You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
After over thirty years of teaching, with her children grown, “Shar” prayed for direction, asking God for a new mission that would fill her heart with the same kind of passion she’d felt teaching and raising children. She began to write fiction – stories filled with fallen heroes and redeemed villains, daring women and starry-eyed children – plotlines that ultimately brought her characters face to face with God’s grace and restorative power. That choice has proven to be an excellent career move as the prolific author is releasing her 9th novel in September 2010. Sharlene grew up in western Michigan and graduated from Spring Arbor University with a degree in education. She traveled the world with a musical group before returning home to marry Cecil MacLaren, whom she’d known since boyhood. The couple lives in western Michigan.
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List Price: $9.99
Paperback: 432 pages
Publisher: Whitaker House (September 1, 2010)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
Icy breezes whistled through the trees in Fairmount Cemetery, prompting the faithfuls gathered there to pull their collars tighter and button their coat fronts higher, as the tent that had been set up for the occasion did little to protect them from the elements. Just two days ago, northern Michigan had experienced a warm front, unusual for late November, but today’s temperatures made a mockery of it. Twenty-nine-year-old Jason Evans shivered, no longer feeling his fingers or toes, and wondered if the numbness came from the dreadful cold or from his deliberate displacement of emotion. He still couldn’t believe it—it was just two days after Thanksgiving, and his brother, John, two years older than he, was gone. Gone.
As Pastor Eddie Turnwall from Harvest Community Church pronounced the final words of interment, sobs and whimpers welled up from the mourners. His mom’s guttural cry among them gouged him straight to the core. Jason’s dad pulled his wife closer while Jason placed a steadying hand on her shoulder. His girlfriend, Candace Peterson, stuck close by, her hand looped through his other arm. His sister-in-law—John’s widow, Rachel—stood about six feet away, clinging tightly to her father and borrowing his strength as tears froze on her cheeks. Her coat bulged because of her pregnancy of eight months, and Jason worried that the added stress of her grief might send her into early labor. Meagan, John and Rachel’s three-year-old daughter, was the only one oblivious to the goings-on; she twirled like a ballerina until Rachel’s fifteen-year-old sister, Tanna, bent down to pick her up. If she knew the significance of this day, Jason thought, she’d be standing as still as a statue. What a blessing God kept her shielded—at least, for the time being.
“And now, dear Father, we commit John Thomas Evans into your hands,” Pastor Turnwall declared. “We know—”
“No!” Rachel’s pitiful wail brought the reverend to a temporary halt. In the worst way, Jason wanted to go to her, but he had his mom to think about. Mitch Roberts supported his daughter, whispered something in her ear, and nodded for the reverend to continue. Pastor Turnwall hastened to a finish, but the last of his words faded in the howling winds.
At the close of the brief ceremony, many of the mourners stepped forward to give the family some final encouragement. Jason went through the motions, nodding and uttering words of thanks. While he longed to linger at the bronze casket, the weather made it impossible, so, as the last of the small crowd left the tent, he followed, Candace’s quiet sniveling somehow disarming him. He didn’t have the strength to comfort her, especially since she’d barely known his brother; she barely knew his family, for that matter.
“Are you all right?” Candace asked in a quavery voice.
“I’m doing okay,” he muttered, his gaze pointed downward as they walked along the frozen path. How did one explain how he really felt on a day like this?
In front of them, mourners scattered in various directions, heading for cars covered in a thin layer of freshly fallen snow. Despite the cold, Rachel walked with slow, faltering steps, sagging against her father. Even from ten or so feet back, Jason could hear her sobbing moans. The sound made his chest contract.
Without forethought, he left Candace to her own defenses and raced ahead to catch up with them.
“Rachel.” Breathless, he reached her side. “I’m so sorry.”
“Jay.” She turned from her father’s supportive grip and fell into Jason’s arms, her sobs competing with the sighing winds.
They stopped in the path, and he held her sob-racked body, feeling his eyes well up with tears. Through his blurred vision, he noted both families halting their steps to look on. One of Rachel’s girlfriends took Meagan from Tanna and headed toward one of the cars. “Shh. You can do this, Rachel,” he whispered. “Think of Meagan—and your baby.”
“I—I c-can’t,” she stammered, her voice barely resembling that of the Rachel he’d known since high school, when he and John would argue over who was going to win her in the end. Of course, it’d been John, and rightfully so. And not for a second had Jason ever begrudged him. They fit like a glove, Rachel and John.
“Sure, you can,” he murmured in her ear. “You are Rachel Evans, strong, courageous, capable—and carrying my brother’s son, don’t forget.” He set her back from him and studied her perfect, oval face, framed by wisps of blond hair falling out from beneath her brown, velvet, Chicago cuff hat. Her blue eyes, red around the edges, peered up at him from puffy eyelids without really seeing. Chills skipped up his spine, and he didn’t think they came from the air’s cold bite. “Come on, let’s get you to the car,” he urged her, thankful when Candace stepped forward to take Rachel’s other arm, and they set off together. Rachel barely acknowledged Candace, and he wondered if she even remembered her, so few were the times he had brought her home.
“I can’t believe it, Jason, I just—I can’t believe it,” Rachel kept murmuring. “Just last week, we were making plans for our future, talking about John Jr. coming into the world, wondering how Meagan would feel about having a baby brother….”
“He just finished painting the nursery, you know.”
She frowned. “Tell me again what happened.”
His throat knotted. “What? No, Rach, not here.”
She slowed her steps to snag him by the coat sleeve. “I need to hear it again,” she said, punctuating each word with determination.
“We’ll talk later, but first, we need to get you out of the cold.”
“Jason’s right, honey,” Mitch said, coming up behind them. “Let’s go back to the house.”
“But I don’t understand how it happened. I need to understand.”
“We’ve been over it,” Donna Roberts said as she joined them. Tanna came up beside her mother and held her hand as they walked. Like everyone else’s, Arlene Roberts’s face bore evidence of having shed a river of tears.
“I don’t care!” Rachel’s voice conveyed traces of hysteria. She stopped in her tracks, forcing everyone else to do the same. “John was a good skier,” she said. “He knew the slopes on Sanders Peak like the back of his hand. You said yourself you guys used to ski out there every spring.” Her seascape-colored eyes shot holes of anguish straight through Jason—critical, faultfinding eyes.
A rancid taste collected at the back of his throat. “We did, Rach, and he was the best of the best, but it takes a champion skier to navigate Devil’s Run. Come on, your car’s just ahead.”
Her feet remained anchored to the frozen ground. “Did you force him, Jason?”
“What?” The single word hissed through his teeth. “How could you even suggest such a thing?”
“Rachel, now is not the time for such….”
But Rachel covered her dad’s words with her own. “Did you provoke him into taking Devil’s Run? Witnesses heard you two arguing, Jay. Why would you be fighting on top of a mountain?”
“We weren’t fight—”
“You’ve always been the risk taker, the gutsy, smug one, ever looking for a challenge. You pushed him to do it, didn’t you?”
“What? No! What are you saying, Rachel? It was a stupid accident, that’s all.”
She stood her ground, her eyes wild now. “John isn’t like you, Jay, never was. Why drag him to the top of Devil’s Run if only a ‘champion skier’ can handle it? You of all people knew his capabilities—and his limitations.”
Jason wanted to shake her but refrained, merely giving her a pointed stare instead. “I did not drag him anywhere, Rachel, and we’ve both navigated Devil’s Run before. It’s just…the conditions were extra bad that day. I told him not to try it. You have to believe me.”
“Then why, Jason? Just tell me why he’d take the chance! Why?” she wailed, thumping him hard in the chest. Shock pulsed through his veins as he grabbed her fist in midair to prevent another assault. Everyone gasped, and Candace took a full step back, looking bewildered. Blast if he wasn’t dumbfounded himself. Where did she get off blaming him for the accident? Didn’t she realize his heart ached as much as hers over John’s death?
Mitch stepped forward and put his arm around his daughter. “Witnesses say John went down of his own accord, honey, and the police ruled his death accidental. No one forced him down that slope.”
Now she threw her father an accusatory glare. “How do you know that, Dad? Were you there?”
Mitch frowned. “Well—of course not.”
As if that should have settled it, Rachel pulled away and marched up the snowy walkway, albeit with stumbling steps. In robotic fashion, everyone else followed, shaking their heads in dismay. Taken aback by her insinuations, Jason fell in at the tail of the procession. “She blames me,” he muttered.
“She’s completely rude,” Candace said, taking his gloved hand in hers with a gentle squeeze.
“No, she’s just not thinking straight.”
“I don’t see how you can defend her. She just hauled off and hit you square in the chest.”
He cared very much for Candace, but she sometimes annoyed him with her snap assessments. “She just lost her husband, Candace.”
Mitch reached the car ahead of Rachel and opened the front door for her. “Where’s Meaggie?” she suddenly asked, almost as an afterthought, turning full around to scan the cemetery.
“Aunt Emily took her back to the house,” her mother said, climbing into the back with Tanna.
Before climbing into the car, she glanced about, focusing on Jason. “He was a good skier, Jason.”
Jason nodded his head in agreement. “Yes, he was, Rachel. No question about that.”
“As good as you?” she questioned with a cynical hint.
“Yes. As good as me,” he lied.
Seeming pacified, she bent her awkward, pregnant body and eased into the seat. Mitch closed the door behind her and went around to his own side, nodding at Jason’s parents, Tom and Donna Evans, and the rest of his family before climbing into the driver’s side and starting the engine.
When the car disappeared from view, Jason murmured again, “She blames me.”
“It will pass,” said Tom, removing his keys from his coat pocket. “Give her time.”
As they approached his dad’s late-model Chevrolet, Jason asked, “What about you, Dad? Do you think I’m to blame?”
“Son, please, let’s not talk about this anymore.”
“Well, do you?”
“Get in the car,” his dad ordered in a tone Jason hadn’t heard since his youth. Even though he was a grown man, he felt compelled to obey. Candace climbed in ahead of him, and they all rode back to the house in icy silence.
Ten months later
“Mommy, will you play with me?” Meagan asked for at least the dozenth time.
Rachel scanned the kitchen, overwhelmed by the sight of empty juice bottles, a spilled box of baby cereal, a pan of lukewarm potato soup, and a pile of several weeks’ worth of mail. A quick glance at the clock on the wall told her it was already 8:05 p.m. Her pounding head and jangling nerves were additional reminders of her upside-down life, and Rachel shot Meagan a weary look. “Mommy can’t play just now, honey. It’s already past your bedtime, and I still have to get you and your brother in the bathtub.” She wiped her damp brow with the back of her hand. It had been an unusually warm day for September, and the heat and humidity still lingered in the house, despite the open windows. In fact, the entire summer had been the hottest and driest Rachel could remember.
“I don’t want a bath.”
“I know, but you played hard today. A bath will feel good.”
“Uh-uh. Baths stink,” Meagan whined.
Rachel had a good comeback on the tip of her tongue, but she kept it to herself.
“Can you read me a book?”
“Not this minute, no.” Suddenly, it occurred to her that things were too quiet in the living room, where she’d left John Jr. Setting down her dishcloth, she headed toward the other room and found an assortment of magazines scattered about, their pages ripped out and thrown helter-skelter. Johnny looked up and grinned, his mouth jammed full with something. She ran across the room, knelt down beside him, and pried open his jaws, using her index finger to fish out a glob of wet paper. “Oh, Johnny-Boy, you little stinker, you’d better not have swallowed any of this.”
“If he did, it’ll come out in his diaper,” Meagan stated.
In spite of herself, Rachel laughed, something she’d rarely done since becoming a single parent. In fact, more often than not, she laid her exhausted self in bed each night and cried into her pillow, counting all the ways she’d failed at her mothering job that day, wishing John were there to ease the load.
She whisked Johnny up and headed for the stairs, deciding to leave the kitchen mess alone for now. “Come on, Meaggie. It’s bath time.” She lifted the latch on the gate and allowed Meagan to pass ahead of her, patting her on the back to urge her up the stairs.
“Noooooo,” came another expected whine.
Mustering up a bright voice, she said, “Remember, Grandma and Grandpa Evans are picking you up in the morning to take you to the circus! You’ll see elephants, tigers, horses…and I bet you’ll even see some clowns. Won’t that be fun?”
“Is Johnny goin’, too?”
“Nope. Tomorrow is strictly a Meagan day.”
“Yay!” she squealed, her mood instantly improved.
Later, with the children tucked in bed, the kitchen cleaned, and the house put back into a semi-ordered fashion, Rachel collapsed into her overstuffed sofa and heaved a mountainous sigh. Her chest felt heavy, a sensation she’d come to expect these days.
Be still, and know that I am God.
“I know, Lord,” she whispered, breathing deeply. “But it’s hard. Sometimes, I don’t feel Your presence. I will never understand why You took John.”
She leaned down and pulled John’s Bible from a stack of books beneath the coffee table, guiltily wiping off a fine layer of dust. “Lord, I’ve been so busy, I haven’t even opened Your Word for weeks. What kind of a Christian am I, anyway? Shoot, what kind of a parent am I? I can’t even find time in a day to read Meagan a book.”
She opened the leather book, noting many highlighted verses interspersed throughout the slightly worn pages. John had been an avid reader, putting her to shame. She knew God more with her head than her heart, but John had known Him with both. She missed his wisdom, his courage, and his strength. Most days, it felt like she was floundering without her other half. If only she’d had the chance to say good-bye—then, maybe, she’d have fewer gnawing regrets. She gave her head a couple of fast shakes to blot out the memory.
I will never leave you nor forsake you, came the inner voice. It sounded good, but could she truly believe it?
Saturday morning dawned bright and full on the horizon, the skies a brilliant blue. The heady scent of roses wafted through her bedroom window. If John were still alive, he’d have headed out at daybreak and picked her a bouquet for the breakfast table. She smiled at the thought. Gentle, cool breezes played with the cotton curtains, causing shadows to dance jubilantly across the ceiling. She hauled her downy comforter up to her chin and turned her head to glance at the vacant pillow on the other side of the king-sized bed. His side always remained unruffled, no matter how much she tossed and turned in the night.
Two doors down, Johnny stirred, his yelps for attention growing by decibels. On cue, her breasts sent out an urgent message that it was feeding time. “I’m coming, Johnny Cakes,” she called out, then sighed as she tossed back the blankets, donned her robe, and stepped into her slippers. She padded across the room, stopping briefly to touch the framed photo of her and John on their wedding day before continuing to the nursery, where her towheaded, nine-month-old baby was waiting in his Winnie-the-Pooh pajamas. Oh, how she thanked the Lord she still had her beloved children. Yes, they wore her to a frazzle, but they also kept her grounded.
When the doorbell rang at nine o’clock on the dot, Meagan sailed through the house in her pink, polka-dotted shorts and matching shirt, her blond hair flying, and made a running leap into her grandpa’s waiting arms, wrapping her legs around his middle. Tom Evans laughed heartily and planted a kiss on her cheek, and Donna smiled, tousling the child’s head.
“Grandpa Evans!” Meagan squealed, reaching up to cup his cheeks with her hands. “You and Grandma are taking me to the circus!”
“No! Are you sure?” He feigned surprise. “I thought we were just going for a walk in the park.”
“Uh-uh. Mommy says we’re goin’ to the circus. What’s a circus, anyway?”
Tom laughed and began explaining what she should expect at the circus, while Donna took Johnny from Rachel’s arms and moved to the bay window for a look at the gleaming sunshine.
While her father-in-law talked to Meagan, Rachel looked on, getting glimpses of John in his every gesture. Tom Evans’ manner of speech, his pleasant face, his lean, medium build, the way he angled his head as he spoke, and even his rather bookish, industrious nature put her in mind of John.
She then thought of Jason, sort of the black sheep of the family, only in the sense that he was just the opposite with his tall, strongly built frame, cocoa-brown hair and eyes, and reckless, devil-may-care personality. And he was terribly likable to everyone—except Rachel, even though she, John, and Jason had been almost inseparable during their high school and college years. They had stuck together despite Jason’s penchant for weekend parties and John’s utter dislike of them; Jason had spent so much time socializing, it was a wonder he’d even graduated. But she and Jason had grown apart, especially after the accident, and she hadn’t seen him since last Christmas—her own choice, of course.
Tom stepped forward to plant a light kiss on Rachel’s cheek. “How are you doing these days, Rachel?”
“I’m all right,” she said with a mechanical shrug and a wistful smile. She never felt like discussing her innermost feelings.
Tom narrowed his gaze as he set Meagan down. The child scooted over to her grandma, who smiled down at her, then looked up at Rachel and said, “Say, why don’t you stop by the house tomorrow afternoon? You haven’t been over for such a long time.”
Visiting her in-laws’ home was like walking into yesterday, and Rachel didn’t know if she was ready to pass over the threshold again. The last few times had been too painful; she’d found herself glancing around the house and expecting John to come barreling out of one of the rooms. Silence followed as she bit down hard on her lip.
“Jason is coming home,” Donna went on, bouncing Johnny as she moved away from the window. “He called yesterday, and I convinced him to come for dinner. He hasn’t been home for a couple of months. I know he’d love to meet little Johnny. He asks about him every time he calls, and you know how much he loves and misses Meagan.”
Just hearing Jason’s name incited painful memories packed with guilt. For a time, Rachel had hated Jason, even blamed him for John’s death. Now, she just resented him for reasons she couldn’t define. In high school, the phrase “Three’s a crowd” had never applied to them. Instead, “All for one, and one for all” had been their motto—until she and John had become a couple, that is. After that, the chemistry among the three of them had changed. Oh, she’d had warm feelings for both brothers, and she’d even dated Jason off and on, but John ultimately had won her heart in his final two years of college with his utter devotedness to her, his promise of a bright future, and his maturity and passionate faith.
“What do you say, Rachel?” Donna asked, turning her head to keep Johnny from pulling on one of her dangling, gold earrings.
“Yes, you should come,” echoed Tom.
“I—I’m not sure. I think my parents are stopping over.”
“Oh, no; they’re coming straight from church to our place for lunch. They didn’t mention that?” Donna asked, bobbing Johnny in her arms. The two families had always been close, having lived in neighboring towns and attended the same church for years. Then, when Rachel and John had gotten married, the bond had grown tighter still.
“Um, I guess they did, but I…I forgot.” Panic raced through Rachel from head to toe. She didn’t want to see Jason, couldn’t picture him in a room without John there, too.
“Rachel.” Donna touched Rachel’s arm, her eyes moist. “We miss John more than you can imagine, but—we still have Jay. His birthday is Tuesday, remember? Won’t you come and help us celebrate it like old times?”
Jason’s birthday. She’d forgotten all about it. Yes, she did recall celebrating it as a family, just as they’d celebrated hers, John’s, and every other family member’s.
“I’m sorry; I just don’t feel like celebrating anything or anyone.”
“But he’s your brother-in-law, sweetheart. Don’t you want to see him? Remember how the three of you used to be so inseparable?”
“Mom, please,” Rachel warned her. “It’s all different now.”
“Of course, I know that. But—”
“Leave it be, Donna,” Tom said sternly. Meagan, growing as restless as a filly, tugged at her grandfather’s pant leg. “I can understand why Rachel wouldn’t want to see Jason. Too many memories, right, Rachel?” He reached up and touched her shoulder. “It’s probably for the best—you two keeping your distance, at least for now.”
She swallowed a tight knot and released a heavy breath. “Thanks.”
Donna blinked. “Well, if that’s how you feel…. But, at some point, I hope you’ll reconsider.” She shifted her fidgety body and frowned at her husband, then smiled down at Meagan and tweaked her nose. “Well, we should be getting to that circus, don’t you think, pumpkin?”
“Yes!” Meagan jumped with unadulterated glee. Oh, to be that innocent, Rachel thought.
“We’ll try not to be too late getting her home. How ’bout trying to get some rest when you put Johnny down?” Tom asked as Donna handed Johnny off to Rachel. “You look plain tuckered out.”
It sounded wonderful, but also completely unrealistic, considering the overflowing baskets of dirty clothes in the laundry room, the teetering pile of dishes in the kitchen sink, and the brimming wastebasket in every bathroom. Whoever said “A woman’s work is never done” must have been a single mom, Rachel thought. Then, nodding with a forced smile, she saw the circus-goers to the door.