Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Grand Design by Amber Stockton

A Grand Design
Abingdon Press (August 19, 2014)
Amber Stockton

Chapter 1

“I hate the month of June!”

Alyssa Denham shouldered her way through the revolving door to her office building and onto the concrete sidewalk, her arms laden with bridal shower grab-bag gifts. She should have tossed most of the stuff, or found an unsuspecting coworker and bestowed the gifts on her as a random act of kindness. Three office bridal showers in the first three weeks of April. It had to be a record. The predictable wedding invitations arrive in her inbox, and she still didn’t have a date for the events. Some of it was her fault. It shouldn’t bother her, but it did.

I don’t have a date, period.

Every year for the past five years, whenever a wedding occurred for someone she knew, it happened in June. And this year was no different. If June was her least favorite month, then April followed as a close second. As Alyssa stepped out from under the overhang, the light drizzle falling most of the day changed to a steady rain.

“Perfect,” she muttered, looking up and down the street for a taxi to the train station. She usually walked, but the gift bags and little wrapped items she carried made the idea impossible. The six blocks would feel more like sixty.

Alyssa straightened when she saw a yellow cab round the corner. She stepped forward and tried to free one arm to signal it. When the driver maneuvered toward the curb, relief coursed through her. Just as she reached for the door handle, a Tom Cruise look-alike in a dark gray tailored suit stepped in front of her. He opened the door and held it for a young blonde who could easily pass for a magazine model.

Recognizing the girl as the latest bride-to-be from her office, Alyssa rolled her eyes and sighed. The pretty girls always get the guys—and the cabs. So what if the girl was also in a jam. The young woman and her fiancé might be late for dinner reservations, but Alyssa had an armful of packages—thanks to the two who had just stolen her ride. The cab pulled away from the curb and the rear wheels sent a spray of water in her direction.

Her favorite cream slacks now sporting a dirty rainwater splatter, Alyssa headed for the corner to catch the city bus. It arrived just as she reached the stop. Balancing her bags on one arm, she managed to withdraw enough loose change from the purse dangling on her arm for the fare, then turned to find a seat. Sandwiched between a woman in a black business suit and stiletto heels with a cell phone pressed to her ear and a fifty-something gentleman with a rounded middle and gray-speckled hair, Alyssa couldn’t wait to get home.

If you don’t do something besides work and stay at home, you’ll never meet Mr. Right. Live a little, Alyssa!

The admonishment from her best friend floated through her mind as she surveyed the other riders. From the shabbily-dressed, college-age crowd to the handful of silver-haired men headed for retirement, there wasn’t a prospect in the bunch—unless she counted the Don Juan type with the slicked back hair and gold-capped smile who eyed her from across the aisle. At only twenty-nine, she wasn’t that desperate yet.

Well, Lord, I would live a little. But on my salary, this is about as social as it gets.

Thankfully, the ride to the train station wasn’t long, and Alyssa stepped off the bus. Grateful to be under shelter, she smiled and thanked the man who held the door for her and headed inside to catch her train.

Forty minutes later, she walked through the door to her comfortable two-bedroom apartment. She deposited her armload onto the maple dining room table her grandmother had given her and breathed a sigh of relief. Alyssa flipped through the stack of mail. Nothing but bills and advertisements. She sighed. The usual. Suddenly, a bold word on the front of one envelope caught her attention.


Alyssa stared at the return address. Oh, no! How in the world had this happened? She’d entered the magazine contest on a dare. And now, she’d won? She’d never won anything before in her life. Was this God’s answer to her current solitary life, or was He pulling her leg? Alyssa smiled. It had to be a God-thing.

But why this? And why Mackinac Island of all places?

Curious, Alyssa slit the envelope and pulled out the full-color, tri-fold brochure along with a letter. She kicked off her pumps, padded over to her favorite burgundy recliner, and extended the footrest. The one lone accent piece in her otherwise neutral décor. Settled into the cozy comfort of the soft velour, Alyssa scanned the enticing images and well-written descriptions. Just the way the mind of her youth remembered it. As if nothing had changed in all these years. The image of a lighthouse and a few seagulls reminded her of her father and the walks they used to take along the beach. Speculating on the types of people who had walked the beach leaving prints behind had been a favorite pastime for both of them.

Every written description in the brochure promised an unforgettable time. And each picture included a happy couple enjoying the boating activities, horseback riding, rafting, and tennis, not to mention the horse-drawn carriage rides and scrumptious dinner selections. She’d done it all at one point many years ago. Advertising the island as a romantic getaway made sense. But it didn’t make her current status any easier to swallow.

Couples, couples, couples! Didn’t singles go anywhere anymore? Just once she’d like to see a vacation spot showing someone having a grand old time alone. But as she unfolded the brochure, each new page revealed another toothy twosome, caught up in euphoric delight. And she was a “onesome”—an unsmiling “onesome” at that. Blotting out the images of the couples, she focused on the swimming, boating, and nature walks—things she loved to do and hadn’t done since she was a kid. And she hadn’t taken her vacation yet this year. Why not throw out the romance and do a getaway for one?

But just the thought of going alone dampened her excitement. She’d played the odd-woman-out too many times. Not her idea of fun. She stared at the word two in the letter as if it were a death sentence. Two. Then, a flash of enlightenment tugged at the corners of her mouth. Not a couple. Just two.

Alyssa snapped the recliner into its upright position and reached for the phone on the end table next to the chair. After dialing, she waited for her best friend to pick up. One . . . two . . .

Alyssa straightened as the third ring stopped midway through and planted her feet on the carpeted floor. “Libby, you’ll never guess what’s happened.”

“What?” Libby’s excitement transcended the distance between them.

“Remember the contest the girls dared me to enter in the latest Bride magazine?” Alyssa twirled the phone cord around her fingers and leaned back. “The one promising a chance to win an all-expense paid trip for two and touted it as a ‘honeymoon in heaven’?”

“How could I forget? You almost wouldn’t complete the thing,” Libby complained. “And I had to dare you to mail it.” Her friend’s breath hitched. “Wait, don’t tell me.”

“Yep. I have the notification right here in my hand.” Alyssa held the phone away to avoid being deafened by Libby’s shriek. “There’s only one snag,” she said when it was safe. Tucking a strand of her cinnamon-colored hair behind her ear, she pivoted and propped her feet on the edge of the end table. “The getaway is for two.”

“Now you listen to me, Alyssa Denham . . .” Libby predictably launched into attack mode. “This is not a problem. We’ll figure something out. I mean, you are always looking for some excuse to get out of changing your dull routine. If you can find any reason whatsoever not to do something, you will use it. This is just the kind of thing—”

“I want you to come with me,” Alyssa interrupted, grinning.

“—you do all the time. And frankly, I’m . . .” Silence filled the line, followed by an incredulous, “What?”

Alyssa smiled. “I said I’m going, and I want you to go with me.”

“Alright. Who are you? And what have you done with my best friend? Alyssa would not agree to do something like this so easily.”

Alyssa laughed. “It’s me, Libby.”

“Well, you sure don’t sound like the Alyssa I know and love. She would die before she’d make up her mind this quickly. I mean, this is the girl who waited a year before getting her hair cut in the latest style. She got her ears pierced ten years after all her friends did. And she waits until styles go out of season before she decides she likes them enough to buy them. So this can’t be Alyssa.”

Alyssa crossed her ankles and picked imaginary lint off her cable-knit sweater. “Well, God and I had a little chat about my life on the bus ride home. And when I walked in the door, this letter was waiting. Seemed like a quick answer to me, so I decided to go.” Glancing back at the brochure on her lap, Alyssa sighed. “Just maybe, that friend you know is changing. Maybe she’s looking for a little excitement in her life.”

“Wow. I always said it would take an act of God to get you to break out of the rut you call a life, but who knew He’d take me seriously.”

Alyssa shook her head. Leave it to Libby to be sarcastic. They’d been best friends for almost twenty years. Libby’s rather boisterous style and brand of wit is what attracted Alyssa. Inwardly, she hoped some of it would rub off on her.

“Come on, Libby. Cut me some slack here. You’re the one who’s always telling me to live a little. So are you in or out? Answer quickly before I have time to talk myself out of it.”

“In,” Libby exclaimed. “Just bear with me. I’m still in shock.” She paused and took a breath. “And it’s free? No catches, no time-share spiels to listen to?”

Alyssa picked up the letter of confirmation, reading it again, barely believing it herself. “It says so right here. And I have the letter to prove it.” She reclined the chair back and stared at the stucco finish on the ceiling, the white speckled design resembling the intricate patterns on the sand-washed rocks she had on the shelf in her bathroom. Another reminder of the life she’d lived as a child.

“You seriously want me to come along?”

“Well, who else would I take? I don’t exactly have a long line of suitors waiting at my door.”

Libby’s grin came through the phone line. “No, I mean wouldn’t you want to take this trip alone? You never know. Mr. Right could be waiting for you. Speaking of which, where is this place?”

“Mackinac Island in Lake Huron.” Alyssa examined the brochure again. “There’s even something here about it being named ‘Turtle Island’ by the local Chippewa Indians who discovered it.”

“Turtle Island?” Incredulity laced Libby’s words.

Alyssa shrugged. “Hey, I don’t write the descriptions.” She read further. “Anyway, the brochure says it’s a great getaway with lots to do and the perfect place for some excitement.” Raising one eyebrow, she pursed her lips. “Somehow, I think the ‘excitement’ they promise has more to do with their billing this island as a romantic getaway than the kind of adventure you and I could have.”

“Do tell.”

“There’s boating, horseback riding, cycling, parasailing—”

“Parasailing?” Libby latched onto the word. “I can see it now. A skimpy little number with a drop-dead gorgeous instructor standing behind me as I fumble with the sail and play the dimwitted damsel who can’t tell which end is up.”

Alyssa laughed and shook her head. Her friend’s flare for the extreme is what made their friendship work. “And what if the instructor’s a woman?”

“Then I’ll give her to you while I scout out the Baywatch guy.”

“Gee, thanks. Some friend you are.”

“You know you love me.”

“Only the Lord knows why.” But Alyssa did know.

Life was an adventure to Libby, and she wanted her best friend to take part in it. Libby usually managed to pull her from her staid and simple existence to create memories far exceeding her wildest imagination.

“So other than the obvious, tell me a little more about this place.”

A big ball of fur jumped up into Alyssa’s lap. She waited for Kalani to find a comfortable position, then stroked the dark gray Persian’s ears, earning a rumbling purr in response. “The brochure says the main hotel was built around the turn of the century, and they don’t allow cars on the island.”

“No cars? How do you get around?”

“Bicycles, horse-drawn carriages, and your own two legs.”

“Sounds like your kind of place. No modern conveniences.” Sarcasm dripped from Libby’s words. “Wonder if they have indoor plumbing.”

Alyssa planted her fist on one hip, startling Kalani. “I appreciate my modernized lifestyle, thank you very much.” She gently coaxed the cat to relax. “But, I admit, a part of me would like to get a feel for a bygone era.”

“Looks like you’ll get your chance.” Libby made a sound like snapping her fingers. “Hey, wait a second. Doesn’t your grandmother live on the island? And isn’t it the same island where you used to spend all your summers as a kid?”

“I was wondering if you’d actually remember.”

“As if I could forget. It was all you used to talk about when we first met. I always wished I could go with you just once.”

“Well, it looks like you’ll get your wish,” Alyssa replied, throwing her friend’s words back at her.

“Guess so.” She paused. “It’s been a while for you, hasn’t it?” came the soft words.

Libby knew all about what had happened—all except for the real reason Alyssa hadn’t returned.

Though her friend couldn’t see her, Alyssa nodded. “Nearly fifteen years.” Even now, moisture gathered in her eyes. She blinked several times and looked toward the ceiling. No. She wouldn’t cry. She wouldn’t. She couldn’t. It would spoil the elation she should be feeling.

“It’s been a long time.”

“Yes.” Alyssa snatched a tissue from the box next to her and held it to the corners of her eyes. “In some ways, it feels like yesterday. In others, like forever.”

“Well, experiences and memories don’t just go away. You and your dad had a lot of fun there for many years.”

Alyssa sniffed. “And then Dad got sick, and well, somehow the joys of going didn’t hold as much enticement anymore.”

“Because your mom never cared much for the island. Though I’m not sure why.”

“Like you, she preferred the more modern conveniences and easy access to an abundance of stores, outlets, and entertainment options.” Alyssa shrugged. “The island just didn’t suit her as well as it did Dad and me.”

“Probably the lack of cars,” Libby intoned. “Still, I think it’s been far too long for you, and it’s high time you returned. Guess God had the same idea.”

Obviously He did. “Well, we’ve talked about taking a vacation together. And you said you had two weeks coming to you. I can take off as well. It’s the perfect opportunity.”

“When are we supposed to fly off to our land of adventure?”

Alyssa reached for the letter and scanned the page. “Umm, July seventh.” She kicked her feet against the table and swung the chair around, squinting to see the calendar on the wall behind her desk in the corner. “It’s a Monday.”

Libby rustled some paper. “It gives us a little more than two months to plan. We can have an amazing two weeks, stop in and visit your grandmother, and get into all sorts of trouble. I can’t believe this is happening.”

“Me, either.” Alyssa was almost tempted to pinch herself. She’d wanted a change for a while. This was just the opportunity to help her make it. And it followed all those weddings she’d been invited to attend. After being present to witness three more women she knew being joined in eternal wedded bliss, she’d need a vacation. Winning this trip sealed the deal. “We’ll have a blast, whether Prince Charming is there or not.”

“You’re on, girlfriend,” Libby chimed in, obviously infected by Alyssa’s enthusiasm. “Mackinac Island, here we come!

Well, almost. Alyssa had another phone call to make.

* * * * *

“Oh, Alyssa dear, are you really coming back to our island?”

“Yes, Grandma, I am.”

“Praise be to Jesus. My little girl is coming home.” Her sniffle was like a knife in Alyssa’s gut. “Oh, how I have prayed and prayed for this day to come. I’d almost given up hoping you’d ever return, dear.”

“I know, Grandma, and I’m sorry.” She shouldn’t have stayed away so long. But the days had become weeks, and the weeks had become months, and the months had become years, and before she knew it, fifteen years had passed. “I should have made more of an effort to come see you. What with school, and my summer jobs, and planning for college, then a career, it’s hard to imagine it’s been as long as it has.”

“Child, there is no need to apologize, though I certainly do forgive you. Your mama needed you after my Richard passed away. It isn’t easy losing your soul mate, the love of your life.”

Grandma knew it all too well, even if Alyssa could only imagine. First, Grandpa, and then five years later, Dad. And Alyssa had stopped her annual visits, only keeping in touch through cards or the occasional phone call.

“No.” Alyssa sighed. “But it wasn’t fair to you to be left all alone up there. I mean it wasn’t just us. You lost Dad, too.”

“Oh, child, I’m never alone on this little island. You should know that. I’ve lived here all my life and made a lot of friends over the years.” The faint sound of Wheel of Fortune came through the phone. One of Grandma’s favorite TV programs. Hers, too. “Then, there are all the tourists. Some of them provide a great deal of entertainment for me, and I only have to watch or listen to them for ten minutes or so. Now, you stop the line of thought leading you down a path of guilt right this instant, young lady.”

Alyssa could almost see Grandma wagging a finger in her direction. She straightened, as if Grandma could see her and would tell her to stop slouching in the next breath. “Yes, ma’am,” she replied.

“I am doing just fine, I assure you, my dear.” Her voice held all the conviction needed to make Alyssa believe it. “But to tell you the truth, your call and announcement couldn’t have come at a better time.”

“Oh?” Just how orchestrated was this trip? “What’s happening?”

“Tell me again, how long is this little vacation going to be?”

“Two weeks,” Alyssa replied. “Why?”

“And dear Libby is going to be joining you?”

“Yes.” She sighed. “Grandma, what’s all this about?”

“I have a little project for you while you’re here.”

“A project?” It sounded ominous. Even though Grandma couldn’t see her, she narrowed her eyes and scrunched up her brows. “What kind of project?”

“Oh, just a little something to keep you busy in the midst of all the parasailing, horseback riding, and boating I know you just love to do.”

Yeah, right. Alyssa loved all of the adrenaline-inducing activity most of the tourists sought out as much as she loved the thought of going to three weddings as a solo act. Libby might live for it, but not her. Not in this lifetime. “Now, Grandma, you know me better than that.”

“Yes, child, I do. And it’s why I know you’ll be excited to learn of a little something I’ve been meaning to do for over a year now, but I simply haven’t had the opportunity, or the ability.”

Why was Grandma being so mysterious? Why not just come right out and say what she wanted Alyssa to do? It’s not like she’d have any say in the matter, not where Grandma was concerned. As sweet as she was, Grandma usually managed to persuade everyone to do her bidding and make them think it was their idea in the first place.

“And I suppose Libby and I coming will now give you the opportunity?”

“Yes, dear, it will. You see, I’ve started a special quilt. One to unite the decades and bring together many different families. But I can’t do it alone. It’s going to take you and Libby helping me to make it work.”

A quilt? Alyssa swallowed. As in pieces of fabric sewn together in some semblance of a pattern? Her throat constricted. She didn’t know anything about quilting. She could barely sew on a button, much less attempt to make something as big as a quilt actually look good.

“Um, Grandma?” She swallowed again. “Are you certain you want me helping with this? I mean, are you sure I won’t ruin whatever work you’ve already begun?”

“Oh, pish-posh, Alyssa dear.” She could just see Grandma’s hand waving off her concerns. “I know your skill set doesn’t exactly involve the fine art of sewing. You leave that part to me.” A chuckle. “Though I can’t promise I won’t attempt to teach you a little while you’re here.” The background sounds of the TV muted. “No, what I have in mind for you and Libby is to help me collect the various blocks to make up the larger quilt. My old body doesn’t get around as easy as it once did, and your strong legs will take you all around the island.”

“So, we’re going to be collecting quilt blocks from other people?”

“Yes. From each lady who was once part of my quilting circle. I’ve lost touch with two or three of them, so reaching them might not be so easy. And two have since passed on, but their daughters or sons still live here on the island.”

Oh, Libby was going to love this. It had adventure and challenge written all over it. Just the sort of thing to make Libby’s day.

“You met most of them when you were a girl,” Grandma continued. “So, I’m sure it won’t take up much of your time. But it will mean a great deal to me to have your help.”

“Of course, Grandma. You can count on Libby and me. We’d be glad to help you.”

What sounded like a hand slapping a table came through the phone. “Splendid! I shall begin preparing the list of ladies’ names and addresses to the best of my knowledge, and it will be ready when you arrive.” She paused. “And Alyssa, dear?”

“Yes, Grandma?”

“I’m pleased to know you’re coming for a visit, more so than seeing this project finished. You know I do, don’t you, dear?”

“Of course, Grandma.” How could she doubt her?

“Very good. We shall be seeing each other soon. Between now and then, you make sure you pack your prettiest clothes and get a fresh haircut. There are quite a few handsome gentlemen on this island, and you never know who you might meet.”

Alyssa rolled her eyes. First Libby, and now her grandmother. Was everyone going to try to pair her up? Libby and Grandma were both single, too. Besides, she wasn’t taking this vacation to meet men. Not even to meet one man. Now, she just had to convince everyone else of it.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sky Zone by Creston Mapes

Sky Zone
David C. Cook (June 1, 2014)
Creston Mapes

Chapter 1

A breeze scattered leaves across the familiar winding blacktop driveway that led Jack Crittendon to the back of the gleaming steel-and-glass Columbus Festival Arena. At 4:30 p.m. the massive parking lot was a ghost town, but soon it would be teeming with cars, school buses, campers, and Greyhounds. People would be com- ing from across the region to catch a glimpse of controversial senator and independent presidential hopeful Martin Sterling as he stumped through the swing state of Ohio with hopes of making it on the November ballot next year.

Eight months ago Jack would have been covering the event as a reporter for the Trenton City Dispatch. But after the debacle that sent four top Dispatch employees to prison for their involvement with the felonious Demler-Vargus Corporation, the newspaper had folded and left him out of work. Things had been unraveling ever since.

He slowed at the guardhouse, where the slouching guy inside squinted to check the parking sticker on Jack’s windshield. The gate lifted, and Jack zipped through. He curved around to the enormous loading docks in back of the arena, where on concert days roadies loaded and unloaded stage equipment and where the stars lived in their decked-out tour buses for the brief time they were in town.

Although Jack was thankful for the part-time job he’d found working for EventPros, the firm that provided security and guest services for events at the twelve-thousand-seat venue in downtown Columbus, something had to change. He had to find a full-time job in journalism or PR or anything that had to do with writing. Thus far, endless hours of research, filling out applications, and sending résumés had turned up zero, and he was feeling the strain at home.

Jack’s wife, Pam, had been forced to give up her cherished role as stay-at-home mom to go back to work. She would have returned to the classroom, but her teaching certificate had lapsed. Plus, she wanted to spend her evenings with the girls, not grading papers and creating lesson plans. So she ended up taking a job as an administra- tive assistant at a local orthodontist’s office.

Jack swung the Jetta into the dark parking deck, backed into his normal spot, and checked the time. He still had a few minutes. He dug around in the glove compartment for some mints and thought about texting Pam to let her know he’d arrived. They’d had to pay three more bills from their dwindling savings account, and it had caused major havoc between them on his way out the door. He felt as though she resented him for failing to provide, and he really didn’t feel like talking with her.

But since she was eight months pregnant with Crittendon num- ber three, he checked his phone to make sure he hadn’t heard from her. No texts or missed calls. He leaned back and closed his eyes. It was a relief to get away for a few hours. Although he was grateful for Pam’s mother, Margaret, who’d come to live with them after her husband died last winter, her constant presence in the midst of their deepening financial woes was stifling.

Jack stuffed a handful of mints into his pocket, locked the car, and headed for the staging area in the bowels of the arena. On his way, he double-checked his uniform: black lanyard with ID badge, flashlight on belt, khaki cargo pants, black Reebok high-tops, black EventPros golf shirt, and orange EventPros windbreaker. All set.

“Hey, Jack.” His elderly coworker Edgar, seated behind a table stacked with pagers and walkie-talkies, ran a trembling finger across a page, found Jack’s name, and signed him in. “You’ll be on the floor. Section A-2. Take a radio.”

Good. He liked being close to the action.

He grabbed the agenda for the evening and scanned the busy room. People aged seventeen to seventy worked for EventPros. Many of the retired ones like Edgar treated the job as a hobby. It gave them a chance to get out of the house, earn some gas money, and see all the big stars—from Justin Bieber and Keith Urban to Green Day, James Taylor, and Carrie Underwood.

Jack grabbed a walkie-talkie and untangled a headset from a knotted pile. Many of his colleagues, all dressed in similar uniforms, were sitting as long as possible before they would be required to stand for their four- to six-hour shifts.

He spotted the colorful self-proclaimed “survivalist” Brian Shakespeare sitting at a table with two other friends and headed over. “Gentlemen.” Jack exchanged fist bumps, then clipped the radio

to his belt and got the headset and mic adjusted.

“You hear who’s gonna be here tonight?” said Shakespeare, who once claimed he was related to the famous English writer.

“Besides Senator Sterling?” Jack said.

“Everett Lester,” Sid Turk, an overweight, blond kid with oily skin, chimed in through a mouthful of Whopper.

“You’re kidding me,” Jack said. They all shook their heads. “Since when? Pam loves him.”

“It was a last-minute deal,” Shakespeare said. “I heard it on the news on the way over. Clarissa’s trying to keep it hush-hush, but Chico heard it too. It’s gotta be goin’ viral by now.”

“Gonna be a full house for sure,” said Chico Gutierrez, a rail of a kid with straight black hair. “Anytime you can see Everett Lester for free, you’re gonna pack the joint.”

Jack tested his radio by clicking his Talk button and listening for the static in his headset. The radios, headsets, and pagers were beat up and needed to be replaced.

“Lester’s a pansy,” Shakespeare said. “He was better before his big conversion.”

“Come on, dude. You gotta like some of his new stuff,” Jack said.

“I’m just saying his music was better before. It’s just a fact. He’s not the same without the original band.”

“Oh, dude, Death Stroke rocked so big-time,” Sid said. “Even

I know that, and I was in diapers when they were in their heyday.” “That they did,” said Shakespeare, whose once-booming swimming-pool business drowned when the market plunged in 2008. He and Jack worked almost every event because they both had marriages, mortgages, kids, and cars, as well as a long list of bills to pay.

“Are we gonna have enough staff?” Jack scanned the room again.

“Are you kidding me?” Shakespeare said. “This was supposed to be a spur-of-the-moment whistle-stop. Two to four thousand people, tops. But with Lester here? We’re gonna be turning people away— you watch. Clarissa’s got calls out for all hands on deck, but we’ll be short. What else is new?”

Tab Deacon blew into the staging area with a gust of wind, his walkie-talkie glued to his mouth, and a chronic limp. That was Tab—always a flair for the dramatic. He dashed up to Clarissa and whispered in her ear at length. The pointy-nosed, gum-chewing Clarissa Dracone, head manager of EventPros, pulled back and scowled.

Jack found it odd he hadn’t picked up Tab’s voice on his headset, but he knew upper management had other channels they used to address sensitive issues.

He watched the two face off. At six foot four, Tab stared down at Clarissa with creased brow and a face full of fret. She glared up at him in her baggy orange windbreaker, her lipstick suddenly looking starkly red against her pale white face.

In an instant she snapped out of it and whipped into action, tap- ping one, two, three of the nearby supervisors and waving them into her office with walkie-talkie in hand. She quickly shuffled in behind them, practically stepping on Tab’s heel, and slammed the door.

“Hmm.” Shakespeare switched from channel to channel on his radio, trying to pick them up. “Very interesting.”

Jack did the same but got nothing.

“Wonder what’s up?” Sid wiped his runny nose with a worn-out napkin. “Are you guys getting anything?” He and Chico only had pagers.

Shakespeare shook his head. “Never seen anything like that before. I’ll be right back.”

A twitch of anxiety turned at the pit of Jack’s stomach, but noth- ing ever worried Shakespeare. He was a former marine who looked you dead in the eye, told you exactly what he thought, and never backed down. Jack once saw him manhandle five drugged-out freaks at a Kid Rock show who’d gotten way too violent in the mosh pit. Shakespeare had zero tolerance for thugs. He once called himself a “righteous patriot,” and it fit.

As Jack watched, Shakespeare tapped once at the office door and barged in. From his vantage point in the hallway, Jack saw Clarissa and the others turn toward his friend, each face pale with alarm.

Shakespeare said something. Clarissa spoke right back and waved him in.

Shakespeare spoke again, throwing a thumb back toward the staging area.

Clarissa threw up her hands, turned, and glared at Jack.

At first he thought he was just standing where her eyes happened to fall, but then he realized she was staring at him. His face flushed.

Shakespeare turned to Jack and waved him into the office. Although Shakespeare wasn’t a supervisor, Clarissa knew he was her toughest, most street-smart team member—and apparently he wanted Jack in there with him.

“Uh-oh,” said Chico, his black eyebrows raised. “Dude, let us know what’s goin’ on,” Sid said.

“Will do.” Jack took a deep breath and headed for the office. He walked past other EventPros who hadn’t noticed the developing situation.

He approached the door with a silent prayer to stay cool and stuck his head through the doorway. “Hey, folks. What’s going on?”

The room was silent.

Somber faces looked back at him.

“Get in and close the door,” Clarissa said. “We’ve got a national security threat.”

Sunday, August 3, 2014

A Heart to Heal by Allie Pleiter

A Heart to Heal
Love Inspired (July 15, 2014)
Allie Pleiter

Chapter 1

High School guidance counselor Heather Browning was twenty minutes into “The Backup Plan” and regretting it already.

Principal Margot Thomas seemed to agree. “That’s who you called to help Simon?”

Simon Williams, the frail but brilliant freshman boy who was Heather’s biggest concern this year, had already become the target of a senior thug. “It’s still August. We’re two days into the school year,” Heather admitted. “I thought I’d have more time than this to get Simon settled before anyone bothered him.” But that wasn’t the way it had turned out. Her initial goal—help Simon find some friends who would be protective camouflage against getting noticed by bullies—hadn’t worked fast enough.

The principal looked out the school window at that “backup plan” as he appeared in the parking lot. A boxy black car with flames painted on the side pulled into the handicapped-accessible parking space. Max Jones had arrived.

“This afternoon at lunch Jason Kikowitz decided Simon was sitting too close to the ‘varsity table.’ Evidently he grabbed the back of Simon’s wheelchair and spun him around, knocking most of Simon’s books out of his backpack.”

“Sounds like our Kikowitz,” Margot commiserated. “I’ll be glad when that boy graduates—if he graduates.”

“Simon spun around fast enough to whack Jason in the shins with the footrest of his wheelchair. It must’ve hurt, because evidently Jason hopped around on one foot and swore a blue streak in front of the lunch monitor.”

Margot gave the sigh of the weary. “Lovely.”

“At least it gave Simon a chance to get away. For now. You know Kikowitz,” Heather explained, feeling less and less sure of her course of action. “He’s likely to lay into Simon every day this week, even if I give him twenty detentions.”

The older woman looked at Heather with determination in her eyes. “You know I’ll back you up on those even if Coach Mullen gives me grief.”

Heather was grateful for Margot Thomas every single day. The principal was an outstanding administrator who cared enough to address problems head-on, even when it meant things got sticky. “Thanks, but you and I both know detentions don’t stop Kikowitz. What we need is help for Simon, and the assistance agency couldn’t come through with a proper mentor until next month. We don’t have that long, so I called JJ.” JJ was Heather’s friend and Max’s sister. And Max Jones, or “Hot Wheels” as a local magazine had dubbed him during their coverage of his highly publicized injury and recovery, was quite possibly the last thing Simon Williams needed. Even if he was the only other resident of Gordon Falls who used a wheelchair, Max seemed to be everything Heather didn’t want Simon to be rolled up into one defiant renegade.

The foolishness of calling on him struck her anew as she spied the HTWELZ2 license plate on the car. “Help me, Margot, I need wisdom and calm and I recruited a rolling tornado. Tell him I’ve been called into a meeting and that we don’t need a mentor anymore. I’ve made a huge mistake, and I don’t want Simon to pay for it.”

Margot leaned back against the windowsill. “I won’t tell him any such thing. I think I want to see how this turns out.”

“I don’t.” Heather rested her forehead in her open hand.

Together Heather and Margot watched Max perform the complicated task of extracting his wheelchair—black with flames on it that matched his car—and settling himself in it. He was athletic, graceful even, and managed to look casual, as if the process were no more taxing than tying a shoe. He wore blue jeans, expensive sneakers and a gray T-shirt with the words “Ramp it up, baby” running across his chest. It was easy to see that his shoulders and biceps carried most of his weight—his arms were toned and outdoor tan. His large hands boasted black leather driving gloves, and his mussed dirty-blond hair framed a strong face. Heather thought he needed a shave, not to mention a haircut and probably half a dozen diplomacy lessons. “Honestly,” she told her boss as Max started toward the ramp that led up the stairs to the school entrance, “that guy looks a far cry from an appropriate mentor for an impressionable teenager.”

“He’s a key executive at Adventure Access, which is supposed to be a fast-rising company in the adaptive recreation business. If they put faith in him,” offered the principal, sounding as if she was grasping at straws and not a little bit amused, “maybe he’s not as bad as…he looks.”

“Oh, I expect he’s worse,” Heather moaned. JJ’s husband, Alex Cushman, ran that fast-rising adaptive recreation company and had drafted Max as their spokesperson and development consultant. It wasn’t hard to see why. Max Jones had been so handsome, daring, arrogant and flamboyant before he’d injured himself that he’d been chosen for a nationally televised reality television show featuring adventure sports. As cruel chance would have it, he’d gotten hurt on that TV show during a risky night climb. Yet looking at him now, it seemed as if his disability barely slowed him down.

“Simon will probably adore him,” Margot offered.

“That’s exactly what I’m afraid of,” Heather moaned. “Nothing good could come from pairing that boy with that man.”

Kids were not his thing. Not before, not now.

As he rolled up the ramp to the Gordon Falls High School entrance, Max had to wonder how he’d let JJ talk him into this. If the GFHS teachers knew the kind of tyrant he’d been in high school, they’d be barring the doors.

Only they wouldn’t have to. Just take out the ramp and he couldn’t get inside no matter how hard he tried. While he’d worked on the development of all kinds of adaptive gear in his new position at Adventure Access, even those top innovators hadn’t yet come up with a wheelchair that could climb stairs.

Still, Max remembered the “special” kids from his high school days—not that long ago, for crying out loud—and how they’d been treated. It stuck in his gut that he’d been as mean as the next guy to kids who used wheelchairs or crutches or were in those classes. Max had done lots of crazy and regrettable things in high school, but those moments of picking on the weaker kids, the different kids—those gnawed at him now. He’d only said yes to this stint as a “mentor” because JJ seemed to think it might make up for some of his past crimes.

It’s four weeks with a gawky fifteen year old—I’ve faced far worse, Max assured himself as he punched the assistive entrance button and listened to the door whoosh open in front of him. At least schools usually had all the adaptations right. He’d had to sit there feeling stupid the other week when a restaurant had to literally move four tables in order to let him sit down with JJ and have lunch. Then the server had asked JJ what “her special friend” would like to eat. The nerve of some people! He’d given the server such a loud piece of his mind that they’d comped his lunch just to get him out of the place.

He rolled into the entrance, marveling at how high school was still high school. The bang of lockers, the smattering of posters for dances and sporting events, the echo of shouts from a distant gymnasium—it all flung Max’s mind back to those years. Hockey team. Prom. Working on his first car. Life was one big game back then, a never-ending stream of escapades, pranks and good times. He’d loved high school, been a master of the school scene—the social side of it, that is. Academics weren’t ever his thing though he’d managed to graduate just fine, despite a few…dozen…trips to the principal’s office.

Funny that it was his first stop now—or, rather, the guidance counselor’s office, which was practically the same thing.

“I’m Max Jones, here to see Heather Browning.” Max swallowed his annoyance that he was calling toward a counter over which he could not see. Well over six feet when he could stand, tall counters especially annoyed him now that he navigated the world from about three feet lower.

A gray-haired lady—school secretaries evidently hadn’t changed one bit since his varsity days—popped up from behind the blue Formica to peer at him over the top of her glasses. “Mr. Jones?” She did the double take Max always enjoyed. Somehow people never expected to see a guy in a wheelchair looking like him, and he got a kick out of leveraging the “Hot Wheels” persona to challenge their assumptions.

Max flicked an Adventure Access business card up onto the counter—shiny black with flames along the bottom with his name and title, “Company Spokesman and Adaptive Gear Development Specialist,” screaming out in yellow letters. “In the flesh and on the roll.”

Her wrinkled eyes popped wide for a moment, then narrowed in suspicion. “Is she expecting you?”

“Yes, I am,” came a female voice from behind Max.

Max spun around and sucked in a breath. The high school guidance counselors he remembered didn’t look like that. Maybe this wouldn’t be such a rough gig after all. “Well, hello, Ms. Browning.” He didn’t even try to hide the pleasant surprise in his voice. Where had JJ been hiding this “friend”? If he’d had a counselor like Heather Browning trying to lure him into higher education, he’d be working on his PhD by now. She had fantastic hair—long, honey-colored curls tumbled down to her shoulders in a wave. Bottle-green eyes that—well, okay, they were currently scowling a bit at him, but he could handle that. People scowled at him all the time, and he much preferred it to the diverted glances of pity that some people threw him. Pulling off his driving glove, Max extended a hand. “I am most definitely pleased to meet you.”

“Thanks for coming.” He could tell she only barely meant it. He probably shouldn’t have squealed his tires pulling into the parking lot like that.

“Anything for JJ,” Max said as they went into her office. It was filled with all the stuff one would expect of a helping professional—inspirational quotes, pretty pictures, plants and pottery. The only surprising thing was a “flock” of various flamingo figurines on her bookshelf and a metal flamingo statue-ish thingy on her desk. Max picked it up and inspected it. “I’m surprised we haven’t met before.”

Ms. Browning plucked the metal bird from his hands, returned it to its perch on her desk and sat down. She crossed her arms. “We have. This summer at the church picnic.”

He remembered that picnic as a rather boring affair, all happy community fried chicken and potato salad. Nice, if you liked that sort of thing, which he didn’t.

“Mr. Jones, if you—”

“Max,” he corrected.

“Max,” she relented. “I want to state one thing right off. This is a serious time commitment, and I’m sure you’re very busy. If you don’t have the time to give Simon the attention he needs, I’ll completely understand.”

“Hang on,” Max felt his stomach tighten at the low expectation expressed in her words. “I’m willing to make the time. Only I’m not really sure how you go about making freshman year of high school not hard, if you know what I mean. That’s sort of how it goes, isn’t it?”

“I’d like to think we can do better than that. A senior boy—Jason Kikowitz—has made Simon a target of sorts, and it’s going to take more than a stack of detention slips to set things right.”

“Kikowitz?” Max chuckled; the name brought up an instant vision of a thick-necked linebacker with a crew cut and four like-sized friends. “Why do the thugs always have names like Kikowitz?”

She didn’t seem to appreciate his commentary. “I want Simon to learn the right way to stand up for himself while I get Mr. Kikowitz to change his thinking.”

“Only Simon can’t stand up for himself, can he? Wheelchair. That’s the whole problem, isn’t it?” People always talked around the wheelchair—the elephant in the room—and Max liked to make them face it outright. It made everything easier after that, even if it took an off-color joke to get there.

She flushed and broke eye contact. “It’s part of the problem, yes.”

“It’s lots of the problem, I’d guess. Look, I’m in a chair. I get that. It’s part of who I am now, and pretending I’m just like you isn’t going to help anyone. It doesn’t bug me, so don’t let it bug you. I can take you out dancing if I wanted to, so I should be able to help this Simon kid hold his own.”

“You cannot take me out dancing.”

It was clear she wasn’t the type to like a joke. “Well, not in the usual sense, but there’s a guy in Chicago building an exoskeleton thingy that—”

“This is not a social meeting. Are we clear?”

She really did know how to suck all the fun out of a room.

“Crystal clear, Ms. Browning.” She was too stiff to even match his invitation to use first names. He’d have to work on that. “What is it, exactly, that you think Simon needs?”

“Well, I’d have to say social confidence. He’s led a fairly sheltered life because of his condition, but he’s brilliant…”

“The geeks always are.”

She sat back in her chair. “Can you at least try and do this on a professional level?”

Max made a show of folding his hands obediently in his lap. “Okay, Counselor Browning. Simon needs some base-level social skills and maybe enough confidence to know high school is survivable. Have I got it?”

She seemed to appreciate that. “Yes, in a matter of speaking.”

“And you’re thinking you need something just a little out of the ordinary to solve the problem, right?”

“Well, I…”

“Hey, you called me, not the nice bland people from social services.”

That probably wasn’t a smart crack to make to someone in guidance counseling. Her eyes narrowed. “Yes, well, the nice, appropriate people from social services were not available. This isn’t how I normally operate. It’s only fair to tell you you’re not my first choice.”

Max could only smile. “Alternative. Well, I’d have to say that’s exactly my specialty.”