of Symphony of Secrets
Stepping Into Sunlight by
Penny Sullivan is ready to face the challenge of a cross-country move and caring for her energetic seven-year-old son while her husband leaves on his first deployment as a Navy chaplain. But after she witnesses a shocking crime, her world tips sideways.
Hiding in her closet isn't an option when her husband and son depend on
her, so she fights to recover. But even simple tasks such as filling her
car with gas, buying groceries, and returning phone calls are suddenly
more than she can handle.
Help comes in funny packages--a temperamental DVD, a man who hoards gum wrappers, a meddlesome neighbor, and a small yellow notebook in which Penny scribbles down her recovery plan: Do one kind thing for another person every day. The results are sometimes beautiful, sometimes heartbreaking, and often lead to more than she ever could have imagined.
Terror in the supermarket. It sounded like a ridiculous headline from one of the tabloids on the rack near the checkout lane. Yet the only name for the pounding in my chest was that melodramatic word. Terror.
Gaudy detergent boxes leaned out from the shelves. Beneath fluorescent lights, the corridor stretched into eternity—as if the bakery counter were shrinking into the distance while the grocery store shelves rose up into towering cliffs that threatened to crash down on my head. I gripped my half-full shopping cart for support as its wheels squeaked and wobbled. Three cautious steps edged me closer to my goal. Blood pulsed a quickening tide across my eardrums. Don't panic. You can do this.
Last week I'd managed a quick run for milk, eggs, and bread. This week I had set a more ambitious goal. But the surreal menace hit me with even more force today. Breathing hard, I scanned my surroundings. A woman at the end of the aisle gave me a curious glance.
I hunched deeper into my zip-front sweatshirt and turned my back on her. What did she see? I was just another thirty-something woman dressed for the gym. If she detected the haggard lines of my face, maybe she'd write that off as the exhausted look of a normal mom.
And I was normal. I had to be. This errand would prove I was ready to cope with everyday life again.
Farther down the aisle, a loud crack cut through the piped-in Muzak. I jumped and lifted a hand to my temple. A vein pulsed against the skin with enough pressure to burst. A pudgy boy leaned down to retrieve his yo-yo.
You're being ridiculous. Scared by a dropped yo-yo? What's next? Fear of Hula-Hoops?
I pushed my shopping cart past the boy and his mother and forced my feet to keep a steady pace. Six more steps. Five. Four. My target stretched in front of me. The bakery counter.
Now all I had to do was order the cake.
"Can I help you?" The counter woman's voice creaked with age. I stared at the bear claws on the bottom shelf of the display case.
Come on, Penny. Tell her. You need a small cake. Chocolate.
"Ma'am? Can I help you?" Now she sounded concerned.
Why was this so hard? This store didn't look at all like—
No! Don't go there.
My fingertips tingled, and waves of nausea rose up to catch in my throat. Pastries and muffins filled my vision, but the space around them turned gray. Gray with little red sprinkles. Or maybe that was the decoration on the sugar cookies.
I bent forward to draw a deep breath, fighting off the sensation of falling. Who really needed a cake anyway? Too many carbs. This had been a bad idea. I released my grip on the shopping cart and ran.
Back up the aisle.
Past the mother who pulled her son close as I brushed by.
Past a mountain of paper towel rolls.
Past the pyramid of tangerines. My stomach lurched at their scent.
The automatic doors opened outward too slowly. I pressed my shoulder against one side and forced it to let me escape. A short sprint brought me to my car. The passenger side was closest, so I dove in that side, pulled the door closed behind me, and hit the lock. Curled up half on the floor and half on the seat, my body shuddered.
Block it out.
I squeezed my fists to my forehead.
Get over it.
But I was getting worse, not better.
September sun baked the air inside the car with another reminder that I was in a strange place. Back home in Wisconsin, the leaves were turning orange and the temperature had a bite. Today's heat made Chesapeake, Virginia, feel as foreign as Bangkok.
Someone tapped on the glass of my wagon's door. "Honey chile, you need help?"
I scrambled to pull myself up onto the passenger seat. A broad dark face peered through the window. The woman probably thought I was hot-wiring the car. Was that a shower cap on her head? One pink roller poked from beneath the cap, clinging to a lock near her temple.
I grabbed my sunglasses from the floor and held them up. "Just looking for these," I called through the glass.
She pursed her lips and braced a heavy arm against the car's roof. Her flowered muumuu filled my line of sight. "You ran outta there like lard on a hot skillet."
While my northern ears struggled to translate, she leaned down and studied my face. "Sure you're okay?"
I nodded vigorously enough to make my neck hurt. "I was shopping but changed my mind."
She looked puzzled but then flashed a broad white smile. "Well, chile, them prices can set me to runnin', too." Her eyes scanned me as if she were an experienced grandmother checking for injuries. Finally, she patted the roof of the car and waddled away.
I scooted over behind the wheel. Hysterical giggles freed from my throat. Running from high prices?
My smile died. If only my problems were that simple.
For a crazy moment I wanted to roll down the window and call the woman back. Cry on her ample shoulder. Tell her everything. "My husband left for three months at sea. I don't know anyone here. And a few days before he left—" Even in my imaginary conversation I couldn't finish that sentence, couldn't make myself explain why the simple act of buying groceries had become impossible.
Instead, I started the engine and aimed for home, pressing my hand against the ribs where my heart fluttered, as if I could soothe my circulation back into sanity. At the next stoplight, I fumbled in the glove compartment and pulled out a dog-eared business card. Victim Support Services. The policewoman who'd given it to me had been matter-of-fact when she'd told me I'd need help in the days to come. Shock had cocooned me in a blessed numbness for several days. Dazed and grateful to be alive, I counted on my faith, family, and inner strength to shelter me from delayed reactions. Even when the nightmares began, I tried to hide them from Tom. When that was impossible, I reassured him they were a brief aberration. I'd bounce back.
Or so I'd thought. Lately my confidence was as slouchy and battered as my old canvas purse on the passenger seat.
I tapped the card on the steering wheel. A left turn would take me to the Norfolk address.
As if in argument, the car stereo blinked the time at me. Bryan would be getting off the school bus soon. I needed to get home and be there to greet him. He was counting on me. Besides, I had good reason to distrust the benefits of counseling.
When the light turned green, I tossed the card into my purse and pulled ahead.
The heat brought prickles to my skin, but I didn't open the window. The air-conditioner made little impact on the superheated interior, so I pretended I was enjoying a sauna at the YMCA. Too bad I didn't have a towel.
It took full concentration to navigate the unfamiliar streets. Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake—the cities ran together like an irregular puddle. In our Chesapeake neighborhood, modest brick ramblers lined up behind chain-link fences. Some tidy yards offered bursts of color from planters or a birdbath. Others were strewn with cigarette butts and crushed cans.
A mulberry tree, overripe fruit staining the neighbors' sidewalk, helped me identify our house in the middle of the block. Almost there.
As I emerged from the car, the pit bull next door yanked his chain and began a token round of barking. When the heat discouraged him, he lowered himself into the dirt that he'd clawed bare of grass. I knew exactly how he felt.
My breath choked, and my hand flew to my neck. Laura-Beth Foley, owner of both the mulberry tree and the pit bull, sat on a paint-chipped chair in the shade cast by her house. She blotted her forehead with a tumbler that dripped condensation past the freckles on her cheeks.
Tantalizingly close, my house called to me. My nerve endings screamed for escape, but politeness glued me to the concrete. "Hello."
She smiled. The slight gap in her front teeth didn't mar the friendliness of her grin. She was probably only a few years older than I, but her bleached blond hair made her look even older. "Finally got the twins down for a nap. Hotter 'en blue blazes, and it makes 'em fretful."
"Mm-hmm." I hunched inside my long-sleeved hoodie. I probably looked ridiculous in this land of tank tops, but the soft cotton comforted me.
Laura-Beth had delivered a lopsided banana bread when we moved in several weeks ago. She'd told us about her girl in fifth grade, a boy in third, and twins who were two. I couldn't remember all their double names. Jim-Bob, Billie-Jo, Mary-Lou? It was as if southerners couldn't contain their personality in a single name.
"Come on over and have some iced tea." Laura-Beth lifted a magazine from her lap and fanned her face.
I looked at my front door. The lock gleamed—even through the shadows cast by the awning. "Oh. I ... I can't. Maybe another time."
She shrugged. "All right. But I hope you don't mind a piece of advice. Try some chamomile tea for your nerves. You're gonna get an ulcer if you stay wound this tight."
"Thanks. I'll do that." I racewalked to my door and hurried inside, bolting it behind me.
Dropping my purse on the small table near the front door, I slumped onto the couch. Each second passed slowly while my heart searched for a normal rhythm.
Across from me in the blank television screen, a shadowed reflection revealed a stranger's face. A new Penny Sullivan. The old Penny used to live in the Midwest with her husband and son: Tom the youth pastor and Bryan the seven-year-old motormouth. That Penny hosted backyard barbeques for the youth group and volunteered in Bryan's classroom every Friday. That Penny enjoyed people and saw promise and potential in every face she looked into. That Penny would never avoid a friendly neighbor—or be told she needed to do something about her nerves. I squinted at my likeness in the television glass. The face was still heart-shaped with full lips. The hair was still long and auburn. But the eyes had changed. Flat, dull, frozen in a moment of shock, like a bad photograph.
I glared into the screen. "You are not giving up. Bryan deserves more than a can of alphabet soup for supper. We need groceries."
I pushed myself from the safety of the couch and marched to the kitchen for the phone book. Plenty of grocery stores delivered these days. If Penny couldn't go to the chocolate cake, the chocolate cake would come to Penny. For the second time that day, my lips flickered in a brief smile.
A quick call led to the promise of a grocery drop-off in time for supper—complete with chocolate cake and chamomile tea. Even better, I learned that Tidewater Groceries could take my weekly order via e-mail. I wouldn't have to drive to the store or even talk to anyone on the phone. Problem solved.
See, Penny. You can do this. You can keep it together.
Buoyed by my success, I walked down to the corner to meet Bryan's school bus. Someone had to make my son's life as secure and normal as possible while Tom was at sea. I would give Bryan back the mom he used to have. I decided not to look too closely at the fact that it took every ounce of my determination to accomplish the simple act of leaving the house to meet his bus—the kind of thing I used to do without a second thought.
The bus pulled up, the yellow doors folded open, and Bryan plunged down the stairs. The sun put copper glints in his brown mop of hair, and grape juice stains surrounded his lips. For a moment I remembered how it felt to be myself and grinned.
"Hey, Mom. Guess what?" Bryan handed me his backpack and marched past leaving me to follow as his pack mule. "We're doing a really cool play. It's for Thanksgiving, and I get to be a Pilgrim 'cause they came on a boat. Didja know it's close to here? And we get to have corn and squash and stuff. Mom, what's squash? And we get to invite our moms and dads."
"Sounds fun." But worry twisted under my skin. I tried to picture myself walking into the school gym full of kids and parents. Rows of tables decorated with crepe paper. All the strangers. The noise. The chaos. My chest tightened. What was my problem lately? I'd always loved Bryan's school events. Why did I feel dread instead of anticipation?
"Will Daddy be home by then? I get to sing a special song all by myself." He ran up the steps to our door and puffed his chest out.
"He's hoping he'll be home by Thanksgiving. We don't know yet. But I'll tell him all about it when I e-mail him tonight."
He twisted the door handle and kicked the door with more force than necessary to swing it open. "I want him to be home."
I took a slow breath. "Me too." Bryan's grumpy spells had begun the minute Tom's ship sailed toward the horizon. I should have hidden Bryan in Tom's kit bag, so my husband could deal with the cranky little stowaway.
"Don't forget to tell him about my field trip." He planted himself in our small entryway. "Hey, Jim-Bob told me that cool movie with the robots is on DVD now. Can we go rent it tonight? Can we?"
I hefted his schoolbag in his direction. "Take your backpack to your room."
"Mo-om. You said you wanted to see it."
"The movie. Please?"
I shook my head. "Not tonight."
He pulled the bag from my hands and stomped off to his room. "You're no fun anymore."
Right. As if being fun was my biggest concern these days.
We were both prickly the rest of the evening. At bedtime, we marked our tenth big red X on the kitchen calendar with great ceremony, but the expanse of blank days ahead sneered at me.
After I tucked Bryan into bed, I padded out to the living room. The small room opened into an eating area overseen by a short kitchen counter. I missed our Victorian dining room and the built-in bookshelves of our generous, wood-floored front room. Here, the beige carpeting looked so mottled, I hated crossing it in my bare feet. Mini-blinds dangled from the windows, giving the house the feeling of a drab office, and instead of using a spare bedroom for a study as we had in Wisconsin, we now used a card table in one corner of the living room.
Tom and I had laughed as we set up our computer in its new home. I found a fabric remnant bright with blue irises, and he told me it was the perfect elegant touch for the home office and coordinated beautifully with our blue denim couch. I praised his bookshelf assembly, as he created the "library" on the wall next to the "desk."
It was all great fun settling in to our scaled-down home when we'd moved in a month ago, and we hadn't even felt as if we were making a sacrifice.
Had I been naïve? Had I forgotten to count the cost?
No. We were ready for this. I couldn't have known about what would happen.
Stop. Don't think about it.
I quickly booted up the computer. Tom's face grinned at me from the screen saver, warm and inviting in spite of the formal dress uniform he was so proud of. I touched the tiny scar under his left eye, leaving a smudge on the monitor.
Why was this separation so much worse than the weeks while he was at chaplaincy training? Each empty square on the calendar stretched ahead of me like the cold linoleum tiles of the grocery store aisle. Tom, I don't know how to do this. A weight sat on my lungs and squeezed my throat.
I slid the computer mouse and his face disappeared, letting me breathe again. Bryan would keep hounding me to see the latest animated DVD, so I searched for movie rental stores in the neighborhood. I jotted down the addresses and printed out MapQuest directions on our wheezy printer. Good errand for tomorrow. Maybe.
My pen doodled rain clouds next to the list of directions. Maybe not.
I scrolled past the Google list of movie stores and found Netflix. Even better. I quickly signed up and chose the movie Bryan wanted along with a few for me. God bless the Internet. Movies by mail.
When I opened my e-mail program, I found two brief notes from Tom, one for me and one for Bryan, which I flagged to show him tomorrow. What would Tom think if he knew I'd barely managed to leave the house in the ten days he'd been gone? That the night terrors were getting worse and not better? I flexed my fingers and attacked the keyboard.
Hi back atcha!
Yes, we're fine. Bryan got a part in a school play for Thanksgiving, so we're hoping you'll be home by then. I don't know why my mom e-mailed you. I thought she was busy with Cindy's new baby. I wish she'd stop fussing about me. How many times do I have to tell everyone? I'm fine. Tell her that, too, okay? Maybe she'll listen to you. Today I tried a new grocery store. I splurged and bought a chocolate cake. Now don't feel bad. It's not as if we're celebrating your absence. We just deserved a treat after surviving our first full week without you. How's the food on your boat (sorry—your ship)? I miss you tons, but I know you're doing a great job. YES, you have what it takes. You're going to be a terrific chaplain. Want me to write it in a bigger font? You are exactly where God wants you. Love, your favorite wife. :-)
After signing off, I wandered into the kitchen to try some of my new chamomile tea. It tasted as if I were chewing on a dandelion stem, and even after choking down the whole cup, I didn't feel an ounce more relaxed. That's what I got for listening to Laura-Beth.
My cup joined the sink full of supper dishes. They'd keep until tomorrow.
In the bedroom, I opened my dresser drawer and stared at a cheerful striped pajama set. To change, I'd have to take off my baggy shirt and the tank top beneath it. And I should probably wash up and brush my teeth.
Too much work. My outfit was all cotton knit anyway, as comfortable as sleepwear. I shoved the drawer shut and crawled into bed in my clothes.
Every one of the past sixteen nights, a dark companion had joined me the minute I stopped moving. In the days since Tom's deployment, it had advanced with even more arrogance, as if it could take up the room my husband had left vacant beside me. I curled into a tight ball and tensed against the familiar assault. Fear crept up the edge of the bedspread, under the covers, and under the skin of my scalp.
All day I pushed back the memories. But they waited for this moment when I tried to sleep—for this time when I was alone, vulnerable. Frenetic, violent images on a horrible repeating loop attacked my mind. My body shook and I tried to pray. The whisper scraped in my throat.
"Make it stop.
Please. Make it stop."
The next morning, I slouched at the kitchen table and nibbled the edge of my toast. Was it possible to have a chamomile tea hangover? I could barely hold my eyelids open.
Come on, Penny. It's up to you to make something out of this new day.
I focused my bleary gaze on my son. "Bryan, get your backpack. Time to catch the bus."
He pushed aside his bowl of soggy Cheerios. "Yea!" His smile nudged his cheeks into round chubs that proved he still had some of his baby fat. He bolted to his room and raced back with his school stuff. Was he more eager to see his friends or to get away from me?
For all of his seven years, Bryan had tagged along beside Tom or me, enjoying each person he met. The move to Virginia and a school full of strangers had thrilled him, and he'd adapted with enviable skill. I gulped a last swallow of lukewarm coffee and rose from the table. "Remember to give your teacher the permission slip."
Bryan plopped into the middle of the kitchen floor to tie his tennis shoes. "Do you think we'll see sharks? Is this the same ocean Daddy showed me? Are you gonna drive for the field trip? Know what? Martin's mommy put cookies in his lunch yesterday. Are you making cookies?"
I planted a kiss on top of Bryan's head and hoisted him to his feet. "I hope you don't see sharks. You're supposed to be studying seashells. It's the same ocean, but your class is going to a different beach." Bryan slipped his arms into the straps of his backpack with my help. Why did second graders need to drag around their weight in textbooks?
When I opened the front door, he stood at attention. I rested my hand on the top of his head. "Heavenly Father, bless Bryan today. Please protect him from accident or injury. Help him do his best in school to your glory. Let him draw close to you today and know that he is precious to you and to me and to his daddy. Let him share your love with the people around him. Amen."
He squeezed his eyes shut even tighter. "And my book report," he stage-whispered.
"And give him courage to read his book report when it's his turn. Amen."
"Amen." My son slalomed down the front steps, twisting his knees from side to side with happy, flat-footed jumps. He galloped to the corner where other children waited, while I stood guard from the doorway. Good thing our traditional blessing time distracted him from his other questions about field trips and cookies. My mothering skills had already dropped to remedial level. I didn't want to explain why I couldn't drive for the field trip. And baking?
Maybe that wasn't such a bad idea. As a new transplant to the area, I had a valid excuse for not driving for the field trip. No one wanted the kids to end up in North Carolina if I took a wrong turn. But cookies knew no boundaries and always scored great Mommy Points. The last few weeks I hadn't been very successful in being a perky, self-reliant chaplain's wife. I needed something to give me a sense of accomplishment—and something new to e-mail Tom about, to convince him I wasn't shriveling under the strain of his absence.
First, basic morning chores needed attention. I attacked the kitchen and cleaned up the remains of breakfast, then unpacked some stray boxes. It took most of the morning to figure out where to fit off-season and special-occasion clothes in our tiny closets. The physical labor of moving hadn't been as draining as the tedious decisions that had dragged out during the weeks of settling in.
Lunchtime came and went before I pulled out the sack of flour, sugar, salt, and my recipe box. A lengthy search finally revealed where I'd stowed the cookie sheets. The new kitchen still felt foreign and confusing. I stopped to jot a reminder on a sticky note: Organize kitchen.
I poured myself a glass of cranberry juice and shuffled through recipe cards, but none of them grabbed my interest. Gingersnap, snickerdoodle, chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin. My stomach soured with each recipe. Weariness poured over me in a sudden wave. I turned to put the box of cards back on the shelf, and my elbow bumped my half-empty glass.
The glass clattered against the counter, and red liquid spilled out and ran onto the tile floor.
In that second of startled clumsiness, I fell into an elevator shaft of horror. My kitchen disappeared. Images flashed around me like lightning. Blood pooling on cold linoleum. A gun swinging in my direction. The round shape of the old woman's lips. I gasped and dropped to a crouch, as recipes fell around me. With my back pressed against a cabinet, I covered my head and squeezed my eyes closed.
Still, I fell. Deeper, deeper into darkness and fear and death. Paralysis grabbed my limbs.
My mouth opened in a scream, but only a harsh ringing sound came from my throat. The scene melted away as the ringing sounded again.
The shrill phone hauled me back into reality. I blinked several times while I struggled to remember who I was, where I was, and why recipe cards and juice were scattered around me.
The ringing from the kitchen phone stopped, then started again.
I staggered to my feet and fumbled for the receiver. "Hello?" I slurred.
"Penny? What's wrong? You sound funny." My mom's voice blared from thousands of miles away.
"Must be the connection."
"Have you been drinking?"
I tried for a laugh, but only managed a shaky breath. "I was doing some baking."
"Oh. Well, how hard is it to keep a dish towel handy to wipe your hands so you can pick up when I call?"
I couldn't think of anything to say, and an expectant silence stretched like a verbal staring contest.
She blinked first. "Tom says you're doing fine. Is that true? I didn't think you'd hold up once he left. Do you want me to fly out there?"
"Mom, I'm okay. I know Cindy needs your help with the new baby."
"But, honey, aren't you scared? Being there alone? I told you moving away was a bad idea." She was a classic mom with a wealth of skills in the fine art of worry. One day people would go to the Museum of Moms to study her greatest works.
"Tom and I prepared for this. I knew I'd have to be a single mom when he went to sea." And I'd had romantic visions of standing on a widow's walk staring out to sea, salt air blowing my hair, as I waited for his ship to return.
"But that was before. Before the ... you know."
I hissed in a breath through my teeth. She'd broken the taboo. Brought up the denim-clad, pistol-waving elephant in the living room. The one I'd been trying to forget for more than two weeks. I grabbed a dish towel and blotted at the red juice.
"I still think you should move back here until Tom is done with this Navy thing. Did you go to the victim place?"
I forced a laugh. "Oh, come on. How will that help? I need to put it behind me, not talk to some stranger about it. Besides, psychologists always want to hear about how your mom messed up your life. You wouldn't want that, would you?"
Now the silence echoed with disapproval. She cleared her throat. "You don't want to end up like—"
"Mom, please." I couldn't let her take the conversation down that road.
She switched gears. "Well, Tom said you promised to go."
"I just didn't want him to worry. He hated leaving so soon after ... Look, Mom. I'm fine."
"Well, call me more often, okay?"
"I'll try." I forced life into my voice. "I'm kind of busy. Getting settled in, new church, school activities, making friends. You know how it is."
She laughed—her first natural tone during this conversation. "Yeah, you and Tom always had a full calendar."
"Well, you take care. Thanks for calling."
"Give Bryan a big hug from his grandma."
"I will. And I'll e-mail you some pictures soon."
Regret tickled behind my sternum as I hung up. I should be glad I'd convinced her not to make a big deal of my ... experience, but part of me wanted my mom to fly out for a visit, rescue me from myself, and convince me I wasn't going crazy. Another part of me wanted to pack up Bryan and run home to Wisconsin. I picked up the scattered recipe cards and tried to return some order to their box, but I was too muddle-headed to make sense of the categories. Did Grandma's meatball soup go under Meat or Soups and Salads? Why wasn't my brain working right?
Last night had been rough. First the nightmares had invaded. Then when those relented, the empty side of our double bed kept startling me into wakefulness. Maybe I shoud indulge in a little nap. Sleep would probably do more good for my parenting than baking cookies, anyway, and it would definitely be better for my waistline.
Deserting the baking supplies on the counter, I dragged myself to the bedroom. Tom's side of the bed welcomed me, so I crawled under the sheets and pressed my face into his pillow. The scent of Johnson's baby shampoo surrounded me—Tom's favorite for his fine blond hair. I never tired of the smell. Inertia weighted me to the mattress, and I let the world go away. My mother would be horrified. A nap in the middle of the day. No hardworking woman of Puritan stock would fritter time that way. Yet my willpower was broken—spilled out and scattered like recipe cards on the kitchen floor. I needed to escape.
I dozed, and my dreams brought me comfortingly to my old neighborhood in Wisconsin. Fall whirligigs spun from the tall trees. I sat on a bench in the park near our old house and sipped from a can of Coke, savoring Bryan's laughter from the playground. An elderly couple strolled across the grass. They held hands and smiled as they watched Bryan climb across the monkey bars. His green-striped shirt was frayed around the neckline, where he sometimes chewed the edge. The couple resumed their walk and approached my bench. I looked up to smile at them, but when the old woman saw me, her face contorted. "You! You didn't stop him."
Ice slid across my skin. A dirty corner of condemnation in my heart accepted her words, and I cringed. I wanted to run from her glare, but could only press my spine harder against the bench.
The man lifted a shaky arm and pointed to me. "Why are you still here?"
The woman wore the same lavender linen blouse that she was wearing when I'd last seen her.
"No." The word strangled in my chest. Not again.
Several cracks ruptured the air, and I jumped. Who had been shot? Someone was hit.
A boy in a green-striped T-shirt tumbled from the top of the jungle gym.
I pushed past the couple and ran to his body. Blood moistened the sand around his head.
No! This isn't the way it happened. Not Bryan.
"Mom? Where are you?" He called out to me as I cradled him in my arms.
"Shh. It's all right. I'm here."
"Mom? Mom?" The muffled voice reached into my dream and pulled me out. I stared at the pillow in my arms. Only a nightmare. I wasn't holding Bryan's bleeding body.
"Mom! I'm home." Bryan bellowed from the front steps. The doorbell joined his call, ringing over and over with schoolboy impatience.
My pulse roared into high gear like an Indy race car. I shot up and staggered for the door. How long had he been out there? Had he been scared when he got off the bus and I wasn't waiting?
When I yanked the door open, Bryan grinned up at me and hopped from one foot to the other. "Did you forget it was bus time?"
"I'm sorry. I took a nap and didn't wake up in time to walk down to the corner for you."
Bryan rolled his eyes. "Mom, I don't have to take naps anymore. Why do you?"
"Oh, you know. Mommies get tired sometimes."
"Wanna see my shells?" Bryan dropped to his knees, pulled out a paper sack, and upended shells and sand all over the carpet without waiting for my answer.
I knelt beside him, happy to sort treasures with him. I hadn't accomplished much else today.
"Oh, no." He held up a lifeless shape that had pincers and poked it. "The crab I found today. It looks dead. I was gonna make him a house with my Legos." He thrust the ugly carapace under my nose.
I scooted back. "Maybe you should take that outside."
He lit up. "Do you think if we water him he'll wake up?" His niblet teeth flashed around the gap waiting for his two permanent incisors. Bryan's mouth was half baby, half boy.
"Um, no. I just thought you might like to ... bury him. That's what you do when a pet dies."
"Cool." He launched to his feet and raced for the back door.
Still groggy, I followed him to the kitchen and scrounged the cupboards for supper ideas while keeping watch on Bryan through the screen door. He used my gardening trowel to dig a hole, then collected rocks to create a headstone. He plucked dandelions from near the fence to decorate the grave. Should I be worried about how much fun he was having creating a funeral? I'd always pictured myself having tea parties with a tiny daughter in lace-edged socks and dress-up jewelry. Instead God had blessed me with snips and snails and puppy-dog tails. Hard to believe how much joy I'd found in watching my son collect bugs, crash toy trucks, or climb the doorjambs to play Spiderman.
Laura-Beth called a greeting from her backyard, and Bryan trotted over to the fence to chat. Her voice carried through the screens. "Tell your mom there's a great place to go crabbing in Portsmouth. You just use some chicken necks for bait."
I pulled away from the door, not wanting to hear any more. I didn't need any advice on crabbing. I'd been crabbing all the time lately.
With a kettle boiling for pasta, I found some aspirin and guzzled a tall glass of ice water. When Bryan tired of playing with his dead crab, he came inside and reached for a piece of the garlic bread I had pulled from the freezer.
I grabbed his grubby wrist. "Hold it, buster. Go wash your hands. I'll put out carrot sticks for a snack."
He brushed his hands off against his jeans and looked at me hopefully.
"No. That doesn't count. Go wash." Parenting standards weren't going to slip just because Tom was at sea.
With a heavy sigh, he trudged to the bathroom. The faucet ran for about five seconds. I winced as I pictured the condition of the towel after Bryan wiped his dirt-smeared hands.
He came back to the kitchen only slightly cleaner and hoisted himself onto a stool by the counter. "Are you feeling better, Mommy?"
I handed him a carrot stick. "What do you mean?"
"You know. 'Cause you've been so sad all the time."
Ouch. I thought my mommy façade had fooled him. "Maybe I'm just missing our old house."
He gave a sage nod. "Me too. But know what? I like the ocean. Can we go there again tomorrow? 'Cause know what? We're s'posed to get more shells. Mrs. Pimple says so."
"Yeah. And I need a bucket to carry them. Can we go to the store?"
"Honey, you have school tomorrow—"
"I kno-ow." He blew his bangs upward with a huff. "But we can go after, right? It's a good idea, Mom."
I tweaked his nose. "You think everything is a good idea."
He missed the sarcasm and nodded. "Know what? If we go to the beach, I could find another pet."
Oh, lovely. "Hey, buddy, there's an e-mail here for you from Dad. Why don't you go read it…"
He'd already torn out of the kitchen. I smiled as I finished getting supper on the table. Before bedtime, Bryan dictated a long response to Tom, describing his new friends, his favorite teachers, and the sad demise of the latest pet attempt. I imagined the sound of Tom's deep-chested laugh as he finished a tough day of work and opened his e-mails from home.
* * *
Friday I spent most of the day on the couch while Bryan was at school. It wasn't like me to lie around all day. Some part of me knew I should be worried about the lassitude and heaviness throughout my body, and the foggy disinterest in life that had invaded my brain. But I wrote it off as a mysterious virus. That's probably what had hit me at the grocery store—the latest bug going around.
Still, I felt guilty for the sluggish day. When Bryan got home from school with a list of "Great Family Outings" from his teacher, and begged to do something fun, I promised him a quick Saturday trip to a nearby botanical garden, complete with boat ride.
The next morning, Bryan was almost jumping out of his Nikes with excitement, giving me no chance to back out. I still felt bloodless and weak. Tying my shoes took huge effort. Gathering my hair back in a ponytail nearly exhausted me. Even the car keys felt heavy in my hands. I picked up my purse, then hesitated in the doorway. Going outside suddenly felt like a bad idea. Bryan pushed past me and ran out to the car. I shook off the ripple of anxiety. We were going to have fun. Not just fun. We were going to have an amazing day so I could e-mail Tom all about it. I was sick of the careful, concerned questions he kept sending me and longed for the easy bantering we used to share. I needed to convince him that everything was fine.
Bryan filled the drive to the botanical garden with a running description of everything happening at school. The words lapped around my ears, soft and non-threatening. My occasional murmurs kept him going. He was a low-maintenance boy when he was buckled in and free to talk as much as he wanted. Now that I was out of the house and moving, my anxiety receded. Sunlight and shadow flickered in turns across the windshield and I had to keep blinking to stay alert.
When we reached the Norfolk Botanical Garden, we paid our entrance fee and grabbed a map. Bryan ran ahead, then back again, hooked to me by an invisible bungee cord. I strolled slowly, taking deep breaths. Tall loblolly pines reminded me of Wisconsin forests, but a display of pink butterfly bushes startled me with brilliant colors that would have faded by now back home.
"Mom, I'm thirsty."
Fallen petals wilted on the gravel path. I ground a few under the toe of my shoe as if they were cigarette butts. "We left the juice boxes in the car."
He clutched his throat. "But I'm dying. Can't we buy some pop?"
"Maybe on our way out. Come on. There's a fern garden up ahead."
"Then let's go." He tugged me along. The sunshine and vibrant shades of green gave me hope. The paths called for me to explore. My old self flickered to life, shaking off the strange, lifeless person who had abducted my body for the past weeks.
A group of retired ladies in red hats passed us on their way to the tropical garden. As our path opened out we saw young moms pushing strollers on the other side of a wide canal.
I took a deep breath. So far, so good. "You're right, bucko. This was a good idea."
A snowy egret posed on the edge of a pond, a perfect image to inspire stillness and peace. Maybe I'd be able to handle this after all. Not just today's outing, but also the weeks ahead.
"How come Dad quit his other job?" Bryan picked up a rock and skimmed it across the pond. The egret eyed him with disdain. "He believed God wanted him to become a chaplain."
"But how did he know?"
"He talked to friends he trusted. He prayed. He listened to God."
There. I still had it in me. The Good Mom with the spiritually nurturing words to offer my child. It was important to keep showing my son a polished image of God—even if my own picture of Him had become matte and dull in recent days. "We always want to be ready to go where God asks us, right?"
He squinted out at the water. "I guess."
I ruffled his hair. "Don't sound so excited about it. Hey, the kids' vegetable garden is up ahead."
"When do we ride the boat?"
"After that. I promise."
We followed a wide walkway toward the next section of the garden. Pounding footsteps and a shout intruded over the sounds of fountains and birdcalls. Three young men burst from around a turn of the path.
One ran in front, laughing, a blur of denim under a black baseball cap. He brandished an iPod overhead. Another boy in a sweat-streaked T-shirt charged after, with a heavyset third friend on his heels. "Give that back. I'm gonna kill you." The second teen's voice was breathy with laughter. My rational mind heard that.
A deeper primal center of my brain didn't.
He lurched sideways in a misstep as he passed us, jostling against me. "Sorry, ma'am."
I stumbled back with a gasp. Then I couldn't breathe. Stark fear crashed into me, wiping out the sunlight and birds and trees.
"I'm gonna kill you."
The path came up to meet me and my knees hit a layer of woodchips. What would the red-hat ladies think if they saw me face down on the trail? I could always pretend I was searching for a contact lens. I tried to laugh, but my heart exploded like a pheasant's wings on the first day of hunting season.
Bryan. I couldn't pass out. Bryan needed me. Then coherent thought fled.
Stepping Into Sunlight by Sharon Hinck
Copyright © 2008; ISBN 9780764202834
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.