Read an Excerpt
"They're ruining everything." The words tangled in Karol Simon's throat as she watched in horror as a backhoe bit into the tree house she and her family had constructed with their former neighbors and best friends Hope and Singh. The rest of the yard, including Hope's prize-winning roses and the strawberry bush the children had planted, lay in heaped mounds of roots and blooms.
To Karol, it looked a lot like her life.
Her tears, few at first, now streamed down her face as she watched butterflies and birds flee into her yard to escape the destruction of their homes and so many of Karol's memories. She wanted to run to her husband, to collapse into his arms Instead, she pulled the curtain back farther, using it to wipe her tears. "It looks like a cemetery," she said without turning around, certain Rob wasn't listening.
He was. "Get away from the window, Kay. It's rude for one thing. It's depressing for another. Do you think I don't know how much you miss Hope? I miss Singh, too. But the Lord led them to another place, to another job, to other"
She held up a hand. "Don't say it."
"I will say it. To other friends. Hope and Singh are going to find new friends. A new church. A new life in North Carolina. That doesn't mean they'll forget us here in Tallahassee. It's just a chance to share them with someone else."
Rob laid aside his Linux Pocket Guide and stood. Four strides brought him to the window. His weekend work boots struck the floor with the same confidence she heard in his voice. Not so long ago, Karol had heard the same assurance in her own voice. Was she the same woman who'd once run Vacation Bible School and the women's ministry committee? These days theonly running she did was from herself and from God. She'd expected to miss Hope, to be sad for a little while, but this was more than that.
Karol needed her.
She hadn't realized how much her friend helped her be a good mom, a good wife. Hope had a houseful of children, seven in all, and taught her children at home. She'd taught Karol a lot about being a mother and being a friend.
Now that the crew next door had moved away, though, Karol couldn't just pick up the phone and call. Their busy schooling schedule had been easier to interrupt when it only meant walking next door and waiting for a break in the action. Now when Karol called, she got the answering machine indicating the family's school hours. In the evenings, Hope was tired with moving in at first and then Karol started to unravel and didn't want to call and detail her failures. She called her friend less and less these days and seemed to lose it more and more. And her husband was starting to notice.
That was the part that made her heart pound as Rob took her hand. Her pulse quickened, too, both in anticipation and fear. Things had grown awkward between them. Rusty. She wasn't ready to deal with him quite yet, though lemon Pledge and sawdust were a hard combination to ignore.
He knew it, too. Rob stood close behind her, running his hands over hers until she released the curtain. He brushed away her last tear with his thumb before lacing his arms around her waist. She closed her eyes as his stubbled face prickled against her smooth one, waiting for the kiss that was sure to come. It'd be a soft one, right in the curve of her neck most likely. Even after three kids, he still knew how to buckle her knees.
He kissed her ear instead, first with his lips and then with a whisper. "I know this is hard, honey. We all knew it would be. I get up every morning and reach for the phone to call Singh to pray or to borrow a tool from him, only to realize he's gone. I know it's even deeper with you and Hope, but maybe God has a purpose in this, for us as well as them.
"We'll see them soon enough. Charlotte isn't that far away. They mentioned coming down for Ryan's birthday, remember? And we're taking Mia over for hers and Eden's party next month. Until then, I figure we can work on some things between usyou and I. For starters, I was thinking that maybe I could be your best friend again."
Karol swallowed hard and closed her eyes, drinking in this closeness with her husband. There had been a time before, when Hope and Karol had been close, but she and Rob had been closer. He had been her world. Then storms came and shook their little marriage tree, blowing away some of the blossoms, shaking off much of the fruit.
Hope had helped her push things down in the soil again, prayer by prayer, day by day. Now Karol would have to do that alone. Rob wanted to help, to be friends, but there were things that she used to tell Hope that she just couldn't say to her husband. What would he do if he knew that sometimes she didn't like her life or herself? What would he think if he knew that sometimes she just wanted to run away?
He'd think that you're human, Karol. He is, too.
When women from church had come to Karol for advice about their marriages, she'd reminded them that they'd married sinners, broken people who continued to need forgiveness once the honeymoon was over. It had all made so much sense to her back then, until the stitches on her own marriage had loosened. Before then, she'd never understood those couples who disappeared and showed up with other spouses, the ones who lived in the same houses but drove to service in separate cars.
Those were the couples who had once been friends with Karol and Rob, part of the couples ministry that had met at Hope and Singh's. One by one, those couples had disappeared: divorced, separated, moved away. They had discovered, as Karol had, that family came at a cost, that love required effort.
Rob kissed the top of her ear again and tightened his hands around her. She rested back against him and wondered if he wasn't trying to get her to hear him. To really listen. Sometimes that was so hard to do, even though Karol tried.
She was blessed to be this man's wife, the mother of his children. And now here she was, coming undone over new neighbors. Once more, she lifted her hand to the curtains, a green gingham set Hope had taught her to make during the months after Mia was born, the summer of darkness. At the thought of those hard days, her worst postpartum depression ever, Karol let the fabric fall fromher fingers. Nothing was worth going back there.
Her husband ran a hand through her hair. "I mean it. I want to be your best friend."
She turned to face Rob, trying to ignore the creaking sound as the tree house toppled to the ground next door. Would these strangers burn the wood they'd all signed and decorated, or should she go over and beg for it? No, it was their house now. She had to let it go. All of it.
Karol tried to laugh but it came out more like a groan. She punched Rob's shoulder lightly, then squeezed it.
"You are my best friend, silly. You're just not acting like it. Hope wouldn't take their side against me."
Rob's dimples appeared, but his eyes went dull. She'd chosen to stay on the surface of things, skimming across the hurt he wanted to dive into. He joined her in the chitchat with a reluctant smile. "Whose side? The new neighbors'? Or the kids'?"
"Both." Karol stared at him, once again wondering how he'd ended up with her. He had a careless beauty about him, a bearing that made him look like a king in a pair of jeans. Three kids had moved her body parts to new zip codes and left her face looking more like her mother's than she wanted to admit. Except for the sprinkles of gray in Rob's beard, he looked the same as the day they'd wed. Unless you looked closely at the years in his eyes, he didn't look much different from the husband of the young couple who'd moved in next door. Was this how the two of them had seemed to Hope and Singh? She peered through the window again, trying to convince herself otherwise.
The woman, "Dianne with a y" as Hope called her, shouted over the noise for the men to dig up a shrub they'd missed. No, she and Rob hadn't been quite like this. This was a new kind of crazy. And from the way things were going in her own house, it must be contagious. "The kids are definitely out of control. It seems like they're screaming at me every minute now. Like they've totally forgotten how to communicate."
Rob's look conveyed his thoughts but he voiced them anyway. "Maybe we've forgotten how to communicate, hon. Things have beenhard lately. They lost their best friends, too. There's no one to play with. Naturally they're going to be a little out of sync."
Out of sync? "Judah tried to put Mia in the dryer yesterday, Rob. Ryan hid in the closet reading a book so that he didn't have to deal with them during the whole ordeal. When they found him, he shut them in there!
"They are more than out of sync. And don't start with that 'we've forgotten how to communicate' stuff. I know what you really mean. You mean I've forgotten how to communicate."
Rob scratched his head. "I didn't mean that, but since you mentioned ityou have been screaming quite a bit lately. It seems like we're going back in time. I have to catch myself. Yesterday, I almost started screaming, too."
Karol rolled her eyes. As if. "You did not."
More dimples. "Okay, so I didn't, but I thought about it. Anyway, I am on your side, both with the kids and with the neighbors. I just don't think you're seeing the big picture right now because you're hurting over losing Hope. Singh got a good opportunity there. He prayed about it and chose, with Hope, to make this move. Don't forget that. We will get through this. I'd rather come out of it with a good relationship with our kids and our neighbors."
Karol couldn't help being stung by the truth in Rob's words. The move had been unexpected, a near-parallel offer for Singh with a possibility of advancement. A slim possibility. And yet, Hope hadn't thought twice about leaving her behind. It was right, of course. Singh was her husband. Hope's only hesitation had been the house. None of them had believed that it would sellfor so much and so quickly. It was a deal they couldn't refuse. A God thing. And yet, Karol couldn't help feeling as though someone had ripped the rug out from under her.
More like the security blanket.
"You want to have a good relationship with those two? Even if they're insane? I mean look at them." She pointed out the window. "They're so so "
Rob planted his chin on her shoulder. "What? Young?"
"Skinny!" Karol said, louder than she'd meant to. Was the window still cracked from airing out the living room after Mia's pull-up explosion this morning? Surely not. Her husband chuckled and she laughed, too, in spite of her efforts not to. "I'm serious. They're skinny and young and weird and they have no kids."
"We were skinny and young and weird and when we moved in next to Hope and Singh, Kay."
"I was never skinny," Karol said, taking a deep breath.
"Thank God," her husband whispered, slipping a hand in her back pocket. "But I was definitely weird. Remember how I slammed the door on Singh that first time he came over?"
"Well, in your defense, not many people serenade their new neighbors especially people who are tone-deaf. If he'd just handed you the pie, things would have gone much smoother." Her words slowed as her new neighbor, dressed in a celery-colored suit and tangerine pumps, tripped over the woodpile Singh had kindly left behind. "Dianne with a y" stared down at the timber in confusion and shook her head before motioning for someone to cart it away.
Karol shook her head, too. "Okay, so we were a little goofy at first, but these people are unbelievable. She looked at that woodpile like it was going to come alive and eat her. Surely she saw the woodstove when they bought the house. It's one of the best features."
Rob stroked her hair. "It's not Hope's house anymore. Let it go, Mom."
Mom. It'd been funny when Rob first started calling her that, but now it'd worn thin. She'd started it first of course by calling Rob Dad, only to abandon it when he returned the favor. Where had she gotten that from anyway? She closed her eyes.
Hope and Singh.
It fit them. It didn't fit Karol. She wanted, needed, a name again. "I'm trying, Rob." His name rolled off her tongue before she could call it back, say it better. Say it the way she used to, in the sweet, husky tone he loved. Instead, it came out nasal and high pitched, almost as piercing as the cry from upstairs.
He gave her a funny look and lifted his head as if he were going to ask her something before their youngest child and only girl, Mia, let out one of her signature siren screams.
Karol pinched her eyes shut. Her four-going-on-fifty-year old was either going to be an opera singer or a very good referee. Either way, naptime was over. Not that it had ever started really, but after little Mia's poopy finger painting incident this morning and five-year-old Judah's egg juggling at lunch "I thought they were boiled!" her three children, especially the oldest, who only liked to encounter body fluids on the page, had gladly escaped to their rooms.
Now they were up and ready to roll and she'd been too busy staring at the mess next door to get together an activity for them. After a morning of Saturday cartoons, Karol liked to keep the TV off in the afternoons. Until lately, anyway.
Her oldest son, Ryan, must have been thinking the same thing because he switched off the TV and started reading his younger brother and sister a story. Though only a few weeks shy of his eleventh birthday, Ryan had an old soul. His younger brother and sister drove him crazy and often interrupted the book he always seemed to be reading, but Ryan always knew what everyone neededespecially Karol. She mouthed a thank-you to him. He replied with a curt nod, which meant she'd probably have to make it up to him with brownies.