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Between Heaven and Earth

Prologue

 

Squealing their protest, the tires gripped the pavement for a brief moment—and then skipped into the loose gravel. With violent force, the bright red Mustang convertible flung itself forward into the steep slope and long weeds, bucking over tufts of scrub grass, rain-cut ridges and the occasional rock. A young woman's shrill wail sliced through the darkness as the front axle buckled and drove the car's nose into the mire at the base of the incline. The scream cut short as though an invisible hand had been clapped over its source. The vehicle settled into a moment's hesitation—a chunk of time cut from the reel of action playing out in the dark movie theatre of night—as though the careening would stop. Then the invisible slingshot aimed again and the car, gripped in that unseen pocket flung end over end through a woven wire fence and out into a newly tilled field. It added its own furrow to the ploughed rows before coming to rest against an immovable boulder. The rock had jutted from its bed of fertile soil for more than three centuries—a testimony that man couldn't conquer everything, no matter how big the machine. The shout of silence came then—silence interrupted by the soft tick-ticking of a steaming engine. A panicked voice yelled in the distance. "Are you alright? Is everyone okay?" The young woman's last thought registered that it was a dumb question. The car had just performed a major assault on a ditch, a fence and the corner of a field rock. Could anyone be okay? Chapter One Carmen McGuinty flung her ponytail over her shoulder and threw her head back as she filled the air with her bright laughter. She'd practiced the movement many times in front of her bedroom mirror when she'd grown old enough to realize her white-blonde hair entranced those around her. She'd reasoned early in her young life that by flaunting its shimmering strands, she could give the subtle message she was somehow special—someone to be held in awe. With that one gesture and her deliberate throaty chuckle she could get just about anything she wanted. It had saved her from moments of parental discipline—when she'd decided the rules of their home weren't meant for her. It had allowed her to cajole her friends into following her somewhat risqué ideas as they'd plunged into the teenage years. Now, as she entered her adult life, it wrapped a particularly nice looking young man around her finger. That chuckle had helped her manipulate her father's parishioners too when, as a small child, she'd tried to live up to standards forced upon her—standards created by people who expected a perfect pastor to raise perfect children while leading their perfect church and solving their not-so-perfect problems. She'd had lots of practice dimpling her cheeks at old busybodies and mouthing words of false repentance and submission—and then she'd railed against those same biddies when her father had tried to point out the importance of her behaviour. By age twelve she'd learned that submission of word didn't necessarily equate with submission of heart. She knew she wasn't giving in, but the people rebuking her didn't know that. With their help she'd learned her practiced gestures, clever manipulation and diabolical scheming. Her parents appeared to be oblivious to it—or too weary to do anything about it. She wondered if they'd given up trying to make her into a cookie-cutter pastor's kid. One person in her life refused to be manipulated. Carmen pulled her attention from her immediate audience of admirers to a different young man who sat across the camp fire from her. She studied the mouse brown hair and the oversized frame crumpled on a large piece of driftwood. Long torso and limbs seemed to fold in upon themselves as he sat there. The Lake Huron evening breeze picked at his hair, twisting it into a messier form of the already tangled mop. She knew those lowered eyes almost better than she knew her own. His gave away his thoughts—honest and gentle thoughts—where hers remained guarded, hiding the not-so-honest mechanics of her mind. She'd known Dayton Penner most of her life. A year older than her nineteen years, she'd always considered him a bit of a stick-in-the-mud—when he wasn't her absolute best friend. She had to admit he had a knack for helping her get out of some of her predicaments. Carmen remembered her sixteenth birthday. She planned to hijack her dad's van for a midnight drive. Dayton sat on his porch staring at the star-spattered sky. He'd heard the sound of fumbling keys and come over out of curiosity. She figured one look at her dark clothes and furtive glances toward the slumbering household told him all he needed to know. Arms crossed, he'd blocked her path to the vehicle and given her two choices. She could forget the idea and finish her birthday without getting into trouble, or she could ignore him and know that he'd be the first to call her father the minute the van backed out of the drive. Dayton would have sat up all night in front of their house just to make sure she didn't do anything dumb. She hadn't. She'd hated him for it too. He'd put up with her wrath for two weeks and when it didn't seem to cause him remorse, she'd forgiven him and let it go. A year later she'd tried to seduce Dayton. The reason was simple. If she couldn't control him one way, she'd control him another. She'd learned the value of using body language in that year between birthdays when the boys around her made it plain they liked the changes she underwent. Sidling up to him, she'd pressed her curves against him and whispered a question. "Why haven't you ever asked me out, Day?" His face had turned scarlet and he'd stepped back, away from the warmth of her body. While she'd been impressed an 18 year-old-guy had that kind of self-control, his response stoked her fury for the second birthday in a row. "I don't think either one of us is ready for that kind of commitment, Carmen. We'll talk about it in a few years when we've both grown up enough." "Oh yeah. I forgot. Mr. High-and-Mighty Christian man. Wanting to be a pastor and all. Well trust me..." she'd begun to circle him, eyeing him like a new meal "...I know all about what it's like to be a pastor's kid and if you really care about the people in your life, you won't have anything to do with it." She'd tuned out his reply. They'd had that debate too many times. Dayton seemed wise enough to let it drop. It drove her nuts—his patience with her—and in the same way, it anchored her to some kind of sanity she feared she wouldn't have without him. Her mind returned from the past and she realized she'd been staring at her friend. He lifted his gaze and winked at her from across the beach fire. Carmen had the decency to blush. Yes, she knew that Dayton knew exactly what she did with her hair gestures and her cultured laugh. He tried to undermine her scheme the only way he could—with subtle teasing—and prayer. She turned away from him and focused her attention on the man beside her. Zackary Tarquez, dark-haired and mysterious, had a reputation for being a rebel. He drove a '68 Mustang convertible and tinkered on other people's cars—just enough to earn money to treat a girl in style. She'd heard that he spent a bit of time dealing drugs but didn't believe much coming from the corrupt rumour mill. To Carmen, the challenge wasn't in being with the most popular guy. She found a bigger thrill in feeling like she owned him—steering him in whatever direction she wished him to go. She gave just enough of herself to keep him coming back but not enough to jeopardize her father's position in the church and the community. Heaven forbid the old girls in the congregation find out that their pastor's daughter isn't the little angel they think she is. When she'd had enough of a particular boyfriend, she would end it before things went further than she wanted. She loved playing the game. Carmen stole a peek at Dayton again and frowned. He continued to pray. She knew the familiar stance. Head tipped forward just enough to make it look like he concentrated on the flaming driftwood. His mouth moved slightly. And she knew—she knew—he prayed for her. Her eyes narrowed. Just one more thing about him that drove her nuts—pushed her to do things she shouldn't. Her nostrils flared. She turned away from him and toward the guy beside her. She'd show Dayton that his prayers meant nothing. Chapter Two Nathan Stetley always wanted to be a trucker. From the moment he could play with toys he'd latched on to a battered royal blue and yellow die cast model of a 1959 Roadway Express International. It belonged to his daddy as a boy. And when his son was old enough, he'd pass it on to him—if they had a boy. If it was a girl, he'd probably pass it on to her anyway. Heck! Some of the best truckers out there these days are girls. Why couldn't a daughter of his couldn't follow in his footsteps? You're jumping the gun old boy. The baby's not even on the ground yet. Nathan looked at the dashboard clock of his refurbished Peterbilt 330 and smiled. If he soon didn't get home after this delivery of hogs the baby would be here and he'd be in hot water with his wife for missing it. According to Marylou, within hours he'd be a daddy. The thought terrified and excited him. He wondered if he'd been wise to take on the extra run. He pushed the upper limits of the legal number of hours in the saddle but he needed the money. He smiled for the umpteenth time. He was going to be a father. The gears of the Peterbilt churned as he ground down to a slower speed. Driving the 401 with a tractor trailer was no picnic and he fought the temptation to swear at the snarl of traffic forming ahead of him. Looks like another accident. They occurred often on a highway where everything from multi-tonned transports to smart cars jockeyed for a spot on the pavement. The speeds varied as much as the vehicles. He thought of the bozo weaving in and out of traffic at 180 kilometres per hour like a race car driver. And the granny who locked everything down because she thought the speed limit was 60 and not the posted 100 km. He'd even seen a guy slow his car down to 40 and hold a sign out the back window which read 'Get off My Tail'. The guy nearly caused a pile up because of it. Everyone within a half mile stretch heard the trucker behind him lay on the air horn as the air brakes locked and the tires smoked on the pavement. In all his ten years of trucking Nathan had seen everything from the ridiculous to the miraculous. He marvelled at his accident-free record chalking it up to the miracle-side of the mental ledger. Tossing another look at the clock, Nathan groaned. He'd managed to get just far enough from the on-ramp during rush hour traffic to add another hour to his trip. He'd better call Marylou and let her know. He needed to check on her anyway after her earlier call to announce the first labour pains. The desire to pull off the road to catch his breath had overpowered him. "Call home." The voice-activated hands free device acknowledged his words and triggered the speed dial. "Hello?" Man, he loved the soft tones of her voice. Nathan could hear something else there too. It sounded like he'd caught her in the middle of a pain. "It's me babe. How are you?" "Give me a minute." The tension stretched out as he listened to silence and his wife's heavy breathing. He worked to focus on the traffic knowing that a rear-ender wouldn't exactly be a good move at the moment. "You okay?" A deep sigh answered the question and then Marylou spoke again. "Yeah. I was just starting a contraction when the phone rang." "Why didn't you just leave it? You could have called me later." Nathan's heart jumped and his chest tightened. "I wanted to hear you say you'd be here soon." He swallowed and threw a third look at the clock. "I'm just outside Toronto now. How long do you think you have?" A soft chuckle whispered back. "The midwife says you have lots of time. She says the first one always takes hours and hours—an encouraging thought. The pains are a half hour apart. She says it could go on like that all night. I hope not but if it means you can be here, I'm willing to wait." Nathan cringed. How could a woman welcome that kind of pain just so that her husband could be there? He gripped the steering wheel as though that would somehow speed up the traffic up. "I'll be there as soon as I can. I figure it'll be a half hour or so before this traffic unsnarls. I should be about three hours after that—probably before midnight. I promise." Unless another traffic snarl greeted him further down the road. "I can wait." Nathan hoped she wouldn't have to. He so badly wanted to be there for the birth of his first child. For the second time that day, he called himself a fool for taking this run. Chapter Three Carmen allowed Zach to lead her away from the beach party, letting him think his cajoling words broke down frail defences. Her best girlfriend had eyed the two of them all evening and Carmen knew that Monique St Jacques would grill her the next day for details of the conquest. Even though Carmen organized the event as a celebration of the beginning of the summer months, she interest didn't really lie in acting as the hostess. Monique and her boyfriend, Tim Innes, would do that with far more sincerity. Carmen had grown tired of the blaring music, the abundance of picnic foods and the boring lives of the people who called her 'friend'. She was happy to let this newest admirer take her hand and pull her into the darkness beyond the prying reach of the campfire. They strolled, swinging hands like two children, for some time on the cool sand that edged Lake Huron. As they turned around to walk back she noted that Zach veered toward Monique's family cottage. It now sat empty. Carmen guessed her companion's thoughts and had no intentions of sharing anything more than a few passionate kisses with him. While much about him excited her, he set off mild alarms in her mind too. Her intuition hinted this might not be a man to trifle with. She smiled to herself. She'd be careful—stay one step ahead of him and finish with him if he got too demanding. Her parents would have a fit if they knew how much she loved toying with people like a puppeteer holding the strings. As a child, she'd felt brief moments of remorse for her scheming and even pondered its beginnings on occasion. No longer. Throwing Zach an impish look, she disentangled her fingers from his and laughed as she bolted for the water's edge. A game of tag always warmed a guy's blood but it gave her the advantage of redirecting their path away from the cottage and back to the fire. She'd play cat and mouse with him and then when she'd had enough she'd feign a headache and get a ride home with Monique. She'd avoid him for a day or two and then call him some evening the following week. She played a dangerous game—one that could backfire with the wrong guy. Carmen shuddered as the early summer waters stung her bare feet. Abandoning the shore's edge, she picked up speed and raced toward the cluster of young adults huddled around the beach fire. She might have made it too if she'd put more effort into phys-ed track. Just when she thought she'd make it a hand snatched her wrist from behind and encased it in a firm grip. A gentle tug spun her around and brought her to a stop. Zach yanked her into firm arms. She squealed with laughter and looked up into a face darkened by the shadows of the coming night. "You didn't honestly think you could outrun me did you?" His voice dropped several tones and carried its own brand of laughter. "You got to give a girl points for trying, Mr. Track-and-field-champion." He growled and pulled her closer. "Girl, you get under my skin, did you know that?" Zach kissed her then. It wasn't the kiss of an untried high school boy but then he wasn't in high school. Carmen let the kiss grow while her mind churned around ways of staying a step ahead of him. This guy moved fast and seemed to be a lot more confident than the regular boys she'd hung around. He knew what he was doing when it came to kissing girls. She buried herself in the fire of the kiss aware that his hands were beginning to move. She'd never reacted like this before—never been so consumed by a kiss—so lost for control. Pulling away, she felt flustered and vulnerable and angry with herself all at once. Her throat tightened and she forced herself to relax—to keep playing the game. She threw out a tight smile. "We should probably get back to the party. I'm supposed to be in charge." Zach chuckled and stroked the edge of her jaw with calloused fingers. He tipped his head to the side and pointed his narrowed gaze into her eyes. "If I didn't know better, I'd think you were suddenly mad at me. Did I do something wrong?" Carmen sucked in a quick breath. Zach knew how to play the game too. The thought fired her emotions. She'd never had someone manipulate her like she manipulated others. It excited her. And frightened her. Shaping her mouth into a flirtatious pout she dropped her eyes so he couldn't read her thoughts. "No. I'm not angry, Zach. You're just moving kind of fast." He barked out a laugh and held her still. "I'm moving fast? Come on, Carmen. You all but threw yourself at me over by the fire. Either you want me or you don't. Which is it?" Her eyes narrowed. He was bold. And smart. He moved her like a chess piece—placing her in a position of giving in to him or losing him. She had to think fast. "Maybe it's both. Maybe I want you..." She eased out of his arms "...and I don't." She finished the statement with her own bold stare, curving the corners of her lips up in invitation while turning to walk to the fire. Carmen strutted across the sand like the models who moved across the stage at the fashion show she'd seen a few months prior in Toronto. She'd spent the following time trying to mimic their seductive stride and thought she'd done a pretty good job. Zach seemed to think so. He jogged up beside her and took her hand. She threw him a coy glance from under eyelashes thickened with black mascara. Her triumph showed through the small smile she just couldn't hold back. He wore his own mask of satisfaction though. Yes, she had him where she wanted him—but he had her too. There was a first for everything—including her meeting her match. Carmen turned her head and lifted her chin as they stepped into the ring of light and the noise of music and chatter. She scanned the crowd like a queen would view her subjects. Monique sat beside Tim, a smirk on her face. Carmen winked at her and then another face came into view. Dayton. He looked sad—concerned. He'd get over that. He always did. Taking Zach's hand in her two, she tugged him back to the log by the fire where they'd nestled earlier. She would have to be careful to keep herself surrounded by her friends if she wanted to stay ahead of his moves. Chapter Four Jake McGuinty stared at his sister through a curtain of unruly hair. The words and beat of his favourite rock band thundered through his head set. Hate! Hate! Hate! It's the only thing that's real... Wasn't that the truth? He watched her flirt with the boys around the campfire. She was such a user—such a witch. He knew it first hand. He'd spent 18 years bearing the brunt of her manipulation, her vicious words and her mockery to know all about her gift of cruelty. It amazed him that she herself hadn't been hurt—yet. It just proved her skill at playing people. He smiled as he forced himself to look away. That might change. No one messed with Zach Tarquez. Not even Carmen. Jake had inside knowledge of Zach and his dealings. Carmen met him through Jake. He smirked at the irony. Jake knew him because of the tiny pills he carried in his pocket—pills that took him away from the mess he called his life. Jake only missed a payment on his pills once and Zach took a phone book to him. He'd never felt so much pain before. The beating left no more than a few small bruises. Zach's gifts were as unique as Carmen's. Jake knew he'd never mess with the man again. The planned shaped itself after the beating—the plan to let Zach meet Carmen. He'd never have to get even. Zach would do it for him. He sneaked a peek just as they headed his way. A sneer rode Carmen's lips and Jake wondered how long it would take for Zach to wipe it off. He'd love to be a fly on the wall when that happened. Zach would probably be a bit gentler with her. Wouldn't want to mark up that perfect face. His grin broadened at the thought of his sister being taken down a notch or two. Jake closed his eyes and let the music roll over him. Suicide! Suicide! Suicide! It's the only way to stop the pain... He knew the words by heart. He'd listened to this particular band over and over again, using their twisted pity to shut out the mean words his sister threw at him when their parents weren't there or were too busy playing church to pay attention. Loser. Idiot. Stupid. Why don't you just go away? Give the world a break. Get lost. He wiped the smile from his face and replaced it with a neutral, bored expression as they strolled past him. Wouldn't want to draw their attention. Jake hunkered down further into his corner of the sand and thought about the things his sister called him. He was a loser. He knew that. His school grades showed it. His father's lack of interest in his life showed it. He had no girl friend—he tossed a wistful glance at Carmen's friend Janice. The firelight flickered off her fiery red hair and he felt a knot bunch up his insides. Not much chance there since she worshipped his sister. To be honest, Jake had no real friends of any kind. He let his mind follow the track it had been taking quite a bit of late. What if he did commit suicide like the song said? Would his pain end? He couldn't help but think of some of his father's old sermons about heaven and hell. Did he believe they were real places? That God was real? A small part of him wanted to. But his parents had told him Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny were real and he'd believed that too—until he found out that they weren't. Was their talk about God any different? Did a God who cared about him exist? He held the silent questions in his mind for a brief moment and then shoved them aside. Yeah right. So where's he been all these years when I asked for his help? Where had God been when his sister, left to babysit, took great pleasure in tying him to a chair while she watched TV and ate potato chips? He'd wet his pants that time and she'd made fun of him for doing it. He despised her with a hatred deeper than any other emotion he'd ever felt. He began to scheme just like he did every time he poured himself into his music. I could wait until Mom and Dad are away and Carmen's out with her friends. I know where the car keys are. I just have to close the garage door and start the engine. I could turn the music up and disappear. He'd heard that carbon monoxide poisoning was one of the kindest ways to die but he'd have to show interest in his parents' and his sister's schedules and he really didn't want anything to do with any of them. Maybe suffocation. I can pull out the rye Stan gave me and drink enough that I won't care that I can't breathe. Maybe a bag over the head and taped around the neck. The thought of panicking made him cringe. He wanted it to be easy and didn't think that suffocating himself would be, no matter how much of Stan's whiskey he drank. Or maybe I could pop a bottle of pain killers. His mom kept some heavy duty stuff in the medicine cabinet for her occasional migraines. He could down the whole bottle and slide into the land of no return. He'd thought about it once with the pills he bought from Zach but the guy seemed to be able to read his mind. He'd gotten in close, pulled his shirt front into a fist and whispered right into his face—you ever overdose, I'll make sure I'm the one who brings you back and then I'll beat the living crap out of you. I don't want anyone coming after me because some teenage brat had a downer and tried to end it with my stuff. You understand? You keep it moderate or I cut you off. Jake knew the reality of the threat. Logic told him Zach couldn't do much once Jake was gone. He still hesitated on the off-chance that he botched it. No. If he overdosed it would be with his mom's stuff. A friend of his had cut his wrists once and Jake had thought about that—for about a minute. The talk around the high school grew vicious when the news got out. A quick way to go—but messy—and a girl's way out so everyone said. He wouldn't go that way. Either the pills or the car. He just had to decide which and then start planning. Carmen would be happy to know that her little brother couldn't embarrass her anymore and he'd be happy to just have the pain stop. His parents would be hurt and even angry but they'd get over it and he wouldn't be around to care. Jake leaned back against the large chunk of drift wood and stared up at the sky. Black velvet draped from one horizon to the other. Stars glittered against the deep backdrop. Maybe he'd live among the stars. Maybe God didn't exist and he could just fly. He brought his gaze back down to the fire and the bodies gathered around it. His eyes fastened on Dayton and his sister's friend nodded at him. Dayton. The only decent friend Carmen had—the only decent friend Jake had. He had to be honest. Dayton did seem to care. That bothered him. It contradicted his indictment against Christianity. Out of all the churchy people Jake knew, Dayton really seemed to live what he believed. Dayton watched Jake now. It unnerved Jake to think that he might know what his thoughts. Would he miss me? Would Dayton stand at my grave side and really wish I was still here? Jake thought that maybe he would. He nodded back at the young man and closed his eyes again, resting his head on his wooden pillow. A new song started on his MP3 and he pulled the words into his brain. I thought you loved me, thought we would be forever. I gave my heart to you, ready to live together. And then you turned away and found another. And I just want to die. Oh man, please help me die. Jake nodded his head to the beat of the song, the acid tones jarring and screeching along with the aching words. He understood completely. That was his life in a nutshell. All he ever felt flowed in the words of this band. Preacher's kid. Loser. Yup, he thought to himself. Tomorrow could be a good day to die. Chapter Five Dayton Penner panned the crowd of young adults. Bodies and hearts entwined without the understanding of love. Restraint flew on the lake breeze as the stock of alcohol disappeared. The observation wasn't born out of a judgmental spirit. His heart ached for souls looking for purpose and fulfillment. Why he kept coming to these parties thrown together by Carmen and Monique—he didn't know. Wait. Yes, he did know. He called it a holy nudge—a challenge from his Lord to be the loving example of Christ amidst a group of people who rebelled against God without really understanding what they were giving up. He stared across the fire as Carmen and Zach snuggled close. True, Dayton felt something deep for Carmen—like the proverbial moth to the flame—and perhaps that coloured his opinion of Zach to some degree. More of his dislike for the man had to do with his reputation for being involved in the local drug scene—and for treating girls like meat for his appetite. Dayton's stomach churned at the thought of Carmen being one more meal for Zach. She thought she could hold her own—and up until now she had—but this guy walked in a league of his own. Dayton still didn't fully understand his attraction. There were a number of girls prettier and way nicer than Carmen McGuinty. He knew that some of it had to do with his father being the same way. Kids usually gravitated toward someone with personality traits similar to a parent. It jaded his view on dating more than a little. If someone like his dad drew him, he'd end up in a mess like his mom. He was determined not to let that happen. Allowing his eyes to linger on the scene, his mind spun back to the day he met Carmen. The bright-eyed, energetic nine-year-old caught his eye the moment she skipped down her front steps. He'd fallen in love but, to Dayton, love wasn't just a fuzzy word. He'd learned what love was—and wasn't—years before when his father had grown tired of them and left him and his mother to fend for themselves. His father exemplified what love wasn't. Love wasn't someone who spent every last dime gambling and drinking while his wife and son scrounged for food in a bug-infested apartment in the centre of Toronto. Love wasn't giving up when a better looking, younger woman came along with no child attached. But that was all part of the game wasn't it? The same game Carmen played? Conquer one person's heart and then move on to the next? Just as his father had taught him the opposite of love, his mother lived the word. She'd packed up their scant belongings, scrounged a bus ticket and hauled them off to a women's shelter in London where his father wouldn't be able to find her—not that he'd try. The shelter housed them, fed them and trained his mother for basic office work. Two years later she'd worked her way into a store bookkeeping job and a small apartment above a house in Goderich. Dayton often pondered the providence of their parking next door to Carmen's house. He'd helped his mother unpack what little they owned and then left her to organize the place while he explored his new territory. He hadn't made it five paces down the sidewalk when Carmen had sauntered up, whitish hair in a high pony tail and a smile in those sea-blue eyes. She'd tried her charm on him—that practiced toss of her head and the low chuckle. It turned his insides to mush. At ten, he knew enough of street life to recognize it for what it was—phony. He'd shrugged, introduced himself as her new neighbour and moved on. A smile came to his lips as Dayton remembered her shout. "Hey! How come you're leaving?" The question carried her shock. The cat-and-mouse game that she played with everyone else flavoured their growing friendship with one exception. It never worked on Dayton. He knew a con from the get-go. He found himself often countering her manoeuvres with a smile of his own and a quick "your tricks don't work with me, Carmen. Let me know when you're ready to be real and we'll pick it up from there." Then he'd turn and walk away, leaving her fuming. He never knew why she sought him out but she always did. She rarely apologized but the con-game would be put on hold and for that brief time, the real Carmen—the funny, smart person—shone through. His first church visit with the McGuinty family occurred shortly after his twelfth birthday. He arrived in his best shirt, dress pants and shoes from the second hand store, surprised to find that the McGuinty's wore jeans and T-shirts. He'd never felt overdressed before that day. Pastor McGuinty explained that times changed and if the Christian church wanted to reach the community they had to get rid of some of the formal traditions around their faith. Dayton wasn't sure what he believed about that one but he didn't have long to ponder it as they entered the small church on the outskirts of the city. That day had been a revelation to him. He'd heard the sermon like he'd heard nothing else before. He'd heard the Pastor talk about Jesus' love for all people—even the really bad ones. It shocked Dayton to realize that God loved his dad in spite of how rotten he'd been to them. Carmen's father went on to tell about how God loved everyone so much that he poured himself into human form, humbled himself to become a person, lived with mankind so he could understand their pain and temptation, allowed himself to be put to death. And in the ultimate miracle he rose again from the grave. It took all Dayton's concentration to follow that line of thought but something in the room that day opened his mind and poured the information into him. He remembered the shame that came as he learned no one deserved to be in God's presence because of their sin—not even a 12-year-old fatherless boy. When the pastor explained that God understood all of that and loved his creation enough to do the work, amazement smothered the shame. And at the description of the death Jesus chose for himself, Dayton was aghast. The spark of new belief fanned into a roaring flame in the revealing of Jesus' resurrection from the dead. Then, the joy swelled, drowning the doubts, as Dayton dove into faith. By 16, Dayton determined to share his faith with his dad. After pestering his mother nearly to exasperation, he headed back to Toronto, hopes high, with the plan of surprising him. An internet search had brought up a new address. When the bus stopped near the apartment complex, he refused to believe that his dad wouldn't want him. Once the man heard about Jesus, he would become the father he should have been. The shock of recognition switch to quick anger and Dayton stood silent while the man mocked and rejected him—again. Alcoholic breath spewed hateful words in sync with an intoxicated swagger. Dayton nearly lost his faith that day as the rage claimed him. The rage surged through swinging fists. He'd poured his pain and fury into each until empty. Gratitude that he hadn't grown into his strength tempered his shame. Were he, then, as strong as now, he might have battered his father to death. His mind still carried the image of the man lying in a heap of drunken stupor, bruises and a few cuts the only evidence of Dayton's wrath. Dayton had pulled a cushion off the couch, lifted his father's head and propped it beneath. He'd covered him with a blanket, checked him one last time and left. The shame of what he'd done clung to him on his journey home. In the heat of irrational action he'd shoved aside the faith that had buoyed him—promised new things for him. Dayton knew, in the silent aftermath, he'd done wrong and he needed to make it right. He'd gone straight to Carmen's dad and told him everything that had happened. The man told him that everyone messed up—often. He reminded him of why Jesus died—to pay for those mess-ups. He invited him to tell God what he'd done, even though God already knew, and to ask him to forgive him. Dayton did. The amazement of God's grace, mercy and joy draped over him again—like the clean swaddlings following an infant's cleansing. The hurt came and went from that time on but he never doubted God's love for him. That same love filled him with compassion toward those around him—and pity for those who hadn't experienced it. That love helped the old wounds heal—brought the forgiveness he needed to extend to his dad and needed to receive for himself. The compassion filled him now as he eyed Carmen and Zach. He marvelled at Carmen's ability to live so close to truth without ever grasping it. Dropping his head he returned to silent prayer. Lord, give me wisdom. Help me to stop loving Carmen in a human way and start loving her the way you love me. Help me to be an example. He stopped for a brief moment to choose his next words. I'm also asking you to protect her from Zach. Help her to see who he really is. If there's hope for him—if there's even a little bit within him that's interested in finding out who you are—then I ask you to nudge him there. Keep a wedge between them so that neither has anything to regret later when they surrender to you—if they surrender to you. Help me to keep perspective as I try to follow you. Help me to trust you. In Jesus' name. Amen. Dayton had to admit he struggled with praying for Zach but knew it complimented his faith. He'd learned to pray for his father. Zach was no different. Grabbing a marshmallow, he stabbed it with a stick and distracted himself with roasting it into a flaming, gooey mess while his mind continued to offer prayers. Chapter Six A love-hate relationship had always existed between Janice O'Connery and Carmen McGuinty. It began the day they first met in kindergarten. Janice gaped at Carmen in awe, taking in the fresh, pale skin, the startling white hair and the pale blue eyes. Janice felt ugly from that moment on. Her curly red hair transformed into a scraggly orange mop. What her Irish father had called 'eyes of Eire' she thought of as nothing more than pea green buttons. And her plump freckled face seemed blotched and fat. One would expect a child so intimidated to flee from the source of her inferior feelings but something about Carmen made Janice long to stay close—to emulate her. She hated herself almost as much as she hated Carmen's hold on her. As Carmen charged through grade after grade in their public school Janice did all she could to hang tight to her colourful shadow. When high school hit and Carmen's slim body shifted into enticing curves, Janice dieted. Her own curves rounded out with far more fervour and by grade ten she purged herself after every meal in hopes that she, too, could be slim and graceful. Carmen gloated over her size three clothing labels without ever coming right out and commenting on Janice's fuller figure. Janice felt a surge of anger churn through her as she slipped into the bushes edging the Lake Huron beach front. She hated purging. She hated feeling insignificant. She hated her ugly red hair and her spattering of freckles and her fat. She'd managed to pull on a pair of size seven blue jeans that evening before the party. She wouldn't mess up that accomplishment by letting the two hotdogs remain in her stomach—and the soda pop—and the marshmallows. Stuffing a finger into her mouth, she reached for the back of her throat and allowed her stomach to heave its contents onto the sand behind the scrub brush. The distance from the fire and her experience with purging told her no one would hear. Forcing her mind away from the moment, she thought about all the reasons she needed to keep her stomach empty. Her job as a bridesmaid at her cousin's wedding this summer prevented her from gaining even an inch. Jeremy Kennedy showed interest in her last week—an accomplishment with Carmen always near—like seeing the caterpillar while the butterfly hovered nearby. Then there was Carmen. Somehow, Janice knew that Carmen would distance herself if she ever allowed herself to gain weight. Like a Queen's attendants, Carmen's companions needed to be every bit as lovely and enchanting—without outshining their monarch. Fat chance of that happening. Janice allowed the thought to linger as she purged one last time. Her friends always wondered why she carried such a big purse. She tossed her own version of the Carmen chuckle back at them and told them that a big purse made a girl's backside look small. They'd been impressed. They didn't know that it carried what she referred to as her 'barf kit'. She'd stuffed a small baggie, filled with serviettes, in the side pocket for wiping her mouth. A bottle of water for rinsing, the ever-present chewing gum, a tooth brush and tooth paste all found a permanent home in the bottom of the bag—along with the make-up for touch-ups after she finished. She'd dug a small hole in the sand—no point in having someone discover her mess and then start asking questions. With practiced moves, she yanked out a serviette, doused it with a bit of water and wiped her mouth. She tossed the serviette into the hole with her previous meal and took a swig from the water bottle. A quick swish and a spit and then she filled the hole in with her foot. There. No one would be wiser. Only she would know the extent to which she went in order to stay in the glow of Carmen's light. Flipping open her makeup mirror, she clicked on a small pen light and checked her reflection. A dab of lipstick finished the ritual. She piled her kit back into her purse and clicked it shut. A burst of laughter drifted up from the beach and she felt the anger again. It wasn't fair. Carmen could laugh and dance her way through life without a care and without a clue as to what she did to everyone around her. Janice made the mistake of complaining to her mother once. The words still seared her mind. Janice, you're better than this. You don't need to feel insignificant around Carmen. You have your own special beauty and you're loved just because you're you. We don't want a second Carmen. We want you. If only that were true. Here, at 18 years of age, she still doubted her worth. Carmen did that to people. She either made them feel like worms or she made them feel like queens. It depended on what she wanted from them. Janice pasted a smile on her face and headed away from the bushes to the blazing camp fire. She couldn't help but think that Carmen had her work cut out for her with a guy like Zach. His reputation preceded him. Of course, Carmen had set her sights on him in the first place for that very reason. She'd made it plain to all the girls who hovered around her that she could wrap him around her finger without giving anything up. Just one more game for Carmen to play. The laughter rang again and Janice gritted her teeth behind the smile. Part of her wanted to protect Carmen but most of her wanted to see her friend topple. It would be interesting to see who won this contest. Chapter Seven Carmen's voice floated over the quiet crackle of the drift wood flames and Dayton narrowed his eyes to see beyond the brightness to the couple opposite the camp fire. She'd just snuggled up under Zach's arm. In spite of his prayer moments earlier it still burned Dayton inside to see her in the arms of another man—it always had but, as always, he dared not show how he really felt about her. He refused to become one of her fishing expeditions. He'd watched too many times as she found some sucker, lured him in, got him on the hook and then jerked on the line by turning to another sucker. He wasn't going to let her see that he'd swallowed the hook years ago and could very easily dance on the end of that line if she knew how to reel it properly. He dropped his stare to the crackling flames and bit out yet another prayer. Oh God! Can you hear me? Can you see what's happening to my heart? Carmen is tearing it apart. Lord, I so badly want what you want for me but I care so much for her. Can you please either help me get over her or help her to realize what she's doing to everyone around her? No...Let me change that God. I'll always love her. There's no 'either/or' involved here. Just open her eyes, please. Soften her heart. Do whatever you need to do to get her attention. Please. Carmen and Zach stirred from their cozy spot opposite him and Dayton watched them stand and offer their goodbyes to the group. He stood too. He knew what he needed to say to Carmen. And he knew she wouldn't listen. Such was the pattern of their friendship. At 20 years of age Dayton figured he'd soon have to make some hard decisions about her. He couldn't remain an adoring shadow for too much longer and he wouldn't compromise his relationship with God. Soon, he'd have to amputate her from his heart—unless things changed. He reined in his thoughts and focused on the movement of Zach's wandering hands. 'Soon' was in the future. He needed to do something now or Carmen wouldn't come out of her latest adventure in as carefree a manner as in the past. Dayton pulled himself to his full height of six feet three inches. He pushed back shoulders hardened from summers of tough labour at the lumber yard and approached Carmen, ignoring Zach for the moment. "Could I speak to you for a minute, Carmen? Alone?" He then turned a cool gaze on his rival and watched the arm tighten around her shoulders. As though Carmen could sense the tension between them, she sobered and looked from Dayton to Zach. Dayton had to give her credit. The older she got, the more in tune she with his passive facade and his serious 'I mean business' tone she became. He received a nod and she turned to Zach. "I'll just be a minute. I promise. He's kind of like a big brother. Okay?" Dayton cringed at her comment and waited for her to disentangle herself from the half-embrace. They walked several paces away from the crowd before Carmen hissed at him. "What do you think you're doing?" Dayton stopped and faced her. "Maybe saving you from making the biggest mistake of your life." Carmen rolled her eyes and prepared to turn back to her impatient boyfriend. Dayton reached out for her arm. "Don't. Don't go with him, Carmen. I don't trust him, he's had way too much to drink and he's got a bad reputation. Just don't go." He stared down into her shadowed eyes and saw a brief moment of hesitation. She threw a glance at Zach and then turned back to him. "I have to. I promised him that I'd go for a ride in his Mustang. I'll be fine. I know what I'm doing." "Do you?" He tipped his head and looked directly at her confident face. "Okay, so maybe you do but do you know what he's doing? Do you know what he's known for? I do and so do a number of other girls who thought they knew what they were doing. I just don't want to see you hurt." He stumbled over the next sentence. "We've been friends for too long, Car. Don't do something you'll regret. Please." Did he see a softening in her eyes? Dayton couldn't be sure but Carmen suddenly lifted her hand and touched his cheek. "I'll be okay. You just keep that praying of yours going and I'll be fine." Her voice carried gentle mockery and then she turned and strode away from him—into the arms of a man known for using girls and dealing drugs. Something surged in Dayton as Zach turned and shot him a look of triumph. He didn't know if he could ever call it righteous anger. Long strides carried him along behind them. Positioning himself by the driver's door of Zach's Mustang, he waited while Carmen settled in the passenger side. As Zach slipped around the tail end of the car, Dayton blocked his path and folded his arms. He hissed out a quiet warning. "You hurt her and you answer to me. You do anything to her that you wouldn't do to your mother and you'll answer to me." He leaned in close, using his height to look down on the man. He bit out his final words. "And it won't be pretty." Then Dayton stepped back and let Zach slide into the driver's seat without another word. The engine roared to life and Zach slammed it into gear. Cranking the wheel hard, he spun the car away. Dayton tried not to flinch as sand kicked up and plastered the lower half of his body. He wanted Zach to look in his rear view mirror and see that he stood firm—unmoved—not intimidated. Chapter Eight Carmen flicked a glance at her watch in the dim glow of the dashboard lights. One a.m. Man. Her parents would have a fit if they knew she cruised the highways with Zach instead of sleeping at Monique's house. They hadn't accepted that, at 19, she didn't have to answer to them. It drove her nuts that she still lived under their roof while she saved for cosmetics and hair stylist school. She had no choice if she wanted to cover the tuition and have a car to drive to class. They’d been pretty strict about the rules. Rent was a given. Church was mandatory. I suppose I don't blame them for that one. Her dad was the pastor of Full Faith Church after all. For his children to skip church bordered on the unthinkable. His children. Her mind skipped to her brother Jake. She'd seen him sitting propped again a piece of driftwood, his eyes closed. Head pumped full of his trashy music; silent—like the walking dead. He looked enough like her to be her twin even at a year younger. He'd be in church in the morning with his ear buds hidden under his longish hair—his eyes glazed and empty. He never argued—just walked around like a zombie. And made it plain in the glares he threw at her that he hated her like poison. Whatever. Carmen turned to watch Zach slide into the driver's seat and slam the door. The charming smile gone, a frown puckered his forehead. She wondered what happened to change his mood. A glance tossed over her shoulder told her. Dayton stood, his arms crossed over his chest and his head tipped to the side. The shadow of night claimed his face but his stance screamed attitude. "What did he say?" Zach cranked the ignition key and the Mustang roared to life. "Nothing worth repeating. Let's go have some fun." Yanking on the gearshift, he hit the gas pedal, released the clutch and let the dirt fly. Carmen swung around in her seat to see Dayton standing like a resolute pillar, his jeans spattered with sand, his face like iron. A shiver crept down her spine as his words stabbed at her conscience. I don't trust him. Don't go. She pushed it aside and surrendered to the anger he stirred in her. Turning back in her seat she grabbed hold of the elastic that held her ponytail in place and slid it from her hair. She pushed her hands into the thick strands, tipped her head back and laughed out her defiance. "Let's do it!" In answer, the car bucked forward like a wild pony set free. Carmen let out a squeal of excitement and allowed her low chuckle to hide the nerves. They shimmied their way across the parking lot and shot out onto a side road leading toward town. She flinched as Zach's hand plopped down onto her knee. She knew his reputation in spite of what Dayton thought and was determined to best him. It was heady stuff—this power she had—addictive almost. With each year's passing, she found it more and more fun to seek out the players and beat them at their own game. Her trophy became a kiss. A single kiss. Zach already had that kiss and yet she remained. Monique called her cruel—and Carmen supposed she was right. She'd seen the wreckage of her cruelty and managed to bury any regrets—laugh them off and move on. The wind whipped through the open window at her hair. Zach's hand began a gentle stroking on her thigh. What would her parents think if they knew where she was? Did it really matter to her? As if they even care. Their interest lay in their stupid religion. A small pout settled on her lips. Church always came first. Her piano recitals took back seat to board meetings, visitations and Bible studies. Her parents chose her clothing so as not to offend the prigs in the congregation. Her father never hesitated to answer the phone no matter whether she'd been asking him a question, trying to tell him about her day or just wanting to be with him. And her mother defended his actions. He's got a church to run, dear. It's the sacrifice that comes with the ministry. It made her blood boil when her mother said that. Carmen hadn't chosen the ministry. She'd had no say any more than she'd had a say in whether she wanted a little brother or not. But she'd had to make the sacrifices that came with being a minister's kid. No parties. No makeup. No fashions like her friends wore. That changed on her 16th birthday when she decided she was old enough to determine her fashions. "You're awful quiet. What's the matter?" Zach's smooth voice broke into her thoughts and she switched her pout into a coy smile. "Nothing that a bit of fun won't fix. I was just thinking about my parents." "That's boring. Let's see if we can't get rid of those thoughts and put some new ones in their place." His hand inched up her leg and Carmen scooped it up into her own. Sliding her fingers between his, she rested their joined hands on the console between them. She was grateful for the barrier, knowing that he couldn't pull her over against his side. "I like the Mustang. What year is it?" Carmen had learned long ago she could divert a guy's attention by asking about something he idolized. Zach doted on his car. "Mustang '68. Eight cylinder engine with enough guts to make this baby fly. 79,000 miles on her and a few more about to be added tonight if I have any say. Anything else you want to know about her?" He turned his face to her, a knowing smile there. Carmen blushed and shook her head. Maybe Dayton was right. Maybe she'd underestimated Zach. He'd already read her mind far too many times that night. "I've been waiting all week for tonight, girl. You've toyed with me enough. Maybe it's time we moved on to the next step." Her heart fluttered. She blurted out the first thing that came to mind. "Or maybe it's time you showed me what this 'stang can do." Zach grinned and hit the pedal to the floor. Carmen flung back against the passenger seat as the Mustang surged into the inky night, leaving South Pier behind. Chapter Nine Adrenaline pumping, Zach pulled onto Highway 21 with more pizzazz than he'd intended. He scanned the road and his rear view mirror. The cops scoured the beach front roads on any given summer Saturday night. He didn't need to add another speeding ticket to his collection. With the new racing law, he didn't want his car impounded either. After a second check for traffic, he jammed the gas pedal closer to the floor mat. Something about the girl sitting next to him made him more reckless than usual. Carmen McGuinty was a player. He knew that the minute he watched her flit from guy to guy at the end-of-summer beach bash last August. The hand he'd been holding suddenly slipped from his. Out of the corner of his eye he watched Carmen lean forward and crank up the radio. He knew she had every intention of moving that hand back to her lap and he wasn't going to let her. Lacing his fingers back in hers he gripped as though he wouldn't let go. The smile stayed put on his face as he let the car follow the black top through Goderich and past the Saltford Road. "Now you're the one who is quiet. How come?" Carmen's voice broke into the bang of rock music. "Just listening to the music—and thinking." Zach bit down on his grin. He knew what she'd say next. "Thinking about what?" Sometimes it amazed him how easily she could be led. Other times he struggled to keep up to her. He dropped his voice to make it sound more believable. "About us." He squeezed her hand a bit and tossed a glance at her hoping to read her face. She sat looking at their hands, her face still. He hated it when she did that. He had no clue what thoughts gathered in her mind. But then—didn't that make her more appealing? Pulling his hand away, he cranked the wheel and churned eastward. "Where are we going?" Zach smiled at the veiled concern. Don't worry Carmen. You're safe with me—for now. I want to have you willingly—not because you feel pressured. I want you to need me—just like you're trying to make me need you. "Just thought it'd be fun to take some of the back roads—burn up some time, you know. I could stop and put the top down if you'd like. I love seeing that hair of yours blowing in the wind but I'd like it more if we could sit and—talk—and maybe just look at the stars." He deliberately reached over and twined his fingers into the silken mass. Carmen held rock-still while he allowed the soft strands to caress his hand—and then he pulled away—again. He knew, if he wanted to maintain control—and a firm grip on himself, he could only handle small doses of contact with her. "No, let's just keep driving. We can still talk like this. If the console wasn't in the way I'd sit closer. Or we can talk later—when you drop me in Monique's drive." She turned to him with that smile of hers and he knew in that moment that he'd unsettled her. Turning back to the road ahead he laughed. "Whatever you say. Let's fly baby." The road stretched ahead in darkened barrenness. The cops didn't bother with the inland roads so much. The parties happened at the beach. He loved cruising through the night hours. The roads belonged to him as he raced along the blacktop. With another wicked chuckle, he swerved the Mustang onto the opposite side of the road and gunned it. "What are you doing?" Panic edged Carmen's voice and he swerved back to his own side of the road. "Just shaking things up a bit." He skimmed back to the opposite side as Carmen's voice rose in pitch. "Would you just stay on our side? This isn't funny." He'd never heard her sound like that before. She never gave in to fear. It rattled her to be on the wrong side of the road. Zach kept the car hurtling forward—even when headlights cut into the distant black. He eased back on the pedal a bit, just to prolong Carmen's agony. With reckless joy, he sawed on the steering wheel, grinning harder when she white-knuckled the dashboard. Her voice carried a tension that drove him to distraction. He floated on a different kind of high. His laugh burst out in maniacal voice as he drank from the power he felt over her. "Zach, there's a truck coming. Would you just pull over?" Her panic turned to anger. She glared at him as though he'd lost reason. Maybe he had. His laughter stopped then, replaced by an impish grin. "We'll be fine. Just a game of chicken. I won't hit him, I promise." "Dayton was right. You have had too much to drink." "Dayton, huh? Well, maybe you should've listened to him." Zach's grin turned wicked and he slowed a bit more but stayed on the left side. The truck moved in fast and Zach heard Carmen draw in breath for a scream. He had her. He'd unhinged her. Swinging the wheel to the right, he swerved just as the trucker locked up and leaned into the horn. The front left bumper kissed the truck's corner. Like the jolting of rocks in the curling rink, Zach's Mustang pinged to the right. The smile left his face as the car jumped to the shoulder faster than he'd anticipated. The graded gravel snagged the front end like quicksand and pulled the car off-balance. Zach gripped the steering wheel as the car shot across the soft ground and dropped into the long grass. His seatbelt clutched at his chest and lap. Maybe Carmen hadn't been so stupid for insisting he stop. His panic rose to the surface as the car chewed through the ditch and spun in a half circle. The back bumper slammed into a section of woven wire fence which flung them end over end in a miraculous jump that sent them upside-down and airborne long enough to clear the ground and land back on rubber. Carmen screamed as the car crunched into the boundary stone where two fields met. In the loud silence, Zach pulled in a deep breath. Then vomited. He wiped his mouth once and passed out. Chapter Ten Tears poured down Nathan's cheeks as the Peterbilt ground to a stop. He didn't remember feeling any kind of impact but thought the car had hit him. He slapped the gear stick into neutral, locked on the parking brake and left the door open as he scrambled to the ground. Staggering around the side of the truck his heart lurched at the flickering glow of tail lights beyond the ditch on the opposite side of the road. A moment of panic hit and then he clamped down on it and shouted. "Are you alright? Is everyone okay?" No answer came from the field across the highway. "Okay, boy. Get a grip. Call 911 first. Then check the car." Talking out loud helped. He dove back into the truck cab for his phone. Punching in the emergency services number, he worked to calm his voice as he jogged across the road to the ditch. "911 emergency services. How may I help you?" "Yeah, there's been an accident. I'm on the MTO Road just east of Goderich. A car was swerving all over the place and clipped my rig. They lost control and went off the road. Their car is bashed up pretty bad and sitting in a field. I'm heading there now." "Okay, sir. We're going to lock on to your GPS locator and we'll send an ambulance and police right away." "Okay. Ma'am, my wife is at home in labour and I'm supposed to be there. Can you tell them to hurry?" A brief silence followed and then the dispatcher's voice returned. "I'll do my best sir." Nathan kept the phone to his ear as he slipped down into the ditch waded through the narrow swamp and up the other side into the farmer's field. The driver must have been flying to leave a furrow in the field like he had. The car, a Mustang, sat on its wheels with its nose moulded around a large rock. His heart pounded. He shouldn't have looked down to open that energy drink. He would have seen the car sooner and could have stopped. Guilt slapped at the corners of his mind and he silently screamed at it. Not now. Don't lose it. Keep your head. Pray! "Oh God! Please God, don't let them be dead!" Nathan didn't know what else to say. It would be more than a miracle if the occupants of the car lived. He'd seen a flash of long white hair in the truck's headlights and guessed that a woman sat in the passenger seat. The driver's face had been shadowed but he knew the brief image of the white hair would stay with him forever. The car had flipped but only the back half of the rag top crumpled—as though the angle of the ditch had caught only part of the roof. All four wheels were buried and the axle had to be broken, judging by the angle at which they sat. Nathan slogged for what felt like an hour through the deep ploughed dirt until he reached the driver's door. With the strength of desperation, he yanked at the handle. It didn't budge. Shock dropped over him as he realized that both of them were alive. He reached a shaking hand in through the open window to place two fingers on the side of the young man's neck. A soft moan answered. "I've just found a neck pulse in the driver. And there's a girl in the passenger seat. She looks pretty banged up. I'm going to go check her too." The dispatcher talked to Nathan in a calm voice as he worked his way around the front of the car and its granite hood ornament. Half way he stopped to listen. "I hear sirens. Sounds like the police are coming." Finishing his push to the passenger side, he tried the door handle and found it jammed. "I can't get the doors open but the windows are down. She's got a pulse too—slow—hardly there but she's alive. It shouldn't be too hard lifting her up out of the car. I don't think she's going to last long, though, if someone doesn't get to her soon. Her breathing is really slow and she's not moving. Tell me what to do. I have to do something." Nathan babbled and he knew it. The dispatcher spoke in soothing tones. "Sir, the police and ambulance should arrive shortly. You must to stay calm. They're going to need your help. You can't help them if you panic." He nodded as though she could see him and swallowed hard. The scream of sirens filled the silent country-side and Nathan watched the emergency vehicles pull to the side of the road. While the police set up flares, the paramedics grabbed bags and scooted down into the ditch. He took a deep breath. "They're here now. They're coming to the car. I'm okay now." "Thank you, sir. I'm going to sign off but you need to talk to the police right away. They have to know what happened. Are you sure you're okay?" Again he nodded and then realized she needed him to speak. "Yeah, I'm good. I gotta go help my wife now. Thanks." Nathan hung up and moved back across the field toward the nearest officer. His legs trembled and the tears poured down his face. The paramedics scrambled past his pointing finger. It shook along with the rest of his limbs. By the time he made it to the side of the road he wanted to throw up. He sat down and put his head between his knees, waiting for the world to right itself—waiting for the nightmare to end. "You okay, sir?" Nathan looked up into the concerned face of a uniformed woman. "Yeah, I'm okay. Two kids—two crazy kids. Maybe early 20's. A guy and a girl. They just drove straight at me like they wanted to die. I locked down on the truck and hit the horn but they were going too fast. They clipped my front fender and hit the ditch. I just don't know why anyone would do such a stupid thing." He dropped his face into his hands and let the tears come again. Then he remembered why he was in such a hurry to get home and jerked his head up to gape at the police officer. "I gotta get to my wife. She's having a baby. I've gotta be there." He tried to struggle to his feet but his legs trembled against the strain and he swayed. "Sir, I don't think you're in any condition to drive right now." Nathan stared at his truck, idling by the road side. He brought desperate eyes back to the officer. "No, ma'am. I'm not. But my wife is about to have our first baby and I can't miss it. Please." The officer stared back at him then tossed a glance over at the accident scene. Turning, she waved him to follow as she headed to her cruiser and her partner. "McCready. I need you to stay here. I have to take this guy home. I'll get the statement from him on the way and I'll radio it in that you need backup. We have a baby delivery to get to." Nathan didn't know whether to offer a prayer of thanks or wave a fist at the sky. He didn't do either. He pinned his gaze on the back of the officer's uniform and followed it until she opened the cruiser door for him. Slipping into the vehicle, he scanned the scene one final time. The emergency vehicle lights invaded the darkness as people scrambled to undo the mess done—a mess to which he had contributed. A gurney bounced and floated in the blue and red glow, its carriers seen only in shadowy flashes. God, if you're real… He sure hoped they lived.

Duke the Chihuahua Writes!

Purchase Duke the Chihuahua Writes!

Excerpt with permission Newscroll Books. Copyright US Library of Congress.

Chapter 1

In the Beginning There Was—Duke?

There are two kinds of dogs. There are the ones that lie on the hearth, like lumps of fur and flesh in the same manner as a bear skin rug. These have only one purpose in life and that is to trail, with little cognitive thought, along behind a human—like a shadow that smells—well—like a dog. Then there are dogs like Duke theChihuahua. These are the thinking kind. They surprise you with their intuitive outbursts; their one-line quips; their refusal to be merely a dog. Duke began as my neighbour’s pet and the roles quickly reversed. My neighbour often finds himself catering to the canine in question. Recently, Duke has begun to spend more time here as though he feels it is his mission in life to take me under paw as well. Hmmm.

Don't let Duke’s name intimidate you. He is a regal old piece of fluff and at one time would have greeted intruders with a bristled mane and curled lip. Needle sharp fangs would have been flashed and all would have been well. I'm afraid he has, in his senior years, taken to a more dignified 'nose in the air' approach to usurpers of his territory. He still has the heart of a lion but the rare necessity for curled lip now reveals a pink gum line where those needle sharp teeth used to be. Duke seems to realize that this isn't the manliest thing to live with and so, for the most part, keeps that lip firmly planted.

I used to think Duke was just one of those brainless dogs as described above. Stupid me. He has begun to participate in the editing of my manuscripts and my writing has improved dramatically. At first, I wasn't very partial to having Duke critiquing my work but after a quick 'get over yourself' look and a few good turns of phrase, I realized he would be quite an asset.

And so, Duke the Chihuahua has joined me as I take my journey through the literary world. You think I jest! Oh no. Duke is very real and he is, in fact a Chihuahua as his title suggests. I refuse to commit to the reliability of what he says but I will tell you that those eyes are very convincing.

 

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Chapter 2

Knowing Why We Write What We Write!

I couldn’t think of a better beginning for a book about writing than starting at the beginning. But what is the beginning? Duke asks the most profound questions sometimes and my answers can be equally profound; at least I think so. As I look into earnest eyes—eyes bulging with the question—I think out my answer carefully.

I suppose the beginning of our writing starts within us. We need to understand why we are writing. Are we writing simply to be read? Do we have something of value to say? Or is it, as some writers have said, that we write 'simply because we can’t not write'. (Yes, Duke, the double negative is appropriate in this case.) What if it is all of these things? We need to know so we can write with deliberate purpose.

We writers can get ourselves into hot water simply because we write on the fly. We do not analyze what we want to write and why we wish to write it. We don’t think about our own emotions before we begin to write and, believe me, writers need to do that! We can’t afford to go off on tangents because we are annoyed with the local business man or the regional politician. When we step back and think through what we feel about the subject for which we wish to write, we give ourselves that one precious tool that lifts us above the ordinary word scribbler—neutrality.

So Duke, my canine friend, before you put pen to paper, or claw to keyboard, consider carefully what is driving you to express your mental churnings. Step back and view it without that deep passion for which you are famous. Then plug in that laptop and get to work!

 

~~~~

 

Chapter 3

Writing is a Choice

As a college-level creative writing instructor, I found myself in the unusual position of being able to observe quantities of writers over a period of time. When I began teaching I assumed that everyone would choose to attend class and would put their best efforts into each lesson. Duke the Chihuahua educated me that I had been naïve to think so. Unfortunately, Duke was right. Over time, I recognized that each writer makes the choice to do their best—or not.

On occasion, the powers-that-be in some organization gets it into their minds to have me come and share some of my observations with them. Such was the case for the National Tractor Parts Dealership Association’s annual conference planners. It appears that the struggle with choice is not one isolated to writers only. Apparently, it has wormed its way into the tractor parts business too.

I took the cheapest airplane—my choice—to Nashville, Tennessee where the conference was being held—their choice—to confirm what I already knew--that tractor folks are a great bunch of people; and they didn't kick me out or ‘boo’ at me or throw tomatoes! Duke seems surprised. Scruffy mutt!

As mentioned, I was asked to talk about choices. We all make them whether we want to or not. The session in which I spoke bore the title Life is a Choice and I can’t stress enough how true this is—in relationships, in tractor businesses and, of course, in writing.

For instance: I could choose to stop writing or to continue based on my feelings. Some days I feel like I'm failing because it seems that no one cares. Other days I'm sure I am exactly where I belong. In both cases I continue to write because I choose. I choose not to give up. I choose to believe that there is a God and this is where He wants me. So I write. Life is full of choice. We choose what we eat. We choose what we believe or don't believe. We choose whether we will rise above our challenges or let them conquer us. We can blame no one but ourselves for our life's journey because we are the ones who make the final choices. When things go wrong we choose how we will handle them—or if we will hide from them. It's all about the choices—and when I was finished speaking, the attendees chose not to throw me out; I chose to be grateful.

After the conference, I returned home to a half-demolished house with plaster dust everywhere. It was apparent that our renovations had begun. Sigh. Again with the choices! Do I sit down and cry or do I lift chin and soldier on.

My office is now two bedside tables with my computer set up on them. My filing cabinet is—um—somewhere and Duke the Chihuahua has made his own choices. He has chosen to abandon me for cleaner digs. I have chosen to forgive him for his betrayal.

 

~~~~

 

Chapter 4

Duke—Get Your Facts Right!

It amazes me how such a smart dog can have so great a flaw as gossip but Duke the Chihuahua seems to be overwhelmed with the desire to expound on details of peoples' lives that are really none of his concern. He has just queried me as to whether my conversation with you would be considered gossip since his affairs have nothing whatsoever to do with me and my cronies. I have informed him that she who holds the keys to the treat cupboard has the right to comment upon the folly of her underlings. I have also just come dangerously close to a well-deserved gumming about the ankles. (Did I not mention? Duke has tipped over the peak of the hill into geriatric-land and, as a consequence, has had the misfortune of losing some of his most important teeth.)

As I understand it, he, his canine neighbour Angela, his buddy Pugsley and Pugsley’s sister, Molly, have had an online bridge game going for quite some time. Each week the foursome gather in their internet chat room and let loose on even the most minute details of the goings-on in their lives. The conversation is ripe with the misdeeds and misadventures of those around them. Quite simply, they have become addicted to gossiping about their pet people (Duke gets quite incensed when I refer to him as 'Ed's pet dog' but doesn't seem to have an issue with referring to Ed as his 'pet human'. Go figure!) How, you may ponder, does gossip tie in to writing? Well…

Writing is an expression of one's self. Our beliefs. Our views. Our thoughts all poured out onto paper or blog and it all becomes fair game for public display. Knowing that, it is our responsibility as writers to make certain that we are telling complete truth—in fiction as much as in non-fiction. For example: If I were to write an article about animal cruelty and declare that it is extremely vicious to keep Duke in the house because he is a dog and dogs are meant to run free, and I were to incite people to rise up and rescue poor Duke—well—I would be spreading gossip and misinformation—and maybe even committing the act of libelling Duke's pet human. (Duke's bug eyes have just gotten buggier with, what I can only guess as, horror at the thought of being turned out onto the streets.)

However, if I were to say that Duke, while being quite content to curl up on his cushion on the back of the couch, wasn't permitted to go outside at all and was expected to cross his little spindly legs to prevent accidents in the house, and I had a veterinarian who was willing to go on record to say he had witnessed this indecent act, then I would have every right to report it so long as the offender had been proven guilty, convicted in a court of law and paid the penalty for the misdeed. (Duke has just scrambled to the door and is staring outside with a look of panic on his bewiskered muzzle. Don't worry Duke. It is hypothetical.)

In the same way, if we are writing fiction and our main character is suspiciously like our neighbour who—pox on him—hates Duke the Chihuahua and would like nothing better than to see him stuffed and posed on a shelf in his game room, we are still gossiping and edging very close to libel again. By the way, Duke does not have a neighbour like that. He is adored by all his human acquaintances. The cats aren't exactly cozying up to him though and might be a wee bit delighted at the above mentioned scenario.

When we write, we must always do our homework and we must leave our grudges at the office door. It allows us to be professional and to write unbiased work. Yes, Duke, perhaps you should consider setting the example for your bridge buddies. Oh—and when you are online with Pugsley again, please send him my condolences on the bone choking incident. Perhaps a hint that he should eat a bit slower might be of benefit.

 

~~~~

 

Chapter 5

Ideas and Outlines

It isn’t easy for a writer to write. First they must find the idea. For Duke this has never been a problem. He has numerous experiences pertaining to the life and times of the not-so-average canine and he is wise enough to check the internet to see if his ideas have been done before. If so, he finds a new angle with which to present them. No, his biggest challenge comes in getting the idea from conception to end product.

I told our fuzzy friend that my writing career began in the same manner as a Sunday afternoon drive. I would climb into the literary vehicle of choice, start the engine and just drive. It is a nice concept. There is freedom. I was not hampered by the mundane details of knowing where I was going. Far too often it backfired. I found myself on a back country road with the gas gauge needle on empty and no clue as to where I was. I ended up shutting the vehicle down, abandoning it and backtracking on foot—literarily speaking, of course.

When I finally discovered the beauty of completing an idea and outlining it, a whole new horizon opened to me. I am well aware that the free-flying spirit of a writer is almost allergic to an outline. I am also aware that the analytical mind of the average English curriculum creator isn’t exactly conducive to presenting an outline that is always writer-friendly. I have come to the point where I can say, without remorse, that outlines, in some form, are necessary. There is a time and place for free-style writing but the beginning of the story isn’t that place. Duke is eyeing me with the suspicion of one who senses he is about to have a muzzle of sorts implemented.

Outlines and ideas come in all shapes and sizes so let’s assume Dukey wants to write a book. He has offered me his most exciting idea—Captain Duke, the stoic super-mutt, and his battle against the giant feline. My first question to Duke is this: How will the story end? Duke has just popped open those already popped eyes in a look that can only be interpreted as you’ve got to be kidding! No my short-snouted friend. I am not.

It takes a truly gifted writer to stay on track from beginning to conclusion of story in a manuscript size and I am not one of those. I begin my book by writing the complete idea on a single piece of paper. I know how the story ends. I then begin to expand it by adding ideas that might weave and twist through the story. In Duke’s case, we could make the cat a genetically altered feline due to some sort of biochemical spill. She could be completely evil and have intentions of destroying all the dogs in the world. We need to decide how that will be done and how our hero will stop her. We need to throw roadblocks in the way without getting lost in the literary fog. It is simply a case of writing a short story and expanding on it.

Duke is looking at his laptop with something akin to puzzlement. I suspect he is pondering how he will manage to start with one page and expand it. I suggested he take Christmas wrapping paper, turn it over, tape it to the office door and put his basic idea on it in point form. From there he can add ideas, sticky notes, arrows, more points, problems, solutions to those problems and then more problems again. The time will come when he will sit back and recognize that the skeleton of the thing is complete. It is at that point that the freedom to write can be implemented. He will stay on track because he will have a road map of sorts. He can type to his heart’s content and when he experiences that nasty ailment called writer’s block, he can glance at the outline hanging on the office door, know where he is and where his story will be going. Writer's block will be averted.

So Duke, stop your gaping and get busy. You have an outline to write.

 

~~~~

Vengeance--Final pre-pub draft

 

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                                                                 Prelude

 

            It was a harsh land.  A land created for survivors.  Ruggedly beautiful in summer with sharp snow-capped granite peaks jabbing at crisp blue skies, their formidable structures providing a starkly contrasting backdrop to the endless carpets of wildflowers, moss and boldly coloured soil, to the brutal winters that sealed the land in a tight cocoon of glacial ice, numbing cold and darkness.  Far from the eyes of the governing authorities, it was the perfect place to experiment into areas that would otherwise be frowned upon.  And it was, after all, only one Beluga whale.  Even if the carcass was later found, it would be impossible for anyone to trace the elements back to the source. 

            The man watched as his subordinates hand cranked the cable that ran from the small but sturdy crane to the net encased mammal not thirty feet from the stern of the mid-sized fishing vessel.  The boat rocked with the thrashing of the pathetic creature as it heaved its blanched hide in protest of the rough hemp.  The erratic jerking and yanking was offset by the hypnotic rhythm of Hudson Bay’s stiff tides and currents and the man wanted the thing to be done and over so he could return to the safety of land.

            He studied the whale as it was pulled alongside the ship.  Alabaster white, it was a beautiful mammal.  Almost a pity to destroy the thing.  But as seemed to be the norm in this crazy world it was an innocent at the hands of someone else’s agenda.  The whale stilled and, as instructed, the men kept it half-submerged.  There was no point in stressing it any more than necessary.

            He walked to the rail and reached down into a box lined with foam packing materials.  Pulling out a large syringe, the man held it up to the grey skies and eyed the dose of clear fluid it contained.  It should be enough to give them an accurate testing.  If it could kill the whale, it would most certainly do its job on its other intended victims.

            He patted the animal’s streamlined, smooth skin gently, almost apologetically.  And then he plunged the syringe deep, emptying it of its contents.  Surprisingly, the creature never moved.  Its eyes were just above the waterline and it rolled the nearest one back to fasten on the man with the syringe.  As though it knew its own fate.  Returning the instrument back to its case, the man settled back to wait.  He figured maybe three hours at best and then the creature would begin to show signs. 

            Ignoring the quiet whale, the man filled the gradual passing of time by scanning the nearby shore, keeping an alert eye out for any human intervention.  It would be awkward explaining what had just been done.  Better that there were no witnesses.  Along a rocky outcropping, a flock of long-tailed ducks waddled and fussed, pleased with the mild summer as they preened their young and themselves.  The tundra was vibrant with unusual and persistent life in the short span of time allowed for the warm season.

            The man knew all about the tundra.  He had studied it with great detail.  He knew every plant from the arctic cotton that swayed in the crisp winds to the lousewort and saxifrage that covered the ground in a tenacious blanket.  He had followed the migratory paths of the caribou, seen the polar bear in action and felt his heart swell with the aerial ballets danced by the peregrine falcons, snowy owls and Sabine’s gulls.  This was a land he could truly love given a different life.  But he only had the life he’d been handed and he would make certain it counted for something.  In spite of those who had shaped it brutally and unknowingly.  Because of them.

            He turned his eye back to the Beluga.  It had settled into the net after its first violent protest and continued to wait patiently for whatever it was meant to wait for. The creature had earned his instant respect and again he felt a twinge of remorse. Glancing at his watch, he was surprised to find that the three hours had come and gone in his fascinated study of the landscape.  He moved closer to the seized whale and examined every inch of its sturdy form.  Nothing.  A frown flickered across his brow and he turned to his associate.  “Are you certain the dose was right?”

            The smaller, bespectacled man merely shrugged and nodded.

            “I wonder what’s gone wrong then.”  He turned back to the whale and gave it another once-over.

            “I don’t understand it, sir.  This compound is strong enough that it should have shown its mark long before now.  Maybe I should draw a tissue sample and take it back to the lab to see what went wrong.”

            The man nodded and stepped out of the dainty man’s path.  “Get it done then, release the poor creature and we’ll be off.  I’ll contact my chopper pilot and he can pick us up on shore.  Don’t dawdle.”  He gave his associate a knowing look and reached into

his pocket for his two-way radio.  “We’re ready.”  He barked the two words into the receiver, waited for acknowledgement and then turned to the vessel’s captain.  “We’ll pick up my chopper on shore.  I’ll need your life boat to get myself and the doctor there.  Would that be a problem?” 

            The ten thousand dollars above the rental fee for the fishing vessel pretty much guaranteed that it likely wouldn’t be and the Captain shrugged his submission.

            Finished with his ministrations over the whale, the doctor turned and secured the tissue sample along side the empty syringe in the padded case.  He rose and heaved the bulky case into his arms almost jealously and maneuvered across the open deck to where the lifeboat was being lowered to the water’s rolling surface.  Before long, the two men were settled, side by side, in the small wooden motor boat and heading for shore. 

            No one on board the ship would hear the small burst of sound deep in the bowels of the vessel where the engine room was located.  If they had they would be scrambling like ants at a picnic in order to repair the small but effective damage done to the resting engine.  So absorbed in the approach of the sleek helicopter were they that they also missed the second muffled pop that punched a small hole in one of the lowest of the ship’s seams.    From his perch in the small heaving life boat the man could tell exactly when their first inkling came that something was wrong.  He smiled as the ship tilted slightly more than it should have in the Bay’s choppy waters.  The Captain turned away from the rail and his retreating passengers tossing orders to his men and then he turned a wicked eye back to the life boat.  The man saluted him, the smile widening on his face. From somewhere aboard a crew member shouted that the ship had sprung a leak.

            The first mate scrambled to the bridge with the intent of turning the vessel to shore, but as he fired up the engine, the small damage ballooned into a loud explosion and black smoke roiled up from the stairwell that led to the ship’s center. 

            The Captain clutched the rail angrily and shouted for his men to jump ship and head for shore.  If the freezing water didn’t kill them, they might find a way to civilization using the small row boat.  Against the backdrop of the distant shouts the man felt the muffled scrape of the boat’s contact with the gravel of the shore and he calmly stepped from the still bobbing craft.  From the small cargo area of the helicopter the pilot pulled out a can of gasoline and offered it to his boss.   He shook his head in refusal.  Let the pilot do it.

            He watched dispassionately as his pilot poured the can of liquid over the life boat then and again he smiled as tongues of yellow and red flame leapt from the wooden structure, consuming it in an instant conflagration.  He cast a sly glance at the small figures splashing stiffly in the frigid waters.  The fire loudly broadcast their fate to them in the heat waves and smoke that plunged skyward, shifting and gyrating with the increasing rotation of the chopper’s blades.  He stood a few moments longer enjoying the life giving heat, watching as it faded into weak embers and then he nodded to his pilot and settled himself in a back seat leaving the front passenger seat to his associate in crime.  The sleek bird rose in the air, hovered for a moment and then slowly lifted above the smoldering ruins to the clearer air.

     The man continued to watched as the crew struggled and splashed their way toward shore.  Few of them would make it through the arctic

waters and those who did would not likely survive in the harsh tundra.  The ship sank quickly, its heavy diesel engine pulling it under the icy waves.  Within minutes no sign of it remained other than a dark shadow beneath the churning surface of the Bay.  One by one, the men of the small fishing vessel The Swordfish slipped beneath the waters as they too succumbed to the frigid waters.  He nodded to himself and reached forward to tap his pilot’s shoulder.  He’d seen enough.  No witnesses.  That’s what he had decided.  That’s what he got.  The chopper tilted and sped off toward the south leaving the land as it had been.  Empty.  Stark.  Barren.  Incredible.

             Yes.  Nunavut was a place for only those who were gifted in the art of survival.

 

Chapter One

            It could be quite embarrassing being the only son of Star Trek enthusiasts.  Especially when one’s parents decided to name their son after its main star.  But James Kirk Benedict had long ago resigned himself to the unusual handle.  He had to grudgingly admit that it had even strengthened him somewhat.  One couldn’t go through twelve years of public schooling with a name like that and not find a little backbone.  He did, however, manage to shorten it to James Benedict by the time he settled into university life and now, as he pursued his career with the Federal Bureau of Investigations, few knew of the connection to the sci-fi show.

            James plunked himself into a teak deck chair, closed his eyes and lifted his face to the distant sun, wishing that he had chosen a warmer place to sit.  But he had privacy and that was more important than gravitating to the warmer Lido and Promenade decks.  Opening his eyes again, he scanned the horizon.  The water in this chunk of the Pacific was the colour of slate and it heaved and churned around the cruise ship, bobbing it up and down like a giant cork.  The Sky Deck had been a good choice for solitude but he hoped the brisk wind wouldn’t interfere with the last bit of his work before he could enjoy his fifteen day cruise.  With this amount of chop, few would venture so high without heaving the contents of their stomachs.

            Slipping on a pair of sunglasses, he carefully opened his briefcase, prepared against a gust of wind eager to send his files into the drink.  He pulled a manila envelope from the case’s depths and quickly snapped the leather clasp closed again, setting it beneath his chair.  The Casey Carpenter File was typed across the smooth yellow surface and he withdrew the contents, feeling a knot twist into his gut as it did any time he worked on a child’s case.

            She was a real cutie, he thought as he looked at the glossy five by seven of a cherub-faced six year old girl with merry blue eyes and bobbing blond curls.  Beneath it lay the photos taken at the scene of the crime.  This child would never feel six again.  Gone was the sanitized backdrop of the Grade One photo and in its place was a dark, dungeon of a place, filled will human filth, rotting garbage and broken bits of metal and glass—and a small crumpled body.   She lay on her side, facing the camera, vacant eyes staring into the lens.  A paramedic hovered alongside, working to find a vein in the slim arm, captured forever on film in this single act of mercy.  One after the other, the pictures stitched together scenes of a morbid and grim story.  Battered and bruised victim.  Clothes torn and cast aside.  Tools of cruelty.  Bits of newspapers and magazines with letters and words cut haphazardly from them.

            James scanned the last photograph and dropped the bundle, still grasped carefully in a large hand, to his lap.  He sighed as he lifted his eyes to the scene before him and wondered for the hundredth time why he didn’t finish going over the file before he left for his long-awaited vacation.  He probably should have left it on his tidy desk in San Diego but he had to know all the details for court.  Thankfully his partner Reese had agreed to tie up any loose ends while James was on vacation.

            He thought back to the day they had received the phone call from a concerned neighbour.  It seemed that the perp was well-known for inviting kids into his house—something the neighbour didn’t think was their business—until they recognized the kidnapped child on TV.  James had come very close to using his service revolver that day.  It was Reese’s interference and that still small voice that had kept him from pulling the trigger on the man who had so cruelly tortured the little girl.  He wasn’t too sure, as he sat reflecting over the pictures, that he would have felt much remorse either.  There were days that he still contemplated vengeance on behalf of the victims he came in contact with.  And those were the days where his grandmother’s Sunday school teachings would drift through his mind reminding him once more of her favourite Bible verse.

                                    Revelation 7:17

            For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water.  And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

            James gathered the pictures into a tidy bundle and evened the edges before

clipping them together with a large paper clip and returning them to the envelope.  Just because his grandmother was right, it didn’t make it easy.  Especially when he had to see the Cassandra Carpenters of the world and all they would have to endure to find some semblance of a normal life. The thought of the child’s rehabilitation side-railed James and

he allowed himself the distraction.  Cassandra had been sent for therapy with Dr. Julie Holding.

            Julie.  She always picked up where he left off in cases like this.  He welcomed the

intrusion as his mind took hold of the image of the Office for Victim Assistance psychologist.  She was a woman that would take a life time to understand.  The child and her family had just been moved into her capable hands.  If she had her way, Jesus truly would, some day, wipe away this little girl’s tears.  But Julie had her work cut out for her.

            Leaving the deck chair, James pulled himself up and wandered over to the glass lined edge of the cruise ship’s top deck.  He was a strange sight with his Hawaiian shirt tails peeking below the hem of his navy sweat shirt, baggy shorts flapping above socks and sandals and his briefcase clasped in a firm fist.  Somehow he hadn’t thought that the crisp San Diego winter weather would follow him out to sea.   At any other time, he wouldn’t be caught dead in socks and sandals but the cool air gave him no choice.  It was that or he wear his dress shoes and he wasn’t sure that would be any better.  He was just lucky that he had tossed the sweat shirt into his suitcase—just in case.

            Allowing his gaze to stray across the horizon, he released a pent up sigh.  The sky had a leaden hue to it, blending into the choppy water that gave way to the sharply angled bow.  He leaned his elbows on the oak railing and turned his mind back to the day before boarding the luxury cruise ship.

                                                            *          *          *

            “I just can’t go James.  Please don’t ask me to.”  Julie’s voice held a firm note and she raked her hand through her long dark hair.  It was a sure indication that she was growing annoyed with a conversation that had repeated itself numerous times in the course of three months.

            “How did you know I was going to ask you?”  James experienced a mild sense of

alarm on occasion when Julie made it plain that she knew far too often what was on his mind.  He never understood the whole ‘women’s intuition’ thing and it sometimes made him a bit nervous that she could read him so well.

            “Well you were, weren’t you?”  A sudden smile twitched at the corners of her mouth as though she was on the edge of forgiving him for the slight trespass before he had even confessed to it.

            He lowered his fork, abandoning the pasta dish.  “Well—yes I was—sort of.  Actually I was only going to express that it was a shame that we couldn’t find some way of going on the same cruise ship without automatically leading people to believe that we’d be sharing a cabin.  I wasn’t actually going to ask you outright though.  I already knew what your answer would be—again.”  He didn’t like the sulk in his own voice. 

            “You and I both know that people will talk.  It isn’t assumed any more that men and women who travel together aren’t necessarily—together.  Be that as it may, it’s too late to make any changes anyway.  I can’t get the time off now even if I thought it was a good idea and Cookie can’t be left alone for two weeks.”

            James looked away, choosing not to comment on the cocker spaniel that had made it very plain that he wasn’t welcome in Julie’s life.  He sighed and pushed a forkful of pasta into his mouth then not wanting to disturb the evening’s peace with memories of growls and teeth marks.

            “Look James.”  Julie’s hand settled on his arm gently and he brought his eyes back to her face.  “You know I’d love to go.  I want to be with you but I also want to maintain my integrity before God.  How can you and I show our co-workers that Christ

means something to us if our actions don’t reflect that?  You know they’ll talk and as much as it doesn’t matter to me on a human level, it most definitely does on a spiritual one.”

            Feeling the reprimand, James attempted a smile and turned the conversation to their busy week.  “So what do you think of the new case?  Do you think you can help Cassandra?”

            Eyes as blue as the Pacific waters narrowed.  While it was necessary for Julie to maintain a professional distance, it was a challenge she didn’t always successfully rise to.  Especially when the victim was so young.  “I’ll do my best.  I think I may ask for prayer support with the small group.  No names.  No details.  I’ll just tell them I have a child patient badly in need of emotional healing.”  She twisted a strand of her curly, brown hair around a finger. 

It was an endearing habit that told James that her mind had plunged completely into the topic.  Two weeks away from those all too familiar gestures wouldn’t be easy.

The smile slipped from James’ mouth and his eyes clouded.  “I’m really going to miss you.”  Reaching up, he took hold of the hand and unwound the strand of hair, giving it a gentle tug. 

Julie allowed her hand to slip into his and she shrugged.  “I’ll miss you too but it is only two weeks.  It’ll be over and you’ll be back all rested and ready to dive back into your job of saving the world.  I’ll be here waiting.  And Cookie too.”  She smiled impishly then, well aware of the animosity between the man she loved and the animal she

loved.

            James snorted and wiped his mouth.  “Yes I’m sure Cookie will be thrilled to see me again.  I still have the marks from the last time she was

 

overcome with love for me.I hope you won’t be offended if I don’t miss the dog?” He watched Julie’s smile dim a bit and tried for a lighter tone. 

 

“Tell you what.  When I get back, I’ll buy a nice little juicy bone for her and maybe—just maybe—she won’t be so concerned when I try to kiss

 

you.”

            “Cookie’s not here now.”  Her eyes deepened and James swallowed.

            “No.  No she’s not.  But we are in a restaurant.”  He liked the direction this conversation was taking.

            “Well I’m finished if you are.  And a nice walk would be just the thing to finish off the evening with my favourite guy.”  Julie rose and pushed her chair into the table.  Without another word, she turned and headed for the cash register.  James knew what was coming and scrambled to his feet knowing that if he didn’t get to the counter first, she would pay the bill.  While he didn’t have a problem with a woman picking up the tab, he very much had a problem with Julie paying when he had suggested the dinner out.    “This is my treat.”  He pushed a bill onto the counter while she fumbled with her purse and grinned as she pinned him with a look and then snapped the clasp shut.

            “Then thank you for a lovely dinner.  My treat next time.  Deal?”

            James nodded his answer and took her hand as they sauntered out into the cool evening.  They chatted of insignificant things, neither one wishing to spoil their last night together with pettiness.  Wandering into a small park, James stopped her and turned

Julie to face him.  “I know you don’t want to hear it but I do still wish you were coming with me.  Then I wouldn’t have to say goodbye for two weeks.”

“James can’t you just let it go?”  She sounded tired.  “Let’s just enjoy the moment

ok?”  Lifting her hands, she placed them on either side of his face and pulled him down to her.  The kiss she had hinted of moments earlier lingered, filled with deep emotion, conveying her feelings more than words could.  And then it was gone and they were left facing each other the impish glint back in her eyes. “And Cookie wasn’t here to interfere.”  She dropped her hands to his collar, straightening it out of habit.  “Just enjoy your holiday and remember me on occasion.  Like I said; I’ll be here when you get back.”

                                                *          *          *

Pushing a hand against his unruly black hair, James allowed his mind to linger a bit longer on that kiss.  He was seriously considering a more permanent commitment with Julie—obstinate cocker spaniel notwithstanding.  But could they juggle their careers and still foster a relationship?  And how would they approach the idea of a family of their own in such a tumultuous and emotionally draining environment?  It wasn’t the first time the questions had come to mind.  It likely wouldn’t be the last.

            Gathering up his brief case, he abandoned his post at the bow of the ship, hunched into the brisk wind and headed down the stairs that led to the elevator.  He was badly in need of a warm room and a good cup of coffee.  Shivering, he slipped into the marble floored elevator and punched the button that would drop him to the promenade deck and then he leaned back to watch the numbers announce each floor as it passed.  A small chime rang and the doors shushed open to the foyer on deck four and he began the long trek to the rear of the ship where his stateroom waited.  With the swipe of his plastic key, James slipped into the tiny room that he would call home for the next two weeks.  He deposited the briefcase into his open suitcase which he then proceeded to close, lock and stuff under the bed, pulled his sweater over his head and returned to the hall and the staircase that would lead him up one deck to the coffee lounge.  A staff member with a broad smile, heavy accent and name plate with Jan engraved on it greeted him warmly as he slid onto a tall stool at the coffee counter.  “What is your pleasure sir?” 

            James returned the smile.  “A large black please.”  He waited patiently while the young man placed the steaming brew before him and he wrapped his cool hands around the mug and sipped slowly, grateful for the liquid warmth that ran the length of his

esophagus.   He was in the middle of his second cup of coffee when his satellite phone rang.  Several patrons in the coffee bar looked his way, surprise and annoyance flickering over their faces.  He had the sense to look guilty for having his phone turned on while on a cruise.  The truth was he never really felt connected without it.  Offering a timid smile, he flipped the instrument open and spoke softly into it.  “Benedict here.”

            “You told me to call.”  Julie’s warm tones filled his ear and his face lit up. 

            “So I did.”  Leaning on his elbow, he turned away from his fellow vacationers and his smile broadened.  “What’s up in your world today?”

            “Well.  You weren’t joking when you said Cassandra Carpenter would be a real challenge, but I won’t get into the details.  Just pray for her ok?”

            He nodded.  “I haven’t stopped.”  Silence filled the receiver.  “I miss you, you

know.”

            “I miss you too.  And I don’t want to hear you say that I should have gone with you.  A part of me is already regretting that decision.” 

            James could hear the wistfulness in her tones and he sighed.  “I know.  I probably shouldn’t have tempted you with the offer.  It was purely innocent but you’re right—people talk even when there isn’t anything to talk about.  Someday.  It’ll happen the right way.  I promise.”

            “If we can ever get our lives organized enough.”  The conversation had slipped into its familiar pattern—talking about the inevitability of marriage—if their schedules would work.  “I’d better get back to work.  Some of us don’t get the luxury of sitting in

the sun all day.  I just needed to hear your voice again.”

            His smile broadened and he took on a bantering tone.  “Well those of us who do have the luxury haven’t found the sun yet.  I look a bit silly in sandals and socks.  I don’t know why I thought the temperature would rise the minute we got off shore.  Oh well.”  He sighed his mock misery.  “I’ll just have to suffer through.  I’ll give you a call tonight so I can tuck you in for the night.”

            Julie snorted.  “By the looks of the Carpenter case, I’m going to be busy trying to figure out a way to get the poor child to talk.  I don’t think bedtime will come too early for a few nights.”

            “Just don’t overdo it.  I don’t want to come back all refreshed just to find you exhausted.  And I’m getting to the stage where our schedules are going to get rearranged

permanently.  This is the last cruise I’m going on without you.  Deal?”

 

            He could hear her smile again.  “Deal.  You enjoy yourself and I’ll talk to you tonight.”

            “I love you, Jules.”  It was a whisper.

            “I love you too.  Come home all safe and tanned ok?”

            He hit the end button and felt the smile slip from his face.  So much for a relaxing

holiday away.  He missed her too much already.

                                                            *          *          *                                             

            In a cramped office buried deep beneath the bowels of a concrete and steel monstrosity of a building, a man sat at his desk, a sullen expression fixed on the shadowed skin.  He absently tapped a pencil on the chipped surface of his desk as his eyes wandered over the small case that had just arrived via courier.  His father’s medals.  Newly mounted.  Encased in wood and glass with a black velvet backdrop, they were all that remained of his father’s service years in Vietnam.  The Vietnam Civil Actions Unit Citation, the Vietnam Campaign Medal, the Gallantry Cross.  All mementos of his father’s call to duty.  And his own personal loss.  His mind drifted back to that time and he set aside the pencil and reverently stroked the beautiful casing.

            His father had been a private for so long.  Since before marriage and the birth of his only son.  He had been a good soldier.  But not an outstanding one.  Vietnam changed

all that—and him.  His unit was one of the first waves of soldiers sent, on March 8, 1965, to that mysteriously exotic corner of the world.  To a place where he had to learn to be

outstanding—or die.

            August 18, 1965 brought Operation Starlite and his father had written home about how proud he was to be in the first wave.  What the boy’s mother wasn’t told was of his father’s small stash of drugs carried into battle with him and how the man had felt the first addictive high of heroine just before his unit moved on the VC stronghold on the Van Tuong peninsula in the Quang Ngai Province.  The drug’s effects combined with the adrenaline surge lifted the boy’s father out of the ranks of the average foot soldier into class of the elite, earning him his first medal and a promotion to Lance Corporal. 

            Over the course of the next five years, the boy’s father shifted from battle to battle, fighting tenaciously, striving for more and more recognition—sinking deeper and

deeper into heroine dependency.  With each accomplished objective, he moved up the ladder of rank finally attaining Sergeant.  And then the day came that ended his ambition. 

            The bullet hit the soldier in the thick muscle of the thigh.  It should have come out that day and healed beautifully.  That was what the army doctors had said, anyway.  In the letter home he had cursed the bullet for not taking his life.  What good was he without a leg. 

            And so he was decommissioned.  1970.  The boy was six and didn’t know his father.  The soldier was depressed, addicted, violently angry and showed signs of a strange illness that the army doctors couldn’t explain.  The boy watched helplessly as his father endured the agony of the disease that started with painful lesions behind the ears and under the arms.  Soon cysts and pustules had spread to the groin area and across gaunt cheeks.  Hyperhidrosis followed, leaving the soldier perpetually soaked with sweat and the boy began to avoid him.  And then blisters rose and covered the surface of the

already tender skin and he couldn’t bear to even look at him.

            The soldier went to the army doctors time and again.  Badgering them for anything to kill the pain. Scheming for ways to get a heroine fix.  The boy watched as his father gave up trying to use a prosthetic limb and settled into a wheel chair with defeated inevitability.  And then the leukocytosis moved into the wasting body shooting the man’s white blood cell count up to an unbelieveable 29 x 109/L, elevating his lymphocyte count

until the doctors could only use one phrase to describe the horror growing in him.  Chronic terminal cancer.

            On December 5, 1974, a year before the end of the Vietnam War, war hero, heroine addict and one-legged father of an eleven-year-old boy died—a shadow of his former self.  The boy stood in the wind that whipped through the snow covered cemetery, mourning for the sore-infested skeleton and the loss of the man he had never really known.  His mother stood at his side, her tears long ago dried up. 

            The buzzing of a telephone brought that young boy back to the present.  Back into the body of the forty-three year-old-man.  He set the medals aside and forced his mind and emotions back into the dark cubicle as he picked up the phone.  “Yes, Doris?”

            The nasal voice came back at him in bored tones.  “You have a call, Sir?  Would you like me to patch it through or should I take a message?”

            He weighed both options quickly deciding that he was far too emotional right now to make rational decisions.  “Take a message, Doris.  If it’s something that you think we shouldn’t pass up, give Harry a call with it.  Give me a half hour or so.  Ok?”   Doris hesitated.  She was likely shocked that he had rejected the call.  That wasn’t like him at

all.  He never passed up a business opportunity.

            He pressed the button to terminate the connection and allowed his mind to finish its train of thought.  It wasn’t until years later that he had discovered the reasons behind his father’s death.  The mysterious cancer was caused by dioxin poisoning.  His father had received massive doses of the stuff while fighting a war that wasn’t his country’s to fight.  Polychlorinated Dibenzo Dioxin.  Better known as Agent Orange.  Or one of the other rainbow chemicals used to defoliate the jungles of Vietnam.

            Nor did he find out until the ‘90’s that the U.S. military command in Vietnam, while insisting it was safe, sprayed it full strength up to twenty-five times the manufacturer’s suggested rate.  By 1966 they had dumped just over two million gallons across that beleaguered country’s landscape.  But they knew.  They all knew.  The makers of the wicked concoctions.  The government officials.  The Air Force scientists. 

Even the army doctors treating his father knew.  Their precious “Project Pink Rose” was far more important than the health of their own soldiers.  

            And so one small boy watched his father die a horrible death.  Watched his mother struggle with the overwhelming medical bills.  Stood at her graveside, too, after she succeeded with one of her many desperate suicide attempts.  And while uncaring leaders moved on with their lives, distancing themselves from the horrors they had created, he had just entered his own private world of terror. 

            Shuffled off to foster home after foster home, with only his father’s medals as a token remembrance, stuffed carefully in a battered shoebox, the boy grew into manhood. Tipping back in his creaking office chair, he thought about where he had come from and where he’d ended up.  What did he really have?  His parents were gone.  He had no siblings.  No real family to share his life.  He had been left with a handful of ribbons and engraved steel.  And a slowly awakening deep anger.

 

Fires of Fury-Pre-pub draft

Purchase Fires of Fury

Chapter One

The spring morning was bright and cheerful—and depressing. Katherine looked out the bay window of her living room.  With an angry glare she scanned the vibrant colours of the front flower bed. It should be raining, she thought miserably as she followed the path of a Robin with her eyes. The dark bird with its flamboyant red breast hopped down the flagstone path that she and Darryl had worked so hard to install just a year ago. Another monument to a marriage long ago dead. Spring’s first batch of flowers swayed in the warming breeze and newly awakened bees danced around each blossom. It should be dark. It should be ugly.

Turning away from the picturesque scene she crossed the living room with reluctance, her black dress shoes clicking on the hardwood floor and the long black skirt swishing about her ankles. Her mood was as dark as her clothing but that was to be expected under the circumstances. A car horn honked from the paved drive and she allowed one last cursory glance in the hall mirror before she left for the funeral home.

Black eyes stared back at her, large and heavily lashed. Her pale face looked just that much paler framed in her jet hair and a black turtleneck sweater. Darryl had loved the hair cut, telling her that the short straight layers of varying lengths and angles made her look like a model. He had always found ways to charm her and she smiled grimly at her reflection. And once again, I’ve been stupid enough to believe all his flattery.

Her gaze dropped from the mirror to the stack of mail on the hall table below just as the car horn blared again. She’d forgotten about the bundle of letters in the aftermath of emotions. Quickly she sifted through the various fliers and junk mail, prepared to throw the whole heap in the garbage when a letterhead caught her attention. The Corporation of the Town ofSevenforks. And it was addressed to Darryl in his own compact script. Why would he send a letter to himself? She would have opened it but a sudden insistent knocking on the door caused her to hesitate, stuff the letter into the hall table’s single drawer, dump the rest of the bundle of junk mail into the garbage pail underneath and open the front door. “Sorry. I was just finishing up a few things. I didn’t mean to make you wait.”

Katherine’s sister wore a look of concern on her face as she wrapped her in a tight hug. “Are you going to be ok, Katherine?” It was a silly question but Jasmine always meant well with her sometimes misplaced words.

“Do you mean—will I be able to handle having people stare at me and wonder what I did to drive my husband to suicide? Yes. I think I’ll be able to deal with it. Remember, I’ve been dealing with Darryl’s crap for seven years and I’m pretty much used to the stop, stare and gossip response.” The bitterness was thick and Katherine pulled away before the tears could come.

“That’s not what I meant and you know it. You’ve been through a lot. I just wanted to know if you’re going to be ok.”

Katherine could feel her sister’s hurt and she chided herself for the abrupt response she had given her. As they left the quaint frame house she pulled the door closed behind her and looped her arm in Jasmine’s in a reconciliatory gesture. She allowed her sister to guide her to the rust spattered car that sat idling in the drive. Just before she opened the door, Katherine held Jasmine back and turned her to face repentant eyes. “Look, I’m sorry Jas. I didn’t mean to be snippy. I just know what to expect. I guess I’m more than a bit defensive over the whole thing. That’s all.  I’m sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Jasmine offered a forgiving smile. “I know you’re having a tough time of it. Maybe it’s good we’re running a bit late. That’ll shorten the time you have to stand and talk to people. And I have an idea.” Jasmine brightened, “Nate can stand on one side and Tim on the other. That way they can intimidate anyone stupid enough to make a mean comment. Deal?”

Katherine barked a cynical laugh. She loved her youngest sibling in spite of the tendency Jasmine had to mother everyone around her. And Nathan and Timmon, her younger twin brothers, would do exactly as she had suggested too. Jasmine held them all under her gentle powers of persuasion having always had that bossy way of hers.

Slipping into the back seat, she mumbled a brief hello to her brother-in-law and then turned to look out the window as they backed onto the busy street and pointed the old Buick La Sabre toward the west end of town. She remained silent, too weary and sad to carry on decent conversation. She knew Jasmine and Bill would likely recognize her quiet depression and she was relieved when they left her out of their soft chatter. How does a person mourn a suicide? How can I feel the loss of love when I doubt that he ever loved me in the first place? Why did he kill himself after telling me he finally had his life together and was looking forward to starting a family? Why was I stupid enough believe him?

Katherine felt the sting of tears at the back of her eyes and tried to think of lighter things. She would not cry for him. Not this way. Not when he had left her the way he did. Looking out the dusty window, she turned her mind to the town that she loved. Sevenforks. Named by the Huron Indians before they had been annihilated by the cruel and relentless smallpox outbreak that swept through the aboriginal people in the days of

the early settlers.

With sandy-eyed exhaustion, she focused on each building they passed, dissecting it with her mind, rehearsing the history if she knew it, guessing if she didn’t. The drugstore. It was built of rough-hewn granite block and had been one of the first homesteads. Carring’s Clothiers. A men’s shop squeezed into a block of adjoined brick buildings. The optometrist, Sally Amos’ office. Dr. Colbiette’s clinic. And so on. The car slipped through the stop lights as they came. Church Street where six denominations vied for the attentions of the population of five thousand six hundred and ninety-two people—ninety three when Sally’s baby was born. Piper Street. She always remembered that street name as a child because of the bank buildings that dominated the corners. Her father had found it appropriate because anyone who borrowed money from any one of those financial institutions would some day be forced to ‘pay the piper’. Water Street. Aptly named as it wended alongside Bullrush River to the junction of seven different streams that burbled off into their various directions giving the reason for the town’s name of Sevenforks.

Katherine smiled a pale half smile—the first in some time—as she looked fondly on her town. As they passed through the Water Street intersection, she turned her head and stared down the length of it, following the stretch of road as far as the first bend. She had grown accustomed to driving down that road when her life had been in turmoil—first on her bicycle as a child and then in a car as age and licensing dictated. The further she got into married life, the more familiar the path had become. It was such a peaceful drive, passing houses built to last by early settlers who used the water way for transportation. The more recent pavement gave way to gravel as the outskirts of town were reached and Water Street continued its meandering path alongside the southernmost branch of the Sevenforks intersection.

The car moved on leaving her to content herself with the remainder of the journey to the Funeral Chapel by counting the new duplex houses built in a rush to meet the demands of a growing town. They chugged the last half dozen blocks through the busy Monday morning traffic and Katherine sighed as they left the antiquated and inviting downtown core behind.  She and her siblings had grown up in this town and she knew every inch of it.

Darryl had been a relative newcomer having drifted into the town on the daily Greyhound bus, a duffle bag full of his only belongings slung over a well-muscled shoulder, an insurance license tucked neatly into his worn wallet and a burning desire to make something of himself. It hadn’t taken him long either. With his insurance company born and rapidly becoming successful, he tried his hand at local politics and soon found himself a town councilor with a small office and a moderate pay. 

He was a smooth talker with a deceptively sincere way about him. Soon her haunts became his haunts and they just kind of merged together deciding after a year that they would make a great team as husband and wife. Had she thought that one through—and listened to the emphatic advice of her family and those wiser—she might have saved herself a lot of heartache. But she would have missed some of the good things they had shared too, she mused. Another forlorn sigh accompanied the thought.

The modern apartment complexes and the car dealership passed by while she dwelt in those first years of wedded bliss. She had been so naïve—so in love. Darryl had loved her the way she needed to be loved—or so she thought. He bought her roses and planned evenings with her. They hiked the countryside surrounding the town and skied when the central Ontario winters dropped bounteous portions of snow. All the while, she remained in her little dream world, believing that Darryl was her Prince Charming. She had had enough rude awakenings over their seven years to change that idea.

The La Sabre groaned to a stop outside an elegant brick building with its large calligraphied sign proclaiming the Abernathy Funeral Chapel and Katherine winced as she counted the number of cars parked in the lot behind the building. Darryl was a popular guy. That’s for sure. She wondered how many of the mourners would be young ladies. He had had that unseen charisma that seemed to draw them like bees to honey. Shrugging the bitter thought away, she climbed from the car and steeled herself for the ordeal to come.

Composing herself, she remained at the far side of the car until she had drawn a final calming breath and squared her shoulder. And then she stalked around to the front of the car and situated herself between her protective sister and brother-in-law, allowing them to lead her to the large oak doors that opened into the chapel and the casket that bore her husband.

The room buzzed with the quiet voices of those who wished to offer their condolences to the family and bid final farewells to the deceased. Katherine took her place by the flower draped casket, deliberately turning away from the photograph that graced the smooth walnut top. She knew the glossy eight-by-ten inch picture too well. It had hung on the wall in her living room until just three days prior to the funeral and then it was pulled from its place of prominence to be used for the funeral home visitation before the ceremony. Once the reality of Darryl’s newest lies had hit home she had decided that she would bury it with the coffin.

It hadn’t been easy for her to take that one final look at the photo before handing it to the Reverend. She no longer wanted to be reminded of the many ways she had failed in her marriage. The picture summed up beautifully all that Darryl was—the charcoal grey business suit and gold embroidered tie that had become his costume of choice, the wide smile in a face of chiseled perfection, practiced and pasted on when a young beauty came his way, the thick blonde hair waving around the strong forehead in a slightly mussed arrangement of fine silk and the blue eyes that danced with a touch of arrogance and a look of innocence that she had stopped believing in long before she had heard the news. No. She wouldn’t miss the picture. She promised herself that.

An elderly woman stalked toward her and Katherine could feel her stomach muscles clench. The woman was seventy-ish and wore a purple felt hat on her carefully coiled silver hair. Makeup was expertly caked into the folds and crevices of her skin—an attempt to smooth out her age. A purple wool suit draped a slim and erect figure and support hoes completed the ensemble. Mrs. Jarvis. What will she have to say about it all? Katherine knew she would very quickly find out. The woman tossed a look of condescension at the two young men flanking the Katherine. She knew Mrs. Jarvis must be struggling to refrain from her typical spiteful comments—a painful endeavor no doubt. But the older woman with her mincing steps and her perfumed handkerchiefs didn’t really need to say much. Katherine had known seven years ago what Mrs. Jarvis thought about her. The elegant matron wore a half-smirk as she by-passed the rest of the family and approached. With poorly disguised disdain, she took Katherine’s hand in her own gloved one and offered a limp shake.

“I’m so sorry for your loss, my dear. We never know why people do these terrible things, do we?” She leveled accusing eyes at her and the smirk faded as quickly as it had come, that brief look filled with hate and anger.

Katherine could feel her brothers draw closer but their strong presence was unnecessary. The old girl threw a venomous look to the twins, pushed the hand away and moved on toward the coffin.

Drawing her linen kerchief from the sleeve of her cotton and lace blouse, Mrs. Jarvis dabbed at her dark eyes and turned her words to the gold-framed portrait. “Such a shame that you felt so much despair, my dear boy. Perhaps you’ll enjoy a bit more peace and happiness in the life to come. We can only hope for at least that.” Tossing a brief glance back at Katherine, she turned and headed to the room where the service would shortly take place, the clacking of her heeled shoes enunciating her barbed words.

Timmon muttered in a whisper. “The old bat.  She’s pretty nervy to even show up here.”

Katherine touched his arm gently. “Yes and we all know why she came so let’s just let it go. At least she didn’t drag Bev along.”

“No. I don’t think Bev’s stupid enough to be seen within a block of this place today. That would be just a little too tacky—even for her.” Nathan offered his opinion and Katherine sighed.

“Maybe I should have just let her have him seven years ago when she wanted him so badly. Then it would be her—and her mother—standing here. And I wouldn’t have to live with the fact that she had had him anyway.”

Timmon squeezed her hand in private sympathy and turned to smile at the next group of people. The comments whispered further down the line drifted to her and Katherine braced herself for yet another round of apologies and expressions of sympathy. It might not have been so painful if she had been married to a man who had been faithful—and hadn’t found life so unbearable that his only way out was to commit suicide. The hushed atmosphere was gently broken by the kind voice of the Reverend as he announced that the service would begin shortly. Katherine allowed her brothers—and the remainder of her close-knit family—to usher her into the attached chapel where she seated herself for the service to come. The choir began to sing a haunting song of redemption and divine peace. Her heart twisted as the words of the hymn mocked her own tumultuous emotions.

She remembered little of what followed. Bible verses were read. Kind words were said from the carved oak pulpit. More songs were sung and a brief eulogy spoken describing the attributes of a man she now felt she had barely known. And then it was over and the casket—complete with the photo—was lifted into the back of the hearse for its slow parade through town to the cemetery behind the Presbyterian Church.

She waited in the elongated vehicle while the poll bearers offloaded the car’s contents. They marched with solemn expressions through the intricate wrought iron gate and placed the heavy casket on the moist dark dirt near her family’s plot. The cluster of mourners stood waiting, heads bowed, while Katherine eased out of the hearse and took her place with her family. There was no one present from Darryl’s family. He had never admitted to having one—and never wanted her to meet them if he did. With a hollow and numb heart she watched as the polished box was lowered into its resting place in the warming soil.

She endured it all with tight-lipped silence, refusing to give in to emotions that would have her weeping uncontrollably. Her mourning had begun and ended the same day that the police officer had arrived at her door with the pronouncement that Darryl’s car and body had been found scorched almost beyond recognition on a concession road several miles out of town. And a suicide note had been found on his desk at his office. So many questions left unanswered. So many doubts.

She stood until most of the mourners had trickled off to their vehicles. The freshness of the air teased her, reminding her of the intensity of life—a life that she would now face alone. The fragrance of the first lilac blooms lingered and she drew in the scent as though to heal her heart. Fastening her eyes onto the bark of an old horse chestnut tree, she hoped that the resolute stare and clenched jaw she presented would prevent the town residents in attendance from feeling comfortable in approaching her. Her gaze would have remained there but a slight movement near the tree grabbed and held her attention. It took seconds for recognition to register and she found her eyes suddenly glued to a familiar face.

Immediately Katherine’s cheeks blushed with the only colour they had known for days and she tipped her head quickly to look down at the lowering casket in a desperate effort to hide a surge of shame. The face she had just seen was an instant reminder of the one moment of embarrassment in the whole traumatic ordeal. As the events of that horrible night had unfolded, she had found herself clinging to the stiff uniform of the officer who bore the news. Pouring out a torrent of tears and anger, she had unleashed on him all that had filled her mind and heart. And he had held his arms awkwardly about her and patted her back gently while he waited for her to finish.

Silence had finally come and she had remained nestled against the thick chest, unwilling to let go. Just once, she had wanted arms to hold her that were trustworthy. And so she clung. Until he cleared his throat. Heat flooded through her then as she realized what she had done and she had released him and stepped back, her hands working in vain to cover the blazing cheeks. She remembered his quiet goodbye and her own desire to plead with him to forget her actions. Instead she had simply stood there while he let himself out. And now each detail returned to taunt her as she recognized the same police officer. If she wasn’t certain he had seen her there, she might have turned away and headed for the car. But he had seen her and was slowly working his way through the lingering few mourners toward her. It left her with no other choice—she would have to face him and get the apology over with as best she could.

She studied him closer. A dark overcoat hid the suit he wore. A collar and tie peeked from the upraised coat collar. His sandy blonde hair danced with the occasional breath of wind but was subdued by the shortness of the cut. He had finished his brief conversation with one of Darryl’s admirers and was just turning her way when Katherine had caught sight of him. He had offered her a determined smile, pinning her down with eyes the colour of bright honey, silently commanding her not to run.

Lifting her chin, she tried to look away, hoping that her siblings would sense her sudden distress and come to her rescue. Jasmine was busy fussing over Bill’s collar and Timmon and Nathan chatted quietly near their cars. She looked around hoping to find someone to engage in conversation but everyone was either busy or moving away to the car lot. She turned back and tried to throw a casual glance in the police officer’s direction. He was moving toward her and she felt the panic rising into her throat. She really didn’t want to face another moment of embarrassment but it didn’t appear that she would have much of a choice and so she waited as he weaved his compactly muscular body around the few remaining mourners. From nowhere came the thought that he was a very tall man and then Katherine shut the observation out.

“I hope I’m not intruding on your loss.”

The voice was warm and gentle as Katherine had remembered it to be and she tried to ignore that fact and focus on the reason he was there. Why is he here? Curiosity overcame her momentary discomfort and she found herself voicing the question. “What brings you here, Officer…ah…Wolfe if I remember correctly?”

He nodded a sympathetic expression on his broad face. “I thought I would stop by to express my condolences.”

Katherine relaxed hoping that he wouldn’t bring up her previous behaviour. “So how did you know Darryl?”

The police officer looked away casually and stuffed his large hands into his coat pocket. “I actually didn’t know your husband, Mrs. Matheson.”

Katherine reigned in the sudden unease and tried to keep the tension from her voice as she felt her muscles stiffen in nervousness. “So why are you here, then?” He brought that honeyed gaze back to her face drawing out the colour on her cheeks once more. Katherine cocked a hip then and crossed her arms her defenses rallying against further humiliation.

“I just thought I would pay my respects to the family…and see who came to the

funeral.” There was a solemn glint in those amber coloured eyes—enough to take the bite out of her retort.

“Do police officers make a habit of coming to the funerals of complete strangers then?”

A blonde eyebrow rose and he responded with a hint of amusement. “I didn’t think we were really strangers. At least that’s the impression I was left with.”

Katherine took a step back as though she’d been slapped and anger leapt to the surface. Her cheeks had returned to a full flush and she hissed at the interloper. “I think you should leave now. Perhaps your police chief would like to know about your visit here.”

Officer Wolfe lifted his hands to concede defeat and offered a lopsided grin by way of apology. “Look, I didn’t come here to insult you and I’m sorry for that last comment. I didn’t realize you’d be sensitive about it and I didn’t intend to insinuate anything. I just figured that you wouldn’t consider me a stranger after being offered a shoulder to cry on. I certainly didn’t intend to hurt you. And by way of explanation—that sort of thing happens often. People who lose a loved one need comfort. It’s perfectly normal. There is no need for embarrassment of any sort. But I do have another reason for being here as I said earlier. I did want to offer my condolences—which I have done poorly—but I also wanted to see who came to your husband’s funeral.”

“Why would you do that?” Katherine calmed, somewhat relieved that she hadn’t made a fool of herself again as she thought about his explanation and apology. And then her attention skipped on to the second reason for his visit and she frowned. Why would he want to know who came to the funeral?

He paused and she could tell he was gauging what he should say to her, measuring her strength in a single glance. Looking away, he cast his gaze across the dwindling crowd and spoke in a deeper, softer voice sending chills of fear down her spine.

“Because I’m not so sure that your husband committed suicide.”

The Adam & Eve Project

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P R O L O G U E

          In the underground bunker the voices bounced hollowly, like floating apparitions of sound. It was 1940 and the German war machine was smashing its way boldly through Western Europe. Poland was occupied. The Germans had flanked the Maginot line entering Holland without as much as a warning. Britain sat itself squarely in Belgium, like a steadfast bulldog prepared to guard new territory. Japan turned its eyes on the vastness of the South Pacific, hungering for the expansion of her mighty empire, and Italy ceased waffling between the Axis powers and the Allies, firmly deciding to join with the nearest geographical might.

          But in the bowels of the earth none of this was of importance at the moment. No one knew of this particular hole in the dirt. Far below the titanic conflict that threatened to destroy all that lived and moved in this European corner of the world nestled a conglomerate of rooms tied together by narrow and dimly lit halls. The rooms were proportionate only to the ability of their stabilizing structures in the effort to keep the tons of dirt above from swallowing them, but even still, they were large enough to host small groups of scheming and heavy-thinking men who enjoyed their strutting and crowing before the red and black banner of the Nazi movement. The thick language of the German people chopped through one room in particular, anger and dissatisfaction crashing against the steel walls like relentless mortar shells.

          “What do you mean, you had to stop The Project? How do you know for certain that anyone is aware of the complex?” The Fuehrer jumped to his feet, knocking the chair back in his tirade, a lock of unruly dark hair flopping across the tense forehead and spittle flecking the corners of his mouth. His eyes were wild with an instant fear and fury as he faced the possibility that his lifelong dream might be discovered by the enemy. Drawing a calming breath, the man struggled to control his infamous temper, and reached down to upright the chair. He sat slowly again, like a snake lowering itself into its coils before the strike. Glittering eyes scanned the faces in the room, noting with a strange satisfaction that no one would return his intense stare. That was good. They feared him.

          The young officer who had brought the message stood straight as a rod, but Adolph Hitler could see that the lad was terrified. He wouldn’t be the first one the leader of Germany had shot for delivering an unfavourable message. Hitler narrowed his eyes and looked closely at the young man. Perfect. Beautiful. Foundation stock. Why is he not part of The Project? He eyed the second lieutenant like a predator would assess its next meal. The man was easily six feet tall and built solidly. Deep azure eyes drilled holes in the far wall, never wavering. Hair, so blonde—almost white—and silky, covered his head in a thick and wavy carpet. His skin was fair like a woman’s and his cheeks were tinted with a bright red, telling all in the room that he feared the attention of his Fuehrer.

          “What’s your name, Leutnant?” He pronounced the German equivalent rank as ‘loy-ten-nant.’

          “Eric, Mien Fuehrer. Eric Schneider,” the young man said in an even, steady voice.

          “What part do you have in The Project?” The words purred through the room and a few of the Generals shifted uncomfortably in their seats.

          “I was in charge of security, Mien Fuehrer.”

          “I see.” He was suddenly amused by the craftiness of The Project’s chief scientist. The fat old man was a genius in diplomacy and politics as much as he was in his particular scientific field. If the French had discovered the whereabouts of the experimental laboratory, it was because of this young man’s inability to do his job correctly, and the aging scientist would make certain the punishment didn’t land on his own doorstep. Pity such a lovely specimen of the Aryan race had to be so incompetent. He watched as the man swallowed hard, the fine forehead beading with perspiration.  “So, because of you…” Hitler rose to his feet, clamped a hand behind his back and, stroking his chin with the other, slowly circled the young man, eyeing him thoughtfully, “…my most prized project must stop?”

          “Yes, Mien Fuehrer. I take full responsibility and await your decision on my discipline. I don’t ask for mercy. That is weakness.”

          Hitler stopped his circling and looked directly into the Leutnant’s hooded stare. He was surprised by the response, and strangely proud. This is a true Aryan. He remained brooding and silent for a moment longer and then he smiled. It sent a chill through the heart of the soldier standing at attention before him.

          “You will not die today, young Leutnant. Your answer is the right one. You show true Aryan pride and dignity. For this I will reward you. Your genetics will be added to The Project, and your family line will live forever.”

          A muscle in the man’s face twitched as he thought of some of the cruel and seemingly unnecessary experiments that were taking place in the name of The Project. Through his mind flitted a momentary thought of escape followed by defeated acceptance. He wouldn’t get more than five feet from the door before being cut down by the guards in the room. Snapping his heels in resigned salute, accompanied by a raised arm and a strained “Heil Hitler,” he turned sharply and marched toward the door, flanked on either side by two SS-Oberschutz.

          The smile faded from the Fuehrer’s face as he watched the brutal “black-shirts”—his elite killer soldiers—usher the next guinea pig for The Project through the chamber doors. Let’s hope the good doctor uses only the looks and bravery of this manand not his intellect, the cruel leader mused. He seated himself once again and remained still for some time, his mind working through the problem that had been laid out before him. Finally he roused himself, as a gentle cough shattered the silence of the room, leaving its harsh echo to fade into silence again.

          “Yes, General?” he asked.

          “I wish to offer a suggestion, Mien Fuehrer.”

          “Go on.”

          “The French have been a thorn in your side since the beginning,” the General said, encouraged by the Fuehrer’s silence. “You want to conquer France eventually, but if we strike now, perhaps we can speed up your supreme reign in Europe. If we can intimidate King Leopold of Belgium, maybe he will surrender. We can then enter Northern France and drive the French into the English Channel. Once we own France, your project is safe again.”

          The General sat waiting in silence, hoping he wouldn’t be the next victim of The Project. Who knew where the whims of the mad leader would take them. Hitler dropped his chin into his hand and remained silent. The tension expanded. And then the Chief Commander of the Third Reich lifted his gaze to the General and smiled his stiff grin.

          “Yes. It’s a good plan, General. It will also advance our eventual conquest of England. And the rebuilding of the Aryan race won’t be interrupted. Very good. Very good, indeed.”

Chapter 1

          SHE WAS JUST OVER TWO YEARS OLD and sat abandoned by the side of the dusty road. Her dark ebony skin was a backdrop for the caked-on dirt that had been kicked up by the constant wind. Her stomach was bloated from lack of food and spindly limbs hung listlessly by her sides. A desperate mother had propped her against a rock and left her there. Eyes that would be nut brown couldn’t be seen behind the hard crusts that glued the lids shut, and blistered lips had cracked and bled only to crack and bleed again. And yet, in spite of her frail condition, her lungs and vocal chords had expressed her discomfort and displeasure with a hearty and piercing wail.

          The two men had heard her loud protests through the open window of the LKW Opel Blitz transport vehicle and pulled to the side of the road. That was nearly a day ago, and still she sat, occasionally bleating a small cry.

          “I think we’ve seen enough. She will do. We can always get another if need be.” The man spoke with a precise British accent in spite of his German officer’s garb. He scanned the horizon with squinting eyes, nervous that he had spent the last day in an active military zone. He was a portly, thin-haired man, and the uniform chafed his wattled neck as the sweat poured down his pasty face and into his collar. He hadn’t enjoyed camping overnight in this God-forsaken land—if one could call sleeping behind the driver’s wheel of a military truck 'camping'—but the girl couldn’t be overlooked. It appeared she had much in the way of endurance and that was the whole purpose of their foray into the eastern desert areas of Libya at the beginning of a world war.

          Rommel had only recently come to the rescue of the Italian army, taking over the African regiment. The German General, known as the desert fox, was consuming North Africa in an attempt to satisfy his rapacious appetite for land, and the two men who sat in the shade of their truck shifted nervously, anxious to be away from the patch of barren dirt which would soon become a bone for two world powers to contend over.

          Leaving the passenger side eagerly, the lower ranked officer scrambled over to the baby girl and tenderly lifted a weak and bony hand, cooing softly at the pathetic squawk that issued from parched lips.

          “You’ll be dead by sunset, but maybe that’s a mercy,” he whispered. Throwing a hurried look over his shoulder, he was somewhat relieved that his superior hadn’t heard him. And then he bent over the small girl and gently scooped her into his arms. The life they were about to place before her was not exactly the kindest. But it was life. And by the looks of things that was better than the alternative for this small child. He returned, toddler in hand, to the canvas covered truck loaded with supplies and a portable lab. The older scientist completely ignored the half-dead child as he shifted his rotund bulk in the discomfort of the scorching African heat. With reluctance, he left the cooler shade of the driver’s seat to join his aide at the rear of the truck.

          “Let’s get the blood test done then and get out of here, Yngve. I can’t stand this heat a moment longer.”

          “What if she tests positive?” The younger scientist dreaded the answer he knew would come.

          “Well then, we leave her behind, of course. We can’t be rescuing every abandoned child in Africa, you know. I thought you understood the purpose of The Project and the sacrifices needing to be made on its behalf.” The sweating elder turned a haughty eye on his younger Swedish associate.

          “I understood,” Yngve said, “but I wasn’t going to assume.”

          He could already feel the heartbreak of abandonment and ultimate death for the girl. But what were the odds that this child didn’t carry the strange diseases that had been popping up across the continent? Yngve laid the pathetic infant in the shade beyond the dropped tailgate of the olive green vehicle and opened a canteen of lukewarm water. He soaked a cloth with the precious liquid, sheltering it from the drifting clouds of tan coloured dust, and dribbled it across cracked and blistered lips, amazed when the child’s tongue darted out to taste.

          “Well, I’ll be! Take a look at this, Sir Horace.” For some time, the kind man continued his work, slowly hydrating the young girl. His associate—for he refused to think of the callous man as a friend—paced impatiently in the shade of the truck.

          “Would you hurry up, Yngve? We need to go or we’ll be caught, and I dread to think of what could happen to us if we are found with a half-dead Libyan child.”

          Yngve clenched his teeth together, trying hard not to criticize the man for his shallowness. He reminded himself of the purity of The Project and its impact on the future of mankind.

          “Be patient, Sir Horace. I can’t draw blood if the child is too dehydrated. Even a finger prick won’t bleed if her blood is too thick.”

          “It’s been an hour since she started getting water. Do you think perhaps it’s time for you to try?” Sir Horace asked.

          Yngve threw an impatient glance at his associate, drew a lance from his store of sterilized instruments, and tapped it against a tiny black thumb. Both men turned a startled gaze to the child, surprised at the loud screech that accompanied the thumb prick, and Sir Horace smiled, hopeful for the first time since they had found the waif.

          The younger man gently worked the small digit until a single drop of blood smeared against the glass slide, and then he covered the slide with another piece of glass to protect it from contamination. This he handed to Sir Horace, who had suddenly developed an interest in the child, and then he proceeded to clean and cover the miniscule wound on the girl’s thumb while his superior tinkered with the offered slide.

          “There, little lady. That’s better now, isn’t it?” Yngve said.

          Sir Horace’s smile broadened as he adjusted the microscope’s eyepiece, bringing the sample into focus. The child’s blood appeared to be clean; she wasn’t infected as far as he could tell. She was simply malnourished and dehydrated. Oh Glory Be! he thought to himself, as he wiped the slide clean with alcohol and packed up the microscope amidst the foreign and unidentifiable bric-a-brac.

          “I don’t see anything that suggests the child is contaminated,” Sir Horace said. “Pack up your things so we can get out of here.”

          Yngve grunted his agreement and began to gather a few things from the truck’s supplies. Throwing a final look at the stock, he kept quiet his disgust of the selfishness that kept such advanced technology a secret. Not one piece of the equipment or serum that filled the truck had ever seen the inside of a public hospital. As far as the common man knew, the stuff hadn’t even been invented yet. And people continue to die unnecessarily because of it. Again, he reminded himself of The Project’s mission and, gritting his teeth against the injustice of it, swallowed his emotions.

          Sir Horace turned his attention back to the child and, for the first time, truly looked at her. Her wiry black hair had a bleached and singed appearance to it, common to one who hadn’t seen proper food for some time.  “You’ve done wonders at cleaning that disgusting goop off of her eyelids, Yngve. By the look of things, they haven’t been opened in a while. I don’t think it’s wise to rush that part of it, yes? The little sot is likely filled with parasites. Disgusting if you ask me.”

          Yngve wasn’t asking. He would deal with the parasites, too—when the time was right. Patiently, he mixed a solution to be fed by dropper to the child, knowing that she would revive quickly upon ingesting the foul-tasting stuff. He had licked his finger once—and only once—after preparing a batch of the concoction. It had taken a day to get rid of the taste. But it was amazing stuff. Another invention no one knew about.

          Sir Horace went to a file box and rifled through some papers. “Where on earth did I put those bloody papers? Such a cluttered mess. Oh there we are.” Grunting with satisfaction, he pulled an official-looking document out and scribbled his name on it as adoptive father to the girl. Then he pulled out an inkpad and soaked the child’s foot, applying a footprint to the document as a form of identification.

          Yngve continued to drip the liquid into the girl’s mouth, pleased by the grimace that accompanied each taste. She might just live, he thought as he shifted aside so Sir Horace could clean the ink from her right foot with an alcohol-laced cloth.

          “What shall we call her?” Sir Horace’s pen hovered over the paper as he lifted an inquiring gaze to his associate. Yngve continued with his task while he quickly tossed ideas in his mind.

          “Were she a boy, I would suggest Moses,” he said.

          Sir Horace looked at him strangely. Knowing the man to be an atheist, he was somewhat surprised by the Biblical reference.

          “We didn’t exactly find her among the reeds in a river, my good man,” he said.

          Yngve continued to feed his foul concoction, keeping an eye on the improving condition of the reclining child. “Why not call her Eve, then? Since Eve was the first woman and mother of all mankind—so legend has it—it would be an appropriate designation, don’t you think?” he said.

          Sir Horace mulled that around for a moment and then settled upon it firmly.  “Eve it is, then. And her last name shall be Africa, since this is where she was found.”

          He scribbled the new name onto the document and stamped it with a seal, giving it an official and binding look. Once dry, he folded the new document and stuffed it into his breast pocket with his passport and letters.

          “Hurry up, my friend. We must be gone. It shall be interesting to see how her cells compare to the young Prince’s,” Sir Horace said. The plump man packed up the file box and accessories and headed for the driver’s door, hauling his bulk up into the shaded interior of the sturdy truck.

          “This ruddy heat is going to be the end of me if we don’t get out of here soon. I don’t know how anyone can tolerate this place.” Tapping his fingers on the steering wheel, he waited while Yngve gathered a change of clothes for the tyke, water to sponge her with, a nappy and a bottle of powdered milk diluted with more of the lukewarm water. Yngve sidled up to the driver’s door and handed the articles up to Sir Horace through the open window while he continued to cradle the girl in the crook of his muscular arm.

          Sir Horace watched as the younger man circled the front of the truck, all the while talking gently to the young bundle, finally pulling himself easily into the passenger side. The older man started the truck, satisfied with the loud rev of the powerful engine, and kicked it into gear, turning the awkward vehicle in a large loop across the crusty soil.

          He was a happy man. Never, in a million years, would he have thought they’d find what they needed so quickly. Thank God for war, he mused, it has a way of weeding out the weak and useless so the strong can survive.

          “The checkpoint guard might raise an eyebrow about this. It was a rather quick adoption, don’t you think?” Yngve asked.

          Sir Horace smiled a little. “It doesn’t matter. A letter from Adolf Hitler is never questioned. They wouldn’t be so foolish as to search the truck.”

          He had all the necessary documents to legitimize the child. They would be waved through. His smile broadened as he savoured his position of power. He had similar letters from Heads of State in England and many other countries as well. And they were legitimate letters. If the commoners only knew. If those who had signed the letters only knew. But they didn’t. They only knew what The Committee told them. And they did as they were told. Like he and Yngve did.

          The girl began to cry softly and Sir Horace glanced briefly at her, amazed by the change. She had endurance all right. Yngve shushed her as he continued to strip away the filthy clothes, tossing them out the window in disgust. He had laid a plush towel across his lap and began the process of cleaning her, wiping her skin with a damp cloth as he removed each article of clothing. And then he deftly recovered the gaunt frame with clean, new clothes—a simple top and a nappy.

          He shook the powdered milk again, making certain it was mixed thoroughly with the water, and offered it to the child, unsure if she would have the strength to drink from the bottle. She lifted a weak hand and rested it on the glass container, pulling it greedily toward her sore mouth and ignoring the pain as she sucked slowly on the nipple.

          “My, but you’re a sturdy one, yes?”

          The salve on her eyelids had done its work, easing the pain of infection and freeing the lids. Yngve couldn’t see her eyes well through the film but he knew she had some form of vision as she turned her head enough to stare at his fair face, sunburned as it was. A faint smile spread across her countenance, causing her lips to crack and bleed, and then she concentrated on the task at hand and drained the bottle.

          The truck bounced and jostled across the dirt track carved by the German Army in the desolate Libyan ground. Sir Horace was heading away from the horrors of warfare with its flame-throwers and thunderous artillery. Eve nestled against the white man’s chest and dozed intermittently, grateful for the nourishment and cleansing.

          Her young mind still grappled with the intense hurt of being left behind by her nomadic family, for although she was far into the severe stages of starvation, her extremely intelligent brain was more than aware of the departure of those who had brought her into the world. She had cried out to them, begging them, in her own childish language, not to leave her. But they had. And so she found herself, rocking with the rhythm of the noisy truck in the arms of a nice white man.

          She looked up at him from time to time, wanting to see through the haze that blinded her to detail, allowing her only to differentiate between shapes and bold colours. After a time she sat up, realizing she had new coverings on by touching them with bony hands. A piece of tape covered her thumb and she rubbed it curiously. And then the man spoke. It was a harsh sound, full of consonants and completely foreign to her. Yngve spoke the German language to her as he had been instructed to do.

          “So you are awake, little one? And how are your eyes? Here, let me.”

          She felt the soft cloth more than saw it as the sticky film was wiped from her face. Then it was gone and she lifted her lids again. For the first time in weeks her eyes focused, permitting her to clearly see her rescuer. She lifted her slender hand and touched the white skin, marvelling at its contrast to her own deeply chocolate-hued flesh. And then she reached farther and gently grasped a strand of the fine blond hair. The man chuckled, his bright blue eyes twinkling happily as he enjoyed her curiosity. He reached out with his own large mitt and touched her tightly curled close-cropped hair and she smiled at him.

          “Well now. She seems to be a bright one, Sir Horace,” he said.

          The older man harrumphed and grumped his reply. “That’s all the more to our benefit then, isn’t it?” He squinted his eyes tightly, trying to see the road through the growing swirls of dust and sand. “Where is that blasted check point? We should be there by now.”

          They continued on in silence, the two passengers studying each other while the driver grunted his disapproval of the conditions of the road.

                                                                      * * *

          The German Obergrenadier stepped out onto the dirt road, shading his eyes against the setting sun, which was thinly veiled by the dust that was finally beginning to settle. He tried to identify the distant rumble of an engine. The vehicle was large—not a jeep—but he was pretty certain it was a German cargo truck. Still, it was wise to be safe.

          “Stay alert, Grenadier! A vehicle approaches.” He planted himself firmly in the center of the track, machine gun poised across his chest. The truck slowed to a halt at the barricade and his eyes narrowed as he recognized the Oberfeldwebel and his Unteroffizier. What were an Englishman and a Swede doing in German uniform? He had asked himself that when they had crossed, going in the opposite direction, the day before.

          “Tend to them but be on guard!” he said. He tossed a brief glance at his subordinate. Does he have enough brains to check the papers thoroughly? The man was a fair bit older than he and dull as lead paint. He watched cautiously, holding the gun easily as the Grenadier rifled through the offered papers and turned to him, shrugging. Incompetent fool, he thought as he shouldered his weapon and stalked over to the driver’s window. With men like this Grenadier, Germany will lose the war.

          “Let me see the papers again,” he said. He stared at the identification papers, Hitler’s letter and the adoption certificate for some time, looking for a flaw that would allow him to arrest the two men. He could see none. Stepping up onto the running board, he glanced into the truck at the Swede and the black child nestled into the crook of his shoulder.

          “That was a very quick adoption—Sir.” The two men in the truck stiffened noticeably. Perhaps they did have something to hide.

          “Do you honestly expect me to believe these are authentic? I think I fell for that yesterday. I think you two are spies.” He unshouldered his gun and held it at the ready while he barked to his private. “Grenadier! Keep these men here while I call headquarters to find out if they really are envoys of the Fuehrer.”

          Grenadier Kurt Von Claus raised his rifle and shrugged again, offering a small smile to the truck’s occupants. He’d been posted with this cocky young buck long enough to know that it was only a matter of time before the man learned not to question. Kurt, himself, had questioned once and received a demotion from the rank of Unterfeldwebel—or Sergeant—and a lovely vacation to this desert posting in Africa.

          “You’d better do as he says. It should only take a moment, Sir,” he said. He cocked his head toward the small shack not five feet away, hoping to catch snatches of the conversation over the radio. Kurt needn’t have moved at all. His smile broadened as he heard the screaming voice echoing through the receiver at his superior.

          “How dare you question the orders of the Fuehrer? You idiot! Do you wish to be shot or would a court marshal be more appealing?!”

          The younger man was a full five minutes receiving a dressing down and Kurt enjoyed the sideshow, discretely sharing his small humour with the driver of the truck who sat impatiently tapping his fingers, a smug expression plastered across his visage.

          The Obergrenadier finally stepped from the shack, a sheen of sweat slicking his pasty face. He swallowed hard once and cast a quick glance at the Grenadier, noting his stern focus on the truck’s occupants. He stepped back onto the running board and offered the papers back to the Englishman, his hand shaking enough to make the sheaf of documents jiggle and flutter more than the slight breeze warranted.

          “I offer my sincere apologies, Oberfeldwebel. I was unaware of the importance of your work to the cause of the Third Reich,” he said. “Please forgive my arrogance and stupidity. It will not happen again.”

          “I dare say. And so it shouldn’t.”  Sir Horace snatched the papers from the young man and folded them precisely, returning them to the breast pocket of his uniform. He harrumphed once, causing the excess skin on his neck to flop like a turkey’s wattle. The First Class Private, soon to be Private, stepped down from the purring truck and flagged them on.

                                                                      * * *

          Sir Horace was hopping mad and muttered to himself for a good hour about the incompetence of mankind.

          “I still don’t see why they couldn’t have given us the uniforms of Generals or at least a Captain. It’s ridiculous to think that a Sergeant-Major and a Corporal would be direct envoys of the Fuehrer. It’s no wonder we’re stopped so often.”

          Yngve sighed, tired of hearing the same thing over and over.  “You know why they did it. A General—or even a Captain—is too valuable to an enemy. They’d never let us go. A private would be shot instantly. But a Sergeant-Major and his Corporal are middle ground soldiers. The enemy would hold us, hoping to gain information, long enough that a rescue would be possible, and yet we aren’t important enough for the enemy to deliberately seek us out.”

          Sir Horace grumped a while longer and then grew silent. The sky eased into darkness and he switched on the truck’s headlights, concentrating on the obscure track ahead. He was relieved that the dust storm had surrendered to the peaceful and eerie silence of the clear desert night. Somewhere out there was an airstrip, and that was his final destination in this rattletrap they called a vehicle. He couldn’t wait for something with a smoother ride.

                                                                      * * *

          Nestled back against the firm support of her rescuer’s chest, Eve had been gazing out the window for some time. She didn’t understand the words the two men spoke and amused herself with the bleached and dusty scenery that skidded by in the quickly fading daylight. As night consumed the vast African sky, she watched the stars and the landscape, hoping for a change in the emptiness of the terrain.

          They had traveled along in the silent darkness for some time when she pulled herself into a sitting position and rattled off a string of words in her native tongue. Yngve bolted awake, having drifted to sleep with the rocking motion of the truck as it bumped and bounced over the pothole-filled track. He looked at her in amazement.

          “What are you telling me, little one?” he asked. He followed the direction of her finger as it pointed into the darkness, targeting a small group of twinkling lights on the horizon ahead and to the right. 

          “Well, I’ll be… It appears our new charge has found your airstrip for you, Sir Horace. I think we have truly discovered a treasure.” He gave her a small hug and turned his attention to the approaching complex.       

          Sir Horace squinted his eyes again, making a mental note to have his glasses checked once he was back in Germany. Breathing a sigh of relief, he turned his vehicle off the road and onto the cracked and barren desert floor, heading directly for the cluster of buildings at the far edge of the smooth runway. A small twin-engine plane sat there, patiently waiting for its precious cargo consisting of a variety of medical equipment, two men, and an incredibly bright two-year-old African girl.

Redeemed

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IT WAS NEVER HER INTENTION to become a believer in Christ. She had fallen too far to think she could ever have found her way back to such freedom and forgiveness. God had other plans, though. Will miracles never cease?she reflected as she stared absently through the large plate glass window. 

She could see the sun, blood-hued and angry looking, rising over the lake, its silver-grey surface duplicating the fiery disk in its rippling depths. Lake Restoule. It was a beautiful place with its abrupt rocky outcroppings and hills covered with dense collections of brambles, ferns, and scrub trees struggling to maintain their grasp on their barren perches—a place of peace. 

She smiled at the glorious sight spread out before her. There was a fine lacy edging of ice skirting the pristine lake water, and the birch, maple and elm trees on the island across from her absorbed the growing light that had begun to transform colourless leaves into a blaze of oranges, yellows and bronzes.  Early morning fauna were rustling nervously through dry and shrivelled grasses that begged for the approaching rain, and the trees had already begun the slight shuffling dance that precedes a coming storm, their awkward and brittle arms lifting papery foliage in supplication to an overcast sky. 

Her focus shifted to the ghostly reflection of her own face mirrored, shadowed and indistinct, in the glass that separated her from nature’s canvas, and her smile faded a bit. Her outward appearance was such a contrast. Native blood, passed down from her mother, flowed strong in her veins, manifesting itself through the hue of her skin. Long, thick hair bore evidence of her father’s Scottish ancestry, its deep auburn tint muted in the early light.  She was a tiny woman, like her mother, slim and willowy with a lithe grace in her movements. Her diminutive size belied an incredible strength of limb. Hers was a body of speed and economy.

Her eyes dropped to the dim reflection of the long ragged scar that traced a wicked path from the corner of her almond-shaped, chocolate-coloured eye to just below her mouth. Hers was a sad mouth, full and sensuous in shape but with a slight turning down of the corners. It subtly contradicted the peace and joy that shone just below the surface of the rest of her young and lovely face.

But it was her eyes that really told the story. Eyes that had once been full of pain and despair, devoid of hope, now showed slow and steady healing. An unearthly patience, forged in the fires of trial and tribulation, dwelled in their dusky depths, speaking of a life of bitter and harsh experience overcome by great victory. They were ancient eyes—eyes that told a story.

 

Something Is Wrong

HEATHER HAD PRESENTED A FEISTY NATURE from the moment she drew her first robust breath and followed it with a wail of substantial proportion. Her mother, Jane, insisted her firstborn had received the Miq Maq warrior’s blood and the Scotsman’s temper—a combination that bore the potency of dynamite. It was immediately apparent that the infant girl was a fighter. She squalled constantly with a vigour that soon exhausted the young mother. From the changing of her diapers amidst flailing limbs and piercingly vocal protests, to the feeding of an unwanted but nutritious food mashed into a disgusting looking goo, the growing tot made a point of asserting her strong will, only backing down when all other choices were exhausted. 

Heather’s father, Angus MacDonald, seemed to be the only one able to exert a form of control over her that didn’t require shattering her stubborn nature. Maybe it was due to the fact that she was a lot like him. He understood the volatile temper and demanding outbursts for what they were—a deep need for much affection and love. He remembered his own mother pulling him onto her ample lap and holding him in an iron embrace until the raging tempest in his own heart subsided. Only then would she talk to him, reprimanding him gently and explaining the reasoning behind her dislike of his particular action. He had incorporated this very method on his own spitfire daughter and marvelled at how quickly she would quiet her tears and yells, look up into his water blue eyes with her own deep brown ones and touch his coppery beard with a small hand. Her eyes always said what her mouth was unable to say: I love you…Thank you.

Of late, Angus relaxed his bear hug with a hesitancy that showed he was not sure that it was safe to do so. By the age of five Heather had already begun to show serious strength. Her most recent fit—he had begun to refer to them that way—had been far longer and more violent than any he had seen, or, for that matter, any he had thrown as a child. She had graduated from screaming and throwing things to pitching herself on the floor, clawing, and biting at whatever fell into her reach, including herself.

It concerned him more than a little, for although she was tiny of frame, she had a wiry athleticism that could rival the largest of the neighbourhood children. What would happen when she began school in the autumn? Would she be safe from those who targeted the youngest children, bullying them for amusement? Would they be safe from her wild and combative tirades? It worried him that Heather had not yet learned to control her temper. On the contrary, the older she got, the worse it became. Perhaps her mother was right about the native/Scottish combination—that it was the joining of two strong-willed nations. The thought flickered through his mind like the faint smoke of a single candle. He pushed the brief reflection aside with an inward chuckle. That wouldn’t explain the quiet and gentle temperaments —except for the occasional mischievous moment—of the rest of his offspring. 

He looked away from his oldest daughter to Charlie and his identical twin brother George. They were four years old and had neatly divided the personality of one person between them.  Charlie was upbeat and easygoing, sporting a sense of humour that, although it led him into trouble sometimes, allowed things to roll off him like water off a duck. He was the doer of the family, pulling toys apart to see how they worked and not worried when he couldn’t get them back together. George was quieter, more introspective, and prone to questioning some of his more adventurous sibling’s antics. His was the sensitive, artistic nature that enjoyed books and quiet activities. He was the one who often shouldered the responsibility of owning up to whatever mischief the two participated in.

Angus knew Heather’s latest fit had something to do with the two boys. It wasn’t the first time the dark haired, blue-eyed lads had seen an opportunity to stoke the fires that simmered in their older sister’s chest. They had mastered the art of provocation, using it as a form of revenge when their sister overstepped her bounds of authority or became too demanding at play. He had asked them once why they nudged and prodded at her until she could stand no more, and George, in his most serious voice, replied that it was “absolutely amazing” to watch her explode. As much as the response had angered Angus, it amused him that his sons had learned early what his own little sister, Corrie, had used against him in years gone by. 

Angus ruminated over what to do with the boys, who now stood guiltily before him. How beautiful they were with their startling blue eyes, the irises rimmed with a fine black line. Hair as black as a raven’s wing swirled on their pates, dishevelled from their most recent play. Their skin contradicted them—pale and milky like a bonnie Scottish lass. Ah, but they would be strapping young men when they finished growing—like their father had been.

They weren’t bad boys, he knew. Most of the time, the three children played wonderfully together, sharing and laughing and offering to help their mother with little baby Fiona. But then they would grow bored, the meagre toys and books no longer holding their overactive minds, or Heather would become a little too overbearing, bossing and mothering until they had had enough, and the tag team of torment would begin, the boys working flawlessly against her weaknesses, pushing buttons that should be left alone, until she was screaming and throwing things and pounding on them furiously. Had there been only one son, Angus was sure she would have beaten him to a pulp, likely putting an end to it early. But because Heather had to divide her fury, the boys were able to share her wrath, working like two coyotes to take down their next meal, sustaining minimal injuries in the process.

His wife had a method that was much more down to earth.  Since the girl was not to be reasoned with and she became a danger to her brothers and herself, the weary mother would latch a sturdy arm about the child’s waist, hoist her to her hip as though carrying a thrashing piglet, mount the stairs that unfolded themselves to the upper story, and dump her unceremoniously upon her bed. Doing an about-face, she would, heart heavy with sadness, slip from the room, empty of all but the bed, lock the solid door behind her, and let her daughter thrash her anger out.  It wasn’t that Jane didn’t care. She cared very much, but with Heather, nothing else worked. No amount of reasoning from her mother could penetrate the wall of noise, anger, and self-absorption that surrounded the child when she had one of her fits, and Jane refused to strike the child in frustration. Her own life had been filled with enough of that for her to know that there must be other ways to deal with her daughter’s problem. One thing was sure—Jane would never permit Heather to act that way without some recourse, and isolation seemed to be the best solution she could think of.

Angus kissed the top of Heather’s head and allowed her to slip quietly from his lap, her tear-smudged face red and puffy and small welts and bruises beginning to appear down her slim arms and legs. He watched her drop shame filled eyes, knowing she would go from destruction to destruction, cleaning and repairing where she could, always hoping to redeem her actions, if not to her family, then to herself. Leaving her to the task, his flinty gaze glided over to rest on the two boys shifting nervously from one foot to the other. They cast covert glances back and forth and Angus’ eyes narrowed.

Standing to his full height of six feet, he allowed his bulky frame to tower over the two dark-haired lads. It was time for the young ones to understand what they were doing to their sister and that it was time for it to end. Two meaty work-worn hands descended heavily on identical shoulders and he manoeuvred the boys toward the door that led to the back yard as he spoke.  “We’re going for a wee walk, laddies. We have some talking to do.”

                                                                        * * *

Jane looked up from her dinner preparations, fighting a small smile as she watched the two drag their feet glumly, marching under the weight of their father’s large hands. What would she do without Angus? She shuddered inwardly at the thought of life without him. He was such a good husband and father. Unbidden, her mind drifted back to the events that had shaped the love they shared, and her hands worked mechanically while she dreamed of the past.

She never talked much of her own beleaguered childhood. All she had ever really been able to share with Angus was that she had run away from home at sixteen, lied about her age to get a job in a supermarket, and lived for the summer deep in the thick underbrush of the dense forest that covered a large part of the province of New Brunswick. It was 1959 when she had chosen the wilderness above her own home’s hostilities. 

She endured much in that year, saving her meagre wage until she had enough money to rent a small, rundown apartment.  She was a frugal and fastidious woman, two traits that had served her well as she had struggled to survive. 

During those first three months of freedom, she had bought only basic food each day, soap to keep herself and her few clothes clean, and a good sleeping bag, which she stowed in the hollow of an old tree. She had endured thunderstorms and downpours, cold nights and insect bites. Each morning she rose early and walked from her campsite, concealed with great care within the heart of a copse of evergreens in a thicker part of the woods, into the heart of Fredericton. Every penny she earned was funnelled into an account held at a bank not far from her workplace, allowing her to earn the first and last month’s rent needed for the apartment essential to survive the upcoming winter.

The apartment had been more of a hole underground than anything else, but Jane hadn’t cared. It was snug and the rent was cheap. Standing in the center of the single room, she had assessed the sparse furnishings and had smiled for the first time in a long time. In one corner, an old cook stove had served as both heating unit and stove. An ancient and worn icebox had rested in the other corner. Between the two, like a forlorn and unwanted castaway, had sat a small wooden table and a mismatched chair, both thickly layered with paint of different hues.

A cast-iron cot had stood against the wall to her left and cradled a moth-eaten mattress of questionable vintage in its rust-speckled arms. This small refuge from the wild and unpredictable east coast elements was nestled under the sturdy stone and timbers of an old cottage at the edge of the fast-growing city, its one flaw having been the lack of indoor plumbing. Jane had shrugged at that, having grown up without that luxury, and unrolled her sleeping bag, spreading it on the lumpy mattress in preparation for her first night’s sleep in her own home.

When the bitter New Brunswick winter had crashed down on the city, burying it in a thick blanket of ice and snow, Jane had been forced to give in to the need for heat, choosing to use, carefully, her own limited supply of firewood gathered and stored in a small shed nestled against the south side of the cottage. It had been pulled from the same forest she had abandoned early that autumn so long ago. She had shared her bounty with the old widow who had kindly rented her the room, and together they fought the hungry and unforgiving season, managing to keep from freezing to death in the generous wind that had whipped around the damp stone structure, squeezing itself through the substantial cracks and crevasses that earmarked a neglected building.

Jane had worked diligently at her job, never complaining about her inferior wages or the long hours. Taking as many shifts as was allowed, she had pushed herself hard, never refusing to do what was asked of her, working her way from cleaning floors and toilets to stocking shelves to working the checkout counter.  She had ignored the biting cold that nipped at her bare hands and poorly shod feet as she had endured the trek to the bank each week to deposit her pay check, watching with satisfaction as the nest egg grew. It had been during her second winter that she had met Angus.

Jane allowed her memory to continue along old paths as she pulled her husband’s history from the back of her mind.

                                                                                    * * *

At age seven, Angus MacDonald and his family had emigrated from the harsh and haunting highlands of Scotland to the small village of Rusagonis, which was nestled within a more south-easterly section of the vast blanket of trees that smothered the province. They had left all they had known of the old world to begin a new life in what was dubbed “the Promised Land.” Selling all they had, the frugal family had scraped together enough money to buy passage to Canada, purchase a onehundred-acre lot, and acquire a dozen head of cattle.

They had worked hard, breeding carefully to build up a superior herd, struggling through sheer force of muscle and sweat to increase and maintain an efficient meat-producing operation. For years all had gone as it was supposed to, and then drought hit. The grain and feed crops had withered, providing little with which to sustain the herds.

The following year had more than made up for the lack of rain, drowning half the province in a deluge that would have rivalled Noah’s flood. It had prevented them from planting their fields until well into the short and temperamental summer. The pattern had continued for three more years until the price of feed went through the roof, and many farmers were forced to sell off their herds and land. The MacDonalds were, if nothing else, stubborn, refusing to quit, clinging to all they had built with the tenacity of moss to a rock.

Angus had been a strapping young man of twenty-one when he realized his father had spent more money to keep the farm running than he had earned from it. After seven years of poor crop production the market was flooded with the sale of livestock. As the prices for grain continued to climb, the wages earned at the auction block dropped steeply, bringing less than half the price they would have received a mere decade earlier for a single cattle beast.

He was a giant of a lad with fiery hair that looped and swirled in waves and froths across his brow and down his neck.  Freckles were spattered liberally across a slightly crooked nose.  His skin was almost milky in its hue, leaving him a target for the sun’s most vicious rays. Blue eyes jumped from the tanned and weathered face, pinning down whatever, or whomever they targeted with their intensity. They were eyes that could say so much, one moment twinkling with a merriment that drew the young and old alike, and the next, flashing with a sapphire flame that burned through a person’s soul. His face hadn’t really been attractive, but the eyes—those blue orbs that commanded one’s attention with their forceful cast—had made him the center of attention within the female population of the close-knit community.

It was his brawn, however, that had won him the job at the lumberyard. The young man was six feet of thick bone and heavily fibered muscle. With arms the size of most men’s legs, one would think him to be awkward and slow, but Angus had a speed and agility that was surprising for his size. Decades of farming had honed his bulk into a smooth and efficient machine of strength and beauty. Many a day he had worked shirtless in the heat, his muscles shifting and rippling with the fluid refinement of a draft horse.

He had thoroughly enjoyed the hard work and the companionship of the other men at the lumberyard, absorbing their knowledge and wisdom, sharing in their laughter and harmless pranks. At the end of each day, he had climbed into the battered and abused pickup truck and chugged his way home, eager and ready for the hearty meal that always awaited he and his siblings. Willingly, he had poured most of his earnings into the farm accounts, hoping to keep the creditors at bay until the tides turned and the crops were restored to their past bountiful state.

He hadn’t been a frivolous young man like others of his age but he did have one small weakness that he made a point to indulge daily. Angus had always—and still did—loved red liquorice. He stubbornly defended his desire to succumb to the soft and chewy treat, enduring the teasing he had received from his coworkers. They had been certain that his detour to the local variety store each day had more to do with the young girl, fair of hair and face, who had gaped openly at him each time he entered to buy his small confection. Angus, for the most part, had hardly even noticed her, so impatient had he been to make his purchase and return to his job.

And then a day came when the store had had no liquorice.  Someone had missed an order, the young girl had explained breathlessly, all the while openly admiring the young man.  Glancing impatiently at his scratched and dirtied watch, the lad had turned to leave, unaware of the keen disappointment written on the lass’s star-struck face. As he had pushed his bulk through the clean glass door, he had spied a grocery store further down the bustling street and had quickly angled off in that direction, hoping that he could buy his treat and be back to work before his lunch break was over.

                                                                                    * * *

Jane, as her nimble hands worked effortlessly at the kitchen sink, reflected with wry amusement on that first meeting with the man who would become her husband. She glanced out the window, a dreamy expression still pasted on her face as her mind continued to draw the past from its hidden closets. And she relived what once had been.

                                                                                    * * *

She had never been a woman of many words, smiling minimally for her customers as they loaded their various items onto the counter. She usually remained silent. It wasn’t that she was rude, but the young Native American girl had found it prudent to stay quiet until spoken to so as not to attract attention.  She couldn’t afford to do or say anything that would jeopardize her job in any way, so she adopted a shy demeanour, striving to blend into her surroundings as best she could. 

She didn’t look up when the young man placed a package of red liquorice on the counter with his massive calloused and tanned hands. But she did notice those hands. She punched in the price and quietly offered him the total, noting abstractly that he hadn’t moved to offer the necessary coin. 

And then she did look up and her heart stopped. He was a mountain of a man, strong and invincible; a wall of tanned and muscular flesh. He gawked back at her with stunning blue eyes that were flooded with the terror of a trapped animal—and a desire and sudden hunger. And Jane giggled for the first time in her life.

                                                                                    * * *

It was only much later that Angus told Jane how mesmerized he was by her and how he was forced to stare at her like a lost puppy. She was incredibly beautiful, with eyes so dark he felt lost in their depths. Her gleaming black hair fell straight to her waist and was delicately tied back with a deep blue ribbon.  She was diminutive; dainty in her movements and actions, and her dusky skin glowed with a warmth that made his toes tingle.

She never spoke, but her chuckle was warm and rich, its musical timbre drawing his attention to the fact that he stood there, motionless, holding a package of candy like some great dolt, gaping stupidly at her.

Slowly he put the liquorice back on the counter and fumbled with his wallet, turning scarlet with his own awkwardness, and when the transaction was completed, he bolted from the store, afraid of what had happened, yet longing to return. His companions knew something of earthshaking proportions had taken place that day, for Angus worked as one in a daze, his mind completely elsewhere. Only he knew that it remained with the exotic beauty who worked at the supermarket a mere five blocks away.

From that day on, Angus never set foot in the other variety store again. Each day followed the same exciting yet painful routine. He would arrive at work early, push himself hard, glancing occasionally at his watch with a poorly concealed eagerness, and when the time for his break arrived, he would finish the present job, wash his face and hands meticulously and set off for another brief encounter with the woman who haunted his dreams at night and occupied his daylight thoughts. 

His fellow workers watched him leave, exchanging sly and knowing looks with one another as he marched off down the street, hair combed into some semblance of order, jaw set, and steely eyes fixed on his target. He would return half an hour later, toss his liquorice by his lunch box, untouched, and continue working, distraction dominating his chiselled features.

                                                                                    * * *

Jane looked forward to the daily ritual of the giant young man with an eagerness that shocked her and she worked hard to put him at ease, admiring him for his shy and gentle manner. He blushed shamelessly each time she caught him watching her and she lowered her head to hide the secret smile that hovered on her generous lips. Two months it took before he worked up the courage to ask her to come to dinner, and any miniscule thought of politely refusing was squashed when she saw the excited and hopeful expression on his uniquely handsome face.

Jane firmly refused his offer to pick her up at her small and shabby apartment for their Friday evening rendezvous, not wanting him to see the decrepit and decaying building she called home. Her landlady had made it plain that no boys would be entertained in her house—it was not a proper thing for a young lady to do—leaving the young woman with a viable excuse. 

Instead, she suggested they meet in the paved lot that lazily stretched itself, grey and pitted, along the full length of the market where she worked. She always finished work at six in the evening and had agreed to meet him there by seven o’clock, giving her plenty of time to change from her work garb into something more presentable.

But what did she have to wear that would make her not look so plain and dowdy? All he had ever seen her in was the generic uniform that all the employees wore. She had never bought clothing for the fun of it and wondered if she should do so before her date.

That Tuesday afternoon, on her way home from work, Jane slipped quietly into the small ladies’ clothing store two blocks from her hovel. She had never purchased a dress before and wandered aimlessly down the aisles stuffed with soft and frilly concoctions, reverently touching the odd piece, admiring the soft, feminine feel of it. Suddenly she was startled by the presence of an older woman, stern and stiff, her hair pulled back into a no-nonsense bun, and Jane’s hand immediately dropped to her side.

“What may I do for you, miss?” The voice was severe and crisp and Jane cowered inwardly at the authoritarian stature of the woman.

“I…I want to buy a dress. I have a date. I want to look right for it.” She spoke quietly, eyeing the rack of more modest coverings that rested against the wall beyond the sales woman. 

The older lady merely nodded, turning to where Jane’s gaze rested and directed her forward with a sweeping gesture. “I see you have a taste for the more reserved styles unlike so many of your generation. I, too, am more prone to choosing the less revealing pieces.” She reached out and pulled a cotton floral printed dress from the rack and held it professionally against Jane’s frame.

The young lady gasped at the simple beauty of the three quarter length shift and smiled tentatively into the face of the woman. “I love it but…how much does it cost? Can I try it on?”

Again the voice was quiet—shy—and the elder woman warmed somewhat. Pointing to the change room tucked neatly into the back corner of the crowded room, she nodded in her no-nonsense way. “You try it on, and I will see what can be done if it is something that suits. I like to encourage today’s young people to dress a little more appropriately and if that means I take a little less money, I am willing to do so.” She turned the girl and nudged her toward the awaiting closet, dress in hand, and then headed for the cash register to do some figuring. 

Jane slipped out of her work clothes and carefully pulled the garment over her head, drawing her thick black braid through the neckline and laying it across her left shoulder. The dress was of a plain cut, showing a hint of her lithe figure without being bold. The neckline scooped slightly, allowing her to wear a trinket while not revealing cleavage. The sleeves, like the skirt, flowed and billowed, starting with a narrow top and ending in a scalloped hem. Muted shades of blues swirled together in fine and indistinct lines, etching out a floral pattern that was subtle and elegant in its composition. She turned and looked at herself in the mirror, stunned at seeing her own image swathed, for the first time, in the luxury of more formal wear. Her perusal was interrupted by the commanding voice of the store’s proprietor. 

“Well, child, come now and let me see. Hurry up.” Jane scrambled to open the door and stepped nervously from the room. She stood patiently as the woman circled her, devouring every inch of her with a critical eye. 

“The length is right, yes. Nothing showing that shouldn’t.  That is good. But that hair…” She stepped in front of Jane and reached forward, tugging the ribbon from the bottom of the braid. Deftly, the lady ran her fingers through the shimmering silky strands, working efficiently, pulling sections back, twisting and manipulating until Jane’s hair sat loosely piled on the crown of her head, the woman’s firm hand holding the obedient strands in place.

“There, yes…that’s just lovely. That is how you must do it, child.” The woman’s countenance held no softness and yet, in her actions, she conveyed her approval. And then the woman moved to the side, still holding the thick mane in place but allowing Jane to see her reflection in the full-length mirror. 

The change was remarkable. With her hair piled on her head, her face looked even more delicate and vulnerable. Her eyes were large with surprise as she admired how the style brought out her high cheekbones and softened the shape of her jaw.

“Go change now and come with me to the front. You must have this dress. It is made for you.” She turned and marched her way to the front of the store, while Jane ducked back into the change room and rushed back into her own things, finishing by quickly twisting her long mop back into its nondescript braid. 

Later that night, upon reflection, Jane was amazed at how generous the woman had been. She had provided her with a package of straight pins, showing her how to coif her hair properly. The dress had been expensive enough, but undergarments and a dainty necklace had been thrown in to the bargain, leaving Jane with a hefty bundle and a grateful heart.  She would make a point of baking the lady some cookies as a way of thanks, no matter how her evening with Angus went. As she meandered the rest of her way home, Jane smiled, determined to become a loyal friend to the kind saleswoman.

                                                                                    * * *

The three remaining days stretched out before Jane, her only highlights being the purchases of red liquorice by an attractive young lumber man. For that small moment of each day, time raced ahead, flaunting and teasing her with a small taste of what was to come that Friday. She practiced the hairstyle each evening, repeating it until it was flawless, each strand of shimmering hair pinned submissively.

Friday came, dragging its heels reluctantly, leaving her distracted and antsy until her fellow cashier pinned her down with a curious glance and a whisper.

“What’s with you? You’re just a bundle of nerves today. Is it that guy that buys liquorice? Are you going to see him this weekend?” The younger girl squealed with delight at the colour rising in Jane’s bronze cheeks and knew her answer without a word being spoken. The two weren’t exactly close, but they were friendly enough with each other. Jane smiled shyly back at her and winked a glittering dark eye.

Work ended and Jane scrambled home quickly, stopping only once to tap on the department store window and wave at the brusque sales lady. The genteel woman pulled a tight smile and nodded, her eyes twinkling knowingly as she returned the wave with her own royal salute.

In her tidy apartment, she carefully spread out her evening’s attire and headed for the bathtub where she scrubbed herself until her skin glowed with health and energy. It took mere minutes to sweep her thick swath of black mane into the elegant hairstyle, pinning it firmly with a well-practiced hand. And then she slipped into the raiment, savouring the transformation from checkout clerk to beautiful woman.

Fashionably late was a term that Jane preferred not to be familiar with, but she had no choice. With all that she had to do, an hour was barely enough to accomplish it all and make it to the parking lot on time. Her heart sank when she arrived to find the lot empty, but then a familiar rumble echoed from around the block and he was there, face flushed and scrubbed clean, wild hair only slightly tamed. She stood awkwardly, waiting for him to park and pull himself from the rusty old truck. And then he walked over to her and suddenly the world was too small for such an extraordinary man. He moved with the confidence that came with his stature, but his face bore the look of a man too stunned to believe what he saw. For the second time that day she blushed.

                                                                                    * * *

Jane cursed as the potato peeler skipped across her knuckle, drawing blood. Quickly, she grabbed a towel and wrapped it tightly around the surface wound. That’s what she got for daydreaming like a schoolgirl. She smiled and waited for the blood to stop before resuming her task. She thought back to an admission Angus had made not so long ago. It seemed that he had been just as enamoured by her as she had been by him. Her smile widened as the daydream returned.

                                                                                    * * *

Angus was overwhelmed with the intoxicating beauty of the young woman standing alone in the littered parking lot. How could he possibly function with any measure of normalcy with so much distraction to draw his attention from the everyday world around him? She had an uncommon beauty that had only increased with the elegant hairstyle and simple dress. Her eyes were large, fringed with thick black lashes that curled mischievously, inviting him to plunge into the almond depths.  Full, moist lips were parted slightly to reveal large white teeth, slightly crooked, giving her mouth character and definition.  Under the soft bronze skin a ruddy tint flooded the high cheekbones. She no longer wore the practical braid that trapped the luscious tendrils of black silk. He openly admired the sweeping strands, blue fire hidden in their depths, as they coiled innocently on her head. She wore a demure dress of blue patterns that swirled and floated about her shapely form, enticing him to look closer, and he swallowed hard, feeling very much out of his element.

                                                                                    * * *

They ate at a small restaurant near the outskirts of the city that claimed to have the best seafood at a reasonable price. While they feasted on the bounty from the Bay of Fundy, they sat and talked quietly of their young lives and their goals and dreams.  Jane was adept at steering the conversation away from her own mysterious childhood, always countering a question or comment with one of her own, which drew the topic back to Angus’ world, and he was gentleman enough to let it remain that way.  After their small meal, they walked for hours along the less populated streets, enjoying the silences, the soft breeze as it swirled its way through the many buildings, and the sound of each other’s voices and thoughts. Jane would not forget the simple comfort and ease of that delightful evening—or the many other evenings that followed it.

                                                                                    * * *

Six months after that first date Jane was introduced to Angus’ family. His mother hated her. It was plain and simple.  Her prejudice couldn’t see past the shiny black hair and dark complexion to the beautiful person underneath. His father was more pragmatic. He saw her exotic beauty through male eyes and told his son he understood the attraction but didn’t see why he shouldn’t stick with his “own kind.” It took Jane hours to soothe Angus’ wrath. She understood what he didn’t. She knew her parents would have reacted the same way in a time where races did not mix. She understood and forgave his parents, knowing it would take hard work, perseverance, and patience to change their minds.

Angus and Jane married a year later in a ceremony that included themselves and the minister and his wife. They began their life together in her shabby apartment with the contentment that only comes to the newly married. In her spare time, Jane slaved at the MacDonald farm, doing any job she was asked to do. Angus was proud of her efforts and watched, amazed, as she won, if not his parents’ affection, at least their grudging respect.  They all worked side by side on the summer weekends bringing in the hay and grain crops, mending fences and shovelling manure, and Jane never once complained, nor did she expect their gratitude.

Weeks became months and her persistence paid off.  Through all the hard toil, her gentle manners and giving spirit eroded the barrier of prejudice piece by piece, the final block crumbling when Jane signed over a full pay check to Mrs.  MacDonald to cover a veterinarian bill.

One of their best cows had come down with a severe case of mastitis just after scours had run amok with the spring calves.  They had no money and feared having to sell foundation stock when Jane pulled the slip of paper from her wallet and silently handed it to the shocked woman. The elder MacDonald woman dropped her gaze in deep shame as she reached and grasped the paper. And then she rose from the over-stuffed armchair and stood hesitantly before her daughter-in-law. The hug took Jane completely by surprise and she could only respond with a stiff pat on the woman’s shoulder.

                                                                                    * * *

Angus and Jane never knew about the second mortgage or the various loans from people in the community. Not until the stockyard truck pulled up and loaded all his parents’ cattle for market did they realize how far in debt the farm had gone. When the ‘for sale’ sign went up on the front lawn, they knew the inevitable had come and the whole MacDonald family resigned themselves to it.

The farm brought a decent price, purchased by an older doctor who wished to retire and live out his dream of being a country gentleman. Within a month the senior MacDonalds were nicely settled, debt free, in an apartment not far from the small bungalow Angus and Jane shared with their aging landlady. 

How Jane had managed to continue to save was unimaginable, but save she did. They finally had enough money to pack up their meagre belongings and move west to the booming city of London, Ontario, hoping to fare better there than they had in New Brunswick. It didn’t take Angus long to find work with a construction company willing to train such a strong and eager lad, and the pay was enough to allow Jane to stay at home with their upcoming child.

                                                                                    * * *

The hiss of burning soup broth brought Jane back from the past abruptly, and she scrambled to remove the pot of boiling liquid from the stove before it overflowed. She resumed her dinner preparations, shaking her head as she watched her husband and sons through the open window that looked out upon the small patch of nature, which embraced the back half of their small house. It was a cluttered bundle of land abundantly filled with foodstuffs and flowers and other growing things. She wondered what he was telling the small boys and how they would react. Absently she shrugged as her mind returned to the setting of the table and her own ponderings.

                                                                                    * * *

Angus seated himself on the rotting stump in the corner of their back garden. It was the one flaw in an otherwise well-tended vegetable patch and he insisted it stay put as his 'thinking post,' much to his wife’s dismay. The two boys stood wide-eyed, shifting restlessly as they waited for whatever punishment was to come. They looked at each other uneasily when their father pointed absently to a patch of grass and ordered them to sit.

“Do you understand why Heather gets so mad, boys?” Both heads shook from side to side, but their wide, worried eyes never left their father’s face.

“It’s like Heather has a little bomb inside of her that she can’t control. When you boys antagonize her, it’s as though you have just pushed the button to start the bomb. Each time you push that button, the bomb explodes louder and longer and Heather can’t stop it.” He ran a calloused hand through thinning hair and let out an exasperated sigh. “Do you understand what I’m trying to say to you?”

Charlie looked at the ground with considerable concentration and then glanced back up at his father. “Is it like a disease or something?”

Angus laughed, but in the centre of that laugh was a hollow sound echoing the fear of that very thing. “I don’t think so, but it is something she can’t seem to help, so don’t you think you two should really try hard not to make it worse?”

George turned serious eyes to Charlie and nudged him with an elbow. “It’s like poking a dog with a stick, like you did with Mrs. Crawford’s poodle. That’s why you got bit, Charlie. Isn’t that right, Dad?” He turned innocent eyes back to Angus, unaware of his father’s struggle with the comparison between Heather and a tormented dog.

“It’s kind of like that, Georgie-boy. Yes. So I want the both of you to promise to keep each other from making Heather mad, just like Mrs. Crawford’s poodle. Ok?”

Both dark heads nodded in unison and the three returned to the house with lighter hearts.

                                                                                    * * *

The first unprovoked fit came on a Thursday. It was a cool winter day—the snow had settled heavily on the buildings, trees, and playground—and Heather recalled how it looked as though everything had been blanketed with wet cotton. She was in school enjoying art class. She loved art. She could put her thoughts and feelings into whatever medium was required, emptying her troubled heart and mind of the thing that plagued her. On this particular day she was finger painting. Her paper was filled with bright colours in swirls and flowing designs, bright and full of hope. She was admiring the picture when the strange feeling began. It caught her by surprise. Usually anger was the catalyst that nudged the irrational behaviour from its resting place. But she wasn’t angry. It just—happened. 

It always began the same—with a tightness in her chest.  And then it felt as though she was instantly shifted to the background of her mind and someone else took over. She was afraid suddenly as she watched her own hands dip into red paint and come out looking as though they were covered with blood.  She watched those bloodied hands as from a great distance—watched them recede from her as she drew further and further away from conscious thought.

Later, they would tell her that she screamed through the whole thing. They would ask her why she had struck the girl with the lovely brown hair, covering her with crimson slaps until the girl was laying in a sobbing heap on the classroom floor.  They would talk in whispers about how the teacher had to pin her arms to her sides and wrestle her to that same floor until her mother had arrived to take her home. They would look at the bite and claw marks that peppered her lower arms and the bruises that barked along her shins and they would shake their heads in fear, tisking their disapproval. All Heather could remember was that she was in a closet somewhere in the back of her mind and that the other person was doing something with her voice and arms and hands.

Upon arriving home, she climbed the abundance of stairs, dragged herself into her barren bedroom, and collapsed on her bed, sleeping deeply for three long hours. Her father’s voice, heavy with worry and anxiety, slowly drifted to her, subliminally urging her from her stasis. Her drowsy eyes fluttered open, drunk with the after-effects of her earlier violence. It took moments for the pupils to focus, pushing aside the murkiness to unveil the shocking view of her parents pressed in close, fear mingling with the tears that filled their worried eyes.

“Wake up my wee lass. You’ve been asleep far too long.” His voice was quiet like a soft spring breeze and Angus stroked her hair gently with hands stained and calloused by many hours of hard labour. She sat up with effort, her head cottony, and they talked about what had taken place. With each syllable that wriggled its way into her weary mind, with each word that formed the sentences that described her wretched actions, Heather became more disheartened and filled with shame. Her parents reassured her of their love, comforting their daughter as best they could, and while she sobbed uncontrollably against her father’s flannel covered chest, she failed to see the look of frustration and uncertainty that passed between them. For the first time since the birth of their oldest daughter, Angus and Jane knew something was drastically wrong.

 

 

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