Guided By Faith by Amanda Lanclos

To my amazing family, my husband Joel, my beautiful and stubborn daughter Peyton and my rambunctious son Christian. Without you, this would be for nothing. Thank you for giving me the courage and the strength to do what I love.
Guided By Faith
Guided By Faith by Amanda Lanclos
“I’m heading out you guys,” I call over my shoulder as I make my way out of the Fire station.
“You sure you don’t want to pick up another shift?” Charlie calls from the couch, which makes me laugh.

“I’m good with the double I worked today,” I mumble around the chip I just shoved into my mouth. It was one of those days where everyone seemed to be getting into accidents or cats were being stuck in a tree. In my seven years on the team I hadn’t ever been this busy and that was saying a lot. It was ten at night and I was working on my fortieth hour here. I’d gotten a few hours of sleep, but I was ready to get into my own bed and sleep for the next three days.

“Be careful out there,” Neal calls from the kitchen, shoving the leftover jambalaya from Mrs. Sue into his mouth. That woman was a saint. She was always bringing us food after the night we saved her dog from burning in a fire that took out her barn.

“Got it,” I holler over my shoulder as I head to the parking lot. Climbing into my truck I turn the engine on, a smile crossing my face as I Can Only Imagine comes over the speakers. I don’t know why, but this song has always been one of my favorites and every time I hear it I wanted to shout to the Heavens.

I’d only made it ten minutes from the station when I saw it all play out in front of me, as if I was watching the scene unfold on a television screen. My brakes squeal as I stomp on them, coming to a stop just in time to see the SUV in front of me cross the centerline and hit the smaller sedan head-on. Immediately reaching for the phone, I dial the dispatcher telling them to get someone out here. I don’t know if the person in the car that was hit was alive or not, but I prayed that there wasn’t a family in that car.

I wasn’t sure, but I’d bet money on the fact that the person who crossed that line was drunk, probably way over the legal limit. I’d been to scenes just like this before and most of the drivers always ended up with either drugs or alcohol as the main ingredient for disaster. It never seemed to amaze me that people would endanger themselves and others by driving under the influence.

Stepping out of my truck I walk over to the car that is closest to me, the SUV that crossed the line. I tap the window as the man behind the wheel lets out a groan. His head is bleeding, likely from slamming into the steering wheel, but other than that he looks fine. “Sir, I’m Eli Harris with the Hudson Fire Department, are you okay?”

“Just sore, what happened?” As his breath reaches my nose I can smell the alcohol.

“Have you been drinking?” I ask but then I look at the other car. I can smell gas and I can see smoke coming from the hood of the car. “I’ll be right back,” I call out as I jog to the other car. I look to where the window should have been, seeing the person slumped over is something you never get used to. Not knowing whether they are alive or not is one of the toughest parts of my job, but I just need to make sure that if they are alive, I can save them. With the broken glass from the impact of the accident crunching beneath my feet, I lean over and shake the man. “Sir, are you okay?”

“Help me,” the man groans out as I try to pry the door open. “My legs, they’re trapped.”

“I’m a firefighter sir, I’ll do my best. I called in the accident, help is on the way,” I look at him as I try to open the door but it’s jammed. “What’s your name?”


“Well Timothy, I will do my best to get you out of here, but I need your help. Can you feel your legs?” I continue to pry at the door, but it won’t budge. I see something spark as I talk, I know it’s just a matter of time before the sparks will catch on fire.

“I can, but I’m pinned under the steering wheel and dashboard,” he says and that’s when the orange glow catches my eyes. My worst fear has just happened, the car is on fire. “I smell smoke,” he cries out as he looks at me.

“Your car is smoking, but it’s okay. Help is on the way,” I say as I search frantically for anything to help this poor man. “I’ll be right back, I’m going to go see if I can find a crow bar to pry this door open,” I yell out as I run back to my truck. I dig into the back, flinging things as I go, not caring where they end up as I try to find anything that will help me save this man. I can see the flames working their way up the hood and I know I don’t have much time. I can hear the sirens in the distance, what seemed like hours to me, has only been minutes. I find the crow bar I keep for emergencies, grab it then run back to the vehicle to see if I can pry the door open.
“Please get me out,” Timothy cries as he flails about with his arms trying to free himself from the burning flames. “It’s getting hotter. I can feel it!”

“I’m going to try my best,” I say softly as I jam the bar into the door with no luck. I don’t know what else to do to help this man because without the Jaws of Life, I can do nothing more than I already am. I do the one thing I can do, I start to pray silently that God helps this man out of this situation.

“It’s getting worse, I can feel my feet burning,” he cries out in pain and I try harder, as the rest of the guys get here. The hood is engulfed in flames as I hear the man screaming in agony. I feel hands pull me away, jerking me as I try to fight to get back to Timothy. There has to be a way to save him, but I can’t get back.

“Eli! You have to stop! You’ll kill yourself too, that car is about to light up!” Charlie screams into my ear as he pushes me further back, just in time to see the whole car blow up. The force of the blast sending us both to the ground as the others rush to put water on the vehicle. The screams from that man will forever be etched into my mind.

Two days have passed since the accident. I look up at the ceiling as I lay in my bed, wondering what I’ve done to carry this burden. I stare at a black dot, concentrating on it, trying to keep myself from replaying the scene over and over again in my head. It’s pretty useless, so I get on the floor and kneel, putting my head on the bed and open my heart.

God, if you’re listening to me tonight, I need you to show me why you’ve put me in this position. I don’t believe I’m strong enough for this. I became a firefighter to help just like the one I couldn’t the other night. Why would you give me such a desire to be there to save someone and not let me save him? Please, I need you to give me the answers because I don’t understand. You have given and taken away, I know that. I understand everyone leaves the world in the timeframe you grant, but I don’t understand my purpose.

	A knock on the door interrupts me. Slowly I climb to my feet, hoping that Charlie will go away. I don’t feel like his company today, no matter how badly I don’t want to be alone - I would rather not have him here. The silence is a reminder of the man whose heart no longer beats because I was unable to save him. Charlie’s knuckles pound the door again, as I walk towards it. I yank it open and glare as my best friend comes through the door.

	“Don’t look at me like that. Come on, I brought a six-pack. I know you need a few beers, so let’s drink a couple together. It will help, I promise.” He throws himself on the worn brown leather couch as he puts his boots on the already scuffed wooden table in front of him. “How are you today?”

	“How would you be?”

	“Look man, I get that it’s hard. That accident looked rough. I know it’s tearing you up, but man you did what you could. That’s what counts.”

	I let out a huff because I don’t believe that at all. What counts? How could that count? Because here I am living and breathing, while that man’s family would have to bury what little remains they could find from the incinerated wreckage. Why was I saved while he was not?

	“Because, God has a greater purpose for you,” Charlie says quietly which makes me look at him. “You asked me why you were saved. Because, even though you couldn’t help him, you are able to help others. You have to trust in the things you don’t see. Have faith in the Lord and believe in His greater plan.”

	“I do trust in that, but it doesn’t make it any easier,” I mumble before slugging back the beer. I do believe in fate – the concept that everything in life happens for a reason, but this is just more unfair than I can imagine.

	“I know how you feel, but you can’t let the Devil win. He’s seeing this opportunity to turn you from our amazing God. Don’t let that be you, Eli.” He brings the beer can to his mouth, tipping it back, taking a long sip as he flips the television on. Looks like he’s in it for the long haul tonight.

	“What are you doing?”

	“What you need me to do,” he winks as he takes off his boots and puts his stinky feet up on my table.

	“And what exactly do you think that is?” I push his legs, effectively knocking his feet off my table as he laughs.

	“You need to not be alone, even if you think that’s what you need. It isn’t.” He flips the television to the game of the week and then turns his haunted eyes on me. “I’ve been where you are and I remember this God-fearing man staying with me in that time.” I roll my eyes as I remember the past. Our stories are different though. I am not in that situation. “So, I am going to camp out here tonight, and stay until our shift tomorrow. Which you are going to.”

	“I am not,” I mutter, there is no way I can walk back through those doors or get into that truck and try to save another soul knowing I couldn’t save that man.

	The next morning, I’m sitting in the passenger side of Charlie’s F-150 and grumbling like I’ve been scorned by my mother about going to school. I threw the biggest fit about coming to work, not even bothering to put on the uniform I’m supposed to wear, because I hadn’t planned on staying. So here I am alone in his truck, pouting like a freaking five year old. I groan when I see Chief walking to the truck, of course Charlie would send out the troops to reign me in. He huffs as he opens the door and climbs in staring at me, his belly hitting the steering wheel and his gray hair looking as if he’d just been woken up.

	“What’s going on with you Eli?” His voice is raspy, so that must have been exactly what happened. Charlie went in there to wake him up to come and talk to me.

	“He shouldn’t have woken you up. I’m resigning.”

	“Look now, Harris. I refuse to let you do that. If you want to take a leave, take a leave. You aren’t quitting. You’ve seen something that was hard on you – I get that. You are one of the best firefighters to come through this place. Station 120 would never be the same without you,” he puts his hand on my shoulder and pats it before looking away. “I know exactly what you’re going through. I did the same thing when I couldn’t save someone. It’s part of the job though, son. Just like every other job out there, you win some and you lose some. It’s life and that’s what makes you a Hero. You are able to save so many people. Imagine if you weren’t here, on this team. How many people would have died? How many people have you saved in your time as a firefighter? What happened the other night was a tragedy – a horrible one at that, but that’s just what it was. It happens, not because we want it to, but because it’s the circle of life.”

	“I don’t want to do this anymore, I want out.”

	“I’m not letting you. You’ll wish you weren’t out after a few weeks. I know what it’s like, so I am going to take you off shift for a month. Take the time – work out what’s going on, you’ll even get paid for it. Lord knows you need the vacation anyway, you work too hard.” He gives me a sad smile before climbing out of the cab of the truck and going back into the station. Maybe he is right, maybe I just needed a little time to get my head back on and remember all the people I am able to save, doing what I do.

	“See, I told you it would all work out,” Charlie says as he gets into the seat, sliding his ball cap on backwards and looking at me with that cocky grin.

	“And I told you not to worry about it. That’s what’s wrong with you, you stick your nose where it doesn’t belong.”

	“Woah! Look, I was only trying to help. I know…” Before he can finish I interrupt him.

	“I didn’t ask you to help me, did I Charlie? You always want to help, you could help me by leaving me alone.”

	“Is that what you want?”


	“Fine,” he revs the engine as he pulls out of the parking lot. I know it’s the last time I’ll see this place and all the money they plan on sending me won’t be spent. It’s all blood money now to me. He’s quiet the rest of the way home, which is something I’m thankful for. I didn’t ask for all of this and I hate that I’m being such a pompous jerk to him right now but I don’t know what else to do. He pulls into the driveway of my townhouse and I sigh in relief. “You know Eli, we are all just trying to help you. Be careful what you wish for, because one day you just may get it.”

	“Yeah, yeah.” I mutter as I climb out of the truck and make my way back into the house. I fall onto the couch with a huge ‘plop’ and stare up at my ceiling. I grab my bible off the end table and flip it open. It opens to the book of Isaiah and I read one verse that seems to be jumping off the page at me. Isaiah 43:2 “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.”

	“Okay God, I get it. I get that you’re still with me, but what I don’t get is why you’ve given me this burden. Why was it me who wasn’t able to help that man?” I lay down again and throw the bible onto the floor. “What is it that you want me to get from this?” Standing up from the couch, I walk to the fridge and look around for something to help me with the pain, but I find nothing.

	I walk back to the couch, turning on the television to have some kind of noise in the background, to help me steer my thoughts in another direction than where they currently are. I’m drowning in my own sort of purgatory here on Earth. My bible taunts me from across the room, where I threw it, as if it’s telling me I’m letting the Devil win – but in this very moment, I could honestly care less.

	Church was a hard thing for me to act like I enjoyed now, it was more like a chore than I ever would have imagined. Going to church for me now resembled what a teenager would feel when they were told to take the trash out. I kept up my appearance because, in truth, I didn’t want my friends and family to believe that I was struggling with as much as I had. Charlie had given me an out, in a way he hadn’t meant to. The beers that night had given me a reprieve, even if it was only a small one. The night he brought me home I’d gotten into my truck after he drove away – driving a couple of towns over to a liquor store there. I’d loaded a cart full of Jack Daniel’s whiskey and some bourbon, before making my way back to my house. That was two weeks ago and while I kept up appearances, I was drowning my sorrows in the bottles of alcohol that seemed to numb the pain I was feeling inside. Several times I thought about why I should continue to live when I wasn’t able to save the man that died, but I knew that if fate had wanted me to die – I would have. I didn’t really believe that it was God who did it anymore, because in my drunken state I convinced myself that a creator, who took people in the manner he took Timothy, was not the person I wanted to give glory too.

	I arrive at church late, stumbling into the last pew, praying that the cologne I sprayed on before I walked in here, covered the stench of the alcohol from last night. I listen to Pastor Bennett as he speaks about forgiveness and being able to forgive. He speaks about needing God and how even in the toughest of times we know He will always be there.

	“Turn your bibles to Psalm forty-six verses one and two. In this verse of the bible it says ‘God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.’ Here it is in black and white for you all to see,” he holds his bible up and looks at the congregation. “God is our refuge and strength! He is an ever-present help in trouble. God is there for each of us when we go through burdens, and church I’m here to tell you – every one of us has a burden.”

	As he says this, his eyes meet mine and he gives a smile. I look away quickly because I know what he’s trying to do. This message wasn’t meant to be just for me though and I know that, every Sunday I used to feel that every message the man gave was a message I was supposed to receive, but today was one of those days that he singled me out so that I know that this message was directed at me.

	“Let’s look at another verse for those of us who don’t always believe things happen to make us need God. When we feel like our world is rocked to the very core and there is nothing else for us, that’s when God calls on you and says BUT. I. AM. Romans chapter eight verse eighteen says ‘I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.’ God will give us everything if we just fall on our knees and say Lord I’m ready.” He walks down from the pulpit and lets out a huge smile. “You see, he wants us to need him so badly that the only place we have left to go is to our knees. God throws curveballs at us daily. Heck, he throws them at me hourly, because if you remember what your Bible says, it says that his most FAITHFUL servants are tested.”

	Again his eyes meet mine and I just sit there, I don’t shake my head yes, or say ‘AMEN’ like most of the other people in the congregation. I sit there, unmoving, as if his message has just gone in one ear and out the other. I stand before the sermon is over, having heard enough for the day and walk to my car. I have a pounding headache; probably from the bottle of whiskey I consumed last night. It was the first night I’d slept and not dreamt of Timothy’s screams and I knew the alcohol was the contributing factor to that. I want to be able to deal with this in a healthy manner but I just don’t think it’s going to happen for me. I will never be able to forget what I saw and I still wish I could figure out exactly why I was the chosen pawn in the game God was playing.

	I faintly hear the sounds of knocking, but I refuse to get out of my bed. My head is pounding from the binge of alcohol I decided to indulge in again last night. I needed something to be able to sleep without hearing the sounds of that man’s screams bouncing around in my head. I turn over in the bed, pull my comforter over my head and pretend to ignore the world. I’ve gotten so lost in my consumption of alcohol that I couldn’t even tell you what day it was anymore. I’d even lost track of my mornings and nights, and my cell phone had been dead for days.

	“Open this door now!” Charlie’s voice comes from the other side, but I again roll over, throwing my pillow over my head in the process. “I will get the ax and rip it to shreds. Try me, Eli!”

	I jump up, running to the door as I hear him counting. I don’t want the landlord mad at me for the broken wood of my door. I yank the door open, the look of distaste on my face matching the same one Charlie is wearing. “What do you want?”

	“Why weren’t you in church today?” He slowly takes in my appearance and pushes his way past me, knocking my already unsteady balance over. “Are you drinking?”

	“Are you judging me? I think you’re the one that brought the beer here in the first place.”

	“Look, just because you’re hurting, doesn’t give you the right to treat someone like crap. If I’d have known what a beer would lead to, you wouldn’t have gotten one.” He snarls as he paces back and forth in my living room, his hand running through his shaggy hair.

	“I don’t know what else to do,” I admit, sitting on the couch and running my fingers through my unruly hair. “I don’t know how to move past this.”

	“Eli, you can’t save everyone. Maybe this was God’s plan,” I hear his words and I instantly roar. My head snaps up as I stand.

	“God’s plan? God’s plan for me was to watch some man burn in an inferno? I am the one who is supposed to save the people from the burning inferno! Not to watch them burn in a hell here on Earth!” My chest is rising and falling as I look at him. “If that’s Gods plan for me, I don’t want it.”

	“You don’t know what you’re saying.”

	“Yes. I. Do. The God I know and love wouldn’t have let that man die.”

	“Eli, that man, you have no clue what God had in store for him. Everything happens for a reason. Maybe what Timothy was put here on Earth for was already fulfilled, and God called him home,” Charlie stands, putting his hand on my shoulder but I jerk away.

	“Then any God that would call someone home in that manner - is not one that I want to praise.” My heart aches the minute the words leave my mouth, but I know what I say is the truth. The past month I have asked and begged God to give me the answers, to see the greater picture. But, the only picture I have seen is that of a man burning to death in a vehicle - a man that I wasn’t able to save.

	“Well, I will pray that you find that God has a purpose for you. I pray that you will come back to God. I also pray that you stop pushing all of us that love you, away. Pretty soon you won’t have anyone left.” He gives me a sad smile as he opens the door to my townhome, walking away for probably the last time. I walk over to the worn leather couch, falling over in a not so graceful move. My head hits the arm of the couch as I pass out.

	I shoot up from the couch, falling on the floor in a heap, as I try to still my rapidly beating heart. I gasp as I think back to the dream I just had. It’s the same dream I have nightly, hearing the screams of the one person I wasn’t able to save, only this time it wasn’t Timothy burning alive. This time the person screaming in agony was myself. Grabbing the coffee table for support, I climb off the floor and stumble through the darkened halls to my kitchen. Reaching into the cabinet I pull out a glass and the bottle of Jack Daniels hiding in the cupboard. I pour a glass, ignoring the small voice in my head saying I shouldn’t. I have nothing to look forward to tomorrow though, considering I resigned from my position with the Fire Department. Looking over the counter, I see the worn brown leather bible sitting in the light of the kitchen.

	“Okay, God. If you have a purpose for me, now’s the time to tell me. Show me your will,” I walk over to the book, sitting my whiskey on the bar beside it. I pick up the worn pages and turn to one page. I smile when I see the verse highlighted there; I remember the day that Pastor Bennett preached on this. Matthew chapter fourteen verse thirty-one ‘Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”’

	“I don’t know what you are trying to say to me, God. I don’t know this purpose, but I know I am going to try to escape it. I doubt, because I can’t see how this could have any impact other than negativity on my life,” I let out a sigh as I stand. Today is the day I run from everything. I walk into my bedroom, grab a bag and throw a few outfits into it as well as my toothbrush and deodorant. I grab my keys, leaving that bible open to that page and leaving my life behind me. I don’t know where I am going or where I will end up, but I know that I will be escaping the pain I feel.

	I crank the radio up in the car, listening to KLove was always something I enjoyed, but today it only made me feel even more antsy. Changing the station to sports talk radio I ride around, not really knowing where I am going. If God has a plan for me, then He needs to show it to me on the run, because I am running from everything. I need to find myself and it seems the only way I could was by drowning myself at the bottom of the bottle.

	I’ve been on the run for a month now and I turned my phone off to prevent myself from turning around when someone called. My momma left several voicemails about tanning my hide when I got back but I couldn’t return. I am running from my past and creating a new future. I am not sure I believe everything I am supposed to anymore and the more I watch videos from skeptical Atheists on my iPad, the more I am beginning to think I could go that route in my life. Sure I am giving up everything I always thought I knew, but some of the points they make aren’t always wrong. Most of them believe in the scientific reasoning behind all of the disasters in the world. I am not really sure I believe that, because with a world so majestic, there has to be a higher power in play. I guess the Atheist route is out then.

	I ended up in a town called Scottsdale, Alabama and got a job working on a construction crew for two-weeks. It pays me twenty-six bucks an hour to just stand on the side of the road and hold a stop sign, so I took it. Getting up that morning I make my way out of the run down motel with the missing A in the vacancy sign, and climb into my truck. I look up at the clouds in the sky and let out a groan. If it starts to rain we won’t be able to work today and staring at the four grungy walls in that motel room is starting to drive me crazy. One could only look at the peeling paint and the atrocious bedding for so long. I’ve given myself a place of solitude, where it is just me and no one else.

	Pulling up to the work zone, I grab my helmet and vest. I slide my cap on backwards and slam the door as I make my way over to Hector.

	“Morning Eli, how’s your day?” The man has a gut the size of a big pot and is always laughing. He’s tried to take me under his wing, but I know I won’t be sticking around long enough to make a lasting friendship. I am just passing through on the way to what I am searching for.

	“It’s going good, how’s the grandbaby?”

	“Oh, she’s teething man. Kept her momma up all night and let me tell you, that child of mine is mean when she ain’t slept.” He lets out a huge belly laugh and I can’t help but laugh with him.

	“I can only imagine what any woman would be like without sleep. My sister always liked sleep when we were growing up. She was a grouch without it.”

	“We might get rained out today, but hopefully the good man upstairs lets us keep at it.”

	“Hopefully so, I’m gonna go get ready for the day then,” I give him a pat on the back as I walk over to the rest of the crew and grab my radio to communicate with the guys down the road.

	“Yo’ Harris! We’re all going out for drinks for Rodríguez’s birthday tonight! You wanna come?” Randy yells from the back of the truck bed he’s climbed into. He’s a good enough guy, but I don’t want them to know I have a very intimate relationship with alcohol. I’d probably be able to drink them all under a table and still be more coherent than they are.

	“Thanks for the invite, but I think I’m going to pass this time. I have some business to take care of tonight.”

	“Come on, man! You go back to that hotel and hole yourself up. Come have a good night,” he hollers again as he stands up to put his vest on.

	“Maybe next time,” I climb onto the tailgate and pray that he lets it go.

	“Got a woman shacking up with you in there?”

	“Nope, I don’t believe in pre-marital sex,” I give him a glare that says don’t even bring it up.

	“Gotcha, well we will be at Harlow’s Sports Bar if you change your mind.” He gives me a knowing grin but doesn’t comment on my virtue, which I’m grateful for.

	“Noted.” I don’t say anything else as the truck moves us to where we will be working today. We’ve been redoing the main highway in this small town and the business owners along the strip aren’t too happy about having all the construction blocking their stores. I’m glad I am far enough away to not have to listen to the complaining all day, I’ll take that blessing in disguise. I’ve heard the guys telling stories of a little old lady who was mad because the other little old ladies couldn’t get in and out of this horrible traffic jam, to get their hair done. I wished I could have seen her because the guys said it was priceless.

	The rain held off and I got ten hours under my belt before I left to head into town and grab some food to go before I head back to the motel. I was ready for a shower, my good buddy Jack, and the bed I’d been calling home for the last week and a half. After going through the drive-thru at McDonald’s I finally make it into the motel room. I leave my food sitting on the small table, beside the chair next to the door, before walking over the faded green carpet to the bathroom. After a quick shower to make sure I get all the dirt and grime of the day off of me, I relax with my food and the television. I watch ‘Modern Family’ laughing at Phil and his crazy antics. I take a sip of the bottle of Jack Daniels as I continue to watch the show. The episode has me laughing because it’s the episode when Lillie says the bad word and Cam can’t help but laugh.

	I know I’d be that Dad. The one who couldn’t help but laugh at their child for doing something like this. The reason I’d laugh is because I wouldn’t know where she picked it up from, because cursing was something I absolutely tried not to do. I was good at it for the most part, but I couldn’t tell you if any of them came out of my mouth in my altered state. The nightmares had pretty much dissipated, as long as I had the poison in my blood stream. The minute I tried not to drink, I’d wake up drenched in sweat and gasping for breath. I’d come to the conclusion that I needed the bottle like I needed my next breath. While I preferred the solitude I encased myself in, the truth was that it was my own worst enemy, and it made me hate the man I’d become more and more every day. I didn’t know how to get back to the man I had once been. Well, that wasn’t exactly true. God was the answer, but I was still angry with him and I wasn’t ready to open the Bible that was sitting in the nightstand drawer beside the bed.

	I wake up the next morning to my alarm blaring. I hadn’t even realized I’d passed out. I’m still gripping the empty bottle of Jack and I know that I drank so much that I don’t remember falling asleep. Today was the last day on the job and I would be moving on from this small town in Alabama, toward another location I had yet to know. It was kind of refreshing and kind of sad to see how I lived my life now. I didn’t know what I was searching for, but I knew it wasn’t in my past and the only way to escape it was to run. And, that was exactly what I planned on doing, as soon as I got my check for three thousand dollars.

	A month of traveling has taken its toll on me. I’ve been through Alabama, Mississippi and now I’m settling into a town in Louisiana. Hector told me about a job where his cousin was, that would be lasting a couple of months. They needed some reliable people, so he recommended me. So, here I am trying to figure out what to do. I’d rented an apartment and tried to stay away from the big crowds, but I hadn’t stayed away from the bars and the alcohol. My bible was collecting more dust than it ever had before and I was starting to wonder if my search would ever end. I wasn’t even sure I knew what I was seeking, but I felt like a part of me was missing – especially when I passed a fire truck rushing to an accident or just driving down a street, in general.

	I missed the adrenaline rush of running into a burning house to save someone that may not be able to get out. It wasn’t always a great job, because even though you were able to save someone, that fire caused more destruction with each flick of its flame. Much like the Devil tried to do in my life. I could look at it as that, but I refused to dwell on it. God could be the person trying to extinguish the fires that the Devil was spreading over my life. The only difference was, that I was letting the fires spread and I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to get my life back to where I wanted it to be. I wasn’t even sure what I wanted anymore.

	I was lucky enough to get an apartment that was already furnished and I would be arriving in Franklin in less than two days. I had one more job to finish up and several voicemails and text messages to go through. I wasn’t ready to deal with them, but I knew I would have to eventually. I turn on the phone for the first time in two weeks and let the voicemails play.

	“Elijah Gabriel Harris, you had better stop playing this ridiculously childish game and come home, now. I’m not playing, son. I’m gonna tear your butt up for making me stress this much. I know you’re going through a lot, boy, but I can’t help you fix it if you keep ignoring me. I love you.” Mom’s voice comes over the speaker and for a moment I get a ping of remorse for leaving like I did.

	“Eli, this is getting out of hand, man. I miss you. We were always ride or die buddies, and now, I’m riding alone. I don’t know what you’re looking for, but at least call me and let me know you’re safe.” Charlie’s voice comes over the phone and after he fades into the silence that has over taken my life, I send a text. ‘I’m fine, in Louisiana doing work.’

	“Eli, it’s Pastor Bennett. I haven’t heard from you, or seen you in a month of Sundays. I hope you’re doing okay, I know you’ve been feeling like God has let you down, but I want you to know that it’s not the case. He loves you and He has a purpose just for you, son. I want you to dust the dirt off that bible you have, because I know you enough to know you haven’t touched it since you walked out of my sermon. Look at Matthew chapter eleven, verse eight. Call me if you want to talk. And Eli, go to church this Sunday. You need to hear the message, wherever you go. Don’t let this change the man you were and still are.” As he says the verse I grab the bible I’d picked up at the supermarket from the console of my truck, I’d gone to Pastor Bennett’s church since I was five years old and that man knew me more than I thought.

	I flip to Matthew, chapter eleven, verse twenty-eight and want to laugh, because the man knows exactly what I need to hear. Or, maybe it is God. ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’ Alright God, I am going to try this again. I’ll go to church this Sunday as soon as I get settled in Franklin.

	“You were supposed to grow old with me,” I say to the slab of stone that contains the love of my life. Four months to the day that he left this world behind, with me still in it. I knew it wasn’t anything he could have prevented, other than not being where he was when he died. I knew in my heart there was always a reason for everything but I didn’t understand this. “God, why did you have to take him? He was my soul mate,” I cry out into the air.

	With a shaking hand I slowly run my hand over the engraving of the tombstone marking Timothy’s final resting place.

	Timothy Granger

	February 21, 1988 – March 06, 2015

	May you rest in peace

	“Life isn’t the same without you,” I pick at the blades of grass in the cemetery, as I talk to the one person who mattered most to me. “I try to act as if I am doing okay, but I don’t know how much longer I can do that. I miss you.” I lay on the ground, resting my head on the top of the granite slab as my shoulders rack with tears. It has become my ritual lately, hiding my emotions from everyone else. It’s hard. The only way I know to truly grieve is to come here, to this spot, even knowing Timothy isn’t really here with me. However, I feel closer to him here, than I do anywhere else.

	I’m not sure how long I lay there, but the tears are long gone and the sky is starting to darken. I look at the sunset as it lowers over the horizon and wonder how a God who can make something this beautiful; can take someone in such a horrible way. Timothy died engulfed in flames, after a man got behind the wheel drunk and drove straight into his car. I had begged him to stop that night at a hotel, instead of continuing his way home from his business trip. But instead he kept on, crossing state line after state line, until he was taken from me, on that highway in Alabama.

	“Karlee, you need to get up,” comes my sister’s voice from behind me. I turn to look into the eyes of my younger sister Hailey, the only one who really knows how much I am hurting. She sits beside me, opening her arms as I rest my head on her shoulder; taking the strength she offers, for myself.

	“What did I do for God to take him this way?” I question, my eyes still focused on the slab in front of me.

	“You did nothing, Timothy served his purpose here, or so God thought. You have to put your faith in God, that He has a bigger purpose for you,” she wraps me into a tight hug and I wish that for now I could feel the way she did.

	“That’s easy for you to say.”

	“You’re right it is. I don’t know what it’s like to have the one person I love more than anyone else stripped from my life in the blink of an eye, but Karlee there are others here who love you. We are all worried about you and remember, Timothy wouldn’t want this for you. He’d want you to move on, be happy and surely not hate God.”

	I look into her blue eyes, seeing the worry there and I know she is right. The thing she is wrong about is, I don’t hate God. I was angry with Him, but I didn’t hate Him. I wondered daily why it wasn’t meant for me to have my happily ever after with the love of my life, but I didn’t hate Him. “I don’t hate Him,” I say softly as she gives me a sad smile. I just don’t know how to go about moving on, not without Timothy. I had my wedding dress hanging in the closet of my house for crying out loud. In just two weeks from now I was supposed to be walking down the aisle, in that lace dress, to the man that would be the best father to our unborn children, and now that was just a fantasy. I knew it wasn’t right to think that way, but I did. I didn’t hate God, but I resented Him for taking the best thing He had ever given me. “I hate the man that took Timothy, yes, but I don’t hate God.”

	“Well, one day I pray you learn to forgive that man. I know it’s easier said than done, but remember we all do things we don’t mean. How can you ask God for forgiveness at the Gates of Heaven if you cannot forgive someone here on Earth?” Hailey pats my hand as she helps me to stand, my legs shaky as the blood flows through them. She dusts the grass off of her dark denim jeans, grabs my hand and guides me to our cars. “I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, because I don’t know if I could listen to my own advice if I were put in that situation. It’s just something I always think about.”

	“How did you become so wise at twenty-three?” I smile as we walk arm and arm through the graveyard. It took me a month before I could even get into a car after, seeing what was left of Timothy’s. I was always worried that I may end up that way too.

	“I can’t say I’m wise, but I am trying to help you through this. I suppose maybe Will has something to do with that. He seems to know just what to say,” she smiles as she talks of her boyfriend. I was proud of her, but it still hurt that I was alone now.

	“I like Will, he’s going to be a great husband one day,” I say trying to keep my face straight, not that there were any tears left in me, to cry out anymore. I wanted to be supportive of her, because I knew that one day I would be able to move on and I knew that Timothy would want that for me. I just had to get over losing him. I take one more look behind me at his grave, and watch as the last remnants of the sun gleam across it.

	Going through the motions is what seemed to be working for me. Everyone at church, on Sundays, thought I was getting better. In all honesty, I had just become good at hiding the pain and the resentment I felt toward a God who would give me something so great, only to have it taken away. I never knew the man that was there the day I lost the greatest part of my life, but if I had I would probably hate him for not being able to save Timothy. Actually I can’t say that either, that man made my grieving easier, to know that Tim wasn’t alone in the last moments of his life. I look up at the cross in the front of the church as I listen to the song We Won’t Be Shaken. This was one of the things I liked about our church. It might be an old southern Baptist church, but they sure know how to get you ready for God with the worship. Listening to their rendition of Building 429’s song has me ready to tackle anything, until I notice a stranger walk through the church doors. I am instantly drawn to him. I can see the same troubled look in his eyes – the ones that haunt my mirror, daily.

	I shake my head and chastise myself for having thoughts of the stranger in the pew a few feet from me. I smile softly, wondering if there will be a day when I may be able to find another man attractive, and not feel the guilt I have when thinking of Timothy. If our roles had been reversed I would want him to find a woman who would help him become the man that God wanted him to be. Someone who would stand beside him, not only in his faith, but in every aspect of his life. I sit down after the worship service is over, and focus on Pastor Henry’s message about standing up for what you believe in, just like Jesus did. The message keeps my attention, but I let my attention divert to the man sitting by himself in the back as well. He seems so alone, dressed in a pair of nice khaki slacks with a light blue button down shirt that enhances the emerald green of his eyes, which happen to be staring into mine at the moment. I blush and quickly turn to my bible and the particular verse in Matthew we are currently talking about.

	After the service has finished, I look around for the man. I could at least be polite and introduce myself, but he’s gone. I shake my head, wondering if I just conjured up someone, but I shake that thought off. Of course I didn’t conjure someone up, especially not in the house of the Lord.

	Walking into my classroom this morning, was a little overwhelming. Today would have been the day my name was supposed to change and it was harder than I thought it would have been. I watch as the kids filter in, knowing that I am going to impact their lives in some way. I put on the fake smile I’ve become accustomed to and wonder when I first became this person. I barely recognize her anymore, it’s as though I lost myself the day I lost Tim. I watch as one little girl walks into the room, her appearance is one that always hurts my heart. Her dress is one of the five outfits she wears every week, and I notice her hair has been pulled up, to keep from showing how dirty it is. My heart breaks, but there is nothing else I can do. “Caroline, how are you today?”

	“I’m doing good Ms. Reynolds,” she comes to me, puts her little hand in mine, and smiles that big toothy grin. “But, something tells me I need to ask you the same question.” Her knowing eyes seem to pierce into my soul and my own eyes become full of water as I try to fight back the tears I have felt on the brink, all morning long. She squeezes my hand in hers. It’s her own way of letting me know that I will be okay. I don’t know exactly what she had endured in her life outside of this school, but I know that if she can smile through it every day so can I.

	“I’m fine Caroline, thank you for asking. You are a gem, you know that?” I give her a squeeze as she turns to skip to her seat. I will make a point to go over to her house and see just what she has to put up with at home. Walking to the front of my classroom I take in my surroundings. There are twenty seven year old children sitting at the desks facing toward the huge blackboard. All over the walls hang bulletin boards covered with ABC’s, 123’s and country names. I look up, as I do every morning before I begin my lessons with these kids, and say my silent prayer to the Lord above.


	I come to you this morning with the request that you give me the guidance to teach and form these young souls into the proud young men and women you want them to be. I pray that you use me to impact each and every one of them and show them that there is someone out there who cares for them. In Your name I pray. Amen.

	The day goes by in a whirlwind and before I realize it, the last bell of the day is ringing, signaling that it’s time to head home. Home, I wish I could call the place I dwell, a home. In reality it is just a place for me to rest my head at night, a place to store my belongings that really have no meaning to me. Some contain memories of a better time in my life, but most of them only bring pain with those memories. The only time I feel like I am not on autopilot is when I am here, with these kids, in this classroom. Glancing around the empty room, I give a sad sigh as I flip the light switch to its off position. I wave and smile accordingly to my coworkers as I leave with my lesson plans. Getting into the car is still hard for me to do, especially without Tim being in the car with me. I was always afraid that I might endure the same thing Timothy had.

	Sliding into the front seat, my hands shake. I am finally able to get the keys into the ignition. I shake my head and run my hand over my face, it is always fear that takes you away from living your dreams. I should really stop letting it happen. Grabbing my phone from my purse I see a text from Hailey asking me to meet her for dinner at Marla’s Diner. I send a quick reply as I head home to get changed. Driving toward the house, I decide to make a detour to the cemetery. It’s been a week since I’ve been there and I feel like I need to check on him again, at his final resting place. I see his grave from the road, wishing just once that I could find some kind of peace with this, but I know it’s not in the cards for me. I know that this happened for a reason, that God gave him to me for such a short time, maybe to show me what love truly was. Maybe it was God’s plan for Tim to bring me to him, because before meeting Tim, I was a mess.

	Stepping out of the car I smile when I see the new flowers on the grave. Mrs. Linda must have come and put some new ones out here. Today, I feel like I have some inkling of the horizon. I can see that I will be okay, that I will battle a road that will have some pain, but in the bigger picture, I will grow from this experience. I may not like that life is what it is, but I am still living. I run my finger over his name on the stone in front of me, smiling as I see it. I send a silent prayer to God for giving him to me for the little time I had him, then stand with a new outlook on life.

	I feel as if a weight has been lifted off of my shoulders, making me feel as if I can breathe again. It’s the first time I have felt like this since I got that phone call about Tim. It was a day that I thought would make me question everything that God had done in my life, but even with that tragedy I have kept my faith. I may have faltered in my steps a few times, but I didn’t revert back to the life I was leading before I accepted God into it. Cranking the car volume, I smile when the song ‘Overcomer’ comes on. Mandisa is always one of the go-to ladies in my music choices. I am an overcomer, and I won’t let it get the best of me. I may be down for the moment, feeling like I’m hopeless, but that is when God reminded me I am an overcomer. I will overcome this.

	Walking into the busy diner right at six o’clock, I smile when I see Hailey sitting in our worn-out booth at the back of the place. I wave and speak to all the people in the restaurant as I try to make it to Hailey. I notice the worn pictures and posters all over the walls. Marla always had a fascination with old type things. Including the jukebox that was now playing ‘Oceans’ by Hillsong United. In our little town, there was rarely a business that didn’t have some kind of worship music playing. Our love of God, was something that united everyone. I finally make it to the booth, to Hailey, after spending five minutes talking with Mr. John about the Sunday school activities for the week. The only downfall about living in a small town was that everyone knew everyone. But my eyes land on the one person in town that I have yet to meet.

	My sister sees me eyeing the attractive stranger sitting at the bar in front of the kitchen and the look on her face says I am about to get my own personal game of twenty-one questions. I smile as I take in the man’s appearance. He’s wearing a light blue button up shirt that he’s rolled up his sleeves, and a pair of jeans that fit him in all the right places. I blush as the thought comes to my mind and slide into the booth.

	“Who’s that?” I ask with a look of curiosity on my face.

	“I think you’d like to find out,” Hailey laughs as she pulls her hair into a ponytail. I smile at my sister who looks nothing like me. It’s crazy how you can come from the same DNA and still be nothing alike.

	“I think I’ll be nice and introduce myself.” I stand from the booth and turn back to give her my order. “I want a sweet tea, please.” I give her the biggest grin I can, as she shoos me away with her hand. I walk up to the man, watching as he eats his dinner in silence, with no one around him. “You must be new around here.”

	He lets out a grunt as he continues to shovel food in his mouth, never meeting my gaze. “Well, I just thought I’d come and say hello. My name is,” before I can finish the most beautifully haunted emerald eyes turn to look into mine, and I halt in my speech. He raises an eyebrow as I continue to stare, immediately getting flustered because of it. “I’m sorry, my name is Karlee. I think I saw you Sunday at Grace Baptist.”

	“Elijah Harris, I was there.”

	“Well, I won’t keep you any longer Elijah. If you would like some company, my sister Hailey and I are over there in the corner. Must get lonely eating by yourself,” I instantly regret the last words that come from my mouth.

	“I like being alone. Better that way,” he mutters around a mouth full of red beans.

	“Well, that’s your prerogative. I’ll leave you to it.” I turn on my heel, walking back to Hailey who can’t stop the giggles erupting from her mouth. “Stop!” I squeal as I drink a bit of my sweet tea. “I feel badly for that man, he seems so lost.”

	“Maybe he is. Everyone says he keeps to himself. He’s with that construction crew working on the roads. I bet he’s only passing through.” She gives me a small smile as if she’s trying to appease me, but in my heart I know that Elijah Harris is a man who needs help from the troubles in his life. The only thing I don’t know, is why I care.

	For the last three months, I have traveled from Alabama to Louisiana. Most of the time I didn’t really know if I was coming or going because of the alcohol that I consumed. Ending up in the small town of Franklin was refreshing. It was very much like Maryville, without the reminders and people who cared for me. Just from being here the last week I could see the close-knit bond the town had for everyone involved here. It was as if it was one big family, but I felt like there was something missing from the bigger picture, something I wasn’t seeing. I hadn’t stepped foot inside a church for the last three months, not since I walked out of my apartment and never looked back. My phone still buzzed with messages and voicemails from Charlie and a few of the other guys from back at the station. But, I couldn’t make myself check them. I didn’t feel right. Their faith in me wasn’t leading me down the path they wanted me to go. I had become a rogue person of faith, my faith was no longer in who they wanted it to be in. The only person I could count on was myself, and I carried that around with me like a sword of protection. I didn’t let anyone get close to me when I stopped at a town, but I’d be in this town for at least four months working on the road crew here.

	My heart was set on being a firefighter, but I just couldn’t get my head there. I’d see a fire and my heart would race and pound, but the second I’d see the lights of the fire truck, the shrill screams the sirens put off would turn into the tortured sounds of the man I had to listen to die. I’ve walked with a chip on my shoulder for the last three months and drowned the memories in alcohol. I’m slowly becoming like the men I can’t stand, the ones that climb behind a vehicle after drinking one too many and putting other innocent people in jeopardy. I drank to stop the emotions that raged a war inside of me. I drank to keep the nightmares of the night my life changed, out of my dreams. The last three months had become a blur to me and my relationship with God was pretty much non-existent. I resented everything I’d known about him, as well as everything my life used to be. I’d gotten a new phone with a new number so that my past could stay exactly where it was - hoping that maybe someday, everyone would stop calling.

	Sitting at the diner tonight I hadn’t expected to see the girl I saw in church last Sunday, much less have her approach me. I don’t know what compelled me to listen to Pastor Bennett, and go to that church, but I felt as if I needed to be there. Maybe it was God telling me it was time to come back to him, that running for three months was more than enough time. That he truly did have a purpose for me, if only I would open my eyes to it. The thing that got me was how he just expected me to accept that I couldn’t have saved that man. Even if he was called home to live an eternity of peace, I couldn’t understand him dying the way he had.

	I kept to myself here. Even though I’d be here for a while, I didn’t want to get to know anyone. It was my plan - move before you can get close. Keep running so that you can’t grow attached to those around you, in your life. I finished my meal at the diner, even paying for the woman who came to speak to me, even after I’d treated her like everyone else. She looked as if she just wanted to make sure I was okay. It was refreshing to know that a stranger wanted to help you, even when you knew you were beyond redemption. Standing from the bar, I pull on the cap that I had resting on my knee before making my way out of the small diner. This place had become my go-to meal spot because of the down home southern cooking Mrs. Marla provided. I hadn’t had biscuits and cornbread like she served, since my grand momma passed away six years ago. Getting into my truck, I started to head back to the apartment I’d rented for the four months I’d be here with the crew, but instead of driving there I found myself parked in front of the same church I went to Sunday. I felt as if I wasn’t even in control of my body because I was walking into the building, taking in the stained glass windows as well as the pews that were worn and in need of being replaced. This church was one where you just knew it had a long history.

	Stepping up to the pulpit in the front of the church, my knees buckled with a force I hadn’t seen coming, as if my body was relenting to the pain and anger that coursed through it. My heart ached to be back in the presence of God, but the anger over what I’d been dealt, kept me from it. I couldn’t make myself stand up to save my life though; it was as if this spot was a magnet and my body was sending currents to keep me attached. My body jerks when I hear the throat clearing behind me. Turning I look into the blue eyes of the woman from the diner. What the heck is she doing here?

	“You seem lost,” she quietly says. “When I’m lost, I come here to find myself.”

	I let out a grunt as I get up, slowly, finally able to stand and leave the spot my body didn’t want to let me move from.

	“You know, you don’t have to be so angry all the time,” her hands grip the skirt she’s wearing as she says those words, and I can’t help but laugh.

	“You don’t know me enough to know if I am even angry.”

	“Well, you’re right about that. I don’t know you, but everyone has trials and tribulations that they face. As long as you walk with God, you can overcome anything.”

	“Yeah, well not always. I’m sure the most that you have been through is getting a speeding or parking ticket,” I seethe as my arms cross in front of my chest. “Doesn’t the bible also say though shall not judge?”

	“You are the only person judging anyone here. You know nothing of me, or the tribulations that God has put me through. I have lost more than you could ever imagine, but I will save you the trouble of having to listen to that,” she storms past me to the front of the church and then turns back to face me. “You know, you get more places with honey than you do with vinegar. You seemed like you needed a friend. And that anger you think you aren’t showing, it permeates off of you in waves.” With that parting remark, I watch as she kneels down and places her hands on the ground before her. I stand there fascinated as she lays her head on top of her hands, silently worshipping God. I shake my head as I turn and walk out of the church, leaving the woman there, as well as the overwhelming desire to believe that there was a purpose left for me.

	The past week was pretty uneventful, which was just how I liked it these days. I’d just gotten to the apartment building when I noticed something down the road. It looked as if there was a huge cloud of smoke about two miles away. Instantly my heart began to race and before I could stop myself, I slammed the car’s gas pedal, turning the truck in the direction of the smoke. The destruction already caused by the flames was devastating, and I could see the men and women trying to put the fire out. The house sat on three acres of land and would have been considered a beautiful place had it not been at least forty percent up in flames by now. The wood was burning as if it hadn’t rained in months and the family was standing beside the house, just watching it unravel in front of their eyes. Everything they had worked so hard for, gone in the blink of an eye. I saw the eyes of the youngest daughter overwhelmed with tears, fear and worry. It brought tears to my own eyes, because this was a devastating thing to go through as an adult, but seeing it through the eyes of a child was worse.

	I ran to the truck, thinking maybe I could help them do whatever they needed me to do, I couldn’t just stand there and not try to help. “Anything I can do to help?” I scream at a guy who’s trying to get the crowd to stay back.

	“Just help me keep everyone back, if you don’t mind.”

	“I can help them, if you have a suit somewhere, I used to do this for a living,” I don’t know what else to do, then I hear that little girl screaming.

	“Daddy is still in there!” Instantly I’m brought back to the past, to a car on fire and not being able to help save the person inside. I choke up, but I run toward the little girl and grab onto her before she can get close enough to the flames. “Let me go! I have to save my daddy!”

	“I promise those men will get your daddy,” I choke back as I breathe in the smoke-filled air and try to hide the liquid building up inside my eyes. She thrashes in my arms as I pull her to safety.

	“He was asleep on the couch, he’d passed out after drinking that whole bottle.” I look into her blue eyes, worried for the man who helped to give her life. I finally take in her appearance; her clothing is dirty and her face is covered in ash. I am not so sure if the first is the sole reason behind her dirty clothes.

	“What’s your name?”

	“Caroline,” she answers, as she cries hysterically. “Please save my daddy, he’s all we have left.”

	“Caroline, those men will do what they can to help your daddy,” I sit down on the ground and pull her into my lap. “My name is Eli, how about we sit right here and I will stay with you until they bring your daddy out, okay?”

	“Okay,” she says quietly, as she sits on the grass beside me. She’s just far enough away from the danger, but still be able to see her father.

	“Would you like to tell me a little bit about your father?” I pick at a blade of grass as I watch her scrunch up her face before looking at me again. “How old are you?”

	“I’m seven. My daddy, he used to be one of the best daddies in the world. Before we lost my momma. He used to come home and play with us. All of us. My brother and sister and me. Now, he comes home and drinks that smelly stuff in the bottle,” she copies me by picking up a blade of grass and shredding it into pieces as we ignore the scene around us.

	“I’m sorry to hear that. Do you and your brother and sister have someone to stay with tonight?”

	I watch her as she shakes her little head and I want to scream out. These kids need someone to help them. They aren’t old enough to spend the night alone, and even if they were, where would they go? Just when I think that things won’t look up I hear a woman screaming Caroline’s name. I turn in the direction of the voice and, low and behold, there is the woman from the diner. She’s dressed in a red t-shirt and a pair of jeans with some black flats that make running seem almost impossible. I can’t help but want to laugh because it’s pretty comical.

	“That’s my teacher. Ms. Reynolds,” Caroline jumps up and runs toward Karlee. At least, I believe that is what she said her name was last week. I watch as she embraces her, sweeping Caroline off her feet and hugging her tightly, as if she is trying to shelter her from what’s going on. Not long after their embrace ends, two men emerge from the home one hanging limply over the other’s shoulders.

	God, if you can hear me. Let that man be alive and use this as a means to change his life around. If you answer this prayer Lord, I will come back to you. I raise my eyes up to the sky, just as the bottom opens up with a clap of thunder followed by so much rain it soaks through my clothes.

	“You seem to know where the party is,” I hear come from beside me. I look over to see the woman, clinging to Caroline still.

	“I live down the road, I saw the smoke. You should take her out of the rain before she gets sick,” I grumble.

	“I was just going to, but she told me about the nice man standing here, who kept her company before I arrived, and I wanted to say thanks, for taking care of her.”

	“Yeah, it’s no big deal.”

	“You might not think so, but you are her hero,” she gives me a soft smile, but I notice it doesn’t reach her eyes. “She needs one of those and you just showed her that there may still be some kindness in the world.” Caroline waves from behind her as she takes her and the older girl and boy with her toward a Ford Explorer and loads them up. I watch as the rain drenches the fire, helping the men who are trying to battle it. I walk away as my heart aches. I make a mental note to keep my eyes on Caroline and her family, to see how her father is doing. This town isn’t that big, I should be able to find out more on that family.

	“Ms. Reynolds, is my Daddy going to be okay?” Caroline asks, as I make sure her hair is combed and braided.

	“I hope not,” Chance mutters from under his breath. I instantly shoot him a glare that sends a clear message to nip his attitude in the butt. I don’t know what all happened after they lost Vivian. I knew that Greg had a lot going on behind those closed doors, but no one knew the details. I knew the turmoil he went through with losing your partner, the person you saw growing old with, but I couldn’t imagine turning from my children. Especially with Caroline being so young.

	“Baby, I don’t really know just yet. They said that he breathed in a lot of smoke and the doctors are doing everything they can to save him.” Her eyes well up as I tell her the latest thing I heard from Frannie, down at the hospital. I hated telling her I wasn’t sure if her only remaining parent, the only one she’d ever known, was going to live or not. How could you tell a child that young that they may become an orphan?

	I wanted to ask God why he thought I was stronger than I thought I was. How he thought I was going to carry the weight of this on my shoulders, because I knew in my heart he was doing this to bring me closer to him. Caroline had one of those souls that could see into someone else’s. It was as if she knew when someone was having a horrible day and even though she could be going through something just as horrible; she wanted to make it better.

	“I’ll put her to bed Ms. Karlee,” Cadence walks over from putting the dishes in the dishwasher, even though I insisted they should all just relax. I would get to doing all of that once the three of them were asleep, but she refused. “Come on, Caroline.”

	“I want Ms. Reynolds to read me a story, please.”

	“I’ll read you a story. Let’s go to bed, we don’t want to be a burden.”

	“You are far from a burden to me, Cadence,” I reach for her hand, waiting for those hazel eyes to meet mine. “If I was burdened by you, you wouldn’t be here. Don’t ever think that. I want you all to see this as your home for right now. This house has been a little too empty without Timothy coming around anymore. I like being able to cook and have the sounds of other people laughing and talking in this house.”

	“Yes ma’am,” she looks almost apologetic before her eyes fill with tears and she throws herself into my arms. “Thank you for doing this for us.”

	I’m not really sure what to say so I just stand there rubbing her back as I watch Chance rolling his eyes behind her. These children need love. I can see it from each of them and if Greg gets out of that intensive care unit, he’s going to know just how much this town loves them all – him included.

	Waking up to a quiet house on Sunday morning was something I was used to, but because of the kids staying with me, I was shocked to not hear them arguing or running around trying to get ready for the day. The week flew by pretty uneventfully. Greg was still in stable condition with a breathing tube keeping his lungs moving. I made the decision to not let Caroline see him yet because the flames had burned him badly before the men could get him out. He had a second-degree burn on his right arm and face.

	Hailey was helping me bring the older kids around town, picking them up from school and taking them where they needed to be. She’d even taken them to the mall the other day to get them more clothes, even clothes for this morning’s service.

	Walking down the hall to the girls’ room, I hear hushed voices coming from the door. I try to listen but I can’t hear the words being spoken. I immediately feel guilty for trying to impose on their privacy – I’d always hated when my mother or father did that to Hailey and I. I knock softly before the door opens and I see Cadence standing there in a coral lace dress that has a high neckline and flares out around her hips making a perfect A-line to right above her knees. I smile when I see the worn cowgirl boots on her feet, shaking my head quietly. “You look beautiful this morning. Would you like me to curl your hair?”

	“Please?” She jumps up and down happily and I smile. It’s funny how at fifteen, it doesn’t take much to please her. Caroline comes from behind her and I can’t help but smile even more brightly. She’s wearing a yellow and white dress that has swirled designs on it and brings out the bright blue of her eyes. Cadence braided her hair to the side, much like Elsa from ‘Frozen.’

	“You look beautiful as well Caroline,” my heart swells when I see that toothy grin shine my way. “Are you girls hungry?”

	“Yes!” They both squeal, taking off to the kitchen, which has me laughing louder.

	“Chance, if you’ll hurry, we can go to Marla’s for breakfast,” I say as I walk past his door, the girls turn halting in their tracks as they look at me. “What?”

	“We love Marla’s!” They sit at the table, trying to keep their excitement under wraps as their brother emerges from his room. I give him an approving smile as I take in the khaki slacks and the nice button down shirt he’s chosen. I was worried about what they all might choose to wear to church, but I want them to be their own people. I want them to know that they have a choice in what they want out of life. When I tried to ask them about what they went through at home, they each shut down. So, instead of trying to get them to open up, I decided to sit back and let them come to me when they were ready. I wouldn’t push them, because eventually they would trust me enough to open up.

	“You look handsome Chance,” I grab my keys as I nod to the door, not bringing attention to the fact that he blushes as he walks by. Thirty minutes later we are sitting at Marla’s and the kids are tearing up their breakfast as if I haven’t fed them once since they’ve been with me. Cadence is eating her pancakes while Caroline is scarfing down her scrambled eggs mixed in her grits and Chance is inhaling his omelet. Mind you it’s his second one, because when Marla saw him eat the first in two bites she brought him another. My heart swells as I watch them, but when Caroline takes off running for someone I instantly tense up. I don’t know many people she’d run to like that and the one person she would, is lying in a bed in the hospital over an hour away.

	“Ms. Reynolds, can Mr. Eli eat breakfast with us?” She squeals as she pulls a begrudging Elijah Harris to the table.

	“Well, I’m sure Mr. Harris doesn’t want to be bothered with company,” I say softly but he surprises me by sliding into the booth with Caroline and Cadence.

	“I’d love to have breakfast with some beautiful young ladies,” he winks at Caroline and her face ignites with happiness. As much as I don’t like him because of his arrogance, at least he is having a positive effect on Caroline.

	“I like him,” Chance whispers into my ear as he watches his sister. “I haven’t seen her smile like that since before Momma passed.” Funny, I was starting to like him a little more myself.

	“Mr. Eli, what do you do?” Chance asks around a bite of his omelet.

	“I work in construction. I’ll be here for about three more months,” he smiles at someone behind me, right before his plate is put down for him. He must come here often. “Thank you Mrs. Marla and Chance, gentlemen don’t talk with their mouths full.” He winks as he himself dives into his omelet. If they are tearing the omelets up like they are, I need to make a point to try one.

	“Are you coming to church today?” Caroline asks quietly. “You could come to Sunday school with us. Ms. Reynolds teaches it and, between you and me, she’s the best.”

	“I’m sure Eli has better things to do than sit in on a bible study. He’s a busy man,” I give Caroline a sad smile hoping she understands that he shouldn’t be put on the spot.

	“You know what Caroline,” he turns his hazel eyes on me as a smug look comes over his features. “I’d love to see what bible study is all about.”

	“Yay!” Her little face squeals with excitement as he gives me one more satisfying look, because he thinks I’m uncomfortable. I really want to tell him he’s going to be the sorry one, but I manage to bite my tongue. We finish our breakfast and before I can get the check Eli takes it and walks away.

	“You didn’t have to do that, but thank you,” I say softly as we walk outside. I look at the attractive man standing in front of me. A feeling I could only describe as guilt comes over me knowing that I shouldn’t be looking at another man, even if Tim isn’t ever coming back.

	“I wanted to, and you’re welcome,” he mumbles as he takes Caroline’s hand, walking her to the car and opening her door. I say a silent prayer that she doesn’t become too attached to this man, because three months isn’t that long and she doesn’t need someone else to leave her.

	Walking into Sunday school with Caroline, was a bit scary for me, but when I noticed her feet waver at the door, my resolve solidified. I squeeze her clammy hand as I push her toward the other children in the room. I see the confidence shining on Karlee as she stands in front of the kids and welcomes them to class. I hadn’t realized, until today, how beautiful the woman actually is, she was in her element and you could tell it.

	“Who’s ready to learn about God today?” The little yells that ring out around her make me excited for it as well. I may not be on the best terms with him, but these kids, well they lit up a room with the love of God they shared. I even took in Caroline’s toothy grin before walking to the back of the room and leaning against the wall.

	“Have you ever been tested by God?” Karlee questions and instantly my blood runs cold. “Or, better yet. Can you tell me who in the bible was tested in the name of God?”

	“Daniel,” a little boy speaks from the back of the group and Karlee’s face lights up.

	“That’s right, Stark! Anyone else?” She reaches into a box and throws him a prize.

	“Job?” A little girl with bright red hair and freckles asks from the front.

	“Correct! We are going to talk about Job today, excellent Sarah!” She smiles at the girl and hands her a piece of candy as well. I inwardly groan, yet again, as I watch these children and see their eagerness to hear of a man who never gave up his faith. I get it, God. I look up at the ceiling before I look back and watch the learning begin.

	“Alright, so does anyone know the story of Job? Or would you just like me to explain it and what it means?” Karlee then sits in front of the kids, her legs curl up on the floor as she gets to their level, to tell them about how a relationship with God is worth more than anything else.

	“Job was a wealthy man with many kids. He was a God loving man who was punished by God,” a boy says from the back and again Karlee throws a piece of candy.

	“Sort of correct. God didn’t punish him, but he gave Satan the permission to do it. Do you know why?”

	“He wanted to show that even when a person was pushed as far as they could be, that they wouldn’t give up their faith in him,” another voice and another piece of candy.

	“Right! You have been paying attention to Pastor Henry. Not only that, but God wanted to show that the Devil could take everything from Job, and Job would not leave God,” her eyes light with the need to tell these kids about what God has done. “It was amazing what God did with Job. Satan took everything… his money, his children and then eventually his own health. But…” her face clouds as she says this, and her voice wobbles before she continues. “But… his faith in the Lord never wavered and Satan was discouraged. Satan lost and God won another battle, then Job was rewarded profusely for it.”

	Caroline turns and looks at me, a toothy grin looking me over as if she knows that I was meant to hear this story - that I needed to trust in God. Well, God you show me through this little girl what I need and I will be your faithful servant once again. Karlee’s eyes meet my own and I look away, the emotions I’m feeling are too raw to be judged by someone else.

	“The moral of Job’s story is this, if you trust in the Lord and hold fast in your faith, you will be rewarded with more than you can ever imagine. God will take care of his faithful servants. Just like Jeremiah 17:7 says, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence.” Her grey eyes turn to mine and I have to look away again, I don’t know why everyone keeps staring at me. I kick my foot off the wall, using it as momentum to get out of this room. I feel as if the walls are closing in on me, and I need to get the heck out of here. For years I have fun running into burning flames and crumbling buildings, but put me in a room with a group of children and a woman talking about how God let’s Satan test us, and I quiver in my boots. Before I realize what I’m doing I am in my truck and leaving the church before the service even starts. I don’t think I can sit through another two hours of lecturing today. I’ve heard enough, and God knows it just as much as I do.

	I pull into my parking space at my apartment and notice a familiar black Tahoe sitting in the spot next to me. “Here we go,” I mutter to myself as I run my hands over the thighs of my jeans, before stepping out of my truck. I see Charlie sitting on the steps just waiting for me to get close. “How’d you find me?”

	“Doesn’t matter, but it’s nice to see you too,” he spits through his teeth. “What the hell where you were thinking just running off?” His fists open and close at his sides as his eyes show the anger burning through him.

	“I was thinking that I couldn’t do it anymore, Charlie.”

	“Do what?”

	“I had to get away, I couldn’t be that person anymore.”

	“That is where you are wrong, Eli. You will always be that person, because even when you run from him, He created you to be you,” he throws his hand into my chest, pushing me against my truck as the anger permeates off him. “God created you to be Elijah Harris, He created you to SAVE people Eli! Look around you!”

	“Prove it! How am I meant to save anyone when I couldn’t save that man?” I growl as I push him back. I hate that I am fighting with the one person who is like family to me. I have always considered Charlie to be the brother I never had.

	“Look at what you’ve become Elijah! Would this have been what your parents would have wanted for you?” His eyes gleam with anger and regret the instant his words flow from him mouth, he runs a finger through his blonde hair before he looks at me. “Would this have been what your mother wanted? For you to turn your back on the one person who has been there for you through everything?”

	“Are you talking about yourself or God?”

	“God, this isn’t about me. While we’re at it what brought you to this place? Chance? Because let me tell you something, I am a firm believer in everything happening for a reason. You are here because there is a bigger picture.” He walks back to his truck. “Nice to know you’re safe. I’m going to eat, call me if you decide you want to see someone who cares for your well-being.”

	I shake my head as he backs out of the driveway and watch him pull away. I never asked him to come here. I never asked for any of this. A nagging feeling sends me back to the front seat of my truck, then I follow him to a restaurant in town.

	Looking at the dark circles under his eyes, I can’t help but notice that Charlie looks worn down, as we talk. My hands shake from the need to consume something stronger than this sweet tea. I listen to him and the concerns he has from everyone else back at home, but I can’t seem to care. I can’t go back there regardless, the more I think about it – the more I know I am where I need to be. For the last four months I was afraid to walk into a church, but here, I want to be in that building. Here, I feel like maybe God would come seeking me, and I feel like seeking him. I hadn’t felt that way in a long time and then add Caroline onto it. She makes me want to be a better man, a man that deserves the look she gave me – the look of a child who is proud of you, a look of believes in the goodness of a person. That alone can make a man change. Charlie is staring at me as if I’ve grown three heads while sitting here with him. Then I realize he’s waiting for a response.


	“Really, Eli…” he huffs before running a hand over his face. “You didn’t hear a thing I said, did you?”

	“I’m sorry, I was thinking about some stuff that’s been going on.” I take a bite of a fry as I turn my listening ears back on. Listening ears? I think this teacher is rubbing off on me more than I’d like to admit.

	“Man, you have everyone worried about you, would you please just come home?”

	“I can’t. I feel like this is where I need to be. I met a little girl whose house was burned down and I’ve taken to her. Her father is in the intensive care unit at the hospital a couple of towns over. I need to be here for her.”

	“What about the people at home that need you?”

	“No one needs me there.”

	“I do.” He glares at me with the intensity he’s known for, and for a moment I feel bad for leaving the way I did. “You think you weren’t needed, but everyone misses you, man.”

	“Look, I get it…” mimicking his earlier movement, I run my own hand over my face. “I just, I feel like this is where I’m supposed to be. I can’t explain it, but I feel like God’s trying to talk to me again.”

	“Well, at least you’re acknowledging that there is a God again,” he gives me that charismatic smile that always got him attention when we were in high school.

	“Yeah, well I still don’t know if I want a relationship with Him or not.”

	“Eli, you don’t know what you’re missing brother! That relationship is the best thing in anyone’s life. It can change your whole outlook. Believe in it, my friend.” He pats my hand before he lets out another smile. “It’s the one thing that will always bring you joy. Even in the sadness and the darker days of your life. God will always be there.”

	“Says you,” I mutter.

	“Says the book. God tests his most faithful servants. He tests them to see how strong they are in their ability to BELIEVE in him. Are you going to surpass his expectations or are you going to give up and lose it all?”

	“It’s not that simple, Charlie,” I growl, glaring at his face as he tells me things I don’t need to hear, but I’m sure God is sending me this conversation to drive the point home. I am more like Job than I want to be and I am failing this test in faith.

	“How is it not? I believe the bible says… but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. So, do you want to be denied your right to the eternity you have dreamt of since you were a boy?”

	“Charlie, please don’t preach to me. You didn’t witness,” he cuts me off before I can continue.

	“Don’t. You. Dare.” He slams his hand on the table, halting me from speaking any further and causing people to turn their attention to us. “I was there! I pulled you away from that car. I could have lost you in it too! Don’t you dare tell me I didn’t witness!” The fire in his eyes is blazing as the anger continues to grow. “I am not always able to help everyone either. WE all live with that, Eli! You aren’t the only one who’s ever lost someone. I mean look at me with Angie. I lost her, but you don’t see me hating God for it. Was it a fire? No. But, God took Angie to be in a better place. Her time on Earth was short and filled with suffering, but her reward was sweet and worth every little bit of it. Do I hate God for taking her away? No, I thank him for giving me the greatest thing in my life. I prayed daily, but I knew there was a chance I wouldn’t be able to keep her, so then, I prayed for peace and understanding.”

	“Understanding, to know that even though the Devil attempted to break her body down with sickness, that she stayed strong to her love of God. But, you?” He points at me as he breathes rapidly. “You are still breathing! God granted that of you! He has a purpose for you, Eli! Open your eyes before you lose sight of everything you’ve ever wanted. Before you lose everything you have because of your bitterness. Don’t lose it all,” his chest is heaving as he finishes, his eyes are wet with the moisture of unshed tears. He grabs his hat, throws a twenty on the table and walks away from me.

	I feel like a fool. Here I am concerned over what I’ve had to deal with and forgetting what my best friend has lived through. He actually lost the love of his life, watched her deteriorate into nothing as the cancer invaded her. Angie was exactly what he said, a woman who was passionate about the Lord. She loved Him with a fire that was inextinguishable. I need to get my act together, which I will do after a shot of whiskey.

	It seemed as though I blink my eyes and two weeks have already passed. The kids are in a routine and it filled me with happiness to have them here with me. It gives me a purpose now, that I didn’t have Timothy here anymore. I watch Caroline as she grows closer to Elijah and I pray for her daily. That he won’t just shatter her when he leaves. She doesn’t need that kind of disappointment. I pray daily that he will show her that not all people are horrible. Not that her father is a horrible man, but he’d decided what was more important and unfortunately, it wasn’t his children. I’d take the kids to see him every other day after work, but tonight was different.

	I needed to go and see him, alone, so I left the children with Hailey so that I could see what the best outcome would be in this situation. I had spoken to the social worker, and it would be hard for me to get them if something happened to Greg. Because I am only twenty-six, and single and so forth, it would be harder. I wanted to tell that lady where she could shove it, but that wasn’t very Godly.

	As I turned the corner to the room where Greg was, inside the ICU, I could hear someone. Looking into the room, I back out quickly. My heart started to race and I pressed myself against the wall, out of sight, as I listened to Eli speak to Greg.

	“I need you to pull through this, sir. I know we don’t know each other, but I have taken to your children. They need a father, and not the father you’ve been. You need to be the father you were destined to be, before tragedy struck,” the southern drawl of his voice floats out into the hall and as it caresses my ears and makes my body shivers.

	I don’t understand these emotions coming through me, but as I listen to him speak, my bitterness toward him evaporates. He is arrogant, he is cocky, but he is also sincere in the words he speaks. I can’t deny that he is an attractive man, but I can deny my attraction to him. Or I could have, until today. “Karlee? How long have you been standing here?”

	“Oh, I just got here,” I quickly reply staring into his green eyes. I get a good look at him, from his shaggy brown hair to the offset of the crooked nose in the middle of his face, down to his five o’clock shadow and to his plump lips – which are now tilted up in a very arrogant grin. Right, this is why you deny this attraction. “Can we not argue tonight? It’s been a rough day.”

	“When do we argue?”

	“Every time we see each other,” I mutter, my body deflating with the realization it’s the truth. We really can’t seem to stand in a room for more than five minutes without arguing.

	“It’s my fault, I just push people away,” he grabs my hand and I jerk from the energy burning through me. “Why don’t we go get some coffee or dinner and you can tell me about your day?” He hesitates before adding, “If you’d like to.”

	“That might be nice, if Caroline likes you, then there must be some redeeming qualities in you,” I tease as I look into the room. “I just need to see how Greg is doing today and then we can go.”

	He steps back making room for me to walk by and I smile. He seems to be trying. I catch myself before I can smooth my shirt or fluff my hair. I haven’t wanted to do something like that in so long. Just because the man is nice and makes butterflies appear in your stomach like a childhood crush – doesn’t make him replace Timothy. I walk into the room before Valerie, his nurse, steps in behind me. “How’s it looking?”

	“He seemed to have some kind of activity today, but we aren’t sure what it was. He never made a sound or tried to open his eyes. I don’t think we should make a decision for a few more weeks. There could be a chance that he will pull through this, even with the burns on his body.” She stands there with her hands on her hips looking him over. “I just hope if he does pull through, that he changes. I’ve heard some stories and even if they are true, those kids of his adore their daddy.”

	“Don’t I know it, I don’t know what I will do if he doesn’t make it. The social worker is saying it’s going to be almost impossible for me to get them permanently.”

	“Well, you’re the best they’ve got right now. So you just keep your head up. God is going to make it all work out,” she pats my shoulder before walking out. I look up to the ceiling and think that I hope so. I don’t ask for much but I need God to help me with this situation.

	Sitting across the booth from Elijah Harris is something I never would have dreamed of. Listening to him talk about his upbringing was something else I hadn’t expected. I learned a lot about him. He’d grown up in a very Southern Baptist church. He was the quarterback of his hometown high school football team, Though he turned down a scholarship at the University of Alabama because he didn’t want to leave the town he grew up in. He had aspired to become a real life hero, though that fell through.

	“So, you seem to know a lot about me now,” he gives me that grin that makes my brain short circuit.

	“Not everything.”


	“Sure, I don’t know your age, your birthday, or your height,” I laugh softly.

	“Twenty-eight. January eighteenth and six foot two.”

	“Now I know everything, except one more thing.”

	“Go for it,” he takes a bite of his hamburger chewing as I think of how to ask my next question.

	“What are you doing with Caroline?” I bite my bottom lip and try not to squirm under the inspection of his eyes. He puts the burger down, wipes his lips with his napkin before looking at me with a serious face.

	“Caroline. She shows me the good in the world. She makes me want to be better. She restores my faith in a world that diminishes it,” he looks away before catching my eyes again. “She reminds me more of the boy I was than the man I’ve become. I’m not going to lie to you anymore Karlee, it seems we have one thing we both adore. Caroline. She is a beautiful soul in a world that seems to be filled with hate and devastation lately. She looks at me and I can tell she sees that I was good. I used to be a good man – a God-fearing man. She makes me want to be him again.”

	“Oh. Well, I hope you find him again,” I look away, his eyes shining with the conviction he feels.

	“So do I. It’s hard to be such a bitter person,” he points to the salad on my plate. “Now, eat your rabbit food.”

	I laugh again as I stab the ranch covered lettuce with my fork and take a bite. I was worried about how tonight would go, but it seems that things with Elijah Harris may work out better than I expected.

	“Now, your turn. You never told me why you were having a bad day.”

	“Right, about that,” I trail off and he shakes his head no. Great, not letting it go. “I got a call from the social worker over the kids. They said if something happens to Greg, they will take the kids from me.”

	“What?” He roars before realizing where we are. “Why?”

	“I’m twenty-six, not married and only have one income. They think the children would be better off in the system, I suppose.” The tears that were threatening to pour out of my eyes have started to come. “I was engaged, but Tim passed away,” I say quietly and before I know what’s happened Eli is in my side of the booth with his arms around me as my body racks with sobs.

	“Shhhh, it’s okay. If something happens, they won’t take them. I will make sure of it.” He rubs my back trying to calm me down and it wouldn’t cross my mind until later that night, that he was able to do such a thing. Most men ran from a sobbing woman, but he tried his best to console me. I think he got his being a super hero thing wrong, because in my book, a man that could do that, was a super hero.

	“Eli, can you come into the office for a second?”

	“Sure Jesse, what’s up?” I ask my boss as I walk into the office. The stern look on his face and the hard set of his eyes makes my stomach turn as I think about all the different scenarios. Maybe he knows I’ve been drinking way more than usual, or maybe I’m not doing my job right and they are going to fire me.

	“Look, my project manager just quit and I need someone reliable. I’d like to offer you the position, if you want it.”

	“Jesse, as much as I appreciate it, I know nothing about running a whole crew. Heck, I was a firefighter before I became a construction worker.”

	“I figured you’d say that,” he lets out a sigh as he sits behind his desk and looks back at me. “You don’t have to know it all today, but you’ll make thirty an hour and the guys all respect you. I need someone I can count on.”

	“I’m not that person,” I run my fingers through my hair as I sit down. “Jesse, I have issues that I don’t tell people about. I don’t think I can be the person you want.”

	“You’re him every day you’re here, Eli. I’m going to give you a couple of days to think about it. Just go out there and do what you normally do every day and once you realize you are already doing everything I need you to do, we’ll talk.” He gives me a small smile and I can see the stress that’s being put on his shoulders. I don’t know what makes me do it but I jump to my feet and agree, because I don’t want the man to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders.

	“I’ll do it.”

	“Good. You start this position today.” He grins as he slaps my back. “Let’s go tell the guys.”

	“Yay!” I say sarcastically as I throw my hand in the air and follow him outside to start our day.

	“Guys! Listen up! Brandon quit this morning because he just couldn’t handle the job. But, in saying that, Eli has stepped up and is going to be the Project Manager for the remainder of the job. If you need anything you let him know.” Jesse talks to all the guys and they all whoop and holler, jumping up to congratulate me.

	“Thanks guys, let’s get going so we can get off earlier,” I laugh as Jesse gives me a stern look. Note to self, no joking around the boss man. “That is, if we get all our work done for the day.” I wink at Jesse before grabbing my gear and going to work.

	A couple of hours into my day I get a phone call from a number I don’t recognize. I start to ignore it but something is telling me to pick it up.


	“Mr. Harris?” A woman’s voice comes from the other end of the line and I am stunned.

	“This is he.”

	“Hi, this is Georgia and I am calling for Karlee. I work with her in the office at Franklin Elementary.”

	“Is she okay?” Instantly my blood runs cold and my heart beats faster.

	“Yes sir, she’s fine. It’s Caroline.” Now cold sweats break out over my body.

	“Is she okay?” I repeat.

	“Well, Karlee thinks she may have a little stomach bug or the flu and she was wondering if you might be able to come and get her and bring her home until she can get a sub here, or until she gets off.”

	“Yeah, I’ll be there in about twenty minutes.” I hang up the phone and call Jesse letting him know there’s an emergency and I need to leave. Great way to start your promotion, Eli. He seems to be okay with the idea of me leaving for the day, which I guess is because I’m always here when I need to be.

	I run to my truck and think about what I’d want if I was a sick kid. I pull into Wal-Mart and grab some coloring books, coloring pencils and crayons, chicken noodle soup, Sprite and a couple of sports drinks. I even grab a few kid movies that I think Caroline might like.

	I arrive at the school within twenty minutes and pride myself on actually getting there on time. I stare at the immaculate building that is known as Franklin Elementary. It is a fully encased brick building with the huge white pillars in the front and a large sign that says Franklin Elementary. I follow the signs that lead to the office and smile at the attractive brunette sitting behind the desk.

	“Hello, can I help you?”

	“Yes ma’am. I’m Eli Harris, I’m here to pick up Caroline Brusly.”

	“Well, it’s nice to meet you Mr. Harris. I must say, Karlee didn’t do you justice.” She blushes a little as her eyes trail over me, but I don’t mind it because my mind is intrigued by what Karlee had to say about me. I take in the receptionist’s emerald green eyes and the high set of her cheekbones. But then I find myself comparing them to Karlee, and if I am being honest, nothing compares to her.

	“Well, I’m going to take that as a compliment. You must be Georgia?”

	“Yes, that would be me. I’ll call for Caroline, she’s with the nurse.”

	“Thank you,” I give her my charmer smile and have to stifle a laugh as she gets all flustered while she calls for Caroline.

	Caroline comes into the office. Her face is ashen and her hair is pulled back into a ponytail. She sees me and her little face lights up as she runs to me. “Hey Eli!”

	“Well hey there little duckling,” I smile as she wraps her arms around my neck and gives me a big hug. “I hear you aren’t feeling so well.”

	“No, I don’t feel so good. My tummy hurts.”

	“Well, how about we get you to my apartment and we can eat chicken noodle soup and drink Sprite and watch cool Barbie movies.”

	“YAY!” She squeals in excitement as I look over at Georgia.

	“Anything else I need to do?”

	“No Sir. I’ll let Karlee know, and she’ll probably call you to let you know if she can get off early.”

	“Tell her its okay. She can come get her when she gets off work. I don’t want her to have to worry about taking the day off.”

	“Okay, have a good day.” Georgia smiles as I swing Caroline’s backpack over my shoulder and load her into my arms to carry her out of the office.

	“Thanks for coming to get me,” she says quietly, as she rests her head on my shoulder.

	“Anytime little duck,” I kiss her on the top of her forehead as I load her into the passenger seat of my truck. I never really thought I wanted kids, but if I had one like Caroline maybe I’d like the idea a lot more. Climbing behind the wheel of my vehicle, I look over at her and notice she’s already asleep – kid really must not be feeling well. I drive to the apartment, looking her over every now and again. I watch the steady rise and fall of her chest as she breathes and I smile. I don’t know what it is about this kid, or her siblings for that matter, but they all show me that there is still some kind of good in this world. Caroline shows me that even when tragedy strikes, there can be a good outcome. I look up at the sky and in the horizon I see a rainbow, and take it as the sign I’ve been looking for.

	Pulling into the apartment complex, I drive down the rows until I reach the last one. It’s one of the nicer buildings, since it was the last one built, and it came fully furnished, which was what made me pick it. Shutting the engine off, I grab the bag of goodies I picked up for Caroline before slowly picking her up, trying not to wake her. Her head rolls onto my shoulder and she says something I can’t make out before she’s back to lightly snoring. I want to laugh but I can’t when I see her freckles and the stray blonde strains blowing across her face, with the wind. I juggle the bag, her and my keys as I unlock the door. Once inside, I lay her down on the couch then empty the bag. Grabbing the case of Sprite, I stick the whole pack in my fridge so they will be cold when she wakes up from her rest. I walk to my bedroom and pull a pillow and the blanket off the bed, then head back into the living room.

	Making sure she has everything she needs in case she gets sick, I walk into the kitchen and grab my phone. I look for the number I got two weeks ago at the dinner, but never messaged or called. I send a quick text. ‘She’s asleep on the couch. We are loaded down with chicken soup, Sprite and Pepto. Don’t take off. Door will be unlocked so just come in, don’t want to wake her.’

	I go back into my bedroom and change out of my work clothes before I hear a small voice. “Eli! Eli!” I run into the living room pulling the shirt I was changing into over my head as I go. “I need to go to the bathroom! I feel sick,” Caroline’s ashen face looks up at me and I grab her and run down the hall. “Hurry!” She throws her hand over her mouth, but the vomit comes. All over me and all down my shirt. Great. I put her down next to the toilet and she throws up some more. I look down at my now puke-covered shirt and shake my head as I grab a rag and run some cold water on it. I want to laugh at the scenario I’m in, but I’m in a bit of a pickle. I don’t know how I’m going to get this shirt off without cutting it, because I don’t want this all over my head.

	“I’m so sorry,” Caroline looks at me with a sad face and recoils, almost as if she fears I will slap her.

	“It’s okay, Caroline. You’re a sick little duck. You go on back and lay down if you feel like you aren’t going to throw up again. I’ll go take a quick shower and then I will fix you a Sprite and some chicken noodle soup and we can watch a movie.” I rub my hand over her forehead and notice she’s burning up. I need to make her take some medicine too.

	“You aren’t mad at me?” Her eyes look up at me with an emotion I can’t quite put my finger on and I want to wrap her in my arms. If only I wasn’t covered in vomit.

	“No, little duck. Now go lie down so I can get cleaned up,” I smile as she shuffles back to the living room and I move to my bedroom, grabbing a knife and cutting the shirt off my body. I walk into the bathroom and make haste of cleaning myself so I can get back to take care of Caroline. It’s going to be a lot harder than I thought it would be.

	Getting that text from Elijah was a relief. I wasn’t sure what I would do on such short notice. Now I had a newfound respect for the other parents that worked here. How did you just stop everything to take care of your sick child? I’d taken care of many sick children in my day, because let’s face it, a first grade teacher has to do that almost on a weekly basis. I however never expected to have to do it yet for someone in my charge, but I was worried about Caroline. Knowing that she was with Elijah made me feel a lot better though. I knew he’d take care of her. She adored him to pieces and I knew he felt the same way about her.

	As I drove over to the address he’d text me, I was nervous. We’d gone to dinner that night that I saw him at the hospital, when he’d gone to visit Greg. We’d exchanged numbers, but I never called or texted and neither did he. I didn’t know what to make of it and I couldn’t really understand why I wanted him to be the one to call, especially when I’d just lost Tim not that long ago.

	Pulling up beside his truck in the parking lot, I notice the apartment he lives in and make my way to the bright blue door. It reminds me of his eyes and how they light up when he is excited about something and then darken to look like the roaring seas if he gets irritated or angry. I raise my hand to knock but then I remember him saying to just come in so I didn’t wake Caroline, if she was sleeping. I’d been praying off and on today that the bug would pass and she’d feel better.

	Nothing could have prepared my heart for what I was walking into. Eli was asleep on the couch with his feet propped up on the coffee table, his brown hair spiked up in all directions. I shut the door as I take in the rest of the room. There are coloring books all over the table and ‘Frozen’ is playing on the television. Caroline is curled under a blanket and her head is on the pillow Eli has resting on his lap. My heart has practically stopped beating as I watch them both sleep peacefully. Eli may think he’s a man who is incapable of being a hero, but watching him just like this, I know that is not true. If I wasn’t already falling for Elijah Harris, the scene before me would have made me start falling, and he was doing it without even knowing it.

	I walk over to him, nudge his shoulder and whisper in his ear. “Eli, I’m here to get Caroline.”

	His eyes flutter open as he looks up at me. “I didn’t realize I’d dozed off. I guess you can only Let It Go for so long before you let it go,” he smiles as he stretches. My eyes trail over his body and I have to mentally slap myself. Stop ogling the man, Karlee.

	“Thank you so much for getting her, I owe you.”

	“You owe me nothing. I enjoyed today, surprisingly.”


	“Well, I liked coloring, watching Disney movies and napping. I didn’t like getting thrown up on twice while trying to make it to the bathroom.” He gives a face of disgust and keeps talking. “But, I am at least the cleanest I have been in twenty-eight years. Two showers in an hour, my mother would be proud.”

	I laugh softly as I watch his face. I don’t know his story but I really hope he will tell it to me one day, because I feel like it is a story that would impact and change the person who listens to it. If it changed him as much as it did, then it would change someone else. “Elijah, would you like to come over for dinner?” I blurt out before I can even think about it and his face lights up, before he looks away.

	“I’d love to, but I think I need to stay home tonight. It’s been a long day with a sick little duck.”

	“Little duck?”

	“Oh, yeah I call Caroline that. She squawked at me a couple of Sundays ago, before the sermon and I decided I was going to call her little duck.”

	“She really likes you. I hope you stick around.”

	“Karlee! You’re here,” Caroline gives me a weak smile as she lays on the pillow. “Eli was a great nurse.”

	“I bet he was, he’s a pretty good guy.” I smile as he runs his hand over his neck awkwardly. Was he not used to being praised for his accomplishments?

	“He is, he even sang Do You Wanna Build a Snowman.” Her little smile grows larger as she tells me about her day.

	“He did, did he?” Looking at him, I smile. “Encore?”

	“Oh no, not tonight. I think that will have to be a Caroline and Eli thing,” he smirks as he shuffles his feet.

	“Yes, we have a thing,” she says with a big grin on her little face.

	“Thank you again for all your help with her today, I owe you big time.” I start to pick her things up and put them in the bag but he stops me in my tracks.

	“I can pick this mess up. I’ll keep all this here in case you ever need me to entertain her again.”


	“Yes, now go on and get her home and into bed. She has had some chicken noodle soup, Sprite, Tylenol and Pepto, for her tummy. She’s all ready to sleep the night away for you.”

	“Thank you again. How about you come to dinner next weekend and we can watch the LSU/Alabama game?”

	“That’s a deal, but you’re going down, tiger fan.”

	“We shall see. Your team isn’t as good this year,” I counter, teasingly.

	“It’s on,” he laughs as he grabs Caroline’s book bag and hands it to me. “Thanks for trusting me to do this.”

	“Of course, she adores you and my sister, well let’s just say, she doesn’t do throw up well.” We both laugh as we make our way to his door. I hate that he’s here alone, but like he told me weeks ago, that’s how he prefers it. Watching him with Caroline though, I am beginning to think it was all just a big façade.

	I watch as he waits in the doorframe to make sure that we both get into the car safely, and I can’t help but smile. He waves as we back out of the parking space and finally closes the door behind him as we start to turn the corner. I don’t know what it is about him, but I know that I need to help him recover from whatever he’s gone through. I don’t want him to feel so broken and alone. Even if that’s what he wants, I don’t want it for him.

	After I bring Caroline home and get her situated, I make sure that Cadence can keep an eye on her, while I change my clothing and head to the hospital with Chance, to check on their father. One of the nurses called and said it wasn’t looking good. So with Chance being the oldest, I decided to take only him to the hospital with me tonight.

	“I’m afraid,” Chance whispers softly from the front seat of the car as we make our way to the hospital.

	“I know you are. I wish that this was something you never had to worry about.” I slide my hand over the console and wrap my fingers around his, showing him that he isn’t in this alone.

	“I know he wasn’t the greatest father, but he was mine.”

	“Your father just had a lot to deal with, he’s a good man. He just didn’t make good decisions.”

	“Karlee, I don’t know if I can tell them to take him off of life support. I mean, that’s me making a decision that shouldn’t be made by anyone but God. I know that ultimately it’s the doctors choice since I’m not old enough, but I know he wants to know my opinion since he’s my dad.” His hand sweats as his holds mine, looking out the window again. I see the tear roll down his high cheekbone and I want to make it all disappear.

	“I know, but sometimes we have to make it okay for our loved ones to leave the world. Sometimes, we just keep them here for selfish reasons and life support just keeps them here.” I wince thinking maybe that wasn’t the best thing to say that to a sixteen-year-old boy.

	“I’m just going to pray and think about it. God is going to tell me what should happen right?”

	“I’m sure He will if you talk to him,” I want to disappear because I am not the person who needs to give him this advice.

	I’m so grateful that he decides to not ask me any more questions because right now, I feel like I am failing as a parental figure. Pulling into the hospital parking lot I take a deep breath and pray that things will go the way we want them to go. I don’t want to lose the kids and if Greg passes on, it just may happen. I haven’t told them that because I didn’t want them to worry about where they will all go and if they will all end up together, if it happens.

	Chance steps out of the car and looks up at the pink sky. I watch the sun set and hope that tomorrow will be better than today. Chance straightens his jeans as he comes to stand beside me. “Let’s get this over with.” He readjusts the ball cap on his head and we walk into the hospital. We walk slowly down the corridor leading to his father’s room in the ICU and I continue to pray that some good news may come our way. As much devastation as I have had, I need a reprieve somewhere. God wouldn’t take these children I’d come to love away from me? Right? These were questions I’d thought about often and walking into Greg’s room I knew I needed to ask them more often.

	“Good evening Ms. Reynolds and Mr. Brusly. He’s resting peacefully,” Nurse Sally says as we enter the unit, after washing our hands at the wash station.

	I take in the surroundings of glass rooms with curtains pulled and listen to the beeps of the machines used to keep the people in here alive. Chance’s words ring into my ears as I look around, are we humans really playing God here? If that were the case he surely wouldn’t have given someone the ability to grant healing through this type of place.

	“Thanks Sally,” I give her a smile and squeeze Chance’s shoulder. “Why don’t you go see your daddy? I’m going to talk with Mrs. Sally.” He nods slightly as he pulls the old cap off his head, before walking into the room.

	“It’s not good, Karlee.” She gives me a sad look before turning her attention to the room containing a father and son whose lives were fixing to be forever changed.

	“Tell me the truth,” I don’t really want to hear the truth but we have to start somewhere don’t we?

	“His burns are healing, but his mind isn’t. He isn’t responding to most things lately, almost as if he is brain dead. He must have inhaled too much smoke.”

	“So when does a decision have to be made?”

	“I’ll give it two more weeks to see if anything happens, but if it doesn’t I think it’s for the best.”

	“Can the doctor make this decision?”

	“No,” Chance says from behind me. “She’s right.”

	I whip around to see him leaning against the sliding door. The determination on his face and the way he’s standing proves to me that he is doing what he thinks is best. “Are you sure about this?” I hold in my tears because in one month their worlds will be changed. They won’t have a father and they will be taken from me and placed into the system and given to people who won’t care for them as much as I will.

	“I had a sense of peace while I was in there. Two weeks is a fair shot for him to pull through it. If not then it’s time,” he wipes at a tear about to fall from his eye and all I want to do is shelter him in a cocoon where he can’t feel the pain of this world. He lost his mother when he was only ten and now he will likely have to bury his father. I wasn’t sure how they all did it, but those kids were tougher than nails. I’d lost Timothy and thought my world was completely over. I’d lain in my bed for two weeks and mourned the man I was supposed to grow old with.

	“Then that’s all we can do. Time will tell,” Sally gives him a smile before wrapping him in her arms. “You kiddo, are strong. Your Momma and Daddy would be proud of the young man you’re becoming.” She squeezes him one more time before going to check on another patient.

	“You’re positive?”

	“I’m going to be okay and so are the girls. I’ll make sure of it. I know you’re worried about us too, but we will be okay,” he walks back into the room and I can’t help but follow him. “If I’m being honest, I think we all grieved for the father we knew when our mom died. The father we all knew died with her and in his place, a monster surfaced.”

	“Chance, I’m so sorry. I’d known it wasn’t perfect but I didn’t know it was as bad as it was.”

	“You weren’t supposed to. Cadence and I made sure to keep appearances up the best we could, to make sure we stayed together.”

	“You did pretty well,” my voice breaks as I think about the chance that I may not be able to keep them together anymore. That man lying in the bed was the last piece to our puzzle and without him it would all fall apart.

	I pull up to the address that Karlee gave me and I can’t help but think this house matches her personality to a tee. I take in the light blue wooden frame, the white porch with the white trim on the windows and the very well-groomed landscape. There are flowers along the pathway leading to the house and a couple of pots with sunflowers on the porch. There is even a white rocking chair and a swing on the porch. I knock on the door and laugh as I hear squealing and feet pattering on the floor.

	“Eli!” Caroline shrieks as she pulls the door open and jumps into my arms, nearly knocking the cake I bought out of my hands. She sniffs me for a second and then looks at me with a seriousness you wouldn’t expect from a child her age. “You smell like my Daddy used to,” she wrinkles her nose and climbs down.

	If that isn’t a dose of reality hitting me like a cold bucket of ice water, I don’t know what is. I smell my shirt but I don’t notice anything other than the cologne I sprayed on my shirt to mask my all night binge of whiskey. I follow her into the kitchen where Karlee is standing in a purple LSU shirt and a pair of blue jean shorts. Those shorts seem to keep my attention until I see Chance laughing in the corner. I avert my eyes and try them off the woman standing before me. How’d I never really understand how attractive she was before now? I mean sure she is beautiful but I’d never really felt anything other than annoyance when it came to her.

	“Hey! You made it,” she turns around and gives me her brilliant smile and all I want to do is keep that smile on her face. I wonder why the woman isn’t married, or dating for that matter.

	“I did, I couldn’t pass up making a Tiger fan cry.”

	“Well, the only crying anyone will be doing is the elephant in the room,” she laughs as she goes back to cutting some lettuce.

	“Smells good in here. I brought a cake from that gourmet shop on the corner in town.”

	“Oh! Martha makes the best cakes.”

	“Cake?” Chance shoots out of the chair and I put my hand on his chest.

	“Oh no sir, you don’t get cake since you were over there snickering.”

	“Come on! It was funny!” He laughs again before smacking me on the back. “You were focusing pretty hard on Karlee’s backside.”

	Karlee looks at me and then at Chance and I swear, if it was possible, I’d really like for the floor to open up and swallow me whole. “You were staring at my butt?”

	“No,” I avert my eyes and she laughs softly. “I was just admiring your shorts?” I roll my eyes as I realize I just made it sound like a question instead of a mere compliment.

	“Sure you were,” she winks as she turns back to cutting up the lettuce for the hamburgers. “Did you have a hard time finding the place?”

	“Nope, pretty easy. It’s exactly what I pictured you having.” I wince again because I just keep digging that hole a little deeper.


	“Yeah, something quaint and straight out of a magazine.”

	“Well, I’ll take that as a compliment, I think.”

	I laugh as I run my hand over my neck. Just shut up, Harris. Cadence takes that moment to walk in and I have to laugh. She’s wearing some kind of tiger striped purple and gold leggings but a red Alabama shirt.

	“What’s so funny?” She looks down at her outfit and back up at me. I laugh harder as she stomps over to Karlee and pops a piece of carrot into her mouth.

	“She is a house divided because she claims you shouldn’t be the only person to like Alabama,” Karlee says and the laughter immediately stops.

	“I appreciate that,” I say with all seriousness as Cadence hugs me. I never expected to be involved with this family when I went after Caroline that night. But now that I know each of those three kids I couldn’t imagine a life without them. I love hearing Cadence go on about a book she’s read. I like talking to Chance about dating advice after church, and he even told me he wants to try out for the football team his junior year. Now that could be fun. I also just love Caroline. Her little soul was a pure one that trusted and saw the good in every person out there. I hoped for her sake that she never experiences the evil in the world.

	“There is some lemonade in the fridge if you’d like and there’s also a few beers.” Karlee calls over her shoulder as she walks through a sliding glass door to what looks like the back patio.

	“Thank you,” I call as I walk to the fridge. My hand goes to reach for the beer, but then I recall Caroline’s earlier words. You smell like my daddy did. I shake my head as I pull the lemonade out and grab a cup from the counter. If that doesn’t make me want to stop cold turkey, I wouldn’t know what else could. Maybe I’ll be able to stop with that in my mind every time I went to take a swig from a bottle.

	Karlee comes back into the house with the burgers and hotdogs off the grill and I laugh as the kids all run toward the counter. I take a step back and let them all go about fixing their food as I observe. I watch Karlee as she watches them and she wipes a tear away from her eye. Wonder what that’s about? Her eyes meet mine and she shakes her head as if to say let it go. Finally the kids move out the way and Karlee and I step up to make our own food. Her shoulder brushes against mine and the heat that courses through my body at that simple touch, has my knees weak. I’d heard people talk about this type of thing when they’d met the one for them, but it was something I’d never experienced.

	“Sorry,” she says softly as she finishes fixing her hamburger and makes her way to the back porch to eat.

	“It’s okay.” I walk out behind her noticing the set up out here with the television and the sound system. The woman had to love football to have this kind of setup and living alone. Or, maybe she hasn’t always lived alone? I didn’t like that idea; I didn’t like the thought of her having another man living with her. I didn’t understand that either though, because we’d never be together. We were completely opposite people and I would taint her. I would take all the goodness inside of her and coat it with the soot of darkness that coats me.

	We all sit outside and enjoy the game as the Tigers sadly and finally put a smack down on the Tide. Halfway through the game, Cadence lost her Alabama shirt and donned the purple and gold pride of her team. I sadly was the only one who wanted to weep as I watched LSU roll right over my loving Tide. I also knew I wouldn’t ever live this down because these people seemed to love rubbing it in my face that we’d lost to LSU finally.

	I’d stopped hanging around with people over five months ago, and I never realized how much I’d missed human companionship. This wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Having these four people in my life made me think that maybe I was being too hard on God. Because, if he could bring these people into my life, then he couldn’t be all that bad for taking one man out of it. A man I’d never really known, a man who would make me see that there was more to this world. I never would have left Maryville had I not witnessed what I had with Timothy’s demise. I, at least could, see the positive of meeting these extraordinary people because of a horrible tragedy.

	“Please someone help me!” A voice calls from the car smoking on the road. There isn’t anyone else around, no other vehicle in sight as I run toward the sound. I get to the car and notice a man in there but he’s not making any noises. I reach into the window to shake him, trying to wake him up. He sits up and turns to look at me and I get a glimpse of him. He’s got my eyes and my mouth and it’s upturned in an evil grin. “Welcome to Hell,” the voice says before an eerie laugh erupts from its mouth. I try to let go of the person, but they have their hand wrapped tightly on my arm and before I realize what’s happened I’m in the burning car and standing outside is Timothy.

	“Please get me out!” I yell to him, begging him to help me out of the car before it explodes.

	“Why would I do that? Did you help me?” His black eyes stare at me in an evil smirk before I catch a spark out of the corner of my eye.

	I jerk up in the bed as my heart pounds, my breathing is labored and my throat is parched. I shake my head, trying to clear the nightmare from my brain. Pulling the sheets back I stand on shaky legs and head toward the kitchen. I run my hand over my face and look up at the ceiling.

	“God, I’m really trying here, but I can’t do it alone.” I don’t know what else to do to make myself better because in all honesty, I’m not okay. I can’t deal with the nightmares and I know that I can’t keep drinking like I am. It isn’t healthy and as I reach for the bottle my hand shakes as Caroline’s words hit home again. You smell like my daddy did. I shakily put the bottle back down and reach for a bottle of water instead. Maybe I could try warm milk; I heard that it works for people who have trouble sleeping. I grab a mug out of the cabinet in front of me before opening the fridge and pulling the half-gallon of milk out. Pulling out a saucer I pour some of the milk into it and wait for it to boil.

	I take the warm milk into the living room and turn the television on to some infomercial about some new hair care product. I don’t really pay any attention to it as I think about that sermon Pastor Bennett gave the day before I decided to run away. He wants us to need him so badly that the only place we have left to go is to our knees. I think about it and after a moment of going back and forth in my head I sink down to my knees. I put my hands on the ground in front of me and lean forward, placing my head on the ground.

	“God, if You’re listening to me, I need You. I’ve lost my way and I need to find it again. Please lead me back to You and help me to know that You are the way and the light. I need some kind of light in this dark place I’ve dug myself into.” I start to weep as my heart lightens some and I think of the amazing things that have been given to me despite my hardened heart. He gave me a job when I refused to do the one he’d given me. He’d kept my best friend hassling me until I’d finally made him give up on me and he gave me the Brusly family to restore me faith.

	“I want to be the man that Caroline thinks I am, that Karlee thinks I am. I don’t want to disappoint anyone anymore. I need Your help, Father.” I sit up on my knees with tears streaming down my face as I look up at the ceiling and I finally find some kind of peace. “Please show me what my purpose is here, because I’m so lost.”

	I grab the cup of milk and drink it before standing up to put it in my sink. I grab my bible off the counter in the kitchen and open it to a random page. I laugh out loud when I see what message God has for me. Psalms, chapter thirty, verse five. For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.

	“Well then. I guess it’s time to rejoice in You, Lord.” I close my bible with a newfound peace and head back to my bedroom to go to bed. For once the night doesn’t scare me because I know now that my purpose is to be an example to three kids who haven’t always had a good role model.

	I knew when I’d gotten the phone call from Sally that this week would just continue to be a horrible one. They were going to take Greg off of life support in three days and the social worker would be calling to set up a time to meet with me. I’d all but shut down and wasn’t sure how to keep going without these kids near me. I wasn’t even sure they’d keep them in the same state, or if they’d be able to go somewhere together for that matter. I’d called Eli but he was working and wasn’t able to talk at the time, so I sat at my desk waiting for someone to call me back.

	“Karlee?” A voice makes me jump as I look up to see Harry standing in the doorway.

	“Hey, I didn’t hear you come in,” I look at the man with his balding head and joyful smile. He’d been the principal of the school for ten years and he’d done an incredible job with turning it around.

	“You seemed to be lost in your own head,” he pulls out a chair and sits down as he smiles. “A Ms. Grace Babineaux came to see me today.”

	“It doesn’t surprise me, she’s trying to do everything in her power to take my kids.”

	“Just by that answer I know telling her you were the best thing that could happen to them, was the truth.”

	“You did that?” I look at him shocked.

	“Your dang straight I did. I’ve watched you with Caroline over the last month and I’ve seen her slowly unfold like a flower in the spring. She’s slowly showing her personality more and more, and it’s because she’s with someone who cares enough to help her.” He stands as I start to cry, then he places a hand on my shoulder. “I’d be surprised if they take the kids, so don’t worry.”

	“Thank you. You’ve always been so kind to me.” I wipe at my tears as he squeezes my shoulder.

	“When one is kind, others tend to follow suite.” He smiles as he walks toward the door. “Now, go on home and quit worrying. I hear Ms. Reynolds has some horrible homework.”

	I laugh loudly as he waves over his shoulder. I needed to hear some of the things he said and I thank God for bringing him into my classroom to deliver those words. I’d always respected Harry. Grabbing my cell I phone in an order to the local pizza parlor for the kids, as a treat, before I collect the rest of the things I need, to work on my lesson plans.

	After picking the pizza up and making sure the car had gas to make the trip to the hospital to see Greg tomorrow, I pull into my driveway, surprised to see Elijah’s truck. Chance runs out to help me with my bags, just like he does every day. I would miss that. “Hey Karlee! Eli stopped by to help me with joining the football team. He said I could start going with him to the gym if I wanted to.”

	“He did, did he?” I look over Chance’s shoulder to see Eli standing on my porch with his hands in his front pockets and looking sheepish. Good. “Well, if it’s not a hassle for him, I don’t mind.”

	“Yes!” Chance screams as I grab the pizza out of the back seat. “Pizza and a yes to the gym. You’ve made my dreams come true.” He runs past Eli with a high five and I hear Eli mutter something under his breath.

	“I’m sorry for coming by unexpectedly.”

	“It’s okay, would you like to stay for dinner?”

	“I don’t want to impose,” he bounces on the balls of his feet and I want to laugh at his discomfort.

	“It’s not imposing if I ask you.”

	“Very true. If that’s the case then I’d love to stay.” The smile that takes over his face could send me down to my knees. The man is beautiful. He grabs the pizza from me and motions me to walk before him. “You look pretty today.”

	“Umm, thank you.” I turn to look over my shoulder at him as I say those words, then when I turn back around, I slam into the doorjamb of the kitchen.

	“Watch out,” he calls but I don’t realize it until it happens.

	“Oh!” I mutter as I grab my cheek where I ran into the door. If today wasn’t already going my way, it definitely wasn’t getting any better. “I’m okay.” I try to reassure him, but he’s already at the kitchen sink running cold water on a washcloth.

	“Here, put this on your cheek.” He reaches up and touches the burning skin with the cool rag and I hiss. “Sorry.”

	I reach for the rag and our hands touch, sending electricity coursing through my body. Hailey would tell me about this feeling she’d get whenever Will would touch her. I’d never experienced it and was envious of her for it. Timothy always put butterflies into my stomach when he was around, but I never got the vibes from him that I get from Eli’s touch. “Thanks,” I whisper and beg my heart to stop pounding like it has just run a five mile marathon. I watch as he leans in like he’s going to kiss me, but he moves the rag to inspect my face further.

	“Oh my gosh! What happened to your face?” Cadence squeals sending the other two kids running behind her. “Did you punch her?”

	“No! No he did not!” I screech as I look to the other two kids. “I got into a fight with the doorframe and it won.” I chuckle because I thought it was funny, but undoubtedly I was the only person in the room who was amused by my corny sense of humor.

	“Well, I hope you’re good at contouring and camouflaging. That is going to leave one nasty bruise.”

	“How would you know anything about that Cadence?” I put my hands on my hips and give her my best grimacing stare.

	“Because, I’ve had to do it,” she whispers before looking down. “Look, I’m not that hungry. I’m just going to go to my room.” She turns to leave and instantly my heart freezes. I feel like a cold-hearted person because I forgot how badly she had it at home.

	“Cadence!” I call out behind her and start to follow her, but Chance grabs my arm halting me in my place.

	“She will get over it, just give her space.”

	“I didn’t mean to…”

	“She knows that and so do we, but you have to understand. The man you knew and the man we know are two totally different people.” I shake my head as he continues. “Cadence and I took it all to keep it from Caroline. She had to become a good makeup artist to hide both of our bruises and to keep us all together. We both felt like we needed to protect Caroline, so we did what we had to.”

	“I’m not judging you,” I say and Eli steps up, putting his hands on my shoulders and sending heat through me. If my face wasn’t already red, I was pretty sure it was by now.

	“Neither of us are, we both know you kids have gone through more than most children should.” He steps away from me and I have to suppress the groan as he wraps Chance in a hug. “God teaches everyone to not judge and neither of us plan on judging you for the hardships you’ve had to overcome.”

	“Good, because once he’s gone, I hope we never have to bring it up again.” Chance turns around and stalks out of the room with his pizza.

	“What does he mean?” Eli asks and I want to slap myself for not telling him.

	“They are taking him off of life support on Friday if his brain doesn’t respond by then.”

	“And when were you going to tell me this?” His eyes turn hard on me and his body goes rigid.

	“I didn’t know how to tell you. I overheard you talking to Greg that day. I know you wanted him to pull through, to show you that there was still some form of faith.” I look down, admitting that I, again, have let him down.

	“I shouldn’t be surprised, Karlee. You’re a woman.”

	“And just what is that supposed to mean?” I quip as I put my hands on my hips and glare.

	“Exactly what I said. You stick your nose where it doesn’t belong and you don’t tell the whole story.” He turns toward the door when we both see Caroline in the doorframe with her mouth open wide.

	“Please don’t fight. I don’t want to lose either of you,” she looks at us both with such sad eyes that I want to cry too.

	“It’s okay, Caroline. Neither of us will ever leave you,” Eli grabs her chin and tilts it up to look at him. “Karlee and I both love you, and your brother and sister very much. Neither of us is going to leave.”

	“But you two are fighting and when people fight, someone always goes away,” she sniffles and my heart warms as Eli brushes her tears away. I swear this man is the full package and he’s right; I should have told him.

	“You go on in there with Cadence while I talk to Eli,” I pat her head as I walk to the front porch. I don’t really know how to fix this but I do know that I don’t want him to leave here mad at me. I hear his boots hitting the wooden floors as I open the door and walk out, sitting on the swing.

	“I’m just going to go.”

	“Eli, I want to explain.”

	“I’m listening,” he says as he leans onto the railing. I have to swallow the saliva in my mouth as I take in his full appearance; all the way from his boot clad feet to the jeans that fit him to perfection, and the shirt that could rival the jeans.

	“I didn’t know how to tell you, because I was afraid you’d quit coming around if you knew they might be leaving me.”

	“Karlee, I don’t just like the kids. I’ve gotten to know you more as we try to make this work with the kids.” He runs his hand over his neck and I laugh. “What’s so funny?”

“That move you do when you’re nervous.”

	“What move?”

	“The one where you run your hand over the back of your neck, like this,” I mimic his move and he also laughs.

	“I do not look like that.”

	“Oooookay,” I laugh.

	“So life support is coming off Friday? What about the funeral arrangements?”

	“Yeah, about that. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’ve already had to bury one person this year.” I wince as I say that, because he doesn’t really know all the details.

	“Right, your fiancé?” He looks at me and I’m in shock because we don’t really talk about him. “Small town.” He says in response to my quizzical expression.

	“Yeah, I don’t know. I am going to go to the banker and see what I can do because I know Greg has a life insurance policy, and money in the bank, but I don’t think I can do anything since I don’t have custody of the kids.” I put my head in my hands as I push the swing and am shocked when he sits beside me and grabs my hand.

	“How about we figure it out, together?” He smiles when I finally peek my head through my fingers.

	“Really? Why?”

	“Because, I really like you. I want to make this work and I really kind of want to kiss you.”


	“Mmmhmm. Is that okay?” He leans in again, much like he did earlier in the kitchen, before the kids interrupted.

	“Okay,” I bite my lip as he licks his own, before leaning in and placing them softly onto my own. I gasp as his tongue slides out to deepen the kiss and my head starts to spin. He pulls away and the twinkle in his eyes makes me smile bigger than I have in half a year. I know this is probably wrong of me since I should still be grieving over Timothy, but the peace I feel is comforting.

	“Wow,” he breathes out, and I smile.

	“Yeah, I agree with that.”

	He leans in and kisses me quickly before standing and moving away. “I should probably head out, I have to be at work early.”


	“Let me take you to dinner tomorrow. We can enjoy a nice quiet evening without prying eyes,” he moves his eyes over to the window where I see all three of the kids peeking and I burst out laughing. “And, we can talk about what we are going to do about Greg, and the kids staying with you.”

	“I’d like that.” I slide my fingers up to my mouth and he chuckles.

	“So would I. Seven okay?”

	“Perfect,” I watch as he leans in and gives me one more kiss, then waves to the kids as he walks down my porch and jumps into his truck. I listen to the engine rev and continue to stand there as I watch him back away, wave, and keep going toward town. The kids all come outside, but I can’t make out what they are saying over their high pitched shrills and the beating of my heart, that is now resounding in my ears.

	Thank you Elijah Harris for turning my bad day into an amazing one.

	I don’t know what came over me, kissing her like that. I was angry and upset but I didn’t want to lose her or those kids. They’d become so much a part of me, that I didn’t think I could function without them. I didn’t want to rush into anything with her because quite frankly, I was scared of a relationship. I was scared of what my drinking would do to it and to her. I’d stopped drinking for three days but I could feel the toll it was taking on my body now. My veins had pumped the poison through my bloodstream for three or four months now, and quitting cold turkey was proving to be harder than I expected it to be. I couldn’t really say I regretted kissing her though, because I’d never met a woman like Karlee Reynolds. She was as sassy as she was classy and as sincere as she was vigilant. She could flip a switch so fast on her emotions that sometimes I was left with whiplash, but it was refreshing.

	Pulling into my parking spot I shake the thoughts from my mind as I climb out of the truck and walk to my apartment. I’d asked God to keep Greg Brusly alive and to show his children that tragedy can turn into empathy. That it could bring salvation to anyone who let it. It didn’t work out that way for them, or it hadn’t yet. But, maybe it would. Maybe the empathy in this was that they would get parents or guardians that loved and cherished them. People who were just like the mother and father they had before yet another tragedy struck them.

	I walk into my apartment and heat up the cold pizza from last night. I’d forgotten all about eating until I’d been halfway home and I didn’t want to go back and worry about not kissing Karlee again. I didn’t know where we stood and even though I wanted to repeat that kiss on her porch several times over, I didn’t know what she wanted. As my pizza gets nuked in the microwave I turn on my cell phone from home. I still haven’t heard from Charlie, so hearing his voice on the one voicemail I have is surprising.

	“Eli, it’s Charlie. I just wanted to let you know that Brady came by today. He’s looking for you; you’re being subpoenaed to court over the Granger incident. Call me when you get this.”

	My blood runs cold as I grab the counter to hold me up. I wasn’t expecting this to happen. I didn’t want to go to court over this. I didn’t ever want to see Vincent Howard, the drunk driver that caused Timothy’s accident, again. I knew why they were calling me. I didn’t need to return Charlie’s call, but I hit the button and waited as it started ringing.


	“Hey Charlie.”

	“Well, the man finally calls.”

	“I owe you an apology.”

	“You’re right about that,” his cocky voice comes across the phone and had we been face to face I’d have probably punched him in the shoulder.

	“I’m sorry for all the things I said in that diner.”

	“Brother, you were forgiven the day I left. I’ve not forgotten, but I want to go to Heaven and I can’t get there if I’m upset with you.”

	“I don’t know how you have so much faith,” I run my hand over my face as I think back to everything the man has gone through in his life.

	“Well man, Second Corinthians, chapter five, verse seven says we live by faith, not by sight. So, I’m gonna live by faith and know that God has a reason for everything He does. Maybe He’s just testing me to make sure I stay faithful and I don’t ever want to let him down.”

	“I don’t want to go to this court date.” He sighs over the phone and I know he’s thinking of something to say. “I cannot look at that man in the face while he looks directly at the judge, and pleads not guilty.”

	“That’s why they need you. Of course everyone knows he’s guilty, but he’s claiming that Timothy crossed the line. It’s his word against yours.”

	“When is it?”

	“November fifth.”

	“I’ll make sure I can get off of work for the week.”

	“Just come on home.” He huffs out as if he’s exhausted.

	“I can’t anymore. This is my home now. I think I may have fallen for someone here.”

	“Oh? Got a girl now do ya?”

	“Something like that,” I mumble.

	“Well, I’m glad you’re sort of getting better. How’s the drinking?”

	“Got a wakeup call from a seven year old who reminded me that I was not who I wanted to be.”

	“Well, I bet this little kid is a good example.”

	“She has made me want to be the man I used to be.”

	“Then I owe her more than I can express. I liked the old you, too.”

	“Yeah, yeah,” I smile as I realize just how much I actually miss my best friend. “Don’t get all sappy on me now, man.”

	“I’m not but look, they just signaled me. There’s a call so I’ll talk to you later.”

	“Yep. Be careful.”

	“Always am.” And with those final words the line goes dead.

	Sitting at the kitchen counter I reach for the bottles of Jack Daniels and Captain Morgan that I have hidden in the cabinets. These two have been my best friends and confidants for the last few months, but I knew it was time to let them go and cling to the people who could make me whole again. I unscrew the cap on the first of ten bottles and pour the amber liquid down the drain. I’m sure there is someone somewhere, screaming at me for wasting the precious liquid but to me, it’s restoring my soul. It’s humbling me and making me new. From here on out, I plan to get drunk in the Holy Spirit. I smile as I see the worn leather of my bible out of the corner of my eye and I know I am on the right track to recovering and finally being able to move past this trying time in my life.

	I pour all the bottles out and throw the empty bottles into the trashcan. I feel liberated as I work on bettering myself and being the man I need to be for the people I want to have in my life. After doing all that, I grab my bible and head into the bedroom to do some studying before bed. Getting back into God’s grace was feeling better and better every second.

	Work went by without a hitch and I was really enjoying being the Project Manager. All of the guys seemed to respect my input on things, and I tried to make sure I was always respectful of them. I wouldn’t ask any of them to do something that I wouldn’t do myself, which they seemed to like about me. According to several of them, most project managers would just sit on their butts and watch instead of actually getting out there and helping the work move faster. I wasn’t that type of person and we usually finished working on our designated tasks faster because we all chipped in. With all the momentum, we would actually finish this job on time, which was good because Jesse told me there was another job a few towns over that they wanted my help with.

	I wasn’t sure that construction was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but I wasn’t sure I could go back to being a firefighter either. While I was at peace with everything that had happened with me, I wasn’t sure I wanted to put myself into that position again. I’d been thinking about it more and more as I drove home from work. I’d stopped at the local florist and gotten Karlee some tulips before I went home to shower.

	Pulling into her driveway, I’d become a nervous wreck. I was acting like a teenager on his first date, and it was refreshing. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gotten this feeling when I’d gone out with someone. Before I could even take a step onto the first stair, the front door opens wide and Caroline runs out. I have to drop the flowers to keep from falling as I brace myself when she launches herself into my arms. I laugh as her toothy grin comes out and she squeals as I lean over dipping her as I pick the flowers up.

	“I’m glad you’re going out with Karlee. She’s nice and you two could be our new mommy and daddy,” she whispers and for a second I stop moving. I’m completely frozen, as if I’m in shock over what the seven year old has just said. I didn’t want to make them think this is something that it isn’t.

	“I don’t know about that,” I say, and when her little blue eyes turn downward, I instantly regret the words I have spoken. I need to be a better speaker when it came to kids, dang it.

	“Hey Eli. Karlee will be out in a little bit, she’s getting dressed.” Chance calls from his relaxed position, lounging on the couch. I want to laugh but I chose not to because I don’t want two upset children for Karlee to deal with later.

	“Where’s Cadence?”

	“Cheerleading practice. She’s going to have Riley’s mom drop her off.”

	“I didn’t know she did that. That’s really cool,” I say as I set Caroline down and grab her little cheeks making her look at me. “What I said earlier, I didn’t mean that I wouldn’t like that. Because I would love to be that for you, but I’m just not sure that is what will happen.”

	“It’s okay, I understand,” she pouts a little before going over to her brother and curling into his arms.

	I want to kick myself again because I made her this sad child. I should have just not said anything, but I find comfort in knowing that even if Karlee doesn’t get to keep these kids, they will always have each other’s backs. The way Chance is comforting Caroline warms my heart, but then I look up to see Karlee standing there in a little black dress and she warms my soul. The dress fits her like a glove and flatters all of her features. Her brown hair, that is usually up in a ponytail or some clip, is loose and in soft waves down her back. I’m pretty sure I looked like Roger Rabbit as she walks over to me.

	“Sorry I took so long, I was late getting in from work,” she smiles as she reaches for her purse on the side table, by the door.

	“It’s okay. These are for you,” I hold out the now drooping tulips. “I might have dropped them trying to catch a very rambunctious seven year old.”

	“That’s okay, they are beautiful.” She sniffs the flowers before walking into the kitchen and setting them on the bar, before coming back. “Let your sister fill a vase from above the refrigerator with water, and put those flowers in them. Okay?”

	“Yes ma’am. I’ll also make sure she eats her macaroni and chicken nuggets.” Chance says as he rubs Caroline’s head. “We’ll even watch some girly Disney movie.”

	“Such a good brother,” she smiles and nods to me. “You ready to head out?”

	“Yes ma’am.” I tip my head at Chance and he smiles.

	“Have her home by ten.”

	“Well, I didn’t know I was the teenager here.” Karlee mutters as we make our way out of the door. I open the door to the truck for her, and she thanks me as she slides into the seat. I can’t help but think about how beautiful she is tonight as I slide behind the wheel and head to the steak house, a town over.

	Neither of us says much until we are sitting at the table and waiting on our food. “Look Eli, I don’t know what they are going to do about the kids.”

	“Well, we will cross that bridge when we get there.”

	“I don’t know what to do. I talked to the banker today and they are going to allow the kids to use the money from their father’s account, to pay for his funeral.”

	“Well, that’s a blessing in disguise.”

	“It is. We’ve already explained to Caroline that their daddy has passed on and neither of the older kids want to be there when they pull his life support plug.” She looks away before looking back at me. “I think that’s a decision they will end up regretting in the long run, but who am I to make them do anything?”

	“I agree. They will wish they had been there, but again, their relationship with the man in that bed wasn’t what a normal child/parent relationship would be.”

	“Very true. So the social worker called again today.”

	“What did she say?” I question as I watch Karlee take a sip out of the wine she ordered. I swallow hard as I watch her swallow the liquid and my hand grips the table a little harder to keep me from reaching for the glass.

	“She told me that she is trying to do everything she can to get the kids to stay with me, but being that I am a single parent on one income it’s not looking like I’ll be able to keep them.”

	“Then tell her I’ll help you, let’s go talk to her.”

	“I don’t think it’s that easy. They’d want us to be married, or at least engaged.”

	“Oh,” I try hard to keep my face from taking on a disgusted look, because in all honesty I could entertain that idea.

	“Yeah, you don’t have to look so distraught. I like you, but I want to marry a man who loves me and loves me with everything I am. A man like Timothy.”


	“Yes, my fiancé.” She looks at me before quickly adding. “Well, my would be husband, had he not died.”

	My head spins as I think about all the past things people have said and I know that this can’t be happening. I was just getting over this and here it was slapping me in the face again. God, was this some kind of joke? Are you in the driver’s seat or is the Devil? “How exactly did Timothy die?” Please, please do not tell me he burned in a car.

	“He was hit by a drunk driver and they couldn’t get him out of his car before it blew up.”

	“Oh God, I think I’m going to be sick.” I mumble before getting up and running to the bathroom. Irony at its finest. I think as I reach the bathroom and throw up everything I’ve eaten today. “How am I supposed to tell her who I am?” I ask myself in the mirror. “She’s going to hate me.”

	“Dude, I don’t know what you did, but I doubt she could hate you,” the man beside me says, as he pats my back. “Just be honest and upfront with her.”

	“Umm, thanks.” I wash my hands and splash some water on my face before walking back to the table.

	“Are you okay? Do we need to go?”

	“I’m not feeling so well, and if it makes anything better I’m sorry about your fiancé.” I want to crawl under the table and let the ground swallow me whole. I was right when I said I would destroy her with my darkness. I never put two and two together. Never thought that our lives would be so undeniably entangled. I had to get away from her, and stay away from her because I’d only cause her more pain, even if it meant leaving the kids behind too. My heart ached from the loss of all of the people I had come to love in such a short time. Oh no, I loved her. I loved Karlee. I couldn’t do this; I couldn’t love her because she now reminded me of everything I lost.

	“Come on, let’s go. I’ll get our food to go and we can leave.” She starts to stand and I see the worry on her face. I don’t know why, but I can’t tell her. I don’t want her to be hurt, but I just couldn’t do this.

	“I’ll go wait in the truck. Here’s my card.” I pull my wallet out and slide the credit card into her hand. Once I get out of the restaurant I pace back and forth, not sure how to do this. “Why God? Why do I find something just to have it all taken away?” I slam my fist into the fender of my truck and yell out in agony. Some man that passes by looks at me like he doesn’t know if he should be afraid for himself or more worried for other people’s safety. I climb into the cab of the truck and lay my head down on the steering wheel. How had this woman worked her way into my heart without me even knowing it? In just a short amount of time I’d let my walls down and she’d captivated me with her love for those kids and her love of God.

	I’d watched her at church as she sang the praise and worship songs in the pew in front of me. I’d watched her as she taught the kids in Sunday school with excited expressions all over her face. I’d watched her do it at home with Caroline as well, telling her stories of the bible while swinging on the porch, when I’d drop Chance off after the gym this week. I’d miss doing all those activities and seeing them all because tonight was the last time I’d see them. I’d be gone in the morning and wouldn’t see Karlee ever again. I hated it, but it’s what I did best. I ran.

	The door opens and she gets into the passenger seat and puts her hand on my arm. I jerk back and she recoils, looking hurt. “I’m sorry,” I say quietly as I start the truck and head back to her place.

	“Did I do something?”

	“No, you didn’t. I did.” I wince and am grateful that it’s dark outside.

	“What are you talking about?”

	I don’t say anything else on the ride home, because in all honesty I’m still trying to wrap my head around these feelings and the mind-blowing information I just found out. I pull into the driveway and shut the engine off, grabbing her hand but she instantly pulls it away.

	“It’s okay, I get it. I scared you with the marriage talk and then you felt sorry for me because of my fiancé died.”

	“That’s not it, Karlee.” I run my hand over my face as I try to think of something because I can’t tell her the truth. “I just, I can’t be what you want. I’m not good for you.”

	“Why don’t you let me decide that?” She looks up and I can tell she’s trying to keep herself from crying. I hate myself a little bit more for ripping her heart out yet again. I’m the reason her heart was hurt in the first place and now here I am stomping on whatever she has left.

	“You’re going to find out the reason why, soon enough. When you do, you’ll hate me just as much as I hate myself. I have to say one thing though and I want you to remember it, okay?”

	“Eli, you’re scaring me.”

	“I want you to remember that you helped save me. I’m sorry for everything, Karlee.” I kiss her hand before I let it go and wait for her to step out of my truck. “I’m sure I’ll see you in a month.”

	“Why a month?” She opens the door and gets out of the truck, holding it open, waiting for an answer. I don’t know how to tell her so I just shake my head. She yells in frustration as she slams the door to my truck and stalks to the house. I wait to make sure she gets inside before I whispering “’For Timothy.”

	I try to hold it together as the kids come up to greet me. I hear all their voices but I can’t make out a sound as I try to decipher what in the world just happened. My brain is on empty as I think back to the conversation, and wonder what I did wrong. I was joking about the whole marrying thing, well sort of.

	“Karlee?” I look down at Caroline who has a worried look on her face.

	“I’m okay, sweet girl.”

	“What happened?” Chance asked softly.

	“I honestly don’t know. I told him about Timothy and he kind of just went crazy. I don’t think I’ll be seeing him again.”

	“So that means, neither will we.” Chance looks at me with a pained expression and I hate it for him. I never wanted to be the reason they lost Eli, but it looks like I am.

	“I’m so sorry kids. I never meant for this to happen,” I wrap Caroline in my arms as she starts to cry.

	“I really like Eli. I even asked him if you two could be my mommy and daddy.”

	“You did what?” Chance and I both ask her as I kneel in front of her.

	“I like him, he’s a good man. I need a new daddy since mine went to see Jesus.” She looks down at the floor, a little embarrassed. “I didn’t know asking him would make him not want to come around at all.”

	“Oh baby! That isn’t what happened at all. It wasn’t your fault.” I rub her arms as I pull her into me one more time. I don’t know what I am going to do now that Eli wasn’t coming back around. Not only had I lost him, but after we bury their father, I’d lose them too. I wanted to weep, I wanted to blame God, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t blame Him because I had faith in Him. If I didn’t have my faith in Him, then I would have nothing. I would be nothing.

	“I’m sorry,” Chance says quietly. “Come on Caroline, let’s go get ready for bed.”

	“You two don’t have to do that, let’s put a movie in or rent one off the television. I don’t want to be alone and I know neither of you do either.”

	“Okay!” They both say in unison and jump back onto the couch.

	The next two hours is spent watching Boy Meets World reruns on Netflix and snuggling with two of the three most important people in my life. Cadence called to see if it was okay to stay with Riley and I let her. I wasn’t sure if she would see her friends again after this month so I wanted each of them to be able to do whatever they wanted.

	As soon as both of them had fallen asleep I maneuvered myself from around their limbs and walked into my bedroom. I thought about calling Hailey to see what she thought of tonight, but I decided this was my problem and mine alone. I still don’t get why I would be seeing Eli in a month because in all honesty I had a feeling that tonight was the last time I’d be seeing him. I had so many questions but no one around to answer them. I spot my journal resting by the bed and I want to read it or write, but my emotions are too raw to do anything but fall to my knees beside my bed. I’d spent more time here than I had anywhere lately, or so it seemed. Placing my folded hands on the bed, I put my head on it and start to speak.

	“Father God, I don’t know what else to do. I know that without You there is nothing worth having, but God I want to have a family and I want it with those three kids in there. Those kids need a family that will love them and cherish them. I know I may not be the ideal family because well, there isn’t a man in my life to fill the role of their father. I am asking You, out of selfishness, to please let me keep these kids. I know that you have a plan, but I want that plan to involve me in their lives. Please don’t take them away from me after taking the two men I loved.” I open my eyes and shoot up off my knees after I realize that I do in fact love Elijah Harris. “I love him.” I can still feel the tingles on my lips and I know that I have to find a way to make sure he stays.

	Reaching for my phone on the bed, I punch his number into the phone, but never press call. I don’t know what I did, but I want to know why he just left. My resolve hardens as my finger pushes the ‘send’ button, but of course it goes to voicemail.

	“Eli, it’s Karlee. I want you to know that I think you are a coward for running like you did. I don’t know what happened, but I know I like you a lot and we could have worked through it, I’m sure. Did you know that the bible says faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains? When you decide you want to talk, if you ever do, I’ll be right here waiting.”

	I hang up the phone as I pace back and forth in the room. I thought that tonight would be better for me. That maybe I would finally start to move forward and be able to love someone again. Obviously, I could love someone again. I suppose I was meant to be the old lady with fifteen cats and no one else but myself. Tomorrow didn’t look like it would be a better day either, with them pulling Greg off life support. I had to go finalize the funeral arrangements and I had to worry about how the kids would react to their father’s funeral. They all seemed to be holding up okay, but there was nothing more final then seeing your family in that casket. Even if we believed that their bodies weren’t going to be there forever, seeing them like that hurts.

	The house is quiet as I finally lie down in the bed, and try to fall asleep. I have a hard time because of all the thoughts running through my head. I think back on everything that happened with Elijah and I realize it all went south when I said something about Timothy. Was he just upset because I was engaged before or was he upset because he was hiding something? As I begin to drift off into the world of dreams, I pray to God that it isn’t the latter.

	I stare at the man in the mirror, unfeeling and unnerved as I down the bottle of Jack I picked up on the way home. You smell like my daddy. I shake my head as I throw the bottle against the wall. “I can’t do this!” I fall to my knees and slice my hand over the shattered glass and amber liquid on the bathroom floor. I don’t even feel it because of the numbness that has over taken my body, due to the poison I continue to need. “Why am I being put through these tests God? Isn’t it obvious that I am failing?” I look at the ceiling and scream in agony as I bang my head against the wall again.

	“Why do you give me something so great, only to put it out of my reach? I feel like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden with the forbidden fruit. Is this how they felt when Satan tempted them?” I growl as I get off the floor slowly. I didn’t want to leave Karlee and the kids; I loved them all. I just couldn’t stay here and taint their world any more than I already had. I’d come up with some fictitious lie that if I’d just told her, she would understood that I did anything and everything I could to help him. She would tell me it wasn’t my fault and maybe one day I would be able to believe it. I couldn’t begin to try and act like I knew how she’d feel. I never had a significant other stripped from my life in the blink of an eye.

	“I just want to understand,” I cry out as I stumble to my bed, sprawling out on it face down, and slowly fading into the darkness.

	I’m driving down the road listening to some kind of music when I see it happening. A car crosses the centerline and is heading for another. I hear the crunch of metal as the two cars collide sending the one in their lane onto the shoulder. I go to grab for my things, but I come up with construction tools. I frantically pull at things looking for something, but finding nothing. I pull up to the scene and run to the vehicle on the side of the road with the horn blaring. I look inside and notice the petite woman with her head on the steering wheel. In the back of the car there are three people that I cannot seem to see and I get a feeling of dread. I lift the woman’s head just in time to see the person stepping out of the other car, stumbling. I look at the man and realize just who he is. I look back at the woman in my hand and scream as I realize it’s Karlee and the person who killed her, was me.

	I shoot up and fall onto the floor with a thud. “No.” I rasp as I try to forget the nightmare I just watched unfold. I don’t know what brought that on, whether it was the fact that I knew being with her would only hurt her in the long run, or if it was my subconscious letting me now that I had already ruined enough of her life. I break down, grieving over the man she lost and over losing her myself. I’ve never known a woman so caring and as selfless as Karlee Reynolds, and I would never find one other like her. I just couldn’t bring myself to tell her what was going on.

	Today is the day that they bury Greg Brusly and as much as I want to be there holding those kids’ hands as they lay their father into the cold, dark earth, I can’t. Looking at the alarm clock on the bedside table, I notice it’s only five in the morning. I knew I wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep, so I slide on a t-shirt, not even paying attention to what it is. I put on my socks and tennis shoes and walk out into the cool, brisk September air. I look at the trees and the water that seem to remind me of my own life. It is still and unmoving, as if it is the calm before the storm. Walking to my truck I grab my iPod and headphones from the console, and I place them in my ears as I start a leisurely jog. The cold air brushing against my heated body is exactly what I need.

	I run until I can barely breathe, the pain in my lungs is a constant reminder that I am, in fact, alive. It makes me feel something other than the horrible aching in my chest as I realize that I am no good for the people that make me want to be good. Leaning over by the door of my apartment, I huff and try to catch my breath. My heart rate is slowly coming back down and my whole body is drenched in sweat, but it makes me feel something other than the pain in my heart. I know I won’t be going back to sleep so I start to pack my bags. I’ll be heading back to Maryville sooner than I expected.

	I slip into the last pew of the church for the funeral service of Greg Brusly. I didn’t know the man personally, but I love his kids as if they were my own. I want to make this right, but there is no way for me to. I watch like a fly on the wall as the four people my heart beats for these days mourn the loss of a man. I should be up there in the front row with them, holding Karlee’s hand and tucking Caroline into my side. I can’t though, because they need to be a support system to each other, because I won’t be there forever. My eyes meet those of Pastor Henry, as he continues to talk about the man who is lying in the casket. Just one more person that is gone that I owe more than my own life. As the congregation gets up to go pay their final respects to Greg Brusly I stand and make my way out the door. I don’t want them to know I’m here, because I don’t want to upset them anymore than I already have.

	I feel someone watching me as I walk down the steps of the church and climb into my truck. I wait for the pallbearers to walk the casket into the hearse, and for the kids to walk out the door to climb into the limousine that would take them to the gravesite. Karlee looks right into my eyes, but I don’t know if she sees me there or not. I don’t know if she even cares if I leave, honestly. I can’t blame her for it either, I’d rather her hate me for leaving her the way she thinks I did, than for the real reason. As the line of cars moves, I follow behind them. The gravesite is about twenty minutes away and it’s on the way out of town. I listen to K-Love as I drive and even though I want to be so angry with God for how things are turning out into my life, a message comes to mind. I start to think about that message and I know that turning my back on God is what has made the rest of my life fall apart, so I am going to try to turn my life around and get right with the One who grants me everything.

	I pull into a spot about a half-mile from everyone else so that they don’t see me. I walk to a tree and lean against it as the graveside service is happening. My heart constricts as I watch Caroline hugging the casket her father is lying in. I have to grip the tree to make myself not run to her. I cry with her because I know it isn’t fair to lose both of her parents, but I know that with Karlee she is going to do even better. She’s going to grow up with a family who loves her and shows her to be the best person she can. Pushing myself off the tree I begin to walk to my truck. I look back over my shoulder and the sight that greets me is one that will alter my life just as the death of Timothy Granger had. Karlee is on her knees on the grass with her arms around all three kids while they sob as their father’s casket goes into the ground. I turn the truck around and try to avoid the rearview mirror because I don’t want to see the things I am leaving behind. It’s time to look forward and it’s going to happen back in Maryville, not here in Franklin.

	Constantly opening the door was something I had become accustomed to. Since we lost Greg, a lot of the people in the community were coming by to drop off food or gifts for the kids. Today though, I didn’t know the person standing on the other side.

	“Can I help you?” I look over at the man from the top of his graying head, to his kind smile, to the red polo shirt and khaki pants, all the way down to his brown boots.

	“I’m looking for a Karlee Reynolds.”

	“That would be me, how can I help you?” Please don’t be here to take my kids.

	“I just need to serve you a paper. You are being subpoenaed to court.”

	“What?” I feel my knees going week. They really are taking the kids from me. I want to throw up.

	“I just know to give this to you ma’am. Can you sign here for me?” He hands me a clipboard and I sign the form. “Thank you,” he adds as he hands me the envelope and walks down my front steps, then climbs into the black car he arrived in.

	With shaking hands I walk to the counter and sit down. I’m thankful that Hailey came and took all the kids to the zoo, she knew I wasn’t all there since Elijah had walked out. I wanted to hate him but when I saw him leaving the church I knew he still cared. He hadn’t known I’d spotted him there or standing by that tree. It had been a week since we buried Greg and things seemed to be going okay with the kids. Well, other than the fact that I might not have them after next week. I open the envelope and slowly read the letter. I look at all of the different information on the paper but one word sticks out at me, Baylor. My heart stops as I continue to read.

	Being that you are the family of a Timothy Granger, we are asking you to be a part of the court services in regard to the negligence of a Vincent Howard. Proceedings will be held on November 5, 2015.

	As if I needed anything else to deal with. I wanted to put that far from my mind. Not Timothy, but the man who took him from me. I wanted to hate that man, but a good Christian couldn’t. I prayed a lot about that and I even prayed that God would work in that man’s life. I know he didn’t intentionally kill Tim, but had he realized how drunk he had been, then maybe Tim would still be here with me and I wouldn’t be nursing a second broken heart. Today couldn’t possibly get worse, could it?

	As soon as I think those words, my phone rings. Picking it up, I want to cry or hurl the thing at the wall. Grace Babineaux.


	“Are you okay? You sound like you’ve been crying.” The sincerity in her voice makes me feel like maybe she cares just a smidge.

	“I’m fine. Just got some news.”

	“Well, I’m afraid I’m going to be giving you some more.”

	“Let’s hear it. It comes in threes, right?”

	“I’m sorry Karlee. I did everything I could, but they want them in foster care. I’ll be there in the morning to pick them up.”

	“Are they going to the same place?”

	“I’m not sure yet, but most likely not.”

	“Why? Why take them from me where they can stay together!” I yell into the phone, my frustration evident in my voice. I don’t want them to be taken and not be able to stay together.

	“I tried my best.”

	“It wasn’t good enough.” I mutter hanging up my phone and sinking down to the floor. I seemed to be on my knees more than I was on my feet these days. God, why have You forsaken me and not only me, these kids? I scream out in agony and sob for the kids and my life. I want to blame God, but I know in reality it isn’t God’s fault. It is the system of people who aren’t about doing what is right for these kids, but who are about the money and the power of controlling them.

	I sit on my knees on the floor wondering just how I am supposed to tell them that not only did they just lose their father, but they are going to lose me as well. I text Hailey, asking her to not come home yet. After I do that, I do the one thing I probably shouldn’t. I call Eli.

	Hey there, you’ve reached Elijah Harris. I am unable to come to the phone at the moment, but if you would leave a message, I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.

	Beep. Of course, it would go to his voicemail. Much like it had the other times I called and never left a message. I’d wanted him to know that I’d seen him that day at the funeral. That I knew that he still cared even though he acted as though he didn’t. Today though, I spoke.

	“Eli… It’s Karlee. I just wanted to let you know that they are coming to take the kids tomorrow morning. I couldn’t keep them,” I break down sobbing as I say the words. “I wish you were still here, because I’m afraid. They aren’t sure they are going to be placed in the same home either. I don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t even know if Caroline will still be my student in my class, because I don’t know if they will keep them in the area.”

	I hang up the phone, place my head into my hands and just cry until I feel an arm on my own.

	“What happened?” Hailey’s voice comes through to my ears and I jerk up.

	“Where are they?”

	“They are in the car, I told them to wait. Will’s out there with them.” The concern in her eyes makes me want to cry all over again.

	“They are coming for them in the morning, before church.”

	“Oh no. Why?”

	“They don’t think I can care for them like they need.”

	“That is a crock of bull,” she stands and paces around the kitchen.

	“I don’t know how to tell them.” I am so upset and defeated that I don’t know why I haven’t been thinking of this before my sister showed up.

	“You just have to be honest with them.”

	“Thank you captain obvious,” I mutter as I stand up on shaking legs.

	Walking to the door I wipe at my face, trying to make the tears and the puffiness go away before I see the kids. They all climb out of the car hooting and laughing about the fun day they had with Hailey and Will. The second Chance sees my face though, his gets serious and Cadence follows suit. I want to hurl because I know in just a few moments, their entire world will be shattered and my heart along with it.

	“What’s wrong?” Chance asks, while Caroline is still going on about her day.

	“We need to talk,” I say softly as Hailey squeezes my hand. She motions Will to follow as we all walk back into the house. Walking in the front door and through the entrance hall into my living room, all I feel is dread. I will feel this every day from now on, because I will be the only person in here, alone again. Will comes in behind the kids, packing a now upset Caroline as she realizes something isn’t right. He really is a handsome guy and I am so glad Hailey snatched him up. He’s probably six foot two, has bright green eyes that always have a twinkle in them, and wears his hair in that messy style that looks like he just woke up. He gives me a supportive smile as he sits beside Hailey.

	“Well, I think I have some bad news for all of you,” my words come out shaky as I watch Caroline’s face. I don’t want to let her down most of all, because I promised myself that I would care for her. Each of them looks at me with a worried face and I hate myself for what I have to tell them.

	“Okay,” Chance says as he looks at me with a stare so intense it knocks the breath out of me. It’s as if he knows what is about to happen.

	“I’ve been fighting with the social workers since we found out your father wouldn’t make it. They’ve decided that I’m not the best place for you all to be.”

	“They did? Or you did?” Chance’s expression hardens into something I have never seen. He has this look of pure hate and I am scared.

	“What?” I ask in shock as Will speaks out.

	“Watch your mouth.” He gives Chance a viral look as Chance stands.

	“Don’t tell me to watch my mouth! I knew this was too good to be true!” He starts to walk away but I grab his arm, halting his movement.

	“Don’t blame me for this, I want you all to stay with me. I’ve begged and I have prayed and it just didn’t work out the way I wanted.”

	“You prayed? I know you have faith in your God, but I lost it the day my father beat me because he was drunk. I used to pray for mercy and beg for the day my father wouldn’t come in there so angry he bruised me. Where was God then?” He snarls and yanks his arm away. “What have I done so wrong that God has decided I deserve a life of unwantedness? That my sisters deserve this? Even Eli didn’t want us.”

	“Chance, please. This isn’t how I wanted this to go.” I sob out as he storms out of my door.

	“I’ll get him,” Will calls over his shoulder as he jogs to the opened door.

	“I’m so sorry,” Cadence sobs out as she rushes into my arms.

	“I’m the one who is sorry, I tried too hard to keep you all together,” I break down again my shoulders racking as I hold onto her and rub her hair. “I want you all. All three of you, please know that.”

	“He knows it too. We’ve had it so good here, he’s been waiting for the other shoe to drop.” She looks up at me with eyes filled with sadness and I want to break down and cry with her.

	“Will you still be my teacher?” Caroline asks. She tries to smile through her tears as she comes to sit with her sister in my lap.

	“I am not sure. It depends on where they place you all. I am hoping so, because a world without you is not a happy one,” I say while trying to muster up a smile.

	Chance storms back in with Will on his heels. “I’m sorry for how I acted, but I’d like to go to bed now.”

	“Of course,” I quietly say, because I honestly don’t know what else to say. What do you say to a child who has just had his whole world turned upside down yet again?

	An hour later, the kids are all in their rooms and packing their belongings before going to bed. Hailey and Will sit with me in the living room as we try to regain some kind of reasoning, and try to keep them here with me. The only way I can imagine them staying with me is to have some miracle happen and lately my life has been devoid of any miracle.

	The next morning I roll over, hitting a warm body and I startle. I look up to see Caroline curled up on the other side of my bed and Cadence right behind her. I want to cry because I know they are feeling the same thing I am. A knock at the door has me even more startled as I glance at the clock. Eight o’clock. That would be Grace. Grabbing my robe and slipping it on, I make my way to the door.

	“Good morning,” she says a little too excitedly and if I wasn’t the Godly woman I was, I would really tell her how I really felt about her.

	“Come on in,” I say void of emotion, because honestly my emotional rollercoaster yesterday has taken every drop of it from my body.

	“I have some news,” she says softly. “Are the kids up?”

	“No, the girls were in my bed.”

	“I am,” I hear Chance’s voice coming from the kitchen before he steps into my view, with a mug. He hands me the mug and gives me an apologetic smile, his way of a peace offering.

	“Good, can we sit in the living room? I have something to say.”

	“Sure,” I mutter as I take a sip of my coffee and usher her into the living room. I sit on the beige couch with Chance as Grace settles into the loveseat across from us.

	“I have some good news. After an anonymous phone call to my supervisor on your behalf Karlee, they have changed their minds. They will be letting you keep the kids.” She claps her hands in excitement as Chance and I both look at her, dumbfounded. “This man called and let Bart know that if you didn’t have the kids, that they wouldn’t be happy and that you were the best place for them to be. Undoubtedly, he was convincing because Bart’s decided to give you temporary custody, for three months, to see if the kids are suited and thriving here.”

	“There really is a God,” Chance mutters as he starts to cry. I wrap my arms around him and smile. “I prayed all night,” he sobs.

	“Thank you Grace.”

	“Don’t thank me, I didn’t do it.”

	“Do you know the man who called?”

	“Bart wouldn’t comment, but he said he was a good man. A man who wanted to be a hero.”

	“Eli,” I say softly and Chance looks at me with tears in his eyes. I smile because he truly does love these kids, even if he doesn’t love me.

	I’d been in Maryville for a week and after several days of begging and annoying me to death, Charlie had finally gotten what he wanted. I was sitting at the station with the family I’d left behind. My brothers in battle as we raged a war on the fires that destroyed so many people. Chief was right when he said he’d save my position with the department and while I was still fearful of what would happen every day, I knew it was something I would just have to work on. Mrs. Sue had even sent her delicious ribs down here for us all when she’d found out I’d returned. It was a celebration of life and living it to the fullest with the people that mattered most, but what they didn’t realize was while my head was here, my heart wasn’t.

	My momma would have liked to have torn the hide off me when I finally made it to her house, after being gone for six months. I had to listen to her talk about the pain she felt while she birthed me and it couldn’t even compare to me running off the way I had. I’d promised her I wouldn’t do it again and then went down to the liquor store a few towns over. I was back to that vice I couldn’t let go of, because I wasn’t prepared to deal with the crappy hand life had dealt me.

	Sitting on my bed at the station, I grab the phone I’d been using while I was in Franklin, I guess because I was a glutton for punishment. I only had one voicemail and I prayed that it would be from Karlee. I missed her and just wanted to hear her voice.

	“Eli… It’s Karlee. I just wanted to let you know that they are coming to take the kids tomorrow morning. I couldn’t keep them. I wish you were still here, because I’m afraid. They aren’t sure they are going to be placed in the same home either. I don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t even know if Caroline will still be my student in my class, because I don’t know if they will keep them in the area.”

	As I listen to her speaking, between her broken sobs, I scream out in anger. I should have never left her, but I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t stay and let her fall in love with me, knowing that the reason the man she was supposed to marry wasn’t alive, was because of me.

	“What’s wrong?” Charlie yells out as he runs through the door, huffing. “Dude, I heard you screaming from downstairs.”

	“Karlee, they are taking the kids,” I mumble as I grip my heart. How in the world did this hurt me so much? My heart felt as if it was being pulled out of my chest.

	“What can we do to keep them there?” Charlie looks at me with a determination set in his face and I realize now why he’s always been my best friend. He cares just as much as I do about everything in the world. “Why won’t they let them stay there?”

	“They said that she couldn’t keep them because she’s a single woman and they are worried that she won’t have the ability to maintain their lifestyle.”

	“So it’s a money issue then?”

	“I guess, but they are going to take them and probably split them up. Who would want to take in three orphans?” I feel as if my heart has been ripped out of my chest and stomped on the ground over and over.

	“Well, what if we get a donation going?”

	“What do you mean?”

	“Well, I’d be willing to give two hundred dollars a month to the little girl that brought my friend back to me. Even if he came back unwillingly,” he laughs after that statement and if I weren’t hurting so badly I would smack him.

	“Wait, I have an idea.” I grab for my phone and start dialing a number. “I’m looking for a Grace Babineaux,” I wait for the person to put me through to the woman I need to speak with. “Grace, I need to speak with whoever isn’t letting Karlee keep those kids.” After a few moments of talking, I grab a pen and wait for the number to Bart Herrington. Charlie is standing in the door with a smug look on his face, because we are more alike than we give credit for. He’d be finding a way to make those kids’ dreams come true, just like I’m trying to do now. I can’t even begin to think of what those kids and Karlee are going through right now with all of this. I pace the floor as I patiently wait for Bart to answer his phone.

	“Bart speaking,” a gruff voice comes over the line and I instantly imagine a heavy set man with a bald head and a grimace permanently set on his face.

	“Bart, my name is Elijah Harris. I am calling in regards to the Brusly kids.”

	“What about them?”

	“What made you decide they couldn’t stay with Karlee Reynolds?”

	“Who are you to these kids?” He huffs out. I can tell he’s annoyed.

	“Mr. Herrington. You don’t know me, but I see you every Sunday on the second pew at church. I have since left Franklin and gone back to my own hometown of Maryville, because you see Mr. Herrington, I was there the day that Timothy Granger was killed. I was the firefighter that couldn’t get him out of the vehicle before it caught on fire.”

	His intake of air halts me from continuing. “And what does this have to do with the Brusly kids?”

	“Well, I was there the night Greg Brusly was pulled out of that house too. I had to watch each of those kids faces, terrified of what would happen to them. The minute Karlee showed up those kids knew they would be safe. She loves those kids. I love those kids. They are good kids and she makes them better. Don’t strip them of that, because sir, quite frankly, I know what it’s like to feel like you could have done more to save someone. You sir, are going to hurt them more than you are helping these kids.”

	“Look here… you don’t know me at all to be talking to me like this.”

	“I must, or you’d have hung up by now. I’ll send Karlee money every month to help with their expenses. Just don’t take them away from the love and stability they need, and that she provides for them. I’m trying to help you not live the way I have, for the past six months.”

	“I’ll think on it.”

	“You do that,” I say softly as I hang the phone up. I look up at the sound of clapping filling the room.

	“Well, I’ll be doggoned. My best friend is back and more fierce than ever!” Charlie hoots as he punches my shoulder. Just as he does the alarm sounds, signaling us to a fire. He looks at me as the fear takes over my face. “Don’t think. Just breathe and do what you were trained to do.”

	With his words we are running to the door, sliding down the pole and suiting up. In less than five minutes we are in the truck and on our way to the fire on Saddler Street. Luckily when we get there, there is no one in the house. They have all gotten out and the fire is minimal, meaning we may be able to save some of the property. The adrenaline pumps through me as we all work together. Commands are being thrown into the air as we each do our part. I grab the hose and turn the knob, making the water spray onto the house and sending a jolt through my body as the gallons of water pour through the spout. Charlie is behind me, followed by Zach, and we are all holding the hose as we put out the raging fire. As I look to the family standing to the side, in their pajamas and watching their home burn in front of them, I know I am exactly where I am supposed to be. God gave me the ability to be a firefighter because he knew others would need people like me. I had run from this, but I knew that I needed to stop running. This was as much a part of me, as breathing.

	Once the fire is completely out, we look around at the overall damage and realize it is minimal. We were able to contain the fire to just the kitchen and living room, and the outer structure of the home was still standing. Hopefully the family had insurance. As we prepared to leave, a man walks over and smiles up at us.

	“Thank you gentleman, it is people like you that make sure people like them are safe. You truly are a blessing from God.”

	“Thank you,” both Charlie and I say in unison as we stare at the man with the salt and pepper hair and kind smile. We both turn to put the rest of our things away and when I turn back around, no one is there.

	“Did he leave?” I ask, hitting Charlie in his arm.

	He turns and looks around, but doesn’t see the man anywhere. “Well, that was odd. He must have.”

	“Weird,” I mutter as I climb back into the truck. I’m ready for a hot shower, and my uncomfortable bed at the station. Running from this life has been tiring and after tonight, I know that this is what I was born to do. I knew that I would probably lose more people, but I couldn’t turn from God like I had before.

	I walk into my townhome, taking in the place. It was almost as if time stood still, as if I had never left it to begin with. Even though I’d been home nearly a week and a half, I’d been working at the station and staying with Charlie because, in all honesty, after having so much interaction with Karlee and the kids, I had no desire to be return to an empty house. I knew in just two weeks I’d come face to face with Karlee again and that she would come to resent me. Walking into the kitchen I open the door to the refrigerator, which reminds me I need to go through all my groceries and make a trip to the store. I grab a bottle of water from the fridge and my iPod, turning it onto my Christian station on Pandora before walking into my bedroom and laughing at the unmade bed. If my mother could see this she would throw a fit and say something about how she raised me better than this. Pulling the covers, sheets and pillowcases off the bed I carry them down the narrow hallway to my laundry room. Throwing them in with a scoop of detergent, I sigh. Being here just makes me realize I left the only place I wanted to be, and I left it because I was afraid of the outcome.

	I sink to my knees on the floor and smile as the words from Pastor Bennett come back to me, God will give us everything if we just fall on our knees and say Lord I’m ready. “Well, Lord I’m ready.” I sit on my haunches as I close my eyes and lift my head to the heavens, as if I will hear something. Just as I open my eyes I hear the song playing on my phone and I know in my heart that God is talking to me, he is showing me that he is listening to me and that not everything is forsaken. Mandisa’s song Stronger plays and I smile. When the waves are taking you under, hold on just a little bit longer. He knows that this is gonna make you stronger, stronger. The pain ain't gonna last forever, and things can only get better. “Alright God, let’s get stronger.”

	Feeling lighter than I have in ages, I walk into the closet and grab another set of sheets to make the bed. I have two weeks to think about exactly how I’m supposed to tell the woman I love that I am in love with her, even thought I represent the thing she lost. I don’t know if the purpose I had in Timothy’s life was to find Karlee, but I had to think that there might be a way for us to make this work. I have to find a way to make her see that I had done all that I could, and while I had hated myself for months over the fact that I hadn’t saved him, I’ve come to realize that I was sent there to make sure that he was not alone in his final moments. I was meant to be there so that he knew that there was someone out there that would care about him as he took his last breath, and that there was still good in the a world of evil.

	I’d picked the phone up so many times to call Eli, but I didn’t really know what to say because if he’d have wanted to speak to me, he’d have called. All three of the kids were doing well in school and trying to make sure that there was no chance that they’d be taken away again. We’d gotten back into our routine and Chance and I were even doing a bible study together. After his revelation that he wasn’t sure there was a God, I needed him to understand that there was a God and he loved Him more than anything. Things didn’t always work out for us, but when that happened it was the Devil moving into our lives to push us further from our Savior.

	“Karlee?” Cadence’s voice comes from behind me as I turn the pot with the spaghetti noodles over into the strainer in the sink.

	“Yeah baby?” I look over my shoulder as I see her standing there with Caroline and Chance, all of them with a serious look on their faces.

	“We want to ask you a question,” Chance says softly and now I am worried about what the heck is going on.

	“Okay?” I know the puzzled expression on my face has to rival one of a cartoon character because Cadence and Chance both are trying not to laugh.

	“Do we have to call you Karlee?” Caroline pipes up and my eyebrows shoot up.

	“What do you mean?”

	“Well, we were hoping you’d maybe let us call you mom. You know since you practically are that,” Cadence mutters softly as she twiddles her fingers together.

	“Seriously?” I sob out as my hand covers my mouth. I have to grip the counter to keep myself up, as my knees give out.

	“If you wouldn’t mind? We feel more at home here than we ever did after Mom died and we all know that she can’t be replaced. But, you’ve stepped in and made sure we are all loved and cared for.” Chance says, ever the diplomat of the group. I swear, that boy will go far in his life.

	“I’m so flattered that you three want me to be that for you. I’d love it if you called me Mom. It’s going to be an adjustment for us all, but I am really very happy.” My tears run down my face as Caroline walks over and wraps her little arms around my waist and hugs me. “Now that I’m a blubbering mess, who’s ready for spaghetti?”

	“I am Mom!” Caroline squeals as she runs to the table. Chance just pats my back as he walks to the counter and gets the plates before fixing his sister’s plate.

	“We really are very happy here and want to be with you forever,” Cadence smiles as she waits her turn.

	“I forgot to tell you three. Will and Hailey will be coming to stay with you next week because I have to go to Alabama for the trial, for the drunk driver that killed Timothy.”

	“Can I come?” Cadence asks as she fixes her plate.

	“Baby, as much as I’d love that, we can’t let you guys miss school because if you do, they may take you.” I wish I had someone going with me, but this was something I had to do by myself and I couldn’t leave Will alone with the kids because even though they all could take care of themselves he would lose his mind. Georgia could have come with me, but I didn’t want to ask someone else from the school to take off. I’d asked Timothy’s mother to go but she said she couldn’t handle walking into a courtroom and seeing the man who took her son from her. I could completely understand where she was coming from. I kept praying that I wouldn’t try to strangle the man, but I was positive that the man was doing enough to himself, once he’d realized his mistake took a life.

	“We just want to be there with you,” Chance mutters around a mouth full of spaghetti. “Like you are for us.”

	“Don’t talk with your mouth full and did you say Grace?”

	“Ooops,” Caroline says dropping her fork.

	“Can I bless it?”

	“Of course you can, Cadence.” I look at all three of them bowing their heads as she blesses the food, and I can’t help but feel a twinge of regret that Eli isn’t here with us. I hate that he felt he couldn’t stick around, but I suppose he wasn’t ready to love me like I was him.

	It seemed as though time sped up and Timothy’s court date had fast approached me. I’d be leaving in the morning to drive to Littleton, Alabama. I was nervous and scared as I proceeded to pack my clothes in the bag. I’d be dropping the kids off at school and Hailey would be picking them up and bring them here. I wanted to crawl under a rock and never come out, but I knew life didn’t work that way for anyone. I needed to be strong and make sure the person that took Timothy away, paid for it. Timothy’s mother was also told that there was a man that had tried to get Timothy out of the car and I’d continuously prayed that the Lord would let me thank him for not letting Timothy die alone. I could only imagine what went through that poor man’s mind, knowing he couldn’t help him.

	I had tried to imagine what it was like, but I couldn’t. I didn’t know how anyone could make himself not feel like they didn’t do everything they could. If this person only knew how much I prayed for them. It was ten o’clock at night and here I was being a procrastinator, and packing all of the things I’d need for the four days I would be gone. I was a nervous wreck leaving my kids, because I was worried that when I got back, they’d be gone. They’d just vanish from my life, as if they were never here to begin with. I look over at my daily devotional beside my bed, and smile as I read the words. By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world. First John, chapter four, verse seventeen. Well if that wasn’t something I needed to hear as I prepare to walk into the judgment of a man, I don’t know what is.

	Zipping up my suitcase, I sit it on the floor and pull the covers back on my bed. I had better get some sleep because I have a five hour drive tomorrow, and I could only entertain myself in the car so long before I’d start feeling sleepy. I would need all the sleep I could get, but I knew tomorrow night, sleep would be hard for me. Being alone in a hotel room with nothing but your thoughts of what would happen the next day will be hard. I blow a puff of air out of my mouth, which sends my hair in the air and out of my face. Staring at the ceiling I count sheep and continue to move restlessly between the sheets. Unable to sleep, I do the one thing I know will make my brain peaceful enough to fall asleep.


	I know that You are aware of the concerns present in my heart, and in my head. I also know that You have already taken care of every aspect of my life. I know that You have written every page, because well You are the one who knows all. I thank You everything You have blessed me with and continue to give me. You’ve given me a family to love and You’ve shown me compassion when I was afraid none was left to be had. You are an almighty God and I am so thankful for everything You do for me. You continue to show me that even in my darkest hours, You are there and You will not forsake me. Please continue to wrap Your arms around my kids and around Eli. I also pray that you continue to show your love to that man that was with Timothy the night he died. I pray that You show him favor and that he knows that there was nothing more he could do, other than being there and showing compassion for a man he knew nothing about. Please watch over me tomorrow and make sure I get back to these kids and my family.

	In Your name I pray. Amen.

	Sleep seemed to come easy after that, because the next thing I knew, I was woken up by three children screaming that we were going to be late. I’d never gotten dressed so fast and I settled on a messy bun and comfy jeans. I would be traveling anyway. The older kids missed their bus, so I ended up dropping everyone off at school before I was on my way. I’d have to make sure that Hailey was there to get them all. But for now, I was stopping at McDonald’s and enjoying a greasy biscuit with bacon and cheese with a huge caramel frappe. In five hours I would be in Alabama and I would be trying not to fall flat on my face the whole way there.

	“Pastor Bennett? Do you have a second?” I ask, leaning against the doorjamb as I watch the older man staring at the book in front of him.

	“For you, I have all the time in the world,” he says kindly as he looks up over his glasses. “I’ve been waiting for this day for quite some time, Eli.”

	“I’m sure you have,” I say with a chuckle.

	“What can I do for you?” He pulls his glasses off his face, placing them beside his bible on the desk, and folds his hands before placing them on the desk as well.

	“Well, I just wanted to ask how you knew I needed to hear that particular sermon months ago.”

	“A lot of people needed to hear it, not just you. I didn’t intend to call you out that day, but I had this feeling that you needed to know, that you needed to hear it. Call it intuition if you must.” He gives me a knowing smile. “Or, you can call it tunnel vision of faith.”

	“I did need to hear it. I have hated myself for so long for not being able to save Timothy,” I pause for a second before looking at him. “But, now I know that I was there for more than what I thought. Had the roles been reversed, I wouldn’t have wanted to be alone in my final moments. I think God brought me there for that reason.”

	“Could be, but there are other reasons things happen too. Think about Job, or Daniel. Both were tested so much yet they persevered. God wants us to need him, so we are always tested, because we need to know that even in the hardest times we will call on Him.”

	“How do I go into that courtroom tomorrow, knowing that man responsible for Timothy’s death is going to plead no contest or not guilty?”

	“You pray about it, you ask for God’s guidance. People make mistakes. His is far greater than many others and he probably is beating himself up more than you think. Pray that he owns up to his actions and then you pray that he makes himself right with the Lord.”

	“I have so much anger and hatred toward that man. He has taken so much. When I was gone, I met this beautiful woman and I fell in love with her. But, get this Pastor Bennett. She was Timothy’s fiancé.”

	He lets out a hearty laugh, a full blown belly laugh. “Now, if that ain’t a fine example of how the Lord works in mysterious ways. I love this kind of act from the Lord. I bet you have run from her because you’re scared of her reaction to you being the man that was with Timothy as he took his final breath?”

	“How’d you know?”

	“Because boy, I’ve watched you grow up. I saw you holding hands with Savannah at age eight. I saw you kissing my granddaughter under that tree when you thought there wasn’t nobody looking,” he grins as I blush. “I know you because I’ve been with you your whole life, Eli. You are a good man, and any woman God has set aside for you, is lucky to have you. Remember your worth.”

	“Thank you.” I stand slowly as he walks around his desk and hugs me tightly.

	“We sure are glad to have you back, but for some reason I don’t think you’re staying.”

	“I haven’t decided yet, it all depends on how things go when I see her again tomorrow.”

	“Well, I’m going to say that I’d like to see her in church on Sunday, and I want you to bring this woman to meet me. If she’s stolen your heart, I’m sure she will steal the rest of our hearts, as well.” He pats my shoulder as I turn to leave.

	“Thank you again.”

	“Elijah, my door is always open,” he stands with his hands in his pockets, rocking on his feet as I turn back to look at him. “Make sure you remember that.”

	“Yes sir.”

	Leaving his office I feel lighter than I had in months. There was something about that man’s presence that just made you feel better. As I start the truck With Every Act of Love by Jason Gray comes on and I sing along. I drive around until I realize where I’m heading. I don’t really know what brings me to my mother’s house but I follow the urge as I turn onto the street I grew up on. Pulling into the driveway of the white house with the green shutters and the big tire swing on the big oak tree that had been there since I was ten, I gain a sense of euphoria. This had always been a safe haven for me, a solace if you will, and I was pretty sure my nose was smelling some delicious roast.

	“Momma?” I call out after knocking on the door. I open the door and follow the delicious smells wafting down the hallway toward the kitchen. I stand against the entryway as I watch my mother dancing around in her domain. The kitchen was always her favorite place to be, and it had been since we lost my dad, when I was seven. Maybe that was one of the reasons I was so attached to Caroline, maybe we shared a kindred spirit because of the loss of a parent at the same age. “Momma?”

	“Oh!” She jumps, grabbing her chest and I laugh. “Don’t scare me like that Eli! For Heaven’s sake boy, you could have given me a heart attack.”

	“But I didn’t,” I chuckle as I wrap her in a hug.

	“What are you doing here?”

	“I just felt like I needed to come visit,” I shrug my shoulders as I sit at the breakfast bar while she continues to prepare the corn and potatoes.

	“Well, supper will be ready in about an hour, and Bennett should be here soon,” she blushes a little and I look at her as if she’s lost her mind.

	“Pastor Bennett?”

	“Yeah,” she gives me a look that basically says and ‘don’t you dare say anything about it’.

	“You two a couple?”

	“We’ve been on a few dates,” she smiles reminding me of a teenager on her first date. My mother had tried dating, but once they found out she was a widow with two children, they would hit the door so fast, you’d think they were Superman.

	“He’s a nice man and if he makes you happy, then be happy Mama. You deserve it.”

	“So, what’s on your mind baby boy?” Setting her apron down on the counter, she walks over to the bar and sits on the stool beside me.

	“I told you about the girl I met in Franklin?”

	“Yes, I’m hoping you’ll pull your head out of your behind long enough to actually call the poor girl and work it out.”

	“Mama, she was engaged to Timothy Granger.”

	“Oh dear,” she gives me a sad smile and pats my hand. “Son, you have to know by now that you had nothing to do with that man’s death. Did she say something to you about it?”

	“No ma’am, she was telling me about her fiancé, how he died, and when I put two and two together, I ran. I was so nauseated and angry because, yet again, here I was wanting something that was out of my reach,” I run my hand over my neck and sigh.

	“How do you know it’s out of reach if you haven’t told her? The only roadblock in your way, is yourself,” she pats my hand as she gets up, and walks back to the counter to put the potatoes into the oven. “You are too hard on yourself, Eli. I raised you to be a good man, a good God Fearing man. Any woman would be lucky to have you.”

	“Well, I just don’t want to remind her of what she lost. I know she reminds me of not being able to save him.”

	“But if you love her, soon her identity will shine through, and while that will always be there for you, it will fade to the back of your mind and you will be able to see her for what she means to you. Not what she used to represent.”

	“How did you get to be so wise?”

	“Many years of practice and many years of making dumb mistakes.”

	“Do you ever regret some of them?”

	“Nope, because each one led me to where I am now. And, where I am right now is pretty perfect.” She smiles at me as the doorbell rings. “That would be Bennett, go answer the door while I go freshen up.”

	“You look beautiful, Mama.” I stand as she walks toward her bedroom. “But, I’ll get the door.”

	“Well hello again, Eli.” Pastor Bennett stands at the door holding a bouquet of peace lilies.

	“Hello there sir.” I smirk as I stand in the doorway. “Mama is just getting freshened up. Come on in.” I want to laugh because he actually looks a little fearful.

	“Thank you,” he swallows so loud I can hear it from a few feet away.

	“Pastor Bennett, it’s okay. I’m not angry, as a matter of fact, I’m happy. You’re a good man and that’s what my Mama needs.”

	“Well, thank goodness. Because, if I’m honest, I love your mother.”

	“Well, that’s good. I love her too, so we have something else in common,” I pat his shoulder as I take the flowers. I run some water into a vase I found under the sink, and put the lilies inside.

	Dinner goes off without a hitch and I leave so Mama and Bennett can have some time alone. I drive the long way home, listening to music and just enjoying the rest of the evening. I feel like this may be the calm before the storm but I pray that I will make it through the storm, unscathed this time.

	Driving up to the courthouse, I notice a truck that I haven’t seen in months. What is he doing here? I put the car into park and head up the cement steps of the massive courtroom. I don’t know why he’s here and I don’t know if my heart can handle seeing him again, but my legs keep moving forward. I smooth the white shirt against my stomach and pray I don’t trip over the heels I decided to wear. I wince a little as I hear them clinking against the floor, breaking the silence in the hallway. I approach an immaculate desk with a beautiful woman sitting behind it. Her brown hair is pulled into a bun and she’s typing away on a computer.

	“Hello, could you please tell me where the Granger case will be proceeding today?”

	“Good morning ma’am. If you’ll take the elevator up to the third floor you’ll find it on the left, in courtroom three hundred and two.” She gives me a kind smile as she points in the direction of the elevator.

	“Thank you so much,” I give her a smile and wonder if I will run into Eli in this building. I hit the button on the elevator and wait for the car to come to the ground floor. Once it opens, I walk in saying a silent prayer to collect my thoughts. Just as the door is about to close a hand appears in the doorway and a man steps in. He has dark blonde shaggy hair and these green eyes that look like they could be trouble. He’s dressed in a blue button down shirt and a pair of khaki pants.

	“Good morning,” he says with a smile on his face. I should have brought Georgia. She’d been talking about finding a good-looking man and this man was most definitely that.

	“Good morning,” I blush as I realize I’ve been ogling him. “Which floor?”

	“Three please.”

	“That’s where I’m heading, too,” I say as the elevator closes, encasing us in the tight space.

	“Well, I hope you have a good day Karlee,” the man says with a smile as the doors open and he walks away. I stand there in shock because I have never seen this man before in my life. How in the world did he know who I was? He walks into the same courtroom I am heading to, and I follow him while still shocked.

	I see him sit down next to Eli and whisper something in his ear just as his back goes ramrod straight. His hair is sticking up in all different directions, in the way that is popular with the guys lately. He’s in a white dress shirt and black slacks. That’s when his final words come back to me. I’m sure I’ll see you in a month. He knew about this and he didn’t say anything to me. I wanted to say something to him but the judge was calling the room to order. I sit down in a seat a few rows behind him, as I notice the man sitting in the defendant’s chair for the first time. He has on baggy clothing and is barely holding his head up. I feel pity for this man, because the life he is living is not one I would want.

	“We are here to discuss the case of the people vs Mr. Vincent Howard. Vincent, you are accused of driving under the influence on the night of March 06, 2015. Subsequently ending the life of a Timothy Granger. How do you plead?” The judge asks as he looks down at the man over his glasses.

	“Not guilty,” the man slurs and Eli jumps out of his chair, only to be pulled down by the man I met on the elevator.

	“You’ll have your time,” the guy whispers to Eli, who visibly relaxes and that’s when I realize just who Eli is.

	Eli is that man, the one that was there with Timothy. The man I have prayed for every night since I found out what happened to Timothy. He is the person who was there for him when no one else could be. My heart is racing as the judge continues to talk. I couldn’t tell you a word he was saying because my own thoughts were swirling in my head as I put the puzzle pieces together. I’d told him about Timothy burning up in a car and he’d told me he wanted to be a hero until tragedy struck. Little did he know, he was already a hero. I snap out of it as Eli makes his way to the stand.

	“Can you tell me your recollection of that night Mr. Harris?” The judge asks as he looks at Eli sitting in the stand.

	Eli turns his eyes toward me and in them, I see remorse. For what, I am not sure. I give him an encouraging nod. “On March 6th of this year, I was on my way home from a double shift I’d worked. I’d been to a car wreck, I’d rescued a kitten out of a tree and I’d put out a house fire, all in forty-eight hours. Little did I know that on my way home, I would come across a scene that was far worse than any of what I’d experienced in that shift. I wasn’t prepared for what happened before me,” he takes a shaky breath, meets my eyes and continues. “Two miles up the road, I saw a black SUV cross the center line, hitting a smaller car and sending it onto the shoulder. I drove up on the scene and ran to the SUV to make sure they were okay. Mr. Howard was the person in the driver’s seat and I will never forget the smell in that car. He reeked of alcohol.

	“I assessed him and he didn’t look like he’d been harmed, so I ran to the other car. I could smell gasoline and see smoke coming from the engine. I was getting nervous. When I got there, I was afraid the person inside was dead, but he started to scream. I tried to get him out. I tried to calm him down as I pried at the door. I ran to my truck to get something to help get him out and on my way back I saw the spark,” he breaks down crying as he looks at me and the man from the elevator comes to sit beside me. He grabs my hand and holds it, as if I need support. “I tried to get him out, but I didn’t have the Jaws of Life. But I kept fighting to get him out. His legs were trapped though, because he’d been hit head on and the front end was smashed in. I heard him screaming as the flames worked their way to his legs.”

	“Stop! Please stop,” Vincent cries as he pushes his hands over his ears, but Eli doesn’t listen to his pleas for pity.

	“I can still hear him screaming in agony. He comes to me in my dreams. I have to remember that every day of my life and know that I couldn’t help him. If it hadn’t been for Mr. Harper right there, I wouldn’t have made it myself. He pulled me away from the vehicle, just in time, before it exploded.” He takes a shaky breath as he continues. “For a while I hated the man I was, because I wasn’t able to save Timothy. For a while I hated you too, Mr. Howard. But now I feel pity for you. I’ve overcome my self-loathing, but I can see on your face you are drowning in yours. Your mistake has changed many lives, but most of all, your own. I will pray for you.” With that he nods at the judge and steps down from the stand, slowly walking toward me.

	With tears streaming down my face, I let go of the man’s hand beside me and run into Eli’s arms, wrapping my arms around his neck and just sobbing into him. “I get it now,” I whisper as the he slowly wraps his arms around me. He sighs in relief as I breathe him in. I smell his cologne and the scent that I have come to attribute to him, but I smell the faint scent of alcohol on him as well.

	“I’m guilty,” Vincent says as he stands and sends his chair toppling to the floor. He turns his eyes to me and tears start to fall. “I am sorry, I didn’t mean to kill him. I am so sorry,” the words come through the waves of sobs being ripped from the man. I want to let him know that I forgive him for taking Timothy, but the words don’t come. I just stare into his lifeless eyes, as the Judge hits his gavel.

	“Mr. Howard, with that admission, I hereby sentence you to ten years in jail, with no chance of parole.” The judge stands as the bailiff comes to take Vincent away, and nods to us. “Court is adjourned.”

	“You don’t hate me?” Eli pulls away enough for me to see those beautiful blue eyes I have fallen in love with.

	“Why would I hate you?”

	“I couldn’t save him,” he mumbles as he wipes my tears away.

	“You weren’t meant to,” I give him a sad smile. “Do I miss Timothy? Of course, he was a big part of my life, but so are you. You are my hero. Since I met you that night at the diner I knew something was troubling you and I prayed for you since that night,” he lets out a ‘hmph’, but I continue. “I prayed for you several months before that though. When I found out there was someone out there that stood beside Timothy while he went through what he did, I prayed for that person. I didn’t know them, but if they would make someone know that even then, there was still kindness and light in the world; then they had to be good. I found solace in knowing that he wasn’t all alone when he died.”


	“Yes, you helped me cope with losing him, even without knowing it.” I smile at him because in reality, he did help me.

	“I was afraid to tell you because I didn’t want you to be reminded of that night every time you look at me.” The concern etched onto his face makes me grab his cheeks and kiss him. He really does care for me.

	“You weren’t the one who got behind the wheel drunk. You. Did. Not. Take him from me. I want you to remember a saying.”


	“Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.”

	“I am so in love with you,” he says with a conviction that, had he not been holding me up, I would have sunk to my knees. He kisses me softly before he moves one arm from my waist to rub his neck and that’s when I realize I’ve just been standing there.

	“I love you, too.”

	His eyes instantly brighten and he spins me around.

	“I feel like I’m intruding on a special moment. If you don’t need me anymore, I’m just going to go,” comes the voice from the elevator and I turn.

	“How did you know who I was?”

	“Well, my best friend is in love with you. When you pushed three on the elevator and no other number for yourself, I kind of put two and two together,” he holds his hand out as I reach for it. “I’m Charlie by the way.”

	“Nice to meet you, Charlie.”

	“Likewise,” he smiles and I check his finger for a ring. I’ll need to talk to Eli about Charlie and Georgia.

	“Can I take you out for lunch?” Eli asks, and I nod yes. I understand why he ran from me, but if we are going to make this work he has to learn that when the going gets tough, the tough rough it out. The tough don’t get going.

	Sitting at the restaurant with Eli, it feels kind of like a dream. We laugh and talk about the kids and I tell him how much I appreciate what he did for them. The man really thought he wasn’t a hero, but I knew four people who thought otherwise - myself included.

	“So, tell me what happened when you got the news about Timothy,” he looks at me so intently and seemingly interested, that I regret the words that come from my mouth.

	“Are you sure you really want to know that?”

	“It won’t be easy to hear, but I think it will grant me some form of closure, as well,” he places his hand over mine and squeezes.

	“He was coming home from a business trip for work, in a rental car because his flight had been delayed and he didn’t want to wait until the next day. We were scheduled to do our engagement photo shoot for our wedding invitations the next day, so he wanted to get home in time,” I take a deep breath as I look up, afraid of what he will say, but he just smiles encouragingly. “We’d been together since we were fourteen years old, but we’d known each other most of our lives. My family moved here when I was six and we’d gotten involved with Grace Baptist. My father was in the military so he traveled a lot, but luckily we didn’t move from here. When I graduated high school, Dad was transferred elsewhere, so I got an apartment in town and Hailey stayed with me.”

	“I didn’t want to leave Timothy and Hailey didn’t want to leave the people she loved. So I worked while she stayed in school, and Mom and Dad moved back to Indiana where Mom’s parents are from,” my breathing increases as I think about how to say what I’m about to say. “Timothy was the type of man you could be proud of. He worked hard to make sure I never wanted for anything and he made sure Hailey was well taken care of as well. My parents sent money and things for Hailey, but he made sure neither of us wanted for anything. He was a year older than me. You actually remind me of him. You two could have been good friends.”

	“I got that vibe myself. Can I ask you something?”

	“Of course, you can ask me anything.”

	“Would you take me to his grave? I’d like to see him and to thank him.”

	“Thank him?”

	“Yes, because he led me to you.”

	“I love you,” I blurt and he chuckles.

	“I love you too,” he kisses my hand before standing and pulling me from the booth.

	“I’d like to take you somewhere if you wouldn’t mind.”

	“I am pretty sure you know I’d go anywhere with you.”

	“Good.” He throws his hat on backwards and we walk out of the restaurant.

	I don’t exactly know where he’s taking me but I am okay with that. I am more than surprised when he pulls into the fire station. “I’m going to need to put in my resignation again, because I’m coming back with you.”


	“I have three kids I have to make it up too,” he winks as he climbs out of the truck, walks around it and opens the door for me. “I also have a woman that I don’t want to let out of my sight again. I am ready to start this journey and make a life with you.”

	“Okay,” I mumble because I don’t know what else to say to this. Elijah Harris came into my life causing nothing but irritation, like a thorn in my side. But he’s changed and now he shows me the beauty that is attached to the thorn, like a beautiful rose that is just starting to bloom.

	“Harris has a chick! Harris brought a girl, guys!” A red-headed guy is yelping between bites of food he’s shoveling into his mouth. I guess he’s trying to catch up with the big mouth he’s got, because he is pretty scrawny.

	“That would be Sawyer, you just have to overlook him,” Eli laughs as he punches him in the shoulder. “The guy playing the Xbox is Dexter, red cap over there is Mitch, Campbell is over there in the corner with a book, and of course you met Charlie.”

	I take in each of the guys sitting in the room, Sawyer reminds me of one of the men you’d see on the cover of a steamy romance novel, with his dark hair, his facial scruff, and the cords of muscles moving throughout his arms as he pushes the buttons on the remote. Mitch seems like the silent but deadly type and I will admit that I am afraid of him. Especially when he turns those glacial blue eyes onto me. Campbell was so into the book he was reading that he hadn’t even been listening to the conversation around us, so I tried to give him his privacy.

	“Ya’ll seen the Chief?”

	“He went home for the day, but he knew this day was coming.” Charlie pats Eli’s back and gives me a smile. “You take care of my best friend for me. He needs looking after.”

	“I’m not a puppy. I am more than capable of looking after myself,” I mutter as he starts to cackle.

	“Weaving ufs again?” Sawyer asks while his mouth is full of the sub he’s eating.

	“Something like that. I have to go pack some stuff, you guys call me if you need anything.” Eli slides an arm around my waist and I hug him as he does. It’s nice to be in his arms again.

	“It was nice meeting you all,” I say softly and they all wave and throw out some form of greeting. The only one that goes out of his way to say goodbye is Charlie.

	“Thank you for saving him,” he whispers into my ear before he kisses my cheek. I look at him like I have no clue what he’s talking about and he just winks in return. I have no clue what is going on.

	“Um, sure thing,” I mumble as Charlie laughs a little.

	“Maybe one day he will tell you how he came to be in Franklin.”

	Eli pulls me gently towards the door and leads me back to his truck. He’s quiet for a while as he drives through the charming town of Maryville.

	“It’s nice here,” I express as I look out the window, taking in the town that is very similar to the one I left behind. “I can see why you stuck around Franklin when you reached it.”

	“It did remind me a lot of here, but I didn’t stay for it. I stayed for Caroline and then for you.”

	“I’m sorry you felt like you couldn’t tell me what was wrong, if you had been able to, we might have been together this last month.”

	“I know Karlee and believe me I wish I would have, now. I was just so afraid you’d hate me for not being able to save him.”

	“I could never. I will admit when I found out there was someone there, I wondered why they weren’t able to. But, then I came to the conclusion that it was just his time to go and at least he didn’t go alone.” I grab Eli’s hand, turning his palm up and kissing it softly as he steers the truck back in the direction of the courthouse.

	“I have to go into the station tonight and talk to the Chief about resigning and see if he can get me a transfer to the station in Franklin or maybe in one of the towns around there. I will try to get my apartment in Franklin back, and we can go from there,” he smiles as he pulls up beside my car. “I’d like to take you out again for a date and maybe this time it will end the proper way.”

	“Oh yeah?”

	“Yes ma’am. I’ll walk you to your door and kiss you until you go weak in the knees, then send you inside and hope you call,” he winks as he jumps out of the truck and comes to let me out.


	“Mmhmm,” he leans down and kisses my lips softly. “Would you like to come to church with me Sunday? Or, do you have to head back early?”

	“I’d love to go with you, if you want.”

	“Well Karlee, I’m pretty sure I just asked you if you wanted to,” he laughs softly as he kisses my forehead. “Where you staying?”

	“The Holiday Inn across town.”

	“Be ready for eight. I’ll take you to eat breakfast before.”

	“Okay,” I really don’t want him to leave me, but I know that he’s got to go take care of his business before he leaves.

	I slide behind the wheel and crank the engine as he’s pulling out of his spot. He waves his hand in my direction before heading back the direction he came from. I sigh as my finger runs over my bottom lip, where his lips had just been, mere seconds ago. It still fascinates me that I feel such a tingle when he’s around. Shaking my head, I look both ways before I back out of the parking spot I was occupying and make my toward my hotel. Today has been a very long day, but thankfully I wasn’t there to do it alone.

	I grab the dress I was planning to wear Friday, but decided not to. I slide the red cotton material over my head, smiling at how perfect it looks on my body. It’s not super loose, but doesn’t cling to me either. I hope it’s okay for meeting all of the people who are such a big part of Elijah’s life. I slide my brown flats on, just as the knock sounds on the door. I see the numbers on the clock, which read eight o’clock. Right on time.

	“Good morning,” I add cheerfully as I open the door, but I’m pretty sure my jaw hits the ground as I take in his appearance. He’s dressed in a pair of light grey slacks, a light blue button down with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows and his hair is sticking up in all the directions I love so much. I’m almost positive I am drooling at the man standing before me.

	“Good morning to you too,” he winks as he grabs my hand, leading me to the truck. “You look absolutely stunning today.”

	“You don’t look so bad yourself,” I say as I climb into the truck. I smile as he leans in, kissing my forehead. I swear if I weren’t already head over heels in love with this man, I would have been at this moment.

	“You ready for breakfast? We’re going to the best place in town,” he winks as he cranks the engine, reversing the truck and heading into town.

	“Oh, I’m starving.”

	“Good, because we have a table ready,” he chuckles softly and I wonder what he is up too. We drive past all of the restaurants in town and I start to get nervous when he turns into a neighborhood, pulling up to a white house with green shutters and a big tire swing on the big oak tree that sits right off the driveway. He cuts off the engine as a woman steps out onto the porch wearing an apron covered in flour. “That’s the chef. My Mama.”

	“Eli! You brought me to meet your mother without telling me?” I shriek in horror, I don’t know what to tell this lady. I hope she likes me.

	“I did, but you’d have met her regardless. She’s kind of dating the Pastor,” he laughs as he steps out of the truck, walking around to open the door for me. “Which by the way, he’s pulling in now too.”

	“Hey baby,” Eli’s mother calls out from the porch as we walk toward her. I take in her appearance and realize that Eli shares the same eyes as his mother, as well as that brown hair, except hers is longer and curly. “She’s even more beautiful than you spoke of.”

	“Morning Mama, this is Karlee. Karlee this is my Mama, Emma-Jean.”

	“Nice to meet you Mrs. Emma-Jean,” I go to shake her hand but she pulls me into a hug, rocking me from side to side as she grips me tightly. Wow, she sure is friendly.

	“Baby, call me Emma, none of that Mrs. business. You are just so cute. Don’t cha think so Bennett?” She smiles at the man who walks up behind me.

	“I think I’ll just stay silent on that. I sure don’t want to get into trouble with either of the Harris bunch,” he drawls as I turn to see him. He’s an older man dressed in a white button up shirt, a purple bow tie and a pair of black slacks. He’s starting to thin at the top of his head and has glasses covering his blue eyes, but he’s a very attractive older man. “Nice to meet you, Karlee. I’m Bennett Fourrier, the pastor of Maryville Baptist Church.”

	“Nice to meet you sir. I’ve heard a great deal about your sermons and I’m looking forward to hearing one today.”

	“Did ya’ll save me some biscuits and tomato gravy?” I hear coming up the driveway, turning to the voice I see Charlie walking up the porch steps. I really need to get his story because Georgia really could be the woman for him.

	“It’s all on the table, we haven’t even made it inside yet,” Emma-Jean says as she turns to usher everyone inside. “Ya’ll come on in before it gets cold.”

	“Don’t have to tell me twice, Ma,” Charlie hoots as he walks by us, kissing Mrs. Emma on the cheek as he goes. We all follow him and sit at the table. We fix our plates and everyone enjoys a nice breakfast. Everyone including me. They treat me as if I’ve been a permanent fixture for years in this place, and it makes me miss having my parents close to me. I don’t know how Eli left this for so long, and I wonder if his mother knows he’s planning on leaving again.

	After breakfast I help Emma clean up the kitchen before we head to the church. The way Pastor Bennett preaches is refreshing. I liked hearing him talk about the resurrection of Jesus, and how the bible talks about us returning to our bodies again to reign on the Earth with Jesus, as it was supposed to be before sin came into the picture. I hadn’t really thought of myself being resurrected, but as Paul says in Hebrews Chapter two, verses eight and nine, God put everything in subjection under Jesus’ feet. Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. This scripture is so humbling that I want to fall to my knees and thank the man who died for me. As Pastor Bennett says, saving faith is trusting in Jesus as the only one who can and will make all things right again.

	As the service ends we make our way to the parking lot and Eli smiles. “So, how did you like it?”

	“I loved Pastor Bennett’s sermon, I only wish I could be here to finish out the series. I could feel the presence of God here,” I smile because I really could. While I loved Pastor Henry, his messages didn’t deliver the same powerful ‘hmph’ that Bennett had brought with his. I felt like I was supposed to be here to hear about the resurrection and how we have to have faith in knowing that, as a daughter of God, I am saved.

	“He’s always been a great speaker. The worship used to be what I liked to come for, but now I come for him,” Eli runs his hand over his neck and I laugh. “What?”

	“Nothing. You shouldn’t be ashamed of loving the worship, it’s what gets you started with your closeness to the Lord.”

	“How’d you get to be so smart?” He questions as he throws an arm around my shoulder, pulling me to him and placing a kiss against my temple.

	“A lot of bible studies.” I mutter and he laughs.

	“I used to play the guitar for worship, until about two years ago.”


	“Mmmhmmm. Sometimes I’d have to work late at the station and I couldn’t always make the practices, so I stepped down. Also that was about the time Charlie’s wife got really sick.”

	“Oh? I didn’t know he was married,” I immediately regret ogling the man and mentally pairing him with every single woman I know.

	“He was, she passed away about a year and a half ago.”

	“Oh, I’m so sorry.”

	“He’s done well with it. She had cancer and he was a wreck for a little while, but I respect him. He never let it deter him from his faith, much like you,” he opens the truck door and takes my hand, helping me into the truck before shutting the door and walking to his side. “I respect you so much too, because I couldn’t cope with what happened to Timothy. I was so angry with God for placing me in that situation, but I suppose he knew what he was doing. It led me right here to you, and I wouldn’t trade any of it. Well, maybe the drinking.”


	“Uhhh,” he runs his hand over his neck again. “Yeah, I’m still dealing with it… Caroline kind of made me stop, even though I still have a couple shots every now and then. It’s hard at night, I hear his screams.”

	“What did Caroline do?” I ask, tears sliding down my cheeks because I can’t imagine hearing what he does in his dreams.

	“She told me I smelt like her daddy one day when I went over.”

	“Ouch, yeah I bet that would sober you up a little.”

	“Yes, I don’t ever want to be that person.”

	“I totally get why you did it though, I don’t think I would have been able to cope either, if I had been the one who witnessed that.” I put my hand over his, and give it a squeeze.

	“I thank Him every day for it now, because every part of it led me to you.”

	“It did.” I smile as he pulls my hand to his and kisses it before he lets it go so he can drive.

	“I have to stay here for a couple more days. I need to pack up my stuff to go back there. I have a job in Hickory at the fire department starting in two weeks too.”

	“You are really coming back?”

	“You bet I am. I want to be back with the people I care about the most. I’ve missed you all. It’s been so hard not picking up the phone to call you or the kids.”

	“Thank you for letting them be able to stay, I can’t ever express how grateful we all are for that.”

	“I wasn’t going to let them take them. I knew you needed them, especially with me gone. Hearing that voicemail about shattered me though,” he blushes a little as he looks me over. “I wish I could go back with you now.”

	“I do too, I bet Will and Hailey are regretting saying they would watch them.” I smirk. “Oh!” I squeal in excitement. “Guess what the kids asked me the other day.”


	“If they could call me Mom.”

	“Oh wow, that’s amazing. I bet you enjoyed that.”

	“I did, it was so sweet. I wanted to cry, I did cry.” I laugh as I think back on that moment; it was one of the best of my life. The laughter dies as I notice we have pulled back up to the hotel and I have to leave him. “It’s only a few more days, right?”

	“Yes ma’am. I will be back to you and the kids before you know it.”

	“I sure hope so,” I bite my lip to keep myself from crying. I know it’s silly but I’m going to miss him. It’s been so nice to be with him again, just in his company.

	“I’ll be there so fast, you won’t even have a chance to miss me,” he leans in, grabbing my chin and brushing his lips with mine. I slide my hands up to his cheeks as the kiss deepens and by the time he pulls away, we are both heaving as we try to put the air back into our lungs. I have to regain my composure because when he kisses me like this, I have to remind myself that I want to wait until marriage. “Be careful driving back. Call me when you make it.”

	“Okay,” I mumble as I open the truck door. I step out of the truck, my fingers sliding back over my lips, which are still tingling, from the kiss we just shared. He laughs softly as I close the door behind me and walk into my hotel room. It’s going to be a long drive back home knowing he isn’t going to be with me for it.

	Tying up all my loose ends to return to Karlee, felt like it was never ending. Mother had called me several times in the last day sobbing because her baby was leaving again, as if I wouldn’t come back. Karlee was just as smitten with my mother as my mother was with her. I’d just thrown the last bag into my truck and decided even though it was ten o’clock at night that I was driving down to Franklin. Just as I’d hit the interstate my cell phone stared to ring. Jeremy Camps Walk by Faith plays through my phone, as I answer it.


	“Hi handsome,” Karlee’s voice comes through the speaker and I can’t help but smile. “What are you doing?”

	“Just got in the truck, I’ll see you in a few of hours.”

	“Eli, please be careful. It’s late.”

	“I know, but I’m used to staying up like this. I didn’t want to waste another minute.” Smiling, I grab the cup of coffee in the cup holder and take a swig.

	“What are you drinking?”

	“Coffee,” I sigh, as she asks me. I understand why she does, but it gets old. Especially after I’d just had one beer with the guys an hour earlier, as my goodbye.

	“Okay, well I’m going to head to bed. Call me when you get to your apartment, please. I don’t care how late it is, Eli. I need to know your safe.”

	“Okay. I’ll see you in the morning. I love you, Karlee.”

	“I love you too,” she says and I can hear the smile she’s got on her face. I know that doesn’t make sense but I can tell when she’s smiling and I know she was when she hung up. It made my day to know she was smiling because of me and that she didn’t hate me for not saving Timothy.

	Turning up the radio, I continue my four-hour road trip back to Franklin. I drink my coffee and sing along to the music of K-Love, as I continue down the interstate and toward everything I want. I can’t wait to see the kids’ faces, because Karlee and I decided we wouldn’t tell them I was coming back to them. We wanted to surprise them about me moving back and hopefully one day making Karlee my wife. I’d even love to adopt those kids and make them ours. I continue to listen to the music, but feel my eyes getting hazy and that’s the last thing I remember.

	Waking up to the sounds of beeping machines is not something anyone wants to do. I look around the room through fog-filled eyes as I try to gather my surroundings. I look down at my arm, seeing the red light on my finger and an IV in my vein. I groan out as I feel the sting of pain in my head, slowly reaching up I feel a bandage over my right temple. The last thing I remember was driving down the interstate trying to get to Karlee. “Oh no, Karlee,” I gasp and then my eyes snap up. She’s sitting there on the couch, her arms crossed over her chest. Uh oh, she isn’t happy with me.

	“How could you do this, Eli? I told you to wait, I knew it was too late. You could have killed yourself and where would that put me? I can’t lose you too!” She screams at me as I sit in the hospital bed, unable to move because of the pain in my side and the leg that I now see is casted and raised in traction so I won’t move it.

	“What happened?”

	“You fell asleep at the wheel,” she runs her hands over her face. “I’ve been so afraid. I thought I’d lost you.”

	“Oh no, was I the only person hurt?” Please God, don’t let me stupid decision have hurt someone else.

	“Yes, you were the only person. Your truck hit a guard rail and flipped over it, they said you were lucky to have gotten out with the injuries you sustained.”

	“I’m so sorry.”

	“Caroline could have lost you! What would I have told her then?” Her anger is justifiable, but it’s not something I want to hear right now, especially not when my head is throbbing in pain.

	“What do you want me to say, Karlee?” My angry eyes turn on her, but it isn’t her I’m angry at. “What do you want me to say? I didn’t mean to do it. I thought I was okay to drive. I undoubtedly made a mistake. I didn’t mean to fall asleep. Getting here, to you, was all that mattered to me.”

	“I’m sorry for being upset, I just couldn’t take it if I lost you too.”

	“I get it,” I motion for her to come here and she comes to the side of the bed.

	“Come lay with me?”

	“No sir, you have a broken rib and a broken leg. I am not going to be putting you in any pain,” she says as she waves her hands back and forth as if they are also telling me no.

	“Where are the kids?”

	“Hailey and Will are going to bring them up here on Saturday. We are in Jackson, Mississippi right now,” she kisses the top of my forehead, right above my temple.

	“I am sorry I scared you, it wasn’t on purpose.”

	“I know it wasn’t. You’re alive and that’s all that matters. The doctor also said…”

	“Well, you’re finally awake.” A woman’s voice comes through, interrupting Karlee. I look up to see a woman standing over the machine reading my vitals. She’s wearing a pair of purple scrubs and her blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail. “Nice to see those pretty eyes I’ve heard about,” she winks at Karlee. “I’m Ashley and I will be your nurse until seven o’clock tonight. Which is about four hours from now. Are you hungry?”

	“Yes ma’am and thank you for taking good care of me.”

	“Oh honey, you’ve been quite a treat to take care of,” she winks as she heads back from where she came in.

	“Lord, that lady has been ogling you since she got you as a patient,” Karlee grunts and I laugh.

	“I think I like you jealous,” I chuckle a little as she mutters.

	“You better watch it mister. Your mother has been biting at the seams to get down here so she can lay into you. I was being the good girlfriend and keeping her at bay, but I will call her.”

	“No!” I yell, as she laughs.

	“That’s just what I thought.”

	“Thank you for being here. I’m glad you came,” I grab her small hand, engulfing it in my larger one.

	“There is nowhere else I would rather be.”

	“So what did the doctor say?”

	“Right, before I was so rudely interrupted by the friendly nurse,” she snorts as she squeezes my hand. “The doctor said you had a clean break, but you tore a ligament which will require you to do some physical therapy. He suggested a Samantha Carter in Hickory being that it was fifteen minutes from Franklin. He says she is very good at what she does.”

	“Okay, so did they say when I could go home?”

	“Nope. But you’ve also been asleep for two days.”

	“Two days?” I sit up in the bed as much as I can with my leg raised like it is.

	“Yep. You hit your head pretty hard on the steering wheel, they think.” She gives me a stern look as she shakes her head. “I could have lost you too.”

	“But, you didn’t.” The second it leaves my mouth I wince because I didn’t mean it the way she’s going to take it. The look on her face tells me she didn’t like my response but luckily the ringing of her cellphone saves me.

	“Hello?” She answers as she glares at me, mouthing ‘this isn’t over’. I lay back, closing my eyes as she continues to talk, lulling me into the sleep, I undoubtedly need.

	“Eli!” Caroline squeals as she runs to my bed, jumping into my arm and jostling my broken rib. I hiss in pain and she jumps back a little. “Sorry, Mom told me to be careful, but I was too excited.”

	“It’s okay little duck. I’ve missed you,” I smile as she wraps her arms around my neck and squeezes tightly.

	“Hey Eli. We brought you some get well cookies,” Cadence says softly from the door as she walks in with a tin of sugar cookies. “I baked them and Caroline helped me decorate them.”

	“They look delicious. I’ve missed you both so much.” I look around waiting for Chance to come in the room when Karlee speaks up.

	“He’s coming. He’s still angry with you,” she gives me a look of remorse and I just nod. As much as I want him to want to be here, I’m sure he feels like I abandoned him. Which in a way, I guess I did.

	He walks into the room, looking me over and then going to sit down beside Karlee on the couch. “That’s rude, Chance.”

	“What’s rude is leaving someone who looks up to you to bury their father by themselves.” He looks me right into the eyes and I see the fires raging inside.

	“He didn’t.”

	“Yes, I did, he’s right.” I try to defend him, but I know that he doesn’t want that.

	“I know you did and I know I’m right. I don’t need your help,” Chance mutters as he reaches for the iPhone he brought in.

	“He was there, but he didn’t want to rip wounds open. I saw him at the back of the church and again at the graveyard. So you better apologize, because without Eli you wouldn’t be with me and most likely with your sisters right this moment.” Karlee scolds him and his expression changes.

	“She’s right. I apologize. You were the reason I got to stay with Mom, so thank you for that. I’m glad you’re okay.”

	“Thank you. I know I let you down, but I’m not going anywhere from here on out. Did Karlee tell you I knew Timothy?”

	“No!” Cadence and Caroline shriek, and if it weren’t something so serious the moment would be comical.

	“I was there when Timothy passed away. I tried to save him,” I squeeze Caroline a little tighter, because I want to shelter them as much as I can.

	“I get it now,” Chance says softly. “I’m sorry for being a jerk.” He runs his hands over his jeans before he stands up, walks over to me and hugs me.

	“It’s okay. I let you down, but I plan to make it up to all of you. I’d like to be as much a part of this family as each of you are,” I kiss Caroline’s head and look at Karlee who is sitting there with tears in her eyes. “I love each of you more than you will ever know. Each and every one of you has had a hand in returning me to the man I was before we lost Timothy.”

	“You are a hero, you know.” Caroline snuggles into my neck and I have to grit my teeth to keep from hollering in pain. “You saved us too.”

	Tears stream down my face, but I blame it on the pain in my side, not the happiness in my heart. I know that I am going to be okay, because I have these four people surrounding me. I will recall every moment of this and work to become the man they all think I am.

	“Mr. Harris?” An older man asks as he knocks on my door.


	“Hello there, I didn’t know you had your wife and kids. I’ll come back.”

	“No sir, that’s okay. Come on in.” I don’t bother correcting him because even though I have only known Karlee a couple of months, I know she is my future.

	“Well, I’m Doctor Griffin. I’ve looked over your charts and we’ve referred you to a Samantha Carter for when your cast is removed by your primary doctor. Mrs. Carter is phenomenal with her work, she works with a lot of wounded soldiers. She’s going to help you get on your feet a lot quicker, and back to fighting those fires.” He gives me a kind smile as he looks over our family. “You’re ready to get on back home, but no more sleeping while operating an automobile, okay?”

	“Yes sir. I’ll do my best not to let that happen again.” I smile then grunt in pain as Caroline moves as I scream as she jostles my leg.

	“Caroline, come on get down off of Eli. You’re gonna break his cracked rib.” Karlee mutters as she walks to the bed.

	“Sorry Eli. I didn’t mean to hurt you,” she looks at me with a shocked expression, and I smile.

	“Little duck. I’m not that easily hurt,” I wink and she blushes, making me laugh which hurts worse than the jostling she caused.

	“Your nurse will be in shortly to get your discharge papers ready for you,” he smiles as he waves and turns, leaving the room.

	“Well, it looks like I get to escape. Who wants to push the wheelchair?”

	“I will,” Chance mutters as he types away at his phone.

	“What cha doing over there, anyway?”

	“He’s got a girlfriend,” Cadence croons.

	“Oh yeah?” I raise an eyebrow at Karlee who just shrugs. I guess he is sixteen, seems right. “She cute?”

	“She is, she goes to church with us. Tracie Lee is her name.”

	“Oh, that brown-haired girl that sits in the front row? Wait. Isn’t that Pastor Henry’s daughter?”

	“That would be the one,” Karlee answers with a smug smile. Well, no wonder she’s okay with it then.

	“Well, Mr. Harris. It looks as if you’ll be leaving me and making my life a little less bright.” Nikki comes in and I want to groan. That woman, along with Ashley the other nurse, has been ogling me a little too much and I have never been more grateful that I am getting out of here.

	“Yes ma’am. Gotta get back to the old ball and chain so these kiddos can play on their iPhones.”

	“Don’t I know all about that? I have three of them too. Not as old as yours but they sure are a handful.” She smiles at Karlee. “Here are your papers. Someone will be up shortly with a wheelchair to roll you down in. If you’d like you can go ahead and pull your car around.”

	“Thanks,” she snips as she grabs her purse. “I’ll be down in the front, you stay with Eli,” she looks at Cadence. “Chance, help me grab all the stuff.”

	“Yes ma’am,” he grabs the cookies and the flowers beside the bed, while Karlee grabs my bag of things they brought in with me from my truck.

	“Karlee, I’m going to need to go get a new truck too.”

	“Let’s discuss that in a few weeks when that cast comes off,” she throws over her shoulder as she walks down to get her SUV.

	Two weeks have flown by. I had insisted that Eli take the guest room in the house, which meant that my office had become his room, but I didn’t want him to be alone while trying to get over this incident. We’d all seemed to adapt fairly well and the kids seemed to love having him here. If I wasn’t so sure of my beliefs and how I wanted to wait until I was married to be more intimate with anyone, I’d ask him to move in. I was raised to not live with or be intimate with someone unless you were married though, and I was going to uphold that. I’d done it for almost twenty-seven years, so why not now.

	“Karlee! Come here!” Eli’s voice rings from the living room and I smile as I walk in. He’s looking at the iPad, no doubt going through trucks.

	“You rang?”

	“Funny,” he chuckles a little as he looks at me. “What about this one?” I look at the iPad and see the four door navy blue pickup truck.

	“It’s nice.”

	“You don’t like it?”

	“Eli, it’s your truck babe. If that’s what you want, then after we go to your doctor’s appointment, we can go and look at it.”


	“Yep, you’ll need something to drive to meet with Samantha twice a week anyway.”

	“Well, I was thinking of a family vehicle.”

	“I know and I’m pretty sure I swooned,” I chuckle as he leans in and kisses my cheek.

	“Well, I love making you swoon. Speaking of, I think we should talk while the kids aren’t around.”

	“Oh yeah?”

	“Yeah, I want to talk about what you want, from this relationship.”

	“Oh, I’d rather not,” I mutter, I hate talking about sexual things because most men expect that.


	“I’m a virgin,” I blurt.

	“Are you ashamed of that?” He grabs my hand, turning as much as he can with the cast on his leg.

	“No! I think it’s something sacred and special and that God has one person out there for each of us and that is something I should hold onto for them,” I blush a little as he observes me. I feel like some lab rat being watched and rated.

	“Good, because I feel the same way. Now I feel better knowing you won’t try to ravage me in my sleep,” he laughs when my jaw hits the ground. How dare he? “It also makes me feel better knowing you were engaged before. You aren’t the only one who gets jealous.” He gives me a shy smile as he interlocks our fingers. I don’t know what I did to deserve him, but he’s been amazing.

	“I didn’t like that nurse.”

	“I know, but she wasn’t even near my radar. It’s been you since that day you sassed me in the diner.”

	“I did not!”

	“Oh yeah and we can’t forget about you stalking me, after the sassing.”

	“Oh be quiet! Get ready so we can get to the doctor.”

	“I’m ready, but you might want to go brush your teeth,” he cracks a smile as I slam a hand over my mouth.

	“Jerk! At least I don’t have on the same clothes as yesterday.”

	“Touché!” He yells out as I stalk to the bathroom to brush my teeth, because I’d just finished my coffee and he sadly, was probably right.

	The doctor’s office was warm and inviting, much like it had been since I’d come to my first appointment when my family first moved here.

	“Hey Karlee! How are you?” Bailey asks as she stands up to see above the counter.

	“Bailey, this is Elijah Harris, Eli this is Bailey. We graduated together.” I gesture between them with my hands as Eli lets go of one of his crutches to wave politely.

	“Nice to meet you Bailey. I have an appointment with Dr. Jenson.”

	“Of course,” she blushes as she checks him out. He’s an attractive man, but that doesn’t mean you have to stare, Bailey. “You’re right. I’m sorry,” she turns bright red and turns away.

	“Oh no, I said that out loud?” I throw my hand over my mouth as Eli lets out a huge belly laugh.

	“Oh yeah. You did.”

	“Shut up,” I mutter turning just as red as Bailey had and go to sit in the far corner of the room as she gathers his paperwork. “Sorry,” I mouth as she looks over at me with a grimace.

	“Thank you for that,” he chuckles as he sets his crutches beside the chair then slides into it. “It made my day.”

	“I bet it did. I’m going to have to apologize. I didn’t mean to throw that out there like that.”

	“Well, I liked it.”

	“Shush you,” I mutter as I wave my hand at him. I grab the closest magazine to me, so I can ignore him and forget my embarrassing moment.

	“Eli,” Bailey calls from the front desk, giving me the stink eye. “Dr. Jenson will see you now.”

	“Thank you,” he waves as he grabs his crutches and pulls up, walking toward the door. “You coming?”

	“I’ll wait out here.”

	“Right, make sure you apologize nicely,” he whispers as he winks.

	“Sure thing.” I mutter as I stand, walking over to her.


	“Bailey, I really didn’t mean to…”

	“It’s okay really. I shouldn’t have been looking. I just assumed that he wasn’t with you.”


	“Well, because of Timothy.”

	“He’s the person who tried to save Timothy.”

	“Oh yeah? He have any friends?”

	“Actually he does have a good looking friend named Charlie. He’s supposed to come down soon. You should meet him.”

	“I don’t know, I wouldn’t want you to blurt something else,” she smiles and I laugh. “I was embarrassed, but I’ll be okay.”

	“I am so sorry again,” I say as the shrilling of the phone beside her breaks the silence. She waves me away as if saying it’s not a big deal, as she answers the phone. Well at least I fixed that. I felt awful. “Jealousy really isn’t becoming of you, Karlee.” I mutter as I sit down and wait for Eli to come back out.

	“Karlee?” I jump at the sound of Eli’s voice.

	“Oh my gosh! No more cast!” I yelp as I see him standing there with no crutches.

	“Yep. That book must be really good, eh?”

	“It is, it’s about a guy who goes on a show similar to American Idol. He has his faith and life altered and one of the judges is trying to help him through it, while not losing himself and his relationship with God.”

	“Take a breath woman,” he smiles as he grabs my hand, pulling me up.

	“You’re limping! Where are your crutches?”

	“He said I’d limp until I gained my strength back up, but I would be okay. I don’t need the crutches anymore. Turns out it wasn’t a clean break, but a hairline fracture.”

	“Good thing it was your left leg, not your right.”

	“Why is that?”

	“Because, you’re going to need the right foot for your truck.”

	“True that.” He smirks as he pulls the brim of his hat toward the back of his head. “Ready to go eat some lunch and get my new truck?”

	“If you are.” He laughs as his green eyes light up again. He’s like Caroline when we go to the store and she gets to pick out a Barbie.

	“Woman, I am a man. We are always ready to get a new vehicle.” He turns and walks toward my car, limping as his muscles work to hold him up. “Well, maybe not the bill that comes with it, but the new car smell. Definitely.”

	“Men,” I mutter as we both load up into the vehicle to get the rest of our day out of the way.

	After two hours of driving around to dealerships, Eli has finally picked out the truck he wants. It was a fire engine red that reminded him of the fire trucks he rode in at work all day, but was a double cab truck so that we could fit everybody in it if we needed to. It humbled me that he would pick something that would accommodate all of us, because it meant that he wasn’t just investing in a vehicle. He was investing in the family we were starting to build, or at least I hoped that’s what was happening.

	As he follows me back to the house in his brand new truck I couldn’t help but be thankful for everything I’d been given. While I’d had lots of things happen to me that should make me angry and bitter, looking at where I was right now in life, I couldn’t be any of that. I had three kids that tried their best at whatever they did, even though their lives hadn’t always been the best. They overcame it all and weren’t bitter either, well maybe on occasion, but for the most part they were good kids.

	I’d lost love, but in losing one I’d found another. Granted they were both intertwined somehow, but that was the great thing with life. Unexpected things came our way, it was how we interpreted them that mattered and I’d chosen long ago that I would make sure I lived my life to the fullest. I chose to find the good inside of everything a long time ago and I was a happier person for it. If we chose to dwell on the past and the horrid parts of our lives it would taint our souls. I didn’t want to live in the dark with the Devil because of remorse and regret. I wanted to live in the light and goodness that God put forth into our world. As I turn into the driveway and see all three kids in the yard playing as they rake the leaves, I can’t help but smile. God knew exactly what he was doing when he altered each of our lives, because right here in this moment, is exactly where we are all supposed to be.

	Looking up at the Bone and Joint Clinic in Hickory, I get a nervous feeling. Not because I am worried about the pain that working the ligaments in my leg will cause, but I just get a feeling of uneasiness. I don’t know how to explain it, but as I walk into the brick and glass building with the square brick columns on both sides of the entry way, the hair on the back of my neck stands up. I take the elevator to the third floor and stand in the line as I wait.

	“May I help you?” A woman with short brown hair and glasses asks me.

	“Yes ma’am. I have an appointment with Samantha Carter as ten.”

	“You must be Elijah Harris.”

	“Yes ma’am.”

	“Nice to meet you Elijah. I’m Lynn. If you wouldn’t mind filling out these papers, we will get you in as soon as you’re finished.”

	“Of course. Thank you.”

	“Thank you for your patience. We had a bit of an issue earlier, so we are short one person this morning.” She gives me a kind smile as I turn, trying my best not to limp on my foot.

	I sit down in one of the blue chairs, working on the four sheets of paper in front of me. I don’t understand why they make you fill out all this stuff when it’s on your license and your insurance cards, but I suppose it’s mandatory. After almost fifteen minutes, I finally have all the paperwork finished and I stand, turning it into Mrs. Lynn.

	“Thank you Eli. Sam will be out to get you in just a moment.” She gives me a smile as the door opens and a woman that has blonde hair with purple streaks through it and an arm covered with ink, steps through the opened door.


	“That’s me,” I look over the woman, not really sure how to take her in. I really hope this isn’t the woman who is helping me, because the poor thing looks like she needs some help herself.

	“Come on back, I’m Sam. I’ll get you set up on a physical therapy regimen that will have that limp gone in just a month or so.”

	“You’re my therapist?”

	“I am. Is there a problem?” She throws her hands onto her hips and I instantly feel bad. “It isn’t nice to judge someone Mr. Harris.” The cold stare she gives me has me wanting to crawl under a rock. “I’ve read your file. I’m not really sure how many people actually know that you had alcohol in your system the night you crashed.”

	“I wasn’t judging you.”

	“You aren’t the only one. But, Mr. Harris, I didn’t judge you for drinking. You shouldn’t judge me for having tattoos and purple hair. My husband probably wouldn’t take kindly to that either.” She smiles as she opens her office door. “He wasn’t too crazy about it when he came home from Iraq and found me like this either.” She smiles. “You see Mr. Harris, we all have things happen to us. It’s how we come out of them that make us better, so I’m not going to judge you for drinking and you’re not going to look at me like I’ve grown four heads because I have purple hair, got it?”

	“Yes ma’am. You’re right. I did judge you, but not because of that. I’ve just not seen something like that in a while and I was wrong for that.”

	“Well, apology accepted. I used tattoos as a way to cope, much like the alcohol you consume I’m sure.”

	“I don’t drink anymore,” I say as I rub the back of my neck, looking at the ground. I feel like a toddler being scolded for getting into the dang cookie jar.

	“Well good. I wouldn’t want you vomiting from the exercise I’m fixing to send your way.” She gives me an eerie smile as she sits at her desk. “So, why don’t you tell me exactly what’s bothering you so we can discuss a plan of attack?”

	“What branch of the military was your husband in?” I am curious because of her words and she can tell from the look on my face.

	“He was a Marine. He was honorably discharged. He doesn’t always see it that way, but he was a hero. Maybe you can meet him when he stops by today, if you’re still here,” she smiles and I hope that Karlee and I will be like that whenever that day comes.

	“I’d like that. Sorry, I got off track. You were discussing it like we were about to go to war on my Achilles,” I laugh a little to ease the moment.

	“Well, I do tend to be on par Mr. Harris,” she smiles as she looks at the file. “So, you are a firefighter?”

	“Yes ma’am.”

	“When are you wanting to get back to work?”

	“Well, if I’m being honest. As soon as possible, I’ve been away from it for a while.”

	“Oh yeah?” She raises an eyebrow as she taps her pen against the file she has on her desk.

	“Yes, I wasn’t able to save a man from Franklin from burning up after a car accident. I held a lot of resentment and guilt. But, with the help of a good woman I’m getting better.”

	“Are you talking about Timothy Granger?”

	“Yes, did you know him?”

	“Not personally. My friend Kara went to church with him. It’s a small town kind of thing, someone always knows everyone. So, let me see. If you do everything I ask of you, we could have you back to work in about a month, give or take.”

	“Let’s do it then,” I rub my hands together, eager to start.

	“Perfect, follow me and we will get you set up on the exercise bike. You’ll come to therapy three times a week and this will be the first thing you’ll do when you get here.”

	“Yes ma’am,” I follow her to the machine and sit on the seat.

	“I want you to ride the bike for fifteen minutes and then we will move onto the stretching.”

	“For some reason, I think you’re going to enjoy the pain you’re about to inflict.”

	“I wouldn’t dare do such a thing,” she gives me an eerie smile before patting my shoulder. “There’s Jameson with my lunch. I’ll send him over here to talk to you in just a bit. If you need me for anything, let me know.”

	“Yes ma’am,” I mutter as I watch the television that’s playing in the corner of the large room. I look over at the man that she walked over to and think about the pair they are. He looks to be about six foot two and seems to be pretty fit, but what I am drawn to are the metal rods on his legs. She’d said he came home a hero and looking at the titanium legs he was walking on, I could see why. I just wasn’t sure what happened to cause that. He looks over at me and I immediately divert my eyes back to the television.

	“You must be Elijah Harris?” I turn to look into the brown eyes of the man that I was just staring at.

	“That would be me. Your wife has said some good things about you,” I continue to ride the bike at a steady pace, as he watches me.

	“Really? She’s normally talking about how much of an egotistical pig I am,” he laughs as he holds his hand out to me. “I’m Jameson Carter.”

	“Nice to meet you.”

	“Sam told me about you being the one that tried to save that guy from Franklin. If you ever want to talk about it, I’m always available.”

	“Thanks.” I don’t want to be rude to the man, I know he’s only trying to be nice, but he couldn’t possibly know what I dealt with.

	“You think I don’t know what you went through, but I do.” Can he read my mind? Did I say that out loud? “I lost both my legs in a bombing. I saved one of the five men that were with me that day.”

	“I’m so sorry, I want to thank you for your service.”

	“I didn’t tell you that for that. I can see it in your eyes, even if you think you’re hiding it well enough. You still hear him screaming in your dreams?”

	“How do you know that?” I gasp as I stop biking and stare at the man.

	“Because, I’ve been there. I see it repeat in my mind, still and it has been three years,” He puts his hand on my shoulder in a friendly grip. “If I were you I’d get back to pedaling before you bring out the worst in her,” he tips his head in the direction of his wife who is stepping out of her office and walking our way.

	“I’m sure I already did.”

	“Oh dude, you didn’t.”

	“I did, I’m not used to seeing purple hair and a sleeve of tattoos.” I wince because I’m waiting for the slam of his fist into my chin, but instead I get laughter. “What’s so funny?”

	“I hope you like pain,” he slaps my back. “I’m going to head out, but really if you want to talk, get my number from Sam. She’s gonna get you all fixed up. She helped me.”

	“Thank you,” I manage to slip out lacking oxygen, from him knocking the air from my lungs.

	“Come on Eli, let’s get you set up with your stretches. This first one will probably hurt the most since your tendon is trying to tighten.”

	“Oh boy,” I mutter as I follow Sam to a doorframe.

	“Okay, first we are gonna sit down on the ground, fold the leg we aren’t stretching toward our bottom,” she lays back on the ground, looking at me as if to say ‘well are you going to follow or not?’ “Once you have that done, you’ll place your leg against the frame around the door and scoot toward the door. As you continue to work the muscle you will be able to rest your whole leg against the door, but for now it won’t get there.”

	“Ouch!” I mutter as I slide my leg up the doorframe, just like she is doing.

	“It will hurt for a bit, you’re muscle has to be stretched out again. It has lost its flexibility while in that cast.”

	“I’ll go over some more stretches with you and then leave you to them. When you come in here on Friday, you’ll do everything I did with you today. I’ll be around, but I won’t be babying you every step of the way.”

	“Thank you for that.”

	“I’ve come to learn that men like their independence,” she smirks as she helps me up off the ground.

	“Learn that the hard way?”

	“Nah, he did though. Jameson had to fall on his face quite a bit before he decided I really was trying to help him.”

	“It’s awesome that you met the love of your life while helping him with therapy.”

	“I didn’t. He’s been my brother’s best friend since we were kids. I’ve always been in love with him, he was just too blind to see it.” She hands me a stretchy band and smiles. “You’re gonna put that under your foot and hold both straps. Grab both ends, one in each hand and then pull it out to the side. You’ll feel the stretch and just like the other, when you’re muscle starts to release the tension, you’ll be able to stretch it out further.”

	“Now I see why everyone says you’re the best at what you do.”

	“Why is that?” She looks at me with a confused expression.

	“You love what you do.”

	“I do, I had something tragic happen to me when I was eighteen. But instead of letting it define who I became, I turned to helping others.”

	“Sounds like you’re a hero too,” I smile as she blushes.

	“I help heroes have a second chance at being mobile. I don’t think I’d place myself in the same category.”

	“Well, I bet you that they would.” I finish the stretch and she smiles.

	“Well, not that you’ve got all the stretching done for today, I suppose I will see you on Friday.”

	“Thank you for your help. I’m sorry again about the rocky start,” I run my hand over my neck. I really feel like a total jerk for that.

	“It’s okay. You’d actually be surprised how many of people do it. I just put them all in their place too. But, most of them have tattoos and stuff as well.”

	“Well, I was brought up in a very Southern Baptist home,” I wince as I let the words spill out.

	“So was I, but I have to think that God wouldn’t be so worried about my tattoos. He’s more concerned with the way I live and treat others.”

	“Amen to that. I’ll see you Friday. Thank you, Sam.”

	“You’re welcome,” she waves as she walks around the room, checking on everyone else that’s doing their physical therapy.

	As I get into my car to head back to Karlee’s I can’t help but think of how much I’ve changed in just a month. I’ve stopped drinking, because I’d been in the hospital but also, I didn’t want to bring that type of thing into Karlee’s home. I’d gone back to the profession I’d loved and dreamt of doing since I was a toddler. I’d gained more with God in the last month that I had in a lifetime, and I found out the type of person I wanted to be. I wanted to judge less and live more.

	Turning into the driveway my phone rings. I pick up the phone, seeing Karlee’s name and huge smile takes over my face. “Hello?”

	“Eli! Did you see the news?” She screeches and immediately I slam the car into park.

	“What’s wrong, baby?”

	“A. Shooting,” she wails into the phone as I hobble into the house to turn on the television. “At a college. Harrington Community College in Georgia,” she says between breaths. I don’t know why she’s so upset. It’s certainly tragic, but it’s not as if it was her school. I was worried someone had gotten her or the kids.

	“Baby, it’s okay. Don’t cry. Did you know someone?”

	“No, but he shot people who were Christian.” Oh no, that’s why she is crying.

	“Karlee, do you need me to come get you?”

	“I think I can drive home, I’ll call you again. Just pray for those people,” she takes a deep breath, and seems to calm down as she talks to me. “Oh my God, what are we going to tell the kids? Eli, how do we tell them about this?”

	“Karlee, I’m sure Chance and Cadence already know. This isn’t something Caroline needs to hear about, but we can sit down with the older two and see what they are feeling.” I run my hand over my face, because I know it’s not going to be an easy topic to discuss with two teenagers.

	“I’ll call you back, the kids are coming back in from lunch.”

	“Okay babe, I’ll talk to you soon.”

	Hanging up my phone, I watch the television as the news unfolds about the shooting. It seems to be that the man walked into the school, went into a classroom and asked each person if they were a Christian. They showed the man on the television, white male with glasses and what looked to be a crazy gleam in his eye. That was the only way I could describe it. As I watch the news I fall to my knees on the floor, grimacing as my leg muscle shoots pain up to my brain. I turn toward the couch, resting my head on it as I send up a silent prayer.

	Father God,

	I know You had a hand in this, You watched over these people. Even if people aren’t going to see that, I know You did. I know that those nine people that said ‘Yes, I am a Christian’, are sitting beside you right now as we all grieve over the physical loss of them. I know that You are wrapping their family in comfort right now and helping them in knowing that their loved ones are with You. I know that, because of Jesus, these people are in no more pain. I pray that You use this to show other people who are Christians just what it means to be one. That these lives aren’t forsaken and will be used for your glory, that they will become well-known. These people have defeated death and while the man who shot them thinks he has won, he truly hasn’t. God, I ask that You give me the words I need when we talk to Chance and Cadence tonight, because I’m going to need them. Guide me and use me as your tool, Father. In Jesus’ name I pray.


	Driving up to the house, seeing Eli’s truck sitting in the driveway gives me a sense of security I hadn’t known I needed. I’d made sure that I picked up the kids because with the devastation that happened today, I needed to know that they were safe. I didn’t want them riding a bus, where something could happen and I wouldn’t be there with them. They all jump out of the car, running to the door and into the house before I can even unbuckle my seatbelt and climb out of the seat.

	Walking into the house, I smell the delicious aroma of tomato sauce. I follow the trail of goodness into the kitchen to see Eli standing there with an apron on, already coated in red sauce. I laugh as Caroline jumps into a chair to sprinkle cheese on the pizzas sitting on the counter.

	“I figured I’d try my hand at that Pinterest thing. So, homemade pizza it is.” He winks as Caroline goes to town dumping handful after handful of cheese onto her pizza.

	“Well, don’t quit your day job,” Chance laughs as he decorates his own pizza. “You are a hot mess.”

	“Hey, at least you got a hot meal out of the mess.” Eli scolds, taking off his apron and sprinkling some cheese and pepperoni on a pizza. “After you all decorate your pizzas we will put them in the oven and have family night.”

	“Yay!” Cadence squeals as she puts her book sack down.

	“After we finish our homework,” I call out which warrants a groan from all three kids. “Why don’t we work on it while the pizzas are cooking? Then, it will be out of the way?”

	“Okay. Hey Mom,” Chance walks up between Eli and I and stands there quietly.

	“Yeah?” I run my fingers through his hair, thinking it’s about time for a haircut.

	“I want to talk to you and Eli about that shooting,” he looks between both of us and we shake our heads.

	“Let’s talk after your little sister goes to bed, okay bud?” Eli grips his shoulder and Chance nods.


	The rest of the evening goes off without a hitch. We watch Do You Believe? and just enjoy the evening surrounded by the people that mean the most to us. Eli and I both snuggle into Caroline as we watch the movie; she’s the only one who really likes to be close for a long period of time. The other kids have grown out of the coddling and affectionate stage. They may give us a hug here or there, and when I get them, I cherish them. Eli carries Caroline to bed after the movie ends as the other two change into their pajamas. I don’t really know what to say about today, but I hope that God gives me the guidance I need to speak for him, when they ask.

	Eli comes back to sit with me, sliding his arm around my shoulder and pulling me into him. I take in his strength as he holds me in the embrace. I take comfort in being in his arms and smelling his musky scent mixed with the aroma of the cologne he wears. I’m going to need every bit of strength he can provide me to get through this conversation. I can tell by the look on Chance’s face that it is going to be a harsh one for sure. Lord, give me strength.

	“So, I’m sure you both know what happened today, being that you have phones and friends.”

	“Yes sir,” they both say in unison, sitting close to each other on the loveseat. Cadence just seems to have a numb expression on her face but it’s Chance that has me worried.

	“Things like this happen and we can’t always be sure of why. But know that we will try to shelter and protect you as much as we can,” I say looking at both of them then curl into Eli. I don’t know how to make them realize that they are safe here. “The person that did this was a sick individual, but things like this don’t happen often.”

	“What Karlee is trying to say is that bad things happen every day in the world, but it hasn’t happened here. If that’s what you’re worried about, then you shouldn’t be afraid.” Eli squeezes my shoulder as he kisses the top of my head. “We are here to answer any questions or talk about any concerns you may have about it though.”

	“Why would someone target a person because of their faith?” Cadence speaks before Chance can. She is pulling at the skin around her nails, which is something I’ve come to know as her nervous habit.

	“Well, people are targeted all over the world, not just for their faith. Some are murdered because of their skin color, their name, or even their gender. We don’t know why people do this type of thing.” I say, looking at her. I don’t know what to say to make her feel better because it happens way more than we’d like to think. “There are evil people in this world. People that do evil things because they don’t believe in the things we do.”

	“She’s right, we are raising you to believe that there is good in everything. That you should be a certain way and believe a certain thing, but not everyone is like that.”

	“I have a question,” Chance finally speaks, meeting my eyes before looking down.

	“Shoot,” Eli says as he unfolds his arm from me and places both of them together as he leans over his knees. His elbows resting against his knees as he studies Chance.

	“It’s not really a question, more of a realization.”

	“You can tell us,” I urge. I want for them to be able to feel like they can tell either of us anything at all.

	“When I heard what happened today, I felt ashamed.”

	“Why?” I go to stand, but Eli pulls me back.

	“Don’t.” He lets go of me, turning his eyes back to Chance. “Let him get it all out.”

	“I was ashamed because I’m not sure that I would have stood up and said I am a Christian. My first thought would be that I don’t want to die, not yes I believe in God,” he has tears in his eyes and I want to pull him to me and hug him, but I don’t. “I know that God has a plan for us all, but for so long I questioned if God really existed until you two came along. So, since that self-preservation has been in me for so long, my first instinct was to live.”

	“Chance, I can guarantee you that you were not the only person who thought that. But, people that think that aren’t sure in their faith. That’s something we will work on okay, bud?” Eli says as he walks over and sits beside him. “You see, Jesus Christ wore a crown of thorns, he was beaten and battered. He died for you, so that you could have thoughts like this, but he also rose again. He was resurrected and that means that he defeated death. He died and he came back, just like the people that believe in it will, one day.”

	Watching Eli talking to Chance has me in tears, because I couldn’t have said it like he had. I cry because I am also getting to see the side of Elijah that was there before Timothy died. I am watching a man so secure in his beliefs and in the faith he has in God. It’s humbling and awe-inspiring to see it because I can tell that he is changing again. He is becoming that God-fearing man that his mother talked about in her kitchen while we were doing the dishes.

	“You see, what I’m trying to say is. If you believe in him, then you shouldn’t fear death. While no one wants to die, those nine people were okay with dying because they knew that death had been defeated. The man that killed them thought he was proving a point, but these people had nothing to fear because their death meant they would be walking on streets of gold surrounded by angels.” Eli’s face is so animated and his hands are going everywhere as he talks with such conviction.

	“He is right. These people knew the reward for the price they were paying. He’s also right about being afraid. You just have to know that what you are leaving behind is nothing compared to what you are gaining when you go.”

	“So I shouldn’t fear death?” Chance looks at us both confused and I want to laugh, but I hold back.

	“If you believe, then no, but do you remember that movie we watched last night?”

	“Yes ma’am.”

	“Remember when the guy’s brother held the gun to the pastor? He was afraid, but he still put his faith in God.”

	“He was afraid, I could tell it on his face,” Cadence says softly. “Momma, is that man going to Hell?”

	“I’m not the one who can answer that. But, I will say this. I feel sorry for him. I feel bad for anyone that wants to murder.”

	“Why don’t we all pray together?” Chance’s voice rings through my ears and I want to weep. This is the first time he has sought us out to pray together.

	“Sure,” Eli and I both say in unison as I reach for Chance and Cadence’s hands and each of them hold Eli’s hands with their other ones.

	“Would you like to pray, Chance?”

	“No ma’am. Maybe Eli could?”

	“Sure thing,” Eli bows his head and both kids follow his example. Sanctus Real’s song Lead Me comes to my mind, because this is exactly what Eli is doing. He is leading our little family. Even if we aren’t an official family, we are what we make it and it’s working just fine.

	“Father God. We come to You today to lift up the victims of the shooting and ask that You continue to show their families the peace and comfort they are seeking. We ask that You help them overcome this time and show them that their family members were not forsaken in death. We know You were there to welcome them with open arms. I ask that You look over my family. I pray that You work in Chance’s life, using him as a tool for You and showing him that even though it’s okay to be afraid, one shouldn’t fear death. Let Cadence grow in her faith as well and wrap Your arms around each of them. Keep Caroline in your favor as well, Father.

	“I ask that you show Karlee and I the way to mold these three intelligent children into the people You need them to be. We know You have big plans for them, but we need Your guidance to show them the plans You have. Thank you for sending your son Jesus to defeat death so that we can be unafraid. In your name we pray. Amen.”

	“Wow! I want to pray like you,” Cadence looks at Eli in awe. “My prayers consist of something like Thank you God for letting me pass my test, or for bringing Mom and you into our lives.”

	“At least you’re thanking and praying. You’ll get there one day,” he kisses her hand before slowly getting up.

	“Is there anything else you want to ask or talk about?” I look at Chance as I ask, because I know he’s the one that has the most concerns.

	“No ma’am.”

	“Chance, you have nothing to be ashamed of,” I grab him, pulling him to me as I hug him. “I am so proud of you for having the courage to tell us your fear. That alone took a lot of strength. It’s what we are here for. To listen and help guide you.”

	“I know and I want you two to know something too.”

	“Oh yeah?”

	“Yes ma’am.” He stands as he pulls Cadence up. “You two are doing a good job at molding us into good people. It’s not hard to do when you have a good example.” He smiles as he turns to walk out the room, heading to bed.

	“Well, I’ll be. I guess we are doing something right,” Eli mutters as he falls back to the couch.

	“Can we start something?”

	“What would you like to start?”

	“A family bible study. The family that prays together, stays together.” He grabs my hand, pulling me into his lap and kissing my temple.

	“That is very true and I think that would be an amazing idea.” He’s silent for a while, just sitting with me in his lap. Both of us content with where we are in this moment. “Karlee?”

	“Yeah Eli?”

	“I know that we’ve only been together for a little bit, but I feel something with you I’ve never felt with anyone else.”

	“I know what you mean.”

	“What do you think about maybe really trying to make us all a family?”

	“Are you suggesting we get married?”

	“Well maybe down the road, I’m not getting any younger,” he chuckles a little as I look at him. “But, I also don’t want you to think I’m trying to replace Timothy.”

	“I never thought that. I would love that. Watching you with the kids has shown me the kind of man you are. You are a good man, Eli. I’d be honored to be your wife one day.”

	“Well, when that time comes, you will know it. I’m not asking you like this. But I would like to try to adopt the kids if we could.”

	“I think they would like that just as much,” I kiss his temple as I slowly stand. “It’s getting late. We should probably get some rest, it’s been a draining day.”

	“It has.”

	“Oh no! I didn’t ask you how your therapy went. I completely forgot with everything that has been happening.” Way to go, Karlee.

	“It was fine, I’m a little sore and I was not a very good Christian when I saw the woman who was my therapist.”

	“What why?”

	“She has purple streaks in her very blonde hair and an arm covered with tattoos.”

	“Oh! I’ve seen that woman in Wal-Mart before. She’s married to one of the local heroes.”

	“I met him today too. He told me to call him if I ever wanted to talk about what I went through,” he runs his hand over his neck.

	“Well, maybe you should. He might be able to help you get over some of the things you hide inside.” I give him a kind smile as I lean in and kiss his lips quickly. Lately, I’ve been trying to avoid anything to cause the temptation to stir inside of me.

	“I think I might, he seems like a nice enough guy.” He grabs the back of my neck and pulls me back in for another kiss. As the kiss deepens I slide my hand to his neck and breathe him in. By the time we pull away I’m breathless and probably high on the feeling he gives me. If there is one thing I know, it is that Elijah Harris is a hidden temptation and if I am not careful, I will surely fall into temptation’s web.

	“Good night, Karlee.”

	“Night,” I call over my shoulder as I walk away from the man who’s managed to capture my tattered heart and make it whole again.

	A week seems to have gone by before I blink my eyes. My leg is starting to feel much better as I continue my physical therapy with Sam. She is a tough cookie for sure. Just as she is mending the torn parts of my body, Karlee and the kids are helping me to completely mend the ragged parts of my soul. True to her word, every day when the kids get home from school we eat dinner, do homework, have our baths or showers, and meet in the living room for bible study. It is a time for the kids to ask us any questions they may have about God or to express a concern they may have. It is working for us all and we can see the impact it is having on them.

	I was lost in my own thoughts as I rode the stationary bike that Sam has me warm up on when I come into therapy. I didn’t even realize anyone had approached me until she was waving her arm in my face.

	“Eli?” I look into Sam’s eyes and laugh.

	“Sorry, was lost in my own thoughts.”

	“So I noticed. I’ve called your name five times,” she laughs softly. “What’s got you so far away?”

	“I was thinking about my guitar, honestly. I need a new one so I can get back into worship music,” I hadn’t picked up my guitar at home in over a year and while Mama would ship it, or Charlie would bring it with him when he came to visit, I’d like a new one.

	“Well, I know of a good place in town you could get one.”

	“There’s a music shop here?”

	“There is. The guy that runs it is cute too. Don’t tell Jameson I said that though,” she winks. “It’s on the main strip a few blocks down from Penny’s coffee shop.”

	“Oh great, I’ll stop by on my way home. I’ve been wanting to play again.” I step off the machine, walking past Sam as I start to do my stretches.

	“I’m just curious, Eli, how’d you find your faith again?”

	“It was hard at first. I drank a lot, I hid the drinking behind a lot of cologne and gum. I didn’t even want to go to church because I knew I was being a hypocrite,” I let out a grunt as I stretch my muscle. “But, I knew that people were watching me. Waiting for me to make the wrong move and I didn’t want to let them down. So I ran. I ran from Maryville and I ran straight to the one place I never wanted to be.”

	“I bet it was hard. Jameson was the person that helped me heal from my ordeal.”

	“He’s a great guy, you two should come to church with us one Sunday. Karlee is dying to meet you,” I wince; maybe I should have invited them to a barbecue instead.

	“We’d like that. As much as I love our church, we got a new pastor and I just can’t seem to connect with him like I did the other one.”

	“I’ve never been in that situation, but I’ve heard others say that before. Y’all come on one Sunday and after we will take y’all out to lunch. Our treat.” I breathe heavily as I continue to stretch my leg while Sam supervises.

	“I’ll talk to Jameson. When you get to the music store, tell the owner Sam said to give you what you want. He owes me a favor,” she pats my arm before she turns, walking over to the next person.

	“What? No. I can get it,” I call after her, but she gives me that stern look she’s so good at.

	“Eli, I haven’t always been faithful either. I’m trying to give back. If you use that guitar to worship the Lord, then maybe I’ll get something out if when I hear you play.”

	“Well, you still can. But, I’m buying the guitar.”

	“You remind me of someone very close to me. You two are just as stubborn as the other,” she huffs out. “I’ll see you Friday.” She walks over to another person without another word to me and I want to laugh. That woman seriously could give you whiplash with her mood swings.

	As I finish up my physical therapy I watch all of the other people in here. There are a wide array of people, ranging from young to old, men and women. Most of them seem to be people with prosthetics and I can only assume the reasoning behind it is because of Jameson. I wipe my face with a towel as the sweat starts to drip from the exertion of all the stretching and strengthening of my muscles. I was beginning to think the woman really had given me a harder regimen than everyone else. Once I finish my cool down I grab my keys out of my pocket, wave to Sam and pat Mr. Bill on his shoulder before heading out the door.

	I drive into town and look for the music store that Sam told me about. It’s a couple of doors away from the coffee shop she mentioned, and there’s an open parking spot a couple of cars down from the entrance. I like the look of the shopping strip, it’s almost as if it has an antique feel to it. I walk into Main Street Music as the bell on the door rings.

	“I’ll be right with you!” A male voice rings out, but I already see what I’ve come in for. There are several guitars lining the wall and all I want to do is reach out and touch them. Maybe I’ll buy two and teach Chance to play. “Can I help you?” I turn in the direction of the man and laugh softly.

	“Well, now I see why you would owe her a favor,” I chuckle as I slide my hand over the guitar.

	“Well, my wife surely does like to spread the love of music,” Jameson says with a smile. “You play?”

	“I did, I’ve been so busy with life lately that I haven’t been able to play much of anything.”

	“I know the feeling pretty well. I wanted a way to cope with all my stresses so I turned to the guitar myself. Every now and then I’ll go bang them out on one of the drum sets in the back, but I tend to stick with the acoustic set.” He grabs a guitar and hands it to me before picking one up himself. “Let’s jam out man.” He walks over to a stool next to the glass counter and smiles as he pulls out another stool from behind it. If I hadn’t seen his prosthetic legs last week, I’d have never known the man had them. Especially with his jeans on. He walks just like a normal person does and I’d guess it was because of his wife.

	“Okay,” I walk over to the stool and sit down beside him. “I won’t even lie, I used to play worship music, so that’s really all I know.”

	“Yeah? Well let’s get to it man, how about a little bit of Flawless by MercyMe? It’s kind of my favorite these days, but if you tell anyone I will throat punch you,” he gives me a lethal look and I can’t tell if he’s joking or not.

	“Got it,” I gulp out.

	“Just kidding, I mean kind of. I’m a former Marine, I have to uphold some dignity.”

	“Nothing wrong with loving the Lord my brother,” I retort, then laugh a little. “I need to stop hanging out with Charlie so much, I think he’s rubbing off on me.”

	“Let’s do this.” Jameson starts to play and I follow along learning the chords as we continue our session.

	Sitting here with him, in this room, I’d forgotten just how therapeutic and humbling worshipping God with my music was. It was definitely a talent that he’d given me to use to glorify him, and it was something I wanted to bring to the forefront of my life. Jameson should really try to do something with the mad guitar skills he has too. Before I even realize it, my fingers are numb and aching and an hour has past. We’ve coasted through song after song, even throwing in a few of Luke Bryan’s songs.

	“I better get going before Karlee is wondering about me, but this has been fun. Thank you for the jam session.” I grab the guitar and the case behind the stand to put it in it. “I’d like to buy this guitar.”

	“It’s yours already,” he smiles as he nods toward the door. “Use it for what you were meant to.”

	“Jameson, I don’t want to just take it. You and Samantha have bills to pay too.”

	“You’ve just insulted my manhood. Come on now, we want you to have it. A three hundred dollar guitar is not going to break our bank and if you think it will, then tithe the money to your church on Sunday.” He slides his hands in his pocket as he slowly stands. He wobbles a little as he tries to right himself on his legs.

	“Thank you. I’m going to buy one of these for my I guess you’d call him, son. Karlee and I want to adopt him when we get our situation settled,” I smile a huge smile because I couldn’t imagine my life without those three kids.

	“Well you know where to find us then, don’t you. I’ll let you buy that one. I promise,” he gives me a grin before slapping my back. There’s a ding as the door opens and a red-headed guy saunters in. “Hey Blake, I’m coming. I was just finishing up.”

	“Take your time, Carter. I’ve got a couple more hours before Anna gets off.” I take in the appearance of the red-headed guy with his cap on backwards and red curls sticking out from under it, in all directions. He has on washed denim jeans and a red shirt. “How you doing? I’m Blake.” He holds his hand out and I shake it.

	“Eli, nice to meet you.”

	“Likewise. You the firefighter?” I just nod and he smiles. “I’m the saved one.”

	“Wha… Oh, got it. Well it’s nice to meet you, Blake.” I smile because really what do I say? It’s pretty obvious that they have discussed me. It’s kind of weird though because both of them have characteristics of myself, in them. Jameson was the one that couldn’t save some of the people he felt he should have, and Blake was the one who had to deal with being saved when the others weren’t. “Thanks again, Jameson!” I call over my shoulder as I open the door, the bell dinging yet again.

	After leaving Jameson’s music store I go to the one place where I am able to forgive myself and move past everything that is going on. I drive to the cemetery that Karlee told me Timothy was buried in. After walking around for about ten minutes, I come to the headstone looking for.

	Timothy Granger

	February 21, 1988 – March 06, 2015

	May you rest in peace

	“Timothy, it’s Elijah. I’m so sorry I couldn’t save you. For the longest time, I hated myself for it, but I would think if you were here, you’d say I shouldn’t.” I run my hand over my neck as I look around, feeling like a fool for talking to the air. “I met Karlee and she is amazing. I don’t know what I would have done without her. I really think she’s the one. So thank you for having a part in that too.” I reach down and rub his tombstone, wiping away the dust before standing once again. “Thank you for giving me the strength to stay strong in my faith, even when I was feeling like I wasn’t worthy. I wish things could have been different and that we were able to have impacted each other’s lives. Instead of one of us impacting the other’s death. Rest in peace, Tim.”

	I walk toward my truck, climb in and head toward home. I decide to grab some chicken at the local place in town because I’ve heard it’s some of the best homemade chicken you’ll ever eat and why not treat everyone at home. As I order my food I can’t help but feel blessed. I’ve made friends with people who are so different from me, yet so much like me. I have come to realize not to judge a book or person by their appearance because what’s underneath it all could be life altering, if you took the chance to find out. After the fifteen minute drive home, I can’t wait to curl up with Karlee and the kids. Thanksgiving was coming up and Mom had been calling wanting us to come there, but I still needed to bring it up to Karlee. In a week I would be moving back into my apartment a couple blocks over because, even though we’d both grown accustomed to having each other’s company, we didn’t want the town talking about us like we really were living in sin.

	Thanksgiving Day has happened upon us in the blink of an eye. Here we all were back in Maryville, Alabama surrounded by all of Eli’s family including his sister and Pastor Bennett. Mrs. Emma insisted that Hailey and Will come with us, but they opted for a quiet dinner with his parents. Eli’s sister Amelia was so different from him. While they look alike, they are complete opposites in the personality factor. Where his shone like a beacon in the night, hers was more reserved. Well, until Caroline broke down her walls. I laughed as I helped Emma prepare the food and all three of the kids played in the backyard with Eli and Amelia.

	“You truly have been the best blessing I could have ever asked for. I’ve prayed for you,” Emma says as we stand there staring at the picture perfect moment out in the yard. “I prayed that God would send you to save him.”

	“He saved me as well,” I smile at her, because in a way he did.

	“And, don’t even get me started on those kids. They are absolutely amazing. He was always a nurturing man, but those kids bring out the best in him. Just wait until he has some that are his own,” she smiles tenderly as she watches him spin Caroline in the air.

	“I am thankful that he loves them as much as I do. I think that is truly what brought us together. Caroline is who really saved him.”

	“She is an angel, too. She sees the good in people and I hope that she never loses that gift. It’s a great one to have.” She pulls the turkey out of the oven and smiles. “I suppose it’s about time for us to eat. Why don’t you go on out there and get them for me.”

	“Yes ma’am.” I walk out to the back porch, but I don’t see anyone it the yard. I am so confused about what is going on. I hear a giggle coming from behind one of the oak trees and I realize the kids are playing a game on me. I run behind the tree I heard Caroline giggling from, but quickly hear another giggle coming from another tree. After about ten times of running behind oak trees I hear Eli’s voice. I follow the sound of it and gasp when I come around the corner and see him standing right in front of the steps.

	“You weren’t fast enough,” he smiles as the kids come to sit on the stairs.

	“Momma, you really should work out more,” Caroline giggles and I laugh because honestly, what else can I do?

	“That was rude, Caroline.” Cadence chides her as they all watch me intently.

	“What’s going on here?” I asked confused. “Your dinner is getting cold.”

	“Karlee,” Eli saunters over to me, the limp in his leg completely gone after the month of physical therapy. “You have been the glue that has managed to hold us all together, even in the midst of wanting to fall apart yourself. You have shown me what it is like to have an undying love for the Lord as well as the people you encounter. I strive to be just like you and I want to make you proud of the man I am.”

	As he talks I try to listen to what he is saying but as I see his mother and sister sitting on the porch with tears in their eyes and Bennett holding Emma close with his chin on her shoulder. I can’t focus. My hand goes up to my mouth as I realize what exactly he’s doing and I try to get my mind to concentrate on his words.

	“I’ve prayed for you since I was old enough to realize what I wanted in a wife. While God has his ways of bringing the people we need into our lives, you were a whirlwind that completely blindsided me. With that, Karlee, I want to be blindsided. I don’t want a life without the whirlwind that we’ve started. I want to grow old with you and work through the trials that God throws at us, together. Will you do me the honor of walking by my side for the rest of our lives?” He reaches into his pocket, grabbing a box before kneeling on the orange and yellow leaves on the ground. “Will you marry me, Karlee Reynolds?”

	I just stare at him in shock, because I honestly wasn’t expecting this. He’d just moved back into his apartment a week ago and I was trying to get used to not having his presence with me all day long. He had started working at the fire department in Hickory and I was missing him more than I thought I should.


	“Lord have mercy, girl! My son just asked you to marry him. Go on and put him out of his misery!” Emma hollers down and I snap out of it.

	“Yes, I’m so sorry. Yes. I will marry you. You are everything I need, Eli Harris and it would be my honor to walk beside you for the rest of our lives.” I cry out as he slides the emerald cut ring on my finger. It’s nothing like the one Timothy had but yet again Elijah is nothing like him and I couldn’t compare them to one another. Each one had a purpose in shaping the person that I had become and with Eli I was a stronger woman. I stare at the ring as the tears fall.

	“Can we call you Dad now?” Caroline shrieks with excitement as she jumps into Eli’s arms. Tears fill his eyes as he processes her words.

	“If you’d like to,” he hoarsely replies as he pulls her into him, hugging her.

	“I’m so excited! I get to help plan a wedding!” Emma squeals as she throws her hands in the air. “But you all better come eat this big bird I’ve been preparing for two days now, before the thing gets cold.”

	“Yes ma’am!” Everyone squeals in unison as we they all run toward the kitchen.

	“Did I do a good job?” He bites his lip and runs his hand over his neck, which only makes me smile wider.

	“You did amazing. I will always remember that speech,” I lean in and kiss his lips softly.

	“Good, but in case you don’t remember every detail, I took care of that too,” he points over at Amelia and I laugh as I see her behind the camera lens.

	“You really did do it perfectly.” With tears streaming down my face, I kiss him one more time before we walk into the house and enjoy Thanksgiving dinner with the family we have become. It’s an amazing feeling to be surrounded by the people who mean the most to you and after losing someone who I thought was my world almost one year ago, I know that I will cherish this. Life is always changing course, but as long as we stay true to who we are, I know that no matter what it will always work itself out.

	Sunday morning at the church service with Pastor Bennett, Eli stole a little more of my heart. As I watched him play the guitar for the first time on a stage, I knew that was a calling in his life. He was meant to be a worship leader as much as he was a firefighter. He sang and played the guitar and as he did, everyone rejoiced in the Lord. There was always something about the worship service that got me amped and ready for the pastor to preach. It was something I couldn’t explain, but it was almost as if it was opening the doors to let the Holy Ghost reign in the church.

	Stretching my hands up to the heavens I smile because I see Caroline doing it as well. I know she’s just playing the copycat game, but it reminds me that even when I think I’m not being watched, I am. Trying to be the example that I want them to follow can be a hard thing to do, but I’d like to think I’m doing their mother proud as they continue to grow under my watch. I listen as Eli continues to sing and strum the guitar while Emma cries beside me. If I could take a peek inside her mind for just a moment, I would give anything. I know she has to be proud of the young man she has raised and placed into this world. We all make mistakes, but those mistakes are what make us all whole.

	I smile when I hear the chords to Lord, I Need You and start to sing with him. I watch as people in the church sing along, proud of my amazing fiancé, who has overcome so much in such a short amount of time. It’s humbling to hear this song coming from him because if anyone needed the Lord, it was definitely him and everyone else in the church that let the words come from their lips. Eli has truly lifted the people in this place and gotten them ready to receive the message Bennett is ready to give.

	“Well, it certainly is nice to have the talent that is inside of Elijah Harris back in this church,” Bennett says with a huge grin stretched across his face. He stands behind the pulpit as Eli comes to sit beside me, waving at someone at the back of the church as he sits. “Eli played on the worship group, led the worship group for years here before his job got to be too hectic. But, he saves people for a living in a whole different way than I do,” he chuckles as he speaks about Eli.

	“You sounded amazing, Dad.” Caroline whispers and Eli’s eyes tear up. I don’t even try to hold it in, because I am getting exactly what I’ve always wanted. A family to call my own, even if it isn’t exactly what I thought it would be. God seems to do that to you. You ask for something and it always ends up working out, but maybe the route to get to it isn’t the route you’d have wanted to take. The easiest route makes you take it for granted, while the route that most wouldn’t want to travel, makes you cherish every second. I am grateful for that route because it has shown me that nothing is ever permanent, but while you have it, it’s best to cherish it.

	I take notes as Bennett preaches on Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and how they would not worship the statue of King Nebuchadnezzar who in turn, threw them into a fire of flames ten times higher than any other before it. Listening to Bennett telling the story of these three men is amazing because he points out things that are different from Pastor Henry at church. While Henry preaches a good message, he doesn’t do the same teachings as Bennett. If you wanted to know what a person with the faith of God would do, that was what this message was about. These three walked into a fire and as they did, God saved them. Nebuchadnezzar didn’t see three people, but four. Four men stood in those flames and walked away from them unscathed. I think about how much faith it must have taken for them because they didn’t know the outcome. They told the king that even if they died it would be God’s will, and that was amazing.

	After Pastor Bennett finishes his sermon and steps away from the pulpit I feel refreshed and ready to tackle the weeks ahead. Eli grabs my hand, pulling me outside and walking down the steps rather quickly. I want to ask him what’s going on but I don’t have time to catch my breath while watching my feet so I don’t stumble.

	“Sam!” Eli calls and that’s when I see her. The girl with the blonde hair with purple streaks, wearing a cream-colored lace dress that is beautiful and the sheer sleeves of the dress show off the display of ink on her right arm.

	“Hey,” she speaks softly as we approach; a man with brown hair and blue eyes is standing beside her with his hand wrapped tightly in hers. Almost as if he’s trying to protect her from the stares of everyone in here.

	“How are you two? And just what are you doing in Maryville?”

	“We came to church with our friends Kate and Mason, they live in Fairview a few towns over,” she smiles at me. “You must be Karlee? We’ve heard so much about you.”

	“I am, it’s nice to meet you both. Thank you for all that you’ve done for Eli.” I hug her neck and then Jameson’s too as I look at them both. “Jameson, I also want to thank you for your service.”

	“Thank you,” he says stiffly. “Eli, I knew that we’d done the right thing giving you that guitar.”

	“Right, I just knew that when we heard you playing it I would be overtaken with the spirit and you didn’t disappoint,” Sam says excitedly. She waves at someone behind me as if to say go on, so I turn in that direction. I see a woman with brown hair pulling a boy around Caroline’s age toward another man with brown hair and a very defined chin. That man could cut someone with the sharpness of that chin and if I didn’t have Elijah to compare him to, I’d say he was the best looking man here.

	“Thanks, I was worried, but once I started playing it was like second nature.”

	“You did amazing, man. Come by the shop again and we will have another jam session,” Jameson slaps his arm as I hear Chance calling me from inside the chapel.

	“If you’ll excuse me, that’s my kid,” I smile as I start to walk away, but I turn back and look at them. “It was nice to meet you both, you’ll have to come for dinner soon.”

	“We will,” they say in unison and I hear their laughter fading as I walk into the building. I watch as my three kids eagerly listen to Bennett talk, asking questions about the sermon he just preached about and I know that I am truly blessed. Life will always show you hard times, but in those hard times it is what you do to come out stronger that make you who you are. When you think you have no one or nowhere to turn just look to the sky and smile because you always have God. He will be the light that will guide you through the darkness of your life and show you that even when you think you have nothing, you have more than you could ever imagine.

	Two years have passed since that day that will forever mark my soul. March 06, 2015 a day that ended in tragedy but not just because of a death, but of my soul being lost. I will forever be grateful to Timothy Granger because even though I wasn’t able to keep him from burning in that car, he helped me not burn for eternity. I also connected with the woman God placed in my life, and today two amazing things were happening. This morning I’d received the phone call that we’d be able to legally adopt Chance, Cadence and Caroline. I had to turn my phone off and leave it at home to keep from calling Karlee to let her know that the kids would be ours after she became my wife. I now knew the purpose that Timothy was put into my life to fulfill, and I knew that it was to keep me in God’s favor. My reward for going back to that was spending my life with one of the most God-loving women I had ever met. She made me envious because even through all the trials she’d been given, her faith never faltered. She was a lot like Job in her faith with God and I strived to be more like her.

	I knew that with her standing by my side, I would be able to achieve anything my mind conjured up. I pulled the truck into the driveway of what used to be the Brusly’s place before it burned. Greg had left a will and everything was left to the kids, who decided to build a new home on the land, for Karlee and me to live in with them. I smiled when I saw the barn doors open and the rows of white chairs, with lanterns hanging from the oak trees. As I made my way to the front of the chairs and shook the hand of Pastor Henry before Charlie wrapped me into a huge hug. I smile because three years ago, I would never have considered this a possibility, but now it is my life. A life I am thankful to have.

	As my beautiful soon-to-be wife walks down this aisle to me, a bible verse pops into my head. Ephesians, chapter two, verse eight ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.’ I look to the heavens saying a prayer of thanks as I watch Karlee in her white wedding gown. The pink and red roses shaking in her hands and the tears she’s trying to hold back are slowly falling. I know that I have truly been blessed – all because I was guided by faith.


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