Storms, she could handle.
This, however, was a tsunami.
As the nurse adjusted the drip on her mother’s IV, Karen Butler fought back a wave of panic and shifted in her chair to stare out the window. In the distance, a solitary oak tree reached toward the sky, its bare limbs devoid of life despite the lush growth of a Missouri spring all around it. A casualty of the harsh winter.
She could relate.
“Your mother’s doing very well. She’s fortunate the stroke was on the lower end of the moderate scale. How are you holding up?” The nurse moved toward the door.
“Well, if you’d like some coffee or a soft drink, there’s a small kitchen next to the nurses’ station. Help yourself.”
Giving up the futile attempt to find a comfortable position, Karen rose, stretched the kinks out of her back, and began to pace.
No matter how positive the long-term prognosis, her mother was going to need a significant amount of help for the foreseeable future.
And guess who was expected to provide it?
Good old reliable Karen.
A weight settled on her chest, squeezing the breath from her lungs. So far, she’d kept all her balls in the air, but how many more could she juggle? Didn’t a shattered marriage, a job outside the home for the first time in more than a dozen years, and a rebellious daughter whose transition to teenager had been complicated by her parents’ split provide enough challenges?
Pausing at the foot of the bed, Karen watched the steady rise and fall of the white sheet over Margaret’s stocky form. Her mother had looked the same for as long as she could remember. Iron gray hair, rigidly coiffed in a style decades out-of-date. Thin lips that turned down at the corners in a perennially disapproving scowl that remained unyielding even in repose. Angular bone structure, softened neither by the extra weight she carried nor by a charitable, tolerant disposition.
On her best days, she wasn’t easy to please. While dealing with a stroke? She’d be impossible.
The knot in Karen’s stomach tightened, and she crossed her arms, hugging her midsection. All her life, she’d tried to please Margaret. To accept family obligations without complaint. And what had it brought her? Nothing except criticism.
Yet what choice had she had after Val abdicated all family responsibilities and ran off to pursue a career in theater?
Her gaze fell on the small silver roses in her mother’s pierced ears—a gift from her sister on some long-ago birthday—and the familiar resentment bubbled up inside her...followed, as usual, by annoyance.
Good grief, would she never grow up? She was too old for such petty nonsense. So what if Val was the golden girl with the charmed life? So what if her younger sibling was Mom’s favorite? She ought to get over it.
But she couldn’t.
Because it still hurt.
Huffing out a breath, Karen turned her back on the bed. She had more important things to worry about at the moment than her messy tangle of emotions—like figuring out how she was going to deal with this latest complication. It didn’t help that Kristen was hobbling around on a broken leg or that the busy season at work, with its requisite longer hours, was kicking in, either.
Face it, Karen. You need help.
She clenched her teeth and straightened her shoulders. Maybe she wasn’t as pretty or popular or confident or talented as Val, but she’d always been organized and competent and able to cope with whatever life threw at her.
She’d get through this, like she always did.
A garbled sound came from behind her, and she pivoted. Her mother jabbed at the air with her functioning hand.
Karen hurried to the side of the bed. “What is it, Mom?”
Margaret grabbed her arm with surprising strength and uttered more gibberish, her features contorted with frustration.
The heart monitor began to beep.
Her own pulse soaring, Karen snatched up the call button and pressed it. “Hang on, Mom. I’ll get the nurse.”
Two minutes later, as the woman calmed her mother down and retrieved a bedpan, Karen backed away.
She couldn’t do this alone.
Everyone had their limit, and she’d hit hers.
Gritting her teeth, she pulled her cell out of her purse. Like it or not, Val needed to come home.
Not being the operative word—for both of them.
Halfway to the door of her condo, Val Montgomery hesitated as the landline began to ring. Her teenage cast was going to freak if she was late for the dress rehearsal, and spending the first hour trying to calm a gym full of hyper adolescents held zero appeal.
Hitching her purse into a more comfortable position, she dug through her oversize tote bag for her keys. Let the caller leave a message.
“Val, it’s Karen.” Her sister’s voice echoed through the condo as the answering machine kicked in, and her hand froze. “I have to talk to you as soon as possible. Please call me on my cell when you get this message. I have some—hold a sec.”
In the silence that followed, a tingle of apprehension zipped through her.
If Karen was calling, there must be a serious problem.
Val chewed on her lower lip. A crisis wasn’t in her plans for tonight...but if she left without talking to her sister, she’d be distracted all evening—and adrenaline-pumped teens required her full attention.
With a resigned sigh, she walked over to the phone and lifted it out of its cradle. “Karen? I was walking out the door. What’s up?”
“Thank goodness I caught you! I’m at the hospital. Mom had a stroke.”
As the diagnosis ricocheted through her mind, Val tried to process that bombshell.
It didn’t compute.
Their mother had a host of issues, but despite her myriad complaints, she’d always been healthy as a horse.
Combing her fingers through her hair, she watched the gray clouds outside the window gathering on the horizon. “How bad is it?”
“On the milder end of the scale, according to the doctors. They have more tests to run, but it’s clear she’s going to need some help for a while.”
And I expect you to pitch in.
Though the words were unspoken, the message came through loud and clear.
Clamping her lips together, Val tightened her grip on the phone. Not going to happen. The very notion of spending an extended period with her manipulative, self-centered mother turned her stomach. How Karen managed to live in such close proximity to her without going crazy was beyond comprehension.
As the silence lengthened and she struggled to fabricate an excuse that would absolve her of the implied obligation, Karen spoke again.
“Look, I’m sorry to dump this on you.” A thread of desperation wove through her sister’s apology. “I’d deal with it on my own if I could, but Kristen broke her leg a couple of days ago in gymnastics, and it’s hectic at work. I can’t manage two patients. With school ending soon, I hoped you could come down for a few weeks to help get us over the hump.”
A few weeks!?
As she tried to wrap her mind around that nauseating notion, the second part of Karen’s comment suddenly registered.
“Why didn’t you tell me about Kristen?”
“I didn’t see any reason to bother you. You’re too far away to help out.”
Val let the inferred criticism pass. “Is she okay?”
“Not to hear her talk. She missed the final gymnastics meet, the pool’s off-limits, and she’s out of commission for her typical summer activities. In her mind, the world is ending—but the doctors say she’ll be fine.”
Val’s lips quirked. “Being a teenager is tough.”
“Trust me, I’m reminded of that every day.”
“Me too. As a matter of fact, I’ve got a bunch of high school thespians waiting for me, and if I don’t show up pronto, the drama won’t all be on the stage. Can I get back to you later tonight to talk about this?”
A slight hesitation, followed by a terse reply, told her Karen recognized the request for the stall tactic it was. “Fine. I’ll probably be here at the hospital. Let me give you the number for Mom’s room. You have my cell phone.”
As Val jotted it down, she checked her watch. “I’ll call you in a couple of hours.”
The line went dead—and based on her sister’s resigned tone, it was clear Karen expected her to bail.
But as she shoved the phone number into her tote, guilt niggled at her conscience. As best she could recall, Karen had never asked for help—with anything. Meaning her sister must be at the end of her rope. And it wasn’t as if her own plans for the summer were all that pressing, other than two modeling commitments she could commute to fulfill. Plus, she knew how to handle their mother—a skill Karen had never mastered.
She could go.
But as she toyed with the idea of returning to the Missouri river town of her childhood, a wave of panic swept over her.
Tightening her fingers on her keys, she fought back a surge of painful memories—the same ones that had been cropping up more and more often during the past few months, clamoring for release from the dark prison where she’d banished them long ago. So far, she’d managed to corral them—but they were growing more unruly and insistent, and her control was slipping.
One of these days, she was going to lose the battle to contain them.
She swallowed—and faced the hard truth she’d been dodging for months.
If she wanted to free herself from the mistakes that haunted her, she had to confront them—and deal with them—once and for all.
And she’d just been handed an opportunity to do that.
Her hand began to throb, and she loosened her grip on the keys, eying the angry red imprint they’d left on her fingers. If she’d continued to hold on to them, the ridges would have become deeper, numbness would have set in, and function would have become more and more limited. Only by letting go could she restore normalcy to her fingers.
And perhaps to her life.
Val closed her eyes.
It was time to go home to Washington.
“Come on, guys, pick up the pace. I’m ready to crash.”
Scott Walker sent Mark a weary grin and transferred his saxophone case to his other hand as they exited the jazz club. “Maybe you’re getting too old for this life.”
“Maybe we all are.” Joe struck off toward their van. “What city are we in again?”
“Philadelphia.” Their publicist hit the remote for the locks. “After the honky-tonk dives you guys played for the past decade, you should be grateful Prestige booked you in some class places to promote your debut album.”
“We are.” Scott opened the door of the van and climbed in. “But we’ve been doing one-night gigs for six weeks. It takes a toll.” He yawned. “We’ll be fine after some z’s.”
But the constant travel, disrupted sleep and incessant demands of the recording company for more radio and TV interviews, more social media visibility, more PR appearances and glad-handing were wearing. They hadn’t pursued careers in music to schmooze.
How ironic that their big break had given them less time to do what they loved best.
Silence fell as they all claimed their seats and their publicist took the wheel. Joe and Mark fell asleep within minutes. Lulled by the motion of the van, Scott began to drift too—until a rough jolt jarred him awake. As he struggled to jump-start his brain, brakes squealed. His body slammed against the side of the van. Headlights blinded him. A screeching cacophony of ripping metal ricocheted in his ears, and he raised his hand to shield his face.
There were screams.
Pain that was sharp and intense and suffocating.
But in the moments before blackness engulfed him, Scott knew one thing with absolute clarity.
Their promotional tour was over.
And even if he survived, his life would never be the same.
“Why are we moving, Daddy?”
David Phelps set aside the stack of plates he was packing and looked down at his daughter. How many times had he answered that question over the past few weeks? Dozens, for sure. But five-year-olds didn’t retain information long—especially information that didn’t make sense to them. And no matter how he explained it, Victoria couldn’t understand why they were leaving the condo that had been her home since she was born.
“Because I have a new job in a different place called Washington, Missouri, and because I want us to live in a house with a yard for you to play in.” David dropped down to balance on the balls of his feet beside her, brushing a stray strand of silky blonde hair off her forehead.
She frowned, planted her hands on her hips, and tilted her head. The stance, so reminiscent of Natalie, clogged his throat.
“I can play in the park at the corner. It has swings and a slide.”
“But it’s not your very own yard. And you’ll have a much bigger room too. We can paint it pink.”
“I like purple better.”
“Then purple it is.”
All at once her shoulders drooped. “I still don’t want to move. I like St. Louis.”
So did he—but prayer had led him to this decision. To the acceptance that certain dreams had died and that he had to let go of the past.
But how to explain that to a child? All Victoria knew was that her world was about to be upended. Again.
He pulled her into his arms and gave her a hug. “St. Louis is nice, honey, but I think we’ll like Washington too, once we get there.”
“What if we don’t?” Her tear-laced question was muffled against his shirt.
“Then we’ll move somewhere else.”
She backed up and scrutinized him. “Solemn promise?”
Their private version of “cross my heart and hope to die,” reserved for only the most important matters.
David’s gaze didn’t waver. “Solemn promise.”
She fingered a button on his shirt. “But we won’t know anybody there. We’ll be all by ourselves.”
“No, we won’t. Remember, God is always with us, wherever we are.”
“If you can’t see someone, though, it’s hard to remember they’re there.”
Pulling her close again, David cradled her against his chest. There was no argument to refute that. During the past few years, the Almighty had seemed far away to him on many occasions too. But he had to keep believing that even on his most challenging days, when he felt most alone, God wouldn’t desert him.
Because moving to Washington was going to bring a whole new set of daunting challenges.