Plot Summary – A sequel to Abigail’s Journey, and third in the Journey series.
As a survivor of abuse, Terry Davis is determined to make a difference in someone’s life the way his best friend, John Johannes, had changed Terry’s so many years ago on a school playground. Having seen John’s daughter, Abigail, rescue Jake Murphy from Jake’s tortured past, Terry is more intent than ever to offer a lifeline of his own to someone in desperate need. But it won’t be easy.
Protective of Terry’s wounds, John has tried to keep his friend from helping anyone too much, knowing from Terry’s former experience as a volunteer hotline crisis counselor that Terry’s nightmares would return. Then she arrived in all her painful helplessness– Madison Crawford with the haunting gray eyes and secretive past, needing to be rescued while claiming to need no one. As Terry tries to help Madison and then becomes involved with her on a more personal level, John’s concerns deepen for the dear friend he loves like a brother.
This may be Terry’s journey, but Terry won’t be making it alone.
The past no longer existed for Madison Crawford.
She had left it behind– buried with him, with the pain she had been forced to accept. The rush of freedom quickened her pulse, fed her wildest dreams of living a normal life. The thirty-four years of her entire existence, the existence that led up to this moment, would never be remembered again. She wouldn’t allow it. Let the memories haunt her, let them come and see how far they would get. Her heart would be numb to their cries, her ears would be deaf to their torment. She refused to be the pathetic puppy who cried when the food dish remained empty, only to be beaten later for making so much noise.
An ache stirred within Madison as she watched the dark terrain speed past her bus window. She had to forget. She would forget. Tonight marked a new beginning, a life untouched by agony or the familiar terrors that for so long had refused to let go. The tortured voice within her screamed until she trembled, but Madison hardened herself against the pain. If running long and hard could erase the past, then she would succeed. She had gathered what little she could and bought a ticket to the farthest destination she could afford. It didn’t matter where, as long as her surroundings wouldn’t remind her of him.
She had to be dreaming. Here she sat– alone on a dark bus, on her way to nowhere in particular with fifty-two cents in her pocket. She moved the grocery bag at her feet, touching it once more like a child clinging to a treasured blanket. Some old clothes, a mirror, a hand brush. Nothing worth stealing, but they meant the world to Madison, for they were all she had.
If she were awake, surely she would feel more than she did.
The bus rolled to a stop, and the driver turned in his seat and again stared at her. For the past few miles she had been the only passenger left, deepening her awareness of being so very much on her own.
“This is your stop, ma’am,” the driver said with a harmless smile.
Distrust made her unable to return the gesture. Ever since the last passenger disembarked at Chaumont, Madison had been especially grateful God had placed her seat at the back of the bus. The driver looked at her too much, too long, too hard to make her feel at ease.
Despite the announcement that her journey had come to an end, Madison felt an unexpected, hesitant fear at the prospect of leaving. She stared out the window, shuddered at the night that obstructed her view. “Where am I?” she asked. When the driver didn’t answer, she turned, saw the look of concern in his face.
“This is Three Mile Bay, ma’am. You bought a ticket to come here, remember?”
She remembered, though she had no idea where Three Mile Bay was, or what awaited her through those bus doors.
“Is there anyone I can call for you?” The driver’s growing concern frightened Madison, and she shrugged off his question with a quick, unconcerned reply.
Locating her grocery bag, she took a deep breath and stepped off into the jagged unknown. It took strength to hide her nerves from the driver, to look as though she belonged there, that she had someplace to go. As if to punctuate the loneliness of her resolve, the bus pulled away, leaving her to stand in the dark.
A cold September wind cut through the thin protection of her pullover, and she scrambled to put on the flannel shirt rolled up in the grocery bag.
A large, solitary moon hung over the water in the distance, lending its light as her eyes grew accustomed to the dark. So this was freedom. From here on out, no matter what happened, things could only get better.
The smell of rich coffee stirred Terry Davis from his sleep, long before he intended to drag himself out of bed. Hadn’t his best friend in all the world, John Johannes, promised to sleep in this morning? After a late night of conference calls with the tech team in Osaka, Terry had been clutching to the promise of catching up on lost sleep.
The mini stampede outside the bedroom door made him groan. Reaching with one hand, Terry blindly grasped at the LED clock on his night table, while hushed giggles crowded around his door.
Okay, not as bad as Terry had thought. The fatigue pulling at his eyes, however, made him feel as though he’d just fallen into bed.
“Un-cle Ter-reeee,” a singsong voice called to him through the closed door.
“I’m still sleeping,” he answered, rubbing his aching eyes.
“Then why are you talking?” came the voice.
Terry grinned. “I’m talking in my sleep.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Yes, I am.”
Silence followed. The voice consulted her sisters on how best to counter Terry’s claim, and he smothered a chuckle. He rolled onto his side, watched the door and pictured the three of them in the hall, one of them designated to be the one to twist open the doorknob.
“You can’t fool us. You’re awake,” said the voice.
“No, I’m not.”
“But you’re talking, so you have to be up.”
Terry grinned even harder. “You’re listing to a recording. I made it to frighten away all little munchkins who dare to wake their Uncle Terry.”
With a burst of giggles, the door pushed open and three blonde-headed four-year-olds with startling blue eyes, tumbled into the room and onto the bed.
“Oh no!” Terry pulled the blankets over his head as they swarmed over him. “I’m surrounded by little people!”
Lizzie poked her head beneath the covers, grinned with laughter as he made a funny face. Someone climbed onto his stomach, and he let out an “Oomph!” at the same time another tugged at the blankets.
“Okay, okay, I’m up!” Terry dropped the covers, pushed himself upright in bed while the child sitting on his stomach– Ruthie– went along for the ride. “Take pity, girls. I didn’t get much sleep. See these eyes?” he leaned toward the one on his tummy, pulled his bottom eyelid open. “Bloodshot. Both of them. And do you know who I have to thank for that? Your daddy! He forced me to stay up, way past my bedtime!”
“Daddy stayed up, too,” Lizzie said, getting to her knees for her turn to look at Terry’s eyes. “Just as I thought. You’re teasing.”
“I beg your pardon, I earned every bit of these red eyes, and I refuse to admit they’re anything but bloodshot.”
In typical Johannes triplet fashion, the third sister insisted on her turn. Terry made sure no one felt left out, then lifted Ruthie from off his stomach so he could breath. “Okay, you three. Who’s who? Are you going to tell me this time, or am I going to have to guess?”
Grins spread throughout the sisters, and they lined up beside the bed to play their game.
“Let’s see,” Terry frowned in deep concentration, “this one is… Ruthie.”
The girl laughed, and Terry feigned shock. “Not Ruthie? Then you must be Ruthie,” he said, tapping a finger on Debbie’s nose. Debbie fell onto the bed in laughter, then the girls went about setting their befuddled uncle straight. Terry didn’t mind playing the game. The triplets delighted in confusing strangers, though among family, they rarely could stump anyone.
Which explained why they delighted in Terry’s game so much.
In January, after the girls’ fifth birthday, Terry figured they would be too old for such things, and planned to phase the game out. Until then, he continued to tease them all he wanted. As fraternal sisters who bore a strong resemblance to each other, the Johannes triplets were often mistaken as identical. They had Providence and strong family genes to thank for that– Izumi’s deep blue eyes and long lashes, John’s blonde hair and quick grin. When the triplets combined their laughter, they could melt even the strongest determination to keep a straight face. Except of course, when a more determined parent wanted them to settle down and be quiet.
“Girls!” John’s voice broke through the laughter and giggles, and Terry looked up to see his friend coming into the room with a mug of coffee in his hand. “I thought I told you to leave Uncle Terry alone this morning!”
“It’s all right,” Terry leaned over the bed to plant a kiss on each small forehead before John filed them out of the room, “I don’t mind.”
“You’re spoiling them,” John warned, handing Terry the mug painted with a bright yellow smiley face. “Did you give them permission to barge in on you?”
“Not exactly.” Terry sipped the French Roast. “Oh, this is good. This was worth getting up for.”
Barefoot and still in pajamas, John went to stand in the doorway as Terry pushed back the covers and climbed out of bed. “I keep telling them to wait for permission, but if you don’t stick to the rules, one of these mornings, they’re going to burst in on you when you don’t want them to.”
“Nah, won’t happen. When I want privacy, I lock the door.” Terry took another sip and let the caffeine do its work. Soon, he would be one-hundred-percent awake, and not just standing with his eyes open. “Any word from Osaka, yet?”
John lifted his brows in mock surprise. “What? After all the work we put into that code, you think they’ll have the nerve to call again?”
“Absolutely.” Terry smiled as they moved down the hall, through the living room and into the kitchen where Izumi stood at the dishwasher, putting away last night’s plates. “Since when did good planning ever trump Murphy’s law? Anything that can go wrong, will. Not even those highly educated techies in Osaka can stand up to Murphy. We’re going to hear from that bank again, and when we do, mark my words– they’re going to have another networking problem with our software.”
With a tired groan, John took a seat at the breakfast table. “I’m beginning to wish one of us had flown to Japan, and put in some one-on-one with their team. This might’ve gone easier.”
“Yes, it might’ve,” Terry acknowledged, pulling out his chair and taking his usual place at the table, “but we were trying to get away from all that traveling, remember?”
“Yeah, I remember.”
Terry lifted his smiley face mug and saluted Izumi. “Thanks for wresting power away from your husband, and making the coffee.”
With a laugh, John grabbed the box of cereal and dumped corn flakes into his bowl. “You don’t like my java? I’m hurt.” He poured milk, handed the carton to Terry. “I’ll be grateful when this account closes. They pay well, but the overtime is killing us. I suppose it’s one of the drawbacks of being independent contractors– no one stops you from running yourself into the ground.”
Grabbing a spoon and a napkin from the stack on the table, Terry chuckled. “Didn’t you know? That’s one of the bennies of working from home.”
A child skipped into the kitchen, perched herself beside Terry’s chair and stared at him intently. “Speaking of Murphy’s law,” Terry went on, pretending not to notice Debbie, “has anyone heard from San Diego yet? I thought Abby was supposed to have called by now.”
“Uncle Terry,” Debbie tugged at his pajama sleeve.
Smiling, Terry tossed a wink at John.
“No, Abby hasn’t called yet,” John said, as he shoveled in another spoonful of breakfast. He crunched cereal, and eyed Debbie with amusement as she continued to stare at Terry. “Now that Jake is a college graduate, they need to decide where they’re going to live. I’m glad we could be there to see him in a cap and gown, but I’ll be even happier when I see them both where they belong– which is right here.”
“I wish we could put in another good word for Three Mile Bay,” Terry said, shaking his head at the debate happening on the West Coast. “That little yellow house has sat empty for too long.”
After putting away the last of the dishes, Izumi joined the discussion at the table. “When they’ve reached a decision, I’m sure they’ll let us know. Debbie, stop bothering your poor uncle.”
“But,” Debbie looked at Izumi with tremulous blue eyes, “Uncle Terry promised !”
“Promised what?” John asked.
Nursing his coffee, Terry crossed ankles and leaned back in the chair. “Don’t you know what day this is?”
John frowned. “Of course I know– it’s Saturday. Oh… I see. Allowance day, and the money is burning a hole in her pocket.”
Swallowing more of the French Roast, Terry smiled at the button-nose standing by his chair. “Where to this time?” he asked, enjoying the moment despite the interruption it would mean to his morning. “Watertown again?”
Excited, Debbie nodded.
“Of course,” Terry said with a weary laugh. “By now, the owner of that science store must know us by name. What is it this time– astronomy or botany?” Debbie opened her mouth to answer, but Terry stopped her with a small pat on the head. “It doesn’t matter. I’ll take you. Just give me a chance to eat breakfast and get dressed.”
“While your at it, you might want to shave,” John said, nodding to Terry with a grin. “You’re looking shaggy.”
Lighthearted amusement dancing in her blue eyes, Izumi pinned John with a teasing tilt of her head. “Look who’s talking. You’ve needed a shave for the past two days.”
“But at least I’m not planning to go out in public before I do. Besides, you told me this morning that you liked my stubble.”
“I was being polite.”
A playful, knowing look crossed John’s face, but he said nothing more. As the private joke exchanged between husband and wife, Terry decided not to ask questions. When Izumi went to sit on John’s lap, and John gave her a lingering kiss on the back of her neck, Terry could guess John’s meaning. Terry wondered if all women loved to be kissed, even when the face kissing them needed a shave. Dismissing the question as having nothing to do with himself, Terry focused his attention on finishing breakfast. He admired the way his friends still loved each other after twenty-three years of marriage. They shared genuine affection, and whenever he looked at them, he knew he saw the real thing.
In a purely intimate gesture, John murmured something against Izumi’s ear. She leaned her forehead against John’s, took a sip from his mug, then offered it back to her doting husband.
Debbie continued to stand there, as though fearful that if she left, Terry might forget.
“I’ll take Debbie into Watertown for you,” John said, as two more little girls came to the table, hungry for their usual ritual of cereal and orange juice. “I have some time, and could make the run for you.”
The look of disappointment on Debbie’s face tugged at Terry’s heart. Terry knew she enjoyed these trips with him, with just her and Uncle Terry, and didn’t want to spoil it for her. He turned down his friend’s offer, gulped down the last of the now lukewarm coffee, then pushed away from the table.
A marked look of relief on her small face, Debbie skipped behind him before he stopped her at his bedroom door.
While Terry brushed his teeth in the adjoining bathroom, he could hear Debbie waiting for him in the hall. True, he would’ve been grateful to laze on the sofa with his laptop this morning, instead of having his arm tugged from its socket by a four-year-old enthusiastic on science. But he would do anything for those girls, and everyone there knew it. As Terry thought back on those tender moments between John and Izumi at the breakfast table, he felt a subtle eagerness to get out of the house.
Terry studied his reflection in the bathroom mirror as he buttoned the long sleeve shirt he had received for his forty-seventh birthday, earlier that year. The same age as John, and a few years older than Izumi, Terry surveyed the familiar reflection with a critical eye.
An ordinary man peered back at him, his straight brown hair uncombed, his mouth lopsided. Terry knew talking to himself wasn’t necessarily a healthy thing, but since no one could overhear, he did it anyway. “Try to defend yourself. You’re approaching the big five-oh, but what do you have to show for your life? What do you have to say for yourself after all this time?” The reflection swallowed hard, but he pushed harder. “Can’t you do anything right?” Maybe too hard. Hurt brown eyes stared back at him, forcing Terry away from the mirror.
Definitely time to get out of the house.
He tucked his shirt into tan slacks, pulled out a comb and ran it through his hair without bothering to check the results in the bathroom. Tugging his coat from a hangar in the closet, Terry paused to listen. When he heard Debbie chatting with someone outside the bedroom door, he smiled. Providentially, he wouldn’t be left alone with his thoughts. He thanked God for the blessings of his family, then grabbed the jeep keys before heading out the bedroom door.
With a shout for him to wait up for her, Debbie ran to get her coat.
Once any of the triplets started talking, it took a miracle to turn them off. Not that Terry ever discouraged the girls from talking. He enjoyed their childish prattle, surprising observations, and the thoughts that just happened into their sweet little heads. As he pulled the jeep onto the main road, Terry heard Debbie’s voice from the back, where she sat harnessed in her booster seat.
“Who’s that lady?”
“What lady?” Terry asked, glancing in the rear view mirror as Debbie craned her head to look at something they had just passed.
“She doesn’t belong here,” Debbie said, settling back in her booster. “Her clothes look strange.”
Terry slowed the jeep as Vince Russo, a neighbor and Terry’s sometimes fishing buddy, jogged from one side of the street to the other, on his way back from visiting a friend. Terry couldn’t help noticing the fly rod with the serious looking reel in Vince’s hand. Terry waved to Vince, and Vince waved back before disappearing into his garage. Vince owned a boat, and not just any boat. A twin-engine diesel sport fisher. That baby could do fifty-five knots plus, making it a dream to navigate the channels around Thousand Islands, just North of Three Mile Bay. But their freshwater bay topped Terry’s list of favorites, the perfect place to go boating, lay anchor and do some serious fly fishing.
“I’m sorry, what?” He tossed Debbie a quick glance before turning his eyes back on the road. “Go on. This time I’m listening.”
For a long moment, Debbie seemed to give something careful deliberation. “Does everyone have a home like mine?”
“No, Sweetheart, not everyone. You’re blessed that you have a home, and a happy one, at that.”
A sad sort of sigh came from the back seat. “I don’t think she has one.”
“The lady with the grocery bag.”
“What lady? I didn’t see anyone but Vince.”
“Uncle Terry,” Debbie sighed with a great deal of patience, “we passed her as we left the house. Maybe you need glasses.”
“Watch it, kiddo,” Terry said with a laugh, “keep that up, and you’ll wind up talking yourself out of a hamburger and fries.”
Debbie giggled, and the subject of the lady with the bag dropped without further mention.
Just as well, thought Terry, as he turned the jeep toward Watertown. Homelessness wasn’t something he really wanted to discuss with such a small child, though it surprised him that it could happen in Three Mile Bay. The people who lived around here usually had money, for this was a vacation town, a place where people came to get away from hectic city lives, to spend some peace and quiet while regaining their sanity via a fly rod and lots of water. Terry couldn’t recall when he had ever seen any homeless in the area, and figured Debbie must have been mistaken.
After a lengthy visit at the science store, where Debbie peppered the owner with questions about black holes and galaxies, Terry treated the youngster to her favorite fast food restaurant. Of course, he loved that restaurant as well, but it suited Terry’s main purpose of making Debbie happy. He wanted Debbie to enjoy her outing, and at the same time, he found himself appreciating the morning more than he thought he would. Conversing with the small child soon made him smile and forget his troubles, including that morning’s losing conversation with the bathroom mirror. The cell phone rang only once, for Izumi wanted to know how everything went and whether or not Debbie was having a good time– a question that even Izumi acknowledged was unnecessary. The triplets always had a good time with Terry. Since he had cleared the hamburger and fries with Izumi before leaving home, the mother knew not to expect them for lunch.
With satisfied bellies, and the afternoon almost over, Terry and Debbie started for home with Debbie’s new DVD about the solar system, tucked in the store bag in her booster seat where she could hold it every once in a while.
It was a beautiful day, despite the fact the wind was moving in with the jet stream, making the cold feel even colder.
Tired of all the excitement, Debbie napped in the back seat of the jeep, giving Terry a long stretch of quiet as they drove back to Three Mile Bay. Long ago, Terry had custom work done on the jeep to make the back seat safe for car seats and booster seats. He wanted to be able to take the triplets places, without having to give up Abby’s old jeep. Call him sentimental, but he loved this vehicle– chipped green paint and all.
The thought of his red pickup hauling Abby and Jake, and their son Ricky, all around San Diego, put a smile on Terry’s face. Before Abby and Jake, (or AJ, as close family and friends sometimes called them), left New York four years ago with their new baby, Terry had traded vehicles with the young couple and had finally fallen in love with the jeep as much as he had his old crew cab.
Yes, sir. When it came to cars, Terry could be one sentimental guy.
At first, thoughts about family distracted Terry from seeing her. Something dark brown flashed by, barely registering from the corner of his eye. His gaze went to the rear view mirror, and there she stood. Debbie’s bag lady. He only caught a quick glimpse, but the grocery bag slung from her hand, the shabby clothing, all gave Terry the rapid impression of homelessness.
Eyes focused back on the road, he adjusted his seat belt and frowned. Very strange.
The jeep turned off the main road, and pulled to a stop in front of the Johanneses’ house. The sound of a vehicle must have caught John’s attention, for he stepped out the front door and waved to Terry.
Terry rolled down a window as John came to greet him.
“I see Debbie fell asleep,” John said with a smile to the back seat. “You guys have a good time?”
“Sure did,” Terry grinned. “Say, would you unstrap her for me? I have an errand to run, and it’d save me some time.”
The girl barely stirred when her daddy lifted her from the booster. With a nod to Terry, John carried his daughter inside.
The errand could wait a few minutes, Terry decided, as he pulled back onto the main road. First, he wanted to get a closer look at that homeless woman. But it was easier said than done, for when he returned, he could find no sign of her by the road.
For the next half hour, Terry drove around Three Mile Bay, searching for the slouched figure in the long sleeved brown shirt. Everywhere he looked, he came up empty. He had even checked with Vince, and Vince had given Terry a kind look and apologized that he hadn’t noticed her. Oh well, Terry thought, and turned the jeep into the nearest gas station. After completing this errand, he would go home.
As Terry stood at the pump, filling his beloved vehicle with unleaded, Gus, the manager of the station, approached Terry with a “Howdy!” and a greasy rag hanging from the side pocket of his uniform.
“How are the triplets doing?” Gus asked, leaning against a pillar for a friendly bit of conversation. After they exchanged minor small-town news, Gus cocked back his faded baseball cap with an air of importance. “Did you see the woman?”
“The woman with the bag, of course. Me and the boys down at the marina have a bet going. They say she’s a prostitute, and I say she’s lost. What woman dresses like that if they want to attract attention? All I can say is, if she’s making a living with her body, she must be starving. That’s no way to advertise the merchandise, if you know what I mean.”
“Have you ever seen any homeless in Three Mile Bay?” Terry asked, placing the pump back in the holder.
“Homeless, huh?” Gus scratched his face, leaving a smudge of black on his chin. “I never thought of that. Can’t say I ever remember seeing any. Maybe a panhandler once, but that’s about all. If people are in these parts, it’s usually because they’re on vacation, or they’re weekenders, or live here all year round.”
A sedan pulled up to another pump, and Gus left Terry to go chat with the customer.
It wasn’t Terry’s problem. He knew it, understood it implicitly, and knew the sensible thing would be to go home and forget he ever saw the woman. The gas paid for, Terry sat behind the wheel of his jeep. Early evening touched the clouded sky, though it would still be several hours before it turned dark. Turning the key in the ignition, Terry pulled out of the station and headed toward home. Since Debbie noticed her near the house, that’s where Terry decided to go back and look. If he still couldn’t find the woman, he would assume she’d gotten a ride and left town, simply a hitchhiker passing through. Dangerous, Terry reasoned, but not as unusual.
Tall trees stood along the edges of the road, but no hitchhikers. Frowning, Terry passed John’s house and made his way toward the Old Mill Campground, which was within walking distance of where Debbie had spotted the woman. It was getting close to dinnertime, and Terry understood that if he didn’t return soon, his family would start to worry. Tugging his cell phone from a shirt pocket, Terry pulled to the side of the road before dialing home. After letting them know he might be a little late, Terry resumed his drive.
The Old Mill Campground consisted of the main office, where campers went to register, some bathrooms, a Laundromat, a parking lot, and tenting grounds where people pitched their UV resistant polyester domes and played wilderness for a few exciting days. Due to a recent change in ownership, the place had been shut down for renovation.
As Terry pulled into the construction-filled parking lot, his eye caught movement near an empty campsite. He pulled the jeep to a stop. At the base of a tree sat a white grocery bag, its handles caught in the wind and waving about in a wild dance.
Probably just trash, Terry thought. Just wasting my time. He tugged off the seat belt, opened his door and immediately, something moved beside the tree. Terry pulled off his sunglasses to get a better look. Probably just the bag again, but he could have sworn he saw moving feet.
Pocketing the sunglasses, Terry approached the grocery bag. “Hello? Anyone here?” When he received no response, he stooped to look inside the bag. Some wadded up shirts, a hairbrush with several missing teeth, a broken mirror. Pitiful remnants that might easily be considered as trash, had not Terry sensed they belonged to someone who hadn’t thrown them away. Terry moved the bag around to see if he could find a logo on the front, something to indicate where it had come from. Nothing. Just a generic grocery bag, in an empty campground.
“Anyone here?” he called out again, hoping to get some response from behind the tree. He leaned forward on the balls of his feet, peered around the trunk and saw nothing but thick bushes. “Do you need money? I can give you a few dollars to help you get where you’re going.”
No response, though Terry could feel someone’s presence nearby. Call it gut instinct, or a voice whispering in the back of his head, but someone watched him from close range.
“Listen,” he dug into his pocket, pulled out a wallet, “I’ve got twenty bucks and eighty cents in change. Do you want it?”
Strange, Terry thought, taking the twenty-dollar bill from his wallet and placing it into the bag. Who turns down money?
Terry straightened. “I’m going now,” he said, backing away from the tree. “I hope you’re careful who you accept a ride from. Hitchhiking isn’t safe.” That is, if she’s even a hitchhiker, Terry thought as he returned to the vehicle. She’s probably homeless. That had been his first impression, but if she wouldn’t come out from hiding, he couldn’t do anything more than pray for her.
As Terry swung open the jeep door, he saw a figure emerge from the bushes. She wore a brown-checkered flannel shirt, baggy jeans with holes at the knees and a baseball cap pulled low over her eyes.
“I put the money in the bag,” he called to her, taking a step in her direction. She edged back to the bushes and Terry stopped. “Do you need help?”
The baseball cap moved side to side in a definite “no.” He couldn’t see the eyes beneath the brim, but had a deep down feeling they stared at him with uncertain fear. Her whole posture said, “Go away,” but Terry stayed put. He looked her over, the thin cheekbones, the baggy men’s clothing. “Are you hungry?”
Again, a very pronounced “no,” but Terry sensed a very probable “yes.”
“I’ll tell you what– I’ll go get you something to eat. Would you like that?”
No answer. Not even a “no.”
Encouraged, Terry climbed into his car. As he pulled away, the figure retrieved the grocery bag, then went back into the bushes.
“Why do I have the feeling she’ll be long gone by the time I get back?” he sighed to himself. “Oh well. I have to try.”
When Terry returned with a fast food take-out bag, the shadows stretched long on the ground. The smell of onion rings and hamburger meat had made him hungry, but he restrained himself and the food remained intact. He went to the bushes, looked around, found nothing, then placed the meal beside the tree where the bag had sat about a half hour earlier. He called out, but she didn’t answer.
Terry waited for several minutes, all the while wondering at himself at the effort he put into helping this woman. Blowing out a sigh, he at last gave up and went to the jeep. She had evidently left the area as he had thought she would, while he stood around looking like an idiot. Oh well. At least he had tried to help.
Movement from the other side of the parking lot made him pause. The woman stepped out from behind the main building, the grocery bag dangling from her right hand. She stood there, obviously caught off guard by his presence.
“I got you some food,” he said, pointing his chin toward the take-out beneath the tree.
She put her hand into her grocery bag and pulled something out.
Frowning, Terry saw her take a few steps forward, then place his twenty dollars on the ground. She didn’t go near the food, but turned her back, leaving the money to sail away in the strong breeze.
“Hey!” Terry called after her, but she kept going, until her frame disappeared behind the main office. Everything around here had been locked up tight– Terry thought it very probable, but he followed a short distance just to make sure this very strange woman wasn’t guilty of breaking and entering.
When she kept going, Terry felt satisfied that this was no burglar or vandal. Or at least, he didn’t think she was. She also wasn’t a prostitute, of that he was fairly certain.
Disturbed by her refusal to accept help, but unable to do a thing about it, Terry picked up his twenty, then returned to the jeep. No need to tell John about this, he thought, staring at the car keys for several long moments before unlocking the driver’s side door. So he had tried to help someone, and it hadn’t worked out again. No big deal. John didn’t need to know.
Upon returning home, Terry felt a pang of discomfort when John asked him what he’d been up to, and he only responded with a silent shrug. The odd look on John’s face, and John’s subsequent change of subject, weighed Terry down with additional guilt. Without having said a word, Terry felt as though John knew his secret: He had gone out on one of his crusades, and after promising to stop.
Terry hated that word– crusade– and all the Don Quixote oddities it implied. He hadn’t been out fighting windmills that day, but trying to honestly help someone. Couldn’t John understand that? Of course he could, Terry thought, taking out the warm leftovers Izumi had left for him in the oven. He just doesn’t want me getting hurt again. And I didn’t. End of story. Still, Terry despised keeping secrets from his friend. They were as close as brothers, and it felt like betrayal to not at least tell John that he’d broken his word by chasing after another needy person. Needy person, crusade. Somewhere along the way, Abby’s language had slipped into Terry’s own vernacular, and the mere thought of their past conversations made Terry feel ridiculous for what he’d done that day. In a stroke of merciful Providence, Abby and Jake were in California, and not here in Upstate New York. Knowing Abby, she would roll her eyes, and say, “Oh, Uncle Terry. Not again.”
Biting into the warm dinner, Terry ate at the table while the house readied for bed. John strode into the kitchen, set the timer on the coffee maker so they’d have a fresh brew in the morning.
“Long day,” John said, dropping into a chair at the table and blowing out a tired sigh. “I’m glad tomorrow’s Sunday. I can use the rest.”
“About today–” Terry stared at his plate. “I broke my word to you. I tried to help someone.”
For a long moment, John didn’t speak. “An old friend from the crisis hotline?”
“No, just someone I thought needed help. Apparently, it wasn’t wanted, but I felt I had to try.”
“You don’t have to tell me this.”
“But I gave my word.”
“No, you gave your word and I refused to accept it. There’s a difference.”
With a sigh, Terry looked over to John. He truly didn’t look angry, just very, very sober. Terry couldn’t blame him. After what he’d put his best friend through the past several months, John’s soberness was understandable. His volunteer work as a hotline crisis counselor had been a mistake. Terry could see that now, but at the time, it had seemed like the right thing to do.
The weary smile on John’s face put Terry at ease.
“You have a kind heart, Terry. Sometimes, I think it must drive your guardian angel nuts, but, on the whole, I think it’s a good thing. I just wish you’d look before you leap, sometimes. In your zeal to help, you’re the one who usually winds up getting hurt.”
“Are you sure this person isn’t from the crisis hotline? This has nothing to do with child abuse, incest, rape, torture or any other violent crime against humanity?”
“No, just someone I saw on the road.”
“Well, at least that’s an improvement. You don’t need more nightmares.”
“I know,” Terry sighed. “I know.”
“If I were you,” John said, moving to his feet, “I wouldn’t tell Izumi any of this if you don’t have to. Don’t lie about today, but don’t mention it, if it doesn’t come up. And Terry, you don’t have to report to me or to anyone else about how you spend your time. You’re a grown man. We can’t lock you in your room until you come to your senses.”
Hearing the humor in John’s voice, Terry grinned. “Thanks. I’ll remember that.”
“See you in the morning,” John smiled, and went to go help Izumi get the triplets ready for bedtime.
That night, Terry fell asleep without clicking off the reading lamp over his bed. He had been reading a Sci-fi by his favorite Christian novelist, when even the excitement of the plot could no longer keep his eyes open, and he dozed off with the book still open on his lap. When he stirred several hours later, he realized what had happened, smiled to himself, then switched off the light.
Then he heard it. The hard pelting sound on the roof.
“I didn’t know rain was in the forecast for tonight,” he said with a yawn. Pulling up the covers, Terry slid deeper into the warmth of his comforter.
Then his eyes popped open. The homeless woman. Or the hitchhiker, or whatever else people wanted to call her. She was at the Old Mill Campground, and could have no possible shelter from the rain. Without a place to stay dry, and with all that cold wind, she could be in a lot of trouble.
Sitting up in bed, Terry clicked on the reading lamp. He sat there, debating with himself on what to do. He could call Sheriff Peterson’s house, since he would likely be at home at this late hour, and tell him there might be a transient hidden at the campground. Of course, if she had previously left the area, Terry would look like the kindhearted idiot he sensed the townspeople already thought he was.
Terry’s breakdown six months ago had been widely whispered about, though they could hardly know of the nightmares, the flashbacks from his own childhood abuse that had resurfaced in glowing pain. And all because of Terry’s driving need to help others. John and the rest of the family had kept the matter private, but after an incident in the grocery store, people had easily guessed Terry was having a difficult time. If only he’d kept it together until he got home, if only he hadn’t wept in the produce aisle over a heartrending story someone had told him only a few hours before, no one would ever have known the grief he was in. All those months working the hotline, listening to the tears, the panic, the stories of horror and shame, and through it all, offering the emotional support and crisis counseling they so desperately needed. It had finally gotten to him, had flared up his own past and then John had to come running to wake him from the nightmares that haunted him for weeks after.
Now that he’d overcome the flashbacks once again, put the past in the past where it belonged, Terry didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize that peace.
Heaving a deep sigh, Terry swung his legs over the mattress, went to the window, pushed back the shade and looked out. The rain came down in hard sheets of water, and he knew she had to be absolutely miserable out there.
“God, if You don’t want me to do this, please show me a sign. Give me a flat tire, so I can’t back out of the garage. Strike something with lightning– preferably not me, but do whatever it takes to keep me from hurting my family again.” Terry waited. Huh. No lightning. He dressed, shrugged on a heavy coat, then passed through the living room on his way to the garage beside the house. Maybe a tire would be flat. If it was, he’d call the sheriff and go back to bed. So he’d look like an idiot. What else would be new?
As Terry unchained the front door, he heard footsteps padding down the hall. Terry turned, saw John in his pajamas, sleep clouding his face.
“Where are you going?” John asked in bewilderment.
“It’s raining,” Terry said, looking up at the ceiling as the rain grew even heavier.
John followed Terry’s gaze upward. “And your friend from the road is out there, in all that bad weather?”
Terry zipped his coat shut. “I think so.”
With a sigh, John rubbed his face with both hands, most likely in an effort to wake up more fully. “Are you going into a dangerous situation?”
“No,” Terry answered quickly. Then he thought about it. “I don’t think I am.”
“Do you want me to come with you?”
“No, I can handle this on my own.”
A kind but skeptical smile crossed John’s face. “Where have I heard that before?”
“This time, I mean it. I have things under control.”
Reluctance seemed to permeate from John’s general direction. “Do you have your cell phone? You’ll call if you get into trouble, right?”
“There won’t be any trouble.”
John took a step toward him. “Do you have your cell?”
With a pat on his coat pocket, Terry assured him that he did.
“I’m not going to tell Izumi until you get back,” John said, turning to leave but apparently not finding the willpower to walk away just yet. “If she finds out I let you go by yourself, she’ll send me after you.” John groaned. “Just get home safe, or I’m never going to hear the end of it from the girls.”
Pulling up the hood of his coat, Terry ducked into the kitchen to locate the emergency flashlight. After a prayer in the living room with John for safety, Terry stepped through the front door. A burst of arctic wind stole his breath, and he put his head down to keep from getting a mouthful of leaves.
John took one look at the weather, then shook his head as he closed the door behind Terry. Kindhearted Terry strikes again, Terry thought with glum realization as he splashed through the puddles on his way to the garage. Still, Terry had to hand it to John for not trying to bodily stop him. Or for locking his bedroom door. But if the jeep had a flat, the whole thing would be called off before it even started. It would be obvious to Terry that God didn’t want him making another tragic, but well-intentioned mistake.
Hoisting the garage door open, Terry flipped on the overhead light. No flats on any of the three vehicles there. Okay, he thought, pulling out the car keys, he could take a hint.
The smell of food nearly drove Madison crazy. After the strange man left, and she could no longer hear his footsteps behind her, she carefully circled back to the tree, following the irresistible smell of hot food and the urging of a hollow stomach. Her hope faded when she saw the large, muscular dog, tearing apart the bag and making short work of her food. Madison’s heart dropped lower than the ground.
Her food. It hardly seemed fair, when the dog already looked well-fed and sported a handsome leather collar. It belonged to someone, someone who cared enough to feed it regularly and give it nice things, when she had no one and hadn’t eaten a bite since before she’d gotten on the bus. She had arrived yesterday night, exultant at her first taste of freedom, then more subdued as the darkness wore on and the biting coldness grew worse. Only when the sun had warmed the air, did she feel able to breath again.
Sinking to her knees, she watched the dog trot off with part of the bag hanging from its jaws like a trophy.
Already the air felt icy, and she could sense the chill of night approach. The shadows were growing long, and though the sky still held light, she knew from last night’s experience, what lay ahead.
Maybe that dog would let her sleep in its doghouse, Madison thought with a grim tug on her heart. It didn’t seem fair. She smeared her eyes, then went to pick up the crumbs the animal left behind. A half eaten onion ring, a slobber-coated slice of tomato from a hamburger. Madison cleaned it off, squeezed her eyes shut, and ate the few remaining bites of food left her. She hoped that dog suffered the biggest stomachache of its miserable life, and found some measure of satisfaction thinking up things she wanted to befall it for stealing someone else’s food. A few moments later, the thought of the poor creature, reclined in its spacious doghouse and suffering unspeakable agony, soon made her repent of such thoughts.
She just didn’t have it in her.
As the cold darkness set in, not even the remaining shirts in her grocery bag could keep Madison warm. The sky grew ominous with gathering clouds, the wind whipped up to sting her face, and she finally discovered a small measure of refuge by scratching at the ground and pulling dead branches over her body. Then the rain came, driving the freezing chill deep into her muscles until her very bones ached with cold. She shook until her teeth threatened to shatter from being knocked together so hard, and then, strangely, things became better. The sky grew darker, the rain heavier, but she felt a comforting need to sleep. After the fatigue of hunger, the violent shaking, the drenching wetness, the enticement to sleep came as an unspeakable relief.
Such relief as had been denied her for so long, she had forgotten its existence.
Slipping in and out of consciousness, Madison tumbled about in ever growing numbness. Something within her screamed to fight. Somewhere, she had a vague idea that she might be dying. The possibility lay in the back of her mind, yelling at her to wake up, prodding her to not give up. “God, don’t let me die.” The words tumbled into each other from numb lips, slurring the sound to her ears.
A sharp wedge of light splashed across her face, blinding her vision even though it was night. She tried to raise a hand to shield her eyes, but every limb felt plastic.
“God, help me.” Madison’s eyes grew heavy as the light came nearer. Maybe this was that light at the end of the tunnel she’d heard the people on television speak about. Maybe Heaven lay at the end of that bright wedge. Please, God, make it be Heaven and not the other place.
It moved closer, but the light forced her to keep her eyes shut.
“Dear God.” A voice spoke, but Madison didn’t recognize the husky sound as her own. She heard the relief when it added, “Thank God I’m not too late.”
Dry warmth suddenly enveloped her shoulders, something dropped down over her head. She panicked, struggling to move but finding her body slow to react.
“Do you need medical attention?” That voice again. Who was it? Had she died? Was that an angel, come to lead her through the pearly gates, just as the pastor on TV said happened to those who were dead? She frowned, though her face felt numb to movement. They had medical attention in Heaven? Confused, she pushed at the thickness over her head, her fingers dull to the feel of the heavy fabric. Someone had placed a thick garment around her, and she could feel the comforting warmth of its former owner.
“That light,” Madison squinted against the beam, and it suddenly moved elsewhere. A crouched form silhouetted above her against the clouded over night sky. Dim fear throbbed through Madison. Angels were supposed to glow in the dark, weren’t they? Her thoughts grew as heavy as the surrounding shadows, slowing her ability to reason.
“Do you need a doctor?” it asked. The tree branches moved away, and the beam swept over her body. When she didn’t answer, the light flicked to her face. “Are you hurt?”
“I– I’m fine.” Madison forced herself to respond, though the words caught in her throat so badly they came out in a hoarse whisper.
“Fine? How can you possibly be fine? It’s freezing wet out here!” The beam lowered, and when the voice spoke again, it towered above her. “Can you stand?”
“I don’t think so.” She shrank in the coat as the light clicked off. A vague impression of man formed in her tired mind. Guardian angels were usually men, but this one didn’t glow in the dark. Weary of trying to get her mind working, Madison shut her eyes.
“We’ve got to get out of the rain,” said the voice.
Suddenly, she found herself rising from off the ground as though she weighed nothing at all. This was more like it. Maybe she was getting wings, or something else just as Heavenly. She smiled, but the relief slipped away as she became aware of the form holding her– the solid arms, the muscles moving beneath the wet shirt. Fear shuddered through every frozen fiber of Madison’s body.
“Calm down, calm down,” said the hot minty breath as it plumbed into contrails before her hooded face. “We’re almost there.”
She had to be dreaming. Despite the adrenalin pulsing through her veins, the fatigue, the bitter cold and lack of food, forced her to remain limp in his arms. Her head fell against his, the water pouring from off his hair and into her coat. Or was it his coat? Madison felt the material rubbing against her cheek, and realized he’d taken off his coat and given it to her. She felt too weak to resist, and barely had enough strength to remain upright when he shifted her to her feet and her shoes touched ground.
“Hang on,” he said, as a door swung out from nowhere, nearly colliding with her head as she slumped forward, her knees buckling against her own weight. “Don’t go rag doll on me– not until I get you into the jeep.” Her legs slid across a seat, her back rested against something soft, and all without having to will herself to act.
Her breath caught as she watched the very male figure jog around the hood of the vehicle. When he yanked open the driver’s side door and jumped in, full realization jarred into Madison.
This was no angel, but a flesh and blood man.
Panic welling, her fingers groped for the handle at her side. She had to escape, but the door wouldn’t work, and neither would her hands.
Rain and dim moonlight glinted in his hair, though his features remained hidden in shadow. A heavy voice drummed in her ears, but this time, Madison couldn’t distinguish the words. His presence sank into thick blackness, and every sound throbbed in her head like distant thunder. A wild scream pierced her senses, the darkness eagerly rushed up to embrace her.
Then all was silent.