Do you enjoy just sitting back and listening to stories? Then you’ll enjoy my newest project: Audio Short Stories. You’ll find the first story on YouTube now. I’ll make it really easy for you and insert it right here, but if you like it, hop over to the YouTube site so you can click the “thumbs up” symbol and subscribe to my channel so you’ll know when I post the next story in the project.
Been going through my Christmas story archives and pulled this one out for today.
“Well, what’a ya know,” Ben whispered, grinning, seeing his breath form vapors on the Christmas air. “Who would have thought it would be the brick sidewalk?”
He sighed. In one unexpected instant – as his feet had tread the bricks of this dear old sidewalk that had run the length of Main Street all his life – it had happened. He knew for sure the place he’d returned to was still ‘home.’
Just yesterday he’d been dreading coming back – as he had been for a week – from the time the doctors had told him he was almost well enough to make the trip. He knew for sure how much he had changed, and he couldn’t shake the deep, gut-wrenching fear that the whole world had changed as well – including the little town nestled at the foot of the mountains in Montana. He’d grown up here, played high school basketball, and dated the girl from three houses down the street until she’d decided to elope with the captain of the basketball team.
He had to chuckle to himself when he remembered how devastated he’d felt back then. It had been his first serious relationship with a girl, but in hindsight, he realized that he hadn’t really been in love – just fascinated with the boy-girl relationship.
Sometimes when he’d been hunkered down in the trenches, waiting the next command to move out into the threat of enemy fire, he’d started thinking about Allyson, and even though she belonged to someone else now, the memories comforted him. He knew even during those hours that it had nothing to do with Ally or their time together, but it was all about ‘home.’ When he thought of Ally, it took him away from the cold, wet, ugly war he was fighting.
Sometimes he’d remember his mother and could smell again the warm vanilla scent that so often clung to her from her constant baking. He’d conjure up the image of Granddad, sitting with his feet propped in front of the living room fireplace, sweet-scented smoke curling from his pipe. He’d hear again his father’s voice as he read the latest news stories from the paper as the family sat soaking up the security of their home and their quiet life together.
Then, sometimes, when he and his unit were on the move and trekking through secure territory, on their way to the next battlefront, he had remembered walking down that old brick sidewalk – past Old Man Chesterfield’s hardware store, Woolworth’s Five & Dime, the candy and tobacco shop, where he’d bought Ally that huge box of chocolates for the Valentine’s Day they’d celebrated together. There was Mrs. Gallagher’s Boutique next, and then Pansy’s Pancake House. Some days, when his senses were crystal clear, he could nearly taste those light, fluffy concoctions smothered in her special Cherry Cordial Syrup.
When he let his memory take him wherever it willed, he usually ended up thinking about Christmas, and he’d see again the decorations strung the entire length of Main Street, with lights in the windows of every storefront, snowmen standing sentry at almost every corner, and wreaths and holly hanging everywhere. He could almost feel the frost in the air and the festive atmosphere that surrounded shoppers and merchants alike from Thanksgiving to Christmas. And oh those chestnuts! The scent of roasted chestnuts hung over the main business district for two whole weeks before Christmas Day. And often he thought that sweet aroma was his favorite memory of all. Sometimes he swore he could smell those roasted chestnuts even though he was thousands of miles away on foreign soil with no hope of even a warm dinner for that night.
He’d been wishing he could have some of those chestnuts just minutes before the ambush occurred, but then bullets and grenades had killed all thoughts and images of anything but the hell breaking loose in every direction. Those same bullets and grenades had killed twenty of the men in his unit as well. When he’d taken the first hit in his leg and fallen, his best buddy had turned back to help him up. But the bullet that had caught his rescuer in the head had snuffed out his life in seconds, and Ben had taken a second bullet in the chest, blacking out at that point.
Five days later, when he’d regained consciousness in the hospital, he’d found himself hooked to all kinds of tubes and machines. The doctor had been compassionate and kind, assuring him that he was going to make it, but that it would be a month or so before he was fit to leave the hospital. When he’d asked about his unit, the news had been brutal, and he’d found himself so frozen by the grief that he hadn’t even been able to cry.
The day he’d been released and given his extended leave for home, his doctor had been wreathed in smiles. “We’re going to get you back to your family in time for Christmas, Son,” he’d said. And as much as the news brought a spurt of joy to Ben’s heart, it also brought a stab of fear.
He’s made a short journey first to the home of the man who’d been his best friend in combat, the man who’d lost his life trying to save Ben. He’d learned that Rick’s body had been shipped home for burial in the family plot. Ben knew he had to visit that grave and spend some time with Rick’s family before he could get started on the longer journey to his own family. And it was with that family, sitting in Rick’s home, remembering his buddy, that he’d finally been able to let the tears come. With his head on Rick’s mother’s shoulder, and her arms holding him tightly – the way she would never be able to hold her own son – Ben had finally cried out the pain and bitterness and loss.
Eighteen hours later, on the day before Christmas Eve, he boarded the bus that would take him to Montana. He had purposely refrained from letting his family know what bus he was taking. He had to walk out this journey one step at a time – in his own way and in his own timing. He had to find out what kind of world awaited him at the end of this journey, and he had to have the security of facing it on his own terms.
His physical wounds were almost healed, but the wound’s in his soul would be with him forever. And that’s what made him afraid. As long as he didn’t go home, he could always try to tell himself that it was still a place of peace and safety and love and laughter – and that life was still good there. But all the time he sat on the bus, heading to that little town in Montana, he battled with the fear. The questions kept circling through his mind: when he walked down the streets of his old hometown – when he stepped into his mother’s kitchen – when he visited the high school campus – when he sat in the park watching the breeze blow across the lake – when he met with friends in a restaurant –would he find what he’d left behind – or would it all be gone – forced out of existence by the same powers that had changed him forever?
Finally, at the end of the seven hour trip, he stepped off the bus, retrieved his suitcase and stood for a few moments just looking across Main Street at the row of well-remembered businesses – those stores and shops that had filled his dreams and imaginations hours at a time in the rare instances between battles.
Everything glowed with Christmas. It looked the way he would have expected it to look back before he’d had to wade through hatred, filth, and slaughter in another land. But could he relate to this place any longer? Could he ever belong here again? Would it welcome him – would he welcome what he found here now? He slowly walked across Maine and stepped onto the sidewalk that would take him from the north end of town to the south, where his parents lived.
He walked – slowly – hesitantly at first. His eyes caressed the old, worn bricks that stretched out ahead of him the whole two-mile distance of the business district, and he began to realize that each step he took was a familiar experience – the same experience he’d enjoyed for years, day in and day out – those warm brown bricks woven together by expert hands generations ago – just slightly uneven but plenty smooth enough for easy walking.
And every step reassured him. He began to breathe easier now, and as he took a good, deep breath, his nostrils twitched a little. Chestnuts, roasting, in a cart just up the street about two more blocks. He walked with more purpose then, his eyes still caressing the worn, welcoming bricks beneath his feet, stretching out before him invitingly.
Finally, he chuckled out loud. Yep … it was okay. … It was really okay. … He was okay. And this good old brick friend convinced him — more with every step he took — that home was still everything he needed it to be.
Mariah Jacoby paced the tiny office, taking the confined distance from wall to wall in four agitated strides as she waited for her boss to join her. She was fairly certain what the outcome of this meeting would be. She’d be looking for another job. She shook her head from side to side now in frustration. If only she could convince her boss that she could probably sell more from this boutique in the long run if she were honest with her customers!
Well, that wasn’t going to happen. Convincing Patricia there was something to be gained by telling a woman she looked fat in one of her dresses was about as likely as going over Niagara Falls in a barrel without getting hurt … seriously hurt! Hadn’t somebody tried that once? She thought she’d remembered reading something about it, but … right now her mind was too muddled with the mess she’d made of her third job in two years. Of course, it’s not like this latest one was something in her field. With a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s in journalism, selling in a boutique was a little wide of the mark on both counts.
But her one year working at the Excel Learning Center had been enough to convince her that trying to teach students how to learn better was definitely not her forte. Her second job, the one with The Beacon, had been more in her line, but evidently news reporting was not what she really felt called to do either. Well, Mariah did feel a genuine interest in writing for a newspaper. It was actually her editor who had felt that she wasn’t right for the part. “You’ve got to quit editorializing, Mariah!” he said, through his gritted teeth. How many times had he said that? She couldn’t be sure, but it seemed to average about once a week, until finally, he had given her the bad news: She’d have to go. And he’d warned her one last time that if she thought she’d ever really want to get serious about a career in journalism, she’d better start working harder on her ability to remain objective when she covered the news.
She sighed now and finally dropped into one of the two chairs that sat in front of the desk, just settling into the seat when her boss opened the door and came in with a purposeful stride. Patricia wasn’t a time-waster; that was for sure. She marched around her desk and leaned over it toward Mariah. “I guess you know what this means?” Mariah opened her mouth to protest … or defend herself … or something … but nothing came out. She dipped her head and then nodded.
“I know,” she said on a resigned sigh. “I really do try to do what you want though, Patricia.”
Her boss shook her head as she sat down behind the desk. “Not hard enough, Mariah. I’ve told you repeatedly that we do not tell any of our customers that they don’t look terrific in whatever they choose.”
Mariah’s head came up, and she looked directly at her boss. “But that’s lying! I can’t believe that’s the best way to do business!”
“The point is that this is my business, Mariah. And the only one who needs to be satisfied with the way we do business here is me. Besides, I don’t really consider it lying. When our customers have chosen something that they like on themselves, it makes them feel good about themselves, and that does make them look good. Happy people always look better than those who are unhappy. And more importantly, happy customers keep coming back!”
“But Mrs. Jamison wasn’t unhappy when I told her that I thought she’d look better in something else.”
“No? Well, just what would you call that frown on her face, that furrowed brow, and her flustered attitude?”
“She was just trying to think about what I’d said while I was showing her the other possibilities.”
“All possibilities that she did not like herself! That’s just my point. She’s been a customer here for five years, and she had already disqualified the style of dress you kept trying to push off on her!” She leaned back with a sigh. “I’m sorry, Mariah, but I did warn you that you may not be cut out for this kind of work. I know you’ve tried, but you’re not going to be able to treat my customers differently. This is the fourth time I’ve had to deal with the situation and try to soothe the people you’ve upset. I’ll give you the rest of this week doing jobs that won’t require you to work with customers, and I’ll give you the two week’s severance pay that your contract specifies, but I’ll definitely have to replace you with someone who’s comfortable with my rules here.”
It didn’t take long for the end of the week to arrive, and Mariah found that she wasn’t all that emotional about having to say goodbye to Patricia and the two other women who worked at the boutique. She was very emotional, however, about not having a job. She had managed to save a little money while she’d worked on her masters because she’d decided to attend the university at home and stay at the house with her parents. They had been eager to have her there again, even for that period of time, and they just refused to let her pay for much of anything at all. She’d tried to make up for it by treating them to special dinners out and a weekend away a couple of times, but she had put most of her money from the job on campus into a savings account. Good thing! She’d already gone through half of it, and it looked like the second half would soon be in hot pursuit of the first.
She made her way back to the one-bedroom apartment in a very unfashionable, but comfortable part of town, dropped her purse and jacket on the table just inside the door, kicked off her shoes, and headed for the tiny kitchen to make tea. Her granny had always sworn by tea as the fix-it potion for any problem. Of course, Granny had always held faithful to all the little details that constituted a traditional English tea – the boiled water, the warmed teapot, the unrushed brewing time. Mariah filled the teapot and stuck it in the microwave. What Granny didn’t know wouldn’t cause her any unhappiness.
While she waited for the water to boil, she picked up the mail that lay on her kitchen counter. She hadn’t had time to go through it carefully for the last two days, and now she was surprised to see a card from a friend of hers in another state. Abigail Harland, who had gone through the first four years of college with Mariah, was now a happily married wife and the mother of two rambunctious little boys. She took to that lifestyle like a duck to water, Mariah thought, smiling now as she remembered the last time she’d visited Abby and Seth.
She scanned the lines eagerly, moving over to the microwave as it dinged to let her know the water was ready. A few minutes later, as she sipped the fragrant tea and began to relax, she came to the end of the note, which included another invitation to visit as soon as possible. “Come for a whole weekend if you can,” Abby had written. “Better yet, I wish you’d look for a job here so we could be close like we used to be.”
Mariah laid the note on the counter, deep in thought. Well, why not? Why not at least try? She certainly had nothing holding her here. Of course she was only an hour from her parents living here, but Abby’s home wasn’t more than three hours from them. She shrugged her shoulders. She was going to have to start somewhere, and she might as well try to find something close to her best friends. She’d made a couple of local friends since moving here to work, and of course, she was comfortable with most all of the people she’d met at church. But there wasn’t anyone she felt she could bare her soul to the way she could Abby and Seth. Maybe this was a good time to move on.
She got up and added more tea to her cup, then moved into the living room and snuggled into the corner of the sofa. She had an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach … almost a fear. Only she refused to let herself be afraid. It was just that … well … she had never figured herself for a failure. She had always done well in school. And she’d taken a variety of electives just to expand her mind and her horizons. Hadn’t she even taken those two auto-shop courses?
She grinned now as she remembered how surprised a couple of the guys in the class had been when they’d discovered how much she already knew. That was thanks to her big brother Mitch, of course. From the time she’d been a preteen, she had helped him work on his cars. And he’d had several over the years that he virtually rebuilt. Of course, it was just a hobby with him. He’d opted for a career in marketing, but he’d really had a gift for working on cars! And he’d told her she was a natural too, but of course, no other girls she knew were interested in becoming auto mechanics, so she dismissed that idea as less than good if she were going to have to compete with them for the guys out there that were worth having.
She snorted now as she thought about the fact that even though she was never in overalls or smudged with grease and oil these days, the guys weren’t exactly beating a path to her door. She thought about what she had to offer a man. Well … there was her open, friendly nature … her quick mind … her Christian lifestyle …. She sighed. Those things didn’t sound like attention grabbers to her.
She took mental stock of her physical assets: She had a clear complexion. Her hair was a rich brown, and the pixie cut she currently wore framed her face perfectly and drew attention to her eyes. And they were probably her most positive feature, weren’t they? She had always considered them plain old brown until one of the men she’d dated in college had told her they were the warm color of a glass of sherry. Her relationship with that man had taken a definite upswing from that moment, although they’d never gotten serious, and he’d graduated the following year. Still, he remained one of her favorite dating memories just because he’d given her a whole new confidence about her looks.
She sat her empty cup on the table beside the sofa and stretched out, thinking. What kind of job should she look for? She laughed lightly. She’d lain on the sofa in her home as a child and daydreamed just this way, asking herself, what she wanted to be when she grew up? But this wasn’t like those times. This was no daydream; this was reality. She was grown-up. She was 25, and it was time she made a career for herself.
The following Friday evening, she arrived at Seth and Abby’s door with a large suitcase, having told them of her plans to look for a job close to them. They had insisted she stay with them while she searched, but she had been adamant about not staying more than a week. If she hadn’t found something by then, she would either move into a motel or start looking in a different town.
But by the end of the week, she was no closer to having employment. She had checked with the area schools about possible openings for the next school year, which was right around the corner. She knew she wasn’t licensed to teach in the state, but she also knew there were ways to deal with that as long as she was working toward meeting the requirements within a certain time period. But there wasn’t anything in her field. Then she’d checked with a couple of local newspapers, but still nothing permanent. They had told her they’d consider some free-lance articles from her if she wanted to turn something in, and she had, in fact written one article and had it published. But she knew that she had managed that feat mainly because it was the kind of thing she didn’t have to be objective about.
Then she’d checked with a couple of department stores, but their waiting lists were long, and besides … she could tell by the manner of the women who’d talked to her that she would be right back in the same boat as she had been with Patricia. So she’d signed up with an employment agency, and had even gone to one interview that they’d set up, but to no avail. They’d been pleased with her credentials, but they were equally pleased with those of some of the other applicants, and two of those people had lived in the town all their lives. The company just considered them a better risk, all other things considered.
On the Friday evening a week after she’d arrived, Abby tried to convince her that she should stay at least another week. “You know we love having you here, Ry,” she said. “And you’ve been so much help with the boys. They really love you.”
Seth had reached over and patted Mariah’s hand. “We both want you to stay, Ry. Give it at least one more week.” He glanced over at his wife, a light in his eyes that made no secret of the fact that he was in love with her. “Besides,” he said, a teasing note in his voice, “my sweety would never forgive me if I didn’t do everything in my power to make sure you move here permanently.”
Mariah had laughed with them, but she felt sad too. Something was wrong with her. Why couldn’t she find a job? And a job that she liked? What did she really enjoy doing, anyway? She thought long and hard on that subject after she retired for the night. Lying there in bed, she tried to remember every time she’d ever felt happy at work, and she realized with a good deal of surprise that she had actually felt pretty good about all of her jobs. The problem was that her happiness had really been coming from her interaction with people, which she always enjoyed, and not from the work itself. In fact, the last time she remembered feeling really happy about the work she was doing was when she had been in the auto mechanics class, helping her project partner put an engine back together.
The following morning at breakfast, Abby’s four-year old climbed up on Mariah’s lap and put his arms around her neck. “You stay wif us,” he said. Then he reached up to pat her cheek. “ Me don’t want you to leave. You stay wif us, Ry.” She squeezed him tightly and kissed his cheek.
Abby sat down at the table with a cup of coffee. “See,” she said, grinning. “You can’t break his little heart by leaving yet.”
“Oh, all right. You’re all ganging up on me. I’ll take one more week, but … Abby … you know if I don’t find something by then, I need to try to get something in a larger city. There’s bound to be some kind of newspaper and teaching jobs both in a large enough city.”
“Well, just try one more week here then. I can’t bear to think you’ve come so close to living in the same town as us again and then not have it work out.”
Mariah chuckled and reached over and gripped her friends hand briefly. “Me too, Ab. I’ll really try this week, and I’ll spend more time praying about it too. Maybe I’ve been trying too hard on my own and not looking to the Lord for the guidance as I should have been.”
So after breakfast was cleaned up, Mariah went out to their back yard to sit on the patio in the shade and read her Bible and pray. She’d been a Christian most of her adult life, and she thought she had lived according to God’s will, but sometimes she had to admit that she didn’t spend nearly as much time listening to what the Lord might have to say to her as she did talking to Him. So for the next week, that was her primary goal, and her job search would have to be secondary.
The next Monday she was on her way to apply for a position she had heard about at church the previous day and began having trouble with her car. It kept dying at every stop sign, and then began jerking and trying to die in the middle of traffic. She remembered passing an auto repair center several times on that end of town, so she made her way there now, gritting her teeth and praying that she could make it there without getting stranded in the middle of the road somewhere.
As she pulled in, she realized that there were several cars ahead of her, but she hoped that since she had a sort of emergency situation, that might weigh heavily with the manager. If she’d had tools and parts, of course, she could have fixed it herself, but that was like wishing for the moon, since she didn’t even have a screwdriver with her this trip. And boy was that stupid, she told herself. At least she could have come better prepared to cope with car problems. But she had been pretty depressed by the time she’d set out for Abby’s, so that probably accounted for her lack of thought on the subject.
She got out and walked toward the open work bays. Even though the day was warm, she could feel the change in temperature as she entered the cool interior and adjusted her eyes to the darker atmosphere. She sniffed the air, recognizing the smells of a normal auto shop … smells she was comfortable with … and she smiled slightly. She could hear the sounds of someone working and finally managed to see a man half submerged beneath the hood of a luxury car leaning over the engine, totally absorbed. She needed to go into the office area. Turning half circle, she saw the office door and headed inside.
Even cooler air from the office air conditioner hit her as she stepped through the door. There was one man inside, leaning slightly on a high counter, writing something out by hand. He looked back at his computer screen, which was sitting on a desk behind the counter, then turned back and wrote some more. He looked a little taller than her, and slightly heavy set. It was obvious that he weighed in a little over normal. Probably most of it was muscle, but she doubted that all of it was. He had dark brown hair, liberally striped with gray. His face had a few lines that she could see around his mouth and eyes, but it was rather nice looking … at least what she could see of it with his head down a little. He looked back at his computer again, and spoke something in an exasperated voice, scratched his head, and turned back to the counter.
But before Mariah could get his attention, the front door to the office opened, and a man came in with a set of keys in his hand. “Here’s my keys, Neil. I’ll be back around closing time to pick it up.”
The man behind the counter slapped his palm against his forehead. “Oh, for crying out loud, Paul. I forgot all about you coming in today, or I’d have called you.”
“Boy is that an understatement! Kurt’s off sick with the flu, and Bobby fell off a ladder at home yesterday and broke his arm … pretty bad break too.”
“Wow, that’s tough. Is he going to be all right?’
“Well, they seem to think so, but they’re saying at least six to eight weeks until he can come back to work.”
The customer let out a slow whistle. “So I guess that mean’s you’re too short-handed to service mine today, huh?”
Neil nodded from behind the counter and Paul continued. “No problem. It’s not really giving me any trouble. It was just past time, and I thought this week would work schedule-wise. I’ll give you a call next week and see if you’ve managed to get a temporary replacement.”
Neil shook his head in obvious exasperation. “I appreciate it, Paul. I can’t tell you how sorry I am … for Kurt and Bobby … for all my customers … for Bill out there who’s all by himself except for me … and not least of all for me personally.” He finished that statement with a sheepish grin that made him look like a self-conscious teenager instead of a man old enough to have gray hair. Mariah felt a pang of sympathy for him.
“Well, I’ll get on my way and let you take care of your other customer,” Paul said, looking toward Mariah and nodding briefly. For the first time, the man behind the desk … she assumed he was Neil … looked over to the side where she still stood close to the door. His eyes widened in surprise.
“Oh … sorry miss. I didn’t realize you were here.” He glanced back at Paul. “Thanks again, Paul. I’ll get to you as soon as possible; I promise.” His customer lifted his hand in a brief salute and headed out the door. Neil turned back to Mariah. “Can I help you?”
Mariah had been entertaining the wildest idea ever since she had heard the conversation between the two men. Rather than ask this man who was obviously the garage manager to help her, why not offer to help him? Her eyes twinkled as she stepped closer to the counter, and he looked at her more intently, a slight question in his eyes. Mariah had butterflies in her stomach, but she just knew in her heart that somehow this was right. She spoke with all the confidence and authority she could, so as to drown out her own doubts.
“Well, actually, I think it’s more a question of whether I can help you,” she said, smiling directly into his eyes. He got an even more harassed look in his eyes, brushed his hand through his already disheveled hair and answered her. “Look, ma’m, if you’re selling something, this isn’t the time to talk to me. I’m not going to try to make any decisions about buying anything at all this week!”
“Oh, but I’m —“
He held up his hand as he interrupted her. “Absolutely nothing at all!”
“But I’m not selling anything. Except … maybe … myself.”
His eyes grew even wider and his face flushed just a little as he looked her up and down, trying to consider what a basically decent woman was doing standing in his office offering to sell him sexual favors. He hadn’t figured out how to answer her without insulting her when it dawned on Mariah that what she had said could have been seriously misinterpreted. Then it was her turn to flush, but she did so with no half-way measures. She turned red and felt as hot as if she’d been standing in front of a 500 degree oven.
“Oh, I … I didn’t mean … I mean … I don’t mean what you think I mean!” She put her hands to her cheeks and felt the heat. She closed her eyes in misery at her foolish words.
“And … uh … just what is it that you think I think you mean?”
“Well … it’s obvious … at least from the look on your face … that you think I mean I’m hear to offer you … uh … well ….” It just kept getting worse with every word, so she stuttered to a stop.
By this time, Neil was starting to feel relieved to know that evidently he’d been mistaken about her words and breathed a sigh of relief. Now he was able to take a little pity on her and he chuckled. “Would you like to start again?”
“Please,” she said, finally beginning to return to normal color.
“But, miss, I have an unbelievably busy day, so could you make it kind of quick?”
“Well, that’s just it,” she said, coming all the way up to the counter now and standing just across from him … only the width of the counter separating them. “You see, I did come to have my car checked out, but when I heard you tell the other man that you were so short-handed, I knew that wasn’t a possibility. But … well, I’m a mechanic myself, and I can fix my own car if I have the tools and a way to order parts.” His jaw dropped open, but she hurried on. “But even more important for you … I can help you with your work here,” she finished, beaming her happiest smile at him.
Once again Neil’s eyes widened, but somehow he did manage to close his mouth. Was there no end of the surprises to come from this perky girl? At the same time he was considering this question, another part of his mind was taking in the fact that, although he wouldn’t have called her beautiful, she had a certain something that drew a man’s attention. She had the kind of face that made you feel good looking at her, especially her eyes. They were inviting somehow. Good grief, he needed to get his mind back on his work!
His eyes connected with hers again. “Your … uh … a mechanic, you say?” He didn’t have to say he didn’t believe her. It was too obvious.
“Yes,” she answered eagerly. “Well, not a professional one, you understand.” Neil didn’t think he was understanding much of anything that had happened since he’d looked up and spotted her, but he didn’t have a chance to say so before she added. “But I’ve taken a number of auto mechanics courses in college, and I used to help my brother all the time. I’ve done most of the things that your customers would need done.”
He ran his hand through his hair again. He couldn’t seem to get hold of a sensible response. She still stood there beaming at him. Finally he tried to say something. “Look … miss … I can’t hire just anyone off the street —“
“Oh, I understand,” she interrupted. “You may even feel you have to have someone with a degree. But couldn’t you take me on as an apprentice for right now, and at least you’d have two more hands to get your customer’s cars serviced and repaired.”
Her eyes sparkled at him, holding him entranced for a few seconds. Just enough time to make him waver in his reply again, and Mariah took advantage of his hesitation. “Tell you what. I have some time right now, so how about if I go to work on my own car, and you can watch me and see if I’m not telling you the truth about how good I am.”
By this time, she was leaning over the counter, close enough for him to see the tiniest sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her nose, almost completely hidden by her modest make-up. He looked into her warm, sherry-colored eyes and was momentarily lost. “Well … uh … I … I don’t know …”
Her eyes grew more intense, and she pulled back from the counter and stamped her foot. “Well, what have you got to lose?”
He didn’t like being put on a spot like this and made to feel stupid. His voice was a little harsh as he replied out of his frustration: “My business?”
Mariah opened her mouth to answer him, but then closed it again. She had to admit that some strange girl coming into an auto repair shop asking to use the man’s tools and dig through his parts to fix her own car and then expecting to be hired on the spot did seem pretty unorthodox. And she had to admit to herself that most of the mechanics she’d known who owned their own shop had struggled like crazy and invested every last thing they had in it to try to make a go of it. Asking one of them to let some stranger go to work there out of the clear blue would put any of them in a tough spot.
Finally, she nodded her head with a resigned look on her face. “Of course,” she said, her voice considerably subdued now. “I understand. It’s asking a lot of you to take a chance like that with a business you’ve no doubt invested every single resource in. I’m sorry,” she added with a sigh. “I guess since you don’t have time to take on any more work, I’ll look for someone else to fix my car too.” She turned toward the door, and Neil’s heart turned over. He scratched his head again. He was probably going to regret this, but he just couldn’t stand to see her so disappointed. She had seemed so excited at the prospect of working here for a while. He supposed he ought to at least give her a chance. She seemed so sure of herself. But … a woman mechanic was something he didn’t have any experience with at all.
“Wait!” he heard himself saying before he had sorted through all those thoughts. She turned back to look at him, and he continued. “Uh … I’ll tell you what. Pull your car into the last bay down there, and I’ll show you where everything is and get you started.”
“Really?” Her eyes were brilliant again, and the smile on her face was worth the butterflies in his stomach as he asked himself silently whether his insurance would cover this if something went wrong. He took a deep breath.
“Yeah … really.” He said.
She stepped back to the counter and held her hand out toward him across the top. “You won’t be sorry. I promise you,” she said, as he took her hand in his. It was warm and strong, but just soft enough that it sent a little tingle along his arm. He had to remind himself to let go, but finally he turned to walk around the counter and lead her back into the work bays.
“By the way, I’m Mariah … Mariah Jacoby.”
Mariah pulled her car into the last bay, got out and raised the hood. Then she looked around to size up what she had to work with. She spotted a blue coverall hanging on a hook along the side wall and went over to get it. “Do you mind?” she asked Neil. “ I was dressed to go to an interview,” she added, looking down at her light colored skirt and short-sleeved knit top.
“Sure. Go ahead,” he answered, and she slipped into the uniform, rolling large cuffs on the sleeves and legs. She thought about her hair, but one look at the only greasy cap hanging there convinced her she was better off taking her chances without it. That done, she began looking around at the array of tools and collecting what she thought she’d need. She had a pretty good idea what was at the root of the problem, knowing there were only a couple of possibilities likely to cause just that set of symptoms, and she also knew the job could take quite a while.
She told Neil what had been happening with the car as she began to check some things out, and then she began to tell him exactly what she was looking for, figuring that should give him a good idea of whether she knew her stuff or not. Neil nodded and grunted his agreement, silently coming to the conclusion that maybe she really did know something about engines. She worked without talking for the majority of the time, and Neil excused himself after a while, saying he had to get back to his accounting for a few minutes.
As he passed the young man who was still leaning under the hood of the other car, he stopped momentarily. “How’s it going with this one, Bill?”
The blond-haired younger man raised up and wiped his hands on a cloth. “I think I’ve got this one licked. I’m about ready to give it a test drive.”
“Great,” Neil answered about the time Bill glanced over and saw Mariah. He raised a questioning brow at his boss.
Neil cleared his throat and motioned with his head for Bill to follow him into the office. Bill did so with a big grin on his face. He’d never seen his boss flustered any time in the last three years, but something was up with this woman. He couldn’t resist teasing Neil a little. “You hire a new mechanic?” he asked, grinning from ear to ear.
“Maybe,” Neil answered and looked Bill in the eye. The grin dried up immediately, and Bill’s mouth just sort of hung open. “Huh?”
“Well, it’s like this,” began Neil, and then proceeded to tell him how all of the last half hour had transpired.
Bill just shook his head and chuckled. “Well …” he said, looking back out through the window in the door, watching Mariah for a moment. “Well, she sure acts like she knows what she’s doing, doesn’t she?”
Neil sighed. “We’ll see,” he answered and then looked back at his computer. “I’ve got to get this finished and then go out there and watch her at work some more before I know for sure. Go ahead and take yours out for the test, and get back as soon as you can.”
“Sure thing,” Bill said and hurried back into the work area. When he brought the Continental back, he parked it outside, satisfied that it was fully repaired, and then he drove a gray and white truck into the bay he’d left empty. As he got out, he heard Mariah talking to Neil about how the repair to her own car was coming. Bill couldn’t resist walking over to where the other two were working, Neil mostly handing Mariah tools and making a suggestion here and there.
“So, how’s it goin’?” Bill asked.
“Great,” Mariah answered before Neil could decide what to say. “I should have this baby running right in another half hour or so.”
“So what was it, anyway?” Bill asked her, walking around to the other side of the car to be closer to her.
She told him and then began to talk about how the repair was going in a little more detail, Bill agreeing with her on all points that she made. Neil was beginning to feel like a fifth wheel, and he just slipped away and walked over to the truck. He remembered what the owner had told him about the problem with this particular truck, so there was no need to go back into the office to get the work order. He just started to gather his tools and get to work. He knew he should direct Bill to get to another vehicle in the third bay, but, surprisingly, the quiet conversation between Bill and Mariah in the bay beside him was soothing to him as he worked, and for the first time in the last 24 hours, he was actually beginning to relax.
By the time Neil had the truck running smoothly, Mariah was ready to take her car for a test spin. As she pulled it out of the bay, Bill walked over to Neil, who was just putting down the truck hood. “Boy, I think that little lady really does know her business, Boss? You gonna let her stay on and help us?”
Neil was wiping his hands on a rag. “Maybe,” he said, looking a little preoccupied.
Bill nodded. “Hard decision, huh?”
Neil grinned a little. “Toughest one I’ve made since deciding to go into business.” Bill nodded his understanding and Neil spoke again. “Take this one out for a test, will ya?”
“Sure thing,” he said, hopping into the cab and backing the truck out of the building.
Mariah was back in a few minutes, beaming. “It’s right as rain,” she announced. “Do you want to test it out yourself just to be sure I really did fix it?” she asked, looking at him so earnestly that his heart turned over again. For some reason this little gal really wanted to work at this garage. He made his final decision in a second.
“Nope,” he said, grinning back. “You’re hired.”
I promised a second story by my dad concerning the WWII years. Unfortunately, lots of other work got in the way of blogging, so I’m behind — well even behinder than usual. But it’s still September, and that means we can still celebrate V-J Day and the end of the war. So here’s the second story of his that I love.
It should have been another ordinary day at the Cole farm, but the conventional pattern of activity was abruptly altered when the letter arrived. In effect, a new day was born and Cynthia was making the most of it with an explosive brand of excitement that seemed especially reserved for such an occasion.
Ben, her husband, suddenly found himself being recklessly danced around the simple but spacious kitchen. He did not resist.
“Just think,” Cynthia gleefully exclaimed. “Just think!” Isn’t it wonderful? It’s … it’s unbelievable!’
She released her encircling grasp from around Ben’s waist, raised to tiptoe, and kissed his tanned cheek. Any exhilaration he might have possessed was not outwardly conspicuous and his distant, empty gaze momentarily puzzled Cynthia.
“Honey, cheer up. Don’t you understand what this means? Our problems are over. The farm! … imagine! … the farm! We can’t lose it now! We’ll have enough to pay it off. And you can buy the new tractor and put up the white fence, even round the whole front pasture. And I can have the new refrigerator, and the sewing machine, and…”
She stopped in mid-sentence; she was bewildered, for Ben seemed strangely unimpressed. Cautiously, as if afraid she had possibly made a mistake, Cynthia hurried to the kitchen table, retrieved the letter and began to read quietly, almost inaudibly:
“I regret deeply that I must inform you of this tragedy, for I am sure Charles Romano was a special type of friend. As the court-appointed attorney to carry out the provisions of his will, it gives me a certain amount of pleasure, however, to advise that you have been named heir to all personal cash and securities in the estate. This will amount to approximately fifty-thousand dollars. I would like to set up an appointed with you to fill out the paperwork as soon as possible. I am suggesting that we meet March 22, at 10:00 a. m. here at my office in Chicago (see letterhead for street address and phone number). If those arrangements are convenient for you, please let me know as soon as possible, and we can close this matter with a minimum of delay. Respectfully, James P. Axtell, Attorney-at-law.”
She looked back at Ben, and her voice carried an accent of victory. “I was right; that’s what it says. That’s exactly what it says!”
He had been silent since reading the letter and there was no comment, even now. She moved closer. “Honey, what’s wrong? Is it a sin for a service buddy to will you some money? Why … why I think it’s fine, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. And he probably didn’t have anyone else. That’s it; he probably doesn’t have a family. Honey, you did know this Charles Romano, didn’t you?”
Ben seemed frustrated. He snapped his dusty, dilapidated hat from a chair and nervously fingered the brim. “Yeah, I knew him. That’s why I ain’t gonna take the money. Now I got work to do.” He moved toward the door but Cynthia was suddenly ahead of him and backed solidly against the latch.
“Now I don’t want to hear no more about it!” he said angrily. “I ain’t takin’ the money and I ain’t goin’ to Chicago! And don’t go askin’ me any questions because you won’t understand anyhow. Now lemme out.”
“Honey, listen to me. This is a gift from Heaven. It’s our only chance to have everything we’ve worked for. Nine years we’ve done nothin’ but dream — dream and work. What we gained, we lost during the bad season, and now they’re going to take the farm. Don’t you want to at least save that?’
Her argument seemed futile and she stepped aside. “You can go if you want to, I just thought if you insisted on throwing away our last chance to hold on, I ought to know why.”
Ben was clearly disarmed. He sauntered back to the table, a picture of defeat, replaced his hat on the back rung and dropped his long frame into the crackling wicker chair. He did not want to talk about it, but he realized now that he had made a seemingly foolish decision, and Cynthia was entitled to an explanation.
The few minutes following seemed endless.
“Do you know why this Romano fella is givin’ me this money? I’ll tell you why. Because once, back on Okinawa, I saved his life. Anyway, he thought I did. I wanted him to think that. I wanted all of ‘em to think it. But I didn’t save anybody. I lied. He ain’t givin’ me the money for nothin’ – just because I’m a friend. He thinks I saved his life. Savin’ a life is worth money, but a lie ain’t worth nothin’.
He paused, grappling with his own thoughts, and Cynthia waited.
“They made me do it!” His fists were clenched so tightly the knuckles grew pale. “They made me lie, because they wouldn’t leave me alone. I wasn’t very smart and I didn’t talk very good like most of the other fellas did. From the first day they teased me about it. I didn’t drink liquor, cuss or use dirty words like most of ‘em did, and they teased me about that too. Then they even commenced teasin’ me about readin’ my Bible every night; callin’ me ‘preacher’ and pokin’ fun like that.
“I didn’t want no part of their bad habits but they wouldn’t let me in on any of the good things either because they said I was an awkward farmer and would just mess up things. I used to lay awake nights tryin’ to think up something I could do to make ‘em treat me different, but they kept right on.”
The recollection was obviously painful, and Ben became so agitated he couldn’t sit still. Slowly he paced the width of the room, hands in pockets; then paused before the window and peered intently over the west pasture, now a sickening brown from the drought.
“What about the lie?” Cynthia inquired softly. “Tell me about it, Ben. Tell me everything. It’ll help.”
“It ain’t a good story,” he continued. “It ain’t good at all, but there ain’t no use tryin’ to hide it from you anymore.
“We were on Okinawa, just behind the front line. One day I was just sittin’ there readin’ my Bible. I read it an awful lot over there, more than I ever did before. Every spare minute I got, I read some out of that Bible. Then, all of a sudden, without sayin’ anything, someone grabs it out of my hands. It was Romano. He was a sergeant then and he always liked to bull around some, especially at me.
“He said I was readin’ that stuff too much and he believed that he would keep that Book awhile so I could keep my mind on the war we was tryin’ to win. And besides, right then he said I was supposed to take a ride with him to deliver an important message to the next division post down the line.
“It aggravated me but I didn’t say much except to tell him that I didn’t care, because if he kept the Bible long enough it might do him some good. I don’t reckon it ever did though; he wasn’t the type that the Bible could get to so easy. He tucked it inside his fatigue jacket and I never saw it again.
“We were about a mile or so from where we were goin’ when all of a sudden our jeep just flew out from under us. We’d hit a land mine. I was just scratched and bruised up a little, but the jeep was tore up bad and Romano was layin’ out to the side of the road, knocked out cold.
“Then’s when I got the idea. I was going to be a hero right then. I didn’t want to be the kind of hero that was wrote about in the papers and got medals, but just enough hero to make the fellas think different about me and treat me right.
“I wanted to make it look real good so I exploded all of my grenades and shot up most of my ammunition. I made an awful racket so they could hear me up the line.
“Then I carried Romano in to the post and reported how we were attacked by a Jap patrol, and how Romano was knocked out right off, and how I fought them off and got him back to safety. I didn’t figure Romano knew what happened anyway, so I wasn’t worried about that.
“It worked real good. The post sent a message back to my outfit and they were waitin’ for me … all of ‘em wantin’ to pat me on the back. They sure started treatin’ me different, and for the first time I began to feel real good. I knew I had sinned, but I never did feel too bad about it because all I wanted was to be treated right. Just the same, I asked the Lord to forgive me, and I thought He did, but now I don’t know.
He buried his face in his hands as if completely exhausted. Regaining his composure, he turned to Cynthia. She was silent, but her eyes were warm with pity and understanding, and he began to feel relieved.
In an instant her arms were tight around his neck and he knew she understood.
Foreclosure proceedings were to commence within a week, and Cynthia had finally resigned herself to that fact. She had been holding on for months to her usual, unfaltering faith that something would come along to save the farm. But nothing could happen now, she decided. The miracle had come and gone.
She began the arduous task of convincing Ben that losing the farm would not be so difficult after all, but inwardly she grew increasingly afraid. He was not the same man she had always known. He seemed to dwell in a form of solitary confinement, oblivious to the usual activities that had always drawn his daily attention. His every action became laboriously mechanical, without heart and clearly without hope. Nothing seemed to matter now — nothing but sheer existence alone.
More frightening was Ben’s sudden rebellion against his characteristic faith in God. Quietly — in his usual manner — but openly, as a gesture of defiance, he began to criticize the wisdom of his Creator.
“ ‘The Lord works in wondrous ways, His miracles to perform;’ that’s Scripture,” he told Cynthia, “but I don’t hardly believe it anymore. He gave me a miracle alright, but I also got a conscience that won’t let me use it. It ain’t a just miracle, that’s what. He ain’t got no reason to torture me like He’s doin.”
Three weeks later, a long black sedan had rolled up the drive and nearly reached the circular turn in the front yard before Ben or Cynthia realized a visitor was on the premises.
Ben eased open the screen door and walked onto the porch, Cynthia following. They noticed it simultaneously: “foreign” license plates. Out-of-state people were not usually seen around the farm – except for a few years ago, when an occasional “city farmer” would drive up to deal for Ben’s prize Black Angus cattle. The promising cattle program had been terminated two years ago when the sale of all breeding stock became necessary to meet payments on the farm.
Now, Ben and Cynthia stood there, surveying the stranger as he approached the porch, lugging a briefcase that seemed far out of proportion to his size. He was a small elderly man, dignified in appearance, yet his face reflected a friendly glow.
“Hi folks,” he greeted. “Just had the most wonderful drive of my life. My, what country! Beautiful I call it, beautiful!”
“Not bad,” Ben retorted, “we always liked it.”
The stranger squinted up at the softly swaying trees shading the yard, then scanned the valley sprawling below to his left.
“Beautiful country,” he repeated, “beautiful.”
“I’m wonderin’ if I could help you,” Ben interrupted.
“If you are Mr. Ben Cole, you certainly may. I was assuming you were since a fellow down the road told me this was the house.”
“I am Ben Cole, but if you’re lookin’ for Black Angus I ain’t had any for two years, and —”
“Whatever Black Angus is,” the stranger chuckled, “I’m sure I would enjoy it, but I’m interested in you particularly. My name is Axtell, by the way, John Axtell. I’m a lawyer.”
He spread the opened briefcase on the edge of the porch and withdrew a bulging manila folder.
“I have something here that I believe might be of interest. I mailed a letter to you about three weeks ago but I don’t suppose you received it, so I decided that I had better handle the matter personally.”
Ben moved closer.
“What did you say your name was?”
“John Axtell, A-X-T-E-L-L”
“Well, you might as well go, Mr. Axtell; I ain’t takin’ the money.”
The lawyer was stunned, but he cleverly withheld any expression of surprise.
“So you did receive the letter?” he asked simply.
“I got it.”
“Why didn’t you at least answer?”
“Because I didn’t aim to take the money three weeks ago, just like I ain’t aimin’ to take it now.”
“May I ask, why not?”
“That ain’t none of your business mister, but mainly on account of I didn’t earn it.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. Here is a service buddy grateful to you because you once were responsible for saving his life. I know of quite a few people who have been willed fortunes who did a lot less to earn them. I would say giving a man his life is quite an accomplishment.”
“I didn’t save nobody’s life, but that ain’t none of your business either. If you don’t mind, go and leave me alone.”
Cynthia tugged at his arm.
“Honey don’t be rude,” she pleaded. “You don’t have to do nothin’ you don’t want to do, but talk to him nice.”
Axtell thumbed through the folder then removed the check.
“Here is a Cashier’s Check for fifty thousand dollars, made to your order, Mr. Cole. It’s yours without strings.”
“I ain’t takin’ it,” Ben repeated vigorously, “I don’t want it.”
“Alright, if you insist, let’s get technical. You didn’t save the man’s life. So let’s say that it just happened the Bible was inside the jacket, and it just happened the Bible belonged to you.”
“The one you were always reading. Mr. Romano told me all about you and your Bible the day I drew up his will. Now let’s get on with the technicalities, and you correct me if I happen to go astray.
“According to Mr. Romano, one day on Okinawa you and he were scheduled to make a dispatch run, and when he finally located you, there you were reading the Bible again. Jokingly, he snapped the Book from you and placed it inside his jacket. Is that right?”
Ben grew apprehensive with the fear that his hoax was not the secret he had thought it to be.
He nodded. “That’s right – so far.”
“Well, just before you reached your destination, your jeep ran over a land mine. Romano didn’t remember anything after that until he regained consciousness aboard a hospital ship where he had been rushed because of a concussion. That’s where a doctor brought in the Bible. It wasn’t in a very readable condition then; a huge, jagged chunk of shrapnel had … well, damaged it. The shrapnel was from the land mine; it had cut through the entire width of the Book and was lodged tight.
“It was the doctor’s opinion that Romano would have died instantly if the Book had not been inside his jacket. I guess you could say it was one case where a Bible literally saved a man’s life.
“Now, Mr. Cole, let’s put two and two together and try to imagine how that jeep ride would have turned out if you and that Bible hadn’t been around.”
Ben stood transfixed, hardly believing what he had heard. Tears were streaming down his cheeks unabated. Although somewhat confused by the strange behavior, Axtell suddenly realized that Ben had reached a new decision.
“Just sign this receipt,” he said, offering a pen.
Ben was barely conscious of Axtell shaking his hand as he departed.
He was barely conscious of standing arm in arm with Cynthia, watching the sedan disappear behind a distant hill.
“He sure does,” Ben finally mumbled, letting out a quiet sigh.
“What?” Cynthia asked in a whisper.
“Work in wondrous ways, His miracles to perform. … He sure does.”
Copyright © 1950 Ted Pavloff
Sunday was V-J Day in the United States, celebrating the end of World War II. In honor of that wonderful time of relief from the trauma and sorrow of war, I’m sharing two short stories set in that time period. The stories are by my father, Ted Pavloff, who is now with the Lord. He may not be here with us any longer, but his stories are still with us, just as alive and as powerful and encouraging as they were when first written. Today, I’m posting the first story, and tomorrow, I’ll post the second.
THE DAY I FORGOT TO HATE
(“Even though the characters and events in this story are fictitious, it was born out of my experiences during combat in the South Pacific Theater during WWII.” —Ted Pavloff)
The gray light of dawn was filtering through the dense leafage when we finally pushed our way out of the heavy undergrowth into the small clearing; Corporal Willmet, PFC Conte, and myself. We three made up one of the frequent patrols to probe the eerie stillness of no-mans-land during the bleak hours of night and early morning.
We had sought out this particular clearing many times before (a queer, growth-free patch, isolated in the midst of solid jungle) to comfortably relax with a cigarette and sort out the results of the current trek.
We were a confident trio, and perhaps our gutsy attitude was justified to a certain degree. Encounters with Japanese patrols and snipers were anything but strange adventure, and the fingers of our hands were not ample to count the number of enemy soldiers we had personally annihilated.
The venomous hatred we shared for the Japanese forged us into a natural combination, and we relished every opportunity to satisfy that bitterness by destroying the enemy. We had come to consider the killing of Japs as a sort of game … a release that made the discomforts of war worthwhile.
The usual mixed sounds of the jungle surrounded us this humid morning as we stretched out on the damp turf. There was little reason to suspect approaching danger, and, carelessly, we dismissed the possibility.
Then it happened. They swept out of the jungle from every side and bayonets were pressing against our stomachs before we could touch our weapons. At first I thought it was a nightmare, and it seemed minutes passed before my mind cleared to the realization that I lay at the mercy of the enemy. I should have been terribly frightened, but whatever measure of fear I might have possessed was totally eclipsed by hate, and I could not detect it.
Desperately I wanted to fight back, but there was small profit in inviting certain death. I ordered my companions to lie motionless and hoped the next few moments would bring the break we would need.
I surveyed the Jap soldiers coldly. They were a poorly clad, hungry looking group and, to my eyes, ripe for the sword. The officer in command was extremely youthful looking and clearly the smallest in stature, but his appearance was deceiving.
His orders poured forth with powerful authority, every word emphasized with vigorous motions of his head and arms. The soldiers reacted instantly, and while three bayonets pinned us in a prone position, the remaining troopers hurriedly appropriated the K-rations in our packs.
Then, with a gesture I considered a mocking insult, the young officer tossed several pieces of Japanese currency at my feet, and turned to rejoin his men. It was at this instant he spotted one of his soldiers who had backed off a few paces, raised his rifle, and carefully aimed at my head. With the agility and speed characteristic of the Japs, the officer threw himself at the would-be killer and dropped him heavily to the ground. The hapless offender suffered several solid lashes across his face before he was finally permitted to join his comrades in a hasty retreat from the clearing.
Obviously pleased over the successful display of his prowess, the officer bowed courteously and smiled, then saluted a farewell.
I did not share his satisfaction. The knowledge that my life had been spared for some inconceivable reason was lost in a hatred that made my stomach ache. Vengefully, I hoped for a future meeting … over the sights of my rifle.
During the week that followed we were spared the relentless torture of night patrol, and the day treks were relatively uneventful. Frequently, and often at unexpected moments, I found myself stabbed by spasms of anger that stemmed from the humiliation of having been successfully snared by the enemy. Even though I had not been harmed physically, I stubbornly refused to be grateful. I was furious that I had been captured at all and vowed revenge upon every Jap I could maneuver into firing range.
Revenge was uppermost in my mind that bright afternoon as we trudged through the jungle on a routine patrol. We were advancing in a widely dispersed position, intent upon sweeping as much terrain as possible with a minimum of commotion.
I was advancing slowly in an oblique path toward a peculiar rise of solid rock, when the figure appeared unexpectedly …. I froze. It was a Jap …. Momentarily, I was mystified over his apparent lack of concern about concealing himself, and also the fact that he was unarmed. He was stripped to the waist and the beads of perspiration on his bronze flesh glistened in the bright streaks of sunlight leaking through the heavy foliage. I crouched low as he stepped to a narrow ledge of the rock and looked about him.
Then it hit me like a blockbuster – it was the youthful officer who had captured and humiliated me in the clearing! Ahhh … finally, I thought, we meet again. I gloated silently and promptly began mental preparations to repay a debt I thought to be long overdue. I studied the situation carefully …. I wanted a clean aim. So with unconscious movements of my body, I urged him toward the near edge of the rock.
As if responding to a spoken command, he leaped from the perch and approached a mound of rock directly in my line of vision, then hastily removed a cluster of loose branches and brush from a small hollow in the base of the mound.
I lined up for the kill. I held my breath. Then just as my finger was closing securely around the trigger, my eyes suddenly spotted the crude wooden cross that had been secured in that hollowed out area.
I peered down the long rifle barrel in confused amazement as he dropped to his knees. His right hand raised to his forehead, moved down to his chest, then to his left shoulder, and across to his right – the Sign of The Cross! My hands grew numb and my arms trembled uncontrollably.
I’m not sure exactly how long the moment lasted. But slowly … surely … as surely as I had taken aim at what would have been a sure target, I felt myself lowering that same rifle and letting it slip from my grip. Without any conscious thought, I bowed my head.
I couldn’t account for my reaction. But a miracle had taken place. My fervent, persistent, burning desire to kill the enemy had melted away.
Within a few seconds I relived every detail of the incident in the clearing, when he and his men had captured us, and suddenly the realization hit me: The Jap officer’s actions in preventing my murder and leaving the money were not prompted by secondary motives. This man was a Christian. Painfully, I contrasted these truths with the hatred that fed my incessant drive to destroy the enemy anywhere I found him, and under any circumstances. Tearfully, I surrendered to my shame.
I cannot be certain of the length of time I remained in a state of remorseful meditation, but when I finally raised my eyes, the Cross was again carefully camouflaged, and the officer had vanished. I lingered only a short while. Then I set out to join Willmet and Conte … strangely happy and refreshed … having been set free from the terrible, unbearable burden of hate.
© 1950, 2012 Ted Pavloff
I haven’t had much time to write new stories this past month, but I have a lot of new followers on this site, so I decided I’d dig back through my archives and give a few of the old stories some fresh air. They will be new for many readers, and, hopefully, enjoyable the second time around for a few others.
As Mitzi sat on the bus, she enjoyed the rhythmic movement. And she enjoyed the respite from the heat she’d been walking in for the past hour. She leaned just slightly against Pete’s leg, both for the comfort of knowing he was there and the reassurance that he was all right. He was her responsibility, after all, and she never forgot that for one moment.
Her nostrils flared slightly as she gradually identified and responded to all the various scents that wafted through the air of the full vehicle. There was the expected scent of human sweat, and that was a natural part of Mitzi’s life, so even though one or two of the passengers had probably failed to bathe that day, Mitzi’s sense of smell was not insulted by it. Then there was the unmistakeable scent of cigarettes that clung to the clothing and hair of half the people on the bus – a scent that just couldn’t seem to be erased or camouflaged effectively by any order eliminators. There were pleasant scents too, of course, as various degrees of perfumes filtered through the air, surrounding Mitzi as well. She couldn’t have told anyone which flowers, which wood essences, or which spices had been used, but she most certainly recognized the scents as natural and non-threatening.
However, dearest to Mitzi’s heart during most of her bus rides were all the delicious scents that emanated from the grocery bags and baskets carried by some of the passengers. Many days Mitzi found this trip on the bus thoroughly enjoyable because she could sit and sniff the tantalizing aromas of pork, or fish, or – her favorite – salami from the Italian market at the end of Jasper Street. Her nose was hard at work now, sorting through all the variety of groceries, trying to determine exactly who it was who had that salami. There! Mitzi’s gaze zeroed in on a lady in a green coat, sitting just three rows up from Mitzi and Pete. Delicious! Mitzi was hungry.
But right after identifying the owner of the salami, Mitzi turned her head to the side just slightly and sniffed harder. There was something else in the air. Something new. Something unusual for the interior of this bus. Something … not right somehow. She wriggled in place a time or two, turned her head the other direction, but then brought it right back to where she’d been focusing. Some sixth sense stirred a warning so deep inside that it put every sense on high alert. Even the hair in her coat bristled. She whimpered and moved again, restlessly. Pete reached a hand over and patted her head, then scratched her ear slightly. “You getting’ restless, old girl?” he asked tenderly.
The young man sitting in the seat that faced Pete spoke now. “That’s a beautiful dog you have there, Sir. A guide dog, if I’m not mistaken?”
Pete turned unseeing eyes toward the young man, his hand still resting on Mitzi’s head. “Yes. Yes, she is … and the best in the world. Been with me for ten years now.” He chuckled and ruffed Mitzi’s fur affectionately. “We’re both getting pretty old, but we keep sojourning on together.”
“She seems very affectionate,” the young man replied. “I noticed how she leans against your leg constantly.”
“Yes, that’s her habit. Feels responsible for me, I think.” He turned his head as if to look down at Mitzi, who had glanced up at him. “Good girl, Mitzi,” he said. His voice had grown gravely with age, but there was still a tone of kindness that over-road everything else when he spoke. His eyes didn’t see the look in Mitzi’s. It was a look of concentration … wariness. She was puzzled by what she smelled – by what every nerve in her body was beginning to pick up on – and she wanted her master to know.
Aware, by training, that he would not see her face or her movements, she understood that she would need to convey her concern by sounds and movements he could feel. So she wriggled agitatedly and leaned harder on his leg, still sniffing the air, her head turning several directions, trying to get a reading on exactly what and where the problem came from.
All of her senses eventually focused on a passenger across the aisle and two rows up from Pete. He was reading a newspaper, his black briefcase on the floor, held snugly between his feet. Her eyes focused and a low growl sounded in her throat.
Pete was concerned. Mitzi never behaved in such a manner on this bus. She was used to riding it, and she never had negative responses to people. But she whimpered now, pressing Pete’s leg even harder. He leaned down, wrapping one arm around the dog’s neck. “What is it, Mitzi? What’s wrong, girl?”
Mitzi whimpered again, then whined openly. “Shhhh,” Pete whispered. “Quiet, girl. We’ll be home soon.”
There were two more stops before the corner where Pete and Mitzi got off the bus. That meant at least 20 more minutes, and Pete was a little worried that some of the other passengers might become frightened if Mitzi continued growling – even though it was low.
But Mitzi growled again, and then immediately emitted a sharp bark.
“Mister, you’d better keep a tight hold on that dog of yours. She sounds mean to me,” said an overweight guy sitting behind Pete.
Pete turned in his seat to address the man face-to-face, even though he couldn’t see him. “Oh, Mitzi would never hurt you, sir. She’s as gentle as a lamb.” Just then, though, Mitzi’s growl and tug at her leash indicated things could be otherwise.
“Hey, shut that mutt up!” another man yelled from several rows up.
“Hey, Pete,” the driver called back. “What’s going on back there? Your dog never gave us any trouble before.”
“I know, Randal. I don’t understand it myself.” At that moment, Mitzi barked sharply again and pulled on her leash so hard that Pete only barely held her in check. By this time, she was up on her feet and pulling harder on the leash, whining, and giving Pete every signal she could give to say he needed to follow her lead. She looked toward the man holding the briefcase between his feet. Her eyes were focused on the briefcase, though none of the passengers realized that fact. They thought she focused on the man himself.
“Sir, you need to get that dog off this bus,” came from a middle-aged woman. She didn’t want to insult a blind man, but she was starting to become frightened herself. Pete stood to his feet to try to handle Mitzi better.
At that moment, the bus slowed to make it’s next stop, and there was still one more to go before Pete’s stop came along. But by this time, Mitzi was almost beside herself, pulling on her leash with all her strength, whimpering now, more than growling. It was as if she’d traded her natural instinct to attack the “enemy” for her well-trained instinct to protect her master.
Once the bus was stopped, the driver stood and called back to Pete. “I’m sorry, Pete, but I think you’re going to have to get Mitzi off of here now.”
Pete nodded. “Yes … yes, you’re right Randal. He turned his head in an effort to address the other passengers, just hoping they could see his face enough to recognize his sincerity. “I’m sorry, folks. Mitzi’s such a good dog —”
Before he could finish his sentence, Mitzi had emitted another sharp bark and jerked the leash so hard that Pete nearly lost his hold completely. “All right, girl. I’m coming!” he said and began to move down the aisle behind his dog.
The driver took the time to help Pete down the steps. He knew the old man could get down just fine under normal circumstances, but for some reason, today was anything but normal. “I’m sorry, Pete,” he said again. “You take it easy walking from here.”
“Pete reached out toward the voice to touch Randal’s arm. He made contact and patted the arm. “It’s all right, Randal. I’ll figure out what’s wrong, and we’ll be back to ride tomorrow with no problems, I’m sure.”
The door slid closed; Randal changed gear, and the bus moved on down the road. Pete knelt down to talk to Mitzi. How strange, he thought. The dog was completely calm now. No more growls, no more whimpers. She wagged her tail and licked his cheek. Sorely puzzled, he rubbed her back and spoke reassuringly. “Good girl, Mitzi. You’re a good, good girl.”
As he knelt there beside her on the sidewalk, the bus moved on to the end of the block, and then on to the end of the next block, where it exploded and burst into flames.
This post is a continuation of “Still In Love with Maddison Holt after All These Years.” I included Chapter One of the novel in that post and promised two more. Here’s the final installment:
Exhausted beyond words, Maddison pulled up to the farmhouse, dragged his suitcase out of the trunk and himself up the steps. Since the lights were out except for the one over the stove in the kitchen, he knew he’d need to use his own key.
As he stepped into the kitchen, warm, familiar, homey smells surrounded him and soothed him. In the dim light, his eyes automatically sought and rested on the oversized wooden table that stood right in the middle of the big room, and on all of the white metal and enameled cabinets and appliances that flanked the two walls opposite the door. The stove and sink were modern enough to be convenient, but the cabinets had seen at least two generations of living in this house.
The sight of them, along with the hardwood floor, polished to a shine and scattered with colorful rugs, the dried flowers hanging beside the old wooden coat rack to his right, Uncle Matt’s worn Bible open on one end of the table where he’d had his bedtime snack … they all welcomed him and comforted him.
He crossed over to the table, seeing that there was a note propped against the napkin holder. He picked it up and switched on the ceiling light to see it better. It read:
Since you said you didn’t have any idea what time you’d be here, I didn’t wait up. I figured if you forgot your key, you could pound on the door loud enough to wake me. Just come on in and get comfortable. Your room’s ready, and there’s loads of stuff to eat in the kitchen. Just sleep until you wake up in the morning. We’ll have plenty of time to talk after that. I love you, Maddison, and I’m sure glad you’re going to be here with me for a while.
Maddison grinned and spoke out loud: “Sleep until I wake up. If I do that, Uncle Matt, it may be two whole days before you see me.” He tucked the note into his shirt pocket, picked up his suitcase, turned out the lights, and headed upstairs to the room that was always reserved for him. Just before sleep claimed him, his mind recalled Beth’s engaging face, surrounded by tousled honey-colored curls, her deep golden eyes full of compassion as he’d told her about his brother. And with that unbidden image came an unexpected, quiet comfort that wrapped around his heart and led him to the first peaceful rest he’d had in weeks.
Not too many miles away, Beth was saying “Goodnight” to her mom and brother. They had talked over the plan Maddison had laid out. Adele, naturally wanted Lex to help her understand what had brought him to this place, but all he did was take her hand in his and say, “I’m just too tired to talk any more tonight, Mom.” She knew better than to press right now, so she just hugged him and told him to sleep well.
Just before he left the room, though, another thought struck her, and she asked, “But, Lex, what about the gun?”
“Mr. Holt took it. He said he had a way of getting it turned over to the police without getting me into more trouble.” He grinned and shook his head. “I just bet he can do it too.”
Adele had finally agreed to turn in after Beth promised to do so herself once she’d had a cup of tea. So Beth finally found herself alone in the quiet living room, snuggled into a corner of the sofa, sipping tea, and trying to gather and settle her erratic thoughts.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t tonight’s events that her mind kept returning to. It was last year … her engagement to Derek … and all that had happened since her mother had become ill. She had thought she knew Derek well enough to want to spend the rest of her life with him. They had dated regularly for about a year before becoming engaged.
True, he was selfish at times, but then most all of the men she knew were that way. Her father hadn’t been, but then that was another generation. The world was different now, so people were different. Besides, she couldn’t keep waiting all her life for some “Prince Charming” like she’d read about in all those romance novels she used to turn to during school years as a respite from studying.
Still, the force of Derek’s objections had come as a complete surprise. Their discussions replayed in her mind now, as they had several times this past ten months. “Don’t be ridiculous!” Derek had said. “You can’t honestly be considering messing up our plans and turning yourself into a nursemaid for months! I’m due for this promotion in two months, and we need to get the wedding out of the way, so you can make the move to Maryland with me.”
“But, Derek, to consign my mother to a nursing home, with a visit from me only once a month isn’t right. And you’re wrong about Lex. He won’t do just as well staying with our eighty-year-old aunt until he finishes school.”
“I thought you loved me,” he’d said, a wounded expression on his face.
“It isn’t a question of whether I love you. I love my mother too. She never failed to be there for me, to nurse me and love me through everything .… In fact, she was always there for all of us, never holding herself back. How could it be fair, the way she’s suffering already, for me to relegate her to some strange place, surrounded by strange people, when I’m strong and healthy enough to take care of her?”
“But that’s what those places are for.”
“Derek, I’ve always tried to live by what I see in God’s Word. You know that. I just don’t see anything in His Word that says it’s all right to shove our sick parents off into the hands of strangers when we have the ways and means to care for them.”
“You can’t expect every little decision you make to be covered in the Bible!” Derek had said.
“Actually, Derek, I think you can, at least to some extent. But that doesn’t matter. God’s Word does say to honor our parents. I know that obeying them comes to an end when we become adults, but honoring them is supposed to last their whole life, isn’t it? And I just can’t see that what you’re suggesting is a way of honoring my mother. I just can’t do it.”
It had been the same argument a number of times, and they had finally agreed to get some counseling from their pastor. He had tried to help Derek see that a few months, or even a year, of sacrifice for a loved one shouldn’t be considered as something destructive to the love between Derek and Beth. “If what you two have for each other is going to last a lifetime,” he’d said, “it’s going to have to withstand much greater stresses than this one over the intervening years.”
But Derek had remained adamant, and had even said some things to Beth that had been unnecessarily hurtful, so they had parted. He had maintained that she didn’t love him enough if she could make the choices she’d made, and after a while, Beth realized that probably she hadn’t, at least not enough to be the wife he wanted. Perhaps, after all, God had stepped in and shown her the truth before she made a bigger mistake, and both of them had ended up a few years from now broken-hearted by a marriage that never should have taken place at all.
The heartbreak she’d expected to feel had never materialized. She felt sad that their relationship had ended with bad feelings on Derek’s part, and for a short time, she had mourned not having the marriage she’d dreamed about for months. But she knew now that marriage to Derek wouldn’t have fulfilled that dream anyway.
She’d talked it over with the Lord several times the last few months, and she prayed again now as she had prayed those other times. “Dear Lord, I’m believing You to help Derek find the kind of woman he needs for a wife … one who sees things the way he does and who can appreciate him and his beliefs. … And maybe … maybe not … but just maybe, there’s a man out there who sees things the way I do.” She sighed. “I’ll admit it seems like a long shot, Lord, but if anybody can come up with a man like that, You can.”
Suddenly, in the midst of her prayer, she saw again a pair of black-lashed, searching gray eyes. Once again there was a sense of recognition. … Then the vision was gone, drifting away like all of her other thoughts and words, on a wave of exhaustion that finally forced her to her bed. Trying to understand any of it any better would have to wait for another day.
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This post is a continuation of “Still In Love with Maddison Holt after All These Years.” I included Chapter One of the novel in that post and promised two more. Here’s the next installment:
Beth Hanover was an attractive young woman, although she didn’t feel particularly attractive or young as she stood gripping the telephone receiver, trying to pull her thoughts together and settle the thudding in her heart. In fact, she hadn’t had much opportunity in the last ten months to bother about how she looked or felt most of the time.
But that didn’t change the facts. Her clear, healthy complexion and the thick, honey blond hair that covered her head in soft, loose curls that barely touched the collar of her blouse gave their own evidence. Her eyes had been described more than once as looking like melted gold, and most of the time there was a twinkle in them, due to the fact that Beth kept her fellowship with the Lord as the most important part of her life. That fellowship made her able to deal with hard things that came her way without losing her joy.
Ten months ago, when her mother had had to have major surgery and long convalescent care, and was facing the possibility of an early death, Beth’s world had become a little shaky. Then when she had told her fiancé that she felt it necessary to postpone their wedding while she nursed her mother and helped her fight for her life, Derek had become so angry that he’d given her an ultimatum that had shaken her world even harder.
But the Lord had intervened for Beth’s mother, in answer to much prayer, and Adele had succeeded in holding on to life. Then they continued to rejoice as God’s healing power had caused health and strength to flow back into her body until she was now almost completely well.
But their great joy in Adele’s recovery was marred by another shadow that hovered over them. Something had been happening with Lex that caused both of them great concern. They had prayed much about it, and were determined not to worry. “We’re just going to believe God will keep Lex safe and show us what to do,” Adele had said.
Nevertheless, their faith had been strained by the fact that Lex seemed so sullen and wanted to keep to himself, refusing to talk to them about almost anything these days. Now, this phone call from Mr. Walker was starting to pull a detailed picture out of that vague, heavy shadow that had been hovering.
Adele, hearing Beth’s side of the conversation, had come to stand beside her daughter, fear in her eyes. Beth closed her own eyes and took a deep breath to try to settle the pounding in her chest before she spoke. “No, Mr. Walker, I don’t believe that’s the solution either. Mother and I have been praying because we knew something was wrong, but we didn’t know what. We just know that God’s the only answer. Thank you for calling me instead of the police. I’ll be with you as fast as I can get down there.”
Abel returned to the back room, and Maddison scooted his chair over to let him in. “Beth’s on her way,” Abel said. “Thank God it’s the time of night when we have almost no business, but just to be safe, I turned off our big sign out front and put a closed sign on the door. I left it unlocked, though, for Beth.” Looking at Lex, he added, “I’ll get the first-aid kit and clean up your face, Son.”
“Ah, just leave me alone!”
Abel ignored the gruff answer and stepped into the bathroom, returning immediately with the kit.
“Here, let me,” said Maddison, taking the kit from the hands of the tired man. He put on a pair of the disposable gloves, then soaked a piece of gauze with hydrogen peroxide and turned toward Lex. He grabbed the boy’s jaw and pulled his head up so he could get a good view. “This is going to hurt a little, but I guess if you’re big and tough enough to rob a store single-handedly at gun point, you can take it.”
His point hit home, and Lex tried to jerk away from Maddison’s hands. Maddison jerked him back into position and looked him in the eyes. “Listen, kid, idiots that pull this kind of stunt are a dime a dozen where I come from, and believe me, I’ve had more than my fill of them. So if you don’t want to hurt a whole lot more than you do right now, you hold still!”
He finished cleansing the scratches, two of which were still bleeding, and then proceeded to apply antibiotic and some bandaging. Just as he was finishing, they heard the screech of tires, followed by a slamming car door. By the time Maddison had closed the first aid kit and disposed of the gloves, Beth was standing in the doorway, her golden eyes large and wet with tears that she was holding back by sheer will. She was a little pale, and her face looked strained, but she had herself under control.
Maddison, who had expected the kind of hysterical outbursts he’d experienced from so many mothers and sisters in similar situations over the years, didn’t quite know what to make of this woman. He stared at her, studying her, wondering what to expect.
For the first few seconds, her eyes were centered on her brother. Suddenly, she glanced up at Maddison. As their eyes met and held for a moment, there was a spark of something between them … a sense of having found something unexpectedly … that was gone so quickly he thought perhaps he’d imagined it. Then just as quickly, she had turned to the manager and, reaching out both hands, laid hold of his arm, saying, “Mr. Walker, I’m so very sorry. I know you could have been injured or killed tonight. I can never tell you how grateful I am to you for giving Lex another chance.”
Patting her hand, Abel Walker replied, “You’ve given so much of yourself to your mother during this long illness … and to Lex. I just couldn’t see it end with him going to jail.” He turned to Maddison. “This gentleman … I’m sorry, I never even asked your name.”
“Maddison Holt,” Maddison said, returning his attention to the store manager.
Abel smiled at him warmly. “Mr. Holt, this is Beth Hanover, Lex’s sister.” Maddison and Beth nodded to each other, and Abel continued. “Mr. Holt was able to tackle Lex as he ran across the parking lot and get him back into the store. I’ve returned the money to the drawer, so we don’t have to worry about that, but that’s all we know right now.”
At that point, Beth turned back to Lex. She walked over to his chair and lifted his head up gently as she spoke. “Lex, look at me, dear. … Look at me,” she repeated, when he kept his eyes downcast. He finally looked up at her, and as his eyes met his sister’s, Maddison saw something soften in the boy’s face.
Beth squatted down so that they were on a level and began to talk again. “Lex, Mother and I have known for some time that you were troubled about something, and we’ve been praying. I don’t have any idea what’s brought on tonight’s action, but I know who’s at the root of it, and so do you in your heart. It’s Satan. And I know one other thing,” Beth continued, speaking calmly and quietly, but with absolute authority. “I know that whatever this is about, we are going to solve it together, just like we always have … you, Mom, me, and Jesus. We’re going to work through it and overcome it. You will not destroy your life or break our mother’s heart, and we’re going to get you back to where you were before this started!”
Again Maddison was amazed at her reaction. There was no hysterical crying or harsh questions or accusations. There was just a quiet determination and authority that made it obvious to him that this girl knew what she was talking about. Even in the midst of this hellish situation, this girl knew that they were going to win over this thing. She even had him believing it!
He envied the fact that, in spite of this horrible situation, she still believed. This woman has the kind of faith my parents have always had, he thought … the kind I thought I had. But she hasn’t lost her grip on hers the way I have.
Mr. Walker moved the second chair close so that Beth could be seated, and as she sat, she turned back to Lex, saying, “Now start at the beginning and tell me exactly what’s been happening. Tell us where you got the gun and who it belongs to, and don’t even try to leave anything out.”
For the next hour Lex told them how he’d begun to feel pressured to join one of the local gangs, how the robbery was part of his initiation, and how the gun wasn’t even loaded. A number of times Maddison groaned out loud at the stupidity of it all, but for the most part, he held himself in check. By 2:00 in the morning, however, he faced the inevitable. He didn’t know if it was the Christian, the cop, or the big brother in him that won out, but he finally admitted that he had to take the controlling hand in this boy’s situation.
The conversation had come to an end, and he felt as if he were on a stage, with the audience waiting for him to say his lines. “Okay,” he said, levering himself away from the old desk he’d been leaning on, “this is the way it’s coming down.” He looked at Lex. “It’s obvious you’re going to need a workable plan to keep you away from this gang and any other peers who are a bad influence. So we’re going to make one. How many hours are you in school through the week?”
“I don’t have to answer any of your questions! This is between me and Beth and Mr. Walker!”
“Lex!” Beth said. “Mr. Holt is trying to help us here!”
“Well, it’s none of his business!”
“Now that’s where you’re wrong, Lex.” Maddison said, looking the boy sternly in the eyes. “It’s very much my business. Keeping criminals off the street is my main business, and right now you fit the definition of the word criminal.”
Three pairs of stunned eyes looked at him, and Lex, who was the most shaken, asked, “Are you a cop?”
“I was a cop for ten years. Right now I’m a private investigator, but both jobs are all about putting criminals behind bars and keeping descent people safe.” As he spoke, he drew his identification from his pants’ pocket and handed it to Beth. While she looked at it, he continued talking to Lex. “Have you forgotten that I’m an eyewitness to your crime? I know the police officers in this area pretty well, and I guarantee you that if I take the facts of this case to them, they’ll have you behind bars in ten minutes tops. And by the time I testify in court, you’ll get a sentence that will keep you there a long time.
“If you don’t want that to happen … you’ll agree to whatever plan your sister and I work out, and you’ll stick with it. Now, I’ll ask you again … how many hours are you in school through the week?
“I get out at 2:00 in the afternoon, because I got put on the work program schedule so I could work here at the store.”
Maddison turned to Abel. “Any chance he could get his job back?”
“I could still use him from 4:00 to 9:00 three afternoons a week.”
Maddison nodded and then looked at Beth. “I assume you go to church regularly?” he asked, accepting his I.D. back and restoring it to his pocket.
“Oh, yes,” she answered. “We’re very active in our church. I came here to care for my mother, who was seriously ill, but now that she’s so much better, we’re both very involved in church again. And I work for the pastor in the office several hours a week, because his secretary just had a baby and needs more time off.”
Maddison nodded his head, obviously considering a number of thoughts at the same time. He sighed now, both from his own exhaustion, and from a sense of hurt on Beth’s behalf. She had obviously been loaded down with some serious problems with her mother’s health, and now she was trying to shoulder this responsibility too. He guessed that her father was deceased but felt that he needed to be sure before he could decide exactly how to proceed.
“Is your father deceased, Miss Hanover?”
“Yes, he went on to be with the Lord about five years ago. There’s just our mother now … and Lex and myself.”
“I see.” He sighed again. “Well, then, that being the case, while I don’t want to offend you by taking complete control, I do have the most experience in dealing with these situations, and I’m going to suggest the plan I think is best. If you see any major flaws in it from your perspective, you can say so.”
Beth nodded her head. “That sounds reasonable to me.”
“All right, young man,” he said, turning back to Lex. “You’ll go to school for all your classes. As soon as school is out, you’ll go straight home or come here to this back room, and you’ll do all your homework. If by some chance, you have no homework, you’ll study something else: your Bible, some book about a hobby you enjoy, or an encyclopedia if necessary … but you’ll spend the time from 2:00 to 4:00 studying something constructive.
“Three days a week you’ll work here from 4:00 to 9:00, and the other three workdays, I think the best thing to do is arrange for you to work at my uncle’s farm where I’ll be staying for the next month. That way I can keep an eye on you and help you stay out of trouble.”
He looked back to Beth now. “My uncle is Matthew Vickers, and his farm is just about five miles from here.”
At the mention of his uncle’s name, Beth’s eyes lit up, and Maddison noticed that Lex looked up with interest.
“Why, we know your uncle!” Beth exclaimed, a smile spreading across her face for the first time. “We all go to the same church.”
Maddison breathed another sigh, this time from relief. Maybe helping this family wouldn’t be such an uphill struggle after all. “Well, that makes things a little easier, then, doesn’t it?”
He turned his attention to Lex again. “Okay … every Sunday, you’ll go to church with your family and take part in whatever they feel is right. The rest of the day you’ll spend in their company or at home. Any free time you have you can spend with any friends who are welcome in your home, but they’ll come to your home to see you. You won’t go out and meet them anywhere else. You’ll stay on this plan for one month, and then we’ll see how things look.”
“But that’s practically like being in prison!”
Maddison walked over to stand in front of Lex, so close that he was almost touching him. When he spoke, his voice was a little husky, and his words were wrapped in a weariness that went beyond the physical. “Son, you don’t have an inkling of what being in prison is really like.” He sighed deeply. “And I hope with all my heart you never have to find out.”
“Lex,” Beth said now, laying her hand on his arm, “it does sound like a workable plan, and it’s what you need.” She looked up at Maddison again. “Did you say you’ll only be here a month?”
Maddison nodded. “I don’t normally stay that long, but I will this trip, and I’ll stay on top of things.” He looked back at Lex. “Now that’s the deal. Take it or leave it. I’m going out front and see if I can find myself some stale coffee while you think it over.”
“Oh, let me make you some fresh, Mr. Holt,” Abel offered, following him to the doorway.
“Don’t bother,” Maddison waved him back. “As tired as I am, I wouldn’t notice the difference. As long as it’s hot and caffeinated, it’ll keep me awake until I get where I’m going.”
He stuck his head around the door again a few seconds later, with a grin on his face. “By the way, I just remembered that I never did get any gas. I’m going out to fill up now.”
“You do that, Mr. Holt, and don’t you pay a penny. We owe you,” Abel said with a warm smile.
When Maddison entered the store again after filling his gas tank, Beth was waiting for him just inside the door. “Mr. Holt,” she said and extended her right hand to him.
Maddison closed his hand gently around hers. It fit into his perfectly, and with the connection, he felt something like a strong, warm current flow into him. I seemed so right, somehow, to keep standing there holding her hand in his own. In fact, he was concentrating so intently on that feeling that he almost missed her words.
“The Lord brought you to this store at just the right moment. I have no doubt about that. My whole family will be eternally in your debt.”
Embarrassed, Maddison did let go of her hand and ran his through his hair in what Beth thought was a rather endearing gesture. “Miss Hanover, you don’t owe me anything … particularly not if you believe God brought me here. He’s the One to thank. I’m just doing what I would have appreciated if … if it had been … my brother,” he said, his voice becoming husky.
“Oh, do you have a younger brother too?”
Maddison was stunned by the intensity of the wave of sorrow that rolled through him … and by the sense of having been assaulted … blindsided by such an innocent question. His hands curled into fists at his sides, and he swallowed hard. Beth could see that the question had disturbed him and felt bad, but helpless to change the situation now.
Finally, the stunned look left his eyes, and he refocused on Beth. “I did have.” Maddison spoke quietly, his face rigid. “He was killed a couple of months ago.”
“Oh, I’m so very sorry.” Beth reached out and laid her hand gently on his arm. “Was it an accident?”
“No! … It was no accident!”
Beth looked at him expectantly, hoping he would tell her what had happened. Finally, with a sigh born of weariness and resignation, Maddison answered the question in her eyes.
“My brother” … He had to stop and clear his throat. “My brother was working with me on a case. … We got too close to the truth, and one of the guys we were after shot and killed him.”
He looked away again and just stared at nothing, obviously lost in thought and fighting for control. “But then again … I guess you could say it was something of an accident too.”
“I don’t think I understand,” said Beth.
“The man who shot my brother was trying to kill me.” He heard Beth’s quick, indrawn breath, and looked straight into her eyes as he added, “And I don’t understand either.”
Lex and Mr. Walker joined them at that moment, and Maddison welcomed the distraction. “Well, Lex, what have you decided?” he asked the boy, recognizing the look on his face. He’d seen it dozens of times on the faces of boys who had recently stumbled into accepting crime as their way of life. It was a mixture of shame for what they’d done and a kind of bitterness at being forced to take the consequences. But Lex’s face had softened considerably now, remorse getting the controlling hand, and Maddison felt hope for him.
“I’ll follow your plan, Mr. Holt … and … thank you,” he said, extending his right hand tentatively toward Maddison.
Maddison gripped his hand firmly. “Good. I’ll leave one of my business cards with the phone number at the farm on the back,” he said, as he proceeded to take three cards from his case and write on them. “I’ll leave one with your sister and Mr. Walker also.” Looking at Beth, he said, “I’d appreciate it if you’d give me your address and phone number too if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all,” she said. “I’ll write it down for you.” She quickly did so and handed him the slip of paper.
“What day will Lex begin work with you?” he asked Abel.
“Tomorrow afternoon at 4:00.”
“Good. I’ll be by some time during that shift to check on things and make more definite plans for the work at the farm. I’d better take the gun with me and lock it up,” he added, reaching under the counter and retrieving the plastic bag Abel had used for it, to avoid any more fingerprints. “I’ll get it into the hands of the proper authorities tomorrow.” At Beth’s look of alarm, he added, “I think I can manage to keep it from causing any more trouble for Lex at this point.”
His face wore just the hint of a tired smile now. “Well, … good night folks.” He nodded to all three in general and headed for his car.
On sale this week only
It all started the evening of Thanksgiving Day, 2002. I’d been toying with the idea for months, but hadn’t done anything about it. I’d written non-fiction books and articles for years – and for all sorts of venues – but the idea of sitting down and writing an entire novel was still just that: an idea. I knew I was ready to get started, but I wasn’t exactly sure where I wanted the story to go. Thoughts popped in and out of my head, sometimes melding, but sometimes bouncing off each other, and I didn’t really have an entire plot settled in my mind yet. I did know the setting. I had just returned two months prior from my favorite place on the planet – The Great Smoky Mountains – and I knew for sure that I was going back there in the first novel I wrote.
I had spent most of Thanksgiving Day with my family – feasting, fellowshipping, celebrating. But I excused myself earlier than usual because I was anxious to get home and open up my Canon electric typewriter. I’d made up my mind that procrastination had come to an end, and the time had come to dive into my first novel.
And, yes, it’s true. I was still using a typewriter. I hadn’t moved into the computer age at all, and, quite frankly, had no intention of doing so at that time. I was perfectly happy pounding my little typewriter keyboard and hearing its quiet hum and the gentle, but efficient sound of its carriage return. The only desk in the house was so loaded with various kinds of office equipment that I didn’t even consider trying to clean it off enough to use it for the writing project. Besides, I didn’t have a chair that was comfortable to sit in for long periods of time if I used the desk. So after a little deliberation, I placed a rather large round footstool in the middle of my living room floor, sat my Canon on top of it, pulled up a chair that was just the right height, and sat down to write chapter one.
I didn’t have a title, of course, not being completely sure where I was going with this story. I had the beginning, and I wanted to get it down while it was fresh. Then after that, there would be time to do some more thinking and try to set down some sort of outline for the rest of the project. As a creative writing teacher, I always tell my students to follow their creativity, and when an idea is hot, get it into print right then. You don’t have to wait until you have the entire story in your head and have a clear outline printed out before you start. But once you have the material that was throbbing through your brain safely under wraps, then it’s a good idea to lay out some form of outline (although it can be very informal) to help keep yourself on track as you move through all the succeeding chapters.
I knew my main character, Maddison Holt. He was a private detective from the moment he came to life in my thoughts. I’d had plenty of experience with P. I’s. My husband, after years in regular law enforcement positions, had opened his own detective agency and managed it for many years. He hired others to work with him, and, believe me, after several years of hanging around with those detectives – and serving as secretary for some of those years and writing up their reports for my husband’s agency – I knew what a detective’s life was like. So I had that part pretty well covered. And, of course, I had planned a romance as part of the story all along. And, thankfully, I knew about romance as well – the good side and the bad side.
But as I wrote chapter one, I didn’t know Maddison nearly as well as I was going to before the novel was finished. He grew from chapter one and became a much more interesting and lovable person as he walked through his life-changing experiences.
Now, just in case a few of my readers are concerned that the name Maddison seems strange for a man, perhaps I’d better set the record straight. I’ve had one or two people mention that concern to me when they read the book. But, you see, the name Madison (or Maddison) was, for multiple decades, primarily a name given to boys – not girls.
That habit of naming children incurred a significant change in 1984, when the movie Splash came to the big screen. In that movie, the main female character – a mermaid who turns into a woman — discovers that, in order to function successfully with other people, she needs a name. As she’s walking down the street with the male lead, trying to decide on a name, she looks up and discovers a street sign for “Madison Avenue.” She decides that she likes the name Madison and adopts it for her own.
From that point on, and for at least the next decade, hundreds of baby girls found themselves christened “Madison,” and the tide was turned. Now the name is used for many more girls than boys, but, the truth is still the same. Madison is a good strong name for a man. I’m not sure why I gave my Maddison two d’s in his name. I did so without conscious thought, and once when I considered changing it, I just couldn’t seem to make myself do so. I knew him by that name, and he just wasn’t the same person if I changed his spelling. Call me peculiar if you’d like, but I’m the author, and I got to make that call.
Maddison was hurting when he first stepped onto the pages of Set Free To Love, and he had good reason. He was tormented by problems caused partly by the results of evil at work in this world, and partly by his own faulty thinking. But as he struggled to hold onto his faith in God – and as he learned to let God take control and work through His holy Word to change Maddison – the tide of battle turned, and Maddison came into the victory he so grievously needed. Other characters faced their own crises as well – which also affected Maddison – and they, too, learned to find their solutions in the Word of God. Readers of the book were drawn into the characters’ lives and their victories through God’s Word in ways that, hopefully, encouraged and inspired them as they proceeded through the book.
Well, Set Free To Love came out in the market place about twelve years ago, and since then, many readers have come to know and love Maddison Holt. And they’ve been inspired to trust God every day for His love and mercy in their own lives in the same way they experienced the characters in the book trusting God and receiving deliverance and victory in their lives.
The book has been my best-selling novel by far, and although I truly love all of the other eleven novels I’ve written – and I have to say I have no actual favorites – I can say without hesitation that SET FREE TO LOVE will always have the same special place in my heart that a firstborn child has in the heart of most mothers. And as for Maddison himself – well, let’s just say I’m as much in love with him as I was on Thanksgiving Day, 2002 – maybe more so. And why not? He’s been one of the best things to happen to me in my entire life.
This month is a special celebration month for me. Although I’ve had my books on the market for over twelve years, this month marks my third year of publishing with Amazon. So I’m celebration with a special sale on SET FREE TO LOVE. I’m also posting excerpts of the first three chapters. Just below this paragraph, you’ll find Chapter One, and in the next two posts coming up, you’ll find Chapter Two and Chapter Three respectively. Now, enjoy first excerpt below. And if you feel that you – just maybe – could fall in love with him too, hop on over to Amazon and order a copy of SET FREE TO LOVE for yourself.
SET FREE TO LOVE – EXCERPT
As his vision suddenly blurred, Maddison realized he’d let it happen again. He swiped at his eyes with a thumb and forefinger, trying at the same time to pinch back more tears. He’d have to pull off the highway, if he didn’t get better control of himself. The next moment, he could feel the anger boiling up from deep inside, needing an outlet. He’d swung back and forth like this relentlessly, between the tears and the anger for … how many weeks had it been now … way too many … but then not really enough … not enough to dull the pain or answer any of the questions.
He had cleared his vision in time to see the turn into the rest area he’d been anticipating for several miles. He parked in a space right in front of the two well lit buildings and managed to drag his body from the car, feeling as if every part of him were too heavy to move of its own volition.
“Mmm-Mmm!” It felt so good to stretch arms and legs … and back and neck … and … everything, for that matter. His last stop had been almost six hours ago, and after driving that long without a break, just standing up and breathing the crisp night air felt like a blessing.
Maddison Holt was used to driving, though. It was part and parcel of his work. Ten years as a police officer had naturally included extended hours behind the wheel of a squad car, but since he had established his own detective agency eight years ago, he had really laid on the miles. Even the brand new Avalon he’d bought only a couple of months ago already registered past three thousand on the odometer.
He leaned against the side of that car now, breathing in the fall night, thinking that during those eight years, he must have made close to a hundred stops like this at public rest areas along the interstates he’d traveled. It was late enough that there was no one else around except a couple of truckers over on their side of the park, obviously getting in their required quota of sleep. That was good. He needed the stillness … the aloneness.
He was a tall man … six foot, two, and strongly built … all muscle. There hadn’t been time for any of it to turn to fat, and at forty, he knew it had been a blessing that he’d had to push himself hard enough to stay in shape. But his strength wasn’t all physical. Anyone who met him instantly recognized a power and authority that emanated from him without any conscious effort on his part.
His dark brown hair was streaked with gray, but that didn’t detract from his looks. He wasn’t exactly handsome; most of his features were unremarkable. But thick, curling, black lashes always drew attention immediately to his eyes … gray eyes that seemed to change their shade with every emotion. They lit up, flashing shades of silver and blue when he laughed, which rarely happened these days. But when his feelings became intense, they turned to charcoal. Tonight, though, they were just tired, red-streaked, and burning, from the strain of driving so long … and … he had to admit to himself … probably from all the hours of crying that had gone on intermittently over the past several weeks.
He wasn’t ashamed to cry, but … He shook his head now at his own thoughts. “Man!” His voice was gruff in the still night air. “I can’t even keep from crying any more! How does a tough cop get to be so weak that he just gives in to whatever feelings overpower him at the moment?”
But he finally pushed all these thoughts from his mind as he pushed himself away from the car and headed for the lighted building that housed the vending machines. Coffee, hot and strong, that’s what he needed right now. At least two cups, he thought, as he dug his wallet from his back pocket. “I hope these machines have plenty of change,” he muttered out loud. “I need a load of sugar too.”
He had thrown a couple of sandwiches and some soft drinks into a cooler on the floor of the car, but he had finished those off at the last rest stop, not stopping again until now even to go to the bathroom … a fact that he suddenly now realized needed to be remedied before he slipped this dollar bill into the machine.
Having taken care of that most pressing need, he sat down at one of the isolated tables and polished off a chocolate-coated ice cream bar and a twin-pack of chocolate cupcakes covered with icing, along with the already pre-determined two cups of coffee. Disposing of his trash and heading for the car, he spoke out loud in a surprised tone: “I do feel better!” He couldn’t hold back a chuckle. “I guess maybe it isn’t just the female gender who benefit from all that chocolate.”
Back on the interstate, he was glad traffic was light because his mind kept wandering. In about another three hours, he’d be turning gratefully into the long driveway at the farm. Uncle Matt’s farm … nestled in close to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park … just close enough to Gatlinburg to benefit from any entertainment it offered, but just far enough out to miss the relentless press of the tourists.
How many times the two Holt brothers had made this journey together, pushing eagerly to get to the one place on earth they could always totally relax. … The Holt brothers … five years apart in age, but so close in spirit and soul. Maddison had been named for Grandfather Holt, and five years later, baby brother had come along and been christened after their only uncle, Matthew Vickers.
There it was again: the moisture in his eyes … the constriction in his throat… . Maybe he’d made a mistake deciding to come to the farm after all. There’d be so many memories. But he had to go somewhere where he couldn’t keep trying to work himself to death. His mother had certainly insisted that this was the right move. He smiled now at the thought.
What a mother he had! Refused to be dependent on any of her family, but wanted them all close enough to love on. He chuckled softly now as he remembered his last visit with her before leaving for Tennessee. She had speared him with those sharp, still bright, green eyes of hers, pointed her finger in his nose, and said, “Son, you get yourself down to your Uncle Matt’s, and don’t you come back until you and the Lord have got this all worked out, and you have peace and joy in your heart again.”
As he let out a deep sigh, he spoke out loud now, “Lord, when You chose a mother for Matt and me, You sure did a number one job. I know she was devastated by all that happened, and she didn’t need me leaving town so soon. But she could see that her big, strong, hunk-of-lawman son couldn’t handle the pain as well as she could and showed me the door. … Love doesn’t get any more unselfish than that.” He let his thoughts dwell on that truth for a moment or two. “Just take good care of her, Lord, and make her know that I love and appreciate her more than I can ever put into words …”
The big, slow yawn that sneaked up on him made him realize that he had actually started to relax while he’d been praying. “Thanks, Lord,” he spoke again softly. “Even when I don’t know if I can really believe or trust anymore, You’re still there.”
Maddison realized he was only about five miles from his uncle’s place when he passed a familiar convenience store. Seeing the gas pumps triggered an automatic glance at his gas gauge, and he almost choked. It was sitting on empty. As quickly as possible, he made a turn and headed back to the convenience store, chiding himself the whole time. “For crying out loud, Holt, you’ve been in police work for eighteen years! You know you keep your car filled up all the time!”
Just as Maddison slid his car even with the gas pump, the door of the convenience store burst open and a male figure wearing a blue ski mask ran through it and headed across the parking lot. He had ducked his head low. One arm was hidden beneath his jacket, and with the other, he jerked the mask off of his head as he ran, revealing enough of his face to make it obvious that he was only a youth. Just a few feet behind him came an elderly man shouting, “Stop! You can’t get away with robbery!”
Instinct and adrenaline kicked in at the same time, and before he could have a conscious thought, Maddison was out of the car and tackling the boy, bringing him to the ground. A gun flew from one of the kid’s hands and a brown paper bag fell from his jacket as he sprawled across the concrete drive.
From long habit, Maddison pinned the boy’s arms behind his back and hoisted him to his feet, just barely stopping himself before he recited the Miranda rights to him. By this time, the elderly store manager was beside them, and Maddison, straining to keep the resisting boy under control, spoke roughly: “I’ll stick around and help hold on to him until the police get here.”
“Oh, no … no, that won’t be necessary,” the manager said to Maddison, and then immediately addressed the boy. “Lex! It is you! I thought I recognized your voice. … Why Lex? … Why me? … Why at all?” … When he got no response, he turned back to Maddison. “There’s no need for the police,” he said. “We’ll have the money back, and nobody else needs to be involved … except his sister, of course. I’ll have to call Beth.
“Wait a minute,” Maddison almost shouted, “what do you mean no need for the police? This is armed robbery! And I gather you know this stupid punk,” he added, as he jerked the boy into a position where he could force him to precede him back into the store. Then he pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and thrust it at the manager with the order, “Pick up that gun with this, and be sure you take hold of it by the barrel! Get the bag too. I assume that’s where the money is,” he added, continuing to push the boy to the store. Maddison could see that the kid’s face was scraped and bleeding on the side where he had come into contact with the concrete, but the boy wasn’t saying a word, nor was he resisting quite as strongly as at first.
The store manager did as he had been ordered, retrieving the gun and the bag, and hurriedly followed them into the store, thankful there were no other customers. “Let’s go to the room at the back where we can talk,” he said.
“All right by me,” Maddison replied, “but you get on that phone to the police, or I will. I can’t hang around here all night to see he doesn’t do you any worse harm!”
“NO! PLEASE!” the manager urged, seemingly more agitated at the thought of the police than he had been by the robbery itself. “Please, let me explain,” he said as he ushered them into a small room accommodating two scarred wooden chairs and an old desk half buried beneath cardboard boxes and stacks of papers.
Maddison shoved the boy into the nearest chair with the threat, “Don’t even look like you want to move!” The boy’s only response was to pull his jacket back up onto his shoulders and hang his head.
“My name is Abel Walker,” the elderly man said as he extended his right hand to Maddison, “and I want to thank you … and … to explain. You see, I know this boy … Alex Hanover. He used to work for me, and he was a good worker. … He was a good kid … until he started running with a couple of local gang members. They need to be in jail, but not Lex. Jail would only do him more harm. He just needs enough time away from them to get his thinking straight again. I’m going to call his sister. It’ll break her heart, but she has to know. Will you just keep an eye on him until I can talk to her?”
“Why not,” Maddison sighed. “I’m into it this far. I guess you might have a point … if you’re really sure this is his first offense.” He pulled the second chair in front of the door and sat down on it wearily. This was about the last thing he needed tonight. Some vacation. … Well, all the years on the force had drilled into him the fact that a law enforcement officer is never really off duty, but … man! … could he use some sleep! He could hear Abel Walker on the phone now in the other room, so he tried to follow the conversation.
“Beth, dear, this is Abel Walker. I’m down at the store. … Yes, it is late for me, but my night clerk couldn’t get his car started. But listen, Beth, Lex is down here … and … he’s in a little trouble. … He tried to rob the store … with a gun, I’m afraid. … Oh NO! NO! He didn’t shoot anybody! Nobody’s been hurt … except for a few scratches on Lex himself. But I thought you’d want to come down, and we’ll decide what to do. … No, I haven’t called the police. I don’t think that’s the solution, do you?”
Read it if you dare: You’ll never look at Halloween the same way again.
RACING TOWARD THE LIGHT: Supernatural Warfare in Inspirational Fiction
LAST 4 DAYS ON SALE
When a small coastal town is invaded by witchcraft that threatens the lives of the school children and the future of the entire community, the citizens must learn to fight back with a Higher Power.
Exhausted after a battle with supernatural forces, Sheriff Noah Bennett, with his white stallion Moondancer, travels to a small coastal community seeking rest and healing for his battered soul. While there, he befriends David, a 6-year-old boy who loves horses, and his aunt, beautiful Serenity Lawrence.
But the same forces of evil that invaded his own hometown have now invaded this small haven, and Noah must decide if he’s ready to be used as an instrument in God’s hands again to apply the principles of His Kingdom in defeating these powers once more. It will mean setting aside his recuperation – and his budding romance – until the job is done.
Can he teach the believers of Hamsted how to use the name of Jesus and His blood to destroy the witchcraft and the Satanic roots behind it? And is he willing? Walk through this journey with Noah, as he struggles to find a way to overcome his own fear and weakness in order to commit himself to fighting a new battle with forces from beyond this world.
Experience the power of God as angels and demons engage on the spiritual plane while believers discover the truth about their position of authority and their victory in the name of Jesus Christ and His blood.
Paperback and Digital — ON SALE at Amazon throughout October.
Paperback regularly sells for $10.49, but you can buy it this month for $9.00
Digital is slashed from $3.99 to $2.99 until midnight October 31.
I have a little news: In celebration of REPAIRED BY LOVE coming to Amazon in paperback, St. Ellen Press is offering a special one-week sale on the e-book version of that novel.
So from now until midnight next Sunday, September 17 (Central Daylight Savings Time) the e-book will be $1.99.
If you like reading on your Kindle, iPad, phone, or computer, you’ll probably prefer this version anyway. Personally, I have to admit that I really like holding a book in my hands, but don’t let me discourage any e-book readers out there from taking advantage of this surprise sale.
Buy it, buy it, buy it!!! HERE
Today’s Daily Post Prompt –Trace — gives me the perfect opportunity to plug one of my newest inspirational novels: SLATE. The story of Slate and Vanessa plays out over a second story concerning Vanessa’s brother Ken. A private investigator, Ken traces a young girl from her home in Missouri to the Gulf coast of Florida, but then Ken himself suddenly disappears without a trace. That event causes Vanessa to head to Florida to look for him, and from the day she arrives and meets Slate, her life is changed forever. So is Slate’s.
Inspirational Fiction: Digital or Paperback at Amazon.
HERE’S 2 EXCERPTS:
From Chapter 1:
He hopped out of the metallic-blue corvette convertible, tossing his cigarette down and extinguishing it with his boot, then set off down the sidewalk toward Katy’s Koffee Korner. He walked with a definite swagger, and it was hard to tell if it was because of or in spite of the almost skin-tight blue jeans that covered his long legs. His light blue sleeveless, knit shirt exposed brown, sinewy arms and hugged a tight stomach before being swallowed up by the leather belted waistline that sported a gold buckle shaped like a pirate ship.
His hair was such a dark brown it looked black in certain light, and although he didn’t wear it long, any activity on his part, or the slightest of breezes, kept throwing one thick lock across his forehead. In spite of the fact that he brushed his hand through it periodically, that one lock just seemed to have a mind of its own.
As he passed a bench on the sidewalk where two older men sat chatting over Styrofoam cups of coffee, one of the men called to him, chuckling.
“Hear you spent the night in the clink again last Friday, Slate.”
The man he’d addressed stopped long enough to grin at him and then wink. “Trying to save on my electric bills, Chet.” Both of the old boys laughed, enjoying the little joke, as they did almost any little bit of conversation throughout the day as they sat on their favorite bench, trying to ease the tedium of their otherwise empty lives.
“Coffee’s especially good this morning,” Chet replied now, holding up his half-empty cup and motioning toward the café behind where he and his friend sat.
“I’m just on my way in to try it,” Slate answered and, giving them a thumbs-up sign, turned in to the doorway and opened the door to the Koffee Korner. …
This morning, though, Hally was on duty, and she always kept an eye out for Slate. She liked to wait on him … and flirt with him. Actually, she liked to flirt with him … and she tolerated having to work as a waitress in order to get the chance to do some serious flirting. Of course she didn’t save all of her attention for Slate. She shared it with several of the other men in town, but Slate was one of her favorites. He had taken her out two different times several months ago, and both times had proved to be the kind of night she liked … the kind that didn’t end until the following morning. …
While he ate, stopping every now and then to say something to one of the other patrons who passed his booth on the way to the restroom or back, Slate glanced over at the woman across from him. She had raised her head now and was sipping her coffee, her eyes closed. Her hair was a warm light brown shade, with just a tinge of highlights from the sun here and there. It barely skimmed her shoulders in soft waves. Her features weren’t classically beautiful, but she was really pleasant to look at. Her complexion was unblemished, and her eyes and eyebrows seemed to be etched in at exactly the right angles to highlight her whole face. Her mouth was rather wide, and her lips looked as if an artist had sculptured them. Yes, all in all, the sight was something he took pleasure in this morning.
He’d evidently taken just a little too much pleasure, because he’d been staring. Suddenly, she looked up and right at him, a question in her large, brown eyes. Almost exactly the color of a copper penny, Slate thought to himself as his attention focused on those eyes. He was caught off guard by the vulnerable look on her face, and instinctively he smiled his most genuine smile at her and then went back to concentrating on his food. A minute later, he heard her conversation with the waitress who had come back to bring her a fresh carafe of coffee.
“Can you give me exact directions from here to the Sandstone Motel?” she asked.
“Sure, Hon. It isn’t hard. I’ll write it down for you and be right back.”
“Thank you,” she answered, smiling and lighting up her face for just a moment, but when the waitress left, she went back to rubbing her temples and then her eyes. She finally leaned her head back against the high divider of her booth and closed her eyes, but Slate, glancing sideways at her, noticed a couple of tears trickling down her cheeks. After a minute more, she took a deep breath and opened her eyes, wiping the tears from her face with her hands, and by that time the waitress was back with her directions.
“Thank you so much,” she said and handed the waitress some bills. “This is for you.”
“Thanks, and you come and see us again, Okay?”
“If I have time,” she said smiling slightly at the retreating waitress, and then she slid out of her seat and stood up. Before she could take a step, she swayed and reached for the back of the booth to regain her balance. She was sitting in the last booth across from him, and no one else had noticed the unusual action. She sat back down on the edge of the booth, holding her head. Slate had learned better than to interfere in someone else’s business, but something about her just seemed so vulnerable that he couldn’t keep from getting up and walking over to her booth.
“Are you all right, Miss?” he asked, resting one hand on the table and leaning towards her. She looked up at him then, her eyes registering her pain.
“Yes,” she answered in almost a whisper. Then she cleared her throat and tried to speak louder. “It’s just this stupid migraine headache. They often make me woozy. Eating should help, but I guess the food just hasn’t had time to get into my system yet. I’ll just sit here another minute. Thanks,” she added, smiling wanly.
Slate sat down in the other side of the booth. “How about another cup of coffee?”
She turned back into the normal sitting position in the booth and nodded her head as he picked up the carafe and poured some into her cup. She began drinking it immediately, and Slate stepped over to his own booth and retrieved his cup, bringing it back with him. He poured fresh coffee for himself and topped hers off again. She smiled at him, her eyes seeming to show a little relief now.
“My sister often has migraine headaches,” he said. “They make her sick for days.”
She nodded her head. “They do some people. Usually, I’m not ill, but I have to be careful when they make me dizzy.” She took a deep breath. “I’m feeling better now. Thank you for your concern, Mr… .?”
“Slate’s fine,” he answered. “I heard you ask the waitress about the Sandstone. Is this your first visit in this area?”
“Yes, and it really isn’t a visit exactly.”
“Well … I guess there’s no reason to be secretive about it, so I might as well tell you. Anybody I meet around here just might be able to tell me something that will give me a lead.”
His eyebrows rose. “Are you a private detective?”
She chuckled a little. “No … I’m not, but my brother is. And he was on a case that led him to this area. His last call to his wife a week ago was from the Sandstone, and then he just disappeared.”
She nodded. “None of us has heard from him again, not even the family whose daughter he was trailing. She was a runaway, and only seventeen. They had hired him to find her and bring her home, and he had caught up with her in Lakeland. Then she took a bus to Tampa, then hitched a ride out to this little town and on to the Sandstone Motel. He followed her that far, but we don’t have any idea what happened after that.”
“Have you contacted the police?”
“Oh yes. He’d been calling his wife every day, so after the third day without a call from him, we contacted our own sheriff’s department at home. He’s been in touch with the one here, but they don’t seem to have any leads.” She shrugged. “Not that I have any either, but I just couldn’t sit at home and do nothing when Kendall could be in some kind of serious danger or …” She stopped and swallowed hard. “Or worse,” she finished.
He leaned back in his seat. “Well, the sheriff’s department here is usually pretty thorough. I’ll say that for them at least.”
“I need to go talk to them personally, but I’ve been driving all night, and I want to get a room and shower and rest first. Hopefully I can get rid of the last of this headache.” She looked at him more intently then, taking in his manner of dress and his almost lazy way of leaning back in the booth.
“Please don’t let me keep you,” she said then in a tone he’d have attributed to some socialite addressing a lower-class citizen. “Thanks for your concern, but I can take care of myself from here,” she added, lifting her chin a little higher than normal, her voice edged with a bit of frost. Slate felt that he’d been dismissed. Well, so much for trying to help. How many times did he need to learn to mind his own business before he’d pay attention?
He rose from his seat and gave a sketchy salute. “Yes, M’am,” he said, a little frosty himself. He walked to the front and paid his bill. …
On his way down the highway twenty minutes later, headed back to the dock, he was in a foul mood. Most of the supplies he needed were back-ordered, and he was going to be in a bind. He was trying to force himself to stop worrying about it when he spotted what looked like Vanessa’s car up ahead sitting on the side of the road. He slowed as he passed, and recognizing her, he pulled over just in front of her. Part of his mind was telling him to stay out of her business and save himself another snubbing. But the other part was responding to the code he’d lived by all his life about helping anybody that was down. He got out now and walked back to her driver’s side, leaning down to see in the window. “Problems?”
“Yes … I don’t have any idea what’s wrong. A few minutes ago it just sputtered and then died. I barely got it off the road.”
“Are you out of gas?”
She looked daggers at him. “I’m not an idiot! I know a car has to have gas to run. There’s plenty of gas!”
Whew, he thought. I wish I didn’t have enough conscience to bother me if I just left her here. “Well … pull your hood release, and I’ll take a look.”
“Do you know anything about cars?”
He chuckled as he walked toward the front of the car. “No … I just get my kicks stopping by stranded motorists and asking to play under the hood of their cars.”
Vanessa got out and walked closer to him. “You don’t have to be sarcastic. A lot of men don’t know how to repair cars. I was just asking.”
“Well, I don’t know everything about ‘em; that’s for sure. But since I have to keep my boat engines in good running order, I can usually do a thing or two about car engines as well.”
“You have boats?”
He glanced up momentarily. “A few.” Vanessa recognized by his tone of voice that the conversation was at an end for the time being, so she remained quiet.
He checked a couple possible causes of the problem, but came up short of a solution. He was pretty sure he knew what was wrong, but didn’t have the equipment to fix it. “I’m sorry, but I don’t have the equipment necessary to fix it out here. We’ll have to get you towed in.” He stepped back and looked at her license plate again. “I’m guessing your name is Vanessa. Am I right?” he asked, grinning.
She seemed a little affronted that he’d asked, but she did answer him. “Yes … Vanessa Hayes.”
“Well, Vanessa Hayes, I can give you a lift to the Sandstone.”
He saw the briefest flash of fear in her eyes before she answered. “Oh … oh well … I don’t want to trouble you Mr. uh …”
“Slate’s good enough.”
“But don’t you have a last name?”
He looked straight at her, his blue eyes piercing hers, but he stood silent for another moment before he spoke again. “I’ll call for a tow truck.”
“I have a cell phone,” she said and started to turn back to the car.
“Never mind, I’ve got it,” he answered, already punching in some numbers. “I’ve given these guys a lot of business, so I think I can talk them into getting to you today.”
“I really don’t want to put you to this trouble, Mr. uh …”
He was talking to the man on the other end of the phone now, but he gave her an exasperated look. When he had finished the call, he snapped his phone shut and clipped it back onto his belt. “They said they’ll try to get here in a couple of hours.”
“Oh … well … I’ll just wait then.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” He slammed down the hood. “There’s no point in you’re waiting out here two hours. By then it will be the hottest part of the day. Let’s get your luggage, and I’ll take you to your motel.”
Vanessa stepped back. “No … no, thank you, Mr. uh …”
“Mr. Slate, thank you for your offer of a ride, but I’m going to stay here with my car.”
“That isn’t necessary. I told them I’d be by their place to check on it this evening, so you can be sure they’ll take good care of it.”
“Do you have that much influence?” she asked, her eyes widening with her obvious surprise. “I would have thought that someone like you wouldn’t …” She stopped in mid-sentence, realizing that what she had started to say would sound pretty rude.
He raised one eyebrow. “You mean you thought that someone like me wouldn’t have any good influence anywhere, right?”
“Well, it was a logical mistake,” she excused herself, in reality hating herself for such a stupid and unkind blunder. Who was she to judge this man by his outward appearance and manner? She could tell she’d made him angry.
“Just get in my car. I’ll get your bags.”
She pulled herself up to her full five and a half feet and stepped in front of her car door. Then she held out her hand to him as if to shake hands. He just looked at her for moment and then extended his hand too, not sure what a handshake right now meant. Vanessa spoke again. “Thank you for stopping, Mr. Slate, but you can be on your way now. I prefer not to ride with you.”
He could feel that she had tried to withdraw her hand after the briefest of contacts, but he had deliberately held on for several more seconds. He realized it discomfited her, but he felt she deserved it for the way she was acting. As soon as he released her hand, she wiped it down the side of her slacks as if to clean something off.
Slate stepped back a step and folded his arms across his chest, staring at her and squinting a little against the sun. “The uppity Miss Priss. Too good to ride with the likes of me. Well … suit yourself, Miss Priss. Sit out here and bake in this sun if you want to, but don’t be surprised if that tow truck doesn’t show up for four or five hours.”
“But you said they told you two!”
He laughed. “They did, and I knew that meant that they’d at least get to it before nightfall. That’s a lot around here, Miss Priss, and you’d best be thankful for that much.”
“Don’t call me that!”
He chuckled. “You’re the prissiest little fox I’ve seen around here in a lifetime, Honey. The name suites you to a ‘T.’” He turned and started back to his car then. Let the prudish snob sit out here by herself, he thought as he reached to open his car door. But then he looked up at her. She was rubbing her temples again, and he remembered that she was suffering with a migraine. He remembered again how his sister wasn’t fit to live with when she had one because they affected her so badly.
He let out a heavy sigh and started back toward Vanessa. “Look,” he said as he got within a couple feet, “I’ll call the sheriff’s office. They know me. I give them a lot of business too. You can talk to the officer on duty, and I’ll tell them that I’m taking you to the Sandstone. That way, you know I’ll not abduct you into some isolated field and rape and kill you. How’s that?”
“Thank you,” she said in what was almost a whisper now. Then she turned and opened her door. “I’ll get the keys and open the trunk.”
From Chapter 4:
About twelve miles down the highway from the Sandstone Motel, a poorly paved road turned West and wound several miles out into the countryside. A half dozen old houses dotted the area, each one at least two or three miles away from its neighbor in any direction. But a little over five miles out on the paved road, there was a gravel turnoff, almost hidden by overgrown bushes, that led another four miles out to a house that sat on an inlet with its own worn out boat dock.
Inside that house, in an empty back bedroom, two people sat on the floor, their backs propped against the wall, their hands and feet tied securely enough to make sure they couldn’t leave their accommodations at will. The man was tall and muscular, with golden brown hair that matched that of his younger sister so much that people often thought they were twins. He wore thin, gold-rimmed glasses, and ordinarily made a handsome picture to most observers. Right now, though, his face was marred by an ugly scratch and a couple of bruises, and his clothes were wrinkled and stained.
His companion was a young girl with stringy, blond hair … which at one time had probably been thick and shiny enough to attract a second and third look from most men. Right now, she was sitting beside him, sick with fear and wishing she’d never seen most of the men she’d ever known in her seventeen years. The one exception to that wish was her companion in this make-shift prison.
The only reason he was here at all was because he had tried to come to her rescue when she had tried to get away from what had turned out to be a group of drug dealers, and had been losing the battle for her freedom. He hadn’t succeeded in his attempt to help her. And now they were both facing whatever unknown horrors were being planned for them by the thugs that had tied them up while they carried out their own ugly business.
Kendall Hayes leaned his head back against the wall, his eyes closed, and prayed for the umpteenth time that day … as he had done for the last six days sitting in this room. The one drug dealer of the bunch who interacted with him and Sarah, his cell-mate, was Gary – Sarah’s boyfriend until his true identity and occupation had come to light. Gary came in twice a day with food and water, and led them away, one at a time, to the bathroom, standing guard just outside the door. That was the only precaution necessary, since the bathroom didn’t have even one window, and there was certainly no chance of escape from that cubbyhole. If they made enough fuss, he came and escorted one of them to the bathroom at other times, but it was a chore to convince him he needed to heed their urgency.
After the first four days of incarceration, Sarah had talked Gary into allowing her and Kendall a change of clothes from the suitcases they’d had with them. But other than those concessions, the plight of the inhabitants of this back bedroom seemed to be of no interest to anybody else on the premises.
“You prayin’ again?” Sarah asked her companion now as she saw he had his eyes closed and his lips moving.
He opened his eyes and smiled at her slightly. “Yeah … gotta stay at it.”
“You really believe your God’s gonna get us outta here?”
He sighed. “You ask me that every day, Sarah. And the answer is still the same. Yes … I really believe that.”
Tears welled up in the girl’s eyes, as they had several times during the last several days. “I sure wish I could believe.”
She had said that at least a dozen times in the days they’d shared this room, and Kendall had always given her the same answer. “You can, Sarah. Just ask Jesus to make Himself real to you, and you’ll be able to believe.” She hadn’t been able to bring herself to do that yet, but Kendall could tell she was closer than she had been the first couple of days. He closed his eyes again now.
“Please, Lord Jesus,” he whispered just loud enough for the girl to hear him too, “please make Yourself real to Sarah. She can’t ask You for herself, Lord, so I’m asking for her. Just help her a little more, Lord to recognize that You’re here and that You love her and want to help her. And please, Lord … send your angels to open up this prison and lead both of us out of here. I’m trusting you, Lord. I’m trusting you with all the faith I have.”
He’d prayed those same words, or some very similar, so many times his rational mind told him that it was no use to pray them again. But he had belonged to Jesus Christ for most of his life, and he’d always found Jesus faithful in times of trouble. Kendall was determined even now that he would not give up his faith in God’s love and delivering power.
Okay, all you folks out there who — like me — want to read a “real” book instead of a digital device, I have good news. The wait is over. Amazon now has my newest inspirational novel, SLATE, in paperback. I do a lot of reading online for hours every day. But when I want to relax and forget the whole rest of the world, I like to curl up in a comfortable place and hold an honest-to-goodness “book” in my hands while I read. Most all of my books come out in paperback and digital both, but until this past year, the paperbacks were not available on Amazon. Now all of them will be available there very soon.
If you didn’t see my promo for SLATE (the e-book) several months ago, you probably want to know what the book’s about. So I’ll give you a short trailer here to whet your appetite. Then you can find the book in paperback at this link. And don’t forget: if you do read it and like it, please leave me a review on the Amazon page. And if you don’t like it — just don’t say anything, okay? Thank you.