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A Hand to HoldA Hearts of Middlefield Novel
By KATHLEEN FULLER
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2010 Kathleen Fuller
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRuth Byler picked up a fresh piece of chalk and, with precise strokes, wrote her name on the blackboard in both cursive and print. She took a step back and smiled, admiring the letters, stark white against deepest black. This was her blackboard. Her classroom. Her dream.
She turned to look at the empty desks filling the room. All twenty of them were aligned in five rows, four to a row, with equal space between them. Tomorrow, the first day of school, they would be filled with her students, from first through eighth grade, for whom she had spent the last two hours finishing her preparations.
On each desk sat a pencil and a brand-new spiral notebook. She had purchased them with her own money, had sharpened each pencil, and had written her students' names on the inside cover of each notebook in the upper left-hand corner. Her favorite time of year had been the day her mother purchased school supplies. She remembered the crispness of notebook paper, the snap of that first binder ring, and the thrill she felt when she looked at her unused colored pencils. She imagined her students' eager expressions when they walked into the classroom tomorrow morning, how pleased they would be with their gifts.
Ruth walked to the back of the classroom to check the four posters on the wall-a map of the world, the alphabet in print and in cursive, a list of classroom rules, and a basic grammar guide. After ensuring they were well secured, she went back to her desk, slipped on her reading glasses, and opened her planning book. Every minute of the day was scheduled, and she'd prepared lessons for the first four months, all the way up to Christmas break. After reviewing tomorrow's plans, she thought to rework a lesson but resisted. She was already pushing it by being here on the Lord's day. She closed the book and put it in its designated spot in her desk.
She started for the door, then stopped. "Almost forgot," she said and pulled a wooden apple out of her satchel. Her brother Lukas had made it in her family's woodshop, Byler and Sons, as a congratulatory present for getting the teaching job. She rubbed her fingers against the slick, red-lacquered surface, admiring the smooth curves and the grain of the wood. She set it on the desk, her fingers lingering on it for a second longer.
As she lifted her hand, a loud roar sounded in her ears. She whirled around, her mouth gaping open, and saw the back wall of the classroom explode. Wood splintered and boards flew in the air. Instinctively she put her arms up to shield her face from a wood plank hurtling toward her. But she was too late. Darkness enveloped her.
* * *
Zachariah Bender moaned as he lifted his head from the steering wheel. He reached for his forehead, his right arm moving as if in slow motion. A bump had started to form. Pulling his hand away, he expected to see blood, but let out a long breath when he didn't. He carefully released his white-knuckled grip from the steering wheel, then checked his arms and legs. Everything moved okay, and other than the bump on his head, he wasn't in pain. Thank God he wasn't seriously hurt. But he couldn't say the same for the truck.
Through the windshield, he stared at the hazy sight of splintered wood and debris scattered around the gray four-by-four. He fought the urge to vomit. The last thing he wanted to do was ruin the interior too.
Zach put his hands on top of his head and shut his eyes. He had done plenty of stupid things in his life. Up until now, he'd considered the time he'd lit a stack of newspapers with a cigarette lighter in his daed's repair shop as the dumbest. Twelve years old at the time, he had found the lighter on the side of the road and nearly burned down the shop. But driving a truck into the schoolhouse? This was definitely worse. Much, much worse.
Zach gingerly pushed open the door, wincing at the loud clacks of debris hitting the floor. The dust outside floated inside and filled his lungs, making him cough and increasing the ache in his head. When he stepped out of the vehicle, his foot hit something hard. A bookshelf lay facedown on the floor, and books and magazines were spilled everywhere. He turned and looked back at the truck, and his stomach turned 360 degrees. Oh man. Rick was going to kill him. And if Rick didn't, Zach's father would. He didn't even have a driver's license.
He'd told Rick he could handle driving a couple miles to the convenience store. The entire trip would take ten minutes tops. They had been rebuilding a four-wheeler in Rick's parents' garage, and they couldn't find anything to drink in the house-at least nothing they wanted. He'd driven the truck just fine before, with Rick sitting in the passenger seat, but this time Rick had let him go by himself. Then halfway to the store, two deer ran out in front of the truck. He'd cut the steering wheel hard to the right, then tried to straighten out, but he overcorrected. The last thing he remembered was the schoolhouse coming up on him. He'd slammed on the brake pedal-a bit too late.
Zach shut the door, and several pieces of wood slid onto the hood. A hot breeze slammed into him, and he turned around to see a cavernous hole in the school wall, with the truck parked halfway through it. A huge board dangled above the bed, then dropped, causing the vehicle to bounce on its shocks. Among all the clatter, he thought he heard a soft moan. Was someone here? He jumped over two damaged desks, scanning the room as he made his way to the front. Near the teacher's desk, a petite female lay on the floor, struggling to sit up. He knelt down beside her. "Are you all right?"
She put her hand on the floor and pushed herself into a seated position. Her round, silver-rimmed glasses sat askew on her face, and her dark blue eyes shone from behind the lenses. Strands of dark blonde hair had pulled loose from her white head covering, hanging limp against her cheeks. His stomach lurched at the blotch of blood on her forehead. A thick strip of jagged wood lay in her lap, probably the cause of her injury.
The blood began to trickle beneath the bridge of her glasses and over her nose. He patted his pockets for a rag, cloth, something to stop the bleeding. Nothing. He untucked his light blue shirt from his pants, ripped part of the bottom off, then wadded it up and put it against her head. "Don't move."
"What?" She turned her head and looked at him, her eyes unfocused.
"Be still. You might have a concussion." And it would be my fault. Not only had he knocked out part of the schoolhouse, destroyed the furniture inside it, and crashed his friend's truck, but now he might have seriously injured someone.
The young woman ignored his warning and straightened her glasses. Then she reached up and touched her head. Her finger slid against the blood. She jerked her hand away and stared at the red smudge on her skin.
He braced himself, waiting for her to pass out, or at the very least get hysterical. To his relief and surprise, she did neither. Instead she calmly said, "I'm okay."
"Just a little bit." She took the cloth from him and looked at the round, red stain on the fabric. "See. Not that much." She started to stand, but when she got to her knees, she began to sway.
He put his arm around her slim shoulders to steady her. "You need to see a doctor."
"Nee. I'll be all right in a minute." She gazed at him, her brows sliding into a V shape. "Don't I know you?"
He looked directly at her face. Then he recognized her. Ruth Byler. He'd gone to school with her, although she was a couple of years behind him. But who could forget Miss Perfect, straight-A, teacher's pet Ruth?
"I do know you. Zachariah Bender, ya?"
"Ya. That's me." Right now he wished he were someone else. And someplace else. He glanced at the board behind the big teacher's desk. It had been spared from the flying debris, and he saw letters on the board in print and cursive. "You're teaching here?"
"Tomorrow's my first day." She moved to a standing position, keeping her gaze on the floor. She placed the bloody piece of his shirt on her desk and looked up, adjusting her glasses again as she faced the wreck. Her body froze, her fingertips remaining on one corner of the frames. Her lower lip began to tremble.
Uh oh. Her body began to sway, and he popped to his feet to steady her again.
"What ... happened?"
Aware that his arm was still around her shoulders, he stepped away, but stayed near in case she started to swoon again. "I'm really sorry. It was an accident."
Ruth brushed past him toward the truck. "The desks ... the floor." The words sounded like they were stuck in her throat. Turning slowly, she fixed her eyes on him, her expression a meld of shock and confusion. "What have you done?"
"Now, hold on. It's not as bad as it looks." The words sounded dumb, but he needed to reassure himself almost as much as he needed to reassure her. He was grateful that he hadn't gone through the window-side of the schoolhouse. If he had, there would have been flying glass everywhere. And who knows what would've happened to Ruth then. He walked away from her and wove through the debris toward the truck. He pulled a couple of broken boards away from the front. The truck only had minimal damage. The silver bumper hung by a screw, the front grille had a large dent, and there was an impressive crack dividing the front headlight. The windshield also had a crack that stretched across two-thirds of the glass, but from what he could tell, everything could be easily fixed.
He couldn't say the same for the schoolhouse. He turned back to Ruth and saw her bend down and pick up a spiral notebook. She brushed off the dust and stared at it for a long moment. Her forehead had started to bleed again, but she stood there, staring at the mess, unmoving as the blood trickled down her face. Zach returned to the front of the room, retrieved the rag from her desk, and without thinking, walked over and dabbed her forehead. To his surprise she didn't resist, probably too shocked to do anything but gape at the disaster surrounding them.
"You've got to get this checked," he said. "You might need stitches."
She pulled away from him and shook her head, placing the notebook on one of the desks that hadn't been struck. "There's no time for that. School starts tomorrow. I have to clean all this up."
"Ruth, school won't be opening tomorrow ... or ... for a while." Guilt nearly suffocated him as he spoke.
She didn't respond. Instead, she picked up pieces of a broken desk, setting them in a pile. When she stood up, her body swayed again. He scurried behind her, ready to catch her if she fell. "That's it. You're going home."
"What in the world happened here?"
Zach looked up to see a Yankee man looking through the hole in the wall. He scooted his way around the truck, stepping over the rubble carefully, then looked at them with concern. "I was driving by and I saw the truck sticking out of the building. What a disaster. Are you two okay?"
"I'm fine," Zach said, but he didn't say anything about Ruth. He'd never seen this man before, and while he was probably a well-meaning stranger, Zach didn't want him involved.
The man rubbed his salt-and-pepper goatee as he scanned the room. Zach caught a glimpse of the round bald spot peeking through his gray hair on top of his head. He glanced at Ruth, then Zach. "Is this your truck?"
Knowing it was useless to lie, Zach shook his head.
"You mean someone drove in here and then took off?"
Pausing for a second, Zach shook his head again. "Um, not exactly."
The man reached into the pocket of his khaki shorts and pulled out a cell phone. "I better call the police."
"Nee." Zach stepped away from Ruth, pausing a moment to make sure she was solid on her feet. He strode toward the man, almost slipping on a spiral notebook. He could only imagine all the laws he'd broken today. The last thing he needed was a ticket. "This is my fault. I was driving my buddy's truck and lost control. But we're both all right. You don't need to call the police."
Doubt crossed the man's features. "Are you sure?" He peered around Zach's shoulder and scrutinized Ruth. "Is that blood on her forehead? I could call an ambulance. Or don't you people use regular doctors?"
Zach realized the man wasn't from around here. "We don't need a doctor, but thanks for the offer."
Ruth stepped forward and stood next to Zach. "It's only a scratch." She dabbed the bloody cloth on the wound, then pulled it away. A few drops clung to the pale blue fabric. "See? I'm fine, really. You don't have to call anyone."
The man frowned. "All right, but it's against my better judgment. I can give you both a ride home at least. You're not going anywhere in that truck."
Ruth shook her head. "My buggy and horse are here." She kept her gaze focused on the Yankee.
The man didn't answer for a long moment, and Zach thought he might call the police anyway. Finally he said, "Guess there's nothing I can do then." He looked toward the hole in the wall then back at Zach and Ruth. "As long as you're sure you're okay ..."
"We are." Ruth nodded, still not looking at Zach. "Then good luck to you. Looks like you'll need it." The Yankee took one more glance over his shoulder before disappearing outside.
Ruth immediately started picking up several textbooks off the floor, hugging them close to her small frame. Her glasses slipped down her nose, but she didn't bother to push them up. She also hadn't bothered to listen to him when he'd told her to stay still.
Putting his hands on his hips, Zach looked at her. "Ruth, halt. There's nothing else we can do, at least not today. Come with mei. I can drive you home in your buggy."
Now she looked at him. "I'll drive myself home."
"Nee. You don't need to be driving with that bump on your head. I'll take you."
"I'll drive myself home." Her voice had a slight edge that hadn't been there before. "I feel fine." Squaring her shoulders, she removed her glasses and tucked them in her free hand while setting down the textbooks she'd picked up a moment ago. Any trace of confusion or anger in her expression had disappeared. "But I feel I must inform you that I will be stopping by my schwoger's haus. Gabriel is on the school board. It's appropriate he be notified of ..." She paused, her lower lip quivering for a second. "Of what happened here."
Zach's shoulders hunched forward. "Ya, you're right. I'll have to let my daed know as soon as I get home. He'll probably call an emergency meeting."
Ruth's delicate eyebrows arched. "Your daed's on the school board?"
"Has been for years. You have him to thank for hiring you."
She stiffened, but her emotions were controlled. The complete opposite of how he would have reacted if their situations were reversed. He appreciated the way she kept her cool.
"From what I understand it was a group decision."
Ouch. Maybe she wasn't as calm as she seemed.
Ruth looked around the schoolhouse again. "It took me two weeks to get everything in order." Her voice was barely above a whisper. She turned toward the hole in the wall. The remnant of a poster clung to it, fluttering in the summer breeze.
Zach wanted to seep through the cracks in the floorboards-well, through the ones that weren't splintered or destroyed already. His gaze followed her as she walked through the obstacle course to her desk and gathered her belongings into a navy blue tote bag. She slung it over her shoulder and started for the front door, clearly intending to leave without saying anything to him. She stopped just before walking outside and picked something up off the floor. A wooden apple, stained a rich red color. She brushed her tiny fingers over the glossy surface, then put it in her bag and walked out of the door.
He couldn't let her go just like that. He jumped over the mess, slid past Rick's truck, and left the schoolhouse through the new exit he'd made. He rushed to her buggy.
Excerpted from A Hand to Hold by KATHLEEN FULLER Copyright © 2010 by Kathleen Fuller. Excerpted by permission.
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