Book Review: Sunlight and Shadows

Just as Betty’s life comes into focus and all she wants is almost within reach, tragic circumstances rip it all away in Sunlight and Shadows by Jessica Marie Holt.

Jessica Marie Holt, one of my favorite short-story authors, has released her first novel Sunlight and Shadows. Set in 1870 in North Carolina, this wonderful story whisks you away to where power tools don’t exist and the characters still remind you that some tribulations echo throughout time.

My Thoughts on Sunlight and Shadows

While technology advances and knowledge increases, some aspects of society never change. Secrets, jealousy, responsibility, and insurmountable pain lives within the pages of history similar to the way they exist in most of our digital journals.

Sunlight and Shadows allows us the benefit of another time period with horses and hand-built furniture as it deals with some of the same hardships we have today. The author provides us with another benefit by creating relatable characters with certain talents and undeniable faults.

I started this book and then struggled to put it down. It delves into the life of fictional character Elizabeth (Betty) Everleigh as everything she knows nearly tumbles into a pile of unrecognizable fodder. But as time continues and her life’s story becomes clearer, she finds it easier to relate to those that hurt her most.

Sunlight and Shadows includes some sweet romance and deals most with parent-child and sibling relationships. You’ll also find wholesome themes such as faith and forgiveness as Betty finds her way through life’s trials.

Well-written and edited, this book is a dream for lovers of period fiction as well as general fiction. As a historical fiction piece, this book includes that which is necessary for the story; however, the story is not based on historical events. Don’t let it stop you from reading it, though. It is phenomenal from start to finish.

The official blurb

At seventeen, the only thing Betty Everleigh wants for her future is what she’s always had–a cozy home, a loving family, and a quiet life just outside of town.

Just when her dream is in reach, a sudden tragic event shatters her simple existence. As she picks up the pieces, she learns that her idyllic life was just a façade, and the truth beyond it is more complex and heartbreaking than she ever imagined.

To pull herself and her family together, she must find grace enough to forgive, faith enough to let go, and courage enough to move forward.

More Info

Purchase your copy of Sunlight and Shadows on Amazon.

Follow Jessica Marie Holt on Facebook   &  Goodreads

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The Healing

Sarah daydreams about the Resurrected Christ and the multitude and discovers her own miracle.

Sarah, holding her mother’s hand, stared at the marble Christus. The hands spread wide, welcoming her closer, the facial expression gentle. Her tight curls bounced across her head as she leaned back and gazed at the large statue. She wondered at the shiny white surface. Sunday school stories of Jesus calling for the children, children like her, sowed a simple peace in her heart. Her mother squeezed her hand.

“I’m going to look at the pictures on that wall. Stay in this room.”

Sarah nodded, resting her hands at her side, careful not to touch the velvet rope that separated her from the Christ. Her focus landed on the soft hands, where carved marks of the nails rested, then to his feet and side. Her heart thrummed in her chest, soft but apparent, as she wondered what it was like for Thomas to feel the nail prints in his hands and the sword print in his side.

As she focused on the statue’s palm, the marble appeared to change, white darkened, a warm golden tone taking its place. Sarah’s eyes widened, but recognizing the signs of a daydream, she remained in place.

Seconds later, she discovered herself surrounded by people. Children rested on fathers’ shoulders. Babes cooed in mothers’ arms. Clothing of every color blurred as it pushed past her, yet happiness and peace filled her soul. Those around her fell to their knees, heads bowed. But she remained, staring into the soft eyes.

With his finger and a wink, he motioned Sarah toward him. Her slippered feet carried her closer. His strong arms ensconced her, bringing her face to his eye level. He smiled. After the gentle hug, he held his hand in front of her, and she reached her fingers toward it. Pulling back slightly, she eyed him from the side.

He nodded.

The mark swallowed her finger as she lightly caressed it. The softness of the skin nothing like the hardness of the nails that had pierced it.

“It hurt?”

“Yes.”

“You could have stopped it, saved yourself?”

He nodded, a twinkle in his eye.

“But you didn’t.”

“No.”

“Why?”

“For you.”

He leaned toward her ear and whispered more. A smile rushed across her face, and she wrapped her arms around his neck before he placed her back on the ground. Moments later, she joined the crowd, the cool ground contrasting the warm feeling coursing through her.

The Savior called for the people to come forward, and Sarah watched as, one by one, men and women, the young and old got to their feet and stepped forward. A warm smile and welcoming arms greeted each one as they received the personal time they desired with the Savior, just as she had. Their fingers touched his hands, feet, and side. Some women cried as they kissed his feet, wiping away tears with the hems of dresses. Men unabashedly wept as they embraced him.

Time passed slowly, but children never fought and babes never cried. Adults talked of miracles and knelt in prayer. No one pushed or shoved to the front. Patience and love intervened, the procession one of reverence.

When the last returned, the Savior called the sick, disabled, and those otherwise in need of healing. The man standing next to her lifted a woman in his arms and carried her forward. Standing with his arms outstretched, Jesus motioned all the afflicted forward.

Pebbles poked at her knees as Sarah knelt on the ground, and she brushed them away. She suffered no ill but thought of her father, who lay in a hospital room ravaged by cancer. Even as young as she was, she knew the harsh treatment he received left him weak for days at a time. Just as he felt a little strength return, it was always time for another round. Prayer after prayer had been said on his behalf. Her mother wept every night for his relief. For her own, too. Tears came to her eyes as she watched the Savior lay his hands on the afflicted, healing them one by one.

As the last of the afflicted leaped from his bed, Jesus instructed the people to pray. Together, they bowed their heads and lifted their voices as he knelt a distance away.

“Hosanna, blessed be the name of the Most High God,” cried the people.

Tears streamed down Sarah’s face as she joined them. Though people often assumed age affected one’s ability to recognize God, she knew the truth. She might not understand everything, but she understood he loved her. She understood he loved those who hung him on a cross. She even understood he loved that mean guy who lived down the street and shouted at her every time she stopped to look at his pretty flowers.

When the Savior returned, warmth from her heart rippled through her arms as he spoke to the crowd. The day had passed, and the people still focused on him, but their eyes appeared tired, and their shoulders drooped with similar strains. Tears filled his eyes as he scanned their faces.

“You’re tired. Rest.”

No one moved. Sarah’s own heartbeat strengthened. She didn’t want to leave either. It couldn’t be time.

Brushing a tear from his eye, Jesus called for the little children. Parents carrying babies and holding the hands of their little ones helped them forward. Boys and girls sat on his lap, and he held a babe in each arm. Sarah’s lip quivered when he called her to join the others.

As she stepped forward, a bright light opened above him. People dressed in white, as beautiful as the Savior, surrounded the children, blessing them. One took her by the hand and walked with her.

“Child, you do not have a wish for yourself, do you?”

Sarah shook her head, eyes wide.

“But Jesus whispered to you. What did he say?”

“Not to worry. That everything would be okay.”

“Have you been worrying?”

Sarah nodded, her lip quivering again. “My daddy’s sick.”

“Do you know who Jesus is?”

“Yes.”

“Can you tell me what he did for you?”

“He helps my sins go away, and he died for me so I can return to Heavenly Father.”

“That’s right.”

“Do you think he can heal your daddy?”

Sarah bowed her head and studied her feet.

The angel squeezed her hand, then lifted her chin, encouraging her to answer.

“If it’s the best thing he can. Mama says it depends on God’s will.”

“That’s right. It’s time…”

The daydream faded at the sound of her mother’s voice.

“Sarah. It’s time to go.”

One more glance at the Christus in front of her and Sarah hurried to her mother.

“Where are we going?”

“To the hospital. Daddy had a scan today, and he wants us to hear the results with him.”

“What’s a scan?”

“The scan tells us whether or not the cancer is gone.”

She tugged on her mother’s arm, trying to run faster. “It is. It’s gone.”

Her mother pulled her back and crouched beside her. “We don’t know that Sarah. Most of the scans haven’t been great.”

“He’s better. I know it.”

“I hope you’re right, but if you’re not, it’s okay. God will take care of us and Daddy.”

“I know. He already has.”

Biting her lip, her mother rose from the ground and clasped Sarah’s hand. Tears floated in her eyes.

The quick drive to the hospital soon delivered Sarah and her mother, and they hurried to her father’s room.

“Where’s the doctor?” Sarah eased onto the foot of the bed with her mom’s help and stared at her dad.

“I’m right here.”

She turned in time to see the doctor walk into the room.

“My daddy’s better right?”

The doctor raised a brow, then quickly furrowed them. “Well. Let’s take a look. The last scan showed an increase, correct?”

Her parents both nodded.

A picture of her dad’s insides appeared on a lighted board, and the doctor pointed here and there, talking to her parents. Their faces crumpled, and Sarah stared from one to the other.

“He’s better, right?” A little butterfly entered her belly even though she’d been so sure.

Arms wrapped around her as her mother picked her up and swung her in a circle. “He’s better!”

She eyed her daddy. “You feel better, right?”

The room broke out with laughter.

“No, pretty, I don’t feel better yet. Cancer and my treatments hurt me a lot, but the doctor says my cancer has gone away.”

“I know that.”

Lifting her to stand next to her dad, Sarah’s mother met her gaze. “How did you know?”

“Jesus told me not to worry.”

“He did, did he?”

Her father poked her side, and she giggled.

“Yup.”

“When did he tell you that?” her mother asked.

Sarah looked at her. “Today, at his statue.”

Tears swept into her mother’s eyes. “She stood by the Christus the whole time.”

“What else did Jesus say?” her father asked.

The Resurrected Christ

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My Redeemer

Danielle wants nothing more than to win the Young Composers Competition, but at what cost?

My Redeemer

The eraser gouged the paper, bits of dirty white scoring joining the rubber crumbs on Danielle’s lap. Another measure that hadn’t worked the way she’d intended. Notes—full chords—flew off the page faster than they landed. Only the piece’s title space remained empty on the entry form. Two thousand dollars would go a long way toward next semester’s supplies. She had to win, but she still had no entry.

Ignoring Abigail as she slid into the chair across from her, Danielle ran her fingers over the tiny keyboard used to compose her assignments and supposedly her piece for the Young Composers Competition, a university-run contest. A raucous chord pelted her eardrums, and she dropped her hand to her side as her head hit the table.

“It can’t be that bad.” Abigail scooted her chair around and gazed at the crumpled staff paper. “They really should make gentler erasers.”

“Yeah.” Danielle lifted her head. “I don’t know why I’m trying, anyway. You’ll win.”

“You have to enter to win, right?”

“It usually helps.”

Danielle stared at her friend, who crinkled her nose.

“Why not?”

Abigail shifted in her chair. “Don’t feel like it. Besides, I’m not as good as you think.”

“Sure. Tell you what,” Danielle pushed the keyboard to the right, “I’m gonna give this to you, and you can write mine.”

“No. You’re doing great, but you should try an F instead of an E.”

“Thanks.”

Danielle’s cheek dropped to her waiting fist as she returned to the keyboard, a dull pencil between her teeth. If she could come up with a melody, the rest might fall into place, but her mind, usually filled with unwritten melodies, continued to fail her. It wasn’t empty. It was a traitor, filled with Bach, Mozart, and the chiming notes of NBC. If only no one recognized My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean. She might have a chance then.

As she plucked notes, Abigail would call out composers. Ritter, Beebe, Wolfe. Contempt churned within Danielle, and she struggled to keep her eyes from narrowing. “I wrote that.”

Abigail alto voice intoned the next few notes, and a visceral growl howled from Danielle’s throat.

“Maybe you should take a break.”

“No time. I need a melody.”

Abigail stood up. “I have conducting class. Will you be here a while? Watch my other books?”

“Sure, why not?”

Abigail patted Danielle’s shoulder as she sauntered out of the room.

Danielle glared at her third piece of destroyed staff paper and pulled out another sheet. When the staves started dancing, she pressed her forefinger and thumb against the corners of her eyes. The blank page with ten groups of five straight lines taunted her. Of course. Beethoven’s Fifth.

Danielle flung her head backward and stared at the fluorescent light above. Two thousand dollars slipping through her fingers because the only melodies floating through her head weren’t her own. She needed some kind of inspiration. Something never heard before to help set her mind at ease.

Her gaze fell on Abigail’s books. Underneath Vocal Solos for the Intermediate Singer and Music Theory III, was the notebook Danielle had seen her friend scribbling melodies in day after day. A peek wouldn’t hurt. The carpet massaged the bottoms of her bare feet as she shuffled to the other side of the table and opened the notebook. Flipping through the pages, she landed on one and grabbed the keyboard. She played through the eight-bar melody and shrugged. It wasn’t bad. One after another, she played through Abigail’s scribbled notations. Some had been for Music Theory, others appeared to be for herself.

Another page turned, and Danielle’s eyebrows crumpled as she worked to decipher the notations under the giant X. Carefully, she placed her hand on the tiny keyboard and played the first few measures. A warmth eased into her chest, and she continued. In the middle of the page, a line from Handel’s Messiah entwined with Abigail’s melody. I Know That My Redeemer Liveth. The famous oratorio’s line had often been used in other pieces, but not like this. Danielle closed the notebook.

Nothing spoke to her as much as what Abigail had written. The notes had floated off the page into the air with such tenderness. Sure there were a few rough patches, but not many. She eased the book open again.

A copy wouldn’t hurt. She only wanted to consider it as she worked on her own composition. Abigail wouldn’t mind that at all. Pencil in hand, she copied the melody onto her blank page. The dancing lines disappeared, and countermelodies with harmonies drifted through her mind. She left them off the paper but mentally grasped at them, noting the ones she liked, and the ones that scratched painfully at her ears.

The paper slipped into her folder as Abigail swayed into the room humming the waltz the classes used to practice conducting. Danielle joined in the humming for a moment, then smiled.

“I take it things are better now.” Abigail gathered her books.

“They will be. I hope you don’t mind, I looked at some of your melodies.”

“They’re not much to look at.”

“That’s not true, but it was hard to ignore the big X across the one.”

Abigail groaned. “That was a bad day.”

“I guess so.”

That night, Danielle lay on her bed with her personal keyboard. Full-sized keys made such a difference. Still, the only song in her head was Abigail’s. Unwritten vocal parts now added more warmth. Ignoring it was impossible.

Several sheets of staff paper fell to the mattress as she prepared for what was unavoidable. Chord after chord soon adorned the page. Eraser marks wore some areas thin, but only a few. It was as if the song had always existed in her mind, just without the melody. She worked through the night, unable to rest. Once she finished it, she could put it away and work on her own piece.

When her roommate came in, she donned a set of earbuds and continued her work. Complaints of the annoying light eventually sounded, and she switched to the softer flashlight on her phone. She’d heard of composers finding themselves unable to stop but never imagined it happening to her.
By morning, dark circles had formed under her eyes, and her hand, now stiff, cried out in pain with every movement. But she held a choral piece worthy of at least some sort of accolade. She had to show it to Abigail. Maybe they could enter the Young Composers Competition together.

A hurried frenzy ensued as Danielle grabbed clothes from the basket of unfolded laundry near the end of her bed. The only item given care as she got ready for the day: the composition. With her backpack strapped to her bike, she pedaled toward the music building. She and Abigail both had Class Piano—the perfect class to show her what she’d done with the melody.

The soft clacking of students practicing on the digital pianos while wearing headphones welcomed her to the room, and she looked for Abigail. Where was she? Abigail never missed class, and not a single tardy bone existed in her body. It didn’t matter today, but entries for the Young Composers Competition were due at the end of the week. Danielle shrugged. She’d be back in time.

When Abigail didn’t show up the next day, Danielle started inputting the song into the computer. While some notation software worked with a keyboard, recognizing notes and rhythms, hers didn’t. Mouse click by torturous mouse click, she prepared the manuscript. By the second day, simple words that fit with the line from the Messiah accompanied musical notations.

It was due.

If Abigail didn’t show up today, Danielle would lose her chance. She’d already adjusted to losing a thousand dollars of the prize money by entering with Abigail. Something about that didn’t seem fair since she’d done all the work except the melody—the melody Abigail described as a bad day. But what happened if her friend didn’t appear? In three days, she hadn’t answered phone calls, texts, or emails. Danielle had tried everything to contact her. If she didn’t come…

Abigail’s seat in choir remained empty for the fourth day in a row. Scores were due by 3:00 PM. Ten minutes. Danielle’s chest tightened painfully. She couldn’t let this opportunity pass her by. She pulled out a pen and froze, holding it above the co-composer line. In the process of writing the harmonies and countermelodies, some of the original had changed, and Danielle had done all of that plus the words. Two thousand dollars. She could win. Abigail showed no interest. Setting the pen down, Danielle slid the composition and the entry form into the manila envelope.

“Dr. Caltrez?”

The older gentleman looked up from his desk and held out his hand. Danielle placed the envelope in his palm but didn’t let go.

“Are you planning to keep it, or to enter?” He asked pointedly.

She swallowed as she released the pages. “Enter.”

“Consider it done.”

“Thank you.”

She exited the theory professor’s office and leaned against the wall, clenching her eyes shut. Air rushed into her lungs, her eyes flying open, and she dashed out the door to her bike. She needed to tell Abigail what she’d done, but what would she say? No, she couldn’t tell Abigail. She’d left her name off the entry form. What did it matter? She probably wouldn’t win anyway, then no one would know.

The winners would be announced in three weeks. The week of Easter. How fitting that her composition accompanied such a holiday. She tried to swallow, but her muscles refused. If she won and Abigail heard the song, Danielle had no hope of absolution. The thought of expulsion struck her. Was that in the rules? She pushed the thoughts from her mind. Abigail didn’t care about the contest. She had no interest in it, or she would have entered. She’d said as much herself.

Three weeks had never dragged on so slowly for Danielle. Each day the clouds surrounding her darkened, especially when Abigail’s pleasant smile greeted her with kindness. Time after time, Danielle attempted to tell her friend of her iniquity—her plagiarism. But a lump always formed in her throat, and she bit her lip until the opportunity passed. Shared classes with Abigail attacked her senses; fiery darts clung to her soul. Finally, the day came, and Danielle rushed to the theater.

Most of her classmates had already entered the auditorium, and Danielle scanned the room for Abigail but didn’t see her. As others settled into their seats, she thought about the process. Judges invited a small group of students to learn the winning compositions, which could be choral or instrumental.

When Dr. Caltrez approached the microphone, Danielle took her seat and exhaled. She didn’t see Abigail anywhere.

“Welcome, students and faculty to the annual Young Composers Competition. We received over two hundred entries this year. Our judges, comprising Joseph Goodwin with the Mountain Madrigals, Judy Houston with the Littlemonte Orchestra, local composer Venice Royce, and myself, have poured over your work and are quite impressed.” He cleared his throat. “But, as must happen every year, we’ve narrowed it down to three winners.”

The third-place winner was announced.

Danielle swallowed, but her mouth felt dry, leaving her throat without relief. Her hands slid around her middle as she tried desperately to still her shaking body. The work she’d put into the project had to count for something, but… She couldn’t think about that. She had to focus on the present, not the past. Not her theft. She rocked back and forth. Some people clapped. Most copied her swaying motion with their fingers crossed.

Abigail isn’t here. Abigail isn’t here.

The second place winner was announced. She let out a little sigh. Two down.
Abigail isn’t here.

“Before we announce the first place winner, I want to tell you why this composition won. This piece includes a countermelody that functions beautifully within it, and the harmonies entwine with each other as if individual melodies, each voice standing alone, yet supporting one another.”

It was hers. Danielle knew it; it was hers. And her countermelody and harmonies were the reason. She deserved…

“But this composition works well because of how the melody integrates rhythm and the known with the unknown. “He raised his eyes and scanned the crowd, his gaze falling on her. “Our first place winner is My Redeemer by Danielle Needles.”

A painful thumping beat against her sternum as the curtains opened. She’d won. No, Abigail had won. It was Abigail’s melody, her rhythm, her use of Handel. But Abigail didn’t know. Besides, Danielle reminded herself, she’d changed some of the melody, making it her own.

The piano played the short introduction, and Danielle closed her eyes, focusing on the harmonies. As the altos took over the melody, her eyes opened. That voice. Abigail stood on stage, tears running down her face as she focused on Danielle.

Danielle sank further into her seat as nausea set in. Not only did Abigail stand on the stage with knowledge of her depravity, but she’d known for days and said nothing. She’d attended rehearsals, learned the music, and had every opportunity to turn Danielle in, yet she hadn’t. The tears running down her friend’s face proved she cared. Why hadn’t she made an accusation? The pit in Danielle’s stomach deepened.

As the song ended, and the room erupted in applause, Dr. Caltrez invited Danielle onto the stage to accept a plaque. Each step promised to throw her to the ground. Her mind collapsed inward as she considered her unworthiness. Nothing could make this better. The pain of her fraud beat in her chest, her feet, her mind. Who would carry her when she fell?

Dr. Caltrez held out his hand, but she kept hers by her side, her head bowed.

“I can’t accept this.”

The aging professor leaned closer. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.”

A rhythmic tapping sounded on the black floor of the stage, and Abigail appeared beside Danielle. Her friend grasped her hand with a smile. “Dani, take the award.”

The words were soft, but they echoed through Danielle’s mind as if shouted.

She met Abigail’s gaze. “I can’t.”

“You can. I want you to. Accept it.”

Tears pooled in Danielle’s eyes, then fell to her feet, and she reached out and shook Dr. Caltrez’s hand, thanking him. Turning, she flung her arms around Abigail, hugging her.

They walked off the stage together, and in the wings, Danielle clasped both of Abigail’s hands as tears traced lines down her own face. “The money’s yours. The whole award should be yours.”

“No. You took a piece of me and created what I couldn’t.”

“But I stole it.”

Abigail nodded.

Danielle shook her head. “I could have added your name.”

She nodded again.

“I didn’t. Abby, why aren’t you mad?”

Abigail met Danielle’s eyes with a steady gaze. “How can I be forgiven, if I don’t forgive?”

“What forgiveness do you need? You did nothing wrong.”

“Maybe not this time.” She smiled softly. “Just don’t do it again, okay?”

Later that night, Danielle marveled at her friend’s grace, trying to understand her kindness. She’d provided mercy without thought of justice. Dust floated off the book as Danielle blew on it, then took it in her hand and turned to the marked chapter. Only one person had lived capable of honoring both justice and mercy. He’d chosen to serve both. Slipping to her knees, Danielle uttered the words prodding her heart: Though unworthy, he will forgive me. I know that my Redeemer liveth.

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Be At Peace

Meagan attends church every week, but hasn’t liked attending Easter services for years.

The flowing, deep green grass carpeted the landscape in front of the church, and the white steeple hadn’t changed since last week. Birds still sang, and fragrant purple flowers drooped from the top of the Mountain Texas Laurel planted near the doors. Meagan breathed deeply, hoping the sweet grape-scented aroma would find its way through the car’s vents and into her lungs to help her racing heart slow. It didn’t.

She watched as Palo Verde blossoms floated on the gentle breeze and rained down on young girls, wearing full skirts with ribbons at their waists, as they passed. Meagan wore bright white hats for such days when she was a child. Now she donned a simple dress she’d purchased several months previously. Comfort played a considerably larger role in her life than it had then.

As the digital clock on her dash flickered to 8:58, Meagan pushed her door open and laboriously climbed out of her car. Another beautiful Easter morning. But enjoying Easter had been difficult for many years. That was the day Pastor Seth focused on forgiveness of sin, and her—their responsibility to also show mercy.

Some things were just too hard to excuse. Why imperfect beings had to forgive made sense, but she didn’t want to listen to it again. Not this year, or the year before, or three years before that. Yet, each year, Meagan lumbered out of bed, got dressed, and drove to the church. Several families appeared only for Easter services. Not her. She attended every week, and couldn’t bring herself to skip the one Sunday a year she wanted to.

She shook her head as she reached for the door handle and stepped inside.
It wasn’t as if she’d suffered abuse or lost everything at the hands of someone else. No one had destroyed her reputation. But she still struggled.
Peeking into the chapel, she eased into the back corner where escape was more manageable. A few stragglers stepped into the room behind her, and she studied her hands as the passersby waved at others in the congregation. The prelude swelled then slowed to a final chord as Pastor Seth stood. Meagan exhaled and lifted her head.

“What a glorious Easter! Brothers and sisters, today we come to worship Jesus Christ and his resurrection. On such a day, communion becomes that much more important, but before we partake of that sacrament, I want to share a poem I recently discovered by Joseph L. Townsend.”

Rev’rently and meekly now,
Let thy head most humbly bow.
Think of me, thou ransomed one;
Think what I for thee have done.
With my blood that dripped like rain,
Sweat in agony of pain,
With my body on the tree
I have ransomed even thee.

As the pastor’s calming voice intoned the poem, Meagan willed the words to flow over her. Jesus had suffered, not only on the cross, but during his entire ministry. All kinds of people followed him, but only a few listened. Many followed to deride him and spew hate. Thoughts of the five thousand swirled in her mind. The crowds gathered, trailing him after he learned of John the Baptist’s death. But instead of sending them away, he turned to them, healing their sick and afflicted, then feeding them. His prayers to the Father waited until he’d finally found himself alone.

What would the disciples have heard if they’d been able to stay awake as he prayed in Gethsemane? Luke said he’d suffered in agony, an angel strengthening him. And the sweat—physical agony racked his body then, too, not just mental strife.

Bid thine heart all strife to cease;
With thy brethren be at peace.
Oh, forgive as thou wouldst be
E’en forgiven now by me.
In the solemn faith of prayer

Her head shot up at the mention of forgiveness. Was this Pastor Seth’s ploy? Again. What did it matter if she forgave? The women who had destroyed her daughter’s self-esteem, who snickered as she walked by, who taught their children to despise hers, they weren’t around anymore. Each of them had moved away. Her daughter’s broken heart elicited no effect on their lives. Emma, alone, endured the all-encompassing sting they’d inflicted. Meagan’s skin crawled every time she thought about it. Emma spread only joy, but even her smile buckled when the girls pointed at her wide eyes and large lips and laughed. In time, Meagan stopped bringing her to church—the one place she should have felt safe.

Still, the words hung in her mind. Forgive as thou wouldst be e’en forgiven now by me. What effect did her sins have on Christ?

None.

Yet, he suffered. He chose to suffer for the sake of her salvation. The decision to forgive her came from him as he strove to do the Father’s will. Only he could do it, and he could have walked away. But he didn’t. He forgave her. He forgave everyone willing to follow him.

At the throne I intercede;
For thee ever do I plead.
I have loved thee as thy friend,
With a love that cannot end.
Be obedient, I implore,
Prayerful, watchful evermore,
And be constant unto me,
That thy Savior I may be.

Tears rolled down Meagan’s cheeks. How had she never considered the sliver of similarity between forgiving these women and the Savior’s forgiveness of her? He forgave her with no other reason than her happiness.

Tormented thoughts returned. Her forgiveness of those mothers, who called Emma names and encouraged their children to do the same, had no bearing on anyone.

She dropped her head.

“Today I want to focus on the second stanza. Bid thy heart all strife to cease, with thy brethren be at peace.” Pastor Seth drummed his fingers on the podium. “What does that have to do with Christ’s sacrifice?”

Silence pervaded the room. Children quieted, perhaps with help from their parents.

All strife to cease…be at peace. Was the sacrifice only for our sins? I don’t believe so. In the third stanza, he called us his friends. What would you do for your friend? For your children?”

She’d done all she could. Called the mothers, written letters, begged the late Pastor Greg for help. Nothing worked. Miracle described her continued church attendance. If they had taunted her, she might have laughed with them, but Emma?

Pastor Seth’s glance passed by Meagan and the strength of his words filled her whole being.

Forgive as thou wouldst be e’en forgiven now by me. These are words following statements of peace. I ask you, brothers and sisters, one thing: Do you feel peace after forgiving your offender?”

Meagan rose to her feet and wandered toward the door as the congregation finished singing There is a Green Hill Far Away.

Oh, dearly, dearly has he loved!
And we must love him too,
And trust in his redeeming blood,
And try his works to do.

Could she trust in his redeeming blood? Was that the missing piece to forgiving those women? She’d held onto the grief and pain for her daughter for so long. What if she allowed Christ to heal her? Could she forgive then? She’d never experienced a more hurtful situation. Most of the time forgiveness came easily because everyone made mistakes and usually the offense wasn’t intended. Those women had acted purposefully. But did they care?

She did.

Her daughter’s precious, little soul cried for weeks, months. And understanding wasn’t something she possessed. Sure, she’d forgotten and moved on, but Meagan hadn’t. Her heart pounded wildly in her chest each time a memory of sitting on Emma’s bed and holding her after such attacks appeared. The acidic misery she’d uncovered within herself when Emma announced the new nickname the children had given her still ran through her blood in roiling waves.

Maybe it didn’t matter if anyone else cared. Didn’t forgiveness mean setting aside the anger? If she gave up the anger, would the pain and anguish dissipate, too? The thoughts stayed with her as she drove home where Emma greeted her with a giant smile.

“Mama. I drew a picture.”

“You did? Let me see.”

Emma held out a picture, two people hugging each other.
“That’s Jesus. He loves me.”

“Yes, he does. Is that you?”

“No. That’s you. Jesus saw you cry today.”

Meagan wrapped her arms around her daughter, now an adult. “Thank you for sharing your picture with me, Emma.”

The next week, Meagan jumped from the car, her feet leaving trails in the tiny yellow flowers still falling from the trees as she rounded the car and clasped Emma’s hand.

“I can make friends?”

“You can make lots of friends.”

“I like friends.”

“Me too.”

Meagan stared at the steeple, bright and white, pure, like Jesus. Her heart had started to mend. The process continued, but she’d let go of some of the rage caused by Emma’s attackers. Now she watched, as her daughter walked through the same doors she had once before. No tears, no worry, just a big smile at the thought of making new friends. And she would, Meagan knew it.

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The Bond Without Borders

As Dottie prepares to visit her estranged father, who’s in hospice care, memories flood her mind. Can she find peace?

As the light flicked on, the turquoise stone, set in sterling silver, sent a piercing gleam from its polished surface back into the room. The silver had once shone just as much, but years of wear followed by years of neglect had clouded the tarnished metal many times over. Given as a gift to twelve-year-old Dottie by her father, it probably had never been intended to last as long as it had. But even as a child, Dottie considered what items she would keep for a lifetime. The teddy bears and notes from friends had disappeared long ago; the necklace hadn’t.

An adult woman now, she reached into the sparse jewelry box, with its broken drawers and dusty ring cushion, to where the single chain hung from the long-ago-bent revolving hooks. The cool silver caressed her warm fingertips as she slipped it off the wrung to look closer at the pendant. Memories floated to the surface, and her mind clutched one, unwilling to let it pass.

“Over here!”

Dottie sprinted to the next wooden grave marker, then waved to her dad, trying to hurry him along.

He let out a soft whistle. “Would you look at that?”

“Do you know who he was?

Her hand rested on her hip as she stared at the words ‘hung by mistake.’

“No idea, but I don’t think 1882 was George’s year.”

After years of begging her dad to visit the old west, he finally conceded and booked a weekend for them in legendary Tombstone.

The courthouse museum, with all the old pictures and artifacts, had kept Dottie’s attention for the ten minutes it took her to run through the rooms. But her dad finagled an additional ten minutes with promises of a carriage ride and ice cream cones. Spring break’s weather, still cooler than summer, left the dusty-road travelers feeling a little warm under the collar. Or it would have, if they’d worn collars instead of T-shirts. Either way, the breeze was hot enough to enjoy an ice cream in the shade. Wild West Days, an annual Tombstone celebration of the armed forces, entertained them with a parade and plenty of people in period costumes.

But Dottie spent much of her time staring into an antique store’s jewelry case. She couldn’t help it. The small blue-green stone held her gaze, mesmerizing her. And every time they walked past the shop, she tugged on her dad’s arm until he followed her inside, shook his head no, and thanked the shop owner. The morning they were leaving, she convinced him, one last time, to walk the dusty trail to the store. But when she hurried to the case, ready to begin her final pleas, she stopped short. It was gone. Crestfallen, she exited the building and traipsed away, her dad following behind. Ten minutes later, convinced by her father, Dottie shuffled into the Boothill Cemetery.

Unimpressed by the lack of trees and grass, she scanned over the piles of rock interspersed with prickly pear and barrel cacti. Then one of the markers caught her attention, and she burst out laughing. ‘Lester Moore Shot by Four Slugs from A-44, NO LES NO MORE.’ After that, she darted from one to another, stopping only at the more interesting grave sites. Her dad smiled at her each time.

Afterward, as they approached the truck, Dottie’s father handed her a bottle of water. “I’ve got to look at your seat for a minute. I noticed it squeaking.”

“It doesn’t squeak.”

“Are you sure about that?”

She gave him an incredulous look. “Yeah.”

“I think you’re losing your hearing,” he said, shaking his finger at her as he walked toward the passenger side.

“I am not.”

Giving up, she leaned against the truck and twisted off the water bottle lid, enjoying her respite from the sun in the sliver of shade made by the cab.

When her dad called her, she climbed in, still grinning.

“So, did you have fun?” he asked.

“Yes.”

Three short bounces on the seat confirmed her answer.

“Me too, I think we should have more vacations like this, don’t you?”

“I keep telling you that!”

He chortled as he ruffled the top of her head.

It wasn’t until they were almost home, that Dottie looked up at the rearview mirror to see what kept flashing light into her eyes. She must have looked past it a billion times. And as she stared at it, her eyes widened.

“Dad?”

“Hmm?”

“You bought it!” She pounded the seat as she tried to reach for the necklace. “You let me think someone else did.”

“Well, I wanted it to be a surprise.” His eyes twinkled as he gave her sideways glances.

She rubbed her thumb across the stone, then gently began removing the tarnish from the silver. No matter how many times she considered selling the necklace, which would bring in a fair amount of cash, she couldn’t do it. The money may have helped some, and although she’d refused to talk to her father…

Tears welled in her eyes, and she blinked lightly to keep them from falling. Whether she reined in the tears or not barely mattered. She couldn’t relieve the tension wrapped around her lungs and heart, thousands of rubber bands winding tighter and tighter. Gasping for air, the dam in her mind broke, and she leaned against the counter from the force of the memory.

“No! You don’t have a say in what I do with my life. Not anymore!”

“I’m not trying to control you, Dot.”

“Then what do you call it? You refuse to let him in the house; you give him dirty looks every time you see him. Then there’s the way you talk to me about how terrible he is and why I need to re-think my choice.”

Her dad hung his head and stared at the ground, his hands in his back pockets.

“I just don’t see how you can want to be with someone like that.”

“Like what, Dad? A guy that loves me and takes care of me?

“Is that what you call it?”

She slammed her school books down on the table. “Yes. That’s what I call it.”

“Psychology, huh?”

Dottie scowled at him. “You’re changing the subject.”

He shook his head. “Just wondering if that book has anything in it about manipulation. Thought it might help you see what that boy is doing to you.”

Hot breath seared her lips. “Him? Manipulative? Have you looked at yourself recently? I’m done. If you can’t support me and the guy I’m going to marry, then—”

She stomped out of the house, letting the thought hang there. Then what?

That night she’d ripped the chain from her neck and threw it across her bedroom where it landed in the corner. It lay there for a month. Phone calls, emails, late night and early morning knocks at the door all went ignored. She’d refused to allow him an apology.

Tears now flooded the counter. How could she have gone so long without seeing her father? Even after the divorce, she’d refused. She’d never told him he was right. Mental anguish kept her from admitting the abusive power of her ex-husband’s manipulation. Pride kept her from calling home.

With the silver polished and as shiny as it would get, she undid the tiny, gold safety pin she’d used to hold the chain together in the jewelry box and began the process of replacing the broken clasp. A few minutes later, she sank into the driver’s seat of her car.

The worn building needed a facelift, and Dottie wondered what kind of place she’d relegated her father to. When the social worker called, Dottie had refused to see him but agreed to take responsibility for his care. After three years in a home, they recommended he move to hospice. Hospice. Why did she allow herself to hang onto such anger? The hate he must feel for her… Painful surges coursed through her limbs as the bands tightened around her chest again. How could she have hated him for so long?

“Right this way.”

A nurse escorted her toward a dark room. Her dad lay in a bed, able to view a TV with little volume or a generic print of a clay flower pot. Though a few monitors beeped, no other support was provided. The sight of withered skin and a frail body that bore some resemblance to her dad brought her to her knees next to the bed. She picked up his cold hand and brought it to her lips before placing it on her cheek.

“Daddy?”

His thin eyelids, more ashen than she remembered, fluttered, and tiny slits opened.

“Dot.” Her name croaked from between his dried lips.

Her chin trembled. “I’m sorry, Daddy.”

“What for?” Gentle pressure from his fingertips told her he was trying to squeeze her hand.

“Staying away. I miss you.”

A wash of emotion flooded her system. She’d missed him. The whole time. Years of missing him. It’s why she didn’t get rid of the necklace. But anger had taken control.

“I was so mad,” she said. “Then I—”

Sobs stopped her from speaking, but she took a rag and, while shaking, gently wiped his mouth and nose.

“Scared.”

The single word stopped her fidgeting.

“I didn’t mean to scare you.”

He shook his head. “You were scared.”

The words slipped between his shallow breaths.

“Yes,” she whispered. “I was.”

“I was never…” the words hung for a moment as he caught his breath, “angry.”

“You weren’t?”

His head moved left and right again.

“But I was so mean, and I ignored you for so long?”

“You are… my child.” His eyes opened just a little more. “I love you.”

“I love you too.”

He nodded. “I know.”

“How?”

“I’m your dad.”

She sat by his side every night and every weekend for three weeks. His inability to speak much meant she shared the stories. Stories of abuse and divorce followed by stories of finished education and success in the work place.

“I teach first grade and adore my students,” she told him.

As the stories continued, she switched to memories she had of them together. Of course, she mentioned Tombstone. He pointed at the necklace and tried to speak, but she patted his hand and told him to rest.

A week later, she pulled out the cardboard box hospice had given her. With the funeral in a few days, she wanted to find the picture of her and her dad that she’d placed next to his bed. On top of the framed photo, lay a worn leather-bound journal. Her fingers traced the pattern on the outside.

T-O-M-B-S-T-O-N-E.

Opening the journal, Dottie found only a few pages filled.

Took Dottie to Tombstone. She begged so much for a vacation, I was certain she’d die if we didn’t go somewhere. I picked up this journal thinking I’d start keeping track of other vacations we take.

Dottie keeps me on my toes, but I can’t help but love her. It’s hard not to laugh, even when she breaks the rules. I suppose I wouldn’t laugh if she got hurt for not following them though.

We did all kinds of things. I enjoyed the courthouse, but Dot has a way of pulling me on to greater things. She bounced all over the carriage during our ride, and I’ve never seen a twelve-year-old enjoy ice cream quite the way she did. Biting the bottom of the cone first and catching the drips from underneath and above. She’s one talented girl!

She must have dragged me into the same store five different times. Had her eye on this turquoise necklace. Never in my life did I think turquoise would be so expensive. With just the two of us, purchasing it without her noticing was nearly impossible. But I slipped a note to the owner with the money and told her we’d be back the next day. Somehow, I knew Dot would have me back in there. I put up a bit of a fight for show. The owner managed to give me the necklace as Dottie searched the case for the missing thing. Can’t believe I pulled it off.

As I was placing the necklace for her to find, I realized the tiny pendant was a locket, the latch is hidden as a button next to the stone. Knowing it would be a long time before Dottie figured that out, I scratched out a note for her. So if you notice the last page missing here, that’s where it went.
I sure do love that girl.

Dropping the journal, Dottie fumbled with the clasp to remove the necklace and examine the pendant. Even as she cleaned it, she hadn’t found any button or seam indicating it was a locket. A small round of silver held the set stone, and she examined the several decorative posts that stood against a darkened etching. Two larger posts stood slightly taller than the others. Pushing her thumbnail against the one on the right, nothing happened, but when she pushed the one on the left, a popping noise sounded.

As she lifted the top, she realized the smaller bottom rested inside of it. A tiny scrap of paper fell into her palm.

I love you even when you screw up. Love yourself just as much. Dad

Dottie bit her lip, then kissed the scrap of paper, placing it back in the locket. “Love you too, Dad.”

Three days later, Dottie stood next to her father’s casket as the only one left in the room. Blotting her tears away with a tissue, she whispered a few private words, then slipped a note under his hand and added a pin to his lapel. The tiny turquoise stone was all she could afford, but she knew he’d understand. Before leaving, she placed two fingers to her lips and then touched his cheek. “I love you.”

My love has no bounds. Our bond has no borders. Dot


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A Lighter Christmas

After a devastating accident Martha isn’t sure her anger can subside, but with a little help, she’s willing to make a change.

arkness surrounded Martha for a long time before she heard the voices. Gentle hands touched her, and a bright light flashed in each of her eyes. She couldn’t close them. What held them open?

A Lighter Christmas

Darkness surrounded Martha for a long time before she heard the voices. Gentle hands touched her, and a bright light flashed in each of her eyes. She couldn’t close them. What held them open?

“What h-happened?” The words, so strong in her mind, barely slurred past her lips. Everything hurt, yet only confusion coursed through her.

“You’ve been in an accident. Can you tell me your name?”

Name? What was her name? “M-Martha.”

Questions continued, but Martha’s brain remained sluggish. A thought pounded in the back of her consciousness, refusing to manifest. Where had she been that night?

“John. Where’s my husband? John?”

No one answered. Had the words crossed her lips? Someone sat next to her, holding her hand. John? She couldn’t see him, but he was there. John? Understanding of his death overwhelmed her. Chaos enveloped her as paramedics loaded her into the ambulance. John stayed with her. Annoying utterances called out commands and occasional questions at her. He prompted her answers.

At the hospital, doctors discovered internal bleeding, severe bruising, and a mangled limb. Blurriness clouded her vision then all went black. Passed out or anesthetized, she wasn’t sure, but the pain subsided for a short period. Then she woke up.

Christmas included celebrations with strangers and an extended visit from her adult son, which brought her joy. But with John’s hand no longer holding hers, emptiness and anger oozed from her heart, polluting her body’s ability to heal.

Struck by a drunk driver, missing a leg, and the death of her husband—no one condemned her rage. How could they? But as the physical healing sluggishly began, the hatred still festered.

She’d known the boy for months, a student at the school where she taught. Fourth row, fifth seat, until she’d moved him up. Sixteen and drinking—he received nothing more than a few hours in jail. He’d faced manslaughter charges, but they were soon dismissed. That left her with weeks in the hospital and a stump that suffered endless agony while he hung out with friends.

The following year, Martha shuffled to her car from her church’s Christmas program. The prosthesis rubbed at her skin, despite the sock, but she walked. Stopping to rest, her gaze lifted to the lights and displays that celebrated the Savior’s birth.

In front of her, the worn nativity, placed on the lawn each year, called her forward. Vandalized several times, some plastic figures had spots of splotchy paint and dents. Joseph suffered a crack on his side. She stared at the figure in the manager, a small doll with a mature look.

Though she considered leaving, something kept her there. And her numb fingers clutched the insides of her pockets as warmth swelled within her chest. The shabby doll, one eye a lighter shade than the other, represented the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who walked the earth teaching his gospel of forgiveness. His greatest miracle and example apparent when he suffered for the sins of all men. In return, he asked only that man believe in him and keep his commandments. The scriptures said he sweat great drops of blood. As much pain as Martha had experienced, imagining the misery of bleeding from every pore still eluded her. A softness entered her mind, speaking to her. Focusing, she swept the words forward: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.

Forgive who? The salty tears of knowledge soon welled in her eyes. “I can’t,” she whispered.

You must.

A hand rested on her shoulder, but Martha stood alone. He’d been gone for so long. A warming peace surrounded her—strength overpowering fear and anger.

“Why are you here?” She asked John.

To help you.

“You’re not really here.”

Lighten your burden. Forgive.

“Is it that easy?”

Christ’s burden is light; let him carry yours.

“How?”

The touch at her shoulder faded, but the warmth remained. On the way home, Christmas lights strung on the eaves of homes pricked at her understanding. Over the last year, she’d spent countless months in physical torment. Emotional agony crashed down on her every time memories of that night gained her attention. But remembrances of John had become almost more sweet than painful, a blessing she’d begged to receive from the Lord. The pain from the accident might never go completely away, but if Jesus took the sins of the world upon himself, and blessed her to remember John without crying, he would remove her anger. Wouldn’t he?

As her front door opened, Martha’s eyes found the porcelain nativity sitting on her coffee table. White lights from the Christmas tree reflected off each piece. The babe, sent to earth by his Father, died for her. Had he not done the same for the boy who sat in the fourth row, fifth seat?

She knew his name: Jay. She hadn’t allowed it to touch her lips since the accident. Doing so reminded her of his smile and his ridiculous sense of humor.

She sank to the couch. “Father, thank you for sending thy Son, Jesus Christ, and helping me through losing my leg and J-John. I’ve been so angry. Wilt thou forgive my anger and take it from me that I might forgive Jay?”

Thoughts and prayers swirled inside Martha’s head for weeks. Scriptures read by the light of the Christmas tree and prayers uttered from wherever she was helped her learn to trust the lord, and the anger faded. Wanting to put her forgiveness to the test, she devised a plan.

Christmas morning, Martha rose and entered the kitchen. Ingredient after ingredient found its way onto the counter, and she mixed a special treat. Fudge brownies covered with a delicious mint frosting.

Singing along to Christmas music, she focused on the memories she had of Jay in class. She hadn’t moved him from the rear to the front because he talked too much. Another student needed help with his math, and Jay agreed to tutor him. A popular kid, she’d seen Jay say hi to students from various social groups.

She didn’t know why he chose to drink or why he’d climbed in the car and attempted to drive. And although it affected her significantly, she didn’t have to live with the pain. Christ provided a way for her to give it all away if she’d forgive.

The aroma from the warm pan of brownies in the seat next to her soon floated on the air. Hands shaking, she steered the car to the side of the road and parked in front of Jay’s house. Closing her eyes, she waited as a warmth surrounded her. Her hands trembled for a moment as she gathered the dessert and stepped to the door. No hatred clutched her. She rang the bell.

Jay’s mother answered the door and stared at Martha, eyes wide. “May I help you?”

“Hello. I’ve come to see Jay if he’s available.”

The woman’s jaw dropped, her gaze frozen.

“I want to wish him a Merry Christmas.”

“Of course… Jay, door.” She turned back to Martha, “Please come in.”

Jay walked toward the entryway and stopped when he saw Martha. His mother scooted his sisters and father to the other room.

The boy stayed where he was, rigid.

“I wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas.” Martha stepped closer to him.

“Why?”

Her single leg twitched. “I’ve been thinking about you and how much I enjoyed having you in my class.”

His brows furrowed. “That’s it?”

“For today it is.”

“You’re not mad?”

“Mad about what?” She lifted an eyebrow.

His head bowed, and Martha saw a tear fall to the floor.

“I didn’t mean to hurt anyone. I haven’t had a drink since then and never will. That’s a promise I made to myself.”

Martha nodded, surprised by her sincere smile. “I know you won’t. You messed up pretty bad, but it’s time we both let it go.”

His tear-stained face raised, and he met her gaze. “How?”

“Well, if your parents allow it, I’d like to tell you.”

Read more Christmas and other short stories at KameoMonson.com, where you can also download your free copy of Sometimes a Bird Has to Fly.

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