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For the third time in as many weeks, Hannah Woods awoke smiling. She wasn't fully awake. Not really. For if she were, then the practical side of her mind would have insisted that she rein in those banned images. She was far too busy and far too focused to entertain little-girl dreams, at least in her conscious hours. She hadn't been a little girl for a very long time.
Just this once, though, in that private place between slumber and alertness, Hannah couldn't resist the temptation to let those pictures play out in full color.
Keeping her eyes tightly closed, Hannah let herself glance around in her make-believe world and take in sights and sounds so real that she could almost hear the organ prelude and smell sweet roses and pooling candle wax. Her heart warmed at the sight of her father standing at the altar, his Bible open to a familiar passage.
She couldn't picture herself, but she could almost feel tulle brushing her cheek and lacy bridal point, making her wrists itch. The last image, though, made her breath catch in her throat. Todd. Always Todd.
Standing across the aisle from her, he looked so handsome in his dark tuxedo. His shoulders had filled out the way she'd always imagined they would someday, but he still had the same boy's face she remembered, and his green eyes were as mesmerizing as ever. Those eyes still looked as sincere as they had when he'd told her he loved her.
When he'd lied.
As Hannah came fully awake with a start and sat straight up in bed, the twinkling lights of the miniature Christmas tree shifted into focus. They'd set it up the day before while still digesting their Thanksgiving turkey. This morning the tree's tinsel, garland and tinyred bows replaced all satin and pastel thoughts of the wedding that would never be.
What was she doing, anyway? She didn't have the luxury of indulging useless, adolescent dreams. And if she continued forgetting to unplug that little tree at night, especially with the apartment's wiring, they would be sifting through charred rubble before New Year's.
Clearly, she needed to get her act together. She was twenty-two years old now, not seventeen. She had responsibilities and obligations--things Todd knew nothing about and probably couldn't have handled if he knew. You never gave him the chance to handle anything, an unwelcome voice inside her pointed out with a punch she did her best to dodge. Forgiveness. She'd given that the old college try these past five years, but she couldn't quite get beyond the desertion part. Whether or not it had been his choice to leave with his parents when his father had been transferred to Singapore, the fact remained that he had left when she'd needed him most.
Perhaps only God could forgive and truly forget. A litany of her own sins and failures played in her mind as it always did when her thoughts turned to the boy she should have forgotten--the boy who was now a man. She would have allowed guilt to blanket her as she had so many times while the months stretched into years, but the squeak of her bedroom door offered a reprieve this time.
"I'm awake, Mommy," Rebecca called out as she bounded into the room, tucked something under the bed and then scrambled on top of the covers.
Though her child made that same announcement and followed the same routine every morning at about ten minutes before the alarm was set to go off, Hannah smiled. "Well, looky there. I guess you are."
"Is it Friday? Do I have my playdate with Max today?"
"Yes, sweetie, it's today."
Since Rebecca had been counting down the days until her playdate with her favorite friend, Max Williams, Hannah was pleased to finally say yes. Technically, the "playdate" was really only a day when Mary Nelson would be babysitting both Rebecca and Max while Hannah worked at the accounting firm and while Max's mother, Tricia Williams Lancaster, scoured Twelve Oaks Mall on the busiest shopping day of the year. Hannah didn't bother clarifying the point.
"Today. Today. Today!" Rebecca threw her head back on the bed and wiggled with the type of delight only a child could find before breakfast without a double espresso. Her fine towhead-blond hair stuck up every which way, and she squeezed her eyes shut tight, probably looking for the stars she liked to watch behind her eyelids.
Reaching down, Hannah brushed the hair back from her daughter's fair-skinned face, all thoughts of obligations flittering away on a wave of pure adoration.
Rebecca opened her eyes and stared up at her mom. Hannah's chest tightened. It was probably the dream that made her react again to her daughter's green eyes when she'd been so proud of her ability to no longer notice them. Others probably hadn't found Rebecca's eye color remarkable since Hannah's eyes were a hazel-green shade--close but not the same. She saw it, though. Those were Todd's eyes that sometimes stared back when her daughter looked at her.
Clearing her throat, she gave the child a tight squeeze. "We'd better get up or we'll be late."
Rebecca lifted her head off the bed, and her bottom lip came out in a pout. "But..."
"Why? Do you have a better idea?"
The little girl pointed to the side of the bed.
"Is there something under there I should know about?"
Lying back and wiggling again, Rebecca nodded. Hannah pressed her index finger to her lips as if pondering and then glanced down at her. "Is it bigger than a bread box?"
Rebecca's eyebrows furrowed. "What's a bread box?"
"A thing people used to use to keep bread fresh." Hannah gave the same answer she did every day.
"Is it smaller than an amoeba?"
"What's an amoeba?"
"A single-cell creature."
"Nope." A giggle erupted from the child's rosebud mouth. "Do you want to know what it is?"
"You'd better tell me. I just can't guess." Rebecca climbed off the bed, peered under it and returned with the surprise: today's choice from their collection of Christmas storybooks they'd recently taken out of storage.
"Ooh, the manger story!" Hannah accepted the hardcover book, pleased with her daughter's selection with its quotes from the Book of Luke and Michelangelo-style painted illustrations. Hannah enjoyed reading all the festive stories to her daughter, but she was excited that Rebecca had chosen one that spoke of the true Christmas story instead of one about Rudolph and the rest of the holiday gang.
"There's baby Jesus." Rebecca pointed to the book cover, which featured a painting of the sweet infant, a halo of glory about his head. "And the sheep and the cows and the donkey."
"Looks like they're all there." Hannah opened the book to the first page, and Rebecca snuggled up under her arm. Only after they'd read the last page could they officially begin their day.
"The end," Rebecca announced with glee when they were finished.
Again Hannah smiled at her daughter. Rebecca approached everything with that same kind of enthusiasm, as if each hour was an uncharted land just waiting to be explored.
How could Hannah have forgotten, even for a minute, how fortunate she was to know this amazing four-year-old? How grateful she was to God for giving her the privilege of raising her. Loving Rebecca had nothing to do with obligation and so much to do with sharing in the joy and in the discovery.
During her conscious hours, Hannah didn't give herself time for regrets, not when she and Rebecca enjoyed so many blessings. If only she could rein in the images that crowded her dreams, as well. Those snapshots of the past hurt more than they healed, leaving her to awaken feeling empty and wondering whether something vital was missing from her life.
Todd took a deep breath as he stepped inside the church's glass double doors Sunday morning. If only he could remove the golf-ball-sized knot clogging his throat. He felt as queasy as an actor on opening night, only this wasn't a play and the only reviewer who mattered was sure to give him a scorching review.
Before he could even stomp the snow off his dress shoes and hang his coat on the rack that extended the length of the vestibule, an usher approached him.
"Welcome to Hickory Ridge Community Church," the man said as he gripped Todd's hand and pumped briskly. "Is this your first time visiting with us?"
Clearing his throat, Todd answered, "No--I mean it's been a long time, but--" he coughed into his hand and looked back up at the usher "--it isn't my first time."
"And we sure hope it won't be the last."
Todd tilted his head to indicate the crowded sanctuary, visible through a wall of windows. "I'd better get in there. I'm already late."
The man brushed away the comment with a wave of his hand. "Ah, they're just getting warmed up in there."
Todd thanked the man and continued past him. He'd hoped that arriving after services started would allow him to miss a formal greeting at the door, but he should have known better. Hickory Ridge had always been a friendly church on the "Bring-A-Friend Sunday" and the "Homecoming" events he'd attended with Hannah, and clearly that hadn't changed.
Plenty of other things were just as familiar, he found, as he peered through the windows into the sanctuary. Same stained glass window behind the choir loft. Same red carpet and red-padded pews. Same crowd of strangers. Same two guys sitting on the twin benches on either side of the pulpit.
Only the draped garland in the front of the sanctuary and the candles in the sills of the other stained glass windows even hinted at how long it had been since he'd visited. Those things suggested that months and seasons had sped by, but that mammoth second building behind the church where a field had once been, announced the passing of years.
The years scared him most of all.
Now that he was twenty-two, maybe it was too late. Maybe it had always been too late, and he'd only been deceiving himself, balancing on a tenuous lie of hope. The messages contained in airmail letters marked Returned To Sender and in the clicks of hang-ups for international calls should have been enough to convince him, but he'd refused to take the hints.
With his hand pressed on the door separating the vestibule from the sanctuary, he hesitated. His chest felt so tight that it ached to breathe. How could he move forward when it felt as if every moment of his life for half a decade had led him to this point?
How could he not?
Straightening his shoulders, he swung open the door and followed its path into the sanctuary. He slipped into the third pew from the back just as a music leader asked everyone to stand. Even as he turned pages in his hymnal, Todd couldn't help scanning the sea of heads. Where was she? Would he recognize her now? Even though he had it on good authority that she still attended Hickory Ridge, it didn't mean she wouldn't be sick this morning or out of town for Thanksgiving weekend.
Soon strains of "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" swirled around him, its lyrics celebrating the promise of God's presence. Warmth spread inside him, relieving some of the tightness in his chest. It was just like his God to find a way to remind him He was there, even when Todd was too preoccupied to sing the words.