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Eternal Weight of Glory and other short stories

 

 

 

The stories in this collection are works of fiction. All characters and events are a product of my imagination. Any resemblance to people living or dead, or events, is coincidental.

 

Cover photo and design by Kimberli Buffaloe Copyright © 2015 All rights reserved.

 

Stories by Kimberli Buffaloe Copyright © 2014 All rights reserved.

 

No part of these stories may be duplicated or distributed in any form, including, but not limited to, sites offering free downloads, novels, collections, or blogs published under another author’s name, or peer-to-peer sites (with the exception of small snippets for the purpose of review.)

 

 

 

 

Eternal Weight of Glory

 

 

Lessons from the Landscape – Short Stories of Faith

 

 

 

 

 

Eternal Weight of Glory

 

 

 

 

 

To Matt, Laura, and all others in the field who give, or who have given, their all that others might live. And to my husband, Kelley. May I better support you in the ministry which God has bestowed upon you.

 

 

“We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

 

 

 

 

Four people, two vastly different problems. But which is the “light affliction” Paul spoke about in 2 Corinthians 4:17, and which is the real danger threatening the church?

 

 

 

 

 

Veronica

 

Loneliness is toxic. It killed my grandfather after my grandmother passed away, and it’s slowly killing me.

That’s what my husband doesn’t understand. The anvil pulling me into a pit isn’t passing Nordstrom to shop at Sam’s, though Michael thinks it is. Even living in a house that will shatter when stones finally sail through the glass walls doesn’t bother me as much as the change that occurred when Michael answered the call. I surrendered my dream of a quiet life with my husband, while a temptation neither of us had foreseen quietly lures him away.

“Veronica.”

Michael’s gentle nudge brought me back to the vestibule. White light flooding the open door forced me to blink. With a smile, I extended my hand to the delicate collection of bones standing before me and said, “It’s so good to see you,” though months have passed since my husband has said the same to me.

~~

Michael started the car and flipped the air conditioner to maximum. “Where were you in there? You looked right through Mrs. Pritchard, not that it’s hard to do. Can you believe how thin she is? I told her you were probably concerned about leaving the slow cooker on during church. What’s going on, Ronnie?”

I angled the vent, diverting air that had lost its chill the previous year. Michael knows I hate that name, so he pricks me with it when he wants to make a point. “My mind drifted.” I slipped on my sunglasses, reducing the glare. “Edwin.”

Edwin Michael Sayers smiled and waved at a young couple passing the car. “Okay, I’m sorry I used The Name. But seriously, babe…” He dropped his hand on my knee. “What’s going on with you lately? I need you in there, you know that.”

Brown grass and cedar trees stunted by Texas drought swept by as Michael drove the aging Nissan over melting asphalt. I didn’t answer. I didn’t have to. Like a doctor who takes an entire minute to collect symptoms, Michael is certain he has already diagnosed the disease.

“They waited a long time to find someone they meshed with,” he continued. “With my speaking engagements piling up and now this radio program, I need your help ministering to them.”

“I’m your wife, not your assistant.”

“How is serving others not your responsibility as a Christian?”

I peeled long, sweaty hair off my neck and bundled it behind my head. “They hired you, Michael, but you’re so busy, no one can find you anymore.”

“That’s why I need your help, Ronnie.”

Hard edges replaced the easy tones our marriage had once enjoyed. The conversation would soon grow ugly. Resentful words over the Gospel, faith, service to a King who sacrificed everything so others could live. Was it like this for the apostles’ wives?

Anchoring the steering wheel with his knees, Michael unbuttoned the cuffs of his dress shirt. “I just found out Mr. Thatcher is having a stint inserted tomorrow, so I’ll need to be at the hospital before nine.”

Heat from the interior of the car mixed with heat from within. “Monday is supposed to be your day off.”

“An elderly man is going in for surgery, leaving his elderly wife all alone in the waiting room. Do you really want me to abandon them so you can go shopping? Come on. Even you can’t be that cold.”

I focused on a nonexistent point beyond palatial homes blurring past the window, my anger boiling in the noonday sun. As we drove through Dallas in silence, the distance growing between us told me it was time.

 

 

 

 

 

Veronica

 

I dreamed I saw King David dancing on a street in Jerusalem that somehow had parking meters and curbs. The Ark of the Covenant, the one I remember from Raiders of the Lost Ark, moved before him, and his army followed behind. He wore a dingy cloth wrapped like a diaper, and he danced, danced despite the dust and the smiling crowds along the sidewalks leaning toward one another in silent whispers. I watched through a glassless window high above the cramped city where I stood breathless, detached.

Alone.

Michael left a message at noon. “I’m sorry this is taking so long. Mr. Thatcher should be out of surgery soon. The blockage was more extensive than they thought, and Mrs. Thatcher has been a mess all morning. Given her age, I’m afraid to leave her alone. Let’s see, what else. Pat called. She’s visiting family this weekend and can’t play the piano on Sunday. I told her you would fill in. Hope you don’t mind. Oh, and the head of the Ministers Association asked if I could speak to the group on Friday. Seems a couple of them heard the program and they want to hear about our progress. Isn’t that great? The phone just beeped. I have another call coming in. Talk to you soon. Love you.”

The message ended, and I placed my phone in the passenger seat. This had become our weekly routine, and I could picture Michael doodling points on a napkin before he called. First, the ministry need with enough detail to justify his absence and ensure my understanding. Next, the bad news followed by an announcement. Several months ago, it was a radio show, then a book contract. All would lead to more speaking engagements. More requests to fill pulpits. More time away from me.

Michael’s ministering style had a far more positive response than anyone had expected. The seats filled within six months and bulged the following year. Soon after, pulpit committees began to call. Michael sent them away. With a swelling congregation that required a new facility and more visitations, he had work to do.

I nudged my old Accord down the interstate. The exit for Marshall lay ahead. Shreveport was less than two hours away, which meant I should reach Alexandria, Louisiana, by the time Michael thought to call again.

The dust-colored image of Jerusalem pressed itself against my mind’s eye. David danced as he brought the ark home. He danced his joy. He danced his thanks. With people knocking on our door hoping to learn the secret of my husband’s success, I couldn’t begin the next phase of our lives until I knew why Michael danced.

 

 

 

 

Michael

 

Michael Sayers turned off Greenville Avenue and braced himself for the argument to come. So it was after nine. So he’d missed spending another day off with Veronica. A man had died and left behind an elderly widow who needed comfort and guidance. Anyone would understand why he couldn’t abandon her for window shopping or a movie.

Anyone but his wife. She even refused to pick up the phone so he could explain. Granted, he’d forgotten to call until after dinner, but it was the first time someone had died while holding his hand. Veronica liked the Thatchers. She should have been there for them. For him. He’d nearly lost it when a deep rattle erupted from Mr. Thatcher’s chest and the light faded from his eyes. He’d needed her and once again, she wasn’t there.

The one-story ranch that had replaced their 3,000 square-foot home in Austin nearly blended with the darkness. She’d gone to bed early again to get even and didn’t turn on the porch light. He pulled into the driveway and slammed the gear into park. This had to stop. He couldn’t be an effective minister with a wife throwing tantrums twice a week. She would either have to agree to his counseling or change her attitude, which had just sunk to the level of a spoiled prom queen. She’d known the ministry would change their lives, that it would require more from him. They’d held hands and prayed about it, so what was her problem?

Floral air freshener met him inside the door instead of the smell of dinner warming in the oven as he’d expected. He would have to scrounge up something after the face-off. “I get the message. I’m late, I’m sorry.” He flipped on the light and unbuttoned his shirt, which reeked of hospital antiseptic. “If you had answered the phone you would have known poor Mr. Thatcher died. I can’t believe you—”

He opened the bedroom door. The king-size poster bed they’d purchased before downsizing square footage stood empty, the paisley comforter smooth over the mattress. The spare bedroom. She’d been threatening to sleep there for weeks. He went down the hall and turned on the lights. Empty.

“Veronica, where are you?” He veered into the kitchen. No dish sat on the counter. No note hung on the refrigerator door.

Did she go to the mall? She wouldn’t have, not after some thug had shot a woman in her car.

The answering machine light blinked with seven calls. Leaning against the kitchen counter, Michael grabbed a pen and listened to each message, jotting notes on the back of an envelope. The last call beeped, and Veronica’s voice—calm and without emotion—filled the room. As the message played, he slipped into the kitchen chair.

 

 

 

 

Atlanta, Georgia

 

Brent Westberg popped the footrest on his recliner and relaxed into the plush seat. With a click of the remote, the television blinked on. He accessed the DVR, scrolled past his wife’s Food Network recordings, and highlighted the game. Throughout the day, he’d heard snippets about the debacle, but each time, he’d walked away before some well-meaning fan gave him a play-by-play with color. He didn’t know which side bombed the catch. He didn’t want to know. After a long day at the office, he had the entire night to find out for himself.

Stephanie peeked into the living room. “Honey, do you need anything?”

“Something to drink would be nice. Did you buy Coke or Pepsi?”

“Coke, but you can’t have caffeine this late, you know that. Do you want lemonade?”

The phone trilled on the table beside him. “Lemonade. Now there’s a manly drink.”

Steph fluttered her eyes. “I hear tell Stonewall Jackson loved lemonade. Is that manly enough for you?”

“That’s probably why our side shot him.” He picked up the receiver. “Y’ello.”

“Mr. Westberg?” A man’s voice, faded by distance, broke at intervals. “This is Spence Riley. We have a problem.”

Brent lowered the footrest with his heel. A problem in that neck of the world meant more than a possible ride on a silver bird. “Go ahead, son. You’re breaking up, so talk slow. I don’t want to miss any details.”

“One of our field guys disa…eared. Reports indicate he’s been arrested.”

“Name and location?”

“Ritterman, sir. Steve…itterman. He’s in…..”

 

 

 

 

Veronica

 

Sleep had become a luxury. Michael usually succumbed to fatigue somewhere between midnight and one, and rose before seven. My body needed more rest, but light sleeper that I am, I had no choice but to mirror his pattern. I’d suggested separate rooms, “On occasion, just to catch up.” Michael circled his arm around my waist, pulled me close, and told me we were too young. He would miss me. I wondered if he missed me now.

After arriving in New Orleans the previous night, I’d ordered room service, then went to bed. Routine woke me at seven. I considered staying put simply because I could, but the bathroom and hot beignets called.

I slipped from beneath a thick comforter that failed to provide the warmth my husband could and checked my phone for messages. Long after tears had lulled me to sleep, Michael had called—just once—and left a voicemail and text. Both would wait as I promised they would in the message I’d left explaining I’d taken the vacation he’d promised for two years. “One day for every day you missed spending with me.” What funds my mother had provided for the trip, and my longing for Michael, wouldn’t permit such a lengthy separation, but I’d made my point.

Dressed in a calf-length white sundress and matching wide-brimmed hat, I stepped onto Bourbon Street. The hotel was far too costly, and if Michael had known I’d booked a room in the French Quarter, he would once again accuse me of longing for the affluence of our former lives, never believing my choice involved convenience and safety. Not until he discovered whose life I was protecting.

Though early, people wandered down the street, their shoes peeling off the sticky sidewalk. Across the street, a group of young men tap danced for spare change. Heat poured through the Quarter, intensifying the stench of urine and beer. My stomach lurched. Fanning my face with my hand, I turned my attention to the scene Michael had introduced me to on our first anniversary.

Then, as now, morning light had deepened the hues of historic buildings, and thick plumes of ferns tumbled over wrought iron rails of picturesque balconies. And then, as now, a wiry man with a scheme in his smile had approached. Pointing at Michael’s feet, he’d said, “I bet I can tell what state you’re from by your shoes.”

Without hesitation, my husband flashed his boyish smile. “And I’ll bet I can tell you if you’re going to heaven or hell by yours.”

The man flinched, but smiled again and took the challenge. For the next few minutes, Michael the attorney drilled the man, asking how often he crossed the threshold of bars and bedrooms, casinos and side alleys. The man listened as Michael spoke of a loving but just God who wouldn’t permit sin in His presence, and of the gift of forgiveness He’d given through his son, Jesus. Understanding and joy replaced the shifty look the man had previously worn. As Michael would later testify, it was his first call to ministry.

“Did you hear me?” The man’s replacement jabbed my arm. “I bet I can tell you what state you’re from by your shoes.”

I tucked my purse closer to my side and diverted my gaze. “I already know, thank you.” Though by now, Michael must be wondering if that still held true. I longed to call and reassure him, but breaking my silence would break my resolve.

A whiskered man who looked as if he needed water, not the bottle of vodka he set on a windowsill of a bar, glanced at me with desperate eyes. As I passed, the saloon-style front doors flung open and a woman perfumed with beer stumbled out. My stomach turned, then clenched, and before I could control it, hot vomit spewed on the sidewalk.

 

 

 

 

Michael

 

Michael perched on the edge of a chair in a waiting room reserved for weddings and funerals. Elbows on knees, hands clasped to keep them from wringing, he ignored the funeral-home director and focused on Mrs. Thatcher. Her skin, the consistency of parchment, hung on her face and arms, and her eyes were round with the shock of losing the man she’d stood beside through better or worse for forty-nine years. Burial arrangements were the last thing she could face, but face it she did despite her grief and the pressure the director mounted. Did she want an open casket? Yes, it would cost more, as would the make-up artist it required, but it would allow friends and loved ones to say a proper goodbye. What kind of casket did she want for the man she loved?

Every item came with a hefty price, and it would run into the thousands if someone didn’t intervene. He would have remembered that if Veronica’s latest production hadn’t distracted him.

Michael placed a hand on loose skin that felt as if it should be covering a turkey leg. “Mrs. Thatcher, I know you want to give him the best, but you know how he was with a dime. At any time during your marriage, did he discuss his funeral?”

“Well, of course. Most couples do. He said—”

“After many years of helping families make final arrangements for their loved ones,” the man in the gray suit said with a practiced smile, “I’ve found the funeral isn’t about the one who left, but about those who are left behind.”

Michael kept his gaze on Mrs. Thatcher. “What did he say?”

A sad smile brightened watery gray eyes. “He said to bury him in a pine box and use the rest of the money to take that cruise to Greece we’d talked about, and then….”

The memory of the conversation reviving her, Mrs. Thatcher rattled off instructions. Within minutes, arrangements were made and money saved. Michael made a mental note to have his secretary help Mrs. Thatcher arrange a trip to Greece after the older woman dealt with her grief.

After he showed his own wife the face of real love.

After the funeral director left, they discussed the service. “We’ll want your Veronica to play the piano,” Mrs. Thatcher said. “Charles so loved her rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’.”

Michael stared at her in silence. Unless Veronica changed her mind about checking messages, she wouldn’t be attending the funeral. Wouldn’t, because she had no idea Mr. Thatcher had passed on. He would have to go alone. What kind of wife would do that to her husband? Why hadn’t she bothered to talk to him before she ran off? If she’d sat him down, informed him she was desperate for a vacation, he would have carved out a few days from his schedule.

The door opened, and his secretary stepped inside. “Mi—” Her eyes flickered toward Mrs. Thatcher. “Pastor Sayers?”

Smoothing his hands along the top of his khakis, Michael sat up. “We’re almost finished, Tara.”

Tara Monahan smiled. “If this sweet lady doesn’t mind, it won’t take but a minute. William with the Ministers Association is on the phone. He wants to confirm you’re speaking on Friday, and if so, he needs the title of your speech for the program.”

“You go ahead.” Mrs. Thatcher dabbed the corner of her eye with a tissue. “I could use a moment to collect myself.”

Michael patted her shoulder and walked into the hall. Too bad his wife couldn’t be that generous. Where could she be? What would she do if her car broke down?

Despite wearing high heels, Tara kept pace beside him. “While I have you, Dave Johnson needs to meet with you about the new building. He isn’t free during the day, so I suggested he stop by one night around five, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the funeral. Just let me know when and I’ll upload it to your calendar. Also, New Hope in Memphis wants to know if you’re willing to speak at their spring conference. I gave them a tentative no—your schedule is already full that month.”

“Thanks, Tara.”

“I’m glad to help.” She tucked her short, dark hair behind her ear. “Oh, and when you talk to Veronica, tell her we’ll need her to coordinate benevolence meals again. I called your house, but there was no answer. Don’t worry, I took care of Mrs. Thatcher myself. Meals will be in place after the funeral.”

Michael opened his office door. He couldn’t tell Veronica because she left. His secretary understood the congregations’ needs. Why couldn’t his wife?

 

 

 

 

Steve

 

Swollen eyes throbbed as Steve Ritterman watched a man in an olive military uniform open the metal door of a shipping container located at the far end of the internment camp. A blast of heat rippled from the interior along with a smell that rivaled an Amarillo cattle house roasting in the Texas sun. Steve reared back from the stench, but a hand smacked him between the shoulder blades, knocking him into the compound’s version of a jail cell.

Pain exploded through his left collar bone and ribs as he tumbled onto a steel surface coated with something like twigs and leaves. And the smell. Oh, Lord, the smell. He swiped grime off his hand and cupped it around his nose.

One of the captors yelled something in a language Steve had yet to learn, and the door slammed shut. Darkness, thick and blacker than a moonless night in the Texas desert enveloped him. He listened for noise, but minutes passed and the only audible sounds were those that leaked through the joints of the steel prison. At least he was alone.

Thick sweat coated his skin. Clearing a spot on the floor with his bare feet—they’d taken his shoes—he pushed himself into a sitting position, aggravating tender spots on his back, arms, and chest, and possible fractures. Pulling his shirt up over his nose, he stared into the inky depths of the boxcar-style container, the type used to haul goods overseas on barges.

His dad had warned him to keep his mouth shut. “Respect their religion like you want them to respect yours.” He couldn’t be silent, though, not when a man’s life and soul were at risk. He’d endured the injections and taken the long flights from Houston to help others in the name of Christ, so how could he not answer truthfully when asked why he exchanged “splendid America” for a village full of sick people?

Steve rested his head on the container wall and laughed. In his report to Spence, he’d have to admit he thought the guy was dying. The local not only recovered, he’d told his brothers about Christ, and the group then asked Steve to teach them the Bible. They died, all of them, along with their families.

Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings

Who would know better than the apostles? They’d suffered far worse and yet they rejoiced over God’s glory and love. He could do no less. Crossing his legs, Steve lifted his hands as far as his injured ribs would allow and sang a hymn.

 

 

 

 

Veronica

 

I spent two days driving along the Gulf Coast where Katrina’s wrath and later, the thick sludge of oil had made landfall. Those who lived through both catastrophes no doubt wondered why God had decided to pick on them. It took me a year to admit I wondered the same about my life, and another to bow before Him and say, “though you slay me, I will trust you.”

Upon arrival in the garden that was Savannah, I checked into the hotel and went to bed in an effort to calm my stomach. Travel combined with restaurant food had aggravated what, two months prior, I’d discovered was morning sickness. Thanks to long hours spent ministering to his growing audience, Michael remained clueless. My mother had once encouraged me to break the news he’d longed to hear, but for our child’s sake, I had to get his attention first.

On Friday morning, I put on a flowing yellow dress and straw hat, and boarded a horse-drawn carriage waiting outside my hotel. Alone, I toured the lush squares Michael had promised we would someday explore together. After dinner, I rode to Forsyth Park, a favorite it seemed, of both locals and tourists. I took pictures of the park’s elegant fountain, an old man sitting on a bench playing the clarinet, his gray hair curled so tight, he resembled a smoldering cigar, and couples strolling along the wide walkway under a canopy of lacy moss. Not to throw in Michael’s face when I returned, but to show our daughter when we talked about our first vacation together.

“Would you like to buy a scarf?” a voice thick with southern asked. Sitting cross-legged beneath a sprawling oak tree, a teenage girl clutching a garment anchored to a pair of knitting needles raised a fuzzy ecru scarf. As if the purple streaks peeking from beneath her red beret and the gold loop attached to her lip couldn’t attract enough attention, she wore a pink tee shirt with GRITS blazed across the front and a pair of camouflage capris.

I started to pass as I had other vendors clamoring to sell me tour tickets or straw roses, but the disappointment in her eyes slowed my pace. This was someone’s daughter. Someone who either didn’t know she was there, or who didn’t care.

I stopped. “I live in Texas.”

Her shoulders slumped, and she dropped the scarf atop an overstuffed backpack beside her. “I guess you don’t need one then. It’s probably the wrong time of year to make these things anyway.”

My heart warmed. Would my own daughter talk to me in such comfortable tones? “You never know. What’s your name?”

“Sarah.” She stuck out her hand.

I shook it. “Hi, Sarah. Can you knit baby items? Hats, booties?”

“Sure. That is, if you give me a day or two.” She twisted sideways and opened the backpack. “See any yarn you like?”

I peeked at the skimpy selection of earth tones, bizarre yellows, and eggplants squished on top of clothes. Yarns she probably bought on sale.

“No, but…” I unzipped my purse and pulled a twenty from my wallet. “I’d like something in pink. I’m willing to buy the yarn if you can get to the store.”

“No prob. When do you need them?”

I gave her a date and time, and we agreed to meet by the statue of John Wesley in Reynolds Square. I handed her the twenty. “Use the rest for gas or bus fare.”

She bounced on her seat and smiled. “Thanks. See you Sunday.”

I waved and took off down the sidewalk, but she stopped me with, “It’s getting late. You’re not going down there alone, are you?”

No, not alone. For though God no doubt watched my journey with sorrow, He promised never to leave nor forsake me. Before I left Dallas, I’d promised Him the same, assuring Him I wasn’t a Jonah or a prodigal child running from my problems. I was running to them. Forcing Michael to help me understand how I fit into a ministry that had taken its eyes—my eyes—off the Sarahs and Shoe-Scam men of this world and onto the public success of its minister.

And how my daughter and I would fit into Michael’s life once he became a star.

 

 

 

 

Atlanta, Georgia

 

Brent Westberg pressed his fingers against his temple and tightened his grip on the phone. “I realize that, sir, but our man—” More talk and excuses filled the line, and for the third time in forty minutes, the fifth person he’d reached at the State Department put him on hold.

“No!” He pitched the phone across the room, shattering the mobile device on the glass partition. When did this country become tolerant of everything but Christianity? The bunch up in Washington would have kicked the founding fathers out of office for even suggesting the First Amendment.

He fell back in his seat and steadied himself. Without looking at his reflection, he knew his face was flushed. If Steph saw him, she would have the heart attack he felt he was having.

In the crowded office beyond the glass wall, Collin Tate, the head of Development, glanced up from his computer and stood. After snagging an orange from the small station the team laughingly called the break room, he strolled into Brent’s office and tossed the fruit across the desk. “I take it they still won’t cooperate.”

“Of course not. I should have lied and told them Ritterman was a rock star. They would have sprung him days ago.” Brent dug his thumb into the fruit’s navel. Tangy juice spurted into the air. “I don’t get it. Even if they despise the man’s beliefs, he’s still an American. Doesn’t that afford him some rights? According to our government, no. They just keep feeding me the line that he’d been warned not to proselytize the locals. The man saved lives. You would think they would call him a hero.”

Collin sat in the straight-back chair on the opposite side of the desk. “I still say we should contact Michael Sayers.”

“I’m not going to beg some hotshot TV evangelist for help. He’d probably charge us a thousand bucks just to talk to him.”

“He may be a hotshot, but he’s not a panhandler, and it’s radio, not TV. His show just went national. He preaches the Gospel, boss, complete with sin and hell and God’s amazing grace.”

Brent eyed the younger man. “You mean the same unpopular message that got Ritterman arrested?”

Collin shrugged. “People love him. He’s yet to ask for a dime, and more important, he’s from Texas. If nothing else, maybe he can stir up publicity in Dallas. That may get the government’s attention.”

Brent munched on the fruit, the juice providing some measure of relief. He’d badgered numerous agencies and embassies every day since getting the call, and so far, no one had offered hope or help. Maybe the latest hotshot was what they needed. A hero on this side of the border, since the other one was getting ignored.

He ripped off another slice of fruit. “Call his people. At this point, we’ve got nothing to lose.”

 

 

 

 

Michael

 

Six thirty. Michael dropped into his desk chair and raked his fingers over his scalp. So what if he messed up his hair? Everyone had gone home to their families. Everyone but him.

He reached across the desk and skimmed his thumb over the photo of Veronica, smiling and happy after their wedding. Five days and still no word from her despite his calls and text messages. What could he have possibly done to tick her off that badly? In six years of marriage, they’d never gone to bed angry, much less walked out on one another. Yes, he had worked days promised to her. A lot of them. That was the nature of the ministry. They had to make sacrifices. How could she not know he missed her as much as she should be missing him?

He pressed his fingertip against the image of her lips. “Tell me what happened, baby.”

“Knock, knock. Am I interrupting?”

Michael sat back and waved his secretary into the room. “Come in. I thought you’d left a half hour ago.”

Still in the dress and heels she’d worn that day, Tara walked in carrying a foil-covered plate. “I did, but I figured since Veronica was out of town on family business, you would be craving a home-cooked meal by now.” She set the stoneware plate on the desk beside the keyboard. “I hope you like chicken parmesan.”

Michael removed the foil, and the heavenly smell of garlic and marinara drifted up. At the sight of a breaded chicken breast lying beside a mound of sauce-covered noodles, a rumble erupted from his stomach.

Tara smiled and handed him utensils. “I warmed it up in the kitchen, so dig in. How did the speech go this afternoon?”

Michael lowered his head and thanked the Lord for the unexpected meal. A blessing after a week of his own bumbled efforts in the kitchen.

Vinyl skritched as Tara sat on the couch across the room. Michael sliced the chicken into cubes. “Considering the time I spent on the funeral this week, it went—” He glanced up and the words stuck in his throat at the sight of his secretary lounging on the couch, her feet bare, legs curled beside her, fiddling with a silver earring. The skin beneath his collar warmed. He’d expected women to hit on him at the law firm—and several had given it a shot—but not at church. His church. How could a Christian…

Veronica. The knife slipped through his fingers and clattered on the plate as he thought back to the days before she left. She’d pouted, spent time looking through sales flyers, and sighed more times than he could count, but there were no calls. No excess time spent on the laptop or shutting down email or Facebook when he walked into the room. No indication she was chatting with another person.

While he was at home. As she loved to point out, he spent more time away from the house than he did in it. How did she spend her time when he was gone?

“Michael?” Tara tilted her head. Layers of dark hair shifted, framing the heart-shaped face he once thought sweet, but was now the only vile clue he needed to explain his wife’s disappearance. Veronica had left the laptop behind. Maybe that held some answers.

He pushed back the chair, and Tara smiled. When he reached the corner of the desk, the doorknob clicked and turned. The door opened, and the tall frame of Dave Johnson, his head deacon, filled the gap.

This week just kept getting better. “Dave. I was just…” Michael glanced at Tara, who slipped her bare feet to the floor. He hitched his thumb toward the hall. “Leaving.”

Dave smiled. “A wise choice, but I’ll have to ask you to stay.” He stepped aside and held the door open. “Mrs. Monahan, if you’ll excuse us.”

Tara finally had the decency to blush. She stood, picked up her shoes, and slipped through the doorway. When the door shut behind her, Michael swiped his hand across his mouth. “Dave, I promise I did not invite that.”

Dave strolled to the desk and picked up the plate of food. “Your disheveled hair suggests otherwise, but a full serving of Tara’s chicken parmesan, partially cut, supports your claim. No man with a stomach rumbling as loud as yours would abandon this without cause.” He handed the plate to Michael. “She brought this to our house when Emily had surgery. It’s good. Eat.”

Michael took the plate, but the soggy noodles had lost their appeal. He dropped it on the desk, cracking something, and fell into his chair. How could his life fall apart so fast?

Dave took Tara’s place on the couch and stretched his legs forward. “I came by to run you over to the property I mentioned earlier this week, but it looks as if we have other business to discuss.” He crossed one ankle over the other. “So let’s discuss.”

What could he say? Admit he discovered he was having marital problems? That his wife may have left him but he wasn’t sure?

“Wisdom is with aged men.” Dave pointed to his graying hair. “Since I, unfortunately, qualify, talk to me. And don’t make me quote verses on pride. For some reason, I can’t remember those. When is Veronica coming home?”

Pride tried to seal Michael’s mouth, but since he’d recently completed a series on the subject, Dave had him in a vise. Using the fork to pick at a noodle, Michael spilled his guts. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where she is or how to contact her.”

Dave stood, and despite having learned his pastor could run a church but not his marriage, he gave a heartwarming smile. “They have a way of keeping us in line, don’t they? She’ll call. If not today, then soon. I’ll have Emily check on her. Until then, you’ll stay at our place.”

“Thanks, but I’ll be fine.”

“The sharks smell blood, my boy, and they’re circling. You’re not only a pastor, you’re a pastor in the public eye. For your protection…” He lowered his head and looked at Michael as if peeking over a pair of glasses. “And for the integrity of this church, you’ll stay with us, and you won’t be alone until Veronica returns.”

If Veronica returned. Michael nodded and pushed himself out of his chair.

Dave headed toward the hall. “On another subject, I received a call from Brent Westberg, the director of Luke’s Hand International. One of his relief workers was arrested for proselytizing. The State Department claims they’re on it, but they’re taking an ‘I told you so’ attitude. It’s a Texas boy, so Westberg asked if you would be willing to use what influence and resources you have to pressure these guys.”

Michael flicked the wall switch, dousing the office light, and fell into step beside Dave. Finally, a problem he could solve. Given to him because the influence, means, and know how had been given to him to do so. Why couldn’t his wife understand that? “I’d be happy to. Ask Westberg if he’s available for a phone interview on Tuesday. I still have some connections at the state capital. Maybe we can interview the governor as well. We’ll also put in a call to the State Department, and I’ll post a video appeal on the website and any other social media Tara has set up. I’m sure we can coax this thing into going viral.”

And maybe Veronica would see it and understand why his ministry was so important.

 

 

 

 

Veronica

 

Sunday in Savannah. I walked down a shady street still rubbing sleep from its eyes to a church nearly as old as the Gospel in Georgia. At the top of wide, concrete steps, men in suits and ladies in summer dresses swarmed a columned portico that dwarfed the tallest among us. A reminder that we are all small in the presence of God. I needed that reminder more than I needed my husband’s touch.

Sitting alone in an antique box pew, I listened to a message rich in God’s word, but one that lacked the comforting timbre of Michael’s voice. After the benediction, I joined others inching toward the vestibule, where the minister shook hands with those eager for a moment with their renowned pastor. Unlike our church, where Michael insisted on making eye contact with each member or visitor before they departed, this shepherd accepted hands of fellowship while craning his neck to talk to a couple standing off to the side.

The confusion I’d harbored over my husband’s ministry deepened. I had witnessed his submission to the Lord. Had seen him pour out his love on his congregation. I could testify to the positive results born from that obedience—results that had blossomed into opportunities neither of us had foreseen. Yet every step forward took my husband farther from me. As his wife, did I have a right to demand a place in his life, or did our service to God mean sacrificing the companionship we once enjoyed?

The disinterested hand moved toward me. I stepped around it onto the portico and found my phone in my purse. Messages clogged my inbox and voicemail. I had taken calls from my mother, brother, and Dave’s wife, Emily, who asked only if I was safe before she prayed with me. The rest had come from Michael.

I typed out, I miss you

Though the clock in Dallas neared eleven, Michael responded. Then come home

I’ll miss you there too

The phone vibrated, and tears threatened to make a scene. I had expected an hour to pass before he called. Whispering a quiet thank you, I connected the line I’d severed a week ago.

“Veronica…” Michael’s voice broke. My determination nearly followed.

“It’s time to talk, Michael.”

Short, quick breaths created static across the line. “Are you leaving me? Is there someone…Are you alone?”

While planning this trip, not once had I considered Michael would accuse me of leaving him for another man. The idea was inconceivable, and evidence that my husband no longer knew my heart.

Fingers touched my shoulder. Flinching from the unexpected contact, I twisted around. A couple in their forties smiled at me. When the woman spotted the phone, she said, “We’re glad you came. Have a nice day,” then walked off with a wave.

I stepped to the corner of the porch. “I’m alone, as I have been for the past two years.”

“Okay, I get the point.” With his fears relieved, impatience hardened his tone. “Just come home. I promise we’ll spend more time together.”

“Treating the symptoms won’t cure the disease. We have to settle things.”

“I agree. The service is about to start. Meet me at the house at noon.”

The absurdity of Michael’s attitude—and, as I thought about it, pregnancy hormones—mingled. Laughter burbled from me with a sob. “I’m not an assistant doing your biding. I’ll see you at my mother’s on Tuesday.”

“Your—Ronnie, tell me you didn’t drive to Virginia in that car.”

“I’ll see you there.”

“Don’t hang up. Okay, I’ll fly to Richmond tomorrow.”

Music poured through the line. The service had begun without its leader. Not even I would let that stand. “Tuesday.”

“I broadcast that day, you know that. This week we’re talking about a missionary—”

“I won’t be at Mom’s until tomorrow night.” Somewhere in Savannah, a church bell rang.

“Veronica, where are you?”

“I’ll tell you on Tuesday.”

Deep voices on the end of the line indicated someone had gone into the hall to fetch Michael. With a quick goodbye, he hung up, leaving me with the disconnect I’d felt far too long. In days, I would learn if that would become the standard for our marriage. Walking toward Reynolds Square and my appointment with Sarah, I swallowed tears that tried to comfort me.

 

 

 

 

Michael

 

Michael stumbled into the pulpit. Those who had arrived in time to find a seat in the pews waited along with those sitting in foldout chairs in the overflow wings. Autopilot took over as he sang several hymns. During his prayer, a tingling like blood returning to numb limbs spread across his skin. When the time came for the message, he erupted and delivered the fire-and-brimstone sermon he swore he would never give.

As the unusually somber crowd exited the building, Dave pulled him aside and shuffled him off to Plano. In the living room of the Johnson’s two-story home, surrounded by photos of Dave, Emily and their sons, Michael collapsed on the leather sofa and threw his arms over his eyes, blocking images of the happy family. Of the world. Of God.

After several minutes of silence, heavy footsteps entered the room. A glass or cup landed on wood, and the whoosh of a cushion decompressing made it clear that someone intended to stay.

Michael swiveled into a sitting position, rested his elbows on his knees, and rubbed his hands together. “I have to fly to Virginia tomorrow to find out if my marriage—” She couldn’t leave him. Couldn’t.

“That’s fine,” Dave said.

“I have three meetings, one of which is with you, and I’m supposed to interview Brent Westberg during the broadcast on Tuesday. Unless they’ve released the missionary?”

Dave shook his head. “Still no word, but the interview isn’t a problem. We’ll call Westberg and see if we can record it tonight. If his guy is released before then, we’ll replace the interview with one of your old sermons. As for the meetings, just reschedule. I wasn’t in the mood for it anyway.”

For the first time since Veronica left, Michael smiled. “I’ll remember that.” Then he sniffed long and hard and turned tired eyes on the only man who seemed to have all the answers. “How am I supposed to do this?”

“Do what?”

“Love my wife and the church?”

Dave puckered his lips and gave a thoughtful look. “It isn’t easy. As you’re aware, Paul pointed out the interest of married believers are divided. In particular, how they can please their spouse. Jesus also tells us a person can’t serve two masters. He’ll hate one and love the other.”

Michael shot Dave a gotcha look. “What have I said about taking verses out of context? In that passage, Jesus was talking about loving money over God.”

“True, but doesn’t it also apply to your dilemma?”

More than Dave realized. “Maybe.”

“Then consider this.” Dave placed his hands on his knees. “You’re a fine pastor, Michael, and we’re blessed to have you. I’m sure I speak for the entire congregation when I say I hope you’ll grow old with us.”

With a quiet laugh, Michael nodded.

“Need I remind you that marriage is a picture of Christ’s relationship with the Church, He being the groom and believers, the bride? In that vein—” Dave smiled. “You’ll like this. Emily made me memorize this verse. Drilled me and everything. We’re told to love our wives ‘as Christ loved the church.’ Not love the church instead of our wives. If you do that, knowing Veronica as we do, I’m sure everything will fall into place.”

He stood. “Emily is fixing lunch, but I think you have time to make travel arrangements. You’re welcome to use my reward miles. I have plenty. After evening service, we’ll run by your house and pack a few things, and tomorrow, I’ll drive you to DFW.”

He walked out, leaving Michael alone. Dave’s advice, while sound, did little to solve his problem. He did love his wife and she knew it. But love, and even spending more time together, may not be enough for her. After leaving the law firm, he’d spent most of their savings on hefty seminary tuition and supplementing Veronica’s income for living expenses. In a few short years, his wife had gone from affluence to that of barely scraping by, and life in a small home with two geriatric vehicles had been more difficult than she’d expected, especially in a town where materialism crept through churches like kudzu through the South. In the past month alone, Veronica had insisted they buy a new car and a bigger house in a better neighborhood.

Reconciling with his wife meant submitting his resignation to better provide for her. Losing his wife meant the same. Either way, his short ministry, which had reached tens, then hundreds, then thousands, and had the potential of touching lives around the world, was barreling down a track toward a brick wall.

 

 

 

 

Steve

 

Heat shimmered around him in black waves. Steve pictured the sun moving overhead. Trees. Blue sky. His parents’ house in Amarillo. Land stretching so far, he could see Earth’s gentle curve along the horizon. His apartment in Houston. Waves crashing against the seawall in Galveston. Clean water.

Lying on the side that hurt the least, one arm stretched out, the other draped across his chest, he tried to mouth a prayer. Words stopped days ago, blocked by a scorched throat and thick tongue. The water his captors provided each day was rank. He couldn’t drink it at first, but after baking at four-hundred degrees for three hours, he changed his mind. Diarrhea hit soon after. Then he discovered someone failed to install a toilet. With his body bruised and broken, he’d barely made it to the far corner of the steel container before his intestines exploded, coating the back of his pants. The dry parts had served as toilet paper. He nearly threw up when he had to handle his food.

If dysentery didn’t kill him, hepatitis or a plethora of other feces-induced diseases would. If his kidneys didn’t shut down first.

Passing a swollen tongue over dry lips, Steve closed his eyes and let his heart pray.

 

 

 

 

 

Veronica

 

I arrived in Richmond on Monday. Majestic Georgian homes, ancient magnolias, and stone walls coated with thick, green ivy had a serenity that Dallas’s contemporary sprawl lacked.

My mother met me at the door. She led me to the living room and held me as my grief soaked the shoulder of her blouse. Sorrow from my separation from her and my husband. Grief over losses in my marriage. Shame for missing Mr. Thatcher’s death and funeral, which I’d learned about after listening to Michael’s messages.

She stroked my hair. “You did what you felt necessary, honey, for you and for the baby. As a mommy, you’ll always have to make difficult choices.”

Wiping my nose with my hand, I nodded and allowed her to tuck me in on the sofa with the quilt Grandma had made for my parent’s wedding. A comforting smile relaxed my mother’s face, void of wrinkles thanks to an endless supply of designer lotions. “I made molasses cookies.”

Only then did I notice cinnamon and nutmeg warming the air. Something tickled my abdomen. “Thanks, Mom. Now can I have the recipe?”

Her smile deepened. “I put it in the box with the baby things. Speaking of which, we’ll have to buy a new crib. Yours somehow broke in storage. Wait here and I’ll bring those treats.”

In the age in which we lived, only my mother would seek to solve problems with milk and cookies. As I adjusted my head on the pillow she’d brought down from the room she still called mine, I realized it wasn’t the food so much as the love that mattered. My mother loved me and was willing to bake my favorite dessert to make my world right.

That God loved me more took my breath away. But would He fix everything by restoring my bond with Michael, or would He insist on being my comfort as my husband went forth and served Him?

Tears dampened my cheek. I reached for my purse and found my phone. I miss you, I typed.

Seconds later, a text message arrived. I can be there in three minutes.

A swell of emotion consumed me. He came to me and was less than a mile from my arms. My mother rushed into the room and shushed me as I once again wept in her arms.

“Think of the baby, Veronica.”

For my daughter’s sake, I dammed the torrent.

My phone rang. With her gaze resting on me, Mom answered. “Not tonight, Michael. My daughter needs rest after that exhausting journey. Please be here at eight. I’ll have breakfast on the table. Do you still like ham with your eggs or would you prefer bacon?”

My mother’s habit of mediating conflict with food bought a soggy smile. Instead of shaking my head as I had in the past, I took notes. “Tell him I love him.”

She did, and for the rest of the night, I clung to hope.

 

 

 

 

Michael

 

Michael stood on the Poag’s front porch, hands in the pockets of his jeans, jingling the key to his rental car. Should he rush into her arms or give her space? She said she loved him. He had that much in his favor. Or had her mother said that to smooth things over?

Honeysuckle and the faint sent of lemon perfumed the morning air as it had on the day Veronica had invited him over to meet her mother and brother. That night, on a swing in the backyard beneath a magnolia tree dotted with large white blossoms, he’d proposed. Had she summoned him back to this spot to bring their relationship full circle, or to start over?

He clutched the car key. The horn honked as he accidentally re-engaged the locks. The door opened, but the woman who answered was a finely aged version of Veronica. “Beverly.”

Beverly Poag wrapped him in a gentle hug, then stepped aside. “Michael, come in.”

Finally granted permission to see his wife, to address the problems that had broken his marriage, Michael stepped into the historic home. Veronica stood in the foyer. The ache he’d hoped to hide exploded, and he rushed across the wood floor and swept her into his arms. She wouldn’t want it, not as angry as she was, but he missed her. He needed her. How could she not know that?

Gripping her so tight a gnat couldn’t pass between them, he buried his face in her blonde hair and pressed his lips against a neck that smelled of the Dove soap Beverly kept in the bathroom. Had it only been a week?

She slipped her hands around his back and smoothed them across his shirt—a white button-down, opened at the neck. Her favorite. This would work. They would make it work.

“You kids talk,” Beverly said. “I’ll finish breakfast.”

For some reason, Veronica snickered, and as Beverly passed, she patted her daughter on the shoulder. After she disappeared into the kitchen, Michael stepped back and checked over his wife. Dressed in a sleeveless nightgown as pale as her face with circles beneath her eyes, she looked more than tired. But her cheeks looked fuller, and though he wouldn’t say it, she’d gained weight. At least one of them had eaten a decent meal during the past week.

“Are you okay? I’ve been so worried. Where have you been?”

“New Orleans and Savannah.”

“Savannah?” Making a point was one thing. Denying him a dream, another. “Are you serious? You knew I was looking forward to that trip.”

Her shoulders sank as if all hope had suddenly died. If he wanted this to work, he had to offer her some leeway. He took a breath and released the steam. “I’m sorry. But I can’t believe you drove your car across the country. That wasn’t safe.”

Without answering, she walked into the living room and sat in a wing-backed chair, signaling the start of a new beginning—or the end of the lives they’d shared.

His phone vibrated. The name of a young couple he’d been counseling blinked across the display. If they felt the need to call this early, something must have gone wrong.

Veronica watched in silence. He slipped the phone back into his pocket and sat on the sofa. “I’m sorry for forcing you to live a life you didn’t want, but I love you and I know we can fix this.” The growing congregation. The calls he’d received during the radio broadcast testifying of faith born from one of his messages. Opportunities to reach other pastors struggling in the ministry. To reach the lost. Gone. His tongue thickened. “I’ll submit my resignation and join a law firm in Dallas or here in Richmond, if you prefer. You can work or stay home, whatever you like.”

Sitting in the chair, one hand resting on the other, Veronica looked more mature, as if the events of the week had aged her more than they had him. “I don’t want you to leave the church.”

She’d left that church without a word and ran as fast as she could to get away from it, and now she claimed she didn’t want him to leave? “Babe, you’re confusing me.”

“This isn’t about you leaving the ministry. I just want you to see me.”

“I do see you. I know we need to spend more time together. Just give me a little time to rearrange—”

“Michael!” She launched forward and fell to her knees in front of him. Pressing warm hands on both sides of his face, hair mussed, eyes wide, she exuded desperation. “That’s what I’m talking about. You’re so caught up in your work, you don’t need me. There’s no place for me in your life.”

“That is not true.” The stress of the past week, of everything she’d put him through over the past months—year—reared, and he jerked her hands away. “The ministry, the broadcast, my heavy schedule are exactly why I need you more than ever. Mr. Thatcher died, Ronnie. He died holding my hand. I needed you and you left me. I’ve had a heavy load at the church this week, performed a funeral, and had to attend functions while juggling things at home. And where were you? Playing around in New Orleans and Savannah. Now tell me how that’s fair?”

Veronica dropped back on her heels, defeat in her expression.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. He focused on a bookshelf, a vase, anything but the pain he’d put in his wife’s eyes.

“Michael, before we can move forward, I need to know why you dance.”

“What?” He shook his head. “That doesn’t even make sense. What are you talking about?”

She pressed her hand against her mouth for a second, then took a breath. “You’re so caught up in the excitement of stepping behind pulpits and podiums, doing radio shows, networking and talking book contracts, you don’t see me anymore.”

She talked as if he were an entertainer strolling down the red carpet, and it was likely jealousy talking, but as he’d told the young couple he counseled, any exchange that didn’t include personal attacks had the potential of moving the conversation forward. She was trying. It was his turn to do the same. “I do see you, baby, and you’re the most beautiful thing in my life. That’s why I’m here.”

“No, you don’t. You’re so busy, you haven’t noticed I’m….” A sad smile curved her lips. “Michael, I’m pregnant.”

Pregnant? He rocked to his feet. “You, you’re pregnant. Baby pregnant? Are you sure?” A baby. A real baby. That’s why she’d insisted they get a bigger house and a safer car. Why she turned moody, went to bed early, and suggested separate bedrooms to get more sleep. A ridiculous smile stretched his face. “We’re pregnant? How pregnant?”

“Almost sixteen weeks.”

“Sixteen?” He dropped back to his seat. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I’d hoped you would notice, but you were too…” She looked away, unable to say it. Could he possibly have been so busy that he’d overlooked a pregnancy for nearly four months?

“You have a gift, Michael. I had hoped you could take part in our baby’s life, but if it’s God’s will that you serve Him as you have been, I’m willing to raise her while you do.”

“It’s a girl? We know that already?”

A sheen coated Veronica’s eyes, brightening the blue within. “No, but I asked God for a girl. I need someone to love. Someone who’ll love me.”

“Baby, I do love you.”

“I know, but I need a friend, too. It’s been a long time.”

The perception he’d had of Veronica’s life blurred, then shifted. As he once had done while preparing for trial, he cast himself as his opponent to anticipate their strategy. The image of his wife waiting alone for hours at a time in a town that wasn’t her home, of her sitting in the pew, surrounded not by friends, but by those who likely wanted to be associated with the pastor, of her traveling across country by herself because she had no husband or family to accompany her, all while he stayed so busy he often forgot to call, stunned him.

“Oh,” was the only sorry excuse that came out of his mouth.

She held out her hands, and using him for support, she stood, then pulled him to his feet. “King David danced because God—not David or his army—brought the ark back to Jerusalem. If you’re going to sacrifice your relationship with me and your daughter, make sure you’re dancing for God’s glory and not because you enjoy the success or attention. God deserves better than that, and so do we.”

I want you to see me. He repeated the words in silence as she looked at him, her expression filled with love and disappointment. She’d been his heart, his best friend, and his greatest supporter until when? He’d been so caught up in his ministry—or was it success?—that he couldn’t say at what point he’d been lured away. “I guess we have a lot to discuss.”

“Yes, we do.” Veronica laced her fingers through his. “Over breakfast. You’ll have to eat my eggs, though. I don’t think they’ll stay down.”

“You have morning sickness? How did you manage to hide that?”

“I didn’t. You always left before it hit.”

Michael brushed his fingertips across her cheek. “Will I get in trouble if I say that’s a blessing?”

She laughed. Until that moment, he didn’t realize how much he’d missed the sound.

 

 

 

 

Steve

 

phwump phwump phwump phwump phwump

The drum that had kept him company began to slow.

phwump phwump phwump phwump

He floated in the darkness.

“Tell them you’re sorry,” his dad urged. “Your mother is upset.”

They need hope, Dad.

phwump phwump phwump

“You saw how the others died. It’s not worth it, son.”

To live is Christ. To die is to gain.

“This is your life!”

Phwump phwump

Yes. Eternal life.

The earth trembled, and a blinding light split the darkness.

 

 

 

 

Veronica and Michael

 

Reclining in my arms as he had during the happy years of our marriage, Michael called Dave Johnson. After learning of the rumors swirling about Michael’s disappearance on the heels of mine and Tara’s, who’d resigned abruptly, we announced the good news and asked him to spread the word. Dave told Michael to take the week off and hung up before he could decline. Not that Michael would have. I think he finally understood.

On Friday, we left Richmond in my mother’s Volvo. Michael started to refuse the gift, but with a humility I hadn’t witnessed since he surrendered to the call, he took the keys and hugged her.

Though Dave had arranged for someone to fill the pulpit on Sunday, we attended morning service and accepted congratulations along with diapers, baby clothes, and Dallas Cowboy baby bottles. Lingering speculation about my disappearance died when I explained my desire to break the news to Michael at the place where he’d proposed, while collecting my mother’s advice and my old baby clothes. Anything beyond that belonged to me and Michael.

The following day, Michael changed his schedule. After detailing his encounter with Tara and his mistake of allowing himself to be alone with another woman, he decided to work from home each morning until the staff arrived. The change gave me an opportunity to sleep in. On Monday, without the slam of drawers opening and closing as Michael got dressed, I awoke at eight fifteen to an empty bed. I found my husband in his pajama pants, sitting at the table that dominated the breakfast nook, staring at his laptop monitor.

He pushed back his chair. “Morning, gorgeous. Sit. I’ll get you some juice.”

I kissed him as he passed by, then took the chair beside his. “I appreciate the extra sleep.”

“Get it while you can. From what everyone tells me, once the baby is born, we’ll be awake until she leaves for college.” He turned, sloshing orange juice over the edge of a glass that would one day be replaced with a sippy cup. “I just realized we’ll have to pay for college.”

“And her wedding.”

He pretended to smack his head against the refrigerator door, but grinned. Like me, Michael had fallen into the habit of referring to our child as she. I had less success convincing him to name her Sarah Sayers.

He put the juice glass on the table and sat in front of his laptop. “I received an email from Dave this morning. They found the missionary.”

“Alive?”

“Barely. The doctors at Luke’s Hand said he was severely dehydrated and was a heartbeat away from death. It’s a miracle he survived. I haven’t turned on the TV yet, but according to Dave, it’s all over the news.”

In Richmond, during long talks that stretched into the night, Michael told me he’d been asked to use his influence to help secure the missionary’s release. A request he and Dave had to modify so my husband could chase after me.

That my journey had further endangered the life of a man in the field caused as many tears as Mr. Thatcher’s death, along with shame. A conviction my husband shared after seeing himself through my eyes. While we endured a light affliction in a land of peace and prosperity, and yet longed for more—me for Michael, and Michael for the prominence he confessed he was beginning to enjoy—this man and others faced death and persecution on a daily basis, emptying themselves in hostile lands for the sake of the cross. Examples of true sacrifice, which I stored in my heart.

Michael leaned back in his seat. “Like you said, God brought the ark back to Jerusalem.” After a moment in which I silently thanked God for restoring His servant in the field and my husband’s affection to me, Michael started jabbing keys. “Maybe we’ll get to meet him in person. When he gets back to the States, I’ll invite him to Dallas for an interview. From the sound of it, he has a story to tell.” A story that might have turned Michael into a media darling had he successfully intervened.

He stopped typing. “Let’s shop for the crib today.”

“Do you have time?”

He flashed the boyish smile I loved. “I have the entire day. It’s Monday, remember?”

Upon hearing his playful reminder, another person would have thought we’d spent a thousand Mondays together. I took it as a promise of a thousand to come.

“I’d like that.” I placed my glass on the table. “Now, tell me what your week looks like.”

He drew me into his lap, and while he rattled off a list of tasks that involved reaching the lost and encouraging others in the faith, my heart danced over God’s love and continued mercies.

 

 

 

 

Lessons from the Landscape

 

Short Stories of Faith

 

 

 

Table of Contents

 

 

An Ornamental Peace

Her mother kept her at arm’s length during life. Would she explain why after death?

 

 

Fighting Chance

A mother tries to connect with her son through North Carolina’s past. Flash fiction.

 

 

The Greatest Fan

An elderly musician about to embark on a new phase of life reflects on his legacy in Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery.

 

 

Hear the Wind Blow

A missionary is about to face the women who taunted her during high school, but sharing the love of Christ is the last thing on her mind.

 

 

Honeysuckle Creek (General Fiction)

Can she reclaim the lazy days she lived in the shadow of Shenandoah?

 

 

Moonbow

Flash fiction set in Kentucky’s breathtaking Cumberland Valley.

 

 

Poplar

On the eve of her high school graduation, a Forestry student wonders if there’s a secret in her past. Set in Kentucky’s Daniel Boone National Forest.

 

 

Saints and Sinners

A woman and her children (characters from Fighting Chance) suffering grief share a cathartic moment in Bath, North Carolina.

 

 

Shining Rock

A widow seeks solace atop Cold Mountain.

 

An Ornamental Peace

 

 

 

 

I never kept a diary, at least not the kind in which you bare your soul and the emotions that torment it on a regular basis. Not since the age of twelve when my best friend found mine and told everyone who I liked, including the boy I had named in those sacred pages. The experience taught me never to write anything I didn’t want someone to read. That anything I said could be used against me in the court of life. A Texas mother had learned that lesson after two of her sons were killed in an attack that nearly robbed her of her own existence. Though evidence indicated someone beside her husband had been in the house that night, a jury convicted her of murdering her kids. All because of a vague statement she’d made in her diary.

I’m sure if she had known of the horror to come, she would have gone back and clarified herself. Used precise nouns and verbs to explain her meaning. But she didn’t have the chance.

Surely my mother would have done the same.

The call came while I was at work. That night, I listened to the message as I tossed a handful of feta cheese into a salad.

“Hon, it’s Aunt Mary.” My aunt’s voice blipped in places indicating she’d called while driving through the mountains. “Your mom is pretty sick. The doctors say she doesn’t have much time. I’m on my way now, and I expect to see you there.”

I put the remainder of the cheese in the fridge and set the salad on the table, unhurried despite the urgency in my aunt’s voice. My mother claimed to face death on a regular basis, so it wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard before. The family never knew if she exaggerated her doctor’s diagnoses or if fate mistook her for a cat. Whatever the reason, she always recovered.

Until three days ago.

The funeral was lovely, as Mother would have expected it to be, with no carnation in sight. She hated the flower, and in instructions left to direct the event, she’d ordered the funeral home to remove any they spotted in floral arrangements. I brought a handful of them. Since I was responsible for the bill, they let me.

I placed the bouquet atop the closed portion of her casket. Leaning over, I whispered, “See, Mother? If you had bothered to take a closer look, you would have seen they’re perfectly fine flowers.” It was the only time she didn’t disagree with me.

After the funeral, I drove back to the house in which I was reared, accompanied by family members and friends. The grass, a bright green after months of dormancy, had been trimmed, and white blossoms covered a half dozen dogwood trees scattered around the yard. They were my mother’s favorite. In the spring and fall, their delicate branches had a wispy look that reminded me of a Japanese tea garden. A look Mother called an ornamental peace. The image represented our relationship like no other could.

For the next hour, people who had loved my mother and whom my mother had loved in return approached me balancing plates of pulled pork and collard greens. “Your mama was such a nice lady. I do wish the two of you could have made amends before she left for glory,” several said.

I smiled and nodded, pretending I hadn’t heard the rebuke in their hushed tones. No one understood the complexities that had existed between me and my mother. I know because I never understood them myself. It seemed the moment the doctor sliced the bond between us at my birth, we began living in separate worlds. What meals we took together were spent in silence or with her on the phone discussing her antique business. When I realized she had more interest in work than she did in my grades, I posted a Do Not Enter sign on my heart and kept it there. We existed together until I left for college.

When the last of the mourners left the house, the only common ground my mother and I had shared, I went upstairs to the master bedroom and opened the curtains. The house sat atop a steep hill, and from the bedroom window I could see the skyline of downtown Raleigh. Late afternoon sunlight had cast a golden hue across the yards and houses. A glow that paled, I supposed, to what Mother was seeing in heaven.

The room was as I had last seen it—clean, tidy, tastefully decorated with the antiques she so loved. Perishable treasures that now belonged to me. I opened a dresser drawer and then another, rummaging through the personal effects as carefully as I could out of respect, and then did the same with the chest and the nightstands on both sides of the bed. Nowhere could I find a diary or notebook that contained a record of my mother’s life or her thoughts regarding her only child.

Maybe she didn’t keep a journal for fear someone would judge her for the contents she would have recorded. Maybe she didn’t feel the need to answer for herself. As she once reminded me, she’d fed and clothed me throughout the years, and provided me with a nice house that kept me warm in the winter and cool in the summer. I gathered she felt this was enough, that anything beyond that bordered on unreasonable expectations.

I sat on the bed near the footboard and looped my arm around the post. A friend once encouraged me to reach out to my mother, warning me I would someday regret not doing so. Alone now in her room, I felt no regret. Despite my mother’s lack of parenting skills, she had Christ as her king. Someday, when it was my turn to cross the river, we would, as Stonewall Jackson put it, rest under the shade of the trees. Dogwoods, no doubt. Then, in the place where Christ dries all tears, I would ask my mother why and she would tell me. Afterwards, we would find new ground to share, that of worshipping our King.

Until then, I would move into my mother’s house where the best she could offer was an ornamental peace.

 

Fighting Chance

 

 

 

 

I dipped the paddles into the black water, stirring the lake as I would sauce in a pan. Despite the ache in my arm, the rented rowboat surged forward. Perched on a bench in front of me, my eight-year old son waved a matching set of paddles in the air.

“Chance, we’ll get there faster if you put those in the water.”

“Go where? There’s nothing out here.” Dressed in faded jeans and the Ironman tee his father had given him for his birthday, Chance slumped in his seat. The paddles jutted toward the sky. “Man, I can’t believe I’m stuck in the middle of nowhere with my mom. And I can’t even go swimming.”

Sunbeams bursting through gray clouds glittered on the choppy water. I glanced around the shallow, natural lake located in the extreme nowhereness of coastal North Carolina. A place so desolate, most of the people I knew back in Winston-Salem had never heard of it.

I checked the handheld GPS I’d purchased for the act of desperation. “Just a few more feet. Help me paddle.”

Chance bloated his cheeks and gave one of the numerous huffs I’d heard over the past few months, but the oars splashed into the water and the boat glided several feet. After a mighty heave on my part, we reached the spot.

“Here, stop.” Using one paddle to maintain our position, I glanced over the side. Though black in color like most of the creeks and rivers cutting swathes along the coast, the acidic water was somehow clear, allowing us to see the sandy lake bed below. “Let’s sit here a minute.”

Chance threw his paddles into the bottom of the boat. As he exuded an anger that had become the norm after his father moved out, I pictured the happy boy he once had been. As I waited—prayed—for the water to still, I fought the silent reminders of mistakes I’d made as a parent and my failures in helping my troubled son and his grades. Just when tears threatened to spill from my eyes, mixing their salt with the freshwater rippling below, I pointed to an object protruding from the sand at the bottom of the lake. “There, Chance. Look.”

He leaned over the side, rocking the boat. I grabbed his shirt and tilted in the opposite direction to create a balance I couldn’t achieve at home.

Chance peeked over his shoulder. “Wow, Mom. It’s a log. We came all the way here to see a log. Can we go home now?”

I forced a smile. “Look again.”

With a disgust I would have to address when the field trip was over, he stared into the water where the log, as my son called it, shimmered beneath a kaleidoscope of shifting waves.

Chance craned his head forward. “Hey, there’s more of them. What are all those logs doing in the water?”

“They’re not logs. They’re dugout canoes.”

My son glanced at me. His thin, blond brows furrowed. “They’re what?”

“Dugout canoes. They were made by the natives who once hunted on this land and in this lake. When they finished fishing, they stored the canoes in the water, which has just enough acid in it to preserve the wood.” I pointed toward the artifacts below. “Those are over four thousand years old.”

Chance stretched over the side of our manufactured watercraft and stared at the piece of North Carolina’s past buried in the water. “Wow, you mean real Indians used those?”

With his attention now mine, I repeated what his teacher had taught me about the tribe and the life they’d lived in this isolated region. My arms ached as I strained to hold him while balancing the boat, but maybe now my son’s history grade—and our relationship—had a fighting chance of survival.

 

 

The Greatest Fan

 

 

 

 

A few more feet and then they could do whatever they wanted with him.

Frank Habersham eased his car between the brick posts of Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery. The Impala he’d purchased when his daughter was still in high school rattled and slowed as if terrified to cross the threshold of the resting grounds. He gripped the steering wheel. “Don’t worry, ol’ gal. It’s not time yet. Even if Marcy thinks otherwise.”

He nudged the car past the entrance and onto a road covered with dirt that resembled fine ash. Palm fronds intertwined with ratty gray moss tangled in the boughs of oak trees formed a canopy between the Georgia sun and the ground, shading most of the graves.

Despite its intended purpose, Bonaventure was a slice of heaven in its own right. If he’d had a choice about it, he’d picked this place for his bones, even if Caroline was buried on the other side of town. She’d never know unless God told her. But the lots had long been taken.

He drove into the shade. Air, sultry but cooler than the car’s interior, flowed around him, bringing with it the smell of fresh-cut grass and muddy water from the nearby Savannah River.

“Moonlight, sparkling on the river of love,” he crooned. One of his best. But he’d composed it near the end of the era when disco was just catching on. It made a few sales after Harry Connick, Jr. brought back real music to the airwaves, but then that George Strait boy came up with a country version.

“It isn’t fair, Caroline. Mine was just as good or better, wasn’t it?”

A gust of wind swirled through the window and caressed his face as Caroline used to do. Something hot burned his eyes. He brushed away the dampness and nudged the car around a corner, past magnificent arches representing the entrance to heaven and concrete angels mourning the loss of someone who’d left their mark on Savannah, or on the world.

He didn’t pause to read headstones as he usually did. Not today. The grave he wanted was just ahead, off to the right. Frank pressed the brake. The car slowed, but not as fast as he’d hoped. It slid to a stop between a dirt grave surrounded by a cement border on one side of the path, and a member of the Mercer family on the other. But at least it stopped this time.

He stepped out. Using the car for support, he lumbered around the rear bumper. Two steps led up to the grave and a bench beside it, and he dragged his feet up the rungs, landing square in the middle of each despite the wobble in his legs.

Near the long slab of white marble, he lowered himself onto the matching backless bench that faced the gravesite. The rustling of leaves and chitter of birds filled the air, along with the quiet grind of approaching tires. If someone else wanted to see Johnny, they would have to wait. This was his time. His last visit with the great man. Rather, what was left of him.

John Herndon Mercer

(Johnny)

Nov 18, 1909

June 25, 1976

“Let the Angels Sing”

Resting on top of the marble was a perfect long-stemmed red rose.

Johnny Mercer. His fans loved him. Loved him so much, they flocked to his gravesite, left roses, talked about his songs even though he’d passed on long ago. Songs they still sang. Tunes that had changed the world.

But who would sing for Frank Habersham?

“I tried, Johnny. I spent my life on music. I almost gave it up after marrying Caroline—she deserved a nice home—but she said no, I had a gift. A gift God surely intended me to use. I believed that too.”

He held up his hands and wiggled his fingers, a few as gnarled as the limbs of the ancient oaks around him. “No more. They’re done for.” He dropped his hands on his knees. “And so am I.”

The cell phone Marcy gave him rang in the breast pocket of his short-sleeve shirt. Despite the heat, a chill from the marble bench on which he sat crept up through his trousers. Punching the button she’d shown him, he answered the call and pressed the contraption to his ear.

“Daddy? Oh my, Daddy where are you? I came by to pick you up, but you weren’t here. Your car is gone. Please tell me you didn’t drive somewhere.” Her voice, rushed and breathless, broke the tranquility surrounding him.

“I’m fine, pumpkin.”

“Thank the good Lord. Now tell me where you are and I’ll come get you. We’ve got your room all ready.”

Years of struggling to make it in the biz. Playing small stages around the country. Even shaking hands with Johnny Mercer once. Gone now in exchange for a room across the hall from his grandson. A kid who preferred video games to music.

“Swell, honey. I’ll be back at my house as soon as I’m done here.”

“Daddy, you’re not supposed to drive, you know that.”

“I’m three miles away. I’ll be fine.”

He ended the call and returned the phone to his breast pocket. “Final call. I guess it’s time.” He pushed against his knees and stood. This would be his last visit. From that point on, Marcy would arrange his days, his outings.

“Goodbye, Johnny.” He touched his finger to his forehead and saluted the elegant grave, its sole decoration the long-stemmed rose. “You did good.”

He trudged to the car without stumbling, but as he opened the door, a splash of blue in the sparse plot beside his car caught his eye. He leaned closer. Near the headstone of a child, a perfect blue morning glory angled itself toward sunlight filtering through the trees.

A salty tear trickled down his face and into the ashy dirt at his feet. Morning glories. Caroline’s favorite. She loved the way they coiled around the porch railing each summer where she could enjoy them as she sat outside with a cup of tea. This one was about as pretty as they came. Growing alone in the dirt as it was, it couldn’t have been put there by anyone but God Himself.

A reminder, Caroline would have said in that loving way of hers, that God was the only fan he needed to worry about, whether he sang on stage or after dinner at Marcy’s. And only for the Father should Frank and the angels sing.

“You’re right, Caroline. As you always were.” Frank wiped the sweat and tears from his face, then dropped into the driver’s seat one last time. “Come on ol’ girl. It’s time to leave. My audience is waiting.”

 

 

Hear the Wind Blow

 

 

 

 

Dark clouds gathered in the western sky. Thick, gray puffs that roiled as if the Pale Horse were coming to trample me. No fear iced my veins or stuttered my heart. Given my attitude, I’d half expected to see the courier of judgement.

Water from heaven splashed on the windshield and parched earth as we drove along I-20 toward Dallas. So miffed was I at my husband, I couldn’t even enjoy the unexpected, and much needed, blessing of rain.

Drew flipped on the windshield wipers, then squeezed my hand. “You won’t regret this, I promise.”

“You also promised to take me to Hawaii. Look how that turned out.” I bit my tongue when the words, as bitter as old coffee, spilled from my mouth. We’d postponed our honeymoon when the pastor asked us to join the mission team to Honduras. After a long discussion, we’d agreed we would rather spend the time and money helping the sweet people we’d met two years before.

Drew released my hand and gave a deep, slow sigh. “So that’s what this is about. If you didn’t want to go—”

“That’s not what I meant.” My disposition grew as dark as the skies. “I don’t want to do this, and I don’t appreciate you pushing me into it.”

“Your old English teacher is dying. The school is trying to get as many of her students at this reunion as they can. You always said you appreciated her encouragement. Do you really want to miss out on saying goodbye?”

I tugged the hem of my dress over my knees. “If those girls are there, yes.”

Meaning the three girls who’d ruined my final years at the Christian academy. The girls who, among other things, had greeted me each morning with a soft laugh and an insult disguised as a compliment. Who’d mispronounced my name and referred to my light brown hair as dirty blonde before offering hints on hair care. Though I tried, I couldn’t fight the anger that had erupted when the reunion summons arrived in the mail.

The Pale Horse thundered in the clouds.

“We all did stupid things when we were teens, Reenie, and we all hurt others.” Drew slowed for a line of cars bottlenecked at the exit to 635, the loop around Dallas and the road that would take us to our destination. When he came to a stop, he leaned over and gazed at me with the breathtaking blue eyes that had caught my attention the day we met. “That was fifteen years ago. We’re older now. And as Christians, we need to forgive. If not for the sake of your witness, then to help you let go of the past. In the meantime, you need to be there for Mrs….What’s her name again?”

Emotional manipulation. Just what I needed right now. “Mrs. Daugherty.” The teacher who had helped me through those rough years. The only teacher who’d had the courage to acknowledge the harassment several of us had endured when the rest of the faculty had turned a blind eye for fear the girls’ parents would pull their children—and their financial support—from the school. “It would help if they asked for forgiveness.”

“Maybe they will, but as Jesus said, ‘the wind blows where it wishes.’ So if they haven’t changed by now, then do what Christ said and bless those who curse you.”

It was easy for him to say. He wasn’t a Daniel facing the lion’s den. Not that the particular illustration of faith didn’t further convict my heart. Regardless, as Drew merged onto the loop, I prayed the trio wouldn’t show.

~~

Hope got drenched like my hair in the rain when I walked into the hotel’s elegant ballroom and saw a placard thanking several donors for making this night possible. The list included three infamous surnames. Few could pass on that opportunity to accept praise. I signed the guest registry, then pressed through the crowd, waving to people I recognized as I moved toward the table where Mrs. Daugherty sat. A quick hello and thanks for everything she did, and I would be out the door.

A cluster of cocktail dresses and suits surrounded the table, obscuring my view of the frail mentor. As I waited, a familiar voice pricked my last thread of obedience.

“Renee, is that you?” Brooke, head of the Chanel gang, came up behind me. I continued to bob to the left and right, trying to catch a glimpse of Mrs. Daugherty. Drew tugged my hand. I ignored him and anyone else who didn’t have the courtesy to call me by my name.

“Honey,” my honey said. “I think someone wants to see you.”

I gave him The Look, then faced the woman I was dismayed to see could easily compete on America’s Next Top Model. Why me, Lord?

At least she was running solo. “I thought you were addressing someone else.” I smiled at the flawless face and hair that was now an expensive shade of blonde. “I’m Reenie, though you probably don’t remember since you called me anything but that during high school.”

Brooke flinched, and my husband squeezed my hand. Outside, the thunder rolled. The horseman racing to block the exit?

Brooke recovered and offered a fake smile. “Oh, well, it’s good to see you, Reenie.” She drew out my name just enough to let me know she hadn’t changed. Could I bless her now and leave?

She lifted her eyes toward Drew. “And this handsome man is your…?”

“Husband.” I resisted the urge to pull Drew closer to my side. I’d learned if you ignore a spider, it will ignore you. “We just celebrated our nine-month anniversary.”

“I’ve been married for six years, to an architect.” She extended her left hand, flashing a ring more expensive than her hair. “And what do you do, Reenie’s husband?”

Drew gave her an easy smile. “I’m an assistant pastor.”

“A pastor? So, Reenie, you’re a pastor’s wife?” Brooke looked at me with surprise. I couldn’t blame her since I’d left the Holy Spirit at home.

Drew cradled me beneath his arm. “A wonderful pastor’s wife and a speech therapist. We’re leaving for Honduras soon. She’ll work with children in need for three months while I minister to the congregation.”

A mask of insincerity I recognized from long ago veiled Brooke’s expression. A mask, I now realized, veiled her heart as well. “How sweet. My husband is on the board at our church. Thanks to him, we were able to renovate the sanctuary.”

She continued extolling the virtue of a man who, if present at the gathering, wasn’t by her side. I tightened my grip on Drew in silent thanks for being there for me.

When she finished, I smiled. Somehow, it was easier. “That sounds wonderful. Not to change the subject, but where are Ashley and Elizabeth? I don’t recall a time I saw you without them.” Not that I wanted to see either now, but the crowd around Mrs. Daugherty had thickened. Directions would help me know which areas to avoid.

The practiced smile returned. “Elizabeth is here. I haven’t spoken to Ashley in a year, as I’m sure you know, Ms. Pastor’s Wife.”

She strolled away, wiggling her fingers at several men in a flirty little wave as she passed.

“What was that about?” Drew asked.

I shrugged. “I don’t know, but I’m ready to go home.”

He nodded toward Mrs. Daugherty’s table. “What about her?”

“With all those people crowding around her, I doubt she’ll remember talking to me. I’ll see if I can set up a visit before we leave the country.” I slid my hands over Drew’s shoulders. “Besides, I think God’s purpose here was accomplished. I faced Brooke and saw her for who she is. I think I can finally forgive and move on.”

Drew dropped a light kiss on my lips and together, we made our way through the ballroom to the front entrance. The rain had tapered off, quenching the earth and cleansing the air. Before we stepped off the sidewalk, another voice, familiar and equally unwelcomed, called me from behind. “Reenie?”

With a dread I thought had dissipated after the confrontation with Brooke, I turned. An older version of Elizabeth, wearing a red dress, her dark hair styled in a short, smart cut, stepped through the automatic glass doors.

“I overheard your conversation with Brooke.” She stopped just out of arm’s reach. “Ignore her. You know how she is. She’s been even uglier since she found Ashley with her husband.”

My heart stuttered. So that’s what happened. And Brooke had assumed I got my revenge by throwing it in her face. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“She deserves everything she gets.”

I glanced at Drew. Wasn’t that true for everyone?

“That isn’t what I came to talk about.” She directed me toward a concrete pillar supporting the overhang. “Did you say you’re a speech therapist?”

I nodded. Elizabeth was far more articulate than I could ever be, so why the interest?

“I have a son. Bailey is only five, but something is….” Worried eyes searched mine. “Something isn’t right. My husband won’t allow me to have him evaluated. He thinks Bailey just needs time.” She straightened. A move that suggested determination, not pride. “But I’m his mother. I don’t know if a speech therapist is what he needs, but if you’re willing, I would appreciate your help.”

Of all the people I knew, Brooke and her gang were the last I would expect to seek out my assistance. But as Drew—no, Jesus—had pointed out, the wind blows where it wishes.

In my silence, despair plumed through Elizabeth’s eyes. “After everything I did to you during high school, I would understand if you said no.”

“I’d love to help,” instantly slipped from my mouth. Seconds later, my heart agreed. “If I can’t, I know someone who might.”

“Thank you.” She gathered me in a hug that spoke gratitude, then gave me her number. We arranged to meet before I left the country.

After she went back inside, I draped Drew’s arm over my shoulder. Despite my attitude, God had used me as He’d seen fit. I raised my eyes in a silent prayer of thanks and saw the clouds had parted, leaving behind clear skies and the distant echo of hoof beats.

 

Honeysuckle Creek

 

 

 

 

Everything looked the same. Fields of wheat still covered hills that rolled down to farmhouses nestled at the base of the ridge, and cattle still loitered in pastures, flicking unseen bugs with their tails.

Everything looked the same, but looking at it now through a mist of memories, everything seemed different. Could I reset the past and restore it to its former glory?

The car topped a swell in the road. My stomach pitched with the gentle rise, and I opened the window and swallowed fresh air to quell it. The turn that once took us to Shenandoah National Park lay just ahead. I passed it, plunging ahead toward Etlan and reminders of those long summer days.

While growing up, my mother would pack the car hours after the last bell of the school year rang and drive me and my twin brother, Trace, to our Aunt Rae’s house in Etlan. We complained so much during the trip from Waynesboro, Mom barely stayed long enough to drink a cup of coffee before locking herself in the car for the silent trek home. But once the taillights disappeared around the bend, we ran inside for hugs and scoops of Aunt Rae’s homemade butter pecan ice cream.

Savoring the memory of that rich hand-cranked treat, I pulled into town and stopped at the convenience store. The air inside chilled me as it had in those days. I walked around, my flip-flops slapping against the dingy tile floor, and picked up a Heath ice cream bar and a bottle of flavored water. Before opening the door to the refrigerated display case, I ran my fingers along the handle.

When we were nine, Aunt Rae finally allowed us to walk to that very store by ourselves for ICEEs and anything else our allowance would buy. We met Neal Langford by the soda case that year. He was short on funds, and Trace bought him a Dr Pepper and a pack of M&Ms. The three of us hung around after that, playing in the woods behind Aunt Rae’s or on the back porch. Each night, when the setting sun would touch the trees on the ridge, Neal would head home, but he’d be back the next morning in time for sausage, grits, and gobs of buttermilk pancakes.

Every now and then, Aunt Rae would set up a tent in the backyard and let the boys camp out overnight. I felt left out until she introduced me to Lacy Edwards at the grocery store one day. After that, the four of us sat in a circle in the backyard until the chill of night—or faint rustlings in the trees Neal swore were bears—drove us indoors. The following year, Delia Somers moved into the house down the road from Aunt Rae’s, and we officially became a group.

Back in my car, I licked melted ice cream off my fingers and turned onto a road that was once covered with dirt. When we were old enough not to get ourselves drowned, or to send for help if one of us did, Aunt Rae introduced us to Honeysuckle Creek. We scaled down the steep slope through masses of honeysuckle using a prickly rope embedded in the trunk of an old sassafras tree. Once, Neal found a fishing pole along the bank of the stream and showed us how to bait the hook. The creek was wide and shallow and filled with big, smooth boulders. Perfect for trout, he’d claimed. Aunt Rae said we’d best learn to fly fish, but none of us wanted to cut up anything we caught, so we sat around the bank talking and stealing honeysuckle from the bees.

The summer Trace and I turned sixteen, we often piled into the back of Neal’s pickup truck and headed to the national park to hike or to eat lunch in a shady spot overlooking Shenandoah Valley. On days the mountain air wasn’t cool enough to keep the sweat off our skin, we practiced flips in the deep end of Lacy’s pool while Delia tried to catch Neal’s eye with her bikini.

That year, on the Fourth of July, Neal met us at the house and we hiked to Honeysuckle Creek. Delia and Lacy were there with bags of chips and a pitcher of tea. After a day of pretending to fish, we started a fire using branches Trace had found in the woods and cooked up the hotdogs Aunt Rae had contributed to the feast. For dessert, we attacked the yellow and white honeysuckle that tumbled down the hill. Swatting away bees, we plucked the stamen, dropped the sweet nectar on our tongues, and tossed the empty petals in the dirt at our feet. One bloom earned me a sting. As I nursed my wound, Neal grabbed my wrist and held the honeysuckle in my hand over his mouth. After swiping the drop with the tip of his tongue, he kissed me. After that, not even Delia’s bathing suit could separate us.

A concrete bridge now stood in the place of the wooden one my brother once threatened to use as firewood, and someone had cut the rope on the sassafras tree. I got out of the car and sat on the edge of the embankment where I could see the spot Neal first kissed me. The honeysuckle, like those long summer days, had disappeared. Razed by someone with plans that didn’t match mine.

Each August, after Mom picked us up, she spent the long drive home lecturing us on how we had the kind of summer only kids in novels or old TV shows enjoyed. Summers filled with water and clean air, where our needs were taken care of and all we had to do was sleep late and eat whatever Aunt Rae put on our plates. A freedom that would end when it came time to pay our way in life. She was right about everything but the timing.

A week after completing our junior year in high school, an orange-and-white U-Haul pulled into the Edwards’ driveway. When it left, Lacy’s dad and half the furniture moved to Charlottesville. We gathered around her on the living-room floor and held her as she cried. A week later, another U-Haul arrived, and Lacy and her mom went to Roanoke to live with family. Though we grieved the loss of one of our own, one hot day, we snuck over the fence of the empty house to swim in the pool. Dead leaves had already taken our place.

We slumped around for weeks. Just about the time I felt like piling into the truck for a trip to the park, Delia called and told me she was having a baby. The father would propose, she was sure, and she asked me to be her bridesmaid.

I declined. Standing that close to Neal at the altar had suddenly lost its appeal.

Memories of friendship and betrayal, lost love and Aunt Rae choked me as I sat in the shade above Honeysuckle Creek. I stood, brushed dirt off the back of my shorts, and got into my car. A mile from Aunt Rae’s old place, a little girl I knew to be four-years old played in a scraggly yard while a woman who could no longer fit in a bikini screamed into a cell phone. With her dark hair and cherub face, the kid looked more like Mr. Edwards than she did Neal or Delia, but Aunt Rae would have said that was spite talking.

I’d spent the rest of that seventeenth summer with Aunt Rae, learning how to cook and sew, and even doing a little gardening. While my brother hung out at Honeysuckle Creek with Neal, Aunt Rae taught me how to make butter pecan ice cream and how to treat a broken heart with hard work. That year, I went to Etlan a child and left a woman.

The following Christmas, Aunt Rae fell and broke her hip. When it was clear it wouldn’t heal up well enough for her to live alone, she had us board up the house and move her to Waynesboro. After that, I never went back.

Until now.

By the terms of the will, my brother and I now owned Aunt Rae’s property. Trace had asked if he could live there—a sure sign he intended to marry his girlfriend—but part of me wanted to recapture those days. To serve up gobs of food and live the life Aunt Rae gave us. But standing in the shadow of the ridge where we once sat in a circle until nightfall, I changed my mind. I’d already had all the nectar this life had to offer. Without it, the rest was empty.

 

Moonbow

 

 

 

 

Science tells us rainbows form when light refracts through a prism such as rain, but I never knew if the phenomenon occurred when a beam of light shone through a single bead of water, or if it took thousands of drops to form the bow. If the former, the sky should be filled with brightly colored arcs after a storm, delighting children lucky enough to see such a sight. If the latter, then science failed to explain to me how light bending through a myriad of drops can form a single, massive, unbroken bow separated into a palette of colors.

Foamy white water glowing in moonlight nearly obscured by a cloud gushed over a cliff into a pool sixty-eight feet below, its perpetual roar serving as a locator beacon. A fine mist blowing up from the falls dampened my skin. Tightening my fleece around me to fight off the chill, I crept across the overlook located just off the bank of the river. Though the sandstone typical of the Cumberland Plateau had eroded in places, leaving an uneven surface littered with potholes, I didn’t need a flashlight to make my way around the state park. My kin had been roaming this area of Kentucky for over two-hundred years.

And therein lay the problem.

Family, friends, and neighbors—people who knew me and knew every sin I’d committed while growing up, and some who participated in those sins with me—still lived in Corbin. When I’d left for college four years before, I was still the girl they knew me to be. As rebellious as I was back then, I didn’t care what they said or thought.

But that was before the weight of those sins had brought me to my knees before Christ during my senior year. Though God had granted me a new heart to go along with my new life, I couldn’t forget my past. And I doubted those in my old stomping grounds could either.

My pastor and his wife said that was the very reason I should head back to the hills after graduation. They pointed to a verse in Mark where Jesus had instructed a man He’d healed to go home and tell his family what the Lord had done for him. I’d promised to consider it, but the verse about a prophet having no honor in his hometown kept running through my head. In a town where I’d stolen everything from patio furniture to a woman’s husband, dishonor was all I could expect.

But God had made His wishes clear the following week. On the day my landlord informed me he was selling the building and couldn’t renew my lease, a teaching position opened up at my old elementary school.

Footsteps and flashlight beams brought me back to the edge of the river. Tourists and campers would soon crowd beside me on a rock some claimed was as old as the Ancient of Days. I would rather have the moment to myself, but I understood the lure of a miracle no one could fully explain.

A chorus of shhh nearly drowned out the rumble of the falls. As those around me extinguished flashlights, a cloud as stubborn as I once had been shifted revealing a full moon, dazzling this deep in the dark country. Moments later, an arc of color shimmered, and the famous moonbow formed across Cumberland Falls.

Children and adults, their voices quivering with excitement, tried to take pictures with their cell phones. I reached out along with several others, unable to touch that which I could plainly see.

They say darkness is the absence of light, but the Apostle John reminds us the light of Jesus shines in the darkness, and the darkness can’t overcome it. Maybe God wanted me to go to Corbin for that very reason. Whether He intended to shine His light through me alone or to use me as one of a thousand droplets, I didn’t know. But if He could use the mist from a waterfall located in the middle of nowhere to project a miracle, then maybe, just maybe, He could use me.

 

Poplar

 

 

 

 

Mornings are best, just after dawn when the only creatures awake are the birds. A mist rises from the river, nearly shrouding the sea of leaves rolling across the gorge. I can think then. Think without having to compete with Mama’s chattering or the constant blare of cooking shows.

The breeze curls around me, bringing with it the sweet scent of pine mixed with new growth and decay. Scents I’ve known since childhood. Moving slowly, as if I’m still the gymnast crossing the beam, I walk across the sandstone arch known as Sky Bridge and bend backward. My hands land on gritty rock. Pointing my toes, I kick off into a back walkover and flip to my feet. A tangle of chirps erupts from the trees like applause.

“Girl, you’re crazy.” From the middle of the arch, Joley peeks over the edge to remind me we’re a couple dozen feet above the ground. Though I’d love to continue the routine, I settle beside her and let my gaze wander across the canopy shielding the deep ravines of the Red River Gorge.

“That’s probably the last time I’ll be able to do that. After Memorial Day, tourists will be crawling all over the place, and the fall semester will start before they clear out.” Which irritates me. I won’t be able to hike without running into someone.

Joley crosses her legs, tucking her toes beneath her thighs. “That’s true, but it’s stupid to take chances before graduation.”

At the reminder of the upcoming event and the changes that will follow, I focus on poplars and sourwoods, elderberries and laurel, silently reviewing family and genus. Will I remember it all when my college classes begin this fall?

Joley nudges me. “Have you decided?”

I know she’s not asking what I plan to study at the University of Kentucky. I’ve known that since my family’s first trip to Daniel Boone National Forest when I was a kid. Mama hated sleeping in a tent and using the toilet in the bathhouse, but I fell in love with Tree City, as I’d called it. Stomping through the ferns, I pretended the rhododendrons were houses and Jack-in-the-Pulpits preached to tiny gnomes wearing pointy-white Dutchman’s Breeches. I refused to spend vacations anywhere else, though Mama once said she’d like to go to Florida. Daddy sided with me, and when summer rolled around, off to the forest we went.

Amber Pennington loves to harass me about it, but only because I’m prettier than she is—least that’s what Tom Meadors tells me. And because the blonde in my hair is natural where she has to buy hers.

An elbow lands in my ribs. “Darryl Ann, I asked if you decided.”

I brush away her arm and focus on the trees just off the trail below. “Have you ever wondered why God put tulips in a tree?”

“Oh my…” She stops because I smack her when she says the Lord’s name in vain, but to complete the thought, she rolls sideways and flops on layered rock melted into shape by exposure to the elements.

I commit that line to memory. It will sound good on a test.

“Come on, Darryl,” she says as if it’s one word. “It’s too early in the morning to be deep. You’re better off trying to figure out how to keep Amber away from Tom while you’re at college.”

“If he’s stupid enough to go for her, then I don’t want him.”

Joley sniffs because she knows better. “Stop changing the subject, and stop talking about tulips. Have you decided if you’re going to ask your mom?”

She was the one who changed the subject, but I let it go. “No, and that’s why I wondered why God put tulips in a tree.”

With an exaggerated sigh, Joley drops her arms on the rocks, softly so as not to make bruises before the big graduation bash. “You know, it’s no wonder you don’t get invited to parties.” She pushes herself into a sitting position. “Okay. Tell me where you saw tulips in a tree and I’ll make up an answer to explain why they’re there.”

This shouldn’t surprise me, but it does. Pointing into a section of intertwined branches below, I flatten my hand on Joley’s back and press. “There, on the tulip poplar.”

She squints at the yellowish blooms resting atop lobed leaves, then her eyes widen. “Oh my gosh, those are tulips. Is that for real?”

Joley has spent her life keeping an eye on her popularity. It’s no wonder she never bothered to look up every now and then, even to see the state tree of Kentucky.

“Yes, it’s for real. Why would God put tulips in a tree?”

She shrugs. “To get a better look? Who knows, Darryl. It’s a tree. What does this have to do with asking your mom about your father?”

It had everything to do with it, though I wouldn’t say that to Joley. She hates it when I get what she calls philosophical. Translated, when I think of anything deeper than what shoes to wear to school. But a tulip in a tree seemed like a question God didn’t intend to answer, and not answering the obvious was what Mama was doing. I’m a blonde in a household of chocolate-topped people. A thin reed to their average statures. Nothing on my face matches my father except the blue in our eyes. Mama claims she named me after Darryl Hannah, an actress who was popular when she was young, but I think it was her way of telling Daddy who my real father was.

Not that Daddy seemed to notice. My entire life, he called me his little butterbean. He always tells me I make him proud, and he supported my dream of going into Forestry when Mama insisted I become a nurse. If love was proof of parentage, I had my DNA.

So should I hurt him by telling Mama I had a right to know if I had another father before I ran off into adulthood? And what if Amber didn’t get her claws into Tom while I was at school, and he and I ended up getting married? In one of Joley’s smarter moments, she said I should know my medical history before having kids. Though she blew it afterwards by saying I should know to make sure I wouldn’t have retards. This from a girl who wants to be a teacher.

Joley rolls to her feet and brushes bits of sand from her jeans. “I’ve had enough of this nature garbage. Let’s go to the grill for breakfast. You can pay for making me get up this early.”

I stand, and as Joley makes her way to the trail, I stare across the Red River Gorge and the sheer drops of Clifty Wilderness. I have visions of spending my days here, working. Of hiking with Tom and two little boys with or without incapacities, mental or otherwise.

But Joley is right. I should know if risks exist before Tom and I make those kids.

We go to the grill where we order waffles topped with strawberries. After spending an hour listening to Joley gush about a party I would have skipped anyway if Amber had invited me, I drop her off and head home to talk to Mama.

I open the door to the house my grandfather built after settling in Clark County. The smell of old and bacon fills the air. Daddy is sitting in his recliner reading the paper while the same news blasts through the television loud enough for our deaf neighbor to hear. He looks up and mutes the volume.

“Hey, butterbean. Where did you run off to so early?”

“The gorge. Where’s Mama? I need to talk to her.”

Before she launched into talk of the party, Joley and I had practiced what I would say. How I would beg Mama not to tell Daddy I’d asked.

“She’s making breakfast. Whatcha got there on your shoe, hon?”

He gestures toward my feet and I look down. Sticking to the side of my hiking boot like a wad of chewed gum is a yellowish flower. I lean over and peel it off.

Daddy turns a page and skims the headlines. “What do you need to talk to Mom about? Is something wrong?” He peeks over the top of the paper. “Don’t answer if it’s a girl thing.”

I walk across the room and kiss my father on the forehead. “Nothing like that, Daddy. I just need to know how to keep Tom while I’m at college. Short of marrying him, that is. I’m not ready for that.”

Daddy puts aside his paper and pulls up the ottoman as he did when I was little. While he dishes out advice, I finger the crushed flower in my hand. Maybe God did put tulips in a tree so He could see them better. Or maybe He figured some things are so precious, they need to be protected.

 

Saints and Sinners

 

 

 

 

“Bath. The oldest town in North Carolina. Settled in 1705. Notable residents: Edward Teach and a surveyor named John Lawson. Notable visitors: George Whitefield.” Delana smiled at me. “I thought you would like that.” My daughter shoved the brochure in the pocket of her sweater and turned slowly, inspecting the destination she’d chosen for our weekly outing.

Chance wrinkled his nose. “Is that supposed to impress me or something? I’ve never heard of those people.”

I rubbed my forearms against the November chill and pointed at the historical marker my eight-year-old son had overlooked. “George Whitefield was an evangelist. Edward Teach is better known as Blackbeard.”

“Whoa! You mean the pirate?”

I did, and if I’d known Bath had once been home to the bigamous thief, we would have stayed in Winston-Salem.

With an energy I lacked and envied, Chance jogged across the blacktopped street, stirring fallen leaves. He pointed at the bay hugging the small peninsula. “Does that mean he sailed into town this way?”

As he swayed in a fair imitation of Captain Jack Sparrow, I stared at the placid gray waters, trying to imagine Blackbeard’s ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, gliding down the Pamlico River toward the bustling port town. It seemed too cartoonish, too unreal.

Like our life. I turned toward a historic farmhouse bordered by a white-picket fence and brushed away a tear. What kind of a man would abandon his family because his wife became a Christian?

Delana rested a hand on my arm. “Come on, Mom. There’s something I want you to see.”

Willing away the flood that could still consume me despite seven months of separation, I nodded and waved my son to my side. “Chance, let’s go, and don’t walk in the street this time.”

He stomped across the road. “Why? A car hasn’t passed us since we got here. Does anyone even live here anymore?”

The small residential community was indeed quiet. Clean streets and trimmed yards fronting wood-frame houses spoke of the pride residents had for their little hamlet, but we’d yet to see any other sign of life. I fought the despair clawing at my heart. Why would Delana choose such a place?

Our self-appointed guide for the weekly trips, she studied the North Carolina map and researched destinations online before presenting suggestions to me. In the past five months, we’d visited a former gold mine in a national forest I’d never heard of, the town that served as the model for Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, wild horses roaming the shores near Currituck Lighthouse, and waterfalls I hadn’t known existed. Each outing taught us something new about our native state and the beauty of God’s creation, all while keeping our minds off Todd and the girlfriend he found two months before.

Until now. Bath exuded charm, but lifeless streets and houses devoid of movement brought back memories of our broken home after the man we loved had left us. Delana was the first to rouse herself from the shock. Wielding a maturity far beyond her sixteen years, she’d dropped my new Bible on the bed and ordered me to move on, promising we’d get through it together. She kept that promise by setting up weekly getaways. Though she’d forgiven her father and talked to him daily despite my objections, she usually took pains to protect me from anything that would remind me of the grief.

We turned a corner and passed a row of evergreens. “Here.” Delana pointed to a one-room brick church in the midst of a cemetery. A carpet of dry, brittle leaves covered the ground. Several rose on a gust of wind and swirled above the heads of concrete angels praying over weathered headstones tilting in the soil.

With tears tightening my throat, I leaned toward my daughter. “This isn’t the catharsis I’d hoped for.”

Chase stared at the graveyard. “What’s a catharsis?”

“A cleansing.”

He looked at me with Todd’s eyes. “You didn’t think this was a real bath, did you?”

“No, toad.” Delana grabbed my hand. “Come on.”

She led us down a brick walkway and stopped at the entrance to the church. A white stone embedded above the door read Built in 1734. Closing my eyes, I rested my hands on the frame to draw strength from the thousands who’d gathered here for more than three-hundred years to worship the God I’d recently found. As much as I’d questioned myself and the Lord after Todd’s departure, I needed the reminder.

I smiled at my daughter. “It’s beautiful.”

Instead of basking in pride at having found the treasure, she watched me with an expression that looked guarded. “Let’s go inside.”

She turned the tarnished knob and the door opened with a splintering crack. Chilled air and heavy silence met us along with the sight of eighteen pews facing an empty pulpit. On a table, locked under glass as I’d once tried to lock away my sins, a Bible dating back to the days when f doubled as s lay open to the first page of the New Testament.

Chance ran up the aisle, plopped down on the first pew, and then ran back, stomping on the pavers embedded in the floor. Dust stirred as hearts must have in those days, and the building shook as it surely had when the Great Awakening’s famous evangelist expounded God’s Word from the pulpit. I ran my index finger along the smooth glass. “I take it George Whitefield preached here.”

“I don’t know,” Delana said. “They didn’t want to hear him anymore than Dad wanted to hear you, so they ran him out of town.”

“Oh.” Icy air seeped through my veins along with a malevolent presence I’d overlooked. Using hands that shook despite my effort to control them, I found the edge of the pew and lowered myself onto the red cushion. The vise that had wrapped around my chest seven months before tightened until my heart threatened to explode.

Chance flew at her, swinging fists. “Shut up, Laney!”

I tried to catch his arm. “Did your father set you up to this?”

Delana blocked the wide blows her brother threw. “It was years after Blackbeard died, but I guess the people who lived here were so used to the pirate life, they kicked Whitefield out of town when he tried to share the Gospel. But Mom,” she slipped into the pew across from me, “he cursed the town before he left. Supposedly, that’s why this place died out. I mean, you saw it out there. It’s one of the prettiest places we’ve seen and it’s right on the water, but it’s empty, and so is Dad. He has no idea what he’s done, but like the pastor said during one of our counseling sessions, he has to face God someday and he will pay for it.”

Pushing aside Chance, she leaned forward. “You have the right to curse Dad for what he did and to never talk to him again, but he’s just as lost as those people were, and I don’t want him to be. And I don’t want you to hurt anymore, but you will until you forgive him.”

I jammed my fist against my mouth and with burning eyes, stared at my daughter. Was this the same girl who snuck out of the house the previous year to meet a boy at a party? Who hit her brother when I wasn’t looking, and who, before Todd left, screamed every time I tried to talk to her? At some point during this crisis, she’d come to faith.

I groped for her hand through the hazy film trying to blind me and pulled both children closer. Clutching them as I had numerous times over the past seven months, I found my reasons to let go.

Together, we stepped outside. Beside the old church, an angel bowed its head in silent prayer. Water from pillows of clouds saturated the air, and I inhaled the refreshing scent. And leaving Bath that day, I finally felt clean.

 

Shining Rock

 

 

 

 

Kathy tightened the laces of her hiking boot and double knotted the strings. She stood, swiped dirt from her knee, and gazed across the Shining Rock Wilderness. Sunlight reflected off bits of mica and quartzite embedded in the surrounding mountain peaks in a scene unchanged from her last visit. The only thing missing was Brian.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Air laced with balsam and a hint of rime ice filled her, easing strained muscles. Freeing memories. Cold Mountain had been Brian’s favorite hike long before the book or movie brought the curious to its twisting paths and steep slope. So familiar with the trail that he no longer needed a topo map to reach his destination, he’d convinced her to trek to the summit for their first date. Three years later, after dragging her back up the six-thousand-foot peak to pick blueberries the size of marbles, he proposed.

“Kat, it’s getting late.”

Kathy glanced at the bear of a man stationed near a cluster of Turks Cap lilies bobbing in the stiff breeze. Resting on his new hiking stick, his natural frown emphasizing his natural gruffness, Jason Abernathy looked more impatient than he had fifteen minutes before. If he was miserable, he had only himself to blame—he was the one who insisted she not hike the mountain alone. “I need a few more minutes.”

Jason jerked his head in the direction of the sun. “We need to get moving if we want to reach the trailhead before dark.”

“We can make it if we keep a steady pace.”

“Maybe you can, but this hike is about to kill me. Why didn’t you tell me it was over ten miles?”

A reminder that he’d invited himself along almost spilled off her tongue, but she glanced beyond his sagging frame to the spot where his eighteen-year-old son, Travis, stared at surrounding peaks coated with evergreens. During the early-morning ride from Asheville, Travis had stretched across the back seat to “catch up on sleep”, contradicting Jason’s claim that his son had badgered him to tag along on the excursion. But when they’d reached the Blue Ridge Parkway, an unexpected love emerged, and Travis sat up and stared through the window at the layers of hazy ridges spreading across the horizon.

She knew the look. Travis was learning what Brian had taught her five years before. Separated from the noise and stress of city life, formed by the clash of lands, the mountains were a place to connect with the Creator. A reminder of His glory and sovereignty. Where wisps of clouds flitting around folded peaks seemed the very breath of God. The mountains called her to that reminder, and to the memory of time spent with her husband.

She watched a peregrine falcon soar in silence near a rock outcrop below. “A few more minutes. Travis would appreciate it, and so would I.”

Deepening his frown, Jason propped his hiking stick against a balsam tree and pulled three protein bars from his pack, tossing one to her, and one to his son. She appreciated the gesture, and Jason’s unspoken concern, but she needed silence.

And a chance to say one more, final goodbye. Over the past year, she’d spent listless days and nights grieving for Brian. Asking God why He took her husband and why He’d left her behind. On the anniversary of Brian’s death, at the moment police estimated he’d taken his last breath, she’d fallen to her knees before the cross and begged God to take her or to give her strength to move on. Peace flooded through her at that moment. Changing peace. The tears that fell were tears of gratitude for God’s grace, and for the time spent with the man she’d loved. A week later, she did what Brian would expect her to do. She hiked Cold Mountain to let it go.

The falcon banked toward her, wings spread, and dropped to the valley. Her chest tightened. “Goodbye, Brian. I love you.”

Sniffing back tears, she scrubbed her face with both hands, then crammed the uneaten protein bar in a zippered pouch on her pack. “I’m ready.”

Jason swiped crumbs from his hands, wisely withholding the it’s about time that would have earned him a long walk down the mountain and back to Asheville.

With long, gangly legs, Travis moved toward them, trampling weeds with oversized boots. It wouldn’t be long until he would look his six-foot-five father in the eye. “Hey, Kathy. Can we come back sometime?” He lifted his shoulders in a limp shrug. “I mean, if it’s not too hard for you.”

For the first time that day, she smiled. “Anytime you want, but there’s a slew of trails here and in Pisgah Forest, several that lead to waterfalls. We should check those out, too.” She slung the strap of her pack over her shoulder. “You’ll have to leave your Dad at home, though. I don’t think he’s a fan.”

“It isn’t safe to hike alone.” Jason snapped his pack around his waist and retrieved his walking stick. “Haven’t you seen the reports on lost and injured hikers?”

“We discussed the fact that I’m a big girl at work last week. And I won’t be alone. I’ll be with Travis.” She stepped to the edge of the path that led down to the trailhead. “Now, be careful. If you thought climbing up was bad, wait until—whoa.”

Dirt beneath her boot shifted, then gave way. She fell forward, slamming her chest against the ground. Tall firs and blueberry bushes blurred past as she slid down the trail.

“Jason!” The scream echoed through the trees. She scratched at dirt, roots, rocks, anything searching for a hold.

“Kathy!” The two male voices blended in panic. They would follow her down the slope. It was too steep. He was too heavy.

“Jason, no, stop!”

She hit something protruding from the ground and banked. Banked just as the falcon had. She turned and rolled and smashed into a tree trunk.

Air left her lungs, and pain—oh the pain—burned her leg, back, places along her arms. Through blurred eyes, she watched Jason and Travis scramble to reach her. Travis on his rear in a reverse crab walk. Jason bouncing from tree to tree like a ball on a pool table.

Travis reached her first. Dust speckled with mica shimmered on his face. She opened her mouth but no sound, no breath entered or left. Tears coated her eyes, spilling toward her hairline.

“Dad, hurry, she can’t breathe.”

Hands landed on his shoulders and pushed him aside.

“Kathy? Kat?” Jason knelt beside her, the fear in his eyes draining blood from his face. She lurched her chest, tried to inhale, to fill her lungs with the cool air of the mountain Brian had loved. Jason’s eyes turned wild. He skimmed his hand along the back of her neck, shifted her head, raised her chin, and checked her mouth for blockage. Over his shoulder, set against a sky as blue as Brian’s eyes, a wisp of cloud darted through the treetops—the breath of God. Her eyelids shut.

“Kat, no. Come on.”

As the world faded around her, warm lips pressed against hers, and air that tasted like honey and nuts streamed down her throat once, then twice. Her chest expanded with a sharp pain, and she opened her eyes, gasping.

Thick fingers probed her arms, legs, crawled across her back and down her spine, his expression unmasking feelings that took her by surprise. That’s why he came up the mountain with her despite never having taken a hike. That’s why he insisted on being there. He cared. How did she miss that?

He placed a supporting hand behind her back. “Can you move?”

“I think so.” With his and Travis’s help, she pushed herself into a sitting position and leaned against a rock. After sliding down the hill, she had to look like a wreck, but Jason didn’t seem to notice. His entire attention was focused on her face. The feelings he’d kept to himself for who knows how long still plainly in his eyes.

“I’ll be okay.” She reached out and tugged a leaf from the pocket of his shirt. “I’m not ready yet, Jason. I need a little time.”

He sat in silence for a moment, as if debating whether to pretend he didn’t understand her real meaning. Then he sat in front of her and pulled a first-aid kit from his pack. “Take as much time as you need. I’m not going anywhere.”

Travis smiled, and above the trees, the falcon soared.

 

 


Eternal Weight of Glory and other short stories

Eternal Weight of Glory Four people, two vastly different problems, but which is the light affliction Paul spoke of, and which is the real danger threatening the church? Lessons from the Landscape Nine short stories of faith set in various southern landscapes.

  • Author: Kimberli S McKay
  • Published: 2015-09-10 17:20:13
  • Words: 22157
Eternal Weight of Glory and other short stories Eternal Weight of Glory and other short stories