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INSPIRATIONAL WOMEN’S FICTION SAMPLER, SOULS OF THE SEA SERIES
PUBLISHED BY PSALMS 96:3 PRESS.
Copyright © 2016 April Geremia. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations and paraphrases are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Cover Design and Book Layout by Nat Mara
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Table of Contents
About the Author
What would cause a woman to stand on the edge of a cliff deciding whether to slip over it or to live another day?
How bad would it have to be?
And what if she can’t turn to God because she believes He’s the root of all her problems?
Set among the fragrant sweet smell of ripening orange tree blossoms, this emotional story is about a woman who battles God for the right to determine how things should be. Gabriella’s life has been filled with tragedy, including the mystery of why her own parents disappeared one night, leaving her alone at a tender young age. Soon after her husband dies, she and her son move to her childhood home—a house on a cliff by the sea in a village that time has left behind. It’s there that she and some local villagers begin the process of bringing her parent’s old orange grove back to life.
As Gabriella begins to put together the pieces of why her parents abandoned her, she soon learns they were victims of powerful forces that threatened to tear apart the quiet little village by the sea. And that knowledge, along with all the other losses she’s experienced, causes Gabriella to view God with great suspicion and fear. So when her young son experiences a dramatic conversion and begins to serve Him, an all-out battle ensues.
During this time, Gabriella often feels called to the edge of the cliff, torn between letting herself slip over it and ending the pain, or fighting for a happiness she’s not even sure exists. Will Gabriella continue to do battle with God? Or will she come to have faith in the God she blames for all the tragedies she’s suffered?
And what role will her young son play in her decision?
This book considers questions like: What happens when God doesn’t act like we think He should?
And Can someone who has experienced so much pain and disappointment ever really let go of the hurt and learn to trust Him?
What if everything you’ve ever been told is a lie?
When Joshua was just a young boy in the 60s, he was told his mother took her own life and left him to be raised by an emotionally absent man and a woman who had slipped into insanity because of the death of her own child. Those circumstances affected every aspect of Joshua’s life but it wasn’t until he met Isabelle, the red-haired bookstore owner on Bell Island, that he realized just how emotionally stifled he was. He loved her, but his tragic past kept him from fully committing. And Isabelle was tired of waiting.
Then lavender scented letters began arriving in Joshua’s mailbox. The letters were signed “Mama,” and they filled in the missing pieces of his early life with his mother, including why her own turbulent love story caused her to walk into the ocean one day in her best suit. They also contained God-inspired wisdom that had the potential to set Joshua on another path.
But Joshua must determine whether the letters are truly from his mother, who he believes has been dead for 20 years, or if there is an even deeper mystery that will finally explain the heartbreaking events of so long ago?
This book intertwines two love stories and a mystery that, once solved, has the potential to alter the lives of everyone involved.
Who doesn’t need a little inspiration in their life?
In this faith inspiring series, I intertwine God and the sea with mystery-themed stories about people battling impossible situations. Readers have left reviews saying the books increased their faith, made them view life differently, and one reader even said the books made her want to be a better person!
And while those are some great reasons to read the books, the truth is you’re taking a chance on a relatively new fiction author. That’s why I’m proud to offer you this free sampler. With it, you’ll be able to read a generous portion of the books in this series for free and then decide whether you want to keep reading.
If the books speak to you, click on the links at the end of each sample so you can continue reading.
If you’d like to connect with me, where you’ll receive news about new releases, contests and giveaways, advanced reader club information and the occasional blog post. You can also connect with me on and .
And if you enjoy this sample, please leave a review to help other readers decide whether or not to download the book.
Meanwhile, happy reading and I pray you walk away with a renewed faith and all the inspiration you need!
Gabriella only half understood what she was about to do. After all, she wasn’t a believer. She couldn’t have understood that the Host of Heaven stood by, silently urging her to utter the prayer that would put into motion the plan that was set before the beginning of time. There was no way for her to fathom what it meant to trust her child’s life to God and His plan. She couldn’t anticipate the gnawing pain of uncertainty, the painful releasing of her own will, the unimaginable loosening of her embrace. The awful, relentless letting go.
No, the only thing on Gabriella’s mind at that moment was the life of her only son. The punishing rain whipped hard against her skin, and she felt the urging of unseen forces. A determined gust of wind compelled her to her knees—the tears of soul-understanding violently coursed down her cheeks.
“God, if you’re really there,” she whispered. “Please don’t take my son away from me.”
Gabriella paused, tried to quell the panic threatening to overwhelm her. The wind continued to push her to the ground. She swallowed roughly and lifted her eyes toward the sky. She was desperate, would do anything if only Sammy could live. Even petition this God she had grown to hate. “If you’ll spare my Sammy, I promise to relinquish control of his future and put it into your hands. I make this oath to you: Let him live, and I’ll give him back to you.”
And so it was.
Three Months Earlier
Gabriella stood as close to the edge of the cliff as possible without toppling over the 300 foot drop, then looked down at the jagged edges cascading downwards until abruptly dropping into the rolling blue-green sea.
She inhaled, steadied herself, and raised her eyes toward the heavens and all of its seemingly unreachable mysteries. Then she raised her arms toward the sky, fists clenched tightly, and exhaled. It was in these moments—when she dared the sea, the world, even almighty God Himself—to swallow her whole, that she felt most alive. Only here, one tiny step away from death, did she feel life stirring within her.
It hadn’t always been this way.
Five years ago, Gabriella had been happy. She’d been married to Nicolas, was the mother of a young son who was the light of their lives, and lived a comfortable lifestyle that had left her feeling, if not completely satisfied, then as close to it as someone could possibly expect in this life.
Gabriella met Nicolas the year after she graduated from college. She was the adopted daughter of her poor immigrant aunt—he the cherished son of an elderly couple who’d been blessed with fertility later in life. They were a study in contrasts, these two, the laid back all-American boy and the fiery Latin immigrant. He was charming with his offbeat features: solid build, blonde curly hair most men his age had already outgrown, and soft green eyes that lulled you into an unexpected comfortableness. Gabriella was tiny with exquisitely delicate features set off by a wall of blue-black hair cascading down to the small of her back. Her face wasn’t beautiful, not even pretty, but it had a bottomless quality to it that made people want to push in and find out who she was.
The following years were filled with freshly baked apple pies and tamales, sweet sixteen birthday parties and quinceñeras, bobbing for apples and smashing piñatas with brightly wrapped broom handles. It was a multicultural family life marked by love and warmth and an easiness few people are lucky enough to enjoy.
But that was over three years ago, before she and her son moved to Rendiciòn, a tiny village located on a remote island in Latin America that time had seemingly left behind. Now everything was different, and on more days than she cared to admit, she found herself dangling on the edge of the cliff, trying to find a reason why she shouldn’t let herself fall over it. She gazed into the endless expanse of blue-green, and felt the familiar longing pushing up against her insides, demanding to be heard. Gabriella wanted so much to be there again, back in time to the place before things had gone so terribly wrong. But she couldn’t go back, would never again be in the place where she lived in ignorance of just how cruel life could be.
That choice, of whether to live or die, to allow herself to fall over the cliff, or to stand still and try to make sense of a life gone so wrong, gave her something solid to hold on to. It put the decision about what would happen next in her hands, instead of leaving it to chance. And because she hadn’t been in control of her life for so long, the idea of deciding for herself was intoxicating. But Sammy, her ten-year-old son complicated things.
The easy way out would be to fall into the nothingness she so craved, but she would never do that to Sammy. He needed her, still loved her, despite the fact that she’d been emotionally absent for so long. And she of all people understood the importance of family to a child.
Before she married Nicholas, Gabriella hadn’t been part of a family, not truly, not in the way she’d always longed for. Abruptly abandoned by her parents at an early age, she’d been left to maneuver her way through life with her only guide a stressed out and emotionally unavailable aunt who said she had no choice but to take in her sister’s kid. After all, she was the only family left, her aunt had grudgingly muttered year after agonizing year.
And so throughout Gabriella’s life, she’d clung to the few early memories she had of her parents. Those of life in the pale yellow house on the cliff. When her life had been light and not dark, filled with laughter and not tears, love and not abandonment.
And now, as she allowed the memories to come, she tasted the salty sea air the winds drove inland, heard the clamoring of the waves, felt the sting of the sea spray carelessly spit out by the roguish waters. She remembered what it was like to be enfolded in warmth, a love that knew no boundaries, a sense of security that all was right in the world. This is the place in time she wished had stood still—that place of belonging, of not desperately wanting or needing.
But it hadn’t.
Those memories, those elusive fragments from her past, were from before her parents mysteriously disappeared into the night, never to return. It would be easier, she often thought, if she could just forget those happy times because they left a gaping hole in her already torn-apart heart. This not knowing, this wondering why her parents would walk away and leave her behind had always been a force to contend with for Gabriella. It grew up with her, becoming bigger and taller and wider right alongside her, like a shadow bully who followed her relentlessly wherever she went.
Her aunt had been mute on the subject, even as she laid dying with Gabriella at her side pleading with her not to take the secret to her grave. But she slipped away anyway, tightly clutching to the knowledge that would have set free a portion of Gabriella’s heart.
Which is why she clung so fiercely to Nicholas and his parents. When she married him, she not only gained a husband, but a loving family as well.
They saw her for who she was—someone once loved and accepted. Nicolas’ parents somehow sensed she carried memories from the past just outside herself, too frightened to truly claim them as her own. So they embraced her in a way that made it impossible to refuse. Slowly, steadily, she allowed herself to be taken into another family, and soon found herself immersed so deeply she forgot to allow for the end—that inevitable moment in time when everything you live for and love comes to an abrupt halt.
It came on an impossibly wet morning, one of driving rain, low smothering clouds and frantically moving windshield wipers. When the policemen came to the door in their black, dripping slickers to deliver the news that Nicolas’ parents were dead—that they’d never even seen the truck barreling down the wrong side of the slick highway, she immediately chastised herself for falling for the illusion. It always ends this way, she told herself. With a leaving.
But instead of letting go of those she loved, distancing herself to avoid the inevitable pain, she held on tighter, trying desperately to change what destiny surely held.
Now, a sympathetic breeze swirled around the cliff and disturbed the hem of her peasant skirt, and Gabriella realized she was holding her breath. It was always this despair, this hopelessness of her life that brought her to the edge of the cliff, but it was the thought of that next step, that plunge into utter darkness that drove her back to life. Here, so close to eternity, she could barely discern the faint whispers in the wind telling her there was more.
She desperately wanted—needed—to know where she would land if she allowed herself to fall. Into the hands of the so-called loving God as Nicolas had tried to tell her, or into an all-consuming black abyss?
Ah, yes. Nicolas.
She shut her eyes against the sun’s glare and tried not to feel. The loss was still too fresh, too sharp to bear. A mere ten years ago, she and Nicolas had shared the unspeakable joy that stems from watching the child of your love push his way into the world. Sammy had come out screaming, a scrapper, a forceful personality from the start. He’d delighted, mystified and worried his parents with his colorful antics, his wide-open heart and his unquenchable curiosity.
As Sammy grew, he and Nicholas, who were father and son lookalikes, became inseparable. Both were light, fair-skinned and freckled with unruly blonde curls toppling over their foreheads. Nicolas was a sturdy man, he had the kind of build that hints at honor and dignity and old-fashioned values. Sammy inherited Nicolas’ build, as well as his eyes—green and soft, reminiscent of the moss that comfortably settles in the soft spot of a pond.
Gabriella loved to watch her little boy mimic Nicolas. If he wore a red shirt, Sammy would quickly change into a matching one. If Nicolas put his hand against a doorframe and leaned into it, Sammy would be right there, copying his movements precisely. It was an easy few years, the kind of time that pleasantly melts away like the last of the butter on a warm kitchen counter. So she tucked away her fears of misfortune, her ever-present sense of doom, and despite the pledges she made to herself never to be lulled into a false sense of security again, she failed to steel herself against the calamity waiting just outside the door. And so it snuck up on her. Insidiously. Deceitfully. Cruelly.
On the cliff, Gabriella inhaled the heavy salt air, and began to think about the night when their world was irreversibly shattered.
It began when Nicolas was invited to a men’s retreat in South Texas by one of his co-workers. He decided to go because the man was one of his supervisors and he didn’t want to offend him.
“Who knows, mi amor? You might have fun,” teased Gabriella.
Nicolas sighed. “I just wish the timing was better. I’m so exhausted I think I could sleep for days.”
She lowered her head, letting her long tresses hide her concern. While it was true that Nicolas was putting in long hours at work, it couldn’t possibly account for the level of exhaustion he’d felt for the past few months. She’d begged him to see a doctor, but he believed if he could only catch up on his sleep, he’d be fine. But he was sleeping away most weekends and seemed to be getting more and more tired. “Nicolas,” she began…
He dropped a stack of shirts into his open suitcase and came to her, gently taking her small face in his hands. “I know what you’re going to say, and you’re right. I’ll make an appointment with the doctor first thing in the morning.”
She smiled, relieved. “Thank you. I’m sure it’s nothing, but it will make me feel better, okay?”
He pulled her close to him and spoke softly into her ear. “Don’t worry, Gabby. I’m sure everything is fine.”
She nodded, battling back the familiar sense of unease.
A noise by the door interrupted them, and they turned in unison to find Sammy struggling with his child-sized suitcase.
“Daddy? I’m all packed. When are we leaving?”
Nicolas and Gabriella looked at each other, trying to discern in each other’s eyes where the misunderstanding had occurred. Nicolas knelt down beside Sammy. “I’m afraid I’ll have to go by myself this time, son.”
“Huh?” Sammy said, dropping his Spiderman suitcase with a thud. He pushed back the mop of curls falling over his forehead. “I thought you said it was a men’s treat.”
“So, I’m a man. Why can’t I go?”
As Gabriella watched the scene, she noticed Sammy had once again emulated Nicolas’ clothing—this time they wore blue jeans and a yellow pullover shirt. Nicolas put his hands on Sammy’s shoulders, which shook with the indignation of being left behind. “Son, sometimes a man has to think of others before himself. Now, if we both went, who would be here to take care of your mom?”
“We could get a babysitter.”
Nicolas smiled and shook his head. “She doesn’t need a babysitter. She needs a man in the house. You’ll have to be that man while I’m away.”
Gabriella watched Sammy process the information. He went from being on the verge of tears to standing up straighter, a new determined look on his face. “I’ll do it, daddy! I’ll be the man of the house while you’re gone.”
Nicolas had hugged him. “I knew you wouldn’t let me down, son. I’m counting on you.”
The sun went behind a cloud and the change in light distracted Gabriella. She sighed, felt herself sway a bit, pushed by a malevolent wind from the north. The memories were enough to make her consider slipping over the edge of the cliff, but then images of Sammy came to her mind. Her little boy had been through so much, and she wouldn’t cause him any more pain. But the ache she felt in her heart was unrelenting, and she didn’t think she could continue with it as her constant companion.
She let the memories take her back again. She had been shocked when Nicolas walked in the door after the retreat. He looked exhausted, and it appeared as if he’d aged in the short time he was away. But she couldn’t look away from his eyes. They looked like they had all the light in the world stored in them.
“Nicolas!” she cried, rushing toward him.
He didn’t refuse her offer to carry his suitcase, and when he sank deep into the sofa, he closed his eyes to steady himself for a moment. When he opened them, the light was still there.
She struggled to focus on his words because she was so concerned about his health. It turned out the retreat had been a Christian one, and Nicolas was excited about the things he’d heard.
“I found Him, honey,” he said with a quiet awe in his voice. “The one who can give us life that never ends.”
“We need to get you to the hospital,” she countered. “I’ve never seen you so sick.”
“We’ve been living our lives for the wrong things,” he said. “Things that will fade away instead of what’s eternal.”
She put her wrist against his forehead. “Amor, you’re running a fever. When is your appointment with the doctor?”
“Oh Gabby,” he sighed, sinking deeper into the sofa. “He loves us so much. I never knew. I just never knew.”
“Vamanos,” she said, irritation tinging the word. She stood up and tugged on his arm, but she wasn’t strong enough to move him. “Let’s get you in bed, and I’ll call the doctor myself first thing in the morning.”
Nicolas reluctantly and with great effort pushed himself off the sofa. “Gabby,” he said, taking her by the shoulder and gently turning her toward him. “I just want you to know what I do. To see what I’ve discovered. It changes everything, honey.”
She let out her breath, tried to remain patient. “Right now,” she said. “All I want to see change is your health. Really, Nicolas, let’s get you in bed before you fall down.”
The salt air stung her eyes, and Gabriella momentarily freed herself from the memories. Nicolas died less than a year later from a particularly nasty and aggressive form of cancer.
So, he did leave after all.
“Some God you are,” she hissed bitterly. She clenched her fists tighter and ignored the wind as it ruthlessly began to whip her hair against her face. Against her will, her thoughts turned to the time when her and Sammy’s world was forever altered.
After Nicholas’ death, Gabriella had slipped into a deep depression, a feeling of wanting to fade into the background, never to resurface again. Over the next couple of years, she retreated from her friends, stopped returning calls and began to forbid all references to God in their home. It angered her that Nicolas had put all his trust in this God who had abandoned him when he was sick.
She stopped doing things the way they had as a family. She didn’t cook the same meals, keep the same schedule, and she got rid of the familiar things in the house and replaced them with functional, serviceable items. Otherwise, each meal was a reminder of what she’d lost, every familiar event caused her to experience the pain as if it were new. She couldn’t bear to sit on the same sofa Nicolas had. Eat from the same plates. Sleep in the same bed.
She was a woman desperate to escape the pain, and in her mind, eradicating all the memories of Nicolas and their lives together seemed the only way to cope. But she knew it was wrong. Nicolas was the love of her life, and the hero of Sammy’s world. Yet, no matter how much her mind told her she needed to keep things normal and familiar for Sammy, her heart couldn’t find a way to do it. The guilt that followed crushed her. She was robbing Sammy of his chance to grieve, she knew, and he wouldn’t be able to heal naturally from the loss. Her heart screamed at her to do what was right for Sammy, and yet no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t. Nicolas’ death had destroyed her. It had turned her into a woman whose actions were solely driven by her pain, and although she saw the damage it was causing, she couldn’t find a way to stop.
The further she retreated from their old life, the more prominent one thing became in her mind: The yellow house on the cliff where she had spent those precious few years with her parents. When she first felt called to the waterlogged, forsaken seaside village perched high on a cliff, she tried to ignore it. After all, why try so carefully to tuck her life behind her only to go in search of another faraway painful past?
But she longed to go there again. Her father had spent his childhood years roaming those hills and helping with the small orange grove that supported the family. Then her parents inherited the place when they married, just as she had when her aunt died.
Thinking about the old house made her nostalgic, longing for what she’d lost so long ago. She remembered baking in the kitchen all day with her mother as a child, and then losing herself for hours in the orange grove as she played in her imaginary world. The memories were gauzy and drifting, but left her with a sense of pleasantness and comfort. The urge to return to the house had become so strong, so persistent, she’d finally given in to it just to give herself some peace.
So she’d packed up her and Sammy’s life in Texas and left everything and everyone behind to travel to this left behind part of the world in an attempt to contain the damage. Life is too unpredictable, she decided, too out of control. So she meticulously and deliberately reduced their once expansive life into a smaller, more manageable one. Smaller is safer, she reassured herself. Less of a chance for the unthinkable to happen. Surely death and disaster wouldn’t follow them to the ends of the earth.
But no matter how far she ran, she couldn’t hide from the fear, the anger and the sense of being betrayed by everything that called itself good.
And so instead of the longed for peace, more days than not she found herself dangling on the edge of the cliff, listening intently to the elusive voices in the wind for some explanation of why things had gone so horribly wrong.
Now, she closed her eyes and rallied her fists again against the sky. “Where are you, great and terrible God of Nicolas?” she screamed toward the surging sea. “And why have you made me your enemy?”
Sammy stepped off the age-weary school bus and was met by the thing he hated most in the entire world—an empty house. Again. He glanced nervously toward the cliff, shrugged his backpack from his lanky arms and flung it onto the front porch. He headed down the dirt path that led to the orange grove, scuffing his green Keds and the hem of his blue jeans along the way.
School was finally out for the summer—a fact that immensely satisfied him. He and his mom moved here three years ago when he was halfway through the second grade, and although he hadn’t been too excited about it at first, he’d learned to appreciate life in the yellow house. But things in the house weren’t the same as they were in Rendiciòn, the village at the base of the mountain. While at home, he felt comfortable—as long as his mom was in a good mood, but the village always felt tense, ripe with disagreements about the way things should be. The odd mix of old and new created a constant source of battles in the community: crusty old fishermen with cell phones and their resentful wives who still did their laundry in large wooden tubs behind their houses. The younger villager’s refusal to wear plaids and stripes together alongside the older folk’s derision about their vanity. Modern, brightly painted road signs that would mysteriously disappear overnight, only to resurface the next day as an exotically colorful bonfire surrounded by the old men cheering at yet another hindrance to progress.
At times, it seemed as if the fiercely differing desires of the masses would boil over and erupt, but so far the townspeople had managed to keep it buried under the surface. But it was there, Sammy sensed it every time he went to town. Underneath the villager’s forced smiles and handshakes festered the outward pushing of the old against the new. Of progress verses sameness.
And the smells. While at first repugnant, they’d grown on Sammy. The smell of the too-small fish rotting in the sun after being caught and later discarded mingled with the fragrant scent of ripening oranges that clung to everything in the village.
But mostly, Sammy stayed at home. He liked the slow pace that made him feel as if he could breathe for the first time since his dad died. It would be the perfect life if his mom hadn’t gone off the deep end.
Sammy entered the grove, found his lucky tree and began his daily search for the perfect orange. He felt each orange along the branches as he did every day after school. This one’s not ripe enough, the color’s a little off on this one, bugs are on this one, and then… ah yes, he spotted the perfect one. Sammy carefully plucked it and slid down the trunk to the ground beneath the orange laden branches. Poking his thumbnail into the top of the fruit, he peeled away the soft skin. He’d picked a good one—juice slid down his chin as he bit into the orange. Chewing contently, he sighed deeply.
Summer was here, and he had a monumental task ahead of him.
A few weeks ago, he began to hear the rumors about the cliff. At first he didn’t believe it—his mom would never do anything so dumb. But one day he saw it for himself. The school bus had taken a detour that day because a hard rain had washed away the regular road.
It had looked as if she were flying. Her arms stretched upwards, and she was so close to the edge he couldn’t see the ground underneath her feet. As the school bus rolled by that gray and misty day, everything seemed to move in painstakingly slow motion. Sammy had looked out the smudged window in helpless terror as his mother seemed to decide whether she would live or die. It was in that moment his summer mission came into focus: He’d learn about the God his father tried to tell him about before he died. Maybe then he’d understand how life could be so messed up.
But there was a problem. His mom didn’t allow him to talk about God, so he couldn’t ask any questions about Him. But something inside of Sammy urged him to pursue this elusive God. Partly because of the way his dad had been so peaceful even as he laid dying in his bed, but also because the ache inside him for something good and happy and pure was so strong that he would do just about anything to satisfy it. That, and the fact that his dad seemed so sure.
“Sammy,” his dad had said, pushing away the soup he delivered to him moments earlier. He hadn’t eaten in days. “There’s more to life than this, son. When I die, I’m going to Heaven to be with God.”
“Can I come with you?” Sammy asked quickly.
His dad shook his head. “It’s not your time, yet. But if you put your trust in God, I’ll meet you there one day.”
Sammy tried to pay attention to his words, but had trouble concentrating. His dad, so strong only months before, was now so skinny and kept having to catch his breath between sentences. Sammy wanted to pull him out of bed and take him to the backyard for a game of catch. But instead, he stared at the bluish-black half-moons under his eyes and tried to make sense of things. He felt afraid. Like something really bad was happening that he couldn’t stop.
“Do only men go to Heaven?”
His dad grinned and then winced with pain. “No son, everyone who knows Jesus gets to go.”
“Uh-huh.” Sammy looked down. He didn’t think it was fair that his dad was moving to Heaven without them, and they wouldn’t be able to go with him until they met this Jesus person. He started to protest, but when he looked up, his dad’s eyes were closed. Maybe he’d fallen asleep again.
Sammy waited for some time to speak, but his dad’s eyes stayed shut. Finally, he couldn’t stand it any longer. “Well…” he said impatiently. “Where is he?”
“What?” his dad asked groggily.
“Jesus. Where is he?”
His dad kept his eyes closed, but managed to move his once strong hand over his. “He’s everywhere, son. All you have to do is seek him and God promises that you’ll find Him.”
Well, it hadn’t been that easy. Sammy started in the living room, turning over every pillow and looking behind and underneath every chair, sofa and table in the room. Next, he searched the kitchen, dining room, bathrooms and the bedrooms one by one. Then, he went outside to the backyard, tripping over his and his dad’s baseball mitts making him that much more surly. He looked in every inch of the yard, including the tool shed which was strictly off-limits. After a long time of searching, Sammy felt frustrated.
He huffed back to his dad’s room to tell him that this Jesus person may be everywhere, but he was definitely not in their house.
In his haste, he didn’t notice the chaos until he stood in the middle of it. Strangers rushed around in the bedroom, all wearing the same blue shirts with badges on the front, and they all looked very serious. A big cart with wheels stood in the middle of his parent’s room, but he didn’t know what sat on top of it because a white sheet covered it. Only then did he notice—his daddy was gone.
Sammy stood still while the people in blue whispered to his mom, who sat on the bed right where his dad had been the last time he saw him.
No one heard him, or at least no one paid any attention to him.
“Mom?” he said again, his voice cracking with the effort. “Where’s daddy?”
This got a few looks from the people in blue, but when he searched their eyes, they quickly looked away. Two of the strangers pushed the cart with the white sheet past him in a hurry.
His mom didn’t move, but sat on the bed staring at the cart as it went through the door.
This time she looked at him, but didn’t seem to know who he was. He took a step closer. “It’s me, mom. Sammy. What’s wrong?”
“Your father,” she whispered.
The only remaining man in the room stepped toward his mom, spoke in soft tones that Sammy couldn’t hear and handed her something. He walked toward the door and when he was halfway there, he turned around went back to Sammy. The man rumpled his hair affectionately and silently walked out of the room.
Sammy reached up and smoothed out his hair, never taking his eyes off his mom. He went to sit beside her. He didn’t say anything, and neither did she but the clock on the wall made all sorts of noise.
Sammy looked at the bedside table. “He forgot his watch.”
“Daddy forgot his watch. See? It’s right here.”
His mom finally drew him in close with a sob. “He’s gone, Sammy. Your father’s gone.”
“Where did he go? Did he already move to Heaven?”
She sat there so long that Sammy thought maybe she hadn’t heard him. Then finally, “Yes, Sammy. Your father’s gone to Heaven.”
The way she said the word made him think Heaven might not be such a nice place after all.
But that day on the bus as Sammy remembered his dad’s words, he made a promise to him. He would look for Jesus again, and this time he’d find him so they could all be together again.
And as he had strained to see the fading figure of his mother on the cliff, he made another promise to his dad: He wouldn’t leave her behind.
In the grove, Sammy crammed the last of the orange into his mouth, wiped his hands on his jeans, and then reached into his pocket to pull out a well-worn piece of paper. As he looked at it, he had the feeling it would change everything. Summer’s here, he told himself. It’s time to be the man of the house.
By the time Sammy got back to the house, Gabriella was in the kitchen working on dinner. Sammy plopped down at the scarred wooden table.
“What’s for dinner?”
“Well, hello to you, too.”
“Sorry, mom. Hello. And what’s for dinner?”
Gabriella shook her head, amused, as always, at the mischievous ways of her son. “Well, I thought we’d celebrate the end of school with your favorite meal.”
Gabriella nodded. “Pizza.”
“With ham and pineapples?”
“Is there any other kind?”
Sammy smiled his lopsided grin and pushed at an errant curl. “Thanks, mom. I’m pretty excited about summer vacation.”
“You know, there will be a lot of work this summer in the grove. Raul hasn’t been feeling well lately, and I’ll be counting on you to help him.”
Raul was the foreman who worked the grove, and his mom said he had also worked it when she lived here as a little girl. When they had first arrived, the trees in the grove were barely producing any oranges. His mom said the only reason they weren’t dead was because Raul had taken care of the grove the entire time the house had been empty because he couldn’t stand to see the trees die. But they had all worked hard for the past three years to reestablish it, and now, in their third year, they were finally going to reap a harvest.
To Sammy, Raul looked as old as dirt, and he didn’t think he should be working anyway, but his mom said Raul needed the grove as much as it needed him. Anyway, he liked Raul and loved to listen to his stories about the old days.
“Don’t worry,” Sammy said. “I’ve watched Raul for long enough that I know what to do. Do I get to be the boss?”
She looked away and smiled. “No, Raul will still be in charge, but you’ll be his right-hand man.”
Sammy nodded, cautiously fingering the piece of paper in his pocket. His mom was in a good mood, and this might be the perfect time. In a moment of bravery, he pulled it out and smoothed it flat on the table.
The motion caught Gabriella’s attention. “What’s that?”
She stopped kneading the dough and turned around. When she saw the handbill, she wiped her hands on the apron and moved toward the table.
Sammy quickly covered the sheet of paper with his hands.
She sat down. “What is it Sammy?”
“You have to promise not to get mad.”
“Uh-oh,” she said. “This already sounds like trouble.”
“Mom, it’s just that this is really important to me, but you’re not going to approve.”
“But I’m almost a grown-up now…”
“And I think it’s time I made some decisions on my own.”
Gabriella sighed. “Sammy, move your hand, and let me see what’s under there.”
Sammy slowly sat back, cautiously taking his hands off the paper.
Gabriella’s face hardened, and she returned to the counter where she began pounding the dough. “You know my thoughts on the subject, son.”
“Yes ma’am. But they don’t match mine.”
She stood still, then slowly turned around, a look of immovability on her face. “I’m sorry, Sammy, but this subject isn’t open for discussion.”
Sammy started to protest, but she held up her hand. “I understand you’re curious about this God thing, but I’ve heard about these tent revivals. They get people all worked up with fake healings and made-up stories, and then they ask them for all of their money. I won’t let you be taken advantage of.”
“But mom. Dad—“
“—Dad was wrong.”
Sammy stared, open-mouthed, at his mom. The statement hung heavily in the air. His dad was wrong? But he’d seemed so sure, so happy about what he’d learned about God. How could he have been wrong about something that had given him so much joy? He looked at his mom. Her face was so tight, so unbending, and he thought back to his dad’s face before he died. He’d been so peaceful and content. He’d seemed so sure.
A tremor of realization spread though Sammy’s body as he realized the shocking truth of the situation: his mom was the one who was wrong. His mom. Wrong.
“Do I make myself clear, Sammy?”
He closed his mouth and sat up straighter. “Yes, ma’am,” he said as he folded the handbill and stuffed it back into his pocket. He felt awful about what he was planning to do. He’d never set out to deliberately disobey his mom before, but it was the only thing he could do. It was, after all, a promise he intended to keep.
The celebration dinner was tense and stilted and Sammy barely tasted the pizza anyway. His mom tried to make it up to him by talking about the summer and the fun things they could do, but Sammy knew it was just that—talk. They hadn’t done anything fun since his dad died.
“What about spending the entire day at the beach looking for seashells?”
“Or maybe we could pack a lunch and picnic by the cliffs.”
Gabriella quickly looked away.
“Look mom. It’s okay—you don’t have to entertain me anymore. I’m ten now, remember?”
She attempted a smile. “Yes, my big little man.” Why did Sammy feel the need to be so grown-up? Gabriella looked at him, really looked at him for the first time in a while and was surprised at what she saw. He was very serious to be so young. Where had all the little boy in him gone? She knew she was failing him, had been ever since Nicolas died, but she couldn’t find the strength to make things right. Her insides had dried up, and what strength she may have had at one time was gone. My God, she thought. How can I be so caught up in my own pain that I can’t give Sammy what he needs? And what must Sammy think of me?
She got up and cleared the table, and in a burst of optimism, told herself it wasn’t too late to become the kind of mom Sammy needed. But after she stacked the dishes in the sink, she leaned against it and the reality of her world crashed down on her once again. Would this hopelessness that sucked away all her energy ever relent? Would she ever feel normal again? Wake up anticipating the day rather than dreading it?
“Mom?” Sammy’s voice startled her as he brought his glass to the sink. “Can I help?”
“No, you run along.”
He saw her wet eyes and wanted to say something, but instead turned and pretended not to notice. Her unhappiness was the reason he had to disobey her. If God could make his dad happy when he was so sick, maybe He could do the same thing for his mom. “Okay,” he said. He didn’t want to leave her, but he needed to be a man and make everything okay again. “I’ll see you later,” he said on his way out the door.
Sammy ran down the dirt path and ended up in the grove. He didn’t stop until he came to his favorite tree. Sliding down the familiar trunk, he pulled out the handbill and read again that the revival was to take place on Sunday. It was only two days away. He pulled a pencil stub out of his pocket and began to list all the things he needed to do and pack for his mission. The revival was in Principios, a small town about ten miles down the coastline. Since he couldn’t take the risk of anyone finding out about his disobedience, he’d have to walk, which meant he needed to leave pretty early Sunday morning. He might be able to find someone to give him a ride home after the revival.
“Hola, Samuèl. How are you?”
Sammy jerked his head up and then relaxed when he saw Raul walking toward him. He shoved the handbill and pencil into his pocket. “Hola señor. I’m good. And you?”
Raul didn’t speak perfect English, but he liked to practice when speaking to Sammy. “I am still here,” he said shrugging.
Sammy smiled, hopped up and followed Raul to his favorite resting spot—the end of an old wooden trailer that hadn’t been used in years.
“I see you have the church paper. You will go, yes?”
Sammy sadly shook his head. “No, sir. My mom said no.”
“Hmm,” Raul muttered, shaking his head. “Why does your mother dislike God so much?”
Sammy shrugged. “I guess it’s because she thinks it’s His fault my dad died.”
“Is it God’s fault my dad died?”
Raul took his time answering the question. Finally he said, “I think you need to talk to Padre Salinas from the church in the village.”
“You think he’d know?”
Raul nodded. “Yes, I think he will.”
Sammy wasn’t so sure. He’d snuck down to the Colonia church a few times before and peered into the window while Padre Salinas preached. He was really old—older than even Raul and it looked to Sammy as if he’d had a difficult time staying awake while he spoke to the congregation. “I don’t know.”
“You want I should take you?”
Sammy was surprised at the hint of urgency in Raul’s voice. He looked at him closely and couldn’t help but notice the yellowed teeth that made Raul’s smile so unique.
“I’m not sure,” Sammy said. “Maybe later.”
Raul shrugged it off, making Sammy think he’d imagined the urgency. “Bueno.”
He felt bad for not taking Raul up on his offer, but he had a feeling about the revival. Sammy hoped he would find out what his dad had tried to tell him about before he died. He pushed his hand down into his pocket, touched the handbill and felt his stomach stir with the anticipation of something good on the horizon.
Later that night as Sammy laid in bed going over all the things he planned to pack for his trip, he heard a sharp “whack” on his window pane. He jumped up and without having to wonder where the noise had come from, yanked open the window and whispered. “Juan Jose! I’m here!”
“Wait for me!” Sammy whispered. “I’ll be out in a minute.” Juan Jose, Sammy’s best friend in the world, was always getting him into trouble. Juan Jose wasn’t a bad kid, he was just a boy with an irrepressible curiosity and a penchant for always being in the wrong place at the wrong time. His mom had a habit of grounding him whenever he got into trouble, which was most of the time. This explained the late hour visit. Juan Jose had to sneak out of the house after his mom went to sleep if the two friends wanted to spend any time together.
Sammy lowered himself out of the window, and his feet thudded safely to the ground. When he and his mom first arrived in Rendiciòn, Sammy had learned Spanish quickly because of Juan Jose. His friend didn’t understand one word of English, and Sammy, fresh from the U.S., hadn’t known any Spanish. But the boys were the same age and instantly become best friends anyway. So Sammy devoured the language so he could communicate with him. Besides, he had to learn quickly because Juan Jose was the fastest talker he’d ever met.
Another reason they bonded together so tightly was because each of them had lost their dad at an early age. Sammy’s died of cancer, and Juan Jose’s left for the U.S. so he could try and earn more money to better support him and his mom. But after he left, they never heard from him again. The boys spent hours talking about what might have happened to him, and came to the conclusion that he would never have left on his own. Someone or something had to be preventing him from coming home, they decided, so the boys made plans to find him. They filled notebooks with detailed strategies outlining how they would rescue him once they found him.
But some kids from the village ruthlessly teased Juan Jose, telling him his father had deserted him and his mom. He refused to listen to them because his dad, just like Sammy’s, was his hero.
“What’s up?” Sammy asked as he landed in the dirt.
“Tengo noticias de Maria” (I have news about Maria)
That instantly put Sammy on alert. Maria was the love of his life, and she was the girl he believed he was destined to marry. He’d known it the moment he first saw her six months ago when he spotted her at the market as she helped her father sell produce. She’d been bold, looking him right in the eye as she told him the price he offered for the bundle of cilantro was ridiculous. Every time Sammy thought about the fire in her eyes, he felt a longing to do something—to walk a little taller, try a little harder, to be a little more grown-up than he really was.
“What did she say?”
“She said…” Juan Jose took a deep breath, knowing that prolonging the answer was pure torture for Sammy. “Are you sure you want to know?”
“Bueno. She said she would hold your hand on three conditions,” he said, speaking in his trademark rapid fire speech.
“Yes… go on.”
“One. No one can be there to see. Two. You are not allowed to tell anyone. Three. When she says stop, you must let go of her hand.”
Sammy released the breath he’d been holding. He couldn’t believe she finally said yes. He’d been negotiating this event for months, primarily through Juan Jose because Maria refused to speak directly to him about it.
It drove him crazy every time he saw her at school or at the market with her father. She always smiled sweetly and pretended they weren’t sending messages about the most important event of their lives. And now it was here. And it was really going to happen.
Juan Jose slapped Sammy on the back as they’d watched the grown men do a thousand times at the Plaza. “She said to meet her Sunday at the cove. You know the one?”
Sammy nodded. “Yes, I know where it is. I can’t believe she finally said yes. What do you think changed her mind?”
“I’m sure it was my persuasive powers with the women.”
Sammy laughed, grateful to have a good friend like Juan Jose. “There’s something else,” he said lowering his voice. He opened his fist to reveal the now tattered handbill. “I’m going.”
“Your mamã, she said yes?”
Sammy slowly shook his head.
Juan Jose’s eyes widened. “You mean…”
“I’m going anyway. I have to.”
His friend nodded solemnly. Juan Jose had been on the bus the day Sammy watched his mom stand so close to the edge of the cliff and saw how scared he’d been. They’d talked about it many times after that day, and Sammy told him he thought God might be the answer to his mom’s unhappiness. And so Juan Jose understood the importance of Sammy going to the revival so he could learn about the God his father had spoken of. He supported his friend’s decision. “How will you get there? Raul?”
“No, it’s too risky. I’m afraid he’ll say something to my mom, so I’ll have to walk.”
“All the way to Principios? It will take hours!” he said hastily.
“I know, but…” He shrugged. “But it’s the only way.”
Juan Jose nodded knowingly. “I want to go with you, but it’s too far. I’m sure my mamã would notice my absence after so many hours.” He waved his hands in excitement. “Hey, maybe I should go anyway! She’ll only ground me some more.”
Sammy wished his friend could go with him because he would feel a lot braver if Juan Jose were on the trip. But if he did, he’d be grounded the entire summer and it would ruin all their fun. “No, you better not. Anyway, I promise to tell you everything I learn.”
Juan Jose hesitated a moment, then shrugged. “Bueno.” He reached for the flyer to read it one last time before heading home to sneak back into his house. “Oh no,” he said, his eyes widening again.
“What is it?”
“The date, Samuèl. It’s the same day Maria has agreed to hold your hand!”
The next morning Gabriella sat outside, swaying in the peeling, waterlogged porch swing—the same one her mother sat in so many years ago. She took a sip of the warm tea she’d brewed earlier and tried to relax. The smell of ripening oranges hung heavily in the air. She thought it ironic that the sweet, fragrant scent constantly surrounded her, invaded her senses, while her life consisted of nothing but bitterness.
The memories wouldn’t leave her be.
“Gabby!” She heard her mother call out to her as if it were yesterday. “Stay where I can see you!”
She remembered looking over her shoulder at her mother and feeling the satisfaction that comes from knowing you’re loved and safe in the world. She had wanted to push those boundaries, to see how far she could step out of bounds before her mother would rein her back in. Of course, the security she felt stemmed from knowing her mother would never let her go too far, and that’s what gave her the confidence to venture out in the first place.
On some level, Gabriella had realized this on that day as she ran up to the porch swing where her mother sat. She wrapped her arms around her neck. “Te amo, mamã.”
“I love you too, Gabby,” she’d told her, laughing her tinkling laugh.
Gabriella, in a moment of absolute seriousness had put her tiny hands on both sides of her mother’s face and turned it toward her until they were looking right at each other. “I never want to be without you,” she said in her most serious tone.
Her mother smiled easily and shook her head. “Gabby, I will always be your mother. Wild burros couldn’t drag me away from you.”
But something had. And for most of her life, Gabriella had been left to wonder why she and her father drove away in the night, never to return.
She sighed deeply, turning her thoughts toward Nicolas and then Sammy. She always considered herself lucky that her aunt immigrated to Texas because it’s where she eventually met Nicolas. And when they fell in love and married, she felt as if she were being given a second chance at a family. She had allowed herself to believe this one wouldn’t disappear. And for a while, it looked as if her luck had turned, that she could finally relax and stop worrying that the people she loved would disappear from her life. But the relief hadn’t lasted. While it was true that Nicolas hadn’t disappeared into the night like her parents, he had left all the same.
God, or fate, or whatever it was that controlled things in this world had reached down from the heavens and snatched him away. She felt the disgust gnawing in the pit of her stomach. Again. And now Sammy was showing an interest in knowing this God and she didn’t intend to allow it to go too far. There was just too much uncertainty, too many ways to get hurt. For instance, she reasoned with herself, if there were truly a God, the kind Nicolas spoke of, He must be a cruel one, and she wanted nothing to do with Him. She wouldn’t allow her son to get sucked into the fairy tale either. He’d already been through enough.
Gabriella saw a swirl of dust in the distance which meant Mona, Raul’s wife, would drive up at any moment. She put down her tea. It was time to get to work.
Mona pulled up in front of the house, throwing the dust up in a cloud. Gabriella watched as the door creaked open and Mona stepped out. Dressed in a plaid skirt and striped blouse—the dress of the old ones—she stood exactly 4 feet, 9 inches tall, although she told anyone who would listen she was 5 feet tall. Mona’s face was broad, and she had a habit of scrunching up her features, which left the impression she was always contemplating something. Which she was. The thick black stockings she wore with everything bunched up and puffed out around her knees. She wore her husband’s work boots. She was 71 years-old.
“Are you ready?” Mona asked in Spanish as she walked around to the trunk of her car and popped it open.
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Gabriella said, walking down the steps to meet her. She looked into the jam-packed trunk, which contained an assortment of wood, tools and paint. A few days ago, Gabby and Mona had been drinking tea on the front porch when Mona made a comment about its condition. The salt water had all but eaten away the railing that bordered the wraparound porch, and she said it needed repair.
Gabriella agreed, but told her that until they harvested the grove, there wasn’t any money to hire someone to fix it. When she and Sammy arrived three years ago, she had been speechless the first time she saw the house. Although she knew it hadn’t been maintained since she left as a child, the condition of the house had shocked her because it was so different from the beautiful house she’d grown up in. She hadn’t realized just how much money she’d have to put into it just to make it livable. Gabriella had invested much of her life insurance payout to get the house into shape, and had been living off of the rest since then. But most of the money was gone now, so she had to be frugal with what was left. She wished now she had redone the porch when she had the money.
She was thankful Raul had cared for the orange grove while she’d been gone. He told her he did it out of loyalty to her parents, but also because he loved the grove and didn’t want to see it die. But he only kept it alive at a minimum, so when she came back they worked hard at fully restoring the trees health so they would once again produce the 300 oranges per tree she needed to make a living. This would be the first year the grove would produce an income large enough for her and Sammy to live on.
“You don’t need to hire someone to fix the porch,” Mona said. “We can do it ourselves.”
“Us? But I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”
Mona waved her hand as if dismissing the thought. “Don’t worry, I’ll teach you.”
And now here she was with a trunk load of unfamiliar looking things, and Gabby had absolutely no idea what to do with any of it. After they unloaded the supplies and put them on the porch, Mona handed Gabriella a paint scraper, took one for herself and they set their sights on neighboring poles on the far right side of the porch. After they’d worked in silence for a while, Mona spoke. “Gabriella?”
“It’s Raul. He asked if Samuèl will help him in the grove tomorrow. He’s still not feeling well.”
“Of course, he can. Sammy loves to work with Raul in the grove.” She scrapped more paint and then stopped. “Raul’s going to be all right, isn’t he?”
Mona shrugged. “The doctor thinks it is his heart. But he doesn’t know my Raul. His heart is strong. He just needs to rest some.”
“Of course,” agreed Gabriella.
Mona was right, she thought. Raul was strong, but he was also getting older and beginning to show his age. He’d always been a physical man, working with wood and then doing the hard labor the grove required. Now that his body was imposing new limitations on him, it must be for him. She wished she’d had the foresight to bring on another man to help him with the harvest this year.
They worked in the silence for a bit more, and then the memories got the best of her. “Mona?”
“I… I don’t know… I guess…”
“You want that we should take a break?”
“No, it’s not that. It’s just…” Gabby sighed, frustrated with herself. Why did she find it so difficult to talk about the things most important to her? Especially to Mona, who she considered to be her best friend.
She’d been pleasantly surprised when she returned to Rendiciòn to find that Raul and Mona were still around. Gabriella had quickly hired Raul to increase production in the grove to a level where it would support them, and he’d done an amazing job. She had vague memories of them from her childhood, and remembered they had not only worked for her parents, but were also their friends. And since she’d returned, she came to understand why.
The fact that Raul had made her parent’s orange grove a labor of love for the past few decades had only deepened her affection for the couple. Over the past three years, she had grown close to them and considered them more than just employees—they were also her friends. In a way, Raul and Mona had become the family she’d always wanted.
But what she gleamed mostly from them were their stories—the pieces of her past she’d always longed to understand, but had no one to talk to about. She didn’t know why she needed to hear the story again from Mona as if hearing it one more time could change things. But she always felt there was something she was missing, something she felt certain was there, in the telling, and it just hadn’t yet come into focus. Still, she always held out hope that it would.
“You want I should tell you again?”
Gabby lowered her eyes and nodded.
Mona looked across the yard towards the grove and started speaking slowly. “Raul and I had been married for a few years when the woodworking shop he worked for went out of business. There weren’t a lot of jobs here in Rendición, but we talked with a man at El Mercado who said the Juarez family, your parents, were hiring harvesters for a small orange grove. Now, Raul had no experience with oranges—he was a wood man—but you have to eat, no? So, he took the job. At first, the work was very difficult for him, but eventually Raul began to love the orange grove and developed a desire to learn as much about it as he could.
“Your parents were very kind to us and your father immediately took a liking to my Raul. He must have noticed Raul’s interest in the work because he began to train him in the ways of the grove. By the end of two years, Raul had worked himself into the position of field boss, which was perfect timing because your mother became pregnant with you.”
Mona stopped and looked closely at Gabriella. “You are okay?”
“Well, during this time I grew close to your mother. There were a lot of chores she couldn’t do so we spent a lot of time together as she instructed me in how to do them. And your father? What a man for those times! He pampered her like a queen. He didn’t want her to lift a finger the entire nine months. Anyway, as I said, I spent a lot of time with her, and I came to know her heart.”
“And she was happy? About the pregnancy, I mean?”
“Oh, yes. She was so excited there were times she couldn’t sit still for more than a minute. She planned every detail of your lives and spent many hours sewing clothes and blankets for you. When the time finally came, she was as big as a casa, and thrilled with the fact that she was about to have a child. I think she was a little afraid, too. She feared she wouldn’t be a good enough mother, and then of course, the old women from the village had to tell her their own horror stories about the births of their children. Anyway, I tried to keep her away from them in the weeks before your birth.”
Mona stopped for a minute and smiled as she remembered. “When the day came, she was so brave. Your mother began to get the pains early in the morning and I called Delores, the midwife. Now Delores was a very good midwife, but she could tell some horror stories about the birth like there’s no mañana. So, after I called her, I watched out the window and when I saw her coming, I waited for her on the porch.”
“You never told me this part of the story,” Gabriella said. “Why did you wait for her? Were you worried about my mother?”
“Your mother? Oh no, she was doing fine, but I wanted to make sure I kept it that way. I didn’t want Delores telling her any of the frightening stories right before the birth.”
“So you waited to talk to her?”
“Talk to her? Delores? No, she was much too thick-headed for that. She’s gone now, so you wouldn’t know, but Delores never listened to anyone.”
“So what did you do?”
“I threatened her.”
“Yes. I realized the only way to protect your mother from the stress of those stories was to get through to Delores in the only way she would listen. Stress is bad for the babies, you know.”
Gabby sat with her mouth open, shocked at what she’d heard. “But Mona… I guess I’ve never thought of you as a violent person.”
“Me? Violent? Oh, no.” She waved the thought away. “There were better ways to get through to Delores than with violence. You see, she had a horrible daughter who she wanted to find a husband for, and she finally found an older man who was willing to take her in. She had been trying to marry off the girl for years and was relieved she finally found someone who would put up with her. But I happened to know that every night the girl secretly met with Umberto, a fisherman’s son who was pledged to someone else. If the truth came out, the older man wouldn’t have married the girl and Delores would have been stuck with her forever.”
“So you threatened to tell?”
“Yes. I warned her that if she told even one scary birth story, the entire town would hear about her daughter’s indiscretion by sunset.”
Gabby laughed. “Now that sounds like the Mona I know. What happened to the girl? Did she marry the older man?”
Mona nodded. “Yes, and then he took her to another village about four hours from here. Umberto never fully recovered.”
“This isn’t the same Umberto who works at the fish market, is it?”
“Oh gosh,” Gabriella said laughing. “I’ll never be able to look at him the same.”
“Well, your mother, she didn’t hear one bad story on the day of your birth.”
Gabriella looked wistfully at the grove, the smile still playing on her face. “How I long for those times. Crazy, fun days where family is all that matters. Days when the losses don’t wear you down before you even have a chance to get out of bed.”
“But things weren’t always so perfect, even though we were all happy. This is also when a dark wind began to blow across our land.”
Gabriella recognized the familiar sense of foreboding that always surfaced during this part of the story. She put down her paint scraper and listened intently.
“Rendición has always been a proud town,” Mona continued. “Proud of its hardworking people, its sense of family, and most of all, of its natural beauty. You can go for miles out to sea and still see the fish swimming near the bottom. As you’ve heard, many people believe our waters have healing powers because of its clarity. So when the owners of the oil tankers wanted to build a port in our village, many people were naturally against it because they thought the magic of the waters would be destroyed by the tankers. Your father was perhaps the most outspoken.
“At first, most people didn’t want to get involved. I don’t think they believed the tankers really wanted to dock in our small village. But when workers were brought in to begin constructing the docks, things changed very quickly.
“At first, the old men tried to sabotage the efforts by dumping the wood and tools into the sea at night. But the oil people would only bring in more. Some people called village meetings to discuss the problem, but the mayor continued to insist that progress was in everyone’s best interest. We assumed he was only seeing the peso signs in front of his eyes.
“But then there was your father. He began to organize rallies and protests and more and more people joined the cause. Your mother supported him fully. In fact, there were plenty of times she stood next to him with you on her hip as he gave his rally speeches on an upturned crate.
“But don’t think those days were only full of turmoil,” she said. “Not at all. Your family was one of the happiest I knew, full of warmth, love and laughter. You were your father’s little princess and your mothers best amiga. Oh, how the two of you could toil away the day in the garden, or spend all afternoon making an orange spice cake.
“But intertwined in those happy times were the threats and innuendoes that if your father didn’t leave the tanker situation alone, it would get ugly.”
“Do you think that’s why they left? Did something happen to them out of their control?”
Mona shrugged. “All I know is this: they never would have left you willingly.”
“But I saw them drive away,” she said quietly.
“Ah, yes, Gabriella. This is the mystery, no?”
Just then, the front door swung open and Sammy walked out holding his backpack, which was stuffed full. “Uh… hi,” he said, mid-step.
“Hello Samuèl. You are good?”
“Yes. And you?”
“Mona was telling me some stories,” Gabby said. “Would you like to join us and help scrape the paint off these posts?”
“Uh… later, okay mom? I’m kind of doing something.”
“You know, stuff. But I’ll see you later, okay?” And before she could answer, he disappeared back inside, slamming the door behind him.
“I don’t like it,” Mona said, “That boy—he is up to something.”
“Oh, he’s just being a kid,” said Gabriella. “I’m sure he and Juan Jose are busy making plans for the summer.”
Inside the house, Sammy closed the door and leaned against it. “That was too close,” he whispered under his breath. His plan had been to get his bag outside and hidden underneath the porch, so that in the early morning hours when he planned to leave for Principios it would be one less thing he’d have to worry about.
He’d thought long and hard about what to do about the conflict between the revival and Maria and had finally come to the conclusion that if Maria were a reasonable girl—and he hoped she was because he planned to marry her one day—she would come to understand that sometimes there are things a man has to do. Be the man of the house. And this was one of those times.
Sammy had gone to Juan Jose’s house earlier that day and asked him to give the message to Maria, along with a request for a new date. He tried to not think about her possible response. He had important things to do and he couldn’t get distracted. Not even for Maria.
Earlier, he’d managed to sneak a box of crackers, a can of tuna and some jalapeno candy from the kitchen and it was neatly tucked away in his backpack. He didn’t consider it stealing because it came from his own kitchen and he probably would have eaten it anyway. Especially the candy.
He also filled up two lidded glass jars with water from the sink and had even remembered to stuff toilet paper in the backpack just in case.
Finally, he placed a pen and a pad of paper in the bag because he’d promised Juan Jose he would tell him everything he heard. He wanted to write it down so he wouldn’t forget it.
Now all he had to do was hide the backpack underneath the porch, decide which color Keds would be right for a revival—he had it narrowed down to red or orange—and figure out how to set the blasted alarm clock. He’d never done it before and couldn’t find an instruction book anywhere. But he was no dummy, he’d figure it out.
Later that night, as Gabriella quietly opened Sammy’s door to make sure he was sleeping soundly, she was surprised to find him sitting up by the window. “Sammy? Are you all right?”
She watched his shoulders shrug in the shadows of the room. “I guess so.”
“Can’t you sleep?” she asked as she padded across the room in her bare feet. She instinctively put her wrist to his forehead. “You don’t have a fever. What is it?”
“Mom? Do you miss dad?”
Gabriella blew out her breath and sat down next to him on the window sill. “Sometimes I miss him so much I think my heart will break in two.”
“Me, too. Mom?”
“Why did he have to die?”
She closed her eyes and steadied herself against the question she’d been dreading for a thousand years. “I don’t know, Sammy. I wish I did.”
“Do you think we’ll ever get to see him again? Dad said if we found Jesus, we would go to Heaven, too. And then we could all be together. That’s right, isn’t it?”
Gabriella struggled within herself. She knew the answer she should give him, the one that would fill him with hope. If she were a different kind of mother, she would tell him that they would all be reunited one day in Heaven. But that would be a lie. One based on the imaginations of desperate men. On the other hand, it seemed just as cruel to tell him what she did believe. That his dad’s life was over. That once a person died, there was a blank nothingness. But a small part of her wondered if someone as wonderful as Nicolas could simply cease to exist. If so, how could she ever explain this harsh truth to her son?
“Mom? Did you hear me?”
Gabriella looked at Sammy’s soft features, which were just beginning to take on the defined characteristics of an older boy, and took the easy way out. “I don’t know, Sammy. I wish I did.”
An hour later, Gabriella stood on the edge of the cliff, shaking her fists violently at the sea. “Leave him alone,” she shouted toward the sky. “You can’t have him, too!”
Sammy startled awake and looked at the clock. It was 3 a.m.—time to get moving. He’d been sleeping on and off for hours, afraid he’d miss his chance and not get to go to the revival. He toyed with the alarm clock the night before, but once he figured out how to make it work, he realized that it was loud enough to wake his mom, too. So he decided to stay up all night until it was time to leave, and except for a few short catnaps, he’d done it.
He rubbed his eyes, yawned and rolled out of bed. He quietly slipped into the clothes he’d laid out the night before and let himself out the window. Once he landed on the soft ground, he hesitated and again thought about whether he should leave his mom a note. He didn’t want her to worry, but at the same time, if she knew where he was, she would probably come and get him and he would miss what the preacher said about God. After a few indecisive moments, he finally decided that he was doing the right thing because what he learned at the revival might make his mom happy again. So he gathered his backpack from underneath the porch and walked toward the road that would take him to Principios.
The darkness enveloped him, and for a moment he allowed himself to be overcome by fear. Sammy’s mind went into overdrive as he remembered the stories he’d heard of the road between Rendiciòn and Principios. Juan Jose told him the road was filled with bandidos and wild dogs, and in a moment of panic, he realized that he hadn’t brought anything with him to fight off a wild dog. He’d never done anything like this before. Was he making a mistake? If he were injured on the trip, it would give his mom something else to be sad about.
But then he looked up and saw the millions of stars in a protective canopy over his head and thought if he only had a ladder he might be able to touch them. He heard with crystal clarity the sound of the water racing recklessly toward the rocks and then crashing wildly into them. The night looked different away from the comfort of his house, and slowly the eerily crooked shadows of the trees, which had frightened him only moments before, transformed into peaceful and welcoming images. He stood up straighter and made up his mind to carry out his mission without fear.
When he reached the road, he saw Juan Jose running frantically toward him. “Samuèl, wait for me!” The sound of his friend’s rapidly spoken Spanish shattered the silence so completely he was sure his mom could hear it a half mile away in her bed.
“Shh!” he whispered into the night. “What are you doing here?”
“I was afraid I missed you,” Juan Jose said, bending over and holding on to his side. “I bring you news from Maria.”
Sammy stopped, temporarily sidetracked from his mission. “Yes?”
“She said you broke her heart,” he said, still trying to catch his breath. “And if you are truly a man, you will know what to do.”
Sammy felt his heart flip flop in his chest. He thought of Maria and her dark eyes and the boldness that made him notice her in the first place. He didn’t want to mess things up with her. But then the image of his mom standing on the cliff forced its way into his mind. And of the last time he had seen his father. So sick, but at peace because of this person named Jesus. And he knew. Even if it cost him his love, he had to do whatever he could to make his mom happy again. And that meant going to the revival. He just hoped Maria would eventually understand why he had to do it.
Sammy looked up at the endless sea of stars and realized the trip was about more than just his mom’s happiness. He needed to hear this preacher, too. Someone made those stars, he thought, and he needed to find out who it was.
“What will you do?” Juan Jose asked, breathing a little easier now.
“You told her the part about me being a man and having to do something important?”
“And about me wanting to reschedule the date?”
Juan Jose nodded.
“And that I agree to all her conditions?”
“Yes, Samuèl. I told her everything.”
“Then I don’t understand. What does she want me to do?”
Juan Jose shrugged and kicked at the dirt. He picked up a rock and threw it at a darkened tree trunk. Barely missed. “Who can understand the mind of a woman?”
Sammy moaned inwardly and looked back toward his house. “Look, Juan Jose. Tell Maria I’m sorry I broke her heart and I really want to keep the date, but I can’t cancel my plans for today. I am the man of my house and there are certain things I have to do. If she will just tell me how she wants me to make it up to her, I’ll do it, okay?”
“Bueno. I’ll take her the message.”
“Thanks. I have to go.”
“Don’t forget,” said Juan Jose. “You promised to tell me what you learn about God.”
“I won’t,” said Sammy. “I packed some paper and a pen so I can write it all down.” He started down the road. He was already tired, and he had a long way to walk.
Gabriella stirred from her sleep, something nagging at her subconscious. Was that a noise she heard? She listened groggily for a moment and decided it was nothing. She rolled over and went back to sleep. It was the weekend, and she planned to sleep in as late as she could.
Sometime later, Sammy felt something wet running down his back, so he stopped and sat on a big rock which was fine because he was tired and needed to take a break anyway. He looked at his watch, the one his dad left behind when he died, and was surprised to see he’d been walking for hours. Glancing toward the water, Sammy saw the daylight pushing itself up out of the sea and he was glad for the change. He’d had about all the darkness he could take.
He swung his backpack off his shoulder, brought it around and unzipped it. Everything was wet. The glass jars had leaked and were almost empty. Sammy thirstily drank down the remaining drops of water and tossed them aside. The paper he planned to use for Juan Jose’s notes was soaked so he threw it out, too. The cracker box dripped with water, but luckily the crackers were in a plastic sleeve and had stayed dry. After tossing the box aside, he ripped open the plastic and shoved some crackers into his mouth. He hadn’t planned on getting this hungry.
He tried to decide if he should eat the can of tuna or save it for later when he realized he’d forgotten to bring a can opener. Hungrily, he popped a jalapeno candy, which was only slightly soggy, into his mouth. He searched for a big rock, and when he found one he banged on the tuna fish can, trying to get it open. After ten minutes and not any closer to getting it open, he set it aside, frustrated. His stomach growled with hunger.
He felt heavy and weighed down and desperately wanted sleep. When he realized he was having trouble keeping his eyes open, he decided that if he could take a quick nap, he’d feel better and be able to pick up the pace on the rest of his journey. So, he took off his shirt, wrapped it around his dripping backpack and used it as a pillow. He was fast asleep within seconds.
Raul pulled up to the yellow house about 7a.m. He had decided today would be a good day to clear the paths between the trees to prepare for the harvest, and he hoped Samuèl was around to help. Before he reached the door, Gabriella stepped out with two cups of tea in her hand. “I saw the dust in the distance,” she said. “Want to take a break before you get started?”
He smiled his yellow smile and accepted the tea gratefully. “Thank you.”
After they sat down in the sea-sprayed chairs, Raul reached into his pocket and drew out an envelope. “Mona sent this for you.”
Curious, Gabriella opened it and pulled out an old newspaper clipping. The photograph above the print was faded and barely discernable, but it looked like a shot of the sea with hundreds of black dots in it. There was also a large tanker off in the distance. She read the story quickly and then looked up in amazement. “I never knew about this.”
Raul nodded. “I remember that day well. You want I should tell you about it?”
“Your father had been up and down the coastline photographing the damage the tankers had left behind in other villages. You see, our village was located at the halfway point of the trade routes and the tankers wanted to build a port and dock here. Some of the people saw this as a great opportunity to grow the village and become wealthy. But your father led a great amount of supporters and they put up quite a resistance, even though the opposition had more time and money to spend.
“But at the height of the disagreement, after the docks had been built, the tanker operators announced they would dock the following week. Your father’s group was outraged because they weren’t listening to them. They said they were going against the will of the majority of the people.
“So your father set up a watch system for the incoming tankers. Various people from the group were assigned to a specified lookout point at all times during the week, and when the tanker appeared, they were instructed to blow a horn. The sound of that horn set off a sequence of horns around the village and surrounding areas.”
“Sounds pretty well organized.”
“Organized yes, but also brave. Remember, these were mostly peasants and common laborers taking on the big oil companies.”
“So what happened when the first tanker came?”
“It was early in the morning when the first horn sounded and soon you could hear horns blasting across the countryside. Hundreds of people streamed out of their houses, businesses, and wandered in from the country roads. They all gathered at the docks and at the command of your father, threw themselves into the sea. Some stayed near the docks, while others swam out farther, but every one of them played a part in blocking the tanker from docking.”
“Yes. The tanker didn’t dock that day, and every other time it tried to the horns would sound and people would come running to throw themselves into the tanker’s path. It wasn’t long before the oil companies built new docks at another village down the coastline.”
“I bet some people were furious.”
“Yes. People either loved or hated your father for it. There was no in-between.”
Gabriella sat silent for a moment, considering the implications. Could this be reason enough for someone to have caused harm to her parents? She thought so, yes. Her heart swelled with pride for her father’s plan—it was brilliant. And to think that his simple plan had brought big industry to its knees.
“I need to get to work,” Raul said, interrupting her thoughts.
Gabriella’s focus came back to the present. “Okay, but first, I wanted to ask—how are you feeling? Any better?”
Raul nodded. “Yes, I think I just needed a rest. I feel strong and ready to get back to work.”
Gabriella smiled, relieved. “Good. I’ll go get Sammy.” She walked to the door and then turned and held up the clipping. “Thank Mona for this?”
Raul flashed his dingy smile and nodded.
Gabriella slipped inside. She hated to wake Sammy. He’d never slept this late, which meant he’d probably stayed up late into the night after their talk. But Raul needed help, and although he said he was feeling better, she wanted him to do as little as possible until the doctor cleared him completely. Anyway, she knew Sammy wouldn’t mind. She quietly opened his door. Then, a minute later, she burst through the front porch door.
“Raul!” she cried. “It’s Sammy! He’s not in his bed!”
When Sammy woke up from his nap he was hungry and frustrated because he was behind schedule. But at least he wasn’t as sleepy anymore. He brushed off some ants from the remaining crackers and stuffed them and the jalapeno candy into his backpack. After he searched for and found the discarded glass jars, he was pleased to find a few remaining drops of water. He was so thirsty. Sammy put on his shirt, zipped his backpack and started walking down the road. He’d have to make double time to get to the revival before it ended.
Raul and Gabriella searched the property, they both agreed something was wrong. Sammy wouldn’t just take off without telling her where he was going.
“I have an idea,” Raul said. “Stay by the phone.”
Raul intended to go to the one person who knew Samuél better than any person on earth. He slid behind the wheel of his battered truck and took off in haste down the road.
Gabriella went to Sammy’s room for the hundredth time since Raul left. She was frantic with worry. Where could he be? She should have stayed with him last night and talked to him about the things keeping him awake. But instead, she’d retreated from his hurt, leaving him to deal with things on his own. What kind of mother am I?
She entered his room, sat on his bed and looked around. His things lie scattered around his room in the manner of a boy who has much more important things on his mind than orderliness. His baseball mitt and ball were casually tossed into the corner, and she was startled to see Nicolas’ alongside Sammy’s. She hadn’t realized he’d kept it. Drawings of the rescue plans he and Juan Jose dreamed they would put into action once they found Juan Jose’s father covered his desk, and his rock collection lay forlornly on his shelf. Where was he?
Gabriella rose and began to pace. She felt a longing, an urge to call out to someone, but who? She knew Raul would do whatever necessary to bring Sammy home, so what was this prompting she felt? Who did she know who could help?
Sammy heard the shouts and the gunning of the loud engine before he saw the truck. He pulled the backpack up higher on his shoulders and began to walk a little faster. He’d listened to stories about bandidos along this lonely stretch of road, but had always chalked them up to Juan Jose’s vivid imagination. Now he wasn’t so sure.
The roar of the engine grew louder, and it sounded like it was just around the bend. To be safe, Sammy ducked behind one of the many patches of underbrush that lined the road. The truck rounded the corner.
Sammy jumped as the rowdy young men in the jacked up red truck hollered and threw a beer bottle out the window as they went racing by. It skidded and then shattered, leaving glittering pieces of glass fanned out across the road.
Once the truck was out of sight, Sammy emerged. The men had scared him, and for the first time since starting out, he considered retreating back to the safety of his house. But then he thought about the promise he’d made to his dad. No, I have to keep going. I’ll just have to be more careful. He continued on his way, this time keeping to the edge of the road, just in case the truck made another appearance.
Raul pulled up in front of Juan Jose’s house, and when he got out of the truck, the pungent smell of goat meat cooking over an open fire wafted around him. Juan Jose’s father, Rodolfo, had left his family a few years ago, telling them he was going to the United States to work so he could send them enough money to makes things easier for them, but he hadn’t been heard from since. Despite the talk in the village, Raul knew the man and he didn’t believe he would desert his family. Rodolfo was an honorable man, and he had spoken to Raul many times about his plans to make a better life for his wife and child. Since his disappearance, Juan Jose’s mamá, Rosa, had experienced declining health. Some people attributed it to heartbreak while others felt her increased responsibilities were taking their toll. It was common knowledge in the village that Rosa’s own father had left her and her mother in the same way, so most of the villagers were of the heartbreak opinion.
But either way, Rodolfo’s absence affected her ability to raise Juan Jose in the best manner. Raul, along with some of the other old-timers from the village, lent her a helping hand when they could, but it was never truly enough.
Raul made his way up the porch steps and knocked on the door. When Rosa opened it, Raul was startled by her appearance. She looked like a woman in desperate need of a break. He silently scolded himself for not helping out more and promised himself he’d do more in the future.
But first, he had to find Samuél.
“Buenos dias, Rosa.”
She smiled and pushed pack her limp hair. “Good morning, Raul,” she said in Spanish. “Please come inside for some coffee.”
He shook his head. “Gracias, but there’s no time this morning. I’m looking for Juan Jose.”
She eyed him carefully. “What has my son done, now?”
“Juan Jose hasn’t done anything wrong. I’m hoping he can tell me where to find Samuél.”
“Bueno.” She turned her head toward the inside of the house and yelled. “Juan Jose! Come quickly!”
Moments later, a scruffy faced Juan Jose appeared at the door. “Raul! Did you come to help repair the chicken coop?”
“No, not today. I’m looking for Samuél. He’s not at home, and his mother is worried. Have you seen him?”
Juan Jose looked at Rosa sheepishly, then back at Raul. “No, señor. I’m grounded, you see, so I’ve had no opportunity to see him.”
“Ah, yes, I’d forgotten about that.” He turned toward Rosa. “While I’m here, would you mind if Juan Jose showed me what’s wrong with the coop? That way I’ll know what to bring for the repairs.”
As Raul and Juan Jose walked toward the coop, Raul put his arm around the boy’s shoulders. “Samuél’s mother is very worried. It’s not like him to take off like this without telling her where he’s going.”
“Are you sure you don’t know where he is?”
Juan Jose thought it would be pointless to pretend he hadn’t seen Samuél because Raul knew he snuck out of the house all the time to see his best friend. But he couldn’t betray his confidence, either. The revival meant everything to him. But Raul had always been good to him and his mother, and he didn’t want to lie to him. Frustrated, Juan Jose blurted out, “Please don’t make me tell Samuél’s secret. He’ll never forgive me!”
Relieved, Raul bent down so they were face to face. “I know you want to do the right thing, but Samuél could be in danger. His mother is sick with worry.”
Juan Jose looked at the ground, thought for a moment, and then looked up quickly, relief written all over his face. “I won’t tell. But you can ask me questions and it would be wrong of me to answer them with lies.”
Gabriella decided to bake orange glazed cinnamon rolls for Sammy’s return and now found herself up to her elbows in flour and bread dough. She’d been trying to get out her frustration by pounding on the dough but it wasn’t working. The nagging feeling that there was someone who could help wouldn’t let up, which frustrated her all the more.
She put the dough in a large bowl and covered it with a dish towel to give it time to rise. Next, she went to the pantry to get the powdered sugar and orange oil for the glaze. When she opened the cabinet door, she heard something flutter on the back shelf and jumped. “Oh no,” she muttered. “Not another mouse.”
She dragged a chair to the cabinet so she could get a closer look and peered into the dark cabinet. My gosh, she thought. I haven’t seen this in years. She moved aside various spices and cooking utensils and hesitantly pulled out what she’d found.
She let out her breath, stepped down from the chair, and sat down. She eyed the Bible suspiciously and looked toward the ceiling. “You’re trying to trick me, aren’t you? Fine. If you’re so all-knowing, tell me where my son is.”
She closed her eyes, threw open the Bible and pointed. Then she cautiously opened her eyes and read right where her finger lie.
“’They took him and explained to him the way of God more accurately.’”
“Humph. Of course you don’t know.” She slammed the Bible shut and threw it aside. “Don’t be an idiot,” she scolded herself as she pulled down the powdered sugar. She glanced at the phone. Where was Raul?
Raul turned the ignition key and pointed his truck toward the road. It hadn’t taken too many questions to figure out Samuél had gone to the revival against his mother’s wishes. He was mad at himself for not figuring it out sooner. After all, Sammy had been reading the flyer in the grove only yesterday. Raul was both pleased and worried. Pleased that the boy taken an interest in the things of God—he’d felt a curiosity about it himself lately. But the isolated stretch of road leading to Principios was a dangerous one. Full of bandidos and wild dogs. Not a place for a sheltered young boy to be alone. Raul pushed down on the gas pedal and willed the truck to go faster.
Sammy heard two things at once: the roar of the menacing truck and a sweet music that sounded like it was coming from a loud speaker. The revival! He ducked behind some brush, but not before the truck came to a squealing halt.
“Gringo!” A drunken man called. “We can see you!”
Sammy, his heart thumping wildly in his ears, tore off down an overgrown dirt path that ran parallel to the road. He heard the truck doors slam and the men laughing and calling out to him. He ran with all his might. Before long, he had to drop his backpack because it was slowing him down by thumping so hard against his back. He stopped for a moment, bent over and tried to catch his breath. They were still back there. He could hear their ragged breathing as they tore through the brush. “God,” he whispered, “if you’re really up there, please don’t let them catch me.”
He saw a blur of black, one of the men’s T-shirts, coming directly at him. There was no way he could outrun all of them, so he quickly ducked under a thick patch of brush and crawled as far as he could into the briars. The thorns ripped and tore at his clothes and skin, and Sammy hoped his blue T-shirt wouldn’t give him away. When he reached what he thought was the center of the thicket, he curled himself up into a tight ball and waited.
An hour later, bleeding, hungry, thirsty and exhausted, Sammy finally stood outside of a large white canvas tent. The men had looked for him for what seemed like hours, but the alcohol coursing through their veins eventually got the best of them. And in the end, they gave up the hunt.
But now Sammy had a problem. In his panic, he’d lost control of his bladder, and a large, wet stain had spread across the front of his pants. There was no way he could go inside that tent.
Furious with himself and too ashamed for anyone to see him, he sulked around the side of the tent where he could still clearly hear the voice of the preacher.
“Are you looking for something, but aren’t sure what it is?” the preacher boomed. “Do you constantly try to fill that longing with people or things, but they never quite seem to satisfy you?”
Sammy sank to the ground and leaned up against the tent. It was hard and taunt against his back.
“Are you aware that when you were created, God left a large hole in the center of your heart that only He can fill? But some people try their entire lives to fill it with relationships or work or shopping or food or alcohol. But it never quite works, does it? You’re always left wanting for more.”
Sammy listened intently. Is this what his dad had come to know? Had he filled up the hole in his heart? Is that why his mom always seemed to be so unsatisfied? Like something wasn’t quite right? He placed his hand over his own heart. Does this explain the mysterious longing he’d felt for as long as he could remember?
“I’m telling you, you can fill this hole today. But first, there’s something you should know.”
Sammy sat up straighter, forgetting about his hunger and thirst and the dirt caked to the front of his wet pants.
“If you make Jesus Christ the Lord of your life, He’ll absolutely wreck it!”
Sammy heard the audience gasp.
“Don’t think the Creator of Heaven and earth is some feeble God who will allow you to invite Him halfway into your life. Don’t think you can call yourself a follower of Christ and not follow Him. Christ isn’t for the fainthearted, and He’s not for those of you who want to say a little prayer and then go on with your lives as if nothing has changed. He is the Lion of Judah, The Lord of Lords, and the King of Kings! And I’m telling you He will turn your life upside down! He’s the great I AM!”
Sammy heard the rustle of people inside and then saw a few of them walking down the path that led away from the tent.
“Now before any of you begin to think He’s asking too much of you, let me tell you why He has the right to do so.”
Sammy was excited about what he was hearing, but also terrified. He wanted to know what it would be like if the longing in his heart was filled, but he didn’t understand what the preacher meant when he said Jesus would wreck his life. Is that why his dad died after he’d found Jesus? Would he die, too? His stomach growled, and he licked his lips to get rid of the awful dryness in his mouth. But he put his uncomfortableness out of his mind and instead listened to what the man inside the tent had to say.
Raul finally reached Principios and followed the noises to the revival tent. Hundreds of people gathered inside the tent and he wondered how he would ever find Samuél. Hesitantly, he walked in and took in the scene before him. A long wooden stage that looked like it had been hastily constructed sat at the back of the tent. On it was a lumbering man who looked vaguely familiar to Raul. He looked to be in his sixties, and stray strands of his salt and pepper hair whipped to and fro as he moved heavily back and forth across the stage. He wore dark brown trousers and a green long-sleeve shirt held up by tan suspenders. Even as the man moved back and forth across the makeshift stage with his voice booming over the loud speaker, he had a calm about him. Like the eye of the storm. The gray, opaque stillness before the crack of thunder.
A few hundred people sat in mismatched chairs, and more stood in the rear of the tent. They appeared to be listening intently. Their rapt attention was on the stout speaker on stage.
“Jesus Christ has the right to every area of your life because he died an excruciating death for you.”
Raul moved along the back wall, keeping an eye out for Samuél while listening to the preacher.
“The God of this universe willingly came down to this planet as an infant with the intention of sacrificing Himself so He could one day be in a relationship with you and me.”
Raul slid his eyes toward the preacher. Did I hear him right?
“You see, God didn’t create the world like it is today with all the sickness, violence, dying and meaninglessness. No, He created a perfect world, but Adam and Eve, the first people to populate the earth, sinned against Him by wanting to be equal to Him rather than serving Him as their God. When they did that, a great separation occurred between mankind and our Creator. Now humans seemed to be all right with that separation. They went their own way and did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.”
Raul watched a couple get up from their seats and walk out, shaking their heads in disgust. Was Samuèl here somewhere?
“But were they really all right?” the preacher asked the audience. “They murdered as a way to get what they wanted. People built idols to bow down to so they could act pious while asking for what they wanted, all the while truly serving no one but themselves. They became sexually promiscuous in search of a love they could only find in their Savior. Friends, people have been trying to fill that hole in their hearts since the great separation, but no one’s ever been able to do it with anything other than God.
“You see, God doesn’t want us to go through life looking for something we can never find. He didn’t create us to live apart from Him.”
Raul slid down the wall until he was sitting on his haunches. He was no longer scanning the crowd for Samuél, but had become mesmerized by the man’s words.
“But the only way to end the separation was with the ultimate sacrifice. God allowed Himself to be killed—hung on a cross like a common criminal—because the longing in His heart was so deep for you and for me, and it was the only way for reconciliation. Listen to what I’m saying, friends,” the man said in a softer voice. “God died a cruel and unthinkable death because He—the one who can create whatever and whoever He wants with one breath—misses us. Wants to be in relationship with us. Does it sound like He’s earned the right to be called the Lord of your life?”
Raul looked around the tent and saw that some people in the audience were crying, while others sat with their arms crossed, looking bored.
“You might ask why it had to be this way, why Jesus had to die,” said the preacher. “Understand please that the God of the universe is holy. It is impossible for Him to be in relationship with sin. But the Bible says we’ve all fallen short of the glory of God. Every one of us, no matter how many times you’ve sat in a church pew, or how many good deeds you’ve done, are still a sinner in the eyes of God.
“You see, because of what Adam and Eve did in that garden, humans are born with a sinful nature.” The man looked out into the crowd. “What? You don’t believe it? How many of you had to teach your young children to lie or sneak candy when they thought you weren’t looking? Sin is a part of the human condition, and God simply can’t be in its presence.
“But cheer up! Jesus said that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and no man gets to the Father, who is in Heaven, except through Him. Praise be! He’s made a way!”
Sammy roughly wiped away the tears, unaware of anything around him. It wasn’t fair that God had to die just because people messed up so badly. He thought about all the things he’d done wrong in his life, like being here in defiance of his mom, and he cried even harder. In that moment, Sammy was sure his dad had made the right decision, even if God took him to Heaven because of it. He thought it was only fair. He knew he wanted this Jesus to fill the hole in his heart, even if it meant dying like his dad. If it were possible to love someone you’d never even met, Sammy had just fallen hopelessly in love.
“But the good news doesn’t end there,” the preacher said. “You see, Jesus is God, and not even the sins of the whole world were enough to keep Him down. The third day after He died on that cross and was given up for dead, he startled the world by getting up and walking out of the tomb. That’s right, he just walked out.”
The preacher peered out into the crowd. “What? It’s too unbelievable? Your faith can’t stretch that far? Ha!” He paced back and forth across the stage. “Is death too hard for the Creator of Life? If you believe He gives life, why wouldn’t you believe He can take it away at will? No, the difficult thing, the unfathomable idea is that His motivation for this entire scenario was love. Love for you and love for me.
“Now, if your heart tells you that you’re ready to ask God for forgiveness of your sins and repent—that means turning away from them—and you want to accept His offer of eternal life with Him in Heaven, I want you to come down here and we’ll tell Him together.”
Raul was halfway down the aisle before he even he knew what he was doing. Why hadn’t anyone ever told him this before? He thought of the few times he’d gone to church back in Rendiciòn and wondered why Padre Salinas hadn’t spoken of it. He glanced around, hoping to get a glimpse of Samuél. Had he heard the message, too?
Sammy sat debating. He wanted more than anything to be with God, but he thought about the promise he’d made to his dad. That he would take his mother with him to Heaven. Maybe he would have more time than his dad did before he died. That way he would have the chance to explain things to her. And Juan Jose. And Raul and Mona.
“Before we pray, I want to wait one more minute. I feel like there’s someone here who wants to come, but isn’t here yet.”
Sammy scrambled to his feet and ran around the tent toward the entrance. “I’m coming Jesus,” he mumbled as he ran. “Please let me tell my mom and friends about you before you take me to Heaven.”
When Sammy entered the tent, he saw that half the chairs were empty and a big group of people were crying and kneeling by the stage. He started toward it. As he walked, tears streaming down his face, he locked eyes with the preacher.
“Yes son, come down here. Jesus has special plans for you. I can sense it.”
Sammy looked around and then he realized the man on stage was talking to him. When he looked back toward the preacher, the man had closed his eyes and lifted his hands toward the ceiling. It didn’t matter. All Sammy wanted was Jesus.
He stopped at the rear of the crowd and knelt down on his knees. He braced himself. These might be his last few breaths on this earth.
“Let’s pray,” said the preacher.
Sammy repeated every word and meant it with everything in his heart. The tears kept coming and slowly, he felt the hole in his heart begin to fill up. He stopped listening to the preacher, stopped repeating his words, and instead, told Jesus everything in his heart. The tent and all the people in it faded to the back of his consciousness, and at that moment, Jesus was the only one who mattered.
And then he felt it. Loved beyond measure. Forgiven. Complete.
“I’m coming, Jesus” he whispered. He squeezed his eyes shut and waited to die.
Mona pulled up to the yellow house and slammed on her brakes, sending the dust flying. A moment later, she stepped out of the car with her brightly colored floral shirt and brown pinstriped skirt. Black leggings with the poufy knees.
“Oh Mona,” Gabriella cried, racing down the steps to embrace her. “Where could they be? Now they’ve both disappeared.”
Mona shook her head and set her jaw stubbornly. “My Raul is a smart man. He will find Samuél.”
After a few minutes, Sammy heard noises and cautiously opened his eyes. Was it possible he was still alive? He reached down and pinched his leg and when it smarted, he knew it was true. Slowly, he scanned the room, and realized that everyone else who prayed to Jesus was still alive, too. Maybe it wasn’t instantaneous after all.
“Raul!” Sammy jumped up and ran toward him. “Raul, you’re here! I’m so glad you came!”
Raul watched as Sammy ran toward him. He was sure he’d heard the message too because he could see it in his eyes. They would have much to talk about on the way home. But Samuél looked a mess. Tears streamed down his dirty face, and his pants were caked with wet, sticky dirt. His blond curls were wild, sticking out in all directions, and there were scratches and dried blood along his arms and face. He limped a little, and Raul imagined it was from walking such a long distance. As he got closer, he saw that Sammy’s lips were parched and shriveled.
“Raul, did you hear?”
He nodded, wanting to rejoice with the boy, but his mind was heavy with the fact that his disobedience had caused Gabriella so much pain and worry.
Sammy looked down. “You’re mad at me, aren’t you?”
Raul let out a long breath. “Samuél, your disobedience has given us much to be happy about.” He looked toward the stage, empty now, but for a few men breaking it down. “But your mother? She is very worried. She will be angry when you get home.”
“I know. But Raul, I had to know.”
He closed his eyes and nodded.
Sammy reached up and touched Raul’s heart, and then he looked at him questioningly.
He smiled. “Yes, Samuél. My heart was also filled.”
It was dark now, and in an effort to calm Gabriella’s fears, Mona pulled out the tools she’d brought the day before, and insisted they take out their frustrations on the rotting wood of the porch poles. The sound of scraping against the quiet of the night was grating on both of their nerves. The mosquitoes were out and every few minutes, Gabriella or Mona would slap at one, which was the only interruption in the monotony of the work. Both women were quiet, each afraid to voice the fears that were running rampant in their minds.
The shrill ring of the phone cut sharply into the night.
Gabriella threw down her scraper and ran into the house. “Hello!” she yelled into the phone, out of breath from racing to answer it. “Raul? Is that you?”
“Yes,” he said. “And I have Samuél with me.”
She sagged into the chair, relief washing over her like a summer rain after a long, hot drought. “Is he okay? And you?”
“Yes. He needs to eat and drink. And then we will drive home.”
She nodded, giving Mona the thumbs up to let her know they were both all right. “Where did you find him? Where was he?” She heard a deep sigh on the other end of the phone.
“Maybe it would be better if he tells you when we get there.”
“No, Raul. I need to know now. I can’t take any more stress tonight.”
“Bueno.” He hesitated. “I found Samuél at the revival in Principios.”
Gabriella dropped the phone and ran out of the house, but not before picking up Nicolas’ Bible and violently throwing it into the trash.
Sammy shoved the fifth taco into his mouth and guzzled down his third glass of water. Finally, he came up for air. “Raul? Do you believe we’ll have time to tell others about Jesus before we go to Heaven?”
“I guess so, yes. Why wouldn’t we?”
“Well, my dad didn’t have much time. I mean, does God take all of us to Heaven right after he fills our hearts, or just some of us?”
“You think we are going to die because we made Jesus our Lord?”
Sammy nodded. “Isn’t that what the preacher said? That Jesus would wreck our lives? It happened to my dad.”
“Yes, but I think your father found out about God before he died. He didn’t die because God filled his heart.”
“But the preacher said Jesus would take us to Heaven.”
“Yes, Samuél, but that won’t happen until you are an old man.”
“You mean to tell me you thought you would die when you made Jesus Christ the Lord of your life?” a booming voice asked.
Startled, Raul and Sammy turned to find the preacher from the revival standing behind them. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you, but I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation.” His brown eyes danced and finally lighted on Sammy. “Did I hear you correctly, son?”
Sammy looked down, embarrassed. “Uh… yes, sir.”
“Mind if I have a seat?” he asked as he settled himself onto the stool next to Sammy. “So, you were willing to die for the Lord? Just like that?”
Sammy looked at the preacher and saw that his eyes had the same light his dad’s had before he died. “What choice did I have, sir? I mean, after what He did for me?”
“Well, I’ll be.”
Mona caught up with Gabriella along the shoreline. She stood back and watched her shake her fists at the sea, then pick up whatever she could find and violently throw it towards the water. Mona was surprised someone so tiny could throw with such force. As she watched Gabriella exhaust herself and sink to her knees, Mona saw that her peasant skirt and loose blouse were soaked through with sweat. I should have brought a blanket to cover her with.
Mona started toward her to offer some comfort, and as she neared, she heard Gabriella angrily talking out loud. “Why won’t you let us be? Haven’t you taken enough?” She picked up some sand and weakly threw it toward the sea. “Just go away and leave us alone. We don’t want you.”
“Gabriella,” Mona said, kneeling down and wrapping her arms around her. “Nobody is going to take Samuél from you. Raul found him safe and he is bringing him home now.”
“From the revival,” she muttered. “He went to find out about God.” She spat out the last word.
“Yes. But he is just a boy. Soon he will forget this nonsense.”
“You don’t understand.”
“Yes, Gabriella, I do. More than you know.”
Gabriella stared at the dark churning water. “I hate Him, Mona. He’s taken away everyone I’ve ever loved.” She shook her head. “He can’t have my Sammy, too. I won’t allow it.”
The preacher accepted the glass of water from the man behind the counter and held up four fingers when asked how many tacos he wanted. “I meant what I said in the tent, son. I sense that God has a special calling on your life.” He leaned into the counter and peered around Sammy at Raul. “Is he your grandson?”
Raul shook his head. “It feels like he is, but no” he said, reaching past Sammy to shake the preacher’s hand. “Have we met before?”
“They call me Preacher,” the man said, roughly shaking Raul’s hand. “You do seem familiar to me, but I can’t quite place you.”
He turned back toward Sammy. “How old are you, boy?”
“Ten.” He held up his pointer finger. “Almost eleven.”
“Almost eleven, huh?” He leaned back to get a closer look. “Where are your parents?”
“My dad… well, he died and went to Heaven. And my mom? I live with her in Rendición.”
“I hope she’s got a heart to understand what the Lord’s going to do with your life, son.”
“No?” He looked past Sammy at Raul.
“Samuél’s mother doesn’t like the things of God. In fact, she forbids them. He came here against her wishes.”
“Well, I’ll be,” he said, sitting back and taking it in. “I’m afraid she may be in for a surprise.”
“What do you mean?” Sammy asked.
“What I mean,” said the preacher, leaning his barrel-like body in towards Sammy. “Is that when God puts a call on a man’s life, there’s not much anyone can do about it. Not even a mama.”
The next morning, Gabriella was up before the sun. She’d been awake most of the night thinking about how Sammy had gone to the revival without her permission, and after the restless night, she believed she knew what caused his uncharacteristic disobedience. “Sammy,” she called. “Get up so you can have breakfast before Raul gets here.”
“Okay, mom.” Sammy lay still for a moment, preparing for the day. The night before when he and Raul had driven up to the house, his mom and Mona had been waiting for them. Mona immediately gave his mom a hug and then walked to her car, calling out to Raul that she’d see him at home.
His mom had stood on the porch waiting, hands on her hips. Sammy had looked to Raul for help, but he looked just as scared as he was. “Here goes,” Sammy mumbled under his breath.
“Vaya con Dios,” Raul whispered.
His mom waited until he reached the porch and then reached out to hug him firmly. “I was worried about you, Sammy.”
He hugged her back tightly. “I’m really sorry Mom, but—”
“—We’ll talk about it in the morning,” she said as she pulled away. “Now, go get a shower and get in bed. You and Raul start in the grove early tomorrow morning.”
He turned to go inside, confused because his mom was acting so calm. He had expected her to scream at him, or at least be crying when he got home because he had scared her. But instead, she’d hugged him. On the way into the house he’d turned around to tell her he was sorry but saw that she’d gone to Raul’s truck to talk to him. And now she was calling him for breakfast just like everything was fine. Was his punishment coming now?
He pushed out of bed and pulled on some clean clothes. He began straightening his room by putting away some clothes in the dresser and books on the shelf. Anything to delay what was coming.
“Sammy!” she called again from the kitchen. “Your cinnamon rolls are ready!”
Sammy dropped the book he’d been holding. Cinnamon rolls? She fixed my favorite breakfast? What in the world is going on?
Cautiously, he made his way toward the table. “They smell really good, mom.”
“Thank you.” She brought a steaming plate of doughy rolls to the table. “Let me get you some cold milk to go with these.”
Sammy looked at her closely. Even though she was smiling and pretending everything was okay, he could see that it wasn’t. Her face looked tight, like it did when she was mad, and the dark circles under her eyes looked like someone had colored black smudges on her face. But what really stood out were her eyes. He peered into them, but no matter which angle he looked at them from, the light he’d seen in other people’s eyes last night wasn’t there.
“Sammy, why are you looking at me like that?”
He shrugged and took an enormous bite out of his roll. “Yummy. These are great, mom.”
She settled in across from him and folded her hands on her lap.
Here it comes, he thought.
“Sammy, I want to apologize.”
He dropped his roll and the sticky orange glaze glopped onto his forearm. He quickly picked up the roll and licked the glaze off his arm. “You what?”
She got up, ran a dishtowel under the warm water, and handed it to him. “I said I want to apologize.”
“For not being the kind of mom I should be.”
He was about to respond, but she held up her hand. “Hear me out, Sammy. At first, I was very angry about what you did yesterday, but then I thought about why you did it.”
“—Now, Sammy, you can have your turn when I’m finished speaking, okay?”
“I realized that the only way you would do something so dishonest is if you were searching for something you felt was missing.”
She nodded and smiled. “So that’s why I want to apologize. Ever since your dad died, I’ve been so caught up in my own grief and confusion, and, well… I just haven’t been a very good mother to you. But all that’s going to change now, I promise. I’ll go back to being my old self, and you can put aside this God thing.”
“Put aside God?”
She nodded. “Really, Sammy. I know you were missing something in your life, but I’m telling you, I’m going to be a better mom. You’ll, see. Everything will be okay again.”
Sammy sat stunned for a moment. “Mom, you think I went to the revival to learn about God because you’ve been sad about dad?” His face twisted in confusion.
“That’s right.” She got up and carried his now empty plate to the counter.
“But mom, there’s something you don’t understand.”
“Oh good, here’s Raul now,” she said, looking out the window. “Take out the trash on your way out, okay?”
“Yes?” she asked as she washed the breakfast dishes.
“Only God can fill up the hole in a person’s heart. And mine got filled last night.”
Sammy took out the trash like his mom asked him to. It was pretty obvious his last remark had shaken her up, and she wanted to be alone with Raul. He was sure they were talking about him.
As he lifted the bag to put it in the outside garbage can, he spotted a big brown book in the bottom of it. What’s this? He punched a hole in the bag near the book and pulled it out. A Bible? He opened the front cover and gasped at what he saw. His dad’s name. On a Bible. His dad’s Bible. He found his dad’s Bible! He scraped away the clinging trash and hugged it close to his chest, feeling like he’d found the best treasure in the world. But wait… why was it in the trash?
He looked back toward the house and the only person who could have thrown it away, and very slowly, a terrifying question crept into his mind. What happens to people who die without asking Jesus to fill the hole in their heart?
Sammy joined Raul and his mom in the grove as soon as he’d hidden the Bible underneath the front porch. He had vague memories of his dad reading it after he got sick. He used to call it “The Word of God.” Sammy wondered if it held the answers to his many questions.
“We’re over here, Samuél!”
He made his way toward the first row in the grove where Raul and his mom were busy clearing rocks and limbs from the path. After picking up some of the debris, Sammy added it to the growing pile. He tried to catch Raul’s attention, and after a few tries, the man looked his way. Sammy pointed to his mom, who was carrying a load of limbs to the pile, and whispered, “She doesn’t understand! She thinks it’s her fault I went to the revival!”
“Yes,” Raul whispered. “We must pray.”
Pray? Sammy thought. About that? Would God really be interested in a prayer about a misunderstanding between me and my mom? He thought back to when he’d emptied out his heart to God in prayer and how good it had made him feel. He wasn’t sure if it was the proper way to pray, but he decided to give it a try and carried on a conversation with God while he worked.
After a few hours, Gabriella declared it was time for a break and they each plucked an orange and sat down on the old wooden trailer.
“There is nothing in the world like the smell of a sweet orange,” said Raul. “It’s one of the reasons I refused to let this grove die after you left.”
Gabriella nodded, enjoying her own cool, fragrant orange. “I can’t imagine how much harder it was to maintain when the grove was twice this size.”
“The orange grove used to be bigger?” asked Sammy.
“Yes, it did. But a fire broke out and destroyed half of it when I still lived here as a child.”
“What started the fire?”
Gabriella shrugged. “I don’t think anyone ever knew. It was an accident of some sort.”
Raul raised his eyebrows. “Is that what you think?”
He sighed deeply, and then slowly shook his head. “I don’t really have the answer, but there was a lot of talk after the fire. Some people believe Hector Mendez is the person who burned down the grove.”
Gabriella sat up straighter. “Hector Mendez? The man who owns the bank in town?”
“But why would he burn down the grove?”
“People said he did it because of the tankers.”
“The tankers? I don’t understand.”
Raul ate the last segment of his orange, then leaned back on his hands. “You understand that this was just the talk in the village? I don’t know what really happened.”
She nodded, urging him on.
“Many people were angry about the support your father rallied against the tankers. The people who wanted the tankers to dock here were excited because if Rendición became a port city, it would grow and that meant more jobs and more opportunities for business. It meant building new houses, opening more shops, and the people who lived here would sell more of their produce and products.”
“And as a banker, I guess Hector Mendez stood to gain financially more than anyone else.”
“But that’s one thing I don’t understand, Raul. Why was my father so opposed to the growth? Surely he was concerned about more than how the docks would affect the look of the coastline.”
Raul nodded. “Yes, there was more to it than that. He talked about two reasons for opposing the tankers. The first was the issue of the environment. The oil tankers had a history of polluting the areas where they docked, and your father didn’t like the idea of that. But it wasn’t only the natural pollution he feared.”
“What else was he worried about?”
Raul looked at Sammy, then down at his shoes. “Your father said the pollution wouldn’t just be limited to the environment.” He looked at Gabriella. “Are you sure you want to know?”
Raul hesitantly continued. “As you can imagine, when the tankers docked in a port, they brought more with them than just pollution and potential oil spills. Many of the men on such ships led a certain lifestyle.” He glanced in Sammy’s direction and then put his hands over the boy’s ears to keep him from hearing. “In the other port cities many bars, liquor stores and houses of prostitution popped up. And of course, that caused the crime to go up, too,” he whispered.
“I’m almost eleven, you know.” Sammy said indignantly. Raul took his hands off of his ears.
Gabriella patted Sammy’s leg and then tossed aside her orange peel. “I guess I can understand my father’s concerns. It just sounds awfully…”
Gabriella’s head snapped up. “What are you saying, Raul?”
“Gabriella,” he said, his voice soft and careful. “There are many things you do not know.”
“My parents were not Christians.”
“Not at first, no.”
She stubbornly shook her head, stood up and walked away. She hadn’t gone far when she spun around, her petite body trembling with emotion. “I will not have you smear the memory of my parents. They were good, decent people, not fools who believed in fairy tales.”
“Not fools, no,” he said gently. “But people who had come to believe in God and His morals.”
Gabriella stared at him, her dark eyes burning. “If that were true, I would have some memory of it.”
He shrugged. “Of this I do not know. I’m only telling you what I saw and heard.”
She stood there for a while until the anger passed, and then she cautiously took her place at the end of the trailer. “I’m sorry, Raul. I’m not upset with you, but you must be remembering wrong.”
He smiled, his teeth dingy in the sun. “It’s okay.”
“Please, tell me more about Hector Mendez. Why do some people think he burned down our grove?”
Raul nodded, thankful she wasn’t angry with him. “On the day the tankers were scheduled to dock here for the first time, Hector planned a grand welcoming party for the crew. He set up booths with food and drinks, and a large crowd of people who supported the tankers gathered for the celebration. It was supposed to be their victory party because they were sure they had won the fight.”
“But my father and his supporters thwarted them by jumping into the sea so the tankers couldn’t dock,” she said.
“Yes. And that day Hector swore he would get revenge on your father. The grove was burned the next week.”
Gabriella thought for a moment. “And how much longer after that did my parents disappear?”
“Exactly one month later.”
Gabriella shook her head in disbelief and stood up. “Hector Mendez, huh? Has he been here ever since? He never left?”
“He’s owned the bank the entire time. The only way he’ll ever leave Rendición is through the death.”
She nodded resolutely. “I’m going to make us some lunch. I’ll ring the bell when it’s ready.”
Sammy waited until his mom was out of earshot, and then asked, “Did my grandparents really believe in God?”
“But how do you know? I mean, if my mom didn’t, how do you?”
“Because Mona and I were working the night your parents had a visitor—a man who came to tell them about Jesus. They tried to tell me about it later, but at the time, I didn’t want to hear it.”
“Because I thought it was a trick.”
“Because the man who came to talk to them about God was an acquaintance of Hector Mendez.”
“But he was a man of God?”
“I do not know about then, but now he is—of this I am sure.”
“Because I met him again last night. He is the man called Preacher.”
If you enjoyed this excerpt of The Fragrance of Surrender, check out the entire novel!
The letter began its soundless free fall into the future. There was no indication, no sign or subtle hint of its destiny as it twirled the through salty, humid sea air. The ancient lavender parchment envelope, which held the hope for one man’s life and the dying words of a woman, spiraled downward until it landed on the soft cloud of waiting letters. The flowing curves of the decades old script stood out among the sterilely typed words of the present. Although the lavender scent had begun to fade, the air around the letter instantly became smoother, cleaner. The magic of the letter was such that if someone were to stop outside the mailbox and listen closely, they might hear the tides of tomorrow whispering in their ears.
Bell Island lay suspended in the vast body of water, having not enough. Lacking. Wanting. Although the island was surrounded by the blue-green sea, the worst drought in its history was upon it. The sea grass had burned and withered into brownish clumps, and people walked about with matted hair and deep wet circles under their arms. There was no relief; even showing had been limited to three times a week because of the water rationing. The island was being baked dry, and piece by piece, its colorful history and promising future broke off and fell into the restless, swirling sea.
The relentless sun beat down on Joshua McKeon’s bare back as he deftly hoisted the frayed fishing net over the boat’s edge. He wiped the sweat from his brow and leaned over the net to consider his catch. Disappointed by the scaly, paltry group of fish, he picked them from the net and dropped them into the stained plastic bucket filled with seawater. Joshua looked toward the glaring sun and decided there wasn’t enough time for another run. Not if he was going to make his date with Isabelle.
He grinned at the thought of her wild, red hair, pale face and patches of freckles she considered a curse, and he longed, as he did so often now, for things to be as they were when they first met. A year ago, he would have walked into her bookstore and found her immersed in one of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of books on the shelves, and she wouldn’t have known he was there until he wrapped his fish-stained arms around her. She would have reacted instantly, jumping up, almost knocking over her chair and throwing herself into him. Her face would have been open, full of the joy she seemed to gather and dispense each day. But day after day, month after month, just as he’d been about to let go and revel in her love, it would happen again. Just as it always did.
He’d pull back, just a little, but enough for her to notice, and she would slowly stiffen her arms and begin asking about his day. He would apologize with his eyes and then reach for her. She would allow herself to be held, but the air of unrestraint, of unconditional everything would have already floated out the window and evaporated with the sun’s heat over the thick blue sea.
Joshua hadn’t been ready to fall in love, but when he heard about the new bookstore in the middle of town and the fiery redhead who ran it, he’d been intrigued. Bell Island is a small fishing town, and doesn’t attract the grocery or fast food chains the larger towns do, so a new business is a novelty, and visiting it a major event.
That Saturday morning a little more than a year ago when Joshua pushed open the wooden door and heard the soft jingle of the door chime, he’d unknowingly entered another world. One with uncharted feelings, conflict and pain and the possibility of real love and happiness.
It was a world his life thus far had ill-prepared him for.
He’d seen her at once, partially hidden by the long wooden counter that held the cash register, fancy coffee machines and a glass case half full of freshly baked goods. The scent of coffee, cinnamon and musty old books swirled about his head.
She’d sensed him, too and stopped in the middle of a transaction. Her brilliant green eyes flitting around the room until finally landing on him like a bird settling into its nest. Joshua hadn’t moved, stayed still even as she drew herself away and concentrated once again on the customer in front of her. Only when she’d counted the change and thanked the woman who’d purchased the books, did she allow her eyes to search him out once more.
“Looking for anything in particular?” she asked. “No, wait.” She stepped from behind the counter, revealing a loose white cotton skirt and snug green T-shirt. “Let me guess.” She closed her eyes and put her chin in her hands. After a few moments of silence, her eyes sprang to life. “I’ve got it. You’re an Emerson. I have a book of his essays in pretty good condition. Want to follow me?”
Joshua watched the red curls disappear behind a tall shelf of books. His first instinct was to tell her he had never read Emerson, wasn’t in fact, even sure who he was. He laughed to himself as he thought of the stack of fishing books beside his bed, the only books he owned. But he didn’t tell her. Instead, he followed her and wondered at the sweat forming on the palms of his hands.
It was there, in the midst of the classics that lined the old, sagging shelves, where he’d fallen in love. He watched her bend and push books aside, mumbling, not really caring whether he responded, searching for the book she was so sure he’d come for. It was the look of shy excitement when she found the book and handed it to him like a trophy that cinched it. In her face, he saw an openness that, up until that moment, he hadn’t thought existed.
Up close, he saw she was younger than he first thought, less than his twenty-five. There were no faint lines spreading around her eyes or mouth, but when she smiled, tiny lines touched the bridge of her nose, which she’d probably crinkled as a child.
Joshua flipped through the small, ragged brown book. “I’ll take it.”
He silently followed her to the front of the store and ordered a cup of coffee just to prolong the transaction. He watched her hands move. Her nails were cut short, and her fingers flew over the equipment with a practiced ease, until at last she handed him the steaming cup.
He made small talk about whether or not she liked the island and about her business, but another customer demanded her attention so he’d slipped out of the store, carrying Isabelle in his mind.
Joshua stayed up all night swimming through the unfamiliar words, and by morning, he’d read the entire book of essays. He even managed to memorize a few passages. He strolled into the bookstore the next day with the intention of asking her out, but she’d misunderstood his presence to mean he wanted another book. He left that day with a Hemingway, and not Isabelle, and then as the week went on, Faulkner, O’Connor, and Thoreau.
At the end of the week, he stood before the register, red eyed and weary from staying up every night reading, and handed her a twenty to pay for a Scott. She held on to his bag instead of giving it to him with his change. “World’s fastest reader, huh?” she asked with a glint of mischief in her eyes.
“Nothing like a good book,” he said, reaching for his bag.
“You know,” she said, pulling it just out of his reach. “You’re going to go broke if you don’t ask me out soon.”
Joshua stood frozen, caught. His mouth broke into a smile, then a laugh, and soon everyone in the store was looking his way. “You caught me,” he said, holding up his hands in surrender.
And so it had begun.
Their first date took place on a sticky, breezy day among carnival vendors and a Ferris wheel that stretched high into the cloudless sky. The seaside fair had been Isabelle’s idea. Joshua would have preferred something a little more predictable like dinner at the island’s only nice restaurant. And when she first suggested they go to the carnival, he’d been a little disappointed by her choice. But he soon realized, and in time grew to expect, that any time with Isabelle was an event, an all-out celebration of life.
As soon as they walked through the chain link fence surrounding the fair, Isabelle shielded her eyes from the sun and set her sights on the enormous Ferris wheel. “Let’s ride that first,” she said, tugging him in that direction.
“We could,” he said. “Or we could save it for last.”
“Why would we want to do that?”
“Because it’s the best thing here and if we ride it first we won’t have anything to look forward to.”
She looked at him oddly. “Are you always that much of a pessimist?”
“Pessimist? I’ve always thought of it as saving the best for last.”
“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “It seems to me you would have a lot of regrets living life that way.
The looked at each other and laughed, not letting the significance of their differences sink in, the way new couples do when they discover inconvenient incompatibilities.
As the day wore on, filled with rides and games and a laughter that came from a place deep inside, Joshua saw in Isabelle what he knew to be missing in himself. She had a thirst for life, a sense of purpose so well defined it would be impossible for someone who possesses it to ever be steered off course.
They did ride the Ferris wheel, over and over again, and each time they swooped down the circled path, they marveled at how the sea looked close enough to touch. At the end of their fifth ride, their fingers were interlocked, and their hearts were calling for them to continue the journey.
The stayed until the stars dusted the night sky and there were only a few scattered people milling around the empty grounds.
“I’m not ready to leave you,” she whispered as he threw the last game ball of the evening. “Let me take you someplace.”
He readily agreed, drunk with unfamiliar emotions he didn’t quite know how to handle. He was there—in the moment—and for the first time in many years, he wasn’t weighed down with the uncertainties of his brutal past.
They walked through town and toward the large public beach that sat just below the boardwalk. One of the hotels had a private pier that was reserved for their guests, but Isabelle ducked under the sign that declared it private and waved him in. Joshua looked around uneasily and then followed her. They walked along the boardwalk as the night water rushed under them causing the pier to sway. Finally, they reached a white weathered cabana. It was small with wooden benches lining all but one side. Isabelle moved toward the front of the small structure, leaned over and closed her eyes.
Joshua stood mesmerized, watched her drink in the smells, the sounds of the surf. She was beautiful standing there as the wind blew her pale yellow gauzy shirt against her body. She looked like she was in full control of her life, and he doubted she had ever known fear, even hesitation. He wondered what she would say if she knew how terribly afraid he felt most days, how fearful he was even in that very moment.
She opened her eyes and held out her hand. When he took it, she drew him near. “Can’t you feel the life in this place?” she asked softly. “I come here every day after I close the bookstore.”
“And do what?”
“Read. And think.”
Joshua looked out at the sea, felt for a moment, a tiny fraction of a second, the joy, the magic of the life she spoke of, but then he lost it, like the fleeting glimpse of someone you long for.
“What do you think about?”
“Everything.” She smiled. “And sometimes, nothing at all.”
He nodded, pretending to understand, utterly charmed by this quirky, free-spirited woman. “It’s nice here.” And he meant it. It was the best moment he’d had in years.
The next morning, Joshua had awoken with a new sensation deep inside his abdomen that he couldn’t quite define. He only knew one thing: he had to see Isabelle again.
So he’d gone out to sea that day, hoisting his nets high in the shimmering sun, but never letting the boat get so far out that he couldn’t see the white cabana at the end of the pier. He felt dazed, reckless, and although he sensed his fears still lurking inside him, he couldn’t feel them at the moment. He thought about nothing except Isabelle and how she had already affected his life. He hadn’t kissed her the night before, and he regretted it, knew he couldn’t stop thinking about it until he did.
Before any of the other boats did, Joshua pulled in his nets and haphazardly collected his catch. He sailed for the docks, a man with nothing on his mind except the kiss of a woman who, only the night before, had captured his heart.
After he got home and cleaned up, he drove his rusted truck to the town deli and bought two sandwiches and some fruit. Larry, the owner and a longtime friend, looked at him curiously. But Joshua was so wrapped up in his plans for the night, he didn’t even notice.
Moments later, Joshua pulled up to the boardwalk and turned off his engine. He could just make out her red curls flowing in the wind, feel her presence drawing him to her like the sun pulls a flower from the ground. She looked beautiful as she sat in the cabana in the setting sun. He got out, ducked under the chain and walked toward her. She didn’t see him until he was there, in the cabana, and her instant smile and dancing eyes told him all he needed to know.
She felt it, too.
As he sat, she held his gaze, quietly, gently, and then touched his face. She hesitantly drew him near, and then stopped, unsure. When he sensed her reluctance, he gently kissed the woman he was sure had been put on the earth just for him.
Then shyly, but with a new boldness in the air, they settled into each other and ate. They talked about their lives up until that point, and Isabelle told Joshua about her courageous father and how she’d learned about life while watching him die of cancer.
“The disease stole his dreams.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Was it recent?”
“No.” She shook her head. “I was young, twelve, but old enough to understand the meaning.”
He looked at her, obviously perplexed.
She took a deep breath. “My father, up until he got the news that he was ill, always did what was expected of him instead of what he truly wanted to do.” She looked at Joshua and could see that he was still confused. “He worked as a manager in a printing press, but every day when he backed out of the driveway to head towards work, it was another day he wasn’t doing what he truly loved.”
“What was that?”
“He wanted to write a novel. I used to feel sorry for him because all he ever talked about was the story he had in his head, and how sure he was that if he could just find the time to write it, the world would listen. I used to take an odd pride in the fact that he was a frustrated novelist because it somehow made him unlike any of my friend’s fathers. But it never occurred to me at that early age that simply talking about a dream, instead of working towards it, is just that—talk. The truth is, I finally came to realize he just didn’t have the courage to begin his book. Until he got sick.”
Joshua put his hand on her knee. “I’m sorry. What happened then?”
She shrugged, as if the memory had faded and no longer caused her pain, but Joshua saw the ache behind her courage. “He was diagnosed with lung cancer. Initially, he was given six months to live, and after he got over the anger and sadness that comes with knowing you’re about to die, he got serious about his book. He began to write with a vengeance. It was as if he were trying to fit a lifetime of words into the six months he had left. I watched him go from a man who was willing to accept whatever life handed him, good or bad, to one filled with passion and purpose.” She shrugged. “The only problem was, he was dying.”
“That must have been difficult to watch.”
She nodded. “I used to pretend he wasn’t sick, and I imagined he’d always been that determined and strong.” She clasped Joshua’s hand. “He never did finish his book. The cancer spread more quickly than anyone imagined, but he lived long enough for me to learn what he desperately tried to teach me in his last months. That we should squeeze the most we can out of life every single day.”
She turned to look out at the sea. “It was too late for him, but I swore I wouldn’t let his death be in vain. I promised him before he died that I would always live my life boldly.”
“He sounds like an amazing man.”
Isabelle nodded. “He was, in the end. And you? What kind of people raised a guy like you?”
He smiled mournfully. “They weren’t as courageous as your father, I’m afraid.”
He took a breath, about to tell her of his tragic past when a group of rambunctious kids came trampling down the pier. They quickly invaded the cabana with their laughter, and by the time Joshua and Isabelle had walked back to the boardwalk, the moment passed. His story would have to wait.
The boat swayed abruptly, and now Joshua felt the wet, heavy air force itself into his lungs as he loaded the buckets filled with fish into the cabin. That had been a little over a year ago, and Isabelle was growing impatient. When they’d first started dating, she had been to him like a lighthouse on a dark, thick night. She’d beckoned to him, pulled him in closer and closer until one day he realized in a panic that their lives had become so intertwined they couldn’t get through the day without each other.
He hadn’t realized how quickly they’d become so enmeshed because he’d been too consumed with the newness of their love to notice. So on the day their world came into focus, he panicked. He’d only been truly close to one other person in his life, and that had ended tragically. Since then, he’d experienced nothing but pain. And so when Joshua realized how much he had grown to need Isabelle, the sense of warmth and security he’d always felt with her shot out of his body and flew into the cold night air.
Since then, she’d been alluding to, urging him to see the happily ever after, but it scared him so he began to pull away. It was obvious that Isabelle was confused and frustrated by his behavior. She said she loved him, but the kind of love she desired would flow freely toward her, not run in the opposite direction.
So the distance between them continued to grow, with each one retreating farther and farther into their own protective spaces. Joshua wanted to follow Isabelle to the life she imagined, but something else controlled his thoughts and movements, and that something was his past, his story, and the fear of loss that had been etched into his soul at the tender age of five. So no matter how hard he tried, no matter how many times he promised her he would change, he couldn’t let himself slip that last, short distance freely into the waiting arms of his love.
He knew the subject would surface at dinner and that caused him to panic. What would he say this time? And how much longer would she wait?
A few hours later, Joshua’s hopefulness for the evening was beaten down bit by bit, the way the waves wear down the rock, as he watched the woman he loved fall deeper into herself every time she sensed him hold back.
The sat at The Wharf, a dingy seafood restaurant at the edge of the water and watched the sun fold into the horizon. As they sat holding hands, illuminated by the heartbreaking twilight, the truth hung between them like a wet buoy.
Isabelle needed more than he could give.
That had first became evident early in their relationship as he kissed her behind the dunes on a salty humid evening. She’d teased him into the dunes, drawing him in with her eyes, forceful and promising. And when they’d kissed, when the heat of her lips touched his, he felt himself succumb to her, sensed their souls connect. Her red curls whipped in the wind as their bodies moved in rhythm with the surf. She was primitive, his Isabelle, and he understood that she expected things from him, trusted him to give them to her.
“Isabelle,” he’d said under his breath as she pulled away.
“I’m sorry, Joshua. I don’t mean to tease you.”
He shook his head. “No, it’s not that. I understand your values. It’s just that…” He sighed in frustration, annoyed with himself because he couldn’t figure out how to share his feelings with her.
“I just can’t believe we’re here,” he finally said.
“What?” she asked, cocking her head in mock amazement. “Don’t tell me you’ve never kissed a girl on the beach.”
“No. I mean yes.” He shook his head. “But that’s not what I meant.” He took her face in his hands and longed to tell her how he felt. He watched the moonlight create sparks in her eyes, felt her begin to sway once again with the ocean. Drawing her in close, he whispered. “What I meant to say was…”
“Yes?” she said, the passion evident in her low, husky voice.
After struggling for a moment, he finally said, “I’m just glad you’re here.”
She pulled away again, searched his eyes for more and then nodded. “That’ll do for now.”
That had been the beginning of his hesitations, and over the past year he’d disappointed her more and more every day. He noticed too, that Isabelle, who had once been so open and full of hope, was pulling farther away from him and he knew it wouldn’t be long before the distance growing between them would simply overshadow their love for one another.
In the beginning of their relationship, Isabelle told Joshua she’d grown up in the church and those teachings shaped the way she lived her life. Joshua admitted that although God had never been a part of his life, he understood her convictions and would always support her. He even attended church with her most Sundays.
But no matter how much he wanted the life Isabelle imagined, he couldn’t find a way to commit—to Isabelle or to God. His past had a strangle hold on him and it prevented him from giving her what she needed. How am I supposed to give in to love after everything that’s happened? Or believe in a God who would destroy a little boy’s world in one afternoon?
But if he didn’t figure it out soon, he feared he would lose Isabelle. She believed in commitment and marriage and children, but Joshua had never imaged himself with that kind of life, never even wanted it until Isabelle had come floating into his life. He hated this fear that kept him from giving her what she needed, fought to keep it at bay, but the memories of his past, of loving and then losing so completely, were too powerful for him to defeat.
At the restaurant, Isabelle reached for his rough, waterlogged hands and cupped them in her own smooth ones. She rubbed her fingers over his slowly, thoughtfully, as if she were memorizing them, touching them for the last time. “I want to be with you, Joshua. I want to share your life and have a future together.”
She looked directly into his eyes, silently begging him to hear what she was trying to say. “But you’re making it difficult,” she said squeezed his hands tighter. “This past year with you has been wonderful, but I don’t understand why we’re not progressing, beginning to plan our future.”
“Isabelle, please be patient with me. I’m trying, I really am.”
She nodded. “I know you are. And I love you, but I can’t keep hoping for something that might never happen.” She waited for him to respond. When he didn’t, she continued. “I need to understand your intentions toward me so I can decide what to do with my life.” She sat back, hoping he would finally give himself to her, set things right.
Joshua was momentarily blinded by the expectation in her eyes. Blue-green eyes that blended with the ocean on a sunlit day. He wanted to tell her that each passing moment of everyday he thought of her, felt her smooth hands in his own, listened to her voice rise and fall in the wind. But he didn’t. Couldn’t. Instead he pulled back his hands and picked up the plastic menu.
“I know we need to talk,” he said, handing her a menu of her own. “Why don’t we wait until after we eat?”
Her face fell then, and he watched her try to pretend it was okay. She began to do what they always did when he couldn’t open up to her emotionally: talk about the small, insignificant things that had gone on that day while ignoring the pressing matters of the heart. And as they spoke, as they talked around what truly needed to be said, Joshua listened to the buzz of regret sounding in his ears.
The next morning, Joshua drove to the top of the impossibly steep hill that led to his parent’s cottage for brunch, as he did every Saturday without question. It brought them great joy, and he felt he owed them that for raising him as if he were their own son instead of the boy his natural mother left orphaned when she’d taken her own life.
The seaside cottage had deteriorated since he’d occupied it as the kings, sailors, and pirates of his youth. The gray paint had faded in patches, but Edith, the woman who had raised him, insisted it was bad luck to paint over the memories of the house. The same was true for the interior. She stubbornly refused to replace the threadbare carpet or the aging, tired kitchen appliances. It was as if by doing so she would have to move forward when she was so pitifully entrenched in the past.
It wasn’t that the Malleys didn’t have money—they did. Edgar Malley owned a fleet of ships that carried dry goods to and from the mainland and employed half the island.
A little more than twenty years ago on a dark and stormy night, Grace McKeon, Joshua’s destitute, pregnant mother, had timidly knocked on the cottage door and asked for help. Edith had hushed the crying girl, brought her inside and fed her a bowl of hot soup. She gave her warm clothes and sat with her by the fire until she fell asleep, curled up on the sofa. It was then, looking into the young girl’s face full of shattered dreams, that Edith decided she would take charge of the young woman’s destiny.
She gave Grace a job in the kitchen and guided her progression as if charting a sailboat’s course. Four months later Joshua was born, and the Malleys enveloped him as if he were their own.
But the bond between mother and son was unparalleled. From the moment the wet, crying baby fell into the world, he clung to Grace and refused to be held by another. Edith would shake her head of tight, white curls and tsk-tsk as Grace cooked and cleaned the dishes with Joshua in her arms.
“You’re going to spoil him,” she’d say, to which young Grace would only squeeze little Joshua even tighter.
When he turned five and started school, Grace would walk Joshua down the sand-covered path and wait the three kindergarten hours, keeping herself occupied under the shade of an ancient palm tree by reading or sketching pictures of the sea in her notebook. Every day when the bell sounded, Joshua would burst through the schoolhouse doors and see his mother waiting at the edge of the porch. Then he’d spread his arms like wings, close his eyes and run blindly toward the woman who was his world. After seven long strides, he’d push off the edge, and for the most infinitesimal of moments, he imagined himself a bird or an eagle that could soar unimaginable heights. Inevitably, he would land safely in his mother’s arms. It was a leap of faith. He knew without question she would be there to break his fall.
Then one day when he was five-and-a-half, the gulls stopped screaming, the ocean stopped moving, and the sand collapsed into one flat pile. His mother, while on her way to the market for groceries, ran into a truck hauling beams for the new pier being built on the west side of the island. At first the authorities assumed it was an accident, but after an investigation, they ruled it a suicide. Edith, not being a warm person to begin with, had callously told Joshua the hard details that would forever alter his life. His mother was dead. She chose to end her life and leave him with her and Edgar and he was now their son.
But Joshua stubbornly held on to the belief that his mother had sprouted wings and flown out of danger just before her car plowed into the two ton truck. He couldn’t fully comprehend the loss, which in his five-year-old mind, meant it didn’t happen.
From then on when school let out, he would burst through the door, close his eyes, spread open his arms and leap into the empty air, fully believing his mother would be there to catch him. But day after day, month after month, Joshua fell limply into nothingness, crashing instead onto the cold, unforgiving sand. And then he’d lie there, with this cheek pressed against the earth and his tears wetting the sand, until Mrs. Henderson the school principal, would pick up his broken-spirited body and help him limp home.
“Tomorrow,” he’d say through tears of denial. “I’m sure she’ll be there tomorrow.”
Mrs. Henderson, never knowing what to say, would nod and hand him over to Edith, the woman determined not to spoil him.
Eventually, he stopped flying off the old school porch and went inward, where his mother still lived. Joshua hadn’t believed she was dead and secretly planned to find her once he was old enough to ride his bicycle beyond the three blocks Edgar and Edith allowed.
“You going to sit out here all day or are you coming in?” It was Edgar, now gray and crooked, leaning into the car window.
Joshua turned off the ignition and swallowed the ghost of his mother to make room for the people who had given him a home for so many years.
Once inside the house, he smelled the familiar scent of pine cleaner, saw that the sofa pillows were forced into their usual stiffness and noticed that the fireplace was scrubbed clean. Joshua left his shoes at the door, as was the rule, and entered the orderly house. Edith greeted him with a tight, frantic hug that lasted longer than was comfortable.
“I hope you’re hungry,” she said, letting go abruptly and turning to walk away. “I cooked enough for five, but I see there will only be four of us.” She shook her pin curls and disappeared into the kitchen, which smelled faintly of boxed mashed potatoes and canned peas.
“Don’t pay her no mind,” Edgar said, winking conspiratorially. “You’ll bring Isabelle around in your own time.”
Joshua felt the bitter lump of the night before rise in his throat. “Soon, I promise.”
“It would mean a lot to her,” Edgar said, tilting his head toward the kitchen.
The door swung open and Edith walked out of the kitchen nervously balancing two white Pyrex bowls with blue flowers, one on each hand. She set them on the table, fussed with the arrangement and then disappeared once again into the kitchen. Although Joshua didn’t particularly enjoy these Saturday brunches with the old stifled emotions lingering around the house, he knew Edith lived for them and would be devastated if he didn’t come. So he did, but on this day, just like every Saturday, as soon as he arrived he began to count the minutes until he could leave.
Joshua moved toward the table and stopped when he saw the place setting in front of the old forbidden chair. Alan would be joining them for dinner. Quickly, Joshua tried to process what that meant, tried to remember all the rules that came into effect when a dead son comes for dinner.
He glanced nervously at Edgar who whispered, “We’ll talk later.”
Joshua touched the back of the chair, the one that would stay empty, hadn’t been sat in for over twenty years. It was forbidden, and he’d watched Edith fall apart many times over the years when an unwitting guest sat in the seemingly ordinary straight-backed chair.
But the place setting—Joshua hadn’t seen that in years.
When Edgar and Edith’s infant son, Alan had died so many years ago, Edith had gone on as if it didn’t happen. Joshua watched Edgar struggle with Edith’s fantasies over the years, and being the practical man that he was, Edgar had tried to reason with her. But Edith wouldn’t listen.
And it was almost ten years after Alan’s death that Grace, Joshua’s mother, had arrived at their house swollen with the promise of a new son. Joshua had odd memories of his childhood, of Edith calling him Alan while looking at him with eyes that didn’t see. Of a plate of food at the table that was never touched, and of Edith’s constant conversations with someone only she could see. At times it appeared to get better, and during those days, when Edith wasn’t blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, Edgar lost the look of tension that had become so much a part of him, and slowly, tentatively began to relax.
But inevitably, one night when Edgar came home from work he’d find an extra plate on the table. It became harder and harder for him to deal with Edith’s delusions so Joshua wasn’t surprised the night he exploded and forbad her to ever set a place for Alan again.
Who knows what finally caused him to break? Was it a buildup of evenings with his wife talking to an empty chair, or did he somehow imagine he could force her into sanity? Whatever it was, the extra plate stopped appearing at the dinner table. But Edith, immersed in her fantasy, couldn’t let her son starve.
So she began to sneak plates of food outside and feed Alan on the table on the back deck. Joshua didn’t know if Edgar didn’t see the outside dinners or if he simply chose to ignore them, knowing he couldn’t win the battle. But either way, Edith son’s had grown up in the house alongside Joshua, and sometimes the lines became blurred about who was who.
“Joshua.” Edith’s sharp voice pieced through his memories and he looked up to find her staring at his hand which rested on the back of the empty chair.
“Will you please move aside so your brother can sit down?”
He uneasily moved away from the chair and glanced at Edgar, whose face was a mask of dread and determination, and Joshua feared that determination would be aimed at him. He began making plans to escape as soon as they finished dinner.
“So, what do we have here?” Edgar asked in a painfully cheerful voice.
Joshua looked at his parents, one constantly on the verge of falling forever into the imaginary world where her son lived, and the other struggling to hold onto the rope that would prevent her from falling fully over that ledge. He realized as he watched Edith pass the bowl of mashed potatoes to Edgar, that he felt no connection with either of them, no sense of belonging when he was in their house. He only felt an odd mix of gratefulness and repulsion. He was grateful they had taken him in as their own and given him a home, but his upbringing, the unnatural way he was forced to live as a young boy, repulsed him. Made him long for what could have been had his mother not abandoned him so long ago.
After an uncomfortable dinner that reminded Joshua of the childhood that almost destroyed him, he started to make his escape, but Edgar, who was determined not to let him leave, took him by his arm and led him into the living room. Joshua remained standing, but Edgar eased himself into the old green and gold plaid chair.
“Do you see what’s happening?” Edgar asked, tilting his head toward the kitchen. “She’s doing it again.” He nervously ran his hand over his gray, balding head and turned more fully toward Joshua.
“Son, I know we’ve talked about this before, but surely now you can see how circumstances have changed. I’m asking you,” He stopped and expelled harshly. “No, I’m begging you to reconsider taking over my shipping company. Can’t you understand, son? I’ve got to get her out of this house before it’s too late. Before she retreats so far into this… this… whatever it is, that she can’t come back.”
Joshua leaned into the wall, knocking aside a photograph of him as a young boy. It was pressed into an ornate gold frame that smelled faintly of polish. “I’ve explained to you why I can’t do that,” he said quietly. “I do want to help. I’ll do anything except that.”
How could he make Edgar understand he had plans of his own? That he’d worked for years to save for the charter company he planned to start? And he was so close. It was just months away from becoming a reality. “I’m sorry, Edgar, but I’m not the man to follow in your footsteps.”
“But listen to what I’m saying.” Edgar pushed himself out of the chair and moved closer to Joshua. “I’m losing her, son. Every morning when I wake up, I discover another piece of her is missing. I can’t expect you to understand everything, but I know if she stays in this house much longer, she’ll begin to remember things…” He turned away from Joshua and lowered his voice. “Things that would destroy us all.”
“What are you talking about?”
Edgar shook his head and rubbed his temples. “Things in the past. Things she doesn’t need to remember.” He looked directly into Joshua’s eyes. “I know if I can just get her to someplace new, she’ll come back to herself. I’ll have my Edith back once and for all. And you can help. You know I can’t trust my company to a complete stranger. Not when I’ve spent my entire life building it.”
Joshua slid his hand into his pocket and touched his truck keys. When Edgar heard the slight jingle, he became even more desperate.
“I’ll pay you well, that goes without saying. Then maybe you can finally afford a house and marry that girl of yours.” He looked away in frustration, toward the widow that faced the sea, and lowered his voice. “I need you to do this for me. For her.”
Joshua pressed deeper into the dingy white wall and longed to be on the other side of it. He thought of his boat where he was free from the pressures of man. It was only there that he was at ease in his own skin. When he rode the waters out on the sea, he felt he could make sense of each drop of water, each creature that dove deep into the blue, even the gulls that skimmed the surface, fearful of the depths but depending on them to survive. It was there that he found peace, and only there.
While it was true that Edgar and Edith had provided him a place to sleep and hot meals on his many cold and lonely nights, they had never come close to matching the security and warmth he once had with his mother. After Grace’s death, Edith had immediately tried to take over the role of his mother, singing the same songs and even demanding he call her mother. Joshua had been repulsed by her efforts and avoided her at every opportunity. He’d grown up too fast and quickly became an out-of-control kid. He realized, now that he was older, that he’d made it hard on them, punishing them for this mother’s death, but Edith had never given up. To this day, she tried to mother him.
In contrast, Edgar had always made it clear that he was lucky to have them, otherwise Joshua may have ended up in an orphanage. He was reminded of this when he didn’t want to get out of bed for school, when he didn’t want to cut his hair in the short military style Edgar demanded, and every other time he even hinted at not wanting to do exactly what Edgar required. Joshua, the young, free spirited boy of five-and-a-half, quickly became a brooding, guilt ridden boy of six.
He didn’t blame Edgar and Edith, just chalked it up to their lack of parenting skills, but he’d always longed for the absolute warmth of his mother, to be loved for who he was, and not the fantasy driven hyper-love that Edith offered, or Edgar’s conditional love.
“I’m sorry,” Joshua said, knowing it would rip out the old man’s heart. “I just can’t do it.”
Edgar, realizing he couldn’t sway Joshua by appealing to him, changed his tactics. His voice became steady and demanding, and he narrowed his small eyes until they were merely two more lines on his old, cracked face. “Is that how you plan to repay us for everything we’ve done for you? I ask you, son, where would you be if we hadn’t taken in your poor pathetic mother so many years ago?”
Joshua understood that Edgar’s response stemmed from panic and not necessarily anger, but still, he wanted to get out of the house before the disagreement escalated into something they would both would regret. “I’m sorry,” he muttered, brushing past Edgar. He headed toward the kitchen to say goodbye to Edith, but as soon as he entered he realized he’d interrupted a conversation she was having with Alan about how great it was to have him back at the dinner table. Joshua backed out of the room without saying a word.
On the way out the front door, he glanced behind him and saw Edgar slumped in his chair, heard Edith cheerfully chattering away in the kitchen, and a sudden inexplicable sadness bore down on him that he hadn’t fully felt since he was five-and-a-half and the world opened up and swallowed him whole.
Once out the door, Joshua leaned against the splintered wood and tried to regain his composure. It was then that he wondered about the forgotten memories Edgar had spoken of, the ones he said would destroy them. He wouldn’t understand the meaning until days later when he uncovered the mystery of his life. That tentative hope he’d so long ago stuffed into the back pocket of his five-and-a-half year old jeans would resurface in the form of a letter, and only then would he begin to understand Edgar’s secrets.
The next day brought with it more of the relentless heat that came down from a blazing blue sky and offered not one cloud or possibility of rain. Joshua rose early, as was his habit, and sat on the weather-beaten deck surrounding his house and drank his coffee. The hot steam mixed with the impossible humidity irritated him like a fly that eluded a flyswatter. He waited for one of the stirring breezes that normally passed through his soul and got him moving, but this morning, it didn’t come. Instead, the stagnant air surrounded him like the heat surrounds a flame, and he sat there for longer than he should have.
He thought about Edgar’s proposal and how he should be grateful for such an offer. It would certainly allow him to give Isabelle the kind of life she deserved. But that was something he wanted to do on his own.
He hadn’t called her the night before as he normally did. He’d been too upset about Edith’s regression and the fallout with Edgar.
Joshua sat there looking into the glass-green ocean and watched the surf inch closer and closer to the edge that was his life until he heard the mail slot creak open and the soft thud of envelopes landing on the hard wooden floor.
Propelled by an unseen wind, he eased out of the sun bleached wooden chair and moved toward the front door where the bundle of letters had landed. Stooping to pick them up, he noticed the lavender edge sticking out among the meaningless white of the others. Isabelle, he thought, feeling at once a happy anticipation and guilt-driven fear.
He took the mail outside and resumed his position in the wooden chair. When he loosened the string that bound the letters, the lavender one with the ornate script seemed to separate itself from the others, as if it were demanding to be read. He noticed the lack of a return address, stuck his thumb under the flap and tore it open.
“Joshua. Joshua, didn’t you hear me knocking?”
Isabelle. Joshua put aside the lavender mystery and looked up at her. He knew instantly that she was leaving him. The plump dimple at the corner of her mouth was flat, and the shine in her eyes had dimmed. Even the light colored tips of her red mane had hardened, and now sat stiff, as if forced to curl unnaturally.
“We have to talk,” she said, sitting down next to him.
He closed his eyes and felt the depths of his stomach begin to stir. He shifted, as if to change what was about to occur, and looked at her, his eyes desperately trying to convey what his words could not.
She sat silent for a moment, waiting. When he didn’t speak, didn’t urge her to stay, she stood and brushed down the sides of her long green cotton skirt. Her shoulders fell and her back curved inward, toward herself, away from him. She walked to the far corner of the porch where he kept his telescope. She peered through the lens for so long he began to wonder if he’d been wrong. Maybe she wasn’t leaving.
“I don’t see it either,” she finally said, straightening up and looking at him with eyes that reminded him of his beloved ocean. “I don’t think it’s out there.”
Confused, he stood and walked to her. “What’s not out there?”
She shrugged and moved away. When she turned to face him again, a stray tear hung on her eyelash. “Whatever piece of you your mother took with her when she died. I’ve been waiting a year for you to figure out that what we have is special and true and worth the risk, and I believed when you did, you’d be whole again and make room in your life for me.”
Again, he wordlessly moved toward her, and again, she moved farther away from him.
“But you can’t do it, can you? You can’t take the risk, not even for us?” She looked toward the telescope, angry now, and moved towards the gate on the porch.
“I’ve tried to tell you for months that I can’t continue like this.” She stopped and wiped away a tear. “I’ve tried to make you understand that I can’t just hang on hoping you’ll eventually realize how special we are… what we could have together.” She hesitated and then became focused, determined. “But you can’t do it. You won’t commit to a future with me.”
He moved toward her, reached for her.
“And now it’s too late. I’m leaving Bell Island, Joshua. I’m going to get on with my life and I can’t do that living in the same town as you.” Her face softened for a moment. “I’m sorry, but staying here would hurt too much.”
Joshua felt the force of despair lodge in his throat. He opened his mouth to speak, to beg her to stay, but his words failed him, as they had so many times before.
It was only after the gate closed shut and he heard the sound of Isabelle’s car engine start up that the words swam up and came bursting out into the air.
An hour later, Joshua struggled under the blanket of heat. He recklessly unwound the thick coiled rope from the piling and tossed it onto the boat. Ned Gunthriess, the man who leased the slip next to his, waved, his silhouette old and spindly in the shadow of the blistering sun. Joshua gave a hurried wave and then jumped onto the moving deck with a thud. When the boat was far enough way so he couldn’t see land, the place where all his pain had originated, he fingered the lavender letter and considered more than once whether he should let it slip though his fingers into the waiting blue to be swallowed by the stillness of another world.
He was sure the letter was from Isabelle, the thin lavender stationary, the scent of flowers still lingering on it, all spoke of her. And he knew he would have to read the devastating words she’d just spoken to him, hear again why she couldn’t stay with him, read about all the ways he’d failed her.
He dangled the rectangle over the edge of the stern and thought about letting it go. He sat with the stationary positioned between his thumb and forefinger and hoped for a gust of wind to make the decision for him.
But none came. Hadn’t in fact, for weeks as the drought had dried up even the wind. Instead, his fingers grew sticky with the heated glue on the envelope and he brought the letter back to safety. What more could she say, he wondered as he thought of Isabelle’s sad eyes and tired smile of that morning. Since she wasn’t one for wasting words, he knew whatever the letter said, it would matter.
Or had she mailed it before she decided to let him go?
Joshua didn’t think he could look at a gathering of words declaring Isabelle’s love of yesterday instead of her departure today. It would make him want to backstroke through the turbulent waters to a place where he could never be again.
Feeling an uncommon tear sting his eye, he forcefully ripped open the misunderstood letter, and pulled out the lavender onion-skinned paper.
For a moment, he was confused. The writing was much too ornate to be Isabelle’s, but it seemed somehow familiar. Ancestral. Tribal.
And then he knew. The understanding crept into his soul, invading everything he did and did not know. His senses went wild, the familiar smell of fish became so pungent he leaned over the boat and vomited. The wind, which had been still only moments before, gusted up and threatened to send him over the edge and into the crystal blue mirror that would shatter with his weight. The shrill screams of the gulls fighting one another for food pounded into his temples, causing him to press his hands over his ears and pray for silence.
And not. Because if there were silence, he would be left with only this.
At that moment, Joshua’s life, which thus far had been pulled backwards like the undercurrent of the tide, was hurled forward into the future at a dizzying speed.
The five-and-a-half-year-old Joshua sat up straight with anticipation, while the twenty-five-year-old Joshua sank onto the deck with disbelief. He knew his world was about to shift and never be the same.
The letter was from his mother.
My Dearest Joshua,
I don’t know how to begin this letter. My hands tremble with the knowledge that the words I use will significantly impact your life. What if I say the wrong thing? Or express myself in a way that’s misunderstood? What if my reaching out to you drives you away from me and ruins all chances to make peace with you? It’s a huge responsibility and I don’t want to get it wrong.
After all, even though you are my flesh and blood, born from my body, the truth is I’m a stranger to you. It’s been twenty years since I’ve tucked you into bed or made your favorite snack, and although it seems like yesterday to me, chances are you’ve moved on. Yes, I’m your mother, but you have a new life now and have probably gotten used to my absence.
But I will never get used to yours.
I can only image how much of a shock it is for you to hear from me. I want you to know that if there was any way I could have gotten these letters to you before now, I would have. But the truth is, there were circumstances beyond my control that prevented it. I pray the years of grief haven’t closed your heart to me, and somehow this letter will make you remember me fondly. I know you’ve been told some horrible things about me and what I did, but let me assure you they are not true. I would have never willingly left you. I love you, Joshua. You were my world in 1962, and you still are today.
I often find myself closing my eyes and reliving the days we spent together so many years ago. I can once again smell the intoxicating scent of my little boy after a long day on the beach, hear your voice shrill with excitement as you bravely jump over the small waves, and feel your damp, sunburned body as you curl up on my lap at the end of a long day. I count the steps in my mind as I remember walking you to school, and I joyfully relive the moment at the end of every school day when you leapt from the porch and into my arms. I would have never let you fall and somehow you knew that. You leapt from that porch with such confidence, an absolute surety that I would be there to catch you. And I would have moved mountains to make sure I did. Please don’t forget that, sweetheart. Please know that if I were able, I would be there now to catch you whenever you fall.
I realize you are no longer a five-year-old boy but time has stood still for me and I can only cling to the memories of the time we had together. Those wonderful, magical days of your childhood. If only I’d known how short they would be, I would have done so many things differently.
But please forgive me, I didn’t mean to go on and on about only my feelings. You were just a little boy when our lives were torn apart, and I fear that the abrupt loss of your mother has caused you to struggle with life, as so many people do who lose someone important at such a tender age.
Which brings me to one of the reasons why I fought so hard to be able to write you. I feel it’s important that you understand exactly what happened all those years ago, why you were left alone without your mother, and hopefully this will help you come to terms with it all. You see, I know the trauma of what happened has probably haunted you throughout the years and caused you to be hesitant in your approach to life. It only makes sense, but I think if I tell you my story, our story, you will come to understand the importance of risking everything for what means the most to you. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, Joshua—our lives have proven that. And since we’re only promised this moment, we can’t let it slip through our fingers. We have to live in a way where we won’t have any regrets about the things we do, or even worse, the things we didn’t do but wish we had. I hope in some small way, my story will help you understand this, and if you are living your life in fear, it will free you from that. I want you to learn from my mistakes.
All I want, sweetheart, is for you to live your life to the fullest and not let our tragic past hold you back from what’s possible.
I realize at this moment you can barely read these words, can’t understand how you could possibly receive a letter from your mother who has been dead for twenty years. I’m sure your first instinct will be to disbelieve that the letter is really from me, and think someone is playing a cruel joke on you. But if you believe it, if you somehow recognize me in these words, you will probably try and find me. But you mustn’t.
I fear that simple action would put you in grave danger.
I’m sorry, Joshua, but for your own good, I need to ask you to trust me.
Life with the Malleys couldn’t have been easy, and I’m sorry you had to grow up in what was probably a restrictive and oppressive environment. It’s not fair to you—a mother’s job is to raise her children to be happy, confident adults and when I brought you into this world, I had every intention of staying by your side, shaping and gently guiding you until you were ready to take on life’s challenges. But then fate intervened, and I had to leave you, not willingly, but kicking and screaming, because I knew I hadn’t yet completed my job. And for this, my dear Joshua, I’m sorry. But please know that I would have never left you on my own free will.
Joshua looked up from the letter, searched the horizon for some clue, some logical explanation of how he could be holding a letter from his dead mother. It just didn’t make sense. He’d been told his entire life his mother had taken her own life, willingly left him, but these words were contradicting everything he knew. He looked again at the lavender parchment and wondered if this is what he had been waiting for his entire life. He continued to read.
You’re at the age where you’re likely on the precipice of your life, and unless you have the benefit of wisdom from someone who has your best interests at heart, I fear you’ll make mistakes. After all, the decisions you make in your life now will affect you for the rest of your life. The knowledge of this compelled me to fight hard to find a way to send you this letter.
My love for you breaks boundaries you can’t begin to understand.
I want to tell you things, things about my life that will make you see yours differently, but I can’t do it all in one sitting because I simply don’t have the strength. This will require patience and trust on your part and I pray that you open your heart and view my letters for what they are: a mother’s attempt to reach out to her son to express her love and pass on her wisdom. I’ll send you letters as I can and I pray you read them with an open heart for this message comes from a place of love. I’ll start the story before you were born because I want you to understand where you came from and how much you were wanted.
Your father and I met in 1957 and we were madly in love. He was a handsome man; the light amber eyes you inherited from him set him apart from most men as I’m sure yours do. That, combined with his tall lankiness, attracted me to him instantly and once we started talking to each other, I realized he possessed a charm few men do. I fell in love with him in an instant and was pronounced Grace McKeon two short years later.
We led a happy life, he serving our country in the Army, while I tended to our home. Then one day in 1960, I told him I was with child and I’ve never seen him happier. He took me in his arms and danced with me right there in our living room. I absolutely beamed, secure in the knowledge that he would make a good, loving father to the child growing inside of me.
Times could not have been better, and as my belly grew, so did our love for each other and for our unborn child. But then six months before your arrival date, my Ted was ordered to a place called Vietnam. I can still hear his subtly panicked voice telling me it would be a short war, and that while he doubted he would be back for your birth, he would come soon after that and we would begin our lives together as a family.
On the day the ship pulled away from my heart and steamed into the sea, I feared I would never again see your father. But I knew I’d been given two gifts. The first was the undying love of a good, decent man, and the second was the child of that man.
I walked back home that day alone and pregnant, clinging to the belief that things were going to be all right.
But they weren’t. There was a battle on the southernmost part of Vietnam, and your father, along with fourteen other men, died fighting in it. It was that moment, that devastating loss of my love that altered the course of my life. I’m sure you understand this, Joshua—when you lose someone you love, it shuts down a part of you, makes dark what was once light. But it’s this feeling, this sense of despair that I hope to help you overcome.
Our landlord, once he realized I had no way to pay the rent, allotted me thirty days to find someplace else to live. Your father and I hadn’t saved much money, and it was impossible for a woman in my condition to find work. I conserved what little money I had, staying at a questionable motel and eating mostly beans and potatoes that I cooked on a hotplate, but eventually the money ran out. I was almost eight months pregnant.
The wind and cold were harsh the day I become homeless, but I found a barrier in the form of a large truck parked underneath a bridge that led to a place called Bell Island. I sat next to the truck, huddled in my dress and coat, which would no longer close over my swollen belly, drinking the coffee I’d bought with my last dime. I closed my eyes and pretended I could feel the warmth on my bare hands. When the driver found me huddled there, he told me I had to move on, that he was going across the bridge to Bell Island. He asked me if I wanted a ride. At that moment, all I could think about was the warmth of the truck and so I said yes, and that’s how we came to live on the island. I’ll always wonder what would have happened if I had refused that ride.
The truck driver was a kind man, and after I explained my situation, he told me about the Malleys. He said they were the wealthiest people on the island, and if I knocked on their door and ask for help, they wouldn’t turn me away because they were decent people.
The truck strained against the steep hill, and when it finally reached the top I saw the Malley’s cottage. It sat alone on the hill, surrounded by nothing but the gray, choppy sea. The driver wished me luck and then left me there on top of that hill, and in my condition, I had no choice but to knock on the door and ask for help. There was no way I could have managed to walk back down that precipitous hill.
That well-meaning truck driver pushed me toward a fate I could not have predicted.
The gray house with the white wraparound porch looked so warm in contrast to the cold, hard sheets of rain that were now pelting down around me. I stood at the edge of the walk for quite some time worrying and wondering what to say and trying to decide what I would do if they refused to help. Then a loud boom of thunder cracked open the sky, and I scurried up the soggy sand path and banged wildly on the door.
When I first saw Edith Malley, I felt certain I’d be turned away. Her stingy features retreated even further when she saw me, wet and dripping, but then her expression changed considerably once she saw that I was pregnant. The change happened so quickly I thought I had imagined the face that was ready to push me back into the cold rain. Yet when I think of Edith now, it’s that hardened stance that first materializes in my mind instead of the warm friendly woman she became that night.
Once her features softened, she pulled me inside, fed me warm food and gave me some dry clothes. She spoke softly to me, reassuring me that everything was going to be all right until I fell asleep next to the warm fire.
When I woke up the next morning to a toasty house, food to satisfy my constant hunger and the kindness of two complete strangers, I felt like I had wandered into a fairytale. I remember that morning as if it were yesterday. My eyes opened slowly, afraid to break the spell, but the smell of brewing coffee and eggs overpowered my urge to stay put. I pushed myself off the sofa, which was difficult in my condition, stretched and peered out the window. The ocean was close enough to touch, and it appeared as if angels themselves had flown down from heaven and sprinkled diamonds across the shimmering water. I had the distinct feeling you would be born in that gray house by the sea.
I followed the scent of morning things into the kitchen where I found Edith wearing pink hair rollers and a floral apron scrambling eggs over the stove. The kitchen looked a mess: dirty dishes filled the sink, dingy dishtowels were waded up and thrown into a pile, and the pantry overflowed with dusty cans and bags. It was different from what I’d seen of the rest of the house. When I woke that morning, my rumpled blanket and dented pillow had been the only things out of place in the room. The rug had been freshly vacuumed, evidenced by the tracks streaking across it, and the draperies were neatly pleated and tied back against the wall. Three perfectly spaced Life Magazines covered the rectangular coffee table. It was the room of an organized woman.
“For crying out loud,” Edith shrieked before she turned to find me standing in the kitchen doorway. The heavy smell of burnt eggs filled the room, and Edith, now calmer, picked up the frying pan and tossed it into the crowded sink. “How about some toast?”
I nodded, unsure of how to thank her for her generous hospitality, and at the same time fearful she would feed me and then toss me out into the cold. Edith stretched her tight mouth into a smile and began searching the pantry for some bread. When she pulled it out, it was green with mold. I was beginning to think I would never get to eat but then she found another loaf in the freezer, separated the slices with a knife and pushed them down into the toaster.
A small, tawny man, who turned out to be her husband, Edgar, entered the kitchen and stopped short when he got a whiff of the burned eggs. “Why do you insist on cooking, Edith? You’re going to burn down the house one day.” He winked at me and poured two cups of watery brown coffee. He set one of them down in front of me and then shrugged, as if to apologize for his wife’s inadequacies in the kitchen.
Starving, I realized the only way I would get a hot meal was to cook it myself and so I offered. Edith was hesitant, but Edgar quickly jumped at the chance and shooed her out of the kitchen.
Now, I’m not a bad cook, but I’ve never had people so excited about one of my meals until that day.
“I do believe these are the best eggs I’ve ever tasted,” Edgar said between mouthfuls.
Edith, who had a habit of holding her fork daintily and chewing her food endlessly even at the age of thirty-six, nodded in agreement.
I remember blushing, assuming they were simply being kind to a woman who was down on her luck, so it came as a great surprise to me when they offered me a job as their cook. In an instant, I felt as if my life had been handed back to me. Here I was, about to give birth to a fatherless child with no money or skills to speak of. The night before, I had been trudging through the rain, wet and hopeless, and then magically, I had everything I needed. I quickly accepted their offer before they could change their minds.
They showed me to a room at the east end of the cottage that was to be mine. It was a small room, just large enough for a twin bed and bureau. I didn’t want to appear ungrateful but there would be no room for a crib and I said so.
“Don’t worry, dear,” Edith said stepping around me into the room. “We’ve got an old crib set up in another room.” She noticed my surprise. “Our son’s old crib,” she said.
She took me by the elbow and led me down the hallway toward two doors, and when we entered the one on the right, I saw a crib standing in the corner of the large room. I looked longingly at the queen sized feather bed on the other side of the room and thought about how much more comfortable I would be there. I wondered why, if no one else slept in the house, they had given me the small room with the tiny bed. Edith quickly explained that their bedroom was next door and they would feel uncomfortable with my sleeping so near. I nodded, understanding their position, but still feeling uneasy because I wouldn’t be able to sleep in the same room as my child. But then I scolded myself. After all, these kind people were giving me a new start in life.
My days quickly became routine. I would rise at 5 a.m. in order to prepare Edgar’s breakfast. He had started a shipping company a few years earlier and was in the habit of working very long hours. Many times, after he left for work, I would lay back down and prop up my feet, which were getting more difficult to stand on for long hours as the pregnancy matured. Edith usually came out of her bedroom about nine. With the exception of preparing Edith’s lunch, I typically had the day to myself and would spend it resting or reading until about four when it was time to start dinner.
They insisted that I take my meals with them and most of the time the conversation centered on the anxiously awaited child inside of me. They never did treat me like hired help, except for later on when Edith began to get her spells. I quickly learned to look for the signs: a loss of appetite, a tendency to sleep more and sometimes headaches. I attributed it to a woman’s monthly pains and kept my distance from her during those days.
Things went well for the next couple of weeks until one day I was standing over the stove pouring milk into some homemade mashed potatoes when a great flood of water poured out from between my legs. The doctor had explained to me that when this happened, you would be arriving soon. I set down the milk and ran to the living room to tell Edgar and Edith. They joined me in a blissful panic, and soon the three of us were racing around the house looking for the things I would need at the hospital.
And then the moment came, a pain so intense I knew there would not be enough time. All the panic left my body, and somehow I knew what to do. I instructed a hesitant Edith and an overconfident Edgar how to deliver my baby. And you, my darling Joshua, were born.
You were a beautiful baby, with the same amber and gold speckled eyes as your father, and a smile that made strangers on the street stop and stare. The instant I saw you, I was sure I’d been put on this earth to be your mother. You immediately became a part of me, an extension of my very being. I knew by the way you looked at me, with trusting eyes and a hope-filled face, that you would have the power to change the world.
The Malleys welcomed you into their home as easily as they had me on that stormy night, although at times, I longed for it to be just you and me. I’m aware of how ungrateful that sounds considering everything they did for us, and at the time, I was ashamed of those feelings.
But knowing what I do now, I think they were perfectly justifiable.
The first night of your life, I went to sleep in my tiny, narrow bedroom after I put you in your crib the endless distance down the hall. I’ll never forget that solitary walk back to my bedroom after putting you to bed. My arms literally ached for you, and I cried, feeling strangely like I’d just left a piece of myself behind. But the Malley’s had made it perfectly clear that I was never to sleep in the queen sized bed in your room because it would interfere with their privacy.
I was exhausted from my first day of motherhood, so when you woke up in the night, hungry and needing your mother, it wasn’t me who comforted you and lulled you back to sleep, but Edith, who was in the next room and could hear your cries. I woke up confused the next morning when the sun pushed past my eyelids and into my dreams because I knew you were much too young to sleep all night without milk. I hurriedly threw on my robe and ran down the dimly lit hallway. When I reached your room, it was empty. Fearing the worst, I started to whimper and instinctively put my hand on my abdomen, your home only one short day before.
Edgar found me, slumped over and crying in the empty room of my newborn son.
“You silly girl,” he laughed. “Joshua is with us. Has been all night.”
Dumbfounded, I peeked around the corner and into their bedroom and saw Edith sitting on the edge of the bed looking perfectly content with you in her arms holding a bottle to your mouth.
Now, in all my days on this earth, I have tried to live up to the name my dear mother gave me, and behave with grace and dignity, but when I saw you in Edith’s arms, my own arms became heavy and needing, and so without thinking, I grabbed you from her and fled the room without saying a word.
That was the last night you slept in the crib so far away from me I couldn’t hear you call to me in the night. From then on, we slept curled up on that narrow bed and I endured the head shaking and disapproving stares of Edith and Edgar every day after that.
Looking back, I do believe that’s when things started to go so terribly wrong. What was once a comfortable arrangement between the Malleys and I became tense and untrusting. I forever had a sense of fear, of misgiving about them, even though they seemed to quickly forget the incident and resumed their friendly, if vaguely detached, ways. It was as if a madman sat on my shoulder day after day urgently whispering dread and unease into my ear.
I need to stop here and make something clear. The Malleys never treated you with anything other than total love and adoration. I never had any misgivings about their feelings toward you. If anything, I often felt I was in the way of what they would have considered the perfect family. If only I hadn’t been there. The problem for them, I imagine, was you wanted nothing to do with their fantasy.
No matter how hard Edith tried, how many gifts or pieces of candy she gave you, you remained my little boy, solely and completely.
As you grew, so did my love for you, as did Edith’s frustration because you wouldn’t embrace her into your world as you had me. The house swelled and expanded with raw emotions until I was sure it would self-combust into a lethal mixture of complete peace and unanswered dreams. You see, the Malleys lost a son to crib death years before, but it took me some time to realize this because Edith always spoke of Alan as if he were still alive. Curious as to his whereabouts, I asked Edgar, but he made it clear that the subject was off limits. Edith had confided in me one day that she’d had an affair and Alan was the result of it, and at the time, I concluded that was the reason for Edgar’s reluctance to speak of him.
After you were born, Edith began to call you Alan at times and she began to act strangely. I worried about our safety and went to Edgar, and it was then that he told me about Alan’s death and how Edith had been having spells since. He assured me she was harmless. I then understood why she so wanted to be a part of your life, and it touched me at the time. I wondered if I wouldn’t react in the same way if something were to happen to you.
When you were three and had lost most of your baby fat, you resembled a short version of your father. Your amber eyes sat deep in your head, very much the way an older man’s does, and it made you appear wise and knowledgeable beyond your years. You grew taller than your playmates, and I took out more hems than I care to remember. You developed an easy smile, much like your father’s, and even carried yourself in the same upright, proud way that my dear Ted had. But I’ve always taken secret pride in the fact that you have my hair. For me, the wild, unruly brown curls were an enemy, something to be battled and conquered. I’ve straightened my hair, ironed it, and cut it short, but it always springs up, doing whatever it wants. On you though, I’m sure it’s a blessing.
So it came as a shock to me then, looking at the spitting image of my Ted every day, that I once again fell in love.
I met Leo Browning at the Bell Island sandcastle contest one spring morning. Every year, the island hosted a sandcastle contest that brought entrants from all over the country. I’d never attended one, so I didn’t know how seriously people took it which is why I entered you, a three-year-old boy. The night before the big event, you were so wound up I thought you would never go to sleep. You insisted on sleeping with your yellow plastic shovel and bucket to make sure you wouldn’t forget them in the morning.
The next day, the sun pushed through the early morning clouds, determined to give us a grand day for the contest. You and I, each barefoot and enjoying the feel of the cold sand between our toes and the sun’s intermittent warmth of our shoulders, strolled confidently down the walk toward the beach where the contest was to be held.
You clutched the shovel and bucket in one of your tiny, sticky hands and held on anxiously to mine with the other, tugging, urging me to get there faster. When we walked over the last dune before the beach, we both sharply sucked in our breaths. Me because I’d realized my mistake, and you because you saw the possibilities in your shovel and bucket.
It seemed as if every grain of sand on the beach had been molded and configured into some elaborate structure. There were castles four feet high, some had moats, towers, kings, queens, even lions guarding the well-constructed gates. Obviously, some people had been at work for hours or possibly since the night before. I immediately wanted to turn to you and apologize for entering you in a contest you couldn’t possibly win, but when I knelt down and put my hands on your shoulders, your eyes were shinning with excitement.
“Maybe I’ll build one like that,” you said, pointing to a particularly elaborate sandcastle.
I knew in your boyish mind, your castle would look as good as any of the others so I decided to let you compete. On the way to our assigned roped off area, I said a quick prayer that the judges would be kind. Then I sat, banished to my beach towel in the corner of our square, while you gathered and patted the sand into wet, lumpy mounds. On more than one occasion, I rose to help pile the shapes on top of one another, or to get another plastic cup of seawater but you insisted on finishing your creation by yourself. You piled and shaped for hours until you finally stood, your skin now honey brown, and announced that you were finished. Hesitantly, I walked to the corner of our square and raised the red flag that would summon the judge.
Now, I’d been watching him while you worked, his slightly slouched posture, blonde, wind-tangled hair that scandalously hung over his collar and the dark, heavy glasses he wore on the edge of his nose. I could tell from the reactions of the other entrants he was a hard judge. He didn’t smile much, and I feared the worst as I watched him mentally register our red flag, and then scrunch together his thin eyebrows when he saw your sandcastle. You stood there, hands on your slim, bony hips, crusted sand on your brown curls, and waited for the judging to begin.
He approached you seriously, as he would any other contestant, shaking your hand and introducing himself. Then he stepped over the ropes and stood silent for a moment staring at your lumps and piles of wet, gooey sand. I help my breath, and just as I was about to take him aside and ask him to be kind, he spoke.
“I see you’ve put a lot of work into his.”
Relieved, I let out a sigh.
“Yes sir, I did,” you said proudly.
He walked around to the back of the castle, all the time nodding, eyebrows scrunched and taking notes. “A fine job,” he said. “It’ll be tough to beat this one.”
I was so busy watching your chest swell with pride and accomplishment that I almost didn’t see it. I did a double take, and when I looked at the judge a second time, there could be no mistake. The man had winked at me. I don’t know if I fell in love with Leo that day, or in the days and months that followed, but I grew to love him as much as I’ve ever loved anyone in my life.
Leo told me from the beginning of our relationship that in four months his job would take him to the West Indies for a year to teach English to a group of village schoolchildren, but that didn’t hamper my feelings for him. If anything, it made them stronger, more urgent. It was as if that knowledge pushed us together with such force, such intensity, we couldn’t deny our feelings. We both felt, knew with certainty that the love we shared was special, a gift not to be squandered, so we grew close at a much quicker rate than most couples do. It was as if we were in a race, the contest of our lives to uncover every secret, open every door to each other’s souls before the fated departure.
But as much as we both dreaded the day he’d leave, we knew unquestionably that he’d return.
We told each other things about ourselves, dug out memories and laid them out for the other to see, to examine with curious eyes. I told him about Ted and how it was so hard for me to completely let go and revel in our newfound love. He assured me he understood, that he had come close to marriage himself, but it hadn’t worked out.
“You were engaged before?” I asked when he stopped speaking.
“When? What happened?”
He looked out at the ocean for some time, and when he turned to face me, his eyes had clouded. “I don’t want that time in my life to ruin the happiness I feel now.” He took my hands in his. “Can I promise to tell you about it another time?”
I so wanted to erase the pain I saw on his face, in his eyes, that I quickly agreed and put the question, the subtle doubt, away in the outer reaches of my mind.
We were mismatched, Leo and I. He skated the outskirts of hippie with his over the collar hair and casual attire. I liked to think of him as an intellectual. He taught English at the University on the mainland and had a preference for worn tweed jackets and blue jeans. At first glance, one might think, as I had, that he was bookish and inept in social situations, but that couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Leo had a way of making people feel comfortable, at home.
I, on the other hand, was a study in manners and conservatism. The sixties, that era so many people loved, quite frankly scared me to death. Living on the small island sheltered me from most things. I never saw a protest or met anyone who used drugs, but I knew those things went on just on the other side of the bridge. I was fascinated by Jackie Kennedy, with her smooth hair and couture suits, and I did my best to straighten my hair and mold it into the bouffant style she wore, but on most days, I looked like I’d just gotten out of bed. I was a fine seamstress though and prided myself on dressing just like her with the hats and gloves. So, when Leo and I strolled along the boardwalk, him slouched in his wrinkled jeans and jacket, and I dressed primly in a suit and pill hat, most people did a double take.
But we were in love, Leo and I, so we didn’t mind. He, like me, was a lover of art and we spent many an evening strolling through the mainland’s Museum of Fine Art and discussing the points of this painting or that one. Many times I’d be focused on a painting, when something would urge me from it, pulling me back to the room. On those occasions, I’d look at Leo, who would have his amber eyes fixed on me with an expression that could only be described as deep love.
The Malleys didn’t take to Leo as I had, and when he came to call, they kept their polite distance no matter how hard he tried to make conversation. It always felt odd, the strain in the room when he was around, like the kind that occurs when a high school boy picks up his date. I explained away their odd behavior, certain that in time they would learn to love Leo as much as I did.
Most of our dates occurred at night, after you were tucked safely into bed, because the Malleys were strict with my hours and I couldn’t leave until dinner was eaten and the dishes were cleaned and put away. Leo understood this and occasionally even dropped hints that I wouldn’t have to work around their schedule for much longer.
The times you did spend with Leo happened on Sundays, my day off. He would pick us up with a picnic basket in hand, and the three of us would tromp across the dunes and down to the beach where Leo would spread his blanket on the sand so we could sit. Every Sunday the food would be a surprise. One week it was Greek, the next week, Indian, and the next Thai. Leo felt there was more to the world than Bell Island, and told me on more than one occasion that he wanted us, all of us, to experience it together. He talked about his job in the West Indies and promised me there would be exotic places for us to explore together.
Normally, talk so frivolous and adventurous would have scared me, cause me to break things off with him immediately, but there was something in the way Leo spoke, a confidence maybe, that made me want to be a part of his adventures. And so every Sunday we sat with plastic cups of wine, Kool-Aid for you of course, an exotic meal and talked about how different our lives would be. It was intoxicating, absolutely addicting.
And then one Sunday as the sun peeked in and out of the clouds while you, now three-and-a-half, drove your toy cars through the sea grass in the distance, Leo changed everything. He reached over and pulled on a curl that had refused to stay ironed that day.
“You should let it grow wild,” he said, leaning into me with his warm, yeasty breath. He offered me a sip of his wine—I’d finished mine—and held the cup as I closed my eyes and swallowed the sweet red juice.
I self-consciously touched my hair, unsure of what to say. His voice had taken on a husky quality that took me by surprise. “Do you think?” It was all I could manage because at the mere suggestion of intimacy, my throat had closed up and my voice threatened to crack.
“Oh yes,” he said. “As the wife of a world traveler, I think it would be suitable.” He brought forward a blue velvet box, and without even taking the time to open it, I said yes. I wrapped my arms around him, holding him tightly, never wanting to let go of the man who had managed to erase a little of the pain your father left in my heart.
We planned our future that day in the sun, with you playing only a few feet away, oblivious to the magnitude of changes about to occur in your life. Leo would go to the West Indies as planned and we would wait for him. He would be gone for a year, and when he returned, we’d marry and travel to Europe or perhaps Asia. The world was ours, he announced to me that day, and we would explore it hand in hand.
And this moment, this small trinket of time, is what I want for you, my Joshua. What I had then, of trusting in Leo, in the world, that’s what I want you to experience in your own life. Let yourself feel what I did that day and memorize it. And then look for it in your own life. And Joshua, when you find it, promise me you won’t ever let it go.
But as happy as I was that day, as fulfilled as I imagined myself to be, something was missing. There was another piece to the puzzle of joy that I’ve only come to know in the past few years. I want to talk to you about this, too because it’s infinitely more important than the things I’ve written about so far in this letter.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Joshua looked up from the letter, felt the murkiness of his childhood, of Edith constantly hovering over him, and he thought about his mother’s words. This was the way he remembered her, happy and excited about the future. But he was confused. If she was so happy, why would she have abandoned him? And Leo?
I would never leave you willingly.
But she had, hadn’t she? And why did it take her twenty years to contact me?
The sky was pale now and the low clouds cast shadows over the sea, making it difficult for him to read the soft print, but Joshua, hungry for his mother’s words, continued to read.
Things changed unexpectedly that night after you were bathed and in bed. I went to the kitchen for a cup of tea, as I did most nights, and found Edith sitting in a chair waiting for me. I sat on the chrome and green vinyl chair and watched her cross and uncross her hands. Finally, she began a conversation that would alter my life irrevocably.
“So,” she began. “He proposed?”
Stunned, I drew my hand to my mouth. “How did you know?”
She shrugged. “I’m right, aren’t I?”
I nodded, not fully looking at her. Partially because I was embarrassed she had so clearly seen Leo’s intentions when I hadn’t, and partially because I tried to keep that part of my life separate.
“And how did you answer?” she asked, tilting her pink, foam colored head and tightening her already sparse lips.
“I said yes, of course.” I could feel the color rise in my cheeks. To this day, I don’t understand why I felt I needed her approval, but I did. I started to rise, using the excuse that I needed to check on you.
“I wish you would sit,” she said. “Joshua is fine. You only put him to bed an hour ago. And I’d like to talk to you.”
Reluctantly, I sat back down. I longed to brush my cheek against your curls and whisper sweet dreams in your ear, but instead I allowed myself to be drawn into a conversation I would later come to regret.
“How well do you know this man, Leo?”
I shrugged. “As well as any woman knows the man she loves.”
“Humph.” Edith got up, put a kettle of water on the stove and turned on the burner.
I knew even then that Edith’s next words were spoken to intentionally put doubt in my mind, to make me mistrust Leo, but at that time in my life, merely the hint of more tragedy was enough to make me close myself up in a cocoon of familiarity. You see, after your father died in the war I became afraid, scared to risk loss, and it was something I fought hard against everyday.
Edith turned to me and leaned against the stove. “So then, I assume you’ll be leaving our employment.”
“No,” I said. “Not for a year. We’ll wait to marry until Leo returns from overseas.”
She poured the water into cups and handed me a cup of weak tea. “You foolish girl. Doesn’t it seem odd to you that a man of thirty has never married?”
“Maybe he’s never been in love.”
“Or maybe he’s not as reliable as you think.”
I clinked down my cup, spilling the worthless tea on the garish green formica tabletop. “If you’re trying to say something, I wish you’d just come out with it.”
She sighed loudly and sat down next to me. Then she awkwardly put her clammy hands on mine. “I’m telling you this for your own good, you understand. It may not mean anything, but a girl in your position has a lot more to consider than most.” She titled her top heavy head toward yours and my room. Then she withdrew her cold hands and scooted her chair closer to mine. “I heard that Leo proposed to another woman once before, about five years back,” she said conspiratorially.
“I know. He told me things didn’t work out.”
She stared at me, disgust spreading across her face. “Didn’t work out? Is that all he said?”
I nodded hesitantly.
“Well then, I guess I’d better tell you what really happened. Your Prince Charming practically left the poor girl standing at the altar. She went around town making all the arrangements, the flowers, dress, cake,” she waved her hand. “Oh, you know. Anyway, less than a week before the wedding, he changed his mind. Just like that. No explanation.”
I sat silent, my brain fabricating and then discarding dozens of possible explanations for Leo’s behavior. The feeling of being left whooshed back into my body and did battle with the contentment and happiness that had been there only moments before. No matter how hard I tried to regain my sense of peace and hope for a normal life, the sense of dread, of the inevitable, beat down and trampled my joy, my hope for our new life.
“There had to be a reason,” I managed.
Edith stood and fussily gathered the full cups of now tepid tea. “Never said from what I hear. Just changed his mind.” She put the cups in the sink and flipped off the light on her way to bed, leaving me sitting in the dark with the seed of my lost future planted in my soul.
By then I knew Edith would do anything to keep you there because she couldn’t endure losing another son, and in her mind, you were as much hers as mine. But the words she spoke that night refused to leave me and instead swarmed around my head, not allowing me to see things clearly. I was just so confused, between what I wanted to believe and what the evidence pointed to, what my heart told me and what my head said. And I knew that whatever decision I made about Leo would not only affect me, but you, and I couldn’t allow you to love someone who might leave you.
I was deeply wounded when your father died and went through an adjustment and depression that is difficult for me to think of, even now. The moment I received the telegram that stripped me of your father, a piece of my soul left me and since that day, it has refused to return. The pain was so great I told myself I’d never allow myself to be put in a situation where something like that could occur again. Although I was certain Leo was solid and true, and felt deep in my heart he was worth the risk, Edith fully understood the depths of my pain that night in the kitchen when she tried to forever alter my ability to love. I should have been a stronger woman, listened to what my gut was telling me. I should have stayed true to Leo, but I allowed Edith to plant doubt in my mind.
The next morning, I woke at my usual time. The sun, usually glowing with the expectation of another day, gloomily sulked behind the low, water weighted clouds. The solemn clouds crawled across the horizon in groups, enveloped in the mist rising off the water.
I hadn’t slept all night, thinking and worrying about Leo’s abandonment of his former fiancée. What would make a man do that do a woman? I thought of his dreamy, far away eyes and slowly, sadly came to suspect that he was and always would be There, one step ahead of now. He would always live in the future of impossible dreams instead of the stable, constant today.
I heard Edith’s voice inside my head—no way to raise a son—and my thoughts turned toward you snuggled deep in your pillow, dreaming of bright yellow days full of baseball and swimming. Edith was right, I decided in that fateful moment. I couldn’t put you or myself though loving and losing Leo. I couldn’t even take the chance.
But then I would think of Leo and his warm smile, his gentle way of being, and I wondered what could have possibly happened to make him break his engagement like that. I thought back to our conversation at the beach when he told me he had almost been married, and I remembered his sadness, his inability to speak of it. In retrospect, I guess I knew Edith was twisting the truth, but how far I didn’t know. To hear her tell it, Leo had been cruel, breaking the engagement at the last minute, not even offering an explanation. But I knew him, loved him, and I couldn’t imagine him acting so heartless.
But that doubt still lingered in my mind, the one that appeared the day he couldn’t explain why he’d broken things off with the woman, and that, combined with my lingering fear of loss, was enough to make me reconsider marrying Leo.
Later that day, I received a bouquet of flowers from him, with a card that read,
I can’t wait to begin our lives together.
I love you, Grace McKeon, Leo.
I ran my thumb across the face of the card wanting so much to believe in its message, but I also felt Edith’s words weighing me down, grounding me in my uncertain reality.
I didn’t call Leo that night to thank him for the flowers, and when he called, I asked Edith to tell him I’d already gone to bed. That night, as I sank into my pillow, my despair, I wished I knew how to get past my fear and risk everything for our love. But the lump in my throat, the tightening of my chest, all signaled danger, and I’m sorry to say that the fear was stronger than I was.
Joshua put down the letter, frustrated because he was unable to see in the gathering darkness and the thick blanket of fog that had rolled in and covered the water. The pain and the fear his mother described was all too familiar to him, in fact, it was as if she were describing his life with Isabelle. He certainly understood her fear of letting go and risking everything. He’d been dealing with that same fear his entire life. But what he couldn’t figure out was how she thought she could help him overcome it when she obviously hadn’t herself.
Joshua had always wondered what had pushed her over the edge, what had driven her to such despair that she’d simply given up on life. After all, even if what she said in the letter was true and she didn’t commit suicide, she had still left him and Leo behind. But why?
My God, he thought. Is it possible everything I’ve believed my entire life is a lie? And if so, where do I go from here?
A few minutes later, Joshua pulled a flashlight out of the old mildewed bench that sat on the boat deck. The night was dark and motionless, and he realized he should steer back and dock his boat while there was still some visibility left but he couldn’t make himself do it. He needed to finish reading the letter. His mother’s words were essential, vital to that part of him that had always been so desperate to understand why she’d left him alone as a young child. And so he began to read by flashlight.
The next morning, I dressed and walked down the carpeted hallway, each step taking me closer to the kitchen I was growing to despise. Edgar was already sitting in his chair at the head of the table drinking a cup of instant coffee and reading the morning paper.
He looked up when I entered the room. “Morning, Grace. I hear you’re thinking about leaving us.”
I shook my head. “I’m not so sure anymore.” The words came out slow and heavy.
He gave a short nod. “That’s my girl. I knew you’d make the sensible choice. I don’t know what Edith would do without you.”
The few lingering doubts I’d had about calling off our engagement were squashed right then and there. Edgar Malley, the owner of a wildly successful business had all but told me leaving Leo was the right thing to do.
The sensible thing.
I turned away from him with tears in my eyes and slipped off the ring I’d so proudly accepted the day before. The instant it left my finger, an emptiness overtook my senses, but I was so frozen by fear, so afraid to take the chance that might lead to happiness, I let it slip from my fingers and into the pocket of my dress.
Edith stuck around the house all day, watching me when she didn’t think I was looking. I was on the sun deck drinking iced tea when Leo came. When I heard a man’s voice, I assumed it was the lawn boy or one of the other workers the Malleys were hiring as the shipping business grew. But then he said my name, and I instantly recognized Leo’s voice. It was the way he pronounced it, as if he were gently rolling it back and forth in one of his poet’s hands. Graaaace.
I smoothed my hair and stepped into the house.
“She doesn’t want to see you,” I heard Edith say.
“Leo?” I wasn’t sure what to make of Edith’s behavior. “Of course I’ll see you. Please come in.”
His presence filled the room. He ducked to clear the doorway and slouched in his comfortable way in practiced anticipation of more doorways. “Grace?” he asked once he crossed the room. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
I could see the alarm in his eyes, the fear of things falling apart, of a plan gone wrong. I slid my eyes from his, afraid they would pull me into his magical world and make me lose my sense of purpose.
“Leo, I…” Edith stood there, arms locked, urging me to break his heart before he could break mine. “Why don’t we go outside to the deck to talk?”
He followed me outside and when I turned to tell him I couldn’t live my life with him, you burst through the doors. Your face was full of a new day, and as far as you knew, nothing had changed since our glorious time on the beach the day before. You headed straight toward Leo and latched onto his jean covered leg.
“Why do we have to wait a whole year? Can’t we go to West Prendies with you?”
“That’s West Indies,” he said, smiling at you and rumpling your hair. “It will be difficult for me to wait, too.”
“Joshua,” I cut in sharply. “Go inside and have your lunch. We’ll talk about this later.”
I gave you a look that meant I was serious so you sulked away, not realizing I was about to put an end to our dreams.
“You’re scaring me,” Leo said as he took my hands in his. He rubbed his thumb over my ring finger where his ring had circled the night before. “Grace?” he said when his thumb rubbed over my bare skin.
By now, the hot tears were streaking down my face and I wanted to get it over with as quickly as I could and go inside to the familiar kitchen I had grown to detest so much. “Please don’t make this any more difficult than it already is.”
I felt him fall a little, the impact of the statement hitting him in the knees. He straightened and tried to make eye contact, but my eyes were already on the future, one without him and the uncertain risk of loss.
“I don’t understand.”
I shook my head and took a step toward the door. “I can’t marry you, Leo. Things have changed.”
I nodded and looked at his face, into his eyes. “You left her,” I began. “Why did you leave her?”
He looked confused, but then a look of recognition spread across his face. “You’re talking about my broken engagement?”
He reached up, wiped the tears from my face and inhaled deeply as if he were trying to gather the words that would explain this monumentally unforgivable deed. “I told you about this on the beach. I…” He shook his head in frustration. “I had to break it off, Grace. But please believe me when I tell you it was for a very good reason.”
I turned away, unable to look into his eyes anymore. I wanted to be with him so much, but I was too afraid. And his refusal to speak of the matter only deepened that fear. “Why? I need to understand, Leo.”
He bowed his head and shook it. “I can’t. It wouldn’t be right.” Then he looked up suddenly. “I think you should speak to her. Ask her yourself.”
Didn’t he understand how important it was to me, how much I needed him to prove to me that I could trust him? “I don’t understand. Why can’t you tell me now?”
“Please,” he said, pulling me closer. “I need you to trust me on this.”
I was holding back my sobs of confusion and didn’t want to break down completely in front of him. His fresh scent closed in around me and created a longing that shouldn’t be. Couldn’t be.
He pulled me in even tighter.
I stepped back and reached into my pocket. I pulled out the ring and closed his hand around it. “I’ll think about it,” I said, swallowing my disappointed tears. “But in the meantime, you should hold onto this.”
Leo’s face slumped sideways, and he swallowed noisily. He eyes became glassy, but the tears stayed in the rims, afraid to flow over, afraid to move. “Is this really what you want?” His voice was low and hoarse.
I nodded, unable to speak.
“Grace, I leave for the West Indies in four days.”
“I know,” I said, not lifting my head.
He stood there for another desperate moment and then slowly began moving toward the door, brushing against me. My hope and happiness clung tightly to his sleeve. We walked through the patio door and toward the front door, where he stopped and turned to face me, unembarrassed by his red, wet eyes and shaking shoulders. “I love you, Grace McKeon. Please talk to her. For us.” He took a piece of paper and pen from his pocket and wrote down what I presumed to be her name and phone number.
And then he left.
When he was gone, I collapsed, just crumpled right there on the floor. Could a man so open and full of love ever have left me? The word mistake formed in the patterns on the floor and I began to doubt myself and everything that had just transpired. It didn’t feel right. Couldn’t be.
I love you Grace, McKeon.
The words had flown out of his mouth so true and innocent hitting me in my gut and forcing me to listen.
I love you.
Would a man in love really ever leave? I pushed myself up from the floor and stumbled to the door. I heard the sound of his car door slam shut and I imagined him sitting at the wheel, trying to find the keyhole with his tear filled eyes. I moved faster toward the sound of the gunning engine.
Leo. What have I done? I felt for the ring that wasn’t there and longed to slip the warm, sturdy gold back onto my empty, cold finger.
“Ann.” The voice stopped me cold. I looked to Edith for explanation as the gravity in the suffocating house pulled me down, planting my feet firmly in the gold shag carpet.
“What?” I asked, spinning with confusion. I was torn between the sound of the retreating engine and that one mysterious word.
“Ann,” Edith repeated. “That’s her name. The one he left.”
I’m sorry, sweetheart, but I must end this letter here. The drudging up of memories so painful has worn me out, and I’m afraid I’ll have to continue our story next time. But please take the things I’ve told you to heart. I can only imagine the pain you must have experienced when I disappeared from your life and I fear unforgiveness and anger have crept into your soul. What I learned, and hope to pass on to you, is that the memory of pain, no matter how brutal, should never prevent you from taking risks. If it does, you won’t fully live the life God has planned for you.
By the time I learned this, it was too late for me. I pray that somehow my words will sink deep into your soul and prevent you from duplicating my errors.
Think about these things, Joshua, and as soon as I regain some strength, I’ll send you another letter and tell you more of our story.
I love you,
Joshua came out of the past to find a dark and stationary world. The sea was still, absolutely motionless, as if every creature, every drop of salty water understood the magnitude of the message and all stood alert, waiting to see how Joshua would react to it.
A flood of images and memories swirled in his mind. Joshua let go of the last page of the letter and watched as it fell, heavy with regret, to the peeling wooden deck of the boat. He stomped his foot on the corner of the page because, although he wanted the truth of what had happened to be swept away by the wind and swallowed by the sea, he couldn’t let go of the inked explanations his mother had sent him.
He did remember that cloudy summer day when Leo proposed. He could still see his mother’s smile and hear her laughter drift in and out of the dunes. He’d felt then, even at three, that their lives were about to change forever. So why had his mother simply disappeared from his and Leo’s lives?
The few times he’d seen Leo after his mother disappeared were always a combination of disbelief, sadness and longing. As a child, Joshua had clung to those visits, waiting for Leo to finish an assignment in a faraway land and come back to Bell Island for a short time of preparation for his next assignment. During those visits he’d felt free to mourn for his mother, remember her as she truly was and not the selfish, careless woman Edith claimed. And during those visits, those mental journeys into a happier, normal life, Joshua had caught glimpses of what his life could have been, would have been, if only something hadn’t gone so terribly wrong.
But what had?
Over the years, Joshua watched Leo struggle with the same question, for he too was blindsided by Grace’s sudden death. During some visits they would simply sit and not speak, for really, what was there to say? They would sit side by side and look at each other in disbelief, as if the other person held all the answers.
And then, nearly ten years after Grace’s death, Leo announced he could no longer live on Bell Island, that he couldn’t live with the constant reminder of his lost love, his only love. But still, Leo had come ever so often, bringing gifts, a trinket of some kind from his faraway worlds. Joshua had understood, even respected his decision because Leo lived with the knowledge, as he did, that the woman who shaped his world had willingly left his side. It had been years since he last saw Leo, and Joshua often wondered if he’d finally given his heart to another.
There has to be more, Joshua thought for the thousandth time. Surely there was something, some significant piece of his mother’s life he didn’t yet understand. How else could he explain her sudden departure? And if it wasn’t suicide, what was it? Was she still alive? Or were the letters written long ago and were just now making their way to him?
Joshua cocooned himself in the dense fog and starless night and he felt protected, hidden from the world that had somehow broken his mother’s heart and had come close to destroying his. He stared into the soupy fog where he could see nothing and thought about the direction his life was taking.
It seemed poignant to him that he struggled with the same thing his mother had. And viewing her situation from the outside in, he wanted to call out to her and tell her it was okay to love Leo, that he was safe and would have never broken her heart. Was the same thing true of Isabelle?
If he couldn’t get past the fear and give her what she needed, he may also be doomed to forever crave the lost love of his soul mate.
Joshua shook it off, stood and walked to the wheel. He pointed his boat toward the shore, using the instruments to navigate it through the thick night and back to the pier. The dense fog that crept along the surface of the still water shrouded the shore, but Joshua skillfully maneuvered the creaking boat along the waters and toward his slip by feel. Once he was close to land and the lights of the island, he squinted his eyes and searched for a landmark, something to confirm he was headed in the right direction. Then he saw Ned Gunthriess’ net reaching out of the mist and he knew he’d navigated correctly. He moved the boat into the slip, knocking the side with a thud that sounded thunderous in the still night, and then threw the rope onto the deck. While he wound the knotty cord around the piling, he thought of how devastated his mother had been when she realized she couldn’t spend the rest of her life with her love. And then he thought of Isabelle again.
He needed her. Needed to talk to her about the things he’d read, about his mother’s struggles and how similar they were to his own. He realized she wasn’t only his love but also his best friend, and it was that friendship he needed so desperately now. Maybe if they could reconnect as friends they could somehow rebuild their relationship.
He jumped onto the pier and headed up the ramp toward the payphone that stood outside the bait shop. Once he’d slipped the coins into the slot, he leaned into the stand and breathed into the receiver.
“Hello,” she said softly.
“Isabelle. It’s Joshua.”
She stayed silent for a few moments and with each passing second, Joshua felt himself closing up, the fear tightening its grip on his will. “Are you there?”
“I don’t know what to say, Joshua.”
“Can I come over? I need to see you.”
“There are some things happening, things I don’t understand.” He squeezed his eyes shut and struggled to find the right words. “I need your friendship right now, Isabelle. I really need to talk with you about some things.”
He heard her sigh. “You’re not being fair to me, Joshua. Don’t you know how difficult this is for me? How impossible it would be for me to get over you if we keep seeing each other?”
“I know,” he said. “I’m sorry. I’m just so confused.”
“You made that clear,” she said, her voice becoming withdrawn.
He wanted to tell her about the letter, how his mother had somehow reached out from the grave and given him her words. He wanted to talk about the shift he felt in this soul when he read that his mother hadn’t willingly left him alone, but he didn’t yet know how to explain what had changed in him or what it meant. The words from the past had reached deep inside of him and ignited something, but he couldn’t define what it was.
“The truth is, I don’t only want to see you as a friend. Isabelle, I know we can get through this if only you’ll be patient. Just give me a little more time. Please.”
She sighed heavily into the phone. “Don’t you get it? There isn’t any more time. I already told you, I have to move on, Joshua. Being this close to you is breaking my heart.”
Joshua instantly regretted the call, felt bad he’d caused her more pain. But he was certain that once he figured things out, he could explain it all to her and she would finally understand.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have called.”
The silence between them stretched out until it became deafening. Finally, “Goodbye, Joshua.”
And she was gone.
After he hung up the phone, Joshua made his way to the truck. He slid into the sticky, hot vinyl seat, for even at night the drought made its presence known, and put the key into the ignition. He had every intention of going home and doing what his mother asked, sitting and thinking about the letter and trying to imagine how it could possibly change his life. But then a deep, aching desire to understand consumed him.
What was happening to his life, his world as he knew it? How did he get to this place, become a man who had so little courage he couldn’t even commit to the woman he loved? All at once, he’d lost everything and gained so much. He’d lost Isabelle, the woman he loved, but gained back his mother, or at least her wisdom, her words.
And what about her? How could she have been so happy one day and so despondent the next? What caused her to leave? And where did she go?
What didn’t he know? And would she tell him about it future letters?
Joshua thought back to the letters and how weak his mother had become when writing them. Was she alive and sick, or had she written the letters before she died and somehow he was only just now receiving them? His head was spinning with the possibilities and he didn’t think he could wait to receive another letter to learn the truth.
And then he thought of the Malleys.
He wondered if Edith held the answers, she being the one who’d played cruel games with his mother’s happiness. And suddenly he had to know, had to confront the woman who raised him, who’d so cruelly and permanently tried to alter his destiny. He would go to Edith and tell her he knew what she’d done so long ago. That he knew she’d tried to sabotage his mother’s relationship with Leo, and he would make her explain how she could have done something like that. And he would find out if she knew the truth about what really happened to his mother.
Joshua’s truck strained as it climbed the precipitous hill to the gray cottage where he had loved and lost his mother. Above it, the sky was black and heavy, a tremendous contrast to the gray mist that had hung over the rest of the island all day. When Joshua stepped out of his truck, he heard the wind whispering secret, urgent messages that he could not decipher.
The house seemed sharper, as if the shapes and colors had only now come into focus. A far-sighted child looking through glasses for the first time. The parched weeds were taking over the sides of the house, growing tall and leaning against it for support, giving the illusion that without them, it would collapse. The wide porch swing hung lower on one side making it look like the place was abandoned. The entire house smelled of neglect.
Joshua walked up the familiar sand path to the three-step porch to the screened over front door. He turned the knob, feeling oddly like a stranger in his childhood home. Once inside, he heard the soft chattering of a television set deep inside the house toward Edgar and Edith’s bedroom.
He went straight to the deck, the place where his mother had lost her chance for happiness and stood where he imagined she had that day. He listened closely for the hushed whisperings of the sea in hopes that it would release the story, to help him understand why Edith had acted so viciously, but all he heard were the sad moans of the waves, the complaining creaks of the old deck against his weight.
He looked out at the mottled gray of the water and inhaled the bitter air. He imagined his mother’s young, vulnerable face twist in pain as she fought with the cruel ideas Edith had so callously planted in her mind. Then more emotions mingled with the mist rising from the water and entered Joshua, those of pity and contempt. They traveled down to his foot and caused him to kick an old wicker chair and send it flying off the deck and onto the hard, packed sand beneath.
“Joshua, what are you doing?”
Edith. She flipped on the porch light and stood there in her green and yellow housecoat and bare feet looking at him in bewilderment. Was that where she had stood so many years ago when she tried to trick his mother into giving up her life, their lives, so she would stay and cook in her kitchen?
Edith crossed her arms and looked at him warily, the way one looks at the mentally ill. “That’s what I’m asking you. Why did you kick my chair off the deck? And do you intend to pick it up?”
Joshua looked at the woman who had given him a home, food and clothes, but never love, only a sick all-consuming need to be loved, and he felt ill. Suddenly, he wanted to run from the deck, the house, the memories, her, and go back in time. Do anything to stop his mother from leaving him and the possibilities life was offering them.
“Leo,” he said, letting the wind carry the forgotten name to Edith’s ears. “And Grace. Why couldn’t you have just left them alone?”
Edith’s eyes widened at the mention of the unmentionable and her mouth opened and closed like a mousetrap, baiting and snapping. Finally, “What do you know of it?”
“I know what she told me.”
“Told you?” She looked around as if a ghost stood just outside of her vision. “When? How?”
He shrugged angrily and moved toward her. “I know how you twisted the truth, tried to ruin things between my mother and Leo. How could you have done it? Why would you be so selfish?”
“I did no such thing. Don’t you see? She wanted to take you away from me, to rip us apart and take you to another country, for goodness sakes. I was only trying to protect you, Alan.”
“Protect me?” Joshua was pacing now and the rage of his childhood, of growing up with a dead brother and a crazy mother, of Grace leaving, and now Isabelle, it all threatened to surge up and flood out of him, washing him, Edith and the house out to sea. “Look at me,” he said, his voice rising. “I’m not Alan. I’m Joshua, Grace’s son. Explain to me why you would need to protect a son from his own mother?”
“No… no, that’s not right,” Edith stammered. Confused, she brought her hand up to her mouth.
Edgar came outside and when he saw the scene before him—Edith confused and trembling and Joshua filled with pent up rage—he stepped out, alarm and disbelief spreading across his face. “Son, what are you doing?”
“And you,” Joshua said, turning his attention to Edgar. “How could you have stood by and let it happen?”
Edgar looked from Joshua to Edith and then back at Joshua. “What are you talking about, son?”
Joshua shook his head, a primal laugh escaping this throat. “I’m taking about her,” he said, pointing to Edith. “And the lie she’s been living all these years.” He continued to pace the short width of the deck. “Maybe you can explain how she justifies what she did to my mother. And why you backed her up in it?”
“I think we’d better sit down and talk.” Edgar held up a finger to indicate he would be right back. Then he went to Edith, who was shivering in the heat, and helped her inside.
“Why is he acting this way?” she asked as Edgar led her inside. “Why is Alan angry so with me?”
Joshua watched them walk away and some of his anger dissipated. He’d always known Edith dangled over the edge of sanity, and he wondered now if she was even aware of how much her actions had affected his mother. But still, it didn’t change the fact that they likely drove her to leave.
Edgar came back outside a few minutes later and sat down in a chair. He pointed to another one and motioned for Joshua to sit. “Now, maybe you’d better tell me what’s going on.”
“I’ve just learned about the games Edith played with my mother and Leo. How she tried to break them up, and I can’t help but wonder if those games escalated into something that would drive my mother to leave.” He looked at him sharply. “I know she didn’t commit suicide, Edgar. Maybe you can tell me what really happened.”
Edgar sat silent for a moment, then, “Where are you getting this information, son?”
Joshua shook his head. “That’s not important. What is important is that I’ve been lied to my entire life. How could you and Edith play the loving parents to me, all the while doing things to hurt my real mother? And me?”
Edgar opened his mouth to speak, closed it and then started again. “Son, you know Edith hasn’t been right since Alan died.” He shook his head in frustration. “Can’t you see that she did those things because she loves you so much? Was so afraid Grace was going to take you away from her?”
“Loves me? Is that your definition of love?”
Edgar thought for a moment and then nodded. “She does love you, son. In her own way, she does.”
Joshua shook his head roughly. “Can’t you see how sick this is? That Edith could be so manipulative to try and keep me here instead of letting me go with my own mother?” He stood, went to the railing and pounded it with his fist. “Why?” he asked loudly. “Why couldn’t she have left us alone?” He spun toward Edgar. “And why did my mother leave me? Did Edith do something else I don’t know about?”
“Don’t be silly, son.”
But Joshua wanted to confront Edith with that question and he started for the house. Edgar rose quickly and stepped in front of him.
“Don’t do this. She can’t handle it.”
“She can’t handle it? So I’m supposed to just accept the fact that Edith may have done something so horrible it drove my mother to abandon me? Well you know what? I can’t handle that.” He pushed past Edgar and entered the house. “Edith, where are you?” he shouted.
“Alan, honey? I’m in here. In your room.”
Joshua bounded down the hallway, past the forced family portraits and toward the woman who had intentionally tried to ruin his mother’s life. But when he entered the room, his old room, the anger, the rage, evaporated and was replaced by pity and guilt.
Edith sat on the bed that Joshua had slept in as a boy, neatly smoothing down the child’s comforter and indicating that he should sit. Not one thing in the room had changed since he’d moved out of the house almost ten years ago.
“I know you’re upset with me,” she said in a shaky, high-pitched voice. “Why don’t we sit and talk about it?”
Joshua looked into her eyes, the eyes of a woman who couldn’t see the truths of her own life, and although a part of him wanted to lash out, he understood how close she was to falling off the edge of insanity. And as much as he hated her at that moment, he couldn’t be the one to push her over.
“I have to go,” he said suddenly, turning to leave. He didn’t answer her when she called after him.
“See you Sunday? I’m cooking your favorite.”
Edgar stopped him on his way out. “Thank you, son. I know this is hard for you.”
Joshua opened the door.
“About this information,” Edgar said. “Where is it coming from?”
“From a reliable source.”
“I see.” Edgar crossed his arms and lowered his head.
“And there will be more,” Joshua said as he moved out the door.
“Then I’m sure you’ll be back.” Edgar mumbled, fear and concern smothering the words.
As Joshua drove away from the cottage and down the impossibly steep hill, he watched the dark clouds press down on the house. It looked as if before long, they would crush it and erase it forever from the otherwise peaceful seascape.
He drove his old truck through the dark night and past the center of town where he took a left on a sandy, unmarked road. As he neared the old forgotten cemetery, he thought back to the hundreds of times when, as a boy, he’d ridden his bicycle out here and sat and talked to his mother. And how as a man he’d come looking for closure, trying to feel the thin, fragile connection. But he’d always left disappointed, let down by a mother who couldn’t talk back. But now she had and Joshua needed to know how.
He parked his truck and strolled across the scorched earth to the piece of land that had been sacrificed to bear her name. As he stood next to her grave, his mother’s grave, he thought about how his life had spun out of control and he didn’t know how it would end. He sank to his knees, ran his hands over the thick grass that covered his mother and began to speak.
“What’s happening?” he asked the silent headstone. “What do these letters mean and how am I receiving them?” He stared at her name carved in the headstone and wondered about so much. If she really hadn’t died that day when he was a child, why did she walk away? Did she die of something other than suicide or was it possible she was still alive? And if so, how could he explain her grave?
He fixed his eyes on the headstone as if he were waiting for a reply, some miracle that would answer all the questions surrounding his life. But they didn’t come, and as the moments passed Joshua began to feel the familiar hopelessness settle in. And then he sensed her. In his mind, she pulled up a comfortable old chair next to his soul and waited, the look of expectation in her eyes.
So he began to talk. He told her how he had let Isabelle go, and even though he knew about Leo and their missed opportunity for love, he still couldn’t give himself to her. He was too afraid of the risk even though he wanted it so much. He told her about Edith and how he’d gone to her full of rage and left her sitting there in his old room knowing all she needed was for him to tell her he wouldn’t leave. But he was just so angry inside he hadn’t been able to do it. And about how Edgar protected Edith and expected him to do the same. And how he wouldn’t.
And then he told her of his childhood, about all the times he thought he’d seen her and ran to a strange woman yelling Mama, only to be crushed when she turned around and it wasn’t her. He told her how he never made friends because he was too afraid they would move away or die. Then he told her about Mrs. Henderson, and how she walked him home every day after he jumped off the school porch into nothingness.
“I always thought you’d be there,” he said, exhausted from talking out his life. “And now you are.” He hesitated. “I don’t know how I’m receiving these letters, whether or not you’re still alive, but what I do know is that they represent the love I’ve craved my entire life. I just want to understand, need to know how to open myself up to the possibilities you say are there.”
Joshua sank his head between his knees, his body racked with the pain of abandonment that had become so much a part of him, and he pleaded with his mother to speak to him. The humid night air wet his hair, his clothes, and he felt a chill run through his body. His eyes become heavy with fatigue, his body drained of energy. He felt the earth pull him down, wrap its arms around him, blow a cool breeze on his face. He lay there for a while, on top of his mother’s grave, and let the earth nurture him, dry his tears, and he listened to the wind as it sung him to sleep with a lullaby.
Joshua woke up the next morning disoriented. He rubbed his face and felt the marks from where he’d been pressed up against the earth the night before and then looked to the still, silent headstone and the ground that had made him feel so comforted. He quickly looked around, embarrassed that someone might have seen him sleeping there. I must look like a crazy person.
But he had to admit the purging of his soul had done him good. He felt as if a burden had been lifted. Talking about his pain and everything he’d dealt with in his life had made him feel a little lighter, even if the person he spoke to wasn’t really there.
He got up, looked around to make sure he was alone, and walked to his truck. He wanted to get home before the mail came so he could be there if another letter from his mother arrived.
Once in his truck, he eased onto the paved road that would take him through town and back to his solitary house. The day was already sweltering and the sticky breeze blowing into his open window did little to relieve the heat. He drove past Island Grocery, the bait and tackle shop where he spent so much of his time, and then past Isabelle’s bookstore. He was surprised it wasn’t yet open. Isabelle rose early each morning with nothing on her mind except surrounding herself with books. He continued down Main, nodding to the familiar faces that shaped his memories, and when he arrived at the edge of town, almost to the small road that would take him to the beach and his house, Isabelle’s red curls came into focus.
She strolled, back straight and arms stiff, along the walk like a child being forced into a doctor’s office. Even from a distance, Joshua could see the sadness that clung to her, dripped from her sleeves like the morning dew after a soggy night. He started to go to her, to beg her forgiveness and tell her about Edith and the horrible things she’d done, but then he saw him. Another man walked beside Isabelle in his place.
He was tall, blonde, and had the good looks men in love fear. At first, Joshua thought they just happened to be walking in the same direction along a crowded boardwalk, but then he saw it. It was a small gesture, really, but monumental enough to force Joshua to pull his truck to the curb, not able to drive with his shaking hands and trembling heart. He saw a large muscular hand placed on the small of Isabelle’s back to guide her into the coffee shop.
He’d lost her and he had no one to blame but himself.
He put his hand on the door handle, started to pull it open and go to Isabelle and beg her to talk, to help him make sense of his life, but his fingers wouldn’t move, and no matter how hard he willed them to, they remained stubbornly frozen on the handle that would ultimately block him from his love.
And then Joshua grieved. He grieved for the love that he would surely never feel again, for the moments that would never come and for the wasted ones of the past. He grieved for his future and what it could have been. For the words that were never spoken, the promises never fulfilled. And for his love, because he knew with absolute clarity he’d just watched his only hope for happiness walk through the door with another man’s hand touching the small of her back.
It was that sense of defeat, that letting go of life that rode with Joshua as he drove home. He looked to the floor as he entered his house and was disappointed to find he hadn’t received any mail. Maybe the letters would stop now that his chance for happiness was gone.
He moved to the back of the house, slid open the patio door and stepped onto the deck. He went to the railing and leaned into it, listening to the ocean breathe. It was there, as he stood with the wind on his face that he felt his life, his future collapse around him. Without Isabelle, he had no hope, no reason to make plans for the future. He shook his head in frustration. He’d brought it all on himself. She’d tried to tell him she needed more, and he hadn’t given it to her. Why?
Was it a family curse? Now that he’d learned his mother had suffered the same fate, he wondered if it was possible that he would follow in her footsteps and be destined to be alone. All because something inside of him wouldn’t allow him to love. Or to be loved.
He looked around, as if the sky or the ocean could solve the mystery, and then he heard it, the creak of the mail slot, the soft thud of the mail landing on the floor. Quickly, he went inside and his heart jumped when he saw the lavender rectangle in the bundle. He pulled it out and immediately ripped it open, not even bothering to go back outside and sit down.
My dearest Joshua,
I know this sounds silly, but I’ve missed you so since I last wrote to you. As I’m penning these letters, I feel an inexplicable closeness to you, as if I’m really sitting next you and telling you about our history. I promise to write today for as long as I can before my strength gives out.
I know this must be hard, difficult to have faith in the impossible, tough to believe in what cannot be true. I so much want to spell things out for you, to make it easy so you won’t have to go through the pain, but no matter how much I want to, I can’t protect you from our past.
My role as your mother is to provide you with the pieces of this puzzle because it affects your life, and how you decipher my message will determine the direction of your future. Stay with me, Joshua, and fight the urge to give in to the pain. I’ll continue my story now, our story, and I hope you’ll open your heart to its message.
The next day brought more unanswered phone calls from Leo. I knew he was getting desperate because he had to leave for the West Indies in three days, but I simply could not force myself to talk to him. I knew I should call Ann, but I was putting it off because I was afraid of what I would discover. I knew her story would determine my future: whether I married Leo or spent the rest of my life in Edith’s kitchen. It was overwhelming to me, but in that moment I forced it to the back of my mind.
Every time I closed my eyes, I felt the warmth, the magic that was Leo, but as soon as I decided to call him, I’d remember Edith’s insinuations and I knew if he could leave her, he could leave me. And you.
And so the next morning I got up before anyone else, put on a pot of coffee, and sat for thirty minutes or so by the window and watched the world wake up. The gray horizon slowly turned blue, and I watched young boys with long colorful surfboards sneak into the water and disappear, only to resurface as tiny heads bobbing in the sea. Men and women were dragged along the beach by restless dogs, and young couples in love sat on the boardwalk and watched the day begin. I did, too, but did so alone and from another woman’s kitchen. I thought of Leo and your father that morning and wondered what my life may have been had I been a stronger, braver woman.
I couldn’t get Leo out of my mind, and as I sat there, my coffee growing cold in my hands, I decided I had to speak with him. I needed to hear his voice.
I walked softly into the kitchen, picked up the receiver on the wall phone and dialed Leo’s number, hoping I could complete the call and get to the truth before anyone in the house stirred. It was a call I wanted to make alone.
“Yes,” Leo said in his muffled morning voice.
“It’s me,” I whispered, and when he didn’t respond, I spoke louder. “It’s Grace.”
“I’m so glad you called,” he said, his voice becoming sharper, more awake. “You know I leave in two days.”
“Yes, I know,” I whispered.
“I can’t leave like this, without knowing that you’ll wait.”
I fought the urge to flow back into him and his world and concentrated instead on her. Ann. “If you could just tell me why you left her, maybe I could understand. It scares me, Leo. I need to hear what happened, and I need to hear it from you.”
I heard him sit up in bed and put his glasses on. “Grace, I want to but…” He sighed, frustration flowed through the line. “It just wouldn’t be right. It needs to come from her.”
“I don’t understand why.”
“I know you don’t, but I think you will after you speak with her. Please, Grace. I’m not trying to make things difficult, but it’s important that I do this the right way.” He waited, and when I didn’t respond, he spoke again in an urgent voice. “You are the love of my life, Grace McKeon, and I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important. And if I didn’t believe it would make things right between us.”
It was all I wanted, to go back to the time when I trusted him, felt that he would never do anything to hurt me. And so I agreed. I promised Leo I would call Ann and schedule a time to go and speak with her.
As soon as I hung up the phone, I heard a movement behind me and turned to find Edith there, leaning against the doorframe. “Don’t tell me you’re going to fall for that old trick.”
I drew my robe around me tighter. “What are you talking about?”
“Don’t you think he’s had time to talk to her? To get his story straight?”
“Leo would never do that.”
“Really? You honestly believe he’s being straightforward with you?”
She sat down in the green chair and waited impatiently for me to brew her a pot of coffee. I went about my work and tried hard to separate her voice from Leo’s, the truth from the lies.
And then you came into the kitchen, sleepy-eyed and hungry, and I pushed Leo and Ann and the possibilities of hurt and sorrow away and instead filled my mind with the everyday tasks that can so easily consume a life.
After breakfast, I took you for a walk along the surf as I did most days. Those walks are what I hope you remember of me because I was at my happiest that time of day, somehow transported beyond my responsibilities and worries. It was just you and I, mother and son, holding hands and kicking sand on that wide open beach. At that moment of every day, I felt the possibilities of life and would make endless lists and plans in my head about what we could do, where we would go.
I taught you to fish on that shore with a homemade rod of stick and string. You were almost four and so independent by then. Such a big little boy. It used to break my heart to watch you grow and become so much like the father you never knew. I knew then you would live your life on the sea, sweating under the sun during the summer, and wrapped in layers of damp, wool clothes in the winter while eking out a living. I know work as a fisherman is a hard life, but I also believe you were born into it, destined for it, and no other kind of work will ever satisfy you.
After hours of finding shells and fishing, we would return to the gray cottage and I would begin to prepare lunch as you continued to play. I came to dread this part of our day because Edith would move about the house following you and try to join in your games. Time after time, day after day, you would reject her and run to me. She had become elaborate in her efforts, building great forts from bed linens, or filling the wading pool on a hot day. But you simply refused to include her in your life.
But on that day, right before we entered the house after one of our morning walks on the beach, I asked you about it. “Honey, do you think you can play with Edith now and then?”
You shrugged and scrunched up your nose. “She’s weird.”
I held back my first response, which was to tell you that it wasn’t nice to call people weird, and instead asked what you meant.
“I mean, she’d old. And grouchy most of the time. And I don’t like the way she talks to you.”
I suppressed a smile and sat down on the steps that led to the deck. You wiggled up on my lap. “I think she likes you very much and just wants to play with you sometimes. Do you think you could let her once in a while?”
“Do I have to?” you asked as you wiggled your toes in the sand.
“No, but it would be awfully nice of you.”
You nodded in agreement. “Did you and Leo have a fight?”
My heart dropped. I remembered the softness of his voice on the phone that morning, his gentle pleading for me to call Ann and give our love another chance. Even then, sitting in the early afternoon sun, I could hear his laughter in the waves, feel his touch in the wind. But I could also hear him telling me that yes, he had left her and my heart would close down again. But I had to know, I realized. Then my thoughts turned toward this mysterious Ann and I wondered if I had the courage, the strength to see her, to open my wounded heart to her and hear her answer. Was she bitter? Angry? Still in love with him?
Then I saw your wanting face, heard the hope in your voice. And I stood up with a renewed determination to live a life of fulfillment and happiness so you could grow up and do the same. I picked you up and kissed the top of your sand covered hair. “Nothing that can’t be worked out, honey. Now, let’s go inside.”
I called Ann from a public phone because I didn’t want Edith to interfere. I told her I was going to the market to run some errands and asked if she minded staying with you for a short while. Of course, she didn’t.
When Ann opened the door of the small ranch style home located in the middle of town, I didn’t know what to expect. Would she be willing to talk honestly about what happened or would she harbor resentment toward me? But when she invited me in I felt the cozy, warm environment wrap itself around me. There were photographs hanging on most of the walls, all of the same man, woman and baby at different ages, dressed in their Sunday best and smiling for the cameras. Ann was the woman in the photos, arms wrapped protectively around her baby, and her hand resting comfortably on the man’s shoulder. So, she had married after all.
That day, Ann was dressed casually in soft velvet bell bottom pants and a white gauzy shirt with too many buttons undone. Wooden beads hung loosely around her neck and she wasn’t wearing any shoes. They fit, I thought. People wouldn’t look at her and Leo curiously like they did when he and I strolled down the boardwalk together. Ann’s long straight brown hair would complement Leo’s scraggly blonde hair, her tall slim figure would look at ease strolling alongside Leo’s long, slouched body.
I felt her eyes on me, wondering why I had come to see her. On the phone, I had told her I was a friend of Leo’s and asked if she would mind seeing me. I sat on the sofa, and removed my white gloves, suddenly feeling silly and overdressed in my pink suit and pill hat. I looked around, unsure of where to start the conversation.
“Is he all right?” She startled me with her British accent.
“Why Leo, of course. You did come to see me about him, didn’t you?” She sat down in the overstuffed chair beside me, which was draped in a foreign looking tapestry.
“Yes, of course.” I felt the blood rush to my face and attempted to fan myself with my gloves.
“Are you all right? Can I get you some water?” She rose, but I motioned for her to sit.
“Now that I’m sitting across from you, I realize how foolish my coming here was. I’m so sorry, but I do believe I’ve wasted your time.”
“Well, you’ve come for something. Please, it’s obviously important to you.”
I nodded, and to my embarrassment, a tear slid down my cheek. “It’s about Leo… and you. I need to know why…”
“Is that it, then?” She stood up abruptly and walked to a cabinet where she took down an ornate brass box. She pulled out a cigarette and offered me one. I shook my head and braced myself to be kicked out.
“You’re in love with him, then?” she asked as she drew in a mouthful of smoke.
She nodded as if she perfectly understood. She opened the front door and blew the smoke into the outside air. “My husband,” she offered as an explanation. “He hates it when I smoke inside.” She sighed loudly and leaned against the doorframe, obviously planning to smoke her entire cigarette there. “I was in love with him, too. Probably still am if I’m being truthful.” She inhaled more of the smoke. “Anyway, you don’t have to worry about that now. It’s ancient history.” She took another puff while studying me. “You don’t look like his type.”
“Nor he mine.”
She nodded in agreement. “Did he leave you, then?”
She turned toward the door and blew out the last of the smoke. “So then, you left him.”
I looked down at my gloves. “Yes, but I’m not sure it was the right thing to do.”
“Then why did you do it?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know, I just… heard…”
“You heard about me and wondered whether he would leave you, too?”
I nodded slightly.
“Well you shouldn’t worry, really. It was all my fault.”
I looked at her and wondered where the line was. How much could I ask her without crossing the boundaries of polite company? I needed her to tell me what happened so I could make the right decision.
I watched as her gaze drifted outside toward a tall, towering palm tree that sat in the middle of her lawn, and I felt her mood dampen. I had the distinct impression she was entering a world of memories she would rather not revisit. She spoke in a low voice, one that needed to be coaxed, urged out of her. She seemed unsure, especially compared to the confident woman I had met only moments before.
“I was too immature to have found my true love,” she started. “Really, just too young.” She shook her head. “I didn’t fall in love right away. Leo isn’t the kind of guy who just knocks your socks off, you know? He just kind of grows on you.”
I didn’t know what she meant, but it didn’t matter because she wasn’t talking to me, but to the tall tree that monopolized the front lawn. “Eventually though, I did fall for him. Hard. We had what I’d call a whirlwind romance. It just happened so fast…”
She dropped her cigarette on the porch, stepped on it to put it out and then kicked it into the grass. She lit another one. “After the excitement of the proposal wore off, after I’d made most of the arrangements and my heart had settled down, I began to get scared. Typical stuff, you know,” she said, shrugging. “I began to worry that we’d moved too fast…things like that. Then a week before the wedding, my brother and some of his friends decided to take me out on the town for my last night of freedom. It was weird, really. It was something Leo should have been doing, not me. Thomas, who was one of my brother’s friends and incredibly handsome, began to pay attention to me, and honestly? It felt really good. I don’t typically drink much, but I did that night and I began to act in a way I normally wouldn’t have.
“Anyway, one thing led to another and I won’t bore you with the details, but I did something that night that was unforgiveable in Leo’s eyes. He was devastated when I told him.” She looked down. “He just couldn’t get past it.”
When she looked up, I could see that she was crying, and I began to feel the devastating pain she must have felt to lose someone like Leo.
“It wouldn’t have been the best way to start a marriage, would it?” She signed and let her eyes settle on the photographs that lined her walls. “But it all worked out in the end. I met Paul.”
I looked at the photos and saw that they did indeed look happy, but still, there were the tears. She may have married someone else, but it was obvious a piece of her heart still remained with Leo.
After a few minutes of embarrassed idle chatter, I thanked Ann and promised to let her know how things turned out. Then I drove, exceeding the speed limit, to the University where Leo was teaching his class.
I ran as fast as my slim skirt and matching pumps would allow. Once I was inside the century old building that smelled like pencils and stale coffee, I ran to the fourth floor, too impatient to wait for the elevator. While I ran breathlessly up those stairs, I went over in my mind exactly what I would say, how he would smell, how his ink-stained fingers would pull me into him. I imagined bringing him to you then, and from that day forward we would walk everywhere holding hands. Just the three of us.
I excited the stairwell and followed the signs to the English department, then to the faculty offices. Once I’d located the correct hallway, I ran to his office but when I pushed open the door and entered the room, the place that should have smelled of him and his exotic world, it was empty. Leo wasn’t there.
“Can I help you?” asked a woman in a tailored cream suit.
“Leo,” I said breathlessly. My lungs were burning a hole in my chest from the exertion, and my legs threatened to give out at any moment. “I’m looking for Leo.”
The woman eyed me curiously and pointed down the hallway. “In the teacher’s lounge.”
Relieved that he was there after all, I smoothed down my hair and walked anxiously toward the lounge where my love, the man I should have never doubted, sat waiting for me. I hoped.
When I entered the room, he immediately stood, the recognition of things resolved spreading across his face in the form of a smile.
“I’ve been a fool,” I said quietly.
He shook his head. “No you haven’t, Grace.” He gestured to the other people in the room. “I think you know everyone here.” And to the others, “This is the woman I’m going to marry.”
He discreetly pulled my hand behind my back, out of the view of the others, and slipped the all-encompassing ring back where it belonged.
I didn’t drive straight home after that, but instead pointed my car to the South Beach. My tires crackled as they pressed down the moist sand and crumbled shells and I came to a stop at the edge of the water. I sat there, where the known meets the unknown, and watched the waves tumble and roll. How could I have doubted him? I wondered. He didn’t refuse to tell me why he’d broken his engagement because he was trying to hide something from me, but because he was protecting the reputation of the woman he used to love. And now that love was directed at me, and I realized at that moment I’d been given a second chance, another opportunity to live my life with love and happiness. I decided right then and there that was exactly what I would do.
The tears I cried that day on the edge of the ocean were mixed with regret, anticipation, and the awed knowledge that I would marry a man capable of such love. Everything would be fine. I knew it like I knew the sound of your laughter, the taste of my own tears.
I wanted to make a statement to the world, to everyone on the beach that day that I would no longer wait to live my life. I wanted it known that as of that second, I would taste and feel every moment that came my way. I threw open the car door and stepped out into the wind. It was gusty that day, and I watched as the wind whipped the gulls around like puppets at the end of an out-of-control string. I must have looked a sight, me in my ladylike suit and heels among everyone else in their shorts and bathing suits. I marched toward the shimmering turquoise water, heels digging in and sticking in the sand, and kept walking. I lost one then both of my shoes. My skirt was wet at the hem, but I kept going until the blue surrounded me, and only then did I allow myself to feel the water, silky and healing, lapping at my body. I yanked off the pillbox hat with the matching pink trim and threw it up into the sky. I watched it roll and cascade in the wind, a dance of the free, until it landed and was consumed by the water’s hunger.
And then I shouted to Leo, to the world and myself. “I will no longer live in fear!”
That was the last day I ironed my hair, and I gave all my prim suits to the Red Cross. I took to wearing blue jeans and shirts with the buttons undone just a tad bit too far. I wore flowers in my hair and did, on occasion, go entire days without lipstick. If I was going to be a traveler’s wife, I wanted to look the part.
That day in the ocean was one of the best days of my life and I was never the same after that. I meant what I proclaimed to the world as I stood in the middle of the sea in my suit, but I’m sorry to say that events happened that were out of my control and they irrevocably changed everything.
I’m sorry, Joshua, but my physical limitations have once again come into play and I will have to stop here. God willing, I will write you again as soon as I’m able.
Joshua turned over the letter looking for more, hoping that she’d somehow found the strength to write a few more words, but she hadn’t. His mother’s change of heart from fear to fearless love resonated in him and he let it float unattached in his mind, like a balloon not tied down. He walked to the coffee table and set down the letter. He wanted to hold onto the feeling of his mother’s happiness for a while, wanted to feel the joy and hope she had that glorious day in the ocean. She had been so much more than he remembered, yet somehow he carried all the pieces of her in his heart. He looked out at the shimmering sky, the achingly beautiful horizon and the ocean beneath it, and he smiled when he thought of her marching into it and reclaiming her life. Pieces of Leo as he was then flashed in his mind. His warm smile, the awkward gait, and most of all the happiness he’d brought to their lives.
Joshua moved toward the kitchen and unwrapped a fresh fish he’d caught the day before. He sprinkled it with a mixture of olive oil, basil, oregano and lemon and slid it into the oven. Next, he made a sparse salad of greens and tomatoes and used the marinade for the dressing.
While the fish cooked, Joshua went outside to the telescope that stood in the corner of his porch. He touched the spot where Isabelle had, felt the cold metal and heard the words she’d whispered to him not that long ago.
I’m going to get on with my life.
The words took him back to that moment, the very second when he’d lost his heart. He pointed the telescope at the water and imagined his mother there, in the midst of the blue, so happy and in love. Why had she left when things were so good?
He smelled the scent of lemon and pepper and went inside to turn off the stove. As he walked toward the kitchen, he began to see his house through his mother’s eyes and he felt the heat rise in his face, burn him behind his ears. He suddenly saw anew this place he called home. A sofa that doubled as a bed, a kitchen with only the barest of necessities, a small round dining table with two lonely mismatched chairs. There were no pictures on the walls, nothing that gave any indication that a life was lived here. That it was his home. It looked like temporary lodging for someone who was only visiting and would be moving on soon, but he had been here most of his adult life. What was he waiting for? He would be thirty in a few years, well past his mother’s age when she’d walked into the sea and declared to the world she would begin living. But had she? What events had stolen the life she’d committed to that day on the beach?
He opened and closed the cabinets mindlessly, the awareness of something significant hanging in the air and mingling with the tantalizing odor. It lingered just under his nose, and although he knew it was there, that some revelation sat just outside his reach, he did the dance of avoidance, slamming the drawers, peering into the refrigerator and washing the dirty dishes that were stacked in the sink.
When the kitchen was clean, he wandered to the bathroom where piles of fish stained clothes lie waiting to be cleaned. He scooped them up and toppled them into the washing machine. He stacked and organized his toiletries and then moved to the bedroom where he striped the sheets off his bed.
And then saw the string of a bathing suit sticking out from the closet. He pulled it out before he remembered who it belonged to and what it would make him do. It was Isabelle’s.
Her scent swirled around and pulled down the awareness from the heavily scented air until it sat lightly on his shoulder.
He loved her.
And he had let her go.
But the other man, he reminded himself. And you. Could you ever be enough?
The image of the blonde neatly tailored man flashed before him, and at first it made him shrink from the possibilities. But then he remembered more details from that day. Had the man gently put his hand on the small of Isabelle’s back to lead her into the coffee shop or had he forced her to go in that direction? He remembered the man’s smile, which at the time had appeared confident and intimidating, but now in reflection, he saw it as flashy and false.
He quieted his brain and set into motion before he could talk himself out of what he needed to do. He pulled on a pair of boots and slipped out the front door to go find and claim the woman he loved. He’d walk into the sea for her.
He only hoped it wasn’t too late.
If you enjoyed this excerpt of The Leap of Forgiveness, check out the entire novel!
April Geremia has made her living as a professional writer for 20 years, and has recently turned her attention toward her true love—fiction. She loves God, her family and friends, the sea, mysteries, and stories of people battling impossible situations. The books in this series, Souls of the Sea, all have those elements in common.
When she’s not writing, you’ll find her coaxing vegetables out of the ground, playing with her chickens, or whipping up a simple gourmet meal in her tiny house by the sea. Her favorite part of any day is connecting with her readers. You can find her at:
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Who doesn’t need a little inspiration in their life? In this faith inspiring series, author April Geremia intertwines God and the sea with mystery-themed stories about people battling impossible situations. Readers have left reviews saying the books increased their faith, made them view life differently, and one reader even said the books made her want to be a better person! And while those are some great reasons to read the books, the truth is you’re taking a chance on a relatively new fiction author. That’s why I’m proud to offer you this FREE sampler. With it, you’ll be able to read generous portions of the books in this series for free and then decide whether you want to keep reading. In this sampler, you'll find inspirational Christian fiction, romantic mystery/suspense, and a women's fiction that's truly tissue-worthy. Here's an overview of the books you'll find in this sampler: The Fragrance of Surrender (Souls of the Sea: Book 1) What would cause a woman to stand on the edge of a cliff deciding whether to slip over it or to live another day? How bad would it have to be? And what if she can’t turn to God because she believes He’s the root of all her problems? Set among the fragrant sweet smell of ripening orange tree blossoms, this emotional story is about a woman who battles God for the right to determine how things should be. Gabriella’s life has been filled with tragedy, including the mystery of why her own parents disappeared one night, leaving her alone at a tender young age. Soon after her husband dies, she and her son move to her childhood home—a house on a cliff by the sea in a village that time has left behind. It’s there that she and some local villagers begin the process of bringing her parent’s old orange grove back to life. As Gabriella begins to put together the pieces of why her parents abandoned her, she soon learns they were victims of powerful forces that threatened to tear apart the quiet little village by the sea. And that knowledge, along with all the other losses she’s experienced, causes Gabriella to view God with great suspicion and fear. So when her young son experiences a dramatic conversion and begins to serve Him, an all-out battle ensues. During this time, Gabriella often feels called to the edge of the cliff, torn between letting herself slip over it and ending the pain, or fighting for a happiness she’s not even sure exists. Will Gabriella continue to do battle with God? Or will she come to have faith in the God she blames for all the tragedies she’s suffered? And what role will her young son play in her decision? The Leap of Forgivness (Souls of the Sea: Book 2) What if everything you’ve ever been told is a lie? When Joshua was just a young boy in the 60s, he was told his mother took her own life and left him to be raised by an emotionally absent man and a woman who had slipped into insanity because of the death of her own child. Those circumstances affected every aspect of Joshua’s life but it wasn’t until he met Isabelle, the red-haired bookstore owner on Bell Island, that he realized just how emotionally stifled he was. He loved her, but his tragic past kept him from fully committing. And Isabelle was tired of waiting. Then lavender scented letters began arriving in Joshua’s mailbox. The letters were signed “Mama,” and they filled in the missing pieces of his early life with his mother, including why her own turbulent love story caused her to walk into the ocean one day in her best suit. They also contained God-inspired wisdom that had the potential to set Joshua on another path.