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
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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.