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Excerpt from #1 Religious Fiction Novel, “Coming Undone”
Ragged. That was a good word to describe Dr. Warren’s “family.” It wasn’t a family. Just one guy, and Kathryn wished she had thought to ask a few more questions. As they walked down the hall, Dr. Vitter in front, her in the middle, and the guy behind her, she sank into prayer because that was all she could think to do. God had better show up for this one because she was definitely out of her league. He looked just barely this side of death himself.
In the office, Dr. Vitter motioned toward the little couch on the far wall, and Kathryn accepted his invitation. When she was seated, she watched Mr. Warren sit on the other side, gaze down, looking like he might fall off the earth if someone didn’t hold onto him. She smiled softly, hoping her compassion was evident and not condescending. It was then that she realized Dr. Vitter was not planning to stay.
“Take as long as you need,” he said, and with that, he turned and hustled out, closing the door behind him.
Oh, help, God! her heart screamed into the abyss where she was now staring. She looked over at the guy who looked positively ripped to pieces. Where to start and how? Words failed her. “I’m sorry. I didn’t catch your first name.”
When he looked up, his blue-green eyes were filled with a pleading for her to do something, anything someone hadn’t already thought of. “Uh, Ben. Ben Warren.”
She nodded, wishing she could do or say something to take away the immense pain in his distraught eyes. “Mr. Warren…”
“Please, call me Ben,” he said with the saddest of smiles.
“Ben,” she said softly, “I’m sorry about what’s happened.” The words stopped because compassion choked the rest from her chest. She had learned not to force herself to keep talking in such situations. Time was a stabilizer that rushing simply couldn’t match. “Dr. Vitter said you’re considering hospice care for your father.”
Ben’s dark eyebrows arched in slight sarcasm. “I guess.” He exhaled and put his elbows on his knees and his hands to his mouth. “I don’t really know what I’m doing to be honest with you. All of this… stuff is totally new to me. I don’t know what’s best. I don’t even know what’s worst at this point.”
She watched him, her emotional radar searching for any and all signals that would guide her words. “I take it you will be the one to make the decision.”
“Yeah.” He laughed a hollow laugh. “Lucky me, huh?”
Kathryn didn’t push it. He was working this out in his head and his heart, and she had to let him in his way, in his time.
When he looked at her, there were a myriad of questions in his eyes. “Um, can I ask you some things? I mean, they didn’t really tell me much about your… program.”
“Certainly. Ask whatever you want.”
Ben swallowed hard and let his gaze fall to the floor at his feet. It was brown. That registered. He was glad something did. Words were becoming harder and harder to come by and harder to say without breaking down completely. “Um, well, I take it from what Dr. Vitter said that once Dad is transferred… there, that’s pretty much it. Right? I mean he won’t get any care after that.”
“If you mean do we put him in a dark room and wait for the end, no that’s not what we do.” Her voice was soft and very kind. “We feel we’re a place that can provide the needed transition time for your father and for the family. Hospitals are wonderful for those who are going to survive, but they are not great places to die.”
Die. Man, he hated that word, but he nodded anyway even though his gaze was still firmly on the floor.
“The staff and machines and keeping the family at bay are just not conducive to giving everyone the time they need to say good-bye,” Ms. Walker continued. “We don’t make you say good-bye on a schedule. The schedule is whatever you set. You come when you want, stay as long as you like, leave when you’re ready. It’s totally up to you.”
Something akin to hope brushed his heart, and he picked up his gaze. “No five minute visits every two hours starting at eight and ending at eight?”
She smiled clearly getting the reference. “No, you do what works for you. We have round the clock staff who specialize in end-of-life issues. We can help you through not just your father’s transition, but we can point you to services that can smooth life out as you go forward as well.”
His shoulders relaxed as he let out a slow, choppy breath. As he looked at her, the need to tell someone how overwhelmed he was overtook him. He looked down quickly trying to squelch it. However, even after several long seconds, he couldn’t. “I’m… Uh, I’ve never dealt with anything like this before. I feel like I’m in the dark with no idea which way to even go.”
“You’re not alone. Most people feel like that,” she said like the touch of an angel’s wings. “Believe me, no one feels equal to this one. What you have to understand is that you’re not being judged. You get through it in the best way you can. You just have to learn to be really gentle with yourself. That helps.”
He laughed that hollow laugh again.
She joined him. “Well, it’s pretty much a learned skill. We’re all so programmed to think we have to know what to do and what to say that when we don’t, we feel like utter failures. I know. I’ve been there.” Her eyes were soft as was her smile. “But this is not some kind of competition. It’s not a pass or fail test. It’s doing your best and giving yourself the space to do it the way that makes the most sense for you.”
“So you think I should sign the papers.”
“That’s not my decision. I haven’t seen the medical reports. What I want you to know is that our facility is not some draconian echo chamber. We really do care, and we want to help when you’re ready.”
A moment more and Ben nodded. At least he’d stopped looking only at the floor. That was something. And he was calm—at least on the outside. She had seen families screaming and yelling at one another in these situations. This was definitely better although she could tell he was struggling mightily to get through this minute to the next.
He stood from the little sofa and offered her his hand. “Ms. Walker, thank you very much.”
She shook his hand. “You’re welcome. And for the record, it’s Kathryn.”
“Kathryn.” There was almost a smile there. “That was my grandmother’s name.”
“Really?” She tilted her head in surprise. “Most people call me Kate, but I really prefer Kathryn. I don’t know why. It sounds more old-style Hollywood or something.” With a saucy smile, she tossed her blonde locks over her shoulder as if she was anywhere near as glamorous as those ladies. “Hey, a girl can dream, can’t she?”
This laugh made it all the way up to his eyes. They were nice eyes, kind of a hazy bluish-green. “That she can. That she can.”
After a moment the laughter fell away from her. “But really, if you need anything, here’s my card.” She slipped it from her pocket and handed it to him. “Just call anytime. Of course, I’m not the only one on staff, so if I’m not there, Clyde or Yvonne will be able to help also.”
He took the card and looked at it for a long, long moment. When he looked up again, there was genuine gratefulness in his eyes. “Thank you.”
Her only wish was that she could do more. “You’re welcome.”
After she left, Ben went down to the cafeteria, got some coffee, and found a little corner to disappear into. It was only three in the afternoon, but it felt like midnight-thirty. He took a sip of the coffee and set the cup on the table. Reaching in his pocket, he pulled out her card. Kathryn Walker, St. Anthony’s Hospice, Social Worker.
Who signed up for a job like that? He would run for the hills. Slowly he turned the card over and over in his fingers. What to do? She didn’t make it sound as horrible as he had envisioned, and yet a good salesman could sell anything. True, she didn’t seem like a pushy salesperson. But it was her job to make her facility seem as user-friendly as possible. He thought it through again and took another drink.
It wouldn’t hurt to check the place out. At least then he could give Dr. Vitter a logical reason why he wasn’t going to take that option. Downing the last of the coffee, he grabbed his cell phone out of his pocket. With a hard blink, he forced himself to dial the number correctly. As it rang, he realized she probably wasn’t even back yet.
“St. Anthony’s Hospice, this is Kathryn.”
His heart snagged on the softness of her voice. He spun the phone’s speaker down to his mouth. “Uh, yeah. Kathryn? This is Ben Warren. I just talked to you?”
“Oh, yes. Ben. Did you need something else?”
“Um, well, yeah. Kind of. Um, I was wondering if maybe I could come over and see the… facility.” There were certain words he just couldn’t utter.
“Oh, well, sure. Of course. Do you want to come now?”
Now? Now was a little soon. His spirit recoiled at the thought. He’d long before given up the nursing home route on his sales trek through the city. There were just some things he did not want to subject himself to. “Uh, well, I don’t want to bother you. I’ve already taken up so much of your time…”
“Oh, it’s not a problem. Tell you what, I’ll meet you by the elevators on the neurology floor. Will that work?”
“Uh. Yeah. Sure.”
“I’ll be there in five.”
And she was gone. Only then did reality occur to him. What was he thinking? He wasn’t anywhere near the elevators on the neurology floor. He jumped up, nearly knocking the chair to the ground. Two doctors from the table near him glanced his direction. He quickly resettled the chair, ditched the cup, and headed out.
When I was growing up, death was a part of life. I didn’t realize it then, but I learned a lot in that little town from my parents and those around me. Mostly what I learned is that death is important, especially for those left living.
Maybe that seems contradictory, but I’ve been to enough funerals to know that although they say you go to “pay your respects to the one who died,” you really go to embrace those closest to the one who has died because they need you now more than ever.
Death is a tough thing. It just is. In the ensuing years since my growing up period, I have experienced death in many ways. I have lost my brother and my brother-in-law. I have lost a father-in-law, one really great friend, and all of my grandparents. I have also witnessed the death of “once-removeds” such as three uncles, multiple friends of friends as well as multiple animals my children have lost. And one thing I have learned: Death never gets easier.
Yes, there are some deaths that are easier than others. For example, my grandmother was 89 years old when she passed away. She had lived a good and blessed life. She had left a legacy of children and grandchildren. Hers was a life well-lived. And still, it was hard. The shock of her being gone, the decisions that had to be made, the total upheaval of life during the funeral week–they all take their toll.
Then there are those that are simply heart-wrenching. The son who dies suddenly in a car accident, the suicide of a young father, the victim of cancer who dies at 20-years-old–these shatter our sense not just of life but of fairness and right. We are angry–sometimes with nowhere to go with that anger. We are in sorrow, we are in shock. And yet, all those decisions, all that upheaval of schedules and life must be dealt with as well. It can be extremely difficult.
In many ways death forces us to grow up, to reckon just for a moment with the fact that this life is not all there is, or to question if it is. Death brings life into focus in a way I’m not sure that anything else does. It robs us of sleep and normalcy. It steals our thoughts and our comfort. It kidnaps our sanity so that it feels like the heartache will go on forever and how can anything ever feel normal again?
For me, going through this process with people around me growing up taught me how difficult it is–for everyone. However, so many people in our world today don’t get that training. They don’t go to funerals of loved ones because Uncle Sal lived 2,000 miles away and they really never knew him all that well anyway. Death kind of becomes a “once removed” thing in our lives. Yes, we know it exists, but we assume it’s going to stay WAY OVER THERE away from us forever.
But that is not reality, and when the reality of the death of someone very close to us comes, we find ourselves completely unprepared.
That’s what happens with Ben Warren in “Coming Undone.” He thinks he has life altogether. He’s got the great apartment and the great job. All the girls are crazy about him. He’s living life for himself, and that’s perfectly wonderful with him until…
When Ben’s world is shatter by news he never saw coming, he is forced to face life in a way he’s never had to before, and that reality rips his world apart and then reassembles it in a way he could never have envisioned.
I’ve had people tell me that they “still sniffle” when they think about this book. That’s okay. Death will do that to you. My hope is that in reading “Coming Undone” those who have lost close loved ones will see that their struggles were not odd or stupid, that those who say “get over it” have no real understanding of how deeply death can cut. And maybe, just maybe they can find some peace in God’s healing mercy as Ben does.
I once heard someone say, “Life goes on, but death does too.” I simply want to give people a depth of understanding about death and how hard it is so that maybe they can learn compassion for others who have lost someone or for themselves when death shows up for someone they love.
It’s not meant to be morbid. It’s meant to be real. “Coming Undone” because broken was never in his plans…
Coming Undone was a “lightning strike.” Some books are a slow slog through molasses; others seem to have a speed of their own–instantaneous. Coming Undone was one of those. I can tell you that the two actors who showed up at my doorstep demanding to be put in a book were Patrick Dempsey and Kathryn Heigl–and oddly enough that was before they were paired on Grey’s Anatomy. I must have a sixth sense or something!
However, the thing I remember most about this particular book was that the end had me twisted into knots. We were doing great until one pivotal moment that I can’t tell you about (you have to read it for yourself!), and then… Well, I wasn’t at all sure what happened next. I mean, once the reason for being thrown together is over, what next?
Worse, they both seemed determined to go on with their lives (I hate it when characters have a mind of their own! Didn’t someone clue them in that I’M the author, so they are supposed to do what I say? HAHA! Yeah, right!). So, here they are, both going on with their lives denying what was so patently obvious to everyone else, and I was struggling.
Even worse than that, Ben decided to go back to his old ways–you know, drinking and the fast life he had been so enamored with in the first place. There are times as an author/counselor to these people, I just want to take them and shake them! “Hello! Life changing experiences just happened to you. What are you thinking trying to go back to who you were?” It really is funny how often and strenuously I have to have these conversations with these people I was supposed to be controlling.
In the middle of all of this, I was serving on a church team of women, and I really was struggling to make all the pieces of this thing fit. That’s funny now, but at the time, I really didn’t see how I could get it all tied up in a neat little bow that made sense and left the reader with peace about the story. And neither of my characters was cooperating.
During the team formation, one of the things we had to do was get a prayer partner each week. Then you tell your partner one thing you would like them to pray for. That week I got this sweet little lady with flaming red hair. She was as fun as her hair suggests. All I could think of to ask for was help with the ending of this book. I told her about how I was having so much trouble with it and how I’d really like to get it finished so I could move on to something else.
Honestly, she probably thought I was weird, but I’m pretty used to people thinking that by now. So I headed into the week, figuring by the end of it I’d be no closer to finished than I was when I started. Then, lo and behold, from out of nowhere the end hit me. I started writing, and literally in one day it was finished–like 45 pages! And it was perfect!
So I emailed my prayer partner to thank her. When she emailed back, she said, “Oh, I didn’t do anything. I just said a few prayers.” That still kind of makes me sad when I think about it. How often do we shush up our prayer life, put it in a box, and think it can’t really make much of a difference? Not being the shy-type about such things, I took her aside at the next meeting, gave her a big hug, and thanked her again–profusely for her prayers. I told that her prayers were what helped me finish that book and to never again question if they made a real difference. So never underestimate the power of your prayer or people praying you through tight scenes and frustrating sequences. It sure came through for me in a big way on Coming Undone.
If you’ve ever searched for love, been afraid to love, or lost someone you love, you will love Coming Undone.
This is the story of Ben, living his life free of the responsibilities and problems that come with commitment, haunted by a past that causes him to fear giving his heart to another. But life throws him an unexpected curve, and he finds himself beginning to unravel. Uncertain why he feels drawn to her, he seeks the guidance of the attractive hospice social worker who seems to possess the quiet strength and perseverance he desperately needs but does not know how to find.
This is the story of Kathryn, the young woman with all aspects of her life neatly in place. She has a job she loves, a nice apartment, great friends and a deep faith in the God she serves. And yet, the greatest longing of her heart goes unsatisfied, a man to love and cherish her the way she sees him in her dreams. She wonders sometimes if God has given her this yearning as a lesson in patience or does He have a greater plan about to be unveiled?
When Ben meets Kathryn amidst the storms raging in their individual lives, each feels inexplicably drawn to the other, even against their better judgment. Pushing their doubts aside to pursue a friendship both exhilarating and frightening in ways they never expected, will they find only disappointment or does God have something else in mind?
Staci’s gift of writing both points of view, allowing us to see inside the heart and soul of both Kathryn and Ben as they yearn for what will fill their aching hearts and search for the happiness that eludes them is remarkable. The depth of feeling, intensity of emotion and gripping drama will pull you into the hearts and souls of her characters in a way that keeps you turning the pages of Coming Undone long after bedtime.
Have a box of tissue nearby and let Staci melt your heart, strengthen your faith and inspire your imagination as you experience Coming Undone. It is truly an expression of emotion that will remain in your heart long after the final page is read.
Buy “Coming Undone”
by: Staci Stallings
“Don’t give me that, bro. Come on. We want details. Lots of details.”
At the stainless steel refrigerator in the kitchen, Ben Warren grabbed the handle as he smiled. “Oh, no. I don’t kiss and tell.” He reached in, snagged three cold ones, and headed back for the large round table currently taking up a good portion of his living room. Setting the other two beers on the table, he sat down and twisted the cap off his before taking a long drink.
Friday night and the living was good.
“Since when?” one of the guys called.
“Yeah, come on, Ben,” Kelly Zandavol, Ben’s best friend since high school said as he nailed Ben with an I-don’t-believe-that-for-a-minute look. “You can’t leave us hanging like that. What’s she like?”
“No. Uh-huh.” Ben shook his head even as he took another drink. “You ain’t getting any more.”
“Dude,” Logan Murphy said, surveying his cards although there was only sparse attention to the actual game, “you know that you’re our in with the ladies. Now you’re gonna freeze us out just when it’s getting good? What’s up with that?” He rearranged the cards in his hand though presumably that didn’t help. God Himself couldn’t help Logan with cards or with the ladies as he called them. “If I can’t live through you, I’m doomed.”
“Not to mention the shape Kelly’ll be in,” Todd Rundell added. “You know what that marriage thing can do to a guy.”
“Hey. Hey.” Kelly lifted his chin. “Speak for yourself there. Me and my lady are doing just fine.”
“Uh-huh.” Todd put down his beer, picked up his cards, and shuffled them back and forth in his hand. “That’s why you’re over here at nearly midnight on a Friday night.”
“That’s better than you turkeys,” Kelly retorted. “At least I’ve got a woman to go home to.”
Logan laid three cards on the table. “Three.” He waited for Kelly to deal him three new ones. “The man does have a point. Yes. Yes, he does.”
Ben took one more drink of the beer before setting it down and getting down to the business of raking more of his friends’ money to his side of the table. “Well, I’ll take beer and cards over having some chick looking over my shoulder all the time an-y-day. Two.” He waited and accepted the two cards Kelly gave him. He fought not to let the disappointment in the hand show, but it didn’t work very well. “Dang, Kelly. I think you need to go back home to that lady of yours. This dealing thing is not your forte.”
“Ha. Ha. Funny-man. You in or out?” Kelly nodded to the table, indicating the betting had begun.
A long breath that Ben exhaled very slowly. Finally he pushed his cards together. “I’m out. No sense playing trash like that.” He stood to go back into the kitchen, figuring if no one was leaving, they might as well get some sustenance. Pushing the unbuttoned and rolled sleeves of his blue pin-striped work shirt up to his elbows, he reached into the cabinet and pulled out a bag of chips and another of pretzels. With two rips he had them open. He didn’t bother with the dish. The guys didn’t care about that kind of stuff anyway.
“Ah, dude! Aces? You’re kidding me!” Logan exclaimed as Ben headed back.
“Hey, you play, you pay,” Kelly said, raking all the money in the middle to his side of the table. “So, are you at least gonna tell us her name?”
Ben put the bags in the center of the table. He pulled a chip out and sat down, crunching loudly. Truly, truly, he wished they would stop the questioning. If they didn’t, he might have to resort to making things up.
Unfortunately, Kelly had known him too long. He stopped gathering the cards and looked right at Ben who was crunching and drinking but not really looking up. “You don’t know it, do you?”
“Know what?” Ben asked as if he had no clue what Kelly was talking about. Then he shrugged and grabbed another chip. “Of course I do. It was…” For one second too long, his brain went on vacation. “Cheris. Her name was Cheris.” He bit into the chip and smiled widely. “See. I told you I knew it.”
“Uh-huh.” Kelly’s look told Ben he wasn’t at all sure if he believed that or not.
Truthfully, Ben wasn’t completely sure whether to believe himself or not. That whole night after the company party was a little fuzzy. In fact, there were very few nights when he ended up in his bed or someone else’s that weren’t more than a little fuzzy. Of course, the guys didn’t need to know that part, and they were on a need to know basis, if that.
The phone in the kitchen rang precluding anymore discussion of the subject.
“Speak of the devil,” Logan said as Ben’s gaze jumped at the sound.
Puzzled by who might be calling at midnight, other than Cheris—if that was her name—he got to his feet. Then again, he didn’t think she had his phone number although she might. Those details weren’t exactly clear. The thoughts swirled in his brain as he headed for the still ringing phone.
“Hi, honey,” Logan said sweetly. “Oh, sure, you can come on over. I’ll just chase the guys out…”
Ben wanted to deck him, but he was already to the phone. The guys all cracked up at the kissy noises Logan was making. For grown men who were all 30-something, they certainly could be childish sometimes. “Hello.”
“Uh. Mr… Mr. Warren?”
In the background he could hear the too familiar sounds of a medical facility. Worry dropped on him as he spun and ducked next to the cabinet. “Yes, this is Ben Warren.”
“Uh, Mr. Warren, I’m sorry to bother you so late, but this is St. Anthony’s Hospital. Your father has just been admitted. You are listed as his next of kin…”
The rest of the words evaporated in a swirl of alarm and concern. “What? Is he okay?” He put his finger in his ear to block everything else out. “What happened?”
“I’m not really authorized to discuss it, but the doctors think it would be a good idea for you to get here as quickly as possible.”
Ben ran his hand through and over his thick, dark hair. “Uh. Yeah. Yeah. Okay. I’ll be there as soon as possible.”
Somehow he ended the phone call, but it too was lost in the spinning of the world around him. He closed his eyes and fought to breathe, hoping to make it stop. However, when he opened his eyes, it was still tilting and shifting around him. Decisions. He had to make some decisions. First, he needed to get to the hospital to see what was going on. Pushing away from the cabinet, he stumbled through the myriad of possibilities as he headed through the living room.
Three surprised and very concerned faces gazed up at him.
“Something wrong?” Kelly asked.
“Uh. Yeah. I guess. I don’t know. It’s my dad.” None of the words seemed to even correlate with reality. “I don’t know. Something happened.”
At the little closet, he pulled out the first jacket his hand found, and he yanked it on. “You guys just lock up when you’re done.”
“You want me to go with you?” Kelly asked, standing. His dark face was ash-washed with concern.
“No.” Ben tried to shake the looks on his friends’ faces from his consciousness. “No. Of course not. I’m… I’m sure it’s nothing.” Do they call you from the hospital at midnight if it’s nothing? He couldn’t answer that question, and he didn’t even want to try. “I’ll just…” The words were jamming together in his brain in no distinct pattern. “Um… Just let yourselves out when you’re finished. And be sure to lock up.”
Remembering he would have to drive, he patted his pockets and then looked around. “Keys? Where are my keys?”
“By the front door where they always are?” Kelly asked, clearly tipping toward legitimate concern for his friend.
“Oh, yeah. Right.” Ben nodded, having no idea why.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to go?”
“Yeah. Yeah. I’m sure. I’ll let you know.” Taking the keys from the little hook, Ben wrenched the doorknob and for one second, considered reconsidering his friend’s offer. He didn’t want to face whatever this was alone. Then he took his ego by the collar and gave it a good shake. He was Ben Warren, and Ben Warren didn’t back down from any challenge. With that thought, he yanked the door open and headed to the hospital.
The final credits rolled up and off the screen as Kathryn Walker swiped at the tears streaming down her cheeks. The only good thing was that she was alone, no one here to witness this pitiful display of sap and desperation. She could hear Misty or Casey or her mother. Ugh. Her mother. That was enough to dry all the tears with one single sniff.
Her mother would count this as verifiable proof that being unmarried was the single worst disposition a woman could have on this earth. Especially a woman of 32 and three-quarter years. As Kathryn stood, she sniffed again and walked over to the DVD player to replace that disc in its proper case. It was strange how somewhere north of 28, she had started counting the months to and from her birthday like a ten-year-old.
“I’m still six months from being 30.” “I’m only 30 and two months…” It was pathetic really—as if there would be something magical about the four months before she was 30 and six months, or 31 and six months, or 35, or whatever. At one time she had vehemently sworn to herself that by such-and-such an age, she would’ve found Mr. Right. But when such-and-such became six months ago and then a year ago, and then five years ago, she had given up that game and morphed into the newest incarnation of singlehood—the defiant, “I kind of like it this way. No, really, I do. It’s easier…”
She wasn’t sure if anyone believed her. She didn’t even believe her. Especially on nights like tonight. The movie that was supposed to cheer her up had hardly done that. Instead, it had brought her face-to-face in vibrant color with the fact that everyone else found that perfectly perfect person for them through these neat, cute little coincidences that just, for whatever reason, never seemed to happen for her or to her. She couldn’t quite tell which it was. She wondered for the millionth time if they knew some secret that she didn’t. However, she was pretty sure it was all just one big, stinking luck of the draw thing. And she was about as unlucky in that department as anyone had ever been.
As she flipped off the light and gingerly made her way through her dark apartment toward her bedroom, she went through the inventory of herself once more. Weight—not bad, could be better, but not bad. Looks—above average but definitely not model territory. Financial standing—quite good actually. Good job—check. Moral with values—check. Although honestly, she wasn’t sure if that one counted for her or against her.
Certainly she could have bedded many in the past if she had been into that existence, which she most definitely was not. No. Even snagging a guy wasn’t worth giving up her self-worth. Besides, she knew quite a few who had done just that only to find divorce papers on the other side of the marriage certificate.
With a sigh, she climbed between the pressed cotton sheets and sighed. Nope, the hard truth was all the good guys were long gone. The only ones left had track records that read like rap sheets not to mention baggage from their several failed marriages and a couple of kids thrown in for good measure. Still, as she did every night, she closed her eyes, snuggled into the covers and thought about him. She had no real picture of him although she had seen him in her dreams on a couple of occasions—never his face, just vague pieces.
She snuggled deeper thinking about those pieces. Like his hands. She’d always liked his hands, with nice long fingers and a presence she couldn’t quite put into words. And his dark hair. That one always made her heart snag. She would know that hair when she saw it. Of that, she was sure. She had seen it so many times in her dreams. Slowly sleep began to take over her senses, and as she drifted off, she let out a long sigh. “God, please be with him wherever he is. Keep him safe and guide him. And please let him know that I already love him. Amen.”
The disorienting transition from the darkened parking lot and street lights into the blinding white light of St. Anthony’s emergency room cut right through Ben’s skull with the precision of a sharp scalpel. He blinked it back, hoping he wouldn’t trip over something he couldn’t see because he never even slowed down all the way to the counter. The nurse on the other side looked both bored and half-asleep.
“Excuse me, I need to know…” he started.
“Please get in line,” she said with no feeling to her voice at all.
“What?” He glanced around in confusion. “There is no line.”
“All patients must get in line behind that sign.” She pointed to the ceiling without so much as looking at it.
Ben looked around and up at the sign. For privacy, please remain behind this line until you are called forward. The same was written again in Spanish and then in some language he neither spoke nor could decode.
“Please step behind the line and wait to be called.”
Man, he wanted to argue. More than he’d ever wanted to do anything in his life, he wanted to argue, but he sensed from Ms. No-Nonsense that doing so would only prolong this nightmare. Tilting his head at that understanding, he nodded. “Okay.” He pushed back from the counter and took the four steps to the front of the non-existent line. After a moment, he put his hands out to his side to indicate that he had fully complied with the request.
The nurse took her own sweet time as she finished up whatever she was doing. Then, looking like she was bored to tears, she looked up. “Next.”
Finally. Ben rushed forward.
“Name?” she asked.
“Um, it’s for my father.”
Frustration growled through him. “Mine or his?”
She checked him with a condescending scowl. “Are you the patient or is he?”
“He is. They said they brought him in…” Composure slipped away from him as he looked at his watch. “Like an hour ago or something like that.”
“Okay. His name?” She put her fingers on the keyboard.
“Ron… uh, Ronald Warren.”
“Ronald F. Warren?”
She nodded but didn’t continue. As panic set into his heart, he arched forward, straining to see what was on that screen. With a deepening scowl, she looked at him and turned the screen from his line of vision as he backed off.
You should be went through her eyes. “Mr. Warren has been taken to the 8th Floor, Neurology.”
“Neurology?” Ben repeated the word, trying to understand the horrors it hid in its depths.
“Yes.” The nurse glanced behind him. “Next.”
It was a fight to keep his balance on an even keel as he turned from the desk and hurried to the elevators at the far end of the room. This part he knew. This part he had memorized. The riding the elevator part—up to see doctors, down to see administrators—working to incorporate his company’s newest line of life-saving drugs into the hospital’s current regimen of patient care.
At the elevator, he hit the button and stepped back, putting his hand on the beltline of his jeans. He arched first his gaze and then his neck to watch the numbers above the elevator slowly slide downward. Part of him wanted them to speed up. Part of him wanted them to stop altogether. If they just stopped, then he wouldn’t have to deal with whatever came next. He tried to think about what that might be—what neurology meant, what he should do if this was truly serious.
He let out a quick I’m-being-stupid breath and fought to tamp down the clutch of fear around his chest. His father was fine. Of course, he was fine. He was, after all, only 66. That was hardly old. With the back of his hand, Ben scratched the side of his face as indiscriminant nerves attacked him.
The elevator dinged, yanking his attention upward. He stepped back as those on the elevator disembarked, and then raking in a breath, he got on and hit the round number 8 button. So many things. So many memories and thoughts of the past and future criss-crossed in his brain as the little box slid upward. Should he call his mother? She would probably want to know. Especially if it was serious.
What about Jason? Surely his mother knew where his brother was. She should make that call. Ben certainly didn’t want to—even if he knew the number, which he didn’t. Truth be known, he didn’t want to do any of this. If he could somehow just skipped over the next hours or days or whatever this turned out to be, he would with no questions. He didn’t do serious or responsibility very well. How had the universe not gotten that memo? Or maybe it had, and this would in fact turn out to be nothing. False alarm. Nothing to worry about.
The bell dinged, and he forced all the other thoughts and worries down into himself. First, he would find out how bad it was. Then he would figure out how best to proceed.
It wasn’t like there was a barking dog or even traffic noises this high up, so there was really no excuse for not being able to sleep. However, Kathryn had endured more than one night like this, and she knew there was no forcing sleep. In frustration, she flipped the covers off her legs and swung herself to the edge of the bed.
“Ugh.” Why did life have to be so impossible? She stood carefully and got her balance before turning her steps for the kitchen.
Over the sink, she turned on the little light and squinted into it. Two blinks and her eyes began to accept the invasion of the light. On auto-pilot and with a yawn, she went first to one cabinet, then to the other, gathering what she needed for chamomile tea. It was her first line of defense on nights such as these. If this didn’t work, she’d be back for hot chocolate in an hour. Then melatonin if all else failed.
She filled the little cup with hot water from the tap. It would give the tea that funny after-taste she hated, but it was quicker than going the kettle route, and since she’d read that stupid email about not heating water in the microwave, she’d been too much of a coward to try that again. Instead, she took her mostly lukewarm water to the counter and put in the teabag.
In no time the clear water had turned to a dull brownish-yellow. With one half teaspoon of sugar, she lifted it to her lips. “Ugh.” Terrible as she figured it would be. Not caring, she lifted it again, switch off the light, and headed back for her bedroom.
“Mr. Warren, your father has suffered a massive stroke.” The doctor in the white coat that Ben had never met before gave the news softly but with noted firmness.
The little consultation room seemed to close in on Ben as he shifted in the chair. He swallowed that feeling down. “Okay.”
“As next of kin, where we go from here is pretty much up to you and the good Lord,” the doctor continued obviously assuming Ben had some connection to the Creator that he really didn’t.
Ben narrowed his focus, trying to find the answers the doctor seemed to think he had. “I… Okay. Um. What are our options?”
“Well, we’ve stabilized him as much as we can. At this point, we could try surgery although with his heart history and his present condition, I can’t guarantee anything.”
Ben absorbed the news with another swallow, a nod, and a small shift backward. “Heart. Yeah… Okay. So…”
“We have an MRI scheduled for the morning to determine the exact extent of the damage. Once we get those results, we will probably know more about how to proceed.”
“Okay. Good.” It was incomprehensible that he should know what to say. “Um, can I see him?”
“He’s in ICU right now. They’re getting him settled. You can have a seat in the waiting area. ICU visits don’t really start until 8 a.m., but for you, I’ll make an exception. Your father and I played many rounds of golf together. I know he would want you to have this time if…” The words stopped. “Well, he would want you to have this time.”
Although Ben tried to wrap his mind around all of this and think it through, the truth was he was lost, like being in a forest with no trail and only brambles and briars for as far as the eye could see. How or why he had gotten dropped here, he had no idea. Where he was supposed to go from here was even vaguer. “Um, do you… do you think I should call my mother and… well, should I let everyone know?”
The pause was almost imperceptible, and then the doctor nodded. “I think that would be wise.”
The night in the hospital waiting room, propped up next to the wall was the longest of Ben’s life. He didn’t really sleep, only nodded off once or twice. He’d tried to call his mother. She wasn’t home, but the help would leave a message. His mind had gone around and around the question of calling Jason, but he’d finally decided against it mostly because he didn’t know his number or even the exact name of the town he lived.
They’d only let him back to see his father once sometime around three in the morning. The best thing Ben could say about the visit was it was mercifully brief owing to the hospital rules about ICU visits. Those five minutes had been spent with his hands in his pockets, back practically pressed to the wall by the door. He didn’t want to go closer. He didn’t want to see.
Beeps from the monitors were the only indication that the man lying in the bed wasn’t already gone. Gone. It was such a strange word—especially in association with his father. There was a time, before the divorce when his father had been gone a lot. Actually, his father was there, just not in a traditional sense. As head of the regional neurology department for the hospitals in the area, his father was a very busy man. He was charged with saving lives, and the fact that other things paled in comparison was just reality.
And then the divorce came, and everything changed…
Ben let the breath go from his lungs as he thought about his mother and his parents’ marriage. The time when she had been present was so far gone that he hardly remembered them being together. At least that’s what he told himself. It was easier that way. Easier to forget his mother leaving him to watch Jason in the car while she went into that house on Macasy Street. Yes, he wished he could forget that. And he wished he could forget the fights and the tears and the ripping of his heart as he watched her car turn the corner out of sight that last day after being in court.
At the time he hadn’t had all the pieces, and in truth he still didn’t. But in adulthood, he’d filled in many of them so that the story at least made some sense now. His father’s absence was the excuse she used to find comfort in the arms of another man—Macasy Street. That had always been his name to Ben. Honestly, he’d only seen glimpses of the man, but they still brought up an irrational anger so dark that it threatened to swallow him whole.
Even now when he let the hard clamped mask over his heart slip, he felt that fury clutch his throat, choking the life from him. No. It was better not to remember. The problem was with so much time, remembering was harder to keep at bay than usual. He shifted in his seat next to the wall. The room was again coming to life, slowly, a few bodies at a time, they drifted in. He looked over at the clock and mentally had to search for how long from 7:34 it would be until 8 o’clock. Taking a breath, he closed his eyes to push it all away. He didn’t want to be here.
The bleep of his phone brought him forward, and he yanked it from his pocket. With one touch he had it to his ear. “Warren.”
“Hey, bro. I’m sorry. Did I wake you?”
Ben laughed at the thought and scratched his head. “Hey, Kell. How’s it going?”
“I’m fine. How’s it going with you?”
It was strange how hard it had become just to breathe. He looked around, tilted his neck to stretch it first one way and then the other. “I’ve been better.”
“How’s your dad?”
His head fell forward on the weight of the situation. He couldn’t find the words. They just were not there. “I… Um… It’s not good, Kell. It’s not.”
Kelly didn’t say a thing for a moment as he absorbed the news. “I’m sorry to hear that. What happened?”
“Well, I’m not real clear on the details, but at like 11 last night his maid found him in the kitchen. He had a stroke.”
“A TIA. Right?”
“No. This one was massive. Almost like an aneurism from what I can figure based on what they’re not telling me. He’s in ICU.” Defiantly, though he couldn’t clearly determine who the enemy was, Ben sat back and put his head on the wall. “I just… I wasn’t ready for this, you know? I mean, I just talked to him the other day, and he sounded fine. We were going to go golfing next weekend…”
“Do you want me to come down there?”
Ben deflated. “No. There’s not really anything you can do.”
The pause stretched between them.
“Are you going to call your mom?”
“I tried. Last night. She’s out. I don’t even know what that means. Out. With Mom, that could mean in the Caribbean, in Hawaii, or on the moon.”
“You know what I mean.”
Ding. The speaker cracked on. “It’s 8 a.m. Visiting for ICU.”
Looking up at the speaker, Ben wanted to punch it to get it to shut up. “Listen, Kell. I’ve got to go. Visiting hours.” What he really wanted to do was act like he’d never heard the announcement. What difference would it make? His father couldn’t hear him anyway. Besides, he was not equal to this task. No possible way.
“Call me. Okay? Whatever. You don’t have to do this alone.”
“Yeah.” But he didn’t believe a word of it. He was alone. More alone than he had ever been.
“Don’t start.” Kathryn stirred her oolong tea as her steamed rice sat heaped on her plate Saturday afternoon.
“I’m just sayin’,” her sister, Casey said. Casey, younger by three years and moved two-hours out to the suburbs so these little get togethers had gotten few and far between, sat like a pixy on the edge of her chair flicking things back and forth on her plate.
Anger plowed over Kathryn. “No. No just sayin’. I don’t want to hear it. Okay?”
“Kate, if I didn’t love you, I wouldn’t suggest it, but I see how miserable you are.”
“Oh, and you’re not? I don’t see you doing cartwheels, Mrs. Married for eight years with two kids.”
“Well, but it’s different for me. Brett makes me crazy. You know that. He always has.” Casey laid her hand across the table until it rested on Kathryn’s wrist. “But I love him, and he loves me. I just want that for you, Kate. Is that so wrong?”
“No.” Kathryn picked up her fork and rearranged the white grains as she yanked a long piece of blonde hair over her ear. “It’s just… It’s not the same for me. You fell in love in college. College wasn’t exactly a picnic in that department for me.”
“So, you were a late bloomer. So what?”
“Cas, I’m 32. Thirty. Two.”
“Almost thirty-three, but who’s counting? Come on, Kate. You’re smart, and you’re so kind and helpful and…”
“Doomed to be single forever.”
“No. Not true. You just have to get out there. You spend entirely too much time at work and in that apartment of yours.”
“I like my apartment.”
“And I’m sure it likes you back. Come on, Kate. Face it. If the only places you ever go are work and home, how are you ever going to meet someone?”
“I go other places.” Kathryn hated the defensiveness in her voice.
“Church.” Okay. It was lame. But it really wasn’t. She’d been in the singles group until she got too old. Of course, she could join the re-single group, but that had no appeal.
“Are there any prospects at church?”
Her heart skipped just a little at the thought. She smiled before she could stop it. “Well, there is this one guy. He came in a couple weeks ago. He sat a couple benches ahead of me.”
“Not that I could tell.”
“Yes.” It was like pushing the words off a cliff. She didn’t want to think them, to go down that road because she’d been disappointed after getting her hopes up so many times, she had this feeling memorized.
“No ring. Coming to church alone. Good. Good.” Casey considered those for a moment as she ate her noodles slowly. “Age?”
“I don’t know. A little younger? A little older. That’s kind of hard to tell anymore.” Kathryn let her fork go and sipped her tea.
“So, in the right age-range roughly, new to church. I think you should introduce yourself.”
Horror painted her face red hot as she shook her ponytail back and forth. “I’m not introducing myself. Are you crazy?” She ducked at the thought that anyone in the restaurant had overheard the conversation. “He’ll think I’m insane.”
“So you’d rather some other insane chick gets him first?”
Her sister frowned. “What? You do your level best to melt into the woodwork, Kate, and then you wonder why no one notices you.”
“I can’t…. I couldn’t…. I’m not like you.” She went back to her rice though she had lost her appetite completely.
“And you have thanked God for that on regular occasions.”
“That’s not true,” Kathryn said although she knew it was a lie.
“Yes it is, but thanks for trying.” Casey spun her fork in her noodles three times. “Look. All I’m saying is it wouldn’t hurt to go out once in awhile. You know, get yourself out there.”
A thought traced through Kathryn’s head, and she bit her tongue to keep it from coming out. No. Don’t say it. Don’t tell her. You know what she’ll say. Don’t say it. Don’t say it! “Well, Misty said…” Kathryn ducked, hating herself for saying it the instant it was out.
“Yes? Continue.” Casey circled her fork in the air, her gaze suddenly excited and full of anticipation.
Kathryn shrugged, smiled, and then laughed as she ducked over her rice. “Well, she’s got this cousin or something.”
This time Casey laid her fork all the way down. “And…?”
“I don’t know. She said he’s back in town, and he’s single…”
“Hello! What are you waiting for—an engraved invitation?”
“I don’t know.” Kathryn scrunched her nose in embarrassed apprehension. “A blind date? Isn’t that kind of… I don’t know… desperate?”
“Well, I guess that would depend on what you wear and if you sit on his lap and ask him to marry you before you get in the car.”
Annoyance flooded over Kathryn. “You’re terrible. I would never do something like that.”
The laughing taunt left Casey’s face. “Look, all I’m saying, big sister, is that Mr. Right is obviously not going to just fall into your lap. You’ve got to stop waiting around and be a little more proactive in the search. Who knows, Mr. Cousin Guy might be him, or maybe he knows him, or maybe when you’re at the restaurant, him will come around the corner, and you’ll just know. It’s not like it’s an exact science, you know.”
Kathryn picked up her tea and sipped it carefully although it was by now only tepid. “Yeah, tell me about it.”
Sleep sounded heavenly. After being at the hospital for 18 hours straight, Ben boarded the elevator that made him sway as it started downward. He ran his hand over the back of his head wishing any of this made sense. He still hadn’t gotten in touch with his mother, and his father’s condition, though stabilized, did not look any better. In fact, the MRI was inconclusive because of some swelling on the brain.
The doctor told him that was normal, but nothing was normal now. Nothing. On the ground floor, he followed the others out, thinking how long of a walk the parking lot seemed. He had run marathons that were shorter.
Instinctively he turned at the sound of his name as Travis Steele, one of the younger doctors in oncology, stepped up to him. He put out his hand, and Ben shook it.
“I was sorry to hear about your dad,” Travis said. “He’s one of the good guys. How’s he doing?”
Ben stepped back into his cocoon of personal space. “Not great. They’re waiting for the swelling to go down so they can figure out what to do.” Was it just him or did the whole world seem like some strange, psychedelic dream all of a sudden? Who was this saying these things? It couldn’t be him. He didn’t even understand them himself and yet somehow he sounded like he understood it all perfectly.
“Oh. Sorry to hear about that.” Travis looked to the side. “Listen, I was just about to go get some coffee if you’d like to join me.”
Not really. But he heard himself say, “Okay. Sure.”
In fact once they sat down, Ben found it was nice to have someone to talk with that understood at least a minimum of his situation. That was comforting.
“I wish I knew,” Ben said as they discussed what happened if things went south with his dad’s condition. “It’s just me here. My mom lives in Oakland, and my little brother… Well, I’m not even real sure where he lives. I don’t know if they’d come for the funeral or not.” Once again the sheer weirdness of the whole situation descended on him. He thought about Dr. Steele, a young man—probably younger than even himself, and for the first time, Ben thought about the other side of saving lives. “How do you do it?”
“Do what?” Travis took a small drink of the coffee.
“How do you come here every day when you know some of your patients aren’t going to make it? Doesn’t that make you crazy?”
“It can. At first it was much worse, and even now, sometimes it’s rough, but you learn to do what you can, care as much as you can, and then let go. Sometimes what you do works. Sometimes it doesn’t. The final call’s not up to me. God makes that one. But sometimes it’s easier than others to agree He made the right one.”
God. There was a topic Ben did not want to discuss. He wondered then if every doctor who practiced at St. Anthony’s had to swear by some oath of faith or something. He’d never really thought about it before. However, before he could ask, Dr. Steele looked at his watch.
“Well, I’d better get back. I’m on call tonight.”
“Oh, well.” Ben scrambled to his feet, his spirit lagging a good six inches behind every move he made. “Thanks.”
Dr. Steele extended his hand. “I hope you get a miracle. I’ll be praying for one.”
Macaroni for one. Kathryn pushed it around her plate and then around again as she sat at her counter, a single glass of water the only other thing on it. Bored, she turned and grabbed the day old newspaper from the coffee table, propped it up and leaned forward on the stool. It wasn’t interesting. Politics and foreign affairs—neither of which were more than distractions for her. She read the first few paragraphs of three stories before giving up and pitching it back onto the coffee table. She would never see what others found so fascinating.
After taking her plate to the sink, washing it off, and putting it in the dishwasher, she trekked into the living room. Curling onto the couch, she grabbed the remote, aimed it at the television and started flipping through the channels. One led to the next and then to the next. How could there be that many channels and nothing to watch? Putting her head back onto the cushions, she continued through the channels, hoping she had missed something. She hadn’t.
Finally she clicked the thing off and let the darkness envelope her. Her spirit plummeted into it and through it. Maybe Casey was right. Maybe she should tell Misty she’d go out with what’s his name. She bounced her toe up and down trying to decide. It couldn’t be any worse than sitting alone in her apartment for hours on end. Could it?
Try as she might, she couldn’t find one thing that wasn’t completely depressing about her current existence. The plain truth was, she was tired of being alone. “God, why are You making me wait?” she asked the ceiling. “I don’t understand this. I really don’t. Look. If he’s not coming, would You please just tell me so I can quit thinking about it?”
Utter, total, complete, maddening silence.
Even the soft ringing of her ears was louder than God’s answer.
“Great.” She sprang to her feet. “That’s just great, God. Thanks for that. Really. I’ll be sure to put an extra five in the collection plate tomorrow.” Stomping to her room although she had to be careful what with her sock feet on the hardwood floors, Kathryn let the anger and frustration boil over. She didn’t need a man. She’d survived this long without one. Besides a man meant she’d have to deal with kids. The others at work were always complaining about how expensive day care was, not to mention braces and dance lessons.
As she brushed her teeth, she reasoned at least she didn’t have to waste money on things like that. No. She had a whole apartment all to herself. If she left her underwear on the floor, nobody was there to complain. If she let the dishes stack up, that was okay too. No one cared.
And yet, as she went into her bedroom and sat down on the bed, sadness took over. She laid her clasped hands in her lap and closed her eyes. “God, really I don’t understand this. I don’t.” Slowly she slid from the bed to the floor. Kneeling there, she laid her head on her hands. “God, please. If being married is not what You want for me, then please, please take this desire away. I can’t take living like this all the time, feeling like something should be happening when it isn’t. Please. Somehow, just give me peace. I don’t know how much longer I can do this.”
But she knew she really had no choice in the matter. If God didn’t send her soulmate, there was really not much she could do other than to continue to wait and pray. Her heart filled with thoughts of the “him” she didn’t even know, and the familiar words came once again. “God, please be with him tonight, keep him safe, and guide him in the ways You want him to go. Dear Lord, please put Your hand on his life, guide him, protect him, and give him peace. Amen.”
The brakes under Ben squealed the car to a halt as the white car flashed by him through the intersection. “Hello! What does red light mean to you? Jerk!”
Collecting his scattering nerves, Ben smashed his foot on the pedal and took off through his light which was still green. “Stupid, idiot drivers. Get a clue or get off the road!”
He knew in some deep place in himself that he was out of control and on the edge of completely losing it, but he didn’t want to think about that. The street lights flashed over the top of the Mustang, drifting across the shiny paint like ghosts from another existence. Putting his elbow up on the armrest, he let his head down onto his hand as he stopped at the next red light. At this rate it was going to be midnight or better before he got home.
Home. That would seem odd in a way it never had before. That’s where he was, where he had been before his world had turned upside down. Pushing that and everything else back down, he drove through the crowded Saturday night streets, hardly realizing that had this been a normal Saturday night, he would surely have been cruising these same streets looking for some action. Right now all he wanted to find was a pillow and a bed.
It was another 30 minutes before he pulled up to his apartment. Another five before he closed the apartment door behind him and leaned up against it. Home.
He didn’t bother to turn the lights on. What was the point? Instead he pitched his keys to the little hallway table and wrenched his jacket off. Tired had never felt like this. Even hangovers were better. At least with them, he had a vague memory of fun and partying to remind him of why he felt so bad. This just felt bad through and through.
Going into the kitchen, he considered a beer but decided against it. Instead he got some water from the tap, which he hated but downed the whole thing without tasting any of it. He felt at the moment like he might never again slake his thirst or be fully rested. He was so tired. So incredibly tired. Two steps back to the door and he saw the blinking message light on his answering machine sitting on his counter. Like a robot, he punched the button and leaned his head against the door post to keep himself from sliding to the ground.
Beep. “Ben. Dude. I’ve been trying to get a hold of you.” Kelly.
Ben wondered what time that one had been left, but somehow he had missed that part of the message.
“Don’t worry. I’ll try your cell.”
Beep. “Ben. Hi. This is Charissa… from the party.”
His eyes rolled upward before letting them fall all the way closed. Not now.
“Listen, I got your number from Cameron. I hope you don’t mind. I really had a good time the other night. I’d like to see you again. Call me. K?”
She left her number in a sultry tone just before the machine went beep. And then it went dark. Without bothering to even think of responding to either, Ben picked himself up off the wall and headed for the shower. He wanted to get off this nightmare of a ride. He wondered if someone could let him off. It would be nice.
The hot water from the shower sent humidity into the air, and although Ben wanted to get in under it, he found himself at his sink, knowing he should be doing something but not at all sure what that something was. Then he looked into the mirror. His eyes were sunken and sad. He didn’t remember ever seeing them like that before. How could he ever get through this? This wasn’t the life he wanted. He didn’t do responsibility well. Never had. Careless and reckless were much more his style.
Too tired to dwell on that, he headed for the shower and was already under the current before he remembered he was going to shave. Oh, well. Granted, two full days of stubble were becoming far more than a mere five-o’clock shadow by this point. If he kept this up, even he wouldn’t recognize himself. The shower was accomplished only by marshalling all of the energy he had left. Still, each movement was made in ultra-slow, by sheer-force-only motion. It seemed slow was the only gear accessible to him anymore.
When he cut the water, he grabbed the nearest towel, put it around him, and went back out to the bedroom. Sure, he normally did things like brush and dry his hair, brush his teeth, dress for bed. But little things like that were lost in the thick haze of exhaustion. He wasn’t even sure he was in the bed before he was asleep.
Sunday mornings always dawned with glorious sunrises followed by soft white and pale yellow light streaming in her bedroom window. Kathryn loved Sundays. She awoke bathed in that heavenly light as she did every Sunday. Sundays were always special because she got to sleep in a bit later and so the sun had a little more chance to break over the horizon and make it into her room. Breathing life in, she smiled. Maybe today was the day. Maybe today she would meet the guy two rows up at church. Before she was even out of bed, she started plotting. If he was there before she was, maybe she could just innocently sit next to him.
That wouldn’t be too forward, would it? It might be, she finally decided. Maybe she could sit behind him. Then when they did the sign of peace, he would turn and shake her hand. A fantasy played out featuring the two of them, their eyes meeting, their hearts beating as one. She let those thoughts run their course because they were so much better than reality ever was.
Dragging in an excited breath, she arched her shoulders over the possibilities. Maybe today was the day.
Love the first chapter?
Buy “Coming Undone”
Having lived with the characters in Cowboy for about 13 years now, it fascinates me how much they still teach me and others who read the book and want to talk about it with me.
Ashton Raines is the hero, and I think he kind of epitomizes where we all *think* we want to be–on top, successful, adored by many, hated by none. He’s got the world at his feet. As the reigning King of Country Music, Ashton appears to have everything he’s ever wanted and most of what everybody else dreams of having.
But the thing is it becomes obvious very quickly that Ashton is anything but happy. In fact, there’s a large part of him that really hates his life and what he’s become. Not because he’s become someone bad, but somewhere along the way on the road to super stardom, he lost himself.
Whether we’re a superstar or not, I think many of us can relate to waking up one day, looking in the mirror and having no idea how we got here. It’s like we pursue life and our dreams, and then one day we’re living this life we don’t even recognize. Maybe we’ve got kids and a husband or we’re in a job we always thought we wanted, and we look around and it’s weird because we don’t even really recognize who we are anymore.
In the story, Ashton uses his fame to hide from his pain. At least that was the idea. His wife has died of cancer, and it nearly ripped him apart. His plan to escape the pain is to pour himself into a whirlwind tour. The problem is pain isn’t healed by escaping it, and the faster he runs, the more miserable he gets until one night, he simply can’t take it anymore. After a concert, his manager comes up with a brilliant idea to help Ashton forget, and it snaps Ashton’s will to keep up the charade of the tour. He gets in a rented car and drives, not knowing or caring if he’ll ever come back.
Beth McCasland is the sweetest spirit you would ever want to meet. She’s seen her share of heartache when her husband passed away in a terrible accident. Now she’s left to raise her young daughter alone, and she shoulders that burden with grace and dignity.
The thing I like most about Beth is she is so simple. She sees someone hurting, and she’s determined to help. Maybe she can only offer a meal and an ear to listen, but she is willing to do that. The thing that breaks my heart about Beth is I think true of a lot of us who care. When we go all-in to help someone, keeping a “safe distance” for our heart’s sake doesn’t always work. And it’s so hard to really care and not get emotionally involved, especially if that person is someone we genuinely connect with on a deep level.
How do you care and let go, and care and let go, and care and let go? It’s like getting your heart smashed over and over again, but what’s the other option? Not caring?
I think the depth of her love is really a reflection of how God is with us. He’s always standing there with open arms, willing to take us in and comfort us and be there for us, and somehow, He loves us enough to let us go again with no real guarantee that we’ll come back. It’s such an incredibly vulnerable place to be. For me, that was one of the hardest things about watching Beth go through the things that happen in the story, watching her suffer because of her great love.
I’ve had people describe Cowboy as Cinderella in reverse, which is rather interesting to me because in one sense, Ashton is the Prince on the white… okay, tour bus. But many readers have said they really felt Beth is the one to rescue him from the pit, which is also true. I don’t know. Maybe sometimes in a relationship we’re equal parts the one saving and the one being saved. I certainly think that’s true of this story.
The truth is I love these two characters. They’re like old friends now, and I love this story. Every time I read it, it makes me want to fall in love all over again!
Fictional Interview with Ashton & Beth Raines from “Cowboy” and Kalin & Danae Lane from “Lucky”
News From Nashville & Beyond
(Transcribed from a television interview with “The Music Plays… World Tour” featuring opening solo artist Kalin Lane and headliner Ashton Raines, both accompanied by their wives, Beth Raines and Danae Lane.)
NFNB: First of all, welcome to you all. Thanks for sitting down with us.
Ashton: Thank you for having us.
NFNB: Let’s start with what it’s like to be on a world tour. What cities? What are the crowds like?
Kalin: Well, for me it’s been an absolute dream come true. I mean, getting invited to be here with Ashton who, let’s face it is the King of Country music right now. Standing on that stage every night, hearing the fans singing my songs, cheering, in all these different countries…. it’s truly amazing.
Ashton: I have to agree. I stand down there as Kalin’s playing, and there’s just this incredible energy that sweeps through the whole place, no matter if we’re playing for 20,000 or 60,000. To hear those fans, to get to connect with them. It’s what I came here to do, it’s why I started singing in the first place, and to get to do it night after night has been such a blessing.
NFNB: How’s it been working together? The two of you play country music, but it’s really not quite the same kind of country.
Ashton (laughing): Yeah. I could never pull off the hair! (Reaches over and ruffles Kalin’s famously stringy blond mane then shrugs.) But it works, you know? I play the more traditional stuff, Kalin rocks the house, it works.
Kalin: I have to agree. I think it has really come together because we’re not two performers who happen to get on the same stage every night. We really understand each other and respect each other for what life has thrown at us and the hard knocks it’s taken us to be able to play from the heart so to speak. So it doesn’t matter that he plays the acoustic and piano, and I’ve got more electric and keyboards to my style of music because I think deep down we both really see that we’re doing what we love to do, making the kind of music we love to make. When you do that, somehow the synthesis of what comes out of it just works even if on the outside it doesn’t look like it should.
NFNB: You mentioned what life has thrown at you. Would you call the road to get here bumpy or smooth?
(Ashton looks to Beth who smiles back, and Kalin grins at Danae who brushes her brown locks from her forehead and shakes her head with a soft laugh.)
Ashton: Definitely bumpy. (Beth nods, her eyes filled with respect and love as she looks at her husband, and the two of them share a moment. When he turns back to the camera, Ashton seems to drift into another world.) After my first wife died of cancer, there was a long stretch in there that honestly I didn’t even want to be here. I mean here as in making music here, but even here as in on the planet. Then one night I wound up in this little diner in the middle of nowhere (He looks over to Beth.) And an angel from Heaven pulled me back and gave me a reason to keep on living. (As if no one else is watching, he leans over and kisses her.) Thank you, babe (he whispers so the camera barely catches the words. Then he turns back.) To be real honest, I’m not even sure I’d be here without her.
NFNB: So Beth, what was it like? I mean, he is Ashton Raines. It’s like every girl’s dream to have the king of music walk in and sweep you off your feet. That must have been surreal.
(They glance at each other.)
Beth: Well, to be honest with you, I didn’t even know who he was that night.
NFNB: You didn’t?
Beth: No, really I didn’t. It’s a long story, but let’s just say I fell in love with a man, not a music star.
NFNB: Okay. Well… (Turning to the other couple.) Kalin, you also said bumpy. Now we know a little about your career’s early fits and starts what with having to go back to your home country the first time around. What was that like?
Kalin: Rough. Really, really rough. To be honest with you, that first time I let the fame and the money and the adulation of all the people around me go straight to my head. I fell in with a lifestyle I thought was great at first, but it caught up with me real fast. When I lost everything–the dream, my meal ticket in Nashville and almost my life–I thought it was all over, you know? Back then, there was no way I could have seen the amazing grace God was waiting to give me and the joy and the mercy and the grace He gives me every day now. Getting to be here now, like this, with the Raines family, and my beautiful wife. (He turns to Danae and smiles. She smiles back.) I’m telling you it’s more than a dream come true. In fact, it’s the reason I sing “Lucky” every night out there on stage.
That line about, “And it’s not fate, it’s not luck, it’s a gift from God above, that I found you, you found me, and we found love”? Those aren’t just nice, pretty words. I really believe that, you know? Because if it was not for God and the love of this wonderful, strong woman sitting next to me, I can almost guarantee I would not be sitting here today. It’s more grace and love than I’ve ever deserved or imagined, I’ll tell you that.
NFNB: Well, it’s almost time to wrap this up. Closing thoughts, anyone?
Ashton: The tour’s been amazing. The fans, the cities, the experiences. All out amazing.
Kalin: Come out and see the show!
NFNB: That’s it for now from News from Nashville & Beyond. Now back to you in the studio.
The Harmony Series, Book 1
by: Staci Stallings
To all those who think that love has let them down…
Please never stop believing in love’s power to heal all things.
In God’s eyes, the light of hope shines eternal
where love is concerned… and so it is for you.
“You’re never going to believe who’s coming to Denver!” Lynn Isley squealed as she streaked into the empty restaurant from the kitchen doors.
Standing at the cash register counting change, Beth McCasland barely even looked up. “Who?”
Lynn dropped her voice conspiratorially although there wasn’t a single soul in the place to overhear her anyway. “Ashton Raines!”
“65.82.” Beth dumped the pennies back in the register and frowned. “Ashton Raines? Isn’t he that country singer?”
“That country singer?” Lynn asked in disbelief as she tied her blue-and-white Harry’s All-Night Diner apron around her waist. “Are you kidding me? Ashton Raines is the country singer. He not only won Male Vocalist of the Year three years in a row, he won Entertainer of the Year last year and Song of the Year, Album of the Year, and… Beth!”
Somewhere just past one of the ‘of the Years’ Beth had tuned Lynn out.
“What?” She looked up from the drawer innocently, and when she saw the look on Lynn’s face, she repeated, “What?”
“Where’d you go?”
“The drawer’s ten cents off.” Beth looked back at it in consternation. “What do you think we should do?”
Lynn shook her head. “Who cares?”
“I do.” A moment of thought and Beth pulled a dime out of her own pocket and dropped it into the register.
In disbelief, Lynn surveyed her friend, her dark eyes flashing. “What’d you do that for?”
Beth shrugged and slammed the drawer. “It’s either that or hear Harry yell for two hours.”
“But…” Lynn began just as the bell on the front door sounded.
“Customers,” Beth said, indicating the door and signaling that the conversation was over with one word. She tucked a wayward blonde wavy-curl behind her ear, grabbed three menus, and started toward the door without bothering to wait for Lynn to so much as exhale.
“Ashton, what in the world are you doing up there?” Barry Braxton yelled to the stonewashed jean-clad figure leaning perilously over the edge of the top row of bleachers.
“These bleachers have to be up by seven,” Ashton yelled back over the din of workers surrounding him without so much as looking down at his manager.
“They will be,” Barry called, “but if you fall, we won’t be needing them anyway.”
Irritation at being treated like a three-year-old crawled through Ashton’s chest as he twisted the wrench on the bolt he was working on with three more quick jerks. “I’m not going to fall, Barry.”
“Well, why don’t you come on down anyway?” Barry set his hands on the rolls of excess weight just beneath his off-brown, button up shirt. “Really. There’s no reason for you to be up there. I’m sure the crew can get it.”
“Look around you, Bare.” Ashton waved the wrench angrily. “We go on in three hours. Does it look like they’re going to be ready?”
Barry shook his balding head in disgust. He really couldn’t argue with that as much as he obviously wanted to. With the concert set to start in three hours, Ashton knew his manager would’ve preferred him to be in his dressing room getting ready rather than tightening bolts on the bleachers for their latest venue. However, here he was twisting bolt after bolt tighter and tighter, wrenching his anger and frustration into them as if that would somehow make everything better.
After a full thirty seconds Barry stalked off leaving his golden egg hanging off the edge of a set of bleachers that looked like it might fall any second. Ashton didn’t so much as watch him leave. Barry, of all people, knew Ashton’s stubborn streak ran a mile deep and just as wide. And the fact that he had acquired a death wish in the last year didn’t help matters.
Trying not to think lest the memories swarm him again, he bent his head and body into the work. If he could just keep working, keep moving, keep going, somehow he would find a way past the hurt. If he didn’t, Humpty Dumpty would look easy to put back together by comparison.
“So, do you want to go?” Lynn asked as she walked up to the counter where Beth stood during a slight lull in the afternoon lunch chaos.
“Go where?” Beth asked, tallying up three tickets at the same time.
Lynn leaned on the counter. Her freckled arms created a triangle with her waist. “The concert.”
Wishing Lynn would leave her alone so she could concentrate, Beth bit the pink lipstick of her bottom lip. “What concert?”
“Hello, Beth…? Is anybody in there?” Lynn waved her hand in the air.
The bells on the front door jingled. Without bothering to uphold her end of the conversation, Beth stepped around the counter. “I’ll be right back.” She heard Lynn growl in frustration, but there were other things in the world far more important than concerts and having fun. On top of that priority list was eeking out a living. She met the two customers at the door. “Good afternoon. Would you like a booth or a table?”
Ashton heard the familiar music the second it poured down from the enormous speakers three levels above him. The roar of the crowd that followed the music never ceased to amaze him. On the outside he looked ready—calm, cool, professional, but inside he was a disaster waiting to happen. This was the hardest part of every show. Right now she would’ve been with him, holding his hand right to the stage steps, telling him good luck, and kissing him. What he wouldn’t have given for one more kiss.
He could feel her even now, and every part of him wanted nothing more than to walk away from it all—walk away and never come back. Without her, everything had become too hard, too draining, too overwhelming. Just as the pain threatened to take him over the edge, he heard it—the four notes—his cue, and in with one giant shove, he stuffed all the hurt back down and stepped up the stairs and onto the stage as the entire arena exploded in lights, music, and screaming around him. In fact, it was so loud that not one person in the entire arena heard his heart snap right down the middle.
“You going home?” Lynn asked as Beth grabbed her coat from the rack.
She slid her arms into the warmth of the wool, knowing how the early April chill in Colorado could seep into a person despite all their best efforts. “Yeah, Tori should be here any time now, and I’ve got to stop at my parents’ to get Kenzie.”
“How’s she doing?” Lynn asked with genuine concern.
“Oh, growing like a weed.” Beth laughed softly and pushed the blonde curl that never quite made it into the clip at the back of her head from the edge of her face. No matter how many clips she used, she could never quite get her hair to stay up through a full eight-hour shift. “I can’t believe she’ll be starting kindergarten in the fall.”
“No kidding.” Lynn’s concern sank on the sigh that went through Beth. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” Beth ducked so her friend couldn’t see the real answer. “It just hard sometimes.” Buttoning the coat was a good excuse not to look up.
“I know, but I’m sure Kevin would be proud of how well she’s done.”
Beth smiled through the ache, which stabbed viciously into her heart. She grabbed her things from the counter. “Well, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Okay, you take care—and drive careful.”
Lynn watched her friend go. It had to be hard to go home every night with a child and all alone at the same time. Worse, the only places Beth ever went were her parents’ house, the diner, and home. The only time she ever went out was when Lynn forced her to, and it had been far too long since their last outing.
The radio behind her crackled. “KGRC, is proud to welcome Ashton Raines to The Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado on June 12th…”
The concert. Somehow she would find a way to talk her friend into going. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing.
“Hey, great show, Ashton,” Barry said, slapping him on the back the second he descended into backstage after the second encore.
Ashton forced a smile onto his face. “Thanks.”
“We’ve got some people backstage,” Barry continued as though Ashton hadn’t heard all this a million times before.
“There he is!” someone from down the hall yelled, and in a breath he was crushed by a sea of fans.
Overwhelming numbness took over as he accepted the pieces of paper being shoved in his face. Over and over he signed a name that no longer seemed to even belong to him. It was everywhere. On T-shirts, CD jackets, programs, in lights above the entrance to every auditorium door he walked through.
As he signed the name yet another time, it occurred to him that somehow he had lost everything—not even his own name was his anymore. He wasn’t Ashton Raines, and yet if he wasn’t Ashton Raines, who was he, and when he had ceased to exist as a real person?
“That’s enough!” Barry held his hands up, forcing his way through the crowd to make a path for Ashton to follow. “We appreciate you all coming out! Thank you! Thank you!”
Somehow Ashton followed his manager, somehow his feet worked, somehow… and yet if he had to explain just how, he would never have been able to.
Beth lay on Kenzie’s bed, the book in one hand, Kenzie resting on the other arm. “‘Open the door,’ the prince commanded, and the guards obeyed. When the door opened, there stood Katrina in her dress of rags. ‘Hello,’ said the prince kindly. ‘Hello,’ Katrina said. ‘May I have this dance?’ the prince asked, holding out his hand to her. She took it, and they danced the whole night away. The end.”
Beth closed the book and then looked down and smiled. Kenzie. The soft little face. The rosy cheeks. The most beautiful child in the world. Her last precious gift from Kevin. At times it seemed she was almost past the pain, and then at other times, like tonight, the thought of going to a bed devoid of his spirit threatened to fling her into a pit of despair.
Five years. Five long years, and still she missed him, and at that moment, watching their daughter sleep, the soft baby blonde curls fanned out on the pink pillow, she knew she would miss him forever.
“We’ve got some new material in,” Barry said as Ashton put his feet up on the coffee table, leaned his head back against the couch, and closed his eyes. “Meredith thinks one of them is a keeper.”
“Anyway, I thought maybe tomorrow on the way to Atlanta we could give it a once over—just to see what you think,” Barry continued, going over his checklist. “The concert in Tucson sold out yesterday in under two hours. They’re thinking about adding a second show. What do you think?”
“Fine,” Ashton said without ever opening his eyes.
The to-do list went silent. “Ken called. He’s wondering how you’re doing.”
Ashton was really tired of answering this already age-old question.
“How are you doing?” Barry asked pointedly. “Really?”
Slowly Ashton exhaled—knowing full well that the truth and what Barry wanted to hear were two totally different things. “You know me, Bare.” He opened his eyes to a reality he now hated.
“Yes, I do, and I’m not the only one who’s worried about you.”
Ashton smiled at that. Barry was worried all right—for himself mostly.
“I’m fine.” With no small amount of effort, Ashton pulled himself off the couch. “Just a little tired.”
Barry followed him up off the couch without taking his gaze off him.
“What time are we pulling out in the morning?” Ashton asked, stretching slowly, the starched shirt he still wore from the concert stuck in weird angles to the dried sweat on his back.
“Then I’d better get my beauty rest.” Ashton yawned. “I’d hate to be sick for Atlanta.”
“Yeah,” Barry said unenthusiastically. “I’ll be here to get you around nine-thirty?”
“I’ll be ready.” Ashton followed Barry to the door. “And I promise we’ll go over the new stuff tomorrow.”
He held the door open for his manager. “Well, good night, Bare.”
“Night,” Barry said, but the closing door cut off the word.
Ashton exhaled and let his eyelids fall shut. It was true he was tired, but this tired had nothing to do with his work on stage. This tired was something he had never experienced in his life until now. It had nothing to do with sleep and everything to do with the hole he found every time he looked into his heart. He shook his head to clear it of the disturbing thoughts and went to take a shower.
Love the first chapter?