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Posted in on writing

Saving the One You Love – Chapter One

I’m sharing the first chapter from my next Christian Romance Novel, Saving the One You Love. This novel draws on a variety of different influences, many of them real women I’ve met over the years. When I began writing it, the story took on a life of its own.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King describes the themes of his stories arising out of the ideas and questions he’s likely to mull over while tucked into bed and waiting to fall asleep. (Or something to that effect.) When I was first getting this story down in my notebook, I didn’t really know what I was driving at. It took a lot of thought, as a Christian and as an author, to bring this story to a close. But looking back now, I can see that this story taps into ideas that have been on my mind for a long time, and it’s shaped by difficulties that touch all of us. It’s a story about the mistakes we make about one another, the terrible consequences our choices can entail on us, and ultimately, the redeeming power of God’s love.

At least, that’s what was in the background of my mind when I was scribbling in my notebook. So, without further ado, here’s chapter one. Comments are welcome. I’d love to know your opinion.

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Saving the One You Love

CHAPTER ONE

Anna Graham stood at the edge of the pier and knew that she was standing at the edge of her life. She had a chance to start again. Every day, she reminded herself, I still have chance. But this was the only place she felt like that was true.

The waves were deep blue and striped with tangled white lines of surf, but under the pier beneath her feet, the water was a muddy brown. On the Texas gulf coast you didn’t get crystal clear waters. You got mud. It was beautiful anyway.

A cold wind tossed her hair around her head and over her face, so that she looked out at the empty sky and crashing water through a veil that whipped her cheek. The wind stung her skin and hurt her ears. Seagulls called to one another as they flew in slow motion, suspended in mid air as they struggled to glide into the wind.

She crossed the pier and looked once again at the enormous sign behind the restaurant: Where the Land Ends, the Magic Begins. Underneath the words was a mural of happy people riding through the sky, their painted smiles suspended above a baby blue ocean.

Where the land ends, the magic begins. She knew it was just advertising, something jingly to put on a billboard, but sometimes she wanted it to be true. She needed it to be true. Camille had warned her before she came here, to remember that a place is just a place.

“Everywhere you go, you’ll find the same disappointments, the same struggles. Don’t put your hope in a new place.” But Camille had found the apartment, coached her for the job interview, bought her a bed. If it wasn’t for Camille, she would have no bed of her own. If life seemed a little dull, a little cold, if it was so much less than she longed for – well, at least she had her own pillow. She silently thanked God for Camille, even though she wasn’t sure if there was really a God there to listen. Camille would like it that she was praying. That was reason enough for now.

She had to pull hard against the wind to get the side door of the restaurant closed. She passed through a narrow doorway, habitually stepping sideways to avoid the yellow mop bucket stored there. Once in the break room, she took off her sweater and washed her hands.

Hey, where’d you go?” Chuck was standing close to the back door with a clipboard, tallying how many boxes of plastic straws were still in stock. He was taller than Anna, which was not hard to be, and looked down at her over a pointed nose set in a round face. He still had a white apron tied round his ample middle. “I thought you would be in the break room.”

I was outside looking at the ocean.”

I was like that too, when I first moved down here. I couldn’t get enough of the beach. It’s funny but I hardly ever go now. Anyway, place is pretty quiet this afternoon. Go ahead and sanitize the coffee machines. Unless we get a busload of tourists, you can leave early.”

Anna tied her apron around her waist and went through the swinging kitchen door to the dining room. Chuck treated her the same as the other wait staff; maybe he even spoke to her less. He would talk with Monique for twenty minutes at a time during the slow after lunch hours, gossiping about their families, their kids, their plans for their off days.

If he had asked her about herself, she would have nothing to gossip about: no kids, no family. She had no life here, except the existence she was trying to maintain. Preserving the outward appearance of an ordinary young woman already felt like wearing a mask that didn’t fit her face. The whole cumbersome thing could slip and fall away, her carefully constructed life disintegrate and leave her in the hell hole she had come from.

And sometimes that was the only thing she wanted.

She took a quick look around the empty dining room and went behind the marble-topped bar. She had started waitressing at Powell’s on the Pier last August. It was full of tourists then, people who flocked to the ocean for a respite from the Texas heat. The restaurant itself was suspended over the ocean, held up by three-foot thick pilings. If you stood close to the tinted windows, you could look straight down at the water rushing up the beach. Children loved it. Their fingerprints routinely decorated the glass.

The summer months brought a steady stream of tourists eager to spend their cash and show off their new beach clothes, but the winter brought a less colorful crowd. Retirees who lived here year round would become regulars, enjoying the view and the quiet atmosphere denied them in the summertime. Business people stopped in for meetings over Caesar salad and shrimp scampi. She preferred the winter.

She had never been a waitress before this. Just having a regular job, like everybody else in the world, still felt like a novelty sometimes. She was surprised to find how much she liked to be useful to somebody. It gave her a satisfying sense of purpose she had never known before. The best wait staff, Chuck said, were the ones that were always there when the customer needed them, and never noticed the rest of the time. It was easy, once she got the hang of it, to drift quietly by, only catching a customer’s eye if they were looking for her.

She learned to be a waitress before she ever came to Galveston. It was Jeff who taught her, at the Halfway House in Houston. Jeff was in charge of the kitchen. He was a big man with thick arms and a blunt nose, dark black skin and white teeth that glowed in his face. He had a smile for everyone, and at first, she disliked him for it. She preferred to be left alone. She was still too raw, then, too unsure of what her life was turning into. But one afternoon, when she was sitting alone at the plastic table, pushing her bland green beans around her plate, he invited her into the kitchen.

Come on in, Anna. Come see the other side.”

Since the only alternative was to sit in the lounge doing nothing, she joined him in the kitchen. “You just gotta’ go with the beat, Anna girl. You see?”

Jeff was always playing music in the kitchen of the Halfway House, on a little radio with a tinny sound: R and B, old school hip-hop, blues. This was how he taught her to help in the kitchen. “You take the food, put on a fake smile, walk through the door, serve ’em up. If they give you grief, you keep that smile until you git back into the kitchen. You give the next plate your dirty look, and head back out the door.”

She missed him sometimes, when she was working at Powell’s on the Pier. She liked the people she worked with well enough, but there was no one here like Jeff.

She waited on the older couple who came in for tuna sandwiches and coffee, and when she was done with the coffee pots, she went around the room to wipe the spots from the tablecloths. She always enjoyed this time of day, when the dining room was quiet. The sunlight washed all the brass trimmings in the room, and the white tablecloths glowed. It was a soothing place to be at the end of a long lunch rush.

She crossed to the far side of the dining room. She had thought it was empty, but as she pushed in the chairs by the half wall dividing the restaurant, she heard a man’s voice behind her.

Your family has sure produced some un-photogenic men over the years, but I think you’re the worst.”

She looked into the hidden corner of the dining room at a very short man with messy gray hair and a camera pressed to his face. She moved to the next table to wipe up the crumbs that had been missed earlier. Now she was able to see the subject of the photograph. A tall man in an oxford shirt and blue coat sat solitary at the table. Just past thirty maybe, and not noticeably attractive at first glance, especially with his forehead wrinkled and a bored expression his face. He was looking down at his spotless plate and she peeked at him again. He had honey brown eyes, and a gentle mouth.

The place was set before him but his plate was empty. She watched as he smiled at the camera. Oh. Shorty was right. It wasn’t a smile. It was a goofy smirk.

No good,” Shorty said. “Try again.”

All he got was a sulky expression that made the man’s face look sullen and dark. “I don’t like having my picture taken.”

It’s not like the pictures were my idea.”

Yes, I know.” He picked up his fork and pricking his flawlessly folded napkin with it. “I’ve been living in the jungle for the last three years. Nobody needs to pretend to smile there.”

You had to get your passport picture, didn’t you?”

Nobody needs to smile for that either.”

Well, you’re back in civilization now, Mark. This is the price you have to pay.”

Her work brought her around the corner and into the same part of the room as Mark and his photographer. She was just about finished, except for the crumpled napkin under the table by the window. She was trying to decide the best moment to duck behind them and snatch it away, when the photographer addressed her.

Excuse me, Ma’am, you don’t mind if I take your picture, do you?”

He was smiling at her in a professional way. He was weighing her up, but he didn’t look interested. The moment passed and she quickly gained her internal equilibrium. She was getting used to this. But she hadn’t answered his question yet.

You want to help us out here for a minute? My name’s Pete Fellows – hotographer. Just pretend to take his order, give him someone to talk to. I gotta’ get this guy to act natural for a photograph.”

Oh. Um – ” This is what normal people do; they get their picture taken. She looked at the man seated at the table. He was still stabbing his napkin. She waited until he looked up. She would know her answer from the way he looked at her.

His eyebrows were crowded together in tense embarrassment, but he smiled at her and shrugged his shoulders at the same time. She instantly felt comfortable, which surprised her.

You wanna’ help?” he said. “I’m really no good at this. But it’s worth a try.”

I’m not much of an actor.”

Stand right here.” The photographer stepped aside and waved his hand towards spot by the table. “Just be yourself. Pretend to take his order.”

She took her notepad from her apron pocket and poised her pen. “Good afternoon, sir. Would you like the wine list today?”

No, thank you.” Mark frowned.

Smile, sweetheart,” Shorty said.

Wait staff have to smile. Happy waitresses get happy little tip dollars in their pockets at the end of the night, so she put on her automatic smile. When Mark looked up at her, there was no more stupid, put-on smirk. It was a real smile.

Click. Flash. “Bee-yoo-ti-ful. Do it again.”

Ah, would you like to try the imaginary fettuccine? Or would you prefer the non-existent shrimp platter?”

I think I’ll take the fictitious steak,” Mark said, and he laughed. “Hey, I made a joke. You’re good, you know that? I never make jokes.”

You’re a winner, sweetheart,” Pete said. He had been taking pictures the whole time. “Come on outside with us. I need to get some shots on the pier.”

Oh – ” She looked uneasily over her shoulder at the door to the kitchen.

Well, she can’t come if she still has work to do.”

Pete rolled his eyes. “You’re her boss. Of course she can come.”

It occurred to her for the first time that this young man bore a strong resemblance to the portrait by the entrance. He looked just like Jacob Powell, the restaurant’s owner, minus the white eyebrows and deep-set wrinkles. He had a pleasant face, old Powell’s dark features softened by gentle brown eyes. He seemed ill at ease in his blazer, but his broad shoulders filled out the coat without difficulty.

Not exactly her boss. But I don’t suppose Chuck will complain.” He turned his eyes her way. “Well, if you don’t mind. This is a lot easier with someone else.”

It shouldn’t take more than half an hour,” Pete said, in a conciliating voice.

Anna thought about saying no. She was used to playing the part of waitress, but she wasn’t sure what kind of role she would play elsewhere. Mark stood up. He towered over her.

He made a funny grimace, scrunching up his face, but then he smiled. “Only if you want to. I’m Mark Powell by the way.”

She searched her mind for a convincing excuse, but she didn’t really have one. Maybe this was a safe time to say yes to somebody. That’s what normal people did, wasn’t it? She was supposed to be living a normal life. She had never really had one, and she wasn’t always sure how it was supposed to work, but it probably wasn’t normal to refuse the business owner’s polite and not too inconvenient request. Besides, her shift was technically over.

I’m Anna. Anna Graham. Sure. I’ll come.”

You got a coat or something, Anna?” Pete said. “The wind’s pretty strong out there.”

I’ll get my sweater.”

She untied her apron as she went through the kitchen doors. “Hey Chuck? I finished cleaning the dining room, and ah – Mark Powell asked me to be in a photograph. Outside. They want someone to pose with him to make it more natural.”

Chuck laughed. “He gets stuck having his picture taken every year. At least when he’s home. His mother always makes the whole family get a picture at the restaurant. How did they rope you into it?”

I was cleaning the table behind him and they asked me to pose in the shot.”

Well, have fun.”

Anna pulled her black sweater over her white-collar shirt and went out the side door. Pete and Mark were standing behind the building, looking out at the ocean. A cold wind was still whipping across the water, tearing up white caps and sending them flying under the cement pier. The ocean was bluer than the sky. Mark’s nose was turning pink, but he looked warm enough in his heavy coat.

Pete waved them towards the bench. “Have a seat. Mark, why don’t you put your arm around her?”

No!” she said, a little too fast.

Suit yourself.” Pete leaned forward, his camera pressed to his eye. “Look happy, kids.”

She looked up at Mark, who was staring at the camera with a sullen expression. This was a bad idea. Inside the restaurant, she had been playing a familiar part. This was totally different. What were they pretending to be?

So,” Mark said in a halting voice, smirking uncomfortably at the camera. “So I suck at this, obviously. Kinda’ funny though. That we’re total strangers pretending we know each other.” They smiled at each other and the camera flashed.

It is,” she said, trying to look more comfortable than she felt. “It’s funny.”

I knew this monkey once,” he leaned back with a fixed smile on his face, resting one ankle over his knee. “In Brazil. He liked to throw nuts at me when I tried to take his picture. I don’t think animals really smile. Not like we do. But I swear, before he really beaned me, he would get this big grin on his face – ” Anna laughed out loud, and Mark snorted. “Crazy, huh? I miss a lot of things about the jungle, but I don’t miss him at all.”

Very good, very good,” Pete said. “Now the Ferris wheel.”

Joe emerged from the little booth to run the controls as they approached, and Mark courteously stepped back and held out his arm, waiting for Anna to go first.

Click, flash. Click, flash. Anna sat down in the cart and Mark took his place beside her. The cart rocked with a loud groan and Anna’s hand flew to the side of the cart, gripping it nervously. She didn’t think she was afraid of heights, but it felt strange to be suspended like this, without the firm ground underneath.

Joe lowered the bar and locked it into place. Pete came up the ramp to take another photograph. Smile, wave, look interested. She seemed to remember doing this sort of thing once. It felt so long ago, as if it were a part of another life. As the cart jerked into motion, her stomach lurched with it, but she grabbed hold of the cold metal bar in front of her and adjusted herself to the rocking motion.

Are you okay?”

Yes. I – just haven’t been on anything like this for a long time.”

He was looking at her with a concerned expression. She leaned back and forced herself to relax. “This is nice, actually,” and it was. The wind had calmed a little, and she began to feel comfortable as the pier dropped away beneath them.

So, the jungle?” Anna asked, to change the subject away from herself.

The Amazon rain forest. I’m a biologist. Our team was recording the number of Capuchin monkeys.”

How many are there?”

Never found out,” he said darkly, as they passed the apex of the wheel and began the downward descent. “The basin was sold to a local developer. A kind of warlord really. The politics down there are more like a mob in some places. Anyway, it’s being clear cut now. No more monkeys.”

The wheel brought them to the bottom. “Hey, you two, smile!” Pete said. Mark smirked and Shorty shook his head.

Hey, look!” Mark pointed straight ahead at a white bird dipping over the beach. “It’s a skimmer.”

A what?”

That sea bird. You can tell by the shape of the wings, and the unique beak. He’s got that big lower mandible. They skim across the surface of the water with their mouth open. That’s how they eat.”

Really?”

Yeah. They have an unusual bill that allows them to feed that way.” He leaned back, dropping his arm in a hurry. “Sorry, I’m being the boring biologist.”

It’s alright. I’d like to know more about the birds here. I see so many and I don’t know anything about them.”

You’ve come to the right shop if you want to know about birds. I can’t get enough of them.”

They were smiling now, but it wasn’t enough for Pete. He scolded them as they passed by. “Last time. Make it count!”

As they rose up into the air again, Anna said, “This must be a gorgeous view in the evening.”

You’ve never been?”

No.”

Me neither. I suppose I could ride for free, huh? Might be more fun if we weren’t being threatened into smiling.”

Anna laughed, Mark did the same, and the wheel came to a gentle stop with their cart at the bottom.

I suppose that’ll have to do,” Pete said, frowning at his camera as they came down the ramp. “Thank you very much, young lady,” he said to Anna. “I’d like to have you sign a release form, just in case. I think that waitress shot might come in handy someday. My briefcase is inside, if you don’t mind coming in with me.”

I need to get my things anyway.”

Mark,” Pete said. “You’re free to go.”

I suppose I am. Thanks for getting this over with.”

All in the line of duty.”

Mark turned to Anna. “I appreciate your help. Thank you.”

You’re welcome.” He smiled then, a good smile that made his eyes crinkle. And then he turned and walked off. As she followed Pete towards the restaurant, she could see Mark turn onto Seawall Boulevard and then take the cement stairs down to the beach. She could see him striding over the brown sand, swinging his arms comfortably as he went.

What a day to walk on the beach.” Pete shook his head. She wondered where Mark was going to. Would he count the sea birds? She liked the idea, in a way.

They went around to the front door, and while Anna signed the paperwork, Pete said, “You’ve got a good quality in a picture.”

Thank you.”

You’ve got a good way with Mark Powell, too,” he said with a wink. “Most I’ve seen him crack a smile since he got home. I’ve known him since he was a real young man, and he isn’t what he used to be. Used to be full of enthusiasm. But I suppose all that’s bound to wear off with age. I was enthusiastic once myself.” He was packing up his camera, carefully taking it apart and placing the components in its black case. “Artistic pretensions and so on.”

Anna stood in the waiting area, looking up at the portrait of old Jacob Powell, his sunken eyes and firm smile. He looked like a cross between a kindly grandfather and a plotting mafia boss.

You have any aspirations, Miss Anna?”

What?” she said, taken aback. “Aspirations?”

Plans? Dreams? Lofty goals?”

Building an ordinary life out of the shredded scraps of her existence had seemed like an impossible goal for so long that nothing else had occurred to her for a long time.

I hadn’t thought about it.”

You should. Think about it while you’re young. It just gets harder when you get old.”

I’m already old,” Anna said solemnly. She looked down. She didn’t want him to see anything she couldn’t hide.

Her soul was a weary place, too old for the skin she was in. Too old for dreams and aspirations. But not too late for life, she thought, as she left the restaurant and crossed the road to the parking lot on the other side. She got into the driver’s seat of her little Kia. At least I hope not. She turned the key in the ignition.

***

If you made it this far, thanks for reading! If you have thoughts on the story, please share them in the comments.  If you’d like to read my other Christian Romance Novels, you can check out my books for sale at Amazon.

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Now in print

Recently I carved out some time for a project I’ve wanted to finish for quite a while. My novel Love Divine is now available as a paperback. It’s print-on-demand, and the price is currently $6, which basically covers the cost of printing. I’m not  really looking to earn anything much fro m the project; I just wanted the paperback to be available for my friends who expressed an interest in a hard copy of the book. So it’s here! Via Createspace and Draft2digital and my own attempts at cover design, Love Divine is in paperback.

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Where I’m at. Taking a step back.

Just this morning, I came to a decision.

I have been stuck – completely immobilized – on part three of Hope Unbroken. Stuck. Most of it is written. But not all of it. And I can hardly bring myself to open the document. My imagination refuses to have anything to do with it.

I have been holding out hope that eventually I would get a fresh surge to help me make those final touches. The book got stalled out due to a nasty prolonged tooth ache, and then several weeks of morning sickness. Although I am swimming comfortably along in the second trimester now, I have not really made any progress. My first novel, Unromantic, was largely written during the second trimester of a previous pregnancy, but this time around, the crew I already have is at a more needy stage. Life is full, and the time and space for imaginary worlds is just not happening. I’m sad about it, but also relieved. I thought I needed a little break. Apparently I need a long one.

I decided this morning to remove the first two installments of Hope Unbroken from Amazon and Nook. I have found mistakes in both of the free samples available online. Who knows what other problems are lurking in there. In the next day or so, they will no longer be available.

I feel convinced this morning that I am not in a place where I can really produce my best work. Even if I force myself to finish off Hope Unbroken, it will not be what it should be. My heart is not in it. My self-publishing journey thus far has been a totally one shop deal. I have done everything myself, including cover design and editing. It was fun, and the price was right:), but it’s lot of work, and not really something I can do without energy and enthusiasm for the task.

For those of you who purchased the first two installments: thank you. I love you. I hope you enjoyed something in the story. The ending of part two isn’t so bad, really. But if you are dying to know more, I can pass on the rough draft of part three. Send me your email or a message on Facebook, if you would like to have it.

To those of you who have offered support for this story – I can’t thank you enough. I hope that some day, when the fog clears, the story will finally be finished and available, and your encouragement will see its fruition.

I was reading my son’s Life of Fred math book the other day. There was a reference to the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare, and included a reminder that it’s okay to slow down and do things right the first time, because it was the tortoise who actually won. So for now, I will be tortoising along.

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A New Story Idea

A day or two ago I got an inspiration for a story I started years ago. I let it slide because it seemed too difficult, but I come back to it every so often and this morning it took hold in an opening scene. Thought I would share it. It’s pretty rough and uncut, but any thoughts are welcome.

Chapter One – The Race

The man to the right was reciting a yoga chant while he flexed the muscles in his arms. The woman to the left already had ear buds in and was singing something about the eye of a tiger in a tuneless voice. The starting line was packed so full of people that Kevin folded his limbs over his body to avoid embracing Headphones Woman, which meant he was at constant risk of toppling onto Yoga Man.

He closed his eyes. Lord, have mercy on me. Please don’t let it hurt too much.

The gun fired. Kevin’s contorted limbs leaped into the air while everyone else sprinted forward. He was compelled ahead for a split second by some unseen runner behind him, and then he was bolting into the fray, his footsteps hampered on every side. Now it was a matter of adjusting his stride until the crowd of runners thinned out. He could no longer see Yoga man, but Earphones Woman was several strides ahead.

The runners turned onto Fulsom Street – half a dozen roads had been blocked from traffic for the 5K race – and Kevin turned with them, settling into a stride that was just a little too fast for comfort. His next task was to find something to think about; something that would take his mind off the complaints of his thigh muscles and the gasp in his lungs. It didn’t always work to think about the same thing. Some ideas grew threadbare in time and no longer distracted him. Today he cast his mind on Jennifer. And it worked.

They were going uphill now and his legs churned steadily beneath him. But in his mind, he was saying goodbye to Jennifer again. She had worn a white dress, and her was hair down, and he realized now how intimidating she was, when she was wasn’t in her t-shirt and sweatpants anymore. They had worked out together for two years, and for two years Kevin had loved her. She was his cheerleader, his encourager, his confidante. They talked about everything, didn’t they? At least he did. She always listened so patiently. She sang in the choir and ran like a cheetah and never doubted him or said a single unkind thing to him.

“Even though I’m moving away, I thought maybe we could still talk, you know?”

“Sure,” she said. “Call me anytime.”

“Really?”

“Sure.”

“Maybe you could come out and visit. Or I could come visit you.”

“I would always be glad to see you.” She grew busy with something then. Something in her hands? Was she writing? Yes, he thought so. They were on the downhill stretch now. He always fell behind on the downhill. Runners flew by him in reckless haste. He screwed himself up for the long flat that stretched ahead of him. His calves were singing with quiet pain.

He pictured her face, passive and calm, with her neatly turned nose – he loved her nose – and her white blond hair against her pale cheek. A dull sorrow cut through him, and he forced his legs to move faster.

The road was beginning to clear. Runners had found their pace, and he had a stretch of road to himself. A man in lemon-colored shorts was up ahead of him. He could hear tramping feet somewhere behind, but he wouldn’t waste effort looking back. They were entering a narrow street he couldn’t remember the name of. A knot of people with signs stood cheering at the corner. He didn’t know any of them, but they gave him a loud yell just the same, and he waved in gratitude. No one else was watching this race for his sake.

“I don’t really have to go,” he had said to her. “Sometimes I think I should stay.”

“Why?” She looked at him then, her blue eyes puzzled. He had hoped that she would look intrigued,or relieved, or maybe even happy! But she wasn’t. “It’s a good move for your career. Why wouldn’t you go?”

Lemon-colored shorts turned round a corner. Kevin did the same, but his mind was anywhere but the road. He was only pumping feet, swinging stride, and an ache that ran deeper than the pain his chest.

“I thought there might be something – between us. I was thinking about marriage, and – ”

“No.”

“No?”

She didn’t say I’m sorry. She didn’t even look sad. She went back to writing. “You’re just so weird, sometimes, Kevin.”

Three more strides, his eyes blinded by memory. He didn’t see her until it was too late. He caught a glimpse of her brown eyes looking frightened, just before he brought her down. Something wet and terrifically cold sprayed him. She yelled in his ear and he scrambled away from her. A dark stain of ice water covered her red shirt. He fumbled to his feet – and then he recognized her face.

“Missy! What are you doing in the middle of a race course!”

“Race course? Are you racing?”

“Well, yeah…” He looked around him. No orange cones. No pink tape lining the road. No runners anywhere. “Ah…I must have…left the course.”

She wrinkled her eyebrows at him. She had dark eyebrows that stood out in her face. They struck him as expressive. She was communicating frustration, confusion and condescension just through those eyebrows. “I can’t believe you ran straight into me.” She tugged on the drenched fabric of her shirt. “And you were looking right at me.”

“I’m so sorry. I was thinking about something else.” Great way to leave a good impression on the college staff. Tackle a fellow professor. An awkward silence fell.

“If you’re racing, you should probably go,” she said.

“Right. Ah, sorry about that.”

“I think I’ll live.”

“I owe you one.”

She didn’t answer. She smirked. Why did women have to be so shallow? He turned without another word and jogged back to the way he came. He saw the gap in the line where he had left the race course. He started running again, but his pace was half of what it was before. He looked dully at the road ahead and fixed his mind on it. Ashamed of his memories of Jennifer, ashamed of his encounter with Missy – what little heart he had for the race was already gone.

He crossed the finish line with a last, halfhearted sprint, wiped the sweat from his face with the collar of his shirt, and went silently to the car. Well, he had run his 5K for the year. Check that off the list. He thought about driving to McDonald’s for a Big Mac and fries. To make it worse, he imagined a large shake. Ice cold strawberry. He could already feel the cup in his hand, the cool moisture dripping on his hand.

Instead, he took his bag from the passenger seat and started eating his cold turkey and mustard sandwich. He gulped down a bottle of water, leaned back against the seat, and for ten minutes, drifted into a lovely oblivion of sleep. Somewhere in that oblivion, he met Missy Hannigan again, her arms thrown round him, but she wasn’t frowning this time. He woke up smiling.

Think only on what is pure. He reminded himself, and put Missy’s full figure out of his mind.

“Glad that’s over,” he thought, and drove home with a rising feeling of contentment. He had another whole year before he would make himself do that again. Maybe next time he ran a race, he would have something better to think about.

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It’s that time of the year again…

When children start coming down with various illnesses, and a house full of kids turns into a sick ward. Our crew has survived the first round of childhood illness this year, which made Thanksgiving vacation a little long. But it also meant that we were stuck at home a lot, which enabled me to write a short Christmas story that has been in my head for a long time (years at least). It is now available on Amazon.

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Here’s the description:

Doctor John Thompson is charged with finding an empty farmhouse on the day before Christmas Eve. He’s hoping for an idyllic Vermont Christmas. Instead, he finds an +eccentric neighbor wielding a shotgun and the unsolved mystery of a past suicide, while he tries to persuade his teenage daughter and wife to leave New York City behind.

John sets out on an impulsive quest for the perfect Christmas tree, and finds out that healing the past will require more of the Doctor than he ever dreamed of.

This is a short work, approximately 13,000 words, or 45 pages long.

And if you are waiting for the next installment of Hope Unbroken, it is coming very soon!

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Advanced Review Copy coming your way…

…if you would like one. Leave a comment if you would like a free electronic copy of my forthcoming title, Best Part of You, (romantic women’s fiction). I’m going to release this story in three parts, to make it easier for me to finish, and easier for you to read. I’m planning to hit publish on the first installment on October 27th.

If you would like an advanced review copy, I’m happy to email you one (just specify which format you prefer, mobi for Kindle, etc.) You are not obligated to leave a review if you do receive a copy, but it’s always appreciated!

You can send an email to leannemckinleyauthor@gmail.com, and I will send it on to you soon.

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Is there a reason for why things happen?

I know this is unrelated to fiction, but its something that’s been on my mind and I wanted to share my thoughts.

A friend of mine asked this on Facebook a while back. Someone she knew had committed suicide, and the turmoil of the experience prompted her to ask the question. Although I feel like I have already answered this question for myself, the idea snowballed alongside a lot of other concerns that have been making their appearance in the back of my mind lately. Depression, war, sickness, suicide, loss – it is a season of sadness this year. There are almost daily reminders of the ravages of evil in the world.

Do these things serve a purpose? Are they a part of some greater good that we hope for but cannot see? Or is the universe a purposeless place? Is the pain and heart ache of life a mere by-product of randomness, an incurable, untreatable disease upon the universe?

It’s an easy question to ignore – at least, when life is going according to plan. And yet, when the cold rain falls, I find it almost impossible not to ask, why? Why do these things happen? And when you profess to believe in a good and all-powerful God, as I do, it becomes even more of a challenge. How can we justify such a God in the face of so much evil? Here is my answer, by way of a little biographical information.

There have been many times in my life when I have been faced by something difficult for me, whether it was prolonged unemployment, or struggling with depression; being single, or being overwhelmed as a parent – whatever the trial, if I looked hard enough, I could see a reason behind it. I felt comforted to know that I was growing, I was learning something as a person. I felt that God had a purpose in it.

It was hard work, at times, to get to a place where I could see things in that light. At least, it seemed so at the time. Until I couldn’t do it anymore.

I have four beautiful, awesome, healthy children. They are the most incredible blessing. They are my life. About two years after my second child was born, I conceived a third time, and we told all of our friends and family as soon as we found out. Everything had been just fine before, it would be fine again, right?

No, as it turned out, it would not. At twelve weeks, the bleeding started. I had miscarried. We were heartbroken. The physical experience was overwhelming. The bleeding was so awful that at one point, I blacked out. In retrospect, I think I was anemic. But who knows? I will never really understand.

In the weeks that followed, I dreaded the sound of the telephone. Every time I answered, it was someone who hadn’t heard. I had to tell the bad news all over again. And I simply did not want to talk about it. I couldn’t think about it. I just had to think about something, anything, else. I had little children to take care of, and I had to keep the sadness at bay. I stopped calling people.

A good friend of mine at the time became pregnant. During previous pregnancies, we had always chatted about how our time was going, sharing jokes about the troubles of morning sickness and food cravings. After one conversation , I tried to laugh, and then avoided her for months. She was a good friend, and I just dropped out of her life. I couldn’t bear to talk about my own pain in the midst of her happiness, and I couldn’t pretend that everything was okay. I couldn’t help being angry that I had lost what she had gained.

Not long after, I conceived again. I prayed and prayed and prayed for that baby. I miscarried again. When I pushed my shopping cart past the baby clothes section, I learned to look away. It hurt too much to look.

I conceived a third time in the same year. We were hopeful, but tried to be prepared for the worst. I miscarried again. I have never wanted anything the way I wanted another baby. And at the same time, the thought of a positive pregnancy test terrified me. Emotionally, I was healing a little, but I was a still a mess. I didn’t talk to anyone but my husband about it, and neither of us had much to say.

At that time, we were attending a church in New Mexico that had hired Fernando Ortega to conduct the worship service. He plays beautiful piano music. I remember one Sunday morning, standing in the pew at the start of the service, and this absolutely gorgeous, moving music brought me uncontrollably to tears. I wept and wept and wept. And I thought, first, ‘who’s great idea was it to have Fernando Ortega play the worship music? What are they trying to do to me?’

And I also thought, ‘Why would God do this to me? Three times in one year. Why? Do my prayers mean nothing?’

I felt that I was not simply enduring a hard trial. I felt that God was being cruel, unnecessarily so. Nowhere in me could I find any sense in this.

In all the years of my life previously, I had been able to find some kind of meaning behind the adversity I was facing. God was doing something good, even if I couldn’t see it. I was sure of it. And inevitably, as the pressure slackened and I passed through that rough place, I could look back and see good that had come of it. I cold find ways that I had become a better, or stronger, or more loving person because of what I had been through. But from that point on, that feeling was gone. I simply could not imagine any good that might be achieved by it all.

It would have been easier to believe in a random universe, without wisdom, or meaning or purpose, than to believe that there was a good plan behind all this.

But I did believe in a God who has a good purpose for all things. I still do.

I think, at that point in my life, I learned to live something that as a Christian, I had always tried to believe. We trust that God has a good plan, even when we can’t see it.

The truth is that we really don’t know why God does things. Not in the here and now. God promises that all things work together for those who trust in Him. But we don’t know anything else. All our assumptions about the good work that God is doing in our lives are assumptions. Sometimes it is a real and genuine blessing, to recognize something good that has come out of our trials. But I don’t really know, and I don’t rest my faith on it. What I do know is this.

When I think about my life – when I really stop and think about what’s there, I know that my life is a daily, hourly gift from a good God. From the food on my table, to the unspeakable beauty of my child’s laugh, to the breathtaking blue of the sky, to the miraculous existence of my own body and the complexity of my brain, in the very desire of my soul to know him, I know that God is good. When I think about the great gift of His Son, I trust that God loves me. And because He is good, I trust that He has a good plan for all the workings of my life.

If I feel like that is true, that’s an extra blessing, a gift of God to cherish. Sometimes I don’t feel it. But I believe it anyway.

I’m reminded of the old, and for some familiar, idea of life as a tapestry. A thousands threads woven together to form a picture may have threads of bright and golden colors, and other threads that are dark and coarse and dull. When the work is finished, it will be possible to see how those dark and ugly incidents in life are really necessary to complete the picture, so that all of creation can sing the glory of the Lord.

But here in the midst of this life, we cannot see the finished picture. We can only see the present moment, and whatever share of darkness and heart ache it may contain. It’s a small and limited picture.

I don’t believe in a God who plans and coordinates my good because I can see it happening. It is because of the good that I can see, and I trust the God who has given it to me.

When my third child was born and put into my arms, I was awestruck. He felt like SUCH a miracle. Many people never get that kind of miracle, and I am still grateful.

Things could have been a lot harder. They are certainly harder for many people around me. And life probably has even worse in store for me before my time on earth is done. But I am trying to be thankful for all that God has done for me. I cannot see the big picture, but I trust that He does.

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Slow Days of Summer

So this spring saw me a bit distracted with some other areas of life that needed attention, along with a hefty dose of writer’s block. But I have been pleased with some of the writing I’ve been able to do in the last week or two. I thought I would share a little from my current work-in-progress. This bit has been written for a while, but it’s one that I enjoyed. I would love to hear what you think, so if you like it, or don’t, leave a comment:)

 

The walls of Anna’s apartment were bare, no pictures, no nicknacks. She changed into her jeans and a faded, cruise line sweatshirt, a lucky thrift store find, and hung up her uniform shirt to wear again tomorrow. She had moved into her apartment with what Camille had been able to give her: clothes, a bed, and a tiny TV. She had nothing else. With her first paycheck she had gone to the big box store and picked out a cherry red bean bag. It sat lumpishly in the middle of the empty living room floor.
There was already a well-formed dent in the bean bag and she settled into it, but the room was cold, so she went to the closet for an old quilt that Camille had been given. People were always giving things to Camille; cast off clothing, unwanted furniture, stray possessions to go with her stray girls. Anna carried the quilt to the bean bag and pulled it over herself. It had a pleasant weight. The cotton squares were soft to the touch – it had been washed until the fabric was thin and easily torn – and she rubbed it against her wrist.
The blanket was another reminder of Camille’s goodness, her ever present kindness and love, a light glowing in the background of Anna’s life. Where would she be without Camille? She knew the answer to that question, and at this moment, tucked in, quiet and safe in her own life and her own home, she bathed in relief that she was here and not where she might have been. She was stilled now, and quiet, the feeling of stagnation and hopelessless that sometimes haunted her was far away. She had been steered into a safe port, a quiet harbor. Sometimes the calm was frustrating – she felt like she was paddling in circles without much hope for the future – but most of the time she felt gratitude. She wasn’t sure who to thank, so sometimes she thanked Camille.
“You don’t need to thank me,” Camille had said, the last time Anna had called, and ended with another long expression of gratefulness. “You’ve done more than I have. You’re the one who has had to fight the good fight, Anna.”
“I couldn’t do this without you.”
“If I’m a help to you, then it’s enough.”
Anna smiled at herself when she remembered the first time Camille had brought her home, to the apartment in Houston. She had felt ill at ease then. She had lived her life in a long string of Houston apartments, but never one as nice as this one.
“So are you paid to do this?”
“Paid? To do what?”
“To look after people like me.”
“No, I’m not paid. Some people are I suppose. But this is just who I am. Come sit down. I’ll tell you about it.”
They sat in the living room, by the glass doors, and the tabby leapt into Anna’s lap to be stroked behind the ears. Camille sat down with her knitting in her lap, but instead of knitting, or even answering, she rested her chin in her hand and looked out the glass at the city beyond. Her blue eyes turned a different shade sometimes, when she looked thoughtful. They looked dark against her pale skin and her white hair.
“I have a niece,” she said at last, “my brother’s daughter, who was much like you. She had a dreadful life. I didn’t have any idea what to do to help her, but I felt it was a calling I couldn’t refuse.”
Camille was a widow, and there was more than one picture of her husband on the wall. One was always at her bedside; Anna had seen it there one day. “What happened to her?”
She answered slowly. “I don’t know. I lost track of her. But, I met other girls.” She cupped her hands together, holding onto an open place within them. “It has been a blessing to me, Anna. Though you might not think so sometimes. After Henry passed away – when you pass from one stage of life and into another, it leaves you feeling stranded at times. It is a disagreeable feeling. But the Lord has blessed me with my girls.” She touched Anna on the chin. “Girls like you. I can see it in your eyes, my dear. You have the desire to be a new creation.” Anna hadn’t known that then, but she knew it now. “You too will pass through, from one life to another. Don’t be discouraged, if it turns out to be a little harder than you expect.”
Lying beside her on the living room floor was a tall book with a cracked binding; an old children’s picture book full of nursery rhymes. Mother Goose gamboled on the cover in fluttering ribbons and petticoats. Anna reverently touched the cover and opened the familiar pages. It was the one solitary link that remained to her past. Her life before Galveston – before Eddie – no, she wouldn’t let Eddie define her life, before Camille. It had been a gift from her very first foster mother. She could barely remember her now. She had no photographs, but she could remember Helen reading to her.
Helen used to stop and wipe her glasses as the story progressed. She read in a shaky voice, and yet she never faltered. But for some reason that Anna didn’t know, and would never know, Helen was not able to continue caring for her, and she had gone on to another home, and another. There had been four all together, and her last foster parents had been happy to see the last of her. She had certainly made their relationship as unpleasant as possible. But sometimes it seemed so long ago that it belonged to another life, another Anna. The petulant, angry, impulsive girl had been swallowed up by the years that followed.
But she had managed to keep this book. It had always gone into her suitcase, year after year. She didn’t open it for most of that time, but now she read it almost every day. She quietly chanted the singsong words to herself, trying to remember the little girl she had been once, tucked in with her pajamas and her bedtime story, listening to a mother read to her. It was a feeling she had forced herself to forget, because it was too painful to remember that she lived without it.
Anna stopped turning pages when she landed on her favorite rhyme. There was an illustration of a little boy in slippers, kneeling by his bed and gazing out the window at the night sky.
I see the moon
and the moon sees me.
God bless the moon
And God bless me.
Camille believed in God. She spoke of him often, as if he were a real person. As if she knew him. Anna had never given much thought to God. Aside from an occasional prayer when she particularly wanted something, it simply never occurred to her to think about God. But ever since the hospital – no, she wouldn’t think of that.
She focused on the drawing of the boy on his knees. Did God really listen when people asked for things? She wasn’t sure. She wondered idly what Mark Powell believed in. He seemed like a thoughtful person in his way. He probably had an opinion on the subject. Had he ever knelt by his bed in his slippers to say his prayers?
She traced the crescent moon with her finger. She had always loved the moon. The moon would listen to her, when there was no one else to hear – that was just nonsense, but she had almost believed it when she was young. That’s what it felt like, when she tried to talk to God. It was like talking to the moon.
She carefully closed the book and curled up snug into her bean bag, It was nicely warm now, with the quilt wrapped tight around her toes. She could just get comfortable if she propped her head on her arm – she pulled the quilt up around her shoulders – she had been up before six o’ clock in the morning – and drifted softly into sleep, the book lying open on her lap and the boy fervently praying into the night.

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Free Christmas story

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Good Angels Be My Guard

Edie was in the kitchen, making gravy for the roast, and meditating on the best way to interrupt her husband. Once he was in his recliner, his feet up, his attention on his football game, he never liked to be asked questions. But tonight Edie had too many questions inside of her, fighting to be heard. Like always, she began with the question that least betrayed what was on her mind.

She stood in the door to the living room of the old house they had lived in together for the last twenty years, wiping her hands dry on her apron. After about five minutes had passed, her husband’s eye flicked away from the screen to her face and back again. This was the signal that she might begin.

“It’s Christmas eve,” she said.

He made a sound of agreement in the back of his throat.

“I thought I might go down to the store after dinner.”

“What for?”

“Thought I might get some eggnog. Somethin’ special.”

“If you have to,” he said, shifting in his chair.

“I might get something for breakfast too,” she went on.

“You know I won’t be here.” Owen always took the extra hours to work at the mill on holidays. He did it for the double pay, at least in part, but he also did it for the sake of the other men with families, with children.

“I know,” Edie said, in a mild voice with large, staring eyes. Owen looked up at her with a frown.

“What’d you want it for then?”

“Oh, I just thought maybe – for Travis –“

“Is Travis comin’?”

“He might.”

“Edie.” He looked her in the eye. “He ain’t come here for Christmas for five years. He goes down to your sister’s house now.”

“They didn’t say where he was going this year.”

“They got kids over there. He’ll want to go with them.”

Edie bowed her head and looked down at her knuckles, wrinkled and white.

“I could just get some bacon maybe.”

“Suit yourself,” he said, with a shake of his head, and returned to his game.

“Owen?”

“What is it?”

“When’ll you be home tomorrer’?”

“Late.”

“Maybe we could do something this year.”

“Like what?”

“Well, just in case Travis comes – “

Owen let go a deep, rumbling sigh and said, “Go get your eggnog, Edie. Don’t worry about tomorrow. It’s just a day like any other.”

* * *

            The angel had been there for five years. Through snow, wind, rain, hail, it had clung to the outside wall until its white paint had cracked and weathered to a dismal gray. The straw hair had melded into a brown mass that only parted into strands when the birds pecked at it for string to line their nests. The wings had held out the longest, the tinsel mesh holding tight to the metal frame. But they too were finally becoming tattered and twisted in the winter wind.

It wouldn’t be so bad, Edie thought, if it wasn’t for the wings going ragged like that. She couldn’t see the angel very well in the darkness, as she left the house for the car. It was just a paleness up there in the winter night.

She and Owen had picked it out together, at the hardware store, when the family asked them to take their nephew for Christmas. They had talked about a tree, but Owen didn’t want to clean up the mess. And when Edie saw the angel, leaned up against the outside wall of the store, she didn’t want to take her eyes off it.

“Sure, if you really want it,” Owen had said, when she meekly asked if they could afford it, and he carried it home in the back of his truck.

Travis was seven years old the year he came to them. His father had disappeared years ago, and his mother wasn’t doing much better, so he had become the responsibility of the family. He was sent to a special school, somewhere down near Essex Junction, but on holidays, he came to stay with the family. This was his first year away from his mother for Christmas, and Owen and Edie had been the only ones available to take him.

Edie remembered plainly the look of disappointment on his face when he came into the house and saw that there was no tree. But Edie took him outside in the evening, when the pale winter sunset turned the snow to pink and the angel’s paint shone and her straw hair moved in the breeze. “Just like she was really flying,” Edie said. She put her small hands on his smaller shoulders and said, “Look how pretty she is.”

Travis had smiled. “Yeah, like a real angel. Are there real angels, Aunt Edie?”

“Oh yes, of course.” she said.

“Do they ever come here?”

“Sure they do.”

“Why don’t I ever see any?” he asked wistfully.

“I don’t think they always want you to see ’em,” Edie said thoughtfully. “They like to do things without you knowin’. It’s like when you do something for someone that they aren’t expecting – makes it more special.”

Travis had nodded his small head in a somber way and they had returned to the house. Edie still loved that angel, and she had dreaded the thought of Owen taking it down someday. He had mentioned it occasionally, but he never had.

She drove slowly to the grocery store, looking at the Christmas lights along the street in town as she went, thinking as little as possible about going home again to the dark and silent house she was leaving behind. Edie didn’t normally reflect much on her life, but she couldn’t help being infected by the enormous glow of light, by some excitement hanging in the air that seemed to belong here. She couldn’t help feeling like a visitor from the outside, looking in.

The little market was packed with people. The checkout girls were wearing Christmas hats. People were laughing, calling out Merry Christmas to strangers, buying last minute presents. All the eggnog was gone.

Edie took a pound of bacon and half gallon of orange juice from the shelf and carried them towards the check out. As she went, she passed by a shelf in the middle of the aisle still boasting some Christmas novelties. Red and green sprinkles for cookies, a package of plastic bows, and at the bottom, spray paint. Gold and silver spray paint.

She bent down and took the can from the shelf. Gold wings, she thought. An angel with gold wings wouldn’t look so bad. Maybe Owen would like it when he got home tomorrow, to see that old angel with bright gold wings in the evening light.

Before she could think any more about it, she hurried back to the freezer aisle and returned the meat and the juice. Then she snatched the can of paint from the shelf and hurried into the check out line.

“Merry Christmas!” the check out girl said to her, and Edie smiled at her, and smiled all the way to her car. The tiny white lights in town looked even brighter as the night grew colder. An angel with gold wings. It would hide all the tears and ragged edges; it would be almost new again. She imagined a smile on Owen’s face when he pulled in tomorrow, the way he smiled when he had bought it for her, when he saw how much she loved it. And maybe if Travis came…

She pulled gently into the drive, her headlights shining on the side of the house, her mind on where she would hide the paint until tomorrow. She didn’t notice until she reached to turn off the headlights and gave one last look up at the house, and she could see – the angel was gone.

She leapt from the car without turning off the lights. No, the angel was still there. Only the wings were gone. The old ladder that was usually behind the garage was now leaned up against the side of the house, and there was a shred of torn fabric caught between one of the rungs. The wings were gone. Stolen. Stolen away. Before she knew what she was doing, she was back in the car, driving back to town with some half-formed thought of finding the thing that had been stolen from her. She didn’t know where to look, or what to look for, but she drove on anyway, the cold can of paint in her lap. It was beginning to snow.

* * *

            “You were supposed to bring a bathrobe from home,” Mrs. Freshitt said with a resigned sadness. A dozen children in various stages of Christmas dress were moving around the Sunday school room. Danny was violently rocking three other children in the rocking chair, Margaret was chasing Anita in and out of the kitchen, and now here was Mark Hadley in his sweatshirt and his dirty fingernails telling her with pleading eyes that he didn’t have his costume.

“I’m sorry Mark, but everyone who isn’t an angel has to be a shepherd, and the shepherds need to bring their own costumes. Danny!” she shouted, turning her head. “Stop that!” Back to Mark. “Can’t your mother run home and get it for you?”

He stood very close to her then and said in a half whisper, “I ain’t got a bathrobe.” What he didn’t tell her was that he had walked to the church alone, leaving his mother alone and high, sitting on the living room couch watching reruns.

“I’m sorry,” Mrs. Freshitt said with a sigh, “but you’ll just have to watch this year. Maybe next time.”

“Can I still come to the pizza party after?” he asked, but she was already gone. She was replaced by the Bellevue twins in their new terry cloth robes and their arms folded across their chests.

“You forgot your costume?” said one twin with an ugly leer.

“You forget your brain too?” said the other.

“I bet it’s too dirty.”

“I bet he crapped on it.”

“I bet it has fleas all over it.”

He turned on his heel and walked out as fast as he could, out of the room, out of the door. He pulled the cuffs of his shirt over his hands; it was below freezing and he was underdressed, but he was usually underdressed, so he only thought of getting away from the church building. He walked so quickly that he was starting to lose his breath, and he had to take in big gasps of icy air, almost as fast as he could push air out into clouds of white around him.

He was walking toward home, his face burning with an anguish that he had no name for. He wished he could be angry, but he had no anger for any one but the Bellevue boys. Except thinking of them only made him more miserable, because he knew that he had just stood there and listened to them talk and walked out. He had nothing to say back.

He had left the lights of town behind and was climbing the sidewalk that led toward home. He was passing the old Fontescue house, with its bushy overgrown evergreens leaning over the sidewalk. For the hundredth time in his life, he saw that decrepit angel hanging on the side of the house.

But for the first time, he really saw it. The car wasn’t in the driveway, but the truck was, and he could see a blue glow in the windows from a television playing behind the shades. Mr. Fontescue would tear off his arms if he caught him in his yard, but he never came outside in the evening. A reckless surge of inspiration told him that Mr. Fontsecue would never know.

Mrs. Fontescue hardly ever came out either, but she was nice. She kept a jar of sticky old peppermints on the porch and would offer them to the kids playing on the street if she was sitting on the porch in the summertime. Most of the kids didn’t take them anymore, but Mark always did, because he could see that it made her happy. He would eat anything anyway.

He felt bad about Mrs. Fontescue, when he realized what he was going to do, but he put it out of his mind. Those bright silver wings just outside the circle of the porch light were calling to him, and his feet carried him almost against his will into the yard and out behind the garage where he knew that old wooden ladder had been lying for years.

By the time Mark returned to the church, there was already a line of children on the sidewalk, standing by the front door. They whispered to one another as they waited to file through the narthex and into the sanctuary for their performance. Mark had run most of the way back, and his heart was slamming in his head by the time he slowed down enough to walk up to the building. The church itself was lit up, with candles burning in little paper bags in the snow along the sidewalk. He was clutching the wings in his arms and hurrying towards Mrs. Freshitt on the church steps, trying to order the angels according to height. But here was the oldest Bellevue boy pointing his finger in Mark’s face.

“You stole Mrs. Fontescue’s angel!”

“You stole the angel?” cried another child.

“That’s your costume?”

He was engulfed in the sound of laughing voices, accusing fingers, scornful eyes. Mrs. Freshitt looked down at him with panic in her face, and once more Mark turned and ran, faster, faster, as fast as he could run, even though Mrs. Freshitt was calling for him to stop. He came to the end of Church Street and turned the corner without thinking of where he was going. Somewhere the wings grew too awkward, so he dropped them to the ground and sprinted on.

* * *

Helena Freshitt walked slowly down the stairs to the nursery in the basement of the church. Cindy Mitchell greeted her with relief plain on her face. Helena’s son said nothing at all to her, hunched over with his arms wrapped around him, rocking silently in the tiny plastic chair.

“He played with the toys for a little while,” Cindy said, “but then he just sat down. He kept asking for you.”

“Well, I’m here now,” she said. She was too exhausted to manage a sprightly voice for this response, but Cindy seemed satisfied and left her for the quiet of the sanctuary and the sermon that Helena’s husband had just begun.

“How are you, Jeremy?” she asked her son. He was eight years old, but looked six, his skinny body refusing to gain weight. “I brought something for you,” she said, taking the package of organic sugar-free fruit snacks from her pocket, one of the rare sweets he was allowed. She sat down in a small chair beside him while he tore into the package. She was careful not to touch him by accident; he couldn’t stand to be touched. “Thank you for being such a good boy and staying with Miss Cindy while Mommy was busy.”

Jeremy hadn’t slept well the night before and they were both tired. She wished that she could just take him home, but he might scream when he saw that the service was going on without him, and she wouldn’t risk that. She closed her eyes a moment and tried to think of something relaxing they could do together until it was time to leave.

He finished picking out all the red and green ones – he would never eat the others – and said, “I want to see the angels.” He had been to the full dress rehearsal of the Christmas play, and he had loved the children dressed in white with paper wings tied to their backs. “Where are the angels?”

“I’m sorry, Honey,” she said, “but the angels are all done.” She had decided to save this explanation for after, out of concern that he might react badly during the play if he knew he was missing it. He stopped eating the candy and began rocking back and forth again. He always did this, he was autistic after all, and this is what autistic children did. What worried her was the angry set of his face, the hard look in his eye that told her that he was not going to accept any simple explanation for this.

“The angels. I want to see angels.”

“You got to see them yesterday, Honey.” And yelled during half the rehearsal so that they had to hold it twice over.

“Angels! I want to see!” Before she could get hold of him, he crawled over the table and hurried across the room to where the crib stood in the corner. He crawled underneath and curled up in a ball. There were tears on his face.

“Oh Jeremy,” she said. Helena had been through this before. There were weeks when she went through this every day, sometimes many times a day. This, too, was part of having an autistic child. She had little resource left for this at the moment however. Her husband had taken a call at this congregation a year and a half ago, and she had done her best to be the model pastor wife, to teach Sunday school class, to sing in the church choir, to be a cheerful soul in spite of the constant exhaustion and wearying emotional work of raising her son. She spent nearly every hour of the day with Jeremy, since the local school was so underfunded that they had no resources for a boy like him. She spent day after day with someone so contained in his own mind that he was incapable of understanding what he was putting her through, of understanding that things simply couldn’t be the way he wanted them.

After a few minutes he began to cry out, and she was afraid he might start yelling soon and disrupt the service upstairs. So she got down on her hands and knees to look underneath the crib at her son, wedged tightly beneath the crib mattress and floor.

“Jeremy, I know you’re sad. I’m sorry.” There really wasn’t much point in explaining, but she never knew how much he understood and she always tried. “The angels all had to fly away. Let’s go look out the window and maybe we’ll see them.”

His balled up fist flew out at her, smacking her face, and she cried out in pain. She hurried away from the crib and went to the bathroom door in the back with her hand over her nose, waiting for the pain to stop. She kept her back to him, repressing the almost irresistible longing to scream at him. She knew she shouldn’t be angry. He just couldn’t understand – he couldn’t help it, but she hunched her shoulders just the same and took several deep breaths before she spoke again.

“Jeremy,” she said, her voice patient but firm. “You hurt Mommy. Jeremy – “

She turned around in time to see him slipping out the nursery door, just glancing over his shoulder at her as he went.

“No!” She chased after him, but he was at the top of the stairs when she reached the bottom, and he had already run away by the time she reached the back door.

No, not again.

* * *

            Jacob Freshitt stood calmly in the pulpit, in his white gown and colorful surplice????, speaking to his congregation about Mary’s tremulous approach to Bethlehem and all the little fears and worries that conjecture could add to the young couple as they waited for their miraculous child to be born two thousand years ago. He paused to take a look around the sanctuary. It was a crowded room, with several faces he wasn’t accustomed seeing: congregants who only attended on holidays, grown children come back to town to be with their parents, their own children glassy-eyed and staring in their laps. Most of them, however, were familiar, and most of them quite old.

“Those famous words of the Apostle would not be written for many more years,” he said to the hushed room amid flickering candles and boughs of green, “that all things work for the good of those who love God. But Joseph and Mary didn’t need to be told those words. They showed that they believed it during their long journey to Bethlehem.”

Jacob was deeply committed to the pastoral ministry, but he had the misfortune of being plagued by a mind that wandered at unexpected moments, and as he turned a page in his notes, he was struck with a sudden doubt of the relevance of all this. What, after all, did such remote events in history have to do with the people looking up at him? They were thinking of presents that still needed wrapping, of meals to prepare and road trips to make and snow that would need to be shoveled. He had carefully written his sermon looking for ways to make the Christmas story seem real, and memorable, and deeply significant in some new way. But looking around at the politely attentive faces, he felt that the story was too familiar. There was nothing here to feed the soul, nothing to reach through all the other cares and preparations vying for attention in the minds of his listeners.

He looked down at his page, at a particularly elegant description of the shepherds on the hillside, and wished that he could sit down and rewrite it, to make it ring true somehow. It was too late for that now, though. Maybe next year, maybe next week, he would think of something better. This would have to do for now. He looked up after what had been a brief, if still a slightly awkward pause, and opened his mouth to begin the next phrase. The congregation, however, went on staring at a silent pastor, because at that moment Helena Freshitt hurried in through the doors at the back of the room and stood staring helplessly at her husband in the pulpit.

“What is it, Helena?” he asked, although he was fairly certain what the problem was. Every eye turned to stare at her, standing in the aisle with her hands clasped awkwardly in front of her red dress.

“I’m so sorry. It’s Jeremy. He ran away again.”

The congregation had been through this too. Pastor Freshitt hardly needed to say anything, before men and women stood up wearily and struggled into their heavy coats a half hour before they had expected to.

“I’m not sure which way he went,” Helena said.

“We’ll look for him,” Mr. Hendrickson said, patting her on the shoulder as he passed her on the way to the door.

“Come with me in my car,” Kitty Daniels offered. “Where’d you leave your coat?”

“Oh, it’s hanging up. And Jeremy’s too.” She was close to tears now, but there was nothing to do but to keep going. They would help find him – again – hopefully before too long. It was so cold outside, and he had only his dress shirt and sweater vest to keep him warm. Jeremy had so little to protect him against the world.

Jacob stood in the pulpit, silently watching his congregation abandon him mid-sermon to scour the streets for his son. He hesitated for a few minutes; he was always more prone to thought than action. He felt that he ought to direct, to take control of the search effort, and yet he abhorred the idea of leaving the pulpit before the service was over. Before long he was looking out at only a handful of people, all of them with hair whiter than the snow outside, if they had any hair left. Except for young Lucy Crawford with her new baby asleep in her lap – she was asleep as well, her head listing to one side.

“Well Pastor,” called out old Mrs. Carr into the waiting silence, her back so bent that she came no higher than his elbow. “We don’t need ya’ here.”

“Oh. Oh yes.” He hurried towards his office, taking off his stole as he went, and pulled his coat on over his surplice. The street had only a handful of people left, still discussing which ways had been left unlooked, and Jacob set off on foot with no clear idea where he was headed. The real danger was Main Street, where the traffic was heaviest, but then there were all those Christmas lights that Jeremy loved – he might head that way. He passed another church building around the corner from his own, still full of people, no doubt deep in a sermon nearly identical to the one that had just been interrupted. He went on in the general direction of the park, peering into driveways and into shadows behind bushes for some sign of his son. Giant flakes of snow were dropping from the sky, making more shadows and playing tricks on his brain, so that he went more slowly, seeing cold and crouching boys everywhere.

He crossed Main Street and looked up and down the sidewalk without any clue which way he should go. So he thought about where he would go, and looked at the park full of spotless snow, and the long shadows of lampposts stretching out across it. He began to walk around the park, looking for movement among the park benches, and had already reached the conclusion that he was not going to be very effective in the search for his own boy, when he came to a set of shuffling tracks. He hurried after them, the soft snow rushing over his dress shoes and freezing his ankles.

He came at last to a park bench in the shadow of a spreading maple, out of sight of the road, and was surprised by what he found there. An older woman, just passed middle age, was standing so that she faced his direction, but she didn’t look up at him as he came. She was not a part of the congregation, but he thought he might have seen her somewhere before. She was dressed in a long coat with a pale scarf over her graying hair, and she was looking down at the park bench, at something there that he couldn’t see. Beside her stood Mark Hadley, who should never have been out in this weather in only a sweatshirt, also staring down at the bench. Jacob thought Mark was supposed to have been in the Christmas play, but he had not noticed his absence until now. Mark gave his pastor a momentary glance, nodded at him, and looked down again. Jacob hurried up to them to see what was on the bench, and there was his son.

Jeremy’s skin was pale and white as death, his eyes closed, his cheek pillowed in his hand. On his back was a pair of wings, tattered looking things on a metal frame, ludicrously large for his narrow shoulders.

“Oh God,” he cried and stretched out his hands, as if he might protect his son from something he couldn’t see. Then he saw the little body rise with a breath, and realized that Jeremy was only asleep. “Thank God,” he said, to those two solemn spectators. He looked at them, and they both looked at him, somewhat bewildered, and not at all concerned at finding his boy alone and underdressed on a park bench. He whipped off his coat and laid it over his son, but he didn’t pick him up yet. He wasn’t sure how to set about the wings, for one thing. He had no idea where they had come from, or how he was going to get them off, or how he would pick up his child without taking them off, so he stood and watched a moment with them. The snow fall was growing less, but an occasional flake still drifted down, and one landed on Jeremy’s cheek and instantly melted.

“How did you find him?” Jacob asked.

“I just came into the park,” Mark said. “I wasn’t really thinking about where I was going.”

“That’s what I did too. But I was looking for ‘em.” the woman said, nodding her chin at the bench. “He could be a real angel, couldn’t he?” Her voice was nearly a whisper. “Poor little lost angel.”

Jacob made an affirmatory noise to this, because his child did look strangely angelic at this moment, in spite of the frayed fabric of the wings and the little cocked bowtie wedged under his chin. “Maybe he is,” Jacob said, a little wondering himself. Jeremy was certainly unlike any human Jacob had ever known, but he had a way of bringing people together, in ways that no one ever expected. “A little lost angel.”

“Mrs. Fontescue,” Mark said, looking up at her with an agitated face. “It’s my fault. I took the wings.”

You did?” she said, her surprise plain on her face. “What for?” She sounded terribly weak and frail as she spoke.

“I – I didn’t have a costume for the play, at the church, and I thought I could be an angel. But – everybody just laughed. I didn’t mean to take them from you, I just thought it would work out somehow –” he stopped and stared at his sneakers in the snow.

She looked at him a moment and said, “That’s alright. You were trying to do something good. I understand.” Mark looked up at her, surprised, and nodded his head.

“Maybe you could help her with something to make up for it.” Jacob suggested. “Do they – do they go to something?”

“I’ll hang them up for you again,” Mark said, with newfound confidence. “I’ll come tomorrow. Oh –” Tomorrow was Christmas day. Everyone was supposed to be busy on Christmas day. Well, it didn’t matter. “I’ll come tomorrow.”

“That’ll be fine.” And although it hadn’t seemed possible, the woman’s eyes grew a little brighter. “I’ll cook something for you if you like. I’ll make you lunch. I’ll be alone all day tomorrow.” Mark nodded again, but they both went on staring at Jeremy.

A car was pulling up alongside the park, and Jacob recognized the Daniels’ old Ford and waved his arms. His wife emerged from the car and hurried in his direction, clutching the collar of her coat to her throat.

“Oh, Jeremy.” And turning to her husband she said, “Honey, is everything alright? How did he get here?”

“I don’t know. But here he is.” Helena looked to Mark and than Edie for an explanation, but no one seemed to have one. She leaned on her husband’s shoulder and the tears came at last, slipping one by one down her cheek and into her gloves as she wiped them away.

“I’m sorry this happened, Jacob. Tonight of all nights.”

“It’s alright, Sweetheart,” Jacob said, rubbing his wife’s back, trying to think of something to say that would actually mean something.

“I just don’t understand why these things happen. I try so hard, and nothing ever comes out right.”

Mrs. Fontescue’s solemn words returned to him and Jacob said, “We just try to do something good. It’s all we can do sometimes. God makes up for the rest.”

“If this is God making things right –” Helena said, but the ungrateful speech stopped on her lips. She knew she didn’t want to doubt the goodness of God, but she was having a hard time believing in it at the moment.

Jacob looked at Edie, and then Mark, and then his son. “I think it is,” he said. Helena looked at him, still confused, and Jacob was trying to think of a way to explain when Edie said,

“He doesn’t like to tell us what He’s gonna’ do.” They all looked at her wide, childlike eyes, a strange sight in that faded old face. “He likes to surprise us. Makes it more special that way.”

Jacob looked hard at her. He works all things for the good of those who love him, he thought to himself. Two thousand years ago – and right now. For Mark and Edie, for Helena and Jeremy, for a small congregation on a winter night.

“Yes. Yes I suppose it does,” he said. It was time to get back, to get Jeremy home, and to tell the congregation that the search was over.

Everything they had lost had been found.

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