Pining Picnic

After Noelle loses her husband to war, Gran takes her on a picnic.

Noelle held the flag to her chest, pleading with herself to not cry. Not again. Months had passed since Dave had returned home in a box draped by the flag in her arms. His dream of serving the nation through military service had been realized. So had her greatest fear. Now she spent her days wishing his arms still wrapped around her.

A knock on her bedroom door brought her glassy-eyed gaze into focus. “Come in.”

As the door swung toward the wall, Gran peeked from behind it. “I thought I’d find you in here.”

Noelle pulled her knees to her chest and folded her arms around them—the flag ensconced by her body.

“Why don’t we go visit our men?”

Eyeing her grandmother, Noelle shook her head.

“Come on, I’ve got a special day planned.”

Gran held out her hand, and Noelle eased hers into it. “Can we pick up some flowers?”

“They’re waiting for us in the car.”

Shuffling outside, Noelle slipped into the passenger’s seat and stared out the window. She’d knelt at Dave’s grave several times, but words always refused to come. Why would they? It wasn’t like Dave listened. What purpose was there in visiting a grave and whispering to someone who couldn’t hear? Still, she kept trying. Hoping.

“What a beautiful day to remember our husbands,” Gran said as they drove to the cemetery. “I married your grandfather before Vietnam started. A private first class in the army. He was so proud of his enlistment, wanted to serve the country he loved.” Gran smiled wanly. “We had two children by the time the conflict bubbled over. Vietnam brought nothing but ugliness. And the day they told me he’d died, I did too.”

Noelle turned toward Gran without making a sound.

“Dave joined for the same reason, didn’t he?” Gran asked.

“Yeah.”

“Except the business in the Middle East was already full-blown.” Gran raised a brow. “Not much of a question he’d end up there.”

Noelle looked at Gran. “None.”

Gran nodded. “They both protected us and this nation. Same as all the others.

“My father spent his time in France after being drafted during World War II.” Gran tightened her grip on the steering wheel.

“Why do people do this?” Noelle asked as she glared Gran. “Join the military to die?”

“They never join to die. They join to serve and protect.”

“I’m not sure that’s what’s going on now.”

“Maybe not, but that doesn’t change their sacrifice.”

Noelle took a deep breath as they pulled up to the cemetery. Clasping her hands together, she begged her heart to quiet and the pins to stop pricking her lungs. Neither did.

As she stepped out of the car, she turned to help Gran, who shoved a blanket into her arms.

“What’s this for?”

“Our picnic.”

Noelle’s eyes widened.

“It’s an old tradition my mother taught me, used to be a fairly common practice. Some cemeteries don’t allow it anymore.”

“Wonder why?” Noelle’s voice dripped with sarcasm, and she tried again. “So, we go sit on the graves and eat?”

“Something like that,” Gran said with a smile as she smelled the flowers.

The walk from the car to the gravesites invited the sun to burn Noelle’s shoulders. A picnic on a grave in the heat—fun. At least Grandpa had a tree next to him that shaded both headstones.

As Gran set the flowers on top of Grandpa’s tall marker, Noelle dropped the blanket to the ground.

“Spread it out, would you?” the older woman asked.

Gran started dividing the flowers between the two graves. Red, white, and blue carnations. The blanket flicked to the ground with a flourish, just in time for Noelle to see her grandmother post a small flag next to each of their loved ones’ graves. The older woman whispered soft words Noelle couldn’t hear as she traced the edge of Grandpa’s headstone with her fingers. Tears gathered at the edges of her creased eyes, worn from years as a single woman. Noelle startled as Gran broke out into a peal of laughter.

How could she laugh? Pain like this never subsides, it couldn’t, could it?

A moment later, Gran lowered herself to the blanket, her knees popping on the way down. “I can get down, but you might have to help me up later.”

Gran studied her husband’s headstone, then patted her knees and faced Noelle. “Your grandpa wasn’t one of those poster-child soldiers. ”

She paused and smiled at what must have been a memory.

I remember one day he showed up at home with his uniform ripped in several places, buttons missing, mud covering him from the top of his head to the end of his boots, and the biggest dumb grin on his face I’d ever seen. After I pushed him into the backyard and told him to strip down before coming in my house again, he took the hose and sprayed it right at my backside.

Next thing I knew, we were wrestling for control of the hose. In the end, he wrapped his arms around me, his shirt off and his pants dripping with water, and told me he’d fought the grizzly and won.

“What do you mean, you fought the grizzly?” I asked.

His deep voice thundered next to my ear. “You don’t know about the grizzly?”

I’d heard about a lot a different antics with the boys, but nothing about fighting a grizzly, so I shook my head.

“Well, let me tell you, it’s the scariest bear you’ve never seen. The boys took me up the mountain, blindfolded me, and set me in the middle of a field. Next thing I knew, a claw swiped across my back. Tore my shirt, right there.”

He held up his shirt, his fingers wiggling through four sharp-cut slits in the back. I whipped him around fast, but he just threw his head back and hooted, “It doesn’t hurt.”

Four shallow scratches lined his back. I searched the rest of his torso and arms. Little pricks appeared on his forearms, and he had a decent scratch along one of his hands.

“No bear did this.” I eyed him until he slowly shook his head.

“Not a bear. Three men with razors attached to broom handles.”

“What?” The scream left my mouth before I could reign it in. I smacked his arm. “How do you get involved with this stupidity?”

“There was no harm. Only I was blindfolded, and they were careful.”

“Careful?” I huffed. “Those scratches and your sliced uniform say different.”

“Nah, it’s just an initiation of sorts.”

“Into what?”

“The squad. I’m the new guy, remember?”

“Hazing.”

“Hazing or not,” he said as he sidled back up to me, “I took that grizzly down faster than anyone else. Beat the record.”

Gran shook her head, laughing as she stared at the headstone. “Crazy coot!”

Noelle leaned her head back. The sunlight spread over her face as her body filled with laughter too.

“Dave’s squad dropped him two miles from base with a gallon of water and a pink camo T-shirt they’d picked up from who knows where.” Noelle rubbed her hand across her husband’s headstone. “Luckily, he ran into a 24-hour-fast-food joint and talked some soldier-smitten girl into letting him call me. When I picked him up, he turned my angry glare into a fit of giggles.”

She turned and patted the grass below her. “You always knew how to make me smile.”

Tears ran down her face, and she rolled to her belly, facing his headstone, but away from Gran. “I miss you. You whisked me off my feet and then left me alone. I love you for who you were and hate you for dying.” She brushed the dirt away from his name. “I’ll get over that last part.”

She sniffed and let out a little giggle. “I found all those notes you left me. The one behind the toilet—it’s a good thing I love you.”

Her words continued, and as they did, the tension that had roiled through her muscles and stiffened her joints eased.

She picked up the sandwich Gran had set next to her and ate it as she talked about her life. The way people at work looked at her and stopped talking when she walked by. The old women at church who took her hand and held it while studying her with sad eyes before shuffling away in silence. She mentioned crying herself to sleep. Then she told him how his squad members stopped by one at a time.

“They loved you.”

Stories of their past together slipped from her lips as she ate the apple pie Gran had packed. These she shared with Gran, and Gran shared others with her.

Decades that had once divided the two widows collided. Styles changed, technology advanced, but grief and loss seemed to transcend time.

The day slipped by, as they walked, cried, hugged, and shared. Soon, the sun dipped in the western sky, and Noelle exhaled peacefully, a smile reflecting nothing but tranquility on her face. “Thanks, Gran.”

Gran clutched her hand. “It won’t go away—the pain. Tears return. But holding it inside yourself only hurts more.” She nodded toward Dave’s grave. “He’s stronger now than he ever was. Let him carry it with Christ. You can do that, right?”

Noelle wrapped her arms around Gran. “Next time I’ll pack the lunch.”

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The Mother

This story is dedicated to my sister, who has always had a mother’s heart.

Papers slid into a folder before Allie secured them in her bag. The assignment she’d given her students always took forever to finish grading, but she loved reading the stories of their mothers. At home, she’d make a few comments on each story; the kids liked that. The rest of the week, they’d work on the handmade gifts. This year, she’d chosen paper flowers in paper mache vases. Each story would be copied to a small scroll and hung with ribbon on a painted vase.

She stepped through the classroom door to the outdoor walkways they called halls. The emptiness of the school, eerie to some, always brought her comfort. Laughter and smiled filled them during the day. Designed with outdoor entrances, sunshine brightened each room, and nothing darkened the halls she walked now, not with the echoes of life lingering so close.

Pushing a graying hair behind her ear, she studied the ground. Home was different.

Within a few minutes of leaving work, she opened the door to her small house and slipped off her shoes. Tension relaxed in her shoulders as her toes wiggled from their pinched positions. Quickly piling a few cookies on a plate and pouring a glass of milk, Allie settled down on the couch with the thirty stories.

Erik’s story fit him perfectly. A day spent racing dirt bikes through the sand. Every time his mom wobbled on her bike, he zoomed over and helped steady her. Allie smiled and attached a dirt bike sticker to the top. She’d spent days searching for those stickers after realizing how much he loved dirt bikes. Encouraging him to learn with dirt bike word problems had made a difference too. Once behind, his work in every subject now showed promise others said he’d never achieve.

A few minutes later, she swallowed some milk, barely containing a snorting giggle. In class, Allie had explained that some children didn’t live with their mothers. Some lived with grandmothers, aunts, foster moms, or their dads. Shelly was one of those kids. After losing his wife, Shelly’s dad continued to raise her alone. Shelly’s story included a lavish tea party where her dad dressed up in a skirt and boa. She took special care to roll curlers in his hair and call him Mrs. Smootsworth.

As she continued to read, her emotions flooded through her as she thought of each student. People tended to think a room full of kids meant someone getting left behind, but not in her classroom. At least she hoped not! With no children of her own, she had to dote on someone.

Sometimes the process left a hole in her heart. Parents sent teacher appreciation gifts, and students drew her pictures and left her notes. But none of that was the same as being a mother. Not this week. This week she prepared all of her students to recognize their own mothers. And they should. After all, Mother’s Day was Sunday. Still, she had never gathered her own baby in her arms in the middle of the night for a feeding. And when she visited the park, no child ran to her crying because they fell. No one called her mama, mommy, or mom. It stung.

Standing to carry her plate and glass back to the kitchen, she stopped when a soft knock sounded at the door. Who could that be?

On her tiptoes, she peeked through the peephole, glad she’d remembered to turn on the porch light. Wendy?

“Well, hello? How’s my favorite niece and grand nephew?”

Tears fell from Wendy’s swollen eyes as she carried a young baby in a carrier through the open door. “Aunt Allie…”

The flustered mother fell into her arms, sobbing as she tried to speak. Only incoherent mumbles reached Allie’s ears, and she wrapped her arms around her niece and walked her to the couch.

Wendy and Allie had a special bond. One they’d developed when Allie opened her home to her sister, Ruth, years ago. For three years they’d lived in the same house. During those years Allie often played with Wendy and her brother after work. Though she never disciplined the children outside of her authority as homeowner, she did had fond memories of late-night conversations and lots of ice cream bars.

“You take that cute little boy out of that seat and curl up on the couch. I’ll get the ice cream bars.”

The corners of Wendy’s mouth rounded up slightly with a grateful sigh.

“Don’t leave me waiting. What brought you to my porch this late at night.” Allie asked. “I thought you were coming Saturday morning.”

“I was. I am,” Wendy stuttered, then bowed her head. “Matt’s out of town on business and…”

Tears filled her eyes again as she accepted the ice cream bar from Allie.

“And?”

Wendy’s chin quivered as she struggled to blink back the tears, staring at the baby. Adam. “He just cries.”

“He’s not crying now.”

“He will.” She twisted her fingers around each other in a continuous movement. “I haven’t slept in days, not really, and I can’t do it alone anymore. Can we stay here tonight?”

“Is that all!”

Allie reached for Adam, whose little body pulled into a tight ball before letting out a wailing scream. Wendy’s eyes glazed over, but Allie never slowed, easing her hands under his head and pulling him close.

“Grab yourself some cotton to plug your years, then get yourself to bed,” Allie said.

“I can’t leave him with you.”

“I won’t hurt him.”

Wendy stared at Allie, who shooed her away as she bounced Adam in her arms.

Allie stared at her great nephew. “Your mama needs to sleep. What have you been doing keeping her up all night?”

He continued crying, and she swaddled him in a blanket, binding his arms and legs.

“I know, life if hard. God plops us here on Earth and everything’s different. Bright then dark. Bodies that hurt. And you’re so little, you don’t understand any of it, do you? Well, you just sit here with me, and we’ll figure it out together.”

A couple of hours later, Allie slid between the sheets she’d laid out on the couch, a sleeping Adam next to her in his carrier. Any crying from a hallway or bedroom promised to wake up Wendy, and Allie would not have that.

The next morning, she scrabbled some eggs and fed Adam a bottle before knocking lightly on Wendy’s door. Her groggy niece opened the door, looking better rested.

“I see you got some sleep. Eggs are on the stove, and Adam’s been fed. You can stay as long as you’d like, but I think your mom might like a visit.”

Wendy pulled a face, her nose crinkling. “Yeah. I wasn’t ready to listen to her nagging.”

“Nagging.” Allie shook her head. “Your mother doesn’t nag, she worries.”

“Worries about what?”

“About you. About Matt and Adam. She’d have done the same thing I did last night.” Her voice softened as she smiled. “I’m glad you came here, though.”

Wendy’s shoulders lowered, the tension leaving. “Me too.”

When Allie returned that evening, Wendy was gone. She ambled through the lonely house to the kitchen and ate a cookie, then cracked open a book. It had been a while since she’d had time to read, and she planned to enjoy it, especially after the day in the classroom.

Billy’s vase broke into a crumpling paper mache heap, similar to his sad, crumpled face. Jane called for her to examine her work’s progress every few minutes, reveling in the praise. On top of that were the usual behaviors, an unintentional pencil stabbing, a couple of scraped knees, and three gabbing girls.

Saturday passed quicker than Allie had hoped, and once again, she woke up to Mother’s Day. After dressing for church, she walked into the building and sat in her chair where she smiled at the people walking past. Some mothers wore corsages, others boasted about breakfast in bed, while more whispered scathingly about how their family never did anything for them.

No one knew how much she wanted children. They didn’t understand that her dreams of a family had never been realized. How could they?

The sermon revolved around motherhood. A godly purpose. At the end of the service, children handed out small potted plants to all of the women. Each bloom emphasized the idea that every woman was a mother in her own right. Even if she had no children, she helped raise others.

Hogwash.

At home, Allie placed the plant on the mantle and snuggled onto the couch with her book. Sentences floated through her mind as she read the words, but Mother’s Day had stolen her focus. Was there something wrong with her? No chance of marriage. No children. Is that what God thought of her, that she wasn’t good enough? That she wasn’t worthy of such love? The thoughts stung, and the burning in her eyes increased. Why not her? Had she not given enough? What had she done wrong?

A knock at the door brought her head up. She turned the knob and found Wendy holding a bouquet of flowers. “Happy Mother’s Day!”

This time Allie scoffed.

“Aunt Allie?”

“Have you had a good day?” Allie asked.

“Matt got home last night and made me pancakes this morning. It’s been nice.” She studied her aunt’s face. “How about you?”

“Normal, I guess. I get all the gifts and appreciation, but none of the children. Win-win, right?”

Wendy ignored the comment and scanned the kitchen cabinets for a vase. Once the ends of the flowers were trimmed and the flowers brightened the table, she pulled Allie to the couch.

“Have you never paid attention to all the children you have?”

Allie rolled her eyes. “Students are not the same thing.”

“Maybe not, but you helped raise me. How old was I when we lived with you?”

“Nine.”

“As I recall, you made me lunch, took me to school, hugged me when I struggled, and listened when I needed to talk. That’s a mother. When I think about raising my children, you’re as much an example as Mom.”

“What else was I going to do. Ignore you while you lived in my house?”

“Aunt Allie, you did so much more, or I wouldn’t have come here earlier this week. I love Mom, but I needed you and your mothering. Can’t you see that?”

Allie shrugged.

“Maybe God didn’t give you children because he knew how much the rest of us needed you.”

Allie reached over and patted Wendy’s knee. “Never looked at it that way before.”

“Well, I have, because I continue to need you.” She grinned at her aunt.

“Motherhood doesn’t determine who you are. You determine what motherhood is.”

Allie lifted herself to her feet. “Stay for lunch. I think I’d like to hear more about Adam while we enjoy our much-needed break.”

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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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Irises and Cattails

After years of marriage, Drew searches for her husband while visiting her favorite mountain.

Drew took another step on the path. With the spring snow melted, the trail remained soft, and the usual dusty puffs that dirtied her socks were absent. At the sound of heavy, flapping wings, her gaze lifted to the sky, and she shaded her eyes with her hand in time to see a large hawk soar upward and out of the pine and aspen canopy.

How do you know it’s a hawk, not a golden eagle? White underside, smaller size, dark beak. The question entered her mind, the answer quickly following.

Where was he now?

The stream edged up to the trail, gurgling beside her. The heavy pack slid off her back with a thud, and she dipped the straw filter into the running water, drinking deeply. Though the straw filtered the dangerous bacteria and parasites, it didn’t change the flavor, and she’d drunk from much more loathsome sources. This natural spring and snowmelt-fed stream always tasted as if it were the source of heaven itself. Cold and delicious. Refreshing.

Rising to her feet, she swung the loaded pack to her back and continued. Three days she’d been alone in the forest. Plenty of food, a fishing pole, the entire stream at her beckoned call. Her sleeping bag kept her warm, and the modest tent kept the dew from coating her hair and bedding. The concern wasn’t for herself.

Three days.

Lavender-hued flowers dotted the small meadow on her left. Wild irises.
She’d spent a day photographing similar perennials once. He’d stopped the car at her behest and waited near the edge of a lake while she photographed blossom after blossom. Fine golden dots had accented the bright yellow center of each petal, just as they did now. It was then that he’d pointed at different long stems growing in the shallows of the water and explained their use.

Cattails, almost completely editable. Root, pollen, tender new leaves up to two feet. Watch for look-alikes. They will not have the brown pollen stems.

No cattails lived on this mountain. However, patches of watercress floated in the stream, and some fir and spruce trees touted new growth.

She had to find him.

His days had been so good recently that when he’d suggested a back-packing trip, she’d agreed. Two miles in, they’d discovered the missing frying pan. It had been her job to slide it into the pack after the previous night at the campground. Still, four miles of flat travel wasn’t that difficult for him. He’d spent his entire life traversing the wild. She hadn’t even flinched when he said he’d go back for it.

That day, the afternoon sun promised to shine for several more hours, and she continued forward, wanting to get camp set up early in hopes of cooking their dinner before dark. Using a backpacking stove with nothing more than a flashlight for dinner was not her idea of fun.

They’d camped on the mountain for decades, and neither worried about the other. Not usually. But when he still hadn’t shown up an hour after dark, she doused the fire and grabbed her flashlight. Worry had creased her brow as she considered the possibilities. How could she have forgotten the pan? With a wandering beam of light focused on the trail, she’d headed toward the parking lot, praying he hadn’t fallen and gotten hurt. Or worse.

Her legs ached from the fast-paced hike to the locked SUV, but she’d forced herself to keep going. Peering through the back window with the flashlight, she’d checked for the frying pan. Gone. She hadn’t passed him.

Head hung low that night, she dragged herself back to camp. Had it been day, she would have followed the stream back. He wouldn’t leave the water. But the flashlight didn’t give off enough light for night travel along the willow and tree-infested bank.

With no sign of him the following morning, Drew climbed from the sleeping bag and started up the mountain. What other choice was there? Five miles to the summit. Without the pack on her back, she’d reached the switchbacks quickly. The steeper incline had slowed her down, but not much. Scanning the forest yielded no results.

Tears pooled in her eyes then, but she’d refused to let them fall.

No reason to cry when things get hard. Just keep moving along. Everything will work out in the end.

Dusk had set in by the time she’d returned to camp. Ten miles with nothing to show. She’d dipped her straw into the stream, then pulled out a granola bar and wondered if she should save it for him. With the uneaten treat placed back in her pack, she’d gone to bed.

Now, she took another step and headed toward the parking lot, again. It was her best chance to find someone, anyone, to help her. No one had crossed her trail in three days. It was a first. The well-traveled trail usually brought a few hellos her direction. Not this time.

Something darted across the trail in the distance, and she stopped. As she squinted, a group of people came into focus. Her hands flew into the air, and she ran toward them, yelling for help. Within seconds, they were running too.

“My husband,” she panted as she looked at the young people standing in front of her. “I can’t find him. Please, I need your help. He has memory problems.”

“Mom. It’s me, Jackson.”

Her brows furrowed. “Jackson?”

“Yup. Do you remember me? Let me take that bag for you.”

The young man, Jackson, took the pack from her. It looked smaller. As he opened it, watercress and young pine needles bulged from the top.

“He’ll be hungry. Y-your father.”

His arm slid around her shoulders. “Mom, Dad died three years ago. Don’t you remember?”

Three years?

“We brought you to your favorite mountain for a picnic, and you wandered off.”

“A picnic?”

“Yeah. Come on back; the kids are waiting to hear more about your adventures with Dad.”

“Well, he’s probably hungry, but I found some watercress.”

“Great. Why don’t we all try some.”

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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 Decision of Love

Benny’s saved his money, and the pups are ready for homes. But unforeseen circumstances threaten his deepest desire.

Man's Best Friend

Benny sauntered down the street, money jingling in his pocket and the snow crunching under his feet. Hound pups, born late-December, weaned and ready, waited for him to choose the best of them. He had his eye on the one with the keen nose and perfectly dropped ears. Every time he visited, the pup had his nose to the ground. And when Benny hid a treat, he always scouted it out first. A couple quickened steps, put him that much closer, his excitement barely contained.

“You off to get that pup of yours today, Benny?” Mr. Jansen waved from his shop, broom in hand.

“Sure am. Best of the litter.”

“That’s what Kyle said. With all the work you done, you deserve him. Stop on your way home so I can lay my eyes on him, ya hear!”

The words from the shop’s owner flitted to his ear, but he had no time to acknowledge him. Not in his mind, anyway. As the town’s buildings spread further apart, Benny’s feet struck the frozen ground sooner, picking up speed. What boy could wait for his very first hound? He sure couldn’t.
Jumping the log that lay across the trail, he watched as the Kyle barn peeked through the dense trees, calling him closer. The movement of boots smaller than his and the bottom of a dingy gray skirt caught his eye. Emiline ran toward him. “Hurry, Pa’s got the pups out, ready to go. You gonna get Dozer?”

“I told you that’s not his name.”

They fell in step with each other and hurried toward the farmhouse.

“Well, what is it then?” Her eyes, blue as fine china, blinked, waiting for his answer.

“Don’t know yet. But not Dozer.”

“Okay, but he already answers to Dozer, comes real good when called.”

“He’s a pup, he’ll learn a new name fast enough.”

Emiline shrugged as they continued in silence.

When the trees fell away, Benny’s legs took off, no longer able to wait. The snow crunch under his feet became lost as tiny snowballs flew into the air before crashing back down behind him. Emiline’s shorter legs pumped but eventually slowed. Benny was fast.

“I’m here, Mr. Kyle. I’m here.” His heart pounded erratically as his lungs panted for breath.

“You run all the way?”

“No Sir, just from the trees.”

“Hmm.” Mr. Kyle straightened his hat and narrowed his eyes. “Got the money? Ten dollars, right?”

“Yes Sir, I mean… I got the money, but you said seven, not ten.”

“Did I now?” A new gleam shone in the man’s eye. “Well, tell you what, you muck out that stable, and I’ll make it five.”

“Yes Sir, but you won’t give him to no one else, will you?”

“Pay now, just muck that stable good, or you’ll pay those two dollars, too.”
Benny’s grin spread across his face as his shaky fingers dug the coins he’d saved for so long. As he counted out the money, a dime fell to the ground and he dove after it, unwilling to lose a precious cent, let alone ten. “Five dollars.”

Mr. Kyle eyed the coins. “So it is. Top pick goes to you.”

Everything slowed as he stared at the pups. Each one wagging a short tail and ready to trip over their long ears. No question as to which dog he wanted crossed his mind, but he focused on building a memory. The scent of freshly fallen snow mixed with the mustiness of the barn. He picked up the pup Emiline had called Dozer, fresh puppy breath joining the other aromas as the pup licked his chin. “This one.”

“Dozer’s a fine pup. Great tracker. He’ll train easy for you if that’s what you want.”

Benny nodded, then turned toward the stable. “I’ll get all four stalls real good and clean for you, Mr. Kyle. Don’t you worry.”

Turning, he buttoned his new pup into his jacket, and picked up the shovel. The work promised to take most of the day, but he didn’t care. Not now that he had his pup.

“So what are you going to name him?” Emiline straddled a low wall nearby.

“I’ll think of something.”

“Something like Spot?”

“No. Something that makes him sound special.”

“Whatcha gonna do with him, anyway?”

“Train him to hunt. Help feed my family, maybe make some money from furs.”

“Dozer’ll be good at that. Pa breeds the best.”

“Name’s not Dozer.” With the first stall finished, he moved on to the next.

“ What should I call him, then?” Emiline questioned.

He stared into the pups eyes, still gray on their way to brown. “Major. I think I’ll call him Major.” He scratched behind the pup’s ear. “You like that, boy?”

A young bay rumbled in the dog’s throat.

Giggling, Emiline ambled toward Benny. “Guess he likes it. But I’d let him down, or he’ll wet you good.”

Benny nodded, lowering Major to the ground.

About the time he finished the third stall, a thump on the side of the barn lifted his head. “Jed, what are you doing here, scaring me like that?”

“Gotta come home, Pa’s had an accident.”

“Is the doctor there?”

“No. Ma says we can’t afford him. His leg’s real messed up. Come on!”
Benny looked at the pup. “You go ahead. I’ll be there quick.”

After his brother left, he sank to the floor of the barn and picked up Major. Tears filled his eyes and he lifted the pup and himself off the floor of the barn and looked to Emiline. “Where’s your Pa?”

“Out at the fence, fixing it, I think. Why?”

“This pup’s no good. I’m returning him.”

She grabbed at his arm, but he pulled away as she said, “What do you mean he’s no good? He’s the best there is.”

“No, he ain’t.” He yanked his arm away again and rushed to Mr. Kyle.
Mr. Kyle stopped hammering at the fence and gazed at the boy’s blotchy face. “You all done?”

“No Sir. I’m sorry. I can’t take the pup.”

“Well why not, you paid for him?”

“He’s just not right, that’s all. You gotta take him back.”
The man straightened his hat and eyed his daughter and Benny. “If that’s what you want.”

Benny’s voice broke. “Yes, Sir.”

“Did you want to look at the others?”

“No, Sir. I mean to get home as soon as you give me my money back.”

Mr. Kyle dug in his pocket and pulled out the five dollars. “How much of the stable you finish?”

“Three stalls.”

Another dollar fifty fell into Benny’s hand. That’s for the work you did today.

“Thank you!”

Head hung low, Benny took off toward town as fast as he could, and minutes later banged on the doctor’s door.

“Something happened to my pa’s leg. You gotta come.”

The doctor grabbed his bag. “Get my horse saddled, boy.”

Benny did as he was told, and the doctor soon appeared at his side. “Your family able to pay?”

“I have eight dollars and fifty cents. Is that enough?” His teary eyes met the doctor’s, hoping.

The doctor sighed. “Today it is, I suppose.”

A breeze colder than Benny remembered it chaffed his face as he rode home on the doctor’s extra horse—a service rarely afforded to customers. The pounding of his heart matched the galloping of the horse’s hooves. Tears traced his cheeks at the thought of returning the perfect puppy he’d just named Major. No longer could he help feed his family. Momma didn’t want him helping anyway. The memory of the sweet puppy breath caused his face to crumble.

“Don’t worry, we’ll get your Pa all fixed up.” The doctor’s words scratched at his ears.

Of course, he wanted the best for his pa, but anguish batted him from both sides.

Once home, the doctor rushed in the house, Benny trailing slightly behind. A moment later, Momma quietly slipped into the rocking chair behind him on the porch as she held her rounded belly. “Where’s your pup? Jed said you got him.”

“Gone.”

“The doctor said you paid him.”

“Yeah. Mr. Kyle paid me to muck out his barn, but I didn’t finish.”

“He didn’t pay enough to hire a doctor, did he?”

“No.”
Silence permeated the porch until Momma’s soft whisper reached Benny’s ears again. “Thank you. You and me could’ve set the leg, but not well. And I wouldn’t know what to do about the gash from the bone.”

“What happened, Momma. How’d he break his leg like that?”

“Removing a tree, I think. Don’t really know. He’s not talking much yet.”

“Pa’s downed hundreds of trees!”

She stood and squeezed his shoulder. “I know.”

His whole life, all he’d wanted was a puppy, a coon hound. His whole savings was gone. But he held the pup for those few hours. Major—a strong name for a strong dog. Tears fell to the wood below his feet and he wiped them away before traipsing into the house.

Darkness soon turned to dim light, and Benny’s swollen eyes opened as his momma’s voice entered his consciousness.

“Coming.”

Stepping onto the porch, Benny gazed at the wet nose and soft fur resting in Emiline’s arms. Mr. Kyle stood next to her. “Benny, you’re right. This pup’s not right. Fact is, I’ll never sell him. Feeding him takes a lot too.”

Benny stared at the pup. “I lied. He’s a great pup, should be the first to go.”

Mr. Kyle pushed his hat back. “No, you were right.” His eyes narrowed. “I know you wanted a good hunting dog. This one’s no good for that, not good at all, but well, if you want him…”

Emiline held Major out, who wagged his tail, his gray eyes bright and eager. Benny extended shaky hands that wrapped around the pup. Holding him close, he nuzzled his face against the fuzzy ear. The fall of tears sparkled in the rising sun as Benny’s tongue tripped over the short, raspy words. “Thank you.”

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Midnight Tan

When Pa told me he hired a new ranch hand, I’d shrugged my shoulders and stuffed another bite of rice and beans in my mouth, a few grains falling back to my plate. He made mention of remembering my niceties, and I nodded while shoveling in more food. Never once did he mention the cowboy had skin dark as night.

“Have you ever seen one?”

“No. He looks like a Mexican with a tan,” my friend John said. “Do you think he can see his hand in the dark?”

I whopped him on the head. “Can you see your hand in the dark? Course not.”

When Pa told me he hired a new ranch hand, I’d shrugged my shoulders and stuffed another bite of rice and beans in my mouth, a few grains falling back to my plate. He made mention of remembering my niceties, and I nodded while shoveling in more food. Never once did he mention the cowboy had skin dark as night. So when John and I set out to play kick the can with some of the others, we hid behind the tool shed the second we saw the new hand.

John and I’d seen plenty of Mexicans, played with a few too. José always won when we played marbles. One day I’d win my aggie back, God willing. But Negroes weren’t too common in our state, and even less common in our corner of the desert.

“Let’s go talk to him.”

John yanked me back behind the shed. “We can’t do that. What if he touches us?”

“So.”

“So, they carry illnesses. You don’t wanna get sick.”

“Pa wouldn’t have hired him if he carried illnesses—not if he’s working with the herd. Come on.”

John picked up an old, half-rotted two by four and skulked behind me. As I approached the new hand, I turned my head and rolled my eyes at my friend, motioning for him to drop the unneeded protection. He shook his head and stood back.

“Hi there.”

The man tipped his brimmed hat as he continued to stare across the ranch.

“We’ve got lots of land. The cows like to hide some. I guess Pa hired you to help bring ‘em in.”

His eyes shifted, looked me up and down, then returned to their original position. “He did.”

“Name’s Will.” I held out my hand, but he ignored it.

“Matthew.”

“Where you from?”

“South… Will, you got a friend ready to beat my brains in.”

“John? Nah, he’s just scared you’ll make him sick. Wood’s rotten anyway.”

Matthew swung around, feet sliding in the dirt as he yelled boo. The two by four broke in pieces when John dropped it and ran all the way down the drive faster than a coyote chasing a rabbit. Ebony hands gripped leather-bound knees as the new ranch hand’s entire body shook with laughter.

I squinted and looked into Matthew’s eyes, sunlight haloing his head. “What d’you do that for?”

“Don’t need no hasslin’.”

“John’s no hassler; he’s just never seen someone like you before?”

“Thought I’d make him sick.”

“Probably his Pa talking.”

“How come you’re not scared?” He eyed my blond hair and blue eyes with a raised eyebrow.

“Pa only hires the best.”

“And my midnight tan?” He folded his arms over his chest, a giant bear that relaxed the more we talked.

I shrugged. “Is it a tan?”

“No.” He squatted next to me. “And the sun don’t hurt me like it does you.”

I reached my hand out toward his arm, “Really?”

He flinched but allowed me to touch his skin. It felt just like mine. “I wish I didn’t burn.”

Matthew stood up and returned to the fence. “Friend’s back.”

Turning around, I viewed John far off, hunkered down under a tree. Puffs of dirt bloomed around my boots as I sped to tell him about Matthew. Under the Mesquite, I bent over to catch my breath as I narrowed my eyes at my friend. “Scaredy-cat.”

“Am not.”

“Why d’you run?”

John scratched the dirt with his foot, scowling, and shrugged.

“Scaredy-cat.”

“Come on. Matthew’s nice. His skin feels like ours, and he don’t burn in the sun.”

“He doesn’t?”

“Nope.”

“I wonder what color he bleeds.”

“Red,” I scoffed. “What other color is blood?”

“I don’t know? Thought maybe he’d bleed dark rust color”

“You’re dopey.”

“Am not.” John dropped a can and kicked it.

“What’s your Pa told you?”

“About what?” He stopped and glared at me.

“About Negroes?”

“Same as yours I ‘spect.”

“Then you know they’re just people. Like us.”

John’s scowl deepened. “Pa says their scum.”

“Well, your Pa’s mean. Thinks that about Mexicans too.”

“So.”

“So, that’s why your Pa can’t keep good hands. They always steal from him because he passes up good people ‘cuz of their skin.”

“No, he don’t.”

A towering shadow covered our heads.

“Boys.”

We dropped our heads and stared at the dirt. Something in the tone of the voice humbled us both.

“Sorry I scared you back there, John.”

John turned his head away from Matthew.

“He’s a scaredy-cat,” I mumbled.

“Will,” Matthew said, “I don’t like name callin’. Been called too many myself.”

“Sorry.”

“Saw you kickin’ your can, John. You got a good leg.” He held out his hand toward the rusted tin. “Can I see it?”

John picked up the can and held it in his hands.

“He won’t make you sick. I touched him and ain’t sick.” I said, whispering toward my friend’s ear.

Handing the can to Matthew, he watched as the man dropped it back to the ground. “Kids back home like to lift their toes when they kick. Like this.”

The can flipped into the air and landed twice as far as it had for John. Kicking the can high and far wasn’t necessary for the game, but it sure meant something to us boys.

“Wow!” John turned to me. “That puts Tommy’s kick to shame.”

“Yeah.” My jaw hung as low as John’s.

“Can you show me that again?” he asked.

Matthew played a few rounds of kick the can with us before Ma rang the dinner bell.

We said our farewells to John and walked up to the house together.

“Ma makes the best food. You’re gonna love it.”

Matthew stood still and furrowed his brow. “Will, I wanna thank you.”

My eyes widened. “For what?”

“You reminded me that bigotry is often taught.” He slapped me on the back of my neck, and we started walking again. “John’s a good kid, just been fed a bunch of lies. It’s people like you that help to unravel them fibs.”

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The Exodus

The Exodus is a fictional short story based on occurrences that took place in Missouri after Governor Lilburn Boggs signed the Extermination Order against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1838.

Elizabeth awoke to the frigid February air funneling into her home through the front door. An unfamiliar hand clamped over her mouth only a second later. Kicking and flailing, she reached for Ezra but failed to find the comfort her fingertips sought. Hot breath, wreaking of stale beer and tobacco, stung her nose as muscled arms dragged and then thrust her outside,  her hands and knees sinking into the snow. Beside her, her three young children fell.

“Ma?” Peter picked up his two-year-old sister and helped Elizabeth up. “Where’s Pa?”

Heartache set aside, Elizabeth grabbed the hands of her two children, trusting Peter to carry Clara, and ran for the darkened path leading from their property to the Beckers’. “Run, hurry!”

She and the children shivered as the night air whipped through thin clothes and the six-inch snow crunched under bare feet.

“Pa!” Emily cried great racking sobs as the sound of gunfire ignited her senses further.

Warm amber light soon reflected off the glistening ice, and the mob’s horses galloped from the scene.

“Pa.” Peter turned, running toward the glow, chest heaving, and Clara bouncing in his arms as tears flowed freely from everyone’s eyes. Slowed by the toddler he carried, Elizabeth caught him by the arm.

“Take your sisters and go to the Beckers’. I’ll see to Pa.” She stared into the eyes of her oldest, lit by the blazing house, barn, and night sky. “Don’t stop, just run. And don’t let go of your sisters.”

Peter nodded.

The Beckers’ house lay several miles to the north—the only family they could trust since the order for their religious group to leave the state had been given. The others were mostly gone. Rescuers from the neighboring state helped gather families and get them to safety—oxen, horses, and cows often driven to the brink of death. Carts overflowed with the few belongings people grabbed. Others fled with nothing. She and Ezra had planned to leave the next morning. Their meager cart now burned with the barn.

Step by agonizing step, Elizabeth found her way back to their homestead. Wind pricked at her frozen skin through her nightgown. Eyes watered not only from tears but from the cold, bristling air that surrounded her. Feet numb, she picked up her skirt and ran.

Swift legs carried her toward her goal. Refusing to consider Ezra’s death, she considered only the life ahead of them. Thousands of now destitute people migrated from settlements they’d once called home to the neighboring state. People—friends—slept in the yards of rescuers with hardly a blanket for warmth. But they had food. They would rebuild, she and Ezra together.

Inconsistent breaths entered and exited Elizabeth’s lungs as she careened around the house, knees landing in the melting snow next to Ezra. “Please Ezra.”

His eyes found hers. “Help.”

She gazed at his shoulder, blood oozing from the wound. “How? What do I do?” The words stung the tip of her tongue.

“My shirt, Elizabeth, help.” Ezra tried to sit up but fell back into the snow. The melting patterns proved it was not his first attempt.

“You’ll freeze.” Elizabeth removed her undergarment and pushed the waded drawers over her husband’s wound.

“Help me stand.”

Arms around her husband, she pushed, pulled, and lifted until he wavered on his feet instead of the ground. The paleness of his face brought her rushing to support him better.

“Where are the children?”

Tears welled in Elizabeth’s eyes as she prayed continuously for their young children. How had she left them alone in the dark?

“I sent them to the Beckers’.”

“They’ll make it. The Lord will see us through.”

Following her earlier footsteps, Elizabeth led her dying husband toward the Beckers’ home. His shivering weighted his body, each movement a struggle for both him and her. The full moon rose higher in the sky, lighting the bloody footprints of their children. They added their own as a testament of their persecution.

How had people come to hate them so much? They wished only to worship God as they desired—a right given through the Constitution but forgotten by mob and government. Hate legalized the extermination of human beings because of their religious beliefs. Though given until spring, no one stopped those who hunted early. Guards stood to keep them from food and warmth, not as protection. Only those leaving were permitted to pass.

Ezra fell to his knees and clasped her hands, his teeth chattering. “Go.”

She fell beside him, holding him in her arms. “I can’t leave you, Ezra.” Blood seeped from under his hand to her nightdress as they embraced.

“Go.”

Refusing, she wrapped her arms around him. “They’ll come. Someone will come.”

Moving behind him, she pulled him against her bosom, helping him to sit. She pushed her hand against his, her soaked drawers dripping blood down his nightshirt. His eyelids fluttered as he complained about the heat, a sign of hypothermia.

“Stay awake, Ezra.”

Pushing him forward and lifting him up, she raised him to his feet. He tried to fight her, to refuse, but her strength overpowered him. “You’ll walk or I’ll drag you!”

He shuffled his foot forward.

“You can’t die. Not today, Ezra. We’ve too much to do. I don’t build houses, and I can’t raise that boy without you. Take a step.”

He eased his foot forward again.

Elizabeth rubbed her own frozen hands down his arms, attempting to warm him. The sound of wagon wheels and horses broke through the deadly wind, whipping past her ears. Don waved his arms, calling lost words to them.

Needling breaths entered Elizabeth’s lungs, a wan smile crossing her lips. “They’re here.”

They fell to their knees; she supported her husband even then.

Jumping from their seats, Don and David Becker lifted Ezra into the buckboard, where blankets lay atop straw. Wrapping him tightly in a quilt, Don eased Ezra’s hand from the wound and packed it with clean cloths. “A miracle you’re alive.”

Elizabeth, helped into the wagon by David, curled into a blanket next to her husband as their friends layered three more on top of them.

“You should be proud of Peter, Elizabeth. He got your two girls to us before collapsing himself. The three of them are wrapped up warm. Mary’s tending to their feet now.” David said, then looked at his son. “Don, we need to leave tomorrow.”

“But…” With Elizabeth’s strength depleted, her teary eyes shifted between the father and son. “Ezra.”

Her husband still shivered next to her.

“He can ride in the wagon if you and your children will pull a cart.”

She nodded.

“Mary’s got clothes for you—and your boy and girls too. I’ve some leather strips for your feet. Wish we had more to give.”

“People have given less.” She said softly.

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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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