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By Austin W. Boyd
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2011 Austin W. Boyd
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDecember 21
Laura Ann reached for a tissue, wiping away wetness in deep ravines at the corner of Daddy's mouth. Labored breaths measured his final hours, lying on a handmade rope bed in the farmhouse where his mother bore him. Walnut posts, worn soft by five generations of lingering hands, defined the corners of his world.
"Let's give him a little morphine. Perhaps he'll rest," Pamela whispered as she drew the solution into a new hypodermic, her gentle voice a sigh against the background of the night's frigid silence.
Laura Ann nodded where she knelt at his side, Daddy's limp hand sandwiched between her palms. Fingers of December cold plucked at her, working their way under leaky windows, death struggling to snatch him away. Her eyes never left Daddy's face, willing him through each ragged gasp that pulled them both closer to Christmas, four days hence. An eternity.
"You need rest too," Pamela added, adjusting his pillow. She faced Laura Ann for a long moment, waiting for some response, then shook her head as she worked down the bedside, tucking Daddy's quilt in a futile battle against chill drafts. A tireless hospice nurse, she slew demons of fatigue with her helping way, encouraging father and daughter through the tortuous last hours of his life.
Each minute defined by the spasmodic cadence of her father's struggle to breathe, Laura Ann McGehee knelt at his bedside, coaxing out the next seconds of life with the squeeze of a hand and a muttered prayer. Breath by breath, she anchored Angus McGehee to the world of the living. Death hovered, a wispy shroud poised to spirit away the last male in the generations of family who'd farmed this land.
"I need to stay," Laura Ann said when Pamela finished adjusting the covers. She squeezed Daddy's hand one more time, pumping the next breath into failing lungs. "The evening news will be on soon," she added, dipping her head in the direction of a muted television. "Daddy never missed it."
The thin nurse nodded and set the volume on low. Like a prod, television roused him. Morphine-dulled eyes stared ahead as he spoke, breathless. "News?"
Laura Ann marveled at her father, one moment clinging to life while lost in a drugged haze, then conscious the next, unaware he'd reemerged from a morphine netherworld. "Stefany's show will start soon, Daddy. Want to watch?" Stefany Lukeman was hometown material, another of Laura Ann's many third cousins, born and raised only a few miles away in Sistersville.
His head bobbed on the pillow, attentive to Laura Ann's presence for a few precious moments. Brief seconds of clarity with Daddy that she treasured in these, his last days. She wiped his mouth again, dabbing at the red-flecked stream that oozed from him, unabated.
Images of pilots and aircraft filled the television screen as Stefany recounted the story of a local Navy pilot, now an astronaut. Flashy red hair cascaded over Stefany's shoulders, framing a perfect freckled face and green eyes.
Daddy's eyes closed again. Eyelids shuttered on consciousness, the morphine drew him into a land of fitful dreams.
Please, Jesus. No pain. She prayed in silence.
The chill and stiffness of death crept into his frame, her skin to his. She determined to delay his passing as long as possible using her own warmth, pressing his hands between hers, or laying an arm across his chest. As immodest as it might be, she'd even drape herself across Daddy's body to pour her life into his, suffering any embarrassment to regain one more moment as a little girl on his lap. To relive one minute beside him on the tractor. To experience one more caress of his rough hands on her face.
Daddy roused and coughed yet again, this one a hacking rattle from deep within. Both women sprang to his side, turning him slightly, draining the bottomless well that threatened to drown him. Neither woman grimaced, their nurturing impervious to the squalor of her father's self-inflicted disease.
Minutes later he settled back into labored breathing and Pamela carried away the soiled remains of their latest care. Walking back from the kitchen, she pulled a chair up behind Laura Ann, coaxing her to sit while the young woman prayed breath into failing lungs.
"Treasure every moment, dear. It won't be long."
Laura Ann nodded. The nurse's empathy for the needs of the dying blessed many in this little valley of the Middle Island Creek, a forgotten backwater in this rural corner of West Virginia. The wife of a local pastor, Pamela Culpeper ministered to those on the threshold of the next life, while her husband shepherded the rest.
"Christmas?" Laura Ann asked, her wet eyes pleading. She wiped at salty cheeks with a forearm, unable to let go of her father lest he slip away for good. Pamela walked around the bed and stood by the window, shivering as she stared out at the night. Winter's breath found its way around loose panes, feeding a river of frigid air that flowed across the old bedroom.
"Are you sure you want this to drag out that long?" the nurse asked with a shake of her head, her face washed in the pale white of bright moonlight on a winter solstice evening. "Let God take him. In His time."
Laura Ann shuddered, looking away from the window back to the purple chapped lips of her father. "I'll care for him tonight. You take over in the morning."
Pamela's shoes clacked on well-worn oak as she crossed the room in silence. Passing Laura Ann, her hand lingered on the girl's shoulder, strong warmth that radiated "I understand." They connected for a brief moment, and then she departed.
Looking across the bed, her head cradled into Daddy's side, Laura Ann stared at the full moon where it rose above a ridge to the north. Stark poplars silhouetted against the white orb stood like soldiers arrayed about their small farm, a tiny island of life in the middle of the frozen Appalachians. Tall woody guardians basked in the brilliant cold, holding death—and the mortgage bankers—at bay.
But for how long?
"I'm sorry, Daddy," Laura Ann cried, her tears wetting her father's bony hand where it lay under her face on the bedside. "For so many things. I've done something you wouldn't approve of, but I did it for a good reason. I need you." She wiped his skin dry with shoulder-length brown hair, never moving her head from its place atop his wrist.
"I know you want to go. Please forgive me for holding you back." Pain clawed its way out of her, sobs dislodging themselves from a place deep inside, a crypt so hidden she'd never known it existed. A place he'd told her of once, when talking about her departed mother. A place she'd never understood—until now.
"Your momma ...," he'd said so many times, then turned away, chin quivering. Laura Ann and Daddy were kindred now. She would soon lose what Daddy forfeited so many years ago when Momma died—a best friend. But unlike Daddy with a daughter to raise, she would stand alone.
Through tears and a runny nose, she smelled him. The familiar fragrance of wood dust on his overalls—and the acrid tang of death, a scent that permeated his right hand, no matter how much she'd cleaned it. Even in the light of a rising moon, she made out the distinct yellowed callous between his index and third fingers, the death mark he'd so diligently burned into his skin—the tattoo of his destruction. She covered it with her hair, hiding the callous from view lest she slice off his hand to cancel the smoky poison his fingers fed him for a lifetime. A poison she would hate forever.
His breathing stopped. Laura Ann's heart leapt and she jerked upright, his hand in hers. Perhaps he'd heard her, but decided it was time. She squeezed harder, hanging on for his wisdom and understanding, yet regretting her last words.
"Please, Daddy. Don't leave. Not yet," she pleaded, wiping his hand against her face one more time before his pulse faded forever. "There's something I must tell you."
"Laura Ann?" His lungs sputtered to life once more.
She stood up, her face over him. "I'm here, Daddy." She battled to face her sin, to tell him how she'd violated her sacred place. To repent, that he might forgive—before it was too late.
"The farm?" he wheezed. His eyes danced around in the moonlight, unable to connect with her. "Chain ..."
Lost words drowned in the gurgle of his throat.
Laura Ann shivered, the last word on his lips expressing his greatest fear. Their farm, generations old, poised to flee from McGehee hands in order to pay medical debts—and his daughter left alone, with no means of support. No means, at least, that she dared confess.
"You and me, Daddy. Links in our family chain." She choked back sobs, the unspoken sin burning deep within her. "I won't break it," she promised, burying wet cheeks in his shoulder. She dared not face him, not now.
His breathing calmed and he whispered words she might not have ever heard, even inches away. As though God knew that Daddy needed her to draw close.
"It's okay ... You've done ... enough."
Her eyes dried and her hands grew small. Laura Ann stared at tiny fingers as she walked along the ridge, in wonder at the strange pain that she'd bottled up only moments ago. Now she felt free, a lifetime away from the ache and foreboding that niggled at the back of her mind.
A voice whispered to her spirit. This is not real.
Honeysuckle sweetness filled the air, her feet squishing along a damp forest path. Mayapples carpeted the floor of the wood with their twin green umbrellas and first buds of coming fruit—West Virginia manna. A winged streak of red and gray flew through the trees ahead of her, alighting on dead limbs to peck for worms. The rapid knocking advanced with her, an airborne escort to the woodland edge.
Standing under tall poplars, their perfect straight trunks shooting up a hundred feet above her, Laura Ann lingered at the edge of her heaven. Rolling down from the ridge top and its bounty of timber, pastures filled with fat cows and late spring grass waited for her to cut a path to home. Daddy would be there, his rusting red pickup parked in front of the farmhouse in the distance, beyond fields swollen with the lime-green leaves of young tobacco. He'd be waiting for her in the wood shop, a little white box beside the big red barn. Daddy, her protector. He'd know what to do.
Magically, the next moment she transported to his lap, seated on his stool by a workbench laden with wood shavings. The pungent odor of poplar filled the air, sanding dust from his lathe settling on her like wooden rain, covering them both in a beige film. Freshly turned stair balusters stood arrayed along the wall, each draped in the same gentle coating. When he smiled, dusty cracks formed in deep folds of his face, ravines weathered by nearly fifty suns in the rocky fields that he and his fathers carved from mountain forests.
"Okay, Peppermint. What's the problem?"
Daddy could read minds. Other dads were good with cars or computers. Hers knew everything about life.
"The McAfee brothers. What am I going to do?" As she spoke, she felt something strangely wrong. The voice, disembodied, whispered to her again. Like a reminder that she'd uttered this question many thousands of days ago. Foreboding tugged at her and she pushed it away. She felt so safe in his lap, rough hands cradling hers. Hard biceps, tough as hoe handles, pressed into her sides where he supported her.
"Are those boys bothering you again?" he asked, his voice strong and gravelly like a tractor, with the power to plow through problems and make her safe.
"They both say they love me. I have to choose one tomorrow when I get to school. I don't know what to do."
He smiled, dust cakes shedding from his face like so much man-glitter. The essence of wood permeated him, trees-become-stair-parts now wrapping their soft warmth around her. She hugged him close.
"Do you love them?" Bony cheeks round as plums rose up under twinkling eyes, shedding more poplar dust.
"No!" She pinched his arm and he pretended to flinch. Invincible, Daddy shrugged off pain. He carried an entire farm on his shoulders, with never a complaint.
"Then tell them you love everyone. The same way God does."
His words hung in the powdered air, interrupted only by the occasional burp of the air compressor coming up to pressure. The heartbeat of Daddy's shop.
"You're so smart," she said, leaning into his chest.
He patted her on the knee of her jeans, smiling. Blue eyes the color of faded denim flashed love, pale blue suns embedded in a leather-brown face that thawed the deepest recesses of her fear. Daddy kissed her on the forehead. "We'll get through this together, Peppermint. We're a pair, you and me."
"Like bread and jelly?" she asked, feeling the warm joy of a smile.
"For aye. We're a team."
She pulled him tight in a hug, wood dust clinging to her arms, then slipped from his lap, headed for the farmhouse and a snack.
Daddy evaporated, yet somehow she felt him, could still smell him. Her neck creaked with stiffness, her back in pain where she leaned over his bed. He gasped for breath, grabbed for her hand, and then cried out. "Laura Ann?"
She awoke. Her protector and the wood shop disappeared in a mental mist. A dream.
Daddy's gentle eyes stared at her, no longer dulled by drugs. He recognized her at last. Her hand in his, he squeezed hard, strength he'd not shown for days. Not since his ugly slide from life commenced its terminal phase.
He smiled, staring for a long silent moment into her eyes. The old daddy had returned, grinning through yet another of those long pensive looks he'd once said were his only chances to reconnect with Hope, her mother—a woman who'd replicated herself in Laura Ann's face.
"Yes?" Laura Ann's voice cracked, her skin tingling in the moment. They were not alone. There were three in the room now. She could sense it.
He turned his head, staring at the full moon where it soared over poplars lining the distant ridge. Perfect cylindrical trunks that awaited transformation into furniture and millwork under the curling bite of his lathe tool. He turned his gaze back to her, his face wrinkled with the biggest smile she could remember.
"Goodbye, Peppermint." He paused, then squeezed her hand one last time. "I just flew out the window."
The moonlit spark in his eyes faded, and with it, her last chance to share a secret pain.
With a long gentle sigh, Daddy let go.
Chapter TwoDecember 24
"You can't stay here," Uncle Jack said, waving a pudgy hand toward the pasture, then pointing at Laura Ann. "A mortgaged farm with no means of support." He huffed, shoved his hands in his pockets, and stomped out of the front yard of the farmhouse. "Just like your old man. Stubborn and stupid."
Auntie Rose straightened up as to object, and then shrunk back, head lowered. In words too soft for Uncle Jack to hear, but perhaps for Laura Ann's benefit, Auntie Rose spoke up in her meek way. "We just buried my brother, Jack. Let him rest."
The seven visitors at Laura Ann's side drifted apart. Preacher Armstrong and his wife followed Uncle Jack to his car, parked nearby. As if to summon a dog, the elderly preacher hesitated at the yard gate and shot a glance back at Auntie Rose, motioning with his head toward the automobile. A clear message, but Auntie Rose stood her ground.
Preacher Armstrong's iron gaze melted for a moment, confronted by her disobedience, but then he set his hands on his hips and spoke a second time.
"It's time to go, Rose," he commanded. His own wife nudged him with a loud huff, and then headed for the sedan where Jack stood, door open to the rear seat. Preacher stood alone a moment longer, eyes on Auntie Rose and shaking his head, then retreated to the car.
Pamela Culpeper approached Laura Ann, extending a hand in fellowship. "Ed and I can be reached any time. You too, Rose. You call if you need anything. Hear?"
Laura Ann threw her arms around Pamela's neck in a tight hug. "You've done so much already," she said, and then took Pastor Culpeper's extended hand in a long embrace.
"She's serious," Pastor Culpeper added. "We know you'll find a way through this, Laura Ann. Let us help where we can."
"False hopes." Preacher Armstrong's voice broke the cold night air like smashing icicles. "Don't be messin' with God's design, Laura Ann McGehee. No matter what Culpeper says, you listen to your uncle."
"God's design?" Pastor Culpeper shot back, turning away from Laura Ann. Pamela put a hand on his shoulder, but he moved forward to the yard gate, his eyes riveted on Laura Ann's family preacher. "His design is that she trust Him for all her needs. That's a message you might have shared at Angus's grave today, Phillip."
"False hopes," Preacher reiterated, pushing his wife into the backseat. "Face the facts, Culpeper. Angus is dead. That girl's life on this farm is over. It's time to move on."
Excerpted from Nobody's Child by Austin W. Boyd Copyright © 2011 by Austin W. Boyd. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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