Boondock Ramblings

Special Fiction Saturday: Harvesting Hope Chapter 24

I am late posting today because I was hosting an author party on a Facebook group I am moderating. Regular readers here know I despise Facebook but a couple of months ago I joined again so I could be part of a readers’ group on there. I stumbled on to this other group as well and they needed a new administrator. I volunteered to help, but at the last minute the other person said they didn’t want to help, so there I was with a group to help run on my own. On a platform I despise. So I go on FB to post there and the other group and briefly on my author page and leave.

Anyhow, here is chapter 24. Regular readers know the drill, where the links are for past chapters, etc., etc.. I won’t bore you with all those links again. Let me know what you think the comments, as always. Also, sorry for another cliffhanger.

Chapter 24

Jason fell into the water on his hands and knees, trying to see the rest of the back seat and under the car. Maybe her body was trapped there, under the hood or roof or trunk. The car seemed to be smashed firmly into the muck and mud of the creek, though, not enough room for a body. Unless. . . he choked down the panic burning his throat, looked around behind him, searching the water and bank frantically.

Could she have been thrown from the car? He looked at the windshield under the water and it was cracked but not shattered.

He stood again, his clothes clinging to him, and shielded his eyes, looking downstream.

“Could she have —” He swallowed hard. “Been swept downstream?”

Denny shook his head. “I don’t see how. This creek’s not deep enough and there’s no current.

Jason pivoted in the water, facing them. “Then where is she?”

Denny raked a hand through his hair. “We’ll need to get a wrecker down here, something to flip this car over and be sure —”

“I don’t think she’s there,” Cody said abruptly.

Denny clutched his hair and blew out a breath. “I don’t want to think that way either, but she could be. We have to be realistic.”

Cody turned toward Denny, lowered his voice. “I’m not trying to be morbid, but I think we’d see some sign that she’s under there.”

Denny looked at the water, nodding. “Yeah. You’re probably right.”

“What about a bear? Could a bear have —”

“Kyle!” Cody’s voice was sharp as he jerked his head toward Jason who was still looking from one side of the bank to the other.

“Bears don’t usually eat cadavers.” The authoritative voice of the coroner silenced the group. Clint O’Malley tripped over a few stones on his way to the car but managed to stay upright. He stood calf deep in water next to Cody, frowning. “Are you boys telling me you called me out here without an actual person for me to declare dead?”

Cody placed his hands on his hips and cleared his throat, looking down at the water then glancing back up at Jason before he looked at Clint. “Ellie Lambert is missing.”

Clint looked at Jason standing a few feet away from him with a dazed expression on his face and blew out a quick breath, following it up with a curse word.

 He nodded at Cody. “Understand. What are our options here? Could she have survived and left the scene?”

Kyle, Denny, and Cody looked at each other and fell silent. Finally, Cody spoke. “Yeah, I think that’s a real possibility. We have to explore it at least.”

Clint looked at the car again. “You should also lift this car up and see what you find underneath it. Just to be sure.”

Jason’s chest constricted and his stomach burned. The idea of her pinned down by two tons of metal, her body mangled beyond recognition left him cold, even as the humidity was rising. Dark clouds hovered along the horizon, visible through the trees. If a storm wasn’t coming, there was at least going to be a shower. Rain would wash away any clues if Ellie had somehow walked away.

“Cody!” Tucker Everly’s voice echoed into the ravine. “We have a possible witness and survivor up here.”

Jason’s head jerked up, his brow furrowed as he looked up at Tucker, who’d been among the volunteers he’d trained with the most when he’d started with the department a few months ago.

“Luke found Brad Tanner along the road about a mile up. He has a gash on his head and his face is a mess. He can’t remember anything about last night but woke up along the bank by the creek this morning. He says he vaguely remembers being in the car with Ellie last night.”

All the men’s eyes were on Jason again.

“I drove him home last night,” Jason said, more to himself than anyone else. “I don’t understand. Why would he be in Ellie’s car?”

He stood and started climbing the bank toward the road, confusion and anger rising with each step. “Where is he?”

Tucker grabbed his hand and helped him the last few steps, then nodded toward a maroon pickup pulling in.

“Luke just pulled in with him.”

By the time Jason reached the passenger side of the truck at a full on jog, his mood had reached a dangerous level of rage. Brad opened the door, and he didn’t even wait for him to climb out. He grabbed the front of his cousin’s shirt and dragged him out, slamming him hard against the side of the truck. “Where is she?” the question hissed out of Jason between clenched teeth. “What happened?”

Brad held his hands up, palms out, shaking his head. “Jason, I don’t know. I can’t remem—”

Jason slammed his back hard against the truck again. “Tell me what happened or I swear I’ll  —”

“Jason!” Luke grabbed his arms, pulled him back. “He wreaks of booze and shows all the signs of a concussion. He’s not going to be any help in this shape. The EMTs need to look at him.”

Jason tightened his grip on Brad’s shirt, breathing hard, jaw tight, eyes focused on Brad’s scrunched up face, his eyes squeezed tight as if waiting for Jason to punch him. Jason slammed Brad back against the truck again “They can look at him after I finish with him.”

“Jason!” Alex’s voice behind Jason distracted him long enough for one of the EMTs to grab one of his arms while Alex grabbed the other.  “This isn’t helping.”

Alex and the EMT pulled until Jason let go of Brad’s shirt. Alex pressed a hand against Jason’s chest. “You need to calm down.”

Jason shook them both off with a jerk of his arms and walked to the side of the road, sitting on a stump next to a tree. He propped his arms on his knees and clenched his fists in front of him as Alex walked over and stood above him.

“When did you get here?” he asked Alex.

“Maybe ten minutes ago. Cody filled me in. I was on my way down the bank when I saw you coming up.” He knelt next to Jason, propped on his own knee. “Walt called your dad. He heard the chatter on the scanner.”

Jason’s head jerked up. “Did they say Ellie’s name on the scanner?”

Alex shook his head. “No. Just that there was a car in the water. Walt thought it might be Brad. He didn’t come home last night, but no one thought much of it. He’s been doing that a lot since he got back.” He placed a hand on Jason’s shoulder, his voice low. “They’re going to start a search, spread out and walk in a circle about a mile away to see if they can find any sign of her. They’ve also got a team coming in from Wyoming County to walk the creek with them and another water search and rescue crew.”

Jason looked at the ground, nodding. After a few seconds of silence, he stood abruptly. “Okay. I’m going to head out then. Can you call her parents, fill in Molly and Mom?”

Alex stood. “Yeah, but I’m going with you.”

Jason nodded. “That’s fine. I’m not waiting for the search teams, though. You’ve got five minutes to meet me on the other side of the creek.”

He pivoted and started down the embankment, not giving Alex any time to respond.

The way Clint squeezed his shoulder on his way back to his truck left a hard lump of dread in Jason’s gut.

“Call me if I’m needed,” he said softly.

God, please, don’t let us need him, Jason prayed as he collected gear from his truck and headed down the embankment toward the creek.

“Where are you going, Jase?”

He ignored Cody’s question, kept walking through the creek, past the wreckage of the car, and toward the embankment on the other side.

“Just keep your phone on you in case you need us, or we need you,” Cody called after him.

Alex fell in step with him when he reached the top of the bank on the other side of the wreckage and started toward a more wooded area.

“Where are we going?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you think she went looking for help? If so, why didn’t she just go on the road?”

“I don’t know.”

“She should have had a cell on her —”

“I don’t know.”

Alex fell silent and they continued to walk, sweat beading on their skin and soaking their backs.

“It just needs to rain already,” Alex mumbled.

“If it rains, I won’t be able to find her tracks.” He didn’t add, “If there are any,” because he didn’t want to think there wouldn’t be.

“Good point.”

The humidity sucked air from his lungs with each breath and a crack of thunder signaled they should seek shelter rather than keep walking, but he wasn’t about to stop. If Ellie was alive, he was going to find her. If she wasn’t alive, he still needed to find her. Her family needed closure. He’d hurt them so much already. He couldn’t hurt them again.

At the top of the hill the woods faded into a wide open field. Jason stopped walking and bent over, hands on knees, catching his breath, chest burning.

Alex did the same. “How can we both be in such good shape, yet that hill almost kill us?”

“The humidity isn’t helping.”

“How much further should we walk? If she was injured she —”

“I don’t know.”

There was a lot he didn’t know.

Fire still burned through his chest when he stood up and started walking again.

God, please. Help me find her.

In twenty minutes, they had walked the length of the field, down over a hill, and back up another one. Jason turned and looked behind him, estimating they had already walked a mile and a half from the accident scene. She couldn’t have walked this far, could she have? Maybe she hadn’t been able to walk. Dear God, maybe she was under that car. Maybe the wrecker had come, helped overturn the car and her body was lifeless in that creek bed. He clasped his hands behind his head, breathing hard. Pressing his arms against his head, he intertwined his fingers, and choked back a sob.

“God,” he hit his knees, pressed his hands into the dirt in front of him, bowing his head toward the ground. “Please, please don’t take Ellie from me. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for my stubbornness. For all my mistakes. Please, give me a second chance with her.”

In a few minutes, after sobbing until his chest and back ached, he became aware of Alex kneeling beside him, his hand on his back. They stayed that way for several minutes and when Jason sat back, he noticed Alex’s face was damp as well.

Alex shook his head, dragging a hand across his cheeks, and stood. “We’re not giving up. Come on. Maybe she tried to take a shortcut over this hill to get to the Bradley farm and call for help.”

Jason dragged his hand across his face and stood slowly. “That sounds like something she’d do. Go to get help for even a moron like Brad.” He brushed the dirt off his jeans and spit at the ground. “He better have some answers for me when I get back.”

“We can think about that later.” Alex started down the hill. Jason started to follow him when his phone rang. He didn’t recognize the caller ID, but answered it anyhow, hoping it was a member of the fire department, telling him they had found her. Alive.

“Jason?”

“Judi?”

“Jason, have you found her?”

“No. Not yet.”

Judi’s voice broke. “They flipped her car over and she’s not there. Where is she? Where is my sister?”

“I don’t know, Judi. I’ll keep looking. Are you with your parents?”

Judi’s sobs came through the phone. “Yes. I’m at their house. Jason, if you find her, however you find her, you have to tell her I’m sorry. We had a big fight the other night and I told her I hated her and that I hated being her sister —” Her voice faded to a tearful whisper. “Oh God. I don’t hate her. God, please don’t let her be dead.”

He wanted to offer her encouragement, but he wasn’t sure how, when his heart felt as hopeless as hers at the moment. “Judi.” His voice broke and he tried again. “Judi, I want you to pray. If you can’t pray, ask your parents to pray with you. As soon as I know anything I’ll call you. Keep your phone next to you, okay?”

He could almost see Judi in his mind nodding as he heard her crying. “Okay. I will.” She took a deep breath. “Jason?”

He looked out over the farmland in front of him, red barns, cows in fences, fields being planted with sileage to feed the cows in winter. “Yeah.”

“She loves you so much. I don’t know why she’s being so stubborn right now, but she’s always loved you and I know she still loves you.”

He swallowed hard, tears blurring his vision. The way she referred to Ellie in the present tense made his heart ache with a glimmer of hope that she still was in the present tense. “Thank you, Judi. Keep the phone next to you.”

“Jason!”

He’d lost sight of Alex, but now he could hear him shouting from somewhere on the other side of the hill.

He took off in the direction of the voice, almost catching his foot in a groundhog hole as he ran. Alex was running toward him, his face flushed. “I found her.”

Fiction Friday: Harvesting Hope Chapter 23

Just a note to regular readers: I will be putting this book up on Kindle on August 12. I’ve lowered the preorder price to $.99 so my blog readers can get it cheap and then once the book goes on sale I’ll be raising the price. I can also send a mobi or ePub version to you through Bookfunnel for free so if you are interested please let me know and either leave me your email here in the comments or send one to me at lisahoweler@gmail.com so I can send it along August 12.

Bookfunnel will have you upload the book yourself to your reading app so if you prefer not to do that, you can do the option on Amazon. If you want a paperback, please order through me and I will mail you one. It will be cheaper than what Amazon charges for books (I only make about a $4 profit from what they charge).

If you are a new reader here, I share a chapter from my WIP each Friday, and sometimes Saturday, on my blog. There are typos, grammatical issues and even plot holes at times because this is a first, second, or third draft that hasn’t gone to my editor (eh, husband) yet. If you see a typo, feel free to kindly let me know in the comments. Sometimes the error has already been fixed on my copy, sometimes not.

Catch up with the rest of the story HERE. Don’t feel like reading the book in a series of chapters each Friday? Preorder the book HERE. Do you want to read the first book in the series? Download it HERE. 

Chapter 23

Jason snatched up the scraper and walked toward the stalls, knowing without looking in a mirror his face was showcasing the happiness he felt inside. As soon as this job was finished, he was heading to town to see Ellie. His muscles tensed in anticipation at the thought of seeing her, holding her, kissing her. The fact she’d almost let him kiss her, despite everything, gave him a sense of hope he hadn’t had in months, and certainly hadn’t had at all earlier this week.

“Walt’s got the part we need for the skid steer.” His dad’s voice startled him out of his thoughts. “Can you head up and grab it when you’re done here?”

He smiled, not really thinking about the part at all. “Yeah. No problem.”

“Just be careful. Walt says the fire department is stopping cars at the bottom of the hill down from his place.”

“Okay.”

Robert narrowed his eyes. “You okay, kid? You’re acting a little off. You seem a little — well, distracted.”

Jason propped the scraper against the wall and laughed. “Yeah. I’m okay. Really okay. I’m more than okay.”

Robert raised an eyebrow. “You drunk?”

Jason shook his head, catching the sparkle in his dad’s eye. “Only in love.”

“With Ellie still, I hope.”

“Absolutely.”

Robert smiled as he walked toward the back of the barn. “Then carry on.”

A half an hour later Jason stretched his arms over his head and listened to the bones along his spine crack. He climbed in the truck, thinking about the night before, wishing he hadn’t had to deal with Brad. After he picked up the part for the skid steer, he was flooring it to the preschool and waiting for Ellie in the parking lot. He wasn’t about to let her out of his sight again.

He tapped her name on his phone before pulling out onto the road.

“Hey, this is Ellie. Leave me a message and I’ll be get back in touch with you as soon as I can.”

He smiled. Even her voicemail was sweet.

“Hey, El. It’s Jason. Thought maybe you’d like to grab lunch at Bonnie’s today? I’m heading to Walt’s for a part for the skid steer, have a couple more things to do at the farm, and then I can pick you up outside the school. I’ll try again in a bit and see what you think.”

He tossed the phone onto the passenger seat. Everything looked brighter today. The sun on the grass, its light filtering through the trees, leaving misshapen patterns on the road in front of him, the wild summer flowers blooming. The sky wasn’t totally blue, a few dark clouds were threatening rain, but even the clouds didn’t bring him down. His heart still ached over the loss of John but today his grief was buffered by hope. Hope for reconciliation with the woman he’d wanted to marry since he was 18-years old.

Blue and red lights blinked in front of him, and he pressed the brake, stopping when junior firefighter Nate Baker waved a white flag at him. Fire trucks, the vehicles of volunteer fire fighters, and an ambulance were parked in a line along the road.

He leaned his head toward his open window as Nate stepped toward him. “Hey, kid. What’s going on?”

Nate, 16-years old, jerked his head toward broken trees at the edge of the embankment. “Car over the bank. They’re down there checking it out now.”

“Any injuries?”

Nate shrugged a shoulder. “Don’t know yet. They just told me to slow the traffic down.”

Jason studied the broken trees and rubbed his chin, rough from stubble. He’d been too distracted with thoughts of Ellie to shave this morning. “I’ll see if they need any help.” He reached out the window and pounded Nate on the shoulder. “Keep up the good work, bud.”

Shifting the truck into park he watched Cody walk through the broken trees toward the road. The fire chief looked up as Jason exited his truck, the expression on his face when he caught sight of Jason indecipherable. Jason narrowed his eyes, trying to read the chief’s expression. Was the accident fatal?

Cody met him at the top of the embankment, immediately placing his hands on Jason’s shoulders. “Jason, hey, what are you doing here?” He was breathless, sweat beading his brow.

“I was on my way to pick up something from my uncles and saw you guys here.” Jason craned his neck, looking over Cody’s shoulder. “Do you need help?”

Cody squeezed his shoulders, shaking his head and pushing gently until Jason was forced to take a couple steps back. “No. We’re good. We’ll call you if you we need you.”

Jason cocked an eyebrow. “What’s going on with you? You’re acting weird. Did I do something to upset you? Did you find out something about the fire?

Cody swung an arm around his shoulder and started walking, pulling Jason with him. “I’d tell  you if I was upset with you. No worries there. And nothing about the fire. It’s just that we’ve just got this covered.”

Jason looked over Cody’s shoulder as they walked, looking through the leaves and tree limbs. He caught sight of the blue bumper of a car at the bottom of the embankment and stopped walking, pulling from Cody’s grip. “Whose car is that?”

“Jason, you need to go home, okay?”

Why had he even asked whose car it was? He knew whose car it was.

“Jason!”

He ran full force toward the wooded area and was met by Denny and Kyle Barton on their way up the hill.

Denny’s eyes met his, his mood somber. “Jason, you need to stay up there.”

Jason shook his head, kept walking. “That’s Ellie’s car.”

The two men put up their hands to block him. “Jason, stay here until we —”

Jason was practically shouting now. “Where’s Ellie?” The men had their hands on him now, trying to hold him back. “Where is she?”

He pushed back against them, panic clutching at his throat until he could barely breathe. He broke past the men, pushing them aside, barreling through the underbrush and trees, briars cutting into his skin as he ran. He stopped running when he hit the clearing, stopped, breathing hard, and looked down at the creek bed.

Ellie’s car was on its roof, upside down in the water. Other volunteer fire fighters were making their way to it, pushing brush aside to get there, but it didn’t look like any of them had reached it yet. Behind him branches and twigs broke under the weight of the men who’d tried to keep him back.

“We haven’t gotten down there yet, Jason.” Cody shouted from behind him. “We were on our way down when Jay radioed that you’d pulled in. Stay here until we know what we’re dealing with.”

Jason shook his head. “No. I have to —”

Denny clutched a hand around his forearm. “Listen, Jason. If she’s in there, you don’t want to remember her this way. Okay?”

Jason yanked his arm free, walking forward. “If she’s in there, I need to get her out. No matter what —” His voice broke and he drew in a ragged breath. He shook his head, leaning forward on his knees, the scene before him blurring. His chest ached, tightened like a vice against his lungs.

Dragging the back of his hand across his face he straightened and started making his way over the boulders along the creek bank. Another firefighter, Will Barton, Kyle’s father, was standing behind the car and put his hand up to stop him, but Cody’s voice echoed among the trees.

“Let him go, Will.”

Will shook his head. “Not alone, I won’t.”

He placed a hand on Jason’s back, following him deeper into the water.

Water Jason’s shoes and jeans, but he didn’t even notice. He was vaguely aware of Cody and Denny and the other men navigating their way down the bank and boulders to join him. Otherwise, he was entirely focused on the smashed driver’s side window submerged part way in the water.

“Oh God,” he whispered. “God, help me bring my Ellie home to her family.”

The only way to see what was inside was to lean over. From where he was now, the water now thigh deep, he could only make out what looked like a sweater moving in the water, hanging through the window. He lowered himself, water rushing up over his lower body, trying to brace himself for whatever awaited, but knowing nothing could prepare him if Ellie was in there dead.

A sob choked out as he looked inside the window, at water ripping over the steering wheel and Ellie’s purse floating in the water below the passenger seat. His gaze moved from the front to the back of the car, and he straightened, shaking his head and pressing the heel of his palms against his closed eyes.

“Jason, I’m coming.” Denny shouted to him as he made his way over the rocks and through the water. “Don’t try to get her out until I get there.”

Jason sobbed again, trying to shake himself awake from the nightmare. This couldn’t be happening.

“She’s not here.”

Denny balanced himself on the side of the car. “What? What do you mean?”

Jason opened his eyes and looked at Denny, breathing hard. “She’s not here. The car’s empty.”

Photos so far in July

I am still pulling together tidbits for my Randomly Thinking post so I thought I’d share some photos today from our July so far. I’ll hopefully have a Randomly Thinking next week!


Book Review: Sarah’s Choice by Pegg Thomas

Book: Sarah’s Choice

Author: Peggy Thomas

Genre: Christian Historical Fiction

Release date: August 3, 2021 (preorder here).

Bottom line: Four stars out of five. Heart pounding read. Not for the faint of heart.

My review: If you are a lover of historical fiction in all it’s raw and gritty detail then Sarah’s Choice is a book you want to pick up.
It is well-written with vivid descriptions and heart pounding action.
The story is well-paced throughout but really picks up in Chapter 2 and goes full force from there.
I had a hard time putting it down, chewing my fingernails much of the book, even though I’m not normally a fingernail chewer.
Pegg Thomas is an award winning author and it looks like she has another winner on her hands with this one.

The characters are engaging and clutch at your heart, leaving an impression you’ll certainly feel for days, if not longer, after you finish the book.
I will, however, warn you that this isn’t a book where you will find a message of forgiveness, toward the natives who lived on the land before the settlers came. If you are looking for a well-rounded view of the early history of settlers, you’re not going to find it here. One reason you won’t find it here is because the author, by her own admission, is presenting one viewpoint. That isn’t a bad position, since it is the point of view of the characters, it’s just the full story, which again, Pegg reiterates on her Goodreads page:

Because I’d recently researched Pontiac’s Rebellion for a novella, it was fresh in my mind. It was a harsh, even brutal event in American history, and I knew it would provide the backdrop that Sarah’s story needed. Sarah’s Choice does not present all sides of the conflict, instead, it is seen only through the eyes of Sarah and Cully.

I hope to give the reader a glimpse of what happened in a time and place that was incredibly volatile from the perspective of the people caught up it in unawares. It was not my intent to interject 21st-century norms or ideals into the 18th century. It does no good to look at history through the modern lens. What happened, happened. It’s history to be learned from, warts and all.

There is only one opinion of Native Americans held in the mind of the main character throughout the book, right up until the end. Her feelings were valid considering all she had been through, however, which is what makes the book very authentic (uncomfortably so).

19 years and counting

So, here we are at 19 years of marriage and counting.

Let’s be honest, there were days we never thought we’d make it here.

Marriage isn’t all rainbows and sunshine like the old movies used to tell us, is it?

It’s a lot more like a war zone some days. A war zone where after the battle you find yourselves holding on tighter instead of letting go, even though part of you really, truly, and absolutely wants to let go.

Letting go wouldn’t really help though. Sure, you’d make a stand, make it clear you’ve drawn the line, you’ve had enough and all the pain you’ve caused each other over the years is simply not worth it anymore.But it would all be a lie.The pain is often very much worth it and the idea that you can walk away from someone who has become your best friend as much as they have become your adversary at times is absurd.

Part of your heart will always be with that person.

There are days you will sit across from that person you married, and you will think, “What am I still doing here?” You’ll hurt like you’ve been split open on an operating table and realize this person who said they’d protect you and care for you in sickness and in health is the one who inflicted the wounds and that you inflicted a few back yourself.

You’ll narrow your eyes, study their face, wonder who they are and who you might be if you picked up all your things, signed the papers, and left for good. While you’re narrowing your eyes, you’ll see something beyond the person who is annoying you at that moment, though. You’ll see laughter. You’ll see joyful tears. You’ll see loyalty, support, empathy, and caring that came when the anger had faded when the hurt had subsided, when the doubts threatened to rip it all apart.You’ll see late nights laughing at old movies, shared looks over inside jokes, deep hugs, sweet kisses, holding babies late into the night, moments of being rescued when you deserved to be sacrificed, walks in the park, drives in the night, grief being borne, molds being broken.

You’ll see that marriage is not all rainbows and sunshine but sometimes both seeps in and pushes out the dark; that there will be more sunshine and rainbows than rain and gloom. You’ll see that love is not just about the good moments, but also about the bad. It’s about shattering in a million pieces and picking up the pieces sometimes alone, sometimes together, often with only God to help you find the pieces you lost somewhere along the way.

19 years of marriage is sometimes about being broken but being broken together.It wasn’t always easy, it wasn’t always clean, it wasn’t always a fairy tale and there have been endings that haven’t been happily ever after but there have also been new beginnings full of hope, middles full of laughter, and backstories that will shape future stories for the better, not the worst.

How many times did we want to walk away? How many times should we probably have? How many times, though, did we sit across from each other look up and not see pain or heartache or loss, betrayal or darkness, and instead saw someone who had been our best friend in the midst of, and despite, it all?

19 years.

We made it.

We fought for it.

We slew dragons and kicked demons in the face.

We stomped the heads of the serpent over and over and we will do it over and over again.

We were broken and rebuilt, broken and rebuilt.

We have wrinkles and gray hair, weight we want to lose, memories we want to forget.

But we made it.

Together.

And we’ll do it again and again until God tells us it’s time to come home, we’ve run our race, we’ve done what He called us to do and who he called us to do it with.

Happy 19th anniversary, Warren, and here’s to many more.

(Photo from all those years ago – first year of marriage).

Sunday Bookends: Children suck all our energy to increase their power, my first full audiobook and time travel thriller.

Welcome to my weekly post where I recap my week by writing about what I’ve been reading, watching, writing, doing, and sometimes what I’ve been listening to.

What’s Been Occurring

I didn’t have a lot of time for reading this past week because I was helping my neighbor watch her great-grandchildren (she had children young as did her children and her grandchildren so she’s not a 100-year old great grandmother. She is a – well, I don’t think it’s polite to tell a lady’s age on my blog). They are two little girls, one a year younger, the other a year older than Little Miss. All three together are a combined force that drains the energy from the souls of adults and sucks them into themselves so they can grow stronger with unbounded energy that 43-year old women only dream of.

They raced up and down the street on bikes and scooters; looked for “creepy things” under our porch and under the porch of the garden shed (they found or resident garter snake there); used a huge box to careen down our stairs in (I watched them for this one and our stairs aren’t super steep so it was fairly safe); tried to convince the neighbor to let them see her little dogs (even though the poor girl had just had her wisdom teeth pulled and didn’t even know where she was); chased our kitten to try to keep her from climbing a tree (again. It also didn’t work. She climbed two trees while they were here, one of them twice in the pouring rain.); jumped on the neighbor’s trampoline; picked black raspberries from the bushes by our garden shed; painted masterpieces and almost ruined their new clothes; inhaled a lot of sugar, and the youngest later skinned her knees all up when she fell off her scooter. A huge part of the above list happened in only the first two hours they were at my house Wednesday.

Injuries seemed to be prevalent in the three days I watched them – or was it four? I honestly started to lose track of days somewhere in there. The oldest was stung by a wasp at her nanas one day. At first only her little sister was coming up to visit but when the oldest found out her sister was coming, she jumped off the couch, swollen and painful hand and all, and came too. I spent half the morning worried she was either going to pass out from the Benadryl or swell up and stop breathing from the reaction she was clearly having. Her nana (as they call her) and I conversed and agreed on a plan of action should any of that happen. Eventually, the swelling went down some, but a day later her hand, up to her elbow, was still pretty puffy.

When they wanted to go look for snakes under our house, the oldest joked she was going to pick one up when they found one. I told her absolutely not. “You’ve already been stung by a wasp. Let’s not add snake bite to that, even if the snakes around here aren’t poisonous.”

Later she hit her head on our heating vent when falling out of the box that went down the stairs (she didn’t hit it super hard) and also had a huge blister on the back of her foot that ripped open at some point before I took her back to her nana.

Their mother works swing shifts at a large Procter and Gamble plant near us, to explain why they are sometimes with their great-grandmother several days in a row.

Friday my neighbor said to me, exhaustion permeating her words, “They’re going home tomorrow morning. Thank God.”

It cracked me up. They are a lot of fun, but yes, absolutely draining with all their unending energy.

One other notable event that happened last week was the baptism of my husband. I won’t dwell too much on it because it is something that my husband wants to keep private for the most part, but I can’t help mentioning it because it was an exciting day for our family.

 What I’m Reading

When I did find time for reading (like a whole hour all week) I read The Cat Who Knew A Cardinal by Lilian Jackson Braun, which is comfort reading for me. It’s a hardback copy I bought from a library sale. At night, when the lights were off, I started a Walt Longmire mystery, book four, Another Man’s Moccasins. 

 I am also reading Journey to ChiYah, a Christian indie book by Kimberly Russell

 For the writing side of things, I am reading The Story Equation by Susan May Warren

I also listened to an audiobook for the first time. Cast The First Stone is the first book in the True Lies of Rembrandt Stone Series by David James Warren. It is a time travel thriller.

I had a horrible time listening to it not because it was bad (not at all), but because I was always being interrupted by a child or pet or there is a TV in the background. It didn’t help that the cheap headphones I bought from the Dollar General broke so I couldn’t drown out everything around me. I hear other people talk about listening to audiobooks in the car, but I don’t go anywhere far enough away to give me time to listen to a book. I don’t work out or take walks alone often enough to listen and when I’m cooking dinner there is usually a dog that wants me to let her out 15 times, a kitten getting herself in trouble or a 6-year-old asking for me to spell something for her (which I’m totally fine with, don’t get me wrong).

Anyhow, I decided to try this one as an audiobook because I have three books to read before I review book four for a blog tour in August. They are short, serial-type books, written to be almost like TV episodes so I should be able to get through them before then, but I thought having an audiobook might help me get through them faster. Now I’m not so sure.

David James Warren, by the way, is three people. David Warren, Susan May Warren, and James L. Rubart. Two of them write Christian fiction, but this series is a time-travel series with almost no spiritual or Christian arc in them at all, so if you are not a fan of Christian Fiction, you will still like this series. It’s listed under thriller and time-travel thriller on Amazon.

Little Miss and I are still reading The Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder at night. The Boy is not reading this summer and the husband is reading Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss.

What I’m Watching

This weekend we watched some old NBC shows, The Equalizer and Kolchak. I also watched a British sitcom called To The Manor Born and I’m also continuing Jonathan Creek, a British mystery/crime show.

 Blog posts I enjoyed this week

 I’m stealing this addition to my Sunday Bookends from Michele at Blessings by Me. I love the idea of featuring some of my favorite blog posts once a week. Here are three I enjoyed this past week.

I loved this post from indie author Scott Austin Tirrell about the difficulty in hiring professional editors. It hit the nail on the head and I did reblog it yesterday.

I also really enjoyed this post by author Becky Wade about God not always telling us the how of life, but only asks us to obey.

This post on Inspy Romance by author Angela Ruth Strong about a motorcycle trip and the idea for a really crazy Christian Fiction book had me cracking up and shaking my head.

What I’m Writing

I am still editing and putting last-minute touches on Harvesting Hope while my mom and husband and others read it and help me proof it.

I’ve also started books three and four of the series. I haven’t decided which story will be book three and which will be book four. A friend would like me to hurry up and tell her what happens with Liz and Ben’s lives, but I am really itching to write the story of my middle-aged librarian, Ginny Jefferies, which I started over a year ago. Do any of my regular Friday and Saturday Fiction readers have a preference? Let me know in the comments.

I shared a blog post last week on Hope, Hearts, and Heroes (an excerpt of Fully Alive that most on my blog have already read) and also shared a Randomly Thinking post on Thursday.

What I’m Listening To

As I mentioned above, I am listening to the first book in the Rembrandt Stone series on Audible. Other than that, I have not had much time to listen to anything else.

So that’s my week in review. What have you been reading, watching, listening to, or doing lately? Let me know in the comments.

A thought on professional editing…

Here is a post full of truths about indie authors that I wish some understood and would extend a little more grace about ….

Why the picture of cookies and what do they have to do with editing? Bear with me. We’ll get to that in a moment. I wish I could say that the story …

A thought on professional editing…

Saturday Fiction: Harvesting Hope Chapter 22

Just a note to regular readers: I will be putting this book up on Kindle on August 12. I’ve lowered the preorder price to $.99 so my blog readers can get it cheap and then once the book goes on sale I’ll be raising the price. I can also send a mobi or ePub version to you through Bookfunnel for free so if you are interested please let me know and either leave me your email here in the comments or send one to me at lisahoweler@gmail.com so I can send it along August 12.

Bookfunnel will have you upload the book yourself to your reading app so if you prefer not to do that, you can do the option on Amazon. If you want a paperback, please order through me and I will mail you one. It will be cheaper than what Amazon charges for books (I only make about a $4 profit from what they charge).

If you are a new reader here, I share a chapter from my WIP each Friday, and sometimes Saturday, on my blog. There are typos, grammatical issues and even plot holes at times because this is a first, second, or third draft that hasn’t gone to my editor (eh, husband) yet. If you see a typo, feel free to kindly let me know in the comments. Sometimes the error has already been fixed on my copy, sometimes not.

Catch up with the rest of the story HERE. Don’t feel like reading the book in a series of chapters each Friday? Preorder the book HERE. Do you want to read the first book in the series? Download it HERE. 

Chapter 22


What was he even doing here? His head was pounding from a persistent headache that hadn’t let up since yesterday. The loud music coming from the band up front wasn’t helping. And he wanted to be back at home, talking to Ellie, telling her how sorry he was for how he’d acted in Pastor Joe’s office. No, he didn’t want to be talking to her on a phone. He wanted to be at her apartment, talking to her face-to-face. She was most likely dealing with a drunk Judi, though. She didn’t need even more to deal with.

Jason rubbed a knot at the back of his neck and grimaced, hoping to massage the tension away.

He knew the guys from the department wanted him to unwind but the bitter smell of alcohol, the cloud of cigarette smoke and the mass of people bumping against each other on the dance floor was only adding to his tension.

He stepped up to the bar to refill his glass of ginger ale. His friends from the fire department and Alex were sitting at a table across the bar, laughing and cutting jokes. He was glad that Alex had asked for a refill on his soda as well. Bars and Alex weren’t the best of friends and Jason hadn’t wanted to watch his friend slide backward into his old life. So far, that wasn’t happening thankfully.         

“’Nother ginger?” the bartender asked, taking his glass.

Jason nodded. “It’s hitting the spot tonight.”

The man slid the glass to him, grinning. “Fine by me. One less drunk person I have to deal with tonight. Enjoy.”

Jason decided a break from the conversations would also hit the spot. The guys meant well but he wasn’t ready to walk back into life again, act like everything was fine and John Weatherly wasn’t dead and Ann a widow because of his failure. He sat on a stool and leaned his arm on the bar, scanning the room, seeing who he recognized and who he didn’t.

He’d gone to high school with the new owners of the establishment, but didn’t know either one of the couple, Jake and Mallory Leonard, well. Back in one corner was the captain of his high school football team, chatting up a petite blond who was definitely not his wife. On the dance floor was Jimmy Hurley, owner of the local supermarket, his arms around his wife Nancy, her head leaning against his shoulder.

At a table near the door Lanny Jenkins was nursing a beer while Jessie Landry chattered away and touched his arm for the thousandth time, obviously desperate for attention. Jessie reminded him a lot of Lauren, both of them in and out of relationships, seeming to base their worth on if a man paid attention to them or not. Jessie had been in the middle of an almost-situation with Alex last year. Thank God Alex had walked away before it got out of hand. It had been the incident that had woken him up to how far he’d fallen. Not long after, he was confessing his feelings to Molly and Jason was agreeing to help him straighten his life out for his own sake and Molly’s.

Still wrapped up in his thoughts, he moved his gaze around the room, away from Jessie to the woman next to him. His heart rate increased.

No way.

What was she doing here? This wasn’t the kind of place he’d ever expected to see her.

A slender finger pushed a strand of dark hair behind a delicate ear as the woman stepped back between two bar stools four down from him. She hugged her arms around her middle like she was trying to protect herself from the rest of the world, or the rest of the room at least. Her eyes scanned the dance floor, looking for someone. She hadn’t noticed him yet and he took the time to study her, or, more accurately, enjoy the view of her.

Small, pert nose, perfectly shaped chin, full lips begging to be kissed. He’d kissed them so many times before he’d memorized the taste of them, and it was a taste he ached to experience again.

As if she felt him looking at her, she turned her head, caught his gaze. Surprise registered in Ellie’s eyes, quickly replaced by an emotion he couldn’t pin down. Was she upset at the sight of him? Happy? Or simply indifferent?

He pushed himself off the bar and moved toward her, stopping at the stool next to her and sitting before leaning back against the bar again. “You don’t usually come to places like this. How did you even —”

The previous stoicism she’d held morphed into annoyance, eyes tilting briefly toward the ceiling then back to him. “Judi.”

The name of her sister slipped out with a sad sigh.

“Ah.”

She rolled her eyes. “And Brad.”

Brad. Again. Great.

Had Brad invited Ellie, or had he invited Judi and Ellie had tagged along? Like before.

What was Brad’s game anyhow? To see if he could bed both Lambert girls?

Jason followed the path of her gaze to the other side of the bar, to Brad talking to Judi, his hand against Judi’s thigh. “Oh.”

She sighed. “Judi is furious at me, but she was drunk when she came back to the apartment to change, and I didn’t trust her when she said Brad hadn’t been drinking. Turns out he actually hadn’t but, after my last experience with him, I wasn’t taking any chances on what would happen by the end of the night. I’m their designated driver, I guess you would say.”

Her last experience with him? What did that mean? Should he ask?

He chuckled softly to drown out the worried thoughts racing through his mind. “That makes sense.” He tapped his fingers on the top of the bar and thought about how he should have stopped her that night after Franny’s party, told her not to go anywhere with Brad.

“The guys talked me into coming.” He cleared his throat. “Said I needed to unwind a little and get my mind off things.” He shook his head and sipped the ginger ale. “When have you ever known me to unwind?”

She tipped her chin up and smiled. “Plenty of times.” It looked like she was trying not to smile but couldn’t help it. “Plenty of times.”

He looked at her, a knowing smile turning his mouth upward. “Times you were part of, of course.”

Warmth flushed across his cheeks, and she bowed her head, her own cheeks flushing pink. She shifted herself onto the stool and crossed one leg over the other, resting her hands on top of her knee, watching the band while he watched her.

“Can I buy you a drink?”

She shook her head. “I’m fine.”

“You can get sodas here.”

“Thank you, but I’m good. Really.”

The band changed songs and her eyebrows raised at the same time his did. They looked at each other and he spoke first. “Mickey Gilley? Really? Who even knows his music anymore?”

She cocked an eyebrow questioningly. “Did you —”

“El, I didn’t even know you were here up until a few minutes ago.”

They listened to the song a few minutes, him leaning back on the bar, her sitting on the stool, before he heard her humming along and then softly singing the lyrics under her breath.

In seconds he was back eight years, standing in front of a pair of headlights in an empty wheat field, his hands on her waist, her hands on his shoulders. The only radio station that would come in on his truck was the oldies country station. This song had come on, and they’d stood to dance and sing along, though neither knew why since they’d never heard it before. They’d paused their swaying when he tilted her face toward his and kissed her softly. How was it possible it had been eight years ago, when it felt like it had only been yesterday?

His chest constricted at the memory, at the emotion stirring there now. He didn’t want to simply be standing near her, their arms a few inches from each other. He wanted her against him, his arms around her, holding her like he’d done so many times before. It was where she belonged. He knew it and he had a good feeling she did too.

He glanced at her, then looked away.

Get it together, Jason. The worst she can say is ‘no.’

He lifted his chin toward the dance floor. “We could — I mean — If you want to. For old times sake.”

His heart and breathing stopped while he waited for her answer. A small smile was playing at her mouth and his gaze traced the shape of it, drifted to the nape of her neck, then back to her eyes, which had focused on his. Her eyes had a way of changing shades with her mood, a phenomenon he’d admired many times before. In this moment, flecks of gold darted out from her light brown irises, and he wanted to bottle those flecks up and pull them out anytime he was down.

 She nodded and slid off the stool. He exhaled slowly and his heart came to life again. He took her hand and led her to the dance floor, among the other dancers swaying close together.

His arms slid around her easily. When her hands slid up to his shoulders his muscles relaxed and he was at ease for the first time in months, other than a few butterflies fluttering in the center of his chest. She pressed his cheek against his shoulder and curved an arm around his side and up his back.

This was as it should be. Her, here in his arms, right where she belonged. He hoped her willingness, maybe even eagerness, to be so close to him was a sign she felt the same way.

Swaying to the music he closed his eyes, thinking only of the feel of her against him, the smell of her shampoo, the softness of her hair against his cheek, the way the curve of her body fit perfectly to his.

His voice was almost a whisper as he tipped his head, spoke into her hair. “The irony is not lost on me that the name of this song is Talk to Me.”

She laughed softly, her breath rumbling against his chest. He felt her lift her head and opened his eyes.  His heart lurched up into his throat, forming a lump he couldn’t seem to swallow away. She was looking at him the way he remembered her looking at him so many times before, the way he’d wanted her to look at him for the past eight months.

Her lips parted and her gaze drifted to his mouth then back up to his eyes. Was she sending him silent signals? Did she want him to kiss her as much as he wanted to kiss her? He was hoping the answer was yes because he was taking the chance.

He cupped his hand behind her head, intertwined his fingers in her hair and she closed her eyes. He traced her lips with the palm of his thumb and took a deep breath.

They’d kiss thousands of times before. Why did this feel like the first time all over again?

As he lowered his head toward hers, he felt a sharp thump on his shoulder.

What now?

The quick thump turned into a tight grip on his shoulder, near his neck.

“Hey, buddy, you stealin’ my date?” Brad’s laughter grated like the jake brakes of an 18-wheeler. He clutched Jason’s shoulder in one hand, a beer bottle in the other. The smell wafting from him signaled he’d drank more than that one beer.

He shook Brad’s hand loose. “I don’t recall her saying she was here with anyone. I seem to remember her saying you were here with Judi.”

Brad’s laughter faded and his smile switched to a tight-lipped grimace. “You know what, Jason. You had your chance. You screwed it up.” He shoved his way between Jason and Ellie, breaking their hold on each other. “So why don’t you just move over and let a real man step in.”

In seconds Jason had the front of his cousin’s shirt clutched in his fists and his body shoved up against the bar. “Don’t you ever touch her again.”

The edge of the counter dug into Brad’s back, and he winced, but the smirk never left his face.

He laughed again, wrapped his hands around Jason’s and tried to pry them off his shirt. “Touchy. Touchy. Calm down, cuz, I’m just messin’ with you.”

Judi stepped next to the bar and clapped her hands together. “Is there going to be a real bar fight? Cool! I’ve always wanted to see one!”

Jason glanced at Ellie’s sister and decided she’d had more than a couple beers as well. The band was in between songs and an odd hush had settled over the bar as people turned to watch the drama.

“Everything okay over there or are we going to need some good ole bar fightin’ music?” The band’s lead singer called out the question with more than a twinge of amusement in his tone.

Jason shook his head, keeping his eyes locked on Brad’s. “Nah. We’re good.” He glared at Brad, not letting him go. “Right, Brad? We’re good.”

Laughter skittered across the bar from the onlookers, many of them returning to their drinks and conversations.

Jason was relieved when the band began another song. He figured enough people knew about his private life these days. He didn’t need to add more to that list.

Ellie reached out quickly, grasping her sister’s wrist. “Let’s go, Judi. Time to go home.”

Judi wrenched herself free. “Shut it, Ellie. I’m a big girl. I don’t need big sis to take care of me.”

Anger flashed in Ellie’s eyes, something Jason was glad to see directed at someone other than himself.

“You’re making an idiot out yourself,” she hissed at Judi. “It’s time to go.”

Jason let Brad’s shirt go and grabbed him by the upper arm instead, his hand wrapping around Brad’s bicep. “Both of them need to sleep this off. I’ll take Brad? You take Judi?”

Ellie didn’t look exactly thrilled with the idea of taking her sister home, but she nodded. “That sounds like a good plan.”

Judi looped her arm in Brad’s. He was sitting on a stool now, leaning back, scowling. “I will take Bradley home,” Judi slurred. “I came with him. He’s my resp—responsible — teee.”

Jason had felt Ellie’s rage before, and he could feel it coming off her now.

“I drove you here, Judi.” Her words clipped out hard and fast. “How do you think you’re going to get him home?”

Judi tightened her grip on Brad’s arm and pushed her lower lip out. “I’m not going anywhere without Brad.”

Ellie tipped her head back and growled in frustration. “Fine. I’ll take both of you home then.”

Brad slid an arm around Judi’s shoulder and pulled her against him. “You can drop her off with me, I don’t mind.”

Jason tightened his grip on Brad’s arm and dragged him off the stool, out of Judi’s grasp. “You’re going with me. Let’s go.”

In the parking lot Jason shoved Brad hard toward the passenger side door of his truck. “Get in, idiot.”

Brad climbed slowly, head first, struggled to turn around for several seconds, then finally slumped back against the seat.

Judi leaned her head out of the passenger side window of Ellie’s sedan. “Call me later, Braaaaad!”

Jason caught Ellie’s wrist before she slid behind the steering wheel. “Hey, talk later?”

While the brief kiss on his cheek from her wasn’t the kiss he’d been hoping for earlier, it sent his heart rate slamming against his ribcage at least ten beats faster than normal.

“Yeah, I’d like that.”

He hated watching her drive away; wanted to call out, tell her to stay and leave Brad and Judi to fend for themselves. They couldn’t do that, though. If one of them decided to drive themselves home and killed someone while driving drunk, neither he nor Ellie would ever forgive themselves. He slid behind the steering wheel and didn’t look at Brad. If he did, he might grab him by his shirt and slam his head off the dashboard.

“You know what, Jase?” Brad pointed a finger at Jason’s chest and pressed it there. “You’re boring.” It was obvious Brad hadn’t hit the level of alcohol he needed to be unconscious. Unfortunately.

 Jason thought about going back for another beer to top him off, so he’d shut up, but instead he smacked Brad’s hand away, shifted the truck into gear and pulled out of the parking lot. Brad propped a boot-clad foot on the dashboard and snorted a laugh. “It’s sad that Ellie still loves you so much. I couldn’t ge-ge-get anywhere with her. Tried to get her to go to lunch with me and all she wanted was for me – for me –  to drive her to a Bible study.” He scoffed. “Maybe that’s why you broke up with her. She doesn’t give it up easy, right?” He smacked the back of his hand against Jason’s bicep and laughed derisively. “Not like her sister. I bet Judi would give it up in a second flat. That girl is ripe for the picking.”

Jason bit the inside of his cheek, tasted blood. He desperately wanted to yank the truck to the side of the road, drag Brad out and pummel him until his face was a bloody mess. More than beating the living daylights out of his cousin, though, he wanted to throw him out the door in front of his parent’s house, drive off and call Ellie. Let Walt and Marsha deal with their wayward son. He wanted to hear her voice again, remind himself of the look she’d give him that one that said she’d wanted him to kiss her; the one that said she still loved him.

Forget the call. He wanted to drive back to town, run up the stairs to her apartment and kiss her until both of them were gasping for breath. He wouldn’t, though. She’d have enough to deal with trying to wrangle Judi. The kiss would have to wait, but only until morning. After that, all bets were off, siblings and cousins or not. He would kiss her until she was weak in the knees, and he had to hold her against him to keep her from falling to the floor.

The sound of vomit hitting his truck floor pulled him from the daydream and his jaw tightened. If he got Brad home without killing him, it would be a miracle.

***

Judi slumped heavily against Ellie’s side, barely able to walk on her own, no longer giggling, but instead mumbling something Ellie couldn’t decipher.

Pulling her from the car had been an ordeal in itself. Dragging her up the stairs to the apartment had been even more of a challenge. Once inside the door Ellie shoved her hip into Judi’s and leveraged her toward the couch. Judi flopped onto her back, her eyes closed, her feet still on the floor. Ellie pulled off her shoes and flipped her legs up onto the couch. Stepping into the guest room she snatched the blanket off the bed and returned to the living room, covering a clearly unconscious Judi.

Her foot bumped against Judi’s hot pink purse as she stepped back, tipping it over and sending the contents skittering across the floor.

Lipstick, a brush, a makeup, case, a set of keys, a piece of paper with a number scrawled on it, and a cellphone. Ellie snatched each item off the floor and shoved them back in the purse.

Her finger bumped the screen of the phone as she slid it in the purse and a message popped up on the lock screen. Without thinking, Ellie read it.

Jeff: Are you serious, Judi? Go ahead and tell anyone you like what happened that night because no one is ever going to believe you. They’ll know you were asking for it. That’s who you are and who you will always be. A first-class slut.

A cold chill shot through Ellie as she straightened, holding the phone. Her hands trembled. Slut?

What had Judi been asking for? Who was Jeff? Wait. That was the name of the guy on that social media account. The one with his hand on Judi’s thigh and with the photo description that had made her blood run cold.

My God. What did he do to my sister?

Tears stung her eyes as she looked at Judi. The trembling spread from her hands to the rest of her body and tears gathered on her cheek and chin and dripped off. She wiped her hand across them and tried to hold in a sob, though she didn’t need to. Judi was so intoxicated she probably wouldn’t wake up for hours. Ellie sat on the metal chair next to the bed and cried for several minutes, holding the phone against her chest, praying it wasn’t true.

Please, God. Please don’t let him have hurt my sister the way I think he did.

She tipped the phone back, stared at it, considered calling this Jeff guy and giving him an earful, threatening him, but she couldn’t. Not until she talked to Judi and found out the truth. She couldn’t risk violating her sister’s privacy the way this man may have violated her in other ways.

A knock on the apartment door brought Ellie out of her thoughts. She shoved the phone back in Judi’s purse, turned out the light, and gently closed the door behind her. She needed to talk to someone about what she’d read, and she knew who that someone needed to be. She hoped to God he was the one standing on the other side of the door.

The smell when she opened the door burned her throat, made her eyes water.

“Heeeeey, sexxxxxxy, lady.”

She gagged.

“Brad.” She waved her hand and pinched her nose with her finger and thumb. “Go home. You reek.”

He swayed in the doorway like a tree branch in the wind. “But I want to see, Judi.”

Ellie leaned against the doorframe, arms folded across her chest. “Did you drive yourself here? I thought Jason dropped you off.”

He laughed. “You think I’m drunk.” He swayed backward then straightened himself. I’m not drunk, El. I’m just —” He tossed his arms out to the side — “happy.”

Taking the old adage to heart and literally biting her tongue was the only way she kept from screaming. She was glad she’d never acquired a taste for alcohol. The beverage was transforming her night into a complete disaster.

“Well, Judi’s dead to the world so you need to go home.”

Brad sighed and the stench of alcohol and vomit made Ellie gag again. “Ah man. Okay, then. Ho-ho-hommmmme it is then.”

She wanted him to leave, but the idea of him on the road in the condition he was in terrified her. How many people would he kill on the way back to the Tanner’s farm?

She held out her hand, palm up. “Give me your keys. I’ll drive you home.”

“Nah.” Brad turned and staggered down the first step. “I — I got it.”

Ellie tipped her head back and groaned softly. “You can’t drive, Brad. You’re going to kill someone. Give me the keys. Now.”

He dropped the keys in her palm and she grabbed her phone on the table next to the door. By the time she closed and locked the door behind her, he was sitting on the top step with his elbow on his knee, his chin in his hand and the wall supporting his weight. His eyes had drifted closed.

She hooked a hand under his arm and pulled upward. “Come on, let’s go.”

It had taken a great deal of self-control to not say, “Come on, idiot.” It was an applicable term for him right now.

Ten minutes down the road with a grinning, semi-conscious Brad next to her she regretted not telling him to sleep it off on her couch instead.

“How come you Lambert girls are so pretty?”

She rolled her eyes.

He lurched toward her side of the seat. “And so nice. Both of you so nice.” He patted her shoulder gently. “You didn’t have to do this, Ellie. It’s late. I shouldn’t have come to see Judi.” He hiccupped and followed it with a burp. “She just seems so sad, you know.”

Even though she could still hear Judi screaming at her earlier in the night, she knew he was right. There was definite sadness underneath Judi’s anger. And that sadness might have something to do with this Jeff guy, whoever he was.

Brad reached toward the steering wheel. “Let me drive, El. You shouldn’t be driving. You’re too nice to a drunk a drive idiot like me.” He paused, frowned, then grinned. “I mean you’re too drunk to drive an idiot like me. No. Wait. I’m drunk. You’re driving and nice.”

Ellie slapped his hand away. “Brad. Stop it. Just sit back and rest. We’ll be at your parents soon.”

And I’m going to kick that door open and roll you out into their front yard. God bless Walt and Marsha. They’d have their hands full tonight.

“No, no. I can’t let you do this.” Brad reached for the steering wheel again. “Move over. I’ll move over there, and I can drive you back home.”

Ellie pushed her arm against his chest. “Brad! Knock it off!”

Brad’s hand curled around the steering wheel. He started to fall back but he kept his hand tight on the wheel. The car jerked to one side and off the road then back again.

“Brad! Stop!”

Ellie slammed her elbow down hard onto his wrist and knocked his hand loose.

It was too late.

The car left the road and careened into the darkness.

The deafening cacophony of shattering glass and crunching metal was the last thing she heard before the darkness consumed her.

Fiction Friday: Harvesting Hope Chapter 21

If you are a new reader here, I share a chapter from my WIP each Friday, and sometimes Saturday, on my blog. There are typos, grammatical issues and even plot holes at times because this is a first, second, or third draft that hasn’t gone to my editor (eh, husband) yet. If you see a typo, feel free to kindly let me know in the comments. Sometimes the error has already been fixed on my copy, sometimes not.

Catch up with the rest of the story HERE. Don’t feel like reading the book in a series of chapters each Friday? Preorder the book HERE. Do you want to read the first book in the series? Download it HERE. 

Chapter 21



Jason closed his eyes and immediately opened them again. He stared into the darkness of his bedroom until colors swirled in front of him. Sleep was not coming. It had barely come in four days. Every time he closed his eyes, he heard the cries of Anne Weatherly asking for her husband, saw the flames devour their cozy home with John inside.

He draped his bare arm over his eyes, wished sleep would come.

How could he not have known John was inside? How could he not have understood what Ann was trying to tell him?

“John.”

Her voice had been so weak, and Jason had assumed she was calling for John, wanting him to come back from wherever he was to be with her during her time of fear. Instead, she’d been trying to tell Jason her husband was lying on the kitchen floor, unconscious or injured somehow.

Jason clenched his fist tight, gritted his teeth. He punched the surface of the mattress next to him.

He’d wanted to go back into the building, but it was too late. Flames had shot up through the structure, consuming it within seconds.

“You did all you could, Jason.” Cody’s words echoed in his mind, but he didn’t believe them.

He could have done more. He could have found John before the state police fire marshal did, or what was left of him under the ash and charred remains of the house.

God, why did you let this happen? They were good people. They didn’t deserve this.

After another hour without sleep, he tossed the sheets aside and walked downstairs, pouring himself a glass of milk, and turning on the TV.

What a week.

What a soul-sucking, demoralizing, atrocious week.

If he wasn’t hearing the panicked voice in his mind, he was hearing Ellie ask him in hurt voice how he could have told their pastor about their “personal failings.” She hadn’t used those words, but he knew what she meant. He had betrayed their privacy. Her privacy. He certainly didn’t feel good about that.

He guzzled more of the milk and scoffed.

“Personal failings.” He said the words mockingly.

That’s what he apparently had to refer to his desire for Ellie as. He was a failure for wanting to sleep with Ellie. He pressed his hand against his forehead.

He knew that’s not what he was a failure for. He wasn’t a failure for desiring Ellie or for letting his hands slide where they shouldn’t have more than once. He’d asked God to forgive him for anything he shouldn’t have done with Ellie.

What he was a failure for was not telling Ellie about Lauren, for apologizing but then demanding that she forgive him. He’d never really asked her how she really felt about it all. Mainly because he was selfish. Instead of coming along beside her and walking through the pain with her, he’d wanted to avoid having to hear again and again how he had hurt her, so he hadn’t pushed her to tell him how she really felt. Not until they were sitting in front of their pastor. The shame of that conversation weighed heavy on his heart, adding to the shame and guilt already there.

He set the empty glass on the coffee table, closed his eyes, and pressed his fingertips against his temples, massaging them. If only massaging would take the pain away, the pain in his head and his heart.

He’d told Ellie more than once in the last seven and a half months that he wasn’t going to apologize for his mistake for the rest of his life.

 He’d lied.

He would apologize for the rest of his life if it meant he could spend that life taking care of her like he’d wanted to since they were 18.

He flipped channels for another hour, then got dressed and headed to the farm. He might as well start his day. It wasn’t like he was going to get anymore sleep and he had the goat barn to finish before his dad picked up the livestock the next week.

A light from the barn window glowed a soft orange, casting a square pattern of brightness onto the dark grass outside.

Who else was up at this hour? It was too early to start the milking.

Robert met Jason in the barn doorway, wiping his hands on a rag.

“Something wrong?” Jason asked.

Robert shook his head as he turned to walk into the barn. “Not anymore. Marshmallow was having a hard time calving. Big bull. Breach. I got him turned.”

Jason followed him, yawning. Robert stopped at the sink, turned the water on full blast and soaped his arms up to his elbows, red smearing with white and leaving a pink tinged coating. “I was getting ready to wash up when I heard your truck. Stepped out to see who else was up this early.”

Jason rubbed at his dry eyes. “Just your crazy son.”

Robert laughed, drying off his arms and hands. “Crazy? Nah. A man with a propensity to work too hard. Yes.”

Jason laughed and shook his head, reaching for the tractor key by the door. “You have no room to talk, old man, and you know it. You work from sunup, or in most cases before the sun is up, to sundown or longer. You don’t even know the meaning of slowing down.” He tapped his dad’s arm with the back of his hand. “Not even a tractor landing on you was enough to slow you down.”

Robert rolled his shirtsleeves down, buttoning them at the wrist. “If only that was true. I tell you, kid, I’ve never felt as old as I have these last seven months. I’m only just feeling like my old self again.”

It was too early to feed the cows, but he could begin preparing the calf feed. Molly would be there in a couple of hours to feed them.

“I’m seeing that old spark returning, I can tell you that. Why don’t you head in and catch a couple more hours of rest, though? Alex and Molly will be here soon, and we can handle the morning chores.”

Robert dumped the dirty water bucket outside the barn door. “I might just take you up on that. But actually, I’m glad to catch you alone for once.” He leaned his side against the supporting beam next to the entrance of the milking parlor and folded his arms across his chest. “How are you doing, Jason?”

Jason shrugged a shoulder as he turned to look for the scraper. He could scrap the center aisle clean before the cows were led out of their stalls. “Fine.”

“You know that in women speak fine means not fine and I have a feeling it means the same thing in Jason speak.”

“You calling me a woman, Dad?”

A smile tugged at Robert’s mouth. “Very funny. No. I’m calling you a liar.”

“Ouch. I think I’d rather be called a woman.” Jason made a face. “Actually, this conversation is starting to sound very sexist. Sorry about that.”

He moved to the watering trough, dumped it onto the barn floor, and pressed the button to refill it. “This purchase was a good one.” Refilling the trough automatically was a lot more efficient than doing it manually.

“Don’t change the subject, kid. How are you?”

Jason rested his hands on his waist as he waited for the trough to refill, watching the water swirl from the spout and rise. He chewed on the edge of his lip and tried to decide how to answer.

“I’m struggling,” he said finally. “Between Ellie, the fire, trying to build the goat barn, hiring an architect for the new milking parlor, and keep this place running — it’s been hard.” He shrugged a shoulder. “I’ll get through it, though. Eventually.”

Robert crossed one leg over the other, propping the toe of his boot against the floor. “You don’t have to get through it alone, you know. Your family is here for you. Me and your mom. Molly and Alex. Even your aunts and uncles and cousins. More importantly though, God is for you.”

He thought to himself how he wasn’t so sure about at least one of his cousins being there for him. He thought about Brad’s car parked outside Ellie’s apartment the other day. I think he’d rather be there for my ex.

He pressed the button to turn the water off. “For me and not against me. Yeah. I know that verse, but it’s hard to see it right now.”

“There are seasons like that, certainly, but eventually, we see the places where God was still with us, even when we thought he wasn’t.” He tipped his head, trying to catch Jason’s eye. “You aren’t to blame for John’s death. You know that, right?”

Jason looked away from his dad, turning toward the back of the barn, staring at the stalls in silence. Emotion caught in his throat when he tried to speak.

“You’re not,” Robert said. “His death was an accident. There was no way you could have known he was in there.”

Jason nodded, but didn’t turn around. “Okay,” was all he could manage.

“Ann’s doing well. She’s been staying with her sister over in Brockwood. I ran into Mary at the store the other day and she said she might move into Twin Oaks.”

Jason’s chest tightened at the mention of Ann. How much did she blame him for the loss of her husband? How angry was she that he wouldn’t listen to her when she tried to tell him where John was? Twin Oaks was a retirement community featuring a collection of condominiums.

“That will be a big change for her.”

“It will be, but she’ll be with friends who can comfort her, including your grandparents.”

Jason nodded. His maternal grandparents had moved into Twin Oaks seven years ago, leaving their house to Annie. Jason had moved into the house shortly after they moved. Alex had come to live with him a year later.

“Jason.” His dad’s hand on his shoulder was firm. “Don’t hold all of this inside. If you can’t talk to me, talk to Alex or Pastor Joe. Someone. I’ve been there. A few times. You know that and holding it in did nothing but make me angry and bitter. I don’t know the specifics of what happened with you and Ellie, but I know you have a lot of guilt about whatever it is and ­­—”

“I slept with a girl in college after Ellie and I broke up.”

Robert slid his hands in his front pockets and tipped his face toward the barn floor. “I see.”

Jason faced his dad and pulled his hand against the back of his neck. “It was a dark time for me. I was lonely, questioning a lot of things. . .” He shook his head and slid a hand across his face, wishing he hadn’t even started telling his dad about his past. “There was a girl who came on strong, invited me to a couple of parties, I was drunk one night, and I messed up. I regretted it immediately. I never did anything like it again.”

Robert let out a long breath. “And Ellie overheard you talking to Alex about it.”

“Yeah. She overheard us talking about it one afternoon. A few days after she thought I’d proposed to her.”

“She thought you proposed to her?”

Jason laughed softly, rubbing the side of his index finger under his bottom lip, against the stubble there. “Long story, but I was getting ready to tell her about the other thing, she thought I was going to propose, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her I hadn’t been planning on proposing. Not that night anyhow. I needed to talk to her first.”

“Oh. I see. That’s why we didn’t know about the proposal.”

“We were going to tell everyone around the time of the firemen’s banquet but then she found out, your accident happened, and I didn’t know if we were still engaged or not.” Jason scratched at the back of his head. “And obviously, we weren’t and aren’t.”

Robert’s eyebrows dipped, and Jason braced himself for more questions. He didn’t want to answer more questions. This conversation was awkward enough. “So, this situation in college happened once and not while you two were dating?”

Jason shook his head again. “No, but Ellie worries that since I didn’t tell her about this, maybe there are other things I didn’t tell her.”

“Are there?”

“Other than the fact I like Mom’s apple pie better than hers, no.”

Robert laughed. “Your mom’s pie is hard to beat.” He shifted and looped his thumbs in his belt loops. “Kid, you know your mistake doesn’t define you, right? Or your relationship with Ellie. From what I’ve seen of you, all these years since, it already hasn’t defined you. You’re a good man who took a wrong turn. You made a terrible decision. Good works isn’t how you dig yourself out of the shame, though. Only God can do that.”

A smile tugged at the corner of Jason’s mouth. “I know, Dad. I do. I just have to keep reminding myself of everything you and Mom have taught me about God and everything I’ve learned in church. Sometimes it’s hard to apply to real life. But while I’m reminding myself, you should probably listen to your own lessons. The accident and your injury doesn’t define you either.”

Robert shook his head and whistled, sliding his hands in his front pant pockets. “Ouch. It’s been that obvious, huh?”

“That you blame yourself for riding out there that day when the hill was wet from the rain? That you think you should be healing faster? That you feel like you aren’t helping enough because your leg has slowed you down some? That you work and work and work to try to prove you’re still the man mom married? Yeah. It’s pretty obvious.”

Robert winced, pinching his nose between his index finger and thumb as he closed his eyes. “Wow. I didn’t know I was that transparent.”

He stepped away from the beam and turned his back for a few moments, breathing deep. When he turned, he walked to Jason, reached up and placed his hand behind Jason’s head, his eyes glistening.

“Beyond my wildest dreams. That’s what you are. A son comforting his father with the reminder of God’s truth.” He pulled Jason against him and hugged him tight. “I am blessed.”

Jason hugged his dad for a few seconds, then pulled back and let out a deep breath. “Enough of that, old man. You’ll have us both crying like a bunch of women.”

Robert slapped him on the back. “That might not be a bad thing considering what a gift women are to us. We could learn a thing or two from them.”

Jason turned to walk back toward the feed room. “Yes, we could. We definitely could.”

Like how to listen to them and not only in words.

Every time Ellie told him how his decision in college made her feel, he’d apologized, but then he’d also mentally dismissed what she’d said. He’d wanted nothing more than to avoid feeling the guilt and the shame. He’d excused it away time after time by saying it was a mistake, that he’d made a mistake and he knew it.

It was true.

What happened with Lauren was a mistake, but it was also a decision, albeit a drunken one. There was part of him that had never really accepted his own part in that night. He had blamed Lauren, Ellie, and alcohol instead of accepting that it was wrong thinking that had led him down that path. He’d felt God had abandoned him in college right along with Ellie, but he’d been wrong. God had never abandoned him and never would, even if Ellie never wanted anything to do with him again.

***

Ellie looked at her phone, picked it up, stared at it, and laid it back on the counter, face down.

She should call him. She knew she should. She had called Molly and asked about Jason, but hadn’t worked up the courage to call him yet. Not after what she’d seen in the hallway at the hospital.

It wasn’t like it was a full-on make-out session, so why was she worried? Maybe because if he’d fallen into the arms of another woman, she’d understand why.

What would she even say if she called him?

“Hey, there, Jase, I know we just had a screaming match a few days ago and you’re grieving but — how are you?”

No. She couldn’t call.

Maybe a text.

A text was so impersonal. But they were broken up, so how personal should she be?

Still, they’d known each other most of their lives and he’d been her best friend for the past 12 years.

She huffed a breath out, blowing her hair out of her eyes.

She hadn’t even bothered to brush it tonight. Wearing a pair of Judi’s sweatpants and an old sweatshirt from her college, she didn’t feel like herself, but after she’d left the hospital that day she hadn’t been able to focus on anything and had completely forgot to do her laundry.

Her only bright spot had been Timmy Murray. He’d kept her laughing when she wanted to cry.

“Miss Ellie, my brother says if I pick my nose, I’ll hit my brain. Is that true?”

“No, hon’. You will not hit your brain. However, you might make it sore in there so you might want to back off for a while. Maybe you can try blowing your nose.”

“I did once but Billy said the stuff in the tissue was brain.”

“Oh gosh. Well, no, Billy’s just trying to scare you. It’s mucous, not brain.”

Ellie shook her head at the memory of the conversation. She had a feeling his parents must have a lot of moments when they had to stifle their laughs around him. If she ever could have children, she hoped they were as entertaining as Timmy.

She snatched up the phone and typed out a message, erased it, typed it again.

Hey, I heard about the fire. I just wanted to let you know I’m praying for you.

There. She did it. Now he wouldn’t feel like he had to talk to her or even respond to her.

Painless.

She pulled a pot out from under the stove and filled it with water. Time for a pasta night. Something simple, with little fuss and little muss.

Muss. What did that even mean? Why did people say that when the word was mess?

She shook her head and waited for the water to boil, glancing at her phone. No reply.

Muss. Muss. Now it was bothering her. She picked up the phone and conducted an internet search.

“Muss. A game in which players scramble for small objects thrown at the ground.”

Huh? She scanned further down the page.

“Muss. A state of disorder.”

Ah, yes. That sounded exactly like her life right now. Definitely a muss.

A half an hour later she was sitting on the couch, pasta in a bowl, watching an old movie, trying not to look at her phone. Maybe he didn’t care if she cared. Maybe this other woman was filling the void she’d left.

Speaking of not caring, she was trying not to care where Judi was — again. Out at another friend’s house, most likely. Or maybe a new friend. Maybe someone like that man on her social media account.

Had Judi really done all those things with him he’d listed in the caption?

A sick feeling settled in Ellie’s stomach, and she slid the bowl onto the coffee table. The idea of that man treating Judi like she was simply someone to bed for a night and move on from made her heart ache. It also chased away her appetite.

The ding of the phone startled her. She reached for it but laid her hand on it instead of picking it up, afraid to turn it over. What if he was yelling at her again?

Maybe his response would be something along the lines of, “Why are you even bothering to check on me? I know you don’t care.”

He probably thought she didn’t care about him. She certainly hadn’t acted like she did for half a year.

Slowly, she lifted it and swiped it open.

Jason: Hey, sorry for not answering right way. Contractor messed up the foundation on the goat enclosure. Trying to figure out how to fix it. Had dad on the other line. The feed mixer also broke down again. Had to call Walt because he’s the expert there.

She let out a breath, took a sip of water, and typed a response, mentally chiding herself for feeling nervous. This was the man she’d planned to spend the rest of her life with at one point. Why did it feel like they were in high school again, with her wondering if he’d ever ask her out?

Ellie: The fun never stops for us farmers does it?

Jason: Us farmers? Thought you were a city girl now. J/k I know you’ll always be a farm girl at heart.

Ellie: You take the girl off the farm, but you can’t take the love of farming out of the girl.

She paused her movie, stared for a few moments at Ginger Rogers frozen in place, mid-dance step. That’s how she felt, holding this phone, trying to figure out how to communicate with the other half of her heart. The other half who had been so angry at her a few days ago, he’d walked away, leaving her alone and crying.

The man who hadn’t apologized to her, but who had been through something terrible and who she cared about.

Jason: Thanks for checking on me. I’m okay. Cody said you were looking for me.

Ellie: I was. I stopped at the hospital to check on you, but I must have missed you.

Jason: Yeah, it was just a couple of quick stitches. I was out of there pretty fast.

Should she be open with him? Even though there were times he hadn’t been open with her. Yes, she should be. Closing themselves off to each other hadn’t helped in the past and it wouldn’t now.

Ellie: Actually, I need to be honest. I didn’t miss you at the hospital. I saw you there with some woman and I didn’t know if I should interrupt.

She chewed a fingernail and propped her feet on the coffee table, then remembered how she hated scuff marks on the coffee table. She scrubbed at the marks while she waited.

Two minutes passed. Three. Now four.

He wasn’t answering.

She rubbed her hands across her face and took a deep breath, blowing it out as she fell back against the couch, clutching the phone against her chest. She practically dropped the phone when it dinged ten minutes later.

Jason: Sorry dropped my phone in a cow stall. Had to wipe it off. Then had to punch Alex for laughing at me. Anyhow . . . Some woman?

Ellie: Blonde.

Jason: Oh, Brittany.

She read the text out loud. “Oh, Brittany?”

Jason: Hold on. Can I call?

Ellie: Sure.

Oh, Brittany. What did that mean? She stared at his name on the caller ID when the phone rang and took a deep breath. Time to find out who “Oh Brittany” was. She tapped the accept button.

“Hey.” Hearing his voice on the other end made her stomach tighten — in a good way. There was her heart, trying to override her brain again. “I didn’t want any more misunderstandings and we both know how easily that can happen in a text. Brittany works on the ambulance. She’s, well, . . . she’s Brittany. Flirts a lot. She was on a transport when she heard about the fire. She stopped by to check on me and yeah, she’s a little too hands on at times if you know what I mean.

Was he telling the truth? She wanted to believe he was. She laughed before she answered, trying to relieve the tension. “Yeah. I do know what you mean. She’s probably a lot like Judi.”

Jason winced through the phone. “Maybe not that bad. How’s she doing anyhow?”

“Wouldn’t know. I rarely see her.”

“Denny said you don’t even know why she’s here?”

“No. No idea.”

She thought about the photos of Judi and the man. Maybe her extended visit had something to do with him.

A period of silence followed before Jason spoke again.

“El, about Sunday  . . . I’m —”

The banging of the front door against the apartment wall coaxed a muffled scream from Ellie, and she stood, bracing herself for an intruder.

“Eeeeellllllleeeeeee. I’m hooooooooome.”

Ellie pressed her hand to her forehead, fear fading quickly into frustration.

“Ellie, you okay?” Jason’s voice was full of alarm. “Is that Judi?”

“Yeah. Um. I’d better go deal with her. She and I need to talk.” She held her hand over the mouthpiece of the phone. “And I think she’s drunk.”

“Sounds like I better offer up a few prayers for you too.”

“More than a few at this point.”

Her smile disappeared once she slid the end call button. She stared at her sister’s disheveled hair, untucked shirt, and dirt smudged knee-high boots.

“Oh, Ellie, you look upset.” Judi pushed her lower lip out, slamming the door behind her. “Was your Bible study canceled? Was your favorite worship song pulled out of rotation on Family Life?”

Judi must have thought her joke was super funny because she doubled over, hands on her knees, and let out a manical laugh that sent chills up Ellie’s spine.

“Enough is enough, Judi. What is going on with you? What are you even doing back in Spencer? And what is with all this going out every night and drinking?”

In an instant Judi’s laughter disappeared and she glared, her face squished in disgust. She stumbled toward the kitchen. “You’re not my mother, Ellie.”

“No, I’’m not our mother. Our mother would be heartbroken to see you this way.”

Judi opened the carton of orange juice and took a swing. “Our mother wouldn’t care because all she’s ever cared about is you, Ellie.”

Ellie shook her head, confused. “That’s not true, Judi. When did you start believing these lies you’ve been telling yourself? Mom and Dad love you. They’ve been worried about you up in the city but they wanted you to be where you were happy.” Judi scoffed as Ellie stepped toward the kitchen. “Are you?” Ellie asked. “Happy? Because you’ve seemed pretty miserable since you’ve been here.”

Judi attempted another drink of juice, but it poured from the edges, down her chin.

“I’m having fun,” she snarled. “Something you should try sometime.”

Ellie stepped quickly toward the counter and wrenched the carton from Judi’s hands. “Stop it. You’re drunk and making a mess. Go sleep it off.”

“Go sleep it off. Go sleep it off. Blah. Blah. Blah.” Judi mocked her sister, holding her hands up and making them talk like a puppet. “Don’t you ever stop trying to boss people around? Is that what happened with Jason? You bossed him around too much?”

Ellie grabbed her sister under the arm, propelling her around the island and down the hallway. “That’s enough, Judi. It’s none of your business what happened with Jason. You need to go lay down.”

Judi wrenched away, knocking Ellie backward against the wall. “I don’t need to do anything you tell me! Miss Perfect. That’s what you are.” She pointed an accusatory finger in Ellie’s direction. “Perfect daughter, perfect girlfriend, perfect Bible girl, S-s-Sunday school student, w-wh-whatever you call it. Who cares? You know? Who cares about you and you’re-you’re perfect life, Elizabeth Miss Perfect Pants. That’s been my whole life. Always trying to be like my perfect older sister. I never could be because I wasn’t as smart as her, as pretty as her, and the only thing boys ever wanted me for was to sleep with and leave me. That’s all I was ever good for.”

Ellie’s chest tightened, her rate increased. How long had her sister felt this way? That she wasn’t enough? That she was inferior?

“Judi, I’m not perfect. You never had to try to measure up to me. Mom and Dad —”

“Mom and Dad always talked about how good you were. How sweet you were. How quiet and demure you were. D-d-mmuuure. Yes, even stupid Judi knows big words.”

Emotion clutched at Ellie’s throat. The anger she’d been battling for weeks fell away, replaced by sorrow. How had she not realized how much Judi was hurting?

She’d let her own problems overshadow everything else, distract her from seeing that Judi’s biting sarcasm and attempts to start fights with her were because she was feeling rejected, maybe even abandoned.

“Judi, I’m sorry you felt that way. I never knew. Why didn’t you —”

“What? Say something? Yeah, right. You would have said none of it was true and I was listening to lies from the devil. The Devil. You blame everything on him instead of taking some of the blame yourself.” She shook her head, waving her hand back and forth in the air. “No. No. I don’t want to talk about any of this right now.” She pushed past Ellie, almost tripping. “Don’t try to apologize. I’m not going to bother you anymore. I’m going out with Brad.”

“Judi, you’re drunk. You can’t drive. How did you even get here?”

“Brad drove me here. He’s waiting for me outside. He’s sober. Not that it’s any of your business. I came in to change my outfit.”

Judi staggered into the room she was staying in and slammed the door.

Ellie raked her hand through her hair and noticed it was trembling. What if Judi was lying about Brad? She’d seen him that night at the club and she’d driven them home then, too. There was a very good chance either he or Judi were lying about how much he’d already had to drink.

Judi swung the door open and breezed past her wearing a too-tight black mini-skirt and a low cut red tank top. Knee-high boots completed the outfit.

Ellie followed her into the living room. “I’ll drive you and Brad.”

Judi swung around and stuck her tongue out like a toddler. “No.” She spoke like a toddler too, grating on Ellie’s nerves. “We don’t want you. You’re a total downer and a prude.”

Ellie took another deep breath and tried to calm the anger boiling inside her. Judi was lost and hurting. She needed compassion, not scolding. For now, anyhow.

She did her best to speak calmly and confidently, even though she didn’t feel either of those attributes at the moment. “Judi, I’ll be the designated driver, okay?” She snatched her purse off the chair. “Where are you two going? I’m sure it will be fun. I could use a night out too.”

Judi folded her arms across her chest, cocking one leg to the side, her eyes narrowing, “Oh you could, could you? Well, we’re going The Rusty Nail in Brickwood. They’re having a grand reopening. New owners. There will be alcohol. And dancing. And men. All the things you don’t like.”

Ellie tightened her grip on her purse and brushed past Judi to grab her keys off the keyholder by the door. “Come on. I’ll talk to Brad about taking my car. I’m sure he’ll agree when he knows it means he can drink as much as he wants.”

Judi smirked. “Okay, then. Fine. You can be our chauffeur. I don’t have any problem with sitting in the back with Brad.”

Ellie tightened her jaw and forced the edges of her mouth upward as she opened the front door. She tried not to think about what the pair could get up to in the backseat during the 40-minute drive to The Rusty Nail.