Authors: Ann H. Gabhart
Tags: #Fiction, #Christian, #General, #Religious, #ebook, #book
The doctors had suggested Wes go to the Hollyhill Nursing Home until his leg healed enough to get a smaller cast, but David couldn’t imagine Wes in a wheelchair in that place where old people went to die. Wes wasn’t that old or that feeble. His leg was going to get better. It had to. David needed him back helping put out the
. And telling Jupiter stories to Jocie. David needed things to get back to normal, but maybe normal wasn’t possible after a tornado hit your life.
Jocie panted a little as she pedaled her bike up Locust Hill. The hill wasn’t really all that steep, but it was long and had two curves. Jocie stood up and worked the pedals. For a minute she thought she was going to make it to the top, but then the chain slipped on the old bike and the left pedal spun loose away from her foot.
“Piece of junk,” Jocie muttered as she hopped off the bike and began pushing it. She could practically see Aunt Love frowning and quoting some Scripture at her. Maybe something like,
In all things, give thanks
. That had to be one of Aunt Love’s favorites.
And she was right. Jocie was grateful Matt McDermott, the head deacon at Mt. Pleasant Church, had dug around in his barn and found the old bike for her. It was rusty, but she could paint it. She’d been able to knock the biggest dents out of the fenders. And it wasn’t all that much trouble to pump up the tires whenever she needed to ride it. She and her dad had already patched the inner tubes a couple of times, but the tubes were old and kept springing new leaks.
At least the chain hadn’t come off its cogs again. She definitely didn’t have time to be prizing it back in place. She was already late. Even before the twelve o’clock siren went off a couple of miles away in Hollyhill, she knew it was high noon. Her shadow was crawling along right beneath her. She should have called her father at the newspaper office before she left the house.
The sun beat down on the road until the blacktop practically burned her feet through her tennis shoes, but she didn’t let the heat slow her down. She pushed the bike faster.
Still, thankful or not, she missed her old bike. She could pedal to the top of the hill on it. Not that it had been new or anything. But that bike was gone with the wind. Her father had found one of the wheels, crumpled and bent with the spokes sticking out every which way, but the tornado must have blown away the rest of it to Jupiter along with Clay’s Creek Church.
People were still showing up at the newspaper office to get their pictures in the
, holding the back of a hymnbook, the splintered plank off a pew, a Sunday school chair, or whatever bit of the church building they’d found in their fields. Zella, who manned the reception desk at the paper, had printed out a sign last Monday saying “No more church fragment pictures needed,” but Jocie’s dad made her take it off the door. He said community relations were worth a little film and newspaper ink. Besides, folks still seemed interested in where the pieces of the church had ended up. Somebody came in nearly every day to ask if anybody had found the collection plates. As if they’d be full of money or something.
It was funny how some things had survived the storm and some hadn’t. Wes’s motorcycle ended up on its handlebars, but with hardly a dent. Not that Wes could ride it. Zella said she didn’t see how he’d ever ride it again, but Jocie knew he would. His leg would heal. Jocie prayed about it every day, and the Lord answered prayer. She knew that without a doubt after this summer, with Tabitha coming home from California and Zeb waiting with his funny dog grin every time she went out of the house and Wes living through the tree falling on him. And her father being her father.
As Aunt Love was always saying,
O give thanks unto
the Lord, for he is good.
Psalm somewhere, Jocie was sure. Aunt Love would know exactly where. She had hundreds of verses on file in her head. Lately she’d even done better remembering other things. The beans hadn’t been too salty or the biscuits burned past eating for weeks. Of course Tabitha and Jocie tried to be Aunt Love’s backup memory, taking things out of the oven or off the stove before the smoke started rolling.
That was about all Tabitha helped with. Not that Jocie had expected her to help rearrange the living room that morning so they could put up the cot for Wes. Tabitha couldn’t very well push furniture here or there now that she was so obviously expecting a baby. She spent most of her time sitting right in front of the electric fan, chewing on ice.
Jocie was beginning to understand why her own mother had hated being in the family way. Nobody in their right mind would volunteer for that nine-month tour of duty. Tossing your breakfast every day for months, looking like you’d been wrung out like an old dishrag, propping up ankles as puffy as old Mrs. Johnson’s at church, groaning every time you stood up, keeping hold of your belly all the time for fear something might fall out . . . But the really weird part of it all was that, in spite of every miserable thing, Tabitha was practically glowing she was so happy.
Maybe once Wes was home, he could help Jocie make sense of some of it. She and Wes hadn’t gotten to talk, not really talk, for days. Another reason Jocie was having to practically run up the hill, pushing her bike. She had to get to town in time to go with her father to pick up Wes at the hospital. She had to be the one to tell him they had everything ready for him at the house and how much they wanted him to stay there until he got well enough to hop back up the steps to his own rooms over the newspaper office.
She’d already told him as much a dozen times, but it would be different when the nurse was rolling him out of the hospital. He might decide Aunt Love was too old, Tabitha too expectant, Jocie’s dad too busy, and Jocie too young to take care of him. He might decide he was a bother and look for a way to go back to Jupiter, the planet—or Jupiter, the town in Indiana or Ohio or wherever he’d come from before he’d shown up at the newspaper office back when Jocie was just a little kid. She couldn’t let that happen even if she had to stay home every other day from school. She had to take care of Wes. She was the reason he had been in that churchyard with the church and trees flying over their heads. It was her fault that he needed somebody to take care of him.
A couple of cars eased past her, and Jocie thought about ditching her bike and flagging down one of the drivers to hitch a ride. But she was nearly to the top of the hill, and it was mostly downhill the rest of the way to Hollyhill.
Her dad would wait for her or come looking for her if she didn’t show up soon. He’d been paying more attention to where she was, ever since the tornado. Of course, that could be because she was always underfoot, going with him to see Wes or at the newspaper office helping get out the
. About the only times she wasn’t close enough for him to yell at her if he needed something was when he was taking Tabitha to the doctor over in Grundy or when he was down at the courthouse talking to Leigh Jacobson.
Aunt Love said Jocie’s father and Leigh were sparking even if they hadn’t really gone out anywhere except to church or to see Wes at the hospital. And Leigh did show up regular as clockwork to help fold the
on printing night every week now. That was okay with Jocie. Leigh always brought brownies.
Jocie wasn’t saying a stepmother prayer the way she had the sister prayer (“please let Tabitha come home”) and the dog prayer (“please let me have a dog”). She’d asked her dad if she should, and he’d said to leave that prayer up to him.
At the top of the hill, Jocie paused long enough to wipe the sweat off her forehead with her shirttail before she got up on the bike seat. She glanced back at the rear tire to be sure it still had enough air in it. She really did need some new inner tubes. Then she took off down the hill, happy to feel the breeze on her face, what with the way the sun was roasting the top of her head.
Up ahead of her, she spotted another bike. It wasn’t one of the little kids from the houses along the road. This kid was big, bigger than Jocie. Maybe not a kid at all. No one Jocie recognized, at least from the back. It was pretty uncommon seeing somebody in Hollyhill she didn’t recognize. It was even more uncommon to see a stranger riding a bike to town. She generally knew everything about any new family that moved into the neighborhood long before their bikes were unloaded.
She started pedaling faster, curiosity making her forget the heat and how thirsty she was. Worse, she forgot that the old bike didn’t handle speed very well. The chain started clacking. Jocie braked, but it was too late. The chain had already slipped off the cogs and the pedals were useless. She was freewheeling down the hill.
She still might have been okay if the bike up ahead of her hadn’t been passing by the Sawyers’ house. Butch, the Sawyers’ big German shepherd, lunged off the porch toward the road. Butch never let any bike pass his house unchallenged, and the thing to do was either pedal as fast as possible to get by with no bite marks, or walk by because as soon as your feet were on the ground instead of on pedals, Butch turned into a big pussycat.
The person on the bike in front of Jocie obviously didn’t know that. He slowed his bike down to keep an eye on the dog.
“Watch out!” Jocie yelled, as she barreled down the hill toward him.
The boy looked over his shoulder and pushed hard on the pedals to get out of the way. The dog was barking and nipping at his front wheel. Jocie tried to swerve around them, but Butch jumped in front of her. Without thinking, she laid the bike down rather than hit the dog. The dog jumped sideways and banged into the other bike’s rear wheel. They all ended up in a heap in the ditch. Butch quit barking, jumped on top of Jocie, and started licking her face. Her leg was hurting some, but the dog’s front paws digging into her shoulder hurt worse, so surely nothing was broken.
Jocie pushed Butch back and peeked around the big dog to look at the boy on the other side of the spinning bike wheels. She’d been right about him being a stranger. He looked about fifteen or sixteen, with curly black hair cut close to his head and angry dark brown eyes staring at her out of his black face. Blood was trickling down from a nasty scrape on his forehead.
“Are you okay?” Jocie asked. She was glad the bikes were between them.
“Am I okay?!” he shouted. “Do I look okay?”
Jocie winced. “Well, no. Your forehead’s bleeding a little.”
He touched his forehead and then looked at the blood on his fingers.
“It doesn’t look too bad,” Jocie said. “I mean, from what I can see.”
“No thanks to you and your dog,” he said as he wiped his fingers on the grass.
The boy yanked his foot out from under his bicycle and sat up. The better to glare at Jocie. She put her arm around Butch for courage and said, “He’s not my dog.”
“He’s not your dog?! Then why’s he trying to lick your face off?”
“He just likes me. At least as long as I’m not on a bike. He doesn’t like anybody on a bike.”
“And I didn’t aim to run into you. The chain came off my bike and I couldn’t stop. Didn’t you hear me yelling at you? And it was just bad luck Butch jumped in front of me. I’m really sorry. I hope nothing’s broken.” Jocie looked at her bike. The wheels had finally stopped spinning.
“You mean on us or on the bikes?” The boy was still frowning.
“Both. I’ve already totaled one bike this summer.”
“What’s the other poor guy look like?” the boy asked.
“Not too good actually,” Jocie said. “He’s in the hospital.”
The boy looked at her and suddenly burst out laughing. Butch started barking and jumping around them.
“It’s not really all that funny.” Jocie made a halfhearted attempt at a smile just to be agreeable, but what she really felt like doing was crying. She was still a mile from town. It’d take her forever to get the old bike straightened out and the chain back on. She could run, but when she stood up, her ankle hurt. She must have sprained it. She might walk on it, but running was definitely out.
The boy wiped the laughter tears off his cheeks with the back of his hand. “I’m sorry, but it really is.”
“Look, I’d love to stay and keep you laughing, but I’ve got to get to town.” Jocie picked up her bike and looked at it. It was hopeless. She let it drop back down in the ditch. She’d have to work on it later.
“What’s your hurry?” the boy said. “You haven’t even told me your name yet. If I’m going to charge you with reckless bike riding, I need to know your name.”
“Jocie. Jocie Brooke. I live down the road about a mile. And charge me with whatever you want to. I told you I was sorry and that it was an accident.” She gave Butch one more pat on the head before she started down the road.
“Hey, are you hurt?”
“I’m not bleeding. At least I don’t think I am.” Jocie stopped to feel her face and look at her hands and legs. Nothing but dirt and grass stains.
“And you’re bleeding.”
“But you said it looked like I’d live,” the boy said.
“Me too. I just won’t be able to run for a while.” Jocie was walking again. Butch ran ahead a couple of steps and waited for her to catch up.
“You want to run?” the boy asked as he picked up his bike and set it on its wheels out on the road.
“I’m late to meet my dad,” she said over her shoulder without stopping.
“Aren’t you going to ask me my name? Or do you just ask white kids for their names?”
Jocie stopped walking and turned around to look at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“That you didn’t ask me my name, I guess.”
“Well, actually I’ve been told I shouldn’t talk to strangers at all, much less ask them their names.”
“We can’t be strangers after we’ve been down in a ditch together.” The boy wasn’t smiling, but his eyes were still laughing at her.
Jocie took a deep breath and blew the air out of her lungs slowly. She wouldn’t let herself get mad. After all, she had run him over on her bike, so if he wanted to laugh at her, that was better than yelling at her. She kept her voice calm. “Okay, good point. So what’s your name?”