Authors: Leah Atwood
The V-shape of Sean’s arched brows spoke his doubt loud and clear. “You search for the tiniest of flaws in every single man you date and no one can measure up to your impossible standards.”
“That’s not true.” She crossed her arms in defense.
“What about Chase? He was perfect for you.”
“Church wasn’t a priority to him.”
“He didn’t feel comfortable at
church and you refused to entertain thoughts of attending anywhere else.”
“Chase and I weren’t meant to be. If a relationship requires that much compromise, then it’s doomed for failure.” She absent-mindedly reached for her fork and tapped it against the table to still her nerves.
“All relationships require working together and will have clashes. That doesn’t mean you’re wrong for each other.” Sean took the fork from her and held her hands still. “I know what you think because of your parents, but you’re smart enough to realize they are the exception, not the rule.”
“What do you know about relationships?” Pulling away, she rose from her seat. “One long-term relationship years ago and a three-week fling hardly qualify you to give advice.”
Sean flinched. “You’re right, but I can still try to stop my best friend from running down a road that will lead straight to loneliness.”
“I need to get home.” Any desire to save her remaining food fled, and she threw the container away with the rest of her penne.
“Don’t get mad.” Rising from the table, Sean rubbed his neck. “I wouldn’t be a friend if I didn’t point out the truth.”
“I’m not mad.” Sliding her purse strap over her shoulder, she frowned. “At least not at you.”
“Madison,” he called as she walked out the door.
She stopped only long enough to look over her shoulder. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
Once in her car, she pulled her hair into a ponytail, then opened her sunroof and lowered her windows. A long drive under the stars with the cold March wind blowing against her was exactly what she needed—something to take away the sting of Sean’s words—words she knew were true and didn’t want to dwell on, especially while coming to terms with Sean moving to New York.
She pushed down on the accelerator and sped in the opposite direction of her house, intending to make a long loop before going home. Taking the back way, she stayed off the highway and navigated winding back roads and gravel lanes. Other than four years of living on campus at Penn State, she’d lived in Maryville her entire life. She knew these roads well and could maneuver the curves and bends as naturally as she could write her name.
The early spring air rushed through the car, sweeping away her somber mood. For a brief time she was footloose and fancy free. There were no pending weddings, no lonely nights, and no friends moving away—just her and the open road.
Slowing down for a turn ahead, she glanced up for a split second at the sky. Thousands of stars shone down on her, unobstructed by city lights or pollution.
This is why I love living here. I can’t imagine not seeing the stars every night.
She shifted her line of vision back to the road, at the exact moment a deer jumped in her way.
Her foot slammed on the brake pedal while she instinctively spun the steering wheel to avoid hitting the animal. The combined actions careened her off the road, causing her to narrowly miss a signpost. Thirty bumpy feet later, the car came to a stop without hitting anything.
Thank you, Lord.
Her blood thrummed against her veins at a rapid pace and she took multiple deep breaths until her heart returned to a normal rate. When she calmed down, she turned on her high beams to receive a better view of her surroundings. A grove of trees lined up directly in front of her, and had her car not stopped, she surely would have run into one.
Other than the single road sign, there weren’t any visible obstructions to block her from driving back to the road. She turned the steering wheel to the left with the intent to pull forward and out instead of going in reverse.
The wheels spun as she pushed down on the gas. She tried to back up and gain traction. Still the same result. Inhaling through clenched teeth, she reached for her phone and turned on the flashlight app. She opened the door and stepped out.
Six inches of mud covered her feet and crept under her pants and up her leg. She cringed as she circled her car, shining the light for a better appraisal of the situation. Her car was stuck, buried half a foot deep in muck. To make matters worse, the rear passenger wheel bent inwardly.
She had no choice but to call a tow truck.
The steady hum of medical machines whirred in the darkened hospital room. An occasional footstep would pass by the room, but forty-five minutes had passed since anyone else had entered the room. Gran rested comfortably in the hospital bed, her wrinkled skin slack on her face, and nearly translucent.
Archer sat beside her in a stiff vinyl chair. He held her pallid hand in his, praying for her, the woman who’d taken him in when he was a young child and raised him while his parents traipsed over the country. Gran would turn eighty next month, but he wasn’t ready to let her go. She was more a mother to him than his own had been, and he loved her deeply.
He heard the door open then jumped to his feet, hoping it was the doctor coming to tell him good news.
“Good evening, Mr. Reeves.” A middle-aged man shifted a clipboard from his right to left hand, then extended his free arm.
“Good evening, Dr. Kohl.” Archer shook his hand then glanced to Gran breathing evenly with the help of oxygen. “She’s been asleep for fifteen minutes.”
Dr. Kohl nodded his acknowledgement. “We’ll let her rest for now. Would you mind stepping out of the room for a minute?”
“All right,” he agreed reluctantly, not wanting to leave Gran alone in case she woke up.
He followed the doctor out of the private room and down the hall to a waiting area. Smaller than the main one in the center of the ward, this one only had four chairs total and no vending machines. A picture window gave a view of the prayer garden which was softly lit by four post lamps and many solar lights along two intersecting paths.
“Have a seat.” After sitting on the far seat, Dr. Kohl removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes before replacing his spectacles.
“How bad is it?” Ignoring the doctor’s instruction, he remained standing. His fists balled at his sides.
“Not good. I wish I could tell you otherwise, but your grandmother is, physically, a very weak woman.” The doctor set aside Gran’s chart. “At best, I would give her four months.”
Archer sank into the chair closest to him and ran a hand through his hair. “There’s nothing else you can do?”
Dr. Kohl shook his head. “Surgery could buy her several more years, but in her current condition, she is too weak for any operation.”
“We’ll keep her admitted and make her as comfortable as we can. We’ll monitor her closely, and if there is an improvement in strength, we can discuss surgery.”
“There is hope?” He leaned in closer to the doctor.
Remorse flickered in Dr. Kohl’s eyes. “I don’t like to give false hope, Mr. Reeves. The chance of your grandmother regaining that level of strength is very small. However, only God knows the answer to that.”
“Are you a Christian, sir?” Archer sat upright and maintained eye contact with Dr. Kohl.
“Yes, I am. Since my second year of med school twenty-five years ago.” The doctor reached out and laid a palm on Archer’s arm. For a moment, they weren’t doctor and patient-caregiver, but spiritual brothers, united in a belief. “I pray for each of my patients. Every single one I’ve had in my career, your grandmother included.”
A bittersweet smile tugged at Archer’s lips. “I appreciate that.”
“Why don’t you go home and get some rest.” Dr. Kohl stood. “Your grandmother won’t want you to be exhausted.”
“My brother will be here soon, and then I will.” On his feet again, he matched the doctor’s six-foot height.
An approving smile graced Dr. Kohl’s face. “I wish all my patients had a family as devoted as yours.”
“It’s the least we can do for her.” Archer tipped his head and returned to Gran’s room.
She hadn’t moved. Her hand rested in the same position he’d left it in. Grabbing his energy drink from the nightstand, he flipped the tab back then took a swig. The warm liquid held little refreshment. He’d brought the drink hours ago when they’d taken Gran for another test, but he had forgotten about it until now.
How long had he been here? A glimpse at the ticking clock on the wall told him it was eight o’clock, and he’d been at the hospital since three that afternoon. He’d rushed, stopping mid-project, when the nurse had called him to tell him about Gran’s breathing difficulties.
They’d stabilized her, but the scare, along with the doctor’s news, only reinforced the fact that Gran didn’t have much longer. In his gut, he’d known it for a few months, but hadn’t wanted to accept the truth. Landon, his brother, had tried to tell him last month, but he’d not listened. Even Tanya, his little sister, had warned him.
Tanya. He should call his sister and give her the update on Gran. When he’d called her earlier, she’d broken down in tears because she couldn’t be there. A single mom, she had no one to watch her six-year-old daughter Lacy, who was battling a cold so couldn’t be near Gran and risk transferring more illness.
He withdrew his phone from his rear pocket and stood by the door, away from Gran. After a hushed conversation and a promise to watch Lacy if she couldn’t go back to school tomorrow, Archer sat beside Gran again. Several quiet minutes went by. His phone dinged–a text from Landon that he was late getting off work and would be there in a half hour. Archer sent a reply that he’d wait, then tucked his phone into his pocket again.
Gran’s eyelids fluttered. She looked around the room with a confused expression until her gaze rested on him. “Archer, is that you?”
“Yes, Gran.” Standing to his feet, he squeezed Gran’s hands.
She glanced to the window and pitch black sky. “Why are you here so late?”
“You had a spell earlier. Do you remember?”
The muddled expression on her face pained Archer, but he offered her a smile. “Probably better that way. How are you feeling?”
“Like an old lady.” She gave a weak laugh. “But no worse than I did this morning.”
“I guess that’s a good thing.”
Her green eyes darkened and her pale hair seemed extraordinarily white. “I know I’m dying.”
“Don’t say that.”
With a feeble grasp, she held his arm. “I’m not giving up, but I can’t live in denial. My years are many and my body old.”
He swallowed the despair in his throat. When he tried to speak, no words came out.
“Don’t worry about me. When I die, I’ll meet my Savior in eternity and be in a better place.” Her words came low and raspy.
Archer could tell she was losing strength. “Get some more rest, Gran.”
“Not yet.” She paused to catch her breath. “Before I die, I have a request. Maddie sounds like a lovely woman. My last days would be more peaceful in my heart if I could meet your fiancée and know you’ll have someone to love you for life.”
He tried to cover his shocked gasp with a cough.
Your sins will find you out
. Last week he’d told Gran that he’d met a woman and was engaged, even going so far as to make up a name. It was the first lie he’d told her since he was thirteen years old. He’d known it was wrong, but more than anything, she’d wanted him and his siblings happy, and to Gran, that meant marriage. The look on her face at the time he’d told her had been worth it, but now what?
Another lie to cover up the first one. “She travels a lot, but I’ll ask her.”
“Thank you,” Gran whispered before drifting back to sleep.
Twenty minutes later, Archer left the hospital after giving Landon the update. It was a small comfort to know Gran rarely had to be alone in her room, thanks to the system he, Landon, and Tanya had worked out. Since Gran had been admitted a month ago, Tanya stayed with her during the day while Lacy was at school. On the days she couldn’t, he would leave the shop in his assistant’s hands and sit with Gran, plus come in a few nights a week. Landon, the only sibling not self-employed, would cover the remaining evenings, and they all shared the weekends.
He’d just pulled into his driveway when his business cell rang. Tempted to ignore it, he answered anyway. Ninety percent of the time, a call this late was for a tow and would be easy money. With business slow the last few months, he couldn’t turn away a job.
“Reeves Auto Repair,” he answered while shifting into park.
“Your company is listed as a wrecker service? Is that so?” A note of hesitancy came across the female’s voice on the other end of the line.
“Yes, ma’am. Do you need a tow?”
“Accident, disabled vehicle or other?”
“Um, disabled, sort of. Not quite an accident.”
He pinched his eyes shut, not in the mood to deal with a ditzy female. “Which is it, ma’am?”
“A deer jumped out in front of me, and I managed to safely avoid it, except I ran off the road and I’m stuck in the mud. I think I might also have damaged my wheel.”
Easy enough fix. He was glad it wasn’t an accident because he selfishly didn’t want to wait for the scene to be cleared and statements written, nor did he wish to witness any carnage. “What is your location?”
“Old route twenty-three, about a half mile past Walker road.”
“Coming from or heading to Maryville?” He grabbed a pen and notepad from the console and scribbled down the street.
“I can be there in twenty minutes.”
“What is your name and phone number?”
“Madison Nichols, 555-7277.”
He choked out an ending to the call. Madison? Maddie? Could be a coincidence? What were the chances of him getting a call from a Madison or a Madeline, the same night Gran asked to meet his made-up fiancée? Was God giving him a sign? He wasn’t so sure about that as it didn’t seem God would honor a lie.
Regardless, he had a job to do. He backed out of the driveway, drove to his shop, grabbed the wrecker keys from the office safe and drove to the spot where Madison had said she ran off the road.
Flashing hazard lights greeted him. At least Madison had enough sense to turn on her four-ways and not stand in the middle of the road to wave him down. He’d lost count of the number of people who didn’t have the sense to stay out of a dark country road.
After he pulled halfway off the road and hopped down, a redhead greeted him. “Thanks for getting here so quickly. I’m Madison, but I’m sure you’ve figured that out already.”
He couldn’t help but smile at her friendly personality. “Archer Reeves.” Turning on a flashlight, he shined it on her vehicle. When the light landed on her rear wheel, he stepped closer and examined it further.
“How bad is it?”
“You did some damage, all right.” He crouched down and angled the flashlight so that the stream of light went behind the wheel. “Your axle is bent.” Turning his head toward her, he saw her bite down on her bottom lip.
“What does that mean for my car?”
“It’s not drivable as is. I can pull you out, but you’ll need a ride home.” Standing up, he brushed a hand against his jeans then stepped out of the muck.
“I don’t have a regular mechanic.” She tucked a hair behind her ear, and he noticed she wore no band on her ring finger. “Would you be able to fix it?”
“Yes, but it will take a few days.”
“That will have to be fine. I think my insurance covers rentals.” Madison inhaled deeply. “I guess I’ll have to call them in the morning and get an adjuster out. Any chance the repair is less than the deductible?”
He glanced back at her car. “I can’t give you a quote until I get it into the shop, but unless your deductible is in the thousands, probably not.”
“There goes my summer vacation fund.” She sighed and gave him an embarrassed shrug. “I got a speeding ticket last fall and with this added, my insurance will go through the roof.”
“Tough luck.” A car approached, slowed down, and a male passenger asked if they needed any help, but Archer let him know the situation was under control. “Do you have anyone you can call to pick you up?”
Madison looked at her watch and scrunched her face. “I’m sure someone can.”
“You can wait in the cab and make calls if you want.”
“My feet are all muddy.”
Archer laughed. “That truck has seen much worse, I assure you.”
She walked away, and his eyes followed her until she was in the passenger seat of the tow truck. Once the door closed, he attached the winch cable to Madison’s car and several minutes later climbed into the front seat.
A frustrated scowl pulled on Madison’s features. “No one is answering.”
Bracing both hands against the steering wheel, he asked, “Where do you live?”
“Ten minutes east of here, in Briarwood subdivision.”
“I can drop you off before I take your car to my shop.”
“Thank you.” She dropped her phone into her purse. “I’d really appreciate it.”
“All part of the job.” Archer grabbed the clipboard from the overhead console and handed it to Madison. “I just need you to fill out these papers. The first is for tonight’s bill and the second is to grant me permission to take your car to the shop and do repairs.”
A shapely brow arched. “You’ll let me know how much the repair will cost before beginning, right?”