Authors: Jennifer H. Westall
Tags: #Christian Books & Bibles, #Literature & Fiction, #Historical, #Genre Fiction, #Historical Fiction, #Biographical, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #United States, #Religious & Inspirational Fiction, #Religion & Spirituality, #Christian Fiction
Jennifer H. Westall
Healing Ruby Series
Copyright © 2015 by Jennifer H. Westall.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at the address below.
Jennifer H. Westall
Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Locales and public names are sometimes used for atmospheric purposes. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, or to businesses, companies, events, institutions, or locales is completely coincidental.
Book Layout ©2013 BookDesignTemplates.com
Breaking Matthew/ Jennifer H. Westall. -- 1st ed.
To my mother, Becky, who never stops cheering me on
“Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?’”
Matthew 14: 29-31
I need to breathe, but I can’t. I suck at the air, but the harder I try, the more impossible it seems. I hack up the muck stuck inside my lungs, the coppery taste of blood lingering in my mouth. My eyes water, the pressure in them building, and the tears run down my cheeks. My chest burns. My heart races. I cough again, this time releasing the muck and finding precious moments of relief.
Rolling onto my side, my eyes don’t quite focus on the bloodstained wall, speckled with fading brown smudges. The pail beneath me, just to the side of my bed, is splattered with dark red globs. I gulp down as much air as I can, but it’s not enough, and I know the next breath will be even smaller.
This is it. Death has finally come for me. I can quit struggling, quit aching, quit lumbering through this nightmare. I want to let go and die in peace. But my lungs have a mind of their own, and they refuse to give up, fighting for air as if they don’t realize they’re doomed. My head throbs. I don’t think I can take this. God, just make it stop!
But then I feel a hand on my back, smoothing out the pain as it circles over and over, moving closer and closer to the center. It widens again, circling and circling, pushing the pain with it, scattering the burn. My frantic lungs gulp down air, before coughing up more of the blood drowning them.
I roll over onto my back, exhausted from the effort to breathe. Her face hovers over mine, her eyebrows pinched together with worry.
“You’re back,” I whisper between gasps.
“I promised I would be,” she says.
I hear someone else talking, a man to the side of me, but I can’t see his face. His words run together, and I feel the urgent need for air rising inside me again. I roll to the side, cough to make room for the air, suck in…nothing. My brain screams for oxygen, my chest too. I can’t get any more in. I suck in just enough to cough out more blood.
And then everything stops.
The room blurs. Another hand, a larger one, is circling my back again. I close my eyes, and a cool tingle comes over my head. It spreads down my neck, down into my chest, like a million butterfly wings tickling each artery and vein. It sweeps over me, soothing the ache and filling me with peace. I wonder if this is what death feels like.
My lungs gasp for air, and I cough. A large, wet glob of blood surges out of them. I gasp again. This time there’s more air, and I cough again. More air, and more air. My lungs soak it in like desert rain. The tingling continues, and even the coughing doesn’t hurt as much as it did.
I roll over and fill my lungs with air, precious air!
Her face is beside me again, smiling with a glow that lights up her eyes. I can breathe. I can breathe.
I reach for her hand, but she’s no longer there. I didn’t see her move, but she’s standing at the end of the bed now. Clumsily I push myself up to a sitting position and reach for her. But she’s moving further away, like something’s pulling her away from me.
With renewed strength, I throw off the covers and stumble onto the floor, muscles cramping, toes curling beneath me. Months have passed since I last touched the ground. I round the end of my bed just as she nears the wall. She reaches out for me, but before I can grasp her hand, she fades away into nothing. I scream.
I sat up and dropped my feet onto the floor beside my bed, willing my heart to slow down. Focusing on one breath at a time, I looked around my bedroom in the gray light of early morning. No bloody pail. Clean wallpaper. A cool breeze drifted through the window with the smell of fresh rain. I looked to the end of my bed. No Ruby either.
It had been a long time since I’d had that dream. Over a year, maybe. Seemed to come to me often for a while there in the months following the tornado. I hadn’t thought about that spring back in ’32 for some time. Used to wonder if I’d ever go one day without thinking on all that mess. Took nearly a year to get all them sights out of my head—Hannah bleeding near to death, Ruby praying over her like she was possessed or something, and those words:
Matthew, I love you.
Sitting there on the side of my bed, in the same room where it all began, I knew it was time to get moving. Dwelling on Ruby took me to places best left behind. So I dressed and headed downstairs for breakfast. The aroma of Esther’s cooking made my mouth water, and I sped up my pace to the dining room. Mother and Mary were already seated, but hadn’t begun yet, so I took my place next to Mary and said good morning.
She gave me a tentative smile. “You look tired.”
That caught Mother’s attention, and she studied me more closely. “Didn’t you sleep well, dear?”
“I slept fine.” I smiled to reassure her, but she didn’t look convinced. Thankfully, Esther brought the rest of the food to the table and distracted her.
Mary leaned over and lowered her voice. “You had another nightmare, didn’t you?”
I began filling my plate with eggs and sausage, doing my best to ignore her. Mary was kind, and she meant well. I’d shared those awful nightmares with her when they’d first started in the hopes of lifting my guilt over turning my back on Ruby. But I could never tell Mary everything, and that meant letting her come to conclusions I couldn’t correct.
“How long you home for?” I asked, hoping she’d allow us to move on.
She narrowed her eyes, but then she sighed and went to filling her plate as well. “Just through the weekend. I have an early class on Monday.”
“Good,” I said. “Vanessa and her parents are coming up to visit on Saturday afternoon, and she’ll be glad to see you.”
Mary’s eyes brightened with her smile. “Oh Matthew! That’s wonderful! I haven’t seen her in ages! Is this a
I glanced at Mother who was back to paying keen interest to our conversation. Then I smiled back at Mary and took a bite of my biscuit. She swatted my shoulder and giggled, a sound I realized I’d missed greatly. Her laughter had always been like medicine to my soul when I needed it most.
“Mother,” she whined. “You must know something. I can see it in your face. You have to tell me!”
“What’s all this nonsense about?” Father said as he came in and sat down. He always entered a room like he was preparing to command forces into battle, even if it was just his own family. I was grateful for the interruption as Mother and Father went though their usual exchange of morning pleasantries. But it wasn’t long until Father turned his attention to evaluating the merits of my activities for the day, and my defenses shot up.
“Where are you heading to today?” he asked.
“Calhoun’s place.” It was best to keep your answers short and to the point with him.
“This is the last one, right?”
“So then you’re through with TVA.” Father had made no secret about his displeasure at my working for the Tennessee Valley Authority to build dams since graduation. But it was good experience, despite the low pay, and I refused to apologize.
“It’s about time, is all I can say.”
“Now, Patrick,” Mother scolded. “Leave the boy alone.”
Father pointed his fork at her. “Now Francine, he’s not a boy. He’s a man. And he’s got no business working for the government like some poor soul with no class or family name. Now I paid for him to go to college, even supported him when he wanted to major in Engineering instead of Business.” The fork swung in my direction. “And I’ve done my best to let you be your own man, but it’s about time you started making something of yourself.”
I swallowed the food in my mouth, though it had lost its taste. “That’s exactly what I’m doing.”
He didn’t seem to hear my response. “Now take your brother, Tom, he’s doing things right. He worked his way up from sweeping the floors to opening up his own store down in Birmingham. That’s how you do things. You don’t sit around on your behind, living off the government, just waiting for a career to fall into your lap.”
I slammed my fork down and stood. “I spent my entire summer in the mud building a dam up in Wheeler so people all over the state could have electricity in their homes. I’d hardly call that sitting on my behind!”
He frowned at me, distinctly unimpressed. “You didn’t make nothing but pennies for all that effort, so don’t pretend like you accomplished something.”
And there it was. The only measuring stick that mattered.
“I gotta go if I’m gonna make it to the Calhoun farm on time.” I nodded at Mary and Mother and headed for the door.
“Matthew, don’t go yet,” Mother called after me.
I didn’t stop till I got around the door. I stood there for a moment, straightening my shirt. I could hear Mother scolding Father about it being no wonder I never came home anymore. A twinge of guilt hit me. It was bad enough to stay away for so long, but to let her think it was because of Father seemed a bit cruel.
Truth was, I could take Father’s poor evaluation of me. I’d been doing that for years. I just couldn’t take the chance on running into Ruby, and the longer I hung around Hanceville, the more likely it was to happen. That was why I’d saved the Calhoun farm for last. At least if I did see her, I’d be gone soon afterward. Then I could go back to pretending that year of my life never happened.
Calhoun’s farm looked smaller than I remembered it. I was hoping I’d pull up and everything would look so different I wouldn’t be able to remember anything. But God seemed to take small pleasures in tormenting me, and as soon as I caught a glimpse of the house, a string of images I’d fought for over four years to erase flashed through my mind.
I turned off my car and climbed out right where Calhoun’s oldest son had sprawled across the ground after I’d landed a punch to his face. I could still hear Ruby screaming at us to stop.
Matthew, the storm!
Hail pelted my skin. The approaching tornado roared in the distance.
Closing my eyes, I forced the images out. Then I took a deep breath, opened my eyes, and went up the stairs to the front door. I knocked, and a few seconds later Calhoun pulled the door open. He looked just like I remembered him: tall and broad, skin weathered by the sun and wind.
“What can I do for ya?” he asked, stepping onto the porch and running his hand through his white hair. Before I could answer, his face went hard as stone. “Wait a minute. You’re Patrick Doyle’s boy. I know you. What’re you doing here?”
“Mr. Calhoun, I work for the TVA, and I’m going out to all the farms that signed up with the Cullman Electric Cooperative to make sure your electricity is connected properly and everything’s running to your satisfaction.”
“Excuse me?” He looked at me like I’d said I’d come to rob him.
“Your electricity, sir. Is it running all right?”
He stared at me another minute, and my skin felt like it was burning up beneath my shirt. I knew his secret, and he knew that I knew it. Men can’t talk normal with each other when secrets are staring at them. I had to look down at my feet.
“I reckon it’s working just fine,” he said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me I have some work to do.”
“I don’t mean to trouble you any further, but I do need to take a look at the connections and verify that it’s all set up properly. Then I promise I’ll be out of your hair. If you could just point me in the right direction, I’d appreciate it.”
His frown deepened beneath his huge mustache, and he walked past me to the end of the porch. “James!” he hollered across the yard toward the barn. “Get up here!”
That made my stomach knot up even more ’cause seeing James was just one step closer to seeing Ruby. “Mr. Calhoun, there’s no need to bother James. Just point me in the right direction. I’ll check everything out and be on my way.”
Calhoun said nothing. Just stood there and waited on James to cross the yard. When he was a few feet away, Calhoun came back to the front door. “Show young Mr. Doyle here where the electricity’s hooked up ’round back.”
“Yes, sir,” James said. He glanced at me, and I noted the surprise in his eyes. It quickly changed to something else. Maybe dread. I’d never noticed before, but James and Ruby had the same eyes—intense, fiery eyes that expected so much from me.
Calhoun excused himself and went back inside. I trudged down the stairs and offered my hand. He didn’t hesitate to take it. “How are ya, James? Been a long time.”
“I’m all right, I reckon.” He gestured at the fields off to his right. “Been managing things here for a coupla years. How ’bout yourself?”
“Oh, I been getting along just fine.” I didn’t want to pretend there wasn’t a mountain of vexation between us. I’d hurt his sister, no doubt about that. No telling how much he knew, but his discomfort was clear. “Why don’t you show me the connection, and I’ll let you get back to work. I don’t want to inconvenience you.”
He nodded toward the back of the house. “No inconvenience. It’s just right around here.”
When we cleared the side of the house, I stopped and looked out over the field. I could still see Ruby tearing out across it with a tornado literally bearing down on her. She’d made it into the woods just as James, her mother, and I had taken shelter in a ditch. I’d thought my heart would stop right there.
“It’s over thisaway.” James’s voice broke through my memories, and I turned back to face him.
“How is she? Ruby, I mean. She doing all right?”
His mouth pressed into a line before he answered. “Good. She’s real good. Works in town with Dr. Fisher most days. She helps deliver babies. Seems to have a knack for it. She delivered mine and Emma Rae’s first young’un. Got another due anytime now.”
“Congratulations. That’s good.” I shoved my hands in my pockets and rocked on my heels. I shouldn’t have asked about her. Better to let the past stay buried.
“You planning on seeing her?” he asked.
I shook my head. “I’m leaving in a few days.”
“Probably for the best.” No argument there. “Well, I should get back to work.” He pointed at the box with all the wires and connections. “I reckon you know what you’re doing from here. I’ll leave you to it.”
“Thanks. You take care.”
James turned and left me there with my memories still tapping on my mind, demanding attention I shouldn’t give them. I pushed them back where they belonged and focused on what was right in front of me instead.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to avoid her the entire time I was home, not when I was going to be around for more than two weeks. So I was surprised when that last Friday rolled around and I still hadn’t seen Ruby in Hanceville or Cullman. I’d let myself start to think I was going to make it out of there without much more discomfort than a few bad dreams, but once again, God reached down and stirred my pot.
I walked out of the office of the Cullman Electrical Cooperative that afternoon feeling right proud of myself. I’d delivered my report to the board, explained the concerns I’d had with a couple of farms, and shook hands to officially close out my term of service with both the Co-op and the TVA. There’d been no major complications, and in a few days I’d be on a train for Nashville doing my best to “make something” of myself. I should’ve known something was brewing, like the dead calm before a tornado rips through your life.
I stepped out onto the sidewalk and soaked up the waning warmth of the sun on my face. I’d always loved fall. Loved the crisp air, loved football season. But it was fading, and winter would soon steal every leaf around, leaving a cold death over everything. I was glad to have the prospect of a new life beginning soon. Something to carry me far away from this place.
But then I saw her.
She was coming out of a house down the road a piece. Maybe a couple of blocks down. Dr. Fisher was in front as they crossed the yard. He opened the front gate and let her pass. Then he opened the car door for Ruby to climb inside. She should have, but she stopped and looked around, lifting her face to the air, like she was measuring the breeze against her cheek.
Then she turned toward me, covering her brow with her hand to shield her eyes from the sun. She was too far away for me to know for sure, but I thought she saw me. My stomach tightened. Should I go to her? Should I wave?
It didn’t matter ’cause she got in the car before I could decide. Dr. Fisher climbed in too, and in an instant they were gone. The whole thing couldn’t have lasted more than five seconds, but seemed like it could’ve been four years just the same.
I stood there for a moment, my head spinning. I should’ve waved or something. I should’ve gone over and spoken to her, told her how sorry I was for leaving things the way I did. But once again, without even trying, I’d disappointed her. Part of me wanted to track her down. She’d be heading back to Dr. Fisher’s office at some point. I could easily make my way there and wait for her.