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First Love

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Summary

This is Us meets A Child Called It meets Sweet Inspirations in this raw, and relatable Christian romance. Desperate to escape a moment of despair, Paige makes a choice, catapulting her onto a trajectory she would have never chosen. A reluctant trip down memory lane challenges everything she’d ever believed, forcing her to see through new lenses.

Genre:
Romance / Other
Author:
Momi Robins-Makaila
Status:
Complete
Chapters:
1
Rating:
n/a
Age Rating:
18+

The Love of a Good Woman series book 1

First Love

The first of a four-book series: The Love of a Good Woman

By Momi Robins

Copyright © 2020 Momi Robins-Makaila.

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 website address contact form.

Any references to historical events, real people, or real places are used fictitiously. Names, characters, and places are products of the author’s imagination.

Front cover image by Masina Sausi.

Printed in the United States of America. First printing edition 2020.

Momi Robins-Makaila

Momilani Enterprises

Kapolei, Hawaii, 96707

www.momirobins.com

For God and Family…

and for you, the reader of this book, I pray that my stories will entertain and inspire you to live your best life; the life God has destined for you.

If you enjoy “First Love”, I’m happy to offer you my second Christian Romance Novel,

“Trusting Our Love,”

absolutely

FREE

I’ll offer you another opportunity to get your

FREE DOWNLOAD, at the end of Paige’s story.

Preface

If you’re like me, you want to love yourself, to have balance in your life, to experience real joy, to walk confidently with purpose, and to know who you are and what you have is enough, and you want real love. You want reminders of the truth that love conquers all, no matter the obstacles.

Whether you’re reading my memoir, Christian romances, or middle-grade novels, my goal is to take you on an enjoyable journey of discovery, relationship, and personal growth.

In my memoir, I hope that my willingness to be transparent and honest about real struggles empowers you, by the grace of God to embrace your own struggles with honesty and without fear.

In my sweet and provocative Christian romance novels, the characters are relatable and interesting. You’ll love and hate them; cry and laugh with them.

Woven throughout the fanciful, entertaining journeys in my ‘coming-of-age’ novels for middle grade and young adult audiences are lessons to inspire the understanding of one’s self, perseverance, trust, faith, and overcoming obstacles in the face of fierce adversity. I hope you enjoy them.

Sincerely, thank you for picking up my books and sharing this journey with me. If you’d like, visit www.momirobins.com and drop me a line. Momi

Introduction

Paige is just a sweet girl; the girl next door from a small hometown on O’ahu, in Hawaii. Like all little girls, what she wanted was simple; she wanted to be loved and adored, happy and carefree. But at the ripe age of five, she already learned that life was nothing but, simple or carefree.

While some girls dreamed of the beautiful wedding, the handsome and loving husband, the white-picket fence, two-point-five children, and God-ordained kind-of-love, Paige wanted nothing of the sort.

Her parents’ abusive relationship was motivation to avoid love at all costs. She vowed that she wouldn’t become like her weak and submissive mother, who couldn’t stand up for herself. She vowed she’d never take the risk of loving a man like her abusive father, who touted apologies and empty promises.

From the day Lance, the new boy, stepped foot into her middle school classroom, his adoration for Paige was evident, but to everyone else except her. No matter how many obvious cues he dispatched over the years, she remained steadfast against love and romance, laser focused on her professional goals, refusing to acknowledge his advances.

When one of her parent’s many vicious fights leaves her mom, hospitalized, battered and bruised, Paige lets her guard down, allowing Jason’s opportune advance, leaving her life’s plans thwarted by one careless night on a white sandy beach, under a full moon. Paige is pushed on a path to a decade-long love triangle that causes her to doubt everything she’d ever believed.

A traffic jam after a salon appointment to freeze fat cells from her thighs incites the reluctant trip down memory lane; inspiration to see her life through new lenses.

Can Paige have a God-ordained kind-of-love? Is there such a thing?


You’ll Find out…

Chapter 1

Looking Back

“I was thirteen years old the first time I saw a speck of cottage cheese­–like cellulite on my thigh. I remember looking at my body in the brightly lit Strawberry Shortcake–decorated bathroom I shared with my younger sister. It didn’t matter much then. That was before it all changed. Decades later, the cottage cheese on my little-girl-turned-young-woman-turned-mother thighs bothers me quite a bit. That damn ugly pest lay dormant for thirteen years, yet once it reared its ugly head, like rabbits on steroids, it multiplied with a fricken vengeance. I’m five-feet-five-inches tall and one hundred thirty pounds. I’m pretty healthy (been called a MILF), but that damn cottage cheese makes me feel like an imposter. No matter what the heck I do, I can’t seem to get rid of it. It’s been killing me slowly with its poison, sucking the life out of me. Unlike my young self, I can no longer open my eyes while staring into the bathroom mirror without my right eyebrow twitching uncontrollably.

I guess that’s why I’m lying here, mummified in cheesecloth, hoping to shrink my ass and thighs as much as I can in an hour. If the scorching heat doesn’t get to the deposits of fat on my thighs, it’ll extinguish some brain cells, for sure. God knows the effects of the sun-like heat and synthetic chemicals soaking into my epidermis. That damn fricken cellulite and the lengths I’ll go to get rid of it, pathetic. That’s why I have to tie a jacket around my waist and pretend it looks cool. That’s why no matter how much I work on myself; I can’t seem to like what I see. That’s why I have to have sex with the lights off. Oh, wait, what’s sex? Oh, wait...maybe it’s not the cottage cheese that makes me feel like a fricken imposter. Maybe it’s the half-of-a-decade-old hiking trail carved into my belly. No matter how much I tell myself that path is evidence of childbirth and motherhood—my badge of courage—it doesn’t work. I still feel like my life is passing me by, robbing me of total happiness. I love my grandma, but I am a hundred percent hottie held captive in a grandma’s body.

This body image dysphoria is simply one of my many issues. How am I going to find my second ‘soulmate’ with all this bullshit going on inside my mind? It’s no wonder I’ve had one big fat failure after another: I haven’t spoken a kind word to my dad in years, and other than my kiddo, I don’t have any prospects of a stable intimate relationship. You’d think since I got that one stubborn gray hair that keeps popping up in the middle of my head, that one strand that glistens in the sunlight, I’d have gotten this self-esteem thing under wraps—doesn’t gray hair mean wisdom? Even if it’s only one hair, I should feel wiser.

Okay, stop feeling sorry for yourself, Paige. You’re alright. You are God’s precious child. You can do all things in Christ, who strengthens you, you dumb ass! Has it been an hour yet? I swear I’m going to bust open. I hope they didn’t forget about me.”

“Knock, knock.” The subtle sound of knuckles against the tiny, dome-shaped human kiln startled her. “You okay in there?” the dainty technician, who looked too young to buy a pack of cigs, asked as she knocked on the chamber’s roof.

Paige cleared her throat to lighten the raspy sound of her alto voice.

“I’m fine. Just excited to not see the fat on my thunder thighs,” she remarked.

From inside the tube, the clanging staccato sounds of the opening hinges magnified in her ears.

“Honestly, I can’t see how you think that. You are a beautiful woman,” answered the sweet girl whose name tag read ‘Rachel from California.’

“You are lovely to say that, but I know you say it to all your customers,” Paige said in a slightly less than facetious tone.

“No, Paige. I’m not kidding. You look great, honestly,” she replied, nodding her head affirmatively. “Seriously, Paige, what are you like, 28?”

“A few more years than that,” Paige joked.

“Well, working here, I see a lot of things. Two-hundred-fifty-pound women come in here, expecting to shed a hundred pounds in a one-hour session. Then there’s the one-hundred-ten-pound woman who is mortified by the dime-size dimple on her butt. You fall near that end of the spectrum, undoubtedly!”

Paige shifted her head toward the floor, timidly. Her cheeks lifted into her eyes as she emitted a subtle,

“Awe.”

As her feet welcomed the cold tile, she grabbed Rachel’s arm to brace herself from toppling over. The stars spinning around in her mind slowly faded as she acclimated to being outside of the dome. Once she stood upright with her feet firmly planted on the floor, she thanked the dainty technician. “Rachel from California, that is sweet of you to say.” Rachel held a terry cloth bathrobe like a curtain for Paige to slip on as she stood upright. “I feel lighter already,” Paige chuckled, blinking her eyes to expedite adaption to the new environment. “I’ll be better when I get these wraps off me, though,” she smirked.

“I’m sure you will be, Paige, I’m sure you will be.” She flashed a kittenish wink. Rachel held on to Paige, assisting her toward the restroom down the dimly lit hallway.

“I’m fine,” Paige said, holding both palms out toward the floor to balance herself.

“I know you got this, but humor me, please, so my boss doesn’t fire me. Protocols are important here.”

Paige chuckled. “Sure. I guess I can let go for a little while and let someone take care of me for once. Take care of me, then. If you insist, here you are.” Paige held her arms out for Rachel to assist. Rachel laughed.

Prompted by her daydreams down memory lane while she lay still in the fat-burning dome attempting to rid her thighs of the little bit of lard that somehow attached itself to her body, she wished other mistakes were that easy to free from her life’s existence. Amazingly, science had advanced enough that fat could be squeezed from the body as if it were never there—with no scars, no downtime. “At least that’s what they say. We shall see,” she mused. “It would be delightful to erase emotional scars and dumb decisions like that,” Paige ruminated. “Wouldn’t that be a scientific breakthrough if it were possible to melt away heartache? I could be a multi-millionaire if I had a pill powerful enough to do that,” she pondered, popping the Prozac she forgot to take before her visit to the salon.

“All good. Ready to start the rest of my day,” she sighed as she left the bathroom and her soaked wraps—hopefully, soaked with the fat she was leaving behind.

Paige took a deep breath before starting the engine. “Ok, this day is going to be a great one.” As she reversed from the stall in the parking lot of the salon, Paige chided herself, remembering the busy day she had ahead. “Why do I always wait until the very last minute to finish all the party arrangements?” Her bad habit of procrastination was something else she hadn’t yet been able to nip in the bud. As she thought about Peyton’s birthday and how the arrangements weren’t gonna make themselves, she tugged on her daily to-do folder stuck in the handle of her purse, swung it open to the bookmarked page, and laid it down on the passenger seat—all while attempting to give her driving most of her attention. After flipping three pages backward, her fingers found the list of ‘Peyton’s Birthday Party To-Dos.’ Invitations, check; order food, check; order cake, check; table centerpieces, check; balloons, check; five number one candles, check. The list was long, with a check next to most items, but there were still so many remaining, checkless. As her eyes glanced at the next entry on the list, ‘slideshow,’ angst rose in her body like the red line of a thermometer sitting in hot water. She’d been stuck at that entry for days, not wanting to face the memories her life’s pictures elicited. She was unsure which period was causing more apprehension—the first four years of Peyton’s life or her own childhood.

Although most pictures elicited happiness, many of them had the same effect as the cellulite on her thighs. She contemplated getting rid of them as she had with the fat but knew even if she could, they wouldn’t stay gone. The memories remained, etched in her brain.

Four Sterilite containers were buried deep in the storage shed in the corner of the backyard, where she rarely went. At least, that’s where they lived until the slideshow for Peyton’s birthday became a priority. Peyton had been through too many hardships. She deserved a fun celebration. This sacrifice was the very least she could do. Paige moved the containers from the shed to the back of her closet a month ago. That was the first step. Like some recovering addicts, she took a considerable amount of time to get from one stage to the next. “Oh, gosh. I have, like, two hours to get a slideshow done. I’m so dumb,” Paige mumbled to herself.

‘Beeeeep! Beeeeeep,’ honked the frustrated driver behind. She peered angrily through the rearview window at the car’s driver. The flailing of his arms and scowl on his face instantly gave away his impatience. Unsure of how long the red light had been green, her foot slammed on the gas pedal. “Shit!” she shouted inside the safety of her car, inching her way into the right lane so the impatient driver could pass. If it weren’t for the black tint of her car window, the irritated driver could have easily read the scowl on her face too. Rather than brooding, Paige tapped her fingers on the steering wheel to the rhythm until her scowl was gone. Before the chorus, the grimace was wiped off her face for sure. That’s what the right music could do—a strategy she’d developed a long time ago.

With her right hand on the wheel and the elbow of her other arm resting on the car door, her mind wandered again—a common transgression of a struggling wannabe writer on a mission to write something useful, something worthy of publishing she could consider a gift to the world. As she scratched her temple with her fingers and dragged them down the side of her face, she wondered, “If I could tell the younger version of myself what to do to achieve the biggest dreams of my life and avoid all this bullshit and heartache of life’s long, arduous road of ups and downs, I’d do it in a second. I’ve had enough of life’s obstacles. I’m so sick of being alone, a mediocre parent, an unknown real estate beginner, a noncommittal Christian, and ten pounds heavier than I want to be.” She exaggerated a sigh, calmed and began twirling the strands of hair lying on her shoulder. Her fingers made multiple rotations before her mind answered her question. “Wait! That’s a great idea. But what the hell would I say to myself? What kind of help would I be to my younger self?” She prodded her mind.

As she often did, Paige started a two-way dialogue with herself. “So…,” she thought, tapping her fingers against the side of her forehead. “If I could instruct the five-, ten-, fifteen-, twenty-year-old version of myself to live well, what would I want to teach her? What would I share?” She gasped, slapping her thigh. “Ugh!” She adjusted on her seat to straighten her naturally poor posture as if that might help the inspiration seep inside. It did. Paige lifted her finger toward the sky. “I should share my journals.” Then she shrunk into her shoulders again. “Ugh. Why would I write about that? Nobody would care.” An embittered gasp transpired from her solo conversation. “Why would anyone want to read the story of a lonely, slightly overweight, noncommittal Christian woman who is a mediocre mom? Okay. Scratch that idea!” Paige shook the brilliant-turned-miserable thought from her mind. The episode of brooding combined with her daughter’s looming birthday celebration and that damn container of pictures sucked any extra energy out of her. “God, where’s the inspirational music when I need it?” she squawked, thumbing through the disappointing selections on the radio. “It’s my only child’s birthday,” she conceded.

A semi-inspirational song helped until Paige remembered Peyton’s last birthday party. Jason’s mother’s sister got drunk, and tore Paige’s dress in front of her then-infant child. Jason’s aunt was an interesting character. The mere thought of having to see her sent Paige into a state of panic. Her underarms dripped profusely with sweat. Her heart thumped feverishly, and the only thing that could bring her back down was the end of every visit. His aunt Steph was a big woman. She was broad and tall, so tall she never wore heels, and so wide, her shirts always stretched horizontally. She was an intimidating woman because of her size alone, but when she spoke, her voice was so raspy, she sounded like a man. Jason used to joke that when people called his house, they’d mistake his aunt for his father. It became a family joke listening to her scream at the other end of the line: “I am missus, not mister, you idiot!” Why Jason’s aunt couldn’t stand Paige was unknown to her, but it was clear to everyone. She sought to embarrass Paige any chance she had. Whenever Jason’s aunt tried to embarrass her, Paige would remember that joke. It helped, sometimes. “If I felt more secure with myself, maybe it wouldn’t bother me so much that she doesn’t like me,” Paige admitted. The more she thought, the more anxiety rose inside her like a king tide. “Damn, I’m having one of those days,” Paige seethed. While brooding seemed a viable option, Paige hummed the current song on the radio until pleasant childhood memories vanquished the discomfort.

***

“Kiss daddy, Paige!” The six-foot, four-inch giant opened his arms so the little girl about to start school could run into them.

“Daddy! Are you taking me to school?”

“No, baby. Your mother will be taking you. I’ve got some things to do, but I’ll be home right after work, and you can tell me all about your day.”

“Ok, Daddy.” Paige nestled her head into her daddy’s chest as she gave him one of their famous teddy bear hugs. He let her down easy until the tips of her toes safely touched the floor.

“Come on, let’s go,” her mother instructed as she opened the car door.

“Who’s Daddy’s number one girl?” Paige pointed to her little sister in the car seat next to her. “Nope, that’s number two. I asked for number one!”

“Me, me!” Paige jumped up and down, pointing her finger at her chest.

“Yes, you, Pea. You are Daddy’s number one girl. I’ll always keep you safe and happy!” He touched her nose with his finger. Paige tilted her head and gave a shy smirk. “Go on now. Mom is waiting for you to get into the car. Buckle up,” her dad directed.

Paige extended her hand to her mom. As she walked to the opposite side of the car with her eyes still fixed on her dad, she banged into the open door. Her dad covered his mouth and chuckled. “Oh, Paige,” he laughed. “Go on. I’ll see you soon.” She turned around, gave a quick smirk, and scurried into the back seat. She sat on her knees, staring out the window until she couldn’t see him. He stood waving at her until he couldn’t see the car.

“Hey—seat belt,” her mom ordered.

“Hrmph!” she gasped in disgust, dropped to her bottom and buckled the seat belt.

“Paige?” Her mom called as they pulled into the only open stall in the school parking lot.

“Yes, Mom?” she answered.

“Help unbuckle your sister’s seat belt for me. We’re running a little late. I have five minutes to get you to class.”

The dash to Paige’s kindergarten classroom took four minutes.

“You made it,” chuckled her teacher as they rounded the corner of the building toward the room.

“Ugh, your sister is heavy,” Paige’s mom panted.

“Hi, Sam!” chortled Mrs. Horie, Paige’s teacher. “Hard to run with a little one on your hips, huh?” she joked. “Glad to see you made it in one piece.”

Sam stopped to catch her breath. “Yes, me too.”

“Do you remember me from orientation night?” Mrs. Horie asked Paige.

“Say, ‘Hi, Mrs. Horie. How are you?’” encouraged Sam as she stroked the hair atop Paige’s head.

“Hi, Mrs. Horie. How are you?” Paige repeated.

“I am excited to start the new year. Thank you. I am fine,” she loosened a playful smile.

“Good job,” Sam nodded. “Okay, Paige, I’ll meet you right here after school.” Sam pointed her fingers toward the floor. “Right outside here, your kindergarten classroom. You’ll wait for Mommy with your teacher, right here,” she repeated.

“Yes, Mom,” Paige answered.

As Sam’s fingers rolled gingerly off Paige’s cheeks, Paige looked up at her teacher. Mrs. Horie rested her hands on Paige’s shoulders. “You are such a brave girl. I can tell,” she said. Paige gave a subtle smile and nodded.

“Have a good day, Paige,” Sam hollered as she waved goodbye. Paige pressed her lips tightly against each other to ensure she’d stay brave. Once Sam turned the corner and Paige could no longer see her mom, she shot another glance at her teacher, whose smile was comforting.

***

The day was long. Just as the bell struck two, Mrs. Horie clapped her hands twice. Her students paused and looked up as taught. She stood, arms to her sides, waiting for all the eyes to look up. “Great job, students. You already know the signal. So proud of you,” she said as she clasped her hands together cheerfully. “The bell is going to ring in just a few minutes…” Paige grabbed her backpack from the seat of her chair and stacked it on her desktop. “All of you have done such a great job for your first day of school. I am going to miss you. But we will see each other tomorrow,” Mrs. Horie added. “Line up patiently at the door, please, until the bell rings. Your parents will be rounding that corner soon!”

’Ding, Ding, Ding,′ the bell chimed. The hallways quickly filled with parents and little brothers and sisters anxious to hear about the first day of kindergarten. The four- and five-year-olds greeted their families with equal enthusiasm. The shuffling of little feet echoed in the hallways until the kindergartners and their families were nearly all gone. Paige watched her new friends leave one and two at a time until she and Mrs. Horie were the only ones left standing in the doorway. The halls emptied. The excitement of the high-pitched voices and the teeter-tottering of little feet pitter-pattered away. Paige squeezed Mrs. Horie’s hand tightly. The reassuring look in her teacher’s eyes slightly eased the worry on her little face. Paige’s eyes darted back and forth between Mrs. Horie and the empty hallway.

“Mrs. Horie?” Paige asked.

Anticipating what Paige was going to ask next, Mrs. Horie held up her finger and shook her head. “Nooooope,” she said, drawing out the word playfully. “You don’t need to worry your pretty little head. Mom is on her way. I know it,” she reassured Paige. “Don’t you worry at all. Your mother is not even ten minutes late. She will be here.” Mrs. Horie cupped Paige’s chin in her palm, stroked her cheek with her thumb, then grasped Paige’s hand as she walked toward the chair at her desk. “You can sit here if you want,” she assuaged. Paige watched Mrs. Horie saunter to the window to peep into the parking lot. Paige tilted her head toward the floor. A tear fell down her cheek as Mrs. Horie tiptoed to see out of the windows.

Mrs. Horie hurried to her, placed a hand on Paige’s chin, and slowly lifted her face so she could peer into her eyes. “Don’t worry, Paige. She’s probably just running late with all those errands she has to take care of during the day. Afternoon comes fast, you know. Come. Come sit with me at the door.” Mrs. Horie pulled two little chairs together, dragging both into the doorway. Paige hung her head and intertwined her fingers together as she walked toward her slowly. Mrs. Horie waved her hand. “Come, Paige. Let’s sit.” She tapped the seat of the chair next to hers. Mrs. Horie’s fingers caressed the back of Paige’s hand repeatedly.

Although the tremble in her hand subsided, Paige’s pouty lips and furrowed eyebrows made it difficult for Mrs. Horie to hold back her tears. When she realized Paige needed more than a hand holding, she lifted the anxious little girl onto her lap. “Don’t worry,” she repeated. “Your mom will be here.”

Seconds later, Sam, whose hair sat in a disheveled bun on the top of her head, darted anxiously around the corner. The right sleeve of her V-neck blouse fell over her shoulder. During the hustle toward the classroom, she pushed her dark sunglasses back onto her nose to prevent them from falling. In an attempt to make herself presentable, she unraveled her ponytail, pulled it taut, and rewrapped her hair into a tighter bun. Just before Sam reached the door, Mrs. Horie lifted Paige from her lap. As they stood, Sam rushed through the opened classroom door and extended her hand for Paige to grab hold. Her other hand covering her mouth.

“Ahem,” Sam cleared her throat. “Paige, Mrs. Horie, I’m so sorry,” she murmured. “There was so much traffic. Um...yeah. The traffic was bad.”

“Mom, why are you covering your mouth?” Paige asked.

“Oh, um. I. I don’t know. It feels like something bit me,” Sam dismissed. “Anyway, I’m so sorry. I lost track of time.”

Paige clutched the backpack leaning against the legs of the chair and swung it over her shoulders. “Say goodbye to Mrs. Horie, Paige,” ordered Sam as she yanked her arm.

“Are you okay, Sam? Are you coming down with something?” Mrs. Horie asked. “I’m not being nosy, just concerned,” she assuaged.

Sam dispensed a phony smile. “Um…yes. I think so. Again, I’m so sorry.” Paige leaned against Sam’s waist, curiously shifting her head to snag an improved view of her mom’s lips. Sam squeezed Paige’s hand and furnished another artificial smile. “Gosh. So sorry, Mrs. Horie. Yes. Yes. I am fine. Just lost track of time,” she repeated.

“Mom, you said traffic,” argued Paige.

Sam released Paige from her grasp and raised her eyebrows high onto her forehead. “Paige, quiet!” With her free hand, Sam tucked her shirt into her shorts and tugged at the bottom of each short leg to lower them over her thigh. “I’m sorry again for being late. It won’t happen again. Let’s go, Pea.” She gave another fake smile while patting Paige’s shoulder.

“My daddy calls me Pea,” Paige argued. As she walked down the hall with her mother, Paige glanced over her shoulder at Mrs. Horie, whose suspicious eyes remained affixed on them. Paige and Mrs. Horie shared the same mistrustful grimace on their faces.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Paige,” her teacher called from the doorway of their classroom as she hesitantly waved goodbye. Paige and her mother scampered hand in hand down the long hallway without a word shared between them.

The belt in her booster seat jammed like it typically did when Paige attempted to pull it across her body. “Mom? The seat belt is stuck again,” she alerted. Without saying a word, Sam reached over Paige’s head and tugged at the belt. Paige noticed her mother’s rosy cheeks. “Mom? Are you crying?”

Sam cleared her throat. “No, I’m not crying,” she replied, wiping away the tears with her knuckles. “I’m just tired and not feeling well.” Sam’s attempts to reassure Paige of her well-being were unsuccessful. Paige kept her eyes glued to her mom’s cheeks, watching if tears fell from them.

Even in her disheveled state—her eyes puffy and red, tears flowing down her cheeks—Sam was beautiful. Paige loved staring at her mom. She had a light, golden-brown complexion and a perfect nose in the shape of a teardrop. Her light brown eyes and eyebrows were perfectly shaped—rounded with a subtle slope near the ends. When she smiled, two lines around her mouth emphasized her exotic, pouty lips. Her smile was full and happy. It lit up her eyes and accentuated her oval chin. Paige appreciated that everyone described her as her mother’s daughter. Even as a five-year-old, beauty was important, and she wasn’t bashful about being beautiful like her mom.

“Mommy, you can call me Pea, too,” Paige said, breaking the silence.

A tear rolled down her mom’s cheek. “Thank you, my love,” she replied. The atypical silence in the car made the ride home seem longer than usual. Paige’s innocence kept her from anticipating the looming darkness to come, but Sam knew.

When they pulled into the driveway, Paige saw her dad’s Chevy truck parked in the garage. “Daddy’s home! Mom, Daddy’s home!” Her mother gave Paige another fake smile but didn’t utter a word. As soon as Sam and Paige pulled into the driveway, and shifted the car into park behind her dad’s truck, Paige clambered through the garage, and into the front door to find her dad sitting at the dining room table flicking the ashes of his cigarette into an already filled ashtray. His elbows were planted securely on the tabletop as his foot vibrated anxiously against the floor. Paige made her baby voice. “Daddy!” she screamed, jumping into his lap. His less than enthusiastic response drilled a hole into her heart. She nearly fell off his lap when she jumped up. He made no attempt to catch her. Immediately, she retreated while her lips automatically puckered. Paige stood still in front of him with her hands clasped together, waiting for her Dad’s foul mood to leave. It didn’t.

“Paige, do you have homework?” her mother asked.

“Yes, a worksheet my teacher said we have to practice,” she mumbled.

“Well, then, get to it. Go into your room, please. You can play the music you like. You know, the song without lyrics, Before the Rain. Just leave it on until I come to get you. I’ll make you a snack. I have to talk to your dad.” Sam gave a dismissive wave.

Paige began to whine. “But, Mom,” she tried to nag.

“Paige, stop!” her mom snapped.

Paige tried to make sense of the spectacle as best she could on her own. Her dad discharged an intimidating stare. Paige saw it. She didn’t know what it meant, but it sent a chill up her spine—scaring her into submission. Paige moped toward her room with the same frown she had when leaving her teacher a short time before. Paige held on to her tummy so she wouldn’t feel like throwing up, but it didn’t help. Halfway through the hall, she hurled over at the waist, the contents of her stomach spilling onto the carpet.

“Damn it, Paige!” screamed her dad. “Go to your damn room so your mom and I can deal with our shit!” he yelled as he yanked the washcloth hanging over the back of the chair next to him and swung it at Paige’s mom.

She walked deliberately one step at a time, toward her room. As she opened the door, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, hanging on the opposite wall. “My head is above the doorknob,” Paige said to herself. “I guess I’m a big girl.” She turned back to the height-marks her mom etched into the jamb of the door. “Yes, I’m a big girl now. I can do things on my own,” she tried to convince herself.

“Paige?” Sam nudged Paige into the bedroom. Already set to go was the CD of Lee Oskar in the player. “Paige, I’ll play your favorite oldies music, okay? The one your daddy always plays for you—so you can be happy.”

“That’s the one with only the instruments right, Mom?” she asked. “Daddy’s favorite one.”

“Yes, Pea. Put your things away, hang your backpack on the hook in your closet, and get started on your homework. Then, journal me some honesty, okay, baby? Remember, your journal is one of your very best friends. You can tell it anything, exactly how you feel.” Sam caressed Paige’s cheek. “I know you’re only five years old, but you’re old enough,” she loosened a half-smile. “I’ll be back to check on you. Homework, don’t forget.” Sam cocked an eyebrow. “Paige?” she said impatiently.

“I will, but can you help me with my homework and journaling?”

“No, I’m busy. You can do it on your own.”

Paige stomped her foot. “You always tell me to do everything on my own,” she whined.

“Paige, I have to talk to your father. I think you know that,” Sam snapped.

“Sooooorrryy!”

Sam inhaled and exhaled deliberately, choosing to overlook Paige’s eyes roll. When Sam turned before leaving the room, Paige tossed her backpack between the desk and the armoire.

“Pea!” Sam scolded.

Paige shrugged and sneered as she bent over to pick it up. “Sorry!”

“No, you’re not.” Sam cocked her right eyebrow.

“Okay! I’ll put it away,” Paige answered sharply. Paige unzipped the backpack, pulled her folder from the bag, tossed it onto the desktop, stomped to the closet, and lobbed the pack on the hook. “Yes!” She pumped her fist. “I got it.”

“Yes, good, but, Pea, what do I always tell you?”

Paige put her finger to her cheek. “Um,” she scoffed.

“Pea!” her mother chided in an unyielding voice.

“Um…,” she began again, correcting her tone, “you always say that I have to obey you and respect you and listen.”

Sam nodded. “Close enough. Okay, now sit and open your folder so you can do your homework.” Paige pouted. Sam crossed her arms, waiting for the five-year-old to sit at her desk. Instead of opening her school folder, she pulled out her Bible and journal from the top drawer. Paige grabbed the Bible in one hand and with her other pinched the crumpled half piece of bright pink paper stuck like a bookmark in between two pages. Paige tried to recall the name of the book in the Bible they had been studying. “The p is silent,” she murmured to herself. “What is that silly word?” she groaned, discernably deep in thought.

Sam’s eyes watered. Her shoulders shrunk, and her heart fell into her feet. “I’m sorry, Paige,” Sam’s tone softened. “The word is Psalm.” She dropped her hand from the frame of the door, retreating into the room. I’ll read it to you, Pea.” Sam sat on the chair, lifting Paige onto her lap. Paige pulled the half sheet from between the pages of her Bible, adjusting her position to get comfortable. “You wanna read it together?” Sam asked in a soft tone. Paige nodded eagerly.

“Psalm 143:5. ‘I remember the days of old; I …’” Paige stuttered on the next word.

“The word is ‘meditate.’“

“Meditate, mom?” Paige clarified.

“Yes, meditate. It means to think quietly.”

Paige continued to read. “‘On all Your doings; I muse…’”

Sam nodded. “Yes, muse. Good job. You remembered the word,” Sam celebrated proudly.

“‘Muse…on the work of Your hands.’ Psalm 102:18. ‘Write these things for the future…so that people who are not yet born will praise the Lord.’”

Sam kissed Paige on her temple. “Good girl, Pea. You are so smart—five going on fifteen.” Sam smothered kisses onto her cheeks. “You know I love you, and I love when we read from the Bible but don’t forget you need to do your homework,” she reminded Paige.

“I know, Mommy, but I want to journal me some honesty,” she rhymed. “He-he-he,” Paige giggled.

“You’re so cute, my baby!” Sam sighed. “Yes, go journal me some honesty. Journaling always makes our hearts light.” Agreeably, Paige nodded as Sam caressed her chin.

A scornful howl interrupted their moment of peace. “Get your ass out here, Samantha!” Paige’s dad yelled. Paige jumped at the disdain in his voice.

Sam gasped. “I’m sorry, baby. I have to go.” Sam stood hurriedly and set Paige on her chair.

Paige sniffled. “Sorry, Mommy. Sorry that I made you read with me,” she sniffled again.

“No, it’s okay. It isn’t your fault. Here, let me turn on your stereo. Your favorite music. Your dad’s song. The one with no words,” she added.

“Thank you, Mommy,” Paige replied while reaching for a pencil in the desk drawer. Just as she stuck the blunt tip into the electric sharpener on the back corner of her desk, her dad screamed again: “Sam, get your damn dumb ass out here now before I come in there and get you.”

The symphony of the sharpener’s drilling sound and the music from the player almost buried the sound of the shouting originating from the dining room. Paige threw the newly sharpened pencil onto her desk. Watching it bounce against the wall and roll onto the floor, hypnotized her. As the pencil hit the ground, her mom uttered an agonizing, high-pitched shriek. Paige jumped off her chair and fumbled toward the closed door. Holding on to the knob, she pressed her ear against it to hear the commotion outside.

“I’m sick of this shit. Same damn crap,” Paige’s dad screamed at his wife—her mother.

“Mom is begging for him to stop—she’s worried about me, but my dad isn’t,” Paige noted. It sent a knife through her heart.

“Please, not my face!” her mother begged. “The neighbors are going to hear. You’re going to scare Paige, and the baby too. Please, stop!”

“I don’t give a crap about what anyone thinks,” he rebutted.

Paige held the doorknob in a death grip to help both quivering knees keep her standing. When she heard a beer bottle crash on the floor and the sound of broken glass scattering across the tile, her body started to shake. Paige tiptoed backward from the door until finding herself against the edge of her bed, then turned around to climb in. Once her knees were on the mattress, she cupped her hands over her ears to muffle their battle. “Don’t listen. Don’t listen,” she repeated in her mind. Her little fingers crawled along the bed for her pink, furry blanket folded neatly on the corner. With one hand, Paige yanked the blanket over her head to drown out the noise while she kept her other hand pressed tightly over her ear. When she couldn’t drown out the screaming of her father and whimpering of her mom, she seized the journal at the edge of her desk. “Journal me some honesty.” She remembered the habit her mom helped her to begin. She wrote: “God, I know you love me and my parents and I am suposd to love you and them too. But, I wunder how you love sum wun that hurts other people, a lot. My Dad is meen. Are all huzbens and daddys meen? Do daddys janj? Will my daddy janj?

Paige lay on her back, staring at the white ceiling. On her brand-new CD player—a gift from her daddy and mommy—Before the Rain looped faintly. She turned up the stereo dial so she wouldn’t need to listen anymore to the screaming from the dining room. It didn’t help.

Paige tried to read the words on the bright pink paper she and her mom read together religiously. She attempted but gave up. Paige stuck the piece of paper in between two pages of the Bible then opened her journal again. She drew one heart on an empty page then shut the book. Paige tossed the pencil onto the desk then stuck her diary and the Bible in between the mattress and box spring. She turned onto her side, staring at the white walls. Paige curled up like a fetus, and eventually, made herself fall asleep.

Chapter 2

Reflection

Paige stumbled out of her memory and rolled down the window of her car. She raised her nose toward the eight-inch opening and quickly inhaled a breath of fresh air before she took the on-ramp to the freeway. Paige was about to brave morning traffic—the next time clean, crisp air would be available wouldn’t be until after the second-to-last off-ramp. By the looks of the traffic already, she had at least an hour before then.

When Paige rolled down the window, a gust of wind blew the picture between the visor and the garage door clip onto the mess-covered passenger seat. The photo of her with Peyton just a few months after Peyton was born lay faceup on the pile of papers, her briefcase, and the crumpled foil from the tuna sandwich on whole-grain she ate this morning. “She’s had a great childhood so far, this little girl—thank God,” Paige said to herself. “I pray she never has to struggle with the same kinds of issues I’ve had. I mean, I’m pretty good and all,” she joked as she blew on her nails and rubbed her shoulders, “but I’ll probably never have romantic love in my life.” She teased herself. “You’re probably going to end up an old maid Paige, so you better just come to terms with it,” she chuckled. “No, but seriously…at least I’m okay now—almost. I’ve raised a diva—a good, strong girl. I mean, jeez, Peyton is already such a boss lady—as assertive and confident as a little girl can be.” Paige raised her eyebrows, then sighed in relief.

She giggled, continuing to talk into the space of the car. “Okay, so, I wonder what five-year-old Paige would say about the life I’ve built and the woman I’ve become? What would I tell five-year-old Paige? Would I tell her everything will be all right? And what would I share with my daughter about what I’ve learned since then?” Paige puckered her lips. “Hmm,” she murmured. Paige fluttered two fingers repeatedly against her cheek. “The thought of one day answering that for my little girl, for all little girls, is pretty cool.” With her right hand resting on the top of the steering wheel, and the elbow of her left leaning on the top of the door, her fingers took turns either playing with her hair, twiddling her earlobes, or scratching her head.

The thought of hours in traffic didn’t seem so bad now. Being bumper to bumper on the freeway allows me to spend time with myself, and maybe I can figure this thing out—this thing called life, Paige thought. “Yeah, you know what, Paige?” she giggled out loud. “I’ll be inspired. I’ll figure out my life’s purpose. Huh,” she sighed. “Maybe I am pretty smart, turning traffic into an opportunity.”

When her car veered toward the left, getting too close for comfort to the highway median, she refocused her full attention on the road ahead. Paige’s grandfather, who taught her how to drive, scolded her all the time for that bad habit. “You’re always daydreaming. Can’t be daydreaming while driving,” he’d say. A small smirk formed on her face when she thought nostalgically about her grandpa’s driving lessons: in his raspy, stern voice, he always scolded: “Two hands on the wheel, one at ten and one at two. Pray, then go. Stop daydreaming!” He said it so often, and so firmly with such wisdom, it stuck with Paige. There weren’t too many times, especially while she drove that she didn’t think about the lessons he taught. Her grandfather’s words reminded her, calmed her, and redirected her attention where it belonged—on the road ahead. “If you want to get to where you’re going, have an idea of where you want to go; put two hands on the wheel, one at ten and one at two; pray, then go,” he’d say. She started up again—twirling her earlobes with her fingers, and when she’d had enough of that, playing with her hair.

The cool breeze from the open window was a thing of the past. Paige couldn’t keep the window open unless she wanted the smells of exhaust fumes in her car. The air conditioner had to suffice. The semi-cool air blew the cross hanging on a chain from her rearview mirror, back and forth like a pendulum. The cross—another gift from her grandfather—came through her mother. It was another tangible symbol of strength when she needed something to touch and hold. She held it in the palm of her hand and stroked it with her thumb twice before letting it swing again in the slightly colder air. She continued to have conversations with herself as she inched along in bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic more than just a few off-ramps from the one she needed to take.

The radio reported a nonfatal, but multicar accident miles up the road. “Damn it!” she grumbled as she hit the top of the steering wheel. “More traffic!—No! I’m not letting traffic mess up my good mood. Nothing can penetrate this even-tempered demeanor. If I can keep calm in this kind of traffic, I can do anything!” she joked with herself. “Besides, this is an opportunity, this traffic.” Paige kept gripping the wheel with her palms at ten and two, while her fingers danced rhythmically to the tune on the radio. As she hummed and sang merrily along with the song, playing her fingers in the air like she was playing the clarinet, Paige snuck a quick look out her window and the passenger’s side to make sure no one was watching—she was about to take it up a notch and start dancing like a crazy girl! “Wait—what does that say?” Paige asked herself, attempting to read the license plate on the car ahead. Paige furrowed her eyebrows as she tried to decipher “10QJZS” on the Altima. “Ten Q…,” she pronounced. “Ten Q...J...Thank you. Oh!” she exclaimed. “Thank you, Jesus! I love that. So creative,” she shouted.

She sat, inching along in her car, thinking about her life, her grandfather, the cross he gave her mother who then gave to her, and how she was following a “10QJZS” license plate. “I do follow you, Jesus. Thank you,” she affirmed. “I should do this fat-burning thing every morning. I’m having a perfect day, and I’m looking forward to the rest of it,” she laughed. “Wait, do I thank Jesus? Do I let him take the wheel, as Carrie suggests? Do I let Jesus lead me? Do I follow him?” she wondered aloud, as she feverishly rummaged through the most significant experiences of her life. “Do you, Paigey Poo? Do you believe that Jesus can take you wherever you need to go? Do you?” she insisted as she crinkled her eyes. “Hmm…,” she murmured again. “Do you let Jesus take the wheel? Or, do you keep your grip at ten and two so tight that when God tries to direct your path, you pull the wheel in your own direction? Grandpa said, ‘Put your hand on the wheel, pray, then go.’ But he also said, ‘Keep your hand at ten and two!’”

“Holy Jesus!” she exclaimed. Her jaw dropped, and her eyes grew wide. “Seriously? Could I have misinterpreted Grandpa’s message all these years? Did he mean that I should get in the car, but let God lead the journey? Shit, I don’t always need to know where I’m going or when I’m going to get there. I need to let him take me! I have to hold on at ten and two and expect a cool ride. That’s all! I think Grandpa was trying to tell me that I have to enjoy the ride, even when sometimes the ride is a little scary. At those times, I have to hold on at ten and two.”

The more Paige thought about her life, the more she realized she wasn’t following God’s lead. She was tightly holding on to the wheel when it was trying to take her in different directions. As a plethora of questions and epiphanic discovery flooded her mind, she remembered Psalm 102:18, one of the Scriptures her mother had drilled into her since she was at least five years old: ’Write these things for the future so that people who are not yet born will praise the Lord.’ Paige inhaled and exhaled, inhaled and exhaled. “Oh God, I’ve been such an idiot,” she exclaimed, squeezing her forehead with her fingers. “I have always been a writer. God made me that way. I’m going to write a book about my life, so I can figure it out and live happily ever after. Maybe I can have happily ever after…” She pinched her nose to stop sniffling. “But I don’t even know what the hell I want anymore! Paige, can you even name one thing you want.” She paused.

“See? Nope! You need to figure out the here and now, Paige,” she scolded. “You got to face your shit, girl” she continued to criticize. “Okay,” she relinquished. “How do I figure out what I want when I don’t even know who the hell I am?” she cried and laughed at the same time. “Damn it, why can’t I be normal like everybody else? Why does this life of mine have to be so complicated?” She rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Look at my sister; she’s got no stress, no drama.” Paige twisted her mouth as she thought. “Look at Beck. And Tess. Both their Facebook pages look like Webster’s definition of per-fec-tion! I mean, shit. That sucks for me. Why me? Huh? Why me?” Paige half laughed, and half cried as she whined her way through traffic.

“Okay, that’s it. I am starting over. This day is the first day of Paige’s new life.” She pointed her finger toward the floor of the car like she was staking a claim. “I think the fat-sucking dome sucked out some of my stupid brain cells. I think it left behind all the smart ones! I do,” she giggled. “Okay, Paigey Poo, you’re on a roll, sister. So, how the hell are you going to do it? Come on, smart brain cells, fire yourselves away!” She slapped the steering wheel, laughing hysterically at herself. “God, I am entertaining,” she cackled. “You did well today!” She hit the wheel again. “I know! I know! I’m gonna write a book about my life so I can figure this mess out and fix my shit—pardon my French.” Her jaw dropped. “My mom was right! She knew I was gonna be a writer from when I was a little kid,” Paige exclaimed. A thrill ran up and down her spine—a physical manifestation of her epiphany. “But geez, how did Mom know?” she asked herself. “I mean. I’m good with Peyton, but I’m not that good. Okay, wait, what’s that Scripture Mom used to make me memorize? Crap, I was thinking about it. Hmm...,” she focused as she rubbed her chin with her fingers. “So, what will I tell ten-year-old Paige, and Peyton, and all the little girls of the world?” The philosophical discussion she was having with herself prompted another trip down memory lane.

***

“Paige, did you journal me some honesty?” her mom called from the kitchen as she rinsed the vegetables for dinner. “If so…” Her mom paused. “You can go play with your cousins and friends.”

Ten-year-old Paige sauntered into the room just as her mom got to work on peeling the potatoes and carrots for the pot of stew meat simmering on the stovetop. “I did journal me some honesty.” Paige snickered. Sam cocked an eyebrow at the mocking tone.

All Paige could think about was the street football game, hopefully already in progress so she could jump right in. She contemplated offering her assistance, crossing her fingers. “Mom, do you need help?” she asked, a hint of reluctance in her voice. Sam shot Paige a quick smile, cognizant of her dilemma. “I think going out to play is slightly more important for you than providing help with dinner,” Sam conjectured. “Don’t worry, I got this,” she added. Her hands were too messy to hug Paige, but her slight shift to the left indicated an expectation for a kiss on her head. Paige shifted as if it were a hardship. Before escaping from chores to investigate the musings of the neighborhood kids, she tiptoed over the smoldering pot, “Mom, that’s a lot of stew for just us. Who’s coming over tonight?”

“Your uncle and aunt.” When Mom didn’t give names, Paige knew who it was: the usuals—Mom’s sister and her family, Aunt Lisa, Uncle Jason, and their two babies. “Did you journal me some honesty, Paige?” her mom prodded again.

“Um…Yup…” She paused. “I told you already that I did.”

Sam, too distracted to address Paige’s sassy tone, dismissively responded, continuing to prepare the stew. “Good job, Paige.”

Paige thought to herself: Thank God she doesn’t always check my journal, or I’d be in big trouble for writing only one sentence.

“Paige? how much did you write?” Sam prodded.

“Uh oh,” Paige thought, “I’m busted now.” Paige cleared her throat. “Mom, I wrote one line, but I read. I want to play. Please?” she pressed her hands together in a steeple. “Please.”

Her mom cocked her right eyebrow; an expression Paige had seen frequently these days. “You’ve got to live life to write about it, Paige. And you know you have to write about it to learn about it.” Paige released a miffed sigh.

“Yes, I know, Mom. Live life, then write about it. I do,” she snickered.

“All right, I’ll give you a pass today, Paige.” She waved her hands dismissively—Paige’s signal that she should run before her mother changed her mind.

“Thank you, Mom.” Paige planted a kissed on her mom’s cheek. Her mother nodded mindlessly, engrossed in making sure the stew met her husband’s expectations. Paige ran out of the front. ‘Clash,’ went the screen door as it slammed behind her. As she darted down the driveway toward the kids playing up the street, Paige hollered a patronizing apology, “Soooorrrry Mom. I forgot!” Regardless of her mother’s incessant scoldings, the effort required to hold the door took more exertion than to shout half-hearted amends. To avoid hearing her mother’s scream, Paige darted hastily out of earshot. “Hey, I’m in!” she called to the dozen neighborhood kids who were playing street football, which they did most afternoons. “Hey!” she repeated as she waved her arms in the air.

Johnson, sitting curbside, yelled back, “Yeah! Paige is coming. I’m in too.”

Before she could get in, Johnson, JJ and a kid from another street ran into the game. Just as Paige arrived near the makeshift end-zone, the quarterback threw her the ball. She darted for the opposite end, scoring a touchdown less than a minute into the game. Her team cheered, jumped up and down, chanting her name repeatedly! “Yeah!” she screamed.

Johnson ran toward her with his arm in the air. “Yeah, Paige!” He slammed his hand into hers.

“Johnson, that high five hurt,” she grumbled, massaging the palm of her hand.

He rolled his eyes. “Man up, woosy!” teasing playfully.

Paige, Johnson, and JJ were friends since diapers. JJ lived next door. Although they were neighbors, they were more like sisters. Paige and JJ were mistaken for sisters too. Paige wasn’t tall, but she wasn’t short either—she was just right as her grandpa often remarked. Her long hair, always pulled back into a ponytail, was slightly wavy and somewhere between golden brown and dark. JJ’s hair was almost the same length but a slightly darker shade like her eyes and skin. JJ had a big smile that showed off her pearly whites, and she wasn’t afraid to be a major jokester. She’d always been the class clown. Paige was different in that way—she was shy and reserved. JJ and Paige never liked Barbie or anything girly. They were two peas in a pod, stuck together like glue—looked alike, liked the same stuff, and loved each other like sisters. Rather than playing with dolls and makeup, like the other girls they knew, football was more their speed.

Johnson lived three houses up the street from Paige, on the opposite side. Even though he was the same age, Johnson was like Paige’s older brother, and she loved him like one too. He was always worried about her, protecting her from things she didn’t need protection from—at least, that’s how Paige described it. Tons of girls loved his slightly wavy and golden-brown hair. With his dark skin and light brown eyes, he was the object of many girls’ affection. He could date any girl he wanted, but he was never interested. Paige’s, JJ’s, and Johnson’s parents spent considerable amounts of time at each other’s homes for weekend backyard parties—the catalyst for their friendship. JJ’s parents worked a lot, so she spent most of her time at Paige’s house, which was another reason they were more like sisters than friends—that, and because they were just born that way, born to be friends.

Johnson’s parents would let him play all night if he wanted to—and at any time. He had no rules. JJ didn’t have any either, but Paige’s parents had regular curfews and expectations for chores, and because JJ was always at Paige’s house, it was a restriction by association. Paige’s parents were strict, except for when they were not talking to each other. During their arguments, Paige could stay out all night too. As much as she loved the extended curfew, once it passed that time—the time she was supposed to be home—the fear would creep in. What’s going on in that house? She’d wonder. It was in those moments she’d wish she spent more time at JJ’s home instead of the other way around.

Curfew had long passed since Paige’s mom let her slide on her reading, journaling, homework and since allowing the screen door to slam shut without consequence. What’s happening in there? She wondered nervously. Paige peered at the curb in front of her house. Her uncle and aunt hadn’t come, and her parents hadn’t summoned. JJ’s parents were home tonight. Johnson’s too, which meant Paige had to return home alone. She said goodbye to her friends, trudged up the driveway, and tiptoed through the screen door that typically slammed itself shut.

The quiet in the house was eerie. No one was in the kitchen. The TV wasn’t blaring as it usually was. Immediately, a malaise feeling overcame her. “Oh, no. It’s going to be that kind of night,” she thought while gripping her belly and tiptoeing toward her room. Her fears were confirmed the closer she got to her parents’ chamber. Familiar, disconcerting noises like the sweeping motion of a broom against shards of glass on tile, and her mother’s faint, puppy-like whimpering—sent a terrifying chill down her spine. Lightly, Paige wrapped her fingers around the doorknob. Although she contemplated before turning, she did it anyway—desperate to investigate. Squeamishly, Paige peeked into the room, whose thick curtains thwarted the remaining evening sunlight from illuminating the space.

The door ajar an inch, she scanned the expanse of the master bedroom. As if a storm had ripped through: her parents’ dresser mirror was shattered into a thousand pieces, blanketing the bedroom floor. On the ceiling, the reflection from the shards of glass shone like stars in a night sky. Spiderwebs across broken picture frames hid the faces in the photographs that once hung on the walls. Crumbs from holes in the drywall puddled like sand on the floor. A chair protruded from the canvas of their wedding picture—the first thing Paige was accustomed to seeing when she entered. The dresser tops were bare. Almost everything that once sat on them lay disheveled across the floor. The only thing standing upright was the lamp on the nightstand on the side of their bed. Paige tiptoed a foot into the five-hundred-square-foot room, then ran when she saw her mother’s body on the floor, protruding from behind the bed. Seconds later, her father emerged from their bathroom, wiping his sweaty forehead with a washcloth.

“What did you do to her, Jordan?” Paige screamed.

Her dad whipped his free hand across her face to punish her for being out of line. “Jordan’?! I’m your father. Who do you think you are, addressing me like that by my first name? Don’t you ever talk to me like that again, you little brat. Your bitch of a mother is fine. She’ll get her dumb ass up when she’s ready.”

She sighed and dropped to the floor to crawl toward her mother. “Mom, Mom, you okay? Get up,” she begged. “Mom, please be okay. What happened?” she asked, with her eyes partly on her mother and somewhat watching her father leave the room with her little sister in his arms. When Paige was finally alone with her mom, she scooted her body under her mother’s head and gingerly moved Sam’s bangs out of her face. “Mom, you okay?” When she nodded, Paige began singing the first thing that came to her mind: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. She repeated the line over and over again, trying to subdue her tears and her anger as best she could until she no longer had any more strength to hold them back. “Mommy, I hate him. I will never love him again! I don’t want you to live like this.”

“Paige, you will have way more control over your life. You are stronger than me.” Her mother pressed her hands against her belly to hold in the ache so she could speak.

“Mom, if it hurts when you talk, then don’t talk. I’ll stay with you as long as you need. Do you need something, Mom?”

“What do I always tell you to remember?”

Paige cleared her throat, wiped the sniffles from her nose, and repeated what her mom had drilled into her since she could barely read: “Psalm 143:5 I remember the days of old; I meditate on all Your doings; I muse on the work of Your hands. Psalm 102:18 Write these things for the future so that people who are not yet born will praise the Lord,”

“Okay, that’s what God says. Good girl. But what do I say?” asked her mom.

“You need me to live my life as best I can. To keep going until I find what it is I’m looking for. That’s what you always say, and you always tell me to journal me some honesty.”

“Yup, toots, and I got one more for you too. Do what I say, not what I do, okay, Pea? What’s right for me isn’t what’s right for you—ahem.” Sam gripped her belly as she coughed.

“Yes, Mom. I will, but stop adding things on, or I’m gonna forget,” Paige replied worriedly.

Sam’s subtle smirk, the deliberate blink of her eyes, and slight chuckle pleased Pea. “It’s just like you, Pea, to worry about forgetting the words I share with you.” Sam lifted her aching arm toward her daughter’s face, caressing her two fingers against her cheek. “Pea, I’m okay. I need to rest. Take your bath and have your dinner. I made the best stew in the world,” she joked. “I need to catch my breath. I’ll be out in a bit. Stay away from your father, though. As you can see, he’s in a foul mood.”

“Okay, but what about Aunty and Uncle and all them? Aren’t they coming?” asked Paige.

Sam rocked her head side to side. “No, I already told Aunt Lisa something came up.”

Paige scooted her knees from below her mother’s back, replacing them with the pillow that was hanging partially off her parents’ bed.

Paige slowly backed away. She headed toward the door, turned back to look at her mom before walking out of the room, and began to cry. Seeing her mom lay beaten on the floor, burnt a hole in her heart. She ran into her room, slammed and locked the door behind her. She pressed the Play button on one side of the double cassette player. ’Before the Rain′ played from the music box. Determined to stop the song from playing, she slammed her finger repeatedly against the button. When it did, she ripped the brand-new cassette from the player and slammed it across the edge of the desk until it broke into tiny pieces, like the glass on her parents’ bedroom floor. To silence her cry, she buried her face in a shirt that hung over the back of her desk chair. After finally catching her breath, Paige reached between the mattress and box spring for her Bible and journal—the things that had become her refuge. She laid her head on her mattress, gazing through her window at the dark-blue sky. She opened the Good Book to the first page, where she’d written her mantra, and repeated it just loud enough to hear her voice: “Psalm 143:5 I remember the days of old; I meditate on all Your doings; I muse on the work of Your hands. Psalm 102:18 Write these things for the future so that people who are not yet born will praise the Lord.” As she’d always done before, she flipped through the pages in the Bible and stopped where God took her. When she was ready, she closed the book, and repeated her mother’s words to herself, “Journal me some honesty,” then pressed her pencil against the paper.

“Dear Jesus,” she began. “Since you talk to me and I talk to you, and since I go to you a lot with my worries, I’m just going to be straight up, like I always try to be. I’m pretty pissed off at you, because we work so hard to be good, and it’s hard. It’s hard to do the right thing or know what the right thing is. You keep saying you gave everything up for me, but what’s so good about being here? If it’s so good up there, then why didn’t you take us with you? It doesn’t make sense. Why would you want my mom to stay here getting beat up? I can’t understand it. And if that’s going to be my life, I’m sure I don’t want it. My mom keeps telling me my life is my own, but I’m sure she didn’t choose this. I don’t want what my mom has. I want someone who’s going to be kind to me. I want a friend who’s going to look out for me. I want a friend who I can trust and have fun with and who’ll be there for me like you’re supposed to be. Is that too much to ask? But then again, they used to be right—my mom and dad used to be good. Things change, I guess. I want to be a person who makes lots of money and takes care of my responsibilities and who keeps control and does the right thing. But then again, you’re going to take everything away, anyway. Maybe I shouldn’t love anybody. Perhaps I should shut myself off from the world, so I don’t find myself a similar situation. Maybe? Enough for now. I have to go, God!

She slammed the book shut.

* * *

The horn of the car behind Paige ripped her attention from her memory. “Whoa. That was heavy. I guess that’ll need to be in my book, huh?” she half chucked, half brooded. “Hmm...What other memories should I include in my book?” she asked herself. Paige rested her elbow on the windowsill of her car and leaned onto her palm. “Hmm…” Soon, she was in another memory.

Chapter 3

First Impressions

“Getting your class picture taken sucks ass!” JJ spewed at their teacher, Mr. Tokuda. Nicknamed CIA on account of the fact he illegally sold saimin from his portable, Mr. Tokuda swore all his middle school patrons to an oath of secrecy. ‘Anybody rats me out, then nobody gets saimin, and everybody gets Fs!’ he’d threatened. His threat was effective; everyone kept their mouths shut. Plus, growing adolescents would do anything to keep their supplier of dry saimin and the occasional spam musubi.

CIA grabbed JJ by the collar. “I have had enough of your vulgar comments, missy,” he said, pulling her toward the opposite side of the bleachers from where Paige stood.

JJ started her typical protests. Almost always, JJ was the one in the wrong, but you could never tell her that. “This is unfair treatment,” she protested. “This treatment is discrimination because I’m dark! This behavior is mortifying MLK Jr.! I have a dream! I have a dream!” she chanted in the deepest, most commanding voice she could muster. As CIA pulled her collar, trying hard not to laugh, JJ pumped her right fist repeatedly in the air trying desperately to get others to follow. “The light-colored kids get to stay where they want! Unfair!” she continued to protest. JJ got what she wanted precisely—hysterical giggles from a live, captive audience of middle school kids who couldn’t help but follow the leader, even if it was leading them to doom. JJ got nearly half the lot to pump their fists in the air. They all chanted, “JJ has a dream. JJ has a dream!”

Paige raised her finger to her lips. “Stop! You’ll get in big trouble,” she scolded.

JJ’s self-centered, self-preserving attitude ripened by her parents’ rocky marriage, Johnson their partner in crime since diapers, former love interest recently having moved to another state and her love of being the class clown forbade her from halting the protest. “Why does Paige get to stand near the new boy? It’s because my Hawaiian skin is darker than her Hawaiian skin. She’s a white Hawaiian! Admit it, CIA! Conspiracy!”

CIA slammed his hand to his belly and hurled over, laughing so hard his face turned scarlet red. That was all it took for the entire class to pump their fists in the air. He gritted his teeth and tried as hard as he could to sound serious as he scolded the unruly group of teens. “Stay in your spots on these darn bleachers!” he ordered, continuing to laugh.

Paige loosened a shy grin toward the new boy. “Sorry…sorry for my friend calling you out like that,” she shrugged. Although he didn’t say anything back, the smile and dismissive wave said it all—he didn’t mind. “I’m guessing you’re used to this type of stuff, huh…? I’m Paige.”

“Hey.” He flashed a smile. “I guess,” he shrugged. “I’m Lance.”

“Yes. I heard, from the whole class,” Paige emphasized, quoting ‘whole’ with her fingers, “that your name is Lance.” She tilted her head toward the multiple pairs of googly eyes from boy-crazed classmates standing on the second row of bleachers. The high pitch of silly middle school girl giggles resounded when the girls at the end of Paige’s row pushed toward the center forcing her into Lance’s arms. “Oh my gosh,” she screamed, trying to keep her balance.

Lance grasped her waist with both hands. He held her close to him to ensure she wouldn’t fall. “Whew,” she gasped.

“No worries. I got you,” Lance replied.

Paige regained composure, rubbed the wrinkles out of her clothes, and nervously cleared her throat before nodding. “I can see you got me,” she answered, pushing out of his hands. “I’m okay.”

“You sure you okay, Paige, because your face is turning red. Are you going to faint or something?”

She shook her head. “Uh, uh.”

“Good, but if you do, I’ll be here to catch you,” Lance smirked playfully.

Paige blushed. “I’m fine. But I’m sure any one of them would be happy to say yes.” She gestured a thumb toward the silly girls.

Lance smiled, quickly scanning through the choices. “I’m not the least bit interested in any one of them,” he replied. “I am interested in checking out the beaches here, though. Care to show me around?” he asked.

“Um, I guess,” answered Paige, loosening a shrug.

“If you don’t want to, it’s fine,” he responded. “Your body language doesn’t exactly say, exciting!”

She waved her palm. “No, don’t take it like that. I need to let JJ know. We were going to take the bus to the mall. But I guess we can just as easily go to the beach instead. I’m pretty sure it’ll be fine. She and I will meet you at that bus stop over there,” Paige said, pointing toward the corner near the stoplight just outside the schoolyard fence. “We’ll meet you there right after school. If things change, we’ll let you know.” Lance raised his right eyebrow.

“You not gonna leave me hanging, are you?” he joked.

“No, we won’t, I promise.” Her fingers drew a cross over her heart.

***

“So this is Makaha Beach,” Paige motioned to Lance as she led him off the bus. While Paige, JJ and Lance waited on the side of the road for the bus to pass, Paige nudged his arm. “Were you interested in surfing?”

“Yes, but if it’s okay with you guys, I just wanted to get in the water at a couple of different beaches so I can get a feel for them. Do you mind if we stay here to swim a while, then go to another beach?”

Paige pressed her lips together while she shot a glance at JJ. JJ shook her head affirmatively, which meant she didn’t mind. “Okay, I guess we can. Come on,” Paige called as she ran across the road. JJ and Lance followed blindly just as a car came speeding around the corner. The blast of the car horn startled Paige. Paige, JJ, then Lance crossed just in time to the other side when the wind from the speeding car blew past. Lance spread his arms and pushed JJ then Paige away from the white line on the street. JJ tripped backward over a large rock, while Paige managed to grab on to the waist of Lance’s shorts.

Lance turned toward the speeding car as it whizzed by. “What the hell?” he shouted. “Paige, are you okay?” he asked as he put his arm around her shoulder.

“Oh, oh, I’m okay, Lance. Thank you.” She let go of his shorts. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to grab you that way. I could have pulled them off. Thank God I didn’t.”

“Not to worry. I’m just glad you didn’t get hurt.” He caressed her cheek. “Can’t hurt this pretty face.”

JJ used her hands to lift her body from the ground. “Um. Hi! Here I am! I’m okay. I didn’t die, but I did fall!” she called, waving her hands back and forth in the air trying to garner attention. “Paige never fell off her feet, but I was butt on the ground. I fell over a rock. The back of my knee is bleeding, you clowns, in case you didn’t see me, over here, on the ground.…” Paige laughed almost as hard as CIA had during picture-taking.

“Sorry!” they responded as Lance walked Paige toward the bench, gingerly guiding her to sit.

“Oh, my God. Are you serious?” JJ teased. “She is fine. She’s a tough girl. Seriously!” Her eyebrows furrowed, and her lips flattened as she studied the couple while they strolled toward the bench. This guy is honestly worried about her, and for nothing, JJ thought, hands crisscrossed in her arms. She stood back a few feet to watch the next biggest spectacle of the day—Lance being sweet on Paige.

“I’m okay,” Paige affirmed.

“Okay, I’m so sorry. We’re here because of me,” Lance whined.

“It’s fine, seriously,” Paige shook her head.

JJ pretended to vomit over the spectacle. “Gross!” she yelled, shoving her finger halfway into her mouth.

“Stop it, JJ,” chided Paige. “And you,” Paige added. “Go take a swim and stop sucking up to me. I’m good,” she ordered. “Please, just go.”

“Um…okay,” Lance hesitated. “But only if you’re okay. I’ll take a dip for a little while; then we can go wherever you want.” Paige loosened a nod.

“Did you want to swim?” Lance asked. “I know you don’t have a bathing suit, but we can drip dry.”

Paige furrowed her brows. “I don’t wear bathing suits, gross!” she exclaimed.

“Why?” he asked. “You have a great body for it.”

Paige’s eyes crossed. “Seriously? I wouldn’t wear a bathing suit if you paid me. I swim in a T-shirt and shorts. What do you think I am?”

“Um.” Lance’s eyebrows flattened. “A girl…” he answered.

“Well, I’m the football-playing kind of girl, not the bathing suit-wearing kind of girl,” she informed. JJ continued giggling at the entire spectacle. Paige swiped her hands toward the ocean. “Go swim, Lance so that we can go!” she instructed.

JJ sat down next to her on the bench. The girls got lost in the calm of the ocean waves smashing against the shore. “So, Paige. You know he’s into you, right?” JJ broke the silence.

Paige rolled her eyes. “Oh, no. He’s not into me. He was looking for a tour guide. Look at him!” She pointed her finger toward the ocean.

“I am looking at him,” said JJ. “And you wanna know what I see? His hair looks sun-bleached. His skin is tanned golden brown. He’s rock solid and got abs and calves that’ll cut steel. Whatever he is, into you is one more thing,” JJ joked. Paige shoved her shoulder into JJ--nearly knocking her over the side of the bench. “Wow, Paige!”

While they sat waiting for the new kid to get his fill of the water, they enjoyed the view of the ocean and the yellow-orange rays of the sun as it sat on the edge of the water.

***

The end of the day came way too soon, Paige thought, evaluating the afternoon. With both hands behind her head, as she lay on her soft bed, half her body wrapped in a fuzzy blanket, staring into the bedroom ceiling. “I can’t go to sleep,” she told herself. Instead, she rolled over onto her tummy, pulled the journal, and pen out from under her bed. “I met a friend today,” she began to write. “His name is Lance. He’s from New Zealand, I think. He looks like he is. He’s fair-skinned like me. He looks local but has a funny accent. I think he’ll make a good friend. He’s caring and a good guy. I believe JJ likes him. They’d make a cute couple, but I guess I’m a little jealous. I don’t want him taking her away from me. JJ is my best friend, especially since Johnson is gone. I need her.

We planned to show Lance around to a couple of perfect body-surfing spots, so he could jump on a bus and head to a beach any time he wants. But we ended up spending the entire afternoon at Makaha Beach. He loved it there. That was good for me. I didn’t want to be jumping on and off the bus. Anyway, I got a good feeling about him. I like that he’s easygoing, and enjoys simple stuff. He’ll probably be a great brother.”

After writing the journal entry, her fingertips crawled for the Bible lying on the corner of her bed. Stuck in the middle of the book was a half-size sheet of paper she’d written numerous times since she and her mother had created it. Like she did most nights, she read the passage: “Psalm 143:5 I remember the days of old; I meditate on all Your doings; I muse on the work of Your hands. Psalm 102:18 Write these things for the future so that people who are not yet born will praise the Lord.” She read an excerpt from the book of Kings, where God had sent her. With her chin in her palms, she ruminated about what the passage meant. Her eyes grew heavy, thoughts became incoherent. She laid her head, momentarily against her arm. The chatter outside her room door woke her before she could fall into a deep slumber. She cleared her eyes, felt for her journal and Bible in the dark, inserted her bookmark on the page where she’d stopped, flipped the tassel in the back of the book, and closed it shut. Paige tucked her books safely under her mattress, out of sight. “Tomorrow’s another day,” she thought. “Goodnight, God. Goodnight, Mom.” Slowly and steadily, her consciousness faded to dark.

Chapter 4

Longing

The traffic hadn’t let up. Paige released a sigh, flipping through the stations for something good when a radio ad caught her attention. “Join Match.com now and get matched with your future spouse. We match one in three couples. Match.com members are singles who share common goals—to meet other singles, find dates, form romantic relationships, and meet life partners. Join now!” said the salesperson on the radio advertisement.

“Match. Match. Match,” she giggled. Her eyes narrowed. “I can’t believe I’m having a memory about Lance and then I hear an ad on the radio for Match.com.” She glanced right, left, and in the back seat. “No one’s here!” she acknowledged as if she didn’t know the answer. “Why do I feel like someone is watching me from inside my head?” she joked. “Stop getting silly, Paige. There’s no one crazy enough to live in your head!”

With one hand on the steering wheel and one hand on her phone, Paige scrolled through Facebook to find the culprit for the jam on the freeway. Although she tried to concentrate on the good music playing and on finding the answer for the horrendous traffic, she couldn’t shake the coincidence of the memory and the Match.com ad.

“Holy Jesus. I haven’t moved more than a mile in twenty minutes!” she realized. Sitting in traffic was starting to affect her muscles, so she stretched the tension from her neck. A glance over her left shoulder revealed the driver in the Jeep Wrangler next to her, annihilating a Starbucks, her favorite from the looks of it: iced Matcha green tea.

“I want one of those and I can’t get off now. Damn Hawaii traffic!” she exclaimed. “And I have to live so far from work. Such a bummer!” she thought. Still at the forefront of her memories was meeting Lance during middle school mania years—she’d been gifted another best friend precisely when she needed it. The thought of Lance warmed her body, but then, thank God, the idea of gulping that Starbucks Matcha tea cooled her off. Both eased the negative effect of the traffic. Paige turned up the radio to help get her mind off both. “Get your tickets today for your Independence Day luncheon at the Hilton Hawaiian Village! Buffet luncheon, entertainment by Willie K., and…” The announcement on the radio reminded her of another memory. “Hmm.” She smiled.

***

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. And to the Republic…” Paige pretended to be engrossed in the morning ritual, but while her right hand was on her chest, the left one was behind her back slipping a note to JJ, who slipped it to Lance, like they did every morning. Something about pulling one over, on the best note-catching teacher in the entire school, was too thrilling to pass up. Their first-period Senior-English professor, Mr. Duffy, was almost as old as dead. Students could copy papers and turn in each other’s homework, even after he had already corrected the assignment. But when it came to note-passing, he had the eyes of a hawk and the nose of a drug-sniffing dog. Lance opened the folded note, that they successfully passed again, and hid it under the desk as he read it:

Lance and JJ—Can you make sure you remind Rachel, Kayla, and Kendal about our raging party at the hotel tonight just in case I don’t see them.”

Paige glanced periodically at Lance while he read the note. The giddy smiles on both Lance’s and JJ’s faces exposed their excitement. “Today can’t go by fast enough,” they thought.

When the end-of-day bell rang, the three stooges planned to meet at Paige’s car in the school student-parking lot just in front of the bleachers of the football field.

“I’m sitting with Paige in the front,” Lance yelled, jogging alongside JJ toward the car.

“Yeah, I bet you are, as always!” JJ teased back.

“Be quiet, JJ. I don’t want her to hear that smirk in your voice! You promised you wouldn’t say, try, or push anything.” He scrunched his eyes.

“Why, you idiot? Gosh you’re a fricken senior. Grow a pair. That’s the only way she’ll know, you scaredy-cat! What’s wrong with you?”

He swung his arm at her waist. “Cut it out! I don’t want to ruin it.”

“Okay, okay,” she giggled, flashing him a playful wink. Lance jogged toward the driver’s side door to hold it open so Paige could get in. JJ rolled her eyes at Lance for being such a sap and at Paige for being oblivious to all the chivalrous gestures he’d made since the very first moment they’d met during eighth-grade picture day.

Just as Paige started her car and put it in reverse, Vice Principal Rogers came speeding toward them on the golf cart with his palms held up. “Wait,” he mimed.

Paige rolled down the window and pressed a finger to her chest. “Me?” eyebrows furrowed.

He nodded. “Get on the cart. Your grandma is on the phone in the office. She says it’s an emergency.”

Instinctually, she knew. “My mother…” Her heart dropped. Paige jerked the car back into the stall. JJ and Lance jumped out of the passenger side and onto the golf cart, and all three rode back to the office with Rogers. Paige pushed through the double doors of the office, which was still open for the afternoon. The clerk stood at the front counter with the phone receiver in her hand, ready to pass it to Paige.

“This is Paige,” she said, catching her breath. “Grandma? Huh?” she asked. A tear ran down her cheek. “Where?” She sniffled. “When?” Paige slammed her forearms onto the countertop, raised the phone back to her ear, and took a deep breath. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.” Paige handed the phone back to the clerk, turned around toward JJ and Lance standing behind, tightened her fists until her fingers turned flush, then pressed against the large shelf of teacher mailboxes to catch her balance. Lance extended his arms in case he needed to catch her. When she caught her breath, she ran into them for a hug.

“What’s wrong?” Lance asked in a panic. Paige buried her eyes in his chest, and couldn’t say a word, but the faint whimpering sounds forewarned her pain. “Paige. It’s okay. It’ll all be fine.” Lance caressed her face as she leaned into his chest. Lance never witnessed her cry so laboriously. He gingerly stroked her hair to calm her nerves. His next instinct was to kiss her. Lance pressed his lips against her forehead and left them there for as long as he could until he felt her body contort. “Paige? What’s wrong?” She didn’t answer. He cupped her chin in his fingers and slowly raised her face until her eyes were looking into his. “What’s wrong?” he persisted.

She swiped away the tears under her eyes, cleared her throat, then turned away. She couldn’t look Lance in the face. “I’m supposed to be strong,” she muttered faintly. “Um. Um. My grandma told me…” Paige momentarily paused to regain her composure. She pressed her hands against his forearms. Her eyes and cheeks still wet with tears, Paige took a deep breath and wiped both eyes with the collar of her shirt.

“Hey, don’t wet your shirt. Here…” He raised the bottom of his and lifted it toward her face, exposing his bare stomach. She pulled away to avoid getting too close.

“Sorry,” she murmured, swiping her eyes with the back of her hand.

“Don’t pull away. Please,” he whispered.

“My mom is in the hospital. My dad did it to her again.”

“What? That jackass. Again?” Anger reflected in his voice. The pain in Paige’s scarlet-red eyes burned a hole in his heart. “I can’t stand seeing you hurt,” he whispered into her ears.

Her hands vibrated against his forearms. “That asshole beat her. I don’t know why she puts up with him.”

“I thought it stopped a while ago?” he questioned.

“Yes, and they were doing good for a while, but it started up again.”

“Why does your mom stay with him?”

As if Lance implied that her mom was stupid, Paige shot him a cold, blank stare. “Are you kidding me?” she questioned. “She loves him, I guess. I don’t know fuckin’ why. I have to go to the hospital. I can’t go to the party,” Paige snapped.

“Hey, hey. I’m not the enemy here. You know that’s not what I meant. You have to know how much I love you,” he uttered.

“Cut it out, Lance. You always take care of me. I’m not dumb. I know you love me. You’re the big brother who is always, always there. I know you didn’t mean it. I’m sorry.”

His heart hit the floor with a thump.

Paige sucked in a deep breath and backed out of his arms. She turned and pressed her hands against the edge of the countertop, then rotated again and sunk her head into his chest. “Lance, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be mean.”

Lance pressed his lips together to ensure he didn’t say what his heart wanted to say. “Don’t worry about it. This situation sucks big time. I don’t like what your father does to your mother, but I hate what this does to you!” he exclaimed.

“It doesn’t do anything to me, Lance. I’m fine. I hate what it does to her. Me? I’m a hundred percent fine. I don’t need anyone or anything. I simply need my mom to be happy. That’s all I’ve ever needed, my whole, damn, life. My life is about getting into college. Yearbook and newspaper writing is getting me my scholarships so I can eventually take care of her. Taking care of her is all that matters! There’s nothing else I care about other than that,” she seethed with anger.

Lance’s shoulders dropped, and his forearms went limp. He turned around toward JJ. “Come on, let’s go,” he sulked. With his eyes stuck on the lines in the sidewalk, he and JJ meandered to the car. Paige followed behind. A few feet from the door, Lance pulled her toward him. He hollowed his hands under hers, forcing her to stop. “Hey.” He lifted her chin. “Let’s go and see your mom. I want to be there for you.”

Paige took a deep breath in an attempt to put together a coherent thought. “What about the hotel? The party? You guys should go and have fun. Don’t worry about me. I can go see her myself,” Paige affirmed.

Lance shook his head. “No, no way!” he exclaimed. “If you’re not going to the party, then I’m not going to the party.”

JJ wrapped her arm around Paige’s shoulders. “Yup, I’m with Lance. We are going to take care of everything. You don’t need to worry.” JJ turned toward Lance, who was on Paige’s other side. “Hey, Lance?” said JJ. “Can you drive her there?” He nodded his head repeatedly, and walked Paige to the passenger side of the car. “Are you gonna stay with her?” JJ asked.

“Yes, of course.”

“Okay, then. I’m going to get my sisters settled. Then I’ll take care of letting everyone know that plans have changed.” JJ focused her attention on Paige. “But don’t worry. I won’t say anything about why. Then I’ll find my way to you both. Lance, can you drop me at my house before you drive her? And if I can’t get there before you folks leave, you’ll make sure you stay with her for as long as she needs, right?”

“Of course,” answered Lance. He opened the passenger door before she could extend her hand to the handle. “Here, Paige.” Lance helped her in. She lifted her left leg over the floor of the car to get in. Lance bent over to grab the seat belt.

“I got it, Lance. Thanks.”

“Okay,” he answered, hurrying to the driver’s side as Paige pulled the seat belt over her chest. JJ walked with Lance toward the driver’s side of the car. “JJ, you know I’d do anything for Paige,” he said.

“Yeah, of course, me too. I’d do anything for you, and you would do anything for me, but you know it’s different with Paige. You love her different than you love me. You’ve got to tell her, Lance,” JJ tried to persuade him. “So…I don’t know for sure, but I think it just might make you crazy if you don’t tell her.”

Lance shook his head, pursing his lips together. “No matter how I feel I always have and always will do what’s best for her, even if I can’t tell her. Now hurry, you slowpoke!” JJ shook her head dismissively as Lance got behind the wheel, and hollered to close the back door:

A few minutes later, Lance pulled up to the curb at JJ’s house a block away from her sisters’ middle school. “Hey JJ, don’t forget to cancel the hotel arrangements and let everyone know, please.” JJ gave him a thumbs-up and nodded as she hastened from the car.

“I got it. Just take care of her.”

Like Sleeping Beauty, Paige slept the entire drive to the hospital. Every second he could, Lance stole a glance. “I wish you were mine,” he whispered to himself. She moaned slightly as if in her dreams, she was reliving her grandma’s phone call. His heart broke. Her entire life, Paige had to be strong, for her mom and her sister. “This beautiful girl has been through so much bullshit;” he reminded himself, continuing to steal as many glances as he could before she awoke. “I’m going to be there for her whenever she needs me. I want to be there for her,” he thought. Lance turned toward Paige, whispering. “I want to be there for you because I love you,” he professed. The only time Lance could be brave and share his true feelings was when she wasn’t listening—in this case when she was fast asleep. She snored when she slept, something he knew about her since their first camping trip with the school. He loved everything about her, even the snoring.

“Paige. Paige.” He rocked her arm with the cup of his hand, trying gently to wake her. Even as smoothly as he tried to be, she was startled.

“Oh. Where are we?” Paige loosened a bewildered tone.

“We’re at the hospital. You ready to go in?”

She nodded. “Yeah, of course. Thank you for driving me.” Paige looked around at the cars in the parking lot with a clueless expression on her face. “Lance, you’re always there for me. Thank you.” Paige pulled him close, wrapped her arms around his shoulders, hung on to his neck, and whispered into his ear. “You’re such a great guy. You’re the best big brother I never had.”

Lance’s heart dropped again. He loosened an exaggerated sigh, then rubbed her head, just like a big brother would. “This isn’t the time to tell her what is in my heart,” he reminded himself. “Come on.” He held her hand and led her toward the parking garage elevator.

Paige trembled with every step through the lobby. As she rounded the corner toward her mom’s room, she began to shake. “Take a deep breath,” Lance threw a one arm hug around her waist. “You can do it,” he nodded. Paige peeked through the opening in the curtain that surrounded her mother.

“Mom?” she cried. Paige fell onto the side of the bed, resting her head against her mom’s thigh.

“Ugh.” Her mom squirmed.

“Mom. I’m sorry. Are you hurt there too?” Paige touched her gingerly. Paige’s mom tried to nod—slowly. A bandage covered the top part of her head and her left ear. Her badly bruised neck was red and purple. Her eyes blackened. “Mom, tell me what happened, please,” she encouraged.

“It was an accident.” Paige flinched.

Paige heard the toilet from the room’s bathroom flush twice. “Mom, are you serious? Is he in there?”

Sam nodded, clutching tightly onto Paige’s hand as she tried to pull away. “Stay…here,” Sam begged.

Paige’s father opened the door—it hit Lance in the back. “Oh, I’m sorry, Lance, I didn’t know you were here. Sorry about that.”

Lance shot a glance at Paige, then back at her father. His fingers feverishly tapped against his thigh, as he started to worry Paige would lose control. “No,” he mouthed at Paige as she tried again to stand. “It’s not the time.”

Sweat beaded on her forehead as her father got too close. To get away from him, Paige stood up from her mom’s hospital bed. She was sure even the nurses outside the room could hear her teeth grinding together. Trying desperately to quench the nervous energy and anger twisting inside, Paige’s hands tugged on the sides of her jeans.

“Paige?” Her father moved toward her, nervously clenching his fists. “It was an accident,” he sighed. “We crashed the car.”

“Dad, are you serious?!” she screamed. “You crashed the car? You might have crashed it, but weren’t you fighting?” she insisted. “Don’t try to lie about it. Grandma told me.”

“Paige, he’s not at fault,” her mother interrupted, straining to get up from her bed.

“No, Mom. Just stay there.” Paige turned toward her father, who had stopped two feet away. “You!” she screamed. “You stay away from me. You are a sick person. I don’t know why she stays with you. You both drive me crazy!” Paige pressed her hands to her forehead, then squeezed her fists in the air above her head. “I can’t take this,” she moaned. She gasped, took a deep breath to calm the fury. “How many times did I tell you both? How many times do I have to tell you what can happen, your effect on others, the fact that you are toxic to one another? Do you know how many times I thought I was going to lose my mother? Do you know how many times I’ve had to clean up your fuckin’ mess? Do you know how many times I prayed on your behalf? Thank God, my sister is with Grandma. I’m so absolutely sick of both of you. I. Am. Done!” She screamed, “ugh!”. A nurse, startled from the shouting, scurried into the room to check on them. “I’m sorry,” Paige sighed, shaking her head in frustration. The nurse stood there, dumbfounded. “Please tell me. Is my mom going to be okay?” Paige asked.

“Yes, she will.” The nurse started to explain. Paige pressed a finger to her lips, tried not to cry, then held her palm toward the nurse.

“You don’t need to explain,” she added. “As long as she’s going to be okay.” Paige shot a glance at Lance, who stood in the corner of the room looking like a deer in headlights. “Lance, I need to leave. Can you get me out of here, please?” She shifted her attention to her mother. “You. You have to stand up to him and stand up for yourself.” Paige’s mother covered her face. She couldn’t bear to see the hopeless look in Paige’s eyes. “That’s it?” Paige asked. “You can’t even look at me, Mom?” She took another deep breath, then turned toward the door. “Lance, please, I need to go. Now,” she said, darting out.

“Right behind you, Paige,” Lance hastily answered. He looked back. “Um…I am so, so, so sorry, Mrs. H, Mr. H., I hope you both get well,” he said, loosening a shrug. When he rounded the corner, Paige was already twenty feet away, almost to the elevator door. “Hey, Paige,” he hollered. “Wait up.” His call didn’t help. She wouldn’t stop. “Paige, cut it out. Hold up.” He picked up the pace. Just as he reached her, he extended his hand and pulled her toward him. “Stop now! You’re acting like a jerk,” he slackened a harsh tone. “Turn to me, damn it! All these years, we’ve been the three stooges, you, me, and JJ. We’ve been by each other’s side more than we haven’t!” he argued. “Let me be there for you now too!”

A lonely tear slowly dripped down her face. “Paige,” he said sternly. He caught the tear on her cheek with his thumb, then cupped the nape of her neck, gently pulling Paige close to him. “Paige, I know this is a lot. I’ve never seen you cry like this, in all the times we’ve shared. I’m sort of glad you’re crying, I guess. You should know that you don’t always need to be the strong one. Although you have the right to feel whatever it is you feel, what’s going on in that beautiful brain is something mixed up, because you’ll regret talking to your mom that way. Whatever your brain is saying to you, fix it. You can’t let this anger do this to you.”

She pressed her hands against his chest to pull herself from his arms, turned and slammed the elevator button as she swiped below her eyes with her fists.

“Look. My mom needed to hear the truth, and I’m not going to worry about her feelings because of what I said. Can we get to the car, please?”

“Yeah, I guess,” he nodded. The elevator stopped two times before they got to the fourth floor of the garage.

“Lance, I’m sorry,” she said as they walked toward the car. “I don’t know why she stays. I’m always worried. I’m always trying…” Paige started to hyperventilate, so she clenched her hands over her nose and mouth, trying to catch her breath. “Nope, I’m not going to do this.” She held her hands in front of her. “Not going to let them do this to me. Lance, can you call JJ? Tell her I want to party tonight, please. Can you check if she canceled the plans yet and if so, un-cancel them? We’ve only got a couple of months left of our senior year. I want these last couple of months to be something we will always remember. I’m tired of worrying about everybody else’s crap.”

He nodded. “Okay, but I have to get gas first. I’ll call JJ from the 7-Eleven on Dillingham. I’m pretty sure that’s a can-do.”

Paige pressed her hand against his. “Thank you! Thank you for being so good to me! I don’t know what I would do without you.”

Lance loosened a smile. “You’ll never have to worry about that.” he thought inside as she gripped his hand in hers.

Chapter 5

Opportunities and Obstacles

’Badadadada!′ The jake brakes of the semi-truck in the left lane interrupted her memory. She exhaled. “Gosh, that party changed my life forever!” Paige said facetiously to herself as her car crept along the jammed freeway another ten feet. “Is it me or has this air conditioning seemed to have given up?” She moved her face close to the vent to cool herself off. The direct wind on her head dried the bead of sweat dripping down. “God, I could crawl on one leg faster than this,” she gasped. Paige had done an excellent job of not losing her salvation so far, but more traffic might do her in. The uninteresting chatter on the talk radio station didn’t help either. In search for a station or a song that might make her forget her current circumstance, she feverishly combed the dials for something that caught her interest. A familiar tune on the oldies station sent her into another trance.

***

“Paige… Paige…” Lance tapped her on her thigh to wake her from her slumber. “We’re here.”

Paige rubbed her eyes with her fingers to wake herself from her short nap.

“We’re at the hotel?” she asked.

“Almost,” he answered. Paige stared directly outside at the sun through the tinted glass window. “Is the air conditioning working?” moving toward the vent to dry the sweat on her head. Lance took a left turn into the parking lot of the hotel. When the view became nothing but the darkness of the basement parking lot, she thought again about her mother lying in the hospital bed.

“You know, Lance?” she started. “My mom won’t leave him. I love her, but she’s hard to understand. I can’t stand my dad, and I’ll never forgive him. He used to be my favorite guy—when I was dumb and young.” Paige raised her eyebrows in disgust, pursed her lips together, and shook her head. “Not anymore! They both are so stupid, Lance,” she whined.

Lance bit his lip. “Uh. I think you should concentrate on you,” he hesitantly advised. “They’ll get it one day,” he tried to sound convincing as if he believed his words.

“But my mom and dad won’t fix this. Neither of them will change.” Paige threw her hands in the air, dropping them onto her lap as she sucked in deep breaths. “You know what, Lance? You’re right. I’m gonna have fun tonight!” nudging his shoulder while he put the car in park. “I need to grab my bag from the back seat. Yup, forget about them. It’s about me tonight.” Lance clicked open the trunk. “Hey, how are you gonna get your bag? We didn’t get it,” Paige asked.

“Hello, sleepyhead. I did stop. You were passed out. My bag is in the trunk.”

“Oh, okay,” Paige chuckled.

“So, I’ll grab the bags, and you grab the drinks Fitz bought for the party. He made me promise we’d stay at the hotel—no drinking and driving.”

“Your brother is awesome,” Paige ushered a smirk.

“Yeah, I’m lucky, I guess. But my brother wasn’t always so awesome.”

“Yes, well. I’m lucky because you have always been awesome,” Paige winked.

Lance mumbled, “Yeah. It sucks like that.”

“Huh?” she asked.

“Uh, nothing.” He bit his lip as he unloaded the trunk.

“Hey,” JJ hollered from around the corner. “Perfect timing!”

Lance slammed the trunk, spun the bag on its wheels, and walked alongside Paige, who had started walking toward JJ.

“You okay?” JJ asked Paige when she got closer.

“I’m good. I don’t want to think about my mom or dad at all. I’m gonna have fun tonight,” Paige declared.

“Good,” JJ replied, flashing her eyes. “You should have fun. You deserve to have fun. Our problems will be there tomorrow. Anyway, we spread the word. Everybody who’s anybody is coming. It’s going to be fun.”

Paige bit the side of her lip. Her eyes glazed as if she was lost in space.

“I can hear your thoughts, Paige,” JJ warned. “Stop second-guessing yourself. You need not do that. Don’t worry about anyone else tonight. It’s the last part of our senior year. You’re entitled to have fun for a change.”

Paige nodded. “I know. I know.”

Lance nodded too. “Yeah, get your mind on the party,” he added.

“Let me hold the door for you, Paige,” said JJ. “Oh, and by the way, Jason was asking about you, Paige.” JJ turned backward, raised her eyebrows, and gave Lance a crooked smirk. “He asked only about you, and he asked if I were sure you’d be here at the party.” The corner of Lance’s mouth turned down at her. “What’s with the scowl, Lance?” JJ put him on the spot. Lance pressed his teeth together, and hurried into the elevator without uttering a word.

“So, Jason was asking about me?” Paige asked.

Lance shifted his attention from the floor. He shot JJ a dirty look.

“Why, Paige? Do you care that he’s been asking about you? I didn’t know you liked Jason.” Lance chimed in. “Jason’s an idiot. Take it from me. Little brain. Big body. Even bigger ego,” Lance grunted.

“Whoa,” JJ remarked as she gave him a dismissive wave. “I didn’t know you felt like that. You sound a little jealous!” she sang in a high-pitched voice.

Lance shifted his attention toward her. “Sometimes, JJ, you’re a fuckin’ asshole!”

“I thought you decided not to tell her you’re in love,” JJ managed to mouth silently. “I was just trying to cheer her up,” a sheepish grin widened on her face as the elevator doors slid open.

Lance’s rolling bag got stuck in the threshold of the elevator as he attempted to storm out. JJ moved toward the bag to help. “I don’t need your help!” Lance shouted. JJ turned toward Paige, whose dumbfounded expression proved clueless to Lance’s anger.

“Why was Jason asking about me, I wonder?” Paige pursed her lips. “Oh well,” she added as a subtle smirk engraved itself on her face. Lance shoved the bag through the door. “What’s with him?” Paige asked.

JJ shrugged—pretending not to know what instantly changed Lance’s mood. “Who knows?”

At just a few minutes after 7 p.m. (the official start of the party) the two adjacent hotel suites filled to their capacity. The jocks, nerds, surfers, band, and yearbook cliques carved out their own spaces in every corner. The open door separating the adjoining rooms made it easy for the soon-to-be-graduating seniors to traverse from one side to the other in search of places to fit in. The busyness of the room was dizzying. To escape her drunk, obnoxious classmates, Paige snuck out onto the balcony of the first room through the sliding glass door. In the time she had alone, she rested her elbows against the railing, alternating her drink between hands, gazing into the starry sky of the Honolulu city lights—trying but failing to lose herself in the night. Worrying, one of her typical pastimes, was a habit Paige found impossible to kick. Not even the beauty of the island’s landscape lit up in the night or the two shots of vodka she’d chugged could take her mind off her mom lying in a hospital room with her dad, the culprit of her pain, sitting next to her, begging for forgiveness and promising he’d never do it again. She was sure as her name that’s what he was doing. Her mom’s claims that his violent temper had nothing to do with the cause of the accident was bullshit. Paige was sure of that too.

The third half-full glass of vodka and diet coke alternating between her hands became her only defense against the constant worry running rampant in her mind. When the stars in the sky started to spin, she bit back a devious smile, silently claiming victory over the brooding. For her to remain upright, leaning against the balcony had become necessary. The vodka was working too well; she thought to herself. Paige gawked at her classmates, jumping up and down, waving their glasses in the air, and high-fiving each other. Assuming they were toasting their upcoming graduation, incumbent of course on passing finals, she let another worry-free smile overcome her face. Lance and JJ, standing in the middle of a cluster of seniors, caught her attention. “If it weren’t for both of them, I wouldn’t have made it. They saved me from me,” she thought. A sentimental feeling of thanks overwhelmed her. She held her hands up in the air and spun whimsically 360 degrees, as more of the vodka cruised through her body. Relishing the freedom from worry, she nearly stumbled over her own two feet as she spun around again and again. With one hand pressed against her heart and one against the railing, she attempted to reclaim her composure. Before her knees gave out, two strong hands swooped under her arms, wrapping themselves around her waist. Although she was startled, having been unaware that anyone was outside with her, she welcomed the rescue.

“Ugh,” she sighed gracefully. “Thank you! My head is too heavy to carry on my own,” she chuckled.

“No worries, Paige.”

She didn’t recognize the deep, raspy voice. She shifted her attention over her shoulder. “Jason?”

He smirked. “Yup,” he affirmed. Jason wrapped his foot around the leg of a chair to pull it under her. As he sat her down, kneeling slowly alongside, he laughed with her, admired her, ingested the moment.

Although tipsy, she fixed her eyes curiously on his. “Hey, where did you come from, Jason?” she asked merrily, tripping slightly over her words.

“I was watching you, just for a little while, spin like a ballerina in a jewelry box,” replied Jason.

She covered her eyes with her hands in a futile attempt to hide her bashfulness. “Oh my gosh,” she replied. “That’s so embarrassing. I was thinking about something. I was celebrating my freedom. Wait—were you spying on me? Gross.” She pressed her finger against his chest repeatedly. “You should never spy on a girl. You never know what you’ll see,” she flirted.

“There’s no need to explain the spectacle,” Jason joked. “You shouldn’t be embarrassed, Paige. It was my pleasure to watch, to be honest. And I wasn’t spying. I saw you walk outside earlier in the night. It took me a while to work up the courage to come and talk to you.”

“Courage?” she asked. Her eyebrows furrowed with curiosity. “Why did Jason need the courage to talk to me?

As if Jason could read her thoughts, he answered them. “I needed courage because I’ve wanted to talk to you since the beginning of the year, but I haven’t had the courage until now.”

Her fingers danced on his chest, playfully. “What do you mean, silly? We’ve talked a thousand times,” she mumbled.

“Yes, but about nothing, and I could never get you alone without Lance and JJ.”

She pressed her forehead against his chest. “Okay, Jason, talk!” she slurred. “We’re alone, right?” she asked, scanning the fifty-square-foot space.

“Yes, and okay, I’ll talk, but are you in any shape to listen?” he questioned.

“Of course. I am, silly!” she chuckled.

“Paige, I’ve wanted to tell you how much…” Jason started to explain but couldn’t finish. Impassioned by his desire, her red-ripened lips, and her flushed cheeks, he moved slowly and seductively toward her. His nose pressed against the smooth, sweet-smelling skin of her face. His lips tidied themselves against hers. His tongue impatiently waited to taste a trace of her. He paused for a sign that she welcomed his kiss. When she placed her hands on both his arms and caressed her face against his, he could no longer hold himself back. It was clear to him; she was welcoming him. Seizing the moment, he pressed his lips gently on hers. He tenderly touched her lips with his tongue until gentle touches weren’t enough. In desperation to feel every inch of his lips against hers, he engaged courageously. His mouth encased hers. To his excitement, she followed suit.

A flood of endorphins engulfed her entire body. Her fingers crawled up his massive, unyielding arms, pulling him closer. He let her lead like in a choreographed dance. She touched him. Then he touched her. She kissed him. He kissed her. She got as close as she could. Then he got closer. Overwhelmed with passion, Jason wrapped his strong arms around her, engulfing her entire body in his hug—the kind of hug that she could feel forever. Jason’s broad shoulders spanned two feet and he towered over her by a foot. She nestled her face and chest into him. Paige appreciated the safe and protected feeling that overcame her while in his arms. As he pressed his fingers along her neck, shoulders, and down her back, a tingling chill overwhelmed her senses. Enjoying the scintillating effect of Jason’s strong yet tender touches on her body, her heart, and her mind, she pressed into him for more.

A sudden flashback of his sweaty body working out in the gym every afternoon as she trained for soccer flooded through her mind. As many times, as she saw Jason working hard for his significant and well-built curves, it had never affected her like this—butterflies were fluttering around in her stomach. When she watched him work out in the gym, she’d admired his commitment, consistency, and the fact that he knew what he wanted for himself and worked relentlessly to get it. She’d never been affected so ardently until this very moment as he warmed her entire body with his. As she laid her cheeks on the planes of his chest, she wondered, “How long has he wanted me.” He was pursuing her—making known his wants—but she wondered more, “Did he want to hold me like this when he saw me in the gym? How could I have missed that?” Paige’s internal dialogue questioned the scintillating, dizzying feeling flooding her insides. Jason had been a casual, fun pal for years—but it had never been anything more.

Jason’s good looks never had her so mesmerized. His touch never had her so fleeting. Jason’s skin was golden—a unique shade between fair and brown—and he had a similar shade of hair. It shimmered like sunshine against the surface of the ocean. His thick, perfectly groomed eyebrows with gently sloped symmetrical arches were sexy. Jason’s dark eyes brightened his smile. Paige delighted in his light mustache coating his lips and perfectly accentuating his squarish, brawny face. His mustache tickled her. How could he not have affected her this way the numerous times they hung out in school? She continued pondering.

Paige corralled her rampantly running emotions by inhaling a deep breath and hiding her eyes in his chest. Sensing the bashfulness, Jason held on to her arms, gently running his hands toward her shoulders and up her neck, until they gently reached her chin. He gingerly lifted her face to him. She stared into his eyes, realizing she couldn’t help herself from getting lost in them. He was having a dizzying effect on her—but she was enjoying it. And the dizzier she got, the more she enjoyed it. Her eyes slowly crawled up his chest, his neck, then his chin, and landed on his lips. The closer she got to staring directly into his eyes, the more bashful she became. Just as her eyes reached his nose, she bit her lip shyly like a pouty little girl and buried her face in his chest, again.

“You are the cutest thing,” he whispered in her ear as he lifted her chin toward him. “I’ve been waiting for this night for way too long,” he continued. “You are gorgeous. You are beautiful. You are tender. You act as if you are none of those things,” he commented. She gave him half a smile. “Paige, I want to see into your eyes.”

The comfort of being in his arms, his declaration, and the sexy song oozing faintly through the closed sliding door hurried her heartbeat. Her heart was saying absolutely, but her brain put up a good fight. “Being in his arms is crazy, out of the blue, nonsensical, ridiculous, too fast,” her mind warned. Her heart won. Continuing to rest in his arms, she threw caution to the wind. A burst of boldness allowed her to indulge in him, unleashing an unfamiliar passion from deep inside. Unable to contain the emotion, she yanked on the lapels of his jacket and pulled. Love and rage swirled in her body like a melody. It was confusing and breathtaking. Her hands pressed themselves against the planes of his chest and worked their way toward his back. By now her bashfulness was gone entirely. She guided him to the seat behind. He sat. Boldly, she wrapped her hands around his cheeks and lifted his face, so his eyes looked directly into hers. “Jason, you feel perfect. I want more,” she insisted. Her lips hovered over his forehead, then traced slowly down his cheeks until her lips entangled themselves in his. Recklessly, she straddled her legs over him while crumpling the lapels of his jacket in her fists and devouring him.

“Paige!” Lance shouted. “Jason! What the hell are you doing?” Wrapping her bicep in his hands, Lance attempted to pull Paige out of Jason’s embrace.

“Lance! Stop,” she seethed, yanking her arm out of his grasp. “What’s your fricken problem?”

Lance stepped back. “Paige, you’re drunk. You’re embarrassing yourself. You’re acting stupid, and this is not you—getting drunk and making out with someone you barely know!”

“You have no right. I’ve known Jason as long as I’ve known you. Leave me alone. I’m a big girl who can handle myself,” she castigated.

“You’re acting stupid. Something has gotten into you,” Lance admonished.

“Noth… Nothing has gotten into me,” scantily slurring. Her cheeks turned scarlet red. Her eyebrows furrowed into a straight line. “You’re not my damn father. And I’m not a baby. I can take care of myself.” She lifted her palms toward him. “Stop treating me like I’m weak, or like I’m a stupid girl who can be forced to do something I don’t want to do. I’m fine here. I know what I’m doing. And what I’m doing is being with Jason.”

Lance grabbed her elbow, attempting again to pull her out of Jason’s arms. “You’re not fine. How many drinks have you had? You’re stumbling through your words!” he scolded.

“No. I am not!” Paige shouted. “Lance, stop trying to protect me like I’m your stupid little sister you’re obligated to look after. I don’t need to be saved by you. I’m a big girl!” Paige tugged her arm from Lance’s grasp.

He continued to fight. “I’m your best friend, doing what all friends do,” he pleaded.

“Lance, I’m fine. I don’t need you to take care of me. Please let me go.”

“Lance, she wants to be here. I don’t want to start anything with you, but you need to leave us alone,” Jason warned.

Paige grabbed Jason by the arm. “Jason, can we go?”

Like a gentleman not wanting to get involved in a spat between friends, Jason stood behind in an internal struggle. “Lance, I’m sorry. But I hope you know I won’t hurt her,” Jason said as he followed behind Paige.

When they were halfway to the door that opened to the hallway, she turned back toward the balcony. Through the tinted glass, she saw Lance hunched over the rail, his forehead buried in his hands. A knot tightened in her stomach. “Lance?” She paused for a moment before walking out the door, took a deep breath and glanced at Jason, who stood beside her waiting for her to take another step forward.

“Hey,” he grasped her arm. “We don’t need to go anywhere if you don’t want to. I want you to want to hang out with me,” he cautioned.

“No, I want to be with you, Jason,” she assured. Paige interlaced her fingers in his and led him out of the room.

As they turned the corner toward the elevator, JJ came running from behind. “Paige, please!”

The desperation in JJ’s voice convicted Paige to stop. “Yes, JJ?” she sighed as she turned back.

“Where are you going, Paige?”

“Jason and I are going for a walk. We’re not going to drive anywhere. We’re just going to step out!” Slightly irritated by Lance’s obvious tattling, she held her palm at JJ. “Please, let me be. I need to go.”

JJ gritted her teeth, then pushed the words from her mouth. “Paige, do you know that Lance loves you? He’s loved you since middle school.”

Paige held her palms over her ears. “Honestly, I don’t need this right now. That’s stupid. Oh, my God!”

“Paige, please. How do I know you’re okay? Are you okay?” JJ asked.

“Hey, I’m just fabulous,” Paige remarked. “Like I told Lance, I’m not a baby. I know what I want,” she shouted, aggravation churning in her voice. She knotted Jason’s jacket in her fist. “Jason, please.” The elevator bell rang. The doors opened, and they walked through. When Paige turned around, JJ was standing in front of the doors. She stood, a defeated expression on her face, staring into the elevator as the doors slowly closed. Paige returned her look with the same frustrated frown until the elevator doors closed like the curtain at the end of a play.

Jason grasped her hand, pulling her close. “It’s going to be okay.” The warmth in his eyes was comforting.

“How is it that he, whom I’ve spent so little time with, precisely knows what I need? Why do I feel so comfortable in his arms?” She wondered. When the elevator door opened to the lobby, Jason stepped ahead of her, extending his hand so she could grab on. Without saying a word, he communicated flawlessly. His eyes asked her to follow him. Her heart said yes. She vowed not to remember any of the day’s happenings except for the moment they shared on the ninth-floor balcony, kissing against the backdrop of the mesmerizing Honolulu city lights. Paige and Jason walked arm in arm for three blocks in comfortable silence until they reached the beach in front of the Hilton Hawaiian Village. The brisk wind flowing in from the dark ocean water sent a crisp chill down her spine. Feeling her shiver, Jason stopped to warm her with his arms.

“I wish I had a jacket. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. I’m fine.” She smiled bashfully before focusing her attention on the yellow flowers in a moss rock planter box.

“Are you okay with sitting here?” he asked, pointing to a bench. Paige nodded. With both hands, Jason dusted the seat before she sat.

“Thank you.” She smiled. Jason sat next to her, with his hands pressed against the edges of the bench. Paige pushed her hand through the space between his arm and his body, entangling herself into him. “You have such broad, strong shoulders,” she commented, squeezing him with both her hands.

“You have beautiful eyes. Everything about you is beautiful,” Jason replied. She bit the left side of her lip to hide her bashful smile. “Can I kiss you again?” he asked. She smiled, bit her lip, again, then nodded. He reached around her waist with one hand to pull her close. With the other, he cupped the nape of her neck, caressing her gently as his lips pressed onto hers. His kisses were tender and robust at the same time. They inundated her with tingling sensations across her body.

“Jason, I don’t want to stop,” she whispered in his ear.

“Me neither,” he agreed. Jason walked her to a more private section of the beach, away from the Hilton.

Paige removed the heels from her feet, holding them with her fingers, like a hook. The couple walked to a spot under a palm tree. “Jason, what are we doing?”

Jason cleared his throat before he spoke. “Uh, um. We’re only doing what you want to do. We’re going to do what you feel comfortable doing.” Jason sat on the sandy beach while admiring how her hair sparkled in the moonlight. His fingers yanked on her skirt to pull her close. Slowly, she got comfortable on top of him with her legs straddled over his thighs. Jason whispered in her ear, “I’ve wanted to be with you since I met you. Did you know that?”

She shook her head repeatedly. Her nervousness momentarily seized her voice. She cleared her throat before replying. “Jason, I want to be here.” She laid her head onto his shoulder as she gently kissed the nape of his neck. When her lips reached behind his ear, his one arm gripped and pulled her so close she could feel all of his excitement. They devoured each other—inducing in one another sensations they’d both never experienced. Her hands were everywhere on him, and his hands were everywhere on her. Minutes felt like hours as she lay atop of him in the beautiful darkness lit only by the dim moonlight.

Jason lowered his hands. She followed them with her eyes. They unbuttoned his pants, lifted her skirt, and moved between her thighs. “Paige, are you sure?” he whispered. “May I?”

“Yes. I want to. I am sure,” Paige nodded. His fingers made their way to her panties. He slid her underwear out of place, then held her steady as he nestled himself against the sand. He gripped her waist and pulled her into him. She gasped. She laid her head on his shoulders, gripping his shirt in her fists as he continued to push his way inside. She squeezed her legs as tightly as she could. “Uh,” she groaned.

Jason stopped pulling. “Are you okay?” he asked.

“Yes, I’m okay. I’m good.” Paige held on to Jason’s neck as he continued to move inside of her. “Jason, this is my first time,” she admitted.

He pulled her back so he could stare directly into her eyes. “Paige, this is my first time too.” Her face found its place in the nape of his neck. Together they moved to the rhythm of the waves crashing against the shore until he had no more energy to move at all. He wrapped his arms around her as she rested and he caught his breath.

Like a gentleman, Jason detained Paige’s skirt over her bottom as she slid off, onto the sand. Paige carved out a niche of her own in his arms. They lay quiet, staring into the starlit sky. The sounds of chirping crickets broke her reverie. What had she done? She wasn’t in love with him. She couldn’t say I love you. What kind of girl was she that the first time she had sex was on the beach with a friend? She had allowed herself to get lost in him. She began to whimper like a lost puppy.

“Paige? What’s wrong?” Jason panicked. “Paige?” He moved her hair from her face. “I’m so sorry!” he apologized.

“No, don’t apologize,” she replied. “I wanted to be with you, but my first time—I didn’t think was going to be on a beach with a person I barely know.” Paige wiped the tears from below her eyes.

“What do you mean, ‘barely know’? We’ve known each other for years. You told Lance you felt that way.” Jason wrapped his arms around her so she’d stop crying.

“I’m sorry, Jason. I loved being with you here. It’s just that…” She covered her mouth with her hand. “It’s nothing. I’m okay. It’s okay.”

Jason stood up, dusted the sand from his clothes, and extended his hand. “Come on. Let’s walk.” Paige grabbed on. He pulled her up, then wiped the sand off her skirt. To rid her mind from whatever worry or regret ran rampant, he grabbed her hand and twirled her as if they were dancing. She giggled. He smiled. He extended her arm in the air and spun her back and forth like a ballerina. As they strolled along the almost empty sidewalk, he occasionally twirled her into him, again and again. “Jason, what is this one night going to mean for us?” She wondered but was too afraid to ask.

Chapter 6

Appetites

The sound of the exhaust valves of the semitrailer’s jake brakes startled her from the daydream again; the smell of the fumes through the air-conditioning turned her stomach. Paige passed on the right to get away from its toxic, hot air. As she nonchalantly ran her fingers through her hair, she noticed a Steve McGarrett look-alike driving the Chevy in the left lane next to her. He lifted his chin and shot her a mischievous wink. His flirtatious smile was flattering. When his girlfriend riding shotgun lifted her seat to its upright position and slapped him across his arm as punishment for his wandering eye, Paige nearly choked trying not to let them see her chuckle. “I can relate to both,” she told herself, covering her hand over her mouth to hide her smile. After the Chevy passed, she thought about Jason again. “Ah Jason…,” she sighed. “Gosh, how my life changed its course because of that one moment at the senior party.” Then she thought about what happened after that party. She was back in another memory.

***

Paige stood in front of the mirror too ashamed to look at herself. When she eventually induced the nerve and looked up, she fought back the appetite to grip the hairdryer plugged into the outlet next to the bathroom sink and slap herself across the head. “How can you be that dumb, impulsive, irresponsible? How?” she chided the unfamiliar girl in the reflection. “Two minutes, the instructions said,” she mumbled. “Oh, my God. I can’t stand this waiting. Two minutes is too long,” she muttered as she tapped her fingernails against the marble countertop. As Paige counted down the seconds, her body began to go numb—like the feeling of needles in your feet. Paige meditated on the Scripture; her mom made her memorize since she was five; Psalms 143:5 and 102:18. Paige nervously rocked back and forth, gawking at the little white stick. The metronome-like noise of the zipper from her pants side pocket tapping against the countertop was annoying, but she couldn’t halt the nervous energy. Her eyes focused at the small window of the stick lying on the sink. She gripped the edge of the counter to hold herself still so the tapping sound wouldn’t drive her more nuts than she already was. When she couldn’t steady herself no matter how hard she gripped the counter, she prayed that God would do the job.

“In less than two minutes, everything I’ve worked for, everything I’ve planned for my life is going to change. Why am I waiting for the line on the stick? This is fact, not conjecture. I know my life is going to change.” Nearly eighteen years old—her life was over. She wasn’t going to college. She wasn’t going to be a professional soccer player. She probably wouldn’t even be an author. Her mom was probably going to hate her. Her dad was going to hate her too—except she didn’t give a damn about his opinion. As the faint double line appeared in the blank space, she closed her eyes tightly, hoping it was a nightmare from which she could wake. Paige exhaled a deep breath, praying her eyes were playing devious tricks. “No! I’m in a nightmare,” she cried.

“Oh, my God!” She steadied her eyes on the screen, then dropped to her knees, her fingers engraved themselves into her forehead. The tears gushed down her cheeks like a rainstorm from heaven. “My life is over! One mistake and it’s over,” she ranted. “That’s it? I have taken care of myself and my mom my whole life. Why am I getting punished for one mistake? I don’t deserve it!” She slammed her hands on the floor. Her forehead followed. The cold, hard tile did not affect her. With her hands and her head pressed against the bathroom floor, Paige began to pray. She prayed that God would rewind time—take her back to the night of her parents’ accident. Change her mind, her thoughts, and her actions. “Rewind time, please, God, please!” Paige whined in agony over a mistake that she couldn’t make right.

Finally, she sat back on her feet, wiped her eyes with her T-shirt, and chided herself for being a whiny fricken baby and challenged herself to figure out her next step. But there was nothing. There wasn’t anything she could do to change her situation. When she finally stopped crying, she wiped her face and prayed again. “God, I need you to handle this for me. I don’t want a baby. I don’t want to be a mother!” she prayed, then she begged, then prayed again.

“Paige?” her mother called through the bathroom door. “Are you okay?”

Paige cleared her throat, wiped the leftover tears from her eyes. “Yes. Yes. I’m fine.”

“You gonna be long?” her mother asked.

“No, Mom. I’m going to be right out. I have to meet JJ at the park.”

“Ok sweetheart, just checking.”

Paige stood onto her feet, straightened her clothes, wrapped the white stick in a roll of toilet paper, and stuffed it in the bottom of the garbage can. She inhaled a deep breath as she unlocked the door and rushed out of the house to avoid anyone who was home.

The five-minute walk to the park felt like five hours. Paige made it to the, fortunately, empty swings. She sat on one of the wood-and-chain seats, gazing into the dirt under her feet. Her hands gripped the chains on either side of the chair, while her feet kicked up the red clay beneath them. Her eyes were big and blank.

“Paige, what the hell is wrong with you?” asked JJ. No answer. Another minute later, still no response. “Earth to Paige! Hello! I’ve been calling your name for two minutes, and you act like I’m not here. Hello! Paige!” JJ waved her hands in front of Paige’s face as she continued to dig her feet into the ground.

Paige seemed to regain consciousness. “Oh. Sorry, JJ. When did you get here? I didn’t notice you,” Paige commented.

“Huh? I said, hi. I kicked your leg.” JJ furrowed her eyebrows.

“What are you looking all cross-eyed? I just said I didn’t notice you. Since when did you become a pest?” Paige scoffed.

“What?!” JJ’s eyebrows flattened. “Paige! You’ve been acting like a jerk, lately. We’re graduating in almost four weeks. Stop being an idiot. What the hell is up with you? You should be happy, excited, anxious, something, but instead, you’ve just been a bitch, pardon my French! We should be having fun, you idiot!” JJ exclaimed.

“Yeah, I know. Whatever!” Paige jumped up from the swing and walked toward the restroom in the pavilion across the park.

“Oh, hell no. You’re not getting away from me that easy,” JJ hustled toward her, yanked Paige’s arm, twisting her around. She winced. “Are you crying?” JJ asked. Paige stopped between the playground and the bathroom, like a zombie, as if she’d forgotten where she was. JJ wrapped her arms around her shoulders. “Oh my God, what’s wrong, Paige?” JJ wiped Paige’s tears with her fingers.

“I—I d-don’t know what to d-do, JJ,” Paige stuttered through her tears.

“About what?” JJ asked.

Paige pursed her lips tightly together.

“Paige, please tell me,” JJ pushed her for a response.

Paige took a deep breath before turning around. Faintly, she uttered. “JJ, I’m pregnant.”

“I didn’t hear you. What?”

“I’m pregnant!” she shouted. JJ’s jaw dropped to the floor. She pressed her hands to her mouth, then her chest—a futile attempt to disguise the shock. “Say something, JJ,” Paige begged.

“I’m…, I’m so sorry. Are you sure? Pregnant? By who? I didn’t know you had sex.”

“I only had sex once in my entire life. I didn’t plan on it. It just happened. At the s-senior hotel p-party,” Paige stuttered.

JJ grasped Paige’s arms. “Holy Jesus? Oh, my God. That night. The elevator. The walk. Oh, my God. Jason?” she trembled.

Paige acquiesced with a nod, followed by a barely audible, “Yes.” Then she buried her face in her hands.

“Did you tell him?” JJ asked.

“No, I haven’t told anyone. Just you. I don’t know what to do, or who to tell.” Paige walked toward a bench as she sucked in a deep breath of air.

“Are you going to keep the baby?” asked JJ.

“I have to. My faith means a lot to me, and it won’t allow me to have an abortion. Not to mention what my mom would think.” Paige threw her hands in the air, then discharged them at her sides. “My mom! My mom! Oh, my God. She’s going to expect me to keep the baby, which I want to, I do, but I don’t want to be a mom. I think? I don’t even know what to think. I’m so damn scared.” Paige grabbed JJ’s arms. “Please don’t tell anyone. I have to figure out what I’m going to do first.”

JJ shook her head. “I won’t. I promise, but you’re going to need to tell Jason. You have to. You know that, right? JJ asked.

“I know.” Paige hung her head.

“Oh no,” warned JJ.

“What?” asked Paige.

“Lance is here.”

“Oh, my God. Why is he here?” Paige asked. JJ’s eyes were as big as the moon. She dismissively shrugged as if flabbergasted. “JJ, what’s going on?” Paige demanded an answer.

JJ shook her head. “Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh.” JJ cowered under the pressure of Paige’s appeal for a response. “He wanted to tell you something,” she hastily replied. With no time for JJ to elaborate, she loosened another dumbfounded shrug.

Paige hurriedly ran her fingers across the bottoms of her eyes to dry her leftover tears. “Please don’t say anything,” she begged.

JJ shook her head, agreeably. “I won’t.”

Paige inhaled as deep as she could before she turned around. Lance had a bashful yet mischievous expression on his face. She’d never seen that look. The suspense momentarily took her mind off her concerns.

“I have a declaration to make, Paige. Don’t be mad,” JJ whispered as she stood a foot away.

Paige turned around to see JJ nervously tapping her hands on her thighs and kicking the blades of grass beneath her feet. “Oh, no. What is up with the both of you?” Paige whispered to JJ, whose dumbfounded look written all over her face was as clear as day. “What are you both up to?” she implored, glancing back and forth between them.

Lance got closer, then pulled a bouquet of spring flowers from behind his back. “Hey,” he said as he walked toward them, his voice an octave lower than usual. Paige noticed his confident posture, as if on a mission. He looked as if he had stepped right out of a sports magazine. His hair was short, neat—not like his typically disheveled look. It had only been a weekend since she’d seen him last. He’d transformed in two days. How could that be? She wondered. His dark polo shirt hugged him in all the right places—tight around his well-built biceps and chest. He’d managed to hide in baggy, wrinkled shirts all these years. His khaki shorts fell just above his knees, proudly showing off his great legs—muscles and lines in all the right places. How can I be feeling this? She scolded herself. I’m pregnant, and in trouble. Paige pursed her lips. Her eyebrows curiously furrowed as he got closer.

“Um…What’s up with that?” she addressed him, puzzled. He handed her the bouquet. “What about JJ?”

“Oh, my God. You are so dumb and oblivious, aren’t you? Do you need someone to smash you over your head to see?” JJ ridiculed.

“Oh, my God! Oh, no.” Paige pressed her hand to her lips as if a lightbulb went off.

“Oh, no is right.” JJ’s eyes began to well.

“Can I talk to you?” Lance asked Paige.

“Oh, no.” Paige panicked. At that moment, she’d finally gotten it. He liked her. No, he loved her. Paige’s temperature rose twenty degrees. She could feel the sweat drip from under her arms. Lance grabbed her hand and led her back to the swing where she and JJ had just left. Paige tried to ask JJ for help, but she looked worse than Paige. Lance sat her down in the chair she’d just left minutes ago before she’d had her mini-breakdown. He pulled a folded sheet of paper from his shorts pocket. “Oh, no,” she continued to panic.

“Paige,” he began. “I’ve been trying to work up the courage since I met you in middle school. You’ve been the love of my life…”

Paige hid her face in her hands. “Oh, no. Please don’t,” she begged silently inside, tilting her head toward the ground. When she looked up into Lance’s eyes, she saw him for the very first time. She could read his heart. She felt him.

“Paige, I have loved you since middle school. Before we graduate, I need you to know how much I love you. I have loved being near you every day, being one of your best friends, being a confidant, being a shoulder for you. But I want to be more.” Lance occasionally glanced at the paper he was using for notes.

What am I going to say to him? She contemplated. Worry ran rampant in her mind again. She could hear his voice, and she was listening, but she couldn’t concentrate. When he grabbed her hand, she snapped out of her daydream and pulled it back. “Lance, I am so sorry. I—I...,” she stuttered.

“Paige? I know this might be weird, but I know we are meant to be together.”

Paige raised her palm toward him. “No, Lance!” She pressed her hands against her temples. She rocked back and forth between her two feet. “Lance, I—I…Lance, I’m pregnant!” she blurted.

Lance backed away. He held his palms out to catch his balance as if he’d gotten knocked out of equilibrium. His mouth was as big and as open as his heart had been just moments before. Paige walked toward him—reaching for his arm. “No. Don’t touch me,” he chided.

“Lance, please don’t look at me like that. I made a mistake. I made one mistake.” Lance bit his lip. His eyebrows knitted together, and lines around his mouth started to form. “Oh, my God. Please don’t cry, Lance.”

“I’m too late...Who? When? How?” His chest rose and repeatedly dropped as he desperately attempted to catch his breath. Paige extended her hand toward his. He pulled himself from her grip and slowly backed away. She tried to walk closer, but every step forward that she took, Lance took another one backward. Trying to keep his composure, he pressed his lips tightly together, crumpled the note, threw it on the ground, stuck his hands into his pockets and waited for an answer. Paige cleared her throat. “Jason. The hotel. I’m sorry.” Lance’s eyes widened. He backed away until he was a few feet from her, turned around, and started toward his car.

“Lance. Please. I’m so sorry!” Paige cried. The farther he walked from her, the more her heart ached. He had put himself out there, and she’d rejected him. As much as she loved him like a brother, that’s the only way she’d ever seen him—as a brother. Paige hung her head as she walked back to the swing, wondering how she could have been blind and deaf. Her whining cry slowly fainted to a murmur.

JJ approached Paige from behind, rested her hands on her shoulders and whispered. “I’m so sorry! I know it may not seem as though things will be okay, but they will.”

Paige slowly tilted backward, resting her head against JJ’s chest. Her tears started to flow again like a waterfall off the sides of her face. “What have I done, JJ? How could this happen?”

JJ caressed her head without anything else to say except, “It’s going to be all right, Paige.”

“JJ, my life is over. This is the absolute worst thing. Why is this happening to me?” Paige groaned. “Why, JJ? I have a loser father who beats my mom, a mom who denies that shit even happens. I guess I’m not going to college. I’m having a baby by a guy I don’t really know. I want to kill myself.”

“Paige, stop. That’s crazy. Stop talking like that. You will make it. You will be okay.”

Paige sniffled. “But how do you know?”

“I know because you are the luckiest girl in the world to have the greatest girlfriend in the world. You have me,” she joked, resting her chin on her knuckles. JJ raised her eyebrows repeatedly while the biggest ear-to-ear smile engraved itself on her face. Paige chuckled faintly. “Did I hear Paige laugh?”

“Thank you, JJ.” Paige wrapped her arms around her friend through the chain swing. “I love you, you know.”

“Ditto, Pea. Ditto. We’re still the three stooges. The other stooge will just be a stooge for a while. He’ll come around, and he’ll be the biggest, baddest uncle ever.”

***

The long walk home was quiet. Paige said goodbye to JJ and locked herself in her room for as long as she could. Wanting nothing more than to be alone, her mom hollered from the kitchen.

“Paige…Paige? You want dinner?” Paige cleared her throat and stood up straight behind the locked bedroom door, attempting to sound as though nothing were wrong. Somehow, she thought if she stood up straight, Paige would seem less like she’d been crying.

“What you got, Mom?”

“Spaghetti. Garlic bread and salad too,” she added.

“Sure. I’ll be out soon.” Paige lay back on her bed and returned to the letter she had been writing.

“I’m sorry to have to tell you like this, but it is the only way I can. I am pregnant, Jason. And in case you’re wondering, it’s your baby. I’ve had sex with only you. I want to let you know I am keeping this baby. But I also want to tell you that I am not expecting you to take care of this baby at all. I’m going to work, save up, go to night school, and make this work without you. You don’t need to help at all. I don’t want this baby to grow up without knowing who its dad is, so I want to put your name on his or her birth certificate, but I won’t expect anything from you. I promise. It is important to me that you know. And I just wanted to let you know what I am doing. Please remember you owe me nothing, and we don’t ever have to speak, ever. I’m sure you’ll find out when we—

Paige crossed out we, and wrote I, instead.

—I have the baby, but again, I genuinely mean it when I say you are not obligated.

If you want me to sign anything agreeing to what I have just shared, that’s fine. I will. I know you’re going to school and planning to take over your dad’s construction firm. I don’t want this baby to throw a wrench in your plans.”

As she finished the last word in the letter and folded it up, she thought about Lance and the new feeling she had spinning around in her heart since he’d walked away from her in the park. She lay down, staring blankly at the ceiling. “How can he have this kind of effect on me? Why am I now thinking about him like this?” she deliberated. “Why didn’t I see it before? Why do I always have to be such a slow damn kid?” she scolded herself. She turned onto her stomach again, reaching for the phone on the nightstand to call JJ.

“Hey JJ. Just wanted to make sure you’re gonna come pick up Jason’s letter from me on your way to school tomorrow. Can you put it in his locker? But, don’t let Jason see you do it, though. I’m not going to school. I’m okay, just not feeling too well. Morning sickness, maybe. I think.”

“Yup. I’ll deliver it. Be by around 7. I have to go, but I’ll see you tomorrow. Love you. Feel better.”

“Thank you. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

As Paige pondered about Lance, a tear fell gingerly onto the note she had just written to Jason. Sliding it aside to avoid soaking it with her waterfall of tears, she swiped her eyes. Once she composed herself, she folded the letter, shoved it in an envelope, and sealed it. As she laid her head on her pillow, the UNLV acceptance letter and scholarship award taped to her dresser mirror caught her eye. “It would have been a full ride, little one,” she said as she lifted herself. “I guess I can’t lay like this for much longer,” she said as she looked down at her belly. “My life as I planned it is over, but I guess you’re going to show me a new one,” she announced to her stomach. She rolled onto her back again, pressed her hand against her belly. “I guess it’s just gonna be you and me, kid. I’m making you a promise that I will grow you up in the way of the Lord like my mom tried to do, and do the best I possibly can to take care of you. This road might not be the one I thought I’d be on, but I’m going to do my best. I’ll admit, I am a little scared,” Paige confessed. “But I’ve taken care of myself up to this point. I can take care of you too.” Paige stared at the white ceiling and the neon star stickers her mom put up years ago. “You won’t have a dad, but you won’t need one. Dads aren’t that great, anyway,” Paige added. “You could be like me and have a dad who only causes problems, so it may be better that you won’t have one. We’ll be better off, trust me.”

Paige rubbed her belly. “Hey kiddo, I was gonna skip dinner despite the hunger pains, but I can’t. I’ve got you to feed.” Paige cackled. She glanced again at the college acceptance letter. “Yup, we’ll be alright, no matter what. Community college is always an option. We got this,” she assured herself. A few more tears dripped down her cheeks and onto the pillow. “Guess it’s dinner time.” Paige put on her happy face.

Dinner was quiet and uneventful. When Paige finally lay her head on her pillow, she lovingly rubbed her belly again. “It will be fine, baby,” as if the baby was the one needing the reassuring. She repeated that declaration a thousand times before finally falling asleep.

Ring! Ring! Ring! Paige yawned and stretched, rubbing her eyes with her fists until she was fully awake. The alarm clock blinked, 3:00 p.m. “Gosh, I slept the entire afternoon. Jeez, I fell asleep right after JJ came to grab the note,” she realized. Just then, Bring! Bring! Bring! The bedroom phone rang. Paige scurried to the nightstand. “Hey, JJ. How was school today?”

“Hello,” JJ stretched out the word. “School? What do you think? The same.”

“Huh,” Paige giggled.

“It was boring just as it always is. All we did was finish up projects. Strickland gave us the entire period free, so everybody was cruising. You didn’t miss anything.”

“That’s good,” Paige answered. “So, JJ, tell me. When did you give him the letter?” Paige pressed JJ. Her toes anxiously wiggled while waiting for JJ’s reply. “Why are you holding out on me?” Paige prodded. “When did you give him the letter?” she repeated.

“Relax. I had pizza in my mouth. I stuck the note through one of the louvers in his locker this morning,” she answered with a full mouth and a slightly aggravated tone.

“Okay. Okay. Thank you, JJ. He didn’t see you do it, right?”

“No. Jason did not see me do it. I saw him in class. He asked me if you were sick and why you weren’t answering his calls. You do know you can’t miss any more than two days, right? You have to come back to school tomorrow, or you won’t walk on grad night.”

“Yeah, I know. I’ll be back tomorrow.”

“Have you told your parents yet?” asked JJ.

“No. I’m working up the courage. I was going to tell them this morning, but after you left, I went back to sleep. I only woke up a second before you called. And, they mentioned something at dinner last night about meeting with Pastor Greg sometime today. So, I’ll need to figure out another time. Maybe later.

“Oh, sorry.”

“No, it’s okay. Hold on a minute, JJ.” Paige paused. “I think I hear my parents in the kitchen talking with Pastor Greg. Paige jumped off the bed, held her ear to the door. “Hey, JJ, can I call you back? I think my mom is calling for me. Thank you again, for giving Lance the letter.”

“Huh? You mean Jason?” JJ clarified.

“Yes, that’s what I meant, Jason,” she self-corrected. “Thanks. I’ll see you later.”

“Paige, Jason is at the door!” her mom called.

“Oh, my God. Jason is here! What the heck am I going to do? He’s here! I don’t want to talk to him. I said everything in the letter.” Paige whined frantically to herself, pacing across the room. Her breath quickened. Her eyes darted back and forth.

“Paige!” called her mom again.

She tapped her hand against her chest to calm her rapid breaths.

“Go, Paige! You have to do this,” she told herself. “I can do this. I can do this,” she coached herself. Paige repeated part of Psalm 143:5. ’I meditate on all Your doings; I muse on the work of Your hands. I meditate on all Your doings. I muse on the work of Your hands As the Scripture always did for me, it reminds me that God’s hands are on my life,” she said to herself, again pacing back and forth. “I made a mistake—a lapse in judgment—but God is with me. I gotta remember that.” She drew in another deep breath. Twirling her hair in her hands, biting her lip, and tapping her toes against the floor could not calm her heart. Paige dragged her unwilling feet to the door. She squared her shoulders like a soldier and extended her hand toward the doorknob. Sam was standing on the other side. Paige jumped.

“Didn’t mean to scare you. I was calling you. Didn’t you hear me?” she asked. “Jason? I think that’s his name. He’s at the door. Your friend from middle school. I haven’t seen him in so long—probably since you were in middle school.”

Paige shrugged her eyebrows. “Uh, huh,” she answered. “Yes, that’s Jason, my long-time friend. We’ve always been friends.” Paige loosened a snarky tone.

“Oh, okay. He’s just never come here before. Well, he’s waiting for you at the door.” Paige followed her mom out of her bedroom—placing her hands over her chest so her mom wouldn’t see her heart pounding through.

Paige blinked faster than she ever did, so her tears wouldn’t fall from her eyelids. She turned the corner toward the foyer. There he was, in her house. She nearly bit a hole through her lip, biting so intensely. Paige endeavored a subtle grin. At first, Jason’s fingers were steepled together in front of his body; then he swung his hands back and forth anxiously. “He’s as nervous as I am,” she thought.

“H-hi…,” Paige stuttered as she greeted him. “What are you doing here?”

Jason pulled the letter she’d written to him from his jacket pocket. “I’m here because of this,” he said, waving the letter next to his face. “I’m here because of what you said in this letter.” She followed his eyes as they focused on her belly. Her face blushed red. Paige continued to bite half her lip anxiously while pressing her hands to her stomach as if to hide it from him. “Paige, why didn’t you just call me?” he questioned. “I can’t imagine what you are going through, but I don’t want you to do it alone.”

Immediately, her shoulders shrunk. Her head hung as if ashamed. “Jason, I don’t want anything. I just wanted you to know,” she answered assuredly.

“Paige, I want more than that. I want to be that baby’s father,” he said, motioning toward her belly. “I want to be a part of our baby’s life. I want to help you take care of our baby, and I want to do it together with you. Can we go outside?” he asked. She gave a quick nod. Jason took a step forward, grabbed her hand, and led her onto the porch.

“Come here,” he asked, as he wrapped his right arm around her waist while he caressed the nape of her neck with his left. “Come here.”

“No,” she exclaimed, pulling away. “I don’t need anyone to take care of us. I can take care of us both. I don’t want you to feel obligated. It was one night. We don’t even love each other.” She splayed her fingers over her face and shook her head.

“This is our baby. And I do love you. Do your parents know? Who knows about our baby?”

“No, just you, JJ, and Lance.”

“You told Lance before you told me?” A sour expression contorted his face.

Paige rolled her eyes. “Hey, I wasn’t planning to tell Lance first,” she defended herself. “Something happened that forced me to share it. It’s just that...” she paused.

“’It’s just that what?” Jason pressured.

“Let me answer!” she demanded as she pushed her hands into her pockets. “Lance told me he loved me, and he wanted to be with me. I was forced to tell him.”

Jason’s eyes turned the size of golf balls. “Do you love him?”

“No. I don’t know,” Paige replied then bit her lip again, nervously.

“Have you and he...? Did he think it was his?”

Paige stepped toward him, jerked her arm back, and slapped him across his face. “I have never had sex until the night with you. You were my first!” She pushed the words from her gritted teeth. “Look,” she held her palms toward him. “As I said before, I don’t need you. I don’t need to start something that’s going to turn out ugly, anyway. It’s inevitable, so what’s the use of going through the bullshit? I know you’re set to get your MBA, take over your father’s contracting firm. It’s a big deal. I don’t want this baby and me to mess you up.”

Jason pressed his hands to his temples. “Holy shit, Paige. Is that how little you think of me? I want to be a part of this baby’s life. I want to marry you. I want to do what’s right.”

Paige shook her head. “I don’t want or need you to do what’s right.” She turned toward the door and gave him a dismissive wave.

“No, don’t go. Please. Can we sit? Here on the bench? Please,” he begged. Jason dusted the metal chair at the far end of the porch. “Please, sit.” Paige sat at the edge of the opposite side. “Paige, can we talk about getting married? Starting a life?” He rounded his palm under her chin. “Please look at me.”

Jason’s voice was barely audible. His tone was calm. “Hey, I know this is fast. But we can take it as slow as our situation allows. I know we didn’t plan it like this, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. I have always wanted to be with you. When I saw you outside on that balcony alone, I knew I had to go for it finally. Then, what happened was so much more than I imagined. Now that you’re pregnant, well, it changes things, but I’m excited.” His words nearly knocked the wind out of her. “Paige, I showed my mom and dad the letter you wrote to me. I can’t honestly say they were happy. They’re worried, but it’s going to be okay. I know they’ll help us.” Paige stared blankly into Jason’s eyes. “They said that once our baby is born, they know that any worry they have will go away. Look, we have a great support system. We can do this. Let’s tell your parents. My parents want to meet you.” He clasped her hands.

“I have met them,” she answered.

“I meant, get to know you,” he rebutted.

Paige stood up from the bench, her hands hollowed over the porch railing. She drew in a deep breath. “Jason, I’m not sure what to think. This situation is overwhelming and all too fast. God, this is too fast.” She turned around and stared into Jason’s eyes, a desperate expression overcame her face. “Do you know that Lance just told me he loved me and that he’s loved me since middle school? Do you know that he’s heartbroken? I didn’t know,” splaying her hand across her chest, “and he’s one of my best friends. What that tells me is I’m oblivious and stupid. As close as we’ve been as friends, I had no clue he loved me. Do you know how ridiculous that makes me feel? On top of that, I think I’ve probably lost him as a friend. I’m honestly wondering if maybe I loved him. What the hell is wrong with me? Now, I’m pregnant.” Paige finished the rant, plopped herself back onto the metal bench, and blew out a big breath of air.

Jason rested his hand on hers. “You are right that this is big. This is too much to handle by yourself.” Jason paused, his eyebrows furrowed. “Do you love him?” he stuttered.

“I don’t know,” she shrugged.

Jason exaggerated an exhale. “I know you don’t love me, but…” He paused. “Could you love me?”

“I don’t know. It’s just a lot to digest, is all,” she tried to explain.

Jason clenched her hand to stop her from trembling. “Look Paige, I’ve had serious feelings for you for a very long time. By serious, I mean, I love you. Have for quite some time. I’m sorry for Lance that I beat him to the punch, but this baby makes me think we’re supposed to be together. We can tell your mom and dad. We will date for a few months. We can move into one of my parents’ houses before the baby is born. You can still go to college here in Hawaii.”

Paige covered her face with her hands. “I feel like my world is spinning. Please give me some time to think about this, please. Can I call you tomorrow? My mom and dad are in there talking with Pastor Greg,” she gestured toward the house. “I hate to do this to them right now. Please, let me call you later?”

Jason squeezed her fists. “Yes,” he loosened a shallow nod. “I will call you tomorrow. Is that ok?”

Paige blinked. “Yes. Thank you.”

As Jason walked down the stairs of the porch, Paige felt a tight knot in her stomach. Wrapping her arms around herself, as she watched him leave, Paige prayed to God for the right answer. “I need soldier-like courage, God,” she whispered into the blue sky above.

Jason stroked the nape of his neck as he walked toward his truck. Before he got it, he stole another glance, and before he pulled away, he rolled down the passenger side window. Leaning over to see outside the window, he called, “Hey, I’ll call you tomorrow, but if you need me before then, let me know. Anytime, if you need me, I’ll be here.” He waved his palm, flashed a wink and a subtle smile.

Paige returned the wave and loosened a shallow nod. As he drove off, her shoulders languished. Tears fell from the pockets of her eyes. Swiping the tears from her cheeks with her fingers, she steadied her rapid breath and prayed for strength. “I can do this,” she coached herself, reaching for the doorknob. “Just walk past the kitchen, give a fast smile, say hello and get out.” As she headed down the hall toward her bedroom, one terrifying thought ran rampant in her mind, “telling my parents is going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”

***

“Mom, I can’t believe it’s already been two weeks since graduation,” Paige said, pulling the chair out from the table with her foot.

“I know, right?” Paige’s mom agreed.

“I’m getting fatter by the hour,” Paige chuckled as she sat down at the kitchen table, nearly dropping her hot bowl of oatmeal.

“Pea, the time is going by so fast.” Paige’s mom put away the dish she was drying into the cabinet above her head and shifted her eyes toward Paige. She walked next to her and caressed her head. “You have such beautiful brown hair, and you’re glowing. I bet you’re having a girl. They say if you look extra beautiful when you’re pregnant, you’re having a girl. I hope it’s a girl!” Her mom smiled.

Paige returned the smile with her eyes. “What do women who are carrying boys look like?” she asked, her mouth half-full of oatmeal.

Paige’s mom chuckled. “They look worn. I looked beautiful with both girls, so I’m not quite sure, but when your aunt was pregnant with Josh, I have to admit she did look worn out and tired. But don’t tell her I said that,” Sam laughed.

“I won’t,” Paige promised, crossing her heart. “Mom?”

“Uh, huh?”

“Thank you for accepting this and for helping me. I love you.”

Sam gazed at Paige like she did when Paige was a little girl. “Of course, baby! Wouldn’t have it any other way.” She turned away to put the milk on the top shelf of the fridge. “Hey, what time is your ultrasound today, Paige?”

With another full spoon of hot oatmeal in her mouth, Paige tried to talk.

“Pea, do you need me to go with you?” Sam asked as she closed the fridge door.

Paige shook her head. “It’s at eleven. It’s okay, Mom. You don’t need to come. Jason should be here soon. He’s going to take me. I was going to have breakfast here because I couldn’t wait. I feel like I’m always starving. We are going to the mall to that baby shop on the corner by the movie theater,” she explained. “Jason wants us to choose something for the baby together. He’s going to take me to our appointment after we go to the mall.”

“Okay, well, if you need me to go, I can. If not, get a picture for me—don’t forget!”

“Okay, Mom. Thank you.”

“Of course. But remember, I want to go to at least one of your ultrasounds with you.”

Paige smirked. “Thanks, Mom. Yeah. You’ll come with me once the baby gets bigger.”

“Yup! Oh, your dad and I have our counseling session with Pastor Greg today, but that isn’t until three.”

Paige’s smile turned sour. “Why did you have to bring him up, Mom?” she scoffed as she finished her oatmeal. Then the doorbell rang.

“Yes! Saved by the bell!” Sam pumped her fist.

“Childish, Mom,” Paige mocked.

Paige’s mom gave a quick smirk while she scurried to answer the door. “I wonder who that is,” she teased. “I’ll get it.’

“You know it’s probably just Jason, Mommy dearest,” Paige replied.

“Oh, darling, I want to say hello to my granddaughter’s father.” Paige hurried playfully around the corner through the hallway to beat her mother to the front door. With a huge smile plastered across her face, Paige pulled the door open.

“Oh.” She gasped. “Lance! What are you doing here?” Lance was biting his lip and holding his hands together to stop them from fidgeting. The scene reminded her of the first time she saw Jason at her door—with that same distressed expression and fidgety hands.

“Hi, Paige.” Lance shot a crooked smile.

“Uh, hey, Lance,” she stuttered, attempting to rid the shock from her body. “What are you doing here?”

“Gee, thanks. You’re really welcoming. Glad I came,” he loosened a sarcastic tone.

“Well, it’s not like I’ve seen or heard from you since graduation, and it’s not like it wasn’t weird. I called you, and no response,” Paige scolded.

“Well, you did rip my heart from my chest and make me curse the day I met you,” he snickered.

“For what it’s worth, I didn’t mean to do that. As you probably now understand, I was and am dealing with a lot. I am sorry if you don’t believe it.” She rolled her eyes.

Lance sighed, “I believe you. Anyway, how have you been?” he asked.

“It’s been hard for me. But I’m fine,” Paige loosened a bashful smile.

“That’s good. Do you have some time to talk?”

“Um…” She pressed her finger to her chin while glancing at the blue digits on the cable box in the living room. “Yes, of course. Just so you know, Jason is picking me up in a half-hour or so, but yes, I have time to talk to you.” Paige slipped her feet into the nearest pair of sandals then guided Lance to the metal bench on the porch.

“Paige, this is hard, but I just wanted to say goodbye. I’m leaving for basic training in Texas tomorrow morning. My recruiter called me right after graduation. It’s been hard for me to see you, so I’ve been avoiding it. I didn’t plan on coming. I was going to leave; then I realized I couldn’t just leave without saying goodbye to you and JJ. I’m sorry I said to you what I did the day at the park. I always thought, or hoped, we’d someday be together, but I guess I lost my chance. I should have done it so long ago, but I was a coward. I know the timing sucks. I wish I got my balls quicker,” he joked.

“Stop.” Paige waved dismissively.

“Yeah, well. I guess it is what it is, right?” Lance hung his head.

“Lance, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know how you felt. I didn’t think anything. I didn’t notice. I can’t say I felt the same because my mind wasn’t there. All I had in my head was making it for my mom. In all honesty, though, since that day I’ve done nothing but think about our friendship—if I wasn’t thinking about the baby,” she added as she pressed her hand on her little belly.

“I can imagine,” Lance released a half-smile. “Anyway, Paige, before I leave, I wanted to tell you that if I don’t reach out, it’s just that it’s too hard. Don’t feel sorry for me. I’m good. Gonna get my ass kicked in basic, but I’m alright.” Paige leaned toward him and planted a kiss on his cheek. Lance caressed the spot where her lips had touched. “I’ll always pray for you and the baby, and your marriage with Jason. I wish you the best. I really do.” Lance sniffled, pressing his lips tightly together. He pulled his shoulders back and sat at attention.

“Aw, Lance,” is all she could think to say. She reached toward his cheek. He pulled away to escape another one of her caresses. “Lance, you know I love you too, right? Please say, you know. Nod, at least. You’ve been my best friend. You and JJ and I are the stooges. Lance, I…I do love you.” She paused and wrapped her arm around his shoulder. “Lance, I will pray for you that God keeps you safe and in his arms. I pray supernatural provision over you, everywhere you go.” Paige rested her head on his. He wiped her tears while she wiped his.

“Ahem,” Jason cleared his throat. Paige’s pulse quickened. She sat upright, straightening her shoulders. “Is everything okay?” Jason asked. “Am I interrupting something?” he prodded.

Paige picked at her nails and glanced between Jason and Lance, who stood from his seat. Paige bounced her heels against the squeaking wood floor beneath them. Lance clapped the tips of his fingers, gave Jason a subtle smile, and a shallow nod.

“Yes, Jason. Everything is fine. I was saying goodbye to Paige.”

Paige stood between them. She noticed Jason twisting the wedding ring on his finger, and Lance’s eyes faced directly at it. She held her breath and turned toward the palm tree in the pot at the end of the porch.

“I…” Lance paused. “I wanted to say goodbye and wish you both a great life.” He straightened his posture. “I am praying for you both and the baby.” Lance extended his hand toward Jason.

Paige, who stood between Lance and Jason, clasped her hands behind her back, still bouncing on her toes. “Oh my God,” she gasped. “I love Lance. And I’m having Jason’s baby. I love Jason for being a great guy, but I love Lance, and he’s leaving.” She pressed her lips together and did the best she could to fake a smile.

Lance squared his shoulders and extended his hand toward Jason. “Congratulations on your wedding. You are a lucky man. This young woman is a great one.”

Jason leaned into Lance, shoulder to shoulder, and lightly patted his back. “Thank you, Lance. I appreciate it. I know she’s a good woman. I am a lucky man…” He reached around her waist, pulled her close, and kissed her on the temple. “I’ll take care of her, and our baby,” he promised. Paige cringed as Lance’s eyes began to well. “I overheard as I walked up. You enlisted in the air force. That was a quick signing.”

Lance nodded. “Yeah. I asked for a job I know they needed filled now. Wanted it expedited.”

“Well, good for you. Be safe.”

Paige’s face turned scarlet as she watched the two men be as cordial as they could to one another considering the triangle. She quickly swiped her cheeks and silently prayed to God that her heart would stop crying. She loved them both, but there was something about Lance and all the time they had spent together that she wished she could explore. She was seeing him as Lance—this handsome, caring, patient, committed man. Why couldn’t she have seen it sooner? Why was she so blind? She ached. She died inside, at that moment — “these two young men. One is leaving, and one is having a baby with me,” she reminded herself.

Jason broke the awkward deafening silence. “We have her ultrasound this morning,” he shared.

“Yup. We do,” Paige replied, wiping her clammy palms against her shorts. “It’s still too early to find out the sex of the baby, but my mom thinks it’s a girl.”

“Yeah, I’m sure Paige will let you know when she finds out, Lance.”

Lance nodded. “Great. That’s great,” he replied. “It might be hard to get in touch with me. That is why I am saying goodbye,” he said. Paige brushed her face with her hands. She smiled, then nodded. Lance cleared his throat. “I’m gonna miss you, stooge,” he ushered an endearing smile.

Paige reached for his hand and squeezed. “Lance, I’m sorry.” She turned away to hide her tears.

“Paige?” Jason pulled her into him. “You okay?”

“Uh, huh. I’m okay.” She nodded. “I am just gonna miss this guy,” she brushed his shoulder.

“Me too,” Lance chuckled. “I guess I better go. I have to finish packing.”

“So, where you getting stationed?” asked Jason.

“Basic training is in Texas. After that, I’ll find out where they’ll be sending me. I gave them a few preferences, but none of them are here. I wanted anything but here. I’m probably going to Europe my recruiter said—because of the job I’m applying for,” Lance shrugged. “Maybe, who knows.”

“What job are—”

“Please take care of her, Jason,” Lance interrupted, then walked down the porch steps. Lance glanced over his shoulder at Paige before getting into his car. He shot one more glance and waved. “Bye. I love you,” he slackened through gritted teeth.

Paige buried her head in Jason’s arms. She loved Lance, but she was marrying Jason. As she laid her head in his arms, she pondered her decision. “He’s a great guy, my baby’s father. I should marry him. He’ll love me, and love our baby. We won’t have to worry about a place to stay. I can go to a community college. I have to love him like that.” The rampant thoughts sped through her mind like bullets. “Why did I have sex when I wasn’t ready?” She berated herself. “Oh, my God. One damn night,” her mind screamed. Paige hid her eyes in Jason’s shoulders as if hiding would keep her thoughts inside where they belonged—locked up never to be let out. “I can’t ever let anyone know this. I made my bed; I have to lie in it. I can’t love Lance. I can’t miss him.” Paige pressed her hands to her belly. “I’m going to do what’s right for you, baby. I’m going to be a good mom.”

Jason intertwined his fingers with hers. She broke free from the battlefield of her mind. “Paige, you okay?” Jason ran his fingers on her cheek.

“Yes, I’m okay,” she raised her head, wiping her eyes with her knuckles. “Can you give me a few minutes? I need to change and get my things. My mom is in the kitchen. Go, say hi.” Paige wiped her face again, opened the door, and walked over the threshold. “Mom, Jason wants to say hi,” she called.

“Hey, Jason,” called Sam.

“Hi, Mrs. H,” he replied, strolling toward the kitchen.

“Mrs. H?! Call me, Mom. I’m going to be your mother-in-law in a few months. Hello?”

Jason chuckled. As Paige reached the last step before turning toward the hallway to her room, she took another deep breath, placed her hand on her belly, and reminded herself of her commitment. “I can do this,” she promised her baby growing inside.

***

The wedding, the house, the baby weight; life changed with every day that passed. “Gosh even my feet have changed,” Paige winced, staring at her swollen ankles hanging off one side of the love seat. “You look like stumps,” she joked. As Paige adjusted her neck against the opposite arm of the couch, she pressed her hands against her lower back to help her move. “Ugh,” she gasped, moving one hand onto the top of her belly so the baby inside wouldn’t smash her ribs into her chest. “I have to hold you down. You’re gonna nail me in my ribs again,” she joked. “There, that’s comfortable,” she said, resting her left hand on the top of her big round belly.

“Mrs. Jason Beckett Jr.,” she muttered to herself, twirling the new symbol on her ring finger with her thumb. “Mrs. Jason Beckett, Jr. That’s me.” She bit back her smile. “He’s a great man, Paige. You know?” she said to herself. “I am grateful for God’s grace on me, and you.” She rubbed her belly as she talked to her baby boy inside. “By the way, baby, I’ve finally decided. Your name is going to be Jason Beckett III,” she shared, “But, we may call you JJ, for Mommy’s best friend. You know, Grandma thought you were going to be a girl,” she joked. “Ooh,” she gasped, pressing her fingers against the sharp pain in her belly. “Does that kick mean you’re annoyed?” She paused. “I’m gonna take that second kick as a yes.” She chuckled, rubbing her belly clockwise—a habit she’d developed over the nearly nine months carrying him.

“So, when are you coming out, little boy? You’re due in two days. I was sure you’d be here already. You know you’ve been so naughty, right?” she giggled. “I’ve had morning sickness, cramps, indigestion, and not to mention you kick so darn hard. I must have bruises in there.” Paige joyfully laughed as she joked with the baby she’d carried for almost forty weeks. “I have a question. I’m pretty sure you can’t answer, little one, but I thought I’d share,” she continued. “Why does everyone say it takes nine months to grow a baby inside of you when it takes ten?” She furrowed her eyebrows, rubbed her finger over her chin, and continued to talk with her baby like she’d done since she found out she was pregnant. “Baby, I’m tired,” she gasped. Your father and I got married less than a week ago. In that week, we’ve painted your room, built your crib, and set up nearly everything you’re going to need. He’s such a great man—your father. He promises to give us a good life, and I believe him. He already has. I really want to meet you and introduce you to him. Maybe tomorrow?” She rubbed her belly one more time before she yanked the pillow from under her legs and shoved it in the space behind her back and the cushion on the couch.

“Jason?” Paige called. “Are you almost done with what you’re doing? I’m tired. I’m going to sleep.”

“Okay, wife. I’ll be there in a few minutes. I’m just rearranging the room, so it makes more sense,” he explained. “The changing table should be to the right of the crib since you and I are both right-handed,” he reasoned.

“Okay,” she replied. “See, baby? He’s so thoughtful,” she praised. Paige appreciated how much Jason did for her. She wanted to love him the way he loved her—she prayed for that every night as she tried desperately not to think about Lance in the air force. Paige always kept him in her prayers, no matter how much guilt it elicited. Like she had been doing for years, she recited her favorite Scripture and trusted that God had his hands on her.

“Ugh.” Paige felt a sharp but unusual pain in her abdomen. She grasped her belly and began to take deep quick breaths as her breathing coach taught. Patiently waiting for Jason to finish, Paige used the calming strategies she had learned—until the sharp pains came so frequently, her only recourse was to beat her fists into the cushions. “Ja-son!” she screamed. “Jason, my stomach. I think I’m going into labor,” she panicked. “Uh, but it feels worse than they described—like a weird pain, beating or something,” she moaned. “Please come.” The sound of his two scrambling feet against the tile floor sounded like a herd of animals.

“Paige? What’s wrong?” In a frenzy, he paced back and forth across the floor.

“Jason, it hurts. It just came upon me all of a sudden. This pain is more than I expected of contractions. Something is wrong. It feels like twisting and tapping.” Paige swung her legs off the couch and hurled over in pain, holding her belly. Jason threw open the closet door, scurried for her hospital bag, and grabbed her arm and elbow to help her to her feet.

“Babe, I have to have the baby now. Oh, my God. He’s coming!” she screamed in a panic.

“Paige, wait. We can’t do that yet. Uh, what do you need? What else do I need to grab?” he asked.

She shook her head repeatedly. “Jason, I don’t. I don’t…” she stuttered. “Nothing except the bag. Just breath. Don’t forget to breathe,” she reminded herself. “Jason, you’re turning blue,” she screamed. “Oh, my God. I can’t handle this. It hurts too much,” she cupped the bottom of her belly.

“I promise. I’m trying to be quick, Paige.”

“I know, Jason. Thank you. Please, get me to the hospital.” Jason strapped the bag around his shoulder as he lifted her arm over his neck.

“Let’s get you to the car.” She moaned in agony.

Jason sped as cautiously as he could through multiple red lights, scrambled around turtle-like cars, and honked his way past pedestrians to get Paige safely to the hospital emergency entrance fifteen miles away from home. Just as he drove into the roundabout of the hospital lobby, globs of blood started to drip down the insides of both her thighs.

“Oh, my God. Jason, I’m bleeding. Something is wrong. I think my water broke too, but I’m bleeding all over the place. Please get me inside.” Her eyes were as big as the moon and dark with horror. Jason slammed his brakes when he saw a woman in blue scrubs pushing a wheelchair toward the door. The hospital worker turned around when she heard the frenzied honking of their car.

“Please. Please. My wife is having a baby. Please help her,” he begged.

The nurse yelled for the security guard to call the emergency room. She got Paige safely into the wheelchair. Paige looked over her shoulder at Jason. The terror in her eyes cut through his heart like a knife. He stood momentarily frozen in time in front of his car, watching his new wife cry out in pain. He sent a short prayer to God in heaven to protect their baby. When he could no longer see her, he blew a sigh of relief that she was in good hands, and drove to the parking lot.

***

Jason couldn’t sit. He could barely think or breath. Like he’d been told to do, he waited as patiently as humanly possible while his feet paced him back and forth across the waiting room. Someone would come and get him, they assured. “It is better to be patient than to burst in,” he reminded himself. “All the focus should be on my wife and child. Incessant worry isn’t of God.” He remembered Paige told him that. But it was too hard not to worry. “Finally,” he thought as the double doors opened.

Paige’s doctor walked through the door. It wasn’t good news. He knew that face. “Oh, no. Oh, no.” His eyes lit up like fire. “No, no. Go back. Fix it. Please.”

The doctor stood with his hands gripped together, waiting for Jason to slow his breathing.

“I’m so sorry,” he lamented. “Paige is going to be okay, but the baby didn’t make it. I’m so sorry. Her body knew something was wrong. She did everything right. But the baby was stillborn—an intrapartum death.”

“What? Why?” Jason pressed his hand against the wall to brace himself from falling. “How can this be? The baby was just okay, like, minutes before we came, I think.”

“I’m sorry.” The doctor inched forward to cradle his shoulder.

“Jason, this is rare, so we don’t have definitive information as to why these things happen. It could have been an infection, or problems with the placenta. We don’t know.”

“Did something or I stress her out or something? It’s not that, right?” Jason cried.

“No. No. There wasn’t anything you or Paige did wrong. It’s just something that happens that we can’t explain. I’m so sorry.” The doctor’s shoulders shrunk. “I want to let you know we needed to give Paige a powerful sedative to help her calm down. She is asleep, but you can be there for her when she wakes up. As I said, it was a strong sedative. She’ll probably sleep for a few hours. Her body’s been through way too much, so the sleep is vital to her recovery.”

Jason’s hands hid the pain engraved onto his face. He couldn’t speak. He could only cry. “C-can I go to her now?”

“Yes. Come. I’ll take you to your wife.”

Jason stood at the foot of her bed, soaking his shirt with his tears. The peacefulness of her sleep was deceiving. There wasn’t anything he’d be able to do, no matter how hard he wanted to protect her. Jason pulled the chair behind him up toward her. His elbows pressed against her bed, his head in his hands, he prayed for God to intervene on their behalf. Startled by her agonizing moan, he lifted his head toward her. She was crying in her sleep.

“Paige, baby. I’m so sorry,” he whispered.

“Lance? Lance?” she muttered faintly before falling back asleep.

Jason hid his head in his hands and cried.

Chapter 7

Loss

“Uhhhhhhhhhh!” Paige moaned with every squirm. Although she had slept for hours, her eyelids were almost too heavy to open. Despite every ache, her fingers crawled around her belly. “My baby! My baby! Why did God take him?” Wailing like a wounded puppy she begged for answers. “Why? Please? Tell me why?”

Jason, his mom Jeanine, and Paige’s mom flocked around her bed. Jason cradled at her side. Jeanine stood over him, rubbing his shoulder, trying to comfort them both, and Sam sat on the opposite side of the bed, caressing Paige’s forearm.

“Paige, I’m so sorry for you both. I don’t know this pain, but we are all here for you and Jason,” Sam whispered.

“Mom. Jason.” She struggled to speak. “Where’s the baby? I want to see him.” Jason’s eyes squinted tight. “Did you see him, Jason?” she asked. He shook his head. An unfocused gaze came over him. He started to rub the back of his neck, nervously. “Why not?” Paige’s tone was slightly miffed. “Didn’t you want to see our child?” she agonized.

Jason’s eyebrows raised and pulled together.

“Paige. I did, but I wanted to wait for you.” He avoided giving her eye contact. “To be honest, I’m not sure if I want that vision in my mind. It could stay there for the rest of my life.” He loosened an enigmatic expression Paige had never seen.

“Awwww, son.” Jeanine wept. “I am so sorry for you.”

Paige shifted toward Sam. The corners of her mouth turned down like a half-moon. “Can you help me mom, please? I want to see my son. I need to see my baby. Mom please,” she begged. Deep lines engraved themselves around her youthful, but desperate eyes.

Jeanine gripped Sam by the hand. “Your mom and I will see what we can do, okay, Paige?” enjoined Jeanine. “Jason, we’ll be back.” A hint of a nod was all he could muster.

“Paige, I’m not exactly sure when is the right time to say this, but I want you to know that I love you. I want to be your husband. Together we can get through this. God has a plan. I prayed, and He promised. I’ll take care of you. I promise. You won’t have to take one single step alone.” Jason wept as he uttered every syllable.

Paige raised her hand, rested it against his head, and began to caress him gently. “Our baby, Jason. Our baby!” she sobbed. Jason kissed her palm repeatedly. “Jason, does JJ know? What about Lance?”

“No, but she called. She’s still in Colorado, and she’ll be home very soon. She said to tell you that she loves you and is praying for all of us.”

Jason fought the fear fleeting inside him that she loved Lance, and she would run to him because of this. It took every ounce of him to be the better man, stopping the ugly thoughts inside. She was his; he reminded himself. He chose not to worry that his wife loved another man. He was just a friend. Jason’s love was enough; he assured himself. He stopped the rant in his mind to answer the rest of her question. “Paige, I asked JJ to let Lance know.”

“Thank you, Jason.” Paige closed her eyes. The wrinkles around her eyes and above her brows began to relax. Jason chided himself for feeling miffed that she was thinking about Lance in a time like this when they’d lost their baby. He prayed to rid it from his mind. He prayed to forget that in the gravest moment of her life, she called for another man.

“Jason, Paige?” Sam said warily as she and Jeanine returned. “The nurse will be bringing the baby shortly, okay?”

Paige slowly opened her eyes, shifting them toward the window. Tears flowed uncontrollably onto her pillow. Her body started to shake as the sobbing intensified. She raised her hands to her mouth to hide her shame. “Did I let this happen?” Her hands muffled her voice.

Sam hastily hurried to her bedside. “What did you ask Paige?” Paige turned. Her eyes bloodshot, and skin splotchy from her body’s ordeal.

“I asked what I did wrong. I carried my baby and cared for him the best I could. Why would God hurt me this way? What did I do? I’ve always tried to be the best I can be. I’ve always tried to help. Why me? Why us? Why did He take my baby? Why did he take my son?” She gasped for air.

“No, baby.” Sam coached her to breathe. “God didn’t take your son. You didn’t do anything wrong. Sometimes these things happen. We can’t explain them.”

Sam laid her head on hers and prayed. “Remember baby. Psalm 143:5. I remember the days of old; I meditate on all Your doings; I muse on the work of Your hands. Psalm 102:18. Write these things for the future so that people who are not yet born will praise the Lord. You will know His will, maybe not today, but you will know. You will feel him if you allow yourself to feel his presence in your life. I don’t understand why this has happened to you. Yes, you have been a great person. You are a great person. You’ve done everything right, but there are times that you can do everything right, and things like this can still happen, through no fault of your own. We don’t know why. It’s not our job to understand why. It’s our job to trust when we don’t.” Sam took her own advice to breathe.

Nurse Rebecca stopped at the doorway. “Is it okay to come in?” Cuddled in swaddling was Paige’s dead son.

“God will help you through this.” Paige gritted her teeth.

“No, Mom. God is your God. Not mine. I will not worship a God who took the life of my son. Don’t ever talk to me about your God again.” Paige seethed. The scowl wrinkled her face. “I will never utter Psalms or any other Scripture from my mouth, ever. I will be angry until the day I die, and nothing you say will convince me otherwise. I love you, but I hate God.”

Paige extended her arms toward the nurse. “You can give me my baby, please.” She adjusted her position against the pillow. Gingerly, the nurse passed the newborn to Paige who cautiously removed the blanket from his face. Her tears soaked his full head of hair. His eyelashes were perfect. His cute little button nose was perfect. She stuck her hand in the blanket in search of his perfect fingers. Paige laid him down on the bed between her legs and slowly unwrapped him. His tiny, limp body was perfect. She kept shaking her head, then turned to Jason; her brows pulled together in a seething scowl. “Why? He’s perfect.” She sobbed incessantly. Her face crumpled in pain—her heart aching in her chest. She felt it fall. She felt it break. “My baby! Ahhhhhh. Baby, come back to me,” wailing as she investigated his perfectness. Paige wiped her eyes with her hands until she could see again, and wrapped him snugly in his blanket. “Where’s he gonna go?” she asked the nurse.

The nurse had a similar grimace on her face as if strangling the words from her lips.

“Paige, he’s going to go downstairs. Your baby will be prepared for the trip to the funeral home if that’s what you folks want. Or…” She paused.

“Funeral? If that’s what we want? What do you mean?” Her voice cracked.

“Uh…”

The nurse’s eyes darted at Jason, who interrupted their conversation.

“This isn’t something you need to worry about, Paige. I will take care of this. We will have a funeral for our son. All you have to do is be okay.” He held her hand as he kissed his son’s forehead.

“You will stay one more day. Doctor wants you to stay until tomorrow. You’ll be able to see your baby one more time,” the nurse explained.

Paige pressed her lips tightly together while her eyes buried themselves in the white of her blanket. “Can I take him downstairs, Rebecca?” asked Paige.

“I’m sorry,” the nurse apologized. “Only staff can go downstairs.”

Paige held her son for a few more moments, then wiped her face in her baby’s swaddling. She turned the other way and gave her baby to the nurse. “Goodbye, my son. Mommy loves you.” She watched the woman take her baby away. “Please make me sleep. I want to sleep this away.”

Her incessant wailing scared all of them. Sam hurried to fetch a doctor who’d happen to be passing in the hall. “Please, help me, Doctor. My daughter needs to sleep.”

The doctor followed through the door. Another nurse followed behind.

“Administer twenty milligrams of Temazepam, please.” She turned toward Sam and Jason. “This prescription will help her sleep, and it will help with the anxiety. I am sorry for your loss.” The doctor rested her hand on Paige’s arm.

Paige turned toward Jason and their mothers. “Please, may I have time alone? I know you have been there for me, and you will continue to be, but I’d like to be alone, please,” she asked, pressing her hands in a steeple in front of her face.

Alone in the dark of the hospital room, a flood of unbridled complaints unleashed from the fermenting rage. Paige decided to never again believe in the God she served all her life. She spoke into the air out of habit. But Paige resented that habit as if looking into the skies acknowledged God’s existence. The fuming anger inside of her body bubbled. She desperately needed to get them out of her, so she sent her thoughts audibly into the world. “I put everyone else before me,” she complained. Her fists were angrily waving around in the air. “I sacrificed. I worked hard, and this is what I get? I get married, change my plans, get excited about my new life with my son, then, I lose him. Where’s the fuckin’ justice in that?” She stared dizzily at the pores in the ceiling. “Where do I go from here, huh? What do I do now?” she questioned.

“My only refuge was my prayers with you. I have honored you my entire life. I took my mother’s words to heart. Most of her words came from you. I talked to you every night. I never put myself first, yet still. What kind of sick joke have you been playing with me?” She continued to fume. “You take Lance away from me. You didn’t even protect me from me. I got married,” she repeated. “And still, you take away my baby.” She bit back tears. “Answer me, damn it! Where do I go from here, huh?”

Finally, the twenty milligrams took its effect. Paige’s eyes felt heavy like lead, slowly fluttering until she was asleep, in refuge from her thoughts.

***

“Can I help you?” The cheery voice from the little speaker to the right of the menu woke Paige from her semi-hypnotic, reminiscent state. “Can I help you?” the voice repeated. Paige momentarily forgot that she’d gotten off the busy freeway. A quick scan of the menu and the number of cars waiting behind provided too little time to make an original decision, prompting a hurried choice. Resorting to her usual, she quickly ordered a protein box and medium iced water. She parked under the large Phoenix palm tree in the corner of the parking lot, rolled down all four windows halfway, and turned off the car. Although the hunger pain inside her belly demanded she acceded to the ring of her iPhone, postponing her indulgence in the peanut butter, apples, and mini triangular-shaped biscuit.

Paige’s phone rang. “Hey,” she answered. “Hi, JJ. Good. You?”

“Good too Paige. I’ve got good news. You might scream. I hope you’re not driving.”

“I’m not,” Paige replied, focusing on the impenetrable plastic packaging of her meal. “I was driving home, but I stopped at the mall. I was about to wolf down a protein pack from Starbucks. So, yes. I am parked.” She laughed at JJ’s response. “I guess you’re more important than my hunger pains, but not sure for how long you’ll win out, so spit out the good news.” While she listened to JJ, she nearly cut her finger, trying to get at her food. Paige held her phone against her shoulder, attempting to listen and open the plastic. She screamed in excitement. “Aaaaaaaaaaaa! JJ, please tell me you’re serious. A baby? That’s awesome. I’m so happy for you.” Paige’s eyes lit up like full moons. “JJ, I’m so excited. Thank you for telling me first.”

“Of course. I have to go, but I wanted you to know before I make the announcement. Only me and hubby know.”

“Oh my God, this is awesome. So happy for you, sister. I’ll see you in a bit as soon as I can get there and I’ll act surprised when you make the announcement. I’m gonna make a quick stop, but fyi the traffic is so bad. I think it’s a terrible accident—a multiple car crash.”

Suddenly, getting into the plastic, difficult-to-open, transparent box wasn’t as urgent. JJ’s exciting news curbed Paige’s hunger pains—stirring her memories instead. She remembered JJ’s wedding, the start to her little family. Soon Paige was in another trance.

***

Ting, ting, ting. Paige tapped the side of her champagne glass with a spoon. “This is supposed to be a memorable event for JJ and her new husband, Ross. I won’t embarrass her too much, I promise,” Paige chuckled as she garnered the attention of the entire party.

JJ waved her finger at Paige. “You better be careful, missy!” The guests applauded as they watched the spectacle at the bride and groom’s table. JJ hid her head in her new husband’s arms to hide her red cheeks.

“So…” Paige tapped her glass again. “Most of you know that JJ and I are best friends. Since middle school, we were the three stooges. There’s just us two here. Lance, who was the third stooge, couldn’t be here today. He’s serving in the air force, stationed in Iraq. He’s not here to defend himself, and we haven’t spoken for years, so we’ll pick on him too tonight.” She smirked at JJ, while JJ covered her face in her hand. The crowd chuckled.

“We want to know the secrets!” JJ’s cousin encouraged Paige.

“I’ll try!” she hollered back. Paige raised her glass. “As you all know, JJ was always getting Lance and me into trouble. And we let her do it too. I don’t know why, but we did. Anyway, I have to tell you at least one of the many zany incidents involving our crazy JJ. We were hanging out at Lance’s cousin’s house,” she continued to explain. “It was January nineteen-something.” She turned to JJ then to the audience. “Don’t worry. I am not giving away your age. I’m not that mean!” she cackled.

One of JJ’s uncles from the back corner of the room heckled, “Stop lying, Paige. You were the troublemaker!”

“Wow, Uncle John,” Paige hollered. “You’re gonna make me laugh too hard. I’m gonna end up giving birth tonight.” Paige pressed her hand to her belly. “You know it’s any day now,” she scolded—her finger pointed directly at him.

“Ahem.” She heard a voice from the end of the room. “Ahem,” she heard again. “Uncle John is right,” said the voice. “She is lying. She’s the mischievous one of the three stooges.”

Paige recognized the deep, raspy voice. Jason knew it too. Like a baby who wanted his mommy’s attention, he wrapped his hand around Paige’s thigh as she stood next to him. Her jaw dropped to the floor. With her glass raised in the air, she was speechless—unable to think one coherent thought. The awkward reunion happening in front of the entire wedding party bothered Jason. Attempting to awaken her from a state of stupor, he tapped his fingers feverishly against her inner thigh.

“Paige, say something,” he whispered through gritted teeth.

As Lance walked toward the stage, her heartbeat quickened. Beads of sweat fell down her forehead. She could feel Jason’s grip tighten, but she couldn’t pick her jaw up from the ground or stop her heartbeat from pounding through her chest.

Lance was wearing his US Air Force Service Dress Uniform. Just as you’d expect a stately air force airman to look, he did, from his flight cap to his dress shoes. His posture was dignified; his eyes striking, and smile humbly subtle. Just as Paige was captivated, so was every other woman in the audience. According to JJ, Lance, who was a Surgical Service Specialist studying to become a surgeon, couldn’t get time off for the wedding, but there he was, in the flesh, and stirring her insides—emotionally and physically. Before he could get to the stage through the hugs and pats on the back, Paige bent over in pain, pressing her hands against her belly.

“Oh, my God. Jason, my water just broke. I think this baby is coming.” Jason kicked back their chairs and wrapped his arms around her. JJ held Paige’s waist.

“Paige, take a deep breath,” Jason coached. Lance hurdled the two tables separating himself from Paige and was at her feet in two seconds. Like he was running to home base, Lance slid his body in front of her as she hurled over holding her stomach. Jason pushed him away.

“Lance, I got this. She’s my wife.”

“Jason! What are you doing?” Paige scoffed. She wrapped an arm around Lance’s shoulder and gave him a friendly squeeze. “Welcome home, stooge.”

“Yeah, welcome home, stooge.” JJ leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. “Lookin’ good, Airman Lance.” JJ raised an eyebrow.

“Ugh,” Paige moaned.

“Nice! This baby is coming on my wedding day! How awesome is that?” JJ cheered. “Three stooges and a baby.”

“May I remind you this is not a time to be joking,” Jason scolded. Unscathed by Jason’s scorn, Lance offered his help. “My rental car is right outside the front door. The valet let me leave it there. I can drive you both to the hospital.”

Jason shook his head, carrying his wife off the stage. “No, thank you,” he answered.

“Jason, our car is somewhere in the parking lot. We’ll have to wait for the valet or call 911,” Paige reminded him as he carried her out.

“Wait for me. I’m coming too,” said JJ.

“Oh no, you’re not!” Paige hollered through the contractions. “This is your wedding day. You have your new husband, remember? You’re going to have fun, and when your niece comes, I will call you. You can introduce yourself to her over the phone.” Paige ordered. Like clearing a landing strip for a jet’s departure, Lance carved a path through the tables, and Jason carried Paige. Everyone stood up. Paige waved as the clapping and cheering crowd roared.

“God bless. Love you, Paige,” they chanted. “Go, Jason! Whoo! Whoo!” his brother roared, pumping his two fists in the air. Paige’s sister chimed in, too. Lance opened the back door of his rental as Jason gingerly set Paige down in the seat.

“Get in the back, Jason!” Lance hollered as he ran around to the driver’s side. Lance sped through the parking lot, hung a sharp right, and darted onto the freeway, cutting what was typically a twenty-minute ride in half.

In the delivery room, Jason did everything he learned in his coaching class. Although he was as pale as a ghost, he toughed it out. Peyton began her arrival minutes after they’d entered the hospital.

“She’s crowning,” their doctor exalted.

Jason leaned in to watch. His eyes were as bright as the sun, and his skin turned whiter than a ghost. “Oh, my God. That’s my daughter! Paige, she’s beautiful. She’s got your nose!” he cheered.

Lance stood just outside the room. As he heard Peyton cry, he stuck his head around the door. “Oh my. My niece!” He threw his fist in the air.

The nurse handed the baby girl to Jason while Paige rested from the ordeal. The new daddy coddled Peyton in his arms like a professional.

“How big is she?” Lance asked as he looked over his shoulder.

“Seven pounds fifteen ounces, and twenty-one-and-a-half-inches long.”

“Wow!” Lance was lost in her eyes nearly as much as Jason. As Paige lay in her hospital bed relieved and thankful that her baby girl was healthy, and that she’d delivered with no complications, her mind retreated to the last time she’d been in that bed, holding her first baby. Her son. She remembered him—tears escaped the prisons of her eyes. She’d never cried since that day, done all the right things, and said all the right words. She was married to a good man who’d given her every opportunity to heal, but instead of facing her pain, she pretended to be unscathed by it. As she glanced back and forth between Jason and Lance mesmerized by the baby, she too felt that unfamiliar feeling of happiness.

“Paige, you did a phenomenal job,” exclaimed Lance.

“Thank you, Lance. She is beautiful, isn’t she,” Paige answered. “I’m so happy that you are here, Lance, to share in my daughter’s birth. It is extra special that you are here.”

Our daughter’s birth,” Jason corrected scornfully. She felt the daggers from Jason penetrate her body.

“Did I say that out loud?” Paige asked herself. She felt dirty with guilt. “How can I be married to such a good man, have all the comforts I’ll ever need, and a beautiful new baby, and stab him in the heart like that” Paige silently tortured herself. Reluctantly, she lifted her face toward him. His empty stare was crushing. Her heart dropped into her stomach. As he coddled their baby in his arms, she wished she’d allowed herself to love him like she loved Lance, even half a decade later. Disgusted by her inner thoughts, she criticized herself. Jason had been kind to her although she’d deprived him of the loving wife he deserved. “I have to stay with him, love him, thank him for being there for me, for loving me,’ she thought. She vowed to be the wife he deserved. “God? I know we haven’t talked. I blamed you for taking away…” she sniffled. “Never mind. Maybe I don’t have the right to be asking, but if you’re there listening and if you care, please let him know I love him,” she prayed.

When Peyton started to squirm and squeal, Jason gently laid her on Paige’s chest. “She wants her mom. Go to your mom, little girl,” he said as he shot Paige a fake smile.

Paige faked a smile of her own and diverted her attention to her baby—pretending not to notice his scorn. “We are going to give you a great life, Peyton. I am going to put you first before anything else. Do you hear me, baby? I’m going to be the best mommy ever—and do everything right. I’m going to make sure you are better than me, that you have the best life.” Paige rested her nose against her new baby’s forehead and took a deep breath. “I love the smell of you, baby!” Out of the corner of her eye, she watched Jason and Lance walk out of the room. She pretended not to care.

***

Paige heard the tapping of Jason’s shoes against the floor. She looked up. Instantly, her eyebrows furrowed, her eyes glared. “Jason? Where have you been? You’ve been gone so long,” she asked while Peyton lay sleeping in her arms.

He jerked back his shoulders, splayed his right hand against the middle of his chest.

“Oh. I’m sorry.” His voice rose and fell like a bell curve. “You worried I hurt Lance’s feelings by making him leave?” He held up his palm. “No need to fear. I didn’t so you can take it easy,” he snarled.

She gasped. “How dare you talk to me like that,” she seethed.

“How dare I?” As he inhaled a deep breath, his eyebrows flattened, his lips tensed. “How dare you!” he snickered. “I can see how you look at him. You love him. You’re holding our baby, and you love him. Still. For real!”

She shook her head.

“Stop denying it!” he screamed.

She pressed her lips together. “Be quiet; you’ll wake the baby. And, I…I do not!”

“Do not what?” he asked. “Say it. I do not love him,” he taunted.

She pressed her lips together, turned away, then looked back. “I do not.” Jason swiped the upper sleeve of his shirt against his face. “Jason, please. Come here.” She motioned. “Can you please put Peyton in the bassinette?”

“Come.” Paige tapped her hand against the bed. “Sit.” He stared out the window, avoiding eye contact. “Jason, it’s not that I love him like that. I love you. I’m thankful for the life we have. And I’m thankful for you and how much you do for me and love me. I honestly don’t know anything but that.”

“I love you too.” Jason pulled a chair next to the bed. “When Lance and I were outside, he asked me to say goodbye to you, because he couldn’t.”

Deep lines furrowed on her forehead. “Goodbye?” she asked, slightly perplexed. “Is Lance going to see JJ?” she prodded.

“No, he only had a short leave. He is getting reassigned to Korea, I think. He asked me to tell you goodbye, and he congratulated us on our little family.”

Paige shifted her attention to the opposite wall and wiped her tear with her shoulder. “I wish he would have said goodbye,” she whispered faintly.

“He did. He told me to tell my wife goodbye,” Jason snarled. “Look at what just happened, Paige. You nearly lost it, realizing he’s gone.”

“No, please. Don’t do this. I love you.”

“Yeah, sure, I know you do. You love me. I get it. But…,”

Paige held his hand in hers. “Jason, I’m sorry that…,” she sniffled, “I’m sorry that you feel Lance is in the middle of us. He’s not. I’m not going to lie. I do love him, but it’s because we’ve been so close since I was twelve.” Paige took a deep breath. She paused as the beeping red, and blue lines on the machines responsible for monitoring her health caught her gaze.

“Listen. I know you love me. I love you. Just go get some rest. I’ll walk Peyton around, go show her off. The family will all be here soon.”

After she watched Jason and Peyton walk out the door, she turned away. The blinking lights of the heart machine caught her attention again. “It’s good that damn thing isn’t measuring my broken heart,” she thought. “Maybe Psalms will distract me.” She began to recite Scripture—“Psalm 143:5”—then stopped. The last time she was in the hospital she’d promised never to worship a God who took her son. She wasn’t going to take the chance of leaving anything up to Him or asking Him for help.

“Everything will be fine!” Paige told herself. She twirled the wedding ring on her finger with her thumb while thoughts of Lance at the park with flowers, ready to profess his love, flurried around in her mind. “Why didn’t I see it? Why didn’t I let myself see it then?” She dug her fingers into her forehead and ran them through her hair toward the back of her neck. She held her fingers tight around her head and neck to stop herself from feeling like the world was spinning around her. She felt like a pendulum swinging back and forth, like a tetherball stuck to a string, tied to a pole. “I’m just going through the motions. What the hell is wrong with me?” She shook her head in denial. “Just like the last time. After a few days, I’ll forget about Lance,” she coached herself. “It’ll all be okay. I’ll be a loving wife. It’s not like I don’t love Jason, or he’s terrible to me, or anything. Just be thankful, Paige. Just be grateful. Thank God, you don’t have a husband like your dad. Yup. In a few days, everything will be okay. I have Peyton now.” She laid her head back against her pillow and closed her eyes. “Just be thankful for what you have. You have a good life. You should be happy,” she told herself.

***

The journey down memory lane was proving helpful. Paige thought about Peyton’s first few years. The memories of Peyton’s milestones put a sparkle in her eyes and a dimple in her smile. She fell into another memory.

***

As Paige sat on the carpet at the end of the bed, she wrote Peyton’s name on the last of her things—the tag of her first sleeping bag. “Peyton Beckett, PreK Room 3.” A proud smile formed on her face. “Her first day…,” Paige said to herself as she finished packing Peyton’s backpack. She wondered what it would be like for her. Paige imagined that Peyton would make her own friends and fall in love with her teacher. She’d learn to write her first and last name, go on field trips to the fire station, and plant vegetables in the garden. Then, she’d go to kindergarten, spend summers at camp, play soccer, and dance hula. Peyton’s life for the next twenty or so years was bright. Paige placed the backpack stuffed with preschool supplies near the doorway in preparation for Monday morning.

“What am I going to do all those hours without Peyton?” she asked herself. “What will come from the next twenty years of my life? What is Paige going to do for the rest of her life?” she pondered. For three years, she’d avoided having to answer that question. Instead, she immersed herself in the roles of wife and mother. “It’s my duty to care for my husband and daughter until…” She paused. Her eyes narrowed. “Until when?” she questioned. “It doesn’t end…,” she said silently.

Paige turned toward Jason, who had fallen asleep over an hour ago like he typically did—not a worry on his mind. She envied that, almost hated him for it. She was hiding her feelings from him, and at times tortured by it, but not Jason. She was sure of everything. He just was, while she’d consumed herself with doing, not being. Because if she stopped doing, she’d start feeling. She didn’t want to feel, because if she did, she’d have to do something about it.

By ten o’clock her energy was gone. She tossed the last load of laundry onto the bed in the spare room, resisting her anal-retentive need to finish before retiring for the night. The phone ringing saved her from the obsession.

“Lance?” Giddy like a girl with a crush to see his name on her phone, Paige scurried to the living room. Her finger lingered momentarily over the button, then swiped to answer.

“Hi, stooge!” he exclaimed.

She chuckled. “Hi back, stooge. Long-time no hear!”

“I know. I couldn’t get you out of my mind, especially since I was going through old photographs. You are in so many of them.”

Paige chuckled like a smitten schoolgirl. “Aw, that’s sweet! Which ones?”

“Well…,” he started as she heard flipping of pages. “Let me ask you one question.”

“Uh, huh…” she said.

“Do you remember CIA?”

She cackled like he’d said the funniest thing she’d ever heard.

“Oh. My. God, do I remember CIA? I gave him the name CIA!”

“Oh no, you didn’t!” he argued. “Well, that’s the picture I’m staring at right now.” He paused for a second. “And now I’m looking at our junior prom photo. You were magnificent,” he whispered.

“Oh please, no I wasn’t,” biting her lip to hide the flirtatious feeling inside.

“Yes, you were. I’ve been looking at this picture for a long time, and you were.”

“Okay, Lance, you got to stop. You’re gonna make me puke,” she laughed.

“Okay. Okay. Well, then, I’ll give you the other reason I called—to let you know I got the position as a surgeon. I finally made it.”

“Lance, that’s awesome!” she shrieked. “I’m so proud of you! Your parents must be so proud.”

“I’m sure they will be, but I haven’t told anyone yet. I wanted you to be the first one to know. My next call is JJ.”

“Oh,” she murmured.

“Hey, I need to tell you something else,” he added.

“You sound mysterious, Lance. You’re worrying me.”

“It’s not something you need to worry about, but it is hard for me to say, so please let me speak without interrupting me, okay?”

“Um, ooookkkkkk,” she said, drawing out the word.

Lance took a deep breath before he started. She promised herself she wouldn’t interrupt him until he finished.

“Paige, I’ve loved you since the day I first met you. But I’m glad you are happy with your little family, and I’m glad you have a husband who takes care of you. You are blessed. I didn’t call to cause any problems. I just really had to let you know.” He paused. “Paige, since I met you, your genuineness and caring struck me. The way you took care of your mother, me and JJ, then Jason and your daughter. I hope you give yourself some credit. I should have told you way before now exactly how I felt, but better late than never. I hope this declaration helps you know just how special you are to me.”

Paige struggled to hold back the sounds of whimpering while she embraced his every word. As she looked through the hallway toward the night-light emanating from her bedroom, where her husband was sound asleep, she took a deep breath, preparing a reply to Lance’s declaration. If he could hear the words her heart wanted to say, he would have heard her say she loved him too. Since that day at the park, Paige spent many days reliving the moments they shared. But he didn’t hear her heart. She couldn’t betray her husband. Instead, Lance listened to the words she uttered from her mouth.

“Lance, you were always a special friend, a special person to me. You were such an important part of my life. You are an important part of my life,” she corrected. “It doesn’t matter that we don’t see each other. You never leave my heart. And I appreciate so much you put yourself out there like this for my benefit. It makes me feel special and loved. I’ll always remember this, especially when I forget,” she chuckled.

Lance wept as she spoke. “I’m going to Iran. I’m not sure what it’s going to be like, so before I went, I wanted to hear your voice.”

“Thank you, Lance,” Paige replied. “I will pray for you every day to be safe.”

“Thank you, Paige.”

Lance cleared his throat. “How’s Peyton? Isn’t she four soon?”

“Uh, huh. You remembered.”

“Of course I remember,” he answered.

“I know you do, and every birthday gift is never late,” she chuckled.

“And, Jason? How’s Jason?”

“He’s great. He’s the same — a great husband. I am blessed,” she acknowledged.

“That’s great, Pea.”

“Pea? No one has called me that in years.”

“Good. That’ll still be our thing,” he sighed. “Hey, Paige, I have to go. Thank you for being a part of my life,” he finished.

“Lance, promise me you’ll always keep in touch.”

“Oh, that’s a promise,” he assured.

“Be safe, Lance. Love you.” Paige dropped the phone on the arm of the chair. She pressed her hands up to her face to hold back her tears, but she couldn’t. They poured through her fingers like a river through a slowly crumbling dam. Her body wracked in pain, knowing this feeling she had would stay bottled up. Once she cried her last tear, Paige picked up the phone, deleted Lance from her recent calls, and committed to putting the conversation behind.

The canvased photograph in the center of the most prominent wall in their living room caught her attention: Jason holding her in his arms as she held Peyton, who was no more than a year old. It was their happy family, and she was committed to them. She made a choice. She wouldn’t let her feelings dictate the kind of woman she was going to be. She wanted to love Lance, but she wanted more to be a loving mother and wife, a woman she could be proud of.

She stood up, looked again at the photograph on the wall, and then the ring on her finger. Paige sped toward the closet in the spare room, shoving the jackets, jerseys, and everything else she hadn’t seen in a while out of the way, and sifted through the containers stuffed with memorabilia, photographs, and knick-knacks—moments from her life. Suddenly, every picture she held in her hand elicited overwhelming feelings of gratitude and joy. Allowing the peace and joy to overwhelm her was a different habit than the ones Paige had formed. She hated, avoided at all costs, delving into her childhood memories. Paige never had before. But at this very moment, she was going to let God change her! All it took was a choice to do it.

It felt foreign, looking at her pictures and her life’s mementos searching for the happy instead of remembering the difficult, the failures, the shortcomings, the what-ifs. She held in her hand the picture of her and her kindergarten teacher holding the toilet paper roll project she’d made for Christmas. Mrs. Horie, her teacher, required her to be proud of what she’d created. Paige remembered how ugly her project was, compared to the sparkly Christmas tree Colleen made out of hers. Colleen was her arch-nemesis—the one little kindergarten girl whose sole purpose in life was to show her up. At five years old, Colleen was viciously perfect. She had every single toilet paper roll covered in sparkly aluminum foil. Glitter and diamonds glued to every available space made it glisten like a real Christmas tree. Paige remembered the feeling of being angry with her mother for not helping her, especially after Colleen’s mom had wrapped every single toilet paper roll.

Paige thought about that moment as she sat there twenty-eight years later still dwelling on her mom, not helping her wrap her toilet paper rolls. But this time it was different. As she held that picture in her hand, that old memory didn’t consume her. Instead, she remembered how her mom picked herself up after getting called a bitch and getting slapped around by Paige’s ignorant father the night before, to make Paige oatmeal with apples and brown sugar—her favorite. She never remembered anything happy about the morning she turned in her toilet paper roll project. The only thing she remembered was being angry because her mom’s eye was blackened by her father’s hand the night before, and how mad she was that her mom didn’t help. She remembered how she wished her mom would do what she wanted to do and be happy.

But not tonight. Tonight, as Paige held the picture in her hand, she remembered that day differently. She remembered how her mom made her oatmeal with apples and snuck in some brown sugar. She remembered how she poured her a glass of chocolate milk, kissed her on her forehead, told her how much Paige was loved, and sang her a little song, even though her body probably ached every time she moved.

Suddenly, looking at pictures and reforming her memories, making conscious choices of what she wanted to remember, became empowering and exciting. She lifted herself on her knees, anticipating which picture she’d get her hands on next. Like she was playing a fun game, she closed her eyes and shoved her hand blindly into the container like a child at Christmas. She gleaned another memory from the box, excited to see what kind of new memories she could make from this one. In the picture, the eight- or the nine-year-old was standing by a dollhouse almost as tall as Paige. Her dad and mom had built the house. In Paige’s hand was a Barbie. At first, her mind remembered being locked in her room with that dollhouse as she attempted to drown out her parents yelling and screaming with the melody of Lee Oskar’s Before the Rain. That song elicited a tension in her neck when she heard it. In the middle of that horrid memory, she stopped, as if she had magical powers. Suddenly, she wasn’t hot anymore. It was cool, calm, and peaceful. At that moment, she remembered the day she got that dollhouse.

Her mom and dad had hidden the dollhouse in the storage room in the garage. “How did they get me in there?” She pondered. “That’s right; they told me to get the broom to sweep the garage.” Paige remembered the feeling the first time she saw that dollhouse. Her mom and dad hid behind the corner wall. Her mom took a picture of her jumping up and down, screaming with joy. Paige remembered how the four of them—Paige, her mom and dad, and her sister—carried it into her bedroom. Her mom played the stereo sitting on her desk. Lee Oskar’s Before the Rain played while she pretended she was Barbie entertaining friends in her new home.

“Are you happy, Paige? Do you like it?” her dad asked. She nodded like a thankful, overwhelmed little girl whose daddy wanted to make all her dreams come true. Paige leaned against the niche in the wall and slid to the floor. She sat with her head on her knees. The emotions overwhelming. The tears, this time, were tears of joy thinking about that song and the photographs and the moments in her life that weren’t perfect. There was love in those memories, not just dysfunction. “Maybe that’s why I’m a real estate agent. I loved that first piece of real estate!” Paige joked with herself.

“Thank you, God, for giving me these good memories.” Like she used to do when she was a child Paige sung to God, extending her hands toward heaven. She sang softly to herself, careful not to wake Jason and Peyton. Paige praised Him for the beautiful life that was hers. Thumbing through old pictures, something she once hated doing, became joyful. She had nothing to be afraid of—the images had no more power to elicit ugly memories—because God had helped her make the right choice. Paige raised herself on her knees again and toppled the container onto the carpet. Its contents spilled onto the floor. Enlivened by all the memories, she laid her hands on the pictures, excited to touch each one.

As she thumbed through the images, she saw one that stopped her breath—the picture of her pregnant with her first child—not Peyton, but her son, the son she lost. In the photograph, Paige was sitting next to her sister at the first of three baby showers. She was holding a white lamb with a blue bow around its neck—a gift from her grandmother. Tears burst through her eyes like a broken dam inundated with floodwaters. She inhaled a deep breath, blowing it out as slowly as she could to calm herself. She’d never looked at these pictures. She didn’t even know how they got there. Losing her firstborn was a memory she never wanted to relive, but at this moment, she praised God for gifting her the experience of looking back. Suddenly, she realized that her firstborn was with God. He was enjoying heaven, and he’d be there to greet her when it was her time to go home. “That is the beauty in this picture,” she thought. Paige crawled to the other containers in the closet, tossing each one upside down. She found the stuffed lamb with the blue bow. On the foot of the lamb was a silver handle. She turned it a few times. Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star played softly. Paige held it to her face, caressing it against her cheek.

At that moment, she remembered her baptism. She was at the beach, and after hearing how Jesus, our lamb, shed His blood for us, she’d emerged from the water with her mother and father alongside. “My dad wasn’t always terrible,” she told herself. “The anger I have for him is hurting me more than it is him. And if Mom isn’t going to do anything about it, I have to let that go. God will take care of our problems, but I have to allow him to.” Paige remembered the feeling of her daddy holding onto her arm and kissing her on the cheek as she emerged baptized in the name of Jesus. “All those beautiful memories from one picture of a lamb with a blue bow.” She loosened a grateful smile.

Paige rose to her feet, hurried to Peyton’s room, and stood by the door. “She sleeps so peacefully,” Paige thought. The night-light lit up her face like a little angel. Paige quietly tiptoed toward Pey’s bed, placed her brother’s lamb next to her. She prayed that lamb would someday mean a lot to Peyton because it belonged to her brother. Paige wrapped Peyton’s little arm around the lamb, kissed her on her forehead, thanked God, and returned to the spare room eager for another overwhelming memory.

Paige scattered the photographs on the carpet and fished for one after another from the big pile. Closing her eyes to surprise herself, she raised a picture and opened her eyes slowly, like a little girl getting her first bike. “JJ, Lance, and I at our eighth-grade banquet,” Paige giggled. Two other friends, whose names for the life of her she couldn’t remember, were standing next to them. Paige was wearing a black dress, JJ a bow tie (her way of protesting dresses), and Lance a sea-blue long-sleeve shirt that made his skin shine. They were holding glasses etched with their school’s mascot. Paige remembered the fun they had that day, the prank they played on CIA and how much he laughed at them. Instead of feeling angry that she and Lance hadn’t had their chance to be together, she thanked God that Lance was living his dream, becoming a surgeon in the air force and that they could still be friends. Paige could choose to be happy every time he called. She didn’t need to be even a little bitter. “Thank you, Jesus,” she praised.

Paige spent hours enjoying her life’s memories. A picture of their one-year-anniversary dinner at Ryan’s caught her attention. Paige ordered the chicken pasta, and Jason the steak. Although it was too red, he ate it. Afraid that it would get spit on if he returned it, he enjoyed every expensive bite. Paige grasped the necklace around her neck—the gift she received from Jason that night. A joyful smile overtook her face. She thought about her husband sleeping soundly in their room and how blessed she was to have someone so gentle, giving, and understanding. She thought about JJ, whose jerk husband cheated on her not even two years into their marriage, and praised God for that too. At least JJ wouldn’t wake up fifty years old and realize she’d wasted her life.

Paige began to sort her pictures into periods of her life—vowing to get her pictures into photo albums so she could protect them instead of cramming them into the container like they meant nothing. She pushed the boxes into the closet of the spare room and walked to her bedroom, where she retrieved her journal from her dresser drawer. “I can’t believe I have this thing; still,” Paige thought while flipping to the last entry made four years ago. The journal entry was bitter like she’d spent much of her life.

Paige wiped a tear with her finger, grabbed her pen, and sat next to Jason while she began to transfer her heart’s thoughts onto paper. She wrote the Scriptures and the phrases her mom made her remember. “Psalm 143:5. I remember the days of old; I meditate on all Your doings; I muse on the work of Your hands.” Psalm 102:18. “Write these things for the future so that people who are not yet born will praise the Lord.” As her hand penned every word, she thanked God for a mother who gave her a strategy more powerful than anything she’d ever known—trust in God and write things down. Paige grabbed her Bible in the drawer of her nightstand and requested God to take her wherever he wanted. She vowed she’d trust Him. Paige’s fingers found her way to the book of James, reminding her of a song her mother sang to her as a child. Silently she sang so she wouldn’t wake Jason: “Peter, Andrew, James, and John, they were fishing by the sea. Jesus said, ‘Come follow me.’ They follow Jesus. They follow Jesus. They follow Jesus. He is the son of God.”

Paige opened her Bible and read chapter one of James. When she arrived at verse five, an overwhelming chill enveloped her body. James 1:5 read, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” Her mother had taught her to ask God to reveal His will. At thirty-three years of age, after years of instruction, only now was she beginning to understand. Paige spent so much time thinking she was sacrificing her life. That wasn’t the truth. The truth was that she’d been living the life God had meant for her. She was living a blessed life, but she wasn’t grateful for it. Her job was to honor God by taking care of her blessings. For much of her life, she’d failed at that.

Paige sat on both knees, resting her Bible and journal at her side and interlaced her fingers into a steeple. “Dear God, I want my life to be a testament to your grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love. I want to live my life for others. And that is not at all a sacrifice on my part. I trust that my reality is the best for me. Just like my mother wanted what was good for me when I was a child, you want that for me too. Why was this relationship with you so hard for me to understand? I shouldn’t have doubted. I wish I’d never allowed myself to be so bitter. I am content. And, God, I am a testament of your grace, mercy, and love for me, and for us all. God, take me in this Bible to a passage that will confirm for me your will in my life.” Paige put her hand on the Bible, took a deep breath as she opened it, closed her eyes, and flipped through until He had her stop. God had taken her to the book of John, chapter fifteen. Verse thirteen had the same effect on her as James 1:5. She read, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Utterly amazed at her special revelation from God, Paige pressed her hands onto the carpet, praising God for loving her so much that he met her right where she was at, and even though she had somehow missed that message, it didn’t matter, because when she was ready, it was there for her, waiting for her to understand.

She closed the Good Book and repeated her mother’s words to herself, “Journal me some honesty.” The first three sentences she composed were: Stop trying to figure it out. Give it to God. Praise him, then pray. Paige continued to write in her journal.

The Bible tells us that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for another. Through conviction and Scripture, and while I am at rest, the Holy Spirit will convict my thoughts, actions, and directions to do one of the most important things He asks of me—to love and be grateful.

Empowering my family by putting them first in a very personal, purposeful way is the way I want to live my life, and I can find happiness and contentment in that. In Jesus’s name, I will be purposeful, personal, and specific in who I will empower and how. I will take delight in blessing others and being equally blessed in return—now that I know what it means to choose to put others first. The miracle in living that way is trusting that God takes care of all my needs and my heart’s true desires. I am his princess, and the Kingdom of God is in me.

I’ll meditate on Scripture that promises me contentment and fulfillment. I will plan and be purposeful and be evaluative. I will ask myself how I know that my plan to empower others is working. I will keep track of what is working and what isn’t. It will allow me to celebrate victories, change direction, or redesign my strategy as necessary. I will evaluate the results of my actions, determine if different steps are needed, or if I should be celebrating a job well done. And, in all of this, I will praise and bless the Lord, for he is with me, he straightens my path, and nothing is impossible with Jesus!

Paige continued to write as her heart poured out her thoughts.

Lance is a friend, and my heart, mind, and soul will never let him be more than that because that is what God intends, and I will always trust God. Jason, Peyton, my mother, and my father are my precious gifts from God. In Jesus’s name, I am going to make sure that Jason knows beyond a shadow of a doubt how much he is loved and adored until the day we die. I will spend the rest of my life, until we are old and gray, making him know it.

The excitement and flood of emotions momentarily took her breath away. Paige closed the book, returned it to the dresser drawer, and lifted the covers of her bed to lay next to her husband. “Jason, I love you,” she whispered in his ear, praying that he heard. Paige puckered her lips to his temple, deliberately inhaled his scent, and kissed him again and again. Jason brushed his head with his forearm. Paige giggled as she slid closer, then tickled her fingers against his shoulders and his chest. “God, thank you for this man, my husband, and Peyton’s father,” she thanked God quietly. “Please forgive me for not realizing how blessed I am. For the rest of our lives, I will take care of this man, love him, show him how much we love and appreciate him.” Paige took comfort in the tears she shed.

Jason, who slowly woke up, heard her prayer. He turned onto his back, wrapped his arm around her, and pulled Paige close.

“Baby, why in the world are you up at this hour? It’s four o’clock.” He squinted to decipher the time on his phone. “Did you just get up?”

“No, babe. I am just getting into bed.”

“What?” he mumbled, surprised. He covered his mouth with the sheet. “What have you been doing?” his voice muffled.

“Jason, I’ve been looking through our old pictures, thinking about my childhood, thinking about Peyton and our lives.”

“Oh, no, babe. Were you giving yourself a hard time?”

She chuckled. “No. I was thanking God for all my blessings. He was with me, babe. I had so much fun looking through the pictures. I remembered the good times.”

Jason cleared the raspy sound from his throat.

“Really?” Jason asked while he rubbed his eyes.

“Yes. Even the ones with our son and my dad.”

“Wow,” he replied. “Babe, I’m so proud of you.”

“No, it wasn’t me. It was God.”

Jason pulled her forehead toward him so he could kiss her. “I love you, Paige.”

“I love you too, Jason. But, babe? I need to tell you something.”

“Ok,” he said hesitantly.

“Lance called me tonight. Well, last night.”

“Uh huh. And?”

“He called to say hi. But this isn’t about his call. This epiphany is about you and me. I know sometimes you think I miss him more than I should. I know sometimes you feel insecure when he’s around. You don’t tell me what I can’t or can do. You let me do whatever I want to or need to. I’ve been able to be who I want, do what I want, and I have no worries. But I don’t know if I have done that for you. I think I haven’t. I hate that I haven’t given you as much as you have given to me. I want you to know that you mean the most to me. You are my blessing. You are my gift from God, and I am so very, very, very, very thankful for you, babe! This thankful!” Paige extended her arms toward the ceiling and spread them as wide as she could. “This much, babe. I’m this thankful,” she chuckled.

Jason wiped his eyes with his hands, cleared his throat, and grabbed her elbows to pull her toward him to kiss her forehead. “Babe,” he whimpered.

“Jason, what’s wrong?” her eyes furrowed.

“Paige, um...When we first got married, I prayed to God. I prayed to Him—I told Him that if I weren’t the man for you, I wouldn’t marry you. I begged Him for a sign. I promised God that I would take care of you and love you, but if you didn’t love me back, then all my love wouldn’t matter.

You know what my answer was?” Paige shook her head as she wiped her tears with her knuckles. “And you know I’m not a super religious type or anything, but I believe that day I got a sign from God that you and I were meant to be—that we would make each other better. I felt this need to read the story of Abraham in the Bible. I didn’t know Abraham, but I asked your mom.” Paige raised her brows, wrinkling her forehead.

“She never said.”

“Remember, when God told Abraham and Sara that they would have a child? Sara didn’t believe Abraham, and she didn’t believe God. The years went by, and she got older. Sara laughed when Abraham reminded her of God’s promises. All she could see was her age and how no woman at her age could bear a child. Sara told Abraham to take her handmaid Hagar so she could bear him a child. Abraham did. He had his son Ishmael with Hagar. But Sara got pregnant, and she had Isaac. Ishmael and Hagar were sent away because Sara was jealous of them. Do you remember that story?” Paige nodded.

“I do.”

“There were two essential things God revealed to me in Abraham and Sara’s situation. First, Sara didn’t believe God and took matters into her own hands. Look where it got her. Her husband had a son with another woman. Then Abraham had to send Ishmael and Hagar away. Ishmael’s and Isaac’s descendants still fight to this very day. The conflict in the Middle East. Ishmael’s descendants are the Arab nations, and Isaac’s the Israelites.”

Paige’s eyebrows rose again. She turned to hide a chuckle in her hands.

Jason covered his mouth with his blanket. “What you laughing at me for?” He nudged her arm.

“No, babe. It’s just I had no clue you knew this story as you do.”

“Yeah, and that is my fault. I didn’t tell you.” Jason cleared his throat. “Anyway, if Sara had just trusted God’s will and didn’t take things into her own hands by encouraging Abraham to sleep with Hagar, and if Abraham hadn’t listened to Sarah, this generational curse would not be. From that, I learned we have to trust God, even when things don’t look or feel good. We have to trust His word because that’s all we got. When we try to take things into our own hands, we mess things up.”

Paige pressed her lips together. “So…” She paused. “What was the second thing you learned?” she asked.

“Huh?”

“You said God revealed two things to you.”

Jason pulled his blanket over his nose and his mouth. “Oh yeah. Sorry. You woke me up at four o’clock in the morning. I’m still groggy,” he laughed. “The second thing is that if we are together, it’s because God put us together. He knew what He was doing. And when we lost our son, I’ll admit I doubted His decision for a little while. But God pulled me back and promised me that nothing had changed. We were still meant to be together, and we would make each other stronger. I saw what happened to you after we lost our son. You doubted. It was my job to stay strong and wait until you regained your trust in Him.”

Paige’s shoulders shrunk. She tilted her head until her eyes were staring at the pattern of her pillowcase.

“Hey.” Jason rounded his palm under her chin. “Believe me, okay? If I had ever gotten the message from God that you weren’t meant to be mine, I would have loved you enough to let you go. But God assured me.”

Paige climbed on top of Jason, pressing her hands against his chest, straddling him. She sniffled.

“Jason, I’m so sorry that you dealt with this on your own, without me.” Paige hung her head as she watched her tears form a little puddle on his chest. “Oh my gosh. I’m so sorry. My tears are soaking you.” She wiped his chest with the bottom of her sheer T-shirt.

He chuckled as she dried him. “I wasn’t alone. God was with me. I know you’ve struggled since we lost our son. And I also knew all I needed to do was trust that you and I belonged together. I think our job is to be patient, to love each other, and to love and trust Him. When we try to fix our lives on our own, it just doesn’t work out. When we let God do it, it kinda all just works, right?”

Paige pursed her lips.

“Yup, babe. And when it’s hard to trust…” She wiped her nose with her shirt. “That’s when it’s most important for us to trust. When you need me most, I’ll be there, and when I need you most, you’ll be there. Right, babe?” she asked.

Paige hid her face in her hands, shyly peering through the space between her fingers. Jason ran his hands through the strands of her hair and rested them behind her ear. She bit her lip. “Jason?”

“Yeah, babe?” he replied.

“When we lost our son, I felt guilty and angry. I felt as if God was punishing me. Even though I know he’s not that kind of God; I still felt guilty. And Jason, about Lance…”

Jason pressed his finger to her lips.

“Shh. Babe, you don’t need to explain anything to me,” he whispered. “I’m okay. I love you, and all I want is for you to love me back. That’s all I want.” Paige rested her head on his shoulder. Lightly, her lips touched his cheek and his neck. Jason wrapped his arms around her waist as tightly as he could while he whispered in her ear, “Paige, we might have gotten together fast since you got pregnant, but you have always been the love of my life. It’s been like that for longer than you know.”

“Aw, Jason, I love you,” she sniffled. “Thank you for being the best husband, and the best father to Peyton. Thank you, honey,” she whispered in his ear, then touched her lips to the nape of his neck, then to his ear, his cheek, working her way slowly and deliberately to his lips. She hovered over him, pressed her lips to his. She kissed him, then she stared at him, then kissed him, then stared at him. She enjoyed watching him squirm as he waited for her to return her lips to his. Jason lowered his hands to her back, then onto her bottom. She gasped as he spread his fingers under her thighs to lift her.

“Babe, sit up.” Paige sat on his stomach. Her sheer white T-shirt and pink lace panties were the only obstacles between her skin and his. With his fingers, he lifted her shirt slowly, uncovering her belly button, then her chest, then her shoulders. As she raised her hands above her head, Jason removed her shirt entirely from her body. The more of her he could see, the more excited he became. She placed her finger on his belly button, encircling it slowly. “I love when you bite your lip like that,” he whispered. “You’re so sexy.” Her cheeks lifted to her eyes when she smiled.

Paige continued to run her fingers up the planes of his chest. They found their way to his neck and shoulders, then his cheeks and around his ears. Her fingers played through every soft strand of wavy hair on his head. Paige loved running her fingers through his thick hair while her lips kissed every inch of his face. Jason grasped the sides of her waist and lifted her upright so he could enjoy the view of his wife. She could see in his eyes how much he loved looking at her, and as shy as she was, she sat there with her legs straddled around him and let him enjoy her. Her cheeks turned scarlet red when she felt his stare become too intense, so she tilted her head. “I love that shyness in you,” he whispered.

Jason ran his fingers down the middle of her breasts, under her breasts, and around her nipples. “I love touching you, but I want you closer.” Jason placed both hands on the back of her neck at the top of her spine, then lightly slid his fingers down her back until they were at her waist. Gently, he pulled her body to his lips. She gasped the second he kissed her breast. Shyly, she tilted her head to obscure her bashfulness but wanted so much to watch his lips enjoy the taste of her. She lost herself in the dizzying feeling. He read from her eyes, bashful smile, and moaning that she enjoyed the touches of his lips on her breasts and his hands on her bottom. Jason feasted on her like she was his last meal, and she enjoyed every second that he spent devouring her. His tongue’s slow rotation around her breasts and his hands gripping her thighs was a prelude of what was to come. The brute strength of his grasp thrilled her. Paige’s legs frantically tightened so she could hold on—and not succumb to the dizzying feeling inside. Paige begged for rest from the adrenalin running through her veins. She lay in the niche of his neck. Her breasts pressed firmly against the planes of his chest. Her thighs around his thighs, while his strong, masculine hands gripped her behind. The tingle that tickled her body was unbearable.

The seconds of rest reinvigorated her. Jason lifted her again, moved her panties to the side, and put himself inside her. Wrapping his hands around her waist, Jason pushed her onto him, up and then down, up and then down. Paige dug her fingers into his biceps. Jason continued to move her body up and down like the swell of the ocean’s current. She teetered at the top of her pique, moaning and praying to keep that incredible feeling as long as her body would allow. Paige bit back her lip to silence the unmanageable amount of overwhelming pleasure whisking her to ecstasy. Jason flipped her onto the bed. She lay excitedly on her belly, awaiting his scintillating next move. He paused, momentarily to whisper into her ear. “Babe, I love you so much!” His deep, strapping voice made her feel safe.

Unable to wait for him to be inside of her again, she begged. “Come inside of me. Let me feel you inside. Please, babe.” Jason slipped his fingers between her panties and her skin. She cringed as he made his way back inside. Paige stared at him over her shoulder. “I love you, Jason,” she repeated as he pushed inside. His pulse raced. He couldn’t speak. He motioned in and out of her, slightly twisting his hips from one side to the other. His body moved in harmony with hers. The more he pushed, the more Paige gripped the headboard so she could brace herself and follow his lead. He moaned. He piqued. Jason leaned into her, lightly kissing the back of her neck. Attempting to regain control over his body and slow his rapid breathing, he rested his face on her shoulder.

“Paige, oh my God. Thank you, baby. I love you so much.”

As she lay on her cheek, she lost herself in the picture on her nightstand until she felt his breathing slow. “Jason, I love you so much too. I’m sorry about taking so long to get it together. I’m sorry for doubting us. I’m sorry for blaming you about losing our son.”

“No, no, no. Don’t do that, babe. Don’t apologize. I want to enjoy resting against you with my body on yours. I can’t get enough of you, babe.”

“Babe, I want to hold you,” she asked. Jason slid down toward her side as she turned on her back. She rested her head in the nape of his neck, in his arms. “Jason, I want this night to last forever.”

“Me too, babe.” Jason tickled her entire body with his fingers—running them up and down every delightful spot until eliciting the need to be inside of her again. The tension in her body told him she was ready too. Jason pulled her over him. She guided him inside. He sucked on her neck and her chest and fed on her body. As much as he wanted to bite her, he managed to refrain.

“Baby, I’m coming again,” she warned. “Babe, I’m coming.” Paige grasped the end of the blanket next to Jason and buried her mouth to subdue her scream. Jason’s hands tightened his grip on her bottom. His body contracted in hers until expending every last bit of energy — the sounds he made while coming inside heightened all her senses. Jason slowed steadily until his exhausted body laid limp. She extended her legs, slid down onto the bed next to him, and caught her breath. “Jason, will you always love me like this?”

“Paige, I have always loved you like this, and I always will.”

She bit back a shy smile. “Babe, I will always love you like this too until the day I die.”

“At least love me to the day I die.” he joked while he continued to catch his breath.

Paige lay next to her husband. Having caught her breath, she focused her attention on him as he slowly fell asleep. As she watched this handsome man who loved her so much, she thanked God for showing her how to make things right inside herself and with her husband. Paige lay her hands on his arms while he slept. She remembered the day she married him. He’d shown her how much she was loved every day since then. Suddenly, every good memory came flooding back into her heart and mind. “Thank you, God, for not giving up on me. Thank you, God, for pursuing me relentlessly.”

Paige slid out of bed, slipped on her shirt, and tiptoed to the bathroom. The night-light plugged into the outlet emitted a dim glow. Paige stepped lightly onto the cold floor and turned toward the mirror. She stared at herself from her head to her thighs, crisscrossed her arms in front of her and slowly lifted her shirt—entirely removing it. Paige hated her body for so long. Since God had made so many changes in just one night, she declared another one. Paige removed her panties, then studied the squareness of both shoulders; the not-as-perky-as-they-once-were breasts; her waist slightly larger after having given birth; and at her thighs and hips. As she turned to her side, the dimples on her hips caught her attention. An endearing smile formed on her face. Contentment, love, and adoration for this beautiful body that bore two children were overwhelming. She braced the edge of the countertop with both hands and praised God. Never had she appreciated the beauty of her imperfect body as she did at this moment. Whimpering like a little girl who’d lost her puppy, she cried like she never had. As her rapid breath slowed, she stood erect, gave herself one last glance, and showered.

When she finished, she lay in the bed next to her husband naked—another experience she’d never had. She snuggled as near to him as she could so every part of her would touch him. Inhaling a deep and full breath, she felt her eyes grow heavy. Paige lay peacefully next to her husband, relishing in her new normal. The last promise she made to herself before she closed her eyes was a promise to call her mom and dad later in the day, to make things right with them too—to thank her mom for not giving up and for loving them unconditionally. With a huge smile on her face, she closed her eyes and fell off to sleep.

Chapter 8

Contentment

For the rest of the night Paige slept like a baby next to her husband. The warmth of his arm resting across her waist, his hand tucked under her belly, his thighs, knees, and feet snuggled against the back of her legs kept her soundly in slumber. When she awoke, her eyes slowly opening to the sun’s rays sneaking in through the edge of the window, she mused over the night she’d had—thankful for God’s grace on her and the solidified connection with her husband. She vowed to do everything she could to make every night like the one she’d just had—filled with lovemaking, closeness, appreciation, and gratitude. Paige vowed to live her life every day focused on all good things that came from above.

The coolness of the morning air and the warmth of her body in her husband’s arms were blissfully comfortable. When she felt him move and heard him moan, slowly awakening to the new day, she chuckled silently to herself, praying selfishly for just one more minute. Then she realized he’d want to kiss her and she hadn’t brushed her teeth. It was too late; he yawned, stretched, and slowly woke.

“I know what you’re thinking…,” he teased in his raspy morning voice. The smile on his face lifted her cheeks and brightened her eyes. She shook her head as she giggled. “You want to brush your teeth before I kiss you. I know my wife,” he affirmed.

Paige wiggled out of bed, stopping just before the bathroom door. A playful debate ensued inside herself. “I want to run back into his arms, but I want to brush my teeth.” After a brief struggle over which was more critical—pretending he was wrong or getting her teeth brushed—the need to brush her teeth won.

Jason turned to his side, slammed his hands against the bed, and cackled at his predictable wife.

“Okay, you brush your teeth, forget about kissing your husband!”

“No, just wait for me!” she giggled.

“Okay, hurry up then kiss me so I can go make you a delicious breakfast. And you better stay here. I want to serve you, babe.”

After brushing her teeth, she jumped on the bed next to him. He pressed his finger to his cheek. “Kiss right here.” She obliged. “Okay, now right here!” pressing his fingers against his lips.

“If you stay with me here, I’ll do way more than kiss you,” she teased.

“Ooh. I like that,” Jason said as he cocked an eyebrow.

Thirty blissful minutes passed as Jason and Paige repeated the night before. Groans, gasps, and hisses of pleasurable expressions resounded from both of them until they had depleted their morning energy. As she laid recovering, Paige drew in deep breaths to slow her pulse. Jason lay on his side, kissing her forehead, enjoying the view—she could tell by his bright eyes focused endearingly on her.

Paige yawned. “You took all my energy, babe,” she declared, “But I have to check on Peyton.”

“No, you don’t,” Jason replied. “She got up earlier. She had cereal. She’s enjoying her last Sunday before preschool, playing video games, and trying to be as quiet as she can to play as long as she can. Anyway, it’s only just past ten.”

“Ten?! Oh my gosh, since when do we sleep till ten?”

“You did come to bed at four.”

“That’s right. No wonder I’m extra exhausted. Thank you for taking care of her. I’ll get up and help you.”

“I got this.” Jason gave her a dismissive wave as he walked out the door toward the kitchen. Paige noticed an extra stride in his step as she watched him trot out the door. Paige stood in front of the mirror; toothbrush in her mouth for the second time that morning—her hair disheveled, her shirt stretched out of shape by their morning escapade. Like she did just a little while ago, she enjoyed the view of herself—no makeup, her hips, and thighs barely covered, her hair a mess. Her beautiful but not perfect physique was a view Paige could appreciate. She loved the feeling of being able to look at her body and enjoy it.

Just as Paige finished in the restroom, Jason returned with turkey bacon and scrambled eggs. “Yum. Crispy turkey bacon and soft scrambled eggs. With cheese?”

“Of course,” he replied. “And an ice-cold glass of water and half a glass of diet soda—since you’re weaning yourself off,” he chuckled.

“Babe, aw.” She puckered her lips. “You always take care of me. You precisely know what I like—such a great husband,” she complimented him as she plucked the most significant piece of bacon from the plate.

“I am, aren’t I?” Paige chuckled as she nodded with a piece of bacon between her lips.

“And…,” he continued, “I checked on Peyton, who is exactly doing what I surmised. She’s playing video games and drawing at the same time. She said she’d let us know when she wants to eat her lunch.”

Paige exhaled a huge sigh. “Thank you, honey. I appreciate it!”

“You are welcome,” he replied. “Here, come sit on the bed,” Jason directed.

Paige tried to talk through a full mouth. “The eggs are perfect. Just the right amount of cheese too,” she mumbled.

“Yup, I know that too. Too much cheese makes it gritty, you say.”

Paige cackled at how well he knew her, and how much he listened to her while she rambled about everything—something she enjoyed doing. “Jason, I wanted to see my mom today. Do you have any plans?”

“Huh?” He pressed his hand against his chest. “You’re asking me?”

“Babe!” she exclaimed. “Don’t look at me like that. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I don’t usually ask,” she whined.

“Well, you usually tell me what you’re going to do,” Jason clarified.

“Babe, am I that bad? Do you think that?” Paige swiped her plate to the side as she scooted closer to him on the bed.

“Babe, it’s okay. You usually do what you want, and I usually go along with your plans. But I’m fine with it. I’m not grumbling.”

“No, but, Jason, I don’t want to live like that. I don’t want you to go along with things because it’s easier. I want you to know that what you feel is important to me. Do you? Huh? Do you know that?”

He smiled. “Uh-huh. I do,” he replied. “Honestly, I do.” The soft knock at the door interrupted him. Jason stood from the edge of the bed to open the door. Peyton held a picture she’d drawn above her head.

“I made this for you and Mommy,” she said in her cute high-pitched voice.

“Aw, so cute.” Paige shifted her head to see past Jason. “Let your dad see it; then I want to see it please.”

Jason lifted Peyton with one arm as he investigated her drawing in the other. “This is the best, most beautiful picture I have ever seen. Your best yet!” Jason planted a wet kiss on her cheek. “Go show your mommy,” he told her as he returned her feet to the floor.

“Ew, Dad,” she whined as she wiped her cheek with the back of her hand, grabbed her drawing, and ran to her mommy. “Mommy, I’m hungry,” she declared as she handed over her picture.

“Daddy’s got that covered, Peyton,” Jason answered. Peyton extended her hand toward his. He grabbed hold and led the smiling little angel to the kitchen.

***

For the first time in a long while, Paige was eager to spend time with her mother. She prayed her mom was as eager. Paige thought about their relationship. They loved each other—she knew that—but they’d never been friends, she thought. Paige could count on her mom and hoped her mom knew she could count on Paige, but it had never been comfortable hanging out. While Paige lay on her bed thinking about her almost nonexistent relationship with her mom, she realized she’d created much of the distance.

Through her closed bedroom door, she heard Peyton laughing with her dad from the kitchen—the sound resonating through the hall and around the corner. She wondered what their relationship would be like when she got older. When might it happen that Peyton would feel the same way toward Paige and if it would take as long for Peyton to realize that all her mom wanted was for her to live her best life. She wondered if Peyton would feel toward her like she felt toward her mom—angry and judgmental about the decisions she made. Paige blew a huge breath. “I’m guessing Peyton is probably going to hate me for a while. It’ll be good karma to make it right with my mom—if, for no other reason,” she joked with herself.

As Paige rolled onto her stomach so she could reach her phone, it rang. “Holy smokes! “Mom?!”

“Morning. How are you?” Paige asked.

“I’m good. I was thinking about you,” she exclaimed.

Happily surprised by the excitement in Paige’s voice, Sam answered joyfully, “I’m good, Paige. It sounds like you miss me. Do you miss me?”

Paige chuckled. “Yes, actually, I do. I was thinking about you, for real,” Paige replied.

“How nice. I was checking on you. We haven’t talked for a while,” Sam replied.

“Mom, honest to God I was reaching for my phone to call you. Are you busy this afternoon? If you aren’t, I’d love for you to come over. We can hang out. Have a cocktail.”

“Okay, Paige. Sounds great. I’ll have your dad drop me off, but I’ll tell him it’s a girls’ day, so he can’t stay.”

Paige nodded. “Yes, I was thinking the same thing. I’ll ask Jason to take Peyton to a movie or something. What do you think about six p.m.?”

“That works for me, Paige. I’ll bring some stuff to munch on. It’ll be fun.”

“Okay, Mom.”

“Okay, Paige. I’ll see you then.”

“Mom?”

“Yeah, Pea?”

“I love you.”

“Me too, Pea. I’ll see you later.” Paige pressed the End button on her phone and sucked in another considerable sigh. A giddy smile formed on her face.

***

Paige plated the stuffed eggs onto the platter her mother gave her at Christmas when she and Jason bought their first home. As she grated the fish cake and imitation crab for the dip, she remembered the day her mother taught her to make the dish. Paige must have been no older than eight. Being lost in the new memories flooding her heart and mind, instead of the old, bitter memories was a good feeling. Peyton hollered from the hallway interrupting her mother’s daydream. “Mom, we’re going…!”

Paige rested the grater over the bowl. “Wait, come give me a kiss, goodbye.” The pitter-patter of Peyton running toward the kitchen put a huge smile on Paige’s face.

“Babe, we’re going to a movie, then to a surprise location….” Jason winked. “We’ll be back in a few hours.”

Paige wrapped her dirty hand filled with grated fish cake in a dishcloth and wrapped her clean hand around her husband’s waist. “Thank you, baby, for this time. I love you. Have fun, okay?”

“Mommy, kiss me goodbye so daddy and I can go.” Peyton tugged on her mom’s shirt.

“Okay, little girl. Have fun with your daddy. Grandma and I will probably be here when you get back.”

“Yay!” Peyton raised both her hands into the air and jumped up and down.

Ding, Ding rang the doorbell. Before Paige could get to the door, her mother poked her head through.

“Paige?”

“Hi, Mom! Coming.”

Paige’s mom turned toward the car in the driveway.

“Honey, bring the dishes into the kitchen for me before you go.”

“Already working on it,” Paige’s dad answered from behind the open trunk.

Paige took a deep breath. “I can do this,” she uttered to herself, slipping her feet into her sandals and walking toward the car to help.

“Hey,” she said as she shot him a quick smile.

Surprised she’d acknowledged him, Paige’s dad shifted his attention toward her with his mouth wide open. He hugged her back as tightly as she hugged him. He cleared his throat and trying hard not to cry, he muttered sheepishly.

“Paige, I love and miss you too. I’d love to stay, but I’m going to leave you and your mom for your thing. I’ll be back in a few hours to pick her up.”

“Okay, thank you, Dad. Are you going to be okay alone for a while without Mom?” she asked.

“I’ll be okay.” He winked. “I got invited to a movie with this beautiful little girl and her father.”

Paige squeezed his forearm. “Aw, Dad, that’s great!”

“Yes. Jason called me a little bit ago, invited me to go out with them. So, I’ll be heading out now.”

Paige watched her mom kiss her dad goodbye. Paige pursed her lips, crossed her arms, and sighed. Paige thanked God for her mom and dad. And she vowed to let them deal with their relationship in their way.

* * *

Unclear if it was her newfound attitude of appreciation or the bottle of wine between her and her mom that was making the night feel like a night out with her best friend, whatever it was, she was thankful. Her glassy eyes focused their attention on the dizzying pattern of the platter holding the leftover crackers and fish cake dip. She tapped the stem of her wine glass with her fingernail to a lively tune, but she began to weep quietly.

Noticing the tears falling from Paige’s cheeks, Sam reached across the kitchen table and pressed her hand against Paige’s face.

“Babe, you okay?”

Paige hung her head and shrugged. Her head swayed.

“Mom, I’m so sorry that I mistreated you for most of my life. It’s as if I blamed you for every bad thing that ever happened to me. I judged you. You didn’t deserve it,” she slightly slurred her words. “Mom, I feel like an idiot. I’m so sorry,” she began to sob. “Mom, there’s nothing I can do to make it up to you—the way I treated you,” she admitted, resting her arms, palms up on the table, pleading for forgiveness.

Sam dragged her chair next to Paige at the corner of the table. “Hey,” she whispered as she lifted Paige’s chin so she could look directly into her eyes.

“Paige, that’s how it is with daughters and their mothers sometimes. It was like that for me and my mother, your grandmother. That’s just how it is. Not that it’s good and that we should not care, but it changes. Daughters grow up. Mothers chill out, and things fix themselves when the time is right. You weren’t any more terrible than any other daughter.” Sam pursed her lips. “Even the most incredulous thing you did wasn’t that bad,” Sam smirked. “Well, maybe…” She playfully cocked an eyebrow.

“Mom!” Paige laughed.

“I’m joking. You were a typical girl trying to find her way. I know that. I prayed that things would change for us, as fast as they could, and I’ve always trusted that God would make it right.”

“Mom, but I was wrong,” she slurred. “I’m so…so dumb. I thought you were so weak because you stayed with my dad, and he had so many issues—the drinking, the beatings, but you were strong,” Paige admitted.

“Paige, I tried to explain my choices so you would understand, but the bottom line is that I have honestly loved your dad with all my heart. I’ll admit that when it first started, I thought I was getting punished for all the bad things I did to my mom, to be honest,” Sam chuckled. “But I loved your dad. I still love him with all my heart, and I couldn’t leave him because things were hard. I prayed for him. I didn’t try to change him. I accepted him and believed God would change our situation and work through me so that I could have all that I wanted in the man that I wanted. I wasn’t staying for any other reason. That’s all I have ever wanted. I know that other women may call me weak for doing that, but we do truly have a friendship.”

Sam cradled Paige’s hand in hers. “But, Pea, believe me when I say I knew that one day you would understand. I don’t regret my choices.” Paige hid her head in her hands and cried like a lost puppy. “Paige…I also want you to know that I knew my choices would affect you. I didn’t want my road to be yours, which is why I tried to make you aware of it as early as I could. I wanted to make as clear as I could to you that my choices didn’t need to be yours. I think I did okay,” Sam joked.

Paige nodded repeatedly. “You did, Mom.”

Sam held her chin in her palm. “Don’t cry, Paige. It’s okay. Mommy is here, and I always will be. By the way, thank you so much for tonight,” she sighed.

“Mom, I’m glad you were and are so strong. I hope I can be half the mom to Peyton that you were and are to me.”

“You are better than me,” Sam exclaimed. “Paige, can I explain one more thing?”

Paige nodded.

“I want you to know that I did contemplate leaving your dad because I didn’t know how our relationship would affect you and your sister once I realized it would, but I prayed for the answer, and I believe I got it. God told me to put my husband and children first, and that everything would be okay. I had dreams as a young girl. I was going to be a world-famous writer, but then my dreams changed. It just wasn’t important enough to me. In the beginning, I was angry because I felt like I was sacrificing myself, but I realized I didn’t have a right to feel like that because I wasn’t. That dream just wasn’t a priority anymore. I hope that you and your sister know my choice was right for me, but my choice had nothing to do with you. You need to make the choices that are for you. Run your own race. And…just because you folks were my big thing doesn’t mean I put myself last. But, Paige, if you choose to pursue your dreams of being a writer, then you will do that, and you will also be a wife and a mother that you can be proud of. You will have it all. I couldn’t do it all, but you can. I like to think that I had some part in that. That’s why since you were a little girl, I asked you to pray that prayer because I just knew.”

Sam cleared her throat, gazing into the space above as she remembered the prayer she taught her daughter. She began to recite it. Paige chimed in. “Psalm 143:5. I remember the days of old; I meditate on all Your doings; I muse on the work of Your hands. Psalm 102:18. Do you remember the rest? Even my part?”

Paige held on to Sam’s hands. “Yup, Mom. I remember,” Paige exclaimed. “I’m going to be a writer one day, Mom.”

“Paige, if that’s what you want to do, then that’s what you’re going to do. I believe in you.” Paige shot her mom a subtle smile, then pursed her lips to stop crying.

The rustling sound of keys at the door interrupted Paige and her mom from their moment.

“Must be Dad and them,” she announced as her legs pushed the chair out from under her. Before she could turn the corner from the kitchen into the living room, Peyton’s whimpering caught her ear. “Uh, oh,” she teased. “Someone is tired.” Peyton sauntered zombie-like into the kitchen. Paige swept Peyton up in her arms so she could rest her head on Paige’s shoulders. When she finished planting kisses on her cheeks, she turned Peyton to face Jason. “Kiss daddy good night. Say thank you,” she encouraged.

Peyton hung her head impatiently over Paige’s shoulder.

“Hey, don’t forget me, your papa!” Paige’s dad hollered.

“And me too,” implored Sam.

“She wouldn’t forget her Mama and Papa,” Paige chuckled. Peyton started to whine. “Stop. You sound like a little puppy,” Paige scolded.

“Just a quick little kiss. We know you’re tired,” Sam uttered as she planted a kiss on Peyton’s cheek. She swiped away the strands of hair covering her ear so she could whisper to her, “Goodnight, beautiful girl.”

Paige turned toward the hallway and headed up the stairs. “Mom. Dad. I’ll be down soon.”

Sam raised her palm toward Paige. “No, Pea. Go put her down. Don’t rush. It’s late. I have to take your father home before his bewitching hour,” she joked. Sam grabbed her purse from the kitchen counter, swinging it over her shoulder as she headed toward the front door.

“My bewitching hour?” her husband snickered, kissing her lovingly on her forehead. “More like your bewitching hour.”

Paige shifted her attention to her parents below, whose affection toward one another was genuine and sweet.

“Somehow I believe Mom,” Paige joked as she got to the top step of the stairwell.

Jason meandered ahead to open the door. “Thanks, Dad, for hanging with Peyton and me.” Jason extended his hand.

“Son, it was my pleasure.” Paige’s dad shook Jason’s hand as he tapped him across the back of his shoulder with his other hand. “Love you, Mom and Dad,” answered Jason.

“Yes, love you both,” Paige added as she hovered at the top of the staircase. “Mom, thank you for tonight. I needed that time with you,” Paige called, smiling like a sheepish little girl.

“Me too. Pea. I will give you a call tomorrow.”

From the upstairs bedroom window, Paige watched her mom walk toward their car. As her dad reversed onto the street, her mom rolled down her window, extending her hand to say goodbye to Jason. Paige watched their car until she could no longer see it. By the time the car was down the road, Peyton was sound asleep, snug in her bed.

Downstairs, Jason was hurrying through the house, locking the windows, flipping on the outside lights, and completing his nightly process of securing their home. She could hear the kitchen windows and the top lock on the door slide shut. Paige smirked as she thought about his obsessive need to check the house twice every night. As Paige leaned her cheek against the doorway of Peyton’s room waiting for Jason to start his ascent up the stairwell, she thought about the breakthroughs she’d made.

“Hey, babe, ready for bed?” Jason asked as he reached the top of the stairs. Paige wrapped her arms around his shoulders.

“Hmmm,” she murmured. “Love loving you, babe,” she sighed.

“Are you ok, my love?”

“Yup. I am very much okay.” She let out another sigh. Paige kissed the nape of Jason’s neck as she rested her head on his shoulders. “Jason?” she asked meekly. “Do you know that I am so very thankful for you? Do you know that I’m thankful for all you do for me?” she asked.

Jason gently ran his fingers through her hair. “I’m thankful for you too, my love, and I do know,” he replied.

“Jason?” she asked.

“Uh, oh. What’s the matter?” Jason chuckled.

“Nothing. It’s just I have a couple of hours of studying to do. Remember? I have my test tomorrow?” she reminded.

“Refresh my memory…” He smiled sheepishly.

“It’s not that big a deal. It’s the continuing ed requirement to maintain my real estate license,” she answered.

He raised his thumb. “You got this, babe,” he chuckled. “Wake me when you get in bed,” he instructed.

She raised her thumb back at him. “Yup. Love you, babe.” She turned back to take the first step down the stairs.

***

“I don’t want to take this test,” Paige whined as she took an empty seat in the classroom. Paige pulled her pencils, erasers, and gum out of her purse and placed them in the corner of her desktop. Paige took a deep breath and sat upright with her back pressed against the chair. Her hands gripped the sides of her seat as she pushed against it so she could stretch the tension from her shoulders. Paige straightened the lapels of her jacket and tucked her shirt more neatly into the waist of her slacks. Nervously, tapping her shoes against the carpet, she waited for the test session to begin. Tests generally made her nervous, primarily since her livelihood depended upon her passing her annual renewal, but a knot in her stomach made her more queasy than usual. She reached toward the corner of her desktop to unwrap a piece of Double-mint gum—gum always helped ease her nerves. Hurriedly, she chewed. It helped her focus her attention elsewhere instead of the nausea in her stomach. Another strategy that worked was to pick an object in the front of the room in which to focus. In search of an object that could keep her attention, she noticed the test administrator in front of the room, who looked as if she’d picked the same strategy Paige used—except that her object was somewhere near the ceiling in the back of the room. She wore a fitted black skirt just above her knee, a black polo shirt with a gold emblem consisting of a triangle sitting on a square. ‘Renaissance Tests’ in gold embossed letters sat under the logo. She appeared to be a friendly woman whose smile was warm, but she looked like she didn’t want to be there. A glance at her phone every thirty seconds gave her away. Paige could relate—she didn’t want to be there either.

For the first three real estate tests Paige took, the administrator was a gentleman who resembled her grandfather—he looked like Santa Claus. But unlike Santa, he wasn’t one bit jovial. Paige cracked a subtle smile when she thought about the Santa Claus­–resembling gentleman whose polo was a size too small. His belly hung slightly below his shirt, and it didn’t seem to bother him at all she remembered. The memory calmed her as it took her mind off her nervousness. Thinking about other people and why they appeared the way they did helped Paige get past the nervousness—another strategy she’d developed.

The woman administrator used a red pen to write ‘10 minutes until the start of test”’ in the middle of the dry-erase board that spanned the front wall of the classroom. “I know I can pass this test with flying colors,” Paige encouraged herself silently. She tapped her pencil repeatedly on the desktop as she waited for the ten-minute countdown.

Paige’s first three years as a realtor was a whirlwind. Although she worked hard to earn her top-seller status, her father-in-law’s contracting and development firm is what catapulted her into fame. Placards with her face and name were on the lawns of single-family homes and condominiums, townhouses, and commercial property buildings all over the city. As much as she busted her butt working hard to be her best, and she was, her success had a lot to do with her last name and the family she married into. She was thankful, and Peyton attended one of the best preschools in town because the cost didn’t matter. They had a modest home in the neighborhood she wanted to live in, which was near the community where she grew up. Fond memories of her childhood riding bikes, playing football on the streets with her cousins, and sneaking out late at night just for fun was what she wanted for Peyton too—and she was going to have it.

Paige had everything she needed. She was content, living a good life, and happy, except that being a realtor wasn’t what she’d dreamt she’d become. For as long as Paige could remember all she wanted was to become a writer (like her mother had)—a writer who could earn living writing books, telling stories of overcoming obstacles to inspire others. For a few minutes, she lost herself in her thoughts until she realized again she was sitting in a classroom waiting to take a test.

In the last past minutes, all the seats had filled. As Paige watched people scurry into the room, she wondered how they could fall in line so late and feel prepared to jump right in. Paige shifted her attention from the test takers filing into the room to one of the pieces of scratch paper lying on her desktop. She’d drawn happy faces and smiles all over the sheet without realizing what she’d done. As Paige added more detail to the flower garden, she lost herself in the memory of the time she’d had with her mom the night before, the gratefulness of having a beautiful daughter and wonderful husband.

While waiting for the last few minutes before the test started, she heard her phone vibrating in her purse under her desk. It was against the rules to pick up the phone while in the testing room, so she did the only thing she could think of—let it vibrate. One of the hardest things for her to do was to allow her phone ring without answering it. With no choice but to watch it vibrate while it lit up her bag, she anxiously waited for it to stop. When it did, it immediately started again. The anxious vibrating of her right leg made her entire desk shutter. By the third call, the woman sitting on her right and the man sitting to her left wanted to answer her phone themselves by the looks of their contorted, irritated frowns. Paige kicked her purse open with her right foot to view the face of her phone. No voicemail. “Guess it’s not a critical call,” she thought. Then the phone started to vibrate again. Instead of the unrecognized number, Jason’s face popped onto the screen. “He knows I’m in this test,” she muttered to herself as her eyebrows furrowed. In a panic, she grabbed her phone, did her best to communicate the urgency to the test administrator as she scurried out of the room, and raised the phone to her ear. “Jason?” she answered.

A voice she didn’t at first recognize replied,

“No. Um. Hello. Paige?” the voice asked.

Her eyebrows formed a single line across her head. “Yes, who is this?”

“It’s Josh, Jason’s foreman on the Leo Place job.” He hesitated. “I’m sorry to tell you this but”—he cleared his throat— “Jason had a heart attack.”

“Wait. Wait. What?” Paige screamed. “Wait, who is this? Is this a joke?” she pressed the voice on the other end of the phone.

“No, Paige. This is Josh Dunmore. I work for Jason. All we know is that he passed out. He was unconscious and wasn’t breathing. Chris, one of the men in our crew, did CPR until the medics came. They think he had a heart attack. They are taking him to; He’s going to…” Before he could finish, he questioned someone near him, “Where is he going?” Paige pressed her palm to the wall to keep herself from fainting.

“Paige, he’s going to Kaiser Hospital. They are leaving now. We have his things. We are following behind the ambulance.”

Just as he finished explaining, Paige heard the blaring siren of the ambulance through the phone—it sent her heart plummeting to her feet. With her palm still braced up against the wall outside the testing room, she slid down until she found herself sitting on the ground—her legs had turned into noodles. They could no longer do their job—hold her up or get her to move. Eventually, the shock of the siren faded.

“Paige, are you okay?” Josh questioned.

His voice woke her from her breakdown. “Um. Um. No, I’m not. But I’ll be okay. Thank you. I’ll be there as soon…I’ll leave now.”

“Yes, okay. We will be there. I’m so sorry,” replied Josh. “Um. Just so you know we wanted to let you know as soon as we could, so you could get there. We didn’t have time to call anyone else yet. But one of the other guys is calling the boss—Jason’s dad—right now.”

Paige trembled as she tried desperately to process the words she was hearing. “I…okay…thank you. Um. Hold on. Please…” She held the phone against her cheek. “This is just a nightmare. Yes. That’s what it is. This is all a terrible, terrible nightmare,” Paige convinced herself. “No, this is a bad joke. The crew was playing a joke on me for Jason.” She begged God that that’s what this was. Paige had met the crew a few times, made them lunch, been to their company parties, and listened to Jason talk about how many jokes they played on each other—sick jokes, the kind she didn’t think were funny. That’s what this was, a sick joke. She waited for Jason to call so she could scream at him for being so cruel. He didn’t.

“Paige?” Josh asked. “I’m sorry. Please tell me you’re okay,” he asked.

She cleared her throat to get the words out. “I am o-o-okay,” she stuttered. Her arm dropped to her side. She lifted herself from the ground and stood outside the doorway of the testing room, gasping for air. As if she’d run five miles in the middle of a sweltering day, she could barely catch her breath. She was hyperventilating. Another test taker walked past her into the room without saying a word. No one was there to calm her down. Jason did that. Paige was going to have to pull it together on her own, catch her breath, and get to Jason.

She darted into the testing room toward her desk to grab her purse.

“I’m sorry, but…,” the administrator began.

Paige turned toward her. “I have to go. My husband had a heart attack.”

“You can’t get a refund,” the woman responded.

Paige turned her head toward the woman as she yanked her purse from under the desk. Her eyebrows furrowed.

“Huh?” She contorted her face. “Are you serious? Do you think I give a shit?” The woman’s eyes widened. “Move!” Paige sped past her.

“I’m sorry. I had to let you know.” The woman pressed her hand to her chest. “I’m sorry.”

Paige waved her palm at the woman. “It’s okay,” she mimed through her tears. She panted so hard as she ran toward her car, she could feel the beat of her heart in her head and her chest. Paige pressed one hand over her chest and squeezed her head with the other. “Just calm yourself down,” she told herself as she inhaled deep breaths. “He’s gonna be okay. He’s gonna be okay,” she repeated. The fear inside her mind gave her a headache. “In, out,” she said slowly to calm herself as she reversed the car. “Shit!” she screamed as she nearly clipped the back of the Honda parked next to her. “Stop shaking, Paige,” she coached herself as she sped past Pearlridge, took the Red Hill cutoff, and sped through the stop signs at the top of the off-ramp. “You’re almost there,” she reminded herself when she felt her heartbeat speed up again.

Once she saw the red emergency sign in front of the ER entrance, her heart slowed. She jumped out of the car, grabbed her purse, and ran toward the double doors that barely opened as she pushed through them. Her eyes widened as she searched for where to run. She headed to the registration desk that stood in the corner of the room. “My husband is here. His name is Jason Beckett. Uh. I think he had a heart attack. I need to…” She thought about the words she wanted to say, but nothing came out. She shook her head, and finally, the words came tumbling out. “Please tell me the room number…the room number where he’s at…please,” she begged as she rested her fists on the glass window dividing her from the receptionist.

“Ma’am…,” the receptionist mumbled. “Let me call to see what’s going on. I’ll get you in as soon as possible.” She held her hand up to the glass window. “Hold on, okay…,” she blurted as she picked up the phone receiver and began to dial.

“Uh, huh. Okay. Room number?” she asked.

“Okay, ma’am. He’s on the second floor, in room 238. Go down this hallway through the double doors when they open. Turn left at the end of the hall. Take the elevator to the second floor, turn left again. Walk to the window at the end of the hall and let them know 238 is your room. Go there.” The receptionist pointed to the hallway as she hit the button to open the doors.

Paige raced down the hall, got upstairs, raced down the second hall. By the time she got to the next receptionist, they’d opened the door.

“238 is there, ma’am,” they instructed, pointing.

She grabbed on to the door to keep herself from flying into it. “Jason!” she screamed. The nurse in the room held a clipboard in her hand as she stared at the screen of numbers and flashing lights. Paige pulled the chair up to the side of Jason’s bed and grasped his hand. “Jason…” She paused. “You’re just sleeping. You needed to rest, but you’ll get up when you’re ready, right?” she mumbled. She laid her head at his waist as she let out a faintly audible cry. “Jason, please get up. I need you,” she begged. “I can’t do this without you.”

“Ahem,” a deep voice interrupted. “Excuse me. Hi. I’m so sorry to bother you. I am Doctor Rego.”

Paige’s attempt at a smile proved futile. “Thank you.” She shrugged. “Can you please tell me what’s going on?”

“Are you Mr. Beckett’s wife?” he asked.

She nodded. “Paige, yes.”

The doctor shot a quick smile as he pushed his glasses backward, turning his nose to a file folder. “He has suffered an intracerebral hemorrhagic stroke, an aneurysm.”

Paige’s eyes narrowed. “But he’s young and healthy. Look at him.” She shrugged. “Do you know if he’s going to be okay?”

Doctor Rego shook his head. “We don’t know. The men he was with told the EMTs that they did give him CPR, but he was unresponsive, and his motor responses have been fair to poor.”

Paige shook her head. “But what does that mean?”

Doctor Rego clasped the folder between both hands.

“Well, I’m just not sure, honestly. We are monitoring him and doing what we can, but time will tell.” Doctor Rego pulled up a chair. I can explain in detail his prognosis—”

Paige interrupted him. “Doctor Rego, do we have to do this now? I want to be with him. I have to call his parents. My daughter. My daughter is with them too. Oh my God,” she cried into her hands.

“I’m sorry. Of course. Take all the time you need with your husband. We can talk in a little while.” He stood up from his chair and put his hand on her shoulder. “You can ask for me at the nurses’ station at any time,” he comforted her.

Paige nestled her head against Jason’s body. “Jason, you have to get up okay?” she sniffled. “Please. Be okay for me. And for Peyton.” As she lay next to him, the memories, they’d made all these years flooded her mind. “I’m going to talk so much to you, you’re going to have to wake up and tell me to shut up,” she joked. She told him story after story, praying it would wake him. Nothing happened. He didn’t move.

“That’s it. I’m mad. You are just gonna have to get your ass up,” Paige demanded. “When we lost our son, I had no choice but to be okay. Remember that? Well, now it’s your turn!” she said firmly. “Remember when I was stuck on that patio couch at my mom’s? Remember the day you forced me to go to Diamond Head, and do that stupid hike with you?” she pushed. “You told me to get my pathetic ass off the couch. You yanked my hands and pulled my dead weight from the cradle my butt made on the sofa. I was whining like a baby throwing a tantrum! ‘No! I’m not going hiking. I have no desire to fuckin’ hike, Jason. Get away from me!’ I screamed. You told me, ‘We aren’t going to argue! I’m tired of watching you waste your life away. We are going, and there isn’t anything you can do about it. If I have to drag your stinking ass, that’s what I’m going to do. Now get up. You’ve got five minutes to get ready!’ Remember that? Huh?” She tapped him on the side of his leg as if he were talking back.

“I huffed and puffed my way into the car. In the ten seconds, it took for you to reverse onto the street from our garage, I think I’d thrown a full-blown tantrum—beating my hands against the seat of the car like a whiny baby,” she chuckled. “For the first time, you screamed at me. Your face was, like, fire red. You called me a damn spoiled brat and told me I was selfish because I was acting as if I was the only one who had lost our son, but you had lost our son too. You told me there was no way you were going to let me watch my life go by. You started talking like me—with your fingers,” Paige chuckled. She pointed her fingers while she mimicked him.

“We are driving to Diamond Head. We are going to do the hike. You are going to persevere to the top of the mountain, no matter how much you grumble! Do you hear me? Paige!’ You screamed, and you kept pointing at me with your finger. You kept talking. ‘We are going to walk this road together, and when we get to the valleys’—you made quotations in the air with your fingers—which are the hard and painful times, we are going to celebrate them and be thankful for them!’ I thought I was going to punch your face because I was so mad.

“You started talking about how God was helping us get through that loss. I told you I wasn’t listening! I put my hand over my ears. I started crying and ranting, and you just listened. I was screaming. You took a deep breath. I stomped my feet against the floor of the car, then kicked the bottom of the glove compartment, and it flew open. And what did you do my love?” She looked up at Jason for any sign that he was hearing her—nothing. “You loved on me. You held my hand, and you told me about a video you watched on YouTube, something about hard times and getting through them. Hard times, like Daniel in the lion’s den, Jonah in the whale’s mouth, the Israelites walking for forty years…” Paige sniffled. “I’ll always remember what you shared. I’ve kept it in my heart. God talked to Daniel when he was in the lion’s den, and as scared as he probably was, he was okay and made it out without getting eaten. Jonah was in the mouth of the whale, but it was okay because Jonah was supposed to be there. The whale was his ride to get to where he needed to be. Moses got his revelation in the burning bush. The Israelites wandered for forty years in the wilderness. The wilderness and the whale and the fear and the fire were metaphors for pain. It was in those painful moments the opportunity came for his people to embrace him. Do you know what is so funny, Jason? I remember you sharing that with me like it was yesterday, but it was more than ten years ago. When we’re in pain, we listen to him, and we talk to him, and we get closer.

“It’s the perfect place for God to speak to us. The wilderness is a holy place, you said to me. This is the wilderness for me, and I am in pain. I didn’t get it then, but I get it now. Remember the entire ride was nothing but silence? Forty-five minutes. I was so mad that you were right that I couldn’t even look at you. As soon as we got to the top, I just started crying. And after all I did to you, after all the crying and yelling, you looked at me with your droopy eyes and pursed lips, and you lifted your arms to me. And I walked into your arms like I was walking through the gates of heaven. I rested my head on your chest, and I felt safe and protected, and like I belonged. It was the most beautiful day. We were hundreds of feet in the air, just like we were in heaven — just us. You pulled me up that day, and you’ve been doing that ever since. You told me I’ll always be your mountaintop. You said I belonged to you for as long as you could have me and that I made you love the life given to you.”

She swiped her nose with the inside of her shirt. “Jason, I need to belong to you for longer than twelve years. Jason, you made me love the life given to me too. Please tell me you know that. Please. Please give me a sign.” Suddenly, Paige jumped in her seat. “Jason! Can you hear me?” she screamed. “I felt you tighten your grip. Oh, my God! I felt you answer me,” she panted. As she kicked the chair from under her, the machine next to Jason’s bed went off. Beep! Beep! Beeeeeeep! A solid red line flowed across the screen. “Nooooooo! Nooooo!” she screamed in agony.

***

“Beep,” honked the car behind. Paige looked up at the red light. “Damn it!” Paige screamed as she hit the gas pedal. She sucked in a deep breath to calm her pulse. Paige pressed her elbow against the top of the car door and leaned her head onto her fist to rest. “I’m okay with the wilderness, and I appreciate my mountaintops,” she thought. “If I’m supposed to be alone for the rest of my life, I guess I’ll be okay with it.” As she remembered the touch of Jason’s arms around her, tears fell from her face. She shook her head and wiped her eyes. “Geez. How long am I going to be stuck in this darn traffic?” she grumbled to herself. She leaned against the window again as she got lost in another life memory.

***

Paige sat in front of her computer. Her feet nervously tapped the floor beneath them. “It’s been two years; I have to learn how to live again,” she said to herself. “I’ll just set up an account. One step at a time,” she said as her fingers moved slowly toward the keys.

As if her fingers had a mind of their own, they typed slowly into the search box,

“Lance Bishop.” Hurriedly, she changed her mind—feverishly tapping on the backspace key until no evidence of her desires existed on the screen. Just as quickly, her fingers went at it again, typing his name. They hesitated to hit the Enter key, and then they did. “Jason has been gone for two years. I’m not betraying him. I’m curious is all,” she told herself. She turned her eyes away from the screen, took a deep breath, and looked back. A listing of six Lance Bishops populated the search results. Kabul, Afghanistan caught her eye. The last she knew he was in Iraq. For a moment, she lost her breath. This was her Lance.

She clicked on the profile picture. There was Lance. “He’s so handsome,” she said as she investigated his profile picture. “He looks so good in his uniform,” she thought. A gut-wrenching feeling of guilt overwhelmed her body, but the desire to peek through his Facebook account overcame the feeling. She clicked on his profile picture. “Aw,” she gasped. Lance’s had his arms wrapped around a beautiful woman. Becoming obsessed, she clicked through his mobile uploads, his videos, and albums—the same woman was in nearly every picture. She tagged him; he tagged her; he was with her; she was with him. Paige gazed at every photo, investigating the placement of his hands, the width of his smile, and hers. As she sat in front of her computer swiping through his life, she stumbled on a picture he uploaded two years ago. The photo was of Lance, JJ, and Paige at their high school prom. Her hair was ridiculously high, almost as high as the waist on his pants. JJ looked as mischievous as Paige remembered. She struggled not to press the Like button under the picture. “I can’t like the image,” Paige thought. But she couldn’t help herself, so she did. Then she left a comment. “Hi, Lance! Hey, we haven’t connected in a while. I see you’re having fun in your life. Congratulations on your relationship. You both look delighted.”

Just as she typed the last word, Peyton came running into her room.

“Mom, Mom, I just found out I got on the media team. My teacher said that I could be on the second-grade team even though I’m in the first grade because I’m so smart.” Peyton jumped onto her mother’s lap and kissed her on the cheek, “Isn’t that great, Mom?”

Paige slid her hand on the screen of her computer, shutting it abruptly.

“That’s great, Pey! I’m so proud of you. I didn’t realize it was already three-thirty,” she said as she stared at the watch on her arm. “How was your bus ride?”

“Same. Good. Except that Tysen was rude to the bus driver. She stopped the bus and scolded him. He was embarrassed,” she added.

“How do you know?” Paige asked.

“His face was red, Mom, really red,” she nodded repeatedly.

“He must have been very rude for the bus driver to stop the bus,” Paige said.

“He was irritating the girl sitting in front of him, and the girl kept telling him to stop. I don’t know the girl’s name. But I think the bus driver saw in her mirror. The bus driver told him to stop, and I think he pretended to stick up his finger at the driver.”

“Oh my Gosh. That isn’t only rude. That’s shameful and disrespectful. I hope you never do anything like that, Pey,” Paige pursed her lips.

“Mom, I would never do that.”

“Yes, but never say never. You’re young. Young people make mistakes. Older people make mistakes. We all do.”

“I won’t, Mom!” She held up her right hand. “I promise!”

Paige cupped Peyton’s face in her hands and kissed her nose. “I’m gonna enjoy your sweet innocence as long I can.”

Peyton scrunched up her face. “Huh?”

Paige pursed her lips. “Never mind.”

“Mom?” she whined. “Can I please, please call Emma? She asked me to call her when I got home.”

Paige furrowed her eyebrows. “Why do you need to call her in such a hurry? Is everything okay?”

“Yes, she just wanted us to talk story. She told me I’m her best friend.” Paige loved seeing the smile on Peyton’s face. “We are going to plan a sleepover,” she added.

“Oh,” Paige replied happily, “then, of course. Far be it from me to hinder your plans with your best friend. Let me know when you want to have this sleepover. And don’t tell me the night before.”

“Thank you, Mom.” Peyton jumped from her mom’s lap and ran into the living room to use the phone in private. Paige glanced at the computer on the table, then shifted her attention toward Peyton sitting on the couch engrossed in her phone conversation. Intending to shut down her laptop and stop stalking to Lance on Facebook, she couldn’t. Unable to help herself, she lifted her laptop screen and logged back in to check her notifications to see if Lance had replied—secretly hoping his comment said something about his relationship being over. Nothing. But just as she started the shut-down process, a message notification popped onto the screen. Butterflies in her stomach made her nauseous and excited. Paige took a deep breath before clicking on the message. She narrowed her eyes and said a quick prayer.

“Hi, Paige! Long-lost friend! I love that picture. It was the good ole days. I miss you. I hope all is well with you. Hey, I meant to contact you and JJ. I have some super great news. Isabel and I are getting married! Can you believe it? I’m getting hitched! Let’s figure out a time to talk. I’ll be on leave in a few weeks. I’m still in Kabul. Miss you!” Paige’s shoulders sunk as she read his message. With her arms and fists pressed on either side of her laptop, she inhaled a deep breath to calm herself so Peyton wouldn’t see her pout like a baby. But she couldn’t help herself. Paige pouted like a little girl whose Mommy said no to candy. Forgetting all the lessons she’d learned, she snarled, “Tell me, God, why does this always happen to me? I’m always trying to be a good person. I’m always trying to do what’s right. I think about it, relentlessly. God, you know I loved Jason, but do you remember when we were at the park? When Lance told me he loved me, I felt something. I felt curious and excited. Do you remember why I couldn’t? I got pregnant. One time, God. It was one mistake. But do you remember? I made one mistake, then I lost my son, then my husband, and now I’m lonely.”

Paige shifted her head repeatedly, side to side, clenching her fists tightly against the tabletop. The rant tired her. Her eyes were heavy. Her lips were pursed tightly together to avoid releasing a wailing cry and scaring the shit out of Peyton. She stole a glance at Peyton sitting on the couch, who was thankfully clueless of the breakdown her mother was having in the next room. Peyton was laughing with her friend on the phone. Peyton was truly recovering. “Why isn’t that enough for me?” Paige chided herself. There it was that self-loathing—it came back with a vengeance after she promised herself she’d be grateful.

In exhaustion, she leaned backward. With her face staring at the white ceiling; her head resting against the back of the chair, she acknowledged her tantrum. “God?” she called. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I just wanted a chance to do something that I wanted to do—see if there was anything for Lance and me.”

Peyton interrupted her mother’s private tantrum.

“Mom?”

Paige took another deep breath, swiped under her eyes to hide her frustration, and shifted her attention toward her.

“Yes, babe?” she responded.

“Mom. I called Emma. She told me about a party she’s having this weekend.”

Paige heard the hurt in Peyton’s voice. “Why is that bad?” Paige attempted to clarify.

Tears fell from Peyton’s eyes. She puckered her lips to stop herself from crying, but it didn’t help. She whimpered like a lost puppy.

“Pey, what’s wrong? Why does that make you sad?”

“Because…” She started to talk but couldn’t catch her breath. The tears choked her voice. Paige pulled Peyton onto her lap, tucked her hair behind her ears, and wiped the tears with the tips of her fingers.

“Can you explain to me what happened little girl?” Paige prodded.

“Mom, she told me all the people she invited and that they were going to have so much fun. But she didn’t invite me. I think she was teasing me on the bus when she said we were best friends because now she told me who was invited and didn’t say anything about me.” Peyton rested her head on her mother’s shoulders.

Paige rubbed her head to calm her.

“Aw, baby. I’m so sorry! There’s probably some explanation. Only a mean girl would do something like that. Does she have any possible reason for trying to be mean?” Paige asked. “Not that all mean people need to have a reason, but could she?”

Peyton frowned and shook her head from side to side.

“No, mom. I didn’t do anything to her, or anybody,” she said, wiping her nose dry with her hand.

Paige raised her shirt to wipe Peyton’s cheeks. “Peyton, sometimes things happen that we can’t explain. It’s not our job to ask why. Our job is to get up and keep going…but…” She paused, lifting Peyton’s chin with her hand. “Sometimes we don’t get what we want or think we need. And we don’t understand.” She kissed Peyton on the cheek. “Let me ask you a question. Do you have friends?” Paige asked.

Peyton nodded. “Yes,” she said through pouty lips.

“But you want a best friend?” Peyton nodded in agreement.

“I just read Scripture the other day. Can I share it with you?” her eyebrows raised onto her forehead. Peyton nodded.

“You know the Scripture where Jesus multiplied the bread and fish?” Peyton nodded again. “Remember the one where he fed five thousand people with only a few baskets? There were leftover bread and fish after feeding the five thousand? Peyton, do you remember that?” Peyton nodded again. “Okay, well, the Scripture says that Jesus thanked God for all the food in the baskets. But remember how little food he had? Jesus had barely enough to feed five people, much less than five thousand. But even though he didn’t have enough, he gave thanks for what he did have. That’s the answer to everything—give thanks. When we give thanks no matter how little we have, Jesus multiplies it, and it becomes enough. It becomes more than enough. Do you have any friends?” she asked.

“Yes.” Peyton nodded.

“Then let’s be thankful for what you have, even though it’s not exactly what you want. If you need more friendships, be thankful first for the friendships you have,” Paige reminded Peyton.

Peyton clasped her fingers in front of her. “Well,” she pouted. “I do have friends. I guess I would be sadder if I didn’t have any. At least I have some. Some kids at school don’t have any. I’m thankful I’m not a person without any friends.”

“That’s it, baby girl. Be thankful,” Paige congratulated. “On the day of the party, you and I will have our very own party.” Paige spun Peyton around in a circle. “There is no one I have to take care of, or be with or help. You are all mine, and I am all yours.”

Peyton stuck out her bottom lip. “Okay, Mom. Can we get our nails done?”

“Yup, we can. And we can go to a movie, eat ice cream, and do our hair. Does that sound like fun?”

Peyton nodded. “Yes, Mom, that sounds like fun.”

“Okay, Peyton. It’s a date.”

Peyton interlaced her fingers in front of her and swung her hands like a pendulum. “Mom, I’m going to read my book, okay?” she said with her baby voice.

“Yes, go read in the living room. Let me put away my things. You can read a little then help me make dinner. It’d be nice if we could eat a little early tonight since I have a contract to write up. A family made a solid offer on one of the houses I’m listing, but my clients want to counter. Cross your fingers that it works out, Pey. It’s a huge commission.”

“Okay, Mom,” answered Peyton, following her mother’s directions. Paige laughed as Peyton struggled to cross her fingers automatically. “Oh, Peyton,” she chuckled.

After shutting down her computer and tidying up, Paige found Peyton reading in the living room. “Hey, let’s hang out for a little before we start dinner, then you can watch some TV, and I’ll start the book I’ve been telling myself I’m going to start,” she added — Paige sunk herself into the space near the arm of the couch—her standard after-dinner seat. Peyton laid her head on her mom’s arm as she lay comfortably on the living room couch. Peyton was entranced with a movie on the Disney Channel while Paige was engrossed in the first few pages of the first draft of her first book. Paige rested her body against the back of the couch, rubbing her eyes to give them a break. She thought about her discussion with Peyton and the tantrum she threw just before. She closed her eyes, sucked in a deep breath, and then another.

“I guess you’re trying to teach me a lesson, huh, God?” Paige thought as a subtle smile formed on her face. “I got it. “Be thankful,” she sighed. “Do you know? You are kind of amazing when you do things like this to me,” she continued her silent talk with God. She prayed to Him. She prayed that she would always understand His will for her life and that she would accept His will for her life and trust that His ways were higher than hers. She’d read that, heard that, over and over, again and again in her life. The understanding was entirely different than embracing, though, and that’s what she’d been missing. Instead of spending the rest of the night overthinking herself to death, she gripped the arm of the couch and pushed herself up. Dinner wasn’t going to make itself.

Chapter 9

And this too Shall Pass

By the time Paige finished slicing the red onions for the tossed salad, her mascara was a dirt road flowing down her cheek. Paige cleared the trail with the back of her hand. Peyton, who was busy twirling spaghetti noodles around the serving fork, instead of setting the table, as Paige directed, caught a glimpse of the dirt trail on her mom’s face before she swiped it clean. Peyton’s furrowed eyes and pouty bottom lip alerted Paige of her worry.

“Mom, are you crying?” Peyton inquired.

“No. The onions are getting to me,” Paige chuckled, as she swung the chopping board above Peyton’s head on her way toward the sink.

“Mom?” Peyton asked. “When you finish, can you grab the saucepot? I already took our plates with the spaghetti noodles to the coffee table, but the pot is heavy and hot.”

“Oh, you finished plating the noodles?” Her eyebrows curled high onto her forehead.

“Yes. I did that, like you asked,” Peyton replied proudly.

“I’m impressed. You are quick, and yes I’ll bring the pot in a minute,” Paige replied.

“To the coffee table?” she clarified.

Peyton puckered her lips. “Please, can we eat in front of the TV? Pleeeeaaasseee,” she begged.

“I guess so,” Paige loosened a shallow nod.

Peyton jumped up and down like a jack-in-the-box. “Yay!” she exclaimed.

Paige cocked an eyebrow, knowing she’d allowed the evasion of a well-established rule.

“As soon as I’m done washing the dishes, I will get the pot to the table. Meanwhile, can you fetch us both some water, please? Ice in mine. Paige clicked her teeth. “I’m feeling generous tonight. I might let you choose the movie because I’m such a great mommy!” Paige teased.

“You are a great mommy, and I am a great daughter, so I’ll let you choose the movie. I want you to be happy, Mommy.” With her finger, Peyton drew a rounded smile on her face.

“You are a great daughter, the best. And thank you!” Paige dried her hands on a dishtowel, then wrapped the cloth around the toasty handle of the saucepot, and cautiously carried it to the living room.

“So I get to watch what I want to watch?” Paige clarified.

“Yup!” Peyton answered.

“Yay!” She raised the remote toward the TV in search of something that could garner and retain her interest. As she typically did, Paige paused on the cable news channel, her first choice. The frown on Peyton’s face gave away her contempt, so Paige rolled her eyes and moved on. Peyton returned a grateful smile.

“Oooh, The Notebook. I’m up for a romance, and the movie just started. How do you feel about watching a romance movie with your mom? Huh?” Paige nudged the back of Peyton’s elbow, nearly tipping over a heaping enough serving of spaghetti to do some damage. “Thank God you’ve got strong hands, and those sauce-drenched noodles are still on your plate not in the fibers of my beautiful, plush carpet,” Paige acclaimed.

By the point in the movie when Noah finished building Allie’s dream house, the polished off plates of spaghetti were cleaned and drying in the dish rack. Peyton was snuggled up on her mom, the left side of Paige’s body almost entirely numb.

“Mommy, is Daddy watching over us?”

Paige wiggled her benumbed arm out of the niche between her and Peyton, and swung the dying limb over Peyton’s shoulder, bestowing an unyielding embrace.

“Yes, of course. He’s up there with God, who’s looking out for us,” she answered.

Peyton snuggled closer to her mom. “Mommy, was Daddy your first love too like Noah was to Allie?” she asked.

Instantly, the memory occupying space in her mind was the moment Lance arrived at her front door for their senior prom. She, JJ, and Lance had planned to go hand-in-hand, one last hoorah as the three stooges. Peyton, with awestruck eyes, was staring up at her awaiting a Cinderella story. A similar expression of awe overwhelmed Lance’s face when he sauntered through the front door and saw Paige in her dress, stroll down the staircase. How she didn’t see the adoration in his eyes then, she couldn’t understand, but at that moment snuggled up with Peyton years later she clearly remembered the glaze in Lance’s eyes. Then Paige remembered the beautiful day she and Jason brought Peyton home from the hospital, the next night they spent cuddled together watching her sleep in her bassinet, and the many late nights they shared a quart of ice-cream watching The Notebook. The myriad of memories felt like butterflies in her belly. Paige inhaled a long, comforting breath, ran her fingers playfully in Peyton’s hair, and kissed her gingerly on her head.

“Yes, baby. Your daddy was my real love.”

Peyton smiled sheepishly, content with her mother’s answer.

“Mom, so how will I know when I meet my first love?”

Paige thought genuinely about the question, attempting to contrive a perfect response for Peyton’s young, little heart, but how could she answer if she hadn’t recognized love until it hit her in the gut? She’d missed signs from Lance and Jason. While Paige stared blankly at the TV screen with her head rested against the back of the couch, she prayed Peyton’s attention would divert to anywhere else but on the answer for which she waited. Paige had no clue how to respond. But miraculously, the reply flowed freely from her heart and through her lips.

“Peyton, everyone’s path is different,” she began. “But we must not concern ourselves about the way our lives will unfold. We must trust in God who destines our paths. We have to live with our hearts open to all that love may bring, good or bad, better or worse. We cannot be afraid. All you have to do is open your heart so God can open your eyes. If you do that, you won’t have to worry about finding the loves of your life, the loves of your life will find you. And every love created by God, meant for you, will find you in the perfect place at the perfect time, your entire precious life. Do you know what I mean?” She leaned in.

“Peyton?” she whispered. Paige brushed the strands of hair from Peyton’s forehead. She was sound asleep, contently nestled in the space next to her mom.

Although Paige hadn’t seen The Notebook in at least a year, she remembered the last scene as if she watched it yesterday. Tears flooded down her cheeks as Allie remembered just before she passed away that Noah, the old, wrinkled man who stood next to her, was her life partner, the father of her children, a love of her life. Like Paige always did when watching the last scene of the movie, she cried like a baby. “I’ve had perfect loves in the perfect times,” she sighed gratefully.

As the credits ran on the screen and her wonderings ran rampant in her mind, Paige prayed that God would continue to direct her path—that he would keep her heart open so that she could open her eyes. She talked to God like He was sitting down next to her. “I know there was a reason for it all,” she acknowledged. “Thank you for our health, our home, that I can take care of my daughter, and that you will always be there for us, God.” After she sent her prayer to heaven, Paige promised herself that she’d trust whatever came next—that he would always direct her path. Paige ran her fingers through Peyton’s soft, golden-brown hair as she slept peacefully with her head in Paige’s lap. Paige nestled her head in the headrest of the couch. Soon, she was sleeping as peacefully as Peyton.

***

The blaring sounds of sirens on the TV startled Paige from her sleep. As she rubbed her eyes to improve her view, the words ’Breaking News’ flashed horizontally across the top of the screen. As she blinked her eyes together repeatedly to help herself wake up, her toes crawled toward the remote. Trying to move as little as possible so she wouldn’t wake Peyton, she passed the remote from her toes to her hands and slowly increased the volume. The devastating picture of a newly constructed walkway above the H2 had collapsed mysteriously. The massive cement and metal that had splattered across the highway crushed two cars, at least.

“Oh my God,” she exclaimed, pressing her hands over her mouth. Jason and his dad’s company built that bridge and section of the rail, she realized. Quickly, she searched her favorites list on her cell phone for her father-in-law’s number.

She blew a deep breath, awaiting his answer. “Dad, did you see the news? Paige asked. “There was an accident along with the rail job.”

“Rail? The rail job? The bridge?” Jason’s father asked ignorantly.

“The bridge. Yes, the bridge!” she screamed. “You know, the bridge you folks were having difficulty with? Remember? Jason told me that there were some worries about the engineering, or subpar material, or something. I remember him having so many worries about that. It just fell. It broke down. It crushed cars! I’m watching it on the news.”

BAM! Her father-in-law’s phone rocked against the hard surface of the floor. Paige held the phone away from her ears and squinted her eyes to shield herself from the loud sound and its effect on her tired brain. Paige lifted Peyton from her lap to slide her over to the opposite side of the couch. Paige sat up on the edge of her seat as she watched the tragedy unfold on the news. Peyton woke up to the loud volume of the TV.

“Mom?” she questioned, rubbing her eyes with her fingers.

“Yes, Peyton?” her mother asked. “I’m sorry I woke you, baby. Go back to sleep,” she implored, patting Peyton’s back, attempting to ward off her panic.

“Mommy, are you okay?”

“I’m okay, baby girl.”

“Then why are you crying?”

“It’s just super sad. I am very, very sad for those people, and I’m scared for us.”

Peyton turned to the TV screen. “Why are you scared of them and us?” Paige held her hand to her mouth, wishing she could retract the last words she uttered. “Why are you scared for us?” Peyton asked again, a worried tone in her voice.

She shifted Peyton’s face toward the TV.

“Look.” She pointed. “There was an accident on the freeway. And I’m just sad for those people. I don’t know why I said that last part about us,” she comforted Peyton. She quieted her whimper until it was audible only to her. “Dear God,” she prayed silently. “Please guide me. The contracting firm must be connected to this accident. I know in my heart. But I also know Jason tried to make sure everything was right. Now that he’s gone, I can’t pretend this didn’t happen. God, please tell me what to do about this,” she prayed vehemently.

The loud ring of the phone nudged her from her shock. Pressing both hands to her thighs, she lifted herself from the couch. Quickening her pace, she slammed her little toe against the end of the coffee table. Peyton jumped.

“Mommy? Are you all right?” Peyton asked.

Paige waved her palm dismissively as she nodded.

“Hello?” she answered hesitantly. “Yes, this is Paige.” The tone of her voice hardened. “Yes, I am. Yes, he is,” she replied gruffly. “I did see, and I know nothing of what happened or why. I would appreciate you not calling me again,” she commanded. As she slammed the phone, Peyton (startled by her mom’s harsh tone) stood to her feet and pressed her hands to her mouth. Her eyebrows furrowed, and her eyes began to water. Paige ran toward her and held her tight.

“Mom?” she asked in a wobbly voice. “What is the matter?” Peyton caressed her mom’s cheek. “Mom, you look white like milk.” Paige chuckled. Peyton slid down until her feet touched the floor and started to laugh with her mom. “Why are you laughing, Mom?” she asked.

“You just created a great metaphor. Did you know that?” Paige asked.

Peyton tugged on the bottom of her shirttail.

“I think I did know that,” she said as she pressed her finger toward her temple, closing her eyes to think. Paige had successfully diverted Peyton’s attention away from the TV.

“Hey, why don’t you watch some cartoons while I clean up,” she flipped to the cartoon network.

Paige put away the dishes in the dishrack. “Peyton, hey, baby. Mom’s going to be in Daddy’s office for a little bit. I have some work to do, okay?” she said.

Peyton whined, “Aw. Please watch TV with me, Mommy.”

“Pey, I have things to do. I just realized. I’ll come to check on you in a few,” hoping she’d be asleep again soon.

“Mommy, I miss Daddy,” she whimpered as Paige darted toward the office.

“I know, sweetie. You can talk to him still. I’ll let you be so you can tell him you miss him.” Paige struggled to comfort her as her mind raced a thousand miles a minute. The negative ramifications that could come from the accident ran rampant in her mind. Stopping in her tracks just before she left the living room, she looked over her shoulder at Peyton, who was still whimpering. Paige took a deep breath to calm her thoughts so she could help her daughter get through the episode of grief. She knelt on her knees next to Peyton. “Hey, I miss him too. He’s up in heaven with God dancing and singing with the angels. He’s watching over us. Don’t ever forget it. He will always be with you. He’ll be there when you get your license, when you graduate high school, then college, then when you get married, and when you have a baby.”

“Ew,” Peyton laughed. “Gross. I won’t have a baby.”

“Yes, you will!” she teased, tugging on Peyton’s hair lying over her shoulder. “Remember this day, and that you said that,” Paige joked as she patted Peyton on her butt. “I’ll come back to check on you. When I go to bed, I’ll tuck you into yours. I love you.” Paige braced herself against the arm of the couch as she raised herself from her knees.

“Oh my God,” she prayed, her mind whistled with worry—about the victims, Jason’s name, a possible lawsuit, and the shame. Paige slid the double office doors shut, plopped herself into Jason’s chair, rested her elbows on the desktop, clasped her fingers into a steeple in front of her nose, and let the tears flow. While she stared blankly, the picture of her, Peyton, and Jason in the center of the bookcase stared back. “What else can go wrong?” Paige sighed. “I have to remember what Jason told me about the rail project, in case anything comes of it,” she told herself. But she prayed like a soldier that nothing would.

Chapter 10

Gratitude

Salty beads of sweat dripped down her forehead and into her mouth as she carried the heavy box down the driveway. Exhausted by the multiple trips from the house to the trailer, she coached herself through her fatigue. “Almost done,” she told herself as the corners of the box engraved itself into her forearms. As she stacked the last box into the twenty-foot-long open trailer attached to her SUV, she rubbed out the deep lines from her arm until she could barely see them. “Life sucks sometimes,” she acknowledged to herself, “no matter how much we try to do our best, it just does.” She sighed. “In these times we just have to trust,” she reminded herself. “We have to meditate on His doings, muse on the work of His hands, and trust He holds us close.” After she secured the gate latch of the trailer, she trudged along the sidewalk toward the front steps of what was once her home. The last few months of what seemed like hell were finally over—the end of one struggle and the beginning of another. She’d fought the attorney’s tooth and nail, to the bloody end, but it cost her—her home. To prove Jason’s innocence and for Peyton’s sake, it was worth it.

The move to her parents’ home wasn’t going to be far enough from her troubles—nowhere was. Her earnest search for a new place yielded no fruit. No one would rent a home to a bankrupt single mother whose dead husband, in some minds, was guilty of nine deaths. As she walked up the last step to the door, she shoved her hands in the pockets of her jeans that had become two sizes too big. The gray strands of hair that framed her face had multiplied with a vengeance. As she sluggishly crossed the threshold into the empty house, once filled with laughter and love, a knot twisted in her stomach. The house was empty and barren, like her. The dent in the living room wall where Jason crashed Peyton’s scooter stuck out like a sore thumb now that there was nothing to hide it. Her grandma’s antique armoire that hid the dent was gone, sold by the bankruptcy court to the highest bidder. The auctioneer assigned from the bankruptcy court to assess the value of their assets had the nerve to sell it for as low as he did. The recollection of him trudging around in their home with his fancy loafers arbitrarily assessing worth to her things felt like a fire inside. She shifted her attention to the niche in the wall where all Peyton’s school projects were once proudly on display. She ran her fingers over the one-inch lines carved into the corner of the wall where they measured Peyton’s annual height and age—assuming they’d grow old together in this house. It made her smile. But that it would soon be painted over like it was dirt on the walls, her smile turned into a bitter frown. She took one last panoramic view before heading toward the door.

As she reached for the doorknob, she fell to her knees. With her eyes pierced angrily to the bare white ceiling and her fists engraved in the carpet, she prayed to God. “Please hear me,” she cried. The echo of the empty house startled her. “Please hear my cry, Lord. I can’t go on. I just can’t. I lost my son. My husband is gone. My home is gone. Peyton is devastated. What do you want from me? What more am I not doing?” She begged God for an answer. She demanded it. On her knees, she waited. She waited for Him to speak to her. There was no sound. No answer. Slamming her fists into the carpet repeatedly, she screamed and cursed. When she’d still received no response, she stood up and started kicking the door and pounding her fists into the drywall, until Paige hit her fists so hard she’d punctured a hole, and her knuckles were red and raw.

When she had no more strength in her, and no more tears to shed, she fell again onto her knees. Hunched over and afraid to get off her knees to face her life ahead, she wailed. She tried, but she couldn’t get on her feet. She couldn’t stand. Lifting her hands in the air, extending her fingers toward the ceiling, she cried like a baby. “God, please take hold, so I know you’re there,” she begged. “Please,” she sighed. Instantly, a warm heat hovered over her hand as if someone was holding on, lifting her. The touch startling. She fell on her behind and crawled backward toward the kitchen--trembling in fear like the next victim in a horror movie. She scanned the entire house from side to side as if someone were there. “God?” she called. “God, is that you?” She leaned against the hallway wall to look at her hand. It was still warm. “God, hold me please,” she wailed. “Hold me, God,” she begged. Paige rolled herself onto the carpet like a fetus in her mother’s womb. As if swaddled like a newborn baby, safety blanketed her feet, then her ankles, her knees, and her thighs. On the carpet, she felt coddled, protected, and safe. She’d never felt anything like this kind of warmth—God’s warmth. Her rapid breaths slowed. “I know, God.” She nodded. “I do feel you. I want to lay here and cry for a little more, please,” she implored. “God, I know you wouldn’t give me more than I can handle. I know I have to get up and keep moving on. But it’s hard,” she whined. “Can I just have a few moments to lay here in your arms like a baby, please?”

She lay with her knees curled into her chest until the sun’s rays shining through the curtain-less windows began to fade. Her body and mind got stronger. The brokenness started to heal. Suddenly, a strong gust of wind lifted her from the floor. Without resistance, she let the wind lift her body. Gently, the cradle of air tilted her until her feet planted themselves firmly against the floor of the empty house. Feeling as light as a feather, she headed toward the door, opened it, then closed it behind her. As she inserted the key into the doorknob one last time, she sighed a breath of relief that she could make it out the door. She was ending one chapter of her life and praying that the next one would be better—that someday she’d look back and understand why she’d gone through it all. Every step down each stair until she reached her car was easier than the last. “It isn’t until you’ve lost almost everything that you really and truly understand what you had,” she acknowledged. “We all need those reminders. Thank you, Jesus.” With two hands gripped on the steering wheel of her SUV, she promised herself that if it were the last thing she did, Paige would write about the lessons learned—the lessons she learned the hard way—to be grateful for what you have instead of longing for the things you don’t.

Chapter 11

Destiny

She held her palm toward the house to wave goodbye, vowed not to look back, and promised to trust God, to muse on the work of His hands. If in the end, this was all she’d ever have—her and Peyton living in one bedroom of her parents’ home—she would be grateful, always. Paige pulled away from the house, her entire SUV and the trailer she was pulling filled to the brim with the contents of her former life.

***

Paige thought about her life now, and how much it’s changed since then and yet how much more it could change if she just took that leap of faith and chased her dreams. “Whoa!” Her eyes widened. She pulled herself closer to the steering wheel to peer outside the front window of her car. “What happened to the traffic? It’s clear.” Her eyes narrowed. The traffic was gone entirely, and Paige was traveling average speed again with no obstacles in her way. As if the car had chosen for her, she pulled onto the offramp and headed for home. “Forget work,” Paige decided, waiting for the red light at the offramp to turn green. “Perfect!” she exclaimed as she pulled onto the grassy driveway at the district park. Paige rummaged through her purse for her three-ring note pad and furiously began to scribe the words that flooded through her mind. “’I was thirteen years old the first time I saw a speck of cottage cheese­–like cellulite on my thigh. I remember looking at my body in the brightly lit Strawberry Shortcake–decorated bathroom.”

Some years later…

Paige pulled toward the guards’ shack, rolled down her window, and entered the code to open the large wrought-iron gates. She turned left onto her street. Cars lined both sides—one after another. Dozens of balloons flanked the garage and danced in the brisk wind. Strings of lights illuminated the landscape of the front yard, carving a path toward the back of the gorgeous plantation-style home. Under the large birch tree in the corner of the front yard, a ten-foot-wide sign read, “Congratulations on the Book, Paige.”

She raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips. “Oh my gosh these guys,” Paige chuckled. As she pulled into the driveway, Peyton came running toward the garage from the backyard.

“Mom! Congratulations!” She nearly tumbled into her mom’s arms when the back of her left heel got caught in a crevice in the sidewalk.

Paige cackled as Peyton fell into her arms. “Whoa. I guess fourteen isn’t old enough to wear six-inch heels, Peyton,” she teased.

“Mom, I’m almost fifteen. Fifteen is old enough,” she implored. “Mom, baby Jason has been crying all day. He’s been such a brat. I love Uncle Lance, but, Mom, seriously he can’t handle Jason like you can. He was telling everybody they could have his son for a hundred bucks.” Paige chuckled as she pulled her purse from her car. “Mom, my job is to walk you into the backyard. Everyone knows you know, but they are going to jump out from hiding anyway. It’s a book launch and your second-anniversary party too,” Peyton whispered. “Mom, do not tell Uncle Lance I told you about the anniversary part. He’s going to call me the worst stepdaughter ever! But I know you hate surprises,” Peyton said.

Arm in arm Peyton and Paige strolled toward the backyard. Just before she rounded the corner, she paused.

“Peyton, I’m scared,” she whined.

“Mom!” Peyton laughed. “You have nothing to be scared of. Everyone is here to celebrate you and your new book and all your hard work. I’m so proud of you, Mom.” She smiled as she squeezed her mom’s arm. Paige sucked in a deep breath.

“Surprise!” the crowd cheered. Paige told herself and Peyton she’d pretend to be surprised and throw back a huge smile when she saw the anniversary banner, but when she heard the cheering, Paige couldn’t help but cry and scream and bury her face in her hands. Lance wrapped his arm around Paige’s waist as he kissed her gingerly.

“My love, are you happy?” he asked. Paige shot him a subtle smirk as she nodded. “I’m glad you’re happy, baby. I can’t even tell you how proud I am of you! Come, look at the picture collage JJ helped us make. Your mom and dad made one too. Your sister tried, but you know her, so your mom fixed that one too. Look!” He pointed. “I know you’re still working on forgiving your dad, but he is here. I figured even though you’ve got some issues with him, you’d still want him here because your mom does,” Lance explained.

Paige smiled and nodded.

“Thank you, babe, and oh my gosh,” Paige exclaimed. “That’s so beautiful,” she praised, studying every last picture from every significant moment in her life. She shifted her attention to the final collage.

“I made this one for you, mom,” whispered Peyton into Paige’s ears. “It’s all your loves.” Paige whimpered like a lost puppy, while she covered her face in praying hands. “And mom, look. That’s you looking up to God, your first love.”

“Yes, baby. God is my very first love.” Peyton laid her arm on her mother’s shoulders.

“We know mom. That’s why your book is entitled First Love, for God.” Paige ran her fingers through Peyton’s silky hair.

“You are the best. Thank you,” she planted another kiss on her cheek. “Thank you everybody, so much. I am so grateful!” she praised, pressing her hands to her chest.

“Come here, silly!” JJ pulled Paige into her arms and squeezed the life from her. “Come, Paige, I want you to meet Rebecca and Amy.” JJ extended her arm toward the pair. “I think the other woman’s name is Roxanne. Paige’s eyes widened. She pursed her lips to hide her apprehension. “What’s wrong?” JJ questioned.

Paige rubbed her hands together feverishly. “I feel nervous.”

JJ pressed her hands upon Paige’s shoulders. “Don’t be. They loved the book.” JJ grasped Paige’s hand and led her to Rebecca.

“Hi, I’m Paige,” nervously extending her hand.

“We know.” The women grinned. Rather than shake Paige’s hand, Rebecca gave her a huge hug. “I know who you are, Paige, and I just had to come today to meet you, and say thank you,” said Rebecca. Rebecca shifted her attention toward the two women standing next to her. “This is Amy, and this is Roxanne. Amy and I have been best friends forever. Roxanne and I just reconnected a bit ago.

“Oh, nice,” responded Paige.

“Paige, we loved the book, and as Rebecca said, we wanted to say thank you.”

“Why do you need to thank me?” Paige asked.

“Because!” Rebecca exclaimed. “You told your real story of struggle and strength and how you learned to be grateful. And look! You honor Jason. You are madly in love with Lance and look at him. He can’t keep his eyes off you, and you’ve been married for two years already. Love and gratitude have conquered all. You kept trying to focus your eyes on your first love. It has inspired me to tell my story. It’s my goal to tell my own story to empower others as you’ve empowered us.”

Amy touched Paige’s forearm. “You’ve empowered me, but I’ll stick to reading empowering stories while Rebecca tells hers,” she giggled. “Roxanne, you want to, right?”

Roxanne nodded. “Your story truly inspired me, and it’s made me think about things. Whether I can be strong enough to tell my story, I’m not sure, but you are incredible. That’s why I’m here. I could relate to so much of it. Before the night is over I have to get your autograph,” Roxanne added.

“Me too,” chimed Amy.

“This book is going to help a lot of women,” shared Rebecca. “Your book is going to start a movement. I can see it. You told your story of struggle and pain and love and romance, being honest, trusting God and it brought you here,” she looked around.

Lance crept up behind Paige and wrapped his hands around her waist.

“Yup, here in my arms. She makes me the happiest man alive. She and our daughter Peyton and our son Jason.” He kissed her cheek. “Sorry I’ll leave you alone, but I missed my wife, so I had to kiss her one more time,” he laughed.

“See!” chuckled Rebecca. “When you’re thankful and honest, it conquers all. You live your best life. God is so good! Please, can you do a reading for us? Just the first few pages,” Rebecca asked.

Paige shrugged her shoulders, glancing back at Lance. He shrugged his palm in the air.

“Go for it, baby,” he shouted.

Paige pursed her lips together, trying desperately to get comfortable with the attention. Rebecca pulled her copy from her purse. Paige smiled obligingly while the crowd gathered around them.

Lance pulled a chair behind her. “Here, babe. Sit,” he directed.

The women pulled their chairs around her. Rebecca patted under her eyes with her napkin and sat next to Paige as she opened the book.

Paige cleared her throat. A lone tear flowed down her cheek as she began to read.

“’I was thirteen years old the first time I saw a speck of cottage cheese­–like cellulite on my thigh. I remember looking at my body in the brightly lit Strawberry Shortcake–decorated bathroom I shared with my younger sister. It didn’t matter much then. That was before it all changed. Decades later, the cottage cheese on my little-girl-turned-young-woman-turned-mother thighs bothers me quite a bit. That damn ugly pest lay dormant for thirteen years, yet once it reared its ugly head, like rabbits on steroids, it multiplied with a fricken vengeance. I’m five-feet-five-inches tall and one hundred thirty pounds. I’m pretty healthy (been called a MILF), but that damn cottage cheese makes me feel like an imposter. No matter what the heck I do, I can’t seem to get rid of it. It’s been killing me slowly with its poison. It’s been sucking the life out of me. Unlike my young self, I can no longer zoom in with indifferent eyes. I can no longer open my eyes while staring into the bathroom mirror without my right eyebrow twitching uncontrollably.

“’Thank God this is no longer me! Thank you, God, that I love every last dimple. With my beautifully imperfect legs, I climb mountains and swim oceans. Every frizzy strand of hair blows in the wind and protects my big head from the sun. Every last stretch mark on my belly is evidence of motherhood and a reminder of how I carried my children as long as God ordained me to. Thank you, God, for giving me a husband who taught me how to love someone I didn’t intend to love, and having it become one of the great loves of my life. Thank you, God, for giving me another chance. Thank you, God, for giving me, my soul mate. Thank you, God, for giving me a mother who was strong enough to be herself and strong enough to help me be myself. Thank you, God, that she made me “Journal me some honesty.” Thank God, I am me. Thank God you are in me.

“‘My mother taught me to take refuge in the Word. Since I was a little girl, I reminded myself of your promises through your Word. I didn’t always understand what was happening, but I was a beneficiary—a princess daughter. When I got weak, it made me strong. When I forgot, the Word made me remember. When I fell, the Word picked me up. “Psalm 143:5. I remember the days of old; I meditate on all Your doings; I muse on the work of Your hands. Psalm 102:18. Write these things for the future so that people who are not yet born will praise the Lord.”’” Paige turned to the next page. She swiped her tears before she continued. “‘So to you, who have picked up my book, I share the story of my journey to help you on yours. I promise to tell you my truth and nothing but my truth, so help me God.’”

Rebecca cried as Paige read the last Word. Paige looked up at the crowd of women who were all in tears. Rebecca extended her arms wide to hug Paige. “Paige, you’ve inspired me to tell my own story—I’ve already started it. I want so much to inspire others as you did for me. I want to share how God helped me through my issues and how I found the love of my life, Michael. You’re going to want to read it too. It’s our story, our love story.”

“I’m so glad and so excited, Rebecca.” Paige cradled Rebecca’s hands in hers, trying to stop her tears from soaking her face. “I’m going to be the first one to read it!” Paige replied.

I hope you enjoyed Paige’s story, “First Love”.

If you’re still interested, I’m happy to offer you my second Christian Romance Novel,

“Trusting Our Love,”

absolutely

FREE

Acknowledgments

God has put in my heart a desire to tell stories for the purpose of inspiring others to live their best life. Before I could do that, I needed to share my own story of struggle and strength. I worked to overcome one of the biggest obstacles of my life--breaking free from a self-imposed prison of low self-worth, abuse and dysfunction. I learned that embracing my struggles would transform me into a person I could love. I made a conscious decision to grow into the woman God destined for me to be. It took me stepping out in faith no matter how terrifying, a little bit of trust, and a whole lot of forgiveness.

I acknowledge and thank God, my husband, children, mom and siblings for supporting me to live that life.

About the Author

I was born and raised in Wai’anae, Oahu in Hawaii. I have more than 20 years of experience teaching public school as a middle school special education, autism and middle school math teacher in Hawaii (18 years) and in Chandler, Arizona (2 years).

I graduated from The Kamehameha Schools in 1991. Yes, that long ago. (Smile) I hold a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the University of Hawaii at West O’ahu, a Master’s degree in teaching with a focus in Special Education, from Gonzaga University, and a second Master’s degree in Christian Leadership and Pastoral Care from Grand Canyon University.

I have a beautiful family and am thankful every day for all of my blessings. You being here is one of them. Thank you for hanging out long enough to read this. I very much appreciate it.

God is good, all the time.

I hope you enjoyed Paige’s story, “First Love”.

If you’re still interested, I’m happy to offer you my second Christian Romance Novel,

“Trusting Our Love,”

absolutely

FREE

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