There she was again. Falling.

In the town they’d left behind, a poorly banked curve two miles below their home was called the “Trap.” Driving down the mountain grade into Running Springs was trying enough — all tight hairpin curves, compounded by three seasons of fog, ice, and sleet. No wonder the fatalities racked up. On more than one occasion, Matt had ushered Jesse and Daniel out in front of the station wagon with a flashlight while he inched the car behind them, locking sight on their waving hands, which looked like disembodied limbs. The road would materialize like an apparition, a foot at a time, out of nowhere. Eventually, there’d be a break in the fog and the boys would stomp the cold from their feet and tumble back into the car, blowing on their hands, wishing for hot chocolate.

The Trap had claimed countless victims over the years, accidents caused by mats of slick maple leaves rotting along the edges of the asphalt and the eerie way the fog gathered and pooled along that stretch of two-lane road. Yet in all those years, Irene never imagined her own family would be added to the grim statistics.

When had it all started to fall apart? That tragic day Daniel got his driver’s license? Or earlier — the first time he was summoned to the principal’s office in third grade? Or perhaps it traced even further back, to the day she’d met Matt and seen a man so carefully in control of his life.

Irene squeezed her eyes shut. Why hadn’t warning bells gone off in her head that night? Why hadn’t God stepped in and prevented the accident? Friends at church meant to be consoling, but their platitudes only stoked her anger. The “nonanswers.”

We don’t know why.

Why God allows some to live and some to die.

Why we can pray for him to protect our children and yet he lets things like this happen. Maybe for a greater glory and purpose.

So the town would now install warning lights and guard rails, and future lives would be spared — Jesse’s life not lost in vain, et cetera, et cetera.

Irene clenched her teeth. She’d been over and over this for more than a year now — a tireless barrage of questions that yielded no answers.

She glanced at Matt and saw his blank expression, the stone wall he erected alongside his own raging river chasm. Who was she fooling? Did she think she could salvage a family out of the ashes of disaster? She knew she had to try — for Casey. At least she kept telling herself that, willing herself to believe it.

When they arrived at Breakers, Matt slowed the truck and eased up to a stop sign. Casey leaned forward and smoothed her cropped black hair.

“Are we here? Is this it?”

Matt nodded.

Irene looked at the small shopping center across the street and lowered the window. A strong breeze of salt air rushed in, cool and startling. Seagulls winged on the updraft above her, and she even heard the sea. Across the street a clapboard-sided market, post office, police station, and a few mismatched shops lined a parking lot. Casey leaned forward to peek out the windshield, then retreated to her seat with a disapproving sigh.

They drove the last five miles in silence, passing one rundown motel after another, dark wooden structures backed up against pockets of giant redwood trees. The road sank and tipped at the mercy of eroding cliffs, cliffs slowly dissolving at the insouciance of an unforgiving sea, while below them a turbulent metal-gray ocean slammed against the rocky shoreline, spray erupting high into the air.

Irene felt a kinship with the restless shifting of elements.

The rental house sat at the end of a dirt lane, close to the state park. Irene got out and eyed the small weathered cottage with its rotting plank siding and peeling brown paint. She had little doubt that, in no time, Matt would have it spruced up, with plumbing and lights working to his satisfaction. Matt would never have picked a house in perfect condition. She knew he needed something to fix . . . since there was so much he couldn’t fix in his own life.

Casey got out of the truck and stopped beside her mother, evaluating her new home. “You gotta be kidding,” she mumbled, then trudged through the front door.

Matt busied himself detaching the trailer and setting chocks behind the tires. Irene closed her eyes and let the crisp wind whip her hair. Off in the distance waves pounded the shore, a low thrumming, like an advancing army.

She hesitated at the sagging threshold of the front door. Maybe this would be a good move. She would start teaching at Breakers Elementary. Casey would begin eighth grade with a whole new set of classmates — students who wouldn’t stare at her with pity or back away, afraid her bad luck was contagious. Matt would pour his frustrated energy into repairing the cottage. They could begin a new life, one unmarred by pain and disaster. Allow some semblance of normalcy to seep back into their lives.

At least that was what Irene had hoped for, had prayed for.

She turned, about to say something to Jesse.

Her dead son.

At the edge of a crumbling cliff, Irene felt her feet give way. As the ground rushed up to meet her, she clutched the word in her fist.