Monday, February 20, 2017

Sit a Spell with First Chapters: December Sunrise

            A monster lurked in my house, scarier than the boogie-man that lived under my bed when I was three. Visions of Mama teased the front of my brain, ever with me, even on my best days. Oh, how I wanted life to be normal, for Mama, for my family. My head slumped to my chest, and I sighed. And yes, for me. When I realized I was chewing on my thumbnail, I yanked it from my mouth and focused on my teacher.
Mrs. Hatfield stood at the back of the fifth grade classroom holding an open book. Behind her, light poured in through the windows and caused her long, blonde hair to shine. As shiny as the giant’s gold coins in the Jack and the Beanstalk story. A sick feeling almost made me double over. Mama’s head wasn’t anything like my teacher’s. Not anymore. No, her dull hair fell out by the hand full.
With a sweet smile curving my teacher’s lips, how could I not do my very best for her? She loved us kids, and we all knew it.
            At the front of the class lined up like checkers on a board, four remaining students battled for weekly spelling champion. Every Friday afternoon we took our places, trying our best to remember all the words we’d studied that week.
            I can tell you right now—I love words. It’s amazing to me that 26 letters in the English alphabet can create thousands of words. String those words together and you can make sentences which turn into essays, poems, and stories. Most people think I’m much older than ten, ‘cause I love to use big words and spice up my sentences when I talk and write. 

I also love to read. Guess I picked that up from Mama. She always read me books when I was little, not that I’m that big now, just bigger. I do most of my reading on my own. Sometimes, though, when she’s reading a story to my four-year-old sister, Addy, I sneak into the bedroom and curl up beside them. But bedtime stories don’t happen all that often any more, not since Mama got cancer. She’s way too tired for that.

            “Surgical,” Mrs. H announced with clear, crisp diction, drawing my mind back to the classroom.
            Trent stepped forward, staring at the ceiling, chewing on his bottom lip. “Surgical. S-u-r-g-i-c-u-l. Surgical.”
            I released the breath I’d been holding. We were now down to three. Would my title be stripped from me? My belly churned as sweat broke out on my palms.
            “I’m sorry, Trent. That’s incorrect.” Mrs. H’s face slid into a sympathetic frown. “You may take your seat.”
            Hands in his pants pockets, Trent trudged across the gray linoleum and slipped into his desk. He fingered the pencil resting in the desk slot, refusing eye contact with the rest of us contestants. Even though I wanted to win four times in a row, my heart hurt for him.
            “Mandy, surgical.” Mrs. H shuffled the book and locked eyes with the girl no one seemed to like, though I’m not quite sure why. Just because her mother’s poor doesn’t make her odious. I know that’s a not-so-good word, but somehow I like the ring of it. In case you didn’t know, it means revolting, nasty. She’s hardly those things. A little shy, maybe, but not revolting.
            Head hung low, Mandy stepped forward, gazing at her worn shoes. Again, my chest squeezed with pain. Her big toe peeked through a small hole. Other than that and a few scuffs, the shoes were clean, just like Mandy. I did notice a patch on each elbow of her blouse and made a mental note to sort through my closet to see what I might pass along to her. We appeared to be the same size. Mama was always telling me I had too many clothes, anyway.
            “Surgical.” Mandy’s words crept out. “S-i-r-g-i-k-a-l. Surgical.” Her grin turned into a frown when Mrs. H told her to take her seat. Red splotches broke out on her neck, and she tried to hide her face with her dark brown hair.
            Sitting in the desk across from Mandy, Marcus broke out in a laugh. Several other kids joined in.
            “Quiet!” Mrs. H slapped the book shut and snapped her fingers. She walked up the aisle and stopped at Marcus’s desk. She flashed him a warning scowl, then asked the next pupil in line to spell surgical.  
            I couldn’t believe it! Zoe couldn’t spell surgical. I started to panic. If none of these kids could spell this simple word, maybe I couldn’t either.
When Zoe returned to her seat, Mrs. H moved forward and studied me. “All right, Emma Rose, for the championship, four weeks in a row, please spell the word surgical.”
Sudden heat poured through my body. I couldn’t breathe. The room closed in around me. Marcus stuck out his tongue and screwed up his face, trying to shake me up. I swallowed hard, squeezed my hands so tight they turned white. With Mama sick and all, I knew a lot about surgery. I’d even seen the word surgical in a brochure while waiting with her in the doctor’s office.
I closed my eyes and invited my imagination to take over. A blackboard appeared. Slowly, a hand wrote out the word. As the letters appeared I repeated them. “S-u-r-g-i-c-a-l. Surgical.” My eyes fluttered open, and I exhaled. Marcus glared at me and gave a thumbs down with Mrs. H’s back turned. But my beautiful teacher just smiled, and I knew success was mine.
“That’s correct, Emma Rose.” Mrs. H moved to her desk and set the book on the cluttered surface.
Wow, spelling champ four weeks running! As I took my seat behind Mandy, my head swelled entirely too large. I had a gift with words. My family already said I was a pro at the game, “Dictionary.” Every new word I looked up, I also learned to spell. Of course, since Mama had to stop home schooling me, I didn’t get to play much. But maybe that could change.
“Hey, new girl, with the three first names . . .” Marcus leaned over and whispered across the aisle, but Mrs. H cut him short with another stern look and a reprimand.
After three months, he still called me “new girl.” As far as the three first names, well, I suppose Emma Rose Dawn could all be first names. But I’m proud of my name and of my parents, Ed and Sharon Dawn. It’s funny, but one of my favorite, no, my very favorite thing is the dawn when the sunrise sneaks up over the Blue Ridge Mountains in my backyard. Everything’s so peaceful. The sun tosses out pink ribbons, celebrating the new day. I love it.
Still, why are some kids so cruel? When I asked Mama and Daddy about it, they said sometimes children feel so bad about themselves they have to pick on others to make themselves look good. But I don’t see how that’s working for Marcus. Except for a couple other boys, everyone in class tries to stay out of his way. One time, I heard Marcus say he liked to mess around with his uncle’s guns. He said that with his chest all puffed out with plenty of threats to match. But I don’t think he’d really ever do anything. Still, I worry about that boy. To tell ya the truth, I feel sorry for him. If he feels so bad about himself that he has to bully others, well, that’s just plain sad.
Mrs. H sat behind her desk and reached for another book. “Okay, class, take out your health books.”
No sooner had the words left her mouth than a banging noise exploded from one of the lockers at the far side of the room.
Mrs. H’s head shot in the direction of the sound. “What on earth?” She rose and walked toward the thumping as a few of the boys, Marcus included, burst into laughter. She located the locker in question and swung open the door.
Johnny fell out onto the floor, a crumpled mess with his hair matted to his forehead. He peered up at her with red-rimmed eyes and chapped cheeks.
She knelt beside him, softness in her eyes. “What were you doing in your locker?”
Johnny’s gaze skipped around the room, finally landing on Marcus. “I got trapped and couldn’t get out. I finally fell asleep.”
She helped him to his feet. “Go to the washroom and freshen up. Make sure you get a drink of water.” She turned her fierce gaze on Marcus. “I’ll have a word with you, young man. Out in the hall, if you please.”
Marcus slumped in his desk, arms folded across his chest.
“Now!” She clapped her hands and moved toward him, her body stiff, fists pressed to her legs. “The rest of you turn to chapter ten in your health books and read until I return.” She walked to the door with Marcus. “And remember, I can hear everything that’s going on in here.”
I peered back at Kimmie Sue Wharton, my new best friend, sitting two rows over since her last name started with “W.” She twisted a strand of hair around her finger and chewed on her tongue as she poured over her book. Then her head popped up, and we exchanged grins. Her smile made me feel all warm inside, and I turned back to focus on my book.
A few minutes later, Mrs. H and Marcus returned. I don’t know what she says or what she does when she takes him out of the room, but when he comes back in, it’s like he’s a different boy. He sits in his seat all straight, like a little man. When she calls on him, he says “Yes, ma’am,” all proper-like. But his good behavior never lasts long, and soon he’s back to teasing the girls and blowing spit-balls across the room.
The last bell rang, and all the kids sprang into action gathering books, backpacks, and sitting on the edge of their seats ready to fly when Mrs. H said the word.
“Walkers may get your coats and line up.” Mrs. H stood and moved to the door. That was my cue. I only lived a couple streets over from the school. While most Mamas and Daddies wouldn’t dare let their kids roam free these days, I lived in a town that was more like a big neighborhood with only 2,949 people. “You wouldn’t find a safer place,” my daddy always said. And today, Kimmie Sue got to come home with me for a sleepover. Daddy said it’d be okay as long as we weren’t too noisy. After all, Mama needed her rest, especially after a chemo treatment. 
Outside, the sun played peek-a-boo from behind a gray cloud. I’d put in my order for snow, being the fifth of December and all, but none had appeared. How I wanted to sled down the school hill, screaming and laughing along with Mama, Daddy, and Addy. That funny feeling passed through my tummy again. It wasn’t likely Mama would be able to do that for a while. Probably never. Maybe I didn’t want it to snow after all.
I turned to Kimmie Sue, her red sock hat mashing her bangs. She blinked through the hair that teased her dark eyelashes. “I’ll race ya to the road,” I said.
Kimmie lifted her shoulders to adjust her backpack, eyes sparking, feet on the ready. Every muscle in her body seemed to tense. She’d never win a spelling bee, but boy, could she run.
“Ready, set, go!” I screamed, and off we charged, up a small hill past other kids and down, finally skidding to a stop at the bottom as a car whizzed by. Breathless, I patted Kimmie on the back. “You win, just like always.”
Face flushed, she unzipped her jacket and grinned, a dimple appearing in her chubby cheek. Four permanent teeth sat in a row on the top and bottom with others yet to come in on the sides. Like me. But that wasn’t the only thing we had in common. We both loved Barbie dolls, ballet, homemade cookies, and laughter. And it didn’t take much to split our sides.
We studied the street, looked both ways, and darted across. On the other side, Mr. Whitmire stood on a ladder putting up Christmas lights on his gutter. An inflated Frosty smiled in the yard, alongside a merry-go-round with three plastic horses. Two tiny reindeer, the kind made out of sticks, lay beside the open garage. Mini-lights twinkled from the bushes.
“Hi, Mr. Whitmire,” I yelled, passing his house. Mama and I had baked a basket of cookies for him when he moved to Gosmer to be close to his daughter. He never talked about her, and he didn’t have any grandkids. Kinda sad. But that worked pretty good for him and me, ‘cause I didn’t have a grandpa. With a white beard like Santa Claus, except shorter, he enjoyed telling me stories whenever I visited him. 
He glanced over his shoulder and kinda lost his balance.
A deep frown flickered across his face, quickly replaced by a weak smile. Kimmie and I snapped our heads back to the road in front of us and kept right on walking without looking back. Giggling, we turned onto Lasser. Three houses on the left, a white dog with floppy ears barked and danced on the top of a picnic table in the side yard, a chain running from his neck to a short metal pole in the ground.
“Ooh, look, there’s that dog that barks in two-four time.” Kimmie covered her mouth, her giggle now turning into full-fledged laughter.

I couldn’t help but join her. Before long, we were laughing so hard, we had to hold our stomachs. Oh, it hurt. But no sound came out. I glanced at her face, red like she’d been in the sun too long. Tears streamed from her eyes, leaving streaks on her cheeks.
As we stepped onto my sidewalk at the end of the street, I stopped to catch my breath. “Whew! You almost made me wet my pants.”
“Me, too.” She crossed her legs and stared at me, and we burst out laughing again.
“Race ya to the bathroom.” Kimmie started to run down the sidewalk, but I grabbed her arm. “No, wait, Mama’s not feeling good. We have to be quiet.”
Kimmie clapped her hand over her mouth. “Oh, sorry.” She tiptoed toward the front stoop as if she were already in the house.

I shook my head and followed.
Silence greeted us inside. No Christmas music. No gingerbread smell coming from the kitchen. Only the dreaded quiet. So different from years past. My mama loved the holiday season so much she decorated the house on November first, except for the tree. Daddy and I always took a special date to chop down a fir two weeks before Christmas.
Who knew what would happen this year.
“Where’s your mom?” Kimmie tugged off her mittens then lowered her backpack to a living room chair.
Without a word, I crept down the hallway, Kimmie on my heels. A strange sour smell hung in the air when we passed the bathroom. I swallowed and covered my mouth. Mama and Daddy’s bedroom door was cracked so I peeked inside. Addy sat on the carpet, bent over her Little Mermaid coloring book, a blue crayon in her hand. Her head popped up when she saw me.
My grip tightened on the doorknob as Kimmie tried to slither in beside me. “Where’s Mama?” My mouth went dry.
“Puttin’ clothes in the washer.” Addy fished for another crayon in her box as if Mama putting clothes in to wash happened every day in our house. It didn’t. Most days, either Daddy or me had to do it.
A lid banged shut, and slow steps scuffed up from the basement. Mama’s worn face appeared at the top of the stairs. “Well, hello girls.” She must have used every last ounce of energy to say that ‘cause her shoulders kinda collapsed as she moved toward us. As we stood side-by-side, she placed one hand on my cheek, and the other on Kimmie’s arm. Even though she wore a scarf to hide her balding head and a shadow circled her eyes, she managed a smile.
I guess Mama’s smile is about the most beautiful thing in the world. Daddy told me once that’s why he married her, because her whole face seemed to glow whenever she smiled. Like she hid some secret just bursting to get out.
I screwed up my face. “You all right, Mama?” Oh, how I wanted her to be. How I wanted her trip to the basement to mean she was getting better. That the hard months she’d been through—that we’d all been through—were over. “I thought you had a treatment today.”
She knelt in front of us. “I did.” Her lower lip trembled, then she formed another smile. “But ya know what? I don’t feel near as bad as I did after that last round. In fact, I feel pretty good.” She plopped her fist on her hip. “What would you say to some hot chocolate?”
“Me too!” Addy slammed her coloring book and scrambled to her feet.
I took Mama’s hand as the four of us padded to the kitchen. “I can help.” I opened the cabinet where we kept all the drink mixes and reached for the cocoa packets.
“So can I,” Kimmie chimed in, leaning against the striped wall paper that matched the placemats on the table.
“I wanna stir my own.” Addy climbed into a chair and struggled to her knees, arms resting on the wooden table.
Mama poured water into mugs and placed them in the microwave. “How about you girls put the packets on the table? We’ll let each person fix her own.”
That’s the way it was these days. Each person fixing his own, from hot chocolate to lunches to laundry. ‘Cause Daddy said everybody had to pitch in to help until Mama got over her cancer. And there was nothing I wanted more than Mama to feel good again. 
But when in the world would that be?
Kimmie and me joined Addy at the table and waited for the microwave to ping. “Stop picking your nose. That’s gross.” I knocked Addy’s hand away from her face. Mama didn’t need that kinda stuff to deal with.
Addy twisted her mouth and howled. “Stop it!”
“Girls,” Mama said in that sing-songy way we’d grown used to, as if she was trying to figure out whether to be mad or amused.
 When the microwave beeped, Mama carried the cups to the table. I scooted a mug over to Kimmie and one to Addy along with a packet for each. Then I passed out spoons from a jar in the center of the table. I glanced at Mama. She stood by the stove, face white, hand on her stomach.
“Aren’t you gonna have any chocolate?” Oh, how I wanted her to say yes. To be normal.
Her face kinda twitched like a bunny’s nose, then she ran out of the room.
The front door opened and in walked Daddy. Home early. Thank you, Jesus. His strong face slid into a grin when he joined us at the table. Before he had a chance to speak, a sound like vomiting came from the bathroom, followed by that awful odor.
His smiley eyes turned sad. He brushed a hand over the table and pushed back his chair. “I’ll go check on Mama.” He winked—something he did to reassure us.
But I knew the truth.
Mama couldn’t take much more of this. And I wondered if we could either.

December Sunrise
 A little girl’s Christmas wish comes at a high cost.

Emma’s Christmas list isn’t like other kids’. Instead of toys, she wants her mama’s cancer to go away, the town to stop arguing over the Ten Commandments, and nice Mr. Whitmire to reunite with his estranged daughter. Grandma Doreen holds the key to a family secret that just might fulfill some of Emma’s desires, but not before tragedy strikes.

A young girl’s heart for helping takes her to a dark place only the Light of Christmas can illumine.

December Sunrise, available here.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Sit a Spell with First Chapters

Welcome to my reading room! During the winter months, I invite you to sit a spell and read a variety of free first chapters from my book selections.  

The first one is taken from my novel, Masquerade, where an infertile woman grieves over a past abortion her husband knows nothing about. When she finally works up courage to tell him, tragedy strikes, followed by a surprise that leads her on a quest for answers.


Schreiber, Indiana
September, 1983

CHAPTER ONE (Excerpt taken from my novel, Masquerade)

Regret barged into the bedroom and refused to leave. Like one of the boxes Celeste had carried from their trailer to their new house, a dark secret weighed heavy on her heart, especially in the last year.
She surveyed the pile of cartons beside the bed and located the one marked “Framed Pictures.” Tearing away the tissue paper, she smoothed her hand over the cool glass surface lodged inside the pewter frame, corners adorned with inlaid sapphires. A bride and groom smiled back at her. Mr. and Mrs. Joe Tatem.
In spite of her dismal mood, she was determined to enjoy her anniversary.
The heady aroma of English Leather entered the bedroom as she studied the portrait. She spun around and faced her husband. A silly grin ruffled his lips. She smiled and melted into Joe’s arms. She reached up and pressed her index finger into the dimple in his chin.
“Okay, you can come out now.” His voice teased her. “But first, put this on.” He gently turned her around and tied a bandanna over her eyes.
“What are you up to, you big sneak?”
With one hand around her waist and the other on her arm, Joe carefully guided her. Clutching the frame against her chest, she felt the floor beneath her bare feet change from carpet to hardwood, then back to carpet again.
Joe’s warm breath came near. His lips met hers in a lingering kiss. Then he released the blindfold from her eyes. “Happy Anniversary, Tater Tot!” His nickname for her ever since their dating days at Purdue University.
Her mouth flew open at the display before her. Several pots of burgundy, yellow, and white mums wrapped in shiny gold foil marked off a circle on the shag carpet. The wedding ring quilt gifted by her grandmother on their wedding day rested on the floor inside the circle. The room glowed with candles of varying sizes, too many to count, some atop boxes, others on the floor. “Close to You played softly on the stereo.
Joe eased the frame out of Celeste’s hands and set it among the flowers, then swept his rough hands over her forehead and cheeks, finally coming to rest on her shoulders. “Surprised?” His arms slipped around her waist, and he pulled her close.
“Uh . . . very. When in the world did you have time to buy all this and set it up?” With working extra hours at Schreiber Metal Works, he’d barely had time to breathe, let alone plan a celebration.
“Ah, have you forgotten? I’m a man of many talents.” He waggled his dark eyebrows in a Groucho Marx expression.
She frowned, fighting back tears. 
His hands slid down her arms. “What’s wrong?” Lightly squeezing her palms, he stepped back, head tilted, and studied her.
Heat filled her face. Their fifth year wedding anniversary required something better than pizza, but with the move and the beginning of a new school year, she’d been swamped with work. “I didn’t have much time or energy to come up with something all that special.”
“What? No filet-Mignon? How could you?” Mock horror swept over his face.
Determined not to be outdone, she playfully slapped him on the arm and started for the kitchen. “Wait right here”—hands splayed in front of her husband—“I’ll be right back.”
            “No problem. I’ll just slip into something more comfortable.” His eyes sparked, and excitement rippled through her body.
When she returned carrying a heart-shaped pizza, he sat in the circle, one hand anchored on his right knee, the other resting on his left thigh. At the sight of him, she almost dropped the tray. Wearing silky boxer shorts, could he look any yummier?
“Come here, you.” His mouth curled into a playful grin.
Kneeling, she set the silver-plated tray between them. He gripped the back of her head and smothered her lips with a kiss. A delightful tingle traveled from her head to her toes.
Joe released her and sat back. “What’s this?” He stared at the pizza. “Creative. I Love You spelled out with my favorite topping, black olives.” Using the pizza wheel, he cut two slices, handed one to Celeste, and bit into the other. A cheese string trailed from his lips. When Celeste leaned over and swept the gooey mozzarella from his chin, he caught her hand and kissed it. Lips hungry for more, his mouth traveled down the side of her face. He blew a raspberry into her neck. The stubble tickled her skin. Giggling, she scrunched her head and shoulder.
She pushed on his chest. “Calm down, lover boy. Let’s enjoy dinner first.”
He took another bite, his gaze fastened on her. “What’s that perfume you’re wearing? Smells like the beach.”
“It’s not perfume; it’s lotion with cocoa butter.”
Reaching for her arm, he gently buried his nose in her skin and breathed deeply. A satisfied sigh escaped his lips. He plowed through another pizza slice, then smeared his hands on his shorts.
The record now over, he rose to reset the needle for a second round of the Carpenters. He retrieved two wine glasses and an ice bucket hidden behind the grouping of mums and lowered to the floor across from Celeste. He spun the goblets and set them between them.
Warmth filled her heart. She brushed the crushed ice away from the bottle. “Ooh, Barbaresco. I’m impressed.” She lifted the bottle from its cradle, gripping the base with one hand and the neck with the other. Seemingly out of nowhere, a haunting scene flashed before her eyes.
Her mother pulled the covers down, urged her into bed. Here, drink this. Her severe face grew large like a character in a horror movie. It’ll help the pain go away . . . pain go away . . . pain go away . . . away . . . away . . . Her voice echoed in Celeste’s mind.
Joe reached for the bottle, bumping her back to the present. “You’re sweating.” He peered at her face.
Celeste swiped her upper lip.
“Brings back memories, huh?”
“What do you mean?”
“Come on, don’t you remember? Our honeymoon. The resort staff put a bottle of Barbaresco on our bed along with two chocolate kisses.”
She blinked and ran a hand through her shoulder length hair. “Of course.” She managed a wobbly smile, torment cramping her abdominal muscles. In her mind, she shoved the skeleton in her closet into an empty box and tossed it in the trash. 
After using a corkscrew to open the top, Joe poured a small amount into a glass. Swirling the red liquid under his nose, he inhaled deeply. “Hmm . . . cherries, hickory, slightly hot at first”— he flashed his eyes at her—“then spicy, not so different from you, my love.”
“Let me taste that.” She grabbed at the glass.
He stuck his hand out. “Not so fast. These things take time.”
“What things?” Her husband sure was dragging this out.
He poured a second glass and handed it to her. Leaning forward, he crossed arms with her and took a sip. “You know, just like at our wedding reception.”
“Yes, yes, I get it.” She conjured up another smile and took a quick sip, then unhooked her arm and set her glass down.
He puckered his brow. “You seem fidgety.”
“Do I?”
“Yeah, what’s up?”
“Nothing. Maybe a little anxious to—”
“You sly dog.” He shot her a silly sideways glance.
She reached for her glass. No timid sip this time. A swig filled her mouth and wormed its way down her esophagus, settling into her stomach. Pain go away . . . go away . . . go away. Jumping up, she ran from the room.
“Hey, where ya going?”
“I’ll be right back.” Rounding the corner of the living room into the kitchen, she nearly slipped on the shiny hardwood. Once in the bedroom, she maneuvered around several boxes and yanked open her vanity drawer. She sorted through socks and underwear until she unearthed their wedding album. The black nightie Joe had bought her on their first anniversary lay folded beside a velvet box filled with costume jewelry.
She shrugged out of her baby doll blouse and slacks. Anything to distract her mind. Pushing the pain of past memories aside, she envisioned the look on Joe’s face when she stepped into the living room wearing the lacy lingerie. The sight of her would certainly make up for any momentary angst he might have detected earlier.
One final glance in the vanity mirror, a quick swipe of soft plum lipstick to accentuate her porcelain skin and jet-black hair, and she was set. Grabbing the album off the bed, she slinked back to the living room.
“Whoa.” Joe’s mouth flew open.
Sidling over to him, she dropped to her knees and placed the album in front of them. He drew her close and kissed her neck.
“Pictures first, remember, like at our wedding.”
“No fair.”
“Look who’s talking. You’ve been dragging out this entire evening way beyond frustration. Well, two can play this game.”
“Okay, okay.” He huffed and sat back, hands limp in his lap.
“Look at this.” Celeste pointed to a photo of the two of them standing under an archway in a late summer garden. Eyes shining, she held a bouquet of white lilies. Pink and white roses snaked around white latticework. “And the powder pink roses accented the hot pink gowns my attendants wore—”
“Yeah, yeah.” He drew his finger down her back as she leaned over the album.
“You’re not even looking,” she huffed.
He snapped to attention. “I’m looking already. I’m looking.”
“That’s more like it.” Smirking, she turned the page. Four faces leapt off the page, her mother’s one of them. Dread flooded her abdomen, spiraling her into a dark hole.
Closing the album, she laid it aside.
“You’re not interested anyway.”
“Those are just pictures, Celeste . . . uh, beautiful pictures, that’s for sure. But hey, I’ve got the real thing right here. Let’s make some new memories, how ‘bout that?” He pulled her into a warm embrace, then released her. Standing, he urged her to her feet, wrapped his arms around her, and began to sway to the music. “Do you know how beautiful you are?”
She couldn’t speak through her tears. Wasn’t that the same question he’d asked over and over again that weekend? The weekend that changed her life forever?


Her hand on the banister, Sonya Miller paused on the bottom step in the foyer and sucked in a sharp breath. This was one of those days when she wondered if she’d survive to the end of the homeschool year, and it was only September. Six kids, ages ten and under, kept her mopping floors, grading papers, reading stories, and wiping noses.
She lowered to the step and scratched Snarls, the family’s retriever, behind the ears. He panted and pawed at her skirt. His shiny brown eyes tented by raised brows mirrored her worry.
“Are you as weary to the bone as I am?” She offered a weak smile, rubbed his nose. “It’s okay, boy, we’ll manage somehow.”
She gazed out the window. The last golden rays of the sun gracefully bowed to the entrance of the full moon, and still no Sam. How she wished her husband could give up the gas attendant job, so he could spend more time at home. But they needed the extra income to make ends meet. On top of that, the promised payroll increase at Harvester Foods never materialized. Hopes raised, then mashed like a pile of boiled potatoes. 
Snarls nudged her hand, and she smiled into his furry face. “I hate to complain,” she confided to her faithful friend. “It’s uncomely, I know, especially for a woman. Besides, Sam keeps food on the table and a roof over our heads.” She stroked Snarls’ back. “Without his financial support, the family would be sunk. In all fairness, he does pitch in around the house on occasion. A load of laundry here. A math lesson there.”
Feet pounded the floor overhead. Harsh words erupted between her two eldest sons, then a door slammed.
She stood, her ear cocked toward the upstairs racket. “Boys, I want you in bed by the time I get up there,” she yelled, and Snarls barked in response.
“Yeah, you tell’em, boy.” She sighed, pressed the small of her back, and trudged up the steps, Snarls skittering past her. Her foot landed on a ball, and she grabbed the railing for support. A sharp pain shot up her calf. Grimacing, she stooped and rubbed her ankle. How many times had she told those kids not to leave toys on the stairs? Definitely time to incorporate another safety lesson into health class, since many household injuries, even deaths, stemmed from falls.
Better yet, apply a penalty for this “ball” infraction. First, she’d have to root out the careless little culprit. But not tonight. In the morning. Things always looked better in daylight.
She lifted her face to the high ceiling of the old farmhouse stairwell. “Lord, bring Sam home . . . please,” she muttered through clenched teeth.
Sam was a good husband, so why the growing feelings of resentment? She forced her mind to wrap up in the thought of his strong arms, her head pressed to his chest, ear absorbing the steady rhythm of his heartbeat. A heartbeat they both shared.
More scuffling overhead, then a loud thump. Another argument to arbitrate without Sam. If bodies didn’t litter the floor by now, they would by the time she reached the boys’ room. She’d make sure of that.
She reeled in her temper and plodded up the remaining steps. Calm down, Sonya. Deep breath. Counting to ten now.       
At the top of the stairs, all was quiet except for Tommy’s nasally breathing which sounded from his crib. She frowned. Must be allergies again. She’d set up the vaporizer. Slipping a strand of hair behind her ear, she peeked in the bedroom shared by two children. Lily knelt on a mat and looked for something under her bed. When the floor creaked, she turned her head toward Sonya. Eyes wide, she blinked slowly. “Pooh?” she said in a loud whisper.
Sonya opened the closet and pulled out a stuffed Winnie-the-Pooh from under a pile of toys. She helped Lily slide under the covers, then sat on the bed and tucked the yellow bear with red shirt under the little girl’s arm. “How ‘bout you keep Pooh on your bed instead of tossing him in the closet?” Sonya pulled the covers up as Lily plunged under holding her favorite toy.
“I not mix him in the closet.” Seven-year-old Lily spoke with the mental acuity of a three-year-old.
“Mix him?”
Lily unplugged her thumb from her mouth. “Like salad.”

Sonya snorted a soft laugh. “Right.” She wove her fingers through the child’s curls. “You go to sleep now.”
Lily smiled around her thumb and clamped her eyes shut. She was a dear little girl, but perhaps they’d jumped too quickly when they signed on to be foster parents to a special needs child. Certainly they had their hands full caring for their biological children. Yet they’d always felt compassion for unwanted kids. Neither she nor Sam could ignore that heart tug.
Lily’s eyelids flew open. “We forgot to pray.”
“Yes, I guess we did.” Sonya had been too tired to follow through with the family’s nightly ritual, which typically took place right after supper.
“Let’s sing our prayer.” Lily maneuvered to her knees, her eyes shining.
Sonya glanced over her shoulder at the crib. Tommy, now awake, fingered his blanket and peered through the slats. “Okay.” She scratched her head, sifting through her memory files for a song.
When I am Afraid, I Will Trust in God. Let’s sing that.” Still on her knees, Lily bounced up and down on the mattress.
Sonya nodded. She couldn’t count how many times Lily had reminded her to turn to God in the midst of fear. And she was doing it again.
As Lily sang, Tommy clapped his chubby hands. When she finished, she reached under her pillow and drew out a sheet of white paper. Crooked letters formed with various crayon colors spelled Lily. She beamed and handed it to Sonya.
“Good job writing your name. I’ll post this on the refrigerator.”
Lily flew into Sonya’s arms. For a few seconds, the twosome rocked and hugged. Sonya breathed in the shampoo-sweetness of the child’s hair. At last, they released one another, and Lily slithered under the covers. “Night, Sonny.”
“Good night, Lily.” She smoothed the child’s damp ringlets from her forehead. Passing the crib, she touched Tommy’s plump cheek and covered him with his blanket. His chest rose and fell on a sigh.
A scrubbing sound propelled Sonya to the bathroom where six-year-old Mia and four-year-old Hannah stood on stools brushing their teeth. Thankfully, they’d obeyed when she shooed them away from the supper table and told them to get ready for bed. “About done, girls?”
Mouths foaming with toothpaste, the girls nodded, spit into the sink, and stumbled over each other to get to the towel. With a tap on their bottoms, Sonya sent them giggling out of the bathroom and into their bedroom.
In the hallway, a light from Matthew’s and Anthony’s room drew her attention. She uttered a silent prayer for grace. Both boys lounged on their twin beds, one reading and the other fiddling with a model airplane. Snarls lay in a ball at Matthew’s feet. Whatever argument had previously taken place was either resolved or kept under tight wraps in mom’s presence. Relieved, she tapped the doorjamb. “Lights out, boys.”
“Ah, can’t we stay up until daddy gets home?” Anthony flung his hands onto the chenille bedspread. Ever the dramatic one, her second son clung to Sam like a koala to a tree.
“Not tonight, honey. We’ve got another school day tomorrow, and I want you rested.” She moved into the bedroom. “Now, get under those covers and get to sleep.” She made a scooting motion with her hands.
The boys groaned, but obeyed. Sure, they scuffled at times, but didn’t all boys? They were good kids, really. Not much to complain about on that score. But sometimes she felt like a single parent, and single moms with six kids to teach and care for were sure to burn out sooner or later. Nerves on edge, tears so close to the surface. She shouldn’t be feeling this way so early in the school season, especially after the summer break. Even though they couldn’t afford to take a vacation, they’d made up for it with trips to the park and the lake, with enough snow cones sloshing around in their bellies to carry them through to next summer.
She backed out of the bedroom, flicking the light off as she exited. After checking to make sure Mia and Hannah were in bed, she started down the stairs. She collapsed into the living room rocker and stared out the window. How long she sat there she didn’t know. At last, the front door pushed open and in walked Sam, apology stamped all over his face.
Something in her bristled, and she fought against a rising tide of anger. Yes, she could fuss at him for not being there to read a Bible story to the children, sing, and pray, but what sense would that make? He couldn’t help it if he had to work late. If only she could contribute somehow to the household income. Maybe that would ease her husband’s workload and give him more time with the family.
But buying Sam more time with the kids might cost Sonya her sanity. And the way she felt lately, it might not take much to push her over the edge.   

Masquerade available in paperback here. 

Masquerade available as an ebook here.