WAITING FOR DAYBREAK
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Paige Woodward sat in the Christmas Eve service, staring at the giant cross that hung above the pulpit of her parents' church and silently pleading with God. We've been praying our hearts out, this whole church has been praying their hearts out. She turned to survey the packed house. Look at all of them. Mom has been a faithful servant to You all her life. Why are You letting this happen again?
Her eyes began to sting, and she knew she needed to stay in control --- by appearances at least. She needed to pretend to be strong, and in control, and full of faith, even if she was none of those things.
The congregation stood to sing "O Holy Night." Paige could hear the words coming from her mouth, so she knew she must be singing, but the beauty of the melody, the magnitude of the words, were completely lost on her. Each member held the candle they'd been given, and as the flame passed from person to person, the dark sanctuary filled with warm light. It had always been the most meaningful part of the service to Paige. Tonight, she merely went through the motions.
She looked again at the cross. You know, if You heal her, it will show everyone Your power. The Bible says "ask and you shall receive." If she doesn't deserve Your anointing, who does?
The cross hung silent and dark on the wall. As she'd expected, no answer came. The service ended; the candles were extinguished, leaving nothing behind but a wisp of smoke and the smell of what had once been.
Her family filed out of the sanctuary, speaking subdued greetings to friends, murmuring the ever cheerful "Merry Christmas," knowing that this year, it simply didn't apply to them. As soon as they walked out the door, nothing more was spoken. The three of them linked hands and walked through the parking lot in quiet solidarity.
Back at her parents' home, they seated themselves in front of the Christmas tree and turned on Christmas carols --- it was what they always did on Christmas Eve, what they were supposed to do, even if no one felt like it this year. Her mother poured them each a cup of her traditional spiced tea. "Nice service."
Paige's father nodded. "Sure was."
"Beautiful." Paige tried to work some enthusiasm into her voice, but didn't really think it came through.
The room fell into silence as they sipped their warm drinks and stared at the tree. Paige couldn't help but wonder if they were all having the same thought. The same nagging, ugly question. Would this be their last Christmas together?
Paige stood and walked over to the tree. She put her hand on an ornament made out of plastic beads and pipe cleaner. "I can't believe you've still got this ugly thing."
"That is not ugly. It's beautiful. You made that for me when you were in kindergarten."
"Oh yes. Miss Charlton's class. Best teacher I ever had. She must be getting pretty old, I wonder how she's doing these days."
"The question is, how are you doing these days?"
Paige turned to look at her mother. "I'm doing just fine."
"We all know that's not true. It's time you told us what's going on."
Paige shrugged. "It hardly matters compared to your news."
"It matters plenty to me. To both of us."
Paige looked at her father, noticed the grim set of his jaw. He was prepared to meet this new crisis and do everything in his power to fix it, just like always. Only this time he couldn't fix it. None of them could.
"I've been fired."
His head snapped back. "Do what? I thought you were up for that promotion."
"Yeah, well, so did I."
Paige had practiced all the ways that she would explain the whole process to her parents. Break it in a gentle way, explain the story slowly and logically, without any emotion. Somehow, sitting before the twinkling tree on Christmas Eve next to her mother, whose body had once again betrayed her, she forgot every word.
She looked at her father, unable to bear the shock in her mother's eyes. "They fired me because I killed a man."
Ten Weeks Later
Paige Woodward contemplated the reinforced back door of Nashville's Free Clinic and the patchwork of blue covering the exterior. Each shade of navy, indigo, or azure covered another level of graffiti. The defacing spray paint wasn't gone, simply hidden beneath a layer of color that didn't quite match the original. Patch jobs. They didn't change the truth; they only covered it up.
She shook off the thought and put her key in the door. The musty odor never seemed to fade here, in spite of the janitorial crew's best efforts. This dingy lobby would soon be packed to capacity with illness, hunger, and hopeless faces looking to Paige for help --- but she could only do so much. Some pain went beyond the bounds of medicine. She had been living that truth for the last few months.
Rufus Toskins emerged from a back hallway, wearing his usual overburdened expression, baggy suit, and bow tie. Paige stopped and waited for him. Today, at least, would bring good news, and now would be a perfect time for him to walk over and deliver it.
Rufus did not acknowledge her presence. In fact, he jerked his head around and blitzed through a door to the opposite hall --- like a medical resident rushing toward a code blue.
Strange. Her stomach tightened, just a little. You're imagining things. Get busy.
The usual array of workers from the Richardson Construction Company passed through the lobby as they went from one wing to the other. One of the men --- older than the rest, perhaps late sixties --- walked over to her. "I need to take some measurements in the pharmacy. Okay if I come back there with you?" He wore a faded flannel shirt, scuffed boots, and a friendly smile.
Paige unlocked the glass door and held it open for him. "Have at it."
He nodded, then walked to the back wall of the dispensing area, measuring tape in hand.
Why was Rufus acting so funny? The thought would not leave her mind. She removed the stack of yesterday's prescriptions from their tray, put them in numerical order, then filed them in manila folders. She picked up the phone and retrieved voice messages, wiped down the faded surface of the chipped countertop, and washed her hands. Still, the door to the back hallway remained closed, with Rufus somewhere on the other side. It's just not like him to turn away like that.
A mistake? Just the thought of the word caused this morning's bagel to sink in Paige's stomach.
It couldn't be. She checked everything so carefully now. Please no. She jerked open the file of yesterday's prescriptions and flipped through it, one white rectangle of paper at a time. The doctors' black scribble varied in legibility, form, and neatness, but her own blue-inked initials beside the date and the drug manufacturer remained constant. She checked and rechecked what she'd written, looking for any hint of a slip. There was nothing. Of course there wasn't.
She allowed no room for error in her work. None. Never again.
At nine o'clock, Rufus emerged from the back hallway, unlocked the front door, and edged toward the pharmacy. He began to twirl a ring of keys in his hands, the keys jingling through repeated somersaults. Why wouldn't he look at her? "Paige, there's something I need to tell you."
"Something to tell me?" She adjusted the lapel of her lab coat. "Something like I'm off probation, I hope."
He put the keys in his pocket and looked up, but not quite at Paige. "Oh, well, yes, of course you are. But there's more to my news, unfortunately. Bad news."
Paige didn't want to hear any more. All that mattered to her was that she had completed her probationary period. She'd get a pay increase and full benefits. More important, she'd be returned to the ranks of the worthy for the first time since Atlanta.
Rufus tugged at his tie and shifted from side to side. Whatever it was, he obviously didn't want to say it any more than she wanted to hear it.
"Out of my way. This is an emergency. I'm dying." A shriveled woman in a filthy denim dress shoved Rufus aside and plopped her elbows on the counter. She pounded against her chest, coughed once, and pointed a bony finger at Paige. "I need you to give me one of these right now. I know all about the procedures, but give me a pill now, or I'll be dead and all that paper work won't matter." She wheezed again, as if to illustrate the point.
Paige took the prescription from the woman's hand. When she looked at the words scrawled in black ink, she took care to keep her face solemn. "Of course, Mrs. Stonehenge."
She hurried to the metal shelves, found the right bottle of pills on the lowest shelf, and tapped out a single capsule, blue on one side, clear on the other to reveal the dozens of blue and white beads inside. She put the capsule into a paper cup and rushed back to the woman. "There's some water just around the corner."
"Humph, if I live that long." Mrs. Stonehenge grabbed the cup from Paige's hand and bulldozed a path toward the water fountain.
Paige avoided eye contact with Rufus and began hammering out the label on their ancient typewriter. The behind-the-counter door squeaked and Rufus came to stand beside her.
"One of the funding sources for the foundation just dried up. So ... no raises this year. That means you'll stay on probationary pay, even though you're off probation. In fact, after next month's budgetary meetings, everyone will likely take a pay cut."
The homeless clinic offered a small enough salary as it was, and probationary pay was ten percent less. Don't they understand that my mother has cancer and my parents can't keep up with the bills? Don't they understand that I'm just now digging out of debt from being unemployed? "They can't do that."
"This clinic is run by a private charitable foundation. They can do whatever they wish --- including withdrawing all funding if it suits them. Given some of the rumors floating around here, I'd say we need to be grateful they're still paying us at all."
"Grateful? I have responsibilities. I need that money."
"That's the way life works. May as well accept that while you're young, because it'll only get worse by the time you're my age." He let himself out of the pharmacy without another word.
Mrs. Stonehenge returned, still thumping against her chest, but no longer wheezing. "Good thing that stuff works so quick. I thought I was a goner there for a minute."
Paige forced herself to smile, although she felt her irritation rising. "I'm glad you're feeling better."
"Oh, child, just pray you never get as sick as I am."
The woman walked away, carrying her bottle of placebos that she believed to be a miraculous heart remedy. Sometimes just a little positive thinking worked better than medicine. A good thing to keep in mind.
"I've been watching you work the last few weeks. You're good with people."
Paige startled, having forgotten all about the man with the measuring tape in the back of the pharmacy. She wondered how much of the conversation with Rufus he'd overheard. "It's just part of the job."
"Maybe so, but some people have a gift for it, and some people don't. Name's Lee, by the way."
"Well, Paige, my granddaughter's a pharmacist in Shoal Creek --- she's brilliant when it comes to all the medical stuff, but dealing with the public is not exactly what you'd call her strong suit. You should go to work for her, so she could learn by example."
"What, and miss all this?"
He smiled as he pushed open the glass door that led to the lobby, then stopped at the customer counter. "You think about it over the weekend. I'll be back sometime next week, we'll talk more about it."
Paige laughed to herself. She'd think about it, all right. How could she help but be charmed by the man who thought he could hire help for his granddaughter? She must be a very lucky girl to come from such a supportive family.
Clarissa Richardson pulled into her father's driveway. Even in the late winter, the lawn looked manicured and inviting, the French country exterior warm and welcoming. The warmth and welcome ended right about there. Her fingers itched to turn the car around. But she couldn't.
She needed to get this done now. Most likely, her father and newest stepmother were either hosting a Friday night gathering or preparing to go to one. She should be able to make a quick getaway.
Alejandra, dressed in the usual black skirt and white apron, met her at the door. "They're on the sun porch, miss."
"Thank you." Clarissa walked toward the glassed-in room at the rear of the house, where she found her father and Becky sipping cocktails. "Care to join us, sh-weetheart?" he slurred, eyes already starting to glaze.
Few things were more unbearable than Clarissa's snockered father, and since Becky was one of those things, the invitation held absolutely no temptation. "No, thanks. I just stopped by to pick up that set of china from the attic. I'm trying to get my condo all set up so I can get in touch with my domestic side."
"Good for you, sh-weetie."
Becky, wearing a skin-tight black skirt and a low-cut silk blouse, walked across the room and poured a healthy serving from the pitcher. "I had Alejandra empty all the stuff out of the attic last week so we could sift out the junk. Most of the boxes are still stacked in the garage. You may have to look around."
The doorbell chimed. Which group of social climbing, backstabbing acquaintances was coming over tonight?
Clarissa's uncle walked into the room, debonair as always, his boyish charm creating a welcome contrast to the overstuffed atmosphere. He looked at her and shoved his bangs away from his eyes. "Sweet Pea, no one told me you were going to be here. I'd have come a little earlier if I'd known."
"Tony!" She threw her arms around him.
"You look beautiful. The pharmacy business must be agreeing with you."
"Well, you need a haircut, so the construction business must not be agreeing with you." She laughed, then drew back from the hug. "What are you doing here?" Surely you're not spending a Friday night with these two.
"Just talking a little business with your dad." He sat in an upholstered rattan chair and patted the one beside it. "Sit down. Tell me how things are going down south."
"What kind of business?" Clarissa knew her family too well to believe that this gathering was some nonimportant issue. More than just age separated Tony and her father. They never saw each other socially. Something was up.
"Weren't you heading toward the garage?" Becky looked at her pointedly.
"As a matter of fact I --- "
"I'll walk with you, Sweet Pea." Tony, ever the peacemaker, started for the hallway, pulling Clarissa along before she said something she'd perhaps regret not regretting.
They found the garage and both began looking through boxes.
Tony said, "Our little meeting should be done in an hour or so. You want to come over and hang out? Pizza and a movie?"
"I'm meeting some friends downtown. Join us. You need to get out more." It was true. Besides, he was dressed for it. Nice jeans. Simple polo. Great shoes. He was more of a handsome older brother than an uncle.
"I'm too far past my prime for carousing. Your old uncle can't keep up like he used to."
You kept up just fine before the divorce. "Don't use that 'old uncle' stuff on me. You may be my uncle, but you're not that much older than I am."
"There's a lot of difference between thirty and twenty-two. Trust me."
"I'm twenty-five, and no there's not." She got to the final pile of boxes and looked through them all again. "I don't see it anywhere. Guess I'll have to go ask the step-monster."
He followed her back down the hallway. "So ... you never answered my question."
"How are things going with the pharmacy?"
She shrugged. "About like you'd expect, I suppose."
"You know, Dad only wants the best for you."
"I know, but I wish he'd told me what he thought was 'best' before I declined that residency at Johns Hopkins. I stayed because I wanted to open a Parrish Apothecary franchise, in Nashville, in the exact building where Grandma used to work. I know that probably sounds ungrateful, but don't you think he could have let me know his plans sometime before graduation day?"
When they neared the sun porch, Becky's nasal voice echoed down the hallway. "I'm telling you, he's giving it all away. There won't be anything left of an inheritance if he doesn't stop it. Maybe we should look into his mental state. Has he been seeing a shrink? A doctor? Anything?"
"Good idea. We should look into that."
A low growling noise came from Tony's throat as they turned the corner. "Dad's as sane as anyone and you know it. He earned his money, he has the right to do with it as he sees fit."
Clarissa understood the meeting now. It was all about trying to keep Granddad's money in the family and out of the ledgers of charities nationwide. Since Grandma's death three years ago, his way of dealing with the pain had been through philanthropy --- something that caused her father increasing alarm. Something that had also sentenced Clarissa to a pharmacy in a podunk town, with parole only possible after a year of good behavior. Or more correctly, after a year of meeting nearly unattainable goals.
As much as she felt bad about abandoning Tony to face all this alone, she knew better than to stay. She needed to get her stuff and get out. "Becky, I didn't find the box in the garage. Is there somewhere else it would be?"
Becky gasped. "I hope you didn't mean that old set of Wedgwood that was in the back corner."
"Of course that's what I meant."
Becky contorted her face into the fakest look of shock Clarissa had ever seen. "I got rid of it."
"I sold it to that used china shop several weeks ago. I'm sure those place settings are scattered all across Tennessee by now. I never realized you wanted it."
"It said 'Save for Clarissa' all over the box in big red letters."
"Did it? You know how it is, after a few hours all those boxes start looking alike. I must have missed it somehow."
"That china belonged to my grandmother. She gave it to me. It was mine."
"Then maybe you should have stored it yourself, rather than leaving it to clutter things around here." Becky took a long swallow of the drink in her hand and looked evenly at Clarissa. She'd taken Grandma's china, just to prove she could. "I really am sorry. Just an honest mistake."
There was no honest or mistake about it. Clarissa looked at Becky's throat and pictured her hands wrapped around it, squeezing with every ounce of her strength.
"You know what, Sweet Pea, downtown sounds like a good idea, after all. Come on, I'll walk you out to the car, and we'll figure out where to meet up." Tony took her arm and gently pulled her away from the room.
He waited until she climbed into her car to say anything more. "I'll call you on my cell when we're done here. Believe me, it won't be long. I can't deal with this, even if he is my brother."
"Tell me about it." She turned the key in the ignition. "Okay, I'll be waiting for your call. No backing out this time, promise?"
As she pulled from the driveway, she could still see him in her rearview mirror, standing on the porch of her father's home. It suddenly occurred to her that of all the people she'd ever loved or who had ever loved her, her uncle Tony was all she had left.
Paige made the hour commute from the Nashville Clinic to her parents' home every few weeks, yet it didn't surprise her a bit that the first thing she noticed when she pulled into the driveway was the white paper banner taped to her parents' white garage door. WELCOME HOME PAIGE.
Ever since her mother had taken an adult ed computer class, she looked for excuses to demonstrate her prowess at the printer. This particular banner consisted of four sheets of paper taped together, with hot pink letters making up the words and a picture of a banana split printed faintly in the background. A masterpiece of clip art if ever her mother had created one.
In the front bay window she saw her old lab, Dusty, push himself up on his three good legs to bark. Her father came to peek, disappeared, then flung open the front door. "There's my girl." He came down the porch steps as fast as his arthritis would let him. "I am so glad to see you." He put his arms around her and didn't let go. There was a hint of desperation in that hug.
"Dad, are you all right?"
"It's going to be okay, Paige, it's going to be okay. We're gonna get through this just fine."
Get through this? When her mother's cancer relapsed three months ago, it had been hard on all of them. But something else was going on here, something fresher. Something worse. "What are we going to get through?" She pulled back so that she could look at her father's face.
He squinted his eyes against the March sun. "Your mother ... she did call you, right?" He rubbed the back of his neck and looked everywhere but at Paige. "I was sure she called you."
"What was she supposed to call me about?" Fingers of dread began to wrap around Paige's heart. When she looked into her father's eyes and saw the absolute despair in them, the fingers began to squeeze. Hard. This could only mean one thing.
"The treatment's not working this time. Doctor says we're almost out of options, but he's looking into some clinical trials. He said he'd call us on Monday and let us know if he could find anything."
She wanted so much just to collapse against her car. Anything that could support her. But she knew what that'd do to her father. "Well, all right then. That's what we're aiming for." She squared her shoulders. "Where is she?"
"Out back, sitting on her bench."
Paige nodded. "I'll go talk to her." She reached down to pet Dusty. "Come on, boy."
He hobbled alongside her around the back of the house and across the weathered patio. The surface was faded and worn from years of family picnics, roller skating, and late evening gab sessions. How could the same woman whose joy of life could wear out concrete be losing the fight to keep that life?
Her mother was seated on the bench at the corner of the property, in the dull shade of her favorite oaks. Her eyes were closed, her hands clasped in her lap. Was she resting or praying? Dusty went to lie at her feet, while Paige sat beside her. "Hi, Mom."
Her mother's eyes flew open. "Oh, sweetie, you're home." She threw her arms around Paige and squeezed tight. The cherryalmond scent of her Jergens lotion brought back a wave of happy memories so strong that Paige had to swallow back the tears.
"I wasn't expecting you this early."
"Let me guess, your father called you with the news and you got all upset and left work early. That's why I wasn't planning to tell you until later." She cut a hard look at her husband, who was leaning against the nearest oak.
He folded his arms across his chest. "I did no such thing. I said I wouldn't, and I didn't. I thought you were --- "
"Mom, he didn't call. It's seven o'clock, I've been off work for almost two hours."
"Oh dear, the time must have gotten away from me."
A cold wind blew, causing the tree limbs above them to bend with the force. The sound of a crow's caw came from nearby as it searched for something to eat in the bleak landscape of late winter.
Paige reached over and held her mother's hand. "I'm just glad I'm here now."
Her mother looked into the tree above them. "Do you remember when we used to have a swing on that limb?"
"Yes, Daddy spent hours getting it set up just right."
"You and I would spend hours out here. I can still see your hair flying behind you --- no wonder it was always so stringy when you were a kid. You would sing that song about the daring young man on the flying trapeze at the top of your lungs, swinging so high you'd sometimes get caught up in the branches. I'd sit right here on this bench, and knit, and read, and sing right along with you."
The limb above had two smooth places, its bark stripped away by the ropes once tied there. If friction and pressure could wear down a giant tree, what chance did Paige and her family stand? "That was a long time ago."
"Yes, it was. But it doesn't seem like it's been any time at all, it just moves too fast." Her mother ran her hand down the length of Paige's hair. "Who would have thought that stringy-haired kid would grow into such a beautiful young woman?" She covered Paige's hand with her own and squeezed. "Oh, honey ... we all knew this would happen."
"Did we?" Paige whispered.
"Of course we did." Her mother's tone sounded as crisp and clear as if she were announcing a planned trip to the market. "That's part of the fun of being 'treatable not curable.'"
"I fully expect your doctor to call first thing Monday morning, having found the perfect clinical trial that will put you in remission and keep you in remission."
Her mother looked at her father. "I bet you didn't tell her that other part, right?"
"What other part?" Paige looked at her father.
He shrugged in response. "Doesn't matter."
"What other part, Mom?"
"A lot of clinical trials aren't covered by insurance, since they are considered experimental. Your father and I don't have extra money to be throwing around, looking for some miracle cure that doesn't even exist."
"I can help."
Her father shook his head. Her mother wouldn't hear of it. But Paige insisted and insisted that she'd do anything for them, and by the time dinner was ready they'd both agreed.
Now she'd just have to figure out a way to find the money they needed.
Excerpted from WAITING FOR DAYBREAK © Copyright 2017 by Kathryn Cushman. Reprinted with permission by Bethany House. All rights reserved.
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