Authors: Tammy L. Gray
atie woke up to a massive fur ball crushing her sternum.
“Get off.” She shoved Agatha to the floor and frantically tried to remove the mound of hair deposited on her shirt. The gray beast popped her tail in the air, and Katie could have sworn the cat smirked at her.
When she’d made the decision to come home, she’d planned on staying only long enough to get her parents back on their feet. A week . . . two weeks, maybe. But she had never imagined they were this bad off. Her timeline would undoubtedly be stretched from weeks to months, and still she wondered if it would be long enough to accomplish the task.
Covered in sweat thanks to the pitiful AC, Katie made the trek to the bathroom, having to slide her body between stacks of boxes to get there.
She’d sprayed the mildew-infested room with half a bottle of tile cleaner the night before, and to her relief, several of the black stains had disappeared. Still, she wore flip-flops when she stepped into the tub and closed the curtain with two fingers, barely touching the plastic.
One task at a time.
Talking with Asher had left her feeling empowered, almost superhuman. But the reality that came with sunlight was worse than the night before. This house was too much for her parents. Too big. Too many small rooms and doorways. A staircase so steep her father would be first-floor-bound like her mother in only a few years.
She had to convince them to sell. But who in their right mind would buy a house in this condition? No one. And her parents needed more than what an investor would pay. They needed money for retirement, medical expenses, and paid help.
Worry pounded in her temples. She was only twenty-six. Too young for such a monumental responsibility. But there was no one else. Her half-brother was ten years older and refused to speak to their father. Her mom had a sister who lived somewhere in California, but Katie had never even met her.
Panic shook her chest, pain pressing against her lungs. She closed her eyes, spoke words to a God she’d only just met, and waited until the anxiety went away. She’d been in a more desperate situation than this before, and it had led to a new beginning. Asher was right. There had to be a purpose for her being here.
With damp hair and wearing a wrinkled set of athletic clothes, she navigated the creaking stairs back to the main floor. The hallway actually felt cool this morning. Maybe the air conditioner wasn’t completely worthless.
Her mom’s curtain was pulled to the side, and to Katie’s surprise the bed was made. In fact, it was the only space in the house that lacked any clutter or dirt. Katie quietly poked her head into the attached bathroom, and relief rolled through her. Spotless, although a lingering odor of urine burned her nostrils. A portable handicap commode with a plastic pan had been mounted above the real toilet.
“Katie? Is that you?” Her mother’s sharp voice carried through the hallway and made her heart pound in quick, nervous beats. A face-to-face conversation was unavoidable, and she knew the last four years had undoubtedly worsened their hostile relationship.
She followed the sound to the kitchen. The smell was better. Last night she’d run the dishwasher and taken out two loads of trash.
“Hey, Mom,” she said as soon as she made eye contact with her mother.
Maureen Stone sat at the kitchen table, surrounded by plastic bags filled with who-knows-what and drinking a cup of coffee. She pushed down on her cane and very slowly stood. Katie waited, knowing her mother wouldn’t want any coddling. “Well, come here. Give me a hug.”
She obeyed. Her mom had gained some weight since Katie had left, but it worked for her. Made her face softer, despite the dark circles and permanent scowl.
“It’s good to be home,” Katie said. And it really was. Even if her home felt like an indoor trash compactor, at least it wasn’t some jerk’s apartment or worse, the women’s shelter.
Her mom trembled in Katie’s arms, so she let go and eased away while her mother found the safety of her chair again. There was despondency about her, a depression trapping her like cling wrap.
She gave Katie a quick once-over. “You’re prettier without all that black. It made you look like a streetwalker.”
A wave of defiance tightened in Katie’s muscles, but she forced a smile. “Thanks, Momma. You look good too.”
Those words brought a glare that could level a building. “No I don’t. I look crippled, and don’t go acting like I don’t. I’m stuck here in this hell of a house with no help. No daughter. Although I don’t know what I expected. Even when you did live in town, you were unreliable. Carrying on with Cooper, Chad, and Laila like you didn’t have a family.”
And so it began: the verbal list of everything she had done wrong and couldn’t change.
Katie pulled out a chair and sat. “I’m here now.” She took her mother’s hand. “I want to help you.”
Her mom looked away. “For the record, I didn’t want him to call you.”
Swallowing the lump in her throat, Katie stood up and walked to the coffeepot. Her mom didn’t trust her, but she’d prove this time was different. A carton of half-and-half stood open on the counter, and she smell-checked it before adding a splash to her mug. “So, what is your routine like? I’m going to clear out some of this stuff, and I need to know which room I should start in.”
“This is my home business. I have a plan for every little thing. Just need to get a system together.”
Katie bit her lip and prayed for patience. There were enough knickknacks, clothing, random kitchenware, yard tools, and costume jewelry to fill a warehouse.
“A business is good, Mom. But . . .” She hunted for the right words. “Maybe I can help reduce your inventory a little.” She couldn’t believe she was calling this filth inventory, but she knew exactly from whom she’d inherited her stubborn streak. One wrong word, and her mother would shut down her plan completely. “We can donate the stuff that won’t bring much money and focus on the items that will. We can clear out the dining room and set up your office down here.”
Her mom’s coffee mug clattered against the saucer while she tried to get her hand steady. Katie ached to help, but stood silent until her mom was able to get the cup settled. “Who decides what’s important?”
“I’ll separate them into piles, and you can have the final say.”
Her mom snorted. “Like you’ve ever given me a say. Not when you quit community college. Nor when you took off like a rodent on fire four years ago. Ain’t that our pattern? I give you advice and you do the exact opposite?”
Katie gripped her mug tighter. “Yes, but I’ve grown up a lot since then.”
Her mother made a
sound, likely surprised that Katie had agreed with her so easily. “Cooper and Laila know you’re back in town?”
Katie’s stomach sank, and she examined the contents of her coffee cup. She didn’t want to answer that question. It would only lead to a conversation she had no intention of having.
Her mom raised a quick eyebrow. She knew Katie’s silence spoke volumes. “He’s gonna come looking for you, you know. The boy asks about you every time he sees me.”
Katie’s eyes snapped to her mother’s, and she knew her mom was right. When she’d met Cooper, she’d been attracted to his conquer-and-win personality. He’d spent his childhood drifting from place to place, yet still managed to get his GED and worked harder than most to earn a paycheck. But together they’d been a hazardous train wreck: Katie always searching for the next high, Cooper believing the world owed him some kind of debt.
She took a deep breath, trying to uncoil the tightness in her chest. “I ran into him yesterday at the Stop and Go. He knows it’s over between us.”
Her mom stood and held on to the table as she took her first step. “Knowing and doing are two different things, and we both know you aren’t one to stick to your guns very long.” Another arduous step, and then she grasped the chair Katie had vacated. “You can start in the dining room, but nothing goes until I see it. I’m gonna go poke myself with a needle now and try not to crash on my way back to my room.”
“I can walk with you,” Katie offered, though she already knew the answer.
“Do and I’ll knock you out with this cane. I ain’t no invalid. And we both know you care more for yourself than you ever did for anyone else, so just stop pretending otherwise. I don’t know what finally made you come home, but it ain’t me.” She paused, and identical blue eyes met Katie’s. “I can tell you got secrets. Deep ones.” With one last painfully slow step, her mom disappeared into the hallway.
Katie sagged against the sink and covered her stomach with one hand. This was one of those times when doing the right thing made her want to puke. Her mother was right about her having secrets. But nothing in Katie’s past had brought her home. Just the opposite.
Every horrific memory made her want to run far, far away.
sher hadn’t spoken to Katie in four days, although he’d watched her endlessly from his office window. Every morning she’d pull out three big tarps and lay them across the grass. Then, without fail, she’d spend the next four hours unpacking boxes and sorting everything from clothing to hardware onto one of the squares. Her mom would join her in the afternoons, and they’d argue for another hour over the three piles.
When the volatile negotiations subsided, Katie would disappear for twenty minutes. Sometimes she’d go for a walk. Other times she’d go inside the house. But eventually, she’d return and pack everything up. The stuff on two of the tarps was bagged and tossed into the back of a rusty old Chevy. Asher always knew when she left because the ancient truck required three tries to start and blasted smoke from its muffler.
Today was different, though, and not just because he’d be going to his dad’s church for the first time in months. Katie still hadn’t emerged, and it was well past her usual starting time.
Asher stood in front of the mirror and tightened his tie. He shouldn’t care. He shouldn’t know her schedule down to the time she took a break for lunch. They weren’t even really friends. Just two people who’d shared a moment under the stars. Yet Asher couldn’t shake the memory of how she’d clung to his every word. How her eyes had conveyed vulnerability and desperation.
His phone buzzed from the dresser, his mom’s text not at all unexpected.
You’re still coming today, right?
Yes. Leaving now.
A small part of him had considered backing out. Dread inched up his spine, and he reminded himself that church service lasted only an hour. He’d walk into the building, shake a few hands, fake a few smiles, and try not to make eye contact with anyone from the Murray family.
Yet his anxiety grew with every mile he drove, and it skyrocketed the minute he pulled into Fairfield Fellowship. This wasn’t the first time he’d been to the building since his firing. He’d come here to take his dad to lunch a few times and had even helped his replacement learn how to update the website. But Sundays were different. They brought crowds of people. People who had judged and betrayed him.
Fellowship’s campus sat off the main highway on an acre of land. The new sanctuary loomed two stories in the air, and both the Georgia state and American flags waved from almost as high. Two more buildings had been added in the last five years: a two-story children’s center and a gym. Every dream his father had envisioned for the church was now realized.
With a quick check of his watch, Asher confirmed he’d stalled enough to avoid pre-service small talk, and he walked toward the wide glass doors.
Barry and Linda Ferguson were the greeters for the day, and their surprise when he entered was palpable and immediate.
“Asher?” Linda’s mouth fell open an inch. She moved more quickly than he, and soon he was enfolded in her embrace. She’d been his Sunday school teacher when he was in the fourth grade. “It’s so good to see you.”
He patted her back twice, feeling his gut tighten. “You too.”
Barry put out his hand and slapped his arm. “Been a while, son. Glad you came back.”
He wanted to say “just for today” but instead muttered a thanks and detangled himself from the gushing couple. One hour. He’d played the part for twenty-six years; this should be easy.
But it wasn’t. Everything about being at church hurt. The smell of wood paneling, the new carpet he’d heard his mother talk about but hadn’t seen, the two rows of teenagers that used to be just one. Fellowship had changed, grown, and he hadn’t been a part of any of it.
Careful not to glance toward the left side of the sanctuary, where the Murrays generally sat, Asher found his mother standing front and center like always. His dad said it helped his confidence to be able to see her, so she always sat in the first row where the stage lights didn’t blind his view.
Asher walked up behind her, placed his hands on her shoulders, and squeezed. “I made it, with three whole minutes to spare.”
She turned immediately and hugged him. “It could be three seconds and I wouldn’t care. You’re here.” She pulled back and laid her palms on his cheeks, her eyes glassy and illuminating a happiness he wished he shared.
His mom stepped aside so he could shake hands with her guests, Susan and Tom. They were related to them somehow. Second or third cousins or somewhere down the family tree. Asher had given up trying to keep track of his mother’s extended family.
The older couple smiled and asked questions about his job and house, completely unaware Asher was sweating profusely underneath his tie.
He’d caught a glimpse. Just one small glimpse of long platinum blonde hair, and his lungs practically collapsed. It wasn’t even Jillian, but the thought that she might be near destroyed his weakening resolve. They’d stolen more than just his ministry. They’d stolen part of his soul.
He prayed for the music to start, but time seemed to stand still. Coming back had been a mistake. He wasn’t ready. Not when all he could feel was a deep, pulsing hostility.
Katie waited until the glass doors were shut and the greeters had vanished before getting out of her car. She was known for boldness, for fearing nothing, for barreling toward the fiercest opponent without slowing down. Yet none of her old courage was surfacing today.
She’d vandalized their sign the night of graduation and egged the youth pastor’s car on Halloween. She didn’t deserve to be there. Didn’t deserve the grace she’d received months ago. But when they’d said good-bye in Tallahassee, Reverend Snow had made her promise to find a church home, even if it was temporary. Asher’s easy forgiveness the other day made her think maybe others here would act the same.
Katie slid into the back row, near the sound booth, and kept her head bowed. The house lights were dim, and a song about mercy echoed off the walls. She took a minute to just breathe and listen to the powerful lyrics. When the soloist finished, applause filled the room, as did light. What had been unrecognizable silhouettes were now people Katie remembered.
The principal from her high school sat in the section to her right, his face drawn in like he’d aged thirty years since retiring. He leaned over to whisper something to his wife, and she shook her head. Katie let her hair fall like a curtain over her profile. She’d probably caused at least half the gray hairs on the man’s head.
She spotted Asher in the front row, next to his mother. He shifted nearly every minute and kept stretching his neck as if it hurt to sit there. Periodically, he glanced at the side doors and then turned sharply back around to face the front.
She wouldn’t say his behavior distracted her, but it certainly surprised her. Shouldn’t this place be like a second home to him? Yet he seemed even more uncomfortable than she was.
Pastor Powell took the stage and, after leading a prayer, asked the congregation to stand while he read the text. A movement to her left caught her eye, and despite her inner warning to keep her head down, she glanced that way. Mary Blanchard was struggling to stand, using her walker for support and stability. A young woman held her elbow and patted her wrinkled hand.
Pain seared Katie like a branding iron. Mary hadn’t changed at all. Bluish-white hair was still teased into a puff around her face. Mounds of dangling jewelry hung from her neck, and as always, she wore a silky pantsuit—the kind that could rival even those worn by the richest socialites. Katie inhaled, the memory of Chanel No. 5 so powerful she could almost smell it from across the room.
Pulse racing, she fell into her seat when the scripture reading ended. Every street in Fairfield held a measure of shame, but nothing compared to what she’d done that weekend she’d fled from town.
Pastor Powell was speaking now, but she couldn’t hear anything but the cries of her own guilt. Mary had relied on Katie, trusted her, even defended her when people said the benevolent widow was out of her mind for hiring such a troublemaker.
Katie had loved her for it, too, though not enough to do the right thing. And that one transgression had been the unraveling of her life.
She stood, no longer caring about remaining invisible. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. She’d spent four years locking that night away. Four years trying to forget.
She was supposed to get a second chance. A clean slate. A new life. “Beauty from ashes” is what Reverend Snow had said. And she’d tried. She’d buried those ashes deep in her mind, ready to cast away everything she had been before she found peace. But starting over was a lie. Her past was standing right in the middle of her future.
Katie rushed to the exit.
It didn’t matter that Asher turned around just as she bolted. It didn’t matter that his eyes widened, or that he smiled as if her being there brought him some sense of relief.
None of it mattered. Because deep down, she knew her mistakes were much too big to ever be forgiven.