The Envelope by Emily Josephine

“Next stop, the Sierra Madres.”

“I don’t even want to think about it.”

“Come on, Hank, you love this and you know it.”

Hank Johnson gave a weary smile to his tormentor, Barbara Alvarado. She was right. He had been going on missions trips since high school, when he heard the call to “go into all the world.” He couldn’t imagine a more exciting, more fulfilling way to live.
The Envelope
The Envelope by Emily Josephine
Barbara, two years his senior at age twenty-five, had joined his church when she was twenty-two, and since had gone on several mission trips with him. Hank, with his garrulous, fun-loving manner, had many friends, but none as close to him as Barbara. In the past three years they had shared numerous triumphs and frustrations, from seeing people healed of AIDS to experiencing sweltering temperatures while trying to plant gardens in near-drought conditions, and their common experiences had created a bond between them as tight as any brother and sister. “If he’s as sore as I am,” Kelly Williams declared, “he’s got every right to complain.” Hank looked in surprise at Kelly, who had earned the nickname “Gentle Ben” because of his large muscles and quiet manner. “You? Hurting?” he teased. “Hey, don’t say it so loud. You might ruin my reputation.” This was the third mission trip for the thirty-four-year-old contractor, who had volunteered to oversee construction whenever the church sent a crew to a developing nation to raise up a church building. “Ssh!” Barbara interrupted, pointing at the eldest member of their missionary team, forty-one-year-old Martin Lopez. Overcome by exhaustion, he had fallen asleep within minutes of boarding the small aircraft. His head lolled to one side, and a line of saliva dripped out of one corner of his mouth. Silence fell in the tiny cabin. Sleep was a tempting idea, since they had spent the last three days helping a small congregation outside of Santa Ana, Honduras, to erect a church. But the plane was small, and they were in for a bumpy couple of hours. At least they would have a good meal and a few army cots waiting for them in Guatemala. “Everybody ready?” The pilot, a somber man in his thirties, appeared before them. Barbara regarded his reddened face with a frown. “Wow, Peter, you really got burned. Need some aloe vera?” “I’m okay.” Peter shrugged. “Gotta get this delicate Minnesotan skin used to the climate.” It was the closest thing to humor he had expressed the entire eight days they had been together, and probably the most words he had spoken at one time. The other four came from the same church in Austin, Texas, and had known each other for several years. Peter Rossman, on the other hand, had answered a call over the Internet for missionary pilots from his Minnesotan home. He had seemed pleasant enough when they met him in Houston at the beginning of April, but if asked about his family or his past he gave terse answers and changed the subject. Two days into the mission, Barbara had whispered, “Maybe he’s not really saved.” “Nah, he’s just an introvert,” Kelly replied in a rare moment of assertion. “You know, it took me a while to warm up to you guys.” Hank wondered if Peter’s sudden and unsolicited comment indicated that he was coming out of his shell. He smiled to himself as a picture of the pilot’s head emerging from underneath a turtle shell popped into his mind. Peter returned to the cockpit and started the engine, and the three missionary passengers that were still awake settled back in the hard-cushion seats as relaxed as they could get. Hank, amused at Martin’s childlike position, stole another glance at his friend. A yawn escaped his mouth as he let his gaze travel to the floor next to Martin’s seat, where an envelope lay. Hank tapped the seat in front of him. “Hey, Kelly, is that somebody’s letter lying on the floor next to Martin?” Kelly turned to his right, leaned over, and picked up the envelope. “Looks like it.” He glanced at both sides. “But can’t tell whose it is. Barbara, you write this?” Barbara shook her head, and Kelly passed the envelope back to Hank. Only the addressee’s name appeared on the front. Determining to ask Martin and Peter about it later, Hank thrust the envelope into the front pocket of his khaki shorts, then leaned his head back as the nose of the plane tilted up, taking the missionary crew off the ground. He watched the clearing below shrink into an increasingly smaller rectangle, then disappear as the plane flew over a forest that looked like an undulating mass of dark green for miles around. Turning his head back to face forward, he glanced over to where Barbara was sitting. Last night they had sat next to each other during their simple supper of rice and beans, and Hank had become acutely aware of her closeness. Twice their hands had brushed together, and both times he experienced a tingling sensation. Hank had never thought of Barbara as more than a friend, and although he’d never had a serious girlfriend he realized that the feelings awakening within him indicated a deeper interest in Barbara than a friend. Much deeper. Now, watching her as she sat with eyes closed, he couldn’t help wondering if she was beginning to feel the same way. It was something he would have to explore when they got back to Texas. His mind began to wander, thinking about the task that lay before them in Guatemala, feeling more and more groggy as he prayed for the pastor and congregation they were about to meet. Shortly after that, he must have dozed off, because his eyelids suddenly flew open as a violent motion jolted him awake. When he was nearly thrown off his seat the next moment, he believed the plane had run into a bank of turbulence. “Jesus, help us,” Barbara cried. She was gripping both sides of her seat with white knuckles. The plane began to shake like a leaf in a tornado. Cold fingers of dread wrapped themselves around Hank. Choking, suffocating. He tried not to panic, but knew there was something more than turbulence at work. He looked around at the others. Barbara stared at him, eyes wide with terror. Kelly had begun praying loudly. Amazingly, Martin still slept, although his head was now hanging over his lap. “Peter!” Hank yelled. “Hey, Peter! What’s going on?” He would have jumped up to go talk to the pilot, but walking on the plane’s floor would be like trying to walk on stormy seas whose waters raged with angry white waves. The voice that answered was filled with uncertainty. “I—I don’t know. I think—I think we’ve been hit.” “Hit? What do you mean, hit?” Hank was using every ounce of control not to pepper his questions with curse words. Peter started to answer, but Barbara finally found her voice and interrupted him. “Hank, I think something is wrong with Martin.” Hank looked at her. “Wrong?” “The first time the turbulence—or whatever it is—hit the plane, when you woke up, it—” She cut herself off with loud, gasping breaths. “It’s okay, Barbara.” Hank willed himself to be strong, vaguely aware that Kelly was now reciting Psalm 91. “Go on.” Barbara took a deep, tremulous breath. “Martin’s head was still turned to the side, but when the plane lurched, his head jerked in the opposite direction.” Her voice broke. “Oh, God, Hank, I know I heard something snap.” Jesus, no. Oh, God, please, no, Lord. Martin sat in the seat just ahead of Barbara, and Hank determined to make the shaky walk across the aisle. He managed to make the few steps without falling, and grabbed the back of Martin’s seat as soon as he reached it. Kneeling down, he gently picked up Martin’s wrist, and felt for a pulse. Nothing. But then, the entire plane was racked with such convulsions that Hank might not have been able to get a pulse if his friend’s heart were throbbing. Hank swallowed, then dared to get a glimpse of Martin’s neck. Up until that moment, terror had been a meaningless word to him, a concept out of the reality of his experience. He had had to suffer hunger and thirst, face illness and hostile foreigners, and brave all sorts of weather during his time out on the mission field. But he’d never felt that things were out of control. Never felt fear. Exasperation, yes; anger, occasionally, but not fear. Now, it struck his heart like a poisoned arrow. On both sides of Martin’s neck the skin jutted out, as though someone had placed sharp, triangular objects just under the skin. His neck was broken. Hank felt his head begin to spin, and struggled against a rising wave of nausea. From the cockpit, Peter’s voice shouted, “I’ve lost control! We’re going down!” Kelly’s recitation began booming at full volume while Barbara wailed hysterically. For a split second, Hank’s mind and body were paralyzed. We’re going to die. Lord Jesus, please, we’re going to die. Then, his survival instinct kicked in. “Get into fetal positions!” he bellowed, turning toward Kelly and Barbara. They continued their respective litanies as if they were deaf. There was no time to repeat the words. Hank, raised in the tradition of Southern chivalry, aimed for Barbara first. “I said get down!” He pulled her from her seat with ease, and she did not fight him as he arranged her limbs in a self-protective posture, squatting with her face to the floor and her arms crossed over the back of her head. Then he went for Kelly. He might as well have tried to move a stone wall. “Kelly, get down,” he urged, frantically and uselessly pulling on his thick arm. “God will deliver us He has not given us a spirit of fear no weapon formed against me shall prosper—” “Kelly, for God’s sake, get—” A strange noise made Hank look out the window, and he saw that the left wing was on fire. The next instant, the plane was skimming the jungle trees. Hank had no time to lose. He threw himself on the floor next to Barbara, kneeling with his legs tucked under him and his arms over his head. He heard the sickening crush of metal as his body was thrown against the back of Martin’s seat. Barbara screamed. Then the world fell silent. * * * Hank awakened flat on his back, surrounded by silence except for a soft humming somewhere in the background. For a moment, he thought he was back in the small shack he had stayed in while working in Honduras, and couldn’t figure out why his entire body was sore, though he lay perfectly still. Then he remembered. The turbulence. Martin’s neck. The wing on fire. If it weren’t for the pain, Hank would have thought he was in heaven. But spiritual bodies can’t feel pain, he reasoned, so he realized he had survived the horrible ordeal. Lord, what about the others? He only knew that Martin had died before the crash, and a desperate need to find out what had happened to his other friends overtook him. Wherever he was—he decided it must be some kind of hospital, though he had no idea where—somebody around must know the outcome of the crash. He tried to lift himself up on one elbow to call for help, but as he did an excruciating pain shot through his chest and back like someone had thrust him with a red-hot sword. He groaned in agony, easing himself back down on the bed. “Señor, you are awake, yes?” The heavily-accented female voice sounded relieved. Hank focused his groggy eyes, and saw a dark-complexioned, overweight woman dressed in white approach his bed. “You should no move,” she continued. “You break two ribs and crack others. You be in lot of pain for a few days.” As she replaced the sheets back over him, he was suddenly aware that the right side of his face was covered with gauze. He reached up to touch it, his eyes questioning the nurse. “You get big gash, but will be okay. You still be a handsome man, yes?” By then, Hank realized he was in some hospital in Central America, and addressed the nurse in Spanish. “Where am I? Does my family know I’m here? What about my other friends in the plane? Did they make it?” The nurse switched to her native tongue as she replied, “This is Peter of Betancourt’s National Hospital near Antigua, Guatemala. Your parents have been contacted, yes. They will be here tomorrow.” She stopped short and turned to leave after checking the I.V. in his arm. “Wait. What about my friends? What happened to my friends?” The nurse did not stop, did not look at him as she walked out of the room saying, “I’ll go get the doctor.” Hank closed his eyes in despair. If Kelly, Barbara, and Peter had survived, the nurse wouldn’t have ignored his question. Oh, God, please, no. He’d known the risks of becoming a missionary when he started six years ago at the age of sixteen. He’d heard all the horror stories about native uprisings against foreign missionaries, about beheadings and burnings and shootings, as well as deaths from Third World diseases. But he’d always reasoned that somewhere, the faith of those missionaries had failed. They hadn’t prayed for God’s protection often enough; they hadn’t dispatched angels; they didn’t believe the whole Bible. But no one could accuse Hank of falling into those pitfalls. Every morning and evening he prayed all the right prayers and read the Bible. He believed that God would bless him because he endeavored to obey Him with all his heart. His friends couldn’t be dead. They couldn’t. God wouldn’t allow it. Maybe the nurse hadn’t answered because she had misunderstood him. After all, his Spanish wasn’t the best. Or maybe she didn’t know the answer. Now that the searing pain in his chest was beginning to subside, he felt a dull throbbing in his head. Stop worrying, he admonished himself. Focus on the positive. Hank heard footsteps enter the room, and he managed to pull his heavy eyelids open just enough to see a man wearing a stethoscope come toward him. The doctor. He must know something. . . .But he could no longer hold his eyes open, and slipped into a deep slumber. When he awoke again, the headache was gone, and he opened his eyes with ease. The room was semi-dark, an eerie glow emanating from the vital signs monitor and the soft humming of machines continuing around him. He turned his head to the left, expecting to see the bare side table and empty chair as he had during his last brief waking episode. But this time, there were two glasses of water on the table, and two chairs, occupied by two shadowy figures, one of whom had its head leaning on the shoulder of the other. Both pairs of eyes were closed, and one of the figures was snoring. It was a sound Hank had heard his whole life, every time his father would doze in front of the T.V. “Mom? Dad?” His voice was weak and hoarse from disuse and thirst, not nearly strong enough to penetrate the ears of any sleeper. With utmost caution, he stretched out his left arm. He felt a slight stabbing pain near his heart, but it was not enough to keep him from reaching out to jab his finger in his mother’s side. Brenda Johnson stirred, lifting her head off her husband’s shoulder, as Hank withdrew his hand back to his side, feeling winded by the minute gesture. Blinking, Brenda shifted in her chair and yawned. “Mom,” Hank managed to croak out. The last thing he wanted was for her to fall asleep again. Brenda’s eyelids flew open, and she stared at Hank with a relieved smile. She got off the chair, leaned over, and kissed his forehead. “My dear son. Thank You, Jesus.” She pulled back to shake her husband’s arm. “Randall, Hank’s awake. Randall.” Hank’s father snorted as he straightened up with a jerk. “What? Praise the Lord, son. You had your mother worried sick.” He picked up Hank’s hand in both of his while his mother shot him a look. “Excuse me? Don’t listen to your father, Hank. He was the one who flew into a panic as soon as we got word, and didn’t stop praying until we got to the hospital.” Hank tried to smile, tried to reply, but could do neither. “Water,” he managed, and in a flash his mother was holding his head up with one of the glasses of water to his lips. It was tepid, but soothed his mouth and throat as he greedily gulped it down. Then he said to his mother, “And you were the picture of calm, weren’t you?” “Of course she was,” Randall rejoined, releasing Hank’s hand. “In between the buckets of tears she was crying.” He put his arm around Brenda and hugged her to him, and she jabbed him with an elbow. “I didn’t cry that much,” she said. “I am the pastor’s wife, after all. I wasn’t about to let the devil steal my peace.” Hank frowned and turned his head as far to the right as the thick bandages on his face would allow. Peace. Would he ever feel that again? “Son,” Randall said, placing his hand on Hank’s arm. “Talk to us. We know you’ve been through hell. We’re here for you.” Slowly, Hank turned back to his parents, regarding them in the dim light. Brenda sported a short, layered haircut, and between that and the fact that she diligently covered her gray, people often mistook her for Hank’s older sister rather than his mother. Though she’d put on a few pounds since Hank was a boy, she still looked shapely. She was a petite five-foot-two, in contrast to Randall’s towering six-three height, which Hank had inherited. As well he had his father’s square jaw, but his small nose, blond hair, and blue eyes came from his mother’s German side of the family. Gazing at his mother, who was known as a pillar of strength in their community, gave him the courage to ask, “What happened?” He cleared his throat. “To the plane?” Brenda frowned. “They think it was guerilla soldiers.” So that’s what Peter had meant when he said, “We’ve been hit.” Hank sighed, grateful to hear that the crash had not been the pilot’s fault. No matter what the Bible said, he did not know if he would ever be able to forgive Peter if the accident had been due to some gross neglect on his part. When he glanced to Brenda’s left, his father was studying him with coffee-colored eyes that could see into the soul. It was a gift that had served him well over his past twenty years as pastor of Life Christian Fellowship church in Austin, Texas, but now made Hank writhe in discomfort. He had to ask the question that was tearing him up inside—his parents surely knew the answer—but Hank was terrified to hear it. A long silence passed. Finally, Hank swallowed and said, “Martin’s dead. What about everybody else?” His parents exchanged a glance, and Brenda picked up his hand while Randall spoke. “Barbara is in another room two doors down, in much the same shape you are. She’ll be able to fly home in a few days.” He paused. “Peter and Kelly didn’t make it.” Hank was unsure how to react. The joy he felt at knowing Barbara would be all right was overwhelmed by a flood of grief over the loss of the other two men, especially Kelly Williams. If not for Barbara, Kelly would have been his best friend. The two men had grown close over the past three years, going on missionary trips together and co-leading one of the youth small groups at Life Christian. “Leave me alone,” Hank said, refusing to cry in front of his father. “I want to be alone.” “Son, don’t push us—” “Randall, come on.” Brenda released Hank’s hand and stood, bringing her husband up with her. “He needs some time. Some space. Sweetheart,” she said, gazing at Hank with compassion-filled eyes, “we’ll be right outside if you need anything.” His parents walked out, the door clicking shut behind them. Hank stared at the ceiling for a long time, scenes from the events leading up to the crash flashing through his mind. He saw himself laughing with the pastor of the small church in Honduras the missionaries had just helped build. He saw himself and his friends board the plane, exhausted. Had he had any sense of impending doom that might have been a warning to postpone the flight? Had any of them? Lord, why didn’t you warn us? Maybe He had, but none of them had enough energy to listen. Or maybe He hadn’t. Maybe He’d allowed the crash in order to stretch his and Barbara’s faith. No. God wouldn’t kill three of His children just to teach two of them a lesson. Would He? The idea was too much to bear, and he gave in to the fatigue slowly creeping up his legs, over his chest, and paralyzing his arms. The last thing he recalled before slipping back into the darkness was an envelope. It was on the floor of the airplane. I picked it up. Do I still have it? What did it matter? Whoever it belonged to, they were dead. Hank dropped the thought from his mind and let sleep conquer his grieving mind. CHAPTER 2 - November, 1997 Sheila Carson drove into the parking lot of Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School at about five miles an hour, taking great care to look all around her to make sure there were no small bodies in her way. As always, she backed into a space while twisting her neck around to see behind her. She did not trust the mirrors; they had blind spots, and she would not risk not being able to see every square inch of ground that her car moved over. She put the car in park and sat back, willing herself to have the enthusiasm she needed to face her Kindergartners. I haven’t been teaching long enough to be burned out. What is my problem? She let out an exasperated breath, reaching over to grab her tote bag and her lunch. She had asked herself the same question several times since last spring. By the end of the long, quiet summer she was ready to go back into the classroom, but a few weeks ago her zeal for teaching began to wane again. Now, a couple days before Thanksgiving break, Sheila wanted nothing more than a vacation in an exotic place away from her everyday routine. No, she wanted more than that. As a child, she had held a secret admiration for Mother Teresa. Other little girls fantasized about being a Barbie with a beautiful house, and a Ken who brought home loads of money from his lucrative career. Sheila, on the other hand, saw herself surrounded by poor, hungry children, whom she loved and fed and talked to about Jesus. Not that she dared tell anyone about it. As she grew older and learned about the hard work and zero pay involved in missionary work, her practical side told her she could make just as much difference—plus a regular salary—as a teacher. Since the spring of the last school year, however, her childhood dreams had begun to return to her, and since the beginning of this school year she found teaching increasingly more a strain than a joy. She’d begun wondering if God was trying to tell her something. As she locked her car, she saw the new teacher on the campus out of the corner of her eye. Hank Johnson stood a little over six feet tall and sported a beard and short mustache that matched his blonde hair, and his long legs and dangling arms reminded Sheila of Gumby. Since his fourth grade classroom was on the top floor, and her Kindergarten room on ground level, she rarely saw him except for faculty meetings. That was fine with her. Although she got along with everybody, she mostly kept to herself. Her one close friendship was with one of the two Pre-Kindergarten teachers, Margaret Kennebrew, and their relationship satisfied her need for human connection. She had no plans to befriend any males. She’d already destroyed one man’s life, and didn’t want to risk hurting another. The easiest way to avoid that risk was to keep every man she met, whether at church or at school—the only two places she socialized—at arm’s length. She was certain she would live alone the rest of her life, and the thought didn’t bother her in the least. She’d only dated one guy before, for a couple months during her freshman year of college, and though he was nice enough Sheila had known by their second time out they would never be more than friends. She’d never fallen in love, and figured she wouldn’t miss what she’d never had. Hank turned, noticed her looking at him, and waved with one hand while balancing an armful of books in the other. She lifted her hand slightly, then bent over, pretending to look for something. She hated to seem rude, but she wanted to give no man any reason for thinking she might be interested in him. And she had to be careful with Hank. Gumby or not, he was so handsome she almost did a double take the first time she saw him. Now, she scratched around on the ground, hoping he would be out of her sight by the time she reached the entrance. A few seconds later, a tap on her shoulder startled her so that she jerked her head up, hitting it against the car door. “I’m sorry!” The voice belonged to Margaret. “Are you all right?” Sheila turned, rubbing her head as she stood up. “It’s nothing I haven’t done before.” “Did you lose something?” “I got it,” Sheila said. She glanced in the direction of Hank’s car, then eyed the sidewalk leading up to the front door. Hank was nowhere in sight. “Let’s go inside,” she said. “I’m getting cold.” * * * “Edgar, get a book and sit down.” Sheila sighed and rolled her eyes as the small boy leapfrogged to the classroom library, snatched a book from one of the display shelves, and ran back to his table. She eyed the rest of the students sitting around the room. So many different personalities in such a small area, both a challenge and a bane to the teaching profession. Every year she had at least one like Edgar Hernandez, always moving, continually conversing, with himself if with no one else. Then there were the quiet ones to balance out the Edgars. This year it was Diana Manriquez. She never spoke while working, and rarely volunteered an answer or asked questions. But when she did, Sheila was continually bowled over by the maturity and intelligence that came out of her mouth, more like a fifty-year-old than a five-year-old. Diana was a beautiful girl with straight, shoulder-length black hair, and a delicate face that could rival any collectible doll, though rarely graced with a smile. She also happened to be the spitting image of another little girl Sheila had known before she moved to Texas four years ago. The first two weeks of classes that year, Sheila had gone home every day and fallen to her knees, begging God for the grace to look at the child without feeling stabs of anguish and regret. “Miss Carson, can I go to the bathroom?” A child poked at her arm, speaking his native Spanish tongue. “Go,” she barked, as though he had purposely intruded on her dark reverie. In the next instant, she felt a sting of regret, and opened her mouth to apologize. But he was already gone. The timer rang, indicating the end of the daily silent reading. “Okay, you know what to do,” Sheila said in a singsong voice in Spanish, closing her own book and shifting herself in her rocking chair positioned at the front of the room. Teaching in a bilingual classroom had not been her idea, especially not Kindergarten. She had thoroughly enjoyed her first year teaching in a second-grade classroom. Sure, she’d had her behaviorally challenging students and the frustration of having three kids who still barely knew the alphabet. But overall she’d felt competent doing it and wanted to stay with second grade the rest of her life. Her principal, Mr. Medina, had other plans. He’d heard her speaking Spanish—she’d taken four years in high school and was the top student in her class—and when one of Roosevelt’s bilingual Kindergarten teachers retired at the end of that year, he placed Sheila into the position. She hated the first two months of her second year teaching. She’d never student taught Kindergarten because she’d declared she was never going to be a “glorified babysitter.” But by the end of October, the wide-eyed innocence and insatiable curiosity of her young charges had endeared themselves to her, and by the end of that year she’d decided she wouldn’t mind living out the rest of her days in the classroom as a Kindergarten teacher. Now, Sheila silently asked how many of those days she had left as she waited for the students to sit in a circle in front of her. When most of them had settled themselves down on the carpet, she opened her mouth to say, “Buenos días,” but was interrupted by a loud, “Ouch!” She looked across the room and saw Edgar pulling on Diana’s hair. Sheila bit down on the scolding words that came to her tongue, hoping her silence would encourage the children to work out the conflict on their own. Then she realized that in the two and a half months since school started, Diana had never once missed any of Sheila’s instructions. She was the most compliant child Sheila had ever known. She knit her brows together. Something must be going on with her. Diana took her nose out of the book while Edgar grinned down. “The teacher told us circle time, didn’t you hear?” Frowning, Diana looked up. With a sheepish expression, she closed her book, placed it on the table and padded over to the group. “She didn’t push in her chair,” said a girl named Lucy, pointing to Diana’s table. Nothing like a class tattletale to give the teacher a play-by-play of every infringement of every rule. Sheila put a finger on her lips and shook her head. “It’s okay. She just forgot this one time. Any news?” she asked the class in Spanish. For about five minutes, she scribed with a blue marker on a large tablet as eager kids waved their hands in the air and chattered like magpies about their respective weekends. She kept one eye on Diana, whose eyes held a faraway look. Sheila began to worry. She’d never known Diana to not pay attention. Finally, Diana raised her hand. “Papá went to jail last night. So I get to live with my tía Rosa.” Diana’s placid face seemed totally incongruent with what she had just shared, and Sheila wondered if the poor girl thought that that was the norm in every family. “I’m so sorry, Diana.” The marker in her hand did not move. “Are you okay?” “Write it, teacher,” Lucy demanded. Diana shrugged. “Sí. I really like my tía Rosa.” Praying that Diana was as okay as she said, Sheila went on with the lesson. It wasn’t the first time a student had told her about a parent being jailed, and—as long as Sheila stayed in an inner city school—it wouldn’t be the last. She felt tempted to ask Diana if she knew why her father had been picked up, but it was none of her business, besides being an inappropriate question for a child that age. Sheila spent the morning sneaking glances at Diana’s face, arms, and legs, checking for bruises or suspicious marks. Thank God, she thought with relief, finding none. No need to call CPS this time. She did notice, however, that her most diligent pupil had trouble with her work that morning, and began to worry that Diana was carrying around emotional wounds from the weekend’s events. At lunchtime, as she was pulling her lunch bag out of her cabinet, someone tapped her hip. “Teacher,” a small voice said. She turned around to face Diana, but not before throwing a stern glance at Edgar, who had begun to dance in the line of students waiting to go to the cafeteria. When he stopped, she stroked Diana’s hair and smiled. “Yes?” Please don’t tell me something more horrible. I already feel helpless enough as it is. “I’m sorry if I made you sad this morning in circle time. I didn’t mean to.” Sheila bit her lower lip, put her bag on a nearby table, and squatted down. She wasn’t helpless, she suddenly realized. She could do one thing for Diana, even if it meant crossing a line onto forbidden territory. She could, for the moment, forget she was a public school teacher, and become personally involved. And what if God had sent Diana to her to give her a chance to make up for the five-year-old accident? Sheila asked, “Is it all right if we say a prayer for your papá?” Diana nodded with wide eyes. “Dear Lord,” Sheila prayed in Spanish, “Please help Diana’s papá to learn to do the right thing. Let him be a good father for her. In Jesus’ name. Amen.” To Sheila’s delight, Diana threw her arms around her and squeezed her, then raced over to the line where the rest of the students waited. Lucy would have none of it. “Miss Carson,” she whined, “Diana ran.” “Then,” Sheila replied, swallowing a sarcastic remark, “tell her in a nice voice to please walk.” * * * “You didn’t kill nobody, did you?” No, but you might be on my list in a minute. Miguel glared at his youngest cellmate, a slow-talking white man named Will, and shook his head. He should have pretended that he didn’t speak English when the guard threw this kid into the cage with him. But there was no way to know that Will had a curiosity streak a mile wide. The other three men in the cell, two blacks and another Mexican, José, hovered together on the other side, talking and laughing loudly. José had told Miguel that he had saved one of the brothers’ lives when they were both seventeen, and since had hung out and wreaked all sorts of havoc together. Their latest was trying to rob a convenience store, which had been foiled by a plainclothes police officer buying a sandwich. “You’re lucky,” Will said, scratching a whiskerless chin. “I had a friend once who was driving drunk and killed two people. Got two counts of manslaughter, and ten years. How long you in for?” “Kid, you talks a lot. One day, will get you into trouble big.” Miguel got up and walked to the door to give him the hint that he didn’t want to talk anymore. Will didn’t get it. “That’s what my folks always said, you know. ‘Boy, one day that big mouth of yours gonna get you in a heap of trouble.’” He laughed. “They were right. I’ve gotten beat up pretty bad twice for back talking a couple of guys bigger’n me.” He rambled on about his teenage squabbles, but Miguel tuned him out as he stared at the concrete floor, overcome with guilt. He’d known of other men with families who’d gotten themselves thrown into jail, but they were the ones who really didn’t care about their kids and wives, the ones who’d rather live for themselves. Fathers like Miguel, who actually loved their children and wanted to be responsible for them were more careful, keeping themselves clean and on the right side of the law. No, other fathers. Not like Miguel. He’d let his self-indulgence get the better of him, and now he’d let his daughter down. What must Diana be thinking of him? At least he didn’t have to worry about where she was and what she was doing. His sister Rosa had a decent apartment, money for food, and would make sure her niece made it to school every morning. Maybe it would be a nice change for Diana, to live with a woman. Lately he’d been wondering if Diana would be better off being raised by a female. Not that he would ever think of giving her up. And not that he felt inept in caring for her now. But as she grew, he knew that she would have needs that he, as a man, would be ill-equipped to fulfill. Diana would need a mother, and soon. He turned his gaze to the bars imprisoning him. Marcela, why did you have to die? * * * At three forty-five, Sheila shivered as a gust of November wind assaulted her back when she walked out of the building. After first moving to Fort Worth, she was amazed at how everyone complained when the temperature was forty or fifty degrees during the fall or winter. “It’s a beautiful Minnesota spring day,” she would tease her colleagues, referring to the bitter cold of her native state, part of the reason she left it. Now, she found herself feeling icy at any temperature below sixty degrees, having grown spoiled by the warm Texas climate. People often asked her why she had moved to the South, away from her family and all that she knew. Her story remained constant: she had left Minnesota to escape the cold of the north and to find a teaching job, a scarcity in the Midwest when she graduated from college four years ago. The story was the truth, she rationalized, just not the whole truth. The rest of the truth was embodied on the message waiting on her answering machine when she arrived home that afternoon. “Sheila, honey, please call me when you get home from school.” Sheila hit the “erase” button with a trembling finger. She knew what her mother wanted, and almost didn’t return the phone call. The outcome of their conversation would be the same as every other one over the last two years. Sheila didn’t know whether to be annoyed or encouraged by her mother’s persistence. At least someone in the family still spoke to her. Might as well get it over with, she thought, and dialed her mother’s phone number. “Hello?” “It’s me, Mom.” Sheila felt her mouth go dry. “I’m so glad you called me back.” The voice on the other end of the line hesitated. “You know why I’m calling, don’t you?” Sheila could already feel a wall of tension go up between them. “Yes, Mother, and the answer is the same as it was last time.” Why don’t you just leave me alone? Don’t you know I’m in enough pain as it is? “But it’s been three years.” “Everybody still hates me. That was clear enough the last time I was home.” The day lived in Sheila’s memory with painfully vivid clarity. The chill around the Thanksgiving table had been colder than the frigid temperature outdoors. Sheila had not wanted to be there. She didn’t go back to Minnesota her first year after moving to Texas, but her second year, her mother had begged her to come home for the holidays. Sheila knew it would be a tense, miserable situation, but her mother was convinced that if she could get all of her children gathered, the bitterness of the past, the angry feelings, would somehow resolve themselves. Although her older brother, Gary, welcomed her with open arms, ready for by-gones to be by-gones, her younger sister, April, was barely civil to her, and her youngest sister, Linda, wouldn’t even speak to her. She hadn’t spoken or written to Sheila before or since that dinner, and excused herself from the table with her plate still half-full. Sheila wanted to run after her, to scream at her how sorry she was, to shake her into seeing how horribly her grudge was affecting not just Sheila, but their whole family. And to throw Linda’s cruel accusations back in her face. But she knew it would be no use. Even as a child, Linda had been stubborn and hard-headed, always full of self-righteousness. So Sheila remained at the table, picking at her food, her insides silently torn apart by conflicting emotions of love, rage, and guilt. She knew then that after she returned to Texas, she wouldn’t be going home again for a long, long time. Home? The word was hardly appropriate. Home was where people accepted you for who you were, where love and forgiveness abounded. As far as she was concerned, Minnesota had ceased to be her home several years ago. “Oh, Shelly, nobody hates you.” “Whatever. I’m not going back for Thanksgiving, I’m not going back for Christmas, you won’t see me on my spring break, and I won’t be there next summer. I love you, but good-bye.” Sheila slammed the receiver down, her eyes swimming. Her mother didn’t deserve that kind of treatment. She was just trying to reach out to her daughter. But can’t she see that she’s the only one who’s forgiven me? I can’t go back as long as... The ringing of the phone cut off her thought, and she almost picked up the receiver. Then she yanked the telephone line out of the jack. Lord, help me. * * * Evelyn Carson set the receiver down with a sigh. She wouldn’t give up. Eventually, she knew she would reach her eldest daughter. She had to. What kind of a mother let her children stay estranged from each other, let her family remain in a state of brokenness, when she was alive and well enough to do something about it? Thank God for Gary. Since her husband John had died six years ago, their only son had been an anchor for the family. Although he lived in Chicago, he visited his mother in Rochester every chance he got, making sure she was financially stable and generally getting along. And now, he was her only child who seemed to have overcome the family tragedy of five years ago, and was doing his best to stay in touch with Sheila while trying to convince his other two sisters to get over the past. His efforts seemed as futile as hers. Sheila never wrote him back or returned his phone calls, and he’d made no headway with April and Linda. Gary wouldn’t say so, but Evelyn’s motherly intuition told her that he and his youngest sisters had had loud and tearful arguments over the subject, and that he’d had to back off and leave them alone as far as their relationship with Sheila was concerned. Evelyn placed a hand on the small of her fifty-five-year-old back, trying to knead out a kink. When the pain subsided some, she walked over to the freezer and pulled out a boxed dinner. Maybe if I told Sheila about Linda, she thought for the hundredth time, she would come. But Evelyn knew both of her daughters too well. Sheila would see it as a kind of manipulation, and Linda would say that seeing Sheila would make things worse. She ripped the plastic away from the tray and threw it inside the microwave as though it had insulted her. Why she had let her youngest swear her to secrecy, she’d never understand. But she felt bound to respect her word to Linda. And if she didn’t want her siblings to know, they wouldn’t find out. Not from their mother, anyway. Evelyn started the microwave and gave another heavy sigh. All she could do was pray that Linda would come to her senses and make things right with Sheila before it was too late. CHAPTER 3 Hank watched as Sheila drove out of the parking lot. He hadn’t meant to stare, but he’d never seen anyone pull out of a parking space so slowly, nor with such an intense expression. Not to mention the fact that she took his breath away. “She always drives like that.” Medina came up beside him. “You should see her when she gets here the morning. Takes her five minutes to back into a space. Just her style, I guess.” He clapped his hand on Hank’s shoulder. “Everything going all right, Mr. Johnson?” “Huh?” he said, still focused on the blue Civic now rolling down the street at the school speed limit. “Oh, yes, everything’s great. We’re having fun. The kids are learning a lot.” Medina studied him for a few seconds, making Hank cringe. In the two short months he’d been there, he’d already gained a reputation for pushing the boundaries of the traditional classroom, for being a little too loose with his students, and he was afraid Medina was going to make a comment along those lines. But the principal’s face relaxed into a smile as he said, “Just let me know if you need anything. Have a restful evening,” and walked to his car. Hank shrugged on his coat as he followed Medina to the parking lot, still thinking about Sheila. She was an attractive woman, with wavy brunette hair trimmed just above her shoulders, and the most beautiful blue eyes he’d ever seen. Unfortunately, he hadn’t had the opportunity to see them up close since the first day he met her, at the teacher inservice just before school started. Their meeting was brief; he extended his hand as he introduced himself, she took it and released it as if afraid of catching cooties, and told him her name with a civil coolness before abruptly turning away. The experience had somewhat jarred him, since she was one of the first teachers he had approached at his new school, and he wondered if the rest of the faculty was that cold toward newcomers. But as the day went by, he found most of the teaching staff to be warm and friendly and more than willing to help. By now, of course, some were not so sure that they wanted a teacher with such liberal views on how to run a classroom working there, and were complaining about him behind his back. A couple had said to his face that his students wouldn’t learn anything as long as he was letting them talk freely, sit on top of desks, and do projects outside of the standard textbooks. He was used to it, having received the same kind of criticism at his previous school where he’d taught the year before in Austin. What bothered him more was that he not only felt physically attracted to Sheila, but felt some kind of connection with her that went deeper, and had no idea why. He’d asked the Lord, but so far, had received nothing but a “wait.” A most frustrating answer. He arrived at the apartment complex fifteen minutes later, retrieved his mail, and plodded up the stairs to his second-floor efficiency. He made enough to afford a regular one-bedroom, but he’d promised God to give the monthly savings to charity. Besides, he hated housecleaning, so he decided he’d rather live in cramped quarters than have more room to maintain. He plopped down onto the futon, now pulled upright in its sofa position, and began shuffling through his mail. A bill. An offer for life insurance. A “preferred customer” coupon to a store he’d never even heard of. Another bill. Then a hand-addressed envelope. Hank glanced up at the return address. Barbara? He was transported back to the weeks after the plane crash four years ago. For some months afterward he wished he could have traded places with his non-surviving friends. Instead of going through a time of emotional turmoil, struggling daily with depression and waking up in a pool of sweat and tears from nightmares, Martin, Kelly and Peter were rejoicing in perfect peace with the other saints in heaven. He could only guess that Barbara shared his misery. She refused to talk to him while they were recovering from their minor injuries, and after her physical recuperation, she left the church. Hank would have done the same, if possible. Reminders of his friends lurked around every corner of the church building: the chair in the back of the auditorium that Kelly had claimed for his own, the Sunday School room where he and Martin had taught a class on missions together, the table in the foyer where Barbara would sit and pass out the monthly church mission newsletter. Not to mention Hank’s still-living friends, whose very presence brought on stabs of regret—regret that he hadn’t prayed harder that day, regret that his faith had failed when he needed it most. Yes, he definitely would have sought another church home, if his father had not been the pastor of Life Christian Fellowship for the past twenty years. Hank knew it would break his parents’ hearts and cause a scandal if he left, so he never even brought up the subject. As the months passed, the depression lifted, the nightmares stopped, and the sharp stabs of sorrow and grief became dull aches. Hank eventually forgave himself, forgave God, forgave the guerilla soldiers. But his belief system shifted. Where he had once been certain that he was doing the will of God, and that God protected those who were in His will, Hank’s faith wavered. He decided that perhaps God didn’t care what he did with his life, as long as he was serving the Lord. He still felt a deep desire to reach out and make a difference, so that September, as he turned twenty-three, he made a decision. “I’m going back to school to be a teacher,” Hank announced at the dinner table one evening. He’d already completed two years at a local Bible college; he could easily obtain a bachelor’s in two more years, since he would have nothing else to occupy his time. He waited for his parents to argue with him, to rebuke him for going against the call of God on his life. To his surprise, his father responded, “You have our support.” He spoke without hesitation, and with compassion. Hank guessed—correctly, he found out later—that his parents had been praying for him since the accident, and that they had prepared for this moment. He graduated with a B.S. in elementary education in the fall of 1997, and began his teaching career with enthusiasm in an Austin, Texas public school. As far as he was concerned, he had found his life’s work, and would never look back. Now, he held the past between his fingers. He had a choice to make: risk loosing the monster that might be sandwiched inside the envelope, or just throw it away. He tossed the envelope, unopened, into the junk mail pile, then stared at it. When Barbara had left the church, he had stuffed his growing feelings for her into a dark place he hadn’t revisited since, and as far as he knew, they had withered and died. He’d had no reason to believe otherwise, since he rarely thought of her anymore, and then with only a brotherly affection. He wondered now if he’d deceived himself. More, he wondered if Barbara had begun to feel the same about him—more than a friend—and the letter was an attempt to communicate her regret for having left, her desire to reconnect with him. He took a deep breath as he picked up the envelope, nearly tore it in half while opening it, and pulled out the single sheet of paper. Dear Hank, For several years, I’ve been wanting to do this, but I could never get up the nerve. I knew that you, like me, would just as soon forget about what happened five years ago, and I feared opening old wounds. Please know that is the last thing I want to do. But I was a lousy friend to you after the accident. After all we’d been through together, to just up and walk out of your life without so much as a goodbye—well, you have such a kind heart, that I can probably guess what you’re thinking, that I was going through as much hell as you, and you understand that I was dealing with it the best I could. Or was I? Were you? If we had made the effort to hear God in the midst of our turmoil, wouldn’t we have heard Him encourage us to be there for each other, to, if nothing else, cry on each other’s shoulder? Feel free to disagree, but for my part, I need to ask for your forgiveness, at least for leaving the church and town without even telling you. And forgive your parents, too, for giving me your address if this letter has caused you any kind of grief. I consulted with them before writing, and they were very supportive of my desire to reach out to you. I’m not expecting anything from you, but I would so much appreciate a note telling me that I have your forgiveness. In Christ, Barbara Hank stared at the paper for a long while. Of course he had forgiven her—he’d never realized there was anything to forgive. But she was right. They would have been closer to God’s will in not letting the plane crash come between their friendship. And although she had not declared any special feelings for Hank, she was reaching out. And that was a start. Hank got up and walked to the dresser, whose top drawer held a jumble of office supplies rather than the traditional socks and underwear. He pulled out a blank piece of paper and a pen, and sat down at the dining table to write. He could have written a book, but five crumpled pieces of paper and ten minutes later, he decided to keep it simple. Dear Barbara, As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing to forgive. You did what you had to do. But if it makes a difference to see the words, then of course, I forgive you. And I hold nothing against my parents for having shared my address with you. Truth be told, I’m thrilled you got back in touch with me, and am hoping I hear from you again soon. Always your friend, Hank When he finished, he realized he was hungry, and had forgotten to stop at the grocery store on the way home from school to restock his empty refrigerator. Where had his mind— Oh, yeah, Sheila. He shook his head and laughed to himself, marveling that a woman he hardly knew could have caused such a major distraction that made him forget such a basic and routine errand. He grabbed his coat and keys, shoving the envelope containing the letter to Barbara in the coat’s pocket. He would drop it in the mailbox around the corner from the apartment complex on his way to the Luby’s cafeteria a few blocks away. He froze in midstep, a wave of déjà vu passing over him. What was it? He glanced around, trying to figure out why this moment seemed so familiar to him. It didn’t hit him until he arrived at the mailbox in his car and reached in his pocket for the envelope. In a flash, he was in the airplane again, picking up a stray envelope off the floor, shoving it into his pocket. Hank quickly pushed the memory away, afraid of letting it go further. But though he hadn’t thought about the envelope in years, he suddenly felt curious about it. “I wonder what ever happened to it?” he muttered, dropping the letter to Barbara in the box. Surely someone must’ve thrown it away before or during his hospitalization. For some reason, that thought unsettled him. What if it had had some significance for the addressee? It had not been Barbara’s, which meant it must have been one of his friends’ who had died. Whatever the envelope Hank had found on the airplane contained, it would have been the last piece of correspondence the addressee would have received from whoever wrote it. That, in itself, was enough to make it an important piece of mail. Would Hank’s parents know anything about it? No, they didn’t see him until several days after the accident. It had probably already been long gone. Why was he even thinking about it? Hank pulled into the Luby’s parking lot, deciding that worrying about it wasn’t worth his mental energy. Within minutes, all his concentration focused on the half-pound piece of chicken in front of him, and all thoughts of letters and envelopes were banished to the deepest recesses of his mind. CHAPTER 4 “You need to tell him you’re sorry.” Sheila glared as the fourth grader rolled his eyes and gave her the classic man-do-I-really-have-to look. “But it was an accident,” he said. “Great apology.” Sheila knew better than to be sarcastic with a student, but her Hector was not a crybaby, so she knew he must have been really hurt to be sobbing the way he was at the moment. She pulled Hector closer to her side. “Anyway, you’re not my teacher,” the older child continued. “I don’t have to do what you say.” Sheila’s temper flared. She couldn’t stand rebellious kids. If teachers were allowed to administer corporal punishment, he wouldn’t have dared say that. Sheila clenched her fist, fighting the temptation to drop her professional demeanor and scream in his face. Not that she thought that would do any good. If she had not learned anything else in her years of teaching experience, she had learned that power struggles were exercises in futility, even against five-year-olds. The adults always lost. “Hey, buster, she is a teacher, so you better do what she says.” Sheila turned around to see Hank Johnson coming up behind her, and felt relieved. As a matter of course, a teacher took on many tasks that were not in her job description, including disciplining students who weren’t in her class, and she hated doing it. Especially with the bigger kids with their smart mouths and attitudes longer than the Mississippi. She almost smiled at Hank, but caught herself, not wanting his student to think there was anything amusing about the situation. Hank sidled up to them, not frowning, but not smiling, either. He towered over both of them, although his boyish face and sparkling green eyes neutralized any intimidating threat his height might engender. The large boy muttered under his breath, then said, “Sorry, kid. It was an accident.” “That’s better,” Hank said. His tone was suddenly light, even cheerful. “Now, get on down to the gym.” The boy resumed his breakneck speed down the hall, which had caused the accident in the first place, and Sheila raised her eyebrow at Hank. Is that all he’s going to do? Over the last couple of months, the teacher lounge grapevine had begun whispering about Hank’s lack of classroom discipline, and off-the-wall teaching methods that allegedly had his kids running around his room like wild animals. She always liked to give people the benefit of the doubt, but now she’d seen firsthand what the grapevine meant. “That’s it?” she asked in disbelief, stroking Hector’s hair as he continued to sniffle. Her relief of a few moments earlier became irritation. Sheila couldn’t remember the last time she had confronted a colleague about his students’ behavior, but then again, until Hank had arrived, the faculty at Roosevelt kept their charges in control. Next time she had an encounter with an older child, she would handle the discipline herself, just in case he came from Hank’s room. Hank shrugged. “He’s just an active kid. What do you want me to do, give him a detention over it?” Great. Not only did he not discipline his students, but he enabled their behavior. “You could at least tell him to slow down.” “All right, I can do that.” He smiled, and stooped down until he was eye-level with Hector. “You’re all right, kid. There’s no blood.” Winking at him, he stood up and headed toward the library. Jerk, Sheila thought, immediately adding, Forgive me, Lord. She motioned for the rest of her class, who had been sitting against the wall opposite the restrooms the whole time, to stand. As she walked them back to the room, she made an addendum to her prayer. But could You at least keep him away from me and my kids? * * * Hank shoved the pile of math papers away from himself with a sigh. He had been hoping Sheila wasn’t one of them, that is, one of the traditional teachers who kept her kids in rows and threatened death if they so much as coughed. She couldn’t have been any older than he was, yet she acted like some strict old maid schoolteacher who spent Friday and Saturday nights knitting and writing copious lesson plans. With the judgment you judge, you shall be judged. . . . “Sorry, Jesus,” Hank mumbled as the words scrolled through his mind as red as the words in his Bible. But we sure didn’t get off on the right foot. Not that it mattered if Barbara was about to waltz back into his life. For some reason, the thought made him uncomfortable, as if by thinking it he was betraying Sheila. “Lord, I need to stop,” he groaned. But since mailing his letter to Barbara yesterday, his mind had been flooded with confusion and conflicting emotions. On the one hand, he felt a strong attraction to Sheila, as well as an inexplicable kindred spirit. Though he’d never thought seriously about marriage, since meeting her he’d entertained the idea numerous times. On the other hand, there was Barbara. He definitely knew her much better than he knew Sheila, and he’d believed several years ago that he might be falling in love with her. And now it seemed she was coming back into his life. He stood up, stretching, and glanced at the clock on his classroom wall. Ten minutes before he had to retrieve his kids from the library. And the tormenting thoughts would settle in the back of his mind for another two hours while he busied himself with his students. He stared back down at the papers on his desk, grimacing. If only he could just teach, and not have any paperwork. He thought about Sheila again. Maybe he should be a Kindergarten teacher. Their biggest concern was wiping noses and making sure their kids didn’t get beat up by mean fourth graders with lazy teachers. Hank snorted. Until coming to this campus, he’d really never cared about what other people thought about him, even though he got the same kind of flack from his colleagues in Austin. Maybe hearing rumors about what a lousy teacher he was had gotten to him at a subconscious level, and the load was finally getting too high to stay buried. Or maybe it just bothered him that Sheila had a low opinion of him. He sat back down and picked up another paper. Lazy. No one could think that of him if they had seen him in action overseas, building churches, teaching the natives basic gardening skills, cleaning up after disasters. . . . But no one sees you doing that now. Hank threw the paper down. “I’m not going there,” he said to the empty room in a warning tone. He was where he was, and he wasn’t going back. Ever. He remembered the day four years ago he’d announced to his parents that he was quitting the mission field to become a teacher. He’d expected them to argue, to throw Bible verses in his face about God’s will and God’s callings, to give him some sort of resistance. Instead, his mother was a sea of calm, and his father gave his blessing. They must have seen it coming. During his two years of schooling—he’d already completed a degree in theology, so he only needed to take education classes—his parents never wavered from supporting his efforts. Though his father didn’t show it, Hank knew he struggled with it, having always believed that his son would follow him in ministry. When Hank announced six months ago that he was moving to Fort Worth to teach, however, that was a different story. Randall choked on his iced tea. “Come again?” Hank glanced from his father to his mother, waiting for her reaction. He was their only child, and they were a tightly knit family. He’d never lived farther than five miles away from his parents’ small brick home on the east side of Austin, and he sometimes thought he spent more time at his parents’ home than in his apartment. His father looked shocked. “Son, tell me that you didn’t just say what my ears are telling my mind you just said.” Brenda placed a hand on Randall’s leg. “Calm down, Randy.” She leaned her plump, fifty-five-year-old body toward Hank. “First of all, my love, how many times have I told you not to lean back in Grandma’s antique rocking chair like that?” “Yes, Ma’am.” Hank loved the back support on the old chair, but its seat was too close to the floor for his long legs, so he would lean backwards until the only the tips of the back ends of the legs were touching the floor. His mother had been saying for years, that one day, the legs would snap like toothpicks under his weight, but so far, they hadn’t. Regardless, Hank had been brought up to obey his parents, so he eased the rocker back down, appreciating the gentle creaking sound of the old wood. He grinned sheepishly at his mother, waiting for her to continue. “Thank you. Now, second of all, have you prayed over that decision?” “Oh, Ma,” Hank said, rubbing the back of his neck with his hand, “you know I have.” “Pray some more.” The sudden outburst from his father startled both Hank and his mother. Randall was generally gentle and rational, two characteristics which had served him well as a pastor over the years. He often said himself that one who has to raise his voice is letting fear control him. The thought struck Hank even harder. He had never seen his father afraid. Did he think he’d never see his son again? Brenda took her hand off her husband’s leg and lay it on one of his arms, which he had crossed over his chest. “Randy, the boy’s twenty-six years old.” Her voice exuded comfort and peace. “Most parents aren’t blessed to have their offspring around so long.” She regarded Hank with a loving smile. “Especially one so marvelous. You’ll make someone a wonderful husband someday.” Hank chuckled as he stood up on the braided rug that graced the hardwood floor. “I’m not moving there to find a wife.” Brenda raised her eyebrow with an oh-really-we’ll-see-about-that expression. Randall just frowned. “So, why are you moving?” His voice was lower, but still held a tone of disapproval. Hank hesitated. He knew what his father was thinking. That everything around Hank reminded him of the plane crash. That as much as he acted as though everything was back to normal, the reminders were still too painful to bear. That he felt the only option to finding relief was to run away. But that wasn’t true. Not entirely. And it certainly wasn’t the motivating factor behind his decision. At least, that’s what he told himself. “It’s hard to explain,” Hank finally said, pacing back and forth. “I started feeling at the end of this school year that it was time for a change. Whenever I prayed about it, I kept hearing, ‘Fort Worth’ in my spirit.” He stopped, and knelt down in front of his father. “I don’t know why, but I believe God is calling me there.” Randall met his son’s gaze with wet eyes. “You sound sure.” “I am sure.” “Well, Brenda,” Randall said, his tense shoulders relaxing, “ain’t you got nothing to say about all this?” Brenda smiled smugly. “The Lord started preparing me for this day two years ago,” she said. “I’m just surprised it didn’t come sooner.” “Woman, why didn’t you say anything?” “Because,” Brenda replied, winking at Hank, “The Lord never told me to tell you.” She put up her hands to buffet her husband’s playful swats, laughing. “You won’t get any of Grandma’s secret recipe key lime pie that way.” Randall gently pulled Brenda toward him and gave her a light kiss on the lips. “Hmmph, that’s better. Now,” she said, rising from the sofa, “are my two favorite boys in the whole world ready for a little snack?” “Yes, Ma’am!” Hank and his father had replied in unison, and followed her like obedient puppies into the kitchen. Hank laughed to himself as he stood again, setting the half-corrected paper back onto the pile, feeling better. Yes, God had called him to Fort Worth for some purpose yet unknown, and so what if his colleagues didn’t understand him? Joseph’s brothers never understood him, the Israelites didn’t understand Moses, a whole lot of Jews and Greeks didn’t understand the Apostle Paul— “Lord,” he whispered with a grin toward the flickering fluorescent lights, “keep me humble.” Then he noticed the time. Five minutes late. He shot out of his room and down the stairs, adding to his prayer: “And don’t let Miss Carson catch me running in the hall.” CHAPTER 5 Conversation around the Thanksgiving table was subdued at the Carson’s house on Elton Hills Drive in Rochester, Minnesota. As they had last Thanksgiving, and the Thanksgiving before, everyone present was working hard to keep the topics on safe ground. So no one was saying much of anything. Evelyn noticed that April’s plate had a spoonful of potatoes and no more turkey. “Would you like seconds of the bird, sweetheart?” she asked, grateful for an excuse to talk. April’s smile was forced. “No, thanks. I’m full.” “You said you sent your resume to the U of M, right?” Gary asked her. April had already informed everyone of that fact, but Evelyn knew he was just trying to milk out all he could in the name of upbeat holiday conversation. “Last week.” April’s tone conveyed her annoyance at having to rehash the details again. “Are you going senile or something?” “April—” “It’s okay, Mom.” Gary smiled, taking another roll from the bread plate. “I was just going to ask if you wanted some interview tips. I’ve got a friend who—” “Gary, I’m twenty-five. I’ve done interviews before. And read books on it. Thanks, but I think I’ve got it covered.” Gary shrugged and glanced at Evelyn as if to say, “Well, that’s my attempt at stimulating verbal interchange. Sorry it didn’t work out.” “May I be excused, Mom?” Evelyn glanced at Linda, who sat directly across the table from her. “I haven’t served the pumpkin pie. Your favorite.” “Not my favorite. It was Sh—” She broke off before finishing the name, and looked down at her plate. An awkward moment of silence hung around the table. She had almost said the name that they had all spent the entire day trying to avoid. For a split second, Evelyn felt a glimmer of hope. If Linda could just say something about Sheila, just say her name, her stubborn pride might break. But when she cut herself off, Evelyn’s hope dashed against the invisible wall that her youngest daughter had built around herself five years ago. Gary must have sensed her disappointment, for he reached under the table and squeezed her hand. That gave Evelyn the courage to clear her throat and say, “Anyway, you always did eat every last crumb.” “I’m not hungry.” Linda’s gaze remained on her plate, still half full of food. Forcing her tone to remain light, Evelyn said, “Well, I suppose then you may be excused.” As she headed upstairs to the room that had been hers as a teenager, April frowned. “What’s up with her? She never leaves the slightest smidgen on her plate.” Gary didn’t seem the slightest bit concerned. “Maybe she’s coming down with something,” he said, just before taking a large bite of turkey. Evelyn let her gaze fall onto Linda’s empty chair. “Yes, maybe,” she said, feeling a twinge of guilt. “Maybe she’s just coming down with something.” * * * “She’ll be all right, don’t worry.” Margaret gave Sheila an encouraging smile as she stabbed a piece of turkey from the serving platter. Sheila wiped up the last smidgen of mashed potatoes with a green bean. “She’s five going on fifty,” she sighed. She hadn’t meant to bring up Diana’s problem father, but when the conversation at the Thanksgiving meal had turned toward teaching, she couldn’t help herself. “Kids are forced to grow up so early nowadays. It’s not fair. They shouldn’t have to face adult problems until they’re adults.” Margaret picked up the large platter. “More turkey, dear?” she asked her husband Daniel, seated next to her. Then to Sheila, “Every generation has its own share of worries. When Diana grows up, she might well tell her kids how much easier life was when she was a kid.” Sheila set her fork down and stared at her best friend. “That’s a scary thought.” She took a sip of water. “Then again, the Bible doesn’t promise that life on earth will get any better.” Margaret’s brother, sitting across from her, took up the theme and began to expound on it. He had graduated from some seminary or other years ago, although he’d never become a licensed minister, and was quick to get involved on any theological discussion. Sheila sat back and listened as the conversation bounced among the other fourteen people seated around the huge farm-style table. Not one given to great conversational skill, she felt amused that her statement had begun such banter. Everyone had something to say about it, with opinions varying from one extreme to the other. Sheila felt a pang of envy, observing the ease with which the family related to each other. No harsh words were spoken, and laughter was frequent and hearty. Sheila remembered a time when her family’s behavior was very much the same. Perhaps it still was, when she wasn’t there. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall in that house on that very day. She wondered if her name was ever mentioned, or if the subject of the oldest Carson girl was taboo. She wondered what Linda would do if she walked into her mother’s house unannounced. On second thought, she was glad not to know what was happening there. She was undoubtedly all the happier for her ignorance. “Mom, Dad, may I be excused?” Daniel looked at his youngest son, who was fifteen. “Hang in their, Matt,” he said. “It’s Thanksgiving. You know the routine.” Matt gave a nonchalant grin. “Worth a shot, anyhow.” This was Sheila’s second Thanksgiving at Margaret’s house, and she knew what they were talking about. At the end of every Thanksgiving meal, each one present was expected to share one thing they wanted to thank God for. Sheila had not decided what to say this year. Everything she thought of seemed so mundane, so trivial. She had a job. She had good health. She had clothes. Et cetera, et cetera. Yet her overriding thought was that she felt miserable, as she looked forward to another Christmas alone. Every year she traveled somewhere, just so when people asked her, “What are you doing for Christmas?” she could say, “I’m going out of town.” If they asked her if she was going to see her family, she would say, “Well, my family’s out of town.” Even Margaret assumed Sheila went up north to visit her family every year, and Sheila hated herself for deceiving her best friend. But Margaret was unaware of Sheila’s secret, and Sheila didn’t want to give her any information that would cause her to ask unwanted questions. “So, Miss Sheila, what are you doing for Christmas? Going home to see your family?” Sheila looked up to see Daniel smiling at her. She cleared her throat. “I’ll be go—excuse me, please.” She left the table quickly, the lump in her throat rising. Going into the bathroom, she shut the door and swallowed hard, defying the tears that stung her eyes. “No, you’re not going to cry, not here, not now.” Sheila looked at herself in the mirror and wiped the corners of her eyes with both hands. Lord, when will You heal me? And why am I too scared to even tell my best friend the truth? She blew her nose, flushing the toilet to cover up the noise, and took a tentative step back toward the dining room, where the family waited for her. Not her family, Margaret’s family. Virtual strangers. And Sheila was expected to sit down in the midst of them and act like everything was all right. Bitterness rose up into her throat, quenching whatever spirit of thanksgiving she might have been carrying before. If God was so good, why wasn’t she with her own family, laughing and talking and— Selfish. She shook herself out of her bout of self-pity with the inward rebuke. She’d recently read a story about a homeless deaf man who was constantly mocked and beaten as he tried to give Gospel tracts to passersby. He was found one winter night, frozen to death, having given up his usual heat grate to a homeless woman and her two small children. Sheila had nothing to complain about. Still, as she took another step toward Margaret’s family, she knew she had to leave, or she was going to burst into tears, or say something she would regret. And the last thing she wanted was to ruin somebody else’s holiday. She walked to the threshold of the dining room. “I didn’t realize the time,” she said. “I promised to get to the shelter early to help set up for the dinner.” At least she wasn’t lying. She had volunteered to help serve Thanksgiving dinner at the homeless shelter downtown, and she did promise the director to come early. Not four hours early, but Margaret didn’t have to know that. “You must be helping butcher and de-feather the turkeys.” “Daniel,” Margaret elbowed her husband with a scowl. “I’m sure they’re going to need all the extra help they can get.” Daniel smiled at Sheila mischievously. “Please excuse my wife,” he said. “Too many mashed potatoes make her lose her sense of humor.” He deflected another jab with his hand. Sheila managed to return the smile, despite suddenly feeling like an outsider. No matter how close she and Margaret were, they weren’t family, not in the blood sense of the word, not in the sense of having seen each other at their very worst myriad times and still forgiving each other and being there for each other as if nothing bad had ever happened. The way it used to be between Sheila and her sisters. Before Sheila did the apparently unforgivable deed, anyway. She gave Margaret a quick squeeze before rushing out the door as if she were already late, the stinging behind her eyes that usually accompanied thoughts about her family, absent. The last thing the people at the shelter needed was someone walking around in a cloud of gloom, so Sheila pushed the pain of the memory to the back of her mind, a feat she’d grown expert at doing over the last several years. Repression, it had been called in her psychology class in high school. An obstacle in relationships. A threat to physical as well as emotional well-being. And the only way Sheila could face the stress of teaching—no, living—every day. * * * “You’re early,” Nelida Garza, the director of the homeless shelter, said to her when she walked into the shelter kitchen twenty-five minutes later. Sheila couldn’t tell whether Nelida was shocked at Sheila’s unexpected appearance, or just harried by the frantic activity going on around her. Sheila shrugged. “Put me to work.” Nelida did, and Sheila spent the next three hours chopping, stirring, and washing dishes. She was so tired that by the time dinner began she was afraid she would collapse face down into the mashed potatoes and candied yams she was serving. “The line must be three blocks long,” commented another volunteer as the shelter doors were opened. As the throng began to make its way past the long tables laden with Thanksgiving fare, Sheila felt reinvigorated. Something about serving needy people stirred up a deep compassion she rarely felt, and she found that her own looming problems shrunk to the size of a grain of sand when confronted with the harsh realities so clearly etched on the faces of those walking by. She recognized some of them from the handful of other times she had helped feed the homeless with her church during the past year. There was Scott, the schizophrenic man who would be quite a looker if he would clean himself up. There was Maria, always effusing gratitude for everyone’s service and for the food. Sheila had heard that she was an illegal immigrant, working under minimum wage for a cheap motel. Then there was that tall, well-built African-American guy who never talked. Most of the people who came in to eat this night, however, were unfamiliar. Of course, unlike the nightly feedings Sheila had been involved in, children participated in this feast. Sheila thought her heart would break when she realized that none of these kids had a place to call home. None. She prayed that there would be room enough for them in the family shelters, that their parents would get back on their feet and be able to rent even a tiny one-bedroom apartment— “Maestra?” The plaintive voice to her left jarred Sheila out of the rumination. She glanced down, believing for a split second that she’d heard wrong, or that she wasn’t the one being addressed. Then her blue eyes met a large, brown pair full of innocence and the joy of recognizing and being recognized. Sheila swallowed. “Diana?” What is she doing here? The Latino woman next to Diana turned pale underneath a heavy coat of makeup when Sheila caught her eye. Then she bent over, whispering furiously into the little girl’s ear. Diana’s only response was a nod, but it was enough to catapult the woman into action. She yanked Diana’s Styrofoam tray from her hand, stacked it onto hers, and pulled Diana out of the line with a firm grip on her hand. Diana cast a puzzled glance at Sheila, and tripped. Somehow the woman managed to pull Diana up while keeping the trays balanced in her other hand. “Can you handle the potatoes for a couple minutes?” Sheila didn’t wait for Connie, who stood next to her heaping green beans onto the plates, to answer. She strained to follow Diana and the strange woman’s movements through the crowd as she half-walked, half-jogged, to the end of the serving line. But by the time she got out from behind the table, she had lost them. A wave of panic began to rise up inside her, though she wasn’t sure why. The woman Diana was with was probably her aunt. Sheila had no fears about the girl being kidnapped. But why would the courts grant child custody to a homeless relative? Where had Diana been living since her father had been jailed? And why had the woman run away from her? “Excuse me. Excuse me.” She pushed her way between a young couple kissing and an elderly man with a cane, ignoring the angry words that followed her, and scanned the large hall for Diana and her aunt. No sign of them. Sheila ran to the door to check outside, peering to the right and to the left. But the long line waiting to be fed obscured any view she might have had of the retreating figures. The bathroom. Maybe they’d hid in the bathroom. Sheila whirled around and almost ran into Nelida. “Sheila, are you all right?” She touched Sheila’s arm, her face lined with concern. Taking a deep breath to hide her frantic emotion, Sheila forced a smile. “I—I’m fine. I just saw somebody I thought I knew. Excuse me, I need to use the restroom.” Winding around crowded tables, constantly scanning the hall for a glimpse of Diana or the lady, Sheila made her way to the women’s room and pushed the door open, moving aside for an elderly woman coming out. There was no one outside the stalls. She glanced back to make sure no one had followed her in, then squatted down to look for feet under the stall doors. One was occupied by someone wearing high-heeled boots. Sheila turned to the sink, pretending to fix her hair. A toilet flushed. She held her breath. But the woman who came out was a blonde Caucasian woman wearing a baggy sweater. As Sheila stepped out of the bathroom, she gave the room one last frantic sweep. But Diana and the woman with her were nowhere to be seen. “I’m sorry,” she said to Connie, returning to her post at the potato bowl. “And thanks.” For a moment, she considered telling her the truth, that she’d seen a student and feared for her safety. But would that be some sort of breach of confidentiality? Besides, Sheila was probably worried about nothing, and she didn’t want to dampen someone else’s holiday spirits with imaginary fears. Finally, she added, “When you gotta go, you gotta go.” Connie showed no signs of being upset. “No sweat. I’m a mother of four, you know. I can feed one, help another with his homework, and paint a cathedral ceiling all at the same time.” Sheila smiled. “I’m a Kindergarten teacher. Believe me, I understand.” She took the tray being handed to her and spooned on some potatoes. “God bless you, sir,” she said as she handed it back to its owner. Stay focused. Keep your mind on the positive. But even as she berated herself, her gaze slipped past the man in front of her, trying vainly to catch a glimpse of someone who was no longer there. * * * A voice penetrated Miguel’s subconscious, and he groaned as he rolled over on the hard cot. “Hombre, me oiste? I said you have a visitor.” A visitor? Miguel sat up, trying to shake off the sleep and ignore the stabbing pain in his right side. The last time he’d had a visitor was when a lawyer and his sister Rosa came to his cell asking for him to give Rosa temporary custody of Diana. That was over a week ago, and no one had bothered him since. Not even the guys he usually ran around with to clubs and bars. Not that they should. Two of them, besides him, had been jailed before, and Miguel had found no problem in pretending they didn’t even exist those few weeks they served time. If someone was foolish enough to get themselves caught in illegal action, he believed, then they deserved to be left alone in a hellhole for a while. He hadn’t changed his mind. He only wished he hadn’t been the foolish one this time around. He’d gotten fourteen days for a DWI, plus a $500 fine. He’d thought that was a little stiff for a first offense, but his friends had convinced him a long time ago that the county judges had something against the Mexican population, and this incident confirmed it. Two weeks away from his daughter. In court, he had pleaded for lesser time, hoping that being a single parent would work in his favor. Maybe it had, his idiot lawyer had told him after Miguel was sentenced; maybe the judge would’ve given him a month or two if he’d been married or childless. At least Rosa loved Diana like a daughter. He knew her lifestyle was far from perfect, but she’d promised not to have any overnight rendezvous as long as she had custody of Diana. Overnight rendezvous. That was one thing he would never expose Diana to, her seeing him with another woman who was not her mother. At least, not spending the night in their apartment. Marcela’s death was still as fresh to him as if it had happened five hours ago instead of five years, and he was sure he would never love another woman. And despite the many opportunities in slinky dresses that approached him in the clubs he frequented, he would never use one, either. He would not betray his only true love in that way. He walked to the cell door, still groggy, hoping beyond hope that it was Rosa and his daughter. Would they even let a five-year-old in to visit? Anyway, the guard had said visitor, as in one. If it was just Rosa, he would have her ask if Diana would be allowed inside. Wait a minute. Are you crazy, man? He glanced around at the bleak and dingy surroundings. What kind of a father would want to expose his small child to this? Yes, he missed Diana, and he supposed she missed him, but if she entered the county jail, she might have nightmares for months. The guard let him into the long, narrow visitor area. When he saw his buddy and co-worker Luis sitting across the bullet-proof glass and wire mesh, Miguel was taken aback. Luis was one of the two friends that Miguel had let languish in jail for over a month without giving it a second thought. Something was up, so Miguel got straight to the point. “What are you doing here?” he asked in Mexican Spanish. “Guess I just can’t get enough of this place.” Ordinarily, Miguel would have laughed. But he sensed that Luis had something important to say, and didn’t appreciate the delay. “Come on, man, talk to me,” Miguel prodded. “You need to say something, say it.” Luis’ grin faded as he leaned forward, placing his hands on the countertop. He gave the guard standing in the corner a few feet a way a nervous glance. “She’s out on the street,” he said in a low voice. “With the little one. Entiendes?” Miguel felt the blood drain from his face. Yes, he understood. Rosa got evicted. Diana was with her. Where were they now? Were they safe? But he didn’t dare ask any questions. The guard was Columbian, and could understand anything they said in Spanish or English. The last thing Miguel wanted at that moment was for the police to get on Rosa’s tail, take Diana away from her, and put her into state custody. From what he’d heard, the streets were often safer than some of the state foster care families. Even if it would be for just a week. So he had to be satisfied with staring at Luis, hoping he could read the questions in his eyes. “That’s all I know, amigo, I’m sorry.” Luis sat back, frowning. “But Rosa knows how to take care of herself, and I’m sure everything’s all right.” Miguel nodded, although not convinced. An awkward silence hung between them until Miguel said, “Thanks for coming. I know you didn’t have to do it.” The grin returned to Luis’ face. “Oh, yes, I did. I drew the short straw, and if I didn’t come and tell you, I’d have to buy everyone a round of tequila.” “Get out of here.” Miguel gave him a dismissing wave, accidentally banging his right knuckles against the counter. Luis got up. “See you in a few days. Vaya con Dios.” Miguel instinctively brought his bruised hand up to his mouth, watching his friend walk away and brushing his last comment aside. God was the last person Miguel wanted in his life, if He even existed. He stood up as the guard sauntered over to him. His daughter was on the streets. Because he was in jail, his little five-year-old treasure was without a home. He was the king of fools, and in desperation, almost said a prayer for her. But praying hadn’t worked before, and he doubted it would start working now. He plodded back to his cell, wondering if he could convince the guard to get him some Tylenol. And wondering if his daughter had eaten that day. CHAPTER 6 Sheila didn’t get much sleep that night, nor the next. Both nights she dreamed that Diana had been kidnapped by a strange man who intended her harm, and in both dreams Sheila witnessed the kidnapping, but stood paralyzed with fear while the man ran away with a screaming Diana thrown over his shoulder. She asked the Lord if it meant anything, and when she got no answer, decided that no news was good news. Still, all day Saturday she walked around in a fog, fighting the temptation to worry about Diana. She spent most of the morning sitting and listening to the radio, stretching her legs occasionally by finding an odd chore to do. That afternoon, waiting in line at the library to check out some books, she felt as if she would fall asleep standing up, and when she got home, she did something she never did in the middle of the day and turned on the television. If she’d had cable, she probably would have been able to find some channel playing It’s a Wonderful Life, but since she didn’t, she had to satisfy herself with a travel program on PBS. As the narrator rambled on about Venice, she did something else she never did in the middle of the day and fell asleep in her chair. She dozed just long enough to awaken with the feeling that she’d taken a heavy sedative, and to find a different program on. “Shoot. Now I’m going to feel like crud the rest of the day,” she moaned. It was only four o’clock, but she knew from experience that she would be a walking zombie from then until she went to bed. Bored with the financial ramblings of the show’s host, she clicked off the television and pushed herself out of the chair. An hour and a half later, she would practice her weekly ritual of taking herself out for dinner. Until then, she had to find something to do to get her blood recirculating. She ended up going for a brief walk, scrubbing down her kitchen counters and stovetop, and plunking at her cheap electronic keyboard for about thirty minutes. At 5:15, feeling somewhat refreshed, she got into her car and drove about a half a mile through tree-lined streets until she hit the nearby business district. I should’ve walked, she thought as she pulled up to a TGI Fridays. The mere act of sitting in her car for five minutes had brought back the feeling of utter fatigue. When she stepped out of her car, however, she realized the air was turning cold. No, she was glad she had taken the car. On foot the trip would take a good twenty minutes, and she would have been chilled to the bone by the time she got home. She was quickly seated at a table for two, and rattled off her order for chicken fajitas as soon as her waiter came to ask what she wanted to drink. While she waited for her food to arrive, she began reading the latest Francine Rivers novel, ignoring the fact, as she did every Saturday, that she was the only person in the place dining alone. She only looked up when the young man serving her brought her the plate of sizzling meat and vegetables. “Thank—” she began, then froze. Hank Johnson was headed straight toward her table. Looking right at her. She cleared her throat. “Thank you,” she repeated, smiling at the waiter then quickly diverting her eyes to her plate. Maybe she’d been mistaken. Maybe Hank hadn’t seen her, and wouldn’t see her if she could just keep her face out of his view. “Miss Carson, what’s a fine cowgirl like you doing in a place like this?” Shoot. Sheila had no choice but to look up. Hank stood where the waiter had been just seconds prior. “Eating.” She didn’t return his smile. Hank seemed nonplussed by her cold manner. “I won’t bother your supper. I just saw you over here and thought I’d say hi. You live in the neighborhood?” I thought you said you wouldn’t bother me. “Yes.” She wasn’t about to say where. “Wow. Me, too. In The Newbridge.” Sheila worked hard to hide her surprise. He lived in the complex just three blocks from hers. Not that he would find that out any time soon. “I think I know where that is.” She kept the terseness in her voice, hoping he would get a hint. His smile did begin to waver, and he seemed uncertain of how to reply. Sheila wished he would just leave. The awkward silence hanging between them was beginning to have an adverse effect on her appetite. Finally, he said, “Look, I also wanted to apologize for what happened in the hallway. When my kid ran yours down, I mean.” He shrugged. “I guess I was kind of insensitive, huh?” Yeah, kind of. She swallowed back the sarcastic reply. He was asking for forgiveness, and as a believer, she was obligated to give it to him. She forced a slight smile. “Don’t worry about it. It’s water under the bridge.” “Appreciate it kindly.” He tipped an imaginary hat, a grin slowly returning to his face. “Enjoy the rest of the weekend.” He turned and walked away, and Sheila considered waving her waiter down and asking for a to-go box. She suddenly felt strange, knowing that Hank was lurking nearby. What if he got it into his head to ask if he could sit down and eat with her? She would tell him no, of course, but she would writhe in discomfort in the process. She was dealing with enough stress as it was. What are you so paranoid about? He’s just a colleague, trying to be friendly. You need help. Now, eat. She felt duly chastised by her self-scolding, and decided to stay. She closed her eyes for a moment, willing herself to relax. Where had those butterflies in her stomach come from? When the fluttering in her gut subsided, she picked up her fork to stab at a piece of chicken. The meat trembled on the end of the fork tines, and she then realized her hand was shaking. What is wrong with me? She could only come up with two conclusions. One, that Hank somehow frightened her. Or two, that his being around her stirred up emotions she’d intended to keep buried the rest of her life. The first was impossible, the second unthinkable. Sheila let out an exasperated breath loud enough to elicit a glance from the people seated at a neighboring table, and pulled a hot corn tortilla out of its flat covered dish. * * * “Say, Hank, what’s the good word?” Hank had left the church sanctuary and headed for the supply closet for a new guitar string when the E string broke in the middle of practicing “Here I Am to Worship.” He’d made the same trip a dozen times before at about the same time, 9:30 on Sunday morning, but this was the first time he’d run into the senior pastor of the church, Bill Dubose, on the way. “I’m blessed of the Lord, Pastor, hallelujah.” Hank stopped and gave him a conspiratorial grin. “If folks see you out of your office before service, they might think you’re being unspiritual.” A few weeks ago, Pastor Bill had been “caught” prior to a Sunday morning service talking to some members in the church kitchen about the upcoming football season. The woman who had overheard and disapproved of the behavior had promptly written him a letter informing him of her decision to leave the church, because “such conversation should be considered too base for a man of the cloth,” especially when he’s supposed to be getting ready to minister. Pastor Bill winked. “I was committing a very base act in the restroom.” Both men let out a hearty laugh, and Hank turned to continue his path toward the supply closet, but he stopped abruptly. “Pastor Bill,” he said, “Hypothetical situation. A man gets to start liking a particular woman, but then something tears them apart and the man’s feelings eventually smolder. Years later, he meets another woman, and he thinks God is drawing them together, but this new woman apparently wants nothing to do with him. In the meantime, the first woman waltzes back into his life. Where would God be in all this?” Pastor Bill stared at him, then smiled. “Starring in an episode of Days of Our Lives, sounds like. If indeed we are just speaking hypothetically.” Hank knew that his pastor knew darn well and good that not one thing he’d said was hypothetical. Even though he’d only belonged to the church a few months, he already knew Pastor Bill was a man of integrity and godliness, so he was not bothered by him knowing his business. However, he hadn’t planned to say anything about his conundrum to anyone, and was surprised it had slipped out. Then again, out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. From the moment he left Miss Carson at her table in the restaurant the night before, his mind had been a horse on a merry-go-round, going up and down from this woman to the other, from one conclusion to the next, but always ending up in the same place he started. Confused. “The hypothetical man,” Hank said, feeling the corners of his mouth stretch upward, “would probably want his hypothetical pastor to be a little more serious. Even if they were just being hypothetical.” Pastor Bill’s smile remained, but his eyes grew softer. “Of course.” He shoved a hand in his pants pocket and jingled his keys. “Then his hypothetical answer would probably be that God is in every part, but that He just hasn’t shown you—excuse me, the hypothetical man, I mean—the reason for all that. He would want the man to take one day at a time, and walk by faith.” Hank heaved an exaggerated sigh. “A most vague answer, considering that it’s only hypothetical.” “Hey, Hank, we need you in here!” Hank looked up to see the drummer gesturing at him from the other end of the hall. “Be there in a minute,” he called, then turned back to his pastor. Pastor Bill’s face grew serious. In a low voice, he said, “Son, I will be praying for you. Now, get on your way, before they fire you from the band.” Hank grinned his thanks and sprinted off to the supply closet. * * * Monday mornings were the most peaceful. The weekend always had a subduing effect on the children; they were all the quieter after long breaks. Sheila noted that even Edgar sat in relative calm the Monday after Thanksgiving as he flipped through the pages of a Dr. Suess book. After the class settled down to read, Sheila looked around the room to take attendance. Juan was out. Again? His mother was so overprotective. The boy had only to sneeze and the poor child was dragged to the free clinic as if he were coming down with the Bubonic Plague. A quick glance at the other side of the classroom revealed another absence. Sheila would not have been concerned, had the Thanksgiving incident at the homeless shelter not occurred. But it had, and despite her best efforts to forget about it and enjoy the brief vacation, the scene of Diana fleeing in the hand of a woman unknown to Sheila had haunted her the rest of the weekend. Diana had not been a second late, let alone absent, a single day so far. Was it only coincidence that she was gone now? Sheila gave an audible sigh that caused two children seated near her desk to giggle. She shot them a look that quieted them in an instant. She was in no mood for horseplay. Her favorite student was absent, and Sheila knew she had something to do with it. “You’re making a mountain out of a molehill,” Margaret told her after school that day. “Winter’s coming. It’s getting colder. Stuff is going around. The lady—her aunt, or whoever she was—was probably just short on money, and wanted to make sure Diana had a good Thanksgiving meal. Maybe she thought you’d get her into trouble because you knew she wasn’t a street person.” That idea hadn’t occurred to Sheila, and appeased her somewhat that evening and the next day, when Diana still hadn’t shown up. But Wednesday came, and still no Diana. Sheila determined to get to the bottom of it. “She’s probably in Mexico,” Mrs. Cortez, the school data controller, told her when she marched into her office asking if Diana had withdrawn. “You know how they do—give them a five-day weekend, and they turn it into ten so they can visit all their relatives.” Sheila frowned. “But I called the home number, and it’s been disconnected.” Mrs. Cortez sighed, gazing at Sheila over her glasses. “So have half the other numbers on the emergency cards,” she said, impatience edging her voice. “That doesn’t mean we send out a posse when a kid’s gone for a few days.” Sheila bit back a retort and left. Though Mrs. Cortez could have found a less sarcastic and condescending way to express herself, Sheila truly hoped she was right. But when she visited the address which Diana’s aunt had left the office when she’d taken custody of the girl, no one was there. She went to the apartment manager’s office. “The slut ain’t paid her rent in two months.” The obese woman sitting at the desk puffed on a cigarette, turning her head to the side to blow out smoke. “I told her to scoot, and she did.” “You kicked a five-year-old out into the street.” Sheila wanted to strangle the woman. The feeling was apparently mutual, because this time when she sucked on the cigarette, she blew the smoke directly into Sheila’s face. “I don’t run no charity here. And I treat everybody the same. You pay on time, you stay. You don’t, you leave. I can’t be no softy, or else the proprietor will put me out, you got me?” She crossed her arms over her chest, narrowing her eyes. “What business is it of yours, anyway?” “I’m the child’s teacher.” The words must have had an impact, because the manager’s face softened. “Oh.” She uncrossed her arms, leaned back, and set the cigarette in an ashtray. “Well, then, I suppose it’s okay to tell you that I heard tell that she and the little girl are staying at a shelter downtown. Can’t give you nothin’ more specific, though.” She began rummaging through a pile of folders on the desk, then looked up with narrowed eyes. “You do know about Rosa Manriquez, don’t you?” Sheila shook her head. “I think the polite term is lady of the night. And she has—had—her share of gentleman callers come in at every ungodly hour.” Sheila stammered a thank-you and left, taking a deep breath as she stepped outside. Diana’s aunt was a prostitute? Someone in the fine Texas judicial system hadn’t done their homework before awarding her custody of her niece. What kind of indecencies had Diana been exposed to over the last couple of weeks? Past reports of abuse to children caused by negligent mother’s boyfriends paraded into her mind, and a chill went down Sheila’s spine. If anyone would ever dare touch Diana— Father, please, help me find her. She got into her car, and put the key into the ignition with a shaky hand, a mixture of anger and fear whirling inside her. She didn’t know if she was more upset at Diana’s aunt for taking Diana in, at Diana’s father for not alerting the court as to his sister’s lifestyle, or at the imagined “gentleman callers” who might be doing God-knows-what to Diana. Sheila’s only consolation was that if they were living in a shelter, Diana might actually be safer than in an apartment with her aunt. Sheila prayed that the apartment manager’s sources were all reliable. But according to Mrs. Cortez, Diana still showed up on the computer as registered at Roosevelt, not at one of the schools nearer the downtown area. And the shelters took great pains to make sure the children at their facilities were not truant. Was Diana just sick, then, and her aunt intending to continue bringing her to Roosevelt, or. . .had they fled the area entirely? Sheila braked at a stop sign, and lay her head against the steering wheel. Please, let Diana be all right, she prayed. And help me find her. She drove home, wondering if she should bother checking out the homeless shelters if Diana didn’t come to school the next day. She didn’t want to risk further alienating her aunt if she did find them there. Suddenly she wished she could afford a P. I. to do her investigating for her. She laughed at herself, shaking her head. Now you’re really going over the deep end. But the idea lingered the rest of the evening, and followed her to bed. * * * The last thing Hank wanted to do was to go to Sheila Carson’s classroom. If she really was as icy as she had so far made herself to be whenever he’d encountered her, then what he was feeling was pure lust and had nothing to do with God. Pastor Bill was just a man, after all. He could have been wrong. But he had a nagging sense in his gut that there was more to Miss Carson than she was willing to show. And all day the next Thursday, he kept thinking he needed to go talk to her. What for? he argued. I haven’t even seen her in passing all week, and she’s no doubt perfectly fine about that. But the feeling didn’t let up. So that afternoon, after dismissing his students, he headed down to room five. And he had no idea what he was going to say. He steeled himself as he approached her room. He expected that she would be too busy for small talk. He expected she would politely and frigidly ask him to leave. He didn’t expect to hear a loud argument when he got in front of her classroom door, which was closed. For several seconds, he stood immobilized by indecision. His first instinct was to leave. If she was already in a bad mood, his presence probably wouldn’t help any. Besides, she might resent such an intrusion, and she seemed the kind of person who would prefer to keep her personal life well-hidden. But as he listened a few moments more, he realized hers was the only voice he heard. Strange. Is she talking to herself? Not that he would judge her for that. If he had a dime for every conversation he held with himself, he’d be a rich man. Regardless, she definitely sounded unreceptive to visitors at the moment. He turned and began to walk away. Go in. The command, however brief, was clear. Hank went back to the door and knocked. Sheila quieted, then opened the door. She raised her eyebrows and turned a slight shade of pink when she saw him. “Oh, hi. Can I. . .help you?” “No, actually, I, well—do you mind if I come in?” Lord, You sent me here. Now give me the words, please. Sheila shrugged, opening the door wider. “I guess.” Hank bumped into a paper plate turkey hanging from the ceiling. “Shoot, I forgot to send those things home again.” Sheila stood on her toes to unclip the turkey from the clothespin holding it in place. “Maybe if I stick this one with my lesson plans, I’ll remember to do it tomorrow.” “I’d be happy to take them down for you now, if you want.” Sheila eyed Hank with suspicion. “No, you don’t have to. . .well, why not? Thanks.” Hank began walking around the room, removing the turkeys. “I’ve been called the walking stepladder.” When Sheila laughed, it was a melodious sound that made Hank pause. Thank God, she has a sense of humor. “That’s better,” he muttered. He hadn’t meant for her to hear, but she did. “Better than what?” He set a handful of turkeys on the nearest table. How was he going to explain what he meant? I overheard your argument with yourself. Thought maybe you’d caught yourself chewing gum in school. “Well, I could be wrong, but when I got to your door, I. . .nothing.” He took on his happy-go-lucky tone. “It’s not important.” Sheila sat down on top of one of the low tables, frowning. “Was I praying that loud?” Praying? She’d been praying? “What did God do,” Hank asked, “tell you to give your life savings to a televangelist? Sorry,” he added quickly. “It’s none of my business.” Have some water to wash down that foot stuck in your mouth, cowboy. How insensitive could he be? To his surprise, Sheila smiled. “If He had, I would’ve been screaming at the top of my lungs.” She went over to the table to rescue his pile of turkeys from toppling over. “I’m just frustrated about something. Usually, I can pray with Margaret, and I’m okay. But she called in sick today. So it was just me and the Lord, having it out.” As she walked away with her hands full, Hank stared after her. Talk about wrong first impressions. And second and third ones. Suddenly, the woman he thought capable of sinking the Titanic was as friendly and genuine as anyone he’d ever met. Praying was good for her. “So,” Sheila said with her back to him, “I know you didn’t travel all the way from the top of the building to take down my kids’ turkeys.” She set the plates down on the back counter and turned around, a question mark on her face. Hank cleared his throat, shoving his hands into his pocket. In a flash, he understood why he’d been summoned down there. “How ‘bout we make a deal?” he said, as nonchalantly as possible. “I promise no more kids running in the hall, and you let me help you with that frustrating issue.” Sheila furrowed her brows and wrinkled her nose like she’d just caught a whiff of an unpleasant odor. He should have never brought up the hallway incident. She’d probably forgotten about it; that’s why she’d been so friendly to him. Nice going, Roy Rogers. Now he’d reminded her about his rumored incompetence as a teacher, and was going to be asked to leave. And it would serve him right. Then her face softened. “Oh, why not. One of my kids has up and disappeared, and I think she might be in trouble.” Hank almost asked her if that meant she really wanted him to keep his end of the deal, but decided he should just let sleeping dogs lie. She added, “I know, I know, professional distance, kids move away all the time without the teachers being informed, yada-yada-yada.” She plopped down on one of the tiny chairs, looking perturbed. “I wasn’t fixin’ to say nothing like that.” It was after school; he could let his Texas grammar—or lack of it—shine through. He perched on top of the table across from where she sat. “Tell me what’s going on.” His eyes widened as she told him Diana’s story, concluding with, “I know I’ve breached confidence somewhere in there. Please keep it within these four walls.” She gestured to the brightly colored surroundings. “I’m not even sure how much of it is true, but I know in my spirit I’m not supposed to let it go.” Hank mimed turning a key on his mouth, then tossing the key away. “So that’s what you were shouting about when I came to the door?” Sheila nodded, a slight smile erasing some of the consternation on her face. “I’m afraid I wasn’t exactly being the meek, humble servant I know I should be. I was demanding God do what I want as if I know better how to run the world.” “And what was that?” “That He either tell me where Diana was, or bring me someone willing to help me find her.” She looked at him with a challenging glint in her eyes—or was that hope? Regardless, he was happy to meet her gaze. “In that case,” he said, “my first name is Someone and my last name is Willing.” CHAPTER 7 A week after Thanksgiving, the first blizzard of the season hit. For about three hours, the world was a sheet of white. Evelyn couldn’t even make out the dark outline of the tree in her tiny backyard. When the blinding snowfall finally diminished to gentle flurries, tree branches sagged under the weight of snow and the streets were utterly impassable. Evelyn sighed as she stared out the window, waiting for her teapot to whistle. She was short on groceries, and if any more snow fell before the snowplows got out, it might be two days before she would be able to drive. Walking was out of the question. Even if the sidewalks weren’t hip-deep in snow, the ten-degree temperature with a ten-below wind-chill made being outside a most unsavory prospect. It wasn’t that she was out of food. She could easily live on the staples in her cupboard, and the bit of produce she had left in her refrigerator. But Linda was eating less and less, and Evelyn thought if she could just cook a tasty enough meal, she could get her daughter to at least do more than pick at her food. The kettle began to sing, and she turned off the flame under it and filled her teacup with the steaming water. She turned toward the dining room as Linda was coming in, stretching her arms and yawning. “Were you napping, dear?” Evelyn asked. “Yeah. I conked out for a good hour.” Linda pulled a glass from the cabinet above the counter, opened the refrigerator, and pulled out the jug of water. “Honey, why don’t you have some juice instead?” “Do you want me to throw up?” Linda’s voice was weary, and she did not so much as glance at her mother as she answered. It was a dance they did every day, Evelyn encouraging her to take in more calories, Linda insisting that it would upset her stomach. Evelyn sat at her place at the table, frowning at Linda’s back. Why Linda? Why my daughter? Why not me? She’s so young. What did she ever do to deserve this? And when is she going to get better? The barrage of questions she sent heavenward were as frequent as her debates about eating with Linda. And as futile. She had yet to receive any answers. * * * Sheila drummed her fingers on her thigh, chewing on her lower lip as she peered out of the car window toward the front door of the homeless shelter. What had she been thinking, asking for Hank to help her find Diana? She was resourceful enough to have taken this task on by herself; she’d gotten used to doing everything alone during the past four years, needing nobody for anything. She was surprised when she heard herself telling Hank that she’d prayed for help. Though she had, she really wasn’t expecting an answer, and certainly not in the form of a man who grated her nerves. More surprising was her response to him when he came to her door. In between worrisome thoughts about Diana, she had spent the week wrestling with her physical reaction to Hank when he had materialized in front of her at TGI Fridays. She’d worked hard to avoid him the last several days at school, afraid she’d have the same reaction the next time she set eyes on him. She just wasn’t ready to deal with all that, whatever it was. When he showed up at the threshold of her classroom, she almost didn’t invite him in. It must have been his smile, so genuine, so open. And their conversation after he took down the turkeys for her—well, she felt like she was talking to an old friend, instead of a new acquaintance. And—yes, she had discretely checked herself—she wasn’t shaking or full of butterflies. He wasn’t so bad after all. And when she realized that, she realized that she didn’t want to face the search for Diana by herself. So here she sat, in Hank’s Grand Am, spending her first Friday evening in ages out of her apartment, canvassing the shelters and the streets to see if they could find Diana and her aunt. Just after school got out, Sheila and Hank walked the square downtown where most of the homeless camped out. She showed as many people as she dared approached a photo of Diana, but nobody recognized her. Now, with daylight waning, Hank was in the last shelter, asking if a Rosa Manriquez was staying there with a little girl. Sheila didn’t dare enter, in case Rosa was there and saw her and got spooked again. If they weren’t there, Sheila was fresh out of ideas. Lord, please. . . . Hank’s lanky figure exited the building, pausing to give a man standing outside a dollar before he got back in the car. “Well?” she asked as he slammed the door shut. Hank gave her a sympathetic smile and sighed. “Not there.” Sheila turned her head away. “I’m sorely tempted to say a not very Christian word right now.” “I wouldn’t be offended.” He started the car. “Shocked, maybe, but not offended.” Sheila remained silent, thrusting her hands into her coat pocket. They drove for a couple blocks before she said, “I appreciate it, anyway. You giving up your Friday evening to do this, I mean.” “I didn’t give up anything. This is probably the most fun I’ve had on a Friday in a long time. Besides, the night is still young.” Unable to interpret the tone in his last statement, Sheila looked at him. No, he wasn’t asking her out on a date. The expression on his face was too casual, too matter-of-fact, and she felt relieved. She wouldn’t have been able to stand it if he’d been the kind of guy who asks a lady out when he hardly knows her. That’s what bars and nightclubs were for, one reason she steered clear of them. He might just qualify as a friend, she concluded, and let her guard back down. “I don’t have a clue what to do next.” Hank stopped at a red light, and glanced at her with raised eyebrows. “Next? Miss Carson, we’ve looked everywhere possible. We can’t notify the police because frankly, we have no idea if Diana is in any real danger.” He paused to pass a slow-moving truck. “I think it’s time to just trust God to take care of her.” “No.” She hadn’t meant to speak so sharply. “I don’t mean that I don’t trust God,” she said to Hank’s surprised glance, “I mean I feel like we—I’m missing something. That it’s not time to give up just yet.” For a while, Hank said nothing, just stared very intently through the windshield. Then, “Why Diana?” “Excuse me?” “Let me back up a minute.” He turned onto the side street leading to their school. “You’ve had to make calls to CPS before, haven’t you?” Sheila frowned. The worst part of her job. “A few, yeah.” “Did you ever go after the kids you thought had been abused? Investigate into their safety?” What was he getting at? “No. That’s not my job.” “And this is?” “Look, you’re the one who offered to help.” Sheila had to oppress a surge of anger. “Nobody said—” “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply—” “The other kids didn’t disappear without a trace. The authorities knew about those situations. This is different.” She sat with her arms crossed, head turned toward her window. She didn’t want Hank to see the truth in her eyes, that it wasn’t really the situation that was different, it was Diana. She reminded her too much of Lorena. Although she knew that one girl had nothing to do with the other, Sheila still felt responsible for Diana’s welfare, as if making sure she was kept safe would make up for . . . Sheila forced the morbid memory aside. Hank would never know about that skeleton in her closet, not if she could help it. “You’re right.” Hank’s suddenly quiet and gentle tone caught Sheila off guard. “This is different.” Slowly, Sheila twisted her neck back, feeling guilty for having jumped down his throat. “Sorry,” she said. “I guess this whole thing has got me pretty stressed out. I’m sure I’ve had plenty of kids who lived in environments as questionable as Diana’s, but I guess I never put myself in a situation to hear any graphic details.” “Ignorance is bliss.” “Something like that.” Sheila stared out the windshield as they pulled into the school parking lot where her car still sat. Suddenly, the weekend ahead loomed like an invincible monster, and she didn’t want to get out of the car. “Let me get the door for you,” Hank said as he parked next to Sheila’s Camry. When he opened the passenger side door and held out his hand to her, Sheila felt an unexpected rush of pleasure. Since moving to the South, she’d gotten used to men at her church opening doors for her and offering to carry things, but she’d never experienced chivalry to this extent. At least, she hoped it was just gentlemanly chivalry. She didn’t need Hank to start looking at her as a potential future anything. Even as she hesitated, his warm smile didn’t waver, and when she took his hand, the rush became more intense. That time of the month must be coming, she thought with disgust. She hated how her hormones could set her off balance. She let go of his hand as soon as she was standing up straight, wishing he wasn’t standing right in front of her so she could move a few steps away from him. In the same moment, Hank stepped aside. “Well, it was an interesting learning experience.” Discouraging and frustrating was more like it, but Sheila didn’t want to put a cloud inside his silver lining. So she agreed with a nod. “Thanks again for helping,” she said, fishing for her car keys in her purse. “Would you like my phone number?” Sheila’s head shot up. What did he mean by that? “Okay, so you don’t want my phone number.” Hank held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “I just thought God might give you the missing piece between now and Monday, and you might like someone to help you put the pieces together.” “Oh.” There you go, being paranoid again. “I—never mind.” She was glad for the twilight that hid the blush she felt creep up her cheeks. “That’s a good idea.” She decided humor would be a good cover for her overreaction. “And luckily for you, you can have my Friday night special. When you give your phone number, you get another in exchange, absolutely free.” She scribbled her number on a piece of scrap paper while Hank rummaged around in his wallet. Eventually, he produced a business card that declared, “Hank Johnson. Professional Class Clown.” Sheila laughed. “You know, maybe the other teachers wouldn’t be so hard on you if you gave them your business card.” Then she realized what she’d said. You idiot! He probably doesn’t even know— “It’s okay.” Her sheepishness must have shown on her face. “I know what people say about me. And it’s probably all true, dadgummit.” He lowered his head and scuffed the pavement with his boot in mock remorse. Then he looked up and grinned. “You have yourself a great weekend, Miss Carson. And really. If you need anything, I’d be happy to help.” Sheila tucked his card inside her personal phone book when she got home, heated up some chicken soup, and was sitting down at the desk in her bedroom to go through some mail when the phone rang. As was her custom, she let her answering machine pick up. She didn’t want to waste money on caller I. D., and refused to answer in case the caller was a telemarketer. Or her mother. “. . .please leave a message after the beep.” “Hey, Miss Carson, I thought you’d be home by now. Maybe you went out or something.” Hank? Sheila headed toward the kitchen, not twenty feet away from her in the small apartment, where her phone was. “I’m here.” “Oh, great. Listen,” Hank said, “I think I got the missing piece.” Sheila had already forgotten the earlier reference. “Missing piece?” “Yeah,” he continued, oblivious to her confusion. “When I was a kid and I wanted to get away from everybody, there was this one tree on a vacant lot a few blocks from our house that I would climb. I could sit there for hours and just think. Only my mother knew about it.” What on earth is he talking about? She began to feel annoyed. She needed to eat dinner, pray about finding Diana, plan a course of action for tomorrow. She didn’t have time for— “Hold on. Does this have something to do with Diana?” Hank chuckled. “Sorry. I have a way of jumping into conversations as though the other party has been reading my mind for the last several minutes. Yes, it’s about Diana.” He paused. “What if her aunt has a special refuge she goes to whenever she’s in trouble? Who might know about it that we could ask?” We. He really was unwilling to let Sheila go this road alone. And the idea was not altogether unwelcome, although the wondering why he should care nagged the back of her mind like a crotchety old woman trying to get her ornery husband to finish a neglected chore. She finally answered, “I didn’t even know she had an aunt around. Her mother died the day she was born, and her father has been raising her alone, is the story I have.” The pause that followed was so long that Sheila thought they’d been disconnected. “Which jail is he in?” “Come again?” “Tarrant County, right?” A loud spitting sound coming from the stove reminded Sheila of her soup, which was now in full boil and spilling onto the electric burners. Gripping the phone with one hand, she rushed to turn off the burner and slide the pan onto the enamel top. It was enough time for her to register what Hank was saying. “You don’t mean visit Diana’s father in jail.” Of course that’s what he meant. But it was the last thing Sheila expected him to say. “Who else would be able to give us a lead?” There it was again. Us. This time, Sheila smiled, realizing that she might enjoy having some sort of companionship for a change, if only for a weekend, if only on a professional level. “His name is Miguel Manriquez,” she said. “If you can find out where he is, I’ll meet you there tomorrow.” * * * Miguel stared at the couple sitting in front of him, incredulous, scared, and angry at the same time. Mostly angry. Angry because these people had no right to interfere in his family’s life. Angry because his sister had apparently disappeared with his daughter. Scared because Diana was on the streets. “Since when do teachers go after missing students?” The tall gringo had addressed him in Spanish, so Miguel responded in kind. Mr. Johnson’s expression remained placid as he exchanged glances with Diana’s teacher. “Since now,” he said. Miguel eyed him with suspicion through the window separating them. What were they trying to prove, anyway? That they were some kind of model citizens, helping a stranger in need? That the affluent whites didn’t hate the Mexicans after all? They had to have been trying to get something out of this. No one would give up his weekend to go after a child they barely know for nothing. “Why bother coming here to tell me all this?” He forced the fury stirring up inside to resettle. He didn’t need to have the guard escorting him out for violent behavior. “Look around. I’m stuck here for another week. What am I supposed to do about it?” When Miss Carson spoke, her tone was soft, regretful. “I was volunteering at the downtown Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless. That’s when I saw Diana and your sister.” She grimaced. “She took Diana’s hand and ran off. I feel responsible for what happened.” Miguel let out a stream of curses. Rosa was always oversensitive, ever since they were kids. Now her emotional instability might be compromising his daughter’s safety. “I don’t know what her problem is, but it wasn’t your fault.” When Luis had told him that Rosa had been evicted, he’d assumed she’d find a place to stay. She knew better than have her niece living in a car, or worse, in some cardboard box somewhere. He uttered a few more choice words, then glared at Mr. Johnson. “What do you want from me?” “Would you have any idea where Rosa might have gone? Is there any place she’s in the habit of running to when she’s in trouble?” Miguel narrowed his eyes. Information? That was all they wanted? No money, favors, anything like that? Not that they would dare mention anything illegal sitting in a jailhouse, which made the whole situation even more confusing. If they did want to try to sell their investigative services on the fly, they wouldn’t do it here. Unless they were complete idiots. Which they couldn’t be, since they were teachers. Or so they claimed. Leaning forward, he turned his glare toward the woman. He may have only finished an eight grade education, but one thing he knew was how to read people. He could discern deceit in a heartbeat, could tell by a slight shifting of the body whether someone was ready to betray him. To his surprise, Miss Carson met his eyes unflinchingly, although he knew his face had to be full of hostility. In fact, he had to look away after only a few moments. There was something in her eyes that saw into his soul, challenging his own personal integrity. It was a look he’d only seen once before, in the eyes of a priest he’d confronted as a teenage boy, who told him that God loved him no matter what he did. Whatever he’d seen, it told him all he needed to know. For some reason or other, these two teachers did care about his daughter and had no ulterior motives for finding her. When he finally answered, his voice had lost some of its gruffness. “I don’t know. She visits me a lot, more to see Diana, I’m sure, but we live our own private lives.” He thought for a minute. “Rosa might have decided to camp out with an old or current boyfriend.” But if he even knew any of their names, he surely didn’t know where they lived. He pounded a fist on the table, earning a sharp look from the guard. “I just can’t think—wait a minute.” Rosa was a topless dancer in an adult night club. Her boss had a tough-as-nails reputation with his employees, but to his most popular dancers—Rosa was one of them—he would occasionally extend special favors. Miguel remembered that a couple years ago, Rosa was trying to get out of a relationship with a physically abusive man, and Eddie, her boss, let her hide out in a sleazy motel he owned in Dallas while his men tracked the guy down to give him a taste of his own medicine. If she were there, Miss Carson and Mr. Johnson would be hard put to get the management to admit it, much less give them her room number. But what else were they going to do? The teachers were looking at him expectantly. He glanced at the guard, turned back toward the couple, lowered his voice. “How would you like to go on a field trip?” CHAPTER 8 “From church to. . .this.” Sheila raised an eyebrow. “Remind me not to stay here the next time I visit Dallas.” Hank followed her gaze to the dilapidated building just off Harry Hines Boulevard. Pale green paint was flaking off the siding in generous portions, exposing the bleak gray underneath. Several windows had been boarded up, and weeds grew around the perimeter in wild abandon. He was surprised that the neon sign flashing “MOTEL” had all its letters lit up. “I’ll tell you one thing,” he said, “betcha even if you check in alone, you’d find company in your bed.” Sheila gave him a disgusted look. “I would tell you what a horrible thing that is to say,” she said, “but I know the apartments most of our kids live in aren’t in much better shape.” She hugged her purse closer to her side, and shook her head. Her face was lined with worry, and Hank had to resist an urge to put his arm around her. “Are you ready?” She took a deep breath. “I can do all things through Christ.” They went into the office. The lady at the desk looked to be in her mid-forties, her expression one of bored indifference. “Y’all need a room?” Her monotone reminded Hank of the early days of computerized voices. He glanced at Sheila, but she averted her eyes. “No, we’ve come on behalf of Miguel Manriquez.” “Miguel who?” Hank took out the note Miguel had written. “Rosa Manriquez’ brother. He’s in jail, and he wanted to see if she was here with his daughter, Diana.” The woman took the note and read it without a flicker of recognition showing on her face. She returned the note. “Sorry. I have no idea who these people are.” “Miguel thought you might say that.” Hank leaned against the desk in a casual manner and flashed her a smile. “He said to remind you of the Fourth of July volleyball game.” Instantly, the woman’s countenance changed. Hank had no idea what it meant—Miguel had not offered an explanation, beyond that it would convince her that they had seen him—but it made her blush profusely. “I’ll. . .let me. . .hold on,” she stammered, seeming to have lost her poise. She picked up the phone behind the desk and turned her back toward Hank and Sheila while she spoke in low tones. When she hung up, she said, “Room 117.” * * * The weather was warm for the first week of December, but that wasn’t the cause of Sheila’s sweaty palms as she stood with Hank in front of the greenish-gray door. She didn’t know why she was so nervous. If Diana’s aunt was feeling at all hostile toward them, she wouldn’t have given away her room number to them, would she have? Maybe it was the prospect of finding Diana in some horrible living environment. Or worse, of not finding Diana there at all. What if Rosa had left her niece with someone else, without Miguel’s authorization or knowledge? “Want me to knock?” Sheila wiped her hands on her jeans. “No, it’s okay.” She took a deep breath and rapped on the door. Seconds later, she stood face to face with the same woman who had practically dragged Diana out of the homeless shelter a week earlier. Rosa’s dark eyes were filled with trepidation, and her glance darted from Hank to Sheila to the space behind them, as if checking to make sure they were alone. For a long, nerve-wracking moment Sheila thought Rosa was going to slam the door in their faces. Instead, she said in lightly accented English, “Come in. Quick.” As Rosa closed the door behind them, Sheila scanned the room for Diana, easily spotting her on the floor next to the sink where she played with a rag doll and a stuffed bear. Diana looked up, startled. “Teacher?” Holding the doll in her arms, she got up and made a move toward Sheila, all smiles. Then as though she’d run into an invisible wall, she halted, glancing toward Rosa. The beam on her face faded, and she sat back down on the boundary where the cracked linoleum next to the sink and the stained, faded carpet of the rest of the room met. Her eyes downcast, she muttered, “I—never mind.” What has this woman been telling her? Diana had been ready to run to her and hug her, but obviously had had prior warning against any such greeting. Sheila felt a piercing stab of anger. Rosa must have told her some outrageous lie to get her to treat her teacher like that. Sheila knew better than to take it personally, but she did. If she was going to get anywhere with this woman, she had to keep her emotion from showing. “I guess you can find a seat,” Rosa said, indicating the bed and two rickety chairs next to an equally shabby table. Sheila sat in one of the chairs, forcing herself to smile, and Hank sat in the other. Rosa sat on the bed, facing them. “I was going to tell Perla to tell you that I wasn’t here,” Rosa said, “but I know that you seen my brother, and it wouldn’t be no use.” She was dressed similarly to how she had been on Thanksgiving, tight fitting jeans and a snug shirt that rode above her belly. Today she had on tennis shoes instead of spiked heels, and her jet-black hair hung loosely over her shoulders, framing a face of delicate, olive-complexioned features. She was definitely what they would call a knock-out. Sheila couldn’t help but wonder what Hank must be thinking. “I know it’s really none of my business,” she said, struggling to stay calm, “but I got worried when you ran off with Diana, and then she didn’t come back to school.” Rosa looked down at her hands. “My job is not,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper, “how can I say it, the kind good girls have.” Sheila swallowed down a gasp. So the apartment manager was right? Rosa was a prostitute? She glanced at Hank, who raised an eyebrow in reply. “So I was very lucky they let me keep Diana for a couple of weeks. But when I lost the apartment, I was so afraid they would take her away, put her in foster care, you know?” Rosa raised her head, and twisted her neck to glimpse at Diana, who still sat staring at the floor. “She’s almost like a daughter to me. I would hate for anything to happen to her.” Choked by the rising anger, Sheila struggled to speak. Rosa really believed Diana was better off. . .here? Watching her commit God-knows-what kind of sin in the name of making a living? She wanted to berate the woman for her ignorance, or selfishness, whichever the case was. But she knew better than to speak her mind. She’d come to persuade her to return to the shelter, let Diana return to school, not to antagonize her. “Your brother will be out in a few days,” she finally managed to say. “By the time the courts knew anything, she’d be back in his custody.” Rosa frowned. “You think because I’m not as educated as you, I don’t think of such things.” She raised her voice, edged with offense. “You think I’m stupid and irrational, is that it?” Sheila opened her mouth to respond, but Rosa continued, lifting an arm to thrust her finger at Sheila. “You’re the reason I ran. You found out that Diana was homeless, and you could have had the police on my trail like that.” She snapped her fingers inches away from Sheila’s face, then leaned back and crossed her arms over her chest. Sheila barely noticed Hank’s comforting hand alighting on her shoulder. She sat in shocked silence for several seconds. Why had Rosa assumed she would call the authorities? “I’m sure you have some reason for thinking that,” Sheila said, “but I never even considered it.” She narrowed her eyes. “Is there any particular reason I should have?” Rosa abruptly stood, then turned to face the wall above the dresser opposite the bed. Then she turned back, her expression resigned. “Most people don’t approve of my career choice. Including me, I might add. Dancing in a topless club—” “You do that, too?” Hank asked the question that hung on the tip of Sheila’s tongue. “Too?” Rosa’s eyebrows furrowed. “That’s the only job I got. How many you think I can handle all at once?” Sheila looked at Hank, but he averted his eyes and took his hand off her shoulder, the silent refusal to answer Rosa coming through loud and clear. Sheila scowled. Thanks a lot. Turning back to Rosa, she began, “Well, when I first started looking for you, I talked to your apartment manager—” “Oh, God. Let me guess. She told you I was a hooker.” Sheila glanced at Diana, who had not moved, and appeared to be not hearing any of the conversation. Sheila knew better, and could only pray that she didn’t understand the vocabulary being used. “Not in so many words,” she said to Rosa, “but, basically, yeah, that’s what she meant.” Rosa let out a long sigh, then dropped back down on the bed. “No wonder you were freaking out.” She lowered her voice again. “I ain’t no virgin, but I ain’t. . .that, either. And I sure wouldn’t expose a young child to anything like. . .that.” Sheila felt relieved and embarrassed at the same time. “I. . .I’m so sorry about the misunderstanding. Still, I wouldn’t have tattled on you. I just wanted to help if I could.” Rosa stared at her as a tense silence filled the room. “I don’t get it.” Her eyebrows scrunched downward in a skeptical glare. “Why do you care so much about Diana? Or do you always try to rescue your students from things that ain’t none of your business? Don’t got much of a social life, do you?” “No, but I’ve got Jesus.” Where did that come from? No matter; it was said, and Sheila could only wait for a reaction. She felt Hank’s hand return to her shoulder, and she wondered if he was smiling. But she didn’t want to take her eyes off Rosa. To do so now would take away from the conviction of her words. The skeptical expression became a startled one. Sheila waited for it to become angry, was surprised when it relaxed instead. Finally, Rosa turned her body around toward the sink. “Diana, come say hello to your teacher.” At first Diana hesitated, staring at her aunt with wide eyes. But when Rosa nodded her reassurance, Diana jumped up and ran to Sheila. “Hello, Miss Carson,” she said, wrapping her arms around Sheila’s waist. Then she released her hold to hand her the doll. “This is Maria. She’s my mejor amiga in the world.” Sheila took the proffered doll, blinking back tears. “Hello, Maria. So nice to meet you.” She turned to Rosa as Diana introduced the toy to Hank. “I’m not required to report a child’s guardian losing their housing, only suspected abuse or neglect.” She glanced at Diana and Hank, who was having a ridiculous conversation with the doll that had Diana in a fit of giggles. “She’s obviously being well-taken care of. But she needs to go to school.” Rosa nodded, biting her lower lip, watching Diana interact with Hank for a few moments before she called the girl over to her. “Mami,” she said, lifting her up into her lap, “are you ready to go back to Miss Carson’s class?” Diana’s face could have rivaled the Alaskan northern lights display. “Sí, Tía Rosa. Tomorrow?” Rosa looked from Sheila to Hank. “I’ll need a ride getting back tonight. The same boyfriend that swindled me out of my rent money wrecked my car, too.” Hank arose and gave a dramatic bow. “Cowboy Cab, at your service, madam.” * * * About fifteen minutes into the drive back to Fort Worth, Rosa said, “You two sure make a cute couple. How long have you known each other, anyway?” Sheila glanced at Hank, who winked at her. Embarrassed, she twisted around to look at Rosa, sitting with Diana in the back seat. “We’re not. . .a couple. We just. . .we both teach at Roosevelt. Hank offered to help me. Find Diana.” With every word she felt more flustered, wishing she could crawl into the glove compartment. She didn’t know why; for Rosa to assume they were involved in some way was perfectly natural. They hadn’t bothered to clarify their relationship earlier. Rosa gave her a smug smile. “Then you wouldn’t mind,” she said, tapping Hank’s shoulder, “if I invite him to come to the club where I work.” Sheila grinned as Hank stammered a reply. “I—I’m a Christian man.” Was his face turning red? “And?” Yes, it is. He’s blushing! The realization instantly relieved Sheila of her discomfort. “The Bible says not to forn—” Sheila jabbed his right arm before he could finish the word, making the car weave slightly. “There’s a Kindergartner in the car, remember?” she asked him with a hoarse whisper. “Honey, I know what the Bible says.” It was Rosa who now winked at Sheila as she continued addressing Hank in a seductive tone. “But even Christian men have needs, if you know what I mean.” “I don’t. . .I mean, the Lord—” Then Sheila saw what Rosa was doing, coughed into her hand to cover up her laughter. “Relax, honey,” Rosa said, “I’m just giving you a hard time.” Diana’s aunt sat back, and a shadow crossed her face. “If there were more men like you in the world, I might—never mind.” The regret in her voice was unmistakable. She obviously wanted out of her lot in life. Sheila couldn’t let the opportunity pass by. She turned back to Rosa, her voice quiet as she began, “Jesus can—” Rosa interrupted with a flurry of Spanish curse words. Diana looked up at her, startled. “I knew I shouldn’ta said nothing.” She spat out the words as if they left an offensive taste in her mouth. “Listen, I’ve heard it all before. Believe it or not, I’ve even prayed before. A lot of good it’s done me.” “But if—” “If there is a God, He obviously don’t want nothing to do with me, okay? If you can’t shut up about it, then leave me and Diana right here and we’ll hitchhike our way back.” The lightened atmosphere of a few minutes earlier was now overcome by an invisible dark cloud. It’s gonna be a fun ride back now. I’m sorry if I missed You, Lord. She began to apologize to Rosa, but Diana beat her to the punch. “But it did do good.” Rosa’s reaction was as sharp as her look. “What?” Diana did not even flinch. “I prayed. I asked God to help me get back to school. And He did.” Rosa scowled at her niece for a long moment. Sheila hoped she wasn’t going to scold her or try to explain Diana’s experience away. But finally, Rosa shook her head, dropped her gaze to her lap, and didn’t speak for the rest of the trip. * * * The first thing Hank did after dropping Rosa and Diana off at the shelter was to leave a message at the jail for Miguel that his sister and daughter were back in Fort Worth. The second thing he did was notice a gnawing hunger in his stomach. He looked at his watch. Six-fifteen? As usual, he’d lost track of the time, and he’d already missed the start of the Sunday evening service at his church. “Do you have any idea what time it is?” he asked Sheila as they began driving away from the jail. “Six-fourteen.” She wasn’t even looking at her watch. Amazing. “I’m late for church.” Not that that was anything new, although he did have to get there early most Sunday mornings for band practice. “I’m going to miss my small group meeting.” She turned to Hank and smiled. “But for once I don’t care.” Hank gave her a sideways glance. Did she mean that she preferred being with him? Or that— “Getting Diana back safely was more important.” Shucks. He kept his voice cheerful to cover up his disappointment. “Why do you care, anyway?” “What?” “You never answered Rosa’s question.” He turned left at a light. “Why you care so much about Diana. You’ve known her, what, four months now?” Sheila turned to gaze out the window and didn’t respond for a long time. Had he inadvertently offended her? He couldn’t see how he could have. Being referred to as a caring individual was usually considered a compliment. Maybe he’d phrased the question in a way that seemed intrusive. He reviewed his words in his mind, his tone of voice, but couldn’t figure it out. He’d decided to let the matter drop, when she spoke. And when she did, he could hear the cold distance in her voice that signaled an end to the discussion. “I told you,” she said, “I had safety concerns. That’s all.” No, that wasn’t all, or else she wouldn’t have become so defensive about it. But Hank knew better than to pry. “Mind if I change to a subject near to my heart?” he asked. “My stomach.” The joke might as well have fallen on deaf ears. Sheila shifted in her seat, the expression on her face remaining closed. Hank resisted the urge to frown. He was missing something, something important, and it bothered him. Although he didn’t know why. He barely knew Sheila. Why should she trust him with every detail of her life? “I was just wondering,” he ventured, “if you’d like to stop somewhere to eat.” He paused. “TGI Fridays, maybe.” “No. I’d just rather go home.” Sheila turned and gave him a polite smile. “Thanks, though.” They had spent the entire weekend together, looking for a lost child. They must have been cooped up in the car for a total of over three hours, and, until now, had spoken with the ease of two friends. The sudden change in Sheila’s manner didn’t fit. Yet as tempted as Hank felt to probe her about it, he knew it would most likely push her further away. The remaining twenty minutes to Sheila’s apartment felt like an eternity. And when he got there, and began to exit in order to open her door, she shot him a warning glance. “I can let myself out, thank you.” What had he said to earn the cold shoulder? “Hey, Miss Carson,” he said. She stopped with one foot on the pavement and turned back to him. “For what it’s worth, I appreciate what you tried to tell Diana’s aunt. It took a lot of courage.” For a brief moment, the wall went down and gratitude filled her eyes. Then she shrugged, turned her back to him, and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” She shut the door and walked away without so much as a wave. CHAPTER 9 As soon as her key was in the apartment door, Sheila felt guilty about her behavior. Hank had given up his entire weekend to help her find Diana, and she didn’t even bother to give him a heartfelt thank you, or at least look at him to say good-bye. Well, at least she hadn’t lied to him about where she lived. The thought had tempted her when he first offered to pick her up and drive them both to the jail. She knew the names of all the complexes within a four-block area; she could have picked one, high-stepped over to it and had Hank meet her there. But after Friday night, she became well-convinced he was a man of integrity and he would never try to take advantage of the fact that he knew where she lived. Besides, although she could hide her emotions well enough, she was a horrible liar. She turned to see if Hank’s car was still sitting in the drive, but it was gone. She sighed, and pushed the door open. He would be home in about fifteen seconds. She could call him then. What are you thinking? She barely knew him; she’d thanked him after they left Diana and Rosa at the shelter; she was under no obligation to be Miss Congeniality in his presence. Especially when he’d asked a question she was unable to answer without opening a Pandora’s Box of memories. Why do you care, anyway? She could tell Hank hadn’t bought her answer, that she had safety concerns for the girl. To his credit, he had let well enough alone. If he had tried to press the issue, she might have told him to let her out and call a cab. But he hadn’t. And Sheila sensed it was not indifference on his part. If she’d learned nothing else the last couple days, it was that Hank seemed to be compassionate and selfless. He’d never said one negative or critical thing, never complained about the time involved to track Rosa down—in fact, the whole time he acted as if he had preplanned giving up forty-eight hours of his life to aid Sheila in her self-assigned task. A fly on the wall in his Grand Am would have mistaken them for good friends. Her mind was so focused on these thoughts, that she didn’t notice the beeping of her answering machine until she had locked the door behind her, thrown her purse on the couch, and headed for the kitchen to fix a sandwich. She pushed the play button. “Shel, this is Gary.” Sheila held her breath. Something hadn’t happened to her mother, had it? The last time her brother had called her, she was in college, and he bore the horrible news of their father’s sudden and fatal heart attack. “Mom really wants you to come home this Christmas. I mean, we. . .okay, look, just call me, would you, please? So we can talk about this?” Sheila hit the erase button before he could rattle off his phone number. She wasn’t going to talk to him any more than she was going to talk to her mother. If anything, she was less willing to talk to any of her siblings. After all, they were the ones who had blamed her—still blamed her—even though Gary was the first one to snap out of it and try to reestablish their relationship. By the time he did, it was too late, as far as Sheila was concerned. The damage was done; she’d made a tragic mistake, and felt that, at some level, her brother and sisters’ ostracization of her was well-deserved. She moved to Texas, hoping to escape the heavy load of guilt and depression, only finding some relief when she started attending church with Margaret three years ago. Still, the burden weighed on her, and she fought to lighten it by throwing herself into her job and various church functions. And trying to save children who looked like her cousin-once-removed, Lorena. * * * “Just checking to see if Diana made it to school today.” Sheila had left her classroom door open, and at the sound of Hank’s voice, looked up with a start. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you.” Hank ambled in, grabbed a chair and turned it backwards to straddle it. The chair was much too short for him, and his long legs dangled out either side like loose strands of spaghetti. “You can’t scare me. I teach in the inner city.” Sheila set the scissors down, happy to take a break from cutting the paper poinsettias for the PTA Christmas program. Hank laughed. “That would make a great bumper sticker slogan.” Sheila smiled. “Or T-shirt. Yes, she did.” And thanks for asking. That he’d bothered to come all the way down to her room to do so proved that he really did care about what happened the past couple days. Especially considering how she’d left him. She cringed at the thought. “Listen, Hank, yesterday I—” “Sheila, are you—I’m sorry.” Margaret now framed the doorway. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.” “No problem, Ms., um. . .” “Kennebrew.” Margaret gave Hank an understanding smile. “You’ll get everybody’s name by Spring Break.” Hank grinned sheepishly as he got up. “Anyway, Ms. Kennebrew, I was just leaving. I’ll see you later, Miss Carson.” Margaret stepped aside to allow Hank to pass by, then raised an eyebrow at Sheila. “He seems to know your name pretty well.” She entered the room and sat down, questioning Sheila with her eyes. Sheila heaved a dramatic sigh. “You might as well know. We’ve fallen madly in love and are getting married this Saturday.” Instead of laughing, Margaret took on a pensive look. “I could see that happening.” The seriousness of her tone flustered Sheila. She wasn’t ready for that kind of a relationship. Wasn’t sure if she ever would be. Besides, Hank was destined to be no more than a friend to her. But even as she said, “He’s not my type,” she felt a stirring on the inside, a whisper of why not? She pushed it down, feeling uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation. She decided she’d better change the subject, if only slightly. “I haven’t had a chance to tell you what happened this weekend.” She glanced at the open door, and went over to shut it. The hallways of the school had ears, and she didn’t need anybody—other than her best friend—to know about her weekend excursion. By the time she finished the story, Margaret’s eyebrows were clear to the top of her forehead. “I had no idea. I knew you were trying to see if she’d transferred to another school, but. . .” Then her eyebrows knit together as she tilted her head. “Sheila, do you think it’s wise to get so personally involved with the family life of a student?” Sheila sat back, appalled. “You’re the last person I’d expect to say that.” She stood up, feeling dismayed. “I believed Diana’s life was in danger. Don’t you think—” “I’m not just talking about this weekend.” Margaret’s voice remained calm. “Every day you have something to say about her, as if she were your own little girl.” She pursed her lips. “We need to love our kids and nurture them as best we can in the classroom, yes, but what you’re doing. . . I don’t think it’s healthy. For either one of you.” Sheila did not want to blow up at her best friend, but the anger simmering just beneath the surface of her emotions was about to boil. She’d always been able to count on Margaret to support her, even when she’d made mistakes. Suddenly, she felt like Margaret was pulling a chair out from under her. She bent her head over the poinsettias once again. “What were you going to ask me when you first came in?” Margaret regarded her silently for a long moment, as if debating whether to pursue the subject. She must have vetoed the idea, since she finally just said, “I was wondering if you were ready to hang up your poinsettias, but you’re obviously not.” She got up and headed toward the door. “I’ll be in the auditorium, decorating, if you. . .well, if you want to talk about anything.” Sheila gave her a cursory wave as she left, shutting the door behind her. Then she set the scissors down, pushed the paper aside, and buried her head in her arms. * * * His daughter was back in Fort Worth. Miguel’s shoulders slumped in relief as the deputy who had just given him the message walked away, the jingling of his keys echoing down the concrete passageway. He would have to find those two teachers and thank them when they got out. Man, you are losing it now. That’s probably exactly what they hoped he would do. And then, BAM! They’d be all over him like flies on a day-old burrito, trying to convince him to give them something for their heroic efforts. He wondered if they’d had to use the fourth of July line on Perla. When he told them to mention it if she proved uncooperative, they both had stared at him as if he’d asked them to commit blackmail. It wasn’t like that at all. He had had to fight off Perla’s advances at a volleyball game last Fourth of July. She stalked off, insulting his manhood in several different ways. The barbs stung, and against his better judgment he went after her. Accosting her by the beer cooler, he grabbed her arm, shook her, and said, “My Marcela is a better woman in death than you could ever be in life. Your kind will never be able to live up to the goodness and grace she carried.” At that point, Perla’s face paled as Miguel dropped her arm. She muttered some sort of apology and hurried off without a beer, not looking back. Miguel was sure the incident had had enough of an impact to stay in her mind, and since no one else knew about it—as far as he was aware—he knew that hearing it mentioned would prove to her that he was indeed the messenger when the two teachers showed up at the motel registration desk. He turned around and shuffled back to the hard bed where he’d been sitting just before the deputy showed up with the news. The three musketeers had taken over, and now glowered at him in a silent dare to try to get his place back. They seemed to be asking for a fight. They wouldn’t get any from him. He was going back to his daughter, safe and sound and with as clean a record as possible. He shrugged, resignedly walking over to the other side of the cell where Will sat, talking a million miles an hour to a new cellmate. Just a few more days, he thought, rubbing at a sore spot on his abdomen. Just a few more. * * * “It’s been way too long.” Hank hesitated, then began to extend his hand. Barbara’s shrill laugh was like music to his ears. “Come here, you.” She grabbed him with both arms and pulled him toward her, giving him a sisterly hug, the way she greeted everyone she knew. The butterflies in Hank’s stomach diminished slightly, and he offered to take her bag as they began to push their way through the last-minute Christmas shopping mob crowding the mall. “No way,” she said, snatching the bag from his grasp. “This is. . .somebody’s Christmas gift.” “Oh,” Hank said, smiling, “and would I happen to know who this somebody is?” Barbara kept a straight face. “Maybe.” Within a couple minutes Hank completely relaxed as they fell into easy conversation, as if they’d just seen each other last week. After Hank had replied to her first letter, she had written again, then he had asked her if she was going to be in Austin for Christmas – he would be there to spend the holiday with his folks – and if so, could they meet for lunch. When she’d written back, “yes,” the nervousness had begun. Would she be different? Would he act different? Would memories of the past wedge themselves between them, and keep them at an awkward distance? He wanted so badly to reestablish their friendship, feeling guilty for having let it slip away in the first place, that he, the man with a stomach that emptied into hollow legs, had barely eaten the day before. Now, as he dodged a bouquet of helium balloons being toted by a child, relief washed over him. This was the Barbara he knew before the plane crash, teasing, carefree, and compassionate. He was happy to see that time and God did seem to have healed her wounds, although he would never mention it. No need to put a damper on their fresh start as good friends. They had to wait forty-five minutes to get seated at the Outback Steakhouse. “Lord almighty,” Hank said, keeping his hands in his pocket to avoid elbowing the other restaurant patrons sitting and standing all around him, “I’ve never gone out for lunch on Christmas Eve day before. Who’d ever’ve guessed what a madhouse it would be?” “All the shoppers need to eat somewhere.” Barbara shifted in her seat, adjusting her crinkled red and gold skirt that flowed down to her ankles. She always was one of the best-dressed young ladies in church. Even on the mission field, her work clothes were coordinated in a kind of rugged elegance. “Well, we might as well take this opportunity to catch up with each other,” she continued. “How do you like teaching in Fort Worth?” Hank pushed himself against the wall to let a couple with three small children get by. “It’s great. I love it.” The two swapped stories of their new careers—his as a teacher, hers as a small town paralegal—until the hostess called them to their table. They’d been served and eating for about five minutes when Barbara raised her head and said, “I’m so glad you wrote back, Hank.” Her eyes glistened with moisture, her smile trembled. Has she always been that beautiful? The thought startled Hank so that he paused in the middle of chewing a juicy piece of meat. When he’d first developed feelings for her a few years earlier, they were based mostly on the deep bond of friendship and shared interests. Sure, he’d thought she was pretty, but he’d never considered her any sort of ravishing beauty. Until that moment. Whoa, there, cowboy. It’s only because she’s showing her vulnerable side. He always was a sucker for crying women. He swallowed, chasing the lump down with a gulp of iced tea. “Me, too.” He made himself look at her nose rather than into her eyes. He didn’t want to confuse his emotions any further. “I have a stupid question.” “Never say that to a teacher,” Hank said. “You know what we’re going to say.” Barbara wiped the corner of her mouth with a napkin. “No question is stupid if you don’t know the answer?” Hank winked. “Try, ‘stupid is as stupid does.’” A mischievous grin crossing her face, Barbara picked up a broccoli floweret from her plate and threw it at him. “Bull’s eye,” she said, as it bounced off his chest. “Give me fifty push-ups,” he said with mock sternness, as he would to a rowdy student. “Seriously,” Barbara said, the grin disappearing as quickly as it had appeared. “I’m just curious.” She glanced downward and pursed her lips, as if struggling with what she was about to say. When she looked back up, her dark eyes pierced through him. “Have you ever considered, you know, going back?” Going back where, he wanted to ask, just to procrastinate having to answer. He knew what she meant—to the mission field—but had hoped she wouldn’t bring up the subject. What if that was why she had agreed to meet him? What if she had plans to return to a missionary career, and wanted him to go with her? Then they would have to go their separate ways, and that would be that. He was never going to serve as a missionary again. Not for anyone. Not for any reason. Ever. “I’ve never considered it,” he finally said, trying to keep his tone even, “because I’m through with it.” He shoved a forkful of baked potato into his mouth to avoid saying more. Barbara nodded, eyes squinting in a thoughtful expression. “I can see the topic is still painful, so I won’t say anything else, except to say that I’m with you.” Hank paused in his chewing. She was with him. Meaning, she was also through with the missionary world. Which for some reason, brought him a sense of relief. Neither spoke for the next few minutes, concentrating on their food. Then, out of the blue, Barbara asked, “Have you met anyone?” Hank nearly dropped his fork. Why on God’s green earth would she ask that question? And how was he supposed to answer? Yes, I’ve met another teacher, and even though she’s warm one moment and cold as ice the next, I think about her frequently. And, by the way, she might be just as beautiful as you are. Uh-uh. No way José was he going to mention Sheila. Not as anyone special, anyway. As far as he knew, they would never be more than friends. On the other hand, maybe she wanted to use his answer as a segue to bring up a someone special in her life. He half wished she would. Then he could let go of his budding feelings for her and chock it up to infatuation. Or maybe she’s just expressing a caring interest in my life, like she always has with her friends, Hank chided himself. He needed to stop analyzing everything she said. It was about to give him indigestion. “Nah,” he said. “All the pretty girls are in Dallas.” Before he finished speaking, he felt a pinprick of guilt. He couldn’t imagine finding a more attractive woman in Dallas than Sheila, and he felt somehow disloyal in acting as if she didn’t exist. But he couldn’t get himself to tell Barbara about her, despite an inner prodding to do so. “No,” he reiterated, “I haven’t met anyone. Not yet.” CHAPTER 10 Sheila had to stop in Sweetwater for gas on her way back to Fort Worth. The pumps were the old-fashioned kind with numbers that rotated mechanically, so there was no pay-at-the-pump option there. “Headin’ back from Christmas with your family?” Sheila’s signature on the receipt suddenly became dark and almost illegible. “No.” She struggled not to snap at the elderly clerk. After all, he was just being friendly. “They’re a long ways a way.” She pushed the slip of paper toward him, forcing a smile. “So I thought I’d do a little sightseeing.” “In El Paso, I’d be willing to bet.” She nodded. She’d arrived at the west Texas city the evening of the twenty-fourth, spent a miserable and lonely Christmas—highlighted by dinner at a local family restaurant—and headed back early the next morning. She’d planned to stay longer, but she’d quickly discovered why Margaret had once referred to El Paso as a “hole in the wall.” If she couldn’t have the lush Minnesota countryside, she’d take the sprawling, fast-paced DFW metroplex any day over the barren west Texas landscape. She returned the clerk’s greetings for a happy new year and went back out to her car. She was anxious to get back. She planned to spend the next several days in her empty classroom, cleaning and reorganizing. She would spend a day with Margaret just before New Year’s, but not until then, since Margaret thought she was in Minnesota for Christmas. She was the only teacher she knew of who went in during vacations to work in her classroom, and she would really rather be somewhere other than school on her days off, but she had to do something to fill the time. As she started back down the highway, a new thought crossed her mind. I could volunteer at the church. She didn’t know why she hadn’t thought of it before. She would call the pastor’s secretary as soon as— “Oh, my Lord Jesus!” Sheila slammed on her brakes. The car in front of her had begun to swerve from one side of the road to the other, nearly sideswiping her. Thankful that there was no one behind her, she eased over to the shoulder, as much to regain her composure as to see if she could help the other driver, who had managed to maneuver the car to the shoulder and come to a stop. An elderly woman, probably around eighty years old, sat at the wheel, shaking. “I don’t know what happened,” she said when Sheila motioned for her to open the window. “This has never happened to me before. Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t hit you, did I? Did you see what happened? Did I lose a tire?” “Don’t worry, I’m all right.” Sheila gave the tires a cursory glance. “And I can’t see anything wrong with your tires.” Unless the lady had just lost control and was afraid to admit it, Sheila was as perplexed as she was about the cause of the problem. “There’s a gas station about ten miles back. Can I give you a ride there?” Thirty minutes later, having left the woman in a calmer state, awaiting a tow truck, Sheila once again passed the spot where the near-miss had occurred. She looked at the now vacated vehicle. It was fairly sporty for someone the age of the woman who’d been driving it, and appeared to be in good condition. Sheila shook her head, still wondering what had happened. Thank You, Lord, for protecting us both. As her prayer went up, another car and an SUV whizzed by her, oblivious to the speed limit. A moment later, a truck passed her. Then she realized: when the lady lost control of her car, Sheila had been the only other vehicle on the road. Suddenly, the highway was thick with traffic. What if it had been like that a half an hour earlier, when the lady’s car was sweeping from one lane to the opposite lane? And where had the traffic gone during those moments, anyway? As she reviewed the scenario in her mind, she was able to recall that as soon as she and the elderly woman had pulled over, several cars passed by. She remembered because she had prayed for them to move out of the right lane. But while the car was out of control. . . Tears sprang to Sheila’s eyes. She’d heard stories before about people whose lives were spared, or who experienced frightening near misses, and subsequently rearranged their priorities. For the first time, Sheila understood why. She could have been killed, or at least injured. But she was alive. Most certainly the other woman would have died had there been the flow of traffic Sheila was driving through now. She was alive. Sheila didn’t deserve to be spared her life. God did it anyway. Suddenly, she didn’t care about cleaning her classroom, didn’t care that she’d just spent another Christmas alone, didn’t care that she was going home to an empty apartment. She was happy to be alive. “Lord, thank You,” she said, wiping her cheek with the back of her hand, and proceeded to list every blessing she could think of, from being able to walk to having a steadily paying job. . .to her family. She had been nothing but ungrateful toward her mother lately, and she felt a stab a guilt. She’d been acting selfishly. In that moment, she decided to make things right. She owed it to her mother, who’d never asked for the heart-wrenching position she was in now, playing middleman between Sheila and her siblings. And she owed it to God. * * * By leaving El Paso before dawn, Sheila made it back to Fort Worth by nine that evening. As she dragged her suitcase into the apartment, she heard the telltale “beep” of her answering machine. “Hi, Miss—I mean, Sheila, it’s me.” Hank. Sheila felt an unexpected warm glow at the sound of his voice. “I guess you’ve ridden off into the sunset for the holiday. Anyway, I just wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas. I’ll be back the twenty-eighth if you want to shoot the breeze or anything. God bless.” How sweet. The day after they’d found Rosa and Diana, he’d walked up to her after the faculty meeting and began chatting with her as though he’d either forgotten or forgiven her utter rudeness of the day before. She had fought not to show her amazement; if someone had been as curt to her as she had been to Hank, she would have steered cleared of them, at least for the next forty-eight hours or so. But Hank just walked up to her and started talking like they’d known each other for much longer than a weekend. Sheila decided that if he could let the uncomfortable incident go, so could she. So since then, they’d visited with each other often before and after school, making small talk or discussing the ups and downs of inner city teaching. During the last conversation before Christmas Break, Sheila had finally convinced him to call her by her given name. She hated being called Miss Carson by other adults, although she would tolerate it from co-workers who were just that—co-workers. Hank was no longer just a co-worker. Deleting the message, she took off her coat, then faced the telephone again, feeling butterflies swarm in her stomach. Why are you so nervous? Mom’ll do cartwheels if you call. She glanced at her watch. Nine-fifteen. It was getting a little late. And the day before had been Christmas. She might still be trying to wind down— Chicken. You’re just afraid Linda or April will answer. And what then? Didn’t she want to try to reconcile with them? Maybe they wanted reconciliation as much as she did, but were too ashamed or afraid to make the first move. Maybe they were waiting for her to initiate it. Anyway, April was probably staying in a motel. And if Linda answered. . . Taking a deep breath, Sheila picked up the receiver and dialed her mother’s number. “Hello?” For a moment, Sheila couldn’t speak. She hadn’t expected Gary to answer. “Hello?” he repeated. Sheila swallowed. “Hi, Gare. It’s me. Shelly.” “Shel? Wow. Mom’ll be thrilled. They’re all in the family room. Let me—” “No, wait.” Sheila had to fight the urge to hang up. All? So Linda and April were there, too. For some reason, the idea unnerved her as much as it would if they were in the next room. She wanted to delay Gary from calling them. She needed to get herself together. “I can talk to you for a minute. How’s contracting going?” “We’re doing great. How are the kids?” “Fine.” And Sheila could think of nothing more to say. Absolutely nothing. It was as though whatever powered her brain had become unplugged. “Uh, why don’t I go get Mom?” Gary sounded as uncomfortable as she felt. Her mother was on the phone less than a minute later, out of breath for having raced, no doubt, up the steps. The family room was in the basement. “Sheila, sweetheart, is it really you?” “Yes, it is.” Sheila went into the living room and sank onto her love seat, the butterflies finally settling. “I wanted to say. . .I’m sorry.” She felt strangely unemotional as she said it, almost indifferent. The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference. The phrase she’d heard her pastor say several times rang through her mind, and Sheila felt a frown pinch her features. What had happened to her epiphany this afternoon, that her family was of utmost priority? “Oh, Shelly.” Her mother sighed. “It’s been hard. For all of us. I can’t say I know what you’ve been going through, but I can empathize.” “I appreciate it, Mom.” Sheila could only hope her voice conveyed more gratitude than she felt at that moment. What was her problem? A little while ago, she’d been in tears, thrilled to be alive. Had the long drive completely drained her? Somehow, she muddled her way through a few minutes of small talk, all the while praying. She wanted to feel something, anything, but it was as though she were talking to a stranger about the paint drying on the wall. She wished she hadn’t called, had lost every desire to reconnect with her sisters. She had made up her mind to end the conversation and hang up when her mother interrupted with, “Wait, sweetheart, Linda just came up.” A long pause. Sheila’s neck muscles constricted. When her mother continued, her tone was softer, hesistant. “Would you—do you think—” “Yeah.” Sheila’s mouth felt dry. She cleared her throat. “I’d like to talk to her.” She sank back into the cushions, glad to be sitting down. Jesus, please. . . Her mother’s muffled voice called, “Linda, Sheila’s on the phone. She wants to talk to you.” Another long pause. Sheila’s heart began to race. Then, for the first time in three years, Sheila heard her youngest sister’s voice. Still muffled, but clear enough. She must have gone to stand right next to the phone. And when Linda spoke, the words went through Sheila like a bayonet. “Tell her I don’t talk to murderers.” “Linda, for crying out loud—” Sheila heard no more. She hit the “talk” button, hanging up, and let the receiver slide out of her hand, too numb to hang on. Murderer. The accusation was utterly ridiculous. Linda must not have gotten everything she wanted for Christmas. Or had PMS. Or something. The phone rang again. Sheila did not want to touch it, but she knew in three rings, the machine would pick up, and there would be her mother again, begging her to answer. She pushed herself off the love seat and went over to her phone, unplugging the line from the wall. That should have been enough, but as she stared at the phone, its very silence seemed to mock her. You can’t escape the past. It is with you forever. Murderer. In an instant, the numbness lifted, and Sheila found herself shaking, with frustration, with fear. . .with fury. She picked up the base of the telephone, and with a chilling scream, slammed it to the floor. When no pieces went flying, she became even more angry. Still wearing the tennis shoes in which she had traveled, she jumped up, landing on the base as hard as she could. The loud crack was not satisfying enough, so she did it again. She was about to jump a third time when she came to her senses. Glaring at the ceiling, she screamed several curse words, not caring if her neighbor on the second floor was home and listening. Then she sank to the floor, folded her knees to her chest, and cried. * * * Mothers were supposed to understand their children. If they’d breastfed them, nurtured them as babies, they were supposed to have a deep, lasting, unbreakable bond with them. A bond that carried them through any circumstance. A bond that enabled the mother to unconditionally empathize with whatever their child might experience. Somewhere, at some time, Evelyn Carson had read something to that effect. And over the past twenty-odd years, had found it to be the farthest thing from the truth. If Linda had been stronger, Evelyn would have chewed her out yesterday for the ghastly words she had spewed out in Sheila’s hearing. But she didn’t dare. Linda didn’t need any more stress in her life, even if she did deserve it. So Evelyn had said nothing, just let the anger stew inside of her until it grew to a slow boil. Now, she released her emotions via the vacuum cleaner, pushing it over the beige Berber carpet with all the force she could muster, and yanking it back as though it were a disobedient dog on a leash. She wasn’t sure what frustrated her more, Linda’s reaction to her sister, or her own inability to comprehend it. Evelyn thought back to the first few weeks after the accident that eventually caused Sheila’s relocation. She would go from one daughter to another, trying to convince each that it was neither one of their faults. What made the whole situation even harder for Evelyn was that Linda’s turmoil was entirely private. No one else knew that she felt just as guilty about the accident as Sheila did. Worse, she freely accused Sheila in front of other family members, never mentioning her own part. Evelyn winced as she slammed the vacuum cleaner into a piano leg. Leaning over to examine it, she spotted a small chip in it that hadn’t been there three seconds earlier. She grimaced. Good thing I don’t have Mother’s antique Baldwin. She switched off the machine and sank onto the piano bench. More pieces of furniture would be damaged if she continued her rampage. She decided to quit until she settled down. “Your knees bothering you again, Mom?” Evelyn glanced up sharply as Linda descended the stairway. “Not hardly.” “Fine. If you’re in that kind of mood, I’ll stay upstairs.” She turned around, taking a step up, holding the old woolen blanket wrapping her fragile frame as tightly as she could. These days, it was the only thing that kept her from shivering, despite always wearing a heavy acrylic sweater and sweatpants, despite Evelyn turning the thermostat up five degrees a couple weeks ago, when her daughter had begun complaining incessantly about how cold it was. The pathetic sight made Evelyn instantly regret her harsh tone. “Wait, honey. I’m sorry.” She arose, feeling the anger drain away. “Stay down. Please.” If she couldn’t get Linda to eat, at least she would make sure she didn’t withdraw completely from life. Linda stepped back down, not looking at her mother as she drifted toward the couch. She dropped into it like a limp rag doll, then, staring straight ahead, said in a flat tone, “April knows.” Thank God. Evelyn felt a ten-ton load fall off her shoulders. “You told her?” “She asked. Wouldn’t leave until I told her.” Evelyn walked over to the couch and perched on the armrest. If she sat down next to her daughter, the mere movement of the cushion might cause her pain. “How much did you tell her?” “Everything.” Then she jerked her head toward her mother, her mouth contorted into a stern frown. “But I swore her to secrecy. Just like you. I’m not telling anybody else. Understand? Nobody.” Evelyn understood. Gary was not to find out, nor Sheila, until Linda decided they should know. If that ever happened. She closed her eyes. Where was her carefree, loving, blossoming daughter in her prime, now replaced by this pale skeleton, so full of bitterness and hatred? And would she ever get her back? Evelyn opened her eyes, nodding. But Linda had curled up into a fetal position and was breathing deeply. Fighting the urge to reach down and take her into her arms, Evelyn unplugged the vacuum, wrapped up the cord, and headed for the bedroom, feeling like a total failure. CHAPTER 11 When Sheila didn’t return his phone call, Hank didn’t think twice about it until he saw her the day after break ended. She was headed into the office, he was headed out, and they nearly collided. “Fancy bumping into you here,” he quipped. Not until that moment did he realize how much he’d missed her over the past couple of weeks, despite being surrounded with family and friends most of the time, despite seeing Barbara again. “You never called. You got my message, didn’t you?” Her face colored and she glanced at the floor. “I—my phone died on me.” Oh, Lord, I embarrassed her by calling her. I stepped over the line. He’d only been calling as a friend, not thinking that she would take it as anything more. She obviously had. Not knowing what to say to rectify the situation, he said, “Did you try jumper cables?” Sheila looked up, unsmiling. “It really did.” She moved to enter the office. “And it takes me forever to pick out new machines. So I didn’t find one until the day before yesterday.” He waited in the hallway for her to sign in, feeling unsettled. She’d always laughed, or at least smiled, at his jokes. Either he was losing his touch, or something was seriously wrong. He wondered if he should ask her how everything was. He didn’t want to pry, but if she was carrying a heavy burden, he wanted to take some of the load off for her. Mrs. Kennebrew is the only soul she’ll tell if something’s upset her. Hank grimaced. Why did that thought bother him so much? As she came back out into the hall, he decided he’d try to get her to open up. “You waiting on me?” There was a heaviness in her tone, and she walked passed him without looking at him. Hank wavered. Every ounce of her body language dared anyone to try to come too close to her. Yet, her voice sounded more sad than cold. And she did speak to him. If she had wanted to avoid him altogether, she wouldn’t have said anything. He took a couple long strides to catch up with her. “Did you have a good break?” Sheila turned the corner and headed down the stairs. “As good as possible, I guess. You?” She gave him a brief glance without slowing down. Hank couldn’t ignore her loaded answer. “As good as possible?” They reached the bottom of the stairs, and Sheila stopped and glared at him. “I’m sure not nearly as good as yours.” She left him standing, watching her retreating figure in surprise. Even when she’d been upset about Diana missing, even when they’d kept hitting brick walls in their attempts to find her six weeks ago, she’d never been sarcastic or harsh. Something was definitely wrong. He hesitated, took a step in her direction, hesitated again, thinking that to go after her at that moment might not be the wisest thing to do. He turned around to head up to his classroom on the third floor, and almost ran into Diana’s aunt Rosa. “Have you seen Miss Carson?” she asked, her voice urgent. Hank pointed down the hallway. “She’s headed to her room right now.” He followed her as she hurried away, his curiosity getting the best of him. Had something happened to Diana? Her father? She hasn’t gotten herself kicked out of the shelter, has she? Sheila was turning the key in her door when they reached her. “Hello, Ms. Manriquez.” Hank raised an eyebrow at her sudden professional and friendly tone, but said nothing. “How can I help you?” Rosa’s eyes were filled with fear as she glanced up and down the hallway. “Can we talk in your room?” “Sure.” As much as he wanted to follow the women inside, Hank had been brought up with a strict sense of chivalry, and began to excuse himself as Rosa followed Sheila through the door. “Oh, no,” Rosa said, “you are part of this too. Please.” She gestured for Hank to enter the room, her expression still pinched with worry. Sheila pulled out chairs for herself and Rosa as Hank perched on top of a table, his long legs easily touching the floor. “Something hasn’t happened to Diana, has it?” Sheila maintained composure, but Hank could hear the edge of worry in her voice. “No, but it might.” Anger replaced the fear in Rosa’s eyes. “And it will be all her papá’s fault.” She uttered the one Spanish curse word that Hank knew. “But isn’t she with her father now?” Sheila voiced his question. Miguel Manriquez was supposed to have been released just before Christmas vacation. “She should have been.” Rosa threw up her hands, her delicate features twisted in frustration. “But no. He says he got business in Mexico to take care of. Doesn’t make it back for Christmas. Still not back.” Her face was turning red. “So I have to pretend I’m not mad, that everything’s okay, and try to make a good Christmas for my niece, telling her that I’m sure her papá will be back soon, and with lots of presents.” Both hands curled up into fists, and she brought them down into her lap with a huff. “She’s strong, that girl. Didn’t even cry one tear. She was even laughing part of the time when we played games or watched cartoons. Like we were the only ones in the world.” She uncurled her fists and sighed. Sheila gave Hank a what-is-this-world-coming-to glance. “So the problem is,” Rosa continued, “when I agreed to watch after Diana, I had to cut back on my work schedule quite a bit. Eddie, that’s my boss, he was okay with it for the two weeks I was supposed to have her. But when my lousy brother took off, man, stuff hit the fan. Eddie got mad. I’m not bragging or nothing, but he says I’m one of his best girls, and he’s gonna lose clientele if I don’t get back to work. So last night he told me I’d better work this weekend, every night, or..or else.” She looked down at her lap, obviously reluctant to say any more. Or else? What would Eddie do? Hank thought, but said nothing. In fact, for a whole minute no one spoke because the principal interrupted them with a barrage of announcements over the P.A. system. When the thunderous voice finally came to an abrupt stop, Sheila said, “Okay. And?” Rosa rolled her eyes. “And I need a babysitter. Somebody who will keep Diana Friday through Monday. And you’re the only person around here that I trust.” She winked at Hank. “I hope the two of you didn’t have anything hot and heavy planned this weekend.” Hank was ready this time. “What, like a chili cook-off?” Sheila smiled for the first time that morning. Rosa closed her eyes and shook her head. When she opened them, she looked at Sheila with an intense, pleading gaze. Hank wanted Sheila to say no. She had already gotten too involved with Diana, Hank believed. He’d mentioned it to Mrs. Kennebrew just before the break, and found out that she agreed with him. The families have to learn to be responsible for their kids, the older teacher had said, and the resources are out there. Sheila was making herself a codependent of the Manriquez family. Besides, as he sat listening to Diana’s aunt weaving her tale, he became convinced that that’s all it was—a tale. She’d tired of taking care of her niece, wanted to get back to having the night life to which she was accustomed, and was trying to dump Diana off on the first person who might take her. But he didn’t dare say anything out loud. He cast a warning glance in Sheila’s direction, but she ignored it. “I—I suppose I could do it,” she said. “I could just take her home with me after school on Friday.” “Thank you so much,” Rosa said as she stood up. “I owe you big. Oh, and there’s one more thing,” she added just before going out the door. “If my brother ever finds out about this, he’ll kill you.” * * * Sheila glanced at the innocent face sitting in the passenger seat of her Civic. Surely the loins who would bear such a docile, sweet child would not be capable of murder. She was certain that Rosa, who had not reappeared the entire week, was exaggerating when she gave her parting words. She probably just meant that Diana’s father might get upset. But Sheila had been hard-pressed to convince Hank of that, and he had spent the week trying to talk her out of taking Diana for the weekend. He had failed. “Why does it take so long to get to your church? Ours is only a little ways away,” Diana said as they drove toward north Fort Worth. She was commenting, not complaining. If every adult would take life in stride as much as Diana did, all wars would end. “I feel like it’s the place where God wants me to be.” Sheila had visited other churches since Margaret invited her to Abundant Grace Church three years ago, but none felt like home as did AGC. “Anyway, we’ll be there in about seven minutes.” “Oh.” Diana stared out the window. “How do you know if you’re in the place where God wants you?” The whole weekend had been like that. Philosophical and theological questions about everything Sheila did that was different from Diana’s world. Sheila had known Diana was smart, but now she was beginning to think she had a genius on her hands. The girl had a perspective that saw way beyond what much older children, even some savvy adults, did. “It’s hard to explain.” Sheila exited off the freeway. “Sometimes, I just know something, down in my gut. It’s like Jesus just put that knowing there. Other times, I have no idea what God wants, and He makes me struggle and scream and pray forever before I finally see it.” For the hundredth time in the past year, her vision as a missionary replayed itself in her mind. And for the hundredth time, she wondered if she had totally missed God, choosing the teaching profession. “You look pretty sad about it.” Sheila forced herself to smile. “I’m sorry. I was thinking about something else.” Diana sat quietly a short while before she said, “Papá says that a lot to me.” She looked up at Sheila, her wide chocolate eyes brimming with tears. “He doesn’t tell me, but I know he’s talking about Mamá. She died because of me, you know.” Sheila jerked her neck to look at Diana, swerving the car as she did. “I’m sure that’s not true.” Is it? “She died when she was borning me.” Diana’s mother died in childbirth. That explained a lot. Sheila reached her right hand over and rubbed Diana’s back. “Sweetie, that wasn’t your fault, you know that, don’t you?” Diana just shrugged, not making a sound as giant tears fell onto her little blue dress. “Papá said he still loves me anyway.” Sheila waited for her to say something like, if he loved her, why wasn’t he taking care of her, or why had he done something to get himself thrown in jail, or why had he missed Christmas with her. But she did not. As she gazed up at Sheila, she said, “I not cry ‘cause I think it’s my fault. I cry ‘cause I miss my Mamá.” Sheila wanted to respond. She wanted to give the child some words of comfort. But she couldn’t. A repressed sob caught in the back of her throat, rendering her speechless. Sheila missed her mama, too. * * * Judging by the way Diana stared wide-eyed at the band on the platform in the front of the sanctuary, Sheila surmised that she was used to attending a more traditional church. Sheila had offered to take her to children’s church, and stay with her a while there, but after seeing a gym full of strange children running around noisily before the services started, she had wanted to stay in the “big church” with Sheila. That was fine with Sheila, although she wondered if Diana would understand much of the preaching. English was her second language, and although Pastor Scott’s style was simple and down-to-earth, his messages weren’t exactly geared toward a Kindergarten audience. Every once in a while, Sheila glanced over at her to see if she was still paying attention. Every time, Diana’s eyes were riveted on Pastor Scott, her body still. And to Sheila’s surprise, at the end of the sermon when Pastor Scott gave the invitation to accept Jesus, Diana raised her hand. Sheila walked down with her, blurry-eyed. So there’d been a divine purpose to this weekend, after all. As he always did during an altar call, Pastor Scott instructed the handful of people gathered at the front to lift their hands to pray with him. What usually followed was a prayer initiated by the pastor and repeated by those who had responded, who then were shepherded to a back room for exhortation on how to begin and grow in their newfound faith. Sheila wasn’t expecting anything more that morning, and was unprepared for what happened. As soon as Diana’s little hands shot up straight in the air, she was pushed backward by an unseen force which almost knocked Sheila down. She somehow maintained her balance, caught Diana’s shoulders as she fell, and guided her to the floor. Diana lay there a full twenty minutes, her eyes closed and an angelic smile glowing on her face. The presence of the Lord was so strong, Sheila could only kneel and weep and pray, and remember what had happened to her three years ago. Sheila had at first been insulted when Margaret invited her to a revival meeting. She had a strong faith in God, believed in Jesus, in spite of what had happened a year earlier, and didn’t want to go to some church where the preacher shouted and pressured people to “convert.” But the more she thought about it, the more intrigued she was. She felt almost as miserable as she did the day of the accident. Margaret said the preacher was going to pray for people, and God knows she needed prayer. So she went. Surprisingly, she found she enjoyed the preacher’s message. At the end, he pressured no one to do anything. “If you have a need in your life,” he said, “something only God can fix, come to the front and I will lay hands on you and agree it’s done.” Sheila marveled at the number of people who walked up with her, feeling less self-conscious. Never having experienced this phenomena in the church where she grew up, she watched to see what everyone else was doing. They lined up in a single line, facing the pulpit. Sheila found a space in the line. They lifted their hands. Sheila did the same. One by one, the preacher began placing his hands on people’s heads. One by one, they fell backward, caught by an usher who stood vigilantly behind the line. He’s pushing them down, she thought, and nearly left the line of people. But her curiosity got the better of her. When the preacher came to her, she determined to stay standing. “Bless her, Jesus,” the man said, and lightly touched her with one finger on the forehead. He walked away. She was still standing. A second later, she crumpled to the floor, and began to weep uncontrollably. After a couple minutes, the weeping changed to laughter. She was eating breakfast the next morning when she realized that the acute pain she had carried for a year was gone. God had touched her. Sheila’s mind returned to the present when she heard Pastor Scott ending the service. She glanced up at him, and he returned with a look as awestruck as she felt. She heard someone else walk up behind her, and turned to see Margaret, wearing a similar expression of wonder. “Boy, was I wrong.” Margaret had taken Hank’s side on the issue of Sheila’s babysitting Diana for the weekend, saying that Sheila was stepping into dangerous territory, that she needed to pray more before deciding to do it. Sheila stood up. “You’re allowed to be wrong once a year.” Margaret laughed as she hugged Sheila, saying, “Oh, dear, you mean I’ve got to be perfect for the next eleven months?” Most of the congregation, including Margaret’s family, had ambled out by the time Diana sat up, and she couldn’t even talk until they were in the car. “Jesus said He’s gonna heal my papá.” Diana looked at Sheila, who went numb with shock. “But teacher, Papá’s not sick.” Sheila sucked in a breath and raised her eyebrows. “Did you. . .see Jesus?” “Sí, maestra. He was standing right in front of me. You didn’t see him?” She sounded surprised. “No. You had a vision.” Lord, why haven’t you ever appeared to me? “Oh, like the Virgin of Guadalupe.” “Kind of, yeah.” Sheila gripped the steering wheel in an effort to control the tide of emotions rising within her. Diana had had a vision. A five-year-old. Who knew nothing about the workings of the spiritual realm. No, check that. Sheila had heard that children and animals tended to be more in touch with the spiritual world than the vast majority of adults. “So what did He mean about healing Papá?” Sheila bit her lip. Help me say this right. “There are different kinds of sicknesses. Some people are sick in their body. That’s the kind of sickness we usually think about. But many people are sick in their mind or their feelings. They’ve had something happen to them that hurt them so bad that they don’t think or act right. They might be hurting inside so bad because of what happened to them, that they don’t know how to love themselves, or treat other people right.” Diana took so long to respond, that Sheila thought her explanation had gone over her head. But she finally nodded. “Sí. I know what you mean now. That’s the kind of sickness Papá has.” She gave Sheila a sideways glance. “When do you think Jesus will heal him?” Probably not as soon as we would like, Sheila felt tempted to say, but she knew better. “As soon as your Papá is ready.” CHAPTER 12 No one was going to mess with his daughter. He was Diana’s father, and he would be the one to decide whether she needed to be going to church or not. Miguel Manriquez seethed as he marched down the sidewalk. That teacher had no right. Rosa had no right. . . .He pushed his hands deeper into his coat pocket, shivering from the bitter cold. So he’d gone to Mexico for a couple of weeks. That didn’t mean he was giving over his parental authority to his sister. He and Rosa had argued loudly about it the day he returned, two days after Diana’s teacher had apparently taken his daughter to church. Rosa had accused him of endangering her employment; he had bitingly insinuated that what she did, did not count as a real job. She had accused him of being selfish; he had accused her of being negligent. She had accused him of running away from reality. . .he had said nothing. The truth was, in Mexico he had run into the harshest reality of all. He was dying. How was he to tell his only sibling, let alone his five-year-old daughter? During his stint in jail the pain in his side had become so unbearable that he knew there was something very wrong, and he had gone to Mexico because the doctors’ fees were so much less than in the States. Of course, because of the lower fees the test results took that much longer to come back, and Miguel refused to leave until he had them. Armed with pain medication, Miguel recrossed the border, trying to figure out what arrangements he could make for Diana. Rosa, as long as she stayed in that less than respectable job, was out of the question. As much as she loved Diana, she could not be there any hour of the day or night for her. And he shuddered to think what one of Rosa’s many boyfriends of questionable character might do to his daughter. No, he needed to find someone who would love and nurture Diana, give her the safe environment that he and Rosa never had. As long as they’re not religious. He didn’t want Diana being taught a bunch of lies. He turned up the sidewalk leading to the front door of the school. He would make sure Sheila Carson never touched his daughter again. * * * Spring Break couldn’t come soon enough for Sheila. No, she didn’t need a week off, she was ready for the summer. Forgive me, Father. She was supposed to be rested, refreshed, ready to face a classroom full of little bodies again after the two-week reprieve. But after only a week back at school, she was already weary of the discipline, the routine, the same old curriculum. And no matter how many times she fought against it, one little nagging thought kept jumping back into her mind: I don’t belong here. It was more persistent than ever, following her around every minute of the day. Maybe it was because she had finally fulfilled her purpose in being at the school. Maybe her only reason for being there the past four years was so that she would take Diana to church so she could be saved. She shoved some paperwork into her bag, preferring to take it home and do it rather than sit one more minute in the classroom. Then she remembered. She was going to write the poem of the week out on a chart paper, but hadn’t gotten around to it, and didn’t want to have to do it the next morning at seven-thirty. Sighing, she threw her bag into a chair and headed for the chart paper hanging at the front of the room. She’d only made it halfway when she heard the door bang open. Startled, she whirled around. A wave of shock and fear surged through her when she saw the intruder. Diana’s father. “Who do you think you are?” he demanded in Spanish, red-faced and jabbing his finger toward her. Two thoughts flashed through Sheila’s mind in the ensuing moments. First was a prayer for protection and help. The hostility in his tone made her wonder if Rosa hadn’t been exaggerating after all. The second was the realization that the man standing before her, despite the angry scowl, was much better, and younger, looking than she had remembered when she’d seen him in the jail. Of course, the highest paid fashion model would have trouble maintaining her beauty in one of the orange county jail uniforms. Stay calm. Be professional, she coached herself, as gallons of adrenaline pumped through her veins. “We met before, remember? In the—” Miguel spouted off a string of Spanish profanities and took a menacing step in her direction. “I’m not an idiot! Of course I remember. So now you think because you helped her get back here, you’re her mother or something?” The pain in his eyes revealed that his problem lay much deeper than Sheila’s babysitting his daughter for a weekend. She could think of nothing to say that might allay that pain. She kept her tone subdued. “I think no such thing.” Sheila began to back away as he took another two steps in her direction, then relief flooded over her when she saw Hank’s form fill the doorway. “Unless you’re planning to shake her hand and thank her for giving up her weekend for your daughter,” Hank said in Spanish, his voice edged with warning, “you’d better back away and count to ten.” Miguel turned his glare on Hank. “It’s you.” His voice remained hard, but he did take several steps backward. “I suppose you were part of this whole thing, too?” “Actually,” Hank said, entering the room with slow, relaxed movements, “I tried to talk Miss Carson out of it. But you know women. They want to do what they want to do.” Miguel turned fully around to face Hank. “Just like my sister Rosa, yes. I know exactly what you mean.” Sheila watched in amazement as Hank had Miguel laughing and joking within two minutes. As was his habit when he came into Sheila’s room, Hank sat on top of a table—and still was taller than Diana’s father—and at one point even slugged him playfully on the arm. Sheila had heard of negotiators, police officers whose main job was to defuse dangerous situations, like talking someone down from a ten-story window. She wondered if Hank had missed his calling. “Your Spanish isn’t bad,” Miguel said after about five minutes of conversation in his native tongue. “Where did you learn it?” A shadow passed over Hank’s features, and Sheila heard this master charmer stammer for the first time. “I, uh, just picked it up, growing up in Texas.” He’s lying. Why is he lying? Would he lie to her if she asked him the same question? The idea bothered her. She’d begun to feel closer to him than to her friends at church, coming to believe than he was a man of integrity. Hypocrite. The familiar voice of condemnation was so clear, it was nearly audible. And she couldn’t argue against it. If Hank was hiding something, she was the last person on earth to judge him for it. As of yet she had to tell anyone outside of her family about the accident four years ago. Moreover, whenever anyone asked about her family, she danced around the subject. If Hank was being deceptive, Sheila was doubly guilty. Miguel finally apologized to Sheila for scaring her, asking her to not influence his daughter with her beliefs about God. Too late, Sheila thought as she smiled and shook his hand. His hand lingered in hers a little too long, as he studied her face with an unreadable expression, something between wonder and determination. Hank had noticed. “What was that all about?” he asked after Miguel left. “I have no idea.” Sheila hoped he wasn’t attracted to her. All she needed was for a man—let alone a non-Christian—to pursue her. He was handsome enough, even more so when he was smiling, but. . . .Sheila turned to Hank, and saw he was frowning ever so slightly. She laughed. “Don’t worry about it. I’m sure he’s perfectly harmless.” “He just got out of jail for a DWI,” Hank pointed out, “and he looked anything but harmless when I first came in.” “But he loves his little girl.” To Sheila, that was the overriding proof that Miguel had enough good in him not to be a serious threat. Hank shook his head. “Enough to abandon her at Christmas.” Sheila was growing uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation. Why was Hank so insistent that Miguel was some dangerous criminal? “Can we change the subject? I always try to leave the school in a good mood. It makes it easier to come back the next day.” “Sorry.” Hank smiled. “How ‘bout we start over?” He walked out the door and reentered. “Hey, Miss—uh, Sheila—how’d your day go? I see you’re about to take off. Was wondering if you’d do me the honor of accompanying me to a concert at my church.” Sheila took an involuntary step back. Accompany him. To a concert. Was he asking her out on a date? If so, she would have to decline. She’d decided to shy away from anything but platonic relationships with men, and she would stick to her decision. Even though her heart was racing. Even though everything in her was screaming at her to say yes. “It’s no big deal if you don’t want to,” Hank added, obviously sensing her hesitation. “It’s just that a bunch of us from the singles group at our church are going together to get the group rate. I thought you might want to get in on the deal.” So it wasn’t a date. Not really. Just an invitation to a group function. Still, the thumping in her chest did not diminish. “Who’s playing?” Sheila asked, although it didn’t matter. She’d take any excuse to be around Hank. Because he was fun to be around, and caring. A good friend. Not because— “Selah.” “Wow. I love them.” She willed her pulse to slow down. Breathe. “Okay, when?” * * * Two hours later, Hank realized that he’d been terrified that Sheila might have said no. He sat on his couch, alternately flipping T. V. channels and taking generous bites from the submarine sandwich he’d picked up on the way home to eat, second-guessing his decision to ask her out in the first place. For a moment he was certain that she was going to turn him down. She looked confused, even distressed, after he invited her, as if he’d asked her to go to Antarctica to live. He didn’t know what the big deal was. They’d spent a weekend together alone in a car, for heaven’s sake, and since then they’d developed a rather rapid friendship. And friends hung out together, went places together, so it seemed like the right thing to do, inviting Sheila to the Selah concert. She’d almost said no. He could see it in her eyes. So he rephrased the invitation, and felt tremendous relief when she agreed to go. And until this moment, had not thought of Barbara the entire day. Now, her face flashed before his eyes, and he wondered if he should feel guilty. He didn’t, then started wondering if he should feel guilty about not feeling guilty. But he couldn’t even feel guilty about that. And why should he? He and Barbara had parted as friends on Christmas Eve, promising to keep in touch, and neither had called or written to the other since. What was that Pastor Bill had said? Take one day at a time, and walk by faith. The peace he had about the whole thing was some kind of indication that he’d taken the step the Lord had wanted him to, right? He stuffed the last two inches of sandwich in his mouth and got up to rinse off his plate. He’d actually been afraid of Sheila rejecting him. Unbelievable. I must be truly smitten. He smiled to himself, remembering the rocky start they’d had to their relationship in the hallway of the school. Yes, he’d been attracted to her, but after that incident, he’d lost any hope for them having a future. But now. . . Lord, let Your will be done. Is My will what you really want? The gentle question nevertheless felt like a million pinpricks on his soul as he walked into the living room. “Of course it is, Father.” Hank answered aloud, knowing that his own voice would keep him from hearing anything further from the other One. And keep him from wondering if he was telling God an outright lie. He sank into his recliner, picked up the remote and turned up the volume on the television, knowing it would drown out every thought, serving to numb his pain. He must have dozed off, because he suddenly jolted upright in his chair and heard the telephone ringing. Please, don’t let it be Sheila. Don’t let her be calling to say she’s changed her mind. “Hello?” “Hi, Hank. It’s Barbara.” She sounded depressed. Hank swallowed. Was God trying to play with him? “Hey, Barb, what’s up?” “You mean, what’s down.” Yep. She definitely was not happy. “The lawyer I was working for. . .he got an offer. As partner in a large firm in Houston.” Hank understood. “And they don’t need any more paralegals.” “Bingo.” She sighed. “Even if they did, I could never stand living in Houston. I’m a small town girl at heart, you know?” “But you grew up in Austin.” “Always the funny guy, aren’t you?” Her tone became somewhat lighter. “You know that I spent the first thirteen years of my life in Fredericksburg. And Austin isn’t exactly the size of Houston.” A thought crossed his mind. “How about Forth Worth?” “Still too big. Anyway, I called because I need prayer.” Hank heaved a dramatic sigh. “Okay, okay, even though you just broke my heart.” Barbara laughed. “You’ll be over it in a minute.” “Lord,” Hank said, “Barbara needs a job. You said that You meet all her needs according to Your riches in glory by Christ Jesus. So I thank You for doing it. Thank You for opening doors for her. And thank You,” he added, a grin spreading over his face, “that the doors are all in Fort Worth.” Do I really mean that? “You’re a funny guy.” “I know.” Although suddenly, he was back to knowing nothing again. CHAPTER 13 If Sheila had not been a native Minnesotan, she would have taken her class inside the classroom right after lunch, like the other Kindergarten teachers. But coming from a place where kids played outside when the temperature was zero degrees Fahrenheit, Sheila figured her students could endure ten minutes of forty-five degree weather. Besides, they hadn’t had recess in three days because of the cold January rain. Everyone, including the teacher, needed to spend some time in the sunshine. She pulled her hat further down over her ears and thrust her hands into her long winter coat pockets, bracing herself against the chilly wind that ricocheted off the brick wall behind her, ran the length of the playground, then circled back. Maybe just five minutes. She shivered. Most of the kids were engaged in a game of monster tag to Sheila’s right, so a slight movement to her left caught her eye. Diana was pacing back and forth, casting furtive glances in Sheila’s direction, as though trying to decide whether to approach her or not. Finally, Diana made her way toward Sheila, leaning forward to brace herself against a sudden gust. “I have to tell you something.” Determination shone in her chocolate eyes as she brushed a piece of hair away from her face. Intrigued, Sheila squatted down to face her at eye level. If Diana had something to say, it was probably of some import. Unlike most Kindergarteners, she somehow knew that finding a bug or seeing that latest movie or going to a party at Chuck E Cheez was information that held no interest for grownups. Whatever Diana had on her mind was most likely beyond her age level of maturity. “What is it?” “Papá likes you.” The words seemed to hang in the air like icicles. What kind of “like” did Diana mean, and how on earth would she know? Sheila decided to blow it off. “That’s nice, sweetie.” She expected the girl to run off and play, now that she’d unburdened herself, but instead, Diana stood as firm as she could against the wind. Forehead creased in worry, she asked, “Should I tell him that you already like somebody else? Then he’ll stop liking you.” Somebody else? Who— “You mean Mr. Johnson?” Sheila had to suppress the urge to laugh. Before her stood a six-year-old, deeply concerned about Sheila’s love life. But Diana looked as serious as a heart attack as she nodded, and the last thing Sheila wanted to do was to hurt her feelings. “Mr. Johnson and I are good friends, that’s all.” Diana’s face brightened. “Does that mean you’ll marry Papá?” Had Miguel actually mentioned marriage and me in the same sentence? No. Diana was like other children her age in one sense, that she had an overactive imagination. She hoped. “No, mija, I’m not going to marry him.” Diana’s smile faded. “Would you have dinner with him? You know, like novios?” Now Sheila was beginning to get angry. Was Miguel using his daughter to get to her? Would he stoop so low? “Tell your father,” Sheila replied, struggling to maintain a professional demeanor, “that I do not want to have dinner with him.” Diana shrugged, crestfallen. “Okay.” At that moment, another child rushed up to them. “You’re it!” she cried, tagging Diana. “Roa-oarrr!” Diana responded, chasing after a laughing and screaming group of children. Sheila decided on her original ten minutes of recess. She needed a few minutes to get herself together. * * * That evening Sheila found herself inside of a Black-Eyed Pea restaurant, searching for Hank. He had told her that he and several people from his church would have dinner there before the 8:00 concert, and that she was welcome to join them. She finally spotted him seated with about ten other people at the back of the restaurant. As she approached, Hank saw her and smiled, waving her over. “We’re just about ready to order,” he said, gesturing to an empty chair across from him. “I thought maybe you’d changed your mind.” Still reeling from her encounter with Diana earlier in the day, she almost had. “Well, here I am,” she replied, glad she had come after all. She really needed to get out more often. Introductions were made, orders were taken, and conversation flowed steadily around the table. When the piping hot food arrived, the combination of aromas—spices, hot rolls, meat, fresh vegetables—made Sheila’s stomach grumble. She hadn’t realized she was that hungry. She enjoyed the fellowship as she ate. As the meal progressed, she gradually realized she had grown tired of spending most of her evenings and her dinners alone. Maybe she should seek out more companionship. Or was God sending her a signal to get ready for something more? Numerous times, she caught Hank looking her way, even when he was talking to someone else. He’s probably just checking to make sure I’m comfortable. Or maybe she was just seeing what she wanted to see. Then he looked her way again, and gave her a smile that warmed her clear to her toes. No, she wasn’t just seeing things. And as the evening went on, the feeling of pleasure grew until she felt like she could take off and fly. Maybe Diana was right. Maybe she did like Hank. More than a friend. They sat next to each other at the concert, and Sheila couldn’t tell if the ecstatic feelings she was experiencing were from being near Hank or from the presence of God. She’d felt the same way several years ago when the preacher had prayed for her and she fell to the floor. Lord Jesus, help me. She forced the thoughts aside. She’d come to enjoy the music, not try to plan her future. With a bit of struggling, she managed to maintain her focus on the singers for the rest of the time. When the concert ended, it was past her bedtime, and she was surprised to find that she didn’t feel the least bit tired. “That was so beautiful,” one of the ladies from Hank’s church said to her as they walked out. “Does anybody else have a let-down feeling, now that it’s over?” “Amen, sister,” another of the women said. Sheila said nothing. Inside, she felt like she was soaring, and had to resist the urge to link her arm in Hank’s, who walked beside her. “Walk you to your car?” he asked, as the others went their separate ways. “Sure.” The parking lot was full of people mingling, and many of the cars had their brake lights on, waiting for the pedestrians to pass by. Sheila’s excitement suddenly became a knot of dread in her stomach. They had almost reached her car when she noticed a toddler walking several feet in front of his parents. They should watch him better. Look at all the cars. She wanted to warn the young couple, to run and snatch up the boy herself. Then, she froze in horror. At the same moment a van began to back up, the little boy walked into its path. “Watch out!” she screamed, but stood paralyzed to the spot. But the man heard her, ran toward his son, and caught him up in his arms. The driver of the van apparently saw him, since he abruptly stopped. In a horrible, wrenching instant of time, another scene flashed before her eyes. It, too, had to do with a small child and a car. Except that she was the driver. And she didn’t stop. The scene disintegrated like a ball of dust, and Sheila jolted back to the present. “Oh my God oh my God oh my God,” she moaned, suddenly feeling sick to her stomach. She was vaguely aware of the driver stepping out of the van to apologize and ask if everybody was all right. She was slightly more aware of the comforting arm that settled on her shoulders. “It’s okay, Sheila. Nobody was hurt.” Not this time. “But. . .it. . .scared me,” she sputtered, trying to control the intense desire to break down. She was overreacting, she knew, and she didn’t want Hank to see it, to question her. Hank turned her to face him and gazed at her with compassion. “This really upset you.” Sheila swallowed down a wave of nausea. “I’m okay. Really.” She forced a smile. “I had an exhausting day at school, I’m tired, and—well, I guess I don’t handle frights well when I’m feeling dead on my feet.” There you go, lying again. “Are you sure you’re okay?” Will you please leave so I don’t have to lie to you anymore? “I’ll see you Monday, okay?” After Hank walked away, Sheila let herself into her car, laid her head on the steering wheel, and bawled her eyes out. And although the parking lot seemed clear of people by the time she had calmed down, she waited until every car around her had gone. Then she got out of her car, walked all the way around it, and scrutinized the area, making sure there were no little bodies within several yards. The only people she saw were a handful of adults on the other side of the lot. Only then did she get back in her car, turn the key, and pull out of her parking spot. Very slowly. * * * Hank had wanted to take Sheila in his arms in a full embrace and hold her until the tears stopped. Not that she had shed any in his presence, but her contorted features revealed her inward struggle to keep them at bay. He was sure that she had broken down as soon as he left, which had made his drive home all the more miserable. Should he have insisted on staying with her? If he had said the right words, would she have confided in him about why she had gotten so upset? Yes, the instant he saw the little boy step in back of the van as its brake lights came on, a streak of panic surged through him, and if the father hadn’t noticed, Hank was ready to jump on the kid and knock him out of the way. But he hadn’t had to do that, and everything was okay. Near accidents are a part of ever day life, and most people took them in stride. Didn’t they? At least, Hank had never seen anyone react as strongly to something that never happened as Sheila had. He didn’t peg her as the emotionally irrational type, but then again, he’d only known her four months. When he got home that night, he toyed with the idea of calling her. He glanced at the clock on his dining room wall. No, too late. She’d probably want to go to bed as soon as she got home. If she were able to sleep, that is. Maybe tomorrow. Saturdays all he did was run errands and do what he lectured his students not to do— “veg out” in front of the television. Besides, a good night’s sleep might help him see Sheila’s perspective better, and help her feel more comfortable about sharing what she had gone through. But when he called the next day, he got a busy signal. He went grocery shopping, came home, and called her again. Still busy. He flipped through the latest issue of Newsweek while watching a rerun of Quantum Leap on the Sci-Fi channel, then called again. Busy. Lord, she took her phone off the hook, didn’t she? She must have known that he was going to try to call her. Over the last month or so, he’d developed a habit of calling her when they’d both had busy schedules for a couple of days and hadn’t seen each other at school. She always sounded happy that he took the time to check up on her, so it didn’t make sense that she would shut him out over this incident. Unless— He clicked off the T. V. and flopped into his armchair, perplexed. What if she wasn’t so much upset about what had almost happened in the parking lot, but about something it reminded her of? That made sense. He knew a Vietnam vet in his church who used to fall to the ground screaming whenever he’d hear a helicopter overhead. Did Sheila have some sort of flashback last night? “Man, you are getting too deep. You need to get out of here.” Hank leaped out of his chair and grabbed his car keys. His first instinct was to run over to Sheila’s place. But he knew that would be unwise. If she just needed some space for a while, his appearance at her door would only serve to further alienate her from him. He hesitated in front of his own door, unsure of where he wanted to go, but sure he was beginning to suffer some kind of cabin fever. Sheila was the last person he’d suspect to be hiding something in her past, and even if she was, so what? It was none of his business, nothing he could do anything about. Guitar strings. That’s it. I need guitar strings. Shrugging on his coat, he left all confusion behind as he headed for the music store on Oakwood Drive. * * * Sheila had to unplug her phone on the weekends. Even though she never answered her phone until the answering machine revealed who was calling, she knew that if she heard her mother’s or Gary’s voice her resolve would weaken and she would pick up and talk to them. And they would call. Every day since Christmas one or the other had called. Sheila listened to the message of the first one, as her mother begged her to forgive her sister, saying she didn’t mean it, blah, blah, blah, but it only served to stir up the guilt and resentment she thought God had taken away three years ago. So whenever Sheila came home from school and her machine was beeping, she punched “play,” and if it was her mother or Gary she would erase the message without listening to it. She wished she dared unplug her phone on weeknights as well, but then Hank might try to call her. He called usually about twice a week, “just to see what’s going on.” At first Sheila felt a little bit strange about it. They saw each other most every day, if only in passing, and not even Margaret called her that often. In fact, the few people at her church that Sheila considered her closest friends rarely called her. Now, however, Sheila was coming to appreciate having someone to talk to in the evening other than herself, if only for a few minutes. The only bad part about it was that after hanging up, a vague feeling of loneliness would creep up on her, and several times she’d come close to calling Hank back. Saturday morning, she wondered if she should call him. He had seemed worried, and rightfully so, the night before, and she wanted to assure him that she was okay. She had only fitfully dozed the entire night, and had awakened several times from a nightmare, but other than that, she was peachy keen. She pulled her brush through her hair a little too hard as her baggy-eyed face stared back at her with a sour expression. No, I’d better not. He’d end up asking more questions, and she’d end up telling more lies. She would just pray that the Lord would speak to Hank that she was okay. But you’re not. Well, she wasn’t on the verge of a nervous breakdown or anything. And she managed to muddle through the day, and get to church on Sunday with a smile plastered on her face. When Margaret asked her how the concert was, Sheila just said, “Fine. We had fun,” and left it at that. She thought about mentioning her bizarre playground conversation with Diana, but decided to wait and see if it was anything other than the fruits of an overactive, childish imagination. She found out Monday morning that it wasn’t. No sooner had she led her children into the classroom, than, “Mr. Medina wants to talk to you,” a teacher assistant said, popping her head in the door. “He went to the book room for a minute, but he said for you to just wait in his office.” Sheila frowned. This was the first time Mr. Medina called her in to his office, and he wasn’t known for having idle chats. She had no idea why he wanted to see her, but had a sinking feeling that it wasn’t to give her any sort of commendation. When she walked into his office, the sky had clouded, and the outside bleakness seemed a perfect match to Mr. Medina’s stark office. The few papers on his desk were stacked neatly, leaving plenty of room for the only decorative thing in the room, a small framed photo of his wife. The last principal, Ms. Gonzalez, had clothed the shelves with numerous books, silk flowers, and a collection of Mexican dolls. Sheila couldn’t remember ever seeing the desktop in the two years Ms. Gonzalez was at Roosevelt Elementary. Under her hand, piles of papers seem to flourish and grow all over it. Sheila could never survive in such a chaotic system, but it apparently didn’t phase Ms. Gonzalez. Does a person’s organizational style always match their personality? Sheila wondered. Ms. Gonzalez definitely had been more outgoing and creative than Mr. Medina, whose tone and manner were always so flat and business-like. He got things done efficiently, but if the talk in the teacher’s lounge over the past few months was any clue, he wasn’t winning any awards in the friendly department. Which is why she was feeling a little nervous, waiting for him to return. When Mr. Medina entered, he closed the door behind him with an ominous thud. Without one word of greeting to her, he lowered himself into his chair, laced his fingers together, and glared at Sheila. A stereotypically short, slightly overweight Mexican, he made up for his lack of physical stature with dark eyes that exuded authority. “Miss Carson,” he said, boring holes into her with his eyes, “we have a problem. A serious problem.” What had she done? She was following the curriculum, her classroom management was impeccable, she had not said or done anything that could be construed as harmful to any of her students or to other staff— Then she knew. Yes, she had. And she knew there would be no point in trying to avoid the inevitable. She cleared her throat. “Is this about Diana Manriquez?” Mr. Medina’s expression remained the same. “Very good. I appreciate you not trying to hide your indiscretions.” “My. . .indiscretions.” He made it sound like she was seducing the sixth grade boys. “Miss Carson,” he continued, his tone more severe, “I, too, have a strong belief in God, but I am not here to expound my faith to other people. I am here to run a school. And you are here to teach the curriculum. Understood?” “I do, but I don’t think you understand—” Mr. Medina raised a hand to stop her. “I understand Diana’s father is very upset with you. I understand that you took his daughter to church without his knowledge or consent.” “But—” “I understand that she was in her aunt’s custody at the time and that she talked you into keeping Diana a couple weekends ago, but I don’t know if you fully understand the ramifications of your agreeing to do it.” He was condescending to her, and that rattled her more than anything. “I have a life outside the classroom,” she said, struggling not to raise her voice, “and what I do on my personal time is my business.” Mr. Medina shook his head. “You’re a public figure, Miss Carson, just like everyone who works in this building, whether you like it or not. So what you do on your personal time, if it touches the life of a student at Roosevelt, is everyone’s business.” Sheila sat back, praying for strength. She felt as if she was on a guillotine and the blade was about to drop. “What are you saying?” Her voice was just above a whisper. “I’m saying that Diana’s father has made serious allegations against you, and I’m going to have to put you on administrative leave until the investigation is complete and your name has been cleared.” Administrative leave. For teachers, the two worst words next to “you’re fired.” Paralyzed with shock, Sheila couldn’t even lift her hand to wipe the annoying tear that trickled down her cheek. Mr. Medina’s face softened. “Look, Miss Carson, for what it’s worth, I don’t believe them. But I must ask you to go to your room and gather your personal items and go home.” Sheila knew better than to ask what the allegations were. She didn’t want to know, anyway, and didn’t care. She only wanted to know why Diana’s father had done such a thing. After talking to Hank, Miguel had seemed okay with everything. But now… Somehow she found the strength to push herself out of the chair, and stepped toward the office door with rubbery knees. Mr. Medina spoke one more time. “Miss Carson,” he said, “From now on, please refrain from becoming personally involved in the lives of your students.” Sheila stared at him for a moment. Too late. Then she left. CHAPTER 14 Hank wasn’t in the habit of showing up at people’s houses unannounced, but when Sheila’s line gave him a busy signal yet again, he slammed the phone down and headed out the door. She was hurting. She wanted to cut everybody off and wallow in her misery alone, but Hank wasn’t going to let her do that. If he’d found out what had transpired in the principal’s office that morning earlier in the day, he would have asked for a substitute to cover his class for the afternoon. But the rumor didn’t get to his ears until almost two, and he had left the school as soon as he’d dismissed his kids. So he pounded on the door when she didn’t respond to the doorbell. “Sheila, please let me in. I know you’re home.” One of her neighbors passed by and eyed him suspiciously, but said nothing. He banged again. “Sheila, please—” He heard the security chain being unlatched, and put his hand down. Thank You, Jesus! The door opened a crack, then swung wide. Before he could step over the threshold, Sheila had wrapped her arms around him and buried her head in his chest, crying like a baby. He returned the embrace, pulling her closer to him, wishing he could do or say something, anything, to reverse what had happened. After a minute her sobs subsided and she pulled away. “We’re letting all the cold air in.” She turned and walked into her apartment, giving Hank room to enter and close the door. For a moment, they stared at each other, and Hank shifted awkwardly. Had she felt what he had? His embrace was only intended to give her comfort, but when he had pulled her to him, something electric passed between them, and he had wanted to hold her forever. Sheila looked down at the floor. “I—I’m sorry.” She sniffled. “I’ve been crying all day. You’d think I’d be over it. I mean, it’s not like the world’s going to end, right? God, I hate this,” she said, grabbing a tissue from the box on the coffee table. “I’m not normally an emotional person, you know?” She collapsed onto the loveseat and closed her eyes. Knowing it would be dangerous to sit beside her, he eased into the wicker side chair across from the loveseat. “If I were you, I’d probably feel like the world was ending, too.” The words sounded hollow to his own ears, and he fervently wished for some deep words of wisdom to pop into his mind. They didn’t, so he just watched her, fighting back the sudden urge to reach out and take her hand. Man, why do crying women have to affect me this way? Several long moments later, Sheila opened her eyes. “I know why he did it.” Hank frowned. “Who’s he? You mean you know the person who got you into trouble?” Sheila narrowed her eyes. “Mr. Medina didn’t give a hint as to why I had to leave?” “Not the slightest clue.” Sheila let out a long sigh. “Somebody was unhappy that I took his daughter to church. And then somebody’s daughter told me that somebody likes me. To paraphrase, I told somebody’s daughter to tell somebody that I wasn’t interested.” She paused and raised her eyebrows at Hank, silently asking if he understood. He thought he did, but was hoping he was wrong. “Miguel?” When she nodded, he sat back, confounded. “But after I talked to him. . .and he seemed to be. . .and he certainly didn’t act as if—are you sure?” ““Mr. Medina told me, and I quote, ‘Diana’s father has made serious allegations against you.’” Hank had to sit for a minute to let everything register. “So Miguel’s got a crush on you, told Diana, and when you indirectly spurned his affection through her he took revenge.” He remembered Pastor Bill’s reference to God starring in a soap opera. The plot thickens. The thought amused him. Immensely. Sheila glared at him. “I’m glad you think me losing my job is funny.” Hank made a futile attempt to wipe the grin off of his face. “I’m sorry. But you’re not losing your job.” “My reputation, then.” She made a move to get up. “I’m thirsty. You want anything?” “Whoa.” Hank held out his hand to stop her. “What do you mean, your reputation?” He knew she wouldn’t care if the whole world knew that she, a public school teacher, had taken a student to church with her. Sheila relaxed her body. “He made some kind of ‘serious allegations’ against me. Like I’d abused her or something.” Hank nearly knocked the chair over as he jumped out of it. “Wait a minute.” Sheila grabbed his arm as he headed toward the door. “Where are you going?” Despite the anger pulsing through his veins, Sheila’s touch calmed him. “To make a home visit.” He made a half-hearted attempt to free himself from her grasp, which would be like water off a duck’s back, but he was torn between leaving her in her distress and tearing Miguel Manriquez from limb to limb. Okay, so Hank Johnson didn’t even like swatting mosquitoes. But he would at least give Diana’s father an earful. “Sit down.” Sheila’s tone was the same she had used on his unruly student that had run down one of hers just before Thanksgiving. Hank sat down, and she removed her hand from his arm. “You want to be put on administrative leave, too?” Hank shrugged. “Gee, paid time off for an indefinite period? While everybody else is working? Just kidding,” he finished lamely, noticing Sheila’s disapproving look. “But if I just talk to him, man to man, I think I can convince him to reneg.” Sheila raised a skeptical eyebrow. “And if he’s drunk? Or stoned?” “The Lord’ll help me.” “Like He helped me? Sorry.” She shook her head and turned away. “I just feel like God shouldn’t have let this happen. I’m sure taking Diana to church was part of His plan, and now. . .this.” She turned back to Hank, her eyes moist again. “Do you ever get totally frustrated with God?” “Oh, yeah.” But he wasn’t about to elaborate. “Okay.” She took a deep breath and sat back down. “So, what do you plan to tell Miguel’s father?” The question caught him off guard. He hadn’t thought about it, had never faced off with a man who was getting a woman into trouble because he was jealous of her. What could he possibly say that would get Miguel to back down? The truth. “Hank, hello, did you hear me?” Sheila waved a hand in front of his face. He blinked, then wondered if she really wanted to hear his answer. Clearing his throat, he said, “I’ll tell him that I liked you first.” * * * Sheila had no idea what Hank actually told Diana’s father. All she knew was that two days later, Medina had her in his office again, this time apologizing in his cold, business-like manner for any inconvenience or hurt she had experienced. Her accuser, he told her, had come in the day before and confessed that he had lied because he was angry with something Sheila had said to Diana. To Medina’s credit, he didn’t ask her what that something might have been. The next day, she was back in her classroom. And looking forward to an official date with Hank the next evening. She had been taken aback, although not shocked, when he declared his “like” for her, admitting that his feelings for her went beyond friendship, and would she be interested in spending a little more time together outside of school. She’d almost said “no,” had the word formed on her tongue, when out of nowhere she remembered the near-accident the day after Christmas, remembered her decision to stop taking life for granted. Would it kill her to take a risk in developing a deeper friendship with a man she enjoyed being around? So she said “yes,” and was so excited she could hardly sleep. She floated through the next couple of days, and was positive her students were wondering what was wrong with her, that she was smiling and laughing so much. She even laughed at the antics of Edgar, the class clown, when before she would have stuck him at the time-out desk. Saturday night, Hank picked her up and took her to one of the finer Italian restaurants in Dallas. At first, she felt so nervous she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to eat, but Hank had her at perfect ease within minutes and she was able to finish a plateful of white lasagna. Throughout dinner, they’d discussed quite a few topics, but by the time their server had picked up their empty dishes, they still hadn’t broached the subject most heavily on Sheila’s mind. She decided if Hank wasn’t going to bring it up, she would. “What exactly did you tell Miguel to get him to come back and tell Medina the truth?” Hank lowered the napkin he was using to wipe marinara sauce off his mustache. “Come again?” “There’s still a smidgen right here.” Sheila pointed, resisting the urge to reach across the table and clean the spot on his cheek herself. “Did you really tell him that you liked me?” “I never went to see Miguel.” Hank furrowed his eyebrows as he wiped his face once more. “I was going to, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt like it would just cause you more trouble. When you showed up I thought Medina had decided not to believe him. Or something.” Sheila hadn’t bothered to tell Hank about her conversation with their principal before now, figuring that he had talked Diana’s father into coming clean. Now as she reiterated Mr. Medina’s brusque apology and explanation to him, he looked as puzzled as she was. “Strange,” he said. Then he shrugged his shoulders. “Oh, well, you’re back and that’s the important thing, right?” Sheila frowned. “Come on. You’re not the least bit curious about what changed Miguel’s mind?” “Nope.” “Why not?” He paused for a long moment, gazing at her in a way that made her tingle down to her toes. “Because you’re back,” he said, his voice husky, “and that’s the important thing.” * * * Miguel was ashamed at what he’d done. What had he expected, anyway? No self-respecting professional would stoop so low as to go out with a menial laborer who had just spent time in jail. He’d known the chances that Diana’s teacher would have any interest in him were slim, and he certainly hadn’t intended for his daughter to repeat to Miss Carson the words he’d spoken in a moment of desperation. But Diana had, and worse, Miss Carson had made a reply. An unfavorable one. And he had lost it. He had enough on his plate without having his masculine pride injured on top of it. Miguel took another swallow of beer, ignoring the loud laughter and off-color comments of the men around him in the bar. He stared at the bottle, grimacing. This is what did it. If he had been sober at the time that Diana relayed her teacher’s lack of interest in him, he would have just shrugged it off. But he’d had enough to drink to let his emotions get the better of him. “Hey, hombre, you’re awfully quiet over there. Got a woman on the mind?” Miguel narrowed his eyes at his friend’s ribbing. Yes, but not like you think. He didn’t need a woman to be his companion or lover anymore. He needed a mother for his daughter. Or soon, Diana would have no one. And he’d have no chance with Miss Carson now. She’d know that he was the one that got her into trouble with the school. He would be lucky if she let him into her classroom for parent-teacher conferences, and he doubted she would care that he went back to tell the principal that it had all been a lie. Besides, he hadn’t gone back for Miss Carson’s sake. Not really. After he charged into the office of Roosevelt Elementary, accusing Miss Carson of all kinds of vile acts, Diana had spent the next two days in tears, wondering why her teacher had suddenly left. It broke his heart. He had to go back and try to get Miss Carson back in her classroom. Her absence was devastating his daughter. She must be one special woman. And, no matter what logic told him, the very kind of woman he was looking for to take care of Diana. Even if she was too religious for his taste. Besides, her faith in God most probably made her the kind of woman who believed in giving people second chances. But only if he made every effort to clean himself up. “Amigo, where are you going?” another friend asked as Miguel set down the money for his beer and stood up. “The night is still young.” Miguel gave the other man a hard, cold look. “The night may be young,” he said, “but I’ve gotten old.” He walked out of the bar and into the cold January night air, shutting the door on the jeers that followed him. CHAPTER 15 Evelyn replaced the receiver with a sigh. Perhaps a wiser woman would just let go. Perhaps if she quit calling and leaving messages, Sheila would eventually call her when she was ready to talk. But Linda seemed not to be improving, and Evelyn feared that there was little time left for her two daughters to reconnect and release the past. She had to keep trying. As she turned to stir the leftovers warming up on the stove, she glanced at the calendar. February nineteenth. Five months and twelve days since Linda’s diagnosis. No, Evelyn couldn’t let go. She would call again tomorrow. She had to keep trying. * * * Hank wished he’d said no. That was going to be his first answer when Sheila asked if he’d go with her to her church the last Sunday in February. Raised to believe in one’s loyalty to his home church, Hank rarely strayed away from his home church of Agape Fellowship, and never on a Sunday morning. But he couldn’t say no when Sheila invited him to hear a guest preacher at her church. If it was any sign that she was beginning to take an interest in him beyond friendship, he wanted to encourage her. Besides, they’d been going out for a month and a half by then, and he was beginning to spend most of Sunday morning service distracted by thoughts about Sheila, wondering if she missed him as much as he missed her on the days they spent apart. Barbara was quickly becoming a memory. He hadn’t heard from her since she’d asked him for prayer about a job, and the more he got to know Sheila, the more he was convinced that his feelings for Barbara had been misguided and that their relationship would never go beyond a friendship. And the more strongly he believed his growing feelings for Sheila were from God. So he said yes to her invitation, and went. And regretted it for weeks afterward. But when he first arrived at her church, Abundant Grace, he walked through the glass doors, whistling a tune, eagerly anticipating the day. Sheila stood against the wall a few yards away from the entrance, waving to him as he waded through the throng making their way into the church. When he walked up to her and saw her blue eyes shining with excitement, it was all he could do to keep from kissing her. While she lifted up her voice in song during praise and worship, he had trouble focusing on the Lord. During the offering he made himself pay rapt attention to the church’s senior pastor so that he wouldn’t begin to have thoughts he would have to repent of. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Sheila glance at him from time to time, but he didn’t dare look at her. He hoped she wouldn’t take his inattention the wrong way. The guest speaker was incredibly gifted. Hank had not heard of the man before, but Sheila was right. He knew the Word of God better than most—and Hank had heard some of the best, including his own father and his current pastor—and presented truths with a dramatic flair that set the congregation on fire. “There is a time,” he began after reading from the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, “for everything. There is a season. The church needs to get a revelation—” his voice rose in volume— “of the season she’s in.” “Yessir!” a man responded behind Hank. “Too many times I hear this scripture taken out of context. ‘But Brother Rodney,’ they say to me, ‘God’s got me in a dry season. So many things are going wrong in my life right now. God must have me in a season of death.’ But they forget what Jesus Christ has done.” He paused for several shouts. “Am I talking to a living, breathing crowd this morning? If you are a believer in Jesus Christ you are in the season of abundant life.” A wave of “hallelujahs” swept through the congregation, and Sheila surprised Hank by jumping up as she shouted, “Yes!” Brother Rodney continued in the same vein for an hour, preaching on God’s love, and what it meant in the life of a Christian. His inspiring words and contagious enthusiasm compelled even Hank, who was not the jumping up and shouting type, to stand up as a witness to the truth the man was feeding them. As he concluded, he said, “Some of you are just a little excited. Sit down for a minute. But there’s one string attached for anyone wanting to live the abundant life, to reap all the blessings of this victorious season God has brought us into through His Son.” The people sat down and quieted. “That string is a hard word. It’s the O word. Do I dare say it?” “Preach on!” He did. “Obedience. This isn’t even in my notes, but I feel there’s some of you in here that need to hear it.” Hank felt his jaw tighten as a heaviness came over him. In his gut he felt as though alarm bells were ringing loud enough for everyone to hear, and he tried futilely to tune them out. What’s going on? I’m all right with God. I’m not living in any kind of sin. “Maybe you keep running into snags.” The preacher paused to take a sip of water. “Could be trouble in your family, your marriage, your job, your finances.” None of that applies to me. “Or maybe you walked away from the call of God on your life. Maybe you went through a painful trial years ago, and gave up on God’s plan for you.” Oh, Jesus. The feeling in Hank’s gut overwhelmed him to the point of nausea. “My sister, my brother—” the preacher looked directly at Hank— “you may not have felt the consequences of your disobedience yet, and I didn’t come here today to preach gloom and doom, but the Holy Spirit would have me to say to you—” he broke eye contact with Hank, who let out his breath— “you’re about to let a great gift from God slip through your hands because of your willful rebellion.” The words, though spoken in a near whisper, cut into Hank’s heart, which beat like a bass drum in the utter silence of the room. Was the message really for him? He cringed as a boy caught in an act of wrongdoing. A soft sound on his right drew his attention away from himself. Sheila wept, her shoulders shaking and her head in her hands. Although he was uncertain as to why she cried, he yearned to put his arm around her and pull her to his side, to speak gentle words of comfort. “Now, some of you are in just a transitional state,” the preacher was saying. “You’re in one place, but you feel God’s calling you to another. You don’t want to move unless you know with certainty the next step God wants you to take in your life.” His eyes scanned the congregation. “If that’s you, come down to the altar right now.” Without a word, Sheila was up and past Hank and moving down the aisle as fast as she could go without running. Hank stared after her, perplexed. They had had numerous long discussions over the past several weeks, and in none of them had Sheila even hinted that she wanted to leave teaching. Then again, a calling could be just more than a job. It could be a place of service in the church, other volunteer work, being single versus being married— Could that be it? The shroud of guilt that had descended over Hank dissipated with the shocking thought. Is she going down because of me? Because of us? He’d never heard of anyone answering an altar call in order to decide whether they wanted to get married or not, but he’d been raised in church, and stranger things had happened. He watched as Sheila joined several others in the front, most of them women, and most of them crying. Sheila was standing right in front of the preacher, her face in her hands. The preacher placed his hands on her shoulders in a gentle, fatherly way. “Sister,” he said, “God sent me here today to tell you that He holds nothing against you.” Sheila let out a wail. Hank squirmed. What on earth would such a precious, sweet woman believe that God might be holding against her, and why had Sheila never told him about it? Why haven’t you told her about the plane crash? Instantly, the guilt cloud returned. I’m going to tell her. When we get to know each other a little better. When the time is right. “. . .give her peace about where she is to go, and help her to recognize that peace as the leading of the wonderful Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ name.” The evangelist released her shoulders and moved to the next person in line. Sheila stood there for a full minute, her hands now extended in front of her in a prayerful manner, then turned and walked back to her seat. Hank wanted to ask her a dozen questions, but the only one he could verbalize was, “Are you all right?” Sheila gave him a slight smile and nodded. Then she turned away and closed her eyes, and didn’t open them until the service was dismissed and the sanctuary half-empty. She smiled at him again, more brightly this time, and Hank hoped it was a sign she was ready to talk about whatever God had just done in her. He waited until they were in the car, then said, “You’re feeling a call to do something different with your life.” Sheila nodded again as she clicked her safety belt. “And God talked to you about it.” He knew she wasn’t taking a nap after she returned from receiving prayer. Another nod. Hank looked at her in exasperation. “Well, are you going to keep me hanging or are you going to tell me what this was all about?” For a split second, he was terrified that she would resent his prying and refuse to answer. Relief flooded through him when she turned to him with a smile wider than the Gulf of Mexico. But the relief lasted only for a nanosecond. “God’s calling me into full-time missions.” She didn’t just say that. Lord, tell me she didn’t just say what I think she said. He tried to return her smile, but couldn’t get his lips to make the slightest upward turn. How could he? His heart had just plummeted to his feet. He felt the rising hope of the past few months dash to pieces against the rock that was her confident, even joyful, announcement. Sheila’s jubilant expression faded into disappointment, and he was sure she was reflecting what she saw on his face. “Hank, what’s wrong? I thought you’d be happy about that.” Finally, he managed a tight-lipped smile. “Sure. That’s exciting. I mean, if you’re sure.” “Why shouldn’t I be sure?” Oh, Lord, now she’s mad. And why shouldn’t she be, sitting in the car with Mr. Wet Blanket? Why couldn’t I have just pretended I was thrilled? Would it have taken that much effort? “It’s just, well, uh, from what you said earlier I thought you felt that teaching was your calling.” Sheila frowned at him. “You’re not being straight with me.” “You’re right. I’m not.” He turned to face her. “It’s just that being a full-time missionary isn’t in my plans.” He paused, knowing that if Sheila felt an iota for him of what he felt for her, his words were stabbing her deep in her heart. “Not ever.” Sheila’s features contorted with pain for a few seconds. Then, the muscles in her face relaxed into a look of resignation. “Oh.” She turned from him to look out the window. “If you don’t mind, I just want to go home.” “What about lunch?” Not that he actually expected her to still have an appetite. Not that he still had an appetite. “Take me home.” Her adamant tone dared him to try to dissuade her. He started the car, and they rode home in an awkward silence. Hank’s blasé, “See you tomorrow” when he dropped her off sounded lamer than a horse with three legs. As he drove himself home, he suddenly felt like the loneliest man on earth. * * * Margaret was nothing but thrilled when Sheila told her what God had showed her during church. “No wonder you’ve been so frustrated with your job.” Margaret stood at the cupboard above the sink in her classroom, smearing her face with Oil of Olay. “So, what does Hank think about all this? You told him, didn’t you? At least over lunch?” Sheila, sitting in a tiny chair at one of the short-legged tables in Margaret’s room, lowered her eyes. “There was no lunch.” Margaret raised an eyebrow as she tightened the cap on the jar. “Ohhh.” She sat down across from Sheila. “You want to tell me about it?” “What’s to tell?” Sheila picked at a piece of tape stuck to the table. “I feel like a derailed train. I took a risk in getting to know a man, and letting my feelings. . .” A sob caught in her throat, and she choked it down. She’d spent most of Sunday afternoon crying, on and off, and wasn’t going to burst into tears when she had to pick up her kids from breakfast in ten minutes. She felt Margaret’s warm hand cover hers. “He didn’t like the idea of full-time missions?” “That’s the understatement of the year.” She looked up. “I guess the whole thing was an answer to prayer. I’ve been praying for God to show me if Hank was the one. I didn’t want to fall in love with somebody if, well, you know. If he wasn’t.” “Wow.” Margaret released her hand and sat back. “I knew that Hank had developed strong feelings for you, but I didn’t realize that you—” “He was—is—just a good friend. It’s just that I thought, maybe—” Sheila cocked her head. “How do you know Hank had strong feelings for me?” She knew that Hank liked her enough to spend time with her, but he’d been so gentlemanly that she hadn’t even considered that he might be—dared she think it?—falling in love with her. Margaret smiled. “Has.” She shook her head. “Don’t tell me you’ve never noticed the way he looks at you?” Sheila thought hard as Margaret rummaged through her purse, extracted a hairbrush, and began brushing her long, brown hair tinged with gray. Did Hank look at her differently than everyone else? He was friendly and outgoing with all of the faculty and staff at Roosevelt, his blue eyes always shining with kindness, and sometimes mischief. “No,” she answered as her friend banana-clipped her hair into place, “I guess I never have.” Not that it mattered now anyway. Apparently, she was right in the first place. They’d only ever been destined to be friends, no more. Why did that thought not help alleviate the feeling that she’d just lost something precious and dear? “Let me ask you a question.” Margaret glanced at the clock. Four minutes before the first bell rang. “Have you ever, in your mind, seen Hank working with you on the mission field?” That’s an easy one. “All the time. But those thoughts aren’t necessarily from God,” she quickly added, seeing an ah-ha expression come over Margaret’s face. “It could just be me, wanting to have my cake and eat it too.” She sighed, wondering if she should have taken the day off. She’d probably be in a bad mood all day. Picking up her purse, Margaret stood. “Could be.” She stowed her purse in a high cabinet. “Or it could be this is a test, which, if it is, you’re about to fail.” A flash of anger streaked through Sheila. She was miserable, confused, and needing sympathetic encouragement. Not spiritual condescension. Especially from her best friend. She glared up at Margaret. “I’m this close to cussing at you right now.” “Ooo, you’re offended. Good.” Margaret’s tone was irritatingly light. “That means you’ll be thinking about it all day.” The bell rang. Sheila pushed herself out of her chair, snatched up her attendance folder, and stalked out of Margaret’s room without so much as a backward glance. * * * The next night was parent teacher conferences. Sheila had never minded them, had not even felt nervous about her first one four years ago. But this time, she had lost sleep over it. She was going to have to face Miguel Manriquez for the first time since she had been put on administrative leave. Tuesday morning she thought about calling in sick, but then she would miss talking to some parents of children she had serious academic concerns about. She decided she’d better go, then spent the entire day wondering if she should ask for backup so she wouldn’t be alone when Diana’s father walked into the room. Just in case. By the time the conferences started, Sheila was too wiped out to care about anything Miguel might say or do. The moon was full, and she’d spent the whole day scolding kids, sending them to time out, and mediating arguments over such great crises as somebody grabbing someone else’s crayon by mistake. Edgar must have sat in the time out chair for a total of an hour and a half, and after lunch she’d had to change the math lesson to a coloring activity because every time she opened her mouth, several kids began chattering away. At two o’clock, she had the entire class sitting with their heads on their tables in a dark room. It was the only way she could get any control, and even then, Noe and Edgar started making faces at each other and giggling. So at four o’clock, she plopped down into her desk chair, report cards in front of her, thinking that being a missionary to some third-world cannabalistic tribe had to be easier than teaching. On full moon days, anyway. She forced herself to smile at the parents that trickled in throughout the evening. The February conference was never as well-attended as the October one, so she had several long periods by herself to try to relax and let go of the day’s stress. The evening wore on, and Miguel Manriquez had not come. Edgar’s parents came in at 6:50, were gone by 7:10, and by seven-forty no one else had shown up. Sheila began to clear off her desk and get her things together. A movement at her door brought her head up. Her heart skipped a beat as Diana’s father stepped into the room. By his hesitant movements, Sheila could tell he felt as uneasy as she did. She stood up, staying behind the safety of her desk. “Señor Manriquez.” She nodded at him, unsmiling. If she couldn’t express her anger at him without being considered “unprofessional,” then she was going to get her feelings across in whatever way she could. Just like Jesus would do. Shut up. Every once in a while, she wished she could stop being a Christian for five minutes so she wouldn’t feel guilty about having selfish and unloving thoughts. Miguel looked at her with an embarrassed expression. “Buenas tardes, Maestra.” “Siéntese, por favor. Sit down, please.” Sheila gestured to the chair in front of her desk, letting out her breath. He didn’t seem at all hostile, or drunk. She took a deep breath through her nose as he sat down. No booze odor. He was sober, thank God. She shuffled through the pile of report cards, unable to meet his eyes. Her plan was to summarize Diana’s progress in two minutes, give him her report card and work samples, and get him out. “Miss Carson,” he said in Spanish, “I want to tell you how sorry I am. About. . . everything.” Sheila jerked her head up. “You have a fine way of thanking people for taking care of your daughter while you’re running around in Mexico doing God knows what.” What did she just say? Oh, Father, help me. I’m in trouble now. She braced herself for an angry outburst. It didn’t come. Instead, an expression of profound sadness and hopelessness crossed over his features, startling Sheila more than if he had yelled in her face. At least he’s not mad, she thought with confused relief and a pinprick of guilt. “I’m sorry, Mr. Manriquez,” she said. “I should not have said that.” “Why not?” Miguel smiled slightly. “I deserved it. And please, call me Miguel.” For some reason, the friendly, almost pleading tone brought heat to her face. Finding Diana’s paperwork, she pulled them out and handed them to her father, saying, “Here’s some of what Diana has done lately, Mr. Manriquez. She’s the top student in the class, and already reading.” She slid the report card toward him. “But then, I’m sure you already knew that.” Miguel studied the papers for such a long time that Sheila began to shift in her chair. Lord, why doesn’t he just leave? When he finally looked up again, determination had replaced the desperation on his face. “Miss Carson, I work hard to see that Diana gets everything she needs. She’s all I have, and I would never do anything to hurt her. I did something stupid, getting myself arrested, and I’ve promised myself never to let it happen again.” He began to speak quickly in one of those Mexican dialects that drop the final consonants of words, and Sheila had to strain to understand him. “Deep down, I’m a good man, Maestra.” “You lied to Mr. Medina about me.” Sheila softened her tone, wanting understanding rather than further conflict. Diana’s father stared down at the report card in his hand for several seconds. “I was angry about. . .many things, and when my daughter came home and said that you. . .” His voice trailed off, but he didn’t need to finish. Sheila knew what he was trying to say. And she’d never felt more awkward in her life. When he brought his head up, his eyes held Sheila’s for a long moment. They were suddenly tender and kind, a change so dramatic that Sheila had to glance at the rest of his face. He was ruggedly handsome, she realized, and wondered why she hadn’t noticed it before. She pushed the thoughts away in disgust. I am not going there. Besides, she decided, he probably wouldn’t have looked nearly as good if Hank’s visit to her church had had a different outcome. She was still hurting and vulnerable. Yes, that was it. She just needed to keep her emotions under control. “I can see why you would already have a man in your life. So caring, so smart, so beautiful, inside and out.” Sheila struggled to remember the words for “sexual harassment” in Spanish, but not being a part of her every day vocabulary with Kindergartners, they didn’t come. Anyway, she could tell he was being sincere and not at all provocative. When he abruptly broke eye contact and stood up, asking her if he could take Diana’s papers home, Sheila felt a twinge of disappointment. She was finally connecting with him, and would have liked the opportunity to find out more about Diana’s home life. If only she could share the Gospel with him. What a boon that would be to Diana’s upbringing. But he shook her hand, said, “Buenas noches,” and was out the door before Sheila could work up the nerve to say anything more. She stared after him, stunned. When she finally shook herself out of it, she let out a breath. “Well, that didn’t go so bad,” she said aloud, then stood up, straightened up her desk, and went home. CHAPTER 16 Hank stared at the envelope with unseeing eyes. As much as he enjoyed being around people, somehow parent-teacher conferences managed to suck the life out of him. He guessed it was because he wanted to be able to tell every parent how wonderful their child was, and dreaded having to suggest that their child might need special help, or that their child was on his way to becoming the next Charles Manson if he didn’t get his behavior straightened out yesterday. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, then looked at the return address on the envelope. He smiled, then ripped it open. Dear Hank, it said, I’m sorry it took me so long to write to you, after promising you a newsy letter after the New Year. I suppose I could have called, but since the last time we talked I’ve been so busy looking for a new job that I’m totally drained by the end of the day. It’s all I can do to watch a sitcom without falling asleep! The last thing I want to do is call somebody, even if it is you. Hank chuckled, then continued reading. Most of the letter was friendly chitchat, until the last paragraph. Okay, I have a confession to make. I wasn’t being totally honest. The real reason I haven’t called again is because I was scared. I was so happy to see you on Christmas, and we got along so well, just like old times, that after I thought about it for a while, it seemed unreal. Too good to be true. I almost didn’t call you about my job loss. I was afraid I might find out that what I thought was mutual excitement and enthusiasm for rekindling our friendship might have just been the high of the moment. And though I realize that if it was, that I would just have to accept it and move on, I wanted the lingering feelings from our reunion to live on as long as they could. Hank had gotten up in the middle of reading the letter to get a Gatorade out of the refrigerator, and now froze in his tracks. Was she saying what he thought she was saying? So I guess I’m writing because I want to be sure that our relationship is on the track I felt it was on when we met on Christmas Eve. Forgive me for my female silliness, but I have missed you the past few years, and I didn’t want to let another minute go by without letting you know what a special friend you’ve always been to me, and hopefully will continue to be. “Well, tie me to a live oak tree and call me Billy Bob,” Hank muttered, staring at the last lines of the letter. He’d thought he’d felt a spark that was more than friendship when he had dinner with Barbara two months earlier, but then there was Sheila. But now there was no Sheila. He dropped the pages to the table, raced to the phone, and dialed Barbara’s number. * * * “I’ve been seeing myself in some exotic place in the Third World, preaching the Gospel, doing miracles—you know, all that—the last couple of years.” Sheila studied her pastor’s face to see his reaction. He’d told stories from the pulpit before of people who had called themselves into their own ministry and consequently suffered great pain and failure, so the week before Spring Break, she decided she’d better seek counsel from Pastor Scott before making any drastic life changes. His smile did not waver. “I’ve been waiting to hear you say that.” Sheila raised an eyebrow. “Really?” “Some of your friends have made casual comments about your boldness in speaking truth to others, and you’ve been a faithful servant in the church in more ways than one.” He leaned back in his chair and fiddled with a pen. “Your devotion for the Lord outweighs many who have been part of AGC for twenty years.” Wow. She’d never thought Pastor Scott was actually watching her. She’d never thought anyone was watching her. She just wanted to help out, that’s all. “So you think I’ve heard from God?” Pastor Scott leaned forward, grinning from ear to ear. “Sheila, did you have a doubt that Sunday when Brother Rodney prayed for you?” She shook her head. “Then stop letting the enemy plant seeds of doubt in your mind. I feel a witness for everything you’ve just told me, and I will bless any endeavor you make to go out on the mission field. As a matter of fact—” he leaned back and pinched his eyebrows together— “I think I may be able to help you get started.” Sheila wanted to ask how, but another question burned in her mind until she thought smoke would start coming out from her ears. “Pastor Scott, would you say that two people that God has meant to be together, if one is called into the ministry, the other would have some sense of desire or agreement about it?” The answer was yes, of course. Anyone with any sense could see that. She’d only asked because she needed to hear someone say it out loud. So when her pastor said, “Not necessarily,” she blinked in disbelief. He propped his elbows on the desk and steepled his fingers together. “At least, not at first.” Sheila waited for him to say more, but when he didn’t, she let the subject drop. She spent the rest of the evening and half the night wondering, hoping, praying, that this was the case between her and Hank. Common sense told her that she should just cut her losses and give up wherever she imagined their relationship might lead, but something deep inside told her she shouldn’t. At least Sheila had somewhere to go and something to do for Spring Break. Spending a week in Colorado with Margaret, she was sure she’d be able to keep her thoughts about Hank at bay. Just before she left for the trip, Pastor Scott left a message on her machine telling her that he had arranged for her to fly back with a missionary couple, Sharon and Carl Salyards, who worked in Zimbabwe and were scheduled to preach at AGC the first week of June. She waited to tell Margaret, until she had spent a couple of days praying about it. The first time she voiced her decision out loud, she felt like she’d slammed a steel door shut behind her that the strongest explosives couldn’t reopen. “I’m resigning from the district at the end of the year.” Margaret set down her cup of tea as wrinkles creased her forehead. “You sound like you’re not sure about it.” Sheila sighed. “Sorry. I’m a little nervous about making the step of faith, but I’m really excited about it. It’s just that....” She let her voice trail off, and shook her head. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t get it out of her head that Hank was supposed to be accompanying her to Africa. Her gaze drifted out the window of the small café. In the four days she had spent with Margaret so far, she still felt awed by the majesty of the Rocky Mountains, in clear view from the charming old building where Sheila and Margaret lingered after a light lunch. Lord, couldn’t I just move up here, and live in a cabin in the mountains the rest of my life? Life would be so much easier if God had called her to be a hermit. Then again, she knew that escaping would not solve her problems, or heal her hurt. As usual, Margaret seemed to read her thoughts, reaching across the table and placing her hand on Sheila’s. “It’s that thing with Hank, isn’t it?” Sheila drew in a shaky breath. “Pastor Scott thinks he might change his mind.” She shook her head. “I can’t let myself hold on to that, you know?” Margaret withdrew her hand and smiled at the waitress who offered her more hot water. “I suppose,” Sheila added, as the waitress removed her empty plate, “I should pray and believe and not worry. Some Christian I am, huh?” Margaret waved her hand. “You’re allowed to be human, Sheila. The Lord understands your struggles and frustrations. That’s why He promised to be our strength in times of weakness.” “I know.” Sheila glanced out the window again. The inspiring view stirred in her a restless yearning. “Are you about ready? I need to get out.” Margaret took another long sip from the cup, then nodded. “Let’s go.” They put on their coats, paid the cashier, and walked into the nippy air. Although the sun’s rays took the bite off the chill, both women shoved their hands into their coat pockets and held their arms against their sides. Neither one spoke for several minutes as they wandered up and down the sidewalks of the small Colorado town. Sheila let her mind wander. She realized that where she was going in three months, there would be no snow-capped mountains, no lush green grass underfoot during the summer months. It would be a stark change from everything familiar to her, from the simple huts to the native language, yet she felt no fear. She would not be totally alone; she would be joining with a couple with years of experience on the field. Her only concern was that she would feel like a third wheel, much like she did around Margaret and Daniel. She glanced at her friend. Thank God she had come alone. Sheila knew the thought was utterly selfish, that Margaret must be missing her husband, but with all she’d been going through lately, she wanted—needed—her best friend all to herself for a few days. Sheila and Margaret turned the corner, walking up a street lined with brick buildings a century old. Few cars passed, and the only other people out walking were stragglers remaining from the lunch hour. During the summer, these same streets most likely brimmed over with tourists. As far as Sheila knew, she would never see for herself. She might be in Africa the rest of her life. But not by myself, Lord, please. A feeling of desperation overwhelmed her, and she was unable to keep from voicing the thought that had been plaguing her for several days. “He hasn’t even looked at me for two weeks.” Margaret stopped. “What?” Sheila chuckled. “Sorry. Guess you haven’t been privy to the conversation between me and myself the last few minutes.” Margaret smiled, and pointed to a nearby bench. As they sat down, Margaret put her arm around Sheila, and the pain she’d been carrying suddenly rose up and poured out in a torrent. Margaret drew her closer, saying nothing. Several minutes later, Sheila pulled away to wipe her eyes and blow her nose, ignoring the stare of a little boy holding his mother’s hand as they passed them. They rose together in silence, and headed for Margaret’s car a block away. After a few steps, Margaret stopped Sheila with a touch on the arm. Though she still smiled, her gaze had turned somber. “Sheila, just remember that many waters cannot quench love. Cling to that.” Sheila nodded. Lord, thank You for this wise friend. Bless her— Her prayer was interrupted by a blood-curdling scream, accompanied by the sound of screeching brakes. Sheila felt all the blood drain out of her face as she and Margaret stepped off the sidewalk to peer down the street. A middle-aged man jumped out of a white Cadillac as a young woman was kneeling in front of the bumper. Sheila began to run toward the scene. Had the woman been hurt? As she approached the car, she was able to make out the whole view. A little girl lay on the pavement in front of the car. Sheila lurched to a stop, and felt her stomach flip. No, God, no, this didn’t happen. I’m not seeing what I think I’m seeing. But the evidence before her mocked her denial, her worst memory in living color. The past pain she thought had finally grown dull and distant overwhelmed her with its piercing strength. Whirling around, she began running blindly down the sidewalk, ignoring Margaret’s pleas to stop. She ran until she was out of breath, heaving and sobbing. Looking up, she found herself in front of the café again. Five outdoor tables sat empty, and she plopped into one of the chairs, putting her head down on the cold plastic surface in front of her. A few minutes later, she felt a touch on her arm. “Sheila, she’s okay. The little girl—she wasn’t even hit. She just became frightened and fell down.” Sheila lifted her head. “Only because I wasn’t behind the wheel.” Margaret sat next to her. “What?” The truth poured out of her in a torrent of words. “Margaret, I’ll understand if you hate me. Just before I graduated from college, I ran over my cousin’s four-year-old daughter. I was backing out of the driveway, and I couldn’t see well behind me. The sun was blinding me. And it was a stick shift, and I still wasn’t used to it, and I hit the gas more than I needed to—” Sheila broke down again, falling into Margaret’s arms like a baby. “Oh, Sheila, honey, and you’ve been carrying this around all these years?” Margaret’s voice shook with compassion as she stroked Sheila’s back. “I don’t hate you. And you know God doesn’t hold it against you.” “No,” Sheila agreed, sniffling, “not God. Only most of my family.” Sheila sucked in a breath and tried to stop crying, to no avail. When her tears finally subsided and she pulled away from Margaret, her friend asked, “Is that why you moved to Texas? To get away from—all that?” Sheila nodded. “And it worked. Until Diana showed up in my class. Lighten her hair and her complexion a couple shades, and she could be Lorena’s twin.” Margaret’s eyes grew wide. “Wow.” She shook her head. “I believe that’s why God had me invite you here this week. You couldn’t be free to serve the Lord without getting that out of your system.” Sheila sat back. Was it out of her system? She concentrated on the painful memory, making herself see the scene again. It still hurt, but something was different. The condemnation. The feeling of condemnation was gone. The revelation brought more tears to her eyes, only this time, they flowed down her cheeks as rivers of joy. * * * Sheila hunted Hank down the Monday after Spring Break ended to give him one more chance to at least be open to the whole missionary concept. What if he says, “Great. Have a nice life”? Sheila refused to let the thought torment her. I’ll go anyway. Except for brief glimpses of him across the room at faculty meetings, Sheila had seen very little of Hank the past few weeks. When he looked up from his desk after she knocked on the door frame, he looked surprised and, for some reason, guilty. Their conversation was short and sour. “I’m leaving for Zimbabwe as soon as school gets out.” “For how long?” “I’m putting in my resignation from the district after Spring Break.” She could have cut the tension in the room with a chainsaw. For several long seconds Hank looked away, down, out the window, anywhere but at her. When he finally did look at her again, he gave her a tight smile that did not reach his eyes. “I wish you all the best.” He might as well have thrown a harpoon through her. She considered arguing, pleading, even telling him she thought she loved him. But his set jaw relayed the message loud and clear: he had nothing more to say. In fact, he abruptly turned his head down toward the papers on his desk, dismissing her. But she couldn’t give up. Not just yet. “Hank, won’t you even—” “Look, it wouldn’t work.” He glanced back at her, eyes full of regret. “I can’t do it. Now, would you please leave and stop making it so hard on both of us?” A surge of anger rushed through her, and she had to fight the temptation to spew out any number of caustic replies. She pivoted on her heel and made a beeline for the stairway, eyes burning. She wasn’t sure if she was angry at his refusal to reconsider, or the way he had spoken to her. He had never been anything but gentle toward her before, and his rudeness had caught her by surprise. He hadn’t even given any indication of wanting to continue a friendship with her, or asked for her contact information in Africa. As she grabbed the stair railing, she made a decision. She would never fall for a man again. She couldn’t stand the pain. * * * Hank had to restrain himself from running after her. He knew he’d hurt her deeply, but he didn’t see an easier way to make a clean break from Sheila. The horrible irony of the whole thing was that she now felt about him the way he’d hoped she would a couple months earlier. He knew she must. Why else would she be coming to his door after he’d avoided her for a month? Only now, he regretted ever getting involved with her. For his sake as well as hers. Besides, after what happened during the past week, he’d grown more convinced that Sheila was not “the one.” He’d spent most of Spring Break with Barbara. CHAPTER 17 The pain was becoming sharper, more unbearable every day. Miguel didn’t have a lot of time left, and he knew he had to act fast. His only problem was, how was he to get her to go out with him? As far as he knew, she was still seeing that other teacher, and even if she wasn’t, the cultural and economic differences separated them like a valley in the Grand Canyon. The other thing was his sister. He’d told Rosa that he liked Sheila Carson—very much—and when he asked her if she thought there was any chance of the teacher going on a date with him, Rosa had replied, “About as much chance as the devil being elected Pope.” Nevertheless, there he was, trudging down the sidewalk in the early spring drizzle. His boss was likely going to yell at him for being late, but he didn’t care. He needed to do what he needed to do. Rounding the corner, the half-a-century-old brick building suddenly loomed ahead of him. He stopped. He stared. Was he crazy? Sheila Carson was most certainly going to reject him. Ninety-nine percent chance, he reasoned, giving himself better odds than his sister had. But there was that one percent. He took a deep breath. I have to try. Teeth gritted in determination, he continued his path toward the school. * * * Sheila liked to get to school early. Even if she had prepared for the day the afternoon prior, she felt more together and centered if she was able to spend about a half an hour in her room before picking up her kids. Except to let Margaret in to chat and pray with her, she resented any intrusion on her time, so when someone knocked on her door at 7:40, she ignored it. For about five seconds. Then the knock was suddenly insistent and demanding, almost pounding. She would have continued to ignore it, except that she always left her window shades halfway up, and a parent could have peeked in and discovered she was in her room. If so, they likely wouldn’t give up. Sighing in exasperation, she dropped the marker in her hand and went to the door and opened it. She stepped back in surprise when she saw who it was, then smiled. “Rosa, how nice to see you! Please come in.” Since helping Diana’s aunt return to Fort Worth last year, Sheila had only seen her on sporadic occasions to pick up Diana, who usually went home with a neighbor. Rosa walked in, flashing a nervous smile. “Thank you. I know you’re busy. I won’t be long.” She shifted her legs and glanced away, and Sheila grew suspicious. Was she about to ask her for money or something? She immediately felt a twinge in her gut. Sorry, Lord. If that’s what Rosa wanted, Sheila would give it to her with a cheerful attitude and not worry about it. Finally Rosa’s gaze settled back on her. “I. . .I have a strange favor to ask.” “What is it?” The little she’d talked with Rosa, Sheila knew her to be a bold, straightforward person. Now, she seemed hesitant, almost afraid to speak her mind. “I know you’re a Christian woman, and Christians don’t go out to clubs and such, but—” her next words came out in a flurry— “a new Latino club just opened and there’s a great band playing there this Friday and I’d really like to go except that Eddie—that’s my boss—don’t like for his girls to go out alone in case someone recognizes them and tries to—well, you know—and I don’t have a date so I was wondering if you’d come with me you don’t have to drink or nothing and if we leave early enough the smoke won’t bother you at all.” Sheila stared at her as she stopped to take several panting breaths. Was this woman for real? Sheila’d never been in a club in her life, and she was a teacher, for goodness sake. What if someone found out about it? The very thought of going into a nightclub made her uncomfortable. She would never— Go. What? Go with her. Every once in a while, Sheila wanted to accuse God of being insane. This was one of those times. But she knew it was His voice, and that she had to obey it. Rosa misunderstood the long, pregnant pause. “Of course you don’t want to go. It was crazy of me to ask—” “I’ll go.” The crestfallen look on Rosa’s face lifted. “Really?” Sheila didn’t have time to answer, because another knock came at the door. She and Rosa looked at each other. Now what? She opened the door. If she had been surprised to see Rosa standing there, she reeled at the sight of Diana’s father. “Buenos días—Rosa, what are you doing here?” Rosa shot him a look that Sheila couldn’t read, then told her, “I’ll pick up Diana today, and give you details later, okay? Miguel, come outside. We need to talk about something.” Sheila watched in amusement as Rosa ignored her brother’s sputtered protests, pulling him outside the room by the hand and closing the door behind her. Sheila waited for Miguel to come back, and when he didn’t, felt utterly relieved. The bell rang, and when she left to get her class, neither of the Manriquezes were anywhere to be found. * * * “I got you a date with Miss Carson.” Miguel blinked. “What?” He huddled with his sister under the umbrella that she had thought to bring. “Okay, not really a date, but let’s just say she’ll be your captive audience, how’s that?” As she explained what she’d just done, Miguel shook his head in wonder. “But I thought you—” “I know, the devil elected Pope. I still think you won’t get anywhere with her. But at least you’ll get to talk to her.” She nodded at the formidable building behind them. “About other things besides Diana, I mean.” What irony. The very reason he hoped to get closer to Sheila Carson was for Diana’s sake. But Rosa didn’t know that, hopefully would never find it out. Not until he had been gone awhile, anyway. Miguel scowled. “But I was about to—” “Make a complete fool of yourself.” Rosa laughed. “Do you really think she’d have gone if you had asked her?” Miguel wished that he could honestly say yes. That he believed Miss Carson would have looked past. . .everything and agreed to go out with him. “The devil and the Pope,” he muttered, trying to ignore the searing pain that tore into his side. * * * He’d felt guilty about it. And that annoyed the fire out of him. Even if he and Sheila had not had that missionary rift between them, it wasn’t like they were in some sort of exclusive relationship. He was a free man. He could see whoever he wanted. Still, every day that Hank had spent with Barbara during Spring Break, he’d had to expend at least some mental energy in pushing back condemning thoughts that told him he was somehow being disloyal to Sheila. Why they came back to him full force that drizzly, chilly morning, he had no idea. He slammed the car door shut and half ran to the school entrance to avoid getting wet. As usual, he’d arrived just in time to pick up his class and escort them to his classroom before the tardy bell rang. As usual, he hadn’t organized his materials for the day, and began to rummage through the stacks on his desk for teacher manuals and worksheets while the students read silently. But not like usual, he took twenty instead of ten minutes to get everything ready, because he kept wondering how his vacation would have been different if he had been with Sheila instead of Barbara. At one point, he grew so exasperated with his lack of control over his mind that he let out an audible groan that set his class to giggling. “Are you okay, Mr. Johnson?” the most serious girl in his class asked with sincere concern. “Just fine,” he replied, forcing a grin. The girl went back to her reading, and he went back to his ruminating self-torment. Like scenes flashing in a slideshow, he saw himself having lunch with Barbara at the most popular tamale restaurant in town, taking in a movie, visiting the zoo, and watching the daily cattle roundup downtown. He couldn’t say that he’d been dating her that week, since Barbara had clearly stated her purpose for coming up: “I want to do some more catching up, and see if we can’t reestablish what we had before,” meaning a close friendship. However, neither could he deny the romantic feelings he began to have toward her sometime Wednesday afternoon. They’d been laughing over a cup of cappuccino, so this time, Hank didn’t have to wonder if he was just sympathizing over female grief. This time, he felt no confusion over his emotions. But if the feelings had been mutual, she had given no signals. Which surprised him, given the tone of her last letter, which hinted at wanting more than just friendship. He bumped a stack of ungraded papers with his elbow and sent them flying to the floor. More snickers arose from faces hidden behind book covers as the serious girl and another conscientious student rushed to the front to pick up the mess. Then another scene flashed across his mind, only this time it was live-action. “I’m going to ask you a crazy question,” Barbara said while they sipped an iced tea at the Log Cabin Village on Friday afternoon, “and pray it doesn’t make you mad.” Hank jerked his head up. He was a live-and-let-live kind of cowboy, rarely taking offense at anything, and Barbara knew that better than anybody. He grinned at her. “Must be a tough one.” Barbara sipped her tea, giving him a sideways glance. “It’s not exactly your favorite topic of discussion. But I promise it’s the last I’ll ever mention it.” The plane crash. That had to be what she meant. He almost shut her down at that point, but a small voice inside told him to hear her out. His grin faded. “Okay, then. Shoot.” “Remember the envelope?” The envelope. The envelope? “You mean the one I found on the floor of. . .the plane?” “Yes.” Barbara bit her lip, eyebrows knit together in worry. “What about it?” “Do you still have it?” “Who cares?” “Hank.” Barbara’s fearful gaze became a glare. “It belonged to somebody.” A half dozen sarcastic retorts flashed through Hank’s mind, but he kept them to himself. He knew she wouldn’t have even brought up the subject if it didn’t hold some importance to her, and he wasn’t about to belittle it. He shrugged. “I think my parents have it somewhere.” Barbara took a deep breath, and her expression softened. “After our lunch together on Christmas Eve, for some reason that memory came out of the blue. I ignored it for a while, but it kept popping up in my mind like a weed. When it finally occurred to me to pray about it, I really feel like the Lord was telling me that you needed to find it.” She gave him a sheepish smile. “There. I said it. Now you can do whatever you want with it.” Hank had not responded, although now, as he watched the two girls neatly stack the papers onto his desk, he recalled how he’d wanted to respond. He would never do anything about it. Why pour salt on an open wound? And why on earth would I need to find the envelope at this late date? He lay the question aside as he flipped to the math lesson for later that afternoon. He didn’t have time to deal with it. He had a class to teach. CHAPTER 18 The cloud of smoke hanging in the night club assaulted Sheila’s nose as soon as she walked in the door. And this isn’t supposed to bother me? Sheila took a shallow breath. She should have known better. Rosa was used to cigarette smoke, and probably didn’t even notice it during the later hours when a club would become packed. She made no complaints, however, as she followed Rosa, maneuvering between the crowded tables. As they made their way toward the stage, Sheila glanced around to orient herself to the place. To their left was a long bar, high tables and stools arranged opposite it, and behind them, the restrooms. In front of the stage was a small area cleared for dancing. It was too dark to make out many details of the place, but it looked clean. The few other couples and small groups that had arrived early to find seats near the band were in quiet, friendly conversation—as quiet as they could be, anyway, given the volume of the music flooding the place. Sheila felt herself relax. This wasn’t the raucous, dirty scene she’d envisioned, and decided that she might actually enjoy the evening—if she could ignore the smoke. “How about right here?” Rosa gestured to an empty table about ten feet from the dance floor. “It’s not so close that our ears will be blown off, but we’ll have a good view.” “Sure.” Sheila smiled. Lord, why am I really here? Getting ready for the evening, she’d considered that God might want her to witness to Rosa in a place where she felt at home. On the other hand, He might just want her to show Rosa His unconditional love. A slim Hispanic woman wearing a mini skirt and an apron lettered with the club’s name walked up to them. “Buenas tardes. Qué quieren tomar?” Rosa asked for a beer; Sheila, a bottle of water. They sat in constrained silence while waiting for their drinks to come. Sheila noticed that Rosa kept glancing toward the door, and wondered if she was expecting someone. “So, what do you think of it so far?” Rosa asked after the waitress gave them their drinks. “It’s not. . .exactly what I expected.” Sheila uncapped her bottle. “You know, vomit under the tables and drunken brawls and all that. Unless that comes later.” Rosa laughed. “Once in a while, but not often.” She sipped her beer and gave Sheila a leery glance. “You ain’t been in too many of these, huh?” “Try none.” Sheila chuckled at Rosa’s wide-eyed surprise. “There are a few people in the world who’ve never been in a club before.” Rosa raised her glass with a grin. “And now, you’re no longer one of them.” Sheila couldn’t argue with that. She raised her bottle and, tapping it against Rosa’s glass, felt the awkwardness between them melt away. If it weren’t for the fact that she was going to have to wash the smoke out of her hair when she got home, she might hang out at a place like this more often. Wanting to become better acquainted with her companion, she searched for a question that wouldn’t be too personal. “You speak much better English than your brother,” she ventured, pushing in her chair to let a couple pass. “How did—” “I’m sorry.” Rosa suddenly stood. “I’ve really got to visit the ladies’ room. Would you excuse me?” She had disappeared into the growing crowd before Sheila had a chance to answer. Sheila sat back, puzzling at Rosa’s rude departure. She didn’t puzzle long. Not half a minute later Miguel Manriquez stood in front of the table. They set me up, Sheila realized. The situation could have angered her, but the fact that it was happening to her and that she hadn’t seen it coming for some reason amused her. So when Miguel asked her if he could join her, she nodded with a smile. * * * Tonight would be the third Friday night that Hank had gone street witnessing with a small group from his church. They spent a half hour in prayer, then camped out for two or three hours in a bar or club parking lot to share the gospel with as many people as they could. When they drove into the Latino club they had chosen to visit that night, the lot was nearly full. “Looks like this field is ripe unto harvest,” one of the younger men, Juan, commented. He and Hank, along with two other men and a woman, slid out of the car to study their surroundings. “Karen, look.” A middle-aged man named Jack spoke to his wife while gesturing toward a young couple emerging from their car. Without another word, the two joined hands and casually walked in their direction. Hank stretched his arms as he lifted up a silent prayer on their behalf. Then he looked around for someone he might talk to. * * * Fifteen minutes had passed and Rosa had not returned. Sheila had no doubt that the brother and sister had conspired together, and that she probably would not see Rosa for the rest of the evening. Miguel had acted surprised, of course, to see Sheila sitting there, but as tempted as she was to let him know that she had figured out their little game, she decided to go ahead and play, more out of curiosity than anything else. Miguel was clearly nervous. His glance flitted from her face to the band to his glass of club soda, and his knee had not stopped bouncing since he sat down. Switching back and forth between broken English and his rapid Mexican Spanish, his conversation was shallow and stilted. Sheila wished he would just come out with why he’d been so desperate to talk to her that he used his sister as bait. Finally, he cleared his throat and looked her directly in the eyes for the first time that evening. “I am interested in getting to know you more, Miss Carson. I know it sounds crazy, but I think the two of us together. . .well, I think it would work.” Sheila sat back, flabbergasted. Her heart raced. A couple of months ago, his suggestion would have revolted her. But as she returned his gaze, she felt flattered, even an attraction toward him. He was drinking a soda instead of alcohol. He seemed sincere in his desire to change. Maybe she should consider his suggestion, if only to befriend him. Or maybe I’m on the rebound. No, something wasn’t quite right about the whole thing. She could feel it in her spirit, although she couldn’t put her finger on it. “Mr. Manriquez”—she made a point of using the formality— “I appreciate your interest in me, but I. . .” But what? She was his daughter’s teacher? She was not Hispanic? What excuse could she give that would hold water? She faltered, embarrassed that anything she might say would make her sound shallow and selfish. She didn’t need to finish. A movement at her side caught her attention, and when she looked up to see who it was, she started. * * * Go inside. The directive was clear, but Hank did not obey right away. The witnessing team had gotten into trouble before for going into bars and sharing their faith, so they had established a ground rule that all spiritual conversation was to be done outside. Hank saw a pick-up pull into the parking lot, and headed toward it. Go inside. The inner voice was stronger, making Hank pause mid-step. He glanced around at his friends scattered around the parking lot. Shouldn’t he ask permission first, or at least let someone know where he was going? GO. Hank went. He stifled a cough as the smoky air assaulted his lungs upon opening the door. He paid the five dollar admission, and made his way toward the throng standing around the bar and seated at the tables. The sheer volume of the music swallowed him, and he wondered how anybody could have a decent conversation above the din. Then again, he thought wryly, most of the people there had not come to have conversation. So why am I here? He glanced around, trying to see through the dimness. He was supposed to talk to someone in here, but he had no idea who, or how he was going to pick one person out of the mob that was packed like sardines. As he began to walk toward the stage, he received numerous surprised, suspicious, and even hostile stares. Of course. He had to be the tallest guy in the place, and although he wasn’t the only Caucasian, he probably had blonder hair than had ever been seen in the neighborhood. He shook away the discomfort, and continued peering around. His eyes settled on a table near the dance floor, and he froze in place. Is that—no, she wouldn’t be in a place like this. Hank inched forward, then mumbled his apologies in Spanish as he bumped into a middle-aged Mexican man, who glared at him in return. Hank took another hard look at the woman who looked strikingly like Sheila. And saw that she was. His first impulse was to run. Surely that had to be coincidence. Surely God hadn’t sent him there to talk to her. But like a roped calf, he felt pulled against his will in her direction. After taking a few more steps, he saw who was sitting with her. Diana’s father? Irrational anger and jealousy rose up within him. Sheila did not have a date with Miguel Manriquez. He wasn’t even saved, for crying out loud. And she wasn’t the kind of person who would touch Miguel’s kind with a ten-foot pole, if at all possible. Was she? Maybe he had not known her as well as he thought he had. In that case, he was only too happy that they had gone their separate ways. So why did he feel like punching Miguel’s lights out? Jesus, help me. Whatever he was doing there, it wasn’t to cause trouble or to add negativity to an already godless atmosphere. By the time he had squeezed his way to her table, he had at least reigned in the emotions swirling around his mind. But he still had no idea what he was supposed to say. When Sheila glanced up, his heart began to pound in his chest. For a long moment her eyes met his with alternating flashes of shock, anger, and sadness. It was Miguel who finally broke the spell. “Señor Johnson.” His tone held a hint of warning. Hank forced a smile. “Señor Manriquez.” He continued in Spanish, “Good to see you again.” He silently asked forgiveness for lying. Miguel looked at him with hard eyes. “What do you want?” For you to stay away from Sheila. For Sheila to stop having these missionary dreams so we can— What was he thinking? It was over between them; besides, he had his sights set on Barbara. God had brought her back into his life for a purpose, and he believed he knew what that purpose was. That settled in his mind, he saw with clarity why the Lord had led him to that place, to that table. Sharing the gospel with tough, down-and-out people was one of Hank’s strengths, and he realized that as much as he despised seeing Miguel sitting in a club with Sheila, he was there to minister to the Mexican. “I want,” Hank finally replied, “for you to know Jesus like I know Jesus.” Miguel narrowed his eyes at him. “I don’t want anything to do with your Jesus,” he growled. Hank prayed for the best approach to get through to this man. The direct, blunt approach was often the most effective for hardened men, so he decided to go with it. “Maybe not,” he said, “but one day you will stand before Him, whether you like it or not.” “Man, do you hear what I’m saying?” Miguel raised his voice and pounded the table with a fist. “I don’t need God or Jesus, and you better not say another word about it.” Glancing at Sheila, Hank saw that she had paled as she watched the exchange with wide eyes. He considered leaving, just to save her from whatever reaction Miguel would have if Hank continued to press the issue. On the other hand, he knew that she wanted Miguel to come to the faith as much as he did. Maybe more, he thought with chagrin. Hank persisted. “If you’re blaming God for all your problems, you’re wrong. There is a devil, and he’s the one working in your life to—” Miguel’s fist smashed his right eye before Hank realized he had even gotten out of his chair. Hank stumbled backward, falling into the table behind him. Reeling from the pain, he barely noticed the glasses crashing to the floor and the screams of the table’s occupants. Somehow, he managed to regain his balance and straighten up. Miguel had sat back down, and glared at him with fiery eyes. “I know you’re not going to hit me back. You’re just another one of those cowardly turn-the-other-cheek Christians. But I’m not, and if you say one more word—” “Gentlemen, I think it’s time for both of you to leave.” A man almost matching Hank’s height but with a much more burly build approached as a busboy rushed to clean up the mess behind them. Hank was only too happy to do so. He’d never felt so humiliated in his life. He pushed his way through the mob and back out into the parking lot, wishing he’d brought his own car so he could sneak away and not let the others from his church see his condition. But he hadn’t, so he went over to Jack’s car to wait. Karen walked up a few minutes later, and immediately began exclaiming over his eye. Jack followed with a stern reprimand about sticking to the rules, refusing to listen to Hank’s attempt at explaining that God had told him to go in. By the time he got home that night, he was totally depressed. In one fell swoop, he’d been publicly humiliated, scolded by a spiritual leader, and had most certainly been demoted in the eyes of a woman he’d come to care about deeply. The worst part of the whole evening was, he had failed. God had sent him to bring somebody closer to Him, and Hank had failed. Lord, he prayed as he drifted off to sleep, I’m sorry, but I’m through. Let me just be a teacher. CHAPTER 19 Two weeks later, Sheila was headed toward the principal’s office, full of trepidation, wondering if Diana’s father had gone off the deep end again and tried to get her into trouble. She didn’t know why he would. The night he had socked Hank in the eye he had been extremely apologetic as the bouncer led him out of the club, and the next Monday Diana had shown up with a small bouquet of roses with a card offering additional expressions of regret. She’d thanked Diana, and told her to tell her father that it was okay, and hadn’t heard from or seen him since. She broke away from her thoughts long enough to give a professional smile to a mother just leaving the office with her two children, then let the cheerful expression fade. Maybe Mr. Medina didn’t like something he’d seen when he’d visited her classroom last week. Or some parent had complained about so-and-so hitting their child on the playground. She had almost reached the office door when Hank appeared beside her. He must have been just behind her, since she would have noticed him coming down the opposite way. “Oh, hi.” It was the most she had said to him in the past two weeks. She wished she could work up the nerve to tell him that she thought that what he’d done that night in the club was courageous. He had risked a blow for Jesus, and, like Jesus, had not returned it. In her mind, that made him one of the strongest Christian men she’d ever met. But whenever she considered going to his classroom to tell him, her own courage failed her. She was afraid he might think she was trying to reestablish their relationship and cause an argument, or that the mere act of complimenting him might deepen the pain she still felt about their breakup. Now, as her hand inadvertently brushed against his leg when he gestured for her to enter first, she felt heat rise up into her cheeks. Whatever Medina had to say would be a piece of cake compared to this brief encounter. She avoided Hank’s eyes as she told the office manager, “Mr. Medina called me in.” “Really?” Hank sounded surprised. “Me, too.” Sheila turned to him and raised an eyebrow. Medina didn’t mean to talk to both of them at once, did he? No, that made no sense. He must have had separate issues with each of them, and was going to conference with them one at a time. But it was 3:20, and the kids were long gone. Why didn’t he call one after he finished conferencing with the other? That way, nobody’s time would be wasted. “He’s talking with a parent right now,” the office manager said. “He should be almost through.” Four cushioned chairs lined the wall opposite the office counter. Sheila sat on the first, Hank on the last. Neither spoke for several long, uncomfortable minutes. Finally, Medina’s door opened. An unsmiling man walked out, dragging a terror-stricken boy behind him. This child was no doubt in for a miserable evening. “Okay,” the office manager said. “You can go in now.” Sheila and Hank glanced at each other. “Which one?” they asked in unison. Feeling her face flush again, Sheila looked away. “He wants to see both of you. Together.” * * * Hank shook his head in unbelief as he pulled several microwavable meals out of the freezer. Not thirty minutes ago, he had agreed to work with Sheila on the May Day festival. He hadn’t had much choice. Neither one of them had. “You’re the most creative one on our staff here,” Medina had told Hank, “and you,” he said, turning to Sheila, “have probably the best organizational skills of anybody I’ve ever worked with. The PTA will take care of the games, but I need someone to facilitate the entertainment.” He had glanced from one to the other, his stern look daring them to argue. “You are both elected.” “Excuse me.” Hank looked up to see that his cart was blocking the aisle. “Sorry,” he mumbled, pushing his cart to the side, then absentmindedly followed the woman for whom he had just moved. As he and Sheila had walked out of the office, he wondered if his face looked as shocked as hers. “Well, it could be worse,” he said, grinning. “He could have asked us to switch grade levels.” “That would have been easier,” Sheila retorted, and started to storm out of the office. Hank had stopped her long enough to get her to agree to meet with him in his classroom the next day to have a brainstorming session, then she was off like a rocket. Hank felt a pang of guilt. Had he really hurt her so much that she was so unwilling to work with him as a professional? He knew the answer, however reluctant he was to admit it. Lord, we’re going to need Your help, he prayed as he wheeled his cart toward a checkout line. Big time. * * * Trudging up the stairs toward Hank’s room, Sheila felt like spitting nails. If she hadn’t already been planning to resign at the end of the school year, she would have put in for a transfer. No way did she want to stay under a principal who expected you to ask, “How high?” when he told you to jump. Hank appeared relaxed and calm as he leaned back in his desk chair, which only aggravated Sheila’s fury. She knew he didn’t like Medina’s bright idea any more than she did; the least he could do was frown or scowl or. . .something. “I’m here.” She marched into the room and slammed a notebook onto a student desk near Hank, then sat down in the chair so hard that she felt it in her tailbone. “Let’s get going.” Hank peered at her with a raised eyebrow, then his usual grin spread across his face. “Okay.” Sheila glared at him. “Doesn’t this tick you off in the least?” “Nope.” He straightened up in his chair, then pushed it back to open the middle drawer of the desk. “Well, all right, it did at first.” He fumbled around in the drawer, pulling out a pen after a few seconds. “But the Bible says not to be anxious, and not to let the sun go down on your wrath.” Sheila let out an exasperated breath. The last thing she wanted at the moment was a sermon. But she said nothing. “Anyway,” Hank continued, looking at her intently, “did you ever consider that this thing might be from the Lord?” “Like you said at the club,” Sheila replied, noticing that he winced at the mention of the word, “there is a devil, too, and if I didn’t know any better, I would say that he had possession of Medina yesterday.” She refused to consider that God had orchestrated this whole thing, essentially putting Sheila and Hank on a team. It was already too painful, and she’d only been in his room for five minutes. “Touché.” Hank’s grin faded into a sheepish smile. “But God can turn it around for good.” Sheila was too tired to continue the banter. “Can we just get this over with?” She flipped open the notebook, where she had already written down some ideas. “First, we get some kids from each grade level to perform a dance or skit or song. I was thinking the United States song would be—what?” The grin had returned to Hank’s face, and his eyes twinkled with mischief. “Nothing. I’ll get in trouble if I say it.” That was the last straw. “You’d better say it, or you will have trouble.” “Uh-uh. Sexual harassment and all that.” What? Hank would never—But she saw the teasing in his eyes, and her anger began to fade, although she kept it in her tone. “Say it.” “You’re cute when you’re intense.” Sheila didn’t think his grin could get any wider, but it did, until it filled his whole face. He was right. In the context in which it was said—on the job, during school hours—she had every legal right to file a complaint against his comment. But she knew Hank well enough to know that he was just trying to get her to relax. Besides, they were friends, and friends teased each other. The realization jolted her. They were still friends, weren’t they? In spite of everything that had happened between them, she saw in that moment that they still had that simple, God-given bond. Okay, well, that’s what she’d come to believe that God had intended for them in the first place. Just because they had taken their relationship farther than He had willed, didn’t mean they had to throw the baby out with the bath water. The storm of anger evaporated, replaced by a gentle breeze of contentment, and she smiled. “And in case you didn’t notice,” she rejoined, “I’m intense most of the time.” They both laughed, and spent the next two hours planning the greatest festival that the school had ever known. Over the next couple of weeks, Sheila drummed up volunteer support from the rest of the faculty, while Hank gathered materials for the various performances that would take place. Sheila drew up a schedule for the big day, and Hank had kids painting, dancing, and singing every day after school. Every time the two of them got together, Sheila felt they had more fun than the last time. There was only one problem. Hank had begun to fill her thoughts again. When they weren’t together, she wondered what he was doing. Would have imaginary conversations with him. He even began showing up in her dreams. She had to face it. Disregard her previous sense of what God willed between her and Hank. She felt like she was falling in love with him again, was sure the same thing was happening with him. She could see it in his eyes. Lord, I don’t need this, became her daily cry. If these feelings aren’t from You, please, take them away. After praying for several days, she approached Pastor Scott after a Wednesday night service. “I need you to put my plans to go to Zimbabwe on hold.” He frowned, remaining silent for a long moment. “Are you sure?” he finally asked. “Positive,” she replied, and the pastor nodded solemnly. The Friday before the big day, Mr. Medina surprised both of them by putting substitute teachers in their classrooms and telling—actually, more like ordering—them to spend the afternoon in the teacher’s lounge tightening up any loose ends. Sheila was more than happy to give up her restless class to someone else’s charge, and hoped that Hank wouldn’t mention to Medina that they already had everything taken care of. In case Medina popped in on them, she made a show of lugging her notebook and the binder holding the detailed schedule for the day into the lounge. Hank one-upped her on that score. He dragged in a wheeled carry-on at about 1:15, and emptied the contents onto the table. “Just in case, you know what I mean?” he said, winking, and she burst into laughter. After catching her breath, she asked, “Well, what do we do for two hours?” Hank shrugged. “How about just shoot the breeze?” They’d been talking for about twenty minutes when they heard a knock on the door. “Come in,” Sheila said, assuming it was some child. None of the adults in the building ever knocked on the lounge door. She started somewhat when a grown woman wearing a visitor pass stepped through the doorway. She started even more when Hank jumped up and said, “Barbara, what are you doing here?” He knows her. Jealousy swept over her when he walked over to the strange woman and greeted her with a hug. Who was she? When they parted from their embrace, Hank turned to Sheila. “Uh, Sheila, this is Barbara. I knew her from my dad’s church.” He cleared his throat. “A few years ago.” Barbara smiled warmly as she walked over to Sheila and extended her hand. “Nice to meet you. You teach fourth grade, too?” Sheila struggled to return the smile as she accepted the handshake. Whoever this woman was, Hank had told her nothing about Sheila. And why had Sheila never heard of this woman? She was growing more irritated by the second. “No. I teach Kindergarten. We’re working on a project together.” She gave Hank an accusing glance, but he was already looking back at Barbara. “So, what brings you to my neck of the woods?” Sheila knew that tone. Hank used to talk to her that way, with a tenderness that caressed her eardrums, a few months earlier. When they seemed to be headed to something deeper than a friendship. Sheila felt the blood drain from her face. Hank isn’t - he’s not - But Sheila couldn’t deny what was staring her in the face. Hank was in love with another woman. Sheila felt sick to her stomach. So what she thought had been happening between her and Hank had been a complete misperception on her part. Hank was only interested in her as a friend. She swallowed the lump in her throat, and took a deep breath to alleviate the nausea. “I wanted to tell you that I had a job interview with a firm in Keller.” Barbara beamed. “I feel real good about it.” “Keller?” Hank’s eyes sparkled with pleasure. “That’s not too far from here.” And to think, Sheila had as much as admitted to her pastor that she was about to turn away from the call of God on her life. Why hadn’t she stood up to Medina for once? After all, he couldn’t fire her for not serving on a committee. Deep down, she’d known that working with Hank would eventually bring her pain, in some way, shape, form, or fashion. She never would have guessed, however, that the pain would come in the form of a beautiful Hispanic lady. “No,” Barbara said, “it’s not far at all.” They shared a smile, and suddenly, Sheila felt like she was intruding on something private. “Excuse me,” she said, and got up to leave. She brushed past Barbara without apology, wandering the halls for a good ten minutes as she blinked back tears. She would be in Margaret’s room, crying on her shoulder, no doubt, as soon as her last student was picked up, but until then, Sheila had to hold herself together. When she got back to the lounge, Barbara was gone, and Hank was once again seated. He glanced up at her, brow wrinkled with concern. “Are you feeling all right?” “I’m fine.” Sheila picked up her belongings with a sweep of her arm. “Oh, you’re going to need this.” She dumped the binder with the schedules on the table and whirled around. “Where are you going?” Hank said as she reached for the doorknob. Sheila wanted to face him with the answer, but she knew it would be her downfall. “To Zimbabwe,” she answered, and headed out of the lounge to find Mr. Medina. * * * Miguel had been kicking himself every day since the incident with Mr. Johnson in the nightclub. Sure, the guy had been intruding on his date with Miss Carson, not to mention getting in his face with religion. He had a good smack in the face coming, and Miguel wouldn’t have thought twice about it if it hadn’t happened in front of Diana’s teacher. She would never want to see him again now, roses or no roses. And he didn’t blame her. Diana came bounding in from school that warm afternoon. “Papá, you’re going to let me sing at the carnival, right? Miss Carson said that it’s on Tuesday. I missed her today. She wasn’t there after lunch. She said she had some work to do for the carnival. So I can go, right?” Amused by her excited outburst, Miguel picked up his daughter in a smothering embrace. “Sí, anything for my little girl. Are you hungry?” She nodded emphatically, and he set her down at the rickety old table with some leftover buttered tortillas and a glass of water. “I’m sorry we’re out of milk.” He sat down next to her, feeling overcome with shame. He thought giving up drinking would free up some cash, but here he was again, without enough grocery money to buy milk for his only child. Diana shrugged in her usual nonchalant way. “That’s okay.” She gulped the water down thirstily. “Miss Carson says water is better for you, anyway.” “She did, did—” A searing pain in his side cut his words off short, and he doubled over. In an instant, Diana was out of her chair and by his side. “Papá, are you okay? Should I call Tía Rosa?” My medicine. I need my medicine. “No,” he said, gasping for air. “But in the bathroom there is a jar of pills. Get it.” Diana was off like a shot, and as soon as she returned he dumped several pills into his palm and swallowed them down with the rest of her water. The pain began to subside, and he straightened up. Diana was staring at him like a frightened deer. “I’m okay, sweetheart.” Miguel reached out his arm. Diana walked toward him with a skeptical look. “Are you sure?” “I’m sure.” He held Diana to his side for a long moment, hoping she would not begin to worry about him. Even more, he hoped that she would not mention this episode to Rosa. “Maybe you should go to Miss Carson’s church.” The whispered suggestion startled him as though a loudspeaker had suddenly blasted in his ear. “What?” Diana looked up into his face with serious eyes. “God does things in Miss Carson’s church. Maybe if you go, He’ll make your hurt go away.” The familiar tide of fury began to rise within him, but he checked it before it manifested itself in its usual angry torrent. This was his daughter speaking. She was six years old. She didn’t know any better than to believe what she had been told. Then again, she seemed to be handling life a lot better than he ever had. Maybe she knew something he didn’t. However odd that idea, Miguel decided to go with it. It might be his last chance. “Diana,” he said, feeling the first spark of hope in years, “You must be the smartest girl on earth.” CHAPTER 20 Nearly two months had passed since Sheila’s confession to Margaret about causing the death of her young cousin-once-removed. Although the past pain had diminished to the point where she could think about the accident and no longer feel a sharp stab of regret and guilt, the days and weeks following Spring Break she kept wondering if she should try one more time to talk to her sister Linda, to reconcile with her. Perhaps, Sheila thought, if she could somehow get through to her sister that God had given her peace about the situation, Linda would be willing to ask for and receive the same peace. The sun burned with unseasonable heat the day after the May Day festival. Still worn out from the backbreaking labor she’d endured the day before, she dragged herself out of the cool shelter of her car and to her apartment door, hoping that the 95-degree temperature of the day was not a portent of a summer filled with 105-plus-degree days. As exhausted as she was, she’d decided two days earlier to call Linda just after the festival. If she waited another day, she feared she would lose her nerve. Upon entering her apartment, she dropped her bag next to the door, turned up the air conditioning, and walked over to the telephone. She hesitated, a vivid picture of her throwing it to the floor flashing through her mind. Was she some kind of masochist? What was she thinking? Linda had not changed in four years. What made Sheila think that five months had made a difference? Shut up. You are not going to chicken out now. Pick up the blasted phone. “Jesus, help me,” she sighed, picking up the receiver. She dialed her mother’s number. The phone rang four times before anyone answered. “Hello?” The voice was so weak, Sheila barely recognized it. “Linda?” She clenched her free hand into a fist to stop it from shaking. For a brief eternity, silence reined. Sheila was sure her sister was going to hang up on her. Or release the same old torrent of angry accusations. She braced herself, determined that whatever happened, she would be able to put it in God’s hand and not let it ruin the rest of her day. “What do you want?” Linda’s voice was more weary than hostile, and the resigned reply took Sheila by surprise. “Linda, are you okay?” “You didn’t call to ask me that.” She sounded angry, but her harsh tone couldn’t mask the slight slur in her speech. What was wrong with her? Sheila decided not to press the issue. “I—this is kind of hard to explain,” she began. “During Spring Break, I realized that God had forgiven me for what I—what happened with Lorena. And Peter.” She took a deep breath. Please let her hear what I’m saying. “And I’ve been at peace ever since. I know it’s God’s will for you to find peace about it, too, and for there to be peace between us. If—if you want, I can pray with you, and—” A humorless guffaw broke off Sheila’s plea. “Well, isn’t this just special. My sister the preacher.” Linda’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “I’m so glad to hear you no longer care about what you did to Lorena, but you know what? I still do.” Sheila had prayed not to get upset at any point during the call, but she couldn’t help the anger that suddenly flooded through her. “It was an accident, can’t you understand that? A terrible one, yes, but an accident. I loved Lorena as much as anybody, and I don’t get why you keep acting as if I did it on purpose. “No, no wait. Yes, I do get it. If you finally admit that I’m not the criminal in the whole thing, you might actually remember that you’re the one who asked me to run to the store that day to—” “Shut up!” Sheila winced at the scream, then realized she had hit the nail on the head. For four years, Linda had dealt with her own guilt in the incident by blaming Sheila. She waited for her sister to hang up. Linda did not. “Don’t you try to pin Lorena’s death on me. It was not my fault.” The broken sobs with which she spoke defied her words. “Don’t you ever call me again, you hear me? If God wants us to be sisters again, He’s going to have to do a whole lot more than give you some imaginary feeling.” Then she hung up. Sheila stared numbly at the receiver in her hand. Well, I tried. She set it down on the dining room table. Plopping into a chair, she folded her arms on the table and let her head sink into them. She had so much wished to make things right with Linda before she left for Africa. Now that seemed impossible, barring a miracle. Which Sheila didn’t even have the strength to hope for. She did, however, have the strength to speed-dial Gary. If she couldn’t get Linda to forgive and forget, she was going to find out what was wrong with her. “What’s wrong with Linda?” she said as soon as her brother answered. A pregnant pause preceded his response. Something totally out of character for him. He wasn’t one to beat around the bush. Unless he was hiding something. “What do you mean? I guess she’s still mad at you—” “That’s not what I mean, and you know it.” Calm down. Gary was the one sibling she felt she still had a relationship with, and snapping at him would do nothing to improve it. “I’m sorry.” She sighed. “I just got off the phone with her—” “With who? Linda?” Gary’s voice went up a few decibels. “Yes. Can you believe it? She didn’t hang up on me.” “Shelly, that’s wonderful.” Not as wonderful as I wanted it to be. “You’re changing the subject.” “Which one?” Now he deserved her wrath, and made no effort to hide her exasperation. “She sounded like she’d been hit over the head by a two-by-four. Do you know what that’s all about?” Another pregnant pause. “No.” Liar. Sheila spent the rest of the week in a fog, letting her students get away with misbehaviors that previously would have warranted a trip to the time-out chair, and walking through lessons with robot-like indifference. Saturday she spent extra time praying, so that by the time Sunday morning arrived, she had begun to feel a bit more rejuvenated. She walked into the church, ready to worship God, ready for Him to touch her. After singing several songs, God’s presence descended on Sheila like a dove, and she felt the burden of the past week, especially the calls to Linda and Gary, lift off her shoulders. Others around her seemed lost in the same presence, some weeping, some praying, some standing silently with lifted hands. The band played quietly for what felt like an hour, but was only perhaps ten minutes, and then Pastor Scott stepped up to the podium. “God is here. He’s touching hearts.” Hushed amens echoed throughout the sanctuary. “For some of you, this is brand new.” The pastor began to pace back and forth on the podium, scanning the congregation with searching eyes. “Your heart may be pounding, your emotions may be thrilling, or you just may be feeling a tug on your heart, a tug that’s whispering, ‘Come closer. Come closer to God.’ “If that’s you, and you’ve never accepted Jesus Christ as your Savior, it’s the call of the Holy Spirit to accept Him, to believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that He died to save you from your sins.” Pastor Scott paused and peered out into the congregation. “I challenge you this morning, before almighty God, to answer the call. I’m not going to ask for a show of hands. I’m going to ask you to be bold and step out of your seat and meet me right here in the front.” Usually, Pastor Scott had to spend a few minutes asking for people to answer the call, but today, several men and women immediately began walking down the aisles to the sound of thunderous applause from the rest of the congregation. Sheila began clapping as well, but suddenly stopped. She saw a familiar figure approach the pastor from the far side of the church, and did a double take. Miguel Manriquez? She blinked, and looked again. Now he stood with his back toward her, but she recognized the stance and build, and the black hair slicked back behind his ears. Still, he could have been another Mexican who just resembled Miguel. Sheila had never waited so long for her pastor to pray the prayer of salvation. She shifted impatiently, anxious for those standing in the front to turn around. When they finally did, Sheila was satisfied and bewildered at once. It was Diana’s father. She was so shocked she couldn’t even move as he walked down the middle aisle with the rest of the new believers, being led to one of the classrooms where they would receive counsel and a free Bible. Was Diana there, too? Sheila strained to see through the crowd separating her section from the section where Miguel had come from, to no avail. She spent the rest of the service in a state of complete distraction, wondering what had brought Miguel to the church, if his answering the altar call had been genuine, what was going to happen next in his life. The thought crossed her mind as well: could she now return the interest he had in her, now that he was a believer? She immediately dismissed the question. She knew well that coming to faith in Christ did not eliminate every problem in life. Besides, you’re going to Zimbabwe in a month, remember? She remembered. And she also was becoming more convinced that she didn’t want to go alone. When Pastor Scott finally dismissed the service two and a half hours after it had begun, Sheila jumped out of her seat, determined to catch Miguel before he left. If nothing else, she wanted to know why he had changed his mind about God and church. She needn’t have worried. As she dodged around the mass moving toward the exits, she caught sight of him coming the opposite way. Next to him stood Diana, one of her hands gripping his, the other waving frantically at Sheila. They finally headed into the same row of now-vacant chairs to get out of the press of the crowd. Sheila and Miguel stood facing each other, an uncomfortable moment passing between them before Miguel said, “Maestra, I have something I have to confess to you.” They sat down, Diana between them, her face beaming. No wonder. Jesus had fulfilled His promise to heal her father. After all, what greater healing was there than that of the soul? Miguel glanced at his daughter, then placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Diana, please go wait for us over there.” He indicated a chair in the aisle across from them. “I’ll be there in a minute.” When she had complied, Miguel turned his eyes toward Sheila. To her surprise, they were filled with tears. “I’ve done something wrong.” The remorse in his tone matched the sorrow on his face. “I have been trying to get you to like me, because I need a mother for Diana.” Sheila did her best to maintain her poise, while her mind whirled. Why her? Why not some nice lady in the Mexican community? When she found her voice she said, “I guess I can understand that. A girl does need a mother.” Miguel shook his head. “No, you don’t understand.” He sighed and glanced at Diana, who was watching in fascination as the band put away their instruments. “I’m dying.” “What?” He turned to face her. “I have liver cancer. From all the drinking. And it’s spread.” He stared down at his hands. “The doctors give me only a few more months.” Sheila sat motionless, trying to digest the information. Miguel Manriquez was dying. He clearly didn’t want to have to give custody of Diana to his sister Rosa, because of her career choice, no doubt. So he had tried to get to Sheila, hoping to form a relationship with her so that when he died, she would feel obligated to take care of his little girl. What a crazy day. Week. No, year. Sheila sat back in her chair, staring at a point beyond the back of the platform where the band members still worked. She didn’t know what to say. Somehow, “I’m sorry” would sound horribly shallow and insufficient. As she struggled for the right words, suddenly she remembered the first time she had taken Diana to church with her. Jesus said He’s going to heal my papá. Of course! Why hadn’t she seen it before? “Come on.” Sheila nearly jumped out of her seat. “We need to find Pastor Scott.” * * * Pastor Scott spoke slowly and simply, eliminating the need for Sheila to translate. Miguel listened in amazement. Growing up, he had heard the stories of how Jesus healed when He was on the earth. But even as a child, he had been skeptical. He had never seen a miracle, and heard many adults scoff at them. Now he was being told that not only were the miracles that Jesus did true, but also that He still performed them today. Miguel was not totally convinced by the time Pastor Scott finished talking. And even if Jesus could heal him from his cancer, why should He? Miguel had done nothing to deserve any kindness from God—or from this pastor or teacher who sat with him. “So you say,” he said, “dat Jesus, He want to help me? I behave bad all dees years, but He still want to help me?” Diana, sitting on his right side, snuggled against his arm. “Jesus loves you, Papá.” Miguel held her close. It was enough that the God he had defied all these years had saved him. To think that His love would reach beyond that and restore his physical life was incomprehensible. But he had to try to believe. The little girl leaning into his side depended on it. Miguel took a deep breath. “Okay.” He nodded. “Pray for me.” Diana moved away so that Pastor Scott could lay his hand on Miguel’s abdomen. As the pastor began to pray, Sheila bowed her head, whispering into her chest. For a couple minutes, Miguel felt nothing. Then his right side became awashed in heat. At first, he thought the effects of the pain medication had worn off. He almost stopped the pastor so he could pause to swallow a couple of pills. Then he realized the heat was not at all painful, and that it was not originating in his body. Instead, it seemed to be flowing right out of the pastor’s hand, penetrating through Miguel’s skin, and moving through his body like a stream of hot water. For several moments the heat remained in his right side, but then he began to feel it move down toward his groin, up toward his chest, and over to his left side. He wanted to say something, ask about it, but at the same time the flow of heat had begun, a Presence had fallen in the room. The same Presence he had felt just before going up to the front of the church earlier that day. He had closed his eyes in reverence when Pastor Scott began praying, but now opened them, half expecting to see an angel or some other apparition. Sheila now sat still as stone. Diana leaned against her, shedding silent tears. The pastor’s voice had diminished to a whisper, and a single tear escaped from under his closed eyelids. They felt it, too. Only when the sensation began to cool did Pastor Scott remove his hand from Miguel. He opened his eyes, and smiled. “Go visit a doctor tomorrow,” he said. “I believe you will be told that the cancer has left your body.” CHAPTER 21 “Jesus healed my papá. Just like he said he would.” If the grapevine was to be believed, Diana Manriquez said the same thing to every person, adult or child, that she ran into. This was the first time she had encountered Hank since she had begun her one-girl mission to share her good news with the world, and her eyes sparkled as though the event had happened yesterday instead of a week ago. “So I’ve heard, Diana,” Hank said, grinning. He’d gone into the cafeteria during the Kindergarten lunch period to get ice for a science experiment. A teacher aide notorious for her atheistic beliefs stood behind Diana, and rolled her eyes. “Sweetheart, go sit down.” Diana skipped back to her seat, still beaming, and waved at Hank as he left. He waved back, and realized that he felt much lighter leaving than when he had walked in five minutes ago. Lately, he felt like he’d been walking around under a cloud. He knew it had something to do with Sheila’s abrupt departure from the lounge the day Barbara had come to tell him about her job interview. Sheila was obviously jealous, and he supposed he could understand why. But shouldn’t she be over it by now? He was happy that they had reestablished their friendship through working on the May Day festival together, and hadn’t seen any hint that she still felt anything for him in a romantic way. Yet, the day of the festival she only spoke to him when necessary, and then with terse words, and since that day she would look away whenever they had a chance encounter somewhere in the school. When the word began to spread about a Kindergartner trying to evangelize the school, Hank considered hunting Sheila down to find out the whole story. Somehow, he knew that she had something to do with it. But he didn’t want to make her feel cornered, so he decided to leave it alone. He bounded up the stairs to his classroom, two at a time. He’d left the kids alone with a math worksheet, but he knew if he let too much time pass, chaos would soon reign in room 215. To his great shock, when he opened up the door, every student was seated in her desk writing vigorously on a piece of paper. No one even looked up when he walked into the room, and for a few seconds Hank wondered if he’d entered the wrong place. His class had never been so quiet, not even during a test. Now silence pervaded the room as if it were empty of living bodies. Hank was about to ask one of his students what was going on, when a movement to his left caught his eye. Mr. Medina was sitting at Hank’s desk, glaring. Oh, Lord. Hank knew what had happened without having to ask the principal. His kids had exercised very bad timing and lost control just as Medina was passing by. Who knows what they might have been doing; it didn’t really matter. What would matter to Medina was that Hank had left them unsupervised, and did not have them disciplined enough to maintain order in the classroom without him. Mr. Medina got up and out from behind the desk. “My office, 3:10,” he whispered to Hank as he passed him to exit the classroom. Then he raised his voice to address the class. “Remember, I want those essays on my desk by 8:00 tomorrow. In your best handwriting.” “Yes, sir,” several students mumbled in reply. When Mr. Medina had left, Anthony let out a low whistle. “Mr. Johnson’s in trouble,” he said in a sing-song voice, to the amusement of half a dozen other kids who giggled in unison. Then something happened that had never happened before. Not during school to Hank, anyway. He lost his temper. He slammed the container of ice onto a nearby table as a white-hot rage surged through him. He turned to the class, fighting the temptation to call them all sorts of names. “Mr. Perez,” he seethed to Anthony, “now you’re the one in trouble. Detention for a week.” Anthony’s eyes widened. “But I—” “Two weeks!” Hank couldn’t keep his voice down to a normal tone. “That’s not—” “Three!” Every girl and about half of the boys cringed as Hank bellowed at the top of his lungs. “Would anyone else care to argue with me?” He had kept his eyes on Anthony during the exchange, but now he took in the whole class with a sweeping glare, daring anyone else to challenge him. Then he snatched up one of the essays. “Why Students Should Control Themselves in the Classroom,” was its title. He threw the paper back down on the desk, causing its writer, one of his top female students, to flinch. He took a deep breath, and forced himself to use a professional tone. “You have ten minutes to finish your essay for Mr. Medina. And if I hear one peep out of any of you during that time period, you will get exactly what Mr. Perez got. If you don’t finish, you will add it to your homework list.” Ignoring the incredulous stares of some of the bolder pupils in the room, Hank sank into his desk chair, guilt overwhelming him. Jesus, forgive me. What’s the matter with me? How could I treat Your children this way? He listened for an answer—for once his room was quiet enough to hear a still, small voice—but none came. He awaited the end of the day with dread. * * * If Hank had thought for one second that his meeting with the principal was an omen of the evening to come, he would have canceled his date with Barbara. He’d left the school with his proverbial tail between his legs, unable to shake the confusion and shame that had settled on him in Medina’s office. “I’ve given you a whole year, Mr. Johnson.” At least Medina didn’t glare at him the way he’d glared at Hank’s class a couple hours ago. But his sharp tone conveyed the seriousness of his words. “Now, there’s no doubt your students love you. And some did excel on the TAKS test. You are clearly doing some things right.” He leaned back in his chair and sighed. “But teaching requires more than creating fun lesson plans. One needs a knack for organization, structure.” “And you think I’m lacking.” Hank made sure his tone was free of any hostility. He didn’t need any more points against him. Mr. Medina observed him for a long moment. “If you really believe you’re called to teach,” he said, “you can develop those skills. “The district is offering a week-long training in classroom management this summer. If you agree to sign up for it, I will not ask you to transfer.” He waited for the meaning of the words to sink in. But Hank was still on Medina’s previous words: if you really believe you’re called to teach. By the time he had digested the rest of what the principal had said, he felt so deflated he couldn’t even bring himself to accuse Medina of threatening him. “You don’t want me to come back next year.” Medina heaved another sigh. “Any classroom needs structure and a firm hand to obtain optimum learning. A classroom full of inner city children needs even more. I only want—” “What’s best for the kids. Right.” Hank stood up. “If you don’t mind, I need to go home and think this over.” But school was the last thing he wanted on his mind this warm Friday evening in May. He had plans. Important plans. He had a date with Barbara, and he needed to recover his usual cheerful attitude that had got sucked away into some black hole after returning to his classroom from the cafeteria. Three hours after ending the ominous conversation with Medina, bits and pieces of it still echoed in his mind, and it was only after great effort that he was able to quiet his mind and focus on what he hoped to accomplish that evening. He tied a navy striped tie around his neck, put on a matching sportcoat, and ran his fingers through his hair, wondering if Barbara at all suspected what was about to happen. All he had told her was to dress up nicely, that he felt like celebrating with a friend because the school year was almost over. She was wearing a spaghetti strap pastel blue dress that fit her in a becoming yet modest way when he picked her up from the friend’s house where she was staying while she waited to hear from her prospective employer. She said little on the way to the restaurant, an upscale Mediterranean place in north Fort Worth. “A dollar for your thoughts,” he said to her about halfway there, but she merely smiled and shrugged. He wondered if something was wrong. She was usually much more outgoing, and her reticence concerned him. But if he pressed the issue, and it was something Barbara was unwilling to discuss, he would be responsible for any resulting tension. The last thing he wanted was for either one of them to feel any degree of discomfort. The evening was too important. So he forced himself to be content with a quiet ride to the restaurant. Barbara warmed up as the evening wore on, to Hank’s great relief, and by the time they were finishing their meal she was chattering away. For a while Hank was afraid he might not get to say what he had planned to say. Finally, there was a lull in their conversation. Hank decided it was time. “Barbara,” he said, looking straight into her eyes, “I’m afraid I brought you here under false pretenses.” She frowned. “What do you mean?” With a slow, deliberate motion, Hank reached across the table and placed his hand over one of Barbara’s. Her eyes widened in a startled expression as she glanced down at her hand then back at his face. “I mean, I didn’t bring you here just to celebrate the end of school.” His mouth went dry, and he had to clear his throat to continue. “I believe I’m in love with you.” Barbara stared. “Oh, Hank.” She covered her mouth with her free hand as she pulled the other one out from under Hank’s. She shook her head as she stared down at her plate. “I wondered on the drive here, if you had something going on. . .but then you seemed your normal, friendly self when we got here, so that I thought maybe I was just imagining. . .Oh, Hank.” She brought both her hands in front of her chest, where she wrung them together as she bit her upper lip. “I don’t want to hurt you. It’s the last thing I would ever want.” Yep, he should have known after his meeting with Medina that things wouldn’t go his way. “You don’t feel the same about me.” Barbara shook her head, eyes full of regret. “I’ve never thought of you as more than a friend, a good Christian brother.” “But in time, if we get to know each other a little more—” “Stop.” Barbara’s rebuke was gentle, quiet. “In my heart of hearts, I know it would never happen. And I’m sorry if I led you on in any way. I never meant to be anything more than a friend.” Hank was unable to move for a long moment. After the time they spent together on Spring Break, their correspondence before and since, she hadn’t developed any special feelings toward him, to any degree? “You never led me on.” His voice was suddenly hoarse. “But I thought that we had connected in a deeper way. I thought when I brought you here tonight—shucks.” He rubbed the beard on his chin. Then he glanced up at her, wanting to made one last attempt. “If you get the job here, will it – I mean, I don’t want to lose our friendship.” Barbara gave him a wry smile. “I won’t be staying here anyway.” She leaned back to let the waiter pick up the empty plates. “I was going to tell you that I didn’t get the job in Keller. But God is good. I have an offer from a firm in Galveston.” Galveston? On the Gulf of Mexico? “That’s a long ways away.” Barbara nodded. “And maybe that’s good for now.” She arose, smoothing down her dress as she did so. “Thank you for the wonderful meal, Hank, but I think it would be best if I took a cab home.” Hank was so stunned he could only stare after her retreating figure as she headed toward the front of the restaurant. How could he have been so wrong? Misread the signals? And how could he have let himself fall in love with someone who wouldn’t reciprocate? Lord, I must be the biggest fool on earth. In a flash, a scripture popped into his mind. “The fool has said in his heart, there is no God.” But Hank believed in God. And he felt no less foolish. Then he remembered something his pastor had preached about that particular verse once. In the original Hebrew, the words “there is” did not exist. They were placed by well-meaning translators trying to compensate for the lack of punctuation. So the original scripture actually reads, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘No, God.’” Hank’s dinner suddenly churned in his stomach as he was confronted by a fact that he had managed to suppress in the back of his mind. For the past four years, he had been saying “no” to God. Forget earth. He was the biggest fool in the entire universe. So what are you going to do about it, cowboy? Hank handed the waiter a wad of cash as he approached with the bill. “Keep the change,” he said, rising to leave, and rushed out as if he might leave the taunting question behind. But apparently he moved too slowly, since it followed him out the door, got into the car with him, and pestered him until he arrived home. Ignoring it only made it echo all the louder until his temples were throbbing. He stopped short of his door and squeezed his eyes shut. What am I going to do? I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. He struggled against the onslaught of gruesome memories that flooded his mind. With them, came the familiar paralyzing fear that had driven him into teaching. What was he going to do? What he had been doing the past four years. Saying “no.” And regretting every minute of it. CHAPTER 22 Sheila clenched her teeth when Hank entered the office as she was signing out. “Excuse me,” she mumbled as she brushed past him, hoping he would say nothing to her. He did not. Instead, he did something five times more unsettling. He followed her out of the office and into the sunny afternoon. “Wait, Sheila, would you let me talk to you?” he said as she headed for her car. “For just a minute?” Sheila took a deep breath. Slowly, she turned to face him, sending up a silent prayer for help. Her heart pounded. Sorrow and anger and disappointment rose up inside her like an overwhelming tide, and she knew if she let any of the emotions surface she would say something she would regret. Or at least have to repent of later. The easy thing would be to answer “no,” to tell him to leave her alone. But she knew the right thing to do was the hard thing: confront Hank head-on. Several long, awkward moments passed between them after Sheila’s eyes cautiously met Hank’s, which were filled with regret. His jaw worked, as though he were fighting his own battle to stay in control of his emotions, and he looked as if he had aged ten years. Finally, he said, “I got your note in my box.” Sheila nodded. The rest of the faculty had received an invitation to her bon voyage party. Somehow, she felt she owed Hank a personal note of explanation, and had written that she would be resigning from the district and leaving for Zimbabwe in a couple of weeks. She knew he wouldn’t want to attend the party, anyway. When he didn’t say anything else, Sheila grew impatient. “You didn’t follow me out here just to tell me that.” “No.” Hank sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I guess I just wanted to make sure that you’re sure.” Why? Are you in love with me? Are you afraid if I leave and you stay behind you’ll be sorry? She swallowed the questions, knowing that however he answered them would cause her more pain. She knew also that none of it mattered. She had to obey God. “I’m sure.” “I’ll miss you.” Up until that point, Sheila had successfully kept her feelings for Hank at bay. Now, her heart ached even as she felt like she would melt into the pavement from the unexpected wave of desire that swept over her. For a few harrowing seconds, she wavered. Was she sure that God wanted her to leave this man with whom she was—she could no longer deny it—deeply in love? “Hey, Sheila!” The call came from one of the second grade teachers coming behind Hank. “I hear you’re leaving us.” In an instant, Sheila’s firm resolve returned. “Yes,” she said, ignoring the sad puppy-dog look in Hank’s eyes. “God has called me to be a full-time missionary.” * * * The second to last day of school, Diana was not picked up until an hour after dismissal. Teachers were supposed to take children who had not been picked up on time to the office, and call their caregivers. But Sheila knew she might never see the child again, and wanted to spend some time with her. Diana knew she was leaving. She’d found out that Sunday, when Pastor Scott had prayed for Sheila and the couple who were taking her to Zimbabwe. Miguel and Diana had begun attending ACG after discovering that his body was cancer-free. Miguel had kept some distance from Sheila, but he did approach her after that service to wish her well, and thank her again for helping his family. “When are you leaving again?” Diana sat snuggled up next to Sheila, who draped an arm over Diana’s shoulders. “Tuesday. In five days.” “I wish you wasn’t going.” Sheila squeezed Diana against her side. “I know. But I have to.” “‘Cause God told you to, right?” They’d had the same conversation Sunday after church. “That’s right, sweetie.” “And you want to help other people who don’t know Jesus?” “That’s right.” Diana stared up at her with adoration. “Like you helped me and my papá.” For a while they sat without speaking. As Diana nestled up against Sheila, she had the fleeting thought that being this little girl’s mother would be a precious gift. Lord, is there someone out there who would make Miguel a fine wife and Diana a wonderful mother? Whoever it was, Sheila would have to work not to be envious of her. After what seemed a long time, but was in reality only about five minutes, Diana withdrew from the embrace and stared at Sheila with serious eyes. “Isn’t Mr. Johnson going with you?” The question came out of nowhere. Sheila leaned back, eyebrows raised. “No. Why should he go with me?” As if she didn’t know the answer to the question. She wasn’t expecting Diana to respond. And when she did, her answer shocked Sheila to her core. “You’re going to marry him one day.” She spoke as if it were a fact written in stone. Sheila frowned. “Why do you – never mind.” She wondered if Diana had heard from God Himself on the subject. It was possible. The little girl had, after all, seen Jesus before. And children often could sense things going on in the spiritual realm that adults, with their clouded and cluttered minds, could not. But if Diana did have inside information, Sheila didn’t want to know. She had suffered enough with the pain of her and Hank’s breakup. She would not allow herself to get her hopes up. The risk of having them dashed to pieces once more was too great. Diana began to speak again, but she interrupted herself to shriek, “Tía Rosa!” She bounded out of the chair toward her aunt, who stood panting in the doorway. She scooped Diana into her arms while she glanced at Sheila apologetically. “I’m sorry I’m so late. I had to go to Dallas, and on the way back there was an accident.” She set Diana down, stepped into the room and closed the door behind her. “Miss Carson, can I talk to you for a minute?” “Sure.” As long as it’s not about me leaving, or Hank. “Diana, why don’t you find a book and sit in the reading corner?” When Diana was safely out of whisper earshot, Sheila gestured for Rosa to sit down. “What’s going on?” Rosa closed her eyes and let out a breath. “I really want to quit my job.” Sheila wanted to jump up and shout. But Rosa didn’t look nearly as excited as Sheila felt about it, so restrained herself. “That’s wonderful.” She kept her voice low to match Rosa’s. She figured she didn’t want her niece asking any questions about her job. “Why do you look so miserable about it?” Rosa scanned her face with fearful eyes. “Eddie—my boss—he doesn’t like it when his girls just up and leave. He tends to get, well, violent.” Sheila stiffened. “What do you mean, violent?” “He – the girls disappear.” Sheila’s mind went back to the first time she and Hank had met Miguel in the jail cell. Miguel had told them that Rosa’s boss had a special affection for her, and might have let her stay in his hotel, where indeed they found Diana and Rosa. “But I thought—” “Eddie doesn’t like any of his girls leaving.” Rosa’s voice hardened. “No matter what.” “Why don’t you call the police?” “Right. Then I’d be dead for sure.” Sheila had the strange sensation that she’d just stepped onto the scene of a movie about Al Capone. Was Rosa telling her the truth? “I’m very sorry for your predicament, Rosa,” she said, “but why are you telling me all this?” Rosa shrugged. “You’re leaving the country, so if Eddie finds out I told you it won’t matter. You’ll be safe.” “I beg your pardon?” Sheila’s life was in danger by the mere involuntary act of being Rosa’s confessor? “Not that he’d find out,” Rosa hastened to add, “but I needed to ask somebody to pray with me, and you’re the least likely to be caught in anything. Since you’re leaving.” Pray with her? That was new. Diana had told Sheila that after her father was healed, her aunt called it a strange coincidence and said that God didn’t care about anybody that much, let alone their “stinkin’ family.” Sheila had had ample opportunity to argue the point with Rosa whenever she came to pick up Diana, but she knew only the Lord could break through such a hard heart. So she had said nothing to Rosa, but prayed fervently for her. She knew God would eventually get through to her, but hadn’t expected it to happen so soon. The thought made her smile. “I would love to pray with you,” she said, and reached her hand across the table. Rosa took it, bowed her head, and listened as Sheila pleaded on her behalf. * * * A thunderstorm was sending sheets of rain down by the time Sheila finished dinner that evening, and she paused to listen to the steady beating of the large drops against her patio door. She had heard that an isolated storm might occur later that day, and she was glad that it had waited. She hated when the kids couldn’t go out to play, when she had to run like a maniac to get to her car after school to keep from getting soaked. But the sun had shone all day, and the forecast for the last day of school was hot, humid, and mostly sunny. Several claps of thunder roared above her, so loud she could feel them, as she washed her few dishes. They helped her mind escape, at least for the moment, from the loathsome task she had set before herself that night. She needed to call her mother to tell her she was leaving for Zimbabwe. That Sheila hadn’t called her before then was intentional. Her mother would not be happy about the news, and would say everything she could to get Sheila to stay. In fact, Sheila had considered waiting until she had arrived at the mission to inform her mother of her drastic move. That way, she would just have to accept that her daughter was 3,000 miles away and not coming back any time soon. But that would have been cruel, bordering on evil. Her mother had done the best she could to love her daughter and try to reunite all her children. She deserved a few days notice, a fighting chance to try to talk Sheila into staying in America. Not that she had any hope of succeeding. Sheila put the chore off as long as she could. She sat in front of the T.V. for two hours, getting up during commercials to finish packing. She’d either sold or given away most of her furniture and many personal items she hadn’t used in a year or two, so she was down to about a dozen boxes of clothes, books, linens, and personal items that would be shipped to Africa with her. The living room was bare except for the rocking chair she sat in to watch the television. At 9:00, she heaved a sigh, pushed herself out of the chair, and went to the phone. Her mother answered after the first ring. Sheila decided to jump in head first. “Mom, I’m going to be a missionary in Zimbabwe. I’ve already bought a one-way plane ticket, and I don’t know how long I’ll be there. I fly out Tuesday.” An expected silence ensued. Sheila held her breath. Her mother would either plead, cry, or raise her voice, or maybe all three. Sheila braced herself for the onslaught. It didn’t come. “Oh.” The tone was flat, indifferent. “Then, honey, I wish you the best. I will pray for you.” Sheila gripped the receiver, stunned. That was it? Had she dialed the wrong number? “Mom, I mean that I’ve quit teaching. I feel that God wants me to go into missions full-time, and this is the opportunity He’s put in my path.” “I know, sweetheart. Margaret told me.” Margaret? “When?” Two years ago, Sheila’d given Margaret her mother’s phone number in case of emergency. Now she was unsure whether to regret having done that. “A couple weeks ago.” Her mother’s tone became a touch lighter. “She told me she was afraid you wouldn’t tell me until after the fact.” As if it were any of her business. Even as the thought went through Sheila’s mind, she realized she felt more relieved than angry. Margaret had, in effect, taken a huge burden off Sheila’s shoulder. “But you didn’t call me. Do. . .do you want me as far away as possible?” Just to ask the question sent a stab of pain into her heart. And if the answer was yes, she would understand why. It would be because her mother had given up on her children. “Absolutely not. Sheila, don’t even think that for one minute. You know I would like nothing more than for you to be living across the street from me.” “But Mom, I know you. You begged Gary not to move to Chicago, and you threw a fit when I announced I was going to Texas.” “I did not throw a fit.” Her mother had told her that Sheila would move to Texas over her dead body, then slammed doors and drawers for the next two hours, then finally went to her in tears, pleading for Sheila to reconsider. A fit. “Okay, Mom.” Sheila rolled her eyes. “But you know what I mean.” “Stop rolling your eyes, young lady,” her mother snapped, as if she were standing in front of Sheila instead of a thousand miles away. “For your information, Margaret explained that this was a very hard decision for you, and that you’d been facing other. . .pressures. She asked for me to respect your decision. She sounded very worried about your emotional state.” “I’m fine.” That was just like Margaret, to know that Sheila was still upset about the whole thing with Hank, even though Sheila had said little about it during the past month and a half. It was also like her to not bring up the subject. She knew well that Sheila would have hid her true feelings, either putting on a confident and happy front, or else refusing to discuss it altogether. “You don’t sound fine. I hope you’re not mad at your friend. She was just—” “Trying to help,” Sheila finished. “I know. I’m not mad. I promise.” She meandered over to her patio door to watch the rain stream down during a long moment in which neither mother nor daughter spoke. Sheila resumed the conversation after a rumbling from the sky died down. “I guess this makes things easier for you.” Her mother’s sharp tone felt like a slap in the face. “Don’t you ever think that knowing my own children can’t get along will ever be easy. If nothing else, your leaving makes it harder. It only gives Linda an excuse to keep hating you.” So her mother had finally tired of euphemisms and tiptoeing around the issue. “I’m sorry, honey, I didn’t mean that.” Or maybe not. “Yes, you did,” Sheila said, “and you don’t have to apologize for admitting the truth.” “Your sister doesn’t hate you.” Her mother’s voice took on the same old pleading she’d used to try to get Sheila back to Minnesota to visit. Sheila should have blown it off. She should have given her mother some sort of patronizing platitude and let the comment go. But for some reason—maybe it was the weather, or maybe it was the stress of making a major life change in a few days—she suddenly felt confrontational. “Oh no?” Sheila’s voice rose half an octave and several decibels. “Then why don’t you call her right now and ask her?” “Shelly, you’re being—” “Call her.” Her mother replied with a sigh. When Linda picked up the phone, her voice sounded no stronger than before. “What do you want now?” “I’m moving to Zimbabwe. Maybe for the rest of my life. Next week. Do you care?” “I know,” Linda said harshly. “Mom told me. Tried to get me to call you. And yes, I do care.” What? Sheila hadn’t been expecting that. Did that mean her sister might be having second thoughts about— “I’ll be happy to never see you again in this lifetime.” Click. Sheila went over to her rocking chair, letting the phone drop to the floor as she sat down. God, it is You calling me, right? I’m not trying to escape my problems again by hiding behind a cloak of spirituality, am I? She suddenly realized that the last thing she wanted was to leave the United States without having reconciled with Linda. At the same time, she felt more certainty than doubt that this missions trip was of God. But this was her family, and her broken relationship with Linda affected everybody. Leave all and follow Me. The words seeped into her spirit like warm honey, filling her with peace and renewed confidence that she had made the right decision. Okay, Lord, but only because I believe You can do the impossible. When she finally went to bed, the storm outside had completely passed over, leaving a calm stillness, and her storm inside had been laid to rest. * * * Evelyn couldn’t take it anymore. Sick or not, Linda was about to get an earful from her. “How dare you talk to your sister that—you stop and listen. I said listen!” Evelyn reached out and grabbed her daughter’s arm to keep her from stalking off. “Ouch! Mother, you’re hurting me.” Evelyn loosened her grip, but did not release her arm. “Sit down.” She spat out the command like a hissing cat, blood pulsating through her temples as she struggled to control her emotions. Linda shot her an angry glance, but obeyed. She sat down on one of the dining chairs, glaring at the floor. “Look at me.” When Linda did not move, Evelyn pounded the table with her fist and let a profane word burst off her tongue. “Look at me!” Jumping at her mother’s rare expression of fury, Linda jerked her head upward. “Don’t you see that this whole business with Shelly is doing nothing to make you well?” Linda stared at Evelyn with cold eyes. “Nothing is making me well. Not the medication, not the chemo, not your prayers, nothing. You can’t possibly believe that my forgiving Sheila would do anything more for me.” Evelyn sat down next to her daughter, who, despite the eighty-degree day, was dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans which sagged on her dwindling frame. She took a deep breath. She wouldn’t get through to Linda if she continued her ranting and raving. “Look, sweetheart, I’m sorry for yelling. But, yes, I do believe forgiving your sister would help.” Linda’s facial muscles contorted into an expression mixed with anger, mockery, and pain. “Oh, yes. It would help. It wouldn’t give me my body back, it wouldn’t give me my health back, but, bless the Lord, it would give me my spiritual life back. It would restore peace, joy and harmony back to the family—” “Linda—” “—it would help me reconnect with my heavenly Father, who doesn’t care if I live or die—” “Linda! Stop!” Her daughter opened her mouth to say more, then clamped it shut. Her eyes, full of bitterness and hatred, shot daggers into Evelyn’s heart. Finally, she whispered, “I’m dying, Mom. I’m dying, and I wish you’d just to accept that. There’s nothing you can do. There’s nothing I can do. There’s nothing anybody can do. Because you know what? I deserve it.” “No, honey,” Evelyn began to protest as Linda pushed herself out of the chair with a slow, deliberate movement. “You don’t—” “Mother.” Linda’s eyes were brimming with tears. “Please. If you love me, you’ll just let me be.” Evelyn had never felt more helpless as she watched her youngest daughter shuffle away from the table and head back upstairs. CHAPTER 23 On the last day of school, Hank left the building as soon as he could. Sheila was not expecting him to be at her going away party. Even if she was, he would not have attended. He would have broken down in front of the entire faculty. After his last student was picked up, he hurried upstairs to his room, glad to have a valid excuse to miss the party. As soon as he cleaned his classroom for the summer, he would be driving to Austin to help his parents move. He hurriedly tore posters off the wall and stuffed various science, math and art materials into the cabinets. Mr. Medina had agreed to let him miss the teacher workday the next day as long as he left his room in order. His arms moved with automaticity, his mind spinning with thoughts. He still hadn’t decided whether to attend the classroom management workshop that Medina was requiring of him. He really didn’t care if he ended up in a different school the next year. The one reason he would have wanted to stay was flying to Africa in a few days. More than that, Medina’s words had plagued him day and night since the meeting. If you really believe you’re called to teach. . . . Of course, he knew he wasn’t called to teach. And that to attend the workshop would be a kind of deception, both to himself and to Mr. Medina. And that to not attend the workshop, but accept a position at another school, would be the ultimate form of hypocrisy. Still, after the get-it-together-or-get-out conference with Medina, Hank had gone home, fallen to his knees, and repented for his disobedience, begging for mercy, praying for wisdom. And he knew the Bible as well as any preacher. He knew that he had God’s forgiveness as soon as he asked. Yet he had obtained no peace. Hank ripped the last poster, one of punctuation rules, off the wall. Too hard. He tore it almost in half. “Lord,” he cried aloud in frustration, “I believe You’ve forgiven me. I receive it by faith. Why do I still feel so tormented?” Faith without works is dead. “What works?” he had said as he began clearing off his desk. “Since when are works required to feel forgiven?” “Mr. Johnson, who are you talking to?” Hank jerked his head around, startled. Diana Manriquez stood just inside the doorway, staring at him with a puzzled expression. “Um, well, I—” Well, just tell her the truth, for goodness sake. She’s more of a Christian than you are. “I was talking to Jesus.” “Oh.” Diana didn’t move. “Did He answer you?” “Not yet.” Hank stuffed the ruined poster into the trash can and went toward her. “Is there something I can do for you?” She shrugged. “Not for me.” Hank squatted down in front of her to even their heights. “Not for you?” She shook her head. “For God.” She looked up and to the left as she pursed her lips together, as if pondering a deep thought, then looked back at Hank. “And for yourself.” Hank opened his mouth to respond, but found himself in a rare state of speechlessness. A six-year-old child was standing in front of him, telling him out of the blue that he needed to do something for God and himself. Some kind of work? A chill ran up his spine. Even if Diana had overheard his prayer, she surely wouldn’t have understood it well enough to verbalize a response to it. Sheila had told him the girl was smart, but this was uncanny. He finally found his voice, and when he spoke, it was hoarse. “How do you know?” Diana shrugged again. “I don’t.” She smiled for the first time since she entered his room. “The words just goed into my head when we was talking, and I knowed I was supposed to say them. “I better go. My tía is waiting for me at the end of the hall.” She turned to leave, then glanced back at Hank. “Good-bye. I guess I won’t be seeing you anymore.” “Why? Are you moving?” “No. I’m not.” And she walked away, leaving behind a bewildered and frustrated man. For several minutes Hank remained in the same position, and only stood up after he began to feel a cramp in his right thigh. Slowly, he stretched himself up to his normal height, his head spinning. God had sent Diana, and spoken through her. There was no other explanation. Even as Hank had been demanding an answer from heaven, the Lord was bringing one up to his classroom. “Out of the mouths of babes,” he muttered. Then, “What works, Father?” he whispered to the ceiling, knowing the answer, and fearing it. His mind filled with examples from the Bible. Zechariah, who repaid the people he had overtaxed four times more than necessary. The adulteress Jesus saved from certain death who went and sinned no more. The apostle Paul’s obedience to the Lord’s call to preach the gospel. Hank swallowed. Obedience. To the call. But he couldn’t just. . .and by now, Sheila didn’t even. . .besides, him, in an airplane? With a massive effort, he refocused on the task before him, forcing himself to think about the days ahead with his parents. Ten minutes later, he was walking out of the building alone, the only one on the Roosevelt faculty not celebrating Sheila’s special day. * * * As well as being the last day of school, today was payday, and just in time. Miguel’s refrigerator and cupboards were practically bare, and if he didn’t stop in the grocery store on the way home, Diana would go to bed hungry. He was placing a box of Cheerios in the cart, on top of several packages of rice, beans, and corn tortillas, when he spotted Mr. Johnson. He wasn’t sure what came over him in that moment; he just knew that he suddenly felt that if he didn’t go talk to him about how God had healed him, he would explode. “Disculpe,” he said, quickening his steps to catch up with the long-legged teacher, “Señor Johnson, that is your name, no?” Mr. Johnson turned with a handful of protein bars. “Mr. Manriquez.” He looked at him with a weary smile. “How are you?” “I’m sure Diana must have told you by now,” he said in Spanish, “about how God took cancer out of my body. I was dying, you know.” Mr. Johnson raised his eyebrows. “No, I really didn’t know. I just knew you had some kind of illness.” He shook his head. “Wow.” “And I asked Him to save me. And I believe that if you and Miss Carson had never gone in search of my daughter, I might be dead by now.” He hadn’t meant for his voice to become so fervent, so loud. Before, he thought men who talked about faith in God were weak and girlish. Now, he realized, he didn’t have one ounce of self-consciousness about it. In fact, he wished that everyone in the store could hear him talking about God’s goodness. Mr. Johnson frowned. “If you were healed from cancer, I promise you I had nothing to do with it.” “Yes, you did. Maybe not directly, but you did.” Miguel saw Mr. Johnson’s impatient shifting of his feet, and realized he had something else to say before the two men parted ways. “And I’m sorry if I ever got in between you and Miss Carson. I was only trying to find a mother for Diana. But I know that wasn’t God’s way now, and I ask your forgiveness and wish the best for the both of you. And I’m sorry I didn’t come to you sooner to say it.” Mr. Johnson stared at him with a furrowed brow. Finally, he said, “Nothing to be sorry about. Look, I gotta go. I’m driving to Austin tonight—” “Entiendo. Está bien. God go with you, amigo. And may you and Miss Carson have a wonderful life together.” Eyes widened, Mr. Johnson stood stock still, opening and closing his mouth as if trying to figure out how to answer. After a long moment, he said, “But we’re not – you have -” He let out a heavy sigh and smiled. “Forget it. Thanks.” He turned and headed toward the nearest checkout counter. Miguel watched him leave, wondering at his obvious discomfort. Had Diana been mistaken? Despite her young age, she usually didn’t have a problem misinterpreting words and situations, even though they might be beyond the comprehension of a typical Kindergartner. So when she had told him that Mr. Johnson and Miss Carson would eventually be married, Miguel had believed her. It made sense, anyway; they had seemed close enough the day they visited him in the jail cell. Maybe Mr. Johnson was just nervous about the big change. Miguel would be, if he were to suddenly uproot from this area and start a new life in a totally different country on a continent an ocean away. That must have been it. Mr. Johnson was having second thoughts about going to Africa. Miguel shook his head and pushed his cart down the aisle. “Not my business, anyway,” he muttered, and started for the dairy section. * * * That was stranger than a three-headed horse. Hank threw the bag of bars onto the passenger seat and started his car. Where on God’s green earth had Diana’s father gotten the idea that there was anything between him and Sheila? Okay, so there had been something between them, but that was old news. Not that the parents of the school’s students would know every detail about the romantic liaisons of the faculty, but Miguel had been going to Sheila’s church lately, Hank had heard through the grapevine, so he would think that his own lack of attendance with Sheila would clue Miguel in. And what was all that about Miguel looking for a mother for Diana? He made it sound as if he’d tried to make a move on Sheila. If that were true, he would be surprised. The school grapevine usually didn’t miss the juiciest bits of gossip. On the other hand, Sheila had a way of hiding her private life from anybody and everybody she didn’t want to know about it. Lately, he was definitely part of that “everybody” crowd. He turned left in front of an oncoming car, whose driver readily expressed her anger with a loud honk as she slammed on her brakes. Hank waved a weak apology, grateful she’d missed him and that there were no cars behind her. He decided he’d better stop thinking about the odd encounter with Miguel Manriquez before he caused an accident, and drove the rest of the way home trying to remember everything he wanted to pack in his overnight bag. * * * The muggy, warm air engulfing Hank as he stepped out of his car suggested that a storm similar to the one that had hit Fort Worth last night was imminent. But for now, most of the stars in the sky were visible as he walked up to his parents’ door at 9:30. His mother, Brenda, was out and had her arms wrapped around him before he could even think about knocking. “Oh, Hank. So good to have you home. So good of you to come to help. To sacrifice your first few days of summer freedom. Did you have a good last day? Did you eat? I’ve got something—” “Woman, the man just finished a four-hour drive after a hard day’s work,” came his father Randall’s voice from behind Brenda. “Let him take a breath, for crying out loud.” “Dad.” Finally released from his mother’s smothering embrace, Hank stepped toward his father and gave him an equally heartfelt, though quicker and more manly, embrace. Although he’d eaten three protein bars on the way home, Hank realized he was ready for something more substantial, and eagerly accepted the plate of cold chicken and macaroni salad his mother set before him. “I usually don’t start making this for another three weeks,” she said as he started in on it, “but this weather—my Lord! If it’s this hot now, we’ll be melting by the time July gets here.” Hank exchanged an amused glance with Randall. Brenda made the same declaration every year at the end of May, as if unaccustomed to the rapid coming of summer so distinctive to the Southern states. Once in a while, the first week of June would bring relatively cool temperatures. On such occasions, she would reserve her declaration for the following week, which would inevitably bring back the sun and heat. His mother continued rambling about local news and how things were going in the church. His father sat in silence until she asked, “What are your plans after you help us old folks get moved into our new condominium?” Randall gave her a sharp look. “Brenda. At least let him get a good night’s sleep.” Hank swallowed what was in his mouth, wondering why his father’s words held an edge of rebuke to a perfectly reasonable question. “It’s okay, Dad.” He set his fork down and took a sip of iced tea. “It’s pretty easy, I guess. I don’t got any.” “Don’t have any. I hope that’s not how you talk to your students.” “No, ma’am.” How any person born and raised in East Texas could maintain such refined speech all her life never ceased to amaze Hank, but he’d learned as a young boy not to question it, and to humbly succumb to his mother’s corrections. “Brenda,” his father said, his voice becoming more gentle, “I really don’t think you need to pick his brain about this right now.” Hank watched, puzzled, as unspoken words passed between his parents. His father seemed to be saying, “Back off. You’re about to go too far,” and his mother seemed to be responding, “Just let me say what I need to say, will you?” He could hardly contain his curiosity. “All right, you two, what is it you want to talk to me about?” He didn’t miss the triumphant look on Brenda’s face as she glanced at Randall, who sat back in a gesture of defeat, frowning. When she turned back to Hank, her face was full of concern. “I’ve had a burden to pray for you every day the past week.” That should have been good news, but for some reason, Hank felt his stomach sink to his toes. His mother was about to give him a word from God, and he knew he wasn’t going to like it. He wished he’d stayed in Fort Worth that weekend. But if he had, she would have called him. Might as well face the music now. “God told you something, didn’t He?” Brenda reached across the table and took his right hand in both of hers, peering into his eyes with fiery intensity. “Son, you’ve made a big mistake.” Tell me something I don’t already know. He’d made several mistakes in the past few years, all of equal significance to Hank, so his only question was, which one was she referring to? “Can you be more specific?” Catching the stern show-your-mother-respect glance his father shot at him, he quickly revised, “I mean, did the Lord show you anything more? What exactly I did? What I need to do to fix it?” As if he already didn’t know. His mother shook her head. “No, Hank. But I’m sure you have a good idea of what it is.” Hank glanced from one parent to the other, waiting for some mention of missions, a mini-lecture on disobedience to God. His expectation was met with only silent stares, which was even worse. That meant his parents had already decided to keep their hands off the issue, which meant Hank would have to figure it out on his own. After several heavy moments, his father cleared his throat and pushed his chair away from the table. “Enough of that,” he said. “We have a long day of backbreaking work ahead of us. I need to go to bed.” * * * Although the predicted high was ninety degrees the next day, the Johnsons awoke to clear skies and a pleasant sixty-five, perfect for moving. Since Randall had procured a U-Haul truck the day before, they ate a quick breakfast of bagels and fruit on paper plates, planning to get the bulk of the work done before the temperature got too much warmer. As she began removing the plates to toss in the garbage, Brenda let out a groan. “Oh, doggone it, I’ve forgotten about the closet in the guest bedroom.” She rolled her eyes with exasperation. “You boys go ahead and start loading up the U-Haul,” she said to Hank and his father, turning toward the wooden staircase. “I’ll have the thing emptied in ten minutes.” “Yes, dear.” Randall grinned at his son. “We’ll probably be finished unloading the furniture at the new house before we see her again.” “I heard that.” Brenda’s scolding voice floated down to them. Although Randall’s prophecy was not quite on the mark, they did get the truck full before Brenda finally reappeared. Hank and his father sat panting on the two remaining dining room chairs as she made her way down the stairs, holding a piece of paper. She finished her descent and stopped in front of Hank, a strange look on her face as she glanced from the paper, which Hank now saw was an envelope, to her son. “What is it, Ma?” “Did you ever write a letter to—no, that doesn’t make sense. Why would you write, ‘and family?’ Mystified, Hank got up and stepped toward her. “Write a letter to who?” “Whom,” Brenda said absentmindedly, handing him the envelope. “Look.” Hank looked. The envelope had been folded and was rather wrinkled, and the ink slightly smudged. His jaw dropped when he read the lettering: Sheila Carson and family. A jolt surged through him as he realized that he had folded the envelope, and that its wrinkles were caused by experiencing great trauma in his pants pocket during a plane crash. His mind catapulted back to five years earlier, when he’d wondered aloud who the envelope belonged to. Now, several pieces of the puzzle—including some he had not had in his possession until recently—fell together, and he knew. “Peter,” he whispered, choking on the word. “Son, are you all right? What are you talking about?” Randall had arisen and now grasped his son’s arm. Hank looked up. “Peter. You remember. The pilot of the plane...” He glanced back down at the words, which now shook before his eyes. Only then did he realize he was trembling. The memory came at him like a flood. Gentle Ben’s sore muscles. Barbara’s gentle teasing. Peter’s first attempt at humor. The pilot was from Minnesota, he had told them. So was Sheila. Martin had admitted he had never been further north than Oklahoma City. The envelope had to be Peter’s. But what connection did Peter Rossman have with Sheila Carson? It didn’t really matter. As soon as he had read the name, he knew that, despite its age, the envelope bore a message that Sheila was to have received years ago. Hank sank back into the chair, suddenly drained of all strength. Brenda hovered over him, her brow creased with worry. “My Lord, Hank, what’s this all about?” Hank shook his head. “I’m not sure.” He took a deep breath to steady himself. “All I know is, when the guys from the church get here to help, I’ve got to get back to Fort Worth.” CHAPTER 24 Sheila stood in line, her boarding pass dangling from her right hand. The long line snaking through the airline gate area seemed to be moving at a snail’s pace, and she wondered if this many people flew into Africa every day. Then again, it was the peak travel season. She lifted yet another silent prayer of thanks for Pastor Scott taking up a love offering on her behalf. Plane tickets were anything but cheap in June, and the money the church had given had more than covered her airfare. She glanced ahead, watching as someone was pulled from the line for a random security check. She cringed, praying that wouldn’t happen to her. The last thing she needed was to miss this flight because of any delay. “Nervous?” Sheila turned her neck and smiled at Sharon, the female half of the missionary couple that she was going to join in Zimbabwe. “A little, I guess. Were you? The first time you went?” “Honey, I was shaking in my boots the whole first week.” The women shared a chuckle, and adjusted their bags on their shoulders as the line began to move in earnest. Sheila had almost reached the ticket agent taking the boarding passes when she heard her name being called. Now what? She recognized the voice without turning around, and she couldn’t imagine what the pastor’s secretary needed from her at this last moment. One thing she did know—she was not going to get out of that line. Gail caught up to her, breathless. “Here,” she said, handing her a beat-up envelope. “Pastor said Hank found it, and was insistent that he give it to you before you leave.” Sheila stared at her name printed on the envelope, then looked back at Gail. “What do you mean, he found it? Where—” “Ma’am, your boarding pass, please,” the agent said. “Oh, sorry.” She handed the document to the agent, who tore off the pass and returned the stub to Sheila. Sheila moved forward so as not to impede the line from moving, reeling from astonishment, twisting her neck backward as she sought Gail’s face. It had disappeared into the mob behind her. Shoving the envelope into her jeans pocket, she finally made it onto the large jet and into her aisle seat, next to Sharon. Sharon’s husband, Carl, had the window seat. Sheila pulled the envelope out before snapping her seat belt in place, examining the handwriting. It didn’t look like Hank’s. Besides, why would he address it to “Sheila Carson and family”? It also appeared worn and old. The biggest puzzle was, if Hank wasn’t the author, why did he have it in his possession, and why was he so adamant on her receiving it before she left for Africa? “Hank was that teacher you were involved with for a time, wasn’t he?” Sharon’s voice cut into her thoughts. Sheila didn’t look up, unwilling to reveal the pain that must have been showing in her eyes. She had given Sharon the Cliff Notes version of her and Hank’s relationship, making it sound as if she was perfectly okay with the way things had turned out. “Yes, that’s him.” “Maybe he wants to get back in touch with you.” Sheila glanced at her new friend. “I guess there’s only one way to find out.” She looked down at the envelope again, inserted her finger under the top of the flap, and began to tear it open. Taking a deep breath, she pulled out the single piece of paper tucked inside and unfolded it. The words were brief and hastily scribbled, and after she’d finished reading them she leaned back into her seat, her heart threatening to explode in her chest. This isn’t real. I’ve read it wrong. God, help me. I can’t breathe. She closed her eyes and forced her lungs to take in a long, steady breath. She opened them and reread the letter. No, she hadn’t read it wrong. She began to read it a third time, just to make sure, but the words suddenly blurred together on the page. “Sheila, are you okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” Sheila wiped a tear that escaped from her eye. “I haven’t seen a ghost,” she said. “I’ve just read a letter from one.” “What?” Sharon raised her eyebrows, and leaned over to peer at the paper. “Please, it’s very personal,” Sheila said, drawing the letter to her breast. “I’m sorry,” Sharon said. “If you need to talk, you know where to find me for the next thirty-four hours.” Sheila nodded, relieved when Sharon drew back, pulled out a book, and began to read. Sheila closed her eyes, still clutching the paper close. Lord, how did Hank get a hold of this? He must have met her cousin Peter, somehow, just before he died. But what were the odds? The jet was headed nose first into the clouds above before Sheila gathered enough strength to read the words again. Dear Sheila, I want you to know how very sorry I am to have caused such a rift between you and your brother and sisters. I hope you can understand that I was wild with grief, and when Janice walked out on me it was sorrow added to sorrow. Please forgive me for everything I said and did. What happened was not your fault, and I hold nothing against you. I have had to spend several weeks being exposed to abject poverty and sometimes horrendous living conditions to realize that no matter how much God loves us, there is evil in the world and it will come to each of us. I believe this letter will reach you before I get back to the States. In that case, I beg you to share it with your family. Perhaps if they see that I hold you faultless in Lorena’s death, they will be able to forgive you, too. Love, Peter During Spring Break, when Sheila had told Margaret about the accident, she had experienced a flood of memories related to it. But nothing like she began to experience in the next several minutes. Every detail of the accident and the days and weeks following surfaced from the depths of her subconscious, and it was only the vague awareness that she was in a public place that kept her from completely breaking down. Her siblings were not the only ones who had blamed her for Lorena’s death. After her funeral, Peter had called Sheila reckless, a danger to children, and a sorry addition to planet Earth. He had refused to come near any of Sheila’s immediate family after that, which made Linda all the angrier. “See what you did,” she said at a point before she decided to give Sheila the silent treatment. “Now he hates all of us because of you.” The death of their only child was too much for Peter and his wife Janice to bear, and instead of seeking professional help, they began fighting like cats and dogs. The hostility between them escalated until Janice could take no more and walked out on Peter, filing for divorce. Peter had been so angry he made one last visit to Sheila’s parents’ house, where he spent five minutes raking Sheila over the coals—with her mother and siblings standing around her—before he stormed off and made plans to move to St. Paul. She glanced at the paper again. Please forgive me. Her heart pounded in her throat. All these years, she had lived with the guilt-laden impression that Peter had continued to blame her for Lorena’s death. But no. Four years ago, he had come around. Four years ago, he had seen his sinful part and pleaded for Sheila to forgive him. Not only that, he had asked her family to forgive what he no longer considered a crime. Eyes blurry, mind swirling with emotion, Sheila folded the letter and pushed it into the envelope. “Sharon,” she said. Her friend looked up with raised eyebrows. “Do you know if I could FedEx a letter from O’Hare?” * * * After delivering Peter’s letter to Sheila—even though he hadn’t opened it, he was convinced it had to be from Peter—Hank spent the next three days praying and fasting. He was sure of only one thing, that he was sure of nothing. If spending several days pounding on the gates of heaven didn’t give him some sense of direction and clarity for what God wanted him to do, then he might as well hike out to West Texas and live with the scorpions and rattlesnakes. Not in the habit of fasting, he spent a miserable three days, gulping down a gallon of water a day and struggling with headaches, weakness, and nausea. Most of the time he felt so exhausted that praying seemed like the most arduous task on earth. And his effort seemed to profit little. By the end of the three days, Jesus hadn’t descended to tell him “Go ye back into missions” or “Go back to school and train for another career.” He hadn’t seen any great vision, or small one for that matter, or received any prophetic word beyond his mother’s, which kept circulating through his mind: “You’ve made a big mistake.” But the three days of spiritual struggle weren’t for nothing. By the end of the second day, Hank had an impression of something he needed to do. It required such a large step of faith that he might have ignored it, except that it kept getting stronger and stronger until by the end of the third day, Hank knew the impression was from God. And he decided he wasn’t going to disobey again. That Friday, he was in the Fort Worth School District’s Human Resources office, filling out a form with trembling fingers. CHAPTER 25 Culture shock had Sheila’s head spinning her first week in Zimbabwe. The food was, for the most part, nothing out of her realm of experience, consisting mostly of peanuts, corn and vegetables, only occasional meat. But the way of life of the rural villagers among whom she and the Salyards lived was so stark compared to Western standards that it jarred her entire perspective on life. Most people lived in one- to three-room wooden houses dotting a savannah landscape, and even the small stone house she shared with the other missionaries contained only four meagerly furnished rooms. There was no electricity, no indoor plumbing. Machines of any kind were considered a great luxury for the city dwellers; all work was done by hand, including laundry. Of course, the Salyards had prepared Sheila ahead of time, telling her that if she thought it would be too much, she could rethink her decision. But she knew she was supposed to go, that the new lifestyle would eventually become a part of her. Her biggest frustration in the beginning was being unable to communicate without the help of an interpreter. Although some of the villagers spoke some English, more did not. She was deeply grateful that Sharon had volunteered to give up two hours an evening to tutor Sheila in the native tongue of Shona. For the first three weeks, beyond shouldering her share of the household chores and studying Shona, Sheila did little as far as ministry work. She would eventually be leading a Bible study class and helping with the children during the Sunday morning worship service, but the Salyards insisted she take all the time she needed to accustom herself with the abrupt change in lifestyle. Washing machines and dishwashers being rare in their part of the country, the housework and making social calls to the neighbors with the Salyards kept her busy enough that she had little time to worry how her family would respond to Peter’s letter. She had sent it to her mother with a brief note of explanation of what little she knew, that somehow, Hank had become acquainted with Peter and gained possession of the envelope addressed to Sheila. She could have e-mailed Hank from the mother church in Harare, the closest large city to their mission, to find out details, but by the time she had worked up the nerve to do so it was time to leave the city, and Sharon and Carl only went there twice a month for supplies. Besides, Sheila had reasoned, the only e-mail address she had for Hank was the one at school, and if he checked it during the summer as often as Sheila did, then he never looked at it. Twenty-three days after her arrival, Sharon and Carl were to make another trip to Harare. Sheila eagerly agreed to go along; however, since the Jeep would not have enough room for the three of them plus all the supplies, she rode in a second Jeep with a large, outgoing native named Jiri. He smiled often and widely, and when he did, his perfectly straight, pearl-white teeth set against the coal-blackness of his skin seemed to be stars shining out of a dark night sky. Jiri had converted to Christianity two years ago, and ever since had spent much of his free time helping the Salyards in whatever way, large or small, he could. To Sheila’s relief, he spoke fluent, though heavily accented, English, and he easily engaged her in conversation during the two and a half hour ride to the city. “Tell me about America,” he said about halfway into the trip. Sheila raised an eyebrow. “That’s a pretty broad demand. Mind narrowing it down a bit?” Jiri laughed good-naturedly. “You haven’t been too talkative these past few weeks, which I understand, of course. It can’t be easy being uprooted from all you know and thrust into a land which must seem very strange. But we’ve spent a good hour talking, so I’m thinking you’re ready to share a little bit more, no? Tell me anything you want.” “I’m sure I couldn’t say much more than whatever Sharon or Carl’s already told you.” “They tell me only bits and pieces here and there,” Jiri said. “But they don’t get to their homeland too often, so they’re a little bit, what do you say, out of touch.” Sheila grabbed her seat as they went over a large pothole in the dirt road. “So sorry,” he added with a grin. “Besides, everybody’s perspective is different. I want to know how you see it.” Sheila shifted uncomfortably. How she saw it? Let me see, family members who hold grudges against you, wealthy people who couldn’t care less about inner city kids practically starving because of racist employers who won’t pay their Mexican parents a fair wage, teenagers who kill for money so they can feed their drug habits. Oh, yeah, America’s a great place to be. If there is any virtue, if there is anything praiseworthy, think on these things. The ancient words of the Apostle Paul struck her mind in the next instant, and she cringed with guilt. Okay, I’m sorry. She struggled for several moments to conjure up some of her happier experiences lately. “I go—went—to a wonderful church. But you’ve probably heard about Pastor Scott from the Salyards.” Jiri nodded. “Yes, but not—lion!” He swerved sharply to the right. Sheila held onto her seat with a death grip as her body jerked from one side to the next as the Jeep bounced off the road. Curiosity overcame her fright, and she managed to peer out the driver’s side window to see if indeed a lion was chasing them. Later, she would remember seeing a flash of yellow fur within inches of the Jeep. She would remember hearing a shotgun blast. She would remember the terrible jolt and falling toward the Jeep’s soft ceiling just after the explosion. But she remembered nothing else. The world around her suddenly went black. * * * “I need to see you in my office.” Hank froze in midstride, guitar case in hand. That Pastor Bill was making yet another rare appearance an hour before church began was reason enough to suppose that his request was a matter of some importance. Besides, the urgency in his tone left no room for debate. This isn’t about Sheila, he thought, following his normally cheerful pastor down the hallway. After Hank had shown up at Sheila’s church, practically begging them to get Peter’s letter to her before she left the country, he went to seek counsel from his own pastor. He had thought his feelings for Sheila were beginning to fade, but the eerie appearance of the envelope seemed to shout at him evidence of an inexplicable connection between them. Pastor Bill had listened intently as Hank poured out his heart, confessing his feelings that Sheila was to have been his wife and his unwillingness to work on the mission field. When Pastor asked him why it was so hard for him to accept the call of God on Sheila’s life, Hank remained silent. The man sitting across from him had studied him with a gaze that saw into his soul. “Your past is holding you back,” he had said. “You’ve asked God to release you from it, but the fact is, you’re the one who doesn’t want to let go. Talk to me when you decide to move forward with God.” The abrupt dismissal had thrown Hank for a loop, but after some thought he realized the wisdom of his pastor’s words. He was not a man to waste time, and Hank knew Pastor Bill could do nothing for someone who refused to embrace God’s will. Then this surprise meeting couldn’t be about Sheila. Pastor Bill would not press an issue he was not personally responsible for. But what other subject would Pastor consider so pressing that he had to take Hank away from band practice on the spur of the moment? Hank racked his brain, trying to come up with a possibility. Any possibility. None came. So Hank had the sinking feeling that his conversation with Pastor Bill about Sheila was about to resume. And that he was about to hear something he didn’t want to. “Have a seat,” the pastor told him as he followed him through the door. Hank leaned his guitar against the wall, sat down on the edge of a leather chair, and sucked in a mouthful of air. Pastor Bill eyed him sharply before he began. “Apparently, Sheila has had some difficulty letting you go, too.” He picked up a piece of paper lying on his desk and handed it to Hank. “She left your name, in care of this church, as an emergency contact. This e-mail was waiting in my inbox when I logged in to it this morning.” Emergency? What had happened? Without meaning to, Hank snatched the paper out of Pastor Bill’s hand. Jesus, please let Sheila be all right. Lord, I couldn’t take it if anything were to happen to her. The e-mail was short and to the point, and Hank’s eyes immediately fixed on the one statement relevant to him. Sheila Carson remains in a coma at the hospital in Harare. He felt his blood turn cold. He glanced up at Pastor Bill as a stab of guilt thrust itself into his gut. Oh, God, if I had been there, would this have happened? He had a feeling the answer was no. The pastor’s look pierced through him. “What are you going to do about it?” He was not a man to mince words, or to let his congregation lie down on beds of complacency. If Pastor Bill had posed the question earlier, Hank would have found all sorts of excuses and explanations to relinquish himself from having to take any action. He’d missed God, she’d missed God, Sheila and he were never meant to be more than friends, etcetera. Now, Pastor Bill’s challenge demanded an answer. With sudden clarity, Hank saw that his response would determine his future. Several lifetimes seemed to pass as he endured the greatest test of mental and spiritual anguish of his life, greater even than when he decided to give up his missionary dream. Going to Sheila would require getting on a plane. Getting on a plane would require giving up control. Giving up control would require a trust in God he’d lost several years ago. Plus it would be admitting that he’d been out of God’s will all this time, and had willfully hurt the woman he realized now he was deeply in love with. He’d been an idiot. “You’ll forgive me, Pastor,” he said, “if I miss the next few services. It seems I need to get to Africa.” He barely noticed the slight smile of approval that appeared on Pastor Bill’s face when he leaped out of the chair. He would have left his guitar if it hadn’t been right next to the door. Grabbing the case handle, he wavered. Would Rusty, the music director, be able to find a stand-in for him on such short notice? Pastor Bill must have noticed his pause, because he commanded from behind Hank, “Go. Rusty will understand.” Hank turned to flash him a grateful grin, and nearly ran down the pastor’s wife, who was just outside the door. “Y’all pray,” he said, moving aside for her to enter. “I’ll be back—whenever.” * * * Hank was grateful he had Pastor Bill’s cell phone number, since in his frenzied departure from church he forgot that he would need the name of the mission and the hospital when he flew into the Harare airport in Zimbabwe. When he flew in. He never thought those words would apply to him again. Several times while he frantically packed a carry-on with just a change of clothes and the barest of essentials, he had to fight down a tide of rising panic when he realized what he was about to do. The only thing that kept him moving was the echo in his mind, What are you going to do about it? Pastor Bill volunteered to drive Hank to the airport when he called for the information of Sheila’s whereabouts. On the way, he misinterpreted Hank’s jitteriness, saying, “I don’t believe it’s Sheila’s time yet. We prayed after you left, and we got the victory.” For a time Hank did not answer, deliberating whether to tell Pastor his real problem. Then, two thoughts flashed through his mind, both tidbits of truth he had heard more than once: no man is an island, and pride is the main obstacle that keeps people chained up with their weaknesses. Finally, he blurted out, “I’m afraid of flying.” He gave no details, just cast a sideways glance to see Pastor’s reaction. Without hesitation Pastor Bill smiled and said, “Well, that’s easily taken care of. I command the spirit behind that fear to leave in the name of Jesus, and I pour the healing balm of Gilead over whatever memory allowed that spirit in.” When they got to the airport, his mind became so focused on finding a flight that he gave the prayer not one more thought. To his great astonishment, there was a flight leaving for Harare that very night, and there were still seats available. Only when the attendant at the gate called for his group to board did Hank realize he had not one shred of anxiety about getting on the plane. He fell into easy conversation with a man about his age ahead of him as they moved at a snail’s pace through the jet bridge, and once on board, cheerfully helped an elderly lady seated a row ahead of him hoist a piece of luggage into the compartment above the seat. He stowed his own carry-on, then sat down, waiting for reality to strike and panic to sweep over him. It did not. He was one of few who watched a red-headed flight attendant go through the safety procedures as the plane began to back away from the gate. He should have gotten nervous when she demonstrated the use of the oxygen mask, should have felt a little claustrophobic at the mention of using seat cushions as flotation devices. But he stayed cool. The pilot announced the impending takeoff. Hank checked his pulse, rubbed his hands together. No sweat, no accelerated heartbeat. As the plane taxied down the runway, neither the expected wave of nausea nor cold grip of fear was present. Instead, a thrill of joy surged through him. He did not have a window seat, but he watched over the laps of his seatmates in child-like anticipation. When the nose of the plane tipped upward as the craft left the ground, Hank could not contain himself. “Wheee!” he cried. The passengers around him had mixed reactions. Some cast furtive glances in his direction, others gawked at him in open surprise, even more began to chuckle. The distinguished-looking African sitting next to Hank stared at him for a long moment before breaking out into raucous laughter. Hank grinned. “Ain’t God good?” “Yeah,” the man replied, catching his breath, “He do be that.” CHAPTER 26 Miguel had spoken little to Mrs. Kennebrew, and only in passing since he’d started attending the same church as she and her husband – and Miss Carson, of course. But when he saw Mr. Kennebrew holding his wife just outside the restrooms that Sunday, Diana said, “Something’s wrong.” Miguel wasn’t one to meddle in other people’s business, but Mrs. Kennebrew’s face was streaked with tears. And he was growing to respect his daughter’s acute sense of intuition. So he loosed his grip on her hand and hesitantly stepped toward the couple. “Everything, he’s all right?” he asked in his broken English. Mr. Kennebrew did not speak Spanish, and he didn’t want to seem rude. Mrs. Kennebrew withdrew from her husband’s embrace and wiped her face with the back of her hands. “It will be, I’m sure. God is in control.” Before he could even open his mouth, Diana said, “It’s Miss Carson, isn’t it?” Mrs. Kennebrew squatted down to her level, and gently grasped both of her hands. “She’s been in an accident. She’s in the hospital. But I don’t want you to be afraid. She’s going to be all right.” While she continued talking to Diana, Mr. Kennebrew motioned for Miguel to step away several feet. “She’s in a coma,” he whispered. “Pastor Scott got the message last night. We just found out a few minutes ago.” Miguel clenched his jaw. “She will be all right, no?” “They think so.” Mr. Kennebrew glanced at his wife and Diana, who appeared to be taking the news bravely. “She sustained a head injury when the Jeep she was riding in flipped over.” “Gracias a Dios. That she will be all right, I mean.” “Of course.” The two men stood awkwardly for a moment, not knowing what else to say. Soft words arose from a few feet away, and they turned their attention toward Diana and Mrs. Kennebrew. They seemed to be praying, Mrs. Kennebrew speaking in a comforting tone while Diana stood holding her hands, eyes closed. When Mrs. Kennebrew finished, Diana added her own prayer. Mrs. Kennebrew’s eyes flew open in surprise when the child spoke, as if she had said something completely unexpected. Knowing Diana, she probably had. He walked toward them as they both said, “Amen,” his curiosity getting the better of him. “My daughter, what she say?” he asked the teacher, who was now smiling with some secret amusement. “Diana, would you like to tell him?” She shrugged. “I just asked God to not let Mr. Johnson be a tonto, that he would go find Miss Carson and marry her.” Mr. Kennebrew moved beside his wife, draping his arm over her shoulders. “And what, my dear, is a tonto?” Even Miguel, with his limited English vocabulary, knew that one. “Fool,” he answered, joining the Kennebrews in a hearty laugh. * * * Shadows splashed lazily across the floor, the light of the full moon elongating everything contained within the small hospital room. One muted ray of light illuminated half of Sheila’s face, giving her countenance an angelic quality. Hank’s heart stirred, and he leaned over to stroke her cheek with gentle fingers. “Lord,” he whispered, “wake her up, please.” It was a prayer he must have uttered a thousand times since he entered this room two days ago, which he had only left to answer nature’s call. Eating was out of the question; he had determined before landing at the Harare airport that he would fast and pray until Sheila came out of the coma. The pastor of the local church, the lifeline of the rural mission where Sheila had been working, had personally brought him a case of bottled water to aid him. Standing up to stretch, a wave of dizziness swept over Hank, and he nearly fell back in the chair. He had dozed off and on during the long flight, and since arriving at the hospital had only slept four hours in the last forty-eight. Much of the time he had kept his hand on Sheila’s arm, praying and speaking Scriptures, but now he felt as though he was fighting a losing battle against fatigue. If he got up and paced the floor for a while, he might be able to persevere a little longer before giving into sleep, so he regained his balance and took a few hesitant steps forward. As he did, his eyes were drawn once again to the envelope addressed to him that one of the missionaries had brought to him yesterday afternoon. It lay on a side table, alone, daring him to open it. Up until now he had managed to ignore it, telling himself that whatever she might have written was immaterial, that the crisis of the moment might very well make whatever Sheila had expressed in the letter null and void. But as he stared at the dim shape this time, he found that he could not turn away from it. He regarded it for several moments, and realized he was too exhausted to lie to himself any more about the real reason the envelope had laid there unopened for hours: he was terrified of what Sheila might have written, or not written. He glanced back at Sheila’s face, which was the picture of perfect peace despite the bandaged head and tubes inserted in her nostrils, then again at the envelope. Then the thought struck him: what if Sheila had written it to somehow help him, to help them? Hank took a deep breath. Well, cowboy, it’s now or never. He reached over and picked up the envelope with shaky hands, walked back to the chair, which sat directly in the path of the moonlight, and dropped into it. When he finally managed to open the flap, he pulled out the folded sheets of paper and said a prayer. Then he began reading. My dearest Hank, Words fail me to express how much I have missed you this past month—longer, by the time you read this. When I got on the plane without saying good-bye to you, I tried my old Stoic routine, telling myself it didn’t matter, I was in the will of God. Then I received this mysterious envelope just as I was boarding the plane. I have no idea how it got into your possession, or why you felt so compelled to get it in my hands before I left. The only thing I’ve been able to figure out is that God’s hand is in all of this. I can’t help but wonder if our being connected by the letter is somehow symbolic of a deeper connection God has for us. Hank swallowed, and looked at the still figure on the bed. “Wonder no further,” he whispered, and continued reading. I suppose you’re wondering about the contents of the letter. Before I tell you, I feel I need to prepare you. For years I have hidden part of my past from my friends, afraid of what they would think of me if they found out, not wanting them to see me as anything but strong and confident. “That makes two of us,” Hank muttered. I came clean before Margaret a couple months ago, and now I know I need to confess it to you. Just before I graduated from college, I killed a little girl. In the dark stillness, Hank’s gasp seemed to reverberate through the room. He kept his eyes glued to the letter, however, and a strange sensation swept over him as he continued reading. In his mind’s eye he could see everything just as Sheila wrote it, as if he were there when it actually happened. * * * The day after Thanksgiving, 1993, Sheila and her family were still in the midst of the holiday celebration, knowing that Christmas they would not all be able to come together again. Sheila’s mother’s house brimmed over with guests, including Sheila’s cousin Peter, his wife Janice, and their four-year-old daughter, Lorena. Sheila and her younger sister, Linda, had volunteered to relieve their mother from further kitchen duties by cooking dinner that evening. A simple beef stir-fry with rice is what they planned. They had every ingredient except fresh ginger. “But Mom’s got dried ginger,” Sheila argued, waving the small container in front of Linda’s face. “That’ll work well enough.” Linda had gotten into gourmet cooking a couple of years earlier, and wouldn’t hear of it. “It’s nothing like the real thing. We need some real ginger root.” “Then you can run to the store and get some.” Linda heaved an exaggerated sigh. “But your car is blocking Mom’s. You’d have to move your car for me to go anyway. Unless,” she added, giving Sheila a sidelong glance, “you want me to take your car.” “I’ll be back in a few minutes,” Sheila said, pivoting on her heel. As she stepped into the car, the sun had fallen just low enough to reflect in her rearview mirror, blinding her. Impatiently, Sheila pushed the mirror up to get rid of the glare, then started the engine. She’d only had the car for a couple of months, and was still unused to the manual transmission. She wished she’d never bought it, but it had seemed like a bargain at the time, and she could only afford so much, being a senior in college. So she’d allowed the used car salesman to talk her into believing that within days, she would be pushing and releasing the clutch like an old pro. She’d learned a hard lesson in gullibility that day. She still made the car jerk when shifting from park to first and from first to second, and from park to reverse, sometimes missing the timing altogether and causing the engine to stall. Now, she hoped no one inside the house was watching as she shifted into reverse. When she began to release the clutch and hit the accelerator, who knew what might happen? At least there were no cars parked anywhere behind her, so if she took off suddenly, she would cause no damage. She glanced backward to make sure the way was clear. Seeing nothing, she carefully began to ease up on the clutch and press down on the accelerator. She hit the gas way too fast, and as her left foot came off the clutch her car went careening backwards. Not two seconds passed before she felt the back of her car hit something with a thud. What on earth. . .? She slammed on the brakes. She hadn’t seen anything blocking her way before she got into the car, and knew there were no vehicles behind her. Then she heard a sound that would echo in her mind for months to come. A scream. The blood-curdling kind. Although her windows were closed, it was so loud, that it penetrated right through them. Sheila pulled the rearview mirror back into position and saw her cousin Peter running toward the car, his mouth wide open. Sheila froze in horror. Oh, my God, I didn’t— She yanked open her door as Peter screamed again. This time, he was coherent. “Lorena!” Suddenly, Sheila felt dizzy. Peter was kneeling just behind her rear tires, and Sheila knew without looking what had happened. What she had done. She took two steps toward the back of her car, not wanting to look but knowing she had to. Then she saw it. A pair of legs. Tiny legs. Legs wearing the same red jeans Sheila had seen Lorena wear to breakfast. Sticking out from under the back end of her car. Call 911. Somebody, call 911. She wanted to shout the words, to go running back into the house and do it herself. But a wave of nausea overtook her, and she turned her face to the ground and threw up. * * * Hank looked up from the paper as the words became too blurry to read. Peter, the pilot of his plane, was Sheila’s cousin. His motive for missions? To escape the reality of the death of his only child, a death Sheila herself had inadvertently caused. His mind whirled. All these years they had been connected by past tragedies. What were the odds that he would end up with a letter for someone from another state that he would meet years later? Only God could have choreographed such a train of events. Wiping his wet face with the back of his hand, Hank turned to the shadowy figure lying on the bed, and as he regarded her a deep sense of empathy awakened within him. Here was someone who knew the same heart-wrenching grief as he, who had spent years fighting an uphill battle just to continue her walk with the Lord, just as he had. His eyes clearing, he let them return to the precious letter in his hand. I know I’m taking a huge risk in writing this letter. You have never actually said you loved me, although I felt it in your actions, saw it in your eyes. But you should know that I fell in love with you a long time ago, but I was too tied down to my failures to find the strength and courage to risk telling you. Whatever problem you have with missionary work, I hope my words do something to help you overcome it. I cannot disobey God, but I don’t want to live without you. All my love, Sheila For several minutes, Hank held the sheets of paper to his chest, unable to move. So she had fallen in love with him back when they first started dating. He had wondered, since, like him, she had never expressed it. But he hadn’t missed the adoration in her eyes, the way she always smiled at him when they were together. Some time in the middle of January he’d begun to notice that she seemed happier than when they’d first met. He’d hoped that it had something to do with him, but was afraid to get his hopes up too high, afraid that if he began to consider a future with her, something would ruin it. Well, I guess the thing I feared came upon me, he thought ruefully, quoting the famous Job of the Bible. What would have happened if he had taken the risk to admit to himself and to Sheila that he loved her? Would he have been more willing to try to overcome the past the day that she announced her missionary desire? Or would he have run away regardless? It didn’t matter anymore. There he was, and there she was. He couldn’t go back and change his response that day he’d gone to church with Sheila. The only thing he could do was focus on this day, the present, and do what he thought was right. Taking a deep breath, he got up from the chair, set the letter down in its seat, and kneeled next to the hospital bed. “Sheila,” he whispered, “I know you can hear me. Listen. I have my own confession.” And in the stillness, Hank poured out his heart, telling his own story of a man who had been running away from the call of God because of a gripping fear, a fear brought on by a tragic brush with death. He was barely able to keep his eyes open by the time he ended the story of the plane crash and his subsequent agony. “So you gotta come back to me, Sheila,” he concluded with a sigh, “now that we’re both ready to obey God. Love of my life,...come...back...” The exhaustion that had been stalking him for hours finally slithered up behind him and wrapped itself around his weak body. Hank cradled his head in his arms, lay them down next to Sheila’s pillow, and drifted off into a blessed silent darkness. * * * Hank had read her letter. He must have, or he wouldn’t have told her about that missionary trip that had ended so horribly. She sent a silent prayer of thanks for God’s guidance, knowing that it was futile to try to speak. At first she had felt frustrated, hearing and feeling people around her, but unable to see or respond as she floated around in a warm blanket of darkness. After a while—which might have been hours or days or even months, she couldn’t tell—she gave up trying to speak and accepted the strange state in which she found herself, sensing that it was somehow for her good. She began to meditate on the last words Hank had spoken, knowing exactly what he meant. Suddenly, the yearning to speak to him, to hold his hand, to just be near him overwhelmed her. With the fierce determination for which she was known she decided that it was time to come out of the darkness. With an abruptness that startled her, an invisible hand pushed her upward from where she had been submerged in the black nothingness, and as she surfaced a blinding light struck her eyes. In a moment of confusion she thought maybe she had died and was experiencing the light of heaven, but a second later her head began to pound and she knew she was alive. Her eyelids were heavy, and she struggled to open them. Finally, they lifted, slowly, painfully, as if in protest. She blinked, realizing that sunshine was covering the upper part of her face. Turning her head slightly to the left, trying to escape the brutal rays, she smiled. She recognized the top of Hank’s head, lying within two inches of her face, and the way he had his face buried in his arms reminded her of many Kindergarten students who had found the afternoon too long and too exhausting and eventually fallen asleep with their head on their work table. He deserved the rest, needed it. For hours on end he had prayed and read the Bible and talked to her, coaxing her back into the world, until he could do no more. And even in his inability to continue, he refused to leave her side. A deep tide of emotion welled up inside her. If she ever had a doubt that he loved her, that God would bring them through their trials, it was cast away in that instant. A single teardrop tickled her temple and soaked into the pillowcase. “Hank.” Her voice was hoarse from misuse, but she felt a thrill of joy that she had been able to utter that single syllable. His head began to move, and Sheila watched in anticipation as it lifted, first the hair disappearing, then the forehead passing her line of sight, and finally his groggy eyes meeting hers. At first they were uncomprehending, still under the spell of sleep. Within seconds, however, they widened, full of wonder and shining with life. “Sheila! You’re awake? Oh, thank God! Thank God!” He began to sob, his tears intermingling with Sheila’s as he leaned over to kiss her cheek. “I’m so sorry. I was wrong. I was so wrong.” He straightened up and took her hand in both of his. Sheila wanted to say that she forgave him, to add her own apology for not having come clean with him about her past early on in their friendship. If she had, they might have been able to work through their respective wounds together, and might not have ever experienced the painful breach in their relationship. But merely saying his name had taken all the energy she had, so for several moments, she lay still, enjoying the gentle caress of Hank’s thumb against the back of her hand. By the time his sobs had quieted, she felt strong enough to speak again. “Hank?” “Yes?” “I love you with all my heart.” Her voice was barely above a whisper, and she hoped Hank could hear her. “Please, don’t leave me ever again.” “I won’t,” Hank said, squeezing her hand. “As God as my witness, I won’t.” Sheila relaxed and closed her eyes. For a long time, neither one of them spoke. But that was okay. For now, they had said enough. CHAPTER 27 In the park across the street from the small house loomed two large flamboyant trees, creating a picturesque view from the tiny window in Sheila’s room. She surveyed the scene, longing to be back at the rural mission, where life was simple and quiet, albeit hard. Dr. Marima, the pastor of the Harare congregation that sponsored the mission where Sheila had been ministering, had insisted she stay with him and his wife until she fully recovered. For the past two weeks, she had drifted in and out of dreamless sleeps, always waking up to find Hank at her side reading the Bible aloud to her, whispering his affection, or simply holding her hand. As her strength began to come back, she spent a little time each day leaning on Hank’s arm as he walked her around the room, the house, and eventually out into the Marima’s garden. Their subdued conversations were spare on words, Sheila not having the energy to talk and walk at the same time, but Hank’s mere presence spoke volumes to her. Today, for the first time, she had awakened full of vigor and feeling famished. Before she even realized what she was doing, she had dressed herself and bounded into the dining room asking for breakfast, much to the Marimas’ shock. They called her doctor, who examined her and declared her ready to return to the mission field. Hank would be there for lunch, and Sheila spent the rest of the morning daydreaming about the small mission. I wonder if Gamba passed the math test on Monday. He was so worried. Kambo is due with her sixth child any day now. I hope her husband starts going to church with her soon. She felt a pang in her chest, acutely aware of how much she missed the villagers who had become her friends over the past month. She was sitting on her bed, engrossed in her Bible, when she heard the door creak open. She shifted her gaze and smiled as Hank walked in, carrying a bowl of berries. “To celebrate your freedom,” he said, pulling up a chair and placing the bowl on the edge of the bed. “Fresh from the market.” He sat down and grabbed a fistful of the red fruit. Sheila imitated the action, grateful to have her appetite again. She popped three berries into her mouth, relishing the burst of flavor on her tongue. Swallowing them, she said, “Hank, promise me something.” Hank smiled at her as he chewed on some berries. “Anything.” The devotion reflected in his eyes made her feel like melting into his arms. “No more secrets between us. And we put the past behind us.” Hank scarfed down the remaining berries in his hand, then reached over and squeezed hers. “I can only make that promise,” he teased, “to my future wife.” “Oh,” Sheila said gamely, “and where would she be?” “Somewhere in the middle of Zimbabwe, recovering from a freak car accident involving a lion, a wildebeest carcass and a Jeep.” Sheila felt the love emanating from Hank’s eyes as he regarded her with a more serious expression. “And looking into the face,” he continued, “of her future husband, who is called to be a missionary right alongside her.” Sheila sighed deeply. She had waited so long for this moment. Wanting to relish it as long as she could, she closed her eyes. Then, a thought occurred to her, and she wondered why it hadn’t hit her before. Her mind must have been really out of whack. “But it’s already July.” Hank raised his eyebrows. “Huh?” “The window for resigning from the school district for no quote-unquote good reason already ended.” The thought of Hank leaving made her heart sink with despair, but she couldn’t be selfish. He was legally obligated to complete the next school year. After June 30, a contracted teacher could only resign if they had proof that they’d received a better-paying job offer, or that a spouse was being transferred. Their missionary work would definitely mean a cut in pay, and Sheila wasn’t his spouse. Yet. Hank stared at her, then began to laugh. “You mean, you thought—you didn’t know—well, if that ain’t the sheared sheep asking for a haircut.” “I’m sorry?” Sheila might have laughed if she hadn’t felt so bewildered. Flourishing a berry in the air, Hank said, “Right after I had Peter’s letter delivered to you, the Lord started dealing with me about turning in my resignation. Of course I argued with Him for about two weeks about it. I didn’t have any idea what He had planned next for me.” He shook his head, ate the berry, and reached for Sheila’s hand. “Okay,” he said, his voice softening, “I had a slight idea. But I was scared. After counseling with my dad and Pastor Bill, I knew I’d better obey.” Hank’s voice grew husky. “Now I see the picture.” The gentle pressure on Sheila’s hand sent waves of warmth through her body, and her eyes locked onto Hank’s tender gaze. If only she could bottle the moment and save it as a keepsake. He had quit teaching, and turned back to the call of God on his life to be a missionary. And she had had a part in it, just as he had had a part in healing her past. “So you plan to stay here this year? With me?” She could barely squeak the words out. “Well, the way I figure it, we’ve got to make one more trip back to Texas.” He released her hand long enough to reach into his pants pocket and extract a small black velvet box. “Otherwise,” he said, placing the box in her hand with a dramatic flair and a twinkle in his eye, “My mother would never forgive me.” * * * The next day was a Saturday, and Hank found himself running from the Marimas’ church to their modest home a few blocks away. Dr. Marima had asked him to share his testimony with the congregation on Sunday, and he had gone over to the church to hash out details about it. Just before he arrived, however, Dr. Marima had checked his e-mail, and found a message forwarded from Pastor Scott. Sheila, We got Peter’s letter. Sorry it took so long for me to write, but I had a lot of thinking to do. I’m ready to talk. Please call me. Or even better, if it’s not too impossible, come home. Linda Agreeing with the pastor that Sheila would want to see it right away, Hank volunteered to be the messenger. “I’ll be back in ten minutes,” he promised as he raced out of Dr. Marima’s office. Sheila was sitting on the garden swing when he stopped in front of her, breathless. She leaped out of the seat, panic in her eyes. “What’s wrong? Did something happen to Dr. Marima? Someone else at the church?” Hank waved his left hand in front of him in a frantic gesture for her to stop, then held out his right hand, which held a printout of the e-mail. She held out her left hand, now adorned on one finger by a modest but glittering diamond, and took the piece of paper. Still unable to say anything coherent, Hank gently pulled her elbow to get her to sit back down. He sat next to her, placing his hand on her shoulder. She read the note, glanced back at him with an expression of awe, then looked back at the note. For a long while, she did not move, seemed to not even breathe. Her gaze remained riveted on the page, and the only sign of emotion was a single teardrop that fell from her eye onto the note. Before Hank realized what was happening, she was in his arms, squeezing her head into his chest and laughing and crying and exclaiming, “Thank You, Jesus! Thank You, Jesus!” He returned the embrace, adding his own silent expression of gratitude. He was only able to let her go when she finally pulled away because he knew that they had many similar moments ahead of them in the years to come. Sheila beamed at him with shiny eyes. “I need to go back to the church with you. I’ve got to send a reply.” Hank stood, and offered her his hand. She took it and did not release it until she was seated in front of Dr. Marima’s computer, writing back her new-found sister. * * * When their plane landed at the Minneapolis airport two weeks later, Sheila said to Hank, “I don’t know whether to run a marathon or sleep for the next two days.” Hank gave her a weary smile. “I know what you mean.” At least the exhausting trip had temporarily numbed her emotions. When they first boarded the plane in Harare, she felt like a walking raw nerve. As excited as she was to reunite with her family, the prospect of facing Linda terrified her. What if seeing her sister in person brought back all the bad memories and feelings? What if she inadvertently said the wrong thing, and offended Linda for life? Sheila had even considered the possibility that the e-mail had been some sort of cruel hoax. But she knew that thought had come straight out of hell, which had been Hank’s exact response when she shared it with him. In the last couple of weeks, she had learned more about him than in the couple of months they had dated earlier that year. They were kindred spirits, sharing much the same opinions and interests on a range of issues, and Sheila had easily fallen deeper in love with him in that short period of time. They made their way to the front of the plane, passed the flight attendant requesting that they fly with them again, and entered the walkway that led into the airport. Sheila exchanged a smile with Hank, then interlaced her left hand with his, grateful to have his support for the next several frightening moments. Linda and her mother were to be waiting for them at the gate. Sheila could feel her heart thumping against her ribcage, and she squeezed Hank’s hand. “Everything’ll be all right,” he said, glancing at her. “Don’t worry.” She swallowed. Forcing herself to brighten, she joked, “At least I’m starting to feel my legs again, so I can run if I have to.” Seconds later they were out of the tunnel and headed into the mob sitting and standing around the gate area. Sheila peered through the throng, trying to find her mother and sister. “See ’em anywhere?” Hank asked. “Not yet.” Sheila suddenly felt light-headed and took a deep breath. “If we just keep walking, they’ll—” “Shelly! Over here!” Mom! Sheila twisted her head to her left. There stood her mother, just outside the waiting area, wearing a blue short-sleeved cotton blouse and matching cropped pants, waving wildly. Beside her stood Gary, a tentative smile on his face, and beside him stood April, looking toward Sheila with apprehensive eyes. But where’s Linda? She glanced at the people filling the space surrounding her mother and siblings, but her youngest sister was nowhere in sight. Maybe she’d gone to the bathroom. Sheila could only hope she hadn’t had another change of heart. She glanced up at Hank, realizing her knees had turned to rubber. Hank squeezed her hand and released it, silently encouraging her to go over and greet her family. Sheila dropped the handle of her wheeled carry-on as her emotions reawakened with a jolt. Both hands free now, she realized they were shaking. She felt more nervous than a pig in a butcher shop, as Hank would say. As she approached the trio, she instinctively reached out for her mother first. She held Sheila tightly for a long moment, as if afraid of losing her if she let go. When she finally did, Gary gave her a bear hug, then turned her toward April. She smiled a nervous smile, but stood with her arms folded across her chest. For an uncomfortable moment, Sheila believed April might have been dragged there against her will. “So,” April finally began, “is that your fiancé?” “Yeah, that’s my Hank.” “He’s kind of cute.” “He’s very cute, thank you very much.” At that point, their mother poked April’s arm. “Go ahead, baby, it’s all right.” April let her arms drop to her side. “Can you ever forgive me for treating you like I did?” Sheila stepped forward and hugged her like she used to when they were much younger, when April would hurt herself and Sheila would reach out to comfort her. Within seconds, both women were crying like babies, and all the pain built up over the last five years melted away. If only it would be so easy with— “Where’s Linda?” Sheila asked, glancing around again. “I thought she was going to be here.” Her mother, Gary and April all exchanged guilty glances, and looked away. “Mom?” Sheila began, her heart plummeting. She had a feeling she knew what had happened. “Um, honey, it’s not what you think.” Evelyn Carson reached out to touch her eldest daughter’s arm. “Linda’s not feeling well. She decided to meet you at home.” “Mom. . . .” Gary’s tone held a warning, but he said no more when April elbowed his side. Something was wrong, but Sheila could see they had some sort of agreement to keep quiet about it. Only the feeling of Hank’s strong arm wrapping around her shoulders kept her from exploding with frustration. She decided to play along, introducing Hank to each family member and keeping the conversation light as she and Hank rode home with her mother. At the beginning of the drive, Evelyn bombarded them with questions. That in itself would have been enough to make Sheila suspicious, since her mother believed in letting information come out in the normal course of conversation, as opposed to pestering people with questions. The tone she used confirmed to Sheila that she was definitely hiding something. It oozed with a syrupy cheerfulness Sheila had never heard in her voice. About halfway through the drive, Evelyn became more and more reticent, until she was saying nothing by the time they reached the Rochester city limits. Sheila didn’t know whether to be worried or relieved. Her mother spoke again after pulling into her driveway. “Before you get out,” she said as Sheila reached for the door handle, “there’s something you need to know.” Sheila turned to her mother, surprised to see tears filling her eyes. “Your sister has leukemia.” The words thrust through her like a sharp blade. Too stunned to move, Sheila stared at her mother as she explained the situation. Linda had been diagnosed eight months ago, had originally had a good prognosis, was now being cared for by a professional from hospice. Hospice? Evelyn stopped abruptly, studying her daughter’s face for comprehension. Sheila’s mind whirled, but she understood. Her voice was raspy as she asked the only question she could articulate. “How long does she have?” Not even Hank’s hand on her shoulder could console her this time. “About a month. Maybe two.” Another realization hit her, and anger joined the hurricane of emotions storming through her soul. “Nobody told me. Why didn’t anybody tell me? I have a right to know. She’s my sister, for God’s sake! She may hate my guts, but she’s my sister.” Now, Hank had his arm around her and was pulling her to him. Evelyn had no answer as Sheila burst into tears, burying her face into Hank’s shoulder. Ten minutes passed before she deemed herself together enough to go inside and face Linda. She lay under a sheet in what used to be her mother’s bedroom, breathing rapid, shallow breaths. An I. V. bag stood beside the bed, and Sheila wondered if it was doing any good. Linda’s body had shrunk to a skeletal-like state. Combined with the extreme paleness of her face, Linda appeared to be one of those living-dead creatures seen in a Freddy Kruger movie. Swallowing a gasp, Sheila fought to keep her legs steady. Since Hank was in the living room, he was not there to hold her up. Evelyn went over to the bed and gently shook Linda’s bony shoulder. “Linda, your sister’s here to see you.” Linda’s eyes slowly opened. “Who? April?” “Sheila.” “You told her.” Her voice, though tired, clearly conveyed an accusation. “But you—” Sheila was going to finish, “e-mailed me,” but stopped as the truth of the situation hit her like a sledgehammer. Linda had never e-mailed her. Her own mother had deceived her. Manipulated her. The whole trip had been a waste of time. She pivoted toward the door, swallowing a mouthful of bile. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be here.” After taking just two steps, however, her mother yanked on her arm with brute force. Sheila thought she was going to pull it out of its socket. “No.” Evelyn’s eyes flashed anger. “This ends here and now. Nobody leaves this room until you two have kissed and made up. You understand? Nobody.” To make her point, she dropped Sheila’s arm, stomped to the door and slammed it shut. She then folded her arms and stood in front of it, glowering at her daughters. “Now, stop being selfish and stubborn and scared this instant, and talk to each other.” Sheila rubbed her sore shoulder, dumbfounded by the outburst. When she finally recovered enough to speak, Linda beat her to the punch. “Mom read me Peter’s letter.” Each syllable sagged with weariness. “And she asked me if I forgave you.” She paused to catch her breath. “I told her I needed time. It was a shock, you know, like hearing from a ghost.” Sheila made a cautious move toward the bed. “That’s exactly what I thought.” “I even thought you might have made it up.” “I was afraid you would.” Sheila was now at Linda’s bedside, and sat down in the chair next to it. “But you would never do anything like that.” Her lips began to quiver. “I might. I’m a horrible person.” She began to sob. “Peter never said he forgave me. And it was my fault. I’m the one who insisted—” “It was nobody’s fault.” Sheila picked up Linda’s hand, awash in pity at the pathetic sight of her sister’s gaunt face contorted with grief. “It was an accident. Plain and simple. I’ve been through all the if-only’s about it, and the only thing it’s brought me is more torment and guilt. I’ve had to accept the fact that God doesn’t want us dwelling on the past, but to receive His forgiveness about it and move on.” She paused to wipe her own eyes. “Believe me, it hasn’t been easy.” Linda hiccupped a couple of times, then took a deep breath. “But do you think,” she asked in a childish voice, “Peter ever forgave me?” Sheila glanced up at her mother, who had moved away from the door and was gazing at Linda with a wrinkled brow. Then she looked back at her sister. “Did you ever tell Peter you asked me to go?” Linda shook her head. “Mom, did you?” “Of course not.” Sheila turned back to Linda. “I never did either. And nobody else knew.” Linda burst into tears again, and Evelyn rushed to the other side of the bed and began caressing her hair. “Shhh, child, you’re not helping yourself.” Several minutes passed before Linda composed herself enough to be able to speak. “God, Sheila,” she whispered, “I’ve been so awful. I hated you because I thought Peter hated me.” So that was it. Although Peter had only openly expressed anger toward Sheila, he had cut off their whole family, and Linda must have taken it personally. And she didn’t want to be the only one suffering. The revelation should have infuriated Sheila, tempted her to spout revilings, made her want to never see her sister again. But instead, Sheila felt a peace settle over her, a peace more profound than she had ever known. “Can you ever forgive me?” Sheila knelt by the bed and gazed into Linda’s eyes. “Yes,” she said. “I can. And I do.” CHAPTER 28 “Nervous?” “Nah.” Hank’s sweaty palms belied his answer. “Okay, a little.” Pastor Bill leaned back in his chair, clasping his hands behind his back. “Ah-ha.” The two men were seated in Pastor Scott’s office just before the wedding ceremony was scheduled to begin. For once, Hank was early, having arrived at the church at the same time as his pastor. Hank grinned. “Okay, a lot.” He leaned forward, his shirt collar tugging at his neck. “What did you do on your wedding day to keep from sweating through your suit coat?” “Alternated deep breaths with shallow, rapid ones.” “Isn’t that Lamaze?” “Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.” Hank joined Pastor Bill in his belly-shaking expression of mirth. When he paused to breathe, he realized he felt calmer than he had in the last twenty-four hours. Last night at dinner it was all he could do to keep his food down, and fought constantly to keep his mind on the conversations going on around him. He grew serious. “Pastor Bill, I want you to know how much I appreciate. . .everything.” Pastor Bill reached out to accept Hank’s handshake. “You’re welcome.” He glanced at his watch. “Well, we’d best be finding our seats, don’t you think?” Hank had easily agreed when Sheila had asked him to let her pastor officiate the ceremony at what had been her church home. Pastor Bill and his wife were there as honored guests. “You know the drill better than I do.” Hank stood up along with his pastor, whose height he exceeded by about five inches. They headed for the church sanctuary, and as they approached its doors, Hank’s parents entered the building. His mother addressed him first. “Are you okay, Son?” “Finer than the fur on a goose’s belly.” He embraced her, then his father, who stared at him for several moments with a sober expression. Hank, sensing that he was about to give some profound fatherly advice, or quote a verse from the Bible, stood patiently, waiting for Randall to speak. Finally, he said, “Geese don’t got no fur. They got feathers.” “Don’t have any,” Brenda began in protest to Randall’s deliberate disregard for the rules of proper speech. It was drowned out, however, by the hearty laughter of the three men as Randall took her arm and resumed their walk into the sanctuary. * * * A thrill of joy overwhelmed Sheila as she walked down the aisle toward the altar, her arm linked in Gary’s. She had never seen him cry until the day she asked him to take their deceased father’s place and give her away at the wedding. She had maintained her composure, having shed enough tears in the last couple of months to fill a small ocean. Wearing a simple ankle-length white dress and white sandals, Sheila smiled at all the eyes that turned to watch her make the life-changing journey. Several pairs belonged to immediate and extended family members from the North, happy to sacrifice the price of a plane ticket to attend the happy event. Although Linda had begun gaining weight in the two weeks since the two sisters reconciled, so reported their mother, she was still too ill to travel, and sent her best wishes and a gift. To Sheila’s left she spotted Margaret, whose gaze held years of secret confidences and loving support. She and Daniel had flown in early the afternoon before from a summer vacation in the Northeast, and she and Sheila shooed away their husband and husband-to-be so they could linger over a cup of tea in one of the small airport cafés. They reminisced, counting the blessings and miracles in their lives, then spoke of future hopes and dreams. Sheila found herself asking all sorts of first-time bride questions, and the two were still engaged in deep conversation when the men returned two hours later reminding them of their dinner date with family and friends. Sheila’s eyes then met Rosa Manriquez’, who sat in the next row. She had assured Sheila that she wouldn’t give up trying to start a more wholesome life, and now sent her a trembling smile full of unspoken gratitude. Sheila sent up yet another silent prayer on Rosa’s behalf, begging Jesus to reveal Himself to her. Beside her sat her brother Miguel. She had felt awkward about inviting him, but Hank had encouraged her when they went over their impromptu guest list. After all, the groom-to-be reminded her, if it weren’t for him, the little girl who helped bring them together would have never been born. She looked at the other side of the aisle, where her mother and April sat. Her mother dabbed at her eyes with a tissue while her sister beamed at her, as if the years of bitterness had never existed. Sheila smiled back, ignoring the pang in her heart that accompanied the thought that she could not stay in the country and make up for all the lost time. After a sweeping glance at the rest of her family, she found the courage to look back at the row of chairs where Rosa sat. This time, however, she focused on the small girl whose face had once been a cruel reminder of Sheila’s ill-timed trip to the grocery store, in a car she wished she’d never bought. Now Sheila could look at Diana with love rather than fear and self-loathing, because she had released the ghost that she had initially identified with her quiet, somber student. Now Sheila saw Diana for who she was—a child gifted with vision that saw beyond the circumstances and into people’s heart. She had never told Diana about the accident, about her eerie resemblance to Lorena. She was too young. Maybe one day when the time was right and Diana was at a place in her life where she needed to hear about the wonderful and often inexplicable workings of God, Sheila would tell her to what great extent the Lord had used her in her teacher’s life. But I’ll probably never see her again. Sheila swallowed a lump in her throat to force back a rising tide of emotion. She decided she’d better concentrate on the task at hand. Turning her face forward, she felt her heart leap in her chest. Not ten feet away stood the man who had helped her overcome her biggest obstacles, smiling at her with eyes that emanated love. The ten feet suddenly seemed like ten miles as she paced toward him at a snail’s speed. All the other people in the church melted away, and Sheila constrained herself from bursting forward and throwing herself into his arms. Nothing in her past mattered. The future lay before her, bright with God’s blessing and hope. ************************************************************* Want more? If this story has inspired you, given you a warm fuzzy, or otherwise helped you in a positive way, then you will probably like to continue on with the series. You can buy the entire series in a box set format. By doing so, you will save nearly half of the cost of purchasing each novel individually. It is available today at a great discount price. Also, if you enjoyed this story, please take a moment to leave a positive review. Now, for a peek at the next inspirational romance novel in this series, the first chapter of Guns And Rosa… ************************************** The irony of her situation did not escape Rosa Manriquez. She had just left a wedding reception in north Fort Worth for a newlywed couple headed straight back to Zimbabwe to do missionary work, perhaps indefinitely. Rosa, on the other hand, was headed for her job as a topless dancer in a Dallas adult night club. If she could go back ten years and make a different choice, she would. But now, she was stuck there. At least, until she started looking too old for the part. At thirty-five years of age, she was hoping that time may be coming up soon. She turned up the air conditioning in her blue 1988 Camaro as she entered highway 183. With her past, she was an unlikely candidate for marriage. She would not let a man who would be good enough to marry, hook himself to her for life. It would not be fair to him. But if by some miracle she ever did marry, she decided she would not do it in the heat of the summer. At least her friends, Sheila and Hank Johnson, would be returning to the southern part of Africa, which was now – in late August, 1998 – in the winter season. The traffic in front of her was practically standing still. She put on her brakes, eyeing the rearview mirror carefully as she did so to make sure the car behind her was slowing down, too. Not that she could do anything to keep an idiot driver from rear-ending her, but she didn’t need an accident on top of this slow-down. Her boss, Eddie E., did not like it when his girls were late. The driver behind her must have been another woman, for she did not run up to Rosa’s rear fender and suddenly slam on her brakes like most male drivers seemed wont to do. As much as Rosa liked men, she couldn’t stand the way they drove. Satisfied that the person behind her – who did indeed appear to be a woman – was driving safely, she turned her attention to what was going on in front of her. If there was something going on at Texas Stadium, it would be the other side of the freeway at a standstill, not her east-bound side. The west-bound traffic was going slowly, but was not completely stopped like all three lanes on the east-bound side seemed to be. Rosa let out an exasperated sigh and banged her hand on her steering wheel, careful not to hit the horn. Even in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Saturday afternoon traffic usually went fairly smoothly. What could be going on? When they finally started moving, it was at a snail’s pace that took her fifteen minutes to go three miles. The culprit ended up being a car on the side of the road with its front jacked up. No accident, no barriers in the road, just somebody changing a tire. Biting back a Spanish expletive, she glanced at the time on the clock dashboard once traffic was moving again. Five-fifty. She would still make it – barring any other traffic mishaps. The thought did not bring her much relief. By being on time, she would escape a big chewing-out, and perhaps slap in the face, by Eddie, but she would not escape the degrading feeling of being violated all night, as she had experienced most nights for the past ten years. After her first year in the “business,” she learned to medicate the feelings with alcohol, an occasional high, and men. With considerable emotional and mental struggle, she had recently been able to give up all three. She was more than ready for a change in her life, and, after attending church services with Sheila for a few weeks, had found the strength and motivation to do so. She had learned that God had better things planned for her life, she had done what she could to begin straightening it up. It was hard, and she met with temptation every night. But she was doing her part. To get free from her job, however, would require a miracle. As she turned off 183 toward Harry Hines Boulevard, she marveled that Hank and Sheila, former schoolteachers-turned-missionaries, would even allow her to be at their wedding. They knew what she did for a living, did not know why she continued on. She dared not tell them – or anybody else – the truth. Girls who left the employ of Eddie E. without his express permission mysteriously disappeared. Whether this rumor was true or not, it seemed to fit his nefarious character, as well as Rosa’s personal experience. Twice in the past ten years a dancer did not show up for work. The first time this happened, a few days later Rosa questioned Eddie about it. He told her to drop it, and when she persisted, he slapped her face so hard he bruised her, pinned her up against the wall and told her again – in a violently threatening manner – to drop it, or else. She asked no questions the second time a dancer suddenly disappeared. While very little about life scared or intimidated Rosa anymore, her boss did, so her plan was to remain under his employ until one of three things happened: one, the police arrested him; two, Eddie let her go; or three, God did something else to get her out of that hellhole. Since Eddie seemed to be especially careful to overtly stay within the confines of the law, the first option seemed impossible. The second one did not seem to be imminent. That left it up to God. Rosa knew He was capable; she had seen Him instantly heal her brother, Miguel, of one of the deadliest cancers around, cancer of the liver. For the moment, all she had faith for was that God would keep her from temptation that night, and that Eddie’s bouncer, Gil, would keep her safe from would-be rapists. Her boss’ cousin, Gil was a tall, burly white man who had done well on that account so far. Rosa finally drove into the small parking lot of the ugly, windowless, gray building adorned only with a neon-light sign that flashed, “XXX Night Club.” The main area inside the club had a small, square bar that was well worn, with numerous chips and scratches in its wooden sides. The cushions in the old stools had holes in them big enough so that you could see the filling poking out. Between the bar and the small stage were about fifteen tables, in a similarly dilapidated condition as the bar. The men who came to that place cared nothing for décor or appearances; they only wanted to fulfill some impossible fantasy without having to actually have a relationship with a woman. Eddie only replaced a table or chair if it completely broke. For that reason, about a third of the chairs were newer than the rest, and two tables were in much better shape than the others. Besides the public area was the small entryway inside the front door with a counter where you had to pay the entrance fee; the dressing room right behind the stage; and Eddie’s office at the back of the place, on the opposite side of the dressing room. It was, in short, as ugly a place to look at for Rosa as her actual job was to do. As the club would not be open to the public for about another hour, the front door was locked so she had to go in through the side door. There was a back door, too, but to go through it meant to go through a musty, cluttered storage room piled high with boxes and broken chairs. It was an accident waiting to happen. In fact, the newest dancer, a twenty-year-old named Lisa, had recently gone in through the back and narrowly escaped being hit on the head by a falling box. Anyway, the side door led straight into the dressing room, where Eddie rarely made an appearance. So on days when Rosa wanted to avoid him for as long as possible, she could go in there first and bide her time until she needed to go out into the public area of the club. This evening, though, the door that opened from the dressing room onto the small stage was open. Rosa went to close it, but a familiar and unsavory odor hit her nose when she got to it. Having worked in this part of Dallas for so long, she had smelled it a couple of times before when a fight between either gang members or drug dealers broke out. Gunpowder. Somebody had recently – probably just before she got there – fired a gun. Slowly and cautiously, Rosa opened the door wider, looking all around as she did so. The lights were dim and it was difficult to interpret all the shadows. Gingerly, she took a few steps forward. The she stepped back with a gasp. Eddie E. and Lisa lay in the middle of the dance floor, dead. Rosa looked around wildly, suddenly feeling more vulnerable than she ever had before in her life. Who had done it? Were they still here? She wished she had a gun, or a knife. Pepper spray. Anything to defend herself, in case the murderer was still there. Long ago she had learned karate, but she was rusty in the art and it would do her little good if the killer was a big person, like Gil. He could be hiding in the dark shadows or underneath the bar. Rosa’s heart began pounding in her chest. She knew her best defense was to run away, but what if the victims might still be alive? She had to be certain they were not before she left them. Her heart pounded as she slowly approached the bodies. The blood stains on their clothes and on the floor confirmed that they had, indeed, been shot. Eddie appeared to have been shot in the chest; Lisa, in the head. The blood was still bright red. The reality of the situation hit Rosa and she cried, “Oh, God, Lisa!” She kneeled down and examined both bodies carefully. Neither of their chests moved. Rosa dared not to touch the bodies to check for either temperature or pulse. She knew better than to leave her fingerprints anywhere near the body of a murder victim. Regardless, the location of the bullet holes and stillness of their bodies was enough indication that they had not survived the attack. She took a deep breath to calm the nausea welling up in her gut. Lisa did not deserve to die. Like Rosa, she had made some foolish, bad choices – the worst one being to agree to work for Eddie – but she had had her whole life ahead of her to make a drastic turn-around. Rosa did not know the girl well, but had spoken with her enough to know that she had once had dreams, and had finally been driven to work at the night club by a series of circumstance that made even tough Rosa’s hair stand on end when she heard them. Rosa slowly got back up on her feet. Her entire body felt numb, as though a megadose of Novocain had been pumped through her veins. Suddenly, she heard a crashing noise and a door slam. Startled, she whirled around. The killer. That must be the killer. Whoever it was had run through the storage room and knocked over a box or two, and gone out the back door. Rosa felt all the blood drain from her face. Adrenaline coursed through her veins as she ran for the front door, fumbling around in her purse for her cell phone. Right now, the only place she could feel safe was in her car, driving to anywhere else. Scanning the parking lot, she could see no sign of anybody else. She ran for her car, got in, and shoved the key in the ignition as she slammed the door. Breathless, she turned the key while hitting “9-1-1” on her phone. Somehow, she managed to catch enough breath to tell the operator what she had just seen, and where she was. “I am leaving the parking lot of the club right now,” she told the operator. “I will be back in ten minutes to meet the police. I am alone, and I don’t feel safe.” She hung up, then found her way back to Harry Hines, and drove for five minutes one way, then made a U-turn and returned to the night club. It was a long enough span for her heart rate to slow down and her breathing to return to normal. When she pulled into the parking lot, she was relieved to find two police cars and an ambulance already there. She felt some trepidation as she parked her car and got out of it. She knew that she might be considered a suspect, despite having been the one to call 9-1-1, despite having given her name. One police officer stood just outside the front door, arms crossed, watching as Rosa approached the yellow tape a female cop was wrapping around the place. “My name is Rosa Manriquez,” she said, stopping when the man put his hand out and shook his head in warning. “I am the one who called 9-1-1.” The man frowned, dropped his arms, and walked toward her. “You found the bodies?” “Yes, sir.” Rosa did her best to look and sound confident, although her stomach was beginning to churn and her legs suddenly felt like jelly. “Not a good day for you, is it, ma’am?” The officer still frowned, but his tone was edged with a hint of sympathy. “Mind if I ask you some questions?” “No, sir.” In truth, the only part of the ordeal she dreaded was admitting to the cop that she was one of the club dancers. She followed him over to the side of the building, feeling a little more at ease. When he asked her to tell him the whole story, she did so, thinking carefully so as not to leave out any details. The policeman took notes and occasionally asked for clarification. When she concluded, he asked, “Any idea who might have done it?” Rosa hesitated. The fact was, any one of Eddie’s employees, including herself, had plenty of motive to take him out. She supposed that Gil, the bouncer who also happened to be Eddie’s cousin, could even have had a falling-out with their boss. Then there were the numerous other lowlifes that Eddie had had conflict with over the past few years, guys who had nothing to do with the night club but were neighborhood drug dealers, drug users, and pimps who had tried to harass Eddie or one of his employees. Finally, she responded as honestly as she could. “I can’t think of any one person who might dare to cross Eddie. For what it’s worth,” she added, “I don’t think Lisa – that’s the girl – was the target.” “Wrong place, wrong time?” the cop queried, jotting down another note. Rosa nodded, then looked over at the front entrance as paramedics pushed out two stretchers, carrying the bodies which were both fully covered with a sheet. She shuddered and looked away, exhaling loudly. “Miss Manriquez,” the officer said, a small smile now playing at his lips, “that’s all I need. Thank you for your cooperation. Please call us if you think of anything else you might have missed in your description tonight. And may I suggest you go home and get a good night’s sleep.” Rosa nodded, attempting a weak smile, and walked with leaden legs to her car. She had seen bloody fights between drunk men, had her naked body manhandled by multiple ugly men at the same time while she danced, seen people threaten each other with knives and guns, and seen women beat up by a man. She thought she had seen all the depravity of humanity there was to see. Until this evening. Once again, she started her Camaro, imagining the e-mail she might send to Sheila: “Guess what happened to me on your wedding day?” Well, her friend in Zimbabwe would eventually learn about it, but certainly not for a couple of weeks. Sheila and Hank deserved at least a little time to themselves, to believe that all was bliss in the world. Rosa flipped on one of the local Latino radio stations as she got back on to Harry Hines. She hoped that listening to music on her way back to Fort Worth, where she lived in an apartment in the eastern area of the city, would push back the thoughts and images floating around her head. She knew the picture of Eddie and Lisa lying dead on the floor would not soon leave her memory. A love song came on, the singer declaring to his beloved how precious and beautiful she was to him, how he yearned for her every waking moment, how thrilled he was when they were together. Both the lyrics and the melody pulled at a deep longing that Rosa tried to keep buried, for she had no hope that any decent man would want a woman with her past. That was not making her feel better. Rosa sighed and snapped off the radio. Then she turned it back on and flipped it to 94.9, an English Christian music station Sheila had told her about. While fluent in English, as a non-native speaker Rosa still had some trouble understanding English song lyrics, but she didn’t mind. She knew whatever she heard from the station would bring her peace, not turmoil. She listened to it the rest of the way home, chuckling when she heard the D.J. give a report about the standstill on 183, which was apparently still going on. When she got to her apartment, she called her brother to make sure he, who had also attended the wedding, had come home. When he answered, she simply said, “Good. You’re home. I need to talk to you. I’ll be there in about fifteen minutes.” ***** Gil always parked his truck in the back of the club, pulling in several yards away from and just opposite the back door. That way, he could go in and out without being seen or bothered by the clientele. He was early today, because his girlfriend just broke up with him after finding out where he worked. He needed a stiff drink before he got started. This was far from the first time something like this had happened. But he had, for the first time in his forty-three years, actually started wondering what a future might be like with a woman. There was no chance of that now, given the choice words she had had for him the other night. Gil was beginning to wonder if it might not be time for a career change. But how could he tell Eddie? When he pulled into his usual spot, facing east and away from the building, the sun was in the exact right spot to shine a glaring ray of light into his rearview mirror. He reached up to move the mirror to keep the reflection from blinding him, but as he did he saw the back door swing open. Somebody ran out, but thanks to the bright glare, he could not tell who it was. He twisted his neck around to look out the truck’s rear window, but by then the person had already disappeared. Gil immediately smelled a fish. Usually, the only people who might be at the club this early were Eddie and a couple of the dancers, and once in a while the bartender. And as far as he knew, he and Eddie were the only ones who ever used the back door, Eddie only on occasion. Nobody else liked to tackle the mess in the store room that led to the back door. He jumped out of his truck and ran around to the front of the building. As he got to the north side, he stopped and threw himself against the side of the building. Rosa was running for her car. He waited until she drove out of the parking lot, then ran for the front door. It was open; Rosa must have opened it when she came out. Or, no, didn’t she just come out the back? Anyway, someone had unlocked the front door an hour early, and Gil went into the club through it. The lights were dim; Gil felt for the master switch next to the admission counter, turned the house lights to full brightness, and wildly glanced around in case there was somebody else in there. No one. He took a couple steps forward, then stopped. Two bodies lay on the dance floor. He walked up to the bar, then groaned out a string of cuss words as he recognized Eddie. Slowly, he wove his way through the tables and stepped onto the dance floor. Lisa, too. He may have felt some sympathy for her if not for the tidal wave of anger and grief that suddenly overwhelmed him. Though his cousin by relation, Eddie had been more like a brother to Gil. They had lived next door to each other for most of their childhood, in east Dallas, and had been almost inseparable. They played together, fought together, and defaced property together. When Eddie started to get into trouble in high school, so did Gil. Then his family moved to Garland and he did not see his cousin much anymore. The day Eddie got sent to Juvenile, Gil’s mother put her foot down and told Gil he would not be allowed to hang out with Eddie any longer. But he was fifteen, and Eddie sixteen, by then, so it was only a matter of a couple of years before they could – and did – legally pair up. Perhaps “legally” was not quite the word, as Eddie had a spirit that combined rebellion, disgust for authority, and entrepreneurialism that led him to concoct money-making schemes that were often outside the bounds of the law. Gil, not as smart as his cousin but with much more brawn, often acted as Eddie’s strong man, which had landed him in jail twice but for which Eddie had always paid him well. Eddie, therefore, had not only been a close friend but the sole source of Gil’s income his whole life. And now, he was dead. From Rosa’s hand? Gil had never pegged her the murdering type, but Eddie had a way that could drive an angel to such an atrocity. But what if she hadn’t done it? Then, she was the type to have called the police. Gil leapt to his feet, his heart thudding against his chest. Fingerprints. He had left his fingerprints. On the light switch. And front door. He ran over to the bar, went behind it, and hurriedly scrounged for any kind of towel. Finding a small cotton cloth the bartender used to polish glasses, he ran to the light switch and wiped it, then opened the door. Sirens. He heard sirens. No time, no time. He quickly wiped the outside doorknob, then the inside one he had just touched, and raced like a madman for the storage room. They couldn’t see him leave in his truck. They would suspect him for sure if they did. He threw himself into the driver’s seat and started backing up before the pickup door was even closed. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead and his heart pounded in his throat, choking him. When he pulled out of the parking lot, he did not head for Harry Hines, but sped down a side street in the opposite direction. For a full minute, he kept glancing in his mirrors. Nobody. He had probably missed them by a hair. He wound his way around the seedy neighborhood, full of old houses that looked like they would collapse if you blew on them. He realized he was hyperventilating, and slowly drew in a deep breath. After a few minutes of controlled breathing, his heartbeat returned to normal and he stopped feeling feverish. And he was back on Harry Hines Boulevard, headed for a home in west Dallas he would probably no longer be able to afford. ********************************************* Get the rest of the novel at your favorite online book retailer! And remember you can get all five books at a deep discount by purchasing the boxed set. It’s available at your favorite online retailer. Other Books By Emily Josephine The “Texas Hearts” series, of which this novel is the first, consists of five full-length novels . You can also buy the entire series in a box set format. By doing so, you will save nearly half of the cost of purchasing each novel individually. It is available today at a great discount price. Just look for “Texas Hearts boxed set by Emily Josephine.” If you enjoyed this novel (not to mention the entire “Texas Hearts” series), I believe you will enjoy my other inspirational romance series, “Choices And Chances”, as well! The first novel is FREE. Following are the four titles in the series: His Second Chance His First Choice Choosing Beth The Better Choice Of course, you can purchase the “Choices And Chances” series in a box set, as well. Save 1/3 of the cost of purchasing the individual novels when you do! Just search for “Choices and Chances box set by Emily Josephine.” About Emily Josephine A former sugar addict, Emily is now a fervent health nut. A former schoolteacher, she is now a rabid advocate of homeschooling. A former too-much-stuff-city-dweller, she is now living her dream as a semi-minimalist rural homesteader. In between planting seeds, reading to her son, and making videos of her homestead, Emily writes both non-fiction related to health and simple living, as well as inspirational novels with characters who are as radically anti-mainstream as she is! Connect With Emily Subscribe to her YouTube channel at Send encouraging e-mails and testimonies to ONE MORE THING… If you enjoyed this book, please take a minute to write a positive review of it at your favorite online book retailer’s site. It will help others to find and enjoy this novel, as well. Thank you very much, and I wish you every blessing! Emily Josephine PS – And now, a surprise for you – the first chapter from my supernatural/suspense novel, Call Me Isabel. If that sounds right up your alley, keep on reading! Chapter One of Call Me Isabel A soft whisper floats through me like a summer breeze, brushing against the edge of my consciousness. Get up. The words penetrate my deep sleep, urging me to wakefulness. I stretch. Then I still my body to listen again, to make sure of what I think I heard. Get up. The whisper is more forceful this time, a gust. Warmer, like the increasing heat you feel when a friend squeezes your arm to get your attention. The next moment, I am sitting straight up, my legs moving to push my body up from the pallet on the floor. I did not imagine the voice, the words; I now understand that He has something for me to do, and that I need to be prepared. My feet sink into the beige carpet as I cross the room to where my clothes lie in an old chest of drawers. As I pull on my long, white muslin skirt, I begin to hear shouting. And screaming. A man is shouting and a woman is screaming. Their fury carries along with their voices. Years ago, I would have had to pray to maintain a calm spirit, to keep fear away. But I have long since learned what it means, that He lives in me. My soul and body have nothing to fear as long as The Holy One is in command. I continue dressing, wondering where the couple might be. The voices are not loud or clear enough for them to be right outside the building where I have lived for the past two months. Perhaps across the parking lot, near the apartment office? My wondering is pure idleness, because I know He will lead me to the exact right place, at the exact right time. I have my clothes on, and am just pulling my long, black tresses into a ponytail, when an explosion rips through the early morning air, threatening to shatter the peace within me. ********** Lynda Daniels bolts upright in the king-sized bed. “Randy, did you hear that?” she asks her husband in a fierce whisper. His only response is a grunt and slight shifting of his legs. She looks toward the apartment door, ears strained, heart pounding. Did she hear something, or has it come from her dreams? That would explain why Randy didn’t hear it. Then again, lately he doesn’t seem to hear much of what she says even when they are both wide awake. The thought makes her gut tighten. But before she can take the usual mental downward spiral that inevitably accompanies it, she hears a car door slam at almost the same time that an engine roars to life. The sound is close, too close. For ten full seconds she sits frozen in her bed. Tires squeal against the parking lot pavement, the sound grating against her eardrums. Then, silence. On the outside, anyway. Inside, a dozen thoughts careen into her mind at once. The sound hadn’t been a gunshot, just the sound of another car door slamming. She needs to quit reading thrillers. Some guy’s pregnant wife is about to give birth, and they are in a hurry to get to the hospital. The sound was a shot, and the car roaring away carries the person with the gun. The reporter in her lands on that idea, and won’t let it go. Lynda throws off the sheet and hops onto the floor, not worrying about waking Randy. He deserves to be awakened early, but it doesn’t matter what he deserves. He will keep on sleeping. Only the persistent, annoying buzz of an alarm clock right by his ear can ever wake him before eight o’clock. Two minutes later, she has pulled on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, and grabbed her purse that contains her concealed weapon. You don’t work as an undercover reporter in Dallas, Texas, without protection. Not that she has worked undercover all that much, but the first of the handful of times she had, she learned quickly that her editor hadn’t been kidding when he’d advised her to get a gun and learn how to use it. This upcoming assignment will be interesting, as she will not be allowed to have it on her person. And she’s not exactly going to be in a safe place. Slipping on her flip-flops, she noiselessly releases the chain midway between the doorknob and the top of the door. She turns the deadbolt and the doorknob with painstaking deliberation. She shakes her head and smirks at herself. If a gunshot and a car engine gunning practically right outside their door doesn’t wake Randy, her leaving the house will not. Actually, several times in the past year she has considered leaving in the middle of the night, for that very reason. But if she ever does work up the nerve to tell him that she no longer wants to be with him, she will refuse to be the one to tear up her roots. She is not the one who has become uncommunicative. She is not the one who has let herself go physically. She is not the one who turned cold five years into their seven-year marriage. Pulling open the door, she swipes a hot tear from her eye with the back of her hand. Good thing she hasn’t put on any make up yet. She shakes her head to get her mind to focus on the task at hand: to find out if there are any bodies lying in the apartment complex parking lot. ********** Go now, the whisper assures me as soon as the echoes of the shot die away. I drop my hair from my fist, letting it cascade down my back. Then I slip on the pair of flats waiting by the apartment door, open the door, and step outside. My feet do not hesitate; they lead me with quick steps in the direction of the shot. But I don’t make it far before I see the silhouette of a man holding a gun, running. Straight toward me. No, not toward me. He makes a sharp turn to his left and yanks open the door of a pickup truck. I stand still, hidden in the shadows of the live oak tree towering above me, as he tosses the gun onto the seat, swings himself up into the cab, and starts the engine. With a squeal of tires, he is gone in a few seconds. I glance around. No one else has come out of their apartment. I do not want to believe it is that no one else cares, that the world has become that apathetic. But I am not so naïve as to think that fear and deep sleep are the only reasons that have kept my fellow residents from responding. I cannot be upset by my solitude in this moment, however. I never have liked having an audience – it has always complicated things, even brought me great trials – so the abandoned, dark, silent parking lot is a blessing to me. The early September morning air is still, so that the only sounds I hear are the rustling of my skirt and the scraping of my shoes against the blacktop as I make my journey across it. I would go barefoot – it has always been my preferred way of walking – but in my experience, cities have never been a safe place to tread without shoes. And so I risk making more noise than I would like to reach my target. In less than a minute, I find her. She is lying in an empty space between two parked cars. Her dark head lies in the spotlight of the lamp above, and I can see a trickle of blood coming from her mouth. That means she has been shot in the neck or lungs. Oh, guns! Will I ever cease to despise the day they were invented? I crouch down next to her. I spot the wound in a moment, right between her ample breasts. I scan the rest of her large body which lies in the shadows, but can find no other injuries Not that it matters. He will resolve any and all problems with a word. My word that He will speak through me. It is always the same word. I check her neck for a pulse. Then her wrist. Nothing. No warm breath puffing over the blood coming out of her mouth, no movement from her chest. I close my eyes for a moment, to center on Him. Then I open them and lower both my hands until they hover millimeters above the wound. “Live,” I say. The blood flowing from the chest dries up in the next second. The last drop that had made its way up onto her tongue slides down her chin, and then…no more. Her chest begins to move. Her body begins to make a rolling motion, as someone waking up from a sound sleep. I must leave. She must not see me. It is the only thing I fear anymore, that someone will see me. And I am ashamed of it. I am not supposed to fear, only to trust. But once, long ago… No, I will not let my mind go there. Or the bitterness is sure to return. The bitterness that wedges itself between me and my Beloved, distracting, scraping…killing. My gaze lifts upward, my neck twists around, to make sure no one else has come out while I was here. Seeing no one, I take several steps backward. The woman’s eyes begin to flutter. I whirl around and run as quietly as I can back to my apartment. Once inside, I lean back against the closed door and heave a sigh. That was too close. But I obeyed, and that is the important thing. I lift my eyes and hands heavenward in thankfulness, and another whisper comes: Time to go back. I smile, knowing what that means, and joy warms my insides like melted butter.


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